by Cara J. Loup
words stain my lips
like blood on my hands
...words are like poison
that lives down inside you
and some things you do
you just don't understand
(Lyle Lovett: Promises)
"Han, I don't blame you. Or Leia."
The voice of reason was steady as ever, cool with conviction.
Han gritted his teeth and averted his eyes. Sure, no reason to feel guilty. General Han Solo was just a small cog in the ever-grinding machinery of politics and war, playing its part for better or worse, with small enough margin. But guilt churned in his stomach and seared a hole through the never entirely coherent web of thought with the force of a full-powered thermoblast. He couldn't reason it out or shuck the sense of responsibility no one had authorized.
"Seven hells, I shoulda done something," he said. Ego was taking the bruises, causing the rest of the man to flinch in recognition: he couldn't have changed so much as a letter in the damn protocols. "I should've tried," he insisted unreasonably.
"To what effect? Get yourself into trouble, too?"
Han squinted down at the slighter man, angered by blunt truth, then faltering again. In Luke's eyes, he met the familiar mixture of sobriety and exhausted feelings, stretched too far for too little reward.
"The hell I care. So I can't change the laws of gravity and politics, but I can blast my trail through High Command and the Senate combined. If you're through, Luke, then I'm through, too."
The blue gaze reached the temperature of hot summer, appreciation and refusal deflecting sharply. "Leave the Alliance? You can't do that." The spark of passion quenched in the hard grip of discipline as Luke shook his head. "I wouldn't want to be the cause."
Talk of cutting yourself loose, Han thought. No compromises, no soothing half-truths that would come apart slowly, ripping like threadbare cloth. Luke obviously preferred the guillotine to fall once and be done with it. They'd always shared a taste for clean breaks, but this time the inevitable almost took Han's breath.
From the back of the hangar, a lonesome engine's whine cleaved stagnant and heavy air.
"I'll think about it," Han finally said, forcing a lighter tone. "Leave your address in case I decide to join the renegades, will you?"
"No." Luke had the nerve to smile. One of his pale-lipped smiles with edges that cut in the aftermath. "I need you to stay here, Han."
Did he really owe that much? Han's gaze swept sideways again, travelled the length of Luke's X-wing, battered and primed, vibrant on standby. Amidst the carbon coating showed jarring white patches where Alliance insignia had been scraped off.
"Why?" he asked. He looked up sharply and thought he could see a desperate silence in Luke's eyes. Something growing into a question he couldn't guess--
But Luke gave no explanation, and maybe there wasn't any, except the diffuse, sentimental desire for some things to be remembered stable and secure. Hands reached across to settle on Han's shoulders with explicit pressure, drawing the Corellian into a hug hard enough to be the very last. Reciprocating, Han swallowed profanities and useless protestations further down his tight throat.
The brief, silent embrace condensed everything that could have been and never was, everything that should have been said and never would be. Too late. And saying things too late inevitably branded them with hypocrisy.
Luke stepped from the tense circle of his arms with a very different, private smile like a keepsake for the worst of days.
Han nodded grimly. The demons that stalked Luke had retreated, feeding on sacrifice, temporarily appeased as one more shred of security was relinquished. But as sure as mynocks followed after engine plasma, they would be back. He wondered if Luke expected to make an easier living with no one around to remind him of the past.
"Take care of yourself," Luke said softly. Only the slanting muscle in his jaw called the bluff of untouchable repose.
There was a final moment when he could have sent all the circumspect reasoning to hell, just because he wasn't ready. Instead, Han counseled his belligerence, kept the churning frustration bound and fettered. One false move and he'd make it even harder for Luke, and Luke would still have to leave.
"I haven't promised anything," he said. "You'd better remember that."
Han marched past the vacant stare of security guards posted
at the hangar doors, and with every step, the hollow sense of finality
gained on him.
From the viewport one level above the cavernous docking bay, he followed the proceedings. A calculated jab of temper had cleared the small control booth for him, and Han was isolated behind tinted glass. Only the console in front of him spilled beaded blue light across his hands.
Somewhere at the back of the hangar lived the shadows of parked crafts, yielding space to the white elegance of a single X-wing at the flight deck's center. Runlights flashed to rival with the overbright illumination spilling down on Luke and his fighter. As if all that brilliance could exculpate something rotten right down to its core of bureaucratic paranoia. Han watched his friend circle the X-wing for a final check, saw the guards pull up closer, parading blaster rifles to stress the righteousness of their actions. Even this, Han supposed, was part of the law enforcement's elaborate decorum. And he knew for certain, because he'd checked, that a security escort would tail Luke's X-wing until he'd left the system.
Exiled by allies who'd nurtured and lived off his fame, Luke Skywalker was to become a nonentity wiped from all the official records. A misfortune, a rumor that would die down gradually.
Down on the deck, Luke readjusted the controls of his flightsuit, fastened the clasps of padded gloves - and looked up, straight through the dark window.
Han wrapped his fingers around the edge of the console until the pressure whitened his knuckles. I'm here. What did you expect?
The clipped indication of a nod was his final answer.
Pale hair disappeared under the flight helmet, equally stripped of insignia, then Luke climbed into the cockpit, and the lowering canopy shielded him from view. And that was it.
Han leaned back to observe the conclusive step in a well-organized farce. Filling the bleakness with thought instead of pointless rage, he reviewed what had happened....
Whispers of disquiet had come first, infecting the New Senate at a rapid pace, gaining ground when stability and order were desperate dreams haunting even the most unconventional minds. Backed by the full weight of rationality, inquiries thickened with skepticism.
What of the Jedi knights?
If their arcane machinations hadn't stopped the decay of the Old Republic, why reinstate yesterday's illusions?
Disrespectful of mundane authorities, the Jedi answered to the Force and their own consciences alone - like lesser gods with a very real claim to power. And now there was only one of them left, holding the kind of power outlawed by democratic constitutions throughout the galaxy. Through rational argument filtered the initial shadows of fear.
The Senate still treated Luke with wary respect - up to the point when he publicly avowed his descent from a tainted line, placing himself at the center of floating anxieties. One by one, they showed their faces, spoke their concerns and invoked the common good which could not be committed to the care of Darth Vader's only son. Reasonable doubt joined hands with suspicion and veiled hostility in a chain reaction too far gone to be arrested in compromise.
Han recalled the strange weeks that followed Endor and the deep disquiet besetting him whenever he met Luke's eyes. Their friendship had very nearly fallen apart under the pressure of change and secrets kept too long. The truth, when it finally came out, had jolted Han from his complacence. Because he could see what that double-edged truth had done to Luke. Because Luke fully expected him to turn away, now that he knew. Something of a final test, Han supposed; but the friendship held and grew.
They'd shared the first stirring of doubt when the Rebel Alliance settled into patterns of stifling bureaucracy at a rapid pace, and fear of Imperial infiltration gained a hysterical edge. Don't do it, Han repeated when Luke prepared for public disclosure, although he already knew Luke couldn't live with the secret a day longer.
The inevitable had arrived in the form of a very democratic and public trial which dragged on over several weeks, even if the results had been written on the jury's faces right at the start. Seething in the observation gallery, Han had followed every appalling step of it. Like Leia and Lando and the rest of the undaunted few, he'd given testimony of Luke's unquestionable loyalty as required, adding vocal protest he knew would hurt rather than help, but couldn't bring himself to swallow.
Day after day, he'd watched the frozen composure grow on Luke, and the few hours Han spent outside the courtroom crawled away in desolate unrest. Nothing seemed quite real anymore. But when the verdict came, his anger had long turned cold.
The slow motion of portals slipping apart brought him back to the present. Han placed his palm flat against the window and imagined the white hiss of air sucked out into vacuum. The muted roar of powerful engines vibrated under his fingers, the marginally dimmed flare of jets bit into his retina. But he still felt the redeeming elation of speed and power when Luke's X-wing slid across the flight deck, accelerating, soaring into the midnight embrace of infinity, and Han held the feeling inside with his breath until the dwindling pinpoint lights were lost among the stars' scattered splendor.
And that's where you belong, kid, he sent after Luke, releasing a long, angry sigh.
Something had come to an end. As the closing portals slowly
clipped his view of space, Han knew exactly how much he'd lost. Too much
of his own past, too much of the future that should have been. Without
Luke, the Rebellion had declared itself dead - which wasn't by far the
worst of it. Han felt a cold weight settle inside him. He was alone.
With the advent of afternoon, a mellow bronze glow enchanted the garden. Through open terrace doors, Han watched the slanting light gauze the pond and dance on leaves raked by a warm breeze. Leia slipped in so quietly he did not hear her until she stood behind his chair and rested a cool hand on his shoulder. Without turning he knew she was looking at the half-empty bottle on the side table.
"Bad, was it?"
"Worse," he muttered, gazing at the golden-green outdoors. The carefully tended idyll challenged his black mood and helped him hang on to it.
With a quiet sigh, Leia pulled up a chair for herself, hands folding in her lap as she lowered herself into heavily embroidered cushions. "Want to tell me about it?"
"What - weren't you there when the Holy Senate decreed how to deal with outlaws?" His scathing tone produced the familiar impartiality on Leia's features. Han felt the weight of her probing gaze but glanced past her, pretending to be immune. "They played it by the book," he added, every word charged with scorn. "Efficient, I'll give 'em that. If it had been somebody else... who knows, you might've been pleased. Bureaucracy's doing such a splendid job these days." His facial muscles felt frozen.
Pushed further into defensive coolness, Leia met his eyes levelly. "It's not the law itself - it's the human factor," she offered. "People make mistakes."
Han drowned a grimace in another swig of Corellian brandy. "Oh, sure. Here's the politician talking."
Irritation revealed itself in the silence Leia returned, in the small, nervous dance of her fingers undoing the braids at the nape of her neck.
"You weren't there," Han insisted. Through the drained glass he stared at the distorted view of the garden, worlds away.
They'd been over this before.
"You know I talked to Luke last night," Leia said nonetheless. "It was his choice. He said he'd rather go through this alone."
"People don't always know what's good for them."
Leia shook her head sharply. "You think your sulking made things easier for him?"
Like a long-awaited cue, her question brought on the full impact of anger, driving Han from his seat. He paced towards the door and slammed the heel of his hand against the wooden jamb. "Maybe it didn't. But I never had the chance to do any more than protest. Shout at them. Sulk."
"Unlike you," he grated.
When he wrenched his gaze from the ripples of liquid gold on leaves and water, he found Leia watching with tired patience.
"I tried, Han. I've tried every trick in the book, and I've gotten in solid with people I wouldn't normally touch with the business end of a blaster. I failed. And I'm sorry."
Honest regret cut through her countenance and Han resented it. His simmering fury demanded denial to dash itself against, not the indefinite, clouded hurt in Leia's eyes.
"Not good enough," he snapped. "And don't tell me you've exhausted your store of sweet-talking blackmail, 'cause you haven't."
She straightened, bristling. "Oh no?"
"No. They need you. You're the figurehead."
"So I should threaten to step down from office - is that what you'd want me to do?" The liquid brown eyes frosted with Organa ice. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd rather have all of us make a living on some miserable backwater, a bunch of happy renegades on the edges of the law, with our honor stainlessly intact."
"Damn right, sweetheart!" Han chilled his voice to match hers. "I've done it before, and I'm ready to do it again. With or without you." There. It was out.
Leia sank back into the sober composure always ready at her disposal. "This is about our problems again, isn't it? About you and me. Luke has nothing to do with it. He accepted--"
"He didn't have a choice!" Han bellowed and felt the clouds of alcohol clutter on the edges of his mind to ally with pent-up frustration.
Leia grew concerned at his unreasoning temper. A concern he feared because it sank into him like a probe picking up convoluted trails with automatic precision.
"What's with you?" Leia asked softly, leaning forward to read him better. "How can you suddenly question everything?"
Not so suddenly, Han might have pointed out, but he fumbled for truth instead, perusing the contents of his mind's darker chambers. He leaned against the doorjamb and answered the soul-searching gaze with blunt confession. "Takes a number of components to keep an engine running. Remove too many--"
"Or one vital part...."
"Or one vital part." Han crossed his arms. "I joined up because things fit together. Now they don't anymore."
Leia rose, the fingertips of slender hands pressed together, sad understanding in her eyes. "I see," she said quietly.
And suddenly there was a resolution to all their inconclusive arguments, although nothing at all had been said.
They let the moment escape. Han nodded, then turned out
the doors with the cold comfort of clarity following on his heels.
A multitude of too-familiar scents washed around him in the lull of early evening as Han parked his speeder in a district shabby enough to suit his purposes. He tilted his head at the glassy blue sky, traced the faded sweetness of dry grass amidst exhaust and the outdated streetlights' sodium smells. From the taverns floated fragments of sentimental music mixing with amplified voices reciting profit margins of the evening races. Han inhaled late Corellian summer, the peace of which had been unrivalled in the past decades, and it felt unreal like the pleasure-drenched fantasies borrowed from Kessel spice.
Entering the first tavern and dropping down on a wooden bench close by the open door, Han turned so he could watch the cloudless skies drown in profuse, feverish purple while he drank steadily. Empty glasses lined up on the table in front of him, he followed his own private ritual of decision-making. Conversations all around him became a background rumor, like surf against the clouded coasts of his mind. In this type of place, everybody respected a man's need for solitary boozing, and lonely in the middle of strangers randomly thrown together for the night was preferable to lonely among supposed friends. Han longed to rinse that particular solitude from his cramped mind, to exhale again after holding his breath over long weeks of exhausted summer.
Longer, he told himself. Much longer, only I chose to turn a blind eye on that.
He thought of Leia.
Leia... always up to her neck in political stratagems and issues that reached far out into some incalculable future. Her stalwart enthusiasm had forced his admiration until it bordered on worship - an entirely alien sentiment to the scoundrel who'd romanced a princess for the hell of it - but it still wasn't enough. Leia, always vigilant, but never really there. Sharing love like an afterthought to some indefinite, powerful vision of grace that drove her. And Han found himself staring into a crystal sphere filled with the shimmers of incomprehensible dreams, afraid it would crush in his rough, clumsy grip.
The romance became a figment of some-body else's mind, a story spiced with a touch of scandal to entice the crowds hooked on the holonet. But the romance hadn't survived the critical pitch of a single summer.
Taken for granted, taken to heart, plucked apart. Rhymes made up from scratch, replacing better reason.
He was getting drunk.
Drunk with a good chance for merciful stupor.
The skies outside had blackened; a curdling of clouds lay over the horizon, drawing the bleached embers of daylight to it. Somewhere far out on Corellia's oceans, solitary ships would broadcast shorthand warnings against the coming storm, and Han saw himself as a boy, running along the coast, laughing, arms flung out into the wind.
A dead silence gathered in the streets, crouching, ready for the leap. It throbbed under his breastbone just like it had years ago.
The waiting, and the falsehoods.
But then all it took was a boy's confidence and a path winding outward from the front door like a promise. Han drained his glass and stared hard at the wounded sky. He felt crackles of electricity whisper across his skin with the heavy air. He felt so goddamn alive for a short, drunken second, like he could go anywhere. And he thought of Luke.
For all the differences, there'd always been things they shared without words, each drawn to the sky out there as if born to the same dream. Han remembered walking along the Corellian coast with Luke for the first time, shouts and laughter ripped from their mouths in the wind, the unquiet ocean reflected in Luke's eyes. Just like Han, he'd fallen in love with the sea at first sight. Together they'd watched the tides turn, still confident they could take all the changes to come like they confronted the gale lashing through the salty spray. But today, change had struck full blast, come between them to eliminate all the years--
No, Han answered in silence. There's still a future.
