“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE” [PG-13] – Chapter Nine

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER NINE

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Anakin glanced out of the window of his hotel room and watched the rain beat upon the windowpane. Apparently the rain had failed to cease, despite a new day. He wondered if it would ever stop before his departure from Ord Mantell. Twenty-five years ago, he would have rejoiced at such weather after dealing with Tatooine’s hot and dry climate. But he had not set foot upon Tatooine in eleven years. And advancing age and experience has taught him to appreciate . . . variety. 

A quick glance at the chronometer informed Anakin that it was now eight minutes past seven in the morning. The hotel’s restaurants should have opened by now. Familiar with Ord Mantell, Anakin knew of a quaint café located eighty centimeters east of the Hotel Grand. Like The Burning Musk in Corellia’s capital, the Blue Jewel Café provided abundant meals at a low cost. The small restaurant happened to be a favorite of both Anakin and Han’s.

After an early morning shower and a change of clothes, Anakin left his bedroom and made his way into the suite’s living room. Normally, he and Han would not have checked into such an expensive room. But Senator Dahlma had wanted them nearby and was generous enough to pay for half of the suite’s rates.

The living room remained semi-dark, despite the glimmer of light from the rain-stained windows. Loud snores drifted from inside the suite’s other bedroom. Anakin allowed himself a brief smile. His young Corellian partner remained asleep. As he inched toward the door, Anakin nearly stumbled across a pair of long legs stretched across the floor. The former Jedi Knight closed his eyes to sense the presence of the legs’ owner. Chewbacca.

Anakin finally made it to the door and stepped out of the suite and into the corridor. He glanced to his right and spotted a petite, dark-haired female with her back facing him. For a moment, Anakin believed her to be Igraine Colbert. Until he recalled that the Maldarian woman and her employer resided in the suite to his left. Anakin frowned at the woman’s back. A tingling sensation raised the hair on the back of his neck. Why did she look . . .?

A loud thump from inside the suite interrupted his thoughts. Anakin turned away from the woman and opened the suite’s door. “. . . careful with those legs, you big furball!” Han’s voice boomed. “I nearly broke my neck!” A loud roar followed.

Anakin heaved a long-suffering sigh. Apparently, Han and Chewbacca had finally awaken. And it also looked as if the addition of the Wookie to their crew promised to make their lives a lot more interesting. Anakin re-entered the suite, as he prepared to act as mediator between the Corellian and Chewbacca.

——–

The loud thump from behind startled Padme as she prepared to lock her hotel room. A man’s voice cried out, “. . . careful with those legs, you big furball!” A roar or a fearsome growl followed.

Padme frowned. That last voice sounded like it belonged to a Wookie. She had not laid eyes upon one since her years as a Galactic senator. Senator Yarua of Kashyyyk had been one of the Galactic Senate’s more distinguished members. She whirled around and spotted a tall man clad in dark clothes enter one of the rooms along the corridor. A tingling sensation pricked the back of her neck. The man had a familiar air about him – his height, his stance and the color of his ha . . .

“Ready for breakfast, I see!” a familiar voice boomed. Padme glanced over her shoulder and found Bail and Master Olin striding toward her. The Alderaanian prince frowned. “Is there something wrong, Milady? You seem . . . perturbed.”

Padme allowed herself a brief smile. “Good morning, gentlemen.”

Bail returned her greeting. “Good morning. Is there something wrong? Just a minute ago, you had this odd expression on your face.”

Padme glanced at the former Jedi padawan and noticed the dazed expression on his face. “You mean, like Master Olin?”

“Ye . . .” Bail paused, as he stared at Olin. “Ferus, is there a problem?”

With the slight frown still stamped on his face, the former Jedi answered, “I don’t know. I had sensed something. Someone. A presence I have not felt in . . . years.”

“You too?” The two men directed their gaze at Padme. She added. “I felt a similar sensation.”

Bail released a gust of breath. “Well, this is very odd. Why don’t we all discuss this during breakfast, downstairs?”

Padme wanted to investigate the man she had briefly spotted a few minutes ago. But she decided that Bail’s idea seemed the best course of action. Knocking on some stranger’s door to learn whether she knew him seemed out of place for someone of her character. She gave Bail a warm smile. “Breakfast, it is.”

Nearly twelve minutes later, the trio found themselves sitting at a table in one of the hotel’s restaurants on the ground floor. Master Olin glanced uneasily around the dining room. “Are you sure that it is wise to have breakfast in such a . . . public place, Your Highness?”

“Don’t worry Ferus,” Bail replied with a reassuring smile. “This restaurant has just opened and there is barely a soul, here. Besides, it has been eleven years since Senator Amidala has been seen in public. She is not dressed to attract attention. I doubt that anyone, aside from a Jedi, would recognize her. Especially in a haven for smugglers like Ord Mantell.”

The former Jedi nodded. “And what about you, Your Highness? You’re still a highly visible public figure.”

Amusement glittered in Bail’s dark eyes. “I must say that you are vigilant, Ferus. I have picked the right man for the job. Don’t worry. I have a cover story . . . in case someone does recognize me.”

Olin responded with a wan smile. But it seemed clear to Padme that he was not appeased by Bail’s assurances. A waitress appeared at their table and asked for their order. Once the waitress left, Padme spotted Zoebeida Dahlma and another woman entering the restaurant. The Maldarian senator acknowledged Padme and Bail with a polite smile and continued on to another table.

Bail’s gaze remained fixed on the Maldarian women. “Padme, do you have any Maldarian ancestry, by any chance?”

“Not that I know of,” Padme replied. “Why?”

“You and Zoebeida Dahlma’s aide strongly resemble each other. Perhaps she has Nabooan ancestry.”

Padme glanced at Dahlma’s aide. The young woman seemed to possess her height, coloring and full mouth. But Padme saw a difference. “You really think so? Her eyes are different. Green. And they’re smaller. In fact, she reminds me of Queen Apailana.”

Bail shook his head. “Poor Apailana. When I had learned of her death, I thought it was a shame that she had died so young. How old was she?”

A small ball of guilt wormed its way into Padme’s chest. “She had been twelve when she had succeeded Jamilla as Naboo’s queen.” She sighed. “I’ve always regretted convincing Apailana to call for an election in order to force Jamilla from the throne.”

“Why did you do it?” Bail asked.

“I began to suspect Jamilla of developing sympathies toward the Separatists.” Padme allowed herself a slight, bitter smile. “I thought she would lead Naboo against the Republic. Little did I know that I would harbor similar sympathies within a year. And poor Apailana would end up being assassinated by the Empire at such a young age.”

A frowning Bail shook his head. “Exactly how did you learn that the Empire had killed her? I thought only a few of us knew, considering the official word was that she had been assassinated by terrorists.”

“Someone . . . a close acquaintance had informed me.” Inwardly, Padme recalled learning the news from her family during a secret trip to Naboo. “My grandmother had died around the same time.”

To Padme’s surprise, Master Olin added, “I was there. When Queen Apailana had been killed. His Highness is aware of this.”

Bail nodded. “Ferus was with a group of Jedi fugitives, at the time. Their presence attracted the attention of Lord Rasche.”

“The Emperor’s apprentice had killed her?” Padme demanded.

Olin shook his head. “No, it was a sharpshooter. A member of the 501st Legion under Rom . . . Lord Rasche’s command.” The former Jedi revealed how the Imperials had captured him on Coruscant, during an attempt to seek another Jedi fugitive. “I had met someone named Inquisitor Malorum, who was interested in you, Senator Amidala. He believed that you had given birth to a child before your death. A friend helped me escaped and we learned that Malorum was on his way to Naboo to question your family. I suspect . . .” He paused, wearing a grave expression. “I suspect that Malorum was responsible for your grandmother’s death.”

Padme felt her heart twist. Once again, her actions ended up having a negative impact upon someone close to her. This time . . . her grandmother. Her family had revealed that an inquisitor had been responsible for Ryoo Thule’s death. But she had no idea that her marriage to Anakin and her children’s existence was responsible.

According to Olin, the Empire became aware of the Jedi presence on Naboo. “We befriended a Gungan pilot, who introduced us to his leader, a Boss . . .”

“Boss Nass.” Padme nodded. “Yes, he is an old friend of mine.”

Olin continued, “Boss Nass and I decided to acquire Queen Apailana’s help in getting rid of Malorum and the Imperial presence on the planet.” His face grew tight, as he looked away. “Although I did managed to kill Malorum, the Empire managed to defeat us. They killed the Queen and the Jedi with her. We left Naboo, after that.”

Bail heaved a mournful sigh. “Poor Apailana. I’m surprised that the Emperor did not place a strong military presence on Naboo.”

Padme quietly said, “According to my contact, the new queen Kylantha had decided to openly accept the Imperial explanation that a terrorist group had killed Apailana. I can only assume that she did not want to deal with a heavy Imperial occupation.” She turned to Olin. “What happened to you, once you left Naboo?”

The former Jedi stiffly replied, “Nothing much. I simply continued my activities against the Empire. Until I . . . parted ways from my friends.” A gust of breath left his mouth. “Will you please excuse me? I am not feeling hungry at the moment.” Olin bowed at the two friends. “Your Highness, Milady.” And he walked away.

Padme’s eyes remained fixed upon the former padawan’s retreating figure. “Something is bothering him. And it has nothing to do with Naboo.”

“Perhaps it is that familiar presence he had earlier spoke of,” Bail suggested.

“Perhaps.” Padme took a sip of water. “But there is also the matter of Mon. Remember? She claimed to have seen Master Olin on Coruscant.” Padme paused. “Recently, I might add.”

Bail’s dark eyes bored into Padme’s. “Are you suggesting that Ferus Olin might be an Imperial spy?”

The incredulous expression on Bail’s face led Padme to wonder if she had been mistaken. Until she recalled Master Olin’s uncomfortable expression when Mon Mothma had questioned him about Coruscant . . . and his reluctance to discuss his life following his experiences on Naboo. “I realize the man is a former Jedi, Bail,” she continued, “but my gut feeling tells me that he has something to hide.”

