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EMPIRE'S SON II

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EXCERPT

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Luke folded his sabacc hand when the Duro next to him threw his own chipped cards down in disgust. He knew for a fact that he had the best hand at the table, but he'd already won five games tonight—ones when there'd been enough credits in the pot to make it worth his while—and he didn't like to win too often. People tended to remember the amount of games you'd won rather than the size of the pots, he'd found, so he was in the habit of regularly throwing games these days, if the stakes didn't rise fast enough. It didn't do to be the one who always aggressively pushed the pot up either; you got a name for yourself that way—and the one thing every grifter could do without, was a name and a reputation.

He could have made more on higher stake tables of course, but he never sat at the big tables, either. He preferred to ply his particular trade among the safe anonymity of lesser games in the less prestigious cantinas which lined the alleys of any Rim-system spaceport like Rishi's Drop-zone. With a little patience, you could make a living at the fringe of any society, and no one was any the wiser. Wasn't much of a living, but then compared to his life to date, Luke Antilles figured it didn't have to be.

It wasn't that he lacked the skills to move up the ladder a little. Indo had seen to that over the years, with his endless efficient zeal, and Luke had grown up under the always-critical eyes of the Emperor himself. So he spoke the eight most common languages fluently, could fly anything from a mid-sized freighter down to a TIE Interceptor or a swoop, could navigate, had knowledge of flight systems mechanics, advanced quantum mechanics, AI, general programming, and could kill a man twice his weight with his bare hands—even without the Force.

But despite these being routine prerequisites for his old life, it turned out there wasn't a lot of demand for that particular skillset in the real galaxy outside of the Imperial palace's lofty walls. Aside from smuggling, bounty hunting and general 'heavy,' of course, none of which he had any particular interest in, having spent most of his life serving the other side of the law enforcement fence, so to speak.

And also, as it turned out—since in his old life, everyone had acted as if these were normal skills for any sixteen year old—the ability to do such things for someone of his age and not much over shoulder-height to the average man, wasn't as common as he'd just naturally assumed—another reason to keep quiet, if he wanted to stay under the radar.

Because the death of both the Emperor and Vader at the Imperial Drydock near Corsin, at the hands of the Rebellion—and, ironically enough, ex-Imperial pilot Han Solo, the one person whom Luke had actually believed he could trust—had thrust Luke into a very different world. One where his Imperial connections would have gotten his throat cut down some dark alley at the very first opportunity. Though they would have had to work quickly, if they'd wanted to get to Luke before the Ubiqtorate, Imperial Intel, the Moffs, the navy, the army…and pretty much anyone else in the Empire, had they known Luke Antilles had survived. Which right now, they didn't. Right now, the Empire had listed everyone of any rank or relevance at the site of the Emperor's assassination as dead, their remains lost when all of the Star Destroyers that had been docked to the deep-space platform had been destroyed in a chain-reaction of explosions that had robbed the Empire of its ruler and its second-in-command. And given that, even at sixteen, Luke's occupation had been to protect an Emperor who was now assassinated, he felt no pressing need to announce his return.

He'd woken up about an hour and twenty-three lightyears from the explosion, bundled into a shuttle by Va…by his father, in some misguided attempt at…what? Luke didn't even know. He knew that Vader had found out the truth just minutes before, though what had been going on inside Vader's head when he'd wrestled Luke into unconsciousness to load him onto a shuttle, then gone after Palpatine—the man who had lied to them both since Luke had arrived on Coruscant aged seven, believing himself the son of Bail and Breha Organa—Luke would never comprehend. Revenge? He'd known that the Rebel freighter loaded with explosives was just minutes away from impact—had actually told Luke that…then had refused Luke the comlink to warn their Master.

Had it been that simple? Blind fury, at being lied to and manipulated by the man he'd helped to put in power? Vader had never bothered to tell him.

And where did Luke fit into that, if at all? Sometimes, when he thought about it, he dared to wonder whether it had been some brief, once in a lifetime flare of protectiveness…but given his explosive relationship with Vader up to that very minute—given the fact that even knowing the truth, they had met with lightsabers in their hands, Luke sent to kill Vader by Palpatine, and Vader more than willing to use force to further his own intentions—Luke had nothing with which to back that hope up. He'd learned already to turn his thoughts away, not willing to reflect on it even now, when all hope was safely gone. Learned such lessons well.

