Mara woke with a start, still curled up in one of the hide chairs set to either side of the long console in the corridor outside Skywalker’s private rooms, the insubstantial delicacy of her vinesilk dress leaving her cold in the morning chill.
The noise that had woken her was the morning staff bringing breakfast to the paneled dining room, the first of the three rooms which formed Luke’s private sanctuary within the sprawling Perlemian Apartments. When the two men re-emerged, they glanced nervously to Mara then back into the room before hurrying off.
Frowning, she walked quickly to the door, moving hastily through the empty dining room and into the withdrawing room, heading for the bedroom beyond. Something made her glance sideways out onto the balcony...
—and pause, heart in her throat.
She swallowed once, hurrying out onto the wide balcony, the city laid out before and beneath it in distant splendor. She didn’t even see it, save to register on some distant level just how high up they really were.
“Skywalker...” Mara started uneasily, uncertain what else to say.
Luke sat cross-legged, calmly balanced on the wide, chamfered stone handrail that edged the balcony’s balustrade, his back to her as he gazed out over the city. He wore light, linen sleep-trousers but nothing else, the faded scars of old injuries criss-crossing his skin in the bright sunlight, his dressing gown abandoned on the floor nearby, the fine fabric fluttering slightly in the morning breeze. He remained silent, didn’t react at all to her voice, and eventually Mara walked forward...but slowly, gingerly.
Reaching the balustrade, she stopped ten paces away from him, afraid to go any closer.
Now she could see that his eyes were closed, wrists resting lightly on his knees, feet tucked close to his body on the carved handrail just wide enough to enable him to maintain equilibrium, hands hanging loose, the balancing-act seeming controlled and effortless. He said nothing, eyes remaining closed though she knew that he must have heard her.
“...Luke?” Mara asked at last, though he still didn’t open his eyes.
“What if I was wrong?”
“About what?” Mara tried to pull him into conversation though she knew full well what he was thinking about.
He didn’t turn; didn’t answer.
“She would have tried again—and again,” Mara said at last. “You did what you had to.”
“That doesn’t make me right,” Luke said without turning. “Five years ago, seeing another Si... someone like me rising to power...I probably would have helped her.”
Mara hesitated, trying to find a path through this, wondering what he would do if she simply lunged forward and grabbed for him, aware that she could hear the beat of her own heart in her words as she spoke. “Perhaps if it had been someone else, not you, maybe you would have been right to. Maybe then she would have been right. But this is you, and you’re different.”
Luke smiled just slightly, murmuring words Mara didn’t even understand beneath his breath. ‘No, no different. Only different in your mind.”
He opened his eyes to gaze calmly down at the drop before him—almost forty stories onto the hard, granite-set roof of the main Monolith. “I should have closed my eyes,” he said cryptically.
Mara frowned, uncertain what he was saying; when should he have closed his eyes? At the execution yesterday? He’d seen so many before, why would...
“When the explosion went off,” he said at last. “I should have just...closed my eyes.”
For the first time he turned to her, mismatched eyes as intense a blue as the morning sky, the long surgery scar which ran from his collar-bone down the center of his chest still visible in the bright light. “But they would have died—everyone there. They would have all died. The shields would have failed.” He looked away to that drop again, uncertain. “But I didn’t know that—not for sure. I could have closed my eyes. I could have just closed my eyes and let it happen.”
“You and your Fate?” Mara made the word a curse.
He smiled, the slightest twitch to the corners of his mouth. “I don’t believe in fate.”
Mara frowned, uncertain; after everything that he’d told her, everything he’d done, the chances he’d taken... “Then...why?”
He shrugged away the question, glancing down again. “Don’t you get those moments, Mara?” he murmured at last, voice unnaturally calm. “Don’t you get those moments when just for an instant you’re at the eye in the center of the storm and everything is finally still...everything is finally calm; quiet for the first time in so long...”
He let out a deep breath, his eyes closing again as if finding that moment. “And when you get them you’d do anything—anything at all—to hold on to them. Because you can see the storm all around you and you know it so well...and you’d do anything at all to hold onto that moment of calm.”
Mara took a slow step forward. He opened his eyes again, looking down to the Monolith far below, the dark granite roof easily swallowing up the early morning light, and Mara took another slow step forward as the brittle silence stretched to the breaking point.
He moved just slightly and she froze in place again as he resettled, still balanced effortlessly over the sheer drop, the inference clear though he didn’t look, didn’t give any indication that he’d heard her speak his name at all.
“What if I was wrong?” he asked again. Quietly this time, little more than a murmur.
“Luke, you’re scaring me.” Mara daren’t move forward again; daren’t move at all, frozen to the spot.
After long seconds he glanced to her as if realizing what she had said and he grinned—laughed almost, the action pulling at the scar through his lips. “Mara Jade doesn’t get scared.”
“Except around you,” she said honestly. “For you.”
Those words seemed to drag him out of his reverie just a little. He frowned at her then he turned away again, rebuffing the concern—the closeness. Mara took another step forward, heart in her mouth...
He unfurled his legs to kick his heels casually against the outside of the balustrade, leaning out slightly over the precipice, stopping her cold. “It’s not that far, Mara; probably wouldn’t kill me. Not me.”
“I’d prefer not to take those odds,” she said immediately and he smiled, eyes still on the drop.
“I’ve fallen further than that,” he said, wry, self-depreciating amusement in his voice, his eyes still on the drop. Daring himself—Mara could see it in his eyes.
She took another infinitesimal step forward, and when he still didn’t move, she edged a little closer...
“Stop creeping up on me Mara. It makes me nervous.”
“Makes you nervous!” Mara half-shouted. “How d’you think I feel right now!”
“Tired.” He turned, impossibly blue eyes locking onto hers. “Very tired.”
And she did—tired and woolly and desperate to lie down, to rest, even if just for a few seconds... She felt herself teeter just slightly, felt her knees and shoulders loosen as her muscles relaxed, felt as if she could just slide down where she stood and...
“Son of a...” Mara shook her head against the impulse, breaking eye-contact to shake away his influence. The shadow of a frown crossed his face and he looked away again, leaving her breathless and furious.
“Don’t ever do that to me again!” She almost yelled, such was her anger. “Don’t even think that you...”
He turned, and those mismatched eyes held a very different look now, mercurial as ever. “Don’t issue ultimatums to me, Mara. I didn’t ask you to come out here.”
“Don’t issue ultimatums? Fine, how’s this for not issuing ultimatums—jump. Go ahead and jump. I don’t care! You spend half your life out on that ledge one way or another anyway, trying to decide whether you should jump or not. Well go ahead an—”
He opened his arms out...and fell—
Mara lunged forward, heart in her mouth—
Her outstretched hands wrapped about his closest wrist as he fell and she braced, his entire bodyweight yanking her forward against the heavy stone balustrade, knees bent, feet slipping, wrenching at her shoulders, every muscle strained to maximum to hold onto him, only the height of the balustrade stopping her from toppling over with him.
Pulled halfway over the balustrade before she’d stopped, Mara stared down at him, red hair blowing about her face in the high wind. “What the hell is wrong with you!?”
His body still swinging just slightly over the drop, Luke glanced out about him over the distant sprawl of the city, a slow smile spreading across his face. Then he looked up to her, his hand clasping about her wrist, bare feet scrabbling against the smooth stone for purchase as his left hand found a hold. She yanked him up and he found footing on the ledge outside of the carved stone railings, releasing her arm and standing upright still on its outer side, grinning.
“I should push you off this damn thing!” Mara yelled, relieved and terrified all at once, the buzz of adrenaline still pumping, making her heart pound.
He swung his legs over onto the inside of the balustrade, hopping down to the solid ground of the balcony, hand to his right shoulder as he lifted his arm uneasily, his natural Rim-world accent winning out. “I think you pulled my arm out.”
“I pulled…!” Mara stuttered to a stop, speechless.
“Yeah—it’s my bad arm.” The shoulder which had been so badly injured in the assassination attempt still troubled him, though it wasn’t common knowledge.
“What... You...” Mara finally pulled a stuttering sentence together, pointing at the drop. “What the hell was that!?"
“Just testing.” He shrugged casually, glancing behind him.
“What if I hadn’t caught you!? What if I’d caught you but couldn’t hold you?”
“Fate,” he dismissed, still massaging his shoulder.
“Y...” Still livid, she stepped forward and raised her hands, shoving him bodily backwards for want of something better to do.
He staggered back a step, unconcerned, and she found her voice.
“You and your stupid, irresponsible...stupid...”
“You already said that,” he stated mildly.
“Well I think it deserves to be said twice!” She was almost shouting, adrenaline turning fear into anger.
He glanced away as she heard Reece and Clem come rushing into the room behind her, probably reacting to the noise. They paused at the balcony doors, seeing nothing more than Luke and Mara standing safely on the balcony, having yet another commonplace argument, Mara realized distantly.
Luke shook his head slightly and they backed from the room, but not without risking a curious glance at Mara, Luke probably appearing completely calm and rational to them. She could practically hear the way their discussion was going right now: ‘Was it me, or did Jade seem to be swinging for him when we came in?’
Just another day in the Skywalker household.
“Han.” As Leia sat down opposite him, Han jolted upright from the mess room table, eyes wide, and Leia was greeted by the comical sight of a half-awake Solo with a perfect imprint of the woven metal tabletop down one side of his face.
“What!” He jerked up so quickly that he almost overturned the mug of kia in his hand, its contents sloshing over the side and onto the table, where it immediately fell through the open metal weave, making him twitch back in his chair and twist to the side to avoid it wetting his blue flightsuit, the shoulders of which were shrugged off and tied about his waist.
Leia waited without a word until he settled back down, glancing sheepishly about him. He rubbed his eyes, though it seemed to do little to dispel his fuzziness. Six hours’ sleep, and she knew Blue Flight was out again in thirty minutes.
Leia set her head to one side. “You are sooo attractive right now.”
“Hey, I’m not a morning person,” Han defended, taking a graincake from her plate.
“It’s eleven,” Leia said pointedly.
“Believe me, doll, that’s early for me.” He took a bite from the graincake before replacing the rest on her plate, pulling a disgusted face. “What the kriff is that?”
“Good for you.”
“Well there’s sure as hell no other reason for eating it.”
“Maybe if you ate a little more stuff like this you wouldn’t feel like that right now,” Leia teased gamely.
“Well maybe if you...” he trailed off, his tired brain clearly having no end to the gibe his mouth had already begun. “Ah, hell, you know the routine. It’s early—give me a break.”
“I can’t believe they’re actually going to give you a fighter to fly in less than an hour.” Leia’s voice was an even mix of worry, doubt and dry humor.
Han rubbed his hand down his stubble-rough face, still trying to come round. “Yeah I know—suckers.”
She glanced down, pulling a strip off her graincake. “What time are you back?”
“Uh, five hours, then five hours,” he replied, the shift being broken in two. “Two sets of freighter escort. You?”
“Meetings,” she dismissed, then glanced back at him with studied nonchalance. “I was speaking to Tag this morning. She...told me in confidence that she’d had Madine in her office again.”
Han groaned, rolling his head. “Doesn’t the guy have anything better to do? He should have my job.”
Madine had approached Tag Massa, the Intel Chief, several times since the whole Bothawui fiasco, voicing his suspicions that Han may be the spy onboard Home One who had eluded them for so long. Fortunately Leia and her Intel Chief had always had a good working relationship, and Tag had brought the fact to Leia’s attention pretty much immediately…but it wasn’t the first time that Madine had pushed this.
Han was after all, Madine kept on saying, the only one who inexplicably escaped the disaster onboard the Fury—not only without a scratch but in his own freighter, no less, which the Empire had impounded four years earlier.
Apparently that was damning evidence as far as Madine was concerned, and to make matters worse, hadn’t Solo also magically managed to escape from the Imperial Palace four years ago, just days before the Rebel cell on Coruscant—the one which had coincidentally helped him escape—was raided and closed down by the Empire. Plus, as Madine kept saying to pretty much anyone who’d listen, hadn’t Solo appeared out of nowhere at Yavin—with Skywalker—and flown against the Death Star...and happened to be one of the handful of ships to return, another also coincidentally being the Imperial spy ‘Skywalker.’
Yes, the station had been destroyed, but it was now widely accepted within the Alliance that it must have held some uncorrectable flaw—in fact it had even been suggested that it had never truly been the reusable weapon it claimed, the whole incident created as an opportunity to flush out the far-ranging nest of Alliance spy networks who worked to smuggle out the plans, as well as an opportunity to remove Alderaan as the supposed instigator and harborer of the network, and long a thorn in the Emperor’s side for its independent voice. It had also securely placed Skywalker in the Alliance stronghold at a trusted senior level, setting him up as some kind of hero and placing him beyond suspicion for so long—even from Leia, she reflected wryly.
That was an awful lot of coincidences, and when Han didn’t have explanations for his proximity to them all, some people had started to listen to Madine.
Fortunately, just as many dismissed them as paranoia, and since Massa was one of the latter, it had melted away to a minor annoyance; an ongoing friction between two men whose views were so dissimilar anyway that they were never going to do much more than tolerate each other.
“Well, your good friend has been singing your praises again,” Leia said dryly, making Han roll his eyes. “He’s asking for a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff and he’s been down in Tag’s office this morning suggesting that maybe someone else should attend as the Active Flight Commander.”
“Great,” Han said. “Tell him I’ll gladly stay away from his little party.”
Leia pulled a face. “I would, but I think he’s up to something, and I could really do with you there. Tag also told me in confidence that he hinted that I’d been kept out of the loop with the DEMPs—the venue change—because of you.”
Han lifted his head, exasperated. “How is that my fault?! I didn’t know where the venue change actually was ’till an hour before, en-route to Bothawui!”
She shrugged. “He thinks I told you.”
“Yeah? Well tell him he’s free to ask me to my face any time,” Han growled. “If he can screw up enough backbone.”
Leia arched her eyebrows—the men’s enmity, as ever, remained as much on Han’s part as Madine’s…and he wasn’t backing down today, either.
“Where does he get off? It’s one thing badmouthin’ me, I really don’t give a damn what he or anyone else thinks about me, but pulling you into his paranoid conspiracy theories? He’s one of your senior military advisors and a member of the Alliance Council, whispering this kind of stuff about his own Commander-in-Chief? Honestly, would you actually trust the opinion of a guy like that on anything?”
“He’s a gifted statistician,” Leia said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
“Well he might want to put a little of that sizeable brain of his to remembering which side of the fence he’s on now. Seriously, I’ve met nicer Hutts than that guy,” Han intoned darkly, making Leia smile as she reached out to squeeze his arm.
“Well, Tag brushed it off; she told him in no uncertain terms that if you were the spy they wouldn’t exactly be drawing everyone’s attention to the fact, now would they?”
“What’d he say to that?”
Leia shrugged, suddenly bone tired. “You know Madine,” she said in dismissal.
“Yeah, I know Madine,” Han stated dryly. “If it was up to the General, knowing Luke would be a capital offense. You can take the guy outta the Empire but you can’t take the Empire outta the guy.”
Despite everything, in some strange sort of way, Leia knew Han still wanted to trust Luke. He didn’t speak about it with her anymore—not like he had when it all first came out—but deep down, he still wanted to believe. But then it was hard for Han; he hadn’t been here when the truth came out, when they found the evidence—solid evidence—that Luke was a spy. He hadn’t been here when people had to make those connections and deal with the mounting facts, so he’d never laid it to rest as Leia had. And he didn't have Leia's responsibility; in her position she couldn't afford to trust, even had she wanted to. She had to look at the bigger picture, take the safer route.
Han had always adamantly claimed that in all the time he’d been held captive on Coruscant nobody ever asked him anything. Why keep him there if not for information, he'd asked. He hadn’t exactly helped his own cause by arguing with Madine on several occasions that if Luke was a double-agent then he would surely have made the effort to drag something from Han in that time, especially if he had no intention of returning to the Alliance under his pseudonym.
But then he had gotten information from Han, Leia knew. He’d simply managed to manipulate Han into volunteering it rather than drag it from him. Maybe it amused him...one last game for old time’s sake. The end result was the same any way you looked at it; he’d managed to close down the last reliable base they’d had on Coruscant. That was what Madine, always the tactician, saw. Three in the Core Systems, if you counted the two which had been closed down within hours of Leia and Chewie passing through on their own ‘escape.’
And he’d consistently used Han to instill suspicion in the Alliance ever since. Used him to hide the fact that the Empire had a spy here—to confuse and distract. Everyone kept looking to Han because Luke always made him the scapegoat...and Han still defended him!
No, they’d all been led that same flawless dance by whoever the hell he was. Because he wasn’t Luke Skywalker—or if he was, he wasn’t the Luke Skywalker he’d claimed to be when he was here.
The turning point, at which Han had finally stopped speaking out, hadn’t so much been the debacle at Bothawui as the end result. In fact, for a brief time in those first few days when Han alone had escaped the Fury, when she had thanked every lucky star she’d ever wished on that he was back and safe, when Han had told her that it was Luke who’d caught him, Luke who’d let him free...for just a few days, she’d begun to wonder again… Begun to hope.
And then the news had gone out over the HoloNet and Leia had chided herself for letting Skywalker get to her one more time. For wanting to hope.
Because now there was nothing left to argue, even for Han. Mon Mothma was dead, Luke’s complicity in the action undeniable. It had been, from beginning to end, his campaign. He had reeled her in using knowledge he’d clearly gained whilst he was with the Alliance, had used typically covert, calculating methods to capture her, then taken her to Coruscant to hand her to his Emperor like a gift. Had watched her dragged through some sham of a trial—barely even that at a paltry five days long—and had, sources said, attended her execution…receiving a standing ovation, no less.
Mon was dead because of Luke. No one else; no room for misinterpretation. No blurring of allegiance or commitment.
Even Han had no answer to that. Even he had fallen to uneasy silence.
The ship’s crackling comm sounded a tone, marking the shift change, and Han rose, grabbing his cup.
“I gotta go fill this again or I’ll never stay awake for the briefing, let alone the flight,” he said apologetically, pushing his chair back. “I’ll be at your meeting—I’ll make it a point.”
Leia smiled at his promise, knowing he wouldn’t let her down. He winked, turning about and disappearing into the crowd as all the blue-suited pilots in the mess hall slowly made their way to the doors in varying states of exhaustion.
She swore sometimes this whole outfit was held together by caffeine and duct tape.
As the mess emptied to near-silence, Leia sighed and stood herself. She hadn’t told him the rest; hadn’t told him that Madine had specifically asked that if Han attended the meeting it was to be entered into his Intel file.
Hadn’t told him that she privately wondered if Skywalker was doing this on purpose. It had, after all, instigated a major split in the Alliance’s hierarchy; made them seem unstable, both amongst themselves and to the galaxy at large. Leia had been voted in as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Alliance just days after Mon’s execution, and one of the first things she had to sign was a veto allowing a file to be opened by Alliance Intelligence on Han.
Tag Massa had been her usual gracious self, assuring Leia that this was just routine; standard operating procedure stated that she had to open the file if she had more than three requests to do so from officers on active duty, and although she would open one, she saw no reason to waste her staff’s time in pursuing it.
The file would be opened, nothing more.
But it got out—these things always did; not into the general populace, but certainly into the various Intelligence communities who plied their trade in the shady ground between the Empire and the Alliance. There it was well known that the leader of the Alliance was in direct contention with one of her own senior officers over the fact that she was protecting a possible spy. Hardly the bright new prospect she’d been hoping to bring to her role.
Tag had reassured Leia, as usual, that these things blew over in time, and pointed out with her usual pin-sharp insight that despite his military genius, Madine was in many ways a straightforward man who dealt with this kind of problem in a straightforward way, believing that in the absence of any other evidence, one must act in support of what appears to exist.
What had been made to appear, Leia knew—and she knew by whom. This wasn’t the kind of convoluted game Vader played; it was closer to Palpatine’s form, but that didn’t feel right either. No—she knew exactly who was playing these games, setting these traps, muddying the water.
Tag had maintained, when Skywalker first began rounding up the Bothans, that as far as The Heir was concerned, his relationship with the Alliance had long been a case of ‘You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.’
Not surprisingly, with the assassination attempt, Leia figured that Palpatine’s Wolf believed the Alliance had crossed the line. They had made the declaration of war…and now it was open season.
And Leia couldn’t help but think…remember Tag’s warning from long ago:
“If they do decide to make an assassination attempt, then I will do my level best to make sure it’s flawlessly executed and hope with all my heart that it will be successful—because Force help us all if it’s not.”
Darth Vader stood in silence in his ready-room onboard the Executor, watching the small, flat image without moving, remaining outwardly impassive at the recording which zoomed in from a distant wide-shot to a shaky, indistinct close-up of the West Tower of the Imperial Palace, his son sitting cross-legged as if in meditation on the high balustrade outside of his apartments there, Mara Jade standing close by—and what was she still doing there at all? Hadn't he warned his son of the dangers inherent in allowing such closeness—why did the boy never listen? Would it be up to Vader to remove her against his son's wishes?
From this distance they seemed at ease, lost in conversation, only their body-language betraying the serious nature of the moment. Vader again cursed the limited nature of this kind of distance-image, taken from high orbit above Coruscant, the airspace over and about the Palace restricted. Set on the ecumenopolis of Coruscant, the Imperial Palace was blanketed with many kinds of shields, both to secure against physical attack and to guard against technological warfare of any kind—including spying. Other buildings were hardly close, the Palace enjoying the ultimate luxury on Coruscant, affordable only by the Emperor himself: space, long tracts of open walkways and tiered terraces set his colossal Palace apart from any other buildings, both to emphasize its relevance and to provide a buffer which was easy to patrol and defend.
Palpatine had fifteen Palaces on Coruscant alone, ranging from the restrained, seventeen-story, three-hundred roomed Winter Retreat at the planet’s frigid South Pole to the vast, sprawling grandeur of the Imperial Palace in the Capital, a city itself, the seat of government for the Empire and Palpatine’s favored residence.
And even this, in the greater scheme, was nothing; there were in all well over three hundred Palaces, spread out over his Empire on planets of significance, massive edifices conceived as absolute statements of supremacy and scope, visible symbols of the autocratic power they embodied, each filled with the very best that their system could offer, willingly or not. A monument to the Emperor’s authority and importance. Most of them the ever-reclusive Emperor had never even visited—never intended to. What mattered to Palpatine was not that he needed or even wanted them; what mattered was that he owned them—that he was seen to do so.
Vader himself owned five Palaces on four planets, all presented to him by the Emperor, though he’d not failed to notice that, among his gifts and favor, Palpatine had awarded Luke no residence of his own, preferring to keep the boy close, forcing him to return to the Palace and his Master’s closely controlled clique whenever he was ordered back to Coruscant.
Only three times had Palpatine moved his retinue whilst Luke had been En Courte: twice to the Winter Retreat on Coruscant and once to the immense Selo Complex on Caamas. But always he returned within the month, unable to stay away from the seat of his government and his power for any length of time. He believed himself impregnable there and had gone to great lengths to ensure this, though most of the measures were not visible from the outside of the Palace, designed to be viewed as a monument to his confidence rather than his obsessive paranoia.
One such hidden measure was a series of disruptive shields which ensured that no technology-based system would penetrate the Palace, so any kind of specialized spying equipment or enhancement, including ray-technology, visual and auditory, was nullified. The only thing which couldn’t be guarded against by the shield system was old-fashioned light-rays, so visual images could be picked up from a distance and, with the use of high-quality lenses, recorded.
A visual shield could of course have been implemented to rectify this, but by its very nature it couldn’t be hidden and in the politics of public power-plays, image meant as much as intent. The populace needed to see the indestructible might and unassailable confidence of Imperial supremacy inherent in the monolithic Imperial Palace on Coruscant, the epicenter of power.
So now Vader was forced, like others, to rely on this last vulnerability whilst still cursing the quality of the small, flat image taken from high orbit, aware that he couldn’t ask Intel to clean up or extrapolate the recording for more information without risking a copy of it reaching the Emperor. He leaned forward unconsciously, as if it would make a difference...
In the next moment, the boy swung his legs free and stepped off the high balcony, Vader twitching in shock—
Jade launched forward to grab at his arm, so that he swung in a short arc, dropping slightly as she staggered forward into the barrier, using its mass to stop her, clearly unprepared for the action.
They remained like that for long seconds, Luke finally looking up to her before reaching out his other hand and climbing back onto the balcony, Jade pushing him back a step with both hands against his chest when he had, her gesture clear even if her words were unknown.
“I felt it shouldn’t go into the public domain,” Colonel Hoken said diplomatically at last. He was a short, square, military man, not particularly given to inventive thinking, but Vader trusted him; he was loyal, both to Vader and of late, to his son too, the boy's military leaning gaining him ever more popularity in the fleet as his abilities began to flourish.
He realized he was still staring at the officer, mind buzzing with the content of the recording. “There are no copies?”
“No, my Lord, not to my knowledge. The spy who was selling the images is still in custody on Bilbringi. Under interrogation he admitted that this was his first attempt to sell them.”
“Bring him here. Quietly,” Vader ordered; best to be sure.
Hoken bowed carefully, made a smart military turn and departed to carry out his orders, leaving Vader to turn and replay the images, considering.
Hoken’s undercover teams were always present on Bilbringi due to the Imperial shipyards there, but it had been pure chance that one of them had heard about a recording regarding The Heir and reported it to his superior, who had arranged to have the man arrested, then done the right thing in contacting Hoken to pass on the recording.
Its content was...disturbing; doubly so, when he watched it alone now. Firstly because he had no idea what his son had been doing, and secondly because Mara Jade clearly remained a part of his son’s inner retinue. That she had caught him was neither here nor there—it was her mission to guard him, appointed by the Emperor to whom she was fanatically loyal.
The relevant point here was that his son had presumed she would do so. Because no matter what Luke believed, she was not to be trusted.
He reached out and took the small storage chip from the projector, the image fritzing to static as he did so. Holding it in his gloved hand, he closed his fist, crushing it beyond repair.
Luke stood to tense attention in the silence of his quarters onboard the Peerless, gazing without seeing into the diffuse, chaotic blur of Lightspeed. He had finally been given leave to return to the Destroyer earlier that day—the fourth time he’d requested it, after almost three weeks trapped among the stifling intrigues and relentless plotting of the Palace and his Master’s precious Court. He’d left within hours of receiving permission, his own small entourage in tow, resenting the fact that he had one at all; that he was forced into such things by the life he now lived.
Onboard ship had been no better; everyone was frustrated at having been cooped up over Coruscant for so long, eager to be gone just as he was, the restless atmosphere palpable.
He’d gone straight to the bridge and set a course on impulse for the Peerless, plus its accompaniment of the Dominant and the Zephyr, to fly a wide loop which would take them along the Hydian Way to Arkania and then into open space along the edge of The Colonies, taking in every planet and system which intercepted it. Past the Perlemian Trade Route, the Corellian Run, crossing the opposite side of the Hydian Way at Nubia, then the Corellian Trade Spine and finally Shapani, joining the Rimma Trade Route to travel back into the Core Systems. It was a huge tour of duty which even if uninterrupted, which was very unlikely, would take many weeks—even months—to complete.
It wasn’t until the intended route had been transmitted back to Coruscant and returned with the Emperor’s approval, along with a short, cryptic message from his Master to the fact that his ‘Wolf’ may pace where it pleased, that Luke had withdrawn to his ready-room to overlay the course onto star-charts in the holo-display there, and seen just exactly what he’d done. All that had been in his head in the moment that he’d made the choice of schedule was to get away from Coruscant… With the line traced along his arbitrary route, he’d sat back on his chair and stared for a long time, aware of what he’d done.
The route he’d named almost perfectly described the outermost extent of his fleet's jurisdiction.
The Emperor’s precious ‘Wolf,’ like a caged animal, was pacing up and down just inside its bars.
So now he stood quietly, gazing out into the void, head tilted, staring at nothing.
The duty shift had come and gone and he’d remained at his desk in his ready-room, reading dispatches, refining the projected tour of duty after holding conferences with Chiefs of Staff, assigning and reassigning missions to divisions and units to disperse and manage projected dissent hotspots, organizing fleet ops and maneuvers for those not involved; attending to the minutia of Fleet logistics. Finally, when he could work no more, eyes blurred and mind numb, he’d returned here to his quarters and stood in silence in the darkened room, gazing into the maelstrom, contemplating...
Mara was making her way here. He knew that absolutely; could sense her unique signature in the Force as she employed her ability, no matter how subconsciously, to ensure that she remained undetected.
Leaving him to consider—what should he do when she arrived?
The sensible thing would clearly be to turn her away.
He could so easily provide the perfect excuse; he had been away from the Peerless for weeks and therefore couldn't guarantee that new surveillance measures carefully hidden by Palpatine’s agents in his absence had been removed yet. She’d know of course that it would be a lie—that he would have removed or destroyed them within minutes of his arrival here—but it would be a difficult case to argue since she had no proof and anyway, the message would be clear.
So he could stop this now; just let it dwindle to nothing and have them return to the way they were... That would be the sensible thing.
He’d achieved everything he needed from this particular game—everything he intended. He’d wanted a secret, a method to control her; well now he had one. She’d lost her impartiality, allowed herself to become involved, and then she’d withheld the fact. Lied about it to the Emperor—to his face.
So he had his control. Because if she ever found out something he needed to keep from his Master then all he need do was threaten to reveal this. Yes he’d be damning himself as well, but in a situation where he was in the line of fire either way, she would surely realize that he may well have nothing to lose—and she may well have everything.
