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The Father - Part 3

Meanwhile, at the royal palace in Aldera…

“Governor, it’s been a great honor to have you on Alderaan,” Bail Organa said with his very best fake smile.

Tarkin, predictably, gave him a thin and very un-amused smile in return. “An enjoyable and relaxing visit,” he commented, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

Beside her father, Leia smiled sweetly. “Please, visit us again,” she cooed, with all the charm she could muster—no small amount, that.

Tarkin turned his sour smile icily on the princess. “Such a charming child,” he told Bail.

Leia smiled even more broadly and sweetly under his hard, furious stare. “Anything for a guest,” she answered brightly, ignoring her father’s reprimanding pinch.

“You are a most excellent host, Senator,” Tarkin ground out by way of response. “My thanks.”

“Have a safe journey,” her father said, trying to salvage the situation.

“I hope you suffer no more inconveniences,” Leia added.

She got another pinch from her father and a subtle glare from the governor for that particular comment.

“Thank you, Senator,” the governor all but hissed. Her father’s relief was palpable as Tarkin turned to board his ship. The ramp sealed behind the Imperials, and no sooner had the repulsors kicked in than her father leveled a stern glare at her.

She met it with wide-eyed innocence. “My, he certainly was here a long time, wasn’t he?”

Back on Vjun…

His father never did return to the playroom, at least not while Luke was there. Instead, Miyr had arrived while he was helping his little sisters put the finishing touches on what had turned into a pretty impressive large-scale model of a Star Destroyer, nearly an hour and a half later. He guessed that the lady must be in charge of taking care of him and his sisters now; she took them into a different room, where food was waiting for them, and then she’d sent Sara and Sandra off for a nap with a nanny droid while she gave Luke a tour of his new home.

“Your father was detained by business,” had been her only answer to his questions.

Right now, he was in a fairly small chamber, where Miyr had said he would be sleeping until his father made arrangements. There was a bed, but it was stiff; there was a computer, a chair, and a closet; and that was pretty much it. The only familiar things in the room were…

“Master Luke, might I ask where we are?” Threepio’s prissy voice spoke from the opposite end of the bed.

“I think this is called Bast Castle,” Luke answered, absently running his hand over Artoo’s smooth dome as he sat on the head of his bed, staring and thinking. “It’s Father’s home.”

“I see, Master Luke.” Threepio’s circuits were much less frenetic when it came to the topic of his father, nowadays—though admittedly that had much to do with a few subtle alterations his father had undertaken to make to the droid’s subroutines. “Is your father here as well?”

“Yeah, he’s here somewhere. He’s working.”

“He certainly is a busy man.”

Luke nodded as a fresh twinge of loneliness stung his spirit. Artoo and Threepio were pretty good company most of the time, as he’d discovered over the past several months aboard the Executor, but they were still just droids. And now his father would be leaving him here, with only two much younger sisters and one much older woman to keep him company.

The door hissed suddenly open, and Luke didn’t have to look up to know his father had come. But he did anyway.

“I see Miyr has shown you to your room,” Vader rumbled, surveying the little chamber. “This will only be temporary. I will soon arrange more suitable accommodations for you.”

Luke nodded, trying gamely to find some scrap of enthusiasm for show, but there was simply nothing. He felt so emotionally drained that any kind of effort was beyond him—a fact which did not long escape his father’s notice.

“You are unhappy,” Darth Vader announced. If there was anything that everybody in the galaxy could agree on about his person, it was probably that he was the bluntest person in it…

Luke only sighed, missing Obi-Wan not for the first time. Before living with his father, he hadn’t realized just how careful and skilled his Jedi Master had been when it came to dealing with complex emotions.

Vader caught that thought as well. His anger and displeasure were instantly ignited—Obi-Wan Kenobi’s merit or lack of it was the biggest point of contention between him and his son. Any other time he would have immediately corrected the boy for missing the traitorous, kidnapping, treacherous old man—but this was not any other time. Luke was showing clear signs of stress already, and the last thing he needed was for an argument to arise. He would ignore the matter of Kenobi for now, difficult as it was to contain his anger. “I noticed that you and your sisters were busy in my absence,” he said aloud.

Luke nodded, but offered nothing to the conversation. Frustration pounded through the Dark Lord. Chaos take it, every time he got into these difficult, disconcerting situations with his son, his awkwardness was only amplified by the realization that Padmé would certainly have known what to do. She would have had no trouble drawing Luke out of this shell he had wrapped himself in.

Strange, it was, that though he thought of Padmé and missed her more than ever before since his son’s arrival, the pain remained so much less than it had been during the years when he had worked so hard to repress her memory…

“It seems you did not have much trouble adjusting to their presence,” Vader finally continued when Luke let the silence hang.

His son shook his head dutifully—and silently.

“It is impolite not to respond when you are spoken to, son,” Vader finally snapped in exasperation.

Luke’s eyes shot up, somewhat hurt. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Token obedience. Vader refused to allow himself a sigh. He’d do better to ask direct questions than to scold the boy if he wanted genuine response.

“Did your sisters help you build that Star Destroyer?” he asked.


Vader tightened his grip on his belt, but he wasn’t going to give up yet. He did not have much longer to spend with his son—only a week—and it would be prudent to make the most of that time that he could. “How long did it take you to build?”

“About an hour and a half.” Luke shifted on the edge of his bed, kicking his feet and staring at the floor.

Vader could not decide whether Luke wanted to be left alone or wanted his father’s presence. He was picking up distinct emotions of loneliness from the boy—which made no sense whatsoever. Luke was anything but alone—he had his two droids and his father with him right now, and only a short while before had been with Miyr and the twins. Surely the boy had no reason to perceive himself as lonely?

Although he did not understand the causes, Vader still moved over and tried to soothe the boy with a hand on the shoulder. “Would you like to come practice in the salle with me?” he offered. Lightsaber practice was the one thing he could count upon to buoy Luke’s spirits—his son never turned down the chance to spar—

“I suppose,” Luke said softly.

Which, of course, meant that he would not like to practice. Vader could hardly believe that the downcast, morose child before him was the same Luke who had been living in his quarters and pestering him to practice with the lightsabers for five months. Something serious must be upsetting the boy.

“What is troubling you, my son?” Vader said pointedly. He waved the droids out of the room and sat down next to Luke.


“It is certainly not nothing, Luke,” Vader countered, irritation rearing its head. “Tell me.”

Luke didn’t answer. Vader was struck by the thought that perhaps the child didn’t quite know himself what his emotions were. Well. In that case, he might not be such an inept parent after all…

“I don’t like it here,” Luke suddenly burst out. “I don’t want to stay here.”

Vader wasn’t all that surprised. He had been expecting some discontent, given Luke’s behavior. “You are still stressed, son,” he said placatingly. “You will find it less objectionable when you have rested and are calm. You will have much more freedom here, and there are other children—”

“They’re only two,” Luke muttered. “And they’re girls.”

“Like or not, son, you will have to learn to tolerate females. You should be grateful to have a family at all.”

Luke’s fledgling willingness to speak up suddenly died in its nest. He nodded submissively, feeling very small beside his father’s great bulk. His father was right. It hadn’t been so long ago that he hadn’t had anybody but Han—not that Han wasn’t great and Luke didn’t miss him bad, but Han wasn’t his family. His father was, even though nobody in their right mind (probably nobody in their wrong mind, either) would call him a perfect parent.

Even as his thoughts stilled again, he could feel his father’s strong, soothing dark touch upon his mind, and Luke snatched quickly at the comfort of something familiar. His father let him take hold, lean up against the black armor. The minutes of quiet stretched easily by until Luke began to blink tiredly and yawned. The last thing he felt through the sleepy haze was his father tugging off his boots and laying him out on the bed.

On the most notorious moon in the galaxy…

Han blinked, groaned, and shook his head groggily—

Major, major mistake. Stars exploded merrily around his eyes, pinpricks of light stabbing through his already-shaky vision—and oh, the pain…he felt like a band of deranged surgical droids had forgotten to give him an anesthetic before slicing through his skull with their scalpels. Moaning miserably, he lay as still as he could contrive, not daring to twitch a muscle or open his eyes again. Man, somebody must have knocked him upside the head and but good.

It was either that or the drink.

Whatever had done it, the headache was far too painful for him to think anything else for quite some time. When he could get another coherent thought through his brain, it was: Where the holy freakin’ kreth am I?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question was neither inherent in his brain nor hanging directly above his head—

He howled as a sudden roaring filled the whole room, feeling extremely sure that someone had just driven a lightsaber in one of his ears and out through the other. It was only slowly that the thundering ruckus resolved itself into distinct, pounding words.

“Han? Sheesh, Solo, chill!”

The sharp pain in his head abated, leaving behind a grinding, dull throb. He groaned and clutched at his temples. “Kreth it, get lost, why dontcha…”

“Listen, does your head hurt?” the voice asked. Han only moaned by way of answer.

“I guess that’s a yes,” mused the voice. There was some bustling about and Han winced as each sound struck his tender ears. Someone might as well have been slugging him on the side of his head with a durasteel hydrospanner for all he could tell the difference.

He winced again and his vision whirled crazily as somebody or other hauled him into sitting position. “Here, drink up,” said the voice from the direction of a darkish blur. Actually, squinting, Han thought there might be several of the darkish blurs, but they were all sorta weaving together—he glanced dizzily down as the blur gave him a cup of water and dropped some pills in.

“Painkillers,” the voice explained. Han needed no further prompting. He downed the pills ravenously. Within ten minutes, he could feel the headache clearing—and as it did, the darkish blur resolved itself into the infuriatingly cheerful face of none other than Lando Calrissian. Han promptly snarled.

“Whaddaya want, Calrissian?”

“This is what I get for being nice to a Corellian,” Calrissian grumbled. “You sure are one cheery kind of guy, Solo.”

“Shut up and tell me where the Sith you dragged me off to.”

“Your ship, you idiot,” Calrissian fired back.

Han glanced quickly around and discovered that he was indeed in the bunkroom of the Millennium Falcon, laid out on the bottom bunk that faced the door. He could tell by the scorch marks and laser pitting around the entryway and a long seared gash down one of the walls…

He bolted suddenly out of the bunk, feeling sick. That was Luke’s bunk Lando had put him in. Luke’s.

“Hey, wouldja stop jumpin’ around?” Calrissian demanded in exasperation. “For all I know that Aqualish gave you a concussion.”

Han hardly heard him. “Aqualish?” he mumbled dimly.

“Yeah, he cracked your head with a chair,” Lando informed him. “Is it gonna hurt you to hold still until I can get your head scanned?”

Han groped at the wall for the chair he knew was there and sat down when he found it—not because Calrissian said so, but because the painkillers hadn’t kicked in full force yet and his vision was spinning and his head was splitting all over again. Dimly he heard a soft sort of humming around his head for a few seconds.

“Well, at least you don’t have a concussion,” Calrissian concluded. “Now would you mind telling me what your problem is?”

“Luke,” Han snarled, his fury igniting all over again.

“What about Luke?”

And Han was off…

“So let me get this straight,” Lando said something like forty-five minutes later. “Basically, this short friend of yours turns out to be a miniature Jedi. Vader finds out, you two hightail it to the Rebellion, the Empire orchestrates an ambush, Vader catches the kid, and you’ve been looking for him ever since.”

Han nodded, his previous rage exhausted by reliving the story.

“And how the heck is this my fault?” Lando demanded in bewilderment.

“That ID forger contact of yours on Coruscant got us caught and both of us wound up running into Vader,” Han said wearily. Come to think of it, maybe it really wasn’t Calrissian’s fault. But he had to be mad at somebody—it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t Luke’s fault, and it was downright stupid to be mad at Vader, so that left Lando.

Lando laughed bitterly in disbelief and muttered under his breath. “Look, would it make you feel better if I told you I had a pretty good idea of where you might find your friend?” he said finally.

Han forgot his anger in a flash. “You know where Luke is?”

“Well, no…”

Han swore under his breath.

“…But I do know where Vader is.”

Han perked back up immediately. “You know where the Executor is?”

“Lemme finish, will you? A few months back, I ran into a guy whose name you probably want to remember. You ever hear of Talon Karrde?”

Han shook his head.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so, or you wouldn’t still be looking for the Executor. Basically, Karrde is the guy you ask if you want to know where someone is. I’m telling you, this guy has the Imperial Intelligence Bureau beat. Anyway, as it happens, they do a lot of business in Fifth Fleet’s operational sector, which is where I’ve been setting up a few little smuggling operations of my own for the last few months. And it’s worth a lot of money to know when you can expect the Fleet to be moving a little lax, right?”

“Right,” Han said impatiently.

“In Fifth Fleet, that means knowing when the top nexu is out of the picture,” Lando continued. “And Vader is top nexu in Fifth Fleet.”

“So you pay Karrde to give you a heads-up when he’s movin’,” Han finished, the pieces slowly pushing their way together through the dregs of his headache-cum-hangover.

“Exactly. And according to my latest information, he’s not on the Executor. He’s probably at his private retreat on the planet Vjun. Now you say Luke’s a Jedi or a Jedi wannabe or something, so all bets are that Vader will want to keep a good eye on him. Ergo—”

“Luke’s on Vjun,” Han concluded jubilantly. He leapt off the chair and tore out of the bunkroom on his way to the cockpit. “If you want off this crate, you better beat it, cause my next stop is Vjun,” he called over his shoulder.

“Hey, hey!” Calrissian dashed into the cockpit. “Solo, you can’t just sail right up to Darth Vader’s house and knock on the door!”

“Who said anything about knocking?” Han retorted grimly. With a shudder the Millennium Falcon’s engines began to sing, and slowly Han began lifting the craft up on its repulsors.

“Hey, put this crate back down!” Lando shouted. “If you’re hell-bent on suicide, have a blast, but I sure don’t plan on signing up!”

“Ramp’s still open,” Han told him. “You have five seconds.” Lando threw his hands up in the air and ran out of the cockpit, through the corridors, and onto the landing ramp, where he was faced with the choice of either a life-threatening five-meter jump back to land or a life-threatening visit to Darth Vader’s mansion.

He threw himself off the ramp with a promise that if both of them survived their respective destinations sufficiently intact, he was going to kill Solo the next time he saw him.

On the hostile world of Vjun…

Darth Vader was not anticipating his impending departure. For one, he had not been able to spend nearly as much time with his children as he would have liked. Between his vast workload and the added concern of preparing for Luke’s prolonged residence there, he scarcely had time to sleep, What little time he was able to devote to his children was no less stressed than his working hours, for although affairs had certainly improved since the first day Luke, Sara, and Sandra were far from comfortable with each other. Luke in particular was in a perpetual state of unease. Vader was aware of it every second.

He could only surmise that the boy was having difficulty adapting to his new environment. This was not surprising, but it frustrated Vader to no end. He did not like leaving his son in a place where the boy was clearly uncomfortable. He did not like leaving the boy at all, to be perfectly honest. For one, he could not shake the lingering fear that Luke might decide to run away. For another, he had begun to truly gain the child’s trust, a process he was loathe to halt.

Yet it wasn’t as if he had any options. Luke could not safely remain aboard the Executor, for sooner or later the Executor would have to return to Coruscant. That would bring Luke within range of the Emperor. Such proximity between master and son must be avoided at all costs.

Frustration welled in him anew, and he threw the stylus violently to his desk. He could not work while he was thus concerned. Yet again he cursed his utter inability to meditate and calm his mind.

“You never were very good at that, Padawan,” an impossibly familiar voice observed.

Vader leapt up from his seat, snatching his lightsaber from his belt and igniting it, scanning the room for the threat—and there, approaching from one of the side of the room, he saw something it was completely impossible that he should see.

Unless his optical receptors deceived him—which, of course, they were—that transparent blue-tinged shape ambling towards him looked quite remarkably like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Snarling behind the mask, he deactivated the lightsaber. He would have to summon his private technician right away to repair whatever circuits had become damaged in the mask. He had problems enough to worry him without throwing random hallucinations into the mix.

“I’m afraid the technician won’t be able to help,” the apparition informed him sadly. “You can’t get rid of a problem that doesn’t exist. Surely you see the logic of that argument, Anakin.”

Vader stared resolutely at the apparition, determined to dismiss it by sheer willpower. For a solid two minutes the apparition gazed silently back without so much as a flicker.

Then Vader recoiled sharply at a very familiar and very real touch upon his mind. “Kenobi,” he snarled venomously. How such a thing was possible, or why it should happen, or what precisely was happening, the Sith Lord had not even a shadow of an idea—but by some unwanted miracle, the figure before him truly was his old master, speaking from beyond.

“Anakin,” his old master answered sadly.

Angrily Vader lashed out—maybe he couldn’t kill Obi-Wan a second time, but perhaps he could at least exact revenge for the damage the Jedi had done to his mind nearly a year ago—

But somehow, he was unable to touch Kenobi. He could sense the man’s presence now, though death had changed it significantly, yet he couldn’t make contact. “That name,” he bit out through his black rage, “no longer has any meaning—”

“If it meant nothing to you, Luke would mean nothing to you,” Obi-Wan countered sharply before he could finish.

Unfortunately, the Dark Lord could not find a suitable answer for that claim.

“Incidentally, Luke is my reason for coming here.” Obi-Wan crossed his arms and regarded Vader as the latter’s rage surged to newfound heights.

“Then your coming is pointless,” Vader retorted. “I refuse to discuss my son with you.”

Obi-Wan sighed. “Please, Anakin, listen to me,” he pleaded. “For Luke’s sake. Just this one time, can we not put Luke before either of our personal concerns?”

His words struck an unwilling chord in Vader. Forcibly the Dark Lord lowered his hands and hauled back on the leash of his anger. “You have five minutes,” he said tightly.

Obi-Wan wasted not a second. “Anakin, you cannot leave Luke like this.”

“Define ‘this’.”

“Here at the castle with Miyr and your daughters,” Obi-Wan continued. “Who, by the way, are delightful girls, but that is beside the point. Your son will be left adrift. He has already been repeatedly moved from caretaker to caretaker. The last thing he needs is for it to happen again.”

Vader’s rage surged once more. “I am not the one responsible for those repeated movements,” he snarled.

“We aren’t debating responsibility,” Obi-Wan returned coolly. “We are discussing the best solution for the situation that exists. If you wish to argue over responsibility, I’ll be happy to come back another time. The fact remains that Luke does not need this to happen again.”

“And how do you suggest that I am to rectify that?” Vader snapped. “I am more concerned with his safety than with his emotional state.”

“But both are important,” Obi-Wan countered swiftly. “I’m quite sure that between the two of us we can find an answer that will better address both of these things. Surely we can agree that Luke requires some degree of stability.”

Reluctantly, Vader nodded. He forced himself to remember that Obi-Wan had raised his son for at least two years. It had to be granted that the Jedi had more experience in the area than he did. “Stability is necessary.”

“And I’m sure you’ll also agree that you are not in a position to provide that stability,” Obi-Wan continued.

Vader bristled at that, but once the arguments were lined out, he was compelled to agree. Luke could not stay with him on the destroyer; he could not stay with Luke on Vjun. Obviously, he would not be able to be with the child consistently.

“And what individual do you have in mind to provide this stability?” Vader demanded. If not him, and if not someone new, it would have to be someone Luke had previously known. “Yourself?”

Obi-Wan laughed bitterly. “No. I very much doubt you’ll agree to that.”

“Correct,” Vader said in decidedly clipped tones.

“No, I have another person in mind,” Obi-Wan continued.

As he spoke, sirens abruptly began to howl throughout the castle, alarm lights flashed frenetically, and Vader’s com began to chime insistently at his belt and on his desk computer.

