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Heirs of the Force

Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Modesta

1

Jacen Solo had stayed at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi academy for about a month before he managed to set up his room the way he wanted it.

Within an ancient temple on the jungle moon of Yavin 4, the student quarters were dank and dim, cold every night. But Jacen and his twin sister Jaina had spent days scrubbing the moss-covered stone blocks of their adjoining rooms, adding glowpanels and portable corner-warmers.

The son of Han Solo and Princess Leia stood now in the orangish morning light that spilled through the slit windows in the thick temple walls. Outside in the jungle, large birds shrieked as they fought for their insect breakfasts.

As he did every morning before going to Uncle Luke’s lessons, Jacen fed and took stock of all the bizarre and exotic creatures he had collected out in the unexplored jungles on Yavin 4. He liked to gather new pets.

The far wall was stacked with bins and cages, transparent display cages and bubbling aquariums. Many of the containers were ingenious contraptions invented by his mechanically inclined sister. He appreciated Jaina’s inventions, though he couldn’t understand why she was more interested in the cages themselves than the creatures they contained.

One cage rattled with two clamoring stintarils, tree-dwelling rodents with protruding eyes and long jaws filled with sharp teeth. Stintarils would swarm across the arboreal highways, never slowing down, eating anything that sat still long enough for them to take a bite. Jacen had had a fun time catching these two.

In a damp, transparent enclosure tiny swimming crabs used sticky mud to build complex nests with small towers and curving battlements. In a rounded water bowl pinkish mucous salamanders swam formlessly, diluted and without shape, until they crawled out onto a perching shelf; then they hardened their outer membranes to a soft jellylike form with pseudopods and a mouth, allowing them to hunt among the insects in the weeds. In another cage strung with thick, tough wires, iridescent blue piranha-beetles crawled around with clacking jaws, constantly trying to chew their way free. Out in the jungle a wild swarm of piranha-beetles could descend with a thin deadly whine. When they set upon their prey, the beetles could turn a large animal to gnawed bones in minutes. Jacen was proud to have the only specimens in captivity in his menagerie.

Often Jacen’s most difficult job was not keeping the exotic pets caged but figuring out what they ate. Sometimes they fed on fruit or flowers. Sometimes they devoured fresh meat chunks. Sometimes the larger ones even broke free of their confinement and ate the other specimens—much to Jacen’s dismay.

Unlike Jacen and Jaina’s strict tutors at home on the city-covered planet Coruscant, Luke Skywalker did not depend on a rigorous course of studies. To be a Jedi, Uncle Luke explained, one had to understand many pieces of the whole tapestry of the galaxy, not just a rigid pattern set by other people.

So Jacen was allowed to spend much of his free time tromping through the dense underbrush, pushing jungle weeds and flowers out of the way, collecting beautiful insects, scooping up rare and unusual fungi. He had always had a strange and deep affinity for living creatures, much as his sister had a talent for understanding machinery and gadgets. He could coax the animals with his special Force talent, getting them to come right up to him, where he could study them at his leisure.

Some of the Jedi students—especially spoiled and troublesome Raynar—were not pleased about the small zoo Jacen kept in his room. But Jacen studied the creatures, and took care of them, and learned much from the animals.

From a small cistern Jaina had installed in the wall, Jacen ladled cool water into trays inside the cages. His motion disturbed a family of purple jumping spiders so that they hopped and bounced against the netting of the cage roof.

He ran his fingers along the thin wires and whispered to them. “Calm down. It’s all right.” The spiders stopped their antics and settled down to drink through their long, hollow fangs.

In another cage, the whisper birds had fallen silent, possibly hungry. Jacen would have to collect some fresh nectar funnels from the vines growing in the stones of the crumbling temple across the river.

It was almost time to go to morning lessons. Jacen tapped the sides of the containers, saying good-bye to his pets. Just before turning to leave, though, he hesitated. He peered into the bottommost container, where the transparent crystal snake usually sat coiled in a bed of dry leaves.

