"THE CORELLIAN CONNECTION"
All eyes now fell upon a very surprised Anakin, who regarded the senator's sister with surprise. And suspicion. "How . . ." He turned away and inhaled sharply. "How did you know?"
Thalia calmly replied, "I recognized you from the HoloNet News reports during the war. And as a former member of Andalian Intelligence, I had gathered reports of the war from Coruscant."
Han regarded Anakin with deep admiration. "You're Anakin Skywalker? You're one of the best pilots in the galaxy! And the only human who's ever won the Boonta Eve Classic!"
Confusion filled Senator Yeb's eyes. "Boonta Eve's?"
"It's a podrace on Tatooine," Anakin explained. "I won that race a long time ago." He stared at Han. "How did you know about that race?"
Han shrugged his shoulders. "A lot of pilots know about that race. How often does a human win at podracing?"
"Forget about the podracing!" Senator Yeb retorted. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind . . ." He broke off and stared at Anakin. "You're a Jedi Knight?"
Anakin corrected the other man. "Former . . . Jedi, Senator. Now, if you would all please leave so I can prepare this food." The others began to file out of the galley, when Anakin clamped a hand on Han's shoulder. "Except for you, Mr. Solo. You'll have to earn your keep on this trip."
"But I don't know how to cook," Han protested.
"Neither did I, until a year ago. Let's go."
The two Andalians exchanged amused looks and left the galley. Anakin handed his apron over to Han and the pair commenced upon preparing the meal.
As the Alberforce flew through the dark reaches of the Morobe Sector, Padme made her way toward the star skiff's cockpit. She found the captain furiously punching buttons on the control console. A deep frown creased the redhead's brow. "Is there a problem, Captain?" Padme asked.
The other woman sat back into her seat with a deep sigh. "We might have some company. The sensors have picked up signs of another starship. More than one, as a matter of fact."
Padme felt a surge of anxiety. "The Imperials?" Had their departure from Alderaan been detected?
"It's possible," Captain Sen grimly replied. "And it looks as if I may have been right about being more than one ship."
Several minutes passed before Padme saw an Imperial ship hover into view. She inhaled sharply. Captain Sen froze in her chair, as if anticipating some kind of communication from the ship. Sure enough, a man's voice crackled from the Alberforce's communication system. "This is the Imperial ship Exactor. What is your business in this sector?"
The two women exchanged uneasy looks. Captain Sen took a deep breath and replied, "I'm Captain Sen of the Alberforce. I'm in route to the Melinda/Daan homeworld with passengers. How may I help you?"
"Transmit your ship's identification code," the voice ordered. Captain Sen removed an identification chip from the console and inserted it into a slot. A high-speed sound emitted from the console's computer for a few seconds. When it ended, the Imperial officer added, "You are clear to proceed."
A breathless Captain Sen replied, "Thank you." And the Alberforce continued its journey, leaving the Imperial warships in the wake of its path.
By the time the skiff was alone in space, Padme exhaled sharply. "That was a close call," she murmured.
"Too close for my comfort," the captain said. "It's a good thing my identification card indicated that we had left Belasco. I wonder where they are headed? There were two other Imperial warships with the Exactor. The Empire must be planning another invasion."
Padme frowned at the idea. "Invasion? Of which system? The Empire had just annexed Andalia not long ago. Most, if not all of the old Separatist systems are now under Imperial control."
Captain Sen shrugged her shoulders. "It could be that more Jedi have been found in another system."
One name popped into Padme's mind. Anakin. Had Palpatine finally discovered him? Or had the Emperor charged him with completely destroying the endangered Jedi? "I hope not," Padme murmured. "For their sake. It's bad enough that they have been accused of killing me during the last days of the war." She sighed. "If only I could deny that accusation."
"It's possible that a group of Jedi are planning a resistance against the Empire," Captain Sen replied. "Then again, I don't think there are enough of them around, anymore. The Clone War and the Jedi Purge had pretty much thinned their ranks." Padme winced, aware that Anakin was partially responsible for the latter. The captain continued, "I can think of a few Jedi who would love to rid the galaxy of the Emperor."
Another frown appeared on Padme's face. "You know a few Jedi Knights?"
"I've smuggled a few to Alderaan. Queen Breha and Prince Bail have given sanctuary to them right after the war." The captain added, "Along with a few other war refugees."
Padme murmured, "I had no idea. About the Jedi, I mean." Now, she understood why Bail and Breha had no qualms about offering sanctuary to her and the children.
A sigh left Captain Sen's mouth. "If those Imperial ships are after more Jedi refugees, I wish I was there to help them escape."
Padme found herself wishing the same. But she could not allow her idealism to overcome her sense of survival. Not while she had two infants of great Force potential to protect.
The Javian Hawk's four inhabitants finished the last of their midday meal of Nerfburgers. Anakin and Han collected the dirty plates and cups, allowing the two passengers a time for rest. Once the pair had cleaned the utensils, Han asked the pilot, "Can I join you in the cockpit?"