“In fact,” Obi-Wan mused, “I believe that person has just arrived.”

Just a few minutes earlier

“Captain, we have an incoming ship from fourth sector,” the brisk voice of Specialist Ayler suddenly rose above the low, steady hum that was characteristic of Bast Castle’s control room.

Captain Landre quickly left his console and stepped over to the sensor displays, a frown on his face prominently. He had not been notified to expect any arrivals today; this was the first time in his three years here that Miyr had failed to warn him in advance.

It was a most suspicious lapse, to the captain’s shrewd mind. Still…there was no sign of a threat. “Issue a challenge,” he said, deciding to follow the same procedure as usual. But just to be on the safe side, he called out an order for the junior communications officer to place the external defense systems and starfighter squadron on alert.

A few tense moments passed. Finally his senior com officer looked up from his console and headset. “Sir, the ship is broadcasting a communications system failure,” he said. “However, I’ve verified her drive signature and transponder code.”

Landre’s eyes narrowed. A communications failure? That sounded far too convenient to him. But…they could not ignore the military drive and code… “Tractor the ship into Hangar Four,” Landre decided. “I want three squads down there on alert to meet it. Make sure all possible exits are sealed, and place the castle on full alert.” In the event that something really was afoot, he did not want any chance of that something getting in the main structure of the castle.

“Yes, sir,” the com officer reported snappily.

Landre drew in a nervous breath. “I will inform Lord Vader,” he added, more to himself than to anyone else in the control room.

Han breathed very, very carefully as he heard the footsteps ring out above his head on the deck plating, and thanked Luke’s crazy Force that he’d gotten these smuggler compartments installed. And that he’d gotten the all-important Sienar hyperdrive from Calrissian all those months ago. It was a harebrained plot that he’d come up with, but so far it seemed to be working. They had let him inside Bast Castle.

Now he just had to get himself off the ship without being seen. If these guys were any kind of smart, they’d have whole platoons of stormtroopers milling around outside the ship to make sure he didn’t slip out.

Han grinned ferally. Actually, those platoons outside might just work to his advantage…

He waited until the footsteps faded away down the corridor. Having found nothing aboard, the stormtroopers were leaving. They’d probably send in a scanning crew behind them…reaching carefully overhead, Han shifted the deckplate out of way and clambered up out of the smuggling hold, whipping his blaster out of his holster.

Sure enough, the scanning crew were not far behind the stormtroopers. Han ducked behind a corner and watched as they hefted their crate of equipment up the ramp and down the corridor. Then he quickly switched on his blaster’s silencer and fired off two bolts from his vantage position behind the fuselage in the corridor. He felt the adrenaline pump through his veins as the techs fell, dropping their crate. For a moment the Corellian debated stealing one of their uniforms, and quickly decided against it as the uniforms now sported conspicuous scorched holes in the chest. Instead he called out, “Hey, down there! Could you give us a hand?”

Quickly he ducked back behind his corner, praying they wouldn’t send up a whole battalion or something. But only one armored stormtrooper appeared. He started upon seeing the collapsed techs, and went for his blaster—

He was too late. Han pumped a quick stun round into him too and the Imperial was down. Han holstered his blaster and dashed forward, dragging the guy into the bunkroom. He stripped the stormtrooper’s armor off and got it on himself in record time, grunting just a little at the unexpected weight of the white getup. Trading his own blaster for the stormtrooper’s, he stuck his helmet on, steeled his resolve and nerves, and marched smartly back down the ramp of his ship.

Outside the large hangar was, indeed, crawling with Imperials. Han almost froze halfway down the ramp out of sheer disbelief at his own audacity in walking straight into them—but fortunately he only thought about it, and didn’t actually do it. He kept briskly moving, and found himself weaving through the commotion. His heart pounded frantically, and any moment he expected a squadron leader to call him out and order him into formation, or for the blasters to start firing. But by some miracle, he made it all the way to the blast doors on the far side. He breathed a sigh of relief as his hand reached for the controls—then the doors swished open of their own accord—

—And Darth Vader was standing on the other side.

Oh, freaking crap! Think, Sol—

Salute, Han, a strange voice suggested in his head. Han was so terrified that he obeyed without thinking. His hand flashed up in a standard Academy salute and his feet stepped aside of their own accord.

Vader gave a short, sharp nod and strode briskly through the doorway, heading for a uniformed officer of some kind waiting not far from Han’s ship.

Han’s knees would have buckled in relief if not for the supporting armor. He took a deep, steadying breath, and marched through the door into Bast Castle. Hold on, kid. I’m coming!

Miyr bolted out of her chambers as the alarms sang overhead and out in the corridor, hissing curses beneath her breath. She didn’t know what was happening yet, but getting information was second priority. First priority was ensuring the safety of Lord Vader’s children. Miyr speed-walked down the hall. Sara and Sandra were already awake when she reached their room, sobbing and huddled against each other as the alarms shrieked above. She swept them up into her arms, and wasted no time hurrying them to the emergency turbolift in their rooms which would take them to the safe room down beneath the castle basements, reassuring them as the lift plunged downward.

She would have to leave them sealed away down there, because Luke was still upstairs—his room was in Lord Vader’s private chambers, however, and Miyr would have to retrieve the emergency override password before she could get inside to the boy. The password was the protected security console, downstairs in the control room. She cursed the circumstances, but there was no remedy save all the speed she could muster.

Sara and Sandra burst into pleading sobs when she locked them inside the safe room. Miyr had to ignore their fearful cries as she went back up in the turbolift. The girls were safe now, as safe as the galaxy’s most advanced technological knowledge could make them. There was still one child who was not.

Miyr exited the turbolift where she had boarded it a minute ago with the twins—the shaft only allowed for those two boarding points. It was a further inconvenience. She’d have to leave the compound-like security of the top floor before she could take another lift down to the control room. Swiftly she pointed her feet for the security checkpoint.

There were general information computers placed at useful intervals through all the corridors of the castle, and Han didn’t waste time taking advantage of them. Scanning a notated holographic map of the castle, he quickly located Vader’s personal quarters on the restricted top floor of the castle. Like Calrissian had reasoned, Vader would want to keep a close eye on the kid’s Jedi powers, and according to that recording he’d seen Luke sure hadn’t been in the detention block. And besides, Han knew that Vader had tricked Luke into believing that the Sith Lord was his father—so any way you looked at it, Luke was most likely to be up on that top floor.

Han took a look at the directions on the map, and found that luckily enough he wasn’t far from the turbolift that would take him up to that top floor. He spent the ride up wondering how the Sith he was going to get past the security that was for sure waiting at the top. Maybe he could pretend that he was taking over a duty shift or something…

Then the turbolift doors hissed open. He stepped out and found himself facing three very heavily armed security guards…and his brain immediately opted for surprise. He switched his blaster to full power as he brought it up and fired like there was no tomorrow.

When the smoke finally rose, Han was unharmed, but all the security guards were sprawled out on the floor, armor scorched away by superheated beams of light at several critical points. They were definitely dead. Han fired another bolt through each one’s eyeplates just to be extra sure before he moved past the sparking remains of the biometric scanning array. New alarms began to howl as Han came up to the door.

Which was where he got stuck. There were no controls to open the door—only an ID verification scanner. Presumably, the door would only open for a few pre-approved people. Well…maybe some firepower would do the trick too. Han tried firing a bolt at the door.

He narrowly avoided being blasted by it. The laser bolt rebounded and whisked past his helmet, missing by only a few centimeters. Han shook his boots for several seconds. It figured that he’d be so worried about getting shot by a stormtrooper and then wind up shooting himself!

The door was magnetically sealed. He wasn’t going to be blasting his way through it anytime soon, and of course the door wouldn’t recognize him.

Maybe it would recognize one of the dead security guards—

Out of the blue, it hissed open, as if all he’d had to do was think about it long enough.

Han watched, unable to believe his good luck, as a woman in a dark blue dress started to step through, nodding at him curtly. Then she saw the sprawled guards and the smoking wreckage.

Desperately Han clubbed her over the head with his gun. He didn’t get it right on the first hit—she staggered forward, dazed—but it earned him enough time to switch the blaster’s setting and stun her. Didn’t want to kill a lady, whoever she was and whatever she was doing here. He wasted no more time squeezing through the security door before it could shut.

Inside, the hall was quiet and serene. The dark gray walls were hung with somber pieces of what Han supposed must be expensive art. The lighting was somewhat on the muted side. The floor was now patterned tiles of some kind of stone, in black and white and gray. His steps didn’t ring as much on the stone. There was no one else in sight.

Han started warily down the hall, checking each door as he went and hoping he would find Luke before the cavalry arrived.

Vader stiffened all over as he came into the hanger, brushing past some stormtrooper who radiated so much nervousness that he must have been a very recent graduate of the Imperial Academy on Carida. The sight of the freighter stoked the fires of his rage and quickly banished all thought of the frightened trooper.

That was the same freighter he had taken Luke off of five months ago—the Millennium Falcon, his son had called it. He could never forget a ship with so much…character. No more than he had forgotten its owner—the brown-haired Corellian teenager, Han Solo, whom he had released that day aboard the Executor for Luke’s sake.

It seemed the teenager was even more brash and stupid than Vader had thought him. Clearly, the boy had come for Luke. The thought of someone trying to take his son from him again was more than enough to enrage Vader. His anger was only compounded by the fact that young Solo had somehow managed to penetrate Vader’s security and track Luke to this planet.

He listened with half an ear as Captain Landre briefed him on the situation, most of his mind being devoted to scanning the Force for that blasted, impudent, insolent, foolish young man. Unfortunately, Vader was not familiar with Solo’s Force presence. The best he could discern was that there were three life-forms aboard the freighter, one of which was presumably Solo.

“…We have a scanning crew aboard the ship now,” Landre concluded. “Most likely the ship’s crew is concealed in smuggling compartments. If so, the scans should be able to detect them.”

“When you find the crew, bring them to me,” Vader ordered coldly. They fell silent, waiting for the scans to be completed. Visions for punishing Solo’s foolish daring danced through the Dark Lord’s head as the minutes passed.

Ten minutes later, the scanning crew had yet to show itself or any results.

Landre frowned. “They should certainly be done by now,” he murmured, mostly to himself. Vader was pleased to see the captain turn quickly to his executive officer. “Send a squad up to assist the scanning crew,” Landre said shortly. He adjusted his communications headset as several stormtroopers boarded the freighter.

A mere instant later, his eyes widened. He turned grimly to Vader. “My lord, the scanning crew is dead,” he said grimly.

Vader tensed.

“Send up another squad,” Landre ordered into his headset. “I don’t want the skulking Hutt slime to shoot any more of my men.”

Silence reigned for a few more moments. Then Landre’s mouth set again. He took off the headset and turned to face Vader squarely. “My lord, they’ve discovered one of our stormtroopers stunned aboard the ship,” he said tightly. “His armor was stripped. I believe we have an intruder.”

Vader snarled beneath the mask. Solo was more clever and resourceful than Vader had given him credit for. “Seal this hangar,” he barked at Landre. “I do not want a single trooper to leave this room until his identity has been confirmed. Coordinate an immediate search of the castle.”

“At once, my lord,” Landre affirmed. Vader was not in the mood for leniency.

“If this intruder is not immediately contained,” he hissed at Landre, “or if there is any damage done, rest assured that I will hold you accountable for it.” With that, he stalked out of the hangar to search for Solo—personally.

That young Corellian would soon learn the consequences of attempting to take from Darth Vader what was his.

There were, in point of fact, two intruders in Vader’s sanctum sanctorum at the topmost floor of the castle, though no one knew it at present. The second intruder swept stressfully past a completely oblivious Han Solo and whisked without pause directly through a wall of supposedly impenetrable durasteel.

This second intruder, of course, was none other than deceased Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Had he been incorporated as a visual form at the moment, the Jedi Master would have heaved a distressed sigh. Leave it to the headstrong Corellian teenager to completely screw up the elaborate situation he had slowly been crafting, one where all the factors would cooperate to win Vader over to Obi-Wan’s plan. Had Han simply had the common sense to stay aboard his ship and allow himself to be peacefully brought to Vader…

But no, the impetuous boy had concocted an impulsive, reckless plan to try to rescue Luke single-handedly from one of the galaxy’s most secure locations! Obi-Wan conceded huffily that the young Corellian was certainly lacking neither ingenuity nor daring to have come so far—although it was fortunate for Han that Obi-Wan had been present to save him from Vader’s scrutiny at the hangar blast door—but the farther he penetrated castle security the more enraged Darth Vader would become. The Sith Lord was easily furious enough to murder Han the second he was within saber reach—unless his former apprentice had learned a modicum of patience, in which case he would no doubt take the more sadistic route and send Han down to some hideous fate in the detention block.

Obi-Wan could think of only one person who could save Han now. Therefore he quite literally spirited himself through the chambers and corridors of the floor until he reached a fairly small room in the back of Vader’s private apartments.

The unholy howls of the alarms had ripped Luke out of his slumber within seconds. For a moment he’d thought he was back at the castle on Coruscant, fleeing with Wedge and Han…

Flashes of fear whipped up his adrenaline, waking him all the way. He pushed back the memory and the blanket covering him, standing quickly out of bed. Miyr had told him that if the alarms activated, he should go to the emergency turbolift. That was in Sara and Sandra’s nursery, he remembered from the tour she had given him. It would take him down to the safe room, she’d said. Luke quickly pulled on his boots and switched on Artoo and Threepio.

“Come on, we gotta go,” he told them as their lights awoke.

“Oh, my!” gasped Threepio upon registering the alarms. “We’ve been attacked!”

Artoo twittered derisively at his counterpart as he tilted onto three wheels for maximum mobility.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Luke told the droids, “but we’re going to the safe room, so we’ll be fine.”

“Oh, we’d better not waste a single moment!” wailed Threepio, and the droid actually clattered out the door ahead of both of them. Luke started to follow Artoo out of his room, but stopped, thinking that he might be able to get some clue as to the reason for the alarms from his desk computer. He tried for a few minutes, but could unearth nothing more than system emergency override: proceed to nearest secure location please.

He gave it up and walked quickly out of his room, weaving his way through his father’s private apartments and following the sound of the droids’ banter, hoping he really was taking the correct route. Sure enough, the door to his sisters’ rooms revealed itself ahead, standing open with emergency lights flashing.

Luke was a couple meters away from it when a brand new set of alarms joined the din and the door whipped shut. As he watched the blast shields sealed over top of it firmly. He dashed forward and punched the door controls desperately, but they refused to respond.

He turned around, thinking to flee back into the safety of his father’s private chambers, the ones nobody else was allowed into—but those doors also had sealed shut behind him. The only ones open were the ones leading to the main hall entrance. Shaking, Luke backed into a corner, out of sight of the main entrance. Whatever was happening, it must be really bad, because it had broken through the security of the top restricted floor now—that was what the new alarms were for. And Luke didn’t know the emergency codes that would take him to safety.

There was still the security checkpoint at the main entrance to protect him…but whoever it was had managed to get this far without too much trouble, and Luke doubted there would be anything to interest intruders on this floor besides his father’s chambers. He trembled violently, praying he was dead wrong, because he didn’t have anything at all to protect himself.

Father, he moaned in his thoughts. Everything was mayhem in the castle, all the minds swirling with stress and adrenaline—the Force had become so turbulent that he found it extremely difficult even to find his father’s presence, let alone make himself heard, but he cried out with everything he had, the same as he had done before he even knew his father lived. He couldn’t help it—it was pure instinct. Please hear me, Father…


Luke nearly shrieked aloud, shocked out of his searches by the terrible thought that an intruder had managed to sneak up on him completely undetected. His heart rate subsided significantly when the shimmering, ghostly form of Obi-Wan Kenobi congealed in the middle of the small room he was in.

“Master Obi-Wan,” he gasped with relief.

Obi-Wan smiled gently at him, apparently oblivious to the raging of the alarms. “It’s all right, my young friend,” he reassured Luke. “Relax. There’s nothing to fear.”

Luke stared at him in disbelief. “But, Obi-Wan, someone’s broken into the floor—” he began.

“Yes,” Obi-Wan nodded. “But it is someone you know quite well, Luke. It is Han.”

“H-han?” Luke breathed. “It’s just Han?” The sudden absence of strain and fear nearly made him sag to the floor. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Luke. He’s trying to rescue you.”

Luke was thoroughly bewildered by this, though confusion could not dampen his rising excitement. “Rescue me? Why do I need to be rescued?”

“That’s not important,” Obi-Wan said. “What is important is that unless you intervene, your father will most likely kill Han.”

“N-no—you’re wrong—he wouldn’t—you’re wrong…” Luke shook his head in sharp denial as all sorts of unwanted memories of his father arose. Over the last five months, it hadn’t been hard to forget that the man who had tended his hurt shoulder and sparred with him and given him the droids, was the same man he had heard described as a murdering monster for the vast majority of his thirteen years. Now he trembled at the painful recollections of all he had heard, at the memory of pain stabbing harshly down his spine in the Coruscant interrogation room.

“Luke, your father does love you,” Obi-Wan said, coming closer to him. “But he is jealous. He will be furious with Han for trying to take you away.”

“Should I go with Han?” Luke whispered, feeling horribly lost.

Obi-Wan smiled sadly. “The two of you would not escape, my young friend. I fear the fate to which that might lead you.” Haunting images of Padmé rose up to cry their warning in the Jedi’s mind. Anakin had loved Padmé too…and look how that had ended.

“You are the only person who can protect Han,” Obi-Wan urged him. “He is on this floor. You must go out and find him before your father does.”

Luke wavered, fear evident. “What if he hurts me?” the boy whispered.

Obi-Wan felt a definite empathy. The boy was risking much on such a brief acquaintance with his father. Obi-Wan was certain that in these circumstances, Vader would not harm Luke, would not even dream of it—but Luke was not so familiar with the complexities of Anakin Skywalker’s warped mind. He could not have that certainty.

“He will not,” Obi-Wan reassured him firmly. “Your presence will cause him to exercise restraint. That is why you have a chance to save Han.”

Luke nodded a bit shakily, and proved that he had inherited his mother’s courage by straightening up and marching straight for the main entrance door.

Vader was halfway from the hangar to the turbolift when new alarms began to squall. Instantly his fury leapt up several notches, as did his urgency. Solo had somehow managed to breach the security on the top floor! Chaos take the Corellian and his twice-cursed luck! Vader doubled the speed of his strides. Miyr should have gotten his children to the safe room beneath the castle by now, but the situation might have been complicated by Luke’s location…he pulled his comlink from his belt and tried to contact the woman, but no matter how many times he tried she did not answer.

That was not a good sign—

Father! Please hear me…

Luke’s voice surged up quickly in his mind, crying to him through the Force. Vader stiffened, trying to trace the cry back through the emotional mayhem storming through the castle and get some sense of the boy’s state. There were no further pleas, however, and the single trace of fear he’d been able to discern through the bedlam almost immediately dissipated.

The Dark Lord turned in furious, impatient circles as the lift rose upward, far too slowly for his current taste. It was an unbearable eternity before the doors hissed open and admitted him to the gruesome sight of the blasted-out security checkpoint. Blackly he noted the corpses of the guards and biometric array, but he did not abate his pace until he reached the door—where he glanced down and saw a figure sprawled on the floor across the threshold, clad in flowing dark blue, dark braid lying limply stretched.

