Disclaimer: I don't own anything related to Star Wars. This story was written for fun, not profit.
Author's Note: This fic hangs a left at a certain point in The Empire Strikes Back (no, not that point) and heads for parts unknown. Last chance to run screaming, folks.
"There are hundreds of space children in the ports and shipping docks of the galaxy - children who never know their fathers other than by unflattering reputation. Oh, many dream that he might be something else, grand and noble and heroic, but all face reality in the end."
- El-Seo Null, One-Night Stand: A Galactic History of Smugglers and Sexuality, Santi-Solis Academy Ltd.
"My father spoke of Darth Rage with the greatest respect, but would punish me if I watched old historical holovids. He was never willing to admit that the traitorous Rebel Skywalker had become our Emperor's most trusted servant."
- Aelius Bekwin, Memoirs of an Imperial Childhood, Coronet City Publishing
The tiny settlement of Draco's Well clung to the edge of the Dune Sea, its inhabitants enduring violent sandstorms and temperamental machinery with the same constant, all-encompassing patience. It was a place where the epic feud over Who Took Farstrider's Bantha carried more weight than dying revolutions, and where the most important gossip had more to do with what old Padreic the odd-jobs-man had stolen this time than with far-reaching empires.
Ben Darklighter loved it.
"Hey! Hey, Ben!" His cousin appeared in the doorway of the Darklighters' garage, bouncing on her toes. "There's a bunch of lights over the hills and me and Lora are gonna go borrow her mom's electrobinoculars. Do you wanna come with us?" The words came out in an explosive rush, with hardly a pause for breath.
Ben smiled, but didn't bother to look up from the ancient holoproj in his lap. It was acting up again, so he had flipped it over and was trying to retune it. "What kind of lights?"
"Just flashes right now. I bet it's a space battle. Looks like it's a big one, too."
"You always say it's big, Sasha. It's probably just a couple of smugglers again." He glanced up at her long enough to shrug. "I don't think I need to see this one."
"Some fun you are," Sasha Darklighter said, rolling her eyes. Ben thought he heard her muttering something about boring cousins as she left, but he couldn't be sure. After a moment, he shrugged and went back to fixing the holoproj.
Ben was eighteen years old - five whole years older than Sasha - and he rather liked being dull. He was a short, stocky sort of boy with tousled red hair and eyes that might have been called laser-green if they had belonged to someone more interesting, and he loved Draco's Well precisely because it was so simple and predictable. Nothing ever happened, petty thefts and epic bantha feuds aside, and when the vaporators were between harvests it was easy enough to find a secluded corner and tinker with a recalcitrant bit of machinery. Not that he minded the endless repairs. Methodical and patient even by the settlement's high standards, Ben had a singular talent for fixing anything - a talent that everyone else in Draco's Well seemed to admire, even if Ben himself didn't find it all that unusual.
This particular holoproj had fallen prey to one of the usual problems. As most of the settlement's technology was wont to do, it had simply worn out. Ordinarily Ben wouldn't have bothered with it, but it was the only holoproj in Draco's Well - and while he certainly didn't want to see off-planet news about the latest Imp victory or watch endless reruns of Captain Fantastik and the Thunder T.I.E.s, Sasha definitely did. He thought it was best to appease her rather than risk her wrath. He had to live with her, after all.
He stuck his tongue between his teeth and squinted down at the half-corroded bits of circuitry and wiring. The holoproj was older than Ben's Uncle Gavin and Aunt Olivea, so getting it retuned involved finding frequencies manually and configuring things in ways that the original manufacturers had probably never intended. A glance told him that it would take a small miracle to get it working again, one he wasn't sure he could pull off.
Which was why he was mentally rehearsing ways to tell Sasha that she'd have to do without her precious holodramas when the holoproj flickered and hissed and suddenly lit up - at which point he let out a loud and rather embarrassing "Ack!" and knocked it out of his lap.
He righted it hastily - no need to damage it worse than it was - and gingerly pressed the power switch. There was a faint whiff of burning circuitry, and with a strange popping sound, the holoproj sprang to life.
Ben stared. Instead of Thunder T.I.E.s, he had a jumble of static and nonsensical symbols, like some kind of strange code. The words "Priority Gold Transmission" hovered at the bottom of the projection.
"Oops," he said.
The transmission didn't have the good grace to disappear. It just continued to scroll, as if it belonged in the middle of an isolated settlement instead of somewhere where "priority gold transmission" actually meant something.
Ben worried his lower lip and wondered exactly what to do with this. He was unsettled. Normally he wasn't the sort of person to be interested in strange transmissions, because they were the sort of things that only happened in holodramas and he'd always found the idea of reading them rather rude, but a transmission accompanied by Sasha's mysterious flashes of light was another story. The fact that both things had happened at the same time was probably a coincidence - but then again, what if it wasn't?
