“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”
JUNDLAND WASTES, TATOOINE
The former Jedi Master and former padawan emerged from the cave hovel that served as Obi-Wan’s home. The cave certainly did not seem like home to Ferus. He could not help but wonder how the older man had endured living in this desert wasteland for the past decade. Roaming the galaxy from one end to the other would seem more preferable than one year on this desolate planet.
“How can you stand it?” Ferus asked, as he regarded the craggy scenery with distaste.
The older man stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Living here. How can you stand it?”
With a sigh, Obi-Wan calmly replied, “One learns to . . . adjust.” He met Ferus’ gaze. “I did not say this earlier, but I am truly sorry about what happened to your friends.”
“They’re not dead,” Ferus tersely replied.
“Oh! I did not . . .” Obi-Wan hesitated. “Pardon my mistake, but you did not exactly go into details about what happened to your friends.”
Memories of the last time he saw Trevor and Roan filled Ferus’ mind. He especially recalled the bitter tone in Trevor’s voice, while he tried to explain his decision regarding the Emperor. “If you don’t mind, Obi-Wan,” Ferus finally said, “I would rather not speak of the matter. At least not now.”
“You sound . . . bitter,” Obi-Wan commented. “Ferus, one day you will have to discuss the matter. With someone.” When Ferus did not bother to respond, the former Jedi Master continued, “So, when will Senator Organa come for you?”
Ferus’ gaze focused upon Tatooine’s rising twin suns. “Any minute now. I had assumed we would leave yesterday, but Senator Amidala wanted to spend one last evening with her children and the Larses before she left.” He paused. “You know, I do not recall her ever being married. And what is the history between you two?”
A long, silent pause followed. Ferus could almost feel the heat burning through the older man’s eyes. “There is no . . . history between myself and Senator Amidala,” Obi-Wan replied coolly. “At least nothing for you to suggest otherwise . . .”
“Forgive me, Obi-Wan,” Ferus hurriedly injected. “I did not mean to imply anything . . . intimate between you and the senator. But the children . . . and you had not seem particularly surprised that she was still alive.”
A sigh left Obi-Wan’s mouth. “That is because Master Yoda, Senator Organa and I had helped her evade the Emperor during the last days of the Clone Wars. In fact, we were the ones who faked her death. Senator Amidala . . . had been at the forefront of an attempt to drive the Palpatine out of office before he became the emperor. The senator and I have shared previous experiences together. My old master, Qui-Gon Jinn and I had assisted her during the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. I’m sure that you remembered that particular incident, although you were a child at the time. Both the senator and I were also among those who had fought at the Battle of Geonosis.”
“I see.” Ferus did not understand, but something else puzzled him. “But if you and Master Yoda had done all that to help her, why had she seemed so . . . cold toward you? And hostile?”
Obi-Wan’s stare became suspicious. “Why are you so interested in the state of my relationship with Pa . . . Senator Amidala?” From the moment Obi-Wan had appeared at that Mos Eisley inn, Ferus had detected great emotion between the former senator and the Jedi Master. Negative emotions that hinted anger, hostility, guilt and resentment. It seemed so unlike Master Kenobi to harbor such feelings toward any living soul, save a Sith Lord. Before Ferus could respond to the other man’s question, Obi-Wan added, “Has this something to do with Queen Apiliana’s death?”
“Pardon me?” Ferus blinked.
At that moment, a starship descended from the skies above. It turned out to be Captain Sen’s skiff, the Alberforce. Once it gracefully landed on the flat desert, a boarding ramp eased to the ground. “I believe your ride has arrived,” Obi-Wan coolly declared.
Captain Sen and Senator Organa descended from the skiff. “Good morning Ferus,” the senator greeted. “Master Kenobi.”
Obi-Wan bowed at the Alderaanian senator and prince. “Good morning to you, Senator Organa. I trust you had a restful night.” He bowed at the red-haired woman. “Captain.”
