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An Amen When the Night Ends

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TO: dopmitak@coruscanti.co

Hey Dop, final draft of the Skywalker thing loaded to the CMS and attached. I dropped in a couple of recs for related content. Some of them are pretty deep cuts so idk if you want to use any of it. Is Pab Lo fact-checking me this time? I can forward my contact list over. LMK what you think

Bazine

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FROM: dopmitak@coruscanti.co

What do I think?? I can't believe you didn't tell me you got THIS!! PICK UP THE PHONE, BAZINE

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[[ i forgot to ask for it in the contract. is this for PROFILES or CULTURE DESK? can reshuffle either way, just ask -baz ]]

THE CHAINED LADY, THE PENITENT CHILD, AND THE UNLIKELIEST HERO

by Bazine Netal

CHANCES ARE, YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU'LL HEAR when you stop someone on the streets of Coruscant to ask, "What do you remember about Anakin Skywalker?"

I tried it on a recent sultry night, during the triennial Life Day celebrations in the Kashyyyk Quarter. The stew was hot, in more ways than one, but the ale was cold. The stars twinkled in what one could see of the sky. A couple of kids pointed out the constellation of the chained lady directly over the cook tents, as if she too couldn't get enough.

Everyone I asked -- young and old, of all genders -- they all said the same thing: That's the guy who destroyed Alderaan.

The duhs were silent, mostly.

Of course, Skywalker wasn't the guy who destroyed Alderaan. Not in the eyes of the law, anyway. The chemical spill that destroyed the city -- sickening thousands of residents, killing scores, and turning the once thriving metropolis into a ghost town -- was found to be the fault of site administrator Wilhuff Tarkin, on orders from CEO Sheev Palpatine.

[[Baz, be careful here you don't make assertions not proven in court. Allege the hell out of this section or Pab Lo will make you. --M]]

Tarkin and Palpatine, along with five other high-level executives at Imperial Chemical, were convicted in federal court on myriad charges, from safety regulation violations to bribery and extortion, reckless endangerment, and manslaughter. The company itself went the way of all corrupt-to-the-bone organizations: they updated their charter and rebranded. You probably have one of their products within a few feet of you right now. First Order is still the number one manufacturer of household cleaners in the world.

Of course, all that market share isn't doing much for the folks running things at the time of the Alderaan disaster. All together, the Imperial Seven were sentenced to thousands of years of concurrent and consecutive imprisonment. Tarkin himself served just ten months of his twenty-four concurrent life sentences before being murdered by Palpatine, his one-time mentor, at the Yavin Correctional Facility.

[Related content: SHIVVED BY SHEEV: Wilhuff Tarkin DEAD AT 63]

Anakin Skywalker was convicted of nothing. He never stood trial, in fact, even though he was the inventor of DS-1, the nerve agent that was introduced to the water supply above the dam at Scarif. And when the investigation files were finally declassified and released to the public by Senator Ransolm Casterfo, the world learned Skywalker was never even arrested.

But hardly anyone remembers Tarkin or Palpatine or any of the others at Imperial Chemical these days. It's Anakin Skywalker who is inextricably linked in our collective consciousness as the man who caused all that misery, even if he didn't have an active hand in it that day.

"No, I'd say it's more than fair to blame him," sighs his estranged daughter, Leia Organa. We're sitting in her office at the top of Hosnian Tower, where she is surrounded by sleek white furniture and dark wooden accents. In the distance, I can just make out the hulking federal building where she once worked. "I think even Anakin would agree."

* * *

AS A YOUNG DEPUTY PROSECUTOR IN CORUSCANT, Organa was instrumental in building the case that finally brought down Imperial. Eschewing the spotlight afterward, she retreated into the private sector, where she's built a successful career as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Although she's been as yet unable to return Alderaan to its former glory, her Breha & Bail Memorial Foundation has been instrumental in securing environmental remediation funds and to help Alderaanian refugees resettle in other parts of the country.

She categorically rejects any argument for her involvement in protecting Anakin Skywalker from justice.

"That's total bullshit. My parents died that week. I wanted to die," she says, matter of factly. "I planned on it, in fact. Sometimes I think the only reason I made it through that period alive is because my brother and my husband irritated me into it. But, honestly, Anakin's blood on my sword, so to speak? That was the only thing I really felt was worth living for."

So why didn't it happen?

Organa smiles, the soft expression at total odds with her ramrod straight posture and hard as nails persona. "Luke. It didn't happen because Luke did."