A sigh left Bail’s mouth. “Padme, Master Olin has lived on Alderaan for almost four years. And ever since Lord Rasche’s unexpected appearance, ten years ago, we have kept a close surveillance on any outbound communication between Alderaan and other systems. It was Cousin Raymus who had suggested that Ferus accompany me on this trip.”

In other words, Ferus Olin could not have recent contact with Coruscant . . . or be an Imperial agent. Padme felt slightly embarrassed. “Oh dear,” she murmured. “My mistake.”

“I understand. You’re simply being careful.”

Padme added, “Or perhaps eleven years as a fugitive has made me . . . paranoid.” She glanced to her left and spotted their waitress. “Oh look. Our breakfast has arrived.” On that note, the two friends ceased their discussion of their Jedi protector and began to discuss another topic.

———

MALAG, MALDORE

Mako Spince descended the Alastian Star’s ramp, as his new client entered the hangar. “Here she is!” he declared. “The Alastian Star. One of the fastest ships in the galaxy.” Then he stared pointedly at the other man. “And you’re fifteen minutes late.”

Looking slightly pinched, Chattal Rahm responded in a tight voice, “I had no choice. The Imperials are still in the city and I believe they are searching for me. The sooner we leave the bet . . .” A slight thump interrupted his last words. The Maldarian frowned. “What as that sound?” He stared at Mako. “Didn’t you hear it?”

A perturbed Mako sharply replied, “Yeah I did. And I think you better board the ship. Now!”

Rahm had not taken two steps toward the Alastian Star before a squad of Imperial stormtroopers materialized from behind columns of crates, stacked near the wall. The Maldarian whipped out a blaster pistol and began to fire. Mako followed suit. At least two troopers caught the blasts of their weapons before a third trooper shot Rahm squarely in the chest. The Maldarian fell to the ground with a cry on his lips.

Mako shot a horrified look at his fallen client and rushed toward the Alastian Star’s ramp. He overheard a voice from behind cry out, “Stun him!” Before the Corellian could reach the boarding ramp, he felt a blast of hot energy strike him in the back. A grunt escaped his lips before everything went black.

END OF CHAPTER NINE

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“Crossroads of the Force” (PG-13) – Chapter Eight

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER EIGHT

MALAG, MALDARE

“Corellian ale!” Mako Spince barked at the bartender. The latter nodded at the smuggler and turned away. He returned a few minutes later with a mug of Corellian ale. 

Mako grabbed the mug. He took several swigs of the ale before he allowed his eyes to peruse his surroundings. The Omega Hole did not seem like much in compare to the Lumati Hotel’s swankier establishment, the Twilight Star. But the former happened to be one of Mako’s favorite bars throughout the galaxy. It was the type of place where a smuggler could make contact with new clients. Only . . . no one seemed interested in hiring him, tonight.

Several more swigs of ale followed before Mako’s mind settled upon the dark-haired young woman who had interviewed him, last night. The Corellian had hoped that a little charm would convince her to hire him for whatever job she had planned. But apparently the old Spince charm seemed to have lost its luster.

Or had the woman’s employer recognized him as the disgraced son of her colleague, Senator Ticho Spince? Mako had certainly recognized Senator Dahlma, when he spotted her and the young woman approaching Set Horus’ ship in the hangar, this morning. So Dahlma’s aide had hired Horus and Han. The revelation had left Mako feeling stunned and a little resentful. It irked him that the senator decided to hire the pair over him.

As Mako reached for his mug, a man appeared at his side and slid upon the empty stool next to his. The Corellian immediately recognized his new companion – the same man who had recruited him for an interview with Senator Dahlma’s aide. Only now, the man looked nervous. And slightly desperate.

“Still searching for a spacer?” Mako politely asked. He took a swig of his ale. “Or have you found your man?”

The stranger gave Mako a sharp glance. “Excuse me?”

Mako allowed himself a knowing smile. “You don’t remember me, do you? You tried to recruit me for a job, but apparently I didn’t satisfy your employer.” He paused, as he took in the man’s growing desperate air. A thought came to him. “Or maybe you’re looking for another spacer. Need to get off this rock?”

Recognition finally gleamed in the man’s eyes. “Oh, now I remember you.”

“I should think so.” Mako’s smile disappeared. “Perhaps you remember taking me to one of the suites at the Lumati Hotel, last night. To be questioned by a young woman, who was in need of a pilot.” Again, he paused. “Only I never heard from either of you.”

The man’s face turned slightly red. “Oh yes. Um . . . apparently my mistress had someone else . . . in mind.”

“And may I assume that your mistress happens to be Senator Zoebeida Dahlma of this . . . illustrious rock?”

Surprise flicked in the man’s eyes. “How did you . . .?” He broke off and shot a suspicious stare at the pilot. “How did you know? You never got a chance to meet her.”

Mako revealed that he had seen the good senator and her aide board a freighter, earlier this morning. “From what I had overheard, they were bound for Ord Mantell. Now why would a prominent senator want to visit a disreputable place like that?”

Casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, the man replied, “Look, you were right. I am looking for a pilot. I need to leave Maldare as soon as possible. And since you happened to be a pilot, perhaps I can hire you to fly me to Ord Mantell. We can leave tonight.”

“Tonight?” Mako scoffed at the man’s suggestion. “It’s nearly morning. Midnight. I’ll need at least a few hours sleep, first. We leave in the morning.”

The stranger’s mouth formed a thin line. “Fine. I’ll simply find myself another pilot.”

“Good luck,” Mako retorted with a snort. “As you can see, this place is nearly empty. And right now, most pilots are either barely sober, sleeping off their drink or indulging in other nocturnal activities.”

A heavy sigh left the man’s mouth. “All right. We leave tomorrow. Unless you have a problem. I’m willing to pay you five hundred credits.”

The fee satisfied Mako. He instructed his new client to meet him at the Vox Avenue hangar in the morning. “My ship, the Alastian Star, should be the only one there.”

The man gave Mako a hesitant nod. “Thanks. For your help.”

Anxious to return to his drinking, Mako waved the man away. “Yeah. Sure thing.” The two men bid each other good night. After his new client left, Mako summoned the bartender. “Get me another mug of Corellian ale. And this time, leave the bottle.”

———-

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

“This . . . friend of yours has two children?” Inside the casino nightclub, Anakin stared at his companion in disbelief. “And what exactly am I expected to do with them?”

Voranda Sen shrugged. “Become their friend? I don’t . . .”

“Oh no! Thanks, but no thanks” Anakin retorted. “I have just spent nearly a decade raising Han. As far as I’m concerned, my stint with fatherhood is over.”

With a snort, Voranda shot back, “As long as Han continues to breathe, fatherhood will never be over for you, Set.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But I do not need more responsibilities in my life. I love Han like a son, but one is enough.”

Another dancer appeared on stage and began to perform. The wild orange-red hair, the close-fitting body suit and hoofed feet allowed Anakin to recognize her as a Human-Theelin hybrid. She struck him as a competent dancer, but not as sensuous as the Twi’lek. Bored, he eventually looked away.

Voranda continued to regard Anakin with knowing eyes. “You know, for a man of your temperament, you seem very determined to distance yourself from life. It almost seems as if you don’t care.”

“Perhaps life . . . or the galaxy is better off if I don’t care.” Then Anakin clamped his mouth shut, realizing that he had said too much.

Green eyes narrowed with curiosity. “Now what made you say that?”

Fortunately for Anakin, salvation arrived in the form of a grinning Han and Chewbacca. The young Corellian immediately sat down in an empty chair and declared, “You’re looking at the proud winner of 20,000 credits.” He turned to the table’s sole female with a nod. “Voranda! Good to see you, again.”

Smiling, Voranda replied, “The same to you, Han. You’re looking handsome than ever.” Her smile widened, as Han’s face turned slightly red.

Anakin decided to come to his young partner’s rescue, aware of Voranda’s habit of flirting with the Corellian. “I guess that game of sabacc turned out pretty lucky for you.”

“It was more than luck,” Han boasted. “It was my skill as a gambler. There was no stopping me.”

Amused by the younger man’s cockiness, Anakin rolled his eyes. Then he noticed that Chewbacca had remained standing. He pulled out the last empty chair. “Have a seat.” The Wookie nodded gratefully at the former Jedi and sat down. Anakin then introduced him to the red-haired pilot. “Chewbacca, this is an old friend of ours, Voranda Sen. Voranda, meet our new partner and co-pilot, Chewbacca.”

Voranda and the Wookie exchanged friendly nods. “How long have you been with Set and . . .” She paused, as her eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute! You look slightly familiar. Have we met?”

Chewbacca gave her a questioning stare and growled. Han translated. “He wants to know where you know him from.”

“Perhaps we’ve never actually met,” Voranda explained to Chewbacca. “But you do look familiar. I believe it was somewhere in the Abrion Sector, about a year ago. Were you ever with the crew of a freighter called the Drunken Dancer?”

Nodding, Chewbacca growled. Anakin glanced at Han, who said, “Chewie was with the Drunken Dancer, until he fell into the hands of the Imperials, three months ago. Uh . . . Set and I helped liberate him from slavery.” Han shot a look at Chewbacca. “Um, he wants to know you know of the ship’s most recent whereabouts.”

“On Tatooine, I heard that the Drunken Lady’s crew had recently disbanded,” Voranda replied. Anakin noticed the dismayed expression on Chewbacca’s face. The redhead continued, “Apparently they had been searching for a missing crewman, until a close encounter with an Imperial ship in the Alderaan Sector had convinced the captain to disband the crew.” She paused before adding, “Did you know that the captain’s daughter and several of the crewmen were former Jedi?”

Both Anakin and Han exchanged startled looks. “Really?” Han finally asked. “What was her name? The captain’s daughter?”

