Star Wars Fanfiction by Blank101  Empire's Son

 
EMPIRE'S SON

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

 

The sky was barely lit when Vader arrived in the turrets of the Imperial palace, though he knew that his Master already awaited him. He strode without hesitation along the stretching hallways, devoid at this hour of the simpering sycophants who had generally fought or bought their way to the top of the pile-or the bottom, according to your point of view. Cold, stone-slabbed corridors echoed his footsteps, quick to diminish even his bulky scale in this dour and dwarfing place.

His thoughts…his thoughts were what they always were, here. The unignorable tugged at his consciousness, a stain on his awareness which curled his lips in distaste. How long could he hold his tongue this time? Minutes would be an achievement.

Sometimes he wondered if his Master had kept the boy alive solely to rub salt in old wounds for Vader, a biting daily reminder of his own failings.

Even today, pin-sharp clarity defined Vader's memories of the first time that he had seen the boy… Because the same hatred that had fired in his gut in that instant did so again with undiminished fury every single time he looked into those wary eyes, far too old for the boy's years.

It had been the night of the assassination of the Organas'. Vader had been onboard his Destroyer, two days' travel from Coruscant, but had learned of the news within hours. He'd ordered the Destroyer's return to Coruscant as soon as he he'd heard, wondering if the attempt had actually been on Palpatine's life. Facts had been few during the two-day journey back to Coruscant, even on military channels-coded messages could always be unscrambled-and what facts there were on open HoloNet channels had seemed…unreliable. The Alderaanian Royal Family had always maintained a subtle, politically-driven defense of the values of the Old Republic, espousing its liberties even as the new Empire had gained in power. Initial HoloNet reports said that the Rebellion had already claimed responsibility, but little as he knew of the facts yet, Vader doubted that very much. Still, it remained the official line. If Palpatine was using this as an excuse to make the Rebels scapegoats and thus remove a constant thorn, then Vader would find out soon enough on his return to Coruscant. His Master had never withheld anything from him, speaking the truth even when it was hard to hear.

He'd reached the Palace in the early hours of the morning, three days after the assassination, and had gone immediately to his Master who remained, for some reason, in the now-empty Throne Room. Admitted at once, Vader had walked the length of the vast, austere hall to kneel before the Emperor, who was already speaking in harsh tones.

"You are late, Lord Vader-by three days."

"Master, I came as soon as…"

"You would always have been too late, Lord Vader," Palpatine had scolded. "As ever, you are reacting to the events after they have happened, when you should know better."

"Yes, Master."

Palpatine shook his head slowly, eyes boring their disappointment into Vader. Yet he said nothing more, but simply waited, ochre eyes narrowed…

Not understanding what was expected of him, Vader rose, making the same case to his Master that he'd made a thousand times in his own head on the journey here. "There was no intelligence, no suggestion of an attack. It was completely unprecedented. We have no…"

"And still you react, when you should have already taken the initiative." Palpatine waved his hand in casual dismissal. "What is done, is done-and by it we have gained something of great value, Lord Vader."

His Master paused theatrically, and Vader remained silent, still uncertain. Palpatine tilted his head, tone patronizing. "You're growing lax, my friend. Even here, you should always look to the shadows-one never knows what they might conceal…"

Realizing, Vader turned his senses outward, tuning the scarlet flare in the Force that was his Master's presence out, to see… It was small and nervous and trying so hard to disappear into the deep shadows of the huge hall: the flicker that could one day be a flame.

Palpatine turned, reaching one pale hand out from the folds of his heavy gown, fingers outstretched in anticipation. "Here, child-come here."

The shadows behind the throne moved just slightly, seeming infused now by dread and anxiety.

"Come here!" Palpatine's words were the crack of a whip.

A sigh came from the shadows, more felt than heard…and a young child stepped out, small and slight, his fair hair roughly clipped close to his scalp. Big blue eyes full of fear, he couldn't have been more than six or seven. He edged nervously forward, hands clenched defensively before his chest, shoulders hunched. His skin was scuffed and scratched, and his nose had been bloodied, and he looked for all the worlds to Vader like a frightened animal trapped in a snare.

He came to a halt a few steps behind Palpatine, whose eyes had remained on Vader throughout.

"Do you sense his abilities?" Palpatine asked, fingers tightening into the cloth of the boy's shirt at his shoulder. "Do you see how they glow? They thought they could bring him here, beneath my own roof. They thought that they could hide him in plain sight-could parade their deceit and their treachery. I have tolerated their petty, subversive little deceits and deceptions for so long, but this was truly treasonous."

And there, the last piece of the puzzle slipped into place for Vader.

There had been no breach of the stringent security here, no infiltration, no assassination-not from outside, anyway. It had been an act of fury and revenge against Bail and Breha Organa, who had long associated with the Jedi when the Republic was still in place. There'd been quiet whispers for a long time they had helped those Jedi still alive to escape the purges and hide. Only their positions in a time of upheaval had saved them…though even that had been insufficient in the end. To be so stupid as to claim the child of some random, long-dead Jedi as their own flesh and blood…how long did Bail Organa think he could hide it if he brought the boy to Coruscant? But then he'd had no knowledge of Palpatine's capabilities, of course, Vader realized. Only Vader's abilities were commonly known-in general, his Master preferred his own Force-skills to remain in the shadows, a fact that had served him so well for so long. And had done so once more, it seemed, if a Force-sensitive child had come to light. And he was gifted, Vader realized, now that he had turned his attention on the boy. Trying desperately to hide, he still shone like a beacon.

Palpatine dragged the reluctant child forward by the cloth of his shirt, so that he stumbled slightly then hastily backed up a step, clearly terrified, as Vader's eyes stayed on him.

Vader felt his heart sink, knowing what would be expected of him. The deaths of the young at the Jedi Temple during that first great purge still haunted him in the still of the night, children murdered at his Master's order. He didn't regret it: it had needed to be done, but sometimes…sometimes the memory burned.

But then Palpatine always had something to sweeten-or sour-the pot.

"Lord Vader, meet your future rival. This is to be my new apprentice." Hand to the child's back, Palpatine pressed him forward once more. "Child, this is Lord Vader, my second-in-command, and the man in whose shadow you will always stand. Remember him…he will certainly remember you. Lord Vader, this is Luke, the son of Bail Organa…only not, of course." Palpatine's words dripped sarcastic amusement. "I had the genetic tests done two nights ago, and I thought you might be interested in his true lineage… The boy is Obi-Wan Kenobi's son."

Reality turned one complete loop in Vader's perceptions as the shock ran cold through him, settling like ice within. Kenobi… Kenobi had a son. Kenobi, who had preached of abstinence whilst his own lapse was safely hidden away. And his bastard son had lived, when Vader's child had died because of Kenobi's interference. Kenobi, who had spun bitter lies to make Padmé betray him, then goaded him into turning on her…

Before he knew what he'd done, Vader had snatched the boy's arm to haul him forward and shake him like a rag, so that the child's feet left the floor as he cried out in terror.

"Where is your father? Where is he!"

"D...dead! He's dead!" The boy's broken words were barely audible.

"Liar! He's alive. Where is he?" Vader yanked the boy clear of the ground entirely, scarlet fury driving him on. Kenobi's child lived, when his own had been lost to him forever! Everything of value to Vader had been torn away, whilst this little wretch survived.

Palpatine simply stood and allowed it; made no move to stop him as the boy's pitiful yelp turned into a longer cry of genuine pain. Vader released him to fall in a heap to the floor and watched him scrabble backwards behind Palpatine, arm hugged to himself, eyes wide. If he thought he would receive any kind of protection there then he was sorely mistaken, Vader knew.

"The boy does not know his heritage, Lord Vader," Palpatine said mildly at last. "He believes himself Bail Organa's son-or at least, he did. They had told him nothing-as apparently, they told you. Strange, that Kenobi was your mentor, your Master-your friend, he claimed…yet he never trusted you enough to tell you this."

Vader gritted his teeth at the provocation as he glared down at the boy, who had backed away behind the throne, eyes wide and tearful. And now, knowing who he was, Vader felt no guilt, no contrition. Just a heated spike in his blood that the boy was here, and under his control…that Kenobi would know that, sooner or later.

"If Kenobi comes for him…"

"You're still certain that he isn't dead?"

"Yes, Master."

Vader heard the distraction in his own voice, thoughts still reeling; Kenobi…the hypocrite! To hide away this little horror and proclaim his own virtue…and another's. The child's connection was incredibly strong-far stronger than his father's alone. Vader frowned beneath his mask, old memories lighting: on Genian…the Jedi Master with fair hair and blue eyes. They had a history, she and Kenobi, that much had been obvious. At the time of her death, Anakin had dismissed his own suspicions because of Kenobi's actions, but… What was her name? Could that be right-how old was the child? Vader frowned, eyes remaining on the huddled boy…

"He looks quite like his father, don't you agree?" Palpatine's words dragged Vader from his thoughts as his Master turned calmly to the boy, hauling him up again by the scruff of his shirt to take his scratched chin and turn it to Vader. The boy shied back, but Palpatine only gripped harder, fingernails tightening into those scuffed and scraped cheeks. "I didn't see it at first, but the more I look, the more I see Kenobi's eyes staring back at me…don't you see it? As I said, the boy knows nothing-I looked into his thoughts most carefully, and he has no ability to shield. I had them check the DNA test twice, from separate samples, both of the boy and the genetic profiles seized from the Jedi Temple…how fortunate that we kept them, hmm?"

"Tachi," Vader growled at last, the name hard to form beneath his fury.

"Who?" His Master straightened, and the boy tried to retreat, though Palpatine wrapped strong fingers about his shoulder, holding him still as he flinched just slightly.

"Master Siri Tachi. Check her DNA profile too." There had always been whispers…

"Ah!" Palpatine grinned, nodding. "I shall do that. Well done, Lord Vader…well done indeed. You knew her?"

"I was there on Azure when she died."

The Emperor turned again to the boy, leaning down to leer at him as he shrank back. "Poor little lost boy. Abandoned by your true parents and left behind by your new. All alone, once again."

The boy's head tucked low, grief-stricken, and Palpatine's hand snatched forward whip-fast to yank him forward, voice dropping low to drip menace. "If I see one tear, I'll turn you inside out and wring you dry."

Vader watched without feeling, seeing only Kenobi in the child now. Seeing only revenge.

 

And revenge it had been, over the years from that day to this. Hard and hateful and absolutely implacable. Revenge that did nothing to slate the fury or resentment which burned within Vader, because in the end, it changed nothing. His own child and the woman who had carried it, whom Vader had loved with a passion so consuming that it had felt, at times, close to torment, were gone. Lost to him forever, along with everything that he had been and everything that he had hoped to be. All gone, burned in the fire of wraith and rage on Mustafar.

Only the boy remained…and the heat of Vader's bitter malice, which was directed just as easily at Kenobi's bastard son as it would have been at Kenobi himself.

And the Emperor, as ever, poured fuel on that fire without ever granting Vader the conclusion he desired. So he would try again today.

He rose from genuflection before his Master, blurting out the words without even an attempt at preamble. "The boy is out of control."

"Really? I have no such problem with him, Lord Vader. In fact, I find him the model advocate-more than you ever were. Perhaps you're being unnecessarily lenient with him?" The Emperor smiled thinly, voice mocking. "He does rather tend to take advantage of those who allow him to do so, I find."

Vader ground his jaw at the provocation, knowing with absolute surety that it wasn't the reason. "He is out of control. This little experiment should be terminated before it gets further out of hand."

Palpatine shook his head as if amused. "Ah, yourself and the boy…always the same argument from different sides. He would very much like me to remove you, did you know that?"

Vader lifted his chin, outraged. "If he wishes to challenge me, he knows where I am."

"What he-or you-wish, is irrelevant. What I dictate, is the way things shall be."

Vader held silent, knowing that to push any further was pointless. More and more in recent years, his Master had dictated the way of things…and more and more, it had sat uneasily with Vader. His belief in the Empire-in a system which enforced strict control to drag order and stability from the quagmire of governmental corruption and civil war which had so blighted his youth-had not wavered. The Old Republic had been rambling in its own incomprehensible apathy, mired in endless directives and bylaws, and completely incapable of governing. But slowly, carefully concealed from the Master he had served for so long, Vader was beginning to wonder if his own personal standpoint held the more compelling vision of galactic rule than Palpatine's.

For now, he bowed his head in acquiescence. The boy was not in the palace anyway, that he could sense. His time would come. There would be a day when Palpatine's protection was withdrawn, and it would be the self-same day that Kenobi's bastard son perished. Vader would see to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Han, the day of Luke Antilles' sixteenth birthday started with a bang, when Luke himself turned out to be AWOL.

He should have seen the signs to the way the whole day would go, first thing that morning. Gorn had needed to knock Han up from sleep, late again, so that he'd still been fastening his jacket as they'd started their long walk to the kid's apartment. As they did so, Gorn had pulled his memopad to show Han the communiqué he'd received that morning.

"What's this?" Han had asked, abandoning his jacket half-fastened.

"My re-commission details. I got another year."

"I thought you said you'd been here two years already, and that was all Indo kept people for?"

"I did. But I said at the time that maybe if I kept my head down and stayed useful, Indo might keep me on, remember?"

"So what's the problem?"

Gorn shrugged. "With staying? Nothing. I told you before, despite your own weird opinion, Solo, this is a good commission. No, I'm more interested in the fact that they've given me a concrete finish date-they've never done that before. You know what I'm figuring?"

"Please?" Han had invited with dry disinterest, pulling the cuffs of his high-collared shirt straight, under his jacket.

"I think the Emperor will keep Luke here in the palace, still training, until he's seventeen next year, then Luke'll go into full-time service. Which means he won't need us any more. We'll be broken down as a unit and moved on to other posts, and they'll do their best to make sure that it seems for all the worlds that this place-and Luke-never existed. He'll go dark the moment he starts a full-time commission, and we'll never see him again." Gorn paused, considering his own words. "Actually, I'll kinda miss him."

"Seriously, you think he'll go below the radar?"

"Absolutely. You know what I heard?" Gorn glanced about as he leaned in conspiratorially. "I heard that he's not staying with the Ubiqtorate at all. I heard he'll be an agent…an Emperor's Hand. That's what all this is about-all his training, Indo's coaching, teaching him how to remember reams of stuff and to interpret and use it, all his languages, all that preparation, it's all to be an Emperor's Hand."

Han nodded non-committally, knowing for a fact, from the Emperor's own mouth, that the kid was being trained as a Hand. There was an ominous logic in everything else that Gorn was saying, though...the kid was already running duty missions occasionally. And if Gorn was right, and Luke went into full active service next year… The moment they took the kid, even if it was at just seventeen, he'd go dark, and that would be it. He'd be gone.

Han was still trying to work out just exactly how he felt about that when they got to the apartment five minutes later.

It was round about then that Gorn's bombshell proved to be nothing more than a warning ripple in a very long day.

 

 

 

Apparently the kid had disappeared some time in the early hours, already gone when Indo had returned from another trip to that abandoned apartment. By the time that Han and Gorn had arrived for their shift, Indo had been up all night, waiting. Plus on top of this regular, everyday aggravation, the Viscount also seemed fuming about something entirely separate, waiting in the Red Room with arms crossed, his lips narrowed to a thin line.

Gorn leaned just slightly around the jamb of the staffroom door to study him from a safe distance, voice a near-whisper. "This is because Vader's in the palace."

"What, Indo?"

"No, Luke! Vader arrives in the early hours, Luke heads out in them. Coincidence?"

"You think he's hiding?" Didn't seem like the kind of thing the kid would do.

"No, he just got antsy. He doesn't like Vader. In fact he hates him…with a vengeance. He'll come back pretty soon though. He wouldn't let Vader push him out, and anyway, if he didn't get back pretty quick Palpatine would send half a battalion out after him. He did that once when I first came here." Gorn glanced back to Han. "It was messy…very messy."

"What happened?"

Gorn tipped his head gingerly out past the door again to check that the still-fuming Indo remained at a safe distance. "Luke had been having TIE lessons for about six months, I think. Then suddenly he steals a TIE from the military decks and takes off like a spooked ronto."

Han shook his head, grinning. "So he can fly…"

"Hell yes, he can fly! You would not believe how many TIEs it took to bring him back down. They had two Destroyers moving into geostationary orbit! Somebody somewhere gave out the order to fire a warning shot across his bow, and Luke turned about, straight into them and…it was bad. I heard that if they hadn't've had an Interdictor in orbit, or if the TIE had been lightspeed-equipped, Luke would've been gone."

Gorn lowered his voice again as he looked to the door, then back to turn to Han. "Listen, with Vader here and all… Well, there's something I'm not sure if anyone's told you yet…about Ashtor." Gorn leaned in a little closer, voice lowering. "You need to watch what you say around him. We…well, Indo thinks he's one of the opposition. More importantly, Luke does, and he's seldom wrong about that kind of thing, for obvious reasons."

Han stared, shocked. "Seriously, you think he's a Rebel?"

Gorn pulled back, alarmed. "What? No! No, Vader-we think he's passing information on to Lord Vader."

"Oh….Ohh," Han said slowly again as things fell into place: Gorn's casually dropped reference, made more than once, to the fact that Indo was reticent to leave information regarding Luke on the office message system, where he knew it could be viewed by Ashtor. Indo's aversion on another occasion to leaving Ashtor alone in the apartment, insisting that Gorn too stayed. Gorn's own uncomfortable trip over his own words not long ago, when he'd claimed no knowledge of Luke's whereabouts in front of Ashtor. The fact that Ashtor always seemed to get stuck with the nightshift, when-generally speaking-Luke did nothing more contentious than sleep. Or if he wasn't sleeping, then at least whatever else he was up to was a long way from the palace.

"And speaking of Lord Vader..." The office message system had flashed an incoming message, and Gorn reached forward to key it open. Reading it, he visibly blanched, sitting down hard to stare for a long time, as if making several rereads. "Oh, this is bad."

Han stepped up to the virtual screen, but the message had already been replaced by another incoming-message flash, showing the Emperor's private Cabinet code. Gorn keyed the message open, muttering beneath his breath. "Please be a message to say that the last one was wrong…"

"What was the last one?" Han asked.

Gorn placed his head in his hands, letting out an inarticulate groan.

"What was the damn message?" Han repeated, patience straining.

Gorn shook his head, his words muffled because he spoke without moving his hands. "Luke has an order from the Emperor's Office to attend lightsaber practice with Lord Vader at noon."

"What, that's it? Was that the last one too? What's the problem?"

Gorn looked instantly to Han, rising. "You go tell him."

"Tell who?"

"Indo-you tell him. He doesn't like you anyway."

"Thanks."

"C'mon, I'm in his good books at the moment."

"Fine," Han said. After last night, he didn't mind delivering a few knocks to Indo's uptight composure. "Wait-why does he care?"

"I've told you, Luke and Vader are always at each other's throats. Seriously, open animosity doesn't begin to describe it. Giving them lightsabers and telling them that they can legitimately take swings at each other is just one short step from mayhem."

"It's practice!" Han emphasized.

"Yeah, tell that to them," Gorn replied-then bundled Han out of the door. "Or better yet, tell it to Indo."

 

 

It was a subtle change, when Han told Indo. The smallest drop in the Viscount's shoulders as he let out a long breath, the slightest tightening of worry lines about his eyes...which for Indo was tantamount to a full-on, head-in-hands response.

"I thought that had stopped at the Emperor's command?"

Han glanced down, suddenly guilty. He hadn't wanted a dig at Indo to be at the kid's expense. "Apparently it's on again."

Another long pause, as Indo scowled tightly. This must be bad, Han reflected, to get to the Viscount like this. Indo turned the small box that he was holding over in his hands, bringing Han's eyes to it. Etched and polished, it was about the size of an open hand, with no real indication of its contents, if any.

"Tell Gorn to bring his lightsaber," Indo said quietly. "He also needs to…" The Viscount stopped mid-sentence to rise, voice changing from hushed trepidation to relief, and then tinged anger. "Where have you been-and what time do you think this is, to come strolling in as if nothing's wrong?"

"And good morning to you, too." The kid's voice, completely unconcerned, turned Han about.

Indo continued, unabated. "Where have you been?"

"Out-wasn't that obvious?"

"I had to cancel lessons."

"I'm devastated," the kid said dryly, crossing the Red Room and passing Indo without slowing. "I'd also advise you to cancel a few more, because I haven't slept yet."

Beside Han, Indo slammed the small etched silver box forcibly down onto the table. The sound brought Luke's head about, and he slowed to a halt, annoyance and guilt visible in his tired face as he glanced away.

"Were did you get this?" Indo asked darkly.

The kid said nothing, and though Han knew he should probably withdraw, curiosity was holding him fixed now. Indo opened the box to empty its contents onto the polished table…

Ten or so scarlet-wrapped spice sticks fell out, as well as a small, clear bag, those familiar nuggets of ruby resin visible within.

"Since I sat up all night here, waiting," Indo said tersely, "I put the time to good use."

"You searched my rooms, you mean," Luke accused.

"If you didn't bring spice into the palace, I wouldn't need to do it."

"Well aren't I the bad wolf," Luke said dryly.

"I'm serious."

The kid remained typically unrepentant, amused even. "No, your nose is out of joint-there's a difference."

"Where did you get it?"

"See?"

"Where!"

"I don't even remember. Some cantina, probably."

"This could have anything in it!"

"Please, don't feign concern. You're just worried your hold is slipping."

"Luke…" Indo broke off to look down, searching for patience. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and level. "You know that this is unacceptable. It's dangerous and it's unnecessary, and it has to stop."

The kid glanced down, almost contrite in his silence when faced with level-headed concern, rather than heated accusations.

Indo swept the spice off the table and back into the box, turning to Han. "Dispose of this, please. Burn it."

Han took the box, instantly regretting his involvement as the kid fixed him with a brief look of world-weary betrayal.

Indo turned back to Luke. "You need to clean up and wake up."

"No, I need to get some sleep."

"You have lightsaber practice with Lord Vader."

The momentary look of genuine panic which rushed across the kid's face was instantly covered by a hard frown as he looked down, jaw tightening. "Fine. When?"

"Noon. If you'd been here sooner..." Even as he spoke, Indo's words turned from frustration to concern.

Luke remained still and silent for a few seconds more, eyes down, in that moment very much his young age. Then he shook his head, lips pursed to a thin line of self-reproach as he straightened to leave.

Indo, who had waited in silence, spoke out quietly. "Luke-do you need anything?"

The kid turned about, that indomitable look in his eyes once more, part willful defiance, part wayward mischief. "Well since you ask, I seem to be all out of spice at the moment."

 

 

 

 

 

Luke leaned in the door of the staffroom, where Han was sat alone. "You're with me."

Han glanced up, surprised the kid was still speaking to him after he'd burned the spice. "Me?"

"Indo's not as young as he used to be," the kid said sardonically. "Staying up all night searching round my rooms whilst I'm not there takes it out of him these days."

"I didn't…help Indo find it or anything." Han said awkwardly.

He wanted to get the kid off spice as much as Indo did, but he didn't think sneaking searches for it and then rubbing the kid's nose in finding any was the way to go. At least right now, with the kid comfortable in letting Han know that he used it, Han had a good idea of what and how much the kid took-which was way, way too much. The last thing he wanted was for Luke to think he couldn't trust Han, and start concealing his actions.

As it was, Luke only glanced away, dismissive. "That's okay. We're even now."

"Even?"

"For last night."

Han abruptly remembered the kid using the Force to power him backwards and basically throw him out of the abandoned apartment. "Yeah, I…I didn't mean to…break anyth…"

"Oh, please stop," the kid said dryly, rebuffing any sentiment. "Whilst I still have some shred of respect left for you."

He'd walked in to lean on the edge of the nearest desk. Freshly changed, with his hair still wet from what had probably been a wake-up shower, he was dressed in a simple, form-fitting collar-and-cuffless shirt of dark slate grey with semi-fitted pants, wearing black leather gloves and supple boots, obviously suited to exercise. It struck Han only now how often he'd seen the kid leave the apartment dressed in similar gear, Indo a half-step behind, as ever. Kid must practice a hell of a lot, Han reflected, whether Vader was here or not.

"So, what are the odds in the palace at the moment?" Luke asked.

"What?" Han said, aware that he was playing for time.

"Odds," Luke repeated. "On who's going to put who in the medicenter this time? C'mon, since practice seems to be starting up again, I should at least be able to get in on the action."

"Why, you thinkin' of throwing a fight?" Han grinned.

"With Vader?" Luke shook his head. "No amount of credit's worth that."

There was a brittleness to the kid's confidence, Han noted, as he watched him continue to turn the lightsaber hilt about in his fingers, and realized that the kid was psyching himself up, as he continued.

"I'm guessing you'll follow Gorn's bet…which means the question is, who's Gorn betting on?"

Han hesitated, and the kid smiled, clearly amused at his discomfort. "Is this a good time to remind you that I can read minds?" he asked wickedly, as he turned back out into the apartment's main corridor. "Speaking of which, Gorn told you about Ashtor."

"Did you just pick that out of my head?"

"Yes-which is actually quite impressive, considering the amount of spice I smoked last night."

"You can't just wander round in people's heads."

"I beg to differ," the kid said glibly.

"Shouldn't," Han corrected. "You shouldn't."

"Whatever."

"So…is he?"

"One of Vader's moles? Yes …" Luke glanced past Han, attention suddenly elsewhere as he stepped across him to straighten a canvas hung in the dark-walled corridor, then backpaced to stare at it, head tipped to one side. "Myself, I'd turn the man's head three-sixty, but Indo says better the devil you know. Is that straight?"

Han barely glanced at the canvas. "Yeah. So wait, you all know?"

"You didn't look."

Han pursed his lips, glancing to the canvas. "Great-it looks great."

"I'm not asking for an opinion-though I have to say that was an inspiringly expressive, deeply sensitive and profoundly thought-provoking evaluation of a complex piece of art-I'm asking if it's straight."

Aware that he wasn't going to get a word of sense from the kid till he checked, Han finally turned to look more carefully. As he did so, the kid stepped closer behind him.

"Besides, Ashtor's the least of our problems. You know who's missing from this cosy little homestead? Palpatine."

Han half-turned. "Palpatine? Last I checked, he was definitely in the building."

"No, I don't mean physically, I mean in terms of shadowing…surveillance. Who's close to us and reporting to Palpatine?"

"Why do you assume someone is?"

"Someone's always reporting on someone, here."

Han grinned at the kid's paranoia. "Yeah? So who do you report on?"

Luke shrugged, unabashed. "Pretty much anyone I'm asked to."

"Seriously?"

"Please, don't kid yourself; they'd do the same to me if they could. And before you roll your eyes and judge, you might like to consider the palace as your basic, if a little carnivore-heavy, food chain."

"That's easy to say when you're at the top."

"You say that only because you're not," Luke countered dryly.

"I'd never be another Ashtor," Han said firmly. "And what does that make you, if you'd do the same, and report to Palpatine?"

Luke shrugged. "Like they say, there's little point in fighting your way to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian."

"Hey, two wrongs can't make a right."

The kid loosed a fresh-faced grin, absurdly endearing-and he knew it. "No, but ten of them make my average day."

Han let out a laugh that broke the suffocating silence which always pervaded the cold, dour apartment. Aware of someone's eyes on him as they turned to leave, he glanced back just once, to see Indo stood stiff and upright, eyes narrowed with resentment.

 

 

 

 

They walked the lofty, imposing corridors in silence for a while, and Han found his eyes drawn more than once to the lightsaber hilt that the kid held. It was a simple tube, nothing like the more elegant antiques which Han had seen listed under 'prohibited weapons' in the military database. They'd all seemed more elaborate, ornate, even. But this was plain and unadorned, little more than a tube with two inset buttons towards the angle-cut tip, its brushed surface marked by many knocks and scrapes, and the remainder of its length covered by a matt, non-slip grip.

The kid rolled it compulsively in his fingers, though Han couldn't tell if it was nerves or anticipation. "Worried?"

"About?"

"Vader. Gorn seems to think this is a big thing. So does Indo."

"Ah. I thought I got off lightly on the spice thing," Luke said with a nod. He shrugged. "No, not worried, not really. It's good practice."

Han spread his hands. "That's what I thought!"

"For when we do it for real some day."

"Wait, what?" Han stuttered to a stop, reaching for the kid's arm, though he slipped it subtly away.

But he turned, that slight smile still on his face, like armor. "Sith don't generally…get on."

"You get on with Palpatine, and he's the one person I'd-"

"Palpatine's my Master. You don't turn on your own Master," Luke said with conviction. "Ever."

"Not even when he throws you and Vader into a room with lightsabers and tells you to get on with it?"

The kid threw a brief, amused glare at Han as he started walking again. "Like I said, this is practice."

"In your carnivore-heavy food chain, huh?" Han asked. "If it's practice, how come everyone else in the whole damn palace thinks it's something else? You're telling me Palpatine doesn't know?"

"Of course he knows-but he also knows that's what makes good practice. You never go into any duel without emotion. Emotion is what fires you, the commitment that drives you to win…if you can hold it in check and use it. So he does this for my benefit."

Han cocked an eyebrow. "He tell you that?"

"He doesn't have to."

"Please, that's not a reason, it's an excuse."

"He has his reasons, for everything he does. It's not just arbitrary."

"Okay, I'll bite… Why does he do it-all of it, I mean?"

"To make me stronger."

"That what he tells you?" Han asked again, unable to keep the cynicism out of his voice.

"You're a soldier, you went through basic training. You know that the ability to keep moving under pressure is a learned response. That's why they break conscripts down, force them to the very edge: to push them past their own barriers. Tell me it wasn't the same."

"It wasn't the same-and you're not doing basic training."

"Of course I am-I have been all my life."

"Nobody trains their whole life."

"Some do…some posts demand it."

"Like Emperor's Hands?" Han asked casually.

The kid glanced to him, then looked ahead again. "The Emperor told you."

"I didn't say that."

"You don't need to."

Han almost called the kid on it-then realized that if he did so, he'd've been effectively dragged off-subject. So he allowed that with a slight tilt of his head. "How many are there?"

"Hands? Who knows? I can name two others, but that doesn't mean anything. The two I know both believe they're the only one, and work in complete isolation. There was a third, but he's long gone."

"Who are they?"

Luke grinned without speaking.

"C'mon," Han cajoled. "I know who you are. What difference would a few more names make?"

"Do I really have to go through the whole, 'I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you' routine?" the kid asked, amused. "And even if I didn't do it, one of them would, to maintain their invisibility."

"How would they even…" Han trailed off. "Can they do what you can do-with this Force thing?"

