Another day, stretching into stillness as Luke stood in the long, shadowed dining hall with nothing to do but brood over Palpatine's carefully planted seeds of doubt. Was that his intent- was that why Luke was left alone for long, dreary hours? After three years of ceaseless adrenaline-fed front-line action, always battling a greater foe, every inch of ingenuity and ability, mental and physical, committed to the struggle - just to surviving day to day; hour to hour sometimes - this enforced, inexorable quietude was a listless, numbing torment.
Ignoring the guard's eyes on him, Luke gazed blankly at the brooding bulk of the main Palace beyond the windows, remembering seeing the ceremony which had marked its official completion in a holo-image as a young child, remembering thinking it so distant as to be unreal, like some created image in a holo-flick.
By the time he was sixteen, he had been so determined to see those spires one day. To reach Coruscant, the capital of the Empire, and stand in front of the Imperial Palace- to see those Towers for real.
Not much more than a year later he'd met Ben Kenobi.
Ben, who had lied to him so easily. Looked him in the eye and lied without a trace of conscience. Of all people, why did he lie? He could have told the truth; trusted Luke to have made the right decision, done the right thing... did he think so little of the youth he was prepared to use, that he felt Luke incapable of that? Undeserving of it?
I trusted you...I would have died to serve your cause, and all you did was lie and use. You didn't care… nobody does…They all just use.
He blinked slowly, staring blankly out until the sky darkened to a blind spot in his vision. Or had Ben lied at all? Surely it was Vader and Palpatine who lied.
Why did he even think that? He knew the truth; Palpatine twisted it for his own ends but it was still the truth—he just didn't want to believe it.
Because if he did…
That meant the same weakness which had dragged Vader down was coursing through his veins. Inexorable, inevitable failure. The slow, inescapable fall to Darkness…no matter what he did.
Running from it changed nothing; denial wasn't a defense—he just seemed to run in smaller and smaller circles…until there was nowhere left to run at all. And still that reality waited in the shadows—in his shadow.
Here, so close to Darkness, it howled like a wolf in the night and he heard its call—felt it.
He remembered childhood dreams; a nightmare, always the same—of standing in the pitch black of the desert at night, in the dip of a canyon. Of hearing the scrape of loose shale as it scattered down the incline behind him, of turning, heart in his mouth, terrified…and seeing the barest outline as it slipped from sight, black against black.
A wolf in the shadows, hunting him…he remembered turning to run, hearing it on the ridge behind him, claws to stone, closing—always closing, its panting breath harsh and rasping, its snarl as it closed in, so close that it ran in his shadow…
He blinked away the memory, still vivid enough to tighten his chest.
Was Palpatine right—did Darkness recognize its own?
Too much; too much to assimilate all at once. Too much to find a path through alone. He could feel it grinding him down every day now, feel his resolve faltering, his denials weakening. What was the point in arguing? Who listened? Not even himself anymore.
He glanced down, mind swimming in frustration, the afterimage of the window dancing in his vision.
Palpatine's words echoed through his mind: "A prison made to hold a Jedi"
He glanced back at the window, struggling to blink away his blindness, staring at the transparisteel, seeing the monofibers which were embedded within the thick pane. He'd been struggling for weeks to get past the one single, biggest obstacle in his plan—to get out of these rooms. He looked again at the thick, heavy, unbreakable pane.
Still, why was he taking the Emperor's word for that? Why was he taking the Emperor's word for anything?
Because it was probably the truth.
It doesn't matter. Why are you just sitting here and doing exactly what he wants? Why aren't you fighting him, why aren't you trying to get to Han—why aren't you trying to get out of here?
Where would I go?
It doesn't matter where you ARE—it just matters where you AREN'T. It doesn't matter if he's telling the truth or not. That doesn't mean you have to do what he wants.
Sitting alone with his thoughts, for the first time the notion occurred to Luke that the truth wasn't enough. That simply telling the truth didn't make Palpatine right.
He scowled, indignant—
It doesn't give him any power over you. Stop doing as he wants. Start fighting back.
Just DO something.
I gave my word.
You gave your word to stay. To listen. Not to try to escape… He's sticking to the letter of your deal—do the same. If you don't actually try to leave, just...test the theory…He's playing mind games—don't let him.
Luke looked at the transparisteel window with new purpose; it was absolutely free of any refraction or distortion, making it difficult to judge its thickness, but at its edges he could see it disappearing into a heavy alloy frame within the dressed stone, the two sides of the frame giving a good indication of the thickness of the pane. It looked pretty solid; thicker than a large starship viewscreen. Looking closely, squinting against the light, he could see the two layers of fine, clear monofilaments threaded through the body of the pane, interwoven and set into the heavy alloy casing which framed it.
All transparisteel viewports on starships had this monofilament as a defense against explosive impact, but it was usually so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, and generally only one layer was embedded. Luke couldn't recall ever seeing two layers—in fact, he could only recall actually seeing filament at all from very close up in the largest of sheets on military ships. For it to be visible, particularly at this range, the sheet must be, to all intents and purposes, unbreakable.
What he needed was something capable of cutting through the filaments; without them, he was pretty sure he could now break it with a solid blow from the Force, even as thick as it was.
Could the Force alone destroy them? Perhaps…
But he needed to be sure…
He looked away, aware that he had been staring at the window for a suspiciously long time now, hoping that the guard in the corner and whoever was watching the security images thought that he was simply looking through it rather than at it. He didn't glance at the guard—to do that now, and he may as well give them a written warning of his intention.
He shouldn't do it—he had given his word…
Don't break it then—just…test it.
And on the day, if it broke, what was he going to do, jump out of it and off the edge of the balcony? Twenty stories up? He'd already pretty conclusively proved to himself that he couldn't take that kind of fall whilst at Cloud City.
And there it was again; doubt. Self-doubt. He could take that fall—he had done it.
And if by some miracle he did—then what? Set off on foot, against what would definitely be a very sophisticated surveillance system, only the vaguest idea where Han was or which way to go to reach him.
He knew that Han was in the huge bulk of the main Palace below… and that every other being there had earned that place because they were fanatically loyal to the Emperor.
With no weapon, when he knew how many guards habitually walked the Palace—he'd stopped bothering trying to count after a couple of hundred; it became pretty much academic.
There was absolutely no logical reason to try to break the window.
Except that he was sick of being led around by Palpatine.
He was sick of sitting here and doing nothing.
He was sick of being watched and…
Being watched—by security lenses and guards alike. So many that it became academic... Too many guards; too many to count…
He didn't need to jump; he could walk out of here…just walk calmly out.
Luke nodded just slightly to himself, looking back to the transparisteel pane.
He definitely needed to test his theory…but he needed to hide that fact behind something else… behind a bigger statement.
His eyes scanned the huge, dark, somber dining hall and came to rest on that damn table…and he smiled.
Mara walked down the dark, opulent hallways, on her way from the main Ops room two stories above Skywalker to the Information Suite many stories below, where she had been summoned by the Emperor. It was a trek from Skywalker's apartments to anywhere, the floors immediately above and below him kept empty, partly for security, partly to allow for the outrageous fortifications her master had instigated to hold his precious Jedi. None of which seemed very necessary. It occurred that aside from the strange, distant contact she occasionally picked up on from Skywalker, like a mental whisper, she hadn't once seen anything to confirm her master's belief that Skywalker was even a Jedi, let alone one worthy of this kind of security.
Still, learning his heritage had made her determined to remain wary, both of his abilities and of him. And yet…
Even as she thought that, Mara was aware that despite her best efforts, her tenseness around him was beginning to slip in reaction to his open, familiar manner—why was he being so…amicable? He was a professional soldier and so was she—he knew that it wouldn't make her hesitate if it came to the crunch, so what was he trying to do?
His unaffected air was…disquieting. She didn't like it—didn't like that he made her look him in the eye.
Didn't like that she was thinking about him right now.
Mara had seen his expression, his whole demeanor change when the Emperor was there—even when other guards were there…Seen the defensive walls drop into place. This was something he shared only with her. It felt…disturbingly genuine. A sincere attempt at communication—at making some connection. Just for the sake of it.
Which did nothing to tell her why, and since he somehow managed to be both sociable and guarded, she doubted very much that she would ever find out. Guarded—she wondered again at his past, something he never mentioned; wondered where he had been trained. He was about her own age, so would have barely been born when the Jedi were wiped out. But he must have found a way, found a Master, because he was trained.
There were few who could withstand the overbearing mental presence of her master, yet he'd held out this far. It took a well-trained mind to hold focus through all that carefully-created confusion, that much she knew.
His studied calm was deeply disquieting to her; his openness, his reluctance to judge. She was an Imperial and she was his jailor, which made him more entitled than most to harbor a low opinion of her. Yet through the nebulous contacts she had sensed from him, she hadn't once felt that he'd judged her for this.
This conscious lack of preconceptions was unsettling. Always with her master, his every thought was tinged with frustration at her, a sense of his disappointment at her constant failure to live up to his expectations. With Skywalker there was just…acceptance.
She knew of course that she was only seeing the surface—only seeing what he allowed her to see, but…it had that same honesty to it that permeated all her dealings with him. Still, it was like looking at the surface of deep water. It drew her in…
She shivered in the cold, glancing at the cloud-shrouded sun, low over the jagged horizon of distant buildings. The Emperor had summoned her, presumably to make preparations for his daily visit to his Jedi.
She didn't envy Luke, to be trapped here with her master, only one possible outcome. How could he hold out against that certain knowledge? What was the point?
She cursed silently, realizing that she had broken one of her own basic rules; she had called him by name.
Mara waited outside the Information Suite as the guards opened the doors. Her master didn't bother to look up, but she bowed anyway before entering.
The Emperor was staring at a bank of several two- and three-D images projected into space before him, most containing written information which, viewing from back-to-front, she was unable to read.
Finally he looked up to her through the images. "Why are you here when Skywalker is awake?"
There was no preamble; he seldom bothered with pleasantries.
Mara frowned. "I was told you wanted to see me immediately, master."
"I told you never to leave him alone and awake. Always remain close to his quarters."
"The guards are on duty, and there's one in the room," Mara said, careful not to let too quarrelsome-a tone enter her voice.
"He's a Jedi. Guards are useful to slow him down; they certainly won't stop him from doing anything he intends."
Palpatine paused, became very still, and she knew he was calling the Force to him.
He smiled broadly, teeth yellow in the shadows of the room. "Ah; I believe my Jedi is about to do something rather rash…"
The last word was drowned out by the general alert claxon, which made Mara jump in shock. The comm on her belt sounded its own insistent tone seconds later.
Chagrined, she glanced back to her master, who seemed more amused than anything else.
—This is your mistake, child. Go and correct it.—
He spoke through the Force, since the claxon effectively drowned out any chance to hear him audibly. Cursing inwardly, Mara turned on her heel and set off for Skywalker's quarters at full-tilt.
By the time she reached the rooms, there were perhaps forty or so armed guards out in the corridor, their guns focused on the heavy double doors to the private dining hall, which were open. Mara pushed through them into the room, her own gun drawn.
And walked into a scene of controlled chaos.
About two dozen guards were in the room, a mixture of Palace guards with weapons drawn and Red Guards carrying force-pikes or the small, powerful handguns concealed beneath their ceremonial cloaks, all with their backs to her, pointed to the far side of the massive room, close to the fireplace. Pushing through, Mara glanced to her right and slowed to a stop before the window, the room's priceless antique table reduced to firewood beneath it.
The plasteel window was hugely distended outward, its surface crazed into pieces so fine that it was completely opaque, the shattered remnants barely held in place by the monofilament wires, the heavy inset frame buckled in places, its metal fractured as it withstood the brunt of the force—but it had held against whatever had struck it. Just.
Whatever had struck it—because it certainly wasn't just the table; heavy as it was, it wouldn't even have scratched the surface. No, the table had pretty much just been between whatever had landed the blow and the window itself, because the transparisteel pane was designed to withstand a three-click explosive charge detonated against it.
Mara had thought it outrageously over-specified when the Emperor had begun building this prison. Even the large transparisteel screens of front-line military starship like Star Destroyers were designed only to withstand two clicks.
Her master always said that the Jedi Order's control of the Force was weak, fading as the Darkness gained ever more power, leaving them unable to redress the balance—but this display of raw power rivaled any she had seen by the Emperor.
A thought occurred for the first time, disturbing in its consequences;
Were Skywalker's powers equal to Palpatine's?
Was he a genuine threat?
Turning away, she pushed her way quickly to the front of the assembled guards to find Skywalker standing quietly facing the wall by the hearth, his hands behind his head.
"Hey, Mara." His voice was unruffled, almost light, as if amused at the outrageous over-reaction he'd instigated.
Mara snorted; apparently they were on first-name terms now. How had he found that out?
"You want to tell your trained nerfs to back off?" he continued.
She could almost hear the murmur of anger travel round the room.
Could almost see him smiling at it.
"Okay, calm down," Mara said, speaking equally to the guards and to Skywalker.
His head turned slightly to the left, his tone suddenly very different. "Don't even try it…I'm serious."
Mara turned to see a blue-clad Palace guard aiming a specialized dart gun, little more than a gas-powered tube with a button-trigger, at Skywalker's back. The guard hesitated momentarily, then re-aimed.
With a 'crack,' the dart shot from the gun, flying through the air faster than the eye could follow…
To pause, spinning on the spot mid-air a short distance from the Jedi's shoulder. Before Mara had a chance to react the dart yanked about and shot like a bullet back to its firer, embedding in his unprotected neck, eliciting a yelp as he was thrown back.
The tranquillizer had been tailor-made by the Emperor's geneticists to work in seconds on Skywalker, but the guard was human of course, so he'd barely pulled it from his flesh before it dropped him to the ground unconscious.
Everyone leaned forward slightly as the already tense atmosphere raised another notch.
"I think everyone needs to calm down," Mara said firmly, aware that one way or another she had to regain control, though the first inklings of nerves were beginning to worry at the edges of her own thoughts.
Suddenly, she was no longer dealing with another prisoner—now she was dealing with a Jedi. Somehow, somewhere along the way, she'd allowed herself to dismiss and ignore that, carefully encouraged by Skywalker's casual calm, his reluctance to visibly use the Force. It was the oldest trick in the deck, to remain amenable and so lull one's enemies into a false sense of security. She was both angry and embarrassed to admit it had worked.
"I'm calm." There was a seldom-heard edge to Skywalker's voice now which made Mara's adrenaline surge. "I told him not to do it."
Holstering her gun, Mara fumbled for the small medikit box at her belt and took out an ampoule, loading the I.V. syringe. Handing it to the guard next to her, she indicated with a nod of her head that he was to inject the Jedi as she took her own gun back out and re-aimed it.
"No," Skywalker said, turning his head slightly to her. "You do it."
Mara frowned, wary. "Why?"
"Because I trust you." It was the most bizarre thing to say given their circumstances, but it had an inexplicable ring of truth to it which made Mara distinctly uneasy.
Lifting her chin in defiance as if he had offered a challenge, she handed her gun to a guard, took the syringe and stepped forward, aware of the fact that if he wanted to kill her, no one would be fast enough to stop him. But then, judging from the window, if he had wanted to kill her, he could have done so a long time ago.
It wasn't until she was moving forward, committed, that she realized that this may well be a very different challenge.
Setting her jaw, she stepped in close, taking his left arm and pulling it unresisting behind his back as she leaned her weight against him to hold him to the wall, her foot pressed against the inside of his so that she could trip him if he tried to turn about. She turned his wrist outward without any resistance, pulling up the fine black linen of his sleeve and holding the needle to his artery, aware that the adrenaline of the moment was making her hands tremble, the tip of the needle shaking. "Dammit!"
"It's okay, Mara." He turned his head slightly, his voice very quiet, for her alone.
"Shut up!" she whispered vehemently, unsure why this was affecting her so much. It wasn't fear, it was…she blinked away the frustration of conflicting emotions, trying not to think about it.
The needle slid into his vein, a mist of scarlet feeding back into it before she injected it quickly, feeling his muscles begin to relax seconds later. His other arm went to the wall in front of him to steady himself as he began to lose consciousness, tense body slackening as his breath began to slow.
Not sure why, Mara took his arm as she pulled the needle free, supporting his weight so that they slid gently to their knees together, the light in his eyes dimming as he lost focus.
"Why do you trust me!?" she whispered urgently, in that moment needing desperately to know.
He smiled gently, but he was already beginning to fade. She took his loose head, held his gaze on hers. "Why?!"
"I see...past…your …"
But his eyes were already closed, so she lowered him to the floor, leaning back to crouch on her haunches at arm's distance.
Remembering where she was, she glanced up at the watching guards. "Out. Return to your posts. I'll make a report to the Emperor."
The guards filed from the room, muttering amongst themselves as they glanced at the shattered plasteel, unsettled. The mysterious prisoner suddenly had an ability which previously very few had known. Even of those who knew, to be told what someone was and to have it proven before their eyes were two very different things. The presence of a Jedi among them made everyone distinctly uneasy.
Watching him breathe, unaware of the guards' departure or the passage of time, Mara rocked on her heels.
How had he done this? How had he slipped past her every defense?
Uneasy emotions long-forgotten slowly smoldered at the edges of her thoughts, lit by the distant whisperings of his presence in the Force. What did she feel? When she closed her eyes and sensed this scattered, indistinct resonance, what was tugging at her thoughts? Was this … empathy? Guilt? Why had he done it? Why was she letting him?
Alone now, an inarticulate sound hitched in her throat, half-sob, half-fury. Striking out, she caught him hard in his ribs with her fist, though she knew he couldn't feel it, laid awkwardly in unconsciousness.