And like every game, it was as much the bluff you made as the cards you held.
Which was why the right thing to do now would be to walk away—to underline that it had all been just that: a game. That he wouldn’t hesitate to play this card if she forced him.
If he didn’t back off now he was weakening that position.
So why was he wavering?
He understood now what his father had tried to warn, the vulnerabilities inherent in allowing another this close. Had this been what had brought his father down—had this been his weakness?
Because Luke knew it would be his—if he opened the door.
If he allowed this consideration to cut across his objectives.
But something in him craved this—this closeness. Even though he knew it was a vulnerability and he’d sworn he’d never again hold one before his Master, and even though he knew it was a risk because Mara’s loyalties would always lie with the Emperor and even though, and even though, and even though...
A thousand reasons not to, and only one reason to open that door...
He heard the gentle drum of her fingers on the heavy shipboard door and held still for one moment longer—
Stop this now. Don’t have this vulnerability.
Don’t take this chance.
Don’t be your father.
Luke shook his head, remembering Vader’s words again, spoken with such conviction: “We are solitary creatures by necessity...”
“I am not you,” he whispered into the darkness...
And with one final, tense sigh to expel his doubts, he stepped forward and opened the door...
She entered the dark room in a rush of motion, senses a flurry of excitement and anticipation.
“I thought you weren’t going to let me in,” she whispered jokingly, arms about him, breath to his neck—as if not a moment had gone by since they were last here. Had that been a conscious decision on her part?
Luke closed his eyes, wishing already that he hadn’t, feeling the softness of her hair against his skin. For an instant he allowed himself to fall back into the depth of emotions which radiated from her, a momentary indulgence, undeniable, overwhelming, intensely impetuous and wildly irresponsible—
But the truth was far more complex, and whether she chose to admit it or not, she had to know that on some level.
Because he did. He knew the dangers. He knew how this could so easily end. Knew the knife-edge he lived on.
Knew absolutely that she would betray him someday.
She couldn’t be trusted. She couldn’t be trusted. But then neither could he—didn’t she know that?
If he cared for her at all he should walk away. If she cared for him she should have already done the same...
She took his face in her hands and stood on tip-toe, reaching up to kiss him as her fingers slid back into his hair, breath warm against his lips—
And all of his doubts and his reservations, his father's warnings and his own piercing, perfect knowledge of the future, melted away like shadows in darkness...
Madine sat nervously upright as the Chiefs of Staff settled about the large circular table in the War Room onboard the Rebel Flagship Home One, glancing back at the huge canvas which hung from the far wall, a massive, brooding rendition of a military struggle fought in the dark of night. Night Battle it was called, by Inego.
It was the original piece—a priceless work of art. For some reason, the smuggler Solo had it in his possession, and had given it over to be re-hung here—‘on loan,’ he’d gone to great lengths to clarify. How he had come by it he’d neglected to say—but then since he was a smuggler Madine hadn’t bothered to push too hard; sometimes the obvious answer was the right one.
Solo took a long look at the canvas as he passed it, smiling at some private memory as he settled down beside Leia Organa, who had fallen surprisingly easily into the complexities of her new position as Chief of Staff following Mon’s loss. She glanced at Madine now, brown eyes wary. There was no amity between them, he knew, but they had a good working relationship and she’d impressed him with her leadership and her grace under fire.
And she had that edge; Mon had always been a Diplomat and a Fighter. Leia was more a Fighter then a Diplomat, which was a good thing in Madine’s opinion—it may well make for more aggressive future actions. At the moment though, she was still finding her feet, which he presumed was why her responses were accordingly cautious.
And why he felt a pang of guilt that he had basically forced her into holding this meeting. But if he were to push Mon’s last plan forward then time was running short, and purposely so. Firstly because he wanted to limit the amount of time that this information had to get out, and secondly because he needed the Council to move on this in a hurry—rush things through, not spend too long looking at the minutiae of the plan. That had all been considered long ago by himself and Mon. Now he needed to act, and to do that he may have to twist Leia Organa’s arm a little. That was why he’d held firm when she’d requested details of this requested meeting—in truth he didn’t want her to dismiss his proposal, or have a coherent argument against it before he’d had the option to put the plan on the table for a wider vote.
Everyone settled and fell to polite silence as Leia stood, the picture of calm, speaking for the benefit of the official register. “We’ll convene this meeting at seventeen-thirty-two. Officers present are Admiral Ackbar, Admiral Stone, Intel Chief Massa, Commander Solo, General Madine and myself. The meeting has been convened at the request of General Madine, so with your permission, Sirs, I’ll hand the chair over to him.”
It was a little curt, but then Leia Organa wasn’t one to be trifled with. Madine stood, reflexively pulling his jacket straight, a leftover from his time in the Imperial Forces, when such things were paramount.
“Sirs... With the launch of the new Super Star Destroyer Invincible now imminent, I’d like to take this opportunity to bring some very important information to the table. Although you were unaware of it for security reasons, there has been a plan in the pipeline for some time now to use this unrivalled opportunity...”
Solo, who was sitting directly opposite Madine, was beginning a slow roll of his eyes, settling down to rest his chin in his hand in a lazy slouch. Madine gave him a long, unimpressed stare and continued, losing his point only momentarily. “...unrivalled...opportunity...to deliver a major blow to the Empire; one from which they could not recover.”
He glanced about the table into a sea of mildly expectant faces; all that was about to change.
“As you are now aware, part of the ill-fated Bothawui mission was to hand over new technology from the Bothans to ourselves: the Empire’s DEMP generators. The generators were intended for use against all Destroyers in Coruscant's orbit when the S.S.D. Invincible was launched from there on its inaugural flight. The loss of the Dynamic EMPs has rendered that plan unfeasible. However, the Destroyer’s launch is still going ahead and the Emperor will still be present on the bridge of the Invincible for its inaugural flight. The opportunity for which the DEMPs were intended is still there, Sirs, and I suggest we use it.”
“You have a couple of DEMPs in your back pocket?” Solo drawled.
Madine skewered him with a look. He hadn’t wanted him here at all—had argued strenuously against it behind the scenes—but Massa, the Intel Chief, had insisted that there was nothing to substantiate Madine’s suspicions that Solo was the Imperial spy hidden among them, stating that his escape from both the Imperial Palace on Coruscant and the mission onboard the Fury were not in themselves sufficient proof, particularly considering that an infiltration specialist generally tried to keep a low profile.
For himself, Madine was still watching him...and so, he suspected, was Massa, despite her claims.
“No, we do not have the DEMPs anymore, but it still doesn’t negate our other advantages. It changes the details, not the overall plan. We still have the one thing which the Empire doesn’t know about and it was that which was always going to buy us the edge.”
Organa frowned, clearly tiring of these guessing games. “Which is?”
Madine pulled himself up to his full height, smiling tightly. “We have the Command Overrides to the Invincible—the hardwired codes. Having our own DEMP generators would have done nothing more than bought us a way in by disabling other Imperial ships in the area. Once we were in we were going to utilize the Override Codes to take the Invincible down into Coruscant’s atmosphere without trim—break it apart under stress and burn it up, with the Emperor onboard—with everyone in the galaxy watching over the HoloNet. That was always the ultimate plan. The plan which Mon Mothma and I worked towards—the plan she gave her life to make possible.”
Leia frowned. “How long have you had these codes?”
“Mon Mothma was given the codes by the Bothan Ollin’yaa almost a month before the first attempt on The Heir. As everyone here is aware, Mon Mothma's plan had always been to take him down first, then the Emperor, rather than allow a chain of accession. Now however, an opportunity has come to make good on her intention to bring down the Emperor, and I think we should take it—in Mon’s memory.”
It was a low blow, and the narrowing of Organa’s eyes when he’d finished let Madine know that she recognized what he was doing. Now if she declined, she wasn’t just refusing him, but the memory of Mon Mothma.
It was Tag Massa who spoke out though, sitting to focused attention. “Let me clarify this… You have the Command Override Codes which are hardwired into the Invincible’s systems?”
“Essentially, yes,” Madine said.
“Essentially?” Tag pushed, wishing to be very sure.
“The codes aren’t part of the doomsday code, but they’re one of the three back-doors into the system, and override all other commands. They’re intended for use by the Emperor to ensure...”
“Thank you, Sir, I know what a Command Code is,” Massa stated tartly, obviously as annoyed as Organa was at being kept out of this loop. “And you’re positive that these codes are still active, given that both Ollin’yaa and Mon Mothma were in Imperial custody?”
“Why didn’t you tell us this sooner?” Organa’s voice was durasteel.
Madine almost looked to Han but caught himself in time. “You know we have continuing problems with information leaks. Mon Mothma had ordered that this information be kept strictly between myself and her until it was necessary to involve others. I now consider it necessary; I think we’re still in a strong position to carry out Mon’s intended threat.”
Ackbar spoke up, long webbed fingers splayed. “Would the codes not have been nullified when the Empire discovered our access to their DEMP generators, General?”
“No, Sir,” Madine said. “The codes have nothing to do with the hardware. They don’t even originate in the same dockyard and would have been integrated by a completely separate unit in isolation. This is something which even the Captain in charge of the ship would not have been given access to.”
“So we can assume that they would have had no reason to change them?” Ackbar pushed.
“That’s an awfully big assumption,” Admiral Stone maintained, shaking her head.
“The codes were checked less than two weeks ago and still found to be active,” Madine assured. Everyone fell to silence at that, considering.
“So we have the codes—the means to influence the internal systems of the ship,” Organa prompted, her own interest rising. “And you’re suggesting what?”
“As I said, the original plan was to send the Invincible into the atmosphere; take over the helm and send her down to the umbra under her own power, then cut the engines. Destroyers are not designed for planetary gravity; without corrective shear, she’d take an unviable entry angle and break up as she hit the atmosphere. Obviously we would have relied on the DEMPs to disable other Destroyers present who would move to stop her by disabling her engines before she reached Coruscant’s atmosphere or taking her under tractor-beam tow. Without that ability to nullify outside help, we would have to alter our plans to some degree. However, I still believe this is an unparalleled opportunity; the Emperor seldom leaves the safety of Coruscant.”
“He’s only in orbit,” Stone pointed out.
“In a ship we will have control of,” Madine maintained.
“Could we use our control of the Invincible to activate its own onboard DEMPs and continue the mission as originally planned?” Ackbar asked, bringing hopeful eyes to him.
“No, Sir.” It was Intel Chief Massa who replied. “Unfortunately the Invincible’s DEMPs won’t be online for the launch; present intelligence suggests they’re to be completed at the shipyards in the Koornacht Cluster soon afterwards.”
“No chance we could actually get ‘em running at the launch, with our own techs?” Solo asked, though there wasn’t much hope in his voice.
“No, Sir. They were never intended to be active for the inaugural flight; the Invincible was always intended to carry out shakedown maneuvers en-route to the Koornacht Shipyards for its final fit and fine-tune.”
“Could we lock off the Bridge? Keep Palpatine confined there until we’ve used the overrides to make a jump out of system?” Stone suggested.
“No,” Organa replied, eyes narrowing in thought. “Launches are traditionally held in low orbit in order to be visible from the planet’s surface. There’d be too many other Star Destroyers in our path; we’d never find a safe trajectory in time. If we can’t disable those Destroyers, they’ll immobilize the Invincible’s engines to keep us there—or simply use tractor-beams.”
“Seal off the Bridge then; cut off oxygen?”
“Possibly,” Madine allowed.
“Nah,” Han interjected. “A Destroyer Bridge is a big area. You’d be giving ‘em an awful long time to get out before they were out of air—and the rest of the Destroyer crew a long time to get to them, no matter how many troops we had onboard.”
“Explosive decompression?” Leia suggested. Everyone fell to silence, considering.
“We’d need to check the plans—I don’t think there’s an airlock,” Tag murmured.
“If it were inside the Invincible’s defense and navigational shields, a relatively small ship could blow out the viewpanes,” Leia said.
“All ships without security clearance will have been banned from the area two days in advance,” Tag said, always familiar with her enemy’s protocols.
Everyone fell to silence again; it was Han who spoke up. “Take one of theirs—hell, they’ll have bays full of ‘em. If we have the Command Overrides we can release a few TIEs and get ‘em into space inside the Invincible’s shields.”
Tag nodded. “The shields would also prevent the TIEs being shot down by other Destroyers.”
Madine remained silent, not wishing to seem too pushy, allowing the Council’s interest and enthusiasm to peak as they realized that this was actually possible—they had a real shot at Palpatine.
“The Bridge blast doors are the highest-rated onboard, if we can remote lock them,” Massa said, lost in thought. “But access to the controls from within the bridge would need to be isolated so that they couldn’t unlock them from there to escape. There are three more sets in the stretch of corridor to either side of the bridge which we could also lock down. If all blast doors were engaged using the override code it would take a while to get through, even with explosives or cutters.”
“Using our own pilots on TIEs would require us to have pilots already onboard the Invincible,” Organa said.
Madine braced. “We’d need the people onboard anyway. There are unique doomsday codes designed to be used remotely, but these aren’t them. We’d need to have a team onboard the Invincible, accessing its systems from within, to utilize the codes. When the original plan was made, Ops Three, halfway up the Command Tower, was identified as the most effective point in terms of access to the maximum number of systems without going to the bridge.”
“So we need a full team on board,” Organa said, thoughtful.
“It would need to be three days before,” Massa said, always up to speed with present Imperial codes of action. “They’ll begin moving all non-essential military personnel off then.”
“Hey, how hard can it be?” Han asked. “Have you seen the size of one of those things? I don’t believe we can’t just find somewhere quiet to stow away for a few days...take a reader, a pack of cards maybe.”
“It would have to be a small team if we’re hiding them,” Organa said, ignoring the Corellian’s wisecrack. “Twenty, no more. Four pilots who can fly TIEs, and the rest of us will split into two teams and make our way to Ops Three separately, both units having the Command Code, so we have a redundancy backup.”
“Wait a minute...us?” Solo interjected, turning.
“I’m not about to sit this one out,” Leia stated firmly.
“That’s exactly what you’re gonna do, boss,” Solo said, emphasizing his last word.
“Commander Solo has a point, Ma’am,” Massa agreed. “You’re no longer in a position where active service missions are an option.”
Organa pursed her lips. “You seriously think I’m going to pass this chance up, to be there, to be in the team who finally brings Palpatine down? This isn’t open for discussion; I’m going to be there.”
“I’m sorry, Chief, but I can’t allow it; I’d be failing in my duty if I did,” Massa said firmly, her eyes going to Rieekan for support. It would be Ackbar and Rieekan, Organa’s closest advisors, who would dissuade her if it were possible, Madine knew.
Rieekan wasn’t slow to try. “Leia, you know this would be unwise. Please reconsider.”
Madine stifled a smile as Organa held her ground, so caught up in the plot that even she seemed unwilling now to let this opportunity go by. “Chief Mothma often took command roles in the field—” she stumbled, already realizing the error of her words when Rieekan shot her down.
“Yes—and we lost her there, because we let that rule slide. We can’t afford another change in leadership right now, Your Highness. Your input and experience would be very much appreciated…from here.”
Leia fell to silence before that, looking into the faces of those about the table, knowing there’d be no arguing with them.
Madine remained silent, privately relieved that they were arguing not about the viability of the mission, but only about who should go.
“...Fine,” Organa agreed, cornered into giving ground when the tone of her voice indicated that she had no intention of doing so. “I’ll consider your advice.”
Solo turned back to the assemblage, that laconic glint in his eye. “I, on the other hand, am completely expendable, so should head up the infiltration team.”
Organa took a breath as she turned, clearly about to state in no uncertain terms that if she wasn’t going, then he wasn’t going either, but caught herself in time. “That’s a great idea,” she said, bringing his wary eyes to hers. “But I think you should fly the escape ship.”
“Wait a minute—I’m not sittin’ in some boring ship in some empty hangar while everyone else goes trottin’ round a Star Destroyer, swee...” He paused, realizing what he was about to call her in a formal conference in which minutes were being diligently taken, and Madine clenched his jaw at the Corellian’s utter lack of discipline as Solo pursed his lips, muttering, “I’m still not doin’ it.”
“The important thing about this is going to be keeping a retreat corridor open for the two teams,” Organa maintained. “No one’s going to expect us to be there on the way to the Ops room. On the way back, not only will it be a running firefight, but a good portion of the fleet will be just waiting for us to exit the Invincible and run for deep space. I won’t ask anybody to go on a suicide mission, therefore I’m going to put my best pilot at the stick for that exit.”
“I can go on the mission and then fly,” Solo maintained, ignoring the ego-massage.
Madine wondered if everyone else at the table had just heard Chief Organa still use the word us and not them in reference to the infiltration team, but had the good sense to keep quiet. What was important right now was that the plan was approved…
“I think this is perhaps a discussion for later,” Organa said, turning quickly to the Council before Solo could object. “For now I'd like to call for a vote on this?"
There were nods of assent from those about the table as Madine clenched his jaw, willing the project forward without wishing to seem too eager. Organa glanced about, then nodded.
"We have an undivided vote, which constitutes an agreement in principle; the mission will go ahead. Project Commanders will be assigned by the end of the day, to begin coordinating efforts tomorrow. We’ll reconvene to discuss plans further in three days’ time, hopefully with a better idea of what’s necessary.”
Madine smiled, triumphant enough to ignore that last subtle snipe. Organa had agreed, placing herself in an irreversible position, without anybody addressing the one issue he’d hoped fervently that nobody would realize: The Heir would be on the Bridge, too.
Mara sat hunched down in a small droid maintenance corridor overlooking the aft bay, which was always closed to all personnel besides the 701st stormtroopers, The Heir’s own regiment. The Untouchables, they were being called now, and with good reason; no one had access to the areas of the ship which they were stationed in, neither docking bays nor accommodations nor supplies nor recreation bays. They were a completely separate entity within the Destroyer. It had been done gradually of course, in subtle stages—Skywalker was too good at this kind of play to stumble in its execution any more. The 701st were practically always split up, and they moved often, barracks maintained at several locations in the fleet and planet-side, but Palace Intel had still slowly come to realise that they had little idea of numbers or identities any more. They had all the official figures of course, and they all added up... It just didn't feel right to Mara.
So she was on a little recon. She'd managed to trace the shipwide droid maintenance ducts to a point where she was close enough to an internal wall of the 701st’s aft bay, and had spent a less than ideal afternoon a month or so ago on hands and knees in the cramped space, drilling two tiny holes to set two surveillance lenses, accessing the inside of the bay, close to the high ceiling.
To avoid being picked up in random anti-surveillance scans, the lenses were shielded and live-wire-only, requiring Mara to actually be with the system when it was active, and to power it down when she left, but the payoff was that this made it difficult to detect even on close scans. But it also meant that she was spending yet another night sitting in a cramped, stuffy, unheated maintenance duct and watching a small screen showing a huge, neatly arrayed docking bay practically devoid of life. Apparently even if she had nothing better to do with her night, the 701st did.
Reece was on duty with Skywalker tonight, the pair going through reams of reports from Abregado-rae's official agencies, as part of the Peerless’ tour of duty. They'd made planetary orbit three days earlier and Luke was just...hanging around, it seemed to Mara—procrastinating. Looking at accounts which were obviously forged—he knew that as well as she did. At the tip of the Shapani Bypass, Abregado-rae had long been the unofficial center for all smuggling operations entering the Colonies, the planetary wealth probably doubling due to bribes and deals. But none of this was new, and Luke was generally a great advocate of ‘better the devil you know,’ which made his close scrutiny now all the more puzzling.
The obvious answer of course was that he was delaying his return to Coruscant. They were almost two months into the prolonged tour of duty, and were now completing their wide loop and heading back towards Coruscant, only a few more scheduled stops to go. And though neither had said so, they both knew that when they reached Coruscant and the Palace, their nightly meetings were suspended and their affair put on hold, so in truth Mara wasn't inclined to complain about the length of stay, or looking too hard for its reason.
They had...settled was altogether the wrong word, but Mara had felt a slow change over the last few months as she and Luke had been together, safely away from prying eyes on Coruscant. Their affair remained nothing if not explosive, but then that was part of the draw for Mara.
He had changed so much in the last four years. All the big, sweeping changes were so easy to mark, but it was the subtle ones which had crept upon him so gradually that she couldn't mark an individual moment or name a date, that Mara considered now. For so long, it seemed that when she’d looked at him she’d seen the barest glint of Palpatine's precious wolf in his eyes… Now she often felt as if she were looking into the eyes of the wolf, searching for some trace of the man beneath.
Did it bother her?
No. She'd spent her life walking amongst wolves, so much so that it felt natural to her now, the spark which lit the flame. The man who had come here had been fascinating and impassioned and honorable, and maybe if things had been different...
But they weren't and it didn't matter. Because now she had a wolf, and the thrill in being close to that stormy, feral, volatile edge would always bring her back one more time. Occasionally she still saw the pilot who had been brought here, and the moments were all the more valued for their rareness...but much as she’d been drawn in by the man with the sky blue eyes long before the wolf ever turned those ice-cool, mismatched eyes on her, she also loved the exhilaration of running with that wolf...and she knew it.
She gazed blankly at the image of the empty bay, mind wandering...
She remembered distinctly when she had defended the Emperor once during their last stay on Coruscant, their relationship already irrevocably changed but still very much an unknown quantity. Beladon D'Arca had turned to Luke as they had made their way through the expansive stretch of the Attendants Hall following Court. Palpatine had stopped to enter into conversation with someone, forcing everyone in his entourage to wait until he set forward again.
Standing a half-pace behind Luke, Mara had watched him backstep as D'Arca approached, but with nowhere to retreat, he’d been forced into conversation, the influential head of the Royal House D’Arca congratulating Luke on his upcoming command, the Invincible, adding that he had great respect for those the Emperor valued and asking whether he may press The Heir to attend an upcoming event at his estate on Coruscant.
When Luke had issued a polite decline, citing Fleet obligations, D'Arca had nodded appreciatively, stating that he of course understood—many of his family held positions of great responsibility within the Fleet. He did, however, insist that The Heir should consider an invitation to take advantage of his family's extensive hunting lodges on their estates on Borleias, Commenor or Teyr open-ended; surely, he espoused, a thin smile to his dry lips, the Emperor's Wolf would appreciate the opportunity to indulge in a hunt?
Watching Luke's shoulders tighten from behind as he straightened slowly, Mara had momentarily worried that he may actually knock the man to the ground there and then. But the procession moved abruptly on, saving her—and probably D'Arca—from having to deal with that event, though just to be sure she had stepped level to his opposite side as Luke set forward, murmuring hushed counsel as he had quietly cursed his Master for giving him the epithet at all.
It was then that she’d made the mistake of claiming in whispered tones that it fitted him… And he'd rounded on her, eyes ablaze though his face remained a neutral mask, his voice low and taut in the crowded hall. "If I'm a wolf then it's because I live in their company."
"I didn't say otherwise," Mara had defended mildly as they walked slowly forward, her eyes front, experiencing the same dangerous thrill she always felt at being in his company when he was like this—daring herself to step closer still.
"Then you're a fool to be here,” he’d growled, stance subtly aggressive. “Never trust a wolf."
She'd hesitated, glancing momentarily to Luke, unable to stop herself from tensing slightly in reaction to his body language, aware of how close to the edge she was walking in continuing this conversation, of how quickly that volatile temperament could now shift.
"I trust you," Mara had countered, emphasizing the difference, knowing instinctively how to calm her wolf.
He’d stared ahead in silence for long moments...and though the wild fury bled from his eyes, they remained scornful and fierce.
"No, you don't," he’d murmured at last, the menace contained now—restrained. "Not really. You tell yourself you can trust, you think you're safe because for some reason you believe you can control it...but I can't, so I'm damn sure that you can't. You're not nearly as safe as you think."
It was an incredible admission, not least because he so clearly believed it.
"You're saying that you're capable of hurting me?" Mara had asked, glancing to him, shaking her head decisively. "I don't believe you."
He turned away, dismissive now, the moment and his temper completely mastered again as he stepped ahead of her—but not before he issued one last caution: "I'm saying if you reach your hand out to a wolf, you shouldn't be surprised when it bites."
Mara hunkered down in the cramped corridor now, considering his words. It had been a warning, she knew, and it had been genuine.
Did she trust him?
She wanted to say yes...but if so, then what was she doing here tonight?
And then again, bearing her present actions in mind...should he trust her?
Her consideration was abruptly halted as the docking bay below her dropped its shields momentarily to allow a large shuttle to enter. Mara shimmied upright in the enclosed space, frowning; there was nothing due to come in on the Bridge logs—and even if there were, this was hardly a recognized port of entry.
The Skipray, an Intel 420, fast and tough and loved by local enforcement and smugglers alike, settled to a smooth stop in the center of the bay, a small group of 701st Stormtroopers coming to a halt before it.
Mara watched two men in civilian clothes walk down the ramp, cursing the fact that she hadn't chosen a lens that could zoom—who'd have thought she'd see anyone but troopers?
The younger man, slim and slight with bottle-blue hair, halted at the ship's ramp while they conversed a moment, then the second, obviously in charge, tall and athletic with dark hair and a thick, heavy moustache, set forward with the troops, though his body-language inferred that he was anything but intimidated.
They disappeared from the lens's wide field of view and Mara scrabbled up, abandoning her screen where it lay, intending to go and try to pick them up in the corridor two levels down near the bay.
When she got down to the point where the restricted corridors joined more public ones, there was no one to be seen. Mara briefly considered contacting Security to check where they had gone, but hesitated; either they had come in under the sensors somehow, or they were allowed in by someone in Security, in which case alerting them to the fact that she knew someone was aboard wasn't exactly a bright idea—clearly this wasn't intended to be common knowledge. And if the anonymous visitor had been smuggled onboard, they would probably be moving him around the ship the same way.
She frowned, walking slowly down the empty corridor. Either way, considering the docking bay that he had used, she had a pretty good idea where their mystery guest had gone...
"I seem to be a freighter or two short," Talon Karrde announced, neither irritated nor absolving. "I counted them. Twice."
The Heir smiled easily, in good humor tonight, and Karrde wondered again at his true age; at times, when he was tired and serious and volatile, he seemed very close to Karrde's own age, but in casual moments like this when he was at ease, genuinely smiling, the smuggler could swear he was only in his twenties—early twenties at that.
Like everyone else with any kind of vested interest, Karrde had expended serious amounts of currency trying to unearth some concrete evidence as to who The Heir really was...and like everyone else, he'd come up blank.
The man himself flashed that genial smile which pulled at the deep scar running through his lips as he spoke in a perfectly modulated Coruscanti accent—too perfect, to Karrde's mind.
"You had too many anyway. Think of the maintenance I've saved you."
"Yes, and all that revenue which I will now have to turn down was becoming rather a drag."
"I'll sort something out for you," The Heir allowed casually, walking back from the console table with two glasses of brandy in his hand and offering one to Karrde. "I'll leave them at Bilbringi and make sure you have their operating codes. Which would you like, Brigs or Xebecs?"
"I'll have Xebecs," Karrde said, satisfied with the exchange. Although the ships would have no upgrades and need their military past disguised, they would be newer, more reliable and considerably bigger than the freighters he'd lost. It was a fair exchange, generous in fact, and the man who offered it did so without conditions, he knew that. "Will they come with papers of ownership?"
"No, but then I doubt you had those for the ones I lost. They won't show up on any Imperial registry as missing." The Heir paused just slightly. "And I think someone once told me you knew a man who could forge documents and call signs...but I could be wrong."
Karrde raised his thick eyebrows at the good-natured dig, but didn't answer, the matter settled as far as he was concerned.
His own transport, the heavily modified freighter Wild Karrde, remained in orbit about the nearby planet of Dentaal, a popular smugglers’ safe-spot on the edge of the Tapani Sector, where they could quietly and safely watch the Peerless, the Dominant and the Zephyr in the process of making Abregado-rae's Ruling Council very uncomfortable at the moment. A fact that seemed to put The Heir in particularly good spirits.
But then, it always seemed to Karrde that the man's mood lifted in direct proportion to the amount of time he had been away from Coruscant. He wondered briefly whether he should point this out but decided against it; observations of his personal life were never welcome, whatever his mood, and anyway the conversation had moved on, The Heir's demeanour tightening somewhat as he turned to more important business.
"I need to know if you have access to a bio-chemist—a reliable one."
"What kind?" Karrde asked easily, curious now.
"A DNA decoder. Someone capable of disassembling the constituents of a tailor-made drug and synthesising at the very least an antidote and preferably an immunization."
Karrde frowned—that kind of specialist was hardly routine. The type who could mix up recreational drugs or break them down to be shipped in their constituent parts so they wouldn't be recognized was commonplace, but decoding complex tailor-made drugs was three steps beyond anyone he could think of offhand.
"I'll see what I can track, but we don't use one ourselves. What you're talking about would necessitate an extensive lab and considerable specialist equipment. The..." He almost said it; almost said, ‘The Empire keeps tabs on that kind of thing,' but caught himself in time.
"I can provide any equipment they need, plus funds to set the right individual up on a Rim System planet," The Heir assured, clearly well aware of what he was asking. "But they have to be completely reliable and discreet. If you don’t trust them implicitly, if they’ve made even one slip, I’m not interested."
"What would they be required to do?"
