Chapter 11
Thin Air

Leia hid away in Han's cabin as long as she could. When Han got up, she feigned sleep until he was gone. And she kept up the pretense of sleeping in until she simply couldn't stand it anymore. After washing up and applying a little makeup to her neck to hide the faint bruises, she ignored her hunger and headed for the bridge where Han and Chewie would be.

"What's our status?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice unaffected by her sore throat.

"Sleeping beauty awakes!" Han cried. "It's a miracle!"

She pinched his arm. "Knock it off, Han."

"Ow!" he whined. "That hurt!"

"Don't be such a baby!" she groaned. "That didn't hurt. Now answer the question!"

"Relax your Worship!" Han grunted. "We're coming up on Taris and we should be getting landing clearance within the hour."

"How long are you planning on staying?" Leia asked.

"Just long enough to refuel and restock supplies," he shrugged. "One, two days tops."

Leia ran some quick calculations in her head. "That leaves us with just under three weeks to kill until the rendezvous."

"We'll have to stop at least one more time before then for fuel," Han added. "Maybe more than that if you have something in mind for us to be doing, other than drifting on the stellar winds and keeping our heads down."

"No, no plans," she muttered. Two weeks, give or take a day…that's too long. Maybe we should just head to the ground base on Arbra and leave him there.

That was a good course of action. However, it directly conflicted with "the plan" cooked up for dealing with Vader. The idea had been to bring him to the fleet and have him judged there by the High Council. He was not to be brought to Arbra on the off-chance that the Empire was somehow able to track him there. Haven Base on Arbra had to remain secure; the Alliance would not leave the native Hoojibs undefended unless there was absolutely no other choice. The peaceful, telepathic rodents wouldn't last long under Imperial domination.

Gnawing at her lower lip, she seated herself in the navigator's chair. As much as she wanted to ditch Vader or Arbra, or hand him off to someone else, she couldn't. She and Han and Chewie could barely manage him as it was; if they washed their hands of him, he could manipulate or murder his way out of Alliance custody. And she had promised Mon Mothma that she would personally take charge of him until the rendezvous with the fleet.

There's just no getting out of it, she sighed. We're stuck with him until further notice… But that doesn't mean that I have to waste all my time thinking about him.

With that resolution in mind, Leia fixed her attention on what Han and Chewie were doing. As Han had said, they soon gained permission to land on Taris. The Falcon breached the atmosphere without incident and made it to a landing pad without falling out of the sky. It was all going very smoothly.

Then Leia applied herself to helping Han acquire supplies while Chewie oversaw the refueling. That too went very smoothly. It was a refreshing change from how things had been going for them recently.

She was put in such a good mood, she almost agreed to go out with Han and Chewie to some cantina they'd heard of. However, after avoiding Vader all day, she knew she had to check on him before going out. Who knew what mischief he might be scheming to unless when they all went out? Whatever it was, she doubted that Threepio could prevent it. Hopefully she could get a feel for what was on his mind and dispel it…without getting her trachea crushed this time.

Gathering up her nerve, she marched up to his door and gave it a firm knock. "Hello?"

Silence.

"Don't tell me that you're asleep. I won't believe it!"

Still silence.

"I'm coming in and you'd better be decent!"

Leia keyed open the door to find…a deserted cabin.

Her blood turned to ice.

She checked all the cabins, the galley, the engineering compartment, the bridge, and the cargo bay. She had Han and Chewie go through every nook and cranny in the Falcon where a Human of Vader's size could possibly fit. And all they found was Threepio. The protocol droid had been manually deactivated, and when switched back on, could give them no information on who had turned him off or where their top-secret passenger was.

At her wit's end, and well into a deep despair, she joined Han and Chewie on a futile hunt for the escaped Sith Lord. She had no real hope of finding him. Without his trademark black armor and noisy respirator, there was nothing distinctive that set him apart from the diverse crowd. And worse, night was fast falling.

And things had been going so smoothly…I should have known better.


Vader indulged in a few minutes of quiet celebration before refocusing his mind on the business at hand. Now that he was free from Rebel custody, he needed to get far away from them to avoid recapture. And he had to avoid planets heavily occupied by the Empire. It would be a piece of cake.