So he'd woken alone and confused at the edge of the Rim systems in a ship whose controls had been carefully scuppered, still suffering badly from the effects of the overdose that Han had used in his own attempt to get Luke away from the doomed Corsin Drydock. Not sufficiently scuppered that they weren't repairable, but enough to leave him adrift for several days as he'd drifted between listless, exhausted sleep and rough repairs, listening over long-range comms as everything he'd known had fallen slowly to pieces. His Master dead, the Empire floundering, the Rebels gaining ground as people whispered then spoke then shouted openly of insurrection. A chain reaction that had flared through the Rim systems and even made it as far as parts of the volatile Colonies.

By the time he'd had the drive system working again, he'd already realized that he had nowhere to go.

He'd destroyed the Imperial shuttle at its first landing, made far enough out from the edge of some Rim world settlement to avoid sensor detection. It had markings and internal OSID's which would have identified it as belonging to the Star Destroyer Conqueror if it had been recovered, so he'd stripped it of anything he could sell then rigged it with onboard explosives, abandoning any personal ID he'd had with it, before trudging for two days across an unknown wasteland on some barely-populated planet, to reach what passed for civilization in this part of the galaxy.

It had taken him three hungry months to find out that there was one thing that he could do, completely below the radar and for which a youthful, innocent face was a positive boon: sabacc. In every spaceport in every city on every planet in the Rim, there were at least a hundred games going down. For someone who'd been taught the likes of quantum mechanics and pure math one-on-one, with lessons twelve hours a day, seven days a week, calculating the odds was easy—even counting the cards wasn't that hard. For someone who could read people's minds, neither was even necessary. Sometimes, just for the hell of it, he didn't even bother using the Force for a whole night.

If you stayed in the spaceports, there was always a steady stream of new faces who just saw a seventeen year old kid with credits to spend, sitting at the table. That had its downside too, of course; you were always having to prove to disgruntled losers just why it was inadvisable to try to retrieve their credits the moment you'd headed out of the cantina and down the dark streets, at the end of the evening. And occasionally, if there was any kind of syndicate in port that you hadn't spotted, you had to be prepared to take a beating rather than draw too much attention to yourself and your abilities. But then Luke had learned to roll with the punches long before he'd fallen back on this particular dismal existence.

And you could only stay in any one place for so long, anyway. The faces at the tables kept on changing, but the regulars about the shadows of the room and behind the bar started getting a little too curious. You couldn't win too much, or if you did, you had to be prepared to move on within a day or so. He'd long since bought himself a few good quality ID's, of course, but face-match technology was face-match technology, and no amount of cuts and colors of hair or iris-dying changed the points-average triangulation of his facial features. The safest thing to do was to stay below the radar, out in the Rim systems.

Fortunately, with the Rebellion gaining support to the point that outlying planets were actually openly declaring themselves independent from Imperial rule without even so much as a blaster raised, confirming whether there had been any survivors of the Drydock catastrophe—aside from Vader or the Emperor himself—was so far down the beleaguered Imperial military's priority list as to be non-existent. Which was just as well, because if they'd found him, they would likely have had some pretty searching questions as to why he was alive when the Emperor he'd sworn his life to protect, wasn't. And when his answers weren't the ones that they wanted to hear, Luke knew damn well that he wouldn't even have made it out of the interrogation cell to stand against some wall before they shot him.

All in all, not a great incentive to return.

In fact, the way things were going, out here in the sticks where the Rebel Alliance was gaining a serious foothold, he had suddenly found himself with the kind of past that could get him put up against a wall and shot on either side of the fence—always a sobering thought to start every day with. Which was why he'd found that the best course of action was to get non compos mentis by noon.

Then again…Luke paused, studying his own thoughts. For days now, something had been itching at the corners of his awareness. Some sense of…what? Not that sporadic background scratch that still clawed the very edge of his senses in sleep, as it had done for years; that recurring grind of fractured familiarity, like a well-known tune in the wrong key. This was something else, something more tangible. Something closing—someone searching…for him.

He'd wondered briefly if it might be Leia, following the ill-conceived message that he'd sent to her in a weak moment, letting her know that he was still alive. He still had no idea why he'd done it—had put it down to a momentary psychosis; spice, or one of his many brief periods of unwilling withdrawal…who knew? But surely she had the good sense not to try to follow a Sith who'd warned her against it…then again, would he?

And that presence still whispered occasionally, a half-heard allusion whose origin he couldn't quite lock down. Sometimes it seemed benign, other times assertive. Aggressive, even. And though he'd had some vague sense of staying ahead of it for months it seemed, of late, to be closing in…

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Leia stepped off the ramp of the scoutship and onto dry, dusty soil that reminded her of home—but here the dust was a dark, mossy green, instead of the golden, sun-baked hues of Tatooine. She glanced about, squinting as her loose, shoulder-length hair lifted in the wind and whipped across her face, then pulled the long, homespun cloak that she always wore tighter about herself.

