Editor's note: This story is an alternate universe - please do not complain that it doesn't fit the NJO books that were published after this story was first written.
A short note from the author: I began this story the day after Sir Alec Guinness passed away, and I wrote it as a tribute: A tribute to all those great actors who make the Big Screen come alive. A tribute to all those who fight to make the world a better and safer place. A tribute to all old heroes: may they never be forgotten.
The Temple burned with a terrible, majestic beauty. Shadows danced behind their light, dark puppets acting out a tragedy of propaganda and lies. Through the shadows fled the last survivors of the Jedi Order, chased by tales of a masked, black-clad figure that had cut down the Council one by one. Crowds gathered to watch the fire, any sympathy for its victims silenced by fear or false belief. No voices were raised in protest as the survivors were marched away under guard.
A young Rodian stood among the observers, watching the blaze with inscrutable black eyes. She ignored the tall human that stood beside her, and when a troop of white-armoured guards moved in to break up the crowd the two departed in opposite directions. They met again later, however, in the safety of an abandoned store-room.
"What do we do, Master?" The Rodian crept close to the human, seeking the comfort of his presence.
"We do not run."
"No. Running attracts attention. We walk."
"But we are going to run away, even if we walk?"
"We must leave, padawan. The Jedi Order is dead. We are among the last of the Jedi. We must carry our knowledge to safety, and hope that one day we can return."
"So where will we go?"
The Jedi Master placed a hand on the Rodian's shoulder. "It is time for us to part company, my padawan. There is little love for non-humans in the Core Worlds these days. We would attract too much attention if we travelled together."
"Master?" The Rodian stared up into the human's face, aghast. "What would I do without you, Master? I'm not ready to leave you!"
"If the things we have seen are not Trial enough, I can think of no test that would prove your worth. There is no anger or hatred in your heart, padawan."
"I'm not angry, Master, only sad."
"There are not enough tears to cleanse the blood that has been spilled these last days. The Force has been unbalanced. There is peace no longer."
"Do you have to talk in riddles all the time, Master?" The criticism was automatic, born of the many months they had spent together.
"You are a Jedi, my friend. Carry the Light with you always and keep hope alive. There are other Rodians leaving on a freighter called the 'Vicsk Corona' at twenty-one hundred. You need to meet with the First Mate, Heesa, at the Two Suns Cantina half a timepart before it departs. You will be safer with them than with me. Just remember to keep your lightsaber with you and watch your temper."
"I have friends I will go to. Now we must be gone. The Force be with you, Jedi Reeshk."
"And with you, Master Inawei."
In defiance of Jedi propriety the two embraced with visible emotion, a farewell both knew might have to last them a lifetime. Then they broke apart and joined the other fugitives: leaves scattered before the dark winds of change.
It was not a great disturbance in the Force. It was a quiet sigh as a tired spirit let go of the frail physical matter that confined it, and melded with the Light. The gentle ripples barely touched the star-filled reaches of space, an almost imperceptible breath of calm flowing through the chaos and energy of the living as it fled towards peace.
Even in the cool, open plaza of the Jedi Temple, where Jedi sat and walked in contemplation or quiet conversation, only one man marked the passing of a life on a distant world. The old Jedi Master lifted his head from where it had sunk upon his chest- either in meditation or in sleep, none had the disrespect to ask which. He whispered only two words, so softly that none guessed the hollow depth of knowledge with which they were spoken:
The old Master rose to his feet and padded slowly out of the plaza. Other Jedi bowed as he passed, but he ignored them. It was his habit to stop and talk, but if he chose to remain silent on this occasion that was his privilege. None questioned his actions or his destination.
Only a few years earlier the lack of the old Master's presence would have been noticed immediately. Now his duties had largely been given to others, and his personal attention to daily matters was seldom required. The Force was strong with him, but even the Force could not sustain a body forever. The Master had wished others to take his place while he still had the strength to advise and instruct them in their role. The reins of knowledge had been passed so smoothly that now the Master was able to slip away unnoticed.
It was a long time before the old Jedi Master was seen at the Temple again.
"Ya want her stored?" The scruffy spaceport official scratched his head and scowled thoughtfully at the battered, outdated hulk of a freighter. She looked gaunt and unwanted at the edge of the ship park, the floodlights around the fence cruelly emphasising the scars on her worn metal hide. "I dunno. She'd be worth more as scrap than she would as a ship, y'know."
"I don't want to sell her." The brown-cloaked old man gestured with one thin, knobbled hand. "I want her stored."
"Ya want her stored, I know, I heard ya the first time. Well, she'll be safe enough there. I'll keep an eye on her, but it's not as if anyone would want to steal her and go joyriding. Hell, she couldn't outfly a passenger liner."
The old man nodded sadly and walked away.
"Hey!" The spaceport official called after him. "How long have I got this heap of bolts anyway?"
The old man didn't reply. Perhaps he hadn't heard.
Givree leaned on the bar, polishing a glass, and watched the old man carefully. The man did not look like a typical heavy drinker, yet he had downed enough liquor to knock out a Bantha and he was still upright and coherent.
"Old Senator Organa-Solo died, then," Givree ventured. The old man glanced up, the eyes within his dark hood so full of pain that the barman winced in sympathy.
"Yeah," the old man said, and downed another shot.
"Dropped dead right in the middle of a speech, they say. Newsnet got it all on holo."
"They've all gone," the old man said hoarsely. "All the heroes. Akbar, Mothma, Antilles, Solo..."
"Ah well. Youngsters have got their own heroes these days," Givree suggested. "People have short memories."
"But I remember," the old man said, picking up his glass and finding it empty.
"We remember," Givree assured him, accepting another credit chip. He'd remember whatever the old guy wanted, as long as the credits kept coming. He paused as the old man waved away a bottle of his previous
"Y'got any Old Corellian?"
Givree pulled out another bottle. "This stuff isn't cheap," he said, and found another chip pushed his way. "That should cover it," he agreed, and poured out a large slug of the golden brew.
The old man gestured the barman to pour a second glass, then raised his own in a toast. "To old heroes," he said. He took a reverent sip, then set down the glass with a saddened expression. "It doesn't even taste the same way it used to."
"Old Corellian, you said." Givree took a sip of his own drink, and nodded. "That's the stuff alright. Hey, you didn't finish your drink..."
The old man was making his way to the exit, unsteady on his feet but still managing to avoid the furniture and the other patrons of the cantina. Another old war veteran. They weren't as common as they used to be. Givree shrugged and cleared the empty glasses. Once the credits stopped arriving he figured it stopped being his business.
If his senses hadn't been numbed by the drink the old man might have been more suspicious of the three figures that lounged at the entrance to the alley beside the cantina. The liquor had dulled his reactions as well as the emptiness and the hollow pain of loss. The old man was bundled out of sight before he could respond to the attack. He tried and failed to avoid the blow aimed at his skull.
