Terror boiled in his veins, primal twin horrors of entombment and abandonment. He was crushed into a vanishingly tiny space, shrouded in darkness, all alone; broken and buried alive to endure lingering, precise suffocation.
Dimly he was aware of noises: the crashing of timbers and screeching of twisted metal piers as they lost their own futile battles; the shouts of other terrified victims...
And then he was enfolded in his father's arms, safe from the pain and fear, protected by unfaltering love. Death no longer stalked him, secure as he was now in life's embrace.
"Luke! Wake up, kid! Luke!"
He blinked, still clinging to the refuge of a strength greater than his own.
The Corellian sat next to him on the bunk, hands firmly wrapped around his shoulders, lending sanity after a receding nightmare. He lifted his head from where it was pressed against a sheltering chest.
"Glad to see you're still with us." Han's grin was a ghost of its normal self, the bold featured face pale beneath the shock of dark hair.
Another blink, and the dim shape outlined against the light spilling in from the corridor resolved itself into Chewbacca. The Wookiee rumbled a comment, comprised equally of relief, inquiry and reassurance.
"Damned Wook nearly yanked the door right outta the track, so we could get to you." Han's tone suggested he wasn't nearly as displeased with his co-pilot as the words might indicate.
"What?..." He still felt dazed, caught in the nebulous fog between dream and reality.
"How 'bout letting go there, Luke?"
Abashed, Luke unwound his arms from Han's torso and settled back into himself.
"That was a rough one, huh?"
It had indeed been a bad one. Wakefulness had not dimmed the memory. Still too shaken from the experience to be embarrassed yet, he could only nod agreement. These fugitive dreams punished him occasionally; he supposed it had something to do with his Force sensitivities and wished mightily that he could be released from this aspect of his Gift.
His Gift. More like a curse, really, with Ben gone and no one left to instruct him. Two years he'd struggled to educate himself, using information gleaned from random opportunities of research and the contradictory chronicles of those who remembered the Jedi. It wasn't nearly enough; he couldn't do this alone. Too many eyes turned to him, seeing only a symbol of living hope and blinded to the truth. Luke Skywalker was merely a simple farmboy, thrust into a badly fitting mantle of heroism and greatness by circumstance and timing.
"Wanna talk about it?"
Han's voice recalled him again, and Luke raked a hand through his sweat soaked hair. Suspicious moisture slicked the heel of his hand as it brushed past his cheek. Tears.
"You called me Papa."
"Sorry." He'd clung to the promise of Han's physical presence as guarantee against whatever fate awaited that wretched dream victim. "I guess I was a little confused there." He sat up further in the narrow bunk, declaration of recovery. "I'm all right now."
Chewbacca eyed him with the insight of nearly two hundred years of life, reached across the tiny cabin to affectionately rub his head, whined a soft complaint about human stubbornness, and departed. In complete demonstration of Chewie's wisdom, Han obstinately remained sitting on the edge of the bunk.
"You don't look okay to me." Unexpected anxiety shone in dark eyes, and Luke was grateful for his friend's concern on his behalf. He'd never expected to find so true a comrade in the rough and egotistical smuggler he'd met in that Mos Eisley cantina. The older man settled in with a familiar expression on his face and Luke knew there would be no point in trying to resist such determined wilfulness.
He didn't understand this dream anyway. Perhaps talking it out would bring a fresh perspective. He'd had similar dreams before, but always he'd been able to identify the circumstance or the person involved, an event from his own past or present. A recognizable context had always existed, but this time he was adrift in a vacuum, unable to fix location or purpose.
"It was like I was trapped somewhere, Han, a... collapsed building, or tunnel, something like that. I was alone, suffocating, scared... and nothing about any of it was familiar at all."
Han's brows drew together in an expression of sympathy for his turmoil, but before he could form coherent words the Falcon rocked beneath them, as if the planet itself had trembled. Luke's head hit the bulkhead and Han barely caught himself from sliding to the deck. Chewbacca's muffled roar of anger was drowned in the thunderous concussion sounding through even the sturdy ship's hull.
There was time only for a brief exchange of startled stares before Han scrambled to his feet, lurching awkwardly as the ship pitched again. "What the hell's goin' on? Chewie!"
Fumbling for his clothes, Luke felt it, vertiginous fear clutching at him like a feral and rabid creature, scrabbling fang and claw for purchase. Shocked into stillness by the abrupt assault on his senses, he was long seconds behind his shipmates. By the time he reached the starboard hatch, Chewie and Han were already on the ferrocrete of the open landing pad, weapons drawn and cautiously surveying their surroundings.
Their immediate section of the decrepit spaceport seemed reassuringly normal, but off to planetary west a muddy orange glow brightened the early morning sky with unnatural phosphorescence.
Explosion. Liquid fuel tanks. Underground lines. Evacuate.
He heard the words of explanation Han demanded from a frightened, scurrying young laborer.
Almost unaware of his actions, focused solely on inner certainties of suffering and dread, Luke moved quickly, stifling panic. Not even the firm grasp on his arm urging him to stop gave him pause.
"Luke! Where d'you think you're goin'?"
From a great distance, he heard himself answering Han's question.
"I've got to go. He needs me."