"Fool!" she accused. "You're a fool to trust me, Luke Skywalker. This is what you get!" She lunged to her feet, staggering backwards, putting some distance, mental and physical, between them.
"I'll slip a knife between your ribs as soon as look at you. Remember that!"
Mara took two short steps forward, intending to land a vicious kick into his side, but stopped dead, unable to deliver the blow.
Aware that she was shouting at someone who couldn't hear her, she sternly gathered her wits about her and strode over his body without looking down, decisively shutting down that tiny, vulnerable part of herself which had so willingly attuned to this hypnotic, mesmerizing mind
She had no choice but to sense the Jedi's presence—but she could choose whether or not to listen.
She paused beside the shattered remains of the military-grade transparisteel sheet and ran her finger over the crazed surface, noting at this close range that many of the monofilaments had actually sheared through, fracturing completely under the force of that invisible blow. Realizing that a second blow would probably have broken the pane open completely.
She narrowed her eyes, lost in thought, for the first time afraid for her master.
"You worry too much, child."
Mara whirled in shock, her already shredded nerves cut to the quick. The Emperor walked calmly across the room to the window, reaching out his hand to the distended pane.
"What power he has." He smiled appreciatively, totally enthralled.
There had been other Jedi, of course, when Mara had been younger. But none like this.
The few who had escaped the scourging and found safety in the small Rebel groups who were littered around without any real organized resistance in the early years of the Empire.
Fewer and fewer by the time she had gained her position as the Emperor's Hand.
But she remembered the few, generally brought by Lord Vader to the Imperial Palace—to his Master. Like a predator bringing home the kill. They lasted a day, a few occasionally, before the Emperor destroyed them. Sometimes Mara had been summoned to witness their end, to understand the powers they held, what they were capable of, what could be done to counter them—what it was to be in the presence of a Jedi. Sometimes he gave them a weapon, sometimes he didn't. Often he gave them a lightsaber and turned Vader on them, a special show for her master's personal amusement.
Some were more powerful than others; a few were little more than Padawans, who fought with desperate passion. Others were Masters, who dueled and died with calm dignity, though Palpatine maintained that this was immaterial; in the end, they all died.
But none had held this power, or they would surely have thrown it against him in those last desperate moments. And none had ever held this power over her master, a driving obsession which blinded him to any danger.
She almost said it—almost spoke her fears out loud. Almost asked if Skywalker was a threat.
But she held her tongue, knowing her master would see that as a questioning of his own abilities, and that would have been intolerable.
Palpatine pulled his hand sharply from the shattered pane, a tiny drop of scarlet forming on the tip of his bone-white finger.
Mara studied the drop, ruby red against pale white, deeply disquieted by the sight; it occurred that she had never once seen her master bleed before.
That dark droplet of blood against his pallid skin pulled her consciousness toward an enveloping, transcendental stillness, as if time itself slowed then fell away…
… … …
… … … … … … …
Something…something closed in, like a storm raging against the night, dark clouds obliterating the moonlight.
Duplicity, betrayal…loyalties challenged, allegiance resolved. Everything in flux, erratic.
Everything changing, even herself. Nothing could remain untouched, destiny itself yielding…
Blood red sun, cold as death. It split momentarily and went binary in her blurred vision, the silence whispering riddles…
'Son of Suns…'
The sky turned dark and the sun faded to a pallid moon and she heard— felt—something wild and primal at bay in the pitch of night, like a wolf prowling in the shadows…
The ashen moon seared blood red again, a single scarlet drop falling from the heavens to land at her master's feet, soaking into the hem of his long, sable cloak…
…The moment, that single instant stretched taut…
A vast sweep of possibilities tangled about and among each other, all futures circling that one moment.
One decision, one inflexible will.
The weakness which is a strength…
… … … … … … …
… … …
The howl of a wolf in the darkness threw her back as she jolted, reality snapping back in about the surreal vision.
"What did you see?" Her master's voice was instant, demanding.
Mara shook her head slowly—whatever it was, it had evaporated into the ether, like waking from a dream. "I saw…" She struggled to bring any memory of the vision back, but only one thing remained, burned into her memory like the after-image of staring at the sun too long. "…A wolf… a wolf in the shadows… hunting."
She almost said it: you.
But as she opened her mouth to speak, realization slipped away like the wolf in the shadows and all she could do was to stare blankly into her master's yellow-flecked eyes.
Finally she looked away, her eyes skipping about the room unfocused as she tried to recall the brief instant of clarity. She had experience only a few visions in her life and when they came, they were like this—broken, fragmented, intensely real in the moment, but lost to her the instant they dissipated.
She shook her head then found her voice, remembering to whom she spoke. "I don't know, master. I'm sorry.."
She knew it both displeased and frustrated him that her abilities were not equal to this, so tried to move the conversation quickly on to something more readily achievable. "I'll have the pane replaced immediately."
"Do so." His tone was impatient, irritable.
Mara bowed and glanced to the unconscious man. Turning to call in the guards in she paused, twisting back without looking up, tone penitent. "Master, I apologize; I shouldn't have left him. He's too great a danger—I understand that now."
She heard the familiar sting of disappointment in his voice, but when she looked to him, his eyes and his attention were totally centered on the slumped form of his Jedi and she was already forgotten.
"The Emperor commands your presence." Mara Jade spoke without emotion, without even bothering to look.
It was nine days since he'd shattered the window—Luke thought.
For over a week the drug had kept Luke hazy and still—not quite unconscious but not quite able to gather his wits enough to stand or walk or even truly react to anything about him.
Whatever the drug was, Luke hadn't been able to counter it with the Force, leading him to wonder in retrospect whether it was self-replicating; anything else he would have been able to clear from his system. This must have been custom-developed to duplicate at a faster rate than he could remove it, leaving him to sit in vague awareness as time buzzed by in long blank waves the memory of which left him from moment to moment, interspersed by fractions of jumbled images removed from time or circumstance.
He had distant, distorted memories of people coming and going, of Mara ever-present, watching him as he watched her, blinking slowly, unable to do more than simply sit in the chair by the window, books remaining unread, the sabacc cards on the table untouched, stillness stretching in aching silence. Of raised voices and sharp words when Vader drifted through his line of sight.
Of Palpatine sitting in the huge, heavy chair opposite him, always talking, reproaches and rebukes too fast to follow.
Of watching his reedy, pallid lips moving against spoiled teeth with no idea—none at all—of what he had said. Just staring at him in dull, listless silence and watching…
When he had finally summoned every iota of will and concentration to murmur, "..stop.." —just that—the rancorous old man had paused mid-diatribe, cold amusement in his eyes.
"Stop what, Jedi?"
"...this.." he'd uttered, aware that when he blinked it took long seconds to drag his eyes open again.
"Have you learned this lesson?" the Sith had asked with taunting indifference.
It had taken a long time for Luke to answer. A long time simply to process the question and longer still to realize that he had no choice in this; either he conceded or he remained in this state. He was aware of time passing, of how long it took him to gather the focus to reply, acutely aware of Palpatine's mocking, expectant stare.
It had probably been quite literally minutes before he finally managed, "...Yes..."
Mara had been summoned back into the room to administer an antidote which she did without once looking at him, despite the fact that he had watched her constantly from cloudy, drug-dulled eyes.
And then he had slept—for how long he had no idea.
But when he'd woken it was late evening and he was in the high, wide bed, the sheets perfectly straight, as if he hadn't once moved since being placed there.
Very much aware that he had been given a crystal clear warning—that they had the drug in reserve; that they could control him—stop him dead if they wanted to.
But he now knew that Mara and some of the guards routinely carried it, and he knew they could fire it in a dart, though it couldn't be made airborne—if it could, they would surely have used it.
And he knew Mara had access to the antidote.
Now she kept a wary, deliberate distance, spurning any attempt at communication, her sense in the Force cold and hard and closed in a way which it had never been before.
He remembered…through the fog of the drugs she had first injected into him when the guards had rushed into the room in gratifying numbers... he remembered her speaking to him, turning his face toward her as she spoke, but her words were lost to the numbing haze and if he'd had enough awareness to answer, then he'd had too little to remember.
He knew he'd disturbed her somehow; angered her—scared her perhaps. Alienated her probably—which was never his intention
Of everyone here, Mara was the one person whom he thought he might somehow reach out to. The one person with whom he wanted to try such. Something about her presence had…resonated.
But now she never met his eyes. Nobody here did. No one except Palpatine.
He'd rolled to his side and waited for the room to stop spinning. Eventually he pushed upright on the edge of the bed, holding still as reality did one slow, deliberate, nauseating loop about him.
"How long have I been out?" he finally asked, hoping to draw her out.
His dry throat made his voice rough and ragged and he shivered physically, though he didn't know whether that was the nip of the cool air on his skin—he wore only drawstring sleep trousers—or withdrawal from the drugs.
She didn't answer, didn't look.
His throat and mouth were parched. The thought of standing seemed insurmountable in that moment.
"Not talking, huh?" he murmured, rubbing at gritty eyes. Keep trying. "C'mon, it's not like you liked that table."
Still she wouldn't turn. He dragged a trembling hand through his hair, very much aware of how fragile he felt. "Are you allowed to give me water?"
"Then I guess something to eat's out of the question?"
He tilted his head, trying to catch her eye. "C'mon, Red. You're the only one around here worth talking to."
He sensed some deeper discomfort at this, some uneasy confusion, and wondered at it.
Her head turned a fraction, pale green eyes narrowing at him and he managed a tired, lopsided grin, which only seemed to make her scowl all the more.
"C'mon—one word? Would it make you feel any better if I told you that right now I feel pretty much like that table looked?"
"No." She glared, voice sharp and accusing, though it lacked her usual bite.
But she had spoken.
"See, you're such a pushover—you just can't resist putting me down." He smiled as he spoke, his voice teasing, eyes already half-closed again.
Those jade green eyes softened just slightly as they met his and she shook her head, the barest touch of a smile lifting the corners of her lips.
The wave of Dark energy rolled into the room like a pressure change, enveloping them both, breaking the moment. His voice was hard and sharp, brimming with annoyance, and his eyes never left Luke as he entered, a flurry of raven robes against the red skies of dusk outside.
Jade bowed low, her sense abruptly penitent.
Luke remained sitting where he was, too weak yet to stand. But his eyes burned at Palpatine and his mental barriers, such as they were now, came up.
The Emperor stared at him for long seconds, that same sense of infringed ownership burning in his thoughts that Luke had felt before, though when exactly escaped his still-slow mind.
"Come," Palpatine ordered curtly, turning and walking from the room.
Luke sat for long seconds, still shivering, wondering what the Sith would do if he simply remained where he was; considering the implications. But he was already in a foul mood and Luke was too tired and too drawn to wish to push it further tonight.
Tonight he just wanted this over.
He shrugged on the dark, fine linen dressing-gown and trailed towards the drawing room without bothering to tie it, moving slowly, hand against the walls for support, pausing at the doorway to gather his strength to walk in a straight line to the chair, determined not to show his weakness before the Sith, though he probably knew it anyway.
Palpatine settled without comment into a chair beneath the tall windows in the Drawing Room, a second chair placed opposite him.
"You are dismissed, Mara," Palpatine charged without looking round. Aware of his own simmering anger now, he kept his sulphurous eyes on his Jedi as he paused in the doorway from the bedroom, knowing how indignant the boy would be after his maltreatment; that he would try to hold out as long as possible before being pulled into conversation.
"Sit," he said curtly, indicating the chair opposite him with a nod of his head.
Weak as he was, the boy didn't even bother considering refusal. He half-walked, half-stumbled forward, reaching out for the chair to steady himself, breathing heavily. Finally he sat, resentful eyes focused on nothing, lips firmly shut.
But he sat.
Palpatine watched him, angry himself, though for a very different reason. "Did you talk, Jedi? Did you hope to find a kindred spirit? An ally even?"
The boy didn't reply, didn't even look up.
"I would look elsewhere, Jedi; she has no compassion. She has no weakness." The insult was implied, but still the boy held his silence as Jade left obediently, the heavy door locking home behind her.
The hush hung uneasily in the huge, shadowed room before Palpatine settled again, eyes narrowing.
"How quiet you are today. Does one single word from another being give you such resolve? Perhaps I should bring her back and rip her to pieces, to clarify that if I intend you to be alone here, then you shall be. Should I do that, Jedi?"
Palpatine waited, still fuming; it took several seconds for the fragile, half-awake creature before him to realize that the threat was serious, several more for him to grasp that he would have to speak out to save his jailor, the person so diligently responsible for keeping him within the Emperor's reach.
He said nothing.
Perhaps he was learning—that compassion would always be his weakness, and Palpatine would always use it against him.
Unless he curtailed it himself; chose not to be used.
Had he come far enough to quell that defect?
For Luke, the realization had just hit his sluggish mind with absolute clarity; that Mara wasn't being chastised because she had spoken to someone. It wasn't the Emperor's ownership of Mara that was being threatened—the reproach was because she was speaking to Luke.
It was the Sith's ownership of Luke which was being infringed—not Mara.
The distasteful comprehension had paralyzed him for long seconds before a tendril of Dark power had knifed through uneasy thoughts.
He sensed Palpatine call her through the Force, dull surprise registering at this though he'd known that she was in some way Force-sensitive.
They stared at each other for long moments, Luke's gaze emotionless, Palpatine's expectant, edged with excitement now. Neither spoke, the only sound that of the locks cycling open on the door, reverberating in the still silence.
The doors ground open and she walked in without hesitation, bowed expectantly. Palpatine didn't acknowledge her, his eyes still on Skywalker.
His face expressionless, Luke broke the gaze, looked away to the blood-red sunset.
Distantly, he began to sense the static build of Dark power around him, the drag like steel against steel, the transcendental inrush of energy as Palpatine called the Force to him, setting Luke's nerves on edge...
Saw his hands begin to lift…
"No." His voice was quiet and low, but he knew the Emperor had heard it.
For a moment, he thought that Palpatine would do it anyway; that he had committed himself to the act and now did not wish to deny it.
Then the Sith relaxed just slightly, the energy dissipating in a haze of sharp mental static, and he smiled easily at the woman, showing ruined teeth. "Thank you, Mara. You may leave."
She frowned, obviously aware that something of import had just happened to which she was not privy. But she was well-trained; she didn't speak, only bowed low, backstepped and left, the door grinding closed behind her.
"It would have been a pity to lose her; she is a very good assassin. I trained her from childhood."
Luke blinked slowly, knowing absolutely that he would have killed her; murdered in cold blood the woman whom he had raised from a child.
How could he possibly combat this being who held life so lightly? What could hold against this? The Sith knew exactly how to manipulate him.
Was he right; was compassion a weakness?
Palpatine resettled into the chair beneath the windows, the scarlet sunset bathing his pallid skin in a blood-red wash. "What are you thinking, Jedi?"
"Don't you know?" Luke heard the bitterness in his own voice.
Palpatine held his Jedi's gaze, unfazed, enjoying the dicourse. "Compassion is your greatest weakness, as I have just illustrated to you. In your position, I would have let her die rather than ask a boon of my adversary."
Did he not understand what a vulnerability he held? Yes—yet still he cradled it to him, knowing that Palpatine would use it against him.
This was Palpatine's forte, and he delighted in it; to see the weakness in every soul. Even the slightest crack could be prized open and exploited. Compassion could so easily be turned to paralyzing impotence.
He would cure his Jedi of this most human failing—it was not for their kind.
Luke bristled at the Emperor's casual invasion of his thoughts, but not as much as previously. It no longer outraged him; he'd anticipated it, even expected it. His thoughts were no longer his own, the effort of shielding them too great to maintain now.
Only the precious few remained safely hidden.
"It cost me nothing," he said at last.
Luke shrugged his acceptance of this. "If you think me so weak then why am I here?"
"It amuses me. And I see raw potential."
"I will not turn." Luke's tone was absolute though it lacked bite, made slight and frail by drugs and tiredness.
"I did not ask you to."
"Liar." Palpatine paused, and for a moment Luke tensed, expecting a violent reaction. To him, this was the worst insult he could throw at the Emperor, yet Palpatine seemed not at all offended.
"No. I do not need you to turn—it is sufficient that you are here. With me." Palpatine smiled at the frown which crossed the boy's face; at the fact that he almost asked the question, then caught himself and look away. Still he answered the unspoken query; it was important that the boy knew.
"Because you are mine. You always were, no matter where they hid you or what treason and lies they filled your head with. I am reclaiming that which belongs to me by rights."
Again the boy's gaze came to his, but again he wouldn't ask. "I will not turn."
Palpatine noted that willful, contrary mental stance which his Jedi had so adamantly wrapped about himself since he had been trapped here, despite all of Palpatine's reasonable, refined cajoling and sharp, harsh derision.
Every session together the same, and he relished them every one, the opportunity to gradually enforce his doctrine, to throw focused intent against inflexible principles, prying every frailty open, knowing that he was slowly, irredeemably eroding the foundation beneath, poisoning the boy's hope, withering his conviction until all that was left was that obstinate will, guarding nothing, searching for a purpose, waiting to be directed as he saw fit.
The Sith loosed a feral smile. "Then this is your life now. These rooms, our talks."
He watched the boy blanch at that, despairing, but... "I will not turn."
"You are in a prison within a prison within a prison. These rooms are a keep designed to hold a Jedi. The Tower beyond consists of only my most loyal guards and staff. The Palace is a fortress which has never been breached. No one on this planet will help you—everyone here is allowed by my sanction. Everything here—everything—is under my explicit control. You will never again see another living being. Only you and I, only these rooms."
"Why? Why not just kill me?" It was almost a plea.
"I have no need to, and it would be a waste."