"That was very, very stupid of me," he thought, and passed out.
Pain was nothing new. The old man had lived with it for most of his life. Pain now told him that he was alive and awake. He lifted a shaking hand to his head, feeling a matted, crusted mass where he had been struck. He sat up slowly, noting with dull detachment how weak he felt. He no longer commanded the same physical resilience that had once allowed him to touch death and come back fighting.
Even so, the old man would once have made light of his weakness: once, when his spirit was still young. Now he was the last of the old heroes, the ones who had fought to create this bright new galaxy, and each death had eaten a little more from his soul. The loss of his wife had left an emptiness that even the Light could not fill. Now his sister- his twin, the last of his blood- was also gone, and he was alone.
Names ran through his head in a litany, people once famous throughout the known worlds, friends who were also living, breathing legends. Now they were merely records in the archives. The smell of blood, the screams of the wounded, the confusion and terror of combat, the stifling heat and bone-numbing chill of the battlefields on which soldiers had fought: they were all nothing more now than a few lines on a datascreen. The galaxy was looking towards the future, and it had left him behind with the ghosts of the past.
Tiredly, the old man got to his feet. His three assailants had left him lying at the end of the alley amongst the debris of the street, and his clothing was now soaked and stinking. His tunic felt loose, and when he felt at his waist he found his belt was missing. He had been left without any ID, credits, or weapon. He was surprised at how little he regretted their absence.
He did not know what time of day it was, only that it was daylight and the cantina appeared to be closed. He leant on the wall at the entrance to the alley, watching the few passers-by in the street beyond and feeling a little light-headed. Most pedestrians who spotted him seemed eager to avoid him. He supposed he wasn't much of a sight to look at right then, an ageing figure with filthy clothes and matted hair.
"Oh you poor man! What happened?"
It was a rotund, homely-looking alien who spoke, a female humanoid with a kindly face and a worried expression.
"I was attacked," the old man replied. "Last night, when I was leaving the cantina. I think it was last night."
The woman tut-tutted and peered at the wound on the old man's head. "It's not safe around here after dark. Did they steal much?"
"Everything," the old man replied, somewhat muzzily. "I suppose I should feel grateful that they left me some clothes."
The woman wrinkled her nose, clearly not thinking much of the state of those clothes. "You poor dear. You'd better come along with me, we'll get you tidied up in no time." She took the old man's arm, and he did not protest as she led him away from the alley. "I'm Mycuogulu, but most folks call me Tanta Gulu."
"Skywalker. Master Luke Skywalker."
The woman did not give the slightest visible flicker of recognition, although he picked up her aura of surprise and pity. She didn't believe him, she thought he was delusional or suffering from that bump on his head. Perhaps oddly, he found it something of a relief. Fame had often proved a heavy burden to bear, and of late he had found himself avoiding public appearances.
"Just call me Luke," he added on an impulse, and smiled wistfully. So few had known him as 'just Luke'.
"Well then, Luke my dear, you come on in here and we'll see what we can do for you."
'In here' proved to be a small but comfortable set of rooms behind an open-fronted stall at the edge of a market square. Tanta Gulu chuckled contentedly to herself as she mothered her guest. Luke was bathed and fed, his wound tended and his disordered hair trimmed and tidied. His all but unrecognisable Jedi clothes were flung into the laundry and replaced with a set of coveralls that were not new but were at least clean, dry and reasonably well fitting. His thanks were cheerfully waved aside as being unnecessary.
"It's my pleasure to help, Luke, so don't you worry about it. Now, you rest a while- that's a nasty bump you took- and then we'll see about getting you back home."
"I'm not going home," Luke said. "I'm not needed there any more."
"What a terrible thing to say!"
"No, only the truth. I've worked hard for them, Tanta. I've put my life into building the place and passing on what I know, and I don't think I've done it that badly. All there is for me to do now is to sit back and watch my students hand down the knowledge I gave to them. I've never been the sort to sit back and do nothing." It would do as an explanation even if it wasn't the full truth.
"You poor dear!" This seemed to be the woman's response to most things. He sensed her flicker of doubt, as she wondered if perhaps this was the legendary Jedi Master, then her dismissal of the idea. "But what will you do?"
"Oh, I don't think that will be too much of a problem." Luke had no credits, no ID, and could apparently not rely on being recognised, but he'd been in worse situations than that. "Do you know anyone who needs a pilot?"
At first it was thought that the Old Master had merely taken himself away to meditate in private after the death of his sister. He had done so following the death of his wife. On this occasion he had uncharacteristically neglected to leave any information on how he could be contacted in an emergency, but the Old Master had other ways of knowing when he was needed.
It was only after the days of absence turned into weeks, and then more than a month, that the Jedi began to feel concerned. A search was begun, and Master Anakin Solo excused himself from Council duties to give the matter his personal supervision. The Old Master had taken the 'Millennium Falcon' from what had been intended as her final resting place, in the parklands of New Alderaan overlooking the Organa-Solo residence. He had filed no flight plan and left no indications of his destination. There were no sightings of the ship on any of the planets on which he had previously chosen to spend time in seclusion.
Another month slipped by, then a third, and all the Jedi could feel sure of was that the Old Master was alive and in no grave danger. In the sixth month the 'Falcon' was finally located, left at the edge of a backwater spaceport. There was no message left in her databanks, and the official who had spoken to her pilot could give little more than a description of the old man. The same old man had purchased a cheap passage out towards the Republic border, and the ticket had been used, but none at the other end could confirm his arrival.
At the end of the eighth month there was a short flurry of excitement when the Old Master's personal credit chip turned up one of the border worlds. Master Solo undertook the long trip out there himself, only to find that the chip had changed hands too many times to trace it back to its original owner. His hopes rose once again when he heard of a man that had claimed he was Master Luke Skywalker, who had turned up several months earlier. The alien woman who had cared for the man was convinced that he had only been suffering delusions after a bump on the head, but eventually she managed to locate the old man's clothing- carefully washed, mended and stored away.
The Jedi tunic and cloak were proof enough for Master Solo that the Old Master had been here. He learned also that the Master had been injured, without any credits, and apparently without his lightsaber. With growing concern he followed the trail of information to the spaceport, where he learned of an old man who had been taken on as crew by a tramp trader headed for the outer Rim. There, once again, the trail disappeared. The old man was no longer on the ship's crew, and nobody knew where he had gone.
After another month of fruitless search, Master Solo returned to Coruscant. To all intents and purposes, Master Luke Skywalker had vanished.
Nearly five years later...
Bayashi was a windswept world, a planet with plains of rock and grasses so vast that local legend claimed those who could look far enough into the distance would see themselves. The climate of the planet was a fickle creature, alternating between torrential rain and hazy days of shimmering heat, punctuated by dry storms that kept everything but the grasslands in a permanent coating of soft pink-grey dust. The soil was thin and poor, and the rocks held few minerals worth extracting. The planet's wealth lay in its wide, untouched wilderness and in the animals that roamed across them.