"Ain't nobody there. Didn't you hear that tech? That's an automated liquid fuel depot in the middle of some forsaken industrial park. Place is locked up tight as a whore's legs before she's been paid. Nobody gets in or out. We're the ones in danger. C'mon, we're gonna lift until the emergency teams get those fuel lines locked down. I ain't gonna risk the Falcon."
"Somebody's there, Han. I can feel it." His voice crackled in a throat raw like he'd screamed himself hoarse. He shrugged off Han's restraining hand and quickened his pace to a jog. Vaguely, he heard Han curse loudly and yell something to Chewbacca. Then heavy, pounding footsteps caught up to him and Han was beside him again, those long strides easily keeping pace with his shorter step.
"We'll find him, Luke."
A promise, not lightly given. Luke knew the value of a Corellian pledge, and once again he spared a moment of gratitude for such a companion.
"Chewie'll stay 'n keep an eye on things here. I'm coming with you. Just remember if any of the underground fuel lines catch fire he'll have to lift off."
What Han didn't bother to say was something Luke already knew: if the underground fuel lines ignited they would most likely be dead before Chewie ever raised ship. They and the mysterious informant they were here to contact.
Guided by confused sensations not his own, Luke steered Han through the most direct route. It was easy to dodge the first two hastily erected safety barricades, but as they drew closer to the disaster site they found their way blocked by more than mere security. The dilapidated buildings in this derelict warehouse district were damaged: haphazard chunks of street surface had subsided; shattered clearsteel crunched under their feet; construction modules littered the narrow alleys; and upper stories leaned precariously over their heads in mute defiance of gravity.
"Maybe he's here, in one of these buildings," suggested Han, but Luke had the location fixed now. He pointed to the end of the alley, into the heart of the conflagration.
A large and noisy crowd had gathered at the third barricade, less than a block away from the cordoned off fuel depot. Drawn by morbid curiosity and a universal fascination with destruction, the mob seemed more like happy festival attendees rather than witnesses to disaster. They cheered each new rumble and tremor and pressed closer to the barriers to more fully absorb every nuance of this unexpected diversion. The hellish glare from pitiless flames distorted their faces in angry hues of macabre glee while the heated air scorched unprotected lungs with malicious delight.
With his greater physical bulk, Han was able to clear a path through the crowd. A GR2D droid, still so new from the factory that even the soot and oily smoke hadn't yet marred its shiny finish, patrolled this final line of defense. Bare meters beyond the perimeter, fire fighting droid teams directed by human supervisors retreated before the rapacious progression of the inferno.
"Who's in charge here?" demanded Han of the droid, as Luke struggled through the crowd in Han's wake and stopped beside him, directly across from the security droid. "We think someone is trapped inside the depot."
In the politely officious manner of mechanicals, the droid replied. "This is a fully automated facility. No unauthorized sentients are permitted within the boundaries. There is no one trapped inside the depot. Please step back now, sir. I must advise you that your presence here places you in considerable danger. A safe distance of two klicks is recommended."
"There's someone trapped inside," Luke insisted.
"There are no sentient beings within the confines of this facility. This is an automated facility."
Luke frowned as he met Han's sober gaze. He knew as well as the Corellian that further insistence would only call attention to themselves, besides having no effect on the droid's inflexible programming.
Luke betrayed his mounting frustration.
"No! There is someone trapped in there! I know it. I can feel it!"
Han shot him one of his best 'now look what you've done' expressions, but Luke was beyond caring. And he knew Han would back him up no matter what.
Fear. Isolation. Anger. Confusion. Pain. The urgent need he sensed screamed for movement-immediate action of any kind. Luke ducked under the barricade and ran for the beckoning bulk of the nearest fire containment module, hoping to lose himself in the shadows and confusion. Behind him, having erred with one foolish human, the GR2D droid apparently determined his companion should not have the opportunity to regret a rash action and restrained Han before he could follow Luke. A silent alarm flashed through the droid communications system, and Luke's subsequent capture only increased the spectators' enjoyment.
A man, nondescript in appearance but for his once immaculate grooming and expensive clothing, detached himself from the knot of supervisory humans discussing ways and means of combating the blaze to approach the security droid.
"Another error like that, and I'll have you dismantled," he threatened. "Why isn't that security screen up yet?"
"The energy grid is non-functional. Restoration of adequate power levels anticipated in 1.6 minutes."
"Mister, listen, please!" Luke couldn't suppress the shrill note of panic in his voice. "There's somebody trapped in there!"
The man looked steadily at him, and Luke nearly flinched away from his expression. Not surprise, or concern, or even impatience. This man looked... angry. Wary.
"This is an automated station. There's no one inside."
"But there is. I know it!" But instinct told Luke he would receive no understanding or assistance here.
"And just how do you know this?" The words were a suspicious challenge. He's hiding something, Luke realized abruptly. Han's touch on his arm alerted him to caution.
"I... I just had this feeling..." His voice faltered and he coughed to hide confusion.
The genial smile the man wore didn't match his cold eyes and his reassuring words did not ring true. Luke had the impression this man was hiding something, and would have liked nothing better than to wring the exact truth from Luke's mind by whatever means necessary.
"Don't worry, son. Even though this is a completely automated compound we ran life scans just to be certain. Your concern does you credit, but believe me, there is no one trapped inside. The ones who are in danger are yourselves."
