Anakin led Obi-wan through the back ways and side alleys with the confidence of a man who has lived most of his life in the same city. Mos Espa was his home. When he had left Naboo, this had been the only place he could imagine living. It was a hard planet, even more so since the Rise. Yet the people here thrived. They took care of one another and they scrounged a life out of the dregs of the galaxy.
Or at least they used to.
Every step seemed to be taking him further and further away from that life. Anakin felt like he was leaving his mother all over again. Almost as if he could twist his head round and see her stood in the doorway of their slave quarters, watching him leave as she held back the tears. Anakin forced himself to keep his eyes forward, taking each step one at a time, concentrating on the sound of the dust and the sand crunching beneath his feet.
The first light of dawn was crowning when they reached the docking bay on the far north-east outskirts of the city. With that gang out for blood, it had seemed safer to take the long way around, through decaying alleyways and abandoned tenements. Anakin could hear Obi-wan’s laboured breathing behind him and he tried hard not to feel a hint of satisfaction that his old master was so out of shape. You’re getting old, Obi-wan.
The docking bay was quiet, bedarkened but for a single series of lights that shone from the remains of an ancient freighter ship. The ship had its nose buried in the sand and its engines exposed to the cool early morning air. Anakin had known that even if the whole city slept, the Tap Caff would be awake. They should be able to find a ship here to get them to Smuggler’s Run.
And how did I let myself get talked into that?
Anakin wondered. Obi-wan had insisted. An Alliance ship would be the easiest and fastest way to get to Coruscant, and he just happened to have one waiting for him in the Run. What had he called her? The Falcon? Damn fool name for a ship. And besides, she was still an Alliance ship. It seemed like suicide to try and get into the Empire’s capital aboard one of her enemies’ ships.
Obi-wan hadn’t left him much choice though. The Run it was. And Anakin had a pretty good idea of how to get there. He just hoped she had forgiven him.
As they walked across the tarmac to the Caff, Anakin felt a surge of nostalgia. Second time tonight. Must be Obi-wan.
But whether it was the presence of his former master or not, Anakin had a clear vision of himself as a little boy, hiding in the shadows of the cargo containers, staring at the ships as they took off or landed, and dreaming of adventure out in the stars.
Then the memory was overtaken by another, more immediate one. One of him and Luke, walking off the transport ship that brought them here. Luke had been even younger than Anakin had been when he left. Anakin could still feel the warmth of his boy's hand in his, could still see the look on his face as he gazed at all of the aliens walking through the port around them.
Grief surged, tempered only by the anger that followed on its heels. Anakin welcomed the feelings, embraced them. He caught Obi-wan glancing at him, knew that his old master could feel his turmoil. Anakin didn't care. Emotions can't hurt me anymore, Obi-wan.
Before they entered the Caff, Anakin held up a hand to stop his former master.
"This isn't a garden party on Naboo, Obi-wan. You follow my lead and you keep that," - jabbing at the lightsabre hidden beneath his cloak - "out of sight. You got me?"
Obi-wan just smiled. Anakin felt his cheeks burn, reminded of what he had done with those gang-members not even an hour before. He had vowed never to take up a lightsabre again. Yet now, with Luke taken by Palpatine’s Hand, none of that seemed important anymore. Even keeping his secret – that the Force had abandoned him – did not seem as vital as it had only a day before.
"A hive of scum and villainy, hey?” Obi-wan was saying. “Just like the old days."
"Actually, they're just normal people trying to make their way in a galaxy other people
Anakin couldn't help feeling a little spiteful kick at the look on Obi-wan's face. He turned away, leading the Jedi master into the Caff.
The air inside was laden with pure clouds of Ylesian and Kessel spices. Anakin couldn’t see more than a few steps in front of him. Without the Force to help direct him, he made do like normal beings, trailing his hand down the wall to guide himself down the few steps, down into a central area where the bar lay surrounded by tables.
The place stank of too many bodies in too small a space. Spicy human odours mingled with the feral stink of furry aliens or the dry smell of reptilians or insectoids. A few of the pilots looked up to see who the newcomers were, but most knew Anakin from the shop. One or two waved, others nodded. The vast majority ignored him. Just the way I like it.
Anakin and Obi-wan shared a glance, then he led the older Jedi over to the bar. The bar tender, a re-conditioned protocol droid, spun round to face them.
"Master Skywalker! How many times do I have to tell you we don't -"
"Serve my kind in here. Yeah C2, I know."
Laughing merrily at his - old - joke, the droid trundled forward. "So what can I get you?"
