Han Solo glanced worriedly at the occupant of the co-pilot's seat and realized he'd done it once too often when he heard the soft, exasperated-sounding sigh coming from his friend.
"I'm not going to break into little pieces, you know."
Han winced. It wasn't that he minded getting caught -- he never let anyone's opinion get in the way of what he felt was right. It was merely the painful necessity of those covert glances that upset him -- the absolute compulsion to make sure his friend was still there, was still . . . okay.
The kid didn't like to be coddled though, so he probably shouldn't let on how worried he really was. "Well, now, that's a good thing," he said brightly. "This hunk of junk may not be the Falcon, but I'm still not gonna be the one pickin' up all those messy pieces."
"Ah, I see. You're the captain, so minor housekeeping duties are utterly beneath you."
"Got it in one, kid."
Luke Skywalker smiled wanly at him, and that made Han's efforts to keep up the idle banter worthwhile, even though his insides were tied into more knots than a Corellian holodrama.
His smuggler friends would have scoffed at the idea that Han Solo, with his reputation for ruthlessness and never letting personal feelings get in the way of making a profit, would actually participate in an expedition like this. There was no financial gain, no material benefit, no reward -- no monetary reward, that was.
Han would be the first to tell anyone that forming personal attachments was crazy, because nothing in the galaxy was fair, and contrary to the popular belief of the unwashed masses . . . Bad Things did happen to Good People.
And none of that made the current situation any easier to bear.
Frustrated beyond all measure, Han punched a control on the panel with a little more force than absolutely necessary, and the blasted thing had the temerity to "bleek" a protest at him. Snarling, Han punched it again.
Luke's hand reached out and gripped his arm lightly. "Han, it'll be all right."
"That's easy for you to say!" Han snapped, but he stopped abruptly when he saw Luke's head tilt sideways, the smile on his face an obvious gentle reproof. Embarrassed, Han lowered both his eyes and his volume. "Okay, so I guess it's not easy for you to say."
"We'll find it," Luke said.
All those weeks of frantic search, sleepless nights and haunted dreams must have finally caught up with Han, because his reply felt like it was physically wrenched from him. "How do you know that? Damn it, Luke, we're chasing some obscure legend from an extinct species who didn't even have a written language!"
"At least there shouldn't be any translation discrepancies."
"Luke!" The urge to throttle the kid was almost unstoppable sometimes.
Luke sighed, nervously fingering one of the clasps on his Alliance fatigues. "Han, I can't explain it. I just know we'll find the answer."
Han searched the boy's face carefully . . . and wondered why he couldn't stop thinking of him as a "boy." Luke had changed since the destruction of the Death Star, had gained more confidence in himself, although Han guessed that since this latest crisis it was at least partially a front for his friends' benefit. Luke still turned to Han for reassurance during his darker moments, and there had been far too many of those recently. Other than an increasingly preoccupied Leia, the boy simply had no one else.
Still, this strange certainty of Luke's confused Han. Their quest was almost definitely hopeless, yet Luke seemed so sure . . .
He watched Luke's restless hands for awhile. "For someone who's so certain we'll find the answer, you don't look exactly happy about it."
Luke grimaced, and Han reached out almost unconsciously to him, worried he was having another attack.
"I'm all right, Han." Luke waved him off. "Don't hover."
"Luke . . .?"
"We're coming up on the planet," Luke said, pointing at the scanner.
"What aren't you telling me?"
"Han, if we don't come out of hyperspace soon, we'll go right past it!"
Grabbing Luke's chair, Han swung the boy around to face him and pointed a chiding finger at his chest. "We have plenty of time, and don't try that misdirection trick on me -- I was using that tactic when you were still in short pants."
Luke pinched his lips into a thin line, his too-slender body shaking in obvious anger, his eyes glaring into Han's.
Now, that was the Luke he remembered! Like a mixture of oxygen and reactor fuel -- ready to explode in sixty directions at once. "Spill it, Junior. We're not going anywhere until I find out what's botherin' you."
Luke lowered his eyes, the brief anger seemingly dying like the last throes of a collapsing star. "It's nothing, really. . . ."
Or maybe it's just sheer exhaustion, Han thought, as he watched the boy's shoulders droop. But Han wasn't about to back down. He definitely had a bad feeling about this. "Luke?"
Luke shrugged. "I told you, I can't explain it. I know that somehow we'll find it, but the process of finding it . . . isn't going to be pleasant." Luke shuddered. "Not pleasant at all."
Hearing the absolute conviction in Luke's voice, Han sighed and rolled his eyes upward.
Damn. Would it cause some major galactic upheaval if just one of my bad feelings turned out to be wrong for a change?
The old freighter Han had commandeered for their mission winked out of hyperspace a safe distance from the planet's gravity well. The ship may have had a name at some point in her decidedly checkered past, but if so, it hadn't survived the ravages of time and carbon scoring that marred her battered hull. She was known in Alliance records as simply "AF-13," and Han was glad he didn't succumb to the usual smuggler superstitions or that bad feeling of his would be having younglings by now.
He nonetheless crossed his fingers underneath the pilot's console . . . just to be safe.
As they made their approach to the lush, green planet, Han cursed silently to himself as he tried to coax the old girl into a little more speed. He felt half-naked without the Falcon to back him up, but she was on the other side of the galaxy with Chewie on Kashyyyk. With the Alliance's emergency evacuation to their new base on Hoth in full swing, there weren't many choices left for what most of the Alliance High Command considered to be a hopeless mission.
And Luke is just one man . . . even though he did save every last one of their hypocritical backsides on Yavin.
Han tried to push his angry thoughts aside. The Alliance had given them their full support, up to a point, allowing the databank computers they needed for their desperate search to be the last equipment dismantled in preparation for the evacuation. But it still felt like abandonment to Han . . . like they'd given up on Luke.
And that was something Han Solo simply wouldn't allow.
So he had begged, borrowed, cajoled, and very nearly stolen what they'd needed to get here, including this woebegone freighter, but Han guessed they'd only gotten her because the Alliance figured she simply wouldn't survive another hyperspace jump to Hoth.
Oh, Her Worship had done all she could, but her hands were pretty much tied by "The Needs of the Rebellion," and to be fair, she had looked ready to deck anyone who refused Han access to a ship of some sort. Besides, there wasn't a freighter built that Han couldn't coax into some semblance of usability, given the proper motivation. And it wasn't like the bucket of bolts had to hold together for very long. If they couldn't find what they needed on this hole-in-the-wall planet, there was no need for the ship to go anywhere else.
No need at all.
Han checked the scanners. "Looks pretty quiet. . . ." he said, trying to wheedle a little more range out of the antiquated forward sensors. He saw Luke open his mouth, and Han stopped him with an upheld hand. "And don't tell me, 'too quiet.' I think I've got that part figured out on my own."
"Just trying to help, Han, what with your advanced age and impending senility and all."
"Funny, Junior, very funny."
Han frowned at a phantom reading coming from the infrared scanner, but at this range it was difficult to tell whether it was a low-power energy source or merely some type of random disturbance in the planet's ionosphere. "Damn. See that?"
Luke leaned over, frowning at the nebulous blip that faded in and out on the screen. "If it is something, it's awfully small," he said.
"I'm gonna check it out." Han banked the freighter sharply and brought it to full power, wincing when one of the bulkheads in the forward cargo hold groaned in protest.
Luke grabbed onto the navigator's console in what was probably sheer reflex. "Han, maybe we ought to hang back a while, take more readings. . . ."
Han sent the freighter into a long spiral loop on approach, automatically using an old smuggler's trick to confuse any possible targeting control systems attempting to lock onto his ship. "We don't have time," he said shortly.
And he knew Luke heard what he was actually saying: You don't have time.
And the longer the kid had to spend in the pressurized cabin of this freighter, the less time he would have. Han redlined the throttle.
Luke still gripped the console as they spiraled closer to the planet's atmosphere, but his eyes were focused straight-ahead through the transparisteel of the cockpit. "Han, I have a bad feeling about this."
"Blast it, Luke. Don't say that!"
Somewhere behind them, there was a high-pitched whine followed by the "snap/click" of a power transmission relay shutting itself down. Han eyed the blinking red light on his console like it was a rabid rancor, and his face screwed up into a frown. "I could've sworn I'd fixed that thing. . . ."
Luke was pressing buttons on the sensor console. "I think we have a problem."
The life support control panel above their heads sparked ominously, and a truly obnoxious alarm blared through the cabin as yet another power relay shut itself down.
"Really? I never would've guessed."
Luke stabbed the scanner screen with one finger. "It's not some kind of sensor ghost . . . and look at that power signature!"
Someone once claimed there were nearly half a million curse words among the myriad languages spoken in the galaxy, and Han guessed he'd probably go through most of them before this trip was over.
After taking a closer look at the scanner's reading, he decided he'd better save them for later. "Oh-oh," he said instead.
"Han, that's an Imperial power grid!"
Deciding that the wailing alarm was getting on his nerves, Han shut it off by the simple expediency of throwing a hydrospanner across the cabin at the alarm's speaker. It shut off with an indignant squawk.
Luke turned to him with an exasperated look on his face.
Han merely shrugged.
Sighing, Luke turned back to the scanner. After studying the readings for a few more moments, he said, "I think we'd better get out of here."
"No way, kid! I'm not givin' up this easily."
In fact, Han had no plans to give up at all. There was just too much at stake.
He slowed the freighter as they approached the phantom power source. It turned out to be an innocuous-looking metal cylinder about two meters long, painted a dull Imperial gray with a single red light blinking monotonously against the background of the blue-green world beneath it.
Eyeing the readouts on the short-range scanners, Han said, "Look, it doesn't even have a weapons capacity. It must be some kinda drone, or something." He smiled. "Things are looking up, kid -- even this flying deathtrap won't have any trouble takin' that out." Han keyed the start-up sequence for the forward lasers and reached for the activation button.
"No, Han, wait . . .!" Luke said, reaching to grab Han's arm.
Han pressed the button and a beam of blue light stabbed from the freighter into the outer fringes of the planet's atmosphere, leaving a slight remnant of phosphorescence in its wake as it found its target . . . and obliterated it.
Han sat back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. "See, no problem whatsoever. Now we can. . . ."
Luke interrupted with a disgusted-sounding, "Han!"
"It didn't have a weapons capability because it didn't need one."
Han looked up from the course he was plotting to the planet's surface. "What do ya mean?"
"My guess is it was part of a sensor net. A sensor net you just ripped a huge, gaping hole in!"
"Oh." Han rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I can't see any interest the Empire would have in this backwater planet, so maybe there's no local Imperial presence and the drone's only hooked up to a long-range relay. I bet we have at least a couple of days before. . . ."
"Incoming, from the planet's surface! Four bogies, moving fast!"
"Or, maybe not," Han muttered. He kicked the throttle up to full emergency power and dove for the inner atmosphere.
"Sith, Han, where are you going? We can probably still make a break for hyperspace if we. . . ."
"I'm not gonna let a few planet-bound yokels keep us from what we need to do." Han spun the old freighter into a tight spiral as they swung away from the incoming ships. "For all we know, those ships are just modified atmospheric craft they use for crop-dusting or something."
Luke swore viciously as he punched up the schematics on the incoming ships. "Imperial TIE fighters," he said. "The non-crop-dusting variety, I'd imagine."
"Don't get smart, kid."
Luke grabbed his arm, forcing him into eye contact. "Han, it's not worth it. I'm not worth it!"
Feeling his expression soften, Han said quietly, "Why don't you let me be the judge of that, Junior. You sell yourself way too short sometimes."
"Han. . . ."
"Look, kid, just make yourself useful and man the starboard laser turret." He snapped his fingers in frustration. "Damn, I forgot I was still workin' on the targeting system on that one. Try the port turret, will ya?"
Luke was still looking at him as if he was planning on doing something stupid. Like arguing with him.
Han made a shooing gesture with both hands. "Go on, Luke, we don't have all day here."
The Imperials decided to underscore that statement with a lucky hit off their aft shields, and the freighter bucked sharply.
With a small sigh, Luke got up from his chair and headed back toward the laser turret. He was almost out of Han's sight when there was another glancing hit, a loud metallic clang followed shortly thereafter by a startled-sounding yelp.
"Oh, and Luke? Watch out for the port hyperdrive access panel -- it has a nasty habit of popping open if it gets hit too hard."
He heard some muffled cursing from Luke's direction that sounded truly unique, and Han made a mental note to ask him what it was.
When they had a free moment, that was.
Okay, so this is not going well.
Han rolled the ship again, ducking into the mist-filled valley between two massive mountain peaks, struggling to shake their last two pursuers. The old freighter had neither the maneuverability nor the speed of the Falcon, and she was beginning to literally come apart at the seams.
He had to give the kid credit though. From his limited vantage point, he'd managed to nail two of the TIEs early on before they had gotten smart and kept low and starboard of the lumbering freighter . . . and out of Luke's firing window. It was getting too dangerous for Han to roll and give Luke a shot, since they'd almost totally lost the port shields.
As the mists parted suddenly in front of him, Han swore and yanked at the control stick frantically. The mountain that had suddenly appeared in front of him looked way too solid for his tastes, and he held his breath at the sound of the treetops caressing the underside of the freighter as he desperately pulled her nose up.
They cleared the mountain peak by a hair, and Han was pleased to see that one of the TIE fighters wasn't quite as lucky. It struck the mountainside, erupting into a quite satisfactory fireball, and Han glanced at the scanners to see if the last remaining TIE was still astern.
"Damn," he muttered. "Where did you come from?" He looked out through the cockpit, trying to get a visual on the new target coming in fast from the upper atmosphere. He flipped the intercom switch. "Luke. You still with me, kid?"
"Um, I think so. But if I'd wanted a close-up view of the local flora, I'd have done it from the ground, Han."
Han corkscrewed the ship away from the new threat on his scanners, which meant straight down toward the planet's surface. "You might get that chance sooner than you'd think."
"I'd prefer someplace where people aren't shooting at us, if you don't mind."
Han pulled the ship's nose up just short of the treetops and banked her hard to starboard. "That's your problem, kid -- you got no sense of adventure."
"That's okay. I figure if I spend enough time with you, I'll get one soon enough."
Han grinned. "Can't argue with that. Hey, Luke, we seem to have picked up another guest for dinner, so you might wanna keep sharp back there."
After a brief pause, Luke said, "I see. Getting kind of crowded around here. Any luck listening in on their ship-to-ship communications?"
"Nah." The last remaining TIE bore down on them, spitting laser fire in a crimson arc. Han veered the ship again. "There aren't any transmissions. Seems to be some kind of odd interference," he said.
The old freighter bucked in agony as the TIE's fire caught her unshielded flank. More baleful red lights appeared on the damage control panel. Han briefly scanned the comm readouts again while his fingers danced over the fire suppression systems. "No, it's too broadband to be intentional jamming -- every frequency, even the ELF bands are affected. It's more like some kind of natural planet-wide phenomenon."
The ship lurched again as the TIE continued to close on them, and Han swore as the old freighter suddenly dropped down into half-power. The acrid smell of burning electronics filled the cockpit. "Luke, I think we're in trouble here."
"I know." Luke's voice sounded more frustrated than frightened. "He's staying just out of my line of sight -- I can't bring the turret to bear on him."
Han sighed. "The forward lasers are off-line. I can't help you from here, Luke."
He watched the TIE swoop past the freighter's starboard side and make a tight loop in front of the faltering freighter. It seemed to pause motionless at the outer limit of its loop before it swung back toward them, coming in closer.
Coming in for the kill.
And there wasn't a damn thing Han could do about it.
The threat identification sensor wailed its strident warning as the TIE finally got a solid target lock on the dying freighter, and Han took a deep breath. There was no place left to dodge, even if the old girl had the maneuverability left to do so. The last of the shields failed with barely a whimper as the ship continued to lose power.
Somehow, getting vaporized on a backwater planet in the armpit of the galaxy was not how Han Solo had planned on dying.
But then one didn't usually plan that sort of thing, in any case.
He reopened the intercom. "Luke. . . ."
The TIE was close enough that Han could see the red glow of its twin lasers as they cycled through their firing sequences. The crimson beams consolidated on their focusing dishes and then lanced toward them.
It was impossible for the TIE to miss at this range.
A blur of motion burned across Han's field of vision as another ship suddenly darted between them and the TIE, directly in the line of fire. It was an impossible maneuver made at reckless speed, but there was no time for Han to admire the pilot's skill and audacity. The TIE's laser fire found this new target instead, and even with intact shielding, there was no way the small craft could absorb that much focused energy at such close range. Their rescuer's ship lurched drunkenly as its shields glowed bright blue, then failed in a spectacular flash.
After Han's eyes readjusted, he got his first good look at the ship that had saved their lives, just before it plummeted toward the planet's surface in a shroud of black smoke. Han stared after it, still in shock. "What the hell. . . ?"
The TIE cut its fire abruptly and lurched upward, almost in a panic, Han thought. Reacting without thought, he rolled their dying freighter to starboard . . . and prayed that Luke was still awake back there.
A brilliant beam of energy answered him as Luke fired on the suddenly vulnerable TIE. It exploded in a hail of blazing shrapnel, and Han struggled to evade the debris and gain some needed altitude.
The old freighter shuddered, and Han let out a curse as every indicator light on his panel winked out one by one. The cockpit was abruptly ominously quiet, and the smell of ozone permeated the stale air. The freighter seemed to hang motionless as she clawed the atmosphere for one endless second, then she dipped her nose downward in defeat as her engines cut out completely.
Frantically working the attitude controls, Han struggled to keep the ship on an even keel. They were going down way too fast and he'd rather not have her somersault after she hit, but the ship's nose insisted on canting at a dangerous angle. Too bad she has the glide ratio of a friggin' rock.
Han yelled back into the cavernous hold, "Hang on, kid, we're goin' down . . . and it's not gonna be pretty!"
Luke yelled something back to him, but Han was too busy manhandling the dead ship to reply. He only hoped her occupants didn't follow too closely in her footsteps.
The endless expanse of mammoth, intertwined trees beckoned through the cockpit window, and Han winced. There was never a convenient flat, open space when you needed one.
This is gonna hurt. Han sighed. Sorry, kid. And to think I brought you here to save your life.
Then he hauled on the stick desperately as the ship careened through the top layer of trees and the world exploded incandescently around him.
Han awoke, not with a whimper, but with a bang, as a piece of cockpit fuselage fell with a resounding crash to the deck next to him. He started to shake his head to clear it, but thought better of that when the world swayed alarmingly. After a few more moments, he took a deep breath to steady himself and looked down to make sure all his body parts were still there . . . and reasonably intact.
He let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. It was nice to find he hadn't lost all the infamous Solo luck.
Pulling his legs free from a tangle of loose cables, Han pushed himself painfully to his feet. A loud hissing sound from behind him caused him to whirl suddenly, and he nearly collapsed as the sudden motion made his head spin anew. Reaching out to steady himself on the bulkhead, Han waited for his vision to clear, then swore viciously, going through at least a score of those limited number of curse words.
The hissing sound was gas escaping from a truncated plasma conduit, which was truncated because the whole aft part of the freighter . . . wasn't there.
Damn it all to the Sith hells!
"Luke!" Han yelled frantically, trying to see through the pervasive mist that seemed to cling to everything on this miserable planet. He couldn't have been unconscious for long, because the mist was still swirling in disturbed eddies from the ship's passage. Even so, it was thick enough that he couldn't see more than ten meters or so at ground level.
Jumping down from what was left of the ship's cockpit, he landed with a squishing sound into what felt much like rubber moss. Looking upward, he was amazed to find that the dense canopy of trees was still very much intact.
Which means that the ship didn't start to break up until we hit the ground, not the upper tree line. So maybe the rest of the ship is more or less in one piece. . . .
Han knew he was probably conning himself, but he couldn't face the thought of finding bits of Luke's mangled body strewn amidst tiny pieces of aft fuselage.
Staggering on still-wobbly legs, he started off in the direction indicated by the furrowed ground. The mist and dense halo of interlocking trees above him combined to turn the planet's midday into a sort of mottled gray twilight and, being a spacer, Han instinctively distrusted anyplace where he couldn't see at least a parsec or two around him.
He already hated this place with a passion.
He hadn't gone far, however, before the mists parted suddenly in front of him as if waved away by a giant hand.
Han paused briefly and then lurched into an unsteady run. The rest of the ship was there, it was mostly intact, and he decided that now was as good a time as any to start praying.
"Luke?" Han called, searching for the quickest way inside. The remains of the battered freighter hissed and coughed as discharging capacitors bled the last of their power cells. Shattered conduits vented their share of nebulous gases into the mists hovering above the ship, but there was no reply to his call.
Swearing, Han found one of the cargo hold access doors, already half-open from the crash, and wrenched it the rest of the way with aching muscles that protested the additional abuse.
A handful of emergency lights still flickered fitfully as he made his way quickly through scattered debris and cables that hung down in the dark corridor like living vines. As he approached his final destination, Han exhaled sharply when he realized he'd been holding his breath.
Won't do Luke a lot of good if you pass out, Solo.
Wading through another tangled mass of cables and wiring, Han reached the port laser turret at last. It was mostly intact, but something had torn through the tough outer hull just forward of it and sent fragments of durasteel in all directions, decorating most of the walls and outer bulkhead with wicked-looking daggers of jagged metal. The dissipating remnants of thick, black smoke still lingered in the corridor, and Han began to cough uncontrollably.
Okay, so I guess holding my breath wasn't such a bad idea, after all.
Once the corridor had cleared enough for him to get something besides smoke into his lungs, Han resumed his approach to the turret. The only sound was the quiet ticking noise of cooling metal . . . and the steady "plop, plop" of liquid dripping slowly to the warped deck. He'd expected condensation in the near one-hundred percent humidity of the cloud rainforest they'd crashed in, but it was too soon for it to accumulate inside the confines of the ship.
Besides, condensation wasn't usually any shade of red.
Han dropped the last of the supplies he'd managed to salvage onto the forest floor and then leaned back against the ship in exhaustion. He welcomed the feeling, however, because if he was too tired to think, he was too tired to fall headlong into despair.
That was the plan anyway . . . because he sure hadn't managed to come up with anything better.
Sighing, he peeled himself off the still warm metal side of the freighter and made his way back to Luke. He wasn't happy that the boy was still unconscious, but it had made it easier for Han to cut him loose from the straps and get him out of the turret without causing him any more distress.
And it was probably a good idea to recheck the bandage anyway before Luke woke. He'd had to pull it fairly tight to stop the bleeding, but at least the nasty bit of metal seemed to have gone straight through Luke's thigh and not lodged there. Han had seen too many ghastly ship crashes in his lifetime and knew it could have been a lot worse. The wound had been bleeding profusely before Han had managed to get the pressure bandage on it, but at least the fragment seemed to have missed any major blood vessels or bone.
Thank the Force for small favors.
Luke was propped up against a small section of fuselage that Han had dragged a safe distance from the wreck. He had been wary of putting the boy in contact with any of the massive trees that formed the canopy overhead. Every inch of every tree was festooned with greenery of some sort -- a mixture of moss, vines, brightly colored flowers and epiphytes of every conceivable sort. Han had been a spacer too long, and he instinctively distrusted the flora and fauna of any new world, however innocent-looking they might appear.
Squatting next to Luke, Han examined the bandage critically. It appeared the bleeding had stopped at last, and Han heaved a sigh of relief. The boy simply couldn't afford to lose any more blood.
He shook his head, then smiled to himself. Luke was going to be a little miffed at him for slitting his trouser leg so far up to clean the wound. For a dusty farmboy from Tatooine, Luke was awfully vain about his appearance sometimes, and he was proud of that Alliance uniform.
As if on cue, Luke moaned and then opened one eye to barely a slit.
"Hey, there," Han said softly.
Luke merely squinted at him, frowning slightly.
"How ya feelin', Luke?"
Luke made an aborted movement to straighten up, then moaned again. "Like I got caught in the middle of a ronto stampede." He turned his head slowly, as if ensuring his head would stay attached before he moved it very far. "I take it we've landed?"
"You could call it that," Han said wryly.
Luke's lips quirked upward at that, and he tried once more to stand.
Han started to hold out a restraining hand, but dropped it again when he realized it wasn't going to be necessary.
Luke hissed sharply through his teeth when he tried to move his left leg and then looked down at his bandaged thigh in very apparent dismay. "How bad?" he asked shortly.
Han stood and then looked down at Luke. "Well, I guess you can technically call it a 'flesh wound,' but I wouldn't advise dancing any jigs in the near future."
"That's okay. I'm really not in the mood anyway."
"Good thing." Han paused, and then added with a little more emphasis, "How are you feeling, Luke?"
Luke's eyes strayed to the oxygen breather dangling conspicuously from Han's belt and said simply, "I'm fine."
Han crossed his arms across his chest.
Luke said, "Really, Han, I'm okay." When Han merely raised a dubious eyebrow at him, Luke's face flushed the slightest shade of pink, and he added, "All right, maybe a little tired, but that's all."
"Uh-huh. And don't try that innocent expression on me, Luke. I know better."
Smiling, Luke made an obvious attempt to change the subject. "How did you manage to get me a shot at that last TIE, Han? I was sure we were about to be blown to pieces."
"Oh, ye of little faith."
"Han, I've been flying with you for too long. It's not faith I'm lacking, it's confidence."
Han pursed his lips sternly, but they moved up into a smile nonetheless. "Watch it, kid, or I'll make sure you're assigned permanent KP duty with Threepio."
Luke looked up at him, an appropriately horrified expression on his face, and Han laughed. "I knew that would keep you in line." He inhaled deeply and then let it out in a long sigh. "Actually, it wasn't me."
"Huh? What are you talking about, Han?"
"You remember that extra company I'd spotted?"
"That last TIE was close enough for me to spit on -- there was no way he could miss, but at the last moment that other ship darted between us and the TIE." Han shook his head in remembered amazement. "That was one hell of a pilot -- still can't figure how he pulled it off." He stared out through the mists, and then shook himself slightly. "Got himself fried for the effort, but it sure scared the livin' hell out of that TIE pilot."
"An Alliance ship?" Luke sounded worried.
"Nope, that's the odd thing."
Luke merely stared up at him, a frown on his face.
Han crossed his arms, feeling a sudden inexplicable chill. "I've only seen one a few times before, but I know what I saw." Han paused, wondering if this was something he really should be dropping on the kid right now.
"Han?" Luke prompted with a slight edge in his voice.
Right, Solo. Like you have a choice in keeping anything from Luke? Must be something in the desert air -- everyone I've met from Tatooine has been either stubborn or hard-headed . . . or both. But I guess the kid has a right to know. Han sighed. "I don't know what she was doing here, or where she came from, but . . . our rescuer's ship was a TIE Advanced, Luke."
Luke moaned. "Han, please tell me you're joking."
"I wish I could, Junior. But hey, it might not be all that bad."
Han decided that Luke could do an incredulous expression better than anyone else he knew.
"There are probably dozens of those ships strewn around the fleet, Luke." Han shrugged. "I know we've all been kinda jumpy after Vader put that bounty on your head, but the odds of him being on the same planet as us, this far from the Galactic Core, are . . . astronomical." Han grinned. "And I don't even need Threepio to tell me that much!"
Luke shook his head. "Han, we don't even know why the Imperials are here at all! There's no record of this planet having any real resources, it has no sentient population, and Force knows its location doesn't give it any strategic importance."
"Maybe someone in the Empire has a fetish for unusual horticulture?"
"Yeah, Han. I'm sure Palpatine and Vader are both charter members of the Imperial Flower Arrangement Society."
"Stranger things have happened, kid, stranger things have happened."
Luke sighed. "I wish I could share your optimism, but I have a bad. . . ."
Han held up a staying hand. "I don't want to hear it!"
Luke crossed his arms over his chest and raised his chin, looking way too much like Her Worship in a royal snit for Han's comfort. "Okay, so what's the plan then?" Luke finally asked, a challenging note in his voice.
Han paced away, thinking furiously. "I'll let you know as soon as I come up with one."
"I think we ought to pick a direction and start walking."
Han turned toward Luke and felt an eyebrow lifting toward his hairline.
"Well, we can't just sit here and wait for the Imperials to pick us up!" Luke continued, his voice rising slightly.
"Luke, we hardly even made a dent in the rainforest's upper canopy when we came down," Han said, indicating the mist-shrouded, interlocking tree cover forty meters above them. "I doubt they'll be able to find the crash site from the air, even if they knew where to look."
"We have to do something, Han."
Han resumed his pacing. "I know, kid, I know, but we're not even sure what this 'roborant plant' looks like, much less where on this giant ball of overgrown shrubbery to find it." He paused, watching Luke's carefully measured breathing. He'd known even before coming here that the odds of finding this semi-mystical plant were astronomical -- as were the odds that it would do Luke any good even if they did find it -- but now, with Luke being injured on top of everything else. . . .
"And I'm kinda leery of draggin' you through unknown terrain when I don't even know what the dangers are," Han said firmly.
"Damn it, Han, I can take care of myself, you know."
Han merely looked down at him, cocking his head to one side.
"All right, so I'm a little the worse for wear, but we know this planet doesn't have any large life forms and. . . ."
"Kid," Han said patiently, "When it comes down to whether something can eat you or not, size doesn't matter all that much."
The boy was silent for a few moments and then looked up at him with a small smile. "Han," he said, a silken tone in his voice that made Han cringe in anticipation. "Didn't you tell me once that anything is better than hanging around waiting to get picked up?"
"That quote's taken out of context," Han complained.
"Doesn't make it any less true, does it?"
Han threw his hands up in disgust. "Okay, okay, you win. I guess our situation can't get a whole lot worse."
