Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Crossroads of the Force" [PG-13] - Chapter One




"CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE"

CHAPTER ONE

8BBY - CORUSCANT

The announciator inside her private office distracted Senator Zoebeida Dahlma from her work. She glanced up and said, "Enter."

Seconds later, a petite, dark-haired woman dressed in royal blue entered the Maldarian senator's office. "Pardon me, Senator Dahlma, but you have a communiqué from Senator Mon Mothma." 

Returning her gaze to the data pad in her hand, Senator Dahlma replied, "Upload it into my computer."

The younger woman hesitated. "It's a . . . private communiqué." 

Zoebeida glanced up. She noticed the small holoemitter in her aide's open palm. A sigh left her mouth. "I see. Give it to me." The aide, Igraine Colbert, handed the holoemitter over to the senator. "Thank you, Igraine. You may go."

Igraine nodded and left the office. Although the twenty-six year-old aide knew about Zoebeida's activities with the barely formed Rebel Alliance, the senator made sure that she remained ignorant of any details . . . in case the Empire ever learned of Zoebeida's secret activities.

Now alone, the senator placed the holoemitter on her desk and switched it on. Mon Mothma's statuesque figure illuminated above the device. "Greetings Zoebeida," the Chandrilian began. "A special conference will be held at the Hotel Grand in Worlport, on Ord Mantell, to discuss the Alliance's future agenda. Because this is a special meeting, Bail Organa, Garm Iblis and I have decided it would be best not to hold this meeting here on Coruscant. If you plan to participate, please respond to either Bail or myself within the next twenty-four hours. I hope to hear from you soon." The hologram disappeared.

Zoebeida leaned back into her chair and sighed. A special meeting for the Rebel Alliance? In reality, no such alliance really existed. At least not yet. The Maldarian senator had originally been amongst the Delegation of 2000 - a group of senators who had opposed Palpatine's growing power around the end of the Clone Wars. The Delagation had presented a petition to the former Chancellor that demanded he find a peaceful resolution to the war and give up his emergency powers. Instead, a conflict with the Jedi led Palpatine to declare himself emperor and order the destruction of the Jedi Order. Many who had signed the petition ended up either killed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Of course, there were those senators like herself, Organa and Mothma, who managed to elude Palpatine's retribution by removing their names from the petition and continuing their opposition against Palpatine, as a secret.

Padme Amidala, along with other senators like Solipo Yeb and Garm Bel Iblis had ended up in exile. Zoebeida recalled that the discovery of a fugitive Jedi Knight on Andalia had led to the Imperial annexation of Solipo's homeworld. And poor Garm had nearly been killed by Palpatine's troops - a fate that his family had failed to avoid - because of the Corellian's past open opposition against the former Chancellor-turned-Emperor. But Zoebeida could not fathom Padme Amidala's reason for evading the Empire. The former Naboo senator had once been Palpatine's protégée. And Naboo's ties to the Empire seemed free of any conflict with its former Emperor - despite the mysterious death of Queen Apiliana, some nine years ago. What exactly had led Amidala to fake her own death?

If this meeting on Ord Mantell proved to be a major one for the Alliance, then it seemed possible that Organa, Mothma and Iblis had finally discovered a way to unite many individual factions and resistance cells now fighting against the Empire. Zoebeida wondered if Amidala and Yeb will be present. Both former senators possessed connections to various resistance cells in the Outer Rim Territories.

Zoebeida finally erased Mothma's message from the holoemitter. Then she replaced it with one of her own: "Greetings Mon. I am more than happy to accept the invitation to attend this conference. Please provide me with the details, so that I can make arrangements. Thank you." She ended the recording and summoned Igraine. The younger woman entered the office and Zoebeida handed over the holoemitter. "Return this to Senator Mothma. And if you're unable to find her, give it to Senator Organa of Alderaan. Make sure that you give it to either one of those two . . . personally."

"Yes, Senator Dahlma," the pretty young woman dutifully replied with a nod, before leaving the office. Zoebeida remained behind her desk and contemplated upon the upcoming conference. Has the day for an organized resistance against the Empire finally arrived? The Maldarian senator sincerely hoped so.

------- 

LE YER, ABREGADO-RAE


"Happy Birthday!"

The handsome, 21 year-old Corellian broke into a wide grin, as his partner, along with several friends and acquaintances sang to him inside a private room at the Triple Nova Casino. As the singing continued, an attractive, blue-skinned Twi'lek placed a Pyollian cake with 21-lit candles in front of him. Once the singing ceased, everyone broke into applause.

"Congratulations, Han. Today, you are a man." The 33 year-old Anakin Skywalker also grinned, as his younger partner shot him a disbelieving stare. "What did I say?"

Han grumbled, "Nothing." He blew out the candles and more applause followed.

The Twi'let, a fellow pilot and smuggler by the name of Vi'dal Mira, leaned down to plant a light kiss on the Corellian's cheek. "So, what did you wish for?" she asked.

"I believe that my wish had already been granted," Han replied slyly. "About two years ago, on Ord Montell." He shot a meaningful glance at Vi'dal, who smirked.

