Added on April 20, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: R. John Burke

You Need Me

Feedback welcome at: R. John Burke; The Kessel Run.

Description: The long-awaited story of how Rik Evverd and Kerri Lynden met! It begins a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

NOTICE: Star Wars is a copyright of Lucasfilm, Ltd., and was created by George Lucas. No infringement is intended to his wonderful universe by this not-for-sale fan fiction story.


THIRTEEN YEARS BEFORE "STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE"

Kaelin knew she would die today.

Her husband was already dead. Terel had lost his life several years ago, at the beginning of the Purge. He'd given his life to protect Kaelin and their young daughter, to buy time for their escape. Even then, Kaelin had known there would be no escape. She'd tried to fool herself - had succeeded for years, in fact - but she had always known this day would come.

She would have been just as happy to die then, beside Terel, if not for their daughter. For years now she'd run, hoping only to evade the Empire long enough to complete her daughter's training. Kerri would need that training, those skills, to stay alive. Perhaps even to re-establish the Order one day.

But that day was not yet, and probably not for a long time. These were the darkest times the galaxy had ever known. The Republic was gone. The Empire had arisen in its place. The Jedi were dying.

Kaelin rubbed at her eyes, and tried to remember the last time she'd felt really at peace. It must have been back in the old days, when Obi-Wan Kenobi had been the hero of the Clone Wars, and Anakin Skywalker had been only a boy. When Darth Vader had been only a gleam in Palpatine's eye.

She sighed. What had happened? How had it all gone so terribly wrong? Did it even matter, at this point?

"I'm ready, mother."

Kaelin turned at the unexpected noise. Her sixteen-year-old daughter stood in the doorway, her exotic looks an echo of her father. Her hair was chopped short, into bangs, and Kaelin wondered why she'd done that.

The terrible answer came a moment later: Kerri must have thought her long hair would get in the way during the fighting. She swallowed hard.

"No."

"You need my help! You can't defeat Vader alone!"

Kaelin looked away from their cottage, towards the smoke and carnage of the city center. Where her destiny awaited her.

Her destiny, and Darth Vader.

"I don't intend to defeat him," Kaelin said quietly.

Kerri ignored that - she probably had to ignore it, if she wanted to continue functioning - and held up a silver cylinder proudly. "But I'm ready for this. Look!"

Kaelin started to order her daughter away, then paused. "When did you find time to build that?"

"I've been working on it at night, and when you were gone. I knew you wouldn't approve--"

"You're right, I wouldn't approve! Kerri, it's too dangerous now! A lightsaber will only get you killed!"

Kerri grinned. "But look. I've designed this to be camouflaged. It just looks like a tube of metal. You could use it as a handle for something or a starship component. No one would have to know."

As if to emphasize her point, Kerri touched a switch, and a reddish blade hissed upwards from the saber's handle. It hummed with power, and Kaelin saw that her daughter had done an excellent job.

Of course she had. Kerri was so strong in the Force. So very strong...

Kaelin rubbed at her tired eyes. "Kerri, put that thing away."

"But didn't a do a good--"

"KERRI!" Kaelin Joth, one of the last remaining Jedi Knights, forced herself to dip into the Force for control. "Yes, Kerri. You've done an excellent job. I'm proud of you. But this is my path, not yours. I won't let them take you."

Kerri hopped down off the steps, hurrying to her mother's side. "But, mother, I..."

"No! Now, that's enough! You have your crystal?"

Kerri fingered the hunk of gemstone, worn on a chain around her neck. Tears appeared in her eyes. "Yes, but..."

"Never take it off. Never use - that thing -" Kaelin nodded at the red saber blade, so reminiscent of Vader's, "Unless its absolutely necessary. Unless your life is in danger."

"What about other lives?" Kerri asked. "You said a Jedi's duty was to protect the weak."

"Kerri, I--" Kaelin's voice caught, and she turned away, not wanting her daughter to see her own tears. "I wish there were more time. There's still more you should learn...If you ever can, seek out Yoda. He's a great Jedi Master. He can teach you better than I, assuming he's still alive..."

"But mother--"

"Listen!" Kaelin demanded. She turned back, the tears held at bay momentarily, and grabbed her daughter by the arms. "Use the Force as little as possible. Even the crystal won't protect you, if you use too much power. When do you it, remember that the Force is for knowledge and defense, never attack. Never. No matter how justified the attack may seem. And remember to do what you feel is right. Listen to the Force, Kerri. It will guide you. It will always be with you, even when I am not."

Kerri was crying now. "I love you, mother. I can't lose you. I don't have anyone else."

"You will always have the Force," Kaelin repeated. She held her daughter close and kissed her, then pushed her away. "You'll have to leave this house. I've arranged transport to Kel Da'or. Saren Peirse - you remember her - she's agreed to hide you. Stay with her until the Empire is gone. Then leave the planet. Go somewhere - anywhere - someplace even I don't know. Try to stay away from the Core Worlds, if you can."

Kerri nodded, extinguishing the lightsaber.

They stood there wordlessly, mother and daughter spending one last moment in each other's company. Then the flitter pulled up, and there was no more time. Kaelin walked with her daughter down to the curb. The passenger door opened, to reveal a large man with a pale complexion. Quince Kaross was an old friend of the family, having served with Terel when both were in the Republic Navy. It was he who had raced to warn Kaelin while Terel distracted Vader, he who had destroyed the records of Terel's marriage to a Jedi. He who had arranged to bring Kaelin and her daughter to his home planet, to live in safety.

Quince's eyes held Kaelin's for a moment, then switched to the younger Jedi. "Ready to go, honey?"

Kerri hugged her mother again, for a moment unwilling to let go. Then she slid in beside the big human.

Quince hesitated for a moment. "Listen, you don't worry about a thing, now, you understand. I'll get her to Kel Da'or without a scratch."

"I know you will," Kaelin said with a weak smile. "You always were the best at sneaking people past the Empire."

He grunted. "Well, every little bit helps..."

"I won't forget this, Quince. You're a hero."

The big human shifted uncomfortably. "I'm just a guy. The heroes--" He nodded towards the battle, "Are out there. And here, too. I'm looking at one."

Kaelin patted his shoulder, touched her daughter's face one more time, and nodded. "Go."

Kerri seemed overwhelmed by the turn of events, unable even to speak. She just watched out the window as the flitter pulled away, her eyes locked on her mother's until they were out of sight.

Finally, when the flitter had been gone for a full minute, Kaelin pulled herself away from the curb, breathing deeply to center herself in the Force.

One last thing Kerri would need.

A diversion.

Kaelin Joth pulled her own crystal off her neck, shattering the chain. It didn't matter. She wouldn't need it again.

Vader would find her, she knew, if she so much as dropped the crystal on the ground.

Somehow that didn't seem enough. Besides, she was filled with rage and grief at the moment. She had to purge that before she faced Vader, or she would be turned rather than killed - a far worse fate.

Kaelin gathered up all her aggression, all her pain, everything in her that was from the Dark Side. She focused it...

Blue lightning flared in her hand, fusing the crystal into a worthless, charcoal lump. Kaelin tossed the crystal aside, heedless of the burns it left on her hand.

"All right, Lord of the Sith," she muttered towards the city, "Come get me now."

Kerri saw the battle in her mind.

She couldn't think of any particular reason why she should be able to see it; her sensing abilities were not overly strong to begin with, and her crystal cut her off from feeling much of the Force.

Perhaps it was her own desperation boosting her power, like a rush of adrenaline.

Perhaps it was her mother, somehow keeping a line "open," so Kerri could observe the day's events.

Perhaps the Force simply wanted her to see this.

Kerri tried to shut it out of her mind - she didn't want to see it! If she didn't see it, then it wouldn't be real. Her mother might escape somehow, might still be coming to look for her.

But Kerri's connection to the Force would not close. She watched with a combination of horror and morbid fascination:

"Excellent. You have revealed yourself to me, as the Emperor predicted."

Kerri's mother stood outside their house, facing Vader. It was still morning, and the skies had clouded over. A drizzle began to fall, streaking the Sith Lord's infamous dark armor. Behind him, an Imperial landing shuttle waited, with a dozen white-armored stormtroopers standing watch.

They knew better than to interfere with the contest. Their lord didn't get enough sport these days, what with the Jedi nearly gone; depriving him of his prize would be a fatal mistake, even if it were possible.

"You gave me little choice," Kaelin said. "Would you really have destroyed the entire city?"

"Cities and even whole planets are insignificant beside the power of the Force."

Vader strode forward, his red blade popping into existence. Kaelin's own blue blade rose to challenge it.

"You know what you remind me of, Vader? The kapu fishermen on my homeworld. They used to say that the government was too restrictive, that they needed to take more kapu to survive. So the government lifted the regulations, they hunted the kapu to extinction, and drove themselves out of business."

"A charming story," Vader said, his saber swaying back and forth as he searched for an opening.

"You're like that. You claim to value the Force above all, but you fail to realize that life creates the Force. Every time you destroy, you make yourself weaker."

"We will see who is weak," Vader said. His saber sliced across viciously, but Kaelin blocked it. For a moment their swords crossed, until Kaelin darted away.

A slender woman with sandy brown hair and large, brown eyes, Kaelin knew - had to know - she stood no chance in a duel against Vader. Even without his greater size and strength, formidable obstacles in their own right, the simple fact was that his Force power exceeded hers. He had Kaelin beaten coming and going.

Kerri felt her mother wonder if she could beat him with quickness, then decide against it. Vader's reflexes belied his size. He was fast.

He proved that point by moving in on her, saber darting forward for three quick strokes. Kaelin barley blocked the first two, and could not block the third. It bit into her side, wounding her badly.

It took all her strength to hobble backwards, preventing the duel from coming to an abrupt end. Her saber blocked Vader's killing blow, and they circled each other again.

"It is pointless to resist," Vader said. "There is only one way for you to survive now. I will spare you, if you join us."

Kaelin's mind was a haze of pain, and Kerri tried what she could to strengthen her mother through the Force - but the distance was too great. She could only observe.

Her mother's anger came through clearly. "I'll never join you. You're a monster! Betrayer of Jedi! Kenobi was right to go after you! I only wish he'd finished the job!"