Life never moved in a linear sequence anyway. There were the hard, fevered moments bought from meaningless stretches in between, high flights and hangovers to pay. And one look at the sky told him it was time.
A wind lifted from the east, charged with power and lightning as Han rose. He hauled in a deep, pained breath and walked away from the stifled enclosure of warmth and kitchen smells. The first threads of wind-blown rain riddled the stretch of night before him, but there was a morning ahead that would see him gone.
He shouldn't have waited for Luke to ask him along; the look on his face should have been enough. Damn you, Luke, Han thought with a strange sweep of amusement, still afraid to expect anything, right? Don't you know?
He hadn't promised to stay behind. Not that it mattered much. Over the years, he couldn't remember a single promise unbroken. Time, perhaps, to fulfill a promise never made. There was something he owed Luke who'd never had a chance to romance the galaxy. And to all that could have been. The truth was simple, ultimately.
I miss you already, Han thought, talking to the
night and the distance expanding between Luke and himself with every breath
Han lived aboard the Falcon for the next seven days. After he'd picked up a bag full of miscellaneous personal trash at Leia's place, he settled in for the wait. His expectation that the general's commission dropped on his head in the middle of war could be gotten rid of again just as fast had been proved wrong. Instead of collecting payment and walking out, he was put through a sequence of interviews with officials determined to get on to his ulterior motives. Han livened those sessions by picking on every minor regulation that had soured his short term in the military. When he returned to the Falcon, a religiously cultivated mess of worn clothes and half-finished dishes reflected every day's quiet insanity. Time passed him by like a storm front roiling at a safe distance.
Decisions made, a thorough calm had settled over him and allowed him to follow the dispute with remote amusement. He even shook hands with the fatigued inquisitors when he'd finally signed a stack of papers tagging him with all kinds of implicit obligations. Because he was waiting anyway, with the ingrained patience of the famished privateer watching for calculation and entropy to converge.
Only this time he was collecting overdue favors both in and outside the Alliance of Liberated Worlds. All he asked for was a name or a set of coordinates. And his contacts in the black market lived up to expectation.
After seven days, word reached him.
Han set out one cloudy morning, whistling in tuneless
accompaniment to humming engines, with a handful of brief good-bye notes
logged in the central com-net. Not many, considering the time he'd spent
with the Alliance, but his mind cast ahead to the future and steered clear
The place surprised him.
Han left the docks, drew a first, deep breath of nitrogen-thickened air and felt at home almost instantly. But Teiris Nine sure wasn't the sanctuary he'd expected Luke to choose.
A trade outpost decades past its prime, run down to the grit and the dust on which the Recreation Domes had been built. Glorified by the vapid spill of luminous holoscreens, inflated by architectural ambition that had come to grief midway, crawling with disreputable life of impressive variety. A place best cleared out before morning.
Still, Han's source reported that, for unaccounted reasons, Luke had spent at least three standard cycles in the city. If he'd departed in the meantime - well, too bad, but at least Han could count on a clear trail to follow. Once he'd picked it up.
Strolling past the sabbac joints and the clustering holo booths on the cheaper side of town, he began to expect Luke everywhere in the crowd. Anticipation jangled his nerves, alternated with unreasoning frustration when his gaze caught on a gleam of blond hair time and again, fooled by resemblance that didn't outlast second glances. He could spend forever like this, washed along the tides of tourism, and always miss Luke by seconds. He'd have to make a proper start somewhere... but Teiris Nine was the kind of place that provided for light travellers carrying a dozen IDs, and Port Control had no reputation to lose over sloppy arrival/departure records.
Undecided, Han climbed one of the lookout-platforms that offered no view worth the mention. He turned his back to the wind. He pushed his hands into his flight jacket's pockets and welcomed the drizzle that fell from pasty clouds, brushing his face with cobweb silk.
Disappointment built inside him; the past week of inactivity came back with a vengeance and turned every wasted minute to gloom. Close, Han thought, but not close enough.
Luke was pretty good at going unnoticed, but he'd never had much of a chance to practice in this particular environment. He wouldn't know who was watching and for what.
Perching on the wet balustrade, Han mentally reviewed his arrival hours ago. Like every spaceport this side of respectability, the docks of Teiris Nine were patrolled by the whole range of professional watchers, scanning new arrivals for potential profit. Tearaways and cutpurses hoping to divert a few loose credits their way. Spice pushers who identified their clientele's greedy restlessness at first sight. And procurers working for the local pleasure houses, who'd sidle up to lone travellers with scant baggage - preferably handsome and youthful, a rare treat on a rundown stopover like this one.
Han grinned at the notion. Where looks were subject to mundane barter, Luke couldn't hope to escape the trained eye. His best guess firmly placed, Han slid off the balustrade and toured the Domes until he'd located the most prestigious pleasure parlor. In one of the inconspicuous hockshops, he picked up a cheap-looking latinum bracelet at an exorbitant price. He buttoned his shirt down to the limits of decency and strolled into the
parlor with purposeful indifference pasted on his face.
Feminine beauties reaped on a variety of worlds were appointed around the barroom like sentries. Han swept a scouting gaze across the women's faces, caught the traces of hardness under their versed smiles. Then he climbed a stool by the bar and turned his back on them. Perfumes mixed in the warm air, sweet and heavy with wanton promise.
It took one hour and three exceptionally expensive drinks delivered in crystal before his insolently flaunted disinterest met a response.
"Are you looking for company?"
The question had been asked before in professionally cajoling tones, only this time the voice articulating it was distinctly male. And the note of impatience made all the difference.
Han turned to stare the sleek-suited questioner back into place. "Ain't none of your business."
"Then let me make it mine," the man returned smoothly, confident that the bulk of muscle clothed in grey silk would make any obstinate client see reason. "You don't seem to be enjoying yourself."
"Maybe you don't have what it takes to put the juices in my power cells."
A speculative glance slid across the bracelet on Han's wrist, and the man chuckled. "I don't think so. Allow me to give you a tour of the... facility and call your bet."
Han abandoned the chrome stool and an unfinished drink with a shrug. "Why not," he said tolerantly, adding just a touch of eagerness.
The silk suit walked ahead through parlors like a menagerie, each stocked with specimens of a kind. Strutting masculinity, feline grace, feathered humanoids, multiple-limbed dancers, and finally, a liberal selection of distinctly non-humanoid exoticism. With each new room, the music, the lights and odors catered for a different illusion. Although the privateer in him approved a well-run business, no matter what branch, Han felt his impatience simmer again.
"You know," he said, forcing a smug tone, "I'm looking for someone special."
"I can tell," his guide agreed, the polite smile worn thin. "Someone new perhaps?"
"Perhaps," Han echoed.
The next parlor was a shrine devoted to youth of every species, gender, and complexion. First-timers all, Han could easily guess, and something tightened his stomach. He recalled Luke on the day they'd first met in Mos Eisley and suddenly wished he could leave at once. But amidst the available assortment of youth he finally located a face he recognized. One of the faces haunting the docks. He pointed at the man fitting himself into the sweeping curve of the bar. "Here's someone who could help, I guess. Why don't you introduce us?"
His frazzled guide was almost glad to comply. Relieved, Han followed him across the room.
"Maybe you can take care of this gentleman's particular needs," the silk suit addressed the nondescript, stocky man and excused himself summarily.
A glance from grey eyes fell on Han. "Don't mind 'em sad flunkies that know no better," the man said. "What's so particular about your demands?"
"Nothing." With a shrug, Han dropped the client's demeanor in favor of jaded professionalism. "In fact, I think we have a common interest. You're in charge of fresh supplies."
"I'm more concerned with fresh drinks right now, pal."
"Off duty, huh?" Han took the hint and waved to the barkeep. "Nice perch you got here. I've worked all major supply-lines from here to Kessel, and believe me, the scene's turning to garbage bit by bit." Which was more than half the truth, even if he'd peddled guns and spice, but then all illegal cargo was run along the same beaten tracks.
The man grunted pleasantly, warming to the topic. "Lookin' for a meal ticket?" he asked over the rim of his raised glass.
Han shook his head and paused for effect. "Lost property."
"Grew legs 'n walked out on ya?" The man sipped thoughtfully. "Bad luck, pal. Got a description?"
"He's kinda short, looks innocent, blue-eyed blond, the quiet type." Han's pulse picked up slightly when the grey eyes lost their focus and the procurer reviewed his mental catalog.
"Yeah, I remember," he said slowly. "Didn't act like he was open game. Too good to be true, know what I mean?"
"Something strange about him - like he could be trouble," the procurer elaborated.
"You have no idea." Han took another swig of the drink that didn't live up to the charged price and forced a grin. "Yeah, but I gotta protect my investment like the next man."
"I suppose." Shrewd interest sealed the man's expression against further inquiry unless paid for.
Han brightened his grin and dropped a reasonable stack of credits on the bar top. "Know where he's staying?"
His new acquaintance graciously slid the donation into a pocket without counting. "The Pier, in the tenth district."
"Thanks." Han unlocked his fingers from the drained glass and wiped a sweaty palm on his pants.
"Hey, pal, you'd better go loaded for business, it's a rough area," the man cautioned.
"Rough like - what?"
"Tribal disputes over whatever they consider their territory these days. Mental garbage. They're holding regular riots every tenday and on public holidays."
"Thanks," Han repeated.
Busy thoroughfares cut across the sprawling outer districts of Teiris Nine. A cloud-draped afternoon was fading into dusk, and the rain had stopped when Han left the Domes in a rented glider. Urging the craft into maximum speed, he tracked the decay progressing with distance from the inner city where tourism colonized the streets. The ninth district was a cluster of decrepit freight depots, warehouses, and heavily fenced landing terraces. In the tenth district, interlocking tenements suffered under the neon streetlights that came on, buzzing like weary glowbugs, phosphorescent green struggling with the descending gloom as Han turned his glider into the main street.
Tourism and the syndicates in charge of trade had driven poverty up these streets where it turned out its own crop of anarchy. Barricades and steel shutters blinding shopfronts against bursts of violence declared that the tenth district was at war, put on hold for the night.
Han kicked in the thrusters with a strange sense of urgency. The galaxy was full of private little wars, indifferent to heroic struggles and grand schemes - and what in blazes would Luke be doing here?
Residential blocks compounded from prefab units overlooked most of the streets, but there were occasional older buildings scattered along the canal, sullen relics of an earlier settlement. The Pier was one of them.
Han stepped into the shaded foyer and stretched his imagination to picture Luke on one of the low-slung, faded settees or by the bar nestling into a corner. There was purpose to all his actions. There had to be something behind this particular choice of retreat.
Han approached the desk. The Durosian landlady pushed a registration pad his way and looked up only when he dropped the obligatory credits on top, low chinks punctuating the description he recited.
"You're family?" the landlady inquired with a tactical smile that cast additional crinkles across her brown face.
And suddenly, for no particular reason, his heart leaped into his throat.
"Sure," Han returned and winked at her. "Is he here?"
She nodded. "Gone out for the night though. Want a bed for yourself?"
At last, he thought, but through the surge of euphoria, disquiet stirred and whispered: too damn easy. Shrugging it off, Han checked in and paid. Outside the open slide-doors hovered an early evening garbed in dusty blue and neon. Securing the key to his room in an inner pocket, he turned back into the street.
There was a lot about the tenth district that reminded him of the suburb where he'd grown up. And here like everywhere in the galaxy, however unsavory the place, children grew up and played in streets they called galactic highways or dragon lanes or some such nonsense, in playful supplication to adventure that would come and lead them to deliverance. A bunch of teenagers who'd risen above fantasy swooped past on gliders. From a backyard Han heard what sounded like discharges of antiquated firearms. Maybe some adolescents had reached the next level of awareness.
He strolled down to the canal. Sharp chemical smells stirred from the black water. A siren wailed in the distance like a desolate pet and was strangled mid-scream, but Han's mind raced ahead, skipping the next few hours to picture Luke and what he would say and how he'd counter Luke's expectable surprise. I've missed you, I've wanted us to - what? Though perhaps Luke would just walk up to him with a smile, perhaps he already knew.
It's just that I don't recognize my life without you--
And together they could go anywhere.
A ruddy glow reflected on the canal and summoned his attention. When Han looked up, a bright red aura danced somewhere behind the plastene structures on the left. Reflections of a fire too hot to be explained by adolescent dalliance and the scent of white ashes drifting on the air caught him with a jolt of adrenaline. He walked towards it, drawn as always to the center of trouble he should reasonably avoid. And with a flicker of nerves he knew that he expected Luke to follow the same irrational calling.
Stagnant air vibrated with the sledge-hammer engines of an armored shuttle when Han turned around the corner to inspect the tenth-district version of hell. Somebody had invited friends to a party fully intended to get out of hand. And the riot was on as if a switch had been thrown in people's brains. Crowds washed back and forth in the street like tides pulled by a hysterical moon, the spearhead of Teiris Nine's discarded youth, for all Han could see. Some of them were throwing stones and bottles filled with explosive chemicals, some emptied the magazines of shotguns into the air, while their backup was busy adding defunct crafts to the barricades that littered the street in defiant disarray. Liquid fire drew pathways towards the gutters.
Keeping close to the prefab buildings, Han tried to read the patterns of combat. Overhead, the armored carrier lowered its bulk with angry exhalations of steam. White searchlights groped through the shadows and picked out running youths at random. Farther down the street, a timber roof had caught fire. One of the old structures built in stone and wood burned from within; swirling sparks danced on the updraft, escaping from broken windows on the second floor. And across the eddies of shouts and hammering engines, Han caught the sound of a voice he knew.
The chill of shocked recognition set him in motion, took him to a jumbled barricade close to the burning house. Somebody rammed a shoulder into him, and he stumbled, backbone impacting with an overturned glider. But through the white flare of pain he saw Luke right in front of the building, one arm wrapped around somebody slighter than he.
"Luke!" he shouted.
At Han's back, the bulky carrier touched ground. Amplified voices battered staccato commands across the street.
"Luke!" he shouted again, angered by the jab of fear in his gut.
There was a motion brusque with surprise as Luke pushed whoever he'd secured from the conflagration into the arms of a waiting group. Firelight shadowed the blond hair. Luke's head snapped up and he turned--
A scream from many throats echoed around the street as walls crumbled, bursting like sweet chestnuts thrown into a campfire. Han scrambled up the infirm barricade in time with the fire's consummation. The facade peeled off the building, and liquid heat burned into his vision. Somebody grabbed his ankle. Smoke and the stench of his singed hair and eyebrows rasped up his nose. Han kicked, slithering off the barricade. Behind him erupted the clattering boots of security pouring from the landed carrier, and a siren sang. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, the sound lost in the rumble and crash of walls collapsing over the spot where he'd last seen Luke.
Mind limited to the next five paces ahead, Han lunged
for the barricade again when something collided with the back of his head
and the world went out.
He could hold his breath for a long time.
He could hold it inside, waiting and waiting and counting the slowed beats of his own heart. In breathlessness there was security from the chaos that battered his senses wanting in, but he rocked in the cradle of entropy, swinging on. Unbreathing.
The darkness outside said that time was a finite commodity. That another of its twisting strands had withered when he saw Luke die.
Oxygen charred in his lungs. He surged with the swell of atoms collapsing back into a solid state of agony. Awakening to memory, to white light piercing his lids. The world was upside down.
