0 ABY - ISD Devastator, orbiting Anthan Prime, Anthan system, Outer Rim
Inspector Thanoth was becoming a problem. Under ordinary circumstances Darth Vader would have welcomed such a high degree of competence in one of his subordinates, but this was starting to inconvenience him. The search for his son must be paramount, and he could not afford to waste time chasing over his own trail and arranging accidents for anyone who might reveal the truth, not with that pitiful pseudo-Inquisitor also hunting the boy. His Master often had strange motives and hidden plans guiding everything he did, but Vader could make no guesses as to why Sidious was showing favour towards those abominations. Did he not have the Inquisitorius at his beck and call? Did he not have Vader?
Much that his Master had done of late was concerning him. Not only Force-heresy, but the revelation that Sidious had lied to him about Padme, about his child. He had not killed her - she had lived long enough to give birth to their son. Luke. Knowing that her death had not come by his hand had lifted a great burden from him only to replace it with another; for Luke had been stolen from him, Kenobi’s final, worst betrayal. Left to grow up in the hell-hole that was Tatooine when he should have been by Vader’s side all these years, learning the ways of the Force.
And to think of the times Vader could have killed him, by accident, above Yavin or at their last meeting! He had thought little enough of it at the time, had barely even been paying attention to the boy as anything more than an untrained child not fit to wield the blade he had been given. His escape had given him cause to reconsider that, but even then he had not suspected the truth. But that was hardly Luke’s fault. It was Obi-Wan’s. Had he feared Luke’s potential? Was that why he had not seen fit to teach him anything?
Enough of this. Such thoughts were of no use, not until he had the boy in hand, until he could find out from him what had truly happened over the past nineteen years.
Vader signalled his meditation chamber to replace his mask and helmet, and then reached for his private comm. It was a pity he could not just kill Thanoth, but until the time he could arrange for the man’s death in a way which did not point to him he would just have to take the risk that the Inspector had found a way to monitor his personal communication. He opened the secure channel to the Ark Angel. Thanoth may have been clever in setting a blockade, but he could not cover the whole planet, and Aphra was a better pilot than the man gave her credit for. She had navigated the storm-clouds and bought herself enough time to make the jump to hyperspace.
“Lord Vader.” She answered at once, and there was no sign of fear in her. He might have doubted her, her loyalty or her sanity, had he not read her through the Force. She was, in all honesty, committed to his cause. Her words to him, her appreciation of the small part she might play in his plans for the galaxy, was all true. This was not a sentiment that he encountered often and it was... pleasing. Unlike most Imperial officers, Aphra could respect him without the need to be afraid of him. And yet in working for Vader's own ends, she had become a danger to him, for Aphra now knew things that allowed her a hold over him. She had proved that when she had warded off her death with the promise of finding his son.
He would not kill her yet, but as they both knew, he would kill her.
“Prove that I have not erred in allowing you to live,” he told her.
“The Ante delivered,” she replied. “Skywalker is on Vrogas Vas. It’s a small, insignificant mud-ball in the Outer Rim, but I suppose small and insignificant is where you want to be when the whole Empire is after you.”
Vrogas Vas. The name resonated in some distant corner of his memory, but he could not think of where he might have heard it before. However he doubted that his son had gone there simply to hide. Subtlety did not appear to be part of the boy’s vocabulary. He had been the same way, once. No, there must be some other reason.
And yet how to reach his son, when the Inspector remained a suspicious, capable anchor to this system? The situation would not be one where the vast might of the Imperial Starfleet would be of any benefit. Rather a small team, or Vader only, should be sufficient to retrieve the boy. As he did not anticipate being able to leave at any point in the near future, then it would have to be someone he trusted. Someone whom he knew had no other allegiances. To his discomfort, this left Aphra as the only candidate.
On the other hand, it would not do to let more than one person run around the galaxy with too much vital information about him. Aphra knew too much already, and he was committed to her eventual death. Since he had been forced to spare her, it was best she continued to earn her keep.