Vader's mind was opaque, his tone was almost playful. "I have learned the truth about the Force. Your kind denies its true power, concentrating on dogma and superstition. I did not destroy the Jedi - you have destroyed yourselves through your own weakness."

Kaelin raised her saber back to a ready position. "Do you fight as well as you delude yourself?"

Vader replied with another strike, coming at Kaelin Joth from a low angle, then switching his grip to skip his saber in above her guard. Kaelin backed away, keeping the damage to a slender burn scar on her stomach, but lost her balance doing so. She fell backwards.

Vader's saber reached out for her again, but Kaelin turned the tumble into a backward somersault, coming up with her own saber to score Vader's armored shoulder. She tried to come back for a more lethal blow, but the Dark Lord quickly brought his guard back up.

"Ah..." he said, "The Jedi has teeth, after all. Excellent. You were beginning to bore me."

"I apologize," Kaelin said. Kerri felt her mother's mental smile as the ghost off an idea came to her. "Perhaps you'll find this amusing."

She clamped a Force lock on a pair of the Imperial stormtroopers, forcing them to raise their weapons and fire on Vader.

Kerri was shocked - she'd never seen her mother use the Force with that degree of ferocity, just bypassing a sentient being's free will like that.

Even Vader seemed surprised. Two bolts pinged off off his armor before he got his defenses in place to absorb the firepower. He sent the two hapless stormtroopers flying through the air to smack into the side of their transport. They crumpled, and Kaelin's mind reached out for a new puppet to use...

"If you take another one," Vader warned her, "he will be killed."

Kerri felt her mother's silent debate; she cared little for the lives of stormtroopers. They were almost as despicable as Vader. And it was the only way to win, she knew that...

But these particular troopers had done nothing to her, and the Force was not to be used for attack...

Kaelin withdrew back into her own mind, and lifted her saber again.

"A pity," Vader taunted. "Just when you'd begun to show real potential."

"For the Dark Side? I don't think so."

Vader backed off. "I do remember you. I found you on Tieiron, some years ago."

Kaelin nodded. "Yes."

"I killed your husband."

It took all of Kaelin's energy to clamp down on the rage. "Yes."

"I remember him. A pathetic insect."

He's trying to rattle you, Kerri thought. He wants you to act out of anger. Don't listen to him!

But, of course, Kaelin couldn't hear her daughter.

She heard only Vader. "His death was most entertaining. He pleaded for mercy as I choked the life from him."

Kaelin shut her eyes tight, as though she could block out the Dark Lord's words that way.

But Vader continued mercilessly. "He betrayed you, before he died. That is how we continued to track you."

"LIAR!"

"You know it to be true," Vader pressed.

The dark energy given off as Kaelin snapped was almost a physical thing. It battered her daughter, even from a distance, with wave after wave of fury and despair.

The Jedi Knight struck. Again and again she hammered at Vader, driving him back. The Sith Lord gave ground, but neatly parried every blow.

Finally, when Kaelin's energy was spent, he stepped in. His blow knocked the Jedi's saber away, sending it careening halfway down the street. Kaelin tried to get away...

Vader's saber sliced through the right side of her body, cauterizing the cut as it went. Kaelin cried out and fell, her body hitting the ferrocrete with a thud.

"NO!" Kerri cried aloud.

KERRI! her mother called instinctively.

Vader cocked his head slightly. He addressed the dying Jedi. "Your feelings betray you. You are worried about someone... a child... Who is it?"

Kerri felt her mother's horror at the accidental slip, quickly covered by Force-enhanced calm. Kaelin knew she was dying, knew there was only a moment remaining... and knew she had a bone to throw Vader. A distraction. Purposely, she let information about the "child" slip into her mind...

Vader stepped forward. "Your failure is complete. Obi-Wan was a fool to trust you. What has he done with my son?"

Kerri felt her mother's mixture of regret and satisfaction. She'd betrayed part of a vital secret, true... but in doing so, had saved Kerri from Vader's notice.

"Your son is dead," Kaelin said. As attuned as she was to the Force, she could feel her own pulse slowing.

"You lie. You've already betrayed him. Where is he?"

She smiled. "He's... Oops. Out of time."

Kaelin Joth faded away.

Darth Vader stared down at her empty clothing for a moment, and even Kerri could feel the rage simmering off him. At length, he turned away, the approaching storm winds whipping his cape behind him.

"All too easy," Vader said. He turned off his saber and returned to the shuttle.

"Are you all right? What happened?"

Kerri woke from her semi-trance to find Quince and Saren Peirse standing over her. She breathed deeply a few times, forced back her tears, and muttered, "Nothing. Nothing I didn't expect."

Saren was the mother of Quince's late wife, an older woman who had acted as a sort of surrogate grandmother for Kerri since their arrival. "I'm terribly sorry, my dear."

Quince swallowed hard. "She's, um...gone?"

"Yes."

"Anything I can do?"

"Just leave, please."

It was all so pointless, Kerri thought. Her mother had always taught her never to be consumed by rage. Why had she allowed Vader's lies to disturb her? Why had she given in to hate? Granted, the Dark Lord would probably have won anyway, but there was a chance!

Why had Kaelin thrown it away? Surely she hadn't believed Vader. That murderer would have said anything!

Kerri's mind flashed on something she'd felt in Kaelin Joth during those final moments. Something like denial...

"Quince."

The big man stopped at the door. "Yeah, honey? What is it?"

"You were there when my father died."

He frowned at her. "Yeah."

Kerri took a deep breath. "What happened?"

The heavyset human looked down. Kerri thought he seemed nervous, even worried, but she might have been reading that into his posture. "He held 'em off. I went to warn your mom."

"And Vader killed him?" Kerri asked.

"That's right."

She said, "Choked him?"

Quince sighed. "You don't want to talk about this right now, kid. Your mother..."

"My mother is dead, Quince. I'm worried about how she died." Kerri held the big man's eyes for a long moment, and at length, Quince sat down on a chair across from her bed in Saren's house.

"If, uh..." he cleared his throat, "If it's not too hard to say, how did she die? Vader?"

"Yes," Kerri admitted. "He killed her with his lightsaber. She was fighting him to a draw, until..."

He held up his hands. "You don't have to tell me."

"I want to. Vader started talking about my father. About how he'd betrayed us. Told them where we were."

Quince laughed, but it seemed forced. "That's crazy! Come on, who you gonna believe - me, or Mister Nice Guy?"

"It's not a joke!"

His eyes became serious. "I know that, honey. I also know it's not the time. Your dad was a hero, like your mom. That's all you should care about."

"It's not all I care about!" Kerri said, "Quince, something he said was bad enough that my mother resorted to the Dark Side! She's never done that, Quince! Ever! Now she's dead because of it! I have to know why! Now, what happened?"

Quince cleared his throat. "All right. So, look... maybe I exaggerated a bit. Coming to warn you was my idea. They caught your dad by surprise. He was still a hero."

"That's not enough." Kerri shook her head. "Come on, tell me all of it."

"Kid, we have--"

"I'm not a kid!" Kerri protested.

"You're acting like one!" he said. "Look, we got bigger things to worry about right now. We gotta get you off this planet..."

"I'm not leaving," Kerri protested, "Until I know why my mother is dead."

Quince shot up from his chair and began to pace angrily. "She's dead because of Vader, like just about everybody else in this galaxy! It doesn't matter!"

"It does!" Kerri protested, "It does! Dammit, Quince, tell me!"

"Look!" The big man took a step forward, fists clenched. Then he relaxed, eyes downcast. "You don't know what Vader did to him, all right? And you're not going to. Only I have to know that."

Kerri swallowed hard. "Did he tell Vader where we were?"

"Terel wasn't a Jedi, Kerri. He wasn't strong like you and your mom. Anybody would've broken. He held out as long as he could."

Kerri felt a tear stream down her cheeks. It seemed she'd lost everything today - her home, her mother, and now her father's memory. "But he told them."

Quince looked up, angry now. "It's not that simple! You haven't seen Vader at work!"

"Yes, I have," Kerri said quietly.

That made Quince back off and lower his voice. "Look, kid, everything depends on your point of view in this galaxy. If you want to think your father betrayed you, that's your business. I can't stop you. As far as I'm concerned, he died a hero. That's what I'm gonna remember."

Quince got as far as the door again before turning. "If you want to talk, about your mom, I mean..."

"Thank you," Kerri said. "For everything."

Quince left, and Kerri was alone in the middle of her personal black hole. Her father had betrayed her, her mother had gotten herself killed by giving in to hatred, and soon enough the Empire would kill Kerri. Even if it didn't, all she had left was a life of running from Vader, and what kind of life was that?

For just a moment, Kerri was sorely tempted to find her lightsaber, point the blade at her neck, and turn it on, solving all her problems. But she pushed those thoughts away.

She was Jedi. She was strong. Despair was from the Dark Side, and if her mother hadn't succumbed to it, perhaps she'd be here now to comfort Kerri.

Kerri would never abandon the Light. She knew that. One day, she would meet up with Vader, and he'd be sorry for all he'd done.

Kerri would be a full Jedi Knight by then. She'd have to be.

Putting her faith in people hadn't worked. As her mother had said, all she had left was the Force.

***

TWO YEARS LATER (ELEVEN BEFORE "A NEW HOPE")

"All right, you festering mynock. You wanna play? Let's PLAY!"

Rik Evverd jerked on the controls, and his Z-95 Headhunter rolled sideways, avoiding the blaster bolts from the ship behind it. The X-Wing cruised by, and Evverd rolled back onto his tail. A smattering of laser bolts damaged the more advanced ship.

Then the X-Wing climbed, displaying its remarkable maneuverability. It really was a great design, sure to be around for years to come.

Rik wished he was flying one. Unfortunately, that wasn't their bet. He'd specifically said he could take on Jonas Kedriksen in any ship on the market, against any ship on the market.

Jonas had been quick to claim the hyper-advanced Incom T-65 X-Wing fighter, leaving Rik with a rusting old Z-95 Headhunter.

If he ever got out of this, Rik resolved not to talk so much in the future.

The X-Wing pulled back on his, and something trilled in Rik's ears. "Yeah, I see it, Bo! I see it!"

The R2 unit bleeped, and its words translated across the screen as: Do something, idiot!