Through steel bars, a uniformed security officer shone his glowtorch directly into Han's face. Gathering volition to him, Han pushed his back into the bars until he sat and surrendered a groan to the unconcerned officer checking on his life signs. Steel cooled the swelling at the back of his head. The torch beam wandered past him, stirring inert forms to resurrection all around the enclosure. And Han found himself in a holding pen with maybe twenty specimens of insurgent youth, proud and enormously pleased with themselves like newborn ignorants banged up for the first time. Arrest meant someone was finally taking their actions to heart, and where else it would take them they probably didn't care.
Han did a quick inventory of various bruises, the light burns heating his face and hands, the hornet-buzz at the back of his skull, and resolved he'd gotten off easy. By the time they were herded from the pen, thought and recollection had settled back into coherence.
Luke couldn't be dead. For someone who'd escaped an exploding battle station, last night's fires were child's play. And he was in for something, pulling a stunt like that. Han nursed the spark of anger desperately and kept repeating the only rational truth to himself until he almost believed it.
Like the rest of the group, he was delivered to a round of individual interrogation. Capable hands that took no notice of his acquiescence shoved him down on a chair. The diffuse greyness of morning stole through dusty windowpanes but lapsed into twilight several paces away from the military row of desks. Han stared at the soles of boots resting on the plastene surface before him.
"You resisted arrest," the security officer on the other side of the desk said.
Han looked at him across an immense distance and couldn't remember. "I guess I struggled because I thought someone was attacking me," he tried, wresting details from the fire-haze of the night before. "You can check with the portmaster, I'm just stopping over."
A grin appeared, notable only for its total lack of humor. "Indeed."
The man's face told Han to get ready for barter, and he worked up a grimace hoping to match the local version of camaraderie. "Come on, do I look like a snot-nosed delinquent to you? I stumbled on the scene, that's all." He leaned forward. "Don't say I haven't been cooperative."
"That you have," the officer said benignly, with an undertone of interest that left the door open a crack.
"And I haven't reached my limits yet," Han returned, grinning against the frozen feel of his face. "Look, the way matters lie, I'm gonna be fined, and that's the end of the story," he continued. "My fault. I walked into trouble, and I'm ready to pay for it. Straight away."
He waited, reminding himself that everything was for sale on Teiris Nine, lofty phantasms such as freedom included.
"That would facilitate the procedure," the officer allowed.
"I'm sure," Han said.
The transaction performed with due discretion, he followed the man past a long row of desks and young faces exhibiting the first symptoms of doubt. Except one. Close to the exit, a woman with grey hair whipping around an energetic chin braced both arms on the desktop.
"I saw what I saw," she said.
It was the splintered light reflecting between her hands that caught Han's attention and froze him mid-stride. Something snapped inside his mind, and the mortal remains of reason went into a dizzy spin.
On top of a black bundle rested a lightsaber.
"Are you listening?" the woman's voice asked. "I wasn't drunk, and I wasn't frightened. From where I stood, I could see him when the wall came down. One instant he was screaming in agony, and the next he vanished from under the stones. Are you taking down my statement?"
The black tunic was ripped and scorched. The lightsaber
was immaculate. Han buried his face in his hands.
Over the canal hung the white mists of exhaust and steam mixing in the sunlight that bled through spongy clouds. On the other side of the water, a string of laundry held two plastene shelters apart and flapped listlessly.
Han counted the squares on a checkered tablecloth, faded decorations of a private purgatory. The mists glittered as one slender finger of light caressed them and paled. He stirred in his chair, a sore stiffness reaching around his shoulders.
My feet are at the floodgates, and my heart under my feet, a voice sang from the kitchen. They'd left the window open. There was a smell of burnt grease joining stagnant humidity.
His mind came up for air. He turned to the sound of footsteps falling into the room behind him.
The Durosian landlady wore slippers and carried a teapot. Her name was Taleea Mya, she'd told him last night. Since no one could be born with a name like that, she probably kept it as a souvenir of her dancer's career in another life.
"Your lunch is shrivelling on the stove." Her voice swam up on a note of placid reproach. "I've made you some telsi tea."
She rummaged for a cup and planted it on the windowsill before him. "You're not doing yourself a favor, you know," she said, accepting that it had never been his intention. "You should eat.
"They had new pictures on the vid news," she said. "Real uglies. Bodies they pulled from that house. They might be wanting you for identification now. Not that there's much left to look at." She paused. "He wasn't your brother, was he?"
"No," Han said in a dry whisper that could have been a scream.
The vid images of incinerated human bodies did not reflect in her eyes when Han looked straight into them. She wouldn't leave before he'd sampled her tea, so he took a sip. It tasted of home and ancient grief, concentrated in the bitter aftertaste.
Han set the cup back down and found the air too heavy to breathe. "Thanks, Mya. I'm going out."
She livened her crinkles with a wry smile. "Some fresh air, hmm? 'S better than tea."
He walked, tracing his own steps of another night with less sense of purpose.
Some of the barricades had been cleared away, and a thin web of steel mesh circled the fallen wall, electricity haunting the wires. Behind the rubble of stone and timber cowered the house, staring with dead eye sockets of burnt rooms. The phantom tongues of white heat had engraved their shadows on the walls.
Han stopped on the other side of the street. He had no choice but to remember anyway and lived through the images with a sardonic sense of penance borrowed from a life he'd never led. Vestal fire in the dry, black rafters. Flurry of motion on the curb. The shadow of a man alone in the middle of the street. A face turning towards him, pale hair brazen in the voracious light.
Han counted the steps between Here and There, the seconds he'd arrived too late, heart dry and hard in his throat. The split second's delay had burned up an eternity. And he kept returning to guard the memory from desecration, as if sealing a secret pact with himself.
His first impulse had been to blast the hell out of Teiris Nine, but Han found that he couldn't - as if the universe owed him a miracle. He made a call across several time zones and told Leia they were finally paying the futility bill that would always present itself, sooner or later. Then he waited.
Five standard cycles had passed. At Han's request, Teiris Nine authorities had contacted the New Senate; back on Corellia, Luke Skywalker was officially declared dead. True to his stature as an Alliance Hero, he'd died rescuing a child from the fires of anarchy. And the judgment pronounced over the tainted Jedi was forgotten much faster than it had been imposed.
Wetness touched his face. When Han tilted his head, the sky was awash with silvery clouds releasing quiet rain. He turned and walked back to the Pier.
In the foyer, Mya hovered between the settees and the side tables, erratically swiping a duster across the furniture. Seeing him enter, she pushed a strand of thick, greying hair behind her ear and smiled. "You had visitors."
"Security." Her voice lowered. "I told them you'd gone out. Told 'em I'd no idea when to expect you back."
"What'd they want?" Han asked, forcing interest into his tone.
Mya blew dust from Alderaani porcelain and sighed. "They say they've closed the case. They left something for you."
Circling her desk, she handed Han a parcel wrapped in tinfoil that rustled under his fingers. He held it stiffly, appraised the weight, looked at it through the memory of nocturnal fire.
The landlady cocked her head, fingers moving in the unconscious gesture of unwrapping. "'S all they ever do," she said. "Close the case. And how much did they charge you for this?"
"Nothing." Han felt his mouth twitch in remote, pained amusement. "This, I got for free."
Rain pattered on the windowsill when he returned to the room where Luke had spent several nights. Han placed the parcel on the chair and went without a sound to pour himself another cup of the cooled telsi tea, then stood watching out the window, again keeping his watch over the canal, the laundry, the interlocking plastene units, with a tinfoil gleam on the periphery of his vision. He wondered at the thoughts that would have crossed
Luke's mind, standing in the same place by the window, or if he'd even noticed the deplete view. Probably not.
And he couldn't begin to think Luke's thoughts.
Thickening clouds churned across the sky as dusk crawled up and the rain fell in conclusive curtains. The world lay frozen, and time moved in the distance, like a shadow on glass. Sparing him, Han thought.
Yeah, but you can hold your breath only so long. And then it's all gonna come down anyway--
A single memory, gaining his mind, would bring on the rest.
He unwrapped the parcel slowly, placing the black tunic and the lightsaber atop the locker by the bed. His fingers traced the past across the cool, soft fabric, reached across the distance - the short, infinite distance Luke had chosen to live in after Endor. After Bespin.
Han remembered him in the unfamiliar black outfit - about the first thing he'd noticed when his sight returned, with delay, from the blinding paralysis of hibernation. The world was a big, bright blur, hot winds touched his face, and next to him, on the skiff skimming the Dune Sea, Luke stood dressed in black and strangely calm. I used to live here, you know, he said, leaning closer.
You're gonna die here, you know.
An echo of his own words tightened Han's throat, and he wanted to disclaim them, but nobody in his right mind could be that calm a minute before execution. He only understood later, when he pieced the time lost to hibernation back together. When he found out how damnably intimate Luke's acquaintance with death had become and how he'd lived on the edge of terminal anticipation for months. Life borrowed for a limited time that ran out, lived only with a shadow of his self.
A touch of winter had come to Luke's eyes, where controlled strength and fragility of feeling lived too close together, both exceeding reasonable degrees.
Han ran his fingertips along a frayed seam where the tunic had ripped, travelling in a straight line from shoulder to chest. Gentle Jedi, distant heart.
Luke, his dry inner voice repeated again and again, invoking only the wilted past - and something he'd read in Luke's eyes, a quiet implosion that would continue indefinitely.
But it's over now--
Over. Han hauled in a deep breath of humid air. The black fabric had warmed to the touch of his lingering hand, and he pressed his palm against it. Dependable like a midnight tide, recollection came rushing through the floodgates he'd opened. Images gathered at random, stripping the years down to a blunt sense of belonging and raw feeling, intense past any safety margin. Images of Luke, markers for the turning points in his own life. But the most precise memories were all of separation and reunion as if they'd never made use of the time in between. Always on the verge of departure, on the verge of words unsaid.
His hand closed around nothing, reaching reflexively into the lost past, the pointless desire to hold on and never let go--
Han bit down on his lip, every muscle in his body tight with pain that lived in the nerve and promised to stay there for good. His throat hurt as he wrapped his fingers around the cool metal of the lightsaber and touched the image.
Luke - returning from the Death Star, an explosive radiance still reflecting in his eyes. Returning to live. Arms flung around Han's shoulders, relieved breath brushing his face for a fraction. Life starting over. Like it never did in reality. From the dust of that illusion crawled up the one memory which would forever be the last.
Luke turning from him in the dusty hangar, the half-smile pale on his mouth. The end he'd refused to recognize. He'd owed Luke a life and never knew how to give it.
If only I could--
Han swallowed hard.
Countless empty moments stretched ahead of him, but he recalled only past moments with Luke, the time they'd wasted. And with all his soul, he wanted to trade the future to bring just one of those wasted moments back.
If only I could touch you one more time.
He bowed his head, rubbed his fingers across the ridges in the lightsaber's handle. Without thought, his thumb found the activation switch, and he pressed it.
Leia had braided her hair back so tightly it seemed to stretch the skin over her cheekbones. Strung out on grief and sleeplessness, she reflected his own appearance back at Han. With a clumsy hug and scant words, he halted every question and the rebellion that conquered her expression.
"Wait," he said, as he steered her through the defunct vestiges of customs control. "Wait 'til we're out of here. There's something I need to show you."
Back at the Pier, Leia entered the room as if intruding into a sanctuary, every move and glance strictly guarded.
"Is this where he stayed?" she asked, incredulity livening her tone. "But why--?"
Her eyes had already found the lightsaber, purposely displayed where it caught the spill of vapid daylight, and Han picked it up with a tremor in his thoughts and his hands.
"Watch!" he said, demonstrating how the Jedi weapon repeatedly withheld its light. His hand opened, offering the logic that harbored his reserves of sanity, urging Leia to try.
Her thin fingers, fragile like the bones of a hummingbird, wrapped around the handle and pressed down. There was a dry click.
Han closed his eyes briefly. "He lives. That's it. I knew all along."
"Han, please," Leia whispered.
She set the lightsaber aside with small, controlled movements, catching herself, handling her own grief like a piece of glass. "I know how you feel. Don't do this to yourself! You're--"
"What?" Han threw himself into the chair that took his weight with a hushed squeal.
"You promised yourself to protect Luke, didn't you? Long ago." A wan smile warmed her eyes to a deeper shade of sorrow. "You think you've failed. And you look like you've been tearing yourself apart."
"That's not the point," Han insisted.
Leia watched him as she would an emotional emergency. "It takes time to get over these things, to accept the truth," she said. "Give yourself that time."
Her tones didn't live up to the habitual persuasion. And Han didn't want to be spared.
"I've had it all rammed down my throat, Leia. It's not like I'm closing my eyes to anything." He gestured at the lightsaber. "What about it?"
"That doesn't prove anything." When she turned to the window, Leia's posture unconsciously echoed his vigil of endless days.
"The lightsaber is closely linked to the presence of its bearer," she explained, reverting to weary, rational argument. "It reflects his strengths and weaknesses, his hopes and wishes. Luke told me when he started to build a new saber for himself after Bespin."
"So nobody else could activate it?" Too much was poised with that question, and he waited only to see Leia give a curt nod.
"I've done it before." Han pushed from his chair, grabbed her shoulders. "I used Luke's lightsaber on Hoth, and it worked just fine. Luke was delirious, didn't even notice what I was doing. This thing is a replica."
Conviction wavered at last. Emotions fled across Leia's face, each deepened with disbelief, and when she shook her head doubt had rallied denial. "Luke could never do anything that cruel."
"Cruel?" He let his hands drop.
"Han, think! You're saying he staged his own death, you're saying he wants us to believe he was killed in the fire. Who else could construct such a perfect replica, if that's what it is--?"
"No one," Han admitted, backing down only so far.
"Luke couldn't be so cruel," Leia repeated, but her eyes widened, filled with thought, and her tone turned speculation into reality.
Han drew the words to him with a sharply controlled breath. The raw datum of truth was enough to dispense with the why. "He's alive," he said, needing her allegiance to back up the fledgling truth. "You should know, Leia. On Endor you could tell Luke was alive."
Suddenly her eyes swam. "Yes." She brought her hands together, to shelter nothing. "But this time... I haven't felt anything from him since he left Corellia. No call and no rupture either, total silence."
"He must be shielding himself," Leia said, her voice small and lost. From the closed circle of grief, unthinkable possibilities fled to stagger their reasoning. She drew herself upright. "Let's go outside, Han. I need to get away from here, to think."
They walked alongside the canal, their backs turned on the fire's distant ruins. Rain stirred the brackish water gently, erratically. On the other side of the canal, ancient brick walls leaned over with empty windows. Leia's eyes found a hold there.
"Why?" she asked bluntly, hands clasped behind her back for composure. "Why would Luke do this?"
The question reached out too far, well past the limits of practical sense. Han shrugged.
"Come on!" Leia insisted. Some of the reassuring sobriety struggled to the surface. "We need a reason to give us a lead."
She wouldn't like his ideas much, or the static anger forcing Han to lower his voice. "Maybe he just got tired of being a compliant, humble Jedi. Where did it ever get him? They dumped him like a detonator about to blow! Maybe he made up his mind that it just ain't worth the trouble."
"Be serious!" Leia snorted. "You don't give up the Force like you'd give up drinking."
Her disparagement brought a sudden, absurd humor awake in him. Han felt the first grin in days bend his mouth. "I wouldn't for the life of me."
Leia absolved his lapse with a shake of her head. "What else could he ever be?" Her gaze slid across the water which had turned into a black mirror as the rain lessened. "Who else could he wish to be?"