The man raised his arms and his voice, commanding attention from the crowd.
"Everyone, please! You are in danger! There are fuel lines running beneath this street to the space port landing bays. If those lines rupture many lives will be lost! I urge you to leave the area immediately."
With the impeccable timing of irony the security screen shimmered to life, completely shutting down that particular approach to the depot.
Luke watched as the man turned to the droid and issued terse orders punctuated by a quick, angry gesture toward Luke, the words incomprehensible over the fire's fury and the crowd's hysteria.
"Damn good advice, you ask me," muttered Han as he pulled Luke away from the barriers and to the fringes of the crowd.
"What did you think you were gonna accomplish by doin' that?" he demanded as Luke dropped to the paving blocks, head in his hands, instantly forgetting the man's scrutiny in the face of his own internal ordeal.
"I don't know, Han! I just can feel that this kid is all alone, he's scared, he's hurt and he wants his father! And I keep feelin' like time is running out really fast."
"Kid? This is a kid?" Han looked even more troubled than he had a moment ago.
"Yeah, a kid. Those're the feelings I'm getting. He's not sure what's happening but..."
A new voice interrupted him.
"Are you sure there's somebody trapped inside there?" Luke and Han looked at each other before turning to the speaker. She was a youngish female human, filthy and bleary-eyed and coughing just like everyone else in this forsaken nightmare straight out of Sith legend.
"Because if you are, I might know a way to get you inside that compound."
Luke felt his heart pound with hope. Adrenaline surged through his veins, restoring vigor and strength where only a moment before despair had shackled optimism and obliterated resolve.
"We're listenin'." Han's wary reply reminded Luke that discretion was still necessary.
The woman jerked her head in the direction of a narrow side alleyway between two unstable structures, and set a fast pace, nimbly clambering around and over obstructions. They followed her, Luke eager and Han obviously mistrustful.
"You believed Gropil about as much as I did," she said.
"Gropil? That was Gropil? The guy who talked to us?" Han looked thoughtful.
"Yeah. Big-time businessman around these parts. Owns the depot, several chemical plants and a research lab."
Luke knew he'd heard the name before but saw no point in trying to match it up with his memories. Not while a child's life depended on him. He was impatient to get past the question-and-answer session.
"How can we get in?" he demanded. "We've got to hurry."
The woman eyed Luke speculatively, but he was long accustomed to odd stares.
"You really believe there's someone trapped in there, don't you?"
"Yes! I know it. How can I get in? I've got to find him."
"One condition. I go with you, and I get exclusive rights to the story."
"Sith! You're a reporter." Han was unable to disguise his dismay.
"Yeah, I am. And I'm real curious just why your friend here is so sure there's somebody trapped inside. And why he's wearing that. Thought all the Jedi were wiped out a generation ago." She pointed to the lightsaber dangling from Luke's belt. He stared, unable to remember just when he'd grabbed it. Or why. He rarely carried the weapon openly, and never during a covert operation.
Han ignored the pointed reference to the lightsaber. "Like the kid said, we need the way in, if you've got one. Comin' with us is up to you, it's your neck. But as far as the story..."
"Yeah, I already figured your angle. Smugglers. Don't want your names or faces too well known. I just want the story, and vids of the rescue." She reached in her jacket pocket and displayed a micro-vid recorder in the palm of her hand. "Hell, mysterious heroes'll make it even more dramatic. Deal?"
Han and Luke exchanged quick glances, and before Han could speak, Luke agreed.
She stopped in front of a service door set in the side wall of a building and tried to operate the control panel, but the frame had warped during the ground quakes and the door refused to budge more than a handspan. Han put his shoulder to the door and shoved, but the door still refused cooperation.
"Damn! Gonna have to get Chewie. Maybe he can open this." Han already had his comlink in hand, trying to cut through the frenzied chatter of overloaded frequencies.
Luke shook his head. "No time." He closed his eyes and tried to still his inner turmoil. The child's emotions scrubbed away beyond his forced calm, and he slowly let everything else fade, until only the door existed. He pictured it in his mind as it was and then slowly began sliding it open, one painful centimeter after another. Ignoring his companions, he continued to visualize the door opening wide enough for them to pass through.
A heavy hand on his shoulder awoke him from his trance.
"You did it, Luke." Han's voice was full of quiet pride and amazement. "Let's go get him now."
Too frantic even to contemplate his achievement, Luke slipped through the narrow space easily, quickly followed by the woman and Han. He was again aware of the reporter's speculative looks.
"Which way?" Han asked, peering about in the gloom. The structure quivered slightly, moaning fragile equilibrium.
"Down here. Tunnel leads from the basement over to the control room of the fuel complex. You two got names? I'm Saresa Marland, Bader-Varan Daily."
"I'm Polk. He's Straub," replied Han, giving their cover names.
"Uh-huh. That's why you called him Luke a minute ago."
"Han Polk and Luke Straub. That's us."
"Names don't matter," Luke interrupted. "We need to hurry."
Saresa led their cautious progress down rickety steps and through several long corridors. Luke moved with purpose, disregarding personal danger and focusing on something the others could not sense. He could feel they were getting closer to the child.
