Out of Darkness

Chapter 10

Luke hadn't known he was dreaming until he woke much later.

And when he did, he wondered why he hadn't known it far sooner--why he hadn't felt it somehow in the bizarre, out-of-place images, in the things that transpired that never would have taken place in the reality that he knew. He wondered how he failed to sense it from the hollow drumbeat of his chest, the steady ache in his bones, the cold sweat that had formed on his skin and evaporated almost instantaneously into the grim air.

He should have guessed from the beginning that all of it--all he was about to witness and experience--was wrong. Very wrong.

But perhaps, he would come to think later, he hadn't really wanted to believe that it was. Perhaps it had been easier for him to be deluded by the false images, and, in some strange and frightening way, to allow himself to be swayed by them.

The dream started the same way all the others had. He had lived through it so many nights--over and over again in the past few weeks--that by now he knew every detail of it by heart, as if it had been meticulously scripted by an inner instinct he could not name. First came the familiar darkness that fell on him, a thick darkness that enveloped him in its sheath but held no warmth or comfort, only a danger he could not pinpoint. Then, as before, came the images. Slowly they appeared, materializing one at a time out of the matte blackness as if conjured up by some unknown and unseen magic.

He saw his own arms and legs, fighting to touch something solid; the bed of dirt and gravel underneath his boots; the rings of smoke which formed wherever he breathed.

And Callista. Again, he saw Callista.

Though he had dreamt this nightmare far too many times over the past few weeks, none of the images had grown any clearer with time, nor had they revealed any further clues that his Jedi instincts might have recognized. All the visions had remained, Luke thought in frustration, as hazy and ambiguous as ever. Except for one. One image remained sharp and focused above all the rest: Callista. When all other gossamer, elusive remnants had long since fled into oblivion in the light of day, the sound of her husky voice, the saltwater fragrance of her, the silhouette of her sleek figure stayed with him through the waking hours--burned in his every conscious thought.

Making him hurt with missing her, wanting her. Making him quake with fear in the knowledge that he might lose her at any moment.

He should have known it then, when the darkness finally gave way to the vivid image of her, that everything he was about to witness would not--could not--be real.

Her smile had been different. That much he noticed right away, and in retrospect it should have been the telling sign, though it somehow eluded him. Or he had let it elude him. He felt no fear in her either--none of the breathless, choking fright he had sensed in previous dreams, that had poisoned the air between them with its intensity. She was, he came to realize, free of the tension and doubt that had paralyzed her before, but there was an air of indifference in their place, something that told him that the person who stood before him was not the lover he knew.

Even her voice was different when she spoke.

"It's over, Luke," she said. The voice was startlingly smooth like honey, absent of the slight roughness that marked it as her own. It was the same pitch and timbre as the voice he knew so well, but somehow much too sweet, too cocky, too sure of itself. She smiled at him again, sending a flood of adrenaline through his bloodstream--though he didn't know whether lust or fear had sent it. "There's nothing to be afraid of anymore. I'm free... Finally free..."

The words sounded strangely false. They should have sent his heart soaring; he'd wanted nothing more in the last six years than to hear them--and he would have taken her in his arms and flung her around with joy had something about them, something he could not put a finger on, not chilled his skin.

He remained standing in his spot, unable to bring himself to move closer to her, but unable to take his eyes off her either.

As if suddenly aware of the silence between them, she cocked her head, for a moment looking like a frightened child again, one who expected reproach of some kind but was unaware of what she had done wrong. "Luke," she said, her voice almost--but not quite--returning to its familiar self when she spoke his name, "what is it?"

He shook his head, confused, dazed, not knowing anymore what senses he could trust--if he could trust any of them at all. "I... I don't know..."

But he did. Of course he did. He just didn't want to admit it to her--or to himself.