There now - another question that called forth a legion of unfulfilled, undared dreams. But from the legion rose one image, the portrait of a soldier uniformed in black. Paying tribute to an obscure inheritance.
"Who else--?" Han echoed abstractly, keeping the dawning thought at a distance for scrutiny. "How about where would he go?"
"Tatooine?" Leia dismissed the unlikely before he could answer. "Of course not. Dagobah?" Her tone fell towards uncertainty.
"Wherever that is," Han returned mechanically, his mind elsewhere. The Jedi in black. The truth exposed, too visible for anyone to recognize its dimension.
"His legacy," he said, hunching his shoulders. "That's what it is. He's not going back to the past - not that past anyway, not Dagobah. Didn't think he would. I kind of expected him to roam around looking for something new. Damn that I didn't realize--"
"Didn't realize what?" Leia's eyes seemed to probe for a remnant of sanity. "What're you talking about? What legacy?"
"Didn't Luke tell you?" Memory supplied another expressive moment, bright and available as proof. Luke bent over an Imperial console, the crystalline intensity in his eyes more than a reflection of digital stars. The stars Vader had owned. A map, a treasure, a past inherited but never lived.
"It wasn't in the official report," Han started to explain. "But I think Luke talked to Mothma in private. Vader left him several estates, something like a private fleet. A following. They sent Luke a message asking him to take his father's place. I happened to be there when it reached him."
"He didn't tell me," Leia said stiffly. "He probably felt I wouldn't want to know. I never showed any particular enthusiasm when he tried to talk about our father." Father. The word came out as if painstakingly rehearsed. Incomprehensible, alien. She sighed. "If I had--"
Too many idle question were begged on, and it took her only a second to shrug them aside. "You're saying Luke chose to die, to be reborn as Vader's heir?" she asked, placing heavy skepticism on every word. "Isn't that a little melodramatic?"
"Depends." Han studied the ragged green line a higher tide had painted across the brick walls, and chewed on every word. "Sometimes you need to cut all ties, however high the price. Sometimes you gotta pretend somebody died to start again. You know?"
"No," Leia said. "But you do."
Her reply struck where he hadn't protected himself, and the long silence filled with diffuse sounds from the unquiet district. Agitated voices carrying across a blurred distance, raised in anger or mindless exhilaration or both.
"I'm sorry," Han finally said. "I'm sorry for leaving like I did, with never a word."
"You left me a message." That was all.
Han lifted a hand to outline Leia's rich, dark braids, barely touching, and she answered with a dry smile, then stepped back.
"I could see it coming, but I suppose I just didn't want to be right this time. And to lose you both--"
"Who says you have?" Han cut in fast. "Luke's still your brother. Wherever he is." The leap of reality shot through him again, hard and quicksilver cool. He stared back at the lifeless canal, ready to leave at once.
"And you're going to follow him?" Leia asked. "And if you find him, what will you do?"
"The usual. Protect him from himself, all that Destiny crap."
"The usual," Leia echoed, a smile in her voice. "Yes, I can see that."
They had turned, walking in step towards the jutting outline of the Pier's north wing that raised itself over the canal on rust-bitten poles. Han quickened his stride automatically, eliminating Teiris Nine from memory with every step.
A hand on his arm stopped him on the corner by the decayed inn. Leia spoke his name softly, reconciliation and query, and her cool hand travelled up to cradle his cheek. Making him aware of his unshaved state of neglect when a growing stubble rasped against her palm.
"What?" he asked uneasily.
"You should see yourself, Han. You'd better eat and sleep some before you rush off again."
He let his face fold into a grin. "Don't worry. I've done both every once in awhile."
Leia's hand settled on his arm again, insistently. "You amaze me, you know. All of this, and you're not even angry?"
"Gotta make sure I'm right first." Get away, prove what he so defensively believed, escape the damnable shadow of doubt. His gaze fell. "I'm gonna beat the shit outa him for this. How's that for an answer?"
"I wouldn't stop you." Compassion insinuated itself through the pressure of her hand.
Han closed his eyes and cursed in silence, cursed the weakness spreading through his entire frame - anticipation, relief, heart-surging rage - and passion the only name he knew for the burning under his skin. When he looked up, Leia studied him, finding her answer despite his intentions.
"I understand," she said soberly.
He grimaced. "Yeah? Then you're doing better than me."
Leia offered a smile that came with barely visible effort.
"I always did, remember? Now let's go. We've got work to do before you
"You've kept me waiting," Luke said.
"I apologize." The other man took the parlor in measured strides and assigned himself a seat opposite Luke, facing the lavish curve of the viewport. "I had urgent matters to attend, not least the placating of skeptic souls less ready than I to accept that the Lord Vader's son is prepared to lead us."
"I have ended my former life," Luke returned. "I am dead to the eyes of the universe. What more could they ask?"
The facts, articulated with imperious sobriety, fell into a breathless silence within him. He could not allow a single thought of the life he'd left behind, of hopes and desires shaping that life into one of constant waiting.
The man before him nodded agreement. "They ask nothing more. And yet, given the current state of affairs, it takes time and patience. More than you and I would deem necessary." A winning smile assuaged the pause, and Luke leaned forward.
"What is the current status?"
The disintegration of the Empire was a well-known fact, already gathering dust in the galactic annals while the scribe's hand hovered over the white page, ready to record birth from the ashes. Resigning himself to another recital of the known, Luke charted the man's appearance and waited for the emergence of vision. The future as it should be, according to Keph Auron, ex-Jedi and self-appointed guardian of Darth Vader's legacy. Luke compared him to the recording committed to imperfect technologies twenty standard years ago.
A touch of frost had corrupted the pale hair, and the tanned olive skin had fallen back over high, elegant bones, the mouth's haughty line was now moderate with diplomacy. Parallel scars ran down from the left temple, curving precariously close to the slanted eye. Farther down the jaw, the scars fanned through a short beard in spidery trails.
"The regional governors still hold their own, this side of the Core," Auron said. "It's among them that we should look for allies."
"We," Luke repeated, giving the word a quizzical inflection that was picked up and considered with marked hesitance.
"Your father relied on quality more than quantity," Auron hedged, blocking one inroad of questioning while indicating another. Keeping unspecified aces up his sleeve as before. The strength and numbers of those who'd elected Vader the flesh and backbone of the Empire remained a hidden variable which Auron used for random play. Instead of demanding precision, Luke accepted the bait he'd been tossed.
"I never had the chance to know my father."
"I understand - better than you may think. Lost chances.... Your father and I were close, until Palpatine chose to reclaim his... creation." Grey eyes clouded with thought and seemed to search the parlor for reminiscence. "Palpatine feared your father's powers and resented his independence. Keeping him leashed to the throne, he forgot his fears. While we waited for a signal that never came."
"My father plotted to overthrow the Emperor."
"He knew no alternative to order and stability. Palpatine's ambitions grew too ravenous."
Vader, the benevolent guardian of inhabitable structure. Another version of a forever elusive truth, matched to the present purpose. Luke inspected the picture he'd been given to ease transition from one insecure state to the next. Too perceptive, Auron thought him starved for belief and meaning.
"Did my father abandon you?" Luke asked, barbed sympathy finding its mark. Pride festered somewhere behind the glassy repose of Auron's gaze.
"He had no choice in the matter. And he only revealed your existence to me shortly before the summons to Endor arrived."
"What did he tell you?"
The smile reappeared and cautioned Luke. "He had high hopes for you. And he wished your inheritance to be far greater than what his own hand had won." Auron's gesture implied stainless skies beyond the transparisteel dome, a bright epitome for immeasurable expanses. "The throne for Skywalker's son."
The presumption brought a soft, wary laugh. "You make my father sound more of a dreamer than I ever was."
"He had vision," Auron said with emphasis. "And that is your prime inheritance." His fingers interlaced, conjuring a hold on the atrophied past, and his voice lowered. "He marked us both, to ensure our faith to his memory."
A charged gaze sought out Luke's right hand. Luke caught an impulse to clasp the hand with his left and confirm the limits of change and similitude. Property of the past. Resentment tightened his face at the impertinent we.
"I did not know him well, nor did he know me," Luke said, neutrality returning. "Tell me more about him. About this place. Why he chose such a remote location for his fortress."
"It was his retreat." Auron smiled for the benefit of a twice-orphaned boy. "This is where he planned his new life. Explore it, and you will learn more about your father's mind than I could ever tell you." He stood, his hand absently sliding across the heavy folds of his robe. "I regret that I'm forced to leave you to yourself again. It was agreed that I should talk to you alone, but I will return - in three cycles at the latest. Then I will bring the men your father trusted, and they will pledge their loyalty to you as they did to him."
Luke nodded and let a flash of very real impatience slip. "I trust you will allay all remaining doubts."
"I shall, my lord." Auron bowed his head, but his eyes
did not lower. "You won't be alone much longer."
The fortress closed around him like a shell exuding silence stored over the years. As Auron's shuttle merged with the brilliant sky, Luke stood back from the viewport and the vista of glass towers spaced around a ledge of scarred rock. A long shadow trailed slowly across prismatic surfaces, taunting him with a semblance of dusk that wouldn't come for hours. Invisible from this perch of lone rock on a nameless asteroid, the large, gaseous planet rotated stoically on its axis, its cycles twice the measure of a standard Corellian day. And the nights extended deeper than any Luke had known, stars blotted by clouds of dust migrating through the asteroid belt.
Of the debris cluttering over the planet's equator, only a single asteroid was big enough to sustain breathable atmosphere with its borderline gravity. Hidden under a miniature curve of hazy sky, its days were disturbed by shadows of smaller asteroids bobbing on currents in the planet's gravity well. The light-shifts gave an illusion of mobility, as if the pseudo-planet were straining its leash to break away for the pitfalls of deep space.
Just as he longed to finally break away into the future, Luke acknowledged, the future he could neither see nor put into words. But there was no one to talk to anyway, to challenge answers he couldn't seem to find on his own.
A wash of brightness filtered through the belt unfocused, at once infallible and impotent. Luke let his gaze travel the sky, again searching for the invisible sun. His initial exuberance had waned with the first endless day, and he felt himself - small and ungathered like the youth Vader must have been expecting. To be shaped in the likeness of his father's aspirations. Another mold, like the one formally relinquished the day he'd departed from Corellia. Between static and incompatible patterns, Luke Skywalker was still pretty much an open promise, to be filled with himself.
The mission, he reminded himself, pitting plans and purpose against his indulgence. I have a duty to all I've left behind.
Time and again, his moorless thoughts arced to the other side of the galaxy where the sparse memories of who he'd been were kept safe. Behind closed lids, Luke relived the moment of separation - the smells of the hangar, the weight of things unsaid, the rebellion in Han's eyes. And with it came a small sting of unreasoning fear. Recalling Teiris Nine, Luke repeated his calculations, estimating the time his oblique message would yet take to reach Corellia after a sequence of prudent detours. Soon, he thought. And Han would know that he lived, long before an obituary notice ended Luke Skywalker's existence in the official records.
A pair of string-kytes sailed past the view and claimed him for the present. They were unlikely transplants from an unknown world, hatched on a transport perhaps. Unthinkable, that Vader should have cared to populate his retreat with the playful species - then again, the fortress itself had struck him with immediate surprise.
Lofty and multi-faceted, the transparent towers rose on older foundations, the basalt ramparts and parapets of a lost era. The tension between stone and glass, air and dense mass was inconclusive. Unless it reflected a division that ran through the architect's mind.
Luke found himself tempted to recognize the defined power of Vader in the stone bulwark, and shades of unknown Anakin Skywalker in the airy brightness - which was, he supposed, the conclusion Keph Auron would have applauded. Keeping the picture clear, with a bridge beckoning to be crossed in a single, logical direction.
Time to explore the vaults further, Luke resolved, turning from the cascades of tired light fractured on glass, to descend the spiralling stairwell.
Underground, a phalanx of shielded chambers provided for the spacious perfection above with environmental systems, atmosphere converters, power generators. Beyond extended the vaults he'd perused on first inspection, coming full circle through the library and study, and various chambers housing computer banks. Some were reserved for tactical simulations, some devoted to construction. Punching up random files, Luke had discovered the blueprints for prototype crafts and modifications, Vader's customized TIE among them, but all files dated back years, to a period of tranquil, technical immersion. A distant reflection of Anakin the navigator survived in the hardened sediments of schematics and arithmetics.
Darth Vader's material shadow inhabited the room next door, where the computer listed all the details of life support and half-organic replacements integrated with nerve and flesh. Steel containers around the room protected spare parts for Vader's intricate chestplate, a respirator, a set of optical scanners shining back blind from a nest of plastifoam. The morbid cleanliness struck him cold, and Luke quickly ended his visit to the grotesque parody of a shrine, committing the lock to a random code.
With a stray glance for the terminally sealed door, Luke entered another chamber of yet unidentified purpose and monumental proportions, accommodating a circular pod that was horizontally split in halves and filled the height of the vault. A curving console ran around the monochrome hemisphere with sensors and gauges and displays in complex patterns. Smells of dust and dry, ancient stone lingered despite the steel wall panels.
Luke paced the circle once. The console activated at his tapped command, monitors waking on his left with the spikes of test signals. He recognized the sprawl of brainwaves and the sparkling profusion of neural impulses. Electronic hums thickened the silence. Luke studied the empty platform at the center of the pod, bathed in liquid brightness, where something solid and timeless thrived. He could feel it play across the edges of his mind.
A chime from the console broke his concentration as the standby cycle announced itself complete. Visioning Processor ready to replay, read the monitor. Identify subjects and program.
Anticipation tingled in his fingers when he typed his name, followed by: Instruction.
The computer approved with a buzz.
Luke stepped onto the platform and felt again the curdling of something, like an atomic swirl poised to contract into solid form. On an elevated screen froze the flickers of a memory engram.
Father, he thought, openness pulsing through his mind with recklessness and dread, asking questions out of time, as every son would. Who were you? What made you who you were? And, like no other son, he'd accepted that his answer would be both barrier and link. Vader had built his self with full possession, to be unique. And so would he.
An impression from somebody else's past swept across the empty space, more material than recollection, like a millisecond burst of condensed data. Then it was gone, undeciphered, leaving him with a new definition of solitude. Luke stepped down heavily from the platform to consult the monitor for answers.
We are incomplete, the computer informed him. Supply balance or exit program.
We are never complete, Luke thought, keeping the sarcasm to himself. He wished for Han's reliable instincts with electronic intelligence while he made chance entries that eventually prompted the console to terminate the program of its own volition.
Unaccounted hours later, Luke ascended the stairs, dragging a new weight of frustration after running the cycle through a dozen repetitions of predictable failure. While his time sense inferred darkness rising towards midnight, stolid daylight enveloped him on the upper levels and called forth a chill fatigue. He'd discovered what he'd been meant to find - no doubt what Auron had intended - but the meld of mind to machine escaped his understanding, although it most certainly had become natural to his father. Luke wondered if he'd struck out on another test. Below, sheltered in the vault, cradled by the incessant flow of electromagnetic impulses, swam a lost soul and all the knowledge that could be broken down into digital codes, if only he knew how to access it. He caught himself listening into silence as if waiting for a voice to speak his name.
Balance, he thought. Darkness/light. Creation/collapse. Trite binarisms he'd trusted too long, blinded to whatever lay beyond. Supply balance, as if I had the answer already.
And with the slow passage of time, life seemed to slip from him, dancing out of reach.