"Yes…and no. None have my wider training in the Force, I think. Not that I've sensed, anyway, not since Marek-and he wasn't trained by Palpatine. I think that's why my Master wanted rid of him; generally, he teaches each Hand only one or two things. I know one of those left can use the Force to communicate with Palpatine over extreme distances…I'm talking systems apart here. But I haven't seen her for years. I remember her around the palace when I was younger though. We practiced together for half a year, with lightsabers. The other was recruited by Vader from the COMPNOR Youth organization."

Han's own thoughts mirrored the distaste in Luke's voice at that; the Youth Organization was little more than a State-funded indoctrination program, to Han's mind. Interesting though, that Luke recognized the propaganda fed to other Hands, but didn't see it in himself.

"So what exactly do you all do?"

"Hands are undercover agents who work for, and are answerable directly to, the Emperor. No one else, just him. We do anything that has to happen below the radar. Intelligence gathering, assassinations, surgical strikes, that kind of thing-whatever he commands. Absolute, unquestioning loyalty."

Luke paused-and Han saw the change in the kid's face as if, in speaking them to Han, he'd just heard those last words for the very first time. The kid glanced away, discomfited. In some ways he was incredibly worldly, in others, almost naïve. In just a few he was painfully vulnerable…though he hid it well.

"And that's what you're gonna do?"

"Yes."

Despite that brief burst of unease, Han strained in vain to hear any sliver of doubt in the kid's conviction. "You didn't seem so sure in that abandoned apartment last night."

Luke tensed, instantly on the defensive. "Don't. You have no idea about anything that happened."

"No…" Han was trying so hard to be diplomatic this time, aware that the kid's emotions ran pretty high in this. "But I do know th…"

"Don't," Luke said flatly, the warning clear. "Just don't."

Han could see the kid shutting down, shutting him out. Maybe now wasn't the time, with Vader's arrival and all. He paused, speaking aloud his thoughts-kid could probably read them anyway, or whatever the hell his kind did. "Vader's Sith, right?" He'd heard as much, but since he seemed to be spending his days among their kind now, Han figured it was best to get stuff like this clear.

Luke nodded without speaking, so Han tried another prompt.

"Like you?"

"Not like me," Luke said quickly. "Not like me at all. Vader can't be trusted. He has no loyalty to the Emperor."

"That why you don't like him?"

Luke pursed his lips, not willing to be drawn. "We're here," he said simply, lifting his hand to the door release.

 

 

 

 

 

Darth Vader was already waiting in the practice hall when they entered, staring out across the city before a long bank of tall windows whose privacy filters had reduced the midday light to a soft haze. His back to the opening door, he wore a heavy floor-length cloak of absolute black, the light catching in broken glints across the gloss of the cowled helmet he wore. In the brooding silence, the grating rasp of the mask he wore lent a threateningly surreal edge that was altogether too inhuman.

Han had heard a lot about Vader, of course: the Emperor's henchman, Commander of his armies. From forty paces away, he didn't look too bad. A big guy though, wide at the shoulder and stood solid as a statue, but still…

They walked closer…and closer…and the guy just kept on getting bigger and bigger. With nothing around him to lend scale, from the far side of the massive hall he'd seemed wide, but this…this was unreal. The man towered over…hell, over pretty much everybody, Han figured.

Vader finally deigned to turn and walk forward, his back straight, pace measured, huge arms clasped at his back beneath that draping cloak...and Han found himself slowing just slightly, so that Luke was a few paces ahead of him. Vader didn't once look to Han, that dark, unreadable mask instead holding on the kid with absolute focus.

When they were perhaps ten paces apart, Vader pulled his hand from beneath his long cloak and threw something to the floor at Luke's feet. "Put them on-ankles."

Han glanced down at the same time that Luke did. On the polished stone floor of the practice hall were a set of binders with an unbreakable cord between them of perhaps a foot and a half at the most. Luke didn't move… Han didn't blame him.

Instead the kid looked warily back up at Vader. "What are these for?"

"Your footwork is lazy and loose. You overstep, cross-step and overreach constantly." His deep, bass tone rumbled somewhere beneath Han's ribcage, the effect unsettling. Didn't seem like he was particularly given to pleasantries either.

Luke pursed his lips. "My footwork is fine."

"Then the binders will make no difference."

"The binders will stop me being able to jump or flip."

"You overuse such moves," Vader grated.

"What you're saying is, you have no counter to them."

That faceted mask gave nothing away as Vader took the lightsaber from his belt. "Put the binders on, or cede the lesson."

There was an unspoken threat in the last. Not from Vader himself, Han knew, but from the fact that it would be duly reported to Palpatine that Luke had refused to comply with the Emperor's order. That would be what the kid would be thinking right now, as he stared at those binders.

Still, he held his ground for a few seconds more, weighing up the possibilities… Then he let out a sigh and lowered his eyes, dropping to sit on the floor and pull the binders to him. He paused for a moment before attaching the first one to his ankle, slow to fasten the second…

The moment, the instant that the second binder latched into place, Vader came forward in a blur of speed, forcing Luke to scrabble back, losing his footing against the restriction of the binders and rolling to the side at the last moment as Vader's still-igniting lightsaber came down in a heavy slash which hissed into the dark floor.

It had happened so fast that by the time that Han had shouted out from his place at the edge of the room, taking three fast steps forward in shock, the first exchange was already over. He stared, uncertain whether the saber blow would have been a near-miss if the kid hadn't rolled, still agape at the ferocity of the attack.

Luke had somehow gotten his feet under him with the roll, his own saber lighting in his hand as he rose. Vader gave him no time to prepare, stepping swiftly in to swing a fast sidewards blow at his back. Not yet even standing, the kid brought his own blade over his head with the point vertically down to protect his spine from the blow, then twisted about with both blades still in contact, swiping Vader's blade up and away as he staggered quickly back. The binders pulled tight at every step to set him precariously off-balance.

Vader slowed to stalk a loose circle about Luke, his huge bulk dwarfing the slight youth, though he seemed disinclined to give any concession to the fact. He made two feints, stepping in with saber raised, the rasping hum of his blade changing pitch each time it moved in wide arcs, though the kid's blade was there, waiting. Getting used to his limited step, it was actually Luke who launched the next attack, a series of lightening-fast blows, two from the same side, the third suddenly swinging about mid-blow to come in from a higher angle. Vader backstepped quickly at the third blow, and Luke pushed forward-and staggered, overstepping his limited reach.

There in a second, Vader slashed a mighty backward swing which almost took Luke's hilt from his hand, knocking his blade away to leave him wide open. He ducked low beneath the blow, staggering again when he didn't have the reach to correct his changing center of balance, and forced to give ground simply to stay upright, one hand going briefly to the ground.

Vader's saber arced back round swiftly in a high swipe of incredible speed. The kid's own blade was there immediately, but he simply didn't have the strength to counter it, so instead of trying, he caught the blade but let his own almost loose. Vader's blade ran down Luke's with no resistance for a second-just long enough to leach that massive strike of power as Luke leaned back and guided the blades over his head. The binders at his ankles pulled taut as he slid his blade free, his opponent a fraction of a second behind for having been forced to reverse the direction of his saber's swing to maintain his defense. Luke backstepped as Vader paused, forced to halt, having no counter to the kid's move.

Amidst his amazement at the duel that was unfolding before him with breakneck speed and reckless momentum, Han actually felt a surge of pride that the kid could do this-that he could hold his own against that massive mountain of muscle and fury. Where the hell had he learned this-when?

They paused in brief respite, each walking slowly around the other, seeking some unknown weakness or momentary lapse which signalled an opportunity, real or feinted. Vader flicked his blade one-handed in a casual threat towards the kid, who swatted it away, neither one taking the incentive to turn the move into a genuine attack-yet. Scarlet red and white at their core, the blades coruscated with crackling power, Vader's a true blood red, Luke's a half-shade closer to warm amber, its tone just slightly deeper.

Again, Vader flicked his saber low in an empty threat as they circled…then he stepped in with a fast blow which caught the kid's saber up in his own, clearly trying to hook it free. Luke spun his own blade with, rather than against the move, sliding it back as he did so, so that its tip came dangerously close to Vader's gloved hand, again forcing him to break. He did so with a swift sideward move and a heavy step forward which made even Han shout out in shock as Vader shouldered into the kid with enough force to send him staggering back several paces, almost toppling as the binders on his ankles pulled tight.

To Han, it wasn't hard to see very quickly that the kid was at a huge disadvantage simply in terms of punching outside of his weight-class here. Han had zero experience of lightsaber duelling of course, but having been involved in his fair share of bar room brawls, he knew an unfair fight when he saw one. Clearly, all the kid had going for him was speed and dexterity, and Vader had effectively nullified both with the shackles on Luke's ankles.

The kid did anything he could to avoid those big, overhead swings, knowing that he had nothing to counter them. Vader towered above him, unarguably stronger, a mass of wired muscle, with a higher center of gravity and a longer reach. Han couldn't imagine himself having the power to withstand one of those massive roundhouse swings, let alone the kid. Sure enough, instead of even trying, the moment Vader pulled back for another bone-jarring blow, the kid darted in with a quick slice to force Vader to break his own offensive, then sidestepped rapidly in short, fast steps, imposed by the manacles at his ankles.

Still, despite struggling against the binders, Luke wasn't particularly giving away any free shots that Han could see. Which was just as well, since Vader was an absolute powerhouse of raw aggression, not pulling any punches in consideration of the fact that this was supposed to be just a training exercise.

In fact, it was becoming pretty damn clear now that the word 'lesson' was wildly inaccurate here. Aside from effectively hobbling the kid before they'd even started, Vader didn't exactly seem to be going out of his way to give any advice or pointers. This was a 'lesson' in the same way that Han flying his TIE into pitch battle was 'good experience.'

 

 

Vader powered forward again, his bulk enough to make the ground jump beneath Han's feet as the kid made several fast steps on the spot in readiness. Han jerked in response, chest constricting as one of those immense blows came in sideways towards Luke at head-level. At the last second Luke caught the blow, bringing his leading arm up high as both blades passed so that his own saber twisted over the top of Vader's, putting him inside of Vader's defense and holding control of both blades, and Han wanted to yell out, "Yes!" from the sidelines.

The kid was incredibly fast, pushing Vader's blade away with a final thrust as he stepped in, swiping his saber swiftly in towards Vader's torso. With nothing to counter, Vader was forced to a hasty retreat, stepping awkwardly to the side to avoid the blow. At the last second he managed to catch Luke's wrist in an iron grip and drive his hands down, so that the kid's saber missed his hip by inches and sparked instead across the knee of Vader's black-polished greave.

It was ungainly and it was inelegant and it was clumsy, but it bought Vader the time he needed. As Luke tried to wrench free, Vader pulled his own saber back in, hilt first, to land a heavy backhanded blow against the kid's temple just above his eye, with sufficient power to send him staggering to the side, his head wrenched back by the blow.

Luke wove a second, and Han thought the kid's legs might actually give way as he staggered back, head rolling, knocked near-unconscious. A bloom of dark blood rushed to the open wound in seconds, making Luke flinch as he shook his head, loosing one hand from his saber hilt to wipe a wide smear of it clear from his eye.

Vader didn't even hesitate. He came round in a single step, his free hand clenching to a fist as he delivered another massive, teeth-rattling blow, snapping Luke's head round.

And this time he went down.

Han yelled out as Vader stepped in, his saber before him, tip down. Would he do it-would he actually make the blow?

Somehow, the kid had enough about him to bring his own lightsaber up before him in weak defense as he lay on his back. Vader parried it easily as he stepped in close, hooking the saber from Luke's blood-stained hands to spin in a wild arc across the room, clattering to a halt which took uneven gouges from the dark floor, the blade disappearing into the surface as the hilt remained above.

Han was still striding forwards with another yell, not for a moment considering how the hell he was going to stop a mountain of muscle and aggression with a lightsaber in its hand.

Vader glanced up, momentarily distracted, and the kid seemed to rally, coming round enough to hook one foot around Vader's ankle then use the other, at the very edge of the binder's limited reach, to deliver a heavy kick into the side of Vader's knee, knocking it inwards with a grinding crunch that sounded almost metallic to Han.

Staggering as his knee gave way, Vader caught his own weight with one bunched fist to the floor as Luke scrabbled wildly backwards, trying to get far enough away to risk turning over to stand. He'd barely got an arm's length before Vader's black-gloved hand shot out and grabbed the cable of the binders about Luke's ankles to drag him back, the kid's shirt riding up as he struggled, no handholds to slow him down.

To Han, watching from the sidelines, this was fast devolving from what had been a hostile and barely legitimate practice session, to a no-holds-barred brawl which, if you took the sabers away, wouldn't be out of place in the back alleys of the dodgiest districts of any shady port.

 

Pulled too close and facing Vader's long reach as he leaned in to grab Luke by the scruff, the kid brought his knees up in time to get his bound feet under Vader's stomach, pushing back to stop that brawny arm from reaching him. Finally, Vader stopped trying and let out a low grunt as he brought his saber around for a stab. Luke heaved his legs to knock Vader back, and the tip of that scarlet blade briefly caught at his arm, burning a neat, circular hole through his shirt and into the flesh beneath.

The kid let out a brief grunt as he jerked aside. The smell, like burned meat cooking, turned Han's stomach.

Winded by the kick, Vader took a second to recover as Luke rolled onto his side, gasping, one hand to his shoulder, though he didn't dare slow. Already he was hauling his legs under himself, blinking rapidly to get the blood from his eyes and backpedalling as Vader straightened. As the kid retreated Vader came forward, swinging his saber round in a menacing arc of scarlet-edged light, its grating hum ominous as he closed on the empty-handed kid.

Han stared, fixed in place, breath frozen…

Vader was just two steps away, saber brought back for a roundhouse strike… Then, still staggering from the restriction of those damn binders, the kid did something amazing-

For a second, Han thought that he'd slipped and was about to fall onto his back as his body tilted and arched back…then his arm came out and his knees tucked, and he sprang his whole body back from standing into a tight flip, his outstretched hand touching briefly against the floor to move his center of balance further back and make the somersault longer, instantly putting him beyond the reach of that wide, sweeping blow. Immediately on landing, he did the same thing again, throwing himself back with greater force, the momentum from the first flip giving him height-

And this time, mid-flip, the saber that had remained on the floor ten paces away wrenched free and flew in an undeviating line into the kid's outstretched hand, igniting to land solidly in his palm as he was at the height of the flip. It spun in a wide slash of bright amber which seemed to move in opposition to his body, close enough that Han genuinely feared that the kid would lop off a limb…

By the time Luke hit the floor with a heavy, solid thud the cord between the binders had been severed, cut through mid-somersault, the edges of the metal glowing red-hot.

 

 

Vader didn't slow, coming in with another high, heavy, roundhouse swing that must have rattled the kid's teeth to hold against. Again Luke caught the blade and let it pass without trying to slow it, guiding it over his head as he twisted back and to the side in avoidance. But instead of straightening to step in as he had before, this time he stayed down to launch a swift, high kick that caught against the edge of Vader's helmet, snapping his head to the side and knocking it askew, to leave a pale scuff on the polished cowl.

With the step length to maintain his balance now, Luke twisted swiftly back to regain his center, his saber held side-on as he again swiped the still-seeping blood from his eye, braced for the next move.

Vader slowly straightened his intimidating bulk, lifting one hand to calmly set the cowl of his helmet level again. He glared for long seconds, and Han could swear he heard a low growl come out with that rasping breath. He came back with a vengeance, launching a wide, backwards roundhouse swing of incredible speed. But the kid was already ducking back, the blades barely touching with a brief, scarlet-tinged flare which guided Vader's saber through the empty space above Luke's head…and put him inside Vader's guard.

Luke twisted about in a low spin, his saber blazing a wide arc as it headed for Vader's midriff, again forcing the mountain of a man to back up in retreat from this slip of a kid.

 

 

As Vader came forward this time, Luke released one hand from his saber hilt to bring it up, fingers outstretched to Vader. In a flurry of movement contrary to gravity, Vader's heavy cape lifted about him and twisted forwards, its fabric snaking over Vader's head and shoulders like a live thing, obscuring his vision completely as he let out a brief grunt of surprise. At the same time Luke came forward with a wide blow which ripped through the air in a bright blur, aimed for Vader's midriff.

Despite being blinded, Vader turned into the blow and brought his saber round with unerring precision to intercept the strike, knocking Luke's saber to the side as Vader quickly backstepped, dragging his cape clear in a single move and throwing it aside to land in an abandoned heap.

 

Again, the pitch moved up a notch, the movements becoming faster and fiercer as those blazing ruby blades moved at incredible speed, lightening fast blurs of strike and counter played out in the wide, blinding flares which cut through air, their grating buzz the only sound that reverberated through the massive hall. Vader remained that absolute powerhouse of unstoppable strength and raw aggression, vicious, crushing blows linked effortlessly together, every one a jolting pound that pummelled his opponent with relentless brute force.

Luke was fast and agile, cutting in between those massive swings with brief, precise strikes, measured to cause maximum problems with minimum contact. Constantly moving, constantly looking for that next opportunity, that fleeting fault. The slightest overreach in those wrenching blows, the briefest overextension which reduced Vader's guard on those wide, unstoppable swings.

Several times the kid was forced to break off, taking the risk of lifting his hand from his saber hilt to swipe at the wide cut above his eye, then forced a few seconds later to do the same again to wipe his palm as his blood-wet hand slipped on his saber hilt.

He pressed on with all the energy and dynamism of youth, landing blow after blow, none powerful or crushing, but an ongoing rain of swift, accurate strikes which slowly drove Vader back, searching for an opening…which surely would come for one or the other of them, because neither could maintain this kind of pace.

It wasn't until Vader was there, that Han realized what the kid was doing. Vader conceded another step as Luke forced forward, catching both their blades in a brief push which gave Vader's backward step unanticipated momentum in the same moment that his heel came to his abandoned cloak. His foot faltered as the cloth slid over the polished floors, sending him staggering for a single, brief step…

And Luke was already pulling his own saber back in carefully timed anticipation. He dealt one mighty blow as Vader released his saber hold to single-handed to regain his balance-and the upward slice batted it away, leaving Vader completely open.

Luke stepped swiftly in, the final dénouement to the last few minutes of carefully directed fighting… He thrust his lightsaber forward in a swift, vicious stab aimed directly at the center of the life-support panel on Vader's chest, pushing it home until the end of the hilt hit the plassteel panel with a jolting thunk!

 

For a horrific moment, Han thought that the kid had driven the blade home through Vader's chest, so that it was completely embedded up to that hilt, its light concealed within… But as both Vader and the kid remained motionless, frozen in that final action, Han realized that as Luke had brought the saber round and in, he must have also deactivated it, so that the blade had died to nothing in the same moment that Luke had driven the hilt forward: proof that if he hadn't, the strike would have been a lethal one.

Now, his chest still heaving from the fight, blood smeared unevenly down his face and widening into a dark stain on the chest of his shirt, Luke tilted his head to look into that black faceplate.

Vader lifted his face from staring at the hilt still pressed to his chest, and Han wondered if he too, just for an instant, had thought the kid had pushed the blade home…

The blow was explosive, Vader's closed fist reeling round to catch Luke across the side of the head and send him staggering back in a spray of scarlet, knocked almost off his feet. Immediately Vader grabbed for him, catching the dazed kid by the scruff and dragging him in.

Luke reacted like a wild thing, yelling out as he struggled against the hold, twisting violently, frantically, to try to pull free or turn about to face Vader. But Vader was so much stronger and he yanked Luke back, one of those massive arms wrapping around the kid's neck as he struggled, to hold Luke pinned with his back against Vader's body as that unyielding arm tightened, cutting off air.

Luke grappled desperately, but there was no way he'd pull free. With a frenzied yell, he brought his hand holding the deactivated saber hilt up. Vader abandoned his own saber hilt to clatter to the floor as he grabbed the kid's wrist, his massive fist engulfing Luke's as he wrestled for control-but Luke's arm was already lifted to shoulder height, his finger on the activation button. In an effort to stop the boy lighting the saber, Vader forced the hilt in towards Luke's own body, so that rather than reaching over himself in striking distance of Vader, the tip of the deactivated hilt was now pressed against Luke's own shoulder, held there by Vader's iron grip over Luke's own-and still his hold about Luke's neck tightened.

Luke let out another strangled yell of frustration, pinned against Vader, furious but fading, gasping for air.

And Han knew-he knew what the kid would do. He set forward at a broken run, shouting out-

Their two hands about the deactivated, blood-slick saber hilt trembled as Luke and Vader struggled to take control…and pinned against Vader's body, with the hilt still pressed against the hollow where his shoulder met his collar bone, Luke's thumb went to the activation button…

He knew…he knew that if he activated the blade, it would go through him and into Vader. He'd be badly injured, but he'd get the strike he'd held back on before.

Luke's thumb touched the button as Vader's grip about his neck tightened, attempting to cut off all air…

At the last second Vader stepped back and released the kid with a wild shove, pushing him away just as the saber activated. It caught across the very edge of Luke's shoulder as it ignited, so that he dropped it with a yelp, the blade already deactivating.

Luke fell to a half-crouch, gasping for air as Han came to an abrupt halt five paces away, uncertain what to do. Vader was already shouting out, furious and agitated.

"Fool! Reckless child! I should have let you activate the blade!"

"Please-the only…" Luke was forced to pause, still struggling for breath. "...the only reason you stopped me was because you would have been injured too."

Vader took a step forward as his own abandoned saber hilt lifted to slap against the black leather of his gloved hand, fist tightening about it. "You're right, it was. In a duel, I would have twisted the hilt to your throat and been all too willing to activate it."

"If it had been a duel, I wouldn't have deactivated mine in the first place."

They glared at each other. Vader towered over the battered and bleeding kid who was still half-hunched, one hand to his injured shoulder as his chest heaved. But the set of his feet and the wired tenseness in his stance indicated that if Vader chose to press the fight, Luke would answer.

Vader stepped in, intimidating by sheer bulk, voice a low growl. "You are not my equal."

Luke reached his hand to the side without looking, and his own bloody saber skittered about and flew to his palm as he struggled upright. "You know damn well I am. Any time you want to settle this…"

"With the boy who hides behind the Emperor's throne?" Vader taunted.

Luke opened his arms, his saber still deactivated but the invitation obvious. "I see no Emperor here."

"I have nothing to prove before you. I've fought more real duels with fanatical and dangerous Jedi Masters than you could even hope to survive, and I know what it feels like to have a saber cut deep."

"So do I...you always were the consummate teacher, Lord Vader. I still have the scars to attest to that fact."

"The lessons are not over yet," Vader growled.

Watching from the sideline, his stomach tightened into a burning knot of anticipation, Han thought the kid would launch forward there and then… In fact, Luke simply let out a scathing laugh, then turned to the door.

"Don't turn your back on me!" Vader bellowed, outraged.

"This lesson is over," Luke stated without even bothering to turn. "If all you have left to teach me is how to flinch before a live blade, then we're done. You're of no use to me any more."

Vader lunged forward with a yell, his saber igniting as he brought it high-

Luke turned about…but kept his arms by his side and his lightsaber inactive as Vader closed, a maelstrom of noise within a flurry of raven-black robes.

Han let out a yell, frayed nerves sparking-

The buzzing saber sliced in from that high swing as the kid held his ground, unmoving, lightsaber still at his side…

The blade stopped an inch from Luke's head, close enough that displaced air lifted his hair to sizzle where it touched the edge of the coruscating blade. The scarlet glow lit his bruised and blood-smeared features as he stared, steadfast and still, at Vader.

 

"You are lucky that the Emperor holds you of value," Vader grated reluctantly at last.

"From now on, you'd better pray the same of yourself." Luke turned and walked calmly to the doors.

Han found his feet and followed, resisting the temptation to bundle the kid out of there while Vader still remained frozen, breath rasping.

Only when he was close-when he'd reached the door beside Luke, and seen him lift his hand to the release plate-did Han see just how badly the kid's hand was shaking.

 

empire's son ch 7 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

Han walked a good few corridors from the Practice Room in silence, beside Luke. The kid too remained quiet, a slight limp to his stride as he swiped at the wide cut above his eye from the hilt of Vader's saber, when he'd made that fierce blow to Luke's temple. Now, beginning to swell, the wound was opening up even further to trickle down over the edge of the kid's eyebrow and into his eye.

Han glanced sideways from time to time, but held his silence, wondering if Luke was as eager to be away from Darth Vader as he was, his thoughts going back again and again to the kid's outward control as he'd turned his back on the livid, openly hostile hulk of Vader, to walk coolly from the chamber… To Luke's hand, unseen by Vader, trembling as the kid had reached out to hit the door release plate.

So he waited a while, knowing from personal experience that when you got that close to the edge, it took a while to come down and get back inside your own head. He wondered briefly how many times the kid had made this walk before…how many times he'd had to make it without having finally faced Vader down.

Remembered again how frantically Luke had reacted when Vader had gotten a hold of him, hwo he'd yelled out, struggling desperately as that thick arm had locked around his neck, cutting off air.

Blinking away the intensity of the kid's panic, Han saw instead that incredible double backflip from a standing start as the kid had called his lightsaber to his hand mid-flip and with unerring aim, to cut free his ankles as he'd somersaulted…and he couldn't hold quiet any longer. "How the hell do you know all that stuff?"

Luke shook his head as he shrugged. "This is what I do-this is what I've always done."

Han glanced to him without staring as Luke wiped at his nose, smearing a line of blood across his cheek. "You gonna get in trouble for this?"

"For what?"

"This…today. What you did in there?"

The kid only frowned. "I didn't do anything. That was lightsaber practice…just lightsaber practice."

Han shook his head. "If that was practice, what the hell would a duel be like?"

"With Vader?" Luke slowed to glance back once, eyes narrowed with resentment, his tone completely serious. "I'll let you know…soon."

He blinked rapidly, wiping the blood from his eye again, his lightsaber hilt still gripped in his other hand…and Han noticed, as Luke held his hand out for a second to look at the blood, that it was still shaking.

He scanned his own shocked thoughts, groping for a subject to get the kid talking and ease him down. "You practice every day, don't you?" He couldn't count the times he'd seen the kid head out of the apartment dressed in similar clothes to those he wore now, the ever-present Indo generally with him.

"Pretty much. But I've gone down to five days a week…which I'm guessing is why Palpatine organized this little reminder today."

"So who taught you?"

Luke shrugged again, seeming reluctant, as if he were trying hard to play the whole thing down. "I started learning when I was eight, using a shoto-a short blade. Palpatine taught me for the first three years. He would teach me a new move every week, and Force help me if I hadn't mastered it within a month."

"Who taught you after that?" Han asked, already knowing from all that Gorn had said, about Vader's punishing involvement.

But as ever the kid wouldn't be drawn, glossing over whatever he didn't want to talk about. "Still Palpatine, mostly…and always with a live blade. I never used a practice blade-he wouldn't let me." Luke grinned briefly. "I still have the nicks and slices and burns on my arms and ankles to prove it."

"You ever duel with Palpatine?"

"Only when I was very young. Mostly it was lessons. Katas, forms-combat styles. Practice lessons were hours long-full days, sometimes, when he'd make me repeat the same move again and again and again until he thought I had it. I remember once, when I'd started to learn the Ataro Form, I had to do a move which was a somersault and part-twist at the same time, so you land facing a different direction, and I was just too young-I didn't have the muscle mass yet to do it. So Palpatine took my saber off me and stood there, and every time I did it, he put a hand to the small of my back to push up and give me enough height to make the move." The kid smiled at the memory as he wiped again at the cut above his eye. "I remember, I was terrified that I'd kick him in the somersault…at first. But he just kept on saying 'Again. Again,' until I was so dizzy and so exhausted that I didn't even consider it any more. I had to stop three times to be sick, and Palpatine would wait until I had been, then call me back immediately, to do it again."

"How old were you?"

"I don't remember…ten, eleven maybe. Not strong enough to do the move on my own…so probably ten. Back then, most of the time I was pretty much half-starv…" Luke broke off with a dismissive tilt of his head, and Han bit back the desire to push him on it, which he knew would only make the kid clam up entirely. "But there were no excuses-not with Palpatine. Too young, too light, too tired…didn't matter. You kept going until he thought you'd learned the move."

Luke turned just slightly, giving Han a knowing look. "You think he was too harsh, but you're wrong. Because my Master pushed me, I faced Darth Vader and walked away today… Because of my Master, I'll walk away from the real duel with him one day, too."

Han said nothing, and Luke looked ahead again as they walked, pressing the palm of his hand to the wound above his eye. "You reach a kind of plateau when you practice that much in a single session, anyway, where you go into autopilot and you can just keep going. Your body starts burning muscles for fuel, and you can keep going pretty much until your joints give out. Then when you sleep, exhausted, the moves are still playing through your head, like you're floating; like your body's still doing them. That day, I remember that by the time that Indo'd arrived and Palpatine had left, I was trembling uncontrollably from the exertion. So hard that I couldn't stop. Indo made me sit on the floor, then lay down until he'd called the medic. But two or three days, and you're fine. I'll always know that-that no matter how low you drop physically, no matter how exhausted you are and how much you hurt, you can recover enough in two days to start moving about again. In three, you can start to exercise. Five, and it's like it never happened." He glanced briefly to Han. "That was a lesson too-a valuable one."

He told all this with a kind of contentment which left Han mystified…but then this was probably the nearest that Palpatine had ever come to giving the kid some kind of affection or attention. Maybe it was the nearest that anyone had come in years.

Everybody tiptoed through these halls and around Palpatine's directives, spoken and unspoken. Nobody touched the kid-no one got close…and all the time, the old man kept on teaching his 'lessons.'

Luke swiped again at the cut over his eye as he spoke, his calm face all the more surreal for being so badly battered. The skin about the deep wound was still swelling, opening it up further, the cut a perfect half-circle which described exactly the cowl of Vader's saber hilt.

"Let me see that." Han stopped but Luke, as ever, brushed the concern away, barely slowing.

"It's fine."

"It needs sutures."

"It's fine. Head wounds always bleed a lot."

Something contracted inside Han's chest at that, but he shook it away, stepping quickly forward to reach out and grab the kid's shoulder from behind-

 

The blow came from nowhere and everywhere, and seemed to strike the whole of Han's body at once, knocking the air from his lungs and whiting out his vision. When his senses caught up with the shock, he realized that he was half-huddled against the corridor's far wall five paces back, still gasping for breath, every muscle wired taut like a live charge had shot through him.

Opposite him the kid was backed to the other wall, eyes wide, one hand still held out before him as he stared at Han, breathing rapidly.

Slowly, as Luke lowered his hand, realization percolated through Han's addled brain that it was the kid who had done this, with the Force.

"Don't…don't ever touch me," Luke said hoarsely at last.

It would have been easy to start yelling…but memories flashed of the many times that even Indo had reached for the kid without ever actually making contact. And with Luke's reaction when Vader had grabbed him-and why-still fresh in Han's mind, he realized with a flare of regret just exactly what had driven the kid to react.