She stood before him now, having floated effortlessly to him without him even realizing it. The sound of his staccato breath made him all too aware of his body's natural reaction to her proximity. He didn't resist when she came up to him and laid her forehead on his shoulder, as she always did when he held her. He felt the hot air from her mouth on his collarbone and on instinct, he pressed his hand on the small of her back to draw her to him.

He hovered somewhere between conscious will and human impulse, not sure if he was even trying to choose between one or the other. Not sure of anything at the moment, really--other than the warm sea-scent of her thick hair, and the velvet feel of her skin on his. "Callie," he said, letting the words tumble from his tongue of their own will, "this... isn't you..." And even as he said it, he wondered why, in spite of the truth that stared him in the face, he found himself still holding on to her, as if letting go meant losing the most precious thing in life. "What's happening?"

She eased herself off him to look at him. Half-amused, she gave him a smile and tilted her head, and his eye followed the stray lock of hair that fell from her loose braid and grazed her jaw seductively. In an instant, he felt even more vulnerable to her spell--as if that were possible.

"Can't you feel it?" she said, her voice thick with triumph.

Yes, his mind answered without hesitation.

"My powers are back, Luke... I finally have them back..."

No... No, Callista, don't let it fool you...

At once he remembered another moment when he had felt her powers as well--a dream, perhaps? Yes, that first dream of her, when he had felt her immeasurable joy at having felt his presence... But this was different, for what he felt in her was the dark side--a ribbon of darkness that had entrenched itself into her soul.

A frightening surge of power in her that had all but overpowered the light.

It took a herculean effort to fight his growing intoxication--and he wasn't even sure he had succeeded. "Callie," he said, knowing somewhere in the forgotten corners of his mind that he needed to tell her this, "it isn't what you think... Don't-"

"Don't what?"

Her eyes darkened to a stormy gray and she tore herself from him, like a bandage ripped off a fresh wound, and he drew his arms up instinctively to reach for hers again. "Don't grab the chance to reclaim the part of myself that was stolen from me?" Tears formed in her eyes, kept from spilling only by her diamond-hard defiance, and she began to shake with each breath she took in. "You don't know, Luke," she said at last, surprisingly without bitterness or emotion--with nothing but the resigned tone of truth. "You don't know the emptiness I've felt the last six years."

"I do-"

"No," she said, "you don't." This time the pain surfaced in her voice, and she lowered her gaze for a moment before returning her eyes to his. "I know how hard you tried to understand me. Force knows how I love you so for trying. But you can't, Luke--you can't know. And I pray every day that you never will know the hell I've been in."

The hardness of her eyes scared him. It was a desperation he did not recognize, one he'd never seen in her even in her darkest of moments--not even in the nights when he'd felt her silent tears on his chest when she couldn't sleep, when he felt the tension in all her muscles as she fought to keep herself from trembling so he wouldn't know that she was crying, and all he could do was sling his arm around her protectively and hold her till she fell asleep. Not even then did he remember this kind of despair in her.

Softly he said, "You told me once that the dark was never the key to the light. Do you remember that?"

Please remember that, he thought.

She took her eyes away from him and gave no answer. And though he felt something stir in her, he saw the armor remained intact.

At last she said without apology, "I did it for you."

He stared blankly at her--knowing what she meant, but unable to believe she was actually saying it. "I never would have asked you to-"

"I know you wouldn't have asked," she said. "But you and I both know the only way we could ever be together again was if I could be whole again. This is the only way I'll ever be whole again, Luke. We both know that. We've always known it. We were just too damn afraid to admit it to ourselves."

He shook his head. No... There had to have been another way... There had to...

"There was no other way, Luke..."

She came up to him again, sliding her arms up his chest and around his neck. He closed his eyes, letting the heat of her enter his pores. "But it's over now," she whispered, and once again pressed her cheek on his shoulder. "I stopped resisting. We can finally be together, my love."

Her voice made him dizzy, brought out every primal instinct in him. "Callie, we could have found another way... You didn't have to do this..." He was aware of his voice trailing, aware of the words evaporating from his mind, and as the promise of her skin tempted him, he knew his resolve was slowly crumbling into nothingness.