Luke laughed. "I don't know about that, Han. Uncle Owen was fond of telling me that things can always be worse."
Afterwards, Han couldn't have told anyone why he suddenly reached for his blaster. Call it smuggler's instincts, the infamous Solo intuition -- or for that matter, maybe it did have something to do with the Force that Luke was so fond of -- but he'd already turned, drawn and fired before he'd even fully registered what he was firing at.
Not that it mattered all that much, because his shots were deflected and the blaster ripped from his hand before he'd made any impression on his target at all.
"I'm afraid you won't be needing that any longer, Captain Solo."
Yeah, things had definitely gotten worse.
Darth Vader strode into the artificial clearing made by the freighter's crash and clipped the smuggler's blaster onto his belt.
It was unfortunate that the Corellian hadn't simply died in the crash -- it would have saved Vader the effort of killing him himself. He stopped mere centimeters from Solo and was surprised when the man neither flinched nor made any move to back up. Even Vader's Imperial minions would have given ground when confronted so by the Dark Lord . . . but Solo merely looked up at him with a determined expression on his face.
There was a slight movement behind the Corellian, and Vader's eyes shifted toward its source. The small figure was partly hidden by the piece of fuselage he rested against, and all Vader could see was a tousled blond head and a bandaged leg, but the Dark Lord recognized him nonetheless.
It was his son.
The word still sent a fleeting chill through him, as he'd had little time to grow accustomed to the idea that Padm?'s child still lived. He'd seen holos of the boy, of course -- had hunted for them after he'd discovered his existence -- but he didn't need to see the blue eyes and blond hair to know the boy was his. The Force practically sang it to him now, especially in such close proximity, and Vader instinctively, almost blindly, moved around Solo to get closer to that irresistible call.
Or he tried to . . . before Solo silently sidestepped to block his path.
Vader reared back, completely unaccustomed to having anyone thwart him in such a manner -- in any manner. Enraged, he raised his hand, drawing on the Force to throw the impudent smuggler aside, not caring if he managed to break the man's neck in the process.
Solo stiffened his back, as if anticipating the blow but not flinching away from it. "Leave him alone," he hissed through his teeth and actually took a step toward the Dark Lord.
Vader let the Force he'd drawn dissipate, amazed at the Corellian's audacity.
The boy. He is trying to protect the boy.
There was another movement from behind Solo and a worried-sounding, "Han?"
Solo never took his eyes off Vader's mask, but he ordered, "Stay where you are, Luke."
The movement instantly ceased, and Vader wondered what kind of hold the smuggler had on the boy, that he was so immediately obeyed. He paused, considering that thought. It might be helpful to discover that reason, before he killed the Corellian. Vader therefore broke their silent clash of wills by casually turning to look at the twisted wreckage of the downed freighter. "One of your more successful landings I take it, Captain Solo?" he drawled.
"Any landing you can walk away from. . . ."
Vader turned a significant glance to the injured boy behind them. "It would appear that only one of you meets that particular criteria."
The Corellian stiffened, and Vader knew he'd broken through the man's composure.
"Very careless of you, Captain Solo, to damage Imperial property."
"What the hell are you . . .?"
Vader gazed over Solo's head, and then back to Solo in time to see the widening of the smuggler's eyes.
"Luke?" The Corellian took another step forward. "You listen here, you over-rated piece of Imperial garbage, Luke isn't anyone's property, much less. . . ."
Enough was enough. He didn't even bother using the Force, in this case, it would be far more gratifying to do it himself. Vader reached out with one hand, grasped the Corellian's throat, and lifted him off the ground.
He could have broken the man's neck instantly, but he was in no hurry. In fact, he was so focused on the strangled gasps of his victim, the tactile pleasure of having the man's windpipe closing against his gloved hand, that he never even felt the presence behind him.
Careless of him.
"Put him down."
Vader heard the snap/hiss of an igniting lightsaber before he felt its heat through the armor on his back.
Clever, boy, very clever. So you are not so obedient after all.
Releasing the Corellian to fall in a heap, gasping for breath, Vader turned slowly to face his son.
The boy was small and slight, obviously favoring his mother in stature, but he was almost painfully thin, and Vader felt his eyes narrow behind his mask. The holos he'd seen of the boy hadn't given that impression, and while he could see the lean muscle through the ragged Rebel uniform, there obviously wasn't an ounce of spare flesh on the boy's body. He was holding the 'saber steady though, in the standard garde position . . . and there was something that was not fear in the boy's eyes.
Puzzled, he reached out with the Force to try to pinpoint that emotion, but while untrained, his son's mind was unusually strong. The boy resisted, squeezing his eyes tightly shut as if to concentrate on the inner battle, and Vader disengaged the probe before he inadvertently damaged him.
The boy shifted his weight when Vader released him, his left leg nearly giving out from beneath him, but Luke firmed his stance and then looked up at the Dark Lord again.
Resignation! That's what he was seeing in the boy's eyes, but why? Did Luke assume he planned to kill him? Vader tilted his head to one side, contemplating the boy's almost totally passive stance. He would not have expected that the pilot responsible for destroying the Death Star against such impossible odds would give up so quickly.
No matter. It will only make things that much easier.
Vader called his 'saber to him and ignited it while in the middle of the downward stroke against his son's blade. Their 'sabers met with an angry, snarling hiss, and Luke seemed startled at the sound, his suddenly wide eyes fixed on the interlocked blades rather than on his opponent.
Of course. Luke would have no experience with one-on-one combat. With no one to instruct him, he must have been practicing only against a remote. Vader released his breath angrily. That someone so strong in the Force should be deprived of the necessary training . . . and that person to be his son . . .
Obi-Wan, Vader fumed again in impotent rage, you were fortunate I did not know the extent of your duplicity when I killed you. Or I just might have let you live . . . for awhile.
Luke abruptly brought his 'saber down, releasing their blades. Vader countered with another overhead stroke, which Luke parried and followed through with a weak, ill-timed riposte. Vader easily blocked the move and held their blades again in extended contact, leaning in toward his son.
The Dark Lord hesitated in surprise, hearing what sounded like truly labored breathing coming from the boy, his face unaccountably sweaty and pale.
Releasing Luke's blade, Vader spun and moved sharply to his right, forcing the boy to follow his lateral movement. At the moment when Luke put all his weight on his damaged leg, Vader suddenly lunged and brought his blade down hard against his son's, bringing all his strength to bear. When he saw Luke's leg begin to collapse, he wrested his son's lightsaber from him with a savage twist of his own, sending the boy's weapon flying.
Vader grabbed Luke's sword hand as he started to fall, spinning him in a half-circle, and brought him back firmly against his chest.
Luke struggled against his hold for a few moments, but then he went suddenly, ominously limp in Vader's arms.
Vader froze, more shocked than he had been in quite some time. He tightened his grip, then bent down and lifted the boy into his arms after Luke nearly fell from his grasp in a sudden, boneless sprawl. Was the boy merely feigning illness then?
No, Vader answered himself, because with their close contact, he could feel the boy's bright presence in the Force had significantly . . . and dangerously . . . dimmed.
Impossible! He had not even touched the boy, unlike Padm?. . .
"Put him down!"
The hoarse, angry voice behind him caused Vader to instinctively tighten the grip on his son, and he turned to face the Corellian, who was still struggling to rise.
"I said, 'put him down,'" Solo repeated, as he got shakily to his feet and pulled a standard oxygen breather from his belt. The smuggler raised his chin in an angry gesture. "Unless you just plan on letting him die now to save the effort of executing him later."
Vader straightened to his full height, enraged anew at Solo's continued impudent attitude. But there was something in the man's raspy voice, something besides hatred and arrogance. . . .
He watched as Solo's eyes dropped, almost as if against his will, to Luke's face, and Vader realized with a start that it was fear he was sensing from the Corellian . . . fear for Luke.
Without a word, Vader crouched and carefully set Luke down on the forest floor, but he didn't move back. Couldn't move back, as he felt almost compelled to maintain some sort of contact with his son.
Solo didn't seem to notice, or care, about Vader's proximity as he gently placed the breather on Luke's face, muttering something under his breath. He then rolled up one of the boy's sleeves, pulled out a hypo and placed it against his son's arm.
Vader instinctively grabbed the smuggler's hand before he could activate it, not trusting the man and not knowing what was in the hypo.
Solo looked up at him and snarled, "Move it or lose it."
Vader merely tightened his grip angrily on Solo's hand.
The smuggler winced but didn't try to pull away. "Damn you, he doesn't have time for this!"
Vader looked down at his son, the oxygen mask strapped across his distressingly pale face. Hearing the boy's still-labored breathing, Vader wished he had at least some skill with the Force's healing arts. But that was not to be, would never be. He would therefore have to trust that the Corellian knew what he was doing. . . .
And trust was something that had been used against him far too many times in the past.
The boy moaned but didn't completely wake, his entire body contorting as if trying to curl itself around a myriad of hurts.
"Luke," Solo said, trying to restrain the boy with his free hand. "It'll be okay, shhh, quiet now." Luke broke Solo's hold as his body went into another uncontrollable spasm, and the smuggler shifted his attention to Vader with a look of utter contempt. "I thought you'd wait to get him back to the Empire before you tortured him to death . . . my Lord," Solo said fiercely, nearly spitting out the last two words.
Vader wasn't looking at the smuggler though, his attention focused solely on the waves of distress emanating from his son, even while semiconscious.
Trust. It was not something he was prepared to give, but if his son did die, he would at least have the pleasure of ensuring that the Corellian followed him . . . very shortly thereafter.
Vader abruptly released his grip on Solo's hand, and the man wasted no time in activating the hypo. His son's body seized once more, than relaxed almost instantly into total stillness.
Unaccountably panicked, Vader snarled and hurled the Corellian bodily away, reaching with his fingertips to his son's neck, not trusting the swirling eddies of Force generated by his suddenly confused emotions to tell him if the boy lived or not.
He could not feel it -- could not feel a pulse! Vader pulled his son closer to him, his hand shaking as he moved his gloved fingertips again on the boy's neck, cursing the existence of the artificial nerves and encumbering leather that deadened the sensations he needed to feel.
Vader sensed the Force gathering around him in a menacing cloud, demanding to be released with a violence he had not wielded since he had learned of his wife's death. He would not be responsible for the death of this one also. . . not like he had been for Padm?. He would simply not allow it to be so!
But he had learned long ago that wishing something -- or demanding it, for that matter -- would not always make it so.
Han Solo awoke to the musky smell of wet dirt and vegetation, and since he was resting face-first in the stuff, that wasn't exactly surprising. He must have inhaled some of it as well, considering how badly his throat hurt. Moaning, he pushed himself up on his hands and knees, shaking his head in an effort to clear the residual wooziness, then almost collapsed back onto the ground when the motion sent shockwaves all the way down his spine.
Right. Don't shake head. Come to think of it, that didn't work too well the first time I tried it either.
And with that thought, all the memories came back in a very unwelcome rush.
Luke! Han sat back on his heels and twisted his body around, searching for both his friend and their enemy.
Han's eyes widened and he froze, momentarily stunned. He hadn't expected the two to be in such close proximity.
Vader was half-kneeling on the ground, and he had Luke pulled almost completely into his lap with the boy's head resting against one leather-clad arm. The Dark Lord's head was bent so far over that he almost touched Luke's face with his mask. Between Vader's posture and the enveloping folds of his cape, Luke's body was almost swallowed up by the much larger one of the Dark Lord.
The encroaching mist and twilight shadowed their forms further, but Han could see well enough to spot the massive hand encircling Luke's neck. Han jerked forward almost involuntarily, remembering his own experience with those preternaturally strong fingers, but he stopped as he saw Vader's hand move away. What sounded almost like a deep sigh came from the mask. It stirred the eddying wisps of mist, shrouding the movement slightly, but Han could have sworn he saw that black-clad hand rest momentarily against Luke's cheek.
Must have hit my head harder than I'd thought.
"So, Your Lordship, kill anybody I know recently?"
The dark mask turned sharply toward him, almost as if Vader had been too preoccupied to notice that Han was once again among the conscious. From what Han had heard about the Emperor's seemingly invincible second-in-command, the lapse was definitely un-Vader-like.
"What is wrong with him?" Vader's deep voice was, if possible, even harsher than usual.
Han paused. He had absolutely no desire to let on how bad Luke's condition was. If Vader thought he wouldn't survive to face interrogation by the Empire, he might just decide to kill him now.
He stalled for time by moving closer and checking Luke's pulse, thankfully much stronger, before he replied. "Dunno for sure. He was breathin' some pretty noxious fumes before I got him out of the ship -- may have damaged his lungs a bit."
When Vader said nothing, Han looked up and was caught by the intensity of Vader's gaze, even through the impenetrable mask.
The Dark Lord's head tilted slightly. "And you just happened to have an oxygen breather and the proper hypo prepared for just such an exigency?"
"Hey, I didn't survive this long without being prepared for all the possibilities."
Vader looked over again at the mangled wreckage of the freighter, almost indistinct now in the gathering darkness. "If that is an example of your piloting skills, I would find such precautions to be . . . prudent."
Han started to fire back a scathing reply, but then he paused and felt a slow smile form on his face. "So, Your Lordship, shouldn't you be headin' back to your own ship before it gets too dark? Since we're gonna get picked up by the Empire anyway, I'd just as soon not spend any more time out in the damp than I have to."
Vader merely stared at him for some moments, but Han swore he could almost feel fingers around his neck again. At least I've managed to distract him from any further questions on Luke's condition.
"My ship," Vader said finally, "is not currently . . . serviceable."
Han sat back and crossed his legs. "Oh?" he said innocently. "Scratch the paint too badly on the way down?"
"You know exactly the condition of my fighter, since it was damaged saving my . . . your ship from imminent destruction," Vader said.
"Right. Meaning you didn't get your ship down in one piece either. Not a reflection on your piloting skills, I hope, Your Lordship?"
Vader shifted his grip on Luke and pointed a finger at him. "Do not push me too far, smuggler. Even my patience has limits."
Han felt the phantom pressure around his neck increase briefly, then subside. He rubbed this throat carefully. "I'll try to keep that in mind."
"I would advise that you do."
They both looked down as Luke stirred, and Han rocked back up onto his knees. He took the breather off Luke's face, not knowing when they'd be able to replenish their supplies.
And knowing that Luke?would need it even more in the days to come.
Luke opened his eyes. His face reflected the almost constant pain he'd suffered since the onset of his illness . . . before he regained his wits enough to hide it again behind an impassive mask. He looked up at Han, a question visible in his eyes.
Then Luke realized where he was . . . and exactly who was holding him.
Han wasn't sure who was more surprised -- Luke, Vader, or hell, himself for that matter -- because he had never seen Luke move so fast. The kid slashed viciously back with one hand against Vader's throat, then practically launched himself out of Vader's grip -- and the Dark Lord was too startled by Luke's violent reaction to stop him. Of course, Luke's injured leg meant that all he really managed to do was collapse onto his backside a few feet away from Vader, but it amazed Han that he'd accomplished that much in his weakened state.
Of course, finding yourself in the arms of the man who killed your father might cause just that kinda reaction.
Vader rose gracefully to his feet and stood towering over Luke, but if Luke was disturbed by the Dark Lord's overpowering presence, it didn't come out in his voice. In fact, he just sounded . . . pissed.
"Do . . . not . . . touch . . . me."
Hooking his thumbs into his belt, Vader didn't look outwardly disturbed, but if Han had to make a bet, he'd wager the kid had just blind-sided him. Kinda like Vader had picked up what he thought was a harmless feshkar pup, only to have it try to rend him limb from limb.
Not used to meetin' up with defiance much, are you, Your Lordship?
Vader looked down at a glaring Luke for a few moments, then said, "That may prove to be somewhat difficult, young one." The Dark Lord sounded almost . . . amused.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Luke's voice had lowered into a register that Han rarely heard from the kid.
"It means you have neither the years nor the experience to realize you are making unreasonable demands, child," Vader said smoothly.
Oh, skrag! Oxygen -- meet spark. Spark -- meet oxygen.
Luke struggled to his feet with none of his usual grace given his condition, his body practically vibrating in unmistakable anger. He raised his chin and straightened his spine in yet another gesture Han recognized from Leia -- one that meant its target better move back, or dodge . . . or both.
"If gaining 'years and experience' means I'll turn into something like you, I think I'll pass," Luke said tightly.
Vader's head pulled back in an angry movement that Han was becoming way too familiar with. "I assure you," Vader said, "that possibility can be avoided . . . permanently, if you would like."
Okay, time to break this up until Luke gets his temper back under control, or we won't have to worry about finding a cure. The kid may have a short fuse, but at least it tends to burn itself out fairly quickly. But I know damn well that Vader's doesn't.
"I hate to break up the party, but it's startin' to get dark," Han said, rising to his feet.
Vader turned on Han, the black figure indistinct in the gathering darkness, but his anger still very apparent in his voice. "I must commend you on your powers of observation, Solo."
Han held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Hey, maybe you know this planet, Your Lordship, but I still don't know what falls into the 'edible' and 'eats me' categories -- and I'd just as soon not find out the hard way."
Vader was quiet for several moments, the sound of his respirator distinct even amidst the increasingly raucous calls from the nocturnal animal life. "Very well," he said at last. "But it should be satisfactory to remain here tonight . . . unless you have seen a rather peculiar-looking vine in this vicinity?"
Han looked nervously around him. Although it was now too dark to see much of anything, he remembered all too clearly the plant-life that covered every centimeter of the scores of trees surrounding them.
Right. So what the hell is "peculiar-looking" supposed to mean?
Darth Vader breathed a sigh of relief as he noted the brightening of the ambient light around him. Although his eyesight was enhanced by the abilities of his visor, it did not allow him to see in the dark -- and Balen'ar had no moons.
But it did have predators, of a distinctly pernicious sort, that were not limited by darkness. While Vader knew he could handle any threats to himself, Luke was an unknown variable and he had no intention of losing the boy at this point. Luke was his now.
Vader waited patiently while the absolute darkness segued reluctantly into mottled gray. One could not call it "daybreak," because the canopy of trees above effectively blocked any view of the sky. And since that canopy also blocked ninety-eight percent of the solar energy, it was an exceedingly small change in the light level. But it was enough for Vader.
Almost of their own volition, his eyes turned to the spot where his son lay. He could not seem to stop himself from looking -- had been unable to stop himself even in the darkest hour of the night when he could physically see nothing -- because his son's aura pulled him like the gravity well of a black hole. Luke's Force presence was crisp and blue, pure and unsullied. It contrasted so vividly with Palpatine's aura, which twisted and writhed like an ancient krayt dragon in its death throes. Vader had learned long ago not to look upon his Master with the Force's eyes.
Not so his son.
While the boy slept, it was almost . . . pleasant to look upon him -- a most unaccustomed concept to the Dark Lord. Freed of the pain of his wound and his obvious contempt for Vader himself, Luke looked much younger than his years.
Even more intriguing, the boy practically wrapped peace around himself like a cloak. A Jedi trait, of course, but surprising to discover in one so young. And so untrained.
Vader realized with a pang that he almost missed that sense of peace, which was even more disturbing when he remembered how he'd chafed under its restraints as a Padawan. To a boy accustomed to wild, unrestrained flights through Beggar's Canyon, the Temple's structured weight of tranquility and serenity had nearly driven him mad. But perhaps these traits merely required the tincture of time to appreciate, perhaps if he had waited. . . .
No, he was what he was . . . and not likely to change. He dare not change.
Or he might risk losing Luke to the Emperor.
Luke stirred uncomfortably in his sleep, focusing Vader's attention back to his son. Even while asleep, the boy's pain sent sharp spikes of disturbance through the Force -- like static electricity charges from an ungrounded circuit. They seemed to be getting more pronounced, but perhaps Vader was merely becoming more attuned to Luke's Force presence.
His son was sitting next to the smuggler's lanky frame, their backs resting against a piece of the freighter's fuselage. The damp ground was obviously not an ideal place for the injured boy, but the interior of the downed ship retained too many lingering fumes and gases to risk spending extended periods of time within. There hadn't been time to find a suitable arboreal locale to spend the night, so Vader had stood watch through the night as the other two had slept, trusting in the Force to tell him if anything . . . inimical . . . approached.
Vader frowned. He still had to decide what to do about the smuggler. Vader knew approximately where they had gone down and could feel the lifeforces of Balen'ar's human settlement, but he could sense them only because their combined Force presence was so much stronger than that of normal humans. He knew, therefore, that their journey would not be a short one. What Solo had told him about Luke's condition was true -- that he could sense -- but he also had the feeling there was something that the Corellian was not telling him.
It infuriated him . . . Solo infuriated him, yet Vader couldn't afford to be encumbered by the necessity of carrying Luke if the boy's condition should worsen.
And so it would seem he must endure the smuggler's presence for the time-being.
The boy coughed -- a shallow, dry cough that still did not wake him from his exhausted sleep. Solo stirred, but also did not waken, his grip around the boy's shoulders merely tightening reflexively. Luke quieted almost immediately, and Vader suppressed a stab of what felt almost like . . . jealousy.
But if Solo should stumble across one of those inimical life forms, perhaps I may be a second too late with a warning.
He watched as his son shivered and then burrowed himself closer against Solo's side.
If I give any warning at all.
Vader roused himself and walked to where the two Rebels slept. On this deadly world, they dare not waste even this tentative, nebulous daylight. Besides, the Force was telling him that time was running out -- for exactly what, he could not discern.
It was not an exceedingly pleasant feeling.
He had to restrain himself from reaching down and physically waking his son. Not for any fear of the child's retaliation -- although the boy would be formidable indeed when he came into his true powers -- but he knew that pushing Luke would be inadvisable at this point.
Besides, the boy would eventually be forced to come to him. He would have no other choice.
Vader finally settled on nudging the smuggler, none too gently, with the Force.
He had to admit that Solo had a warrior's instincts -- the other man awoke instantly, his hand reaching almost automatically for his blaster -- which was, of course, not there.
Solo's violent movement also awakened his son, although the boy looked far less alert than the Corellian. Luke's body stiffened when he finally noticed Vader standing over them.
Vader did not waste time on pleasantries. "I am going back to my ship to retrieve some items, Solo. While I am gone, I expect you to assemble whatever supplies survived your spectacular landing. We will move out as soon as I return."
Solo merely glared up at him. "Who died and made you expedition leader?"
Vader found himself taking a deep breath. "You," he finally said, "if you insist on defying me again." He sensed the Force once more responding to his implacable anger, and despite his earlier resolution to keep Solo alive, he felt no immediate desire to keep that anger in check.
The smuggler may not comprehend how close the threat came to realization, but his son obviously did. Luke's eyes went wide as he focused on Vader, and the Dark Lord wondered anew what his son could actually sense through the Force. It obviously frightened the boy, but again, Vader noted with interest, not for himself.
Solo started to rise, confrontation clearly delineated in both his posture and features.
Luke grabbed his arm, never taking his eyes off Vader. "No, Han," he hissed. "Leave it be."
"You expect me to take orders from that. . . ."
His son turned to -- almost turned on -- the Corellian. "Just leave it, Han." Luke turned again to face Vader, but he kept his hold on Solo's arm. "You have to trust me on this."
Solo continued to glare at Vader for a few more moments, but when he turned toward Luke, his expression softened noticeably. "All right, Luke. I'll follow your lead, but I sure hope you know what you're doing."
Luke released his grip on Solo's arm, but his eyes never left Vader's. "So do I, my friend, so do I."
When Han emerged from the freighter's hold, shouldering the packs he had put together from their supplies, Luke laid his head against the solid bulk of the ship and sighed.
This was going to be a long trip.
The smuggler never looked up from the overladen pack he was trying -- with little success -- to stuff with one more unidentifiable item. "Yeah, kid?"
"Don't you think those packs are a little . . . mismatched?"
Han looked up, an unconvincingly innocent expression on his face. "Whaddya mean? I'll have you know, I uh . . . acquired these from a very reputable dealer on Nar Shaddaa who assured me they were a matched set. Of the finest quality, of course."
Luke rolled his eyes. "Han, there are no reputable dealers on Nar Shaddaa -- I may have grown up in the backside of nowhere, but even I've heard of the Smugglers' Moon. Besides, you know very well that's not what I meant."
Han hefted the bulky pack he was working on and unsuccessfully concealed a wince. The pack was easily four times the size of the other.
Luke sighed again. "Han, if you try to put that thing on, you're going to end up flat on your back."
"Been there plenty of times." Han grinned. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."
Crossing his arms across his chest, Luke decided to ignore that particular comment. He settled on glaring at Han instead. "I'm not an invalid, you know."
"Yep. And I'm tryin' to make sure you stay that way."
Luke glowered at Han for a few more moments, then realized this was one battle he wasn't going to win. Actually, there were quite a few battles he hadn't managed to win, and the odds were against that losing streak changing any time in the near future. Force knew, his current life expectancy pretty much eliminated any need to worry about the long term.
Han walked over and dropped the significantly smaller pack next to Luke. He squatted down and said, "Hey. No need to get all gloomy. It's not that bad, you know."
Luke merely raised a dubious eyebrow at him.
"You're not worried about Vader, are you?" Han grinned again. "Don't be, 'cause we have him outnumbered. I'll distract him, and you can bonk him over the head with a rock or somethin'."
In spite of himself, Luke smiled. "That easy, huh? Then how are we going to find our way to the Imperial base -- and its ships -- if we take out Vader . . . with or without the rock?"
"Well, I haven't worked out all the details yet. Good planning takes time. . . ."
". . . And bad planning takes lives," Luke finished for him with a grin. Luke paused then, chewing on his lower lip absently as he considered how to bring this up with Han, but knowing that he did have to bring it up before Han managed to get his damn-fool self killed. "But speaking of taking lives, about Vader. . . ."
Han's face lost its playful expression. "I'm not gonna let him hurt you, Luke."
"It's not about me, Han." Luke shook his head, frustrated. "I can't tell you why, but I don't think . . . I don't believe he's planning on hurting me."
Han looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Kid, Vader's got a bounty on you the size of a Hutt's ego because you blew up the Emperor's Death Star -- you think he just wants to congratulate you on your spectacular shot or somethin'?"
Luke glanced down, avoiding Han's eyes. "Just . . . be careful, Han. Vader won't hesitate to kill you if you push him too far."
Han shook his head and then stretched lazily. "I'm pretty hard to kill, kiddo, thought you would've figured that out by now."
Luke sighed. "Han, you usually have Chewie around to pull you out of your scrapes, and if we have to rely on just your native ingenuity. . . ."
"Hey, watch it there." Han punched him playfully in the shoulder. "I'll have you know. . . ."
A dark presence suddenly trickled through Luke's consciousness, and he looked up sharply to stare off into the mist-shrouded rainforest. "He's coming," Luke said simply.
"Huh?" Han followed his stare, but after a few moments of seeing nothing, he turned back to Luke. "Don't start gettin' all jumpy on me, Luke. He'll probably be a few hours yet. . . ."
Luke shook his head and sighed. "Han, you may not believe in the Force, and I may not be trained in it, but it's rather difficult to miss his presence." He shuddered. "He must have been shielding somehow the first time, but now . . . now I can't seem to stop feeling him."
"It's just nerves, Luke. Force knows you have a lot on your mind right now." Han glanced again to the area where Vader had disappeared into the forest, oblivious to the fact that for someone who didn't believe in the Force, he still tended to use it often enough in conversation. "I don't know why old Kenobi had to fill your head with a lot of mumbo-jumbo and nonsense. He sure wasn't doin' you any favors."
Luke started to defend Ben, but he stopped abruptly when he saw Darth Vader striding into the clearing. He watched Han's eyes widen slightly, but any satisfaction Luke may have felt about correctly predicting the Dark Lord's return soon evaporated in the cold chill of Vader's presence.
That formidable presence didn't arise from merely the Sith Lord's reputation or his impressive size. He might have towered over Luke's small frame, he might have had decades of experience in using the Force, but that was nothing compared to the sheer intensity of Vader's aura.
Luke shivered as he felt the strength of the Dark Lord's attention on him as soon as he entered the clearing. He had always felt . . . something whenever he had encountered Ben Kenobi, but it was nothing like the sheer power of Vader's regard. Oddly enough, it reminded Luke of the awards ceremony after the destruction of the Death Star. When he, Han and Chewie had turned on the stage after receiving their medals from Leia, Luke had felt as well as seen the attention of the hundreds of Alliance personnel centered on them, but this . . . this felt like the combined Force presence of those hundreds of people had been distilled down into one focus -- a dark focus that singled out Luke alone.
How many times, when he had been growing up on Tatooine, had he wished to be the center of someone's -- anyone's -- attention? Luke had always felt he was more of an obligation than anything else as far as his guardians were concerned. He knew that was unfair, because Aunt Beru especially had always been kind to him, but Luke had constantly longed for something more. And for his father in particular -- even before discovering that his father had been a Jedi Knight.
Well, he certainly had someone's full attention now. Too bad for him it was a Dark Lord of the Sith and the Emperor's second-in-command.
Vader strode over to them, completely ignoring Han's presence, and stared down at Luke where he lay on the ground. Luke resisted the urge to shift backward from the Dark Lord's intense scrutiny.
What had his Uncle Owen always said? -- "Be careful what you wish for, boy, or you may get it."
Luke really, really hated it when his uncle was right.
"Are you ready, child?"
Darth Vader's tone was surprisingly calm, but his deep voice still cut through the heavy, humid air like a vibroknife.
Although somewhat disquieted by Vader's continued choice of address, Luke nodded a wary reply. About as ready as I'm going to be, I guess. Luke winced as he attempted to stand, his hand moving immediately to the still-seeping wound in his left leg.