Captain Sen returned Obi-Wan’s nod before she turned her attention to Ferus. “Master Olin, I believe it is time for us to leave.”
Ferus faced Obi-Wan one last time. “I hope that we will be able to continue this conversation upon my return, Master Kenobi. Until then, good day.”
The older man’s eyes momentarily reflected reluctance at the idea of another conversation. Then Obi-Wan broke into a quick smile and said, “Of course. Do take care of Senator Organa and Senator Amidala. Along with yourself. May the Force be with you.” He nodded at Organa. “Senator, have a safe trip.” Then he turned away and strode back inside his hovel.
Both Ferus and Senator Organa followed the red-haired captain into the ship. Minutes passed before the Alberforce rose from the ground and zoomed into Tatooine’s atmosphere.
Mako checked his data chip after his client, Sekka Verdu, handed it back to him. “There you are,” the Quarren declared cheerfully. “Thirty-three thousand credits each.”
A wry Han commented, “You mean thirty-four thousand each for all three of us.”
Verdu nodded at Han and Horus’ new companion. “And the Wookie?”
Mako shot an uneasy glance at the Javian Hawk’s new crewman. “He’s not part of the deal,” he replied curtly. “Will there be anything else, Mr. Verdu?”
The Quarren’s squid-like tentacles wiggled slightly. “I don’t think so, Captain Spince. Our business is over until next time. Gentlemen.” He nodded at the four smugglers and strode toward a shuttle parked near Mako’s freighter.
As Verdu’s shuttle rose above landing pad, Mako turned to his companions. “Pardon my confusion, but I thought this Wookie was supposed to be in chains!” he retorted. “Exactly when did he become part of your crew?”
Horus coolly replied, “From the moment Han escorted him aboard the Hawk. Why? Is he a problem for you?”
Ignoring the other pedestrians’ stares, Mako shot back, “If Captain Skafte had the slightest hint that you were planning to free that . . .”
The Wookie growled, causing the hairs on the back of Mako’s neck to stand.
“Say Mako, if you were about to call him a thing,” Han began, “I better warn you that Chewie might take it personally.”
After a pause, Han said, “Chewbacca. That’s his name.”
“I don’t care what his name is,” Mako retorted. “Both of you could have gotten us into a lot of trouble with that stunt.”
Han opened his mouth to reply, but his partner spoke first. “I really don’t see why you’re so upset, Spince. Had a little trouble with Wookies in the past?”
Mako felt a flash of guilt, as recalled a pair of Wookies he had sold to a Trandoshan trader. “Of course not!” he replied hotly. “I just . . .”
Horus continued, “You just what? Thanks to you, we had ended up on a route heavily patrolled by Imperial ships. If you had chosen another route, we would have never encountered the Dreadnought . . . or met Chewbacca. Since it all ended well, neither of us have anything to complain about. Do we?”
Mako dared not stare into Horus’ eyes. Quite frankly, the older man frightened him. He sometimes had the feeling that Set Horus possessed a ruthlessness that could make the galaxy tremble with fear. And he did not want to be the one to unleash that fury. “Fine,” he grumbled. “You’ve made your point.”
A cold smile curled Horus’ lips. “Good! Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need some sleep. Someone please lead me to the nearest hotel or inn.”
“There’s the Lumati Hotel,” Han suggested.
Mako added, “Yeah, they have a great bar. I know I’m going to need it.”
The three men and the Wookie left the city’s spaceport and made their way toward a nine-story hotel located in one of Malag’s more pleasant districts. Mako had expected the hotel’s clerk to reject the Wookie. To his surprise, the clerk did not raise a fuss.
Feeling like the odd man out, Mako curtly excused himself and headed toward his room. He washed himself and changed into clean clothes before returning downstairs . . . and heading straight toward the hotel’s bar, the Twilight Star. Once settled upon an empty stool, he ordered Corellian ale. “A whole pitcher,” the smuggler added.