Miyr. Concerned despite the pressing need to protect Luke, Vader took a precious moment to kneel and check the woman’s pulse, curiously relieved when he felt it pumping firmly beneath his prosthetic fingers. She was not dead—merely unconscious. That was fortunate. It would spare him the trouble of finding another trustworthy and competent employee to care for his children, and spare the children the stress of switching caretakers.

He straightened and placed his hand on the ID verification scanner, waiting for the security system to recognize him and permit him to pass. Her presence at the door meant she had either been leaving to retrieve or returning with the emergency override password to his private chambers, in order to bring Luke to safety—no matter which it had been, she had never gotten Luke to the safe room. His son was still within Solo’s reach. It was time to end this Corellian’s foolishness before Solo could find the boy. The Dark Lord’s strides rang with fell purpose as he passed through the door and stalked down the hall.

Han knew which door was the right one the second he saw it. It was big, it was thick, it was black, and it was practically infested with security systems. It was several turns and halls away from the security checkpoint at the turbolift, sitting ominously at the end of its own corridor like the entrance to a space slug cave or something equally odious. There should have been a doormat reading “LAIR SWEET LAIR” or something.

Han didn’t have the faintest idea how he was going to bust past all of that security. After all, it wasn’t like he could expect somebody convenient to be just coming out from the other side again

But lo and behold, before his disbelieving eyes, yet another miracle struck. A dumbfounded Han Solo watched through the narrow eyeplates of his stormtrooper helmet as the heavily fortified door cycled smoothly open. He blinked into the shadows beyond for a moment, a moment that seemed to freeze as a very familiar and short figure emerged cautiously, glancing up at the alarms wailing in the ceiling overhead.

Han gave an overjoyed cry, tore off his helmet, and ran forward, waving his blaster around ecstatically. “Luke!”

Luke’s blue eyes widened, and an instant later he was leaping up to fling his arms around his friend, overjoyed. “Han!”

Vader’s pace quickened yet again as, nearing his quarters entrance, he heard a shout of “Luke!”

The Dark Lord turned the last corner just in time to see his young son run straight into the arms of an armored Han Solo. The Corellian laughed aloud and spun Luke around before setting him down and ruffling the boy’s hair.

“Kid, you’re okay!” Solo crowed in delight. “Sith, I missed you!”

“I missed you,” Luke insisted, unwittingly sending a sharp pang into his father’s spirit. Had his son truly missed the Corellian so much all these months?

“Is the Falcon here?” Luke’s young voice continued from where he now stood hidden behind Solo.

“Yeah, and boy, but you’d hardly recognize her,” Solo told him cheerfully. “Just wait’ll you see all the new gear I’ve got wired in! Come on—we better get movin’—”

Solo turned around, jumped several inches, and swore a blue streak. “Get behind me!” he ordered Luke. The next instant the impudent teenager had snapped his blaster up, aiming straight for the control panel on Vader’s chest.

Fury pumping through every surviving vein, Vader took the lightsaber from his belt and ignited it. “You were released once, Solo,” he told the Corellian coldly. “There will be no such leniency extended to you again. You have meddled for the last time.”

“You’re not takin’ Luke again,” Han Solo had the unbelievable gall to snarl at him.

Vader advanced dangerously—and stopped in his tracks as Luke suddenly dashed between his father and his friend. “Please,” he said desperately, staring at his father with Padmé’s eyes. “Father, please!”

Stunned in spite of himself, Vader quickly lowered the saber, keeping it well clear of the child.

“Luke, stand aside—”

“Get outta the way, kid!”

Luke whirled around to face Han. “Stop it, Han,” he pleaded. “Stop it!” He spun back towards his father.

“Luke, Vader’s messin’ with your head!” Han shouted. “He’s not your dad!”

Vader was somewhat surprised that Han was not more shocked by Luke’s referring to him as father. In fact, the young man looked as though he’d known about it long enough to get very indignant about it.

He felt a sudden pleasure when Luke turned back once more and said to his friend, “Yes, he is my father.” There was not a shred of doubt in the young one’s voice. What a contrast to their encounter aboard the Millennium Falcon only five months ago.

“Sith, I gotta get you outta here,” Solo murmured in horror, clearly not persuaded. “He’s got you brainwashed!”

Vader’s lightsaber nearly snapped back up, Luke or no Luke. “I did not brainwash my son,” he hissed in possessive fury. “And you will not take my child from me again!”

Han tried to sidestep around Luke, incredibly. “Oh, I took him from you, huh?” the Corellian shouted belligerently. “That’s funny, ‘cause I seem to remember you draggin’ him kickin’ and screamin’ away from me!”

“He was stolen from me—” Vader began—

Hey! I’m not a piece of furniture here!” the youngest voice present shouted furiously. Luke was firing alternating glares at both of them. “Neither of you owns me or anything!”

Vader was shocked into silence by the reminder of his past. Owns…

“Luke, you don’t honestly want to stay with this creep, do you?” Han cut in while Vader was still shell-shocked. “I mean, even if he was your old man, he’s still a krethin’ mass murderer! Did you forget about the Jedi, huh? What about the old Kenobi guy?”

Luke looked helplessly up at Solo. “Han, he needs me,” his son whispered.

It was Han’s turn to be silenced. Luke turned back to his father and approached a bit gingerly. “Father, please don’t hurt him,” his boy begged him quietly. “Please, he’s my friend.”

He is your friend, child?


His anger with Solo was no less. But Luke would never forgive him if he killed the boy’s closest friend; it would hardly be the way to encourage the child to trust him. Besides…Solo had braved an entire Imperial fortress on his own because he believed Luke was in danger. Vader forced himself to acknowledge the potential value of such devotion. Force, the teenager was even willing to take on a Sith Lord to protect his friend! Incredibly foolish…but still…

“I cannot allow your friend to leave this time,” Vader finally announced, feeling his resolve relent even as he spoke. Solo knew of the relationship between them—and other ears might not be so skeptical. He must not risk his son’s safety.

“Then let him stay!” Luke was snatching at possibilities. Vader tasted disgust on his tongue at the idea of the Corellian remaining here with his child…

Abruptly, Obi-Wan was standing there beside Luke also. “Yes, Anakin,” the Jedi urged. “Let Han stay here with Luke—the boy needs the company.”

Vader thought grudgingly back to the loneliness he had sensed in the child earlier. It was true that the fellow teenage boy would be more suitable companionship for his son than two tiny girls could be…a pity it had to be this teenage boy. And it was also true that Han could provide some measure of stability for Luke, having taken care of the boy for a longer amount of time than Vader had. But still—did Obi-Wan honestly think Vader would permit his son to remain in the care of this…street rat?

“Han is a relatively neutral party,” Obi-Wan forged onward, building up his case. “He has no allegiances to either the Jedi or the Sith. He shares many of Luke’s interests. Luke is familiar with him; they are close in age. He has an honorable spirit. And furthermore, Han has no other relatives or guardians to lay claim to him. He is an ideal candidate.” The ghost spread his hands.

“I do not trust him,” Vader countered acidly. Solo was not an ideal candidate—he was the only candidate, and the knowledge just served to anger Vader further. Luke listened tensely to the conversation, glancing between his father and Obi-Wan. Han gawked as the Dark Lord addressed what was apparently thin air.

“Have your captain and Miyr keep an eye on him,” Obi-Wan suggested quickly.

Landre…there was a thought. Perhaps Landre would be a good influence on both of the boys.

Vader considered his options silently for a few minutes. “If I agree to permit him, I require your word that neither you nor any other Jedi will ever again interfere with my son,” he finally demanded severely.

Obi-Wan hesitated and glanced down at a somewhat stricken-looking Luke. “Very well,” the Jedi said softly.

Vader could scarcely believe Kenobi would accept that particular term.

“Unless,” Kenobi added, “Luke himself so chooses when he is of age.”

Vader had to concede that. Luke’s loyalty to his father would mean nothing if it was coerced. He had learned that the very, very hard way with Padmé. Vader would simply ensure that he earned his son’s devotion long before that time arose. Besides, it wasn’t as though he would be able to prevent Luke from speaking with the deceased Jedi forever; some day the child would grow up. There was no point pretending otherwise.

The Dark Lord turned to Luke. “I will consider this,” he told his son, “and give you my decision by morning. In the meantime, your friend will be restrained.”

“Like the nine hells you’re gonna!” Solo again, back in form. Vader regarded the boy with clinical distaste.

“Be thankful I am allowing you that much leniency, Solo,” he said coldly. “It is hardly required of me.”

“Han, please?” Luke turned back to his friend. “Trust me?”

Young Solo wavered. “Kid—it’s Darth Vader,” he finally breathed. “Did you forget that?”

“No,” Luke said. “That’s why you better take what you can get.”

Kid’s got a point, Han thought grimly.

His son turned back nervously to him, blue eyes still wide. “Father, promise you won’t hurt him?” Luke whispered. “Promise?”

Vader strongly suspected that Sara and Sandra had taught their brother a few techniques for getting what was desired from their father, because that was exactly the same expression the twins used on him when they didn’t want to go to bed.

His fingers still itched fiercely to latch around Solo’s offensive throat and throttle the life out of the scum who had shot his soldiers and tried to spirit his own son away from him. His mind ached to vent his barely contained fury. He had rarely ever been so angry at a single person. But he knew that his young one sensed his anger, and it was frightening the boy. He must control his anger around the child—lest he lose control and hurt Luke, as he had the boy’s mother.

“Your friend will not be harmed,” he said in clipped tones.

Promise?” Luke insisted.


Luke breathed a sigh of relief, and Vader vowed fiercely not to betray the child’s trust on this matter. It had been too hard-won to lose over the issue of Solo.

“Drop that blaster, Solo,” he ordered sternly.

The dismayed young Corellian glanced between Vader and Luke, shooting one more pleading gaze at the latter. But slowly, he set the blaster down on the ground. Vader snapped the weapon into his own hand with a tendril of the Force, made speedy by his tight-leashed anger. Footsteps clattered up behind him and he handed the blaster to one of the newly-arrived stormtroopers without looking. “Arrest the dark one,” he ordered sharply.

“No!” Luke shouted, and dashed to intervene—Vader caught the boy’s arms and pulled him back, allowing the stormtroopers to pass and seize Solo.

Hush, my son, hush. I will keep my promise to you, he soothed the child. Trust me.

Luke glanced up at his father, alarm fading slowly out of his eyes.

“Take him to the detention block on this floor,” Vader commanded, “and place him in an interrogation room. I will speak with this impostor shortly.”

The troopers nodded and dragged a defeated Han Solo away in their midst. Vader watched them go, his hand stroking Luke’s hair rhythmically—as much to soothe his own ire as to calm the child. “Would you have left with him?” Vader asked suddenly into the stillness. He dreaded the answer…yet he had to know.

Luke was silent for a long time. “I miss flying,” he said finally. “I miss it when I could go anywhere I wanted.”

Vader hastened to reassure Luke, driven by his dread of losing the boy. “That freedom will come again, when you are older,” he promised his child. “In the meantime, perhaps I could procure some flight simulators for you.” Luke nodded acceptingly, and silence resumed for a time.

“Do not leave me, little one,” Vader spoke up again fiercely. His mind burned with the memory of the betrayals of Mustafar. “Promise me that.” His fingers tightened on Luke’s small shoulders.

“Ever?” Luke asked rather glumly. “Like, not ever?”

His intensity abated somewhat. “That is not what I meant, son.”

“Oh,” the young teenager answered, clearly not understanding what his father did mean. The next silence began as Vader contemplated a better way to explain himself.

“I love you, father,” Luke said into the quietness.

After that, no promises were necessary.

The guards dragged Han through the corridors of the floor, away from Luke. Han’s head was spinning too much for him to notice that they weren’t being exceptionally gentle. He stumbled wherever they prodded him with their blasters; eventually he found himself standing dazedly in a cell virtually no different from the one he’d been thrown into on Coruscant. The detention block officer ordered him to strip off the stolen stormtrooper armor, and when he’d done so they shut the door on him.

It didn’t open again for about twelve hours.

So sharply reminded of what the boy meant to him, it was a full hour before Vader could leave Luke’s side. He took the boy back to his room, deep inside Vader’s private chambers, and watched him fall asleep. It was late, and so the boy drifted off quickly, but Vader’s dread of somehow losing his son was still strong enough that it was several minutes before he recalled that he had two other children, whose frightened sobs were growing steadily stronger in the Force.

Vader tore himself away from Luke’s sleeping form and took the emergency turbolift down to the safe room. The two-year-old girls ensconced therein were huddled in a drowsy, tearful pile in one corner of the room. He quickly swept them into his arms and tucked his cloak around, cursing Solo anew as he felt their small bodies trembling fearfully. They clung tightly to him on the ride back up to their nursery and for a whole hour after that, until he managed to soothe their small minds enough that he could put them to bed again.

Only when all three children were securely in their beds did Vader switch on his comlink. He spent the rest of the night at large around the castle, trying to set the place back to rights without Miyr’s invaluable assistance. His castle’s caretaker had been ferried down to the medbay, where she had been diagnosed with a mild concussion. Yet another reason to detest Han Solo, as if he didn’t have more than enough already…

As dawn broke over Vjun, he finally directed himself towards the top floor’s detention block, and a long-overdue conversation with Solo.

Han was trying very hard not to think about his near future—and, most likely, death—when the near future abruptly arrived in his cell. Darth Vader ducked through the entrance to the interrogation room, and oddly enough Han’s apprehension was instantly replaced by a powerful sensation of déjà vu. Just like old times, he thought rather giddily. Then Vader began.

“The only reason you are not dead,” he thundered in spine-chilling tones, “is because Luke would not like it. When I weigh that fact, however, against your offenses, I find the margin to be dangerously slim. Consider this your chance to offer more convincing reasons as to why I should permit you to continue breathing.”

“Why don’t you give me a good reason for why I oughta leave Luke with you?” Han fired back. He was dead anyway, so he might as well go down fighting—

Some invisible hand shoved Han angrily back against the wall, quickly delivering a mortal blow to his new devil-may-care approach. “Luke is my son,” Vader hissed at him. “And you, Solo, are in no position to be making demands.”

He had a point at that. The Jedi-Sith-magic-stuff pinning Han against the wall constricted sharply at his throat, thought not quite enough to strangle him. Yeah, Han thought frantically, he had a real good point.

“You invaded my private residence, gunned down my officers in cold blood, sent my administrator to the medical bay, destroyed several thousand credits’ worth of Imperial property”—Vader’s voice dropped into a poisonous whisper—“and you attempted to kidnap my son. I am most interested to hear what possible excuse for this outrage you can contrive, boy.”

“Yeah,” Han choked out. “Well—ma-aybe—if—you let—go—”

The invisible band of something unclenched around his neck. Vader crossed his arms and regarded him from behind that death’s head mask of his.

“Cause I ain’t gonna leave Luke in the lurch, that’s why!” Han snapped as soon as he had enough air.

The Sith Lord released his pinning grip on Han, letting him away from the wall. “What is the boy to you, Solo?” Vader said, rather softly for him.

Han sat helplessly. He didn’t have much of answer for that one, but he gave the only one he did. “He’s my friend,” he mumbled.

To his surprise, Vader remained silent, rather than scorning his words. The emboldened Corellian pressed on. “He’s my friend, and Kenobi told me to watch out for him and keep him safe, an’ I’m gonna do it if it kills me!”

Vader regarded him silently for several seconds, which felt far more like several minutes. Just as Han was beginning to feel remarkably like a deformed amoeba under a high-definition microscope, the Dark Lord reached into his belt and withdrew a pair of durasteel cuffs, which he clapped around Han’s wrists. Then Vader closed the distance between the two of them, grabbed Han by the scruff of the neck, and marched him out of the cell into the corridor.

They swept past the bewildered guards at the control desk, and then out of the detention block altogether into the austere décor of the outside hall. The next thing Han recognized was the cave-like door leading to Vader’s private quarters, where he’d been arrested in the first place. The security systems must have recognized Vader from a distance, for the door swished open while they approached. Vader didn’t miss a beat as he hauled Han straight inside. He was dragged by his collar through a few more hallways and eventually plopped down into a chair in what looked like a real small sort of conference room.

“I do not advise that you attempt to leave, Solo,” Vader said calmly as he vanished out the door again.

Han figured he’d better listen for once.

Somebody was shaking his shoulder. Luke blinked his eyes and squinted at the chrono projected onto the wall by his bed—sheesh, it was only six in the morning! He moaned irritably and snuggled deeper in his pillows, studiously ignoring whoever it was that wanted him up at such an unholy hour.

The shaking grew more impatient. “Get up, Luke,” an unmistakable bass rumbled overhead.

“Don’t wanna,” he mumbled sleepily, trying to twist his shoulder out of his father’s grip.

“Get up,” his father repeated. The shaking persisted, but so did Luke’s obstinacy. He refused to budge or let go of his pillows, until Vader finally hauled him up by the back of his neck.

“Fa-ther,” he complained from behind his pillows and yawns.

“Up,” was the curt reply. When he tried to flop back down, he was hauled out of bed entirely and onto his dangerously swaying feet.

“Get dressed,” his father continued. Luke stumbled forward, rubbing at his eyes, and smacked straight into Vader, sending his pillows scattering. The man gave an exasperated sigh. Between coming to his bleary senses and shooting murderous glares at his father, it took Luke a solid ten minutes to work himself into a jumpsuit. Even then he wasn’t quite awake, and his father had to take him by the hand and lead him through the corridors outside, where the cold did a better job of driving away his sleepiness.

He was therefore fairly alert by the time they stopped outside of a door that Luke thought lead to the conference room. A minute or two later, he perked up a little as Doctor Siler appeared, his bag in hand.

“Good morning, Luke,” the doctor greeted him with a small smile. “No trouble from that arm?”

Luke shook his head.

“Good morning, my lord,” Siler added with a nod to Vader.

“You have the requisite equipment, I trust.”


Luke was puzzled by that particular exchange, but then his father opened the door to the conference room, and Luke spotted a very familiar figure waiting inside. “Han!” He dashed past his father and claimed the seat beside his friend.

Han looked as though he’d gotten even less sleep than Luke had. “You’re okay?” Luke asked him.

“Yeah,” Han said slowly, glancing up at Vader as though he couldn’t quite believe that nothing had happened to him yet. “Yeah, just didn’t sleep much.” The older boy’s eyes narrowed as Siler came into the room. “Who’s that guy?” he demanded of Vader.

“Solo, this is my personal physician, Doctor Siler,” Vader said. “Doctor, Han Solo.”

The medic nodded curtly at Han.

“I have called Doctor Siler to have him perform a blood test,” Vader continued.

Han stiffened up as Siler began to empty to contents of his bag onto the table, setting out the proper equipment. The medic picked up a sealed packet of syringes and handed it across the table to Han. Han could tell that the devices were totally empty, and the factory seals on their group and individual packages hadn’t been broken. Siler gestured for him to do the unwrapping, and Han slowly handed the medic a brand-new syringe. After the syringes came a brand-new package of sample vials, all made of clear, unmarred glass, and lastly a still-packaged medical data reader and a separately packaged blood analysis program. One by one, Han was given each to inspect and unwrap, and lastly Vader had him load the new data reader with the analysis program, after allowing him to wipe all of the reader’s memory systems.

Only when Han had seen for himself that no trickery was involved in the devices did Siler begin. He took the syringe and circled the table to Luke. “Let me see your arm, son,” he told Luke gently.

