The Truth
by MJ Mink

When he was five years old, they told him the truth. The smallest details of that day were engraved on his memory. He was certain they were memories, because no one had ever talked about that day again. But the pictures in his mind were as vivid as if he had just opened his eyes and looked at them. ...Playing in the mound of sand he'd built in the center of the courtyard, hearing the adultsę raised voices, Owen and Beru and Ben calling him inside....

He was only five and, for better or for worse, the path of his life was changed forever.

* * *

ĜSit here next to me, dear," Aunt Beru said.

Luke climbed onto the sofa beside her, and she put her arm around him. He flew his toy speeder across her lap, making zooming noises until she took it away. ĜPay attention, Luke. Uncle Owen and Uncle Ben have something to tell you."

ĜAbout school?" he asked eagerly. ĜIt's only three days!" Three days until he could go to school in Anchorhead - finally! All the kids would be there, even the older ones. He was so thrilled, he could hardly wait.

ĜPartly," Uncle Owen said. ĜLuke...." He squatted on the floor and leaned forward, his big hand curling around Luke's shoulder. ĜYou need to stop doing those...things...that you do. You can't do them at school."

ĜWhat things?" Probably those things that made Uncle Owen mad, but he didn't know how he did them and he sure didn't know how to stop doing them.

ĜDon't be difficult, Luke. You know what I mean."

ĜLet me," Uncle Ben interrupted gently.

Uncle Owen returned to his chair and sat scowling at them. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Luke, you have a special gift," Uncle Ben began.

"Can I have it now?" he asked excitedly. "What is it?"

Uncle Owen grumbled something.

"You already have the gift," Uncle Ben said. "You can do things that very few people can. You know things that other people don't. Not many people are like you."

"You are." Thatęs what Uncle Owen said. Just like damned old Ben, and sounded angry when he said it.

"Yes, I am," he agreed. "You and I can do these special things. But you must not let anyone else know that you and I are different."

"Are we bad?" he asked doubtfully. That's what Uncle Owen said.

"No, just different," Uncle Ben said slowly. "Luke, I have to tell you secrets that you must never, ever tell anyone. Only you and me and Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen know. These are very special secrets, dangerous secrets, and I'm asking you to be a grown-up about them and never repeat what I tell you. Can you promise not to tell?"

"I promise," he agreed enthusiastically. He liked secrets. "I know lots of secrets and I never tell."

"That's good. But these are especially secret secrets. If you tell anyone, I could die. And you might die, too. People would kill us."

Now he didn't like these secrets. He was scared. He'd seen animals dead in the desert, and once heęd found a lizard that was really sick and he'd stayed with it while it died. It made him sad when it just lay there in the sand, empty.

He stuck his thumb in his mouth. Aunt Beru took it out, saying absently, ĜDonęt put dirty fingers in your mouth, Luke,ĝ and held his hand.

"You and I have the power to access the Force," Uncle Ben said. "The Force is an energy field that surrounds us and -- Well, it lets us do special things that other people can't do."

"Like magic?"

"Sort of." Uncle Ben sighed. "Some people who use the Force are called Jedi. I used to be a Jedi."

"Am I a Jedi?" Luke interrupted.

"No, but you could have been," Uncle Ben said, looking sad. "Right around the time you were born, all the Jedi were killed by the Emperor and Darth Vader. I escaped and I have been hiding here."

Luke thought about this. He'd seen holos of the Emperor and Darth Vader. They both looked scary, and Uncle Owen said they were really mean. "Did they get killed 'cause they were bad?"

"No, Jedi were good."

"Then why did they get killed?"

"Sometimes good people die, Luke, when evil people want to destroy all the good in the galaxy. Do you understand why you can never tell anyone about you and me? And you can never let anyone know that you can do magic. That means you can't call your toys to you; you have to go over and pick them up. You can't tell people when something is going to happen before it happens -- like when a sandstorm is coming or when Tuskens are going to attack."

"But...." Luke stopped, overwhelmed. "Those are good things. To help people."

"I know. But you can't do that anymore. You will find other ways to help people."

He cuddled closer to Aunt Beru. She smelled good, like cookies. "Okay."

"You understand?"

He nodded, pouting. "But I don't like it!"

"Neither do I, Luke." Uncle Ben glanced at Uncle Owen. "There's something else I have to tell you."

"I still say it's a bad idea," Uncle Owen said harshly.

"It's necessary," Uncle Ben replied shortly. "Luke, it's about your father."

He put his thumb back in his mouth. This time Aunt Beru let him keep it there. He didn't like to talk about his daddy or his mommy. They died when Luke was very little and that still made him feel sad.

"There's no easy way -- " Uncle Ben paused and sighed again. "Luke, we didn't tell you the entire truth about your father. We told you he was a spice smuggler and a bad man. The truth is, your father is more than bad. He is... evil. He killed all the Jedi. He tried to kill me. If he found you, he would kill you. Or he would make you be evil like him."

That was a lot to think about. He felt a tear slip down his face. He thought his daddy was only regular bad, but he was really really bad? His daddy killed people? How could his daddy want to kill him? "But heęs dead."

"No, he isn't dead. He's -- "


"I have to tell him, Owen. He has to know. It's the only way to protect him." Uncle Ben's finger went under Luke's chin and tilted his head up so their eyes met. "Luke, your father is Darth Vader."

* * *

Contrasting the clarity of that day, his memory of the long-awaited first day of school was blurred. Of course, over a decade had passed since then, so maybe he didn't remember simply because it had been boring. He did remember that he'd thought a lot about his father, feeling dazed and confused; he remembered because he still felt that way. When he was a child, My Dad the Smuggler had been a kick, an exciting, forbidden thing to boast about, and that was the lie Owen encouraged him to continue telling. But as he grew older, it had become something else, something darker. Luke Lars, the smuggler's bastard, they called him. Ugly as it was, he supposed it beat being known as Darth Vader's son, although that label might have given him respectability or at least fearful respect. Or maybe even self-respect.

In the old days, before he knew the truth, he'd been ignorantly happy with his life. Even at that young age, he and Biggs had tried some skyhopper racing behind Uncle Owen's back. He'd had dreams of adventure: flying in space, doing great things, being a hero.

All that had changed when he learned the terrible truth. His father was the weapon of the Emperor's wrath, the strong arm of the Empire. Luke had to be careful not to use the Force for even the smallest things, to always pretend and lie... or he would turn out the same. You would become evil like him.

To hell with all of it. Luke pulled the hat farther down on his face as he leaned back into the patch of shade offered by the 'hopper.

"So you're not going to school at all?" his best friend asked.

"Screw school." He drew a long draft from the glitterstim stick, blowing out puffs of smoke into well-practiced globes. He'd tried every variety of cheap, low-quality spices that he could buy or steal, but glitt was his favorite because it could make him forget who he was.

"But the university placement test is today," Fixer said nervously.

"So? Why do you care? We're screwed anyway. Our grades are so bad, we'll never get off this rock."

"Yeah, Ięll be stuck running this place. At least you can be a smuggler like your old man, get to travel."

The label would never leave him. "You're such an ass," he snapped, irritated. "You think it's an inheritance, like I'm automatically the member of some damned labor union?"

"How in hells would I know? I'm just a mechanic, always will be."

"Then why are you worried about the placement test?" he asked shrewdly. "You don't need a degree to fix engines."

"I'm not worried. I just thought...."

"Go then. Quit your friggin' whining and go!"

"Ięm not going if you're not going."

He swore under his breath. "Damnit -- go." There was more emphasis in his voice than he'd intended, and he realized guiltily that he had just used It... the Force, the bane of his life. He wished It would just go away.

"Fine, I'm goin'!" Fixer yelled, pushing himself off the ground.


After his friend stomped away, Luke ground the stick into the sand and closed his eyes, pretending he was in space and couldn't hear the muted sounds of Anchorhead echoing from the other side of the Station. There was no point in taking the test. Even if he passed -- and he probably would, despite his lacking of studying -- Owen would never let him leave Tatooine. In a few years, he could go on his own... but should he? He hated to agree with his uncle, but the logic was irrefutable: Luke Lars was dangerous. He carried the blood of Darth Vader in his veins along with the same destructive potential, the same evil. The galaxy doesn't need another Vader, his uncle declared often enough, and Beru always nodded in sorrowful agreement, her dark eyes holding a hint of fear as she studied Luke. Her expression haunted him and, now that he was older, he realized she had always looked at him that way.

But was it possible that anyone could be all bad? He'd seen the Dark Lord on newsvids and read about his exploits, his military campaigns, the political reforms he instituted that seemed to occur with less frequency as the years passed and the Empire strengthened. Luke thought it was only natural to be curious about his father and want to know him. It wasn't fair that they were apart. Unless the things Ben had told him were true. Maybe Vader would see him as a threat and kill him, or turn him evil. But maybe he wouldn't. If only there were some way he could see Vader, even just observe him from afar, just to get an idea what he was like....

Luke levered himself up to reach one of the brews he'd stashed in the back of the speeder. Popping the lid, he tilted his head back and swallowed a cool mouthful. A shadow fell across his face, and he glanced up from beneath the brim of his hat.

"Playing hooky, Lars?"

"What of it?"

Biggs Darklighter dropped onto the sand next to him. "Fixer says you're not taking the placement test."

"No point." Why was Biggs bothering with him anyway? They hadn't been friends for years, a long time before Biggs went off-planet to school. "What're you doing here?"

"Semester's over, I'm on break. Then I'm heading for the Academy. Officer training."

There was only one place young Tatooine males meant when they said "the Academy" in such reverent tones. The Imperial Naval Academy, the training ground for pilots and ground crew. They accepted almost anyone for ground crew school, but to be an officer and a fighter pilot -- that meant you were the best of the best. Even an insignificant backworld like Tatooine could produce a Navy pilot. "Congratulations," Luke said dully, chugging the rest of the brew.

"You could do it, too, if you applied yourself," Biggs replied, sounding like his teachers.

"I'm never leaving Tatooine."

"Why not? Just a couple more years and you'll be free. There's nothing to be afraid of."

"I'm not afraid!" he snapped furiously. Hurtling the empty bottle aside, he reached for another.

"Right," Biggs drawled. "You'd rather be a loser and a drunk than take a chance and get out. Move to Mos Eisley then; you'll fit right in with the rest of the failures."

Luke glared at the bottle. This is what had come between him and Biggs in the first place -- the truth. Biggs didn't understand -- couldn't understand the dangers he faced, and Luke couldn't tell him the truth. No one could know, ever. He maintained a sullen silence, resisting his desire to explain. The truth would only make everything worse. So much worse. Hi, Ięm Luke Vader. Maybe youęve heard of my dad.

"I wish you would talk to me. Maybe I could help." After a moment, Biggs added: "Is it Owen? Has he hurt you?"

"How many times do I have to say 'no'?" His anger dwindled into weariness. "It's not him, it's me. Just me."

"Stars, Luke!" Biggs shook his head, frustrated. "I can't help you if you won't tell me -- "

"I didn't ask for your help." And there's nothing you can do, anyway.

"Right," his companion said. "Well, good luck to you. You'll need it. I'll...maybe we'll meet each other again one day."

Luke watched silently as the older youth rose and walked away. "Biggs!" he called suddenly. "Good luck!" And be careful, he added silently.

Then he stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle, and settled down to do what Biggs and everyone else expected of him: get drunk.

* * *

Coming in too fast, he clipped the edge of the speeder's fender on the garage entry. He didn't care, but it made enough noise to bring Owen and Beru rushing to the scene. Luke ignored them and concentrated on finishing parking very carefully before climbing out of the speeder. His foot hooked on the door and he fell. Picking himself up, cursing, he reached inside and switched off the engine.

"You're drunk!" Owen raised his voice even though he was only an arm's-length away.

"Tell me somethin' I don' know." Luke pushed past him, heading for his room.

"Oh, Luke," Aunt Beru sighed sadly, but he didnęt respond, in no mood for another endless lecture about how disappointed she was in him. ĜWe trusted you not to do this again.ĝ

ĜNo you dięnęt, you never trusted me,ĝ he slurred.

ĜOf course we --"

ĜYeah, when? Maybe when I was three, did you trust me when I was three?ĝ he shouted over his shoulder as he stumbled through the passage.

"He's just like his damned father," he heard Owen tell Beru, and fury rose inside him, heating his face and blinding his vision. How dare they?

"Anakin was never a drunk."

Luke paused behind the doorway, struggling to control his anger as he strained to hear them. Anakin? He'd never heard that name before. Fumbling for a stylus, he scribbled it on his palm.

"I wish we could enlist the damn kid and get him some discipline, but there'd be hell to pay if..."

Their voices became indistinct murmurs. Staggering to his desk, Luke flipped open his datapad and scratched 'Anakin' on it, just to be absolutely certain he would remember it in the morning. Then he flopped onto his bed, closed his eyes against the spinning room, and fell unconscious.

* * *

It was afternoon before Luke felt awake enough to get up. He vaguely remembered Owen trying to rouse him at dawn to go work on 'vaporators before school, but to hell with that. He indulged in a quick sonic shower, then detoured to the kitchen to grab a leftover drumstick from the cooling unit. Back in his room, he remembered that he'd scratched something on his hand the night before. It was smeared and unreadable. He looked at the datapad lying open on his desk. Yeah. Something....

He snatched it up. 'nikn'. What the hell was nikn? No, that wasn't it, but close... inikn, enikn, anikn... Anakin. Beru said something about Anakin being his.... No, that couldn't be. His father was Darth Vader.

Wasn't he?

Luke inhaled sharply. Had they been lying to him all these years? His heart raced faster as a feeling he hesitated to identify as Ęhopeę rose in it. He wished he could confront Ben and ask him what the real truth was, but Kenobi was gone, killed by Tuskens during a raid six years earlier. The idiot, throwing his life away trying to save some kid they'd snatched. The brat had died anyway. A fool's death, just like Owen had said. Protect your own. Never die for a stranger.

Whatever. Back to 'Anakin'. Maybe it was simply another name for Vader. Or maybe not. Either way, he needed to find out, and it was a sure bet that Owen and Beru would never tell him the truth, not if they'd kept this secret from him for this long. They must have hated him a lot to have told him that Vader was his father. Fine, the hell with them. Mos Eisley had better databases than Anchorhead. He would skip school today -- well, not today, no point since the day was half over -- tomorrow and go into Eisley to do some research.

Hells, maybe he could even enlist. Maybe he could get into the Academy as a mechanic.
He vowed to be on his best behavior for the rest of the day so Owen would have no reason to be suspicious.

On second thought, his best behavior would make Owen suspicious.

With a yawn, Luke returned to bed to dream about a faceless stranger named Anakin who welcomed him with wide-open arms.

* * *

"You're not taking the speeder this morning."

Luke scratched his head and a strand of hair fell into his breakfast cereal. He fished it out and stretched it on the table where it swam in a small trail of milk. "Fine. You can drive me to school."

Predictably, his uncle declined. "I don't have time for that," Owen growled. "Damnit, if you take the speeder, I don't want so much as one more scratch on it."

"Whatever," he drawled, knowing how that response pissed off his uncle.

"I expect you to pay for the damage you did."

"Take it out of my pay." As if Owen ever paid him for his work.

"Get a damn job! And don't dilly-dally after school, I need you back here."

"Dilly-dally?" he repeated. "I never dilly and hardly ever dally. At least not when anyone can see me."

Owen pushed back his chair. "Your smart mouth will be the death of you one day."

"You wish," he called, but his uncle was already out of the room.

"You shouldn't bait him like that," Beru remonstrated gently.

Luke shrugged. "We'll never get along. Just accept it." He stood. "See you later." Maybe.

After Beru went back to her kitchen, he raided Owen's 'secret' hiding place, drawing a fistful of credits from the niche before sliding the door back into place. Then he threw a backpack with some clothes in the back of the speeder, just in case the Imps let him enlist. The dent in the fender was deeper than he had expected, and there were long white scrapes gouged into the dusty red finish. He rubbed his sleeve on them, but they didn't disappear, so he quit trying. Lifting the speeder out of the garage, he pressed the accelerator all the way down and took off like a laser shot. Wind rushed through his hair, occasionally snapping it into his eyes as he sent the vehicle through some sharp turns that it wasn't designed for. It stalled once, but he managed to restart it and zipped past the outskirts of Anchorhead on his way to Mos Eisley.

Reaching the city, he slowed down and entered at the garrison end, knowing the guards were used to seeing him and would just wave him through without a demand to see his papers. This city-entry inspection was stupid, really, considering the Imps didn't monitor the docking bays. All the excitement came from off-world, not from the boring moisture farmers or chattering Jawas.

He nodded to the trooper, not bothering to stop, and the white-armored figure gave him a disinterested flap of his hand. Luke cruised through the streets, checking out the action, which wasn't much at this hour. All the entertaining people were probably still asleep with hangovers.

He parked the speeder outside Offlander's Cantina, shouldered his backpack, and wandered indoors.

"Lars." Granv nodded at him from behind the bar, setting up his usual cheap Corellian ale. "How's school?" the man asked dryly.

He flipped a few coins on the counter and snorted. "Friggin' boring and a waste of my valuable time."

"Like you have so many more important things to do," the man mocked.

Luke narrowed his eyes. Alderaanis always acted like they were better than everyone else. "You bet," he replied easily. "I'm planning a big career following in your footsteps, serving scumbags in a filthy dive."

"As if you have any better prospects." Green eyes flashed at him. "You'll be dead before you're thirty."

"I hope so, I'd hate to get as old as you," he said flippantly. He downed half the ale. "Actually, I'm thinkin' of enlisting."

Granv smiled slightly. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

Flushing, Luke finished the warm beverage in two swallows. "I'm a little smart for a stormtrooper, bro. You won't catch me on the front lines, risking my life so some ugly old man can own another planet."

"Talking treason, boy." Granv took his empty mug and waved him away. "Get on with you. Go harass someone else."

With a sloppy salute, Luke grinned before departing.

* * *

The Central Databank was open, but with nothing to go on other than "Anakin", his search was hopeless. There were a gazillion Anakins in the galaxy, but not one named Anakin Vader or even Anakin Lars. What kind of galaxy was it where a kid didn't know his father's real name, Luke wondered wistfully. He didn't bother to look up Darth Vader; he'd done it so often that he'd memorized the Dark Lord's publicity blurbs.

Jedi and Sith and Force stuff were more interesting but harder to find. Mostly there were vague references to their sorcery, dismissing Jedi magic as sleight-of-hand and hinting that Sith magic was far superior and infinitely more secret. Over the last couple years he'd gotten some ideas to practice, like moving things around and using his voice to command others. What he really wanted to do was fly without a ship, but he hadn't found any references to that and wasn't yet ready to jump off a cliff to see if he could do it.

Finding nothing new about the Force had been added to the database, he left the Databank and wandered over to the garrison. A uniformed man was at the gate instead of a trooper, and Luke didn't know him.

"Hi." He leaned on the ledge of the gatehouse window.

The soldier gave him a bored look. "Whatever you're selling, we don't want any."

"I'm selling myself," Luke snapped, then bit his lip. "I mean -- "

"I know what you mean, and you should go to a brothel for that."

"I mean I want to enlist!" he declared indignantly. "I'm a mechanic."

"Uh-huh." The man eyed him skeptically. "What are you, about twelve years old?"

"I'm eighteen!" Twelve???

"Uh-huh. On your left, Room C."

"Okay." Well, that was easier than he'd thought it would be. Luke walked through the dusty yard, wondering if he really wanted to enlist. The uniforms were pretty cool looking. Maybe he could be an officer instead of a mechanic. The mechanics wore baggy gray jumpsuits and all looked alike. Trooper armor was the coolest, but then he'd get shot at. Besides, he'd heard that most troopers were clones so they probably wouldn't accept him.

The sign outside Room C read Recruiting with changeable lettering that today stated "Lt. Jovay". Luke peered around the doorway. A young uniformed man sat at a table looking very serious as he studied a datascreen.


The officer jumped and hastily closed whatever he'd been looking at. His face flushed slightly.

"Come in. How may I be of assistance?"

Wow, he was polite! Luke decided to copy him. "I'm interested in enlisting. I'm pretty good with my hands. As a mechanic, I mean. Do, have any openings?"

"We always have openings," Jovay said, chuckling. He was human and a bit older than he'd looked at first glance. "How old are you?"


One eyebrow raised. "How old are you?"

Luke hesitated. "Uh...seventeen."

The lieutenant rested his chin in his palm, focusing green eyes on him. "How old are you?"

"Nearly sixteen," he confessed in a mumble, stretching the truth by a few months.

"Come back and see us in two years." The dark head bent over a datapad.

Frowning, Luke folded his arms and didnęt budge. "Don't you have a junior brigade or something?"

Jovay looked up and laughed, leaning back in his chair. "Sorry, kid. Good try, though."

"If I come back in two years," he persisted, "can I really sign up? Can we check to see if I'm eligible?" If he said he was the son of Darth Vader, odds were that they'd let him into the Navy in a heartbeat. Probably as an officer. Maybe even an admiral.

"Sure." Either the officer liked his spirit or he was bored, because he opened a new screen and his fingers poised over the keyboard. "Name?"

"Luke Lars." He leaned forward eagerly. "I live outside Anchorhead with my aunt and uncle and I really want to get -- "

"No such person," Jovay announced. "Want to give me your real name?"

"Oh." He gnawed his lower lip, considering. "Try 'Luke Vader'."

Jovay frowned at him. "I don't have time for games, kid. Come back when you grow up."

"I'm not -- " He gave up. "Okay. But could you know, check that name?"

The man studied him. "Are you an orphan?"

There was a crack in the military facade that Luke could work to his advantage. He nodded solemnly. "I don't know who my parents were. My guardian likes to compare me to Lord Vader, so I thought maybe.... I know that's stupid, but...."

A bout of coughing didn't succeed in totally covering the laughter. "I'll check." Jovay typed something, then looked at the screen. "It says here that Lord Vader has no offspring."

"Oh." He hadn't expected confirmation, but it was still disappointing.

"You could have a blood test," Jovay said. "That would tell you the names of your parents."

"Could you do it?" he asked eagerly.

"Sorry, I can only do it for legitimate recruits." Jovay sounded genuinely regretful. "But there are several places in town that will do that for you."

"I don't have much money."

"Then try Murino's on Curved Street. He's cheaper than the rest, and you'll get the same results that you would anywhere."

"Wow, thanks!" Luke exclaimed enthusiastically. "You've been great! I'll see you in two years!"

The officer smiled and nodded, and Luke bounded out the door in search of his destiny.

* * *

He started on his way to Murino's, determined to stop nowhere, but Curved Street was full of interesting things to see. Some places -- well, he just liked to peek in the windows and watch until he was chased away. After a few sneaky looks at activities he suspected weren't entirely legal in any galaxy, he wandered into Kaslah's Parlor, one of his favorite haunts.

"Hi, Ka!" he called cheerfully to the old woman who was bending over a Rodian's rump, giving him a neon yellow tattoo that showed up very brightly on his green exterior.

"Yuh," she mumbled, tilting her head to examine her artistry from another angle.

"You'd better hope he doesn't -- "

"Mind dat mouth, boy!" Her grin took the edge off her words. "C'mere, give Ka sweetums."

"Ewww," he protested loudly, but complied, brushing his lips against the sun-ravaged skin on her forehead. Folding his arms, he watched her laserpen create an unfamiliar design. "What is it?"

The Rodian replied something incomprehensible. Luke doubted he would have understood even if the being's face hadn't been burrowed into the mat.

"Der god symbol," Ka said. "You here fer dat 'too you keep talkin' 'bout?"

"Only if it's free."

"Huh! You buyin' glitt today?"

"Maybe later, if I have enough credits left."

"Done. Up, you!" She slapped the Rodian's butt. "What buyin' today?"

Maybe a set of parents. "Stuff, nothing special." He averted his eyes from the Rodian redressing and opened Ka's cooler. "Can I have a brew?" he asked rhetorically, flipping off the top and taking a swallow.

"I go broke wi' cusęmers like you, boy. Good ting you so pretty ta see."

A blush warmed his cheeks, but he pretended not to hear her compliment. "Thanks for the brew. I'll come back later."

"You buy glitt, I give you 'too free. Maybe dat x-wing you likin'."

"That'd be great," he said fervently. "See you!"

Wow, he'd look terrific with the x-wing tattoo on his left shoulder! It could do battle with the TIE fighter already emblazoned on his right. Careful not to spill the ale, he flexed his arms out in front of him, imagining how envious Fixer would be. Fixer's folks wouldn't let him get tattooed. Of course, Owen and Beru wouldn't let Luke do it either, which is why he never showed it to them. Or let them know what he really did while he was supposed to be in school or at Tosche. Like he always said, what they didn't know would never hurt him.

Entertained by his own cleverness, he belatedly discovered he had passed Murino's and had to double back. It was a real hole-in-the-wall, not even a door. Pushing aside beaded curtains, he stepped inside and immediately wrinkled his nose in distaste. What a mess! A single bare table with two stiff chairs on opposite sides, all coated with a fine layer of Tatooine's finest sand. One interior door, closed.

"Anybody here? Hey! You got a customer!"

No reply. He tried the door Ĕ locked -- and prowled impatiently around the small room. "Hurry up! I don't have all day!" Plopping into a chair, he drank the rest of the brew, anxious to finish it before it got warm.

The door clicked, then opened. A redheaded man entered, hastily buttoning his shirt. He was probably a Corellian. They always found time for their assorted and varied pleasures.

"Good morning," the man said in a cultured voice, and Luke revised his opinion to Disgraced Alderaani, Banished to Tatooine. "I am Ewani Murino. How may I be of assistance?" He sat behind the desk without offering his hand. Definitely Alderaani, the snobs of the galaxy.

"I'm Luke, no last name. That's what I'm looking for."

Murino nodded; obviously he'd heard similar requests many times. "A blood test. Fifty credits."

"Fifty?" Luke exclaimed. He'd expected it to be three times higher.

With a vague gesture of his hand, Murino said, "Forty, then. Can't go lower."

He blinked a few times. "Forty it is," and handed over the credits.

"Thank you." The Alderaani went into the back room and returned with an old-fashioned, oversized datapad that he put on the table. "Push up your sleeve."

Luke obeyed. "Will it hurt?"

"Of course. Is that a problem?"

What a strange question! "Uh...."

"For a painless test, go to Quesnel's and pay five hundred credits." Murino pulled a dirty cord out of his back pocket and tied it around Luke's upper arm, since they both knew he didn't have five hundred credits. "Say 'ah'."


"Joke." The man sighed. "You people never understand jokes."

He was tempted to make a smart reply, but Murino had an ancient-style hypo in his hand -- one with a needle, for sith's sake! -- so Luke had no intention of offending him. "Sorry."

"Not your fault. Brought up badly. Working class." Murino smiled and jabbed the needle into Luke's arm.

"YOW!!!" he yelped, involuntary tears filling his eyes. "Kritpeth! Does it have to hurt that much?"

"Mmm... no, I enjoy inflicting pain," the Alderaani murmured absently.

Luke looked away from the vial slowly filling with blood. His blood. He felt queasy. ĜI thought you only needed a drop of blood for a test.ĝ

ĜTrue.ĝ The man squeezed his arm as if to pump out the blood faster. ĜThe rest is for my collection.ĝ

Luke groaned and hoped the guy was kidding. "Is it almost over?" he asked weakly.

"I'm done. You can open your eyes." Murino pulled the needle out of his arm, untied the band, slapped a steripatch on the wound, and reached in his pocket again. He pulled out something small and stamped the back of Luke's hand. "A medal for your bravery."

Irritably, Luke rubbed at the inked likeness of an Imperial Medal of Honor. "Thanks a lot."

"Welcome. Buck up. In just a minute more, you'll know who your parents are." Murino manipulated the datapad. "Galactic Database... Medical.... Do you need both father and mother? ...DNA...."

"Both of them." Excitement filled him. In the midst of his pain, he'd momentarily forgotten why he was going through this. He leaned forward, sliding to the edge of the chair.

"Don't fall off and sue me. Huh, both parents. Whatęd they do, dump you here?"

"I doubt it," he replied coldly. "They probably died."

"Of course." The tone was one of polite disbelief... then it changed abruptly. "Oh, kritpeth demrat!" Murino cursed violently. "Krit! Give me your datapad -- quick!"

"What?" Luke panicked, throwing off his backpack and fumbling through it for the datapad.

"Hurry!" Murino cursed again. "No wonder you don't know who your father is -- godsdamnit, where's your datapad?"

Luke found it and threw it at him. "What's wrong?"

The Alderaani downloaded his information, then tossed the datapad back to him. "Now get out of here. My inquiry sent an immediate notification to the Imps, and it'll be forwarded to the base in a few minutes. They'll be after you."

He stood, bewildered. "But... I don't understand!" It Vader really was his father, why should he be afraid of stormtroopers?

Murino grabbed his arm and hustled him toward the beaded exit. "You're a Jedi's kid," he hissed. "The Imps kill Jedi kids...and now they know you're here. Get out of here -- off-planet if you can. And destroy that datapad once you've read it. Krit!" He looked at his own pad and the vial of blood. "I'm screwed, too." There was a pause. "But I'll talk my way out of it." Murino looked at Luke. "Which are you, deaf or stupid? Don't you understand? Get out, hide -- if you want to live."

Luke ran. After a block, he realized he was attracting attention, so he slowed and matched his gait to the other casual strollers in the business district. But his heart was racing and he could barely grab a breath.

Jedi kid?

Just who the hell was his father?

* * *

He took a shortcut through Shezar's Emporium and wound his way to Pleasure Street where he slipped into a narrow alley, hopefully unseen by anyone of authority. The datapad was slick from his sweating palm, so he wiped it on his shirtsleeve before switching it on. Heart pounding, he took a deep breath to steady himself and began to read.

There wasn't much, just bare bones to lure him on a search for details. But the names were there. Names, homeworlds... and one more notation.

Anakin Skywalker*, Tatooine
Padme Naberrie, Naboo
*ALERT: Jedi


Anakin Skywalker.

"Luke Skywalker," he whispered. He shivered, his eyes misting for a moment before he blinked them clear.

A name. At last he had a name, one that belonged to him and no one else. He wasn't Luke Lars or Luke Vader. He was Luke Skywalker.

It was a fine name.

He slipped the datapad into his backpack. No way was he destroying it! He wanted to be able to look at the names and hold them in his hand when he needed to be reminded that he had parents. In fact... maybe he could find out more about them right now!

Forcing himself not to run, he walked as quickly as he was able to the library archives. It was underground, beneath an emporium, unposted and unadvertised, and seemed to be frequented rarely. In fact, he'd never anyone else in it except the librarian. Luke had happened upon it by chance one day when he was exploring, and it was the source of much Jedi information that he hadn't found in the Galactic Database. The information was historical and mostly dull as dust, but today he had a purpose -- today he had a name.

The elderly librarian was sound asleep as usual, so Luke tiptoed past him and around the stacks of dusty datadisks until he saw the wall that had a small flap close to the floor. It looked like it was covering a vent, but he knew better. He crawled through it and slid down a ramp that led to the concealed room. It was cool with a hint of dampness, and he had to squat in front of the old screen because the low ceiling wouldn't accommodate even his less-than-impressive height. It was as if someone had wanted to hide the room, which seemed ridiculous because he'd found it easily.

The screen took its sweet time flickering on, as if it was deliberately testing Luke's patience. Eventually it was as ready as it was going to get, and he drew a deep breath before typing in a single word: skywalker.

Krit, he hated this old machine because it binged and bonged and clicked so loudly it could wake up the dead... although not, apparently, the old librarian. It took forever, probably two whole minutes, before data began marching across the screen. He squinted at the jumbled bright letters streaming across the dark background, wishing desperately that he could download what it was spitting out, but its ancient port wasn't compatible with todayęs datacards, even the older type like he had. Part of the screen winked on and off, and he struggled to grab whatever words he could... akin... ywalker... edi Knight... pilot... Clone Wa... warrior... Jedi Council... to Chancellor Palpa... missing, presumed de....

Krit, krit, krit! His teeth ground together with the effort of not shouting the words aloud when the screen went black. Frustrated, he pounded the side of the monitor with his fist and -- it came back to life.

But this screen was different, promising a graphics selection. Could it be a holo of his dad? Or his mom? Or both of them? Excited, Luke tapped the icon and waited for another endless download. When it finally finished -- oh, it was a moving holo, those were so rare! Before he could consider the semi-miracle he'd been offered, a shaky scene appeared, old-style fighters exploding across the screen, zipping past and looping around each other in a ferocious battl --

"What are you doing in there?"

Luke slammed his hand on the off switch, leaped to his feet, hit his head on the ceiling, yelped in pain and screeched "Nothin'!" while he scrambled on all fours past the librarian, then ran for the exit to the street. The old man didn't follow him, and he hoped the guy wouldn't report him to the Imps. And he probably wouldn't, considering he was hiding Jedi information in his library.

Once on the street, Luke slowed and considered what he'd just learned. Not much, but enough to know that his father was an amazing pilot, a great Jedi, and something to Palpatine... an aide or a foe? He was determined to figure it out.

And where was his father? Missing, presumed dead wasn't the same thing as dead. He was certain that a hero Jedi would never abandon his child, so what had happened to him? What if...

What if his father or mother was alive? If he had any hope of finding them, he would need to access the genealogical records in the Galactic Database. But if the Empire monitored DNA research, they probably monitored everything. He would have to use a terminal that he could abandon quickly, a public one in a crowded place.

It wasn't something he dared do today. He needed to get home and confront Owen and Beru. Why had they lied to him? He wasn't Vader's son; he was the child of a Jedi Knight, a legend, a defender of the weak and helpless. Jedi Skywalker. All the magic he could do was because he came from a Jedi, not from a Sith -- how dare they lie to him! "Ben, why didn't you tell me?" he whispered. For a moment, he slumped against a wall, depressed by the betrayal. Then he shook himself back to reality.

Maybe he wouldn't go home. Why should he? He could find transport off this rock. It would have to be cheap transport, though, judging by the weight of the credit pouch in his pocket. Hells, he could work for transport. Ships always needed good mechanics. Or -- he could sell the speeder! It would serve Owen right for lying to him, and it would raise enough credits for passage from Tatooine to somewhere better.

Relieved and excited that he had a plan, Luke trekked back to Outlander's Cantina. On the way, he spotted a torn and dirty cloak that someone discarded on a stack of trash. Shaking out the sand, he held it up and couldn't see any bugs or blood, so he swung it over his shoulders. Cringing, he pulled the hood onto his head. He hated being dirty -- especially if it was someone else's dirt -- but this disguise would make him less conspicuous, just in case stormtroopers really were looking for him. There had been no sign of activity so far, and he wondered if the Alderaani bloodsucker was simply an alarmist.

He rounded the corner onto Straight Street and stopped abruptly. Krit -- troopers! He slouched against the building, pulling the cloak around him, wishing he had the ability to disappear. There was his red speeder.

And it was surrounded by a cadre of white-armored troopers and a uniformed officer.

Edging into a doorway, he peeked around the side of the building. Maybe they would leave. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe they were just standing around shooting the breeze and not actually looking for him.

Those wishes were smashed when a second officer joined the first. Luke recognized the lieutenant from the recruiting office. "Krit," he muttered in disgust. His immediate reaction was to panic and run, but there was nowhere to go. He needed a better disguise and a hideout. Maybe Ka could provide him with both.

There were troopers at the far end of Paradise Road, but none on Curved Street, so he hurried into Kaslah's Parlor, then strolled nonchalantly to the back room, hiding his face in the folds of the hooded cloak. Ka saw him, but said nothing as she continued to work on a human woman who was getting an ankle tattoo. Left alone, he raided her stash and crammed a handful of glitt sticks in the backpack he had slung under his arm. They'd be good for trading or selling, and he'd need something more substantial than a few credits and a smile to get him to safety.

He grabbed a waterstick from the counter and drank thirstily, then added a few more to his pack. By the time she entered, he was standing with his arms folded, looking completely innocent.

"You bad boy in trouble," she hissed at him as she wiped her hands on a stained towel.

"I need a place to stay until things cool down," he said in a low voice. "Just for a day or so."

"Not be here, no trouble here." She flapped the towel at him. "Go now!"

"I can't go," he whined. "There are troopers after me. I didn't do anything! They'll kill me!"

"Whiteheads!" Hands on her ample hips, the old woman glared at him. "You stealin'?"

"Of course not!" Palms raised in the air in a gesture of virtuousness. "They have me confused with someone else."

She snorted. "'Kay den. You stay, but you be quiet!"

He flashed her his widest smile. "Thanks, Ka, you're the best!"

She snorted again before moving slowly back to her customers.

The room was stuffy and warm, and he yawned. He was still keyed up, but it was safe to relax now, so he took a cold ale from the cooler, then prowled the cupboards looking for something decent to eat. She had a lot of food -- business must be more profitable than it appeared -- but none of it appealed to him. Something simple, like a banthaburger, would be great. Maybe she could get some decent food for him. He sidled to the door and looked for her. The shop was empty, so he walked cautiously through it. Then he caught a glimpse of her skirt outside the door and dodged to one side, edging closer to listen.

" -- tell dem whiteheads," she was telling someone, "dat Luke here an' I wan' reward."

Momentarily frozen with shock at her treachery, he watched a small child run past the doorway on the errand, and then he backed up until he was plastered against a freestanding display of tattoo art. Ka entered and headed toward the back. He glared at her, unseen, before slipping out the door.

Uncle Owen was right about some things, he thought bitterly. You can't trust anyone.

* * *

After that lesson in duplicity, there was no way he was going to seek refuge with anyone he knew. They'd all sell him out for money. He wondered how much the Imps were offering for him. He doubled back to Paradise Road and searched through garbage bins in the tiny, crisscrossing alleyways. There wasn't much that could be considered useful, but eventually he found a partially used can of colorspray for his hair, some skinpaint, and a shard from a broken mirror. Carrying his discoveries, he settled on the ground between two bins, propped up the mirror fragment, and went to work.

Twenty minutes later, he had bright blue hair and dark red face and hands. He wasn't exactly sure what branch of the human species had that coloration, but there was bound to be one somewhere. He wouldn't be conspicuous among the motley visitors to Mos Eisley.

Better yet, he could hide out with the streetkids. He'd seen a pink-haired girl earlier. He'd just have to track down their lair. In the meanwhile, he had a call to make. At a public callbox, he dropped in credits and entered Fixer's code, all the while watching for stormtroopers.

"Yeah?" The voice was slurred.

"It's me."

"Nah, Ięm me.ĝ

"Knock it off," he snapped. "I'm in trouble. I need you to come and get me. In Eisley."

"What're you -- "

"Don't ask questions. Just meet me as soon as you can at... that place we got thrown out of last time, remember?"

There was a yawn at the other end of the connection. "Luke, I can't do it tonight, I got stuff I gotta -- "

"Then tomorrow! Just -- look, bring whatever money you can scrape together. And some food."

"You really are in trouble." Fixer sobered abruptly. "Okay, tomorrow. As early as I can get there."

"Thanks." From somewhere he could hear the distinct sound of marching boots, so he hung up abruptly and ran back into the alley.

He'd be fine today, as long as he could keep away from the Imps. But the desert grew cold at night, and he would need to find shelter. With a sigh, Luke trudged off, wondering how his life could have changed so fast and so dramatically without him even lifting a finger.

* * *

It wasnęt hard to find the street kids. After a few inquiries, he was pointed in the direction of their leader, a girl his age with purple hair and a stern expression.

ĜYou have to pay,ĝ she said flatly, in response to his request for food and shelter.

Fumbling in his pack, he found two glitt sticks and held them out. She didn't respond. With a dramatic sigh, he grudgingly offered a third, and this time she accepted. He slipped the food into his pack, knowing it would have to last him until Fixer arrived.

In the subterranean depths, it was impossible to differentiate between night and day. Every few hours, Luke made forays to the mouth of the passage, checking the location of the suns. When darkness fell, he relaxed. Fixer wouldn't come until mid-morning at the earliest. In the meanwhile, he was safer here in this cavern with other refugee kids than he would be with any of his so-called friends in the world above. With a yawn born of alcohol, stress and hot temperatures, he secured his pack under his head and used it as a pillow. Closing his eyes, he was asleep in minutes.

* * *

The next day dragged endlessly. Fixer didn't come. Luke kept racing anxiously between the hideout and the little cantina on Paradise Road that they'd been banned from for their behavior, rowdy even by Eisley standards. He didn't want to chance another call to his friend; it was risky enough dodging troopers and people who might recognize him. Surely the Imps would give up soon, believing that he'd gone off-planet or headed home.

He used the last of his pilfered glitt sticks to buy more food, then surrendered half his credits to the street kids for watersticks after he drank the ones he'd taken from Ka. He didn't have enough money left to buy passage to anywhere, so hopefully Fixer had managed to liberate some from his parents' stash.

His stomach was twisted with anxiety by the time night came and Fixer still hadn't shown. Staying with the kids for many more days would be dangerous. Besides, the code of the street said that when he couldn't pay, he'd have to leave. At the rate he was spending his assets, he'd be tossed out by morning.

That night he lay awake watching the shadows that flickering torches splashed across the rough ceiling. He stared at them, mesmerized, as he listened to the sounds of sniffling and snoring and nightmares, to the sounds of the little ones who buried their faces in makeshift pillows and cried themselves to sleep. Enough credits flowed through Mos Eisley's gambling dens every hour to support a home for these lost children; hell, Jabba could house and feed them indefinitely without missing the money. One day, when he was rich and a famous Jedi, Luke Skywalker would come back here and build a home for all the homeless kids.

But he couldn't do anything now. He didn't know how to do any Jedi magic that would conjure food or a nice place to live. He could barely keep himself out of an Imperial prison cell. Eventually, exhausted, he fell into a fitful sleep.

* * *

It was late on the second morning when Fixer finally showed up. Luke had abandoned his sanctuary with the homeless kids and was trying to appear inconspicuous on the streets. But the red color was wearing off his hands and the interior of his hood was turning blue from the hair dye.

"You look like banthakrit," Fixer declared in a hushed tone, glancing around nervously. "What did you do?"

"Come on." Luke led his friend to a deserted underground doorway. It wasn't deep enough to feel comfortably safe, but it was the only shelter available. "Did you bring water?"

Wordlessly, Fixer handed him a waterstick and Luke gulped it down too fast. "Thanks," he gasped, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What about money?"

Still silent, the other youth turned over a stack of credits that Luke quickly counted. "Five hundred?" he asked incredulously. "How'd you get so much? Wonęt your folks miss it?"

"My folks sent it." Fixer shook his head. "Luke -- "

"Troopers are after me. I didn't do anything! Did you bring something to eat?"

"Luke -- " A small bag of cereal was offered. "Luke, there's something -- "

"Maybe I should just go home," he said despairingly. "Owen'll kill me, but it's not my fault. It's not fair!"

"Luke -- "

"What?" he snapped, ripping open the bag and crunching the crispy bits. When his buddy didn't speak, he swallowed and looked closely at him. Fixer's face was abnormally pale. "What's wrong?"

His friend took a deep breath before speaking in a low voice. "Stormtroopers came. They asked me where you were. I said I didn't know. It took a while before... before they believed me. That's why I couldn't come yesterday, my folks wouldn't let me out of the house. They were -- we were scared."

"They tracked you down?" Luke moaned. "That means they've gone to my place. Owen really will kill me!"

"No, he...." Fixer sighed. "We saw smoke and.... Luke...the troopers went to your place. They killed Owen and Beru."

The words were incomprehensible for a moment, then the shock of them knocked him against the rough wall. He slid to the ground and landed hard on his rump, struggling to piece together the astounding words. "What?"

Fixer squatted beside him and placed one hand on his arm. It tightened painfully. "They're dead. The Imps trashed and burned the place. We went over there last night. Owen and Beru were... well, not much was left. You can't go back, Luke. There's nothing there anymore and the Imps are probably watching it."

None of it made sense. "Nothing left?" he repeated uncomprehendingly. "How can they be dead? I just -- They were just -- Uncle Owen's too mean to be -- Why would troopers kill them?"

"They were looking for you," Fixer said in an odd tone. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," he answered numbly. "I just wanted to know who my -- "

"Who your what?"

He couldn't answer. His father was a Jedi. That heritage had been a death sentence for his guardians. He didn't want it to kill his best friend, too.

"You're not going to tell me, are you? Okay." Fixer squeezed his arm once more before releasing it. "Whatever it is, you have to get off Tatooine. Look, take my identification papers. Be me. If they find out, I can say you stole them."

"I can't -- "

"You have to," Fixer said firmly. "You can't be Luke Lars anymore."

Luke Lars, Luke Vader, Luke Skywalker.... First he had three names and then, abruptly, he had no name at all. And no home....

Luke swallowed the dread that rose in his throat and accepted Fixer's ID. "Thanks," he murmured, conscious of the inadequacy of the response. "Don't get in trouble because of me."

"No problem. They didn't ask for my ID when I came into town, so there's no record that I was here today. Look, I brought you something else." Fixer reached in his full pack, dumped out more food and watersticks, a bag of loose glitt, then handed Luke a ship model. "Take this."

It was the titanium skyhopper that Fixer had struggled to build and was so proud of. Luke picked it up and cradled it against his chest. "Why?" It seemed fragile, though it was not. Maybe it felt that way because it was the only familiar thing he had left.

"In case...." Fixer cleared his throat. "We might not see each other for a long time. I just... I wanted you to have something to remember me by."

"I'll never forget you, Fix." Like he was a baby, Luke started to sniffle. He was embarrassed and struggled to choke back the sobs, but when Fixer put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him, Luke surrendered to the devastating fear and confusion he felt.

Fixer let him cry and probably shed a few tears himself, but Luke didn't look at him to find out. Eventually they separated and Fixer said gruffly, "So, you're Laze Loneozner now."

He groaned in mock displeasure. "You have the worst name ever."

"Not any more. Now you've got it." They both stood and Fixer continued, "I have to get back. I promised my folks I wouldn't stay too long. They're worried."

Luke nodded and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Thank them for me. And thanks for...everything, Fix. We will see each other again, I promise. I'll come back some day and chase the Imps out of here."

"And the Hutts."

"Yeah, them too." They shared shaky grins.

"Be seein' you, Laze."

"You, too, Fix."

With a final awkward handclasp, they parted, Fixer heading down the street. Luke followed at a safe distance, ensuring that his best friend got safely back to his speeder.

Then he was alone.

* * *
Spacers Row was the best place in town to become invisible, what with all the tiny alleys that branched off its wide street. The bazaar and casino attracted beings of all species who were passing through and anxious to spend, or hopefully supplement, the credits they'd picked up in their travels. Despite the presence of the military garrison, there were no restrictions on what was bought and sold in Mos Eisley: spice, hard drugs, alcohol, counterfeit credits, pornography, people. Luke had heard rumors of unwary visiting youths being kidnapped and sold as slaves, but he knew he looked like a savvy native, one not worth the trouble his abduction might bring. Or maybe it was the blaster hanging from his belt that prevented slavers from risking an attack.

Or just maybe it was the blue and blond striped hair, which made him look certifiably insane. He caught a glimpse of himself in a tiny mirror in the bazaar and frowned, tugging the hood a little farther over his forehead. It wouldn't do to scare off a prospective ride, and it was bad enough that he was filthy and probably smelled worse than he ever had in his life. He considered stopping at a rooming house and buying a bath, but if the hair dye washed out completely, it would be easier for the Imps to identify him.

