Star Wars fan fiction
introduction to Circles Complete
Can’t Go Home Again
Trial by Fire
Turning Points: So Alone
Turning Points: So Alive
Steer the Shore
Seed of Deceit
Euphoria and Foreboding
Out of Darkness
Out of Doubt
~~ ~  ~ ~~
Four Years After Return of the Jedi
~@~ First Sight
On a shuttle just outside the Aci system a warning light flashed. The pilot skillfully pulled back the hyperdrive lever and watched the mottled cockpit veiwport fade into starlines, then finally return to pinpoints of light. The planet Aci itself now held orbit in the center of the cockpit viewport. It was a seamless reentry. The Kiffar pilot clicked on the ship's comm to announce their arrival to her only passenger – just as he opened the cockpit door behind them. The unexpected intrusion prompted a high-pitched objection from the Ortolan copilot, but the squeaking tongue of his native language quieted under the pilot's calm reprimand.
"You forget yourself, Obree," his pilot chided him patiently. "This vessel is on a diplomatic mission for the Republic," she pointed out proudly, then added, "that means what the Jedi says goes."
It could have been any time in the long and glorious history of the Republic, when Jedi wisdom was held in the highest respect as a means for settling disputes peaceably and fairly among all civilized beings.
Except it wasn't. Those times were far away.
It had only been four years. Only four years had passed since Rebel forces were victorious over the Empire at Endor, in the battle that Darth Vader and the Emperor himself hadn't survived. There had been four years of strained peace and civility, and four years of the Rebellion's steadily evolving leadership working tirelessly to reestablish a seemingly forgotten regime.
"That's New Republic, Captain Bacin," Luke Skywalker clarified.
He intended the statement to be strong but casual, a simple clarification of fact, mindful of the time at hand. But he felt something in his voice betray him. The word seemed to weigh itself between past and present, pride and regret... and Luke couldn't deny some small degree of wonderment at the way that one word shifted the whole of the connotation. In his mind and in his heart it was all raveled together, the old and the new. This time, each passing moment, was a bridge between the past's legacies and the future's challenges. Both sides carried great weight.
"And I'm afraid our mission may be far from diplomacy," Luke concluded, his voice heavy with the grim honesty.
"Don't underestimate your influence, Jedi Skywalker," the pilot responded. "Some beings still remember and respect the benevolent leadership offered by the Jedi." She spoke with obvious reverence and great confidence.
"Thank you, Captain," Luke answered humbly.
A grateful smile crossed him as he accepted the vote of confidence, but the light rush of emotion was fleeting. In no time, heavier feelings returned to settle over him again. They were the same discomforts that had brought him up from his quarters for the final approach. Aci continued to grow nearer with each passing moment, but Luke came no closer to identifying the source of the warning that flickered steadily, uneasily, at the edge of his consciousness. As he slid into a chair behind the ship's captain, Luke wished he could be so certain that he possessed the wisdom of the Jedi before him, even in part. All he possessed right now was a sense of approaching trouble and a nervously churning stomach.
That emotion, too, had to be put aside as Aci grew steadily nearer. If this mission was like most he'd taken over the past four years, it would involve far less diplomacy and rely instead on promises of greater strength. He didn't like it, but in the still-rippling state of chaos since Endor, strength seemed to be all a great many beings chose to respect. Too many of those beings wanted a piece of the crumbling Empire. For some it was its territory, others its wealth, or just plain power – those individuals were the most dangerous.
The skirmishes were minor now, with only a handful of Imperial officers still actively engaging their military forces. Unfortunately for the New Republic, the threat of attack was widespread, so as to keep their resources thinly dispersed throughout the remaining Imperial sectors. That left the fledgling government with little physical protection to offer its citizens, and that protection was very sorely needed. A series of warlords continued to spring up seemingly overnight, feeding in the wake of the Imperial remission. Their greed, if left unchecked, would deny the freedoms that had been so desperately fought for.
Meanwhile, throughout established New Republic space a different set of challenges was being faced. Military was reverting to militia as systems and planets sought to move from war to peacetime law. The Senate hoped that this new, more localized, approach at government could eventually bring peace to even the most troubled areas. Luke had his doubts, but in a great many systems it did appear to be working. Still, peace was especially slow in returning to the outer rim territories. There, as Luke knew from hard experience, during even the most mundane periods of galactic politics life remained just on the edge of civilization.
Luke shook his head uneasily, as if to clear it of the endless sea of problems that required solutions, and he refocused himself on the mission at hand. The circumstances here were familiar enough. The local leadership was overtaxing its citizens and its planetary resources in a desperate attempt to rebuild defenses and economics. Meanwhile they had come under the threat of armed raiders. Perhaps the local authorities had even resorted to skimming the raiders in, hoping that a cut of the taxes would appease them. But eventually they had found that it was impossible to negociate with lawless aggressors. Only now, when the situation had come to a head, did they request the New Republic's intervention.