After the bartender returned with a pitcher of Corellian ale and a glass mug, Mako poured himself a drink. He had taken a few sips, when a stranger approached him. “Pardon me sir, but are you a . . . spacer?”
Mako glanced to his right and found a short and stocky man with curly black hair, standing next to his stool. He sighed. “Yes, I am. Why? You need a pilot?”
The man hesitated. “Actually, my employer does require one. This is an important job that will pay at least one thousand credits.”
With a shrug, Mako grumbled, “I’ve just finished a job that earned me thirty-four thousand credits. Why would I need another one?” He took another swig of ale.
Slowly, Mako placed his mug on the bar and turned to stare at the stranger. A long moment passed before he mouth slowly stretched into a wide grin. “You know me well, do you, Mister?” Then he took another swallow of ale. “You’ve got a deal. When do we leave?”
The man coughed nervously. “Um . . . you’re not exactly hired. The best I can offer is an interview.”
Mako frowned. “A what?”
“My employer . . . will offer the job. But only after an interview.” The man paused. “In Suite 60-A.”
The Corellian rolled his eyes in disgust. He considered himself a smuggler, not an employee of the Tagge Corporation. But his sense of greed could not dismiss the idea of an extra one thousand credits. Especially since he had originally expected to earn at least fifty thousand. “All right,” he said with a sigh, “I’ll meet your employer in Room . . .”
“Suite 60-A,” the man corrected. “Please be there within an hour.” He gave a quick nod and walked away.
Mako finished the ale in his mug. He dared not drink another serving. Not if wanted that extra thousand credits.
Within a small room inside one of the Lumati Hotel’s suites, Zoebeida Dahlma observed her aide and manservant interview another candidate for the Ord Mantell job via a holo projector. She had to admit that the bearded young man looked very handsome. He also seemed to project a charm that would appeal to many women. Yet, Igraine seemed immune to the pilot. Zoebeida shared her aide’s sentiments. Despite his physical appeal, he harbored a predatory air that she found distasteful.
The pilot’s surname had certainly come as a surprise. Zoebeida found herself wondering if this Mako Spince was anyway related to Senator Spince of Corellia. She hoped not. The idea of this disreputable pilot being part of the distinguished Spince line seemed like a crime.
The interview finally ended. Igraine stood up and headed toward the room where Zoebeida awaited. “Milady,” she declared upon entering the room. “What do you think of Captain Spince? He seems like a competent pilot, but . . .”
“Let him go,” Zoebeida ordered. The younger woman arched a questionable eyebrow before the former added, “I don’t trust him. I realize that most . . . smugglers are disreputable, but there is something about him that I dislike. My feelings tell me that he would sell us to the Imperials without hesitation . . . if it meant saving his skin. Thank him kindly for his time and let him go.”
Igraine seemed relieved by Zoebeida’s decision. “If you wish, Milady.” She bowed and left the bedroom.
The Maldarian woman leaned back into her chair and sighed. It occurred to her that if she did not find a pilot soon, she might be forced to choose the first one in her thoughts. And unfortunately, Mako Spince seemed to be the only one in her mind, at the moment.
“This is nice.” Han settled back into his chair inside the Lumati Hotel’s only outdoor café. “Isn’t this nice? I mean, I love that waterfall near the waiter’s station. And the drinks – really fancy. A guy could dine here for the rest of his life.”
Anakin heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Han, I don’t want to sound like a grouch, but could you please shut up?”
“I know that you don’t want to be here,” Anakin continued.
Han grunted and took a sip of his Corellian ale. “Then why are we here?”
Anakin grabbed his glass of Juma juice. “I . . . am here because this restaurant makes the best Kommerken steak in this part of the galaxy. You knew this when you suggested that we stay here, in the first place. You also had a chance to accompany our new friend, Chewbacca, to one of the local taverns. But you didn’t.”
“Listen, watching a Wookie eat a side of raw meat does not do wonders for my appetite,” Han retorted. “Sharing the dinner table with Dewlanna – rest her poor soul – had already added plenty of trauma to my childhood.”