"Nothing tonight. I'm looking for Ana."
The droid bobbed his head and made a whistling sound. A mechanical approximation of a wink. "You're in luck. She just got here. Look in the back."
Anakin let out a breath. He had been worried she wouldn't be back from the Far Outer Rim yet. He nodded thanks to C2 and began to walk round the bar towards the rear tables. He was almost out of sight when the silver droid called out to him.
"You say hi to Luke for me, ok? It's been an age since I’ve seen him in here oggling the pilots."
Anakin paused, his fists clenching as he imagined Luke in Palpatine's hands. He forced himself to relax.
"I will," he said, so soft he might as well have whispered. I swear I will
, he promised himself.
The tables at the back were set aside for the crews of the smuggling ships. Unofficially called Smuggler's Circle , it was almost empty tonight except for one table. The flight crew that sat around it were one of the most eclectic Anakin had ever met, because so many of them were from species he had never seen anywhere else.
The Misbegotten Venture
liked to fly under the radar and these days that meant charting courses along the Far Outer Rim. She had picked up quite a few strays on her travels. Though there were a few familiar races represented – a Gran, a Rodian and a Twi’lek – there were also some very strange creatures. Three old and wizened men, looking almost like human-sized versions of Master Yoda, sat together in a tight circle. All three of them were blind, their eyes empty sockets, while one of them grasped a mechanical eye in one claw-like hand. He held it tight to his forehead as Anakin appeared and whistled under his breath.
The sound caught the attention of a bear-like alien who called himself Pathfinder. A member of a species known as Chaol, he had been watching the two men. Now he looked up. When he saw Anakin approaching, he growled deep under his breath like a Wookie. Next to him sat a tiny slip of a girl, who looked almost human except for the droid implants she wore on her face, slashing across her forehead, left eye and cheek, and down under her coarse white shirt.
And at the top of the table, a human woman about Anakin’s age sat with her legs hanging over one of the chair’s arms, her hand playing with a single visible strand of her blond hair. The rest of it was hidden beneath a green leather cap. She wore no jewelry and her jumpsuit was of some kind of nerf leather, beaten and stitched together so many times it looked as if it were about to fall apart. Three knives jutted from scabards on her belt and an old blaster hung from her finger. She looked up when she heard the footsteps and her face lit up in a smile as she got to her feet.
Anakin breathed a sigh of relief as she sauntered over to him. She had forgiven him it seemed.
Ana Detani, Capain of the Misbegotten Venture
, wrapped her arms around Anakin and kissed him. For an instant, Anakin felt his worries evaporate as he allowed himself to sink into the kiss, wrapping his own arms around her, letting them drift down her back...
She broke off the kiss and stepped out of his embrace. He was about to ask her what was wrong, when she reared back and slapped him across the cheek. His head snapped back and he caught a glimpse of Obi-wan smiling smugly.
"You've got some nerve."
"Ana, listen..." he said as he turned back to face her.
"Do you know how stupid I looked when that hyperdrive you installed..."
"Ana." He raised his voice, cutting her off.
She stopped, still glaring at him. Once he was sure she wasn't going to slap him again, he went on.
"We need to talk. I need your help."
"Well you can just kiss a Wookie, you s-"
"Ana, it's Luke."
Her angry lover act vanished. She stepped towards him again, worry painted all over her face. She reached a hand up to his cheek. "Oh Ani. What is it?"
He shook his head. "Not here."
All business, she turned and swept past her crew. One of them, the Rodian, went to stand up, but she waved him back down. "Stay here Greedo."
The Rodian did as he was told, but he glared at Anakin and Obi-wan as they passed. That kid never liked me
, Anakin thought.
Ana led them to a storage room at the back that C2 allowed her to use for ‘sensitive’ negotiations. She flipped on a light, revealing a bare room with a table and a few chairs. Anakin felt his cheeks burn at the sight, remembering the last ‘negotiation’ he and Ana had carried out in this room, and hoping that Obi-wan wouldn’t be able to sense the reason for his unease.
“So what’s happened?” Ana asked as soon as the door closed behind them. “And who’s your friend?”
“Ana, this is Old Ben, a friend from my spice freighter days.”
Anakin didn’t dare glance at Obi-wan, hoping that his old friend would play along. To his relief, Obi-wan stepped forward, hand outstretched.
“Nice to meet you, Ms?”
“Detani. Ana Detani. And it’s Captain.”
“So you knew Ani when he was a navigator?”
“We served together on the same ship.” Ana glanced at Anakin and he smiled tightly. Don’t improvise too much, old man.