Evverd grunted. These new astro-droids were wonderful, until they opened their little computer mouths. This one, in particular, was bucking for a memory wipe.

At least Jonas had let him fly a modified Z-95 with a droid slot, so he could use his R2; Rik had to admit - grudgingly - that without the little droid, he'd probably be dead by now.

Jonas went into a spiral, firing his wing-mounted cannons continuously, so that Evverd's rear shields were lit up from multiple angles.

Rik grinned and thought, oh, you do NOT want to get fancy on me, jerk...

He shunted full shields aft and stopped dead. The X-Wing was far enough back that it could have decelerated, then killed him, but Rik knew from experience that the panic instinct was strong in that situation. The ship ahead of you stops short, you dodge - even if you don't really need to.

Jonas did that, rolling out with his terrific maneuverability. From a dead stop, Evverd had no trouble changing course to follow him.

"Bo, give me full power to the ion engines, now!"

The droid warbled a disagreement.

"Don't argue with me, you blasted piece of tin! Just give me jets!"

Bo warbled something akin to "You'll be sorry." He engaged the ion engines.

Rik's fighter shot ahead at full throttle, on a collision course with the X-Wing. Jonas rolled out again, but Evverd corrected - and found himself looking straight into the X-Wing's brilliant exhaust. He trigged the firing switch, launching their last torpedo, then slammed his Headhunter into full reverse. The torpedo hit home, scorching the X-Wing's rear shields. Jonas tried to come around...

Rik's ship continued to fire his forward cannons as he backed away. Jonas completed only half a turn before detonating into a ball of flame.

Rik whistled softly and wiped his brow, watching as the fire burned itself in.

"Great shot, Rik!" A voice said through his headset. "One in a million!"

"A billion, Tory," said the thin Corellian. His skin was slightly darker than the average Wookiee's fur, and his eighteen-year-old frame had yet to fill out. "Get me out of this thing."

With some effort, and a little help from his friend, Evverd pulled his way out of the simulator hookup. He nodded to Tory Zrod. "How much did we win this time?"

"Almost a thousand," said the near-human. Tory had a pink complexion, solid white hair, and sideways-closing eyelids that had severely unnerved Rik until he'd gotten used to them. Rik had never seen another of Tory's species, and hadn't bothered to ask if there were any.

"It's a living," he said. He jogged over to the wall, where R2-B0 was hooked up to the simulator. With one yank, he undid the connections.

Bo hollered his domed head off.

"Hey, sorry - I didn't know you had a transfer in progress. Anyway, good job."

The droid twittered something that sounded snotty. Rik turned away. He'd bought Bo with his share of savings from their simulator winnings - Tory set up the matches, and Rik trounced all comers. But he was beginning to think there was a reason why the droid had come so cheap.

Memory wipe, he told himself. As soon as possible - maybe even the next time we make port.

They were in port today, at Chandrila, but Rik had duties to perform, and knew he wouldn't make it down to the planet this time. A shame, really. Chandrila was supposed to be almost as nice as Alderaan, and Rik had been wanting to hear that newly-elected Senator of theirs, Mon Mothma. She was a fiery orator, and had the guts to challenge Palpatine - something almost everybody lacked these days.

Oh, well, Rik decided. Next trip, maybe. It's not like I'm gonna be able to get off this scow anytime soon.

"Hey, sand-flea!"

Evverd turned slowly, and saw the hulking form of Jonas Kedriksen approaching him. "Hey, Jonas..."

"You told me you'd never flown a Headhunter."

"Did I say that?" He glanced at Tory for confirmation. When the near-human nodded, Evverd chuckled, and spread his hands in apology. "See, what I meant to say was, I'd never flown a Headhunter on this specific simulator machine. Um, I hope I didn't give you the wrong idea..."

Jonas slammed him against the wall with one meaty fist. "You cheated me. I'm not paying!"

Rik laughed, keeping his tone light. "Um, no, see, uh - you have to pay. That's - that's the rules. Uh, I beat you, you give me money. It's a pretty good system, but if nobody pays, then, well, it kinda falls apart."

Jonas grabbed his collar, lifting him partially off the ground. Evverd heard a mixture of cheers and groans as those who had assembled to watch the match now prepared to see a fight.

"I'm not paying," Jonas hissed.

Rik let his tone cool off about twenty degrees, his eyes confident - though he knew Jonas could, and likely would, kill him. "You have to pay."

Jonas banged him against the wall, and Rik felt a lump begin to rise on the back of his head. Made brave by the pain, Evverd snarled, "In about two seconds I'm gonna get really tired of this."

"And you'll what?" Jonas said with a laugh. "You think you're somebody? Just because you can fly a simulator? You're a bug! A stupid, little Corellian sand-flea who's worthless outside a pretend cockpit."

"Uh - okay, be that as it may, you're gonna want to put me down."

The bigger man stared at him. "What're you gonna do, bug? You think you can take me? You want to try?"

"Uh--no." Evverd put special emphasis on that last word. He was a pilot, not a fighter. He hadn't hit anybody since the fifth grade.

"Well, that's the only way you're gonna get your money," Jonas said. He saw the fear on Rik's face, and grinned. "Come on - make your move."

"My move." Rik made a sarcastic little sound. "You want my move. I'll make my move. My, um, my move. Right. Uh--" he glanced at Tory. "What is my move?"

All eyes in the room, including Jonas', focused on Tory. As a rule, near-humans tended to be uncomfortable with attention -especially this sort of attention. What with Palpatine's dislike for aliens, Tory knew this rough crowd could probably lynch him and get off with a slap on the wrist.

So Rik wasn't too surprised when his friend smiled at Jonas and said, "I've never seen this man before in my life."

"You're a big help!" the Corellian hissed.

"Come on, star pilot," the bigger man taunted, "I thought you Corellians were tough. I thought you didn't worry about odds."

"I like odds," Rik said. "Odds are good. Odds are our friends. Put me down, please."

"No. I wanna see what kinda Corellian overdrive you have."

Rik groaned. "You're gonna break my face, aren't you?"

Jonas nodded. "Uh-huh."

"Would pleading help? 'Cause I'm willing to beg."

The big human shook his head. "Nope."

"Oh. Okay, then, uh - you wanna lay off the profile, please? My, uh - my skin's finally clearing up, and I'd like to stay handsome for a little while."

Jonas laughed, and pulled his fist back for a punch. Rik wondered distantly if they'd ever find his body.

"YOOWWWCH!" said Jonas, and he dropped the smaller man.

Rik wasted no time, throwing the first punch of his professional life right into the bigger man's nose. To his utter shock, it toppled Jonas, and the big man fell.

Right over the dome of a purple-and-gray R2 droid, whose arc welder was extended. Rik saw it, put together the pieces, and laughed out loud. "You zapped him in the butt? That's great!"

The R2 tootled proudly. Rik decided to reconsider that memory wipe. He also decided to have his hand looked it - he'd probably broken something, from the way it hurt.

Then, of course, it all came to a crashing halt.

Jonas got up, blood in his eyes. "You're gonna die, bug."

Rik swallowed hard. Before, Jonas had only wanted to humiliate him. Now, he'd badly injure Rik, at the least.

He glared at Tory. "A little help, here?"

Tory blinked his sideways eyelids rapidly. "I'm sorry... who are you?"

The R2 unit, at least, was loyal. He rolled forward, placing himself between Jonas and his master, his arc welder spitting flames.

The big man eyed him, and sneered. "You gonna hide behind your droid all day, bug?"

Rik shrugged. "I'm not proud."

Someone from the crowd call, "Hey, Jo - use this!"

A long, heavy metal bar flew through the air to slap into Jonas' palm. He looked from it to the droid, and grinned. "Time for a little body work, you piece of Sithborn junk."

His arm swung backward as he prepared to smash the droid. It never started its forward arc.

Rik Evverd had stepped forward, holding the arm back with all his strength. Jonas' arms were twice as thick around as his, but the Corellian dug in, and the bar made no progress.

"He's only a droid," Rik whispered. "Leave him out of this."

Tory stepped forward, behind Jonas' back, and relieved him of the metal bar.

Jonas Kedriksen appeared very surprised that he wasn't able to break the thin Corellian's grip. After a long moment, he relaxed his arm, and Rik let go.

Still, he glared at Rik Evverd. He said, "I gotta kill you now."

"I understand. Professional pride, and all..."

Jonas stepped forward. "No droids, no alien toads. You and me."

Rik backed up a step, and was disturbed to realize he was already against the wall. "Do I get to say my prayers first?"

"Waste of time, bug. Whatever gods you believe in, you're about to meet them."

Rik laughed. His father would say, in a situation like this, there was nothing to do but stand in and take your whipping like a man.

Rik had left home largely because his father said things like that.

For the third time, Jonas brought his fist backwards...

For the third time, he was interrupted.

"That's enough!" said a voice from behind. Nina Brentt, the ship's redheaded, Corellian executive officer, stood at the entrance to the rec hall.

Rik Evverd had never been more relieved to see anyone. He hissed a long sigh of relief. Even Jonas reluctantly dropped his fist.

Brentt had fought in the clone wars, and had spent time as both a merc and a bounty hunter, or so the rumors went. Nobody on the ship, a Corellian liner named the SPACER'S DREAM, wanted to mess with her.

"Kedriksen, aren't you on duty in the engine room?"

The big man swallowed hard. "In ten minutes, ma'am."

"Then you'd better get there, don't you think?"

At length, Jonas hissed. "Wouldn't have taken that long to rip the arms off this bug."

Brentt chuckled. "Perhaps not, Mister Kedriksen, but then who would take fly the ship?"

"A Jawa?" somebody suggested.

"A sick Ugnaught?" said another.

"Nah," said Jonas, "Either of them would do a lot better job."

Rik clenched his hands into fists, but made no reply.

With the show over, most of the crewers began to file out. Jonas held Rik's eyes for a moment. "I'll catch you later, bug."

"Can't wait," he muttered.

"And Mister Evverd..." the first officer caught him up in a deadly glare. "Stop causing trouble, or you're off this ship."

"Oh, yes, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am. Never happen again, ma'am..."

She left, and Rik finished, "...Go kiss a Hutt."

Tory stepped over to him. "Better not let her hear that."

"Relax. I've become a master at the out-of-earshot put-down." Rik sighed, rubbed at his eyes, and laughed. "All that, and no money?"