"Join me," she whispered.

He had heard the same invitation before--from a father to his orphan son, and in an instant all the childhood fantasies and dreams were torn asunder with one revelation. And yet he had managed to resist the temptation then.

So why was it so damn hard to resist now?

"It's not so bad," she said, as if trying to convince herself as well. "The masters... They didn't know... They were afraid of it because they didn't know it. But you won't lose anything, Luke. Everything you think you'll lose in the light, you will gain in the dark. I promise..."

Once you start down the dark path...

Callista's voice drowned out Yoda's. Drowned out Ben's. Drowned out his father's.

Join me, my love... We deserve it... We deserve to take back what was stolen from us...

She pulled his face towards hers, and what little resolve he had left melted away in that instant.

He kissed her lips voraciously, taking her in like a man taking in water who had gone weeks in the desert without a single drop. He felt the fire underneath her skin, underneath his--they had fused into one and he could no longer distinguish between her flesh and his own--and he pressed himself against her, as if it were impossible for the space between them to be small enough. Drowning in desire, he had abandoned all rational thinking. He didn't care anymore. Didn't care about the swamps of Dagobah, where he had vowed to serve the light forever; the fierce winds that whipped his hair at Bespin, where he had chosen death rather than joining Vader; the cold gray of the Death Star where he had stood in defiance against the Emperor.

Never... I'll never turn to the dark side...

The taste of her lips was far too intoxicating for him to turn back now.

The buzz in his head was far too overpowering.

The light will never complete you... It is the dark side that will fill you...

Abruptly, she broke off the kiss, an umbilical chord suddenly severed, and she pushed him off her with a force that shocked the both of them. "Cal..." He drew her once more to him, the response of a man whose precious oxygen had been cut off, but before their mouths could touch she pulled away once more.

"No," she cried, shaking her head over and over. The grief he saw in her eyes was almost unbearable, but he forced himself to ignore it. "I can't, Luke... I won't... do this to you..."

He forced himself to ignore her words as well. He needed her. Needed to touch her. Needed the feel of her next to him.

And he didn't care that he was losing himself.

"You were right," he said, hearing the desperation in his voice, but feeling no fear from it whatsoever. He was too drunk with wanting her. "This was the only way... What did obeying the light matter if we couldn't be together, Callista? What good did it do us but to keep us apart all these years? I'll give it up, all of it. I will give it up for you..."

"No... No, Luke..."

She trembled before him, shivering violently like an addict in withdrawal.

"Go," she said, trying to step back from him, but neither of them able to release each other's hold. "It's too late for me, Luke. Save yourself... Go..."

"I don't care about any of it," he whispered in her mouth. "None of it, do you hear me? Damn the light side! It cost me you... You were right... Please... Callista..."

Give in to the dark side... It is the only way to what you desire...

"I will not... do this to you... I will not..." She pounded her fists at his chest, but he refused to walk away from her. "Save yourself... Save yourself..."

When he opened his eyes to the darkness of his room, it was the first time he realized that he had been dreaming. And for some reason, it didn't surprise him at all that Callista would be sitting at the edge of his bed when he woke up.

"Thank the Force," she whispered, and the sound of her voice--her true voice, not the manufactured one of his dream--instantly made him sigh in relief. "I didn't think you'd ever wake up... I've been trying to get you to open your eyes for the last half hour, Luke. You had me scared..."

He groaned softly, running a hand through his sleep-tousled hair. "What... happened?"

As if suddenly self-conscious of where she had been sitting--she had been so close to him that he could feel her uneven breath--she stood and nervously folded her arms across her chest. "I'm not sure," she said. "I'm not sure how I..."

He looked up at her as her words trailed off.

"I heard you..."

His lips formed a chagrined smile. "Well I'm glad Threepio and Artoo shut down for the night," he muttered. "I might have sent Threepio into a meltdown--if you could hear me in the next room, then-"

"No, I-" Again, his eyes went to hers.