"I'll kill you, given the chance." The fact that he was sitting in a weary huddle did nothing to diminish the hostile intent in those words.
Yes, there was something of his father about the boy... a little more each day. The change was wonderfully, inexorable subtle, day on day, week on week. Palpatine smiled inwardly, aware that his Jedi was being ground down; that the boy knew it too despite his show of resolve. His willingness to sacrifice himself or force Palpatine to do the same only underlined his desperation.
"You will feel differently eventually," he assured, confident.
"How stubborn you are, my friend; how single-minded. How useful a trait it will be when you serve me."
"You said you didn't need me." His Jedi didn't look up, but the challenge was evident in his voice nonetheless.
"I don't need, I want. There is a difference. I need Vader to keep my Empire subjugated, but he lacks the vision and subtlety to be of any further use to me. He is…" Palpatine paused, ochre eyes rolling in wry consideration, "as I said once before...akin to using a blunt instrument."
Luke raised his chin, offended by the words and the tone and the very presence of the man before him. "I thought you favored that approach. The Death Star was hardly subtle."
He had the satisfaction of seeing a brief shadow pass over the Emperor's face at his mention of this expensive failure, but it was only momentary.
"Like Lord Vader, it was an instrument of its time." The Sith smiled. "And it achieved something far more valuable in its destruction than it ever could have in continued service."
Luke held his eye...
"It flushed you out of hiding." The Emperor leaned forward, as if to impart a secret. "I would have traded half my fleet for that."
"You should have told me." Luke's tone was dry.
"You should have realized," Palpatine countered.
Luke only turned away again.
"But now the time for such broad sweeps is over. I have my Empire…"
"Not nearly as completely as you believe."
"On the contrary," the Sith assured. "The pockets of resistance are becoming smaller and smaller. The nature of my Empire is changing. I no longer need a blunt instrument; I want something with more precision. Something capable of carrying my Empire forward—my creation, my genesis… my vision. You are a unique Jedi from an unprecedented line—the final generation of such. Greater power balanced with greater perception—a finer weapon. I find this combination…intriguing."
It was this discomforting mix of praise and de-humanization which Palpatine often practiced now, knowing how uneasy it made Luke—that he had no answer to it, no idea of how to respond.
"I will not turn." Luke was aware that he fell back on these words often now, when maintaining a dialogue became too tiring, or when he simply wanted to provoke.
"I think you will; I've watched you for a long time, my friend, and I know you well. I know how your mind works. I know what drives you and what holds you back, I know what moves and disturbs you. I know your boundaries and the limits you have yet to reach. Now, here, I see your defenses crumbling… You will be a great asset, when I command your obedience."
"I will not…"
"As you have said." Palpatine felt his annoyance beginning to grate at the boy's intractable stubbornness, well aware of what he was doing and was unwilling to give him control of the conversation so easily. "I want your power and your servitude. But I do not need it. I can wait as long as it takes. I enjoy our little discussions."
His Jedi's expression remained mild, his eyes elsewhere, not rising to the bait. "I will not turn."
Now the Emperor felt his anger begin to heat at the boy's obstinacy. "Of course you will," he spat out. "You know yourself the words are a lie. Repeating them will not make them true or build a defense against me."
Palpatine's contention burned through Luke's stubborn, weary denials. Was it the truth?
Luke knew that his reserves were crumbling, that he had been eating into them, physically and mentally, since Bespin.
He could sense Palpatine's sureness, his confidence… was it the truth?
He didn't know anymore. He was tired and confused and frustrated, struggling just to stay awake. Tired of fighting when nobody gave a damn. Nobody cared anymore.
Was it the truth?
Was he handing Palpatine control by holding to futile ethics? Could he only fight fire with fire?
Was that the truth?
He had expected a quick end; to say no and be killed. Not this—isolated and disarmed by his own decision. Obligation tying his hands, holding him here far more surely than these walls ever could.
And Palpatine, always preaching, always provoking. Sewing little seeds of doubt and watching them germinate despite Luke's best efforts to ignore and refute.
Always so reasonable, so logical. So ruthless. Death of a thousand cuts.
He could free his own hands, stop this at any time and he knew it… but the price would be Han's life...
Palpatine smiled, watching closely, delighting in seeing his Jedi's resolve slip ever further, in knowing that his Jedi saw it too.
It had been a long, hard task to prize him from his allies, who had fallen over themselves in their haste to desert him when his precious little Princess had begun to whisper his lineage to others.
A hard task to crumble his blind belief in his teachers, who had shown him only one path, fearful that to show him more would have tempted and tainted him, and in doing so hobbled the only thing which could have saved them, limiting this potentially powerful Jedi so completely and leaving him ripe for the taking because of their own intolerant, paranoid misgivings.
He would show them all the incredible power which they had unknowingly held. Power which could have brought an Empire down, if only they'd had the presence of mind to use it.
And his Jedi—how foolish he must feel now to have trusted them; how betrayed.
All he had left now was himself—his faith in his own ability to know right from wrong, in his own self-control—and even that was crumbling here, in this carefully managed environment.
Now was the time to begin testing this last support. To see if his Jedi could be provoked into a reaction. This was Palpatine's final challenge. He had already seen what the boy was capable of—now he needed to know what had spurred it.
"Why did you destroy the window?" he said, openly curious.
Luke slumped in the chair, hand supporting his head as he rubbed at his temples, tired beyond reason. "Did it inconvenience you?" he asked caustically.
"It did not inconvenience me in the slightest, Jedi," Palpatine said, amused. "It did, however, clarify the extent of your abilities. I had been unsure until then. Now I know what you are capable of—and what not."
Luke remained silent for long seconds, forcing himself awake now, all of his awareness committed to subtly barring access to his thoughts. He needed to get off this topic, afraid that in his present state he would unwittingly give something away.
"I would say the same of you—your medics have been very busy. Where did they get a sample of my blood? They must have had it for a while to synthesize that kind of drug. I assume it's tailor-made?"
Leaning back, Palpatine settled into the carved chair, taking his time to reply, supremely confident, aware of how much that grated on the boy's taut nerves.
"Yes. It's gratifying to see how well it worked in its latest derivation.... probably less so for you, I imagine." The drug would have been a surprise, Palpatine knew. The boy would have taken a knock to his confidence to realize just how easily Palpatine could control him if he wished, wary of having it used against him again.
And he was wonderfully resentful now—at having been controlled so easily, at having had to back down so completely.
"The sample?" his Jedi prompted, not allowing himself to be pulled in.
Palpatine noted the change in purpose—that this was active participation; the boy was no longer avoiding, he was consciously choosing to direct the conversation. Why?
"You would be surprised where I have spies and agents placed. And where I don't…" He shrugged dismissively. "Well then, there is always sentient nature; greed oils many cogs."
"Not in the Alliance," his Jedi maintained, completely sure, finger tapping against the chair arm in consideration, his other hand still against his chin, supporting his lolling head.
"Indeed? Then I must have an agent there." Would he realize the extent of the game? Not in this state… Still, Palpatine waited, curious as to what he would untangle.
Spurred by Palpatine's sanctimonious gaze, Luke considered long moments. "No one I know."
"Of course not."
"Not a medic. The Alliance use droids, and you wouldn't trust a construct—plus any alteration to its program would be too easy to detect." He considered… tired as he was, his mind raced as it always did to connect the pieces, remembering the undiscovered mole in his Alliance Cell. "Command staff have access, but…" Luke dismissed it as unthinkable even as he said it, looking for other means. "A tech maybe; someone who has access to the complete data store. They could pull medical information files and they'd have access to decrypt codes. Data Support maybe—or place them in Comms... A slicer could get data out with reasonable success, hidden in existing transmissions."
"Well done, Jedi," Palpatine congratulated, a note of appreciative finality in his voice.
Luke watched the old man for long moments… because he knew him now. For all that Palpatine claimed knowledge of Luke, it had come at a cost; Luke knew him too. Could sense his sudden wish to curtail this game, much as he tried to hide it…
There was something more… something he didn't wish to share…
"If it was someone in Data, they would have full access to existing stores." Luke's eyes narrowed at the realization. "Which means they could change past entries seamlessly."
Palpatine's eyes narrowed, clearly believing that Luke was realizing entirely too much now, piecing together more than anticipated—an obviously unwelcome development. "Your Princess still betrayed you."
And finally, it all fit, inexplicable fragments falling into perfect place for Luke. He knew the obvious, but knowing Palpatine as he did now, it hadn't been enough. There had to be more—it all had to interconnect somehow. It wasn't sufficient to achieve what was needed, the Sith had to twist it somewhere for his own amusement…and to have Luke bargain for the release of Leia—to have him surrender his own freedom in exchange for the woman who carried the information which would condemn him—finally tied everything together.
"That's why you wanted to free her." It was neither question nor accusation, just a statement of fact. "You linked me to the spy, didn't you? You'd already placed something in existing data stores, but you knew it wouldn't be enough. You needed someone they'd trust, someone beyond reproach to carry back more information—enough to tie all your carefully placed lies together, mixed in with that one truth, to make it seem beyond question. That's why you were willing to let the others go too—to release just her would have been too suspicious. But you made me fight for it, didn't you? This was all part of your little scheme."
He was wide awake now, hearing the accusation in his own voice, the bitterness. Hollow though, strangely empty. As if he were going through the motions with little true feeling.
"None of which changes the fact that she betrayed you. I gave her the information but she had a choice, Jedi. She could have remained silent."
Luke rubbed his hand over gritty eyes, surprised by how little anger he felt—only frustrated resignation. "You did this to trap me here—to break me away from the Alliance."
"To clarify the true extent of their loyalty."
"And where is yours?" Luke accused.
"I do not give loyalty, Jedi. I demand it."
Luke shook his head. "I am not my father."
The grin which came to Palpatine's lips was instantly quashed, but the victory remained; because it was the first time the boy had referred to Vader as such, the first time he had admitted any connection with his father. Had he even realised, in the heat of the moment? Palpatine pressed the advantage, giving him no time to think.
"Of course you are. More than you could possibly know. You have his willful stubbornness, his determination, his single-mindedness... You even look like him. You walk the path he chose…"
"I'm not Sith!" his Jedi shouted, half-rising in fierce denial.
Palpatine stared for long moments into that stormy expression, genuinely captivated… When he finally spoke, it was quite calmly, as if the boy had not reacted at all.
"You have his eyes…as angry and as hard and as cold. That wonderful, biting blue- like ice in darkness."
The boy blinked in bewilderment, completely distracted by the unexpected observation.
"Did Kenobi not tell you that?" Palpatine continued, his tone more fascinated than denouncing. "I am surprised. Obi-Wan and your father…they were like brothers, they truly were. Yet when your father defied Kenobi he tracked him down with no—"
"I don't want to hear your lies," his Jedi cut in, and Palpatine smiled at the venom in his voice.
"The truth is a difficult thing to—"
"Your version of the truth."
The boy only shook his head. "I don't believe a word you say."
"When have I ever lied to you, Jedi?"
"You lied about Leia,"
"I told the truth."
"I realized the truth. You told me only what you needed to manipulate me."
"I made the truth clear—the real truth…" Palpatine paused, realizing that the boy was leading him off-subject again. He was becoming better at this kind of avoidance, the distractions more subtle now, requiring Palpatine to respond or cede the argument. He paused, searching to pull the boy back to his own agenda.
"How can the truth be a manipulation? You are free to come to your own conclusions."
"I'll never be free here," the boy dismissed, making Palpatine smile at his comprehension of that fact.
"You would never have been free with Kenobi," he said easily, very sure. "He simply cloaked his manipulations differently. It is the lot of all in your bloodline. Power demands a price—as it did with your father."
Palpatine glanced away, as if remembering now, his voice benign and enticing, drawing Luke in. "Obi-Wan was your father's teacher and his friend—his mentor. Your father trusted him as completely as you do now. And yet the scars your father carries…Obi-Wan cut him—quite literally—to pieces. Then he stood by and he watched your father burn, injured and helpless. Did he not tell you that, your venerable Jedi Knight?"
The boy remained silent, collapsing back down in reluctant fascination, unable to turn away.
"I saved your father's life. Obi-Wan left him to a slow, agonizing death on Mustafar. Left him to go searching for you—for your mother."
He turned back to the boy now, whose eyes were locked to his own, skepticism and suspicion giving way to more basic emotions—those of a child whose mother was lost.
That most primal, elemental fear.
Yellow eyes held ice-blue captive in a way they never had before—because this was deeper than any doctrine, deeper than any conscious acceptance or refusal. This was the moment—this was the moment to push. To break those brittle barriers—to crumble them whilst he faltered, every shield, every defense powerless against this most devastating of weapons—the truth…
Now…he would listen…
"They buried her… just days later. You were never mentioned—nor was the cause of her death." Palpatine left this implication hanging for the boy to consider…
The mass of conflicting feelings summed up in those blue eyes was gratifying beyond words. Palpatine carefully kept his own expression neutral, giving nothing for the boy to feed off, nothing to react against. This must be his response, his feelings…
"I don't believe you," he whispered at last, desolate.
"Every word is the truth."
The boy stared, simply stared at Palpatine, a chaos of emotions grappling for release behind still eyes, muscles tight, body tense.
All that feeling, all those wildly conflicting emotions held so tightly in check by one already so fragile, so volatile. It was intoxicating to the Sith; captivating.
How close he skirted to the edge of losing control now, how compelling those emotions, driving him to the brink of coherence, testing every restraint. Palpatine could only watch in fascinated silence, enraptured. Sure that Skywalker would give them free reign at any moment…
The boy remained motionless for a long time; the intense, portentous stillness with a kinetic energy all its own, like the stillness of the calm before the storm. Palpatine watched in rapt anticipation, hands closing to fists, nails scraping fine grooves into the polished arm of the chair, waiting…
Very slowly and deliberately, the action costing him every ounce of willpower and restraint, Skywalker rose and walked in silence from the room, the Force swinging the heavy doors silently closed behind him.
Palpatine waited in the mute silence for long minutes, his breathing shallow, gazing unfocused at the spot where his Jedi had been, listening to his own heart strong against his ribs, the brittle stillness heady with profound expectation.
It was a long time before he felt the need to stand, reluctant to abandon the intensity of the moment, knowing it was not yet diffused.
Eventually he rose and left without looking back.
He had almost reached his own apartments before he sensed the moment, like a silent scream, like a storm released into the darkness. An expansion of the Force, profound and unchecked, lasting no more than seconds but wild and feral and desperately lost.
His expectant grin turned to a depraved, delighted laugh as he walked, Mara flinching in that same instant against the unbridled power of the act.
When Mara Jade returned with the first light of dawn the following morning, it was with a certain trepidation. That she had sensed the release of the Force last night was rare in the extreme, which meant it must have been a momentous act, either in deed or in emotion, leaving her to wonder what destruction Skywalker had wrought in that instant—what physical evidence would remain of the shattered composure he had loosed in the night.
She walked in uneasy silence through the long, still shadows of the hall, wishing that she'd had the presence of mind to vary her routine and stop off at Ops before coming here today to view the security footage of the previous night. Wondering why she had felt the urge to rush here first.
The solid, hefty doors locked closed behind her as she made her way through the brooding gloom of the cavernous dining room, the massive doors of the empty drawing room swinging shut behind her as she kept walking closer, the Red Guard releasing the lock cycle as she approached his room, the hulking doors swinging ponderously open…
Onto a scene of total destruction.
Mara stepped haltingly forward into the room, unrecognizable in its devastation.
Everything—every single item—had been reduced to wrecked fragments. They littered the chamber in a mass of scattered, shattered debris, no single piece larger than splintered kindling, nothing recognizable. Chairs, tables, bed, consoles…the blankets, the drapes—everything was destroyed, plaster gouged from the walls, fractured fragments embedded into them, the room reduced to little more than a wrecked shell.
And in the center of it all, sitting quietly in cross-legged meditation, still wearing the long, dark dressing gown and sleep-trousers he'd woken in yesterday, was Skywalker.
He turned, mild and unruffled, as if nothing at all had changed.
And there—there was the change. In his clipped voice, in the intensity of his eyes, in his whole studiously calm demeanor.
She froze, the hairs rising on the back of her neck as he stood and walked easily toward her, his unfastened gown dragging behind him, its hem ripped and tattered. The debris before him scattered to clear a path, though he neither looked nor gestured at it.
"I'll need to see Solo today. Arrange it. And I need a haircut."
He had the distant unruffled composure of a soldier after battle, struggling to come back from the edge. Several fine cuts had sliced into the skin on his face and neck and bled dry, unnoticed.
He paused as he drew level with her, tilting his head down so that his eyes met hers. In that moment they were incredibly blue, at once desperate and powerful and recklessly mercurial, leaving Mara unsure as to what he would do next, how he would react.
He leaned in, his close presence overbearing, and it took Mara every inch of resolve to resist the urge to back step, unsure of how to handle him in this state.
"You might need to clear up in there," he whispered conspiratorially, as if sharing some private joke.
Then he walked past her to the tall windows of the drawing room to stand with his back to her, staring out at the dawn.
"Looks like rain," he observed casually to no one in particular.
When Han arrived at the familiar tall, heavy doors to Luke's oplent prison, it was to a scene of organized bedlam. There were about three times as many guards as normal, the two sets of heavy blast doors which marked the entrance to the sprawling apartments uncharacteristically shut and heavily guarded. Large roll-away boxes lined the wide main corridor within, filled with what looked like explosion debris, so fine and unrecognizable were the fragments. As they took off his binders and cycled open the heavy bolts to the rooms the kid was imprisoned in, Han glanced to the roomy, unused office opposite, now crammed with even more of the boxed debris.
"Kid's been busy, huh?" he asked his guards, who looked ahead in stony silence.