That's Luke Skywalker, obviously. Though he spent most of his childhood with relatives out west in Tatooine, he followed in his father's footsteps. While Organa was busy climbing the ladder in Coruscant, Skywalker was rapidly gaining notoriety at Anakin's alma mater, The Tosche Station University, where he earned dual degrees in chemistry and biomechanics, followed by multiple post-grad degrees in scientific disciplines I can barely spell, let alone understand.

"He got all the brains, but [she] got all the smarts," as Organa famously quipped in a speech at Skywalker's Republic Medal of Freedom ceremony.

[[You're mangling the quote. Rephrase. --M]]

"He got all the heart, too," she explains when I ask about that period. "Don't get me wrong: he despised what Anakin was up to at Imperial. Absolutely disgusted by everything we learned. But Luke..." She trails off for a long time, and I'm not inclined to remind her I'm still here.

"I never met anyone else with such an infinite capacity for kindness," she says at last.

[Related content: ALDERAAN, Thirty Years Later: Haunting Pics From Inside the Exclusion Zone]

With anybody else, I might expect a glimmer of tears. Maybe a cunningly photogenic grimace betraying the deep emotional impact of that statement.

What I get from Leia Organa is a clear-eyed and dispassionate look, all trace of that soft smile gone for good, and the politest "fuck you" anyone's ever given me:

“I think we only have enough time for one more question, don’t you?"

We're interrupted briefly by an aide, who is accompanied by an even younger woman, who hurries over to Organa's desk with a thin portfolio clutched in both hands. The young woman has the well-scrubbed look of a newcomer to the city, with the kind of tan you just can't get from a spray. While I wait, I wonder whether anyone's been assigned to follow her through the pristine offices to make sure she hasn't tracked anything in on her scuffed boots.

Organa hasn't asked me to go off the record all day, but the newcomer keeps shooting nervous looks over her shoulder. Rather than alienate either of them, I drift over to the window. It's not hard to picture Leia Organa here, looking down on the city like the semi-benevolent dictator to which she's often compared by her critics.

By the time they're done discussing the portfolio, I know how to answer Organa's question. There's really only one more thing worth asking:

How does she feel about her son picking up where her father left off?

* * *

LEIA ORGANA IS NEVER WRONG. Not in public, anyway. Her reputation is as impeccable as the elegant braids she's worn for as long as she's been in the public eye. Never immune to the gossip hounds to begin with, Organa's grown even more cautious in later life.

For the past twenty years, she's relied on the storied PR firm Holdo & Gawat to help smooth over any unpleasantness. But a surprisingly small amount of unpleasantness tends to arise. Organa still doesn't speak on the record about much of her private life. No tell-alls about how she came to be adopted in the first place, except those written by claimants to her confidence, many of which are easily rebutted with a simple comb through any current events archive.

But it follows that Organa's childhood with Alderaan's first family taught her more than a few things about discretion. Breha Organa came from the old school, where family problems were only acknowledged behind closed doors. A quaint throwback even in her time, when every minute of her public life took place in front of the holocams.

[[I know you've still got that crush on Breha Organa but not everyone remembers this stuff. MORE DETAIL. --M]]

That discretion doesn't seem to have been passed all the way down to Breha's grandson, Ben Solo. He not only chose to join First Order as soon as he finished his studies at the University of Chandrila, but he announced it live on television from Skywalker's Republic Medal of Freedom ceremony. It was more than a shock. Demolition hadn't yet begun on the old Imperial Chemical headquarters, and Ben Solo was throwing in with the version that rose out of Alderaan's ashes.

It seemed like nobody talked about anything else that year. Any one of a hundred poorly produced conspiracy clips garnered more eyeballs than the entire runs of the 42nd Galactic Games and Rarsk Revealed!, the first season of the Hutt's ongoing reality series in which they attempted to leverage their notoriety to turn their firstborn into a child star.

[Related content: WAYBACK: MON MOTHMA VISIBLY SHAKEN when told of ORGANA-SOLO BABY]

You remember the headlines, I'm sure. For months, the public rupture between the Skywalkers filled very tabloid, every celebrity magazine. Even staid political journals like DARTH and The Old Republic couldn't resist. The breathless speculation about whether Anakin would resurface. The jittery holos of Luke and his partner, Biggs, arguing about closing their lab. Those grainy images of the lanky young Ben Solo, hair hanging in his face, smoking cigarettes in the rain outside First Order headquarters. He didn't grant any interviews, but barely a day went by without some incendiary comment attributed directly to him.