"You didn't make a sound..."

"Then how..." He saw her move slightly, the light from the moon outside catching her face as she turned her head away from him. "Callista," he said, "did you hear me through the Force?"

"I... think so... I don't know, exactly... All I know is, I woke up all of the sudden and I knew I had to come in here to see if you were all right."

Gently, so as not to alarm her, he got to his feet. "What did you hear?"

"I didn't hear words, exactly," she stammered. "More like... sensations... I felt... that there was something bad. I knew you were dreaming something bad." He saw her drop her shoulders, then look at him again. "What was it, Luke? Was it... another premonition about me?"

She must have noticed his hesitation.

"Something's going to happen to me... isn't it?"

Luke's voice was hoarse when he answered her. "Not if I can help it."

She sighed after a few moments and much to his surprise, gently touched his arm. "Luke, I need to know. What happened to me?"

He let out a deep breath and thought for a moment about holding her--he knew she would need bracing once she heard this--but wondered if the gesture would overwhelm her, and in the end, he decided to let her reach for him if she needed to.

"Callista, none of this is set in stone yet... Yoda always told me that the future is clouded, always in motion-"

"Please," she said, "just tell me. You don't have to protect me, Luke."

She was right. He couldn't keep this from her forever.

"The dark side is strong... We both know that... It's not easy to resist if you don't fight it with everything in you."

Confusion fell on her, her brow knitted together, eyes shut momentarily before she opened them again, wide with understanding. "What are you saying..."

Something in him wanted to forget about the dream altogether, to make her believe it never happened. "I saw you, Callista... I saw you succumb to the dark side..." He sighed and turned away from her, not wanting him to see the look on his face, for he knew that the pain of remembering would be etched on it. "I saw both of us succumb to it, though in the end, you tried to get me to turn away."

She was silent for a few moments. When he turned to face her again, he saw that she had been crying soundlessly, pearls of tears rolling unimpeded down her cheeks--silver tears in the glow of the moonlight that streaked across her face. She looked, he realized, exactly the way she had in his dream aboard the Eye, when he had seen her in the gun room and she'd just learned of Geith's betrayal. He remembered the quiet strength she had displayed then, apparent even through the bitter tears she had shed.

Apparent even now, as she struggled to take in the harsh words he had just uttered.

He reached for her, but she refused his touch and shook her head.

"I know you," he said. "I know you won't let this happen. You're stronger than that--you will resist it, but you just have to be aware now. You're going to be vulnerable to it soon... I don't know how or--or why, but you will be, and you have to fight it, do you hear me?" Without even realizing it, he had reached for her face and cupped it in his hands. Leaning in close, his forehead almost touching hers, he whispered, "Do you hear me? Promise me you'll fight it, Callista..."

She lowered her head, once again unable to hold his gaze, and an eternity passed before she raised her head to look back up at him. "I almost took you with me..." The scared hush of her husky voice--barely audible--gave out before she could even finish the sentence, and her entire body trembled though he could see her fighting with every bit of strength she had to keep from shaking.

To keep herself from crumbling in front of him. Luke knew: the last thing she wanted was for him to see her in her moment of weakness.

"Stars, I almost ruined you too."

Luke shook his head. It was his choice--even in the dream, it had been his choice alone to make: to cling to the light or to embrace the dark. And still, he couldn't find the words to tell her so, because deep down inside, he couldn't deny she had been right all along.

"That," she said, slipping out of his arms, "is exactly what I've been afraid of."

When he saw the anguish in her eyes, he understood for the first time what she meant.

"That's why I left, Luke. And that's why I stayed away."