"Hells, I'm sorry, Luke. I didn't m…"

"I know, I just…don't touch me, that's all."

"I understand…" Han nodded somberly as he straightened. "But you gotta know that not everyone's gonna…" Han slowed, not sure what to say, but the kid had already turned to stride away. "Luke, c'mon…"

"Why? I don't need some empty reassurance." He was instantly on the offensive, probably more angry at himself for overreacting than he was at Han.

They walked on in silence across one of the wide cupolas which marked every crossroad, tall slabs of dressed stone looming up into the dark shadows of a curved dome overhead. Luke swiped at the open wound above his eye again, cursing under his breath.

"Would you just go to the medicenter and get it sutured?" Han said at last. "After the last coupla' hours, don't even try to tell me you're scared."

"The medic gets on my nerves," Luke admitted at last.

"That's it? Everybody gets on your nerves."

"He does particularly."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'm pretty damn sure that you get on his, too." The kid looked to him, surprised, and Han shrugged, knowing that the kid responded better to this than to any amount of concern. "I'm going with the odds."

Luke glanced away, but there was a half-smile on his face as he slowed to a stop, so Han tried one last time.

"C'mon, I'll go with you."

"Thanks, but I'm capable of making it there and back on my own."

"Does that mean you're actually going to go, or just that you don't want me following you to make sure you go?"

"You're starting to sound depressingly like Indo," Luke jibed, humor returning.

"Hey, there's no need to get nasty, Junior." Han smiled. "And-just to clarify-if you do go…are you actually coming back? I'm talkin' about tonight. Y'know, in reasonable time."

"Of course."

"To the apartment?" Han pushed.

"Whatever," Luke said, then grinned. "Yes, I'm coming back-seriously, you think I'd go out looking like this?"

"Sure you don't want some company?"

"I don't need anybody to hold my hand," Luke said dryly.

Han backed up a step, lifting his hands away. "Hey, I wasn't offering-not with you."

Luke sighed, glancing down the side corridor which Hn knew would take him out onto one of the main hubs and so towards the medicenter. He lifted his hand to his still-bleeding temple, trying one last time. "It'll stop on its own eventually."

Han rolled his eyes. "Would you just get the damn sutures!"

"Fine…" The kid turned about and set off towards the hub, shouting over his back at Han, "And don't follow me!"

"I hadn't even thought about it," Han lied, adding before the kid could answer, "I was just gonna watch you on security lenses."

Luke's voice came back faintly as he rounded the corner, disappearing from sight. "Sounding like Indo again…"

 

 

 

 

 

Han arrived alone back at the apartment, listening to his own footfalls echo down the dark main corridor. Seeing no Gorn in the staffroom, he wandered through the apartment in search of anyone, room on pristine room empty, none of them used by the kid save the library, where he studied hour on hour, day on day, under Indo's watchful eye. Han stopped in there, expecting to see Indo, but it too was empty, still scattered with the assortment of datapads and holo-projectors that the kid would probably shortly be expected to spend endless hours staring at. Eight to eight every day, just as Gorn had said, if Luke wasn't on some kind of assignment. No wonder the kid occasionally sneaked out…or that he'd grab the Ubiqtorate uniform with both hands, seeing it as a way to get out of here.

He walked into the Red Room and down the cold grandeur of the empty enfilade, high walls of carved ebony making even its vast chambers seem grimly claustrophobic. Seeing no one, he stopped at the far end and stared at his own reflection in the mirrored wall…and stared…

He'd never once been inside-not once.

Gorn's words to Han, when he'd asked what lay beyond the doors, whispered temptingly: 

"Luke's in there. That room's never changed, not since the day he arrived here-except the walls, of course."

He really shouldn't… He really, really shouldn't…

Glancing back just once to the deserted apartment, Han patted lightly at the cylinders in his breast pocket, aware that the security transmitters would allow him clearance. Then he turned to the mirrored wall and walked hesitantly forward. With that quiet snick, the lock released and the doors slid open…and Han walked into the gloom of the kid's private rooms.

 

He slowed in the darkness, as the mercury-glass doors slid silently closed behind him. It took long seconds for his eyes to become used to the low light, but he felt somehow reluctant to activate the light panel, aware that he shouldn't be here.

As it had been the first time he'd had that tantelizing glimpse of it months earlier, there was practically nothing in the first room. It was big and austere, like all rooms here in the Imperial Palace, what little furniture it had barely visible in the murky darkness. What it did have, of course, was the ever-present art which arrived at regular intervals to be hung in every room in the otherwise sombre apartment. In here it covered every wall, a mix of figurative and expressive, some little more than loose charcoal sketches, others bright flares of color in the room's darkest shadows. Completely impersonal aside from that, it could have been any room in the apartment, only its lack of furniture setting it apart.

The second room was completely empty-completely. There was nothing at all visible, even in the far shadows, making Han's footsteps uncomfortably loud as they echoed around the vast space with nothing to soften them. He walked quickly through, heading for that final room, the memory of Gorn's words pushing him on.

"Luke's in there. That room's never changed..."

Han paused at the doorway, expectant-of what, he truly didn't know…

But the final room seemed abandoned, almost as bereft of furniture as the other two rooms had been, irregular shadows falling in crooked drifts across the bare walls in the near-darkness. The high bed had been turned on its side and apparently abandoned in the corner, its mattress toppled over onto the floor, blankets and all. The only other furniture was a single dresser, which stood slightly atilt to the wall, its drawers pulled free and discarded upside down here and there across the floor.

Han frowned, walking a few steps further in the gloom…and realized what he was looking at. The massive carved bed frame, pushed on its side almost against the corner, had formed a small enclosed hollow in which its blanket strewn mattress had been laid on the floor and curved up against the wall. Together they formed an awkward, sheltered hiding space in which to sleep.

His hand touched the shadowed wall as he leaned in…and he looked again. What he'd thought was a deep, irregular shadow from the window's lowered privacy filters and the upturned bed, stretching across the wall beside and above it, and covering every inch of space in the half-hidden corner…were drawings. Scribbled sketches made almost one on top of the other until in places they'd become little more than a mass of indecipherable, dark scrawls. At points, the plaster itself had been scored and chipped at until its surface was broken away, then the bare plaster beneath had been drawn over again; in others it had been hacked away to the substructure in what seemed like a fit of fury.

"Don't ever give him a stylus." Han remembered the house rule, quoted to him by Gorn on the first day here. 

He came to a stop, crouching to look at the nearest images to the foot of the small sleeping space: tiny, fast drawings in fine black ink merged one into the next. Sketches of starships and faces in that same fast style, scratchy and swift, something almost frantic about them, as if the nib of the stylus never left the surface. Others were rougher, the lines thicker and less defined, obviously drawn with whatever stylus had been available.

Staring in fascination, Han realized that he recognized some of the hastily drawn faces; the lieutenant commander from Sinto Base-what was his name? He was sketched with narrowed eyes as he stood by the cantankerous base commander, his hawk-nose and loose lips easy to identify. Not much further down the wall was the agent they'd been sent to pick up, sat on a chair with his head in his hands, two stormtroopers behind him…and Gorn! Gorn was sketched glancing sideways, his boyish features arranged in that game but perpetually bemused expression that epitomised his whole attitude to life. The image was half drawn-over by a fine-line rendition of the palace only part-built, half its height and covered in open scaffold. Another drawing bled into that one, dark and heavy; of Vader, the Imperial officer beside him scowling at something unseen. Below that was a small, fast sketch of another officer, this one leaning forward to shout at a stormtrooper, his chin jutting, one finger jabbing the stormtrooper's chest plate as the trooper leaned back slightly in response. Beside that was something Han had never seen: Indo smiling, that same dry look still in his eye, lined features etched in fine cross-hatch. Half-obscured and over-sketched was the Death Star, quickly rendered but instantly recognizable. To the side of that was a heavily drawn image of the Emperor's face, pale eyes glaring in condemnation, the black fabric of his hood scratched over and over obsessively to blacken it. A dark-haired man of regal bearing who looked a little like Indo, but with wider, more open features, was next to a larger sketch of a woman with a sweet, oval face and kind eyes, her hair set in an intricate halo of plaits.

About and between them were drifts of TIEs in mid-flight, as well as Star Destroyers, speeders, shuttles…endless pictures all clearly done from memory; a resting Red Guard, sat awkwardly on the floor to avoid creasing his gowns, probably thinking he was unseen, his head nodding forward, his helmet beside him. Each one drawn in that same fast manner, sometimes rendered one over the other so that they were hardly even decipherable any more. Han glanced up, realizing that this wall was of a slightly different colour to those outside, the plaster detail in the coving having lost its sharp edge, so many times had it been painted over. 

"…some kid desperately struggling to make sense of the chaos whilst everyone around him looks the other way or ignores it…or worse, just paints over it like it's not even there. Like it'll just go away. But if it doesn't that's okay, 'cos we've always got more paint."

How many times had the kid covered these walls, and they'd come in here, probably at Indo's order when Luke was elsewhere, and painted over the mass of sketched drawings? Han stood, backing up to glance about in realization…because the room's awkward, inky shadows made sense now. They were sketches, all of them-hundreds. Endless scribbles which continued over the polished wooden floor about the corner, and in broken drifts across the bare walls and the high side of the bed that faced in towards the skewed mattress, laid on bare boards…

Han remembered distinctly the meeting when the kid had stolen a stylus and had spent the entire time drawing on his hands-remembered seeing the fine-line sketches Luke had done on his palm, of the Moffs who'd sat opposite him. Remembered Indo telling him to wash it off. Remembered the broken memory chips in the library, that the kid had shattered to get an edge sharp enough to scribe a woman's face into the table's polished surface. Remembered the eyes drawn on the stone floor of the balcony with the ash from a spice stick…

And now, looking, he started seeing the faces-the same two faces, over and over: the dark-haired man and the oval-faced woman, drawn and redrawn and scribbled over and drawn again. And he started to see their expressions, eyes half-closed or wide in a vivid glare; mouths open in silent shouts, lips pulled back from their teeth as they yelled…over and over and over again.  

Han backed up another step in the gloom to look along the wall beside him, where those same fine-line sketches were scribbled and overdrawn on every space between kneeling and standing height. His heel touched the corner of one of the dresser's drawers, abandoned upside-down…and that surface too had been covered, the same dark-haired man and oval-faced woman repeated among the drawings, over and over, sometimes scribbled out deeply enough to score the wood, with-


"Happy now?"

Han jumped, spinning about in shock. Indo stood in the doorway, straight-backed, hard faced.

"I was just…" Han trailed off. "What the hell is all this?"

"And just exactly what business is it of yours, Lieutenant Solo?"

"Is this Luke-did he do all this?"

"I will say it again: what business is it of yours, Lieutenant Solo?"

 "I just… I didn't know he was this…messed up."

"You are in error, Lieutenant Solo." Indo's voice was permasteel. "There is nothing wrong with Luke, and if I once find out that you have spoken…"

"Hey, maybe if someone actually spoke out about stuff around here, he could get some help!"

"He doesn't need any help. If you wish to help him, then keep your mouth closed and your opinions to yourself."

Han looked back to the endlessly, obsessively scribbled walls-to the oval-faced woman whose eyes were wide as she shouted out. "This is serious."

"Thank you for your professional opinion, Lieutenant Solo-and what would you suggest? Think very carefully before you answer, because believe me, if you give any indication whatsoever that Luke is in any way less than capable, you will have every enemy and social climber in the palace and the military singling him out to see if they can break him or use him. Or perhaps you intend to tell the Emperor-and how exactly do you think that conversation will go?"

"There must be something…"

"There is, and I'm doing it every single day. I hold him together, until such a time as he's able to stand alone."

"This isn't helping him! Painting over it isn't helping him, it's just covering it up."

"No, helping him would be to remove him from this environment. To remove him from the attentions of both the Emperor and Vader. It is also completely impossible. It will never happen-not now, not ever. He's just going to have to learn to live with that."

"Well, that's great," Han growled sarcastically. "That's perfect, then."

"Life is seldom perfect, Lieutenant," Indo said dryly. "We do what we can, and that is all that we can do. Luke is in an unprecedented position…my job here-and yours-is to ensure that he's able to take full advantage of that"

Han rolled his head to glare at Indo, who sighed, giving just an increment as he lowered his voice.

"You have no concept of anything that's going on here."

"You know people keep tellin' me that, but no one actually tries to make it any clearer."

"People assume-erroneously, apparently-that you would have worked it out for yourself by now." Indo stared, but Han wasn't biting. Eventually, the Viscount glanced away, eyes tracing the drifts of compulsive drawings, and loosened just slightly. "You have to understand the position he's in-the position he's been in for years now. Palpatine makes his life very, very difficult, I'm not blind to that."

"No? 'Cos you sure as hell act it-in fact from where I'm standing, you seem to add to it."

Indo didn't deign to validate that with a reply. Instead he stepped closer to study one of the drawings: Palpatine, features hidden by a hood. But his eyes-those yellow eyes Han knew so well-seemed to glare brightly in the darkly shaded sketch. Staring, Indo continued as if Han hadn't spoken. "But understand that if something were to happen to the Emperor, it would effectively sign Luke's death-warrant at Vader's hands. There's something quite clearly between them, I think-aside from Luke being a threat to Vader's position as the Emperor's second-in-command. Believe me when I tell you that the Emperor's existence is the only thing which is keeping Luke alive."

"Something else…like what?"

"Old blood." Indo's eyes had moved to a sketch of Vader, the facets of his helmet instantly recognizable. He hadn't needed to look far; they were scattered everywhere, the pose always aggressive, openly hostile. "Vader's hated the boy since he first arrived here-has gone out of his way to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Luke. And the Emperor has never given him protection from such things-if he never afforded the boy safeguards from himself, then he certainly wasn't going to do it from others." Indo paused and glanced briefly to Han, as if he felt he'd already said too much. But Han remained silent, and after looking to the scribbled and defaced walls for long moments, Indo continued. "Luke was just seven when he arrived here. I spoke to him that very first night. I didn't speak to him again until he was nearly eleven, when the Emperor decided that it was time to…reintegrate him into society, and I was tasked to do that. By then, he was…changed. Completely uncommunicative. If you had seen him then, just five years ago, compared to what he is now…he's come so very far. But at the time, he would sit for hours and do this. If I left him for a day, he would sit in silence and cover every surface in a room, no discrimination between the surfaces he was drawing on. The walls, the floor, the furniture, it didn't matter. He never asked for food or water, no matter how long I left him, though he took both whenever they were offered…and he drew. Constantly. I took the stylus from him, and he simply sat on the floor and chewed his nails…and…eventually, when he chewed them so much that they bled, he drew with them. I gave him back a stylus. I gave him flimsiplast to draw on, for a while. I gave him time. And slowly, as he became more communicative and more immersed in reality, his inclination faded…somewhat."

Han glanced to the overpainted walls. "What happens when you paint over it?"

"Nothing. He simply starts again as if nothing has changed." Indo stared at the endless drawings, no emotion in his face or the tone of his voice. "Let me give you a little instance of his life growing up here, Lieutenant. The lightsaber practice that you saw today, for example. Luke had already been taught to use the lightsaber when he came to me at the age of eleven, and both Palpatine and, grudgingly and under order, Lord Vader continued to instruct him. I always knew which sessions Vader had taught. Palpatine pushed him to the very edge, of course-he'd have torn ligaments, strains, sprains, the odd broken finger or the like-but Vader just used them as an excuse to pummel the boy, as young as he was. Those were the sessions where I got called to the exercise hall because of Luke's injuries…or just as often, to the medicenter. Those were the ones which needed sutures and splints.

"But little boys grow up fast, and they learn fast, if they have to. Last year it finally got to serious blows, and they both needed considerable medical attention after one particular session. When Luke was released from the medicenter, he was summoned by Palpatine…who put him back in there for insubordination. I believe Lord Vader too was reprimanded. Vader's chastisement was, you understand, punishment for exceeding the Emperor's mandate, not for the actions themselves. And it has, as you likely saw, dissuaded neither of them… They've just learned to be a little more circumspect. Lieutenant Commander Gorn tells me that for a while now, there have been bets going on in the palace as to which of the two will lose a limb first."

"He's just a kid."

"He's also the only person who has any chance of standing against Vader's uncontested position as the Emperor's second-in-command one day, and Vader knows it. When he was young, Luke was a minor annoyance-now he's a genuine threat. He's not yet capable of standing against Vader, but every year his abilities are increasing, and Luke's of an age now where Vader knows that every year he leaves him alive, the boy becomes more of that threat. So you see, he's living on borrowed time, caught between Palpatine who makes his life hell, and Lord Vader, who will take it away entirely at the very first opportunity."

"But he's under Palpatine's protection, right?"

The Viscount shrugged. "After a fashion, insofar as the Emperor would always chastise Vader for publicly going against his desire to keep the boy whose training he has personally supervised, I think. But understand: he is not the boy's protector here. He causes Luke easily as much grief as Vader does." Indo's eyes held firm on Han, and volumes were spoken where words were unsaid. "The difference is that Luke tolerates it without question, because he has lived with Palpatine's disposition practically all his life-this is all that he knows. And the Emperor can be most…persuasive. What you see when you see Luke's absolute loyalty to the Emperor is, I assure you, genuine."

Han frowned, pulled in now, his own anger subsiding.

The Viscount stared at him for several seconds, then his gray eyes flicked away. "The power balance has remained pretty constant here for many years, but Luke's coming of age, and everyone can feel that shift. The fact of the situation is that Luke must learn to defend himself, because he can't appease Vader. There's nothing he can do to diffuse the threat that he himself represents simply by existing. I'm sure you saw yourself that Luke just barely defers to Vader now, and that only because of the Emperor's command. A once-distant risk is becoming a far more immediate threat, and Lord Vader doesn't take well to those. After nine years of withstanding the brunt of Vader's anger, even if Luke could back down-which I don't think he would because it isn't in his nature-it's not an option. Nor would I ask him to…because he has to fight, to survive here. He always has. He's no more safe today than the day he arrived here. The Emperor places ever more pressure and expectations on Luke to excel in the military sphere and, given his training, Luke is capable of doing so…but every achievement makes him a greater threat to Lord Vader. So yes, he has had to grow up quickly, under immense pressure, and yes, as hard as it seems, I will continue to push him to do so. Think what you will of me, Lieutenant Solo; I have no regrets as to my actions. If you had one iota of intelligence, you would be doing the same."

Han waited, and the Viscount was happy to oblige, his dry voice as unsympathetic as ever. "Like it or not, aware of it or not, you've cast your lot with a possible contender to Lord Vader's position here, Lieutenant. And in doing so, you've made an enemy of a very powerful and dangerous man. As much as everyone else here, your life is now dependant on the daily actions of a sixteen-year-old boy."

Indo turned and walked smoothly from the darkened room, pausing in the sliver of light from the shuttered windows beyond. "Welcome to the palace, Lieutenant Solo."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 CHAPTER NINE  

 

 

 

The early morning light glared in through towering stretches of faceted, leaded glass which lined the cavernous corridor towards the military briefing rooms in the main ziggurat, making Han flinch at the reflected light from polished floors. Beside him, sporting seven sutures above his eye to go with numerous other scuffs and scratches which had taken the night to develop, the kid walked with his eyes closed, keeping an unerringly straight line. And walking just before them, straight-backed as ever, Indo was probably not even deigning to squint. They'd been walking for about two minutes now down this same corridor, with the low sun flashing between square columns. Sun, shade, sun, shade…even without the late visit he'd made to the Blue Lekku last night to drink himself into oblivion, it was starting to give Han a headache.

Not that it had helped; he hadn't slept much anyway, thoughts going constantly back to the kid's room, devoid of any furnishings, the bed on its side and pushed to the wall to create that tiny, protected space… To the chaotic jumble of massed drawings, scratched with obsessive speed on every surface, one over the other…

To Gorn's knowing words, weeks earlier. "Everyone around him looks the other way or ignores it…"

To Indo's iron will. "What business is it of yours, Lieutenant Solo?"

And that was true. But somebody had to…to what?

"What business is it of yours, Lieutenant Solo?"

Seriously, what could he do, here?

"Everyone around him looks the other way or ignores it…or worse, just paints over it like it's not even there. Like it'll just go away. But if it doesn't that's okay-'cos we've always got more paint."

"I will say it again: what business is it of yours, Lieutenant Solo?"

 

"You're staring at me." The kid's words, spoken without turning, pulled Han from his reverie.

"Just wondering why you're not in your uniform today," Han avoided.

"No, you're not." Luke shrugged, seeming willing to let the moment pass without closer examination. "Different Moffs today-further down the scale, which is why the Emperor isn't attending. Even the ones that Palpatine trusts absolutely mostly think I'm just Ubiqtorate. I don't really wear the uniform that much anyway-just for the occasional job, when it helps put you in command. Generally I just…"

"Sneak by?"

Luke smiled, instantly a kid again, despite the sutures and the bruises. "Pretty much. Most people here think I'm just some leftover from a momentary aberration when Palpatine actually tried to do the right thing and became my guardian. When…when my parents died."

He always tripped over that, Han had noticed-but then he'd already admitted that his father was a Jedi named Kenobi, and that Kenobi was still alive, so exactly who had died-who the kid chose to call his parents, knowing his real father was still alive, was a mystery. "Who were they?"

Before them, Viscount Indo slowed to speak to another aide, and the kid stopped without getting any closer. He said nothing for a few moments, his eyes flicking briefly to the civilian aide who spoke in hushed tones to Indo without ever looking to Luke. Taking another casual half step back as he turned to Han, Luke said quietly, "See that man? Ubiqtorate."

Han glanced quickly to the aide. "Who, the guy in the brown suit?"

The kid didn't turn, his back still to the aide. "It's a black suit with brown flecks and a black trim…and a light tan stand-collared shirt, with black boots that have two buckles at the heel."

"Which side's his hair parted?" Han joked.

"It's not."

Han glanced over; kid was right!

"How do you know he's Ubiqtorate?"

"I've seen him at the Hub."

"In uniform?"

"No."

Han shrugged. "Maybe he was there for another reason."

The kid laughed lightly. "Right, 'cos we do let people just wander round in there."

"So how do you Ubiqtorate guys recognize each other without a daily uniform then-you have some kinda secret handshake or something?"

The kid's face changed, his grin disarmingly open. "Actually we do…do you want me to teach it to you?"

He turned full-on to Han, looking solemnly up, since he was barely more than shoulder height to him. "You keep your third finger bent in, see, so that the other man can feel it against the palm of his hand, and he does the same…"

Luke stretched out his hand as if to shake, and Han did the same, his third finger bent in. The kid took his hand and leaned closer, tone conspiratorial.

"Then you lean in…" Han leaned down as Luke's voice lowered. "And you whisper…sucker."

Han sprung straight and wrenched his hand back. "Ha, ha, very funny," he deadpanned. He set forward again at a brisk pace, so that Luke had to almost run to keep up.

"You should have seen your face…it was so serious!"

"Yeah, whatever."

"Sorry." Luke laughed, his open amusement making him seem suddenly very boyish as he plucked at Han's sleeve, the act casually familiar. "I'm sorry, I'll show it to you for real this time."

"Yeah, I don't fall for the same gag twice."

"Seriously, I will!"

With the Ubiqtorate aide gone-if he ever was Ubiqtorate; Han was beginning to wonder now whether he'd just been a convenient distraction-they walked the endless corridors in this fashion, a step behind the strait-laced Indo, Han and the kid a flurry of noise and energy in the dour halls whose towering walls cowed all to silence. Han remained purse-lipped as Luke offered ever more elaborate promises, but it was good-natured on both their parts, Han's game crabbiness only encouraging the kid more. Indo glanced back twice, and twice, the kid lowered his voice a notch without even seeming to realize.

Han watched Indo from the corner of his eye, remembering his challenge of last night-that what business was it of Han's…what could he possibly do, here? Well, he could damn well do this, Han realized. He could do the one thing that nobody else seemed willing to do. He could make a noise in this drab, oppressive place-and he could let the kid do the same.

He wasn't stupid. The Viscount wanted him out of the way because he was ruining all those little routines that Indo had set the kid's life to for years now. And maybe he did need them, but he also needed…he just needed to live a little. To act his age once in a while, and maybe realize that there was more to life than these dismal halls.

By the time it happened, Luke had taken to walking backwards in front of Han, grinning widely, completely at ease.

"I will, honestly…I'll show you!"

"Nope."

"Seriously! Look at this face-how could you not trust it?"

 

The next second Luke let out a gasp as if he'd been stuck.

Han stared as the kid staggered back a half-step before his legs went out from under him and he dropped, hunching over into to a kneeling crouch, hand to his forehead.

Indo was already stooping down with the kid, concerned but not worried. "Luke, what happened?"

"Big," Luke gasped, "something big."

Indo glanced about him. "Here…now?"

"No, far away. Death. Deaths…many. Too many. Everything."

"Everything?"

"What the hell's going on!" Han demanded. The kid was pale, breaths coming rough, his eyes tracking rapidly without focus, as if looking at something only he could see.

Indo glanced up only to glare briefly at Han as Luke closed his eyes in concentration. For long seconds he remained still, as if listening…

Then suddenly he was trying to stand, staggering back a step. Indo reached out, almost taking his arm, but even now not quite daring to do so. The kid stared for long seconds without really seeing, then wheeled about to walk unsteadily back the way they'd come.

"Luke, where are you going?" Indo set off after him immediately.

"Back," Luke said hastily. "I need to go back."

"To the apartment? The meeting starts in less than…"

"Cancelled."

"By whom?"

"The Emperor. He'll cancel it. He'll've sensed it too, whatever it was."

"Then he'll want to speak to you."

The kid shook his head. "I have to go back…I need to…" He looked to Han. "I can't see him like this-not like this."

Han frowned. "Like what? What the hell is going on?"

The comlink on Indo's belt sounded, wheeling the kid about as Indo lifted it free.

"It's the Emperor's offices-Pestage," Indo identified, looking to the comlink. Luke stared, anxious and apprehensive.

When Indo answered, his voice was a model of unflustered calm.

Pestage didn't bother with informalities-when you were that far up the chain of command, you didn't need to. "Do you have the boy with you?"

"I'm with Lieutenant Commander Antilles, yes."

"The Emperor commands his presence in the Cabinet-immediately."

"Of course. We can…" Indo didn't get a chance to finish before the line went dead.

Luke was still pale, one step short of outright panic. "I need to go back first…"

"You can't, you know that." Indo said firmly.

"I need spice," the kid hissed quietly.

"No, you'll be fine."

"I can't go, not like this!"

Indo stepped forward, voice calm but firm. "You cannot go into the Emperor's presence having smoked spice, you know that. And we have to go right now."

Luke retreated another step. "I can't!"

"Go now, and perhaps afterwards..."

"Afterwards is too late."

"Luke…" Indo's voice was permasteel-but composed still, as he set slowly forward towards Luke, hand out in that same corralling gesture he used so often without ever touching the kid, forcing him to begin walking. "We have to go right now."

The rest of the way was traversed like this, with Indo quiet but insistent and the kid near-panicking, though Han had seen him walk into dozens of meetings with the Emperor, always composed, even if he knew he was in trouble. But he quietened eventually, so that by the time they reached the outer hall to the Cabinet, he was resigned.

Which was just as well, because that was as far as Han and Indo got.

 

 

 

 

Luke had known that he would be summoned alone to the Emperor's presence for this. Still, it was a struggle of mind over matter to make himself walk forward when the towering doors to the Cabinet were opened. He entered alone as ordered, even Pestage remaining in the outer hall, tense and harassed, surrounded by fraught minions who had probably been summarily dismissed by the Emperor just minutes earlier, with no idea as to why.

He had always hated the Cabinet. Cold and dark, with vast stone slabs of mirror-polished granite reflecting endlessly back against each other between perfect rows of squared columns and deeply shadowed apses. Huge cut glass orbs of dark and smoky tones were suspended from the ceiling in vast numbers, casting muted light into deep shadows. No windows here; no daylight allowed to mar the sober ascetic of the immense space. It had always felt to Luke like a mausoleum.

Palpatine strode forward, his cane forgotten, and Luke slowed, arms lifting slightly in self-defense, uncertain what his Master would do. He backed up involuntarily a few paces as Palpatine closed, his hand lifting to snake about Luke's neck to hold him still.

"What happened!" The demand echoed about the stark severity of the Spartan chamber.

"I don't know-"

"Then look! You haven't searched yet?"

"You commanded me never t…"

A quick cuff across his face silenced him, catching painfully on the sutures. "Now-look now. Tell me what you see."

Luke brought his head down, closing his eyes and ignoring the throb of the sutures as he summoned the concentration to immerse himself in the Force, unsettled by his Master's close presence and short temper.

Since the age of seven, he had done this at his Master's command. It had been a trial rather than a training, with few explanations and many demands. He had not so much found the Force as his Master had taken a hold of his consciousness and thrown him in, letting him flounder amid shouted commands and directives, dragging him this way and that in the bewildering maelstrom which had no place in a child's knowledge of the galaxy.

But he'd learned. He'd adapted-children did. He'd incorporated it into his concept of the universe and of himself, accepting without question the command that he must never use it save to his Master's advantage, nor let others know of his ability unnecessarily, not comprehending of its relevance at the time. Not knowing what he was.

By the age of eleven, he understood-had been instructed by his Master that there were others, named Jedi, who chose a weaker path. Others who, it seemed to Luke, had made a choice, a conscious decision as to which path to take. His had been ordained by his Master. That was simply the way it was.

And every day, as his Master had demanded ever more of him, his abilities, his connection, had refined. Had deepened.

Luke knew, now; knew that his own connection surpassed his Master's. He would never say so, of course, never declare such dangerous knowledge aloud. The fact that Palpatine too knew the truth didn't make it a wise thing to remind him. But that was why he'd been summoned today-probably that was why he was alive at all, to be summoned. It was what his whole life, his every action, his very existence, had always been judged on.

But as practised and as potent as Luke's connection was, it had never been enough for his Master…and eventually, Luke had stopped trying. Had begun to live down to his Master's constant diatribe of criticism and dissatisfaction, rather than up to his ever increasing expectations. Because it made no difference anyway. The outcome was just the same, and he'd long since learned that it was easier to live his life as a disappointment to his Master than as a threat.

So he was cautious now, not to show too much beneath his Master's watchful eye. Too much, with no spice to take the edge off his connection and dexterity, would make his Master wary; make him ponder. Make him wish to underline his unassailable position as Master. Too much was a dangerous thing.

Too much spice was a dangerous thing too, of course; he'd learned that the hard way. It was a fine line, but he'd tread it for a long time now, so long that the spice's effect on Luke's connection had become the norm for his Master, only rarely and accidentally interspersed by his true abilities.

