1 hour ago
The whine of assembly machinery and compressors pervaded the small, black-dominated room as a fresh air filter replaced a used one in a personal respirator. The machinery reassembled the device and integrated it into the mask from where it came as a pale, heavily scarred figure meditated below it. His eyes were closed in focus as currents of Force flitted past and all around him, sometimes passing by untouched, in waves, sometimes bending toward and around him as he exercised his will over them. A familiar feeling of cold rage formed in his gut, where it always was to some degree.
Suddenly, the currents were disrupted, and his closed eyes scrunched even tighter as his burned-off eyebrows knitted together in concentration. Stretching out with the Force, the figure probed for the source of this aberration, his focus and presence flying across the surface of Coruscant and approaching it rapidly until…
His eyes snapped open.
As quickly as it had appeared in his senses, it had vanished. He pondered the meaning of this for a few moments before stretching out once again, and a few minutes later, a slightly shorter man with similarly pale complexion and a bald head strode through the door of the meditation chamber.
"You summoned me, master?" The man's voice was deep and accented with the typical presumptuously superior accent of Imperial Moffs, but an underlying and inherent power.
The massive, now fully-armored figure of Darth Vader rose to its full height and turned toward the man in question, hands curling into loose fists as he looked down at him from his meditation pedestal.
"Indeed I did," his helmet-altered baritone boomed. His head tilted forward slightly as he closed his eyes and focused once more, attempting to find the presence from before and failing. Opening them again, he looked back toward his expectant guest. "I have felt something…a disturbance in the Force, on this very planet. A presence."
The bald man's eyes widened. "A Jedi?"
"Perhaps…perhaps not. From what little I felt before it vanished, it was far too…impure to be that of a true Jedi."
"A rival then. One capable of being a threat?"
Vader shook his head slightly as he turned away and started pacing. "Doubtful on both counts. Regardless, this presence intrigues me. It is unlike anything I have felt before…and that is a rare occurrence." He faced the one-sided mirror that comprised the window of his meditation chamber, hands folded behind his back as he stared out into the metropolis. "I was unable to trace it to its source, but whoever this man is, he was in the industrial district not five minutes ago." He was silent a few moments before turning his head to the right and looking over his shoulder. "Find him."
The other man's silver eyes narrowed slightly and his lips tightened a little, but he bowed low at the waist in submission. "It shall be done, my lord."
2 months later
1 year, 7 months BBY
Xander tossed and turned in his bunk, half-unconscious, incapable of shutting off. A spark of light drifted through his vision, behind his closed eyes, piercing his exhausted mind. He focused on the spark, and it grew, continuing to expand until it transformed into an ocean of curving, crystalline formations. The abstract glow sharpened until a fraction of his broken awareness whispered its recognition. The galaxy. The image grew brighter and closer until he was whizzing toward it at hyperspeed, toward a very specific and familiar cluster of worlds on the fringe of space.
Before he knew it, he was in-atmosphere on a landing pad overlooking a busy section of a city, and he could see…himself. In armor, helmet and cloak gone, his left arm bent at an odd angle as he limped back out of a doorway onto the empty pad.
"You've lost," his other self hissed through clenched teeth. "He will never be yours!"
When Xander followed his doppelganger's gaze, he saw the doorway completely wreathed in shadow. He could feel the evil emanating from it well before he saw the radioactive yellow eyes burning through the darkness. Slowly and without explanation, the eyes turned to him, locking gazes with his own. A cold, terrifying feeling shot up his spine. Years of experience instantly kicked in as he clawed his way back to consciousness, madly raging against the pursuit of the sharp, crimson snap-hiss.
The Kandosii'tal, hyperspace
Xander shot out of bed, his startled son barely backpedaling from the fear and momentum-driven haymaker that answered his anxious call. Heart hammering on his rib cage, Xander clutched his chest as he heaved for breath. Xel stayed still at the door, hands up, as he waited for his father to come out of his nightmare-induced frenzy. Xander's hazel eyes were practically glowing, the blue and green flecks of his irises overshadowing the brown as the adrenaline ran its course.
"Did—I—? What happened?"
Xel looked at his father dubiously. "I'm not sure. It was almost like the ship's artificial gravity malfunctioned."