Luke frowned curiously up at his father, who gave him a reassuring nod. The medic rolled up his sleeve, and Luke glanced to the side. Siler drew a blood sample directly from his arm while Han watched. The blood was put into one of the new sample vials, and then it was his father’s turn. Both Han and Luke watched that procedure with great interest; Siler had to take the fresh blood sample from the shoulder, since both of the Dark Lord’s arms were prosthetic. The medic explained as much to Han as he worked, and demonstrated the truth of this fact by removing both the shoulder plate and the glove from the arm in question, letting Han view both the obviously mechanical hand under the glove (which did not have the benefit of synthflesh covering) and the pale intact skin at the shoulder.

They gave Han the vials of blood and the data reader and let him run the comparative analysis himself.

There was a long silence after the results displayed on the reader’s screen.

“I trust this is satisfactory proof, Solo,” Vader commented, crossing his arms. Luke watched Han nod numbly, his eyes locked on the analysis results.

Kreth…Luke really is his kid. Han glanced up finally at his young friend, who was watching him with evident anxiety. “He didn’t hurt you, kid?” the Corellian finally whispered to Luke.

Luke shook his head.

Han’s shoulders slumped. “Well, okay then,” he muttered, dropping the data reader on the conference table.

The day was a very strange one from there on out. Vader dragged Han back to the detention block after the blood test had proven to the Corellian once and for all that Luke was in fact the son of the Sith Lord. Sithspawn, Han thought as he was hauled into a much less appealing cell than he’d previously inhabited, and laughed madly at his own pun. He forgot about Luke for a few minutes when Vader had him strapped into a very nasty-looking chair, and his heart rate pumped. All they did, however, was inject him with some kind of chip. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience he’d ever had, considering that they stuck the injector up his nose and shot the chip into his brain area, but it was no worse than a headache.

After that, Vader took off the binders and turned him over to some lieutenant or other, and he got escorted back downstairs into some kind of control room, where he recognized the officer who had been in the hangar.

Captain Landre was not all that pleased to make his acquaintance, whatever he said. But Han had picked off a handful of his men, so that wasn’t too surprising.

“Lord Vader informs me that you have been injected with a collar chip,” Landre began. “Bast Castle is protected by a full spherical shield, extending twenty miles in every direction from the center of mass. Should you attempt to pass through this shield, the chip will alert Castle Control, and the system will initiate its self-destruct. Rest assured that the resultant explosion will kill you, Solo.”

Han flushed with rising fury. They’d stuck him with a slave implant, was what they’d done! Chaos take Vader!

“Unless you are by chance an advanced neurosurgeon, I strongly advise that you not make any efforts to remove the chip,” Landre added. “Now. This chip does not restrict your movements within the castle, and Lord Vader has directed that I provide you with the security passcodes for the top floor and his personal quarters.”

Han’s anger was drowned in a flood of incredulity. The Sith Lord was givin’ him all of the passcodes for his castle? Even the key to his bedroom? What was going on?

After he’d been registered in the castle databases and given a top-security clearance, Landre took him around the castle and its grounds, showing him where stuff was. They stopped by some supply office or other and Han was given a new comlink. He gaped as he flipped through the contact list already built into it. Kreth, but he wished Lando was around so he could brag about havin’ Darth Vader’s private comlink number…

The chronos announced it to be roughly time for dinner before Landre escorted Han back up to the conference room in Vader’s quarters. He recognized the woman waiting inside. It was the lady he’d slugged and stunned with his blaster. She didn’t look much the worse for wear, even if her smile was a little tight. “You must be Han Solo,” she said to him.

He nodded stiffly.

“I am Miyr. I officially serve Lord Vader as the manager of Bast Castle’s affairs. I unofficially serve him as caretaker for his family.”

Han felt a flood of guilt. Sheesh, he’d gone and beat up the lady who’d been taking care of Luke. “Uh, how’s your head?” he mumbled.

Her smile got just a little tighter. “I’ll be fine, thank you,” she said. Han couldn’t help but admire the control she had on her temper. He’d have been spitting fire by now.

“Look, uh, Miyr—you mind tellin’ me what the Sith is goin’ on?”

“Going on.”

“Yeah—they’re givin’ me passwords and slave implants and tours, and I don’t get it.”

Miyr frowned. “Lord Vader did not explain to you?”

Han shook his head.

“Then I will allow him to do so,” said Miyr. “In the meantime I’m to give you a tour of Lord Vader’s quarters.”

Han scowled at not getting his confusion resolved, but followed her out of the conference room.

“This door,” Miyr announced after they’d been through almost all of the rooms, “leads into Lord Vader’s private chambers. You have not been given the passcodes for this area, as they are off-limits to anyone except Lord Vader and his son.” She gestured to the other side of the room. “This door leads to the children’s suite.”


Miyr opened the door, and Han gaped at what he saw therein.

Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and murderer of the Jedi Order, sat calmly in a very big and rather cushy-looking armchair, beside which was an enormous messy pile of snap-blocks. Luke sat by the blocks with his back against the side of the chair, idly piecing together a pretty accurate replica of the Falcon, and handing up blocks of various sizes and shapes when Vader asked him for something. The Dark Lord himself was quite handily fashioning a miniature TIE fighter.

But most surprising of all were the two extremely cute little girls helping him out with the project.

“Solo,” Vader greeted him with as much cool, dangerous confidence as ever, not bothering to look up.

“Han!” Luke jumped to his feet, leaving the half-completed Falcon model on the—the pink carpet?

Han stared at them all, feeling his mouth go dry from being left open. “What the…what?” he stammered.

A few days later…

Although the past few days had dimmed Vader’s burning desire to kill or severely maim Han Solo on sight, the Dark Lord’s temper had grown far sharper. His patience constantly teetered at the brink of a long and usually fatal plunge into wild fury, the repeated slips down which had already claimed the lives of at least as many stormtroopers as Solo had shot. He could only barely retain the presence of mind to realize that he should not under any circumstances visit the children in such a volatile mood.

Thanks to Solo’s unanticipated arrival, Vader had found himself compelled to remain at Bast Castle for three full days more in order to make all the necessary arrangements. He’d been risking much by vanishing with Luke for as long as he had, and every additional hour could be counted on to shoot the Emperor’s suspicion up another notch. Possibly two.

The fear that he might be endangering his little ones’ safety was more than enough to put Vader in a fearsome temper. And in order to allay Palpatine’s suspicion, he would have to stay away from Bast Castle for a very considerable length of time—certainly more than a year. In fact, two was likely to be the minimum. Faced with a lengthy separation from his children, on top of his other concerns, Vader quickly misplaced his last scrap of serenity and became a thoroughly unholy terror, raging his relentless way through itemized lists of tasks like a deranged reek.

But three days later, he was done, and the realization that he would be able to depart soon and allay Palpatine’s suspicions helped him to unearth his lost patience. Luke and Han were both in their new sets of rooms, equipped with what should be more than enough to occupy two teenage boys—flight simulators, Artoo and Threepio, the Falcon in his private hangar for them to tinker with, and Captain Landre to give them lessons in naval history and strategy until Vader could provide an acceptable tutor. He’d also left Luke some books and instructions, which should be enough assistance for such a promising student to finish developing and refining basic and a few intermediate skills.

He couldn’t think of anything undone that Miyr couldn’t be trusted to handle…

His shuttle and the Fleet were awaiting him. Brusquely Vader pushed away the awareness that, precluding either Palpatine’s improbable death or infinitely more improbable retirement, he would not return to his children for up to two years. The landing ramp of his shuttle extended, and he began to ascend—

“My lord! My lord, one moment!”

Vader turned, irritated at the prolonging of his departure. It was Landre.

“What is it?” he demanded. It went without saying that the disturbance had best be a worthy one.

“My lord, I took the precaution of having Solo’s ship, the Falcon, inspected before moving it into your private hangar,” Landre began. He extended his hand, holding a data chip. “Although all of the memory systems had been wiped by Solo, this chip was discovered in a miniature trash compactor which apparently malfunctioned. I thought you should see the recording it contains.”

He handed Vader a miniature projector from his pocket. The annoyed Dark Lord took it and plugged in the chip, hoping for Landre’s sake that this recording was worth his ti—

“Hey, you work!” a familiar young voice crowed out of the unit’s speakers. Vader stared at the image of his son tinkering away at Threepio.

This recording had come from the Executor. He recognized the rooms he had set aside for Luke.

The chatter on the recording continued. Vader barely listened until his son was heard to say, “…My guardian gave you to me.”

His eyes narrowed under the mask and he ordered the recording to back up. He watched more closely the second time…yes. Yes, the recording had been altered. By the movement of Luke’s mouth, the word originally spoken had been two syllables, not three. Father.

Someone had altered this recording.

He continued watching, as the door in the image opened to reveal himself. Suddenly he recalled the conversation he had had at the time with Luke. Would you rather I called you son? Again, the words of the conversation had been changed to conceal the truth of the relationship between Vader and Luke. The recording ended.

And a cold, frightened, lethal anger began to build within Vader. Solo would have had no reason to edit the recording; therefore he had gotten this recording from someone else, who did have reason.

There was someone else in the galaxy with the dangerous information that Vader had a living child, and furthermore that said child was being hidden in his care. Someone he did not control. Someone with the resources to breach his security all the way into his private sanctum.

Artoo, Vader realized coldly. Artoo must have transmitted the recording. Well, he knew better than anyone else that he would never get any sort of admission out of the stubborn astromech. It had a rare gift for obstinacy. But there was still one other person in Bast Castle who could identify this “someone”…Han Solo.

His departure, it seemed, would have to be delayed.

“Sheesh, Artoo, where the heck did you pick up all this carbon scoring?”

The astromech only gave a nonchalant twitter. Luke scowled at the patch marring the droid’s silvery skin, scraping away at it furiously with a smoother as he tried to level out the scorched spot with the rest of the casing. He was beginning to think he might just have to start replacing the droid’s plating to get rid of all the scoring on its shell.

So intent was the young man on his task—deliberately intent, the better to forget that his father was leaving today—that he jumped when the door hissed open behind his back. The smoother’s edge drew a fresh score line down Artoo’s barrel body; he threw it down in frustration as he whirled around. Doggone it, if that was Miyr again

“Father!” he gasped in total surprise, quickly picking himself up off the floor. “I—I thought you were leaving.”

A rush of what might be the hottest anger he had ever sensed from his father seemed to heat and chill him at the same time. His delighted surprise suffered a quick death as he backed up a step instinctively, terrified that his father was angry with him, at a loss for what he could have done.

“I was detained,” his father said, his voice dangerously close to a hiss. The black helmet shifted to focus on Artoo. “Get that droid out of this room,” he ordered.

Luke obeyed in record time, but his fingers shook as he shut the door behind Artoo. Slowly, battling to contain his fear, he turned back around.

“Come here.”

Luke did not dare refuse…yet he couldn’t make himself go closer. His feet would not go. His heart pounded so hard it was nearly painful, and his mouth had gone dry as the Dune Sea. Do what he says, Luke! he shouted at himself.

Still he stood frozen by the door, not responding to the order. His father turned angrily around.

Come here.”

Luke found himself shaking his head almost convulsively. What was he thinking? This wasn’t the way to make his father less angry!

His father stalked towards him, anger resounding through the floor with every stride, and after roughly an eternity he was standing in front of Luke. Luke flinched instinctively when he raised his hand—but the hand came down very gently to grip his shoulder, in that familiar gesture of soothing. When Vader again spoke, his anger had been brought under control.

“Do not be afraid,” his father told him. “I am not angry with you.”

Luke wanted to slump against the doorframe with relief. Instead he was guided over to his bed and told to sit down, which was not a difficult order to follow.

His father withdrew a miniature data projector from his pocket and clenched it furiously. “It seems that someone has managed to penetrate my security. My men retrieved a holo of you repairing your droids aboard the Executor.” The data projector went sailing across the room on a direct and very damaging collision course with the wall. “It was found aboard your friend’s ship.”

Luke sucked in his breath, instantly terrified for Han’s safety.

“It is clear from the recording,” his father continued in a tightly leashed tone, “that your friend must have received it from another individual, who presumably planted the spy system within your astromech.”

Though his fear for Han dwindled some, it was replaced as it went by the fear that Artoo would be taken away from him.

“Luke, I do not have the necessary time to question your friend as to the source of this recording. He is far too recalcitrant, and I must leave quickly.” His father turned to him. “You will retrieve this information in my stead. When you have it, you will inform me through the Force as I have taught you. Is this clear?”

“You want me to interrogate Han?” Luke could hardly believe his ears.

His father turned sharply as he continued to pace the confines of Luke’s bedroom. “Did I not state that?” Impatience had added itself to his father’s swirling, dark aura.

“He won’t tell me,” Luke tried softly.

“If your friend refuses to cooperate, then you will rip it directly from his mind,” Vader said sharply. “Perhaps it would teach him respect—”

Luke whispered something that Vader must have misheard. “What did you say?” the Dark Lord demanded, facing his child.

Luke lifted his head, displaying a spark of defiance in his blue eyes that Vader had last seen in them when they were colored green. “I said, I won’t do that.”

The anger rose to a dangerous pitch within his breast. “You will do as I say,” Vader said coldly.

Luke leapt up, inspired by a sudden streak of boldness he’d nearly forgotten he had. “Not if it’s wrong, I won’t,” he asserted.

“You are young and misguided,” his father retorted. “You have no true understanding of the nature of right and wrong. I will be the judge of it, and you will accept my judgment.”

Luke stood his ground with all of his mother’s stubbornness. “It’s wrong, and I’m not going to do it!”

The next instant his father’s hand streaked out and grabbed him angrily by the collar. “For the sake of your own and your sisters’ safety, which is far superior to any concern I may happen to harbor for Solo, you most certainly will do whatever is necessary!” He lifted Luke’s chin abruptly, forcing him to meet the dark gaze of the mask’s eyeplates. “Should you choose to disobey me in this, I will be forced to summon Solo to Imperial Center and interrogate him myself. If that becomes necessary, you will not see him again, child, whether here at Bast Castle or anywhere else.”

Luke fell back onto his bed when his father abruptly let go of him and stalked back towards the door. “I expect a response from you within three days,” he said. “Captain Landre will have your astromech cleared of its spy programs.” With that, Darth Vader was gone.

Han was having a hard time containing his elation. The kid’s freaky dad was finally leaving! Even though Han knew this wasn’t really going to help him sneak Luke out of Bast Castle, inasmuch as Luke didn’t seem too keen on leaving and Han had that blasted tracking chip, at least he could live here without worrying about stepping on Darth Vader’s massive and extremely touchy toes. However, he didn’t plan on letting himself celebrate until he was dead sure Vader was gone. And besides that, he’d seen Luke and his little sisters for a bit this morning, at mealtime, and they’d all looked depressed. Especially the little twerplings. Sittin’ there with their noses scrunched up all through breakfast, neither of them eating much of anything, and Han had only gotten halfway through his plate when one of them burst into sobs and scampered away. And whatever one of ‘em did, you could be sure the other wasn’t gonna be far behind.

Luke had stayed, and tried to look as though nothing was wrong with him, but Han could see that he wanted his dad to stay. What had happened during the last five months that had changed the kid’s mind so drastically? Han could remember the day he’d left Luke at the museum with crystal clarity—how Luke had been hiding in the shadows when he got there, how scared he’d been, how urgent to get away. And now, the kid wanted to be around Vader.

Maybe…just maybe there was a side of Vader that Han hadn’t seen much of. Cause the way he’d acted around Han sure wouldn’t have gotten Luke to like the guy.

Well…they wouldn’t have to worry about Vader now. The guy was going. It’d be him and Luke, like before. Well, maybe not quite like before, but it was close enough to make Han grin. Besides, this castle didn’t seem like such a terrible place to be stuck at. Han was willing to bet that with all the security systems and uptight Imperials and a nervous wreck of a babysitter, there was all kinds of potential for him and Luke to create a little amusement for themselves…might even turn out to be more fun than the galaxy-hopping they’d been doing before.

It was gonna have to wait until Luke got over his dad leaving, ‘course, but it hadn’t taken the kid long to recover after losing Obi-Wan and his aunt and uncle, and that had been the permanent kind of losing, so Han felt sure the kid would be back in form pretty soon. In the meantime, he might as well check out those flight simulators and ascertain their level of crappiness.

He was pleasantly surprised. Most flight simulators stunk worse than a shipful of Gamorreans, but he’d forgotten that Vader commanded the Imperial Navy. The sims that Vader had put into the boys’ new rec room were even better than top-notch Academy grade technology, loaded with virtual candy. If Han couldn’t really fly a ship, well, this was only a hair away from being as good. Heck, he thought as he blasted his way through a series of beginner starfighter runs, these babies had probably come straight from Fleet Special Forces!

Maybe it paid off to have Darth Vader for a dad after all. Han grinned wickedly at the recollection that the Dark Lord was said to have a fortune second only to the Emperor’s.

He felt better than he had for days after two hours in the sim. All that shooting and explosions had done wonders for his shrinking testosterone levels, after being stuck around a bunch of females for days. Han suspected it would have killed him if he’d been in Luke’s position that week before he’d showed up on his rescue effort, forced to hang out with two girly toddlers twenty-four-seven. Sheesh, but the kid had to be made of solid durasteel to survive everything he’d been through and still—

Somebody rapped on the sim’s sealed cover. “Han?” a muffled voice spoke up.

Han quickly hit the release button and grinned at Luke as the cover retracted. “Kid, you’re not gonna believe how awesome these things are!” he crowed, expecting to prompt Luke’s old enthusiasm.

But Luke stared past him with frantic eyes. “Han—I gotta talk to you,” he said heavily.

Han felt his chest constrict violently. He scrambled out of the flight sim and grabbed Luke by the shoulders. “He didn’t hurt you, did he, kid?” he demanded anxiously.

Luke shook his head—hesitantly. “No—no. But—Han, I gotta talk to you.” The kid looked up at him in a manner that reminded Han of the day on the Executor, when Vader had been dragging him away.

“Sure,” he said. “Sure.” Luke nodded in relief. A few minutes later both boys were lounging silently on the room’s couch. Luke still hadn’t said a word. He was staring at the blank wall, and every few seconds his mouth would work nervously.

“Look, kid, you gonna say somethin’ or not?” Han demanded.

Luke’s eyes shifted back to him, and Han was alarmed anew by the dread and fear he saw in them. “Han—” he began, but lapsed again into silence.

A few seconds later, he spoke up again, his young voice echoing abruptly with determination. “Father told me that they found a—a recording of me on the Falcon,” he said in a rush.

Han paled with sudden panic. They couldn’t have! He’d erased all of the Falcon’s files, and he knew for sure that he hadn’t missed getting rid first of the chip with the recording, and second of the copy that had gone into the game table’s memory.

“He watched it,” Luke continued, not looking at Han. “He thinks that you must have gotten it from someone else. He—he told me he didn’t have time to ask you and he wants me to do it.”

Han’s stomach sank way, way down, so far down it must have oozed out of his toes altogether. Was Luke upset that Vader wanted him to run the interrogation…or that Han had had the recording?

The answer made all the difference in the world. “You gonna do what he says, kid?” Han challenged angrily. After everything he’d done trying to take care of Luke—was the kid going to side with his dad every time? If that was the case, Han decided rashly, he was going to run through that security field before the day went out, cause he wasn’t gonna stay here with that kind of Luke.

Luke turned back to him, his eyes glittering, and not with delight. “He said—he said if I didn’t, he was gonna have you sent to him on Coruscant—and that I wouldn’t—that he’d—”

Luke broke off, twisting his gaze away again, trembling, and Han felt pretty sure he knew just what Vader had threatened. Either Luke got the information from Han, or Vader would do it, and he wouldn’t be nice about it. In fact, he’d go out of his way to be mean about it. Han swallowed at the threat of a genuine interrogation.

