Next of Kin
This was her favorite time of the day, when the cold air of night was yielding to the first beams of sunlight, so that in the shadowed areas the air still held a bite, but the lit areas were only gently warm instead of defeatingly hot, as they would be when the suns hit their zenith. Overhead the sky was already electric blue, but the endless sea of sand still held on to the pinks of dawn.
She sipped her tea as she leaned against the wall of the doorway, the rough texture of the wall prickling her skin through her tunic.Steam gathered above her cup, then wafted away on the light breeze.Though she had been born in the city, she now felt most comfortable in the desert wilds.
So many things she did by habit now, checking her shoes for sandscorpions before putting them on, drinking extra water, even when she wasn't thirsty, locking the front door at the first star of evening. The desert was a precise master, and those that didn't follow its rules suffered its wrath.
Even now, as she enjoyed the last luxury of rest that this day would hold, her mind was analyzing a distant sound, nothing more than a vibration really, that she knew shouldn't be there. It was so faint it almost was lost in the comforting hum of the generator, but it persisted, in fact, was growing louder.
"Owen," she called down the stairway. "Owen, somebody's coming."
The ship rumbled like thunder as it passed overhead, its existence indisputable now. She watched Owen come back up the stairs, the binoculars he had held in his hand replaced by his blaster. He tucked the weapon inside its holster, drew his coat around him to conceal the protruding grip. He stepped next to her in the doorway, slid the DC-15 rifle off of his shoulder, and handed it to her by its barrel.
"Luke, stay in your room," he called over his shoulder into the interior of the home.He turned to her."Maybe it's nothing."
She allowed him the comfort of the thought and didn't argue. The first time it crossed over the homestead, she could have agreed with him, but this was the third pass, and she'd given up on pretending.
She watched the ship pass over again, its speed reduced this time, enough for her to see clearly its triple wing configuration.It was an unusual craft for these parts, most resembling the fighters she remembered from Holonet reports on the War, and the scars that lined its underside seemed to confirm that origin.Salvage was big business in the Outer Rim, that fact evidenced by the rifle she held upright at her side, the rifle that had once belonged to a clone trooper, but had somehow made its way to a back alley in Mos Eisley. It was illegal for a civilian to possess one, but Owen always said that if someone had reason to see it, they probably weren't going to be looking at it for long.
Behind her she heard the soft scuff of leather over stone, repeated in the rapid-fire pattern that characterized Luke's travels on the staircase. The boy hit her from behind, wrapping his arms around her leg, his body squeezing through the space between Owen and herself.She reached her free hand down to him, running her hand over his cheek before grabbing hold of his right forearm.
Owen glanced down. "That boy is not going to make it to four if he doesn't learn to stay put."
"He doesn't want to miss anything, that's all," she said, moving her hand up to slide her fingers through Luke's silky blond hair.
"But one day his life might depend on him doing as he's told," Owen said."Lucky for him, it doesn't look like today's that day. I think it's gone."
She cocked her head, and realized that it did seem that the ship had moved on, the roar of its engines no longer audible, and the low pitched vibration that had first announced its presence gone as well.
"I'm going to get the rest of my tools together, and if it's not back by then, I need to head out to the south ridge," Owen said."We can't afford to have those units down for long."
She pulled the stubbled cloth of her hood back over her head. The morning's delay had meant she was later than usual in performing the maintenance of the vaporators that surrounded the homestead, and the air temperature was becoming uncomfortably hot. It had to be done, though, and the day would only become hotter.
The ring of vaporators closest to the home was her responsibility, and usually she had no concerns about working on them when Owen was gone, but the morning's visitor had put a knot in her gut, and the DC-15 leaned up against the tower of the vaporator next to her. She turned away from the internals of the machine to locate Luke.
"You're keeping your shoes on, aren't you, Luke ?" she called to him, as he sat on the ground with his toys about ten meters from her. Sometimes she wondered if his feet were made of micronite, the way he liked to run barefoot across the burning sand.
"Yes, Auntie," he said, without looking up.
She wiped away the grit from the bearing housing of the vaporator, making sure it was completely clean before she instilled fresh lube in the bearing cup. She shut the panel on the tower and replaced the bolts that held it closed. As she reached for the rag to wipe the lube from her hands, she felt the low rumble that had been the first warning of the fighter that had buzzed the homestead.