Stepping past her to kick at the loose soil as he looked over the dilapidated hollow in the ground that passed for a landing platform around here, and towards the close cluster of hunched, single-story buildings that formed the local township, Han lifted and resettled the blaster he'd taken to wearing in a fast-draw holster at his hip, as he glanced back. "Cantinas?"

"Cantinas," Leia nodded.

They'd followed Luke's trail for months now, whenever they'd had time or an opportunity, while moving with Alliance troops from Rimworld planet to Rimworld planet, in support for the Rebel Alliance.

But now, for the first time in Leia's memory, they did so freely. Ten months after Palpatine's death, the Empire remained locked in its own internal struggle for leadership as a loose conglomerate of high-profile Moffs sought to hold it all together. The late Emperor hadn't exactly been one for delegating responsibility, and aside from…from her father, Vader, there had been no one else who had the universally recognized right to step into Palpatine's role or sit on his throne. Grand Moff Tarkin would have been the only other stand-out candidate, and his demise onboard the Death Star just months before the Emperor himself had died, removed that possibility. So the Empire had floundered in the competition for ultimate power, and did so still, giving the Alliance uninterrupted opportunities to drum up support, especially in the outlying systems.

And it was here, too, that Leia's brother had fled, burying himself among the disaffected who lived on the fringe of any society, particularly out in the Rim, where even Imperial law had only ever been intermittent.

She'd picked his trail up at Tatooine, where he'd sent her his one and only communication to let her know that he'd survived the destruction that had killed his Master. He'd been deftly elusive ever since, but Han knew Luke well—far better than Leia herself—so he had a knack for rooting out the kind of places that Luke would have fallen back on, and for reasoning out his actions and direction when he decided to move on, yet again…and slowly, a pattern had begun to form; a template for her brother's life, now. Vague stories of a gambler would crop up, not much more than a kid, who drifted into town on any available transport with nothing, and somehow managed to cajole his way into a few games of sabacc with what little credits he had…

He'd take a room somewhere quiet and keep to himself, staying for a month or so, careful not to play too often at the same cantina. He was young enough that people noticed, but still, he left a hard trail to follow. It was Han who first suggested that they check out the local spice dens and dealers, much to Leia's surprise. But sure enough, the moment that the unknown gambler started upping his wins, the spice would follow…and every time, he made a few too many enemies along the way. Fights would ensue. Sometimes the unknown gambler was sober and spice-free and he'd trounce all comers so capably and so brutally that people still spoke about it for months afterwards…other times, he wasn't so lucky. He didn't seem to care. Eventually, he'd drift on to the next spaceport on the next planet, travelling ever further out to the very edge of the Rim worlds, forever running…

But now and again, as they had today, Leia and Han would get a lucky break, and hear a whisper close to their present location…though to date, they'd always petered to nothing, as Luke had moved on before they'd pinned him down.

Except this time. This time they were so close she could feel it. She couldn't sense his presence, of course; even now, Luke was far too wary to ever slip so completely, old habits too ingrained. But at the very edge of her awareness something diffuse and elusive whispered, and it drew her on like a siren.

"This is it." She turned to Han, grabbing at his wrist as her heart pounded. "He's here…somewhere. He's here, on Rishi."

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Luke threw the burnt out stub of the spice stick to the ground as he walked out of the cantina, aware that the spice, fed on by the frigid air, was going straight to his head as it mingled with and enhanced what was left of the night's casual alcohol intake.

It was so late that it was almost early as he walked down the quiet back road towards his digs, staying out of the pale glow of the widely-spaced street lights. Blurred by the presence of spice in his system, he was still aware that someone was following him—watching him—and he knew they had a sliver of the Force about them. At times through the night, they'd seemed able to hide, though at other times they'd leave an almost clumsy gap in his awareness of his surroundings, so that he could sense their cloaked presence as a smudged haze on the inside of his thoughts.

Maybe he should abandon his stuff and head straight to the spaceport, but he had a lot of credits tied up in the false ID's hidden in his single rented room, and although he had one on him of course, if he left Rishi on it he sure as hell didn't want to arrive at his next stop on the same ID. That was asking for trouble.

Again as he walked, that nagging feeling that someone was in the shadows nudged him, tightening his jaw and leaving him to regret having smoked that last spice stick, aware of its lingering effect in his system. Probably shouldn't have drunk so much either, since he'd known early on that someone was there.

But then there'd been someone there for days now, at a distance. He was getting lax, to have just let it be. He should have sought whoever it was out, and stopped this on the first day. Or moved on, as he had in the past. With the cold air pushing the residual effects of spice and too much drink through his veins, leaving him angry at himself, the unknown stranger and the galaxy in general, Luke turned about on the open street to yell into the semi-darkness behind him.