"Break down a sample of a drug I’ll supply. I don't have the sample yet and I have no exact date as to when it will arrive, but as soon as it does, I can turn it over. If you find someone, I’ll keep them financed."
"Species?" Karrde prompted; that kind of specialization would probably narrow the field considerably.
The Heir paused just slightly. "Human, as far as I know."
Not himself then, Karrde reasoned. He couldn't resist pressing just slightly. "Ensuring good will, or making a deal?"
He didn’t expect anything other than the vaguest answer—and he wasn’t disappointed.
"I haven’t decided yet."
"Would this be for a certain well-placed house named D'Arca?"
The Heir’s eyes came sharply up, and Karrde knew instantly that he’d just let slip a rumor that had caught his attention.
"Why would you say that?"
Karrde shrugged. "Apparently they've been going out of their way recently to make it known that they hold a great deal of respect for the new Heir. Beladon D'Arca seems to have made it his mission to be known to be backing you."
"You didn't know?" The D'Arcas were a high-ranking, powerful family, well placed in both the Royal Houses and the military, and therefore definitely the type that The Heir generally seemed to make it his business to know about.
"Yes, I’ve heard it several times recently from different sources, all saying pretty much the same thing. I'm just curious as to why."
"Perhaps he's placing an each-way bet," Karrde suggested easily. It certainly wasn’t above the likes of the politically biased D'Arca to be backing both Palpatine and his Heir.
"But why stick his neck out and make that public?" The Heir murmured, unconvinced. "Why risk his present position?"
Karrde shrugged to hide his surprise; this was the first time that The Heir had ever really entered into a discussion with him—actually asked his opinion. "One must speculate to accumulate. It's not enough for a family like that to be influential, they need to ensure that they maintain that power base long-term…and if possible, improve it."
The Heir seemed to consider that. "If you hear anything else, try to find what the link is between the D’Arcas and myself—the one that they're pushing publically at least."
"Do you want me to put someone on it?"
"No, not unless something interesting comes up. Just keep your ear to the ground."
Karrde nodded, taking a sip from the glass; so whatever game the D'Arcas were playing, The Heir wasn't personally involved—as yet. If Karrde believed him that was, which he felt he did in this instance. That had been a rare burst of genuine curiosity he'd just seen. It could, of course, have been an act; Karrde was, after all, an information broker, and The Heir knew that he wasn’t Karrde’s only client. But he also hoped that The Heir knew he wasn't foolish or unprofessional enough to actually pass on anything said between himself and his most valued, influential client to a third party.
He glanced down at the glass in his hand, the taste of the Corellian brandy bringing his thoughts back to the moment; it was intensely smoky, too rich and tannin-laced for his liking. "I really must remember to bring you some Ruusan brandy next time I come."
The Heir leaned back in his seat as it adjusted to conform to his relaxed pose, unoffended despite his next words. "I'm insulted; you spurn my hospitality."
"Not at all. Just your brandy." Karrde left a long pause before speaking again, keeping his voice light, not looking to The Heir. "Speaking of hospitality, I hear you gave a shipful of Bothans their freedom?"
The younger man glanced away, that dry, disinterested façade dropping instantly into place. "I'm a magnanimous man, didn't you know?"
"Actually I did. But you seem to go to such lengths to hide it normally."
The Heir only smiled tightly, eyes calculating now, casual informality gone. "I'm not trying to alienate the Bothan people; I was closing down a spy ring, nothing more. The fact that the group were all Bothans was incidental. I released the Attin'Cho and its crew to clarify that, publicly."
He looked meaningfully to Karrde at the last, and the smuggler chief knew that this information was offered with the intention that it be widely disseminated.
"I'm sure they'll be relieved to know," Karrde acknowledged. He didn't mind passing this on to a few choice people; smooth flying for his client meant smooth flying for Karrde—and that was after all, what he had dedicated his life toward.
"I have one other job for you," The Heir said easily, bringing Karrde's attention to the moment. "I'll need a new com code; I know you like a little notice to start working one up."
Karrde frowned, surprised. "You think they've cracked the existing one? Ghent's usually better than..."
"No, they haven't, but I don't intend to give them the time to try. Habits are dangerous, you know that."
Karrde put the empty glass on the table before him, voice straining as he reached forward. "Then you should definitely stop drinking Corellian brandy."
The comm set into the unit beside Luke's bed sounded very quietly, jolting both Mara and Luke awake. It sounded twice then it cut off, falling silent again. Mara remained still, feeling Luke stir where her arm was draped about him.
When it sounded again he rose quickly from the bed and walked through to the main room without answering it, pulling a gown about himself as the door slid shut behind him, leaving Mara to frown in the darkness. She glanced over at the chrono, just visible in the dim starlight which dusted the surfaces in its muted glow—it was still almost two hours before reveille.
Through the closed door she heard him slide open a drawer and fumble within for a few moments before he answered the comm, presumably from the comlink set into his desk in the main room.
Silence followed, in which Mara realized that the drawer opening must have been for him to retrieve an earpiece to take the call privately. Obviously the on-off-on tone was a signal to do so; the question was, from whom? She frowned in the still silence, holding her breath, listening to the decidedly one-sided conversation.
"Yes... Yes. When? Hm. No, bring it here...yes."
Silence fell again, and Mara held still, listening for some sound to indicate that he was returning...
The loud bang as he slammed the earpiece forcibly onto the desk made her jump despite herself, then he muttered something under his breath in a language she didn't know—Bocce maybe? It didn't matter, she knew a curse when she heard one.
He didn't return, remaining in the dark of the main room.
Eventually the door entry sounded. The murmured voices at the entrance to his quarters were too quiet to pick out, the conversation too brief to decipher the second party, then the door closed and a few moments later he returned to the bedroom, sliding back into bed and lying on his back with a long, low sigh.
"Problems?" Mara asked, as casually as she could muster.
Considering his normal reticence she didn't expect an answer, though she suspected that often he was guarded just out of habit, with nothing particular to hide.
"Nothing unexpected," he stated mechanically, gaze to the ceiling.
She rested her arm across his chest and felt his muscles tense. When she looked up minutes later, he was still staring into the darkness, a million light-years away.
He shifted around for the next forty-five minutes before finally rising, probably more resigned to the customary fact that he wasn't able to sleep than because he wished to get up, Mara figured, learning his habits now. He disappeared into the main room without a word.
She waited for a while, but when he didn't return and she heard no further noise, Mara eventually rose and dressed, padding quietly about the room. She needed to be up and away a good hour before reveille anyway, whilst the guards were still sluggish and before the shift change put more people into the corridors.
When she finally slid the door open, fastening her gunbelt as she did so, he was still sitting in the dark in the heavy, hide-covered chair before the viewpane, gazing out into space, elbows resting on the arms, fingers steepled before his mouth.
He remained still and mute when she approached, so Mara leaned down, hand resting against his chest just to touch his bare skin, kissing him lightly on the forehead when he still didn't move his hands or lift his face to her.
"I have to go," she murmured simply and he nodded, preoccupied.
Mara set across the still-darkened room, curious as to what had instigated his distance... She was three paces away, passing the polished expanse of his work-desk, when the glint of starlight on metal caught her eye.
Thrown onto the desk were the two surveillance lenses she’d installed into the 701st's docking bay, their shattered transmitters and Mara's viewer beside them. She'd left them on—damnit, when she'd chased after the unknown visitor in the 701st's hold, she'd left them active—and so traceable! Mara faltered to a stop.
"Oh, don't forget those," Luke said casually without turning. "I'm sure you'll want to use them again."
His voice, completely even and without the slightest emotional tell, left Mara cold, uncertain of what he would do.
"I wasn't watching you," she said at last, though even she heard the petty distinction.
"You were watching mine, which amounts to the same thing," Luke stated, his cool reserve unnerving.
"I was charged with providing numbers of the 701st, that's all," Mara defended. She'd never been caught out before, not like this—by Luke.
"You could have simply asked," he said evenly, still turned away from her, the atmosphere charged.
"Could I?" Mara tensed, aware from his manner of how close she was to that unpredictable, raw edge—daring herself to step closer still. "Fine, then here's a question—an Intel 420 Skipray arrived in that bay last night. A man stayed just over an hour then left… Who was he?"
Luke stared at Mara, momentarily lost for words as she tipped her head expectantly. Because this was not the direction he had expected this to go. He'd been livid—incensed that she'd set surveillance on his troops then had the gall to come here and lie beside him!
And now, suddenly, he was on the defensive—and he knew it.
Considering how and when they'd found her equipment, he knew she'd ask eventually, just not now. The surveillance sweep had been initiated because Karrde's ship was in the hangar bay, detecting the devices by accident simply because she'd happened to leave them active—presumably when she'd tried to get a better look at the unknown visitor. If she'd deactivated them before setting off, they would still be there, undetected and operational…and she would still be here, sleeping guilefully beside him.
And now she had the audacity to ask a question which she knew he had no intention of answering. Nor did he want to make a big issue out of refusing to answer, which would only draw more attention to the fact, particularly when he'd just told her to ask him such things—if for no other reason than to control the answers she passed on.
The only path left to him was to try to take her off-topic and hide his avoidance behind a bigger statement. He shook his head, having no real problem summoning up some sense of offense. "You're unreal, you know that? You spent hours last night spying on me, watching my every move so that you can go and report it all to Palpatine, and then what? You send your report, you walk over here and just climb into bed with me without missing a beat."
She stared at him, eyes ablaze, wounded and outraged in the same moment.
Knowing her as he did, it was so easy now to push her over the edge. "What's wrong, Mara, didn't get enough information? Or is this just another regular surveillance job for you—long hours but at least you're not on your feet all day."
"You son of a Nek!" Mara’s hand pulled back to deliver a blow, but rather than the open-handed slap that most women would give, hers was a tight fist, all the strength of her shoulder behind her arm as she roundhoused the strike forward.
Luke stepped up and in, right hand out to block the blow and yank her arm forwards and down, dragging her to him, using his own bodyweight to stop her as she barrelled into him.
His own outrage welled up in him, both at his own words—a provocation yes, but tinged in truth—and at Mara's reaction: indignation that she had no right to adopt, to his mind. Darkness answered, as it always did, dropping his voice to a threatening whisper as he leaned in, holding her by the top of her arm, mouth so close to her ear that her hair fluttered as he hissed, "Come on, Mara, you're faster than that...you're gonna need to be, if you want to walk out of here."
Mara yanked her arm back, increasingly aware of the heated anger rising from Luke’s cool detachment. She’d backed up two steps before she’d even realized it—but she stopped; made herself hold her ground as his head tilted in warning, pale eyes almost hidden by twists of dark hair.
She raised her chin, more defensive by the moment—and for Mara, that meant she went on the offensive. “Please—if I’d asked, you would have lied. That's what you do—which is why this is what I do, why Palpatine put me here. You know that.”
Luke loosed a feral grin at her justification. “Palpatine didn’t put you here, Mara—or did he?”
Mara swung wildly, intending to catch him a backwards blow across the face, but he was fast enough to twist away untouched, swatting her hand clear. “That’s the last one you get for free…or do you think you're the exception? Do you think you've bought your immunity? Those aren't the rules, Mara, you know that. If it's still okay for you to spy on me then I think I'm within my rights to retaliate, don't you? Business as usual, that's what you just said—and you know what I do when I catch people who do this. Palpatine places his spies and I stop them…remove them."
Mara turned to leave, aware that this time some line had been crossed and this had slipped from argument to antagonism, to genuine, unpredictable danger. But as she backstepped, but Luke sidestepped with her, slamming his hand against the wall to the side of Mara's head, blocking her exit.
Mara's fiery temper flared and she grabbed lightening-fast at his hand, twisting it into a pressure grip, bending his wrist against the natural movement... He reached out, grabbing her arm and twisting his own hand free in one smooth move.
She launched out with the heel of her free hand toward his face and he brought her arm which he still held across to bat down against the inside of her other elbow, stopping her blow before it made contact without releasing her. Moves she'd taught him, strike and counter-strike, flawlessly timed.
It was a fast, controlled fight at very close quarters, Mara pressed against the wall with no room to maneuver, Luke using speed and strength against her greater experience, each move and counter carried out in absolute silence, the only noise that of skin contacting skin. The flurry of movement only stopped when he finally got a good enough hold on her arm to pin it to the wall at head-height, wrist out—
And Mara drew the holdout blaster from her hip and leveled it at his midriff.
He froze, tilting his head just slightly to look down.
When he looked slowly back up to her, Mara arched her eyebrows pointedly. "Back off."
Luke remained where he was, still holding her other arm pinned. "You're going to shoot me now?" he asked levelly.
Mara held her resolve, chin lifting. "Back off," she repeated, very serious.
"Do you really think you can hurt me with a gun any more, Mara?"
She felt a momentary flare of panicked doubt pressing in on her, blanketing her thoughts, and struggled free of it, realizing that it wasn't her own, that he was placing it there. Setting her head to one side, Mara raised her eyebrows as she pushed the muzzle against his bare skin, outraged and furious and deadly serious.
"Why, you think you can dodge? ‘Cos I think this may be a little too close, even for you."
"I don't need to. I've already drained the power out."
Mara hesitated just a fraction of a second. "You're bluffing."
"I never bluff, Red, you know that."
She narrowed her eyes further, trying to see through that set, neutral expression and past the hard warning in those mismatched eyes... "You bluff occasionally..."
He didn't bother to answer, just stared down at her.
Finally she cracked just a fraction. "When?"
"Last night." He tilted his head just slightly. "I don't mind sleeping with a poisonous viper but I'm not about to let it bite."
Incensed, Mara had pulled the trigger before she even knew what she was doing—
The compact blaster let out an exhausted cough, insufficient gas in the chamber to ignite.
Neither of them moved for long seconds, blue eyes locked on green as the silence stretched to shatter-point...
Finally Luke let out a low sigh, part amusement, part exasperation, his arm muscles bunching as he pushed away from the wall to release her, the moment of raw anger dispersed by the outrageous act; Luke Skywalker stepping free from the influence of Palpatine's Wolf. "We are two of the most screwed up people I've ever met."
Mara too grinned, the burst of edgy adrenaline making her giddy now. "Fortunately we found each other. Anybody else and I think we'd have killed them by now."
He turned, his easy accusation undemanding. "I can't believe you pulled the trigger."
"You called me a viper!" Mara defended lightly.
He turned and walked away toward the refresher as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Mara followed, dropping her blaster on the bed as she passed, choosing not to notice the tremble in her hand.
"Do you always empty my blaster?" She knew this wasn't the case—she'd have noticed.
"No," he replied, raising his voice over the sound of the water. "I didn't last night either."
Frowning, Mara backstepped into the bedroom to pick up her blaster and turn it over to check the power; it was almost full.
She leaned on the refresher doorframe, the fine, warm mist from the water shower cloying. "How did you do that?"
"Made it misfire. With the Force."
She nodded, impressed. "Neat trick. I've never heard..." Mara paused, realizing. "I knew you were bluffing!"
He shrugged, his back to her now, the water streaming off his body. "It doesn't work every time. If there's already enough gas in the chamber to ignite..."
Mara stared, amazed and disturbed that he'd let her pull the trigger when he could so easily have stopped her. Why the hell hadn't he stopped her? She shook her head slowly. "You and your stupid Fate, Skywalker."
What was going on in his head that had made him prepared to take that kind of gamble again and again? A thought occurred, taking her mind away from that disturbing question; she was suddenly, chillingly aware that she could have shot Luke Skywalker in the belly at close range...
That was how furious he could make her. Was this what normal people did in the passion of the moment, or was Skywalker right and they were both just way too screwed up?
Then again, even she tended not to actually shoot people for calling her names, and Skywalker sure as hell wasn't in the habit of letting people take potshots at him with impunity...
Was this...love—or at least as near as they could get in their twisted, warped little world? Because she knew exploitation and she knew manipulation, and it didn't feel like this. She continued to stare at his back, at once elated and energized...and deeply disquieted.
"In or out?" he said evenly, without turning.
"What?" Mara asked, roused from her reverie.
"In or out—it's cold and I'm naked here."
Mara grinned, stepping forward into the steam-filled room. "Well in, naturally."
Luke stood quietly before the wide viewpanes to the rear of his Ready-room aboard the Peerless, considering, eyes on the massed glow of the Koornacht Cluster. The Peerless and the Dauntless were making a close pass through the Farlax Sector and their military shipyards on the final leg of their return journey to Coruscant. He’d stretched the Tour of Duty to just over two months and had been considering announcing spot-checks of the shipyards, more from the desire to delay his return to Coruscant than any greater purpose.
But the news he’d just received had changed everything, requiring an editing of his own plans in response. Nathan Hallin was already with him and he was awaiting Reece’s arrival, having found a distraction for Mara, needing her gone so that he could discuss this new development immediately—if he were to act upon it, it should be now.
He sighed out his frustration at being forced into these charades. Games within games, plans within plans. Perhaps his father was right; perhaps he’d learned too well the lessons his Master taught—because he couldn’t quite recognize who were friends and who were foes anymore, even here... Couldn’t quite recall why that mattered. More and more he worried at the ease with which he could step back, viewing everyone he knew as just pawns to be played, games within games within games...
Nathan’s voice interrupted his bleak thoughts. “Perhaps I’ve found a new vocation.”
“What?” Luke turned to see the slight, dark-haired medic sitting comfortably in his chair, pulled up to his desk.
“What do you think—would I make a good starship Captain?” Nathan asked, voice flippant, always looking to lighten the tone.
Luke turned away again, replying only distractedly. “No. And you’re not sitting at the Captain’s desk—I’m Admiral of the Fleet.”
“No?” Nathan turned, mock-offense coloring his words. “Please, don’t pull any punches on my account; say what you think.”
Luke turned back absently. “Your ship is at Coruscant and you’re asked to attend to a disturbance in the Bajic Sector; do you take the Corellian Run, Corellian Trade Spine, the Hydian Way or the Rimma Trade Route?”
“That’s navigation, I’d have a Navigation Officer for that,” Nathan countered smartly.
“What percentage of shield failure would result in tiling of shields becoming ineffective?”
“That’s shields; I’d have a...Shield Officer or something for that,” he replied gamely.
“In pitch battle, you’re in command of five Destroyers; your second-in-command tells you that three enemy craft are forming up in the Secondary Zone to execute the Ackbar Slash maneuver—what are your orders, Sir?”
“Congratulations—you’ve just lost your Destroyer along with nine thousand Officers and twenty-seven thousand enlisted men. Probably at least one other ship as well.”
Nathan leaned back, casually rearranging the assortment of readers and automemos on Luke’s wide, polished desk. “See? Easy. I’m a natural.”
Luke turned away again, aware of what Nathan was doing. “Sadly I know of several Destroyer Captains with just your skill level.”
Far more than Wez Reece, Luke considered Nathan Hallin a friend rather than a co-conspirator—someone who had gotten caught up in this because of his choice of acquaintances and who remained ensnarled because he was unwilling to give those same people up, rather than for some greater or more self-serving cause.
Given that, Luke should probably feel guilty about lying to him; certainly he told Nathan the truth far more than Reece—but he still kept his options open…was that wrong?
He was saved from following that thought by a quiet knock on the door as Reece entered.
“Commander?” Entering The Heir’s ready-room, Wez Reece glanced momentarily around, realizing at the combination of Nathan’s attendance and Commander Jade’s absence that whatever had happened, it was serious.
The Heir didn’t prevaricate. “The Rebels have a plan underway to assassinate the Emperor.”
Reece blinked, shocked for only a moment before his mind began to calculate. “Viable?”
The Heir set his head to one side in a near-shrug, allowing the possibility that it might be.
“Do we have details?”
“Apparently they have the Command Override Codes to the Invincible.”
Sitting with his usual lack of regard for proper protocol behind The Heir’s own desk, Nathan straightened in his chair. “How?”
“Bothans—it was part of the original operation when they infiltrated the shipyards for the Dynamic EMP blueprints—though at this point that’s irrelevant.”
“What are they planning?”
“They were planning to use the codes to override Bridge commands and take the Invincible on an unviable entry course with Coruscant’s atmosphere during her inaugural flight, when the Emperor will be onboard—break her up under the stress.”
Nathan jolted. “Wait a minute, aren’t you at that inauguration?” He paused, glancing back to Wez in alarm. “Aren’t I?”
The Heir shook his head. “They can’t do that now; there are too many other Ships-of-the-Line in attendance—two Super Star Destroyers and about a dozen Star Destroyers. If they’d had the Dynamic EMPs, they were intending to use them to disable all the other ships. As it is, there are at least two ships with sufficient mass to hold the Invincible back from entering the atmosphere, using tractor beams—and both have a percentage of hardened systems now that we know the Rebellion gained plans of the DEMP—it’s just not a workable plan anymore.”
“They’ll scale it down.” Reece reasoned. “They can still take control of the ship with the codes, if they think we don’t know.”
“They intend to seal off the Bridge and blow out the viewpanes—explosive decompression,” The Heir said, voice casual.
Reece considered, running the numbers. “Which means you need to be off the Bridge when it happens.”
“I intend to be,” The Heir said simply, turning to Nathan. “And you’ll be aboard the Peerless, along with Reece. Only Mara and I will attend.”
Nathan didn’t try to hide his surprise. “You’re taking Mara?”
“If I take no one Palpatine will be suspicious, and if I take Reece then Palpatine could easily pull the whole plot from his mind if either of us makes the slightest slip. Mara doesn’t know; she’s the logical person to take.”
And it was, Reece knew; flawlessly logical. After a brief silence, he asked the question, impassive as ever: “Will she…remain on the Bridge?”
The Heir turned away to look out the viewpane, the silence hanging heavy, though whether that was confirmation, uncertainty or simply a decision not to elucidate, Reece couldn’t tell. He remained reserved as ever about his relationship with the fiery redhead, so much so that even this would be considered an intrusion and rebuffed.
Wez glanced once to Nathan, who lifted an eyebrow pointedly, though neither pushed. Despite Nathan’s endless conjecture, Wez’s only concern in the matter was professional—in terms of its impact on The Heir’s safety. It was, for the moment, irrelevant, or at least not the time to be broaching the subject, so Wez moved on without further consideration. “Could the Emperor open the blast doors if they were locked down?”
“Yes,” The Heir said at last. “If he knew what they were going to do then he no doubt would. If he didn’t...he may allow them to feel momentarily in control, more out of curiosity than anything else—you know how confident he is. Once he realizes, to open two of the three sets of blast-rated Bridge doors would take maybe thirty seconds each. That may be all the time they need.”
“Will the Rebels know that?”
“Probably not…which is why I’m considering telling them.”
Shocked silence froze Wez in place for long seconds as he stared mutely at Skywalker, who held his gaze, face emotionless as he studied Wez.
It was Nathan who recovered sufficiently to speak. “You’re going to help them?”
“I’m considering it,” Skywalker said, eyes remaining on Wez. “...Opinions?”
“If it’s unsuccessful and one of them is caught alive...” Nathan trailed off, the consequences obvious.
“I wasn’t intending to com them and say, ‘Excuse me, this is The Heir; I understand you’re about to get rid of a big problem for me so I thought I could offer a few pointers,’” Skywalker stated dryly, turning to Nathan. “For one thing I doubt they’d believe anything I told them, and for another, they may well begin to ask how I know what they’re doing in the first place.”
“If you intend to put information back to them through a third party then why are you worried?” Nathan asked.
“Because I don’t want it to be too much of a resounding success. I want it to work, but I need to balance that with how confident it would leave them if it did.”
“Because?” Nathan prompted.
“Future intentions,” Skywalker said at last, turning back to Wez, who had remained still and silent. After long seconds of consideration, he finally continued. “I need them to think that I’m willing to negotiate with them if I came to power—force them to make a deal with me rather than continue with their hit and fade attacks. I’m not willing to spend years chasing shadows around the Rim Systems... And they’re not going to want to come to the table if they’re not hungry.”
“You’re going to negotiate with them!” Reece was unable to hide the resentment in his voice, a rarity for him.
“No, I’m going to make them think I’ll negotiate with them,” Skywalker corrected pointedly. “And I’m wondering whether giving them anonymous aid now and having that accidentally revealed at a later date will enhance my credibility—bring them to the table.”
Wez let out the breath he hadn’t realized that he’d been holding, his shoulders loosening. Still, it was long seconds before he was able to bring his mind back to the task. “You’d never get them to negotiate,” he said at last. “They’re too wary of you.”
“Mon would have been too wary; Leia Organa might just be amenable.”
Which was why he’d been so insistent on removing Mon Mothma when he had the chance! Suddenly threads began to pull together for Wez, isolated incidents falling into a greater plan.
And for Nathan too, apparently. “That’s why you let the smuggler go onboard the Fury!”
“Partly,” Skywalker conceded. “He’s close to Organa—she listens to his opinion.”
Reece considered this fascinating glimpse of far-reaching plans. The Heir wasn't in the habit of handing out this kind of information without reason—if he was doing so now, it was for assessment. “I doubt anybody else will be quite as open to his opinion.”
“They don’t need to be, just Organa; I’ll approach her first. When she trusts me I’ll get her to bring the Chiefs of Staff to a rendezvous—let her think that it was her idea, let her name the rendezvous and any security she requires… And I may bring along a few extra people of my own; just a Destroyer or two. It won’t eradicate them completely, but if we can remove enough of their leaders at once it may well throw them into enough turmoil that we can weaken them considerably in the ensuing months—as part of a larger plan.”
“Interesting,” Reece allowed at last, looking for flaws; it was a loose plan but then this far in advance it would be foolish to believe one could have much more, and even then, he was sure Skywalker would elaborate only when he felt it necessary. But it had possibilities if the groundwork was laid very well in advance, as The Heir seemed to be doing with his usual attention to detail.
Certainly having some kind of hold over the leader of the Rebellion, as The Heir clearly believed he did, was no bad thing.
“So do I help them?” The Heir repeated, bringing the conversation back to its point.
Reece brought his mind back to the present problem. “Taking into account what you’ve said, I can see your dilemma...but I still think it’s too much of a risk to get involved at this early stage; there are too many variables and I think you know it.”
The Heir nodded his assent. “I’m not dismissing it completely though; now that information can be accessed, I’ll keep a close eye on developments.”
“I’m sure it will change closer to the date,” Reece agreed. “They say no battle plan survives...” he trailed off, seeing the sudden change in The Heir’s eyes as he turned back to Hallin.
Nathan frowned. “I’m sorry?”
“Bothans—you asked how they got the codes.”
Nathan’s frown increased. “You said it was irrelevant.”
“I was wrong,” The Heir said quickly, conceit never a consideration. “If the Bothan spy cell who handed over the DEMPs, and the cell who got this information out were both working under Ollin’yaa’s command, then he surely knew.”
“And the Emperor has Ollin’yaa,” Nathan finished, of the Bothan Spy Master that The Heir himself had caught at the same time as Mon Mothma, handing both over to the Emperor.
“Which means he may already know,” The Heir stated. All three men paused to consider this.
“We need to find out,” Reece said at last, voicing everyone’s worry. “If Palpatine already knows, then the best line of action would be for you to inform him of your knowledge, without delay.”
“Except that he’ll want to know how I found out,” The Heir replied. “And I’m not admitting to Argot.”
“He already knows you have an informant in the Rebellion headquarters,” Nathan reasoned.
The Heir ran his fingers back through his unruly hair in consideration, clasping his hands at the nape of his neck. “We need to get the Rebellion to check the codes they have—if they’ve been disabled or nullified then I’ll take this to the Emperor. For now, I think the best course is to sit back and watch. Now that Argot is in the loop, I’ll be kept informed.”
Reece frowned. “It seems strange that Argot only got this information now.”
“Only Madine knew.” Luke smiled ironically. “They think they have a spy in their midst. Their Intel Chief, Massa, has been charged with keeping a close eye on Solo.” He glanced over to Nathan as the medic straightened in realization. “And yes; that is the other reason I keep letting him go.”
Luke sat crouched down against the wall on the wide balcony which ran the length of his apartments in the Palace, the humid heat of the balmy summer day still being leached from the pale stone even this late into the evening, warm against his bare feet. His shirt was undone at the collar and cuffs, the muggy breeze ruffling through the openings without cooling him, the hot, humid air twisting his dark hair into loose curls.
He heard a noise from the double-doors beside him and didn’t need to turn to know that Nathan Hallin had walked out. He paused as he glanced about, then walked over to lean in companionable silence against the wall beside Luke.
The heat rippling from the pale travertine tiles took Luke’s mind unstoppably back to the baking deserts of his childhood, leaving him melancholy, as he often was on his return to the Imperial Palace. He felt more completely alone here in the Palace, surrounded by people, than at any other time.
He’d been summoned to Court again, as he had been every evening since returning to Coruscant. Another massive room of nervous deference and empty lip service, fear and fascination in every face. Everyone jostling for position to draw close to a man they didn’t even know, lies on their lips and distrustful dread in their minds…they exuded it, like sweat. Terrified to be near someone they knew could kill with a thought, the only thing that could overcome their fear was their greed—their desire for power and position.
Didn’t they know—couldn’t they understand that he knew this of them, that they made him what they feared? He didn’t see their faces anymore, only their lies, and how was it possible to feel guilt about using or removing those whom he knew would do the same to him, given the slightest chance.
And Palpatine, always so amused at Luke’s distaste, always playing his own little power games among his own sea of nervous faces...
Were they so different anymore, he and his Master? The thought chilled him; set a tense knot of restless disquiet in his stomach, jaw tightening in revulsion. The heat soothed though, took him far away, and he followed it willingly.