Everyone had an opinion and wasn't afraid to share it. My best friend and I fell on diametrically opposed sides of the Ben Solo divide and didn't speak again until graduation.

Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker rarely spoke of it publicly at all.

Still, when I ask about Ben Solo and First Order, Organa doesn't bat an eye. The woman beside her starts, as if she's touched a live wire. The portfolio she's trying to pick up off the desk slips out of her hand and has to be rescued by Organa before it slides to the floor.

"Kaydel, can you let my 5:30 know I may not make it, please?" The aide leaves and Organa points the other woman to a chair on the opposite side of the room. "It's all right if Rey sits in on the rest of this, isn't it?"

I don't realize she's waiting for an answer from me until it gets awkward. Something about Leia Organa makes me suspect she doesn't often wait for one before she moves forward.

I must have managed to say something coherent, because Rey sits down by a window and folds her hands over the portfolio in her lap. She looks comfortable in the office, despite her mismatched attire. Her name's unfamiliar but Organa's infamous for coaching and mentoring entire generations of Coruscanti up-and-comers. Drop in on any young professional's celebration in the capital and you'll likely hear Organa's name dropped in the thank yous. Not that she'll be there to hear them in person. She's rapidly approaching retirement and still working 90 hours a week.

"You were asking about Ben?" Organa prompts me. She's back behind the desk again, in a wide-backed white leather chair that somehow doesn't dwarf her small frame. Her voice is friendly but her expression makes me think she's going to ditch me to make that 5:30 meeting after all.

She's spent most of her life pursuing one form of justice or another for Alderaan and ensuring another tragedy on its scale won't happen again. How does it feel to have her son working for the very company -- leading the same division Anakin Skywalker headed for decades, even -- that made her life's work necessary?

For a minute or two, the only noises in the room are my nervous breathing and Rey's fidgeting. Then Organa sits back and lets her shoulders drop for the first time since she met me at the elevator that morning.

"Not great, Baz," she says with a rueful grin. "That's about how it felt."

Felt? He hasn't published any research in years, but Solo is still listed as a director at First Order. His account on the social stream YOLO!, where most of his scathing missives are posted, has slowed over the years but never stopped.

"You're right. Feels," Organa says, after a long look over my shoulder to where Rey sits by the window. "It's a different flavor now, that's all."

* * *

LEIA ORGANA HAS NEVER BEEN OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT. Since she first joined Bail Organa on the campaign trail in high school, she's been a media darling. Flashbulbs and microphones are more familiar to her than some of her relatives, she jokes. But although her public persona seems ubiquitous, Organa is more likely to be found holed up in her office, either at Hosnian Tower or at home.

She does attend dozens of fundraisers and benefits a month, trading her caustic wit on the red carpets for more awareness for her pet causes. Sometimes she even drags Han Solo along with her, which never fails to ignite the speculation mill about their tumultuous decades-long relationship. But it's all in service of her workaholic tendencies rather than a healthy social life.

Ben Solo, on the other hand, hasn't been seen in public in years.

Every couple of months, someone claims to have snapped a covert picture of him: running on the street, writing in a bar, or working in his lab. The images circulate endlessly on the social nets, with a new conspiracy seeming to sprout out of every pixel. Some of the more colorful imagine that Solo has been kidnapped, forced by shadowy figures to overthrow the government or poison the population with hormones meant to tank the birth rate. For every one of those, there are another couple of the lurid stories about sexual encounters and secret babies that abound in the seediest tabloids.

Organa rolls her eyes when I mention the latter. "Believe me, the second my son manages to procreate, everyone in the known universe will know it."

Behind me, Rey makes a noise and stands. She waves her phone at the two of us. "Sorry, Leia, need to take this." She eyes me for a second, then says, "It's the ... Kylo run."

When she closes the door behind her, Organa asks, "Do you know Rey? She's one of the founders of Niima Transport. We've been taking a look at her next steps. Kylo's her longest-running ... relationship, let's call it."

[[Strike this digression. We don't need to know about whoever this Rey is. --M]]

I didn't realize Organa's mentoring program extended to the transportation industry.

"For the right people, it does." She spreads her hands in the gesture more commonly associated with Han Solo testifying before the Senate Select Committee about flying survivors out of Alderaan. "Hey, I picked up a few things over the years."

Organa takes the opportunity to pick up a few more. She shifts the conversation to me, asking how I liked Chaako City College, if I've ever had a bantha burger from Dex's -- which is the first thing all day that seems to derail her. Organa told me she often works straight through lunch, so she eats whatever her aides put in front of her during the day. It works. She definitely hasn't run out of energy yet, while I've been chewing on caf pills all day.