Vader reached down, apparently in an effort to help Luke to his feet, but Han interceded with his body between them. Luke couldn't see Han's face, but he could guess the smuggler's expression by the defiant set of his shoulders.
And by the movement of Vader's hand to his lightsaber.
Tired and sore, Luke wondered if he still had the energy to keep the two antagonists apart. He shook his head in disgust. Maybe I ought to just let them kill each other -- my life would probably be a lot more peaceful.
Luke braced himself with his good leg and pushed backward, inching his body up the fuselage of the freighter. He had to stifle a gasp each time he was forced to put all his weight on the bad leg to reposition himself, but it was his own damn fault. He should have known better than to lie here this long and allow the leg to stiffen up.
At least lying around shouldn't be a problem from here out -- Luke had a suspicion that the Dark Lord wouldn't be sauntering as they made their journey to . . . wherever the hell they were going.
Finally making it to his feet, Luke looked over and found that the other two men were still staring at each other like two Sandpeople preparing to fight over the spoils of a raid.
Luke picked up his pack and sighed. Great, just what I needed. A camping trip from hell with the arch-villain of the galaxy and a hardheaded smuggler who's doing his best to commit suicide by proxy.
Clearing his throat, Luke said, "Excuse me?"
There was no reply from either Han or Vader, but at least neither looked like they were prepared to take any . . . permanent action against the other. Luke rolled his eyes heavenward. Slipping his arms through the pack straps, Luke said, "You two can catch up with me when you've finished . . . bonding."
Luke had almost reached the edge of the clearing when Vader's voice said, "Luke, stop."
Halting abruptly, Luke wondered why he suddenly felt compelled to obey the Dark Lord's commands. It was not a pleasant realization.
"It is this direction, child."
Luke felt himself coloring with embarrassment. "Of course it is," he muttered under his breath before turning to face Vader and Han.
"Luke, you really shouldn't. . . ."
"Child, it is not wise for you. . . ."
Vader and Han both broke off, turning to stare at each other, and Luke heaved another long-suffering sigh.
Without a word, Luke stalked past them in the direction Vader had indicated, trying his best to keep his limp to a minimum and his head held high.
His dignified withdrawal was diminished somewhat when he reached the edge of the clearing, pushed aside the mammoth leaves of a squat tree . . . and at least three liters of water poured onto his head when he tipped one bulging leaf too far.
Luke stood there, dripping, and silently dared either Han or Vader to make a comment.
Well, at least I know that finding water won't be an issue. Luke closed his eyes tightly against the water still cascading through his hair and stifled a groan. Right, Luke, you're in a rainforest, and you think anyone's worried about the ability to find water? You've spent way too much time on Tatooine.
"Well?" Luke finally asked when he could open his eyes again.
Han was very obviously trying to stifle a grin . . . and since self-control wasn't one of Han's strong points, he was failing miserably. "Wasn't gonna say a word, kid."
"Good," Luke said firmly. He glanced over at Vader, and Force only knew what he was thinking.
Actually, Luke didn't want to know what Vader was thinking. At this point, Luke was considering simply dying from embarrassment and saving the Empire the effort of killing him. Maybe if he continued to bumble along like the naive farmboy from Tatooine, Vader would lose interest in him.
Now . . . why did that particular thought bother him so?
Vader was quietly staring at him, and Luke fervently hoped that the Dark Lord's rumored ability to read minds wasn't true. Luke was supposed to hate the man -- he did hate the man for what he did to Ben, as well as his father -- but Luke simply could not figure out where these errant, totally inappropriate . . . feelings were coming from.
Maybe he could just blame it on the excess nitrogen in his bloodstream -- didn't the healers say something about watching for signs of confusion or disorientation?
Well, this certainly counts as confusion.
Vader started toward him, and Luke felt his heart rate increasing. What could the Dark Lord sense about him . . . and his suddenly bewildered feelings? Luke cursed his lack of knowledge about the Force as Vader stopped mere centimeters from him. As Luke was forced to stare up at Vader, he realized that he was actually frightened now . . . where he hadn't been before. And somehow he knew that Vader could sense that as well.
Strangely enough, Vader didn't seem to find any satisfaction in Luke's fear, because when he finally spoke, his tone was level and almost . . . disappointed? "Come, child," Vader said and started off through the forest.
Luke could only stand there, shaking. He almost jumped when Han came up behind him and gripped his shoulder. That was yet another thing that disturbed Luke -- when he was in close proximity to Vader, somehow the universe seemed to narrow down to just the two of them. He hoped it had something to do with the Force . . . and not simply the fact that Luke was going crazy.
"Luke, you okay?"
Luke heard the worry in Han's voice and took a deep breath. "I'm fine, Han." He tried to smile encouragingly as he looked up at Han, but it was hard to put anything past the Corellian.
Han snorted. "Did anyone ever tell you that you're a lousy liar, Luke?"
"You're a lousy liar, Luke."
"Thanks." Luke smiled wanly, and he knew Han heard the deeper meaning in that one word.
"Don't mention it." Han squeezed Luke's shoulder. "Come on, kid. We'd better catch up to His Exalted Lordship before he gets too far ahead of us."
Han started off into the forest but then stopped abruptly, his mouth quirking up into the lopsided smile that Luke knew meant trouble.
"You know, kid, I've always wondered how Vader can see anything out of that mask he wears. And with all this mist and stuff. . . ." He turned to Luke and smiled again. "You wanna make a wager on how long it takes before he walks into a tree?"
"Han!" Luke sincerely hoped that Vader was far enough away to be out of earshot.
Han winked at him. "Don't worry, I'll give Vader a chance to get into the betting pool, too."
"Don't you dare, Han." Luke glared up at him. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Nah." Han gripped Luke's elbow and started to pull him along. "Just don't wanna be bored, that's all."
Luke sighed. "Somehow, I can't imagine putting 'bored' and 'Han Solo' into the same sentence."
"That's what I like about you, Luke -- you're . . . perceptive."
Luke felt his equilibrium returning at Han's antics, which was undoubtedly Han's real motive for this foolishness -- not that Han would admit to it. "If I were that perceptive, Han, I'd have realized when we first met that you were a scoundrel."
Han beamed at him as if Luke had just bestowed a high compliment.
"Got it in one, kid."
Darth Vader waited . . . again . . . for Luke to catch up with him. He had thought he had reduced his stride enough so that his much shorter son could keep pace, but he had obviously misjudged the degree of Luke's . . . disability. And he did not want to get too far ahead of the boy.
He watched as Luke and Solo slowly approached. The smuggler was following almost directly behind his son . . . as if he wished to stay in catching distance should the boy stumble. Vader knew this was probably wise -- the jungle was a harsh place and would soon turn against those who made even a casual misstep -- but it still annoyed the Dark Lord that Solo remained so close to his son.
Vader looked pointedly at the obviously struggling Luke, then fixed his gaze again on Solo.
The smuggler stared back at him, raised his chin . . . and the dark eyes flashed defiance.
Vader held the smuggler's gaze, but didn't bother to punish him for his impudence. You may keep your secrets for now, Solo, but there is something besides a wounded leg and mere smoke inhalation afflicting my son, and I will discover its cause . . . with or without your cooperation.
Luke stopped -- a careful distance from Vader -- and coughed again. The dry, hacking sound was quite clear even amidst the clatter of the birds and diurnal mammals in the forest canopy above. When Luke saw Vader staring at him, the boy made a conspicuous effort to stifle the cough.
He was only partially successful.
Luke looked around, clearly trying to find something to distract Vader from his overly labored breathing. The boy shook his head. "It's . . . strange," he finally said.
They had been traveling along a broad ridge on one of the taller mountains of the rainforest, although the pervasive mist and semi-darkness obscured that fact from those who were not Force-sensitive. Vader looked around at the vista of moss-covered ground and mammoth trees and decided to humor the boy for now. "In what way, child?" As he spoke, Vader stepped closer to Luke . . . just to see what his son would do.
The boy's eyes widened, but he didn't make a move to step back.
But Vader was beginning to realize that Luke had inherited much of his mother's courage . . . as well as her particular brand of stubbornness.
Luke looked up at Vader's mask -- seeming to search for something -- before he finally spoke again. "It's just so . . . open. I thought a rainforest would be . . . I don't know, more cluttered, more overgrown?"
Vader paused before replying. He, too, had been amazed at the forests -- both rainforest and temperate -- that he and Obi-Wan had visited when Vader had first escaped from the barren deserts of Tatooine. It was . . . disturbing . . . to revisit those feelings of wonder through his son.
Disturbing enough that he didn't think through his reply carefully enough. "You equate openness with lifelessness, child. This is not the Jundland Wastes -- the climate conditions are quite different here."
The boy's fatigue and curiosity were such that he didn't catch the slip, but the Corellian obviously did. Solo glanced sharply at Vader and his eyes narrowed significantly.
Vader decided to merely ignore him -- the smuggler could surmise what he wished about Vader's knowledge of Luke's homeworld.
He gripped his son's elbow carefully and turned him to face the nearest of the immense trees. The boy jerked briefly in his grasp, but it seemed as much in surprise as in consternation. Luke looked up at him warily though . . . and again Vader felt that brief flash of fear through the Force. Did his son now suddenly fear Vader himself -- or was it merely the physical contact that distressed him so?
Vader tried unsuccessfully to ignore the wave of disappointment that passed through him. While he normally thrived on the fear that his mere presence generated in others, he was vaguely disturbed that his own son should fear him as well.
The Dark Lord briefly considered the thought of simply telling Luke of his parentage, but the time was not yet right. While the boy obviously longed for his father, the possibility that the boy would merely attempt escape rather than submit to the truth was still far too likely. Unless that balance between flight and longing tipped in his favor, Vader couldn't risk telling Luke -- Balen'ar was far too dangerous for the injured or the unwary to traverse alone.
Moving up close behind his son, Vader gestured with one hand over the boy's shoulder. Luke trembled visibly, but he didn't make an immediate effort to move away. His eyes obediently followed the direction of Vader's pointing finger.
"Light is life -- at least as far as the flora of the rainforest is concerned. Even with the warm temperatures and excessive rainfall, the canopy and understory below it block the light necessary for most plants to grow on the forest floor."
Luke took a step forward -- probably uncomfortable at Vader's continued close presence. "But the trees are covered with plant life. . . " Luke began, as he took another step and reached toward a vine hanging negligently from the nearest tree.
Vader pulled the boy back against his chest and stepped backwards quickly -- out of reach -- just as the Trella vine uncurled suddenly, snatching violently at the prey that had wandered into its path.
The vine waved back and forth through the air for a few moments . . . seeking, searching . . . until it realized the prey was no longer close enough and placidly returned to mimicking a mere vine again.
The boy was trembling in earnest now, and Vader found that he was reluctant to release him. "But then, some of the plant life does not rely on photosynthesis for its survival," Vader said.
"Really? I never would've guessed," came Solo's sarcastic reply from immediately behind them. Vader turned his head to find the Corellian glaring at him steadily -- his gaze accusatory.
The Corellian was almost amusing in his protectiveness toward the boy, but Vader felt no desire to reveal that he hadn't actually planned that little demonstration. Vader had merely discovered that the boy's curiosity was perhaps a little stronger -- and more reckless -- than his own had been at that age.
If that were even possible.
Vader looked down at the boy. "Do you see now why it is important to stay close to me, child?"
Luke started to say something, but he was interrupted by Solo. "If memory serves, Your Imperial Forgetfulness, Luke didn't run into trouble until he did get close to you." Solo flicked an imaginary speck of dust off his shoulder, then glared at Vader again. "A little coincidental, don'tcha think?"
"Solo, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that you do not 'think' at all." He gripped Luke's shoulder tighter when his son made a move to step between them. "I have no desire for the boy to come to harm . . . .yet." Vader pointed a finger at the smuggler and added, "Fortunately, I have no such constraints when it comes to you."
The Corellian straightened to his full height, then leaned in closer to Vader and pointed his own finger. "Fine, then. Why don't you and I. . . ."
"Stop it, both of you!" Luke shifted down and away as he spoke, breaking Vader's grasp on his shoulder. He moved to stand between Vader and the smuggler, glaring at both of them with bright eyes that flashed like his mother's.
Vader pulled back and dropped his hand, bemused.
"If we want to survive this trip, perhaps we ought to consider cooperating a little instead of trying to rip each other to shreds." His son held up his hand when Solo opened his mouth to reply. "At least long enough for us to get to. . . ." Luke turned to Vader, hands crossed forbiddingly over his chest. "Just where the hell are we going, anyway?"
Vader cocked his head to one side, considering. There was no urgent reason to keep their destination a secret anymore. Luke would be leaving with Vader when he departed from this planet. And Solo -- Solo would find himself unable to disseminate the information . . . even if he so wished.
"There is a settlement," Vader said, bowing his head in ironic capitulation to the boy. "The TIE security force is also based there."
Solo frowned. "Settlement? The planetary survey team said the native population had completely died out." His words weren't quite an accusation.
"I did not say it was a native settlement."
Luke was looking at him intently. "But it's not an Imperial outpost."
Vader hooked his thumbs in his belt, stalling for time. It wasn't a question. The boy had insight . . . if not outright manipulation of the Force yet. "No," Vader said.
"Just what is it then?" Solo snapped.
Vader almost responded in kind to the smuggler's caustic tone, but the look in his son's eyes forestalled that. It wouldn't hurt to gain some of the boy's trust by at least attempting to be civil to the man. But Vader directed his reply to Luke instead. "It was started as a research facility."
"Research?" The boy frowned, looking over at the innocent-appearing Trella vine before glancing back up at Vader. "Research into the local plant life?" he asked.
Vader nodded gravely. "Your intuition serves you well."
Solo snorted loudly. "Darth Vader and his Dreaded Army of Killer Vines -- at least you wouldn't have to worry about uniforms."
"Han," his son reproved softly, before turning again to Vader. "Medicinal research?" Luke asked him.
Vader merely nodded again.
The Corellian came up close behind his son and laid a proprietary hand on the boy's shoulder. "Luke, that's just as bad. Even on Tatooine, you must have heard about Vader's pet biologic warfare project on Falleen . . . and the number of Falleen who died when he destroyed an entire city to contain his little mistake."
Vader still directed his comments to his son, ignoring the Corellian. "That particular project was by the Emperor's order."
"But you supervised it," Solo retorted.
Vader decided that Luke or no Luke, the smuggler was not likely to survive the journey. "Even I must bend my will to the Emperor's wishes, Solo."
"Only when it suits your purposes, would be my guess."
As Vader stared at the smuggler, he revised his opinion of the man. Annoying . . . but dangerously perceptive.
Luke's sigh cut through the ensuing silence -- even the birds had gone silent as if sensing an oncoming storm. "Can we just get moving again?" His son sounded suddenly fatigued. "How far is this settlement?"
"At this pace?" Vader said, eyeing his son's slumped shoulders. "At least several days' journey."
"Wonderful." Luke started off, but then stopped, turning his head to face Vader. "Let me guess -- that vine isn't the only carnivorous plant on this world."
"No, it is not," Vader replied.
Luke sighed again. "I think I'd have preferred a krayt dragon. At least on Tatooine it's fairly obvious what's planning on eating you." He gestured to Vader. "I guess I'll just follow you then."
Vader heard the amusement creep into his mechanized voice. "That would be the wisest course, child."
As they started once again on their journey, Vader detoured around another Trella-laden tree. He heard Solo mutter something about a "wager" under his breath, but Vader had already resigned himself to simply ignoring the man.
And he told himself he wasn't at all interested in the specifics of that wager, either.
Han was wet.
Han hated being wet.
If Man was supposed to be wet, he wouldn't have invented sonic showers.
Reaching up to push aside a lock of water-sodden hair that insisted on dangling into his right eye, Han cursed the planet in general and the climate in particular. It would be different if it actually rained, but no -- it was just this constant damned mist that hung in the air like cheap cigarello smoke in a crowded cantina. It was enough to make a man actually appreciate the vacuum of space.
Han sighed wistfully. In space, nothing can make you wet.
He told himself . . . firmly . . . to stop daydreaming. Han had a feeling that inattention on this planet was just as deadly as a Huttese birthday party -- a party where you woke up to find yourself as the birthday present.
Just ahead of him, Luke coughed and stumbled, but before Han . . . or Vader . . . could reach him, the boy managed to regain his footing.
The kid was having even more trouble with the climate than Han. Desert born and bred, Luke still seemed more efficient at attracting water than the moisture vaporators on his farm back on Tatooine. If the kid weren't already so desperately ill, it would almost be funny how he managed to locate every hidden stream, every water-laden leaf . . . even following so close behind Vader. It was downright uncanny. But most of it could be chalked up to sheer exhaustion, Han guessed.
Han looked skyward before he remembered that he couldn't estimate the time by the position of the planet's sun. There was nothing visible overhead but moss, vines, branches and leaves -- an endless expanse of green on green in every conceivable hue.
But nightfall had to be approaching soon, and if not, Han was going to tell His Exalted Lordship they had to stop regardless . . . or Luke wouldn't be going anywhere at all.
As for Vader, Han was beginning to believe that his joke about the Dark Lord's vision wasn't a joke after all. The man seemed to randomly detour around patches of vegetation that looked no different than fifty other patches of vegetation, then he would pass dangerously close to one of the forest's larger trees -- requiring them to climb over the massive root buttresses that extended ten meters or more beyond its trunk. Vader never once paused, never once seemed to consider the various options, and for that reason alone Han deduced that there was no rhyme or reason to their path.
And because Luke wasn't in any condition to make random course changes that added even more time to their journey, it infuriated Han.
Which was probably why Vader did it in the first place.
Fuming silently, Han was diligently glaring a large, gruesome hole in Vader's back . . . and therefore noticed when the Dark Lord stopped abruptly.
Luke, who was staring at his own feet in exhaustion . . . didn't.
The boy walked squarely into Vader's back, which evidently had much the same effect as walking into a tree, but with a more predictable response on Luke's part. The boy let out a startled yelp, stumbling backward as fast as he could. He slipped in the loose, saturated soil . . . and disappeared down a mossy incline that Han hadn't even noticed was there.
Han thought he heard a splash amidst the muted roaring of the wind rushing through the hidden valley below, but he could see nothing through the swirling mists rising from the same source. "Luke?" Han called again, searching for a way down that wouldn't put him in the same predicament as Luke. The incline wasn't overly steep, but countless years of flowing water had smoothed the moss to an almost glass-like consistency, and Han searched frantically for another way down.
Several meters to the left, he found a steeper path that looked like the remains of an old streambed -- its dark red soil a glaring contrast to the vivid green surrounding it. The thin stream of water following its course downward only magnified the lurid color. Maybe his eyes had merely adjusted to the endless sea of green, but the streambed reminded Han of nothing less than a bloody gash in the planet's skin.
The eroded channel looked dangerously slippery as well, but it was crisscrossed by roots from a grove of bedraggled trees that vanished into the obscuring haze in the valley below. Even more promising, the trees' wind-ravaged branches dangled just close enough to the ground to use as handholds. It was the best option he was likely to find.
Han had just started his descent when he felt his upper arm seized in an iron grip.
Worry for Luke and hours of suppressed anger caused him to whirl and glare at the Dark Lord. "Let go of me," Han snarled, wrenching his arm back.
He barely managed to move the leather-clad arm.
Vader merely stared at him . . . as if debating a decision he had only grudgingly made. "Luke is uninjured," he finally said.
Han glared. He wasn't in the mood for the "Force reveals all" claptrap he knew he was going to hear from Vader -- not with the kid's life at stake. "Then you won't mind if I go and find that out for myself, will you?" Han asked, loading the question with as much sarcasm as he could manage.
Vader cocked his head to one side, but released the grip on his arm. "By all means, Captain Solo. It was most churlish of me to impede your progress."
Han swore he heard amusement in the Dark Lord's voice -- along with a darker hint of malice -- and it was just enough for Han to stay his headlong plunge through the grove. Crossing his arms over his chest, Han asked tightly, "So, I take it I won't enjoy the outcome very much if I go down that way?"
Vader had already moved further along the ridge line, but he turned gravely to face Han again. "You may not . . . but I imagine I would find it vastly entertaining."
Inclining his head to Han, Vader turned and walked several more meters -- almost disappearing into the whirling mists -- before he started down a path that evidently only he could see. It certainly looked like an impenetrable wall of tangled undergrowth to Han.
Swearing aloud in several dialects he didn't remember learning, Han followed Vader down toward the unseen valley floor.
Han was forced to move faster than he would have liked to keep up with Vader. The undergrowth was definitely much thicker here, and while Vader seemed to pass through with no impediment at all, it seemed every frolicsome palm frond and fern in the forest had to take turns slapping Han across the face.
It almost made Han homesick for his favorite brothel back on Corellia.
The terrain leveled out fairly quickly though, and Han stopped abruptly when he looked up and saw open sky at last. They had come to a crystal clear, vaguely "C"-shaped pool -- its far reaches enshrouded in the perpetual mist. Except for the comparatively gentle slope they had just descended, the pool was surrounded by steep, forbidding cliffs. The roaring sound Han had taken for the wind turned out to be a narrow waterfall cascading down the rock face on the left side of the pool, leaping from crevice to crevice and expanding outward over the fern-covered rocks like an extravagant bridal veil. Those few stalwart sunbeams that were able to penetrate the mists reflected off the water droplets . . . and generated a shimmering, gem-like cascade of iridescent color.
When Han finally tore himself from the view, Vader had almost disappeared into the tall undergrowth. Encouraged by its access to the sun, the plant life in this small valley filled every square centimeter of ground . . . and in most places was taller than Han. Han could therefore see only the top of Vader's head as the Dark Lord detoured around the trunk of a mangrove tree that hovered over the water's edge. The tree branches gravitated as much downward over the water as they did toward the open sky, but the tree still reached a respectable height as it strained toward the light filtering down the canyon walls.
Using that towering tree as a focal point, Han warily pushed through the vegetation to find Luke sitting next to the "arm" of the pool closest to the sloping valley wall. The kid looked okay . . . although thoroughly waterlogged.
Surprisingly, Vader was crouched down next to Luke -- a pose that seemed somehow inappropriate for the fearsome Sith Lord. Han watched as the kid nodded wearily to something the Dark Lord must have asked.
Vader then stood, looked down at Luke. . . and held out his hand.
Luke seemed to hesitate only briefly before he accepted the outstretched hand, and Vader lifted him easily -- and carefully -- to his feet. Vader steadied Luke when he swayed alarmingly, and such was the kid's exhaustion that he didn't move immediately away from Vader's presence. Both hands resting on Luke's shoulders, Vader waited with no hint of impatience until the kid had time to steady himself.
Han was amazed. If he didn't know better, the Sith Lord almost acted concerned -- a word Han never expected to use in the same sentence as Darth Vader.
Then the Dark Lord looked up and caught Han watching them. Vader immediately switched his grip to encircle Luke's upper arm and started to pull him along.
Luke appeared startled at the sudden movement, stumbling slightly as he looked up at Vader, but he didn't resist the Dark Lord's presumption. Again, not a standard response for the normally willful, headstrong kid.
The whole situation with Luke and Vader perplexed Han -- it didn't make sense, and Han had found from hard experience that the things which didn't make sense often came back to kick you in the butt.
And since Han knew there were plenty of other things on this planet lining up for just that opportunity, he didn't feel the need to add to the list.
Vader, however, didn't give Han time to dwell on it for very long. "We shall stay here for the night."
Han felt his eyes widening. "You have got to be kidding."
Han heard what sounded like a deep sigh coming from Luke's direction while Vader merely stared at Han like he was some particularly loathsome bug.
"Okay, so you're not kidding." Han looked around at the tangled undergrowth -- wondering how many unseen things were out there waiting patiently for a snack. "You mind tellin' me exactly where in this little patch of paradise you're plannin' on staying?"
Vader looked pointedly at the towering mangrove.
Han groaned. "Not in the tree. I hate trees."
Before Vader could respond, a high-pitched, ululating screech came from the grove of trees through which Han had almost descended. It was obviously not human -- in fact, it sounded amazingly like a blaster about to overload -- but it cut off abruptly with a ghoulish finality that couldn't be mistaken for anything else.
Especially if the munching sounds coming from that location were any indication.
Han cleared his throat in the suddenly abject silence that followed. "But . . . I guess I'll make an exception just this once," he said.
Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, Han turned and saw Luke tugging experimentally on the arm still held firmly in Vader's grasp. Vader looked down at him, and they gazed silently at each other for a few moments. Luke looked away, then nodded once, and Vader promptly released the boy's arm.
As Han watched Luke limp slowly away -- still without saying a word -- Han decided that things had definitely taken a turn for the weird.
And speaking of which. . . .
"So, Your Lordship, why did you . . .?" Han gestured with a sharp flick of his head toward the grove of deadly trees, which were even now disappearing into the mists and encroaching twilight.
While the forest came alive once more with the sounds of nocturnal wildlife, Vader stared at Han long enough that he thought the Dark Lord wasn't going to bother to reply.
"I feared your body would attract scavengers," Vader finally said, just before he turned to follow Luke.
"Gee, thanks," Han said almost to himself, then called after Vader, "Glad to know you care!"
But Vader was already almost out of sight in the gathering darkness. And after another wary look around, Han wasn't far behind him.
Luke stretched his leg out against the rough bark of the mangrove and barely suppressed a painful yelp. To say he was uncomfortable would be a huge understatement. His leg hurt, his joints hurt, his chest hurt, and he briefly considered just falling out of the Sith-damned tree and putting himself out of his misery. He sighed. Sometimes he didn't know why he bothered to keep trying.
"You all right, Luke?"
As Han's worried voice filtering down through the branches overhead, Luke felt one side of his mouth quirk up into a smile. That was why. Han believed in him, had never given up on him, and Luke was amazed anew at the friendship that had developed between a nobody from the backwater of Tatooine and the self-assured Corellian smuggler. He knew Han was worried about him ? that Han wouldn't be in this mess at all if not for Luke ? and for those reasons alone, Luke decided he would keep going.
At least for a little while longer.
"Yeah, Han. Right as rain."
Han laughed. "Ain't that the truth? For someone from a desert planet, you sure seem to be well acquainted with water, kid."
Luke smiled to himself. "Well, I never knew who my parents were, Han. Maybe it's in my blood."
"Ya know, you might have something there ? you're good with spacecraft, have those big, wide eyes ? hah! I'm willin' to wager your father was at least part Mon Calamari."
Luke snorted, but before he could reply, Vader's voice replied shortly but distinctly, "No, he was not."
There was a hushed silence after that. Well, relatively, of course. The nocturnal fauna of this planet continued their raucous calls and chirps unimpeded, but Luke's vocal cords seemed frozen. And, miracle of miracles, even Han seemed to be momentarily stunned speechless. Luke had forgotten that Vader had known his father ? but he would have had to, wouldn't he? Unless Vader had killed his father in some random act of violence, he would have had to know the man, perhaps even known him well. Hadn't Ben said that Vader had "betrayed and murdered your father"? It would be exceedingly hard to betray someone if you didn't even know them.
Dare he ask? And would Vader even bother to tell him?
Luke shook his head. Vader was like some kind of enormous blank wall to Luke. There were times he thought he might be able to see over the wall ? to get some impression of the man behind the forbidding exterior. Like earlier this evening when Vader had found him by the pool . . . Luke had felt something ? something other than the menace and anger the man normally projected. It had felt oddly enough like concern, as if for some reason Vader was glad that Luke had survived the fall uninjured. They had connected somehow, if only for a few minutes, but Luke could have sworn he could sense emotions, impressions, and sometimes even actual words from the Dark Lord. But maybe it was just the excess nitrogen in his bloodstream messing with his perceptions. Perhaps Luke had spoken aloud his request for Vader to release his arm, and perhaps he had merely imagined Vader's reply inside his head.
The absolute darkness that surrounded him seemed to embolden Luke, but to just come out and ask Vader about his father. . . .
"You may ask, child, but I cannot guarantee that I will answer."
Luke started violently . . . and nearly fell out of the tree after all. He was so startled that he didn't even take time to consider his reply. "Are you reading my mind?" Luke asked, the words catching in his suddenly tight throat.
There was a pause. "Not exactly. You are broadcasting your emotions rather loudly. You have natural shields, but they are erratic at best." There was another pause. "And nevertheless, it would be a logical question for you to ask, would it not?"
Han's voice bit through the darkness. "As long as you spare Luke the gory details about how you killed him."
There was an almost sibilant hiss from Vader's direction, and then Luke could feel the Dark Lord's avid attention on him.
"You think I killed your father?"
Luke was too stunned by the obvious disbelief in the deep, mechanized voice to reply, but Han answered for him. "I'd say so, Your Exaltedness. Unless there's some other big behemoth running around with black armor, a cape and a leather fetish."
"Be silent, smuggler!" There was pure, unadulterated fury in Vader's voice now, and even Han must have realized he shouldn't push the Dark Lord any harder.
Luke found himself welcoming the pitch blackness of this planet's night more than he would have ever thought possible. He only wished he could lose himself in the darkness totally ? let it transport him to some private place where he could let his chaotic thoughts run free without worry of their interception by the Sith Lord. There was no way Vader could be feigning his shock at Han's words. Somehow, in some way, Luke could feel the truth in the Dark Lord's words. But that knowledge brought on a new flurry of worrisome thoughts ? like why Ben Kenobi would lie to him. Why would he tell Luke that Vader had killed his father if it were not true?