The crystal snake was nearly invisible, and Jacen could see it only by looking at the creature in a certain light. But now, no matter which way he looked, he saw no glitter of glassy scales, no rainbowish curve of light that bent around the transparent creature. Alarmed, he leaned down and discovered that the bottom corner of the cage had been bent upward … just enough for a thin serpent to slither out.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Jacen said, unconsciously echoing the words his father so often used.

The crystal snake was not particularly dangerous—at least Jacen didn’t think so. He did know from firsthand experience that the bite of the snake brought a moment of piercing pain, and then the victim fell into a deep sleep. Even though after an hour or so one would wake up and feel no ill effects, this was the sort of hazard someone like Raynar might use to cause trouble and perhaps force Jacen to move his pets to an outside storage module.

And now the crystal snake was loose.

His heart started racing with fear, but he remembered to use one of his uncle Luke’s Jedi relaxation techniques to keep himself calm, to help him think more clearly. Jacen knew immediately what he had to do: he would have his sister Jaina help him find the snake before anyone noticed it was gone.

He slipped out into the dim hall, his dark round eyes flicking from side to side to check for anyone who might notice him. Then he ducked into the next rounded stone doorway and stood blinking in the shadows of his sister’s room.

One entire wall of Jaina’s quarters was filled with neatly stacked containers of spare parts, cyberfuses, electronic circuit loops, and tiny gears taken from dismantled and obsolete droids. She had removed unused power packs and control systems from the old Rebel war room deep in the inner chambers of the temple pyramid.

The ancient temple had once been headquarters for the secret Rebel base hidden in the jungles on this isolated moon, long before the twins had been born. Their mother, Princess Leia, had helped the Rebels defend their base against the Empire’s terrible Death Star; their father, Han Solo, had been just a smuggler at the time, but he had rescued Luke Skywalker at the end.

Now, though, most of the old equipment from the empty Rebel base lay unused and forgotten by the Jedi trainees. Jaina spent her free time tinkering with it, putting the components together in new ways. Her room was crammed with so much large equipment that Jacen barely had enough space to squeeze inside. He looked around, but saw no sign of the escaped crystal snake.

“Jaina?” he said. “Jaina, I need your help!” He looked around the dim room, trying to find his sister. He smelled the sharp, biting odor of scorched fuses, heard the clunk of a heavy tool against metal.

“Just a minute.” Jaina’s voice echoed hollowly inside the barrel-shaped hulk of corroded machinery that took up half of her quarters. He remembered when the two of them, with the help of their muscular female friend Tenel Ka, had somewhat clumsily used their Force powers to haul the heavy machine along the winding corridors so Jaina could work on it in her room far into the night.

“Hurry!” Jacen said, feeling the urgency grow. Jaina squirmed backward out of an opening in the intake pipe. Her dark brown hair was straight and simple, tied back with a string to keep it away from her narrow face. Smudges of grease made hash marks on her left cheek.

Though her shoulder-length hair was as rich and thick as her mother’s, Jaina never wanted to take the time to twist and tangle it into the lovely, convoluted hairstyles for which Princess Leia had been so famous.

Jacen extended his hand to help her to her feet. “My crystal snake’s loose again! We have to find it. Have you seen it?”

She took little notice of his words. “No, I’ve been busy in here. Almost finished, though.” She pointed down at the grimy pumping machinery. “When this is all done well be able to install it in the river next to the temple. The flowing water can turn the wheels and charge all of our batteries.” Her words picked up speed as she began to talk. Once Jaina got started, she loved to explain things.

Jacen tried to interrupt, but could find no pause in her speech. “But, my snake—”

“With phased output jacks we can divert power to the Great Temple, provide all the light we need. With special protein skimmers added on, we could extract algae from the water and process it into food. We could even power all of the academy’s communication systems and—”

Jacen stopped her. “Jaina, why are you spending all your time doing this? Don’t we have dozens of permanent power cells left over from the old Rebel base?”

She sighed, making him feel as if he had missed some deeply important point. “I’m not building this because it’s useful,” she said. “I’m doing it to see if I can ...