Now, though, Organa seems to have her heart set on one of those burgers.

She packs up her own bag and informs Kaydel it's time to go. We collect Rey in the stairwell. A fire door bangs closed somewhere below. Rey's face is red and she seems out of breath, but Leia simply folds her into our threesome and downstairs we go. By the fourth flight down, I'm regretting the once-sensible heels I slipped on that morning.

Leia Organa is already two floors below the rest of us, skipping down the concrete steps in her sky-high wedges and neutral pantsuit as if she does it every day.

On the subway out to CoCo Town, and inside Dex's, no one seems to notice the tiny woman with the huge presence chatting quietly among them. She chows down on an enormous burger and dips her fries in a dish of Thala cheese dip. Uninterrupted the whole time, a minor miracle for anyone famous enough to land on every year's-end list imaginable.

Don't think for a second this is a pleasant and relaxed interlude in an otherwise busy day, though. While we eat, Organa works through the next several days' agenda with her aide, types out her own email replies on a tiny phone, then calls for a company car to drive Kaydel home.

"Now, normally," Organa assures me, with one hand touching my wrist briefly to make sure I'm paying attention, "in fact, almost always! I insist on my staff using public transportation. I do myself, after all. Haven't been in a single car since Ben was born, in fact, unless it was one of Han's. But she's all the way out in Uscru and..." Her voice trails off, for the second time that day. "Well, let's just say she's very kind to let me indulge my worries when I keep her after dark."

[Related content: HUTT CARTEL TO BE CHARGED in trafficking bust, SEZ ORGANA]

So gradually I don't notice for an embarrassingly long time, Organa turns the conversation back to where we were in her office.

"I think it's pretty obvious I was disappointed when my son chose to join First Order." Surely at some point in the past ten years, Organa has done the rounds on this subject with Amilyn Holdo. Surely they have nailed her responses down to the most effective soundbites and workshopped admissions.

But, it doesn't sound rehearsed. Next to her, Rey switches a full glass of water for Organa’s empty one without looking up from her phone.

Organa's mouth works for a moment as if she's not sure the next words to come out of it are the ones she wants. "I was devastated, in fact. Han was... Well, you can imagine."

Since I've never met the man, imagining it is all I can do.

"I think what's important to me that people know, is that--" Again she trails off, but it seems less like a stalling tactic and more like she's genuinely gathering her thoughts. It's a bit unnerving. At no point during our day together has Organa seemed less than 150% ready, on any subject. She dealt with both last minute crises and routine tasks with both an equanimity and a speed that somehow never seemed to border on haste. Even her pause while we spoke of her twin brother seemed less about struggling to respond than it did choosing how much she wanted to share with a nosy interviewer. But now, it's clear there has been no consultation with Holdo & Gawat on the subject of Ben Solo. There are no scripts.

"I love my son," Organa says in the end. Her hand is steady when she picks up the glass and drinks. "The choices he made are his alone. Maybe I should have fought harder to help him make better choices. But I can't change the ones he made."

But the biggest of his choices was to continue Anakin Skywalker's work. Did she worry that she would have to deal with another Alderaan?

Organa laughs. "Bazine, I have not gone five minutes since Alderaan without worrying about the next one. If you'll forgive the phrase, constant vigilance is the only tactic I've ever known. But, if it weren't Ben, it would be someone else. I second-guess myself constantly, but in the end I'm just one woman. All I can do is try to exert the privileges of my life to improve the lives of others.

"Did I worry that Ben would follow Anakin down the wrong paths? Of course, I did. I'm a realist, and his mother. Worry is first nature. But, I was also so hurt for so long. Not just that Ben did this, but that he did it without talking to us at all. At the same time, without Palpatine at the helm, First Order had -- and has -- only a fraction of its former reach. The work we did to corral companies like Imperial, well, I had to trust that it would do what we intended."

The diner is so quiet around us it's as if everyone is waiting to see if she'll elaborate. Rey gets up and pays our bill at the counter, where I hear her ask for a to-go cup of iced tea for Organa and a black coffee for me. I'm touched. Usually this is the point in the day where I pray the magazine will reimburse me for the meal on time and frantically calculate my own credits balance.

While we're alone at the table, Organa wipes her mouth and taps one finger on my wrist. "You haven't asked about Luke again. What he thought about all of this when it happened. You've seen the interview?"

Who hasn't? So many people tuned in the first night it was broadcast that it took down half the holonet. It's never been unavailable since.