"Come on then!" He opened his arms, resentment fizzing and distilling. "What are you waiting for—come on!"

Nothing happened… Two spacers, a human and a Dug further down the far side of the street, glanced about, clearly thinking him insane. Maybe he was.

He waited for a while longer, glaring into the night, but nothing stirred. Frustrated, he whirled about and set off again, his steps unsteady. He really needed to sober up, just in case they actually—

A heavy weight impacted against the whole of one side of his body at once, knocking him clean off his feet to skid painfully along the dirt road on his shoulder, moss-green grit grinding into bare skin as his jacket and shirt sleeves ripped away. He twisted as he fell, instantly sober, tucking to roll onto his knees, then scrabble up into a defendable position as he braced, aware that it had been a Force-blow which had just sent him sprawling. He turned—

And saw her at the last moment, incredibly fast, black cloak fluttering as she came in at a full-on run, dark clothes rendering her little more than a vague shadow. Something glinted for a split-second in the moonlight, and Luke yanked his saber out from under his battered hide jacket as a flare of power fired, activating it to catch the blaster-bolt at the base of the still-lighting blade in a flare of amber sparks. Not a huge jolt, some logical, dispassionate part of his mind thought: stun shot.

Then she was on him, one arm stretched to grab at his wrist about his saber and yank it outwards as her other arm came round in a wide arc, angled so that her blaster butt was aimed at his head. Luke recoiled at the last second, so that what should have been a blow to the temple which would have knocked him cold instead caught across his shoulder, jarring it and making him let out a brief grunt. He didn't hesitate, didn't even bother twisting free; his knee came up high as his assailant stepped close, pulled in by her unwillingness to let Luke's saber-hand free, and Luke caught her a heavy blow in the ribs, buckling her over with a gasp. Taking the brief opportunity he twisted with her, bringing his free hand round to catch about the wrist that still held that blaster and twist it against its natural movement. With a grunt her hand opened, but as the blaster fell free she had enough sense to jerk her arm in a half-throw, so that it sailed into the darkness.

Luke glanced to it, intending to use the Force to call it back, but the moment that he loosed his hold on his assailant's wrist, that hand came around in a head-height punch and forced him to turn back, lifting his arm to block it. It hit his forearm with painful force, but he knocked it aside and, inside her defenses, managed to catch her a fast blow. It was aimed at her neck to wind her, but she was fast enough to twist and bring her shoulder up so that it hit there and deflected up to catch her jaw in a glancing blow, its power spent. She rolled with it like a pro but still went down, keeping her grip on his wrist to try to take him with her, though she was too light.

It was enough to unbalance him though, forcing him to take a stumbling step forward to catch himself, bent double by the momentum of her fall. Her leg came up from where she lay on the dirt and caught him a heavy blow across the side of his head with enough force to light his vision in bright flares. A second kick hit his chin, snapping his head back and dropping him to one knee. He had just enough awareness left to avoid the third, and he threw himself on his assailant, using his weight to knock the air from her lungs in a forced gasp. Her grip on his hand loosened and Luke yanked his saber arm free, deactivating the blade as it came in to push the dark cowl against her neck as he leaned in to yell into her face.

"Stop it—stop!"

She struggled for a second more, but he pressed the hilt tighter, and she knew the fight was over. Still gasping as he blinked his blurred vision into focus, Luke leaned one knee on his attacker's ribcage to hold her still as he reached out and pushed back her hood to yank off the dark, overstitched cap she wore beneath. Her hair spilled out in a loose pool of titian red as she glared at him, fury in her green eyes.

"Brie or Jade," Luke yelled into her face. "Come on, which one? You used the Force to hide yourself, or you wouldn't have gotten nearly that close without it, just now. Brie or Jade?"

"… Jade," she grated at last. "Now get the hell off me."

"Why?"

Something hard and cold pressed against the back of his head, and Luke turned just slightly to see another woman, her own russet hair cut to a short, severe bob, who had used the diversion Jade had provided to simply walk up behind Luke and push a holdout blaster directly to his skull.

"Because the other redhead might take exception if you don't," she said grimly.

Grinding his jaw, Luke sat back onto the dry dirt. Great: just fantastic.

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So now you know where things are going, and who's waiting in the wings (plus hopefully a surprise or two…)

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As ever, I'll take a while off before I get started on writing this one, but anyone who wants to be notified when it starts to go up can let me know in their post, and I'll make sure you're informed :)

In the meantime, have a great summer!

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