Several cautious circles of the Row later, he decided to follow the human male who had exited one of the docking bays and headed for a cantina. His arrogant attitude and swaggering stride identified him as a captain of his own vessel, and the worn clothes hinted that he could use cash.

Luke entered the crowded bar, looking around warily before approaching the table and touching the back of a chair. "Mind if I sit down?"

The spacer extended long legs and crossed his feet onto the chair with twin thuds. "Whatever youęre sellinę, Ięm not buyinę. Get lost, kid."

Pulling a chair from an empty table and dragging it over, Luke sat a safe distance away from those boots. "I'm looking for passage."

"To where?" The man took a pull from his bottled ale.

"Wherever your next stop is." The other gave him a disinterested look, so Luke added quickly. "I can pay."

"Yeah?" There was a glimmer of interest. "How much?"

"Depends on where we're going," he replied coolly. This guy was obviously easier to barter with than your average sandperson.

"Depends on how many credits you're talking."

Stalemate. "Look, I haven't got a fortune, but I need to get out of here."

The man looked beyond him. "Lemme ask my copilot. Hey, Chewie, want to take on a passenger?"

There was a rumbling roar, and Luke leaped to his feet. A huge furry monster was towering over him, and he flinched involuntarily. A wookiee! He'd never seen one, only read about their ferociousness. They were a lot bigger in person than they looked in holos.

The spacer shrugged in response to the roar. "Just the kid -- I guess. Right, kid, just you?"

Luke nodded nervously, wrapping the cloak tightly and throwing one end over his shoulder. "Yeah, just...." He faltered. Three stormtroopers entered the cantina, laser rifles held across their chests. "Never mind. I have to -- have to go." Casting frantic looks around, he couldn't see another escape.

"Never go in any place without knowing another way out," the spacer drawled. "Hallway behind me, second door on the right. We're leaving bay 94 in an hour, with or without you."

"Thanks," he breathed, then spared not another moment. The exit was where the stranger said, and in a few moments Luke found himself on Curved Street.

Running wasn't wise, but the troopers were too close and he couldn't take the chance that they would see him. Luke trotted along the street, weaving around sellers' booths and dodging speeders. Ahead of him, he could see two more armored troopers, so he ducked into a narrow alley. Racing around the corner, he collided with something solid.

A man grabbed his shoulders, either steadying him or preventing a harder impact. Luke looked up, meeting a pair of green eyes. His breath caught in his throat and he choked on it.

Jovay, the Imperial recruiter!

Quickly, Luke stared at the ground, muttered something unintelligible, and tried to move on. The grip on his shoulders didn't release. He continued focusing on the dust beneath his feet, determined to become invisible.

"Well, well, it's my young recruit. Do you know how many people are looking for you, Jedi?"

"I'm not a Jedi," he hissed. "Maybe my father was, but I never knew him. Let me go!"

"Let you go? Hmm.... There's a thought. But why would I do that?"

Confused, Luke stared at the young man. "Do you want a bribe?"

"Ah, we can add attempted bribery of an Imperial officer to your list of crimes," Jovay chuckled. "Perhaps I only want the glory of capturing the dangerous Jedi."

"I'm not a -- " he began furiously, then reconsidered. "If I'm really a Jedi, I could hurt you."

"Go ahead. I don't think you can do anything, but there are troopers watching us. They won't let you get away, no matter what you do to me."

Luke froze, paralyzed with a sudden rush of fear. "I don't want to die," he whispered. "Not yet. You don't understand -- I can't help who my father is -- was. Don't let them kill me -- please!"

"I understand better than you know, Luke Lars Skywalker Vader," Jovay said, his voice unexpectedly soft.

Stormtrooper boots made noise even on sand. "Lieutenant?" a voice questioned excitedly. "You got him?"

Jovay looked past Luke. "It's not him, just some street punk." He released Luke's shoulders. "Get off the street, kid, and stay there. You fit the description of a dangerous fugitive we're tracking. Corporal, let the troopers know not to bother this one. He's heading home."

His eyes widened with disbelief. He didn't know Jovay, and the man was letting him go? It was too good to be true. But Jovay's eyes were kind and sympathetic, though his face was hardened in a strict military mien.

"Thanks, I won't forget this," Luke whispered, then he bowed his head and left, walking quickly around the troopers, his stride firm and steady though his heart was pounding at a wild pace.

Never trust anyone, Owen said. But today his best friend and two strangers had put themselves in danger to help him. The galaxy was a strange place indeed.

He stopped abruptly, Jovay's words suddenly registering.

Luke Lars Skywalker...Vader?

Oh, krit.

* * *

It took only a cursory check to see that troopers were guarding all the docking bays. There was no way he could get back to Spacers Row and past them to his ride. Escape would have to wait until the search cooled down. In the meanwhile, he knew of only one place to hide and that was back with the street kids. But if he gave them his credits in exchange for shelter, he wouldnęt be able to buy passage later. He had to find another way.

Luke trudged back to the passage to the kids' hideout and lounged across the street, checking for troopers or spies before making his way into the gloomy entrance. Ten meters in, he found a large boulder that had been nudged aside to reveal a narrow aisle that hadn't been visible before. He could hear the echo of far-away voices and, curious, he squeezed around the rock, slipping through the passage. The dug-out hall was rough against his hands as he felt his way through the darkness toward a faint light in the distance. The voices grew louder though he could not discern the words. Then a short, high-pitched scream pierced the air, and Luke broke into a run.

The aisle opened into a large space, and he caught himself before plunging into it. Crouching behind an outcropping in the wall, he peeked around it, assessing the situation.

Children and teens, some he recognized from earlier, huddled together with their leader standing protectively in front of them. She held a short knife like she knew how to use it and faced a man dressed in the dark garb of a Rillavin hunter, creatures feared throughout the galaxy, rumored to enjoy the taste of human flesh above all others. A tiny girl lay on the sand between him and the teen leader.

"Just one," the hunter wheedled, his voice garbled by the translator he wore, "and I'll leave the rest of you."

"Tessi, get behind me," the leader ordered, but the girl appeared too terrified to move.

The hunter reached for her, and she screamed again as his claws pierced her arms.

Don't get involved in other people's problems, Owen warned, except your neighbor's. You need your neighbors to survive.

The last thing he wanted was to get in a fight that might draw the attention of the Imps, Luke thought glumly as he drew out his blaster. But these were his neighbors, and the son of a Jedi -- or even a Sith -- couldn't let this scum go free. He had less humanity than a Tusken, and Luke had killed a few of those. A Rillavin deserved no mercy.

Stepping out of the shadows, he centered his aim on the bastard's center. You may not be certain where a Tusken's heart is hidden under his cloak, Owen advised as they crouched behind the rocks, watching the Raiders, so always go for a gut shot. "Hey there," he called softly.

The Rillavin turned, then started, dropping the child when he saw the blaster. "No! I -- "

Luke pulled the trigger. The monster made a startled sound that choked off as he died, the blaster burns smoking his ragged clothes. It was not so different from killing a Tusken, Luke noted remotely, though this thing was more human than a Tusken. Would it be any more difficult to kill a human? He supposed that one day he would find out.

Pushing away an unexpected sensation of queasiness, he strode over to the corpse and kicked at its feet. "I want the boots," he announced flatly, knowing he had to generate respect along with a little fear, "you can have the rest."

The youngsters were staring at him and the leader's eyes were narrowed, assessing his intentions.

"I'm staying here. I'm hiding from the Imps." He paused. "If you betray me, I'll kill you. If not, I'll protect you from dangers like this." Giving the body another kick, he smiled tightly. "Are we agreed?"

The girl nodded, resignation clear on her delicate features. "I'm Tia. I'm in charge."

For now, Luke thought, then wondered if this coldness in him came from his father. If so, it was not Jedi. It was Sith... and maybe he was, too.

"What's your name?"

Luke Lars Skywalker Vader Laze Loneozner. Stifling a sigh, he struggled to find an acceptable name out of that excess. Laze...Loner...Ozner.... "Oz."

"Oz," she repeated with a clipped nod and a smile that didn't touch her eyes. "You may stay here, but you must follow our rules. We will accept your protection, but none of us will sleep in your bed."

"Like I'd want you to," he retorted sarcastically, flushing. "I'm only staying until I can find a way off this -- Hey, I said I want the boots!"

A young boy jumped back from the Rillavin with a guilty grin. "Sorry, Oz!"

"They wouldn't fit you anyway," Luke added in a mollifying tone. He bent down and picked up the little girl with bleeding arms. She hid her face against his chest. "You have first aid supplies?"

"Yes. Come," Tia directed, and Luke followed her deeper into the cavern, the other youngsters running ahead.

"Quite a set-up you have here," he commented. "More than you let me see earlier."

"We're not stupid enough to trust strangers!" she snapped.

"I didn't say you were."

They emerged into a single cavernous room that held a dozen more young people, and Tia lifted Tessi from his arms. "We'll tend her. You get different clothes," she directed. ĜGereeza, get Oz into something more... appropriate. Do something with his hair -- and for Sith's sake, show him where the bath is!"

This was one occasion when he was happy to obey orders.

* * *

There had been moments during the last couple months when Luke thought he wouldn't live to be any older. But here he was, safely sixteen, still not officially an adult, yet he was positive that he bore more responsibility than most grownups did over their entire lifetimes.

The kids, even Tia, depended on him to care for them. He'd hijacked food supplies destined for the Imperial garrison, rolled drunken gamblers as they stumbled out of casinos carrying more money than was healthy, taught the little ones to beg and the older ones to pick pockets. There had been a few losses on the way -- some arrests that made them hold their breaths, but no captured child had ever betrayed their sanctuary. They had stayed safely out of the grips of troopers who would want to ship them somewhere, probably into slavery. All in all, he considered himself a hero. No one could have done better than Oz... except Luke Skywalker, Jedi-Sith Knight.

Luke crouched on the rooftopęs narrow ledge that rose over Curved Street. Below him, the night was alive with the usual scum that inhabited Mos Eisley, but above him the stars shone clean and white against the moonless blue-black backdrop of the sky. He leaned back against the curved roof and took a long draw on the glitt stick. It added to the pleasant buzz that he'd gotten earlier from the spiced wine he'd liberated when its drinker had put it aside casually, paying no attention to the outlandishly dressed youth. Homeless kids were a part of life in this city and the more extravagantly they were clad, the more people ignored them. Tonight Luke was decked in a multiple layers of colorful garments that the kids had picked up here and there. He still wore the Rillavin's black boots and had added blue velvet pants, gold satin shirt, patterned green brocade vest, and long purple coat, topped with a fringed red scarf wound several times around his neck and a blue feathered hat with a wide brim -- in other words, he was wearing his entire wardrobe. Hiding in plain sight. The more outrageous he looked, the more people avoided looking at him. The face paint helped, too, and he'd become adept at altering his features through the use of color and swirling lines. Heęd also noticed that people steered clear of him even more determinedly when he held out his hand for money.

Tilting his head, he studied the shop across the street, halfway down the block. A few days ago, a new treasure had been added to the window, one he desperately wanted. A lightsaber. The weapon of both Jedi and Sith. Whichever was his heritage, by rights the lightsaber belonged to him. In the absence of a teacher, he was training himself as best he could, finding skills through experimentation. A lightsaber would make him complete -- it would make him official. It was so tempting, so visible in that window, so easy to steal.

So obviously a plant. It was confirmation that the Imps hadn't given up looking for him on Tatooine. The idea of sending one of the little kids in to snatch it kept fluttering at the edges of his mind, but it was simply too dangerous. He had to be patient; an opportunity would arise one day. Whatever it took, he would find a way to make the lightsaber his.

His gaze lingered on the streets, studying the crowds that had thinned out. By this time of evening most people were in clubs or casinos or bedded down with purchased companions. When he saw no one he cared about, Luke leaned back again, puffing on the stick. One afternoon months ago he'd seen Fixer with Deak and Windy. They were trying to be casual, but even from the rooftop, Luke could see them casting surreptitious glances around. He longed to hail them and spend time with his friends, but then they had all started laughing and shouting and punching each other. They were having a good time, just like he used to have with them. It was a painful realization: their life went on without him; they didnęt miss him at all.

Like his father didnęt miss him. Yeah, his friends werenęt the only familiar people heęd seen recently. Darth Vader had been visible ē just on the holonews, true, but it had given him a jolt of fright that was coupled with a strange thrill. For months Vader had been on the far side of the galaxy in pursuit of rebel criminals, but lately the Rebellion seemed to be edging toward the Outer Rim, closer to Tatooine. And Vader was in pursuit. That didnęt mean heęd come to Tatooine, of course, but if he did.... Luke hoped he might be able to get a closer look at the Sith-maybe-father. Just stand in a crowd and watch him, maybe hear that resonating voice in person and see how tall Darth Vader really was. See if maybe Darth Vader would recognize his lost son.

Stupid idea.

The end of the stick singed his fingers and Luke threw it down, grinding the butt under his heel. Moving to the opposite side of the roof, he climbed partway down by clinging to window cut-outs and then, from two stories up, he jumped, landing neatly and almost silently. Next time he would try it from the third floor. It was a Force trick, though he wasnęt sure how he was doing it.

"Imagine what I could do if I had a teacher," he mused aloud. Maybe the possibilities were infinite. If only he could access more information on Jedi and Sith, but he feared any such inquiry into the Galactic Database would be a red flag. He needed to travel, to access the Database from different planets so the Imps wouldn't know it was Luke Lars Skywalker Maybevader Laze Loneozner Oz doing the searching.

But he couldnęt leave. The children who sheltered him also worshiped him, and now the responsibility for their welfare had become a burden. He didn't want to stay on Tatooine, but neither could he simply abandon them.

"Hey, Oz," a stall-keeper called, waving him over.

"Teren," he acknowledged.

The Sullustan offered him a brew. "Sorry it's not cold, but we blew the recirc fan on the cooler generator, they say it can't be fixed. New ones are expensive at Gat's Repair."

Luke nodded. "Might be able to help you with that." Gat's was an easy mark at certain times, namely when his lazy, porn-reading nephew was minding the shop. "You say the fan is expensive."

Teren shrugged. "Probably about the same as a two-week supply of watersticks and synth-meat for ten hearty eaters."

"Three weeks for twenty."

"Two weeks for fifteen."

"Two weeks for twenty, no less," he stated firmly.

"Ach, you're a robber, Oz," Teren said good-naturedly. It was not a serious complaint, since feeding twenty would cost considerably less than a new recirculating fan.

Luke chugged the rest of the warm brew and expressed his appreciation in the Sullustan way: burping. "See you in a day or two."

With a wave, he moved on, stopping at a few more vendor stalls, picking up business and collecting promises. He headed back to his grotto in a roundabout way, using his senses to be aware of Imps and bounty hunters. That was another thing he'd become adept at, 'feeling' when someone watched or pursued him. Once again his untapped talents frustrated him. There were moment when he felt limitless power, but those moments were fleeting and stumbled upon accidentally. Still, they teased him with the realization that he could learn to harness and use that power -- if only he knew how!

* * *

Frowning, he studied the two stormtroopers positioned at the end of the block. They were probably only on routine patrol, but he still couldn't risk returning to the little ones. With a shrug, he turned to avoid them and entered an underground club a few blocks away. Imps generally avoided these dens, knowing it was likely they would not exit in one piece. The clientele was rough, but Luke kept his blaster in plain view and the face coloring helped obscure his youth. He ordered a drink and a glitt stick, then bent his head over the bar, engaging in no conversations and looking at no one -- directly. The unbreakable reflective plexi behind the bartender acted as a mirror and would warn him if anyone tried to approach.

And an hour later, it did. He gave a rueful sigh when he saw an angry young woman storming through a thick fog that was created partly by smoke and partly by the pleasant haziness in his mind. He gulped down his fourth drink and waved the glass at the bartender who quickly refilled it, slopping liquor over the rim and onto the counter. He handed the man a few extra credits. "Stick for the road," he mumbled, holding out his palm until the glitt was slapped into it.

"What are you doing?" Tia hissed in his ear. "Do you know what time it is? The kids won't settle down until they know you're back. And here you are, drunk and high and who knows what else!"

The Rodian to his left snorted and the bartender chuckled. "If I had a credit for every old lady who came lookin' and scoldin' her old man...."

Luke sighed again. "She's not my -- "

"He's not my old man!" Tia knocked the glass out of his hand, shaking her head, dark hair flying around her face. "Come on, we're leaving now."

"They can make your life hell, can't they?" the bartender continued. "Not worth arguing. You either go along with 'em or dump 'em. I dumped mine. She wasn't as hot as this one, though. If you get tired of her -- "

Before Luke could reply, Tia was halfway over the bar, the tip of her knife at the bartender's crotch. Luke sighed again and tugged her arm. "Fine, I'm coming, let the man go."

"I should slice off his -- "

"And bring troopers down on us?" he reminded her. Tossing a large tip onto the wet counter, he dragged her off, casting a glance back to be sure the bartender wasn't going to contact the authorities. The man gave him an amused nod, apparently not at all distressed by his encounter with Tia's blade.

"You're a pain in the ass, Oz," she complained bitterly as they walked through the cold night air, Luke staggering slightly.

"Go to hell," he replied with a bored yawn.

"I had everything under control here until you -- "

"You had nothing under control, you didn't even have enough food."

"That was a temporary situation!"

They argued during the short journey back to the tunnel, then parted in cold silence. Luke returned to the small 'room' that served as his sanctuary and collapsed on the bed, not bothering to remove his boots.

"Oz back...." a sleepy voice whispered.

He turned his head. Four-year-old Tessi was curled up in the corner on a rumpled bundle of old blankets. "Why aren't you in your own bed?"

"Scared." Her lashes drifted up, then closed again, obviously too heavy to remain open. "You smell funny."

"I know." Resignedly, he rose and changed into his old white clothes, using the oversized coat as a modesty shield, though he suspected she was too sleepy to peek. He pulled his boots back on, a habit he'd developed while living 'on the run'. Always be ready, Owen said. Funny, he'd hated his guardian, but now he was realizing just how much Owen Lars had taught him.

Bending over, he straightened the blankets to cover Tessi better and considered carrying her to her own cot in the makeshift dormitory with the other young ones. But if she woke during the night she'd be back, and it wouldn't the first time. Once he'd almost stepped on her before noticing her asleep on the floor in his room. So he moved her into his bed against the wall, then lay beside her, one arm curving protectively over her tiny body.

"Oz save me," she whispered before falling asleep again.

Yeah, good old Oz, the drunk, glitt-using Jedi-Sith, hiding from Imps, hiding from his maybe-father who wanted to kill him, wondering where the famous Anakin Skywalker was, and stuck on this rock with a barrelful of kiddies under his wing.

It was tempting to mope further, but the combination of intoxicants he'd consumed chased him into a deep sleep instead.

* * *

The world was shaking. Quake? Shouts pierced through the fog, and Luke struggled to stay asleep. Kids were playing, calling... screaming? His body was being jerked to and fro.


He opened his eyes. Tessi was kneeling beside him, shaking his arm. Ready to scold her, he saw that her eyes were wide with terror. Then the sounds registered. Adult voices giving orders, mingled with the protests and sobs of children.

"Krit!" Luke leaped up, grabbing his pack and stuffing it with clothes, extra watersticks and Fixer's 'hopper model before anchoring it across his chest. He threw on the long, nondescript cloak that he wore when he wanted to fade into the scenery. Never go in any place without knowing another way out. The narrow tunnel was the reason he'd chosen this room as his own. It opened into the basement level of Jabba's townhouse, and from there he could get outside without being seen.

Stormtrooper boots echoed on the hard dirt, coming closer. He raced to the hidden exit and pushed aside the curtain that disguised it.


Luke closed his eyes, cursing silently, then snatched up Tessi, hiding her in the folds of the cloak. "Don't make any noise," he warned as they slipped behind the dusty fabric.

She whimpered, but pressed her face into his shirt as he ducked and ran through the dug-out passage, not hesitating when he reached the end of it. If troopers were there, they were trapped; they couldn't go back so there was no point in delaying. But still he heaved a shaky gasp of relief when he saw the room was empty save for a few corpses that Jabba stored for a purpose Luke didn't want to consider. He held the back of Tessi's head so she wouldn't see them as they hurried past. She had already had enough nightmares in her short life.

Tumbling onto the street, he turned and walked quickly in the opposite direction, keeping his face well covered. From an alley, he climbed up to one of his favored rooftops and put Tessi down. ĜYou stay here, don't move and don't make a sound."

Dropping to his stomach, he used his elbows to propel him toward the edge where he could spy on the happenings a few blocks away. It was Imps, all right, and they had rounded up the kids. Stealthily, Luke drew out his blaster, considering which trooper to shoot first. Could he take down all of them? Probably not, but killing one would throw them into confusion and give the kids a chance to get away.

He took aim, then saw Simri run up to the trooper and punch the stock of his blaster rifle. Luke caught his breath, but the Imp only shouldered his weapon and bent to say something. Then he picked up the little boy, tucking him under one arm. The gesture was so experienced that Luke realized the trooper had to be a parent, and he lowered his blaster.

They weren't going to arrest the kids. It was Oz they wanted, Oz the trouble-making thief. When a speedervan labeled Family Services pulled up, he knew the kids were going into official custody, maybe even to foster homes. Wherever they went, it would probably be a lot better than living in a cave and scrounging for food.

"Oz come back," Tessi called, crawling toward him.

"No!" he whispered sharply. "Stay there, Tessi. Don't talk. We don't want the troopers to find us."

She sat down again and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

When he turned back to the group, a scuffle was underway. A teenaged girl broke away and ran, and Luke fingered his blaster again as a trooper took aim on Tia. But an officer stopped him with an upraised hand, and Luke watched as she ran behind some buildings and disappeared.

He wriggled away from the edge of the roof and made his way back to Tessi. "We'll stay here for awhile."

"I'm hun'ry. An' t'irsty," she whined.

"Me too." He gave her a single sip from a waterstick and a cookie. "Why don't you take a nap."

"Oz stay?"

"Oz stay," he affirmed, then moved them both into the shade of an overhang, contemplating his next move while his little charge slept.

* * *

It was mid-morning by the time they found Tia hiding behind a large garbage bin. Luke knelt beside her, releasing Tessi's hand.

"It's our fault," Tia said through angry tears. "They followed us last night, because I was too mad and you were too drunk to be careful."

Luke was silent. That realization had already crossed his mind, but he didn't like thinking about it. Thereęll be hell to pay, Owen used to admonish him, and he supposed this was it. Only he wasnęt the one paying. "The kids will go to homes. They'll be better off. Why did you run? You should've gone with them."

"You're so naive." Wearily, she leaned her head against the wall. "No one will adopt me, I'm too old. The only reason anyone would want me would be for a slave or sex partner."

He glanced at Tessi but she was busy drawing circles in the dirty sand. "I don't think you'd make an obedient slave," he joked. "And I'm not sure about the other stuff."

She sent him a disgusted look. "Asshole."

"Same to you," he countered, biting his lip to stop from uttering something nastier.

"What am I going to do?" she asked rhetorically. "No one will hire me for a decent job. It's not like there are families here. I could take care of kids, you know... if there were any around. I need to go somewhere else."

"Well, you're not coming with me!"

"I wouldn't go anywhere with you in a million years!"

They glared at each other before mutually deciding it wasn't worth the energy. For a few minutes they watched Tessi play, then Luke dug in his pack. "Need a waterstick?"

She nodded, and he handed her a couple, then reached into his pack again.

"Take this, too."

Tia looked at the fistful of credits. "What's for? It's not enough to get me off planet."

"I know. I don't even have enough to get me off planet," he said glumly. "Hire a speeder or hitch a ride to Anchorhead. You know where that is?"

She nodded, her gaze suspicious.

"There's a place called Tosche Station. My friend Fixer practically runs it. Tell him Luke sent you. His folks will help you out, maybe even let you stay there." A profound sadness washed over him. If only his own way out was so simple.

"Why would they do that? They don't even know me." Her distrust was gradually turning to hope.

"They're good people." He had a feeling that Fixer would find Tia much more to his liking than Camie. Someday maybe he would return to Anchorhead and find Fixer and Tia married with lots of children gathered around them. Theyęd probably even name one Luke. "Take Tessi with you."

She shook her head. "I can't take Tessi to live somewhere that isolated, Oz. She's too fragile, she'd never survive ē sheęs barely making it now. You know that."

As if sensing they were talking about her, the little blond girl came and crawled onto Luke's lap. "Tessi," he asked, "do you want to go with Tia?"

"Stay wi' Oz."

"You can't -- " Krit, there was no point in frightening her further. Or worse, making her cry. "I'll figure something out. You'd better get going, Tia. If you get a ride soon, you can make it before nightfall."

She kissed Tessi's forehead, hesitated, then gave him a quick brush on the cheek. "Thanks, Oz. Or should I say 'Luke'? You're not always an ass, you know."

"Yes, I am,ĝ he replied quickly, blushing. ĜTessi, say 'bye' to Tia."

"Bye, Tia."

"Take care, both of you." Tia paused. "I don't know what you did, but I hope the Imps never catch up with you, Oz."

"Me too." They shared grins for a final time before she left. He watched until she was out of sight before turning to his tiny companion. "Okay, babe, let's get this show on the road."

"Hunęry!" Tessi declared in a loud voice. "Eat now!"

"Then you and me, sister, are going into one of these wretched hives for a bite to eat.ĝ

Keeping a watchful eye for stormtroopers, Luke led Tessi away. Where in hell could they go? It was difficult enough for him to find hiding places, but now that he had a little one in his care, Mos Eisley had suddenly become a lot smaller.

"I hafta go."

"Great," he muttered under his breath. Picking her up, he trudged into an alley and deposited her in a broken-down doorway. "There."

She stared up at him wide-eyed and didn't move.

"You can go here," he clarified.

A look of horror crossed her face. "No!"

"Tessi... I'll find a sani for you later, but for now, just...go. I'll watch to be sure no one comes near."

"Can't." She started to cry.

"Oh, for -- " This was definitely not going to work out. He lifted her again. "Then you'll have to hold it until I find another place."

"Gotta go. An' hunęry." Her tone was plaintive.

"Krit! Just give me a few minutes to find a place, okay?"

A hurt sniffle was the only reply he received, and he hoped she understood what 'hold it' meant.

Ten minutes later, he'd found a woman to take Tessi to a public sani -- just in the nick of time, judging by the pained look on her face. That task completed, they headed to a cafe. Luke wondered if hiding in plain sight would work when he was being this blatant, wearing street kid paint with traditional Tatooine whites. Sitting at the table in the dimly-lit establishment, he pulled face paint out of his pack and touched up the colors that were fading. Two humans at the next table laughed, but he ignored them.

"Me too!" Tessi demanded.

He drew green triangles on her cheeks.


He held the small mirror so she could study her reflection.


"Oh, look, here comes your lunch." Thank the Force for the distraction. While they ate, he pondered this tiny problem he'd taken upon himself. He couldn't leave her alone, so he wouldn't be able to get supplies or food, or even find a chance to get off planet. He should've let the troopers find her. Or made Tia take her. Why couldn't he learn to think before he acted? And on top of all this, he was getting a headache.

"Oz, fix!"

"Don't call me that, honey," he said absently, suspecting his admonition was of little use. If anyone overheard the name 'Oz', they might turn him in to the Imps. After cutting her banthaburger into small pieces, he continued thinking.

He had no friends in Eisley -- no one he could entrust with a little girl, anyway. She would have to go to Family Services, but he could hardly abandon her on the street. Maybe he could make an anonymous call. Or --

"Oz happy."

"Yeah." He grinned at her. "I have a brilliant idea. Finish your lunch so we can get out of here."

* * *

Hidden in the dark depth of the night, Luke folded his cloak and tucked it against the wall. Tessi fell asleep within minutes, and he moved several meters away. Now he would wait. It was a simple plan, but its success didn't depend on him.

When he heard the door open, he drew his blaster and edged to the corner. Light flooded from the doorway, illuminating the sandy walkway. A sweetly feminine voice bid farewell and was answered by an indiscernible baritone. Luke lowered the blaster to his side, holding his breath as footsteps drew nearer.

As he reached the end of the building, the man was already turning, somehow perceiving the threat, but Luke was faster. He wrapped one arm around the man's neck, pulling him backward in a chokehold, holding the blaster barrel to his temple.

"Don't make a sound and you won't get hurt." He forced his captive around the corner and part way down the alley. "I'm going to let go. If you run, I'll shoot."

"So much for not getting hurt," Lieutenant Jovay said dryly. When he was released, he turned to his captor. "Ah, once again itęs our favorite fugitive, Luke Lars Skywalker Vader. If you're planning on using me as a hostage to escape the planet, I doubt that will work."

Luke shook his head. "I'm not. I need your help."

Jovay folded his arms. "Why would I help you?"

"I've got the blaster." He waved it threateningly.

The officer smiled smugly. "You wouldn't shoot me."

He sighed but stated flatly, "I don't want to. But if I had to, I would."

Jovay's dark eyes studied him for a few seconds, then his smile died slowly. "I see. Well, I suppose you had better tell me what you want."

"Safe passage. Not for me." Luke stepped back and gestured to the small bundle on the ground beyond them, holstering his blaster. " For her. And I want to know that the other kids are okay."

With a wary glance at him, Jovay walked over to Tessi. "She's practically a baby," he said softly, then looked at Luke. "You're Oz, aren't you? I suspected as much. And this is one of the children who got away today."

He shrugged. "Can you take her? To Family Services... or maybe you can do a blood test and find her parents."

Silence stretched for many seconds before Jovay spoke hesitantly. "She's so young to end up in Family Services. I doubt that her parents are... anywhere. But my brother and his wife would be happy to have her. They haven't been able...."

Luke swallowed. "Where do they live?"

"My brother?" Jovay paused, a slight flush darkening his skin. "Naboo. What's her name?"

"Tessi," he replied automatically. "Naboo? My mother was from Naboo. Maybe you know something about her? Her name -- "

"I haven't been there in years," the lieutenant interrupted. "She's waking up. Hi there."

Luke bent and picked her up. "Tessi, this is...."

"Karas," the officer supplied. "Karas Jovay. Hello, Tessi, it's nice to meet you."

She put her thumb in her mouth.

"Tessi, Karas is going to take care of you now." He handed her to Jovay, adding bluntly, "I have to leave."

"Oz stay!" She burst into tears. "Oz s-s-save me!"

Jovay held her close to his chest while Luke stroked her hair. "I can't stay, sweetie. But Karas will have a nice home for you. With food and a sani and a real bed. Right?" He glared at the officer.

"That's right. I think my lady friend will find a nice bed for you tonight. Are you sleepy, Tessi?"


Luke smiled. "No? Who was that little girl asleep on my cloak?"

"Tessi!" she exclaimed, pleased with herself for some incomprehensible reason.

"Tessi is a smart girl," Jovay praised, and she beamed at him before yawning widely and closing her eyes, her head flopping on his shoulder.

Picking up his cloak, Luke shook out the sand and threw it around his shoulders. The Imperial looked at him. ĜThe other children are with Family Services and will be sent to good homes or facilities on other planets if we canęt find their parents. But you have to get off Tatooine."

"Ięll just wave my magic wand."

"It's not a joking matter," Jovay scolded. "The noose is tightening around you. If you don't get out within the next day or two, you won't get out."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked suspiciously. "Why should you care if I'm captured and executed?"

"Executed?" Remarkably, the lieutenant laughed. "Considering who's looking for you, that's hardly an option."

"What does that mean?" Riddles, all he ever got were riddles instead of answers! "Are you talking about Vader? He killed the Jedi, he'll kill me, too."

Luke Lars Skywalker... Vader.

"Unlikely." Jovay looked away. "I'd better get going. I have to do some serious sweet-talking before I can drop Tessi off. Then I have to get back to the barracks."

"Wait!" Luke grabbed his arm and lowered his voice. "Please... why aren't you turning me in? Who's looking for me? Do you know anything about my parents? I don't understand any of this."

"Don't you really?" Jovay pulled himself straighter, looking every centimeter the smug Imperial officer despite the sleeping child in his arms. "I didn't say that I wasn't turning you in. It's my duty to report this encounter. An edited version anyway," he added, gazing down at Tessi. "Get off planet. If I see you again, I'll identify you and have you arrested. Are we clear?"

"Clear," Luke snapped, scowling as Jovay walked unhurriedly away. Frustration clawed at his throat and he wanted to demand answers.

But this Imp wasn't talking. Evidently he would have to find his answers somewhere else.

* * *

There was nowhere left to hide, so the next day Luke decided to simply ignore the possibility that he might be arrested. Wandering into Outlander's Cantina, he took a seat at the bar and nodded to Granv.

"Usual?" the Alderaani asked.

What the hell, might as well burn the money he had. "Nope, spiced wine," he ordered. "And don't be stingy with the spice."

Granv raised an eyebrow. "Coming up in the world. Let's see the credits."

Luke slapped them on the bar. "Good boy," Granv praised, and Luke scowled.

The vidscreen in the corner was switched on and Luke watched it while he waited. The Imperial News Network was reporting on the status of the Fleetęs pursuit of those pesky terrorists, which was now focused in space near -- Tatooine.

ĜKrit!ĝ he mumbled under his breath. ĜI hope Vader isnęt with them.ĝ

The barkeep slid a tall glass across the counter, then leaned over and lowered his voice. "Got a live one for you. Some reptile needs work done on his ship. Over there against the wall."

"Reptile?" Luke followed the direction of Granv's nod and saw a green-skinned humanoid sitting alone, his arms folded, staring down his long nose at the cantina's occupants. "Oh. Does he look like he can pay?"

"And then some."

"Okay. Thanks, I owe you one." Sipping the wine, Luke slid off the stool and followed a roundabout route to the reptile's table. He had no idea what species the guy was and wished fleetingly that he hadn't skipped school so often. He stared at the back of the thing's head. It was scaly, but hair grew in one place on the top of his skull like it was coming out of a hole. Luke wondered if the hair was retractable.

"Do you wish to speak with me?" the reptile inquired in a cultured voice, "or are you content simply to silently admire a member of the superior race?"

He didnęt see any eyes in the back of the creature's head, but that didnęt mean they werenęt there. Luke moved around the table, pulling out a chair and sitting without invitation. "What kind of work does your ship need?"

"My sublight drive is behaving sluggishly. It requires..." One long-fingered hand waved vaguely, and golden brocade slid back to reveal a green arm. "...some sort of adjustment."

That should be simple enough. "I can do that, but it'll cost you. The sublight drive is a delicate piece of machinery."

"Really." The humanoid glanced at the spiced wine, then back at him. "I have found that humans often exaggerate their skills to obtain rewards not commensurate with their knowledge and expenditure of energy."

Luke blinked. "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

The being smiled slightly. "Why should I believe you are capable to remedying my vehicle's malfunction?"

He shrugged, though his heart began to beat faster. "If you don't trust me, don't hire me. But I'm good with machinery. I can fix anything. And I'm not going to con you, unlike some of these losers around here."

The expression remained neutral. "What is your price?"

Luke tried to keep his voice steady. "There's a laser sword in the window of a shop on Curved Street. I want that, plus passage off Tatooine."

"Hah!" The being was amused. "A steep price. But yes to the laser sword, if the price is reasonable. No to passage."

"Then no deal. And you won't find anyone else as skilled as me."

The narrow, elongated eyes perused him thoughtfully. "I have never taken a passenger. I may be willing to drop you off at my next port... if I am satisfied that you are as capable as you claim and if you can complete additional adjustments to my ship's systems."

Lowering his gaze, Luke stared into the wine, pretending to contemplate the offer, but really attempting to hide his elation. "All right," he said finally, as if it had been a difficult decision. "Get the laser sword and meet me back here."

"Very well." The creature rose. He was very tall. "You must be sober when I return or the deal is off and the saber is mine."

Luke rolled his eyes in disgust. "I'll be fine," he said tightly. "Hey," he added when the reptile began to leave, "what the hell are you? And what's your name?"

The being sneered at him. "Only an ignorant human would not recognize one of the galaxy's finest inhabitants. I am Falleen," he declared, his voice resonant with pride. "And my name, dull-witted one, is Jaslin Xenar, of the noble house of Xenar."

"Whatever. I'm...Oz."

"Oz." Jaslin's nose wrinkled as if he smelled something foul. "A small name such that could be mistaken for a sneeze."

If that was some sort of Falleen insult, Luke didn't get it. He shrugged and returned to the wine, but watched closely as the lean, muscular reptile strode regally through the cantina. He could believe the 'noble' part. Xenar walked and dressed like someone with credits to spare. "Must be nice," Luke muttered.

He rose and returned to the bar where he drained the wine. "Hit me," he commanded Granv.

"You should take it easy."

"You're not my father," he snarled, "so back off."

Granv raised his hands in capitulation and poured him another drink.

A stinging chill whispered through his body, and he shivered suddenly. Maybe he should have ordered a hot drink, but those were a rarity in the desert. Was he getting sick? He never got sick! "Youęd better have spice in that," Luke warned crossly.

There was no answer as he raised the glass. But before it could touch his mouth, it went flying out of his grip and shattered on the floor. Nonplused, Luke sat for a moment, his frozen fingers still wrapped around the non-existent flagon. Peripherally, he noted that the cantina had gone silent, and it was so cold, as if the air had turned to ice. Kritpeth! He hadn't meant to use the Force! Maybe it had just turned on by itself. Maybe....

Blackness filled the mirror behind the bar, dark and mystifying as night. There was a strange sound, too, like a motor that was running intermittently, hissing and... exhaling and... inhaling. Like a... respirator.

Luke swallowed.

Very slowly, he turned on the stool. It was black, all right. Big and black and...

... oh-oh.

Illo by Sara T

Reluctantly, he raised his gaze up and up... panels, switches, lights, solid black....

"Kritpeth hell!" he muttered when his eyes finally rested on the helmeted visage that had become familiar to him through repetitive databank explorations and INN reports.

The huge figure of Darth Vader stood, legs planted on the floor like saplings, arms akimbo, staring at... Granv.

Luke heaved a sigh of relief.

"You dare," a deep voice rumbled, sounding more sonorous than on holonews broadcasts, "to serve this vile poison to children?"

"Uh...s-sorry, m-m'lord, it won't happen ag -- "

Luke flinched at the sudden silence and the sound of much breaking glass.

"Indeed it will not," the Sith Lord said with obvious satisfaction. A gauntlet-covered finger pointed at Luke. "You, come with me."

"Who, me?" he asked weakly, frantically looking around for another victim. "Or... you mean -- him? Or maybe... them?"

Vader strode away, his heavy cape flagging behind him.

Luke didn't move. There was a new, funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. The glacial ice was melting and he was all tingly and hot like a shorted fuse.

In the doorway, Vader stopped and turned. "Are you deaf, boy?"

A wave of righteous anger flooded him. Whether Vader was his father or not Ĕ and especially if he was Ĕ the big guy wasnęt getting away with treating him like this! Luke folded his arms, ignoring the tingly feeling. "No, I'm not deaf and I'm not coming with you!"

A ripple of excitement in the form of murmurs ran through the cantina.

Vader stood motionless for a moment, perhaps astonished by the defiance. Then he simply raised a finger and Luke felt himself sliding off the stool and skidding across the room where he ended up face-to-face with Vader's chestplate.

"You ē you -- " Flabbergasted, he struggled to find his voice. Glaring up at the expressionless mask, he shouted, "Don't you dare use that Force stuff on me! Who d'you think you are? You can't get away with that -- I won't let you! Don't you da -- smrph...." His voice cut out and he choked, trying to clear his suddenly constricted throat.

"Enough." Vader grabbed his upper arm and dragged him out of the cantina.

On the street, Luke spluttered and struggled, still unable to talk. He made some violent gagging noises, and whatever Force Vader had employed was released. After a short coughing spell, Luke could speak.

"Don't ever do that to me again! What's the big idea? Where're you taking me? HELP!" he called to people on the street, though they seemed to evaporate, sliding into doorways at an amazingly fast rate. "I'm being abducted by a pervert -- helllllp!"

"Cease that ridiculous caterwauling at once or I will do it for you."

Momentarily distracted, Luke asked curiously, "What's a caterwaul?"

Vader ignored him.

Luke decided to try the polite route. "My arm hurts. Would you please let go of it?"

No answer, no release. While he was considering his limited options, he was pulled into a docking bay where a sleek Imperial shuttle sat, two stormtroopers standing at attention at the base of its ramp.

Luke dug his heels into the sand, startling the Dark Lord into stopping. "Where do you think you're taking me, you sithspawn bastard? I'm not going anywhere with you!"

An abrupt gesture from Vader brought one trooper over with a pair of binders. Luke's wrists were fastened together and the Sith pushed him onto a bench, none too gently. "Your language is offensive," Vader stated. "Your behavior is atrocious. Your appearance borders on the ludicrous. In short, I am taking you somewhere you will be taught to behave properly."

"School? I don't want to -- "

"Your 'wants' are immaterial." Vader addressed the troopers. "If he escapes, your lives are forfeit. Restrain but do not harm him. You will suffer if he is damaged." Without further explanation, the giant stalked away.

"Hey, where are you goin'?" Luke called. "Don't leave me here like this! Hey...!" Abruptly he switched his strategy. "Wait -- please? I just wanna... ask you something. Pleeeease?"

The pleading tone worked. Vader stopped, hesitated, then returned. "What?"

"Umm...." Luke rolled his eyes toward the troopers and jerked his head in their direction several times, trying to send Vader a subtle message.

The Sith waved them away and repeated, "What?"

"Uh...." He had a lot of questions, especially about his father and this weird electric feeling he was getting when Vader was near, but the odds were against Vader answering more than a couple before losing patience. "Are you... uh, going to kill me?"

"Only if you continue to annoy me."

Luke snorted and tried to fold his arms but the binders prevented it. "I'm serious!"

"So am I."

They glared at each other. Or at least Luke assumed Vader was glaring. "Hrmph. Well... what do you want me for?"

"If you are deemed suitable," the Dark Lord said slowly, "my master will train you in the ways of the Force."

Luke didn't like the sound of that. "Who's your master?" Maybe the Force was creating these quivers along his nerve endings.

"The Emperor Palpatine."

Old wrinkly King Ugly. Great, just great. Life couldnęt get any better than that. Slave to an evil emperor, it sounded like a holovid. A very, very bad holovid. "What d'you mean by 'suitable'?"

"Having potential. Being amenable... and obedient."

"That's me, Mr. Obedient." He grinned and winked, hoping to show the big fellow that he was harmless and didnęt need to be manacled. "Wanna see my tattoo?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"My tat. I've got a TIE fighter on my shoulder, wanna see?" He tugged unsuccessfully at his shirt with his bound hands. "If you'd take these cuffs off me, I could show you."

Vader said nothing.

"Okay, so you don't want to see it." He sighed, considering. " why does Old Ugly have to train me?"

The Sith Lord made an odd choking sound. "You must not speak disrespectfully of the Emperor."

"Whatever. Why does he have to train me?"

"I do not understand your reluctance. If he deems you worthy of training, you will be appropriately grateful."

He sighed loudly. "You don't get it. I mean, why does he have to do it? Why can't you?"

"Me?" The tone was puzzled, and Luke realized with some pride that he was already learning how to read the emotions behind the mask. "Why would you prefer that I train you?"

Either he, Luke Lars Skywalker Vader Laze Loneozner Oz, wasn't as insightful as he thought, or the Dark Lord was pretty dense. "Aren't you...?" Arenęt you my father? he wanted to ask, but half-dreaded the answer. Good news/bad news... sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. "Never mind, it doesn't matter."

After a long pause, the deep voice murmured, "All things matter, young one."

"You think so?" Vader's last words, which seemed almost an endearment, hurt and somehow disappointed him. "I don't. Nothing matters, nothing lasts. Because of you, I don't have a home any more, and it wasn't that great of a home anyway. Because of you, I canęt see my friends, and now all the kids are gone, too. You're going to take me off this stupid planet, but only to that ē that -- slave-master who'll probably kill me 'cause you two killed all the Jedi, I read about it and Ben told me youęd kill me, so whatęs the point of gettinę off this rock? I never get to do what I want, there's always somebody makin' me do stuff I don't want to do and you're the same as everybody else and now I have these weird feelings and I donęt know why!"

Vader folded his arms. "Your speech is immature, inelegant, and lacking logic. I suggest you do not plan for a career in diplomacy or politics."

"Kritpeth!" he shouted. "Don't make fun of me! Who the hell are you anyway? You think you're so great 'cause you're big and can threaten people! You're just a bully!"

ĜI am the bully who is now in charge of your life,ĝ Vader rumbled threateningly, Ĝso I suggest you modify your words.ĝ

Luke narrowed his eyes. Are you my father? He hoped Vader would just confirm or deny it without being asked.

ĜWhat feelings are you referring to?ĝ

ĜHuh?ĝ His mind went blank. Vader was asking him a question?

ĜYou referred to having Ęweirdę feelings.ĝ

ĜOh.ĝ Vaguely astonished that the Dark Lord of the Sith wanted to know something from him, he looked down, trying to sort out his thoughts. ĜYeah... well, funny feelings, yęknow? Just since... now, when youęre around. Like....ĝ He held out his hands. ĜLike I can feel the nerves under my skin, all of them. They donęt hurt, theyęre just... awake. Does that mean anything?ĝ

ĜIt is the Force.ĝ

ĜI never felt the Force like that before.ĝ Luke cringed as Vader moved. But, incredibly, the large man lowered himself to sit on the bench beside him. Are you my father? ĜI could always do things, yęknow? And I guess sometimes I feel things, but not this much and not this way.ĝ Daringly, he asked, ĜCan you feel it, too? Just since Ięm here?ĝ

There was a long silence that seemed out of proportion for such a simple question. Eventually Vader replied, ĜYes.ĝ

ĜWhy is it happening?ĝ

ĜReasons are irrelevant.ĝ Vader stood. Evidently their conversation was over, but Luke was reluctant to let it end.

ĜYou just said that everything matters.ĝ

His reminder was ignored.

Sighing in defeat, he decided on a semi-direct approach. ĜAre you Anakin Skywalker?ĝ

The tingling feeling abruptly morphed into something dark and oppressing, more violent than a sandstorm. Air was sucked out of the room, leaving them in a terrifying vacuum. Luke flinched as if struck, staring up at the mask fearfully, desperately trying to figure out what heęd said wrong to cause this horrible sensation.

"As you have nothing of importance to say,ĝ Vader said coldly, ĜI will finish conducting my business." The Dark Lord signaled to the troopers, then turned away.

"Hey, wait!" Luke called after him, but this time his call was disregarded. "Fine," he muttered to the retreating form. "Act like a jerk, I don't care."

Without much hope, he tested the binders, but they were fastened securely. The stormtroopers approached, eying him closely, their laser rifles held across their bodies. "I suppose those are set on stun?"

No response. Luke sighed. There had to be a way to escape, he just had to figure it out.
But first he had to decide if he really wanted to escape. If Vader wanted to kill him, he'd already be dead. And if Vader was truly his dad... well, that put a different spin on the universe, didn't it?

Leaning back against the wall, he crossed his legs at the ankles, yawning as he considered his options. It wasnęt like he really had a choice. If he ran away -- assuming he could get away -- heęd still be stuck on Tatooine with Vader and the Imps after him. If he went... well, he was bound to have some adventures and maybe a pretty cushy life with his dad, assuming thatęs who Vader was. Closing his eyes, he drifted into a light doze, imaging a palace, lots of speeders, fighting the bad guys....