With a shrug, Voranda replied, “Honestly, I forgot.” She nodded at Chewbecca. “Perhaps he knows.” Anakin glanced at Chewbecca, who seemed lost in his own thought. The redhead added, “However, I have another matter to discuss.”

“Which is?” Anakin asked.

After a brief pause, Voranda continued, “I plan to hold a meeting, tomorrow afternoon. With a few pilots I’ve encountered here in Worlport. It’s regarding a matter I want to propose to all of you. It should prove to be very profitable.”

Han frowned. “What is it? A smuggling job?”

“More like a smuggling operation,” Voranda corrected. “Possibly a long term operation for several years.”

Again, the two partners exchanged looks. Although Anakin felt leery of being part of a long term operation, he also saw the potential for greater profit. He asked, “When is this meeting?”

The redhead replied, “Tomorrow afternoon. In one of the casino’s private rooms, around three o’clock.”

Anakin nodded. “Fine. I’ll be there.” He stared at his two colleagues. “Han? Chewbacca?”

“I’m game,” Han said. The Wookie growled. “And Chewie says the same.”

A bright smile illuminated Voranda’s face. “Great! I’ll see you three, tomorrow.” She stood up and directed a flirtatious smile at Han. “By the way Solo . . . congratulations.” And she walked away.

The two men and the Wookie watched the red-haired pilot recede into the nightclub’s crowd. “You know,” Han began, “I have this odd feeling that she’s interested in me.”

A smile touched Anakin’s lips. “And is that a bad thing?”

“I’m at least twenty years younger than her! Are you serious?” Han retorted.

“So? She looks very attractive for a woman twenty years your senior,” Anakin slyly continued. “Since when have you ever been averse to older women?”

Han shot back, “When they’re old enough to be my mother!”

Still smiling, Anakin said, “Really Han! You need to be a little more open-minded.”

Han dismissed Anakin’s teasing with a wave of his hand. “And what about this job of hers? The last thing I want is to get involved in some big smuggling operation on a permanent basis.”

“Who said it was permanent?” Anakin replied. “Voranda has not told us everything.” His eyes fell upon the stage. The Twi’lek dancer had returned. Anakin felt an inclination to remain in the nightclub. But the fatigue in his body reminded him that he needed sleep. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to bed. Good night.”

Both Han and Chewbacca bid him goodnight. Anakin shot one last glance at the dancer and slowly made his way out of the lounge.

——-

MALAG, MALDORE

Three Imperial stormtroopers entered The Omega Hole’s empty barroom. One of the them headed straight toward the pudgy-faced bartender, who was in the process of cleaning the bar’s long countertop.

“Hey! You!” the senior stormtrooper barked. “We’re looking for someone. A human. This is him.” He switched on a small holoemitter that projected the image of a stocky man with dark, curly hair. “His name is Chattal Rahm. Have you seen him?”

The bartender immediately recognized the image. Despite his instinct to lie, he remembered his employer’s policy regarding the authorities – cooperate at all times. The bar came first – especially over any customer in trouble with the authorities. “Yeah, I’ve seen him,” he replied wearily. “Nearly two hours ago. He had been talking to another customer.”

The stormtrooper demanded, “Where did Rahm go?”

“How would I know?” the bartender retorted. “I didn’t follow the guy.”

A small stretch of silence followed. Then the stormtrooper asked, “What about the other customer? What were he and Rahm talking about?”

“What makes you think the other customer was a man?”

The stormtrooper removed his helmet and glared at the bartender with dark and intimidating eyes. He reminded the latter of a Mandalorian bounty hunter he had not laid eyes upon in over a decade. “Don’t play games with me, Barkeep!” the trooper growled. “Who was this other customer and what were they talking about?”

The bartender sighed. He had done the best he could to protect Mako. “Okay, the other customer was a man. A spacer, I think. This Rahm fellow had hired him for passage. Don’t ask me where, because I didn’t hear everything.”

“What did you overhear?”

After a brief hesitation, the bartender answered, “Well, the spacer’s ship is located in the Vox Avenue hangar. It’s called . . . the Alastian Star, I think. And they’re supposed to leave tomorrow morning. I swear it’s all I know.”

The stormtrooper gave the bartender one long stare, before breaking into a cold smile. “Okay. Thanks for your . . . help.” He donned his helmet and barked at his companions, “Let’s go!”

The bartender heaved a sigh of relief, as the stormtroopers marched out of the Twilight Hole. Good riddance, he thought. Now, if only Mako Spince never learn who had ratted him to the Imperials.

END OF CHAPTER EIGHT

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Seven

ordmantell

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER SEVEN

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Han guided the Javian Hawk through Ord Mantell’s heavy atmosphere and toward the planet’s busy capital. Within minutes, he landed the starship on a landing platform at the Worlport Spaceport, before guiding it into a hangar already occupied by another starship. “Here we are,” he declared. “Ord Mantell.”

Both Anakin and Han left the cockpit and joined their passengers in another section of the ship. “We’re here,” Anakin announced to the two women. “I will have to report the Hawk’s arrival to the local port master. Han, Chewie and I can rendezvous with you two ladies at your hotel. Which brings me to my question – what is the name?”

Senator Dahlma stood up with her usual regal manner. “We’ll be staying at the Hotel Grand,” she announced. “And I had made reservations for us all, before leaving Maldare. Which means your room will be next to the suite that Igraine and I will occupy. As for Mr. Chewbacca,” she glanced at the Hawk’s newest crew member, “I do not know if the hotel . . .”

“They will allow him to stay,” Anakin reassured the senator. “This is Ord Mantell, Senator. Not Coruscant.”

“Well . . . I suppose the matter has been settled.” Senator Dahlma glanced pointedly at the two men and then at her luggage.

Anakin knew what she wanted – someone to carry her luggage. He directed his gaze at Han. Who sighed. “Great! I should have known I’d end up being some glorified baggage handler. Where’s a good droid when you need one? C’mon Chewie, time to carry the ladies’ luggage.”

Han and Chewbacca gathered the Maldarian women’s luggage and started down the ship’s boarding ramp. Senator Dahlma followed. Miss Colbert hesitated and turned to Anakin. “Please forgive the senator,” she said in that soft, husky voice that Anakin found appealing. “She is a decent woman and has a good heart. But she also comes from a wealthy and influential family. Sometimes, her background tends to reflect in a rather . . . well, haughty manner.”

With a smile, Anakin replied, “I understand. It hasn’t been that long since the old days of the Republic. I’ve met her kind on Coruscant, before. Good people, but . . . like you had said, a little haughty.”

“Is that where you are from?” Miss Colbert asked. “Coruscant?”

Anakin hesitated. Should he tell her the truth? He finally decided. “Actually, I’m from one of the Outer Rim territories. But I have spent some considerable time on Coruscant. Before the Empire.”

“You seem old enough to have witnessed the Clone Wars,” Miss Colbert added. “Were you a veteran?”

“More like a pilot.” The former Jedi Knight offered his arm to the senator’s aide. “May I escort you off the ship, Milady?”

Miss Colbert smiled and linked her arm with Anakin’s. “I would be honored. And you can call me Igraine.”

“I’m . . . Set.” Anakin exchanged another smile with the Maldarian woman and escorted her off the Javian Hawk.

——-

Three hours later, Zoebeida Dahlma sat back into her chair, feeling relaxed for the first time since she learned about this conference several days ago. As she sipped her Mandalorian wine, Bail Organa continued his opening address to those attending the conference.

“. . . many of you. But we are all here for one reason – namely freedom throughout this galaxy.”

While the Alderaanian continued his speech, Zoebeida observed those who sat inside the Hotel Grand’s Jewel Conference Room. Naturally, Mon Mothma sat on one side of Organa and the former senator from Corellia, Garm Bel Iblis, sat on Bail’s other side. All three were seen as the Great Triumvirate – the founders of this new Rebel Alliance. Zoebeida felt surprised that former senators Padme Amidala and Solipo Yeb had not also participated in the alliance’s formation, considering their opposition against Palpatine during the last days of the Republic.

Speaking of Solipo Yeb, Zoebedia spotted the former Andalian senator seated at a table just left of Bail’s. Despite being a fugitive from the Empire, Solipo had managed to develop connections to several rebellious cells in the Vivenda Sector. Next to him sat Jan Dodonna, the lanky and bearded former Imperial general who had joined the Alliance after the Emperor Palpatine had ordered his assassination. Apparently, the Emperor considered the retired general from Dodonna as a danger to the Empire.

“Organization is the key,” Organa continued. “As an organized force, we can eventually bring an end to the Empire’s grip upon this galaxy. And eventually, restore the Republic.”

Applause followed. Zoebeida noticed that some of the attendees looked skeptical at Organa’s last words. Including Padme Amidala. Zoebeida had last seen the former Nabooan senator at a brief meeting with Organa and Iblis on Averam, four years ago. Like the former Corellian senator, Amidala had faked her death in order to avoid being hunted down by the Empire. Only Zoebeida could not fathom why the Empire would be interested in the former Queen of Naboo. Or why the latter would resort to such drastic steps to ensure anonymity. Perhaps she will learn the reason sometime during the conference.

Returning her attention to her Alderaanian colleague, Zoebeida realized that he seemed to be near the end of his speech. “. . . realize that by attending this conference, we have pledged our lives to returning freedom to this galaxy. I thank you.” More applause followed. When it died down, Organa added, “Please feel free to mingle. Since we plan to work together for years to come, I feel that we might as well get to know one another a lot better.”

The moment the attendees began to mingle, Zoebeida stood up and slowly made her way toward Padme Amidala’s table. By the time she reached it, she discovered that the former senator had been joined by Garm Bel Iblis and Solipo Yeb. She smiled at the other three. “How are we enjoying this evening?”

Yeb replied, “Surprisingly, quite well. I had expected to encounter a lot of squabbling.”

“Wait until tomorrow,” Garm shot back. “When we begin discussing the possibility of organization. The worms will certainly be coming out of the woodwork.”

Zoebeida shook her head in mock despair. “You’re such a cynic, Garm. You need to have more faith in your fellow sentient beings.”