A brief stream of air brushed against Luke's cheek, and then he felt the massive bough he was resting on dip slightly. Luke had felt both before ? when Vader had lifted him to this high branch with some sort of Force-enhanced leap earlier this evening. Luke brought both of his legs against his chest and wrapped his arms around them protectively, shivering in the cool, dank air.
Luke felt more than heard the Dark Lord settle himself on the bough, but at this range, it was easy to pinpoint his closeness from the steady rasping sounds of his respirator, even amidst the din of the rainforest's night creatures. It was unnerving to know that the most feared man in the galaxy was within touching distance of him, but with the utter darkness of the moonless night, he had no hope of seeing the black-on-black of the Sith Lord mere inches from him.
And he wasn't at all sure he was ready for this conversation.
But as usual, Vader wasted no time on preliminaries. "Who told you that I had killed your father?"
Luke considered his options briefly as his body shook with another bout of shivering. There was no harm in telling Vader the truth, considering that the Dark Lord had already killed Ben. The searing pain of so abruptly losing his mentor flashed anew, and his voice came out harsher than he had intended. "Ben Kenobi," he said.
There was another hiss from Vader and then the unmistakable sound of leather creaking as Luke imagined the Dark Lord's hand balling into a tight fist. Luke could almost feel the fury emanating in waves from the man across from him, battering across his tender nerves like a sandstorm against exposed flesh. Moaning softly, Luke pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He prayed that Han, for once, would stay silent. Vader's anger felt like an electrical storm just before it unleashed all its pent-up fury in one strike. Luke doubted that anything would survive being the focal point of such a violent onslaught ? and he found he had no desire to confirm that theory.
"I was obviously too hasty in granting Obi-Wan such a quick death." Luke gasped as he felt the Dark Lord's attention focus once more on him. "What other lies has my old master poisoned your mind with, young one?"
Luke found his own anger soaring, and he lifted his chin in defiance, regardless of whether Vader could see the gesture or not. "You didn't give him enough time to tell me any other 'lies' ? you killed him before I could barely even start my training."
Surprisingly, Luke heard what sounded almost like a laugh coming from Vader's direction. "Such fire, such audacity. You do not stay afraid of me for long, do you, child?"
Luke shrugged, his shoulders brushing painfully against the rough bark of the tree. The movement set his shoulder joints afire, and he hissed out the next words through a distracting spike of pain. "When you're staring inevitable death in the face, it's kinda pointless to be afraid of it, isn't it?"
"Luke." The voice came from above, from Han ? the single word an admonition, a warning.
But Vader missed little. His focus on Luke sharpened, almost painfully, directed like a knife into what felt like Luke's very soul. He grunted in pain as he felt again the Dark Lord's total concentration fixed on him alone, prying, peering into the darkest recesses of his mind.
Instinctively, desperately, Luke flung up barriers in the path of that probe ? not caring about the searing pain that ensued when the Dark Lord struck them violently and battered them almost into tatters. Eyes tearing, sweating even in the damp cold of the rainforest's night, Luke opened his eyes, knowing he could see nothing, knowing he had no hope of winning this one-sided fight. He said aloud the only thing that came to his tortured mind ? knowing it would make no difference to the Emperor's second-in-command . . . to a Dark Lord of the Sith.
Suddenly the probe faltered, then stopped altogether when Luke gasped aloud, slumping over in his extremis. He felt like he'd just run miles at full speed without stopping, and his weakened lungs labored for the needed oxygen. He shivered as his sweat immediately started to cool in the already saturated night air.
Han's voice was truly worried now, and Luke heard sounds of Han moving about in the treetop above. "No, Han!" Luke gasped. "I'm all right."
"You damn well don't sound all right!"
Luke chuckled, the momentary relief from that searing pain making him almost giddy. "As all right as I'm going to be then." His breath was coming easier now. "Just stay put before you fall out of the tree again, Han."
There was a brief silence as Han evidently pondered whether Luke was lying to him or not. "You sure, Luke?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." Luke smiled briefly. "I'm quite sure you'll fall again, Han."
Han hmphed loudly, then the sounds of the smuggler settling once again on the higher branch reached Luke's ears. "I'll have you know, kid, that I didn't fall. It was all planned."
"Really? And the blood-curdling scream on the way down was planned, too?"
"Of course. It's an old smuggler's trick ? scares away the predators."
"My hero." Luke wrapped his arms more tightly around himself, trying to stave off the shivering. "Glad you have everything under control, Han."
"Any time, Junior, any time."
"Luke. . . ."
Luke jumped, startled. He'd read once how the mind had a tendency to blank out unpleasant realities ? he had almost completely forgotten about Vader's close proximity. Or maybe it was just his teeth chattering so loudly that they blocked out the sounds of the Dark Lord's respirator.
The velvet blackness of the night had not abated at all, but Luke's eyes widened in surprise as he could almost see the Dark Lord, outlined in a mingled aura of lurid red and vivid blue.
"We are not through with this . . . conversation, young one."
And perhaps it was still some lingering distortion of Vader's mental attack, but Luke could sense something amazingly like contrition emanating from that massive figure. The ghostly vision was abruptly broken as he felt the weight of a heavy fabric drape across his body. By its size and weight, it could only be the Dark Lord's cape. Surprised, Luke looked up sharply, his eyes now seeing nothing but the absolute darkness of this singularly inhospitable world.
Vader's voice came at last from the midst of that darkness. "But fear not, child. Your death will not come by my hands." There was a pause. "As long as you do not allow your stubbornness to overrule your common sense . . . or my patience." Then he was gone.
And as Luke sat, enveloped in darkness ? and the cloak of a Dark Lord of the Sith ? he wondered how his life had gotten quite this complicated, quite this fast.
As the sun rose through the mists clinging to the canyon walls, Han made sure Luke ate at least a little of their meager emergency rations before he would allow them to resume their journey. He watched as Vader ? his cape once again attached to his shoulders ? paced impatiently back and forth as he cast the occasional searching glance back at Luke where he rested against the trunk of the mangrove tree.
Even with Han's coaxing, Luke barely ate anything at all, and Han was sure that Vader didn't miss that little fact either.
Well, there was no hope for it. Luke was definitely getting weaker, and the kid shivered still in the damp morning air. Han hoped that walking would warm him up some, but regardless, he was afraid Luke wouldn't be able to keep the pace that Vader was sure to set.
Han waited until Vader was on the far side of the clearing before he unwrapped the bandage around Luke's injured leg. When he uncovered the wound, Han's eyes narrowed and his breath caught in his throat as he examined the red, angry-looking wound. Han hurriedly rewrapped the wound in a clean dressing.
As he tied it off, Luke opened one eye to look at Han blearily, and Han smiled at the kid reassuringly. Well, he hoped it was reassuring anyway ? he imagined it looked more like the smile of a losing player in a high stakes sabbacc game, but what the hell. The kid wasn't much of a gambler, so maybe he wouldn't recognize the look.
"All right, Han. How bad is it?"
Skrag. Guess it's time to bluff. "Bad? What, this? Nah ? this ain't bad. It'll be good as new in no time."
"You know something, Han?" Luke rested his head against the weather-worn bark and closed his eyes again. "You're a really rotten liar."
Han winced. Must be losing my touch. Maybe that's why Chewie told me he'd take the Falcon and run if I so much as thought about dealin' myself into another game.
"Who, me? Come on. I'm telling ya, it'll be fine. We got stuff to deal with this." Turning slightly, he rifled through his pack until he found the small first aid kit. Pulling out a hypo, he held it toward the sky and the brighter light to check the dosage. He had just adjusted the hypo to a higher setting when he felt Vader's looming presence behind him. Han sighed.
Here we go again. Let's play 'fight for the hypo' ? hopefully I won't end up inhaling moss and leaves this time.
Han said sharply, "It's just a broad spectrum antibiotic ? nothing to get all riled up about, Your Exaltedness." Without waiting for a reply, he set the hypo to Luke's arm and activated it. "Not that you need an excuse for that," Han muttered under his breath.
There was no reply to his taunt from the Dark Lord, and Han twisted around, surprised. Vader was looking around him as if he were searching for something, but he didn't look as if he were expecting anything dangerous. And he didn't look as if he were particularly angry either.
Damn. Since when have I been able to interpret Darth Vader's actions just from the way he's standing? It should look like 'overbearing, threatening pose number one' as opposed to 'overbearing, threatening pose number fifty-two.' Maybe there's something in the moss that's hallucinogenic? Hell, I hope that's it.
"The hypo will do him little good."
The Dark Lord's words cut into his musings like a slap, and Han stirred angrily. "What the hell do you mean . . .?"
Han felt Luke's hand settle on his arm, but when he looked up, the kid was staring at Vader, not him. "He's right, Han."
Luke had that look on his face that meant he was trying to puzzle something out . . . and not succeeding very well.
Well, Han could certainly identify with that. He'd spent most of this trip feeling like a Jawa in a high level Senate meeting ? he had no idea what the hell was going on, but he'd be damned if he wasn't gonna find a way to make something out of it. Han looked from Luke and back up to Vader, who was still turning in a slow circle as if searching for something. "Would somebody mind cluing me into things here?"
Luke sighed. "I've never responded well to broad spectrum drugs. I usually have to resort to the more uhm . . . exotic antibiotics." Luke shrugged and shook his head when Han opened his mouth to ask a question. "I don't know why, Han. And neither did the healers. They figured I'd either built up a tolerance by being so injury-prone or that it was something genetic." He smiled wanly. "No one was going to waste a lot of time figuring it out since I was just another backward moisture farmer."
"So how did he know about that?" Han said, gesturing with a quick head tilt to indicate Vader, who had again moved some distance away.
Luke shrugged again. "I'm sure it was in my records somewhere."
Yeah, right, kid. Like you said, 'just another backward moisture farmer.' As if the Imperial Medical Service is gonna waste a lot of time recording the drugs that work best for you. From Han's own experience in the Imperial Navy, the Empire didn't bother with personnel records ? it was merely a generic checklist. Try this drug first, and if that doesn't work, try the next. If it turned out you were allergic to something, well, no big deal. Imperial recruits were expendable and could be replaced a helluva lot cheaper than it cost to maintain expensive records on any one individual. Han couldn't see that things would be run any different on a backwater outpost like Tatooine ? even if the kid had made it to Mos Eisley for treatment.
So how the hell did His Exaltedness know that the antibiotic wouldn't work on Luke? Han briefly considered that there was something to this Force nonsense after all, but dismissed that thought just as quickly. Sure, that 'leaping into the tree' thing last night had been sorta impressive, but that could probably be explained by some hidden capability of the Dark Lord's armor. If there was one thing that Han had learned in his travels about the galaxy, it was that outward appearances could easily be misleading.
Damn. This stuff's enough to make your head spin.
Han was almost glad when Vader apparently gave up on whatever he was searching for and came to stand over them.
Vader pointedly ignored Han and directed his attention to Luke. "Are you ready, child?"
Luke merely sighed and gathered himself to stand. What made Han a little uneasy was that Luke didn't even hesitate when Han offered him a hand up. Luke staggered as he got to his feet, wincing as he shifted his weight onto the injured leg, but he finally looked up at Vader and nodded.
Vader merely inclined his head in reply and started back up the incline they had descended the previous evening.
Although the gradient was not all that steep, Luke was breathing harshly by the time they made it back up to the ridge line. Surprisingly, Vader stopped when they reached the top, allowing Luke to catch his breath, but again he seemed to be searching the vegetation around him carefully.
After a few minutes, he started off again, not even looking back to make sure that he and Luke followed. Still, Han was amazed when he realized the pace that the Dark Lord set was much slower than yesterday's. Han snorted softly to himself. What the hell's wrong with you, Solo? You're a fool if you think any of this is due to actual concern on Vader's part. His Exaltedness obviously doesn't want to lose the Emperor's prize before he has a chance to gloat about it.
Han again followed behind Luke as they trudged beneath the towering trees. They had been climbing slowly but steadily, as evidenced by the growing mists from the cloud cover descending through the verdant vegetation. Han angrily brushed another rivulet of condensation from his brow and silently cursed the weather in general and the rainforest in particular.
Look on the bright side, hotshot. At least the insect life doesn't seem to find you particularly appetizing on this world ? or don't you remember what true misery is like?
Han had been on one world where he was the most appetizing item on the swarming insect menu, and it turned out that blaster fire was just as effective on bugs as it was on Dark Lords of the Sith. Chewie had laughed at him, but hey, it wasn't like any kind of biting insect was gonna make it through that mop of fur. Han liked his skin the way it was ? intact and rash-free ? and was willing to take extreme measures to make sure it stayed that way.
Damn, but Han could have done with the furball's help right now. Too bad he was tied up with family matters on Kashyyyk and not here helping Han give His Exaltedness a run for his money.
Every few minutes, the Dark Lord stopped and looked around, carefully searching the forest floor for whatever the hell he was looking for. Han was grateful for the small delays, regardless of their source, because the kid certainly needed the occasional breather. He was limping in earnest now, and Han had no trouble hearing his raspy breathing even above the endless strident chatter of the rainforest's wildlife. Han was merely glad that none of the noisy critters seemed disposed to eat them at the moment.
Vader continued to make large detours around apparently benign stretches of ground ? which still annoyed Han to no end ? until Han happened to look closely at one such patch of forest floor as they passed. Scattered amongst the magnificently colored flowers of some sort of gigantic broad-leafed plant, Han saw several piles of forlorn-looking bones in various stages of decomposition. They were extremely difficult to see ? hidden by dense patches of multi-colored moss and the ivory stalks of the huge plants. Taking a deep breath, Han inhaled deeply of the mingled scents of damp, dense vegetation and just the barest whiff of something decaying that was not plant matter.
Han looked up quickly at Vader and saw that the Dark Lord had turned, watching him. Han nodded once in what was as close to an acknowledgment as he could bring himself to make to a Sith Lord, and he watched as Vader snapped his head back sharply.
Winking impudently, Han was happy to see he had managed to surprise the Dark Lord. Any time you can keep an opponent guessin', you've managed to keep the edge. Han wasn't quite able to suppress just the tiniest amount of admiration for how well Vader seemed to navigate the floral minefields of this planet, however. Han was forced to focus his attention on Luke to keep him from stumbling and falling, and he knew there was no way he would've gotten them safely this far without Vader.
Han shook his head angrily. There must be something in this atmosphere that's causin' delusions ? there's no other way I'm gonna believe that Darth Vader is actually useful for something. Either that or those ration bars I've been eating are even older than they look ? probably left over from the Clone Wars would be my guess.
As the day progressed, Luke's distress became steadily more apparent, and he barely even looked up from the forest floor as he walked. Han was supporting him now with a grip on his upper arm so the kid wouldn't take an unscheduled nosedive into the thick moss. Han was about to demand that they take a break for awhile when Vader suddenly stopped mid-stride, his head turning toward a brighter section of mist at the top of an almost vertical incline to the left of their path.
Looking carefully around, and then up into the branches of the huge forest giant that Luke was resting against, Vader nodded once as if in satisfaction and turned to Han. "Wait here," he ordered, and without awaiting a reply, stalked off toward whatever had caught his interest.
"Sure thing, Your Lordship." Han called after the Dark Lord's retreating form, "Thanks for sharin' information with the rest of the team here!" Shaking his head angrily when Vader didn't even pause, Han took out his water flask and muttered under his breath. "Must be some kinda course you take to become a Sith ? 'How to be Overbearing and Condescending and Annoy the Hell out of Everyone in your Proximity.'"
Luke laughed sharply, but then bent over as he was caught in a particularly bad coughing spell. Han grabbed his arms worriedly to support him, but Luke slowly straightened, still smiling crookedly.
Han waited until Luke had drank a bit of the water before he asked, "Okay, spill it, Junior. What's so funny?"
Luke shook his head. "Nothing, Han. I just figured that was a course they taught in Corellian primary school."
"Right, kid." Han was secretly relieved that the kid still had the energy to joke with him. "I'll have you know that it's actually the first thing they teach you when you become a smuggler. Just ask Chewie ? he graduated at the top of his class."
"I might just do that."
Han smiled at the kid, then glanced nervously in the direction Vader had taken. It was never wise to let an enemy out of your sight, and he certainly didn't trust the Dark Lord as far as he could toss a Hutt. Han shifted his weight uneasily. He really oughta go and see what Vader was up to, but he knew the kid wasn't up to climbing that steep a hill in his condition. He was a little leery about leaving Luke alone, but he assumed that Vader hadn't detected anything too dangerous close by or he wouldn't have left them unarmed.
At least, he hoped that was the case.
"Luke," he said, setting his pack down. "Why don't you take a breather here? I'm gonna see what His Exaltedness is up to."
Luke had already slid down the trunk of the tree and extended his wounded leg out in front of him, but he looked up sharply at Han's words. "Damnit, Han! You're going to push Vader too far and. . . ."
"Just stay here, Luke. I'll be back in a flash." Han smiled as he heard Luke muttering something about 'overbearing and condescending,' as he headed up the steep, slippery incline in Vader's wake.
There oughta be a law about the combination of mountains and rainforest, he complained to himself as he slid partway down the slope he had just climbed. Leave it to Vader to make it look so blasted easy. It's like the guy flew up here or somethin'.
Luckily, the terrain leveled out some as he got closer to the brighter section of mist, and Han stopped briefly, resting his hands on his thighs as he gulped in badly needed air. Straightening slowly as he finally caught his breath, he eased more slowly up the remainder of the hill.
The light source turned out to be another break in the forest canopy. It would have looked much like any forest meadow if it weren't for its nearly perfectly squared corners and the fact that the vegetation appeared to be growing more in rows than randomly as was nature's usual wont. Han let his eyes search the meadow and the surrounding forest, looking for clues to as which direction Vader went.
He felt his jaw dropping in utter and complete surprise, however, when he finally spotted Vader. Bringing a hand up to his face, Han rubbed his eyes briskly, wondering if that would help clear his vision. Spreading his fingers slowly, he quickly realized that it hadn't.
If there was one thing, only one thing, in the entire galaxy that Han knew to be utterly and totally implausible ? it would be this. He just had to be hallucinating at this point.
For what he saw was Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, wandering aimlessly through a not-quite-sunlit meadow . . . picking flowers.
Maybe the kid hadn't been that far off the mark with his crack about the Imperial Flower Arrangement Society. Han brought his hand down from his face and cleared his throat nervously. When you lose it, Solo, you really lose it.
The hallucination that looked like Vader had evidently heard him, since it looked up and then headed in Han's direction. Han waited at the edge of the clearing, not certain whether he ought to be encouraging his hallucinations or not. In this state, he was more likely to blunder right into one of those man-eating plants and that would certainly take care of his delusions . . . permanently.
But it sure looks like Vader.
Stopping directly in front of him, the Dark Lord silently thrust out the bunch of flowers he had collected.
Well, it damn well doesn't act like Vader. Han took the flowers almost automatically, looking down warily at the pristine white blossoms. "Why, Your Lordship. This is so sudden. And here I thought you didn't even care."
Vader crossed his arms over his chest, and Han once again felt the tightening of pressure around his neck. Careful not to damage the delicate white flowers he held, Han freed one hand and rubbed his neck absently.
"Take great care, smuggler. I have killed many who were grossly incompetent, I have killed others who merely dared to cross my path, but you . . ." Vader leaned down and pointed a black-clad finger at Han's chest. "You are a thorn that I will take the utmost pleasure in removing . . . permanently."
Okay. That's better. So I'm not hallucinating ? all's right with the universe once more.
Han merely smiled in relief, then raised an eyebrow in bland enquiry. When you became a smuggler, you learned very quickly that worrying about your possible future demise was counterproductive. Besides, he wasn't going to give Vader the satisfaction of thinking he'd rattled a Corellian ? now that Han knew he hadn't succumbed to psychedelic moss, that is.
Vader straightened, looking away toward the clearing, and Han heard what sounded suspiciously like a sigh coming from the Dark Lord. Still without looking at Han, Vader said, "Boil the blossoms in a small amount of water, then have Luke drink it."
"What. . . ?"
"The Hrwath flowers are a natural antibiotic . . . and a powerful one," Vader interrupted. He looked down at Han. "Use only a quarter of the extract and save the remainder for subsequent doses."
Han glared up at Vader. "How do I know that. . . ."
"If I wished to kill the boy, there are far easier methods than poison, Solo. This is a simple enough concept that even you should be able to comprehend."
Han flushed. Damn, but he hated when Vader made sense.
The Dark Lord started back across the clearing, but then turned and said, "Perhaps you should test it first, Solo. The plant's properties are still being examined ? you may be fortunate and it will be a cure for terminal obtuseness, as well."
Han opened his mouth to snap a reply, but he found he was too shocked to come up with anything. Did I hear wrong, or did Darth Vader just crack a joke? Luke is not gonna believe this.
He watched Vader resume his search through the mass of vegetation. Shaking his head, Han turned and started down the incline to Luke. He didn't dare leave the kid alone for too long.
Holding the blooms to his nose, Han took a cautious whiff, then held them away at the full reach of his arm in disgust. Blech. I hope these things taste better than they smell.
Leave it to Vader to pick flowers that looked like roses, but smelled like the maw of a Sarlacc.
Han called out to Luke when he got close to the spot where he'd left the kid, not wanting to startle him. When Luke didn't answer, Han had a brief moment of panic until he realized he was merely sleeping.
Sleeping? "Out cold" is more like it.
Han allowed himself a few moments to stare down at the kid, a worried frown on his face. He wouldn't admit it to Luke ? and most of the time not even to himself ? but Han was afraid the kid wasn't going to make it. The healers had warned them of the danger of removing Luke from a proper life support facility, but both he and Luke had felt the chance of finding a cure outweighed the slightly greater chance that the kid would be able to linger on a little longer in the Med Center. The healers could only help alleviate his symptoms . . . and had already admitted they had no method of curing him.
A thorough search of all the known medical databases had come up with no mention of a disease that caused a percentage of red blood cells to suddenly decide they preferred to transport nitrogen instead of oxygen. And a spacer like Han was well aware of the consequences of too little oxygen on the human body.
Giving Luke pure oxygen and blood transfusions helped for the short-term, but the healers felt that they were all temporary measures. When asked about treatments, they'd used a bunch of technical jargon that had made Han's head spin, until he'd demanded that they say it again ? in Standard this time. It was the healers' opinion that nothing short of a complete bone marrow transplant would "cure" Luke . . . and then only if there wasn't another agent that was contaminating the marrow. Or more plainly, even if they could find a compatible donor for the marrow, they had no way of knowing if that would be a permanent cure. And since Luke was an orphan with no known blood relatives, he only had a 1:20000 chance of finding a compatible match in the first place.
There was a damn good reason Han didn't like to be quoted the odds.
In short, Luke came up with the losing hand . . . and now it looked like this last desperate gamble had led to nothing but more trouble for the kid ? in the form of a black-clad advertisement for the Empire's seeming invincibility.
If there was such a thing as bad karma, Han figured both he and Luke must be atoning for something really bad in previous lives ? like 'mass species extinctions and pogroms' bad. Hell, he wouldn't have been surprised if they'd been reincarnated as mynocks, the way this trip was going.
Sighing, he reached into his pack for the small gas burner and a pot. He only could hope that Vader was right about that foul-smelling plant, because it seemed Luke's shrapnel wound was the only thing they had a prayer of curing.
Han already had the blossoms steeping in hot water by the time Luke roused. Looking around blearily, the kid finally focused bloodshot eyes on Han. Luke's nose wrinkled as he got a whiff of the concoction brewing in the small pot. "Force, Han. I guess this means your culinary skills haven't improved since we crashed."
"Don't knock it till you try it, kid."
Luke leaned forward slightly, taking another cautious sniff. "I think in this case, I'll let you go first, Han."
"Nah. Wouldn't dream of it. A good host always lets his guests go first."
Luke gazed pointedly around at the mist-shrouded trees and dripping leaves. "You need to work on the accommodations before you try poisoning your guests. The ambiance is at least part of the overall charm." Luke looked around again, then cocked his to one side, his eyes going curiously blank for a moment. "Where's Vader?" He glanced sharply at Han. "I thought you said you were going to look for him, Han? You didn't find him?"
Han snorted. "Ohhh, I found him all right."
Eyeing Han carefully, Luke said, "Well, I don't see any holes, so you mustn't have annoyed him too much."
Han just smiled and shook his head.
Luke suddenly looked worried . . . very worried. "Han, what happened?"
"Happened? Aw, nothing much." Han reached into his pack to find a suitable container for the extract he had just brewed. "Although I think Vader may have proposed to me." His last words were muffled since he had his head buried deep in the pack at the time.
"What did you say?"
Han finally dug the flask out of the bottom of the pack, holding it up triumphantly. "Oh, don't worry. I turned him down." He carefully poured the liquid into the flask, dropping the pot and blowing on his hand when he realized it was still hot. "It was way too soon for something that serious."
There was a brief silence, then Luke sighed loudly. "Han, the fumes from that stuff aren't hallucinogenic, are they?"
Han set the flask in a bed of spongy moss to cool. "Nah, I don't think so, but for awhile there I thought this damn moss was. I don't mind tellin' ya, it had me a little worried."
Luke just stared at him as if Han had suddenly grown Twi'lek head-tails.
Luke's eyes were very wide. "Nothing, Han. I'm sure you'll be better once we're off this planet."
"You got that right, Junior. This place would try the patience of a Wookiee." He rolled his eyes, grinning. "Not that Chewie's all that patient, mind you." Judging the liquid to be cool enough to drink, Han held the flask out to Luke. "Here, drink about a quarter of this."
Taking the flask as if it might bite him ? and still staring at Han strangely ? Luke asked, "You want me to actually drink this stuff?"
Han sat back and laid his arms on crossed legs. "Nah, Vader does."
"Vader does. . . ?" Luke's voice came out suspiciously like a squeak. "Han, are you sure you're all right?"
"Never been better."
Luke looked down at the flask with a doubtful expression on his face.
"C'mon, kid. You're the one always tellin' me not to antagonize His Exaltedness."
His head still lowered, Luke mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "That's before I found out you were engaged."
Han grinned. "You know me, kid. Always full of surprises."
Luke started to reply, but then broke down into another fit of dry, hacking coughs.
Once Luke's breathing eased, Han nodded toward the flask Luke held, serious now. "Drink it, kid. His Exaltedness swears it's a strong antibiotic." He shrugged. "Guess I can't find any reason to doubt him on that, surprisingly enough."
Luke nodded wearily, drinking a portion of the liquid with a look of utter distaste on his features.
Han took the flask once Luke had finished and then handed him the oxygen breather from his belt. "Go ahead, kid. You need it, and I think we have a few minutes yet." Han stood up, starting to replace the items into his pack. "Vader is probably still out picking flowers."
Shaking his head, Luke said softly, "Han, I really worry about you sometimes."
Watching out of the corner of his eye as Luke place the breather over his nose and mouth, Han murmured, "The feelin's mutual, kid. The feelin's definitely mutual."
Darth Vader paused before he entered the small copse of trees where he had left his son. The perpetual mist had finally yielded to one of the many short, violent downpours characteristic of the rainforest. The sound of the rain as it filtered through the multitude of leaves and greenery would mask all but the loudest of noises, and Vader could be virtually silent when he felt the necessity.
He felt that necessity now.
His son lay on the ground with his back resting against a huge Aurellian oak, his small frame dwarfed by the immense girth of the ancient tree. He looked exhausted, and Vader noted that, once again, he had the oxygen breather strapped across his face.
This was no mere case of smoke inhalation, and there was no longer any doubt in Vader's mind that the smuggler had lied to him about the cause of Luke's illness. Vader knew that the Hrwath flowers would cure the incipient infection in the boy's leg, but he also knew that no mere antibiotic would affect his son's other symptoms, whatever their mysterious cause. He felt the same sense of dread that he had felt just before his wife had died, and it was no less disquieting a feeling now than it had been so many years ago.
Vader was therefore grateful that the dense vegetation and the streaming water momentarily hid his presence. He watched through the gently swaying leaves, the rainwater pushing the cup-shaped leaves downward until they were finally able to channel the excess water away via their pointed tips. The water fell onto the next unsuspecting leaf, and this miniature cascade of water and dancing leaves was repeated a hundred times over before the rain finally made its convoluted way to the soft moss of the forest floor. It had a haunting melody all its own, if one were of a mind to listen to it.
It had been a long time since Vader had been of such a mind.
But he listened now to the somewhat arrogant symphony of the rain, just as he covertly watched the shining beacon that was his son . . . and he could not say why he felt the two were so closely intermingled. The bright blond of his son's hair was virtually undimmed by the rivulets of water that tried in vain to darken the golden strands, but his son was a child of the desert ? as was Vader ? and it would not be long before the rain succeeded in dousing that inner flame.
And if not the rain, then the Dark Side was sure to do so . . . eventually.
Vader shook his head angrily. This Force-forsaken planet had always affected him so. It was his duty to bring his son to the Emperor and the Dark Side, and maudlin thoughts of fire and rain would not sway him from that duty.
But that did not mean he could not watch his son and ignore those other pressing concerns.
At least for a little while.
Vader did not know how long he watched ? how long he basked in the warm, soothing glow of his son's aura ? but it was, as usual, the Corellian who broke the tableau.
Lost in his son's presence, Vader did not notice Solo's approach. That was his only explanation for his carelessness. It was certainly not because he had stopped thinking of the smuggler as a potential threat.
He had not allowed his mind to become that clouded.
But for whatever reason, Solo literally walked into Vader before he had even registered the man's presence, and that momentary lapse did nothing to improve Vader's mood.
Solo took a rapid step backward. "Damn!" Solo said. "Why don't ya warn a guy before you turn yourself into a permanent fixture of the landscape? I can do without the potential concussion here, ya know."