* * *

Jarred from his sleep by the sound of voices, Luke jerked up and stared at the changed scene. The reptile -- what was his name? -- yeah, Jaslin Xenar, that was it -- was talking to the troopers.

Ĝ -- emissary from Prince Xizor. Lord Vader is expecting me.ĝ

Xizor? Luke frowned. Jas hadnęt said anything about being an official rep of the galaxyęs biggest transport company. ĜHey, are you really -- ĝ

The troopers whirled in response to his voice and, just as quickly, Jas pulled a blaster from his voluminous sleeve and shot them. Luke stared, wide-eyed and silent with astonishment.

ĜStop gawking!ĝ Jas snapped. ĜCome, before Vader returns.ĝ

ĜWhat?ĝ Luke rose, following the Falleen to the docking bay doors. ĜWhatęs going on?ĝ

ĜIęm rescuing you,ĝ Jaslin said matter-of-factly. ĜYou may thank me later, after we are safely out of Vaderęs reach. Do not run or otherwise attract attention to us.ĝ

ĜI wasnęt going to run,ĝ he muttered resentfully. Jas yanked the colorful scarf from Lukeęs neck and draped it over his bound hands. ĜDo you really work for Xizor?ĝ

ĜThat was a falsehood.ĝ

ĜDid you kill those troopers?ĝ

Apparently it was his fate today to have his questions left unanswered. Jas took off at a brisk pace and Luke followed automatically, wishing he had time to think this through. The one thought that kept jumping to the front of his mind was that this might be his only chance to escape the Emperor. But... Father? he wondered wistfully, and was taken aback when he felt the tingling again. This time it was in his mind, almost as if....

Almost as if Vader was answering him!

Young one....

It had to be his imagination, and yet.... Father!

ĜHere!ĝ Jas whispered, and they entered a small docking bay where a strange ship was waiting.

Luke stopped and stared in awe. It was a fair-sized ship, its trim lines elegant and clean, and it was obviously built for both local and deep space travel. ĜWow,ĝ he breathed.

ĜSave your admiration for another time. We must leave and enter hyperspace before Vader can track us.ĝ

ĜWhyęre you doing this?ĝ he asked, half-complaining. ĜHe wasnęt going to hurt me. I donęt think....ĝ

Jas whirled on him, the brocade coat twirling around his long legs. ĜFalleen hate Vader,ĝ he hissed. ĜWe will do anything to thwart his desires!ĝ

ĜOh. Thwart,ĝ Luke repeated. It was a new word, but its meaning was unmistakable. Uncomfortably, he wondered if Jas had heard any of the conversation between him and his... maybe-father. ĜSo, um, youęre rescuing me because...?ĝ

ĜI just answered you!ĝ Xenar snapped in exasperation, shoving Luke up the ramp. ĜIn, quickly!ĝ

ĜOkay, but -- wait!ĝ Panicked, he stopped. ĜMy pack, I left my pack!ĝ

ĜDoes your Ępackę contain something more important than your life?ĝ

He could hardly explain why a model skyhopper was definitely worth going back for. Although he was pretty sure his life wasnęt on the line, if Vader caught them, Jas would be punished, maybe even executed, and Luke didnęt want that to happen. After all, the guy was just trying to help him... even if he didnęt exactly need help.

With a true lack of enthusiasm, Luke allowed Jas to enclose them in the ship and made no protest as they blasted off. What the hell, it was another adventure.

Bye... Dad, he told Vader, though this time there was no answer, and he thought that he might never see his captor again.

And he realized, with some dismay, that possibility saddened him.

* * *

They were in hyperspace before Luke had gotten a good look at Tatooine from space. He had only a brief glimpse of a ball colored with shades of gold hanging in a progressively darkening blue sky before Jas ordered him to strap down in the passenger lounge. He felt suddenly melancholy... leaving home was what heęd wanted for as long as he could remember, but now that it was happening....

And he hadnęt loved Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru when he had lived with the Lars, so why were his eyes misting now? He hated weakness! ĜKrit,ĝ he cursed under his breath, swiping his cuffed hands across his eyes. ĜKrit, krit, krit!ĝ

ĜCome here!ĝ Jasęs voice echoed through the speaker.

Luke made his way to the spacious cockpit. ĜYes, master?ĝ he drawled, sliding into the copilotęs seat.

ĜDonęt get comfortable,ĝ Jas warned. He swiveled and rose from the pilotęs position. ĜIf I remove those binders, you must make me a promise.ĝ

ĜWhat do you mean Ęifę?ĝ he huffed. ĜYouęre damn well going to take them off!ĝ

The Falleen folded his arms and stared him down.

ĜHowęre you gonna get them off? Do you have... like, a key or something?ĝ

The stare continued.

Luke squirmed. ĜAll right, all right, what do you want me to promise?ĝ

ĜThat you will clean yourself and those filthy clothes. My olfactory sense is highly developed.ĝ

ĜAnd mine isnęt? Hey, you think I like smelling like this?ĝ

Jas grimaced in what Luke considered an elegant and refined way. ĜThere is a sonic shower in my compartment as well as a clothes sanitizing unit. You may use them.ĝ

ĜThanks a lot.ĝ As if there were any alternatives. Luke raised his wrists. ĜNow get these off me!ĝ

ĜMy pleasure.ĝ From somewhere inside the folds of his voluminous garments, Jas produced a silver cylinder. Before Luke had time to speak, the other pressed a button and the long shaft of a lightsaber hummed into view, glowing bright and brilliant as the Tatooine skies he'd just left behind.

ĜHey, you got my lightsaber!ĝ Another thought followed hastily. ĜYouęre not gonna use that on me, are you? Youęll chop off my arm!ĝ

ĜOnly if it is unavoidable.ĝ When Luke blanched, the Falleen laughed, and for the first time Luke realized that the other wasnęt much older than him. ĜIęm teasing. I think we can do this. Why donęt you put your wrists on the... well, just hold your hands up.ĝ

ĜNo.ĝ Luke pressed his fists into his stomach. ĜNuh-uh, thereęs no way this will work. Thereęs not enough room between me and the binders.ĝ

Jas sighed and turned off the saber. ĜPity, I was looking forward to using this.ĝ

ĜItęs mine,ĝ Luke reminded him.

ĜIn exchange for repair work.ĝ

Luke tried to fold his arms but ended up twisting his wrists. ĜFrom the sound of the engines, there isnęt a damn thing wrong with this ship.ĝ

ĜIęm sure you can find something. But for now, go shower.ĝ

He heaved an exasperated sigh. ĜHow am I supposed to do that with these binders on?ĝ

ĜIf your olfactory sense is as developed as you claim, Ięm sure youęll find a way.ĝ With a nod of dismissal, Jaslin turned back to his console and pulled navigation charts onto the screen.

Luke made a point of sighing very loudly and stomping hard as he headed to the passenger compartment. Removing the lower half of his clothing wouldnęt be too difficult, but he stopped after getting his boots off, picturing himself wearing a shirt and nothing else. Sliding down to the floor, he stared at the binders. ĜOff!ĝ he commanded.

He expected that wouldnęt do the trick and it didnęt. Dad, he called in his head. Father? You around somewhere? Yoo-hoo, can you hear me? Faaaaaather!

Yeah, like that would work. He glared at the binders. Well, just use the Force, Luke, he told himself. Yeah, right. Closing his eyes, he concentrated as hard as he could. Nothing happened.

Youęre trying too hard. Relax.

His eyes flew open. ĜWho said that? Dad?ĝ

Zero, zilch, no answer.

ĜOkay, then.ĝ This time he focused on relaxing, forming a picture in his mind of the binders, the mechanism that kept them locked, releasing the latch and....

There was a clunk.

He opened one eye and peeked. The binders were on the floor, wide open.

ĜWow!ĝ Luke murmured, impressed with himself.

If he could do that, he could probably do a lot of other stuff. But now wasnęt the time to experiment, what with the strange Falleen who did/didnęt work for Xizor and whose ship was/wasnęt in need of repair... and, come to think of it, who had/hadn't rescued/kidnapped him.

Oh, well. He'd worry about all that later. Whistling happily, Luke dumped his clothes in the sani-unit and headed gratefully for the shower.

* * *

He wasnęt nearly as happy when he exited and found Jas standing in the room, reading Lukeęs datachip.

ĜHey! Whatęre you doing? Whereęd you get that?ĝ He knew damn well where the other youth had found it. ĜThat was in my boot! I didnęt say you could go through my stuff!ĝ Backing into the sani unit, he peered around the door. ĜThrow me my clothes, will you?ĝ

ĜTheyęre not ready,ĝ Jas said calmly. ĜSo, you are the son of a Jedi, and Vader does not wish to kill you. He will train you, I think, to be Sith like him.ĝ

Edging out, Luke grabbed the edge of the sheet and tugged it off the bunk, bunching it around his waist. ĜYou shouldnęt go through other peopleęs stuff!ĝ

ĜYou shouldnęt steal other peopleęs silver chains,ĝ the Falleen said absently, waving his hand toward the floor where Luke had dropped the treasure heęd found in the sani cabinet.

ĜOh. Uh... I was just looking at it.ĝ

Jas glanced at him and raised one eyebrow.

ĜOkay, okay.ĝ His face felt hot. ĜSorry. And you still shouldnęt go through my stuff.ĝ

ĜYou are a stranger I have taken on board my ship and you steal from me. I have every right to search your belongings... such as they are.ĝ

ĜI didnęt -- I hadnęt -- you looked in my stuff before I took your chain!ĝ

ĜThis is becoming tedious.ĝ Jas pulled the chip from the datapad and tossed it on the bunk. ĜAre you Jedi?ĝ

Luke grabbed his precious datachip and clenched his fist around it. ĜNo. I donęt know. Maybe. No. I mean, Ięm nothing, Ięve never been trained, I canęt do anything.ĝ

ĜIndeed?ĝ Reaching down, Jas retrieved the binders and dangled them from one finger.

ĜThey just... uh, fell off. Guess they werenęt fastened very well.ĝ Something about the otheręs skeptical stare embarrassed him. ĜOh -- I donęt know how I got them off! I just thought about it and they came apart.ĝ

ĜForce user. Maybe Jedi, maybe Sith. Did I make mistake by assuming you wished to be rescued? Perhaps you wished to go with Vader?ĝ

This guy was sure direct! Luke swallowed. ĜI donęt know. He just dragged me.... I mean, itęs not like he asked what I wanted.ĝ

ĜAnd if he had?ĝ

ĜI guess... no... maybe. Ięd be afraid of the Emperor.ĝ Luke shivered. ĜAre my clothes done yet?ĝ

Jas shrugged. ĜWe will talk later,ĝ he said, and exited the cabin.

Luke gnawed on his lower lip. He felt uneasy, unsure... and those emotions were not familiar. Heęd always been one to dive into action and worry about the consequences later. Now he was out of his element, away from familiar territory, in space, with lots to think about... and even worse, he was hungry.

Maybe after he ate, heęd be able to think more clearly.

* * *

It was annoying, but after he finished eating the unfamiliar food, he still had a gnawing feeling in his gut. Shifting in the comfortable lounge chair, he looked at the Fallen who was engrossed with the shipęs control board.

ĜDo you have any glitt?ĝ


ĜGlitt. Spice. Have any?ĝ

Jas sent a look of disdain over his shoulder. ĜCertainly not. Are you addicted?ĝ

ĜCertainly not!ĝ Luke snapped, though that was something heęd worried about more than once. ĜI just find it relaxing. How about a drink?ĝ

ĜNo, thank you.ĝ

ĜI wasnęt offering you one! I was asking for one. Do you have anything to drink on this ship?ĝ

ĜNothing that would be palatable to a human tongue.ĝ The other swiveled his chair around and stared. ĜAre you an alcoholic?ĝ

ĜQuit asking me stuff like that!ĝ He frowned and subsided into silence for several minutes, aware that Jas was watching him. ĜWhy do the Falleen hate Vader?ĝ he asked abruptly.

Jas continued staring and Luke found the gaze unnerving. Or maybe it was the otheręs appearance that made him uneasy. Heęd seen non-humans in Eisley often enough, but heęd never been in continuous contact with one so alien. He was both fascinated and discomfited.

ĜHe is a... he proved himself to be totally without conscience.ĝ Jas swiveled back to the panel, running his long fingers over the controls in a manner that appeared completely aimless.

ĜTell me.ĝ

A long sigh ended in a decisive movement as the Falleen rose gracefully and paced the small area. ĜA contaminant was released into the atmosphere of a Fayaet, large Falleen city. Vader annihilated the city to prevent contamination to the rest of the planet. A quarter of a million Falleen were killed. So goes the official Imperial line.ĝ

Luke shifted uneasily. ĜWhatęs the unofficial story?ĝ

The dark eyes narrowed and focused on him. ĜVader had chosen Fayaet as the location for a biological warfare laboratory. A huge, populated city. There was an Ęaccidentę, or so the Imperials labeled it, that resulted in the release of bio-contaminants into the atmosphere. Palpatine declared Vader a hero for saving the rest of Falleen... by murdering the population of an entire metropolis. Of course,ĝ here Jas smiled bitterly, Ĝhad he not chosen Fayaet as the site to conduct his despicable experiments, there would have been no necessity for heroics. What a pity the laboratory had not been constructed on Coruscant.ĝ

For one of the few times in his life, the shock was so great that Luke had no words. Frantically, he tried to sort out his thoughts, struggling to separate Vader-the-Evil-Sith-Lord from Vader-his-father, for only an evil Sith Lord could have done such a terrible thing. No honorable man would have. A father wouldnęt be involved in biological warfare experiments Ĕ wasnęt that illegal anyway? A father wouldnęt kill hundreds of thousands of beings... men, women... even children.

But apparently his father had. It was just like Ben and Owen told him. Vader was evil... and his son had inherited the same potential. Anakin Skywalker, the great Jedi hero, was Darth Vader, the evil Sith. So that made Luke... who?

ĜAre you all right?ĝ The Falleenęs off-handed words pierced Lukeęs brain.

ĜI... yeah,ĝ he stalled, trying to gather his thoughts. ĜIęm... Ięm just tired. Would it be okay if I turned in? I can work on your... whateveręs wrong... tomorrow.ĝ

ĜOf course. Follow me.ĝ

Blindly he obeyed, not really noticing the small passenger compartment Jas guided him to. ĜYou may have this,ĝ the other youth said, gesturing to a folded pile of white fabric on the bunk.

Luke picked it up, gratified to focus on something tangible, even if it was only smooth, silky fabric. ĜWow, this is soft, Ięve never felt anything like this before, thanks, I can wear it with Ĕ with Ĕ anyway, thanks, Ięll be Ĕ ĝ

ĜStop babbling,ĝ Jas said irritably. ĜDo not wear it with anything. It is for sleeping, so human skin does not befoul my silk sheets.ĝ

ĜKritpeth!ĝ Luke shouted at him. ĜWhat in hells is wrong with you? So youęre green, big deal, youęre nothing special! Quit treating me like Ięm some kind of Ĕ of Ĕ sithspawn scum!ĝ

ĜMay you have a healthy rest.ĝ Impervious to his outburst, the Falleen inclined his head and exited, pulling the small door closed.

Luke stared at the door, struggling to maintain his anger. He failed, and it dissolved into agony. Slumping to the floor, he leaned back against the cot, clutching the nightshirt in his hands. Maybe Jas lied to him about what happened on Falleen... but that was unlikely; it was too easy to check. No, the hideous truth was that Vader Ĕ no, Anakin Skywalker had done an unbelievably wicked thing in trying to create a ghastly weapon. And then heęd compounded his depravity by murdering the innocent victims of his experiments. No wonder the Falleen hated him Ĕ everyone should! Why hadnęt the entire galaxy risen up in protest when the massacre happened? Krit, he didn't even remember seeing the story on INN!

He staggered to his feet, stripped, and pulled the nightshirt over his head. The hem puddled on the floor, much too long for him, and he stared at the ripples, his mind blank for several minutes. Then, climbing into the narrow bunk, he pulled the sheet over his head. Had he inherited this evil... or had Anakin Skywalker Vader contaminated him during their brief meeting? Heęd been weak during that encounter, longing to know his father despite his protests. He had thrust aside the warnings from his guardians, wanting to touch Vader on some emotional level, needing to know if there were any emotions in the man to be touched....

Now he was contaminated. Or maybe heęd been contaminated since birth. Maybe Uncle Owen had been right all along. ĜSithspawn,ĝ he whispered. For the first time he understood the deeper meaning of the old curse. Only Owen had ever called him that, under his breath when he thought Luke couldnęt hear. Sithspawn... an ancient evil passed on from father to son.

ĜStop it!ĝ Rolling onto his stomach, he pulled the pillow over his head. It was time to quit thinking. He never had to see Vader again, didnęt have to have anything to do with him... and maybe Vader wasnęt Anakin... in fact, he probably wasnęt. People lied about stuff all the time. This was just another lie. Just another one....

... "Just one," the hunter wheedled, his voice garbled by the translator he wore, "and I'll leave the rest of you."

"Tessi, get behind me," the leader ordered, but the girl appeared too terrified to move.

The reptile reached for her, and she screamed again as his green claws pierced her arms.

Don't get involved in other people's problems, Owen said, except your neighbor's. You need your neighbors to survive.

The last thing he wanted was to get in a fight that might draw the attention of the Imps, Luke thought glumly as he drew out his lightsaber. But the son of a Jedi -- or even a Sith -- couldn't let this scum go free. He had less humanity than a Tusken, and Luke had killed a few of those. A Falleen deserved no mercy.

"Hey there," he called softly, igniting his blade.

The Falleen turned, then started, dropping the child when he saw the lightsaber. "No! Luke, don't!"

Luke swung, decapitating the reptile easily. It was not so different from killing a Tusken, Luke noted remotely, though this thing was more human than a Tusken. Would it be difficult to kill a human? He supposed that one day he would find out.

A thud drew his attention, and he turned to look at the monsteręs head as it rolled to a halt against the cave wall. It was wearing a black helmet. It hadnęt worn a helmet before, had it? This almost looked like Vader's helmet. Luke approached cautiously and touched the tip of his blade to the faceplate. It exploded in a brief cascade of sparks. When the smoke cleared, he realized he would get a glimpse of his first Falleen kill. But when the smoke cleared... when the smoke cleared...

...he was looking in a mirror.

With a strangled cry, Luke bolted upright, gasping for breath. It took several seconds for him to fully wake and realize where he was. The steady hum of engines... the silk gown stuck to his sweating chest... the starlit darkness of space outside the tiny viewport.

He laid back, his heart pounding wildly. Damn you, Father, he whispered in his mind, damn you forever. Why couldnęt you be someone else? Anyone else... anyone except who you are.

Exhausted, he fell asleep again.

* * *

Luke crawled out of the maintenance compartment and laid the hydrospanner back in the tool kit. ĜFinished,ĝ he announced in a loud voice. ĜThis thingęll fly like itęs been greased.ĝ

ĜThat makes no sense,ĝ Jas commented. ĜGrease as a lubricant is utilized only when and where necessary on specific pieces of equipment. Although, theoretically, my ship might not fly if those pieces of equipment had not been greased, I believe that the modifications you have made will not Ĕ ĝ

ĜItęs just an expression,ĝ he replied patiently, having grown used to the Falleenęs literal interpretations after the days they had spent cooped up together. He wiped his hands on his trousers and crossed the cockpit to sprawl in the copilotęs chair. ĜYou know, we could be pirates.ĝ

ĜPirates?ĝ Jas repeated without blinking, evidently also having grown used to his companionęs unusual ideas.

ĜYeah! Weęll just fancy up your clothes a little, make you more colorful, and we can cruise around the galaxy, goinę wherever we want!ĝ

ĜPirating implies boarding and robbing vessels.ĝ

ĜWhatever,ĝ Luke replied, gesturing vaguely. ĜThe important thing is that we get to explore.ĝ

ĜI am already exploring,ĝ the other answered calmly, Ĝand we agreed that you would be left off at the next port in exchange for your work.ĝ

ĜAnd the lightsaber,ĝ he reminded, abruptly disappointed. ĜBut exploring the galaxy would be more fun with me.ĝ

ĜI am not doing this for Ęfunę. It is a Falleen ritual that an aristocrat and future leader, both of which I am, makes a pilgrimage to other planets to observe the natives and remind ourselves of their inferiority.ĝ

Luke heaved a big sigh and propped his feet on the edge of the control panel. ĜHow boring for you.ĝ

ĜItęs hardly boring.ĝ

ĜOf course it is! You go places expecting to not find anything wonderful, so you donęt Ĕwhat a drag! Stick with me,ĝ he waggled his finger at the Falleen, Ĝand weęll find all sorts of new and exciting things Ĕ people, places, food Ĕ ĝ

ĜJudging from the little I know about you,ĝ Jas interrupted, Ĝit is trouble that we are most likely to find.ĝ

ĜThat too!ĝ Luke grinned and then added in a wheedling tone, ĜCęmon, let me stay on board. Itęll be fun. And youęll be able to observe my inferiority more closely.ĝ

Jas coughed, though it sounded suspiciously like he was hiding a bark of laughter. ĜVery well, I cannot resist such an opportunity. But we will not be pirates, merely explorers.ĝ

ĜOkay,ĝ he agreed cheerfully.

ĜAnd no spice or alcohol use while you are accompanying me.ĝ

ĜThatęs not fair!ĝ He scowled but the otheręs expression was adamant. ĜOh, all right.ĝ

ĜYou sound so sincere,ĝ Jas retorted skeptically.

ĜWhatever. So, where are we going first? How about Naboo? Itęs not too far, is it?ĝ

ĜI have been there.ĝ

ĜBut not with me!ĝ

The Falleen sighed. ĜYou wish to visit your motheręs home planet.ĝ

Luke nodded. ĜMaybe I can find some relatives.ĝ

ĜAh, then you would wish to stay with them!ĝ Jas said brightly.

Frowning, he considered the options. If he found his motheręs family, he might want to stay on Naboo, and then he couldnęt go exploring the galaxy. Another of those good news/bad news choices that seemed to be popping up lately. ĜMaybe, maybe not.ĝ

ĜAt least youęre definite.ĝ The other youth studied him for a moment. ĜVery well, Naboo it is, and perhaps I can rid myself of your presence.ĝ

ĜLike you wouldnęt miss my company!ĝ Luke scoffed. His feet dropped from the control panel. ĜNow would be a good time to teach me how to fly this thing.ĝ

Jas looked alarmed.

ĜSo I can help out. So you can rest sometimes. I wouldnęt fly fast. Ięd be careful. Honest.ĝ He flashed his most sincere smile.

The Falleen appeared doubtful, but replied: ĜVery well. I will teach you a few things. But you are not to practice anything without my supervision.ĝ

ĜI wouldnęt dream of it,ĝ he fibbed, and began to pay attention to the instructions.

* * *

Luke had never seen a planet as beautiful as Naboo. Of course, he had never seen another planet from space, except the too-brief view of Tatooine. Still, he was willing to wager that Naboo was one of the prettiest planets in the entire galaxy. It was covered with colors Ĕ many shades of green, gold, white and blue. It stood to reason that if the planet was so beautiful, his mother must have been, too.

ĜDoes Falleen look like this?ĝ he asked his companion curiously.

ĜIt has more water and Ĕ ah!ĝ

Luke gasped as the ship jolted. ĜWhat was that?ĝ It felt like they were being dragged away from the planet. ĜWhatęs going on? Whatęs wrong?ĝ

Jas scowled and muttered Falleen curses under his breath as he flicked switches, shutting down the main engines.

ĜWhatęre you doing? Why arenęt we Ĕ ĝ

ĜObviously,ĝ Xenar said icily, Ĝwe have been captured in a tractor beam.ĝ

ĜFrom the planet? Why would they Ĕ ĝ

ĜNo, not from the planet, idiot boy! From another ship. Look for yourself.ĝ

Leaning toward the scanner, he saw a blip that appeared considerably bigger than their little blip. ĜWho is it?ĝ he asked, though the sinking feeling in his stomach was providing the logical answer.


Vader. Luke was annoyed, scared, relieved, nervous... and a bit flattered that Darth Vader would come chasing after him.

ĜHe wants you very badly.ĝ Jas swiveled his seat around and studied him. ĜDo you prefer to fight or surrender?ĝ

ĜFight Vader? I donęt think weęd win.ĝ Anyway, he wouldnęt mind spending some time with his dad. Maybe he and Vader could look for his motheręs relatives together. Assuming, of course, that Vader was Anakin Skywalker, something he was still a little confused about.

ĜNo, we would likely be killed.ĝ The Falleenęs tone was cool. ĜThat might be preferable to being captured and tortured, do you think?ĝ

ĜTortured? He wouldnęt torture me... er, us. I'm pretty sure.ĝ

ĜI have heard stories of his methods. He will torture me. As for you...ĝ Jas shrugged. Ĝ is said that the Force can both break and rebuild a being. Perhaps that is your fate.ĝ

ĜThatęs disgusting.ĝ Scowling, he peered out the viewscreen at the gray hull of a ship coming into focus above them. ĜI understand why you hate him, but nobody can be all bad. Besides, he wouldnęt hurt me Ĕ Ięm just a kid.ĝ

"There were children in Fayaet," Jas said quietly, but Luke pretended not to hear.

The other ship filled his vision for a few seconds before they were enveloped by darkness, and then they re-emerged into a hangar bay. A detachment of white-clad stormtroopers came running and, as best he could see, completely surrounded their small cruiser. Unlike his companion, Luke was unperturbed and found it all quite exciting. It was like a hologame -- well, except it was real, of course, but he couldn't believe his maybe-dad would let anything bad happen to them.

The main hatch reverberated with pounding. Jas sent him a grim look and pressed the control to release the hatch. Five stormtroopers, rifles pointed at them, and an Imperial officer entered the ship.

ĜJaslin Xenar,ĝ the officer intoned, Ĝthis ship is confiscated and you are being taken into Imperial custody on the charge of abduction of a minor child. Take him away.ĝ Two troopers cuffed Jas and led him off the ship. The officer watched them depart before adding, ĜLuke Skywalker, come with me.ĝ

"Who're you calling child?" he muttered under his breath, then: Luke Skywalker?! It was the first time anyone had said his real name! Daydreaming for a few seconds, he followed the older man without paying attention, but when they stepped out of the ship and into the large bay, he was reminded of his situation. Was he an Imperial prisoner, too? No, that was impossible. He wasnęt cuffed and his pop was Darth Vader; no one would dare arrest him.

Nervous and excited, Luke chattered and studied his surroundings as they walked. ĜThis is a really big hanger bay! Does this ship have other hangers? What kind of ship is it? Itęs really big, isnęt it? Are you the captain? Is Lord Vader here? Is he the captain?ĝ The man wasn't answering, but Luke was afraid to stop talking in case the officer said something he didn't want to hear. ĜWhatęs your name? Does the ship have laser cannons and torpedoes? Can I see the cockpit or helm or whatever you call it?ĝ

A muscle twitched in the manęs jaw.

ĜAm I a prisoner or a guest?" Luke added hastily. "Do I get to wear a uniform, too? Ięm hungry. Is it time for lunch yet? Or is it dinnertime? Do you count time in space the same as we do on planets? If different planets have their own times, how do you Ĕ ĝ

The officer raised his hand and came to a halt, meeting Lukeęs gaze with what looked like amusement in his eyes, though his face was perfectly official and serious. Luke stopped and waited, hoping his shaking was invisible. ĜI am Captain Piett. This is the Imperial Starship Devastator, Lord Vaderęs flagship of the fleet. The armament of this ship is a confidential matter. You will be advised when you will be fed. It is approximately 1500 hours. Imperial ships keep Coruscant time. Is there anything else?ĝ

He blinked. ĜUmm... am I a prisoner?ĝ

ĜThat remains to be seen,ĝ Captain Piett replied, reaching over his shoulder to press a button on the wall. A door slid open. ĜFor now, this will be your quarters. It will be locked and you will be unable to leave.ĝ

Luke peered into the dimly lit room and took a few cautious steps inside. It didn't look so bad. He relaxed slightly. ĜYou have kids, donęt you?ĝ

This particular question was ignored. ĜPlease remain quietly in this room and do not destroy any Imperial property.ĝ

ĜLike I would!ĝ He rolled his eyes at the preposterousness of the suggestion. ĜIs Lord Vader coming?ĝ

ĜPerhaps you should take a nap. Good day.ĝ

The door slid shut, cutting him off from the captain while he was spluttering in indignation. ĜA nap?!ĝ

* * *

As it turned out, he did fall asleep, although he would never admit it to anyone, especially his father who needed to realize that he was practically an adult and too old to boss around. Fortunately, he woke on his own without 'anyone' being the wiser and discovered that the fresher had a regular sonic shower, not water like he'd hoped. Taking a full water-shower was one of his goals in life. After a fast in-and-out, he felt clean again, but it was disconcerting to peek into the sleeping area and see new clothes lying on the bunk. Obviously there was no one in the room right now, but still:

ĜHello? Anybody here?ĝ

There was no reply, so he deemed it safe to expose himself. He dashed into the room, grabbed the clothes, then scurried back to the sani. He dressed, disappointed that theyęd given him a boring gray jumpsuit instead of a snappy uniform. It had pockets on both thighs, though he had nothing to put in them, and a utility belt, though he had nothing to hook on it.

Restless and edgy, he prowled the small quarters, taking about ten seconds to circle the entire place. He peered into empty built-in shelves and tried to peek under the bunk, but it was welded to the floor. There had to be listening devices, right?

ĜHello? Ięm bored. Can I get out? Is it time to eat? When is Lord Vader coming to see me? What happened to my friend Jas?ĝ

He waited, but no answers came. Maybe there wasnęt even a speaker in here. What if there was an emergency and the ship had to be evacuated and they forgot about him and left him here to die? ĜHelloooooo!ĝ

Nothing. He needed to say something guaranteed to get a response, so: ĜVader is a crazy krit and all Imps are bantha-krit!ĝ After a pause, he added: ĜDonęt forget Ięm in here. And I have nothing to do! There isnęt even a vidscreen!ĝ

Irritated, he tried the door, but it was still locked. Maybe the Force would work on it. Luke closed his eyes and concentrated on opening the door. Nothing happened. Frustrated, he gave it a few kicks but succeeded only in hurting his foot. He heaved a great sigh and sat on the edge of the bunk. Maybe his father was going to let him rot in here. Or not let him out until he was delivered to the Emperor who would probably torture him.

He lay back, tucked his hands behind his head, and stared up at the gray ceiling. Gray, gray, gray, everything was gray and boring. His entire life was in the balance, and he was locked in a gray room with no information and no food. With nothing else to do, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again.

* * *

A clanging noise woke him and he shot into a sitting position. A soldier was in his room, putting a tray on the small metal table.

"Is that dinner?" Luke asked eagerly, pretending he'd been awake and alert and that the man's presence wasn't a surprise.


"Thanks!" He hurried over. "Do you know whatęs happening? Or where my friend is? Or when Darth Vader is coming to visit me? Or when Ięm getting out of here? Anything?"

The soldier looked him up and down. Luke did the same thing. The other man was sort of young, but looked tired. "Ięll be sure to ask Lord Vader to add you to his agenda," he said sarcastically, turning to leave.

Scowling, Luke balled his fists and put them on his waist. "Do you know who I am?" he demanded.

"Donęt know, donęt care," the soldier responded, and walked out the door. It slid shut with a sharp click, and Luke knew he was locked in again. At least this time he had food. And if Vader was feeding him, that meant he wouldnęt be killed... right?

He removed the cover and stared at the plate. Nothing on it was familiar to him. Guess the rest of the galaxy ate differently from Tatooine. He sampled a pale lump that evidently was some sort of meat. It had an odd after-taste. Maybe it was poisoned... maybe Vader had decided to kill him slowly and painfully. Damn, what he wouldnęt give for a big banthaburger right about now.

The yellow lumps were vegetables, nothing surprising about that non-flavor. He uncapped the beverage. It was white. He swallowed a mouthful. "Milk?" he called out. "What does a guy have to do to get a real drink around here?" Milk, like he was a baby. "Blech."

But it was this or starve to death, so he finished everything, even the milk. He wondered if the soldier would come back to pick up the tray. How could there not even be a vidscreen in these quarters? Or a computer set up to play games? What in hells did military people do in their spare time? He had no idea, but he did know what prisoners did: they escaped!

If his maybe-father couldn't be bothered to check on him, he would just leave. Vader thought he was a child -- well, he'd find out differently! Maybe Luke Skywalker was confused and out of his element here, but Oz was street-smart. Oz took care of a herd of children for months. Oz was clever; he'd find Jas and they would escape together. Then Vader would be sorry!

The idea perked up his spirits. He twisted the utility belt around his waist, inspecting it closely. There was a small metal fastener that looked like it might be useful. After a few twists and tugs, it came off. Luke dragged the chair to the center of the room and stood on it. He couldn't reach the ceiling, so he hauled over the table and climbed onto that. With a smug smile, he squeezed the fastener flat and used it to turn the screws on the plate that covered the fan vent. It was awkward work, but after several minutes, he was able to remove the plate. His grip on it slipped and it fell to the floor with a loud clatter. He waited a few seconds, but no one came to investigate, so he grabbed the edges of the opening and heaved himself up. As he suspected, the duct was wide enough to allow him easy access. He could crawl through it and, with any luck, find the shipęs brig.

His rescue mission went smoothly for several minutes. The ductwork made a few sharp turns, but he was pretty certain he could find his way back if he needed to. There were a couple access plates that were screened instead of solid, and they allowed in enough light so he could see. Not that there was anything to see but more gray metal.

The duct narrowed, forcing him to drop lower and use his elbows to pull himself through in a shimmying fashion. He came to another solid wall and wriggled around the sharp turn. And came to a sudden stop.

His utility belt was caught on something.

Luke twisted his hips, but the belt didnęt come loose. He tried to back up, but found he couldnęt move at all. He tried to move forward again. No luck.

Well, heęd just remove the belt. But he couldnęt move his arms backward to unfasten it. He tried to roll onto his side. His shoulder hit the top of the duct. No problem, heęd just hold this position and squish his arm down and....

That didnęt work. Now his arm was stuck, too. He lay still, considering his options. He could chew off his arm and free himself. He could wait until someone noticed he was gone and came looking for him. But they wouldnęt know where in the ducts he was. He could yell for help...but what if he was in a storeroom or a deserted area where no one ever came? He could starve to death. But before that happened, heęd have to go to the fresher.

"Ewww," he muttered. Well, okay then, he had to ignore his pride. "HELLLLP!" he yelled, trying to bang his fists and heels against the duct. "Get me outta here!"

It was mortifying, but he had to continue shouting for help. A desert kid shouldnęt be in a ship anyway, not even Oz, and especially not in a heating duct. Who knew they were so small and full of sharp edges to catch him on? It wasnęt his fault, and his maybe-father couldnęt blame him!

After endless minutes of pounding, he heard voices, then clunking and scraping. A few minutes later, a voice called from somewhere behind him: "Luke Skywalker! Come back this way and get out of there immediately!"

Oh, like it was so simple! "I canęt, Ięm stuck!" You moron, he added silently. "Donęt you think I would if I could?!"

Silence fell. After more minutes of absolutely nothing, Luke called, "Youęre not going to leave me here, are you?"

No one answered. With a sigh, he rested the side of his face on the cool metal plating. He was beginning to feel claustrophobic and panicking just a little. What if Vader decided to leave him here? He was going to die slowly and horribly and his skeleton would rattle in the duct forever. Maybe his ghost would haunt the ship.

Suddenly he heard a loud hum and sparks appeared along one side him, then the other. Before he could react, the duct opened up to blinding light and he fell, hearing the shriek of metal, the sound of tearing cloth ē and the thud of himself, landing hard on the deck.

"Ow!" he complained, struggling to recover from the sudden shock. Gingerly he moved his body. Nothing seemed to be broken. "That hurt!" Looking up, he found himself surrounded by officers and troopers. No one looked sympathetic about his possible injuries, and he gulped.

"Take him to a detention cell," a familiar deep voice said crossly.

Tilting his head back, he saw the upside-down figure of father hooking a lightsaber to his belt as he stalked off. "Hey, wait!" Twisting around and stumbling to his feet, he watched Vader disappear down the corridor. "Wait!"

"You destroyed Imperial property," someone said in clipped tones. "Look at this damage."

Turning, he saw a very stern Captain Piett pointing to the smooth cuts the lightsaber had made in the ceiling. It was a big hole, all right. "Donęt blame me, he did it!" Luke declared defensively, pointing in the direction of his dearly departed Dark Lord maybe-father.

Piett ignored his excuse. "Take him to detention," he told the stormtroopers.

Luke was marched off. By the time they arrived at the detention cell, he realized that he probably should have apologized to the captain. But it was too late.

* * *

Maybe Jas was locked up near by, but after a few seconds of hollering, Luke decided that he couldnęt be heard outside his cell. There were no windows and the door appeared to be airtight. He was going to use up all the oxygen and die in here. He sat on the hard ledge that couldnęt possibly be a bed and pulled his knees up to his chin, wrapping his arms around his legs and sighing. It was a tiring job, maintaining this level of resistance and defiance... pretending not to care about anything, when what he really wanted to do was get to know his father. Even if his father was Darth Vader. Maybe.

Since that momentous day when heęd first read the name "Anakin Skywalker", he'd continued wondering if Vader was really his father or not. Sometimes the idea was terrifying, but other times it was breathtaking. Imagine, ruling the galaxy at the side of the Dark Lord! They could get rid of Palpatine and make the galaxy a better place. It was a wild fairytale, a soaring adventure, and it could be his life. But now it appeared that the reality was nothing like his dreams. The real Vader was neither Evil Sith nor Doting Dad. The real Vader didnęt even try to understand him and sure didnęt feel any love or respect for him. As for what Luke Skywalker felt for Vader... well, nothing good. Fear, uncertainty, disappointment.... True, there was that tingly feeling, but Vader said that was the Force, not a father-son thing. Did that mean Vader wasn't his father? But that would leave only Anakin Skywalker... who was dead.

If he really was twelve years old, he would feel sad enough to cry, but he was sixteen and practically an adult and it was time he started acting more like one. Men didnęt cry, though he wasnęt sure what men did do in situations like this. It wasnęt something he could ask his maybe-father. He was willing to bet that Darth Vader had never cried in his entire life.

He rocked back and forth, humming a little in an effort to stop his brain from thinking. It didnęt seem to be working because he continued to have thoughts about the varied and horrible things that might happen to him here. Torture at the hands of the EmperorĔ or worse and almost unthinkable... his maybe-father might torture him. Maybe Vader wouldn't even like him, let alone....

Tatooine hadnęt been all that bad. He shouldęve stayed on the farm. Yeah, he would have been bored forever and probably hated his life, but at least he would have had a life. Now that might no longer be a possibility.

Without warning, without a tingle or a chill or any other kind of premonition, the door to his cell slid open. Luke sent a terrified glance at the black figure, then put his forehead on his knees and closed his eyes. "Just kill me quick," he whispered.

"Do not indulge in melodrama, it is wasted on me," Vader stated.

He didnęt comment, but turned his head to the side and opened one eye, checking the hem of the black garments to see if a toe was tapping. It wasnęt.

"What did you hope to accomplish by such foolish actions?"

"Nothinę," he muttered sullenly and closed his eye again.

"What did you hope to accomplish?"

Was repeating every question an Imp habit? "I saidĔ noth-ing!"

Twin iron grips encircled his wrists and pulled him into a standing position. "Address me respectfully and answer me truthfully. What did you hope to accomplish?"

Sighing loudly, Luke tried to look anywhere but up. He settled for focusing on the set of switches on Vaderęs chest. Maybe he should turn off a couple and see what happened. "I wanted to find Jas and escape."

"You cannot escape this ship. That is an absurd idea."

"If you say so." Luke shrugged, and his arms were released.

"The Falleen abducted you."

"He thought he was saving me. From you."

"He was taking you to Xizor."

"He just said he worked for Xizor Transport. He made that up."

"You are naïve."

"And youęre still a bully! And you donęt get it!" He took a step back and glared at the unreadable mask. Lifting his hand, he tapped the black helmet. "Knock, knock, anybody homĔ"

Before he could finish, he was pinned against the wall Ĕ high, higher than Vaderęs head. Fingers of steel curled around his throat, cutting off his words and his breath. Dimly he was aware that however frightened he had ever been in his life, he had never truly felt fear before this moment. This was it -- the end!

"Take care, child," Vader murmured in a harsh tone that was clearly a warning, not a blessing. "No one treats me with disrespect. Not even you."

Dark spots appeared behind his eyelids and he felt consciousness slipping away. Then he was released and held steady as he gasped for precious air. It took seconds Ĕ maybe minutes Ĕ he didnęt know how long Ĕ before he recovered enough to talk. Dizzy and a little nauseated, he leaned heavily on the leather-clad arm that steadied him and blurted out the first thing that came to his mind:

"Even me?" He looked up through lashes that shimmered with unshed tears. "That means Ięm special. That means I am your son! Why canęt you just say so?"

"You are alive... for the moment." The Sith Lord withdrew his support, folding his arms and leaving Luke to weave unsteadily. "That speaks of your importance."

Sinking onto the hard bench, Luke sighed. "I guess I wasnęt so important sixteen years ago, was I?"

There was no hint of motion in the dark figure, but Luke felt something he couldnęt describe, almost like a ripple in his mind. It was from Vader, that much he was certain, but he didnęt know what it meant. "Did you not want me or what? Why did you leave me on Tatooine? Why did I grow up without parents?"

The ripple became a gale. As if its power was too strong to resist, Vader turned and walked a few steps away. "Put aside useless dreams of the past and focus on the future."

"Are you talking to me or yourself?" he asked shrewdly.

Vader whirled and shook a finger in his direction. "Do not mock me, child, or you will pay dearly."

"Yeah, right." Luke rolled his eyes. "Letęs see, youęve killed the people who raised me, destroyed my home, taken me away from the kids I was protecting, arrested the guy who was trying to save me, choked me a couple times.... What am I missing? What else could you possibly do except kill me? Ben always said youęd do that, so it wouldnęt be any surprise."

"Who is this 'Ben'?" Even through the vocoder, the voice sounded irritated.

"Ben Kenobi, an oldĔ"


Well, that name certainly struck a chord in the big guy. "Friend of yours?" he asked sarcastically.

"Where is he?"

"Dead." Curious, Luke studied the Sith. There was no physical change he could see, but the ripple in his mind grew stronger and he had the impression of a storm, a violent, sweeping storm of sand or... something else. It was as if Vaderęs mere presence was letting him get closer to the Force. He couldnęt interpret what he was feeling -- but just imagine if he let Vader teach him! He could learn everything. "When I was little, he told me you were my father and that you would kill me. Or make me evil. I guess you two really hated each other?"

"He was my friend... and he took everything from me." It was a whisper, raw-edged and richly laced with unspoken memories.

"Sort of like you did to me," Luke commented softly.

He wondered if the jab would hurt. Vader flinched visibly and that pleased Luke. I want to hurt you, he thought meanly. I want to pay you back. I want to hurt you until you... until....

"Until what?"

Livid, he glared at the Dark Lord. "Stay out of my head!" If you're my father, you're supposed to know what to say! Youęre supposed to... to... feel something for me.

"You ask for what I cannot give," Vader said, and Luke didnęt know if he was answering the warning or the thought. Either way, he didnęt like the reply.

"Whatever," he said dismissively. "Are you going to keep me here?"

The helmet tilted slightly. "I am keeping you."

Something in Vader's voice made him shiver. It was so... possessive. Luke wasn't sure if he was afraid or pleased. "Will you let Jas go?"

"Why would I do that?"

"Because I'm asking you," Luke muttered. "He didn't hurt me. Just get my lightsaber from him first, will you?"

"Your lightsaber."

"What?" he snapped. "Is it yours? Ięm not stupid, I know it was planted to lure me out. Okay, so you got me. Now I want the saber."

"I see." Vader folded his arms again, evidently his favored position. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Yeah, now that you mention it." Luke stood up and mirrored the posture by folding his own arms. "I want my backpack that I left in Eisley. Do you have it?"

"Filthy clothes and contraband."

"And my skyhopper!" he added, outraged at the easy dismissal of his belongings. "My best friend made that and I want it back!"

"How disappointing. I had hoped the model was a demonstration of your talent."

He flushed, caught off guard. "Ięll give you a demonstration of my talent some day!" he retorted.

"I look forward to that day, young one." With a dramatic swirl of his cape, the Dark Lord turned to the exit. Immediately the door opened for him.

"Hold it!" Luke called, panicking. "I need my ęhopper! And let Jas go! And I donęt want to stay here. Can I have another room? I promise not to take it apart -- I swear!"

Vader gestured to someone unseen. "I leave such decisions to you," he said and continued on his way.

"Yes, my lord."

Luke sighed as Captain Piett entered and stood very straight, hands clasped behind his back. "You have a request?"

"A couple, actually." He flashed his best smile at the ship's commander. "A real room to stay in? I promise not to destroy any more property. And Ięm sorry I messed up your ship ē it was an accident, honest! I just wanted to... umm... explore. Or maybe... okay, I wanted to escape," he added when Piett didnęt respond positively. "Dumb idea, hunh?"

"Definitely unwise."

"Yeah." He was starting to like this guy. "But thatęs all I want, just a room to stay in instead of a cell. He has the other stuff I want ē like my pack and my model skyhopper. Oh ē unless you can let my friend go? He didnęt kidnap me, he thought he was saving me from Vader. Thatęs a pretty logical assumption, donęt you think?"

The incline on the head allowed that yes, indeed, it was logical.

This was looking promising. "If Ięm going to be here for awhile, maybe I could have a holovid in my room? And some snacks? Maybe something to do? I could fix stuff for you, Ięm good with my hands. In fact," he continued, warming to his subject, "I wanted to enlist as a mechanic -- they said I was too young, but that was a long time ago." Pausing, he studied the solemn face. "Or do you think Vaderęs going to kill me?"

Piett raised one eyebrow at the last suggestion. "I think... that we can find other quarters for you. If I have your solemn promise that you will not destroy any more Imperial property."

"I swear!" Luke said eagerly. "Anything, I just want out of here! And I would like to not be killed, please."

A small smile quivered along the edges of the captainęs mouth. "Perhaps if you were more judicious in your choice of words...?"

Luke looked at him blankly. "What do you mean?"

Piett didn't answer him, which was an annoying and rude adult habit, but instead gestured to a uniformed man wearing very few rank insignia. After a brief conference, the man jerked his head to indicate Luke should follow him.

"Thanks, Cap!" He gave Piett a casual, two-fingered salute and followed the other man.

"And, Sergeant," the captain called as an afterthought, "take him to the barber first."

Barber? He was so horrified, he couldn't even form words to protest. As if his life wasn't messed up enough, now they were going to give him one of those military haircuts. But... maybe that meant they were going to let him enlist! Maybe Vader was going to let him be an ordinary soldier.


No... that wasn't an option.