A distant sound intruded on his circuitous reflections. When he looked up, the sky was as blank as before, and yet for a second he believed in the specter of another reality, of heart and home coming to claim him at last, shattering through the vitreous confinements. As if every time he'd gotten himself caught on the edge of no future and no past, the Millennium Falcon would swerve in and save the day. Reverberations stirred the air, a sublight drive throttled, teasing his senses. Luke pushed from his seat unthinking, to face up to the impossible, one hand plastered to the solidity of the viewport.
Vision is your prime inheritance, he remembered, confused in a way he couldn't afford. The Falcon cut across the sky, circling for a spot to land. Imponderable reality escaping his errant imagination - maybe not so unexpectable after all. Han.
He closed his eyes, drew back into himself, almost terrified
at the mindless happiness. He counted out several heartbeats. Hope leaped
from his mind like flashfire across dry fields. The sounds died and silence
crawled up around him, potent with waiting. Alone in the company of indifferent,
capable machines, alone on this perch of reconsideration with no one to
judge his foolishness, Luke flung himself across the hallway facing back
to the landing platform.
Dark and lean and for the moment as baffled as he, Han stood in the doorway. With no idea of the shock his presence brought on, the full presence of another reality with its colors and faces and different truths.
"Luke!" Han said, giving that reality its only name. And the parched, toneless voice revealed beyond doubt that the unimaginable worst had happened.
"Luke," Han repeated, visibly pulling himself together to close the remaining distance between them, the small, immeasurable gap collapsing under too much pressure.
Gods please no not this--
Folded in the blind, familiar embrace, Luke felt it in every motion and breath. Another man's hell.
"You're here," Han brought out. "I knew, damnit, I knew."
A hand was in his hair, touching clumsily. Gain and loss crashed into each other as Luke struggled to fill his lungs with too-thin air. His arms had found their way around Han before he could answer, holding the moment in its desperate balance. And he made himself look into Han's eyes.
"How did you find me? You couldn't--"
The hands that gripped his shoulders released him abruptly, with a shove that sent him stumbling backwards into the wall, limiting his escape margin.
"Damn you!" Han snapped, anger burning through the clouds in his eyes. "You bastard - I thought you were dead!"
"Let me explain," Luke said, sounding to his own ears like a bad actor in a bad play.
"Explain all you want to your new friends!" Han caught his shoulders and shook him, slammed him back against the wall. The collision sent sharp pain up his spine, a welcome distraction.
"To think that I split up with Leia 'cause I thought she'd treated you wrong," Han continued, his voice thick with passion. "Yeah, you had us all fooled--" His hands twisted into Luke's tunic, rough and immediate, violence on the brink of release.
"I never meant things to go this way."
"I don't bloody care!" Han snarled, coolness entering his tone. "How could you do this to Leia, goddamnit? How could you do this to me?"
Luke caught his breath, waiting. He'd seen it happen many times - the wild temper leaping from some unsuspected crevice in Han's mind, raging until it spent itself with no trace. And then perhaps they could talk. But something interfered this time, something broke the lucid anger, and Han bowed his head, hiding it. He opened his hand to let go, to turn and walk out the door the way he'd come.
Kytes had settled on the broad porch. Han's furious stride and a hand that gestured erratically sent them flushing up, translucent wings unfurling before the gently lowering sky. Han braced his hands on the rail, his back firmly turned.
From the doorstep, Luke watched. Allowing a pause that wouldn't solve anything. "Han," he said at length.
"Later." There was no intention to meet him halfway in Han's tone. "Maybe. Shit - I don't even know what I'm doing here!"
And for the benefit of both their safety, later had better not come at all, Luke thought, posing as the voice of reason. Shadows lengthened across the porch at unnatural speed, but he kept watching, trapped in a promise that had almost been made, thinking of the decisive moment just past. Like so many times before, he should turn away, leave all the implications unconsidered. But holding Han, he'd seen the empty look of death in his eyes. A fiction of death that Han had lived through with all the chilling finality. And that one moment had delivered the truth between them.
They'd come too close. Truth and feeling took off in wild flight, escaping uncounted circumscriptions that had made them safe.
Luke watched openly, free of thought after days longer than months, open to the transience of the hour, of shimmers leavening through asteroids and dust before nightfall. And there was Han. There was all he felt for the silent man on the porch who'd brought with him the swift onset of dusk. Han watching, as always, for the only truth he knew, the wintry brightness of stars mapping the night to come. If he decided to leave, nothing could stop him, and Luke knew he'd never see him again. Dusk piled its blurred shadows across the sky.
"Sleeping quarters are in the east tower," Luke told Han's unresponsive back, if only to break the silence. "I'll be there."
The final, clumsy gesture made, he forced himself to turn
inside. Giving Han the only thing he had, the only thing needed, time.
In the bedroom he'd chosen because the window that almost connected floor and ceiling faced farthest towards east, towards morning, Luke listened for the sound of engines starting up. All the tiredness had settled in his body, leaving none for his mind. The loneliness of the fortress had grown blunt and clear with Han's arrival. Absence of the life its many rooms implied, absence of his father, of meaning that tied it all together - and something Han's presence both promised and withheld.
Slipping over a razor edge of sleep, Luke heard the steps in the corridor like something contrived by tangled dreams.
"No, don't turn the lights on," Han said, his voice low as he crouched beside the bed to match Luke's eye level. "I'm sorry."
Starless night swept into the room, diffuse and yet cut out with the stark dignity the days lacked. Luke leaned on his elbow, leaned out of the dream and gestured numbly at the empty space beside himself, looking only into Han's eyes as if he would disappear.
The wooden headboard creaked softly when Han rested his back against it, hands meeting in his lap in an odd gesture that could be anything from acceptance to defense.
"I'm sorry," he repeated awkwardly, eyes fixed straight ahead on some indeterminable point of stability - as ever when things got rough.
"I deserved that. And considerably more." Luke sat up next to him.
"I didn't mean to blow up," Han continued all the same, as if he hadn't heard or couldn't take the time to consider answers. "And what I said about Leia - about Leia 'n me... it ain't fair to blame it on you. Took just another small push for things to come apart, you know."
Luke couldn't imagine over so great a distance. "I sent a message," he said. "To you both, so you'd know. I had to channel it through several relays, but I figured I had that time. Teiris Nine is that far from everywhere and everything." The night became brighter as Luke watched, with growing desperation, through the window reaching from wall to wall. "I didn't think you'd be there, Han! I saw you - I thought I saw you, but it was so unlikely. I thought I'd tricked myself."
Han clasped his hands behind his head, tilted at the ceiling. "I quit. I'm out of everything now."
Side by side, facing the same direction where nothing forthright met the gaze, they delivered explanations that didn't quite converge, testing thin ice.
"It's strange, you know," Han added and turned his face. "Makes me feel so much better."
Something in him prepared for a leap, prepared to shatter without further notice. Luke hoped his expression wouldn't report the struggle and guessed that it did.
"Look at me," Han said.
"I can't believe you're here." The voice he'd found was strange and husky. "I've missed you."
Han nodded once and continued to watch him from under the shadow of his eyebrows, quietly.
"Things are rather complicated," Luke said, feeling the first cuts of shame.
"Sure. They always are with you." Han's offhand tone reestablished familiarity just like that, out of place and time.
"Don't you want an explanation?"
A soft laugh stirred through the watch he was keeping over the night.
"It's kinda obvious, isn't it?" Han said. "You're here. Vader's home and hearth, I presume. You're waiting for somebody to show up 'n give you an idea of what you're gonna do with it all, with yourself."
Luke's face flooded with surprise as he met the slow grin stretching Han's mouth.
"I've been thinking," Han told him. "Had some time to figure things out. It works, occasionally."
And that was that, laid out before him in simple pieces cut to fit together.
"You're thinking I just went off," Luke blurted, "now that the Alliance turned its back on me - that I'd step into my father's place and be Vader's son, nothing more, as if nothing ever happened? You believe that, and you'd still come to me like this?"
Han shrugged. "I'm here."
"It's not that easy."
"No," Luke said, exasperated and, for another second, breathless.
Han shifted to a more comfortable position, making a point of readying himself for an elaborate, particularly fantastic story. "Well, what's the idea?"
It was very much like Han to fire blind questions that plunged straight for the dim heart of the matter. Luke traced a finger across the folds in the sheet, searching there for the right start. "They asked it of me," he said softly. "When I finally made contact, they demanded proof that I was ready to become somebody else, begin a different life."
"They asked you to die."
Han's tone warned him to stick to the soberest facts. Under the tolerance he'd mobilized from reserves Luke couldn't hope to understand, a storm front had been put to rest. Han's long fingers knotted, sealing it.
"Yes," Luke said, feeling the sharpness of Han's gaze on him. "It was either comply or abandon the entire plan."
"To infiltrate their group and control their actions. They're the most stable factor left of the Empire, because they operated as an independent unit all the while. The Emperor's death didn't affect them in the way it did the rest of the military and functionaries. Which makes them the Alliance's most dangerous enemies at this point."
"Knock it off, Luke!" Han laughed as if to quench another flare of temper. "You're saying you had it all planned 'n this is just some damn heroic project? Next you're gonna tell me the trial itself was a sham."
"It wasn't," Luke said neutrally. "I talked to Mon Mothma, and when suspicions about me were raised, she refrained from interfering. The Senate knew nothing of our agreement."
"You're sure testing the limits."
An unspoken question hung before him, unavoidable. "If I'd told you or Leia," Luke fumbled, his stomach made of stone, "it wouldn't have worked. It was a public trial, cameras watching every little twitch on your faces. And neither of you is an accomplished actor."
Several objections flashed in Han's eyes as he rubbed at his scarred chin. "Maybe you're right," he said, his voice falling several notes. "I don't know about Leia, but I guess I couldn't have worked myself into a rage like that if I'd known."
Luke closed his eyes. "You were wonderful."
"And you deserve to have the pants beaten off you. At the very least."
Impossible lightness entered Luke's mind. "Okay. When I come home."
"Come home? I ain't too sure about that." Han stretched his arms wide, making room for reflection. "Politicians hate to be set up. You practically used them to make your defection more believable, and if you come back a hero twice over, they're still gonna say it was a fair trial, and they'll trust you even less than before. You'd better not expect to be washed clean."
"But that's just a minor problem, right?" Han let his arm drape itself across Luke's shoulders as if to soften a blow to come. "Don't try to sell me that this is just another mission,'cause I won't buy it."
"Maybe I've always been destined to explore this road." He strained the lighter tone and added: "There's duty, of course."
"Duty?" Han shook his head. "What about choice? There's a lot more going on in the universe than just one big battle of good and evil. There are thousands of places like Teiris Nine...." He waved it aside. "But right now the question is, do you know where you stand?"
Luke made himself face the consequence. "Right on the dividing line, I suppose."
"And aren't you glad to have me keepin' you company?"
He laughed. Han's face was close when he turned, and his nonchalance offered temporary retreat from something serious and not yet safe to touch.
"Damn glad," Luke said.
"And are you gonna tell me how you found me?"
"Easy," Han answered, with all the complacence in the world.
Relieved to listen, Luke settled back and felt Han's deeply in-drawn breath against his side.
"It was just a matter of time, once I'd realized what you were up to. I remembered the map - the star chart they gave you, way back, with that first message. The nebula, that peculiar cluster of suns, and only a single planet." Han spread a hand before him. "I'm a pilot. Got a pocket in my mind somewhere to store these things."
Han yawned and grinned. "What'd you expect?"
Sleepiness was crawling into him, fully justified and sweet, and Han nudged him gently. "You'd better sleep some."
"So should you."
"I will, in awhile."
And when morning came, Han would still be there. "Forgive me," Luke said.
The look Han gave him betrayed the harsh tone. "Sleep," he said.
When Luke woke later, Han had taken his boots off and lay on his side, sprawled against sleep with total confidence, one hand curled around nothing. A thick fall of hair darkened the pillow and hid his forehead, and his skin was set off very dark against the shirt he'd opened. Luke listened to his own heart beating strangely with the mystery and the power of a promise as he watched Han sleep.
The next time he drifted awake, Han was sitting on the foot of the bed, considering the night that was still at its deepest. He turned in response to the rustle of sheets.
"How about breakfast? I'm starved, even if there's no daylight yet."
"There won't be any for hours," Luke said, crisply awake, reading the slower pulse of time in his blood. "It's up to us to call it morning."
The new day couldn't come fast enough. He was finally
ready for the unexpectable, for creation, for white skies announcing the
future - now that Han had brought back the past for reinforcement.
After breakfast, Luke took him down to the vaults.
Han frowned at the ring-shaped console that spilled its glimmers like a pledge for the kingdom of departed gods, never meant to be taken seriously. Insoluble truth resided in its memory circuits and like every truth, it knew no beginning and no end outside itself. The monitor articulated its cryptic commandments in crystalline letters that Luke already knew by heart. While Han checked the secondary systems and power supply lines, he walked the circle again, though restless and excited this time.
Lights sparkled in the upper hemisphere of the pod and died with abrupt brilliance, turning it into a euphemism for the galaxy with its thousand suns consuming themselves at the cost of light too feverish to see. At its helium-crushing core, every sun was a dark spot to the naked human eye.
"Anything?" Luke asked.
Han's fingers spoke to the keyboard with private eloquence. "Not yet. Can't seem to find any malfunction." He shook his head, remotely disturbed.
Luke stood where the circle opened but did not admit him. Hermetic perfection of a machine bred on human principles which it used to hatch its own laws, until the fallible organisms crawling around the datawell became pollution, random factors inimical to the system.
Learn your father's mind, Luke remembered. And: He's more machine now than man.
But Kenobi had been wrong. Although it had forgotten, the machine's origin was irrationality, and the presumptuous chaos it held leashed its sole purpose: to allow a hybrid afterlife. Vader's mind preserved for the eternity it would take until the sun that powered the generators scattered into the nebulosity of stellar winds.
Memory engrams wandered across one of the screens, and Han smiled absently, as if charmed by their delicate trails, more fragile than the string-kytes circling the towers. The signals disappeared, melting in brightness that blanked the screen.
"Vision processor," Han said, his lost smile ending with a twitch of sarcasm. "Indoctrination's more like it. For all I can see, this thing's an improved version of the good old brainwash."
"It seems almost too complex," Luke returned, surveying the settings over Han's shoulder.
"Sure wasn't built for your ordinary stormtrooper's everyday use," Han admitted. "It imposes memories, adapting them to the subject's brainwave pattern. Means you wouldn't just absorb the data, it'd merge with your own mind."
"Something like that." Han swept an apprehensive gaze across the monochrome curve. "Look, I'm no expert in this kinda stuff, but I suppose it'd just... become part of your thoughts, like it had always been there."
"And what if it was?" Luke asked himself and the machine. Han's sharp glance deflected on the edge of his vision. "Who built this, and for what?"
"You tell me. I've no idea." Something in Han's pause implied more, and Luke looked back at him, waiting. "It's the interactive module I can't figure out. Doesn't seem to meet the original purpose - but somebody modified this thing."
"Yeah," Han said pensively.
Luke turned again to the breach in the circular console that looked like a portal now. He moved, without thought, without sound. Glittering indicators above and under his feet like stars, he stood at the platform's center. "Let's go through the sequence once more," he said. "Maybe it's gonna work this time."
"Sure you wanna know?" Something was slowly losing ground on Han's face, exposing mesmerized curiosity and disquiet in equal measure.
"If it communicates, I can keep it from altering my memories," Luke offered.