“I will be unable to leave this system,” he told her. “Proceed to Vrogas Vas and locate Skywalker. He is not to be harmed in any way.” Vader considered for a moment. Aphra was certainly capable, but she was not Force-sensitive. Even with droid assistance, he could not reasonably expect her to capture his son and - more importantly - keep him captured. Nor would it be safe to bring Luke back to him at this time.
“Monitor Skywalker’s location. Do not lose him.”
“He’s managed to stay out of the Empire’s hands so far,” Aphra pointed out. “He’s a smart kid. He’s going to notice a tail sooner or later.”
“Then approach him. Offer your assistance.”
“Ah,” Aphra winked. “A spy on the inside of the Rebellion. Perfect. And if it keeps me well out of the way of your Inspector Thanoth all the better.”
“Indeed. Vader out.”
He shut off the connection and sat back, contemplating his course of action. The Force pulsed around him, reassuring, letting him know that he had made the right decision. Yes, Aphra would keep his son safe for him until the time that he could finally make things right and let the boy know the truth of his heritage.
Luke would join him, and then, well, then the galaxy would be theirs for the taking.
0 ABY - Ark Angel, en route to Vrogas Vas
So it looked like Lord Vader wasn’t quite finished with her yet. Aphra was well aware that her death was inevitable, but that didn’t mean she was just going to let it happen, not if she could think of some way out of it, or at least to delay it. When the Ante had given her a bargaining chip, she had used it, but that hadn’t meant she thought she would live past the next time Vader saw her. She certainly hadn’t expected to be given another mission.
Luke Skywalker. The Rebel pilot who had taken out the Death Star. Pretty impressive for a kid from some backwater like Tatooine. She’d seen the place where he’d grown up and it had reminded her a lot of her own childhood; sparse, dull, and in the end your family was just a victim when somebody stronger came along. Yeah, she’d use that. Points in common were always a good bet when trying to make friends. It was interesting that Lord Vader didn’t want her to bring the boy to him, given that the Emperor would be bound to look favourably on whoever caught the kid, but perhaps he thought by itself that wouldn’t be enough. If Skywalker led them to the Rebel base and they could catch them all in one fell swoop…
That was the sort of ambitious plan the big man in black would go for. And all of it, all these different jobs he had been sending her on, it all felt connected in some way that she just wasn’t grasping yet. The droids and the credits were obvious, as was Skywalker, but Naboo? It must fit in somewhere. Just look at Vader’s personal ship. But apart from the obvious connection to the Emperor himself - and she didn’t think that was it - she couldn’t make it mesh with everything else.
If she played her cards right and this spying mission went well, then maybe she might actually survive long enough to work out the big picture.
0 ABY - ISB Bayonet Starfall, en route to Vrogas Vas
Hera screaming. Kanan’s eyes wide at the moment of death. The spit of burning flesh, the smell. Drawing his saber out of what was now only a corpse. Picking up the lightsaber of his foe, discarded as it rolled from his slackening fingers.
No, no, no, over and over as Hera went for her blaster. Rage and pain swirling in the Force.
Leaving, leaping the way he had come, a scrabble and a run through deserted passages.
He would not kill them. There was no need. He would not let them make him kill them.
The Inquisitor opened his eyes.
His dreams had been unusually focused on the past recently. The Twelfth Brother didn’t see what reason the Force could have for directing his attention to events that had happened years ago, not when there was so much to be done in the present. The Jedi Order had once pervaded the galaxy like a particularly resilient fungus, and there always seemed to be more symptoms of their memory to be rooted out no matter how hard the Inquisitorius worked. For an example take his current mission. An ISB agent in Hutt Space had reported overhearing Grakkus the Hutt - known collector of relics of the Old Republic - mention a Jedi Temple on Vrogas Vas, which was not in Hutt Space and therefore subject to the bounty that existed on all information pertaining to the Jedi. The agent would receive a generous stipend to their salary, and the Inquisitorius would, as a matter of protocol, send an Inquisitor to the temple to destroy anything dangerous and retrieve anything that might be of value.