Vader ignored the chatter. "Did my . . . did Luke drink the extract?"
Solo looked up at him strangely, and Vader mentally went through some of his old Master's stock of inventive curses. Even as insignificant as Solo was, he dare not let his guard down with this man.
At least not before Vader was ready to dispose of him.
"Yeah," Solo said slowly, still eyeing Vader strangely. "I think I heard him mutter something about Bantha piss, but he's managed to keep it down so far. I hope you weren't plannin' on marketing that stuff, Your Lordship, because I gotta tell ya, it ain't gonna fly."
Vader sighed. "I can assure you, Solo, that was not my plan." He stepped past the smuggler, amazed again at how he didn't cower away from Vader's proximity as did nearly everyone else the Dark Lord had encountered in recent years. It was either extreme bravery on the smuggler's part, or merely severe stupidity, and Vader had already decided it would make no difference in the end.
Approaching his son slowly, Vader paused as he realized he was asleep, even amidst the driving rain.
Solo stepped around him, shaking Luke's shoulder with one hand while he carefully removed the breather with the other. Luke awoke with a start, and his eyes seemed to instantly lock onto Vader's gaze.
Vader froze, caught by the intense blue eyes, then shook himself out of their spell. "Do you need anything, child?" he said.
Luke pushed his dripping hair away from his forehead and grimaced as he pulled his injured leg back. "A skyhopper or speeder would be nice." He looked out over the saturated forest, then sighed. "Force, at this point, I think I'd settle for a pod-racer."
Vader reached down to help the boy to his feet, steadying him as he caught his balance . . . and ignoring the scathing glance that Solo threw his way. "The pod-racer would do you little good, child. They are temperamental in the most perfect of climates ? this degree of humidity would merely short out the energy binders and render the engines effectively useless."
Luke looked up at him with something that approached awe. Vader didn't release the boy, stunned at the long lost feelings that arose from having someone who didn't view him exclusively from a perspective of abject fear. It was a heady feeling indeed.
His son began, "You know about pod-racers? I've always wanted . . . ."
"So, Your Exaltedness. . . ."
Vader stiffened and reluctantly released his son to face the Corellian.
Leaning against a smaller tree in the clearing, Solo slowly crossed his arms across his chest and cocked his head to one side. "I guess this means the word on the star-lanes is correct and you're not human after all, Your Lordship." He glanced over at Luke. "Anyone who's spent any time on Tatooine knows that pod-racing is not a pastime attempted by humans."
Vader considered killing the Corellian now, but he knew that Solo's death by his hands would guarantee that he would lose his son's trust forever. He clenched his fist until the leather creaked. "One can know how to do something without ever becoming accomplished at it. You and your pitiful attempts at piloting would be one such example, Solo."
Solo grinned, straightening from his leaning position and drawing a downward stroke in the air with one finger. "Way to sidetrack the issue, Your Lordship." He stepped closer to Vader and then stopped. "But come to think of it, Jabba used to drag me along any time I was on-planet for the Boonta Eve Classic. He was always natterin' on about the human who won the race some thirty years ago, but I always thought it was impending senility." He grimaced. "Please don't tell me I gotta rethink my negative opinion of a Hutt."
"You are treading on dangerous ground, Solo."
Another grin. "Don't I always? But I'm tryin' to remember if Jabba ever mentioned that mythical human's name." The smile disappeared and Solo's eyes were suddenly flint-hard. "For some reason, I think it's important."
After becoming the Emperor's apprentice, Vader had ensured that the name of Anakin Skywalker had been struck from all records regarding that race, but there were too many long-lived species who remembered that race . . . and the slave's name who'd had the audacity to win it. As the sponsor of the Classic, the Hutt was definitely one of them.
Solo was still eyeing him coldly. "I'm sure it'll come to me eventually. In the meantime," Solo said as he walked to his son's side, "stay away from Luke."
Vader strode over to Solo and jabbed a finger into his chest. "You have no input into my actions, Solo. The boy will be coming with me."
"Like hell he will!" the Corellian hissed. "I promised Her Worship that I'd bring Luke back safely, and he'll be going back to the Alliance with me."
Vader seethed. Mentioning the irritation that was the Alliance did little to alleviate his temper. He loomed over Solo and grabbed his neck with one hand. Luke or no Luke, this man had tried his patience once too often.
Luke reached out and grabbed Vader's wrist in a surprisingly hard grip. "And does Luke get any say in all this?" his son asked. "From either of you?" Luke's eyes narrowed as he glared at them, much like his mother's on those rare occasions when she was truly angry. "You two are acting like a pair of spoiled children."
Vader heard that Naberrie anger in his son's voice and carefully removed his hand from around Solo's neck. He heard Solo's strained gasp as he struggled to regain his breath, but Vader's eyes were locked on his son's and he paid the smuggler little heed.
Inclining his head in mute acknowledgment of the boy's wrath, Vader said merely, "There are some things we have no control over, child. Your fate is one." He paused, then said, "Your destiny lies with me."
Luke shivered, and he shook the water from the still pouring rain out of his eyes. "I have no destiny," he said tiredly. "I'm just a farmboy from Tatooine."
"No," Vader said. "You are wrong."
Luke stared at him for a few moments, then reached down for his pack, hefting it wearily as he said, "Wrong about what?"
Sighing, Vader said, "Wrong about many things, child."
He spared a glance over at Solo and saw that the man had mostly recovered, although he was glaring at Vader furiously.
"I did not kill your father, Luke." It was not just a reiteration of their conversation in the tree, it was a blunt confirmation -- and one Vader knew that Luke, with his burgeoning skills in the Force, would have no choice but to accept.
Vader watched his son's stunned face for a few moments ? watched as he heard the truth in his words, watched his eyes narrow, his lips press together in a look of concentration that he remembered all too well from his mother. Vader wondered if Luke had heard more in those words than the Dark Lord had intended . . . and then he wondered if that would be such an undesirable outcome after all.
With a last lingering look, Vader turned to resume their journey.
After all, they still had a long way to go.
Sensing something lurking in their path, Vader stopped abruptly at the bank of a wide stream. He could not pinpoint an exact location of danger -- only that it lay somewhere directly ahead, and that it was one of the more malevolent forms of carnivorous plant life. Since the plants were not "aware," unlike most of the predatory life forms he had encountered, their Force signatures were ambiguous at best.
Vader despised those rare occasions when his abilities in the Force were not as all-powerful as he would like others to believe, especially when they occurred in front of his son . . . and the troublesome smuggler.
There was an exasperated sigh from behind him. "What now, Your Exaltedness? 'Fraid you'll get your cape snarled on a branch or somethin'?" Solo laughed sharply. "Guess it's hard to look imposing hung up in a tree."
He heard his son mutter, "Han!" under his breath, and then the sound of a hand striking fabric.
"Hey! Wha' did I do?"
"Nothing, Han. Just being yourself, I guess -- try to do less of it, please?"
"Good. It was supposed to."
Vader turned to see his son settling to the ground in front of a tree. The boy was evidently grateful for the reprieve, whatever its cause. Even with the fierce humidity he could tell Luke was sweating, and his breathing was nearly as harsh as the Dark Lord's own. He imagined his son being forced to wear the same cumbersome breathing apparatus that he wore, and for some reason, that thought chilled him more than the bitterest wind.
He shook himself mentally -- the Force was still telling him he had little time for such idle thoughts, disquieting as they may be. Vader said aloud, "We will have to reverse our steps to avoid this area."
Solo had been handing Luke the second dose of the Hrwath extract, but he looked up sharply at Vader's remark. He gripped Luke's shoulder briefly, then approached Vader with an angry expression on his face. "Listen here, Your Lordship. Luke doesn't have the time, nor the energy, to be traipsin' around while you decide whether you wanna get your feet wet or not." He jerked his head in the direction of the stream. "Why can't we just continue straight ahead?"
Vader considered the question, then crossed his arms. "By all means, Solo," he said. "Feel free to scout the path yourself, if you wish."
"Maybe I will!"
Feeling the sharp focus of his son's gaze, Vader turned to Luke.
"There's something not right in there." Luke looked puzzled, as if not quite believing what his abilities were telling him. He shook his head sharply as if to clear it, and then looked up questioningly at Vader.
Vader sighed. He had hoped the jungle would rid him of Solo, but he would not avoid a direct question from the boy. "It is an . . . anomaly, a disturbance in the Force, likely one of the more dangerous forms of indigenous flora, but I cannot precisely determine its location." He nodded his head to his son. "It would be prudent to circumvent its perimeters."
The smuggler looked at Luke, then at the thick undergrowth on the far side of the stream. He turned to Vader and asked curtly, "How much time we gonna lose by goin' around?"
Vader eyed the smuggler silently for a few seconds, then turned to watch Luke as his chin dropped wearily to his chest. Buffeted by another intense warning tremor in the Force, Vader thought to himself, Too long.
But he would not display such weakness to the Corellian -- the man was far too dangerous. He answered curtly, "If I could surmise the answer to that question, Solo, I would also know the exact whereabouts of the threat."
"Fine," Solo said. "I'll check it out myself."
The smuggler cinched his pack straps tighter. Turning to smile at Luke, he said, "Don't worry, Junior. I've been around, and there ain't much out there tougher than me."
"Great. Which means you'll just give whatever it is indigestion on your way down."
Solo laughed. "'Fraid so! You worry too much, kid. I'll be back in a flash." With that, he splashed across the shallow stream and disappeared into the undergrowth.
Vader stared after the Corellian for a few moments, then strode over to where Luke was struggling to rise. Luke took Vader's proffered hand without hesitation this time, and Vader once again steadied him after he got to his feet.
Luke looked up at him. "You're not letting him go alone?"
"He has made his decision, child. It would be foolish of me to compound his error in judgment."
The boy flashed angry eyes at him. "You'd rather he just died in there, wouldn't you?"
"I have made no secret of that, young one." Vader tightened his hold on the boy when he tried to move away. "Luke, your smuggler may be brash and impetuous, but I will admit to his occasional usefulness. He may indeed be fortunate and find a safe passage through -- would you have him waste his sacrifice by blundering into the menace yourself?"
Luke was still staring up at him angrily. "He is only 'useful' to me if he's alive, damnit!" His eyes narrowed into a look of resolve Vader remembered very well indeed. "He's my friend, and I'm going after him. You can do whatever the Force you like."
In the abrupt silence that followed, there was a sudden series of sharp cracking sounds, and then Solo's echoing yell.
Luke struggled violently in his arms, and Vader said merely, "Hush, child." Surprisingly, the boy obeyed, most likely because he could still hear Solo's loud swearing -- an indication that Solo was not in any danger of imminent demise.
Vader cocked his head, extending his awareness, then gripped the boy's shoulder to get his attention. "He is currently unharmed, child. It would appear he has merely triggered one of the Trella vines."
"Merely? But you said they were dangerous!"
Vader nodded his head. "They are, if they have not fed recently. Since your friend still has breath to . . . communicate, it is likely the Trella is merely storing its prey." There was a questioning sound from Luke, and he continued, "Much like a spider would encapsulate its prey for later consumption."
"Well, that isn't very encouraging!"
Vader looked down at the boy in surprise. "It was not intended to be."
"Oh, for the love of. . . ." Luke again attempted to pull himself free. "Look, I'm going after Han if I have to drag you along with me."
"That should prove interesting."
Luke merely looked up at him, glaring. "Try me."
Vader felt the trembling in the boy's shoulders, and he knew it was not merely from the anger and worry that poured off the boy in waves through the Force. He had no doubt that Luke would attempt what he said, but he also knew the effort would only deplete his obviously limited physical resources. "Very well," Vader said finally. "I will retrieve your smuggler -- will that suffice?"
"If you actually mean what you say and don't plan to let him die regardless." The boy eyed Vader intently, the challenge written clearly across his tense features.
"You are strong in the Force, young one, although still untrained. Can you not feel the truth in my words?"
Luke stilled, the only sounds the harsh rasping of his breathing, but he finally nodded. As if the brisk motion of his head was a catalyst, the boy swayed, his face going alarmingly pale.
Vader lifted the child in his arms and carried him back to the tree. He knelt, settling him against its mossy surface and waited until some color had returned to his features. "Stay here," Vader ordered, rising to his feet. "I will return for you . . . with your Corellian."
Luke hesitated, then nodded once more.
As Vader crossed the stream, following the path that Solo had taken, he wondered if the boy's manipulation of the Force was defter than he had previously thought. Vader could discern no other reason why he had so readily agreed to rescue the irritating Corellian.
It was not difficult to track Solo, even without the Force. The man's path was strewn with more trampled undergrowth than an Imperial scout walker.
Vader paused and extended his awareness again, but he was still unable to ascertain an exact source for the disquieting tremors he had sensed. This far into the dense undergrowth, it became apparent that the threat sources were widespread, their wavering Force signatures seeming to overlap and distort his ability to localize them.
He shook his head in frustration. No matter. Solo had managed to progress this far without mishap, surprising as that thought may be. Perhaps Vader had been too hasty in planning the smuggler's demise. He was as useful as a Stormtrooper in nullifying a dangerous situation -- or at least triggering its traps -- without requiring even a direct order on Vader's part.
Solo's path of broken branches ended abruptly in a small clearing a few meters ahead. Vader stopped at the edge of the break in the jungle and tilted his head upward.
"Sure took ya long enough."
"My apologies, Solo. It was my impression you were able to manage the situation without assistance." Vader paused, eyeing Solo as he dangled twenty meters above his head. "However, it would appear you were correct in one aspect -- it is indeed undignified to find oneself 'hung up in a tree.'"
"Ha, ha. Very funny," Solo said. He twisted his body around, the encircling grip of mottled green vines shifting to tighten their grip on his torso. "You can save the comedy act for the honeymoon. Just get me down before somethin' up here decides it wants a snack."
Vader sighed. He wasn't certain if it was the man's attitude that annoyed him so -- or merely his nonsensical method of communication. He ignited his lightsaber.
"Hey, now, wait just a minute!" Solo yelled. "What're you gonna do with. . . ?"
Extending the Force to keep his lightsaber ignited, Vader threw the weapon into the tree, severing the individual Trella vines holding the smuggler captive.
Solo yelled loudly on his way down, much as he had when falling from the mangrove tree. Vader called his lightsaber to him, then used the Force to suspend Solo's descent six meters above the forest floor.
His son would not be pleased if he permitted excessive damage to befall the smuggler, but Vader was not prepared to release him yet.
Solo gasped loudly at the abrupt stop, but recovered quickly to glare down at Vader. He untangled the last remnants of the Trella vines from around his chest and said, "So much for the mysterious threat your all-powerful Force was warnin' you about."
Vader paused, placing his hands on his hips as he surveyed the smuggler still dangling in midair. "Be careful, Solo. You are not out of danger yet."
"Yeah? And whose fault is that?"
Choosing to ignore him, Vader said, "The Trella vines were not the threat that I -- and Luke -- sensed, regardless of your impressive display of incompetence to the contrary."
"Hah. I'm just glad Luke didn't inherit your sense of humor along with your hokey religion."
Stunned, Vader momentarily lost his Force grip on the smuggler, and Solo crashed heavily to the ground.
"Hey!" Solo yelled, rolling with the momentum of his fall into a seated position.
"What did you say?"
Ignoring him, Solo merely rubbed the back of his neck and muttered, "Whoever said, 'The truth hurts,' deserves a damn medal." ?He looked up at Vader, and his expression was a strange mixture of triumph and sullenness. "I think you heard me the first time . . . Anakin."
Vader hissed, "That name has no meaning to me."
One side of Solo's mouth twisted up into a grim smile. "Oh, really? Judging by your melodramatic reaction, Your Exaltedness, I'd say it has a lot of meaning to you." His smile broadened. "But thanks for confirming my suspicions. I was havin' a hard time wrapping my head around that notion, even if you did know way too much about Tatooine for someone who hasn't lived there."
Crossing his arms, Vader said, "If you actually believe what you say, why have you not relayed that information to my son?"
When Solo's eyes widened at Vader's tacit confirmation, Vader realized that he had once again miscalculated. The man had been bluffing, and Vader had fallen directly into his trap. He revised his previous estimation. Solo was more than merely dangerous -- he was becoming a distinct liability.
Solo shook his head slowly. "Well, wrap me up in fur and call me a Wookiee. Your son, huh? Oh, I thought about telling Luke -- ever since I remembered the name of the winner of the Boonta Eve Classic. But Luke has enough goin' on without that kind of burden. I doubt he'd take it very well, knowin' that you're his . . . father. Force, for that matter, I'm not takin' it very well either." He eyed Vader for a few seconds, then said, "And here I was thinkin' uncle or distant relative, or somethin.'"
Vader did not reply, again considering the viability of simply killing the Corellian now.
But Solo suddenly stood up, looking quickly around him. "Speakin' of Luke -- where is he?"
Vader cocked his head, somewhat surprised at the question. "I ordered him to remain by the stream."
"You ordered . . . ?" Solo strode over and jabbed a finger into his chest plate. "Rule number one in the care and feeding of Luke Skywalker, Your Lordship: You 'order' the kid to do something, and you can damn well count on him doin' the exact opposite."
Vader moved to seize Solo's offending hand, but before he could do so, he was struck by a Force warning so vivid that he took a step backward from its impact.
Darkness. Danger. Threat!
Solo was obviously puzzled. "Wha'?"
"Luke," Vader said shortly. He shoved the smuggler aside and headed into the forest. He heard Solo crashing through the undergrowth after him, but he lagged behind Vader's Force-enhanced run.
Vader was close, very close, but he knew he would be far too late -- even before Luke's pain-filled scream split the humid air.
And then terminated abruptly.
Han ran headlong after Vader. He knew he was no slouch when it came to running -- "slow smuggler" usually meant "dead smuggler" if you couldn't outrun those who took exception to your line of work -- but even so, he could barely keep the Dark Lord in sight. Han lost precious seconds when he had to go around a fallen giant of a tree that Vader must have somehow leapt over. Flailing through the dense undergrowth, Han flushed out a medium-sized, dark green creature that looked like a cross between a scurrier and a two-legged ikopi.
Han followed closely in the terrified creature's wake. Judging from the set of its eyes and its flat teeth, it was an herbivore, but Han was inwardly pleased that something was finally running from him rather than at him for a change. Besides, it was going in the right direction, and Han was still a little jittery over Vader's vague warnings . . . and the fact that Luke seemed to have met up with something particularly nasty. Force, he hoped the kid was all right -- Luke couldn't seem to get a break on this miserable pit of a planet.
The creature bounded through a dense patch of fern-like plants, and Han blundered after it. He had just broken through the leafy barrier when the creature let out a high-pitched screech, which was just as suddenly cut off. Stumbling to an abrupt stop, arms wind-milling wildly, Han saw that the herbivore had been ensnared by one of the huge broad-leafed plants that he'd spotted earlier in their journey. The creature's two larger hind limbs were wrapped in bright blue tendrils that extended from the centers of the oversized flowers, but those tendrils didn't look strong enough to stop a sneeze, much less seventy kilos of terrified herbivore.
Right. Captured by an overgrown houseplant. So, why doesn't the stupid thing just break free?
Han's eyes widened when he finally figured out why. Beginning at the spot where the tendrils had wrapped around the creature's hairless hide, the dark green skin was slowly turning an ominous shade of black as the flesh seemed to fall in on itself. The creature appeared stunned -- or maybe just partially paralyzed by whatever toxin was consuming its flesh -- but Han didn't care either way, and he sure wasn't sticking around to find out.
All he could think about was Luke . . . and that Han had seen several more of those harmless-looking plants when he'd passed this way earlier.
Han swore, and prayed, and swore again as he ran even harder. He'd lost Vader with his brief detour around the carnivorous plant, but even so, the Dark Lord had left him a vague trail to follow through the dense undergrowth. He heard Vader's loud shout of "Luke!" before he saw him.
Leaping another fallen log and breaking through some low-hanging palm fronds, Han caught up with him at last.
He almost wished he hadn't.
Vader was wielding his lightsaber, its angry red blade slashing at the weaving tendrils from the same type of plants that had captured the forest creature. There were four or five of the huge plants in the small clearing, and Han finally spotted Luke crouched on the forest floor with his left hand encircled in a deadly bracelet of azure tendrils. Judging by the still smoking ring on Luke's upper uniform sleeve, the plant had latched onto his right arm first, but the kid must have tried to remove the tendrils with his bare left hand.
And not realized his mistake until it was far too late.
Now, Luke stared off into the forest with an unnatural stillness, his chest barely moving with his shallow breaths.
Horrified, Han watched the kid's skin go through the same transformation as the unlucky herbivore. Luke's hand had already turned a mottled gray and black, but Han could see that the toxin was now beginning to spread upward to his wrist as well.
Vader had cut a path toward Luke, and Han followed him through that course of seared vegetation, but he knew there was little he could do -- little that anyone could do at this point. Piecing together what little he knew of botany, Han figured the plant must use its toxin to decompose the flesh of its victims and then suck up the resulting nutrients through the soil. It was a predatory adaptation that Han had never seen before, but in this case, he'd have preferred to remain blissfully ignorant.
Dispatching the plant that had captured Luke, Vader finally reached the kid, and he didn't hesitate for an instant. The bright red blade slashed downward and cut off Luke's left hand neatly just above the wrist.
Luke screamed, but Han still wasn't close enough to do more than swear loudly, his own heart pounding painfully in his chest. He knew why Vader had done it, knew why it was necessary, but Han still had the almost uncontrollable urge to shove a certain armor-clad monstrosity into the nearest black hole.
But it seemed Luke was way ahead of him on that score, because that's when things started to get really strange.
Vader turned off his lightsaber and crouched down next to Luke -- no doubt to make sure he had amputated enough of Luke's arm to contain the toxin before it spread further. When Vader reached for the arm that Luke had huddled protectively against his chest, Vader suddenly wasn't there. It was as if the kid had bodily thrown him across the clearing, but Han could see that Luke hadn't physically moved. The kid's eyes were wide and unfocused, his breaths coming in harsh, uneven gasps, and he was still very obviously in agony.
As Vader started to pick himself up from the ground, a fierce wind suddenly tore through the clearing, lifting Vader again and sending him sprawling backward into a nearby tree.
Han worked his way closer to Luke, knowing that they had to make sure that the toxin wasn't still in the kid's system. If they couldn't stop its spread before it reached his torso . . . .
Making a dash for it -- and hoping the kid wouldn't target him also -- Han came up from slightly behind Luke and captured him in his arms. The kid went stark raving wild, and it felt like Han was trying to hold onto an enraged wampa as Luke twisted violently in his grasp. At least the kid had dropped his pack somewhere, or Han doubted he'd have been able to keep a grip on him at all. Luke was obviously delirious from the pain and shock, and Han couldn't say that he blamed him.
But it didn't make it any easier to hold onto the kid without seriously injuring him.
Han looked up and snarled in Vader's direction, "I could use a little help here, if you've finished your nap, that is."
Vader moved toward them -- a little unsteadily Han thought -- and stumbled again as he was hit with something that Han couldn't see.
"Luke," Han said fiercely, trying to break through the kid's pain. The wind howled violently, the trees lashing from side to side as if caught in a hurricane. Debris began flying in all directions, seemingly heedless of the wind's single-minded purpose. Han pulled Luke down to the ground as a particularly large stone sailed directly at them. He fell with the kid on top of him, rolling awkwardly with his own pack still on his back, and Han knew he was losing his grip on Luke's flailing form.
Vader suddenly reappeared, dropping to the ground when the wind again increased its intensity and threatened to blow them all across the clearing. Vader reached for Luke's face with one hand. Solidifying his grip on the still struggling Luke, Vader tilted his own head downward, and the kid went abruptly limp.
The wind and the debris storm vanished as if they'd never existed.
Han breathed a silent sigh of relief at the respite, but Luke's unnatural stillness worried him. Struggling to sit up with his unconscious burden, Han braced the kid against his chest and shook his right shoulder gently. "Luke?"
Vader examined Luke's injured arm, standing after he'd finished his inspection. "The toxin's spread appears to have been halted. Do you have a spare dressing for the wound?"
Wound. He amputates his own son's hand, and he calls it a wound.
Han sighed. He knew Vader had been out of options, but the callousness of the man still grated on Han's nerves. He motioned with his chin toward the pack without loosening his grip on Luke. "In there." Placing his fingers on Luke's uninjured wrist, Han was relieved to find a slow but steady pulse. He slapped Luke's face gently, trying to bring the kid around.
Vader finished binding Luke's arm and merely stared at the boy silently. Luke still hadn't moved a muscle, even though the tight dressing must be painful on his raw flesh.
Glaring at Vader, Han asked, "What did you do to him?"
"I do not know."
"You don't . . .?" Han rolled his eyes skyward in disbelief. "What the Force do ya mean, you don't know? You touch the kid's face, and whammo, the kid's out colder than a snowball in a carbon freeze chamber, and you don't know what you did to him? I hate to tell ya this, Your Exaltedness, but 'all-powerful' usually means, 'I have some kind of clue here!'"
"His pain and fear had lent him surprising strength in the Force. If I had not amputated his arm far enough above the toxin. . . ."
Han remembered the chaotic scene, his own frantic worry, and he relented somewhat. "So you did what? -- just knocked 'im unconscious?"
Vader shook his head. "That would have been insufficient. He was projecting wildly enough that mere unconsciousness would not have nullified the disturbance in the Force." He paused, and his voice sounded almost bewildered. "I . . . blocked Luke's ability to access the Force."
Han carefully placed Luke onto his back in the soft moss, making sure the kid was a safe distance from the now dormant plants. "Uh-huh. And you don't know how you did it?"
"I believe that is what I said."
Han snorted. "Well, I believe you hit your head too hard while you were doin' that drunken mynock impersonation. You sure you're all right?"
Vader merely stared at him, and Han's eyes widened. Damn. Did I just ask a Dark Lord of the Sith how he's feeling? Han pointed an admonitory finger at him. "Now, don't be gettin' any ideas here, Your Lordship. I talk to the Falcon that way all the time, and since you're both metallic, cantankerous and untrustworthy, I probably just gotta little confused there for a minute."
"Obviously." Vader sounded almost amused, if that were possible. He rose to his feet.
Han glared up at Vader for a few more seconds, then sighed. "So, now what?"
"We see that my son reaches a proper medical facility without further delay."
Amazingly, Vader held his hand out to him, and Han stared at it for a few moments before finally accepting it. It was like being lifted by a Star Destroyer's tractor beam . . . and just about as pleasant.
Han brushed his pants off self-consciously, still disconcerted by their recent conversation. He looked at Vader with his best forbidding expression. "And don't be thinkin' we're all hearts and flowers here, 'cause we ain't."
Vader gathered Luke into his arms. Moving off into the forest, he said, "Have no fear, Corellian, I still have every intention of watching you die in abject agony."
"Well . . . good," Han said as he followed in Vader's wake. "I hate it when people get all mushy on me."
If Han had been a betting man, he'd have wagered they'd have never reached their destination without Vader killing somebody before they got there.
Either that, or this Force-forsaken planet would've done the killing for him.
But, as usual, he would have lost that bet, because they had definitely arrived somewhere. Han had been a spacer for as long as he could remember, but even he couldn't have missed the obvious signs of recent cultivation they had passed.
Not that His Exaltedness was any help in the tour guide capacity. Nah, he was too busy doing his best impression of a stone wall, and Han figured he was pulling it off better than most stones would. He'd simply refused to respond to any of Han's comments, and Han would've tried bouncing pebbles off his helmet just to see if that would've gotten a reaction if the big oaf hadn't been carrying Luke.
On second thought, that probably wouldn't be a good idea.
Han sighed. Either he was finally beginning to learn through experience, or he was getting too old to get any fun out of baiting an enemy anymore. Either prospect wasn't all that inviting.
When they arrived at the top of yet another small hill, the trees had thinned out enough that Han could finally see clearly into the valley below.
Han gasped. Medicinal research facility? Force, if that was a research facility, Han would start looking for a potential lifemate by dating Hutts.
The valley didn't appear cultivated as much as . . . well, sculpted was the only word Han could come up with at the moment. Every tree, every stream, every plant and bush seemed to be molded into an aesthetically pleasing whole. Hundreds of flowers in a myriad of colors dotted the landscape, but they still managed to complement each other rather than compete for attention. There were also more shades of green than Han had ever known existed. It was as if some insanely wealthy world ruler had transfigured an entire valley into some sort of extended formal garden, yet this "design" flowed and carried the eye like a living thing.
Han had thought himself too jaded by the multitude of worlds he'd visited to be impressed by anything, but even he could appreciate this valley's serene beauty. Seems this trip was turning out to be a real eye-opener for him in more ways than one.
He could tell the location of the TIE base merely because its stark Imperial gray buildings clashed so badly with the surrounding artwork of bejeweled green. It stood out like mold on cheese and was just as pleasant to look at.
Vader barely hesitated as he headed down into the valley, and as they approached the outskirts of the settlement, Han couldn't stop himself from ogling his surroundings like a wall-eyed tourist. The settlement's inhabitants hadn't merely coaxed the surrounding forest into pleasing shapes and gardens; they'd adapted them to form actual buildings, walkways, and terraces.
Here, a grove of trees had been turned into what was obviously a residence, the graceful trunks intertwining to form the walls and roof of the building. Vines with multi-colored flowers wove through the trunks and branches, catching the sunlight with their iridescent blooms, and perfuming the air with their scent. As they crossed a deep blue stream, Han saw that the "bridge" was merely a group of stouter vines, their deep black stems crosshatched into a tight weave that Han would have thought impossible to maintain, even by a dedicated botanist.