Anakin suspected this was an attempt by the boy to form a closer acquaintance. His first instinct was to insist that Han remain with the other passengers. But the boy's pleading eyes reminded Anakin of that nine year-old slave boy who had harbored a desire to see the galaxy beyond Tatooine. That idealistic young boy, who no longer existed . . . much to his regret. A heavy sigh escaped from Anakin's mouth. "Sure," he mumbled. "Why not?"
A wide smile stretched Han's lips. Anakin led him to the cockpit. "Strap yourself in," the former Jedi ordered.
"Why?" Han demanded.
"Because if something happens unexpectedly, I don't want to see your body fly beyond the cockpit shield."
A grimace touched Han's lips, as he did as Anakin ordered. The latter switched off the starship's autopilot system and resumed flying the Hawk. A comfortable silence fell between the young man and the boy, until the latter broke it, five minutes later. "What are you going to do with me when we reach wherever you're going?" Han asked. "And where are we going, by the way?"
Anakin replied, "The answer to your second question is we're heading for Averam. As for the first question . . ." He hesitated and pressed his lips together. "Well, I don't know. Perhaps Senator Yeb might be able to find a place or home for you, once we reach Averam."
"What kind of place?" A suspicious scowl appeared on Han's face. "I don't wanna be stuck in some orphanage."
"Look . . . Han," Anakin began, "you can't stay with me. I'm the last person who would be able to give you a stable home. Look at me! I'm a former Jedi Knight-turned Sith apprentice-turned smuggler. I'm wanted by the Empire. Even worse, I have blood on my hands. Staying with me will be detrimental to your health. Believe me."
Han's mouth hung open. "So you weren't kidding about killings others, huh?"
"No, I wasn't."
A third voice asked, "You have killed others?" Both Anakin and Han whirled around in their seats to find Senator Yeb standing behind them. The latter stared at Anakin. "Whom exactly did you kill?"
Another sigh left Anakin's mouth. Since he was about to tell Han about the Jedi Purge, he figured that the senator might as well know. "Members of the Jedi Order," he coolly replied. "At the Temple. I had killed padawans, knights, masters and younglings. I also killed the Separatist leaders on Mustafar, on the Emperor's orders."
Shock and confusion lit up the senator's dark eyes. Han merely gaped at Anakin. "You . . ." Senator Yeb broke off and inhaled sharply. "You killed all of those people?"
Anakin's gaze returned to the dark space beyond the cockpit shields. "Yes, Senator," he replied in a monotone voice.
"You were a Jedi Knight!" Senator Yeb exclaimed. "The Hero With No Fear! I don't understand." He paused, as realization gleamed in his eyes. "You took part in the Jedi Purge?"
A long pause followed. Memories of the Jedi Temple's destruction assailed Anakin's mind. He took a deep breath and answered, "Yes I did, Senator. In fact, I had led the attack upon the Temple."
"But why?" the senator demanded. The question also lingered in Han's eyes.
After another long pause, Anakin curtly replied, "For reasons I consider personal. The fact is, Senator, the Chancellor . . . or should I say the Emperor had led me to believe that he could help me with this matter. Unfortunately, I ended up pledging myself as his Sith apprentice in exchange for his help. Which led me to leading the attack upon the Jedi Temple that night."
"You were a Sith . . ." Senator Yeb paused. "But why would you pledge yourself to the Emperor . . ." His eyes grew wide with shock. "Wait. You mean to say that the . . ."
A sardonic smile curved Anakin's lips. "That's right, Senator. The Emperor Palpatine is a Sith Lord. Darth Sidious. And I was his apprentice, Darth Vader. After I had killed the Separatist leaders . . ." He paused, as more memories of Mustafar overwhelmed him - his attack upon Padme and the duel against Obi-Wan. He took a deep breath. "Something happened to me . . . on Mustafar. I . . . I guess I had realized that if I continue to be Lord Sidious' apprentice, my life would have become even worse. So I walked away. And because of me, the galaxy is now under the rule of a Sith Lord."
"What's a Sith Lord?" Han asked.
Anakin replied, "A Jedi's enemy. The Sith use the Force for . . . well, less than pleasant reasons. For power." An unpleasant laugh escaped his mouth. "Funny. I had wanted that power to save someone I loved. Only I ended up losing that person, anyway. As for the Emperor, he no longer has an apprentice. Which is something to be thankful for."
"Why?" Han demanded.
"Because the Sith always exist in pairs. A master and an apprentice. Sidious has lost both Dooku and myself." Anakin paused before he grimly added, "Which means that he'll either try to lure me back or search for a new apprentice."
Senator Yeb's next words took Anakin by surprise. "But he already has a new apprentice. His name is Darth Rasche."
Anakin stared at Yeb in shock. "Say that again?"
The senator repeated, "The Emperor . . . or Darth Sidious, as you called him, has a new apprentice. I've seen him on Andalia. Haven't you heard about the death of Anjuli Nab? She was a Jedi Knight, such as yourself."