"We've got to hurry," he urged. "He can't breathe." His chest ached from the child's tortured efforts to satisfy every demand of deprived lungs.
"How the hell do you know that?" She paused in front of an openly gaping doorway.
Luke ignored the reporter's question.
"Yes. He's in here. Not far now." He reached down to his utility belt and grabbed the small luma he carried, as Han mirrored the action.
Without hesitation, Saresa started into the passageway, not waiting for the illumination Han and Luke carried.
Had Luke been able to think about anything besides the hapless young victim, he would've shuddered to enter that low, narrow tunnel. Accustomed as he was to Tatooine's vast horizons and the endless void of space, confined spaces were something he avoided, given a choice. As it was, he couldn't hurry into the depths quickly enough.
More than a hundred paces in they found the obstruction. Collapsed plastiflex buttressing and fabrifoam panels peeked through at least two meters of fallen dirt. There was no way to tell how far the cave-in extended.
Han played his luma over the ceiling, blinking as drifting dust fell into his eyes and checking the security of rock above their heads.
"Doesn't look too stable. We try clearing this out and the whole thing might come down on us."
" We must be directly beneath the compound wall," said Saresa.
"Come on! Help me." Luke was already digging at the dirt, furiously burrowing a hole through the rubble. "He's not far. Maybe just a meter in." As he dug, he tried to reach the child, to offer reassurance and comfort that help was on the way. But just as before, he was unable to touch the boy's mind in this fashion; the communication apparently functioned in one direction only.
"Hey!" He shouted, heedless of the foolishness of his action, hoping to be heard. "We're here! We're gonna get you out! It's all right!"
Both Han and Saresa grabbed his arms and warned for silence, then they, too, lent their backs to the labor. Luke was pleased to see that Saresa dug just as determinedly as he and Han.
Luke said nothing, but with his mind and heart echoed Han's sincere curse. They had cleared away the dirt and smaller debris, only to find a solid sheet of reinforced durasteel fallen perpendicular to the tunnel floor, completely barring their way. They stared at the slab in dismay.
"I can't blast it," muttered Han. "It'd take more energy than I've got in the powerpak, and blasting might bring down what's left of the roof."
"What about that thing?" Saresa gestured to the lightsaber hanging at Luke's waist.
So that was why he'd brought it.
With a smooth motion he pulled it off the belt clip and ignited it. His pulse steadied in response to sweet communion with the power of the ages. In harmony with the Force in a way he'd never before felt, utter certainty guided his blade and carved a man-sized hole in the metal slab. Han and Saresa watched open-mouthed in astonishment as the heavy cut piece of durasteel gently and gracefully settled to the floor, barely raising any dust at all.
Beyond, they heard the soft rustle of movement and a small cough. Luke was the first one through the hole. The child was there: human, perhaps ten standard years old, curled into a fetal position.
"You're safe now, son," whispered Luke, laying a hand against the boy's neck. The pulse fluttered against his fingers, faint, fast and reassuring.
The boy turned restlessly.
"That's right. You'll be with your papa soon."
By now Saresa was halfway through the hole, but there wasn't enough room for her to crouch next to the boy as Luke was doing. She gasped in horror at sight of the boy.
"It's...!" She stopped herself from whatever she had intended to say.
Behind her Han shone his luma on the boy's limp form.
"Is he badly injured?" That was Han, always practical.
Luke laid gentle hands on limbs, searching for obvious injuries. "I think one of his arms is broken, and there's a bad cut on his head, but that's all I see right now. But he's been barely breathin' for a while. He needs a medic, quick."
The earth rumbled again, and everything around them shifted ominously.
"We gotta get moving. Luke, can you hand him out to me? I can carry him. Saresa, get out of the way." The light wavered as Han gave it to the woman and then he and the reporter exchanged places.
Saresa touched Luke's arm as he clambered back through the ragged hole. "Do you sense anybody else down here?"
Tired and relieved, he merely shook his head. All the frantic mental clamor had ceased once he'd touched the child.
She took a long, last look at the blocked tunnel, her sense an odd mixture of grief, regret, anger, frustration, fear and gratitude. Curious as he was, Luke decided that explanations could wait until the boy received needed medical attention.
"Come on," he said gently. "Let's get him out of here. He needs help."
She pulled her eyes back to him, such great sorrow in her face that he was shocked.
"Yes," she agreed. "We need to get him to safety as quickly as possible."
With the boy cradled in Han's arms, they were on their way out. Back down the tunnel, through the basement, up the stairs and out into the alley.
The surface situation had deteriorated rapidly during their absence. That rumble they'd felt underground had signaled another, smaller explosion and the fire had avidly expanded beyond the failed containment shield. Moans and cries from adjacent streets advertised conversion from revelry to injury. Most welcome, Luke saw the blazing lights of rescue vehicles strobing through the murky atmosphere.
Saresa shook her head as Han turned toward the comforting presence of qualified medical assistance.
"No. This way. My flitter's just back here-we can get to a facility much quicker this way."
Luke gaped at her, too exhausted and surprised to say what he thought. She's hiding something, and she's terrified, too. She thought we would find somebody else, not the boy. But he followed her anyway, down the alley away from the rescue vehicles and around a corner, Han coming last, burdened with the slight weight of the child.