Anakin murmured, “Hmmm. Poor Chewbacca spends his first meal as part of our crew . . . alone, because you can’t stand to watch Wookies eat. I’ll be sure to remind him.”
“Wait a minute!” Han paused, as an anxious expression appeared on his face. “You’re not serious, are you?”
A teasing smile curled Anakin’s lips. “Maybe.” Before Han could protest any further, the waiter returned with their meals.
The Kommerken steak proved to be excellent, as usual. Upon the completion of their dinner, the pair left the café and strolled across the lobby. Just as they were about to contact their new companion, a short man with dark and curly hair approached them. “Pardon me gentlemen, but I was told that you were pilots. Is this true?”
Anakin regarded the man with narrowed eyes. “And who told you this?”
“The hotel clerk,” the man answered. “If this is true, I have a proposition for a job. One that is at least worth one thousand credits. If you’re interested, please meet me in Suite 60-A.”
“Wait a minute,” Anakin began. “What exactly is this . . .?”
Han interjected, “A thousand credits, huh? We’ll be there.”
The man nodded. “Good. Don’t forget . . . Suite 60-A.” He walked away.
An irritated Anakin rounded on his younger partner. “Do you mind telling me why you had accepted that man’s offer?”
Han shrugged. “I thought we might need the extra money. To compensate for the credits we had lost, buying Chewie.”
“As I recall, buying Chewbacca from the Imperials was supposed to be an act of compassion.”
Han shot back, “Well . . . being compassionate can also be a little expensive. And besides, we’ve just been given a chance to make up for our loss. Why ignore it?”
Anakin sighed. Heavily. “All right. You have a point. But remember . . . you’ve just accepted an offer we don’t know anything about. I only hope that we don’t end up regretting this.”
THE BRAK SECTOR
Padme sat quietly in her seat, as she glanced out of one of the starship’s windows. Small, bright lights glittered in the dark space, prompting her to sigh.
“Miss the children already?” Bail’s voice asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“Hmmm?” Padme glanced away and found her fellow passenger staring at her.
Bail continued, “You seemed to be deep in thought.”
“I suppose I am thinking of the children,” Padme commented. “Especially Leia. She is . . . not very fond of Tatooine. Mind you, she loves Owen and Beru, but the planet is not exactly to her taste. She prefers Bakura . . . and Alderaan.”
Master Olin spoke up. “I cannot say that I blame her, Milady. Tatooine strikes me as rather desolate. Nor can I understand why Master Kenobi had chosen it as his home.”
“Tatooine is not exactly the place that is bound to attract Imperial attention, Master Olin,” Bail explained. “I believe that Master Kenobi has made the perfect choice.”
Padme added caustically, “I suppose that Tatooine must fit Obi-Wan’s sense of martyrdom. As I recall, he did not care much for it when we first landed there, twenty-four years ago.”
A long silence followed. Padme realized that her current hostility toward her husband’s former Jedi master might have been revealed. Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she turned away and resumed staring out of the window.
“Excuse me,” Bail said, unfastening his seat strap. “I believe I should check with Captain Sen about supper.” He stood up and made his way toward the cockpit.
Padme found herself enduring another long stretch of silence. Eventually, Master Olin broke it when he asked, “How long have you known Obi . . . Master Kenobi?”
“For at least twenty-four years,” Padme replied. “When he and Qui-Gon Jinn had rescued me from the Trade Federation. That’s when I first saw Tatooine.” And met Anakin, she added silently. Padme continued out loud, “I had also fought beside Obi-Wan and . . . his padawan during the first battle of the Clone Wars, on Geonosis.”
A bewildered looking Ferus Olin shook his head. “I don’t understand. If you two have such a long history together, why . . . Why did I sense hostility between you two on Tatooine? Or when I first mentioned him a few minutes ago?”