When she looked to the sky, it was already visible, even without binoculars. It seemed to be moving much faster than it had earlier, and it was headed straight towards them.
They were on the far side of the homestead, opposite the entrance, a bad spot to be in . Luke couldn't run fast enough to keep up with her, and she could hardly run at all if she had to carry him. She slung the rifle over her shoulder and called to him. "Luke, I need you to come hold my hand, right now."
He got up dutifully, but the sight of the ship stole his attention, and he pointed at the sky. "Look, Auntie, it's coming to us."
"I know, I know. Luke, hurry," she said, and was grateful when he listened. He was right. The ship had dropped altitude and the landing gear was already extended.She gripped his hand and walked as fast as he could trot beside her.
She could see that it was the same type of ship that had flown over that morning, and its pilot was hitting the repulsors so that it was descending slowly to the sand. It was going to land not far from the entrance to the homestead, and it would be there before they would.
She kept walking forward, hoping for the best. Maybe they were just lost. Maybe it was an old friend of Cliegg's who hadn't gotten the word. It set down on the ground and the repulsors cut off, but the hatch stayed closed. They were almost to it, and the front door.
She held Luke's hand a little tighter as she saw activity in the battered fighter. The cockpit glass raised up and a black armored hemet became visible above the blunt nose of the ship. The figure stood, a long black cloak billowing around it, and then it turned to climb down the ship's ladder.
The helmet looked so typically Imperial, and as the figure came closer she decided it was almost identical to the Holonet images she had seen of the Emperor's aide, Darth Vader. The armor must not be unique, because that made no sense at all. There was no reason for any Imperial to be out here, let alone one direct from the Emperor.
"That's far enough," she said, dropping the rifle to waist level and pumping the barrel to charge it."I do know how to use this. "
The figure stopped, but made no move to defend itself. "That is my son."
She wasn't sure if the deep pitch of the electronically amplified voice removed nuances of inflection, or if the figure simply had no question in its mind, but the absoluteness of the pronouncement made the hair rise on the back of her neck.It couldn't be true. Luke's father had died in the assault on the Jedi Temple, Obi-Wan had told her that.
"This is my son," she said, hoping the protectiveness she felt for Luke would substitute for conviction.
"It is useless to lie to me, Beru," the figure said. "I can feel it when you do."
"Do I know you ?" she said, bewildered. It couldn't be, could it ?
"Owen called himself my brother once," the figure said,"might consider me that still, since you have my boy."
She let the rifle drop, and took a step forward, tried to peer through the black mask."Anakin ? Is that you ? He told me you were dead."
"Who told you ?"
"Obi-Wan told me, before he brought...," her voice trailed off as she looked down at Luke, "...the baby."
"As I said, that is my son." He closed the distance between them and she felt Luke's fingers tighten around hers.
"So you weren't killed. You just became an Imperial ? " she said, still trying to make sense of the armored form before her.
"You could say that."
"Why have you come here ?" she said, knowing the answer even as she asked it.
The ventilator cycled steadily, smoothly while the figure said nothing.His gaze moved from her face to Luke, who was trying to hide behind her. "To find if he did exist, as the Force showed me. You see, I was told that he was dead."
She remembered the first time she held Luke, when he was just a few days old, and even though she had been so very glad for herself that she would have a chance to raise a child afterall, she had also felt terribly sad that this tiny baby had been deprived of the parents who would have loved him most. For the tragedy to have been made even worse by an intentional separation of father and son just seemed unconscionable.
She looked up into the impenetrable mask. "Then it is time that you met Luke."
She stepped aside to reveal the boy, and knelt down beside him, letting him lean into the safety of her body. His head tilted upwards to take in the impossibly tall figure from which he was no longer hidden. He turned away, burying his face in her chest.
"Maybe if you kneel down, come to his level," she said gently.
The helmet jerked to meet her eyes, and she feared she had said something wrong, but then there was a faint creak of leather, and the figure began to lower himself to the sand. She could almost see him as he knelt, the tall athletic youth that she had met six years ago, encased in this armor, and somehow missing the grace he had possessed then.