* * * *

Morning took a long time arriving because it took forever for him to fall asleep. The ship was full of strange noises. His room was totally dark except for a faint light coming from a ceiling vent, providing only enough illumination to create shadows in the corners. Luke woke with a jolt and lay in bed for several minutes, breathing fast from the terrifying nightmares that had woken him several times during the night. He didnęt remember anything about them, except that there had been a lot of darkness, he couldn't see and he was scared by... something. Maybe heęd dreamt about Vader; that wouldn't be surprising. The upshot of the sleep-disturbed night was that he was exhausted, more tired than he'd been yesterday. And his brain that was tired, too, from everything he'd learned. He'd never expected Vader to allow him to have a computer that linked into the Galactic Database. Or maybe it was Captain Piett who'd done it.

Either way, he'd found some new stuff about Anakin Skywalker, that he'd been a heroic Jedi and a supporter of the "right" form of government -- that turned out to be the Empire, no surprise there. But the biggest gift was finding out about his mother, Padme Amidala or Naberrie or whatever -- she had been a senator and a queen, his mother had been a queen! He had a lot of mixed feelings about that. It didn't surprise him that Anakin Skywalker Vader had courted a queen because Vader was pretty amazing. But Luke felt uncomfortable that he was the son of a queen... he sure didn't look or act like a prince. No wonder Vader was disappointed in him. There was a saying that Aunt Beru had scolded him with a couple times. His memory was hazy about the exact quote, but his interpretation of it in this situation was: if he would be a better son, maybe Vader would be a better father. It was worth a try. He'd be better than good, he'd be perfect -- how hard could that be?

Hello, I am Lord Vader and this is my Perfect Son Luke.

But... what if Vader didn't want a son? Nowhere in the Database did it mention that Padme married -- or ever had a baby, for that matter. So it must have been a big secret, maybe a shameful one. He supposed that when Uncle Owen called him a sithspawn bastard, he'd meant it literally.

Slowly he wriggled his body around until his legs flopped over the edge of the bed and the floor brushed his feet. He propped himself on his elbows, resting for a moment before gingerly pushing into a sitting position. The bed was a mess, sheets tangled and twisted in mute testimony to his night terrors. With a yawn, Luke stood and stretched. If he was going to get Perfect, it was time to start. Rubbing his eyes, he staggered into the fresher.

The sonic shower made him feel only marginally better. He combed his hair, delaying looking in the mirror. Dressing quickly -- he still hated the jumpsuit -- he drew a deep breath and steeled himself to check his reflection.

His hair was... well, not too short, but it barely touched his collar now. Still, the various bright colors that had never quite come out of the ends had been cut off, making him look a little more civilized. He straightened, realizing he looked much more Perfect. Except for those... shadows? No... what was that?

Leaning forward, he spread his collar wider. His throat was black and purple and blue. Rubbing it with his forefinger made him wince. That wasn't dirt, it was bruises. From his father choking him.

His vision blurred and he took several deep breaths to clear it. He would be a better son and Vader would be a better father. Until then, he couldn't let anyone see the marks. He fastened the buttons to the top and turned up the collar. Only the edges of the bruises were barely visible. No one would know that his father had --

Wait a minute! No one knew he was Vader's son. They thought he was a Jedi, in which case the bruises were acceptable, even a mark of bravery that he'd lived through a confrontation with the Dark Lord. Still.... he left the collar buttoned high.

He heard the sound of his door sliding open. "Doesnęt anyone knock around here?" he grumbled before stepping into the main room. Captain Piett stood there and Luke was surprisingly glad to see him. "Hi!" he said cheerfully. "Did you come to visit me?"

"I came to escort you to sick bay," Piett said, not returning the smile, though it looked like it was a struggle to keep his lips in a straight line.

"Ięm not sick!" He tried again, this time with his absolute widest, friendliest smile. "Just hungry!"

"Youęre having blood tests and a general physical, then you may eat. Are you ready?"

"What do I have to get ready?" he pointed out as he followed the officer into the corridor. "Are you in charge of me? Why isnęt someone else dragging me around, like an ensign or whoever?"

"Evidently," Piett replied crisply as they stood in front of an elevator, "shepherding you takes precedence over commanding this ship."

"Oh." Luke grimaced. "Sorry."

"Not your fault," the man said shortly, then added so crossly and quietly that Luke knew he was talking to himself, "Not when thereęs an admiral on board."

The elevator arrived and they entered, making the fast trip in silence. Arriving on another level, Luke found himself in an identically boring and impersonal corridor. There was very little of interest to observe, so he amused himself by marching in step with the captain and pretending he was an officer, too. That entertained him for a good ten seconds.

"Do you like Vader?"

Piett shot him a reprimanding glance. "Lord Vader is commander of the Imperial Fleet."

Well, it didnęt sound like the captain was going to be forthcoming with any gossip, like if his dad had a girlfriend and if said imaginary girlfriend would tolerate a nearly-grown son. "What do you know about me?" he asked curiously.

"Your name is Luke Skywalker and Lord Vader ordered your capture."

"Thatęs it?" Krit. That meant he probably shouldnęt tell Piett that Vader was his dad. "He didnęt say why he wanted me?"

"Donęt you know?" Piett didnęt seem particularly interested. In fact, he seemed eager to abandon his charge in front the door labeled Infirmary.

Luke was a little miffed about being brushed off. "Well," he said innocently as they entered the medical area, "I think itęs because of this." Holding out his hand, he employed one of the few Force tricks he could usually manage. A datapad flew across the room and into his hand. He grinned. "You think thatęs why?"

A scowling, gray-haired man wearing a medical tunic snatched the datapad from him. "I want him under guard while I examine him."

"Ięll be good!" Luke vowed, looking away from the stern physician to his new friend Piett. But the captain didnęt look too friendly right now. "Honest. No guards required."

"Ięll have a trooper posted outside the door," Piett told the doctor, then frowned at Luke. "Please do not attempt any more Jedi tricks or I will be forced to restrain you."

"I won't. Anyway, I can only do little tricks. Ięm self-taught," he added proudly.

Piett folded his arms. "Proceed with your examination, doctor."

The doctor wore no name badge, so Luke decided to call him ĘDocę. "Whatęre you going to do to me, Doc? Ięm ticklish, yęknow, so be careful."

"On the table and remove your shirt." The eyes were steel-gray and expressionless.

Luke fidgeted under that gaze. "Umm... why?" he asked, stalling. If the doctor saw the bruises, there would be questions.

"Captain," Doc said in an exasperated tone.

"Do as the doctor asks," Piett commanded.

"He didnęt ask," Luke pointed out. But they continued staring at him, so he hopped onto the exam table and unbuttoned the tunic as slowly as he could, hoping they would get tired of waiting and tell him to skip it.

Like so many of his desires, it was evidently going to remain unfulfilled. He let the tunic drop around his waist and looked down, not wanting to see their expressions.

"I see youęve met the Sith Lord," Doc said, chuckling unpleasantly.

"Doctor," Piett scolded, imitating the physicianęs earlier exasperation.

"Captain, this examination will proceed much faster if you donęt interrupt. I suggest you wait outside."

"Very well." Piett hesitated when Luke sent him a horrified glance. "Donęt be afraid, youęll be fine."

"Ięm not afraid!" he lied stoutly.

The doctor waved his hand at Piett. "Go on, I wonęt kill him."

"Thatęs reassuring," Luke mumbled, wishing Piett wouldnęt leave. "I won't mind if you want to stay. Really."

The captain walked over to the door, paused to study him, then remained inside the infirmary, arms folded, watching them. Luke felt better. The doctor grumbled something inaudible.

As it turned out, Luke had been worried for no reason. Heęd never had a physical, but it was simple and painless. Even the blood test didnęt hurt, and he couldnęt help comparing the Alderaani bloodsuckeręs technique with this doctor.

"Youęre relatively healthy," Doc finally pronounced. "Vader will love your blood sample."

Luke had no idea what that meant. "Why?"

"Ięm sure heęll explain before he kills you," Doc said mildly. "You can put your shirt back on."

Quickly he thrust his arms into the tunic, managing to twist it while he wriggled. "I'm just a kid, he wouldn't kill me! I donęt think."

"Kill you or keep you prisoner. Either way, the end result will be the same. You never should have let yourself be captured by the bounty hunter."

"What bounty hunter?" Luke exclaimed.

"Doctor, enough!" Piett said sternly. "If you are finished, Ięll take Luke now."

"Not quite." Doc handed Luke a small packet. "Put one of these patches on your chest before retiring for the night. Be sure to use them all."

"What for?" He turned the packet over, bewildered.

"Spice withdrawal causes night terrors. These will ease the symptoms. Now get out of my sickbay." Doc waved them away.

Luke followed on Piettęs heels, barely holding in questions until they were in the corridor. "Are you spying on me at night? So I had a nightmare ē big deal! I donęt need these patch things!" He was furious, embarrassed, and hurt. "I'm not an addict! He's a liar!" He tried to corral his emotions but that was doomed to failure. "What bounty hunter? Whatęs he talking about? Vader caught me and Jas, not some bounty hunter! I hate it here!"

The captain sighed. "Luke, please settle down. The doctor was referring to the Falleen, but we have no indication that he was a bounty hunter."

"What about the spying part?" he asked suspiciously.

"You are monitored in your quarters," the captain conceded, sounding as though he would add more but evidently thinking better of it.

"I don't like that," Luke replied flatly. "And I'm not having withdrawal. That doctor should be punished for saying so."

"He was only interpreting your blood test," Piett said firmly.

Krit! It was so humiliating! Spice was supposed to be relaxing, just for fun. "Everybody does it," he muttered. "It's not supposed to be...addictive." Get real. You know it's bad for you, he scolded himself. You don't want to admit it, but you know.

He came to a sudden halt.

"What is it?"

"Heęs coming." It was like standing in the desert and feeling an approaching sandstorm throbbing beneath his boots. He couldnęt see it or hear it or smell it, but he knew it was coming. He had that feeling now, only the throbbing was in his heart instead of his feet. "Vader."

"Try to be more circumspect than you have been," Piett advised.

"My thoughts exactly," and he chanted to himself: Perfect Son, Perfect Son, Perfect Son. Perfect Spice-Addicted Son.

The object of his good intentions loomed over him, bigger and darker than ever. "Hello, sir," he said politely to the Sith and was answered only by regulated breathing. Vader held out his hand.

"Here are the results, my lord," Piett responded, producing a medical datapad.

Vader scanned it briefly, then it disappeared, presumably into a pocket, though Luke had a hard time believing that sleek uniform had any pockets. "Thank you, Captain, you are dismissed. Young one, come with me."

Piett gave a clipped bow. "Yes, my lord." He smiled slightly. "Good-bye, Luke."

The Dark Lord had already turned away, and Luke had to lengthen his strides to catch up and stay with him. "Did you hear that? He called me 'Luke'."

"He will be severely reprimanded."

"What!" Uncertain, he looked sideways at his maybe-sire. Was Vader serious or did he have a sense of humor? "I just meant that you could call me that, too. Instead of 'Skywalker' or 'young one'. If you want..." His words trailed off.

He was getting used to Vader's lack of responsiveness. It annoyed him, but he reminded himself that Perfect Son wouldn't comment on it. "Would you have some time so we could talk? Sometime? Please? Sir?"

The black helmet swiveled and shiny eye pieces regarded him. It was like being stared at by a giant mutant insect from a horror holovid. After several seconds of surveillance, Vader said, "Now is convenient. Come with me."

"Great!" he agreed happily, before remembering that most of the stuff he wanted to talk to Vader about wasn't very pleasant. "So... the doctor said my friend Jas is a bounty hunter."

From behind the mask came a sound like a snort. "The doctor is a gossip-monger. Your abductor -- who is not your friend -- is a foolish young one who thought to curry favor with Xizor by thwarting me."

Thwart! There was that great word again. Falleens sure enjoyed thwarting Vader. "What're you gonna-- " Perfect Son. "I mean... please, sir, what will happen to him? You're not going to hurt him, are you? He didn't do anything to me."

"His ship has been confiscated and he is on his way back to Falleen, where his father is awaiting his arrival, no doubt most displeased with the loss of his ship, as well as with his son."

Something said, as I am with mine, but Luke figured it was his imagination. He increased his pace to a trot to keep up with Vader's long strides and was breathless by the time they entered an elevator.

"Are we going to Naboo now?"


So much for finding his mother's family. "Are we going to Coruscant?"

"No." The head swiveled and the bug eyes stared at him. "You are an embarrassment. I will not present you to my master until you are ready."

He swallowed his immediate response of indignation. "What do you mean by 'ready'?" he inquired carefully.

"When you have learned proper manners and behavior."

Okay, then. Obviously it was time to rethink the Perfect Son plan. So he thought about it for two seconds before banishing the idea. Being perfect was too much trouble anyway.

"Like that's gonna happen," he commented sarcastically as the elevator came to halt and they entered yet another personality-free gray corridor. "I don't need patches to sleep! It's hard enough to wake up naturally. There's no sun in space! How am I supposed to wake up?"

"There are many suns in space."

He made a scoffing sound. "You know what I mean! Krit, this is a long walk! When are we going to get there? Where are we going?"

"We have arrived." Vader halted by a closed door, pressed the panel to open it, then marched inside.

Luke followed, a little worried that he wasn't being annoying enough. The longer he could put off the trip to Coruscant, the better. "Arrived where? What is this? Krit, what's that thing?" Immediately he headed for a huge metal ball at one end of the boring room. "I could fit inside there! Ten of me could fit inside there!"

"Stay away from it," Vader snarled. "It is my meditation pod and I will not allow you to disrupt its serenity."

"Well, exsqueeeeze me! I wouldn't want to punch a hole in your lordship's big black bubble!" There. That should convince the big guy that it would be a very, very long time before he was ready to be presented to King Ugly. Like maybe never.

Somehow, some way, Luke found himself airborne. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, just... unsettling. He needed to learn to do this! He floated toward a small conference table and landed in a chair with a thump.

"Sit!" Vader commanded.

"Hello, are you blind? I'm sitting! Good thing this seat is padded or I'd have one sore butt!" He put his elbows on the table and gestured to the opposite chair. "Take a load off. Let's talk."

"You," Vader thundered, "are insolent!" The Dark Lord paced back and forth. "You are a disgrace to the name of Skywalker. I am heartily ashamed of you. You are ē "

"You're ashamed of me?" he interrupted, jumping to his feet. The chair fell back onto the floor with a loud clatter. "After the stuff you've done? Jas told me about that Falleen city, how you killed everybody, even the kids! You should be ashamed of yourself, not me!" He folded his arms and glared. "How do you think I feel, having a father I'm ashamed of?"

There was a moment of stunned silence, following by what sounded suspiciously like stuttering. If Darth Vader could stutter. "I ē You ē I ē You are a thief and a drunk!" The medical datapad reappeared and Vader slammed it on the table. "You are a spice addict! Have you no brain? Spice is poison!"

"Don't change the subject! And I'm not an addict, I haven't had spice for ages!" Even if the accusations were true, they still hurt. "So I'm not perfect, what did you expect? I'm your son! Nobody ever expected me to be anything but ē but... evil," he finished, suddenly struck by the truth that he'd never thought deeply about before. "Nobody expected anything good from me."

"You certainly fulfilled their expectations," Vader huffed righteously. "How you have managed to live so long -- I can only believe it is because your Destiny is stronger than your will to self-destruct."

That was definitely 'destiny-with-a-capital-D'. "What Destiny would that be?" His anger re-ignited. "Following in your footsteps? Being a killer? No wonder I'm a disappointment to you ē I'm only a thief and a spice user!" He yanked the chair upright, holding onto it for a couple seconds before sitting hard and slumping forward onto the table, his head lolling across his arms. "You might as well go ahead and kill me. I'll never be good for anything. I can't even be evil right! I'm a failure." He sighed heavily and closed his eyes, completely depressed, and waited for Vader to falsely accuse him of being melodramatic.

Instead, the Dark Lord pulled out the opposite chair and sat very straight, gloved hands clasped on the tabletop. "I am hopeful that you have some virtues," he said in a unsympathetic tone. "You are brave... foolishly so at times. You cared for and protected children on Tatooine."

"You killed children," Luke reminded him, raising his head, "so why's it good that I protected them?"

One hand made a sharp gesture. "There was much more to that incident than you understand. A contaminant was released ē "

"Yada-yada, I know that part." He stared at his own hands. They looked a lot smaller than Vader's. These were definitely not choking hands. "Why did you put the factory there? Why were you even doing biological experiments?"

Vader sighed, the sound amplified by his vocoder. "It was my duty."

"Your duty," he repeated. "So you think that makes you innocent?"

In the quiet that followed, he could hear the low thrumming of the ship's engines matching the harsh breathing. The helmet bent forward. "Nothing can make me innocent, Luke," Vader said eventually, sounding tired. "Perhaps I never was. And neither, perhaps, were you."

Luke shivered. A strange feeling coursed through him. It felt like... he wasn't alone with his scary thoughts any longer, even though he hadn't been aware of being alone until this moment. He wished he could say it out loud so that Vader knew what he was feeling, but....

"I feel it too."

He looked up. "Stop reading my mind," he said without heat.

"I'm not." Was that the hint of a smile in Vader's voice? "Only the feelings that you broadcast so strongly... or perhaps those were my feelings that you received and reflected back."

"What, like I'm some sort of Force antenna?" He pretended to frown. "Great, I'm on the Darth Vader Channel." Amusement was born and died a quick death. "Does that mean I'm going to be evil like you? Unless you kill me, of course."

"I am not going to kill you," the Dark Lord said with some exasperation. "Why do you continue to fixate on that idea?"

"I told you, that's what everybody told me would happen! Evil or dead, not my choice!"

"Everybody? Just who is 'everybody'?"

"I told you!" he snapped. "Don't you listen? Owen and Beru and Ben!"

"Three people. Hardly 'everybody'."

"Whatever," he muttered sullenly. Folding his arms, he refused to look at... well, his father, whether Vader admitted it or not.

"Address me with respect."


Vader stood. "Address me with respect or suffer the consequences."

Luke rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. "There you go with the 'consequences' threat again. If you're not going to kill me or make me evil, what consequences are left?"

"Young one, you do not know whom you are baiting!"

"Yeah, that's right, I don't, because you won't tell me!" Luke grinned wickedly, pleased to get even more reaction out of the Sith. "Speaking of knowing... did you know my father? Anakin Skywalker? Jedi Knight? Sound familiar?"

"Young one." With a swiftness surprising in someone so large, Vader came around the table, grabbed Luke by his already-too-tight collar and lifted him from the chair. "You will make a dramatic change in your attitude and you will begin now or you will pay the price!"

Kritpeth, his feet weren't touching the floor! "Put me down! You're the one who needs an attitude adjustment, not me!" His wriggling was proving fruitless, so he tried punching at some of those buttons on Vader's chest. "Let me down! And I wanna see your face when you're yelling at me! Take off that stupid mask!"

"I cannot take it off!" the Sith roared and let go of Luke's collar so suddenly that the boy dropped to the floor, then turned his back, visibly shaking with violent rage and...

...something else. Luke frowned as he scrambled to his feet. "Why not?"

Fists clenched, but Luke could see little else behind the ebony cloak. "It... breathes for me," Vader finally hissed, so low that his words were barely audible.

"Breathes," he repeated. Well, that explained the famous Vader sound that kids used to imitate in school. They thought he breathed strangely because he was an alien monster, and Luke hadn't been able to correct them.

"I was injured. I... no longer have working lungs." The shaking was controlled but the fingers were still balled tight.

"No lungs?" Appalled but curious, he pressed, "How did it happen?"

One fist unrolled and the hand made a gesture of open frustration. "It happened... that is all you need to know. Anything further is not your concern. "

An image flashed through his mind -- pain, rage, horrific screams... blazing fire that he'd seen before... in his dreams? -- and he jerked his head to clear the scene. "Does that mean... is what Ben told me true? He said you were more machine than man."

Vader made a guttural sound, aborted suddenly as if the breathing regulator wouldn't allow it. "Then Obi-Wan had forgotten what makes a man," he said bitterly.

Luke was stricken into silence. Sure, he was angry at Vader for... for not... well, for something. But he hadn't meant to really hurt him by bringing up awful memories. He'd only wanted to hurt the big guy enough to make him respond. Well, he was responding all right. "I'm sorry," Luke whispered.

Vader whirled on him. "I do not want your pity!" he growled.

"Then what do you want?" Luke retorted desperately, stepping back from the angry giant.

Breathing heavily, the Dark Lord said nothing for a long minute, thankfully taking time to control his temper. When he spoke again, his voice was tense but even. "I have assigned you the quarters next to mine. There you will find your new uniforms, which I expect you to wear every day. Your appearance will be consistently clean and neat. You will obey me in all things. In return, I will teach you that which you will need to know to survive your future."

Asking questions was obviously not a good idea right now. "Yes, sir," he replied, temporarily subdued.

"You are dismissed. Your quarters are to the right. I will come by shortly and I expect you to be ready."

Ready for what, he wondered, but decided it would be wiser not to ask. Luke walked slowly to the door and hesitated before opening it. "Tell me, Darth Vader... " he managed to ask in a whisper, not daring to look back at the older man, "... who are you?"

If not for the sound of breathing, he would have thought Vader had vanished. But several respirations later, a deep voice behind him finally said:

"I am your father."

* * *

His skin got clammy and his limbs started shaking. Luke barely made it into his new quarters before his knees gave way and he leaned against the wall beside the door, sliding down to hunch on the floor. Gasping frantically to suck in air, he wrapped his arms around his middle and rocked.

I am your father.

Finally. Four words. He'd known this! He'd always known it. Why should just hearing the words hit him so hard? I am your father your father your father... they echoed over and over in his brain, like shouting in Beggar's Canyon. ...father father father....

There were dark spots on his sleeves. He watched as more appeared. When he heard a sob, he realized it must be him. Crying like a baby. He was a grownup, he couldn't, he mustn't fall apart. He squeezed his arms, digging in his fingers, holding himself tighter and tighter as if he could force the tears to stop. Words from the last hour ripped through him. His father was disappointed in him, they'd both said terrible things, that wasn't what he wanted, he just wanted a father -- a regular father. What was he going to do with Darth Vader?

And what was Darth Vader going to do with him? They didn't even like each other! They were nothing alike, they had nothing in common. His father was a powerful leader, while he was a no-good kid. There had to be a dreadfully evil force that controlled the galaxy, something that thought it was funny to first separate them, then bring them together like mismatched pieces of a puzzle that had no design.

It was too complicated to think about. He couldn't think. He just... hurt. Inside and outside, he hurt. His father was coming and he had to wear the new uniform, he had to be ready for his father, but he couldn't move.

Not good enough, Skywalker! He had to move. He had to be ready so his father wouldn't be even more disappointed in him. But his legs wouldn't budge. Even when he heard the door to his quarters slide open, they still wouldn't move. Darkness like an impending storm moved into his field of vision. Black boots, the edge of a shiny ebony cloak that eddied like shifting sands. He should say something ē

"I'm n-n-not r-r-read-d-d ē "

The deep voice interrupted, "You are a very strange child."

That didn't make him feel better. He began to shiver harder. "N-not a ch-ch-child!"

"You are behaving like one. Still, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," Vader said, and Luke couldn't even begin to interpret his tone.

The blackness swirled, enveloping him like a tent before puddling down on his head. Claws hooked into his armpits and he was lifted to his feet.

"You will make yourself ill." A black glove latched on his arm and steered him somewhere. "Be calm. Focus the Force to calm yourself."

"I d-d-don't know h-how!" He was pushed down into a cushiony seat and the Dark Lord paced in front of him, only the boots and the swirling cape visible to Luke's lowered gaze.

"Of course you know how!" Vader snapped. "Obi-Wan must have taught you something!"

"Who-ERP!" The word came out as a very loud hiccup, making him even more embarrassed than he already was.


Right, Vader had called Ben by that Obi-Wan name before. "He d-didn't teach me any.. anything." His babyish sobbing was slowing, thank the stars. He sniffled, hiccupped, sneezed, and grabbed a handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Then he blew his nose, hard. Twice.

Vader sighed.

Luke realized his ersatz handkerchief was black. "Sorry." He looked up and sent his father a watery, apologetic smile, folding over the wet edge of the cloak a few times before squeezing it flat and releasing it. The quantity of stuff that came out of a nose always amazed him.

"You levitated an object during your medical examination." To Luke's relief, Vader was evidently going to ignore the fact that parts of his cloak were sticking together.

"I taught myself." He hiccupped again. "Stuff I read about Jedi and Sith doing. I can move little things and I can jump off roofs. Can the Force stop hiccups?"

"Hold your breath."

"That neverĔhic!Ĕworks!"

"It will work this time," Vader said firmly. "Inhale deeply."

After another hiccup, he drew in a long, loud breath. Vader's hand clamped over his mouth, leather-clad fingers squeezing his nostrils shut. Luke struggled, wondering if this was retaliation for the Cloak Catastrophe.

"Cease squirming."

Squirming? He was not squirming! Just when he thought he couldn't go a moment longer without air, the hand was removed. Luke gasped twice, fully recovered. "What was that for?"

"Your hiccups are gone," the Dark Lord declared smugly.

Skeptically, Luke folded his arms and waited. Nothing happened. Maybe Vader was right. Hell of a way to cure hiccups, though. The Dark Lord could use some classes in parenting.

"I have rules for you. They are not subject to discussion."

Luke stifled both a sigh and a smart response. It was second nature to snap retorts back at people, but Vader wasn't a person. Vader was his father, and this is what fathers were supposed to do -- tell their sons what to do. "Okay."

"You will address me with respect. In front of others, you will address me as 'my lord', 'sir', or 'master'."

"Can I call you 'father' in private?" Luke interrupted.

Vader hesitated before answering. "If you wish. However, no one must know of our relationship."

"Oh," he whispered, disappointed. That ban brought up several questions. "This isn't a discussion, but... who will people think I am? Is it private here? Aren't my quarters being monitored?"

"These quarters are not monitored. I am allowing you several privileges, privacy among them."

"Really? Cool!" He grinned. "What are my other privileges?"

It sounded like the Sith sighed again, but he couldn't be certain. "It will be assumed that you are my apprentice. It is unfortunate that the name 'Skywalker' was revealed. To help mitigate that blunder, I will address you only as Luke. Those newly familiar with the name 'Skywalker' have had losses of memory or have been otherwise dealt with."

Luke frowned. So Captain Piett wasn't calling him by his first name because he liked him, but because he was forced to. "What's wrong with 'Skywalker'?"

There was a short pause, then Vader sat beside him. The sofa cushion depressed, tipping Luke slightly. "Certain people are aware of my former identity. It is not safe for you to be known as my son."

"Oh." He finally had his father, but he still couldn't tell anyone. It was dismaying, but he refused to let it spoil the joy he was feeling right now, having a great conversation with his dad. Unless he was very much mistaken -- and he hardly ever was -- his solid steel old man was softening. There was one sure way to find out. Cautiously, ever so slowly, Luke began to lean sideways. Just a little. He kept tilting like a top-heavy building until the side of his head rested against Vader's arm.

There. That was much better. The cloak was really soft against his face. Too bad his father couldn't feel it. Did he always have to wear all that armor and padding? Even the gloves? Luke couldn't help wondering if there was anything left of his dad's body. Maybe he was a droid except for his brain. Still... he had a voice, so there had to be some of him left.

"What about my other privileges?" he prodded.

Vader had stiffened at the contact and now he tried to pull the edges of his cloak closer, like he wanted to withdraw into it. Luke choked back a giggle as the immaculate leather glove came in contact with the... well, his nose residue. Vader grunted and wiped off his fingers on a clean part of his cape, then stood. Luke caught himself before falling flat and sat up straight.

"I am going to change my cloak. Put on your uniform. When I return, we will go to the bridge. It is a privilege and," Vader added sternly as he strode to the door, "a test of your behavior. Fail this test or any other, and you will be confined to your quarters indefinitely."

That's harsh, he said silently. Aloud, he said, "Yes, Master," earning a glance that he suspected was actually a glare beneath that mask. But he grinned, feeling more light-hearted than he had in... well, in forever.

He finally had his father and he was positive that they were going to get along.


* * *

The "uniform" wasn't bad at all. In fact, he looked very mature in black and brown, sort of a mini-Vader but cuter. Too bad there was nobody on the ship to admire him. Not that he needed girls to admire him, but it would be a pleasant change.

His image in the mirror didn't look confident, though; it looked anxious. He struggled to change his expression and ended up with a barely acceptable "Honest, I'm fine" look. Turning away from his substandard reflection, he wiped sweaty palms on his pants. He had so many questions about his future that he didn't know which one to start with. But his father had forbidden discussion.

Said father entered his suite without asking permission, so Luke left the 'fresher and went to confront him, hoping his appearance was acceptable. Vader dropped a box and a familiar tan bag on the desk.

"My pack! You brought it!" Luke exclaimed, forgetting his concerns and rushing over to rip it open. Colorful fabrics spilled out. "You didn't take my clothes!"

"I am not a thief."

His happiness dimmed a little and he sent a reproachful look at his father. "Neither am I. Not any more."

"I am relieved to hear that." Vader watched as he unwrapped the model skyhopper. "I am surprised that your friend was willing to part with work of such quality."

"Yeah, Fixer's good with his hands." He examined the ship carefully, ensuring it was fully intact. "It was a going-away present. Something to remember him by."

"Ah." Vader folded his arms. "I take it, then, that 'Fixer' is Laze Loneozner, the person who illegally gave you his identification papers?"

Good thing Vader couldn't see his heart pounding in sudden fear! "Uh... no, he didn't give them to me, I stole them."

"Along with his model?"

"No! I wouldn't steal from him! Uh... I mean, besides certain things... just his I.D...."

The helmet tilted slightly. When he spoke again, the Sith's voice sounded almost indulgent. "Fixer must be a good friend indeed to take such a risk for you."

"My best friend," he said sadly, blowing particles of Tatooine sand off its wings before placing the model at the far side of his desk. "For almost my entire life."

"That long?" Vader moved closer and leaned against the edge of the desk. One gauntleted hand reach toward Luke's face. He flinched, then forced himself to hold still. Fingers spread his collar wide and hovered over the bruises. After a moment, the hand dropped.

Silence stretched several seconds until it crossed the boundary from tolerable into awkward. Luke swallowed. "Does my, um, uniform look okay?"

Vader nodded once.

Luke fidgeted with the collar. "So... I'm not an officer or anything, right? I mean, this isn't like a real uniform, there's no insignia."

Big arms folded. "It is similar to what I wore as a young Jedi Knight and Sith warrior."

"Oh. But no cloak? I guess I could wear my old one." He rummaged through the pack.

"Absolutely not. At any rate, given your limited history with cloaks, I believe your laundry costs would bankrupt the Imperial Treasury."

"Very funny." He looked down, struggling to form words that would convey his worry without angering the Dark Lord, who seemed to be in a good mood for a change. He couldnęt find any.

After a few more silent moments, Vader spoke. "Young one, you asked me a question that I answered. Now I have the same question for you."

He shot a wary glance at his father. "What is it?"

"Who are you?"

"What d'you mean?"

"What did you mean when you asked me?"

"In that case...." Luke smirked. "I'm your son. Lucky you."

"My son of multiple identities. I require clarification as to which one is the true Luke." The helmet tilted to the side and Vader raised three fingers. "Luke Lars is a miscreant who is not worth my time." One finger folded down. "Luke Skywalker, on the other ē "

"You have different names, too!" he snapped defensively to avoid further ridicule. "It's no big deal! And you skipped 'Luke Vader', I was him my whole life. Of course, that was a Big Secret that I couldn't tell, so I never really was Luke Vader, was I? And now I can't be Luke Skywalker because it's a dangerous name. Maybe I should just stick with Oz, he's smart and cool and dangerous and totally not Luke." A glint of enlightenment flashed across his mind, then vanished almost as quickly, leaving him as confused as always.

"Oz," the Dark Lord murmured reflectively. "An interesting persona, one I could possibly utilize."

Inexplicably, he felt queasy. "So you want me to be Oz?" Disappointment interlaced with his confusion.

"At this time, I do not need to add another criminal to the Imperial payroll." Vader paused. When he continued, his tone was quieter, more reflective. "You must understand your importance. If your behavior continues to be as inconsistent and irrational as it has been, you will be useless to the Emperor and to me. You lack definition and purpose, and that is unacceptable."

"Then I don't know what my name is," Luke mumbled lamely, looking around the room for a reason to change the subject.

"Names are only labels," the Sith replied dismissively. "I want to know who you are."

The impact of all Vader's words exhausted him, he sagged onto the edge of the desk, close but not too close since proximity seemed to make his dad nervous. "I don't know." It was his automatic response, but when he thought for a moment, he realized it was the truth, and it was a truth too complicated to face right now, so he lashed out. "You've got rules for me and I'm supposed to obey them, but I don't know who I am! How am I going to find out if you always tell me what to do? And if names are so damn unimportant, how come you have more than one?"

The helmet tilted slightly and his father sighed. "Child, I was not ignoring your existence during those months I allowed you freedom in Mos Eisley. I learned much about you. Your teachers regarded you as intelligent but a disruptive influence, your grades were poor because you missed many classes -- "

"I didn't ē "

Vader raised one hand for silence. "These are not accusations, Son, but observations."

Son! Luke's heart leaped into his throat. "Okay," he mumbled, suppressing his sudden need to hug the Sith Lord and get hugged back.

"You aroused great loyalty in some friends, but disappointment and fear in others. Your evasions of troops sent to catch you cannot all be attributed to your untapped Force skills; there is an innate cleverness in you that was also at work. You are naïve, yet streetwise. Wary, yet too trusting. You are mature enough to care for a group of orphans, yet among adults...." Vader surprised him by hesitating.

"What?" Luke asked nervously when the Dark Lord didn't continue.

"You behave either as a caricature of an irresponsible adult, one who abuses alcohol and illegal substances, or you behave considerably younger than your years. Your actions can be honorable or reprehensible. In my presence, you prefer to hide behind the protection of a puerile mask rather than expose your true self."

Overwhelmed by the onslaught of descriptions, he wasn't certain whether he had ultimately been complimented or insulted. But the last one.... "What does puerile mean?" he asked uncertainly.

"Childish. And obnoxious." Vader folded his arms, but it didn't seem to be a sign of displeasure this time. "You wear many masks."

"Lots of masks and lots of names, like father, like son!" Luke quipped, uncomfortable with the serious direction this conversation was taking. "But the obnoxious part isn't a mask, it's how I am!"

"If I believed that, I'd throw myself out an airlock," Vader said seriously. He shook his head. "Luke, your identity is not tied to the names you use. It is here." Black leather fingers brushed the center of his chest.

"Oh, yeah? Does that mean you're still the same inside?" He reached over and mimicked the gesture, careful not to press any buttons this time, and looked directly into the mask that hid his father's face. "The same as when you were named Anakin Skywalker?"

Something in the room rattled, and he snatched back his hand. Vader was angry. Luke could feel that anger inside him. Yet it wasn't only rage coursing through the Sith; there were more emotions, confusing ones, like earlier. Pain, sadness, loneliness... feelings that seemed uncharacteristic for a Sith Lord. But Luke couldn't quite tell the difference between his feelings and his father's, so maybe those were his sorrows and fears, not Vader's. "You wear a mask, too," he whispered, the words coming from his heart rather than his brain. "The difference is that everybody can see yours. They can't see mine. They think the mask is really me. Except... you see me. Just like I see you."

Abruptly, the Dark Lord rose and stalked to the opposite side of the room. For a heart-stopping moment, Luke thought he was leaving. But Vader halted in front of the door and turned, fists on his waist. "We are talking about you. Your upbringing was inadequate. You were not allowed to develop your true self -- to learn that you have an identity beyond being the son of Vader. I believe that is why you have no direction in your life." His father paused, studying him for interminable seconds. "I will endeavor to give you only rules of behavior, not rules that dictate who you should become. You have infinite potential, but you have not had the guidance that will allow you to reach that potential. Indeed, the deplorable lack of guidance has caused you to veer off the Path toward your Destiny."

Luke nodded vigorously. "Yeah, I've been thwarted a lot, that's for sure."

The Dark Lord made an odd, strangled noise as if he was clearing his throat. "Yes....
Luke, you must change in order to survive. I am willing to provide guidance, but I have no experience as a father and will require input from you. If you have needs, tell me and I will fulfill them if they are reasonable."

That seemed like a lot of 'if's'. Luke slid him a sideways glance. "I have a need not to be choked. Think that's reasonable?"

Again came an unnerving silence. "I will try not to throttle you," Vader said finally, "and instead find another outlet for my anger."

"I hope you don't mean a person," he answered uneasily. "Maybe you could kick a door."

"Or you could attempt to be more reasonable and refrain from deliberately aggravating me."

"I never deliberately.... Well. Okay, I suppose I could try."

"Thank you," his father replied dryly. "I realize I am requesting the nearly impossible."

"It's good that you realize it," Luke stated solemnly. His father was still hovering by the exit, so he looked around for something to detain him. His gaze landed on the forgotten box that Vader had brought. "Hey, what's this?"

"The beginning of your education." The Dark Lord approached and they both looked into the box crammed with datatapes.

"That's a lot of tapes," Luke said doubtfully. "It could take months to get through them."

"One-point-eight years, to be precise. At the rate of one per week. If you are slower, it will take longer."

Speechless, he picked up a couple tapes and looked at the labels. "The History of Galactic Civilizations?" He grabbed more. "They all say the same thing."

"There are a lot of civilizations in the galaxy," Vader said, something that sounded suspiciously like amusement in his voice. "However, that single study would certainly not give you a well-rounded education. There are also tapes of increasing levels of mathematics, geography, political -- "

"I don't like math," he complained.

"If you want to be a pilot, you will need to know how to program jump points, will you not?"

"That's what navicomputers are for!"

"And if your navicomputer fails?"

He sighed loudly. "Can't I use the Force?"

"No. Also," Vader continued in the same playful tone, as though he were enjoying himself, "there are tapes on physical sciences and biology, psychology, tactical -- "

"Palpatine's Emerging Empire: The Glorious Promise?" he quoted incredulously, waving a tape in the air. "You've got to be kidding! I'll get old and die before I get through these! It'll be so boring! Can't I have a tutor tell me this stuff instead?"

"This is an Imperial vessel, not a school. You will study quietly, and I will personally examine your understanding of these subjects by questioning you after completion of each tape. This a large commitment of my valuable time, so I will expect you to be prepared. You may select which category to study first."

"And to think I always wanted a father!" he grumbled under his breath.

"Did you?" Vader asked after a slight pause.

Something had changed in the tone, Luke noted. "Yeah... sort of. Okay, if you want to torture me with all this, I'll go along with it. But hey, what are we doing hanging around here? I thought we were going to the bridge!"

"We are. And there you will demonstrate to me your ability to follow my rules. You will remain close by my side -- "


" -- yet at a respectful distance."

"How do I ē "

"You will address me properly ē "

"Just when we're on the bridge?"

"At all times," Vader continued, unperturbed by his interruptions. "You will not speak to anyone except to respond to greetings. You will not bother the personnel with questions. Agreed?"

"I guess." He grinned. "Can I fly the ship?"

"Can you fly any ship?" Vader parried.

"Not very well," he confessed. "I used to until I totaled the 'hopper years ago and Owen wouldn't get me another one."

"I will teach you to pilot."

"You will?" The door slid open and he stopped, staring at Vader with amazement.

The helmet inclined slightly. "It is a necessity. But not today, and we will start with a much smaller vehicle than a Star Destroyer."

"Okay. Thank you... Father," he added shyly. His father was going to teach him to fly a ship ē someday maybe even this ship. He would be a pilot, a fighter pilot like in vid games! One day, he could even be a hero.

A hero was as good a person to become as any.

* * *

"I thought that went well," Luke said cheerfully. "Except for... you know, that one thing. And except for my stomach rumbling." His father was silent. "It wasn't my fault! I didn't have breakfast."

"Whose fault was that if not yours?"

They stepped into the lift, presumably headed back to their quarters. "Uh... no one brought it to me."

"There is an auto-nutrition system in your quarters. Learn how to use it and cease blaming others for your indolence."

"Yes, sir." Was it possible to please Darth Vader? If so, he wasn't doing it and that failure was making him nervous. He cleared his throat. "And the... other thing was an accident, you know."

"I would have put that on your grave marker: 'Luke Skywalker, dead at sixteen, it was an accident'."

"That's not funny!" he snapped heatedly. "You told me not to ask questions! How was I supposed to know that one tiny button would flood the entire bridge with decontam foam? It wasn't marked 'danger' or anything!"

"Would a skull-and-crossbones insignia have stopped you from pushing it?"

"I don't know why you think this is a joke." Luke scowled, leaning against the lift's wall.

"I am not remotely amused." It was Lord Vader who looked at him, not his father. Helmet-Face was completely unreadable and intimidating. "The crew knew to put on emergency masks; you were unprotected. You could have been killed if not for the fast action of Captain Piett."

Yeah, that was another thing. His dad should have been the one to rescue him, not Cap! Luke sent his father a sulky glare. "You wouldn't have cared," he accused.

The lift slid to a smooth stop. Vader stalked into the gray corridor with Luke close at his heels. "Wait up! What's your rush? The ship isn't going anywhere!"

"I do not know how to respond to such a ridiculous statement. Of course the ship is going somewhere." The Sith came to an abrupt stop and looked at Luke. "What are you doing?"

He stepped back. "Nothing!" he denied automatically, feeling guilty even thought he was nearly positive that he was innocent of any wrongdoing at the moment.

"You are wrinkling my cloak again."

Sure enough, when he looked down he saw that his fingers had wound into the edge of the silky black fabric and were crumpling it, just like they'd done on the bridge when he was struggling to remain 'close, but at a respectful distance' while Vader kept walking away. "If you knew what I was doing, why did you ask?"

Not surprisingly, his pointed question was ignored. Also not surprisingly, Vader brought their stroll to a halt directly in front of Luke's quarters.

"Do I have to study?" Despite his effort to sound neutral, his tone held a decided whine.

"No. I am withholding the audiopad so you cannot study." The Dark Lord pressed the door panel, but did not step inside. "I want you to spend the next several days meditating, without distraction of any sort. Except," Vader held up his hand to halt Luke's immediate protest, "food."

"Meditating about what?"

The inky helmet tilted. "About your past and your future," his father said quietly. "I want you to review and analyze your actions to this point in your life. Consider where you should have acted differently and learn from those insights. Decide on the route your future will take and the behavior necessary to arrive at your desired destination. When you are done, we will talk."

"How will ē "

The door slid closed. Luke punched the panel, but it was locked from the outside. Just think? For days? He'd die of boredom before then. Vader was the most unreasonable father in the galaxy and he doubted that he would ever find anyone who would disagree about that.

Luke pulled off his boots and padded over to his desk to figure out which one was the auto-nutrition panel and how it worked. If he was going to meditate, he'd need a lot of sustenance to keep up his strength. A bowl of chips sounded good right about now, but he was annoyed to find that his "menu" consisted of nothing but so-called 'healthy' choices. "Thanks a lot, Pop!" he muttered sarcastically, confident that Vader was telling the truth when he said Luke wasn't being monitored.

After sating himself on cereal, fruit and milk ē his only beverage choice, totally unfair ē Luke flopped on the bed and interlaced his fingers behind his head. "How am I supposed to meditate? It would be easier to talk, wouldn't it?" he asked the absent Vader.

He was struck by a brilliant idea. Vader's words were so predictable, Luke could be both of them and have a dialogue. "What an excellent idea, Luke," he said in a deep voice. "You are a brilliant son."

"Thanks, Dad. So... what d'you want to talk about?"

"About my favorite subject ē you, of course!"

"I love talking about me." What had Vader instructed him to meditate about? "Uh... my past, right? What I might have done differently." He stared at the gray ceiling, considering. "Well, I don't know what that would have been. I mean... like I said, everybody expected me to turn out bad."

"And just who," he asked in a snide Vader-voice, "is 'evvvverybody'?"

Luke heaved a sigh. "Do I have to keep telling you over and over? Owen and Beru and Ben!"

"Hardly 'everybody'."

All right, fine. So his teachers didn't know he was Vader's son... and his friends didn't. And the entire populations of Anchorhead and Mos Eisley didn't.

"Who else knew beside those three? Surely, my precious son, you didn't base the course of your life on the opinions of three people?"

Luke sat up. It was disconcerting to realize how much he could sound like his father. "I don't even need you here to talk to you!"

"Quit stalling. Someone else knew. Who?"

There was only one other, of course. "Me," he admitted quietly. "I knew. I'm the one who didn't expect anything from me. I'm the one who was sure I'd turn out badly. That's what you're saying, right?" For a moment, he forgot he was alone and waited for a reply.

But all the answers were tucked away in his own head. "Yeah, okay, that's what I'm saying. Owen and Beru and Ben may have labeled me, but I created the 'Son of Vader'... and so what? Big deal. Am I supposed to feel guilty? Or is this supposed to be like some big... revelation, when I suddenly 'see the light' and decide to change my life? Pah!"

With a snort, he closed his eyes. His father had given him vague instructions about meditating, but they were confusing and unclear. What he'd already learned about himself was disconcerting, so when in doubt....

Forget about it and take a nap.

* * *

Sleeping was supposed to be a refuge, but it definitely wasn't this time. He twisted and turned, sweating, heart racing, running in darkness, away from fire that licked at his legs, screaming as invisible hands cut off his oxygen supply and he was lost in the darkest place he had ever been, he couldn't see or hear or breath and the planet was shaking, shaking ē

"Wake up!" a deep bass voice said sharply, and he was yanked upright.

Confused, he rubbed his eyes and blinked, his gasps echoing the pounding in his chest. "What?"

"You are having a nightmare." Darth Vader was sitting on the edge of his bed. "You were told to use sleep patches, why didn't you?"

"It's not night! I'm not sleeping, just taking a nap." He studied the black-clad form, trying to assess his father's level of anger. "Besides, patches are for an addict and I'm not an addict."

"You are not," Vader said, shocking him ē but in a good way this time. "However, it is only thanks to the power of the Force that you are not. A normal human would be."

This was news. So if he couldn't become addicted, then there were probably all sorts of things that he could ē

"No," the Sith said sharply. "The Force only works to prevent physical addiction. Psychological dependency is still possible... and such dependency would temper your access to the Force."

Yeah, well... he didn't really want to use spice anyway. His life was much more interesting now and he didn't need drugs to 'spice' it up. "How did you know I was having a nightmare?"

"I feel your strong feelings." Vader stood and walked to the desk, inspecting the empty containers from his lunch.

A light went on in his brain, flashing to get his attention. "Hey! There was something you said earlier about that... umm... I wasn't really paying attention."

"Not an unusual occurrence."

His cheeks heated. "You talk a lot, I can't listen to everything!"

"You are blaming me for your inability to pay attention?"

Luke sighed heavily. "Will you let me get to the point? You said that maybe I wasn't feeling my feelings, that maybe I was reflecting your feelings." The helmet inclined slightly, encouraging him to continue. "Then how will I know whose feelings I'm feeling?"

"With more experience, you will know. And if you are more honest with yourself, you will easily see the difference."

He considered. "Okay, but before, when you said that... I was feeling glad that I wasn't alone anymore because you're here. So if I was reflecting your feelings that means you were feeling the same thing. And that means you were lonely without me and you like me and you're glad I'm here!"

"Is that what it means?" Vader asked coolly, but there was a hint of discomfort in his voice.

"Yep," he said smugly. "Are you going to say I'm wrong... Father?"

It was Vader's turn to sigh. "How did you get to be so precocious?"

"That's better than obnoxious... isn't it?" he answered, a little uncertain if he was being insulted yet again.