"Of course there's money," said Tory. "I bumped into Jonas on his way out. Picked his pocket."

He tossed Evverd a rather large credit clip.

"I'd say that should just about cover his debt," the near-human continued. "What say we have dinner after your shift? On Kedriksen?"

Rik Evverd laughed, and patted the R2 unit's dome. "Dinner, and an oil bath."

Over dinner some hours later, Tory explained his philosophy of life. They had money, so they ate with the passengers, on "B" deck. It was a nice change from the cramped backroom they usually took their meals in. Nearby, Bo was with the other droids in an adjacent recharging cubicle.

"You know what your problem is, Rik?" Without waiting for an answer, he went on, "You expect people to take you seriously. You want so badly to be something more than you are that you think you already are more."

The Corellian grunted. He'd heard this line of reasoning before. "And what am I?"

"You're just like me. You're nothing, not as far as everybody else is concerned. You're just some poor slob who can fly a ship. The sooner you realize that, the better."

Rik glanced up. "Hey, I'm doing all right. I got promoted to first-shift helm, didn't I?"

"You know as well as I do that Plesc is looking for an experienced helmsman. You'll be back on the night shift before you know it. You push too hard, you'll be back on the janitorial staff."

Rik kept his anger in check. Tory didn't mean anything by it; he was just being Tory. "I guess you're doing so much better, huh?"

"No. I am what I am. I'm a busboy on a third-rate liner. But I know that, so I can make the best of it."

"I'm making the best of it!" Rik protested. "I'm doing good at helm. Pretty soon, Brentt will retire. Everyone gets bumped up, and they'll need a third mate."

"So what if they do?" Tory said. "So what if you end up running this stinking ship? Who cares? This ain't the QUEEN PADME, pal, in case you hadn't noticed."

Rik had to concede that point. If he was ever going to make something of himself, he'd have to get off this ship. But where would he go? He hated the Empire, he wasn't crazy enough for the Rebels, and the life of a merc didn't appeal to him - Rik Evverd fundamentally opposed getting shot at.

"I'll think of something," he told the near-human.

"Yeah, I bet. You just--"

But Evverd's eyes were elsewhere. "Wow."

"What?" Tory glanced around, following his human friend's gaze. After a moment, he zeroed in on the target - an exotic young lady with long, dark hair eating alone in one corner. "Yeah, she's pretty, I guess - for a human."

Rik blushed. Tory was right - there was no denying that the young woman was attractive - but they'd carried attractive passengers before, and Rik had come to the conclusion that if he left them alone, they'd leave him alone. There was something more, and he couldn't put his finger on it...

"You're staring," Tory said.

"Oh," Rik averted his eyes. "Thanks."

"What's with you, pal? She's not that pretty."

"I dunno." He tried to cover his embarrassment with a mouthful of potato-rice. "There's something about her..."

Tory shrugged. "So go talk to her."

Rik sneered at his near-human companion. "Forget it. I ain't gonna talk to her. I made a fool of myself once today."

Tory took a bite of whatever he was eating - the near-human had odd tastes, and Rik had found it best not to inspect his meals too closely. "Good. Because you know you don't have a chance with a girl like that."

Rik shot the other youth another look. "Are you trying to annoy me today?"

"I'm telling you the facts, pal. She's not in your league."

"Let's talk about something else," Rik said, and punctuated that statement with a large forkful of food.

"You started it."

A series of hoots and whistles sounded from over in the cubicle. Rik looked over to see R2-B0 rocking back and forth, hollering, and generally making a pest of himself.

The diners were beginning to notice, and Rik didn't want to lose his dining-hall privileges. He pushed his chair back. "I'd better go get him."

"And bring back some salt, huh?"

Rik made his way into the droid cubicle and began unhooking Bo. Rik sighed. "Hey, I understand if you've had enough, but we're trying to eat over there. You're gonna get me in trouble."

He noticed the droid's sensor dish was out. "What, have you been eavesdropping on the people?" He got the last connection free, and stood back. "There you go."

Bo started rolling forward, and Rik suddenly realized that he was going with the droid. Bo had his manipulator arm extended, and had a firm grip on his master's shirt.

"Hey - hey, c'mon, what's goin' on? Will you stop that?"

The droid's dome swiveled 180 degrees, like a Corellian hoo-bird, and he bleeped something that sounded urgent.

"What? What is it? You want me to follow? I'm coming!"

Bo released him and began making his way towards the dining hall exit, beeping up a storm the whole way. Rik felt every eye in the dining area fall upon him and cursed. Now he knew he'd lose dining hall privileges.

"Quiet down!" he hissed, "I'm coming!"

To make matters worse, he suddenly realized that the route Bo was taking would take him right past the exotic young woman he'd noticed earlier. The damage was done, of course, but Rik still had no desire to have her look at him like he was an idiot at close range.

He tapped the droid's dome. "C'mon, let's go this way."

But Bo continued on, making more noise than ever.

"Come back here, you stupid little tub! I don't want to go that way!"

The astromech rolled back, get a grip on his shirt again, and dragged him along.

Rik had slightly better balance and traction, but the droid was a lot heavier, and could not be easily waylaid.

"Cut it out!" Rik said, but Bo continued to haul him along. Finally, when they'd almost reached the young woman's table, Evverd yanked himself away. His shirt ripped, and he lost his balance, pitching forward...

Into the chair across from the young woman, which splintered under his weight. Rik groaned, checked himself for injuries, and looked up. "Uh-- hi."

The girl looked from him to Bo, who was still making anxious bleeping noises, and said, "Something wrong with your droid?"

"No - uh, no problem. He's about due for a memory wipe!" He spat that last word towards the astromech as a warning, but it deterred Bo not a bit. He continued rocking, still waiting for his master to follow.

Rik climbed to his feet with a groan. Well, he thought, it's not like she was gonna notice me anyway... He nodded at the chair. "I'll be back, uh, to clean that up. One minute."

He jogged over to the droid. "I've had just about enough of you!"

Bo extended his third leg again, and set off through the exit.

"Droids..." Evverd muttered, "Can't live with 'em, can't vaporize 'em..."

Bo made it out to the corridor in what must have been record time for a stubby, little astromech, and plugged himself into the computer terminal.

"Hey! HEY!" Rik called. "You're not allowed in there! I don't have access!"

A moment later, the droid had sliced through all the security protocols, and was into the central directory.

"Where'd you learn to do that? That's illegal!" But useful, Rik thought. He'd have to remember to mention that to Tory.

On second thought, he decided, better not to mention it to Tory. Given access to a slicer droid, the near-human would have them both in jail within a week.

Rik blinked at the monitor, surprised by the speed with which the Artoo droid was flipping through screens. Clearly, Bo knew exactly what he was looking for.

Wish I did, Rik thought. "What are you doing?"

The astromech made no reply, but at length, he came to rest on the sensor subsystems.

His Corellian master groaned. "They're gonna toss my off this ship on my..." He blinked, as something on the screen registered. "Did I read that right? IMPERIAL-class Star Destroyer?"

Bo whistled and bleeped, clearly relieved that his rather dense companion had gotten the message.

Rik frowned. The Imps did inspections all the time, but usually with Customs ships. Nothing bigger than a CARRACK. Once, last year, when former Captain Gryss had been suspected of carrying contraband (Well, not "suspected" so much as "caught in the act"), they'd used a VICTORY Star Destroyer. But never had Rik even seen one of the new IMPERIAL-class jobs. They were Palpatine's babies, and he used them only for special projects.

"What's the captain carrying?" Rik joked. "A shipload of Rebels? Or does he have a Jedi Knight stashed someplace?"

He felt her approach, rather than heard it. He had a funny feeling, like somebody had brushed his mind with a feather. He swiveled.

And saw the exotic young woman from before standing at the end of the corridor, an expression of fright bordering on terror twisting her face.

"What are you doing back there?"

It looked like the young lady's first instinct was to bolt, but instead she swallowed hard and stepped closer. "Did I hear you say an Imperial Star Destroyer was approaching?"

"Yeah, uh--" he fished around for something reassuring to say. "It's no big deal. Surprise inspection. We get 'em all the time."

"I see." Her caramel-toned skin had gone pale, and Rik had the sudden urge to offer her his arm to lean on. She didn't look too steady on her feet.

But she rallied, and said, "Thank you. I'll be-- I'll be going now."

She started off down the corridor, and Rik trailed after her. "Hey! Hey, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, and she did look much better. "Which way to the escape pods?"

"Aft," Evverd said automatically, then cursed himself. "But you're not allowed in 'em unless there's an emergency."

"I-- yes, thank you." She stared at him, her brown eyes suddenly seeming very large. "You never saw me."

Rik felt that tickle again, somewhere deep inside his head. It gave him a chill, and he said, "What do you mean? Of course, I saw you!"

"No," she repeated, her expression suggesting some degree of effort, though she didn't seem to be doing anything. "You don't understand. I wasn't here. You didn't speak to me."

"I never..." Rik started to repeat automatically. Then he shuddered and cleared his head with a shake. Who was this person?

"I don't know what you just did," he said, a little angrily, "But don't do it again, okay?"

That look of fear was back, mixed with curiosity this time. "I'm never met anyone who could... I have to go."

"Wait a minute!" Rik Evverd hurried after her again, and this time he heard Bo struggling to catch up. "What are you, some kind of telepath? Talk to me!"

She rounded a corner, and Rik followed her... but as he screeched to a halt before the other corridor, he saw that it was empty.

That's impossible, he thought. She couldn't have gone through any of the doors - there wasn't time!

Bo pulled up behind him, warbling a question.

"I dunno, pal. I have no idea what happened to her..."

Footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Rik turned to see Tory catching up to them, blinking his sideways eyelids rapidly.

"Where have you been?" he asked, annoyed.

"Well, I was kind of hoping people wouldn't think we were together - but when she followed you out, I had to know what was going on."

Strangely, Rik felt the need to grasp onto that statement. "You saw her, too? I mean, she did follow me out?"

"Of course."

Rik turned away from the corridor, shaking his head. "I got a bad feeling about this..."

"Are you certain of this, Vader?"