“Do you ever wish you could go home, Nathan?” Luke asked quietly without looking up.
Nathan glanced to Luke, surprised at the question and the open tone in which it was asked, then turned quickly back to stare out into the encroaching dusk, aware that this was one of those rare occasions when Luke would talk, if only a little. Aware too of the reasons, even if Luke was not; there was nothing like returning to the center of the Empire to underline the sense of it, and Palpatine’s exacting expectations, resting on one’s shoulders.
“Home? No… Do you?” Nathan asked at last, sliding down to a crouch on the warm stone beside Luke.
“No...” Luke said without conviction.
They remained quiet, comfortable in each other’s presence without needing to fill the silence, watching the sun slowly sink behind distant buildings, red sky settling out to velvet night.
“I guess...sometimes I wish I could go back to that person though.”
“I think you’re still more that person that you realize,” Nathan assured mildly.
Luke glanced down, uncomfortable with even this small concession. But then they were seldom made to him, Nathan knew—especially here.
“You grew up on...Tatooine?” he prompted, hoping to draw Luke out—but he politely avoided, as he always did.
Hallin glanced out over the encroaching dusk of the City Planet. “Here—but in Osin Province, close to the equator.” He smiled, picking at a pebble embedded in a crack of the pale travertine floor. “See, I like the heat too. I’m not at all taken with this whole winter thing that they have in the Capital—I think it’s highly overrated.”
Luke smiled, a gentle laugh in his voice. “Yeah, I stayed on some planet in the Hoth system for a while—wasn’t impressed.”
Hallin frowned. “Hoth System?”
“One viable planet—just. But it’s ice, too far from its sun. The surface is feet deep in snow and glaciers. I think the whole time I was there the temperature never rose above minus thirty. The novelty of snow wears off just about the same time as you step off the end of the ship’s ramp and realize just how cold minus thirty actually is.”
“How long did you stay?” Nathan asked.
“I don’t remember,” he avoided, unwilling as ever to hand out details. “Too long.”
They were silent for a while, but it was a comfortable silence on both parts, Nathan knew; he was privileged to be among the very few trusted even this far.
“Mara’s on her way,” Nathan said into the silence; the reason he’d come out.
He knew Luke liked a little time to himself before the mind games of Court and would never normally intrude, but Luke seemed talkative tonight in an open, casual way. Which was why Nathan felt able to ask his next question—that and the fact that nobody else would.
“May I ask—do you trust her?” Nathan turned to study The Heir as he spoke, though Luke’s eyes remained on the horizon.
“No. And neither should you.”
Hallin frowned, genuinely unsure. “Then why are you with her?”
Luke waited just a single heartbeat too long. “With her?”
Nathan remained silent, neither pushing for acknowledgment nor moving the conversation along, giving Luke the time to decide whether to give a little on this one. As it was, he stared out in mute silence for so long that Nathan thought he had chosen to ignore the question, before he finally sighed, glancing down.
“Because I made a mistake and now I can’t back out. She’s a liability which I have to...”
Nathan waited, but Luke didn’t finish whatever he had begun to say, so he posed another question. “Do you...care for her?”
“I’d be a fool to do that.”
“Ah, but you’d be a member of a very large club, whoever your companion was. I myself have an impressive string of bad decisions under my belt. I’m an honorary lifetime affiliate.”
Luke smiled into the growing shadows without looking at him. “I know.”
Nathan turned, but Luke didn’t offer more, eyes still on the distance, so he sighed, throwing the tiny pebble he’d dug free out before him to skitter across the pale stone. “Are we talking about the present or the past?”
“Present. The past is past,” Luke said genially.
“Maybe not completely...” Nathan ventured, keeping his voice light.
When Luke didn’t answer, he sighed again, mind brought to his present indiscretion. “It seemed like such a good idea at the time...” He grinned wickedly. “Actually it didn’t, but nature is a powerful persuader. It doesn’t care who you are or what your plans. It has its own agenda.”
Luke laughed lightly. “And a loud voice,” he agreed readily, and Nathan smiled, scuffing at the floor with the toe of his impeccably polished boot.
“I never understand why people always meet in the glasshouse,” Luke finally said of Nathan’s imminent clandestine rendezvous in one of the massive enclosed glasshouses to the rear of the Monolith roof, more properly named the Winter Gardens. Though he often accompanied Luke, Nathan’s presence in Court wasn’t actually required, and he’d intended to slip away tonight for a little encounter of his own.
“Because there’s a gap in the security grid if you must know,” Nathan defended lightly, surprised by Luke’s specific knowledge but not minding the intrusion—because it was Luke.
“Have you ever considered that it’s there for a reason?” Luke said without turning.
“You’re telling me they’re watching the glasshouse?” Nathan asked, deadpan.
“Well it is made from glass,” Luke shrugged easily. “That should be some kind of clue.”
“You can’t see in from the outside,” Nathan argued lightly, aware that the plexiglass walls were privacy-treated, as all plexiglass was throughout the Palace. Jamming and counter-jamming devices were so prevalent in the Emperor’s paranoid little world that light-based, line-of-sight imaging was the only reliable method of watching others, and privacy-treated glass ruled that out.
“Have you checked that all the glass on the roof is privacy-treated?"
Able to see the treated glass walls from the outside as he walked by it, it had never occurred to Nathan to check that the roof glass was also privacy-treated; he really wasn't cut out for all this vigilant, guarded living. “So basically my private life is being passed around the Palace on datachips?” Nathan said dryly after a long, considered pause.
“No, nobody knows—yet,” Luke assured. “But you might want to rethink your safe spot...” He paused in consideration, then, “If you need somewhere to meet outside the security fields use these rooms...when I’m not here, I hasten to add.”
“Thank you,” Nathan said, surprised but strangely, not embarrassed—mostly because Luke clearly wasn’t. “This is my first clandestine affair,” he added with mock seriousness. “I’m still learning the ropes.”
“I hope that’s not literal,” Luke smiled, making Nathan do the same.
“So, what... Should I leave a towel hanging over a chair in the hall,” Nathan joked lightly, “or will you just...know?”
Luke smiled again, shaking his head as he looked down. “Don’t even go there...”
Nathan too glanced down, amused, but when he looked up his voice was genuine. “Thank you.”
Luke shook it away wordlessly.
“And I think you’re changing the subject,” Nathan added. When Luke glanced back across at him, he set his head to one side. “Do you care for Jade?”
Luke hunched down and rubbed at his closed eyes, voice wry and self-effacing. “...So do I get a membership card in this club, or something?”
Nathan laughed lightly, and they both fell to casual silence again, each considering their predicament.
“So you do trust her then?” Nathan reiterated at last, looking for reassurance.
Luke looked away; wouldn’t meet his eye. “No, I don’t trust her. She’ll...one day she’ll betray me, I know that—I just don’t know when.”
Nathan voice abruptly sharpened. “You’re sure?” Luke looked down without replying, enough for Nathan to know he was. “Would it be completely foolish of me to ask what you’re doing with her then?”
Luke only smiled, speaking quietly and without rancor. “Oh, you’re one to talk.”
“My partner isn’t trying to kill me.”
“I didn’t say she’d try to kill me,” Luke said quickly, but Nathan was too concerned to let this drop now.
“You said she’d betray you.”
Luke glanced back to the open terrace doors behind Nathan, a subtle warning to lower his tone. The medic hushed to a whisper, though as far as he was aware there was no one in the room. Clem, the only bodyguard on duty, stood to quiet attention in the long hallway beyond. “Well then, how will she betray you?”
Luke sighed, looking out over the metropolis again, hair ruffling over his eyes in the muggy breeze.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “You seldom see specifics with future events because they’re still in flux, just...twists in the flow; feelings...flashes in the darkness which you can trace back to a person or an event. Not even that sometimes, just...”
He trailed to silence, having no way to describe the indefinable.
“When?” Nathan pushed, still whispering.
“What would you like, a time of day?”
“How can you be so accurate on something as unimportant as my love life and so vague on something that’s possibly life-threatening?”
Luke only turned, amusement in those mismatched eyes at his friend’s close concern. “Maybe it’s impenetrable for a reason.”
“What does that mean?” Nathan asked, then ducked down slightly, realizing how loud he’d spoken.
Luke shrugged, setting his head to one side. “Some things you can’t see for a reason.”
“Now you’re just being obscure,” Nathan accused, frustration borne out of his sense of protection.
“Some things aren’t meant to be changed.” Luke hesitated a long time, considering. “I once knew a Jedi Master who said that the will of the Force is like the flow of a river; we may change its course from time to time, but it still travels to the sea.”
“Very deep. I thought that the Sith had a handle on that kind of thing.”
“Maybe not as much as they think,” Luke said, making Nathan frown; he always said ‘they,’ never ‘we.’
Nathan considered momentarily, pulling his mind back to the moment. “Perhaps Reece should be aware...”
“No.” Luke paused, clearly searching for the right words without wishing to offend. “I trust Reece absolutely in matters of policy. But...I feel he may be a touch less forgiving and a tad more...direct in his opinion of how to deal with Mara. You—” Luke turned to Nathan, wry expression very open and artless and persuasive. “...I know I can trust a fellow ‘club member’ to give me the benefit of the doubt in dealing with my own...lapses.”
“Am I so predictable?” Nathan smiled, amused at the realization.
“Only to me,” Luke said easily. “And speaking of problems, ours have arrived. And I’m not dressed for Court yet.”
He pushed up and set off, walking barefoot past the run of open doors to enter the furthest, which led to his bedroom, disappearing behind the reflective, high security privacy panes of the tall plexiglass doors.
Nathan stepped into the drawing room, surprised that there was still no one there. Frowning, he set off out through the dining room, pausing to turn to Clem. “Are Commander Jade and Commander Reece back yet?”
The tall, broad security officer glanced to the small reader on his wrist, lifting his sleeve to do so. “Reece stopped at the Staff Office...Commander Jade is in the apartments...”
Nathan turned away and headed out with a nod, intending to go to the staff complex just inside the doors to the sprawling Perlemian Apartments, wondering idly just how far the corridors and hallways would stretch if he measured them all end to end one day. The massive residence covered an entire floor of the West Tower, each of the thirty or so palatial rooms easily equaling the floor space of a complete home—and that was the kind Nathan was used to, which was hardly underprivileged.
Learning the names of all the rooms was bad enough, never mind the layout; the Malak Gallery, the Ebony Study, the Marble Hall, the Cupola with its massive stained glass dome, backlit to appear like a skylight, the light changing to match the time of day outside. Luke actually used less than a quarter of the rooms, mostly the smaller ones...though ‘smaller’ was a relative term; even they were each close to the size of Nathan ’s complete apartment, which had itself seemed huge when the medic had first arrived.
As everyone did, though no one admitted to it, Nathan cut unthinkingly through Luke’s private office to avoid the long trail through the central cupola of the extensive apartment.
Walking in from the doors at the opposite wall of the sizeable office, obviously using the same shortcut, was Mara Jade.
She glanced to him, nodding and rolling her eyes at having been caught out using this common shortcut. Unable to stop himself, everything that had just been said fresh in his mind, Nathan glowered, coming to a halt.
Jade walked calmly past...then slowed at the realization of his glare.
After a rocky start he and Jade had long since settled into the dryly tolerant routine which had served both well for almost four years. Luke’s injury and Jade’s obvious concern had softened that in the last several months, but now Nathan felt his old enmity rising—and Jade saw it too.
“Do you have some kind of problem with me, Hallin?” she asked abruptly without turning back, employing that typically abrasive, upfront manner to knock him off-guard, Nathan knew.
His eyes narrowed just slightly, though his voice remained very polite, accustomed by now to Palace games. “I hate to disappoint you, Commander, but I really haven’t given it that much thought.”
Nathan was speechless at his own audacity, considering their relative rank—even more so when he held his ground as she turned, green eyes narrowing.
“I think you should say what you have to say,” she invited curtly.
To say anything—to make any kind of enemy of Jade—would be a huge mistake, Nathan knew; it was precisely the wrong thing to do.
But he felt in some way responsible for the present situation; hadn’t he asked that she be reinstated after her failure to protect Luke from the assassination attempt? She could have been long gone by now, a distant memory. This was his mistake—he’d kept her here—it was his decision Luke was having to deal with now.
She waited, gaze coolly expectant, and Nathan couldn’t hold back.
“I'm watching you,” he said simply.
“Watching me what?”
Nathan tilted his head to one side, his eyes hard, expression caustic, though Jade remained, unfazed.
“Seriously, Hallin—what do you think I’m going to do? Go ahead?”
“Please,” Nathan said dryly. “You think this gives you some hold over him?”
Her eyes widened just slightly at Nathan ’s implied knowledge, then her expression smoothed again. But her voice, when she spoke, had lost its usual edge. “I’m not looking for any hold over him.”
Jade shook her head. “Has it ever occurred to you that I may actually care about him?”
“How very generous of you. You put him in direct conflict with the Emperor’s wishes, knowing what will happen if he finds out...on the off-chance that you may care for him.”
Apparently the gloves were off—and now it was Mara’s turn to scorn. “Don’t get high-handed with me—I know what you’re really thinking.”
“I am serving the best interests of my friend. What’s your justification?”
“I don’t need to justify anything to you.”
Nathan played his ace. “And the Emperor?”
Jade hesitated a beat at the implied threat, though she recovered impressively. But then she knew damn well that since Nathan clearly knew what was going on, she needed his complicity in this. “I'd never hurt him, Nathan—you know that.”
Nathan’s cool expression softened not a whit. “Then leave.”
“Leave. If you want to help him—to protect him—leave. Request another assignment.”
Jade shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
“Ah, I see!” He feigned polite realization. “You claim genuine concern but when you’re asked to relinquish, suddenly it’s no longer convenient.”
“I don’t know what you think I’m doing, but I promise you I have no intention of ever hurting him.”
“You already are.”
He had the satisfaction of seeing Jade crack just slightly beneath the utter conviction in his voice.
“No, Commander, I’m not wrong. You’ll destroy him, and deep down I think you know it…because he does.”
Jade twitched, disturbed by his words; probably more so by the subtle revelation of their source. Nathan’s eyes delivered one last warning as turned slowly away and walked from the room.
The door was sliding closed before he heard her voice again, very quiet and shockingly vulnerable. “You’re wrong.”
Nathan had taken several paces past the turn in the corridor before he allowed his composure to slip just slightly, his step faltering though he kept walking, aware that he was in sight of the surveillance lenses.
Was she telling the truth—did she really care? And did it matter anyway, given Luke’s prediction.
What Nathan did know was that Jade was Palpatine’s agent—his informer. She was, by definition, Luke’s sworn enemy. Whatever else she thought she felt, her true loyalties were clear; she reported to the Emperor every few days, like clockwork. That was her job—it was why she was here. She had informed on Luke’s actions in the past, knowing how severe the consequences would be, and yet she claimed that she would never hurt him... How could he believe that she would act any differently now?
Given Luke’s admission it was surely more likely that she was lying, manipulating him to some pre-arranged plan. And even if she wasn’t, there was still a dangerous truth to Nathan’s words; she was playing with fire—and she was persuading Luke to do the same.
Unsettled, Mara made a conscious effort to avoid being alone with Hallin over the coming weeks. His wary antipathy didn’t seem to wane, mistrust boiling behind that cultured, polished manner, but she grew used to it—rationalized it. He could so easily stop this situation before it had a chance to develop, it was true…and if it were only Mara who would suffer, perhaps he might. But he would never do that to Luke—never betray a trust. As little as she knew him, Mara knew that. And he was after all, just one more obstacle in a whole galaxy of them, and hardly their greatest, when she and Luke were here at the Palace.
Still, his words had bitten deep enough to make her wonder again at her own split loyalties—or were they that at all? She had, after all, never hidden from Luke the fact that her allegiance lay with the Emperor. The time they spent together was completely separate to that in her mind—a self-contained reality which required no closer scrutiny.
Certainly Luke seemed to consider it the same. After that single, explosive argument onboard the Peerless, by some unspoken pact neither ever mentioned anything of the real world or its demands when they were together. Nothing ever encroached, the realities of their reckless liaisons never mentioned. Ignorance was bliss, and in the absence of any opposing allusions from Luke, it was all too easy for Mara to persuade herself that deep down, the loyalties of the man whom she now regarded as very much a kindred spirit were, in truth, no different to her own.
Yes, Luke argued and challenged and occasionally even squared off against the Emperor, but he was still here, and even though Palpatine was a master of manipulation, Luke was one of the most willful, intractable people she had ever met, and if he didn’t want to be here, he would be long gone. Something was holding him.
Still, for the first time, Mara began to feel as she suspected Luke always did here in the Palace, restlessly stifled and restricted. The weeks passed excruciatingly slowly, her mind always drifting back to the relative freedom they enjoyed when safely away aboard the Peerless. Here in the Palace, there was no closeness save in stolen glances and momentary contact hidden beneath accidental touches as they passed each other or walked side by side.
But she knew that soon they’d be gone again. The Invincible’s launch, the reason they were here, was imminent now. Just two weeks and they’d be free again, taking the new Super Star Destroyer on its shakedown voyage to the shipyards in the Farlax Sector where final adjustments would require an extended stay free of the stifling surveillance on Coruscant.
So now Mara was counting down the days, wondering if Luke was doing the same. She studied him as he worked at the table in his drawing room, a number of readers and datachips scattered across it. The table stood before the wide bank of plexiglass doors which led out onto the balcony, the long spell of stifling, muggy weather which Coruscant always endured in the summer making Mara uncomfortable, though it never seemed to bother Luke—in fact he seemed to enjoy it, opening all doors and windows to the heat, rendering the air conditioning useless.
Mara was sitting to the rear of the huge room, where it still held some sway, when Reece knocked quietly at the quarter-open door, eyes discreetly down as he entered from the dining room beyond, prompting Mara to wonder if he suspected too—that could be dangerous; he was an agent here reporting to Saté Pestage and therefore the Emperor, just as she was.
“Excuse me, Sir—Lord Vader is in the antechamber to the Stateroom. He...insists an audience.”
Luke was already rising as Reece had entered, turning off his automemo in preparation. “Thank you, Wez. I’ll see him in here.”
Reece bowed his head as he retreated, the heavy double-doors sliding silently shut on their smooth mechanism.
“Why are you seeing him in here?” Mara asked. There were any number of dedicated receiving rooms in Luke’s extensive apartments, ranging from the luxurious and welcoming to the cavernous and stately—why would he let Vader of all people into his private rooms?
He turned to her without speaking, the inference clear, but Reece re-entered the room, curtailing further argument on either side, Vader only a step behind him.
“Lord Vader, Sir,” Reece announced formally, before bowing and backstepping a neat retreat from the room at a nod from Luke.
Luke remained silent before the hulking form of Darth Vader, as unintimidated as he had always been. When Vader didn’t speak, he finally sighed and looked away, as if boring already of an old game. “You have something you wish to say, Lord Vader?”
Mara had never, in all the time she had been with Luke, heard him refer to his father by anything other than his title. Even in private like this, distance was always maintained between them.
Vader remained silent, turning slowly to Mara, and she lifted her own chin in defiance; whatever frustrations she felt against Luke were instantly lost as she automatically closed ranks before an outside threat.
“Mara?” Luke invited without turning.
She rose, taking the opportunity when she reached the door and paused to bow, to hold Luke’s eye a moment too long, expression questioning. He nodded imperceptibly and she backstepped, the doors sliding shut before her.
Both men remained silent for long moments, waiting...
Finally, feeling the need to break the silence, Vader spoke. “I came to deliver the final breakdown of the Rim Fleet destroyers which will attend the launch of the Invincible.”
“Could you not send this by courier?” Luke asked distantly, eyes still on the door.
“No—the information is restricted at the Emperor’s command,” Vader replied easily, also waiting, filling the gap with mindless words.
“I see. How many Destroyers?”
“Fourteen, excluding the Executor. They will arrive over the next eight days and take up positions about the Polar South Deep Orbit Station...”
Finally Luke turned from the door to look at his father. “You’ve picked them carefully?” His manner changed abruptly as he stepped forward, voice lowering, both men relaxing slightly now that they were sure that Jade had left the adjacent room.
“Yes. Two are already loyal, ten could potentially be persuaded and two are faithful to the Emperor, to belay any suspicion.”
Vader had already arranged with his son to begin reassignment of loyal and potentially loyal military supporters, and the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the launch of a new Flagship would enable him to briefly assemble many high-ranking officers whom Luke seldom had the opportunity to meet in the Core Systems.
The Invincible’s inaugural celebration would be held on the night of the launch in the State Ballroom, a massive venue in which, with a little carefully laid interference, would enable Luke to make subtle personal petitions and form the foundations of alliances in return for certain guarantees.
It would be difficult to achieve under the noses of Palpatine’s spies and the Emperor himself, but the boy had proved surprisingly adept, forming alliances and collaborations in a way which Vader never could, his forthright but not overbearing command style making him popular among the military, seeming approachable and trustworthy even in this.
Now he nodded, taking the small datachip Vader proffered and loading it into a reader on the table, attention centered on memorizing names and images as they appeared. He expressed no trepidation at the thought of the task presented to him, simply concentrating, learning names, briefly discussing strategies based on the information provided, throwing out considered snippets as to the individual person’s family or background which would have to be taken into account.
He had become so completely naturalized to this environment now, Vader noted, the fact that this would be a reception of hundreds of the galaxy’s leading figures in the ostentatious grandeur and outrageously extravagant excess of the mirror-lined gallery and the cavernous State Ballroom of less relevance than the knowledge that within the mirrors and the crowds, many ears would be listening and few of them innocently.
Luke narrowed his eyes, voicing the opinion that he shouldn't mention Captain Dorrin’s potential involvement to Captain Lain, the two Star Destroyer captains maintaining long-standing enmity due to their respective Family Houses, situated on two planets within the Stenness Node and held from all-out war only by the presence of the Empire within their system, citing a constant undercurrent of bickering and rivalries between the two Houses within Court.
Vader nodded silent agreement in this and other points, aware for the first time how much the Emperor had been quietly grooming the boy for Command—forcing him to deal with constant obstructions and hindrances; to look for other means, other methods and maneuvers. To learn all these subtle ploys and traps simply so that he could avoid or dismiss them—but to learn them all the same, now equally at home with the driving ambitions and broad powerplays of the military elite or the elaborate scheming and subtle, petty machinations of Court, an arena where Vader had always been uneasy.
When Luke was satisfied that he had a working knowledge of the information, he flicked slowly through the images one last time, then blanked the datachip’s memory, returning it to his father.
“We should bring this to a close; you’ve been here some time.”
Handing the blank chip back to his father, Luke briefly considered mentioning the planned Rebel attack on the Invincible, then dismissed it, seeing no specific benefit in doing so. Firstly because he knew his father would automatically resent allowing the Rebels to make this attempt on Imperial sovereignty, and Luke didn’t particularly want to be placed in a situation in which he was forced to defend their plan—and therefore the Rebellion—as a consequence, knowing that his father would believe his loyalties to be split, and secondly because he didn’t need his father’s aid or input in this. Vader would have his own view and it would be strongly held and much as he wanted to, Luke didn't believe his father could be trusted not to take this to Palpatine simply to head off Luke's interaction with the Rebels.
Besides, his decision was made even if, as in this case, it was simply that the best course of action was to wait and see; this was a rare occasion when it was more advantageous to be reactive than proactive.
Vader held his son’s eye momentarily, and Luke sensed his guarded awareness that there was something more. Vader stared for long seconds and Luke held his eye, unflinching… Then his father nodded once and took the blank chip, concealing it in the folds of his clothes, reaching out beyond the room with the Force—
“She is growing suspicious,” he said, voice very sure—but then it always was.
“Only of this, today.”
Vader sighed, and Luke braced himself, waiting for the criticism which, despite everything, he had known would come. It was dispensed in an unexpected form: “A short recording came into my hands a month ago from an information dealer on Bilbringi. I destroyed it.”
Luke remained silent, eyes wary, hardly noticing the rasping breath of the life-support that his father wore anymore, so familiar a sound had it become. Vader continued after a long pause, sure that he had his son’s attention now. “It showed you stepping off from the edge of the balcony behind you. Mara Jade caught you.”
Luke considered a long time, eyes down, wondering whether to tell Vader the truth or whether to tell him anything at all.
“I was testing a theory,” Luke allowed at last without meeting his father’s featureless gaze.
“That being?” Vader prompted, when he offered nothing more.
Luke shrugged casually. “Just a theory,” he avoided.
“With Jade, apparently,” Vader growled, his distaste evident.
Luke glanced sharply up, a warning flashing momentarily in his eyes, then he turned away to the tall windows to watch the darkening, storm-heavy sky.
”Say it,” Luke finally invited, knowing this was something his father wished to address.
“You will do as you wish regardless,” Vader said, very sure.
“Yes,” Luke replied, half-turning back to his father. “But I’ll take what you have to say under advisement.”
“She is dangerous.” Vader didn’t hesitate—he seldom did anyway and in this he was clearly very sure, and not without reason, Luke knew. “She will always remain loyal to the Emperor and cannot be trusted...theoretical tests aside.”
Luke tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I know—and I wasn’t testing that.”
He offered nothing more as he turned back to the brewing storm, so his father tried a different tack. “Palpatine is using her to control you.”
“I know that, too. I’m not blind.”
“But you are allowing it,” Vader warned, “which is tantamount to the same thing—worse, because you allow it knowingly, willingly.”
“Give me an option—a viable one.”
Vader didn’t hesitate. “Remove her.”
“And then what?”
“That problem will also be removed,” his father said, as if stating the glaringly obvious.
And the only way to counter the glaringly obvious was with the plausibly rational. “Then she’ll be replaced and I’ll have to learn the operating procedures of another ‘watcher.’ Discover a whole new set of strengths and weaknesses and habits—four years of familiarity and knowledge wasted. No—better the devil you know.”
“You’re allowing her too close,” Vader maintained.
“I can control her. She believes she’s close and she passes that confidence on to Palpatine.”
“You think you can control her,” Vader corrected. “You have no proof. She will always be loyal to the Emperor.”
“I know. But whilst she’s close to me I can control exactly what information she is and isn’t party to, so I know exactly what information she’s passing on to the Emperor—what he’s reacting to and why. He trusts her implicitly—which is a weakness on his part.”
“And you?” Vader asked.
“I don’t trust her at all,” Luke said, wondering how much his father really knew and how much was his own guilty conscience.
“That is not what I asked.”
Luke turned to his father, wary. Because no matter what he said out loud, if Vader thought Luke and Mara were too close, Luke feared he'd find some way to remove her. “She’s not a weakness because I won’t allow her to be. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“See that you don’t,” Vader charged, tone little short of a command.
Luke’s eyes narrowed, offended as much on Mara's behalf as his own. “Don’t order me.”
“Don’t leave yourself open to criticism,” Vader reproached.
“You of all people should think carefully before saying that.”
The words had left his mouth before he’d even considered them, goaded by his father’s self-righteous tone. Even now, knowing the damage they’d done, Luke couldn’t back down because he knew his father too well to think that his silence now constituted any kind of agreement. “And just to be clear—if something were to happen to Mara Jade, all deals would be off the table—understand that.”
It was, Luke knew, an admission of at least partial vulnerability on his part, but it had to be said otherwise his father would move against her based solely on what had already been said. “Mara Jade isn’t your concern.”
“No—but you are,” his father parried without hesitation.
Was it a manipulation or was it real? His father remained a closed book to Luke, his true intent hidden. He wanted to believe that Vader's words were spoken out of genuine concern, but he knew him too well; it was at least partly a protection of his investment. Vader still believed absolutely that he knew what was best for Luke, and in typical heavy-handed fashion, would do whatever he conceived of as necessary to keep his son, and therefore his investment, on track. There was no contradiction; they were one and the same to him.
Luke turned away, uneasy, never knowing quite how to react to such asides from his father. “I can look after myself."
"You'll forgive me," his father said dryly, "if I don't take that under advisement."
Mara stepped out to watch Vader pass on hearing his heavy footfalls in the corridor beyond the heavy double-doors of Luke's day office. He glanced once to her in obvious distaste, but didn't pause, a flurry of dark robes against the bone-white travertine tiles of the long corridor. Although the office shared a wall with the drawing room, Mara had been able to hear nothing save the rise and fall of their voices as they spoke, the deeply plastered half-curve at the adjoining wall insulating the noise.
It wasn’t in her remit to watch Vader, but Luke’s position within the Emperor’s elite was more stable and trusted than ever before, and she didn’t want Vader to endanger that with his own petty schemes. She’d been tempted to put a trembler on the wall to see if it clarified anything, but felt in some way reluctant to resort to such tactics with Luke anymore, despite burning curiosity and professional concern.
Still, Luke’s strained relationship with his father was something the Emperor relied on heavily to maintain the manageable status-quo between his two acolytes and therefore his own security. It always had to be maintained, he had made that quite clear. The slightest relaxing of enmity invoked the most serious measures in response, always aimed at Luke—unfairly in Mara’s mind. But then she’d long ago learned that life was seldom fair. Luke's willingness to flaunt that fact at his own expense was a more recent but equally disturbing discovery, firing protective instincts and outrageous frustration in equal measure.
When she returned to the drawing room Luke was standing close to the tall plexiglass doors, arms wrapped about himself, watching the distant storm as lightening forked over the city’s horizon, briefly lighting the dark, low clouds whilst thunder rumbled ever closer, charging the humid air.