It was much the same everywhere else, Luke couldn't help but think despondently. Here was another system teetering on the edge of independence, hopeful for its freedom, fearful for its survival. He took a deep breath, pushing the larger sea of problems and uncertainties aside once more as he stretched out to the Force, for calm, for focus....
Instead he was met with a sudden flash of images. They were scenes of chaos, tinged with the fear and panic of those caught up in it. Luke tried to reach deeper, to get a feel for where or when– but the images slipped away, leaving only a deeply discomforting feeling of dread in their place.
Luke opened his eyes slowly. Reaching out consciously with his senses, the Jedi Knight first recognized the patient vigil of his companions. The pilot and copilot were readily performing the routine duties necessary to bring the ship into orbit; just beyond that Luke sensed something more. As he concentrated further, the wisps of emotion began to connect and expand. Like a mosaic, those smaller pieces came together to reinforce each other... and to reveal another reality. Luke refocused his own emotions and consciousness to touch the Force more deeply, and from that place he could feel the distinct pull of a quiet but insistent internal prompt. Again, Luke followed. Reaching to the quiet peace deep within himself, the Jedi let that peace extend from him and guide him. Immersed in the feel of the Force, he opened himself to connect more directly with those other minds, letting himself touch parts of their emotions....
Down on the planet there was a growing foreboding, now spreading into fear. He could sense–
"We're receiving an emergency hail from the planet," the pilot reported.
"Put them through," Luke directed.
"Starship Prospect, we have an unstable situation at the main air base."
"Can we be of any assistance?" Luke asked reflexively.
"Afraid not, Concord cruiser."
Aci Control seemed ready to remind Luke of what he had already remembered, belatedly. There was little that even a Jedi Knight could do from aboard a Concord starship in a combat situation.
There had been objections, of course, but Luke had felt strongly about it. As a Jedi on a mission of peace, to come into a system aboard a fully armed starship would be sending the wrong messages, both of intention and of philosophy. He had realized and accepted the intrinsic risk that came along with that decision, and the New Republic had compromised by providing him with some of the best nonmilitary ships and crews available.
"Things are going to get messy in a hurry down here," Aci Control stated after a brief pause, and over a great deal of background noise. "We'll have to redirect you to a secondary landing location."
The pilot glanced toward Luke before responding. He could see her caution. She was obviously thinking, as he was, that it could be some sort of a trap.
"Do you require coordinates, Prospect?"
The Ortolan copilot squeaked a short reply.
"Negative, Control," the pilot answered. "We've got backup locations on ship's nav. Prospect out," she concluded the transmission before the Aci Control personnel could have time to object. "Jedi Skywalker?" Captain Bacin asked next.
Luke was quiet for a moment. "I don't sense any deception in him, and there is definitely trouble developing down there," he concluded thoughtfully. "Let's go down. Just take it carefully. Shields full."
She nodded, silently making the adjustments. The copilot chattered to himself as he punched in the course settings. Slowly, the ship turned to its new approach heading, and they all waited as the shimmering atmosphere of Aci grew nearer.
As they descended lower, they could quickly pick out the city that had been their destination. Its characteristic sphere and diamond tipped skyscrapers reached toward space in a unique array of form and function. They could also clearly pick out the trouble spots. At several places to the east and to the north of the city smoke spread like a blanketing white fog, moving steadily to obscure the city scape below the elegant tips of those towering skyscrapers.
Luke winced in sympathy as waves of panic from the inhabitants below added to the disturbance in the Force around him. A moment later he could make out two more charges that had ignited to the west of the city. The pilot quietly shifted their course further to the west.
"Location on scope," she demanded casually. The copilot twittered to himself, a little less casually, as he worked the controls to make a display appear at the forward center of the cockpit.
"It should be a little further northwest," Luke interpreted after a moment of studying the holographic display that marked their progress.
"I can see it now," the pilot reported.
The crew remained silent once again while the pilot negotiated their approach for landing. It was a fine landing, despite the facilities. This site obviously hadn't housed much of anything, not in years.
Almost before the ship had finished settling Captain Bacin had pressed another series of keys, causing an unfamiliar text to replace the holographic display. "Seems this was a passenger station before the Empire ordered all traffic redirected through Central City's spaceport," she surmised from the text.
Luke nodded. "See if you can pick up a communications band," he suggested.
"I'm on it," she answered, working at the ship's controls.
Soon static began to come through. The static gradually resolved itself into partial relays, and the Prospect's three occupants sat listening, silently piecing the story together. Apparently the explosive charges had been centered around the main spaceport, with a second set of charges placed at strategic locations meant to slow the local authorities' response. No obvious attempts at escape, no suspects captured as yet.