The small world had attracted a mixed population of sentient species. Some had come to enjoy the spiritual calm of the open spaces. Some had come to hunt game and had ended up staying, trading exotic pelts with the few offworlders that came by. Some had reason to stay well beyond the borders of the New Republic, and were living on Bayashi to escape unwelcome interest. Most clustered into one of the handful of permanent townships that had sprung up on the plains. A few adopted the nomadic lifestyle of the natives, roving across the plains with mobile tent cities.
Everybody around Bayashi Starport knew Old Man Lars. It felt as if he'd been there forever, although there were plenty who could remember his arrival if they actually thought about it. He'd been co-pilot on a decrepit old trader, a good match for an old man until the captain decided she wanted a younger crewman. It was five years since old Lars had been left standing on the plascrete when his ship left without him. Somehow he'd since managed to become part of the scenery.
Old Man Lars would occasionally do a little work around the port to earn a few credits for his keep, but his needs were simple and few. The spaceport supervisor deliberately failed to notice that a little-used office at the back of the records room now held a low bed and a storage box. Old Lars seldom ventured away from the spaceport compound, except when he needed to purchase supplies. Most of the old man's time was spent sitting quietly near the port entrance, watching the ships or staring at the clouds that swept the skies above the rolling grasslands.
Some said that he always seemed sad. Perhaps he was a little touched, speaking seldom and often spending long hours in a motionless trance. Nevertheless, he was a sweet and kindly person who liked to listen to those who needed to talk. Sometimes the locals would send him food or clothing. His smile and the simple pleasure he showed at the gift was all the thanks they needed.
The children would have teased him relentlessly, but he never reacted any way other than to smile and nod. In the end the youngsters mostly gave up their name-calling, and some would even come to him for comfort when they felt in need of a friend. The rougher element would shout and throw stones, although old Lars did not seem to notice and the stones always seemed to miss. The worst among these were the Rodian youths. They were of a violent species, with a culture that saw more worth in martial prowess than in gentleness. Despite their best efforts to get a response from Lars, however, the old man peacefully ignored them, and gradually their visits became less frequent.
There was a skittering of stone on plascrete as a missile failed to make contact with Old Man Lars, and skated to a stop beside him. The Rodians were back, and were looking for trouble. The old man was seated cross-legged on the plascrete in his oil-stained coveralls, his back towards his would-be attackers. He appeared not to have noticed the potential danger, and continued in his serene contemplation of the grasslands beyond the spaceport fencing. A few of the port workers saw the youths gathering at the edge of the compound and started to move in that direction. Whether old Lars knew it or not, he had many friends who looked out for him when they could.
This time they had no need to intervene, as it seemed the Rodians themselves were in disagreement about taunting the old man.
"Leave him alone, Greetak. He's got a right to live in peace, just like everyone else." It was one of the younger Rodians who spoke. Normally the youngsters lived in awe of their elders, seldom daring to contradict and often put in their place. This one spoke as if he expected to be listened to.
"Peace! Ha! Peace doesn't make good fighters." Greetak's words were aggressive, but he seemed wary of the outspoken youngster.
"We should fight to defend the peace, not just for the sake of fighting." This argument, from a Rodian, was often enough to earn the speaker a beating from his peers. The youngster looked ready to meet any such response, but it wasn't forthcoming. Greetak eyed him, then backed off.
"Eflik, Reeshto! You and your stupid Jedi nonsense. Come on, guys, Mister Virtuous here isn't going to let us have any fun. Are we allowed to play the sims instead, Oh Perfect One?" Bickering and teasing, the group of youths moved away. They were unaware that Old Man Lars had turned around, and was now watching them with curiously intent blue eyes.
"A Jedi? Here?"
Old Man Lars watched as the Rodians departed, his eyes resting on the youngster that the others called a Jedi. 'Jedi': The word called up so many memories.
'There is no emotion.'
Yet there was love. Love gained, love lost, love for friends and family. How could that love be denied? To live and not to love, to live cold and empty. That was not calm, it was hollowness.
'There is no death.'
The greatest lie of all. No death for the Jedi, yet so many friends were not Jedi and so many friends had gone. He had tried to believe, as he used to believe. He had tried to understand, as he once thought he understood. In five years of meditation on this quiet world he had begun to think that he could find the peace he sought; and yet a single word was enough to reawaken the grief in his soul.
Old Man Lars stared back up at the clouds that began gathering overhead. Scattered clouds, flung across the skies, now coming together. There would be rain soon, he thought. Perhaps the rain would wash away the pain.
Despite the many decades spent away from the desert planet of his youth, water still held a childlike fascination for the old man. The way in which clouds could form from perfectly clear skies, the moisture that was all around drawn together and made visible. Out of long habit the old man resumed his cross-legged position on the ground, his mind drifting with the clouds as he tried to touch an understanding that lay just beyond his grasp.
'A Jedi, here?' The errant thought interrupted his meditation. A Jedi here beyond the boundaries of the Old Republic as well as the New? A Jedi he had not sensed earlier? But how?
Berating himself for his lack of control, the old man brushed away the questions. The clouds were massing quickly, rushing towards him from the horizon in a seemingly solid wall. He had flown through clouds many times, and knew they were cold and insubstantial things, but from a distance they seemed firm enough to grasp a hold of.
Now there was the potential for an analogy if ever he saw one.
Had he been thinking backwards the whole time? He had been mourning the loss of something which seemed solid and real, when the true reality was so much larger and more awesome. He had been both too close and too far away- too close to see the full scope of the universe that surrounded him, too far away to see that the physical world was formed of clouds, insubstantial images of the full truth, fragments of the whole. Clouds formed from the skies, brought their blessings, then faded away. To mourn their passing was meaningless.
The old man's face lit up, not with a smile but with something that was both more joyful and more solemn. Lives were never more than fleeting aspects of the deeper reality, changing and merging but never lost: you could not lose something that was always with you, within you and around you. You could not lose something that you were part of. Nor did he love the fragments of the whole any less, for love itself was only part of something deeper, something peaceful and complete.
For one glorious moment the old man knew what it was to be truly one with the Force. In that moment he no longer felt old, as time had no true meaning any more. In that moment he could have stepped beyond the frail illusion of the physical world.
Something held him back.
The one who was known as Old Man Lars opened his eyes and peered towards the edge of the spaceport compound. There was a Jedi here, where there were thought to be none. He was a Jedi Master, he was the Jedi Master, and he ought to investigate. Besides, a moment's distraction had somehow brought him to an understanding that five years of meditation had failed to achieve. He should at least say thank you.