Mara walked silently up beside him, reaching out to close the open doors to the balcony.
“No, leave them open,” Luke said quietly, lost in thought.
“I want to hear the storm,” he murmured, distant and distracted. “It’s always the same sound on every planet, no matter what the color of the sky or what landscape below—have you noticed that?”
She frowned, glancing out at the roiling clouds, a sheet of rain visible rolling over the city now, sweeping toward the Palace. Lightening forked again, closer, making Mara flinch. “You should step back.”
“There’s a chance you could get hit by the lightening.”
He turned away dismissively, head on one side as his eyes remained on the closing storm, the sky overhead dark now, the thunder a constant bass rumble vibrating through her chest.
“I like the storm,” he said at last, withdrawn and contemplative. “We used to have them on Tatooine.”
A massive rumble split the sky, making him smile as two forks of lightening came down in perfect unison.
Mara stepped back, curious. “Rainstorms?”
“Once every five or six years. You could feel it building for weeks before—like a charge in the air. Then the storm would just...explode overhead and the skies would open. Raindrops so big you could hold out your hand and five or ten drops would fill your palm. You could drink water from the sky, still standing in the desert.”
Mara was transfixed by the intensity of the memory he recounted, his words barely a whisper. “I didn’t know.”
He nodded, looking up as the lightening forked again, grinning into the fury of the storm. “Maybe four or five hours, that’s all. But it was just...unbelievable—a solid sheet of water. Sometimes, if it’d been really hot beforehand and the stone was warm, you could hear the canyon walls pop and crack in the deluge. You’d see huge chunks shear off the rock face...”
“It must have been amazing.”
“It was nature in the raw—incredible. There was water everywhere, so much that it pooled on the ground in places—if you went up to the stone rifts, it would actually sit on the surface of the ground... It changed the shape of the dunes—bluffs that had been there for months were gone overnight, beaten away to nothing in a matter of hours. Then by the next morning the piri were out.”
“Piri?” Another grating rumble vibrated through the room, slicing the air, incredible in its power.
“They’re little blue flowers—tiny. They come out only when the rain comes, for just a day or so, then they’re gone. Bright, azure blue. At dawn, there’d be a mist over the dunes, like low clouds, then when it burned off the piri were there—millions of them. Your whole world is changed—everything you know so well is carpeted with this incredible rush of color and all the dust and the grit is gone. There’s a place close to where I used to live called the Dune Sea. Offworlders and people who don’t know the desert think it’s because of the sand dunes, but it’s because once every five years, when the rains come, it’s filled with the densest mat of piri and it looks...it looks just like a deep blue sea. The piri-covered dunes look like an ocean and everything’s moving, rolling in the wind, like ocean waves. Just for a day, there’s a sea in the desert.”
She studied him, enthralled; watched his face lifted to the fury of the storm and wondered whether the incredible piri could ever compare to the blue of his eyes...
He still held his arms wrapped about himself, the rising wind whipping and tousling his hair. “Sandpeople—Tusken Raiders—they judge their age by how many times they’ve seen the storms.”
The first drops of rain began to fall on the dry, pale stone of the balcony, leaving large, dark roundels where they hit. Luke glanced down, watching them multiply until they began to merge, voice distant. “I wonder if my father ever saw it.”
My father... Mara frowned at the familiarity. “Was he...did he grow up there?”
“Yes. His mother’s grave was just outside the farmstead I grew up on,” Luke answered her unspoken question before it had formed in her thoughts, for once allowing some small part of his past to be seen—more than she’d ever known before. “I thought he was a navigator on a freighter. They told me he was long dead.”
Mara felt her heart crumple at the raw emotion which he tried so hard to hide behind that casual, distant tone, his eyes still on the sheeting rain, the skies rumbling ominously.
“Is there...nothing to salvage between you?” She knew this wasn’t what the Emperor wanted, but the veiled pain in his voice made her ask anyway—how could she not?
He leaned back against the door frame, eyes lowered. “I don’t know. How could I trust him—ever?”
“Is trust necessary?” she pushed.
Luke shook his head, remaining silent for a long time. It was the most vulnerable she had ever seen him, torn by doubts and desires.
“I thought I wanted to kill him. When I saw him in the Palace after I’d...after Palpatine...” He shook his head, the sky beyond the window lighting up momentarily about him, the storm directly overhead. “I’d lost everything and it was his fault. He could have helped me...so many times he could have helped me...and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t. I should have—I knew by then what Palpatine could do, how he could twist everything to suit himself. How he could warp your mind and tie you down. But I still thought everything was Vader’s fault—all I knew was that I wanted revenge. I wanted to show him that I wasn’t weak any more and couldn’t be used by him again. Wouldn’t be.”
The rain was torrential now, almost drowning out his quiet words, the chill which trickled over Mara’s skin part reaction to the storm and part empathy for her lover.
“I thought I wanted to kill him—I was so sure.”
“But Palpatine stopped you.” The rain suddenly thinned to nothing as she spoke, the skies stilling as the eye of the storm passed overhead, the air electric.
“No, Palpatine didn’t stop me. I went in there intending to kill Vader despite Palpatine’s order. Nothing he said—nothing—made the slightest difference in that moment.”
Mara blinked. “Then...?”
“I didn’t kill him because...I couldn’t. In that moment, when I had the power, when I held the saber up...” Luke shook his head, sliding slowly down against the edge of the doorframe until he hunched in a crouch, arms wrapped about himself, lost in the memory. “I couldn’t kill him. I couldn’t kill my own father—how could I? No matter what, how could I?”
Mara’s stomach constricted at the incredible, far-reaching implications. Because Palpatine had hung his control of Luke on the fact that he had broken that link between father and son. On the fact that he held the power to constrain and contain Skywalker even in the heat of battle, even when his fallen Jedi wanted—needed to kill...
But this...this meant he had nowhere near the control he believed over Skywalker.
This meant everything he’d built after that point had been based on a lie!
A massive crash of thunder ripped the sky open, rain pouring in a solid curtain again, Mara’s world, her life, everything turned upside down by this one admission.
Every fiber of her being told her to run—run to her master and tell him the truth; that Skywalker was a threat, a danger.
The lightening flashed, blinding, and just for a moment...for that instant, Mara saw in the hunched, dark-clothed figure silhouetted against the roiling sky something wild and portentous, a momentary image from a vision long ago when the Rebel pilot had first been imprisoned in the Palace; when he had first flexed his mental muscles and thrown the Force against the reinforced, monofibre-threaded windows, shattering them to a thousand crazed shards. She remembered the wolf from her vision, hunched and brooding, sitting out the storm, waiting his chance...
But something else pulled at her heart and her soul now and held her to a torn, indecisive stillness. How could she—how could she betray him?
Yes, he was a wolf...but he was her wolf. He was wild and unpredictable and capricious but he was hers...
He turned, hair whipping about his face as the warm wind drove the storm past overhead, the rain trailing to drizzle now, distant shafts of brilliant sunlight lancing through the darkness.
“Mara?” he asked, uncertain, sensing the change in her.
She stared at him for long seconds, not even a breath disturbing the stifling, storm-heavy stillness...
Then she smiled, stepping forward, and he stood to wrap his arms about her, blanketing all those fractured doubts and loyalties, Mara allowing the warmth of his close body to push them from her mind.
“Storm’s over,” she murmured, as the first bright breaks in the cloud reached the gardens far below.
He only frowned, uneasy. “There’ll be others.”
The day of the inaugural flight was warm and close, Luke rising early, having last minute arrangements to make. He had travelled up to his old command, the Peerless, every morning for the last three days, ostensibly to finalize details for the Invincible’s arrival, intending to make it a routine so that when he did so this morning, to receive word from Argot on the Rebels’ final intentions to play out or abort their plans, it wouldn’t seem out of place.
The difference was that Reece and Nathan had remain on the Peerless today, Reece ostensibly to oversee details of the changeover of command, and Nathan on the pretext of packing his personal equipment in the medicenter in preparation for his move to the Invincible with the rest of The Heir’s Command Crew. Luke had taken the time to reassign all his Command staff to make the move to the Invincible with him—if he couldn’t rely on the ship, then he intended to be sure that he could at least trust those around him.
When he arrived in the Peerless’ bay, a Lambda shuttle to take him up to the Invincible was already waiting, Mara standing a short distance away. Ten rows of troopers and officers stood to smart attention as their commanding officer made his final exit from the Peerless, but no other ceremony was mustered. It was well known onboard the ship that The Heir was less than enthusiastic about his change of command.
Luke remained quiet on the shuttle, aware of Mara’s eyes on him but not acknowledging her, mind elsewhere: on the Invincible and its imminent attack. He knew how many Rebels there would be onboard but not where, though he did know that when they moved, they’d be heading for the generally locked-down Lower Ops room which served as Bridge backup in the event of system failures.
Should he help them—clear the way a little, thin the number of guards? No; if they didn’t succeed then there would be an inquiry and he needed to remain completely untouchable.
“Luke!” Mara said sharply, her tone that of someone who was repeating themselves.
Mara had leaned in so that her hushed whisper could be heard by him without being overheard by the pilots in the cockpit to the front of the shuttle, no privacy even here. “What's wrong with you today? Your head’s on the other side of the galaxy—it has been since you got in this shuttle.”
“I just don’t like these things, Mara, you know that.” Uncomfortable that she could read him so well now, he turned away from her intent gaze to stare at the impressive hulk of the Invincible.
“You know, you used to smile so much when you first came here,” Mara said quietly.
Luke frowned, turning. “What?”
“You used to smile. Even though you had nothing to smile about you used to do it anyway. I always remember that; you used to talk and laugh and joke and tease. You used to call me Red—remember? I was always amazed at your…tenacity. Your refusal to be intimidated, to be hushed by that massive, overbearing Palace. Everybody goes around whispering there; it makes people feel small.”
He glanced away uneasily. “It’s only stones and mortar.”
“But you don’t smile anymore,” Mara continued. “You don’t laugh. I loved your laugh; it had heart. No side, no deceit or pretence, just…”
She shook her head, seeming more disillusioned than frustrated. Luke watched her impassively for several seconds then turned away, trying to bring his concentration back to the imminent attack, but the disruption was lodged now and he couldn’t ignore it—or, for some reason, the disappointment in Mara’s voice.
“I laugh,” he said at last, very quietly.
“Every time you try to do an infinity loop with a lightsaber for one,” he said lightly, his voice just loud enough for her to hear, leaning in slightly as if to nudge her with his shoulder though the space between the wide, heavily upholstered seats they sat side by side in prevented it.
“Thanks,” Mara said wryly with a roll of her eyes. But he sensed her mood lighten a little, and felt himself relax an increment in response.
Mara's eyes remained on Luke as he stared impassively at the looming Destroyer, frustrated at the distance that she knew they had to maintain at all costs. And they did have to…because if Palpatine found out the truth, Mara knew she’d be gone from the Palace and Luke’s life within hours. She sighed, shaking her head slightly as she glanced down…
And Luke’s hand, resting on the armrest beside hers, reached across just slightly, his little finger entwining around hers, lifting her head in surprise, her eyes going first to the pilots in the open cockpit in front of them and then to Luke, taken aback. Even this tiny act of intimacy was an incredible risk in public, and the fact that he had initiated it rolled through her like a warm breeze, melting all her doubts, completely beguiling her. How could he do that?
He held her eyes for long seconds, then turned to look forward to the cockpit of the shuttle and the two pilots there to check that they weren’t being watched. But he kept his hand resting against hers, fingers gently entwined, aware of her eyes on him.
“Invincible…” Luke said at last, breaking the long silence, his eyes on the vast hulk of the massive Super Star Destroyer. “Bit of a contentious name.”
Mara finally turned, glancing to the pilots as she quickly pulled her wits about her, realizing his words were for them. “You know Palpatine. He always has a taste for the theatrical.”
“Your old one isn’t too bad,” Mara said neutrally at last, aware only of his finger trailing delicately against hers, the act both playful and intensely appealing.
“Peerless?” Luke paused without thought. “No, I suppose not. Quite mild, really, by Imperial standards. Pity I can’t keep the name.”
“Maybe you should ask him if you can name the next one—he seems intent on giving them all to you anyway,” Mara said, dryly flirtatious, her attention focused on his hand against her own.
He smiled just slightly, the action pulling at the long scar down his face, the act incredibly appealing to Mara; she had never disliked the scar—remembered intensely the feel of it against her lips.
“Maybe the…‘Hissy Fit’,” he said in mocking tones. “Or the ‘Little Tantrum’.”
She laughed lightly. “Very funny.”
“Or how about the ‘Don’t Worry about it—I’ll Let You off with a Warning this Time.’ Too long?”
“Well I can’t see it striking fear into the hearts of beings everywhere,” she said, eyes remaining on the scar through his lips, longing to touch it.
“No, that would have to be the ‘Mara Jade on an Off Day’.”
He squeezed her hand in reassurance and she smiled again, looking forward, though her full attention remained on him, and she knew he would know that.
They remained silent, fingers trailing against each other’s, light as a shiver yet utterly enthralling.
“I don’t think you’d even need anybody on that one…except you of course,” Luke added at last. “Maybe I should suggest it to the Emperor.”
“I think Palpatine may be looking for a few more security crew,” Mara joked in kind, turning to watch the new Destroyer, which loomed so large now as to fill the viewscreen. “You should see the number of plain-clothes troopers and Red Guard he’s sent up to the Invincible with the techs in the last few days.”
Luke’s hand froze against hers for an instant—then began moving again. “Really—how many?”
“I don’t know—easily a couple of hundred, I’d figure.”
The slightest change sounded in his breathing as his chin came up a fraction. Mara glanced to him, but looked away, reassured when he smiled just slightly, his voice casually indifferent. “Strange—they’re not on the ship’s log.”
“No, they were kind of hidden in among the workers. But they’re up there somewhere, on the Invincible. I have no idea where he’s putting them though, because there’s an awful lot of them and I don’t think any have come back yet.”
“Perhaps it was his Honor Guard; maybe they went up a day early.”
Mara agreed casually, only mildly interested. “Possible. I thought I saw his personal guard go up last night though—and the bulk are set to go up today on his shuttle and its escorts...”
Luke heard little after that, eyes on the looming, ominous bulk of the Super Star Destroyer, mind racing, so that he didn’t even recall the shuttle landing in the massive Main Bay of the Invincible. Didn’t remember walking past regimented rows of perfectly turned out stormtroopers, nor nodding distantly when Palpatine’s favored dignitaries and Moffs were presented when he reached the Command Deck of the wide bridge, the two mirror-image Ops Pits milling with nervous officers. Everything was done on autopilot, thoughts buzzing, stirred to a frenzy by one fact:
He knew. Palpatine knew that an attack was imminent and had prepared for it.
Why exactly he had chosen to let it go ahead Luke didn’t know; he must have his reasons. At this moment, it was a moot point—all that mattered was that he knew.
And chances were, if he knew when, then he probably knew how—which meant that even if the Command Codes appeared to work when the Rebels had tested them, there must already be some override in place, hidden within the system.
Perhaps Ollin’yaa had broken after all; or had his Master managed to place a new spy within the Rebellion already? The latter was a serious complication, because it placed Luke’s own spy Argot at risk. Another complication occurred, chilling in its implications—could Palpatine know that Luke also knew? Was this a test for him too? His Master loved to test the loyalty of those around him and this was just the kind of convoluted game he would play…
Luke considered carefully, from every angle, calming rushing thoughts, trying to see clearly, free from his Master’s painstakingly instilled propaganda and paranoia.
No—contrary to the image Palpatine liked to project, he wasn’t all-seeing or all-knowing; there was no possible connection between Luke and the attack. No way to prove his knowledge, except possibly through Argot, a contact which he’d long admitted to Palpatine but never identified. And since Palpatine didn’t know Argot’s identity, considering the secrecy of the mission, there was no guarantee that Argot would have known about the attack at all.
In fact with some careful management it could actually take a little of the heat off his own agent—though if Palpatine had placed his own spy, the man would probably be charged with revealing and closing down Luke’s source.
All of which was immaterial right now; all that mattered was his reaction today—to assist or impede.
The assembled dignitaries were brought to order, Luke politely guided to the head of the assemblage, Mara always in his shadow—did she know something was wrong?
Aware of his extended silence, Luke turned, giving a brief, tight smile before the Emperor entered the room, silencing it by his presence as he walked slowly to the head of the bowing assembly, gloss black cane takking against the hard deck plates. Luke automatically stepped smoothly down to one knee without making eye contact, his mind still racing, aware of his Master’s eyes on him.
Was he waiting? Was he waiting for an admission from Luke?
It would of course be a mistake to suddenly claim knowledge now; Palpatine would know Luke had worked it out and adjusted his own actions accordingly. Which meant that all Luke could do was to brazen this out…
He had to stay; he had to stay on the Bridge until the attack took place and react to it as if it were from any unknown outside threat—which meant that when the moment came, he had to shut it down decisively. The Rebels’ lives were forfeit anyway, whoever they were; there was nothing Luke could do to help them now. Better a quick death at his hands than days at the mercy of Palpatine’s pitiless outrage.
Beladon D’Arca, as Master of Ceremonies, began his speech, performing a neat, precise bow to the Emperor then to Luke, as he acknowledged them firstly and separately, before the privileged, select group attending in person the official launch of the Destroyer.
“Excellency, Sir, Gentlemen—welcome onboard the new flagship. Not just of the Core Fleet but of the whole Empire. You are now standing aboard the most technologically advanced ship in the galaxy, ushering in a new age of Imperial superiority…”
Luke didn’t even hear the voice let alone the words, eyes fixed on the man without seeing, mind racing to figure this through…
Yes, the lives of the Rebel strike team onboard were already forfeit—they just didn’t know it yet. Whatever they did, whatever he did, they were dead. The first rule of sabacc: don’t get pot-committed. If he tried to help them, hoping to give them some chance to redeem a plan which was now essentially flawed, then he risked implication—at best as a collaborator, at worst as the instigator, either option carrying severe punishment. For anyone else it would be death; for Luke—
No, Palpatine wouldn’t kill his prized Jedi, but he would take him apart, break him to pieces just as he had done that very first time. Luke would be returned to that cell, as if the last four years had never happened.
All his work, all his sacrifices for nothing.
Begin again—only harder, because Palpatine would never trust again. Wouldn’t ever let his precious Jedi out of his sight. Luke’s mind buzzed in persecution at the thought of his time in the cell, the memories still intense, still entwined about his every waking thought after all this time, enough to set a barbed rush to crush his chest as he stared at nothing, jaw locked, oblivious to the polished, gracious ceremony taking place around him.
No; he couldn’t do that, not again. And he wouldn’t do it—not for a group of people who were hoping to bring him down at the same time as the Emperor; kill two birds with one stone.
That was the truth of it—that was the extent of their consideration for him…and therefore the extent of his consideration for them.
Whatever they thought they could achieve, he would achieve—not with fireworks and fanfares like this, but slowly, quietly, behind the scenes…and to his own ends, not theirs.
Plans within plans.
Yes—that was the best course of action; if he went after them himself today, then it would at least demonstrate that he had no part in the plot. If he removed them then at least it would be a quick death—they would be spared his Master’s wrath and more importantly they couldn’t be interrogated. There was no connection to reveal of course, but it was better to be sure. And if he couldn’t, if he was ordered to stand down…well then he owed them nothing…
The distant drone of the Master of Ceremonies filtered through the edge of Luke’s thoughts, the moment of action coming ever closer, tingeing the Force with portent, charging the air, tensing his muscles—
“…is set to become not just the flagship of the Fleet, but the flagship of The Heir to the Empire, and if the past is any indication, we can be confident that under his accomplished command it will enjoy more than its fair share of action.”
A polite ripple of laughter rolled around the Bridge at the last, Luke glancing back to the assemblage, having missed completely whatever banality D’Arca had spoken. Clenching his jaw, he allowed a blank smile, senses afire...
The lights fluttered just briefly…then the heavy blast doors onto the Bridge slid closed, the massive central lock engaging. Along the corridor beyond, the muted sound of multiple sets of armored doors all locking in quick succession rumbled back onto the Bridge.
D'Arca frowned, hesitating…
At the corner of Luke’s vision in the Ops pit, an officer was toggling controls on his console, trying unsuccessfully to open the doors again.
Wait a few seconds; don’t react too quickly.
The Duty Officer looked up from the pit, eyes meeting Luke’s as he stepped forward, addressing the officer. “Open the doors.”
“Sir, there seems to…”
“OPEN THE DOORS!” Luke shouted as he set forward past the man. No matter what happened, one thing he didn’t want to be was on the Bridge.
Red Guard, previously inconspicuous at the corners of the vast bridge, now stepped forward with military precision, circling quickly about the Emperor so that Luke had to step between them to move forward to the doors, still firmly locked. Several unknown officers in the Command Pits had produced blasters from nowhere.
Adrenaline pumping, Luke reached into the Force when he was six paces away, his hand rising… It answered in an eager rush, a burst of potential and power—
With a rending screech, the mechanism jolted just slightly, the massive central lock taking the strain of the impact with a spray of vivid sparks. Red Guard turned to the door in shock, their weapons raised, not realizing that it was The Heir who did this—
Luke let out a yell, hand thrown out, and the bulky inset lock mechanism designed to withstand vacuum and explosion gave another grinding whump as the substantial circular bolt to the center of the blast doors jolted in a gush of bright, actinic sparks, leaving the acrid smell of burnt resistors and insulation as a curl of blue smoke rose.
Released adrenaline gave Luke the focus to throw another sustained burst of raw power at the massive bulk of the central bolt and this time it failed completely in a grinding rasp of rending plasteel. A meter-wide gap opened in the doors as the alloy of the lock was literally ripped apart, shredding in a shriek of ruptured metal, the heavy doors rammed back into their housing with enough force to crumple the surrounding walls.
Luke walked from the bridge without having slowed his step, pausing only when the Emperor called to him.
“Jedi—bring me one alive.”
Palpatine watched his Wolf nod just once, wonderful eyes as cold and hard as ice in darkness, then he was gone, leaving the Emperor to smile indulgently, bloodless lips drawn back over spoiled teeth. He glanced about the assemblage, faces pale with shock at what they had just seen.
They all thought they knew what a Sith was capable of—now they had received, in some small measure, a demonstration of such, and from the man who rarely showed his hand. They would remember it for a long time, the same thought so clearly running through every mind present in the shocked silence which followed: if this was what he did to the unyielding bulk of cabled and reinforced organic steel...what could he do to flesh and bone?
Palpatine took several moments to bask in the stunned surge of genuine fear, his own eyes brought approvingly back to the shattered entrance.
Then he turned with unhurried, assured calm to Admiral Joss. “Admiral, I have a code which you need to input immediately…”
Luke was halfway down the main corridor, having cleared a second set of locked blast doors, when the rest opened in sequence before him, confirming his suspicion—Palpatine had another Override Code.
He reached out into the Force to confirm where the Rebels were, knowing that even though there would be a plethora of anxious minds onboard ship, the Call to Quarters hadn’t yet been sounded, so the only ones who would be genuinely nervous should be the Rebels.
If they’d followed the plan, they would be in Lower Ops by now or…
His easy, measured run faltered and he slowed almost to a stop, feeling a heavy pressure push in against his chest at the realization of who was there.
Swearing a curse under his breath, Luke set forward again at full-tilt, mind racing.
Everything—everything had changed again.
By the time that Mara rounded the crook in the corridor, Luke had reached the turbolifts, cursing that they were still locked down. Already turning away to set off for the stairwell, he rounded on her, eyes hard, jaw clenched. “Stay with the Emperor.”
Mara slowed just slightly, knowing his anger wasn’t really aimed at her, torn between safeguarding two men who were both supremely capable of protecting themselves. Then she set forward again and Luke turned on her, hand out, shouting in a sharp, clipped tone which invited no dissent, “STAY WITH THE EMPEROR!!”
She stopped dead, taken aback by the intensity and agitation in his words; by the stark fury in his stormy blue eyes, the palest thread of fiery, sulfurous yellow glowing just momentarily at their rim—
He’d already turned away, the locked-down door to the emergency stairwell wrenched off its mountings as he threw out his hand, the scraping din of its fall as it clattered away down the metal stair reverberating in the hollow space.
Mara watched the empty stairwell for long seconds, wavering, uncertain whether to follow…then she turned and set back to the Bridge and her master, the blaring claxon which finally sounded the alarm making her jump as she ran.
By the time Luke reached Lower Ops the Rebels were gone; hardly surprising considering the Call to Quarters had been raised, the alarm warning them, though they probably already knew that they’d been discovered when they’d been locked out of the system.
But they hadn’t gotten far, and he was closing fast. Luke could still sense her presence, strangely familiar even after all this time, enabling him to pinpoint them as they retreated, continually closing. He glanced up as he ran, wondering if he could disable the ever-present surveillance cameras without suspicion, furious, incensed at the Rebels for allowing her to come; at her for probably insisting.
Still livid, he slowed to a walk as he pulled his lightsaber free.
Leia ran at full tilt around the corner, her group about her, intensely aware that time was running out…
She shouldn’t have come—Han was right; her being here was a liability for the Alliance. If she was caught alive, it would be another Rebel leader for the Imperial propaganda machine to parade in public and…
Something ran like ice up her spine and caught in her throat, locking her breath…
The heavy blastproof doors they had been running for ground shut with a booming smack, the group split in two by the action. Trapped, Leia reached the locked doors, suddenly frantic, a dread lit deep within her—
A distinct, inimitable sound brought her about…
Time turned to treacle, several of the remaining soldiers lifting their weapons in fractured slow-motion as they stepped forward and fanned out uncertainly at the low, throaty thrum of a lightsaber grating through the air.
Leia turned, the sound of her own breathing loud in her ears…to see a lone dark-dressed figure step out into the sealed corridor.
For a moment—for a split second as the ruby lightsaber lit the blind turn at the far end of the corridor with a scarlet glow—she had expected to see Vader…
But the figure who strode forward, dark hair half-hiding wild eyes, body tensed, primed to fight, was somehow far more chilling—
The first shot rang out, making Leia flinch, and he didn’t lift the blade, didn’t even try to use it to deflect the bolt. Instead he brought up his left hand, palm out…and batted the laser bolt away to explode harmlessly into the wall in a wash of acrid light. Just as Vader had done on Bespin.
Others opened fire now and momentarily Leia felt some kind of hope as the sheer number of shots held him back, then he yelled out his rage and lunged forward, plowing into the task force, cutting a path through them as if it were nothing, the whole unit against one man.
But still they fell, the speed of that bright crimson blade forming a seemingly solid wall of light against the blaster shots, deflected bolts lighting the walls and ceiling in bright splashes of dispersed energy, lights flicking and failing in the ricochets, reducing the bright corridor to dim shadows, the security lens exploding in a brief blaze of scorching sparks. The blazing white of muzzle flashes glared, catching brief, staccato images as the group began to break ranks, backing up with nowhere to go.
Leia turned, frantically trying to unlock the doors behind her, the charred mechanism smelling of scorched circuitry. Han had taught her how to hotwire doors and she lifted her blaster to the panel and shot the plate free, burning her fingers on the hot metal and cursing it when it wouldn’t move. Finally she dragged it aside to pull out the wires within and saw that it was useless; that everything was blown. She kept her eyes on the lock though, squinting in the glaring flashes; ordered herself to concentrate—not to look back, not to listen—to do her job, to open the door—
And suddenly there was silence…
She turned to a darkened hallway heavy with smoke that burned her eyes as it swirled in thick roils, the metallic smell of blood catching in the back of her throat as it mixed with charred flesh and burned cordite. The bodies of those she’d known were scattered about her, twisted awkwardly, deathly still. Blum, the last soldier standing, had stepped in front of her to protect her.
Visibility was just a few feet, lights knocked out, panels on the walls sparking staccato in the dim haze, making her flinch—
But in the center of the choking gloom, bright and loud in the darkness and wrapped about by the twisting, roiling smoke, that scarlet blade still glowed ominously…
The dense smoke curled away at some unseen movement, shrinking back in perfect eddies as if unwilling to be near this shadow-wraith…and the Sith lifted his head slowly, blood-red blade dropping low behind him, tip to the floor.
He looked at her, his chest still heaving from the exertion of the fight, wild mismatched eyes locking hers—and Leia did the one thing she’d never done before in her entire life…
She froze, rooted to the spot, unable to move beneath that razor gaze—
The single moment stretched to eternity, reality hazing to a distant, distorted blur. All that existed were brown eyes locked on mismatched blue—
And something—something cut through every thought in Leia’s mind: a mental whisper with the power of a punch exploding inside her head, as much a feeling as a thought, overwhelming, overpowering, making her flinch beneath its intensity—
It was like an electric shock coursing through her, like a charge fizzing round, firing every muscle—
Leia stumbled backward as the locked door grated open behind her, backstepping wildly, almost falling through the doorway as she gripped at Blum’s sleeve, dragging him with her.
Without hesitation, without once raising her blaster, Leia turned and fled, the heavy blast door springing closed behind her with a reverberating clang, cutting him off.
She passed at full tilt the remainder of the unit who had originally cleared the blast door and had then stopped, looking for another way to reach her and the rest of the trapped team. She didn’t stop, didn’t slow down, shouting to them to follow.
By the time they reached the escape ship, stormtroopers were close on their tail, their exit path held clear by Han’s group. But in truth Leia hadn’t even registered them, or the blaster bolts which had fired wildly down the pristine corridors of the new Star Destroyer as Han gestured eagerly and Chewie warmed up the engines of the stolen shuttle.