Vader would kill him after that.

“He said—he said he has to keep us safe,” Luke breathed in a wavering voice. “He doesn’t care how. I’m supposed to tell him in three days.”

Han blew out a shaky breath.

“Han, please, you gotta tell me,” Luke pleaded. “Please? He—he’ll kill you if you don’t! Han, please, I can’t lose you too!”

Han felt so sick he couldn’t breathe well. It was probably true that Luke couldn’t lose him—the kid had lost so many other people already, for being just thirteen. He couldn’t do that to Luke.

But if he told, Han had no illusions about what Vader would do to Bail Organa and his family. They would die, the senator and the queen and even the spunky, bratty little princess who wasn’t any older than Luke, all people who had helped Han out when it was a dangerous thing to do. They’d helped Luke too. He couldn’t turn them in!

“Kid—I can’t tell ya,” Han finally mumbled.

Luke looked so pale Han thought he might faint. “No,” he insisted feverishly. “No, you have to!” Please, I don’t want to hurt you! I don’t want to hurt you! The litany fled back and forth through his head, seeming to spark little explosions everywhere.

“Kid, the people who gave me that recording helped me out a lot,” Han retorted with determination. “I can’t just hand ‘em to your dad like some appetizer on a tray! You know what he’s gonna do to them, don’t you?”

Luke trembled all over. “I know what he’s gonna do to you if you don’t,” he whispered. Slowly Luke swung himself up to sit straight, as if that would help keep him calm.

Han only shrugged, much more nonchalantly than he actually was feeling, which was panicky in the extreme. “Kid—I can’t let those people get hurt,” he said flatly. “Maybe your dad’ll get it out of me anyway, but I’m not gonna make it easy.”

Luke thought frantically, trying to find a way out…

And suddenly he felt a rush of relief as an idea came to him at last! It was really risky, and probably impossible, and he didn’t even want to think about how mad his father was going to be if he ever found out…but his father wasn’t coming back for a long time, no matter how mad he got. A year or more ought to be enough to calm him down.


Well, Luke sure hoped so, because he couldn’t think of any better ideas. Besides, since when had he turned into a scaredy-nerf? Boldened by that thought, he furrowed his eyebrows with sudden determination.

“I got an idea,” he announced.

Han grinned at the familiar, gutsy glint that had finally come back into Luke’s eyes. All of the sudden, he had a feeling that this was going to turn out good.

A day later, and several lightyears away…

Vader’s shuttle was about to emerge from hyperspace when he felt a sudden flurry of activity through their bond. He stretched his awareness towards his boy. Fierce purpose met his probes, drawing a smile of approval into the scarred tissue of the Dark Lord’s face. His smile faltered just a little at the realization that fear still lay beneath the boy’s resolve, but it seemed that Luke had accepted his authority, or at least realized that his father was correct in this issue.

From what he could make out over their distance-dimmed bond, the child was attempting to gently persuade someone with the Force, and enjoying a fair amount of success. It seemed his son wanted to use a less aggressive method for wringing the information out of Solo. Well. Although the more aggressive technique would have done much to further his son’s development in the ways of the dark side, the way his son had chosen would still help to hone his skills…even if it did smack of Jedi sensibilities.

He decided that he would simply accept the boy’s obedience for the time being, and not criticize the manner in which the child did so. Such things could wait for a later time, and he did not wish to press Luke too hard. The boy had a history with the Jedi, much as he himself had had, and Palpatine had taken a full thirteen years to wean Anakin Skywalker away from the lies of the Order. Vader would be wise to exercise just as much patience with young Luke. For now, he would be satisfied with the progress the child had made thus far. In another two days, he would have confirmation of the boy’s obedience, and he fully intended to praise the child for it.

The Dark Lord was in such an excellent mood when he arrived aboard the Executor once more that he completely failed to be pessimistic when greeting Fifth Fleet’s latest admiral.

Back on the planet Vjun…

“Kid, what the kreth did you just do?” Han demanded, his fingers itching desperately on the hilt of a small, commandeered blaster.

“Shut up and get in here before another guard shows up!” Luke hissed, already dodging through the door. Han spared a last glance at the stormtrooper meandering dreamily away down the hall before following his shorter companion. The door quickly sealed behind his back.

They were inside one of the hangars reserved for the castle’s squadron of fighter pilots. The actual starfighters were in another, larger hangar, but this bay held a lineup of four standard lambda shuttles. There were some mechanics mulling around the ships, and some troopers on patrol at the other main entrance, but Luke had quickly whisked them both out of sight behind a convenient rack of hoses. Cautiously the two boys peered out from behind their shelter, blasters in hand and locked into stun mode.

“You got any distractions in mind?” Han whispered to Luke.

Luke nodded. “Better go for the closest one,” he said, pointing at the shuttle which was resting about twenty meters away.

“Yeah we better, ain’t got that much time,” Han agreed softly. Luke’s little capering with the castle security system would buy them a couple of hours away from their electronic babysitters, and Miyr of course was somewhere downstairs running things. They wouldn’t have to worry about her unless they tripped an alarm. But if they weren’t back upstairs in time, the cams would report them missing, and that was the biggest alarm you could trigger at Bast Castle. They’d better get moving.

Luke nodded in agreement and suddenly closed his eyes, furrowing his brow in deep concentration. Han was almost tempted to laugh at the kid, when the mechanics’ tool-charging bank abruptly started to spark and smoke. The mechanics working on that nearby shuttle quickly rushed over to stop a possible explosion, and by the time they turned back around Han and Luke could have run between the hose rack and the shuttle three times. In a couple of seconds, the two boys were safely aboard, out of sight.

They made for the cockpit, Han making sure to lower the shades on the transparisteel before they ventured inside. While Han stood warily guard behind the door, his blaster ready to kiss any unexpected visitor with stun rays, Luke settled into the pilot’s chair and switched on the cockpit systems, running them on the reserve battery so they wouldn’t alert anybody by firing the engines. “Where’s the number?” Luke demanded as the console projected a suave menu screen up in front of his face.

Han dug a crumpled piece of flimsy out of his pocket and tossed it at the kid. “Hurry up,” he warned.

Luke nodded tersely as he began hunting through the menus for the correct system.

“You remember how to hack in, right?”

“Yes,” Luke snapped irritably, still flipping through links.

Han shifted and worked his tongue nervously around his teeth, waiting and watching. “So what did you do to that guard outside?” he finally said again.

“It’s a Jedi mind trick,” Luke said with a shrug. “Hah! I got it!”

Han spared a glance over his shoulder. “Quick,” he urged. “We got maybe another hour and fifteen.”


“And where was the first battle of the Clone Wars fought?”


Keno Ly’Laka, Ph.D, smiled back in response to his student’s instant, firm answer, and switched off his holoprojector as a reward. “Excellent, Princess. I think that will be all for today.”

On the other side of the datapad-littered table, Princess Leia flashed him the bright girlish smile that was only too rare from such a remarkably grown-up child as she was. Although, Dr. Ly’Laka found himself forced to admit more and more these days that she was not so much the child anymore—nearly fourteen, in fact. Her progress was indeed impressive for one so young, and Ly’Laka was never a more enthusiastic conversationalist than when his brilliant young protégé was the topic…but it warmed him nonetheless when the regal airs slipped for a moment and revealed the child’s spirit still hiding playfully beneath. Of course, being her professor, he could hardly say as much.

“Remember, Princess,” he continued sternly, “I expect your paper on the Naboo Crisis tomorrow morning.”

She nodded. “I’ve nearly finished, except for talking to Daddy about it.”

“Make sure you do that today,” he cautioned her.

She nodded, piling her schoolwork into a neat pile atop the table. “I’ll go now.”

Ly’Laka beamed at her as she tripped off gracefully. Quite the prodigy, young Leia. She’d certainly do her father proud when she was a little older.

“Daddy?” Leia called softly through the intercom, rapping lightly on the door to her father’s office. One of her not-infrequent premonitions suddenly struck her, and enabled her not to jump with surprise when the door suddenly whisked open beneath her tentative touch. Bail Organa strode quickly through, shrugging his outer robe into better position.

“Leia?” He paused his brisk feet for a moment. “What is it?”

“I was wondering when you would have time for me to ask you about my paper for Galactic Politics,” she answered quickly. “Should I come back?” He was obviously in a hurry about something.

“No, no—I only need to go speak with the Moff for a few minutes, just a minor conflict with customs regulations. You can wait in my office. I’ll be back shortly.” He smiled at her and headed rapidly away down the hall. She watched for a second, and then went in, settling into a guest chair to wait for him.

Five minutes later, the com system unexpectedly twittered, and the screen projected up out of the desk, displaying the message urgent live: encryption three.

Normally, Leia wouldn’t have touched her father’s com system, knowing that it was the height of rudeness and impropriety to do so. But her father might not be back in time to take the call—after all, it said it was “urgent live,” meaning someone was waiting on the other end to talk to him, and Encryption 3 meant it was someone important—someone with military equipment.

She’d suspected for a long time that her father was involved with the Rebel Alliance. This might be an Alliance contact. He would not want to miss this call.

She lowered her eyebrows decisively and moved around the desk to her father’s office chair, punching the “accept call” button. Just as they should, she heard low hums and clicks as the office sealed up the security systems, ensuring that no one else would hear the secret communication. She watched a bit nervously as the projector finally lit up…

And then she started as a fairly familiar face appeared in holographic blue tinted color. It was a boy—she was sure she’d seen him before! He had the same face as Han’s younger brother Luke—the two boys could have been twins—but this boy had blonde hair, blue eyes.

“Princess Leia?” the boy asked quizzically.

It was Luke Solo, all right. She remembered his voice.

“Yes,” she said regally, trying to regain her bearings. “Aren’t you Luke Solo?”

He frowned strangely, as though the question confused him. Then suddenly he got a look of dawning comprehension. “Ah—yeah, yeah I am,” he stammered.

Leia narrowed her eyes, and was about to fire off a suspicious retort, but Luke beat her to it. “Is Senator Organa there?” he asked anxiously.

“Why do you want to talk to him?” Leia demanded.

“I have to tell him something important,” Luke insisted. Even through the Holonet static fuzz, she could hear the strong note of alarm in his voice, and she could definitely see stress in the way he held himself.

“How do I know you’re Luke Solo?” Leia countered, not ready to divulge any possibly important information without proof.

Luke glared at her, and turned around from the com unit on his end. “Han?” she thought she heard him call.

She must have been right, because a second later Han Solo’s face joined Luke’s. “Heya, Your Princessness,” he said with a tight grin. “Remember that time ya snuck up on me in my ship?”

“What’s your ship’s name?” she demanded.

“The Millennium Falcon, ‘course.”

“All right, I believe you,” she admitted. Han disappeared from the image, leaving Luke, who still looked incredibly nervous. “What do you want to tell my father?”

“Can’t I talk to him?”

“He’s not available,” she said. “He’s at a meeting.”

Luke blew an exasperated breath, and looked away uneasily. “Look—I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anybody else but Senator Organa,” he said. “You can’t tell anybody else, or I swear, my father will kill me.”

He sounded dangerously serious. “Okay,” Leia said somberly. “I promise.”

Luke took another second before he rushed into his message. “Tell him that Luke called from Bast Castle,” he said. “Tell him that Darth Vader knows about the astromech droid and that he got one of the recordings. In about two days, he’s going to know that Senator Organa sent the astromech. Make sure you tell your father all of that!”

Leia paled at the mysterious message. “Astromech? Darth Vader?” Her brain spun in a dazed whirl. “But—but—no, wait—”

She wasn’t fast enough. Luke gave her a last desperate glance and cut the connection.

Leia sat stunned, staring the blank holoprojector space. It was many minutes before she recruited enough presence of mind to return the office to normal security settings. But as soon as the doors unlocked again, her father stormed through, looking horribly anxious and angry. He marched around the desk to her and ordered the security back on at full strength before commencing to scold.

“Why did you have this office locked down?” he demanded. “You are not to access my systems, I have told you this!”

“I—I—” She had to look down before answering. “You got a call.”

“An urgent call? And you answered it?” Her father’s expression was a curious mixture of incredulity and fury. “I’ve made it clear that that’s prohibited! Leia—”

“It said urgent live encryption three,” Leia went on. “It was Han and Luke Solo.”

Her father suddenly seized her by the shoulders, and her emotions seized her at the same time. “Daddy, they were telling me awful things, about Darth Vader and an astromech and—and—”

“Leia,” Bail cut in with a slow, deliberate voice. “Tell me exactly what they said.”

“It was Luke,” she said, breathing hard in the effort to suppress irrational sobs of even more irrational fright. “Mostly. He said that Darth Vader knows about the astromech droid and that he has a recording and that in two days he’s going to know you sent the droid. Daddy—please, Daddy, what is he talking about?” Her voice rose up to a high pitch as she fought to retain control.

Bail rubbed her shoulders calmingly, but Leia was not fooled. She could tell that he was even more upset than she was, and it only made her more frightened. “Did he say anything else?” he asked her gently. “Did he say where he was calling from?”

“I—I think he said—Bast. Bast Castle.” She battled with a shudder.

Her father glanced away, breathing deeply, still squeezing her shoulders. “Two days—you’re sure he said two days?”

“Yes, two days until Vader knows.”

“Did he say anything else to you at all? Anything at all?”

“Just that I shouldn’t tell anybody else about this but you,” Leia whispered.

“That’s it?”

She nodded, and began trembling. Leia didn’t fear very many things, but dangerous things she didn’t understand was a big one on the list. “Daddy, what’s going on?” she pleaded.

Bail pulled her into a hug with a soothing smile. “It’ll be fine, Leia. I’ll explain it to you in a little while, but right now there’s some things I need to do. Go back upstairs to your room. I’ll talk to you at dinner.” He smiled again, stroking her cheek, and Leia nodded. Although she knew her father was frightened and upset by the message she’d given him, he also seemed to know what he was doing, so she let herself be reassured.

“Okay,” she nodded.

“Are you all right?” he asked with a frown.

Leia nodded bravely, and let her father usher her out of his office. Slowly she made her way through the palace back to her room. The Galactic Politics paper was far from her mind now; instead she tossed on her bed, mulling over the short, disquieting conversation with Han and Luke Solo.

What had her father done with an astromech droid? Where had he sent it? What did it have to do with Darth Vader? Where and what was Bast Castle? And how in the Empire did Han and Luke Solo know all of this anyway?

Maybe they’re Rebel spies, she mused. Maybe they were talking in some sort of verbal code. She’d heard about those from one of her professors, though she couldn’t remember which one. Maybe “Darth Vader” meant something entirely different to her father than she thought it meant. That might be it…

But why would a boy no older than she was be spying on the Empire? That didn’t make sense—it wasn’t as if a boy would somehow blend in among bands of tall armored stormtroopers. Leia almost giggled at the image of a short, awkward figure stumbling around in a heavy, way-outsized suit of Imperial armor, running into doorframes and Navy officers.

Besides, he’d said that his father would kill him if she told anybody else, and it didn’t make sense that both he and his father would be spying together or something—

Wait just a second! Han and Luke Solo are orphans!

Leia jumped up from her bed and began to pace in agitation across the room at this new realization. He’d said his father would kill him. That meant that Mr. Solo, whoever he was, was not dead. Han and Luke Solo had lied when they were here on Alderaan. They’d lied to her and to her father. What else might they have lied about? Maybe they didn’t even have any relatives in the Dantooine refugee projects—maybe they were Imperial spies. What other explanations were there for Luke’s odd disappearance during the month that Han had been staying at the palace? And just why had Han been staying at the palace anyway? Come to think of it, Leia couldn’t remember if anyone had ever really given an explanation.

But the biggest question of all…how would these two boys, whom she saw nearly every night in her dreams, know as much as they did about Darth Vader? His very name set Leia to shuddering, conjuring up images from her nightmares and a nerve-wracking conversation in a moonlit garden. She didn’t understand why he would be involved with two boys any more than she’d understood why he would care to ask her about her nightmares. It frightened her, because it wasn’t the way a Sith Lord ought to behave, and Leia did not like it when things were both unpredictable and dangerous.

With effort she forced her questions and fears to subside, rebuilding her mind’s familiar strength and structure. She didn’t doubt that her father knew what was happening. Leia would just have to make him tell her. The best way to do that would be to catch him off-guard, and Luke’s incongruous comment about his father was a conversation topic guaranteed to do the trick.

Bail’s carefully controlled façade collapsed spectacularly in Leia’s wake. Dear Force, what was he going to do?

He sealed his office’s security and fell back in his seat with a groan, massaging his temples in the effort to think more clearly. He’d been so sure that he had managed to dissuade Han Solo from any foolhardy rescue attempts…but apparently the Corellian’s character was of sterling quality beneath the badly tarnished exterior, and Bail hadn’t given Solo’s loyalty nearly enough credit. He couldn’t guess how the young man had managed it, but by some means it seemed Han had unearthed Luke’s location and gotten to him.

What was happening now, Bail couldn’t say. Had Han and Luke called him from a stolen Imperial Navy ship? Had they escaped Vader? No, he quickly reminded himself, that couldn’t be—according to Leia Luke had claimed to be calling from Bast Castle. That was one of Vader’s private holdings, if memory served him correctly. Surely the boys had not taken valuable time out of an escape attempt to send him warning!

Yet Leia had also said the call came noted as an Encryption 3. Han and Luke must have called from an Imperial Navy ship, because in order to send something Encryption 3 one had to have military-grade communication arrays. The boys would not have been able to access such communication systems in the castle; most likely that would require infiltrating the control room of the building, which was sure to be heavily guarded if Bail knew anything about Darth Vader. Although conceivably the son of Darth Vader might be given access, it was impossible that Luke would be allowed to transmit anything without surveillance. Such a warning would never have been permitted.

Bail groaned and shoved the details aside. It didn’t matter, in the end. What mattered was that in two days Darth Vader would know that he, Bail Organa, knew of Luke’s existence, and knew of the relationship between the Sith and the boy. For, of course, Vader must have discovered the recording in Han’s possession; the one that Bail had edited. The last five months had passed by without a single mention of Luke Skywalker, official or otherwise; Vader was obviously hiding the young one, and he would not risk any leaks of information.

Bail was very, very short of time. Two days was not long. Yet it should be plenty of time for Breha and Leia to disappear into safety—and Bail knew exactly the being they should be sent to. Flooded with the determined instinct to protect his family, the senator switched on the com system.

The planet Vjun…

Han breathed his tension out in a deep sigh as the turbolift doors sealed safely behind his back and the car began to rise smoothly. Luke slumped against the wall, but he had a big grin on his face. “We did it,” he said.

“You’re krethin’ right we did,” Han nodded. He fiddled with the compact blaster in his hands, and glanced up at the center of the lift ceiling, where the security sensors had been ten seconds ago and where a broad, blackened, sparking hole now gaped. It was only the second security array they’d had to blast, the other being the sensors in the turbolift down. Han’s careful examination of the castle floor plans had mapped them an invisible route everywhere else. A few more minutes, and they’d of gotten clean away with their little operation, with nearly a quarter hour to spare.

The turbolift door slid open at the top level of the castle, revealing the well-patrolled security checkpoint up ahead. The stormtroopers started as they recognized the two boys, and blasters snapped up. “Your unsupervised presence outside the checkpoint is not authorized, repeat, not authorized,” barked the captain.

Luke paid the blasters no mind and moved quickly forward. “You’re going to let us back inside,” he said.