Reeshto slouched along at the back of the group of Rodian youths. It was the proper place for the youngest, but his thoughts did not match his position. He seldom spent much time with them, and was being reminded yet again of why that was. They were crude, rude, quarrelsome and unthinkingly violent. So maybe that summed up Rodians as a whole, but that didn't mean they couldn't try to change.
Reeshto quickly lost what little interest he had in the group when they took over the starfighter holosims at the arcade. He knew he could beat the rest of them with his eyes closed- literally- which left him with the happy choice of winning and gaining a whole bunch of enemies, or letting himself down by playing to lose. He chose the third option, and left the arcade alone. He was often alone, not always by choice. His grandmother had left him her Jedi heritage, in his blood and in a slim datapad of information, and that heritage had set him apart from his peers and family. He did not regret it, not exactly; but he often felt isolated, even in a crowd.
The streets outside were darkening rapidly, although it was long before nightfall. Reeshto did not need to look up in order to tell that one of Bayashi's unpredictable rainstorms was on its way. Other pedestrians hurried to complete their business before the rains struck, and the traffic began to clear. A Bayashi downpour could pound a speederbike into the ground, and nobody cared to be caught out in one- except crazy old Lars, who never seemed to notice.
Reeshto turned into a covered side alley, with no particular destination in mind. He was not especially wary, as even the roughest parts of Space City were not that dangerous. Nevertheless, a sudden prickling at the back of his neck was all the prompting he needed to duck into the shadow of a storage bin.
A large group had entered the alley in which the young Rodian was concealed. Reeshto counted ten figures, a mix of the more common sentient species. They dressed and spoke like offworlders, the sort of Rim traders Reeshto was used to seeing at the spaceport every couple of months or so, armed with the usual collection of small blasters. To find a large group of spacers well away from the starport was not common. The Rodian crouched cautiously in the darkness as the group came closer, catching the end of their quiet conversation.
"I still say we move some of the stuff here. It's an untouched market, there's no competition. Sure, it's extra work while we get established, but after that we're laughing."
"And I say Tyrane would be better. Dew's legal there. Okay, maybe we sell some of the load we've got while we're here, but I'm thinking long-term."
"If it's legal, it's taxed. I've never paid tax in my life, and I'm not about to start now." The speaker stopped at a nondescript doorway almost opposite the Rodian's hiding-place. After a short pause the door opened and the group went inside.
Dew smugglers were bad news. There had been some trouble with spice-pushers a few years back, Reeshto could just remember. The authorities had probably relaxed their guard since then. Well, he was a Jedi. He ought to do something.
Reeshto reached the doorway at a crouching run. He listened for a moment, and hearing no sound from the other side of the door he pushed gently. There was still no alarm or shout of warning, but he caught the faint sound of footsteps on metal. He opened the door a little further and slid inside. His large eyes adjusted almost instantly to the darkness of the corridor inside, and he spotted the movement as the last of the smugglers went through an opening halfway along.
Moving silently, Reeshto ran along the corridor and pressed his back to the wall beside the opening. He peeped quickly around the corner, and saw a flight of metal meshwork stairs heading upwards in a spiral. Then he pressed himself back against the wall. The door from the alley had opened, and a figure was silhouetted in its frame. Reeshto's sudden rush of adrenaline faded when he saw that it was Old Man Lars. The old man headed along the corridor towards him, his face a picture of gentle curiosity.
"Is this some kind of game?"
"Shh!" Reeshto tried to get the old man to keep his voice down. "Dew smugglers. Up there. Armed!"
"Can I play with them too?"
Reeshto was too much on edge to spot the spark of mischief in the old man's eyes. "It's not a game, granddad," he hissed. "They're dangerous. You'd better go back. Go tell Security. I'll see to things here."
'Impulsive young idiot, he'll get himself killed,' the old man thought to himself. Taking the initiative, he passed the Rodian and followed the smugglers.
"Crazy old man, he'll get himself killed," Reeshto grumbled to himself, surprised at how quickly the man could move. Checking that his lightsaber was still secure on his belt, the Rodian followed old Lars up the stairs.
The old man moved up the stairs behind the smugglers, avoiding the occasional pieces of garbage and loose stones that had caught in the lattice of the metalwork. Once, many years ago, he would have crept along. Now he just moved, and knew that he would be undetected. The young Rodian Jedi was behind him, making too much noise although he no doubt believed he was being quiet, his hand resting on the lightsaber clipped to his belt. The boy was too hasty, too impatient, and too eager to make use of abilities he barely understood, the old man thought- then wondered why that sounded familiar. Remembering, he began to chuckle to himself, shaking his head. 'Oh Yoda' he voiced, silently, 'I wish I had understood you better when you were still alive.'
They had climbed several stories, passing closed doors on each level, when the presence of others in the building came to the old man's awareness. He paused in the stairwell, focussing through the Force, then shivered slightly. One of the life traces was unexpectedly familiar, tinged with the taint of death and violence. The old man thoughtfully ruffled a hand through his hair, drawing in a long breath then releasing it slowly. It would not do to let past memories cloud his thinking now.
"What's the hold-up, Granddad?" Reeshto was already ahead, peering back down over the railings and whispering urgently.
"I dropped something," the old man replied. "It's back down there." He pointed down the stairs.
"What? Oh, puh-lease! Alright, alright, I'll get it." Reeshto pattered downwards, brushing past the old man and grumbling under his breath. He turned the corner, out of sight and therefore unable to see the slight smile that twitched at the old man's lips.
Returning to solemnity, the old man settled quietly back against the wall. He was watching the door on the level just below him, satisfied that the young Rodian was out of harm's way, at least for the moment. He did not have long to wait. A tall Twi'lek, accompanied by thuggish-looking members of several species, came through the door and headed towards the stairs.
"Ssszeen, you take three others and go round the back to meet them from behind. If they are unwilling to negotiate, we'll try... other tactics." The Twi'lek's pointy-toothed grin indicated his hopes that 'they' would be uncooperative. The old man's expression darkened somewhat, and then cleared as he concentrated on the Force.
Four of the group peeled off from the rest and continued along the corridor below. The rest climbed the stairs, walking straight past the old man, completely oblivious to his presence. They stopped at the floor above, filing through another doorway. The door had barely swished closed behind them when Reeshto reappeared, carrying a pebble and grumbling to himself. The Rodian frowned at the door.
"Did I hear something just now?" he whispered.
"Maybe," Master Skywalker replied. "Or maybe you didn't hear anything."
Reeshto was both suspicious and irritated. He held out the pebble. "Here."
"Keep it," the old man replied, smiling with generosity.
"You what? I though it was important!"
"It is," the old man agreed, his grin widening even as he waved a hand to tell the youngster to keep the volume down. 'Not the pebble itself,' he amended silently, allowing himself to feel just a little pleased, 'but the fact that the kid knew what I wanted even though I never actually told him what he was fetching.' "Thank you," he added, aloud. "We'll have to hurry to catch up, I'm afraid."
