Arlyla Darlay breathed in the spices of the stewed bhillen bubbling in the pot before dipping her spoon in and sipping it. Yes. It smelled and tasted just right.
She smiled. Moving out to Luatu from Tatooine had been a significant change. She’d been unused to the dense forest, the near constant rain, and she’d had to learn to swim. Food was completely different too--being a planet in the Unknown Regions meant that much of it was local, not imported from the rest of the Empire.
But she’d fallen in love with it. How could she not? The planet was beautiful, and so was the family she’d made.
“Dinner time!” she called up the stairs, and she heard the unmistakable sound of two sets of small feet pounding over the ceiling above her. Shortly after, two small half-Twi'lek children came racing down the steps, almost slipping as they reached the bottom.
“What did I tell you about running in the house?” Arlyla warned. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
“Sorry mom!” Ma’rara grinned, sliding into her seat. Her brother, Ad’Vena, took his on the other side of the table.
Arlyla shook her head. Children. It was like everything she said went in one ear, and out the other. “Where’s your father?”
Ad’Vena shrugged. “Outside I think.”
Arlyla glanced at the chrono. He should have been back from the field by now. Glancing at her children, she set the serving spoon down. “I’ll be right back.”
They made a face that told her they were annoyed that they’d have to wait for food, but she wanted her family together as they ate. It was an important time to bond, after all.
She made her way through the living room, past comfy, worn furniture and to the front door, where she opened it and stepped out onto the wrap around porch. She expected to call for her husband, but she was surprised to look over and find him standing there, motionless, his back to her.
Staring into the tree line that surrounded the property.
“Zham,” she said, shutting the screen door behind her. The wood of the porch was smooth, some of the boards warped with age, and she made sure to step carefully. Zham kept promising to replace the porch, but they hadn’t had the money to manage it.
Zham didn’t respond. He continued to stare at the tree line, and he didn’t even move when she placed a hand on his back, her fingers brushing his lekku aside. His muscles were taut, as if he were ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.
“Is something wrong?” Her voice had lowered to a whisper. She wasn’t sure why.
But when Zham spoke, it was equally as quiet.
“Do you see it?”
A chill spread down her back.
Slowly, very slowly, she turned to look where he was looking. She imagined monsters. Like Tatooine’s monsters, but...that wasn’t right. Tatooine had completely different dangers, and she was still learning about Luatu’s fauna.
She scanned the trees, then the brush beneath the trees, just beyond their cleared front yard.
She searched again.
“I don’t see anything.” She tore her gaze from the trees. “Dinner’s ready. Come inside.”
But he didn’t move. He continued to stare.
“Do you see it?” he said it again, and there was more urgency in his voice.
Again, Arlyla looked back at the forest. In the darkening evening, it was hard to see anything anyway, so perhaps she’d missed it the first time...but no. There was nothing but trees, leaves and bushes.
From within the house, she heard the kids start loudly arguing and she winced, pulling her gaze away from the trees. “There’s nothing there. Come inside, or the kids might riot.”
He didn’t move. Not a single muscle. He didn’t even acknowledge that he’d heard her.
The arguing grew louder and, deciding that she couldn’t deal with figuring out what was wrong with her husband until the kids were eating and quiet, she turned and went back inside.
“Where’s Dad?” Ad’Vena asked when she set their bowls down in front of them.
“He’s still taking care of things outside,” she said, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. “You two eat. I’ll be back with your father.”
If the kids cared, they didn’t indicate it. They’d already dug into their meals, slurping their food down as she headed back outside.
Zham was where she’d left him, still standing in that same spot. Staring.
“Zham. Your food will get cold if you stay out here.”
“Do you see it?”
She bit her lip. She scanned the same area, just in case whatever it was that had disturbed her husband had come out into the light. But no. It was exactly as she’d last seen it.
“Whatever it is, it won’t bother us if we go inside.”