Escaping the Millennium Falcon had been child's play. The Princess appeared to be very reluctant to come near him again—which was not only fine with him, but gave him a great advantage. When she and Solo left the ship to acquire various supplies, he shut Threepio down and slipped past the Wookiee when he was distracted and yowling at one of the refueling droids.

It was all so simple…and so pathetic.

The Princess hadn't even bothered to lock his door—not that it would've done anything to stop him. She was a fool and had grown complacent as evidenced by their altercation the previous night. And now she was going to pay for her mistakes as he reveled in his freedom.

For the first time in his life, he answered to no one but himself. First it had been Gardulla that had held his leash, then Watto, then Obi-Wan and the Jedi, then Darth Sidious, and finally his Rebel captors. After over forty years, he was finally free.

His first stop was a public fountain to gather spare change and then an information kiosk. If he had to guess what planet he was on, judging by the heavy urbanization, he suspected that it was one of the ecumenopolis worlds—planets that had been completely covered by city. There was no way that it was Coruscant – the Princess and her smuggler companion weren't that stupid – or any of the other Core World ecumenopolii, but it was more likely one of the more distant worlds—perhaps Axxila. In consulting the kiosk, he discovered that he was on Taris.

Ah, the "Coruscant of the Outer Rim," he smirked. Or, at least it used to be.

In the distant past, Taris had been a major shipping hub for its section of the Outer Rim. So much commerce had funneled through it that in barely more than a century the mostly green planet had been transformed into a reflection of Coruscant. However, centuries after that high point, new shipping lanes had been opened up and trade shifted away, beginning a slow slide into decay. The final straw for Taris was during one of the Sith wars—during the time of Darth Revan and Darth Malak, Vader thought. One of the Sith Lords had had his fleet of battleships bombard the planet from orbit, almost completely ruining it. Taris had been mostly rebuilt since then, but the population remained low and the planet relatively poor.

This is perfect, Vader grinned as he combed through the information before the coins he'd fed the machine ran out. All I have to do it acquire a little more funding and hitch a ride off this rock. No problem at all…

After getting map print-outs for the nearby districts, he gathered up what change he had left from the fountain and moved on. He made his way from the Middle City – where he'd found the kiosk – and headed down to the Lower City, bordering on the Undercity. There he would find small street games of chance and gambling houses where he could expand his collection of coins into some real hard credit. And with real money, he could go anywhere…


Mara Jade sat in a grimy cantina, sipping at her drink, and bored out of her mind. She'd spent all her time seeking a contact that could get her into the Rebels, but so far had come up empty. If she didn't make any headway into infiltrating their organization soon she feared that her Master would grow dangerously impatient…

A drunk man sauntered up to her and tried to hit on her, but she brushed him off with a cold stare that managed to penetrate the alcohol that fogged his brain. With that distraction taken care off, she resumed her covert scanning of the shady establishment. If it was up to her, she wouldn't go near this seedy bar, but to find a criminal one had to go where the criminals congregated.

Just thinking about the filthy Rebels made her blood boil. They murdered and terrorized innocent civilians and military personnel indiscriminately and did whatever they could to undermine her Master's rule. She wanted nothing more than to exterminate the vermin once and for all.

But her orders were to join their ranks and get close to one of the worst criminals of them all. She had to befriend Luke Skywalker, perhaps even seduce him. And he had to find Vader, the traitorous dog.

Just you wait, Vader! she thought darkly. You'll pay for betraying my Master and the Empire! My Master does not tolerate such disloyalty and disrespect!

A rough-looking spacer woman settled down beside her at the bar counter and ordered a drink. Mara eyed her cautiously before planting seeds that would hopefully lead her in a good direction. So she struck up a conversation with a pack of filthy lies.

"If only I could get my hands on that decrepit old bastard," she muttered as if to herself. Sorry Master!

The woman glanced at her briefly in mild interest before returning to her drink.

"Or at least one of those lousy rats that licks his boots," she added bitterly. "Moff Vermo would be nice."

"The Empire given you trouble?" the woman asked disinterestedly.

"Put me out of business and killed most of my family," she lied, "labeled them traitors!"

"Heard that one before," the woman grunted. "Same stories, just different names an' faces."

Mara muttered some angry curse on the Empire into her drink while she struggled to control a surge of disgust. The only people against the Empire were criminals and they deserved whatever misery they got. And being scum and degenerates they of course exaggerated their tales of misfortune. It was thoroughly disgusting and she hated doing it herself.