Xander stared at him wide-eyed. "Excuse me?"
"I was reading up our newest bounty and suddenly the datapad felt a lot lighter. That's when I noticed almost every other loose object in the room—no, in the ship—start to lift."
Xander looked away as he kept heaving, his sucking breaths slowly turning to even gulps. "That's…strange."
Xel narrowed his eyes. "Yeah. It is." He was silent a while. "You okay?"
Xander nodded slowly, almost uncertainly. "Yeah, I'm fine." He gave Xel a pat on the shoulder. "Thanks." He sat back on his bed hard as Xel pursed his lips uncertainly.
"I'll be in the cockpit if you need me."
Xander gave his withdrawing form a single nod before letting himself fall backward onto the mattress. A heavy exhale left his lips as he closed his eyes only to open them instantly as those same glowing yellow orbs greeted him. Okay. I'm awake now.
He's hiding something, Xel thought as his hands swept over the controls, observing their proximity to Nal Hutta and pulling back the hyperdrive lever. They entered realspace a moment later, the brown, polluted landscape of the Hutt homeworld off in the distance. His father hadn't been acting like himself lately. He was skittish, edgy, constantly looking over his shoulder. For the life of him, Xel couldn't figure out what was up. He hadn't thought Xander had taken the Anzati's threat that seriously.
A heavy, steady tread from behind alerted him to the now fully-armored Xander taking his seat as pilot. Xel gave him a glance when he wasn't looking and noted the hard concentration on his face, as if his work were giving him escape from another more daunting matter.
"How's our fuel?"
Xel raised an eyebrow slightly but schooled his face into a neutral expression. "Not the best. We should have enough to get back to Mandalore, at least, but that all depends on where our client sends us. Speaking of, I've been doing some research on Durga the Hutt and…Dad this is not a good guy."
"I'm well aware, but work has been slow lately, and when you're in our line of business, you've gotta take what you can get."
"Including jobs from a crime lord?"
Xander pursed his lips. "Sometimes, yes, and word has it, the pay on this one is good. Very good."
"Which also means it's very dangerous."
Xan shrugged. "Probably. Nothing we can't handle though, yes?"
Fifteen minutes later, they landed on a pad about half a mile from Durga's palace on Hutta. As Xel hit the release for the loading ramp, he got a good, up-close look at just what the atmosphere of the Hutt homeworld was like. He was suddenly very glad for the air filters in his helmet.
"Come on, son. Best not to keep a Hutt waiting, especially not one like Durga."
Another five-minute walk with a lot of turned heads and more than a few fleeing pedestrians, they reached the gigantic building that housed the lord of Hutt kajidic Besadii, essentially one of several crime families run by the bloated species. Two very unattractive Klatooinians flanked a very attractive, green-skinned Twi'lek as the trio approached the hunters.
"My lord Durga has been expecting you."
"Then," Xander spoke, intentionally deepening his voice even more than the helmet's vocabulator did, "let's not keep him waiting."
The effect of his alteration was instant, and an observant onlooker would have seen the girl shiver slightly before forcing her smile and turning about. The Klatooinians flanked the hunters, essentially boxing them in as the party made its way to Durga's throne room.
These Hutts and their decorations, Xel thought in disgust. He averted his eyes and double-checked that the air filters in his helmet were fully active and not letting in any of the atmosphere around him. The planet may have been livable, but considering everything that was being done on it, it might as well have been a toxic world. Two dark blue orbs locked onto their newest patron within a split-second, his worm-like girth easily the most obvious, obnoxious decoration in the room. And the ugliest.
"Lord Durga," Xander greeted in a polite tone, bowing slightly at the waist.
Xel followed his example.
Durga's massive eyes narrowed slightly as he sized them both up. His left arm motioned for his translator droid, who stepped forward somewhat reluctantly. Xel noted the considerable dents in his right-side plating. A few words of deep-voiced Huttese were thrown in their direction before the droid needlessly translated.
"My lord Durga the Hutt wishes you a good morning and hopes that your trip here was not too much of a hassle."
"Not at all."
"He asks if you would like refreshments."
Xel's nose crinkled, and considering the slight, near-imperceptible tension in his father's body, he could tell Xander was just as disenchanted with the idea.