"Communication doesn't mean it's gonna take orders from you." Han tapped the console, scowled at it, and looked up again. "I'm not too sure about the whole idea. Machines and live organisms cooperate just fine as long as they're strictly set apart. To try 'n fuse them like this, that's--"
"Blasphemy?" Luke smiled. "My father would've been flattered."
"He knew he was gonna roast in hell, and that's why he built himself this cozy little alternate." Han straightened the disturbance from his expression with a grin. "Okay, get ready to meet God at home."
"I doubt he will be that."
One instant, clacking keys and Han's gaunt grin and a notable swell of illumination made up reality. The next, reality splintered and became entirely a matter of perspective. The room around him contracted and dimmed, or maybe it was himself growing dim. Luke turned to the other doorway in his back.
The first thing he saw was a pocket of silver brightness dancing up from where the sheer curve of the pod should have been, and then darkness descended, an ultimate darkness in which nothing had ever existed, begging creation.
Where did it all begin? he asked.
From the great undecided void, water formed that mirrored no sky. He shook drops down into the polished, primal surface of things to come, dripping and falling from the sullen branches of trees leaning into invisible clouds. Shredding through branches and leaves, the clouds curled between the trees and their immense roots digging into the mud that congealed around them. Color flushed up and went wild, a surge of shades and pigments consuming the trees and hanging vines and stagnant pools, fuzzily splashed across all the outlines. Blue trees and hazed, peachy waters lapping against the bold bronze of reeds and ferns. Luke laughed in delight. Dagobah had never been so beautiful.
A lavender lizard scooted up the nearest tree, sliding through the spectacle of metamorphotic colors to watch him from pearlescent eyes - or maybe it looked right through him, because he was nowhere and everywhere at once. He said: Well--?
A man stepped from the trees, eyes bright and hair black, incredibly tall as if seen through the eyes of a child building inconsequential castles in the mud, to look up distracted by the shadow of a parent.
Anakin, he whispered, without doubt.
The man smiled and walked past, carefully skirting the child's fragile architecture, his footprints gathering water, and this time the water reflected a true depth of sky with tiny stars. He bent over, played his fingers through the dazzle left by his father's steps. He blinked his eyes.
But what is the destination of light?
A new darkness converged with motion when he drew himself up to stand, arms thrust out for balance, falling into the pool of infinite sky until it snuggled around him. A warm, underground darkness rich with microscopic organisms spinning themselves into greater things. On his skin he felt the transformation that went on everywhere in the warm, breeding darkness, contributing to this stronger heartbeat, nudging his pulse, and he gathered it all to himself.
Who are you? asked the small, blind creatures that swarmed in the soil and crawled lovingly on his skin.
I am the beginning. I am... the only one, he answered. He understood they were looking to him to give them names, to create stable divisions from clouds of formless matter and surging particles, so that when they clawed their way to the surface, they'd open their eyes to inhabitable structures. For the first time, he felt the raw substance of power inside and out, building towards change, but the voice that answered had not been his own.
No, he retracted. I am Luke. That's my name.
And who named you?
The planet's surface was incandescent with blue and green like the essence of summer shaped into a park with lakes and grassy slopes and groves of trees like descended clouds. The stirring colors continued to oscillate, slowly settling into more predictable patterns. Sunlight pulsed through the atmosphere, turning a shade cooler as if recalling frosts that had only just receded. Luke walked and felt the gravel of the path under his feet. Where am I? he asked.
Alderaan, of course. This time it was Vader who answered, not Anakin, the voice modulated with electronic precision, drifting on mechanical breaths. They stood on a ridge that overlooked a city nestling into the folds of distant mountains. Luke curled his fingers into the big gloved hand.
I've never been to Alderaan.
His father surprised him with laughter. How do you know? You're here. Is this not real to you?
Should it be?
Questions, my son. Will you never grow past that age? Look--!
But instead of flying his gaze across the mountains, cities and oceans that could be his kingdom, he turned to look at Vader and found the sunlight bouncing off the black helmet. No longer trapped in the shadows of artificial lighting or the frosts of space, the figure in black was earthy and real. He studied the mask, the triangular protrusion of the respirator, the glow set deep inside optical scanners, because in a vague way he knew he'd never taken the time before.
Now tell me, he said. Tell me everything. From the beginning.
A breath escaped halfway between a sigh and a laugh. Are you certain that's what you want? his father asked. There is a definite answer to every question, but with every answer, one of those absurd colors your childish mind has invented is going to disappear.
Leaving only darkness, ultimately? Luke asked back. What does that mean?
Black or white, both of which signify the absence of color, Vader answered with strained indulgence, are purely a matter of personal tastes. It means that darkness is a concept. A creation of your own mind, if you so choose.
"I wouldn't believe a thing, if I were you," a sardonic voice said at his shoulder. "This is pure fiction."
"Han?" Luke shook himself from surprise, turning. "How can you be here?"
"Wish I knew," Han said, his face younger than his voice. He lifted his hands as if discovering newly grown appendages. "But I can tell you for sure that it isn't just Vader's memory stored in the processor. It's drawing on your own recollections, your guesses of what it - he - could have been like. And mine, I suppose."
"The processor?" Luke asked, his mind partially lost to the question as he watched Han who was younger than he'd ever known him, his overlong hair in his eyes, his mouth softer and surly. "Is this a simulation?"
"Sort of." Han glanced around, looking for all the world like a bored teenager demanding new attractions. "But, hey - this could be fun!"
"Solo," Vader said, summoning limited patience. "Should I have expected you? Are you responsible for this--?"
He gestured at the river breaching the valley with insolent brightness riding its flow, reaching heaven. Which filled with flitters and barges and a wild assortment of airborne vehicles rigged from spare parts and fantasy. For a moment, Han looked on with irredeemable pride, then the mood faltered.
"You'd better be glad nothing of this is real, or I might be tempted to blast you."
Han's hand moved to his sidearm's accustomed place at his hip, finding it empty. His face went through another lightning change, the precocious gravity abruptly gone. "This is all just a game, right?" He grinned and snapped his fingers. "Okay - let's fly!"
They were in a roomy cockpit, under a canopy bubble that admitted light from every direction. Luke turned to his father, learning by his sudden, angry breath that Han's coup had taken him unprepared. They skimmed a soaring landscape with sapphire fields and yellow hills.
"Alderaan," Luke said. "Was I born here?"
"Never forget that you are the creator of your own origins." And briefly, the chiselled mask seemed to wear an opaque smile.
"Yeah, and Wookiees can fly." Han shot a bright, adolescent grin over his shoulder, then his eyes were caught by a barge sweeping past, its solar sail tilted to the wind, flapping cheerfully. "Hey, Luke, d'you see that?" he called. "Whoa - maybe Wookiees do fly, after all!"
They laughed together, and in his mind, Luke found the jumbled and battered treasure of Han's childhood, uncounted models of starships that he threw into the sky.
"Thanks," Han said softly.
He'd been right, Luke thought. Every answer found here was merely an extrapolation, conversion of thought into matter, to be compounded with probabilities and whatever information his father had selected for the purpose. It summed up to conditional truth. Less plausible and yet less bleak than what he'd hoped for.
"What was yours, Father?" he asked. "What origin did you choose?"
"I chose power, of course," Vader said. "I preferred activity to abstinence and indifference, and change to false security."
Disappointed, Luke turned his face aside. "You rejected the Jedi way and simply reversed it? Replacing white with black?"
Outside, mountains rushed up at them, and Han let the ship careen through their wind-bitten peaks towering in fantastic formations.
"You haven't been listening," Vader said sharply. "I solved a paradox of necessity. The very paradox you've trapped yourself in and which will continue to stifle your spirit unless you face your own destiny."
"Which is what?"
"Your teachers have deliberately narrowed your vision." With a flick of the gloved hand, Vader dismissed the play of light and color across the rocks, and they sailed on into the planet's night-side. "You were led to confuse the question of power with trite morals. Power is oppressive, therefore evil; impotence is suffering, therefore innocent and good. But you and I have been placed in positions of power, my son, and we use it. We only choose different designations. That is the only true choice you have."
"If it's destiny, then I don't have a choice."
"Use your imagination," Vader said obscurely.
"Some advice!" Han snorted, sailing the craft down to hurtle across wide, crumbling flats at breakneck speed. "There's always choice and coincidence."
"Enough," Vader said.
They stood in the middle of a wasteland stretching between flat horizons under the black dome of night. Han looked around, both hands buried in his pockets, his face both younger and older than before. "Imagine," he said softly, "all the colors you could think up to make a new start. You don't need to die to be new."
"It is wanton play," Vader snarled. "Have a care--"
Suddenly dizzied, Luke passed a hand over his eyes. "Father?"
Something swarmed, growing denser, a drain of thought and vision. Turning, he saw the clear face of Anakin and the stark symmetry of the mask and neither, all crushed into the voice that spoke somewhere on the inside of his skull. You could have followed me on my path and I would have guided you now carve your own from this --
Midnight shades with a promise of color, but for now, dormant shades of grey. Up in the bent sky that had shrunk over their heads, flickered stars fragile like the oxygen molecules dancing in their lungs.
"Imagine... who you could be."
The desiccated ground contracted under Han's feet, a chunk of porous rock afloat on the night. Luke stepped closer to him and held out a hand. We're fading.
Another doorway opened to his gesture, white and cool and deplete of form, substance, or color. Frictional gravity tugged at him, and his hand brushed nothing. Somebody cried out. Reality splintered.
Luke let his hand drop and drew the next breath with a piercing sensation of weightlessness, the zero-G thrill of falling towards infinity. Han stood by the controls, muscles moving sharply in his throat. The room steadied about them with steel curves and patterned lights.
"Look at this!" Han said in a roughened voice. On the screen before him, several memory engrams overlapped and blended their flash-colored signatures, writhing around each other. "Those weren't there when we started."
Luke motioned himself from the dead center of the pod, every moment stretched to the limits. "You remember?" The words seemed to travel an immense distance, reaching his own ears with marked delay. "You were there, were you?"
"Yeah. That's what this Balance business was all about." Han grinned shakily.
"Now what's real, and what isn't--?" Vertigo lingered in his senses when Luke stepped down from the platform, and Han caught his hand, gripped it.
"This is real." Something had shocked new awareness to the surface of Han's mind, and when they looked at each other again, they acknowledged change that would come and take them sometime soon. "Guess I need a breath of fresh air," Han said at length.
"I'll be with you in a minute."
Alone in the underground chamber, Luke hung his head, feeling the weight of exhaustion. But he made himself stay and consider the console's defiantly surrendered secrets. He read their names on the monitor. Skywalker, Solo, cornered by the scratchy lines and miasmic lights that symbolized an exuberance of cerebral activity. He shut down the console, checking and double-checking until darkness filled the room to completion.
...but from darkness formed an image as clear as the processor's inventions. The cry of gulls filled his ears and before him, a grey ocean danced, whipped into white-capped fury by Imperial hover-barges pouring inland. Luke drew a sharp breath of surprise as distant fear reached for him like the water beating against the shore.
It was impossible to calculate the lapse of time, except that another white-washed day hung over the fortress - warm and motionless and charged with humidity in the rooftop garden. Stunted pines flanked the gravel paths in dense, dark green, sucking warmth out of the sky. Trees, hedgerows and narrow strips of grass rearranged the finite enclosure into a maze to be wandered on errant thoughts.
Where Han stood, poised by the rail that guarded a sheer drop, kytes sailed on the lazy air. Han watched their flight and the gleaming ripples in their transparent wings. One of them had settled on a stone pillar, its reptilian head snapping to attention at Luke's approach.
Han turned. "I know what you're thinking," he said, his tone flat.
"It's... incredible. I keep discovering new memories as if I'd only forgotten." Luke squinted his eyes against the sunlight that poured from a granite sky around Han. "Corellia. You, Han, when you grew up there. Not just what we actually saw."
"Yeah, me too." Something sealed itself to stillness in Han's expression. "It's like our memories had been fused."
"You entered your name when you started the cycle."
"I made a guess." Han shrugged. "It asked for subjects, plural. Looks like no one's supposed to use that thing all by themselves."
"I wonder if we're still there," Luke said. "Simulations of ourselves - stored inside the processor, living there indefinitely. Forever."
"Nothing's forever," Han said automatically. "Except change. Didn't you see that?"
"And didn't you see that time doesn't exist in the Force? Only energy in infinite variation." Luke's gaze searched the garden - reality he couldn't quite reach yet, stretching under the spill of a static white noon. "You're wrong. We're outside time here. That's what Forever means."
"Well, I guess I got myself a whole lot more than I bargained for," Han said, breaking the pause with volatile mockery. "And now that we've got each other's memories to play with, we can make up our own story."
Soft laughter rippled from him. "Doesn't mean you'll have to stay on for the rest of the time," Luke said easily.
"Why, thank you, I'm glad to hear you believe in choice." Han's grin turned thoughtful. "Though I guess I've already made one."
A sharp beat of pulse forced Luke to pause before asking: "And that's what?"
"You know," Han said in a low voice threatening to roughen at the edges. "You died. And here I am."
Hands gathered on his shoulders, and questions gathered, passing through interlocked gazes to find their likeness with each other.
"Does that mean you want to stay?" Luke asked.
Han shrugged, and his tone struggled for levity. "Why not? I've got a criminal record to recommend me to your new friends. Besides, when I quit the forces, they treated me like they should have before making me a general. Like I couldn't be trusted for a credit's worth. Vader's people would be delighted if they looked up my file."
"You'd be a renegade. Now you're only retired. You could be court-martialed if you did this and later decided to go back to the Alliance."
"Same goes for you. And now you make it sound like a one-way road again. You'll have to make up your mind. Which is it?"
"I don't know. Yet. At least I'd have Mon Mothma's word to back me up."
Han grimaced. "Some help. They'd either decide that believing us serves their interests or that it doesn't. If we go back. That's what we're stuck with. You'd better be sure...."
"I know. But I feel like... I'm slipping." Before he knew, his fingers buried into Han's sleeve, gripping for emphasis.
"This is a place for fantasy," Han said, deliberately flippant. "Like your old man said, use your imagination. So, let's just... imagine."
Luke could see something new in Han's eyes for a fraction. Now that a life's memories had opened to him with its jazzy spoils from a hundred worlds, he also saw the naked panic. A great, inescapable terror of change bred by some loss that gained its impact simply by coming too early, so that Han's life seemed to start from it, and every step he took became challenge and confirmation of the terror pushing at his heart.
"What did you have in mind?" Luke asked quietly. "What about your life? This isn't safe for you."
"I can take care of myself, you know." Han nudged him playfully. "What's the idea now? Noble sacrifice?"
Luke floundered between rebellion and delight at the mocking brightness on Han's face, thinking that in this place, out of time, every decision should be his birthright and wanting it taken from him. "I want you to be safe," he repeated.
"And I went through all this trouble to be with you...." Han grinned. "Okay, if that's how you want it, why don't we fight it out?"
Han's shove to his chest caught him unguarded, and Luke found himself scrambling up from dry grass. He lunged for the taller man with tight, breathless laughter, he could see the capricious teenager Han had been on hallucinated Alderaan and thought that Han must see the same. Now that the garden was brazen with sunlight. Now that the kytes passing overhead gave startled flutters at their behavior. He wrestled with Han in play, then in earnest, their argument lost to the reality of hard muscle and bone colliding until they fell, landing winded. Han had him down in an instant.
His back pressed into the warm grass, Luke blinked against the sky that seemed to reach higher than before and the garden spreading under a greater haze of promise.
Han braced an arm across his chest, a barrier to his faster breath and heartbeat. "See--?"