It was routine, but the Twelfth Brother liked routine. Besides, there was satisfaction to be taken in this kind of work - the Jedi had been weak, their philosophy one which strangled and held back its disciples. Jedi lacked the strength to protect themselves, much less those they loved, not that they had been permitted to love.
The Twelfth Brother had been taken in by the lies of one of the last Jedi remaining. Perhaps not overt lies, but he had implied that he could give him the strength to avenge his family and defend the new family he had found. There had been no mention that in the end he would have to give up that family. There had been no mention of the fact that true strength could only be found in the Dark Side. There had been no mention that in the end all his convictions, the things that truly mattered would be made meaningless to him in the passive, pacifying wash of the Light Side.
No, the Jedi philosophy had been a poison, and the Emperor had been right to flush it from the galaxy even at the great cost that had taken. If only he had stopped there…
But the Twelfth Brother had learned long ago that some thoughts were dangerous to allow in your mind. If his ambitions did not align with those of his masters, then so be it, the time would come to act on them, but that time was not now. His training had taught him patience.
He would see what the Force would reveal to him when he arrived at Vrogas Vas.
0 ABY – Temple Ruins, Vrogas Vas
Vrogas Vas had turned out to be a temperate planet covered in deciduous forests, water features and fog. There didn't seem to be any sign of sentient life inhabiting it, even though it could clearly support it. Luke's X-wing could perform atmospheric analysis from low-orbit, and it was mostly nitrogen and oxygen, plus traces of other elements and compounds, none of which was harmful to most galactic species. There was no evidence of recent space-traffic, no orbital platforms, no space stations, not even so much as a satellite. The star was a fat red sun which had been in the last stages of its life for millions of years and would continue on like that for millions more. Landmass temperatures looked chilly but tolerable, and the Jedi holocron had told him that there was a temple here. So why was no-one living here anymore?
The holocron of Phin-Law Wo had not said anything about that. Luke had spent his time in hyperspace between Nar Shaddah and here listening to it again and again. It wasn't very long. On it, the Jedi Master spoke about the Force in terms that were about as vague as Ben had used, talking about the Light Side and the Dark Side, the importance of calmness and the dangers of anger and aggression, how a 'Padawan' – whatever that was – should open themselves to the Living Force and allow it to flow through them and show them the way. 'A Jedi obeys the Will of the Force'.
That was all very well, and Luke was finding it easier every time he tried to reach out to that vast well-spring, that sense of... of everything, of being connected to the whole world moving around him as one. That place where time moved as fast or as slow as he needed it to, and his body was strong enough to do anything. Now he could even just about manage to do it without closing his eyes beforehand. But he could never keep it up for very long.
If only they hadn't had to leave the Smuggler's Moon in such a hurry... In the chaos that the Empire had caused clashing with Grakkus' private army, Han, Leia and Chewbacca had managed to get him out of the arena and away through the heaving crowds into the Palace. There had been only enough time to get his father's lightsaber, Ben's journal, and this one holocron from the Hutt's trophy room before they had to flee ahead of the stormtroopers who were suddenly sweeping the corridors. At the time it had seemed as though he had chosen this holocron at random, but now Luke suspected the Force had guided his hand. It made him hopeful about what he was going to find on Vrogas Vas.
Han, Leia and the others had gone their own way. There was some trouble with a woman whom Han had known in his smuggling days that needed to be sorted out, and Chewbacca had to return to the Rebellion to debrief them on everything that had happened. Luke wasn't ready to go back yet. Perhaps after this, if this temple held the secrets to becoming a Jedi...
“Anything else on the scans Artoo?” he asked the astromech. Artoo warbled a reply in the negative. “Then let's take her in.” The holocron had at least given him a rough location on the planet to start searching.
Soaring down through the cover of thick clouds, Luke found himself flying over a landscape of little islands separated by an interconnected network of rivers. Trees crowded close together and dipped their trailing branches into the water. So much water. It had been... what, a few months now since leaving Tatooine and he still wasn't used to it. Even in space where sonic showers were the norm there was still all the water you could drink, whenever you wanted it. No careful storage in the deep cellar, no waiting on the drip, drip of the vaporators because you started the morning circuit too early and the machines are still drawing the dew out of the atmosphere... People could be so wasteful with water, and it mattered as little to them as... as sand!