"What sort of business were you in?" the woman asked.

"Freelance security," Mara answered. "Setting up systems, testing systems, body-guarding, that sort of thing."

"Hm," the woman muttered thoughtfully. "Any interest in getting a stab back at the Empire?"

"Definitely," Mara replied, doing her best to sound more angry than excited.

The woman nursed her drink for several minutes before replying. "If you mean that, come to the Black Mynock tomorrow night and we'll talk more."

"Sure thing," Mara nodded sullenly and put all her focus on her drink.

The unnamed woman left shortly after that.

Alone, Mara smiled into her glass. Now I'm getting somewhere!


Vader strode confidently through the deserted streets on Vjun. What once had been a thriving city was now a ghost town. And it was all thanks to one man's stupidity.

Some years before the outbreak of the Clone Wars, the Viscount Malreaux had performed experiments on midi-chlorians. These experiments led the entire population of Vjun to insanity and they murdered each other. Now the planet, once famous for its finely woven tunics and infamous for its acid rains, was abandoned.

Well, mostly abandoned.

On Taris, he'd managed to find a crew of smugglers who used Vjun as a hideout on occasions. With a healthy bribe, he'd convinced them to allow him along with them, fabricating the excuse that he was going treasure hunting on the desolate, nearly plantless, planet. While they told him that there was nothing left to find, they took his money and humored him and he silently laughed at the fools.

In a sense, he would be treasure hunting.

Not long after his transformation from Jedi to Sith, the Emperor had granted him a residence on Vjun—a refuge away from the crowded world of Coruscant that was bathed in the echoes of murderous slaughter. Above the capital city was Bast Castle, the residence given as a gift. During the rare lull in hunting Jedi or hunting Rebels or cutting through the deadly intrigue of the Imperial Court he would retreat to the castle to brood and plot. And he stored a great deal of "treasure" in this distant home.

He quickly left the ghost city and the smuggler crew behind and hiked towards the distant bulk of the castle. It had a broad slopping base that gradually rose up into a tight cluster of spires and one thick tower. The place was imposing and dreary—made more so by the ugly yellowish clouds that perpetually hung low overhead. He sensed no imminent acid rain on the way, but the weather could change quickly and he wasted no time. It was silly to have survived so much only to be caught out in the deadly rain and dissolved into goo.

The ground was barren of most vegetation, due to the destructive precipitation, and rocky. It was rather like Tatooine with a lot of nasty clouds. It was a comparison that commonly came to his mind, and it irritated him. But beggars couldn't be choosers and there were resources in Bast Castle that he needed to access if he was to enjoy continued survival and independence.

Just as he was getting the feeling that rain was on the way, he reached the nearest entrance—a recessed doorway in the side of the cliff that the castle was perched upon. Punching in the necessary code with shaking fingers, he staggered inside and collapse just behind the door. The hike had only been a few miles and he was exhausted. It was a stark reminder of how physically weak he still was.

As soon as he caught his breath and was able to drag himself to his feet, he trudged deeper into the bowels of the castle. He didn't dare stay here any longer than he absolutely had to. This residence was a gift from Palpatine and it was surely being monitored now that he was an outlaw. It was so distant from the Core that there was no way that Palpatine would permanently station anyone here to guard it, but now that he had used his codes to get in he was sure that some automated signal had gone to Coruscant to warn the rotten corpse of his presence there.

Bast Castle was massive and it was dangerous. After moving in, he'd renovated many hallways and entryways to suit his ugly moods. There were booby-traps everywhere—pit traps covered by holographic floors, automated laser turrets, ray shields, and many other deadly obstacles to any intruder who dared sneak in…or any guest who strayed from where they were supposed to be.

Firstly, he headed for the kitchen for food. There wasn't much available as he'd always been restricted by his health problems when he'd lived here. Most of what he lived on had been liquefied nutrition, soups, and gruels. But the simplistic cook droids had been able to whip him up something decent that he could chew on.

Slightly reenergized by his meal, he took to wandering the dark, deadly halls of his old sanctuary as he mulled over what he needed and what he needed to do.