The mask and its rhythmic breathing were directly across from her face, and from Luke, who peeked at the mask, but just as quickly reburied his face against her, his eyes scrunched shut.
"Maybe if you take off your helmet, so he can see your face,"she said encouragingly.
"That is not possible," the figure said, and she realized the electronic voice modulator did allow for inflection, and she heard rage bubble beneath the surface of his words.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, starting to feel that while he had obviously not died in the battle Obi-Wan had described, he might have come close. "Let me see your hand."
The helmet snapped to her eyes again, but then one great gloved hand extended to her. She took the fingers of the hand in hers, and felt him brace when she touched him. Her brow creased as she realized the hand inside the glove felt unnaturally hard. Something terrible had happened to her brother-in-law. "It's all right, Luke. This is a friend. Say hello."
Luke turned around within the protection of her arms, and looked at her hand holding the one in black leather. "Hi, my name is Luke," he said seriously as he looked into the dark lenses. "What's your name ?"
A com unit chimed from the belt of the black armor, and the figure rose swiftly to a standing position, leaving Luke's question unanswered.He pulled the com out, the small device almost lost within his glove.
"You have found something, Wezla ?" the figure said. After a pause he spoke again."That is not enough evidence. I need more to prove Chandrila's involvement."
She watched the figure slowly circle as he continued his conversation on the comlink.There would be many things for them to discuss, as well. "C'mon Luke, let's get our stuff together."
She walked to the vaporator tower where she had left her tools and began to gather them in her caddy. True to form Luke had not followed her, but she let him be. She heard a clang and looked up to see that the panel on the previous vaporator she had serviced had blown open in the breeze. The sand yielded beneath her shoes as she made her way to it.
She was retightening the bolts on the panel when she heard a sound that was both a snap and a hiss, and her eyes followed it to its source.The wrench that was in her hand slipped to the ground, and she leapt into a sprint towards Luke. Owen's words echoed in her mind-too trusting, too trusting- as she tried to make it to Luke before the black armored figure with the brilliant red lightsaber did.
But the distance was too great, and she screamed as she saw the figure's left hand grab Luke by the back of his shirt.The lightsaber swung over the figure's head, and her heart sank with its downstroke.She kept running towards them, even though she knew that she would be too late.
Through eyes blurred by tears she watched the figure yank Luke off his feet and swing him behind the flowing black cloak, setting him back down. The lightsaber slashed to the ground, and the figure circled it upwards, then turned it off.
She fell to her knees as she reached Luke, and grabbed him in her arms. He began crying because she was, and she held his head against her shoulder, shushed him back into calmness. Her eyes went to the sand where the lightsaber had struck, and she saw the quivering, bisected remains of a stone viper. She looked up into the black mask.
"Its bite is fatal," was all he said.
She smoothed Luke's hair, then let go of him before she stood. "Please, come inside with us."
She set her rifle and her tools in the doorway of the storage room at the foot of the stairs. She sighed upon reaching the coolness of the shaded interior of the homestead, and as they crossed into the dining room she saw that Luke had already thrown off his shoes, and she kicked them under the table.
"I need to make Luke some lunch," she said. "Can I get you something ?"
"I can't, not here," he said, his tone matter-of-fact, instead of angry, as it had been earlier.
She moved close to him, put a hand on his arm, and this time he did not flinch. "What happened to you ?"
It was two cycles of the ventilator before he answered."Just know that the man who brought you Luke is the same one who left me for dead, who made this suit necessary."
He turned away as if to signal that the subject was closed, and as he left the room she now understood the downward glances and shifty-eyed responses she had gotten from Obi-Wan whenever she had asked him what happened, or what she should tell Luke.She still didn't know why one Jedi had fought so fiercely against another, but maybe it was just more support for Owen's belief that you shouldn't get involved in organized anything.It always became too political.
She stepped down into the kitchen to pull out a pot of broth from the cooler to reheat, and began chopping vegetables to add to it. The slap of Luke's bare feet on the stone floor announced his arrival, and then he was beside her, hands gripping the counter and his head lolling back.
"Feet off the cabinets, Luke," she said automatically as she continued dicing.
"Auntie, can I tell you a secret ?" he said, as he put his feet back on the floor.