"I suggest that your first educational tape be language skills." His father paused. "Precocious means that in some ways you are developed beyond your years. You can be very perceptive at times."

"Oh." He smiled a little, pleased. "I thought...."

"Speak." Was that a command or an encouragement?

"I thought you thought I was... stupid." Flushing, he realized how silly that sounded. "I mean...."

There was a longer than usual pause. Luke counted six wheezing breaths before his father spoke. "I regret if I have given you that impression. You are far from 'stupid'. You are, however, uneducated... a regrettable circumstance that we will rectify."

"Yes, Master."

Pause two wheezes. "As for my own education, I believe you will be an excellent challenge to my patience."

"Oh, yeah?" He smiled wickedly. "Wanna race? Which of us do you think will win?"

"I was not aware we were entering into a competition."

His grin widened. What the hell. He had a trick that always drove Uncle Owen crazy, and it was pretty much guaranteed to push his pop over the edge, too, and put a fast end to this race. "I was not aware we were entering into a competition."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I bet your pardon?" Luke echoed.

Vader sighed. Luke sighed.

Then Vader said nothing. Ten wheezes. Twenty wheezes. Thirty wheezes. Forty.

"Aren't you going to say anything else?" Luke blurted, unable to stand the silence any longer.

"Aren't you going to say anything else?" Darth Vader repeated in ominous, measured tones.

Luke gasped. "Oh, no! Don't you dare!"

"Oh, no. Don't you dare."

He stood and placed his fists on his waist. "Don't do that!"

"Don't do that."



Stymied, Luke pressed his mouth shut tight and glared.

Vader unfolded his arms. If that mask could smirk, it was definitely smirking now. A black-gauntleted hand reached out and a tape flew into it. The other hand reached into the ebony cloak and brought out a small audiopad. They were both held out to Luke, who grudgingly accepted them.

His father leftĔhe didn't just walk, he strutted, like he was proud of himself! Somehow Vader had gotten what he wanted, which apparently was for Luke to shut up and study, and Luke wasn't quite sure how it had happened.

Was there a tape here titled, Dad Vader 101?

* * *

A life spent studying was a life depreciated. "I'm filled with ennui," Luke said aloud, just in case Vader had lied about not auscultating to him. Now that he had consummated the language tape, he needed something else to transact. And his brain needed an intermission from all these new words.

Stretching, he walked across the room, shoved his hands in his pockets and stood in front of the wall, leaning forward until his head rested against the smooth surface that separated his quarters from his father's. "Luke to Dad," he muttered, concentrating on sending brain waves through the wall. "Disengage my door and emancipate me."

He turned his head sideways and looked at the door. A dozen times today he'd tried it, but he was locked in. It might be possible to take the panel apart and rewire it so he could escape, but after the ceiling duct incident he'd be pushing his luck with his dad and Captain Piett. Without much hope, he walked over to the door and pressed the release.

It opened.

"Great!" He raced into the corridor, then stopped and dashed back to his desk, snatching up the audiopad before heading out again.

Chances were he wouldn't be allowed to explore ē and anyway, he didn't want to explore, he wanted to be with his dad. So he approached Vader's door, hesitating before raising his hand to knock. As he semi-expected, the door slid open before his fist could make contact with it.

"Hi!" he said brightly. "How was your day? I studied through the plentitude of the day! I got through the aggregate language tape!"

Lord Vader was sitting at his large desk, datapads strewn in front of him. The helmet turned to face him. "The what?"

"Uh... the language tape. I've effectuated language already."

His father sighed. "There is more than one tape."

"Oh." His good spirits faltered, then rebounded. "Well, I'll actualize the remainder in a timely manner. I was just wondering if you'd like to perambulate with me. Or if you'd prefer to have some stimulating intercourse."

Vader's wheeze was violent, like he was coughing. "What?"

Oh-oh. Pops wasn't in a good mood. "Uh... you know... a little walkin', a little talkin'. I'm bored." In case that didn't tweak the right buttons, he added glibly: "And lonely."

After an unnerving pause, his father replied, "I am busy and unable to comply with either of your wishes. I suggest that you review the tape you have completed. Be aware of multiple definitions. Also, you do not need to use all the words you learn; use a select few in moderation. And properly."

"I can't win!" Luke threw his hands in the air, then dropped onto the sofa without invitation. "You want me close but not too close. You want me to learn new words but not use them. You sure send a lot of mixed metaphors!"

"Messages!" Vader snapped. "Mixed messages!"

"I'm glad you agree." Luke nodded seriously before breaking into a wide smile. "I know, I was just yanking your chain."

"Yanking my chain," the Dark Lord repeated incredulously, his voice low. "So," he added after a moment, "you have reconsidered your need not to be choked."

"What?! No!" Luke bolted upright and shook his head vigorously. "Nope! Not at all!"

"You made a promise in exchange for that favor. Do you remember what it was?"

Well... not exactly. "Uh... not to antagonize you? I'm not antagonizing, just... teasing." And since when was not being choked considered a 'favor'?

"Never tease a Sith," Vader said shortly. "If you promise to keep quiet, you may continue your study here."

"Okay, I promise!" Pleased, Luke stuck the audiobuds in his ears and pressed 'play'. The sofa was oversized, though he had a hard time imagining Vader lounging on it. Anyway, it was uncomfortable, so he rearranged himself to sit cross-legged. After a couple minutes, his legs became restless, so he slid down and hooked his right foot over the back of the sofa. He tried that position for thirty seconds, but the back was too high to be relaxing. So he stretched out, yawned loudly, crossed his ankles and closed his eyes, idly wondering if he could stay awake through the drone of the digitized voice. Maybe if he hummed a snappy tune....

"Sit at the desk."

Luke started. "Huh?" He lifted his head to see his father gesturing to the opposite end of his wide desk. "Cool! Thanks."

That end was too far away from his dad, so he grabbed the heavy chair. It screeched as he dragged it across the floor and deposited it across from the Sith. "What're you working on?"

"You promised to be silent," Vader answered without lifting his head.

"Quiet," Luke corrected. "Not silent." The reflective eye pieces looked at him. He could sort of see himself in their surfaces. "Sorry. I'll be silent."

He pretended to be listening to the tape, but he was secretly watching his dad punch the multiple datapads, moving from one to the other without hesitating. It was pretty impressive. He was probably doing something important, maybe moving troops around like on a galactic gameboard.

He wished really hard that his dad would show him what he was doing. Maybe you could teach me. Maybe I could help!

"Think silently."

Do what? "I don't know how."

Vader ignored him. Luke struggled to be quiet, but it was impossible. "Can I get something to eat? I'd be a lot silenter if I wasn't hungry."

"You may do whatever you want ē in your room."

"Oh." He'd rather be hungry with his dad than eat alone again. "That's okay, I'll stay here and not eat."

"No. Your room. Go. Now."

"But ē "

Vader raised his hand, palm outward, forestalling his protests. "You made a promise. I gave you multiple chances, but you did not keep it. You have forfeited your opportunity to stay here. Go."

"No!" He really, really didn't want to go. "I promise I won't ē "

"I do not believe you. Go. If I have to tell you again, the consequences will be dire."

"That's so not fair! You just enjoy being mean!" he accused.

"Finally," Vader snarled, shaking his finger, "you begin to understand me!"

Luke rolled his eyes and stood. "Fine! I've been thwarted enough by you, I'm going!" He stalked to the door. "Next time you want some stimulating intercourse ē good luck finding anybody who'll talk to you! I can tell you one thing for sure -- it won't be me!"

The only thing wrong with his exit was that the door wouldn't slam.

* * *

Hours later, he was still in a bad mood. The loud muttering about his father's unfairness was finished, but he still harbored dark thoughts and didn't bother to "think silently", whatever that meant.

So it wasn't really a surprise when the door slid open and the hulking black figure of Darth Vader filled the doorway, undoubtedly in lecture mode and ready to criticize.

"Have you completed your sulking?"

Luke made a face. "No." He folded his arms, fully prepared to remain in a stubborn state of righteous hurt until Vader apologized.

Fat chance. Vader didn't say another word, just folded his own arms. They stared at each other. Luke tried not to blink, but Helmet-Face had the advantage in a staring contest. "What?!" Luke demanded.

No response.

"Oh, please! You're not expecting me to apologize, are you?"

The helmet tilted slightly. "For what would you apologize?"

"Exactly!" In the silence that followed, he noticed his fingers were tapping on his sleeves, so he uncrossed his arms and plunged his fists in his pockets. "I wasn't exactly being noisy!" he added defensively. "Okay, maybe I wasn't super-quiet, but it's not a crime! Sorry! You make such a big deal out of everything."

Nothing, not a response, nothing!

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Luke finally demanded, frustrated by the silence. "I said I was sorry!"

"For what are you sorry?"

"I'm sorry I didn't escape!" he snapped. "Krit! I'd rather be stuck on Tatooine than be here with you!"

"That can be arranged!" the Dark Lord rumbled, leaving Luke with a queasy feeling in his stomach. It sounded like his dad was actually getting mad.

"I'm kidding," he mumbled grudgingly. "I'm sorry I wasn't quiet. I'll be quiet now."

The Sith shook his head. "You do not understand." The anger vanished from his tone as quickly as it had arisen, but now he sounded disappointed, which was a thousand times worse.

Luke blinked, thinking quickly. "I broke a promise. I do understand. I'm sorry. I just... I didn't think that saying I'd be quiet was really a promise... it was more like a... hope."

A strange rasping sound startled him. Was that a laugh? He offered his father a tentative smile.

Vader walked toward his desk, almost like he was stalling. Luke watched carefully, practicing being quiet as he waited for his father to speak. Eventually he did.

"To give your word is a matter of honor. In the end, all a man has is his honor." His dad paused. "Every person makes mistakes. One cannot always keep one's word, but it is important to keep your honor. If your word must be broken, it should only be in the most extreme circumstance, for a critical reason."

Luke's feet shifted as he moved uneasily. "You mean I lost my honor because I didn't keep quiet enough?"

One black-gloved hand gestured sharply. "A promise is too important to be given lightly. Before you make a vow, consider if you truly intend and will have the ability to keep it."

He had a feeling that there was more to this lesson than Vader was saying. His pop was probably leaving the rest of it for him to figure out himself. Luke nodded. "Okay," and since that seemed inadequate, he added, "I'll think more about it."

"Good. And now have you completed your sulking?"

Luke grinned. "Mmm... I'm not sure."

"That's a pity. I had thought you might enjoy an excursion with me, but perhaps another time." The Sith turned to leave.

"Wait!" he said quickly. "What excursion?"

"A short trip in my personal shuttle. Deep space sprites have been spotted. I thought you might find the experience of viewing them to be interesting and informative. However...."

"Wow, space sprites!" Luke had no idea what those were, but didn't want to reveal his ignorance. "I'll go!" He hastened to his father and looked up at him. "I don't have to be quiet on this excursion, do I?"

"You do not," Vader affirmed.

"Okay." Luke followed him into the corridor. "And even though you didn't ask, you're forgiven."

"I see. For...?"

"For being cranky," he answered cheerfully. Then, because his father seemed to be in a good mood -- and because he wasn't quite forgiven -- Luke decided to point out something that he'd realized. "You know, you made a couple mistakes earlier today."

"Indeed. I am certain that you will edify me as to the nature of these mistakes."

"Indeed I will. One," he held up a finger as they waited for a lift, "you called me LuĔby my full name in the lift and two," second finger raised, "you gave me the audiopad after you told me you wanted me to meditate instead."

"You are correct," Vader agreed, and Luke smiled smugly. His cheeky grin died, though, when his father continued, "After our excursion, you may spend the rest of the evening in meditation."

"Krit," he grumbled under his breath, though his heart was light. "Thwarted again!"

* * *

"I am sorely tempted," Darth Vader said, "to strap down your hands."

Luke sent his father a disgusted look. "I won't touch anything - I promise." All right, the shuttle's controls were right in front of him, practically begging for him to use them, and maybe his dad was reading his mind - but he'd made a promise and after that sobering lecture on the same subject, he wasn't going to break it. But if Vader didn't trust him....

"Very well."

Surprised, he blinked and smiled, then stared out at space like he hadn't noticed his father trusting him. His fingers began to tap restlessly on the arm-grips of the copilot's seat, so he forced them to curl around the edges. Keep still, damnit! "What're those?" he asked, trying to distract his fingers.


"The sparkly things. It looks like blowing sand. But there's no wind in space, right?"

"Those are deep space sprites."

"Those things?" he exclaimed, disappointed. "But... they're nothing. Just dots."

"What were you expecting?"

"Well... you know...." Luke shifted uncomfortably. He hated looking like an idiot. "You said sprites, so I thought sprites... you know... naked little girls with wings."

Vader uttered a very large noise that made Luke jump. Then he realized it must have been a bark of laughter. For a second he was embarrassed, but he decided that anything he could do to mellow his old man was a good thing. "I have a naked little sprite tattooed on my... um...."

"You do not. You have one tattoo, which will be removed."

The amusement in Vader's voice so distracted him that he almost missed the threat. "Oh, yeah?" He recovered quickly. "I'm keeping my tattoo! It's an expression of my personal freedom. In fact, I'm going to get another one, an x-wing fighter."

"An unfortunate choice. I would prefer you kept the TIE."

"There's nothing wrong with an x-wing," he mumbled, disconcerted by his father's sudden agreeableness. "It's not my fault -- I mean," he corrected hastily, remembering another lecture, "I agree that it's unfortunate that the x-wing has become the primary combat vehicle used by the rebels, but that doesn't detract from its overall... uh... fly-worthiness."

"Point taken," Vader said, his surprise not hidden from Luke's senses. "However, I feel that one tattoo is adequate as any young man's expression of freedom."

"Okay," he agreed quickly before his dad changed his mind again. "If you won't let me have another tattoo, I'll get pierced. Maybe my tongue."

"As long as the piercing comes with a closure mechanism."

Luke rolled his eyes and looked to the side, struggling to hide his grin from his dad. The holonews had never shown this side of Darth Vader, his wit and humor. What else didn't he know about his sire?

His attempt at solemnity was hopeless. He burst into laughter, both at his dad's joke and his own overwhelming happiness.

"You find my statement amusing?"

"I'm not laughing at you," he said hastily, knowing how fast his father could change moods, "I'm laughing with you."

"I am not laughing."

"Oh." Vader didn't sound even a little convincing, Luke decided. "That's an unfortunate choice."

The Sith sighed. "Do you wish to learn about sprites or not?"

"Sure," he answered cheerfully. "I'll learn whatever you want to teach me, Dad."

"It is bad enough that you think that ridiculous word," his father said snappishly. "Do not say it."

"All right, all right!" He out-sighed his father loudly and dramatically. "Go ahead, tell me about sprites. Hey, maybe I have them confused with angels! Are angels naked girls with wings? Have you ever seen one?"

He was noticing that when it took his father a long time to respond to a simple question, that meant the question wasn't as simple as Luke had intended. Or the answer wasn't. He wanted to tell his dad to never mind, it wasn't important, just tell him about sprites, when Vader began to speak.

"Once. Or at least I thought I had. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But she was no angel; she was only human, with all the flaws and frailties of our species. She wished for the impossible... and would settle for nothing less."

Luke let the silence stretch for awhile, hoping to hear more, but it finally became obvious that his father was lost in his memories. "What happened to her?" he prompted.

Vader roused himself physically, shifting in the pilot's seat. "I risked everything to save her, but she betrayed me and I killed her. Or... I thought I had killed her. Now I don't even know if she truly betrayed me. I suppose I will never know," he added in a near-whisper.

"Oh." Luke stared out at the rapidly disappearing sprites. The heaviness of his father's mood was smothering. It filled the cabin, oppressive and stifling. No wonder, with all those dark thoughts. How could his dad kill someone he wanted to save? "Can I fly?" he asked, anxious to lighten the atmosphere.


"Can I fly the shuttle? You said you'd teach me. Now would be a good time, don't you think?" He forced a smile as the blank mask turned toward him. "Please?"

Vader looked away. "Rest your hands on the controls."

"You're gonna let me fly?" Really, he had no idea that a simple 'please' could work so well!

"I will take the craft through some common maneuvers. Rest your hands around the copilot's throttle and panel. They will reflect my control. Feel the way the ship responds to different pressures and movements."

It wasn't real flying, but it was the closest he'd come since his old 'hopper. Time seemed to speed past as his father ran through simple moves first, then took them into trickier ones -- a spin that left Luke's stomach somewhere in the rear compartment, sideways swoops that made him laugh and Vader chuckle, and some heart-thumping action that involved racing backward, then shooting straight up.

"Wow!" he breathed when the shuttle slowed again. "That was something else!"

"Adequate," his father said smugly, "for a shuttle. Fighters are much more responsive and agile."

"Really? I thought this was pretty amazing!" Luke stretched his arms up, punching his fists in the air in pure glee.

"Leave your hands on the controls," Vader said mildly. "A pilot never relinquishes command of his vessel."

"I'm not piloting," he protested, though he curled one hand around the throttle and ran the other over the panel of buttons, enjoying the power he felt thrumming beneath them.

"You are," his father said so quietly that it took a second to sink in.

"I am?!" He snatched his hands away, then hastily put them back. "I'm not! You're messin' with me!"

Two black-gauntleted hands rested on the arms of the pilot's seat.

Luke gulped. Tentatively, he pushed the throttle to the right, sending the ship into a sharp dive. "Whoa!"

"This shuttle does not respond to verbal commands."

"Very funny!"

"Remember what you learned, how the controls felt when I was piloting." Vader's voice lowered, becoming soft and hypnotic. "Do not think about what you need to do. Close your eyes... close them, Luke... and now simply become part of the ship. It will respond to your slightest wish... gently... yes, like that, good. Become the ship... see what it sees... feel for asteroids, space debris, anything that might be in your way... avoid it or move it aside. Do not be frightened, I am with you... you can feel my presence... you can feel the shuttle... and still you feel yourself, separate yet one with everything that surrounds you. Good boy."

He wanted to open his eyes but he could almost see with them closed. He felt things around him, unfamiliar things, living things, yet he wasn't afraid of them. And it wasn't just because his dad was with him. All the strangeness wasn't scary... it wasn't even all that strange. It was stuff that was inside him, had always been inside him, hiding, waiting for this moment. Waiting for him to wake up.

"Good. Now open your eyes."

It was difficult to adjust to a reality that seemed suddenly one-dimensional. Luke blinked a few times, struggling to rouse himself. There was a big ship in the distance. "Where are we?"

"You have flown for nearly one hour and brought us back to the Devastator. I will take over the final approach. Rest."

"I'm tired," he complained sleepily. "What was that?"

"In time, these experiences will not tire you and you will have more awareness and control. 'That' was the Force. You connected with it like...." Vader sighed.

"Yeah?" Luke mumbled.

"Like a natural. Like I did." That was definitely pride in his father's tone. "You have done very well, my son. Now rest. I will take care of the rest."

"Okay," he yawned. "Tha's a really, really big ship. An' you're the boss of it."

"Yes. Go to sleep."

He didn't have the energy to answer.

* * *

The only good thing about living on the ship was being near his dad. Otherwise it was pretty boring. He was stuck inside all the time with nothing interesting or fun to do. He missed fresh air, walking on the ground, climbing hills, sunlight, nighttime, new people, old friends, and young people in general. Studying, even the Force training his dad was doing with him, was no substitute for friends. As the months had passed, Vader had allowed him a little more freedom. The latest 'privilege' was that he could use the officer's lounge. "Big deal," Luke muttered, standing in the doorway of the spacious room, studying the possibilities.

Days ago he had reached an inescapable conclusion: officers were boring. Or maybe they were like him, bored because they were stuck on the ship. They read a lot or talked privately, shutting up and smiling politely (though warily) when he approached. There were always games of one sort or another going on, but they involved gambling and his dad didn't give him an allowance.

Today was no different than any other day. There was nothing for him to do here, and his dad was acting incommunicado, locked in his quarters, probably meditating or doing something equally dull. With a discouraged sigh, Luke left the rec area and walked slowly back toward his room. Waiting for the lift, he noticed that the call plate was loose and began to pry it from the wall. Maybe he could fix ē

"Move along. Move along."

He glared up at the recorded voice. Every time he touched something, that damned voice echoed out of a speaker! He just knew that somewhere in the ship an ensign was watching his every move and taking delight in pushing a button to initiate the scolding voice. "Someday I'll find you!" he threatened loudly to the ceiling.

Two passing officers stared at him, then averted their gazes.

Scowling, he stomped into the lift. Today of all days, he deserved a little fun. It was his birthday! He was finally seventeen and here he was, little more than a prisoner on an Imperial warship. If it wasn't for his dad ē

His dad couldn't have forgotten his birthday, could he? Wait -- did he even know it was Luke's birthday? "I'll bet he doesn't!" That explained the silence. Well, maybe with a little poke-in-the-ribs reminder his dad would arrange for a cake and come up with a great gift... maybe his own shuttle ē or better, lightsaber lessons! It was about time his dad let him practice with a real lightsaber instead of a stick.

Out of the lift, he turned right and headed for Dad Vader's quarters. The door didn't slide open for him like it usually did. Son to Dad, he sent. I need to tell you something really important.

Nothing. Luke leaned his forehead against the door and thumped it a few times, not too hard. Are you meditating? Let me in and I'll wait quietly until you're done. He could do that now, be quiet. It had taken a lot of practice ē and some reminding from his dad ē but Luke considered it quite an achievement. Please?

Success! Cautiously he stepped inside and peered around. It was darker than usual; in fact, nearly all the lights were out. The viewscreen at the far end was open and Luke went to stand in front of it, staring out at the starfield. They were probably tracking down Rebels again, which meant another battle that he could only watch, his dad decreed, from the safety of this very spot. It wasn't that he was anxious to fight the Rebels; he still hadn't figured out if he was for them or against them. But when his dad went out in a TIE, Luke desperately wanted to be with him just in case the worst happened. If his dad was going to die, Luke wanted to be with him. Well... preferably he would save them both with some heroic act, but if not, then he'd rather die with his dad than go back to his old life. Or worse, become King Ugly's slave.

He leaned backward and peeked around the corner. The meditation pod was closed. Someday he wanted to get in there and shut it, just to see what it was like, but his dad had made him promise not to, which made the attempt more difficult. Promises, honor, studying endlessly, Force training, keeping quiet... his dad demanded a lot from him, but so far nothing that Luke hadn't been able to accomplish.

He decided to use this quiet time to identify the few planets that were visible and remind himself of what he'd learned about them. Civilizations, industry, agriculture, sports teams.... That occupied him for a several minutes until he heard the whoosh of the pod opening. He practiced patience and remained still, hands clasped loosely behind his back, not turning until he heard his father's breathing.

Smiling cautiously because he sensed some tension in the older man, he said, "Hi. Is this a bad time?"

"A bad time?" Vader echoed, and Luke flinched at the sharpness.

"Uh...yeah. I can come back later. Later today, I mean, becauseĔ"

"Today?" the Sith interrupted. "This day that I have despised beyond all others, every year for the last seventeen years? Why would you think this is a bad time?"

Dumbfounded, Luke stared at his father. His mouth was hanging open and he knew he must look stupid, but he couldn't think of one single thing to say. "Uh...."

"Every year, this hated day reminds me of the worst moments of my life ē as if I require reminding!" Vader began to pace, most of his words turning into mumbles that Luke couldn't hear. But others were way too clear. "... Padme... nightmare...."

Oh. It was becoming clear. "I didn't mean to kill her," Luke whispered miserably. "I couldn't help being born."

A few more mumbles, then Vader whirled and stalked over to him. "What are you blathering about?" he demanded.

"My mother!" he snapped back, his own anger rising. "She died giving birth to me, right? Is that why you're mad at me?"

"You are making no sense."

More than anything, he hated when his father said that to him, especially in such a scornful tone. "It's my BIRTHDAY!" he shouted. "It's my birthday and I killed my mother and that's why you hate this day!"

Vader jerked back. "Your birthday?" He shook his head and then said, "I see. Yes, of course. Padme had to live long enough to bear you." The helmet tilted to one side. "But you did not kill her, young one. I did."

Luke took a few deep breaths. "What do you mean?"

The Dark Lord crossed to the viewport. The light from a thousand stars reflected off the helmet. "Obi-Wan must have kept her alive long enough to give birth. Then he stole you. That explains much." A long, ragged sigh came from his father. "My master did not lie to me as I feared; I did kill my beloved."

"What?" He sank into a hard chair, staring at the cloaked figure. "Why?"

"She was my angel," Vader whispered as if to himself. "I loved her above all others."

...she was no angel; she was only human... I risked everything to save her, but she betrayed me and I killed her....

It felt like there wasn't any air for him to breathe. Luke struggled to inhale before he could force out the words. "Then I guess it's good that you don't love me. Maybe I'll live for awhile longer."

Silence lasted so long that he thought maybe Vader hadn't heard him. Which would be for the best; that had probably been a stupid thing to say. But eventually his father turned.

"I have been too protective of you; I see that now. You do not know me as a Sith Lord. You do not understand and appreciate the acts of which I am capable. You do not respect my Dark powers. You do not respect me."

"Sure I do," he said hastily. "I'm sorry, I just meant Ĕ "

One gauntleted hand raised for silence. "Let us become better acquainted. I will tell you some of what I have done in my life, so that you will not be surprised in the future," Vader said quietly.

"I really don't want Ĕ "

"You 'wants' do not concern me. Sit," he commanded in a strong voice when Luke began to rise. "You will listen. You will learn of my path to the Dark Side. When I have finished, you will know me better than anyone, save my master. Then you will understand your own path and your future in the Empire."

His stomach twisted. He had a bad feeling that what he was about to hear would be awful, like the massacre on Falleen. "Father, you don't Ĕ "

"Silence. I will not tell you again." Darth Vader pulled out a chair and sat opposite him, their knees almost touching, so that Luke was forced to stare at the emotionless mask. "My path to true power began on Tatooine when I was about your age...."

* * *

He felt ill... no, old. Luke stared out at the starfield. He often saw Vader standing here, and he supposed that he'd begun subconsciously imitating his father.

The thought disturbed him, and he turned his back on the stars, slouching against the viewport. How far could imitation go before his wrong choices began to mirror his father's? Force knew, he'd already made a lot of wrong choices in his seventeen years... but none had had the repercussions of the choices Anakin Skywalker had made at the same age.

Or had they? He had ended up here, in Vader's custody, destined to follow in his footsteps. Why should he hope to turn out differently?

Free will, his conscience whispered. "Choices," he agreed aloud. "The choices I make will determine my future... not some weird prophecy or a 'destiny' that I have no direction over."

He sent a troubled look at the closed meditation pod. Vader had finished his long recitation of evil acts ē almost like he was purging himself and shifting the burdens to his son ē then retreated to the pod without further comment, leaving Luke to brood alone.

If his father's synopsis of his life could be summed up in a couple words, Luke decided the words would be 'obsession' and 'love'. Both the lack of love and the overpowering force of it. His dad had very little compassion for masses of beings, but possessive and self-absorbed love for a few. That combination made life dangerous for him and everyone who came in contact with him.

Love and obsession were not traits that Luke felt he shared with his father, and maybe his lack of intensity would save him. Oh, he could love, but his love was quieter, steadier. Despite the atrocities he had heard described today, he still loved his father. Darth Vader. He loved Darth Vader, the man the galaxy feared. Strangely, he felt no fear. Today he had heard of murders his father had committed -- horrifically violent acts committed even against children, ugly acts that had brought involuntary tears to his eyes -- but instead of making him feel afraid or hate his dad, he felt sad for him. His dad needed someone to take care of him and teach him the difference between right and wrong. There wasn't anyone who could do that except Luke Skywalker, so....

"Krit. I have to reform."

Well, okay. He could be a hero, all good and pure and just. He fervently hoped he wouldn't end up being boring, too. Luke crossed to his father's meditation pod and sat on the floor outside it, determined to out-wait Vader's sulking. What he really wanted to do was run away. Escape to a planet, find some air to breathe, be free again, do whatever he wanted even if it was something stupid like rolling down a dune ē

"So. You wish to flee from me."

Luke started. "How did you get out without me hearing?" He turned and studied the Dark Lord. Anger still roiled just below the surface ē ah, that was why he hadn't heard the pod opening, his mind was overwhelmed by his father's emotions. Anger and... fear. Yeah, Darth Vader was afraid. Afraid of losing again. "Not really," he replied, carefully gauging his dad's mercurial mood. "I'd like to be out of this ship for awhile. On a planet. With air and ground. Sort of like a vacation."

Vader sat back in the chair. Bright lights reflected on his helmet and armor. Maybe that's what he did in the pod, get shined and polished. "You are afraid of me now."

Luke tilted his head. Vader couldn't read him as well as he could read his dad. "No." His voice was soft. "I suppose I should be, but I'm not." The air between them was tense, as if his dad was waiting for... what? The rejection that he saw as inevitable? "You're my father."

Black-gloved fingers clenched around the arms of the chair. Luke felt his heart like it was thumping against his ribs. He swallowed. "The things you've done... that you've told me about... they sicken me. I don't understand how you can kill so easily, especially little kids. But...." To his horror, he felt tears welling in his eyes. He swiped his shirt sleeve across them. "But you're still my dad," he said, choking on the simple words, "and I love you."

In the quiet that followed, Vader made a small beckoning gesture. Luke scooted over on the floor, leaning back against his dad's leg. A gloved hand rested heavily on his head, and they relaxed in a companionable silence.

"What am I going to do with you?" his father mused eventually.

"What are your choices?" Luke grinned, happy to stay just as they were at this moment.

"Hide you, kill you, let Palpatine have you."

Ouch. "If those are the only choices, I'd prefer the first one."

Vader didn't respond to that suggestion. "There are only ever two Sith at a time. A master and an apprentice."

"So I can be your apprentice! No, wait!" He changed his mind. "I don't want to be a Sith... do I?"

"I am the apprentice," Vader said heavily. "Palpatine is my master, Darth Sidious."

Luke sighed. "Why do you guys always have so many names? Anakin Skywalker was a perfectly good name, you didn't have to change it."

"You are avoiding the issue at hand."

"What issue?" He pulled his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "You mean that there's no room for me to be a Sith? Fine, I don't want to be one anyway. I could be your... assistant or something. I'll study hard." Vader's cruel words from weeks ago came back to him. "If I get smart enough, will I be of use to you?"

"You are my son. You are priceless to me."

"Oh." He hid a pleased smile in his sleeve. "So I can be your helper. Or...did you really mean it when you said you might give me to King Ugly? I don't want to be a slave."

"Is that how you see me, as his slave?" The tone was dangerously low.

"Do you always do what he tells you to?" he retorted.

"Usually, because he's right."

"But not always?" He turned his head to look at his father's mask. "Does he know about me?"

"I am certain he does, though I have said nothing to him."

He leaned back again, unwilling to lose this rare moment of physical and emotional closeness. "Someday he'll call you back to Coruscant, won't he? Then what will you do with me?"

"That, my child, is the problem."

It was finally becoming clear. "You don't want to take me to him." His dad didn't reply. "Why not? I mean, that's great, I don't want to go, but... why not?"

Vader sighed raggedly, hesitating before admitting, "You are all I have. I will not lose you."

"Figures," Luke replied sarcastically, though he was actually deeply touched, "for a second, I thought it would be about me, but noooooo, it's always about you."

The Sith Lord stood abruptly. "Out!" he thundered, pointing toward the door. "Go study! Make yourself useful! Find something to do! Go!"

"Fine." Luke got to his feet, grumbling under his breath. "Tell a guy the truth and look what happens. Always so grouchy. Why can't ē Hey!" He raised his voice. "It's my birthday, remember? You owe me a present." He ignored the fact that Darth Vader now had his hands planted on his waist in that intimidating stance he liked to affect. "How about a real lightsaber lesson? Or a flying lesson? Or a cake? A cake would be good...." His voice trailed off, but he refused to surrender. He copied Vader's stance. "I'm your son, you love me even if you don't wanna say it ē so how about at least a 'Happy Birthday, Son'?"

The big arms lowered and Vader shook his head, but it wasn't a negative. "Very well. A flying lesson, 1900 hours."

"Great!" He backed slowly toward the door. "A cake would not be amiss."

"'Amiss'?" his father quoted.

"I'm sticking with small new words for awhile."

"A wise decision."

"Yeah. See ya." Once at the door, he slipped through quickly.

Humor was the easiest way to deal with his dad, but it didn't change the harsh facts. Somehow he had to get his head around the realities of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker and how a hero could transform into something quite different.

It happened to his dad; Luke didn't want it to happen to him, too.

* * *

A squad of TIES's was lined up in the hanger bay, surrounded by mechanics who crawled under and climbed over them. Darth Vader stood in the center of the flurry of activity, arms folded, probably giving everyone heart palpations by his silent presence.

Luke kicked a lost bolt in front of him like a ball as he criss-crossed the wide expanse and finally stopped next to his dad, capturing the bolt under his foot. "Expecting trouble?" he asked. "Or just hoping for it?"

"I always expect trouble." His pop looked down on him. "It is imperative to keep fighting vessels in peak condition, ready for immediate launch."

He knew a lecture when he heard one. "Yessir! I'll remember that when I'm put in command."

"Good," Vader said dryly. "Let us reinforce the importance of this lesson. Take that TIE," he pointed, "and follow me out."

"Who, me?" he said stupidly, feeling his eyes go wide. "My own ship? You mean - " But his dad was striding off toward another TIE. Luke followed hurriedly, climbing into the vessel that Vader had selected for him. His dad had pointed out the basics of the controls, but he'd never flown in one. Vader must be feeling really guilty about forgetting his birthday to let him do this.

His pulse was fluttering erratically as he maneuvered the TIE out of the dock. Oddly, the space seemed a lot smaller than when he and his dad had taken out bigger ships. It was enough to rattle a guy's nerves, but he managed not to hit the sides of the docking bay (okay, his TIE was actually dwarfed by the bay doors, but it still felt tight) and get safely into open space where he could follow his dad's TIE. His maneuvering was a little irregular at first, but within a couple minutes he had the feel of the ship and was experimenting, looping and curving as he followed his dad's straight path away from the Devastator.

"Where are we going?" he asked over the voice-activated inter-ship com.

"We are not 'going' anywhere. We are moving clear of the ship so that you may practice."

"As if I would hit the Devastator," he teased. "You have no faith in me."

"I have faith in the Force, young one, including the Force in you."

"Oh." He supposed that was Deeply Meaningful, since his father talked about the Force like it was a religion, but it was hard to feel pious about virtuous words coming from a man who'd done the things his father had done. Still, despite what he'd done, Vader was second in command of the universe, so Luke felt he had a lot of wiggle room when it came to any mistakes he might make. Not that he would ever do anything of the magnitude his dad had done, like killing little -

His ship jolted and rocked. "Hey! What!?"

"Pay attention. You are under attack." With that, his dad fired off another practice burst.

Luke reacted immediately, but not quickly enough to totally avoid being 'hit'. "You should've warned me!"

"Enemies will give no warning ē neither will friends. You must always be prepared to defend yourself. You are armed. Fire at me."

"Armed? Not with realĔ" He jerked the stick back and sped away from another flash from his dad's weapons. So you wanna play rough? Okay, watch this!

It turned out to be a real struggle to get the other TIE in his sights. His dad was a helluva pilot, no argument there. Vader took the little fighter through maneuvers Luke had never seen, not even in a holo-game. Luke would get the TIE in his crosshairs, but it would vanish before he could fire. After several minutes of getting more and more frustrated, he shouted, "Hold still!" and, surprisingly, his dad did. The TIE lined up beautifully in his scope. He held his breath, pulled the trigger, and ē the fake laser exploded harmlessly in the empty place where the TIE had been.

Luke dredged up every curse he could remember.

"Language," his father chastised over the com.

"Language!?" Wow, his dad sure had his priorities screwed up. "You sure have your priorities screwed up," he called, putting in motion a brilliant idea that had just occurred to him. "You wipe out the Jedi, you massacre children, you kill ē "

"How dare you!" Darth Vader shouted, and Luke took the opportunity to fire his weapons.

"Gotcha," he declared smugly, watching the other TIE wobble.

"Congratulations. Winning by cheating is still a victory. Of course, you have lost your honor again."

"What?" He flushed angrily and fired again, but this time his dad was faster. Vader's ship flipped over, raced above Luke and dropped down on his tail, firing harmless blasts that Luke was hard pressed to avoid. His father's condemnation was a distraction. It wasn't fair! How could his dad criticize him after the things he'd done? "I didn't cheat," he mumbled, with so little conviction that he didn't even persuade himself.

"You ē " His dad was interrupted when, without warning, two teardrop-shaped ships dropped from nowhere some distance in front of them. Were they Rebels or pirates? As Luke stared, mesmerized, blazing missiles shot from their deployed foils, streaking by him close enough to make his TIE vibrate.

"Get back to the ship!" Vader barked harshly.

"I'm not leaving you here alone!" He craned his neck, looking around for the fast-moving vessels. "Those were just warning shots! Who are they?"

"Back to the ship!" His dad's TIE dove in front of him. "That's an order!"

"I'm not - "

"You have no weapons!" Vader roared, and he fired at the intruders, proving that his ship carried more armament than just practice lasers.

Luke couldn't bring himself to obey. Besides, a rush of TIE's exploded from the Devastator, jetting around him as they headed out toward the attackers. Not that they were needed. Two bright flashes appeared in quick succession, and both ships were obliterated by his dad's skill.

The TIE's swarmed like insects, some of them returning to the landing bay while the rest began to patrol in orderly formation as if they expected further attacks. Luke flew behind his father back to the ship, dismayed to note that he was shaking ē but with excitement, not fear. He made an Academy-perfect landing, jumped down from the TIE, paused to be sure his knees would hold him upright, then hurried to his dad.

He waited until Vader finished speaking with the squad commander and dismissed him. Luke grinned. "Next time, I get real guns! I want to fight, too! That was terrific - you were amazing!"

The Sith Lord stared at him, and Luke could have sworn that the mask was scowling. "Today you have seen once again how easy ē and how satisfying ē it is to kill," the voice hissed. "We are not unalike, boy."

Shocked, Luke watched his father stalk away in a dramatic swirl of midnight. A shiver ran through him. He hated when Vader held up a mirror and he saw himself reflected. He'd been born Son of Vader, and over the last year he supposed he'd earned that label. But it no longer seemed like such an evil person to be. He and his dad shared a lot of feelings and abilities, both good and bad. It was just a question of how and what they chose to use. There was no reason his dad couldn't change his mind and decide to be good. It was never too late to change. Biggs had told him that a couple times, and Luke hadn't really appreciated its significance until now.

It was a great lesson and he was determined to teach it to his father. The question was: how? His dad carried a lot of guilt, but it was protected and held in place by a wall of defiance and anger that wasn't too hard to penetrate with little jabs and humor. But how to tear it down completely and reach deep inside his father to help him change? Was that even possible?

And how was he going to change his dad, when he still did things like cheating?

"Did you enjoy your first close look at battle, Luke?"

He turned away from watching his dad scold the admiral. "Hey, Cap," he said with a touch of unease. "Yeah, I guess... I didn't get to fight."

"Perhaps the next time Lord Vader takes you for practice, you will be armed." Piett looked slightly perplexed, as if he couldn't decide whether Luke should have weapons or not.

"Probably." He had visions of accidentally blasting his dad to smithereens. "Maybe. Who were they, do you know?"

"Lord Vader suspects they were hijackers." Piett frowned. "Whoever or whatever they expected to hijack, I'm sure they were as startled to drop out of hyperspace and see the Devastator as we were to see them."

They walked through the hangar bay, Luke only partially paying attention as the captain made visual inspections of the fighters. He wondered if Piett knew that Vader was his father. It would be great to have someone to talk to... ah, but there was no way an officer would speak honestly about his dad. Everyone was too afraid. Everyone except him.

"Would you let me work down here?" he asked impulsively. "I'm really good at fixing things, and I swear I wouldn't hurt the ships."

Piett just stared at a point over his head.

Luke shifted his feet. "I want to ē to contribute. I've been here for months with nothing to do."

"Nothing to do?" a deep voice repeated.

Wincing, he turned around to face Lord Vader. "You," the Dark Lord pointed at Luke, "come with me. I will give you something to do."

Luke sighed as he watched his father's retreating back. Piett gave him a small, possibly sympathetic, smile, the kind of good-bye smile you gave to someone on their way to execution. "Perhaps we can find a way for you to contribute ē if Lord Vader permits."

"That'll be the day." Luke followed his pop into the corridor and tagged behind him on a wordless journey that ended in his dad's practice room. "What're we doing here?" he asked, though it was obvious ē his dad was going to let him have the lightsaber lesson he'd asked for. He must feel guiltier than Luke realized.

Vader didn't answer ē always an unnerving sign ē but instead waved his hand at a cabinet across the room that obediently opened to reveal a lightsaber.

"Take it. Not that way," Vader scolded when Luke began to walk over. "Use the Force."

He closed his eyes, focusing the way he'd been taught. As if he were dreaming, his hand extended, fingers opening. The saber rattled, but didn't moved. He tried again, concentrating harder. To his relief, it raised into the air and floated over.

Half a meter from his outstretched hand, it clattered to the floor.

"Sorry," he apologized nervously, bending to retrieve it. "I wish I could do that as well as you." Maybe some flattery would mellow out the big guy. "My teleporting is sort of hit-and-miss. Hey, this is my lightsaber from Tatooine!" He flicked it on. The blade made a loud humming noise and sent a vibration running along his arm. "Krit, it's heavier than it looks." He hefted it in both hands and swung it in figure eights. "Cool! Where's the practice droid?"

"Right here." Darth Vader snapped on his own fire-red saber.

Luke swallowed. "You, uh... want me to practice with you?" Dueling Vader on one of his happy days would be intimidating, but on a cranky day.... "Maybe that's not the greatest idea for my first time. I might accidentally ē "


The red saber swung and Luke instinctively crossed it with his own blade, staggering back under the power behind the strike. It wasn't followed by a second blow, so he lowered the saber to his side. "Really, I think I should practice with a droid, don't you think? I wouldn't want to ē "


Three powerful blows, one after the other in quick succession. He managed to parry one and dance out of the way of the other two. "Dad, what're you - ?"

"You require discipline. Stop talking and block properly."

Oh, Sithspit! The blows kept coming, pushing him backward in circles around the room. Never vicious blows, but Vader was aggressive, pushing him, challenging him, and worse ē Vader was getting angry, Luke could feel it in the depths of his soul.

What idiot was just gloating that he wasn't afraid of Darth Vader?! What moron had thought that he knew how to 'handle' Vader? Krit!

That would be the same idiotic moron who was now out of breath and half-stumbling. "Stop! Okay, I surrender! Whatever! I'm done! Stop!"

"You have more to learn. Why should I obey you when you do not obey me?" The next blow was the hardest yet, and he reeled back, barely able to hang onto his saber.

So that was what this was about! Just because he didn't want to leave his dad behind to die in battle, he was being punished! "Bastard!" he shouted, his own anger flaring to life and driving away the fear. A surge of adrenaline gave him strength and he slashed wildly at his father. The blow glanced off his dad's arm and he hesitated, horrified, holding his breath as his dad grunted in pain. Then Vader's blade swung so quickly that it was barely a brilliant flash in the air, but it sent his lightsaber flying. It turned itself off as it skittered across the floor. But what was that wrapped around its hilt?

Luke stared at his hand. The lightsaber wasn't there and... his hand wasn't there. There was his cuff and a little blood and ē

He howled in shock and pain, clutching the wrist to his chest. Wide-eyed, he stared blankly at the motionless cloaked figure. He felt... strange. Light-headed. Woozy. Breathless. "D...Dad?"

The red light vanished and the dark figure let loose a string of curses, some of which Luke had never heard but hoped he would remember. "Language," he mumbled automatically.

"Hush." A strong arm locked around his shoulder and hustled him out of the room.

The... stump... began to throb. "Where's my hand?" Luke shivered. Leaning against the wall of the lift, he closed his eyes but the motion made him nauseous so he opened them again, willing himself not to throw up. What had just happened? He tried to look at Vader, but the elevator stopped and he was hurried along before he could focus.

They landed in sickbay. "Well, well," Doc said too cheerfully, "what have we here? An amputation? Did you bring the detached member, m'lord?"

Wordlessly, Vader handed the physician a hand. My hand. Luke stared at it. It didn't look alive. It wasn't moving. The fingers were curled as though they still held the lightsaber. "That's my hand," he said aloud, looking down at his cuff, expecting to see it there, too.

Doc turned the hand over, examining it with interest while Vader pushed Luke to sit on a gurney. Vader's hand pressed down on his shoulder, as if he thought Luke was going to float away. "I can't fly," he muttered.

"I know," Vader said quietly. "Well, Doctor?" and his voice changed suddenly, becoming loud and impatient.

"Impressive. Of course, as you are well aware, m'lord, lightsaber amputations can't be repaired." Doc kept talking, but Luke didn't hear the next bit. He would be one-handed for the rest of his life. Maybe he should be glad his dad hadn't aimed lower and cut off his legs. Like Kenobi had done to his dad. "...will take awhile to make one in the proper size. Luke, why don't you just relax...."

Without a clue how he got there, he found himself lying down. He yawned. There didn't seem much point in staying awake, so he....

... wasn't sleepy after all. Luke yawned again and stretched his arms over his hands, interlinking his fingers and ē

Hands?! He opened his eyes and stared at his outstretched limbs. Yeah, he had two hands! What a nightmare that had been! He could've sworn it was real, but ē

"How are you feeling?"

His arms dropped to rest across his chest and he turned his head on the pillow. Doc was sitting by his bed. "What're you doing here?"

"Where else would I be?"

"Uh...." This wasn't his quarters. "Where am.... Oh." Sickbay. So it hadn't been a nightmare. "He chopped off my hand."

"Lightsabers don't chop, they slice."

"Too much information." Grimacing, he pushed himself into a sitting position. He felt dizzy for a second, then he was fine. "You put my hand back on." He flexed the fingers a few times. They felt odd. Alien. "What's wrong with it?"

"It's a prosthetic." Doc held out his own (real?) hand and took hold of Luke's fingers. He pulled out a needle and poked three times before Luke snatched his hand away. "Did you feel that?"

"Yes! Stop stabbing me." His dad had all prosthetic limbs. Luke hadn't realized that fake ones appeared so real. Maybe his dad didn't look so bad under that armor. He turned the hand over. It even had lines in its palm... but not his lines. "Do you think it will tan?"


Luke rubbed his hands together. They both got warmer. "It seems to work okay."

"Of course it does. I am an excellent surgeon." The medic studied his face. "If you grow further, it will need to be replaced."

"Oh." He had a vision of himself as big as his dad, with one tiny hand.

Machinery around sickbay hummed quietly, reminding him of the lightsaber. There wasn't much more to say about his hand, at least not to Doc. "Thanks for fixing it."

"You're welcome. Now it's time for you to surrender this bed for someone who needs it. You've been lounging here long enough." Doc opened a small cabinet behind him.

"I have?" He slid off the bed, finally noticing that he was wearing a plain green shirt and matching loose trousers. "How long have I been here?"

The physician tossed his clothes at him. "Nine days," he said shortly.

Luke picked up his tunic and looked first at the bloody cuff of his tunic, then at Doc. "Why? Did something go wrong?"

"Don't ask me, I'm only the doctor. I have no say about what goes on in sickbay ē everything is done as Lord Vader commands."