Everywhere he looked, Han saw that the planet's greenery had been molded into shapes that were more than merely useful, they looked right -- as if that was the way Nature had intended them to be. He didn't know how, but Han was certain there wasn't anything here forced into positions that they didn't want to go into. No, somehow these plants had been encouraged to grow into these shapes, and those shapes merely happened to benefit both the plants and the beings that lived here.
Maybe there was something to the legends about this world after all.
But that turned out to be the biggest surprise of them all. After seeing the ethereal beauty of the place, Han had assumed that Vader had lied about the existence of a native population, but it appeared His Exaltedness had, surprisingly enough, been telling the truth.
It was not inhabited by some exotic, undiscovered species. In fact, it wasn't inhabited by any one particular species at all. The settlement seemed to be populated by representative species from all over the galaxy, and given this planet's isolation, Han found that unusual at best. They were obviously quite well acquainted with Vader. Although cautious and respectful, the inhabitants didn't seem to share the instinctive dread that the Dark Lord seemed to inspire in others. Vader had broken his self-imposed silence to speak quietly to a young humanoid, who bowed briefly, then ran ahead of them to pass on whatever message Vader had given him.
As they continued on to the heart of the settlement, Han saw Ugnaughts, Twi'leks, even something he could have sworn was an Arcona. They were all dressed in similar robes and tunics, but in a veritable rainbow of colors and patterns. They went about their business as if seeing a Dark Lord of the Sith was a frequent occurrence, and Han wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
Force, at this point, he wasn't sure what to believe.
They approached a large construct of interwoven, towering trees that was evidently some kind of communal structure given the wide steps of layered roots and the large number of beings coming and going from its vaulted doorways. Water from a large fountain in the center of the plaza flowed down multiple terraces of hollowed tree trunks, making a musical sound as it poured into the shallow pools.
Vader finally slowed as they were met by two beings in hooded robes. Han couldn't see much, but he could tell the taller was a Mon Calamari and the second a humanoid female with striking blue skin.
They both bowed slightly to Vader, as Han had seen the rest of the populace do, but they didn't waste any more time on preliminaries, merely motioning for Vader to precede them into the building. Since Luke had never regained consciousness, that lack of extended ceremony made Han very happy indeed.
Vader seemed to know exactly where he was going, and he unerringly led them into a small suite of rooms off the main corridor. Han was surprised again to note a fairly modern-appearing Med Center with what looked like a fully functioning bio-bed as well as an impressive array of auxiliary medical equipment. By using muted colors and delicate scrollwork, the inhabitants had even managed to blend the otherwise high-tech equipment into the green, living walls of the room as if it all belonged there.
The Mon Calamari said, "We will await you in the courtyard gardens, My Lord." Then he and the blue-skinned female departed.
The only other occupants of the room were a tall, whipcord-thin human wearing a healer's smock and an attentive young Sullustan male who was evidently his assistant.
Vader placed Luke on the bio-bed and turned to the healer. "Healer Tharell." Amazingly, Vader bowed his head slightly to the man.
"My Lord Vader." The healer's tone was respectful, but not overly so, and Han again wondered at the strange reactions the city's inhabitants had to the Dark Lord. The tall man tilted his head slightly toward the bio-bed. "May I approach?"
Han wondered at the strange comment, until he noticed how His Exaltedness seemed to be hovering over Luke like some kind of avenging angel. When he thought about it, Vader had shown that level of protectiveness almost the entire journey, but it was funny how you started to take some things for granted just out of a sense of familiarity.
Downright scary, actually. And not very conducive to continued breathing in your line of work, Solo.
Vader didn't reply to the healer's question, but he did move to the head of the bio-bed to give the man access to Luke. If the healer was intimidated by either Vader or his focused attention on the proceedings, it didn't show on his face.
Han was surprised when the man didn't reach immediately for the medical scanner, a gesture that was second nature to healers around the galaxy. He examined Luke first with his hands, his long, tapered fingers barely skimming the surface of Luke's body. His mouth turned up into a slight grimace as he reached the stump of Luke's left arm, but he didn't stop at that obvious injury. He paused slightly over the older injury in Luke's thigh, but the hands hovered longest over Luke's torso, his fingers twitching slightly as if affected by some kind of electrical current.
The healer looked up sharply at Vader, his eyes narrowing. "There is more here than his obvious traumatic injuries." He glanced down at Luke's amputated hand, then back to Vader. "The callustium plant?"
Vader nodded. "Yes. I could detect no remnant of its toxin in his system, however."
"Hmmm. Then it is something else, something systemic." The healer rubbed his chin thoughtfully, reaching idly back toward his assistant, and a medical scanner was placed firmly into his hand.
Han listened to the familiar sound of the scanner and felt himself tense. There was no keeping Luke's condition from Vader now. But the real question was how Vader would react to the news that his son was dying.
Given the Dark Lord's track record, probably not very well. And since Han had been keeping that information from him. . . .
Oh well. Being alive was nice while it lasted. Han looked around the room, looking for something solid to duck behind but finally gave it up as a lost cause. Sith, for all he knew, these people might actually be able to find a cure for the kid.
The look in Healer Tharell's eyes as he turned off the scanner and looked up at Vader dispelled that notion in a hurry. The healer murmured something in Sullustan to his assistant, who placed an oxygen breather over Luke's face before he began silently treating Luke's injuries.
Stepping closer to Vader, the healer said, "Is this boy . . . important to you, My Lord?"
Vader's rasping breath caught for a moment, but he said only, "What is wrong with him?"
The healer rubbed his chin again. "It is nothing I have ever seen before, Lord Vader, but I can tell you he is suffering from an excess of nitrogen in his bloodstream."
"Yes, My Lord. But it is not a case of the usual altitude sickness or the results of rapid decompression. It appears to be cellular, as if his red blood cells have adapted to carrying nitrogen instead of oxygen." The healer shook his head. "It would appear to be genetic."
Vader's head snapped back as if he had been slapped. He only said one word, and it sounded to Han something like "Padm?."
"I am sorry, Lord Vader, but his prognosis. . . ."
Vader cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I am quite aware of the prognosis, Healer. See to it that the boy is made comfortable and his injuries are properly treated." He didn't wait for a reply, merely turning on his heel and heading toward the door. He stopped at the doorway and looked back at Han. "Solo, attend me."
"Attend you? What the hell do I look like? -- some kind of body slave or somethin'?" Han jerked as he again felt the phantom hands around his throat, and this time it is was a bare millimeter from crushing his larynx. "Right," he rasped when he was finally released. "Live slave or dead smuggler. Gotcha."
"Good. I would hate to think you were totally untrainable, Solo."
Vader strode out the door and Han followed more slowly, rubbing his throat. He muttered to no one in particular, "One of these days I'm gonna get the last word, but I have the nasty feelin' it's gonna be right before I get shoved bodily through the nearest tree."
Again, Vader seemed to know exactly where he was going, navigating along the living corridors of branches, vines and leaves as if he'd grown up there. He ducked his head to pass under a low lintel and stepped into one of the most beautiful gardens Han had ever seen.
Oh, Han had seen plenty, from the terraced palace gardens of the Duros to the aquatic gardens of Naboo, but he had never seen anything as artfully laid out as this. It didn't look formally tended at all, with tall trees that dangled their feathery leaves across the moss-lined walkway to the flowers that decorated nearly every bush, shrub, vine and tree. The air was perfumed with their scent, but not obnoxiously so -- even to a spacer's nose. The midday sun penetrated the thick canopies of the trees and dappled the path with splashes of light like an over-enthusiastic painter.
Hah. Chewie would have a real laugh if he knew what was Han was thinking. Beauty to Han usually meant the newest dancer at his favorite cantina or the sharp, clean lines of a sleek starfighter. But Han could feel the ambiance of the magnificent garden soothing his nerves, and considering the topic he was about to broach to one thoroughly rankled Dark Lord of the Sith, he figured it couldn't hurt.
Han absentmindedly rubbed his abused throat. Then again, maybe not. 'Soothing' didn't seem to be a word in Darth Vader's vocabulary.
"So, Your Exaltedness," Han began. "Since you obviously have some idea of what's goin' on with Luke, how about fillin' me in here?"
Han half-expected Vader to ignore him, as he had the entire last leg of their journey, but surprisingly enough the Dark Lord turned abruptly to face him. He pushed a leather-clad finger into Han's chest . . . hard. "As you have 'filled me in,' Solo?"
"Hey, I didn't know you were related to Luke at the time!"
Vader leaned in closer, and Han felt much like a womprat in a blaster scope. "And after you discovered Luke was my son, you still felt the severity of his condition too insignificant to relay to me?"
"I'd have gotten around to it." Han shrugged. "Eventually. Well, it's not like I was goin' anywhere!"
"You are a smuggler, Solo. That much is obvious."
Han was good at sarcasm. He was quite proud of the fact that he excelled at it, for that matter. But Darth Vader seemed to best him in the sarcasm arena with virtually no effort at all. Definitely losin' your touch, Solo. But hey, when you're on a downward slope, it's best to get as much out of the forward momentum as you can before you hit bottom. "The healer said it was genetic," Han said sharply. "From you?"
"No," Vader said, turning abruptly.
Han latched onto Vader's arm. "Luke's dying, and if you have information that could prevent that, I wanna know it."
Vader easily broke his hold, gripped Han's vest with one hand and tossed him effortlessly into a nearby hardwood tree.
Very hard wood, Han thought as he pulled himself painfully to his feet.
"Do not forget your place, Solo. Your usefulness to me is at an end, and it would bring me great satisfaction to remove you from my presence permanently."
Han's chin came up defiantly. "Then why haven't you? You talk about it a lot, and you've had plenty of chances, but you've never quite gotten round to it. Hell, it's not like Luke or I would be able to stop you." Han's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "But that's just it, isn't it? You know you'll never get anywhere with Luke if he knows you killed me." Han approached the Dark Lord confidently. "That's somethin' else you'd better remember about the kid -- he doesn't desert his friends, and he'd never forgive their murderer."
"There are many ways for 'accidents' to occur on this world, smuggler."
Han snorted. "Yeah, like Luke would believe that. Nah, you're stuck with me, Your Lordship, so unless you're prepared to explain to Luke why his best friend suddenly disappeared, I'd like an answer to my question."
Vader stared at him for some moments, and when he answered, his voice was low and dangerous. "Do not overestimate your importance, Solo. I will take my son, whether or not he goes willingly. You would be advised to remember that my patience is limited."
"No kidding." Han glared up at Vader. "What's the origin of his disease?"
Another pause, and with an ironic nod of his head, Vader said, "Very well. I see no harm in satisfying your insatiable curiosity since you will be unable to pass along the information."
Okay. So that sounded rather ominous. "Spill it," Han said aloud.
"The affliction is inherited from my . . . from his mother."
"And she's already dead?" Han asked.
A nod from Vader.
"Did she die from this?"
"No, Padm? died from . . . other causes," Vader said, obviously choosing his words carefully. Vader's head turned toward the direction they had come, and Han wondered if he wasn't somehow checking on Luke's progress.
Hell, now even he was starting to buy into this Force nonsense. "So, you and this woman decided to have a kid knowing the child was gonna come down with this?"
Vader looked back sharply at him. "Do not be absurd, Solo. The trait is recessive, carried only through the females of her line, and it affects only male children. The trait has been totally dormant and has not manifested itself in centuries. She told me almost as an afterthought long before Luke was conceived."
Han winced. For some reason, the thought of Darth Vader conceiving anything was a little difficult to get his mind around. "So, why did it 'manifest' in Luke then?"
Vader inclined his head again. "I do not know. Her ancestors have rarely been spacefarers. My son is a pilot -- perhaps the gene was triggered by some type of aberrant electromagnetic radiation."
Han whistled. "Kinda like the intense radiation triggered by the destruction of the Death Star? Luke was as close as he could get to that explosion without gettin' himself fried."
"Perhaps. . . ." Vader's voice trailed off.
Han could have sworn he heard grudging respect in Vader's tone, but he decided he must have imagined it.
Vader turned and started back down the path. "It is also likely that the disease was worsened by the presence of his high midichlorian count."
"Midi-what?" Han trotted after the Dark Lord. "Hey, now wait just a minute!"
Vader turned his head briefly but did not shorten his stride. "It is of no importance to you, Solo. It is a Jedi matter."
Han ran ahead and blocked Vader's path. Vader let him. "You know, my Ma always told me I should have made a career out of dentistry, but I really hate the thought of pulling teeth." Han crossed his arms and looked up at Vader. "So why not make it easier on both of us and tell me what the hell you're talkin' about?"
"If I thought you capable of comprehending the information, I would."
Han glared, but decided to let that comment pass. "Regardless, you're his father, so you should be a close enough match for the bone marrow transplant, right?"
"Unlikely. Parents are rarely an exact match for their offspring."
Vader paused, obviously debating whether he was going to bother to explain. "A parent contributes only half the child's DNA, Solo. A sibling is likely to be a closer match, but in Luke's case, it would have to be a male sibling."
"'Cause the trait is carried through the female line?"
Han paused. "So, you got any more kids runnin' loose around the galaxy?"
"No," Vader said firmly, and for some reason, Han knew he was telling the truth.
"So, Luke is gonna die after all."
Vader started forward again, and Han moved to walk next to him.
Glancing over at Han, Vader said, "The match will be close, if not exact. My son is strong in the Force, as am I, and together we should be able to convince his body to accept the transplant."
"Well, that's good news, considering. . . ." Han stopped short. "Hey, didn't you tell me you cut off Luke's ability to access the Force?"
There was no reply from Vader, and Han started after him again. He barely processed the beauty of the gardens around him, or the circuitous path they were taking to its center, as he hurried to catch up to the Dark Lord. "And you still don't have a clue how to reverse it?"
Still no reply, and Han went through several of his more inventive curse words in Huttese. "Great, that's just great. Did anyone ever tell you that you have a really crappy sense of timing?"
Vader stopped, both hands on his utility belt. "What would you have had me do, Solo? Allow the boy to die?"
"I would think that the all-powerful Darth Vader would know how to save his own son!"
Vader said nothing, and even the rasp of the Dark Lord's respirator seemed muted in the sudden silence. "Sometimes even I cannot cheat death, smuggler," he finally said.
Han swallowed hard. There was something in that voice, something so old and profoundly painful that it almost -- almost, mind you -- made Han Solo want to say, 'I'm sorry,' to a Dark Lord of the Sith.
Han had to get off this planet before his life got any weirder.
Vader inclined his head to the path. "However, I intend to confer with someone who may have the solution to Luke's condition, if you would allow us to continue?"
Han shook himself, telling himself silently to get a grip. He bowed and waved one hand toward the path. "By all means, Your Exaltedness. Don't let me stop you."
And as Han fell into step behind the Dark Lord, he realized he still hadn't gotten the last word.
They emerged into a small grove of deep green grass that was laden with the mists of half a dozen fountains. The benches in the center were formed from the horizontal trunks of smooth-barked trees and were shaded by branches that curved up and over to form a leafy canopy. The two occupants of the center bench rose silently to greet them.
The same Mon Calamari who had met them upon their arrival inclined his head to Vader. "My Lord." He turned to face Han. "I am Ochlen, and this is Laesai Lon," he said, as he indicated the blue-skinned female who stood next to him. "We are the leaders of this community."
"Captain Han Solo," he returned, bowing slightly as he smiled at the pair warmly. It couldn't hurt to worm his way into someone's good graces. He'd likely need whatever potential allies he could find if he ever hoped to get off this planet.
From the far side of the grove, something squawked indignantly in one of the bushes, and Han looked over to see an Imperial officer striding past it toward Vader. The Dark Lord met him halfway, and Han would have dearly loved to hear what they were discussing.
Then again, Han had learned the hard way never to ignore a lady. "Very pleased to meet you both." He shot another glance toward Vader and rolled his eyes. "You have no idea how much."
Laesai smiled, evidently not offended at Han's lack of respect. "We receive very few visitors to our world, Captain Solo. We bid you welcome." Her dark eyes danced their own mischievous greeting, but Han was immediately entranced by her voice. It was surprisingly deep, yet in no way masculine, and he wondered at her planet of origin. In any case, a man could easily get lost in that voice.
"And it is always a pleasure to meet a companion of Lord Vader," she continued.
Whoa. Not that lost. "Ah, I wouldn't quite call myself 'companion,' Ms. Lon." Han glanced over at Vader, who didn't appear to have heard the comment -- luckily. "He, ah, keeps me around so he can bounce ideas off me . . . or the occasional solid object, as the mood strikes him."
She tilted her head slightly, lowering her voice. "I see. Then you must be a very resilient man, Captain Solo."
"Nah, just hard-headed, which has been a definite asset on this trip, let me tell ya."
She laughed. "Nevertheless, when we are finished here, I would be honored to show you to your quarters."
Han merely nodded, seeing out of the corner of his eye that Vader had dismissed the officer and was advancing to stand before the two leaders.
"Where is the Archivist?" Vader said.
"He has been summoned, Lord Vader," the Mon Calamari replied, his large head swiveling to view a shadowed path on the far side of the clearing. He sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, he appears to be demonstrating his usual degree of punctuality."
Leather creaked, and Han didn't have to look over to know that His High and Mighty Exaltedness was about to cause permanent injury to something. Han sidestepped slightly to avoid the immediate blast radius. It was sorta refreshing not to be the current target of Vader's bad temper.
Not that he was gonna allow himself to get used to it.
Laesai held up her hand as if to forestall whatever Vader was about to say. She closed her eyes briefly, then bowed, saying, "He comes, My Lord."
Not long afterwards, Han heard a low-voiced, tuneless humming coming from the general direction of the far path. Watching as Vader turned angrily to face the newcomer, Han decided he was glad he wasn't in that particular being's shoes.
And after seeing the peculiar individual who wandered into the grove, Han was even more glad of it. The man was tall and gangly, and walked with a peculiar gliding motion that made one think of some type of long-legged wading bird, but he was definitely human. Although he possessed the type of face that made it nearly impossible to tell his age, Han guessed the man was quite a few years older than he was.
He also seemed to be easily distracted, nearly walking off the path and into a tree while craning his head to follow the flight of a brightly colored bird. He then stopped abruptly and bent to examine something that must have caught his eye in the short grass by the path's edge.
His Exaltedness was definitely not amused. "Archivist," he said sharply.
The man started violently, as if he'd momentarily forgotten the reason he was here. He stood up, hastily brushing off his long black robe and hurrying over toward Vader.
"He doesn't have a name, at least as far as we know."
Han looked down to see the slight form of Laesai Lon standing next to him. "He probably doesn't remember it," Han said, watching as the man very nearly got sidetracked again by something that was jumping from branch to branch in a nearby tree.
She laughed, a deep, melodious sound. "Oh, no. You see, he remembers everything, so it is more likely he simply believes his name too trivial or unimportant to share with others." She smiled fondly at the Archivist as he tottered to a stop in front of Vader. "He is our greatest treasure, for his mind carries the lore of the entire history of the Jedi Order."
"Jedi?" Han asked. "I thought they were extinct."
She smiled up at him. "We are."
"My Lord Vader," the Archivist said, making an awkward bow and nearly falling over in the process.
Vader reached out reflexively to steady the man, sighing audibly. "Archivist, I need information on a Jedi mind procedure."
"Oh, there are many of those, My Lord. Many. Use of the 'Jedi mind tricks' has fallen into such disuse in modern times. You see, the ancient Jedi were much more likely to. . . ."
"Archivist, I believe Lord Vader wishes to inquire about one in particular," Laesai said, interrupting what was beginning to sound like a long lecture.
"Oh?" The Archivist shaded his eyes and stared up into Vader's mask. "Which one did you have in mind, My Lord? If you'll pardon the pun, of course."
Vader sighed again, and Han could tell he was attempting to rein in his temper.
"The young man I am traveling with is a Force-sensitive, although totally untrained. He had an encounter with a callustium plant, and I was forced to remove his hand to stop the spread of its toxin." Vader paused. "When I did so, he became disoriented and began to use the Force, randomly and violently. I . . . touched his mind and disrupted his ability to access the Force."
"Oh, my," the Archivist said, wringing his hands. "Callustium, eh? Nasty plant. Most unfortunate. I do hope your son came through the experience with no greater harm?"
There was a quiet gasp from Laesai, and Han saw her cast a sharp, appraising glance at Vader.
Vader leaned over and grasped the front of the man's robe. "How did you know the boy was my son?" When he didn't get an immediate reply, Vader turned his head toward Han.
Han spread his arms wide, "Hey, he didn't hear it from me. I haven't been out of your sight. 'Attend me,' remember?"
Vader said nothing, switching his attention back to the Archivist and tightening his grip on the man's robe.
The Archivist merely looked confused, glancing from Vader to Laesai and Ochlen, and then back again. "It ah, stands to reason, does it not?" he finally said.
"What do you mean?" Vader rasped.
"Well, the Emperor would never allow you to take on a Padawan, certainly not. So this boy must be your son."
Vader lifted the man until he was practically standing on his toes. "Explain yourself!"
The Archivist gulped, as if suddenly realizing he was in real danger. "There is only one way to cut off a Jedi's access to the Force without external means, only one. You see, in ages past, a Master would sometimes control his Padawan's access to the Force in his early training, and this was done via the Master/Padawan link -- a much stronger bond in those days, you understand. No other Jedi would be able to do so without such a link. None. No matter how powerful."
Vader lifted him another few centimeters. "How did you know he was my son?" he repeated.
The Archivist wheezed, "I would be happy to explain, My Lord, if you would be so good as to. . . ." He waved one hand weakly in the general direction of the ground.
Ochlen said calmly, "Please, Lord Vader."
Dropping the Archivist abruptly, Vader crossed his arms and said, "Tell me."
Clearing his throat and straightening his robes, the Archivist looked out into the garden. His eyes seemed to glaze slightly, and when he spoke again, it was with the cadenced speech of someone reading from an ancient, well-loved manuscript. "Many centuries ago, before the Jedi were codified as a society -- and long before they began to take Force-sensitive children to the Temple in their infancy -- there had to be a method for Force-sensitive parents to control their equally Force-sensitive offspring. Before the child developed the self-control needed to restrain itself from using the Force at inappropriate times, or until the time when the child had the ability to 'know its own strength,' the parent had to have some method of controlling the child without potentially harming it. In a method similar to that which was very rarely used with the Master/Padawan bond, a biological parent could temporarily 'turn off' the child's Force abilities when they became a danger to themselves or others. Since the Force was no respecter of size or physical strength, it would seem a natural, instinctive development for society's safety as a whole."
The Archivist shook himself slightly, then glanced up at Vader with wide eyes. "If the boy is not your Padawan and you still had the ability to cut off his Force access, he must therefore be your offspring. If not one, then the other, most certainly. Does that not answer your question, My Lord?"
Vader inclined his head sharply. "How does one reverse it?"
"Well, that is another good question, is it not?"
Vader drew himself up to his full height, and Han hurriedly cleared his throat. "Ah, I take it you haven't done it yourself then?" he asked.
The Archivist looked at Han in utter surprise. "Oh heavens, of course not. Not a Jedi myself, you see." He shrugged. "Well, not much of one, that is. Besides, don't have time for children. No, no. Absolutely not. And, of course, the actual procedure is not written in the Chronicles. One does not document how to breathe or how to drink. Instinctual, you see? Total waste of time, most certainly." The Archivist nodded vigorously.
Ochlen and Laesai exchanged glances, and Han couldn't help but get the feeling they exchanged much more than that. Laesai had somehow known of the Archivist's imminent arrival long before Han had heard him, after all.
Damn, but Han was getting tired of all this Force mumbo-jumbo. It was starting to make his head spin.
"My Lord," Ochlen said. "The Archivist has said the procedure was instinctive. With your new knowledge of the block's origin, perhaps it would now be possible for you to reverse it?" His voice was deferential but firm, and Han couldn't help but admire the Mon Calamari's courage. Han had learned that making suggestions to Vader when he was in this kind of mood was generally hazardous to one's health.
Vader was silent for a few moments, then said merely, "Perhaps." He turned suddenly, cape swirling, and the Archivist at least had the presence of mind to scurry out of his way as the Dark Lord strode past.
"He does like the dramatic exit, doesn't he?" Han said.
"He is Darth Vader," Laesai said, as they watched the Dark Lord disappear down the path.
"Yeah. I hear it's all part of his charm." Han smiled down at Laesai. "Too bad that's the part I seem to keep missing."
As Vader strode back to the Med Center, he pondered the Mon Calamari's words. Could he reverse the block now? Instinctual or not, he knew his talents lay more toward acts of destruction than healing. Even before he had adopted the code of the Sith, he knew this to be true. The Living Force and its adaptations to the healing arts had never been his to readily command.
Nevertheless, he had to try, or his efforts to save Luke's life would be in vain.
And that particular outcome was totally unacceptable to him.
By the time he arrived in the Med Center, Tharell had just completed the placement of a protective cuff over the severed end of Luke's arm. An artificial hand such as Vader's would have to wait until they reached the Executor, as such was beyond the limited technical abilities of this small settlement. Vader paused at the doorway, out of his son's line of sight.
"How does that feel, young man?" Tharell asked.
Luke flexed his arm at the elbow, eyeing the device at the end of his arm with what looked like distaste. "Okay, I guess, except for the fact that I'm missing my hand," Luke said. He looked up at the healer and sighed. "I'm sorry, I know you've done all you can do to help. Thank you."
Tharell inclined his graying head in acceptance. "I know you find it difficult to believe at this point, but you are an extremely lucky young man. Very, very few survive an attack by a callustium, even among the members of this community."
Luke smiled wanly. "I guess 'lucky' is all in your point of view." He waved his injured arm weakly. "I assume I have Lord Vader to thank for this?"
Tharell nodded. "A lightsaber is particularly well adapted to preventing the further spread of its toxin." He ran the medical scanner quickly over Luke's body again, his almost skeletally thin fingers dancing fluently over its controls after he had finished the brief scan. Tharell nodded, seemingly pleased with the readings. Looking up at Luke, he said, "I assume by your question that you do not remember the incident?"
Shaking his head, Luke said, "Not much, anyway. It's all kind of a big blur after I touched that plant. And my head still feels fuzzy, like all my senses have been numbed or something. Is that an effect of the toxin as well?"
The healer raised his eyebrows, obviously curious. "If it were an effect of the toxin, you would already be dead." He looked at Luke more closely. "You have a most peculiar aura about you, young man. Forgive me the intrusion, but are you by chance a Force-sensitive?"
Luke gave the healer an anxious glance, clearly not knowing whether he should trust the man or not. Seeing the boy's distress, Vader moved into the room.
"Yes, he is," Vader replied for him as he approached Luke's bedside, his tone an oblique warning.
Luke started visibly, as if surprised to find Vader so close.
The healer bowed deeply to Vader, obviously knowing he had overstepped his boundaries. "My apologies, My Lord. I ask for information only in an effort to assist my patient."
"Your dedication is commendable, Healer," Vader said, unbending somewhat. "I thank you for your concern, but now that the boy is stable, I require time with him alone."
Tharell bowed again. "Of course, My Lord. I shall be in my office if you need me."
Luke refused to look at Vader, instead watching the retreating back of the healer as he ambled out of the room. "I guess this is where I'm supposed to say 'thank you' for saving my life?" Luke asked.
Vader crossed his arms, looking down at his son. "Would you rather I had not?"
Luke shrugged, his eyes still averted. "I assume you know by now that it was kind of a wasted effort." It wasn't a question.
"It need not be."
Luke looked up then, clearly startled. "You mean these people actually have a cure for my illness? The legend of the roborant plant is true?"
"No," Vader said. "It has not yet been discovered. Although the search for that particular plant is one of the primary reasons I established this settlement."
Luke shook his head. "I don't understand. You set up this place?" His eyes swept the green-on-green of the carefully tended room.
Vader put his hands on his belt, stalling for time. How much did he dare tell the boy? "In a manner of speaking. I brought the inhabitants here and provided basic supplies. The actual creation of the dwellings was accomplished by them."
"Creation." Luke looked sharply at Vader. "The healer asked if I were a Force-sensitive. Are there Jedi living here -- is that how all this was done?" Luke waved his good hand in the general direction of the room's living walls.
Vader did not reply.
"Fine," Luke said, his right hand plucking angrily at the fabric of his medical tunic. "Go ahead and give me the stone wall act. I'm actually getting kind of used to it." He looked around the room, his back stiffening slightly when he evidently did not find what he expected to find. Eyes narrowed distrustfully, Luke asked, "Where's Han?"
Vader fought back an emotion that felt almost like jealousy, and when he didn't reply immediately, Luke swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up, swaying slightly. Vader moved to steady him, and the boy froze, staring belligerently at him.
"Your smuggler is unharmed." Vader's voice came out harsher than he'd intended, and his chin jerked violently upward almost of its own accord. "Even given his own persistent efforts to the contrary."
After a few moments of staring at Vader, Luke nodded, seemingly mollified.
Vader was vaguely surprised that the boy appeared to believe him, even without the ability to access the Force to verify the truth of his statement. Curious.
Luke said, "You implied there was a cure for me?"
"Yes," Vader said carefully. "Although there is a . . . minor issue that might interfere with that cure."
Luke rolled his eyes. "Of course there is."
Vader almost smiled behind the blankness of his mask. His son's sarcasm was a mirror image of his own on many occasions. Few would dare respond in such a manner to a Sith Lord, and Vader found it somehow . . . refreshing. "Very little in life is simple, child. You do not yet have the years behind you to have comprehended that fact."
"Well, I'm not likely to have the years in front of me now either, am I?"