About an hour after the first charge had been detonated, most of the fires had been brought under control and the authorities were shifting their attention to clearing the streets and preparing for an enforced curfew at local nightfall. Luke was just about to check the time remaining until nightfall when their communications band was suddenly interrupted.
"Starship Prospect, are you receiving?" came an audio transmission.
Luke nodded to the pilot as he leaned forward to better hear. "Put them through."
The image that appeared in response caught him slightly off guard.
"Jedi Skywalker, I am Administrator Davlin, second in command to Magistrate Jutex. I offer my sincerest apologies on his behalf, for your inconvenience, and for his unavailability to greet you. As I am sure you understand, certain unexpected developments require his immediate attention."
"Of course, Administrator," Luke recognized evenly. Taking in the intended message and reading between the lines were things that he could do comfortably. Finding the right political and social ground for response was still a bit more challenging to him.
"Again, I'd like to offer you any assistance that I can provide toward alleviating the situation," Luke put forward diplomatically.
"Your presence and assistance are highly honored and valued, Jedi Skywalker. In the morning, perhaps, there will be more options. Now, however, we have a team underway that will provide you escort to waiting accommodations."
"Understood," Luke confirmed, making a slight bow to the Administrator as he signed off.
"I take it that's our escort," the pilot observed as two small, nondescript ships came into view to their north.
"Yes," Luke said slowly, reaching out to the Force. "That's them."
"Starship Prospect, please fall into escort formation. We'll take you in," their instruction crackled across the comm.
"Confirmed, escort." Captain Bacin lifted off alongside their two escort ships, and the entire formation began moving toward a mountain range that rose up to the northeast.
Soon they were skimming the high, vertical cliffs so closely they could visualize small details in the coloring of the rock. Luke found himself waiting for their course to veer back around and bring them into the northern outskirts of the city, but the expected change in course did not come. A few more moments passed and he realized that their destination must instead be the inhabitable base line of the mountain.
Finally their escort turned to the east to skim along the first line of ridges that was rising from the mountain's base line ranges, but they made no move to descend down into the mountain's more inhabitable areas. Then their two escort ships disappeared from sight as an abrupt turn took them through a vertical crevice in the rock ahead, allowing them to pass directly through the mountain range. At that point their destination became clear. Between the high, sloping walls that were now rising to both sides of the three ships, a fertile valley spread across the ground. At one end of the valley a lake provided irrigation for a semicircle of plant crops that extended from its edge. The other end of the valley gave way to a grassy recreational area that lead up to the mountain. Nestled there was an elaborate building facade.
As they came closer they could see that the facade was all of the structure that was visible. The bulk of the building had been constructed directly into the mountain, a unique architectural feat, and one that had obviously taken quite some time to achieve. Several elegantly blended but still distinct styles could be observed throughout the surface, implying that the building possessed a long history and that it had undergone multiple restorations.
"Impressive," Luke murmured. "They've got their own little survival camp here."
"And quite well secured," the pilot noted with a rather grim fascination. Luke followed her gaze to where several force shield batteries were implanted into the mountainside above them.
"Yes," Luke echoed, his voice matching the equal parts amazement and suspicion in hers. "Quite." That shielding would keep out all but the heaviest atmospheric fire, and the mountain ranges would make the building's existence difficult to ascertain from orbit.
Their escort slowed and descended, dipping down toward a landing platform that extended from an outcropping in the mountainside directly opposite the building facade. The New Republic pilot followed, setting the Prospect down with ease between the two escort ships.
"Well, here we are," she stated.
Luke took a deep, focusing breath. "All right," he said with a casualness that he didn't necessarily feel. "Let's go meet our host."
The two escort pilots had taken up an honor guard formation at the Prospect's ramp by the time Luke and his two companions exited. "Jedi Skywalker," the pilot to his left greeted him with the same slight bow the Administrator had used. "We are honored to receive you. The magistrate will arrive to meet you shortly."
The Acii pilots reminded Luke of Yarkora in appearance: slightly elongated muzzles, wide nostrils, and rough, fur-like hair coats which surrounded most of their heads.
"Thank you," Luke responded, returning the gesture to each of them.
Then, off to his left and under the cover of the landing platform's protective overhang, a door slid open. Two beings emerged. The first, a brightly dressed humanoid, stepped briskly toward Luke. He was accompanied by a hurrying aid. Luke walked forward to meet them.
"Jedi Skywalker, I am Madra Jutex," the Acerian intoned, bowing deeply. "As magistrate of Aci, I welcome you, and I hope that you will accept my apologies for the hurried change in your agenda."
"Of course," Luke returned graciously. "Your hospitality is greatly appreciated."