"Respectfully, sir, we came here to do a job, not have a party."
Durga laughed heartily, the bellowing sound causing Xel to cringe slightly.
"You Mando boys are all the same. Always business, business, business." Durga laughed a few more times. "As you wish. Your target is an Epicanthix named Kell Hammer. It has been brought to my attention that he embezzled a good amount of money out of my accounts, then sold the account information to my competitors in Clan Desilijic. I want you to find and capture him alive."
"Where was he last seen?"
"Here. As soon as I discovered his treachery, I locked down all outgoing traffic from this sector of the planet and made sure our perimeter was secure."
"You sure he didn't slip through the net? Migrate to one of the other clans in time? Your competitor, maybe?"
Durga licked his massive lips and smirked. "Not even Jabba is foolish enough to challenge me over an accountant, and besides, Desilijic's domain is on the other side of the planet. We very wisely keep as far apart as possible."
"Understood. Your territory's massive though. Any more pointers?"
Durga motioned to his major domo, a Zabrak on his right, who brandished a handheld holoprojector and activated it.
"My forces have been doing grid sweeps, but it's impractical for him to hide anywhere except here." The holoprojector zoomed in on a particularly hilly area 20 miles away. "He'll be anywhere within five miles of here."
"If you don't mind me asking, why didn't you send your own men if you're so sure?"
"Because I didn't just hire him for his accounting abilities. He's a decorated assassin and pilot, worked for the Separatists during the war. His string of kills was unbroken."
"Depending on how much you're paying, it's about to be."
Durga smiled widely, a thin stream of spittle running down the side of his face. "Sixty-five."
Both hunters' eyes snapped wide open.
Durga nodded slowly.
Xel exchanged a look with his similarly shell-shocked father.
2 hours later
"Does something feel a little…off about this to you?"
"Keep listening to your intuition, son. You're not wrong about Hutts, and especially not this one in particular. With a price tag that big, this assassin either isn't working alone or he's a trump card. Essentially, Durga doesn't expect us to survive. Keep your head on a swivel."
Xel nodded as he and his father went back to back momentarily, both of them turning their eyes in every direction. The last hour and a half after reaching Durga's coordinates had been spent combing the uneven landscape for signs of life. Thus far, they'd run into a half dozen native life forms that were none too happy to see them. Xel's armor bore a few scuffs from a Chemilizard who decided to try taking a chunk out of him only to get a durasteel knife to the neck. Xander hadn't gotten off much better, but beskar was more effective than durasteel.
The relatively calm drudgery of their search left both hunters with a lot of time to think, and for the last two months, one topic in particular had plagued Xel's mind. Ever since learning of the existence of not one but two lost family members, the boy had pestered his father about them both. Xander, like his son, had had little to no contact with the other twin or his mother, and even then only through brief Force connections. He left that bit out when he explained the primary reason he was reluctant to go to Coruscant. All Xel knew was that if the Empire discovered the existence of either child, much less both, they would stop at nothing to track down and capture them.
When Xel had asked for a deeper explanation, Xander shut down and tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. Fearing that if he pushed too hard, Xan would clam up for good, Xel had asked about the history between his parents, how they met, how they fell in love, etc. Even as loose-tongued as Xander had been over the following weeks, Xel could tell that he was holding back certain details, and it didn't take a genius to tie them to the Empire. In his spare time, and quite behind his father's back, Xel had done research on the Imperials and their goals, gleaned either through outright statements or the evidence of history. Above all, one thing was glaringly obvious. They didn't take kindly to threats, real or perceived.
When he reached that conclusion, Xel was more confused than ever. How could four people, no matter how experienced or deadly, be a threat to an empire that had thousands of ships and millions of soldiers under its command? The boy had briefly considered interrogating his father until he caved, but dismissed that option as an impossibility. If he had learned anything from the stories of Xander and Telia, his mother, and their adventures during the Clone Wars, it was that they were both as stubborn as Mandalorian iron, and just as tough. He could only hope that the day Xander spoke of, when they would finally be reunited, would come soon. He had a feeling everything would be laid bare when that happened.