Organa returns my nod. "Of course. I went there with him that night. Afterward we sat in a little park near the studio and people watched. He'd asked me to go on with him, but I just couldn't. The foundation needed me to stay out of it. I thought it did, anyway. And I was distracted with Organa Enterprises. We were expanding into a few new markets, and Hosnian Tower was behind schedule. Plus, I just couldn't deal with it. Not then. Certainly not in front of other people! But Luke didn't blame me. Not the way I blamed myself."

She dips her finger in the cheese sauce for one last taste before sliding out of the booth. "I meant what I said, earlier. Sometimes I think Luke must have gotten all the heart."

After wiping her hand on a clean napkin, Organa reaches out to shake my hand. "Thank you for a lovely day. Kaydel should have sent you my private numbers before she logged off tonight. If there's anything you want me to clarify, let me know."

She lifts her bag and gives Rey a brief hug on the way out, waving the iced tea over her head as she pushes through the diner's front door. No security, no aides. Just one tiny woman who somehow fills up the entire room without your even noticing until she leaves.

Within minutes, she's swallowed up by the Coruscanti night.

* * *

I'VE ONLY SPOKEN TO A HANDFUL OF REVELERS at the Life Day festival, and my stew is already cold. It's a bit exhausting to keep hearing the same answers, over and over. They at least vary slightly in word choice, albeit not in sentiment. According to those here, Anakin Skywalker was some combination of: a monster, a fiend, evil, a demon, a broken man, horrible, an evil genius, a fiendish genius, and a loser.

That one's actually pretty popular: loser.

Not in the sense that he lost anything of value when DS-1 was released into the water. He had no relationship with Leia Organa or Luke Skywalker to speak of, let alone destroy. His wife, Padme Amidala, had divorced him years earlier before dying in a plane crash.

But to a certain section of Coruscanti society--mostly young students who can't imagine anything beyond their own idealism--Anakin was a huge loser. He threw away everything his name might have meant someday.

Ten questions later, in the back of a line for a frosty cup of middling beer, I get my first, "Not worth talking about."

I didn't intend to find Han Solo here tonight, but it's not all that surprising that he's found me.

"You talked to Leia," he tells me as we settle into a booth at Lumpy's, a blissfully quiet bar/cafe on the edge of the Kashyyyk Quarter. Han's ever-present BFF, Chewie, orders for all three of us in Shyriiwook, then plops a pair of old-fashioned headphones on his ears and buries himself in a tablet.

Han has the same unnerving expression as Leia Organa when he's waiting for an answer you don't realize you're supposed to give.

He grunts when I confirm that we've spoken, then says, "She didn't tell you much."

Enough, I tell him, hoping if I don't give any detail he'll fill in some of the gaps.

Instead, he smiles. He grins, to be more accurate, that crooked slash of lips that must be what snared a catch like Leia Organa in the first place. It lights up his entire face, shows how many of his wrinkles are due to the sheer joy of living.

If you've never seen him in person, there are a few things you have to understand about Han's smile. First, you see it way more often than you might expect, especially if you grew up with one of those furiously angry Han Solo-testifying-before-Congress posters on your wall, like the little political junkie you were. Second, when you aren't expecting it, it hits you like a truck.

"Nice try, kid."

I'm saved by the arrival our food. I poke uncertainly at the weedy brown stuff in my bowl; aside from Life Day stew, the Kashyyykian food I'm most familiar with is the deeply unhealthy fast food from Wookiee’s that gets reheated in my microwave. Han and Chewie ignore me and tear into their own meals.

[[Baz, if you crater our ad buy from Wookiee's I'm going to murder you. --M]]

"C'mon, eat up," Han growls. "You don't want to insult your hosts, do you?"

I can't really tell with the beard, but I think Chewie is laughing behind it as I hurriedly try to catch up.

[Related content: TEN TIMES WE WISHED WE WERE HAN SOLO]

Once we're through, Han becomes much more talkative. Unfortunately, it's mostly stories about his exploits as a pilot during the Alderaanian rescues, then the shipping company he and Chewie built out in Takodana after the trial. Chewie grumbles corrections to at least a third of Han's boldest claims. He rolls his eyes at the rest.

Cutting in on a rambling one about negotiating with Kanjiklub, I ask Han Solo why he sought me out.

"Thought I might as well set the record straight about a couple of things." He crosses his arms and leans back on his side of the booth. Next to me, Chewie slides the headphones down around his neck and makes a gesture to our server for another round of beers.