Padme sighed. “Obi-Wan and I had a . . . disagreement during those last days of the war. When he, Master Yoda and Bail helped me evade the Empire. It’s . . . a private matter.”
“I see.” Ferus paused. Padme wondered what he was thinking. Then he said, “Your children seemed very attractive and intelligent. Your son . . . he . . . Pardon me, but he reminds me of someone I knew.” Padme felt a lump in her throat, as Olin continued, “In fact, he reminds me of Obi-Wan’s former padawan.”
The lump in Padme’s throat grew larger. “Really? I have never considered such a thing. But I suppose that it has been a while since I last saw . . . Master Skywalker.” Padme wondered if Olin had sensed her emotional turmoil at the mention of Anakin’s name. She glanced at the former Jedi padawan, who wore a calm expression. If he had, he gave no indication.
Bail reappeared in the skiff’s passenger section. “I found Captain Sen in the galley, not the cockpit. It seems that supper is ready.” He stood before Padme. “Milady?”
With a faint smile, Padme rose to her feet. She nodded at Bail, who linked his arm with hers and drew her into the ship’s narrow passageway. Master Ferus rose to his feet and followed closely behind them.
The moment he walked inside the hotel suite, Igraine’s heart skipped a beat. She could not keep her eyes off him. The newcomer and his companion gave her a slight nod before they sat down on the suite’s wide sofa.
Igraine struggled to keep herself from staring at the older man. What woman could ignore the lean and muscular quality of his tall frame? Or his dark blond close-cropped hair that framed his handsome, yet hard-edged face? How could any woman not notice the intense blue eyes that seemed to sear into one’s soul? And no one could fail to notice the light scar around his right eye that gave him an extra dangerous aura that rarely surrounded a man of his age. Igraine figured that he must be at least thirty. Or slightly older.
“Nice place!” the man’s companion exclaimed. “A night in this suite could cost a spacer at least two jobs.” Igraine directed her attention at the younger man. There seemed to be no doubt that he was handsome and possessed a scruffy air that women might find appealing. Although affable, his brown eyes had an edge of one who may have seen too much of life for one so young.
Igraine fixed a polite smile on her face. “Good evening, gentlemen. Would you care for a drink?” Both men politely turned down her offer. Then she added, “May I have your names?”
“May we have yours?” the older man countered. His deep voice produced a wave of heat throughout Igraine’s body.
Her smile widened. “For the moment, I wish to remain anonymous.” She paused, taking note of the pair’s questioning stares. “This job is one that requires anonymity. Especially for . . . me. But as my man had told you, it does pay one thousand credits.”
The two pilots exchanged meaningful looks before the older one sighed. “If you wish, Milady. My name is Captain Set Horus. And this is my companion, Han Solo.”
“Captain Solo,” the younger man added.
Igraine continued to stare at the older man. “Does your starship provide space for passengers?” She noticed how his eyes swept over her in an appreciative manner.
Captain Solo replied, “For at least four passengers. And the Hawk is one of the fastest ships in this galaxy. Trust me.”
Still aware of Captain Horus’ stare, a mesmerized Igraine continued, “Well, that’s um . . . I believe . . .” She broke off, as Senator Dahlma’s manservant, Chattal Rahm, whispered a message in her ear. She smiled at the two men. “Excuse me.” Then she rushed into the suite’s bedroom, where she found the older woman pacing back and fourth. “Is there something you wish to tell me, Milady? Will these two pilots do?”
The senator, who regarded Igraine with an amused expression, replied, “Apparently they will . . . for you. Captain Horus is a very handsome man.”
“So is Captain Solo,” Igraine quickly added. Then she blinked, realizing that Senator Dahlma had seen through her little charade. “Um . . . if you’re not comfortable . . .”
Senator Dahlma quickly interjected, “They will do. Tell them I will be ready to leave, tomorrow morning.”