"Of course," Luke returned graciously. "Your hospitality is greatly appreciated."
"Please, accompany me, and we may discuss the conditions and affairs on world over a meal. Captain," the magistrate gestured to one of the escort pilots, "please show our other guests to their quarters, and to any of our facilities that they may require.
"Come," he offered, returning his attention to Luke.
With a quick "all clear" nod to his pilot and copilot, Luke turned to follow the magistrate's gesture, and he stopped a bit short. Instead of exiting in the same direction that the magistrate had entered from, as Luke had expected, they were now moving toward the chasm that separated the two sloping rock walls. And the valley below was a long way down.
Following half a step behind his host, Luke made out the transparasteel structure that bridged the chasm just before they reached its edge. Magistrate Jutex smiled proudly beside him.
"One of the better improvements I've been able to make since acquiring the property."
"It's amazing," Luke concluded honestly as he followed the magistrate across. "When was it begun?" he asked with the air of casual conversation.
If Magistrate Jutex had any reservations about answering, his pride clearly overshadowed them. "This place housed our leadership for generations in the old times, when rule was passed exclusively through family lines. Later, as our peoples began to insist upon their own ability to choose their leadership, those who governed chose to do so from a more visible location, in the city below.
"The property still remained an honorary possession but it went largely unused, until the Empire arrived. At that time I began quietly moving some of my records and staff here in order to preserve them. Strictly for security purposes," he assured Luke, gesturing toward the mountains to emphasize the defenses that were held high above their heads.
Then Magistrate Jutex paused as they reached a set of elaborate doors that held entrance to a grand palace. "Given the problems of today, I thought it best to meet here, for the same reason."
Luke met his host's gaze and offered a cautious nod of agreement before stepping through the door that was held open for him. The magistrate's sense was much heavier than the calm reassurance offered in his voice.
After a brief tour (during which the Magistrate of Aci was able to impart a great deal of the history surrounding Alcazar de Aci, as the locals referred to this mountain stronghold), Luke was given a chance to freshen up in his quarters. Those quarters were far more luxurious than anything Luke was accustomed to. Growing up, there had never been money to waste on anything that wasn't vital to day-to-day survival on the Lars Homestead. Luke had learned early in life how to make ends meet with what was available, a skill that had only grown sharper after years spent with the Rebellion. He couldn't help but feel a little out of place in the midst of surroundings so opulent.
Smiling to himself, Luke went into his travel bag and pulled out what was necessary to make himself presentable for the evening: a fresh change of clothing to replace the wrinkled tunic, pants, and traveling robes that he currently wore, and a handful of personal supplies so that he could wash up and shave. With a shake of his head, Luke realized that along the way he had also learned to travel very light. Even his plain, brown, over-the-shoulder travel bag looked as though it didn't belong in the midst of these accommodations. But if Luke had learned to make do with less, he had also learned not to be swayed by the glitter of wealth and luxury. He had seen from Ben and Yoda that a Jedi Knight needed very little in the way of possessions in order to carry out his work.
His thoughts remained along those lines as Luke returned to the bedroom. He ignored the huge bed and heavy, cumbersome chairs, instead picking out a place on the floor where he could sit comfortably with his back against the wall. He had made his outward self presentable, now he would clear his mind and use his remaining time for meditation. The Jedi sat down, folding his legs and arms into a loose, comfortable position, then began consciously relaxing his body and mind... steadily reaching out to the Force... trusting in it to guide and strengthen him.
It seemed hardly any time had passed when a messenger arrived to notify Luke that the evening meal was ready. Luke followed his guide in silence through the immaculately decorated halls, listening to his footsteps' echo against the sharpstone floors, and listening to that sound's reverberation against the high, arched ceilings. It was all very impressive. He could understand why the magistrate was so proud of this place. Luke paused as his guide stepped back to hold open another of the heavy doors. Inside, he found Magistrate Jutex already waiting for him. The magistrate rose from his seat to greet his guest of honor as Luke strode into the opulent dining hall.
The meal he was treated to was excellent, and though Luke appreciated the effort that had been put into his reception, he was anxious to get down to more serious matters. He wanted to talk to his host about the matters that had brought Luke here, and about what had happened on the planet earlier today. Luke was finding that transition difficult to make. The level of formality over dinner was only slightly lower than it had been upon his arrival, and though Luke realized the political importance of etiquette and protocol, sometimes he couldn't help but remember his Uncle Owen's appreciation for those things.
"Magistrate Jutex," Luke offered cautiously as they waited between meal courses, "forgive me if my request is forward, but perhaps you could tell me a little about the difficulties you seemed to be experiencing in the city today."
"Yes. Of course." The man's face darkened a bit, as did his mood, but he quickly put the emotion aside and collected himself. "Pleasantries are well and good, but are not the reason you came."