She had no idea if that was true. At this point, she wasn’t sure if he was even seeing anything at all. Maybe he’d hit his head while he’d been out in the field.
Her husband didn’t reply.
Her throat tightened. This wasn’t like him. Something was wrong.
It was only confirmed when he said, “Arlyla.”
“Get the blaster.”
Fear made it hard to breathe--fear not of whatever unknown thing it was that her husband was watching, but of him. There was nothing out there. She was certain of it, but whatever was happening to him was not normal. It wasn’t safe. And as much as she didn’t want to think about it, her first priority was to keep the kids safe.
Even if it meant protecting them from their own father.
“Do...do you think I should call law enforcement?” she asked instead. She definitely didn’t want to--even in the Unknown Regions, the Empire had somehow found its way to Luatu. Though these Imperials seemed less than enthused to interact with the local populace, she still wasn’t keen on stormtroopers coming all the way out to their farm.
Imperials, she knew, could often be more dangerous than the danger they were supposed to protect from. Besides. Her husband needed medical attention, not to be shot by troopers.
But Zham just replied, “Bring me my blaster,” in a more urgent tone.
She stared at him for a moment...then whirled, heading back into the house.
“Ad’Vena. Ma’rara. Into my bedroom. Now,” she ordered the moment the front door slammed shut behind her.
They stopped eating, staring at her in surprise. “But...we’re not done--”
“Get in my room now!”
It was so rare that she raised her voice. They jumped in their seats, then hurried to comply, rushing up the stairs with wary glances her way.
“Is Daddy okay?” Ma’rara asked as Arlyla followed.
She didn’t dare answer.
The moment they entered her room, she turned and locked the door. “Go get me my comm. It’s over on the dresser,” she told Ad’Vena.
His green eyes darted to the locked door, a worried frown creasing his brow, but he did as she asked. Once she had it, she entered the emergency services number.
It rang. And rang. And rang. And rang.
There was no answer.
There was no option to leave a message.
It just rang.
“What the hell…?”
“Mommy said a bad word!” Ma’rara gasped, but she ignored her as she crossed to Zham’s side of the bed, knelt down, and pulled out a blaster rifle.
“Why are you getting dad’s blaster?” Ad’Vena asked.
She didn’t answer, but instead crossed to the window. From that vantage point, she could only see the roof of the porch, but she could look out into the same damned trees that had apparently captured her husband’s attention.
“Get in the corner and stay quiet,” she ordered, scanning the trees. Again, she doubted she’d see anything new. She didn’t even know if her husband would snap out of whatever trance he’d been sucked into.
She hung up the comm and tried again. Same results. But as it rang, her gaze caught on something she hadn’t seen before.
From her new vantage point, she could see a better view of the forest floor. There, just barely camouflaged in the shadows…
She gasped as it sprang, bursting from the trees, with such incredible speed--
“Whatever you do, don’t open the door!” she shouted, running to the door, unlocking it, and slamming it behind her. She didn’t hear her children’s protests. She didn’t hear anything except the blood rushing through her.
Stupid. She’d been so stupid. How could she have doubted her own husband?!
She just hoped she could get there in time...
Luke had no idea if the Alliance’s new plan to set up base on a planet out in the Unknown Regions was a good idea. Admittedly, he did think Vader would be less likely to find them there. In the reaches of the Empire, he had all of the resources he could ever want at his disposal, but if the Alliance was based out in the Unknown Regions, he couldn’t help but think it would take them longer to help any of the citizens of the galaxy break free from Imperial rule. It felt more like a retreat than just finding a safe haven.
But he also knew Vader wanted him. And if there was less of a chance of being found out there...maybe it was worth the extra effort.
He’d go anywhere to escape Vader. Escape the dark destiny that awaited him.
Monster. That’s what you are.
He shuddered as he and his squad dropped out of hyperspace, the planet of Luatu appearing in front of them.
