A/N: It's been far too long since I've updated this, but real life got in the way. I spent my summer uninspired and not writing. Now that my muse is returning, I have mountains of college-work to keep me busy, so, much to my ( and probably your ) dismay, frequent updates just aren't possible for now. If I'm going to be honest this probably wont get updated again until December, but I will try to do it sooner if it's at all possible. I love my stories, I just don't have as much free time as I used to.
I have submitted this chapter for beta-reading, but I got antsy to update so I decided to go ahead and post it anyway and just make any changes I need once I hear back from my beta.
At first, Luke wasn't quite sure how to react. When his eyes adjusted to the lighting a split-second later he saw that the mysterious figure outlined against the bright Tatooinian landscape was indeed, as the voice had suggested, an older man. His exact age was difficult to guess—anywhere between forty and sixty was in the ballpark. His skin was a bit paler than normal and contrasted sharply with his dark hair. Unlike all the other life forms they had encountered so far save Maya and Vader and Vulcanus's minion, this guy was clean, well-dressed, and, aside from his pallid complexion, appeared relatively healthy. The expression he wore was difficult to read, but the wave of fear rolling off him was as obvious as the crooked nose on his face.
Anakin broke the silence. "Sorry to disappoint, but Vulcanus isn't here." He stepped out of hiding and kicked a mechanical arm aside, making a point to scoff in disgust at the thing's owner, before turning his attention back to the older man. " Who are you and what do you know about these droids that attacked me?"
Luke slid into deeper shadows and ducked behind a pile of smashed tables and chairs, taking note of Anakin's word choice. Good idea—the man will be more open if he doesn't see me. Anakin doesn't look too much like Vader right now, but I'm a dead ringer for Vulcanus.
At the sudden appearance of a person he hadn't been expecting, the man's eyebrows jerked up with surprise. Then, as this new face had a chance to register, his expression changed from surprise to shock. "You…" He fumbled for words, " you…you're the one who defeated my Avengers!"
"Oh, so that's what you called those walking scrap-heaps?" Anakin replied smugly, "No challenge at all. Your little assassination attempt failed."
Pale Guy looked like he was a step away from a nervous breakdown. He just kept frowning and shaking his head, his face twisted into the picture of disappointed disbelief, like a kid who normally got good grades suddenly flunking a test. " N-no," he stammered quietly, his cracked voice barely above a whisper. His eyes swept over the demolished Avengers before hitting back on Anakin, as if he simply could not believe he was responsible. "You ruined everything!" He yelled at last, stabbing an accusing finger at Anakin, " It wasn't supposed to be you! I sent them after Darth Vulcanus, not you!"
It was Anakin's turn to be surprised. " Darth Vulcanus? You mean to tell me you sent these…these jokes after Darth Vulcanus!"
"They were not jokes!" The man huffed indignantly, "Do you have any idea how long it took me to make these droids? Twenty years! Twenty years of painstaking, secretive work! Twenty years of planning! Twenty years of risking death to steal the parts I needed! And then you go and wreck it all inside half an hour. All that work—wasted!"
He knew he shouldn't—really shouldn't—but Anakin couldn't help the small smile that crossed his face. "Twenty years huh? And I broke them like toys…too bad Vulcanus had to miss out. I'm sure he would have been trembling in his boots."
Nice one, Anakin. Luke groaned inwardly, taking care not to make his presence known, As usual your tact and social skills are legendary.
For a moment the pale stranger just stood there, blinking, as though Anakin had just rattled off at him in a language he didn't understand. His eyes drifted from his fallen droids to the brazen young man who claimed to have single-handedly destroyed them. Then something clicked, and he flung a lightning-quick glance over his shoulder before returning his attention back to Anakin. "Are you…" his voice was low now, almost a full whisper, "by chance a Jedi?"
Anakin blushed faintly. This guy wasn't so dumb after all. "Maybe. Why do you ask?"
The man pointed down to the floor where one of his mechanical pets was making feeble attempts to inflict damage on some non-existent attacker with a few jerky motions of its arms.
Only, its arms weren't there—they'd been cut off seamlessly a few inches past the shoulder.
" I know lightsaber marks when I see them, bucko. No other weapon could make that clean a cut through my special super-alloy. Now, the only ones around here who carry lightsabers are the Sith Lords. Since you're definitely not one of them you must be a Jedi. They're the only other beings in the galaxy who possess that type of weapon, and nothing less than a Jedi could have defeated my Avengers. Am I right?"
Anakin nodded, and the droids' master broke out into a shallow half-smile. "Well how about that? And here everyone was sure we'd seen the last of you guys. Aint been a Jedi spotted around these parts since Vader chased 'ol Obi-Wan off twelve years ago. And I have to tell you, things were much better when he was around."