Rolling his eyes in contempt, the Corellian shot back, “I have faith. I’m part of this alliance, aren’t I?”

A sigh left Zoebeida’s mouth. Sometimes, she wondered if the loss of his family at the hands of Imperial troopers had mentally affected Garm’s personality. “If you say so,” Zoebeida wearily replied.

“I can understand Garm’s position,” Solipo Yeb added. “The past ten to fourteen years have been difficult for us all. The war, the loss of the Republic, the Empire and many of us losing our homes or being forced to find new homes. You’re lucky, Zoebeida. You have not experienced any true upheavals in your life. At least, not yet.”

The Maldarian senator frowned. “What do you mean . . . not yet?”

Solipo continued, “Well, you haven’t experienced any loss, have you? Garm, Padme and I can no longer serve the Senate because we’re all fugitives. Well, I’m a fugitive. Garm and Padme are believed to be dead. And none of us can no longer reside on our homeworlds.”

Zoebeida pressed her lips together. When she had made the decision to approach Amidala’s table, she had never considered that she would end up feeling like an outsider. But Solipo’s words also gave her an opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about the former Nabooan senator. “If you do not mind my asking, Senator Amidala,” Zoebeida began, “why are you avoiding the Imperials?”

The younger woman’s eyes blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Garm had opposed many of Palpatine’s decisions and policies for years,” Zoebeida continued. “Which finally put him in danger when Palpatine finally became Emperor. Solipo had provided sanctuary to a Jedi Knight and now, his homeworld is under direct Imperial occupation. But Naboo is not under any such danger. So, why did you fake your death in order to avoid detection by the Empire?”

The Nabooan woman stiffened slightly. Zoebeida wondered if she had gone too far. “It’s . . .” A sigh left Amidala’s mouth. “The Petition of 2000,” she finally answered. “I had helped draft the Petition of 2000, which demanded Palpatine’s resignation once the Clone Wars ended. Unlike many other senators,” Amidala shot a pointed look at Zoebeida, “I had refused to withdraw my name from the petition. In fact, I was the one who had delivered the petition to him.”

A shaft of guilt struck Zoebeida. She perfectly understood Amidala’s comment about those senators who had withdrawn their signatures from the petition. Zoebeida had been one of them. And she did it to preserve her career in the Senate. Oh well. At least she now knew the reason behind Amidala’s fugitive status. She only hoped that she would never face a similar fate.

——-

“Well if I live and breath!” a female’s voice cut through the noise inside one of the Lady Fate Casino’s nightclubs. “Set Horus?”

With the Brin band’s music filling his ears, Anakin glanced away from the Twi’lek dancer on the stage and found himself staring into a pair of familiar green eyes. “Voranda Sen? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

The tall, red-haired woman smiled, as she settled in one of the empty chairs at Anakin’s table. “I suppose . . . if you consider two years as ages. What are you doing here on Ord Mantell?”

“Providing transportation for a client,” Anakin replied. “And you?”

Voranda shrugged. “The same.”

The two pilots had first met, while taking part of a convoy delivering equipment and supplies to a mining colony on Bespin, six years ago. From the moment they first met, Anakin found Voranda to be an attractive woman – despite her being at least over a decade older than him. But as with Vi’dal Mira, his relationship with Voranda had developed into nothing more than friendship.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Anakin continued. “Han and I had ran into Corsac Best and Lin Tsai at one of the Casino’s restaurants, earlier this evening. And now, I find you here. In fact, I’ve been seeing a good number of familiar faces at my hotel.”

Another shrug lifted Voranda’s elegant shoulders. “Well, this is a favorite spot for many smugglers and freighter pilots.”

“Yeah, but the pilots I’ve encountered usually hang out on Nar Shaada or Abregado-rae. Not Ord Mantell.” Anakin returned his gaze to the Twi’lek dancer. “Something is going on, here.”

A long pause followed. The Twi’lek dancer finally finished her routine amidst fervent applause. Then Vornada said, “She reminds you of Vi’dal, doesn’t she? She even has he same skin color. I’ve always wondered why you and she never became more than friends.”

“Because we’re not in love,” Anakin coolly replied. A waitress appeared at the table. He ordered a tall glass of Corellian ale.

Voranda shot back, “So what?” She dismissed the waitress with a wave of her hand. “We live in perilous times, Captain Horus. A person should grab a little happiness when the opportunity arises.”

“I’ll think about that.”

“On the other hand,” Voranda continued, “women like Vi’dal aren’t exactly your type. I suspect that you prefer those with a lot more class. A true lady.”

More class? Anakin automatically found himself thinking of Padme. Only briefly. What seemed the point of brooding over someone whom you could never see again? Who was gone . . . forever? A harsh laugh escaped his mouth. “Voranda, I come from a backwater planet in the Outer Rim Territories. From the lowest class in society. No . . . lady would be interested in me.”

“I don’t know about that.” Voranda’s remark drew a stare from Anakin. “I know a woman – a friend – who is here in Worlport. She strikes me as the type who might be interested in a good-looking and intelligent man like you. She’s a lady from the tips of her fingers to her toes. And privileged or not, she’s intelligent enough to probably view you as someone worthy.”

Anakin responded with a derisive snort. “Aside from your friend’s questionable taste in men, what’s the catch?”

“Huh?”

“What’s wrong with her? Something must be, if you think she might be interested in someone like me.”

Voranda glared at Anakin. “There is nothing wrong with her! She happens to be a charming and beautiful woman. And very intelligent.” Anakin regarded his fellow pilot through narrowed eyes, until she added quietly, “She’s also a widow with two young children.”

Two young children? Anakin stared at Voranda with disbelief.

——-

MALAG, MALDARE

A furious Darth Rasche glared at the quivering, dark-haired Imperial agent that faced him. “Say that again?” he growled.

The Imperial agent, a pale and intense young man named Bauer Suron, inhaled deeply. Then he repeated his message to the Sith Lord. “Senator Dahlma is missing. She is no where to be found. And her aide is missing, as well.”

“I thought you had her under observation for the past several days!”

Suron hesitated. “Well . . . yes.” Rasche’s eyes narrowed and the agent grew considerably nervous. “My Lord, I did request additional agents to assist me in observing . . .”

“I am not interested in your excuses, Agent Suron!” Rasche bellowed.

A deafening silence filled the small conference room located inside Malag’s Imperial Liaison Office. Suron gulped. Loudly. “Yes, my Lord,” he murmured.

Rasche continued, “What have you learned of the senator’s activities?”

The agent replied, “As you know, Senator Dahlma never did visit her family’s estate near Dalmar, as she had intended.”

“Yes, I know,” the Sith Lord added imperiously. “She was last seen at her private home, here in Malag.”

Suron paused. “Actually, she was last seen at the Lumati Hotel, last night. Both she and her aide had checked into a suite.”

Suspicion gnawed at the back of Rasche’s mind. “Why?”

“I have no idea, my Lord,” Suron answered. “But I believe that her manservant, Chattal Rahm, might be able to shed some light.” The agent cleared his throat nervously. “Rahm had been seen by various hotel employees escorting various people to the senator’s suite. One employee described them as spacers.”

Rasche contemplated the agent’s information. Why would a prominent senator check into a hotel suite, when she had her own private home in this city? And why would she need some disreputable pilot to fly her off of Maldare? Obviously, Senator Dahlma planned to visit some place special and for a very private reason. But what?

“I want you to gather descriptions of all the pilots who were seen approaching the senator’s suite,” Rasche instructed. “And find this Chattal Rahm. You shall have the local security and a platoon of stormtroopers to assist you.”

Suron nodded with deference. “Yes, my Lord.” He started to turn away.

“And Suron,” Rasche added in a threatening voice. The agent paused. “I only tolerate failure once. Fail me again . . .” He left the threat unfinished. Judging from the fear that flared in Suron’s eyes, Rasche realized that the other man had received the message.

END OF CHAPTER SEVEN

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Six

datacrons_tatooine

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER SIX

ANCHORHEAD, TATOOINE

The burly man strode casually along one of Anchorhead’s dusty streets, accompanied by two children. The golden protocol droid followed closely behind, filling their ears with incessant chatter.

“I really do not see why Miss Padme had left me behind and taken Artoo,” the droid complained. “As a protocol droid, I have knowledge of over six million forms of communication in my programming. Surely, I could have serve as interpreter for Miss Pad . . .”

“Not now, Threepio!” Luke barked. “Now is not the time for you to be complaining about being left behind. Mother has made her decision.”

The protocol droid sounded affronted by his young charge’s outburst. “Well really, Master Luke! I did not realize . . .”

“One other thing, Threepio,” Owen added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be bandying Miss Padme’s name out loud. There might be Imperial ears listening.”

“Yes, Master Owen.”

The group finally reached a poundstone store that sold power converters at the street’s south end. Uncle Owen turned to Luke and Leia. “I want you two to wait here. Threepio and I will be right back.”

“You need me, Master Owen?” the droid asked.

With a sigh, the moisture farmer replied, “Yes, Threepio. I need you to translate the binary language for the moisture vaporators.” He nodded at Luke and Leia. “And you two, stay close.” Then he and Threepio entered the shop.

The twins settled on a small bench outside of the shop. Nearly ten minutes passed before Leia heaved a loud sigh. “I’m bored,” she muttered darkly. “I thought that Anchorhead would be more exciting than this.”

Luke rolled his eyes. His sister could be quite a grouch at times. “Then you should have stayed at the farm.”

“And spend hours in the company of two women barely able to conduct a conversation with each other?” Leia snorted. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Another three minutes passed. Leia opened her mouth for another complaint, but Luke spotted a familiar figure. “Hey! It’s Biggs!” Then he cried out, “Biggs!” A dark-haired boy around the twins’ ages stared at them. A smile lit up this thin face, before he waved. Luke waved back and stood up.

“Luke, where are you going?” Leia demanded. “Uncle Owen told us to stay here.” The fair-haired boy ignored his sister and rushed toward his best friend. “Luke!”