Anakin understood the meaning behind Han's words. Nearly two years ago, Han had suffered a setback from a serious romance and turned to Vi'dal for one night with the Twi'lek smuggler. Fortunately, nothing serious had evolved from the brief affair. With a straight face and his tongue firmly tucked in his cheek, Anakin commented, "Was that the extent of your birthday wish? Vi'dal?"

Han nearly snickered out loud. Vi'dal glared at the wide-eyed Anakin. "And what did you mean by that, Captain Horus? Don't you feel that one night with me would make a worthy birthday wish?" Set Horus happened to be the name that Anakin used as an alias to avoid Imperial detection.

"Well . . ." Anakin began, as he allowed his eyes to sweep appreciatively over the Twi'lek's voluptuous figure. ". . . I have yet to experience such a night to make that kind of judgment."

Vi'dal eased next to Anakin with hands on her hips. "I would be happy to make arrangements for such an experience. Believe me, you will not be unsatisfied." 

"My birthday had passed two months ago."

"Irrevelant."

Anakin allowed one of his brows to arch. "I beg your pardon?"

Vi'dal continued in a seductive voice, "I don't care whether it's your birthday or not. Why should you?"

Both the human and the Twi'lek regarded each other for what seemed like a very long moment to Anakin. He almost sensed an electrical charge between himself and the female smuggler. Aside from his brief period as a Sith Lord, Anakin has always tried to be honest regarding his personal character. He could not deny his attraction toward the beautiful Vi'dal. But he found it difficult to become romantically involved with other females - despite being a widower for the past eleven years. The memory of Padme and what he had done to her became a stumbling block to any possible relationship with another woman - whether serious or not.

Anakin inhaled deeply and gave Vi'dal his most charming smile. "To be honest, I don't . . ." He paused briefly. Then, "How about another time? When the time is right?"

Disappointment flashed briefly in Vi'dal's large brown eyes before she returned his smile. "I look forward to that moment, Set Horus."

"If you find it hard to wait for Set," a fourth voice began, "there's always me." Anakin suppressed an urge to roll his eyes in disgust. The voice belonged to Mako Spence, a fellow smuggler from Corellia.

Vi'dal shot a contemptuous glance at the handsome, bearded pilot. "I'm not that desperate," she retorted bitingly. "If you're longing for company tonight, I suggest that you pay a visit to the Blue Orchid. I'm sure that Umekei Sun would be more than happy to see you." Vi'dal spoke of Mako's regular patronage of the spaceport's most prosperous pleasure house. The older Corellian's face turned scarlet.

Anakin smirked at Mako's discomfort. He never really liked the Corellian. Nor did he see any reason to pretend otherwise and be a hypocrite. Besides, even Han - who happened to be friends with Mako - smirked. "Anyone for a piece of cake?" the younger Corellian asked. "I'm starved."

-------- 

Nearly a half hour later, the two partners strolled out of the private room and made their way across the casino's floor. "Not a bad haul, huh?" Han indicated the bag filled with birthday presents. "Even Bascko gave me power converters. And I didn't think that he liked me."

"Of course he does," Anakin reassured the younger man. "Bascko likes those who don't bother to agree to everything he says." Bascko happened to be a local merchant and a Verpine from the Roche asteroid belt. Both Han and Anakin were amongst his regular clients.

A brief silence followed before Han surreptiously added, "Are you referring to Mako?"

Contempt flickered in Anakin's blue eyes. "I don't recall Bascko ever giving him a birthday present."

Han remained silent. He viewed Mako Spince as a very close friend. Scion of a prominent senator from Corellia, Mako had ended up expelled from the Imperial Academy due to a dangerous prank he had pulled. Disgraced and estranged from his family, Mako used his trust fund and a few connections from the Academy to become a smuggler. With Mako, Han had someone with whom he could enjoy nights at popular establishments like the Triple Nova Casino. Anakin might be a brother and mentor to him, but the former Jedi had never developed the habit of frequenting the galaxy's many pleasure spots on a regular basis. And although Anakin never protested against his friendship with Mako, his partner never did warm up to the older Corellian.

In an attempt to change the subject, Han asked, "Why didn't you take up Vi'dal's offer?"

"What?" Anakin looked startled by Han's sudden change of the subject.

"Vi'dal," Han repeated. "Why didn't you take up her offer? She likes you. And you obviously like her."

One of Anakin's brows arched. "Obviously?"

Han rolled his eyes. "I'm not blind, Anakin. I saw the way you two were staring at each other, tonight. I mean . . . why deny yourself?"

A long, suffering sigh left Anakin's mouth. "Look, I'm just not that interested in Vi'dal . . . in that way. Yes, she's a beautiful woman, but I only think of her as a friend. Nothing else."

"Uh-huh." The two men passed one of the gaming tables, where they spotted a Rodian yelling with glee. Han added, "So, what you're trying to tell me is that your devotion to your old hokey religion has nothing to do with this decision to act like a monk."

Anakin shot a dark look at the younger man. "Since when did my Jedi beliefs become 'a hokey religion'? Since Ylesia?"