Reeshto was barely hanging on to his temper. "Look, granddad, I really appreciate how public-spirited you are in wanting to help and all, but what I really need you to do is go back and tell the authorities. Please?" he added, hopefully, then tried not growl in frustration as the old man blithely took the lead once more. "Then again, you can always go get yourself killed, I mean, I only just met you, why should I care what happens to a crazy old man..." the young Rodian's all but inaudible monologue followed him up the stairs.
As it turned out, it was not hard to catch up with the smugglers. Their voices sounded clearly from the end of the corridor two flights up. Creeping in that direction, their shadowers found themselves in some kind of power generation plant, a long room full of silent, disused machinery, bulky cabling and snaking lines of heavily-insulated piping.
"So what's the plan?" the old man whispered. "I think you were going to fight them or something?"
Reeshto hesitated. It was true that his idea when he first followed the smugglers ran along the lines of charging them heroically with lightsaber blazing and the Force as his ally. Now he reconsidered, there were rather a lot of them. Besides, if he was absolutely truthful about it he was somewhat repelled by the thought of just killing them all, even if they were Dew smugglers. "Of course not," he replied firmly, hoping it sounded as if that was what he'd had in mind all along. "We find out what they're up to, then go tell someone."
"Fair enough." The old man's eyes rested on Reeshto a moment longer, and the Rodian shifted uncomfortably. How was it that some senile old headcase could manage to give the impression that he knew what the right thing was to do, and was just waiting for Reeshto to work it out before going along for the ride? Touching his lightsaber for reassurance, reminding himself that he was the Jedi around here and he had work to do, Reeshto crept towards the smugglers.
The machinery gave them plenty of cover until they reached the central section of the room, which opened out somewhat. Reeshto craned his head to see where the smugglers had got to, then decided to risk a short dash to the shadow of what looked like a storage-tank. He took only one step before coming to an abrupt stop. A stray length of wiring had caught in his toes, and as he jumped forwards it snapped taught, then pulled out the plug it was attached to. The plug hit the ground with a faint clatter, and Reeshto hurriedly dropped back into his former hiding-place, cursing himself. His curses became more inventive as he heard the smugglers coming to investigate and he retreated still further, crowding in beside the old man.
"We gotta find somewhere else," he mouthed at the old man, who did not seem in the slightest bit panicked. "There's enough of them to cover this place pretty well. C'mon, back this way." Hugging the shadows, they worked quickly back towards the end at which they had entered.
"Rab, activate the security doors will ya?" The captain was clearly audible, the acoustics of the big room proving to be excellent. "Don't do to take chances, an' I don't trust our contacts."
Reeshto managed not to swear once again when his escape-route slid shut, the red lock-light winking on the palm-pad beside it. Swallowing back a slight spurt of nervousness, he looked around for another hiding place. Then he looked up. The piping and cabling climbed the walls and sprawled across the ceiling, casting strange shadows in the somewhat ineffective lighting. Maintenance ladders were fixed here and there, and up above...
"There!" Reeshto hissed, pointing to the overhead hatchway. "We can get through there. C'mon!" He tugged at the old man's arm, but Lars seemed oblivious to Rodian's urgency. He was frowning slightly at the ladder that they would have to climb, and hesitated at the foot, fingering the metal.
"Oh come on!" Reeshto growled.
"It's no good simply keeping your eyes open, young Jedi," the old man said then, and Reeshto jumped a little at his use of the title. "You need to understand what it is you are looking at."
"Look, granddad, we don't have time for you to go nuts right now, so if you could put off the insanity until we get out of here, I would really appreciate it. I'll even buy you a towel so you can practice drooling, just get up the ladder!"
Old Man Lars gave an almost imperceptible sigh, closed his eyes, and started climbing. Reeshto followed right behind, willing the old man to greater speed, but instead of hurrying their pace grew slower. Old Lars hauled onto the pipe at the top of the ladder with his head bowed and his hands shaking a little. For the first time Reeshto felt genuine concern for the man, and put out a hand to steady him.
"Thanks. I'm okay. Just a little out of practice," the old man muttered, moving away from the ladder and Reeshto's helping hand. "Come on." He crawled towards the nearest ceiling-hatch, along the top of a broad section of pipe work.
"Well hey, that's what I've been saying all along!" Reeshto complained, crawling behind. They had gone no more than ten bodylengths when there was a shrieking groan of tearing metal, followed by a loud clang that reverberated about the warehouse.
"Eflik!" Reeshto swung round, trying to see what had happened. He looked down over the side of the pipe, spotting the ladder they had just climbed still bouncing slightly on the floor beneath. The brackets that had held it up were now merely bent and torn flaps of rusted metal. 'Lucky that didn't go when we were still on it,' the Rodian thought with a small sigh of relief.
"Luck?" the old man queried from in front. He hadn't even turned around, and was busy with the hatch. "That will definitely have got their attention. It's time to be somewhere else." The hatch opened, and the pair scrambled through.
"More good luck!" Reeshto exclaimed, looking about him with delight as old Lars closed the hatch. "This corridor must go right across the top of that power room, and whatever's behind it. We can just find a hatch in the right place and listen in on what they're up to. They can't even follow us now the ladder's gone!" He started down the hall, pausing to press his ear to each hatch they passed over. Old Lars ambled gently behind, the pair of them forming the somewhat incongruous picture of an elderly gentleman walking a large and very inquisitive young vrill-hound.
"They just opened the doors again," Reeshto remarked quietly after a time. "They've gone through to the next room, I think," he added as they reached the next hatch. "It's not easy to hear much, I think we should check the end of the corridor and see if there's another way down to them."
Old Lars nodded, and the pair moved on more quickly. The corridor ended in yet another flight of stairs, this one open on one side as it descended the wall of a large storeroom or warehouse, which probably backed onto the power-room. Reeshto and the old man risked a quick glance into the room. The smugglers had settled themselves about the place with an apparently casual air, although the two observers both noted that they had positioned themselves to make good use of the solid walls and the available cover.
"Y'know, Cap," one of the smugglers was saying, conversationally, "I still don't get why you picked up that vaccine. I mean, whoever smuggles medicine?"
"Gil, just 'cause we ship some stuff tax free don't mean we can't take legit cargos now an' then. I heard they're pretty desperate for that vaccine over on Yuop. We'll get at least five times what it cost us, and it's lightweight, too. High value low volume. We might have to go in for more medical shipments like that."
One of the other smugglers nudged the captain in the ribs with an elbow. "You gettin' soft in ya old age, Cap'n... ow!" The smuggler staggered as the captain's fist caught him on the jaw.
"You're gettin' soft in the head, Rab. It's good business sense. One more crack like that and you can find yourself another ship. That goes for the rest of you, too. Clear?" There was a mumbled agreement from the group. Satisfied that his authority was still intact, the smuggler captain found another crate to sit on, keeping his back to the wall.