Luatu, according to the information their scouts had brought back, was largely a forest planet. There was some habitation, but the village was small. Everyone else lived on farms. There did not appear to be an Imperial presence, and it was close enough to the Outer Rim that the Alliance could move to and from battles with some ease.
“You know Artoo, when I dreamed about visiting all the planets in the galaxy, I never thought to include Unknown Region planets.”
Artoo whistled, the translation appearing on the screen. I doubt anyone will ever reveal all of the secrets in the galaxy, let alone visit all of the planets.
Luke smiled. A rare smile, since Bespin. It felt good, like a distant cherished memory. “If I had a longer lifespan, maybe.”
There was a crackle on the comm as it burst to life. “Seems quiet,” Wedge’s voice said.
“These backwater planets rarely have an air control traffic controller to bother anyone who comes in. There’s no record of who comes and goes as a result,” Davin, a newer pilot Luke wasn’t too familiar with, added. In fact, with the exception of Wedge and Hobbie, Luke barely knew most of the pilots in this newly formed squad. They’d lost so many on Hoth, and after Bespin, Luke was admittedly too focused on trying not to have a break down to get to know many of the new recruits.
Hopefully, with this mission, he’d learn more about them.
“That’s one point in favor of a base here,” Hobbie said. “Let’s hope the points keep tallying in its favor, huh?”
“Let’s,” Luke replied, his right hand instinctively flexing as he considered everything that had gone wrong in the two months since Hoth. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved that everyone else was having a difficult time, or he felt just as demoralized. Both, perhaps, though he’d never say it. Even though Wedge had been given command of Rogue Squadron, he still had a duty to remain as upbeat as possible.
Even if the knowledge of why Vader was hunting them all so relentlessly threatened to tear him to shreds.
“Alright. Let’s get in and see what she’s got for us,” Wedge said, maneuvering his X-wing towards the planet. Luke followed suit, keeping close to his wingman and the others moved into position.
As they drew closer to the planet, Artoo’s readings appeared on the screen before him. Luke glanced at it. Since this was a planet in the Unknown Regions, there wasn’t much info besides the scout’s story, so if it was helpful…
“Is anyone else getting readings of no human life forms on the surface?” he asked into the comm.
There was a brief moment of silence. Then, “They might be on the other side of the planet,” came an unfamiliar voice. One of the new squad mates he didn’t know.
“Or they’re too small of life forms to be picked up on our scanners,” Hobbie suggested. “Out here, our scanners aren’t going to be as reliable.”
“That’s why it’s called Unknown, mate,” came a voice with a heavy Core accent. He didn’t struggle to remember that voice’s owner: Maximilian (or Max) Vondar. Son of some wealthy Imperial family. It wasn’t unusual, he knew plenty of other Rebels who’d defected from prominent Imperial families, but Luke couldn’t help but wonder how well he was going to do on a mission like this. He was a great pilot, but he didn’t exactly seem to be the wilderness type of person.
At least he’s not the son of Darth Vader.
He shoved the thought away.
“Yeah. You’re probably right,” he said. They’d entered the upper atmosphere, and already he could see a vast sea of green forest below him. “Let’s just find somewhere to land.”
They followed Wedge’s lead, swooping down until they were just above the treetops. Luke tilted his X-wing just enough to look down.
The trees were huge. As tall as some skyscrapers he’d seen. He could barely see the bottom.
As a result, it took a while to find a good landing area--a clearing just large enough to fit eight X-wings, though barely. As they landed, Luke stretched out with the Force to help steady his craft--any wrong move and he could accidentally crash into one of his mates.
But the moment he dove into the Force, he recoiled.
The entire forest--no, the planet screamed darkness.
It wasn’t the same cold darkness full of anger and purpose that Luke had faced on Bespin...this was almost empty, and yet not empty all at once. When he’d looked into the Force, he felt as though something had looked right back at him with an almost detached sense of humanity.