Luke smiled, equally relieved that they were finally getting to the business at hand, and that his host hadn't taken offense at being pushed in that direction.
"I was able to pick up parts of an audio feed while I was waiting this afternoon, so I already have a general idea of the situation. It was the Central City's spaceport which was the center of the disturbance today," Luke suggested easily.
The magistrate responded to Luke's prompt with no more than a simple half nod.
"Have there been any other such incidences?" Luke asked next.
"No. This is the first," his host responded somewhat innocently.
"Any idea why the spaceport was chosen as a target?" Luke pursued.
"Officially, no. But unofficially," the magistrate added slowly, "I believe this was meant to be a warning."
Luke was silent for a moment, processing the unexpected statement and waiting for clarification.
"Perhaps it is best if I start at the beginning," Magistrate Jutex offered.
Luke nodded and sat forward to listen.
"Aci has never been a rich world, neither in wealth nor in might, but our economy has always been a source of strength. Then the Empire came. They found that Aci was a midpoint along several of their shipping supply routes, and they took over the Central City spaceport. Everything else was halted so that the Empire's supply runs were first priority. Those who could not find work as support personnel for the spaceport were conscripted into the Empire's war machine.
"Those were the only options given us, and from that moment on we lost our independence. Aci has never been a military world. We were unable to resist the Empire's occupation or the demands of their successors. After Endor the scavengers came, picking us clean of the Empire's abandoned ships and cargo, and taking our own meager remnants when those were gone."
Luke nodded, remembering. After Endor, when news spread that the Emperor had been killed, more than half of the Empire's mostly conscripted troops defected from its service, almost overnight. The remaining officers had scrambled to assemble as much firepower as possible for a last stand. It was that last stand that had become the still continuing "mopping up" operations, as Leia liked to call them. And of course, following in the Imperials' wake there always seemed to be a steady succession of pirates, smugglers, and warlords.
"Matters seemed hopeless," the magistrate stated. "That was when I was offered a deal."
"Yes, from one of the groups that came after the others, when we had nothing left. So instead, they offered us protection. In exchange, we would provide them with a percentage of the raw materials that we were able to ship off world for sale.
"For a while the deal was good," Magistrate Jutex decided slowly, in retrospect. "We were able to recover, to reestablish our shipping arrangements with our neighbors, and to provide for ourselves again."
Luke nodded, smiling at the obvious pride in the other being's voice. "Then what?" he asked quietly.
"Then the agreement was no longer enough. As we grew stronger they demanded more and more in return for their protection, until finally we could afford to pay no more. Now it is like being under the Empire's oppressive rule once again. This is why we send for New Republic intermediation. We must be freed from this unfair burden – and freed by force, if a show of force is required."
Luke remained quiet for a moment. "Yes," he finally acknowledged heavily. He had known that the request would eventually come, for the New Republic to fight in their defense, for their protection. It was a reasonable request, but one that he could not guarantee.
Luke brought himself back from that worry. "And today – you think this, group, was delivering a warning to you?"
"That is my assumption, yes."
"Magistrate, for how long did this agreement stand?"
"Since, eight, nine months after Endor, perhaps."
"And when did they start to increase their demands?"
"About a year ago."
"So for more than two years, the deal was good?"
"What caused the change then?"
"Greed, I would assume," he replied with obvious disdain.
"Perhaps that is the case, but perhaps not," Luke offered the alternative curiously. "The circumstances didn't begin to change until about a year ago. By then you were already quite successful in your business endeavors – your export charts show that," Luke explained, his voice quickening a little, then settling back again as he followed his thought through. "If their motivation was purely greed, and nothing else, then there's no reason why they didn't increase their demands on you sooner. No," Luke concluded, "based on what you've told me, it seems more likely that outside forces have caused your partners to increase their reliance upon you for goods and supplies."
It was the Magistrate's turn to become thoughtful now. "I have considered this," he acknowledged, then he lowered his voice. "There is one thing, still, that I have not told you."
Luke's frown deepened.
"I fear that the group we have been doing business with may be increasing in their militarization these past few months, leading me to further suspect that they were behind today's actions. There have been rumors of this sort, though they are unconfirmed. Some suspect they are preparing to battle competitors, some–" he hesitated.
"Suspect the Empire," Luke finished, containing a grimace.
Magistrate Jutex nodded.
"Yes," Luke spoke carefully. "I have heard those rumors too, that the Empire is beginning to enlist fringe groups, hired mercenaries, to do their fighting for them."
"They are nearing the end of their rope, the Imperials. I want to be certain that Aci is not snared in it."
"I understand," Luke agreed. "Before we can go further, we will need to determine whom to hold responsible for the attacks today. If I may, in the morning I'd like to see the sites that were hit. Getting a look at those explosive residues will be the easiest way to determine if the Empire is likely connected."