He'd spent the last two weeks alternately worrying that something major had happened to the kid and reassuring himself that nothing would—that the Emperor thought he needed Luke for whatever the hell reason and so he wouldn't do anything stupid. Still, after nine straight days without his usual visit he'd taken to pacing the cell and lying awake running all kinds of scenarios through his head, banging on the cell door though nobody came.
So when the door had finally slid open today, he'd been so eager to see the kid that he'd stepped forward, hands held out before him for the customary binders, wrists up, grinning like an idiot.
Then he'd fretted all over again on the way up here, bracing himself for every possible situation.
Except this one, of course. He broke step as he was marched through the empty dining hall to the locked doors of the cavernous room beyond, staring at the massive damage being repaired about the center three windows in the long, tall run to the dining room wall. Whole panes had been removed, the plaster about them chipped away to show for the first time the massive fortification hidden within the walls, organic steel girders and massive alloy slabs set against each other, the reinforced transparisteel windows bonded back into the main structure, the fine monofilaments within running not just through the panes themselves but welded into the body of the frame, and that bonded into the main alloy structure beyond. The jumpy guards pushed him forward as he slowed, taking up position around the drawing room door before it was released.
He entered the vast arch-ceiling drawing room, the oppressive silence of the huge, impersonal space being chipped at by a constant stream of noise from the bedroom beyond, the muffled conversations of many voices.
Rising, the kid turned casually, eyes fixing on Solo.
Something was different—Han knew immediately, though he didn't know what. Something about Luke... he looked…different somehow. Not just the clothes—Han was getting used to seeing Luke like this, in perfectly fitted, expensive clothing, always flawlessly tailored. Hand-made boots, luxurious, hand-stitched shirts in vinesilk or cortal linen, presenting an overall appearance which was groomed and casually affluent, so very much in keeping with the prosperous excesses of Palace life, whether the kid wanted that or not. His hair had been cut short too since Han had last been allowed to see him—very short.
But it was none of these things which made him seem so different today. It was his manner, his eyes, the wariness of the guards who tip-toed around him.
The way that for some reason, Han already felt he should do the same.
Then the kid walked toward him smiling broadly… and he was Luke again…just…with an edge, maybe.
Han opened his arms in automatic answer. It was this moment, these few brief seconds when they leaned in, patting each other's backs in a friendly embrace, that they were able to exchange a brief burst of whispered information.
"We're leaving this week. Late," Luke murmured, and Han nodded silently as they pulled apart.
"Been busy, huh?" Han said casually, gesturing to the room beyond.
"No—not at all."
There was something in the kid's manner that was hard to pin down—something erratic and edgy. This close, Han noticed that Luke's face was covered with fine cuts and grazes, frowning in silent question.
Luke merely turned away, as if he hadn't noticed, his manner restless and wired.
"Come in, why don't you, Red," he invited without turning.
Han glanced back to the slim, trim redhead who was walking in from the bedroom beyond to monitor the conversation, as she always did when Han was there. Today though, his eyes were drawn to a glimpse of the bedroom, completely empty, a haze of dust in the air.
Han gestured to Luke's short, military haircut. "Someone get a little carried away with the clippers?"
Luke only glanced away again, vaguely dismissive. "I think it's the only cut they know around here."
Doesn't want to talk about that either, then. Han frowned. "You okay?"
The kid's voice remained completely neutral. "I'm fine."
" 'Cos you seem a little…wired," Han pushed.
"No," Luke replied.
Han glanced uneasily at Jade, who held his gaze for a second too long, then turned away.
Luke's voice drew Han's eyes back. "Seems like an age since you were here last. We have a lot to talk about."
Han didn't miss the implication—that if they were getting out of here, they had a great deal they needed to communicate in a short visit without once mentioning anything directly.
"So—how's life below decks?" Luke said, that same dispassionate tone to his voice.
"Good, good. I was moved this morning from a small white box on Level Nine to a small white box on Level Seven…which is nice."
"Well, you know what they say about variety," Luke said. "In fact, maybe I'll come visit you next time."
Han raised his eyebrows slightly at this, knowing that Luke was referring to the escape. It seemed an odd way round to work it when Han had traveled the path up through the Palace so often, yet Luke had never been outside these three rooms. "What, and deprive me of my regular walk?"
Luke paused a second; considering, Han knew. "Maybe we can meet halfway—I'm sure I can arrange that." He half-turned to his wary jailor. "What d'you say, Red? Trip out next week?"
She merely raised her eyebrows in silence.
"She loves that idea," Luke said dryly, turning back to Han. "She's very excited."
Solo kept his eyes on Jade. "How can you tell?"
"She raised both eyebrows."
Jade turned to walk smoothly to a chair some distance away—to give some appearance of privacy when it was no such thing, Han knew. How could the kid stand this, to be watched all the time?
When he turned back to Luke, the kid's eyes and thoughts were still on her. "Red thinks I'm gonna do something stupid today," he observed, tone laconic and amused, more of a taunt to the silent redhead than it was an explanation to Han.
Aware that he'd subconsciously stopped a good five paces away from Luke, Han wondered how the kid would take it if he pointed out that he was with Jade on this one…
Immediately Luke turned to him, eyes sharp and searching, and Han knew he didn't have to say it out loud. But the challenge died unsaid as, quick as it had appeared, the momentary anger was gone, and Luke only laughed, turning to walk to the tall windows.
"Well, you're both wrong," he said easily, eyes to the horizon. "I'm fine."
The brittle silence hung for long moments…
"So..." Luke turned back suddenly. "How's life on Level..?"
"Seven," Han repeated, trying to keep his reply casual. "Minus seven I'm guessing, from the distinct lack of windows down there. See, you got this whole fresh air and daylight thing going on up here. We don't get that below decks."
"No, but you get the weekly walk through the Palace. That's a good ten minutes of freedom."
There was the slightest of questions in the last, and Han reacted accordingly. "Twenty minutes easy—but then I make the most of it. Maybe ten if you were running flat out. Plus the enclision grids at the Tower entrance slow us down a lot, gives me some time to sightsee. And the security checks every three—"
"That's enough," Jade said simply.
Both men fell silent for a few moments, Luke half-turning back into the room.
Solo kept his head down, surreptitiously trying to look at the fine grazes all over the kid's face, uneasy at his mercurial manner.
"You look tired," he said at last, genuine concern in his voice.
"Just sick of being cooped up," Luke dismissed evenly. "I'm ready for some fresh air."
Han nodded, his concern not settled a whit. "You know," he said at last, turning to look out at the city, "last time I was on Coruscant I was complaining because I had nowhere to stay. Now I'm in the Imperial Palace, no less. Admittedly not the best room in the house, but still…"
Luke turned sharply, understanding. "How long ago was that?"
"Four or five years." Not too long was the inference.
"Dropping off," Han said vaguely.
"Tyren Islands—a district actually, near the equator. There's a few spots there." Now wasn't the time to be giving out co-ordinates. "Didn't like 'em so much. I guess they were okay for a short stop, but too hot to stay too long," Han said pointedly.
"I'm used to the heat, you know that," Luke reassured.
"You've just been in it too long. It gets like that," Han said, understanding the double meaning and keeping his tone casual.
Clearly understanding, Luke still took the time to half-glance to Jade, doubtless wishing to disperse the conversation a little for her ears. "No—desert born and bred. I think the novelty of snow on Hoth wore off about the same time as you lowered the Falcon's landing ramp."
"You were the one who kept volunteering for perimeter checks and dragging me out with you," Han accused good-naturedly, glad to see the kid smile, if only fractionally.
"It was a rota," Luke said easily, turning back to the window.
"You were the Unit Commander—you could have left your own name out, y'know."
Luke shrugged dismissively. "I liked Yavin though—and Circarpous. Liked the greenery." His eyes turned down to the verdant roof gardens of the Main Palace below. "Like the gardens here. I'd like to visit them one day."
It took a second for Han to work this abrupt change of conversation out, then he glanced down, affecting a disinterested air. "Well, unlike me, you're in the right place. You can't get to them from the Main Palace, they're completely sealed off. I don't think you can even get through—"
"Stop it," Jade interrupted, editing the conversation again, more cautious than usual. Luke turned quizzically but she wasn't giving ground. "Stop discussing how to get from the Towers to the Palace."
"I already know how to get from the Towers to the Palace," Luke said dismissively, turning away.
Glancing once to Solo, who was stood a cagey few steps back from his own friend, clearly aware on some level that something was different, Mara narrowed her eyes at Luke, picking up the gauntlet he'd thrown down by his casually dismissive claim. "And you would know that how?"
Luke gestured with a sideways glance to the bedroom, voice cool and matter-of-fact. "You really should use droids occasionally and not sentient minds. Everyone in that room came up through the Palace into the Towers this morning; it's in the head of every single person who walks through here, Red. Yourself included."
It wasn't quite a challenge, but Mara knew Solo too could hear the short fuse when Luke spoke, which was rare enough to make him shift uneasily.
"You can't read my mind," she dismissed, the barest hint of uncertainty in her voice.
"You think those shields stop me? They don't."
He half-turned to her, his face hidden by the bright corona of daylight behind him. "When have I ever lied to you, Red?"
Mara turned away, unwilling to be pulled into an argument with him when he was so uncharacteristically volatile. But he wouldn't let her off so easily.
"Worried?" He had a wicked grin on his face, but she wasn't about to be brow-beaten by him.
"Hardly," she lied.
"You should be," he said simply, voice amused and brittle, the uneasy truth of his next words stopping her cold; "I am."
He held her eye for a second too long before his flat gaze flicked away, all his attention focused on Solo, who took a half step back without realizing. Mara studied Skywalker closely, no longer listening to what they were saying. He was slipping, increment by infinitesimal increment. Too long under her master's influence, frustrated and bound, constrained and provoked, he was losing perspective and gaining an edge, volatile and erratic, quicksilver fast.
And he knew it.
Vader walked through the towering, lavishly decorated halls which led to the Throne Room, grinding his jaw in distaste as dignitaries and Moffs paused in whatever malicious whispers they were spreading among the Royal Houses to bow lightly and politely as he passed, though he never once acknowledged them.
He had been summoned to Court, something he disliked intensely, the pomp and ceremony which his Master had instigated to keep the fractious Royal Houses in line grating against his reined-in distaste. He wasn't stupid—wasn't blind to what his Master did. The intricate formalities and etiquettes of Court were designed expressly to intimidate, to instill insecurity into anyone coming into that most exclusive of circles, to dissuade anyone without prior knowledge from daring to intrude. Thus an elite was formed who had a vested interest in maintaining their own position and therefore by extension, the Emperor's, whilst Palpatine kept close to himself all those who held any power—and he made it his business to know them all.
Before one entered the Throne Room, one must travel through the Attendant's Hall, an equally large and lavish space, three stories high and awash with the constant chatter of the exclusive language of Archaic Coruscanti, adopted by Palpatine for his Court, as well as endless native languages. The vast, magnificent hall remained forever crowded out by literally hundreds of lackeys and sycophants, all petitioning for entry to Court in hope of gaining the Emperor's patronage, which was always strictly rationed—though when one was in his favor, there were no limits to his generosity. But in order to gain such a position of favor, one must do it at the expense of another, and risk either the Emperor's amusement or his wrath. 'Dead Man's Shoes,' they called it. Fools, every one of them, for trying; they deserved all that they reaped.
The vast chamber fell to an observant hush as Vader strode through it, looking neither left nor right, having no time for the petty power-plays of these contemptible parasites. They were everything he had once thought his Master would remove, as the Old Republic groaned under the weight of its own traditions. Everything he'd once hoped to have the power to remove himself. Now there seemed more of them every day, crowded into these halls and this Palace, exchanging power for money or money for power. He hated them, every one, their weakness was sickening—but no less than his own for tolerating them.
The grand, floor-to-ceiling double-doors swung open onto the Throne Room where his Master held Court, scarlet-robed Royal Guards stepping back to allow Vader entrance—he was never made to wait. He walked forward without breaking stride into the whispering shadows of the lofty, imposing, expansive hall beyond, the gathered assemblage turning to view the new entrant, lowering their heads in polite acknowledgement of his status.
The Throne Room itself was a statement of Imperial wealth and supremacy on the grandest scale, a cavernous audience chamber whose carved, fluted pillars and crenulations were picked out with thousands upon thousands of hand-laid sheets of rose and yellow gold, banded striations of vermillion and cobalt blue threaded into its subtle lustre in flowing, fluid arcs and scrolls on the grandest scale. The distant vaulted ceiling was an immense terrazzo mosaic of darkest midnight blue, a perfect representation of Coruscant's night sky beyond the Palace rendered in fine gold strapwork.
Flanking this grand space to either side, divided from the main chamber by a series of ornate, gilded sliding panels, were less formal but still equally sumptuous private Receiving Rooms, only reachable by walking through the Throne Room itself, and only ever accessible to the very favored few. By opening or closing the wall-long runs of these elaborate sliding panels, it was possible to create several stately, intimate receiving rooms or one vast, impressive hall, an ornate raised dais at its far end.
On this dais which Vader now approached, stood Palpatine's precious Sunburst Throne, the extinct Jedi Order's vaunted 'Seat of Prophesy,' taken from the Jedi Temple before its destruction. Set above its subjects as Vader's Master always believed he was, the centuries old throne refracted subtle light about the dais from the beaten, hammered surface of the precious metal sunburst which formed the backrest, the infamous Son of Suns prophesy engraved in fine, archaic script upon it, the only copy of the prophesy in existence. Had Vader had his way, the prophesy which had hung like a chain about his neck his whole life would have been destroyed along with the chair into which it was carved.
But he didn't; he never would have. So he came to a slow halt on the half-circle of Terassotti marble before the dais, its mirror-half set into the raised dais itself, completing the circle. Its inlaid design, a pale cream circle with a russet red center set with a complex filigree in muted blue-grey, a second russet and blue-grey motif inlaid at regular intervals around its outer edge, was painfully, offensively familiar to Vader from his youth. He often wondered if anyone else recognized it as the floor of the venerated Jedi Council Chamber; probably not—who was left alive to know?
And it would, he knew, give his Master a great deal of satisfaction to have desecrated it so—to know that his throne now rested on the floor that he would once never have been allowed to stand upon. And as Vader knelt on the half-circle set into the floor before the dais, eyes lowered and back bent, gazing at the floor which he had once stood upon as a Jedi, he wondered…
Did that too fill his Master with cold amusement?
He had always sworn that if he ever rose to Emperor he would have this floor ripped up and destroyed—broken down to dust. If he rose to Emperor.
But the floor remained, and he still bent on one knee each time he came here. And he knew now that his wish would never be fulfilled. It had outlasted thousands of generations of Jedi—it would outlast this one Sith.
It gave Vader some small modicum of pleasure to think that it would outlast his Master too—even here.
"Lord Vader." Palpatine lounged upon his throne when everyone before him was made to stand. No one sat in Court—no one save himself. He loved his power, Vader knew. It gave him no greater pleasure than to wield it.
"What is thy bidding, my Master?" Vader asked, eyes to that familiar floor.
"Rise, my friend, rise," the Emperor bid him magnanimously. "Everything is proceeding as planned."
Vader remained silent, knowing instantly the true subject of this conversation but unwilling to play these pointless word games with his Master. Unsure why he was being included in this one, given its context. Though he knew that Palpatine was right; the boy balanced at the brink…but something had held him back thus far. Some sense of duty or self-restraint which had always eluded Vader. Or perhaps it was simple stubbornness—in that he and his son were very much alike.
He saw himself reflected in his son a little more every day now. Saw the brittleness, the mercurial mood swings as he struggled to maintain control against endless provocations. Felt the boy's sense in the Force shift. Luke knew it too—and he fought it, struggling to maintain a connection to something which no longer existed. Could not exist here, so close to the Emperor.
Vader looked to his Master, who had remained silent. Did he expect some answer? A confirmation of his own appraisal in this? If so, it would be the first time.
But then, Vader had a unique perspective in this. A certain…personal connection.
"Yes, Master," he said at last. "Though something remains intact—some limit yet to breach."
Palpatine narrowed his eyes in consideration of this, leaning forward and nodding slowly. Still he remained silent, staring at Vader for a long time, no longer considering his words, Vader knew, but considering him.
Vader held his peace, not wishing to be drawn further, already regretting his words, feeling he had in some way betrayed the boy.
Before the arrival of his son, he would have spoken at this point, out of his own discomfort beneath his Master's searching gaze; now he felt strangely empowered, his son's close presence, his connection and abilities, giving Vader confidence where before he had held none—not before his Master.
And as much as Vader tried to hide this, Palpatine knew it.
He shifted uncomfortably, raising barrier after barrier, realizing that he was too late. He had already given too much away—in facing his Master, in speaking his thoughts. In knowing at all.
Palpatine sat back again, some decision made.
"You have done well of late, Lord Vader, and I wish to reward you," the Emperor announced at last, words quick and decisive.
Vader's eyes narrowed beneath his mask. Reward? His Master did not reward. What was the wily old Sith doing?
"I am restructuring the fleet to better reflect the needs of my Empire. You will be given new responsibilities and powers, my friend, in acknowledgment of your exemplary service."
"Yes, Master," Vader said uneasily, hearing the wary tone in his own deep voice. Looking for the trap.
"My Empire and my fleet are growing ever larger, Lord Vader. I have decreed that the fleet is to be divided for efficiency into two separate commands. One will be named the Core Fleet, responsible for all aspects of maintaining stability in the Core Systems and the Colonies. The second will be named the Rim Fleet and will administer to all other territories and responsibilities, including expanding Imperial space and policing all insurrection and rebellion, wherever it arises. The Rim Territories require a strong hand and a dedicated, loyal commitment to Imperial policy. Your experience and diligence in such areas has earned you the right to command this Fleet in my name, my friend. I can think of no one I would trust more."