Luke rose early the next morning, before dawn had broken the night sky. Outside the small square pane of window in his room, there was only the stillness of the empty streets, and the weak glimmer of the few remaining stars that hadn't yet vanished--the only source of light in the thinning darkness. Even as the sun was beginning to materialize in the distant mass of clouds, Legori City was still hours away from once again coming to life as the bustling, hectic tangle of people and dust and noise that he and Callista had seen yesterday upon their arrival. At this quiet hour, it seemed everything in the city--except for him--was still fast asleep.

But sleep was the last thing Luke wanted at that moment. He had managed only a few meaningless hours of it last night after he had woken from his nightmare, after his body had finally given in to the exhaustion he had resisted until then. For a long time after Callista had left his room, he had laid there in uneasy silence: eyes closed, but his mind unable to quiet itself no matter how much he drew on the Force to silence it. Fatigue beckoned him time and time again--his body longed to surrender to it, but he consciously refused it. At times he would find himself drifting, almost crossing the border into unconsciousness, but at the last second, he would stop himself from letting go completely, from free-falling back into the dream he didn't want to revisit. It was each time he slipped that the visions would come surging back to him again: one by one in rapid succession, swirling and spinning like images in a warped kaleidoscope, until his head ached from the effort to keep from drowning in them.

Beyond the thin wall that divided their rooms, Callista had laid awake all night too; somehow, Luke knew it beyond a doubt, even without having gone to see her in her own bed. And he knew that in the privacy of her own room, where no one would have to see her without the armor she wore at all times, she had cried herself to sleep. In his room, in front of him, she had tried to be strong, just as she had always been as long as he had known her. But he knew that when she had left his side and was finally left alone to deal with the unavoidable reminder of what she had spent the last six years trying to escape--the fears that had stalked her from the moment she learned the Force had abandoned her--she finally allowed herself to release the grief she had been carrying.

The grief that both of them had been too afraid to acknowledge ever since her return.

A grief that Luke understood only too well.

With a sigh, he tore himself away from the window where he had been staring blankly for the last few minutes, suddenly aware of the heavy silence in his room, and the solitude of this early hour. He turned and looked at Threepio and Artoo, sitting lifeless in the darkened far corner.

I could sure use their company right now, he thought, smiling to himself as he walked over to their still forms. He still felt guilty for having to ask them last night to shut down until morning--with only a small power supply hook-up at their disposal, he had worried that it wouldn't be enough to keep them on full power through the evenings until they could get back to the ship for a proper re-charge--but like two soldiers carrying on their duty, they both had complied without a single complaint, and in fact, even been the ones to suggest the nightly shut down to conserve power. Even so, Luke was anxious to re-activate them now. Their silence felt strange to him, calling attention to all-too noticeable void in the room that Luke was eager to fill in the wake of what had gone on last night.

"Oh! Oh good morning, Master Luke," Threepio sputtered, jerking back to life after Luke pressed a button at the back of his neck. For a few seconds, his round, full-moon eyes flickered and blinked, then finally lit up fully. "It feels so good to be up and about again... I trust that you had a good night's sleep, sir?"

Luke couldn't help but smile--leave it to Threepio to look after him like a long-time butler fussing over his master. "Yes, I did. Thanks..."

Threepio said nothing in response. At times Luke wondered if, after having been with him so long, the droids knew when he wasn't telling them the whole truth. Of course, it wouldn't have done him any good anyway to have told Threepio what really happened last night; the always-curious protocol droid would have only asked him a million questions--questions that Luke just didn't feel like answering right now.

"This should last you the next few days," he said, inserting a power cord into the open panel on Threepio's back, then reaching over to plug a second cord into Artoo. Perhaps, Luke thought, a change in the subject would be enough distract them. Or rather, distract him. "I'm hoping it won't take much longer than that to find T'min Fals's hiding place, anyway. We certainly can't afford to lose any more time than we already have, or..." He didn't even want to finish the sentence. After a while, he straightened and patted Threepio on the shoulder. "You two hang on for me till then, all right?"