"I think that can be arranged."
"As for the other possibilities, I don't believe that what happened today was the result of a failed business dealing. If that was the case, they could have inflicted far more damage than they did. And why wait until a New Republic representative is on planet to observe and take action against them? No, it seems far more likely that an outside party is trying to interfere with your partner's success. That would fit with their recent economic and military build up as well."
Magistrate Jutex nodded. "Your theory is strong, and, I must admit, I would be inclined to believe that our allies would not choose to turn against us, unless they felt forced to do so."
"Tell me," Luke paused slightly, "based on your dealings with them, do you think this group would be interested in a straight, lasting, trade agreement?"
"What do you propose?"
"If I could meet with both parties, perhaps I could help you come to a new deal that you both could gain from. Since this deal would be sanctioned by the New Republic, it would be a fair and legal exchange of goods for services. That also means that if it were broken, the party in breech would be held accountable by the New Republic, as would any outside power that might attempt to interfere."
Luke paused to let those implications sink in. Then he asked, "Would you be interested in such an arrangement?"
The magistrate thought for a moment. "Yes. You make a good point, Jedi Skywalker. If such an arrangement can be reached, it would be preferable.... Yes, I am interested," he decided firmly. "I have only one reservation."
The smile that had been threatening Luke quickly faded. He should have known that had gone too smoothly.
"Your allies?" he guessed, keeping his voice even. "You are unsure of their reaction to the New Republic's intervention in their affairs."
The magistrate smiled at his quick assessment. "Again, you are correct."
"I understand, that could be tricky," Luke conceded. "Let us wait to consider that until after I see the spaceport tomorrow."
"Very well," the magistrate nodded, clearly pleased with the progress they had made so far.
Luke took a deep breath and sat back in his chair as the magistrate's server appeared to refill their drink glasses. Perhaps this mission would be different from the others after all, he thought to himself. Luke held on to that hope as he raised his glass, quietly returning the gesture that Magistrate Jutex jubilantly offered to him from across the table.
Early the next morning a small group of officials left the magistrate's mountain stronghold and headed south into Central City. The rocky terrain gave way to smooth, well-used roads once they had passed through the base line of the mountain range, and the two speeders were within sight of the city soon after that.
As they entered the city limits they came upon several of the areas that had been burnt out in the secondary attack. Their speeders slowed to a respectful crawl as they viewed the damage, and they stopped to speak briefly with the security forces who were containing the scene. The officers on duty had nothing new to report. No evidence had been found to positively identify the explosive devices that had been used, but from the look of the damage Luke guessed that a fairly primitive incendiary device would have done the trick. That notion suited him fine; the further this sabotage was removed from the sort of high-tech operation that would imply Imperial involvement, the better – the better he would sleep at night, and the better his chances would be at keeping this a peaceful delegation instead of a military movement.
Their caravan moved on, passing slowly through the outskirts of the city, and pausing or stopping often for security checks and information updates. When they began to enter the city proper, the mood changed noticeably. Luke looked around himself with a grim, almost morbid, curiosity. All around them there was a delay in the normal level of activity that should surround a sizable city. He knew that its citizens wanted to get on with their lives as usual, but right now they were waiting.
The psychological wounds were still too fresh to be soothed. Unconsciously, they expected something more to happen, and they feared another attack to come. Even deeper beneath the surface, they hoped desperately for a reprieve from that coming attack. They longed for something that could lift the relentless fear they were feeling in the wake of their newfound vulnerability, longed for someone to save them from that agonizing grip of fear and helplessness, and return to them the sense of safety and strength that had been lost, stolen away in the blink of an eye.
Luke could feel the heavy weight of their need and pain, and something more beyond it. He could see cautious hope directed at him in curious stares, and he pushed away the smothering feeling of self-consciousness that washed over him. He was on a diplomatic mission for the New Republic, Luke argued stubbornly with himself. That made it the same for him as it would be for Han, or Leia, or Lando. Same duties. Same expectations.
It was a good pep talk, he guessed, but he didn't believe it. Luke was always aware of the enormous responsibility that was given to him as a Jedi Knight. Responsibility's bright light shone at him with the trust on the faces of strangers that he met everywhere. They were sure that he would help them, not because he was a hero of the Rebellion or a representative of the New Republic, but because he was the Jedi, Luke Skywalker. For that reason alone, they trusted him to be able to help them.
He consciously pushed his own lingering uncertainties aside as the speeder came to a gentle stop just a few blocks from the spaceport. Once more he reminded himself to return his concentration to the task at hand; that was the best he could do for these people, the ones he could help today. With that goal in sight, Luke gathered new determination and cautiously stepped out into the open air, squinting through the smog that still hung heavy around the city.