Anakin murmured regretfully, "I knew her."
"Well, she was killed by this new apprentice, Darth Rasche," Senator Yeb continued. "She had recognized him by his real name. Only I've forgotten it, at the moment. Apparently, he is also a former Jedi."
Darth Rasche. The news stunned Anakin beyond belief. Sidious had discovered another apprentice from the ranks of the Jedi Order? He wondered how long it had taken his former Sith master to accomplish this deed. Anakin asked for a description of the Sith apprentice.
With a shrug of his shoulders, the senator began, "He's tall. Like you. Perhaps a little taller and a little heavier. He has dark hair and . . ." A series of loud beeps from the ship's console interrupted Yeb. "What's that?"
Anakin frowned at the console. "It's the Hawk's sensor array. There's another starship nearby. Only I . . ." He broke off, as a large, triangular-shaped starship loomed above the Hawk. An Imperial warship. Anakin sighed. "I've got a very bad feeling about this."
By the time the Imperial Star Destroyer Exactor arrived at the Wookie homeworld, the Battle of Kashyyyk had begun in earnest. Grand Moff Tarkin had just arrived an hour or two earlier, on the Executrix. The two commanders met aboard the latter's ship to discuss on how to deal with the Wookies and their Jedi allies.
"If you must know, Lord Rasche," Tarkin stated, "I am not interested in the Jedi's presence on Kashyyk. I am more interested in the Wookies and how they can serve the Empire." The Eriadu native made it clear that he shared the Emperor's view on human superiority over other species and simply wanted the Wookies as slave labor for the construction of the new super weapon.
Rasche frowned. "What about the Geonosians? I thought you were using them as slave labor."
"Constructing the new weapon will take more than the Geonosians," Tarkin replied airily. "Surely you must have realized this, my lord. You've seen the weapon yourself." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "Or do you have some kind of affinity for these . . . Wookies?"
The Sith Lord seared the older man with a malevolent glare. "I do not take lightly to others making assumptions about me, Lord Tarkin. Such actions tend to bring out the less pleasant side of my nature."
The Imperial officer responded with a polite bow. "Your pardon, Lord Rasche."
Soon, commanders from other Imperial ships met with the pair and the conversation resumed to the strategy to be deployed against Kashyyyk. Both Rasche and Tarkin decided that the Sith Lord would lead a contingent of troops to hunt down the Jedi. Tarkin, on the other hand, would lead the main Imperial invasion against the planet. A few fleet commanders wanted to bombard all of Kashyyk's cities. But Rasche overruled them. Instead, he ordered a direct assault on several cities that included Kachirho, Rwookrrorro, Kepitenochan, Okikuti, and Chenachochan.
Once the conference ended, the young Sith Lord flew a Theta-class T-2c shuttle down to the city of Kachirho, accompanied by a Clone officer named Commander Appo and a squad of troops. Despite the heavy anti-fire the shuttle had encountered, it eventually Rasche and his contingent to the Wookie city. There, they learned that Imperial incursions were being repulsed by fierce Wookie opposition, resulting in the death of many troops.
"My Lord," Commander Appo commented, "perhaps you should rescind your order and allow the bombardment of the entire planet. These Wookies seemed to be resisting a lot stronger than we thought they would."
A sigh left Rasche's mouth. The wanton slaughter of a species did not particularly appeal to him, Sith Lord or not. But if the Wookies posed a threat to his ability to hunt down the Jedi, they had to be dealt with. "Perhaps you're right, Commander." Using the shuttle's communication system, he sent a message to Grand Moff Tarkin and rescinded his previous orders and ordered a new one to launch a full bombardment of all Wookie settlements on Kashyyyk.
Upon leaving the shuttle, Rasche, Appo and the squad accompanying them, reached the outskirts of Kachirho. The Sith Lord's hopes of encountering Anakin Skywalker were dashed when he found himself facing a group of Jedi, younger than himself. The leader of this group turned out to be Olee Starstone, a young padawan he had first encountered on Murkhana with Jedi Masters Bol Chatak and Roan Shryne, nearly eight months ago. Rasche managed to kill Chatak, but Starstone and Shryne had escaped. Now, he had finally caught up with the former Jedi padawan. The Sith Lord wondered if Shryne was nearby.
“Olee Starstone,” Rasche announced with contempt dripping from his voice. “We meet again. Giving me the chance to finish what I had started on Murkhana?”
The dark-haired, blue-eyed woman spat out furiously, “Traitor! Murderer!”
“If you’re speaking of your former master,” Rasche retorted, “may I remind you that it was she who had attacked first?”
Young Starstone let out a furious cry and attacked the Sith Lord. In all honesty, Rasche did not consider her much of a challenge. But her rage managed to prevent her from being immediately killed. Rasche and Starstone exchanged a series of parries and thrusts. Before the Sith Lord could finish off his opponent, several men appeared on the scene. One of them lit up a lightsaber and decapitated Commander Appo’s head. Jedi Master Roan Shryne had arrived.
END OF CHAPTER SEVEN