They barreled onboard and blasted off as the ship’s ramp was still sealing, setting a twisting course as they ran for hyperspace, the darkness about them lit to daylight by the ranging shots of too many Destroyers closing in, Han throwing the shuttle into complex maneuvers, cursing the whole way.
Leia stood distant and removed, statue-still, everything somehow hazy and indistinct, reality relegated to vague washes of color and movement.
When the stars turned to streaks of light she was still standing in the cockpit, hand gripped knuckle-white about her unfired blaster, heart pounding like a hammer against her ribs, every beat hitching in her short breaths. Not at the ambush, nor the close shave…
But at that moment, running over and over in her head, when his presence had cut through her thoughts like a blade, filling her with terror, instilling absolute dread, one single word overriding every rational thought…
She lifted her free hand, looking to it now—it was still trembling…
Luke walked calmly back from the devastated stretch of corridor towards the Bridge, stormtroopers beginning to converge on his position though he didn’t slow, forcing the Unit Commander to turn about as he spoke.
“Sir, the Rebels had already released the lockdown on a shuttle in…”
“They’re gone,” Luke said calmly. Still deeply immersed in the Force, he could sense relief flood the trooper’s thoughts; that he’d expected an explosion on delivering that news. “Stand down. Lock all sections and bays down and take all active trooper units to start a slow sweep of every floor, starting from the Bridge. I want every single person onboard checked against security logs—from the Palace; don’t use those onboard. And get a tech team into the ops room where they were, check they’ve not left any surprises in the system.” He turned to a second stormtrooper, hand out. “Comlink?”
The trooper handed over his comlink without hesitation; it was well known that the Commander never carried one of his own and even if he did, no one was about to question him right now.
Admiral Joss answered Luke’s com. “Sir?”
“The Bridge is secured, Commander. We have no further reports of incursions and all inward corridors are sealed and guarded. The Dauntless, the Victory and the Vanguard are moving to flanking positions. The Executor is also closing.”
“The Rebel ship?” Luke held his breath, though he already knew.
“Sir, the ship made it to lightspeed—we were far enough from Coruscant that they could initiate drives almost immediately.”
Luke didn’t react, didn’t let out the breath; there were too many eyes close by, not all of which could be trusted. “Trajectory?”
“Calculating, Sir. But the variables…” Joss paused momentarily, then, “Sir, The Emperor commands your presence.”
“On my way.”
By the time Luke reached the Bridge, security was off the scale, Royal Guard everywhere, the dignitaries having withdrawn into a small group like the sheep they were.
Palpatine was standing quite apart from the hectic rush of the busy bridge, gazing out of the viewscreen at the Destroyers converging on their position, forming a defensive wall about them.
He turned immediately as Luke approached, gesturing for him to rise when he’d only just made to kneel, genuine approval in his voice. “Rise—rise, my friend.”
“The insurgents are gone, Master. The ship is being secured but I think they were an isolated threat.”
“Who were they?” Palpatine’s yellow-flecked eyes glowed, his pallid skin ashen in the strong light of the Destroyer's bridge.
“Rebels,” Luke replied simply. If his Master knew the attack was imminent, then Luke had no reason to think that he wouldn’t know who had planned it.
Now the Emperor’s indulgent tone confirmed that he’d chosen the right course; Palpatine had known, and Luke’s decision to move decisively against them had not been missed. “How do you know?”
He still couldn’t resist this test, Luke knew, so obvious as to be insulting.
“Leia Organa was with them.” This too had been carefully considered. If Luke had sensed her then his Master must have done the same, so to claim ignorance would be a glaring error, while to willingly admit it would be a valued reassurance. Though of course he didn’t expect his Master to admit such out loud.
“Security footage will confirm it but yes, I’m sure.”
Palpatine turned away, his face hidden in the folds of the heavy velvet hood he wore. The sting Luke had been expecting was finally delivered. “And you let her get away?”
“I didn’t ‘let her’ do anything. But yes, she escaped.” He allowed just enough frustration to sound in his voice to suggest his own annoyance at this.
“How did she get out?”
“How did she get in?” Luke said, buying valuable seconds for thought…
“Answer my question.”
“…They were trapped in the corridors close to Ops; I’d locked down the blast doors, trapping them.” He shook his head. “I need to check the logs…they managed to open the doors somehow.”
Palpatine glanced away again, satiated. “They held Override Codes—I will look very closely into how they had them.”
Luke knew he was being let off too easily; the only possible reason he could fathom was that Palpatine knew the truth about Leia’s abilities and was trying to gloss over the fact now. But Luke needed to be sure…so he pushed the argument against himself; the facts would be found out soon enough anyway and by pushing now, he might just be able to clarify Palpatine’s knowledge as well as transfer the blame for Leia’s impossible escape.
“Still, the doors shouldn’t have opened again—I didn’t close them using the mechanism.”
Palpatine glanced sharply to him. “You used the Force?”
“Yes. The blast doors which the Rebels locked closed throughout the ship had already been opened again. I didn’t have time to contact the bridge so I closed the one nearest to her location with the Force—locked her in. I thought I’d burned the system and stripped the gearing to do it. There should have been no way they could be opened.”
Palpatine glanced away with forced calm. “Perhaps you were mistaken.”
He knows about her abilities—he’s trying to hide them from me.
Luke pushed a little further, aware that he was indicting Leia by insinuating that she had some control of her latent abilities, but this time the risk was worth the price. She was already number one on the Empire’s ‘Most Wanted’ list and Luke needed to know whether it was because she was leader of the Rebellion or because Palpatine knew she was Force-sensitive. And anyway, having closed the blast door himself to convince Palpatine of his willingness to capture her, Luke had to explain away the fact that he had reopened it to get her out. “And…I thought I sensed…”
“You are injured,” Palpatine said across his words, causing Luke to look down in genuine surprise. At some point during the short firefight he must have been hit by shrapnel and not realized, adrenaline and focus suppressing it, because when he lifted his left hand, palm up, there was a long, deep gash running down its edge from below his wrist to his little finger, blood drying about the ring he wore there, streaked across his palm and between his fingers.
Palpatine reached out and took his hand, the unanticipated act completely breaking Luke’s train of thought. He resisted momentarily, pulling against the hold, but the Emperor stepped forward, drawing his hand closer as Luke tensed uneasily against the unexpected contact.
His Master put bone-thin fingers to the gash and opened it up momentarily, lifting it closer to study the wound. “It will need sutures—have it attended to.”
Luke stepped back, again trying to free his hand. Palpatine looked up at this and Luke froze beneath that deliberate, meaningful gaze, deeply uncomfortable—then the Emperor released his hold and Luke slipped his hand free, Palpatine’s blood-wet fingers sliding over it as he did so, long nails trailing against Luke’s skin like a shiver down his spine.
He backstepped quickly, gathering his composure with distance, then bowed briefly and turned to walk quickly away, seeking to put some space between himself and his Master—
“First—” Palpatine’s voice, loud enough for everyone on the Bridge to hear, turned Luke about. “I will name the starship I came here to launch.”
Everyone murmured, unsure, but Palpatine grinned, focus still on Luke at the far side of the Bridge as the room hushed to expectant silence, all eyes on the Emperor as he strode slowly to center-stage, commanding attention, gaze never leaving Luke’s.
When he finally turned away it was to look to the assembled dignitaries and officers, composed and confident, supremely self-possessed, making sure that this moment would be remembered. “I had thought to call it the Invincible…but that is just a name. This ship and its Commander—Heir to my Empire, Commander-in-Chief of my Fleet—deserve something more…unique. Something in consideration of the events which took place today. In appreciation of the allegiance, the loyalty of its Commander. The ship I launch today I will name for him, after him—”
He held Luke’s eyes across the bridge—not in coercion or intimidation for once, but in indulgent approval. And somehow that was more unsettling to Luke than anything that had gone before, freezing his chest to uneasy tightness as Palpatine spoke...
“I name this ship the Patriot. Long may it serve.”
There was a polite ripple of applause about the room, though Luke didn’t react, held to unsettled stillness, eyes on his Master. Finally he drew a breath; forced himself to move past the moment. He bowed with studied calm, then turned and walked from the bridge, deeply disquieted.
“Well you are flavor of the month,” Nathan Hallin said easily as he re-entered the individual bay in the Patriot's extensive medi-center, to spray sealant onto the wound where he had sutured Luke’s hand.
Luke looked up, glancing yet again to the door. “Why?”
“I heard about the Destroyer's new name—it’s all over the Fleet already. Apparently just any old name isn’t good enough for The Heir any more. And Palpatine himself came to check on you earlier. Someone told him you’d be out shortly and offered to bring him here but he didn’t seem inclined to wait.”
Luke looked once more to the door, but he knew his Master was long gone, so was breathing easy again. Less so about the new name or its context, aware of the double meaning; that he too had been redesignated today. He should be pleased that he had the Emperor’s trust… Why then did he feel so very uneasy?
He studied that thought; became uncomfortably aware for the first time of how easy it had been to rationalize his actions in support of his goal. How easy to validate them. How easy to kill.
“Care to tell us poor grunts what happened then?” Nathan said into Luke’s thoughts as he cleared his instruments into a sterile bowl.
Luke glanced about the medi-bay, bringing his mind back to the moment; he couldn’t see any surveillance but this was a new ship and he wasn’t inclined to trust it. “There was a brief disturbance; it was dealt with.”
He couldn’t say more; not here.
“Ah. Very enlightening, thank you,” Nathan deadpanned, turning back to his charge.
Luke had already been in the medi-center having his wound attended to by droids when he realized that Nathan had been summoned to the Patriot, and had commed the medic first to talk him down from his breathless panic, and secondly to tell him not to bother, a droid could easily perform the minor suturing needed.
Still, professional pride—and, after a few knowing questions from Luke, Nathan’s admission that he was already on a transport—had led the medic to insist, so Luke had ended up simply wrapping some gauze about the wound until Nathan arrived to suture it, maintaining that he would of course do a far better job and adding that anyway, he still took great delight in seeing The Heir wince occasionally.
“Well, I think we can safely say you’re free to go now. Sutures out in four or five days; you know the routine.”
Luke stepped from the medical gurney he’d been sitting on then glanced about, hand to his little finger. “Where’s my ring?”
Nathan looked up. “What?”
“My ring, the ring I always wear on my little finger—they asked me to take it off when I came in here—I put it there.” He gestured to the surface beside him, still glancing about. “There was a surgical dish right there.”
The genuine alarm in Luke’s voice made Nathan frown. “There was nothing there when I came in…at least I don’t think…” He turned about and stepped into the larger triage room beyond, Luke quickly following him.
Seeing two small metal dishes on a clear tray on the side, still containing bloody swabs, Luke walked quickly around Nathan, lifting the smaller one.
“It was in this—the droid asked me to take it off to clean the wound and I put it in here—I didn’t see anybody take this out.”
Luke’s voice was nothing short of panic now, so much that, though bemused at Luke’s overreaction, Nathan joined him in searching. “One of the medi-droids must have taken the trays out earlier—it must have removed the ring.”
“And done what with it? And the trays are still here…so are the swabs. Why would a droid…” Luke paused, his face—his whole demeanor—changing. “Palpatine.”
“Palpatine was in here.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t…” Nathan trailed off as Luke turned on him, eyes wild.
“You said he was in the outer room—he would have seen it. He’d have only needed a second.”
Nathan frowned, clearly unnerved by Luke’s intensity over something so insignificant. “Was it important?”
“It was my…” Luke bit off his answer, remembering where he was. Not that it mattered; he would have to go and ask for the ring back anyway—and Palpatine clearly knew what it was, though Luke had no idea how. Had he known Luke’s mother? Could he have recognized it? Had he noticed it when he had studied Luke’s hand on the Bridge?
No—the renaming of the ship had been a genuine act, Luke was sure of it. Another thought occurred, freezing Luke’s chest at its implications—had he now ruined the trust he had finally so briefly held?
Because he knew—in every fiber of his being, Luke knew Palpatine had the ring.
He walked to the wall com and contacted the Bridge, mind buzzing. “Joss, is the Emperor still onboard?”
“No, Sir; he and his security escort returned to the Palace a while ago.”
Nathan stared in confusion as Luke rested his forehead against the wall above the comlink, hand resting on the transmit as he sighed, cursing his own inattentiveness. He never took the ring off—never. Why had he done it today—and having done so, why had he left it in plain view? Normally he would have simply transferred the ring to his other hand to keep it safe. It wasn’t like him to be so lax. But then he’d been unsettled, unease at the Emperor’s praise still playing on his mind when he’d arrived at the medi-center.
Sometimes… He sighed again, frustrated; sometimes he wondered if he sabotaged his own efforts simply as a knee-jerk response. It had been such an obvious oversight—he’d never let the ring from his sight before, so why now?
One step forward, two steps back; just as he was gaining some trust with the Emperor something happened. So common a pattern was this that he’d begun to suspect that he could only play the game for so long before it became too uncomfortable to bear and he seemed almost to undermine his own advance. Occasionally it was a conscious judgment to destroy his favor with the Emperor, a decision made by choice for logical reasons—at least to his mind. But just as often he would trip himself up or dig his heels in…or worse, he would trip himself up and then dig his heels in—just as he was about to do now.
What he should do was wait; give Palpatine some time to calm down, to view the ring in the larger context of the day’s events. In fact what he should do was let the ring go.
That was what he should do.
He sighed as he shook his head infinitesimally, jaw tensing, eyes closing in resignation, aware of Nathan’s frown as he spoke into the com. “Joss, get me a shuttle.”
“What are you doing?” Nathan asked, knowing alarm audible in his voice.
“Going to find Palpatine,” Luke said evenly without turning.
“You’re not actually going to ask him, are you? Luke, that’s tantamount to accusing the Emperor of stealing, you know that.” Nathan reached out to take Luke’s arm, sharp eyes searching. “It’s just a ring…why is it so important?”
“Because it’s the one damn thing I really own here. The one thing that’s mine.”
The one thing he owned belonging to his mother—the one link he had to an unsullied past, though he couldn’t say that out loud.
It was also the one thing that could link him to his father—and that he did need to deal with now, before it became an issue. Correct his mistake and placate his Master’s anger before Palpatine dwelled on it too long—before he thought too hard on its implications. Luke shrugged, tone impassive; that of someone accepting their fate. “He’s going to make me pay anyway—he’s not about to let something like this go. I may as well get it over with.”
He glanced up and despite his tone, when he looked to Nathan there was the fire of raw determination in his eyes. “And I want that ring back.”
Surprisingly, Luke was admitted immediately to the Emperor’s residence, led through the huge, echoing grandeur of the main hallway and under the three-story double staircase which hugged the curve of ebony and basalt-lined walls. Along columned walkways, the rows of Royal Guard stood to straight attention, a flash of bright scarlet in the cavernous shadows. It was always cold here, the high banks of faceted, copper-banded plexiglass always dialed down to near-darkness in his Master’s chambers, endless stretches of shaded reflections dimmed to dense opacity. Footsteps echoing in the cloying silence, Luke was escorted to an audience room by an unusually tense Amedda, who stopped at the door, bowing slightly, never meeting Luke’s eye.
Luke walked forward, taking a deep breath, braced for anything—
The room was tall and gloomy with fine, intricately set glass mosaic about walls and ceiling in complex designs and heavy, dark colors, making it seem claustrophobic despite its size. At the far wall was a single, tall window inset with banded brass, its mute glow barely allowing the wan dusk light to enter.
The Emperor stood before it, a brooding figure with his back to the room, heavy robes absorbing what little light touched them.
Gathering his composure, knowing that hesitation or misgivings were not an option before his Master, Luke set forward, coming to a halt before him and stepping automatically down into a bow, one knee to the floor.
Palpatine didn’t turn; didn’t move for a long time.
“Where did you get it?” he challenged at last, voice deadly calm, still not turning.
No ploys then; no verbal games or subtle manipulations; he was way past that.
Luke kept his eyes down, more afraid than ever now—not of the Emperor; he’d stood before his Master’s wrath too many times now. If he turned on Luke it wouldn’t be easy, would be brutal and vindictive and pitiless…but he’d survive—he always did.
No—the one thought that was screaming through his head right now was that he would lose the ring, his one link with his mother. He wondered briefly how he would tell his father, who had kept the ring safe for so long, acutely aware of the risks inherent in lying now. Because Palpatine clearly recognized the ring—and Luke’s being here meant that not only did he too know its past…but also what it meant to him. That alone could be enough to drive Palpatine to destroy it. And it went beyond even that, because Luke’s possession of the ring implicated his father—a connection that could condemn them both—and Luke would still lose the ring.
Why was he risking so much for a ring; it was only a ring…
Just get up and walk away—leave it and walk away. That’s what he wants you to do—to say it’s worthless, a curio, nothing more. Leave it—apologize and you’ll walk away exonerated. Let it go.
He couldn’t stray too far from the truth; there was no other possible explanation for his owning the ring. But the details could be amended. “I asked Vader who my mother was. The following day the ring was delivered to my quarters.” He was committed now; he’d lied to his Master. He'd done so many times before but not like this: Palpatine reduced to cold fury, so much in the balance... Focus; concentrate! Don’t slip now.
The Emperor remained motionless for long seconds, the brittle stillness charging the air like the air before a storm. His head tilted just slightly though he didn't turn, as if simply seeing the boy would tip his anger over the edge. “What did he tell you?”
Did he believe? Or was he simply giving Luke the chance to further condemn himself, compounding lies with lies. Should he go on or stop now, whilst he could still back down? Too late, in truth; too late already—but he had to minimize his father’s part in this. He couldn’t deny or conceal it; the link between his father and the ring was categorical…but he could minimize it; disguise one truth behind another. Give Palpatine something to rail at and in doing so disperse the storm.
“Nothing. Save that she was dead; that I shouldn’t concern myself with matters which were long gone.” His heart was pounding, but Luke kept his eyes down, kept himself centered, mind buzzing.
Palpatine finally turned, face the thinnest veneer of calm. “Then why do you wear the ring?”
Luke looked up, forced himself to meet that hostile gaze, unable to keep the defensive cast from hardening his own eyes. “Because she was my mother.”
Again Palpatine fell silent and again Luke feared that he was being given enough rope to hang himself. He’d been unable to contact his father on his way here and regretted it now, seeing the look in his Master’s eyes. If Palpatine lashed out—if Luke was dragged to the cells beneath the Palace—then Vader would face his Master's wrath unprepared.
Finally Palpatine set his head to one side, voice disbelieving. “And yet when your father would tell you nothing—you simply accepted that?”
“No.” Luke glanced away, arranging a trace of frustration on his face, clenching his jaw momentarily. “I didn’t accept it. We argued. He told me it wasn’t my concern.” A retelling of the same facts on Luke’s part, carefully rearranged; a fine line between seeming reluctant to elaborate, which was the sure sign of a lie and being unwilling to provide any more than was absolutely necessary when complications would be difficult to keep track of. He’d played this game too many times—though not often with these stakes.
“The decision wasn’t his to make—shouldn’t be,” Luke added, wishing to seem still infuriated by his father’s reticence, to underline their apparent enmity. “Whatever rights he thinks he has, he gave up long ago.”
Palpatine stared for a long time at his errant Jedi, still knelt in genuflection before him. So long that the boy’s gaze finally faltered and he looked to the ground, knowing he was the one at fault here. And he was at fault; he was Palpatine’s, and Palpatine’s alone. There were no rivals, no other loyalties tolerated—he knew that. “Every time I have a reason to trust you…you give me one to doubt.”
The boy at least had the good grace to keep his head down and remain silent. Was he truly penitent or was this simply a masquerade; had he learned these games too well? Palpatine fell to sullen silence, studying the boy, aware that so much was hidden. How could it not be, that he remained always a blank slate before his Master’s searching senses?
“Stand up and look at me.”
Now he did sense the short, sharp twist of nerves as the boy stood, adrenalin burning in his chest. Sensed the resolve he called on to lift his head and look his Master in the eye. Watched his chest rise in short breaths, noted his realization of this as he forced calm, steady breathing. Nothing truly telling though, save that he was nervous—but then he was right to be so.
Palpatine took three quick steps toward his Jedi and held his gaze captive in a sharp, judgmental stare. “Are you lying to me?”
The boy held his glare and didn’t blink. “No, Master,” he murmured guilelessly with the slightest shake of his head.
The Emperor held that doleful stare, ochre eyes narrowing in scrutiny, and the boy’s gaze met his, neither belligerent nor conceding. They remained still for long moments, Palpatine reaching out with the Force, bringing all his astute experience to bear, the boy remaining still, wrapped about by a forced calm, whatever he had hidden too veiled to sense. Finally Palpatine twisted away, frustrated, the dark folds of his heavy robes rendering him a shadow in the falling dusk as he considered for long seconds…
When he turned back, in the palm of his pale, gaunt hand was the ring, still stained by a slick of dry blood.
He saw the boy’s eyes go to the ring and knew how much it meant—that this wasn’t about his realization that he had miss-stepped in owning the ring; it wasn’t even about protecting some perceived obligation to his father for giving it to him. He was here because he wanted the ring back.
Hide a lie within a truth; that was what Palpatine did—had he learned that too, at the feet of the Master?
He wanted the ring, why… Because of who it had belonged to? Because of some imagined bond with a woman he'd never known, whose only connection was to have carried him? A burst of resentment blazed through Palpatine at the thought; that the boy would value her for no greater reason than biological necessity. That the commitment which Palpatine had fought long years to gain, the devotion he deserved was being freely given to another based on nothing more than genetic coincidence, leaving him in the galling position of having to defend his standing as the boy’s only focus, from a woman who was already dead. Because even her memory was an unacceptable division of the boy’s attention.
The slightest of bitter, biting smiles turned the corners of Palpatine’s thin lips up, his expression hardening as he set forward, sense ablaze with grim intent. If the boy wanted the ring so very much then he could have it…but at a price. He would teach the lesson one more time that knowledge was power—and how one wielded it was everything.
His words were bitten out with spiteful rancor as he drew closer, face twisted in distain. “Your mother was a traitor—that is why no one here speaks of her. While she attended the Senate she was spreading lies and dissent, undermining its authority and attempting to widen the fractures in the failing Republic. She came to power based on her opposition to the Separatists, but as her power base grew she questioned the actions of the Republic Senate against them—she supported those who warred against the Old Republic you so venerate. She was deliberately and directly responsible for the removal of the last true Supreme Chancellor of the Old Republic Senate, Finis Valorum. She instigated the vote of No Confidence; her actions brought him down—did your father tell you that?”
The boy’s chin raised at this, fire in his eyes, and though he didn’t speak Palpatine knew he had scored a blow.
“She led the Delegation of Two Thousand, the act which effectively split the Senate in two; polarized it and weakened it beyond retrieval. Betrayed and undermined and fractured the Republic she claimed to serve…and your father forgave her. Repeatedly looked the other way whilst she destabilized the Senate…because he was weak. But he paid for his pitiful flaw; he was taught the harshest lesson.”
The boy’s calm façade began to crack now and he took a step back before the onslaught, unwilling to listen but unable to leave whilst his Master still held the ring—and Palpatine continued, lips pulled back in a malicious sneer as he stepped forward, holding the ring before him.
“Because she betrayed your father too… It was your mother who led Kenobi to your father, knowing that the Jedi sought to slay him, young as he was. I had sent him to safety, far from Coruscant—it was your mother who took your father’s killer to Mustafar. And then she left with Kenobi—left him there to die alone.”
“… No!” Luke reeled back, turning away in denial, letting out a breath as if he had been dealt a physical blow, hand to the wall for support, but Palpatine wouldn’t give him that comfort, stepping close, taking his arm to spin him about—
“Am I telling the truth?” Palpatine pushed. “Am I telling the truth?!”
“YES!” Luke twisted free with a gasp, disillusionment breaking his voice. “…yes…”
Palpatine let him go, seeing his shoulders sag, head low—and he smiled, triumph dripping from his words as he spoke. “Do you still want her ring?”
The boy remained silent for long seconds…then he lifted his head, mismatched eyes intensely blue, but as defiant and willful as ever.
“…Yes,” he grated, unsteady hand out before him.
Disgusted, Palpatine turned away and hurled the ring into the shadows.
Skywalker's hand stretched out—and the ring rattled in a curving arc across the dark glass tiles and skipped up into his palm. He paused, looking down at it as he curled his fingers about it…then he turned and left in silence.
Palpatine stood alone, a shadow within the shadows of the darkened room, still turned from the door…still grinning his victory.
Wez Reece re-read the final briefing for the formal reception to be given in honor of the Patriot’s launch, frowning at the unexpected changes before glancing to The Heir. “Your orders have changed slightly for this evening, Sir. Your mark, Kiria D’Arca—apparently you’re to lead the first dance with her tonight.”
Eyes on the distant cityscape, The Heir only turned from his reverie when Wez’s protracted silence made him realize that Wez was waiting expectantly for a reply. After his audience with the Emperor, he’d returned to his apartments and spent the afternoon trying hard to avoid everyone, yet frustratingly unable to contact the one person he now desperately needed to speak to: his father. Nor would he be able to speak to him tonight, Wez knew; the Executor had already left orbit at the Emperor’s command, in pursuit of those who had launched the attack, and so remained unobtainable whilst in lightspeed.
Finally The Heir had taken to hiding out in the small study behind his office, which was where Wez had found him by searching out the plain-clothes guards who always hovered outside whichever room he’d retreated to. Now he stood absently watching the sun set behind the opposite towers of the massive, imposing Palace, turning the ring he wore over and over in his hand, and very clearly, the day’s events over in his head.
This was now Wez’s third attempt to reinstate some kind of normality to the day and try to railroad The Heir into dressing for the official reception this evening, though he had remained indifferent. He glanced back from the window without turning as Wez pushed on, repeating his words. “Your mark, Kiria D’Arca—you’re to lead the first dance with her.”
“I don’t think so. In fact, after today’s fiasco, I’m seriously considering not attending at all rather than give Palpatine the opportunity for some public potshot at me.”
Wez paused for a few seconds, taking the time to get his argument straight in his head before he launched into his reasons, aware of the bigger picture in light of the day’s events. The Heir had skimmed over the facts of his meeting with Palpatine that afternoon, typically giving none of the specifics, admitting its existence probably only because Nathan already knew about it and because, of course, there would be fallout and damage control to consider.
Wez eyed the ring again now, wondering at its significance, and just what exactly had been said by the Emperor that had unsettled The Heir to this degree.
“Firstly, Sir, an invitation given by the Emperor is a command, not a request; you know that.” Wez kept his voice, as ever, the epitome of restrained calm. “Secondly, your father has spent months setting up the military contacts from the Rim Fleet for you to speak with tonight. You can’t not attend; it’s the only chance you’ll have to speak with many of them for the rest of the year; it’s an unrivalled opportunity.”
“And you really think that the only opportunity I have to meet with them should be when there’s a good chance of Palpatine launching into some kind of public reprisal?”
“Yes, Sir, I do. Even if he did, well then that only supports your position. As far as everyone there is concerned, you saved the Emperor’s life today. He made a public speech to that effect, changing the name of a Super Star Destroyer in recognition of the fact. He’s hardly going to counter all of that by making some open criticism tonight over something as insignificant as a ring, Sir. There is no public discord between the Emperor and The Heir, you know that. Given all that, even if he did speak out it would be the Emperor who would be considered capricious and not yourself.”
The Heir leaned back, jaw flexing as he looked out over the city with a long, doubtful sigh—but at least he was prepared to hear Wez out. He plowed on, hoping to provide a little perspective; a glance at the larger picture which The Heir seemed unable to step back and see today.
“I’d also advise you to consider Palace protocol; it’s bad form to refuse to turn up to a reception given in recognition of the launch of a Super Star Destroyer you’ve just been given command of.”
“Protocol.” Luke made the word a curse, but Wez pushed on.
“The people out there watching tonight are the foremost powers of both the Core and Rim Systems—they’re the ones you need to impress. And they want to be impressed; they’re willing to listen to you because they’re ready for change…real change. Not just a replacement for the Emperor—they’re looking for an alternative. Palpatine was a leader of his time; he forged an Empire from the chaos of the Clone Wars but that time is over now—the Empire’s ready to move on and they know it. They’re looking for someone who can be a diplomat, someone composed and practical and level-headed. Palpatine was a stabilizing force when the Empire needed it, but he’s spent years imposing and enforcing his view without exception; they still want that strength, that decisive focus, but now they’ll rally around someone who offers more. Someone rational and adaptable—someone more humane. They’re ready to move on and they’re looking to you. All you have to do is show them you understand—that you agree; that your values and goals are the same as theirs.”
“And I do all that by dancing with a woman I’ve never met?”
The Heir’s disparaging, long-suffering tone brought a rare smile to Reece’s face. “No, Sir—but it’s a start. You need to inspire confidence by example—by a method they recognize in a language they understand. The D’Arcas are a powerful family politically and militarily in both the Core and the Rim systems; they can help forward your plans considerably and regardless of the Emperor’s machinations, you need to pursue your own goals."
“The D’Arcas are loyal to the Emperor,” The Heir stated uncategorically, though Wez wasn’t yet ready to concede.
“You may well find that the D’Arcas are in fact loyal to the Empire, as I am.”
“I think it more likely that they’re simply loyal to their own goals,” The Heir said knowingly.