The moment they’d landed, Luke was popping open the hatch and climbing out, heart hammering in his throat.
“Wedge,” he called, ducking under the nose of his x-wing to get to where Wedge was now starting to climb out. “Wedge, something’s not right here.”
Wedge was still sitting in his open cockpit, pulling his gloves off. He paused, looking down at him with a frown. “Is this one of your Force feelings?”
“Yes.” Luke was aware that some of the other squad mates had exited their X-wings and were approaching, listening intently. “I mean...I think so. This planet just feels wrong to me.”
“I dunno, Luke, you haven’t...you know. Been on a mission in a while,” Davin pointed out. He was the oldest in the group, being in his early thirties. If Luke remembered correctly, he’d also been a farmer on an Outer Rim planet, one much like this one in terms of terrain. He had unkempt shoulder-length hair, a scar over his right eye, and a full beard. But though Luke bristled over his words, there was nothing but kind concern in those deep green eyes of his.
“Yeah, maybe you need more time to get up to speed.” Val, likely the youngest on the team with freckles and blonde hair that currently stood up in weird angles, said. Unlike Davin, his gray eyes were full of barely restrained condensation.
“Dude, that’s Luke Skywalker you’re talking to,” another squadmate whispered. In his hands he held a datapad with an antenna on it, the tip flashing a small green light. His dark hair was cropped short, and his eyes hid behind a dark set of goggles. Crix, Luke remembered--excellent pilot, but his specialty lay in digital mapping. That was exactly why he’d been brought on this mission. “He blew up the Death Star!”
“Yeah, but...you know...things have been weird since--ouch!” Val glared at Davin who’d jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
Luke glared. “I’m not crazy. I know what I felt. And no amount of time away from being in the field would make me forget how to tell when we’re walking into something bad.”
By then, Hobbie and the others had joined the group. “Yeah, you’ll get used to Luke’s feelings.” Hobbie offered him a supporting smile even as he addressed the group. “They’ve never steered us wrong before. Still, we’re going to need more concrete evidence before we go back and tell the Alliance we can’t set up base here.”
Luke scowled, but Hobbie was right. They’d traveled all the way out here. The Alliance had trusted them. If they went back and told them he’d had a bad feeling and they’d turned around...well. Leia would believe and support him, even if he knew she was worried about his mental state.
They all were. The rest of the Council would see it as evidence it was too early for him to return to duty...and from the looks on the new recruits faces, he knew they were wondering the exact same thing.
How would they look at you if they knew who you really were?
Again, he shoved the unwelcome, intrusive thought away.
“We’ll be careful, Luke,” Wedge promised gently. “I trust you. You know that. But Hobbie’s right, we can’t go back empty handed.”
He knew that. He did. But as he tore his eyes away from the wary looks of his peers to look into the forest surrounding them, that feeling of foreboding only strengthened.
But not only was this mission important to the Alliance, it was important to Wedge, too. It was his first major mission since he’d been given command of Rogue Squadron. How would it look if he continued to voice his disagreement? He supported Wedge. He was happy for him. He was a good leader and he deserved his new post. But it might not come off that way if the first thing he did when they landed was seemingly argue with him.
“Alright.” He tried not to wince as he accidentally sounded more hollow than he’d meant to.
They could do this. They’d do their observation and be gone before anything happened.
“Get out of those jumpsuits boys,” Wedge said, standing and starting to climb down the ladder. “It’s time to go for a hike.”
The foreboding feeling didn’t go away, not as they made their way through the towering trees. As they walked, Luke couldn’t help but stare out into the forest, looking for signs of anything amiss. He saw nothing, and he could hear birds singing in the treetops above them. That had to be a good sign, right? He’d always heard that when the forest goes quiet, that’s when he should worry.
But the cold, empty feeling didn’t go away. When he listened to the birds, they sounded muted, as though they too could feel something wrong and did not wish to draw attention to themselves.