He needed money as most of what he'd picked up on Taris had been used to buy his passage to Vjun. With all of his bank accounts frozen, he couldn't electronically access most of the vast wealth he'd acquired as Palpatine's top minion. However, coming from a lawless planet like Tatooine which had no real banks, he was used to saving up actual hard currency and squirreling it away in various hiding places. So in Bast Castle he had several small vaults with various types of currency stored inside.

He needed transportation since he wasn't about to hop back into the smuggling ship with the almost-pirates that had brought him to the planet. This problem was also easily solved in his visit to the castle. The building possessed a large hanger where he stored many of the small ships he'd acquired over the years. There was a backup Lambda-class shuttle, a few other hyper-capable shuttles, and various hyperdrive-enabled fighters. All he had to do was pick one, load it up with supplies, and then he could leave whenever he wanted.

He needed a weapon to defend himself in case trouble managed to find him. To occupy his time on Vjun, he'd built several lightsabers in addition to the one he primarily used. And in addition to those, he kept all of his trophies from his Jedi hunts here. All the blades of the Jedi that he hadn't turned over to Palpatine were hung on a wall like preserved animal heads.

And he needed some new clothes. That was likely to be his only problem that he couldn't solve here. When he was out of his life support suit in the specially-constructed pressurized wing of the castle, he usually only wore under-shorts and a bathrobe as he was the only living soul allowed in those areas. He really didn't have any clothes lying around that he could use.

I'll just have to buy some new ones on whatever planet I visit next, he decided and set his course for the lightsaber room. He'd been without a lightsaber for too long, leaving him with the vague feeling of somehow being naked. With a lightsaber hilt hanging from his belt, he'd feel immensely better about everything.

Vader took a meandering route, carefully avoiding the booby-trapped halls, and made it into the work-out area. Slipping through the training areas, filled with spherical remotes and deactivated dueling-droids, he headed right for the storage and trophy room in the very back. The chamber was dimly lit and filled with gleaming weapons—kept dust-free by a dedicated compliment of maid-droids.

He reached for one of his spare blades…but froze when something out of place caught his eye. It was a package, wrapped in brightly-colored gift paper, with a note tacked on it. Eyeing it warily, he snatched off the note and read it over.

Hey Uncle D!

I don't know when you'll get this—you've dropped off the face of the galaxy lately—but I'm sure that you'll like it! I was poking through the Imperial Palace one day when I found this hidden room and I found Luke Skywalker's old lightsaber! You know, the one that you said he lost on Bespin? Anyway, I swiped it for you. Happy birthday!

—Jix

P.S. – Skywalker's hand was in a jar there too, but it was really creepy so I just incinerated it.

Vader stared at the note for a long time before crushing it into a ball and dumping it on the floor—the cleaning droids would dispose of it. Wrenga Jixton was his single best agent, and being that such good help was hard to find in the Empire, he had little choice but to tolerate the Corellian's very eccentric behavior. The man's skills and information were excellent, but his habit of addressing him as "Uncle D" was…irritating.

Rolling his eyes, he tore off the gift paper and opened the package to get at the lightsaber. On Bespin, he hadn't really looked at his son's weapon. His focus had been on the boy, on his face and his mood, nothing else. Now he was decidedly curious to see his child's first blade.

What he found in the box made him freeze in startled recognition. It was not Luke's first weapon, but his last Jedi weapon. It was the weapon that Kenobi had run off with on Mustafar while he'd lain burning on the obsidian shore. Luke had had it.

Shaking himself, he took the hilt out of the box and hooked it onto his belt and tossed the box and torn paper to the floor as well. He turned and regarded his trophy wall as he determined to take a second blade as a backup. There were dozens of hilts to choose from—and these were just the weapons that he'd kept for himself, he'd killed so many more…

In the end, he settled on the one blade that held the most significance for him. Kenobi had run off his Jedi saber on Mustafar, now Vader determined to take the dead Kenobi's blade along. It was a sign of his superiority over the old man, and perhaps it would piss off the ghost of the man in his dreams.

Now properly armed, he headed for the hanger to select his transport. Even the smallest of his shuttles were a bit too large for his taste; he wanted something easy to hide. He considered the various models of TIE fighter, but discarded them. Without his life support suit, he'd need a pressure suit to be able to fly the nimble fighters. That left only one real option.