“Which doesn’t mean to say that they’re not valuable,” Wez argued. “They’re an old Royal House with a longstanding history and you need to show that you respect that. The Royal Houses are a powerful body, and right now they’re looking for reassurance that when you come to power, traditions and conventions will be acknowledged and upheld; there’ll be no more upheavals, stability will be maintained. You need to start acting like the Statesman they need you to be.”
“That’s an awful lot to squeeze into one dance,” The Heir said with dry humor, finally coming round a little. “Maybe we could just hand out cards?”
Wez raised his eyebrows slightly in sardonic reply, following The Heir as he set out from his study into the lofty hallway beyond, aware from his tone that he was willing to concede this fight even if he wasn’t ready to admit it out loud. It was one of the reasons why Wez had defected; unlike Palpatine, The Heir was willing to listen to reason. In fact, Reece genuinely believed him to be all of the things he’d just cited as requirements for the Empire’s next leader—and he’d made it his mission to make others realize that too.
He brought his attention back to The Heir now as he continued in a mock-conciliatory tone, “We could put gold edges on the cards if it makes you feel any better.”
“Gold edges are for invitations, Sir,” Wez said with feigned seriousness, aware that The Heir was making a playful gibe at his familiarity with this kind of convention. “Statements of intent are always sent on woven white ground with grey edging.”
The State Ballroom was truly immense, it and its grand entrance, the Mirrored Gallery, occupying a complete floor of the East Tower, soaring over five stories high. Above its intricately inset polished marquetry floors, hundreds of rock-crystal globes illuminated a reeded and coffered ceiling, their cut and etched surfaces bouncing refracted light over gilded detail. Lofty windows set with faceted panes ranged across the entire run of one wall, affording grand views of the other towers, though the photovoltaic glass was already darkened against the low-lying sun of the early evening, the low amber light making the richly carved wooden relief on hundreds of separate panels lining the remaining walls glow softly, each panel carved from a particular planet’s most valued hardwoods, depicting an elaborate dado-to-ceiling representation of that for which the individual planet was famed.
The sumptuous décor and furnishings were purposely ostentatious, the room a monumental, lavishly extravagant statement of Imperial power and wealth. The State Ballroom—a mirror-image of its sister the Dominion Ballroom in the North Tower but almost three times its size—had been chosen with great deliberation. There were twenty-seven different civic ballrooms in the Palace towers, discounting those in individual apartments, each carefully designed to project a different facet of the Empire’s influence. This hall, with its exceptional craftsmanship and countless treasures, art new and ancient from throughout the Empire adorning it, was an imposing expression of confidence and continuity, solidarity and perpetuity. It was an impressive testament to the incomparable wealth of the Empire—and the willingness of Palpatine to spend it without hesitation.
Mara entered quietly, avoiding the Master of Ceremonies who was announcing those who entered at the tall double doors, and stepping quickly down the wide expanse of carved red marble steps, the train of her dark, chocolate brown dress pooling behind her as she set forward to lose herself in the throng, glancing about the multitude of people, looking for only one.
She had expected to be on duty tonight serving as Luke’s bodyguard, as she so often did at such functions, but Palpatine had ordered that Reece and not she should attend, with no further explanation.
At first she’d felt snubbed, uncertain what was going on but certain that something was. Then she’d taken it as a challenge, confident of her ability to gain entry—it wasn’t as if she’d been specifically ordered not to attend, she simply hadn’t been given an official invitation…which really didn’t even slow her down.
She’d taken the time to make an effort tonight too, but subtly, discreetly. She used to do this so much when on assignments; turn heads with her casual grace…sometimes the best place to hide was in full view.
The gown she wore was rich, matte chocolate vinesilk, cut on the bias so that it skimmed every contour, the front shaped low in a fluid crumple of fabric which always hinted that it may just fall loose without ever being so gauche as to do so. Her jewelry was heavy amber and citrine set in rose gold, a fine, fretwork headdress set with the same stones pinning her hair back from her face to tumble loosely down her back, rich russet red against dark chocolate. The heavy stones in her earrings tapped gently against her neck as she glanced about, the citrines reflecting warm glints against flawless porcelain skin, her delicate blush all the color needed to set forest green eyes flashing.
She still turned heads when she walked through the crowd.
Luke was stood unobtrusively off to one side of the vast hall, but he turned immediately when he sensed her presence, watching her walk quickly down the steps, eyes scanning the room.
His first thought was that she looked beautiful; she always looked that to him—always had—but tonight she was stunning; exquisite. His second consideration, as she vanished into the crowd, was surprise that she was here at all. He’d gone along with Palpatine’s subtle exclusion of Mara tonight, firstly because it was a convenient opportunity to hide his own intentions behind Palpatine’s manipulations, but secondly because he was curious as to what exactly his Master was doing. So he’d accepted without complaint the Emperor’s clearly calculated designation of Reece as his bodyguard for the evening, effectively ensuring that Mara would have no reason for being here—though apparently she’d not taken the hint quite so willingly.
The automemo excluding Mara had been delivered form Palpatine’s personal offices three days ago and had been brought to Luke’s attention by Wez Reece, eliciting only the mildest curiosity from Luke as Wez had handed it over.
“You have a mark at the reception following the launch of the Invincible, Sir.”
Luke had taken the proffered automemo with only vague interest, glancing down at the screen. It wasn’t uncommon for the Emperor to do this, using state functions to place his Jedi close to someone from whom he needed information in one form or another. Easier able to stay out of the spotlight and less intimidating than his Master, Luke could often accomplish Palpatine’s intent more subtly, so to have a covert assignment was par for the course.
Still, Luke had frowned at the image of his mark. “This is…D’Arca?”
“Kiria D’Arca,” Wez had nodded. “Eldest daughter of Beladon and heir to the D’Arca family titles. Her father is Master of Ceremonies at the Invincible’s launch.”
“What does he want me to do?”
Reece raised his eyebrows. “Talk to her.”
“That’s all that’s listed in the brief,” Reece said. “The Emperor requires you to…‘Establish a dialogue.’”
“Establish a dialogue—now what’s he up to?” Luke murmured, ever wary. “Why do I feel I’m being stage-managed?”
“Because you are,” Reece said dryly. “Though there may be reasons other than the obvious, and even if that’s the case, it’s not such a bad idea. The D’Arcas are a powerful family who hold sway among both the military and the Royal Houses. You could do worse than court them a little, with or without the Emperor’s blessing.”
“And who will you be courting to further the cause?” Luke asked pointedly.
“That isn’t my forte, Sir,” Reece said levelly, eliciting a short laugh from Luke.
“Believe me, it isn’t mine—and don’t say this is a good opportunity to learn.”
Wez held Luke’s eye for a moment then turned away. “It’s at least bought us something: I’m ordered to stand as your bodyguard, which means that Mara Jade won’t be in attendance.”
Which was a useful thing indeed, considering Luke’s self-imposed mission for the evening, planned with his father. He turned away, all business again.
“Send an acknowledgment and get more information on D’Arca. We’ll work it into the timetable but we need one of our own people to mark her; run interference and separate us when I have the opportunity to make a contact with someone useful. I’ll speak to her just once or twice—I’ve more important things to do.” Luke handed back the autoreader, aware that yet another level of play would now have to be factored into the evening. “And get me something on D’Arca; anything to satisfy that I’ve taken an interest with minimum effort. I don’t have the time to be wasting it on this.”
The Emperor’s unsubtle assignations aside, Luke had his own agenda for that night and the best place to hide it was in plain view. If he couldn’t ignore the Emperor’s order regarding D’Arca then he could at least exploit it, and while Luke was well-used to operating around Mara’s constant presence, an excuse to remove Palpatine’s eyes and ears was surely worthwhile.
Dismissing his momentary pang of guilt, Luke had firmly fixed his eyes on the greater goal; they’d never lied to each other about their positions or their situations. He had a job to do on the night, and he couldn’t do it with Mara in close attendance.
Yet here she was, and she was clearly looking for someone. Did she know about his intentions tonight? Or perhaps she’d found out about the Emperor’s orders regarding D’Arca? Either way, if she was here looking for him then they had an interesting night ahead.
Luke turned away, hiding himself in the crowd, mind focused on the task at hand.
The launch of the Invincible—or rather the Patriot—had gathered an unprecedented number of influential people in one place, both military and political; many potential allies, if approached properly. Those who may be open to such negotiations had already been identified, and Luke had the task of working his way round the carefully chosen selection of Destroyer Admirals and Captains, representatives of both the Core and, more importantly, the Rim Fleet, whose carefully chosen ships had accompanied Vader’s back to Coruscant for the launch.
Although Luke now had large numbers of supporters in the Core Fleet, Palpatine had always taken great care that Luke had little or no prospect of accessing the Rim Fleet, so that to date, he had the support of only a few Captains who had been transferred from the Core to the Rim fleet, effectively meaning that the very most support that either of Palpatine’s Sith advocates could muster would be their supporters in only half the fleet. It was a clever notion on his Master’s part, well-conceived…but it had one weakness. It assumed that the underlying tension which Palpatine had put so much effort into inciting between father and son would ensure that they remained always in opposition—that Luke and his father would never work together.
And, carefully lulled into that continued belief by father and son, it assumed too much. Because Vader had picked with great care the Rim Fleet representatives who would attend tonight, effectively making it an unprecedented opportunity for his son to increase his standing and support there.
Not just within the Fleet either; there were dignitaries, politicians and officials from all over the Empire attending tonight—people of standing and power. To be here at all one must have certain credentials—which coincidentally made them just the kind of specialist entrepreneurs Luke was looking for. Those willing to claw their way to the top were often willing to invest in the future and every shrewd dealer knew that one should invest early; by the time such investments paid off, there was no time for latecomers. The earlier one invested, the greater the rewards.
So tonight he was selling, and the product was himself—not Luke Skywalker, of course, but The Heir. Power, potential, a place in the future—for those prepared to take the risk.
Already he had invested a good amount of time speaking with those whom he needed to, scattering oblique offers of endorsement and future support, forming the beginnings of working relationships, affiliations and alliances within the Empire’s expansive military and political machines. Mostly suggestions of such at the moment, a testing of the waters—it was too early for anything more yet—but the groundwork was laid...and the general attitude was receptive. Which was good, because Luke needed to have people in power who would support him—enable him to maintain stability through change. He had also developed his own little habit of searching out those who would be willing to work with him from the presently subordinate. Those in the mid-ranking levels of politics, the Royal Houses and the military, who were less closely scrutinized, and so easier to move around within the system. Officials and military personnel whom he felt could be relied on would be quietly manipulated into new positions within the fleet and the Palace hierarchy. The astute would realize why; some had already made subtle suggestions that there were deals to be made. The rest would find out in time. Some may never know—occasionally an enemy in the right position could do far more to further one’s cause than any ally.
Power was something which came at a price, as his Master was so fond of saying. Some accepted this and others didn’t. Those who played the game would prosper—he would see to that. Those who did not…they were of interest only in as far as that they were now fair game.
Wheels within wheels.
This was what he did now. This was what his Master had trained him for—in his own way and for his own reasons, but lessons learned were applied across the board.
And Luke felt no trace of guilt at drawing the willing or the powerful into his own strategies; these were intelligent, ambitious men who well knew the rules of the game, and if they chose to gamble, it was at their own risk. They would have no qualms about using him in the same way if they could.
His eye was drawn by a movement from the crowd as Mara glided by, closer this time, still searching. Luke turned away slightly, catching the sliver of her attention within the Force and subtly deflecting it, the action muted enough that he hoped Palpatine did not notice, or if he did it was only to take it at face value; as a rejection of her interest, given D’Arca’s presence.
He glanced now to the far dais where the Emperor sat on his gilded Sunburst Throne divorced from his subjects by distance and disposition alike, making a rare ‘public’ appearance; he would stay a short while, then retire.
Luke was more wary of his disappearance than his presence; at least whilst he was here, he couldn’t be watching his precious Jedi too closely. Though he had others doing just that; Luke had sensed four watchers scattered among the crowd already. It seemed a pointless act on face value, since Palpatine knew that Luke would sense them, but they served to slow him down in his avoidance, Luke supposed, just as Mara did on a daily basis. And there were doubtless more, hidden in one way or another.
Eyes still on the Emperor, reluctant to go any closer but knowing that eventually he would have to, and that his Master would make the moment as difficult as possible, as he always did, Luke took the time to reflect on the day’s events—
Admittedly the ring had placed into question all the hard work he had put into reassuring Palpatine of his loyalty, but he thought his Master had accepted the misdirection he’d provided—that he had wanted the ring, nothing more—a surface truth used to hide a deeper one, his search for some link with his mother shielding a deeper connection with his father. He’d tried again to contact Vader on secure channels tonight, but again had been unsuccessful, though to his knowledge Palpatine hadn’t cared to verify the ‘facts’ Luke had provided.
Yes, he had lost favor in going to retrieve the ring but now it was done, quickly addressed and dealt with, Palpatine’s anger satiated. To have left the ring in his Master’s possession would have been an open wound to fester on both their parts. He reflected briefly on Palpatine’s unsettling accusations of his mother, much as he’d ordered himself not to—not yet, when so much hinged on tonight. Still, they hovered at the edge of his thoughts without showing on his face.
Had they been true? Yes—as Palpatine saw them.
That was the trouble with the truth; it could so easily be subjective. Another lesson learned at his Master’s hand; one of his favorite games was to tell the truth scattered with just a few omissions and personal opinions. It was still the truth as he saw it—just not the actual facts.
What Luke needed for the facts was a name—something no one seemed willing to give him. But even Palpatine’s jealous diatribe had been of value; his father had told him his mother’s given name and now he had what seemed like a profession; she had been a Senator—or at the very least involved in the Senate—right up to the time that the Republic had collapsed. And she had been involved in the resignation of Chancellor Valorum…and the Delegation of Two Thousand, whatever that was; records from pre-Empire days were scant, particularly those relating to the Senate. Those that were available were, by the very fact of being made available, unreliable.
Still, that was surely enough to begin a search, though even that was a dangerous thing. And given Luke’s own carefully manipulated history, in all likelihood any useful reference to her would have been removed long ago—another of his Master’s favorite impediments.
His mind naturally moved on from this to other considered actions today, carefully placing uneasy thoughts of his own muddy past aside for a time when he’d have the opportunity to study them.
His conduct onboard the Patriot had at least ensured that his greater plan remained intact; Leia Organa was still free—though what had possessed her to come on such a high-risk mission to the heart of the Empire in the first place he had no idea. It had been an impulsive gamble to risk helping her at the time; a gut-instinct which had overruled all else, but the fact that he had gone to her aid may be of some value, setting questions in her mind, making her believe him still sympathetic to her cause in some way. Making her more willing to think that she just might be able to trust him, if only for a short time—which could only be to his advantage.
A brief smile came to his lips, curling the scar there at the memory of what had happened last time he had answered that gut feeling and gone rushing to Leia Organa’s aid.
He’d like to claim that today was indeed a result of long-term plans, but in fact it had been the self-same flip in his stomach that it had been on the Death Star… Luke chose to look no further at that tangle of feelings, concentrating instead on the results—and damage control.
There was no point in trying to explain to his father; no point in trying to offer any persuasion. He always knew best, and rolled over any unwillingness on Luke’s part as forcefully as Palpatine ever did. Was it out of myopic ambition…or genuine, paternal concern? Luke remembered how many friends had lied to their parents when growing up on Tatooine, in an attempt to assert or maintain their own autonomy—but none had done so believing that if the lie was discovered, then their own parent may well betray them to a ruthlessly implacable higher authority. That remained, as always, the limit of Luke’s relationship with his father: that it had been he who had handed Luke over to Palpatine, knowing what the Sith would do.
And despite everything, knowing his father as he did, Luke still believed that under the same circumstances, his father would do the same thing.
Under that threat, how could Luke risk what little he had left—and how could his father blame him for doing so? They would probably never come to fruition, but it was these long-range plans which kept Luke moving, kept him sane. Though if either Vader or his Master figured them out then they deserved the upper hand, because Luke seldom could; sometimes they changed from day to day—from minute to minute, according to his disposition.
When he’d seen Leia…in that second, all his plans had fallen away, secondary to his need simply to help her. Why he was always driven to protect her he didn’t know. Yes, he needed her exactly where she was to fulfill his plans, but the truth was that in the moment that he’d realized she was aboard the Patriot, they hadn’t even been a consideration. All he knew was that he needed to help her… And in that moment when she turned to run, if she’d taken his hand…
But she hadn’t; he’d seen nothing but fear in her eyes; no acknowledgement at all of the man she’d once said she couldn’t imagine life without. And who could blame her? That man was long gone, swallowed up by this life and its constant demands.
Sometimes though, he still heard Luke Skywalker whisper to the Emperor’s precious Wolf and sometimes…sometimes he still listened.
He focused his eyes, realizing too late his mistake as Mara walked toward him, having no way to reasonably avoid her now.
Mara Jade smiled as she walked toward Luke, aware that she’d caught him daydreaming—probably the only reason she’d finally cornered him at all. “You know, I may begin to get the feeling you’re avoiding me.”
Unable to ever get close without losing him in the crowd, Mara had taken to watching him from a safe distance for almost two hours now. And knowing him as she did, she’d noted the difference between casual conversations and the few whom he’d intently singled out for more. Those exchanges always short, probably lasting until Luke had achieved whatever goal he set himself, a few minutes of mindless pleasantries on either side, purposely including third parties now to conceal that goal from prying eyes, then he moved on.
It was like watching a con-man work a room…
Now she settled beside him rather than standing before him, which may appear too familiar to watching eyes in the crowded room of milling people. They stared out for a short while, listening to the orchestra, keeping their distance and maintaining that studied formality, as they always did in public.
Finally Mara looked at him, studying him far closer than her casual glance suggested, aware that there was a focused energy about him tonight, an intensity which spoke more of purpose than nervousness. He seemed at once distant and removed yet completely, intensely focused, as he often did on these occasions, and…very handsome.
He was dressed formally in a dark, flawlessly fitted suit, a touch of white showing at the high collar. The suit was an interesting choice, hinting at military styling without being so specific as to alienate any civilians present, its cut emphasizing his trim form—he’d always been slim, would have perhaps bordered on rangy without the muscle which heavy daily exercise had earned him. As it was, it made him lean and powerful; one more allusion that he was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Impeccable as always, very straight, very calm, he exuded self-possessed confidence despite the plethora of high-ranking officials present, an effortless poise which seemed completely unassailable. If it was an act for the benefit of those around him then it was a flawless one, Mara reflected. Sometimes it was difficult to tell with Luke; at times he was absolutely The Heir, the Emperor’s Wolf, his Sith advocate, decisive and ruthless, relentlessly pursuing his goal… Yet at others he seemed absolutely the pilot who had been dragged here with no desire to stay, isolated and unreachable, still trying resolutely to cling to a past which could only hinder him here and he knew it.
The more she knew him privately, the more she recognized these disparate facets, no matter how well he hid it from Palpatine.
The more she understood why Hallin stayed close.
Luke’s mismatched eyes faltered momentarily, uncomfortable beneath Mara’s searching gaze, and she turned away, smiling, her voice quiet enough to be hidden beneath the music. “So what trouble are you up to tonight?”
He smiled slightly, composure returning, his voice tinged with amusement. “I never create trouble; I just wake up on a morning and there it is.”
“That’s because you take it to bed with you,” Mara countered easily, glancing back round.
“You can say that again.”
She looked away, stifling a smile, but he kept his eyes on her, making her turn back, curious.
“You look very beautiful tonight,” he said simply, making her instantly self-conscious, her cheeks heating. He still had the power to do that; take her completely off-guard.
“Now I know you’re up to something.”
He glanced away into the crowd, manner politely indifferent for the benefit of any outside observers. “Yes, I am—and you’re ruining my schedule.”
“Dance with me?” Mara asked, choosing to ignore his words even though she could sense the truth behind them.
He glanced back, momentarily surprised, then looked away. “I think I’ve upset Palpatine enough today, don’t you?”
She too turned away slightly, though her quiet voice was warm and teasing. “Why would dancing with me make it any worse—are you that bad of a dancer?”
He set his head to one side without looking to her. “Well I promised him the first dance—you know how testy he gets if someone steps in.”
Mara smiled at his irreverent comment, keeping her eyes on the crowd though her complete attention was on him, reminding her of the journey up to the Patriot that morning. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.
“Interesting,” she said, nodding her head in mock consideration. “So who leads?”
He grinned, the unaffected air momentarily ruining his polished veneer. “Ah, that’d be telling.”
She shook her head, stifling a grin, unable as ever to conceive of anyone speaking in such detrimental terms of the Emperor, though somehow since it was Luke, she found she didn’t mind. “See, I thought you were gonna say you had to dance with Lady Kiria D’Arca.”
Luke allowed the slightest of grimaces to show, for her benefit alone. “I’m trying hard to avoid it.”
“You don’t seem to be trying too hard to avoid her.”
“I’m under orders,” Luke excused, amused. “And is that jealousy?”
“No, it’s professional interest.”
She’d watched the elegant, delicate Kiria D'Arca being introduced to Skywalker early in the evening and thought nothing of it—just another hopeful being given their two-minute window of opportunity with The Heir. Luke had smiled, they’d spoken, she had laughed charmingly, but his eyes and attention had begun to drift… He’d given her a minute more than most before he began trying to politely extricate himself. Mara had forgotten about it probably as quickly as Luke had.
He’d continued round the room, singling out his targets…and then, magically, D'Arca was there again. Then again…and Mara started paying attention. She knew D'Arca of course, from her attendance at Court, where the House D'Arca had long held the Emperor’s favor. Kiria was an obviously ambitious socialite, though she disguised it well, balancing it with a quick and witty mind and a spirited, game disposition. Petite and polished, with flawless, caramel skin and smoky almond eyes, D'Arca played to her own unarguable strengths with impressive skill…and Mara’s eyes had narrowed as she’d realized just how little she liked the thought of all those resources being turned on Luke.
Luke turned a fraction, voice still teasing. "That why you’re here?”
“Actually you omitted to mention the enchanting Lady D’Arca,” Mara said dryly.
“Oh, you think so too?”
Mara gritted her teeth at Luke's teasing attempt to get a rise out of her—though that didn't stop her replying. “She’s an over-ambitious debutante on the make.”
“And not in the slightest interested in me,” Luke finished, still smiling.
“Well then who was that oh-so-charming little laugh for, every time you spoke?”
“I think you’ll find that was for The Heir,” Luke dismissed. “Just think of it as…professional interest.”
“Yeah, life’s tough,” Mara deadpanned.
Luke smile genuinely. “Fortunately I have you to make it tougher—just in case I find a moment’s peace.”
“Hey, I’m not even trying yet.”
“Really? Then you must be a gifted natural.”
Mara frowned, her voice taking on an unexpectedly serious air. “Do I complicate things?”
“Yes, incredibly,” Luke said without hesitation.
“Seriously? Yes, incredibly,” He said again, refusing to be drawn into a serious discussion right now. When Mara continued to study him, he turned to her just slightly. “Fortunately you’re worth it.”
She turned away, satisfied, and they remained silent for a few moments, content just to be close to each other, Luke apparently willing to forget his undisclosed aims for a moment, Mara no longer caring what they were.
“Dance with me tonight—alone?” she said at last, without looking—and he knew what she asked.
Knew the risk they ran.
Mara remained still, not daring to turn, and Luke remained silent, gazing out into the crowds so long that she thought he’d chosen not to reply; that his silence was an answer in itself. He’d said a hundred times that the risks of meeting in the Palace were too great and he was right, of course.
“Tonight,” he whispered in quiet agreement, then walked quickly off into the crowd, the tips of his fingers trailing soft as his whisper across her hip as he moved off, leaving her to stare at his receding form, quickly lost in the crowd, her heart hammering and a flush in her cheeks.
Luke was deep in persuasive conversation with Captain Hoken when the chime sounded and the room fell to well-mannered silence, so he actually missed the announcement of the First Dance, realizing only as every mind and every eye in the massive room turned to him, expectant.
For long seconds he remained perfectly still, though his face registered no surprise, only a polite indifference as the crowds parted in a whisper of expensive gowns.
After a few moments of consideration, politely broken by the slightly nervous prompting cough of Reece behind him, Luke set forward to the center of the vast space. Easy as it would have been to create a scene, he had an agenda to fulfill tonight and Reece had been right when he’d maintained that Luke wouldn’t do that by seeming a loose cannon to those he needed to impress with his potential as a future leader. Better to simply go with the flow and pick up where he’d left off in a few minutes’ time.
He made the long walk to the center of the floor, reflecting how much he had changed, that what would once have seemed an insurmountably daunting prospect was now viewed as little more than a minor nuisance—less than a glitch in the evening’s plans.
As he reached the center of the floor, a petite woman with warm olive skin and dark, oval eyes stepped gracefully towards him, the train of her ruby dress shimmering with each step.
He stopped before her as she curtsied perfectly and, though it wasn’t strictly necessary, he took a half-step back and inclined his head slightly in a not-quite bow. Luke held out his hand in invitation, and the lithe, delicate woman stepped in and took it, the music beginning just as he rested his hand about her waist.
And they danced.
Something else that four years ago would have been inconceivable to him, but many hours tutelage under the polite but dogged persistence of his assigned—and much maligned, if only for his title—Ministerial Representative of the Office of Court Culture and Protocol, had made even this, before so many, second nature. No more taxing than any other Court etiquette he had been force-fed in recent years.
For a long time he had resolutely ignored the fact that twice a week every week, a dance instructor arrived promptly at his apartments, at the request of the CCP Minister. The instructor and a dance partner waited patiently in the Perlemian Ballroom for the full hour of his supposed lesson before leaving, to return as ordered by the Minister for their next scheduled lesson, waiting in vain for their charge’s attendance.
For well over a year this continued, a series of tutors and advisors arriving as commissioned to teach all aspects of protocol and etiquette, all waiting patiently, all pointedly ignored, though often Luke was in his apartments when they arrived—he simply walked by their assigned rooms without a second glance.
As the year rolled on, Luke was well aware that he was living on borrowed time; the Emperor would certainly have been made aware of his lack of attendance to any protocol lessons and sooner or later Luke knew he would be called on it, certainly in public and probably in some situation carefully chosen to inflict the greatest embarrassment. He’d held out a little longer, more out of stubborn refusal to be intimidated than any greater cause, but eventually, as he found it necessary to move in certain circles and project a certain image, it had become more of an impediment to be ignorant of such practices than to simply back down and learn them.
So he had reluctantly begun to attend, much to the surprise of his assorted tutors, genuinely committed to learning all that they could supply, viewing it more as ammunition than acquiescence. It irked him that it was necessary but he wasn’t about to be hobbled or be judged and found wanting by those who considered such things important—not when it was so easily remedied. Yes, he still privately considered such things irrelevant and elitist, but age and experience were dampening that blunt, blind, obstinate will to something more manageable; tempering it to serve rather than hinder.
Hallin had been his usual erudite self in advising Luke to look on this as simply learning another language—one that, like Old Coruscanti, was essential to the world he now lived in. Having finally relented and learned the protocols, etiquette and complex machinations of Court life from a strictly self-serving point of view, he felt no discomfort in its use anymore. Familiarity bred, if not contempt than certainly confidence—relaxed poise in the presence of this unspoken language of countless rules and subtle conventions.
Whether he agreed with or despised them was irrelevant; close, often-illustrated knowledge of them enabled him to use, abuse, or hide behind them as he saw fit. The fact that everyone knew that he understood this complex, convoluted language meant that whether he chose to flout it or to enact it in itself became part of that language.
So now, when he danced with D’Arca, although he was polite and maintained eye-contact, he felt no particular need to speak with her; it wasn’t necessary—it wasn’t required of him. The dance was for the benefit of others; he was doing nothing more than fulfilling an order on the part of the Emperor. And despite Reece’s words earlier that week suggesting the logic in forging an alliance with the influential D’Arcas, Luke wouldn’t be led or cornered, either by his Master or his advisor.
She held his eyes intently as they danced and he didn’t look away, used to the curiosity of others by now, so that all he could hear above the distant music was the sound of their breath as they danced, and the light tap of their feet against the polished floor.
Eventually those entitled to do so joined them and the floor began to fill, though they always enjoyed a clear space about them, everyone remaining politely distant. When the music finished, Luke released D’Arca and took a step back, inclining his head again before turning to leave.
“Perhaps…” D’Arca’s hastily spoken word brought him about and she immediately lowered her head in apology. One didn’t generally talk to The Heir’s back, or continue to speak when he had clearly made to leave, so her decision to do so was clearly part of that unspoken language, subtle messages even here. She held tenaciously to her guns, lifting her head as he turned about, dark mahogany-brown eyes inviting. “Perhaps The Heir will dance again tonight?”
“I very much doubt it.” He would have turned away, well aware that he was being played, but some sense of genuine regret on her part made him add, “It’s hardly my strong point.”
She flashed a smile which lit up her face. “I thought The Heir danced beautifully.”
Luke couldn’t help but smile, drawn in by her charm but hardly blinded by it. “I’m afraid I dance as well as you lie, my Lady.”
“My heart wasn’t in it—until now,” D’Arca said, clearly hoping to echo his own restrained distaste at such protocol.
But the moment was lost and Luke backstepped slightly, voicing what could easily be taken as either acceptance of her white lie or tacit admission of his own feelings. “As you say, Lady D’Arca.”