Beside him, Artoo rolled over leaves and branches. He didn’t seem concerned beyond the consistent twisting of his dome, as if he too were keeping an eye out on their surroundings. The others had given him a weird look when he explained that Artoo didn’t like to be left with the ship, but he was glad he was there. He trusted his scanners more than he did his own senses, sometimes.
“You doin’ okay Luke?”
Luke jerked, tearing his eyes away from the forest to look at who’d spoken. Davin. He was frowning at him in concern.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah. I’m fine.” For now.
“You’re from a farm too, right?”
“A moisture farm.”
“Ah. So nothing like this?” He gestured to the trees around him.
“No.” Luke again looked out into the trees. Endless trees, stretching as far as his eyes could see. “I can’t say that I like not being able to see what’s watching me.”
Davin was quiet for a moment. “I guess it’s kind of creepy when you put it that way.” He admitted. “But I kind of find the forest peaceful. It’s some of nature’s finest creations, I think.”
Luke’s mouth tightened. “It’s beautiful. I’ll give you that.”
Davin suddenly clapped him on the shoulder, making him suck in a surprised breath. “I’ve got lots of experience in forests, Luke. I got ya.”
He tried for a smile. He wasn’t sure it was convincing. “Thanks.”
The group continued on in silence. Wedge led, Hobbie beside him. Luke assumed they were leading them towards the town the scouts had mentioned, but he couldn’t be sure. He would have thought they’d have seen some sign of civilization by then, but there was nothing.
“Artoo. Are you scanning any lifeforms?” Artoo made a low moaning noise that Luke interpreted as a negative. “Maybe we landed further than I thought…”
“I told ya,” Crix interrupted. He had his datapad out and Luke could see he was scanning as they walked. “This planet’s got a bunch of interference going on. We probably won’t pick anything up until we’re right on top of it.”
“That’d be perfect to keep the Empire from finding us!” Max grinned.
“And it’s not so great when we don’t know the Imperials are onto us until it’s too late to evacuate,” Luke pointed out. When Max’s smile faded, he didn’t miss the annoyance that bled into the Force.
Well. He was right. But he decided not to push it.
Luke wasn’t sure how long they walked until suddenly Wedge stopped ahead of them. Everyone else stopped as well. “Hey. Davin, Crix, Luke, get up here.”
The three men glanced at each other before doing as Wedge asked. When they approached, Wedge motioned to one of the trees. “What do you suppose those mean?”
They looked up.
Above them, about eight feet off the ground, the bark of the tree had very obviously been torn, as if something had reached up and used the tree as a personal scratching post. When Luke’s eyes drifted to the trees surrounding it, the same markings at the same height were gouged into the bark.
In fact, the more Luke looked, the more trees he saw like that, until it appeared that most of the trees ahead of them had the markings.
“Animals are known to use tree bark for a variety of things,” Davin said after a moment of stunned silence. He sounded far more at ease than Luke was feeling. “They’ll use it to rub on, to mark territory, or just sharpen claws or antlers.”
Crix was making a note of it in his datapad. “Kind of a tall animal, don’t you think?”
Davin shrugged. “Lots of unknown creatures in the galaxy, and plenty that could do that. It’s nothing to be too concerned about.”
“But do they mark every single tree like that?” Luke asked. Beside him, Artoo had caught up, and he unconsciously reached out his gloved mechanical hand to rest on his dome. Whether it was to comfort himself or Artoo, he wasn’t sure.
“Well, herd animals with antlers do this, yeah. If they all happen to be passing through and the herd is big enough, it could happen.”
Luke gazed at the marks on the tree closest to them. It looked like gouges to him. Did antlers leave gouges in bark? He didn’t know, but if Davin said it was possible…
“Well it’s not like our bases haven’t dealt with animal problems before,” Wedge pointed out. “I mean our last one was infested with wampas.”