Threepio nodded without missing a beat. "Oh, there's no need to worry about us, Master Luke, I assure you," he said, with the confidence of one who had no inkling of what lay ahead. Luke tried to hide a smile--Threepio's well-meaning attempts to be brave never failed to amuse him, and he was happy that the droid had gotten over his initial apprehension about the mission. "Artoo and I have made sure to switch to life-support mode, sir. Only the necessary functions will be available to both of us so we can conserve as much energy as possible and still be able to carry out our normal tasks. We can last for weeks in this capacity. We did it countless times before during the Rebellion."

"I'm glad to hear that," Luke said, laughing softly as he disconnected the cords from them and shut off the auxiliary battery. Artoo nudged him as he turned to put the equipment away, attempting to get his attention with an especially pensive whine. Luke chuckled and patted the astromech's domed head in response. "No, Artoo, I wouldn't want to lose either of you at a time like this," he said. "Callista and I have got our work cut out for us here, and we're going to need you."

Threepio rose to standing and tilted his head "Were you able to get much information from the locals last night, sir?"

"'Fraid not," Luke said. He sighed and shook his head, tossing the cables onto his bed. "I don't know, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that they were a little tight-lipped. I really shouldn't have expected to get our information that easily, I mean we can't expect them to open up to perfect strangers." He paused to let out a chuckle. "Even if some of them were slightly intoxicated."

"Intoxicated! Oh my..."

"Not quite intoxicated enough for our purposes though, were they?"

Luke turned his head even before Callista's smoke-and-lavender laugh reached him from the hallway; he'd felt her eyes on him as soon as she came to the door. He looked at her, expecting her to walk in, but she didn't move from her spot. As if uncertain about whether she should come in or not, she remained standing just outside his room, leaning one hip against the doorframe, her hand grazing the heavy lightsaber hooked to her belt loop when she brought her arms up to fold them across her chest.

She didn't look like a woman who had been up most of the night. Though he could see the barely-there trace of redness in her eyes--proof that she had been crying--she had managed nonetheless to somehow hide any obvious evidence of distress from the previous night. Dressed in a fitted white linen shirt, slim khakis, and tall black lace-up boots, with her heavy, unbraided malt-brown mane spilling down her shoulders and onto her back, she took Luke's breath away--in her usual carefree, effortless way. She had never really been aware of her own beauty, not back then, and certainly not now, and it made her all the more beautiful.

Beautiful, even in a morning after she had been forced to confront some of her worst fears.

"I was up early," she went on to explain, and as if feeling the weight of his stare, she suddenly straightened and brushed aside a loose curl that had fallen against her cheek--a gesture of nervousness that Luke had seen her make many times, though she probably wasn't even aware she made it. "I heard voices in here, and... I thought if you were awake too, we may as well get a head start on things."

"Read my mind as usual," Luke said. When he saw Callista's cheeks flush pink, he grinned and cleared his throat, taking his eyes off her to ease her embarrassment. He motioned for Threepio and Artoo to come closer. "Well," he went on, "after the less-than-successful venture last night, I thought we might try a different approach today. It won't exactly be an adrenaline rush, but if it gets us somewhere, then it'll be worth it."

Callista's mouth formed the wry smile he loved so much. "You know something?" she said, "excitement's overrated, anyway."

"Oh Luke, I think we might finally have something here..."

Callista's words commanded Luke's attention right away, but it wasn't the urgent pull of her voice that surprised him, so much as the way she automatically reached for his arm in that brief instant. Luke smiled--so did she, as if suddenly becoming aware of the spontaneous gesture that had felt so natural to both of them. But before he even had the chance to react, the invisible wall went back up; she took her hand away and returned her eyes to the screen before them, leaving Luke to feel that once again, she was avoiding whatever this was between them that seemed to be growing more undeniable by the second.

Avoiding it--and doing a damn fine job of it.