Darth Vader, last Dark Lord of the Sith, stared down at the aged, skeletal form of Moff Tarkin, governor of the Outer Rim Territories. "I have traced the Jedi to this ship. All evidence indicates that he or she is onboard."

"Yet you admit you sense nothing in the Force."

Vader was silent a moment. "At present, the Jedi's mind is dark to me. It must be a master of some power..."

"Or he may not be here," Tarkin pointed out. "You may have delayed our mission for nothing."

"The Emperor needs no help to frighten the peaceful fools of Alderaan. Bail Organa has grown old and weak."

"Nevertheless, the Emperor has requested our presence." Tarkin frowned. "He shall be most displeased if we are late."

"He would be more displeased if we allowed a Jedi to escape."

At length, the Moff backed down. "Make it brief."

"As you wish. Captain Motti?"

A young officer, one of Tarkin's proteges, snapped to attention at Vader's side. "My Lord?"

"Prepare a detail. I want every part of that ship searched, and the Jedi brought to me alive."

Motti frowned. "Yes, my lord. Er... they'll need a description. What does this Jedi look like?"

Vader was silent a moment. "If they find a Jedi, I will know."

How could I have been so stupid? Kerri wondered. I knew it was a bad idea to leave Chandrila so soon after that incident with the bounty hunter! I just panicked.

And now I'm going to die.

No, Kerri thought, clamping down on that thought. I refuse to die here. I refuse to give Vader the satisfaction.

And Vader was here. As the Star Destroyer approached, Kerri began to feel that. An aura so black and powerful that she sensed it through her crystal's dampening. She could only hope that Vader couldn't likewise sense her.

Her only chance was to make it to the escape pods, disengage the security systems - Kerri did have a certain talent with mechanical things - and get away before they boarded. She'd have to blind the Imperial gunners. Standard Imperial procedure was to destroy escape pods, on the grounds that anyone who'd flee from the Empire must be guilty of something.

The catch would be blinding the gunners without alerting Vader to her presence.

All of that assumed that the Imperial gunners didn't have that dark-skinned young man's ability to ignore Force-persuasion. Kerri had heard of people like that - people whose will was so strong that it created an inherent psychic block against Force talent. Hutts were immune to the Force under a similar principle. Whatever one might say against the Hutts, they were stubborn.

Kerri had certainly sensed that same stubbornness in the boy - he had great strength, he just didn't know what to do with it yet. He reminded her of Quince in that way...

Thought of Quince made Kerri's heart ache. He'd gotten himself killed in the mines of Kessel, after being sent there by CorSec on some trumped-up charge of smuggling. Saren Pierce was gone, too, though she had been old and in poor health; she had died of natural causes only a few months ago.

Jedi, Kerri had since decided, were meant to be alone. These days, it just wasn't safe for a Jedi to trust anyone. Even if you found one of those rare souls that could be trusted, like Quince, you were only putting them in danger. Kerri was still convinced that CorSec would have left Quince alone, if not for the suspicion that he was harboring Jedi.

In her quieter moments, Kerri realized she was becoming paranoid. Quince had been a smuggler, after all, and smuggling had its risks. Especially smuggling to the Rebels. But she would always wonder.

Speaking of trusting people, Kerri realized that she was now - indirectly - forced to trust the young man from the corridor. When the Empire barged in asking questions about a Jedi, he'd surely put two and two together. It was only a matter of how long it would take him, and how soon he'd tell them.

And he would tell them. He had no reason to lie for Kerri. Besides, she reminded herself bitterly, the Empire can make anyone talk.

Okay, Kerri decided. Enough self-pity for one day. Time to move. Fear and doubt are from the Dark Side. I've escaped from the Empire before. I can do it again.

Fortunately, even if her persuasion had not worked on the young crewer, her camouflage had been effective enough. It should work on everyone aboard. She only had to keep it low-level enough that it wouldn't overpower her crystal, and Kerri had become expert at that.

It felt strange, walking down crowded hallways without being seen. Several times, she'd had to change course abruptly as people barged through what they thought was empty space.

After what seemed like a long time, she reached the aft section of the ship. Crewers were already bustling around, preparing to dock with the massive Star Destroyer.

Kerri stopped short. Three possible routes presented themselves - one forward, one on either side. Which way were the escape pods?

The young Jedi groaned. She'd have to check them all - and hope she could do so quickly enough.

The door slid open, and a short Alderaanian with thinning brown hair stepped forward. "Greetings. I am Captain Dannon Plesc, and..."

"You may dispense with the pleasantries, Captain."

Captain Plesc stepped back, craning his head up - and up some more - to behold the massive figure that had followed the stormtroopers onto his ship.

"Lord Vader," he said, half in awe, "It is truly an honor..."

"Not entirely a welcome honor, I assure you, Captain. We have traced the whereabouts of a Jedi Knight to this system. We have reason to believe they are seeking off-planet passage aboard your vessel."

Plesc fell into step with Vader, who charged through the corridors like he owned the place. "That's ridiculous. A Jedi Knight, on my ship? Why--"

Vader turned on him. "Perhaps you doubt my insight in this matter."

"Not at all, Lord Vader--"

"That is wise," said the Sith Lord. He turned away from the captain as though the man could not possibly be of any importance. "I'd hate to have to demonstrate the power of the Force."

The Alderaanian cleared his throat. "We'll, er... try to help in any way we can. Shall I have the passenger manifest brought to you?"

"Unnecessary. Everything has been arranged..."

Tory slid back around the corner, and whistled softly. As usual when he was nervous, his eyelids were blinking a kilometer per second. "I think we're in trouble."

Rik frowned. "What'd Vader say?"

"I couldn't hear. But they've got to be looking for contraband." He moaned. "Why'd I have to pick this trip to sneak Heater's load on ryll-spice onboard?"

Rik shot his friend a glance. "You're smuggling?"

"Well... actually... it's more like we're smuggling." Tory swallowed hard. "I may have... forged your name... a little bit."

"I'll kill you!"

Tory glanced nervously back at the stormtroopers, who were already beginning their search. "That's gonna be pretty redundant..."

Still the Corellian frowned. "It's not right. They wouldn't go to this much trouble for ryll spice, or even glitterstim. Oh, man..."

"What?"

Rik was busy working out the details - more to himself than to his near-human friend, he muttered, "I called it. They're looking for a Jedi. We met her..."

Ahead of them, Bo whistled softly and began to roll forward. Evverd took the hint. Loitering around in the corridor was a bad idea. They had to try to look busy...

Tory still didn't get it. "Her? Who, her? You mean, the disappearing her?"

Rik nodded. "I felt her in my mind..."

"You're crazy."

Rik stopped dead, grabbed Tory by the arms, and pinned him against the wall. He whispered, "NOBODY hears about this..."

He let Tory go, and their walk continued. The near-human said, "I don't get it. If she's the problem, let's turn her in now, before they search the cargo hold."

The young Corellian fixed a murderous glare on Tory. "We're not turning her in."

"Look, I know you like her--"

"It has nothing to do with that!" he hissed. "I'm not turning a Jedi over to the Empire!"

"What do we care?" his friend protested. "We're not involved. It's got nothing to do with us. Hey, for all we know, maybe Palpatine's right when he says they're a menace!"

"He also says non-humans are a menace," Rik said. "Do you believe that?"

Tory shrugged. "Maybe. If my mom had married a human, I'd be normal."

"If your mom hadn't dropped you on your head at birth, you'd be normal."

"Ouch." The near-human paused, motioning Evverd back. A moment later, a stormtrooper passed through one of the nearby corridors. He paid them no mind.

Rik sighed with relief, and stepped forward...

"You there."

He cursed to himself. Should have known it wouldn't be that easy. He turned to face the trooper. "Yes, sir?"

"Have you seen anything unusual?" Rik considered. "Well, I once saw a giant space slug off Sullust..."

The stormtrooper hissed through his filtered mask. "Recently. Since arriving on Chandrila."

"Me? No." He glanced at Tory. "What about you... pal?"

His glare must have been just threatening enough, because Tory looked at him crooked, but said, "Sorry. Couldn't help you."

"If you're off-duty, you'd better return to your cabin. This ship is being searched, by authority of the Emperor."

Rik grinned. "You don't say? Well, thanks for the tip..."

Bo emitted a series of bleeps and electronic snorts.

"Oh...yeah, right. I do owe you an oil bath." He looked at the stormtrooper. "Is it okay if I take him down to Maintenance?"

The trooper considered. "Sure, go ahead."

They passed the stormtrooper by, and continued walking.

"That was close," Tory said. "You're gonna get me in a lot of trouble."

"You have no idea," Rik said with a grin. "Get down to the cargo bay. If you take the lift, you'll get there before the Imps. Wipe our names from that contraband."

The young near-human frowned. "I'll never get it done in time."

"Sure you will," Rik said. He looked down at his droid. "Bo can help you--he's a whiz at this stuff."

The Artoo unit bleeped confirmation.

Tory still hesitated. "All right..."

"Go. And don't talk to any stormtroopers. Believe me, Vader can't make your life as miserable as I can. Clear?"

His friend sighed. "Got it." To the droid, he said, "Well, come on..."

As Tory set off down the corridor, Rik leaned down towards his droid. "Keep an eye on him."

Bo warbled in understanding, extended his third leg, and rolled after the other youth.

Kerri groaned. Some Jedi I turned out to be, she thought. My first two guesses were wrong! Of course, it was really too late to worry about such things, and she'd still made it to the third door before the...

The door at the end of the corridor hissed open, and a pair of stormtroopers stepped through.

So much for good luck, Kerri thought. She'd just have to act like she knew what she was doing. Acting confident, she stepped towards the rightmost door...

"Where are you going?"

Kerri forced her expression to remain bored. "Aft, to the crew quarters. I was told to return to my cabin."

One of the stormtroopers stepped forward, raising his weapon. He nodded towards the door on the left. "Crew quarters are that way."

"Oh," Kerri chuckled, but mentally cursed herself. I knew I should have explored further in that direction! "I'm new to the ship. I still get confused sometimes. Lots of corridors, you know? Thank you for your help. Excuse me..."

"Stay where you are."

Kerri had been turning away from the stormtrooper, but now she turned back. Only one thing left to do...

She smiled at the stormtrooper. "I'm not doing anything worth noticing," she said.

"You're not...doing anything...worth noticing."