Vader sighed. Refreshing only to a point, it would seem. "I believe your affliction can be cured, Luke, but we must both utilize the Force in order to facilitate your healing. However, after your encounter with the callustium, you became delirious -- dangerous in your instinctual use of the Force -- and it became necessary for me to disrupt your access to it."
"Disrupt?" Luke looked puzzled. "Is that why I didn't sense your approach earlier?"
Vader merely nodded.
Luke shook his head. "I never knew I was accessing the Force at all. But now that it's gone, everything feels . . . deadened somehow." He looked up at Vader. "But you can reverse it, right?"
"I believe so."
He watched as his son's eyes widened. "You believe so? I hate to say this, but you're not inspiring a whole lot of confidence here."
The boy was still perceptive, even without the use of the Force. In truth, Vader did not feel confident that he would be able to perform the reversal, and even if he could, he knew that it would require opening his own mind to Luke in order to accomplish it. What would normally not be an issue between a father and son was very much an issue here. Vader still felt it unwise to let the child know of his true parentage. This was a dangerous world, and short of physically restraining the boy, he couldn't take the risk that Luke would still take flight once faced with the truth. Yet, the attempt must be made or he would risk losing his son forever. Vader somehow knew that the longer they delayed, the more difficult the reversal would be to accomplish.
Luke drew in a deep, steadying breath. "I guess we should just get this over with." He looked up into Vader's mask. "What do you need me to do?"
Vader nearly asked the boy to lie down, but he suspected that Luke would be even more uncomfortable in such a vulnerable position. As it was, the boy was perched on the edge of the cot like a bird poised to spring into the air at the slightest provocation, and Vader did not know how much of that was simply nervousness at the Dark Lord's proximity, or merely another facet of the boy's ordinary behavior. There was so little he knew of his son, and he again cursed Kenobi for depriving him of so many years . . . and so many layers of his son's personality.
Shaking his head slightly, Vader said, "You need do nothing but relax." He brought his gloved hand up, but halted the motion when the boy's eyes widened. "I will not harm you, child, but I must touch you to obtain an acceptable level of rapport between us."
Luke trembled slightly, but Vader guessed it was as much due to his ongoing physical weakness than any outright fear of him.
At least the Dark Lord hoped that was so.
The boy flinched and averted his eyes when Vader grasped his chin lightly, but Vader knew he dare not allow even this small degree of avoidance on his son's part. Not if he hoped to have any success in accomplishing this task. Luke resisted only momentarily when Vader applied gentle pressure to lift the boy's face toward his. "Relax, Luke," he said again, as he sent his mind toward his son's.
Vader had touched the minds of others in his long apprenticeship -- Obi-Wan, Yoda, Mace Windu, to name a few -- and he was always astounded anew at the experience. It was not outright telepathy, at least not among most humanoid races, but merely an exchange of impressions, thoughts or feelings that brushed across one's consciousness like the silken tufts of airborne seed pods in a brisk wind. It took either great skill or grave need to pinpoint actual thoughts amidst the maelstrom of fleeting, ephemeral information, but each mind-to-mind contact was entirely different.
To the young Jedi who had once been Anakin Skywalker, Yoda's ancient mind had felt deep and impenetrable, like the infinite depths of boundless space, while his old master's had been the hardest for him to achieve rapport, as if Obi-Wan, even then, had been wary and distrustful of his only Padawan.
But Luke. . . .
Luke's mind felt like the warm summer breeze of the Lake Country retreat on Naboo, the only place where Vader had ever felt truly at peace.
Vader allowed himself to momentarily bask in that presence, the pureness of his only son's mind, until the tiny threads of darkness attributable to the "wrongness" of Luke's physical condition focused his attention once more. Vader probed for the core of his son's mind, searching for the deadness that he somehow knew would lead him toward the nexus point of his son's Force abilities.
There. A coldness that battered itself against the overall warmth of Luke's thoughts and feelings -- a withered path that reminded Vader of the curving, tortuous course of a blighted stream.
Vader hadn't traveled far down that path of wrongness before he felt, surprisingly, the tentative efforts of his son to reach out toward him, the warm breeze constricting itself into tiny tendrils of incredibly focused thought and purpose.
Curiosity, need, longing.
Disturbed at the solidness of that contact, and leery of Luke discovering more than he was prepared to allow, Vader roughly pulled back, thereby losing the track of Force deadness in his son's mind. He released his hold on Luke's face as if scalded.
Luke blinked, a frown forming on his features. He shuddered once, then said, "I still can't feel you. What went wrong?"
Vader turned from him abruptly. What could he tell the boy? That Vader was afraid Luke might learn the truth . . . too many truths? Or not enough? He gripped the edge of a bio-bed until he felt it creak. Half-truths then, a Lord of the Sith was good at those.
Still facing away from Luke, Vader said, "It is a difficult procedure -- one that I have not attempted before."
"You didn't seem to have much trouble the first time."
Vader turned to him. "It is always easier to destroy than to heal, young one."
Luke merely looked at him solemnly. "For the Dark Side, maybe."
If not for the forced inhalations of his respirator, Vader's breath would have caught in his throat. Vader had turned to the Dark Side in order to save his wife -- the only way he could do so, or so he had thought. Was it true then that the Dark Side could never heal? That the only way he could heal his son was to let go of all that he had become?
No. That thought led only to chaos. The Dark Side made him powerful . . . and it was all he could ever be. When the time came that he dare let himself touch his son's mind fully, he would overcome whatever obstacle was thrown in his path. It was his destiny.
It was their destiny.
Vader said, "Rest, young one. When we have returned to my ship, I will try again. And next time, I shall not fail."
The Dark Lord felt Luke's eyes on him as he strode from the room, but he already sorely missed the warmth of his son's Force presence against his.
Han lengthened his stride to keep up with Laesai. For someone so short, she certainly seemed to cover ground quickly enough. Sorta like Leia, now that he thought about it. Force, for all Han knew, it was some sort of short-range teleportation effect that only women knew about.
But in Laesai's case, she evidently didn't need to be in a royal snit to accomplish it.
"Hey, what's the hurry? You're not tryin' to get rid of me that quickly, are you?" Han gave her his best charming smile and was rewarded with a tilt of Laesai's head and an answering smile.
"Is there some reason that would become necessary, Captain?"
"Han," he reminded her with another smile. "And no, none that I know of."
They were still in the courtyard gardens, but had taken a different direction than Han and Vader had taken earlier. Laesai paused, inhaling deeply, as if scenting the flowers for the first time. "I am most sorry, Captain . . . Han," she said, correcting herself upon seeing Han's admonishing finger. "There is always so much to do as a leader of this community, and I guess. . . " she paused thoughtfully, ". . . I guess we are all creatures of habit."
"Hmm. Nasty things, habits, but with a little care and effort, most of them can be broken."
She smiled up at him. "Is that so?"
Han stood straighter. "I have it on the best authority -- mine," he said, giving her a sketchy bow.
Laesai laughed, her deep voice a pleasant counterpart to the garden's mixture of wind, water and bird calls. "You seem very sure of yourself, Han Solo."
"Have to be," Han replied. "Some days, that's the only way you can survive."
She nodded slowly. "Yes, yes, I believe that is very true." She began walking again, although slower this time, down the winding path.
Han may not have been the most perceptive man in the galaxy, but he could certainly feel her suddenly contemplative mood. "Is that what you're doing here?" he asked softly. "Merely surviving?"
"According to the Archivist, the Chronicles state that the Jedi have always survived -- as a way of life, if not an organization." She gave him a sideways look through lowered lashes. "We are exceptionally good at it."
Han stopped, momentarily shocked. "So you really are Jedi?" He shook his head. "Chewie was always tellin' me tales about folks he knew who practiced that hokey religion, but I thought he was pullin' my leg."
Laesai turned to him, raising a delicate, dark blue eyebrow in question.
"Oh, Chewbacca's my first mate. Wookiee. He's been around a bit longer than I have." Han smiled in fond remembrance. "And he makes sure I don't forget that little fact."
Laesai smiled. "It would seem your Chewbacca is very wise."
"Oh, now, don't go tellin' him that. He'll just let it go to his head," Han said fervently. "And there ain't nothin' worse than a conceited Wookiee, believe me."
"I will take your word for that," Laesai said, laughing. She again led the way down the sun-speckled path.
Han looked up through the interlocking branches as they walked, glad to be out of the thrice-damned fog for at least a short time. He frowned. "So why is it that you actually get sunlight in this valley? I thought this whole miserable sponge of a planet was shrouded in mist."
"Oh, dispersing the cloud cover is a rather easy chore for us."
"That Jedi thing again?" Han asked doubtfully.
"Yes, that 'Jedi thing,' at least in a manner of speaking."
Han quirked up one side of his mouth. "Somehow I can't see His Exaltedness wasting his time waltzin' around dispersing mist."
She glanced up at him mischievously. "Lord Vader has far greater strength in the Force than any of us, but with his armor, he is bothered very little by weather conditions. Luckily, minor weather control is something that most of us here can manage even with our limited Force ability." She paused. "Once, it was an integral part of our job."
"Your job was to keep people from getting rained on?"
Laesai smiled. "Or to bring rain in drought-stricken areas. It is very hard for crops to grow without rain." She waved a fine-boned hand toward the greenery of the garden. "Or without the proper amount of sunlight."
Han eyed her doubtfully. "What you're sayin' don't match very well with those lightsaber-toting warriors that Chewie's always goin' on about."
She looked down, taking a deep breath before speaking. "Because we are not true Jedi." She stopped to grasp a branch from a shrub along the path, gently stroking an unopened bud that was surrounded by dozens of deep red-orange flowers already in full bloom.
As Han watched, the bud unfolded instantly at her touch, its velvety petals spreading outward to match those of its neighbors.
Laesai released the now fully opened flower and looked up at Han. "You see, we are all that remain of the AgriCorps -- the Jedi Agricultural Corps." She waved one long-fingered hand to indicate the settlement beyond the gardens. "Darth Vader and our continued anonymity are the only things that stand between us and the death sentence imposed upon all Jedi by the Emperor." She bowed her head, as if what she had to say next was eminently painful. "As long as the Empire survives, this planet will be our home . . . as I fear it must now also be yours, Han Solo."
Luke was restless.
And more than a little peeved, when it came right down to it. He just couldn't understand Vader . . . and wasn't exactly sure that he wanted to. Things just didn't add up. And as his Uncle Owen used to say, "When things don't add up, Luke, you'd better look real careful around you, because it usually means something's fixing to come down on your head. Hard."
Luke had always thought Uncle Owen was being overly cautious and pessimistic, but he'd sure turned out to be correct more times than Luke cared to think about.
And where the Force was Han? Without even thinking about it, Luke tried to reach out with the Force to determine his friend's location. Of course, with the block still in place, it was a fruitless attempt, but it was still disconcerting that he had once been able to sense Han, who had to be the least Force-sensitive individual Luke knew.
Hah. Luke shouldn't need the Force at all. If he knew the feckless smuggler, he'd already found some pretty girl and a bottle of Corellian spiced ale and was probably having a blast.
Luke sighed. Sith. He knew better than that. Han was too worried about him to be out getting drunk -- Luke was simply letting his forced inactivity mess with his mind. He'd never been able to sit still for long on the farm. There was always something to do, things that needed tending, and Owen was never a man to suffer idle hands.
Well, there was no reason he had to stay here, was there?
Luke levered himself up on the cot with his good hand, swung his legs over the side and waited to make sure the room wouldn't start swaying again. So far, so good. He actually felt a little stronger after some rest and medical care, even given the recent trauma of losing his hand.
Not that he expected this sense of relative well-being to last for very long.
Luke limped across the Med Center and started down a long corridor. He passed the Healer's office, but the man had his back to Luke and didn't notice him go past. So much the better. Luke was getting tired of having people tell him what to do. Even though he knew Han had his best interests at heart, Luke was getting tired of being treated like a child or an invalid. And as for Vader --
Well, Luke didn't have any idea why Vader was so interested in his well-being, and the Sith Lord sure didn't seem in a hurry to enlighten him.
Fine. There was absolutely no reason he couldn't just explore a little on his own. Maybe he'd get some answers that way since nobody else seemed to be very forthcoming. Even Healer Tharell had been closemouthed about the settlement and why it was here. And now it seemed Vader was intricately involved with it. Even without his limited Force abilities, Luke could sense no aura of wrongness about the inhabitants -- at least not the limited number of beings he'd seen, so again, Vader's familiarity with these people was just another puzzle.
And Luke was really beginning to hate puzzles.
Luke walked slowly down the living green corridor, following the scent of flowers until he entered some sort of elaborate garden. It was beautiful beyond words, filled with countless flowering trees and shrubs, as well as the soothing sounds of bird calls and flowing water, but without the pervasive mists that seemed to encompass the rest of the planet.
And hopefully without the planet's unique floral pitfalls as well.
Luke picked a path at random and ambled slowly through the gardens, admiring the abundance of life such as he had never seen back home on Tatooine. It was almost overwhelming in its variety. Luke relaxed, convinced somehow that there was nothing in these well-tended gardens that would harm him.
Knowing that he should conserve his strength, Luke decided to rest for a short time in the shade of an inviting tree with massive, horizontally reaching branches. He had just managed to sit down with his injured leg carefully outstretched in front of him when he was startled by the sound of a datapad falling to the ground next to him.
"Drat. Sorry about that, young man."
Luke looked up into the branches, astonished to find the oddest-looking human he'd ever come across perched amongst the thick foliage. He was dressed in leggings and a long black robe, and was awkwardly straddling a branch four or five meters above Luke's head.
"Would you be so kind as to hand me that datapad, young man? Most inconvenient, this is. Most certainly." The man scrambled outward along the branch, his eyes seemingly intent on something moving around higher up in the tree. "This is a new species, not previously catalogued. Must be." He shimmied another meter along the now ominously groaning tree limb, and Luke hurriedly got to his feet.
Luke picked up the datapad, but the odd man was still meters above him . . . and far out of his reach. "Uhm, sir. I'm afraid I won't be able to bring this up to you."
"Hmm. What?" The man looked down at him, apparently startled.
Luke held up the pad to demonstrate his reach, and then waved the arm with its missing hand at him.
"Oh, the datapad." The man glanced upward again at whatever he was watching in the tree and seemed to forget all about Luke. He began a tuneless humming, his eyes glued to whatever he found so fascinating in the branches overhead.
Luke cleared his throat.
"What? Oh yes, yes. That Force-forsaken datapad." Looking down at Luke, the man held out his hand, his fingers making an odd movement, and the datapad flew from Luke's grasp into his own. "Thank you, young man, you've been helpful, most certainly." He returned his attention to the tree limb above him, his fingers flying rapidly over the pad as he continued to sway on his precarious perch.
Luke felt his mouth dropping open, surprised at the man's easy, casual use of the Force. He found himself even more intrigued than ever. "My name is Luke Skywalker. Who are you?"
"Skywalker? Skywalker, you say?" The man whipped his head down to stare openmouthed at Luke, dropped the datapad again, and then lost his own hold on the branch.
He fell to the ground with a painful-sounding thud.
Luke limped hurriedly to the strange man, now lying flat on his back next to his beleaguered datapad. "Force! I'm sorry, sir. Are you all right?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes. Will be in a moment, most certainly." He shaded his eyes and looked up into the tree, still lying on his back. "Drat. Seem to have lost him, that I have." He shifted his gaze to Luke, staring intently at him, his lips pursing slightly in concentration. "You did say 'Skywalker,' did you not?"
"Who are you?" Luke asked again.
"Oh, no one of importance, I assure you. The Archivist, you may call me, if you wish." He nodded his head, making no move to rise. "Pleased to meet you, young Skywalker. You have answered many questions, yes. Must fill in the gaps in the Chronicles now, most certainly."
Luke shook his head in confusion. "I don't understand. You know who I am?"
The man waved an indolent hand at Luke's missing limb. "Know no one else to have survived the callustium plant. Look like your father, you do. Everything makes sense now, yes, yes." The man nodded vigorously, which was a curious sight since he was still lying flat on his back and seemed in imminent danger of giving himself a concussion.
Luke crouched down next to the Archivist, momentarily forgetting his injured leg in his excitement. "You knew my father?"
"Of course, of course. Everyone knew your father. Was a prominent Jedi, always having to update his account in the Chronicles, most certainly."
Finally, somebody who might be able to answer my questions! "Tell me about him, please," Luke said.
"Could do that, yes, yes. Long is his entry in the Chronicles. But why have you not asked him yourself?"
Luke sat down heavily next to the man. "I never knew him. My father was killed soon after my birth."
The Archivist frowned, his thick, bushy eyebrows drawing together with a look of focused concentration. He struggled to sit up, and Luke held out his hand to help. The Archivist managed to rise to a sitting position on his own, ignoring Luke's proffered hand, and instead grasped Luke's head with both hands. Luke tried to pull back, startled, but the Archivist merely leaned forward to peer intently at Luke's forehead, then eased Luke's head down to minutely examine the top and back of his skull.
"Hmm. Hit your head, must have, although don't see overt sign of it. Not one." He released his gentle grip on Luke's head, nodding his own head vigorously. "Must be careful about head injuries, young man, most certainly."
Okay, either I've come across a madman, or he hit his own head in the fall. Just my luck. "Look, maybe I ought to walk you to the Med Center, sir. Perhaps the Healer should look you over."
The Archivist's eyebrows raised in surprise. "Me? Oh, most certainly not. Far, far too busy." He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, searching an amazing array of pockets in his robe for something. "Now where did I put that Force-forsaken datapad?"
Luke rose painfully to his feet, grabbed the datapad from the ground, and silently held it out to the Archivist.
"Oh, now how did it end up there?" The man grabbed the pad, staring at it as if it contained the answers to all of the universe's mysteries. "Could have sworn I put it in my pocket. Strange that is, most strange."
Luke sighed. "Look, about my father. . . ."
But the Archivist was already climbing, with astonishing agility, back up into the tree. "No time, young man. No time. Ask him yourself, you should, most certainly."
Shaking his head, Luke prepared to try once more to get information from this strange individual, but he was distracted by a familiar voice speaking nearby in low, urgent tones. A voice Luke knew very well indeed. Han!
It sounded like he was only a short distance away, and it was way past time that Luke saw a familiar face. He limped down the path, around a slight curve, and came across Han in the company of an astonishingly lovely blue-skinned woman.
They were both walking toward him, but Han had all his attention focused on the young woman and didn't seem to notice Luke. So what else is new?
"Now you look here, Ms. Lon." Han had the belligerent look on his face that he used primarily on recalcitrant customs officers who refused to waive the Falcon's docking fee. "I can certainly sympathize with your position here, but there ain't no way I'm stayin' here permanently. It's out of the question."
Luke stopped short. Okay, so I guess that's new.
The young woman stopped and gripped Han's arm lightly. "Believe me, Captain, if there were some other way. . . ." She released Han's arm when he merely continued to glare down at her. "I am certain Lord Vader will never allow you to leave. There isn't a ship on this planet capable of achieving hyperspace." She looked up earnestly at Han. "Even the garrison of TIE fighter pilots are a permanent part of this community, handpicked by Lord Vader, and never allowed beyond the reach of their short-range fighters. No one is allowed to leave this planet to spread word of our existence, or else Lord Vader would. . . ." She stopped again, obviously uncomfortable. "I would not have you die, Han Solo."
"I'm not plannin' on it anytime soon." His voice softened slightly, and Luke could tell that he must be fond of the young woman, regardless of their obvious disagreement.
"Sometimes that is not a thing one can plan." Her deep, melodious voice held a hint of timeless misery to Luke's ears.
"You'd be surprised, sister. You'd be surprised."
Han looked up then, spotting Luke. "Hey, kid!" He moved rapidly toward Luke, the young woman trailing behind. Han gave Luke a quick hug, being conspicuously careful about squeezing too hard. He pulled back and held him at arm's length. "Should you be up an' around this soon, kid?"
Luke sighed. "I'm still not going to break into little pieces, Han."
"Yeah, well. You've been certainly tryin' hard enough on this trip, regardless." He released Luke and waved a hand to the young woman at his side. "Laesai, this is Luke Skywalker. Luke, meet Laesai Lon, one of the administrators of this place."
The woman smiled sweetly at him, inclining her head in greeting.
Even with the unsettling implications of her conversation with Han, Luke found he liked her instinctively. "Thank you for your hospitality, Ms. Lon."
"It is our pleasure, and it is certainly the wish of your. . . ."
Han cleared his throat noisily. "Ah, Luke. Have you, ah, talked to His Exaltedness recently?" He gave Laesai what looked almost like a warning glance, which puzzled Luke to no end.
"Yes, actually I have. He tried to remove some sort of Force block but was unsuccessful." Luke looked at Han and Laesai, who were eyeing each other significantly. "Okay, would someone mind telling me what the heck is going on around here?" Luke felt the frustration coming out in his voice, but frankly, he was far too irritated to care.
If someone doesn't start answering my questions soon, I'm going to . . . well, do something.
Han sighed. "Luke. . . ."
The sound of a breaking branch caused them all to turn in the direction Luke had come. There was a series of snapping sounds and a loud thud, which was followed by brief silence and a plaintive-sounding, "Ow."
Laesai gasped, then hurried down the path toward the sound of the disturbance.
Han merely sighed again. "Kid, we gotta talk."
Darth Vader snapped off the comm, well pleased. This new captain of his, Piett, showed initiative as well as intelligence. Not hearing from Vader on his scheduled check-in, Piett had brought the Executor to Balen'ar's system ahead of schedule. He was now waiting outside the system perimeter, as ordered, to keep prying eyes -- and the Emperor -- from discovering that this wayward planet was indeed inhabited.
Vader knew he took a grave chance by keeping this planet a secret from the Emperor. But he knew it was even more dangerous to allow his master to discover that secret now. Palpatine had ordered Vader to dispose of the remainder of the AgriCorps after Palpatine had selected those strong enough in the Force to turn to the Dark Side and serve his own purposes.
But Vader had his own plans, and those plans required that he disobey his Emperor's orders.
This planet was a wealth of medicinal substances, as well as wreathed in the mysteries that its past inhabitants had taken with them to their race's extinction. Vader had set up this settlement in the belief that its Jedi-trained settlers would be able to unravel some of those mysteries. He had hopes that they would discover some substance that would cure his ravaged lungs and allow him to remove the hated breathing apparatus forever.
But he had another reason for establishing this settlement -- a reason that, up to recently, he had not even admitted to himself, because it was in direct opposition to every tenet of the Dark Side and its rigid code. He could certainly never reveal it to his Dark Master.
For Darth Vader had vowed long ago that he would never allow himself to care for another individual, unless he was assured that what had happened to Padm? could never happen again. Before he would allow himself that weakness, that chink in his armor, he would make sure he had the wherewithal -- this time -- to truly forestall death.
And this planet, with its untapped treasure trove of botanical medicinals, could be the answer to that dilemma.
So, to that end, he had established this settlement . . . and had allowed its inhabitants an unusual amount of freedom in how it was maintained. While not all of its denizens were reconciled to being permanently exiled, they were quite aware of the consequences of leaving. Once off the planet, and away from its unique properties that blocked emanations -- both electromagnetic and psychic -- they knew that the Emperor would eventually sense their presence through the Force . . . and destroy them like he had all their brethren.
It was an uneasy alliance, but so far it had worked for both parties.
Now Vader had found his son, and it was even more important than ever that this planet be protected. For Luke had managed to stir something in him, something he had long thought destroyed in the fires of Mustafar.
Enough. He would deal with these unwanted emotions when he was back on his ship. For now, the shuttle that Piett had dispatched was en route to the planet, and he strode down the corridor to collect his son. It was time they were both free of this place.
And as for Solo. . . .
Solo would require somewhat different handling.
Vader strode angrily into the courtyard gardens. He had thought Tharell was competent, but the man had evidently let Vader's injured son slip past him without even noticing. If his medical skills were not so necessary to the survival of the settlement, Vader would have let his displeasure be known in a somewhat more permanent manner.
No matter. Luke could not travel far on his own, and if this were some plot of Solo's. . . .
Well, Solo was not an integral part of the settlement, and some degree of minor disfigurement would not delay Vader's plans appreciably.
Although Vader could no longer directly sense Luke, he could detect the presence of two Force-sensitives in the center of the garden, one of whom bore the distinctive Force signature of Laesai Lon. She would undoubtedly be aware of the last known whereabouts of the Corellian.
Vader had thought Solo resigned to the fact that Luke would be leaving with him, if for no other reason than to save the boy's life, but the smuggler was both impetuous and incorrigible. Vader would not lose his son at this late juncture, he would not.
He shortened his stride slightly as he came around a sharp curve in the path. Laesai Lon was there, as was that nonsensical fool of the Archivist, who was again lying flat on his back beneath a tree. Vader had nearly reached the two Jedi when Solo walked into the small grove from the far side . . . accompanied by Luke.
The two were deep in conversation, and if the fierce expression on Luke's face was any indication, it was not an amicable discussion. Vader turned on his heel and headed in their direction.
Solo saw him first. He nudged Luke in the side with his elbow, leaned slightly toward the boy, and said, "Incoming."
Luke looked from Han to Vader, stopped briefly, then resumed walking toward him. Vader stopped, hooked his thumbs into his belt, and waited for the two to approach. He was somewhat surprised that the belligerent expression never left the boy's face.
With his usual compulsive attention to everything happening around him, Vader noted that Laesai Lon had gotten the Archivist to his feet, and the two Jedi were also moving toward him. Good. He had instructions to impart to Lon before he left for the Executor.
Vader focused his attention on his son. "Why did you leave the Med Center without permission?"
The boy's eyes flashed angrily. "I wasn't aware I was a prisoner . . . yet. Han and I. . . ."
"Solo is already aware that you are leaving with me, child. My ship's shuttle is even now approaching the planet's atmosphere."
Luke turned shocked eyes to the Corellian. "What? Han?"
The Corellian shuffled his feet slightly. "Ah, well, that's what I was gettin' ready to talk to you about, Luke."
"I don't understand. You want me to go with him?"
"No! Well, yes. Force, Luke, it's pretty damn complicated, ya know?"
Luke continued to stare at him, the angry look fading from his eyes and leaving something else there entirely. "No, I don't know. I don't seem to know anything, Han." The boy looked from Solo to Laesai Lon, whose face bore the usual sympathetic visage that was typical of the administrator, then to the blatantly intrigued face of the Archivist. "It appears that I'm the only one here who doesn't know."
Solo put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "Ah, kid. . . ."
Luke shook the hand off. "And no one still seems likely to enlighten me." He circled around the small group, proceeding with a determined, limping gait toward the administration building.
The Archivist turned his head from person to person with his customary, abrupt bird-like motions, a puzzled expression on his face. "Not understanding here, most certainly. Why should the boy not go with his father?"
The garden quieted suddenly as if a dampening field had been activated. Even the Archivist went wisely silent, since he could no doubt feel the wall of rage that was building inside Vader.
Solo glared at the befuddled Archivist. "Way to go, slick. And here I thought I was the only one with the death wish."
The Archivist took a quick, defensive half-step to stand behind a wide-eyed Laesai Lon, but Vader dismissed them both from his mind for now. He turned to face Luke.
The boy had frozen mid-step, and Vader could hear the faint rasp of his labored breathing in the once more utter silence of the garden.
"Luke. . . " Vader started, but realized he could think of absolutely nothing to say. This was not how he had wished for the boy to learn of his parentage, as he had absolutely no idea how the boy would react.
Turning slowly, Luke moved with short, halting steps back toward them. His face was curiously blank, but he looked from Solo to Vader and back again, his eyes finally resting on the smuggler's face. "It's true, isn't it?"
Solo glanced quickly at Vader, then shrugged. His face appeared drawn and haggard. "Yeah, kid, I'm 'fraid so."
"You knew." Luke shook his head slowly from side to side. "You knew. How long, Han?" His eyes widened abruptly. "Is that why you brought me here? Did he have you. . . ?"
"What? Hell, no, kid! Oh, come on now. You know better than that!"
"No, Han, I don't know. I don't seem to know anything at all." Luke nearly flung himself away from Solo's reaching hand, his breath catching in a sharp gasp. He stared at Vader for a few moments, then limped as rapidly as he could toward the main building.
Vader started after him, but stopped when he felt the curiously strong grip of Solo's hand on his arm. He whirled on the smuggler, but the man did not release his grip.
"You don't want to do that," the Corellian said tightly. "Trust me, you don't want to go after him right now."
Vader removed Solo's hand. "And why would that be, Solo?"
The smuggler glared at him. "'Cause you have to give him time to cool off. You go after him right now, he's just gonna get angrier and bolt." Solo crossed his arms across his chest.
Vader paused. "And I should simply believe you? If the boy is planning to escape. . . ."
"Don't be more of a dolt than you have to be, Your Exaltedness."
Solo didn't even flinch when Vader lifted him from the ground by his vest.
"Oh, yeah," Solo said sarcastically. "Typical. If you don't like the answer, throttle the bearer of the bad news. Saves the expense of providing a pension plan for your subordinates, I'm sure."
"You are impertinent."
"No, I'm a smuggler. The two terms are generally interchangeable. Look, it's not like I have your best interests at heart here. I don't want to see Luke runnin' off by himself into another cluster of floral landmines. You push that kid hard enough, and he will. Lots of guts, but hard-headed as they come. Like somebody else I know." He glared at Vader. "Just speakin' from past experience, mind you."
Laesai Lon moved to stand at Vader's side. "Please, Lord Vader." She hesitated, then said more firmly, "He speaks the truth, and the boy is his friend."
Vader eyed her for some time. "We will speak later, Laesai Lon. You may go."
She looked from Vader to Han, obviously reluctant to leave.