Sometimes it seemed like such a delicate dance with her: each move, each word, each thought so carefully choreographed that neither of them dared to step out of time and risk breaking the fragile rhythm they'd both followed for so long. It should have been easy to go through the motions--Force knew they had taught themselves well enough to do so over the last six years--but with each passing moment together, it was becoming more and more impossible to ignore what was right before their very eyes.

As he watched her, Luke slowly became aware of the breath he had been holding all this time. With a soundless exhale he unclenched his fists and followed Callista's eyes to the screen. This wasn't the time or place to be thinking about their very complicated, very fractured relationship. He knew that. On the Eye, Callista had begged him not to let their feelings risk all for which they had fought, and without asking, he knew she would say the same to him again now. They couldn't afford to forget what had brought them all this way; if they failed here to stop Rath in time, the price would be far too terrible to pay. And yet he also knew--somewhere in the closed-off corners of his heart--that sooner or later they would have to stop running away from the inevitable, from the ghosts they had tried long ago to leave behind. Sooner or later, they would have to stop denying the inescapable truth to each other, and to themselves.

But now was not that time.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Callista straighten and lean forward ever so slightly. The dingy keyboard before her--which looked as if it had lived a thousand interesting lives and was now only barely held together by glue and dried up plaster--rattled when she punched the enter key. "Here it is," she murmured, holding her breath. "Wait--no! Not again..." She slumped back in her chair a second later, a small groan escaping her lips before she turned to him and with a weary laugh, said, "Now we have to wait for it to load again."

"Well that figures," Luke said, trying to lighten the mood. He gave her a smile to show her that he did indeed share in her frustration. Somehow it didn't surprise him that the only available computer terminal, during what seemed like an extraordinarily busy day in Legori City's Hall of Records, also happened to be the oldest--and the slowest--terminal in the entire building. Of course, from the beginning it was somewhat obvious that Legori City was not exactly within the reaches of advanced technology. Perhaps, thought Luke, they should just be grateful to have a working computer terminal at all, even if it did happen to be far slower than most of the rag-tag machines that he and Biggs and Deak would manage to put together from spare parts at the Tosche station.

The manufactured text labored to appear on the screen, showing one agonizing word at a time, as if being woken from a century old slumber. The harsh green of the letters screamed against the black background, hurting Luke's eyes, but he was afraid to tear himself away from the screen in case the words would vanish again when he blinked. No doubt, staring at this monitor for the better half of the day waiting for each cryptic file to load couldn't have been good for his eyesight, but at this moment, he was willing to take his chances.

"I had Artoo widen the search field to all the records," Callista explained, while the terminal continued to whir and hum. "Of course, that's probably why it's also taking this long. But if we've done this right, we should be able to get the records from all over Gerridion--not just Legori City."

Artoo whistled an affirmative, and followed up with a few more warbles.

"He says the central computer was experiencing a malfunction from one of its databases," Threepio explained, "but it should be loading the information you requested now."

Luke leaned in towards Callista to get a better look at the screen. As she scrolled down the document, he scanned the list of names the search called up, suddenly realizing this may have been more complicated than he first anticipated.

"Apparently Fals is a common name," Callista said. She hit the enter key again to access the second page.

"Wait, I think I saw something..." Luke looked down at the data pad in his hand then tapped the monitor screen. "There--Emin and Odelia Fals... Those are the names of his parents... Let's open that file and take a look."

The terminal's whirring came to an abrupt halt before the machine began to tremble, then whine.

"That couldn't have been good," Luke muttered, placing his hand on the side of the terminal. "I hope this thing didn't just have a burnout... Artoo, what's it telling you?"

"Sir, he says it's having trouble opening the file."

"What? But why would it-"

"Luke, here it is..."

He felt Callista's arm on him again, and he looked back again at the screen.

"This can't be right... What's..."

"What's the matter sir?"

Luke waved Threepio over. "It's empty. There's nothing here... Callista are we sure we opened the right file?"

"Yes, Emin and Odelia Fals--that's the one I clicked on."

"Then why is there nothing here? Artoo, can you get us information on when this file was last updated?"