"Jedi Skywalker," Magistrate Jutex approached him after speaking briefly with another group of officials. "Our authorities inform me that several suspects have been detained, but they appear to be petty criminals only. Natives, hired to do the setting of the explosives."
"What about the spaceport?" Luke asked.
"What do you mean?" the magistrate questioned.
"Did they plant the explosives there, or strictly the secondary charges?" Luke persisted.
"I will inquire," the magistrate responded, clearly not understanding the reasoning behind Luke's question.
Luke wasn't sure he understood it either, but he was getting a very strange feeling about the spaceport and the charges that had been set there. All he knew for certain was that he didn't like it. After another moment's concentration, he stepped briskly over to one of the Magistrate's aids.
"Excuse me," Luke asked, "would you please inform Magistrate Jutex that I went to tour the spaceport area? I'll be back shortly," Luke finished his explanation absently, all his attention elsewhere. He had already started toward the empty spaceport.
The unpleasant feeling continued to nag at him, but so far there was nothing unusual that he could see. Luke made his way unimpeded to the spaceport's first floor entrance, stopping only briefly to investigate another of the incendiary devices that had been detonated just outside. There was not enough left of that remnant to give him any idea what sort of explosive it had been, so he continued on, entering the spaceport cautiously.
Luke had walked halfway up the first of the spaceport's five levels before he found what he was looking for. Gingerly, he picked up the casing and turned it over between his fingers. It was a low caliber explosive, as he had expected. The device was not meant to do damage so much as to cause inconvenience. That was not to say that it wouldn't take the Acii a few months, at least, to get this area operational again, or that it couldn't have been deadly if it was detonated close enough to a living being. But all in all, Luke was fairly certain that this sort of attack and this kind of weaponry wasn't what the Empire would employ. That, at least, was very good news.
Luke found two more of the same remnant devices tightly packed under the rubble. They had been placed to take out the two pillars that had marked the entrance to the spaceport's second level, and they had done so. Luke used the Force to help him shift away part of the debris, then he climbed carefully over the jagged rocks that had formed high pillars and thick arches just a day ago, to dig into the refuse.
From the outside these explosive casings looked exactly the same as the other, but these two were different. When he picked them up he could almost feel an electricity to them, a purpose. Luke closed his eyes and reached out to the Force. The intensity of the sensation deepened as he concentrated on the small, warped bits of metal and plastic cupped in the palm of his hand, but he could not make out the feelings behind it. The purpose remained illusive.
He looked up, the Force guiding his senses. Focused on the distinct feel of the explosive remnants in his hand, Luke could easily detect the places where that feeling repeated itself. He let his eyes pass over this floor, and in his mind the other floors were visible to him as well. His mind's eye could see the layout of the explosive sites throughout the entire spaceport. It was efficient and through. His chest tightened a bit as he realized that they were dealing with a professional.
Again, he could feel the same grim purpose, but there was something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. The nagging feeling was starting to grow again, not really a warning, but something suspicious that tingled persistently at the back of his mind.
With his senses still extended, he could almost hear something.
Luke unhooked his lightsaber from his belt and wove his way through the pillars that crisscrossed the second level, continuing until he had reached the entrance of the third level. He slowed, carefully moving forward as his eyes struggled to see past the smoke and debris that was still trapped in the upper levels, clouding the way ahead of him. Then he came to a pause behind one of the undamaged pillars, alertly listening to internal warnings, and reaching cautiously for external understanding. The deserted spaceport was still eerily quiet around him, but Luke now knew he was not alone.
Slowly, he looked out from behind the pillar, his ears alert for the fraction of a sound that he had grasped a moment ago. A second later a hooded figure stepped into view and stood still, its attention clearly held by something off in the other direction. Luke remained silent and still as one moment passed, and another.
Then a second figure appeared, the object of the first's vigil.
Both were similarly cloaked in a flowing, dark, and nondescript manner of attire, and both carried the look of professional fringe types: experienced, tough, and battle-hardened. The second dark figure only paused for a moment before it began slowly approaching the first. Neither appeared to be armed, but they were clearly measuring one another for combat.
Luke ducked back a bit further out of sight as one of the figures threw the first blow. The combatants seemed to be taking each other far too seriously to notice a third person under the cover of a pillar, even at fairly close range, but Luke didn't want to give his presence away unnecessarily. This conflict had to be, in some way, connected to the events of yesterday’s attack. For now, Luke felt his best option was to stay where he was, let this altercation unfold without interference, and see what he could learn from it.