Kerri made sure to get a Force grip on his partner, as well, to avoid any unpleasantness. There was something strange about their sense, some kind of dark essence she could not quite place. But at least they were weak-minded. "You should continue with your search."

The stormtrooper looked back at his partner. "We should continue our search."

"I'm not even here."

"There's no one here," the trooper said, sounding bored. "Let's go back."

"All right," said the other.

A moment later, they were gone.

A moment after that, a voice sounded in Kerri's head. IMPRESSIVE. YES, MOST IMPRESSIVE.

The young Jedi groaned as she realized what she'd felt in their minds: Vader, keeping tabs on them, waiting for a Jedi to touch their minds. And she'd fallen for it!

YOU MUST BE VERY POWERFUL, TO THWART MY EFFORTS AT DETECTING YOU. I SHALL ENJOY OUR CONTEST.

Why didn't you let your little puppets kill me? Kerri thought at him. Her stomach twisted as she wondered how much he'd learned from their brief mind-touch. Probably not much, she decided. But enough.

Vader's mind replied, YOUR ABILITIES INTRIGUE ME. I PREFER TO DEAL WITH YOU MYSELF. THERE IS NO ESCAPE FOR YOU THIS TIME.

Want to bet? she thought.

Something like the laugh that Vader never would have vocalized rippled through her mind. YOUR SPIRIT IS ADMIRABLE. I BELIEVE I SHALL GIVE YOU A CHANCE TO TURN, BEFORE I KILL YOU.

I won't turn, she said.

Something almost like regret passed through their fragile link. ALL JEDI SAY THAT, Vader told her. UNTIL THEY'VE BEEN MADE TO UNDERSTAND THE DARK SIDE.

Then he was gone, and Kerri shivered.

She had to get off this ship, and she had to get off now.

It only took a few minutes to make her way down the correct passage, to one of the escape pod bays. It took a few more moments to hotwire an escape pod. Finally, Kerri's hand pressed down on the control to open the pod. The door snapped open with a satisfying hiss, and Kerri sighed. Despite Vader's warning, she was going to make it after all.

She began to duck inside. A hand fell on her shoulder.

"Hello again."

Kerri turned around so sharply that she whacked her head on the top of the hatch. Her hand reached automatically inside her tunic, for her hidden lightsaber, but she forced herself not to draw it. Instead, she rubbed the back of her head, and frowned at the dark-skinned Corellian from before. "What are you doing here?"

"You told me you were heading here, remember? Or maybe you don't - after all, you tried to make me forget."

Kerri groaned. "I'm sorry about that, but I don't have time for..."

"Don't mess with my head, okay?"

Her head feeling a little better, Kerri managed a sarcastic little smile. "Since I don't ever plan to see you again, I don't think that's a problem."

"It is a problem, if you're trying to escape that way," he said. "Imps shoot escape pods."

"There are... ways around that." Will you just leave? she thought at him.

She must have put a bit of Force persuasion into it, because he thought back, no, and I'm pretty sure we just discussed this.

"Sorry," she said aloud. "Look, I can take care of myself. All I need from you is for you not to tell them until I've had time to get away. Will you do that?"

"Sure," he said, "But you're not gonna escape that way."

"I just told you..."

The Corellian youth shrugged. "Fine. Go ahead and try."

"Oh, I have your permission?" Kerri squeezed back into the escape pod and slapped the "close" button.

Nothing happened.

She tried again, and again. The hatch would not close.

The Corellian shrugged. "See?"

"What did you do?"

He made an annoyingly innocent little face. "Me? Nothing. But you had to figure they'd do this, right? Simplest way to stop people from escaping. Jam the pod release. Once the door opens, the clamps kick in, and it won't close again. You'd need a slicer or an astromech droid to bypass it."

She frowned at him. "You have an astromech."

"Yeah," he said, "But he's busy. Besides, he wouldn't get here in time."

She sighed. "What do you suggest?"

The young man shrugged. "I dunno. I was just pointing out your problems. I don't have a plan."

Kerri grunted. "That's not very constructive of you."

"Yeah, well, it's not every day I meet a Jedi."

She froze. In truth, she would have been surprised if he hadn't figured it out by now. But she'd hoped."Who says I'm a Jedi?"

"Right. You just happen to be able to sift through my mind."

"I couldn't touch your mind," she said honestly. "That's a rare gift, you know. Your strength of will."

He shrugged. "It gets me through the day. So, what do you say? You want my help getting out of here?"

She hesitated, then turned away. "I don't need anyone's help. I don't need anyone."

"You need me."

Kerri was about to reply when she heard, faintly, bootheels clanking on metal outside. "Oh, no..."

The Corellian winced. "This is not my fault." Before Kerri could reply, he moved, shoving her into the escape pod further. "Stay back," he whispered.

"I'm not..."

But he was already gone, jogging towards the exit to the room.

Kerri could only listen to what happened next.

"What are you doing in here?"

"Locking the place down," said the Corellian's voice. "Captain's orders."

"He's given no such orders."

The Corellian laughed. "See, that's why I'm such a good crewer. I anticipate his orders before he gives them."

"Check it out," said the stormtrooper's voice, "Make sure nothing is disturbed."

Kerri reached quickly into the Force, projecting the illusion that the door of her escape pod was closed, that nothing was amiss... and after another cursory clomping of bootheels, another stormtrooper voice said, "Looks all right."

"You see? So why don't you..."

The first stormtrooper interrupted, "Rasir Evverd Junior?"

The Corellian's voice sounded unhappy. "Rik, please."

"Ship's helmsman?"

"So far, yeah."

"Come with us," said the stormtrooper. "Lord Vader has a few questions for you."

A second later, they were gone. Kerri hung her head and groaned. She'd been right before. Knowing a Jedi could only get people into trouble. And she didn't even really know this guy.

But she knew she had to help him.

To Rik's way of thinking, the situation wasn't really that bad. After all, how was Vader going to prove he knew something about a Jedi? There was no way to prove that. True, just the idea of facing Vader was enough to make him want to faint, but he couldn't believe that anyone could advance as far as Vader without being at least a bit reasonable. And Rik was usually pretty good at talking his way out of things.

Besides, for once in his life, he felt brave - and, he had to admit, he owed his father for that one. If Rasir had taught him one thing, it was never to give in to the Empire.

"Mark my words, son," he'd said once, "You can't make deals with the Empire. They don't play fair. Trying to please them will only get you killed slower."

What really bothered him was how they knew his name and knew he might have information for them. There were only a few ways they could have learned that, and really, none of them were good for anybody.

The stormtroopers rounded a corner, Rik Evverd trailing behind them, and he got him first look at Vader.

I'm in trouble, he decided immediately.

The Dark Lord had to be two meters tall, with pitch-black armor, a flowing robe, and a sort of mechanical hissing sound emanating from his rebreather mask. The mask itself was infamous throughout the galaxy, better-known even than Boba Fett's.

That was the sum of Vader's parts. And still it didn't seem to add up to him. Lord Vader had a definite presence. He seemed to suck all the air from the room and add about two G's to the gravity. Rik wondered if that was his Dark Side power, or if Vader was just scary.

Probably a little of both, he decided.

"My lord," said the stormtrooper, "We've brought the helmsman."

"Excellent," said Lord Vader. He turned that mask on Rik. "Allow me to be the first to announce your promotion."

"Promotion?" he said.

Then Vader stepped aside, to reveal the fallen body of Captain Plesc. His hand was still clutched to his throat, and Rik had no doubt as to how he'd died.

Rik's stomach turned. Ignoring the stormtroopers, he keeled over, gasping for air. A moment later, Rik was very glad he was no longer on the sanitation crew.

He'd never seen a dead body before.

Rik spat, trying to get the bitter taste out of his mouth. He looked up at Vader. "Are you trying to impress me?"

"Merely to impress upon you the seriousness of the situation. But perhaps there is another who can do that better than I..."

He motioned with his hand, and another pair of troopers entered the chamber bringing Tory with them.

His friend looked away. "I'm sorry, Rik. They beat me to the cargo bay. I had to tell them."

"You will be rewarded for your loyalty," Vader assured him.

Tory shot the Dark Lord a look, then turned back to Rik. He ran a hand through his pure white hair. "I - I had to tell them."

"Yeah," Rik said, not sure whether he believed it. "I guess you did."

"And now you will speak to me. Your attempt at escape has been thwarted. Where is the Jedi?"

Rik laughed. "Jedi? Come on... you think there's a Jedi on this ship? Lord Vader, I think a Jedi would want, uh, better accommodations. As someone pointed out, this isn't exactly the QUEEN PADME."

Vader loomed over him. "The Jedi is here. Where is she?"

"She? What she? Did he tell you about a she? Listen, the only person I've talked to today was this, uh, this Wookiee male, and..."

"Where is the Jedi?" Vader repeated, and this time Rik felt something - like the Jedi's mind touch, but colder. Harder. More powerful, and lots more unpleasant.

And, once again, he forced it back. "Stop that."

Vader appeared a little surprised, even through his mask. "Interesting..."

"Look, Lord Vader, I don't know anything. They don't tell me anything. Look at me. I'm eighteen Corellian years old. The Captain didn't trust me with anything important--" Mentioning the captain made Evverd glance at the body again, and he gagged. "He didn't even like me much."

"Indeed," said Vader slowly. "Yes, you are correct. You may go."

Rik sighed with relief, and the stormtroopers parted behind him. He turned his back...

And heard a small, choking sound.

"No...please..." said Tory.

"What are you doing?" Rik asked without turning around.

Vader's voice was damnably calm. "If you know nothing, he has lied to me. I see no reason to show mercy to an alien worm."

Rik hissed softly. "That's ridiculous. Tory didn't do anything worth dying for. He was... he was trying to talk his way out of trouble for that ryll spice we've got in the hold."

"I'm sure," Vader said. "Smuggling is punishable by death."

Rik Evverd swung around, glaring laser beams at the Dark Lord. "That's not fair!"

"Then provide me with an alternate sentence. Prove to me the truth of his words."

The Corellian glanced from his friend, on his hands and knees, clawing at his throat, to Vader. The Lord of the Sith hardly seemed to feel the effort of choking Tory. He stood motionless, except for one upraised fist.

"I await your decision."