Ah, there it was—the twist of the knife.
He was being sent away, Vader realized. Away from the Palace and away from his son. His Master needed time to bring the boy fully to heel—to guarantee his loyalty, and Vader's presence had clearly become an unwanted complication. The Rim territories were vast, and with no legitimate reason to bring his fleet into the Core Colonies, Vader would remain away for extended periods of time. Masterfully done... but then he had expected no less from the man who brought a Republic to its knees.
Palpatine's thin lips twisted to a triumphant smile. "You are to go to the Meridian Sector immediately, my friend. Your fleet will be reassigned to join you in the coming days."
Vader's chin rose in shock at this. "Now?"
The Emperor paused to stare Vader down and he held that hard glare for long seconds before he crumbled, the chains which held him too old and too ingrained to withstand.
"As you wish, Master."
Palpatine continued as if the interruption had never taken place. "There is word of a Rebel unit hiding in the Gion Asteroid belt. Hunt them down in my name as only you can, Lord Vader. Destroy them completely. This is the first mission for your new fleet, my friend, and you are to dedicate yourself to it completely. I know you will not fail me."
There was a finality to his last words which indicated dismissal and Vader bowed low in response, backstepping before turning to leave.
The susurration of whispers as he strode down the vast hall set his teeth on edge. Blind, power-hungry fools; they saw only that the Emperor had rewarded the loyalty of his favored servant. Vader knew the truth—that this empty honor had taken his son from him…and with it any chance of securing the boy's loyalty.
Strangely, in that moment of realization, the former meant far more to him than the latter.
Eleven long weeks—stimulating and challenging and enervating—and dormant promise was finally shaping into workable potential. Inherent traits finally breaking through the pressure fractures. Palpatine rose, stalking forward around the table impeccably set for a dinner that was never eaten, reaching out to rest his hand on the boy's shoulder as he reached him, feeling him tense in wary reaction, the air in the cavernous chamber charged.
And his Jedi, his sense in the Force blaring out with agitation now, layers of repressed anger threatening to overcome all logic.
"This is why they would not teach you, my friend. Why they hid you in the desert and left you to rot. Surely you wondered why they delayed your training?"
Palpatine stopped behind the chair, his hand still on the boy's shoulder, the close proximity to such wildly fluid power drawing him in, urging him on, his voice a hissing whisper of feigned outrage. "They were afraid of you. Of what you would become."
He paused, aware that he was walking a fine line. He was pushing for a reaction to see just what the boy was capable of. See it for himself—sense it. Know the extent of the power Vader's son could command; whether it was equal to his father. But at the same time he wanted him to fail, to recognize the limitations of the lessons the Jedi had taught him, to realize that he could so easily move beyond them with Palpatine's aid.
Now was the time to take control, to push the advantage, to take the conversation where he willed it, knowing that the boy was too ensnared to turn away. "Why teach one whom some day you may have to destroy? Why not wait and watch? An untrained mind would be so much easier to…deal with, should the need arise. Why do you think Kenobi waited and watched from the desert as you grew?"
He leaned down to whisper, close enough that his breath caught against the boy's hair, bringing his head about slightly. "Would you like the truth, my friend?"
His Jedi took a breath to speak, but Palpatine pushed on before he had a chance to do so, fingers tightening about his shoulder to silence him. "The truth—the real truth—is that your precious teacher was placed there to be your judge, jury and executioner."
The boy shook his head, though he did not pull away. "That's not true…"
"Then why did he not teach you?" Unwatched, Palpatine smiled, knowing from the boy's tensed shoulders that he had delivered a blow.
Still the boy did not look, blue eyes searching before him as his mind sought an answer. "To protect me."
"From the Sith? We would not sense Kenobi, a trained Jedi Knight, yet they worried that we would sense you? You know that cannot be. You know the truth," Palpatine hissed. "Kenobi hid you in the desert, then he stepped back to watch you grow and struggle, trying to live within the confines of an ordinary life, knowing how this would constrain and frustrate you—yet he never divulged your heritage. Never once gave you any information, any explanation, no matter how obscure. Why?"
Palpatine pressed down against the boy's shoulders, holding him captive, demanding his attention, his voice damning. "You say he wanted to protect you, but what better protection than knowledge, child? Potential Jedi were trained from infancy—yet he never attempted to do this, never once offered guidance, though he knew—he knew—that this would someday happen...that it was inevitable. No—he did not teach you because he was waiting, my friend. Waiting to see what he would have to deal with—whether he would be able to control it. Because if he could not, then his mandate would have been to destroy it rather than see it beyond his command."
It was, after all, exactly as Palpatine would have done.
"But he did teach me."
"Because they had to gamble—they had to take the risk that they could instill enough lies and manipulations to control you before I found you."
Palpatine smiled at the boy's confusion, played out in tensed muscles beneath his hands. As if realizing, his Jedi twisted free of the touch without rising, his sense part distaste, part resentment.
Palpatine only smiled, allowing the act, indulging the emotions; feeding them. Never a direct lie, only ever the truth—as Palpatine saw it. Always logical and plausible and compelling.
Whisperings of doubt were beginning to lodge in the boy's mind now, much as he tried to deny them, much as he declared them untrue. A thousand tiny cuts, a thousand blows quickly landed. If only one drew blood then the damage was done.
And he had drawn blood, Palpatine knew, his voice a triumphant whisper. "But they could not control you completely. They could not change your lineage so they could not change your destiny. Nothing can do that."
He left this thought hanging in the dusky hush, lit more now by the dancing light of the fire than the waning sun, knowing that the boy's knife-edge silence spoke volumes.
Turning, he stepping away to stand before the hearth, gazing into the brightly destructive flickering of the flames, though every ounce of his awareness was centered on the muted, still form of the Jedi behind him. The chaos of doubts which assaulted the boy now, robbing him of clarity, instilling again that mercurial edge, that wonderfully volatile potential.
Still gazing at the fire, Palpatine shook his head, his voice laced with studied sympathy and empty outrage. "But how callous an act—to withhold from an orphaned child knowledge of its past, its parents. To watch it struggle to survive, abandoned on some forsaken planet by those who stole it. Another generation to twist with their insurrection and their lies."
He turned slowly to the boy, whose eyes had not risen from the table before him.
"This is what they did to you, Jedi—knowingly, deliberately. They used the isolation they had created as a way to control you. They took everything from you, not I. They took you from your father and they hid you from me—denied you your birthright. You would have been raised a Scion—Heir to an Empire. They knew this. You accuse me of holding you here, yet I believe I am freeing you from the enforced, restricting environment which they had bound you to… I could not begin to explain to you the life they so deliberately denied you."
Palpatine set forward now, walking to stand beside his Jedi, hand on his shoulder in empty commiseration. Head down, lost in his own thoughts, the boy did not react at all.
"And when they had done this in their own self-serving attempt to control you, when they thought they had you, body and soul, they dragged you center-stage in their worthless Rebellion, aware of the danger you would be in, knowing that they had left you with a profound weakness. One so easily remedied, yet so grievous that it brought you here, bound and broken and betrayed."
He stepped closer, gratified that the boy had allowed him to speak for this long without voicing some kind of automatic denial. Long weeks of carefully manipulated events were taking their toll, his words surely kindling burning trails of doubt for the boy to offer so little resistance at Palpatine's accusations now.
"But then perhaps I could see why they would do this. Too close an examination of the past they had created to contain you would place them in a difficult position. Require them to validate…questionable actions."
The slightest tightening of the boy's shoulders was his only visible reaction, though the Emperor sensed that his mind had flickered in momentary protection and knew his thoughts must be of his mother; that after Palpatine's revelations there must be questions he was burning to ask.
But he did not—so Palpatine could wait. The boy would ask when he was ready to hear… what better time to voice accusations than to a willing audience?
"They used you. More callously than you know. Used you and gave you nothing in return, not even the truth. You weren't even worthy of that in their eyes." His lowered his voice now, relentless, laced with pity and disgust. "How can you defend them, knowing this? Why do you absolve them?"
Skywalker's chin came up in defiance, but he found nothing to say in their defense against this sea of accusations.
Palpatine smiled, gratified. "Obi-Wan may be long gone, but I knew him well, and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that he cared nothing for you. He blindly fed his cause and sacrificed anything to it without hesitation. Yet he cowered in the desert rather than face me himself. That is the truth of the man whose memory you so honor.
"The Jedi Council to which he belonged hid their true intent behind high morals and lofty ideals which perhaps they once represented generations past, but they had become far removed from this. The Council which Master Yoda so skillfully commanded craved ever greater influence. They controlled everything—politics, trade, planetary protection—manipulated events on a galactic scale."
"And you don't?" His Jedi's voice was quiet and even, but still held a challenge.
Palpatine smiled; it was a small rebuke and a long time coming, lacking the venom he had expected, though still as quietly resolute as ever.
"I command my Empire," he said without contrition. "I do what is necessary and hide nothing. I have told you, I do not lie. I do not cloak my goals. The Jedi Council sought nothing more spiritual than power. The Republic was crumbling—they fought me for control…and they lost. In you Master Yoda saw a way to regain his forfeited status. It was a gamble, but it was one which he readily took because he had nothing to lose. He did not himself challenge my power—he has fought me before…he knew he could not win. No; instead he found another—an outsider, a dispensable commodity in his eyes. He was quite content to hide in the shadows and send you to the slaughter—another innocent condemned for his cause—send you to do what he knew he could not. Sacrifice you and those about you without the slightest—"
"I think we have finished speaking," Luke said simply, his head turning away, voice quiet but firm.
"Don't EVER interrupt me!" Palpatine shouted his rebuke, hand banging down on the boy's shoulder, a shock of Dark power jolting through his frame.
Luke's heart pounded against his ribs at the fierce reproach, body tensing, hands tightening into fists at the provocation. But he wouldn't give.
"I think we have finished speaking now." He heard the clipped tone of his own voice, heard the frustration and the hostility but in that moment was past caring. He was sick and tired of being led around. Of honoring a deal which he shouldn't have had to make in the first place, of fighting when nobody gave a damn anymore, of holding back when he knew what he was capable of.
"No, we are not finished talking, Jedi—we have only just begun."
"Then I've finished listening." Voice cut through with barely controlled anger, Luke stood, walking away to return to his quarters.
The huge double-doors to the drawing room swung shut in his face, resonating as the multiple bolts slammed home. "Sit down."
"Open the doors," Luke ordered, his voice cold fury now.
"Sit down," Palpatine hissed, his tone unmistakable.
Still Luke would not turn from the doors. He heard the heavy rustle of cloth as the Emperor turned behind him and in that moment the Force rushed unbidden to his mind, giving a perfect image of the table behind him, every knife on it practically vibrating with the energy about them.
Answering his call—not Palpatine's—he had thought that. And in that moment, he knew how easy it would be.
The reverberating bang of Palpatine's fists on the table made him flinch just slightly, and his jaw tightened further in anger at himself for doing so.
Still Luke stared forward in silence.
"The doors will not open simply because you stare at them," Palpatine spit out.
The derisive, dismissive tone in the Emperor's voice lit a fire in Luke's stomach, searing away all other considerations. Narrowing his eyes, he looked to the huge, heavy wooden-clad doors—
And called the Force…
An inrush of energy, like a change in pressure, like surfacing from deep water and drawing that first breath, like the oxygen he breathed; natural, life-giving, potent...
The sheet of intense energy immersed Luke, an unfamiliar twist of raw power tangled through, so that nothing could be hidden, even the smallest increments visible to this flawless perception. Now the energy coalesced and defined, diffuse potential converging, frustration and blind fury channeling it as never before.
He pulled this huge well of power in, willed it into crystal-sharp focus, channeled it with absolute precision. Gave it direction, defined his intent and permitted it control in the same instant... allowed it everything it needed.
Gave himself over to it completely…
It blazed through him, his muscles twitching as he strived to confine and control this profound inrush of blazing power.
He saw the doors—truly saw them for the first time, every fine grain of wood which faced them, every striation in the dense slabs of interlinked polymer alloys hidden beneath, rows of heavy bolts embedded in organic steel keeps, bound and inlaid with perennium cables from floor to ceiling, set into a cage of massive girders behind innocuous plaster walls. Every conceivable strength carefully compounded to hold against him.
And it was nothing—nothing at all.
He hurled the Force at them, a wall of dense, unstoppable energy, and the heavy wood paneling which covered the true nature of the doors simply collapsed before it, the fine carving compressing inwards, its mass reduced to nothing as he kept on pushing, disintegrating to dust against the might of this single, sustained blow.
And still he pushed forward—
The metal hidden within began to creak; groan beneath the power thrown against it, compression heating it to red hot so the remnants of wood began to smolder and blacken.
Luke tilted his head, leaning in to the task, indiscriminate fury giving him purpose as he'd never had, all his frustration thrown forward against that which stood in his way.
With a shock of movement the doors wrenched back several inches, masonry from the walls about them exploding outwards in fine powder as the heavy inset bolts began to fail, the keeps pushed back through plasteel block, dragging heavy girders and strung cables with them.
Another jolting inch in a screech of tortured metal, the doors completely black now, flaws beginning to rip through the surface as the metal failed under massive, sustained pressure.
Only now did Luke throw both hands up, palms out to the doors.
The surrounding wall exploded back under the invisible blow, the massive doors torn away as if they were matchwood to bounce against the walls in the room beyond, dragging huge scars in the plaster to reveal the cabled plasteel structure beneath, coming to rest in a mangled crush against the far wall, deep gouges hewn into the polished marble floor as they tumbled in a flurry of dust and debris…
Moments passed unchecked, the silence ringing in Luke's ears after the cacophony of noise, both mental and physical.
He remained perfectly still as the dust rolled back and billowed about him to settle in a fine white haze on the black marble floors. Didn't turn as he spoke, staring straight ahead at the huge, gaping hole ripped into the feet-thick walls where the heavy blast doors had stood, thick cable and dense alloys sheared off about it.
"Apparently they will," he said at last.
Palpatine remained seated as his Jedi walked calmly into the drawing room beyond, passing the destruction he had metered out without a single glance as he continued on into the adjoining chamber, its own huge doors closing in restrained silence behind him.
Alone now, Palpatine's face turned slowly to a broad, insidious smile as he looked appreciatively at the incredible destruction his Jedi had wrought.
He knew the power it had taken to do that—the power Skywalker had accessed, had called so easily and so naturally to him.
Slowly, in the reverberating silence, he began to laugh.
Luke slumped to his knees in the still hush of the empty room, that dark instant of flawless clarity gone, a shiver wracking his frame at the cold realization of a brief affinity. In the shadowed hush of the huge, soulless chamber, he looked to the freedom beyond the thick panes of the tall windows, terrified in that moment that it was lost to him.
Perhaps it could never have been otherwise.
Perhaps it was all he deserved.
Was this destiny?
Staring in mute silence at the moon beyond the Palace towers, feeling the howling call of the Darkness as never before, he remembered again his childhood dream; the wolf that clung to the shadows, at one with the night, slipping past any defense, always hunting, breath misting a snarl in the cold twilight.
Hunting him, he had thought.
But now…now when he slept, there was only himself in those raven shadows, and the Darkness clung to him like a cloak, dragging him down.
Leaving him to prowl the barren night alone.
Twelve weeks—twelve weeks of incarceration in the same few rooms. Twelve weeks of grinding pressure. Twelve weeks of uncertainty and doubt and incessant provocation.
And it wouldn't end here, not really. Not for him.
But it sure as hell was about to change. For better or worse.
Luke had spent much of the afternoon in the empty bedroom, knelt in meditation—or as near as he could come to it in this dark, desolate place. Putting up shields, raising imperceptible barriers to hide his intent.
He'd realized he could do this days after arriving here, sensing the impression of it in Mara's mind when she spoke to him and using it as a template to guide his own attempts, consistently investing time and effort in improving the same skill week on week, so that he was pretty confident now that he could not only shield thoughts from Palpatine, but hide the shields also, in such a way that the Sith wasn't aware that something was being hidden.
The trick, Luke had found, was to always leave a few perceptible barriers in place—something to focus attention on—so that although he now hid far more than he allowed to be seen, he was confident that although Palpatine knew he was hiding things beyond the obvious, the Sith had no idea what or how much.
He was staking a great deal on that theory tonight.
Luke opened his eyes to gaze out into the darkening night, studying the heavy, filament-reinforced clear plasteel plate of the windows.
Could he break them?
Yes—he knew he could. He knew.
The window was nothing—he had broken down the doors five days ago, which were far heavier…and therein lie the dilemma.
He had destroyed the doors because he had touched Darkness, allowed it sway in his frustration and his anger. But he was aware of his abilities expanding even without that spur, as if it had somehow opened a portal—or perhaps he simply had faith in his own abilities now, as Master Yoda had always sought to instill.
Or maybe he remained in contact with the Darkness… that thought brought a slight frown to his face; fast, easy power—that was what Master Yoda had said. But would it be so terrible to use it as a method of escape—to gain Han's freedom? What could possibly be Dark in that intent? He glanced again at the windows, his momentary doubt rejected in the face of greater need.
In his meditative state, he easily picked up on Palpatine's presence as he moved through the Palace in the early evening, heading for Luke's quarters, sense focused, brimming with decisive intent, eager and energized and endlessly self-confident.
When he entered the hall two rooms away, Luke took one final deep, calming breath.
Long night ahead.
Palpatine mouthed and espoused as only he could. Vindictive, manipulative accusations whose words Luke didn't even hear, gazing blankly at the old man, listening to his own blood whistling in his ears.
