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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."
"You did 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 familiar."
"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."
"A tentacle friend?"
"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.
"But you're the one who's still afraid of it."
The observation struck home. Whether or not the dark presence he remembered was real, he had emerged from Shelter wary of abandonment and frightened of the Force. And it had been those fears that had allowed Jacen to lead him into darkness.
Ben sighed. "Right. Whatever this thing is, I've got to face it." After a moment, he asked, "So how do we find these Mind Drinkers?"
" 'The Path of True Enlightenment runs through the Chasm of Perfect Darkness.' " Luke was quoting Tadar'Ro, the Aing- Tii monk who had told them that Jacen had left the Kathol Rift to search out the Mind Drinkers. " 'The way is narrow and treacherous, but if you can follow it, you will find what you seek.' "
Ben swung his gaze toward the black holes ahead. The brilliant whorls of their accretion disks were burning hottest and brightest along their inner rims, where a mixture of in- falling gas and dust was being compressed to unimaginable densities as it vanished into the sharpedged darkness of twin event horizons.
"Wait. Tadar'Ro said perfect darkness, right?" Ben started to have a bad feeling about the monk's instructions. "Like, beyond an event horizon?"
"Actually, it' s probably very bright on the way down a black hole," Luke pointed out. "Just because gravity is too strong for light to escape doesn't mean it can't exist, and there' s all that gas compressing and glowing as it's sucked deeper and deeper."
"Yeah, but you're dead," Ben said, "and everything is dark when you're dead. Still, I see what you mean. I doubt Tadar'Ro expects us to fly down a black hole."
"No, not down one."
There was just enough anxiety in Luke's voice to make Ben glance into the mirrored section again. His father was frowning out at the two black holes, staring into the fiery cloud between them and looking just worried enough to twist Ben's stomach into a cold knot.
"Between them?" Ben could see what his father was thinking, and it didn't make him happy. In any system of two large bodies, there were five areas where the centrifugal and gravitational forces would neutralize each other and hold a smaller body–such as a satellite or asteroid–in perpetual equilibrium. Of those five locations, only one was directly between the two bodies. "You mean Stable Zone One?"
Luke nodded. "The Chasm of Perfect Darkness is an ancient Ashla parable referring to the twin perils of ego and ignorance," he explained. "The Tythonians spoke of it as a deep dark canyon flanked by high, evercrumbling cliffs."
"So life is the chasm, darkness is falling all around," Ben said, taking an educated guess as to the parable's meaning, "and the only way to stay in the light is to go down the middle."
Luke smiled. "You've got a real feeling for mystic guidance." He lifted his hands away from the yoke. "You have the ship, son."
"Me? Now?" Ben considered pointing out that his father was by far the better pilot–but that wasn' t the issue, of course. If Ben was going to face his fears, he needed to handle the flying himself. He swallowed hard, squared his shoulders, then confirmed, "I have the ship."
Ben deactivated the mirror panel and accelerated toward the black holes. As the Shadow drew closer, their dark orbs rapidly began to swell and drift toward opposite sides of the cockpit, until all that could be seen of them were tall slivers of darkness hanging along the rear edges of the canopy. Ahead lay a fiery confluence of superheated gas, swirling in from two different directions and so bright it hurt Ben's eyes even through the Shadow's blast- tinting.
He checked the primary display and found only bright static; the navigation sensors were awash in electromagnetic blast from compressing gas. The Shadow's internal sensors were working just fine, however, and they showed the ship's hull temperature rising rapidly as they penetrated the cloud. It wouldn't take long for that to become dangerous, Ben knew. Soon the fierce heat inside the accretion disk would start fouling guidance systems and control relays. Eventually, it would compromise hull integrity.
"Dad, how about doing something with those sensor filters?" Ben asked. "My navigational readings are snow."
"Adjusting the filters won't change anything," Luke said calmly. "We're flying between a pair of black holes, remember?"
Ben exhaled in exasperation, then cursed under his breath and continued to stare out into the fiery ribbons ahead. At best, he could make out a confluence zone where the two accretion disks were brushing against each other, and the painful brilliance made it difficult to tell even that much.
"How am I supposed to navigate?" Ben complained.
"I can't see anything."
Luke remained silent.
Ben felt the hint of disapproval in his father's Force aura and experienced a flash of rebellion. He let out a cleansing breath, allowing the feeling to run its course and depart on a cushion of stale air, then saw how he had been blinded by his anxiety over the navigation difficulties.
"Oh . . . right," Ben said, feeling more than a little foolish. "Trust the Force."
"No worries," Luke said, sounding amused. "The first time I tried something this crazy, I had to be reminded, too."
"Well, at least I have an excuse." Ben took the navigation sensors offline so the static wouldn't interfere with his concentration. "It's hard to focus with your dad looking over your shoulder."
Luke's crash webbing clicked open. "In that case, maybe I should get some–"
"Who are you kidding?" Ben shoved the yoke over, flipping the Shadow into a tight barrel roll. "You just want to bite your nails in private."
"The thought hadn't crossed my mind," Luke said, dropping back into his seat. "Until now, ungrateful offspring."
Ben laughed, then leveled out and checked the hull temperature. It was climbing even faster than he had feared. He closed his eyes and–hoping the gas was not so thick that friction would aggravate the problem– shoved the throttles forward.
It did not take long before Ben began to sense a calm place a little to port. He adjusted course and extended his Force awareness in that direction, then started to feel a strange, nebulous presence that reminded him of something he could not quite place–of something dark and diffuse, spread across a great distance.
Ben opened his eyes again. "Dad, do you feel–" "Yes, like the Killiks," Luke said. "We might be dealing with a hive- mind."
A cold shudder was already racing down Ben's spine.