Igraine responded with a slight nod. “Yes, Milady. Pardon me.” And she left the bedroom. The Maldarian woman found the two pilots staring out of a window, talking. “Gentlemen,” she announced, drawing their attention, “I am happy to tell you that you’re hired. We will meet you at the city’s . . .”
“We?” Captain Horus asked, with a raised brow.
A wave of heat flushed over Igraine’s face. “Yes, um . . . there will be a second passenger. As I was saying, we’ll meet you at the city’s spaceport, tomorrow morning. Where, uh . . .?”
“Our hangar is located on Vox Avenue,” Solo added. “We’ll see you around eight in the morning.” He glanced at Captain Horus. “Is that about right?”
The older man nodded. “That would be fine.” He gently took hold of Igraine’s hand and bowed over it. “Until tomorrow morning, Milady.”
A breathless Igraine replied, “Captain Horus.” Remembering the other man, she nodded at him. “And Captain Solo. Good evening to you both.”
The two men bowed – the older one with more ease – and left the suite. With Captain Horus’ departure, Igraine felt a personal sense of bereft . . . something she had not experienced since the death of her former fiancé. And it frightened her.
The following morning, the Javian Hawk’s three crewmen stood near the bottom of the ramp, inside the Vox Avenue hangar. “It’s almost eight,” Han complained. “Where are they?”
“They have another eight minutes,” Anakin replied. “Give them time.” He paused before adding, “Are all systems in order?”
Chewbacca growled, which Han took as an affirmative.
“I wonder why our employers didn’t just give us her name,” Han speculated. “This trip must be very special.”
Anakin replied, “Perhaps she doesn’t want the Empire to know about this trip. And she’s not our employer.”
Han frowned. “How do you know?”
“Let’s just say that I had sensed another presence inside our employer’s suite.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Han struggled to keep from expressing contempt at Anakin’s reference to the Force.
Another growl emitted from Chewbacca. Han translated. “Here they come.” Two cloaked females entered the hangar. The older woman looked slightly familiar to Han, who murmured to Anakin, “Looks like you were right about a second person.”
The two women paused before the Javian Hawk’s crew. “Good morning Captain Horus, Captain Solo,” the older woman greeted. Her dark eyes settled upon Chewbacca. “A Wookie! Well!” She nodded at the latter. “Good morning to you, sir.” Chewie responded with a polite growl.
Anakin bowed before the women. “Good morning, Senator Dahlma.” The older woman’s eyes widened with shock. “Yes, I had recognized you from a half-torn campaign poster on a wall, nearby.”
Grudging respect dawned in the senator’s eyes. “So much for anonymity,” she murmured. Then she turned to her younger companion. “I believe you have already met my aide, last night. Igraine Colbert.”
Anakin’s gaze met the petite woman’s vivid green eyes. He bowed. “Milady.”
“Captain,” Miss Colbert murmured. Red spots began to form on her cheeks. Anakin wondered if she felt just as attracted to him, as he did toward her. A part of him hoped so. Another part felt reluctance at the idea. Aside from a mere physical longing for Vi’dal, Anakin had never felt so drawn toward any woman after Padme. He doubted that his feelings for Miss Colbert matched his intense love for his wife. But he felt more than simple lust for the young Maldarian woman.
Being his usual pragmatic self, Han asked, “Where are we going?”
The senator hesitated. “Worlport, on Ord Mantell.”
Anakin recalled the former military station located in the Bright Jewel System. It had possessed a weapons storage facility and a series of barracks for the clone troopers during the Clone Wars. “Ord Mantell? That’s at least a day’s journey from here,” he said. “But it should take us less than a day if we jump to hyperspace. The trip should not be any problem.”
“Good,” Senator Dahlma replied. “Shall we go?”
Nearly fifteen minutes later, Anakin guided the Javian Hawk out of the Vox Avenue hangar. Just before the starship could lift off, he spotted a man hovering near the hangar’s entrance. Now what was Mako Spince doing there this early in the morning?
END OF CHAPTER FIVE
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