"I'm not gonna bore you with a bunch of regrets," Han says. "I made mistakes. Leia made some, too, but way fewer than me. We could've been home more. Tried harder. Not let so much slide by. That's on me, mostly. I never really learned how to be a husband or a father. Chewie here can tell you. I tried, but I just wasn't any good at that kind of stuff."

Chewie doesn't say anything.

Han leans forward, suddenly, his face drawn into serious lines. He points his finger at me. Not aggressively. Not like it looks in that famous photo of him confronting Wartol on the steps of the Chandrila Senate Office Building, Leia barely managing to hold him back. Instead, it's more like he's not sure I'll listen unless he puts a literal point on it.

"Anakin was a brilliant man, for all his fuckups, but Ben didn't join First Order to follow in his footsteps. He was following in Luke's."

That doesn't make much sense, but Han doesn't seem interested in explaining further. Not once he catches Chewie's eye.

"Look," he says, throwing down a couple of credits to cover the bill then doubling it for a generous tip. "You want to know what Anakin's legacy is, you need to know what Ben's doing."

I'd love to, of course. But no one's talked to Ben in more than a decade.

"A couple of people have. Me, Chewie, Maz Kanata, Leia. Luke. And, uh," he trails off, and lifts one shoulder in an oddly delicate shrug, his chin jutting forward. It takes me a minute to connect it with a gesture Leia must have made a dozen times during our day together.

He points over my shoulder toward the entrance. When I turn to look, Rey is standing inside the door and pushing back the hood of her sweatshirt.

The third thing you should know about Han Solo’s smile is that, even when you can't see it, you can hear it in his voice when he's talking about someone he loves.

Or to them.

"Rey! Over here!" He coughs a little and pats his chest while we wait for Rey to make her way through the crowd around the bar. "You want to know about Ben, you need to talk to her."

* * *

THE CONSTELLATION THAT HANGS IN THE SMOKE above the festival cook tent is commonly known as the chained woman. When I was a kid, my stepdad told me it was known as Andromeda in his hometown, after a woman who lived there before the wars. Exactly which wars he meant, I never found out.

As the story went, this Andromeda lived with a man -- maybe her husband, maybe not. When the army started drafting all able-bodied citizens to fight, the man forged the papers to put the woman's name in place of his own.

So, she went.

Near the end of the war, she found herself on the front lines, in the shadow of the Vashka Mountains. There was an enemy division in the foothills. Heavily fortified. Heavily armed. Andromeda volunteered to join the squad that would try to get enough intel to find a weakness to exploit. The trip was arduous, and her entire squad perished before they reached the foothills.

All but Andromeda. She stripped herself of all weapons, but left her uniform as recognizable as possible. She injured herself until she could barely see through the blood. And then she delivered herself to the very gates of the enemy. She knew that on her own she had no chance of defeating them. Not by conventional means. So she allowed herself to be captured. She let herself be chained.

And she waited.

"That's not the story I learned," Rey tells me as we make our way back through the quarter to where her pickup truck is parked. "Her name was Riolla and she was sacrificed by her village. There was some kind of monster. They thought it would eat Riolla and spare their farms."

That's closer to the other stories I've heard. I still prefer my stepdad's version, I tell Rey. Andromeda didn't wait forever.

There’s a flash of her white teeth in the dark night. I assume she’s grinning. "That's my favorite, too."

We're heading west out of the city, toward the Kyber Pass and the harbor beyond it. Rey has a heavy foot on the accelerator and seems not to remember the brake exists. The pickup has seen better days, but it feels solid and runs relatively smoothly. But I barely have time to worry about how sturdy it really is before we arrive at our destination.

I can’t stop thinking about the Riolla version of the story, though. She believed her fate to be appropriate. That her people were justified in sending her to certain death. Riolla was eager for it, in fact. There was no greater honor in her mind than sacrificing herself to save her loved ones, since she assumed it was some unforgivable failing within her that justified their decision. Not only was she the chained lady, she was the penitent child as well.

Rey's quiet for a while after I remind her of that part. Finally, as she's downshifting as we descend into the Takodana Valley, she says, "For a long time, I didn't think you can be both."

I assume we're heading for the water. I did some research on Rey after meeting her in Organa's office. Niima Transport primarily runs tractor-trailers out of the agricultural region of Jakku, and the marine cargo division fulfills last-mile deliveries for Kessel Run around the harbor and down the coast. They got their start with a grant from Organa Enterprises and now have expanded to servicing the outlying islands, not that there's much out there.

But at the bottom of the hill, Rey turns inland. We wind through the streets at a slower pace, until she pulls up in front of a small stone cottage.