"Just three days ago, sir..."

Luke and Callista locked eyes immediately, and though Luke was sure they were both thinking the same thing, he couldn't bring himself to say the thought out loud.

"Can I help you with something?"

A small young woman--Luke guessed she couldn't have been barely out of her teens--smiled shyly at them, her big violet eyes blinking beneath the thick vision-augmenters that kept sliding down the bridge of her nose.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude," she said, "but I couldn't help but notice that you've been here since the morning, and this isn't exactly one of our faster terminals."

Luke couldn't help but chuckle.

"Maybe I could help you find what you're looking for?"

Callista swung her chair around to face the young woman. "We've been searching for this file all day and finally found it, but it looks like it's empty... Could you take a look and see if maybe we're not looking in the right spot?"

"Of course."

She sat down beside Callista, pausing to push up her vision-augmenters again, and pulled the keyboard towards her. "That's odd," she muttered, leaning in a bit closer to the screen and blinking a few times, as if she couldn't quite believe her eyes. "You're right, it's completely empty."

Luke felt Callista's eyes on him. He met her gaze and didn't say anything, though the pricks of awareness that traveled up his spine told him something was very wrong.

"I'm... I'm sorry, folks... It looks like this file was accidentally wiped out."

"Wiped out?" Luke could tell Callista was trying her best not to sound alarmed, but he could detect the slight edge in her voice. "How is that--does anyone have write access to these files?"

The girl shook her head. "No... All the files in Gerridion's central database are supposed to be protected..." She bit her lip and continued to hit the enter screen, as if doing so would eventually make the file magically return sooner or later. "I don't understand it--all the files are coded exactly so this sort of thing doesn't happen... There must have been some sort of server hiccup."

Luke swallowed hard. Every instinct in him told him that that wasn't what happened. "Do you keep back-ups of these files at all?"

She stopped punching the keyboard and turned to look up at Luke. "Well, we are supposed run a weekly back-up," she said, "but to be honest, we haven't exactly been very religious about it lately. I think the latest we have may be from a few months ago, and I'd have to dig through several tapes to find it..."

Callista's eyes went to Luke again, and he nodded back at her.

"Would you mind?" she asked the girl. "Please, I know it will be a hassle, but this is really important..."

The girl was quiet for a while, then looked back and forth between Luke and Callista. At last she nodded and stood from her seat. "If you don't mind waiting-"

"No, we wouldn't mind waiting at all... Thank you ..."

She smiled and disappeared into the small office behind the main counter. Luke didn’t keep track of how long she had been in there, but even when she finally emerged, he couldn’t let himself breathe a sigh of relief.

Not after he saw the look on her face.

“I'm sorry, sir,” she said, shaking her head. “I-I don't know how to explain it, but I can't seem to be able to locate any of the back-ups for these files you're interested in. I wish I could help you, but... I'm not sure what I can do...”

Luke felt the air in his lungs seep out, and every nerve ending in his body tingled when he walked out of the building. He caught Callista's concerned expression as he approached her and the droids, and she met him halfway. Then, as if afraid the droids would hear her, she said softly, "Stars, Luke, what is it? Something's wrong isn't it?"

He nodded, and suddenly felt his heart rise to his throat.

Something was wrong--very wrong.

"Luke, talk to me... You're scaring me..."

He pulled her closer. Something was telling him he needed to hold on to her as tightly as possible right now--though he couldn't articulate why. "Callista," he whispered, feeling her ragged breath on his face, "Let's go. We have to go now."

"Why? What's going to-"

Luke didn't even have time to answer her before the unmistakable choke hold of the dark side suddenly jolted him. Without hesitation, he let go of Callista and spun 180 degrees, igniting his lightsaber and raising it in anticipation of striking. The next thing he became conscious of was the bright scarlet of the blade that clashed with his own.

And when he raised his eyes to look at his enemy, his blood ran cold.

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