One day that sarcasm would get Doc in trouble. Although so far it had worked pretty well for Luke. "Okay, thanks anyway!" he called after the departing physician.

Hurriedly he pulled on his clothes. Nine days! Time to track down his father and find out what was going on. He paused and looked in the mirror, running his new hand through his hair. What a confusing mess... and what a memorable, horrible, awful, miserable, depressing, secret-revealing birthday it had been. The only part that remotely seemed fair was that every year from now on when his dad brooded about the worst day of his life, he would also have to remember that he had chopped off his son's hand on his birthday.

"Next year," he scolded his reflection, "just settle for a cake."

* * *

His study tapes were crushed and strewn across the floor of his quarters, along with the remnants of his computer, desk, and chair. The hulking figure of Darth Vader waited for him amidst the wreckage, arms folded. There was no anger radiating from the Dark Lord, so Luke surmised that the destruction had taken place sometime in the intervening nine days. You could have cleaned up, he thought, hoping that the message wasn't transmitted to his father.

Vader simply stared at him.

"I know why you were so mad," Luke said finally, after discarding several conversation openers that all involved accusations like 'why did you chop off my hand?'.

"Are you inferring that I mutilated you deliberately? I did not."

"I know." He rubbed the alien wrist. "But if something happens because you're angry, is it really an accident?"

His dad chose to ignore that question. "If I was angry, it was because I was worried. You disobeyed me. You could have been killed."

By the hijackers or by you? He shrugged. "That too, I suppose." He let the silence drag on until Vader was forced to ask:

"What else?"

His new palm was fascinating. Luke pretended to be engrossed in examining it. "Because of the things you told me that you didn't want to tell me."

"You are not making sense."

"Stop telling me that!" he snapped, exasperated. "You know exactly what I mean! Now I know the worst about you, so what? Did you think I wouldn't love you anymore?"

He expected some sort of gruff denial about love not being involved, but instead Vader sighed and uncrossed his arms. "Perhaps. But we have a more immediate problem than discussions of affection."

Well, (a) affection wasn't a problem and (b).... "What problem?"

"The Emperor has sent for you."

The words were stark, the tone bleak. Luke felt something draining from him, as though his spirit was seeping out... or going into hiding. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he could speak. "Sent for me?"

Vader nodded. "You alone. Not me. I would not be there to protect you."

He swallowed and licked lips that were suddenly dry. "Is he going to... kill me?"

His father slowly crossed to the bed ē the only unbroken piece of furniture ē and sat heavily. "Possibly. It is more likely that he wishes to train you to kill me and take my place."

His head jerked back. "I'm not going to do that! He can't make me!"

"He could make you want to." The helmet turned toward him. "I stalled, keeping you unconscious and telling him you needed time to recuperate from your traumatic injury. However, I will not lose you, so there is only one alternative."

"We could hide together," Luke suggested, putting off the moment when he had to hear the inevitable words of separation. "Just the two of us. We could go live on the edge of the Outer Rim, where he wouldn't think to look for us."

"And one day I would regret all I had given up, lose my temper, and kill you as I killed your mother."

As scared as he felt, he understood that his father was more frightened of the impending separation. But Vader's fear was darker, deeper; it was part of his essence. And he would never be free if he never gathered the courage to face it. "Then what?" Luke asked softly, anticipating the reply. "You're going to hide me?"

"You cannot be hidden, my son. He can sense you. Your Light burns too brightly." Vader stood, suddenly galvanized into action. "I have packed your belongings." Luke's old backpack flew through the air, nearly knocking him over as he caught it.

"If you can't hide me, then where am I going?"

"The orders I have and will execute fully state that you are going to Coruscant. However, your vessel will be hijacked, and Laze Loneozner and his pilot will become the newest members of the Rebel Alliance."

"What? Are you kidding?"

"I do not kid."

"Save that for your officers! I know you kid. Why would you want me to ē "

"Difficult as this may be for you to believe," Vader said mildly, gesturing for Luke to exit his quarters and into the wide corridor, "I have a plan."

"And are you going to share that plan with me?"

Vader's head inclined slightly in warning. "You are going to Coruscant, young man, and I will brook no more discussion."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Yes, master." We should've talked more before going into monitored areas, he pointed out. Yoo-hoo! Can you hear me?

I hear you. We will be able to communicate this way in the future... if you are able to focus.

I can focus, all right! he declared grimly, struck by the unhappy thought that momentarily he would be separated from his father. "Did you pack my 'hopper model?"

"No. You have no need for toys where you are going."

"It's not a toy." So, you want to keep it for sentimental reasons!

"Indeed." Vader hustled him toward a small bay off the main hangar where a sleek, long-range ship waited.

"Wow, what is that? It's gorgeous."

"It is a modified Naboo starfighter."

"Oh." That reminded him of his mother, but he kept the thought to himself. His father was quiet, too.

They stopped at the base of the ramp. "This is happening awfully fast," Luke said, his voice unexpectedly choking on the words. "Thank you for... everything. Except for chopping off my hand. If the Emperor decides to train me, maybe I'll see you again."

"Yes," said The Man of Few Words.

Luke nodded. "Okay... well... I guess I should get going." What's going to happen? Who's going to hijack me? Is that your whole plan? What will I do when I get to the Alliance? Can we hug?

"One of our best security officers is piloting you," Vader said threateningly, "so do not try anything foolish."

Does that mean ē

The Dark Lord looked beyond him and raised his voice. "He is ready." His gaze returned to Luke. "You have been a good student. Go now."

"Just like that?" he demanded wildly, welling grief pushing aside caution.

"It is an honor to obey the Emperor. Go."

Before he could reply, he felt a soft cloud surround him. It was warm and glowing, filled with sun and... with love.

He smiled faintly and returned the emotion as best he could, hoping his father felt it. "Okay," he said quietly. Turning, he hurried up the ramp, casting a wary glance at the pilot.

"Welcome aboard," Lieutenant Karas Jovay said without a trace of recognition on his face.

Luke came to a dead stop. "What're you doing here?" he demanded of Lieutenant Jovay, catching himself before he could continue aloud.

Okay, he was being left out in the cold and he didn't like it. His dad had a Plan, and for some reason the Mos Eisley Imperial Recruiting Officer was part of it. And they were in a public area where their conversation could be overheard, so he couldn't even ask! Luke made an about-face and stomped back down the ramp to face his father. "I changed my mind, I don't want to go."

"The Emperor is bestowing an honor upon you by requesting your presence," Vader intoned.

Yeah, yeah. Luke sighed. This mental-talk was hard. He was getting a headache. "I'd rather stay here and learn stuff. You wouldn't want me to neglect my education, would you?"

"The educational datatapes are in your pack."

"Oh." That explained the extra weight. Krit. He let the pack slip off his shoulder and drop to the deck. "I don't want to go," he repeated, trying not to whine. Why was he even bothering? His dad wouldn't be sympathetic and would only scold him.

Nor do I want you to leave, Vader's fierce thought echoed in Luke's head. But you must, for both our sakes. "You are going and you will be appropriately grateful for the honor."

"Yes, sir." You'll miss me! The need to be hugged by his dad was becoming an almost physical ache. "Will I be coming back... here?" Back to you?

Both black gauntlets raised toward his face and Luke flinched. Don't choke--

The hands rested on his cheeks, cupping his head like it was as fragile as an egg. Which, of course, it would be if those hands decided to squeeze. "Make me proud," the Dark Lord commanded.

With the enemy? Luke pressed his face against the caress, trying to express his confusion and fears. Do you want me to fight with them? Or spy on them? I don't understand.

"Keep up with your studies," Vader said smoothly. "Keep your mind open; be willing to accept new ideas, but with wisdom and caution. The Emperor can teach you much."

He nodded, waiting for a Thought from his father, but nothing came.

The hands dropped. "Remember, your lightsaber is your life. Keep it close always."

"But I don't know how to use it very well."

"When the need arises, when you are desperate, you will know how." Listen to what I am saying, child.

"Okay." Bewildered, he gave the mask one last, searching look. "Be careful. I won't be here to look out for you."

"Thank you." A spark of amusement colored the deep voice, along with something gentler. "I will endeavor to remain safe without your protection."

"Okay, then." He backed toward the ramp. We'll still be able to talk exactly like this, right?

The helmet tilted. As physical distance grows between us, it will become more difficult and will require more focus. Words may not be as clear as they are now, but I will feel your emotions. If you need me, you will be able to reach me.

"Okay," Luke repeated uncertainly, disliking the impending separation more with each step he took. Well, krit! He whirled and marched up the ramp like a soldier, passing into the ship and throwing back a single question.

Can you hear me now?

A mental sigh shuddered through their link, and Luke smiled, satisfied.

* * *

Dad? Can you hear me now?

Do not call me that. I can hear you. Stop asking.

Luke craned his neck to look back at the shrinking Devastator. "I changed my mind."

Jovay didn't spare a glance for him. "Hmm?" he murmured absently, intent on whatever manipulations his fingers were doing with the ship's controls.

"I don't want to go," Luke stated. "Take me back to the ship."

Jovay didn't answer.

Luke sighed and leaned back in the copilot's seat. Dad? Can you hear me now? Da-aaaad!


I changed my mind. I want to stay with you.

That is not possible.


I am busy. Cease interrupting with your pointless request.

He rolled his eyes. Fine! "My father says you should turn the ship around and take me back."

"Funny, I didn't hear him say that."

"Of course you didn't! But I did. In my head."

Jovay grinned. "Good try, kid. I see that getting away from the dustball hasn't changed you much."

"Little do you know," Luke said grimly. Nothing about this was fair. He and his dad were still getting to know each other. They shouldn't be separated yet! It occurred to him that when they met, his dad already knew the worst about Luke and went ahead and taught him to be better. Now he knew the worst about Vader (at least, he hoped it was the worst) and he wasn't allowed to stick around to help his dad. "I really, really need to go back."

"Luke." The young lieutenant swiveled in his chair. "Your father is sending you away to keep you safe. You know that."

Yeah, well.... "Just who are you, anyway?" he challenged. "You're not really an Imp recruiter in Mos Eisley, are you?"

"Not anymore. I got a promotion," Jovay's smile turned smug, "to captain in Intelligence."

"What for? You let me get away!"

"Did I? Yet here you are." The officer's grin widened. "Maybe I got the promotion because I'm brilliant, clever and handsome."

"Oh, brother! I am so confused," Luke muttered. "Are we really going to the Rebel Alliance?"


"So... my dad is sending me to the enemy?" He struggled with the idea. "Why?"

Jovay shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe they're not the enemy."

"Don't do that, I'm confused enough!" Not for the first time, he wished he could read his father's mind and learn what was really going on. "What am I going to do there?"

"I have no idea. I'm not going with you. Somehow I don't think the Alliance would treat me gently if they discovered my secret identity as an Imperial Intel agent."

"What?" Oh, great! "ButĔI don'tĔKrit! My dad said you were staying!" DaĔaaaad! Can you hear me now?

Stop calling.

"LukeĔOz. If you can survive the streets of Mos Eisley, you can survive anything. You'll be fine."

The words were meant to be reassuring, but he wasn't feeling at all reassured. "Do you think I'm supposed to be a spy?"

"I don't know," Jovay repeated patiently. "Didn't your father tell you anything?"

"He said he has a Plan-with-a-capital-P," Luke said glumly, "but he didn't clue me in about it. He just told me we'd be 'hijacked' and end up at the Alliance."

"That was his intention."

"Was?" Slowly Luke turned his head and studied the other man. "Aren't you following his plan?" he asked suspiciously. Oh-oh. Dad, can you hear me now?

Stop that.



"About now," Jovay said by way of an answer, "our hijackers are scheduled to appear." They were both quiet for a few moments before warning beeps began to sound. "Right on time."

Depressed, Luke stared at the two ships that were heading toward them from both sides.

"And about now-- here we go." Jovay depressed a button and space turned into a blur. Luke was jerked back in his seat as they accelerated into hyperspace. The officer checked his instruments, then relaxed and looked over. "A slight alteration of Lord Vader's plan."

"Are you kidnapping me?" Luke demanded, shocked by the audacity of the other.

"I wouldn't dare. I'm taking a different route, but the end result will be the same, you'll be with the insurgents." Jovay frowned, obviously disapproving, then continued after a resigned sigh, "I figured that what Vader didn't know, the Emperor couldn't know."

"Are you insinuating that my father would betray me?" He started to rise, ready to protect his dad's honor.

"No, I'm not. Settle down." The captain swiveled around and leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "What I think is that Palpatine has spies and listening devices everywhere. I have no intention of being the one who loses the Dark Lord's son. So I devised a variation on the original plan. I'm not Intel for nothing, kid. Brains as well as beauty, that's me."

"You know, you could be really irritating," Luke observed, then immediately wondered if this was how he irritated his father. "Huh. So, Intel, are you dangerous too?"

"Absolutely." Jovay grinned. "Not to you, of course."

"How fortunate for you."

"No," the newly-minted captain continued, oblivious of Luke's sarcasm, "for you I would lay down my life."

He was taken aback. "Really? Are you serious? You're kidding, right?"

The smile turned small and reflective, and maybe a little sad. "I'm not kidding."

"Oh." Luke folded his arms and glowered. "I don't like any of this," he declared. "We should have followed my dad's plan."

Luke? Luke, where are you? What has gone wrong?

Oh, sure, now you want to talk! Well, never mind, I don't want to talk to you anymore!

"Your dad!" Jovay chuckled. "That's still hard for me to imagine. However... say, are you hungry?"

"Hah, the old distract-him-with-food routine!" Grudgingly, Luke unfolded his arms. "Maybe. What do you have? And where are we going?"

Jovay gave him a tentative smile. "To rendezvous with alternate transportation."

"Then where?" he demanded.

"Too much information is not necessarily a good thing."

"And you call yourself Intel," he scoffed. "Be sure to tell my dad that when he asks what you're doing."


Stop interrupting!


Go away. Then, worried that he sounded too harsh, Luke added, I'll talk to you later, after I figure out what's going on.

"How's Tessa?" he asked as he caught the box Jovay tossed at him. Peeling off the lid, he stared in dismay at the extensively processed and unidentifiable 'food'. "Ugh. I'm not hungry after all."

"Save it for later then. Now that you've opened it, it will be your next meal. Never waste nutrients when you don't know where your next meal is coming from."

Luke rolled his eyes. Jovay sounded like his father. Lecturing was another of those annoying adult habits. "Did you hear me? I asked how Tessa is."

"She's fine. Some nightmares when she first arrived on Naboo." Jovay glanced at him. "Something about a monster that tried to eat her."

Luke nodded. "A Rillavin hunter."

Jovan swiveled his chair around. "She said you killed the monster and saved her."

He shrugged modestly. "Does she miss me?"

"Not any longer." The captain smiled at his dismayed expression. "A child's sense of time is different from an adult's. She's forgetting a lot of what happened on Tatooine. She's happy with my brother and his wife, and she has many friends in the neighborhood."

"That's good." It was petty and small of him, but he felt a little jealous of Tessa. Quickly he pushed the unwanted emotion aside. "I'm glad for her," he said, and truly was.

There seemed to be nothing more to say. Luke searched carefully, pulled the selected datatape out of his pack, and plugged the audiobuds into his ears. Might as well spend this travel time learning something. He didn't want to let his dad down.

He settled back in the chair and closed his eyes as the tape whispered, Imperial Government Structure Part II: Security and Intelligence.


* * *

Luke flipped off the datatape and pulled the buds from his ears. "Where are we?"

Jovay pretended to be startled. "You've been so quiet, I forgot you were here. What went wrong? Music ended?"

"I was listening to an educational tape," he replied icily. "Not all teenagers are music freaks."

"Really? I was. I must have memorized the lyrics to a thousand songs, went to a dozen concerts. I even got to meet The GreedleMoth when they were-- "

Luke tuned out the unnervingly cheerful agent. For Intel, Jovay sure was chatty. In fact.... "Hey," he interrupted, "you're avoiding my question. Where are we?"

The officer chuckled. "In hyperspace, kiddo."

"I know that! Where in hyperspace?"

Jovay tilted his head until one green eye could focus on Luke. "In hyper, you're nowhere until you get somewhere."

"Stop that!" Krit, this was exactly the sort of stuff he would say to his dad when he wanted to drive Vader crazy. "Where are we going!?"

The other man began to laugh, enjoying his frustration. "Let it be a surprise."

"Naboo?" Luke guessed. "We're going to Naboo!"

"No." Jovay sobered abruptly. "Think, Luke. You're wanted by the Emperor. Would I take you to my home planet and put it at risk?"

"Of course not." He folded his arms, uncertain if he was more disgusted by the chastisement or by his naivete. "Let's go put someone else's planet at risk." He could almost feel the sharp glance as it raked him.

"We won't be there long enough to endanger anyone. Why don't you take a nap?"

Like a pesky child. "I've been studying Imperial Security protocol," he said to regain control of the conversation, "and there's something I don't understand. Maybe you could answer a question for me?"

The officer swiveled his chair around, stretching out his legs and clasping his hands behind his head. "Shoot. Not literally."

Luke rolled his eyes but didn't let the flippancy distract him. "Can you tell me why," he asked sweetly, "an Intelligence agent would be loyal to Darth Vader and choose to defy the Emperor? Sounds like a risky move... maybe even a treasonous one."

The relaxed posture became rigid, though Jovay did not change his position. "I'm sure the agent would have good reason."

He leaned forward. "What reason do you think? Hypothetically, of course."

"Of course." Jovay gave him an annoyed look. "Hypothetically, the agent might feel some sort of personal loyalty to Vader motivated by... oh, like being Vader's son who's enlisted in the Rebellion."

"I'm not an agent! And we're talking about you, not me!" His father wasn't sending him to be a spy, was he? Yet what else could he be, Son of Vader nested like a viper in the heart of the Rebel Alliance?

"We're talking about a hypothetical agent," Jovay reminded him. He studied Luke in silence for several moments, then his face softened and he relaxed. "When I was a child, your father saved my life."

Whatever he had expected, this wasn't even close. Luke slid to the edge of his seat, his eyes focused on the Intelligence officer. "What happened? Tell me everything about it."

"I was six, and a climbing fiend," Jovay reminisced with a chuckle. "I climbed a tree -- Naboo has the best climbing pines anywhere... well, I've heard Kashyyk has great trees but-- "

"Will you get back to the story about my dad!"

"Actually, it's a story about me."

If he ever saw his dad again, Luke vowed never to tease or taunt him. "Just tell it. Please?"

"Sure. Long story short, I was hanging near the top, lost my grip and fell. Your dad made a fantastic jump -- I was sure it was a hundred meters! -- and caught me before I was halfway to the ground. He landed still holding me, put me down safe and sound, and I was his for life. Or so my parents promised. And I followed through."

"You mean you're like his slave?" Luke gasped, horrified.

"Where do you get such wild ideas? Stars, no. After he left Naboo, I didn't see him again until I enlisted and then... then he was a lot different." Jovay's head turned and he stared into the darkness they sped through. "I'm not sure how I recognized him. It was a feeling, and I called... no, I didn't call, I just thought 'Anakin Skywalker'. I think he was more surprised than I was." With a sharp sigh, the officer refocused his attention on Luke. "I promised him my fealty and he in turn gave my career a few nudges. You see, nothing startling or sinister. A pretty simple story, really."

A little too simple, Luke mused. Questions whirled in his head and he attempted to sort through them. "So... you mean you knew him when he was Anakin? Before Vader?"

Jovay nodded.

Luke hesitated before asking in a near-whisper: "What was he like?"

"He was... colorful. Very alive, always moving-- even when he was still, if you know what I mean." He smiled faintly. "Blue eyes like yours. Tall, wiry... mercurial. His mood could change in a second. He laughed a lot... and he was completely fearless."

He isn't any more, Luke thought sadly. "I wish I'd known him."

"You know him now," Jovay said in an odd tone.

"Yeah. But he's different now." His words sounded like a betrayal. Luke swallowed. "I still love him, though."

"Good. We're about ready to come out of hyperspace. Watch and learn."

"Okay." He hesitated. "So... your loyalty to my dad is just personal? There are no politics involved?"

Jovay's surprise was evident in the agitated way his fingers punched at the controls. "I think we've talked enough about this."

"Are you a double agent?" Luke asked suddenly. An Imp Intel officer, pretending to spy on the Alliance but really spying on the Empire and reporting to... Darth Vader? No, that didn't make sense.

"You've been watching too many holomovies. Pay attention to what I'm doing."

Typical adult put-down. Sure, he'd watched his fair share of holomovies, but that didn't mean he was obsessed with them. Anyway, he enjoyed space adventures more than espionage holos. Not that it mattered to Jovay; the accusation was just a way to shut him up. "Okay," he muttered, deciding that if the officer didn't want to talk, Luke might as well 'watch and learn'. "Are you going to tell me where we are?"

Jovay nodded at the viewscreen. Abruptly the blurred starfield ended and they emerged within sight of a large planet that Luke didn't recognize. "I haven't studied this one," he mumbled.


"Cool!" Of all the planets he could have picked, this would have been his first choice to visit. Well, maybe not his first first choice, but his first choice after Naboo, Coruscant, and Alderaan. "What're we going to do there? I want to see the old Pirates Bazaar and the-- "

"We're not staying long enough for you to get in trouble," Jovay warned. "It's just a quick stop. I'm not letting you out of my sight."

Luke sighed loudly. "I never get to have any fun," he complained.

"Let's keep it that way," the agent said sternly, then laughed. "You want to handle the landing approach?"


"I'll be right here if you get into trouble," Jovay said, and 'right here' really meant right here because he didn't vacate the pilot's seat and his hands hovered nervously over the controls.

"I can do it, I can do it!" Luke grumbled crossly.

"Then do it."

"I will!"

And he did.

* * *

The Coronet Cantinonet, besides having a stupid name, was nothing like the dives in Mos Eisley, but not by any stretch of anyone's imagination could it be called 'elegant'. There was a band playing the creepiest, eeriest music Luke had ever heard. The huge expanse was dark except for multicolored flashing lights that pulsated all over the ceiling, floor, and walls. Luke found himself turning in a circle, getting dizzy from the relentless onslaught of bright/dark that came every few milliseconds. Jovay grabbed his arm and pulled him along until he found a table against the wall.

Luke tossed his pack into the booth and slid in beside it. He stared at the table. It was flashing lights, too, and it was making him feel nauseous.

"Pick a color."

"What?" he moaned.

"Pick a color and just stare at that color. It will steady you."

That was the dumbest thing he'd heard in ages, but he had nothing to lose... except that awful meal he'd had onboard. "Blue." He stared at a blue spot on the table. It blinked in a steady pattern of alternating spots and hollow circles. After a few seconds, Luke felt his stomach begin to unclench. A few more seconds and he felt brave enough to look around. The lights didn't bother him as much. In fact, they looked terrific. "Great place!"

"Thrilled you like it, kid," a strange voice said, and the voice's owner sat down next to him.

The stranger turned out to be a man who looked vaguely familiar-- and when his giant Wookiee companion took a place across the table, Luke realized instantly who they were. "Hey, you're-- "

The Wookiee interrupted with a string of growls. "Yeah, Chewie, you're right," the man said. "It's the kid from Eisley. Oz, right?"

"How did you know my name?"

"Ah, tavern owners still tell tales about you and the band of kids who ragged on the Imps." The man gave him an assessing look. "The stories are bigger than you are."

Luke glared and opened his mouth to retort, but Jovay interjected smoothly, "Han Solo and Chewbacca, meet Laze Loneozner, aka Oz."

Solo gave him a nod, then focused on the other human. "So, Karas, what's the job?"



"Just the boy... and no questions asked."

"Yeah?" Solo sipped his ale and leaned forward. "What is it, some kind of local trouble?"

"Let's just say," Jovay lowered his voice, "he needs to avoid any Imperial entanglement."

"Well, that's the trick, isn't it? It'll cost you extra."

Karas Jovay nodded. "Fifteen thousand. Five now and ten when you get to Dantooine."

"Dantooine?" Luke exclaimed. "What's-- "

"Shhh!" the two men admonished, and the Wookiee added a low growl to the mix.

"Sorry," Luke muttered. "But why there? I studied it! There's nothing on the planet except a few tribes of nomads!"

"He has people there who will take care of him, Han," Jovay told Solo.

"I do?" Luke asked. "Nomads?"

"As long as I get paid, it's doesn't matter to me where I dump him," Solo said.

"It matters to me!" Luke said loudly, irked that the three were ignoring him.

"Five thousand." Jovay slid his arm across the table, credits peeking out from under his sleeve.

Chewbacca leaned his arms on the table and the credits disappeared into his long fur.

"I feel like I'm being sold," Luke complained.

"The rest of the money?"

"Deliver him safely to a man named Willard. He'll pay you."

"Hello? I'm still here," Luke reminded them. He reached for the nearest beverage, but Solo swatted his hand away.

The Wookiee slid out of the booth, with Jovay following him. "Take care of yourself, Oz," the agent said quietly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. "Try to stay out of trouble."

"You're not coming?" he asked, aghast.

Jovay shook his head, smiling slightly. He gave a Solo a half-salute. "He's all yours for now, Han. Good luck." He turned, weaving through the crowded cantina without looking back.

"C'mon, we haven't got all night," Solo said roughly. He stood, downed the rest of his drink and set the empty tankard hard on the table. "Chewie, start warm-up as soon as we get there. An easy fifteen thou, a few repairs, then we can take on Jabba's next job. Let's go," he added impatiently.

"I'm just waiting for you!" Luke exclaimed defensively. "You are so rude!"

"Get used to it." Solo took two steps, then stopped. "Stick close to me, kid."

"I'm fine." As if he couldn't take care of himself!

Solo gave him an incredulous look. "I'm worried about the ten thousand, not about you."

"Fine!" he shouted to be heard over the music that was growing ever louder. "Fine, just fine!" and he was talking to the empty place where Solo had stood.

With a sigh, Luke shouldered his pack and followed the dark head that was following the giant Wookiee. What next?

Hey, Dad? Can you hear me now?


Guess not. Talk to you later... sometime... I hope.

Dantooine. He couldn't begin to imagine what was waiting for him on that desolate planet. Tatooine... Dantooine... he had a bad feeling about this.

* * *

"How long is it going to take to get there, Mr. Solo?"

"Too long, and it's Captain Solo."

"Really?" He leaned forward, trying to peer between Solo and the Wookiee, but there wasn't much to see. Just space and stars. "Captain of what? Are you an Imp?"

"No!" Solo looked back at him, his mouth curled and his face flushing. "Look, kid, I'm captain of this ship 'cause it's my ship and if I say I'm captain, then I'm captain."

"Sorry, just asking!" Affronted, Luke folded his arms and slid back in his seat. The Wookiee growled something that ended in a snort. "I couldn't agree more."

They both turned and stared at him. "What?" Luke demanded.

Solo shook his head. "Never mind. Chewie, any ideas on that little problem?"

Luke waited until after the growled response ended, then asked, "What problem? And why is it taking a long time to get to Dantooine? It shouldn't take long. I know where Dantooine is, I've studied all about it."

"Child genius," Solo commented under his breath before raising his voice. "Hyperdrive's been acting up. That's the problem and the reason, kid."

"My name is Lu-- Oz, stop calling me 'kid'!" He'd thought the ship looked like a piece of junk, and obviously his first assessment was correct. The Millennium Falcon was well named... the question was, what millennium was it from?

"Looooo-Oz? Cute. I thought it was pronounced 'Laze' like a laser."

"It is." He gnawed on his lower lip, struggling to remain civil. "Just call me 'Oz'. Please." If this guy got any ruder, he was going to forget his promise to Dad Vader about behaving properly.

"Right, kid."

The Wookiee growled at Solo, something about being nice to the little one. "Thanks," Luke said to him. "Can I call you 'Chewie'?"

There was a moment of silence before the other two turned around. "Did you understand what he said?" Solo asked.

"Uh... not all of it."

Chewie woofed and barked in a friendly way, indicating that Luke was welcome to call him by name. "Cool. Chewie." Luke grinned, and Chewie ruffled his hair with a huge paw.

"Where did you learn that?" Solo asked suspiciously. "Have you been to Kashyyk?"

"No, but I hear they have great trees!" Luke replied enthusiastically. "I've never actually seen a tree, except when we were coming into Coronet, but Jo-- Karas said they're great for climbing."

Chewie launched into a rambling story that Luke didn't catch entirely, but it had to do with climbing and living in trees that went into the clouds. Solo grumbled to himself for a few seconds, then interrupted.

"Okay, enough with the chitchat, we've got work to do here."

"Can I help?"

"No. Go take a nap."

Luke felt more disgusted than angry. "Typical adult put-down! You just want to get rid of me!"

"You got that right. Once I get the ten thou, you're outta here, junior."

"That's-- "

"And whaddaya mean, 'adult put-down'?" Solo snarled. "You're an adult, too."

"I am not!" Incensed, Luke jumped to his feet. His head connected with the top of the cockpit and he dropped back into the seat. "Ow!"

"You okay?" the Corellian asked gruffly while Chewie wuffed with concern.

He rubbed his sore head, then brought his fingers down and looked at them. "Well, I'm not bleeding, so I guess I'll live."

"Good. I don't want to lose that ten thousand. Now go take that nap."

"I'm not sleepy," Luke lied.

Chewie huffed a few times and stood. "Okay," Luke said resignedly, following the Wookiee out of the cockpit. "You're really tall. This ship should be bigger so you don't have to bend down so much. Are Wookiee ships bigger? Well, that's dumb, of course they are. Have you known Captain Solo for a long time?"

Without answering, the other gestured him into a small room. A couple bunks were built into the bulkhead. "Thank you, Chewie," Luke said politely as the Wookiee patted his shoulder and left. Chewie was a lot nicer than that Solo person. He wished Jovay hadn't left. Why couldn't Jovay have taken him to Dantooine?

He pulled off his boots and stretched out. If Jovay met his dad on Naboo, maybe he'd known his mom, too. Why hadn't he thought to ask that? Exasperated with himself, Luke rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. His life was moving too fast; sometimes his thoughts couldn't keep up with all the changes. And-- he jerked his head up and glared at the closed door-- Solo was wrong when he said Luke was an adult. Luke Skywalker felt the same today as he always had, so that was impossible. An adult would act more mature and think better and smarter... right? Unless this was as good as it got and the way he was now was the way he would always be.

With a groan, he pulled the pillow over his head and almost immediately began to feel drowsy. In a pleasant haze, he imagined himself in a tree, all the way at the top, clinging to rubbery branches, but the branches began swaying to and fro, faster and faster. A sharp leaf cut his finger and he let go, sliding, sliding, then sailing into the blue sky, falling...

He landed in his father's arms. "Dad! You caught me!"

"Always." Darth Vader put him on the grass. It was soft and grainy like sand. Vader wasn't wearing his helmet, but Luke still couldn't see his face. "Luke, where are you?"

He looked around. "I think it's Naboo."

Vader sighed. "No. Where are you now?"

Oh. He stared up and up at his father. The sun blazed behind the figure, obscuring his features. "I guess I'm dreaming. I'm on a ship."

"Where are you going?"

"Uh... Dantooine somewhere. I don't know what's there."

Vader nodded. "Good."

"What's so good about that?" he asked as he rolled over. He opened his eyes and stared at the gray durasteel of the deck. With a sigh, he punched the flat pillow. He had too many questions, his brain wouldn't slow down, he would never fall asleep. In a few minutes, he'd get up, go back to the cockpit, and offer his help again. But right now the blanket was heavy on his limbs and he felt warm and comfortable. So he'd wait just a few more minutes...

Luke fell asleep.

* * *

"Wow," Luke breathed softly, leaning between pilot and copilot to take in the view. "Is that grass?"

Solo chuckled. "Sure is. Never seen grass, desert boy?"

He shook his head, stunned into silence. It was blue! The wind created waves in the grass, making it look like living velvet. The lack of contrast between the clear sky and the purple-blue grass was amazing. He could hardly wait to get out of the ship and touch the ground to see what it felt like.

They were flying low. "How do you know where we're going? It's a whole planet-- how are you going to find this Willard guy? How do you know where to-- "

"Trust me, Oz, I know what I'm doing. Karas gave me the coordinates."

"Oh. How do you know Jo... Karas?"

"So 'Joe' is his first name, huh?" Solo gave a short laugh. "He saved our bacon once and turned out to be a good contact. Got us some lucrative jobs."

"Oh." Evidently Solo didn't know Jovay's true identity. "Um... what did you say he saved?"

"Ah, kept us out of a mess. Right, Chewie?"

The Wookiee agreed.

"No," Luke persisted, "you said something else."

"I said he saved our bacon, kid. You got beans in your ears?"

"Beans!" Not only was Solo obnoxious, he was weird! "Why would I-- Oh, never mind. What's bacon?"

Chewie provided a colorful description of a delicious meat made from Corellian kaarthogs. Luke nodded. "Okay... so Karas saved your shipment of this meat?"

"It's an expression. I don't have time to give you a school lesson, kid."

"Krit!" Luke sat back, frowning. "Are we there yet?"

"Yup. Right... there." Solo gave a nod toward a distant spot. "Chewie, punch in the confirmation code."

"Confir-- " Luke abruptly shut his mouth as a complex of buildings came into view. The structures looked as though they hadn't been there for long. This wasn't a city, though it was large. No, this was-- "The Rebel Alliance! Right? Is that who it is?"

Solo looked over his shoulder, seeming to study Luke up and down, then trying to peer around him.

"What?" Luke demanded.

"I'm looking for your 'off' switch."

With a sound of disgust, he slouched back in his seat and folded his arms. "Fine. I'll be quiet."

"Starting when?"

The Wookiee laughed at what must have been, for Solo anyway, a witticism. Luke rolled his eyes. Dad, what have you gotten me into?

He managed to keep quiet while they landed their embarrassingly ugly ship on a hard surface some distance from the smaller buildings, but within several meters of ship hangers. It was dark inside the buildings, but he could see the outlines of small fighters-- x-wings! Maybe somebody here could give him the x-wing tattoo he wanted.

"I have a tattoo of a TIE fighter."

"Fab-u-lous," Solo drawled.

"I just meant-- Oh, forget it!" He squeezed his lips together tightly, vowing not to speak again unless someone asked him a question.

In silence, he helped Solo and Chewie unload a few crates from the ship. After they finished, an old man approached Solo. Luke started to edge away, but Chewie grabbed his arm.

"I just want to feel the grass," he wheedled, "just for a few minutes, pleeeease? I won't go anywhere, just... right there."

The Wookiee nodded and released him, and Luke hurried away before Solo saw him. He stopped at the edge of the duracrete strip. With a grin of excitement, he touched the grass with the toe of his boot, then leaped forward, landing on his hands and knees. He ran his fingers through the living carpet, surprised by its smooth texture. Lying on his back, he stared up at a blue sky that was a clear and vivid as the one above Tatooine.

With a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet. Grass wasn't as exciting as he thought it would be. There was a great-looking tree at the top of the hill behind him, though, so he started walking. He could climb the tree, but more importantly he wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill. Something was telling him that he needed to take a look at whatever--

"Oz! Get back here!"

"Krit!" he muttered under his breath, giving the hill a longing look before stomping back to address Solo. "You're not my father, you can't tell me what to do!"

"Uh-huh." Solo turned to the older man and said, "He's all yours. Hand over the cash."

"He's so rude," Luke complained to the stranger who was counting out a handful of credits. "Are you Willard?"

"Commander Willard," the man corrected quietly.

"Okay. Why are you paying so much money for me?"

"He'd be a bargain at a tenth of the price," Solo offered, drawing a laugh from Chewbacca.

"The money is from Karas," Willard said. "Solo, hope you make another run back this way soon. You didn't bring much this time."

"You didn't pay for much," the Corellian drawled. "Chewie, we're outta here. Oz... good luck."

"Uh... thanks," he replied uncertainly. People sure came in and out of his life fast. It would be nice if someone stayed for awhile. Like maybe his dad. And speaking of his dad, that ten thousand obviously came from Vader! No way would Jovay have that kind of money. And what was with Jovay anyway? Did everyone know him? Intel people were supposed to be inconspicuous, but Karas Jovay seemed extraordinarily well-known to diverse groups-- Imperials, Rebels, and smugglers.

On the other hand, Oz was now known to the same groups. Pleased with what would probably turn out to be his new-found celebrity, Luke waved to his two escorts. Only the Wookiee waved back.

"Let's see your identichip."

"Oh." Luke rummaged through his pack and produced Fixer's I.D. "Here."

"Laze Loneozner," Willard read as he ran the chip through his handheld scanner. "Well, I can see why you prefer to be called 'Oz'."

"Yeah," he said ruefully. Luke Skywalker was a so much better name. If he had a choice, that was who he would be. But he had to be Oz for awhile, at least until his dad came and got him.

Assuming his dad wanted him back.

"You know anything about ship maintenance?"

Maintenance? Luke sighed. "Yes, I'm good at fixing things. I can pilot, too."

"Hmm. We'll put you in Maintenance for now."

"Great," he replied without enthusiasm. Daa-ad! Can you hear me?

Story of his life: no reply. Disappointed, Luke followed Commander Willard toward the compound, casting a quick look back at the hill with its single tree silhouetted against the bright sky.

* * *

Commander Willard's deeply lined face was serious. "Are you planning on enlisting?"

"Enlisting?" Luke responded blankly.

"If you want to be a pilot someday, you have to be a member of the Alliance."

He stared at the ground as they walked. "I hadn't given it any thought," he replied honestly.

"Start thinking," Willard said sharply. "You're only here because Karas asked for a favor and-- "

"And paid a lot of money."

The older man stopped. "The Alliance runs on money. You can't fight a revolution without supplies and weapons. You'll bunk here. Green barracks."

"What?" But Willard left him without another word, and Luke looked at the building in front of him. It was a large portable unit that didn't look like it would stand up to a strong wind, and it was painted gray. He saw no green anywhere until he noticed a small strip at the top of the door.

Pausing outside for a moment, he considered how to enter. There was probably a central recreational area that was surrounded by small rooms designed to house a single person. If he went in as Oz, he would have to be confident, arrogant and flippant... but he was getting tired of Oz. It was a strain to be Oz, and he wished again he could just be Luke Skywalker. Or even Luke Lars. For a second, he toyed with the idea of bouncing in with Hi, I'm Luke Vader! and the probable reactions from the others made him smile.

Krit. Maybe he had to be called Oz, but he didn't have to behave like Oz. He wasn't that person any more. Whether anyone knew it or not, he was the son of Lord Vader, he was a Force-user (junior grade), and his future was full of possibilities. Even if he had to be a mechanic for awhile, sooner or later he would be a hero. Might as well start practicing being brave. Straightening his shoulders, he hefted his backpack higher and strode determinedly through the door.

The first thing that struck him was the darkness. The second thing was the dirt, as dust motes spiraled through the air like sprites when the sunlight hit them. The third thing he noticed was the... smell. The strong odors of sweat and very old socks mixed with grease and oil and smoke. There was a recreation area all right; it was a small table near the door where five men were smoking deathsticks and gambling with hexagonal chips. The rest of the cavernous room contained rows of beds that were little more than cots. Some were empty, some occupied by men wearing underwear that obviously hadn't been cleaned in-- no, he couldn't look at any more!

"Shut the damn door!" someone called irritably and, muttering an unintelligible apology, Luke backed out into the sun, gulping for fresh air.

"Oh, no, no, no, no," he muttered to himself. "What a mess! I've never lived like that and I'm not starting now." Finally he could appreciate what a nice home Aunt Beru had kept. Nice and clean.

He looked around. There were other buildings that looked the same as the one he had just left. They were probably the same inside, too. There had to be somewhere else he could stay, there just had to be. Oh, for his quarters on the Devastator! Captivity by the Imperial Navy had never looked so good. And this group of unwashed ruffians thought they could defeat the Empire? Luke sniffed. Not a chance!

"Can I help you?"

Luke turned and studied the thirty-something man who regarded him with a serious but friendly face.

"I'm looking for a place to stay. Commander Willard told me here, but...."

"You're not a pilot then," the man said, sounding disappointed.

"I am! Just not... yet." It would have been simple to say yes and be assigned the pilots' quarters, which were bound to be a lot better than these barracks. At least he would get one night's sleep before they kicked him out. But his dad had told him that lying was a bad idea, and Luke didn't want to start off on the wrong foot. "I can't stay there. It's... awful."

The other laughed. "You must be from Naboo."

He felt his eyes widen. "Well, n-no, I'm not," he stammered. "Why did you think so?"

"They're the princesses of the universe. They even elect a queen." The blond officer chuckled at Luke's blank expression. "They like their comforts," he explained. "So where are you from?"

"Tatooine." What would this guy say if he knew Luke's mother had been one of those Naboo queens?

"Really?" The man looked surprised. "I thought you backplanet boys could stand just about anything."

"Tatooine is very clean," Luke said edgily, bristling a little at the insult. "The sand scours everything. And these... these people are filthy. They don't bathe!"

The man choked a little, trying unsuccessfully to hide a laugh. "Well, my young prince, let's see if we can find you somewhere cleaner to stay. I know a few hidden nooks. What's your name?"

He stifled a sigh. "Oz. It's actually Laze Loneozner, but call me Oz."

"Pleased to meet you, Oz. I'm Garven Dreis, known to some people as 'Boss'." He thrust out his hand and Luke shook it firmly.

"Boss? Are you in charge of this place?"

"No, just one fighter group. I'm the leader of Red Squad."

"A fighter pilot!" Luke exclaimed.

They started to walk. "Is that what you want to be?" Dreis asked.

He opened his mouth to call out an excited affirmative, but bit it back just in time. His dad wouldn't appreciate his son fighting against Imperial ships, would he? Luke sighed. "I guess not. Maybe just fly something else... transports or... something... I guess."

"I see. Well, I understand. Being a fighter pilot is a very dangerous occupation. Sooner or later, your number comes up."

"I'm not afraid!" he said hastily.

"You should be." Boss stopped and looked him in the eyes. "And if you're smart, you will be. You picked a dangerous side to fight on. We're outnumbered and outgunned. Our greatest strengths are our beliefs and our determination."

"So you think the Imps aren't determined and don't believe in what they're doing?"

Dreis studied his face. "If you're not here because you want to overthrow the Empire, why are you here?"

"I didn't say I didn't want to overthrowĔWell, I'm here, okay? I'm just here." I'm here because my dad sent me and I don't know why. "I'm not sure why, I just know that I have to be here."

The older man kept staring at him. "How old are you? Fifteen, sixteen?"

He glanced down at his feet and shuffled them a little. "Mmm... I just turned seventeen," he mumbled.

"What? I can't hear you."

"Seventeen!" he snapped. "I just turned seventeen!"

"I see. You seem much younger."

"I'm from a backplanet," Luke said sarcastically. "We mature more slowly."

Dreis tilted his head. "Huh. So what are your political convictions?"

"What is this, an interrogation?" He started walking again and Boss joined him, steering them to the right. They followed a narrow dirt road that turned uphill. "Tatooine is a long way from the Empire. They mostly left us alone. We have Hutt gangsters running the planet, and the Imps let them do it. The Imps never bothered me. Except," he added, "for killing my aunt and uncle who raised me, and chasing me around until I got off planet."

"Really. Why were they chasing you?"

One of these days he would learn to think through his statements before he made them. He scrambled quickly for an explanation that would contain more truth than lies. "I dunno. Maybe because I knew they killed my aunt and uncle and it would have been bad publicity if I told anybody."

Dreis sent him a skeptical glance. Luke stifled a sigh when he realized he was describing his life, not Fixer's. Now he could only hope they didn't run a background check on 'Laze Loneozner'. "Well... they were also after me because I led a gang of street kids and used to raid the Imp barrack's food supplies."

He'd just done it again! Luke, think before you speak. Would he ever remember that instruction?

"Fascinating," Dreis drawled. "And how did you get off Tatooine?"

Might as well finish with the rest of the truth. Sort of. "I got a job fixing a ship and traded my repairing skills for the trip off-planet."

"I see. Whose ship did you repair?"

"You sure ask a lot of questions." He sent the man a chastising look the way Oz would have. "It was a Falleen, a young guy. He was on some kind of trip to explore other planets and see how inferior humans were to the Falleen."

Finally Dreis seemed satisfied. He chuckled. "I've met a Falleen with that exact attitude."

Luke nodded enthusiastically, relieved to have something in common with this suspicious man. "Yeah, this guy was really arrogant. But kind of nice, too. In an aggravating sort of way, know what I mean?"

"Definitely," Boss said dryly, which made Luke give him a suspicious glance. He was being well-behaved; surely Boss wasn't referring to him!

Before he could ask, they reached the rise of the hill and Luke came to a sudden stop. Below him, a small gray city sprawled. It was full of activity; people, machines, droidsĔ "It's huge!" he exclaimed. "This must be the whole Rebel army!"

"Mmm. We're going in here." Boss steered him through an open doorway into a small hut. Four tables were crammed into it but only one person sat insideĔ Commander Willard.

The older officer looked up and sighed wearily. "You just got here. How can you be in trouble already?"

"I'm notĔ "

Boss interrupted with, "I found him loitering in the compound."

"I wasn'tĔ "

"I assigned you to Green," Willard pointed out.

"It wasĔ "

"He didn't like it." Boss shrugged and sent a quick glance skyward. "It's too dirty for him."

"Naboo?" Willard asked.

"No! You people are sureĔ "

"He's from Tatooine."

Willard raised his eyebrows. "I thoughtĔ "

"No, we're not dirty on Tatooine!" Luke exclaimed. "You people have a lot of prejudices. Krit!"

Willard sighed. "Sit."

Luke swung the backpack off his shoulder. Boss grabbed it and said, "Let's see what he's got."

"HeyĔ "

"A friend sent him," Willard interrupted. "He's okay."

"Let's look anyway, just to be sure." Boss smiled slightly. "Although I think an Imperial mole would make himself less conspicuous."

"Mole?" Luke repeated uncertainly. "Who, me?" But... what if that's exactly what he was?

"Educational tapes. Good for you," Boss commented as he pawed through the contents. "Colorful clothes. I didn't realize Tatooine was so... dramatic. Hello, what's this?"

"Whatever it is, it's mine," Luke said coldly. "This stuff is all that I own. I don't appreciate youĔ " Oh, krit! Boss had his lightsaber.

"Isn't this one of those laser swords that Jedi used?" he asked, hefting the hilt in one hand.

"A lightsaber," Willard confirmed. "Oz? Where did you get this?"

"A junk shop in Mos Eisley." He eyed Boss's wide sweeping motions uneasily. "Careful with that."

"I've seen them before, I know which end is hot." The blond officer pointed the saber outward and pressed the control.

Nothing happened.

He tried again. "It doesn't work. The crystal must be missing. Not surprising after all these years." Boss returned the saber to his backpack. "Nice souvenir, though."

Luke kept silent, though he was worried. His lightsaber was broken! His dad told him to keep it safe and keep it with him. His dad said that his lightsaber was his life! What had happened to it? No one had touched it since....

...since Darth Vader had put it in his pack.

Keep it close always.... But I don't know how to use it.... When the need arises, when you are desperate, you will know how.

Okay. "Yeah, that's what I thought, it's a great souvenir even though it's broken."

"As long as the Imps don't catch you with it and get the wrong idea," Willard said quietly.

"No kidding." He met the other's eyes, keeping his own gaze blank and unconcerned.