Their quarry now stationary, Reeshto and the old man moved back out of earshot. "What're they doing?" Reeshto asked, not really expecting an answer.
"What do you think?" the old man asked.
"I dunno. Waiting, it looks like."
"How should I know?"
"You're the Jedi. Aren't you?"
There was no suggestion of a teasing note to the old man's voice, but Reeshto couldn't help wondering if somewhere, on some level, the old man was treating the whole situation as if it were some enormous joke. Even as the Rodian started to wonder about that, he saw the suggestion of a grin cross the old man's face, then vanish so fast as to leave him doubting what he had seen. Reeshto gave the old man an unfriendly glare, then snorted and tried to do some thinking.
"We can't go down these stairs, they'd see us and we'd be blasted away before you could say 'crispy toasted Jedi'. There were two doors to that room on the level below, I saw it when we snuck that look at the smugglers," the Rodian began. The old man nodded approvingly. "If we go back down one level, we can either go through the power room, if it's open now, or find our way around to the other door. I think the second door was for moving goods in and out; it probably opens onto the roof of the next building. I know there's landing pads for heavy airhoppers around this sector. So if we can't get through the power room, we look for an exit and try the roof."
"That sounds like a plan." Reeshto gave the old man a sharp glance. There was nothing in Lars' expression or voice to suggest sarcasm or amusement, but... shrugging off his half-formed suspicions, the Rodian jumped to his feet. "Yeah, well, come on then." He failed to see Lars' lips compress in sudden concern, or the way the old man turned his head as he caught the distant sound of renewed conversation. The Twi'lek had reached the warehouse. The smugglers were about to find out that their contact had his own unique brand of negotiation- one which the old man had met only one before. It had cost him a good friend then. He hoped it wouldn't cost him a new student now.
A door opened as the old man passed by. Once more figures filed past without ever seeing him, this time Ssszeen and his three companions. The old man went calmly on his way until the corridor turned a corner. Then he leaned against the wall and took a few long breaths. Reeshto was already hunting for a route down to the level below, but he turned back when he saw the old man's weary pose.
"Hey, you sure you're okay?"
"I'll be fine. Size matters not, but numbers make a difference. It's been a long time."
"Yeah... right..." Reeshto said, warily. Maybe the guy really was half senile.
"Have you found a way down?"
Reeshto nodded. "Place is more complicated than a sandworm burrow. This way."
The power room was deserted. Reeshto and the old man made their way cautiously through until they reached the door to the warehouse. The pair bent forwards to listen. The old man already had a fairly good idea of what to expect, but he had not anticipated his companion's reaction to the voice that reached them through the closed door.
"Dew? That does put a different complexion on things, yes." The Twi'lek was all but purring with anticipation and greed.
'Drangor?' Reeshto's neck-scales bristled with anger. If the gang lord Twi'lek was in town, then Space City wasn't safe any more. Not until Reeshto dealt with him, at any rate, and the young Rodian had every intention of doing just that. Reeshto had a score to settle with Drangor. He unclipped his lightsaber from his belt and reached for the palm-pad for the door, then found the old man's hand at his wrist.
"Let me go!" Reeshto pulled his hand out of the old man's gentle grasp. "I've got business with that guy."
"Isn't it a little risky, charging in on your own?"
"I told you, I've got business. I can handle it."
"With that?" The old man indicated the lightsaber. "Killing isn't always the answer."
"He deserves to die."
"What makes you the judge of that?"
Reeshto was too agitated to hear the stern edge to the old man's quiet voice. "He killed my brother!"
"That's no reason to take more lives."
Reeshto glared at the old man, his fury rising to cover other feelings that he was less willing to show. "Have you any idea what it's like to see your brother killed just because he was standing in the wrong place? Have you?"
Reeshto felt as if he'd run into a wall, all his anger suddenly knocked out of him. He hadn't known it was possible to put such emotion into a single word. Understanding, anguish, sympathy and acceptance were all contained in one simple sound. Reeshto found it impossible to meet the old man's eyes, the depth of meaning they held just too much for him to bear. Avoiding what he could not cope with, he turned away.
"Crazy old man," he muttered. "Drangor's got it coming."
"That is very likely" the old man agreed, surprising the young Rodian yet again, "but not from you. Listen."
After hesitating only a moment, Reeshto tilted his head and set an ear to the door. "That is my final offer, gentlebeings." Drangor's somewhat effeminate voice sounded bored and condescending. "In your position, I'd accept."
"In our position?" The smuggler captain was scornful. "We'll only sell when the price is right. We're not short of funds."
"Perhaps, but you are surrounded." Although they could not see through the door, the two eavesdroppers knew that Drangor was smiling. "Two thousand credits. Take it or leave it, but as I say... you'd far better take it."
"It's not what we agreed, Drangor. The two thousand is for the farm droids. The dew is a separate deal. We're not figuring on selling that unless we get the right offer."
"Farm droids without the skillchip reprogramming codes are no use to me and nor, it would seem, are you."
"Why you..." the smuggler captain's startled oath was lost in a burst of blaster-fire. Reeshto and the old man both ducked instinctively as two bolts smacked into the far side of the door, but the duraplas was solid and the door held firm. More shots resounded from the warehouse beyond, mingled with orders and yelps of pain. Drangor gave one angry command that turned into a gurgled scream, and the blasters fell silent.
The old man closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool metal sheathing of the doorframe. Drangor was dead. The old man had felt the life slip away. Reeshto would not have his revenge, and nor would he, which was for the best. A Jedi should not seek revenge, even for a brother or a friend.
Wide-eyed, Reeshto reached for the palm-pad again, and this time the old man did not stop him. The door swished open, and Reeshto realised his mistake. The smugglers spun to face him, trigger-fingers poised. The fight had taken most of them out of immediate line of site of the door, which gave Reeshto just long enough to slap the pad again and grab the old man's arm, pulling him towards the exit. He looked for cover as the smugglers started after them, slightly surprised when the captain called after them instead of just shooting.
"I'm not arguing with anyone who takes Drangor out," the Rodian declared as he and the old man dodged between bits of machinery. "Dew or no dew, they're okay by me."
"Your enemy's enemy isn't always your friend," the old man countered, ducking under a large generator coil.
"I'm still not arguing with anyone who takes Drangor out," Reeshto said, darting from behind a fuel tank. "You ever seen that guy with a blaster?"
Reeshto paused, once more taken aback by the depth of feeling in the old man's voice. "Guess you do understand, huh?" he said, swallowing against the lump that rose in his throat.
Before the old man could reply, a blaster bolt seared the wall behind them. "Stop! I wanna talk!"
Reeshto shook his head and stayed hidden. The old man seemed to be watching him, not the smuggler captain who had stepped into the open.