“And I got clawed in the face by one,” Luke pointed out dryly. Though the wounds had long healed, with only faded scars left behind, he still sometimes woke up in the middle of the night after a nightmare of those claws tearing into his flesh.
“Well...yes,” Wedge admitted. “But the Phoenix Squadron also dealt with monster spiders just fine.”
“But didn’t some of those spiders kill--?” Hobbie began, but broke off when Wedge gave him a look. “Yeah. No, we can figure it out if we stay.”
They weren’t technically wrong. There was no such thing as a perfect base...but still. The scratched trees didn’t help Luke’s nerves one bit.
Once Crix had finished entering in the finding, they continued on. Luke stared hard at the trees they passed that had the markings on them. Stars, whatever had done it was tall... and there were so many of them. It was a while before they again passed trees that looked normal again, and by then a light rain had begun. Luke shivered as drops made it through the canopy above and onto their heads, suddenly grateful for the ponchos they’d been supplied with. It would keep them at least somewhat warm.
Artoo suddenly let loose a high pitch whistle, causing Luke to jump and reach for a lightsaber that no longer was there. Instead, his hand gripped the butt of his blaster. “What is it?” he asked, eyes darting around the forest. “What’s wrong?”
He wished he understood droidspeak. But, apparently, Crix did.
“He says he picked up a distress signal,” Crix frowned at his datapad. “I’m picking it up too.” He pointed towards the trees--though there were trees everywhere, so that didn’t mean much. “Southeast of our position.”
Again, the group stopped, and Wedge approached the three of them. “You’re still not scanning any life forms?”
Artoo made another noise that sounded like a negative. “Me either,” Crix added, frowning at the datapad. “It might just be wonky readings.”
“Or it might not be.” Luke looked in the direction Crix had indicated. Normally he’d jump at the opportunity to help someone, and if he was honest, he wanted to.
But that feeling…
He was aware of Wedge watching him intently. Wedge, more than anyone else on that team, including Hobbie, knew his deep desire to help. It was what Jedi did, after all.
You are not a Jedi yet.
“What do you think, Luke?” Wedge asked quietly.
He should say no. He could feel the Force telling him to leave the planet immediately...but he also couldn’t leave without hard evidence to give to the Alliance to prove why the planet was bad news. And if he was stuck here anyway, would it really hurt to answer someone’s distress call? What if, by helping whoever was at the end of that distress call, he was able to get the evidence he needed to convince everyone to leave?
“I think we should help.”
The words were so in character for him, but they tasted like sand in his mouth. Still, despite the bad feeling he was being bombarded with, he did feel a sense of peace from having made the decision.
I am a Jedi, he thought stubbornly. I am. You’ll see.
He didn’t actually want Vader to see. That would mean he’d caught up with him...but the idea of proving Vader wrong was tantalizing anyway.
Wedge stared at him for a moment...then nodded. “Alright. But we’ve still got to check out the town, and you’re not going alone.” He turned to the rest of the group. “Davin, Crix, Max and Val. Go with Luke.”
Luke didn’t miss the looks Max and Val gave one another. He had a feeling they still thought he wasn’t ready to be out there in the field, and therefore they weren’t thrilled to have him lead them on any rescue mission. But Davin and Crix didn’t appear to be perturbed.
“Oh, a rescue mission led by Luke Skywalker--his specialty.” Crix grinned.
Luke winced. His daring rescue of Leia from the Death Star was legendary among the Rebels, but his last rescue mission had ended up with Han missing, Leia devastated, and him missing a hand.
He had no doubt which rescue mission Val and Max were thinking of.
“We’ll be back before anyone misses us,” he said instead, trying to sound upbeat and positive. “Keep your comm on, Wedge. I’ll contact you when we know more.”
Wedge offered Luke a reassuring smile. “You got this Luke. Make sure to use Crix to document anything you find.”
Luke tried to return the smile. This time, he thought he was more successful than usual before he turned to his droid.
“Alright, Artoo. Lead the way.”