The two boys met in the middle of the street and slapped each other on the backs. “Hey Luke!” Biggs Darklighter greeted. “What are you doing here on Tatooine? Your family usually don’t visit until another two months from now.” Biggs happened to be the son of a wealthy land magnate . . . and Luke’s best friend for the past six years.

Luke shrugged. “Leia and I are staying with our uncle, while Mother is on a business trip. Are you with your father?”

Biggs pointed at the Weary Traveler Tavern. “He’s in there, getting a drink. I saw you and Leia. Where’s your uncle?”

“Buying a new moisture vaporator,” Luke answered.

Biggs nodded. “Maybe your uncle can allow you to visit our home before you leave. Dad just bought me a new skyhopper. A suborbital T-12 model.” A wide grin appeared on his face. “The wings’ span are this wide, and . . .” As he threw out his arms, his left hand knocked against a burlap sack held by a passing pedestrian. Bottles of liquor fell out of the sack and crashed upon the ground. Luke detected the strong odor of alcohol.

Tall, burly and grizzled, the pedestrian cast an intimidating glare at the Biggs. “Clumsy brat!” he growled. “Look at what you’ve done! I had paid a good amount of wupiupi for those bottles of ale.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” a slightly frightened Biggs pleaded. “It was an accident.”

The man retorted, “Sorry doesn’t mean anything! I’m out of 200 wupiupi and some good Spiced Ale!” He grabbed Biggs by the latter’s tunic. “It’s gonna take more than an apology to make up for my loss, boy!”

Luke decided to help Biggs escape the man’s grip. “Hey! Let go of my friend! He said that he was sorry!” Then Luke tried to pry the man’s fingers from Biggs’ tunic. His efforts ended in vain, when the man shoved Luke aside with a free hand. The eleven year-old’s rump landed on the ground.

“Luke!” Leia rushed forward and helped her brother to his feet. She then rounded furiously on the man. “You bully! I suppose you consider yourself brave for picking on boys half your age!”

Sensing the man’s growing ire, Luke grabbed his sister’s shoulders and drew her back. “No! Leia! Don’t!” he hissed.

But Leia’s temper had passed the point of no return. “Why don’t you let our friend go? What can you possibly achieve by bullying a twelve year-old boy?”

With Biggs still in his grip, the man leaned down and sneered at Leia. “Mighty fine words coming out of the mouth of a little girl. Your friend just cost me 200 wupiupi. One way or the other, I’m getting payback!”

“By bullying a child?”

“Is there a problem?” another masculine voice asked. The three children and the pedestrian stared at the robed figure that had materialized before them. Luke immediately recognized the mysterious man who had joined Mother, Uncle Bail and another man at Mos Eisley. “You seemed to have that young man in a rather tight grip, Mister . . .?”

The man snarled, “The name is Oswald Rankin and this matter is none of your concern!”

“What has the boy done to you?”

Looking slightly annoyed, Rankin retorted, “He had cost me two hundred wupiupi, when he broke my bottles of very expensive Corellian Spiced Ale!”

The robed stranger smiled. “Really? And did the boy break your bottles of ale on . . . purpose?”

“Look here, old man! I suggest that you leave now! Like I said, this is none of your concern.”

Luke glanced up at the robed man’s face and noticed that his blue eyes glittered mysteriously. “This boy has not harmed you in any way.”

Rankin stared hard at the robed stranger. It seemed to Luke as if the former had suddenly become mesmerized, as he released Biggs. “You’re right,” Rankin murmured. “The boy did not harm me.”

The robed stranger murmured, “He did not mean to break your bottles.”

With a nod, Rankin added, “Yes, you’re right. He did not mean to break them.”

“Perhaps it is best that the ale is gone,” the stranger added. “You do not need to consume all that alcohol.”

His eyes still glazed, Rankin said, “No . . . I don’t.”

“You will forget this incident and go home.”

Rankin frowned momentarily. Then he said to the stranger, “What incident?” He stared at the three children. “What’s going on?”

“It is nothing, sir,” the stranger answered with a smile. “You seemed a bit out of sorts. We were all trying to assist you.”

“Well, I’m fine.” Rankin regarded the others with confusion. “Um . . . thanks. Excuse me.” He nodded curtly and walked away.

Luke and his two companions stared at the robed stranger. “How did you do that?” he demanded. “How did you manipulate his thoughts like that?”

The robed man merely smiled in a mysterious fashion. “I’m afraid that your Mr. Rankin might be an easily suggestive person.” He regarded the three children with concern. “And you . . . are you three unharmed? Has he . . .?”

“I’m fine,” Biggs replied. “Other than he nearly scared me senseless.”

Luke added, “No harm . . . except for my pride and backside.” He thrust out his hand to the stranger. “Thanks for your help. I’m Luke Sk . . . uh, Organa, by the way. And this is my sister, Leia and my friend, Biggs Darklighter.”

The man shook Luke’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

“And exactly who are you?” Leia demanded. “You look familiar.”

The man’s smile widened. “My name is Ben. Ben Kenobi.”

————

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Once the Alberforce penetrated Ord Mantell’s thick outer cometary cloud, it made its way toward the planet’s glittering capital, Worlport. A heavy sheet of rain greeted the starship’s passengers and crew as it finally settled upon one of the spaceport’s landing platforms.

The starship rolled into an empty hangar and came to a halt. Several minutes later, Padme and R2-D2 followed Bail, Captain Sen and their Jedi protector down the Alberforce’s boarding ramp. “I need to report my arrival to the portmaster,” Voranda declared. “I will meet all you at the hotel, later.” She hesitated. “What names will you be using to check in? In case I need to contact you.”

Bail replied, “I will be using the name, Tam Avner. As for Senator Amidala, she will . . .”

“My name will be Rhiannon,” Padme added. “Rhiannon Chir.”

Voranda nodded. “Good. I will check with you, later tonight.” She walked away from the others.

Bail led the others outside of the hangar. Then he hailed a shuttle taxi to convey them to the Hotel Grand. Dominated by skyscrapers and red-domed topped buildings, Worlport’s skyline reminded Padme of a heady mixture of Coruscant and Naboo’s capital, Theed. To her surprise, Master Olin expressed a similar opinion, out loud.

“I must say that this is a very lovely city,” he commented, while glancing out of a shuttle window. “I cannot tell whether it reminds me of Coruscant or Theed.”

Padme stared at the former Jedi. “You’ve been to Naboo?”

“Yes, Milady.” Unease briefly shadowed his eyes. “Nine years ago, to be exact.”

“Around the time of Queen Apaliana’s death,” Padme murmured quietly. “And the death of my grandmother.”

The former Jedi remained silent, while Bail continued, “It is hard to believe that this place is now a smuggler’s haven. Especially since it was originally settled by Corellian farmers.”

“A Jedi master named Pablo-Jill had managed to bring peace to this planet about fourteen or fifteen years ago. Just before the Clone Wars.”

“You must be very proud.” The words came out more sardonic than Padme had originally intended. Master Olin stiffened, while Bail focused his attention to the view beyond his window.

Padme glanced out of the window beside her and spotted the words – HOTEL GRAND – in bright lights that illuminated through the heavy rain and gray skies. The shuttle soon descended upon one of the hotel’s landing platforms. Upon reaching the hotel lobby, Bail and Padme checked into their rooms under their aliases. Bail managed to acquire a suite with adjoining bedrooms for himself and Master Olin. Padme acquired a room next door to theirs. The trio and R2-D2 then set out for the hotel’s turbolifts. Upon entering one, they encountered none other than the senator from Chandrila, Mon Mothma. She was a tall, slender woman woman with red hair and intense blue eyes.

“I see that you’ve all finally made it,” the Chadrilian senator greeted.

Bail asked, “Are we the last to arrive?”

“No. One other is still missing.” Mon shot an uneasy glance at Olin. “Who is your friend?”

Bail made the introductions. “This is our protector, Master Ferus Olin. He is a former Jedi.”

Mon continued to eye the younger man uneasily. “Really?” Then her gaze narrowed. “Have you ever been on Coruscant? In recent years, I mean.”

“I’m afraid that it has been quite a while, Milady,” Olin calmly answered.

The turbolift arrived on the hotel’s tenth floor. All of the occupants stepped out. “Your room is on this floor?” Padme asked.

The Chandrilian senator smiled. “I have ensured that all of us have rooms on this floor. The conference room is located here, as well.” After shooting another curious glance at Olin, Mon added, “Well, I should prepare for supper.”

“Who hasn’t arrived, yet?” Bail asked.

“Zoebeida,” Mon replied. “She has yet to arrive.” Padme realized that Mon had referred to Zoebeida Dalhma of Maldare.

They came upon Padme’s room. “Well, here we are,” she announced. “When will the first meeting . . .?”

“A dinner for us has been scheduled to begin in about five hours,” Mon replied. “Just down the corridor, in the Jewel Room. I will see you then.”

Padme nodded. “I only hope that Zoebeida arrives in time, as well.” She and R2 entered her room. As the door shut behind her, Padme heaved a sigh. Between the upcoming Alliance meetings, having a former Jedi in her midst and being separated from her children, the next two days might prove to be strenuous.

———–

ANCHORHEAD, TATOOINE

Owen and CP-30 stepped out of the junk shop and noticed something very alarming – Luke and Leia seemed to be missing. Contrary to his instructions, they had left the bench in front of the shop.

“Oh Master Owen!” Threepio wailed. “Something terrible must have happened to them!”

The moisture farmer rolled his eyes. Threepio could be ridiculously melodramatic at times. Like now. On the other hand, there was a possibility that the twins might be in danger.

“Uncle Owen!”

Owen glanced to his left and saw both Leia, Luke and Biggs Darklighter rush toward him. A man in a hooded robe accompanied them. Alarm bells rang in Owen’s mind, when the man threw back his hood. Obi-Wan Kenobi beamed at him. Owen realized that Padme would have his hide if she knew that her children had met the former Jedi Master.