"C'mon out. If you're not with Drangor, I'm not aiming ta shoot ya. Yet."
Reeshto tugged at the old man's sleeve and nodded at the doorway, now just within reach of a final dash. "You up for it?" he mouthed. The old man glanced between the smugglers and the door, then looked at Reeshto with narrowed eyes, considering. He made a movement with his hand, as if relinquishing the decision to the Rodian.
Reeshto took a breath. He knew that, in theory, he could use the Force for extra speed. What he didn't know was how, or whether he could do the same for old Lars. Now was the time to try, if ever. He took another breath, trying to forget his tension and reach out with his senses, wrapping the Force about himself and the old man. Old Lars blinked in mild surprise, but the Rodian didn't have time to ponder why. He gave the old man a countdown on his fingers, then charged towards the door, willing himself and the old man through to safety.
'I must have done something,' Reeshto thought to himself as he stumbled to a halt in the corridor outside, dizzy and weak. He felt as if an overweight Bantha had sat on him. The old man's hand was on his arm, steadying him, and he managed to straighten a little, shaking his head to clear it.
"Not bad," the old man said. "Just needs a bit of work on the stamina. What happens next? I think our smuggler friends wanted to talk." The old man waved a hand towards the doorway.
Reeshto looked up in dismay. He'd been so sure that the two of them had reached the end of the corridor. Instead, they were still outside the power room. The smuggler captain was watching them with slight bemusement, but that puzzlement wasn't affecting the steady aim of the blaster now trained on the pair. The rest of the crew came up behind their captain. Grimly they lifted their weapons, looking anything but friendly and ready to talk.
"Get back into a doorway. I'll cover you!" Reeshto had his lightsaber in his hands, activating it as he spoke. The action drew fire from the smugglers and the Rodian parried quickly but inexpertly. He jumped back as one blaster round caught him in the shoulder. A second took him in the leg as he tried to duck into the doorway.
"I think we're in trouble!" 'Amazing perception, Reeshto, full marks for stating the obvious,' he added to himself.
Old Man Lars appeared unperturbed. "You know, if you hadn't drawn a weapon they probably wouldn't have started shooting."
Reeshto stared incredulously up at the old man. Here he was, risking his own... rear to save some stupid half-senile old idiot who had blundered into this whole situation despite having been told to stay out of it in the first place, and he got a lecture in return!
"You're hurt," old Lars continued gently. "It's maybe not the best time for a lesson. Here, let me help."
Reeshto continued to stare as the old man extended a hand. The Rodian felt fingers lightly touch his face, and then a soft tingling like sunlight sensed through closed eyelids. The pain of the wounds seemed to become less important.
The old man removed his hand, and turned slightly. The smugglers had surrounded the doorway, leaving no obvious way to escape. Despite this old Lars appeared perfectly at ease, looking at the collection of blasters pointed in his direction as if he were examining the exhibits in a museum.
"May I borrow your lightsaber for a moment?"
"What? Come on, granddad, I don't think even I can take these guys."
Old Man Lars lifted his eyebrows slightly. "No? Never mind, there's always another way." He bowed politely to the smuggler captain. "I suggest you put down your weapons and surrender, and then nobody will get hurt."
Reeshto was expecting the burst of laughter this attracted from the smugglers. Old Man Lars greeted it with peaceful acceptance. "I'm sorry, I haven't done this for a while. I should have said, 'I suggest you put down your weapons and surrender, and none of you will get hurt.' Still, if you insist on doing things the hard way..."
The smugglers stopped laughing. Old Man Lars closed his eyes as the captain's finger tightened on the trigger. Reeshto gripped the hilt of his lightsaber and tensed ready for action.
Then the captain gave a cry of surprise as his blaster lifted out of his hands and hovered in the air. Exclamations came from the other smugglers as their weapons also rose into the air. The captain gave one futile lunge for his blaster, then gave up and glared at the Rodian.
"You! This is your damn Jedi tricks!"
Reeshto tried not to show surprise. He was pretty certain that it wasn't him. He stared back at the captain, unsure whether to reply. Spotting his hesitation, the captain drew a vibroblade from his belt and jumped forwards. Before the Rodian could block with his own blade, Old Man Lars made a slight gesture and the captain was thrown backwards, knocking down two of his own crew as he fell. The floating blasters spiralled down gently to settle in a heap at the old man's feet.
"Could I borrow that lightsaber now?" Old Lars was smiling slightly as he held out his hand.
Somewhat stunned at this turn of events, Reeshto slowly extended the handle of the lightsaber towards the old man. Old Lars examined the weapon with mild curiosity, apparently ignoring the smugglers.
"Hmm. Did you make it yourself?" the old man asked.
"It was my grandmother's" Reeshto answered, faintly. The smugglers had picked themselves up and seemed to be trying to decide whether to make a bid to reclaim their weapons.
"She was the one who taught you to use it?" The old man activated the lightsaber as he spoke, making a few passes and feints to get a feel for its balance. His expression remained serene when Reeshto ducked apprehensively, but there was a little light of laughter dancing in his eyes. The smugglers eyed this new development with caution.
"No-oh. Not exactly," Reeshto said. "She left a datapad and a couple of remotes. I've been training myself from those."
"That would be why, then," the old man said to himself, nodding slightly and failing to explain himself any further. He turned to the smugglers, who obviously didn't know what to make of the situation. "I have no authority outside the Republic, so I can't stop you shipping dew through here in the future. I don't have anything in particular against smugglers, only against certain types of cargo and methods of operation. You have a living to make after all, and I understand that the taxes in this section of space are rather out of line. You did try to ask questions first and shoot afterwards, which says something for your character."
Something caught Reeshto's attention. Something about what old Lars wasn't saying. Some other reason behind the old man's words. He wished he knew more of the Force, so he could pick up something of the old man's thoughts. His grandmother's notes had been very sketchy on that subject, though.
"On the other hand, dew is unpleasant stuff," old Lars continued. "I really think you ought to choose your cargo better. Those vaccines sound much more suitable. Dew is also illegal on Bayashi, so I doubt you'll be reporting the loss of your current shipment."
"What loss?" The smuggler captain's fingers flexed above his empty thigh-holster.
"The one that will occur shortly." The old man's quiet words were heavy with inevitability. "By the way, I would suggest that you avoid New Republic space- for your own good."
"There's nothing you can do to stop us!" The captain's grasp of the situation was rapidly sliding away from him.
Old Lars gently shook his head. "That line's been done before, and it doesn't fit very well anyway. I'm helping you here, you know. No, don't try to reach your weapon. Cybernetic limbs are very good, but I think you'd prefer to keep the original." By way of demonstration, the old man flicked the lightsaber tip past the barrel of a blaster pistol. The front of the barrel rolled across the floor, and the smugglers took a step back.
"Erm, Lars?" Reeshto dragged his attention from the severed blaster back to the old man. "How do we actually get out of here? Without killing everybody, I mean. What's the plan?"