So instead of deleting the bizarre transmission like a sensible person, he saved it onto a data chip and carefully stowed it in his pocket for further examination. Trying to puzzle it out might be fun after dinner, when there was nothing else to do but listen to Uncle Gavin's stories and tinker with the cooling system again. After all, he reasoned, it wasn't as if someone was likely to come looking for it, priority transmission or not. No one came to Draco's Well.
With this justification firmly in mind, he deleted the code from the holoproj's memory and went back to retuning it without a second thought.
Nights at the Darklighter home had a familiar, time-honored rhythm. Admittedly it was a rhythm that involved a lot of complaining and general fussiness, but Ben knew it the same way he knew every tool in the family's garage, and he had always thought it was comforting in its strange way.
First came Uncle Gavin asking about the vaporators ("Number three's still broken.") and Aunt Olivea wondering when they ought to make their monthly run to Anchorhead for supplies ("Sasha's outgrown her shirts. Again.") Then they all settled down for an ever more meager dinner, and Ben got to sit quietly, eat, and watch the newest big issues of the day happen to other people.
"Murenn and Sarai say there's been another attack out past Anchorhead," Aunt Olivea said as an opener.
Uncle Gavin didn't look up from his meal. This was a familiar topic. "Sand People again?"
"They're getting worse," Aunt Olivea muttered. "Bolder, too. It wouldn't kill the garrison to patrol here once in a while."
Sasha scowled and shook her head. "Imps can't catch Sand People. They'd just make trouble for us."
"Don't talk like that," Aunt Olivea said, right as Ben kicked his cousin under the table.
Uncle Gavin helped himself to another piece of flatbread. "Why shouldn't she? She's right. We don't want Imps around here."
"A couple conscripts wouldn't matter. Unless you plan to antagonize them somehow."
"Hmph," Uncle Gavin muttered.
Aunt Olivea wasn't about to give up. "We're not safe here," she snapped. "Mos Espa's close enough to the garrison to keep most of the raiders away. We could stay with my aunt until we got back on our feet and find our own place."
Ben bit back a groan. Sometimes - not often, but sometimes - the friendly arguing went a bit too far. There were some topics his aunt and uncle didn't talk about by mutual agreement. Moving should have been one of them. But now Aunt Olivea had brought it up again, which meant any chance of a semi-peaceful dinner had officially gone out of the window.
Sure enough, Uncle Gavin frowned up at his wife. "That's out of the question."
"The vaporator's still broken - the one we haven't finished paying off, Gavin!" Aunt Olivea set her plate down with a loud clunk. "We can't live off the garage anymore, not with the Sand People scaring off all our business!"
"Lora says they bring in slavers to get people who don't pay off their loans," Sasha murmured at Ben from her end of the table. Ben - who was well aware of all the money they owed and all the problems it could cause, and who really wished everyone would stop fighting long enough for him to finish his dinner - gave her a look and kicked her again.
Uncle Gavin had gone very quiet, which was never a good sign. "We'll make do, Olivea. If I need to, I'll find a job in Mos Espa between harvests. You and Ben can watch the garage while I'm gone."
"I can go."
Ben found himself staring at three slightly bewildered faces. He almost never said anything when the arguments got serious. Truth be told, he was surprised he had spoken up.
"Not by yourself," Aunt Olivea said at last. "It's too dangerous."
"We need the money, and Uncle Gavin knows more about running a garage than I do." Ben attempted a smile. "It'd only be for a season, and if it means we can stay here - "
"No." Aunt Olivea stood up, hands on her hips, so she could tower over him. "You're not leaving here by yourself, Ben. Under any circumstances."
"He's not leaving here, period." Uncle Gavin reached over and gently tugged Aunt Olivea back into her seat. "You know what Mos Espa's like. He'll get himself killed, or worse."
"If we're with him - "
"Or worse, Olivea."
There was something behind those words, some meaning that Ben couldn't quite catch. Whatever it was, it made Aunt Olivea grimace and bow her head in defeat. The fight was over almost before it had begun, but thick tension remained hanging over his aunt and uncle - not because of Mos Espa or money, but because of or worse.
But what could possibly be worse than slavers?
Ben pushed his plate away, suddenly anything but hungry. "C'mon," he murmured to Sasha. "Let's take another look at that vaporator."
Aunt Olivea looked up sharply. "It's getting dark out."
He shrugged. "We'll be careful. Maybe I can get the vaporator running if it isn't overheated."
His aunt looked ready to protest, but Uncle Gavin just shook his head at her. "He's right. We need it working. Hurry back if you see anything odd," he added to Ben, "and take the carbine."