"So what are we going to do with you?" Willard asked.

"I'm a great mechanic, I can fix anything," he replied. "I'm not boasting; that's the truth. And I can fly."

"But not fighters," Boss pointed out.

Luke shook his head. Let them think he was a coward. Better that than risk meeting his dad in combat.

There was a brief pause. "I'll take him," Boss finally said. "We could use a mechanic who's exclusive to Red Squad."

Willard nodded. "If he works out, share him with the other squads."

"Ah, CommanderĔ"

Willard quelled Boss's protest with a Look that reminded Luke of Dad Vader.

Boss sighed resignedly. "Okay. C'mon, kid."


"Oz." Boss grinned at him. "Let's get you settled in a nice, clean barracks."

"Barracks?" Luke had a vision of the building he'd fled from. "I want my own room!"

Behind him, Willard chuckled as they went through the door.

"You'll have a private cubicle all to yourself," Boss assured him, "just like the pilots have. You'll only have to share a 'fresher."

Luke closed his eyes briefly. Well, this was war. Sacrifices had to be made. And if he had to share a 'fresher...

He was Luke Vader-Skywalker (in disguise). He could do anything!

"Do I have to?" he inquired plaintively, just to be certain.

"It's war. Sacrifices have to be made-- even if it means sharing a 'fresher," Boss said, leaving Luke at a standstill, staring after him.

I gotta be more careful with this Force stuff!

* * *

Luke sat on his bunk, pretending to search through his backpack. He was actually listening to the pilots' chatter, trying to get a feel for them before he joined them. The brief introduction that Boss had given ("This is Oz, new mechanic") had barely generated any responses. He wondered if pilots considered themselves superior beings or if they'd accept him as one of them.

Well, there was only one way to find out. Tucking the pack securely under his bed, he walked into the rec area. This was more like it! It was a large, comfortable room with tables for eating or gaming, and soft chairs for relaxing. There was even a small holoscreen that was currently turned off.

He decided not to interrupt the game of sabaac, even though he probably could give them a few pointers, and headed for the two men lounging in one corner. "Hi," he said when their conversation paused.

A brown haired youth looked up at him. "You're the mechanic...?"

"Oz," he supplied.

"Short name. I'm Wedge Antilles." The pilot didn't stand or offer a hand. "This is Jek PorkinsĔ"

A stout young man gave him a half smile.

"Laze Loneozner," Luke said awkwardly. "But call me Oz."

Antilles waved at a chair and Luke took it as an invitation to sit. "So. Mechanic."

Luke nodded. "I can fly, too, but I've never been in an x-wing."

"You can fly?" Porkins straightened. "Great, we need more pilots!"

"We need a mechanic," Antilles reminded him. "You ever work on an x-wing?"

"No, onlyĔ" He had just about said, only TIE fighters, "smaller ships. But I'm good, I can fix anything."

"And we can teach you to fly x-wings," Porkins interjected. "You enlisted, right? Or are you a civie?"

"Uh... I'm a civilian. That reminds me," Luke remembered, "do you know how much I'll get paid?"

Wedge laughed a little. "Same as the rest of us. You get room and board. If you're not enlisting, you don't even get a uniform, so keep your clothes clean."

"We can pop for a jumpsuit for him," the other man protested. "Sithspit, Antilles, you Corellians are cheap!"

"That's why we're rich," Wedge said in a regretful tone that meant he had no money at all. "Where're you from, Oz?"


"Huh. We don't get many from the Outer Rim Territories."

The conversation faded off, and Luke wondered if it was always this boring here. Maybe he could perk things up. "So why are you fighting the Empire if you're not getting paid?"

The door behind him banged open and Boss entered. Luke expected people to stand, but no one did, so he stayed in his seat.

"The Empire is evil. That's why we're fighting," Porkins said.

Same old story. "How can a whole Empire be evil?" Luke asked. "That's billions of beings... including us." He felt a presence behind him and knew that Boss was hovering.

"The government of the Empire," Wedge clarified. "Don't they teach you anything on Tatooine?"

He was getting tired of people thinking Outer Rim inhabitants were stupid! "Of course they do!" he snapped. "But we hardly see anything of the Empire, so I'm asking! Is that a crime?"

Boss chuckled. "He's a feisty one, boys, best watch out." The red-haired man walked around him and sat across from Porkins. "The Emperor staged a coup and dissolved the Republic nearly twenty years ago in order to establish a form of government that relies on terror and torture to enforce its hold on the galaxy. The Moffs and Vader, with millions of stormtroopers at their disposal, enforce the Emperor's hold."

"Well then," Luke asked carefully, "wouldn't it be easier to just get rid of the Emperor instead of fighting millions of troopers? Maybe the stormtroopers don't like the Empire. I mean... the Moffs probably like it because it's why they have power, but I'll bet Vader doesn't like it either."

There was a moment of silence, then Porkins said, "I can see this kid is going to be great for morale."

"I'm just asking!" He folded his arms. "I want to know how other people think!"

"It's all right," Wedge said understandingly. "We're not making fun of you. It's just hard to relate to someone who hasn't experienced the Empire firsthand."

"That's not quite true," Boss said thoughtfully. "Oz, you told me your guardians were killed by stormtroopers and that you were driven from Tatooine by them."

He shrugged. "That was like a police action. It wasn't politics."

"Of course it was politics," Wedge countered. "That scene is playing out over and over, everywhere in the galaxy. Farms and businesses being stolen, homes destroyed, families separated and killed."

He hoped his dad wasn't doing anything like that. "It doesn't make sense. If Palpatine destroys so much, there won't be an Empire left for him to rule." The other three smiled slightly, as if they were humoring a child, but Luke thought his point was valid. "I still say, get rid of the Emperor. He's the one controlling everything."

"Sure, we'll just fly right up to the palace and shoot him," Porkins mumbled.

"Palpatine and Vader both," Boss mused. "Cut off the head and the rest of the snake dies."

"Speaking of which...." Wedge stood and grabbed a box, dealing out electronic darts between the four of them. "Let's have a go, shall we?" He pushed open a door, revealing crudely painted images of the Emperor and Darth Vader on the back of it. Aiming carefully, he threw a dart. It lit bright orange and made a buzzing sound when it struck Luke's dad in his chestplate.

Luke flinched and quietly put his darts aside. "When do we eat?" he asked, hoping to distract them.

It didn't work. They were caught up in their game and soon added rounds of derogatory shouts along with each throw. With a sigh, Luke slipped away and went outside. Dad? he asked without much hope, and there was no answer.

He looked around. No one was paying attention to him, so he wound his way through the buildings and headed for the hill that looked so enticing. Time to see what was on the other side.

* * *

There was nothing. Luke made a sound of disgust and dropped to the grass, disappointed. He didn't know why he had felt compelled to climb the hill nor why he had stopped where he did, in a wide valley ringed by steep slopes. Still... there was something familiar about the place, almost as if he'd been here before. It felt... good.

He lay back in the grass. It was soft, warmed by the single sun that shone down with a temperate heat. It was nothing like Tatooine. Strange, how rarely he thought of Tatooine. He never wished he was back home....

Luke blinked, then threw his arm across his forehead to shield his eyes. At the moment he'd thought 'home', the image that flashed into his mind was not the Lars homestead, but rather his room on the Devastator... and Darth Vader, standing there looking at him, hands on his hips, smiling behind his mask.

He sniffled and blinked a few more times, then sat up. Determinedly, he concentrated on his surroundings, pushing his father to the back of his mind. It was pretty here, but there was something else, something more than just the attractiveness of the landscape... there was a feeling of.... Well, he didn't know what it was.

Rising, Luke walked farther, entering an odd cluster of forest. Now he felt wary, as if someone lurked behind the trees, waiting toĔ

"AAGH!" he shouted when a spectral figure suddenly appeared in front of him.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" the figure demanded angrily, and he saw it was just a girl in a white dress.

"You scared the krit out of me!" he accused.

"How dare you talk to me that way," she huffed, folding her arms and glaring at him.

He squinted to take an inventory of her. She was about his age, shorter than he was, with a stupid hairdo. "What are you doing here?"

"What are you doing here?" she countered.

"I have every right to be here." He folded his own arms and returned her glare. "I'm with the army!"

"So am I!"

"Oh, please!" he scoffed. "You're a girl! What kind of girlĔ Oh." Well, why not? Those kind of girls did a big business in Mos Eisley. "You're that kind."

She gasped, then her glare became more intense. "I have no idea what you mean," she said icily, "but I am a senator and I won't be treated this way by someĔsome-- peasant!"

"Who're you calling a peasant, sister?" he demanded. "You don't even know me! You don't know anything about me! And you, a senatorĔ c'mon! You're about twelve years old!"

"Oh! Oh!" She was so angry, she couldn't form a coherent word, and Luke couldn't help but grin at her.

"So what's your name?" he asked. "I'm Oz. I just got here today."

"Hrmph." She still scowled, but obviously good manners were warring with her irritation. "Leia Organa," she said finally.

"That's a pretty name," he replied as a peace offering. "Where're you from?"

Leia shuffled around a little, as if she didn't want to let go of her anger. She reminded Luke of his dad. "Alderaan."

"Cool. I'm from Tatooine."

She rolled her eyes. "No wonder you have no manners."

"You know," Luke snapped, "I've never met as many rude people in my life as I've met here. You're all prejudiced and act superior! Some Alliance! I'm not impressed."

Those accusations must have had some impact, because she looked embarrassed. "You're right," she acknowledged with a tiny sigh. "I'm sorry, Oz. So tell me, what are you doing here? Most people don't come here. I think of it as my private retreat."

"Oh. Sorry for trespassing." He looked around. "I'm not sure. I just... like the way it feels. I know that sounds silly."

"No, I understand, that's how I feel, too." She looked at him with faint surprise on her face. "I just haven't met anyone who felt the same way."

"Oh." It occurred to him that he was actually talking to a nice girl, and he wasn't nervous. He also wasn't attracted to her, which made him annoyed with himself.

They stood motionless for a moment. The hair along the back of Luke's neck prickled and he shivered, not from the breeze that was warm and moist. He looked over his shoulder. Nothing was there.

Leia folded her arms again, but this time she appeared cold rather than angry. Their eyes met. "I think we should go," Luke said awkwardly.

She nodded. They began to walk, then increased their pace to a trot after only a few steps. Luke grabbed her arm and broke into a run. When they were in the sunny, open meadow again, they both stopped and looked back.

"That was creepy," Luke muttered, unable to pinpoint what had so unnerved him.

"Cold," Leia said softly. "Like... something was wrong. Bad."

He nodded in agreement. "Have you ever felt that before?"

She shook her head. "No. I've been a little uncomfortable in the forest, but nothing like this time."

Great. Maybe it was a Bad Sith thing that he attracted. Probably evil spirits were swirling around and were going to follow them back to the base.

"Thanks for getting us out of there so fast," she said, and he knew it was a small gesture of friendship.

"I really saved our bacons," he boasted playfully.

She giggled a little, then agreed with a nod and a smile. "I need to get back," Leia said when they reached the outskirts of the encampment.

"Me too. It was nice meeting you," he said, to show her that Tatooinies could be as polite as anyone else in the galaxy.

"You too, Oz," she answered with a smile, and he felt a pang of regret that he had to lie to her about his name. "Good-bye."

He watched until she disappeared out of sight and sighed. This feeling wasn't nearly as bad as when he'd had to leave his dad, but still... he felt oddly bereft.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself, he scolded, and added aloud: "I'll go look for the mess hall. A hearty dinner, and I'll feel great!"

Room and board. He was pretty sure that meant they would feed him.

* * *

Well, yes, they fed him, but he wasn't impressed with the food, which was even worse than Imp-ship food... except for the lush fruits that were freshly picked and full of juice. Luke wondered if he could live on fruit alone and skip the dry rations.

After dinner, there didn't seem to be much to do so he returned to his tiny room and shut the door. Maybe if he took a nap, he could talk to his dad again. It worked last time. "Luke to Dad," he muttered, closing his eyes and pretending to sleep. "H'lo, Dad, come in! Yoo-hoo!"

After a few minutes of waiting, he gave up. He wasn't tired and it was hard to fake sleep. He wandered out into the encampment, enjoying the fresh, clean air and cooling temperature. Dusk was just beginning to settle, and on the horizon he saw two moons beginning their climb into the darkening azure sky. They looked lonely sitting out there by themselves, waiting for full night to reveal their starry companions.

"Pretty, aren't they?"

He turned his head. Leia Organa. "I guess. Tatooine has two suns. The moons remind me of there... well, except that these are moons instead of suns, it's cold instead of hot, grass and trees instead of desert, full of people instead ofĔ"

"I get the idea," Leia interrupted good-naturedly. "Um... Oz, I'm not usually as rude as I was this afternoon. Something about that area set my nerves on edge. I'm sure that was why you were rude, too."

"Nope," he disagreed cheerfully. "With me, what you see is what you get." Except for all the lies about his identity.

She made a funny cluck-clucking noise. "I was trying to give you an excuse for your behavior."

"Who asked you to?" Luke grinned at her. "I can think up my own excuses, thanks anyway."

Leia raised her eyes toward the sky. "Fine. I only came over to say that it was nice meeting you. I'm leaving for awhile."

A rush of anger jolted through him. People appeared in his life and disappeared almost immediately. There was hardly any point in getting to know someone. He forced himself to speak calmly. "Where are you going?"

"Back to the Senate," she stated evenly, but her cheeks flushed and he knew she wasn't telling the entire truth.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said shortly, turning away from her, angry that she was leaving and insulted that she wasn't being honest with him.

Oh, look who's talking about honesty!

"Princess!" a voice called. Luke turned to see a strange officer coming toward them.

"Princess?" he repeated. Great. She was the Alderaani princess he'd heard about. It figured that he'd insult someone important. Oh, well, it was practice for meeting Palpy.

She left him without further words, and he watched her walk downhill to greet the officer. Her behind swished nicely from side to side and why that didn't move him, he didn't understand. Maybe he was what Aunt Beru used to refer to as a 'late bloomer'. "Wish I'd bloom soon," he muttered.

What to do, what to do. Apparently he wasn't required to report to work tonight, so he headed out of the camp and ran up 'his' hill. When he reached the top, he took advantage of the privacy to exercise his Force skillsĔleaping up to grab hold of high tree branches, climbing higher and jumping down, executing cartwheels over and overĔin short, he did everything he could think of to wear himself out. Then he sat down and stared at the lights of the base. From here, it looked quiet and pretty.

"Hah! People probably think that about Leia, too!" He laughed at his cleverness. Lying back in the grass, he relaxed in the cozy feeling of being surrounded by a mysterious warmth despite the cooling air and... eww, the grass was wet. Nevertheless, he closed his eyes and drifted into a pleasant haze.

"Nice to see you again," Darth Vader said dryly.

Luke turned his head lazily. "Hi, Dad. Where've you been? I tried to call a couple times but I didn't get an answer."

"At this distance, in order to attain mental contact you need to be in a meditative state... or the state that, for you, passes as meditation: asleep."

"You told me sarcasm isn't polite," he reminded his father. "Hey!" He sat up suddenly. "Is Jovay your son?"

"What?" Darth Vader's mask disappeared and his father's indistinct features swam in front of him. "Just how old do you think I am?"

"I dunno."

"Well, I'd have to be a lot older in order to be Jovay's father."

"Don't get your pants in a twist," he replied mildly. "He just said something that made me wonder. So... you're not, right?"

Vader was back, breathing heavily. "I am not."

"Okay. Just checking." Pleased with the answer, Luke relaxed and yawned widely.

"If you fall into a deep sleep, we will not be able to talk."

"Oh." He blinked several times, trying to stay partly awake.

"We'll go for a walk." Vader rose.

Luke stood, then looked down at himself still lying on the grass, eyes closed. "Uh...."

Vader waved his hand. "Leave your body there. We'll come back for it."

"That's good." He followed his father. "As long as it won't get eaten by wild animals. What if somebody finds it... me? Will they think I'm dead?"

"No, Luke, they'll think you're sleeping. Where do you get such wild ideas?"

"Out of my head." They were moving into the small clearing. Vader's black garb kept appearing and fading, and sometimes he looked like a different man altogether. "So are we like... spirits now? Or ghosts?"

"Neither. We're meditating."

"Wow, walking and meditating at the same time. Cool." Luke quieted, content to simply enjoy his dad's company. But the need to talk was too great and he managed only a few seconds of silence. "I met a girl."

"You did?" Vader halted, sounding pleased, and his mask shimmered and disappeared. "What sort of girl?"

"The usual kind. Two arms, two legs, twoĔyou know."

A younger man laughed at him. "I know. Do you like her? What's her name?"

"Her name is Leia Organa and I guess she's a prinĔ"

"Hah!" Darth Vader shouted triumphantly. "I knew it! The Princess is more than just a supporter of The Rebellion Against the Empire, she's a participant! Now I can gather the evidence I need to arrest her."

"You can not!" Luke protested. "I'm not a spy! You can't take advantage of me being hereĔthat's cheating! It's not fair!"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Hey!" Luke grabbed Vader's arm and yanked on it. "If you arrest her because of this, I'll never speak to you again. I mean it."

"Of course you will speak to me, you cannot stop yourself from talking," his father said smugly.

Luke pressed his lips together and decided to try another tact. "You need to show some respect for me. What kind of father would betray my confidences?"

Darth Vader looked down at him, folding his arms. Luke folded his own arms and glared back. They were both still for several very long seconds. "All right," Vader finally agreed grudgingly.

"Okay then." Luke nodded and they began walking again, ending up in the small meadow he'd discovered earlier. "What is this place?" he asked, knowing his father would understand.

"Thousands of years ago it was the site of a Jedi teaching enclave. Many great Jedi were taught here, including the Sith Lord, Exar Kun."

"Oh." For whatever reason, he was vaguely disappointed. "You know, there's a Dark place in the trees that Leia felt, too. It was... scary. Maybe that Kun-guy was coming after me."

Either his father didn't think he needed reassuring or he was simply ignoring those last words. "Leia Organa felt Force emanations?" he asked in an odd tone.

Luke shrugged. "How would I know? It was just a creepy place that neither of us liked. Let's go the other way."

"Let's go back to your body."

"Already? But we haven't talked in ages."

"Days and days. Nevertheless," his father steered him around, "other people are approaching and it's best that you be awake when they arrive."

"Why? What would happen if I wasn't? Hey!" he exclaimed, remembering. "My lightsaber is broken! How do I fix it?"

His dad ignored that. Luke was beginning to figure out that when his father ignored something, either it was important or he didn't want to answer for some other reason. Maybe he was embarrassed to have given Luke a defective lightsaber. Or maybe he wanted Luke to repair it himself. "I have more things I want to talk to you about. I miss you. And...." He didn't know how to tell his dad that he was angry at him, because he wasn't, not really. It was just hard to understand why he was here instead of with his father.

"Luke." His dad stopped them in front of Luke's relaxed body. "You must practice meditation-- without falling asleep. When you have reached a higher level of skill, we will be able to contact each other more often, and more frequent communication will become necessary as events progress. Be mindful of the people around you and of your own safety. I do not like that you are here with the Rebels."

"You sent me here," he reminded his father crossly.

"Dangerous as it is, right now the Alliance is a safer place for you than the Empire." Vader glanced at the pilots heading toward them. "Get back in your body now."

"How do IĔ?" Luke opened his eyes and sat up. His father was nowhere to be seen, but Wedge and Porkins were approaching. "Hi. Just copping a snooze," he explained nervously.

"Boss sent us to get you," Wedge said. "There are wild animals roaming around at night. It could be dangerous."

"I knew it," Luke muttered, hoping his dad could feel his silent recrimination. They could have eaten my body while we were wandering around!

"Boss sent Wedge," Porkins clarified, "and Wedge was afraid to come up here alone."

"I wasn't afraid," Wedge denied sharply. "I just figured you could use the exercise."

"Oh, yeah, just what I've always wanted, exercise. Thanks, buddy."

As they continued bickering, Luke joined them and headed back toward the base, casting a longing look over his shoulder.

No dad. He sighed heavily, both sorry and relieved. The other two looked at him and he had to think quickly.

"I have a tattoo," he said brightly. "Wanna see?"

"No," Wedge said.

"Sure," Porkins said.

"No," Wedge repeated, more emphatically.

"It's a TIE fighter," Luke offered.

"A TIE fighter?" Porkins repeated doubtfully. "Maybe you shouldn't show that to anyone."

"I wanted to get an x-wing on the other arm, but I ran out of credits."

"Too bad you didn't get that first," Wedge muttered. "Don't show Boss. He'll want to scrape it off." He paused, looking at Luke as they walked. "You really should be in bed, you know. We get up early."

"Oh, please!" Luke rolled his eyes at the absurd suggestion. Bed at this hour, like he was a child! "I couldn't possibly fall asleep this early. Besides, I'm not a morning person, I'll work a later shift."

Porkins chuckled. "Good luck with that," he said cheerfully, and even the serious Wedge smiled.

Luke didn't speak again as they reached the barracks and separated, each going to his own cubicle. Wedge seemed to be about his own age, but was so grim and... adult. If that's what it was like to grow up, Luke vowed never to let it happen to him. Turning out to be boring was one of his great worries. Not that Wedge was boring... well, who could tell, he was so serious.

He sat on the edge of his bunk and fished the lightsaber out of his pack. He pressed the control again, but sure enough, it was still broken. He hoped he could fix it, but maybe he shouldn't do it yet. What if someone stole it? He didn't know these people; they could be thieves. It's not like they were his friends.... What was the point in being friends with them? They'd be gone soon. They'd die in combat or he'd leave because his dad decided that he should go live with the Wookiees or some other dumb idea. Luke frowned and mentally scowled at his dad, then immediately stopped, just in case he was broadcasting through the Force. I'm really not mad at you, he sent, though he sort of was.

The lights went out. Luke sat there for a moment, snarling silently at the stupidity of an army that decided its troops should be in bed by 2200, as if they weren't adults and couldn't decide for themselves.

"Oh, wait," he muttered, "I'm not an adult and never will be. Gotta remember that."

He remained sitting upright on his bunk, vowing not to cave in to The Man and go to sleep. But in a few minutes, he tilted sideways and relaxed against the surprisingly soft pillow. He wouldn't sleep, but he could rest for awhile before going to bed.

The next thing he knew, lights were blinding him and a loud buzzing was sounding in the barracks. Luke pried open one eye when there was a tap on his door before it was flung open.

"Rise and shine, tattoo-boy," Porkins called happily. "It's time for the early shift! Don't say you weren't warned!"

"Terrific," Luke groused, pushing himself into a sitting position. He wasn't even getting paid for being abused like this! Something was definitely wrong in the galaxy, and it looked like the Rebels were part of the problem.

* * *

Feet hooked on the edge of the low table, Luke slouched in the chair and closed his eyes, listening to "The Fall of the Senate". It seemed an appropriate topic to study, given that he had been ensconced for weeks with a group that wanted to restore the Republic and the Senate. Granted, the audio didn't have anything nice to say about the Republic, but he suspected all educational datatapes were Palpy-Approved and not to be totally believed. There was probably some truth to them, but he tried to balance that with what he heard from his new compatriots.

He opened his eyes and studied the people who relaxed in the rec area. Red Squad was larger than he'd thought at first. Pilots came and went on various assignments ē guarding troop carriers, sniping at the Imps, even ferrying supply ships. One young pilot whom Luke had met briefly and liked had not returned from his last mission, and Luke had been surprised at the lack of regret from the other pilots. There had been no talk, no reminiscing, no sorry-he's-gone, just a quiet that had lasted a few hours and more drinking than usual that night.

He wouldn't like to die unmourned. At least his dad would miss him. Maybe.

"Hey! What the--!"

Luke looked over to see Porkins standing at the open storage room door, one fist planted on his waist, the other clutching electronic darts, glaring at the room in general.

"What?" Wedge asked, glancing up from his zukodu puzzle.

"Look!" Porkins grabbed the edge of the door and swung it to and fro. "Vader is missing! Who took my Vader poster?"

"I put it under my pillow so I can dream about him at night," Luke said mildlyĔand truthfullyĔ earning a round of chuckles from the other two, plus a couple snorts from invisible pilots somewhere in the barracks.

"Dear Lord Vader," Wedge recited in a high-pitched adolescent voice, "My name is Oz and I'm your biggest fan. Can I have your autograph? Or maybe a share of your estate? I will tell all the other boys what a wonderful person you really are, somewhere deep, deep, really deep inside."

Luke blushed as everyone roared, then grinned. "You won't be laughing when he writes back and gives me part of his estate! After all, how many fans can he have?"

"A few, I should imagine, in the Imperial camp," a voice behind him said. Garven Dreis joined the group and pulled a chair alongside Luke. "What're you studying, Oz?"

He unplugged the audio and held it up. "It's about the fall of the Senate," he said helpfully, just in case Boss couldn't read, and recited: "Corrupt senators dedicated only to winning benefits for their own planets, susceptible to bribery and blackmail, versus power-mad Jedi determined to take over the galaxy, blee blee blee."

Boss shook his head. "The crap they give you kids to read! I don't know how you learn anything."

"So there were no corrupt senators?" Luke asked innocently.

"Of course there were, a few, as there would be in any body the size of the Senate. But they were far outnumbered by sincere beings dedicated to the welfare of the galaxy and all its sentient life. Unlike the Imperials, whose hostility toward-- "

"You had to get him started," Porkins grumbled. "Tell him about the Jedi, Boss."

Quickly stifled laughter told Luke that this was a favorite topic of Garven's. "What was so great about Jedi?" he asked, feigning disinterest. "Were they really trying to take over the Senate and control the galaxy like it says here?"

"No!" Boss exploded, much to the delight of a few pilots who staggered away, struggling to cover their laughter. "The Jedi were amazing fighters, risking their lives every day. Seeing them use lightsabers was awe-inspiring! They were brilliant flyers, too. No one could pilot like a Jedi, and they could fly anything. I knew oneĔwell, knew of himĔ He was the greatest pilot who ever lived, at least in my lifetime. I saw him make a landing on Coruscant with a ship that was being torn apart by explosions, losing huge sections piece by piece. Yet somehow he brought it in, saving the life of Chancellor Palpatine, who was onboard. As it turned out, that was a life not worth saving. Still.... They called him the Hero Without Fear." Garven's enthusiasm faded. "I'm sure he died that way, too... without fear. What a waste."

"Anakin Skywalker," Luke said softly.

"Yes." Boss looked up, surprise flashing across his face. "That's on your tape?"

"No. I just... heard stories."

"Huh." Garven stood and looked down on him. "Tomorrow you'll start working on x-wings."

"What?" He sat up straight, blinking.

"It's about time!" Porkins crowed.

"Congratulations!" Wedge called.

"Uh, thanks," Luke mumbled, staring at Garven. Sure, x-wings were more exciting than transports and ground vehicles, but he'd be working on something that might try to shoot down his dad. Or Captain Piett.

"And if you'd likeĔI'm not pressuring you," Boss said in a tone that meant he was, "I think you're ready to try the fighter simulator."

"We'll make a flyboy out of you yet," Wedge said unhelpfully.

"Tattoo-boy from Tattoo-ine becomes Fly-Boy," Porkins intoned. "This calls for a celebration. Break out the drinksĔjuice, of course," he added with a grin for Garven.

"I'm not your mother," Boss answered, shaking his head in disapproval. "If you can drink and be sharp in the morning, go ahead. Not you, Oz, you're too young. You neither, Wedge."

"You said you weren't our mother," Luke protested, though he didn't truly care. Drinking reminded him of Tatooine, and he could do without memories of that life.

"If I were your mother, you'd all be drinking milk," the older pilot retorted.

My dad makes me drink milk, Luke thought wistfully. He was getting better at the mind-talk business, but it wasn't enough. He wanted to spend real time with his dad, live and in person! Which he kept saying and Darth Vader kept ignoring. "I like milk."

"Baby Oz wants his milky!" Jek Porkins singsonged.

"You can be quite juvenile and annoying," Luke said loftily. "I suggest you act your age. Which I assume to be around... fifty?"

"Hah-hah, very funny," Porkins responded good-naturedly. "It's almost bedtime, Baby Oz. You should turn in so you can dream about your hero and be well rested for your important new job tomorrow."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Who's his hero?" Boss asked.

"He sleeps with my poster of Vader under his pillow."

"Sure he does." Garven sighed. "And I thought you were going to be the obnoxious one," he said to Luke.

"Nah, Oz is a good boy," Jek called across the room.

Oh, terrific. Luke Lars Skywalker Vader, An Example For Others. "I'm going to bed," he said shortly. "G'night."



"Night, Baby Oz. Sweet dreams about your hero!"

"Not dreams." He turned and gave Porkins the most evil look he could manage. "I'm going to meditate," he said in a spooky tone, "and see if I can contact him through the Force."

In the moment of silence that followed, he went into his cubicle and closed the door firmly behind him.

* * *

"What'd you hafta to do to get a promotion?" Jord Slari sneered. "Or should I say 'who'?"

Luke wanted to ignore his fellow mechanic, but it was impossible. Jord was older, tougher, and with a rotten attitude. Bitter, too, because he was a good mechanic who had been stuck working on ground vehicles for over a year with little chance of promotion because of his personality.

"I work hard and keep my mouth shut," he muttered, climbing off the ladder to hang over the fighter's engine compartment. If he could have fit completely inside, he would have jumped in where Jord couldn't see him.

"You're such a goody-goody. Boss's little prince, Mr. Perfect."

"That's me, perfection personified." The spanner was just out of reach, but with a little Force nudging, it slid across the top of the battery compartment and into his hand. The best thing about working on fighters was that he was high enough for his actions to remain out of sight from those on the ground.

"Let's take a break," Jord suggested, staring up at him.

Luke sighed. Jord wasn't his idea of pleasant companionship, but he'd been working all morning in cramped conditions and it would feel good to get out. "Okay." If Jord hadn't been standing right there, Luke could have jumped and used the Force to soften his landing. Instead, he had to climb down the ladder. Jord was already heading behind a row of groundrovers parked along the back wall of the hangar, so Luke followed.

Jord sprawled on the cold floor and leaned against a 'rover. "Wanna smoke?"

"No." Luke twisted and stretched a few times, shaking out his arms before squatting opposite him, watching uneasily as the other mechanic lit a deathstick. "You can't smoke spice here."

"Who's gonna stop meĔyou?" Jord tossed his long hair away from the burning stick. "You need to loosen up, have some fun. Have you always been this prissy?"

He sank back and sat, uncertain how to respond. Sure, he was the son of a queen and a lord (Lord of the Sith, true, but hey, Vader was still a lord) but he'd never been called prissy or a prince until he got here. It seemed like years ago that his life had revolved around spice and stealing and creating as much havoc as he could manage. Now... well, he was busy, he didn't have time for screwing around.

Which, in a way, seemed like quite a pity.

"C'mon, take a hit." Jord held out the spice stick.

"No," Luke said, but took it and stood. "They'll throw you out if they catch you." His head spun a little as the familiar, compelling odor wrapped itself around him. For a moment, he hesitatedĔ

No, his dad would kill him! Anyway, spice just wasn't him anymore. No one would ever accuse him of being an addict again! Luke dropped the stick to the floor and raised his foot to stomp on it.

Someone pushed him aside. "Too little, too late," Commander Narra snapped. "Both of you, come with me."

Oh, krit. Luke sent a foul look at Jord, who promptly declared, "Hey, it's not mine! I'm just sittin' here mindin' my own business. It belongs to Oz!"

"It does not!" He was nearly speechless with anger. "It's not mine, Commander!"

"It just appeared by magic, eh?" Narra stubbed the stick against the wall, but kept the butt in his hand. "Follow me."

Great, just great. If they kicked him out, where would he go? It was pretty obvious that his dad didn't want him back on the Devastator. Maybe it was time for Oz to strike out on his own again and to hell with everybody elseĔhis dad, this stupid Alliance, all of them.

But for the moment, he followed Narra back to headquarters, subdued and more than a little worried.

* * *

It seemed like forever that he and Jord sat in silence in the corner of commander's office. Narra ignored them, seemingly busy with the com and computer panels. The smashed stub of the deathstick perched on the edge of his desk. Luke saw Jord eye it a few times and wondered if they were having the same thought: grab it, eat it, and get rid of the evidence.

Luke sighed and slouched. "How long are we gonna sit here?" He heard the insolence in his voice and it sounded very familiar. "If you're gonna kick us out, just do it." Then he could go back to his dad and to hell with worrying about Palpy.

"Quiet, or you'll wait in the brig."

"Been there, done that," Luke quipped, unable to stop himself.

Narra gave him the Look that Luke associated with his father, even though he had never actually seen it on Vader's face. He glanced away and stared at the window, counting the dead gnats that lay on the sill.

The door opened and in marched Boss and Wedge, looking grim andĔoh, krit, disappointed!

Commander Narra rose and joined the other two, creating a solid wall of three between the door and the mechanics. "Our Alliance depends on volunteers," he began. "They are the heart and soul of our cause, the glue that holds our coalition together. Without volunteers, those who enlist and those who serve in a less formal capacity, we would not be able to continue. It is an ongoing struggle to feed, clothe and house everyone, so we can only retain those volunteers who are sincere in their commitment to our cause. We cannot tolerate drug use or excessive alcohol consumption for many reasonsĔmost of which should be obvious to you."

"Yada, yada, yada," Jord drawled, and yawned.

Luke winced. If that was the way he appeared to his dad, no wonder Vader didn't want him around! The Perfect Son idea hadn't worked, but maybe A Slightly Better Son was called for. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Suck-up," Jord muttered.

"Oz," Boss said, taking a few steps in his direction, "is the deathstick yours?"

"No, sir."

"Have you used spice since you've been here?"

"No, sir." He couldn't help but sigh. He sounded exactly like Jord had described: prissy. It was pretty obvious that he was losing his personality. Or worse, growing up.

"All right." Garven nodded at Narra, who walked around and opened the door. Luke saw two security officers posted outside.

"Jord, this isn't your first offense," Narra began. "We've given you every chance, but apparently you haven't learned your lesson. Since you know our location, we can't allow you to leave. You'll be locked in the brig for as long as we remain on Dantooine. At such time we depart, you will be transported to the nearest habited planet."

"You can't do that," Jord protested.

"It's done." The guards responded to Narra's gesture and cuffed Jord, hauling him away still arguing and cursing.

The door banged shut, leaving the room in sudden quiet. Luke grinned nervously at the other men. Wedge and Boss sat down, which meant this wasn't over. What else could they possibly want from him? Oh, please, not an awful lecture like Jord got! "Uh... thanks for believing me."

"Next time, choose better friends," Wedge said quietly, and Luke bit back the obvious retort that he hadn't chosen this one.

Commander Narra returned to the desk and settled behind it. "Trust is important to the Alliance." He picked up a datapad and studied it. "Laze Loneozner.... 'Oz' is your nickname?"

Luke nodded, feeling uneasy for no reason he could pinpoint.

"Indeed," Narra continued. "Just when did you stop calling yourself 'Fixer'?"

The question took a moment to register. Luke's mouth dropped open and he tried to think, but all that filled his brain was:


Pressing his lips shut, Luke smiled and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Oh... it's been awhile."

Narra returned his smile pleasantly, but his eyes were cold. "How long precisely?"

This was not good. "Uh... I started using 'Oz' after my guardians were killed and, uh..." The truth and nothing but! "...I was hiding from the Imps."

"So before that you were called 'Fixer'?" Boss asked from behind him.

Luke turned and looked at him. Just the fact that they were asking that question meant they already knew the answer. "Well... not exactly. I just sorta... borrowed it."

"That would explain the discrepancies in your background check," Narra said mildly, from over his other shoulder.

He turned again, edging to the side of the room so he could see them all and not feel ambushed. "I guess," he answered cautiously, not really wanting to hear the discrepancies itemized.

"But you are Laze Loneozner?" the Commander added.

Luke gave him a sickly grin. He hated such direct questions. They made it harder to lie. "Uh... that's what my ID says, right?"

Wedge choked and looked down. Luke hopedĔwithout much hopeĔthat he was laughing, which would mean Luke wasn't in a great deal of trouble.

"That's what it says," Narra agreed skeptically. "Fortunately for my peace of mind, there is someone here who knows Laze Loneozner and can help us clear up the discrepancies."

"Fabulous!" Luke said with a cheeky grin that hid the sudden flaring of his nerves. "Discrepancies can be such a drag."

Narra sighed. "Wedge, would you...?"

Luke watched until the pilot left, then asked: "So who is this guy?" A thought occurred to him: maybe it was Fixer! Maybe Fixer had run away to join the Alliance! That would be great, they'd be together again!

"A pilot who recently joined us."

"Oh." Fixer could fly, but not well enough to be accepted as a real pilot. He frowned.

"I hope you're not going to disappoint me... Oz," Boss said quietly. "You have a future with us. I'd hate to see it ruined for any reason."

"Such as espionage," Narra added.

He felt his eyes widen. "You mean spying?" he asked incredulously. "I'm not a spy!" I don't think.

"At last," Narra said to Boss, "a definitive statement. Let's hope it's an honest one."

"I'm too young and immature to be a spy," Luke observed helpfully. "And I don't lie well."

Narra's head bent low over his datapad and he didn't answer. Luke looked at Garven, but he was studying his hands intently. Neither of them spoke, and Luke decided maybe he should quit talking, too, and stared at his toes.

They waited in silence for a few more minutes before the door banged open.

"We're back," Wedge announced unnecessarily. "This isĔ"

"Luke?!" an incredulous voice exclaimed.

Luke tilted his head sideways to take a cautious peek at the new arrival, then straightened. "Biggs?!" Biggs Darklighter, the last person he'd expect to defect from the Imps! "I thought you were at the Academy!"

"I was, butĔ"

"You know this boy?" Narra interrupted. "Is he or is he not Laze Loneozner?"

"Who're you calling 'boy'?" Luke demanded indignantly.

Biggs looked first at Narra, then Luke, then back to the commander. "This is Luke Lars. He's Fixer'sĔLaze Loneozner's best friend. Luke, what's going on? Why are you calling yourself Fixer?"

"Oz," he corrected.


"LoneOZner, get it?" Luke grinned. "Well, I couldn't call myself Laze Loneozner, could I? I mean, really!"

"He's carrying Loneozner's identity chip," Boss stated.

"Luke!" Biggs scolded. "You stole Fixer's ID?"

Denial was on the tip of his tongue, which he almost bit off in his effort to keep quiet. "Yes," he said reluctantly, because he didn't want to get Fixer in trouble.

"Huh. More likely he gave it to you."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Why bother to ask me if you're going to answer?"

"Much as I dislike interrupting this reunion," Commander Narra began, interrupting anyway, "Darklighter, are you vouching for this Luke...?"

"Lars," Biggs confirmed. "Yes, sir. He was my neighbor on Tatooine. He's just a kid."

"Insult me a little more," Luke offered. "Please, give them all the dirt."

"Lars," Narra interrupted yet again, "your body scan is showing a metal hand. Is it a prosthetic?"

"No, I was born that way," Luke quipped brightly, earning a scowl from Narra but a hastily smothered giggle from Wedge. "Yeah, it's a prosthetic. I lost my hand in a farming accident."

"What farming accident?" Biggs asked with surprise. "Since when? I never heard about that."

"It was after you left," he muttered, glaring at his unhelpful friend.

"How did it happen?"

"It just did, okay?!" Luke shouted. "Krit, why the third degree?"

"Because," Boss said before Biggs could respond with something stupid, "if it's a false prosthetic, it could container a tracker or detonator."

"Fine. Fine!" Furious, Luke punch open the maintenance panel on the top of his right hand. "There! Satisfied?! Kritpeth! Can't a guy have any privacy?!"

"Sorry," Biggs said sheepishly. "Did OwenĔ" He shut up when Luke rounded on him, ready to fight. "Okay, okay, sorry!"

No, it wasn't Owen! he wanted to scream. It was my dad! My dad chopped off my hand! Happy now?

He stuck his hand under Boss's nose and glowered, daring him to say one more thing. "That's fine, OzĔLuke. You can get your hand out of my face now. You understand that we had to be certain."

"If you don't trust me, just say so!" he declared defensively.

For a second, he thought Boss or Narra might say exactly that, but after a hesitation the moment passed safely.

"You're both dismissed. NoĔyou're all dismissed. I have work to do." Narra waved them off, then called: "Lars! I don't want to hear another lie out of your mouth."

Luke Lars Skywalker Vader sighed. "How about if I just don't talk to you?"

Boss grabbed his arm and dragged him outside. "You never know when to stop, do you?"

"You'd be surprised," Luke replied darkly.

"Let's go somewhere and talk," Biggs said. "I have to tell you what happened to me. And I want to hear about you. I can't believe you're a pilot! I can't even believe you're here! I heard the Larses were killed and that you got away! What the hell happened?"

He tuned out Biggs's questions since they seemed never-ending. Maybe he could just go to sleep and wake up with everything resolved. He could be Luke Lars again, forget the entire Skywalker-Vader fiasco. Life would be so much easier.

* * *

Life was easier as it turned outĔuntil that evening, after work was done and his reunion with Biggs was interrupted by Commander Narra. Luke was getting tired of seeing him. "Now what?" he grumbled.

"Sir!" Biggs said, leaping to his feet and throwing a snappy salute. Luke sighed and shared an amused glance with Wedge.

"At ease, pilot. You're not with the Imperials any longer," Narra said mildly.

"Yessir, sorry, sir!" Biggs stood at parade rest, hands clasped behind his back.

"Sit down," Narra snapped before turning to Luke. "You have a visitor."

"A visitor?" he asked blankly. He couldn't imagine why anyone would come looking for himĔexcept his dad, and there was no chance of thatĔand why the commander would be acting like a houseboy. "That's, uh... nice." Maybe Princess Leia was back.

"I believe 'interesting' would be a better word." Narra pushed open the exterior door. "Or 'highly suspicious'. Bring him in."

A handful of security officers entered, pushing before them a cuffed, bruised, and very familiar man.

Luke gasped. "Jovay!"

The Imperial lieutenant gave him an exasperated look. Luke clamped his mouth shut, too late.

"So," another voice said, "you know Karas's true identity." The security men parted to admit Commander Willard. "Lieutenant Karas Jovay of the Imperial Navy." The gray-haired man studied him. "You're Luke Lars? Very young to cause so much chaos."

"Thanks, it's my specialty." Luke gave him a disarming grin, but Willard didn't appear disarmed.

"Search his room."

Three of the security officers headed for his tiny room. "You won't find anything interesting," Luke called, projecting all the Force persuasion he could into his voice. He felt a gaze focused on him, and turned to meet Garven's eyes. Boss looked... well, he looked like he recognized the Force when he heard it. That wasn't possible! Luke glanced away.

"We didn't find anything interesting," the officers chorused, thankfully not in unison, when they returned.

No lightsaber, no poster of Darth VaderĔand his identi-chip that was still tucked safely in a sewn pocket in his boot. There wasn't anything more to find except a very colorful wardrobe and a bag full of educational datatapes.

Luke sighed. He was under suspicion, Jovay was arrested as an Imperial spyĔwhich maybe he was! With any luck, this was as bad as it would get. What more could possibly go wrong?

"Luke Lars, you're under arrest for suspicion of espionage," Commander Willard said.

* * *

"Keep them separated," Narra ordered as they reached the temporary hut that served as a brig.

"I'm not a spy," Luke whined for the sixth time to the few pilots who tagged along on his walk to prison. "Honest!"

"CommanderĔ" Biggs and Wedge both began, but were cut off.

"I'll be the one to determine that," Narra said grimly, gesturing to the guards to march Luke and Jovay inside. The door clanked shut, cutting off the last light of evening, leaving them with three guards and the sound of everyone else arguing as they walked away.

"The prisoners should be together in one room," Luke declared confidently, projecting his best Force persuasion talent.

"Not a chance," one guard said, pushing him into a tiny cell while Jovay was shoved into similar accommodations across the narrow hall.

"Krit." Resigned, he bent over and took a close look at the bunk. He poked it. It was just a hard plank, with a none-too-clean rolled blanket and an unnaturally gray pillow. "It's dirty in here!" he called. "This is not acceptable!"

He heard the exterior door close.



"What's the point of separating us if we can still talk?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"It was a rhetorical question, you don't have to get cranky. I suppose we're being monitored." He paused. "Do you think they'll feed us?"

"Frankly, kid, that's about the last thing I'm concerned about."

Well, food was important to Luke, but he supposed he saw Jovay's point. "So why are you here anyway?"

"I came to get you, Big Mouth!" Jovay snapped. "And now I may be executed!"

"Big Mouth!?" he exclaimed, outraged. "Don't blame me, you were already caught before I called you 'Jovay'!" There was no defense to that obvious observation. "Why were you coming to get me?"

"Why do you think?"

Luke paced to the tiny slit of a window. The sill was filthy. He folded his arms. "You're trying my patience."

Unexpectedly, a bark of laughter came from the other cell. "Big improvement in vocabulary, smaller improvements in attitude. Still, I'd give you a seven-point-five."

He sighed and rested his forehead against the bars on the door, then drew back quickly, brushing off his hair. "Would you just answer? Please?!"

Jovay's voice lowered so Luke had to strain to hear him. " is worried about you. He wanted to see you."

Worried? Darth Vader, worried? "Huh." That was pretty impressive. And his dad was so worried that he couldn't talk to Luke in their heads but wanted to see him in person?

On second thought, that was frightening rather than impressive. Just the idea of Vader being worried.... "How did they find out you're an Imp?"

"I don't know." Jovay sounded vexed, as if the answer to that question was more important than being accused of espionage.

Luke stood in the middle of the cell, unwilling to lean against a wall or sit on that awful bunk. "Are you a spy?" he asked in a whisper.

Either Jovay heard him or anticipated the question. "No more than you are."

"But I'm not!" Luke hugged himself. There was no heat and only one dinky light in the hall. "Whose side are you on?" Again he didn't receive a reply. "Why don't people give me straight answers? I'm getting tired of all the deceit."

A snort sounded from Jovay's cell. "You're a fine one to talk about straight answers. When was the last time you gave one to anybody?"

Miserable and cold, Luke paced around the cell that was barely wide enough for him to take three steps in any direction.

"You might as well settle down. We're here for the night... at the very least."

If he were ten years younger, he could cry. "I'm cold."

"Don't you have a blanket?" Remarkably, Jovay sounded slightly concerned.

"I'm not touching that filthy thing!" Luke exclaimed. "It probably has... lice! Or worse!"

"What happened to the little Mos Eisley street urchin?"

"I was never an urchin! And I was as clean as possible, considering." He edged closer to the door. "Did you see you-know-who?"

"No. He just sent a message."

"In your head?" Could his dad communicate with Jovay that way? Luke didn't like that idea at all. He frowned.

"What? Of course not. By com." Jovay muttered a few curses. "I can't believe this," he grumbled. "Damn, damn, damn."

"I'm sorry you're...arrested." He heard a rustling noise. "I think there's... vermin... in here."

Jovay sighed loudly. "That's me, lying down, covering myself up, and going to sleep. I suggest you overcome your aversion to filth and do the same, or it will be a very long night."

"Then it's going to be a very long night," Luke grumbled.

He stood in silence for what seemed like hours, wondering if he could fall asleep standing up. Then Jovay began to snore, and he knew there was no chance of sleeping. Dad? he called in his mind. We need to talk.