Luke reached the moisture farmer first. “Uncle Owen, guess who we ran into? Mother and Uncle Bail’s friend from Mos Eisley, Mister Ken . . . uh . . .”

The former Jedi paused before the moisture farmer. “Kenobi. Ben Kenobi. Good day to you, Master Lars.” He held out his hand.

Owen reluctantly grabbed Kenobi’s hand and shook it. “Good day.” He frowned at the twins. “What did I tell you two about not wandering off?”

Leia calmly explained, “We saw Biggs and left the bench to say hello. Only we had trouble with this common . . . thug, who bullied Biggs for accidentally breaking his liquor bottles. Fortunately, Mister Kenobi,” she nodded at the former Jedi Master, “came to our rescue. I think we should repay Mister Kenobi’s assistance with an invitation to dinner. He does not live that far from the farm. In the Jundland Wasteland.”

The moisture farmer found himself unable to respond. If Kenobi had been someone else, he would have accepted Leia’s suggestion. But this was Anakin’s former Jedi master. Owen knew that Padme would disapprove of her children having any contact with the man. “Well, I . . .” he began.

Kenobi spoke up. “Thank you, Miss Organa. But I’m afraid that I might have to decline your kind invitation. I have . . . uh, pressing matters, tonight.”

“What about tomorrow night?” Leia demanded.

Both Owen and Kenobi stared at each other and blinked. How could they explain the truth to the twins without revealing the tumultuous history of their parents? Owen said, “I don’t think . . .”

“You have pressing matters tomorrow night, as well, Mr. Kenobi?” Luke asked. “You sure have a lot of business, lately.”

Kenobi heaved a sigh. At that moment, Owen knew that he and Beru would have a dinner guest, tomorrow evening. “I suppose I could join you for supper, tomorrow,” Kenobi finally said, much to Owen’s consternation. He turned to the farmer. “If that is fine with you?”

Owen realized that he had been trapped by Leia’s sense of courtesy and Kenobi’s eagerness to become acquainted with the twins. He sighed. “I’m sure that . . . Beru would not mind preparing for a guest tomorrow night.”

The children and Kenobi became all smiles and excited chatter. Owen hoped and prayed that Padme would never learn of this encounter with the former Jedi Master. But he suspected that his hopes would prove to be futile in the end.

END OF CHAPTER SIX

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Five

jundlandwastes

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER FIVE

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.

——–

MALAG, MALDARE

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.”

“Chewie?”

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.

“Greed?”

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?”

“What?”

“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.

———–

MALAG, MALDARE

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

 

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Four

 

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“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER FOUR

THE VELM SYSTEM

Han and Anakin stood near the Javian Hawk’s boarding ramp, while they observed Mako converse with the Dreadnought’s captain. Both the Hawk and Mako’s ship, the Alastian Star, stood inside the Imperial cruiser’s shuttle bay, surrounded by stormtroopers. Han glanced at his partner’s face. Despite Anakin’s stoic expression, the young Corellian could sense the older man’s unease.

“Don’t worry,” Han whispered. “Mako seems to know what he’s doing. He probably knows this guy from the Imperial Academy or something. They seem a little friendly.”

Anakin muttered back, “I hope so, for our own sake. Because if this Captain Skafte insists upon inspecting our cargo, be prepared to run for it.” A sharp sigh escaped from his mouth. “I should have stayed aboard the Hawk. We both should.”

Han could not help but privately agree. It worried him that an Imperial ship had finally been able to catch them after ten years of smuggling. Perhaps Anakin had a right to complain about Mako’s route to Maldore. He stole another glance at the older man. Anakin’s expression now looked intense. The former Jedi seemed to be concentrating on Mako and Captain Skafte. “I wonder what they’re talking about,” Anakin commented in a dark tone. “Do you really think Spince will be able to convince the captain to let us go?”

With a shrug, Han replied, “I don’t know. Like I said, they seem to be a little friendly with each other.

“Right now, I don’t sense anything amiss,” Anakin continued. “But the moment I give the signal that something’s wrong, get aboard the Hawk as soon as possible. And start shooting at anyone who moves.”

Han saw a flaw in Anakin’s desperate plan. “Shouldn’t I at least wait for Mako to board his ship?”

Anakin shot a dark glance at Han. “Why bother? You honestly think he would make it in time?”

Slowly, Han turned to stare at his partner. Was Anakin actually willing to sacrifice Mako in order to escape from the Imperials? Before he could comment, his eyes fell upon a handcuffed Wookie entering the shuttle bay with flanking stormtroopers. “What’s he doing here?” Han whispered.

“Who?”

“The Wookie!” Han indicated the newcomer with a nod of his head. “Looks like he’s a prisoner.”

Anakin mumbled, “I’m not surprised. After Kashyyyk, the Imperials have been using captured Wookies as slaves.”

“Slaves!” Han felt a stab to his stomach. The idea of any Wookie being a prisoner sickened him. And this particular prisoner reminded him of Dewlanna. He wondered if she would have faced a similar fate if she had returned to Kashyyyk following her husband’s death. One glance at Anakin told Han that the former felt equally disgusted. After all, the two partners had endured some form of slavery during their respective childhoods. “I wish we could free him,” Han added. “The Wookie, I mean.”

“Right now, we should be worried about us,” Anakin muttered.

At that moment, Mako and Captain Skafte approached the partners. “So,” the latter commented, “you’re friends of Mako?”

“That’s right,” Han replied with fake cheerfulness.

Mako added, “I had just informed Captain Skafte that we’re shipping power converters to Maldore.”

Anakin asked, “Are you two familiar with each other?”

“Captain Skafte used to be one of my instructors at the Imperial Academy,” Mako explained. He added sheepishly, “Before I was expelled.”

The captain added, “Now that Mako has explained everything, you’re free . . .”

A loud roar filled the shuttle bay. The four men diverted their attention to the stormtroopers struggling with the Wookie captor. A frown darkened Skafte’s countenance. “Now what?” he muttered. “Treece! What is going on?”

A blond-haired junior officer replied, “I’m sorry sir. The Wookie is being difficult. Being an animal, I guess he can’t help himself.”

“You have a Wookie as a slave?” Anakin asked, surprising Han, Mako and Skafte.

The captain regarded Anakin warily. “Do you have a problem with this . . . uh, Captain . . .?”

“Horus. Set Horus.” Anakin shook his head. “No sir, I don’t. In fact, slavery is very common where I come from. I’m merely surprised that you would use Wookie labor. I’ve heard rumors that they can be difficult as slaves. Not that I actually believe such rumors.” Han noticed that Anakin had refrained from mentioning his homeworld by name.

A cool smile touched Skafte’s lips. “They’ve made pretty good slaves since the fall of Kashyyyk, ten years ago. And this slave,” he nodded at the Wookie, “happens to be a talented technician and pilot. The Trandoshans had captured him some three months ago. This Wookie tried to escape before he could be sold, but he failed and served under another Imperial commander before he was transferred to me.”

Anakin’s face expressed interest. “Really? A pilot and a technician? How long have you had him aboard this starship?”

With a shrug, Skafte replied, “Oh, about a week. I’m transporting this . . . creature to the Maw, where he is to work on one of the Empire’s new projects.”

“How much are you willing to sell for this . . . creature?” Anakin’s question surprised Han.

Apparently, Skafte also seemed surprised by Anakin’s request. He frowned at the former Jedi and asked, “You’re interested in buying this Wookie? Why? Didn’t you say that they don’t make good slaves?”

“I said that most people don’t consider them to be good slaves,” Anakin corrected. “I also said that I didn’t believe such nonsense. According to you, he’s a good mechanic and I can certainly use one.”

Han struggled to contain his excitement. Did Anakin actually plan to help free the Wookie? He noticed that Skafte had become pensive for a few minutes. Then the officer stared at Anakin. Han wondered if his partner had gone too far.

“How do you plan to keep him in line?” the Imperial officer finally asked.

A cruel smile curved Anakin’s lips. For the first time in years, Han could imagine him as a Sith Lord. “Let’s just say that I plan to use a more effective method other than a blaster or taser,” he coldly replied.

As the two men walked away to discuss the enslaved Wookie, Mako leaned forward to whisper in Han’s ear. “What’s going on?”

Han tried to play dumb. “Huh?”

“The Wookie!” Mako hissed. “Why is Horus suddenly interested in the Wookie?”

Han murmured back, “We need an extra mechanic for the Hawk.”

“Who are you kidding?” Mako retorted. “Horus could probably fix that ship of his, blind-folded. Or else he could simply buy a droid.” Realization gleamed in his eyes. “Oh no! Horus is trying to . . .” He broke off momentarily, as an officer passed by. Then he added in a lower voice, “He plans to free that Wookie, doesn’t he?”

Keeping his gaze fixed upon Anakin and Skafte, Han merely replied, “Why would any of us be interested in freeing some slave? Let alone a Wookie?”

At that moment, Anakin and Skafte returned to the younger men. The smiling Imperial commander was saying, “. . . to be of service, Captain Horus. I only hope that you realize what you’re going to be dealing with.” He turned to the blond-haired lieutenant. “Treece! Bring the Wookie over here! He will be leaving with our new friends.”

Lieutenant Treece and two stormtroopers forced the Wookie to join Han and Anakin. As Treece began to remove the Wookie’s shackles, Anakin barked, “What are you doing?”

Treece blinked several times. “Uh . . .”

“Treece, you idiot!” Skafte retorted angrily. “The Wookie is now Captain Horus’ property! Not some member of his crew! Keep the shackles on! And hand him over to the Captain’s co-pilot, so they can be on their way.”

The red-faced Treece handed the chains to the Wookie’s shackles over to Han. Who led the Wookie aboard the Hawk. The moment the pair were safely out of sight, Han unfastened the shackles. “Welcome aboard the Javian Hawk,” he greeted. “I’m Han Solo. And the captain . . .”

Anakin quickly boarded the ship. “Let’s go, Han!” he barked. “We’re out of here! Now!”