Xander marched over to a large, suspicious-looking piece of metal and toed it carefully, wary of booby traps. He gave his son a nod, and Xel drew his second pistol as well, pointing both barrels at the metal as Xander started to lift it. The sheet went completely upright as both of their eyes widened. A series of rhythmic beeps was the only other sound than the rapid crunching of their boots against the ground as they sprinted away from the armed detpack. It detonated a moment later, sending them both careening forward onto their chests. Groaning at the impact, the hunters scrambled to their feet a moment before blaster fire slashed across Xander's torso.
"I'm fine!" Xander shouted back as he sprinted toward a rocky outcropping with his son in tow. They both slid behind cover a few moments later, Xander taking a moment to inspect the char-marks on his armor. He let out a long hissing breath. "Gotta love beskar."
"Any idea where that came from?"
Xander's eyes narrowed behind his helmet as he drew his Blackjack and tapped the side of his helmet with one finger, the antenna pivoting down to hover over his eyeslit. "I've got a few." Inside his helmet, the head of the antenna served as a focusing device to his built-in macrobinoculars, essentially giving him an all-purpose scope. The smog that covered the entirety of the polluted planet's surface made it hard to see, but a quick modification of his visor allowed him view of the infrared spectrum. One blazing red heat signature presented itself, and he smiled as he lined up the sights of his weapon with the target's head.
Only to have another blaster bolt smack into his arm's plating.
"What the hell?!"
The second salvo was coming from somewhere else entirely, and both hunters realized Xander had been right. Hammer wasn't alone, and whoever his partner or partners were, they were crack shots.
"We're sitting ducks," Xander pointed out as he returned suppressing fire into the fog. "I'll provide cover, you get to the ship."
"What? No way! I'm not leaving!"
"No, of course not!" Xander grunted as another bolt smacked his chest. "You're going to fly it and vaporize the target I designate."
"Why not blast 'em both?"
"Because one of them is probably Hammer, and Durga wants him alive."
Xel nodded his acknowledgement as Xander emptied his rifle of tibanna gas, sending streams of fire in several directions. The boy kept running until the sounds of battle got fainter, then kicked in his jetpack to give himself an extra boost. The ship was in sight in seconds, but so were the half-dozen Blazing Claw Pirates trying to break in. Xel's teeth clenched as he drew both pistols and shifted the dials on their sides to full auto. He touched down on the top of the ship, right above two pirates who were standing guard and snapping their weapons in his direction. A torrent of red plasma dropped them before Xel performed a twist-flip forward onto the ground, quite a feat in heavy armor.
His blasters spat out bolts at a rate of four a second each, mowing down three more as the last one ducked behind a landing gear for cover. Futile. Xel jetpacked sideways, arcing around his cover rapidly, then plugging him without a second thought before returning to the locked landing ramp. Quickly inputting the proper access code, Xel ascended the ramp and locked it behind him, sprinting for the cockpit and keying the engines on. The Kandosii'tal's repulsor lifts powered up, bringing the ship to a hover as Xel took off toward his father. The ship was tracking a transponder in his suit, but even if it hadn't been, the telltale flashes of green, gold, and red were clear as a beacon from the air.
His hand went to his helmet. "Buir, I've got the ship. Mark 'em!"
"Be careful, Xel. This chakaar's got a lot of tech, that detpack, for example."
"You think anything he has can crack this armor?"
"Probably not, but better safe than sorry."
Xel nodded, though he knew his father couldn't see it, and nudged the stick forward, dropping the ship slightly as he readied for his father's instructions.
"Xel, I've got an idea. Fly low."
Mere seconds later, and a human rocket was flying toward the ship, Blackjack and DD6 firing madly at the ground as he landed on top of the ship.
"Fly toward these coordinates," Xander transmitted.
Xel thumbed a flashing button and followed his father's lead, the armored hull of the ship putting a proper barrier between Xander and Hammer's attacks. "There."
"Stand by." Xander leapt off the front of the ship in a death-defying drop, popping his jetpack at the last second and firing a wrist rocket at something Xel couldn't see. A few moments and flurried blaster fire later, and the boy's father spoke again. "Found Hammer!"
"You got him?"
"Not—" he grunted, "—not quite. Shab-face is putting up a fight, but I've got him handled. Vape anything else that moves!"