But with no choice today, he opened himself cautiously to the Force, felt it flood in even as he scattered himself within it. His Master always said that he must control it completely, command and direct it…but it was subtler than that, it had always seemed to Luke. A more complex mix of commitment and communication. One did not read the Force…one scattered and became it. It demanded no less of him, and he knew no other way.

"Look closer-find it," Palpatine murmured, pushing for more, as he always did. Always pushing…

Luke frowned, but briefly, settling further into an ever greater connection… The planet, the system, out…further and finer, the link not thinning with distance but escalating as he spread wider, the Force everywhere. The trail was easy to follow, like tracing a line of still-stabbing agony back to its original wound-and he knew all about pain.

"Silence," Luke whispered at last. "Stillness, where there should be life."

"Show me."

The hand about his neck slid up as his Master rested crooked fingers against his temple, and Luke recoiled just slightly, fighting to hold the connection as another consciousness climbed inside his thoughts. It always seemed to weigh him down when his Master tapped into the connection; to dilute and darken it. But he let him do this, locking away the knowledge that his Master couldn't come this far or this finely on his own. It made him no less dangerous.

"Where is this?" Palpatine demanded at last. "Show me."

Luke gave the knowledge without speaking, sharpening the connection to pull lucidity out of the abstract and turn intuitive awareness into images: two gas giants…asteroids… All changing-measurably, right now-all this is changing.

"Changing how?"

 

It was a blow of incredible power which ripped the very fabric of the universe.

Something huge and hideous screamed, like the galaxy itself cried out, and Luke flinched back from it, every muscle clenching, his breath locking in his throat. It came like a knife through his senses, broad and bloody and brutal, leaving him gasping…then slowly it faded, echoes making him twitch involuntarily as the shock-wave passed him and bled out into the universe. A dull ache remained in his bones though, the sense of something vast and terrible and irreversible which left his hands shaking, mind and soul numbed.

Somewhere in there, Palpatine had withdrawn his connection-by choice or by force, Luke didn't know-but he shook Luke briefly now, speaking words Luke couldn't make out. Reality leeched back in as he struggled for breath, unaware of how much or how little time had passed. He was knelt on the floor, hunched forward, one palm to the cold marble to steady himself. His Master crouched before him, already demanding.

"What was it!"

"Dying," Luke whispered hoarsely at last. "A planet dying."

"Planet?"

Luke nodded, eyes going down, his mind connecting facts and details and senses to create a whole. He understood now-knew exactly and completely what had happened, where, and how.

"Two gas giants and two asteroid belts, along with one sustainable planet-it's the Horuz system, so the planet must have been Despayre. Both events. The first razed the surface of life and ignited the atmosphere. The second shattered the tectonic plates and brought the molten core to the surface. The planet's dying-its remnants have moved from their orbit already. The whole system's in flux."

"Despayre!" Grasping hands fell away as Palpatine straightened in realization. "My Death Star!"

"The Death Star is safe…it did this, Master.."

"How? By order-was it done by order?"

Individual thoughts at this distance were completely impenetrable, but, "Yes…yes, I think so."

In the back of his awareness, Luke could still sense Despayre's death throes. He tried to close his thoughts to it, but the contact had been too intense and too visceral, so that it ached in the very center of his being, a dull, thudding pulse which ground ever slower.

Still crouched, his eyes skipped the dark, polished floor without seeing, trying to fathom the magnitude of this. They had been building the Death Star his whole life-it had been forever some distant specter, always under construction but never complete…

The Emperor rose, seeming far less affected than Luke, who still felt the intensity crawling beneath his skin, an overload of sensation which left him dazed and dizzy.

"Stand up."

Luke did so immediately, though the dim room spun and pitched. As he often did-as he'd been encouraged to do-he concentrated on his Master's presence in order to block out his attenuation to Despayre's violent cataclysm.

"You are uneasy," his Master observed. "Why?"

Luke glanced up, aware of calculating ocher eyes on him, and that to say he didn't know was not an option. "It was fired on without your permission, Master."

"It was a slave colony. Their purpose had been served."

"The Death Star wasn't the only Maw project under construction. They were experienced labor…and even that's immaterial. It was still done without your permission."

His Master's eyes narrowed, voice quiet. "Indeed… I will choose a means to remind Grand Moff Tarkin of that fact-at my convenience. But you…see what you can do-see how this power elevates you."

Luke lowered his head, aware only now of just how deeply he'd immersed himself in the Force to track the event back to their source, uneasy beneath that all-seeing gaze as his Master stood close, head tilted in studied consideration. The silence held taut…

"…will you always be my servant, child?" Palpatine's hand lifted to settle against Luke's cheek, and he knew the gesture was barely more than a threat. But in the end, despite everything, Luke knew that his reply would be the same…

"Always, Master."

Palpatine stared into his eyes and into his soul, and Luke flinched just slightly at the blunt assault, but he didn't fight it-he had nothing to hide.

Pale eyes narrowed to slits. "Would you die for me?"

Silence held for long seconds-no avoidance on Luke's part, but only a study of the truth in his answer.

He nodded, slowly and somberly. "I'd die for you…on your command."

It was the rarest, most valued of moments, as his ever critical Master's face split into a yellow-toothed grin which radiated genuine pleasure, and Luke basked in the knowledge of contented approval, his Master's rasping voice no more than a whisper.

"There, child…there is your true worth."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han walked through the darkened enfilade in Luke's apartment without looking, heading to the Red Room. It was only the subtle bitter smell that slowed him. He glanced about, squinting in the gloom. "Luke?"

The brief, bright flare of a spice stick lit the far shadows, but Han still didn't see the kid until he was almost on him in the darkness. He was sitting on the floor against the corner, knees pulled up before him and arms resting on them, gazing silently out into nothing.

"Finally got your spice, huh?"

"Too little, too late."

"For what?"

"Never mind, doesn't matter." The kid took another long draw on the spice stick. Han stepped closer, and Luke tipped his head just slightly. "Don't sit down."

Han sat in the nearby chair anyway. "Don't want company, huh?"

"I'd figure that the fact that I'm sat in the corner of a dark room pretty much answers that question."

"What d'you need spice for now, anyway," Han continued regardless. "You did it. You faced him, and you did it without any props. You don't need it."

"Great, thanks, whatever," the kid deadpanned. "You can go now. Really."

"I'm serious, you did it."

Luke only shook his head in the darkness. "Oh, I did it alright. I did too much."

"Too much?"

"There can't be too much, huh? Can't have too much of a connection, too much control." Luke let out a quiet little laugh. "Just like everyone else. It doesn't even occur to you to ask if, does it?"

"If?"

"If I want it at all."

"I'm asking now," Han said without challenge.

Again Luke laughed dryly, drawing on the spice stick as he looked down. "Why would I want it?"

"That kind of power?" Han asked. "Who wouldn't want it?"

"To do what?" Luke asked. "It's an illusion. I have no power-nothing of consequence, anyway. I perform on command, and I'm of interest only whilst I do. But that's a fine line, because if I do too much…" The kid looked quickly away, seeming annoyed at himself as he shook his head. "Too much and that's when Palpatine starts thinking. Too much, and there's always a backlash-a need to clarify the order of things, and my position in it." He looked down, voice quiet. "So all that's left now is to wait. Like they say, no good deed goes unpunished…though around here, you can just change that to no deed at all." He lifted the spice stick to his lips, its tip burning bright in the near-darkness. "I'd be better off as some anonymous soldier-a pilot, a mechanic, anybody…at least I'd have a life of my own."

"Is that what you want," Han asked, "to be normal?"

"Doesn't everybody?"

"I dunno," Han said noncommittally. "People generally want to push themselves, to excel."

"I tried that," the kid said flatly. "It wasn't enough, not for him. Nothing I do is ever enough."

"So you've stopped trying?"

"Stopped caring."

Only he hadn't, Han knew. And he wouldn't-not as long as he stayed here. Not as long as Palpatine had any kind of influence over him. That was the fact. He remembered that himself, the memories of his own childhood growing up under Shrike's heavy hand still sharp after all these years. Shrike, who'd run his own private little crime syndicate, manned by kids he'd picked up off the street-easy targets.

Han knew firsthand the cold, convoluted manipulations that made up that kind of coercive hold-maybe not to this degree, but still. They were subtle and they were many, and by now, they'd be deeply-entrenched. That vindictive mix of knocking down and isolating, then neglecting and discounting, until even maltreatment became a desirable thing, because it was something. Because the only being in the galaxy who had any bearing on your life, any significance, was actually paying attention to you. You'd withstand any level of maltreatment, from open contempt to violent eruptions, just to be acknowledged. You'd do anything, just to be seen.

Now, too many years of desperate desire to please a man who either chastised or ignored him were laying heavy on the kid's absolute knowledge that nothing he did would ever be enough. But some part of him still craved, still needed with all the fear and urgency of an orphaned child. It had kept Han with Shrike for years. Pushed him to do whatever was asked of him, desperate for even a shred of acknowledgment. He would have done anything for it. For that feeling, however tainted and grudging, that every child bereft of parents felt gnawing at the core of them: that he belonged.

And Palpatine-Palpatine took the prize, easily surpassing even Shrike's ruthless manipulations. He'd done a real job of convincing the kid that this harsh and pitiless life scraped at the edges of the old man's awareness, was the only option.

And every single day, Han found himself a little more sure…he'd be damned if he'd let him get away with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning brought raw testimony of just how swiftly the kid's feared backlash would come down. News was buzzing that Operation Strike Fear was stumbling. Plans to trap the Rebels near Moralan in Hutt Space had failed spectacularly, coming close on the back of the Invincible's fiasco at Sullust. At midday Luke was summoned, with Gorn's sources saying that Vader was already in attendance and the rest of the leading Operation Strike Fear commanders were assembling.

Han had expected it to be in the War Room, or in the magnificent grandeur of the Cabinet, but in fact it was set in a long, rectangular room of more human proportions, its deeply coffered ceilings perhaps only two or three times the height of a normal room. Its walls were lined with dark-panelled ebony inset with squares of rich mahogany burr, the tall doors treated exactly the same, so that when closed, they seemed to merge seamlessly with the walls, no exits visible. Despite the room's scale, the overall effect was heavy and oppressive, cloying in its complex mix of dark woods and intricate inlays, polished black chairs set in perfect rows about a long, glossy table. Wide windows were set to half-obscure, buffering the light to a shaded gloom, the stillness of the faultless room ominous.

Ahead of Han, Luke slowed as he entered the room and Han glanced across, following his gaze. Darth Vader stood at the far side, well away from the rest of the officers, who milled uneasily close to the doors, murmuring amongst themselves.

Vader turned slowly, black mask distorted by the play of shuttered light across its faceted surface, that hissing breath grating on Han's nerves already, his very presence unsettling. In front of Han the kid slowed to a stop before the long stretch of the polished desk, eyes narrowing as he lifted his chin a fraction.

"Luke?" Indo stepped around Han, one arm out to corral the kid sideways as he spoke quietly. "Now isn't the time." He started to the side, forcing the kid to do the same, though his eyes remained on Vader.

"Are these the Strike Fear Commanders?" Han asked, looking to break the kid's attention by glancing to the nervous brass. "Why is this meeting here-why isn't it in the War Room?"

The kid finally broke contact to look about the room, wary. "Something's going down." He glanced quickly across the assembled officers. "Stay away from Holigén."

"Holigén-why?"

"Moralan Was Holigén's operation. I called him on its flaws a few weeks ago but Palpatine let it play out," the kid murmured. "It should never have…"

Any further explanation Luke might have given was instantly lost as the double-doors opened and two Red Guard entered to stand either side, signalling the entrance of the Emperor. He walked slowly to the head of the table as the officers rushed to stand behind chairs, forced then to wait until the Emperor had made his way forward, leaning heavily on his black cane, his presence reducing the room to hushed tension.

He sat on the ornately carved chair to the head of the table, and Vader stepped forward to stand just behind and to his right, to view the increasingly nervous Generals.

For a moment, the heavy cowl that Palpatine wore tilted in their direction, and Han got a glimpse of those sulphurous yellow eyes as they locked on the kid.

"Here." The Emperor pointed one spindly finger to the left of his seat, and Luke moved without hesitation to walk the length of the silent room, taking up position exactly where Palpatine had pointed.

Stood with the other aides against the wall to the rear of the room, Han found himself frowning as the kid walked by, not liking the tone of Palpatine's command, uttered with such casual, presumptive demand.

Silence held for long seconds as the Emperor studied his steepled fingers, the wait excruciating. When he spoke, his always gravelly tones grated with restrained menace. "I shall not keep you here long…you have a great deal to retrieve. I would, however, like to call to account exactly what has happened. Sit."

The assembled officers rushed to comply, and Han felt, for once, a bone-deep relief that he wasn't among them.

 

 

 

Standing behind and to the side of the Emperor, Vader didn't bother to listen as the breakdowns and the accusations began, all those present scrabbling to lay the blame elsewhere as quickly and decisively as possible. It was clear where the responsibility would eventually fall. instead he glanced to the boy, who stood at the Emperor's left hand, staring off to the middle distance with every bit as little interest in the rush to avoid accountability as he himself had.

Aware of Vader's eyes on him, the boy turned just slightly, the sutures above his eye still looking raw and tender, and Vader smiled just slightly beneath his mask, knowing that he would sense this. Every time he looked to the boy, he saw Kenobi. Saw his old Jedi Master's machinations. His lies. "You were like a brother to me, Anakin!"

It was surely fitting that Vader took care of his brother's son in the same manner than Kenobi had sought to take care of him…and soon, now. Vader hadn't failed to observe the changing dynamics in his most recent duel with the boy; how much he had gained in strength and speed. How willing he was to put that to the test. Almost a man now, and more dangerous by the day. Less predictable…save in his absolute loyalty to his Master; Palpatine had invested a great deal over the years in ensuring that. Which made the boy more dangerous still…because as the years passed, Vader found himself ever less willing to bow to the Sith Master's demands. Ever less sure of his Emperor's right to rule.

But now, if he chose to face his Master down, he faced two Sith, not one. And there was nothing more useful to Palpatine and more problematic to Vader than an advocate willing to lay down his life in defense of his Master. Which the boy would be, Vader was sure of that. Palpatine had trained and molded his little insurance policy for many years now. He should have seen it before, Vader chided himself; should have realized what his Master was doing above and beyond training one more Hand, and taunting Vader for his past weaknesses.

Now the boy was old enough to be a threat, but naïve enough to remain loyal to the man who treated him with nothing but disdain. Desperate to prove himself before a caustically critical Master, the boy wasn't afraid to bleed…and he hated Vader with just as much zeal as Vader despised him-the outcome of that last practice duel had proved that.

But then it was true that Vader, eager to settle old scores and bitter failures at Kenobi's hands, had never once stayed or softened a blow, mental or physical, in his treatment of Kenobi's son. Certainly he had known that the boy would react when he had grabbed him and hauled him in. Thanks to the accumulated actions of a Master he so zealously defended, the boy reacted wildly to any physical touch. Still, only at the last second had Vader realized Luke's resolve; that in the moment, wild animosity fuelling the fire, the boy would actually be willing to maim himself just for the opportunity to wound Vader, the abrupt change from contained hostility to blindly-driven vehemence so absolute as to be near incomprehensible.

His Master always questioned, always doubted the boy's status, taunting Kenobi's son with the withering epithet of blue-eyed boy, in criticism of the fact that despite all he'd done in the Emperor's name, the boy's eyes had never changed. Not yet taken on the sulphurous yellow or fiery red of a true Sith.

Vader stared at the boy now, as the moments of their last duel replayed in his mind… If Palpatine truly questioned for one second whether the boy was indeed Sith, then he should have been there, to look into his eyes in that moment…

 

"And what do you say, child?" Palpatine had leaned back from his assembled Generals to look instead to the boy. "You said that this would come to pass. What do you think the outcome of this debacle should be?"

The boy turned, face completely without emotion though his sense was deeply wary. "It should be whatever you wish, Master."

"I wish it to have been executed correctly in the first place," Palpatine growled. "But it appears to be too much for me to expect that those around me display some modicum of competency."

The boy paused, visibly uncomfortable as his Master's anger turned now on him. Still, young as he was, he was far too old a hand to allow himself to become mired in or associated with any of this debacle, resisting any attempt Palpatine made to drag him in. Vader narrowed his eyes, realizing the Emperor's earlier words: "You said that this would come to pass."

So then the boy was already involved in some way, and just like the assembled officers, was now looking to extricate himself. Vader allowed the barest smile to turn up the edge of his scarred lips, amused at the realization.

"Lord Vader-perhaps you have more of an opinion as to who is at fault here?"

Recognizing the cue which the boy had for some reason sidestepped, Vader walked slowly from his position at the head of the table, taking his time to make his way along the officers sat to the right of the table, who all straightened slightly as he neared, looked steadfastly forward as he slowed behind them, their trepidation pouring out with satisfying intensity. There was, in truth, more than one who should be brought to account for their failures…but the Emperor required only one example to be made today, and without the facts to craft his point, as much as Vader would have liked to lay all blame squarely on Kenobi's son, this was not the opportunity. Instead he slowed to rest his gloved hands on the shoulders of Commander Holigén. The man tensed beneath his touch, dread rising like a cloud.

Palpatine didn't even hesitate. "Commander Holigén…the only worth I see in this fiasco is that you may clarify for all present exactly what it is, to fail your Emperor. Do you have something to say in defense of your failures?"

The man straightened slightly-but though his mouth opened, no words came out.

Hardly surprising, since Vader had closed the Force about Holigén, pressing in against his windpipe with suffocating force.

His gloved hands tightened on the man's shoulders, preventing any greater struggle, as he brought the Force to bear with ever greater pressure. The man gasped and gaped like a fish out of water, every set of eyes in the room staring in morbid fascination. Save the boy, of course, who instead watched the faces of others. He'd seen so many deaths, and this was just one more, hardly excessive. He looked only when Holigén's lifeless body toppled away, released by Vader to hit the stone floor with a heavy thud, and even then it held his attention for only seconds before he returned his scrutiny to the other officers. Probably wondering how they could be surprised at this, Vader mused silently.

He turned his head slightly though he had, in truth, no need to look to Solo, the new addition to the boy's always short-lived staff, to read his thoughts. His agitation had blared out throughout the act, Viscount Indo forced to grip at one of Solo's arms to hold him seated. Now, the man looked to Luke Antilles for some kind of reaction; a waste of time, Vader knew. The boy was hardly about to react to the death of someone as worthless as Commander Holigén, who had been a marked man from the moment he had failed his Emperor. What had Solo expected-pity, perhaps? Compassion? And why would the boy feel either, when even Vader knew that no one here had ever shown him even a fraction of the same? Vader felt no pity for the man he had killed, but at least he knew what it was. The boy had no concept of what he lacked. He had no moral compass simply because he had never been subjected to one.

Palpatine straightened, his growling voice curt and cutting. "Get out, all of you. You have the entire Imperial fleet at your command. Salvage this, and prove to me your worth."

He didn't bother to speak further, the threat implicit. It lay on the floor, glassy eyed, as the nervous officers tried hard not to see it, so eager to be gone that one of them stepped on the dead man's splayed hand, stumbling, though he didn't slow. Vader watched them go, uncaring, though he himself remained, intending to fulfil the opportunity that this debacle had created. The construction of his new flagship, the Executor, was falling behind; now was the time to push it-and to take control of Operation Strike Fear.

The boy too stepped swiftly forward to leave, but Palpatine's hand reached out to grab his wrist, and Vader cursed inwardly, seeing his chance fade.

"Go," Palpatine dismissed tersely, his order aimed equally at Vader as well as Indo and Solo, both of whom had slowed to a stop. "I will speak with the boy alone."

Normally Vader would have tried to remain to push his own cause, but to allay the Emperor's anger when it was so clearly about to be turned on the boy was sufficient grounds to comply. Bowing respectfully, he took a moment as he straightened to glance at the boy, tilting his head in a mocking taunt.

Turning to leave, Vader was halfway down the dark-walled chamber before he realized Solo's narrowed eyes were on him, and that although Viscount Indo had already bowed low and turned, Solo had hesitated. The Corellian held his eye for a second longer, then glanced back to the boy for assurance before he seemed prepared to obey a dismissal by the Emperor himself, his unease at abandoning the boy blasting out.

As the tall, wood-panelled doors slid closed, blocking them off from the inner chamber, Solo threw one more openly contemptuous glance to Vader, then turned away and walked slowly from the anteroom.

Watching, Vader reflected on Solo's growing friendship with Kenobi's son-or rather, more valuable to Vader, the boy's growing reliance on Solo. The Corellian's name had come up in several recent reports by Ashtor, who had mentioned that Luke Antilles was becoming close to the Corellian pilot, despite his knowledge of the inevitable consequences. Solo surely wouldn't survive much longer, when Palpatine realized. Of course, the boy always presented an automatic detachment from any others whenever he was in the presence of the Emperor, but that wouldn't protect the Corellian forever, and the boy must know that-must know from experience that the longer Solo remained here, the more imminent was his demise, at Palpatine's hand.

It occurred to Vader that he could so very easily hurry that process along…but perhaps that was a machination to be saved for the perfect moment-a threat to dangle. The boy had few weaknesses, thanks to Palpatine's efforts…could the Corellian be one of them?

Vader turned to glance once more at the closed doors before leaving, satisfied that the Emperor's cold fury was already centering on the boy, and it wouldn't be too long before it turned to open aggression.

 

 

 

 

Held tightly by Palpatine, nails digging into the soft skin of his wrist, Luke remained still and silent as the room emptied, aware of Vader's taunting amusement as he'd turned to leave.

Eventually his Master released him, though Luke didn't shy back; outward shows of apprehension were always harshly penalized, and his Master was looking for reasons to react today, Luke knew. Palpatine leaned back in the heavy carved chair and studied him for long, unnerving seconds as Luke waited...

"Perhaps you would care to explain to me what just happened. You knew what I expected you to do."

Luke looked quickly down, hiding the truth deep-that it had been Solo's presence that had made him falter. Normally, he would have followed his Master's unspoken allusion without hesitation. It would have been he who would have walked to stand behind Holigén to do his Master's bidding. But today… Why had he hesitated, today of all days, when he knew that his Master was already looking for reasons to chastise? All he'd been aware of in that moment was Solo's eyes on him-and the tumble of feelings which had fired within him at that had held him paralyzed.

"Answer me!" Palpatine rapped, hand slamming down onto the polished table.

"I don't know!" Luke changed his answer quickly, knowing it wouldn't be acceptable. "I didn't realize you wanted-"

"Didn't realize? After your command of the Force yesterday, are you trying to tell me that my intent was not clear?"

"I didn't…I couldn't do that today. I don't have that control." Which was true-he'd made sure of that.

Yellow eyes bored into him, and though he flinched, Luke made no move to defend against the mental assault-save to push certain facts deeper away from his Master's prying senses. But they were few and well hidden, and for the most part, he allowed the onslaught uncontested.

Eventually Palpatine shook his head, lip curling in distaste. "Disappointment after disappointment, that's all you'll ever be. You want the autonomy that Lord Vader enjoys, yet you're nothing but a pale imitation, destined to stand in his shadow for the rest of your life."

Luke looked up at the goading rebuke, the one criticism that he couldn't ignore. "I'm no less than he is."

"And yet it was Lord Vader who had the simple prescience to know what I asked of him today."

"But not the foresight to see it coming."

The words were out before Luke realised it, and perhaps it was where he was being led anyway, because his Master knew precisely what he meant, glancing once to the holo of the Hutt System, still active above the polished expanse of the circular table.

"You knew this would happen." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, Master."

"Yet you said nothing."

He'd tried, of course. Tried to speak out on the very first night that the plan had been put forward by Holigén, and been cut down in no uncertain terms by Palpatine himself. Still, Luke shaped his reply into more respectful tones. "You told me at the time that I had no opinion in this."

"And that is the limit of your reasoning? To wait until you are commanded to speak, like a droid or a parrig-bird?"

Luke glanced down, knowing that his Master's anger wasn't yet satiated with Holigén's death, and that despite the fact that his use of the Force yesterday had been in his Master's service, Palpatine would be looking for an excuse to re-establish his dominance. He loosed a slow, resigned breath, clenching his jaw.

"Answer me!"

Anger quickly followed Luke's unease, as it always did. "What do you want me to say? That I did it to spite you? You know that's not true. Or that I did it out of a desire to see the blockade fail-why would I do that? You think-"

Palpatine lashed out instantly, standing to launch a sharp blow across Luke's face, and Luke fell to silence, though anger boiled as he stared at the floor, cheek burning. His Master stepped in, menacing with his close presence, one strong hand curling across the back of Luke's neck to hold him still when he made to take a step back.

"Was it egotism-independence?" Palpatine's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Perhaps you think you no longer need me?"

And Luke realized what he'd just done-that to his Master's ears, he'd accused not only Vader of lacking foresight, but his Master as well. He heard the appeal in his voice as he spoke, though he knew there was no right answer any more, no defense. "No, Master. I held quiet because you commanded me to."

Cold fingers tightened, pressing into the flesh of his neck. "No? My little fledgling isn't looking to fly the nest?" Palpatine was inches from his face now, voice a hissing whisper. "Because believe me, little hatchling, if I were to push you from the nest, you would be dead before you hit the ground. If I were to broadcast the withdrawal of my protection, then a certain dark-dressed Sith would come looking for you with all eager haste."

Luke lifted his head a fraction. "Let him-I'm not afraid of him."

"He would carve you to pieces."

"He'd try."

"Indeed? He is force and fury…though even he would not dare stand against me. Remember that. You are not beyond me or my will, child, not for a single heartbeat. Nor will you ever be. Everything that you are belongs to me. Everything you will ever be."

"I know that, Master."

"Yet you stood against him in your last duel…and in doing so, against my order. You disobeyed, then and today… Am I to assume, then, that past chastisements are no longer sufficient to clarify that loyalty and obedience are absolute here?"

"I held back on your order! I could have stopped him, dead."

Palpatine lifted his hand to run his thumb over the tender sutures above Luke's eye. "Ah, my little thing, you have learned so much. But look at yourself…bruised and broken. You are not his equal-not yet."

'I'm not a child anymore." Again Luke tried to step back, but Palpatine maintained that tight pressure about the back of his neck.

"You will always be a child to me. You will always be my blue-eyed boy, my fair-haired fledgling." He smiled, voice patronizing. "Don't worry, little thing; you will always hold my favor."

"I don't need protecting."

"No? …Even from me?" Again that change, as his Master's voice ran from mocking disdain to cold, calculating resolve. The air buzzed; vibrated with pitiless intent as his fingers tightened like claws about the back of Luke's neck. "You say you're not afraid of him…are you afraid of me, child?"

Luke tensed in silence, knowing that nothing he said would change the inevitable. His Master leaned close, thin lips pulled back in a snarl from pitted teeth. "Are you afraid of me?"

The vicelike hold which gripped his neck loosened and those cool, gaunt fingers trailed free… Knowing, Luke was galvanized into action, yanking back and shouting out-

The first bright flare of power which ripped through him dropped him to his knees, the blow which landed seconds later nothing by comparison, his consciousness already faltering…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han walked tiredly down the five steps that led into the central hallway to his small apartment. He'd waited until close to midnight, well after his shift had finished, but the kid hadn't returned. Everyone else had milled about in silence as the evening dragged, the somber, dour apartment reflecting their anxiety, no one willing to speak but all thinking the same thing. Worrying the same.

Even the generally bright Gorn had become silent and subdued, leaving without a word as his shift had ended, Han's memory of his words ringing again through bleak thoughts.

"Everyone around him looks the other way or ignores it…"

To his earlier warning, earnestly offered. "Take my advice-don't get involved."

Eventually Han too had slunk off, nothing to say to the stalwart Indo, who would wait all night if necessary, Han knew, though there would be neither sympathy nor conciliation offered when the kid returned. There never was. Entering his apartment, Han determined to make an early morning of it tomorrow, to see if the kid had returned. Relocking his door, he turned about…and paused.

An acrid smell burned the back of his throat, and in the low light which penetrated the hallway from the living room beyond, thin curls of smoke drifted in whirling scrolls. He walked slowly down the short hallway on the balls of his feet, trying to keep quiet as he leaned cautiously round the corner…

Sitting on the chair by Han's desk, Luke was smoking a black-rolled spice stick, staring at nothing.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Han turned on the light…it remained on for all of five seconds, then dimmed again to near-dark as the kid flinched back.

"Uhn, bright light."

"What the hell are you smokin' now, in my apartment?"

"Proxyn. I think it smells quite nice." There was a mock-hurt tone to his voice, and Han huffed as he entered the living space, turning back to raise a side light just a little. He made a double-take as he turned to the kid, whose face was scuffed and bruised, blood dried unheeded on his skin from countless scratches and fine cuts.

Palpatine.

Han pursed his lips, forcing his mind to work and his voice to remain casual. "Where're you getting proxyn?"

"The proxyn pixie came and left it under my pillow."

"Yeah? I'm surprised it managed to find its way out again."

Luke laughed lightly. "He just delivers the stuff, he doesn't smoke it."

"You should think about following his lead."

"I should," Luke said insincerely.

"How did you get in here, anyway? That's a staged lock on the door."

"I know-when did you fit that?"

"Who says I did?"

"Me. It's not palace standard. Why'd you fit it?"

"I like my privacy. How'd you break it?" Han pushed.

"I didn't. If you're beefing your security, you need to put better locks on the windows too."

"We're a hundred-sixty-eight stories up and there's no ledge out there."

"You checked?" The kid seemed amused rather than surprised.

"How'd you get in?"

"I went out the window of the apartment above, then climbed down."  

"A hundred-odd stories above the ground?" And in the state he was in, already bruised and sore and scuffed before he'd risked the climb. Han remembered abruptly that it was the kind of thing that he'd done himself so many times, after a run-in with Shrike; taken stupid risks, partly to stop having to think about it, partly to blow off the anger and burning frustration at his inability to change it, and partly in an effort to prove to himself that he could do something. He hadn't known all that at the time, of course-hadn't seen so clearly when mired in the middle of it all-but now, looking back, looking at those same frustrations boiling in another… Han stared at the kid, still caught in that warped, self-destructive existence, as Luke sought to brush it off, dismissive as ever.

"I've climbed all over the outside of this building since I was a kid, it's fine." He paused, holding up the spice stick. "I should probably take the door out, though."

"Or you could stop smokin' the spice."

"Whatever. Why do you have a holo of a Wookiee on your desk?"

Han stepped quickly forward to mute the gently glowing holo. "Her name's Dewlanna. Was."

The kid nodded, and waited just long enough that Han thought he'd let the moment pass, before speaking. "Is that you standing with her?"

"Yeah," Han said uneasily. "It was a long time ago."

"Where did you grow up?"

"What is this, twenty questions?"

Luke shrugged. "It's the proxyn."