"I'll get it." Sasha stacked her plate on the counter and went to retrieve the family's antiquated blaster carbine from its home by the front door. That left Ben momentarily alone with his aunt and uncle, neither of whom seemed inclined to talk to him.
"I'm careful," he said when the silence felt too heavy. "You know I am. I'd be careful in Mos Espa too. I promise I wouldn't do anything stupid."
Uncle Gavin all but shoved him after Sasha, who had already disappeared out the door. "Don't make me hold you to that."
The Darklighters owned four vaporators around the perimeter of Draco's Well, more than any other family. Along with the garage, they made enough money to live extremely well by the settlement's standards.
Or they had been making enough, anyway.
"I dunno why you're trying to repair this," Sasha muttered as she helped Ben pry the vaporator's maintenance hatch open. "It's a piece of junk. We got cheated."
"You heard your dad. We can't go to Mos Espa." Ben sighed and leaned back on his heels, listening to his cousin with half an ear. In his mind's eye he pictured the circuitry and wiring that ran through the vaporator, pinpointing all the weak points where things could and did go wrong. "I think one of the converters fried. Hand me the welder, would you?"
Sasha dug the tool out of their landspeeder's toolbox and pressed it into his hand. "What's so bad about Mos Espa?"
"It's big, it's crowded, and people get shot a lot."
"But at least stuff happens there!" Sasha jabbed a finger at the sky, shaded purple and gold as the twin suns set over the hills. "I bet people in Mos Espa know what that space battle was about!" When Ben didn't answer - because this, too, was an old and familiar argument - she scowled and crouched next to him. "Are you really gonna stay here your whole life?"
He shrugged. "I think so."
"What about finding your father? Don't you want to do that?"
Not this again. Ben sighed. This was another topic that no one was supposed to bring up. "My father was a smuggler," he said as patiently and reasonably as he could. "I don't think he knows I exist. Why should I go looking for him?"
"Because you could, that's why." She hauled a portable lamp out of the family's battered old landspeeder and began to rig it up. "Maybe he could give you a job."
"I like my job here, thanks." When Sasha opened her mouth to splutter at him, he sighed and held up his hand to cut off her protests. "I don't want to meet him, okay? I'm happy here. I'll help you find a job in Mos Espa or something when you're old enough, but..." He trailed off with an awkward shrug, his gaze still locked on the vaporator. This wasn't a conversation he particularly wanted to have.
Her voice actually sounded strained. Despite himself, Ben felt bad for getting annoyed with her. He knew Sasha didn't love Draco's Well the way he did - that she was practically counting down the days until she could copy their cousin Biggs and go find adventure somewhere offworld and hopefully not get killed in the process - and it wasn't really his place to blame her for being reckless.
He finally looked up from the vaporator. "Look, I didn't mean - "
Sasha wasn't even looking at him. She had risen into a half-crouch, staring at some point in the rapidly darkening sky. Her eyes were wide and round. Ben followed her gaze and instantly spotted what she had - three bright lights growing bigger with each passing second.
Ships heading right for Draco's Well. Big ships.
"Shut off the light," he whispered.
Sasha scrambled for the lamp and all but ripped it out of its power source. "What are those?"
"I don't know." He glanced at the distant lights of the settlement and then at the rapidly approaching ships. "I - I think they might be from Mos Espa."
"Slavers?" Her voice rose into a squeak of terror.
Ben fought down rising panic, as well as the odd urge to glare at her and ask if this was enough adventure for her. Getting angry wouldn't do any good. There was no point in trying to race those ships back to Draco's Well, not in the family's rundown landspeeder, and they had no radios or comm systems to call ahead and warn anyone. There was nowhere at all to hide.
Something - he wasn't even sure what - drew his attention to the vaporator. He flung himself back down beside it and began to frantically sort through his tools.
Sasha stared at him as if he had gone completely mad. "What are you doing?"
"Shutting this down." He didn't think he had the time to explain things to her, but he knew that if he didn't, she would panic and take off for Draco's Well anyway. "It's dark, right? They'll have to use energy scanners to find anyone outside the settlement." He wedged a hydrospanner into the tangled wires and began to shut off connections. In a vague, distant sort of way he wondered what Uncle Gavin would say when he realized his nephew had destroyed their new vaporator for good - but then he thought that maybe Uncle Gavin would never get to tell him anything ever again, and he desperately tried to ignore the unpleasant knot in his stomach.
After what seemed like an eternity, the vaporator's lights blinked off. Ben kicked the tools aside and climbed back to his feet. His explanation seemed to have snapped Sasha out of her stupor, because she was leaning into the landspeeder and quickly shutting off all the emergency power. Ben glanced over his shoulder, ran over to her, and yanked her after him under the landspeeder.