"Roger that," Xel said with some relish, having never been behind the firing controls of this beast. His fingers danced over the pilot's station, removing the safeties on the Kandosii's weapon systems before activating the infrared filters in his helmet. Several heat signatures immediately revealed themselves, and he armed the ship's repeating blaster cannons, sweeping them over the positions of two attackers before the enemy caught on. They never stood a chance. Although the atmosphere of Nal Hutta lent itself to concealment and the rocky terrain to cover, what little protection the numerous crags provided were useless against turbolasers. When the last cluster of heat sigs went dim, he turned back to the complex, as he recognized it, where he'd dropped off Xander.
"Buir, how ya doing? Dad?"
A grunt came from the other end of the link. "This—chakaar's—tough!"
The distinctive crunch of broken bones was heard, and Xel sorely hoped they didn't belong to his father.
"And he's not alone!"
"You need me there?"
"No!" Shuffling and blaster fire was heard as Xander scrambled to cover. "Hammer's got a ship here, he has an escape plan. The pirates are a distraction, meant to keep us from following, but you're in the air. Find that ship and blast it to pieces before he can take off!"
Xel's jaw dropped as an Imperial Lambda-class shuttle rose out of a large building in the complex. "I think…it's a little late for that."
"Shab—I see it."
"What do I do?"
"Lower the ramp and standby." Another jet of light and thrust brought Xander into the ship as he sprinted to the cockpit, where Xel allowed him to sit in the pilot's seat after raising the ramp. "Get on the missile controls."
Xander didn't answer for a few seconds as the ship in front of them took off toward the outer atmosphere, the hunters in close pursuit. "If that shuttle has half the firepower and shielding as a fully militarized one, we'll need the extra punch."
Xel nodded and complied, getting a firm lock on the ship as they approached space. "If we blow him out of the sky, how are we gonna get him alive?" He could hear the smile in his father's response.
"We'll blow him out gently."
That, Xel realized as the first lances of energy splashed against their shields, was highly unlikely.
This useless piece of osik…
Xander fired again and again, his turbolasers pounding Hammer's shields as he juked to avoid another incoming salvo. Durga hadn't been kidding when he said Kell was an accomplished pilot.
"Incoming missiles!" Xel shouted.
A chaff burst shot out of a hatch on the ship's top into the path of two of three missiles, the third staying locked on. Xander's teeth ground together as a quick burst of thrust in combination with a sideways roll took them out of the weapon's path—right into another turbolaser burst.
"Oh, for shab's sake!" Udesii, Xander, udesii. The Mandalorian reached out to the Force, his hands and entire body briefly going numb as energy flowed through him. His hands flew over the controls, the ship responding to his touch like a bird to the changing wind, its movements smooth and graceful.
Xander barely heard Xel's exhaled whisper, but it brought a smile to his face. One day, you'll learn to do this too. The Force spoke to him, and he fired a burst of laser fire into Hammer's left wing at the instant he fired another set of missiles. It was a well-known fact among combat pilots that firing off solid projectiles requires brief deactivation of the ship's particle shields. With the Force, Telia had taken advantage of it and taught Xander to do the same, anticipating his enemy's tactics and firing at just the right time. Hammer's ship lurched sideways as Xander easily dodged the overshooting missile.
Xander looked at his son. "What?"
"He's taken all power from weapons and poured them into shields and engines. He's gonna try to jump!"
"Like shab he is." Xander gunned the engines of the Kandosii, streaking toward Hammer's vessel and firing all weapons madly. "When I say, fire a pair of missiles directly at his aft section."
Xander's blasters and turbolasers relentlessly hammered Hammer's ship, the shields starting to sputter and die. "Now!"
A pair of projectiles rocketed toward the ship, smacking directly into the armor above the engines.
"Shab, I missed…"
"Don't think so," Xander said with a smile, feeling the sudden uncertainty and panic of their fleeing target. A quick scan of the shuttle verified his suspicions. "You hit their hyperdrive core, ad'ika. They're stuck in realspace." He grinned and smacked Xel's shoulder. "Well done."