Han smiled with something that made his eyes very bright and hard. "So, we had to come here to settle this?"
Watching him, the sky, the circling kytes, Luke said nothing and felt, in all the amazement, terror and a hopeless gladness bursting forth in his mind. Han's eyes took him in, and the mouth that swept down on Luke's breathed a fullness of summer into him that would never touch this place. He locked both arms around Han, holding with him an unlikely convergence of chances and vast joy. When he opened his eyes he could not recall closing them.
"Yes," he said on a faltering breath.
Every night in the fortress had been a vigil of uncertain duration. Now the night didn't seem to be long enough. Pouring into the room from the changeless sky, wide like an open hand that would never close, broken starlight strayed through the dust-choked asteroid belt. Luke had never seen a darkness so gentle, nor such a glitter in its depth.
Through his brief sleep stirred dreams of places he'd visited, but the mind that beheld wasn't that of a visitor. He wandered Corellia's shores like a sailor and loved the ocean with Han's passion for the unpredictable, always looking out to the storm to come. The dream stayed clear in his mind when Luke woke to a taste of salt on his mouth. Absurd, he thought, that they'd been given a shared past instead of a future. But the only difference between past and future was an increase of entropy, and entropy the galaxy's own articulation of passion.
This night could never be long enough.
He looked at Han, finally asleep, one arm flung across his face blocking a light that, perhaps, blinded his dreams. His chest fanned soft breaths, given to the night. Luke watched with the deepest amazement, memorizing him and the simple things that were always first to be forgotten. Like the touch of Han's hand, or the sound of his undisturbed breathing.
Just once, Luke thought. Only once, to love without reservations, without bounds.
Because to every love there were tacit limitations.
Love for Leia that could never seem to touch ground, fumbling and incredulous until it turned to comfort.
Love for the father who'd shattered his own image with brutal, overwhelming presence.
Sister and father bursting into his life to demand that he weld the incompatible together, somewhere in the unnamed middle between them. From heavens knew where came the thought that both Leia and Vader had been as close and intangible as a mirror, reflecting from the bottom of his soul what could never be, what he should have been, who he couldn't be.
And there was Han, a chosen brother, and - never mind the paradox - safer than family because he made no demands. Until it turned out that all Han asked was for Luke to be himself and get the hell on with his own life.
Until the labels that had made this love safe fell apart, with life itself on the line.
Han, never a mirror. He was earth and air and laughter, made only of himself. Luke felt his own body in his presence, stirring as if something had numbed him through the nerve in all the years before.
A lean hand came up and sought out his cooling skin.
"You're so awake," Han said. "Thinking again?"
Luke smiled. "Just a little. And mostly because I feel like I won't ever sleep again."
"You'll change your mind about that yet," Han said and took him in his arms.
Not while you're here, Luke thought, picturing
him on the morrow, ready to storm out to another black and silver horizon.
And Han's touch couldn't fail to wake his desire to embrace with him life,
terrible and alien and, because of both, beautiful.
Before every other sensation came the music it caused in his blood.
And that was what had made his choice for him when he first felt the Force. A melody of meaning woven from the brusque instincts that told all living things to breathe, bleed, reproduce. When he opened his senses to the Force, Luke felt himself mindlessly drawn into the waves of energy that sang through every molecule, extending beyond crude matter, slipping between real and unreal. Where no logic reached, the music gave him answers.
But then the rhythm changed, it became a call tapped out with growing urgency, it acquired his own voice emerging from the atomic dance binding the galaxy. And there were others answering to his call. He had felt their approach hours ago.
Luke studied his own reflection in the transparisteel surface. A gleam of blond hair, a cloak trailing like a shadow wrapped around the straight, black form, an image like an arrow poised to let itself loose. Han was watching him too, his face averted from an abrupt morning swelling outside.
"How long 'til they're here?" he asked.
"Not long. Another hour maybe."
"I can hardly wait." There was genuine curiosity in Han's mocking tone.
"Too soon...." Luke's gaze travelled absently. Auron hadn't given him quite the time he'd promised, not enough to live through the fullness of a single summer day, not enough to learn all about the processor's capacities.
Han tilted his head to the darkened stairwell. "You wanna go back there?"
"Sure. Lots of options we didn't try the last time. And there's the paradox to be solved--"
"Every paradox solved brings on another, and we all live with them," Luke said softly.
"Yeah? What's yours?"
"To be someone and end up losing myself, I guess. To have all that opportunity and power at my command and to be wiped out using it."
"You are someone." Han paused for a critical study that Luke suffered with an anticipation of judgment to be passed. "More now than before. You were like... turning into a wraith of what you should be."
Luke smiled. "I certainly feel more alive." From the mirror image, his eyes travelled back to Han. "And I have various pasts now. Does that mean I've got several futures?"
"Like the rest of us." Han shot him a lopsided grin that made way for thought in another instant. He sent a pointed glance to the stairwell. "But this isn't destiny - this is fiction. Unless both are the same."
"You're getting philosophical."
"Am I? Maybe something rubbed off on me." Han shrugged. "First things first, right. What's gonna happen next? You think they'll accept your authority just like that?"
"Maybe they see only the bloodline. Maybe to them I'm Vader incarnate."
Han's smile denied all the implications. "They'd have to be blind," he said in a lowered voice, brushing his hand across Luke's arm. "Now I s'pose I'd better stow the Falcon away someplace less obvious. She might ruin first impressions."
Luke watched him leave with a blindly returned smile fading
unseen on his mouth.
Keph Auron entered the hallway alone.
"My lord," he said, as if the words had been twisting inside him for months.
Luke bowed his head, eclipsing the viewport and his mirrored self from vision. "You have brought them?"
"Yes," Auron exhaled. "All save one. Governor Jezzeren of the Rimworld colonies could not make it to the rendezvous point on time. His convoy was attacked--" A dismissive gesture substituted details. "He will join us shortly."
"I am ready."
The grey eyes were on him, and approval streamed around Luke with the momentum of a life's expectations. "I regret to have kept you waiting," the other man said. "Although I trust there was much for you to consider and explore...."
Luke nodded. "Tell me about the processor."
"Ah." Auron stepped closer. "I wish I could have taken the time to explain more fully when we last spoke. The Visioning cannot be accessed by one alone."
"I know. Tell me about its purpose."
"In its original design, it was Palpatine's creation," Auron said. "The processor is organized around a core presence which can instruct and control subjects. There were... experiments to base the computer on cloned brain cells, but the idea was abandoned."
"And all of it only to train someone in the Force without the physical presence of a teacher?"
"Palpatine had no patience with the traditional ways of teaching." Auron paced up to the viewport and spoke with his back turned. "Then, there were failures. Some of the men subjected to the Visioning could not handle the effects of multiplied memories. It threatened their sanity. When this happened, your father stepped in and modified the processor. It now requires the balance provided by a second participant and allows a measure of communication. However, Palpatine did not appreciate your father's ingenuity...."
Luke moved quietly to stand by the other man's side. "Is that what happened to you? Did those... early experiments bring you over to their side?"
A dry chuckle was offered in return, but then Auron stiffened at the sight of a silhouette escaping the east tower's shadow.
"You have a visitor? Why wasn't I--" Cool awareness formed in his eyes when they fell on Luke again. "You have shielded his presence from me. And you've been through the Visioning...."
"Yes," Luke said impassively. "I found it very instructive."
"Indeed." Every echo of sentiment had fled but for the first time, Auron's speech departed from the script. "Your deepest hunger is for knowledge," he said slowly. "I understand. Infinite, reckless curiosity has always been the Skywalker way." A smile referring back to the past died untimely. "It is unfortunate that you accessed the Visioning without my guidance. Now you'll depend on him."
"I understand that," Luke cut him short.
"Do you?" Auron insisted. "The Visioning establishes a permanent pattern. It's too late to undo the link."
"Too late for what?" Luke asked sharply.
"For me to share my memories of your father. It was his wish that in this, I should be your instructor."
"And be bound to you?"
"Like your father--" There were slender scars on the back of the hand that cut the answer mid-sentence.
Han stood in the opened door, unmoved by the scathing glance that apprehended him.
"You should have trusted me," Auron told Luke. "Come now.
It is time."
The prime directive of war ruled that the enemy never had a face.
And so much of the soldier had gained Luke's mind that, entering the reception parlor, he was passing into another country where he would learn again how to speak and move. The line-up shifted to attention, their eyes reflexively raised to the air above Luke's head in expectation of a different stature. It almost made him smile.
"Yes," he said softly, refusing to make himself taller in their eyes. "I am his son."
Some of the fifteen men standing ground before him were dressed in informal robes, but they wore them like uniforms, and their gazes steeled back the belligerent curiosity with which they mourned his father.
"Give me your names," Luke asked, because when he looked into their faces, the Empire finally came apart for real. And the way they studied him, he wondered if that truth had just infested their minds - and if so, what it would do to them.
A life secretly devoted to the revolution that would set all things right didn't necessarily include vision beyond. The cult of conspiracy easily assumed the place of ultimate goals and often worked much better at that. All they needed was a guarantee of rebirth, the promise Vader had made.
From the phalanx, one man stepped forward and the first answer struck out into silence. "Taro Ryatt," he said. "Weapons design on Perdamen Four."
Luke turned to look him fully in the face. The search for doubt, loss, and limit would come later. For now, the face and the name were enough.
He listened with all of his mind, memorizing each word for future use. Some of the men who paraded their careers before him commanded entire worlds or extensive facilities; others the war had left with a handful of battered crafts and a shipment of disillusioned recruits.
It doesn't matter, Luke thought. I will build from this, if I ever build anything.
Names to map the future, compounded from the usual chaos of coincidence, choice, and the provisions garnered for better days.
And then the introduction finished on a note of expectancy. His turn came and with it a touch of fear at this particular silence, no matter how well he'd rehearsed his speech. He was on a stage, wandering the no man's land between the actor and his role. Luke made himself hold the silence a moment longer, then took half a step towards them.
"By coming here, you've placed personal loyalty above the letter of the law," he said. "You've already faced unexpected changes, and there will be more, if you accord that loyalty to me. I'm not here to rebuild an Empire the wild growth of which my father mistrusted. I wish to follow my father's vision, but I have my own understanding of it."
Surprise reflected in everyone's eyes, except perhaps Auron's. It pledged their attention to him, and he encountered power in its most basic form: the power to shape meaning from arbitrary words. His voice filled with it.
"Control implies measure," Luke continued. "Discipline, intelligible structures, solid principles. And patience - which Emperor Palpatine did not have. If you expect a war against the Alliance, you're following his path, not mine. Nor my father's, I believe."
On the edge of his vision he caught Auron's smile. Luke changed to a different tone. "You probably guess that I have other reasons to refuse such a declaration of war, and you're right. Although the Alliance exiled me--"
He could feel Han at his shoulder, wearing the stony expression practiced in sabacc dives across the galaxy. And the final part of his speech was the hardest anyway. "It is one thing to renounce a life and another to destroy the possibility of that life for others," Luke said. "I want no revenge. If I were to turn against former friends and allies, you should by rights mistrust me. Because you'd know that I would betray you just as fast. With you, I wish to build the order and stability my father dreamed of - from what we have. And it shall prove itself from within."
"What if they fight us?" a voice from the phalanx asked.
"I will warn them not to," Luke answered.
Glances strayed to consult with each other. Luke held the sweep of relief inside with his breath and allowed only a level smile. "If you wish to discuss this amongst yourselves, I will go and await your decision," he said, turning.
Han and Auron locked gazes over his head like meteorites on a collision course. Both followed him out of the parlor.
"It won't take long," Auron promised, his smile brilliant. "You are truly your father's heir." When Han stalked from the hall without a word, the grey eyes tracked him as if considering an epitaph. "Don't let doubts weaken you," Auron added. "That is behind you."
"I hope not," Luke said drily. "Unless I leave sanity behind with it. There is no clarity without doubt."
Auron merely inclined his head, then went to rejoin the
assembly. Watching him, Luke let a long breath escape and thought, with
the familiar blend of elation and vertigo: What have I done?
He found Han in the garden, in the same place where they'd talked and fought and embraced, to call on transient security in the still eye of the storm.
Han's face was shuttered in nonchalance. "So that's what you call infiltration, huh? Didn't look like much of an act to me."
Luke stood before him, something plying at his mind as if the storm had shifted focus to twist right through his reasoning. "They'd never trust me if I told them only what they wanted to hear," he said.
"Yeah, you feed 'em half the truth and pretty soon you won't know the difference anymore."
The shadow of a tumbling asteroid slithered across the grass.
"You knew what I was going to do," Luke said. "What about helping me see the difference?"
"You think I can make you notice anything you wouldn't wanna see?"
"If you couldn't, who then?"
Some of the tension broke with the sharp breath Han drew. "Okay, here's what I see right now. You're trying to do two things at once - shaping yourself into something you think you can live with and shaping a world to support that. It's not safe, and it won't work."
"Maybe I'm not safe to be with."
"The world's not your mirror, Luke. It can't be. You'd get pretty lonely, too--" Han caught the hand that reached for his arm, offering anchorage with the warm pressure of his fingers. "Okay, I suppose you know. Now tell me about that guy - Auron."
"The dislike is mutual." Luke smiled faintly. "But there's much I can learn from him. And he must have faced the same choices once."
"Yeah, only I'd like to know - are you his Vader-substitute, or his revenge on your father?"
Luke let his hand drop to his side. "I don't intend to be any of what he expects."
The bright day reasserted itself with light falling through the pines. Han leaned against the balustrade, head falling back until he saw only sky. "I can tell he's doing his best to tear your heart out, kid."
He smiled into Han's eyes and said: "Nothing."
Or too much. The silence had changed between them since their descent to the vault, since the night. Han looked away to study the random patterns his bootheel scraped into the white sand and gravel.
"The processor," he said. "Did you ask him about it?"
The data Auron had shared camouflaged logical gaps and begged a hundred new questions, raiding Luke's mind while he repeated the scarce explanations. Han listened, with no disturbance showing on his face.
"So the guys they first tried this on went schizo," he said eventually. "Nice."
"Because they struggled against it, I think."
"What if one of them's Auron?"
"There's a possibility."
"Yeah, right." An unexpected grin crossed Han's face like the sun coming out in his eyes. "Why is it that you always wind up with hazard wrapped around you like skrani spider-web?"
"You're the one to talk--" Luke reached with his mind, a reflexive motion like the lifting of a hand that swept through the time/space matrix to regroup its components. "Life's not a game."
"Why not? Games come with their own rules, you know."
Balance, Luke thought, and opened his mind to the memories of a shared life.
A visual pulse went out and flashed through them both - midsummer blue and steel, zoning for the cerebral cortex to carve pathways of its own invention. And the music of the Force ran through it, a synaptic wave, until the deep blue sky curved over them, sheltering twin suns. Forms coalesced from color burning into Luke's eyes, bronze and brass, and the wind sang between the rocks.
Han scrambled up from the metal carcass of the glider he'd crashed against the walls of Beggar's Canyon with a proud, dazed grin. "Can't believe you ever made it through the Needle in a race," he said, uncut hair falling into his face.
"Want me to show you?" Luke asked. He was the smaller boy batting sand down his oversized tunic, but when he turned, a pair of arms clamped around his waist, and Han's breath touched the back of his neck, cooler than the desert wind.
"Not a chance. We go to the ocean next."
A pale shadow of dusk outlined the edge of the sea where they stood, and next came a wild spray of stars against the night gathering overhead.