* * *

Space spread out all around him, black and infinite, sprinkled with dots that winked at him. Luke swung his legs casually, slouching over to study the twinkling rings they were sitting on. He glanced back at the giant planet. "This is pretty cool. Thanks for meeting me here."

"It's your creation, not mine," his father said easily, swinging his own legs that for once were not, Luke noted with interest, clad in armored black leather. His dad was wearing a casual outfit consisting of a plain shirt, pants, and very good boots.

Luke looked up curiously. "Your face is like a fuzzball," he complained.

Vader chuckled. "Your mother called those dustbaas. After some remarkably stupid creatures that reside on Naboo," he added, responding to Luke's quizzical expression.

"Oh." That made no sense, but Luke didn't much care. He picked up a handful of the material that composed the huge ring and let it trickle off his palm. "If we were really here, could we sit on this?" he asked hesitantly, wondering if it was a stupid question.

His dad picked at the stuff. "It does not appear to be solid. What do you think it is?"

"Rocks. Ice. Maybe pieces of space debris, broken-up planets, stuff like that?"

Vader nodded. "Correct. It does not appear to be capable of holding our weight, does it."

Luke felt better about having asking the question. "No," he agreed. They were quiet for a few moments, until he could no longer ignore the reason he'd called this 'meeting'. "I'm in trouble."

"Yes, you are," his father agreed, then spoiled everything by continuing, "although at this point, I'm more concerned about Jovay than you."

That hurt. Luke looked away, not trusting his voice to remain steady. He blinked several times.

"You'll be fine."

"IfĔ" He drew a long breath to steady himself. "If I'm not executed as a spy."

There was a pause, then: "Do you really believe I would allow such a thing to happen?" his dad asked with unfamiliar gentleness.

Luke shrugged, but felt placated. "I guess not."

"Jovay is in the greatest danger. Alliance spies have been unusually successful of late, and I fear they will learn that he is a captain in the Intelligence Division."

"Oh. I forgot about that," Luke admitted. "So... would you let him be executed?"

His father sighed. "Are you determined to be contentious?"

"I'm not being contentious!" He made a mental note to check the language tapes for that word, but he figured it was close to 'obnoxious'. "I'm just wondering what heĔ how important he is to you."

"Why does that bother you?"

"It doesn't bother me!" Although, of course, it did, but it wasn't something he was prepared to admit. "What is he to you?"

"He has already told you," his dad stated calmly, unruffled in comparison to his agitation. "Shall we talk about what really concerns you?"

"I'm all ears," Luke muttered resentfully.

Vader sighed again. "The Rebels know you are not a spy."

"Then why did they arrest me?!"

His father held up one ungloved hand. "You said you would be all ears, not all mouth."

Luke rolled his eyes and folded his arms. "Fine. Go ahead."

"I am confident that they will see you are too open and impetuous to be devious, andĔ"

"Is that an insult?"

"Ears!" his dad shouted, sounding like Darth Vader even without the mask.

"Okay, okay. Don't pop a gasket."

His father cleared his throat. "They are already inclined to believe in your innocence. When you speak to them, use the Force to project sincerity. It willĔ"

"The last time I tried to use Force persuasion, it didn't work." When his dad froze and glared at him, Luke added, "Oh, c'mon! That's important! You're telling me to do something that doesn't work."

His dad gazed upward, obviously searching for patience... as if it could be found in the depths of space. For the first time, Luke could see that his eyes were shining blue out of that gauzy, fuzzy face. "You will not be persuading someone to do something against his or her will. You will be speaking the truth. With the Force behind that, your words will become even more powerful."

"Okay." He looked warily at his dad, wondering if he could ask another question without his old man blowing up. Vader looked back at him. "Um... so should I try to use the Force to say Jovay isn't a spy either?"

"Do you believe he is not a spy?"

Luke didn't need to consider it. "He told me he isn't. I believe him."

"You're very trusting."

"Shouldn't I be?" he snapped, irritated that instead of being reassuring, his dad was being... contentious.

His father laid a hand on his shoulder. "I will not let anything happen to you, son. Trust me. And if I can save Jovay, I will. But if circumstances force me to choose between the two of you, I will choose you. Always."

"Okay." He felt his eyes getting a little misty, so he opened them wide and blinked a few times.

"However," Vader continued, and Luke hoped he wasn't going to mess up his comforting words, "I believe you will be able to get out of this predicament without my help. You are both clever and innocent."

"True." He grinned, relieved that his dad believed in him. "I won't let you down."

"I know." Vader paused. "I also know that if I had said that I knew you wouldn't let me down, you would have been annoyed."

Luke made a face. At times, his dad understood him a little too well.

"You need to go back now."

He didn't ask why. Instead he flashed another smile at his father. "Let's get together again sometime." He leaned over and looked down. "Can I jump?"

"Go right ahead," Vader answered, amused. "Spread your wings and fly, my son."

The words sent a strange, pleasant shiver through him. His smile softened as he stared his father. He could almost see his face... almost. Maybe one day his dad would let him see who he really was. "Bye," he said quietly and pushed himself off the ring.

* * *

When the first hint of dawn began to filter through the bars on the door, Luke rose from the squatting position he'd held for the last few hours, eyes closed, trying to pretend he wasn't locked in a tiny, dark box from which he might never escape. He groaned, bending over to stretch his back, and rubbing his knees while he was down there. "I'm getting too old for this."

There was a large covered pot in the corner of the cell, and he forced himself to use itĔeyes closed again, so he wouldn't have to see how dirty it was. Unfortunately, he couldn't close his nose to the smell, so he held his breath and finished quickly, then rubbed his sleeve against the bars on the door. He'd rather see the light than have clean clothes. Spending the night in this awful confinement had been an experience he never wanted to repeat.

"Jovay? Are you awake?"

He didn't hear anything. Maybe Jovay was dead. "Jovay!" he called anxiously, louder. "Are you okay? Are you there?"

A muffled groan answered him.

"Are you hurt?"

For only the second time since he'd known him, a string of inventive curses came from the other man. Jovay's vocabulary was larger than Luke had credited. When the epithets ended, the Imp muttered, "I was asleep! What the hell do you want?"

"I just wanted to be sure you were okay," he replied sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm not scared or anything."

Jovay sighed. "Sorry I snapped at you. Did you get any sleep?"

"No." Meditation was just as good as sleepĔor so his dad had told him. Luke didn't quite believe it.

"You should have slept," Jovay scolded. "You'll need your wits about you."

"My wits are always about me." He stretched from side to side. "Do you think they're going to feed us soon?"

"You think about food a lot, don't you?" There was another big sigh. "I suppose it's better than the alternative."

"What's the alternative, starvation?"

"No, Luke. Our predicament."

"Oh, that." He pushed his nose through the bars and flattened his face against them until he could almost see Jovay in his cell. "I hope they believe us that we're not spies."

"I hope," Jovay echoed, not sounding optimistic.

It was gradually growing lighter. Luke slid his arms through the bars. They didn't go very far, but he knew if he just pushed a little harder, he couldĔ

A vision of the ductwork in a certain ship rose in his memory, and he pulled his arms back through the bars. He settled for curling his fingers around the chilly durasteel and leaning his forehead on his hands. He'd felt pretty good after talking to his dad, but in the cold reality of prison, his confidence evaporated.

He'd meant to ask his dad if they could just stay there-- not sitting on the rings of an imaginary planet, but stay in their heads. Being there with his dad was much better than reality. "Reality sucks!"

Jovay groaned. "I hate that group. Their music is the worst."

"What? What group? 'Reality Sucks' is a group? A music group?"

"Never mind," Jovay said in a patronizing adult tone.

Luke opened his mouth to argue, but rattling at the door stopped him. "Someone's coming!"

"Maybe it's breakfast," Jovay teased, and Luke had to smile.

Until he saw that it wasn't breakfast. It was a strange man in an Alliance uniform. He looked at Luke with an expression that was unreadable except for banked hostility in the gray eyes.

Luke held the cool gaze. "Who are you?" he asked bravely.

The man folded his arms and planted his legs wide apart. "I am Lieutenant Nikran," he announced, making the words sound more important than they actually were. "I'm in charge of Security on the base."

His pulse fluttered nervously, but he didn't want to appear intimidated. "Well, you're doing a terrible job," Luke retorted, "because I'm not feeling very secure!"

"Luke!" Jovay groaned.

The man's jaw hardened. He opened Luke's cell. "Come with me," he said harshly, fastening binders around Luke's wrists.

"I hope you're taking me to breakfast."

"Luke, shut up!" Jovay called, exasperated. "YouĔLieutenantĔwhere are you taking him?"

"None of your business, spy!"

Luke cast a worried look backward as Nikran led him away. Maybe he was going to be blindfolded and executed. Maybe shot. Maybe decapitated. MaybeĔ

Wait a minute! He could use the Force! They couldn't do anything to him. Besides, his dad wouldn't allow it.

Feeling betterĔeven a little cocky since he was out of that prisonĔLuke marched alongside the head of security. He was taken to another building, another office, a bigger one this time. It was full of people. There wasĔ

He did a double-take. For a second, he thought the old man with the white beard was Ben Kenobi back from the dead. But no, that was impossible. Anyway, this man looked harder, tougher... weary.

Luke tensed, studying the rest of the room. There were Garvin, BiggsĔwas he in trouble for vouching for Luke?-- Narra, Willard, and a few people he didn't know. "The gang's all here," he said in an attempt at bravado.

"Shut up, smart mouth!" Nikran snarled, raising one hand as if to strike him.

"Lieutenant," Narra intervened, "thank you for your assistance. You may have a seat." The commander studied Luke. "Are you all right?"

What kind of question was that? "Well, other than being arrested for spying, stuck in a filthy cell all night, not able to lie down, and starved half to death Ĕyeah, I'm just super."

"Luke," several people muttered.

"Young man," the Kenobi look-alike said, "this is a very serious matter. I suggest you conduct yourself appropriately."


"I am General Dodonna," he said smoothly, anticipating Luke's question. "I'm primarily here to observe. This is not a formal trial, but rather an interview to determine if there is a need to prosecute you further."

"I'm not a spy," Luke offered. "Really. And neither is Lieutenant Jovay."

"Captain Jovay," Willard said, making Luke wince, "is already scheduled to be tried for espionage."

"He's not a spy!"

"Luke," Narra said quietly, "we know he holds the rank of captain in Imperial Intelligence. He is out of uniform and on an Alliance base."

This was beginning to be seriously worrisome. "He just came to see me. He... watches out for me. He wasn't spying."

"Why would you need to be 'watched out for'?" Narra frowned when someone snickered. "Gentlemen, this is a serious proceeding."

"He watched out for me on Tatooine." Luke searched for something more redeeming to say. "HeĔhe even helped me avoid being captured by the Imps. Really, he's a nice guy!"

"Luke," Garven said from the audience, "I don't know why you're trying to protect him or what relationship the two of you have, but I suggest you sever ties now. You're in enough trouble; you don't need to link his fate to yours."

What a brilliant idea! Luke straightened and faced Narra. He concentrated on the Force, trying to lace it through his voice the way his dad had taught him. "That's exactly what I want to do. We're both innocent. Talk to us together. Bring him here for an inquiry before you go through with a trial."

There was a pause while the three command officers looked at each other. "I don't have a problem with that," Narra said after a moment. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

"Yes," Luke said firmly. "Bring Jovay here." He paused. "Maybe we could have breakfast before the hearing? I'm really hungry!"

* * *

Despite his lack of confidence at the end, the hearing was indeed adjourned for breakfast, though he and Jovay remained in the office under guard.

"I can't believe you did this."

"Got us breakfast?" Luke asked as he finished the last of his juice, holding the cup awkwardly between his bound hands.

"Damnit, Luke!" Exasperated, Jovay leaned across the desk. "I understood the risk I was taking, and this wasn't part of it! You're more important than I am, don't you get that? I'll risk my life for youĔbut it doesn't work the other way around! Why were you so foolish?" He subsided when the others began to file into the room and take their seats.

"We're ready to begin," Narra said.

"If I may," Nikran interrupted. "The spy has just indicated that this oneĔ" he gestured toward Luke "Ĕis of more importance than he is. I'd like to know why. Particularly consideringĔ"

"Lieutenant," General Dodonna interrupted with ill-concealed impatience, "Commander Narra is in charge. Stand down."

"Yes, sir," Nikran replied unhappily. He retaliated by dragging Luke's chair and separating him from Jovay by the width of the table. "Turn around and face the commander," he ordered.

When Luke and Jovay were resettled, Narra stared down at a datapad. "I'm very sorry to say that we've received additional information that truly disappoints me. You are still being untruthful, Luke."

The room stilled. Krit, Luke thought, scowling, bracing himself for an announcement about 'Son-of-a-Sith'.

Narra kept staring at the datapad. Luke wondered if he was just trying to string out the tension or if he was really upset. Maybe it was a combination of the two. "The Galactic Database," Narra continued, "has no record of anyone named Luke Lars on Tatooine... or anywhere else."

Murmurs were audible behind him. "What?" Biggs exclaimed loudly, and was shushed by someone.

"It doesn't?" Luke asked weakly, still wondering how far they'd traced his identity.

"What is your real name?"

"I was raised as Luke Lars," he tried. "That was always my name."

Luke, a voice warned in his head, and he nearly jumped.


Narra gestured to the door. A security guard opened it to admit a man dressed in the scrubs of a medic. "I had wanted to avoid running a blood test through the Imperial Database, butĔ"

"No!" Luke leaped to his feet. "No, you can't! They'll find me-- he'll find me! No!" A sweep of fire flared through his fear, like it was trying to burn him up from the inside.

Luke. Control your anger. Do not repeat my mistake.

He tried to slow his heart rate and calm his breathing. Everything around him was relaxingĔeven, it seemed, the very air-- and he realized that he barely understood the potential of the power that slumbered within him.

What happened to my father will not happen to me. Belatedly, he added: Thanks, Dad.

He opened his eyes, unaware at what point he had closed them. Of everyone in the room, only Jovay appeared to understand what had nearly happened to him, and his concern gradually and visibly faded. Luke nodded to him, then addressed Narra. "I refuse a blood test. I had one on Tatooine; that's how this whole mess started. Before that, I was Luke Lars. Afterwards, I was... in trouble."

Narra's white-knuckled hands freed the datapad. "Who are you?" he asked cautiously.

There had to be a way to avoid telling them he was Vader's kid. But how toĔ

Dad? What should I do?

You must do what you think is right, Son.

Right. Okay, the truth then. He drew a breath to steady his voice. "The blood test showed that my father was a Jedi. That's why the Imps were after me."

"Impossible," Dodonna declared sharply, but his eyes betrayed his uncertainty. "The Jedi were celibate."

"At least one of them wasn't," Luke said dryly. He added quickly, just so they didn't get the wrong idea, "My parents were married secretly."

There was a stunned silence as if no one could figure out what to say. "So that's why the Imps killed Owen and Beru?" Biggs finally murmured. "Because they were looking for you?"

Luke nodded.

Narra glanced at Dodonna, then back at Luke. "Who was your alleged Jedi parent?"

"Anakin Skywalker," he replied simply, because it was the truth.

Boss leaped to his feet, unable to control his excitement. "That's how you knew his name! The Hero Without Fear!"

"Everyone is feeding him answers!" Lieutenant Nikran shouted, irritated. "This is ridiculous! This boy is no more a Jedi's child than I am!"

"I have the results of my blood test," Luke said to the commanders. He slid down the fastener on his boot and used his nail to slit open the pocket. "Here."

Nikran took the datachip and handed it to Commander Narra. It was scanned into the datapad and the result passed to the three leaders. "Anakin Skywalker and Padme Naberrie. Skywalker...." General Dodonna repeated in a perplexed tone. There was something in his voice that made Luke wonder if he knew. But no... no, he couldn't possibly. "Still, we should do a blood test to confirmĔ"

"You can't!" Luke exclaimed again. "If you run it through the database, Palpatine will know where I am. He'll know where you are. He'll send troops here!"

Willard shook his head wonderingly. "Are you a Jedi, too?" he asked, and Luke couldn't tell if that was hope or dismay in his voice.

"Not really. I can do some things." He raised his hands and let the binders fall to the floorĔa simple trick that shouldn't alarm anyone too much. "I had no Jedi teacher."

At the table, the three leaders leaned back in their chairs and whispered between themselves. Luke stared down at his feet. Dad? You still here?

Yes. You are doing well... as I expected.

Thanks. But a few hints wouldn't hurt!

You don't need them.

"Assuming this is true," Narra said, interrupting Luke's silent communication with his father, "how do you come to know a captain of Imperial Intelligence?"

"He let me go when the Imps almost caught me on Tatooine." He hoped he wasn't carrying things too far. "And he's sorta watched out for me since then."

"Indeed." Dodonna frowned. "I cannot imagine a scenario that would make an Imperial officer take such a chance for a strange boy-- especially a Jedi's child."

"I'm not that strange," Luke muttered.

"He's not precisely a stranger to me," Jovay intervened smoothly. "When I was a youngster, his father saved my life. I was never able to repay that debt to Anakin SkywalkerĔ"

Hey, Dad, this truth stuff is working out great!

"Ĕso when I heard the Imperials were after him, I intervened."

"You didn't intervene enough to prevent Vader from capturing him!" Narra said sharply.

Krit, did they know everything? "I got away!" Luke protested. "I was rescued by some Falleen!"

"You have uncommonly good luck," Willard snapped.

"Thank you." Luke smiled blithely.

"So, Captain Jovay," Narra continued, "you are saying that you risked your career, and possibly your life to repay a debt? I am having difficulty accepting that as a feasible action for an Imperial officer. Exactly where do your loyalties lie?"

Jovay smiled slightly, but without humor. "Are you truly so naive," he drawled, making Luke wince at his arrogance, "that you believe there can be only two sides? Only black or white, no shades of gray?"

General Dodonna pounded his fist on the table and rose. "You talk in riddles, sir! Speak plainly, or we will judge you now."

"Oh, c'mon!" Luke snapped irritably. "Give him a chance! He's a good guy!"

"You," Narra pointed at him, "sit down. Nikran, get those binders back on him."

"What's the point?" Luke backed away from the security chief. "Krit, what'd I ever do to any of you? What did Jovay do? Nothing! You liked both of us just fine, now all of a sudden you don't! What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Perhaps now would be a good time to sit down.

Well, okay, if his dad suggested it. Luke sat. Nikran approached, picked up the binders, then looked at the command table.

"Never mind," Narra said wearily. "Captain Jovay... continue."

The green eyes flickered. "I can't say a great deal. But surely you know that among billions of Imperial citizens, there are a great many who do not agree with the Emperor's policies. Their number is far larger than the members of your Alliance or the Imperial armed forcesĔfor, indeed, they are parts of both and neither. The galaxy is not divided in two; rather there are two declared sides with the vast majority of beings caught between them." He paused. "Neither Rebel sympathizers nor Imperial supporters.... Should they not have a voice, too?"

The command staff members were quiet for a few moments. Luke shifted in his chair. General Dodonna looked at Jovay. "What exactly are you saying, Captain?"

"He's saying there's a third side," Luke interpreted freely. "What part of that didn't you get?"

In his mind, his father laughed before he scolded: Luke!

"Thank you for that explanation, young Jedi," Narra murmured.

"Jedi Wannabe," Luke corrected with a cheeky grin. "Can we go now?"

"Go now?!" all three officers exclaimed in unison. "Are you insane?" Willard added incredulously.

"Look," Luke spread his hands to show how reasonable he was being. "Jovay hasn't done anything to hurt you. You said he was a good friend to the Alliance, and he has been. If he wasn't, the Imps would have attacked a long time ago. He's just watching out for meĔokay, and maybe doing a little side plotting of his own, but nothing that hurts the Alliance."

Jovay sighed. Luke ignored that and continued, "As I recall, he came here to take me somewhereĔwell, we might as well tell themĔhe came to take me to see a relative who's worried about me. Is that so awful?" Oh, krit! He was forgetting to use the Force! He concentrated, lowering his voice in case that made the Force work better.

"Jovay has not and will not betray the Alliance. Neither will I. Letting us go will only help your cause, because we have a mutual enemyĔthe Emperor. Let us go."

Good job, Son!

We'll see.

Apparently his Force was in working order, because the commanders looked mesmerized. Even Jovay appeared a bit dazed. "Jovay and I will leave now," Luke added in a softer voice. "You will let us go. We will return when our work is done."

A few seconds of silence. He was feeling confident, but Dodonna blinked and shook his head vigorously. "For a momentĔ" the general began, then stopped.

"It seems reasonable," Willard said, puzzled. "But...."

"I'm not.... No, I don't think so," Narra added uncertainly. "You need to... stay here. But... confined to barracks. For Luke. Jovay, back to the brig."

"Oh, it's so dirty there!" Luke murmured-- Forcefully. "There is somewhere cleaner he could stay."

"I suppose we could put him in an empty officer's quarters," Willard offered. "Under guard, of course."

"Of course," Narra echoed. He blinked a few times. "This hearing is over." He stood, shaking his head. He looked at Luke curiously, then shook his head again. "Dismissed."

Not bad for your first time, his dad commented.

Thanks. I was hoping for better.

You did well. We will talk shortly.

Roger. Over and out! He smiled at Nikran's befuddlement and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head.

This was going to be interesting.

* * *

"Where are we?"

"Where do you think we are?"

Luke sighed heavily and shot a martyred look at his father. "Can't you just tell me?"

His dad shook his head.

"Fine." He looked around. They were standing on vividly green grass. The sky was nearly as blue as Tatooine's, with puffy white clouds, and across the field a waterfall thundered, sending a faint mist to gray the air. "It's like a fairy taleĔ I mean, it's idyllic. Is this a real place?" Before his dad could answerĔor not answer, which was far more likelyĔLuke blurted, "Is this Naboo?"

"Yep!" said a very un-Vader-like voice.

Luke turned his head quickly and was rewarded with a glimpse of the young man his father had been. He had time to see golden brown curls and a tall, slim build before the vision became hazy and again he was standing next to someone he couldn't quite see.

"Were you ever here?" he asked curiously. "Or am I making this up?"

"This is a real place." His father pointed across the waterfall. "In the distance is the country home that belonged to your mother's parents."

"Are they still there?" he asked wistfully, though he noticed the past tense.

"No. They chose to live in the city after-- Later."

"Can we see them?"

"Luke." His father shook his head. "That is not possible. We are not traveling in an astral sense, able to observe people and events. All this is in our mindsĔin this case, it is a manifestation from my mind."

"I know, but...." He bent over and ran his fingers through the grass. It sure felt real, sun-warmed and a little damp. Inhaling deeply, he decided he couldn't smell anything, which was weird. "Maybe we can come here someday. When the war is over."

"Maybe," his dad replied, but Luke knew that 'maybe' meant 'no'. His father's voice softened a bit when he added, "Your mother and I were wed in that house." Abruptly he changed the subject. "It is most unfortunate that we were not able to meet in person. I trust we will not be interrupted?"

"I'm confined to my cube, who's going to interrupt? What's the big topic of conversation? How to get me out of there in one piece? That would be a good start!"

"That, and more," his dad said grimly. "It is time to discuss your destiny."

Here it was again, Destiny-with-a-capital-D. "What do you mean, my destiny? Do you really believe that sort of thing?"

"A good question," Vader said dryly as they walked farther from the distracting sound created by torrents of cascading water. "My destiny did not turn out as it was foretold by the Jedi. Destiny, it seems, is subject to interpretation."

"Really? Who foretold it? What was it? What happened instead?"

"Will you stop asking questions until I tell you to ask questions?" his dad snapped in exasperation. "Listen to me!"

"I'm all ears," Luke said with an innocent smile.

His father heaved one of those familiar sighs. "Your destiny," he began, pausing as if waiting for Luke to interrupt.

Luke continued to smile sweetly. But instead of the expected irritated and long-suffering look he usually got, his dad's figure blurred even further until the black-garbed image of Vader assembled out of nothing, as if the clear sky had been full of cinders that decided to cling together. "We will destroy the Death Star."

"Ah-hah. Sure. Okay." Luke blinked a couple times. "What's a 'Death Star'?"

"The most significant achievement in modern warfare." Vader's breathing grew raspier. "It is a moon-sized battle station that can destroy an entire planet with a single blast from its laser weaponry."

Luke winced. "That doesn't sound good. Why anybody would want to do that? So... where is it and why haven't I heard of it before? That's a big thing to hide."

"From a distance, it appears to be another dead moon. The construction installation is in a desolate, heavily guarded region of space, so it remained undiscovered for many years. Those who accidentally strayed into that space did not live to repeat their stories." Vader paused. "Now, however, its construction is complete. It must be destroyed."

"This does not compute, Dad. Why do you want to destroy an Imperial weapon?"

The satisfied smile was nearly visible through the mask. "Palpatine will be aboard," he hissed. "Finally... he will be gone!" Suddenly Vader appeared to grow, getting taller, wider, bigger-- so big that Luke had to lean back to see his helmet. A huge fist shook at the darkening sky. "Together we are strong enough to defeat him. Then we will rule the Empire as father and son!" Thunder rolled across a sky that had turned from serene clarity to towering storm clouds in the space of seconds. A cold wind whipped around them, snapping Vader's cloak against Luke's face. He barely felt it.

"We will put an end to this destructive conflict and bring peace to the galaxy! Finally-- everything will be as I envisioned!"

Luke stared, mesmerized. This was the Darth Vader he'd seen in holos, giving speeches, rousing the troops. This being was impressive, intimidating-- terrifying. This was a superhuman figure, a total stranger, and--

His father.

Darth Vader is my father.

Pieces of a puzzle fell from the clouds instead of the hailstones that threatened to form inside the icy rain. For the first time, Luke understood what he'd always known. He shook his head, trying to shift the puzzle pieces into another pattern, one that was benign, even a little happy, but he couldn't make them move. Yes, Vader was his father, he'd known that since he was a child. But today, right now-- it was more than a bare fact. This was real. This man was Vader the representative of Evil, Vader the military leader, the politician, the ruthless enforcer... Vader the lover, husband, father. Luke had always understood... but until now, he had never completely accepted the truth.

His father was... Vader. His father was....

Wait! His father had been locked in a prison for nearly eighteen years. Luke had been in a prison for one night and had felt claustrophobic, nervous, worried-- okay, even scared. His father's prison didn't allow him to touch his face, or see his own eyes when he looked in a mirror. His father wore his prison. No wonder he was the way he was! Luke dared to think something he had repressed once before. Had Vader's prison driven him into madness? Or....

He closed his eyes, searching inward, stripping away his dreams and wishes. Was he looking for ways to excuse his dad's actions? Insanity was a hell of an excuse, and maybe it was a possibility. But he also remembered their long talks, his father's flashes of humor, the many ways he understood and supported his son, and he understood that it was not insanity that ate at Darth Vader. It was something quite different.

Luke opened his eyes.

"Palpatine is deluded-- so proud and confident that his monstrous machine will end the Rebellion. One great victory will feed his arrogance, and he will need to be present for the final blow." The smile behind the mask turned wolfish. "Then I will have him. He will die, and there will be no one to stop us!"

"So... we're going to destroy the Death Star so you can take over the Empire?" Luke asked, raising his voice to be heard over the constant rumble of thunder that pounded against his ears.

"We," Vader corrected. "It will require our combined power to destroy the Emperor. I cannot do it alone. I need you."

"I see," he replied numbly. He pushed back the strands of hair that fell across his cheek, blown there by a wind that didn't exist, no matter how real it seemed. He felt like he was far, far away, watching this scene unfold in a holomovie, understanding all his cues: when to laugh, when to cry, when to applaud. Watching actors play the roles of Vader and Luke. Actors knew what to do and say; actors had a script of someone else's words. But Luke only had himself, and the right words had never come easily to him. Darth Vader was a tyrant who wanted to take what Palpatine had built, who wanted the galaxy to bend to his will... and who expected Luke to bend, too. For another man, the choices might be simple: join the tyrant or defy him. But this tyrant was his father, and that made his choice unbearably difficult. Maybe even impossible.

Luke frowned in confusion. "What would you expect me to do?"

The storm over their heads dissipated gradually, though his father remained in his Vader guise. "I am sending someone more competent to 'rescue' you from Dantooine."

"And Jovay," he added nervously. "I'm sure you mean to rescue him, too."

Vader paused. "Of course," he replied flatly. "The rest of the details can wait until we are together."

Luke folded his arms and walked away a short distance, conscious that his father was following him. He sensed that his dad was telling the truth about the Death Star, that it was a planet-killer. And wouldn't Vader be a better ruler than Palpy? Especially with Luke there to monitor him. Assuming they could pull off such a surprise attack. "How could we destroy the Death Star? It's huge! I wouldn't even know where to aim-- or what to use. Krit, how can I even fly? I've flown a TIE once, and only an x-wing simulator, not even the real thing! I can't-- "

"You will know," Vader said confidently. "And I will be with you."

"I just wish we had more time together," he whispered, though the words didn't adequately express his real need or the deep anguish he felt. "I'm not trained, I can't do enough Force stuff. What if I screw up?"

There was a chuckle, and he turned to see the younger man again, the one whose blue eyes pierced through the mist that blurred his face. The one who used to be a great Jedi. "You won't." Anakin Skywalker sobered. "Still, I wish that, too. I wish Palpatine hadn't learned about you. I wish I could train you. But...." He looked at Luke, and the veil lifted further until Luke could almost see his features. "There is another."

"Another what?"

"Another who could train you, if he will agree." His father's mouth tightened into a scowl. "A Jedi master."

"How do you know a Jedi master!" Luke half-shouted. "You're a Sith! You killed the Jedi! What's going on?!"

"You never know when you might have use for a Jedi master," his dad said smugly. Then his posture tightened, his fists clenching. "I knew he lived. And every day that he lived, he mourned for the lost ones. That was my revenge for the years he scorned me."

Luke shivered, hugging himself harder. "You're creepin' me out!" he protested jokingly, though in truth his father was frightening him. Sure, all his life he'd heard about Vader's anger when he was crossed, but to see it in person, to be part of it--

But this was his father and Luke loved him. Nothing Darth Vader said or did would change that fact.

Although it didn't mean Luke had to agree with him.

Vader's head swiveled away as if he was listening to something Luke couldn't hear. "I have duties. Go now."

"But-- "

Before he could finish his protest, he was sitting on his bunk, his back pressed into the joining of the walls, knees drawn to his chest, arms wrapped tightly around them. His face was wet. "Krit." He hated this... waking up to find that he'd been crying in his sleep. This hadn't happened since he was a kid, and he was damned if he would let it start again now. Fiercely, he rubbed his face on his sleeve. He was an adult, he could figure out everything, he just needed time to think and it would all become clear... wouldn't it?

There was a rap on his door. The guard opened it without waiting for his response. "Visitor," he announced gruffly.

Luke sniffled, rubbed his nose on his sleeve, and looked up, struggling to grin. Failing. "Hey, Boss," he mumbled to Garven Dreis.

"Hey." Garven gave Luke a searching look but didn't comment on whatever he saw. Instead, he bent over and put the tray he was carrying on the bed. "Brought you something to eat. I know you're always hungry."

"Thanks." He wasn't hungry now, but maybe later the sandwich would look good. After all, he had to keep his wits about him, right? Or maybe that just meant he should take a nap. Were his wits linked to sleep or food? Luke uncapped the beverage container, unnerved to see his hands shake, and tried to hide that weakness by taking a sip. "Milk?"

"You're a growing boy," Boss said sternly.

"I doubt it." He sighed. "I think I'm getting a taste for this stuff."

"Good." There was an awkward silence. "Not hungry?"

"Not right now. Later." He attempted another tremulous smile. Part of him wanted to make Boss leave so he could think about his father, but another part wanted Boss to stay forever so he never had to think about Vader. Maybe he should tell Boss that he was a spy so they would execute him and he didn't have to face reality.

"Your father was a true hero," Garven said quietly. "I saw him use his lightsaber-- in a vid, of course-- and it was amazing. Too bad yours is broken." Boss paused. "Was that... his... lightsaber?"

It took a great effort not to roll his eyes. He couldn't shatter Garven's hero worship, but oh, how he wanted to tell the truth! "Yeah," he replied shortly.

Boss nodded and waited, as if he expected Luke to produce it. Luke folded his arms.

"I saw him once, making an emergency landing-- but I told you that already. I was so impressed that I studied his career, followed the news stories about him. He was a great Jedi, a true protector of innocents."

...slaughtering a tribe of Tuskens, even the children...

"He and Kenobi were always rushing off to settle planetary disputes, stopping wars before they starteed, saving entire populations."

...annihilating an entire metropolis on Falleen...

"When Palpatine lied about the Jedi attempting a coup, Anakin knew it wasn't true. He rushed to the temple..."

...bringing thousands of clone troopers...

" defend the Jedi inside..." murder the Jedi...

"...and there he died heroically, protecting the younglings."

Luke squeezed his eyes closed, trying to erase the scene his father had so vividly, viciously, described: tiny younglings cut down just as they began to understand that their trusted savior was their executioner.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you." Dreis touched his arm briefly. "I just wanted you to know how much I admired him, and that... some things worth dying for. Protecting others, protecting your beliefs... even when it seems futile at the time, the repercussions last through the ages. Anakin is gone, but he left behind a son to follow his path and finish the mission he started-- to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy."

He opened his eyes and studied the earnest, painfully sincere face of Garven Dreis. Luke nodded. "Thanks."

"Sure." Boss stood. "I have to go now," he said, but made no move toward the door. He looked around pointlessly, then shoved his hand in his pocket, bringing out a chunky wad of folded paper. "Some say...." He cleared his throat. "There were rumors that Anakin didn't die in the temple, because there was no trace of him. No body was ever found, either in the temple or anywhere else." Boss shrugged and handed Luke the paper. "I found this when we were searching your room. Thought you might want it." He gave Luke an intense look, then nodded curtly and whirled, walking out the door before Luke could say anything.

As soon as he began to unfold the paper, he knew what it was. He'd thought it still hidden safely between his bunk and the wall.

He flattened the paper. The poster of Darth Vader looked back at him.

Luke stared at the closed door. Boss knew? And he still considered Anakin Skywalker a great hero? If Boss knew, did the rest of the command staff know? If they did... what would they do with him?

There was a lot to figure out-- and probably a lot more that he would never figure out. He only hoped he had the time to grasp the basic truths.

* * * * *

Yeah, right. As usual, the luxury of time was denied him. It ended abruptly with the arrival of the smuggler Han Solo later that day, as Luke and Jovay discovered when they were hauled into HQ to confront Solo, his Wookiee copilot, and-- big surprise!-- Princess Leia.

"Hi!" Luke exclaimed, unreasonably happy to see her again. "Where have you-- Oof!" Chewbacca squeezed him in a tight hug, growling that he was glad to see the cub. "Okay, okay! I'm glad to see you, too. Now lemme go!"

Leia's fists balled on her waist and her eyes widened in an incredulous response. "First you're a spy, then you're a Jedi-- and now Vader has traded me for you?!" She whirled on Narra. "We can't give this boy to Vader! Commander, what's going on?"

"Who're you calling a 'boy'?" Luke grumbled, accepting his backpack from a guard and shouldering it. Trading him? His dad had captured Leia and was letting her go? Luke was willing to bet that Dad Vader was not happy about that!

"I really don't know," Narra replied grimly, presumably to Leia, "but we have something more serious than Luke to worry about." He nodded to the security guards. "Take them to Solo's ship. With any luck, if we keep our word, Vader will keep his." He paused as if he would add more, but shook his head. "Solo, you need to get out of here-- now. Get Luke to Vader before he attacks."

"Wait!" Leia protested. "Commander--"

"No problem," Solo interrupted. "I got paid up front. Let's go, my Imp friends."

"I'm not an Imp," Luke mumbled under his breath as he and Jovay were escorted outside by guards and the two smugglers. He wished there'd been a moment to talk to Leia alone. Not that he had any idea what he would have said to her. He looked back over his shoulder, but since he hadn't perfected the skill of seeing through walls, he couldn't catch a final glimpse of her.

"Doesn't matter to me one way or the other," Solo gave him a careless shove. "Get moving, kid! We haven't got all day."

"What's the big hurry?" he complained as Solo hustled them up the ramp and into his old ship.

"Ah, Vader's got some big Imp weapon headed this way-- and we're gettin' out of the way before the shooting starts!"

"Big weapon?" Luke came to such a sudden stop in the hatchway that Jovay ran into him. He looked at the Imperial. "The Death Star?" he asked flatly.

Jovay's face was unreadable. "Get inside, Luke."

He shook his head, responding both to Jovay and to what his own mind was asking: Did my dad lie to me?

No, that wasn't possible. His dad hadn't said anything about the Death Star coming here, where all these people were, where his friends-- and Leia-- were. His dad hadn't said--

...One great victory will feed his arrogance....

"Oh, krit!" A victory over the Alliance's ground troops! His dad meant for the Death Star to destroy Dantooine, then move on to finish off the rest of the Rebel fleet where they hid. That was when Palpatine would come, hovering and spying like a carrion bird to watch the death of the Alliance. And if Luke and his dad couldn't destroy the Death Star, if the rebellion was defeated, there would be no one was left to oppose Palpy, not even Darth Vader. The galaxy would live in fear of the Emperor's displeasure. After Palpatine died, there would be another tyrant to take his place... maybe Vader, maybe someone else.

Some things are worth dying for.

"You said it, kid," Solo muttered nervously, glancing upward as though he might be able to see the Death Star in space. "It's one hell of a monster. Let's get a move on."

"No!" He pushed past Jovay and broke free when the officer grabbed his arm. Racing down the ramp, he set out toward the base's HQ at a dead run.

"Luke, wait!" he heard Jovay call, then add quietly, "Take off and you're a dead man, Solo. I'll bring him back!"

"No, you won't!" he shouted into the rushing wind, barreling downhill to his Rebel friends.


Yeah, they were his friends, and he'd be damned if he'd zip safely into space while they were being slaughtered. Anyway, after Dantooine, no planet would be safe! His dad said he could destroy the Death Star-- all right, then he'd do it! He didn't know how, but his dad said there was--

He faltered and his frantic race stopped. His dad had said there was a way and that Luke would know. But he didn't have a clue. Oh, krit, why hadn't he paid more attention?!

Well, fine, he'd protect the Rebels in whatever way he could, even if his efforts were futile, like Garven said. Luke tore off his backpack just as Jovay reached him.

"Come on, that's an order."

"You're not the boss of me!" Flinging open the pack, he began searching through it, pulling out the clothes and throwing them aside until he found what he wanted. "I'm going to stop the Death Star."

"Oh, yeah? With what?"

"With the only thing I have-- this." He stood and waved the lightsaber in Jovay's face.

The officer gave a disgusted grunt. "Don't be childish. We don't have time for games. That thing doesn't even work. We've got to leave."

"I'm not going!" His dad wouldn't let this place be blown up if he stayed here. No way! That was the answer! All Luke had to do was contact his father and-- No, then the Death Star would still be a threat. In that case-- "Hey, hold on a minute!" he exclaimed suspiciously. "How do you know my lightsaber doesn't work?"

"You told me," Jovay said easily-- too easily.

"I did not." His eyes narrowed. "Are you in on my father's plotting, too? What else do you know?"

"Luke-- "

He stared at Jovay, then at the non-functioning lightsaber. His dad had said there was a way and Luke would know. And, quite suddenly, he did know.

"Holy Sith!" He looked into green eyes that reflected his own agitation. "We're going to stop the Death Star here, today. Or are you really prepared to stand by and let the Rebellion die? That would put an end to your 'third side', too, wouldn't it?" Luke stopped and caught his breath. "Or is that part of your plan? Do you think the destruction of a planet will rouse the 'third side' into action?" He shook his head. "There'll be no stopping Palpatine after he uses the Death Star, no matter what my father thinks. He knows he can't do it alone. He needs me. And I'm not leaving Dantooine."

Jovay's cool exterior was cracking. He put his hands on his hips, shook his head and looked around. The indecisiveness on his face changed abruptly, first to frustration, then decision. "Damn it, Luke!" His arms shot out, fists clenched. "All right! But if we live through this--"

"I won't let you be in hot water with my dad." He grinned. "Let's go!"

- - - - -

Jovay was damn good. It was momentarily disconcerting to see the swiftness with which he disposed of the security guards. Luke blinked, then pushed inside the hangar, running toward the group in the center-- as fast as he could, though it appeared no one even noticed, let alone cared to stop him.

"--whether it was an accident or sabotage, I thought we'd seen the last of the Death Star a decade ago," Willard was saying bitterly, "but he's built another one. How did he find us? It's over. Everything is over."

Sabotage? For a second, the room became distant, and he could see his father clearly. Had there been another Death Star? And his father had--? The vision faded before he could interpret what he had seen.

"Luke!" Leia exclaimed.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Willard snapped.

"This!" Carefully, Luke laid his lightsaber on the table. While the others watched in a silence born of desperation, he removed the protective caps and unscrewed the pins, carefully disassembling it until he reached the activator. There, blocking the connection, was what he suspected he would find: a tiny silver cube. He pried it out and held it up.

"If I'm not mistaken, this contains the technical readouts for the Death Star."

- - - - - Epilogue - - - - -

They were all dead behind him-- Boss, Porkins... even Biggs. Only Wedge escaped, his fighter crippled and useless. Now all that could stop Luke from firing the torpedo that would destroy this vile battlestation was one very persistent TIE fighter piloted by the most persistent man in Luke's personal universe.

Darth Vader. Dad.

No, Luke! It's too soon! Palpatine is safe on Coruscant. If you destroy the Star, he will build another. And another and another! Pull up, you must pull up!

He tried to focus on his unfamiliar targeting computer, struggling to ignore the voice in his head that alternately raged, reasoned and pleaded.

Luke! You're making everything worse! Pull up now! It's not too late!

It is too late! he lashed back. I won't let everyone on this base be killed!

Everyone on the base?! Vader shouted in his head. If you're so worried about killing, what about everyone on the Death Star?

You're willing to sacrifice them anyway! he shot back. The only way to stop me is to shoot me down-- are you willing to sacrifice me?

There was a terrible silence. It lasted only seconds, but to Luke it felt like hours. Then: So.... You will betray me, too?

The tone was heavy, lethal. He felt the blood rush out of his head, leaving him nauseous and dizzy. She betrayed me and I killed her. No, no, no--

Dad-- no! I'm not betraying you! I love you! We can still destroy Palpatine, but I can't let all these people die. This isn't right-- I can feel it's not right!

Young one, you are a fool! Vader answered bitterly. A blind fool! If you think I'm going to allow you to ruin everything I have--

From nowhere, two TIE fighters swooped toward him, lasers slicing brilliant lines across his vision, aiming for Luke with frightening accuracy. Even before he could take evasive action, his father blew them into sparkling bits that vanished from his vision as he continued speeding toward his goal.

Luke smiled tightly. He had his father's answer. Thanks, Dad. Look... let's get together later and re-think this plot of yours, okay? Maybe you could help me target this thing, back me up? I can't get a lock on the exhaust port and it's coming up--

It's coming up now, young one! Damnit! We won't get another chance now that they know we can penetrate its defenses! Luke, your targeting computer is unnecessary, it only hinders you-- use the Force! Remember what I taught you. Clear your mind. Focus!

He closed his eyes, seeing the port through his mind. It was simple, then, to find the target, to aim his torpedo, to wait for the right millisecond to fire the--

His head echoed with a mental shout of rage that jolted his concentration. Over his headset, he heard another voice. "Okay, kid, you're clear! Now let's blow this thing and get out of here!"

It wasn't until the torpedo was speeding on its way and he had pulled out of the trench that he realized what had happened. Solo, of all people, had come back to help him and had attacked his father--

Dad?! Luke called frantically, wincing as the repercussions from the horrific explosion hit his x-wing. He held tightly to the controls, riding out the waves of turbulence as he tried to out-race the hurtling debris. Dad, are you okay? Where are you?

He didn't relax until he heard the slightly dazed reply. Damned pirate. I appear to be intact, as does my fighter.

Relief flooded him. Father....

Son. Come with me. I will hide you, teach you, and when you are ready....

His relief faltered. This wasn't a decision he could put off or avoid entirely. In an instant he had to weigh his alternatives: his lifelong desire to be with his father against his awareness that his father's path might not be his path. Darth Vader was walking somewhere that Luke didn't want to go... somewhere Luke didn't belong.

I can't, he sent, hoping his dad could hear his regret. You're going somewhere I can't follow. I'm not Luke Vader. I'm Luke Skywalker. I want to learn about the Force and become a Jedi... like my father.

To his great sadness, there was no reply, not as he followed the Millennium Falcon back to the base on Dantooine, not as he landed the x-wing on a bare strip of ground that led to a hanger. People rushed out to meet him, shouting, grinning, yelling his name. He popped open the canopy, tossed aside his helmet, and jumped down without the aid of a ladder. He was hugged and patted and both his hands were shaken by Rebels he'd never met. Apparently he'd achieved the goal that he'd once selected so frivolously: he was a hero.

It didn't feel as good as he'd thought it would.

"Luke!" a familiar voice called, and he looked up to see Karas Jovay climbing down from the Millennium Falcon along with Solo and Chewbacca. He smiled faintly as the Imperial officer pushed through the crowd.

Jovay reached him, clapped his shoulder and grinned, then sobered as he studied Luke's expression. "You're a lot like your father, you know," he offered quietly, and Luke's heart sank.

"You think so?" he asked dully.

"Yes. Stubborn." The corner of Jovay's mouth quirked. "Determined to do what you think is right. That's all he ever did, you know."

The din of congratulatory shouts was ringing in his mind as well as in his ears. "That's supposed to make me feel better?" he asked angrily, hissing under the cover of the noisy celebration. "I'm exactly like him, is that what you're saying? That I'll become what he is-- do what he did?"

Jovay tilted his head and shrugged. "I guess that depends on what you believe is right," he answered softly.

He stared, feeling a warm wash of understanding fill him. That was it, the difference between him and his father. The truth was, what he and Vader believed was completely different. His father needed power and possessions-- people, planets, even an entire galaxy; he thought ownership would make him feel safe, but Luke doubted that anything could ever do that for Darth Vader. Luke didn't need safety; he believed there were causes more important than his personal needs, even more important than his life. That was why he could walk away from his father, abandon the one person in the galaxy who understood. He finally accepted that part of himself, and that self-knowledge hurt.

His dad would never understand. They would be enemies now, not by their choice. Sorrow erupted in his heart, and he bowed his head. He couldn't expect Vader to accept his decision. He knew he could never see his father again, and a great hole grew inside him, bigger and bigger until--

Until, in the midst of the non-stop yelling and talking, a voice rang clear and crisp in his head.

Very well. Since you insist on being foolish and disobedient, you must be properly trained. You will go to Dagobah. There you will find Yoda, the Jedi master who refused to train me. He will not repeat that mistake, for he knows you are the last hope for the galaxy. When you are trained, remember my words: return to me, my son, and we will conquer the Emperor together.

"Sounds like a plan," he answered, both aloud and in his head, but didn't share his misgivings with his dad. That wouldn't be fair, because mixed with the misgivings was a growing hope that the Jedi Vader had once been was still alive inside him, waiting for someone to set him free. Someone like his son.

"Talkin' to yourself, kid?" Solo asked, coming up behind him and slapping his back so hard that he staggered.

Luke recovered and shook his head. "No. To my father." He met Jovay's understanding gaze and smiled. "I think he's proud of me today."

- - - End - - -