With extreme care, he made his way over his broken creations and came to a halt an arm's length in front of Anakin. " Name's Hobbard Gitchman." He extended his hand and it was with some reluctance that the padawan took it in a half-hearted handshake. "And you would be?"
Oh Force, it can't be anything he has any chance of being familiar with! Thinkquickthinkquick…
"Kit Fisto." Anakin blurted at the drop of a hat. It had been the first thing that had come to mind.
Okay, so it was the name of another Jedi, and he looked nothing like the real Kit Fisto, but Hobbard wouldn't know any better.
The dark-haired man retracted his hand and folded his arms over his frail chest. His smile was gone now, but there was still a twinkle of excitement in his worn eyes. He studied Anakin over carefully, as though searching for something.
Anakin felt his patience fade. "What?"
Hobbard shook his head gently, perplexed. "I haven't made up my mind yet whether you're brave or stupid. If Vader and Vulcanus find you they will kill you. They're very Jedi-intolerant. And they don't like it when people go around giving their subjects hope."
"Is that why you think I came? To give everyone hope?" How ironic. Anakin shifted his gaze to the floor. Watched a singed Avenger droid kick its compatriot repeatedly in the face. Suddenly he didn't feel like a hero, or even the Jedi he'd been trained to be.
Hobbard followed his line of sight to the malfunctioning droids and frowned in disgust. "Why else would you come? You seem sane enough to me so there's no way you came to try and topple the Empire, and so long as it stands we will suffer. Things do get a little better when one or both of the Sith leave the system, but you didn't wait for that to happen. Taken at face value that seems like an incredibly stupid thing to do, but I'm sure you must have your reasons since they don't train just anybody to be a Jedi. But I don't know what those reasons are, so what am I supposed to think?"
With a half-hearted sigh, he kicked the droid that was being assaulted out of its companion's reach.
Anakin didn't know how to answer that. What he did know was that he needed to get this guy who obviously had it in for Vulcanus to leave. Then Luke could come out of hiding and they could find a more private place to brainstorm.
But first he had to ask a question, a question which he hoped would yield some enlightening answers. "You put so much effort into those droids…does that mean you know of a weakness the Sith have? I mean, you wouldn't just design them without a plan of action, right?"
Hobbard shook his head. "They're not invincible, but from what I can tell it would take a heckuva lot to hurt them. Eight years ago, as I'm sure you remember, a renegade army of fifteen-thousand of the Outer Rim's best warriors, both living and machine, actually managed to surprise Darth Vader during and unscheduled visit he made to the planet Dolene. Everything was in their favor; they knew the planet well, had state-of-the-art weaponry and technology, were successful in jamming all enemy communications, and outnumbered Vader's on-planet forces fifteen-to-one. Vader annihilated them. Then, of course, he had the results of the skirmish broadcasted all over the galaxy as a warning to anyone else thinking about starting a rebellion. Well, I saw the original transmission, and Vader didn't look any worse for his encounter save a faded pink mark on his cheek. Ever since I've made it a priority to discover which weapon did that, but I never saw the transmission again and without more information I can't narrow the list down below twenty possibilities. My Avengers here…" he gestured to the collection of spare parts littering the area, "were equipped with the weapons I considered to be the most likely candidates: ultra-lasers, kazma lasers, ulred beams, electro-stalites, and a little flame-throwing action thrown in just because I had the materials on hand. I even made an effort to replicate the Siths' Jabberwock laser, but it flopped. I guess the Force just wasn't with me." He shook his head slowly, haggard gray eyes fixed steadily on the floor. " I suppose this serves me right…I should have known better than to send these things out without more testing. If you could give them this bad a beating Vulcanus would have wiped them out in no time."
Anakin quirked an eyebrow. "If you were after Vulcanus, why send your droids here? Why not send them to the volcano lair?"
"I thought Vulcanus was here. A friend of mine said she'd seen him go in. Guess she was wrong." Hobbard's voice carried a subtle hint of embarrassment. " I thought I'd catch him off-guard. You know, hit hard while he was all alone? I should have waited, I see that now, but…Vulcanus is hard to catch and even harder to surprise. I may never have gotten another chance like that again. It was just too tempting. Now…now I've blown my only real chance."
Anakin was just about to use a Jedi mind-trick and suggest the distraught inventor go for a non-alcoholic beverage and find a new purpose in life when the man turned around on his own and started for the gaping hole in the wall.