Rik stood there, gritting his teeth, unable to believe Vader's callous disregard for life.

Life. His own life... the life of his friend... the life of a Jedi.

Where's that astromech droid when I need him? Rik wondered.

The Artoo unit must have rolled up to within a few inches of Kerri without her noticing, because his quiet trill almost made her jump through the ceiling. Droids gave off no sense in the Force, but a Jedi should still be more observant. A sign, Kerri knew, of how upset she was.

She turned at the sound, and saw a spanking-new Artoo unit, painted purple and gray. It continued to warble at her in its binary language.

"I know you," she said. "You're his droid...Rik's..."

The droid beeped an affirmative.

"He's in trouble. Vader's got him."

The droid's sad trill said he knew that all too well. He bleeped something that was obviously a question.

"I don't know..." Kerri sighed. "I think I'll have to give myself up."

The droid favored her with an electronic "blaating" sound, followed by a lot of excited-sounding beeping.

"Slow down!" she said. "I have no idea what you're..."

The droid's holo-emitter lit up, and displayed a picture of the young Corellian, Rik, talking to his near human friend.

"I'm not turning a Jedi over to the Empire!" he said. The image rewound, and repeated, "I'm not turning a Jedi over to the Empire!"

Kerri's hands clenched into fists. "What are saying? That he wouldn't want me to help him? That's not good enough. This is my fault."

The droid shook its dome, rocking back and forth on its stubby little legs.

Kerri lost her Force-enhanced calm for a moment. "Look, I don't understand you! Now, do something useful or..."

The droid made a sound like a little robot sigh, and began playing the image again. This time, though, he edited part of it out.

When the image played, Rik now said, "I'm... a Jedi... I'm... a Jedi..."

Kerri started to walk away, convinced that the droid had overtaxed its logic circuits. Then she slowed... then stopped. A smile spread over her face.

She turned back to the Artoo droid, who was waiting expectantly. "Do you really think it would work?"

Sometimes, his father would say, you just have to stand in and take your whipping like a man. But it's not my tail on the line, Rik thought.

This shouldn't be a hard decision. Tory is my friend. I don't know anything about the Jedi. Even if I am attracted to her, I'd never put it ahead of my friend's life! Would I?

And yet something - something indefinable at the back of his mind, some instinct - kept telling him not to betray the Jedi.

There's another way out, Rik thought. It's simple. If I could just get a weapon away from one of those stormtroopers...

As though he'd called it to him, an assault rifle tore itself away from its stormtrooper owner, landing squarely in Rik's hands. All the stormtroopers turned, weapons raised... and stopped at Vader's upraised hand. Behind the Dark Lord, Tory collapsed to the ground, alive and gasping for breath.

So far, so good, Rik thought. He snapped the rifle into place.

"That weapon will be useless against me," Vader said. "I know that," Rik said. "I ain't gonna use it against you."

He jammed the rifle's barrel against his own ear. "I do know where the Jedi is. You let Tory go, right now, or you'll never get that information."

"Indeed." Vader seemed to be sizing him up. "I think you lack the courage to terminate your own life."

"Let's find out!" Evverd said, raising his voice to a shout. "Come on, Lord Vader! How crazy do you think I am? Huh? You think I'll do this? You think I'll kill myself just to spite you? Or am I bluffing?"

He stopped for a moment, breathing hard, trying to work himself up for a really good "crazy" routine. "Even I don't know! Maybe we should find out together, huh? Send the guards away, Lord Vader! Right now! Or I'll give the sanitation crew something really ugly to clean up!"

Vader motioned towards the door, and his troopers obeyed him. As they left, he said, "I do not wish the Jedi to be damaged."

Rik thought that a very odd thing to say - in fact, Vader seemed to be dealing with the whole matter much more calmly than he should. Time to crank it up a notch. "You forget about the Jedi! The Jedi's not your concern anymore! Your problem is with me!"

The last of the stormtroopers left, and Vader advanced on him, his tone almost - nice. "You do not wish to do this. There are greater things in store for you." He gestured, and the rifle flew out of Rik's hands - only to stop in mid-air and return to the Corellian.

Vader nodded. "Impressive. You are young, to have such power. I could teach you other things, new techniques - power you cannot possibly imagine."

Oh, man, thought Rik. Vader can't sense that girl in the Force - he doesn't know who she is. And since he can't scan me, and all this other stuff is happening, he thinks...

"I'm the Jedi?" Rik said aloud. "I mean, I am the Jedi."

"Your plan was most ingenious," Vader said. "It nearly worked. If you had not made the mistake of pushing me out of your mind, I might have believed you're nothing more than what you seem."

Rik knew he couldn't keep this up for long - besides not having any actual Force abilities, a closer look at his record would prove that he had been on this ship for months. He struggled to figure out the best way to make use of this temporary reprieve...

DEFY HIM, said a whisper at the back of Rik's mind, just loud enough to be coherent. Hopefully Vader couldn't hear it... CHALLENGE HIM.

He'll cut me in half, Rik thought.

TRUST ME, the voice said.

I don't even know what to call you!

KERRI, said the voice.

Rik Evverd, he thought. Pleased to meet you. To Vader, he said, "Hah! Er--you'll never take me alive, Lord Vader! I'll fight you!"

"A waste of material," Vader said, stepping closer. "Join us. Learn to harness your abilities. Learn to use your anger."

ANGER IS FROM THE DARK SIDE, the voice said.

"Um...anger is...from--from the Dark Side!"

Vader hissed. "I do not wish to kill you."

FOR THE JEDI, THERE IS NO DEATH...

"For the Jedi," Rik repeated, "There is no death..." There's not? he thought.

...THERE IS THE FORCE.

"There's, um-- there's the Force." Gosh, he thought, that clears everything up.

To his surprise, Vader stopped short. "You know the Code, or part of it. I had not heard the Code in some time...

THERE IS STILL GOOD IN YOU, the voice said. I CAN FEEL IT.

No, I can't! Rik thought.

TRUST ME, Kerri said. IT'S WHAT A JEDI WOULD SAY.

"There's--there's still good in you..."

ANAKIN.

Anakin? he thought. "There's still good in you, Anakin. I can feel it. Don't let hate consume you. You can still turn away from the Dark Side!"

WHAT WAS THAT? Kerri asked.

Sorry, he said. I was ad-libbing.

NOT BAD.

Vader looked pensive for a moment, but he shook the mood off. "There is no turning back from the power of the Dark Side. If you will not turn, I will destroy you."

IF YOU STRIKE ME DOWN, Kerri said inside Rik's mind, I WILL ONLY RETURN MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE...

"If you strike me down--" Wait a minute! he thought. Strike me down? Nobody said anything about being struck down!

SAY IT, Kerri told him.

"--I'll...that is, um...Look, please don't strike me down, huh? Please? We can talk about this!"

STOP AD-LIBBING!

I wasn't ad-libbing that time, he tossed back. I was stepping out of character. There's a difference.

"Your pleading is useless," said Vader. "I had hoped for better." He sounded like he meant it, too, and for a moment Rik Evverd actually felt bad about disappointing him. Vader probably didn't get to have much fun...

He snapped out of it when Vader's red blade appeared in front of him.

Rik chuckled, then backed away. "Huh. Look at the time. Must be going now. Sorry to preach and run..."

HOLD OUT YOUR HAND, Kerri's voice said.

What?

JUST HOLD OUT YOUR HAND, she repeated. TRUST ME. I'LL GET YOU OUT OF THIS.

You'd better, he tossed back. If you get me killed, I'm never speaking to you again. I don't care how much more powerful I become!

Still, he extended his right arm - and from down the corridor, out of nowhere, a lightsaber came flew into it.

"Hah!" said Evverd. "Not bad! I mean...not bad, huh?"

"Most impressive," Vader agreed.

Rik held the reddish saber awkwardly in front of himself. "Um... one last chance to call this off."

DON'T UNDERESTIMATE MY POWERS, Kerri added helpfully, and Rik repeated it.

"A pity that you force me to destroy you," Vader said, and struck. His blow whistled in diagonally, going from high to low, and it would have taken Evverd apart from shoulder to hip...

Except that Evverd's own saber miraculously got there in time to block it.

JUST LET ME GUIDE YOU, Kerri said. OPEN YOUR MIND. I'LL PROTECT YOU.

Okay, Rik thought to himself as his saber sizzled together with Vader's. I can do this. No problem. To Kerri he said, you are more powerful than Vader, right?

ERR...NOT EXACTLY.

Not exactly? What are you talking about, not exactly?

JUST GIVE GROUND TO HIM, the young Jedi said. KEEP BACKING UP. WE HAVE A PLAN.

Vader struck again, his saber sizzling past Evverd's guard. Evverd felt himself duck the blow, then come around with a sweep at the Sith Lord's legs. Vader leapt upwards and back, avoiding the blow.

So how long can we hold Vader off? he asked Kerri.

I DON'T KNOW. I COULD HOLD OUT FOR A FEW MINUTES. YOU'RE STRONGER THAN ME, THOUGH. WE MIGHT LAST LONGER.

How much longer? he pressed.

She hesitated, and Rik really didn't like that. HOPEFULLY LONG ENOUGH TO PUT THIS PLAN INTO ACTION.

Rik grunted, then leaned in again to block Vader's newest attack. They exchanged blows furiously, and Rik was amazed by how easily he moved without intending to move.

You know, he thought at Kerri, I don't let just anybody do this, just move me around like a holo-chess piece. You owe me big.

HOW ABOUT I JUST GET YOU OUT OF THIS ALIVE, she said, AND WE'LL CALL IT EVEN?

That could work, he conceded...

Rik continued fading backwards, partially of his own volition, partially guided by Kerri. Vader continued to press, occasionally coming frightfully close to taking off major appendages. Rik found himself breathing heavily, sweating, and generally running out of energy.

"You're good at this," he said to Vader.

"And you are soon to be defeated."

He's got a point there, Rik thought at Kerri.

ALMOST THERE, she said. WE NEED HIM TO COME FORWARD JUST A LITTLE BIT. HERE'S AN IDEA...

I'm not gonna like this, am I? Evverd thought.

NOT ONE LITTLE BIT.