She looked down at him. "Of course, Luke."
"The man said something to me," he said.
She smiled. At last. "You were talking to each other ? That's very nice, Luke."
He shook his head vigorously. "Not talking. In my head."
She set down her knife and wiped her hands on a dishtowel. She looked into his earnest blue eyes, his blond bangs falling back from his upturned face, and she wondered if such a message was due solely to the abilities of the father, or if it required the same gift on the part of the son.
She put her hand to his forehead and swallowed. "What did he say inside your head ?"
"He said,'Luke, I love you.' "
She bit her lip. "Well, if he said it inside your head, I'm sure it's true."
His eyes moved from side to side, and then a big grin lit his face. He let go of the counter and ran out of the kitchen.
She finished chopping the last of the vegetables, and added them to the pot. She set the table for Luke and herself, and made sure the flatbread hadn't gone stale. As she waited for the vegetables to finish cooking she wandered out of the kitchen and she heard a low voice, the words too soft for her to distinguish.Of course. A child's imagination. They had been talking afterall.
She followed the voice to the den, and peeked her head around the wall. In Owen's favorite chair, his legs sprawled over the ottoman, sat the black armored figure. Luke lay curled against his father, legs folded across his father's lap, and head pressed to his father's chest.One great arm supported Luke's body, and the hand of the other embraced his head. And she had been wrong, entirely wrong. The low, muffled sounds were coming from within the helmet, but he wasn't talking, he was sobbing.
She went to the dining room, willing to wait forever if that's what they needed, but it wasn't that long before she heard Luke's footsteps approaching. He slid into a chair at the dining table.
"You hungry kiddo ?", she asked, and he nodded emphatically.
She took the bowls to the kitchen to fill them, and when she returned to the dining room she heard the electronically modified voice, its timbre once again hard-edged and commanding. She set the bowls on the table and looked to see him pacing the open courtyard, com unit in hand.She picked up odd words- Exarga, doonium, black market, traitor.Whatever it was he did for the Empire it seemed to be of some importance.
She sat down at the table with Luke, saw that his bowl was half empty already. The conversation in the courtyard ceased, and then the black figure joined them inside the dining room.
"I have a subordinate I must retrieve from Mos Eisley, and then we must return to our ship," he said. He placed a gleaming credit chip on the table.
"Oh, no, I couldn't," she stammered, and tried to hand it back to him.
One gloved hand took hold of hers, and the other folded her fingers over the chip, and even though she could feel that the fingers inside were not organic, his touch was controlled and gentle.
"Please," he said."For whatever he needs. Whatever you need. And I will be in contact again as soon as I can. Tell Owen I am grateful for what he has done."
She dipped her head. "Thank you.We could certainly use it."
The gloved hands left hers and then she knew without a doubt that Luke had the same gift as his father, because when the black mask turned to Luke, she heard nothing at all, but Luke smiled wildly, and then he nodded and said,"I promise."
The black figure crossed the courtyard, cloak swaying with each step, and then he was in the staircase and gone.She heard the engines fire up in the fighter outside the homestead, and then the skies were filled with deafening sound as it screamed overhead towards Mos Eisley.
Obi-Wan Kenobi had a frown on his face. Usual day, usual time, but he'd knocked three times already on the front door of the Lars homestead, and there was still no response. He glanced to the side of the entryway, and confirmed that the interior lights were on, were in fact brighter than usual, as if they were powered by a stronger generator.
He was getting ready to knock one more time, when the door finally opened, and Owen stood before him. He stepped forward to come in, and then realized Owen was not yielding the doorway. He had never known a non Force user to be able to block their thoughts from him, but the shield of resistance Owen was sending forth was a remarkable imitation of a Jedi.
"Is something wrong, Owen ?" he said.
Owen looked away, his eyes focusing in the distance, and he rubbed a hand over his lightly bearded chin. When his gaze swung back, it was made of durasteel. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave. We don't want you coming around here anymore."
He was astonished, and caught completely off guard. "But... but what about Luke ? You need my help."
"We don't want your help," Owen said."You see, the boy has family. We'll all take care of him. That's what families do."
Then Owen stepped back, and the door slammed shut, and he was left in silence to wonder what in blazes Owen had meant by all.