Thick fog curled up from the rivers and lay heavy in valleys. Polewards, the land was beginning to climb up towards hills, and he turned the X-wing in that direction. The holocron had said the temple was perched on a mountain, looking down over cliffs to a view of the river-lands. Luke flew through a bank of cloud and then... there! A hint of sun, glinting off metal.
The temple was overgrown with trees and vines, not even the four tall pointed towers entirely escaping, but there was a large courtyard out in front of the building where Luke felt safe enough to set the X-wing down. An empty archway led into the temple itself, and a set of wide steps left the courtyard from the other side and trailed down into the forest. There was a bite to the air after the climate-controlled cockpit of the fighter – which Luke tended to keep on the high setting anyway – but his flight-suit protected him from the worst of it. His breath misted out, losing itself in the thin fog that persisted even at this height.
“I guess we're here Artoo,” Luke said, as the droid lowered himself down from the X-wing. “Not that it looks like much just yet.”
There was a dead, deserted feeling about the temple, as though it had been many years since the last living being had walked here. The archway seemed to gape like a mouth. Luke took a deep breath in and out, then closed his eyes and focused on the Force. As gradual as sand shifting on a dune, awareness filled his senses. All around him the forest was alive, alive and wild, teeming with birds and predators and prey. But the temple... the temple was calm and... deep? Not bad, exactly, but not really safe either. If felt as though if he went inside, it would be easy to get lost in there.
It didn't feel like the Dark Side. It was nothing like Vader, who had been colder than the desert at night, and as furious as a krayt-dragon. Looking at him through the Force was like looking at one of the Hutts' pit-beasts, something deadly, barely contained and not in the least tame. This was like a dark sky hidden by clouds. You knew there were stars, but they couldn't be seen from where you stood.
Opening his eyes, he took the first steps inside.
Very quickly darkness enveloped him. There was a feeling in the air of a large space around him, but there were no windows, and whatever light source had once been here was long dead. The standard X-wing flight suit came equipped with a flashlight attached to the front however, and as he flicked it on the beam lit up the dust in the air and revealed that he was standing at the foot of a wide set of stairs. There was a statue in front of him, broken in half and quite worn, but the outstretched lightsaber it held at guard in its remaining hand was still plain to see.
It hit him then all of a sudden, the weight of loss. Before he was born there had been hundreds of Jedi all across the galaxy, probably more, and hundreds of places just like this. Now with Ben gone he was the only one left, and he wasn't even a real Jedi at all. He didn't really know anything about them. There was nothing on the holonet, nothing written down, and the only things that remained were memories in the heads of people too frightened of monsters like Darth Vader to speak them out loud, or whatever was locked up in the 'collections' of creatures like Grakkus.
From the looks of it though, this temple had been out of use a lot longer than those few decades. But from what Luke had been able to make out from Ben's journal, the Old Jedi Order had based themselves out of the temple on Coruscant, and these places had been something like... cultural sites and places that students would go to train. Jedi Trials had been mentioned.
Hopefully he could find something here that would help him.
The Jedi temple was a confusing place. Luke had spent the past few days exploring it, but it was a maze inside, and every time he tried to go deeper within, towards the sense of heavy calm in the Force, he found himself getting turned around, often ending up back by the entrance stairs. He had at least managed to find the old living quarters, which was where he had been spending his nights in front of a fire set from fallen wood he had gathered in the forest outside. It made it warm enough to sleep curled up next to it, Artoo keeping watch. It would have been warmer to wear his flight-suit all the time rather than the clothes Han had lent him, but it was starting to stink from so much time spent in hyperspace. There were also bathing pools there, run-off from a diverted mountain stream that cascaded down in a waterfall from an opening high above. If there had ever been a mechanism to heat it though, that had long-since died, and it was freezing. Luke had found that out the hard way.