"The plan?" Old Man Lars looked thoughtful for a moment. "Does there always have to be a plan? Trust the Force, and keep your mind on the here and now. What we need right now is some transport, I think. Captain, is your ship ready to go?"
"What?" The smuggler captain was now entirely unsure who exactly here was insane. Clearly someone was.
"This young Jedi and I will need a lift." The old man smiled sweetly. "As I was intending to make a delivery of your cargo into the nearest star anyway, we might as well combine the two."
Reeshto was never entirely clear about the events that followed. He remembered that Old Man Lars had been remarkably persuasive. The smugglers had confusedly given their agreement to the old man's request, bemused as the Rodian about why they would want to do so. Old Lars had re-introduced himself as Master Luke Skywalker, a name so famous it had even reached Bayashi and one which Reeshto had difficulty connecting with the sad, half-crazy old man he remembered from the starport. At some point not long after that Reeshto had been saying goodbye to his parents, flushing an inane shade of blue at the thought of attending a Jedi Academy that he'd believed was a fable only a few hours previously. Then he had been boarding a disreputable-looking freighter, taking one last look back over his shoulder at the planet that his grandmother had fled to a century before.
Reeshto's first space flight had its excitements, but it was not quite what he had imagined. The high point was the dumping of the cargo of dew, the Captain's face an absolute picture as he tried to work out just why it was that he was allowing it to happen.
Most of the voyage was sheer hard work. He had thought himself fit, but Master Skywalker disagreed and set about proving the point. Reeshto was privately of the opinion that the Jedi Master was extracting revenge for some of those less-than-complimentary comments back in the warehouse.
"Think yourself lucky, young Reeshto," Master Skywalker commented when Reeshto flopped onto a spare couch in the cockpit after yet another exhausting training session.
"Lucky? I've got years more of this torture, and I'm lucky?"
"My Master used to make me carry him on my back and run through a swamp every day."
Reeshto stared up at the Master, who was a head taller that the Rodian and nearly twice his weight. "You're joking... You're not joking, are you?"
Master Skywalker just smiled.
Master Skywalker paused with his hand resting against the old Corellian freighter, eyes drawn to the dark smudge of blaster-burn just beneath his fingers. He leaned against the rusting hull, head drooping, the lines on his face deepening. The mark drew his thoughts away from the present, taking him to a point that lay years in his past, parsecs from the world he now stood on. Another time of day, sunlight slanting sideways through the lush green of a jungle. He had been laughing, joking, happy to be with friends, not expecting the fight that broke out nearby between a local gang and the offworlders whose 'negotiations' turned hostile. People had scattered, locals and crew from other ships running to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
A blaster bolt seared across his mind's eye. He saw his own hand, reaching out, too slow to prevent what would happen. He saw the target leap away, exposing the man that stood behind- a man still lean and fit despite his grey hair and weathered features, but a man no longer in his prime, whose legendary reactions were no longer quite so reliable. He saw the Twi'lek gunman duck from view, escaping in the confusion. If he could have stayed calm, perhaps he would have been better able to track the gunman down with the Force. If he had moved more quickly, perhaps he could have saved the life of the man who caught the blast.
He had been too slow, too surprised, too shocked and angry to react at all. That shot had taken from him one of his closest friends. Friend, ally, confident and brother-in-law. Killed because he happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Han Solo's luck had finally run out that day.
Master Skywalker sighed, then straightened. He drew the Light around him, into his soul, smiling just a little. There was justice in the galaxy. Drangor had killed an old smuggler, only to be killed by a younger one. There had been no need to seek revenge- the Force had brought its own balance.
An image flickered in his mind: of a young smuggler captain holding defiant self-interest up as a shield against the world, taking an interest in an old man and a boy despite his smuggler's instincts; a vision of adventure, danger, and love. Was it the past, or the future? Did it even matter? Things came full circle.
"We're travelling on that?" Reeshto had thought the smuggler's craft was rough, but the ancient hulk he was now looking at beat it hands down. The voice tugged Master Skywalker's thoughts back to the present.
"What's wrong with her?" the Jedi Master sounded almost offended.
"It looks ready to fall apart!"
"Appearance isn't everything," Master Skywalker said, giving the hull an affectionate pat as he headed up the ramp and on into the cockpit. "This lady is a hero. She's saved my life more than once. Give her a little respect now she's retired. Besides," he added as he settled himself into the pilot's couch and fingered the controls, "she's still the fastest heap of bolts ever to make the Kessel Run. Strap yourself in, kid. We're going home."
Reeshto looked at the grin now spreading across the Jedi Master's face, and strapped himself in- tightly.
Master Anakin Solo faced his uncle in the privacy of his office, and took a calming breath. He wasn't looking forward to what he had to say, but it had to be said, and it was absurd to feel like an undignified kid rather than a member of the Jedi Council simply because of who it was he had to speak to.
"Master, I don't want to sound impertinent, but I think you owe everyone an explanation. You went off alone, without warning, without telling anyone where you were going or how to get in touch, and without even calling to say that you were alright. We worried about you. Think what it did for morale, to have the Master simply vanish. Think how it made the Jedi look, when we couldn't find you. If you were anyone but who you are, I ought to tear strips off you!"
Master Skywalker remained serene. "I needed some time to meditate."
"It might have been five days, or five centuries. It was long enough. When the time was right, I came home. When it is your time, you will understand."
"Understand a need to be alone? You could have-"
"No. Understand that all of this-" Master Skywalker waved a hand to take in the Temple, the city beyond, the skies and the universe- "is only a faint reflection of reality." He looked at his nephew with an expression which was both solemn and mischievous. "'Luminous beings are we.' The physical body is only a fragile barrier between the Force and what we call the universe. When you understand, you will know how to brush that barrier aside and become one with the Light."
Anakin digested this for a few moments. His next words were slow and thoughtful. "You learned the way to... well, to disappear when you die, and come back as a spirit?"
Master Skywalker laughed, something he had not done in years, and Anakin found himself smiling in response. "I suppose you could describe it that way. You'll understand, when it's your time. Walk with me a while, Anakin. I need to remind myself how others see and feel."
They walked in silence for a time, pacing the cool corridors of the Temple, their arms about each other's shoulders. Their route took them out into the gardens, where they stopped and stood looking up at the stars.
"Reeshto can't be the only one, you know," Master Skywalker said, breaking the stillness. "Other Jedi would have escaped beyond the borders. I will search for them. It will be something to keep me occupied."
"Master!" Anakin began, and then changed it to "Uncle Luke. You're not thinking of going traipsing off across the galaxy into the back of beyond again?"
"Why not? After all, I've never been one to sit back and do nothing. I ought to find them, Anakin, the families of all those Jedi who were scattered by the Empire. I'll find them... and then I'll bring them home."
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