In the Jade Shadow
's forward canopy hung twin black holes, their perfect darkness surrounded by fiery whorls of accretion gas. Because the Shadow
was approaching at an angle, the two holes had the oblong appearance of a pair of fire- rimmed eyes– and Ben Skywalker was half tempted to believe that's what they were. He had begun to feel like he was being watched the instant he and his father had entered the Maw cluster, and the deeper they advanced, the stronger the sensation grew. Now, at the very heart of the concentration of black holes, the feeling was a constant chill at the base of his skull.
"I sense it, too," his father said. He was sitting behind Ben in the copilot's seat, up on the primary flight deck. "We're not alone in here."
No longer surprised that the Grand Master of the Jedi Order always seemed to know his thoughts, Ben glanced at an activation reticle in the front of the cockpit. A small section of canopy opaqued into a mirror, and he saw his father's reflection staring out the side of the canopy. Luke Skywalker looked more alone and pensive than Ben ever remembered seeing him– thoughtful, but not sad or frightened, as though he were merely trying to understand what had brought him to such a dark and isolated place, banished from an Order he had founded, and exiled from a society he had spent his life fighting to defend.
Trying not to dwell on the injustice of the situation, Ben said, "So maybe we're closing in. Not that I'm all that eager to meet a bunch of beings called the Mind Drinkers."
His father thought for a moment, then said, "Well, I am."
He didn't elaborate, and he didn't need to. Ben and his father were on a mission to retrace Jacen Solo's fiveyear odyssey of Force exploration. At their last stop, they had learned from an Aing- Tii monk that Jacen had been bound for the Maw when he departed the Kathol Rift. Since one purpose of their journey was to determine whether Jacen had been nudged toward the dark side by something on his voyage, it only made sense that Luke would want to investigate a mysterious Maw- dwelling group known as the Mind Drinkers.
What impressed Ben, however, was how calm his father seemed about it all. Ben was privately terrified of falling victim to the same darkness that had claimed his cousin. Yet his father seemed eager to step into its depth and strike a flame. And why shouldn't he be? After everything that Luke Skywalker had suffered and achieved in his lifetime, there was no power in the galaxy that could draw him into darkness. It was a strength that both awed Ben and inspired him, one that he wondered if he would ever find himself.
Luke' s eyes shifted toward the mirrored canopy section, and he caught Ben's gaze. "Is this what bothered you when you were at Shelter?" He was referring to a time that was ancient history to Ben–the last part of the war with the Yuuzhan Vong, when the Jedi had been forced to hide their young at a secret base deep inside the Maw. "Did you feel like someone was watching you?"
"How should I know?" Ben asked, suddenly uneasy– and unsure why. By all accounts, he had been an unruly, withdrawn toddler while he was at Shelter, and he recalled being afraid of the Force for years afterward. But he had no clear memories of Shelter itself, or what it had felt like to be there. "I was two.
have feelings when you were two," his father said mildly. "You did
have a mind."
Ben sighed, knowing what his father wanted, then said, "You'd better take the ship."
"I have the ship," Luke confirmed, reaching for the copilot's yoke. "Just close your eyes. Let the Force carry your thoughts back to Shelter."
"I know how to meditate." Almost instantly, Ben felt bad for grumbling and added, "But thanks for the advice."
"Don't mention it," Luke said in a good- natured way. "That's what fathers do–
offer unwanted advice."
Ben closed his eyes and began to breathe slowly and deliberately. Each time he inhaled, he drew the Force into himself, and each time he exhaled, he sent it flowing throughout his body. He had no conscious memories of Shelter that were his own, so he envisioned a holograph of the facility that he had seen in the Jedi Archives. The image showed a handful of habitation modules clinging to the surface of an asteroid fragment, their domes clustered around the looming cylinder of a power core. In his mind's eye, Ben descended into the gaudy yellow docking bay at the edge of the facility . . . and then he was two years old again, a frightened little boy holding a stranger's hand as his parents departed in the Jade Shadow.
An unwarranted sense of relief welled up inside Ben as he grew lost in a time when life had seemed so much easier. The last fourteen years began to feel like a long, terrible nightmare. Jacen's fall to the dark side had never happened, Ben had not been molded into an adolescent assassin, and his mother had not died fighting Jacen. All those sad memories were still just bad dreams, the unhappy imaginings of a frightened young mind.
Then the Shadow
slipped through the containment field and ignited her engines. In the blink of an eye she dwindled from a trio of blue ion circles into a pinpoint of light to nothing at all, and suddenly Ben was alone in the darkest place in the galaxy, one child among dozens entrusted to a small group of worried adults who–despite their cheerful voices and reassuring presences– had very clammy palms and scary, anxious eyes.
Two- year- old Ben reached toward the Shadow
with his free hand and his heart, and he sensed his mother and father reaching back. Though he was too young to know he was being touched through the Force, he stopped being afraid . . . until a dark tentacle of need began to slither up into the aching tear of his abandonment. He thought for an instant that he was just sad about being left behind, but the tentacle grew as real as his breath, and he began to sense in it an alien loneliness as desperate and profound as his own. It wanted to draw him close and keep him safe, to take the place of his parents and never let him be alone again.
Terrified and confused, young Ben pulled away, simultaneously drawing in on himself and yanking his hand from the grasp of the silver- haired lady who was holding it.
Then suddenly he was back in the cockpit of the Jade Shadow,
staring into the fire- rimmed voids ahead. Scattered around their perimeter were the smaller whorls of half a dozen more distant rings, their fiery light burning bright and steady against the starless murk of the deep Maw.
"Well?" his father asked. "Anything feel familiar?"
Ben swallowed. He wasn't sure why, but he found himself wanting to withdraw from the Force all over again. "Are we sure we need to find these guys?"
Luke raised a brow. "So it is
"Maybe." Ben couldn't say whether the two feelings were related, and at the moment he didn't care. There was something hungry in the Maw, something that would still be there waiting for him. "I mean, the Aing- Tii call them Mind Drinkers. That can't be good."
"Ben, you're changing the subject." Luke' s tone was more interested than disapproving, as though Ben's behavior were only one part of a much larger puzzle. "Is there something you don't want to talk about?"
"I wish." Ben told his father about the dark tentacle that had reached out to him after the Shadow
departed Shelter so many years ago. "I guess what we're feeling now might be related. There was definitely some . . . thing
keeping tabs on me at Shelter."
Luke considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "You were pretty attached to your mother. Maybe you were just feeling abandoned and made up a 'friend' to take her place."
"You said it was a dark
tentacle," Luke continued thoughtfully, "and guilt is a dark emotion. Maybe you were feeling guilty about replacing us with an imaginary friend."
"And maybe you
don't want to believe the tentacle was real because it would mean you left your two- yearold son someplace really dangerous," Ben countered. He caught his father's eye in the mirrored section again.
"I hope you're not going to try to psychoanalyze this away, because there's a big hole in your theory."
Luke frowned. "And that would be?"
"I was two,
" Ben reminded him. "And by all accounts, I didn't feel guilty about anything
at that age."
Luke grinned. "Good point, but I still don't think we should worry too much about this tentacle monster of yours."
"It's not my
tentacle monster," Ben retorted, miffed at having his concerns mocked. "You're the one who made me dredge it up."
Luke's expression hardened into admonishment.
the one who's still afraid of it." ...