The mention of Ylesia brought back painful memories for Han. While Anakin was on Dantooine for a retreat, two years ago, Han did a private smuggling job for the Tatooine gangster, Jabba the Hutt that led him to a tropical planet called Ylesia. There, he discovered that a fellow Corellian had escaped an arranged engagement to join a religious cult operated by the Besadii clan. Han promptly fell in love with the beautiful, red-haired Bria Tharen. After exposing the Besadii's cult as a hoax to Bria, he helped her escape from Ylesia with guns blazing and a sack full of precious antiquities that belonged to one of the cult's high priests. The pair eventually made their way to Coruscant via stops at Corellia and Togoria. There, Bria eventually abandoned the love-struck Han before the latter eventually made his way to Dantooine . . . and Anakin.

"My trip to Ylesia has nothing to do with my opinion of your old order," Han firmly retorted. He added in a mumbling voice, "I've just never been the religious type. That's all." Then his voice reasserted itself. "Besides, I only wanted to know why you won't consider the time of day with Vi . . ."

Anakin interrupted, "Because I'm not ready for another relationship, Han. At least one with the opposite sex. And I don't think I'll ever be. I'm ju . . ." He sighed, as a faraway look gleamed in his eyes. "Maybe I'm not one for casual relationships."

It never ceased to amaze Han that despite being a good twelve years younger than Anakin, his experience with women has been more extensive. "Okay," the Corellian said, "I can accept . . ." Han broke off, as a third figure rushed toward the pair.

"Han! Set!" Mako Spince halted before the two men, breathing heavily. The casino's fluorescent lights highlighted his light-brown hair. "I need to speak to both of you."

Han shrugged his shoulders. "So speak."

"Not here." Mako glanced around the casino, as if expecting to be overheard by an eavesdropper. "Outside." He led the two partners outside, until he halted next to a marble balustrade that overlooked a wide, blue canal filled with boats of all kinds. Le Yer boasted a series of water canals that made the entire city very popular with tourists and other visitors.

Anakin brusquely added, "Okay, we're alone. What do you want?"

Mako took a deep breath. "I have a business proposition. This business . . ." He paused dramatically. "Actually, he's a Quarren named Sekka Verdu. It turns out that he's a . . . representative of Garulla the Hutt and he needs pilots to fly a large shipment of Glitterstim from Kessel to Maldore."

"Glitterstim?" Anakin frowned.

An exasperated sigh left Mako's mouth. "C'mon Horus! Don't tell me that a successful smuggler like you has something against shipping spice! Haven't you done it before?"

"Of course I have!" Anakin retorted. "But you're talking about the Kessel Run! It's heavily patrolled by Imperial ships and the Empire has grown less tolerant of spice during the last few years."

Mako nodded. "I understand. That's what I had said to Verdu. But we're talking about a large shipment of spice worth at least two million credits. Verdu is willing to pay one hundred thousand credits to fly it to Maldore. That's fifty thousand for me and fifty thousand for the both of you."

Han frowned at his friend. He and Anakin would have to split one-half of the fee? Not if he could help it. "Why can't we split the one hundred thousand in three ways?" he demanded.

"Because three starships won't be involved," Mako coolly replied. "Fifty thousand per ship. It's only fair. I would have made the run myself, but my cargo hold isn't big enough for the entire shipment. I need another starship to conclude the deal."

Han saw the word "no" form on Anakin's lips. Fifty thousand credits would greatly make up for the money they had recently spent on repairs for the Javian Hawk. "Just a minute," he said, taking Anakin by surprise. "Uh . . . Set and me need to discuss this." He drew the older man aside.

"You're not serious about this, are you?" Anakin immediately demanded in a low voice.

Han shot back under his breath, "C'mon Anakin! We need the money. Those repairs for the Hawk took a lot out of our account. Besides, what do you have against this deal?"

"Simple. It was proposed by Mako. He's part of the deal."

The younger man shot back, "Look, I realize that you don't like the guy - why, I don't know - but this is a sweet deal. And Mako hasn't done nothing . . ."

"Anything," Anakin immediately corrected.

With a sigh, Han re-phrased his last word. “Like I said, he hasn’t done anything to give us a reason to distrust him.” He paused. “Unless you know something . . .”

“No, I didn’t,” Anakin snapped. Looking defeated, he shook his head. “I know I’m going to regret this, but okay. I’m willing to accept Spince’s offer.”

Relief filled Han’s mind. “Great!” he crowed. Then he returned to Mako. “We’ll do it. As for the fee . . . that hundred thousand credits have to be divided three ways. We’ll all be taking the risk, no matter how many ships are involved.”

Mako looked slightly taken aback. “Wait a minute. I mean . . . I’m the one had approached you about this deal. I think . . .”

“Take it,” Han insisted. “Or find yourself a new partner.”

The older Corellian sighed. Han deduced from that sigh that Mako had been unable to find another pilot to accompany him on this venture. “All right. We’ll split the money three ways. By the way, I suggest that we all leave for Kessel, tomorrow morning.”

“See you tomorrow, then.” Han watched his friend walk back into the casino. Then he approached Anakin. “The deal is on.”

Doubt flickered in the older man’s eyes. “I only hope that we won’t end up regretting this.”


END OF CHAPTER ONE

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