Han flashed an apologetic smile at the Wookie and followed Anakin to the cockpit. Less than five minutes later, the Javian Hawk finally left the Dreadnought, with the Alastian Star closely behind.

——–

Chewbacca stood in the middle of the starship’s narrow passageway and stared at the shackles near his feet. Why had the boy removed them? Why . . .?

The ship jolted before Chewbacca felt it move forward. He realized that the Corellian ship had just left the Dreadnought. At first, the Wookie felt a sense of exultation. After three months he had finally escaped his Imperial masters. Then he recalled the hard eyes of the ship’s captain. A nagging fear began to worm in the back of his mind that he had exchanged several masters for a new one. Once more, his eyes fell upon the shackles. If he was still a slave, why did the boy remove his shackles?

Slowly, Chewbacca began to move around. If he could find a weapon, perhaps he might force his new . . . companions to deliver him to the nearest inhabited system. And hopefully, he would find a way to reunite with the Drunken Dancer crew.

Ten years ago, Chewbacca and a group of fellow Wookies had been charged to aid a small band of renegade Jedi, led by Olee Sandstone, to find other Jedi being hunted by the Empire. Unfortunately, the mission led to disaster as Chewbacca, Sandstone and their band fled to Kashyyyk with the Empire and a Sith Lord named Darth Rasche, close behind. Following the fall of his homeworld, Chewbacca and the Drunken Dancer’s crew spent the next decade harassing Imperial ships and freeing any Wookie slaves they came across. Just three months ago, Chewbecca came across a fellow Wookie named Tvrrdko. Unfortunately, Tvrrdko’s son had been killed while fighting alongside Chewbacca during the Clone Wars . . . and blamed the latter for his son’s death. Seeking revenge, Tvrrdko betrayed Chewbacca to a Trandoshan slaver named Ssoh. A failed attempt to escape from Ssoh led the enslaved Wookie into the hands of an Imperial officer named Nyklas. The latter, a brutal and cruel taskmaster, set out to make Chewbacca’s life as miserable as possible. Once more, Chewbacca made another attempt to escape slavery. With the help of the Dreadnought’s crew, Nyklas managed to prevent Chewbacca’s escape. Captain Skafte, the Dreadnought’s commander had suggested he transport Chewbacca to one of the galaxy’s hell spots – the Maw – for work on one of the Empire’s new projects. One week later, the Dreadnought came across two Corellian freighters and Chewbacca no longer found himself in the hands of the Empire.

Quietly, the Wookie began his search for weapons. It did not take him long to find them in a storage cabinet near the ship’s port side. Not only did it possess blaster pistols and rifles, but also a Jedi lightsaber. Chewbacca frowned at the weapon. The sight of it reminded him of Olee Sandstone and the other former Jedi on the Drunken Dancer. The weapon also reminded him of the late Roan Shryne and the little green Jedi Master he had met during those last days of the Clone Wars. How did two smugglers managed to get their hands on a lightsaber? He reached for the weapon.

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” a deep voice murmured. Chewbacca snatched a blaster pistol from the weapons cabinet and aimed it at the voice’s owner. Who happened to be the tall, blond pilot who had just purchased him from the Dreadnought’s captain. “Well, this is a new development.”

Chewbacca growled, “I want you to drop me off at the nearest inhabited system. Now!”

The pilot shook his head. “Sorry, but I don’t speak Shyriiwook or any other Wookie language.” Then he roared, “Han! Get in here! Now!”

Nearly a minute passed before the younger man – Solo – appeared. “What’s the problem?” The words barely came out of his mouth, when his eyes fell upon the blaster in Chewbacca’s grip. “Whoa! I mean . . . what the hell is going on?”

“This Wookie wants something . . .” the older pilot began.

Chewbacca interrupted, “I want passage to the nearest habitable system. Or else.”

“Or else what?” Solo shot back. “Why are you pointing that blaster at my friend?”

“Your friend had just bought me,” Chewbacca growled. “I don’t intend to hang around and make it worth his while.”

Solo contemptuously rolled his eyes. “My friend had bought you so that you can be free! Why else would I remove your shackles?”

Feeling slightly foolish, Chewbacca lowered the blaster. “Oh. I . . . Sorry.”

“What did he say?” the older pilot asked.

Solo replied, “He said that he was sorry.” He turned to Chewbacca. “Listen, we’re on our way to Maldore. We can drop you off there, if you like. Or perhaps take you somewhere else.”

Chewbacca had intended to search for the Drunken Dancer if he ever found himself free. Unfortunately, three months had passed since his capture. Since Sandstone and her crew were wanted by the Empire, he felt certain that the Drunken Dancer would remain on the move. Quite frankly, he had no place to go. He wondered if the humans would allow him to join their crew.

The older pilot gave the Wookie a knowing look. “All alone in the world?” Chewbacca nodded. The two pilots exchanged a glance before the older one added, “I realize that this might be a spur-of-the-moment thing, but . . . you’re more than welcome to join our crew.”

The pilot’s offer took Chewbacca by surprise. The former seemed to have read his thoughts. Then he recalled the weapon in the locker. He wondered if the blond man was a former Jedi . . . or that these two were involved in activities against the Empire, like the Drunken Dancer’s crew. “Well?” Solo added.

Chewbacca nodded and growled, “I would be happy to.”

Solo translated his answer to the older pilot. Who broke into a grin. “Great! You’ve already met Han Solo and I’m . . . Set Horus.” He offered his hand. “Welcome to the Javian Hawk!”

——-

CORUSCANT

A loud buzz from the door announced a visitor. Darth Rasche switched off his lightsaber and ordered, “Come in!”

A stocky man of medium height entered the Sith Lord’s personal gymnasium. He wore the uniform of an inquisitor. “I have a report regarding Senator Dahlma,” the Inquisitor announced. “Yesterday, she and her aide boarded a transport for Maldore.”

Rasche sighed. “It looks as if she had been telling the truth, after all.”

The Inquisitor continued, “There’s more. The senator remained at her private home in Malag. She did not bother to travel to her family’s estate in the Dalgar region.”

“Interesting.” It looked as if the Emperor’s suspicions about a non-existent funeral might be well founded. “Tell your agent to keep an eye on the senator. See who goes in and out of her home.”

The agent bowed. “Yes, my Lord.” He immediately left the gymnasium.

Rasche took a deep breath and picked up his comlink. “Commander Abbas, summon the crew and prepare the Exactor for departure. I will be leaving for Maldore.”

END OF CHAPTER FOUR

“Crossroads of the Force” [PG-13] – Chapter Three

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“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER THREE

CORUSCANT

The petite Igraine Colbert entered Senator Dahlma’s suite with data pad in hand. She found her employer in the middle of packing a valise. “The last transport to Ord Montell had left twelve hours ago,” she reported. “And another is not scheduled for departure until another two days. I’m sorry, Milady.”

Zoebeida Dahlma heaved a sigh. “Wonderful. I suppose I might as well hire private transportation to the planet.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Igraine continued. The senator stared at her. “Don’t forget . . . you had informed the Grand Vizer of your intent to return home to Maldore. Perhaps you should find transport for there and then hire a pilot to take you to Ord Mantell. That way, you will not have to worry about Imperial spies.”

Shaking her head, Senator Dahlma commented, “I would have never thought of that. I knew there was a reason I had made you my aide. Good thinking, Igraine.”

The compliment sent a shaft of warmth throughout the young Maldarian’s body. For the umpteenth time in her life, she privately thanked her uncle for arranging her to become Zoebeida Dahlma’s aide. Harboring political ambitions for years, Igraine gave up the prospects of becoming Vin Roudet’s wife when the position of Senator Dahlma’s aide became available. A shared interest in the galaxy’s political situation and a distrust of the Empire and the Emperor had drawn the two women into a close friendship.

“Shall I book passage for you to Maldore?” Igraine asked.

The older woman nodded. “As soon as possible. I want to leave by tonight. And you need to pack, as well. You’re coming with me.”

The news took Igraine by surprise. The senator had rarely allowed her to experience or learn about the former’s activities against the Empire. “Yes, Milady,” she replied breathlessly. “Right away.” And she left he senator’s chamber, thrilled by the prospect of a little adventure.

———

MOS EISLEY, TATOOINE

“Stop pouting, Leia!” Padme ordered her daughter. “It’s unbecoming for a young lady, such as yourself.”

The eleven year-old girl retorted, “What did you expect, Mother? I’m going to be stuck here on Tatooine for nearly a week.”

The Skywalker party had just arrived at Tatooine’s largest city, Mos Eisley. Upon their arrival, Padme had booked her family into two rooms at a local inn. Luke accepted their arrival with his usual stoicism. Leia, on the other hand, raised a fuss.

“If you continue to maintain that attitude, young lady, you will end up insulting both Owen and Beru,” Padme lectured. “They were kind enough to allow you to stay at their farm, while I’m gone. I suggest that you show some gratitude.”

Leia muttered a comment under her breath before she murmured, “Yes, Mother.”

“Personally, I do not blame Miss Leia,” C3-P0 added in his usual direful manner. “I do not care to be here, either.”

Padme sighed. “Threepio, if this is about my decision to take Artoo with me and leave you here . . .”

“Oh no, Milady!” the droid protested. “I perfectly understand why you need Artoo to join you. He would be most helpful.”

Suspicion nibbled at the back of Padme’s mind. “Thank you, Threepio,” she said cautiously.

“As for me,” the golden droid continued, “I will simply endure staying on the Lars’ farm in my usual efficient manner. I have done it before, when Miss Shmi had married Master Cliegg and I will do so, again. After all, we droids are made to suffer.”

Padme slowly turned to stare at the protocol droid. Made to suffer? Since when did droids learn to utilize the guilt trip against their owners? “Threepio, if there will be a problem . . .”

“Oh no, Milady! Please! Just ignore me.”