"You shouldn't smoke that crap."

"I know."

"Is there anything you don't take?"

"Glitterstim," the kid said knowingly, the thin, black spice stick bobbing at the corner of his mouth.

Glitterstim: Han stared, mention of the word flaring old memories of the destructive drug. A brief memory flashed of Bria Tharen, the woman he'd lost to her own addictions, her delicate hands criss-crossed with scars from handling and processing raw glitterstim. "You shouldn't touch that stuff," he said darkly.

"I know," the kid allowed. "Now. I took it once-I swear it was like someone turned reality inside out. Everywhere I looked, everyone I saw, it was like I could see all their past decisions trailing along behind them and all their futures in front of them, crossing over and intersecting with everyone around them, more and more every time there could have been a variation. Like every possible future of every possible event in their life was all crammed into this one reality and there was no room left between to breathe or think. I have a distinct memory of trying very hard to get everyone to stand absolutely still and do nothing, in an effort to make it stop. They were running around trying to send for Indo, and all I wanted in the universe was for everybody to be very, very still…and every single second felt like it lasted hours, because every possible thing that could have happened in it had to play out, all crushed into that same second…."

Han stared, taken by the intensity of the kid's memory… Ever uncomfortable under scrutiny, Luke glanced up with an ill at ease shrug and sought to diffuse the moment.

"Then I threw up for three days straight. Couldn't conceive of pulling together the concentration to say my own name for the first day and a half, which didn't really matter that much because, honestly, I didn't remember it anyway."

"Sith kid, how much did you take?"

"Just one stick-a gram," Luke said casually as he pulled a long draw on the black spice stick he held. "Apparently glitterstim and Force-sensitives don't mix, but nobody told me that. Here I am trying to damp down this damn stupid Force, and it turns out glitterstim winds it up. "

Something clicked in the back of Han's mind as facts fell into place. The kid's admission of his own abilities just last night: "Too much and that's when Palpatine starts thinking. Too much, and there's always a backlash-a need to clarify the order of things, and my position in it."

His panic earlier that same day, when he'd been summoned to face Palpatine unexpectedly: "I need spice ... Afterwards is too late."

Han frowned, trying hard to keep his voice casual at the unexpected admission which clarified so much, spoken without thought under the influence of the proxyn. "That why you take it?"

More talkative than usual on the spice, the kid shrugged. "It cuts everyone out. Cuts me out, too."

"Cuts everyone out?"

"You can't hear them. It all goes quiet." Luke glanced to Han. "You live your life like this, in this empty space within your mind. All you have to do is go there and everything's quiet. Me, I hear every single mind in this whole damn palace...for miles around, sometimes. Every thought, every hope, every frustration…everything. Palpatine taught me that."

"Can't you…I don't know, tune it out?"

"Yeah, but only…it's like being in a room full of people and everyone's talking at once. And sometimes you can just let it wash over you, you know? But sometimes…you know what it's like when you tune into a noise, and you just can't stop, once you've done it. You can't ignore it, it just…burrows in there until it's all you can hear. Drives you insane. Palpatine taught me to tune into the mind of another Force-sensitive when I want to cut the other voices out, though."

"Let me guess…the only other Force-sensitive around here happens to be Palpatine himself, right?"

The kid's grin was loose and spice-soaked. "Well I sure as hell aren't going to go looking for Vader's mind."

"Convenient though," Han said; that Palpatine wanted total control of Luke, and what he'd taught him just happened to make sure that the kid would be dependent on him. "But spice dulls it anyway-makes them go without Palpatine's intervention," Han added, realizing.

Luke smiled as he lifted the black spice stick to his lips again, a slow trail of inky smoke trickling from them as he spoke. "More than that…you get the right one, and spice makes the Force go. Almost completely."

"It doesn't even occur to you to ask if, does it?" Han remembered the kid saying."If I want it at all."

"So, what, you can't…?"

"I can't sense it, can't connect to it-and it can't connect to me. When I've smoked spice…I'm normal. I'm just like everyone else." Unfocused, spice-blurred eyes fixed on Han, contentment obvious. "Imagine that."

Han stared, seeing the kid afresh. "Is that what you want?"

Luke laughed dryly, "What I want…what's that?"

Han sat without speaking, wondering if the spice would keep the kid talking.

Luke took another long draw then held the spice stick up, a trail of that thick tar-black smoke twisting from it as he blinked heavy eyelids. "This…this buys me normality-or as near as you'll ever get round here."

"… Does he know?" Han asked at last.

"He found out ages ago, when I'd ended up in the medicenter from some bad spice. Indo tried to hide it but…it got out. The medic, I suppose. I was three days in the medicenter, and on the fourth day he sent for me. I was summoned to his quarters, and when I arrived…when I arrived, there were two sticks of shenir spice on a side table. He told me it was for me, and I should take it."

"He gave you spice?" Han couldn't hide his disgust.

"Don't get too outraged," the kid said dryly. "I'd never taken it before. It was stronger than I was used to, but Palpatine made me take both. Then he told me it made me weak…and he illustrated to me why, exactly." The kid briefly tipped his head to glance wryly at Han. "That was when I realized just how much it cut my contact with the Force down. He told me to defend myself…and I couldn't. He…"

Han watched the kid still, frowning just slightly, scuffed and bruised face pinched by memories…then suddenly he seemed to remember Han's presence and grinned.

"He put me back in the medicenter for another two days. Told me never to even consider going into his presense having used the stuff. So I became more…careful after that, learned to be more cautious. I learned to disguise it, so he couldn't tell."

"He doesn't know you still take it?"

Luke smiled hazily. "You should be impressed-there's not many people could lie to a Sith."

"Except another Sith," Han said knowingly.

Luke's face took on that wayward edge, and for the first time, Han wondered if it was as much a refusal to be cowed as it was wilful mischief. "Now, you see, I know that the trick is never to go into his presense without it. You make it normal."

"But that means you make it normal for you, too," Han said. "Why'd you want to be…limited like that?"

The edge of the kid's lips twitched just slightly. "Because normal doesn't interest Palpatine."

And there it was-the part of the puzzle that Han had been missing. The drugs didn't just buy him a mental escape from this life, they didn't just buy him a way to tune other minds out and free himself of his dependence on Palpatine…they also made him normal, and normal made him invisible. To Palpatine. And looking at the kid right now, bruises still darkening beneath drying scabs, Han could see why that was a desirable thing.

Luke loosed a private smile as he stared through half-closed eyes at the black smoke. "More than that…normal drives him insane."

Han shook his head, running his fingers back through his hair. "You can't…you gotta get out of here-out of the palace-you know that, right? First chance you get."

"I will."

"I'm not talking about becoming an Emperor's Hand, I'm talkin' about now-right now. I'm talking about getting out and never coming back."

The kid turned from the smoke to stare at Han, clearly not understanding. To him, the opportunity to serve as Emperor's Hand was the first, best and only chance on offer. How the hell did you get a kid to think like that? How did you get him to be willing to live like this? Han shook his head slowly, at an absolute loss as to where to go from here.

After long seconds, Luke held out the spice stick. Han had to laugh, shaking his head in refusal. "That's not the answer."

"It is eventually."

"When did you start using it?"

Luke took a final draw on the stump of the spice stick, and Han thought he'd discard it…instead, he patted his pockets and pulled another out, lighting it from the dying embers of the last one. "I dunno. Like I said, probably when I was about twelve, I think. Eleven or twelve."

Han frowned. "You shouldn't back-to-back 'em like that."

Luke dropped the spent stub to the floor unheeded, and let his head loll back as he drew on the newly lit stick. "Yeah, 'cos that's the biggest problem in my life right now."

"How d'you manage to find spice aged eleven?"

"Eleven was when Palpatine handed me over to Indo, so I had freedom to move about for the first time. And…stuff had happened."

"So before that?" Han prompted, hoping the spice would keep the kid talking whilst he wheedled out more facts.

Luke glanced down. "Before that I was with Palpatine."

Looking at the kid's battered features in the low light, Han knew it was all he needed to say. Was probably all he could say. He cast about for something to keep the kid talking "How come nobody knows that you were here before eleven?"

"I…was kept out of the public eye. They took my details off the Central Records System when I first came here."

"You're on the System," Han said, very sure-though he didn't admit to having used Gorn's clearance to look the kid up. "Everyone's on the CR System."

"Yeah but my details have been changed-quite a few times. The first assassination attempt came a few months after Palpatine decided to let me out."

"Out?"

"Let me…be seen."

If he was less inclined to bother covering the facts with elaborate lies any more, the kid still seemed reticent to tell the truth. Instead he picked and chose what he told, and for now, Han let that pass-at least he was getting some of the details. And judging from the fact that the kid was smoking what looked like his third spice stick already, Han was hoping he'd get progressively more talkative and less cautious.

For now, Luke shrugged. "That was when I was eleven. They cut my hair and dressed me in new clothes, and Palpatine hung a lightsaber on my hip then pushed me halfway out onto that balcony above the crowds… That was the first time-the first time I realized." At Han's questioning stare, Luke tilted his head in thought. "I'd known for years that Palpatine had been the center of my existence, the center of my life… I'd even known that he was Emperor. I just…I hadn't known what that really meant. Hadn't known until that moment, when he pushed me out onto that balcony above the crowds, that he was the center of everything, everywhere. The center of the galaxy. "

Han took a breath to say, 'He's not,' and the kid turned shrewd eyes on him…and he couldn't say it. Because it'd be a lie, and there were too many of those clinging to the kid as it was.

Luke watched, waiting for a few seconds more. When Han didn't speak, he took another long draw on the spice stick, eyes narrowing at old memories. "I didn't want to go out there-that was only the second time I'd been outside in four years-but he clamped his hands on my shoulders and he walked me out there…and I knew he was up to something. I didn't say that-didn't say much of anything back then. But a month or so after that, the Rebels tried to kill me."

"I heard about that. What I don't get is why?"

"That was the first time I'd been seen since…since I came here. The first time the Rebels realized that I was still alive."

"Why would they want to kill you, though?"

"Because I'm Sith. Kenobi's son or not, if I was with Palpatine and wore a lightsaber on my hip, I was being trained as a Sith. That made me a threat to them."

"Kenobi was with them, wasn't he?" Han remembered the kid saying that once before, the first time he'd admitted that Kenobi was his father. He'd said then that Kenobi had been among those who'd come here to kill him.

Luke nodded, expression unreadable. He'd had years to try to put all this into perspective, Han supposed…though would that make any difference at all? The kid's own father still came to kill him, simply because he'd grown up on the wrong side of his father's war.

"So…what happened to your mother? I guess you were brought up with her until you came here, right?"

"My mother…I was…" Luke shook his head as if angry at himself, and started again, voice tightly constrained. "You remember the terrorist bombing here at the Imperial Palace nine years ago? The assassination of the Alderaanian Royal Family."

"Vaguely." Han remembered the outrage in the media at the time, because it was the Alderaanian Royal family, and everyone knew they were moderates. The official press had been all over it, saying that the Rebels had no conscience and no shame. He remembered there were huge clampdowns afterwards, right across the board. For the protection of the people, the Empire had said.

He'd had his own problems at the time, but he remembered it. Remembered… Han straightened slightly as the facts came flooding back. The Alderaanian Royal Family-didn't they have a son who'd died alongside them in the explosion? How old was he at the time?

He looked to Luke, making the rough mental calculation, though he needn't have bothered. The kid was nodding somberly. "They were my parents. Forget Kenobi-they were always my parents. They always will be."

Han cursed, appalled at the brutal cruelty of the kid's short life. "You were in the explosion?"

"No. No, I saw it though… Saw the explosion, saw…" He fell to silence again, frowning deeply.

Han shook his head, realizing only now just how much the kid had been through, so young. "You were…" What was her name? "You were Breha Organa's son?"

It made sense; if the kid's father was Kenobi, and that was a genetically verified fact, then logically, his mother must have been Breha Organa.

"My mother was…" The kid hesitated, tripping over the words, throat tightening. "My mother was Queen Breha, I think, from the Royal House Antilles. Bail Organa…he was my adopted father, but no one ever knew that. I didn't know it myself at the time-didn't know that either of them might not be my real parents." Luke paused to look up from his study of the spice stick in his hand, his pale eyes solemn and serious. "They'll always be my parents, to me. Always. Palpatine told me…he said they were using me-or were going to, when I was old enough. It's not true. I never believed him. But he cut me off from Alderaan entirely when the assassination took place; registered me as dead in the Central Records System, gave me a new identity. I didn't use a surname for a long time. When I started again-when Indo told the Emperor I needed one-Palpatine let me use the name Antilles, after my mother's family, because it's a pretty common surname in a lot of systems. Organa would always have been…contentious. Questions had already been raised by Alderaan, so to use my father's name would have meant acknowledging my heritage and therefore my right to rule, which I guess you know by now that he never intended for me."

Han glanced down. "I'm pretty curious as to why."

Luke shrugged. "Immaterial now. Alderaan's been under martial law for almost five years. There is no Royal Family any more."

"But there are still Antilles. Do they know about you?"

"They were suspicious for a brief time, when I reappeared, I think. It's better this way…for them. Palpatine took the Alderaanian aristocracy apart when the Antilles and the Organas started trying to find out the truth."

"You ever thought about going back-to Alderaan?"

The kid shook his head. "I came here when I was so young, I don't really remember anything before."

"Why don't you want them to know about you?"

Struggling for words, emotions clearly running deep, Luke fought to keep his voice casual. "I told you, it's better this way. Safer. For them."

Now, knowing the Emperor in person, Han nodded. "But shouldn't you be the ruling…whatever-king, or something?"

"Palpatine disassembled Alderaan's right to planetary Sovereignty when the Organas began asking precisely who I was, when I was seen on that balcony, aged eleven. I have no idea how they made that connection. Probably it was through the Rebels-they obviously had their suspicions. Anyway I shouldn't rule, not by bloodright."

"But even if this Jedi Kenobi was your father, if Breha was your mother…"

"I don't know if she was, not biologically… She'll always be my mother, and Bail will always be my father, to me." He repeated this with absolute, unwavering belief. "But they're dead, and believe me, the best thing I can possibly do for what's left of the Royal Houses is to leave them well alone. There are so few people who know what happened. Indo does, and Vader…they know that part of the truth, anyway."

"Not Gorn?"

"You're kidding. It'd be all over the palace in less than an hour." The kid's wry tone, in the midst of all this scheming and deception, drew a smile from Han as Luke continued. "And Palpatine knows, of course-the whole truth. Palpatine…engineered most of it."

Han felt his smile fade. "What does that mean?"

"Palpatine… There was no Rebel assassination, not really."

Han straightened slightly, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. "Palpatine…?"

Luke looked down. "He never hides the truth-not from me. When he first spoke to Vader about it, Vader said that he didn't think Breha Antilles was my mother. He said it a few days after the…assassination. But you know Vader-anything to lash out."

"Even then?"

"From the very first time he saw me." Luke nodded without elucidating. Instead, he looked quickly to Han. "You know you can't tell anybody about this stuff, right? Or you'll be killed-I mean actually killed."

Han nodded slowly. "Excellent. Always good to get a heads-up on that."

Luke hunched down a little, the tip of his spice stick flaring brightly as he lifted it to his mouth. "You get used to it here. Truth is a dangerous thing."

"Around here, I'm never quite sure what it is anyway," Han said wryly.

The kid shrugged as he took another long pull on the spice stick, fingers trembling as he held it, though that could have been the subject or the spice, Han knew. He watched Luke lean back, a melancholy look coming into his spice-hazed eyes. "You want the truth-all of it? The truth is a powder blue dress."

Han glanced from Luke to the spice stick, not sure what the kid even meant. "What?"

"Powder blue that should have been black. But I was too young to realize. Too young and too scared. If I'd known…" Abruptly he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees as his head dropped forward, shoulders tensed. For the longest time he remained silent, head shaking. "But I didn't…my own stupid fault."

He remained still, head down, face hidden…then right there, in front of Han's eyes and without hesitation, he pressed the glowing tip of the spice stick into his palm, the hiss as it made contact springing Han into action. He lurched forward to knock the stub of the spice stick from Luke's hand and across the floor.

"Luke-what the hell!"

The kid looked up, eyes glassy with emotion, but charged with some deeper amusement. "What, it's nothing."

"You can't…you can't do stuff like that. What the hell's goin' on in your head!"

Luke smiled just briefly, then looked back to the ash-smeared wound. "The truth…that it's my fault. All of this-my parents, the assassination, their death, it's all my fault."

"How is it your fault?"

"Palpatine said he did it for me, to make me strong. I could have stopped it…somehow, I should have stopped it, but I let them die…I did that."

"No, you didn't."

Luke only glanced away. "You don't understand."

"Well then tell me!" Han knew he was so close-he wouldn't let go, not this time. The kid wanted to tell somebody, Han could see it in every fiber of his body…he so desperately wanted to tell someone.

"How old were you?" Han forced himself calm, looking to keep the kid talking, to ease him in.

Luke was silent for a long time, gently shaking his head. When he finally spoke, it was barely a whisper. "I was…it was my eleventh birthday. I was…still with Palpatine and I…" Luke paused to heave a long sigh without looking up, then another.

Han waited, giving him time, and eventually the kid continued.

"I had done something. I think I'd probably broken out…again-that always got a strong reaction."

"Broken out?"

"The chamber where I…it had no windows. I never saw the sky. Sometimes I just wanted to see the stars. But…it…" He took another slow breath…another…then shook his head, rising quickly. "No, I can't. No."

"Luke…"

Han stood, but the kid was already walking away. He leaned quickly forward to grab for Luke as he passed, and the kid twisted about, staggering a step from the spice, more agitated than ever. Remembering, Han backed off with his open hands out before him, knowing now that the kid didn't like to be touched. "Okay, it's okay. I get it."

"I should…I have to go." Luke turned quickly, hand swiping at his face as he walked the short hallway.

"Luke?"

The kid paused at the door, his back to Han as he swayed slightly. Han waited, knowing that any chance to prolong the talk was over, but still wanting to give him the time and space to pull himself together.

"The key code's five-one-nine-nine-six."

"I already knew that." Luke turned to smile briefly, eyes glassy from emotion and spice, and in the low light, he looked like the kid he really was. Then he was gone, and Han was left staring at the closed door in the semi-darkness, the pall of bitter-smelling smoke still choking the air.

Eventually he took a step forward to stub out the still-smoking spice stick on the floor, shaking his head as he let out a long, rough sigh and walked through his small apartment to dial up the air exchange. He paused by his desk where the kid had sat, pushing idly at the datapad and daily detritus that gathered there…

Underneath, drawn into the surface in those familiar fine, scratchy lines, was a half-finished sketch of the holo Luke had seen-of Han as a young kid, standing before Dewlanna, her big arms about him. Han smiled, running his finger over the sketch-then frowned.

Already knowing, he opened the drawer beneath his desk…all the styluses were gone.                          

                                                                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

 

The comm call came in just after two in the morning. Han let it ring out twice, but whoever it was didn't seem to take the hint, and by then, he was awake enough to start worrying that it may be something to do with the kid, so he leaned over to fumble it on. "Solo."

"Han?" It was Gorn. "We've lost Luke."

 

 

That was how come Han was wandering, tired and bleary-eyed, around The Shades-the dark underbelly of the shining Palace District, far above. The strange thing about the Palace District was that, while the wealthiest families on Coruscant owned sprawling floor-spanning apartments and whole pallazzos up where the sun actually shone, down in the shadows dirtside and way lower than the light of day ever filtered, it had a broad selection of the scuzziest, rundown, decaying and plain dangerous cantinas you could ever hope to find. They seemed somehow to have gathered in the long shadow of the palace, hunched together in the cramped, mean streets lit only by blinking signs which never quite reached into the dark alleys and the shadowed doorways.

He and Gorn were doing a wide sweep of cantinas down here, because Gorn knew for a fact that the kid went to the Sinkhole and the Sin Cantinas, and Han had first met the kid in the Dirty Dug, which bordered The Shades and the Dyging District, nearby.

He didn't really mind being down here-though he had silently thanked all over again the fact that, despite being dragged out of bed in the early hours of the morning, he'd still had the street-sense to come out in civilian clothes; three minutes down here in his black Imperial uniform and he would have ended up as another dark smear on an alley wall. But after a childhood spent hanging around alley-heads in any number of rundown port towns as a lookout for Shrike, Han still felt at home in a place like The Shades. In fact, he'd made a habit of dropping in on the Blue Lekku cantina less than ten minutes from here, just to keep his hand in. But it was now three a.m., and the drunks and the spiceheads were gettin' mean.

the kid, Han figured he should look for the sleaziest joint around, then see if it had a back room. Down a narrow alley on a litter-strewn side street a sign fritzed in and out, throwing the two Weequay bouncers at the door into brief, staccato clarity as they stared stonily ahead. The sign read, 'Bad Break Cantina'.

Han walked down the alley and between the two beefy Weequay with a brief, " 'Scuse me, fellas."

 

It was about as dark inside the cantina as it was outside, and Han nearly took a header down the nine steps immediately inside the door. But he caught himself in time, and took advantage of the high ground to take a good long look about the big room, only slightly impaired by the thick haze of spice which drifted lazily above the movement of too many bodies.

He did the booths and the corners first, of course-kid tended to stay out of view-then scanned across the mass of bodies in the center of the room…nothing. He was about to leave when he glanced to the bar, the only place in the whole cantina that actually had some light…and there, dressed in a short, scuffed and worn hide jacket which melted him into the crowd, was Luke.

Congratulating himself silently, Han negotiated the barely lit stairs to walk up behind the kid, who was sat perched on a stool at the bar-not his usual spot. Han was halfway across the floor before he realized the reason why; the kid was talking to a compact, curvy little brunette with big brown eyes and thick shoulder-length hair, held back from her youthful face by a plait which started behind one ear then ran like a headband across the top of her head, the tail of the plait from behind her ear running a good few inches longer than the rest of her hair. Not local either, Han noticed peripherally: her clothes were the wrong cut and style.

Eyes coming back to Luke, Han grinned as he pulled up behind him. "I knew I'd find you here, tappin' up some chick for spice…"

Kid didn't even turn. "Go away."

"Fine-c'mon." Han turned about, then back when he realized that if he left, it would be alone. "C'mon, I'm risking my hide here."

"Well then go."

"Yeah right, 'cos having spent half my night finding you, I would just leave you here."

Finally, Luke turned, annoyed. "Would you just go!"

The girl tucked a strand of her mahogany-dark hair behind her ear. She wore a slack, crossover tunic and fitted pants with a wide leather belt which cinched in her tiny waist, still discernible under the ankle-length hooded cloak she seemed reluctant to take off despite the heat in the room. Hooking her booted feet up on the bar of her stool, she turned to look Han up and down appraisingly. "Who's this?"

"My older brother," the kid lied easily. "Way older."

"Yeah, I got all the looks and the brains, he just got the mouth."

The woman turned back to Luke, smiling. "It's a nice mouth."

Han rolled his eyes. "Good grief. Look, doll, he's kinda busy right now…"

Luke turned on Han. "What about 'go away' do you not understand this time?"

"The part where, having dragged my ass out of bed at two a.m., I leave you on your own," Han retorted. "You know, half the...place is out looking for you."

The kid couldn't have been less impressed. "Well then go and tell them I'll be back tomorrow."

"It is tomorrow."

"In the morning-I'll be back in the morning."

"Indo's on his way here."

That turned Luke around. "You told him?"

The girl leaned forward, clearly alarmed by the change in Luke's voice. "Who's Indo?"

"Indo's the guy who's gonna ground your new friend here for a month if he finds him in a dive like this-yet again," Han said pointedly, his words aimed more at Luke than the little brunette.

She frowned-and now that Han was actually paying attention, she was quite a looker-about the kid's age with dark, rosebud lips to balance those huge brown eyes as she looked back to Luke.

"Is Indo your father?"

"No," Luke stated emphatically, turning back to her.

Feeling suddenly guilty at ruining the kid's chances, Han attempted to backpedal. "Indo's our Unit Commander."

Her eyes only widened further. "You're military?"

"No!" Luke turned on Han. "Would you stop trying to help!"

But the girl was already rising. "Maybe I should go."

"No wait, please!" Luke stood as she did, reaching out to catch her wrist…and she paused, those brown eyes widening like a startled fawn's. He let her go quickly, hand out as if to calm her, and she brought her wrist up, wrapping her other hand about the point that he'd touched her…

"I'm not military, I swear!" Luke said quickly. "He was just trying to make me look good. Please-meet me here again?"

She hesitated, seeming to consider. "I shouldn't… What did you just do?"

"Do? Nothing…please-tomorrow night?"

"I can't, not tomorrow. I have to be in the Myzicc District, to meet a friend."

"The night after?"

Again she paused, but curiosity overcame the caution in her eyes as she nodded-and even Han knew she'd turn up. "Here, at eight."

"Eight's too soon-I can get here at ten, ten-thirty?"

She nodded again, a smile coming to ruby lips, and Han took the opportunity to grab Luke's jacket at the small of his back and begin pulling him backwards to the exit. "He'll be here-I'll bring him myself."

Luke kept watching her, letting Han pull him several steps by the bottom of his jacket before he half-turned briefly, glancing down to where Han held his jacket. "Hey, what's this?"

"This is me getting you outta trouble-again," Han said, as the kid backed neatly up the steps which led onto the street without once turning to register where they were. Somehow it was the small stuff like this which Han always found really freaky.

 

The kid sat in silence in the black speeder on the way back, chewing at his thumbnail. Han took a roundabout route as he commed Gorn to call off the search, hoping to slip in at the military supplies entry gate, as Luke stared out, thoughtful.

Eventually Han risked a sideways glance. "Y'know, I'm impressed." Luke turned from his reverie as Han continued. "At least you picked the best lookin' girl in the place to hit on-looks like you were doin' pretty good too."

"I wasn't hitting on her," Luke said levelly, and Han grinned.

"Whatever."

"She's a Rebel."

The speeder did a brief, wild swerve, making Luke grabbed for the dash as he was thrown to the side. "Hey!"

"Rebel? Tell me you're kidding! Tell me she's a spice dealer or a professional killer or, or…something!"

"She's a Rebel, and I need to talk to her again. I need to check some stuff before I do, though."

"What d'ya mean, talk to her again?"

"When we go back."

"We're not going back."

"Yes we are."

"No, we're makin' up an identi-fit, handing that and the cantina name over to Intel, and stayin' the hell away from there."

Luke straightened. "We're going back."

"No, we're not."

"You said we were!"

"That was when I thought you were hittin' on her."

"Fine, I'm hitting on her."

"Yeah, that was when I thought you were hittin' on her and I didn't know she was a Rebel."

"What do you think is going to happen?"

"Seriously? If Palpatine finds out?"

"Palpatine knows! Well, he doesn't know about her in particular, but he knows I was going to try to track down the contact from the spy I killed."

"The dead spy from Sinto Barracks-that's his contact?"

"Yes. You heard her say she had to meet someone in the Myzicc District…that's where Sinto Barracks are-the one that the spy was smuggling Imperial codes out of. That was the cantina I saw in his head, and I'm pretty damn sure that she's his contact."

Han relaxed a little, relieved enough now to joke. "Man, I'm on the wrong side of this war-all the cute brunettes are always on the other team."

"Whatever. We need to go back."

"Why?"

"When you said we were from the military-and thanks for that, by the way-she panicked for a brief second. Just a second, but I got something…something she wanted to protect."

"What?"

"Skyhook."

"Skyhook what?"

"Just that-Skyhook."

"That's it?"

"She's good at masking her thoughts. But the spy had the same thing in his head as he died…a need to protect it," Luke said thoughtfully. "It's something… Something big, if they're willing to try to put spies and J…and Rebels in the Capital. I need to go back and see if I can get any more from her."

"No. Uh-uh. Why don't we just bring her in? Hand her over to Intel. You get a pat on the head from old yellow eyes, my blood-pressure returns to normal, and we forget all about it."

"No, I have to go back."

"Seriously, are you actually trying to turn that pat on the head into a side-swipe? Do you spend your days thinking of new and novel ways to wind the old man up?"

"No, I try to do my job."

"Your job, soldier, is to hand that information over-and you know it."

"I'm not a soldier, I'm Ubiqtorate…and my job is to follow a mission through until its conclusion. This is only just beginning."

"Well then just tell the damn Ubiqtorate!"

"No, that's not what I do-it's not what I'm trained to do. I work below official radars. I take orders from and answer to Palpatine, you know that."

"And you seriously think the old man's gonna say, 'Yeah, what the hell, I know I like to have people watching you every second of every day, and I spend my life on a fuse so short you just have to blink without permission and I give you hell, but you go on ahead and sneak outta my palace again, to meet with a Rebel. Have fun! I'm not gonna come down on you like a ton of duracrete-not at all.' "

"That is the worst impersonation of the Emperor that I've ever heard."

"Hey, I was going for the essence of the conversation, not a literal portrayal. My point remains, he'll bounce you off all four walls, and you know it."

Luke slumped back down, no answer to that. After a few minutes Han pursed his lips, guilty at throwing the threat in the kid's face. "Listen, let's just do the right thing, pass the details over, and let Intel worry about it, huh?"

"I'm not handing her over."

"Why?"

"Because…" The kid fell to silence, and Han wondered if he maybe liked her after all.

"Fine, I'll tell you what, we'll just keep quiet and forget all about it. Our secret."

Luke glanced sideways, staring at Han as if he'd said something outrageous…then shook his head quickly and let out a low sigh, staring straight ahead. "Fine."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"And you're not just saying that and intending to go back tomorrow night anyway?"

"No."

"That's the most unconvincing no I've ever heard."

The kid was saved a reply, as the speeder was coming close to the military-only entry gate. Instead he remained still, looking straight ahead as Han keyed the blackout window down.

"Military," he said simply.

The trooper took Han's ID and scanned it, then ducked to look at his passenger. "Who's that?"

"Military," Han said blandly.

"Right," the trooper said, sceptically. "I'm gonna need to see ID."

It had been worth a try. Han turned to the kid, hand out. "ID?"

"Didn't bring any."

"You're kidding me."

"Nope."

"Just…what…"

"Like I intended coming back through an official gate," the kid dismissed, unfazed.

Han glared a moment longer before turning back to the trooper with his 'best buddy' smile on. "C'mon, pal, give me a break."

"I don't do breaks, Sir."

"Look…"

Luke leaned abruptly over across Han to catch the trooper's eye. "Go away."

The stormtrooper remained silent for several seconds, motionless…..then he straightened slowly, backing away from the speeder as he muttered Luke's words under his breath.

"Keep going," Luke said, his stare just a fraction too fixed as he watched the trooper back up.

Han too watched uneasily. "How far're you gonna make him walk?"

The kid frowned, not breaking eye contact with the trooper. "Why?"