The stormtroopers stopped in their tracks, lowering their blasters dreamily. “I’m…going to let you back inside,” the captain murmured, sounding much less like a drill sergeant.

The stormtroopers drifted apart as Han and Luke bypassed the biometric scanner and opened the vault-like door. Luke turned around once more. “You’re going to forget we were here,” he said, more forcefully than before.

“You were never here,” agreed the captain. Luke nodded at them, and then they were both back inside the checkpoint and the door had resealed and reset behind them.

Han grinned at Luke, collected the kid’s blaster, and tossed both guns down the nearest trash chute. “Home free, kid,” he said. The two of them sauntered lightly down the halls and back into Vader’s personal wing without incident.

On Alderaan…

Dinner was normally at the same hour every day in Leia’s life, more or less, with occasional variations depending on her father’s work or her mother’s. Most days they ate at eighteen-hundred; sometimes a half hour earlier or later, and on rare occasions an entire hour earlier. Never, however, did the steward call them to dinner three hours late.

Leia did not like it.

Her suspicion was in no way eased when, as she started to take the route to the usual dining room, the steward appeared to redirect her to her father’s private apartments. The complement of armed guards standing watch outside the apartments didn’t help either. They allowed her through the sealed doors, but she could see that the safeties had been taken off of their blasters. These were no ceremonial guards. Leia crept nervously through, leaving the steward outside, and went slowly down the hall, looking around. She couldn’t see anyone…

“Leia? Leia, this room.” Leia bounded back a few steps and opened the appropriate door, the one to the family sitting room.

As soon as she was inside, the door sealed behind her, and Leia realized three things. First, there was no table set for dinner. Secondly, there was a fourth person in the room, sitting across from her father on the couches, with a hood over his face. And thirdly—if she remembered correctly, there were no security devices in this room.

Her mother looked up at her, and Leia felt herself freeze at the distress she glimpsed behind Breha’s smile.

“Come sit down,” her mother said gently. “We have…an important guest.”

Leia sat down, between her parents, the stranger sitting on the opposite couch.

“Who is he?” she demanded. Something was wrong—something was so wrong that it was throwing her entire day askew. She was deathly afraid that it might, in fact, be about to throw her life askew. This was no time to stand on courteous ceremony.

She was a little surprised when the stranger took no offense. The stranger glanced up at Bail, and her father nodded; the stranger reached up and lowered his hood. Given the tense atmosphere in the room, Leia had expected an extremely dramatic moment…

But there was no drama. Curiously, she stared at the strange man opposite her on the couch. He had keen brown eyes—eyes, Leia thought, that had seen more than his fairly young face should have—and brown hair. He was neither especially ugly nor particularly handsome, and he seemed to be of average height. The only slightly odd thing about him was a thin streak of blonde on one side of his head, relieving the dark brown. She had never seen him before, whether personally or in the news.

“Hello, Princess Leia,” he said, nodding and extending his hand. She took it warily as he continued, “My name is Ferus Olin.”

Leia frowned. She’d never heard the name, either. “Why are you here?” she demanded.

Her father answered instead. “Leia, Master Olin is a Jedi.”

Her brown eyes suddenly widened. Leia wanted to jump up out of her seat and examine the guest more closely—this was a Jedi? Leia’d never seen one. She couldn’t tell from here that there was anything special about him. But if her Galactic Politics professor was to be believed, this Ferus could do all sorts of magical, impossible things!

Well, that explained why they were here in the sitting room, beyond the reach of the security devices. Obviously, her father couldn’t let the Empire learn that he was protecting a Jedi. But it didn’t explain why they hadn’t had dinner three hours ago. And it didn’t explain why Ferus Olin was here.

“Daddy, why is he here?” she insisted, tearing her eyes off the curiosity of the Jedi and focusing sternly on her father.

“Leia, do you remember the message you received for me this afternoon?” Bail asked her. Leia nodded immediately. As if she could forget!

“Leia, we can’t tell you everything right now,” her mother cut into the conversation. “But Alderaan soon will not be safe for you. Master Olin is going to take you to someone he and we both know, who will keep you safe until you can return to Alderaan.”

Leia drew in a shaky breath, her head twisting back and forth between mother and father. “Why can’t I stay?” she managed to get out after a while.

“Leia, we can’t tell you,” her father said firmly.

“Yes, you can!” she shouted suddenly. She jumped to her feet, breathing hard—the room was spinning around, she was so angry and upset—

Then firm hands settled on her shoulders, and a cool breeze seemed to blow through the recesses of her mind. When her vision cleared she was sitting heavily on the couch again, staring directly into the concerned brown eyes of Master Olin, who was leaning over her, gripping her shoulders. He straightened, leaving one hand on her shoulder.

“She’ll be fine, Senator,” he said. Leia glanced aside; her father was holding her hand worriedly. “That’s not uncommon, given such sensitivity.” His eyes took on a somewhat distant look. “Anakin Skywalker had such moments rather frequently, as I recall.”

Her father stiffened beside her. “Well, my daughter’s hardly Anakin Skywalker,” he said tersely. Leia frowned, trying to remember whether she’d ever heard the name Anakin Skywalker before. It seemed as though it ought to be familiar to her…And what did they mean, sensitivity?

Master Olin had stiffened too. “Perhaps not, but as far as our records go—or went—he’s the only other being to register so highly. I’d just as soon take advantage of what precedent I have to work with.”

Register? Records? What were they talking about? The questions floated through her mind, dim, distant.

“Well,” her father all but retorted, “I’d rather you didn’t.”

Master Olin gave a rather world-weary sigh. “Senator, by your own admonition, we don’t have time to waste.”

Her father nodded. “True.” He turned back to Leia, and Leia felt her stomach sink as her mother put an arm around her.

“Do you feel alright?” Bail asked anxiously.

She nodded wearily. “Why do you never tell me anything?” she asked bleakly.

He gripped her hand tightly. “There are things, Leia, that you are happier not knowing too soon,” he said finally. “Master Olin has been told all the answers that I can give you right now. You can ask him for them during your trip. In the meantime, we must get you away from Alderaan as quickly as possible. I don’t want to risk anything I don’t have to.”

Leia did not miss the subtle tension between her parents that suddenly arose at those words, but she didn’t understand it.

“Shaya is upstairs packing what you will need,” her father continued. “You’ll want to run up and change, princess.”

Her mother stood and walked back up to the bedroom with Leia. The young princess of Alderaan waited numbly on top of her bed, listening to the absurd bustling of her maid Shaya and her mother through the closet. In a few moments her mother emerged with what might have to be considered the dregs of Leia’s elaborate wardrobe—just a plain, fitted jumpsuit and the boots she wore whenever she rode her speeder or went for a hike or some other grueling activity that tended to involve copious quantities of dirt. It didn’t take very long to make the costume switch. After that her hair came down out of its stifling buns and went into a simple long braid.

“There,” Breha said, examining her from a few steps’ distance, in a manner normally reserved for formal functions. “That should do.”

Shaya came out of the closet with two bags, and they went back downstairs.

Her father was talking very earnestly with the Jedi when they entered the sitting room once more, both leaning forward on the couches, but the conversation came to a quick halt. Master Olin surveyed Leia, and looked as though he approved of her new appearance.

“That should do,” Bail echoed his wife.

“Senator, my lady, the sooner we leave the better,” Master Olin announced, standing briskly, shattering the brief lull mercilessly.

Bail nodded. Leia felt the numbness in her grow heavier. Her mother seized her in a tight hug. Leia could feel her trembling.

“Don’t be afraid, Leia,” Breha whispered fiercely. When her mother let go of her, Leia turned quietly to her father, her expression blank. It was though she was watching all of this from far away, like watching a show on holovid.

Bail swept her into an even tighter hug. He didn’t say anything for a very long time; when his arms finally relaxed and she could see his face, Leia was shocked to see that her always-controlled politician father was crying.

“We love you,” he told her. “We love you, princess. Never forget.”

She nodded, tremulously. And then Master Olin had taken her by the hand. His hood was up again. “Let’s go,” he told her. Her father let her go.

“Take care of her,” he told the Jedi forcefully.

Master Olin paused on their way to the back door. “With my life,” he said finally.

The next several minutes were a blur to Leia. Master Olin led her quickly down halls and through chambers, down stairs, up stairs, and then they were in a hanger she’d never seen before, boarding a ship she’d never seen before. They went straight to the cockpit, and the Jedi sat her firmly in the seat next to him. “Strap in, Leia,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Alderaan, her parents, and her life were lightyears away.

“The ship is out of system, senator,” the steward of the palace reported over Bail’s comlink. The senator gave a token response, and switched off the comlink.

“I wish you were with her,” he said after a long silence.

Breha didn’t look at him. She was staring out the holowindow of the sitting room. The streaks of tears remained, but her face was again set and controlled. “Never in a million millennia,” she answered.

Bail drew in a shaky, sharp breath and sat down on the couch. “Breha, it would do far more for my peace of mind if you were gone.”

“My place is with my husband, regardless of what happens. You may as well stop arguing.”

“Breha…” He trailed off into a sigh. “I’m not going to convince you, am I?”

“No.” Still she refused to turn.

“What about Leia?”

“Leia is safe.”

“Safe, maybe, but how happy do you think she’ll be if she loses both her parents?”

“We’ve discussed this. The man might be second-in-command of the Empire, but he doesn’t have the footing he needs to kill either you or me.”

“Not overtly, no,” Bail shot back. “But you well know Vader has plenty of capacity to induce unfortunate accidents.”

“And you well know he’s not the type to attack from behind at night,” Breha shrugged it off.

“Neither of us knows what he may or may not do,” Bail muttered. “You remember, I hope, the kind of misguided lengths he’s gone to before for the sake of his family. What if he decides he can risk the Emperor’s suspicion?”

Breha finally turned to him with a wry smile. “He’ll lose his gamble. And that, Bail, would be a price well worth paying.”

“You realize that might put others at risk, don’t you? What if the Emperor were to discover Luke? Breha, in the unlikely event that Palpatine would see fit to destroy Vader, it would not be because he killed me or you. Only if Palpatine were to discover why Vader killed this particular senator might he be enraged enough to rid himself of his apprentice. Do you realize what that means for Luke? For the galaxy?”

Breha gave him a triumphant smile. “Yes, I do. And I’m sure Vader would realize that too. That, Bail, is why he can’t touch either of us without entirely different grounds for doing so.”

Bail sighed again. “All right, you win.”

She came over and sat down beside him. “We’ll get past this,” she promised him. “We have another two days, perhaps up to four. Let’s make sure he doesn’t find those different grounds he’s going to want so badly.”

Two days later…

Darth Vader was, all things considered, inclined to be in one of his more pleasant moods. Despite his rather extended absence, made all the more difficult by the fact that a new admiral had arrived to command Fifth Fleet in the interim, affairs were actually proceeding quite satisfactorily. In fact, affairs were proceeding outstandingly, and had been even before his return to the Fleet.

Vader’s latest admiral, rather than being a burden upon the Fleet and an irritant to himself, was proving a magnificent acquisition. Although quite a newly minted admiral, this new addition to the Executor’s bridge could have handled all of Fifth Fleet entirely on his own with no trouble. In fact, given a few more years of experience, Vader suspected the man—well, not quite a man—could likely handle his job running the Navy. Yet somehow or other, the admiral had managed to fall out of the Emperor’s favor; before Ozzel’s death, he’d been on his disgraced way to a cheap assignment in the Unknown Regions; apparently, Palpatine had decided assignment to Lord Vader’s fleet would be a preferable method for getting rid of the Chiss officer, reasoning he would go the way of the rest of Fifth Fleet’s commanders. But so long as the admiral maintained his performance and manners, Vader could find no reasons for complaint.

Granted, the newly arrived Admiral Thrawn did have his idiosyncrasies, not the least of which was his fascination with art. The first time Vader had arrived in the command briefing room after his sojourn on Vjun, he had found it much…altered. Paintings hung on the walls, and the table had received a sort of lacquered patterning on its surface. The admiral’s quarters had been even worse, transformed into a virtual art gallery…However, he had miraculously managed to reserve judgment until he could assess the admiral’s performance. Between a round of beautifully handled war exercises and glowing reports from all his standing ship officers, Vader had decided that Thrawn’s all-around brilliance more than compensated for his quirks.

At least, it had so far. The admiral had not, after all, been under observation long enough to tell whether the trend would continue. But he was off to a promising start, and thus already an improvement over his late and unlamented predecessors. And any sort of improvement in that area was most welcome to Darth Vader.

Had the matter of the recording from Solo’s ship not been constantly on his mind, hanging as a dire threat over the fragile safety of his children, Vader would have been in something approaching an amiable mood. The idea that someone knew his secret—that someone had the power to reveal at least one of his children to Palpatine, and perhaps even all three—unnerved him to the core, not least because it gave that someone enormous power over him. One master was difficult enough to please and placate

But the time limit he had given his son was reached. Vader retreated into his chambers, and from there into his hyperbaric chamber, sealing it for total security and freedom from disruption. Soon he would at least know the identity of that someone. Decisively—for it required great strength to traverse the great distance between them—he reached along the lines of the bond between him and his child.


Luke jumped where he sat on the couch of the game room, dropping his holobook. It smacked squarely on Han’s head, and he gave an indignant yell from where he lay sprawled out on the floor tinkering with something or other, but Luke didn’t notice any of it.

Luke, answer me, a very familiar voice boomed through his head a second time.

He swallowed, shaky, and sent up a last prayer that Bail Organa had gotten their message and done something about it—because the senator was out of time.

Father? he answered, a bit tremulously.

You have the information I require, I trust, his father replied, with a hint of warning.

He clenched his teeth. Yes, sir.


Senator Organa gave it to him, Luke answered. He trembled just a little as he felt his father scanning him, making sure that he was telling the truth.

You are certain?


His father’s tension seemed to back off a little. Well done, my son, he sent over their bond. He sounded pleased. You did well to obey me.

Luke decided this probably wasn’t the best time to elaborate on the other, not-so-obedient things he’d done. Instead he tried, You won’t hurt him, will you?

What snippet of approval had entered his father’s tone quickly vanished. The fate of Senator Organa is not your concern, little one. I will deal with him as is necessary.

But—Father, he helped me before—

It is not your concern.

Luke gave it up. He’d just have to hope that what he’d already done for the senator would be enough. And that his father wouldn’t kill him when he found out… Yes, sir, he answered.

Imperial City, Coruscant…

The Emperor was not a man who worried. He was a man of power, of purpose, of confidence—decidedly not of worry. His lips curled at the very thought of such a patent weakness. The Darkness was not to be wielded by such scum as was susceptible to worry. Scheming minor politicians worried, helpless women worried. He, however, was the ruler of the known galaxy, not some pitiful elected underling; he was a Sith Lord and a master of the darkness.

All that being said, he confessed reluctantly to himself that he was—at this particular moment—rather…concerned. Concerned enough, in fact, to have cancelled all business both public and covert for the day in order to meditate. However, the time-tried exercise had not availed him over the past several hours to divine any information. The fact did nothing to alleviate his concerns; in fact, it aggravated them, for if there was any single ability in the Force that the Emperor prided himself on, it was his skill in foreseeing. The Dark Side was being disturbingly uncooperative these days.

Equally disturbing was his apprentice’s behavior. Over the past several months, ever since that disagreeable incident on Corellia, Vader had become increasingly erratic. Over the past nearly fourteen years, his apprentice had never ceased to be a source of at least minimal concern, but the one thing Vader had never failed to be was remarkably consistent. Temperamental? Of course. But as legendarily capricious as his apprentice’s moods had always been, Vader’s intelligence was admittedly a match for them. Not until this past year had he been anything but painstakingly consistent.

The only thing Palpatine had known to drive Vader to such incredible irrationality before was a certain brunette Senator from Naboo. However, said Senator was long since removed from the arena of causes and effects. On that point of interest Palpatine had made himself abundantly certain. The tomb on Naboo—officially cordoned off by Imperial honor guard—had long since been exhumed. He had not been satisfied until the woman’s identity had been confirmed by multiple genetic tests, and until he had seen her corpse with his own eyes. Padmé Amidala was dead.

But that left Palpatine to muse about what else in the galaxy could possibly have the same affect on Darth Vader as had Padmé. It was not a question the Emperor cared to consider.

Yet if Palpatine had not attained his lofty position by worrying, neither had he done it without great deliberations. His liking of the question was immaterial, for it was a grave question regardless, one which merited a considerable amount of meditation. Having arrived at that assessment this morning, the Emperor had promptly cancelled all business in order to apply himself to a thorough analysis of his apprentice’s unsettling behavior. He now leaned back in his throne and brooded carefully.

Obviously, Padmé could not be what was causing Vader’s current near-recklessness. However, love had not died with Padmé Amidala, much as the Sith Master might have wished. It was still present in the galaxy, and so long as it was present there was a fleeting chance that it could somehow affect his passionate apprentice.

However, Lord Vader had been badly…well, burned by his previous flirtations with love. Palpatine allowed himself a brief, twisted smile at the unavoidable pun. Yes, the events of Mustafar made it most unlikely that Vader would ever again seek out that which had proven to be such a great source of pain to him.

But love remained the only factor which Palpatine felt could account for Darth Vader’s behavior. It was clearly not anger. He had thought that possibility through already. Had anger with him been the source of Vader’s unusual actions, Palpatine would have been able to point to a definite cause for that anger, some confrontation or grave disagreement between the two of them. And had Vader discovered some withheld secret—such as about Padmé’s death—he would surely be plotting revenge; in that case, he would go to great lengths to keep his routines precisely in accordance with what Palpatine expected, in order to avert suspicion. And had someone else been the cause of Vader’s great anger…well, that someone else surely would not have lasted this long.

No—these random absences and abrupt course changes and Fleet redeployments did not fit that picture painted by anger. Only the distasteful irrationality of love could be the source of this strange behavior. But this conclusion still left the Sith Lord with the vexing question of what could have incited that most detestable emotion in his apprentice.

Irritated by his inability to solve the riddle, Palpatine rose testily from his throne and began to pace before the vast viewport. It was not, of course, a real viewport, but when one was the ruler of the entire Galaxy, one had to make certain concessions if one was going to remain alive to enjoy that position.

That this love could be of a romantic nature was all but impossible. Firstly, the basis of his apprentice’s great strength in the Dark Side was the pain he had endured at Mustafar, the greatest portion of which was Padmé’s death. It was impossible for anyone else to take her place; that would uproot Vader’s very nature, incite upheaval far too great to be concealed. Vader himself would certainly avoid it, if only for that reason. And a love any less deep than Padmé’s would neither have this much affect on Vader nor even be likely to appeal to him. No. A romantic interest was certainly out of the question.

In fact—he smiled at the sudden spark of insight—for many of those same reasons, it was impossible that this love could be new. Love, plain and simple, was of the light side of the Force. And Vader understood on an instinctive level that the light in any form was a threat to his painstakingly established darkness. He was zealous in guarding against such threats…from the outside. What he was not likely to perceive as a threat would be one attacking from within. Yes…a scrap of the light might yet be preserved within Vader. In that case, the love that was now motivating his apprentice was in fact an old one, and one of some strength as well.

Palpatine’s smile grew wider yet as he realized how few possible answers remained after that insight. There were very few people whom Vader—or, more appropriately, Anakin Skywalker—could be said to have loved. Palpatine could name but three—Shmi his mother, Padmé his wife, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Padmé, of course, was absolutely beyond question departed from life. Palpatine had made himself no less sure of Shmi Skywalker’s death. As for Obi-Wan, that friendship had long since mutated into a hate as strong as the love that had preceded it; and Palpatine had furthermore sensed the disturbance in the Force that had accompanied the Jedi Master’s death nearly a year ago.