“And what are you doing here?
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Ana.”
“You said something about Luke.”
“He’s been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” she gasped. “By who?”
“An old enemy of mine.”
“An enemy?” Ana frowned, the drawn lines on her face creasing even more. “I thought you were just a navigator.”
“I was. But…” He struggled to come up with a convincing lie. “I did a little smuggling on the side. I made some enemies here and there. One of them has come back for payback. He’s asking to meet me, to sort out some old differences.”
“Why didn’t he just sort things out here?”
“I don’t know.” Anakin’s anger and frustration boiled over and he slapped the table. “Dammit Ana, I need your help. Luke needs your help.”
She sat back, crossed her legs and raised an eyebrow. “And what does Old Ben have to do with this?”
“I’d like to hear it from him, actually.”
Anakin winced. Ana looked at Obi-wan, waiting.
“I… I used to work for Sidi – that’s the man who has Luke – until Anakin and I decided to start running a little side business on our own. We got caught, Sidi found out and put a bounty on our heads. Anakin came here and I moved to a little swamp world I heard about from an old space pirate. But I kept some contacts in Sidi’s organisation. When I heard what he was planning, I decided to come and warn Anakin. I got here too late. I couldn’t just let an old friend down, you know?”
Obi-wan managed to inject his words with just the right amount of sincerity and wide-eyed innocence to be convincing. And the story sounded plausible, with just enough detail. Where did Obi-wan learn to lie so well?
Anakin turned to look at Ana, daring to hope she might buy it. Instead, she snorted.
“I’ve never heard a bigger pile of bantha podoo in my life. You two are good I’ll give you that.” Her face hardened. “But I will not risk my ship, my crew, unless I know the truth. So start talking.”
Anakin opened his mouth to try and talk her round when Obi-wan spoke up again.
“Anakin, I think we need to tell her the truth.”
He swung round, eyes flashing. “No.”
Obi-wan spoke over him. “If you really want to know the truth, Captain Detani, my real name is Obi-wan Kenobi. I am a Jedi Master and a General of the Alliance, here on official business. Anakin used to be my padawan. A Sith-trained operative working on behalf of Emperor Palpatine has kidnapped Luke and is planning on returning him to Coruscant. I will
not let that happen. I have reason to believe that Luke may be the focus of a very important prophecy of the Force, a fulcrum on which the hopes of the entire galaxy may rest.”
Anakin stared at Obi-wan. He couldn’t believe that his former master had revealed the whole truth to Ana. And what was all that about a prophecy? He glared at Obi-wan, then turned to face Ana, fearing the worse. She did the last thing he had expected.
“I’ll say this for your friend, Ani, he has one hell of an imagination. I don’t know which part I preferred – Ani as a Jedi or Luke as some kind of a Force prodigee. Hope for the whole galaxy.” She snorted. “One hell of an imagination.”
Her laughter trailed off and her face grew serious. “You’re both a pair of jokers. I guess I’m not going to get a straight answer out of either one of you. Still, I know you wouldn’t lie about Luke being in trouble. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.”
She speared Obi-wan with her eagle gaze. “You’re going to be official story-teller on our little trip. Make up more stories like that and I may keep you on board.”
Obi-wan bowed, a sardonic smile playing on his lips. “At your service. Captain.”
“As for you,” Ana went on, turning her eyes on Anakin, “you’re going to repair that blasted hyperdrive you sold me. If you have it working by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll let you ship out with us for the Run. If you don’t…” She shrugged. “Then I guess your boy doesn’t mean that much to you.”
Relief flooded Anakin’s mind. “Ana, I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything. And don’t get any ideas either. This is business, nothing more.”
He smiled. “I understand.”
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and cancel the shore leave I just gave my crew. They’re not going to be happy with either of you, I can tell you that.”
She walked past them, but paused in the doorway. She glanced at both of them, then she snorted, shaking her head. “Jedi.”
With another shake of her head, she left.
Anakin let out a breath he didn’t even know he had been holding. He turned to face Obi-wan.
“That was a very dangerous game you just played.”
His former master shrugged. “I knew that she would either believe me or she wouldn’t. Either way, it seemed more likely that she would help us if she knew the truth than if we had continued to lie to her.”
“Still… That was one hell of a lie to slip in there. About Luke and some prophecy. Really pushed her over the edge.”
To Anakin’s surprise, his old friend looked uncomfortable. He seemed to struggle with what to say, then he sighed. “Anakin… I think we need to talk.”