I ask what's inside.

"Maybe nothing," she says, before laughing at the look on my face. "I'm not trying to be mysterious! I didn't check to see if he's home."

Rey unlocks the front door with her own keys. Wipes her feet on the mat, pulls off her hoodie and drops it over the banister leading upstairs.

"You here?" she calls. "We have company."

There's an answering rumble from the back of the house, and Rey is beckoning me to follow. We step into a cramped kitchen absolutely flooded with light. At least I think it's a kitchen. There's a sink with a tap, tall counters and open cupboards. Every single flat surface, and many of the vertical ones, too, are thickly covered with a profusion of greenery. So many plants I couldn't begin to identify them. It's like walking into the botanical gardens at Theed Palace after they've been left to their own devices for a few centuries. It's astonishing. Overwhelming.

But not half as much as the man who rises from a chair and tucks a sprig of something twiggy in his shirt pocket so he can shake my hand.

"I heard you've been asking about me," he says. His voice reminds me of Rey's truck, rattling a bit like he's used it too much.

Ben Solo, it turns out, hasn't been kidnapped at all, unless it's by the woman who leans in to press a swift kiss to his bearded cheek and tuck herself under his arm for a hug.

[[... okay so obviously we can ignore me telling you to remove all the Rey stuff earlier. --M]]

* * *

"I WAS AN IDIOT," BEN SOLO ADMITS. "Maybe more than most kids at that age."

Rey pipes up to add, "It wasn't just at that age."

Han Solo's grin ain't got nothing on his kid's. I've just about managed to keep my mouth shut for a few minutes in a row, but when Solo turns that wide smile on his wife, it feels like my whole face falls open. It would be embarrassing if either of them were paying me the slightest bit of attention.

We've been in their kitchen for hours already. Solo's recapped for me all the history we all already know: the teenage rebellions, the surly faces behind his parents and uncle at their very many public appearances, the arrest for brawling at the Corellian Harvest Festival. He's completely at odds with the mythical version of Ben Solo that's somehow taken up residence in my brain. The scowls are long gone. He's grown into that rangy body, filled out into a shape that echoes his father's and adds a little something extra, mostly in the shoulders.

He fills in other blank spots for me: how much he resented his famous parents and uncle, how he feared he couldn't live up to their example. They set a high bar for anybody, let alone a kid with an almost crippling shyness and ears that landed him a distinctive silhouette in political cartoons before he could even read.

"There isn't a good explanation for why I went to First Order. Believe me, I've tried to justify it over the years. To myself and..." He shoves a hand through his hair, revealing one of those ears for a brief moment. "Well, to anybody who came asking, if anyone ever did. A lot of it was just arrogance and naïveté, to be honest."

Went to First Order. Past tense.

"Yeah. I left, what was it, five years ago? Something like that."

Rey chimes in again. "Six and a half."

"She wasn't even there, but she knows better than I do." He ducks the cutting she throws at his head.

He's still listed in the executive section on the website, and no one in human resources denied he still worked there when I called.

Solo shrugs. "Why would they? My name's worth a lot of money."

Doesn't it bother him, that they're using his name?

"It's not like I was doing much with it." Solo eyes his wife again and smiles. "Okay, I did have one thing I needed it for. They're welcome to the rest."

He won't say much about what he's been doing all these years, nor why he and Rey live in the middle of an indoor rainforest in an unassuming house on the outskirts of Takodana. When I ask how they met, Rey tells me that Solo tried to knock her off the mast of her own boat.

"I did not and you know it. You were barely even on the mast!"

Their argument sounds like one of those couple things that unspools forever, neither party ever admitting the truth because to do so would mean the end of something they aren't ready to give up. I have to clear my throat and drop my phone twice before they manage to turn their attention away from each other.

"Sorry," Solo says. His face is a bit red, and I remember the angry flush that suffused his neck and cheeks the night he upstaged Luke Skywalker's medal ceremony.

Six and a half years ago. That wasn't long after Skywalker....

"Yeah," Solo says before I can finish. "You're right. Sorry. It's hard to break the habits of a lifetime. It's well past time to stop hiding, stop ducking the questions I'm embarrassed to answer. But that one... I'm going to have to decline to comment on that right now."

Now that's a response worthy of the hefty fee Holdo & Gawat would levy. Solo barks a laugh when I say as much.

"Amilyn would rather eat rathtar pie than work with me. Trust me on that. I know I haven't earned much credibility, but I swear, this is all me."