Time passed and he tried to listen, tried to react, tried to hide how wired and tense he was.
He reached out to take the large, engraved glass goblet from the table, momentarily chiding himself for not having taken the time to do this more often so that now it seemed a common act, casually transferring it to his left hand before bringing it to his dry mouth.
He took a long drink, wishing it were something stronger, aware of his heart pounding, replacing the goblet to the table but not releasing it. Waiting—turning his attention back to Palpatine—concentrate!…
"…tell me that you have been struck from the Rebellion's records—they are disowning you, my friend."
"They wouldn't abandon me so hastily," Luke said, shaking his head.
"You are already gone, Jedi." Palpatine smiled, amused.
"Then who destroyed the Death Star?"
"The pilot who destroyed the Death Star died in the battle of Hoth, they say. That is the official line. He died a hero—sacrificed his life for their cause. You , my friend, are an Imperial agent. A spy who infiltrated their highest ranks and betrayed their every trust—I'm told they fell over themselves to desert you, my friend. To deny any association or connection with the man they couldn't wait to condemn. That is the extent of their loyalty—it always was."
Luke tensed against this final barb, eyes narrowed, jaw tight.
"You have no—" The glass shattered into fragments in his hand, causing him to jump up and back, his chair toppling behind him.
He halted, cradling his injured left hand as blood began to flow from deep wounds, mingling with the red wine which stained the perfect white cloth of the table. Teeth clenched, he gingerly pulled at a large fragment which had lodged into the flesh of his palm, dropping the scarlet-smeared shard to the table, reaching back to work a second razor-sharp fragment free.
The Emperor watched all of this in rapt silence, as if it were a diversion acted out for his personal entertainment.
Luke clenched his hand shut against the flow of blood, jumped just slightly, then carefully picked at another deep gash to pull free a vicious glass splinter. Again he squeezed his hand shut, dark, viscous blood oozing between his fingers onto the already-stained cloth; more than he'd expected.
He gazed at his clenched fist for long seconds before finally lifting his head to Palpatine, eyes burning an accusation.
The Emperor only smiled, eyebrows raised in polite expectation. "Perhaps you'd like another glass?"
Luke glared long seconds before biting out, "Why, do you have something else you'd like to say?"
The Emperor paused considering, as if this had been a serious request. "No—no, I think we have finished tonight, my friend."
He rose, the heavy doors beginning their slow cycle of unlocking. Luke subconsciously counted out the seconds, as he had done a hundred times before. Mara entered, followed by six Royal Guards, who opened their tight, two-by-two formation to allow the Emperor to step between them.
Glancing nonchalantly back, Palpatine murmured to Jade, "See to his hand," before walking from the room without looking back, the doors slamming shut behind him, the staged lock engaging.
Mara stepped forward, hand outstretched, but Luke only turned away.
"It's fine," he lied, stalking back through the dark drawing room alone.
"Let me check," she said easily, following him.
"I said it's fine," he dismissed again, dropping it casually open at his side to leave a trail of ruby drops scattered across the stone floor on his path through the bedroom and down the long marble corridor of the 'fresher suite.
Shaking her head just slightly at Skywalker's typical willful stubbornness, Mara followed. By the time she reached the washroom the sink was already spattered with blood still trickling from his hand.
He let out a small sigh, as if uncertain what to do, and Mara stepped forward to take his hand and open it without resistance, examining the deep cuts with a soldier's eye.
He remained silent for long seconds before saying in a quiet voice, "I think there's still some glass in, but I can't find it."
She lifted his hand closer, examining the oozing gashes. "I can't see anything," She eased the wounds open one by one to look, then pinched them closed. "These need stitching though. I'll send for Hallin."
"Stupid." He looked away, annoyed, stepping back slightly. "Stupid thing to do."
For some reason, Mara found she kept hold of his injured hand. "I think you both have a way of getting round each other's defenses," she said without looking up.
"Yeah, I don't see him calling out the medic."
"You've scored a few blows, believe me," Mara admitted, wondering why the hell she was telling him this. "He thought he'd have you well-trained by now."
He was silent for long seconds at this, in which time Mara studiously studied his hand. When she finally looked up, he was frowning at her, clearly wondering the very same thing.
She held his gaze for long seconds…
When he took a breath to speak, Mara cut in quickly, "I'll…get that medic."
She released his hand to walk quickly past him in the doorway, aware that she'd brushed against him even though he'd stepped back, the room plenty large enough for her to have avoided it.
"Thanks," he muttered quietly, then, "Mara—"
She glanced round, surprised; it was rare that he called her by name. "What?"
"Sorry," he said, a strangely heartfelt apology.
He shrugged. "Just…sorry."
Mara stared for a few moments longer, wondering at this, but he glanced down and took his bleeding hand in his other, so she turned to walk away, aware of the surveillance lenses, wishing she could slap herself on the forehead at her own rash actions.
Nathan Hallin was getting used to being just dragged out to perform his duties wherever his sole charge happened to be at the time, so that being summoned from his own quarters in the North Tower and brought through the incredible security of the South Tower to attend to Vader's son in what were hardly sterile conditions, with poor light and only what equipment he had brought with him seemed little more than a mild inconvenience now.
It had become clear that Skywalker occupied a strangely ambiguous position within the Palace—though that was about the only thing that was clear. He seemed, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner here, with locked doors and countless guards. Yet he also seemed to occupy a position in the Emperor's personal entourage and the title of Commander, with apartments and staff and all attendant entitlements.
It was just that all these privileges existed under incredible security, most of which was kept well hidden from the few who were entitled to travel this far into the always-restricted South Tower.
No one within the Palace, outside of those who were involved with him on a daily basis, seemed to have the slightest idea who he was, and Nathan had found himself the subject of many subtle attempts to find out. Why exactly they thought he would know was a mystery, since he was almost as clueless as everyone else, aware now that he had been fed the official party line with regard to Skywalker's past.
Still, it had been made abundantly clear by the higher powers that speaking the name of Luke Skywalker outside of the man's presence was absolutely out of the question. He was to be referred to as the Commander; only ever the Commander.
Nathan had heard it whispered many times now that he was one of the Emperor's vaunted undercover agents, as Commander Jade was suspected to be, trained from a young age to travel unnoticed throughout the Empire fulfilling his master's commands in 'delicate situations.' But then he'd also heard that he was an ex-Royal Guard, an infiltration specialist who, like Lieutenant Commander Reece, had now been retired to take up a more conventional position within the Emperor's retinue. Either of which could well be true for all Nathan knew, though neither explained the guards at the door, more jumpy than ever tonight.
For some reason, Skywalker seemed to be limited to the bedroom and drawing room again now; or rather, for what was a very obvious reason—it was hard to miss the huge amount of repair work visible around the drawing room entrance, the massive reinforced cage of the underlying security structure surrounding the security doors carefully reconstructed but not yet matched in and hidden.
That they'd actually tried to take his scalpel from him at the outer doors had seemed a little extreme even here though, as outrageously wary as they always were of their charge. He'd argued strenuously that the short medical laser was hardly a threat, finally being allowed it by Commander Jade.
It all seemed rather a case of obsessive overkill as far as Nathan was concerned. Although he was clearly here against his will, it wasn't as though Skywalker had ever done anything even vaguely threatening—he seemed always polite and mild-mannered, and was not much taller than Nathan himself, though he had the kind of rangy, solid musculature one probably got from a life as a professional soldier rather than Nathan's more sedate days spent studying papers on specialist surgery and medical anatomy.
But he'd always remained so very equitable and composed. Never once had Nathan felt threatened in his company the way he did in his father's presence, even when they had differences of agreement in their discussions—which they almost invariably did. For a man who lived in the Imperial Palace, Skywalker seemed to have decidedly radical views.
He'd often been tempted to just ask directly of Skywalker what exactly was going on…but since that one slip in which Skywalker had clarified just a few brief points, his answers posing more questions than they addressed, it had been made very clear to Nathan that his newly-acquired position depended greatly on his co-operation, and while a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing, Nathan had the distinct impression that in this case, a lot of it could well be deadly.
Luke remained uncharacteristically quiet as Nathan cleaned and sutured the wounds to his hand, sitting on the arm of a chair in the locked drawing room, a light pulled close.
Finally, he broke into Nathan's train of thought as he worked, his question as searching as every other discussion they'd had. But always congenial, even in disagreement.
"Do you ever ask yourself what you're doing, Hallin?"
"What, in suturing your hand?" Nathan asked lightly. "No, I'm pretty sure I know how to do it. They gave me certificates and everything."
Skywalker's voice was quiet; good-natured. "You know what I mean—whether this is right."
"No, I don't ask myself any such thing," the medic said pointedly. "Which is why I'm here and you're there."
"Then you're a fool," Skywalker said easily with a brief, tight smile. "If I get out of here I'm free—you'll stay in your prison forever."
"How wonderfully self-righteous you are," Nathan countered easily, no malice in his voice. "But then I suppose that's all you have left."
"I have my integrity," Skywalker said without looking up as the medic sutured the deep slices in his hand.
"Integrity doesn't open locked doors," Nathan dismissed amiably. Though he disagreed with his views, he rather liked Luke in truth, enjoying their little debates.
"Integrity can't be chained," Skywalker said affably.
"But you, apparently, can."
Skywalker only smiled at this, typically unoffended. "Touché."
He looked at his hand as Nathan sprayed a liquid protector over the wounds, the worst three of which had required sutures, the rest closed with sterile strip.
"Thank you," Skywalker said absently, glancing down.
"Try to keep your hand open tonight so the scars don't split open in the morning. And keep it dry," Nathan said, packing up. "It's a pity it wasn't your prosthetic hand, really—it would have been a far simpler job."
"But it would probably have been left 'till morning," his charge replied, as if this were some validation.
"Quite." Nathan frowned, uncertain what to make of that, studying the reader in his hand, a sample of his patient's blood in the small receptor. "Your adrenalin's very high." He frowned again, taking a scan. "And your heart rate's way up. How do you feel?"
"Fine. Thank you, Hallin." Skywalker stood in polite dismissal, so Nathan backed away, packing instruments into his pockets and case.
"If you need something to sleep…"
"No. Thank you."
Nathan shrugged and walked to the door, waiting long seconds for it to slowly cycle open.
Two Red Guard stepped in and to either side as it did so, to let him through.
Hearing his shout, Nathan turned back to see his patient holding his injured hand awkwardly.
"It's split…the sutures..." Skywalker stepped forward to Nathan, hand out before him, so he took a half-step back into the room towards him as Skywalker reached the door, hand out...and Nathan frowned; all the sutures were intact…
It happened in a blur, Hallin barely registering the actions before they were done.
Skywalker twisted his injured hand to the side and the long pike in the grip of the nearest guard wrenched free to leap the short distance to his own—
Even as it happened he was still stepping forward, snatching the pike from midair and twisting it quickly round to land a solid blow to the guard's chest, the activated pike releasing a blinding charge of power, dropping the guard without a sound—
Without pausing to make sure he fell, Skywalker immediately backswung the pike into the second guard, using the opposite end for speed, so that both were on the floor before Hallin even realized what was happening—
The two guards who stood inside the dining room door started forward, reaching for concealed blasters as Skywalker flung the pike from his left hand to his right, stretching his left hand out before him, palm out, fingers open—
And somehow the guards were launched back, feet leaving the ground, arms flailing, hitting the far wall with a brutal smack which could have been bone or armor or both—
"S-Stop!" Completely ignored by Skywalker, Nathan backed up a step, fumbling at the medical scalpel in his pocket, finally pulling it free and turning on the tiny blade, brandishing it before him.
Skywalker barely glanced at him. "Really?" he asked, pike still in hand.
Now, suddenly, with this mercurial change—in his stance and his intent and his casually threatening manner—he seemed very much like his father.
Nathan glanced at the pike and at the four guards, brought down without even the slightest hesitation, then looked into the man's eyes…
He backed up, dropping the scalpel as Skywalker grabbed at the scruff of the nearest guard, hauling him with him as he walked quickly to the huge windows in the dining room, counting down out loud—
The doors to the dining hall were cycling open now, more guards undoubtedly waiting to get in—
Nathan turned to Skywalker as he stopped, unruffled, before the windows; paused as if gathering his thoughts…then he threw his open hand out before him—
Something... something wrenched at the air about Nathan with enough power to make his eardrums pop and in that same instant the heavy reinforced windows exploded outwards in a shower of fine, fragmented pieces, the screeching wrench of shearing cables and stressed steel competing against the deafening alarm which burst forth that same instant—
Nathan could see Skywalker's lips moving, counting down as he stepped through the still-falling debris onto the darkness of the balcony beyond, the unconscious guard in tow—
The medic stood frozen for several long seconds before the outer door finally cycled open, realizing as it did so that this was what Luke was counting down.
Guards flooded into the room in a flurry of red robes, force pikes activated. Hallin gestured pointlessly to the huge, gaping hole in the wall, massive chunks of reinforced lintel still swinging wildly, held in place by a few intact cables still threaded through the transparisteel slab—
He stepped back further as still more guards poured through the narrow doors, the room a sea of scarlet now. Momentarily, he spotted the dark fitted jumpsuit and flash of red hair which was Commander Jade as she pushed forward, then she was lost again in the massed troops.
Bizarrely, in that moment, surrounded by this wild chaos of noise and people, heart beating staccato against his chest, the only thing which was going through Nathan's shocked mind in the face of this incredible revelation of Skywalker's true abilities was, 'That's why they wanted to take my scalpel!'
Mara stood on the balcony gazing out over the carved stone balustrade, trying to spot Skywalker in the dense black of night, the huge beams of light which illuminated the Tower walls to make them visible for miles around, now blinding her completely.
She turned quickly, blinking away the bright spots, having the forethought to check above as well as below and to the side of her, but he was nowhere to be seen. She knew a Jedi could jump extreme distances without injury, but the balcony was twenty-four stories above the monolithic Main Palace …could he jump that far?
She turned back, pushing through the throngs of Red Guards, struggling against the crowd to get back into the main corridor beyond the Dining Hall, heading at full tilt for the Ops room, cursing all the way.
"Status," Mara ordered as she arrived, struggling for breath.
The four ops officers shook their heads, expressions grave—everyone knew their heads were on the block tonight. "Nothing yet. All security images clean; no sightings. He's going to have to get back into the main Crossway in the Tower base if he wants to get down any further into the Palace though. The Towers are sealed already. Enclision grids are active, blast shields are in place. We're locked down—there's no way he can get through to the Main Palace."
Mara considered… "Open the first few blast doors on the East Tower—the ones you can see from the Crossways. Let's see if he'll bite. Get extra troops down there, out of sight. And start repositioning stormtroopers around the stairwell in the Main Palace."
The Ops Duty Officer nodded, speaking quickly into his comlink as Mara forced herself calm, eyes skipping from display to display…nothing.
She shook her head, frustrated. "He'll not try to get back in yet. He'll stay outside as long as he can to avoid being spotted; try to climb down to the Palace roof somehow. But it'll slow him down and he knows it—and whatever he does, he'll eventually have to get back in—he can't bypass the Main Palace entry, he has to go through it."
But he didn't know that—he may well try to stay outside and look for some way down the smooth, shielded bulk of the Main Palace walls—in his situation, she would… Which meant he'd probably get as close to the main Crossway at the Tower bases as possible outside, then try to get back in—probably not back into the South Tower. Which would put him on the Main Palace roof in the next few minutes... and within striking distance of the landing pads there, she realized. "Lock down everything on the roof pad. How many transports are there?"
The duty officer frowned. "Just two. Both shuttles."
"Do you know the Deck Officer to look at?"
The Ops D.O. nodded.
"Tell him he's to go out to them right now with a blaster and shoot out the flight consoles—tell him it's my order. I want them unflyable inside one minute."
The man nodded, understanding—two shuttles were a small price to pay.
"Then get every spare body onto the roof gardens. Get every light on—I want it lit up like a landing strip. Call Units Four, Five and Nine down from his quarters and get them out there. How many—"
She flinched, knowing this was coming...
--We'll find him, master--
She knew that the Emperor was rising, heading downwards toward her position. There would be hell to pay for this. He'd known, of course, that Skywalker was going to do this eventually; make some bid for freedom. But he'd predicted that it wouldn't be yet—had been so sure that it would be late tomorrow, when the pact which had held Skywalker this long expired—and Mara had set all her plans around this, additional reinforcements to be placed everywhere at the change of shift at dawn tomorrow, sure that her master couldn't be wrong.
Sure that Skywalker would hold to his word on the agreement.
But Skywalker was changing; becoming more volatile, less predictable. She knew that, had watched it happen—why hadn't she allowed for it?
Stupid, stupid, stupid…
A stray memory clicked—of Skywalker cursing himself the same way in the 'fresher as she'd studied his injured hand. Of him apologizing, for what she hadn't known…
This was all planned! His hand, the medic—everything! "Pull up the footage of the drawing room just before it happened!"
She watched it closely, squinting… "Again."
This wasn't a chance opportunity seized. He'd walked forward so casually, eyes on his hand, not looking up.
She watched him move with that incredible burst of speed as he snatched the force pike, dropping both the guards almost simultaneously, swapping hands to use the Force to throw the second pair of guards back. Then he grabbed one by the scruff and dragged him casually forward to the tall, reinforced windows…
The windows--that had been a trial! Weeks ago, he'd thrown the Force at them, and she'd believed as everybody had that they'd held against him…but he'd not broken them on purpose! He'd wanted to see if they could be broken, but hadn't wanted to have them further reinforced, so he'd just tested them.
It was all just a test…a test for today. She shook her head, lips pursed in frustration.