Han shrugged. "Just…y'know."

"Don't you wanna find out how far back I can make him go?"

"Luke!"

The kid huffed, clearly unsure as to why that was a bad thing. "Fine…stop there. We didn't come past-no one's come past in the last few minutes." His voice wasn't raised, but though the trooper was a good distance away, Han could see his helmet bob several times, as if he'd heard and was repeating the kid's words.

With a final backward glance, Han accelerated the speeder into the main hangar to settle it in among three dozen identical models. He shut off the repulsor, staring at the wall ahead of him. Eventually he sighed. "You're still goin' back, aren't you?"

"Yep."

"Damn, I hate this job."

"I have to go," Luke said without turning to Han.

"Because?"

"I think she knows something else-somebody I need to speak to."

Han tilted his head, determined not to be dragged into this latest wild and pointless scheme. "Who's that?"

"My father, Kenobi."

 

 

 

 

 

The cantina was thick with spice smoke by the time they arrived, late in the night. Stood behind Luke, Han glanced about, eyes acclimatizing to the low light as he followed a step behind the kid, staying close, because Sith knew what he'd do if everything he said was true-though if Kenobi had managed to last this long, Han was guessing that the man wouldn't be stupid enough to ever come to Coruscant. Then again, he'd actually tried to break into the palace itself not that many years back, intending to kill Luke.

Kill his own son. Han frowned at that-at what the hell the kid had made of it, when he'd found out. At what he'd have to say, if he ever got to face his old man. At what he'd do. His mind went back to the lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader-to the honed skill and the frenzied fury that the kid had turned on someone who was supposed to be an ally. What would he do to the man who had abandoned him at birth, then come looking for him to kill him when the kid was barely eleven?

Luke clearly intended something-though it seemed like he was willing to play the long game to get it, if he had to. He'd already had Han stop a few blocks back and one level up to buy a freeline comlink from a random trader who was selling them from the back of his speeder-all perfectly legit, of course...

"What's this for?" Han had asked, as the kid opened the forged box to pull out the comlink and charger, throwing the rest away as he walked.

"I need a clean comm code," Luke had said casually. "Pick them up unlocked, and if you don't fire any flags by using trigger words, and don't overuse it, it'll stay under the radar for a few months before you have to change it."

"Why exactly do you need it to stay under the radar?" Han had asked knowingly. The kid hadn't bothered to reply, and Han had nodded. "Is this a bad time to point out that I'm still on military probation?"

"Please, you don't give a damn about the military."

"No, but I do give a damn about facing off to Indo-or more importantly, old yellow eyes-and having to explain why exactly I let you drag my ass into this."

"Well then go back to the palace and claim ignorance. Not that it'll work with the Emperor, you understand…speaking of which, you need to hang back a bit and keep quiet when we get there."

"What, afraid all her attention'll be concentrated on the good lookin' one?"

"Very funny," Luke had deadpanned. "More afraid that she knew what I did when I took her arm a few nights back."

"Which was?"

"I was about to plant a compulsion in her mind-make her want to come back tonight-but I stopped short because…I'm pretty sure that she sensed something."

"Sensed something?"

"The point is, you just need to hold back a little and keep quiet. I haven't got time to teach you anything now, but there's a way to deal with this, to at least partially keep a few thoughts hidden from someone who isn't specifically looking. Tonight, I'll just have to stop her attention centering on you too much, but the less you draw attention to yourself, the better."

"You want me to go in after you and sit in a corner?"

"No, she'd spot you," the kid had dismissed instantly.

Han had tilted his head, voicing mock vanity. "I do stand out in a crowd."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Just let me do the talking."

"That is the worst excuse for a 'give me the first shot' line I've ever heard," Han had crowed.

"Whatever. Just stay back and try not to think of anything…that last part shouldn't be too hard for you, at least."

 

 

 

The weird thing was that to look at them, they could have been two kids in any cantina on any planet, Han reflected. He'd taken a seat behind the kid at the bar after giving the brunette a brief nod of acknowledgment, and was now spending his time trying to look every direction but at them, and wondering how the hell you thought of nothing when this was going down less than three paces away…and why that was even important anyway. Mostly, his head was filled with a thousand and one ways that this could go catastrophically wrong for the kid, and how to get him out of it when it did. And occasionally, he stole a glance at the woman with the open, animated face and the damndest doe brown eyes…and then he remembered that she was a Rebel, and being here was doubtless gonna drop him in some serious trouble, somehow or other. It wasn't even her, necessarily; he just had something of a track record for finding it.

Still, he had to admit that the kid was pretty good at this stuff, all youthful charm and wide-eyed smiles. Not a single question asked about Kenobi or the Rebellion, nothing that was at all contentious. Lots of other questions though, but easy to answer, nothing too searching. Getting her used to answering, Han supposed.

Kid had that expression on where he tipped his head slightly forward and grinned, making him seem at once eager and shy. It took a while for Han to remember where he'd seen it before, because it certainly wasn't in the kid's daily gamut of sardonic distance, but he finally pinpointed it as being at the reception in the palace, when Luke had been targeting the old industrialist, ordered to find out whether the man had Rebel sympathies. He'd been all earnest and innocent then too. All amicable enthusiasm. And it seemed to be working again, because the dark-haired girl was smiling warmly and leaning in as she spoke, her whole attention on him.

"I wasn't sure you'd even be here."

Luke straightened slightly. "You're kidding, of course I would! I thought you wouldn't show, not for me. I mean…uh, so…what were you doing here, before?"

She smiled at his apparent embarrassment. "I came to see someone."

"In a bar like this? You should be careful." Kid was ridiculously earnest, and the brunette smiled.

"I can take care of myself."

"Oh no, I didn't, y'know, mean to imply that you couldn't." Luke backpedalled, all gawky unease, which would've been cute, had Han not remembered the cool menace in the threats the kid had loosed on the last Rebel he'd come into contact with-the spy at Sinto Barracks. He felt a brief flare of guilt at leaving the brunette to fend for herself as Luke continued, one hand picking with mock-nervousness at the frayed edge of the bar stool he sat on. "I just…well, when you left that night… I realized I should have gone with you-made sure you were okay."

"You're very sweet." The brunette glanced down to hide her smile, her tone implying that she believed herself a hundred times more capable than the naïve youth sitting opposite her. Then again, from the looks of Luke, Han couldn't blame her. She glanced at the sutures above his black eye. "And, no offense, but you look like you could do with a little protection yourself, from time to time."

He straightened, grinning. "Hey, you don't know how many of them there were."

"How many?"

Luke let himself slump just slightly, self-depreciating humor in his voice. "One, actually…but he was bigger than me-which isn't hard, I know."

She stifled a smile, drawn further in by his humility as he leaned forward earnestly.

"But I'm serious, though. You shouldn't walk around here late at night on your own-or the Myzicc District…that's where you said you were headed, isn't it? Parts of the deeper levels are no-go areas after dark. There's a huge military base there too. You have to be careful, if you don't know the capital." He glanced briefly back to Han, one hand out-as if Han's opinion mattered too, all of a sudden. "I mean, the military are pretty heavy-handed this close to the palace, right? And Myzicc District…they've been touchy there for a few weeks now, I heard."

The brunette sat up a little straighter. "Touchy how? Increased security?"

"I don't know, I don't get that close to it. I just hear what people say, you know?"

"What do they say?"

"Oh, they get a lot of sensitive stuff going through the barracks there…Sinto, I think that's its name. It's a major communications hub, or something. I think they had a lock-down just a few weeks ago."

"Lock down?"

"That's when they seal a base off, nothing in, nothing out. Someone told me it means they've had some kind of problem on the base." At this, Luke half-turned to Han. "Right?"

The woman didn't even look at Han. "What kind of problem?"

Her voice was calm and conversational, but she was clearly interested, the kid slowly drawing her out by offering a little of what she wanted to hear.

"I don't know," Luke said apologetically. "I only know about the lock-down thing because I have a friend who does deliveries there. I could ask him for you, I suppose."

"Could I speak to him?"

"Well…sure, if you wanted." Kid's voice was a subtly hesitant mix of friendly and slightly wary. "You're not…you won't get him in trouble, will you?"

"No, I wouldn't do that." The brunette smiled, touched by the kid's careful protection of what Han knew damn well was a non-existent friend.

" 'Cos he shouldn't really speak about stuff, I don't think. Maybe I should talk to him first, tell him that…what's your name?"

"Leia. Leia Skywalker."

"Skywalker," Luke grinned. "Great name. Maybe I can tell him you're okay...you are okay, aren't you?"

She smiled again. "I promise, I'm not looking to get your friend in any trouble."

"Why do you want to know about Sinto anyway?"

"I just have a friend there, that's all. He was supposed to meet me last night."

"What, in the military?" Luke let an edge of nervousness creep into his voice, and the brunette-Leia-smiled.

"Just an acquaintance. We didn't manage to meet. Maybe he's stuck in the base if the lock-down is still on." She let the last hang as a question, and Luke shrugged.

"Oh, I don't know. I don't know how long these things last." He glanced down, then made an overstated and under-subtle attempt to check out those about him. "You know, you should…you should be careful about who you ask stuff like that. Especially in the Palace District."

"Really?"

Those big doe eyes seemed the picture of innocence, leaving Han to wonder if the kid was wrong about her.

Luke loosed a big grin within a shrug. "I mean, I know you don't mean anything by it, but…"

A comlink sounded quietly at Leia's belt, and she rushed to answer it, standing to take a swift step back, her face suddenly serious. Luke turned away to face the bar as if to give her privacy, but Han could see that he watched her closely in the reflective backdrop to the massed bottles behind the bar, his face falling straight. She took another few steps back, turning casually about as she spoke, so that her face was no longer visible, and the kid pursed his lips.

By the time she returned to him, her own demeanour had changed too, distracted and troubled. "I'm sorry, I have to go."

"What, right now?" Luke glanced to her comlink, only concern sounding in his voice. "What's happened?"

"Nothing. I just…I'm busy, you know?"

"Will you come back tomorrow?"

"No, I have to leave planet, tonight. I need to get all the way out to the Auril Sector by-" She stopped herself as if surprised by her own words, looking closely at Luke.

"When will you be back?" he asked quickly, moving her thoughts on as he stood. "Can we meet again? I can speak to my friend and get back to you…when?"

"I don't know," she said as she backed towards the door. "Soon-I'll try to get back soon…and I'd like to meet your friend. Do you have a comm code?"

"It's CC-hash four-five-three-seven-one-nine-nine."

"CC four-five-three-seven-one-nine-nine-got it."

"Wait, you don't need to write it down?" Kid did a good line in awed admiration, Han had to admit.

The woman, Leia, smiled broadly. "No. I'll contact you, I promise…?"

"Deak," Luke said without pause. "Deak Autrey."

 

"So you're just gonna let her leave?" Han asked, stepping closer as the woman picked her way through the crowded cantina without looking back.

"Until she gets me to Kenobi," Luke said, his smile fading instantly as she passed through the door.

"Should we follow her?"

"No, she'd know."

"How d'you figure that out?" Han asked, head askew. "I might be way better at trailing people than you."

"She's a Jedi."

"What the hell? Seriously?"

"That's probably how she knows Kenobi," Luke said calmly.

"You didn't say that last time.

""I didn't know the last time-not for sure. She was cloaking her abilities like I was cloaking mine, then and today."

"So does she know you're Sith?"

"Not yet. Sith have always had the ability to hide our connection far easier than Jedi-we can hide in plain sight. She knows I have some kind of connection to the Force, because I almost used it to persuade her to come back the last time, when I took her arm. But I broke off immediately when I touched her and realized what she was. All she would have sensed was a split-second, the vaguest attunement; she wouldn't have been able to ascribe it-I don't think she'd even know it was pre-meditated. Could have easily been the raw emotions of an untrained Force-sensitive."

"Why is she coming back if she even thinks you're…y'know?"

"Because she's curious." Luke turned to glance at Han, openly amused. "Maybe she even thinks she can recruit me-in which case, I'm hoping to get to Kenobi. Or maybe she just intends to kill me, when she can catch me in a less public place. This time she got pulled away…she may come back to finish the job though. Jedi tend not to leave unfinished business."

"Which begs the question, why are you gonna meet her again?"

Luke stared at the empty doorway, coolly calculating. "Because I can snap her delicate little neck long before she pulls that lightsaber she has hidden at the small of her back."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 

Han walked into the library in Luke's apartment, where the kid was alone, lying on his back on the long polished table, his eyes on the high ceiling, a red-wrapped spice-stick in his mouth. About him were a scattering of datapads showing various images of planets and what looked like military installations from their dour grey colors, though Han didn't recognize any.

"Solo!" Luke didn't look to Han, but grinned as he entered the room. "Perfect timing!"

"Yeah, why's that?"

"You got a stylus?"

"…Yeah." Han's tone was instantly wary.

Still without looking, Luke held out his hand. "Gimme."

"Sure, what the hell, I always like to start my days by getting my ass kicked by Indo."

"Seriously, this is work."

The spice-stick bobbing in the kid's mouth as he spoke, didn't fill Han with confidence. "You don't do work."

Luke sat up, letting the datapads scatter as he did so, his hand still out. "Just give me the damn stylo."

Han loosened the asymmetric fastening of his military jacket to pull his stylus from an internal pocket and hand it reticently over. "I'm gonna be wanting that back…"

"Whatever." As the kid snatched it, he pulled a piece of flimsiplast out from behind him with a flourish.

"Are you supposed to have flimsiplast?" Han asked doubtfully.

"Nope." The kid grinned disarmingly, his words coming out in a haze of red smoke. "But I'm betting that if Indo's coming in here to take something off me, it's not gonna be the flimsiplast."

"Yeah, I was wondering about that." The room was already tinged with that familiar, bitter smell.

"I'm thinking…free association."

Han wasn't impressed. He bobbed down to retrieve one of the datapads that had slipped from the desk, unheeded. "Little early in the morning for free association, isn't it?"

"Nah, this is still late last night for me." The kid was leaning over the piece of flimsiplast, writing in aurebesh. He ripped a strip off the sheet and lifted it up to show Han, speaking aloud what he'd written. 'Skyhook.'

"Skyhook?"

"That's what the dead spy was trying to protect: Skyhook."

"Which is?"

"I don't know-he didn't know."

"Well then why was he protecting it?"

"He'd heard it somewhere, presumably. Maybe from the right person, but not in context… Which brings us neatly back to our suspect new friend Leia Skywalker's thoughts, when she slipped."

Han's mind went momentarily back to the petite woman with the big brown eyes and the memorable curves. She didn't even vaguely fit with his perceptions of what a Jedi should be… Then again, the kid wasn't exactly his idea of a Sith, either. "You sure she was a Rebel?"

The kid was already writing again. He lifted a second piece of flimsyplast for Han to see. On it was written, 'Leia Skywalker: Rebel.'

Han rolled his eyes. "Oh, well, it must be right if you've underlined it."

"Really?" the kid asked sardonically, hunching over again to add, 'Definitely!'

"So…" Luke took to rearranging the slips of flimsy again, sliding the various datapads about to sit under one or another of the written headers. "We have a dead Rebel protecting Skyhook, we have a Jedi turning up to find him, and we have the Maw Installation EP's…connect the dots."

Han reached out to tear off a piece of the flimsyplast and scribe quickly on it. Lifting it up, he licked the back and stuck it on his own forehead. It was a question mark. "This is me having no idea what you're talking about."

Luke let out a brief laugh in a twist of crimson smoke as he took the stylus back. "Okay, there's a research center in the middle of the Maw Cluster in the Kessel system called-imaginatively-the Maw Installation. It's where Tarkin keeps all his pet scientists. The Maw Installation's remit is to design and perfect top secret and experimental weapons for the Empire. There's a lot of information that goes between the Maw Installation and the Imperial Palace on Coruscant and even encoded, everything that's sent utilizes an EP."

"A what?"

"An echo pip. It's a security measure. With every packet of information you send, in the last five hundredth of a second you send a single-bit pip, on a partial-degree variation. The pip and the end of the message should arrive simultaneously. If they don't-if they're even a fraction of a second out-something's wrong. If they arrive at their destination out of sync, then someone somewhere is intercepting that packet of information-but they won't get the pip because it's a fractal variation, it's impossible to detect. If you have the right buffer, it only takes a fraction of a second to intercept, redirect and duplicate a message, but that still puts the EP out slightly. And guess what-the pips aren't coming in on-sync from the Maw Installation. Surprise, surprise."

The kid was bent over as he said this, agile enough that even though he was sitting cross-legged on the table, he could rest his elbows on it as he wrote out another strip of flimsyplast: 'Maw Installation intercepts.'

He sat back up, arranging the three pieces of flimsyplast before him. "So, we have Leia Skywalker, we have the Maw installation security breach-subtle, mind you, and ongoing-and we have the elusive Skyhook." He looked up at Han. "You can take the question mark off your head now."

"I dunno, I think it may have to stay for a while yet."

Luke grinned, looking back down as he pushed one of the scraps forward, the spice stick bobbing in his mouth again. "Okay…Skyhook." He reached to take one of the datapads and slid it across the table to Han, who swivelled it about to look as Luke continued to speak. "What could Skyhook be?"

"A skyhook's a spacehook-a high-orbit repulsor craft with full life-support, generally nanofiber tethered."

"Think wider-outside the box."

"Skyhook's also the name of a tapcafé in spitting distance of the main barracks on Carida."

"Used by Imperial military?" As he spoke, Luke wrote, 'Carida tapcafé.'

"Pretty much exclusively."

"There are also a total of just under five thousand military skyhooks on Imperial worlds, serving as navy and supply depots."

"How many in private hands?"

"Just short of a thousand on Coruscant alone-mostly rich boys' toys."

"None linked with any past unrest?"

"Six. They're all under surveillance, as of today." Luke glanced up. "The Emperor also has a skyhook. It's huge…massive. Has an environmental bionetwork, a central structure with a gallery and a very valuable museum, storerooms…a Throne Room."

"I didn't know."

"He's probably been twice, that I can remember. Too obvious anyway. I'm guessing that the name doesn't have anything to do with actual skyhooks."

"So why were you asking?"

"Just bouncing ideas. Remember the spy on Sinto station? Most of the codes on the datacards he had were very specific…ones which pertain only to the Maw Installation. No actual information-none. Just codes. You know what was at the Maw Installation until recently? The Emperor's shiny new Death Star."

"I thought it was Tarkin's?" Han said dryly.

"It's the Emperor's," Luke said distantly without looking up. "Everything everywhere is the Emperor's. Everyone else just does as they're ordered." He said this without even considering, sliding another datapad with Death Star schematics on it over to sit underneath the 'Skyhook' header. "Given that the majority of information regarding it comes to Coruscant through Sinto Barracks, Skyhook could conceivably relate to the Death Star…the question is, how." Luke had leaned forward again, the smoke from the slim, red-papered spice stick curling up through his hair as he wrote, 'Connection?'

"You just said the connection-the spy at Sinto was passing on codes for the Maw Installation."

"That's what they're doing. What's important is why they need those codes, because if they do, it means they already have information regarding the Death Star, otherwise they wouldn't be looking for specific codes-not yet. The question is, how have they gotten information from a research installation that doesn't officially exist? How could they know where to look? I need to know that, otherwise we can't shut it down."

"You've already shut it down-the spy is dead. Just change the codes."

"That doesn't tell us how much the Rebels already know, and about what precisely. Or stop the method by which they're intercepting information coming from the Maw Installation. The Sinto spy was only collecting codes, not information, which means they already had that. If we simply change the codes, their method of gaining information remains intact. They just need to get their hands on the new codes. And it doesn't tell me what Skyhook is-because that's what's important. It could be their information retrieval method, how they're processing it, or what they're intending to do with the information they have. You know what else we have?" Luke leaned forward again to write. When he brought up the new scrap of flimsyplast, Han leaned in.

"Auril Sector?"

"Leia Skywalker said it. She had to go there, remember?" The kid was dragging one of the datapads back to him to key it in. When it showed the page, he switched to holo, and a small 3-D map of the sector floated above the datapad. There wasn't much there-just thirteen thinly-spread systems, a single marked deep space port, and the wide span of the Cron Drift asteroid field. Which seemed to Han like just the kind of place you'd be looking to hide out in, should you need to lie low.

"You think there's a Rebel base there?"

"I certainly hope so. Otherwise the three-day trip to get there on a Destroyer will have been a monumental waste of time."

Han straightened. "We're going?"

Luke grinned like a kid as he took the spent stub of the spice stick from his mouth and flicked it across the room. "Field trip!"

"Seriously? We're actually going?"

"I told you, my job is to see any mission through to its conclusion…and this one is only just starting. I want to know why Skyhook is important enough that Kern Derrig was prepared to die to protect it, and they sent a Rebel Jedi to try to pick up the pieces when he did. I've called in the SD Immortal. We're hitching a ride out tomorrow."

"You called in a Star Destroyer?"

"Yeah."

"You can do that?"

"Ubiqtorate," the kid said of himself, as if that were answer enough in itself.

He climbed off the table, abandoning the pile of datapads where they lay as he walked towards the door.

"Woah, woah, woah," Han said, realizing. "Where's my stylus?"

"I'll tell you what, if you can find it you can have it back."

"That wasn't the deal," Han glanced to the kid's hands, then back to the big library table he'd been sitting on. The stylus was nowhere to be seen.

"That's because there was no deal," Luke said, winking as he passed Han. "There is now."

"C'mon, don't make me go get Indo."

"To tell him that you actually voluntarily gave me a stylus? Go ahead, his dressing you down will give me an hour's entertainment, at least."

"Where's the stylus?" Han tried his serious voice when the kid reached the door.

"You're not even looking in the right room."

Han turned to set forward after the kid. "You got it on you, right?"

"Nope."

"Well, I sure as hell haven't got it on me."

"You know, I'm constantly amazed by the fact that if I tell you something, you just automatically assume it would be the truth."

"It's back in the library."

"No."

"I'll buy it back off you."

"Please-I just fenced Moff Terto's Order of the Imperial Star last week. The real one, not the fake pavé one he wears at functions." Luke half-turned conspiratorially as they set off down that long, dark hallway. "He doesn't know that yet-I switched the pavé and the real one whilst I was there, so he's still all relieved that he didn't lose the real one."

Han was barely listening, still patting down his own uniform. "I liked that stylus…it was a gift from a friend."

"You don't have any friends on Coruscant, and it was standard military issue."

"How would you know?"

"You think I don't know what standard military issue looks like?"

"Friends-that I don't have friends here. I've got friends."

"Please, you hate everyone in the palace. That's the one thing I like about you-in fact, I damn nearly respect you for it."

"I have friends outside of the palace."

"In those cantinas you go to? I'll bet you do."

"I happen to like those cantinas…and how do you know where I go?"

"I follow you."

"I knew it!"

The kid turned, but continued walking backwards, voice deadpan. "Seriously…you seriously think I have nothing better to do with my time than follow you?"

"Well then, how do you know?"

"Because someone follows you and reports it in," the kid said casually. "I've told you before, everyone's watching someone here. And anyway, I've been in the Blue Lekku a few times when you've walked in the door. You know it's a spice den in the back, right?"

Han shrugged. "I think that's the least of its vices. And where's my stylus?"

"That why it's your local?"

"Let's just say I feel right at home there."

"You enjoy things too much," Luke laughed.

"Damn straight."

"You shouldn't… You especially shouldn't admit it. Anything can be taken away so easily."

It was the underlying certainty of the kid's words which turned Han's head. Luke frowned, instantly uncomfortable beneath Han's scrutiny, and Han looked away, seeking to dispel the kid's unease at his accidental admission. "This from the kid who has more spice in his possession than your average Hutt."

"You think I enjoy spice?"

Han's step almost broke, but he kept walking, kept his tone light. "Well then why keep using it?"

The kid turned about to walk forwards again, jaw clenched tight.

"Luke?"

He turned back, grinning as if the last moments had never happened. "Time's up."

"What?"

"Time's up. I get to keep the stylus."

Han blinked at the abrupt change of subject. "How d'you work that out?"

"Those were the rules."

"I didn't know the rules."

"Then you shouldn't have played the game."

"…Fine, you know what, you can keep the damn stylus. Happy? Now where the hell is it?"

"Look up."

Han frowned, uncertain, then lifted his head to look up… Hovering above him, hanging impossibly mid-air just a few inches overhead and defying any concept of gravity, reality, and just plain common sense that Han had ever clung to, was the stylus. Han stared for several seconds, then gingerly lifted his hand. It floated smoothly up away from his reach.

Luke turned casually away as Han stared, wondering if it was worth making a jump to grab for it… Probably not.

"Come on," the kid said over his shoulder. "We need to get to stellar cartography to get a breakdown of what's officially in the Auril Sector. Then we need to stop in at Intel-get a breakdown of what's actually in the Auril Sector."

They were out of the apartment before Han risked another glance up…the stylus was still there, just above his head. "You gonna get that down?"

"Eventually…why?"

"It bothers me. What if it falls?"

Luke half-turned, voice light. "Or what if I spin it about and gouge it into your carotid artery? If I was gonna worry about something, I'd worry about that."

"Nah, you won't do that," Han said in similar dry tones. "It'd stop your stylus working."

"That's alright," the kid replied gamely. "You have another one in your inside breast pocket."

"No way did you see that."

"No, but you've thought about it several times."

Han glanced to the kid, then briefly to the stylus, still floating just above him, keeping pace with them as they walked. Finally, he shook his head slowly. "Damn, I hate this job…"

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was something about being back onboard a Star Destroyer that felt so intrinsically right to Han. The proportions of the corridors, the rumble underfoot that transferred up through his soles and into his bones, the sense of being in artificially pressurized space, which never quite fooled the inner ear, the combined noise of air exchanges and temperature regulators and door releases, and the hundred other grinds and clicks and ticks that any craft of this size played out every minute of every day.

And he had a private cabin that was way bigger than any he'd ever been assigned as a TIE pilot-hell, the 'fresher was bigger than his old pilot's cabin! He threw his bag down on the plasteel floor plates and flopped down onto his bunk-his bunk in a separate sleeping room, no less…with an actual outside viewport! Knitting his fingers behind his head, Han grinned at the ceiling; yeah, he could see how a guy could get used to this…

Not so much the hours. It was almost midnight before they'd finally checked everything and received permission to have the Immortal's course changed yet again, to pass close to the Cron Drift. After the nightly ritual of the tablets, with Luke's reluctance and Indo's fastidious check, Indo had taken the standard issue ream of flimsiplast and the two styluses, which had been neatly placed along with other customary equipment on the officer's desk in Luke's supplied quarters, and had retired. And another routine-one that Han had no intention of getting used to, as everyone else apparently had-reared its head, as the kid rummaged in his unpacked holdall and pulled out a small copper box.

Han was already scowling as Luke thumbed his strike lighter and lit the scarlet spice stick. "How come you never do this in front of Indo?" he asked knowingly.

Luke shrugged as he walked over to the wide desk, sitting to open the drawer and lift out four sheets of flimsiplast that he'd clearly hidden from the main pile at some point, before Indo had taken it. "I dunno, habit I guess. I don't know if you've noticed, but he likes it to be known that he officially disapproves."

Remembering the kid's proxy-soaked admission from a week ago-that he took the spice to dull his abilities-Han tried again. "You're not at the palace any more-you don't need it."

The kid looked up sharply. "Who told you that?"

"You did, when you were on proxyn-one more reason not to take it, I might add."

"Well don't you just know everything," the kid said dryly, undoing the fastener of his own jacket to pull Han's stylus from his inner pocket.

"Does Palpatine know?"

"I would imagine so-he knows most things. He doesn't know why though, and neither does Indo." The kid's reply was casually conversational, though the implied warning was still clear; if only Han knew, then if it got out, Luke would know who was responsible.

Han glanced down. "How could Palpatine not know why-I thought you Sith could read minds?"

"We can, but we can block our thoughts from other Force-users, if we choose. Lock things away." He paused, eyeing Han closely. "Speaking of which, it seems like this week away is a good time to teach you how to do a basic mental sidestep-hide what you're thinking about."

Han leaned forward. "So I can do this kinda stuff too?"

"No. It won't stop a Sith from forcing your mind open and reading anything they want. It's more of a general avoidance, so they won't bother to look. Just a mental discipline about assigning thoughts, more than hiding them-you can't hide them, not from a Sith. Not if they choose to look."

"Or you could just stop smoking the damn spice."

The kid leaned back again, amused. "Why do you even care? If you get that transfer you're still thinking of requesting from Indo, you'll be out of here inside of a month." Han glared as the kid tapped his own forehead with the stylus, his inference obvious as he nodded knowingly, more amused than accusing. "Oh, so that's how this works. You want to know everything about me, but I can't know anything about you? Yeah, I know this kind of one-way street."

Han pursed his lips. "I thought I was an open book to you Sith?"

Luke shrugged, eyes on the flimsiplast as he began to sketch light lines at its edge. "I like to hear the audio version."

He could have sidestepped, Han knew-the kid probably wouldn't even call him on it, having made his point...but if he wanted in… "What d'you want to know?"

Luke settled, eyes still on the flimsiplast, voice distant. "I dunno…anything."

"Well…I grew up an orphan." He glanced immediately to the kid, looking for some kind of reaction to their shared past, but Luke didn't look up. "I was picked up off the streets by a guy named Shrike-Garris Shrike. He kept his own little army of kids like me, and used us to run all kindsa' scams, mostly round Corellia. Begging, when we were young, then pick-pocketing, then stealing to order, then more organized stuff-big con jobs, smuggling and the like. There were a lot of us, all ages, and Shrike ruled with an iron rod. You never messed with him-ever. Put me out cold a good few times when I was a kid…and older. But you know, you get to the point when you start to think for yourself, and you reali-"

"No, not interested in Shrike."

Han scowled, aware of the truth about why the kid didn't want to hear about Shrike; it struck too close to home, and he knew damn well that it was the reason that Han wanted to pry him away from Palpatine. Han's memories of his childhood with Shrike were hard enough; seeing someone else growing up under a similar heavy hand only made him more and more determined to break the chain. But the kid didn't want to know, of course. Palpatine had gotten his claws in too deep for that.

Han folded his arms. "You wanna know who I am, that's who I am…and why I'm still here."

"I don't need help, and I don't need protection."

"I never said you do."

Unexpectedly, Luke loosed an easy grin as he settled again, tapping the nib of the stylus onto the sheet of flimsiplast. "I have got to teach you how to hide what you're thinking, this journey. You're a liability. And anyway, Shrike's not the reason you don't want me to touch spice."

"Why can't I not want you to use the stuff 'cos it takes over your life, makes crap that you'd otherwise want to change tolerable, and wastes your abilities."

"You can." The kid kept his eyes on the blank sheet of flimsiplast. "But that's not the reason, is it?"