"Hey, I never knew I could make stars," Han said with awe and longing for all the distant fires out there.
"I did." Luke closed his eyes and leaned back into him.
Leave me, take me with you whenever, wherever you go. He wished he could have asked.
Do you only ever think of leaving? Fingers drifted through his hair, and he felt the cadence of Han's breath against his shoulders.
The vision faltered like a breath exhaled; Luke opened his eyes to the tired colors of the garden and tepid daylight. Only a slight vibrance lingered in the nerve, harsh desert heat and the salty tang of the sea....
He turned in Han's embrace, seeking Han's mouth with his own until the brightness returned and crawled on his skin.
"This is incredible," Han said, his voice gone soft with amazement. "It doesn't wear off, does it?"
"Auron indicated that once established, the link is permanent." Luke rested his forehead against Han's chest.
"Might get a little confusing, if it comes 'n goes like that."
"We can control that. I'll show you."
"Gods, how strange." Han chuckled uneasily. "So this is forever, huh? Can't say you didn't warn me."
There was, of course, no Forever, except with oneself, and solitude deserved the name of hell more than any discreet terror of the flesh, Luke thought. He'd been taught and believed that the spirits of the dead Remain In Light, but perhaps the hereafter resembled only the skeletal data stored in the processor. Virtual existence dependent on mortal eyes and curiosity, to be prompted from the other side of reality. And if that was so, memory alone conquered death - for a limited time.
But who would remember us?
He thought of Anakin, whom no one now alive recalled.
"Luke." Han drew his arms into a tighter circle around his waist.
On another level of time, past and future made no difference, and where all was Now, he was saved. Alive, unthinking, not alone.
Luke held on for another moment more, insisting until their time was up.
"Is it that you want to go through this alone, or is it that you worry about me?" Han asked.
"Both." Luke paused, inevitable decisions pushing at his mind. "This is... what I need to do."
"Yeah, I can see that." Han's eyes declared both acceptance and the battle fought over it. "But remember - only because you can't be one thing, that doesn't make you the total opposite. You can be... maybe not anything you want, but there's a whole lot more you could have."
"Maybe this is only the first step..." Luke paused for a beat, caught off-guard by the premature impact of loss. "...and there's a future I don't see yet. But I've got to make a start here. Alone."
Before I can ever have you.
Han released him, straightening as if to avow a pact.
"Something's happening," he said at last. "We'll have to go back inside."
Auron had moved only a step into the garden, and there he froze into a sculpture of overlooked impatience.
"We've had word from Governor Jezzeren," he announced
across the distance. "Hear for yourself."
The phalanx had broken up. When Luke returned to the parlor, the visitors besieged a com terminal, broadcasting the clear signs of disquiet. They distributed themselves into a loose half-circle, decision in their eyes that invited Luke into their ranks.
"What's happened?" he asked.
A hand-held comlink, buried in the terminal's socket, called forth a dance of signals on the monitor.
"The Governor's convoy has been attacked by Alliance forces en route," one man answered. Shaved immaculately clean to suit Imperial fashion, his cheeks and square chin were nonetheless darkened by the afternoon shadows of a strong beard. General Karm of the Fourth Core Battalion, Luke assigned the man his name.
"The Governor tried to mislead the pursuers by dropping out of hyperspace outside the nebula and found himself trapped there," Karm said.
On cue, the monitor rained random flickers into a solid picture that showed a cluster of vehicles leashed in the gravity field of a large Corellian cruiser. A wide fan of medium-range crafts guarded the nebula's rim.
"How could the Alliance know?" Auron asked, his voice sharp with suspicion. "This location must be kept a secret absolutely. Its defenses won't hold against the frontal attack of an entire fleet."
"A single cruiser is all I see," Luke said, equally terse. "We'll have to find a way to disrupt the gravity field."
The General leveled an exacting stare at him. "If you know of such a way, then lead us."
Luke nodded, watching himself and the assembly - a narrow circle about to wed end to beginning - while the final transition occurred almost unnoticed, like a step taken in a dream. "I will," he said. "Have your ship standing by."
They filed past him, command and purpose straightening their backs, but when the last of them cleared the parlor, Luke knew that without words they had committed their trust. It brought a settled pleasure to Auron's expression and reflected in Han's rebellious gaze.
"Hell, Luke, this is going a bit too fast for my taste," Han said below his breath.
Luke looked to Auron. "Give us a minute."
Alone, they walked around to the eastern wing where a slender terrace sloped down hostile, charcoal rock, carbon outcrops reflecting only minimal light. The Falcon's battered hull protruded below the cliff, and the look Han gave her plotted a course already.
Luke turned away. "We're not fighting them, Han," he said, hands gathering into fists. "If we manage to destabilize the gravity field only for a second, then the Governor's ship can make a break for hyperspace."
"Sure - but if you come in close with an Imperial frigate, chances are they'll think you're attacking."
Luke bit his lip. "So... what do you suggest?"
"I could do it," Han said, the doubt in his eyes at critical mass. "I know that cruiser's design. They must've hooked the tractor beam to the hyperfield generator to pin down a ship that size. Takes just one precise shot to disrupt the shielding and the tractor beam's gonna backlash into the generator."
"Doing - what?"
"It'll set off a shock pulse, like a split-second space/time distortion. All ships in the vicinity get hurtled into hyperspace."
"Without any chance to calculate our course."
"It's the only way with no one gettin' hurt, damnit."
Luke forced his hands open and his shoulders back before he turned. "And then you'll leave," he said, not a question, his tone testimony of the darkness in Han's eyes. "There's no way to make this safe for both of us."
The gaze that held him frozen filled with a furious clarity. "Maybe not," Han said. "But it's even less safe if you keep thinking of it as part of the plan. Destiny. Remember what your father said? About the Dark Side? It's just a concept, but you're turning it into religion. You really wanna live in a world of black and white?"
Luke shook his head. "But what's your alternative? We'd all be dwellers in shades of grey."
"I wouldn't mind," Han said huskily.
"If you're right, this is only the beginning." And possibility opened before him, wider than he'd ever expected.
"It has to be," Han said. His deep breath admitted the loss they shared. "So this is it, huh? We go our separate ways again."
There was the familiar shadowplay of moorless asteroids on the glass towers aspiring for the sky, and where the light beat down, time ran out definitely. Luke held out a hand that Han took in his own, shielding it.
"Only for a while. And it doesn't compare," Luke said, holding on to something found in the gap between future and past. He thought of the garden, the breeze haunted with pine, and he loved Han more than life - and
with him, a life to come.
"What will you do, Han?"
"Haven't had any time to worry about that yet." A hint of the crooked grin reappeared. "Something will come up, and I'm pretty good at taking things as they come."
Luke traded a smile for the sadness gripping at his heart and thought how Han had always invented himself according to the requirements of the moment.
"Luke - promise me...."
"Anything," he answered, unthinking.
"No, don't promise," Han said. "Either it's gonna make
a difference, or it won't. Just... remember."
The nebula spun itself outward into blackness from a lost core of gravitational collapse. Stars glinted from pockets of interstellar gas, a wanton ornament in the frozen veils exuding their gold and turquoise-rimmed green like a rumor from the kingdom of summer. Taunting the mind that dreamed to congregate beauty into form and contingent energy into thought.
From the bridge of General Karm's frigate, Luke watched their weaving progress through the nebula with the peculiar distraction sometimes imposed by change, as if the brain repatterned itself and switched into standby mode for the time it took.
Come to the edge that you might learn to fly - he recalled from somewhere.
The frigate passed an archway of gases that glowed a sharp hydrogen red, like a heart standing still. Alongside General Karm's ship floated a second frigate with its retinue of fighters, while the rest of the convoy stole through the nebula's outflung arm. The Falcon had slipped ahead to come up on the Corellian cruiser from below her underbelly with an advantage of surprise.
Clicking footfalls counted out time as the General stalked past the row of consoles dividing the flight deck. Around the bridge, monitor arrays shone maps of the sector fragmented into convenient squares. Colored blips crawled across the grids like insects dragging a winter harvest home, all drawn to a secret point of convergence. Luke studied their current position and located the slow dive of the Falcon drawing away from the twin swarms of Imperial ships.
A new set of steps intruded on his silence.
"We should consider strike tactics in case this strategy fails," Auron said, a pace behind him, unspoken objections cooling his tone.
"It won't," Luke returned.
"Your confidence in this man Solo amazes me."
"It should not. If you've checked intelligence reports, then you must know why the Empire placed such a high price on his head."
"That's not what I meant." Auron's voice had dropped to gentler tones, and when Luke lifted his eyes away from the monitors, a bland smile awaited him. "In time you will learn to trust me like your father did," Auron said. "He feared that your teachers had smothered your passion, but I can see they failed."
"Yes," Luke said, his voice dry.
Through his mind ran the warning - from passion rage, from rage destruction, from destruction Darkness - the inevitable chain reaction of Yoda's principles that he'd struggled to disprove, to uncover the non sequitur that would set him free.
Auron shook his head. "You know your own path. Do not squander your passion. Use it with discretion, and it will make you more powerful."
A chimed signal relieved him of answers as the frigate escaped the nebula's outer membrane and the Corellian cruiser came within visual range. General Karm stood by the forward viewport, watching their convoy arrange itself into a loose circle. At the center of the view, the cruiser sat, a slate grey behemoth cradling the captured vehicles of Governor Jezzeren's group to its shadow.
"Commence," Luke said quietly, joining the General who took his order with a clipped nod.
Imperial fighters swerved from their ranks and launched themselves against the cruiser in playful disarray. Confused fire spattered silver across the hazy purple of the nebula. The General signaled for a bridge officer to broadcast a standard hail demanding immediate surrender.
Luke turned to the com console and read its twin pulse: with the audiovisual transmission rode an encrypted signal that would inform the Governor of their intentions and relay coordinates for the rendezvous. Confirmation stole up in another second.
Leaning toward the voice pickup, Luke opened a channel. "Han? Are you in position?"
"Standing by just outside their scanning range." Han's voice filtered through on a tinny note. "Hey, you gotta give me a pretty precise estimate here. The navicomp says I've got about ten seconds to skin out ahead of trouble."
The news struck him cold. "And if you don't make it into the shockwave, what happens?" Luke asked.
"I'd be a sitting duck." Han snorted. "Not goddamn likely."
"I know, I know. The Force is with me." There was laughter in his voice, the usual levity borrowed from hazard and challenge.
"Go!" Luke whispered, his mind already flung past the limits of carbon-based consciousness, expanding a mortal second into breathless quiet that reached across. And without effort, the response came.
I will be there.
Halting stillness enfolded his senses with a thousand memories across the years, the first part of the waiting ahead.
Then the contact was sundered, and his heart became a dead weight inside him, pinning him down to the reality of the frigate's bridge.
On the monitor, the blip indicating the Falcon marched up to the Corellian cruiser while at the same time, the cruiser's fighter escort broke formation to chase after their Imperial counterparts, teasing them into chaotic flight.
Luke felt the rhythm swell in his nerves as he tore himself open to the Force and channeled it. Distance collapsed. The Corellian cruiser became a toy populated by hundreds of crew, hundreds of minds seeking to unite their logic, all in his hand, and all he had to do was take them inside him and close their eyes gently, creating a blind path for the Falcon--
Something jolted through the frigate's hull, and the taste of metal was on his tongue.
"Shockwave approaching!" he heard General Karm call across the bridge. "Brace for impact!"
Luke turned to the viewport in time to face the brutal assault of a repulsion wave, overloading all sensors with a madness of color. A white haze charged the flight-deck as the frigate was wrenched into hyperspace. Abruptly, the displacement in space and time snapped him back into himself as if countless strings had been cut, dropping him into vertigo. Luke grasped the console and caught himself.
Outside the viewport, silver bursts of combustion light faltered, and the surge of power ebbed in his body until all he felt was a numb pounding in his temples, the reverent touch of Auron's hand against his arm.
"You have succeeded," he said.
The bridge crew gained control of the ship and eased her from hyperspace where interstellar desolation materialized to glittering blackness, parsecs away from the nebula. General Karm straightened from the scanner board.
"The Governor's convoy has made the jump with us," he reported. "Apart from our group, one Corellian fighter was caught in the shockwave. Shall we proceed to the rendezvous?"
"Not yet," Luke said. "We will detour to the nebula first. Lay in a course to take us back to a point outside their scanning perimeter."
Nothing in the General's face betrayed doubt or objection as he repeated those orders, but Auron shook his head. "We may yet be drawn into the very battle you wanted to avoid," he said under his breath.
"If the Alliance has captured Han, he will be court-martialed," Luke snapped.
"Evidence of our latest scans suggest that we encountered not Alliance forces but part of the battle group commanded by the former Corellian governor. He has been Jezzeren's enemy for years."
"Are you suggesting they'd take more kindly to Han's actions than the Alliance would? We will return to make sure he got away."
But even as he faced him down, Luke knew that, again, Auron was working with a hidden variable, and the knowledge touched him like cold fingers to his wrist.
The frigate shuddered through another jump, a steel arrow
sailing the vortex of incandescent hyperlights.
Where the cruiser and her escort had hovered, empty space spread, a velvet cradle for the bruise of the nebula and the chrome stars that emblazoned its gaseous folds. Luke stepped to the monitor and read the fading energy signature, testimony of the Falcon's jump to hyperspace.
"He won't come back," Auron said at his shoulder.
"Maybe not." Solitude reclaimed him. Luke's hands went bone-cold with a chill sweeping into his lungs like a breath of hard vacuum.
"I wonder," he said slowly, facing Auron to force truth into the grey eyes. "When exactly did you realize they were not Alliance forces? Did you set up this little incident to test me, to make me demonstrate my power?"
Auron closed his eyes briefly and smiled.
In his calculations, Han's life had been a negligible factor, a random element; the chill deepened as Luke reviewed all the decisions based on Auron's version of truth. "If you think to betray me--"
"How could I betray the Lord Vader's son?" Auron asked at once.
"Is that all you see?" Luke heard his voice over a distance, over a cloud of anger that swirled and thickened - from passion rage, from rage destruction - Darkness--
"I understand your loss," Auron whispered, reaching a hand to his throat. "But what could this man be to you? A mercenary with no understanding for the true nature of power.... What else but a cumbersome weight from the dead past?" His shoulders hunched forward as he took a step closer. "Let him remember you for what you can never be. Let him keep the image of the Jedi," he said. "Don't you long to be kept safe like this, before the memory is lost - just like the memory of Anakin Skywalker was lost forever?"
Luke drew a silence around them that committed the bridge to oblivion.
"He abandoned you," Auron insisted. "Just like--"
Like my father left you?
In the bright grey eyes, Luke saw the years of waiting, and the waiting was an ache that never stopped.
"Your father," Auron whispered, the words severed by jealous silences. "I never saw his mask removed. Not once--"
Death mourned long past the point of surrender - my father's death, Luke thought, and the tie that binds him.
He caught it in his fist, felt the banked anger again, but the darkest part of the fire burned something far brighter than rage.
"Never speak of that again," he said, ripping the tie that bound them both to the past.
Something of both despair and elation assailed him at the look Auron returned, reporting that he'd just seen the father brought alive in the son.
Auron's head lowered. "My lord."
Luke turned and gave the orders to resume their original course. His eyes met a reflection of himself in the viewport. A body lean and hard and cool, guarding its mystery, because he still didn't know what it was that moved in him and stirred and lost the moment of redemption.
He closed his eyes staring back at him. Come to the edge that you might learn to fly.
And whoever else he could be.
But there was no one left to speak his name.