To fulfill his early missions as a Sith, Palpatine had given him a modified Eta-2 – the last model of Jedi starfighter – that had been painted black to suit his new persona. Once the TIE prototypes were being developed, he'd abandoned the fighter that he'd associated with the Jedi in favor of the new design. He hadn't touched the Jedi fighter since then. He'd barely even looked at it.

He warily approached the craft and traced his fingers over the flight surfaces of the gray and black-painted ship. As he walked around to the Astromech socket, the black trimmed droid still seated in it, always ready for deployment, sprang to life for the first time in over a decade. It warbles a string of confused notes as it noticed him instead of the black figure of the usual Darth Vader.

"Run the diagnostics and make sure that the tank's topped off, Eethree," he ordered. "I want this ship ready for flight as soon as possible."

The black droid, R4-E3, beeped in confusion, but made a sound of assent.

"Good," he nodded sharply and strode out of the hanger to gather up his money and other supplies.

The money didn't take long to assemble. He loaded a large bag with several major currencies along with some precious metals and bits of jewelry that he could pawn. Then he sent a house droid to the hanger with the heavy bag while he checked over his living area for anything else he wanted to take.

Stepping into the pressurized, pure-oxygen environment of his private wing was a decidedly unpleasant experience. Before the place had been comfortable, if sterile. Now he found the air hard to breathe; it made his ears pop and he felt lightheaded.

There wasn't much that he found any desire for as he ran through a quick tour of the rooms and halls. Aside from a few pieces of artwork as decoration and the Spartan furniture, there wasn't much to see. However, in a storeroom he could never remember visiting, he found a few more relics from the past that gave him pause.

Sometime after the initial days of the Purges, Palpatine had cleaned out his old quarters in the Jedi Temple and sent his things to Bast Castle. Vader had been enraged by the boxes of Jedi robes, droid parts, and trinkets, and had ordered the items removed from his presence. Apparently the droids had decided to store them here.

He almost turned around and left at the sight of the boxes. He already had his old lightsaber, Kenobi's lightsaber, and his old Eta-2; he needed no more reminders of his Jedi days. But…

But Luke might appreciate these Jedi relics. He might be able to give some of the things to his son as gifts. These things could win him some trust and affection from his long-lost child. It was more than enough reason to drag the hated junk along. So he called up more house droids and had the boxes sent to the hanger.

Before he returned to the hanger to leave Bast Castle and Vjun behind, he made one final stop. He went to his databank and made copies of all his files. In certain situations, information was more valuable than credits, and since he was unlikely to return to the castle anytime soon – if ever again – it was best that he take what he could.

With his datadisk-filled bag in hand, Vader set about purging his security systems to cover his tracks as best he could. The Emperor would know that he had visited Bast Castle, but hopefully he wouldn't get much of a clue as to what Vader had done during his short stay. There was no sense in leaving the old corpse any clues to follow.

Upon returning to the hanger, he found Eethree trundling around the Eta-2, making an inspection of some of the aft panels. The Astromech moved stiffly, like one of its wheels was stuck. Watching it made Vader cringe. He'd really neglected this ship and its robotic partner. The next time he landed, he needed to give the droid a shot of lubrication.

"So are we good for take-off?" he asked as he jammed the last bag into the crammed cargo compartment.

After closing the last access panel, Eethree chirped an affirmative and awkwardly hefted itself back into its socket.

"Good," Vader muttered and clambered into the spherical cockpit.

The Eta-2 powered up with little problem, though some of the gauges showed less than perfect readings. It would do for now, but the fighter needed a good bit of maintenance before anything became a real problem later. If there wasn't a time limit on his stay on Vjun, he'd do it now, but he didn't dare linger any longer.

As soon as the systems were all warmed up, he pulled back on the stick, leaned on the throttle, and rocketed out into the dreary Vjun sky. The rain he'd sensed earlier had been a short sprinkle, so it didn't hamper his departure. After steeply climbing out of the atmosphere to minimize exposure to the corrosive clouds, he headed for the far edge of the system, swooping close to the other celestial bodies in the system to obfuscate his ion trail.

Where to go, he pondered, where to go?

Again he was stymied in his plans by a lack of an ultimate destination. There was simply no place that he could go; all the systems that he was familiar with where either painful to him or Palpatine would expect him to go there. It was a most irritating dilemma.

Well, he decided, punching in a course, I'll just start with a place I know and go from there…