At the moment he was trying to meditate. Master Wo's holocron had said that doing so was vital to touching the Force and becoming attuned to its will, as well as a way of opening yourself up to anything it might be trying to tell you. It was harder than it sounded. Every time Luke felt himself slipping into an awareness of the Force his nose would start to itch, or his stomach would growl, or he would shiver because despite the fire this planet was still damp and cold. It was as though the Force was dancing just out of his reach, daring him to come catch it. Nor had he heard anything from Ben's familiar voice echoing in the back of his mind. Maybe that really had been a hallucination. Or maybe Ben thought he was managing fine on his own, despite evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps this was enough meditating for right now. Luke stood up, stretching, and sighed. This trip was proving to be a lot less productive than he had hoped. At least no-one was shooting at him, or trying to steal his lightsaber, or enslaving him this time.
There was something coming. Whether it was the Force, or just his ears picking up something on the edge of his hearing Luke didn't know, but as he stretched out his senses it became more and more obvious. Ship engines, heading his way. Well there was no way that could be anything good! He'd seen for himself that no-one came to this planet, and now the moment he got here he had company? Why oh why had he started thinking that things were quiet!
The X-wing was still out in the courtyard, completely unprotected, and there was no way to get to it and move it in time now. By the sound of it, whatever was coming was around about the size of the Millennium Falcon; certainly not the scream of a TIE fighter, but that didn't rule out an Imperial shuttle, or a bounty hunter like Fett. Fett had managed to track him down on Tatooine even though he hadn't told anyone he was going back there. Was it such a stretch to think they could track him here? From the sounds of it, the bounty on his head was a big one.
On the other hand, Luke had an advantage that whoever this was didn't. He knew this building – or at least sort of knew it – and the stranger or strangers did not. It was confusing enough in here for someone who could touch the Force, and it had to be worse for someone who couldn't. He could lose them in the maze of corridors, and then... well then it would depend on who they were and what they wanted.
There was a balcony area nearby that looked down over the entrance hall. Luke made his way there stealthily and crouched behind the balustrade waiting for some sign of the stranger. There was no guarantee they would have a light that he could see; they might have low-light vision goggles for all he knew. Bounty hunters were generally prepared for most things. You heard a lot of stories about bounty hunters on Tatooine, mostly tall tales, but with enough truth in them that he wasn't about to underestimate whoever walked through that door.
What he was not expecting was for that person to do so shouting.
“Hello! Unknown pilot! I know you're in here somewhere; that's your X-wing out in the courtyard, right? Hey, you've not fallen into a pit trap or something have you?”
The voice was female, but that was about all Luke could tell from it. She didn't have any particular accent, nothing that would have screamed out either Core Worlder or Outer Rim 'lowlife'. Peering through the pillars of the balustrade, he could see her standing by the entrance, hands on hips, backlit by some kind of big diffused-light emitter she had put down behind her. She was wearing a flight cap with goggles pushed up over it and a short-sleeved synth-leather jacket. It looked like there might be some sort of linear tattoo on her right arm, but he couldn't make it out at this distance.
“Kriff, it's dark in here isn't it?” she called out, looking around. “I sure hope you haven't fallen down some stairs somewhere and broken your neck.”
She really wasn't acting like a bounty hunter. If she was one, she'd be the strangest Luke had ever heard of. But this could all still be some sort of trick. He started to close his eyes and reach for the Force, then opened them again. He was supposed to be trying to learn how to do this with his eyes open, kriff it! He could do this! The Force was all around him, he knew this, all he had to do was touch it and it would tell him what he needed to know.
Gradually he could feel himself sliding into the Force, or was he opening up to it? Either way, he could see her now, a steady and determined presence. If he looked closer, close enough to really see her... he was getting flashes of something. Not thoughts, exactly, not words, more like feelings. She had come here seeking a specific goal, but she wasn't looking to do violence. Luke didn't sense that she meant him any harm. There were secrets there, things buried under the surface, but that was only natural. Everyone had secrets.
It seemed like at the moment, he could trust her. He stood up.