But…if none of those three, then what? Surely there had been no one else as close as those three; no one else who could have inspired a love powerful enough to be resurrected out of Anakin Skywalker’s ashes thirteen, fourteen years later? Yet his reasoning had been sound. Someone else there must be. But who?

Yoda, no—no, the idea was laughable—Mace Windu was both dead and unlamented—Bail Organa? Well, perhaps there had been some marginal friendship between them in the days of the Republic, but nothing worth regarding. Furiously Palpatine paced back and forth before the viewport, flicking through lists of names associated with the identity of Anakin Skywalker and discarding each in turn. None of them fit the scenario confronting him. Anakin had been a man of few close friends, and Vader was even less sociable—he was missing something, something which ought to be glaringly obvious. In frustration he again considered those three people, again satisfying himself of their deaths. Obi-Wan, dead within the past year. Shmi, dead when Anakin was still a Padawan—Palpatine should certainly know. Padmé, dead nearly fourteen years ago. Obi-Wan, dead by his own lightsaber—Shmi, from the wounds inflicted by Tusken Raiders—Padmé, from…

And all of a sudden, there it was, like an explosion. Just as obvious as he’d been sure it was.

Padmé had been pregnant when she died. Was it…was it possible that the child might have survived its mother?

But surely not! The very idea was insult to himself! After all of the testing done on Padmé’s exhumed body, surely the absence of the dead fetus would not have gone unnoticed! And surely he, he who was a Sith Master and had the entire power of the Dark Side at his disposal, could not have missed something so obvious! Why, any child of Anakin Skywalker’s would be ablaze with Force sensitivity—to miss spotting such a naturally strong presence would be like not noticing as his palace exploded around him, like falling asleep in the middle of a duel, especially given how few other Force sensitives there remained to distract his attention! It was completely impossible that the child’s survival would have escaped his notice.

Yet what other conclusion could there be? A child would certainly be a satisfactory explanation otherwise. Already holding a unique place close to Vader’s heart, the little one’s arrival would not upset his apprentice’s foundations—but some irregularities of routine would almost surely occur, just as he now was seeing.

Well. He had certainly underestimated his apprentice if the man had been hiding a child from him for the better part of a year. In fact, Palpatine found it hard to believe that his estimation of Vader could have been so far off. It suggested rather unpalatable things about his apprentice’s capability for deceit—a Sith virtue the Emperor had heretofore felt to be painfully lacking in the man.

Deliberately Palpatine returned to his throne. Although it answered so many of his questions, he still could not accept that he would have missed the child’s existence. This was not, therefore, a suspicion he would act upon until he had a great deal more proof. He would, moreover, have to proceed very, very carefully, given his newfound appreciation for Vader’s talents. Under no circumstances did he want to alarm his apprentice. One misstep on his part, and the child—if it even existed—could be counted upon to vanish.

Also, there was another answer possible. Love might not be involved at all, despite his reasonings. The off chance remained that Vader had simply grown restless. After all, Anakin Skywalker had been as daring and reckless as they came. Perhaps some of that old youthful sentiment was simply rearing its head, inciting Vader against his usual careful behavior. It was a possibility, though it did not satisfy the Emperor’s demanding logic as well as a child would.

Either way, a conversation with his potentially wayward apprentice was overdue. He immediately stretched his claw-like hands and punched the button, ordering his attendant to activate his communication suite’s Holonet connection.

His Majesty’s starship Executor

Vader swept quickly into his communications suite, and keyed his personal code to activate the Holonet connection. It was high time that he spoke with his master. For one, he’d been absent from the Fleet for two weeks. While he did not technically need his master’s permission to leave, it was not the safest of decisions to ignore the shrewd old man; placating would certainly be required. And besides that, he would need to wring permission out of his master to investigate the transgressions of a certain Alderaanian senator. Remembering that, he took time to go back and activate all of the suite’s security systems. He did not want anyone else to hear this conversation; no report must reach Bail Organa before he could arrive. If he was to get his hands on any incriminating evidence, he would have to take the senator by surprise. The safety of his little ones was at stake.

To his surprise, when he turned back to the transmission deck, it was already activating. A call was incoming; he would have to see to this first before speaking with Palpatine. Spurred by the need to speak quickly with his master, Vader moved to intercept the call before it was shifted over to the bridge.

He was most surprised—and not pleasantly—to see Palpatine’s very distinctive visage flicker into being at its standard supersized ratios. He managed to recover quickly and kneel appropriately. “My master,” he rumbled in a tone of careful neutrality and respect.

“Greetings, my apprentice,” his master responded. Vader let himself relax, but just a very, very little—the man’s tone was fairly amiable, and he appeared to be in one of his less diabolical moods. As always, the key word regarding Palpatine’s moods was appeared—but Vader could manage his master’s displeasure if Sidious was calm enough to don a companionable attitude. “I understand you have recently returned to the Fleet.”

Definitely displeased. It was time to be a good little subordinate. There was a time when you’d sooner have sliced off all your limbs yourself… Vader pushed back the memory quickly. “I apologize for my sudden absence, my master,” he offered quickly. “An unforeseen complication arose in the Unknown Regions projects. I was forced to attend to it personally.”

Palpatine seemed to settle back tightly. “Unforeseen,” he repeated, in a strange tone Vader did not recall hearing from him before. At least that ruled out its being a suspicious tone…

“Yes, my master. Several critical technological failures occurred at the Nirauan site. I was forced to divert the Executor in order to provide emergency assistance. The details of the incident are returning via courier and should arrive at Imperial City shortly, barring further incident.”

His master seemed to relax. “And the crisis has been properly resolved, I take it.”

“Yes, my master. All necessary replacements have been made, as well as…appropriate adjustments to the site personnel rosters. The project is proceeding according to schedule, as are the others.”

“Excellent. And there are no such mishaps with Fifth Fleet, I hope.”

“None, my master. However, I have had some reports of a small resistance fleet in the Adjaban sector. If these reports are verified, I intend to deploy four divisions into the Alderaan system, including Executor.”

“I think you perhaps take this pathetic rebellion rather too seriously, Lord Vader,” his master said, with the typical hint of amusement the subject of the Rebel Alliance always elicited from him.

“Forgive me, master, but I prefer to see it die pathetic than live and become a viable threat,” Vader retorted, repeating their formulaic conversation on the topic.

“Very well, my apprentice,” his master cackled lightly. Sensing the conversation’s end, Vader reached to end the transmission, but unexpectedly Palpatine spoke once more.

“Ah, Lord Vader—there is one further question I wished to ask. I presume that you intend your usual retreat to Vjun next month?”

Had the respirator permitted, Vader would have skipped a breath. He was most grateful that it did not. “No, my master,” he responded, carefully allowing a note of irritation into his answer. “I have had enough of unavoidable absences from the Fleet without adding to them voluntarily.”

“Very well, then,” his master answered after a considering moment. “Inform me if you discern the Alderaan deployment to be necessary.”

“Of course, my master.”

The transmission ended. Vader straightened slowly, turning the exchange over in his thoughts, not quite sure what to make of it.

Thanks to the faithful Baranne, he was thoroughly certain that Palpatine’s inevitable investigations would not uncover anything suspicious in the fictitious “technological failures on the Unknown Regions project.” In fact, by now, the only fictitious fragment of the story remaining was that Vader had ever been there. He had sent the agent to discreetly instigate those failures a week before leaving with Luke for Bast Castle; the Executor had indeed been diverted to the Nirauan site project, but only Captain Piett had known that Darth Vader had not, in fact, been aboard the ship at that time. Nor would anybody else ever realize it, for as per the story the Dark Lord had been ensconced within his chambers the entire time, consulting privately with the Captain whenever something required his attention; and there were no cameras or other security devices to betray him there. And to build further credibility, Vader had taken time to speak with the commander of the Nirauan site several times while at Bast Castle, and Baranne had seen to it that those recorded conversations found their way into the Executor’s encrypted files. If—no, when—Palpatine went hunting through the particulars, he would find nothing to suggest that Vader had been doing anything other than what his apprentice had reported.

Between that very solidly built alibi and his announced intentions not to return to Bast Castle, Vader felt Palpatine’s obvious suspicion would swiftly be averted. All he need do was take care to stay in line from now on out. Eventually, he could reintroduce those expected yearly retreats to Bast Castle and visit his children, and Palpatine should not find anything amiss.

Reflexively, he checked the shields he had constructed around his son’s bright presence. No flaws, no mistakes. Good.

His fears averted for the moment, Vader’s thoughts quickly re-centered on Bail Organa. Obviously, there were no credible reports of a nascent resistance fleet in the Adjaban sector—only the usual hoaxes perpetrated by lowlifes aiming for quick money. However, Baranne was a most capable man, most capable indeed…it had not taken long to piece together scraps of Rebel intelligence and develop the appearance of credible intelligence. And that was a perfectly sufficient excuse to deploy some of the fleet into the sector’s central system…Alderaan.

He would, despite his rage, force himself to wait another two days before giving the order to deploy. But in two days, some more convenient intelligence would appear, reinforcing not only the nonexistent rebel fleet, but also suspicions that Bail Organa was organizing it. Two more days, and Vader could begin exacting his vengeance on the infuriating Senator of Alderaan…

Roughly two days later…

“Leia? Leia, cockpit!”

Somehow Jedi Olin never had trouble making his voice heard through all the ship corridors, despite the fact that he was in the cockpit and Leia was in her bunk on the opposite side of the ship with the door sealed. Quickly she jumped up from the bunk and tugged her boots on before going to the cockpit.

“Strap in,” Ferus ordered, gesturing to the co-pilot’s chair. “We’re about to come out of hyperspace.”

Eagerly Leia strapped on her crash webbing. She sat as straight in her seat as she could, watching the swirling, exploding light of hyperspace for her first sight of Dagobah…

The wildly twisting light seemed to stiffen, untwist, straighten, and finally in a flash shrank back into diamond pinpoints against the black cloak of realspace. And as the stars shrank, the orb of Dagobah ballooned up ahead, swelling until it filled the cockpit viewport.

Leia stared at it.

“It’s…cloudy,” she finally commented.

“That it is,” agreed Ferus, checking all the controls on the board as he brought their ship into orbit. “Most of it’s a swamp.”

Leia’s eyes widened in horror, but she didn’t interrupt Ferus with her protestations. He was busy with the communications terminal, punching in numbers and codes, so Leia saved her complaints. He’d only said most, after all. Most likely they’d be going to some sort of reclaimed settlement on better ground. That must be it.

Minutes passed, and eventually the Jedi’s frustration became evident in the stiff way he punched at the com buttons. She didn’t know what language he was muttering in, but it didn’t sound particularly nice.

“The clouds must be interfering with the signals,” he finally announced, giving up the battle. “We’ll just have to go on down planetside.”

Leia nodded and watched him punch in coordinates. Slowly the ship swooped down out of orbit, and into the thick banks of clouds. It didn’t take long for Leia to be extremely nervous that they would crash into something…and noticing that Ferus was flying the ship with his eyes closed did nothing to assuage her growing anxiety. Then, out of the blue, the repulsors hummed, the ship gave a definite thud, and the engines cycled down.

Ferus finally opened his eyes and grinned at Leia, as if he’d known exactly what she’d been thinking the entire ride down. “Grab your coat and pack,” he told her. “Meet me at the ramp.”

Leia unstrapped and went back to her cabin. Ferus was waiting for her at the top of ramp when she came out, with his own coat and backpack. He gave her another grin and led her down the ramp into the mist. Leia paused at the bottom, and then slowly set one booted foot onto the surface of Dagobah with a very wet and slimy squelch.

I do not like Dagobah, she promptly thought. She tried to console herself with the thought that they couldn’t be far from where this Jedi Master lived. It was sure to be dry and civilized inside there. So she followed Ferus bravely forward into the swamp.

“Keep to the right, Leia,” he called back. “Next to the trees.”

Leia stopped, and frowned into the heavy mist at her left. “Why?” she asked warily.

“Just trust me.”

A few steps later, the mist shifted enough that Leia could see they were threading down a narrow path beside a very slimy primeval lake and a bank of tall, serpentine swamp trees. A huge fin sliced ominously through the water; the princess shivered as the mist hid the lake again from her view. She followed Ferus carefully, keeping as close to the tree trunks as she could possibly manage.

Before long, they began to leave the mist behind, and Leia could see that it was hovering mostly over that lake. Ahead of them, the swamp strengthened into great intertwined trees and spongy mud and plant debris. Leia couldn’t see any sign of life—well, not sentient life, anyway. There were plenty of other varieties crawling and slinking around which the princess in her felt much better ignoring than looking for…

Then, all of a sudden, a domed little hut appeared as they finished circling a particularly enormous tree. Oh, how cute, she thought.

Then Ferus began heading straight for the derelict door at its front, and Leia felt her stomach sink clear to the planet core. No way. No way was this where she was supposed to be living now. No, no way…

Oh, yes way. Ferus came up to the door and rapped on it firmly. Leia waited behind him, quite horrified, hoping beyond hope that this was just a satellite maintenance shed or something.

No one answered. There was no light in any of the windows. Well, that was good news—that must mean they’d have to find somewhere else to—

“Not good,” Ferus muttered. He made a movement towards his belt…

Leia leaped at a sudden, sharp snap-hiss, and at the sight of a brilliant blue shaft of light sprouting out of Ferus’ hand. The Jedi made a swipe at the door with the blue blade of light, and the paltry thing immediately clattered off its hinges. Extinguishing the light-sword as abruptly as he’d turned it on, Ferus ducked down and moved inside the little hut. Leia followed shakily.

Inside, she found a shockingly primitive miniature house. The rough bed and table, the crude utensils in the tiny kitchen…everything looked as though it had been hand-fashioned by a pigmy barbarian. Ferus took one look around the cobwebbed room, pulled up a handful of spongy moss that had begun to grow in patches across the floor, and sank down on the rickety bed with a stunned expression.

“He’s…gone,” the Jedi murmured.

Leia whipped her head around from her inspection of the little fireplace. “Who’s gone?”

Silence reigned for several minutes, until Leia could bear her mounting nervousness no more. “What’s going on?” she demanded.

Ferus heaved a distraught sigh. “Leia, I honestly have no idea. Master Yoda was supposed to be here.”

Leia looked around the miniature house with a frown. “This is a Jedi Master’s home?”

Ferus shot a slight reproving glance at her. “The greatest Jedi Master,” he corrected. “Master Yoda has been a Jedi for almost as long as the Republic existed.”

Leia glared at him. That was positively impossible, but she didn’t yet feel comfortable enough with the Jedi to inform him of it. “So…where is he?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Ferus murmured. “He’s been living here on Dagobah ever since the rise of the Empire. Your father spoke to him not that long ago. I don’t know where he’s gone. Perhaps he’s passed on into the Force…”

“You mean…you think that he’s died?”

Ferus shrugged helplessly. “I can’t believe that I wouldn’t have sensed that,” he muttered to himself. The silence resumed for a few minutes.

“I’m going to meditate,” Ferus announced finally. Without further comment or explanation, the Jedi drew himself up cross-legged on the bed, hands on his knees, head bowed and eyes closed.

And stayed there. And stayed there…

After about ten minutes, Leia sank down onto the dirt-and-moss floor with a sigh to wait until the Jedi finished whatever he was—or more apparently wasn’t—doing.

She really didn’t like Dagobah.

Some days’ hyperspace journey away, in the Alderaan system…

Bail Organa was making a very concerted effort to at least taste the dinner he was pretending to relish. Unfortunately, both the present company and that which he expected shortly made this a difficult enterprise. He had not been able to avoid a courtesy lunch with Moff Wessel of the Immalia Sector, who was vacationing briefly on planet—which would have been a sufficiently unpleasant experience in and of itself. But far more ominous and potentially unpleasant was the doubtless impending arrival of a certain Dark Lord of the Sith. Between this double-pronged Imperial threat, it was a wonder he could still do any work at all, for his mind was either tied up with placating the Moff or feverishly developing possible plans for handling Vader—if indeed any handling was to be done on his part.

The ultimate outline of their scheme had been Bail’s brainchild, though Breha had been the one to refine it into something that might work. Their chances were painfully doubtful at best; the very idea of the reckless audacity he was about to engage in had been turning his stomach for the past several days… There might not be a better alternative, but that did not assuage the senator’s anxiety. It was unlike anything he’d ever tried before, unequalled in his history for brazenness and danger, even including the events of Order 66 and its painful aftermath…

In a way, it was almost a relief when his aide interrupted Wessel’s lengthy loyalist discourse on the benefits of pseudo-military government and the apparently innumerable shortcomings of the Senate.

“Your Excellency, I apologize for disturbing you,” the aide whispered, his voice shivering, “but four Imperial Navy divisions have just arrived in-system. Lord Vader’s is approaching and due for imminent arrival at the palace.”

The irritation of the luncheon and the anxiety of the wait were both over. His equanimity was suddenly restored. Bail stood smoothly.

“My apologies, Governor,” he said to the ruffled Moff. “But I’m afraid some rather urgent business has come up. I beg to take my leave.” And with that the Senator turned and left the lunch terrace in full command of his poise, straightening his robes, and leaving Wessel sputtering in his wake.

By the time Bail reached the hangar, Breha was already waiting for him, no sign of anxiousness betraying itself on her handsome features. “How was lunch, dear?” she asked mildly.

Bail blew out an irritated breath and smiled a little, nervously, trying to play along with this attempt at humor. “I learned the most remarkable things about my occupation from Moff Wessel, darling,” he responded lightly. “I fear I’ve only just realized what a treacherous crime against sentient rights I’ve committed in being a senator.”

Both of them drew in a deep breath as a tri-fin Imperial shuttle made its appearance on the horizon, and there was no more conversation as the craft touched down on the landing pad. The ominous ring of footsteps and hiss of respirator were heard even before the ramp had completely extended. In another moment, Vader stalked out into the hangar and wasted no time making a beeline for the Organas. Bail swallowed covertly. The man’s anger was ringing through the flooring with every step.

“Welcome, Lord Vader,” he said, summoning a pleasant yet mildly curious smile. “I admit your arrival is something of a surprise. I had heard no reports of conflict in our sector.”

Vader stopped in front of him, glaring down from his superior height—at least, he must be glaring behind that hideous mask. Behind the Dark Lord a horde of stormtroopers poured out of the shuttle, and not far behind them several uniformed intelligence officers and a civilian adjunct agent with grey eyes and a thin scar. Vader gestured them forward into the palace with a sharp wave of one hand; Bail quickly gestured his security guards to stand down before someone got shot.

“Certain reports have come to my attention regarding your activities, Senator,” Vader announced coldly, “as well as reports of insurrectionist gatherings. Accordingly my men will be conducting a thorough investigation of your records.”

Bail didn’t hesitate. “I can assure you, I and my family remain loyal supporters of His Majesty,” the senator lied smoothly. “We will facilitate your search in any way possible. I’ll have my aides provide you with all my passcodes.”

He could sense a sudden new tension in the Dark Lord. His willing compliance had caught Vader entirely off guard. Good.

“Very well,” Vader answered after a pause. “My divisions will be based in the Alderaan system until further notice. It would be wise of you to issue warnings to that effect, Senator, for your sake. I would hate to see any incidents.”

Bail nodded briskly. “Of course. We have the utmost respect for the Imperial Navy. I’ll have Planetary Control contact your officers and establish an appropriate cordon immediately.” He gestured an aide to get on the task, and turned back to Vader. “Are there any other immediate requirements that you have, my lord?”