Solo gave her a half-wave with one hand. "I'll be fine, Laesai. Happens all the time. I think His Exaltedness just doesn't wanna get a crick in his neck while we're havin' these cozy, heart-to-heart chats." He winked at her, then said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I think he likes me."
Vader tossed the smuggler from him in disgust.
Laesai ran to check on Solo, and Vader allowed the woman this small indulgence. With her assistance, Solo rose slowly to his feet.
Vader moved the few steps to the Archivist, looming over the wide-eyed human. "If you value your continued existence, you would be advised to stay clear of me and my son. I will never again allow ignorance to be an excuse for stupidity." He turned his head toward Laesai Lon. "Leave us. Both of you. Now."
When the Archivist opened his mouth as if to speak, she bowed hurriedly to Vader, grabbed the still open-mouthed Archivist by one hand, and pulled the faintly protesting man down the path. She finally resorted to placing her hand over his mouth to effectively silence him.
Solo brushed himself off, watching as the two Jedi hurried out of sight. "Ya know, you're really gonna have to work on those social skills of yours, Your Exaltedness." He looked up as Vader approached. "Though I bet you're a real blast at parties."
"Enough, Solo," Vader said darkly, and for once, the smuggler seemed to realize he was approaching a boundary he should not cross.
Solo merely nodded his head once, sharply.
"Where will he go?" Vader asked.
Solo didn't answer immediately, tilting his face upward. As a spacer, his hearing apparently was well attuned to the sound of a spacecraft's engines, since he was already scanning the correct portion of sky even before the Executor's shuttle came into view.
They both watched as the Lambda class ship pivoted gracefully in the heavy air, folding its wings before settling out of sight, presumably onto the TIE base's landing field.
Solo turned to Vader then, his expression unexpectedly grave. "I don't think it matters where Luke goes." He held up a hand when Vader threw his head back angrily. "Listen!" Solo hissed sharply. "It doesn't matter where he goes . . . 'cause I think he'll come to you."
Vader didn't reply, shocked as he had not been in quite some time. No one voluntarily came to a Dark Lord of the Sith, the Emperor's second-in-command. It was a totally alien idea, and Vader found it singularly difficult to believe.
Solo was watching him expectantly. "Don't believe me, huh? Well, can't say as I'm happy 'bout it, but like I said before, I know Luke, and I can tell you he's been longin' to know about that long-lost father of his for, well, ever since I've known him." He took a deep breath and released it. "Once the shock wears off, I don't think he'll be able to stay away . . . regardless of just who that father turned out to be."
Vader tilted his head to the side, straining his Force abilities to the utmost. Solo had an unusually strong mind, but what Vader was sensing surprised him anew. The man actually believed what he said.
Of course, that did not necessarily mean the arrogant smuggler was correct in his supposition. In any case, there was only one method of finding out.
Vader turned, taking the path that exited the garden closest to the TIE base. He was not surprised to find Solo walking at his side.
"You do realize that if you harm the kid in any way, I'll come after you."
Vader turned his head, but did not slow his pace. "It was my impression you intended to do so regardless, given the appropriate opportunity."
The smuggler had the temerity to smile broadly at him, although the smile never reached his dangerously glittering eyes. "Yeah, but let's just say you don't want me comin' after you when I'm really mad."
Vader silently regarded the Corellian for a few moments. The man was almost a worthy adversary, even with his myriad faults. He nodded his head gravely. "I will give your warning the full merit it deserves."
"Somehow I knew you were gonna say that." The smuggler raised an eyebrow. "And that's kinda scary just by itself, don'tcha think?"
Vader decided he would allow the smuggler the last word . . . this final time.
Luke walked, and he didn't much care where he ended up. He made his way through the administration building -- avoiding the Med Center -- and out the front portal into the courtyard. He didn't stop to admire the graceful building's architecture or the diverse groups of humans and non-humans who stared at him curiously as he stalked past.
He was angry. And hurt. And a whole slew of other things he didn't even want to think about.
Luke almost unconsciously headed toward the jungle . . . and its perceived sense of freedom. He had resolved himself toward his death a long time ago, but Fate or the Force or whatever had decided to once again turn Luke's life upside down. It sure as Sith looked as if Han had betrayed him, and Vader. . . .
His father. . ..
Luke could still barely process that concept. His whole life, Luke had thought his father was dead, and now to find that the Emperor's second-in-command was actually his father was almost too much for his weary, battered mind to accept.
Luke reached the outskirts of the settlement and paused, staring into the mist-laden depths of the rainforest as if he could find all his answers there.
Why hadn't Vader -- or Han, at least -- told him sooner? For that matter, why had Ben never told him the truth? He'd told Luke that Vader had killed his father, but that was obviously a blatant lie. It seemed that all Luke was able to get were lies and half-truths, from friends and enemies alike, and he was thoroughly sick of it. He was thoroughly sick of everything.
He had just started down the faint trail into the forest when he heard it.
A spacecraft's engines. And not the distinctive whine of a TIE interceptor, either.
Luke turned slowly, almost against his will, to see an Imperial shuttle appear out of the overcast sky, making a slow half-circle before it folded its massive wings in preparation for landing.
Luke stared longingly at the ship as if it were his last tether to his former existence, following the ship with inexplicably moisture-laden eyes until it disappeared out of sight, its descent startling a flock of brightly colored birds into panicked flight.
Could he leave now, knowing that the answers to all his questions were finally within his grasp? He was dying, and despite Vader's theories to the contrary, Luke really didn't expect the Dark Lord to have a cure for his affliction. Luke couldn't betray the Alliance if he didn't live long enough to be of any use to the Empire, could he?
Slowly, with faltering steps, Luke headed away from the forest and toward his ultimate destiny -- whatever that ended up being.
Vader paced back and forth before the lowered ramp of the Lambda shuttle, too agitated to stand still. He cast another glance at the outskirts of the landing field, stretching his Force abilities to the utmost in yet another vain effort to detect any trace of his son. Vader knew it was useless, knew that Luke's Force presence was blocked, but he still felt it necessary to make the attempt.
Solo was leaning against one of the landing struts of the shuttle, striving to look bored and unconcerned, but Vader had been in the enforced presence of the smuggler long enough to know it was merely a charade. The smuggler had his arms crossed negligently across his chest, but the fingers of one hand were tapping repetitively against his chest, and he kept glancing toward the end of the landing pad when he thought Vader was not looking in his direction.
"And you are certain of that fact, smuggler?"
"That's one of the things I like about you. You're an eternal optimist."
Vader merely stared at the Corellian.
Solo shrugged. "He'll come." He glanced yet again toward the far end of the pad. "He has to."
Vader approached the smuggler. "I find it more likely that he will decide to hide in the jungle until I am gone, and remain here with you."
"Why should he?" Solo retorted bitterly. "He thinks I betrayed him, remember?"
"From a certain point of view." One side of Solo's mouth went up into a twisted half-smile. "I'm giving him to you, aren't I?"
"You sound as if you have a choice in that decision."
Solo snorted loudly. "Your charming arrogance won't get you far with the kid. He's been around me long enough to have developed an immunity."
Vader crossed his arms. "Yet one more reason that the boy should come with me. You are obviously an undesirable influence."
Solo's eyes widened as they focused on something behind Vader, and the Dark Lord whirled around.
"Do I get some say in this? Or do I continue to get dragged around like a reluctant bantha?"
Vader had neither heard nor sensed the boy's approach, and he found himself once again at a loss for words.
"Luke. . . ." Solo began, but the boy ignored him, fixing his gaze firmly on Vader.
"Are you my father?"
Vader paused, then said quietly, "Yes, child."
The boy closed his eyes. After a few moments, he raised his chin in a defiant gesture eerily reminiscent of his mother. "Then I guess we'd better be going, shouldn't we?" He turned and limped quickly up the ramp, not giving either of them a backward glance.
Solo stared at the empty ramp, the steam from the ship's venting exhaust ports almost concealing the stricken expression on his face.
Vader watched him for a few moments, made his own undoubtedly foolish decision, and pushed a switch on the comlink strapped to his belt.
Straightening slowly, as if in pain, Solo turned to him and said, "Well, I guess this is it, Your Exaltedness. Wish I could say it's been a pleasure, but it hasn't." He glanced again at the waiting shuttle. "Just keep him alive . . . and make sure he doesn't do nothin' stupid, will ya?"
Not waiting for a reply from Vader, Solo strode away from the shuttle, pausing only briefly when he saw Laesai Lon approaching the ship at a half-jog.
Vader met her halfway and waited until Solo was safely out of earshot. He gave her his final instructions, as well as the device she would need to carry out those instructions, then strode up the beckoning ramp to join his son.
Luke was silent while they lifted clear of the planet's turbulent atmosphere and entered the relative stability of open space. He released the clasp on his restraints and walked to a small viewport in the shuttle's passenger cabin.
Vader followed him. He would allow Luke to take the lead in this, since Vader could now afford that luxury. There was no way the boy could flee from him now.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Luke didn't turn to face him, merely staring out the port at the receding planet.
"What would you have done if I had told you sooner, child?"
Luke was silent for some time. He shrugged. "I don't know."
"That is why I did not tell you."
Luke turned to him, and Vader saw the sorrow and despair in the eyes so like his own. "Did Han betray me?"
Vader turned from him, unaccountably disturbed by the question . . . and even more disturbed at his seeming inability to respond. Luke was already poised precipitously on the edge of the Dark Side, and Vader did not need the Force to sense the dark emotions rolling from him in waves. If he told the boy that the smuggler had betrayed him, Luke's conversion to the Dark Side would be exponentially easier. And with no ability to access the Force, the boy would never be able to discern that Vader was lying.
Luke moved around to face him, standing very close, his face tilted up and his eyes questioning.
Vader felt one hand form into a fist, hard enough that he heard leather creaking. It was a simple question . . . and an equally simple answer. The Dark Side dealt exclusively in absolutes, and there was only one reply that would facilitate his corruption of Luke. As Vader had himself found, betrayal was an irresistibly strong motivator toward the lure of the Dark Side.
But instead, inexplicably, the Dark Lord found himself saying, "No."
Luke's eyes widened, the tense lines of his mouth relaxing. "How long. . . ?"
Immeasurably angry at himself, Vader whirled away from his son. "As your smuggler would say, he 'played a hunch' and 'guessed' at the nature of our relationship." Vader paused again, then turned to face his son, knowing that the damage was already irreversible. "It was only moments before your encounter with the callustium plant -- you were unconscious, and he had no opportunity to inform you afterwards."
Luke sank into a nearby chair, putting his head in his hands. He eventually looked up at Vader, a different emotion smoldering in the sky blue eyes. "I don't understand. You could have easily allowed me to believe Han had betrayed me." Luke shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. "Why did you tell me?"
"Because I am a fool." Vader turned and strode toward the cockpit, fleeing Luke and these unaccustomed -- and unacceptable -- emotions.
Captain Firmus Piett approached the Lambda class shuttle even before it had completed its final landing sequence in the now pressurized docking bay of the Executor. He had learned long ago that it was quite hazardous to one's health to keep Lord Vader waiting . . . for any length of time. He settled himself at parade rest until the departure ramp of the shuttle had fully descended.
Hearing footsteps at the top of the ramp, Piett shifted his body into the position of attention. Arms straight at his sides, he waited for the true commander of the Executor to emerge. He was, therefore, quite surprised when the first person to descend the ramp was a young man, not much older than a boy. Dressed in the black tunic and pants that were standard Imperial medical issue, the young man stopped at the bottom of the ramp. He looked curiously around the cavernous docking bay, and then the disconcertingly intense blue eyes settled on Piett.
The young man looked back briefly at the still-empty ramp and sighed. As he limped closer, Piett noted that the boy appeared utterly exhausted. For the first time in his long military career, Piett was at a loss as to how to react. If the boy was Vader's prisoner, he certainly wasn't restrained in any way, although that was probably unnecessary given the obvious injuries of his leg and missing hand. If he was not a prisoner, Piett risked offending Vader by not treating the young man appropriately.
The boy stopped in front of Piett. "If you're waiting for Vader, he may be a while." The boy turned slightly away, looking around again at the ships lined up in the docking bay. "I think he's sulking."
Piett felt his mouth drop open, then closed it with a snap. "Who are you?" he asked. And why are you still alive after talking about Lord Vader like that?
The boy straightened his body as much as he could given his injuries. "Commander Luke Skywalker, Rebel Alliance."
Piett felt his eyes widen and almost unconsciously grabbed the young man by his arm to restrain him. This was the Rebel pilot responsible for the destruction of the Death Star? This child? The boy was obviously delusional, but even so, he had just admitted to being a member of the Rebellion. Piett motioned to the Stormtroopers standing nearby. Barring any additional orders, he would simply have the boy put in the detention block.
"That will not be necessary, Captain Piett."
Piett waved away the approaching Stormtroopers but didn't loosen his grip on the Rebel's arm. "Lord Vader," he said, bowing his head respectfully.
Vader said merely, "Release him, Captain."
Piett nodded once, relinquishing his hold, but he still couldn't bring himself to move away from the admitted Rebel, even if he did appear relatively harmless.
Vader stood with his hands on his belt, staring down at the young man who silently stared back. It was times like this when Piett wished he'd never decided to become an Imperial officer. There were undercurrents between these two that he knew he had no hope of understanding. And when it came to interacting with Vader, one always had to know where the potential mines were positioned . . . or you risked flying into one blind.
With predictable results.
"Why did you not wait for me?" Vader asked.
"Didn't know I had to." The boy cocked his head slightly. "You don't actually expect me to attempt an escape here, do you?"
"It is your safety I am concerned about, young one."
"I thought this was your ship?"
Piett heard something suspiciously like a sigh coming from Vader's vocoder. "It is, child, but you are impetuous, and I would not wish an 'accident' to occur to the Emperor's prize."
"Your concern is heartwarming."
The boy swayed, and Piett instinctively grabbed him as he began to fall.
It took almost no effort to hold onto the now-unconscious youth. They were approximately the same height, but the Rebel seemed surprisingly light. Long-term illness as well as injury, Piett guessed. He looked up questioningly at Vader, but the Dark Lord was already reaching to take the young man into his arms. Stunned anew, Piett could only stare as the boy was removed from his grasp. He had never seen Vader even touch another being, unless it was to strangle some unfortunate with a gloved hand, of course. But to see the Dark Lord actually carrying someone. . . .
Well, if the Universe planned to continue throwing imponderables at him, he wished it would damn well warn him first.
Vader consolidated his grip on the young Rebel before he spoke. "Dismiss the guards, Piett, and come with me."
Piett gave his orders to the waiting Stormtroopers and then hurried to catch up to the much longer strides of his superior. Still puzzled, Piett followed a half-step behind.
Strangely, they were not moving in the direction of the detention block, nor the medical bay. In fact, it appeared they were headed toward Vader's quarters. Piett reined in his curiosity and decided to keep silent until Vader addressed him. It was usually wisest not to initiate a conversation with a Dark Lord of the Sith.
Vader entered his quarters, still without saying a word, and Piett followed him through a doorway he had never been permitted through before. Vader laid the boy down on a small sleeping platform and turned to face Piett.
Piett straightened his spine almost reflexively.
Vader was silent for a few moments, then said, "Until the boy's medical condition is stabilized, this information will stay between you and me, Captain Piett."
There was no implicitly voiced threat, but Piett was well aware of the consequences of failing to adhere to Vader's wishes. "Yes, My Lord," he said.
However, with Vader's continued, uncharacteristic silence, Piett's nervousness finally got the better of him. "The boy claimed to be Luke Skywalker, My Lord."
"And you find this statement difficult to believe?"
Piett heard the silken tone in Vader's voice that meant he should tread very carefully. "No, My Lord, it's just that this . . . this boy is actually responsible for destroying the Death Star?"
"He is extremely strong in the Force, Captain Piett."
Well, that certainly explains part of it. Piett had been around Vader long enough to respect the old legends about the Force and Force users. "But I thought you. . . . I thought all the Force-sensitives had been destroyed at the Emperor's command."
"He has been hidden from me, all these years." Vader turned, staring down at the unconscious youth.
Vader turned back to face him. "This boy is my son, Captain Piett."
Piett almost stepped back in shock, feeling his eyes widen. He hadn't known what to expect, but he certainly hadn't expected this. Vader had a son? Piett looked down at the slight form on the sleeping platform, then back at the looming presence of Vader. He almost felt sorry for the youth.
Vader said, "Alert the medical bay to prepare an artificial hand for the boy . . . and see that I am not disturbed for the next two hours."
"Yes, My Lord." Piett bowed his head and quickly left Vader's quarters, wondering how his life had managed to become so complicated in such an astonishingly short period of time.
Vader waited until Piett had gone before awakening Luke. The boy's breathing was becoming increasingly labored, and Vader knew he had to remove the Force block before Luke became too weak to participate in the endeavor.
Still, it took him some minutes of simply staring at the boy before he could bring himself to make the attempt. It was foolish, insane, but he couldn't stop thinking that this injured, dying youth was capable of destroying all that Vader had become. Vader had gone through the painful process of tearing apart his soul once, only to have it molded into something else . . . by someone else. He refused to go through that process again, not while the Dark Side had made him so strong.
Not while he still had the Emperor to reckon with.
The boy would simply have to bend to his wishes, and Vader would have to avoid making further errors in judgment, as he had in the shuttle.
He reached down and grabbed the boy's shoulder. "Luke," he said, giving the shoulder a firm shake.
Luke's eyes opened, but they were unfocused, distant.
"Luke," Vader said again.
The boy gasped, his right hand reaching automatically for the nonexistent lightsaber at his side before his eyes finally focused on Vader. "What?" Luke looked around hurriedly, then turned back to Vader. "What happened? Don't tell me I passed out?"
Vader merely nodded.
Luke groaned, placing his good arm over his eyes. "Great. In front of half the ship. Way to make a first impression, Luke."
Vader remained silent, resisting the impulse to assist as his son struggled to sit up.
Luke swung his legs over the edge of the sleeping platform and grasped the edge with his hand as if to keep from falling. He looked up at Vader. "So, what now?"
"I remove the Force block."
Grimacing, Luke said, "And you expect to have better success this time?"
"If I do not, you will die."
Luke looked down at the mattress, avoiding Vader's eyes. "And that matters to you?" he said.
Vader crossed his arms across his chest. "Of course it matters, child. The Emperor . . . "
"No, that's not what I meant," Luke said, staring up at him with suddenly intense eyes. "Does it matter to you?"
Vader was silent, not knowing what to say. What could he say that would not give the boy the absurd idea that he actually cared for him? Luke was a tool, a possession, a means to an end. That was all the boy was. All he could ever be.
"I thought so." Luke's eyes blurred, as if all his accumulated pain over the last months was at last finding an outlet. "Is that why you've never called me 'son'?"
Vader stiffened. But he had, hadn't he? Many, many times, although not aloud, of course. My son. Mine. Vader cared for no one. He dare not. It was not the way of the Dark Side. But why had he not lied to the boy in the shuttle? Why had he not told him that Solo had betrayed him? Did he care for this child enough that he would risk the Emperor's wrath? Or lose his own sense of self?
"No," Vader said aloud, answering his own questions . . . and perhaps the boy's, as well.
Luke wearily hung his head, but Vader steeled himself against the pain he felt radiating from the boy, even without the Force. Vader was becoming dangerously attuned to this child, and he would eventually have to find a method of disrupting that affinity. But he had to remove the Force block first, or all his plans would come to naught. Vader roughly grabbed Luke's chin, tilting his head upward. "Let me in," Vader demanded, not waiting for a reply before he roughly threw his mind into Luke's.
At first, the boy tried to pull back, both physically and mentally, but he evidently realized the futility of such actions since he relented almost immediately. Vader found the withered path that he knew led to the Force block and ruthlessly burrowed deeper into his son's mind. He did not have to hide anything from the child now. Vader was in control, and he would remain so. The boy's absurd notions of right and wrong would have no effect. The boy did not resist him, nor did Vader sense any attempt by Luke to interact with him other than by dropping his mental barriers. More the better. It would make Vader's task easier.
Vader came at last to a glowing stone wall in the boy's mind, which he knew to be his own mental interpretation of how the Force block would look. It appeared neither benevolent or malevolent, the block just was, and it now seemed almost absurdly easy to dismantle without the distractions of the boy's conscious or unconscious thoughts. As Vader removed the first stone, the wall seemed to collapse of its own accord, and Vader was instantly flooded with the warm, blue aura of his son's Force presence.
Even though Vader had briefly touched the boy's aura before, it was singularly disconcerting at such close proximity. And even more disturbing was the flood of memories and feelings that coincided with the release of the block. He knew Luke was not directing them at him specifically -- Vader could still feel the boy's wary presence as he kept his distance from Vader, his mental anguish still palpable. But the memories were there nonetheless, fleeting images, but exceedingly intense.
A young child of perhaps five Standard years, sandy-haired, dressed in the white garb of a Tatooine farmer that appeared much too large on his slight frame. The boy practically glowed with Force potential in the near darkness, and he stared up at the stars with a feeling of longing so intense that Vader had to step back from the vision as if burned.
The same child, slightly older now, listening to his friends complain about their fathers with a wistfulness that was almost physical pain. The child could not reciprocate, as he had no stories of his own to share, and the orphan's loneliness resonated eerily in Vader's mind.
A young man, sitting in a desert hut with Vader's old master, listening to Kenobi's fabricated tale of his father's fate.
Vader felt Luke's anger -- just as the boy had felt it -- when he was told about the monster who had killed the father Luke had never known. But he felt the boy's sorrow also, as he finally received verification that the father he had dreamed about since he was a child was indeed dead. Strangely, that emotion was far more intense than the boy's previous anger.
Disconcerted, Vader broke the mental and physical connections with the boy and stepped back, attempting to process all that he had experienced. Luke's emotions were raw, untamed, and Vader was singularly ill-equipped to assimilate them.
"Can you still claim not to care what happens to me . . . Father?"
Vader flinched, for the first time since he had become Sith. That last word seemed to burn into him, and he wondered why his respirator was laboring so hard to provide him oxygen. The boy's psyche pulled at him through so many vectors -- past experiences, memories, Force potential and blood -- that Vader found it difficult to separate himself from the boy, even though they were no longer in direct mental contact.
Time. He only required time . . . and some distance from this maddening, incomprehensible child.
Vader said, "I will have Captain Piett escort you to the medical bay."
And although he would never admit it to himself, Vader fled from the room.
Han Solo followed the misty outline of Laesai Lon into the perpetual twilight of the cloud rainforest. It was approaching evening, and the half-seen trunks of the huge forest giants were already fading like ghosts into the ever-gathering gloom. A gentle rain was again making its way through the dense canopy overhead, contributing a melancholy counterpoint to their squelching footfalls on the saturated moss.
Han thought that the whole dreary environment suited his mood exactly. He only wished he'd been able to speak to Luke alone for just a few minutes. He hated the thought of what the kid's last impression of him must be.
Sighing, Han said, "Ya know, if you were plannin' on killing me, you could've done it without leavin' the settlement. At least it was dry there."
Laesai stopped abruptly and turned to face him, the exotic blue coloring of her skin intensified by the softly glowing readout of the small scanner she held in her hand. "You would actually think me capable of such an act, Han Solo?"
He swiped a strand of wet hair off his forehead before the incessant water lurking there could find its way into his eyes. "I think you're capable of doin' just about anything His Exaltedness tells you to do." He moved closer to her. "Look, I know you don't have a lot of options -- you've got the safety of an entire community to look after."
Laesai smiled enigmatically. "Exactly. Which is the very reason we dare not kill you, Captain Solo." Without another word, she glanced down at the scanner in her hand, moved it in a small arc, then headed in a slightly different direction.
Muttering imprecations about crazy females and the miseries of being planetside for long periods, Han followed her through the thickening undergrowth.
She stopped again when the scanner made a series of soft beeping sounds.
"Oh, please tell me that means you've found someplace dry," Han said wearily.
Removing a long-handled knife from her pack, Laesai starting cutting through a particularly dense growth of vines and foliage. What she finally uncovered with her efforts made Han's breath catch in his throat.
It looked like an old Delta-7 Aethersprite, but if so, it was the most extensively modified version he'd ever seen. Someone had spent an awful lot of time and energy altering this ship, and as a professional design tinkerer himself, Han was impressed with the weaponry and maneuverability upgrades that had been grafted onto the hull. With its modified airfoils, twin laser cannons and even a proton torpedo launcher, the ship was both sleek and deadly. Han whistled appreciatively.
As Laesai finished clearing the camouflaging greenery from the battered craft, Han was even more surprised to note a pair of outdated -- but hopefully still serviceable -- hyperdrive thrusters. The outline of the small ship was bathed in a faint blue light, and Han recognized the trademark glow of an old-fashioned stasis generator. It meant that the electronics of the craft would have been protected, even from the pervasively humid climate of this waterlogged planet.
Laesai joined him at the port side of the ship. "It is Lord Vader's ship," she said quietly as she pulled a small portable lantern out of her pack.
"Huh? Vader did this? Well, what d'ya know? Wouldn't have thought he had it in him."
Laesai merely nodded as she turned on the lantern, illuminating the ship with its small, but intense light.
Han gripped her arm before she could move away again. "Now hold on here. I thought you said there wasn't a hyperdrive-capable ship on this planet?"
"I did not know of this ship until Lord Vader told me just before he departed. It has evidently been hidden here for years." She held out the scanner. "He gave me this in order to locate the ship. With the stasis field and its remote location, no one would have ever found it otherwise."
"Don't get me wrong, Laesai, I'm sure Vader is chock full of altruistic motives, but why would he just hand over a surefire way to get me off this mudball? -- I thought the idea was to keep me here."
Laesai did not answer him immediately, busily punching a code into the scanner device. The blue glow of the stasis field vanished. "Tell me, Han Solo. What will your friends in the Alliance do when you and Luke do not return?"
"Well, they'll come looking for us, of course. At least, Chewie. . . ." Han's eyes widened. "Gotcha. You don't want this planet to become the hot destination for half the Alliance."
She nodded. "Lord Vader said the ship will need repairs before it can be flown, which will take you some time. In the meantime. . . ."
"In the meantime, Vader gets his hands on Luke, a long headstart, and he still manages to keep his own personal planet a secret." Han chuckled. "Gotta hand it to His Exaltedness, he sure knows how to run a con. Had me goin', that's for sure." He reached out and took Laesai's hand. "But how does he know I won't spout off this planet's secret the minute I get back to the Alliance?"
Laesai smiled. In her deep, melodious voice, she said, "He said he would be forced to rely on your good judgment -- if such a thing existed."
Han laughed. "Damned if he didn't get the last word, after all."
Vader watched as Luke slowly regained consciousness. Vader had regained some of his mental equilibrium during the long process of Luke's treatment, but the technicians of the Executor's medical bay had long since learned to work carefully around their ever-present superior, giving Vader a wide berth as they tended to the boy.
He would not allow a mere droid to care for Luke, and the technicians were well aware of the penalty of failing to care for the boy properly. Luke was the Empire's property and not to be damaged unnecessarily. Vader told himself that was the only reason he had haunted the medical bay these past few weeks.
Now all that remained was to find out if the marrow transplant had been successful in healing . . . his son. He allowed himself to use the word again. The fact of the boy's lineage was incontrovertible, but he would not permit it to mean anything more.
The Chief Medical Officer of the Executor -- Vader had never bothered to learn his name -- ran his scanner over Luke's body. Vader found himself wishing he could have brought the Healer Tharell with him. While Tharell had his faults, he was a Force-sensitive, and Vader distrusted those who relied too heavily on their technological toys, especially after the disaster that had been the Death Star.
"Well?" Vader asked sharply.
The doctor jumped slightly. "It appears the boy is fine, My Lord."
The doctor cleared his throat nervously. "The scanner shows his hemoglobin/carbon dioxide ratio to be within normal limits, My Lord. There seems to be normal maturation of his bone marrow constituents, and the marrow is again producing normal red blood cells. I assume he is back to his normal baseline status."
"You had best be correct in your 'assumption,' Doctor."
Vader looked down and met the bleary eyes of his son.
"I could feel it, you know -- when things started to go wrong with my body. I didn't know what was happening, but I could feel the wrongness." Luke shrugged weakly. "It feels right now."
Vader looked over at his medical officer. "Leave us, all of you."
With a nervous half-bow, the doctor removed himself and his staff from the room, leaving Vader alone with Luke.
"So, what now?" Luke asked him, eerily reminiscent of their first day aboard Executor.
Vader pushed the disconcerting memory away. "Now you shall begin your training in the Force."
"In the Dark Side, you mean."
"That is all I know, Luke."
"That's a load of bantha poodoo, and you know it. You were a Jedi Knight once."
Luke struggled to sit up, unconsciously holding out the artificial left hand that had been attached weeks earlier. Vader reluctantly held out his own mechanical hand to assist him.
"You didn't use the Dark Side when you set up that settlement, you didn't use it when you saved my life, and you sure didn't use it when you spared Han's life." His son glared up at him. "I refuse to believe that there is no good in you."
Impudent child! Vader turned angrily away from him. "You know nothing of the Dark Side, Luke. But you will learn, eventually. Or you will die." Vader strode toward the door.
"I didn't run from the truth, Father, even though you thought I would. Why are you?"
Vader paused, finding Luke's mode of address still mildly disturbing, but then continued through the door. He had already traveled several meters down the corridor when he heard his son's voice, this time in his mind.
The longing is there, Father. I can feel it. There is still good in you, and you can't run from it -- or me -- forever.
Vader spoke aloud, but he knew Luke would hear him. "We shall see, my son. We shall see."
Original cover by rhonderoo. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.