He stands and looks out the window for a minute, then turns and leans against the counter. For all that he's roughly two miles tall and half as broad, when he crosses his arms and frowns, his resemblance to his tiny mother is more pronounced than ever.

"Uncle Luke isn't why I left, not really. The timing is suspicious, I know, but I was already ready to go long before he..." Another pause, this time while he swallows back whatever it is he isn't ready to say. "First Order promised me I'd be picking up where Anakin left off. During the recruitment period -- which started when I was about six, by the way. A man used to visit me at school. They pulled me out of recess to sit in an office while he quizzed me about my parents and made me take tests. There's something that rarely makes it into the story."

I want to ask him to elaborate but something tells me the slightest interruption might mean this whole conversation shuts down. Rey has disappeared to some other room in the house. I didn't notice until I saw how Solo's shoulders stiffened when he looked and didn't find her.

"I was told that they had retained most of his research. Not the DS-1 stuff, but the earlier work, when he developed the non-lethal insecticides, the drought-resistant cereal grains, all that stuff he brought with him from Dr. Kenobi's lab."

That's something else that certainly doesn't make it into the popular legend of Anakin Skywalker. It never would have come up with any of those Life Day celebrants. At the start of his career, he was primarily known for his work in adapting agricultural products for use in the arid Outer Rim and Western Regions. That first rye hybrid he had actually developed on his stepbrother's farm, before he left for college.

"He wanted to save the world, one starving kid at a time," Solo tells me. "That's why he signed up with Imperial in the first place. All that money, those government contracts. Every bit of it bought him more time in the lab. But then Palpatine took control, and little by little, Anakin's lab was turned over to commercial work. Then the stuff for primarily military applications, like DS-1."

Does Solo think Anakin knew what he was getting into?

"Toward the end, yeah. It's not hard to see that something like DS-1 has only one possible use. I don't know how you spin that." He shakes his head. "Well, no, I do know, now. I didn't when I was a kid. Anyway, like I said, I thought I'd be working with Anakin's original research, but it turned out First Order hadn't retained any of that. Mom and her team were a lot more thorough than I gave her credit for. They got all of Anakin's work out of Imperial before they could destroy or lose it."

So how did Solo manage not to fall into the same trap his grandfather did? I assume that's the point of the story he's telling me. That, despite appearances, he walked in to First Order to do much as his mother had done. Dismantle the machine from the inside, maybe. Be the spoke in the wheels that shuts the whole thing down.

It's a good thing that girlhood crush on Ben Solo is a thing of the past, or the answer he gives me would be more than enough to dissolve it.

"I didn't manage it at all," he admits. "I walked right in, eyes wide open."

[[THAT'S IT??? I know you've got notifications turned on so CALL ME]]

* * *

ANDROMEDA WAITED SO LONG, THE ENEMY FORGOT WHO SHE WAS. Day by day, her chains loosened, until one day they were gone altogether. She had the run of the division. She cooked meals, cleaned rooms, bandaged wounds. The soldiers forgot what the symbols on her uniform meant. Forgot that they had ever feared the strength in her hands and arms. Forgot that they suspected she was smarter than she let on. That she had loved those she lost.

Until the day she reminded them.

Rey drives me back to Coruscant well after midnight. I tried to talk her out of it. The valley's a bit sleepy but it still has motels. But Rey wouldn't hear of it.

"I miss the long haul stuff, to tell you the truth." She's as bright-eyed and wide awake as she was the day I met her in Organa's office. "I wouldn't trade the boat for anything, but I miss the road. This big dark sky overhead, the way the stars come out to say hello, and how you can just feel all those people you're racing past, out there beyond the lights."

After that, she's quiet. I snuggle down into the sweatshirt she's loaned me and lean my head against the window. As we climb up to Kyber Pass, I see a familiar constellation framed low in the sky between its two sheer walls.

It's almost as if she's been waiting for us.

The way my step-dad always told it, when Andromeda finally returned to her own people, it was with the weapons of the enemy in her hands. She laid them before her general, much as she had chosen to lay her life down for her lost squad.

The general, with tears in their eyes, asked, "How did you come back to us, Andromeda? What power helped restore you to life?"

Andromeda would have answered right away, but over the general's shoulder, she saw the face of the man she had lived with for all those years. The one who had whispered in her ears, who tricked her into believing she had to go, that it was her fate to give her life away for him.

Spite, she could have said, or grief. They were both her constant companions, but there was only one way to answer. She knew it to the bone.

"The power was my own," Andromeda told the general as she unsheathed her sword. It burned with all the love in her heart. "I am the only hero I need."