The flitter was where she'd said, miraculously undamaged. They climbed in, Han still cradling the child with startling tenderness, and Saresa slid behind the controls. Within seconds they were airborne, abandoning the greasy, artificial gloom hovering over the ruined industrial park and arrowing into clear, resilient morning sunlight. Saresa piloted them, not to a large medcenter as Luke had expected, but to an isolated private residence beyond the city limits.
"My brother has had medical training," she offered in explanation. Han and Luke exchanged glances over the child's head. It seemed a rather inadequate rationalization in light of the boy's needs, but Luke knew there was more going on here than they were aware of.
Inside the house, a man and woman took charge of the boy with quiet competence, and Luke sighed in relief. Although the residence bore the marks of a temporary hideaway, through an open door he saw a well-supplied treatment room and realized these people were prepared for such contingencies.
"You three, clean up," ordered the woman before she closed the door. "Help yourself to food and drink. As soon as we have Mackie stabilized we'll check out those burns and scrapes you have. They don't look too serious."
She knew the child's name, without having been told. Han hadn't missed that either, his sharp glance surely taking in as much, if not more, than Luke's own senses.
Saresa met Han's dark glare levelly. "I owe you an explanation. But first I want to thank you for saving Mackie's life. I had no idea he was down there. He was supposed to be safely in bed. He must have hidden in the flitter and then followed Rohling." Her voice trembled.
"His father," Luke whispered. It wasn't a guess. Papa. The boy had been crying out in grief, not for reassurance. "Your husband?"
"Yes. Rohling went down the tunnel and into the complex. I thought you were sensing him, not Mackie." She looked down, perhaps to hide the tears they could see splashing off her folded hands.
In a surprisingly open gesture of compassion, Han retreated before the woman's grief and pulled Luke towards the sanitary facilities. "Let's get cleaned up, huh, kid? You look like you could use a shower... or two."
An hour later, scrubbed clean of oily grime and wearing thick, warm robes while their clothes were laundered, Han and Luke sipped steaming kaf and listened to the explanations offered by Saresa's brother Domani and his wife Bonei.
"Mackie will be fine," Domani reassured everyone. "Saresa will stay with him so he doesn't wake up alone. Poor kid. I'm afraid the emotional damage will be far worse than his physical injuries. I don't know how you managed to find him, but we're very grateful that you did." Domani directed a pointed glance toward Luke. "We heard there was a Jedi with the Rebellion."
Luke had been stretching out with all his senses for a long time, probing these people for any sign of duplicity or treachery. He'd found nothing other than shock, horror, grief and fear. His instincts said they could trust these individuals. By a subtle and almost unnoticeable hand signal they'd developed for silent communication, he indicated his opinion of their trustworthiness to Han.
"Yeah, we know who you are. We had your ship under surveillance from the time you landed last night. Rohling was the one you were supposed to meet, the one with information for you. He worked in Gropil's lab as a tech assistant, and one of the projects he worked on was a liquid fuel additive. None of us understood it, but Rohling said under normal circumstances the additive would eventually totally destroy an engine, and he couldn't figure out why the project was being rushed along so much. He thought the practical applications would be pretty limited."
Han ground his teeth together. "We struck a big deal with Gropil. He's supplying fuel for half the fleet."
Luke knew the Millennium Falcon was not one of those ships-but his X-wing, like the rest of the small fighters and many of their antiquated capital ships, had liquid fuel converters.
"I don't suppose you know how the fuel was contaminated? Or how to identify and repair the damage it causes? We've got to get this information back to headquarters as soon as possible." Han tried again, without success, to raise Chewbacca in the Falcon, but the communications frequencies were still jammed with emergency transmissions.
Sitting at the kitchen table listening to Han, Luke had a sudden vision: Rebel ships large and small sitting uselessly on the ground while the hidden bases they were meant to defend were crushed to powder underneath the Empire's war machines. He saw men and women of many species who staffed those bases, brave souls like these here in this lonely house, tortured and executed mercilessly. In his mind's eye he sat in the cockpit of his fighter, hearing the confused transmissions of his squadron mates as their engines faltered and failed completely, leaving them dead in space, easy pickings for imperial fighters. As he sat there, waiting for death, he saw the darkness rolling toward him, great thunderheads of evil bent on capturing and smothering all that was good and light and free. He felt the chill enter his bones and entrails, and knew, without words, that they were lost, they were all lost, and he was frightened, as he had never before been frightened. He had no reference for the magnitude of this danger.
Wordless, he bowed his head, pretending his hands weren't trembling.
Bonei shook her head. "We were the ones set up the deal with Gropil in the first place. He seemed genuinely trustworthy. Then Saresa was editing a holo recording a few weeks ago and noticed something very interesting in the background--Gropil meeting with one of the high-level local imperial administrators. It looked like some kind of discreet payoff.
"We did some research and found a childhood connection between Gropil and Marsden, the Second Administrator. Rohling started adding things up and got some pretty scary answers. He managed to download and copy most of the restricted research files, but we still needed to know just how much contaminated fuel had been manufactured, and where it had gone. Somebody had to get into the depot and access the central computer."
Wearing an exhausted, set expression, Saresa stepped into the room and sat down at the table. While Bonei quickly prepared kaf for her sister-in-law, Domani tried to rub the tension from her shoulders.