And then the rest fell into place…everything. He'd wanted to know the response too; what would happen when he did break them—timings, numbers. That was all part of his dry run.
"You son of a… what are you doing…?" She gazed at the footage as that sea of Red Guards flooded into the room…"Come on, Luke—this was organized…what were you planning…"
"Go back." She frowned, reaching forward to operate the controls herself. The image jumped back several seconds to the point when he glanced to the medic—what did he say? She frowned closer... "What's he saying now?"
Everyone in Ops squinted at the image. "He's counting," one of the men said slowly. "See? He's counting down…"
"He's counting the response time..." Mara said, then, in a flush of realization, "The door time! The length of time it takes for the lock on the door to cycle open."
"But he's almost out…" the Ops officer said, confused.
"Yes," The Emperor's guttural voice was hard and biting, and everyone spun about and bowed low, Mara included.
When she lifted her head, it was she whom Palpatine was glaring at.
"Why haven't you caught him yet?" he was to the point as ever.
"We're having some trouble locating his exact…"
"Replay the images," Palpatine spoke over her, disinterested in excuses.
The Ops officer rushed to comply, playing the image from the moment the prisoner walked up to the drawing room door, hand out.
"Where are the guards stationed now?" Palpatine asked quietly, squinting at the image.
Mara checked status screens. "Mostly in the lower levels. We've got as many units as possible out on the rooftop gardens, searching it by quarters. He's still outside, because we haven't had an entry alarm sound yet. I've had some of the tranquillizer sent down, and there are three units who carry it routinely who've…"
"Bring them in," Palpatine interrupted. "He's in the Towers."
Mara frowned. "Master?"
"He's in the Towers, dressed as a Royal Guard. Probably with those you so considerately sent running down to the Crossways, since that's where he needed to get to. Replay the image."
Mara turned back to the display, head fizzing with adrenaline as she took in the scene.
"There—slow the image," Palpatine said coolly.
It was at the point where the first flurry of guards came rushing in… Mara studied the display as the image edged forward incrementally.
"Stop," the Emperor ordered curtly, stepping forward to point at the frame, his long white fingers pale against the sea of scarlet in the image. "He's there."
In the midst of the chaos of red-garbed Royal Guard who streamed into the room, spreading out and onto the balcony, one guard was walking calmly the opposite way, back through the entrance door, pike in hand…
"The guard he dragged out onto the balcony," Mara said flatly. "He was counting down the time he had to dress."
The Emperor turned hard, yellow eyes on Mara. "Are the guards still out in the gardens?" he asked pointedly.
Mara rushed to comply, recalling troops, reassigning the blue-clad Palace Guard and grey-uniformed officers—every Royal Guard now had to have his identity checked.
Luke smoothed down the olive drab of the officer's uniform he wore, running his fingers quickly through the short, military crop he'd had just days before, eyes flicking coldly from the Intel nervous officer he'd just taken the uniform from to the second officer now slumped in the corner; there was always someone who chanced their luck.
He turned back to the first man. "Okay, here's the deal. You do exactly as I tell you and you'll have a very interesting story to tell over dinner tomorrow night. Cross me, interfere, get in my way or disobey and I will put you in the morgue and go find someone who will do as I say. Are we very clear on that?" His voice was quiet and flat, but deadly serious.
The man nodded dumbly.
Confronted with that blast of fear which blared out through the Force, Luke tried to feel any shred of guilt at the man's terror but in that moment it was far beyond him. All he saw was his plan—all he felt was cold, single-minded determination.
"Put those on." He kicked his own trousers, carefully chosen tonight, across to the man—also very carefully chosen.
A little taller than Luke with short dark hair, wearing Luke's dark trousers and military boots with the white shirt from his own uniform, he could easily be Han from a distance.
Luke had been eager to get rid of the Royal Guard's uniform as quickly as possible—it had been a method of getting him out of the room, nothing more. To keep wearing it when they would have him in security footage dragging the damn guard outside would have been suicide, but it had served its purpose.
He'd headed up four stories—not so far that a member of the Red Guard would have seemed out of place—then began frantically searching for his next change of clothes, on just the right officer. He needed someone with a reasonably prominent rank and therefore high security clearance—not too old, fast enough not to slow Luke down, though he didn't intend going that far—and the right look.
And he figured he had about three minutes to find him.
Then along came this guy, making Luke's night…though probably not his own, Luke reflected dryly, bundling the red overcloak into the hard cowl-helmet, the only pieces of the Red Guard's uniform he'd had time to drag on.
Glancing about, he turned his gaze up—at the lowered roof. He almost—almost—used the Force to lift the discarded clothes into the ceiling void. But he caught himself at the last minute—he could do a reasonable job of confusing Palpatine's concept of his exact position, but not if he used the Force directly.
Instead, he climbed quickly up onto the desk, pushing a tile back and stowing the disguise before jumping back down, his eyes on the officer.
"What's your name?"
"Do you have a first name?"
The man eyed him warily. "Andorius."
Luke lifted his eyebrows at that. "Okay…we'll stick with Arco. And when I ask you a question, you're gonna answer me straight away, and you're gonna tell the truth, 'cos I'm really not a man you should consider lying to—not tonight."
He hefted the man's stolen blaster up to rest it against his shoulder.
"Let's have our first try, huh? I need the nearest ops room up from here that'll give me access to the Detention Center below the Main Palace." He knew that Mara Jade used one just a few levels down, but going down was not an option…
The man tensed up resolutely. "There are none above here. The nearest one is—"
Luke stepped forward, grabbing the man's arm and wrenching him forward, slamming his hand down flat onto the desk before him. Swinging the blaster down, he pushed the muzzle against the back of the Imperial's hand.
"I assume you like the matching pair? Because let me tell you, the surgery to replace it will put my blasting a hole through it to shame…"
The man pursed his lips and Luke tightened his finger on the trigger. He didn't want to shoot—more because the noise may well give him away than for any other reason—but he would, if he needed to. And it wouldn't be the man's hand which took the shot…
Somewhere in the back of his mind an alarm sounded, but he dismissed it almost instantly, focused on his goal. "Last chance—then I get rid of you and wake up the guy in the corner."
Even passively through the Force, this close he could sense the officer waiver, resistance crumbling…
"Fine." Keeping hold of the man's arm, he lifted the blaster without hesitation to his forehead...
"Wait!! Okay, okay. Two stories—it's two stories up."
Luke pulled the blaster back, releasing his hold. "You're a smart man, Arco. Lead on."
He was surprised how easy it had been. How easy it would have been…
Mara sat in the ops room, streams of information coming from each of the units as they searched the lower levels of the Tower, taking her time now to position and back up each unit carefully, moving all Red Guards back from the last two levels above the Crossway, building the numbers of Palace Guards on every level.
In the Main Palace, one story and about thirty feet of blast-proof organic steel composite down from the Crossway and completely unreachable from it when the shields were down, she was also positioning stormtrooper units as back-up. She knew that it was impossible to pass between the two without ending up in the enclision grids at the base of the Towers, but that was no reason not to be thorough.
Plus she didn't really want the Emperor's prize Jedi cut to pieces by the military-grade lasers in the enclision grid. Both for herself and her master—professional pride, Mara assured herself as she closed her eyes, listening to the reports—no sign of him yet.
"Where are you?" she whispered at last. "How are you getting down—how are you getting past us?"
Luke kept on heading up, keeping a loose hold of the Imperial, watchful for security lenses and trying to keep both their backs to them, subtly keeping his own head down. Wondering how much serious firepower was being amassed on the lower levels of the Towers to stop him.
Wondering when they'd start to look up.
Hoping that by now, Mara would be starting to move stormtroopers and Palace Guards up to the upper levels of the Main Palace. Gambling that they wouldn't risk the show of weakness inherent in closing down the Main Palace completely, believing Luke was still in the Towers…
"Here," the officer said quietly, pausing by a door marked 'Ops 90'.
Luke stared at the man for long seconds, but he held Luke's eye.
"How many people will be in there?" he asked, not liking standing out in a corridor, but not wishing to go in half-cocked.
"Two normally, at this time of night. But there's been a call-to-quarters, so it could be more."
Luke gestured with his head. "After you."
Arco sighed, a tremble in his breath, but he pressed the door release and entered. As he stepped through, Luke gave him a good push forward, so that all eyes were on him as he stumbled and Luke was in the room, his blaster pulled free before anybody even looked to him.
"Up!" he shouted. "Move back to—"
The first man jumped up, chair toppling backward as he drew his blaster—
He was taken down in a single body-shot at this range.
The second man fumbled his own gun up and Luke brought his blaster back for another hasty shot, point-blank, the impact launching the man back. The blaster swung instantly around to Arco, who remained perfectly still, eyes shut...
The falling chair finally clattered to the ground, the sound making Arco jerk back in anticipation.
Luke held the blaster at the man for long seconds as his heartbeat slowed.
"Open your eyes," he dismissed casually as he set forward to the desk, leaving the man standing, shocked rigid.
When he didn't move, Luke reached around and grabbed him, pulling him back to the upright chair and yanking him into it. "Get online. And if you sound one alarm, so help me…"
He didn't finish the threat—he really didn't need to. The proof was slumped against the far wall for Arco to see.
"I'm in the system," Arco said quietly. "What do you want?"
"Detention Center. Level Seven," Luke said, pulling up the toppled chair. "I need access to the security footage and the overrides."
Arco glanced once at him, but didn't bother asking.
Han lay back on his hard bunk for want of anything better to do, gazing up at the ceiling. Had he misunderstood? Tonight was the last night—tonight was one week.
He had no idea of the time, but it was only a few hours after his meal, so it was probably still before midnight—did that mean today was almost through? Or did the early hours of the morning technically still count?
"We have got to work out a better system," he announced to the empty room.
If it did mean— The cell door slid open…
Frowning, Han sat up looking to the door, not sure whether he expected to see two stormtroopers or the kid. Long seconds passed in silence before he finally stood and walked forward, leaning out into the long corridor beyond…
No one was there.
First rule of Sabacc: never turn down a free card…
He stepped warily out into the corridor, seeing that the blast door at the only open end of the corridor was locked down, hearing muffled voices from beyond.
"Great," he muttered. "That's just…"
Across the narrow corridor, the opposite cell door nearest the blast door opened, making him jump outrageously.
Slowly, warily, he walked forward, uneasy at the proximity of the guards he could hear just on the other side of the blast door, crouching down to look inside the apparently empty cell.
Nothing inside… What the hell was going on? Was it just a malfunction?
He stepped back, glancing around...and the door half-closed, then slid open again. Then again.
"Come on, Han. Get in the damn cell," Luke muttered, willing the cagy smuggler to step forward.
Watching security images from the holo's in the ops room he was holed up in, Luke's attention was split between the three guards on duty on the other side of the blast door, who were now beginning to wonder if it really was the malfunction he'd just assured them it was, and the image of the sealed cell corridor beyond, Han pausing suspiciously before the open cell door.
"Would you please get in!?" he urged, exasperated.
Finally, Han walked forward, crouching to pass warily under the half-lowered door, which Luke closed immediately after he stepped through.
Han twisted quickly round, but wasn't nearly fast enough to get back through the closing door. Taking three steps back, he glared at it. "If this isn't you, kid, then I'm gonna look very, very stupid."
He stood still and expectant for long moments…in which nothing happened…
A full minute later, he realized he was glaring so hard, his eyebrows were lifting off the top of his head…
Then, with no fanfare at all, the door slid open.
Stepping up, Han heard the voices of the guards to his left in the corridor, the blast door to his immediate right lifted again now. Edging out, he saw the guards at the far end of the corridor, checking another open cell door. Without running, he stepped silently out of the cell and slipped under the blast door into the main entrance beyond, immediately sliding sideways out of the line of vision of the troops.
He'd just stepped clear as the blast door closed again, the troops running forward in unison, way too far away to make it.
Shielded now, Han stepped quickly past the main console to the closed turbolift.
"C'mon!" he urged. There were no call panels here, the turbolifts apparently being sent down only on request.
The console beeped for attention behind him. He ignored it, visions of his last fiasco of a conversation on one of those things in the Death Star coming quickly to mind.
The turbolift doors stayed firmly closed. The com beeped a demand which was easy to ignore…
"Open the…" Han spun round, realizing what he was meant to do, reaching over the back of the console to activate the com.
"Finally!" Luke's voice crackled from the tinny speaker, filled with impatience.
"Hey, I'm not a mind reader!" Han defended, smiling broadly, looking up to the security lenses in a bank on the wall. "Where are you?"
"Heading down. You need to get hold of a comlink and set it to 2372."
"Hey, I got me out, I got you out, I'm about to try to talk down three very irate detention center guards. All you have to do is get one lousy comlink."
"Fine, fine." Han knew he was grinning maniacally now, adrenaline pumping. "…What frequency?"
He could practically hear the kid sigh. "2372. Don't forget. I can follow you on security images—get moving."
The turbolift doors were already opening, Han heading toward them. Finally! A little action!
Mara was shaking her head, staring at the multiple screens of the ops room as call-ins sounded from various Royal Guard units. Everyone checked out—everyone.
"He's not in the Guard's uniform," she announced, not looking from the images, very sure. "He's taken it off."
"Which means he's back in his own clothes," Palpatine said slowly, considering.
Mara flinched just slightly at the powerful inrush of the Force as he gathered it to him, razor sharp, uncompromisingly accurate…if one knew how to interpret it.
She turned, expectant.
"He's still reasonably close by…nowhere near the Main Palace yet."
Mara turned back to the image of the Tower schematic, still trying to figure out how he was moving down without being detected…
The South Tower was completely shut down, all personnel confined to rooms, no window or door alarms tripped… how was he getting past them?
"He's not outside?" she asked, uncertain.
Palpatine opened cold yellow eyes to her and she knew that she'd made an error in questioning his statement, turning her own gaze down in apology.
He didn't deign to reply.
"He won't leave the Corellian. No matter how far he's come in the last few weeks, that goal will remain—he wouldn't desert his comrade." Palpatine spat the last, derisive.
Mara turned—and her master burst into a wide, predatory smile.
"And there is my answer—carefully stored for just this occasion." Mara stared, aware that her own confused expression was simply highlighting his satisfaction. "Have the Corellian brought up—take him to Skywalker's quarters. A full detachment is to escort him."
Mara nodded, realizing now what her master intended.
Palpatine was still perusing the finer points of his plan—how exactly to get the pirate to scream strongly enough that his reaction would send a wonderfully unignorable ripple through the Force to Skywalker—when Mara's alarm burst through his musings.
"Mara?" he prompted, voice low and threatening.
She turned slowly. "He's not there. There was a supposed…"
Han worked his way with forced nonchalance through the wide walkways of the Main Palace, heading for Level one-six-one, as instructed.
The jacket he'd taken from his now-unconscious comlink donor had turned out to be about three sizes too small, but he'd stuck with it mainly because he now had black grease smeared all over his shirt from having to shimmy up the droid access hatch at the top of the turbolift shaft.
With his usual luck, the Detention Center turbolifts stopped one level before the public access levels began—evidently, the Empire did have some smart designers after all. They'd even put a charged shield over the droid access shaft—which the kid had assured him he'd already disabled with some borrowed security clearance. Staying in the turbolift whilst the doors opened onto the guarded, two-level intersection between the Detention Center and the Palace wasn't an option since he didn't have a blaster and anyway, this was apparently supposed to be quiet getaway.
On the few military channels he could get, all hell seemed to be breaking loose in the Towers, but here on the admin levels in the Main Palace—the public face of the center of the Empire—all seemed ship-shape and glass-smooth…more or less
Not many people around though—and the high administration-personnel to white armor ratio was very disconcerting. Or it had been…now it seemed to be settling out. Whatever the kid was doing, it sure was attracting a lot of attention elsewhere—which made Han's progress easier, but he got the feeling he wouldn't like the price.
Still, Luke seemed pretty confident and appeared to have everything under control; in fact Han's only job at this point was to get up to Level one-six-one.
It was all going way too smoothly…
The Emperor remained still and silent in the back of the room as Mara slowly deciphered the facts.
The Detention Level guards said they were in contact with Ops 90, who had logged their level's blast-shield errors and were sending a team down. It wasn't at all unusual for them to receive contacts or commands from Ops rooms around that level; Commander Jade often requested updates and gave orders to move a certain prisoner around from any of the Ops room around there, they had defended.
Which was true—though how Skywalker knew this was…another stray memory came sharply to Mara's mind—of Skywalker standing before the windows in the drawing room the day after he had decimated the contents of the bedroom—of his claiming coolly that he could read her mind, despite her shields. Could he? Or was it just coincidence?
He had seemed so brittle that day, so uncharacteristically sharp that she had dismissed it as a simple dig, an attempt to get under her skin. She was after all trained to be able to hide her thoughts from Vader—Palpatine had taken great care with that—and she knew she had never let her guard down with Skywalker to that extent.
"Bring up Ops 90's room image," her master prompted, bringing her thoughts back to the moment.
"That security lens is down, Excellency," the duty officer admitted, his voice small.
Which went towards explaining one important fact, Mara knew; the simple reason why they couldn't work out how he was moving down through the Tower without being spotted was that he hadn't been moving. Why was a different question.
"So he went up, not down," Palpatine finally grated, voice leaden with barely-controlled anger.
Mara reached out to the console and pulled up the images from the corridor outside Ops 90, taking them backwards at high-speed.
The brief flash of two figures made her halt the image, playing it back several times as she studied it, dumbstruck. At first glance, it was an officer and what looked like an aide in civilian clothes—but obviously wasn't Skywalker.