“Up here,” he cried out, waving. She turned to look at him. “Sorry, I was worried you were with the Empire. Listen, I'll come down to meet you. It's easy to get lost in here.”
Luke made his way back through the living quarters and down the twisting set of ramps and corridors that led to the hall, Artoo following him, bleeping in curiosity. By the time he reached the stranger, she had already set up several more of the light emitters, illuminating the room almost all the way to the ceiling. She stood up when she saw him, wiping dust off of her hands on her pants.
“Nice to meet you, kid,” she said. “Name's Aphra. I'm an archaeologist.”
“Explains the emitters,” Luke replied. And at least that made it a bit more clear what she was doing here. There was a chance that this could just be one big coincidence. “I'm Luke.”
“Here scouting for the Rebellion?” Aphra asked. Luke tensed, and she laughed. “Relax, that's a T-65 model X-wing you've got parked outside, and there's not too many of those kicking around the galaxy.”
“Not going to turn me over to the Empire? I hear they've got a pretty nice bounty out on rebels these days.”
“Yeah, and by now there's a pretty nice bounty out on me,” Aphra replied. “Seeing as by now they know I led the crew that stole a really big shipment of credits from them. That's one of the reasons I'm out here, actually. Nice and out of the way. Somewhere to lie low until the heat dies down. So if you don't turn me in, I'll return the favour.”
“How did you even know about this place anyway?”
Aphra shrugged. “Smugglers know a lot of things.”
“I thought you said you were an archaeologist?”
Aphra smiled. “Sometimes people aren't too pleased when you dig up a certain thing that they think belongs to them.”
“You know, you remind me a lot of someone I know,” Luke said.
“Someone you like, I hope,” Aphra replied.
“Heh, yeah.” He missed Han already, missed Leia just as much, and it had only been a week since he had seen them last. But that had been very brief, and they had been running for their lives at the time, so it barely counted. Soon though. Soon he would see his friends again, when he was finally able to call himself a Jedi.
“I've told you why I'm here,” Aphra said. “Any chance you might be able to make my life easier for me? Seen anything interesting while you've been here scouting? Or should I be finding some other place to hide, if the Rebellion is coming here to set up a base?”
“I've spent most of my time in the temple, but like I said, it's easy to get turned around. I wouldn't be in a hurry to recommend it for military use.”
“So I should be safe enough.” Aphra smiled. “You know, I hadn't realised that this was an old Jedi temple. My sources seem to have left out that little detail. Most of the stuff you can find in places like this is useless to anyone that can't use the powers those guys had, but you can still get good money for it, from the Empire at least if none of the collectors are feeling flush.”
“There's nothing here,” Luke said quickly. Kriff, if she was just looking to stay out of the Empire's way that was one thing, but he couldn't let her pillage this place! She might think there was no-one left for it to belong to, and Luke couldn't risk telling her otherwise, but... if he was going to be the last of the Jedi, that meant he had to protect what was theirs. Protect what little was left.
Aphra raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said yourself you haven't managed to explore the whole place yet?”
“Yeah, because I can't,” Luke said in exasperation. “The temple won't let me!”
“Perhaps you just need the skills of an expert archaeologist to help you? Come on, I'll split the loot. It's only fair since you were here first.”
“I don't think that's a very good idea. There might be traps.”
Aphra grinned. “Aren't you at least a little curious?”
“If I refuse to come with you, you're just going to go anyway, aren't you?” Luke sighed. That didn't leave him with much of a choice. If he let Aphra wander around the temple alone, there could be a million things that could go wrong, from whatever 'trials' there might be that could only be survived with the Force, to the chance she might find something he needed and make off with it.
“Okay then! Let's go.”
“You want to do this now?” Luke asked. “It'll be night in a few hours!”
“I don't plan to do more than a preliminary survey,” Aphra explained. “I'll map and light the areas you already know, and if we have time we can think about going further in.” She shrugged. “I've got all the time in the world right now.”
Luke couldn't think of any reasonable excuse to stop her, aside from the truth. “Let's get this over with.”