"Yes, it's that. It's exactly that. I've seen it before-watched someone who should have been smart and sharp and spirited just…just slowly drift away because they'd gotten themselves onto a course that only went darker."

"…Who was it?"

"Bria…her name was Bria Tharen."

The kid settled his weight on one elbow, drawn out a little. "You knew her well?"

"Yeah. We met on Ylesia, not long after I'd left Shrike. She was…she was this delicate, graceful, serious thing. Damndest big brown eyes. But she was already wasting away. For a while, she wouldn't see it…and when she did, she still couldn't break it. Exultation, they called it. It was a front for a cult which used its members for slave labor and used the Exultation to keep 'em there." He glanced to the kid. "It's surprising what you'll do-what you'll tolerate."

Luke had rested his spice stick on the edge of the table to doodle idly on the flimsiplast sheet as he listened, his attention on Han, though he wasn't looking. He paused at Han's last words, but he didn't lift his head.

Han sighed, thoughts on Bria-on all that she'd meant to him, all that he'd lost. "I got her away-and we seriously thought it'd be okay. We thought it'd be that simple. But addiction's a strange thing, because it creeps up on you, and your own brain does its damndest to try to hide it. That's what addiction is…everyone knows but you, and you still don't want to admit it, because you don't want to be that person. You think you're the only one who's different. You're not. Bria…she couldn't forget the Exultation, couldn't step back. She just faded away from me a little bit at a time…faded away from herself. All that life and intellect and elegance…it all withered and wasted, and all I could do was watch. Then, one morning, she was gone. She'd packed her stuff and was gone, like she'd never been there. She left a note. It was nothing that we didn't both already know." Han glanced down, scowling to cover deeper emotions. "And now I've got nothing, not even a picture. I've not a damn thing left of her at all, because that damn addiction took away everything that she was. Took her from me. She meant everything to me, but I've got not one thing left to prove that she was ever in my life. Not one thing. She just…faded away."

He looked up, and the kid was watching him intently.

"I'm sorry." It was blunt and it was guilty and it was heartfelt.

"Sorry's not enough. Sorry doesn't change it. It didn't change it for Bria, and it won't change it for you. And I know you're thinking that you're not her, and maybe you're not…but you soon will be. That's how it works." Han rose, not wanting to push the matter any more tonight, his thoughts tangled up in Bria-on the empty void she'd left inside him. "You may think you've got your reasons...hell, you might even be right, but everything that it gains you, it takes twice as much away. Think on that…'cos trust me when I say that you may believe you've got all the time in the worlds, but let me tell you, I'm here on the outside…and I know what I'm looking at."

The kid almost spoke, but instead nodded quietly and stood. Halfway to the bedroom he paused to murmur, "Goodnight, Han."

It wasn't agreement, it wasn't even close-but the remnant of the spice stick was still balanced on the edge of the desk where the kid had abandoned it, and it gave Han a kind of quiet pride to see that whilst he'd spoken, it had been left to burn to a long line of cold ash, unsmoked. One down, the rest of the kid's whole life to go. He'd take the victories one at a time, if he had to-with the spice and with Palpatine.

Rising to start for the door, Han's eyes were drawn to the sheet of flimsiplast that the kid had been idly doodling on as they'd been talking. He frowned and lifted it.

It was Bria. Lightly drawn, with the barest of detail. But the essence of her: her smile, her eyes…the gentle seriousness that was always a part of her-all those memories and moments that had coalesced in Han's thoughts as he'd spoken tonight were somehow encapsulated in the quickly sketched lines. Too close to have been a guess; the kid must have been reading his mind as Han had described her, picking the details right out.

Han realized, staring at it, that it was the first good thing he'd ever seen the kid use his abilities for-and he knew why Luke had left it. Smiling, he folded it carefully up, and put it in his breast pocket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He made it two nights before he went down to one of the TIE bays to sit on the upper gantry floor, and just watch. Stared at the fighters, contemplating that this was the longest he'd kept two feet on the ground-metaphorically speaking-since he'd first gone to Carida, to train as a pilot. He'd had such a clear line for himself then-a place he was heading, an idea as to how to get there. Lieutenant Commander by thirty, Wing Commander by thirty-five. He'd known exactly who he was and where he was heading in life. There were no palaces which made him feel he should tip-toe and whisper. No high and mighty viscounts or screwed up, wise-ass kids. No Emperor-not up close and personal. He remembered exactly standing in front of a huge portrait of the man, edged with two perfectly draped Imperial flags, to recite the Oath of Allegiance on his first day at Carida. It had been easy to say back then…so easy to make a pledge to a man he'd never met. A distant figurehead he had no chance of meeting in his entire life. He'd made a vow to the principle, the ideal…

Everything had been so clear and so measured, living in the bowels of a ship just like this. You got up when they told you to get up, you ate when they told you to eat, you flew when they told you to fly…and you fought whoever they told you to fight.

But everything had changed in the last year, starting from the moment that Han had been ordered to go into the derelict slave ship, put a blaster to an injured Wookiee's head, do what he'd been ordered, and ignore absolutely that it wasn't right…it wasn't right. And it was Commander Nyklas, a senior officer who didn't even have the backbone to go in there himself, who had ordered Han to do it. He'd known, even as he'd entered the hold, regulation blaster in his hand, that he couldn't do it. He had a keen sense of being on the wrong side of an unequal situation, when the Wookiee had only been looking to free his own kind from slavery. He wasn't fighting the Empire, he was freeing his own people-his own young. It was wrong. Not just the order to kill the Wookiee, but…everything. Slavery. In the Empire's name. He'd grown up at the mercy of someone else's temper, grown up as a commodity, and he knew absolutely, firsthand, that it was wrong.

But even having been given the command, he'd still managed to convince himself that it was the officer himself who was at fault. That it wasn't the Empire; that it all somehow went on behind the hierarchy's back and without their knowledge-or that of the man whose image he'd stood before when he'd made that pledge.

But now…now, having met him, having stood up close and personal with the man who made his skin crawl and his scalp itch and his stomach twist in distaste…

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Han was beginning to wonder…was the Empire wrong because the Emperor was?

 

 

 

 

 

Just two years out of drydock, the SD Immortal was a Class II Destroyer, boasting the new, much-improved bridge with a wide sweep of command walkways which ran to either side and down the center of the oval bridge, surrounding two lower-level crew pits. Its wide run of large, triangular viewpanes ranged across the front half of the bridge, presently offering a panoramic view over the staggered, drifting chaos of the Cron Drift asteroid field.

Despite the fact that he hadn't worn a uniform since they'd stepped foot on the Immortal, Han hadn't missed the fact that Luke was standing without challenge on the command walkway, an area generally reserved only for senior officers. Han, as well as Indo, it seemed, were accorded the same politely distant respect from the Immortal's command crew-only the second time in his entire career that Han had been standing on a Destroyer's bridge…and even the first time, he'd been in the crew pit.

Presently they were gathered in one of the two tech alcoves which were placed to either side of the curved bridge, studying early readouts from the Drift as the massive Destroyer hung to the edge of the extensive asteroid field, its captain, Roth, unwilling to take the Immortal in without good reason. Unlike the screens to the front of the bridge, which were clear, explosion-rated viewports, the screens within these two small side alcoves actually held artificially generated images, capable of displaying either a real-time feed of what the viewer would have seen, had the rear of the bridge not been set back within the main tower of the Destroyer, or technical information, as the viewscreen did now. Luke had stepped forward to scrutinize it, overlaid with the data presently being processed from the Destroyer's two massive scanning domes.

Nothing-not a thing-looked out of place. Captain Roth was making his own way to the tech screen now, though Ops had already reported the absence of anything unusual in preliminary scans.

"Perhaps your source was unreliable, sir," Roth said calmly as he studied the data. He was a big man who came over as immensely capable, if a little straightforward in his approach. The kind of effective if unimaginative officer you saw everywhere in the fleet, who could be relied on to get a job done, exactly as ordered and to the letter.

Still, he was imaginative enough to know that when someone had the power to interrupt the regular duty route of a Star Destroyer, you called them 'sir' whether they wore a uniform or not. Even if they stood shoulder-height to you and were less than half your age.

Han hadn't yet really worked out their status here, on a standard military ship of the line. Clearly Roth remained in charge, and it was his orders which directed the crew, but he seemed willing to give his passengers a hell of a lot of leeway. And Indo, a perpetual presence at the kid's shoulder, was constantly pushing Luke to take all that was offered.

"Luke?" he prompted quietly now.

The kid didn't look round, continuing to study the data as it came in, eyes narrowed in concentration. "What's this?"

Commander Isman, Roth's second-in-command, leaned in. "Power signature, sir."

"I know that. I want to know what it's doing floating inside the edge of an asteroid field."

Isman glanced into the crew pit, and the Ops officer nodded, working to clarify the data. "It's very low. Residual, in fact…"

A larger asteroid passed before the source-and when it cleared the point, the power signature was gone. Everyone straightened, and Luke reached out to rest his finger on the viewscreen, keeping it on the point at which the signal had emitted. "Triangulate it. Pinpoint the source, based on existing data."

The Ops officer stood to catch Isman's eye. "Sir, we didn't have sufficient signal to lock it down-the high metal content in the asteroids has a scattering effect, and it's interfering with scans. We can narrow it down to an area of one hundred twenty clicks, which holds five asteroids, but their positions are already changing."

"Tag them," Captain Roth said briskly.

Luke stared at the triangulated area, marked out on the viewscreen. "Bring us head on to the area. I want to see it."

"See it?" Han murmured. What exactly did the kid think he could see from this range, that a full-range scan couldn't pick up?

Luke didn't reply, but walked quickly to the front of the bridge as the Destroyer maneuvered its massive bulk ponderously about to sit nose-in towards the wide expanse of the Drift… He stood for ten minutes, staring into the asteroid field, eyes moving constantly.

The bridge slowly settled from an expectant buzz to a routine boredom as the pit crew settled back into their seats and the officers slowly gathered to one side, talking amongst themselves.

Eventually Indo moved forward to stand beside the kid, who raised his arms to link his fingers across the back of his head as he murmured a retort to unheard words, his whole demeanour expressing frustration. Glancing about, Han stepped closer in time to hear Indo's quiet reply.

"…can't simply expect everyone to wait until…"

"Yes, I can. That's their job."

"But they need to know what exactly they're doing. You need to learn to step in and take control of a situation without…"

"Someone's out there."

Indo stilled, keeping his voice low. "Where?"

Luke stepped closer to the viewpane, eyes narrowing as he stared out. "In the Drift-someone's out there…three, maybe four individuals. I can sense them."

"At the source of the power signature?"

Luke tilted his head, frustrated. "If they could pinpoint the power signature, I might be able to tell you. As it is, we could be looking for ships, we could be looking for a stationary unit…"

"Can you locate them from here?"

"They're spread-in two locations, I think." He turned about, suddenly decisive. "Captain, can we make a slow, close pass at the very edge of the asteroid field-point ten of sublight. Turn all sensors on the Drift, fine-focus."

Luke turned instantly back, but Han watched the Captain stare for a few seconds more, clearly nearing the end of his tether…then he made the order, bringing the Destroyer to the very edge of the Drift.

They spent the next fifteen minutes on a slow crawl, sensors trained just inside the Drift, finding nothing. Han was wondering how long they'd keep going-or, more specifically, how long the Captain would be willing to keep this up, when Luke stepped closer to the viewport. "Full stop-all engines!"

"Luke?" Indo prompted.

"There-he's right there!" Luke stared out into the darkness, his voice dropping for Indo's ears alone. "Near…frustrated…and very nervous, because he's watching us."

"A man?"

The kid nodded. "Human." He turned about, voice rising as he issued an order. "Sensors…what do you have?"

"Sir?"

"About…three-thirty by four-ten by six-six-one…there's something there. Lifesigns?"

"Uh…no lifesigns, sir. I have several small anomalies-maybe sufficient to equate to a very small craft, but there's no power signature, not even residual, and the asteroids' metal content causes dips in..."

"He's faking-he's faking it, covering his lifesigns somehow."

Indo hadn't moved, but he looked down, voice a quiet warning. "Luke."

It took a second longer for Han to realize that Indo was warning the kid against too obvious a display of his abilities. Luke glanced just once, then seemed to rein himself in as he turned back to the Ops pit. "Pull a fine-focus scan across a narrow section through the center of the anomaly you have-go for density of metal; define the edges by distance from the asteroid behind it."

"Information's coming in, sir…possibly a small craft, but the signature's very confused."

"That's why he's there!" Luke said it as if it were obvious, but Han could understand the Ops guy's reluctance.

The man straightened slightly. "Sir, I have a partial match on shadow contours-it could be an Incom X-wing. Completely powered down, with no lifesigns. It's sitting almost on top of one of the asteroids, over a crater with high metal content."

"Got him!" Luke turned instantly to Han. "How's your flying, Solo? Not too rusty?"

Han glanced at him, uncertain for a moment what the kid meant. It was only when Luke turned and headed off the bridge that he realized. "We're going out there?"

"Well, I am, and I need a wingman."

Han stepped closer as they entered the outer vestibule, lowering his voice as Luke keyed for a turbolift. "You're kidding me-a wingman? I'm reduced to wingman now?"

"Flying a TIE Interceptor."

Han grinned. "Excellent!"

 

 

 

They were in the second TIE bay just off from the smaller forward hold, and Han had just done one of the fastest changes to a full vac-suit he'd ever accomplished. Despite claiming that he had to drop in at the equipment store, the kid was already waiting for him, swinging his scratched and scuffed helmet impatiently. Han looked to it as he neared, noting its obvious wear and tear, though that wasn't the first question in his mind. "Seriously, you wear a standard helmet?"

"What, a standard helmet fits me," the kid defended, tipping his head to one side as he murmured, "The webbing goes pretty small."

Han had a hundred retorts on his lips, but they were at the TIEs now, and they took his attention completely. There were just two Interceptors in the bay, well away from the other TIEs and clearly loaded on specifically for this journey, their power umbilicals trailing from cargo boxes retrofitted with adaptors to enable them to connect to the standard TIE power couplings. Indo had probably set this up on arrival, his usual efficient self, Han figured.

Every pilot worth his salt knew what the new Interceptor looked like, of course-they were the talk of the fleet. Longer and slimmer than a standard TIE, it looked like it was meant for speed, the old hexagonal TIE panels pared down and angled into a double-point at the front, with wide cut-aways to improve view and lower its target profile. Sleek and sexy, it looked dangerous even sitting still.

Han slowed as he approached, noting the small side-fins-something he'd not seen before, even on an Interceptor. "What's with the side-wings?"

"These are variants," the kid said, running his hand along the main panel as they reached its nose. "Royal Guard Interceptors."

"RG Interceptors are red."

The kid glanced momentarily to him. "They're red when Royal Guards fly them."

"No one except Royal Guards fly them."

"And Hands," the kid said coolly. "Emperor's Hands. We need fighters with lightspeed sometimes-that's what the side fins are for; they stabilize it in lightspeed."

"Wait, these have lightspeed?"

"And shields." Luke grinned as he popped the small hatch in invitation. "You won't be so excited when you see how much room you've lost in the cockpit, though."

Something kicked in the center of Han's chest as he got inside the Interceptor, forced to hunker down to get past the extra mechanics and into the form-hugging acceleration seat. This was it-he was in an actual Interceptor…a variant, no less! He rested his hands on the yoke, grinning at the blood rush. Probably unhealthy to get this excited about a ship, but hell, any pilot would understand! The kid leaned in to the constricted space behind him, all business.

"Okay, you have six guns…"

"Six!" Han crowed.

"Yeah, but don't fire them all at once unless it's life or death, 'cos if you do sustained bursts with all six, you'll deplete your power way faster than you can generate it. You can dump power over from shields, but obviously if you're in a situation that needs six guns firing you'll also need shields, so shunting power away from them'll make it life or death anyway. Best to stick to your four wing guns."

"Really?" Han asked, disappointed.

Luke raised his eyebrows. "You know we're not actually gonna be shooting anything out there, right? There's one X-wing."

"One X-wing counts."

"Except that we're not destroying it."

Han scowled, feeling that his toys were being taken away one at a time. "Why the hell not?"

"Because I need it in one piece."

"Well then why don't you just tractor it in?"

The kid tilted his head. "You want a practice run in an Interceptor or not?"

Han glanced back to the controls, fingers already tightening possessively about the yoke. "No shooting it, right."

"Okay," Luke said. "Uh…it handles more or less the same as a standard TIE, just a little more jittery. But you've got a lower target profile and better mark-one visibility, because of the bent and cut wing."

Han grinned; kid must have had some regular TIE training somewhere. On every training course he knew, the 'mark-one visibility aid' joke was always rolled out for the cadets: the mark-one was your eyes.

Luke leaned into the cockpit to point at the console as he continued. "All the instruments are in the same place on the yoke. Scans and ops are on the same side panels. You have a new shield panel here-just leave it on standard for now and try not to get shot…or, you know, fly into an asteroid."

Han half turned, insulted. "Thanks, I think I was planning on that anyway."

"Oh, and don't try to adjust your seat with that center front pull…"

"What is it?" Han leaned forward, fumbling to find a simple bar-pull.

"It's your eject. They moved it from the side."

"Why?"

"I dunno. Maybe they like to keep us on our toes in high-pressure situations-if you don't remember it's changed and grab to the side instead of the front, you probably missed your chance." Kid grinned irreverently. "Call it natural selection."

"Great," Han deadpanned.

"When we get out, pull a few turns and loops, and get your throttle back a few times. You have two five-point-six engines, so your top speed's way higher than a standard TIE, plus you'll turn much tighter-you'll turn inside pretty much every craft flying at the moment, even the TIE advanced, and you're still more stable in thrust vectoring. You can angle off tighter and maneuver better at lower speeds, so your course reversal's sharper on any vector, including dead-stop. I've seen a Hoersch-Kessel R-forty-one come close on near-stall maneuverability-not to me, you understand," the kid felt the need to add. "But you can still take them on a spiral dive and force them into a spinout. You can get a degree or two more by manipulating your deflectors, but that's too complicated to explain right now. Just stick with them on auto."

And there it was-there it'd been all along: the kid liked to fly. Han could hear it in his voice, could see it in his every move as he sharpened with adrenaline and enthusiasm-the passion, the draw. Probably the reason why he'd bothered to speak to Han at all, in that cell in the stormtrooper's sector-house that first night. He'd known then that Han was a pilot-enough to name Han's training course from the unit patch on his jacket.

Realizing that he was under scrutiny the kid looked curiously to Han, who turned quickly away, bringing his mind back to the moment. "There'd better be a flight manual waiting on my system when I get back to my quarters," he grumbled, feeling he was missing out here.

"Who says you're ever flying this again?"

"Oh, I'm flying this baby again."

Luke let out a laugh as he pulled back-a genuine laugh, and how often did that happen! And a little bit of that same excitement that had sounded in Han's voice lit the kid's eye as he grinned; the anticipation of getting out there and flying. "I'll see you spaceside."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

 

 

It wasn't Han's best exit from a fighter hangar, but it sure as hell was the most fun. The Interceptor skewed wildly as he overcompensated those five-point-six engines when the overhead grapples released, and shot out of the hangar like a spooked mynock. Still in gravity, Han felt the kick pull at the center of his guts and laughed out loud, gripping at the twitchy yoke and trying to keep her straight as they cleared the huge inset bay entry into open space beneath the Immortal.

Just ahead of him, Luke's Interceptor waggled its wings in a brief wave as his voice came over the comm, loaded with wayward mischief. "Wanna play tag?"

He pulled an almost ninety degree snap-reversal to peel to the side as he spoke, dropping instantly from Han's sight, knowing just exactly where the Interceptor's blind spots were. Game for the gauntlet the kid had thrown down, Han set Luke's fighter as a spook on his system and eased his stick back to drop a little speed as he peeled away, then accelerated rapidly into a J-turn. The volatile Interceptor slewed erratically before he managed to wrestle her back and level her up, and somewhere in there he'd ended up overshooting as the kid pulled a sneaky wide turn outside of Han's trajectory, so that all he needed to do was bring his nose up to drop into a kill position on Han's tail.

Grinning, feeling like a cadet in the flight simulator, Han juked his own stick to the side and yanked his fighter into a course reversal, twisting upside down as he yawed wide of the kid's curving flight path to lose distance without sacrificing speed. He was getting a feel for the frisky controls as he nudged his Interceptor's nose in towards Luke, looking for the fleeting opportunity to pull off that imaginary snap-shot at his opponent as their flight paths briefly crossed…and whaddaya know-the kid was actually a good pilot. In fact the longer Han maneuvered, pulling every trick he knew without ever quite getting the kid in his sights, the more realized that he was actually pretty damn good.

Almost in his crosshairs, Luke pulled a full barrel roll with reverse thrust, dropping speed rapidly to disappear from view as he spun about Han's TIE's panels, so that he showed up only on the head's up display inside Han's helmet which compensated for blind spots, the sole indicator as to where he was. He halted the roll directly below Han's fighter, his marker on Han's HUD changing from yellow to amber as he became a threat.

Han overcooked his next twisting vector reversal by a few clicks, but the stalemate of reversals and overshoots was habitually halted when both pilots automatically broke because Han-and apparently the kid-had always had it drummed into him through long hours of training that you never made more than three reversals in combat. It was the kid, more used to the Interceptor's hair-fine controls, who brought his TIE back around on vectored thrust to fly in phase with Han's, inverting his own fighter so that he sat upside down, directly above Han's. Used to a standard TIE-li's larger hexagonal panels, Han automatically swerved from what would have been a collision in his old TIE.

The kid maintained his position inverted over Han's canopy a few seconds more before he pulled smoothly out and levelled up beside him, his voice coming in over the comm.

"You're not bad-not bad at all."

"Not bad?" There wasn't a whole lot of his military career that Han was confident about, but he knew he could fly. He'd been picked out of standard flight training to go to Carida, who took only the top ten percent and graduated only the top five, and while his 'attitude problems' had meant that he'd missed his chance at any of the elite squadrons like Alpha or the 181st, he knew damn well he could fly as well as any one of them. "On behalf of the Carida Imperial Academy Air Corps, I thank you."

"Please, they didn't teach you to fly," the kid dismissed. "Not like that. They just polished off the rough edges and gave names to the stuff you'd been doing for years."

"Voice of experience?" Han pushed.

"Our X-wing's three clicks forward at eight on the dial. You have him on your scopes?"

Han took a second to frown at the kid's reply before he realized that their comm would be open to the Destroyer's bridge, and the kid was being as tight-lipped as ever. He wondered for the first time whether it was even genuine, or just an automatic reaction to close up. It also occurred to him that they would have seen the little aerial dogfight from the bridge, but he knew from long experience that in general, as long as you sounded bored and indifferent, bridge officers who'd never piloted a fighter in their lives took pretty much anything you did as normal and, not wanting to look like they were out of the loop, didn't ask too many questions.

"Yeah, copy that I-One. I've got him on my scopes now."

"Okay, let's pull in nice and slow and play it as routine, shall we. You fly wide and sit on his nose-that ought to get his attention."

The X-wing was, to all intents and purposes, dead in space, so Han peeled away from the kid and took a wide turn to come round in full view of the X-wing, holding just high enough that he remained above its firing line. That was the problem with fixed-gun fighters, and all TIE pilots loved 'em for it; they could only shoot where they were pointing. Unlike a TIE's revolving laser canon, if you sat five degrees out of an X-wing's vector, you were out of their line of fire, too. He took his time to reverse forward thrust and come to a slow halt before the dead fighter, and in the last few seconds, his cockpit sensors sensors lit up to register lifesigns.

For a second, Han thought it was just because they'd finally gotten close enough to overcome the metal content in the asteroids, but looking up, he saw a flash of bright silver in the X-wing cockpit, and realized that the pilot was bundling away his planetside camo cover, which would have rendered the fighter invisible to scans if it was powered down…that must be what he'd been using to mask his lifesigns, wrapping it about himself inside his cockpit; clever. Han came to a full stop close enough to see the two yellow and black checkerboard sections painted on the pilot's white helmet, and make out a worried face with a dark moustache.

His helmet comm double-clicked to an open channel as the kid's voice came over.

"Unidentified ship, this is Lieutenant Commander Solo of the ISD Immortal. Our scans are a little off, but your transponder seems to be inoperative. Do you have comms?"

Han scowled at the kid's use of his name, but didn't interfere. The airways remained silent for far longer than he'd've left it. Kid was probably letting the pilot sweat a little.

"Unidentified ship," Luke repeated. "You seem to be in full power-down without comms, so we're just gonna go ahead and tractor you into the Immortal to check your…"

Han nodded dryly as, with a crackle, the unknown pilot seemed to magically find his comm. "Uh, this is CorSec X-wing K-three-nine-nine-two. I'm presently running-or rather, not-on a blown power generator. I have…"

CorSec, the Corellian Sector's local law enforcement; Han knew it well from his days with Shrike. Luke cut in over the pilot to voice the same question that was on Han's lips, his tone businesslike.

"CorSec, you're a way outside of your planet's authorized jurisdiction zone, but we can take you onboard the Immortal and have our people look at that generator."

"Uh…thanks, but I have a retrieval team on their way now. I'll just wait it out."

The X-wing was powering up what few active systems it had, Han noted, as he allowed his nice new Interceptor to slowly drift a little further from its guns. CorSec his ass; they kept their X-wings in better repair than this one, which looked like it had spent a while outside of its comfortable repair quota. Didn't have CorSec markings either, which Han remembered well-generally from fleeting glimpses when Shrike was trying to outrun them.

"Do you have an ETA on their arrival?" Luke asked. "Cos you gotta be getting pretty cold out here."

"Uh…pretty damn soon, I'm hoping," the voice came back with obvious feeling.

Allowing his TIE to drift slowly to the side under its own inertia, Han noticed that the kid had let his own TIE slide close up behind the X-wing in a perfect angle-off-tail kill position. With the pilot's eyes on Han-whom he probably assumed was talking-and those same wave-scattering effects of the asteroid that the X-wing had used to near-success now blinding himself too, he likely didn't even know exactly where Han's 'wingman' was. Something pale flashed momentarily in the open space between the TIE and the X-wing, but by the time Han had squinted to try to see, it was already gone.

The kid was speaking again, voice still casually pleasant. "If you're sure, CorSec, we'll leave you to…"

The next second the proximity sensors inside Han's TIE blared as a group of ships emerged from lightspeed almost on top of and behind them. The three fighters came in hot, two already opening fire on Han's tail as he yanked his TIE to the side, cursing. To add insult to injury, the dead X-wing managed to rustle up enough power to pull off a fast shot from one gun, close enough to buckle Han's shields and snick the front edge of his TIE's panel with a metallic clang which rocked her wildly.

Han accelerated into a split-s heading away from his attackers as the kid powered towards them, pulling off three fast snap-shots over Han's head before he broke high, already gone from Han's view.

"Spearheads," Luke snapped, of the small, dart-shaped one-man fighters.

Han cursed roundly, still unable to see; his scopes had ID'd the leading attacker as an X-wing, but the other two craft were listed as unknowns, their type not entered into the TIE's database yet-though Han had heard their name muttered in the pilot's mess.

"They're a Rebel prototype based on the Actis Interceptor," the kid supplied, voice tight. "Fast!"

"No kiddin', junior!"

The asteroid field was already twisting in his vision as Han powered forward, those ridiculously fierce engines kicking like a bomb at his back so that he almost tail-spun through his evasive split-s, twisting his TIE onto its head as he vectored the nozzles to pull a tight u-bend, looking to get back into the fight.

By the time he'd turned sufficiently to see what was happening, the kid was a distance away at his three o'clock, forcing Han to pull an inward turnabout which lost him yet more speed in the turn, aware that because Luke had flown in to take the flack and the pressure off Han's vulnerable position, the kid now had three threats sitting on his tail and looking for a kill. At least he'd had the good sense not to just put all power to his engines and keep on vectoring away, which would have left him with three fighters on his back and no wingman. Instead, he'd pushed his TIE into a spiral dive, keeping the combat close enough that Han could reach it before it became just a speck in the dark.

He could see the Spearheads clearer now, trailing the attacking X-wing; small and flat, they weren't much more than a cockpit and two engines, with massive vertical vectoring rudders at their stern. Dark russet red with white wings, they had no markings, but then Han didn't need to see any. Only Rebels came out with their guns blazing-even smugglers had the good grace to try to sneak by before they opened fire.

The kid was pulling an incredibly tight turn as he corkscrewed down, gambling on the fact that his nimble Interceptor could remain inside the X-wing or the Spearhead's turn radius to prevent them getting a lock on him. As Han closed there was a point at which the group's tight spiral crossed directly in front of Han's trajectory, bright green tracers of the Spearheads' guns firing just wide of their target, the X-wing closer still…and Han realized his opportunity, wondering if the kid had done it on purpose. Dropping neatly in behind the Spearheads, both of whose attention remained on their target, and both of whom had slowed to try to match the TIE's tight turn, Han flicked up the toggle for live fire and caught the last Spearhead in a sustained burst with four guns, taking its shields down and igniting its engines before it even knew what had happened. It exploded in a bright ball of energy as the remaining Spearhead and the X-wing broke into a defensive split, one high and one low. The kid immediately took his TIE into a descending half-roll after the X-wing, vectoring thrust to pull tighter, and for a second Han watched the Spearhead peel off, aware that it would have been the easier target, for him if not for the kid. But the opportunity was already gone by the time he'd completed the thought, and he brought his nose down to drop in behind the kid's wing, watching to make sure the high Spearhead didn't come back round to cause trouble.

The X-wing they were following was clearly Group Leader, and very, very good. With two TIE's on his back he yanked his fighter on a near ninety-degree turn, then twisted into a fast aileron roll in an effort to lose his tail. In front of Han, the kid pulled a rollaway to keep in tight behind the X-wing as Han cursed and yanked back on his stick so that he wouldn't overshoot and turn from the tail to the target, forced to split his attention further as a voice came over his comm.

"TIE Leader, this is ISD Immortal Flight Control. Be aware, you have four new hostiles in the arena."

"No, really?" Han growled to himself.

"We're sending gunboats out to your position as backup-maintain your present…"

"Negative, Flight." Luke's voice, clipped as he split his attention. "No back-up."

Han flicked his comm to a private line. "No back-up? You're not…wait, four hostiles?"

He craned his neck, but needn't have bothered. As their loop took them around to face the distant, still dead in space X-wing, the only thing Han was looking at was a massive CR90 transport, nestling up close enough to render the dead X-wing a speck beneath it.

"Hey, that's our lead!" Han yelled of the dead-in-space X-wing. Though he wasn't stupid enough to break from formation, he reflexively jerked at the stick, causing his TIE to yaw slightly as the kid's voice came over the comm.

"Let them go."