Still, she studied it closely—they were the last two people to walk into that room. It didn't take much to realize that the officer was Skywalker, now that she was looking for him…but the other man…
"Is that Solo?" she finally asked, squinting, aware that the Corellian was no longer in his cell.
She paused the image; the man stood with his back to the surveillance lens, Skywalker's hand to the small of his back, but it sure as hell looked like Solo. Which prompted the question—how did Skywalker get him up there?
And what the hell were they doing now?
Palpatine interrupted her thoughts. "Start to bring the Guards up from the lower levels. No less than ten per unit—if he fights his way out, then I want to at least hear it. Don't put them too close until you have enough to contain him—and nobody moves until I get there."
Mara nodded at her master, a thought occurring as he turned to the door, face like thunder. "Master—what about Solo?"
"His life is forfeit either way. It always was—it was just a matter of when. If it's possible to keep him alive so that I can do this myself, then all the better. If not, then do what you have to do in order to control Skywalker. A body-shot to Solo without killing him would slow them both down."
Mara nodded, turning back to the ops board to redeploy guards again. When she'd organized their progress by squads up to Ops 90, she took the time to stand down the security alert from the Main Palace and begin bringing stormtroopers up to the Tower from there. She wanted every available body up in the South Tower and around Skywalker.
This whole event had been a series of fiascos, being led by Skywalker from one carefully placed misdirection to another, and Palpatine didn't even begin to realize the extent of her own unwilling involvement in it yet. Mara wasn't about to let Skywalker get away again.
"Luke?" Han was trying his best to look innocuous and run at the same time, not quite succeeding at either, but near enough on both.
"What?" It was the kid, sounding about as worried as Han felt right now.
"I think something's going on down here. There's a lot more people about all of a sudden. And a lot less armor."
There was a long pause, and Han wondered why it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The kid's voice, when he finally spoke, did nothing to ease Han's nervousness.
"That's okay—it's planned for. You should ha…a clea...run to Lev…six-one now. Move fast."
Han frowned. "You're cutting out. Is your comlink okay?"
"Hol…on. Yeah, I thin…jus…power levels. I managed to get the…one..dying a death. Maybe….stop.. …..ster."
"Yeah, I didn't get any of that last bit."
"How's this? I said mayb…if you stopp…complaining, you might get ther…faster."
"I'm here now—I see the landing bay door. See, some of us can do two things at once, junior," Han crowed, carried along by the adrenaline of finally doing something. "Where are you?"
Up in the Ops room, Luke released his hold on the cut-out of his comm again.
"I'm on level fifteen in the South Tower, just inside the landing bay you saw up here." Luke was glad this was over the com—he wasn't sure he could have lied so easily it face-to-face. Not even for this. "You should be able to just key open the door of the bay where you are. I bypassed the security earlier on from up here."
Ignoring Arco's curious gaze, Luke checked the already-pulled image from the North Landing Bay on Level one-six-one as Han walked inside, the wide doors sliding shut behind him, his comlink held to his mouth.
"Luke? I'm…hey, where's the Falcon?"
Luke smiled, unfazed; he'd been expecting this, had planned for it. It just wasn't worth the amount of hassle that he would otherwise get if he didn't somehow seem to get Han's precious Falcon free too.
"I'm looking at it right now—it's up here in the Tower," he lied.
"You kidding me?! Stay right there, I'm coming up!"
Luke could practically see his friend's grin, and it was infectious—but he couldn't let it interfere with the plan—or his resolve. "There is no way in a million years you're getting up into the Tower, Solo. You know the security." As he spoke, Luke feathered the cut-out on his comlink again, so the signal was interrupted. But Han got enough.
"What? No way am I leaving here without her."
"I'll fly her. You need to take one of those—that's why you're there," Luke said in reference to the small shuttles in Han's bay.
"These!? These are for kids and bored data-pushers."
"Exactly. No one's gonna look twice. Now pick one—I'm on a schedule here." Luke watched the small image of Han as he dropped the comlink to his side and rolled his head in frustration.
But even he knew better than to argue in a building packed full of stormtroopers, so he glanced around, starting forward. "How's the Falcon?"
"I'm not onboard yet. I'll give you a shout when I am," Luke lied. "Now get one of those executive toys and get out of there. I've unlocked bay three, seven, eight and nine. Take your pick."
Luke continued to feather the com as he spoke, aware of Arco's puzzled eyes on him. He glanced down, winking secretively at the man, more for his own sanity than anything else, deeply uncomfortable with the lie, but absolutely believing it necessary.
Han was just into the fastest-looking of the four painfully average skyhoppers when his comlink sparked to life again.
"Han, I'm on board the Falcon. I've just started pre-flight. I think I may need to go to full power pretty quick."
He scrabbled for his comlink. "Hey! Don't mess up my ship! You fly her too hard!"
"Me!? That's rich!"
"And don't let her get messed up either—don't let anyone shoot at her."
"Thanks—I'll try to remember that," the voice came back dryly.
"Hey, there has been a precedent set," Han maintained, balancing his comlink on the pilot's seat of the shuttle as he wrenched the under-board panel free.
"Two incident.. is not.. precedent," came the kid's voice, clipped by his weak com signal.
"Three more like. Four if you count the one on Ord Mantell," Han shouted towards the comlink without lifting it, concentrating on pulling out carefully selected wires from below the pilot's console.
"Uh-uh," the kid denied. "They were shooting at you that time—I jus…happen…to be flying."
"How's she looking?" Han asked, stripping insulation from wires with his teeth.
"A lot of systems ar…down... What the…ell wer…you doing on Bespin? Lightspeed.. whole comm syste… navigat...nal shields and quad gun…ar…all out. She's runnin…on low power too. I think there's somethin… wrong with the main thrusters. But she'll fly."
That stopped Han dead. "What!? She was fine when I left her on Bespin. Just the hyperdrive."
"Hey, I didn'…touch her—I wasn't even flying."
"Well, maybe you should have been and then she…"
"This is so very not th…time."
Han scowled, spitting out bits of insulation and connecting bared components, not at all happy with this—he'd rather be on the Falcon. "Luke? Bring her down and land here—pick me up."
"I told you, I'm on the Falco…now," Luke repeated. "I don't have access to th…command codes or to an ops system to deactivate th…heavy shields aroun…the Tower or the Main Palace. I'll try to…et the Falcon down to you if you want, but it ha…limited shields an…a dodgy main drive."
Han sighed, frustrated, knowing the kid was right. "Okay, okay. Can you get her out from where you are?"
"Yeah, I'd already unlock…this bay. I have a straigh…line out of here…clear of flight headin…due south."
"Fine—take her straight out, we'll meet up. Don't get her shot up any worse."
In the ops room Luke sighed, relieved. He'd worried that Han would be more stubborn, but he should have known. They kidded around and bickered when they were nervous, but the smuggler was far smarter than to argue tactics in the middle of a situation like this—just get out and sort the small stuff later. "I opened the bay shields for you before I left ops. Take a shuttle and head due north, I'll catch up."
"I'm already hotwiring one. Sporty little thing—figure I'll sell it to make the repairs to the Falcon."
Luke grinned. "Fine. Are you out yet?"
"Hey, even I'm not that fast!"
There was a long pause, in which Luke took a moment to split his attention to the corridors outside, wondering whether the Main Palace's stormtroopers had made it up into the Tower yet. Presumably they'd figured out where he was by now, and hopefully they thought Han was with him, otherwise they wouldn't have started pulling stormtroopers from the Main Palace as Han had said; they'd still be searching for Solo. And probably would have found him eventually, considering their numbers. This way, Han had a clear run and Luke had a warning of when they…
His heart double-skipped, realization leaving him numb for an instant.
There were guards all around him. Easily over a hundred. Above, below, to all sides. Well back, but waiting…
"Might want to hurry it up there, Han," he said breathlessly.
"What's your rush?" Han cracked. "You're already in the Falcon—just take off."
"I already have. I'm turning about to head north. Are you out yet?" Time to get him moving.
Luke watched the small skimmer lift unsteadily, right itself, then shoot forward like a spooked womprat.
An instant of scarlet panic struck when it occurred to Luke that they may have checked through the commands issued from Ops 90 and reinstated the security shield to Han's bay…
But the skimmer took off unharmed—and he breathed a long sigh. He just needed one more minute to wrap this up…
"Luke? I'm scanning, but I can't pick you up. Do you know which flight corridor you're in?" It was Han, all concern.
Luke forced himself to concentrate on this—everything else could wait. He wanted Han safely away. He'd known of course that the chances of getting himself out were almost zero—known that if he tried to split his attention between getting free and getting all the way down to Han in the Main Palace to get him free, he would have accomplished neither.
He also knew that tactically, he'd thrown away his only real chance for this; that Master Yoda would have despaired of him for it and Han wouldn't have co-operated if he'd known.
But this wasn't Han's fight, it was his, and try as he might, Luke couldn't stand by and watch him be dragged in. They'd been through too much together for too many years. Han had always been his big brother, always looking out for him—well, now it was Luke's turn.
That had always been his goal here—to get Han out.
And anyway, he had a perfectly rational reason for this, he assured himself; he'd wanted that leverage removed. His father was right—friends were a weakness and Palpatine would exploit any weakness remorselessly.
But something whispered at the edges of his mind… and Luke couldn't help thinking he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life in swapping his own chance at freedom for Han's.
"Luke? Kid?" It was Han, still jabbering into the com, his voice a mix of concern and exasperation.
Luke smiled, calm again now at the sound of Han's voice; at his anxiety for Luke, at the absolute belief that Han would have done the same, were the situation reversed. At his knowledge that Han would understand, eventually. He took a short breath and sighed, at ease with his decisions and his fate.
"Sorry, Han—my comlink's nearly out." He continued to feather the com, more and more now. "Do you have your skimmer's call-sign? Actually, don't say that on the open com. Listen, do you remember that safe harbor? I can get to that easily. Meet there?"
"It'll take me a coupla' days in this." Han's voice was uneasy now.
"It's still the best way," Luke said firmly, offering a possibility to draw him on. "We might catch up when we get out of the built-up shipping lanes anyway. I'll probably find you well before—or more likely you'll find me."
"I guess…" Han was silent a few seconds. "Is everything okay there?"
"It is now," Luke assured, and in that moment he genuinely meant it. "You have a com frequency to make base contact, don't you?" he checked, not wishing to speak of the Rebellion by name, sure all frequencies would be routinely monitored.
"Sure. But you'll get there a full day before me anyway."
The lies came easy now, Luke's mind very clear. "The Falcon's com system is down, remember? I'll hit autopilot as soon as I can and spend some time on it. Maybe I'll get it working. If I do, I'll com you first. You should contact them as soon as it's safe to anyway, though. Check Leia and Chewie are okay. Besides, you may well get there ahead of me—she's running at about…" He paused, as if checking status. "Well, I've got a reading of fifty-four percent power on 'interat thrust. I'm surprised you can't see me. You are going north?"
"I think I know how to fly north, kid." Han's offense at having his flying ability brought into question belayed any misgivings for the moment. "Listen, there's a cantina just off the main square called the Third Strike. I'll see you there, okay?"
"Okay, Han." Luke smiled, hearing that protective tone come into Solo's voice; like a big brother again.
"You need to contact a Sluissi called Karrick and ask him for a 'quiet bay'—exactly that. And whatever he asks for as docking fee, offer him half. Feel free to do some of that Jedi mind stuff if you have to. And nothin' up front—tell him you weren't born yesterday—you just look that way."
Luke smiled, but he knew time was running out, much as he wanted to just stay hidden and keep talking like this—it would probably be the last friendly voice he would hear for a long time.
"Don't worry," he said, as much to himself as to Han.
Sitting at the controls of the poky little skimmer, carefully keeping to the official speed limit and flight line, Han frowned, "I always worry with you,"
He realized he was still scanning the horizon, hoping to see the Falcon—and not because he was worried about the ship.
"You may be the only one, Han," the kid replied, and Han wondered at the melancholy note in his voice.
The com crackled for long seconds before the kid spoke again. "…Listen, I think m.. com's finally dying… if …can you sti…see you…few day…Take care, Han…………"
Han scowled at the com as the signal faded into static, unable to brush off the uneasy feeling which nestled in the pit of his stomach.
How had he ended up allowing the kid to talk him into making this journey alone? They should have just landed anywhere and both boarded the Falcon—they could have fixed her, they always did. Now, with the Falcon's com system down, he had no way of contacting Luke until they both got to the Third Strike cantina
In that same instant, Han saw a YT freighter in the distance and jolted upright at the stick, only to realize it was a much later model than the Falcon.
Stop panicking, Solo, he berated himself roundly, before announcing out loud to the empty cockpit, "What the hell kinda trouble can the kid possibly get up to in one day?"
Luke stared into nothing for a long time before finally placing the deactivated comlink gently down on the desk. He glanced at the Intel officer, who watched him in silence, understanding now what he had done.
There were no external views available, so that when Han's ship had left the bay, it was gone, leaving Luke to stare at the internal image of the still bay, aware only now of how truly alone he was here.
He wasn't worried that Han would come back for him—he would fly all the way to the Tyren Islands and wait for Luke there, as arranged. He would contact the Rebellion while he waited, as arranged, because he knew they'd have to get off-planet as soon as possible…and then Leia would tell him the truth.
She would tell him who Luke really was, and maybe Han would fly off the handle and rant and rave, but he'd go back to the Rebellion to pick up Chewie, by which time he would have calmed down, so Leia would talk some sense into him…eventually. And he'd stay, Luke hoped. Chewie would be fine with that—the Wookiee often admitted wryly that he was a sucker for a hard-luck story and the Rebel Alliance was the archetypal lost cause, and anyway, it sounded like Han and Leia had finally decided to call a truce.
Funny—he had everything figured out for everyone else, but no idea what he was supposed to do next. It was amazing how quickly all those hopes and plans had fallen apart in this place…
All he knew was that he was, once again, completely and utterly alone in the universe.
He struggled with the uneasy mix of pride and frustration at having accomplished his goals so effortlessly; relief that he'd gotten Han out and uncertainty at the niggling doubt that he should have tried for more. But this had gone so smoothly only because he'd kept to realistic goals, he knew. Unexpected goals.
It could so easily have been a fiasco—there was no way he would have gotten out of here, he knew that. No way he could have gotten all the way down to Han before they moved him or had enough guards in place to stop Luke. It just felt strangely empty to have had all his careful planning work so perfectly…yet he was still here.
He dragged his injured left hand through his cropped hair…and wrenched it back, suddenly realizing how much it hurt as his adrenaline waned.
Realizing how exhausted he was, mentally and physically.
He really hadn't planned past this point—this was the end objective…
What did he do now?
The answer, strangely, was to duck. That message blared out loud and clear through the Force and he obeyed without question, grabbing the scruff of Arco's shirt and dragging him down beneath the console…
The wall exploded back towards him in a violent storm of fine debris, fragments stinging at his face and body despite the protection of the console, the dust choking him as it clouded up, the room thrown into darkness as the sprinkler system came on.
His ears sang a single tone, bright sparks exploding before his eyes, reality a distant haze for long seconds.
Finally he dragged himself up, grabbing at the swaying Arco, hauling the officer before himself, his blaster to the Imperial's head.
It took long, long seconds for the sprinklers to bring down the haze of fine, grimy dust—longer still for Luke to blink his own vision into clarity.
The ops-room wall was completely gone, leaving it open into the wide corridor beyond, everything still covered with dust and debris. A three-deep row of Royal Guards had run into the corridor and were still now, weapons trained.
"We both know that you won't shoot him, and we both know that I'll not let you use him as a shield. I'll kill him myself before I'll do that." Palpatine's voice was hard and grating, barely-controlled anger all too evident.
He stepped slowly out into view, raven black against a sea of blood red cloaks of the Royal Guards, the scene eerily quiet to Luke's explosion-shocked ears. But he didn't really need to hear the Emperor's voice to know his words. Or his temper.
"Where is your precious friend?" Palpatine ground out, and Luke recognized that he must have only now realized that Han and Luke weren't together.
He glanced at the control console, a twisted wreck now. Either they'd saved Luke the trouble of destroying the only way they could possibly track Han, or they'd already pulled a dump of exactly what he'd done in here before they set off the explosive charge, which seemed unlikely since Palpatine had asked where Han was. "What, you don't have him?"
The Sith's eyes narrowed at the taunt. "You should have run."
"I know," Luke said, knowing it absolutely now, but determined not to regret his decision.
Something's about to happen…
He glanced about the devastated room, looking for what, he didn't know…
Palpatine took a half-step forward and Luke raised the blaster in his hand, pressing it against Arco's throat.
The Emperor only smiled. "Shoot him if you wish. You may gain some degree of satisfaction from it, if nothing else."
Luke heard the man's breath hitch in his throat at this, felt him tense in fear…
He relaxed his gun again. "I'm no murderer."
"Never leave an enemy at your back."
He wants me to kill him! Luke let his hold on the man loosen, felt Arco's wire-tight shoulders relax slightly.
He was almost, almost, drawn into the argument. But some tiny sliver of warning still worried at his thoughts…
Why isn't he coming forward? Why is he keeping me talking?
He looked again at the Sith, reaching out with the Force to touch that grim, unrelenting Darkness, no longer the jarring shock it had once been, no longer completely closed to him—and sensed… expectation; preparation… Darkness gathered to him, held in anticipation …in defense…
The tingle of warning in the back of Luke's mind turned into a blaring shock of realization and he dropped back to a crouch, pulling Arco down, pushing out with the Force instinctively, Palpatine's own Force-shield raised that same instant……
The wall close behind Luke exploded, its mass thrown against his hastily prepared Force-shield, incredible power and energy, a jolt of phenomenal intensity impacting, whiting out his thoughts in shock…
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