"I can't... Bonei, will you sit with him for a while, please?" She turned the cup in her hand, not really seeing it.
When she spoke again, her voice was flat, emotionless... dead. Luke suddenly wished for more abilities than he'd so far evidenced, wished for the power to take away her pain. The woman had lived anyone's greatest nightmare-forced to choose between two loved ones. Even now, they couldn't be certain that her husband was dead. What if he was lying trapped as Mackie had been, suffering agonies? Yet, if that were the case, why had he only sensed the child and not the father? Was it possible that Mackie was another Force sensitive, like calling to like? Was that the reason he'd seen the future in his dream, not the past? Each new thought only raised more unanswerable questions.
"We sent a coded message. We were afraid if we sent one through the usual channels that Gropil might find out. We didn't know if we could trust anyone in our cell anymore. We fled our homes and hid out here. Rohling knew about the old construction tunnel. It hadn't been sealed off very well. Somebody had to go... had to get the information and Rohling was the only one who knew his way around the depot and had the best slicing skills. You responded faster than we expected. Rohling decided he had to go in immediately, regardless of the risk. We were afraid you wouldn't wait very long. I took him to the tunnel and left the flitter there in case he needed to get out in a hurry. Then I went to your landing bay on foot. As soon as you were stirring in the morning I was going to let you know what was going on. But..."
"But something went wrong," said Han in an unusually kind voice. He covered Saresa's hand on the cup gently, in a brief and awkward gesture of compassion. Luke smiled, for at times like this Han's true nature shone through the façade of uncaring self-interest he wore as a shield.
"Obviously." She bit her lip in what seemed to be a futile attempt to control her emotions. "I was sure that the explosion had something to do with Rohling. I thought, surely he must be dead. And then you came out from your ship and I heard you talking. I heard Luke say something about he knew someone needed his help, and I thought... I don't know what I thought." She was close to tears again, holding on to that cup as if it were the only solid object left in her universe.
"I remembered the rumors that the Rebellion had found a Jedi somewhere, and there you were, wearing a lightsaber. I heard you say someone needed your help and somehow I just knew you were talking about Rohling. That whatever had happened, he was still alive, and you were his best hope of survival. So I followed you, but couldn't keep up. I only caught up in time to see you talking with Gropil. I was terrified then, because I thought, surely he'll see that lightsaber and make the same connections I did... You had to survive! You had to save Rohling."
It was so simple now, Luke thought, to see the web of deceit and fear, the fragile weaving of despair and hope. From the haunted expression in Han's eyes, Luke knew the Corellian was worried that Gropil had indeed made a connection between the mysteriously insistent youth and a certain freighter, but with communications so snarled, there was no way to ease those worries at the moment.
"I really am a reporter, you know. I was afraid you wouldn't believe me if I identified myself any other way. We didn't have time to waste on explanations. I was so frantic to find Rohling... here." She withdrew a small object from her pocket. "The downloaded research files. This should help your techs. At least we can give you that. I was going to hand this over to you at the landing bay while we waited for Rohling to return with the rest of the information."
"Thanks." Han closed his fingers around the data wafer. "This'll help a lot."
"It would've helped a lot more if you knew which containment modules were contaminant free, but now you'll have to check every one."
"At least we'll know what to look for," replied Luke. He foundered for words of comfort, discovering new personal inadequacies as he grappled with the ancient burden of responsibility. Ben would have known what to say, would surely have offered profound words of wisdom and solace.
"Papa!" The scream of sheer terror ripped through the house. Before the echoes faded, they had all crowded into the small treatment room. Saresa wrapped her arms around her shivering, crying son; rocking him, soothing him with the sound of her voice only.
Luke winced, cut and bruised by the jagged edges of raw emotion projected by the child-anger, fear and grief. And he saw through a child's eyes.
* * * *
He cautiously raised his head and peeked around the side of the highbacked pilot seat. If they caught him they'd really be mad, but something told him he needed to help papa tonight. He'd been with Auntie Bonei last night and seen that funny spaceship, and when they thought he was in bed and asleep, he'd listened behind the kitchen door. Something very strange was going on and he wanted to know what it was. After all, he was already eight and practically grown up.
Mama and Papa were standing at the street corner under the big luma, looking like they were arguing, just as they'd argued all the way here in the flitter.
"We have the research files. That's enough, Rohling. They can protect themselves with this much information. You don't have to do anything more."
"Yes, I do, Saresa. Gropil has probably delivered thousands of containers of contaminated fuel to the rebellion. They need as much information as they can get. Hundreds of ships could be in danger at this very moment, thousands of lives! I can be in and out in no time."
"Those thousands of lives mean nothing to me. It's your life that concerns me. I need you. Mackie needs you. What would we do without you?"
"You won't have to do without me, love. The depot is automated, just a few maintenance and warehouse droids. The tunnel is clear, the security measures practically non-existent. By the time you get to the landing bay, I'll be on my way back to you."
"I don't want you to go. We've lost our home, our jobs, our identities because of this rebellion. I won't lose anything more. What about Mackie? He'll never have a normal life now."
"Yes, he will, 'Resa. I swear it. But the only way he's going to have the life he should is if the Empire is defeated and the republic restored. And that means we have to do everything we possibly can to help the Rebellion."