Almost before he had touched the ground, he heard a noise like the world's loudest insect pass over their heads. He wrapped one arm around Sasha and tried to peer up at the ships without revealing himself. For a moment he caught a glimpse of a gleaming silver transport ship, its sides lit up by dozens of windows. Then a familiar spoked circle caught his eye and he rolled further under the landspeeder with his eyes squeezed shut.
Ben felt nothing for or against the Empire. He certainly didn't loathe it the way Uncle Gavin and Sasha did. Whatever the Imps did, the people affected by them never came to Draco's Well. Neither did the Imps themselves. No one cared about his home.
Except now the Imps did. They cared enough to bring three troop transports. He shivered, suddenly chilled in a way that had nothing to do with the rapidly cooling night air. The knot in his stomach had gotten larger and tighter, and there was something about the sight of those ships that made him want to drop everything and run away as far and fast as he could.
"They're gone." Sasha slowly removed her hands from her ears as the sounds began to fade. "Ben, those were - "
He shook his head, not willing to hear anyone say the word, and rolled out from under the landspeeder. By the time Sasha followed him, he was collecting his scattered tools. "Where's the carbine?"
"In the landspeeder." She hugged herself and stared at the lights from Draco's Well. The three ships seemed to be spiraling toward it, as if they all planned to land squarely in the middle of the settlement. "What are we gonna do?"
He opened his mouth, but no brilliant idea was forthcoming. "We can stay at Hermit's Hut for the night," he said at last. "There might be an old comm there. We can call your mom and dad, and if nothing happens we can come back in the morning."
"You're just gonna leave?"
Sometimes he really hated being the dull, sensible one. "What else can we do?" he asked as he bundled up the last of his tools. "Those are - " He still couldn't make himself say Imps, so he settled for powering the landspeeder back up. "What if they want to do something bad? We hid so they wouldn't see us, remember?"
Her breath hitched. He couldn't see her face, but he knew she was crying anyway. "You're such a coward."
"I guess." Ben pushed away from the landspeeder and walked over to her, because he was afraid if he stopped moving he would wind up on the sand, shaking too hard to get back up. "You can call me whatever you want," he said as he gently steered her toward the passenger seat. "I'll let you swear at me and everything tomorrow. Please get in the landspeeder."
Sniffling and glaring, calling him all kinds of things under her breath, she did.
Hermit's Hut was in the middle of nowhere, even to Ben. It was generally avoided by Sand People and Jawas alike, and every settler child had grown up listening to frightening stories about Old Kenobi's Ghost. The most popular one was about the moisture farmers the crazy old man had killed, and about how he had kidnapped the Skywalker boy and dragged him off to parts unknown - and everyone knew what had become of Skywalker, of course.
Ben didn't like that story very much.
He didn't particularly like Hermit's Hut either - the place had always made him feel like something was staring at the back of his head - but it seemed like the safest place to hide out for the night. He pried the door open without too much trouble and herded Sasha inside, wrapping her up in the blanket from the landspeeder's emergency kit. By the time he had finished unpacking things like the carbine and the portable lamp, she was already asleep on the floor.
Which left him alone with the hut. Great.
A quick inspection of the room revealed a couple of sealed chests, several pipes laid out on a table, and a tiny fold-out kitchen unit that, on closer inspection, proved to be out of fuel. Ben slid it back into place before he turned his attention to the chests. It felt invasive and wrong to be going through Old Kenobi's things, but he wasn't in the mood to worry about that. He would just have to feel terrible about it later.
He had never turned his mechanical skills to opening locks before, but Old Kenobi's didn't provide much resistance. They sprang open after a few moments' fiddling. The chests proved to contain a couple articles of clothing, a few cloaks, some datadisks, and some kind of cylinder that produced a long red blade when activated. Ben spent an alarming minute trying not to cut off his own foot before he figured out how to turn the thing off. He decided it was some kind of bizarre laser cutter and stowed it with the rest of his tools.
When the chests produced nothing else of interest, he switched off the portable lamp and spread one of the dusty brown cloaks on the floor beside Sasha, wrapping himself up in it and settling the blaster carbine within easy reach. He expected to lie awake for half the night, shivering and staring at the distant curving shape of the Hut's ceiling, and so was more surprised than anyone when, utterly exhausted, he drifted off almost immediately.
He only woke up once, when he thought he heard a man and woman murmuring to each other in low, anxious voices - but when he opened his eyes, there was only Sasha's familiar snoring. Suppressing a shiver, Ben huddled in the cloak and went back to sleep, lulled by the sound of imaginary arguments on the edge of his hearing.