Vader paused again, his gaze resting with new wariness on the senator. “Not at the moment,” he answered at length.

“If any additional needs should arise, or if there is anything else I can do to facilitate your investigation, I’ll see to it as swiftly as possible,” Bail promised.

Vader’s response dripped with more threat than the armed divisions overhead. “Your hospitality and cooperation, Senator, you may be sure are most appreciated.” The Dark Lord swept past him into the palace.

Beside him, Breha gripped his hand. “Here we go,” she murmured softly.

“Breha, I wish to the Force you were gone from here,” he sighed.

“Stop worrying,” she murmured. “One step at a time, and we can succeed.”

Bail stared bleakly at Vader’s now-distant form. “I pray you’re right.”

Twenty-four hours and one full-scale crash investigation later, Bail Organa remained pristinely innocent. Vader’s initial, unwelcome impression from their first conversation had been all too accurate—someone had warned Senator Organa. And well in advance, too, for not only had any compromising information been destroyed, there were not even any hints that such destruction had taken place. Most tellingly of all, young Princess Leia had vanished into thin air.

Alderaan, like Corellia and Mustafar, had left Darth Vader with nothing.

His resultant rage had already claimed the lives of two Imperial investigators and one overbold Alderaanian palace guard.

To be perfectly honest, the greatest part of the Dark Lord’s fury was fueled not by frustration, but by a deep, black ocean of fear. Fear for Luke, for Sara and Sandra, for his own security. So long as Organa lived on in safety, everything that Vader most treasured remained in mortal peril. And besides Organa’s threat, there was also the matter of that informant who had warned him. Vader suffered few delusions—it had either been that blasted Han Solo, or it had been his own son. In fact, it had likely been both of them. Vader hoped so for Luke’s sake, because if it was entirely Solo’s doing, the Corellian’s chances of survival were so slim was to be nonexistent.

He pushed all reflections on the two boys aside. He would deal with the wayward children in time. First he must deal with Organa and remove this threat to his children by any means necessary. In the end, he suspected that he would be forced to invent the damning evidence himself in order to have Organa arrested and executed posthaste; he had already ordered Baranne to join him in system with that plot in view. But before taking any other steps, it would be prudent to investigate his remaining options. A rendezvous with the Senator was in order.

Vader reached for his comlink.

Bail Organa drew in a deep breath. Five minutes ago Vader had contacted him, curtly demanding an immediate private meeting in the palace’s safe room. He had accordingly come to the security-device-free family sitting chamber.

Almost show time. Feverishly the senator rehearsed his and Breha’s plan. This would have to be the most convincing speech of his life in order to work. Not a single misstep could be made—

The door hissed open, admitting the distinctive hulking form of Darth Vader. Bail stood quickly with a welcoming nod and the least sincere smile of his life. “Lord Vader,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“You may dispense with the pleasantries, senator,” Vader snapped back. “There are no cameras to appreciate them. I trust you understand why I am here.”

The Sith was being even more forcefully blunt than normal. He was going to have his hands full trying to keep the conversation from running over him roughshod. Bail let the smile vanish; there was no point maintaining it. “I suspect it has something to do with an astromech,” he conceded. Somehow he kept his fingers from shaking. For all he knew, Vader might have brought a recording device in with him to bait him into self-condemnation. He was taking a great risk—but he reminded himself that he still had the bank of recordings Artoo had transmitted safely hidden away. They were all that stood between him and Vader’s wrath.

“Quite correct,” Vader hissed. “Tell me, Organa, what possible excuse you can contrive for infiltrating my personal quarters and spying on my son.”

Bail felt himself relax. Vader had no recording devices with him; he would not have spoken of Luke if he had.

“I was simply concerned for the boy’s safety,” he answered truthfully. “Forgive me, my lord, but you do not have the best of reputations when it comes to caring for children.”

“Your concerns are irrelevant,” Vader retorted. “The child is my concern, and only mine. You are guilty of treachery a second time in not returning the boy to me the moment you knew of his existence.”

“I beg your pardon,” Bail fired back coolly, “but I was under the impression that the boy’s father was Anakin Skywalker. Seeing that you no longer use that name, it is logically to be concluded you would want nothing to do with anything attached to it. And in any case, you have no proof that I had anything to do with the boy. I, on the other hand, have plenty of evidence of your involvement. Given that, I’m afraid you’re in no position to be making threats, my lord.”

Vader went very, very still. Bail forced himself to keep breathing—because depending on how angry the man was, he might not have much longer to enjoy the ability. Those words could well prove his last…

“You play a dangerous game, Senator,” the Dark Lord at last answered, very softly.

Bail smirked. “As do you in concealing the boy from your master.”

Vader was again silent. The fact was irrefutable. “And what might it be that you want?” he asked after a time.

Bail paced in front of the fireplace. Here goes nothing… “Of course, I could always turn this information over to His Majesty,” he began. “But as it happens, I have an alternative solution, one which might perhaps benefit both of us.”

Vader remained unmoved. “And what might that be?”

“I think we’ve known each other long enough to agree that we are both men of ambition,” Bail continued.

He thought he sensed a slight shift in Vader’s attitude. “Surely you do not imply that I would harbor any treasonous motives,” he rumbled. The pointed lack of hostility in his voice practically amounted to a confession.

Bail smiled tightly at him. “I think both of us would share a certain distaste for the current state of the galactic government. Is that not correct?”

“Continue,” was the noncommittal answer.

Bail turned to face Vader fully and bluntly. “I’m sympathetic to the Rebel Alliance. You dislike the Emperor. Clearly, we share a common goal. Work with me to achieve this goal, and I’ll forget that anyone by the name of Luke Skywalker ever existed.”

The next five minutes passed in total silence, broken only by the measured hisses of the Sith’s respirator. If he’d achieved nothing else during this meeting, he could at least claim that he’d completely thrown the insuperable Darth Vader off balance. “You fail to note that this goal is the only one we may possibly share,” the Sith at last observed with truly remarkable calm. “I can assure you, I harbor no distaste for the Empire.”

“My lord, you are not a politician,” Bail returned. “You are properly a warrior. I see no reason why you might not continue in that same role regardless of what government is in power. The destruction of the Empire need not entail the destruction of its Navy. Why not remain at its head as the supreme commander? In my honest estimation, I can think of no one better suited to the task.”

Vader was again silent, this objection answered. “And what sort of cooperation do you envision?” he finally queried.

Bail began pacing again before of the antique fireplace. “Information exchange, protection of Rebel personnel, covert coordinated strikes, and so on. Of course, we must be careful not to compromise your security with the Emperor, as that is the primary weapon at our disposal. Imagine how much more quickly his removal could be affected if our forces were to cooperate! I trust I hardly need to state that our cooperation is the last thing the Emperor will anticipate.”

Vader straightened ever so slightly. “Any possible alliance between us requires two things to be understood, Senator. I will not jeopardize my son in any way, and neither will I betray the men under my command.”

Bail nodded, and this time the respect in his voice was completely genuine. “I would not ask either of you,” he answered. “As I stated before, I am as concerned for Luke’s safety as you are. I too have a child, my lord.”

“You would do very well to keep her hidden,” Vader said, very softly, “because should I find that girl you will soon intimately understand the outrage of withholding a child from its father. On that, you may trust me implicitly.”

The irony in the air was so thick Bail nearly choked on it as the Dark Lord whirled and stalked towards the door. “And what of my offer?” he called before Vader could open the door.

The man paused. “It will be given due consideration,” he responded.

Then the door opened, and the waiting began again.

Back on Dagobah…

Meditation, though easily the most boring skill of the Force to an outside observer, was just as easily the most difficult. Whereas almost any idiot with the ability to sense the Force had it in him or her to master the flashiest lightsaber forms, effective meditation required no average level of intelligence. And even among those with both the power and the intelligence required, the discipline necessary to master the art was rarely achieved. The majority of Jedi had fallen far short of mastery—which was hardly to their detriment. Even the most advanced of Jedi Masters could not always make sense of the mysterious visions and wide, fluctuating range of experiences involved. Every foray into meditation was different from the last; to acquire even a cursory comprehension of all its possible mysteries was the work of a lifetime.

Ferus Olin, merely in his thirties, was a far cry from mastery. Yet he had once been one of the Jedi Order’s best and brightest Padawans; neither was he unskilled. Over time, he had learned to sense whether or not a particular meditation session would prove successful. And that was why, a mere three hours later, Ferus cut off his efforts out of pure disgust. His mind was straining so much he had an unholy headache, a sure cue that he was completely failing to connect; and his muscles and joints had felt every motionless second. It was the worst attempt he’d made in years.

He grimaced. In fact, that had probably been a more pathetic performance than Anakin Skywalker had been infamous for in their Padawan days; and Anakin had been as spectacular a disaster in that area as he’d been a success in every other. It was saying something to be worse at meditation than Anakin Skywalker.

With a sigh of self-disgust, Ferus uncrossed his legs and stretched. In the process, his gaze fell on a small form curled on the patch of floor at his feet. Leia’s slight shoulders rose and fell in the slow, steady rhythm of sleep.

Force. What the nine hells of Corellia was he supposed to do with the princess now? He had no further insights into the whereabouts of Master Yoda than before, and the Force had given him no guidance at all. He would try meditating again, but there was no use trying too soon. It would likely not avail him for a few days, if he judged himself correctly; until then, at the very least, he would be left adrift in space as regarded the young princess.

Think, Ferus!

The first conclusion he came to was that it made no sense for the two of them to spend those next few days crouched in this little hut. They may as well make their way back to the ship for starters.

As Ferus bent down—further, that was—to shake Leia awake, she began to twitch and whimper. Quickly her agitation increased, until with an abrupt gasp she sat bolt upright and knocked her shoulder directly into his skull, nicely exacerbating the headache left over from meditation—and as if that wasn’t painful enough, slamming his head back against the ceiling too. He leaned forward and dropped his head into his hands with a pained groan.

“I—I’m sorry, Master Olin,” she gasped immediately.

“It’s all right, it’s my own fault,” he sighed wearily. “And don’t call me Master Olin.”

“Yes, Ma—Ferus.”

“You had a dream?” he asked from behind his hands, still rubbing his throbbing temples.

She nodded. “I have lots of them,” she said matter-of-factly. “This one wasn’t so bad.”

Ferus dropped his hands and looked at her more closely. “Not so bad?”

“Well—I didn’t understand it at all,” she said. “And there were people in it that annoy me.”

“Oh? Who?”

“I…I think his name is Han Solo,” she said. “I’ve been dreaming about him for more than a year now. I think I met him a few months ago.”

Ferus raised an eyebrow. “And who else?”

“His little brother,” she said. “Luke Solo. He’s my age.” She paused before remembering another important thing about the Solo brothers. “Ferus—they were the ones who sent Daddy that encrypted message.”

Ferus leaned back thoughtfully, managing to ponder despite his headache. “What was in this dream?” he asked intently. Perhaps the Force had chosen to give them direction through Leia rather than himself…sometimes the young and uninhibited could experience remarkable connection to it. And with a child so precocious, who knew?

“Nothing new,” she shrugged. “I’ve had it over and over. It’s just the two of them. They’re going down a dark street with patches of light here and there, and they’re trying to stay near the light, and there’s always lots of building rubble that they have to climb over. I haven’t been able to figure out if it means anything.”

Ferus, having some experience regarding visions, began the questions quickly. “Are you following these boys?”

Leia frowned. “I…well, maybe. It’s more like I’m always hovering in front of them or to their side, but I’m not really there, just my eyes.”

“So you don’t interact with this scenario at all?”

Leia shook her head. “Only watch.”

“There’s no dialogue between the boys?”

Another shake of the head.

“Do they seem to talk, but you can’t hear it?”

Again the negative response.

“Is there any difference in what the boys are doing?”

Leia thought about that one. “Not much,” she said. “Usually they’re both looking right in front where they’re climbing, but Han—he’s the older one—sometimes he looks to the sides, and Luke sometimes looks way up ahead.”

“Is it ever the other way around? Do either of them look back?”

Leia gave him a no for both questions.

“What are they wearing?”

She shrugged. “The same clothes they wore whenever I saw them. Luke has a green jumpsuit and Han has his white shirt and dark pants.”

“This never changes?”


Ferus sat thoughtfully for a while, thinking through these details—in no time a rush of triumph came to him. He could instantly interpret that the boys were beset by unknown difficulties and straining to keep from the darkness—that much was fairly straightforward. The few specific details Leia had dredged up for him were much more interesting.

Neither boy looked back; hence, both were focusing on the future, and not the past. However—where this Han tended to focus on the immediate future and on his surroundings, Luke saw further away.

It didn’t take much creativity to identify that difference as indicating the younger brother’s sensitivity to the Force.

Now that was interesting—and, just maybe, a clue as to what could have pulled Master Yoda out of the Dagobah swamps.

“What can you tell me about Luke?” he asked aloud.

“What do you want to know?” she asked cautiously.

“Anything. Anything at all you’ve noticed about him.”

“Well…I met him on Dantooine when my father gave them both a ride to Alderaan. I only really talked to him once on the voyage…”

Leia couldn’t sleep again. There were no nightmares tonight, but the dream of the two boys who looked so like the ones she had met a few days ago kept interrupting her, more vivid than it had ever been—so vivid she could see slight scars on the face of the older boy, the fraying on the collar of the younger, could hear every sound as they worked their way through the dark, wreckage-piled street, following the few spots of light though sometimes the obstacles became more perilous there, the heaped rubble less stable. Every time she fell back asleep, the dream would wake her again.

With a soft exclamation of frustration she climbed out of her cabin bunk and pulled a soft loose tunic over her pajamas. Wriggling her feet into her slippers, she emerged carefully from her cabin into the dimmed light of the corridor. Maybe getting a snack from the passenger galley would help push away the dream and let her sleep. Leia moved as lightly as she could past the other doors; the last thing she wanted was a conversation with somebody…

The lights were on in the passenger lounge, and in the galley door. Leia slipped inside, sealed the door behind her in order to avoid being glimpsed by somebody and drawn into unwanted chatter, turned back around towards the food dispensers, and jerked back against the door, her next breath startled away.

Luke Solo, on the other side of the little galley table cradling a mug of something, was every bit as shocked as she was.

After a recovery pause, Luke began to get up. “S-sorry, Princess,” he started.

She quickly shook her head. Whether she wanted to talk to someone or not didn’t matter; it wasn’t fair to kick somebody else out of the galley. “No, you don’t have to go,” she objected, even though her heart wasn’t really in it.

He stopped halfway out of his seat and stared at her, as if he knew that she really wanted him to go. Irritated at being seen through, she insisted again, “Sit down.”

He sat down reluctantly, and moved his eyes back to his mug studiously. Neither of them spoke while Leia fixed herself a drink and a cookie. For a moment she watched the boy from behind, as he stared silently down, debating whether or not to take the snack back to her own cabin. Then, with an internal sigh, she succumbed to her conscience and sat down opposite Luke Solo.

The silence extended for a few more seconds before she resolutely broke it. “Do you usually go to bed late?” she asked politely.

Luke glanced up sharply, and shook his head.

Leia sighed again inside. She’d made him upset by not keeping back her feelings. That wasn’t being a good hostess. Well—she’d just have to try to fix that. “Just felt like staying up tonight?” she tried.

I…I just couldn’t sleep.”

Leia blinked. “Neither could I,” she admitted before she thought about it.

Luke glanced up at her again, seeming a little less offended. “Funny,” he commented.

She bristled a little. “Why is that funny?”

The little bit of openness that she’d glimpsed sealed over again. “No reason, I guess,” he said distantly, switching his attention back to his drink.

Is there anything wrong with your room that we can fix?” Leia spoke up.

No…no, I just…well, I dream a lot.” He swirled whatever liquid he had in his cup some. “Most of the time I can stop them, but sometimes they get too strong.”

Leia’s eyes widened. “You know how to keep dreams away?”

His green eyes swiveled back up to her, seeming a bit suspicious. “Yeah, most of the time.”

Can you teach me?” she asked excitedly.

His expression became very guarded—the sort of look she saw all the time from her father and other politicians. “Why?”

I couldn’t sleep because of dreams either,” she said, tasting hope for the first time in forever. “I’ve been having them for more than three years. Some of them…well, some are bad. Can’t you show me how to block them? Please?”

Luke’s eyes seemed to soften for a second—he opened his mouth to answer…

No,” he said. “It—it’s just a talent I have.”

But—maybe I have it too—”

Luke shook his head firmly. “No, I don’t think so. I’m sorry, Princess.” He stood up hurriedly, stuffed his mug in the cleaning unit and made a beeline for the galley door—then stopped, turned around one more time.

I really am sorry,” he whispered. “I wish I could help.”

“That was really the only time I talked to him,” Leia told Ferus a bit wistfully. “I don’t know why, but for some reason Daddy wanted to show me things or do something the whole ride back to Alderaan. When we got back, I saw Han for a while at the palace, but never Luke.”

Ferus stared quietly into the distance. “Anything else you’ve noticed about him beyond that?”

“He had brown hair and green eyes when I met him, but in the transmission he was blonde with blue eyes,” she remembered. “And they said they were orphans, but in the transmission he said that if I gave the message to anyone but Daddy his father would kill him. I don’t think he meant that literally,” she hastened to reassure Ferus.

But Ferus was busy building a picture in his mind. This savvy young Luke Solo—if in fact that was the boy’s name—seemed by all indications to be Force sensitive. Somehow, Bail and Vader must both have discovered this information, and apparently Vader had snatched the Solo boys out of Bail’s hands. Likely he kidnapped the older brother later for the purposes of coercing the younger to cooperate with his twisted designs. Bail had sent that astromech droid of the message to reconnoiter the situation, perhaps with a view to a rescue; in Vader’s absence, security had discovered the infiltration and sent a courier with the news of Organa’s meddling. The distraught boys had sought to protect their benefactor by sneaking out a call to the system. In which case, the reference to “father” had doubtless been a pseudonym for Vader—and the threat of death could well be real, a disguised plea for aid.

Yet, how would Yoda and Bail have known about this young Force sensitive? He was too young to have been a youngling at the Temple—

Oh. Of course. The boy must have been in Obi-Wan’s charge. How dull of him not to think of that immediately…

In that case, Yoda had likely heard from Bail of Luke Solo’s capture. Perhaps he had been biding his time until reports came from the astromech, providing information for a rescue attempt. However, if the boy really was in danger of his life, it was possible that the Jedi Master had discerned this through meditation and decided he could wait no longer.

Ferus leaned even further back, disturbed by the direction this train of thought was carrying him. This would mean that Yoda was headed for Vjun, for the lair of a Sith Lord—incidentally the same Sith Lord out for revenge on the Organa family. The senator was not likely to appreciate Ferus’ taking his daughter there of all places. Though, it had to be granted that Vader would certainly never suspect it…

In fact, all things considered, it might be the safest place of all for a fugitive princess and Jedi. Vader would certainly not be there—he was on his way to Alderaan. And Master Yoda very well might be. Even should Vader turn up, Ferus would have been ashamed if the Jedi Master, himself, and the captive Padawan couldn’t take the Sith on successfully. What was he so scared of? Back in the day, Ferus Olin had stood his ground against Anakin Skywalker—and Darth Vader was sure as stang no match for the Chosen One.

No; his only worry was Leia. Yet the Force sang to him now, assuring him that Yoda was the one he should take her to for safety, wherever the Jedi Master was. He would set his course for Vjun, and trust in the will of the Force to pave his way before him.

Part 4

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