The Immortal chose that moment to launch a warning volley across the Rebel corvette's bow, and once again the kid was splitting his attention, voice raising. "Immortal, this is TIE Leader; ceasefire, I repeat, ceasefire!"

"What?" Han shouted. "But they're loading our X-wing into their corvette!"

"I know. Let them go!"

Han glanced back to the kid's TIE…and realized just how closely he was sitting on the X-wing's tail. The Rebel was a damn good pilot in a nimble craft, but Han knew the kid's abilities now, and the fact that his short bursts of fire were going wide just didn't add up to the perfect kill position Luke had lined up. Kid was missing on purpose.

"TIE Leader, this is Flight. Sorry, that back-up order is from the bridge-we're launching now."

"Negative, Flight, call them back!" Luke yelled. "Who gave that order?"

"Luke?" Indo's voice came over the comm and Han cursed; he couldn't even leave the kid alone out here!

"Call the gunboats back."

"No. You need back up. Captain Roth has issued the order for…"

"No, I need you to do as I order!"

Luke was pulling further back now, giving the X-wing more room to maneuver. Not surprisingly, it made a fast inward break-and rather than try to follow, Luke inverted into a tight pull-up as Han scowled, watching the kid's TIE lift from view.

"Hey, what th-"

"Break!"

Han had realized before the kid had spoken, and was already pulling a fast rolling dip to drop down, automatically completing the defensive split. A second later that damn Spearhead came screaming in from Han's tail, making him juke his stick and throttle out a burst of speed to get outside its range. As it was the Spearhead didn't try for either TIE, instead overshooting and straightening up close to his comrade as, in a brief, bright flare, the distant corvette hit lightspeed. A second later, both Rebel subnoses did the same, leaving Han to blink rapidly, trying to clear his vision.

"They took our damn X-wing!" Han slammed his palm into his yoke, making his TIE jolt briefly.

"TIEs, this is Flight. We have your back up out of the hangar; ETA's point-five."

 

 

 

By the time Han had squeezed through the limited cockpit of his Interceptor and wriggled free, the kid was already out, down from the gantry and striding towards Indo, who had been waiting in the hangar.

"Don'teverinterfere with or countermand my order again!" As he yelled, Luke threw his helmet across the hangar floor, fuming.

Indo was, as ever, unmoved. "You expect me to leave you in a combat situation with insufficient back up?"

"I expect you to do as I order. I don't need your protection-I don't need anybody's protection!"

Indo glanced once to the helmet as it skittered across the floor. "Don't throw your equipment around like a child in a tantrum."

"What the hell were you doing countermanding my order? I said no back up."

"I am, I believe, still responsible for your safety until otherwise instructed by the Emperor. I considered one wingman insufficient. Captain Roth agreed."

The kid had reached Indo now, still livid. "I had my reasons, and it's immaterial anyway. I said no back up. I could have taken them all out myself at any time, and you know it."

"And the corvette?"

"I was out of the corvette's range! If you knew combat vessel statistics, you would have known that, but you don't."

"That's hardly the point."

"That's exactly the point! I gave an order in a combat situation-a situation you weren't directly involved in and had no detailed knowledge of-and you overrode it without the authority to do so. I'm not a child any more."

Indo tilted his head just slightly. "Then stop acting like one. If you had an intention…"

"Of course I had an intention!"

"Then you should have informed me. If you don't tell people what…."

"No." The kid shook his head. "Immaterial. I still outrank you."

"I hold a direct mandate from the Emperor himself."

"And I don't?"

Indo glanced about. "This isn't the place."

Luke reined himself back slightly, voice dropping though he was still fuming. "I was in the air, directly involved, with specialist knowledge. You had no idea what was going on, yet you still overrode me. You constantly push me to make that assessment, take the initiative…and when I do, you undermine me."

"You lost the fighter. You could easily have lost your…"

"I didn't lose it, I tagged it."

Han had the rare treat of seeing Indo momentarily stumped. "…What?"

"I tagged it. I knew they'd come for it-it was dead in space, you think it hadn't already sent off an SOS?"

"You tagged it?"

"Obviously they'd send back-up. They can't afford to lose ships or pilots like that. But we'd already been trawling the edge of the asteroid field, so the pilot knew we were here. We had to react…but as routine! As a Destroyer and its crew going through the motions. What do you think a wing of gunboats would have looked like, trooping out of the bay?"

Indo glanced briefly to Han, who remained silent, though this was news to him too.

"When exactly did you tag it?"

"When the pilot was watching Solo. I took a Seinar 560 homing beacon and stuck it on my own hull before takeoff, then used the Force to transfer it to his. I slid it into the multicap grill plates of the foil block-no one'll find it unless they disassemble the drive, and a 560 doesn't operate unless it's in an oxygen-free atmosphere-deep space. It won't transmit when it's in their bay, so they won't be looking for it. I want to know where that X-wing came from…which is probably where it's returning to right now."

"If you had told me of your intent…"

"I made the decision on the way to the bay. I didn't want to do it over ship's comms once we were out there, and much as you don't like it, it's not my job to tell you everything I intend. I'm not answerable to you…only to Palpatine." Luke lifted his hand, finger outstretched. "I had the situation under control. Don't undermine or countermand my orders again."

He didn't wait for a reply, turning about to walk from the bay without pause.

.

Han held Indo's gaze for a second before he turned to leave at the kid's side. As he did so, Luke's helmet, still where it had landed halfway across the bay, lifted and launched smoothly towards the kid's outstretched hand. They were out of the bay before Han murmured, "Did you know those other fighters were gonna arrive when they did?"

"Hell, no. I thought we'd be long gone by then," the kid replied without turning round.

"Thought so," Han nodded, not even slightly surprised.

 

 

 

By the time Han and the kid had changed and made it up to the bridge, the Immortal was back at the original point where they'd seen the isolated power spike. Interestingly, none of the officers or pit crew seemed too impressed by the fact that a sixteen-year-old kid had just flown a TIE Interceptor in combat and escaped unharmed…but then, Han remembered Gorn mentioning once that the Immortal was their 'usual ride.' Clearly, though no one knew quite what he was, they all knew what he wasn't-your average sixteen-year-old.

Now, Luke was standing before the run of triangular viewports again, staring at the tumbling drift of asteroids as the Immortal waited to see if they'd get another power signature.

They'd been here for over two hours, waiting, and stoic as Captain Roth undoubtedly was, he was looking to get moving again.

"It could have been a ghost," he said confidently from Luke's side, as he stared into the asteroid field. "Or a sensor aberration, from seismic activity within one of the higher metal content asteroids…"

Luke turned slightly to the Captain. "So what you're saying is, you don't know."

Roth straightened slightly. "I'm saying that given the brief nature of the pulse and the fact that it hasn't repeated, it's unlikely to have been by design."

Han watched the kid continue to stare out of the window at the Drift without acknowledging Roth, eyes scanning. Eventually getting the signal the kid was all but blaring, Roth moved off, jaw tensed.

Han too turned to stare, aware that they'd reached an impasse. Though they were at the same position that they'd gotten the brief signal that morning, the view had completely changed as the natural drift of the asteroids had turned and tumbled them about, bringing some forward and removing others completely.

Indo stepped closer to Luke, his voice quiet enough that even Han barely heard it. "Luke, you need to move this situation forward."

"I'm thinking."

Han half-turned to throw a dry look the Viscount's way; apparently Luke's explosion an hour earlier hadn't done anything to dampen Indo's willingness to nag the kid. How the hell was he supposed to move forward when he had nothing to go on? They were still waiting for the first burst from the tracker which Luke had planted on the Rebel fighter. Wherever it was, it would have to come out of lightspeed, and the fighter would have to be back in space-or at least a bay open to space and therefore oxygen-free-before its transmitter triggered, and it wasn't, yet. Until it did, they were playing a waiting game, 'cos the fact was, you couldn't make things happen out of thin air. There was no real way to…

The kid turned to Captain Roth. "Contact theImperialPalace on Coruscant. Have them send a message to Project Nine, requesting an immediate response. They need Project Nine to repeat any message sent in the last week; a sustained signal back to Coruscant for one minute."

Han frowned, knowing now that Project Nine was the code name for the Maw Installation. He looked quickly to Luke, realizing that the kid was still trying to tie all that had happened, back to the dead spy on Coruscant; the Maw Installation ran its comms to Coruscant through Sinto Base, and Luke was looking for a common link.

Han stepped in, keeping his voice low as the Captain moved away to give the order. "You think something's out there?"

Luke glanced to him briefly, then back out into the slow tumble of the Drift. "Why else would an X-wing be this far out in the middle of nowhere?"

"Maybe this was just where his drive system gave out." He didn't say the obvious; that if they'd taken the pilot in, instead of tagging him, they might have known by now.

Luke shook his head. "He was here for a reason. Whatever it was, he'd already done it, because he couldn't believe his own bad luck at his engines having failed, and then our arrival… And the three Spearheads-they came out of hyperspace hot, weapons armed. They knew we were there."

"The X-wing had been fully powered down when we arrived," Han said. Fully powered down, with its engines so cold that they hadn't shown up on scans. Which meant that it had been without power for a while. And if it had sent any kind of comm off, the Immortal would have picked it up immediately anyway, long before it picked the actual X-wing up on even long-range scans. "There's somebody else-there's someone else out there who sent the message as soon as we came out of lightspeed!"

At that moment, the comm officer spoke out. "Sir, I have the signal again! Four point five clicks from its previous position."

 

 

It turned out to be a shielded listening base in one of the deeper craters of the asteroid they'd originally identified, when the first small power surge had briefly flared. With the sustained burst communiqué from Maw Installation keeping it active for a full minute as the base systems automatically responded to the incoming signal, they didn't have any problems locking its position down. It was small-in fact it was tiny, no more than a double-story airtight prefab half-buried below ground, and a receiving dish, all painted a broken camo black to melt them into the surrounding shadows.

Luke had already pushed to have two TIE bombers do a fly-over whilst the assault shuttle loaded up with stormtroopers, requesting that the bombers destroy any transports they saw but leave the prefab intact. He was heading off the bridge, intending to go down onboard one of the assault shuttles, when the pit comm officer spoke up. "Sir, you have a communiqué from Coruscant."

He turned, surprised. "Source?"

"I have a code only-nine-six-two."

Luke nodded, setting back instantly to the rear of the bridge. "Patch the communiqué through to Comm One, I'll take it there." He glanced once to Captain Roth. "And tell your men I want prisoners-I can't interrogate a corpse."

Han watched Indo set off the bridge a step behind the kid…then followed, rushing to keep up.

Comm One was the largest holo on the Destroyer, generally used to project starcharts for inter-ship tactical analysis, so Han was familiar with the size of the dark-walled chamber-a good three stories in height and roughly circular. It had no chairs-if you were a pilot on a briefing, you were expected to stand. After some of the more long-winded briefings Han had attended on an assortment of tours of duty, he suspected it had been to stop you from falling asleep.

Today only Indo and the kid were ahead of him as he entered, the holoprojector already active but not transmitting, and the raised circular transmission platform glowed in a fine band about its edge, indicating that it was active. Luke paused at the small console to the edge of the room to input a code-probably a cipher-then stepped calmly forward.

He should have known; should have realized who it was when the kid stepped onto the transmitter and dropped to one knee, head down. Still, when the Emperor's face appeared a second later, taking the entire height of the projection area so that it loomed over Luke, Han still took an involuntary step back.

"Tell me the details," the Emperor intoned, as if this were the remainder of a half-finished conversation.

Luke straightened without hesitation. "Master, we tracked the lead back to the Cron Drift, in the Outer Rim. There's a Rebel base hidden at the edge of the asteroid field-just a few people. Troops are going in now."

"The Rebel fighter?"

Han turned to glare at Indo, sure the Viscount must have contacted the Emperor whilst he and Luke were returning to the ship, since Luke had sent no transmissions since. As it was, the kid nodded casually, as if this too were part of an ongoing conversation. A stray memory fired, of the kid saying that one of the other Emperor's Hands had the ability to contact the Emperor over extended distances using the Force-of Luke's admission another time that the Emperor had taught him too to 'hear' voices, and to tune into his Master's mental sense in order to block them out. Could the kid do that over extended distances, as he'd said the other Hand had been taught to do?

"I allowed the fighter to escape, Master. We're waiting to pick up a signal from the homing beacon."

"And your connection between the Rebel base and Sinto?"

"The Cron Drift base must have been set up to infiltrate and monitor the communications line between the Maw Installation and Coruscant. We had the Maw send a test transmission, and it came into the Rebel base in the Cron Drift almost simultaneously with Coruscant. Once they had this base running, they would have needed the ciphers to decode what they had, so they had to recruit someone inside Sinto Base to get the codes out. We can confirm this when we download the Rebel base's logs."

"How long was the base running; have they passed on information already?"

"I'll be able to tell you more precisely when we get the Rebel prisoners from the base onboard the Immortal, Master."

Palpatine's chin twitched in annoyance. On this scale, those ochre eyes passed on every nuance of their caustic displeasure. "Interrogate them. I want all the information by morning. When you're done, if they're still alive…kill them."

Han glanced to Indo, who stood to the edge of the room beside him, but the Viscount remained still and silent, expression inscrutable as ever. Before him, the kid dropped his head in a standing bow. "Yes, Master."

 

 

 

The small, bare interrogation cell on the third level of the detention center was painted drab gray, with one standard chair, in front of which was a small table, and another, larger upright chair to the center of the room, fitted with restraints. Han had stepped in beside the kid before he even realized what it was, watching Luke take a datapad from an officer outside without comment, head down as he scanned it whilst the door before him lifted.

They always made the doors on Imperial cells low, so that you had to stoop to get inside the cells. Psychology, they said. As it was, the kid didn't need to bother, so slight was he.

The Rebel, one of two taken alive, was already there when they entered, stripped of his clothes and wearing a gray jumpsuit that no one had bothered to fasten, the restraints set into the arms and legs of the interrogation chair already locked, holding him still.

Luke looked up only once from the datapad, and that was to dismiss the two stormtroopers who stood to either side of the door. He sat in the chair opposite the Rebel as Han hovered to the back of the room, deeply uneasy. Unlike the kid, he couldn't help but glance to the bound prisoner, frowning and looking down as the man's eyes lifted to him, a bruise already darkening where someone had landed a blow to one side of his head.

Luke remained silent for a long time, reading, as the man pulled subtly at the restraints on his wrists, deeply wary, and probably uncertain just what exactly a kid was doing here. Han's thoughts went uneasily back to the previous time the kid had faced a prisoner, on Sinto Base, and in the extended silence he could feel his stomach wind slowly tighter. Finally the kid looked up, his tone brusque and businesslike but not unpleasant.

"Okay, from what we can see, you broke into the S-T commsat chain near Gand and installed your own stolen and altered Imperial satellite, set up to transmit to your station in the Drift. I just need to verify how long you've been set up, how much data you've passed on, and what it was."

The man remained silent. Man-he wasn't much older than Luke, maybe twenty at the most. When had wars become this; kids, dragged into an adult world too soon, veterans before their teens were out. Han wasn't quite thirty and he felt old, watching this meeting of seasoned enemies.

Luke straightened to place the datapad down, taking unnecessary time to allign its outer edge to the edge of the table. "You understand-you didn't manage to erase your station's system. It'll take us a day or so to put the information you just tried to blank back together, but we will. Every piece. So all we're really talking is a time scale of a few days. Either you tell me now, after which I put you back in your cell and report to my superiors, and we both get a good night's sleep tonight, or this gets the kind of messy that involves blood and bone…not mine."

Luke gave him a good long time to answer, but the Rebel remained silent, holding his eye without flinching. Eventually he leaned forward to scroll down the datapad. "Your friend has Commander Isman next door. You have me, which is…unfortunate. It's unfortunate because I've worked with Commander Isman before, and I know for a fact that he'll keep your friend alive at the very least through the night. Knowing that I have Commander Isman and your friend to fall back on, I may not be nearly as conscientious."

Silence… Luke looked up to the man, who flexed his jaw, lips narrowing. The kid sat back and sighed, giving another long pause before he spoke.

"See, the fact is, I don't particularly like Commander Isman, so I have no intention of letting him come out of his interrogation session with more information than I get out of you. Call it conceit, call it competitive spirit, call it professional pride…call it plain bad luck on your part. Call it a foregone conclusion. But we are gonna win." Luke glanced down to the datapad, then looked up again, amused. "Keev Kline…really?"

"Kutabare."

Han didn't know the language, but an insult sounded like an insult no matter where in the galaxy it came from. Luke let the silence hang a heartbeat, and Han felt his own throat constricting as the tension upped a notch. Remaining seated, the kid tipped his head, coolly dismissive.

"Now why would you do that-why would you throw insults, in a situation in which you know they won't be tolerated? Why do that, when you know there'll be reprisals? Didn't they teach you how to withstand interrogation, Keev? That you never antagonize the man who has the power of life and a very painful death over you."

"Kutabare, o baka ze."

Luke placed the memopad carefully back on the edge of the table before glancing down to rub at his eyes for a second, as if weary… He looked up sharply-

The restraint chair that the man was strapped to jerked violently back the length of the room to hit the far wall heavily as the Rebel doubled over forwards, his body folding as if the blow had hit him with enough power to send both himself and the chair reeling. The chair's impact dragged him momentarily upright to whiplash back so that his head hit the wall behind him with a heavy thud, before he doubled back over, struggling to drag in rasping breaths against the shock of the invisible blow.

Luke remained still, waiting without emotion as the man gasped, trying futilely to lift his hand to his face where his nose had started to bleed…and the kid just watched. Han's heart was pounding, his own breath coming short, body locked to the spot as the kid waited until the hunched Rebel lifted his head.

Kid smiled just slightly. "Want to say that again?"

The man remained silent, his labored breathing spraying the blood which flowed unchecked from his nose out in a fine spray before him to speckle across the knees of the pale gray prison-issue jumpsuit he wore.

Luke rose…and the restraint chair dragged quickly forward with an ear-rending screech over the polished floor to stop directly in front of him at the very moment that he bent down, arms extended with perfect timing to rest on the shocked prisoner's bound wrists as the chair jerked to a halt. "Namen ja neyo, Keev-kakko tsukenna-yo. Because I know what you're saying…in fact, I even know what you're thinking-which is why I know you speak Basic. But then, to me, thinking something and saying it are the same thing anyway, and whilst you've learned the great good sense to keep your mouth shut, you can't close your mind-not to me."

The chair rocked unsteadily on the spot and the man stiffened and let out a broken, breathless yelp as he braced-against what pain, Han didn't know. His chest locked for long seconds, eyes wide, every muscle taut…before his head finally dropped loose in release as he fell to heavy, broken gasps. Luke remained just inches from his face, completely unmoved, waiting until he seemed to have enough awareness of his surroundings to try to lift his head again.

"Remember that I told you it was unfortunate that you had me, Keev? What I meant was, it's unfortunate that you have a Sith. An actual Sith. Someone who can, and will, make your last hours in this galaxy the most gruelling, agonizing experience of your life. Myself, I couldn't care less either way, but you might want to change that. And you can, very easily." His icy voice became calm with coaxing reason. "All you have to do is tell me how long the listening post has been there and what you've passed on. That's it. Nothing about your Rebellion, nothing about its locations or its numbers-just that. That buys your life, Keev. Because believe me, if you don't tell me, then the man in the other interrogation cell will, to buy his own life. And that makes you not only surplus to requirement, but the awkward one. The irritating one. The one I'm gonna vent all my frustrations on-probably once I've brought your friend in here, just to make sure he understands how bad it can get. All for the sake of a day…one day. We'll have the information in one day anyway. You're not helping anyone by keeping hold of it, Keev. You're certainly not helping yourself."

"No…" The man's voice was a wounded gasp, but he pulled it up from the depths of his spirit and Han knew he meant it-that this was the start.

Hands still on the chair arms, Luke leaned back slightly, head tilting to try to catch his eye, though he wouldn't lift his gaze. "No? Wrong, wrong answer, Keev. Kind of answer that hurts…"

The man braced…and Han pushed abruptly off from the wall of the cell. "Just take it-take the information from his mind! You can do that, can't you? Just do it. Make him think about it and just take it out! Stop tormenting him!"

It was only when Luke had straightened to stare, shocked at the outburst, that Han realized just how loud he'd shouted. He stared at the kid, wide eyed, the only sound in the room the heavy, cracked gasps of the Rebel.

He wanted to say it again; to tell the kid to stop, to actually look at what he was doing on someone else's order-a kid, who shouldn't even know places like this existed, let alone excel in them. But he knew all that; Luke already knew all that-had known the moment Han had thought it-and that was what was worst of all.

He turned and pushed clumsily at the door release, stumbling to step underneath that damn door, unable to get away fast enough. From this-from the kid.

 

 

 

The door to his quarters slid open, though Han remembered locking it, so he knew without turning who was there, casting a long shadow across the darkened room. He took a draft from his drink in silence and without turning, but the kid neither entered nor left him alone, waiting at the threshold. Eventually Han shook his head, not angry, just...telling the truth. Kid would know it anyway…and if he could make sense of what Han felt right now, then he was doing better than Han himself. "Just…go away, huh? I don't want to…I don't want you here right now."

"I had my orders," Luke said quietly.

He couldn't turn-couldn't even look at the kid. "That's not a reason-not enough."

"An order from Palpatine is," Luke murmured quietly.

Han could only shake his head, knowing he couldn't get through to the kid and wondering, in that moment, if he ever would. If it was even worth trying.

The kid moved slightly in the doorway, and Han watched his shadow shift as he lifted his hand to his mouth, chewing compulsively at his thumbnail. Han looked out into the Drift again, draining the glass he held. "Is he dead?"

The shadow twitched slightly, lifting its head. "Yes."

"Did you do it?"

"…Yes. If you want someone dead, it should be by your own hand."

"Palpatine tell you that?"

"No." There was no defense in his quiet voice, only a restrained statement of the facts. "I worked it out myself when I was eleven years old, doing…doing this on Palpatine's command."

It was a second or two before realization percolated into Han's brooding thoughts just what the kid was admitting to-that having been in that situation too often himself, he wouldn't ever take the easy route and just transfer that burden of guilt elsewhere. Not that Palpatine would have had any, but Luke…Luke clearly must, which was why he couldn't pass that order on. And guilt meant that somewhere in there, no matter how battered down or torn between absolute loyalties and private misgivings…was a conscience.

He turned, but the kid had already stepped back, letting the door close to douse the room in darkness again. Bringing his hand up, Han dragged it across his temple and back through his hair, a mighty headache making him clench his jaw. In that moment, he felt like he deserved it.

 

 

 

 

 

There turned out to be a lot of information waiting when Han reached the bridge the following morning, in time for his duty shift. Indo was already with the kid, of course, speaking quietly. Outside, as Han had seen from many viewports now, the maelstrom of lightspeed rolled in twisting chaos, casting bright shafts of light across the bridge and crew pits. Luke didn't turn as Han came to a halt behind him, but kept his attention on the tech station to the outer side of the crew pits, calling up a few screens of information and studying them with exaggerated interest as he spoke to Indo.

"The Rebel listening station was receiving transmissions from a reprogrammed satellite that turns out to have been from a batch stolen a few weeks back over Orron III. The freighter Pheonix, which held the stolen commsats, and the Lambda shuttle Wilsey ,a known Rebel vessel, were reportedly spotted by the SD Intrepid docking alongside a Rebel Cruiser named Maximus,two weeks ago. The Maximus has been spotted on two occasions flying in formation with an MC80 Mon Cal Cruiser."

"Do we have an ID on the Mon Cal Cruiser?"

"No, but it was an MC80 Star Cruiser. How many can the Rebellion have? It has to be the Independence."

"Do you have confirmation on that?"

Luke looked down. "No."

"You can't work on suppositions, Luke."

The kid looked up coolly. "There are ninety-four MC Eighty Star Cruisers in existence-I checked. I can account for ninety of them through regular channels. Of the last four, one is listed as believed used by Black Sun, and one was listed as having been destroyed in the Boralic Nebula two years ago; there was sufficient debris, mechanical and organic, for official channels to be willing to list it as destroyed, all hands lost. That leaves two. Names are irrelevant, but one is almost twenty years old, so there are minor differences in design as technology's changed. Whilst they're both listed as MC80's, one of the unaccountable crusiers is an A class and the other a D. Mon Cal Cruisers are all organic in build; no two are the same-but I looked very closely at the specs last night. Whilst it's possible that the Alliance have two, of the several sightings we've had of Rebel MC Cruisers, it's always been an 80D, in every report or image I found. Sufficient circumstantial evidence?"

Indo didn't reply, but instead stepped closer to study the huge Mon Cal Cruiser, its organic, irregular lines clumsy to human, if not Mon Cal, eyes. "What else do you know-any other possible links to the Pheonix?"

Always pushing, Han knew. And the kid seemed more willing to let him today, probably still sore at Han for last night, and falling back on old routines.

"Well, theIndependencehasn't had many direct engagements, but it was probably…." He paused, correcting himself. "Statistically, Intel believe that there's a high likelihood that the unidentified Mon Cal Cruiser which was in a skirmish over Turkana, where it faced down Imperial Destroyers using T-65 X-wings, was the Independence…so it may not be a coincidence that our damaged Rebel fighter at the Cron Drift was an X-wing. The Independence was also involved in the Brigia fiasco, when Operation Strike Fear was beginning to lose the initiative." Luke glanced subtly about himself, lowering his voice though there was no one close. "If this pans out, and the X-wing is from the Independence, then we may well have placed a tracker on the Rebellion's new headquarters frigate, because something as big as an MC80 Cruiser isn't going to be used for small-time haulage. That's the ship they're going to show up in to impress and to drum up support. If they're doing that, then they're likely to be carrying their ringleaders onboard…which means that if the X-wing tracker keeps transmitting, this could be an opportunity well beyond closing down an information leak."

"Have you informed the Emperor?"

"Not yet. I want to see if the X-wing returns to the Independence first."

"How long until we have co-ordinates?"

"We got a brief signal from the tracker in the early hours, which means that the X-wing's hyperspace jump onboard the freighter was well under a day's travel. They presumably transferred the X-wing to its unit's home ship, which is when we got the signal, then it accelerrated to lightspeed soon after. Timewise, that puts them inside the Hydian Borderlands corewards, or Hutt Space, rimwards. We're triangulating now, but making a general jump towards the Halla sector, in Hutt Space."

"Because?" Indo prompted.

"Hutt Space borders on the Tion Hegemony. The Rebels were forced out of that sector by Operation Strike Fear, but they may well have maintained ongoing operations in Hutt Space. I checked the last three months of local system logs, and the Rebels have been all over that area, with repeated attacks on supply convoys, prison vessels, munitions destroyed…communications satellites stolen. I'm surprised there hasn't been a task force assigned already. I cross-referenced the dates that we know the communication satellites were stolen, against the Death Star information which went from the Maw to Coruscant between then and the Sinto spy being caught, and if that's their only source, then they don't have enough intel to go on yet, so they're fishing. They obviously know something's happening out here, they just don't know where exactly, and our removal of their listening post makes it impossible for them to find out any more that way. They have enough information to know that the Death Star's deployment is imminent, but they need more, and they know it. Past information came from Hutt Space…so that's where they'll try first." The kid paused, then shrugged and said it anyway, giving a brief sideways glance to Han without meeting his eyes. "Just a hunch."

As he turned, Han noted the dark circles under Luke's eyes and the paleness of his skin. It hit him now that Indo was looking to be brought up to speed just as much as Han was, whilst the kid had obviously spent a good while on this already. The signal from the tracker had come through in the early hours of the morning, he'd said, and it sounded pretty much like he'd gone to start research immediately. Probably hadn't slept yet, Han realised. And he didn't seem particularly inclined to slow down yet, as he glanced back to the tech panel behind him.

"We'll exit hyperspace from the rough jump in minutes. If we're lucky and this is where they were heading, then the X-wing may be in realspace too, and we'll get another transmission. If not, we're statistically well-placed for when it next transmits."

Indo nodded, mollified, and glanced back to the screen to point at the image of a Rebel freighter. "And the Wilsey?"

"Nothing, really-or rather, a lot of small engagements. The involvement of theWilsey with the Pheonix ,and therefore the stolen communication satellites, confirmed rough dates before which any information leaks were highly unlikely, though."

"Which you can verify from the cleaned up and reconstructed Rebel logs, right?" Han asked, speaking up at last.

"There were no remaining logs," the kid said simply, still without turning to Han. "The system shred and core dump that the Rebels made before the stormtroopers got in was successful-we have nothing to reconstruct."

Han stared at the kid, aware of what he'd told the Rebel prisoner last night. Of the ease with which he'd lied, completely fooling Han, who knew him well, never mind the Rebel.

"We do have a name on the Rebel X-wing pilot though," Luke continued casually, turning back to key new images onto the tech screen. "I ran the voice print from our little chat through known resources, and identified him with around ninety percent accuracy as one Biggs Darklighter, an ex-Imperial pilot trained at the Prefsbelt Four Naval Academy, and coming from some dirtball planet in the back of beyond-Tatooine, in the Arkanis sector. Apparently he mutinied from the Rand Ecliptic, taking not only one D. Klivian-the Rand's executive officer-with him, but also the Rand Ecliptic itself."

"Gets around, huh?" Han murmured, studying the official Imperial ID headshot of Darklighter.

"Let's hope he does so onboard the Independence," Luke said.

He nearly turned that time, Han noted. Another few minutes and…

The Immortal dropped out of lightspeed in a lurch of constrained power, internal gravity popping Han's ears and shifting his weight before it caught up. Immediately the pit crew came to life, running through standard procedures as the first buzz of information came in.

"All stop," Captain Roth said from the front of the bridge as a matter of course. "Ops?"

"All systems online, Sir. Controls returned to the bridge. Reversion puts us on target, five thousand cubits from the Halla sector."

Han listened as the ship settled back into sublight routines, knowing that the individual ops stations needed to check in and confirm status before anyone could scan for the homing beacon's signal. Beside him the kid returned to the tech board, keying the console there to scan for the beacon's frequency, too impatient to wait.

"Sir," the comm officer lifted his head towards Captain Roth. "We have incoming updates and…"

"Got it!" Luke exclaimed under his breath, grinning. "Close by-very close. We can triangulate easily from this distance."

Indo leaned in, keeping his own voice low. "How long?"

"Seconds…it's narrowing the signal now."

A run of co-ordinates came up on the screen as Han moved closer, drawn in. "Well?"

Luke pulled up a navigation chart of Hutt Space and pasted the co-ordinates, watching as the system ticked…

Straightening, he looked up with pride-and it was Han that he turned to first, not Indo. "Danuta," he said triumphantly. "They're over Danuta."

In the crew pit, the comms officer stood up, voice tight. "Sir, we have an incoming alert from Danuta, in the Colovas system. The Imperial garrison there is under attack!"



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