Rolling her eyes, Padme decided it would be best to accept the droid’s advice. She turned away from Threepio and the children and headed toward one of the windows. On the street below, two men draped in hoods, strode toward the inn’s entrance. Padme immediately recognized the taller man. Bail Organa. His broad shoulders and walk seemed unmistakable. However, Padme wondered about the identity of Bail’s companion.

“Magda, look after the children,” Padme said to the nursemaid. “I will be downstairs, if you need me.” After grabbing her cloak, she rushed out of the room.

Seconds later, Padme reached the inn’s lobby and found Bail and his companion speaking to the innkeeper. “Her name is Yane Rivaaj,” Bail declared. “She has either checked in today, or yesterday. With two children and . . .”

“I had checked in, yesterday,” Padme announced. The two men whirled around in surprise. Before Bail could open his mouth, Padme greeted him with open arms. “Dear cousin! You’ve finally made it.”

With an understanding nod, Bail enveloped Padme into a bear hug. “Cousin Yane. I wondered if I would have to wait for you. How are you?”

“Perfectly well,” a smiling Padme replied. She turned to the innkeeper. “Is there a place where we can talk privately?” The innkeeper led all three to an unoccupied loggia filled with tables and chairs. It overlooked the wide street, beyond. Once seated, Padme said to the Alderaanian, “Bail, why don’t you introduce me to your friend?”

The other man threw back his hood, revealing a handsome and aristocratic face with a long, aquiline nose, light-brown hair and beard, and pale blue eyes. His thin lips formed a slight smile. “My name is Ferus Olin. I’m Senator Organa’s body . . .” His smile disappeared, as his eyes widened in surprise. “Good heavens! You look like . . . aren’t you Senator Padme Amidala? Of Naboo? You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Mister O . . .” Padme frowned. “Wait a minute. Did you say . . . Ferus Olin? You name sounds very familiar.”

Mister Olin blushed, while Bail explained, “Mister Olin used to be a Jedi. He had been apprenticed . . .”

“Of course!” Padme exclaimed. “No wonder I have heard of your name, before! From . . .” She paused. No need for her to connect Anakin to herself. “I mean . . . uh . . .”

The former Jedi regarded her with curious eyes. “Pardon me, Milady, but from whom?”

Padme took a deep breath. “Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have . . . had . . . several dealings with him, over the years. I first met him when he was still padawan to Master Qui-Gon Jinn and I was Queen of Naboo. During the crisis with the Trade Federation.”

“Of course.”

Bail added, “And do not forget Master Siri Taschi. Ferus used to be her apprentice, before he left the Order.”

“Oh yes,” Padme added softly. “I remember Master Taschi.” Memories of the fair-haired Jedi Knight that had saved her life, rushed back to her. “Her death was a tragedy to us all.”

Ferus Olin nodded. “At least she is now with the Force. At peace.”

“Of course.”

Bail continued, “Ferus used to be part of a resistance cell on Acherin. Unfortunately . . .” His voice faded away, as he shot a look of pity at the former padawan.

“Unfortunately, the cell has dissolved and most of them are dead,” Ferus added gravely. “Killed by the Empire. I am one of two or three survivors.”

Padme murmured, “I’m so sorry.”

Once more, Bail explained, “Ferus had eventually made his way to Alderaan and joined the other Jedi refugees on the planet. Captain Antilles became aware of his presence and recommended that he act as my bodyguard on this trip. I thought that we both could use Master Olin’s services.”

Padme stared at the two men. “Do you really feel that we will need a bodyguard?” she asked.

A fourth figure appeared by Padme’s side. He threw back his hood. “It would not hurt to have one, Milady,” Obi-Wan Kenobi replied.

———–

VELM SYSTEM

The commission to smuggle glitterstim to Maldore seemed to be obstacle-free. Both the Javian Hawk and the Alastian Star – Mako Spince’s ship – had arrived on Kessel with no problems. The three smugglers collected their cargo of stim. Mako paid off Sekka Verdu’s contact and both ships departed for Maldore.

“So far, so good,” Han commented inside the Hawk’s cockpit.

Anakin retorted, “Don’t say that!”

“Don’t say what?”

“Don’t be so . . . optimistic about this trip.” Anakin paused. “It makes you sound so complacent. And that’s not a good thing.”

Han heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Okay, okay. Geez!”

Silence fell between the two men. Then Han ruined it by adding, “But you’ve got to admit that we’ve been in the Velm System for over twelve hours and . . .”

“Han!”

A faint beep caused both men to glance at the ship’s console. Anakin’s stomach turned, when he interpreted the light’s meaning – the presence of a nearby Imperial warship. “That’s just great,” he muttered. “The Imperials.”

“We can outrun them!” Han insisted.

Anakin sardonically replied, “Sure we can. And they’ll report the whole incident and track us down to Maldore.”

Han sighed. “Then what . . .?” The Hawk shuddered momentarily. “I think we’ve just been caught in a tractor beam.”

Mako’s voice boomed from the Hawk’s comlink system. “Uh guys, looks like we’ve got visitors. Looks like an Imperial cruiser. Hang on. I’ll talk to them.”

The suggestion did not ease Anakin’s anxieties. “Wait a minute, Mako. Maybe I should do it. I’m familiar . . .”

“Don’t worry,” the older Corellian exclaimed. “I’m an old Academy man. Trust me. I know how to deal with these guys.”

However, Anakin did not feel ready to put his life in Mako’s hands. “Look Mako, I really think I should . . .”

Unfortunately, another interrupted before the former Jedi could finish. “This is Captain Skafte of the Dreadnought. Prepare to be boarded.”

Han shot a worried look at Anakin. “What do we do?”

Anakin sighed. “Just like the man said – prepare to be boarded. And hope that Spince knows exactly what he’s doing.” The two men sat in helpless silence, as the Imperial cruiser tractor both the Javian Hawk and the Alastian Star.

—–

MOS EISLEY, TATOOINE

Padme stared at the former Jedi Master in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

Obi-Wan gathered his robes and sat down next to Ferus Olin. “I was here in Mos Eisley, purchasing parts for my power calibrator, when I . . . sensed Ferus’ presence. However, I had no idea that you would be here.” He coolly directed his gaze at Padme. “I’m surprised to find you here on Tatooine, Milady. Why are you here?”

After a brief hesitation, Padme replied, “Bail and I are on our way to an important conference. I’m here to deliver the children to Owen and Beru. I felt that it would be safer for them here on Tatooine than alone . . . with Madga.”

“I see.” Obi-Wan replied with a nod. Padme allowed herself a closer inspection of the former Jedi and noticed that the last decade had not been kind to him. The lines on his face seemed to have deepened. Whereas his hair only had a few strands of gray the last time she saw him, now it possessed only a few strands of ginger. His blue eyes no longer twinkled. They seemed to have acquired a permanent melancholy air. At age 49 or 50, Obi-Wan looked older than his former master did, twenty-four years ago. And Padme recalled Anakin telling her that Qui-Gon Jinn had been at least 60 years old around the time of his death. Despite their current estrangement, the former senator felt a swell of pity toward Obi-Wan.

The former Jedi Master asked, “What is so important about this conference, anyway?”

Bail allowed himself a dramatic pause before he answered, “Hopefully, the consolidation of an organized alliance against the Empire. Senator Mothma, Garm Bel Iblis and I believe that it is time . . .”

“Senator Iblis is still alive?” Master Olin interrupted, looked shocked. “I thought he and his family had been killed on Anchoron, ten years ago.”

“Garm had managed to escape,” Bail explained. “He became a fugitive and eventually contacted Senator Mothma and myself. It was he who suggested this conference in the first place. Thanks to Padme, Solipo Yeb and a few others, we have managed to contact many individual resistance cells.”

Again, Obi-Wan said, “I see.” He turned to his former Jedi colleague. “Ferus, are you taking part in this conference? As a representative of the Nixor resistance cell?”

A touch of sadness crept into the younger Jedi’s eyes. “No, I’m acting as bodyguard for Senator Organa . . . and Senator Amidala. The resistance cell on Nixor . . .” He paused as his expression became emotionless. “Actually, I have no idea what happened to the cell. I haven’t been a part of it for several years.”

Obi-Wan seemed surprised by the news. “Is it possible that they are all dead? What about Roan and Trevor?”

Olin sighed. “As far as I know, they’re both alive. I think. I’m not certain, for I have not heard from them in several years. We . . . went our separate ways.”

Frowning, Obi-Wan shook his head. “What do mean . . . you went your separate ways?”

The younger Jedi’s face now resembled a mask. “Like I said, we went our separate ways. I ended up on Alderaan, where I met Senator Organa.”

The discussion between the two Jedi left Padme thinking about Anakin. Determined not to wallow in her own loneliness, she brusquely interrupted. “I do not mean to be rude, but I believe it is time that we leave for the Lars Homestead. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

The three men quietly agreed. Then Obi-Wan asked if he could join them on the brief journey to the edge of the Jundland Wastes. “You could take me as far as Anchorhead. I had left my speeder there, which will convey me . . . home.” He grimaced, as he said the last word. Padme recalled that Obi-Wan had converted some cave hovel in the Jundland Wastes, into his home.

“I’m sure that would be no problem,” Bail replied. “Right Padme?”

She noticed the unease in her former colleague’s eyes. “Of course not,” Padme murmured politely. Privately, she wondered why the Alderaanian prince had pleaded for her permission. Especially since the ship probably belonged to him. She stood up and the three men did the same. “Excuse me, gentlemen. I need to make preparations for the trip.” She turned to Bail. “What time do you plan to leave?”

Bail replied, “Hopefully less than three hours from now.”

“I shall be ready by then.”

Exactly three hours later, Padme and her family followed Bail to one of the private hangars at Mos Eisley’s spaceport. To her surprise, Bail’s personal starship was not parked inside. Instead, she found the starship of none other than Voranda Sen – the woman who had flown her family from Alderaan to Tatooine, ten years ago. The two women greeted each other happily before Sen’s ship, the Alberforce, departed Mos Eisley for the Tatooine desert.

END OF CHAPTER THREE