"Well, I suppose it's time to come up with Plan B. If I can't kill the Sith I may as well make life as hard as I can for them while I'm alive. That's something, at least." As he exited, Hobbard tossed a hand up in a backward gesture for goodbye. " It's too bad you didn't catch me sooner, Jedi. Years ago I was working on a device to help your kind in their struggle against the Sith. It was a Force cloaker, and it was showing much promise in the preliminary testing stages before the Empire's lickspittles came and confiscated it. Such a shame. It was one of my greatest creations; breakaway technology that could have tipped the odds a little more in our favor. But I don't even have the notes now."
Force cloaker! Anakin hurried over and caught the retreating genius by the shoulder.
The man made a gruff noise of surprise and turned to face him—it had been a long time since anyone had shown that much zeal for a failed experiment.
"This Force cloaker," Anakin could barely contain his excitement, "would it make the Sith unable to detect a Jedi's presence through the Force?"
Hobbard blinked; he wasn't used to people showing this much enthusiasm for, well, anything in these parts. It was a refreshing change. The first phase of a smile bloomed at the corner of his mouth. "Well, yes—in theory it should. The device itself is very complex, but the basic idea isn't as hard to grasp. A series of chiplets of an extremely rare type of xenian crystal line the inner chamber, and, when rotated rapidly enough and shot through with the charged ions from a high-frequency gamma-ray, manipulate the planet's magnetic field in such a way that it creates a small pocket of magnetic energy around the user. A third component emits harmless waves of low-frequency micro-rays which, for some reason as of yet unknown to science, seem to have the effect of disrupting the Force itself. These waves are trapped within the pocket of magnetic field generated around the user, and evidence supports the idea that this renders the user invisible to the Force."
Anakin felt some of his joy fade. "But that would mean that…"
"Yes," Hobbard butted in, completing his thought, "A Force-sensitive being wouldn't be able to sense your presence, but you wouldn't be able to use the Force at all while the device was turned on. An experiment I performed with two Jedi confirms this."
Of course, Anakin thought sourly, There always has to be a catch. Nothing worth having ever comes free. Lightsabers. The Jedi Knight rank. A friggen decent life free of betrayal, tragedy, and the Dark Side. Everything has to have a price-tag attached.
Hobbard couldn't read the Jedi's mind, but the expression on the his face spoke loudly enough. "You're thinking about going after it, aren't you?"
"Depends. Is it by chance close by?" Anakin prayed the answer was 'yes'. While he was by no means enamored with the prospect of forfeiting his Force powers right before starting a mission to the enemy lair, it was a relatively small price to pay for the element of surprise. Better with than without. Besides, we can always turn the thing off if we need to.
"Last I heard it was taken to the Confiscated Weapons and Technology facility at the base of Inferno Ridge. Of course, that was thirteen years ago so I can't promise that it's still there, but if I were you that would be the first place I'd check. You know where Inferno Ridge is?"
Anakin nodded. "Yes."
Of course he knew. He'd been there less than four hours ago with Luke and that annoying Tusken child looking for Rajad. True, there was a lot at stake here, and he was happy for the chance to affect his destiny—if that's what he was doing—but part of him wished they'd never found her. He didn't know why.
Hobbard offered the padawan a weak smile. "You're all set then. Just remember to make sure that none of the Storm Troopers report you to the Sith before you can find the blasted thing." He turned and made his way out into the bright sunlight, his steps sounding a little heavier than they should have on the course, grainy sand. "Oh, and you might want to keep the Force cloaker on for at least half an hour before you go anywhere within ten units of a place you think you might encounter the Sith," he added as an afterthought, "I only experimented with Jedi, but because everyone's favorite Sith Lords have such a ridiculously powerful connection to the Force it might take longer for the micro-rays in the magnetic bubble to build up to a level where they wouldn't be able to sense you. Just a word from the wise. Last time I crossed paths with Vulcanus I got my legs Jabberwocked off. The medical unit had to further amputate the area a few inches above the laceration just to save my life. It really is better to be safe than sorry."
Anakin smiled in a way which was friendly but not completely sincere. "Thanks for the warning. I will be careful." He waited until Hobbard had disappeared from sight before whirling back around to check on his son.
Luke was already on his feet and heading not for the door, but for the area that he and Anakin had been sitting prior to the Avengers interruption. Pausing his stride, he stooped over to pick something Anakin couldn't readily identify up before continuing on towards the restrooms.
"What's that?" Anakin asked, puzzled.
Without so much as a backward glance Luke raised his right hand. In it was a soft lavender-ish ink pen. He'd snatched it from the place the love-note had fallen during the battle.
Anakin grinned. He knew instantly what Luke was planning.
"The device is held in a facility guarded by Storm Troopers, right? They may have orders to question civilians, but how many do you think are going to question their king?"