He saw his mother bow her head and could almost hear her sigh. Then they separated, his mother coming back past the flitter. He dropped down to the floor of the rear seat and pulled the blanket over his head so she wouldn't see him when she passed.
Quickly then, worried that he'd never catch up to his father, not with his shorter legs, he scrambled out of the flitter and ran fast. A nervous glance over his shoulder reassured him that his mother was out of sight--boy, he'd be in big trouble if she caught him. But papa was doing something very important and he would help papa, whatever it was. Mama didn't understand guy stuff, just like papa was always saying, like going to the shockball tournaments or the monster swoop pulls at the arena.
He saw the door still closing and guessed that was where papa had gone. It was kind of spooky inside the old building, dark and creaky, but he was a big boy now and doing something important. He didn't have time to be scared. He saw some reflected light on the stairs going down, like papa was using a handluma, and he followed the promise of those bobbing shadows all the way down the stairs, through the confusing hallways in the basement, and into that narrow, low tunnel. He didn't like the tunnel. It gave him a really creepy feeling, like it was going to fall down on top of him or something.
"Papa!" He called to his father. "Wait!" He didn't like being in this tunnel by himself, his father so far ahead of him.
"Mackie?" The light came back toward him, shining strangely on the walls and floor as papa ran, his footsteps slapping and echoing loudly. Then papa was there, holding him close for a short, wonderful instant, and then shaking him hard.
"How did you get here? Oh, Mackie, what have you done?"
He grinned up at his father. "I hid in the flitter. I want to help. Uncle Dom kept saying you shouldn't come alone, so I came with you."
His papa closed his eyes in a face gone white, even in the funny glare of the small luma. He guessed maybe papa was sleepy and needed to rest for a minute. It was really, really late. Or maybe really, really early. He'd forgotten his chrono when he'd dressed and snuck out of the house.
"All right, then, Mackie. I guess you'd better come with me. But stay very, very quiet, and don't touch anything."
With his hand tucked comfortingly in papa's, even though he was way too old to hold his father's hand, the tunnel wasn't nearly so scary. They climbed some more stairs at the end of the tunnel, a twisty, narrow staircase, and then papa fiddled with a lockplate and the door slid open. They were in a bare room, with all kinds of controls and panels and displays, but no chairs. A droid control room, like the one he'd seen at the arena during the school tour. Mindful of papa's warning, he wandered around the room, looking at everything but touching nothing. Papa was busy at the main computer console.
"Thank all the gods! It's all here, and only one partially contaminated shipment went out. But the next shipment is ready to go out in the morning, and every single container is contaminated. I can't let that happen. I just can't. Even if they get the information, it may not be soon enough. There'll be ships already using the fuel."
He watched papa curiously, confused. Who was papa talking to? Not him, he knew, and there weren't any droids around.
Papa knelt down so they could look each other straight in the eyes. "Mackie, I want you to hold on to this for me, son. It's very important. And if I don't ask for it back, you be sure to give it to mama. She'll know what to do with it."
He took the data wafer and nodded. He put it in his secret pocket, the one he'd hollowed out inside his belt.
"You take the luma and start back to the flitter right now. When you get to the flitter you stay put inside until mama or I come back. You got that?"
"I'll wait here for you, Papa." He didn't like the idea of going back down that long tunnel all by himself.
"No, Mackie, no. I have to do something out in the warehouse, and it might take me a long time. I need to know where you are, and that you're safe. Promise me you'll go straight to the flitter and stay there. You have to run fast. Go now."
Papa hugged him hard and pushed him toward the door to the twisty staircase and tunnel.
"Papa? I love you." He didn't really know why he said it.
"I know, Mackie. I love you, too. And I love mama. Remember to tell her that."
Papa was gone then, and he disobeyed yet again. But... what if there was trouble and papa needed his help? So he waited, and waited. And waited some more.
Noises, outside in the hallway. Footsteps. Voices. Coming this way. He ducked back behind the tunnel door, leaving it cracked just a little bit.
"I figured it had to be you, Marland, but you disappeared too quickly. We came to your house two nights ago, but you were already gone. I guess you're smarter than I gave you credit for." There was a sick sound, the kind of sound Coyne's fist had made when it hit Welch's nose and split it wide open so it bled all down Welch's shirt. Somebody groaned. Papa?
"Soon as I saw that unauthorized access warning, I knew you'd come looking for proof. Good thing I posted guards on that shipment. What did you think you were going to do? Blow the place up?"
He knew that voice. That was Mr. Gropil, the man who owned the place where papa worked. Papa took him to the lab once, last year, and he'd met Dr. Sabeen and Mr. Gerson and Krista and even Mr. Gropil.
"Did you find anything on him? Did he have time to download any information?"
"Nothing. No wafers or crystals, nothing. He's clean." This was a different voice, deep and rough sounding.
Just the way Mr. Gropil laughed sent shivers down his spine, the same way Oldham Sanders laughed that day he dropped and broke the glassine biology specimen case. Kind of mean.
"Just as incompetent a rebel as you are a lab tech."
"What you want me to do with him, Mr. Gropil?" The other man scared Mackie because it sounded like the man wanted to hurt something.