As he watched the unfolding scene Luke Skywalker hoped to try and ascertain the motives and allegiances of these mercenaries. For many minutes, the fight ranged back and forth. They fought hard but also carefully, as though each combatant was aware that one wrong move could cost everything. Then, suddenly, one of the fighters stepped up the pace. The battle quickly intensified. Almost immediately Luke felt himself duck away, reflexively pressing his back tightly against the pillar as his eyes and his senses searched urgently for the danger he knew was coming.
The pillar shook violently behind him as a flash of light reached around it, consuming the space where Luke had stood a moment earlier. He dropped into a ready position, only a fraction of a second to prepare his defense for something still unknown to him. With all of his senses extended, he calmed his emotions. This time Luke felt the warning clearly, and he opened himself to respond instinctively.
A sharp cracking sound filled the air, shaking the spaceport's structure just as he called the Force into his use. Without hesitation, Luke put all of his strength into a flying lunge, and the Force came readily to the Jedi's aid. Its strength blindly hurdled his body toward safety.
Everything slowed around him, fractions of a second, as he could only wait to see if he had been alert enough, if his reflexes had been quick enough. And in one of those eternal split seconds, Luke caught one more glimpse of the fight. One combatant now stood over the other.
As the ceiling slammed into him, he wished he knew whose side the winner was on.
Everything was fuzzy. As if from a long distance away, he could hear a noise. His lightsaber. He could see it held over him, could feel that the person holding it wanted to take his life. He struggled harder for consciousness, but the vision went white, slipping him back into the darkness of his own mind....
The rest made even less sense, Luke confided to Captain Bacin, who sat worriedly beside him, visiting his bedside in the mountain stronghold. His guest was dressed casually, blue facial markings standing out against her dark skin. Long Kiffar braids which she normally wore piled high around her head while on duty were instead hanging loosely about her shoulders while she listened attentively to his tale.
"I remember these images as clearly as if I had seen them. But how could I have? I was unconscious."
"There is much we don't understand about the workings of the mind," she assured him, after a long moment's unanswered silence.
She was trying desperately not to condescend to him; he could tell that. But she didn't believe it any more than the medics had when he had tried to ask them. They just wanted him to rest. So did she.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, seeing his frustration at the lack of answers, "but we've been over the city repeatedly, and nobody matches the description of the woman you saw."
"Yeah–" Luke mumbled under his breath, "and no one remembers me being brought in either. I know." He took a deep breath. His head was starting to ache again. "I'm sorry," Luke apologized to her, speaking more quietly as he closed his eyes against the dull aching. "It's not your fault."
"It's okay," she answered reassuringly. "If you want me to look again, I will. Check ships' records, try again to get some identification on that one that blasted out of here while we were looking for you. It's better than watching Obree beat me in chess for the millionth time. I'll already never hear the end of this week from him."
Luke smiled. "No," he conceded. "I give up. The unsolved mystery will have to wait. I've got enough to concentrate on between getting well and preparing for the conference. I already lost a day to this concussion and a week to resting," he said, frustration inching back into his voice.
Her face was serious as she watched him. "You think this person saved your life," she stated quietly.
Luke held her gaze for a moment. "Yes," he answered, certain of that somehow. "I think she did."
The captain nodded. "Okay," she decided. "Then it's worth one more try at finding her."
"Thank you, Captain," Luke said softly.
"You're welcome," she replied without looking back. She was already on her way out the door.
Luke laid his aching head back against his pillow and began concentrating once again on trying to heal himself. For the millionth time this week, he wished he knew more about the healing aspects of the Force. Pain suppression he was better at. Maybe that was something he had learned by necessity, or maybe a healer had to have a certain connection to the Force that he just wasn't grasping. One more to add to the list of questions he'd never asked Ben or Yoda.
He sighed. There was still so much he didn't know. Now this mysterious vision....
Luke closed his eyes, letting go the rest as he let his senses reach out to the Force. He could see it all so clearly: the flash of light as he dropped into a ready position, leaping with all his strength as the ceiling fell in on him, his view of the fighters just before he lost consciousness.... Then there was the figure holding his lightsaber over him, wanting to kill him.
That was followed by the strange sensation of not feeling any danger at all as that last image jumbled together in his mind with another one: the image of the woman who had stood over him, using his lightsaber to cut him free. He could see her leaning over him to check his pulse, the light blue of her eyes flashing across his face. Then, hurriedly, she stood and looked away.
Slowly, Luke opened his eyes.
The next thing he remembered was waking up a day later in the medical unit set up for those injured in the blasts. No one knew how he had gotten there. The identity of his rescuer remained a mystery.
He reached over to his bedside table and pulled a notepad from the top drawer. Luke spent a few moments reading over the notes he'd been making on the conditions for each side in the Aci Conference. After reading through them again, he flipped to a blank page and carefully began to sketch.
Only then did the emptiness he'd been feeling start to fade a little against the hard realization that he would only see that face in his own memory.
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