With that, Kerri lifted him off his feet and sent him hurtling backwards through the air, past several doors and into the Main Engineering Chamber. To the Corellian's total amazement, he landed on his feet, saber held ready. Wish Kedriksen had been on duty to see that, Rik thought. The several crewers currently on duty seemed suitably impressed.

As Rik looked around for a direction to run, the blast door for the Engineering chamber slid downwards. For a moment, Rik thought Vader would be trapped on the other side of the door. Then the Dark Lord came charging in, copied his leap, and rolled under the closing door. Whatever else Vader was, he was a downright impressive warrior.

That was your big plan? he challenged Kerri. Closing the door in his face?

NOT QUITE, she said. ARE YOU UP FOR ONE MORE LEAP?

Does it matter? he asked.

Without bother to respond, Kerri propelled him straight up, towards one of the power relay shafts, whose door had been conveniently left open (probably by a certain R2 droid, the Corellian thought.) He caught onto it, and swung inwards.

MOVE QUICKLY, Kerri told him. THE POWER WILL COME BACK ON IN TWO MINUTES, AND YOU'D BETTER BE OUT OF THE SHAFT BY THEN.

Evverd nodded. To his opponent, he said, "Hey, so long, Lord Vader! Maybe another time, huh?"

"I shall await it," Vader said. Then, without saying anything aloud, he added, AS I SHALL AWAIT THE CHANCE TO FACE YOU IN PERSON, JEDI.

Rik groaned. Vader wasn't stupid, either. "If you knew, why didn't you..."

"It proved a useful test of her abilities," Vader replied. "And as you observed, I don't have much fun."

Rik groaned, saluted with the hilt of the lightsaber, and started crawling down the shaft.

Vader's mind called after him, YOUR DESTINY LIES WITH ME, YOUNG JEDI. WE SHALL MEET AGAIN.

NOT FOR A LONG TIME, Kerri replied.

"Would you two please find a way to converse without using me as a carrier wave?" Evverd said aloud.

Jedi, he thought exasperatedly...

Kerri was waiting for him in the shuttle bay, with Bo and Tory.

Evverd hopped down from the shaft about five seconds before it lit up with energy. "Won't take 'em long to figure out where I went."

"Doesn't matter," Kerri said. "We don't plan to stay here..."

"Governor Tarkin, the liner is launching a shuttle. Shall we destroy it?"

Tarkin considered. He knew very well who was on that shuttle, knew that Vader would be displeased.

He knew also that Vader would not have the audacity to kill the Emperor's favorite Moff. And Palpatine's own orders were that Darth Vader should be constrained from taking on a pupil. Vader and another Jedi combined would be too much of a threat to the Emperor...

"Yes," said Tarkin. "Deploy the TIE fighters. Destroy it."

A pair of escape pods jetted away from the SPACER'S DREAM, unseen by the Imperial sensor chief. Rik stretched in the cramped space, then sat down on the floor. Kerri remained standing a moment longer, eyes closed tight with concentration. Then she nodded to herself, satisfied, and sat down across from him.

"We'll reach the surface of Chandrila in a few hours. Tory and me have some money - I'll give you enough to get passage to... I dunno, Alderaan, or wherever you were going."

"Where are you going?" Kerri asked.

Rik considered that, and chuckled. "I haven't the slightest idea. Wouldn't you know it - first time in my life I do something that would please my father, I stand up to the Empire - and I end up exactly where he said I'd end up if I didn't listen to him. Nowhere."

Kerri hesitated for a moment. "Why didn't you tell them where I was?"

"I'm stupid, obviously. Thank you for bringing it to my attention."

She smiled. "Don't mention it."

"You should have just left me, you know. Gotten out of there. I gave you every chance."

She fidgeted. "I can't do that. I'm a Jedi."

"You really are, aren't you?" He chuckled. "I guess I know what that's like, now."

"No, you don't," she said, and her tone was a little harsher than she probably meant it to be. "Maybe you know what it's like for Vader - but being a Jedi is entirely different. It's not about combat."

"Sorry..." he said.

"No, I'm sorry. I almost got you killed." She sighed. "All because of what I am. You would have died. I..." She hung her head, her long hair obscuring her eyes. "A Jedi should never rely on anyone. Never trust anyone. It's too dangerous."

"Hey..." Evverd said, not quite brave enough to actually reach out and touch her. "Hey, look. You didn't ask me to do anything. I went looking for you. You tried to keep me out of it. I'm... look, believe me, if you hadn't gotten me into that mess, I'd have gotten into something worse. I..." he sighed. "Things don't usually go right for me."

She looked up and smiled. "Then we have something in common."

"More than a little. What is it about you that's so familiar, anyway? I feel like I know you. I... I almost let Tory die in there because I couldn't tell them about you... I can't figure out why it's so important to me."

"My mother once said that, to the Jedi, there is little difference between past and present and future. It's all a matter of perception. One's point of view." Kerri shrugged. "Possibly your feeling has nothing to do with the past."

He frowned. "You're saying I might have felt like I knew you...because I'm gonna know you? In the future?"

She shrugged, and stood up. "From a certain point of view."

Rik's frown turned into a grin, and he copied her movement. "Is that your way of asking me to stick around?

"I...I don't know." She turned away to look out the viewport. "Like I said, it's not a good idea for me to trust anyone."

This time, he did reach out, and put a hand on her shoulder. "You can trust me."

"I... people have said that before. Too many people. I've found it's better to rely on myself. Like I said, I don't need anyone."

He favored her with his best, dashing grin. "I think you need me."

She refused to look at him. "I don't...need...anyone."

"All right," he said, and looked away, out the other porthole. "All right. Forget it, sweetheart. I tried to be nice, but if you say you don't need anyone, fine. You don't need anyone."

He heard her sigh. "I didn't mean it like..."

"No. Forget it. Really."

"I'd like to explain..." she said.

"You don't owe me an explanation," he hissed. "I saved your life, you saved mine. We're even. You don't owe me anything."

The comm chirped, and Rik had never been so glad for an interruption in his life. "Yeah, Tory?"

Instead of the near-human, it was an Artoo unit that replied. He bleeped happily for a few moments.

"Yeah, buddy. You did real good. Tell you what, no memory wipe."

The droid trilled happily. After a moment of silence, it sounded again, and this time the tone was irritated.

"I'm gonna tell him!" Tory said, "Stop being so pushy!"

"Pushy?" Rik asked.

Tory sighed. "The droid thinks I should tell you... I managed to load about half that ryll spice into this escape pod, and since Heater is bound to think the Imps confiscated it... well, there's no reason we can't sell it ourselves."

"No!" Rik said, "I'm not a smuggler! I hate spice! Forget it!"

"You see?" Tory told the droid. "I knew he wouldn't go for it!"

The droid twittered.

MEDICINE, a voice in his head said.

"Cut that out," he hissed at Kerri, and he "heard" her laugh.

He turned back to them comm - actually, now that he thought about it, the Jedi had a good idea. "Hey, Tory, ryll has some medicinal value, doesn't it?"

"Uh, yeah," said the near-human. "I think so."

"Okay..." he said. "Okay, then here's what we do... we sell the spice, but to the Rebels on Chandrila. They need all the medical supplies they can get."

"Aw, Rik..." His friend sounded scandalized. "They won't pay half what a dealer would!"

"So we don't sell it," he said. "Maybe we trade it... like for a ship? We could use one of those."

Tory sighed. "We'll talk about it."

"Hey, Tory, cheer up. You're lucky I don't kill you, after you squealed to Vader."

The other youth paused for a long moment, almost pouting. "Not everybody's as crazy as you, Rik."

"Maybe they should be," he said. "Bo, you keep an eye on this character, you hear - a good eye, this time. He so much as moves toward that spice, you zap him good."

The droid twittered enthusiastically, and his master stabbed the cutoff switch.

He sighed, suddenly exhausted, and sank to the ground. "I think its time to break it off with Tory. He's gonna get me killed."

"No doubt he thinks the same thing about you."

"He probably does," Rik conceded. He put his head down on his knees, hoping for some rest before they made Chandrila.

He was interrupted by a slight rustling sound as Kerri sank back down to his level.

"So," she said, a bit too casually, "Does this mean you'll be needing a copilot for your ship?"

He looked up. "I guess."

"I've been told I'm a pretty good technician."

He glared at her. "Oh, don't even start! You weren't interested, remember?"

"Well..." A funny look crossed her face. "We could give it a try."

Evverd snapped his fingers. "There is no try. Even I know that one. Look, this is not hard. I fought Vader with you, dammit! Now, you either trust me, or you don't! If you don't, then forget about it! I don't need a copilot that bad, sister!"

He laid his head back down for a moment, before feeling a hand touch his arm. "You need me."

He stared at her for a moment. He opened his mouth to say something, but all that would come out was, "So... uh, that shuttle decoy was pretty good. Does Vader really think you're dead now?"

Kerri hesitated. "I believe so."

He held her eyes for a moment. "That's kinda different from knowing, isn't it?"

She nodded. "Very different..."

The unfortunate gunner who'd replied to Tarkin's order crashed to the floor, and despite himself, the Moff felt a trickle of fear. "Was that necessary?"

"I wanted the Jedi alive," Vader said, though that wasn't really an answer. "I made that very clear."

"You did," Tarkin agreed, and turned away. Vader seemed to be under the... strange impression... that the gunner had acted on his own initiative. In this case, Tarkin thought, what Vader doesn't know won't hurt me...

The Star Destroyer was in hyperspace, and Vader found himself gazing out at the starlines. Tarkin had been sufficiently warned, he thought - the next time he spoke, the Moff would give him a bit more consideration. As for the Jedi...

The Jedi was still out there, of that he had no doubt. She hadn't fought him to a draw only to be defeated so easily. To make matters worse, he still knew little more about her than that she was female, young, and relatively powerful.

But there was ample time to find her. The galaxy was vast, and the more Jedi who escaped his grasp for now... well, they were just more sport to be had in the future. Kaelin Joth had had a point, in one way: It wouldn't do to over-fish his stock too soon...

As for this particular Jedi, their paths would cross again, Vader was sure of that. They would face each other in the flesh, the next time, and only one of them would walk away.

Vader was fairly sure he knew which one it would be. Obi-Wan had been the last Jedi too offer him a real challenge.

Lately, he'd begun to feel the whole thing was far too easy...

R. John Burke


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