Xander felt what he was talking about. The shuttle was coming about—and its weapons were active. A half dozen blaster cannons slammed their contents into the Kandosii at once, one or two rounds cutting through and slashing gaping holes in its ventral armor. A quick roll sent the ship out of immediate danger and on the defensive. To their surprise, the shuttle didn't reengage, instead opting to gun its engines toward Nar Shaddaa.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Xel complained.
"Sadly, no. If he reaches the Smuggler's Moon, he'll go to ground, vanish if he can."
"We can make 'im reappear, though, right?"
Xander pressed his lips together. "Yes, but I'd really rather get this over with quickly."
"Seconded." Another positive missile lock complimented his agreement before Xel fired off a three-round salvo.
Xander scattered blaster fire across the shuttle's waning shields, Hammer juking from one side to the other as they approached Nar Shaddaa together. The heat of reentry screwed with both their targeting systems, but Xander had the Force as his ally, and the next salvo of shots flew true. The shuttle's tailfin broke in half, throwing off the ship's entire flight pattern but allowing it to keep aloft long enough to crash-land on a lengthy high-rise.
"We got him," Xander said with a smile. "Well done, Xel. Let's bag this chakaar."
"That sixty-five is startin' to look good."
Xan silently agreed as they landed some distance from the wreck and dismounted, running toward the downed ship with weapons drawn. Blaster fire sent them scattering and rolling in opposite directions before jetting into the air as they returned fire. A stray blaster bolt hit Xel's jetpack and ruptured its left jet. Xander's heart dropped as his son careened toward the edge of the building in a haphazard spiral. Momentarily distracted, he barely cut his pack in time to avoid a headshot and rolled on impact with the rooftop. Xander called on the Force and sprinted toward his son, who was starting to get a handle on the jetpack's issue when two blaster bolts smacked his shoulder and left thigh, sending him into another tailspin.
Rage shot through the Mando's father as he aimed his Blackjack toward the flaming wreck one-handedly, a single shot from the weapon killing the pirate who'd blasted his son before he tossed the rifle aside and reached out with the Force. The spastic flight pattern inexplicably began to stabilize as Xel lowered himself to the ground and turned off the pack, spotting his father looking on in relief. Xel snapped both his pistols toward the wreck and fired off two automatic bursts, suppressing the sniper aiming for his father's exposed jumpsuit. Smiling slightly, Xander refocused and rolled toward his fallen rifle, hefting it and joining his son in his assault.
"Give it up, Hammer!" Xander's only answer was more blaster fire.
A nod to Xel was enough to send them both sprinting for the wreck, rolling behind cover and continuing their firing patterns. This continued another ten seconds before they realized they were the only ones firing. A confused look passed between them when Xel's eyes flickered over to rapid movement and widened.
Xan followed his extended finger—to a stream of leaking fuel snaking toward the fire. "Go!"
Both Mandos sprinted away as fast as possible, Xander popping his jetpack and grabbing his son's shoulders on the way forward as they shot away from the primitive time bomb. The resulting explosion consumed the majority of the ship and its half of the rooftop, the fireball expanding until the faintest trace of heat could be felt through both of their armors, both rolling to a stop after the shockwave smacked into them. They both sprinted back toward the shuttle when it seemed like the danger was over.
"Did we get him?" Xel asked.
Xander knelt in the center of the wreck and stretched out with the Force, looking for the traces of fear and anger that he knew were most often present immediately after a person's death. His eyes snapped open as he scowled. "No." He rose to his feet.
"How can you be sure? There was no way off the roof, and they were backed into a corner."
Xander strode to the edge and looked over the side. Any civilians who hadn't been scared off either by the shootout or crash had fled at the explosion, speeder upon speeder curving away from the smoke and flames. The speeders. "The speeders, Xel."
"Coming here wasn't an act of desperation after all. He had a contingency, and contacts on this world." Xander scowled harder and slumped to a crouch. "If he has friends here, powerful friends, as Durga seemed to think, he'll be damn near impossible to find."
"Only if we can't find a few friends of our own."
Xander looked at him and furrowed his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Uh..." Xel scratched the back of his helmet. "You remember that thing, two months ago...where I said it might it be nothing?"
Xander's eyes narrowed as he nodded.
"Well, she's here, on Nar Shaddaa." He stood a little straighter and spoke firmly. "And I think she can help."