That was when he heard the first explosion and felt the building shake all around him. He fell down and cried out when he banged his elbow against the floor, but he didn't think anybody else heard him over the noise of explosions and the floor tilting sideways.
"Son of a Sith!" That was Mr. Gropil, screaming, sounding like something crazy. "You worthless piece of nerf meat! Blast the bastard to atoms!"
He heard the whine of a hand blaster and a loud thud, he thought, but he wasn't sure, because Mr. Gropil was still screaming ugly words and there was a really really loud roaring sound and the building was shaking apart...
Papa! He shoved against the door as hard as he could, and managed to wiggle through the narrow opening. Through the open door into the warehouse he could see fierce red and yellow and orange light. It was hot, so hot in here. Where was Mr. Gropil and the other man? Where was Papa?
He tripped over something and landed on top of it. Papa! He shook his father. Papa! His hands came away wet and sticky, and papa still didn't move.
"Papa?" But papa wasn't ever going to answer him. He knew that. He'd had a pet syrrit that died once, and he knew that's what had happened to papa. Dead meant papa wouldn't ever take him to see monster swoop pulls or shockball games again, or pretend to lose a footrace or sneak before-dinner treats with him again, or...
Mama. Mama would be all alone now. He had to find mama and tell her not to be mad at papa for doing what he had to do, 'cause mama just didn't understand important guy stuff.
Papa had told him to run. So he ran, down the twisty steps and back all that long scary tunnel, even though it kept shaking and jumping around like it was a space worm's throat swallowing him whole. Little pieces of the roof kept falling on him until the whole place shook really hard and knocked him flat down. And then he couldn't go anywhere, stuck in this little space, so dark and all alone. And papa was dead and mama was all alone and his head hurt and his arm hurt and his chest hurt...
* * * *
"Oh, Mackie, Mackie. You were so brave, baby, so brave. Mama's not mad at papa at all, and you're not alone, because I'm here with you..."
Drifting in the disconnected void of transition between Joined and Self, Luke vaguely heard the comforting words. The Other slipped away, but it felt right, that was as it should be.
"You did good, kid." Han's warm hand rested against the back of his neck, touch registering what wouldn't be said between them--bright pride and affection and loyalty.
"What exactly did I do?" he asked, rubbing burning eyes as mother and child shed the first of many tears together, taking those initial clumsy steps toward acceptance and healing, lifted up out of the terror which had nearly consumed them.
"I don't know, exactly, but it sure seemed to work. One of those weird Jedi things, I guess. The kid ain't screaming anymore, at least."
Domani touched his shoulder, amazement written large on his face.
"You are a Jedi," he whispered. "You were... in mental contact with Mackie. You told us everything he'd seen and done, as if you yourself had seen and done it. It's a miracle, what you've done. Saresa... it isn't easy to hear what she heard, but at least now we know, and she'll mend, eventually. Now Mackie can grow up knowing his father died a hero, fighting for what he believed in. And we found the second data wafer, right where you said it would be. We can all take comfort in knowing Rohling accomplished what he set out to do."
But Luke felt small measured against the magnitude of courage before him: a child who braved unimaginable terrors because his father needed him; a woman who dared to make a choice which would tear her heart in two; and a family with enough faith in an abstract ideal to abandon comfortable lives and endanger themselves.
He shook his head. "I'm no Jedi," he protested, seeing again the staggering burden laid at his feet, awaiting his choice. To pick it up or to walk away.
"You will be," Domani assured him. "You will be."
And perhaps he would. Perhaps it wasn't his decision after all.
"You're welcome to come with us, Domani, all of you. The Alliance takes care of its own." Had Luke not been so exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed, he might've laughed at Han's assertive invitation. "You've lost too much here."
Smiling sadly, Domani shook his head. "That's why we have to stay. This is our home. We lost one of our own today. These memories will keep us doing what we can to honor Rohling's sacrifice. But Bonei will take you back to your ship whenever you're ready."
His glance shifted to Luke. "We can't thank you enough for what you did today."
"No thanks. Just... take care of yourselves. Take good care of Mackie. I think... I think he's very special." There was an odd sensation, like a tickle inside his skull, whenever Luke looked at the child, and a certainty grew upon him that they were two of a kind. In time they would find each other again, perhaps travelling similar paths of destiny and knowledge.
"C'mon, Luke. Sounds like we got us a ride, then, if you're up to it. I got hold of Chewie, everything's okay on his end. Sounds like that Gropil did make some kind of connection between you 'n our timely arrival last night, but Chewie saw them coming and got out fast. He's been laying low for a while, trying to punch through the com activity."
So, a successful mission all around. The Rebellion had their warning and information, a traitor had been identified and disarmed, and a boy's life had been saved.
And all it had cost was the life of a husband and father, and shattered lives left behind.
"You'll feel better once we're on our way home," Han murmured in his ear, accurately assessing his mood. "One look at that princess of yours'll cheer you up."
Home? He had no home, and Leia most certainly wasn't his. But Han's hand was on his shoulder, offering friendship and trust and support, and maybe, for now, that was what he needed most of all.
Time to go then, to leave these people to deal with their loss and grief as best they could, just as he would continue to struggle with his own unclaimed heritage.
"Yes," he said to Han. "Let's go home."