He bowed slightly again, aware that the music could not continue unless he made clear either his intention to dance or to leave the floor, and this time D’Arca had the good grace to back down, curtsying as he turned and left without looking back, his mind already elsewhere.
Nathan Hallin burst into Luke’s bedroom as Mara started awake, scrabbling vainly to disappear beneath the sheets. Luke didn’t even move, but then he probably already knew he was coming.
“Up! Get up! Quickly!” Hallin didn’t even pause as he rushed about the room, picking up Mara’s clothes.
Since he clearly already knew she was in here, Mara finally stopped trying to hide beneath the sheets and instead watched the surreal scene unfold before her in the early morning light as the slender medic dashed about like a dynamo and Luke finally turned over from his stomach, gruff voice very pointedly unamused, his Rim accent holding sway.
“This had better be so good...”
“Chancellor Amedda’s on his way here. Now,” Hallin added as he glanced about to check that he’d missed nothing.
Which was enough to wake Luke up, but he still pushed calmly upright, the covers tangled about him as he let his legs drop over the side of the bed and dragged his hand through unruly hair. “And what, am I receiving him in my bedroom?”
Hallin stopped dead, Mara’s clothes still bundled in his arms. “Well I’m glad one of us thinks this is funny.”
“Wait—why is Amedda coming here?” Mara asked, of the Emperor’s Primary Aide.
“And how far away is he?” Luke added, voice still husky from sleep.
“He’s still several minutes away—we had...” Hallin paused; he didn’t look meaningfully at Mara but he may as well have done, “...prior warning.”
Mara heard Luke sigh very lightly and knew that he was thinking the same as she—that Hallin had already said and done too much. Not only had his actions clarified to Mara that his trusted position was such that he already knew about Luke and herself—and was evidently so trustworthy that he would now attempt to cover it up—but he’d just all but admitted that Luke also had an informer in the Cabinet or Council offices.
“It’s fine, Nathan.” The tone of Luke’s voice was more awake now—and clearly very eager to get Hallin out of the room before he made another gaffe. “Mara will stay in here; you’ll ask Wez to arrange for someone he trusts to go and get her uniform and she’ll leave later as if nothing happened. She’ll take her clothes back separately.”
Mara was still frowning, worried by the Chancellor’s coincidental arrival. “Does Amedda often come here?”
Luke half-turned. “No. Only formal business as the Emperor’s official representative.”
Mara turned back to Hallin, eyes sharp. “Did your ‘friend’ say why he was coming?”
Luke cut in before the medic even began to reply, obviously not wishing to allow a very twitchy Hallin under Mara’s close scrutiny. “If Palpatine knew you were here I think he’d be here himself by now and if he wasn’t sure, sending an official representative isn’t exactly subtle; neither of us are likely to get spooked into making a mistake.”
Mara shook her head, uneasy at the coincidence. “Still...”
Luke turned on her, and just for a second she could see the contention in his eyes—‘you wanted to risk this’—but he stopped himself long before he spoke, turning back to Hallin, voice even and measured. “Go and tell Reece to show Amedda to the White Drawing Room.”
“No, wait—show him to the Morning Room,” Mara corrected, knowing it afforded no line-of-sight to Luke’s private rooms.
Luke turned, eyes quizzical, and Mara’s mind whirred for a second or two, but she had no reasonable excuse for this, so admitted the truth: “There’s a concealed passage in the rear wall of the storeroom in your Music Room. If I can get to that, I can come out three stories down.”
“Into the staff quarters?” Luke was trying to keep his voice casual though Mara knew this would be of great interest to him.
She nodded, knowing that he would store that piece of information away for future use, but knowing also how useful it could be for them both from now on. “In a side corridor in the kitchens. If you can get me a clear route across the main hallway.”
Luke turned immediately to Hallin, mind back in the moment. “Who’s on duty?”
“Clem and Vassigo. Vassigo’s your close guard, but Clem’s in the main cupola,” Hallin recited from memory.
The cupola was in the main crossroads to Luke’s sprawling apartments, an easily monitored central point popular with the guards because it offered a clear view down the four wide hallways which reached to the far corners of the apartments, meaning it would bar Mara’s exit whichever way she chose.
“I could cut through your office,” Mara said of the common shortcut used to avoid the long, grand main hallway and massive central atrium. “Then...what—through the State Dining Room and—”
Luke was already shaking his head. “You’d still need to get through the Grand Hall and the Gallery, then cross the main corridor to get to the Music Room—plus you’d need to cross it again close to the main entrance and close to Amedda. Too many chances.” Instead he turned back to Hallin, considering.
“Clem will take a private comm whilst on duty. When Mara’s ready, you go to the staff wing and comm the guard room opposite—ask for Lieutenant Clem. Make sure the comm can’t be traced.”
Clem was one of the many more general bodyguards attached to all high-ranking individuals in the Palace, Mara knew, whose brief tended not to extend outside the Palace walls, though they were generally attached to a single individual or household. As always seemed the case with individuals of high status, an inordinate number of people seemed to find it necessary to be in Luke’s apartments at any given time—bodyguards, personal aides, secretaries and servants. She remembered how he’d resented it when he’d first arrived, viewing it as little more than a method of not-very-covert surveillance—which was at least partially true of all people of rank in the Imperial Palace. Now he seemed completely at ease with it. But then, he’d taken care over the last few years to surround himself with people he trusted—and those he didn’t trust, he clearly made it his business to know very well.
Which made Mara wonder momentarily which category she fell into...
Hallin was nodding as Luke spoke, but his eyes remained wide, seeming all the more so because of his slight frame and olive skin. It seemed to Mara that even if she and Luke weren’t the panicking kind, then Hallin was doing enough for all three of them.
“And Nathan—” Luke added, making the fretful man pause at the door, “try not to be around when Amedda arrives.”
Hallin delivered a withering look and dashed out, leaving Mara to realize that he hadn’t once met her eye or acknowledged her; only Luke.
Luke finally sighed into the silence, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “See, this is why we don’t meet in the Palace; for one thing Nathan would have a coronary within a week.”
Mara was still staring at the closed door. “…he just took all my clothes…”
Luke lunged up and headed for the door, pausing just as he reached it to dash back and grab a dressing gown which lay over a nightstand.
Mara smiled mischievously, setting her head to one side. “See, you make that whole panic routine look so much nicer… Maybe it’s the naked thing…”
He spared her a dry glower before setting off back to the door, pulling the robe about him as he went.
In the event, the visit was indeed to pass on an official communiqué from the Emperor; it was Flight Orders for the Patriot which, in a change from the intended shakedown flight, was to leave that morning for the Rim Systems—with a guest.
Palpatine would be on the maiden voyage of the Patriot, the Peerless and the Dauntless serving as escort.
That brought Mara back to reality with a bang, making her realize just how foolish they had been the previous night; not only had they been reckless in taking the risk themselves, but clearly Hallin also knew about it, and while Luke could teach Mara to hide her thoughts whilst near Palpatine, she was pretty damn sure that he couldn’t do the same with Hallin—who was now about to spend several weeks in close proximity aboard the Patriot.
If the Emperor had wanted to caution, dissuade or just plain scare them, he couldn’t have done a better job.
Palpatine sat in the bulky, curve-backed chair on the Command Deck of the Patriot, specially fitted on his order to accommodate him on this journey, completing ignoring the tense, respectful bow by the medic Hallin as he walked briskly from the bridge, abuzz with nerves.
And well may he be; he clearly knew about Jade and Skywalker—was awash with panic every time the two were together before Palpatine’s close scrutiny—yet he had elected not to tell Palpatine of their trysts.
Palpatine had chosen the medic very carefully when he had first gained possession of his Jedi, seeking one person whom the boy might reasonably trust, one of a similar age and mindset with whom he could perhaps even build a friendship—confide in. He’d had at that point no clear knowledge of his new Jedi’s mindset—if Jade were unsuitable to hold him, then perhaps Hallin would be more appropriate. Whichever, he’d needed something to exert control over the boy, something which could easily be taken away. Something that wouldn’t withstand interrogation, if it came to the point that Palpatine needed facts.
His Jedi knew all this now, of course—knew that the medic was living on borrowed time, that the thing which both protected and condemned him was Skywalker’s continued association. For all his burgeoning strengths, Skywalker allowed himself far too many weakness—and he knew it.
Standing to the front of the Bridge, as far away from Palpatine as he could reasonably be and well aware of his Master’s eyes on him, his Jedi was now with Admiral Joss and three officers, quietly conferring, Mara standing to loose attention at a tactful distance.
They were all uneasy with the fact that the Patriot was making a lightspeed jump with co-ordinates only, no planetary name or navigation inventory. Not that Palpatine cared; his military would do as they were ordered, and the reason for this journey was something he had purposely kept hidden from his Jedi. He wanted a genuine reaction on arrival; no time to hide true opinions behind shields—Skywalker was becoming far too adept at that.
And he still wore the ring; Palpatine hadn’t failed to notice that. Though a few days had given him the perspective to see the fact for what it was: a minor dissent. The slightest of smiles twitched the corner of his lip in appreciation of the irony; here he had been, wary and watching for associations between the boy and his father, when in fact it had been his mother, the slip of a girl who had tried to turn Anakin’s head, who had proven to be the problem.
Still, she had failed then and she would fail now. She wouldn’t drive a wedge between Palpatine and the boy. He should thank her, he supposed; she had after all provided him not only with the man who had helped him create his Empire, but with the building-block to ensure that it thrived for generations to come. He had great plans for Padmé’s son, just as he’d once had for his father, and nothing as trivial as the boy’s obstinate will would derail him. Palpatine’s greater plan rolled on regardless, and the boy was still dragged with it; this journey was proof of that.
Sulfurous eyes turned coldly on Mara as he considered long-term schemes and stratagems, some of which required her presence…others of which did not. For now, he would tolerate their deceitful, impertinent little trysts because they served his purpose, immediate and long-term. But such indiscretions would not be flaunted within the Palace where Palpatine had other, larger games in play.
In the short term Jade bought him one more way to control Skywalker, however covertly. A valuable point, all things considered. She would never abscond and she would never betray him. Let the boy grow attached; Palpatine had already warned him repeatedly not to. That was the wonderful irony of it; despite all of Palpatine’s warnings that she would be a weakness—his demonstration of the fact—the boy had allowed her close anyway. So when Palpatine finally did use her to control him, then Skywalker had no one but himself to blame. Certainly that was the lesson Palpatine would be looking to underline.
And he would need new leverage soon; the old methods to contain and control were beginning to lose their efficacy. Still, one must be prepared to adapt—and Palpatine had always been flexible.
It would be a pity to think that he would never again be able to resort to the cell beneath the Palace as a means of controlling his fallen Jedi, but the boy was more Sith now than Jedi, and Palpatine doubted very much that it would hold him anymore. The barest shade of a private smile lifted bloodless lips into a shallow grin; yes, it would be a pity—he had always enjoyed their…exchanges on that particular battlefield, all civilized façades stripped away…
He settled back now, watching his Jedi closely as he stood at the front of the bridge, his iron determination not to turn or be intimidated beneath the Emperor’s gaze blasting out, as enjoyably willful as ever. Yes, it would be hard to confine him again—to subdue by force…but then perhaps he didn’t need it any more; the boy’s actions at the Patriot’s launch had surprised Palpatine in their decisiveness and their commitment.
That was why he was here now; he was ready for the next step.
His wolf was finally walking to heel…and if it still growled occasionally, well then, that was part of the pleasure in owning a wolf.
He narrowed yellow-flecked eyes, reflecting on his feral Jedi’s last visit to the cell, regretting the knowledge it would be just that. No matter how willing his wolf was to walk to heel, it would not tolerate further confinement; that had been crystal clear.
He remembered distinctly standing in the dark Ops room opposite the dedicated detention cell in the depths of the Palace monolith, watching the image within the nearby cell closely, waiting for Skywalker to wake from the drugs, very much aware that this would be a test of wills. Though the specialized detention cell had been heavily augmented to allow for his burgeoning powers, it was now at the limits of technology, and Skywalker knew his own abilities and his own mind like never before. Now was the acid test.
The reason that he was here—that he had disobeyed his Master once too often and pushed just a little too far—would not come to Skywalker’s mind yet; only his outrage at being caged.
And the always-harsh punishment for such disruptive behavior would also wait, often days, while Skywalker remained in confinement to consider the folly of his actions—and their inevitable consequences. Because when the punishment was finally meted out, it was without limits or mercy… As he had often said to the boy: a lesson taught ruthlessly and relentlessly seldom needed to be taught twice.
Palpatine had watched transfixed as the boy came around slowly, fighting the effect of the drugs which would remain in his system to some degree until an antidote was administered to counter their self-replicating attributes—another means to control his emerging Sith advocate.
Still, it hadn’t taken Skywalker long to realize where he was and drag himself unsteadily upright in response. He’d glanced to the door, but didn’t even bother trying to reach it. Instead he had shouted out, then turned directly to one of the security nodes; had it been a lens, Palpatine was certain the boy would have shattered it, but it was simply one in a series of staggered sensor relay nodes cast within the thick cell walls, which combined to create a single holographic image in the Ops room, so there was no specific place to aim his frustration at.
It hadn’t taken him long to find one. He had turned about, staggering against dizziness, shouting out again. When no one came, he’d crouched down on his haunches, head tucked in, eyes closed…
Palpatine had sensed the energy swarm as the boy called the Force to him, an all-encompassing inrush of raw power fed by fear and frustration and anger, and it had tugged the Sith Emperor’s bloodless lips into a tense, expectant smile.
For long seconds the boy had continued to pull power in, head down, immersed completely in the act until it whirled about him like a twister searching to ground…
Then his hands dropped to the floor as fists as he focused the power, throwing it out about him, incredible, elemental energy flawlessly focused—
The impact was felt in the Ops room as a dull thud, several alarms activating as runs of numbers and estimates scrolled up a nearby status screen, and Palpatine had flinched at the intense Force-directed blow, his eyes never leaving the holo.
In the cell, the floor beneath Skywalker had indented in a perfect dish, the two nearest walls compressing slightly in an inverted dome, the ceiling cracked and crazed where it had done the same. Combined, they described the curve of a perfect, invisible sphere about him as he crouched at its center, glancing about.
“There’s been a sixteen percent reduction in the overall integrity of the structure, Excellency.” The nervous Ops guard had watched the figures scroll up, his hand hovered over a series of marked keys, awaiting the command—but the Emperor only smiled.
“No—give him that,” Palpatine had said, pleased, but doubting that the boy would have the strength left to try the same trick again, especially in his present state.
With several refinements, the cell had been constructed very much the same as the one which Lord Vader had first used to control his wayward son when he had caught him at Bespin.
It was a complex structure of a cell within a cell, with feet-thick walls cast and cabled and held under vacuum. Designed to withstand several times vacuum, the overlapping, interlocking structure of the walls gained strength in opposition with each-other, so that if a Force-sensitive tried to destroy the cell walls by pushing outward, the combination of compressed vacuum and interlocking structure increased the inner wall’s strength, and if he pulled inwards, the interlocking outer structure and increasing vacuum pressure would only augment integrity further. In effect, the more one tried to breach the walls, the stronger they became. In the unheard-of event of the structural failure of the inner-cell walls, the resultant equalizing of vacuum would knock anyone within the room unconscious.
An ingenious, practical solution to the problem of holding a Jedi, used with great success following the Clone Wars, never once failing…
Skywalker had lowered his head and the inrush of power this time was sharp as a knife, heaved in on a massive, expansive scale, pulled tight as a bowstring, incredible capacity converging on a single spot, raw power held suspended, waiting for focus—
Palpatine had paused, breathless…
The release had been like a bomb detonating, the shockwave of sufficient density to rattle the reinforced door of the cell and jolt the eardrums of the guards lining the hall beyond, making them start nervously, blasters raising, eyes to the cell as the warning light above the door flashed.
“Integrity just went down another twenty-nine percent. Multiple fissures in the inner wall; three structural fractures to the outer assembly. The system is ramping vacuum to compensate.” The man was audibly shaken by this, turning to the Emperor.
Palpatine had remained still, head set to one side where he had braced against the outburst, eyes on the hologram of the cell as the dust which had scattered down from the ceiling cleared and the image-nodes recovered from the static burst of shock.
The walls were deeply inset now by the craters which still described a perfect sphere about Skywalker, long cracks crazing their surface, parts of the surface casing having broken free to show the heavier interlocking plasteel structure beneath.
He’d lifted his head to survey the damage and Palpatine had leaned in slightly, narrowing his eyes. The pressure change of the outburst in the confined space had been great enough this time to affect Skywalker, though he must have shielded himself. But his nose was bloody, a burst of scarlet red spattered against the plain white of the featureless clothes he was always dressed in for his confinement.
If he was aware of the fact then he ignored it, glancing about him only momentarily before he lowered his head again in concentration, the scale of his influence ramping up again, building like static, grating like blades over steel, still fed by that same iron resolve and unmeasured power—
“If he increases the strike by the same degree, Excellency, both outer and inner walls will suffer structural failure…” The Ops guard had turned tensely, hand still hovering over the same three toggle switches, knowing that he could render the volatile prisoner unconscious in seconds by activating them.
Palpatine had considered for long seconds, torn between the fascinated desire to see just what the boy was capable of if pushed to his limits, and his intention that the cell remain indestructible to his Jedi’s mind…
“Wait,” he’d said calmly at last. “I will speak to him.”
The man had nodded, biting down on the wish to tell the Emperor to hurry.
Skywalker was already hunched down again, tucking his head in and heaving in focus as the door slid open with the slightest hiss of equalizing air, pulling the dust up again in a flurry against the bright light from the corridor beyond, which made the boy squint as he turned.
“Stop it.” Palpatine had kept his voice indifferent and dismissive as he’d walked into the room, the door closing behind him with a hermetic hiss. He’d crossed casually without pausing or looking to the boy. “You damage nothing but yourself.”
Skywalker had lurched up, incensed, but the sudden action and strong drugs made his head spin and he staggered back a step, shouting out his frustration. Palpatine had paused at that, finally turning to face him, sulfurous yellow eyes staring out intently from the dark shadows of the heavy crimson cowl he wore, disapproval and demand hardening them. But the boy wouldn’t yield.
“You can’t hold me here! Not any more!”
Palpatine had said nothing, merely standing with his back to the ruined wall and watching patronizingly, as a father would watch a child’s tantrum.
“This won’t hold me! It can’t hold me and you know it!” Skywalker stumbled back another step, the venom in his voice fed by Palpatine’s composed distain.
“You’re right,” Palpatine had allowed. “But then we both know that this cage is more than walls and bars.”
His advocate fell silent, his train of thought broken, though Palpatine knew from his wild eyes and his tense stance that he didn’t yet have control of his Wolf.
“This is a far stronger cage, and you build it about yourself.” The Emperor had shaken his head as he spoke, gesturing to the sealed door. “There is the door—open it.”
Skywalker had wheeled about, still unsteady on his feet but no less determined. He lifted his hand…
“But know that if you do, it will cost the lives of everyone you know here—everyone. Right now. The order is already in place; I need only activate it with a word.”
The boy had faltered fractionally beneath the threat, knowing it was real—and even though his back was to the Emperor, Palpatine had grinned, knowing that he had him, his voice mocking.
“See? Already the price is too high.” He’d shaken his head, disdainful and derisive. “You’re contemptibly weak. Pitifully easy to manipulate.”
“You don’t have nearly as much control as you think.”
There was fire in his voice as the boy turned, eyes and sense boiling with barely controlled fury, and Palpatine knew it was the truth. This would not be the easy victory it had been before; there were fewer chains of self-restraint which held his Wolf in check now, and barely enough control yet to bind him—but there was sufficient, if he managed it with care.
“Then walk out of the door”
“And then what, Master? What have you left to hang over my head if they were dead?”
“I have other means,” Palpatine had assured. “I would not relinquish my Wolf so easily.”
The boy remained silent, chest still heaving from his exertion, sense wildly volatile, but Palpatine had stood his ground, unmoved. “You think you can escape—that you can run. You think you can hide from me? Don’t be naïve. The galaxy isn’t big enough anymore. You’ll never again be beyond my reach because I know exactly what you are willing to pay for your freedom…and I know what cost you would consider too high. That is your weakness; you can be bought like anybody else—not with money or power, but with the lives of others. Beings you don’t even know. That is how weak you are.”
Palpatine stepped in close. “I have no such weakness. I would track you down a step at a time and I would leave death and destruction in my wake, because I know that you would react—that you cannot help but do otherwise. Every being that you’ve spoken to, dealt with, touched. Every planet, every system—everyone. At what point would the death toll be too high? At what point would your resolve snap?”
The boy had wheeled about, realizing the Emperor’s triumph and incensed by it. “And if I were dead?”
The Emperor had narrowed cold yellow eyes, gaze hardening at his Jedi’s words. It was a genuine ultimatum, the threat implicit—and it was to be stamped out decisively. “That would not stay my hand in the slightest, Jedi; I would still take my revenge.
“I would take it from the hide of every creature you had ever known. I would make it my mission to see them scream so pitifully that you would hear them from the pit of hell and know that it was you who had brought this upon them—your actions which condemned them; you who turned my wrath upon them. And their kin and their species and their planet. My revenge would span systems… It would be a long time indeed before my anger was satiated, I promise you that.”
The boy held silent before the vehemence of this relentless, heartfelt tirade, jaw clenching, eyes filled with impotent fury at the unreserved threat he had brought down on everyone he had ever known. He had little of his old life left—Palpatine had long since ripped it to tatters in an effort to control him—but what still remained was precious to him, even when the memory and the reality were galaxies apart. And Palpatine knew it.
“You’re weak,” the Sith had accused again, as Skywalker turned his gaze down, struggling to hold focus beneath the drag of the drugs now that his adrenaline was waning. “I’ve told you before—if you hold a weakness then those about you will always use it against you.”
Skywalker said nothing but remained silent, his eyes burning with indignation as he looked back up to his tormentor.
“Say it,” Palpatine had invited tritely, the slightest of sardonic smiles on his bloodless lips, knowing that the boy would speak. That this interaction, no matter what the circumstances, had been deliberately established the first day Vader had brought him here, long before his Jedi had first been confined to this cell.
“Compassion isn’t a…”
“Compassion is the most pathetic vulnerability—it was always the weakness of the Jedi.” Palpatine’s words had the cut of a blade, laced with disgust. “Ask any of them—but of course you cannot.”
Skywalker’s sense had wavered just slightly and that was enough for Palpatine to lash out, knowing he’d won.
“Do you think it was compassion that gave you the strength to face down your father—do you think it was compassion that gifted you the power to bring him low? Do you think that those whom you humble yourself to protect would show the same compassion to you—have they ever? They used you and the fault is yours because you allowed yourself to be used—to be manipulated. There is no room for such atrocious, glaring flaws here. When you cure yourself of it, every door will be open to you but until then someone will always control you—you will always be in a prison of your own making.”
Palpatine’s voice had calmed at the last, so that by the end of his tirade, it was more frustration than anger which drove it. He’d stepped in close to the boy, yellow-flecked eyes searching palest blue... “Do you want to be controlled your whole life? Do you want to be no more than your father?”
Skywalker’s chin had lifted at that though he didn't speak, so Palpatine had delivered his final caveat.
“A true Sith has no weakness. Cure yourself of this failing or I will do it for you…in the most conclusive way possible.”
He’d held the boy’s eyes for several moments longer, the threat clear, then turned and walked to the exit of the cell, the heavy doors hissing open as he reached them, guards lining the corridor beyond, weapons trained.
“I will return tomorrow and we will talk further.”
He’d walked from the cell before the boy had time to react to the realization that he was to remain confined. The inner door slid shut behind him, the outer one closing with the hiss of a hermetic seal.
The power which had slammed against it a second later was considerable, but only a fraction of that which his Jedi was capable of; little more than a burst of frustration at the comprehension of his ever-contracting options.
Nathan Hallin breathed a sigh of relief as he made his way past the staged blast doors close to the Patriot’s bridge, glad to be free of the Emperor’s close scrutiny, though quite obviously the fact was that he couldn’t have been farther from the Emperor’s thoughts. Still, he wondered again how Luke could stand to be the subject of the Emperor’s close and critical scrutiny day after day. Why he stayed at all.
But then Palpatine was a master of manipulations, playing complex mistruths and malicious misdirections and veiled suggestions with subtle ease and devastating effect, some glimpse of which had been afforded Hallin in discussion with Luke earlier that year.
It had followed yet another internment in the cell beneath the Palace—his most recent, though that was now five months ago. In his first year on Coruscant, when Luke had no one whom he particularly trusted here, no one had known the specifics of where he had disappeared to, often for days or weeks at a time, always following some antagonism or challenge of the Emperor on Luke’s part, be it private or public. The official line—and one quickly learned never to question the official line here—was that Luke had been retained on a classified assignment by the Emperor, and would return when it was complete.
Slowly though, without ever needing to address the facts directly, Nathan had realized the truth. It hadn’t been hard; classified assignments may well be difficult, even dangerous, but the injuries that Luke had always sustained when he finally returned were far too severe and far-ranging to have ever allowed him to complete a mission and escape the scene. And, though Luke never let Nathan examine him for days afterwards, even from a distance, the medic could see that they were too consistent and too specific to be…anything other than what they appeared. Though it had been years before he’d dared to ask others in Luke’s close retinue whether they too knew the truth. Jade knew—had always known; was in some way involved, Nathan suspected—though neither she nor Luke ever made mention of it.
All Nathan knew for sure was that when he returned Luke remained quiet, reserved and introvert for days, as much out of exhaustion and injury as from the trial of facing off against Palpatine one more time.
But the onerous ordeals which had once been common had lessened over time, in number if not in content, as the Emperor found new ways to control or chastise. This last time had been no different, Luke reappearing after four days, battered and scuffed, walking slowly and painfully down the wide corridor from the main entrance, where Clem had announced his unexpected arrival. Heading awkwardly to his private quarters, one hand to the wall, he’d ordered anyone who came forward away in clipped, breathless tones. Nathan had long since learned not to go; to let Luke make his own way back no matter what his condition, knowing that it was a matter of principle for Luke that he walked even this last stretch alone.
From the very first time that he'd been returned to the cell beneath the Palace for chastisement, Palpatine had set in place the precedent that on his release, Luke was always taken, unconscious, to the Emperor's apartments, the first medical treatment he received always by Palpatine's medics. The established routine became that until Luke was capable of standing and walking the long distance from the Emperor's apartments back to his own under his own power, he was not allowed to leave. If he tried too early and failed, Luke was returned to Palpatine's apartments exhausted, his recovery that much delayed for his exertion. Another little trial put in place for no other reason that Palpatine's amusement, Nathan suspected. Another little wordless battle of wills between himself and his Jedi.
So that night, as he always did, Nathan had forced himself to wait in Luke's private quarters, biding his time and making what little medical diagnosis he could from six paces away, whilst biting his tongue against the need to offer solace. It was well past midnight, and Luke collapsed down onto his bed still dressed, Nathan leaving him exactly as he was, knowing better than to try to help undress or even cover him. Instead he sat down on the chaise to the far side of the huge room. Just once, Luke had glanced to Nathan, daring him to make comment, but Nathan knew this game and looked away, and Luke had let his eyes drift closed, giving in to exhaustion as Nathan remained, quietly watchful throughout the night.
He remembered distinctly sitting in patient, attentive support for the next few days, though Luke had tolerated no attention, medical or otherwise. Instead he'd remain silent and insular, clearly playing the same thoughts over and over in his head, and all Nathan could do was wait for the explanation which it took Luke almost another two days to put into words, and even then in only the vaguest terms to begin with.
They'd been sitting once again in the still silence of the drawing room, watching the warm orange glow as the sun slowly settled to dusky copper, Nathan keeping a careful distance and wondering if he would have to wait out another long day in silence until Luke put his thoughts in order sufficiently to voice them, when Luke looked up to him and, as if this was the continuation of a long-standing discussion, asked, “Do you believe it’s possible to spontaneously create life?”
Nathan blinked, momentarily taken aback by the question which had clearly been running endlessly through Luke’s thoughts for days now.
“I suppose….” Nathan considered, pulling his thoughts together, aware of expectant eyes on him. “I suppose scientifically I must. At some point, life was created from the random interaction of certain molecules which maintained integrity. A single-cell organism came into being. Every life-form is another expression of that random interaction, the biological creation of a new species, the driving force of nature to evolve. The whole galaxy is a manifestation of the spontaneous creation of life.”
“But do you think it’s possible to spontaneously create complex life—a human life?”
“Human life? No, I don’ believe so. If it were, there would be documented cases.”
“But you said yourself that nature seeks to evolve—to push the boundaries of potential. And even a human life begins with the division of a single cell.”
“But there must be an outside catalyst which stimulates that cell division. It can’t happen in isolation.”
“There are species which can spontaneously conceive.”
“But they’re not human. Their physiology is very different; it’s taken literally millennia for that ability to evolve. Human physiology requires an outside influence.”
Luke moved uncomfortably against aches and pains, his bruises still darkening from angry scarlet to deep purple. “What if that outside influence were the Force?”
Nathan set his head to one side, prepared to continue the debate because it had so clearly been playing on Luke’s mind. “Now you’re asking me to comment outside of my field of expertise. I suppose my answer would have to be, you tell me?”
Luke looked away, forehead furrowed in thought, seeking to follow the argument through to its natural conclusion. “We’re talking about the division of a single cell... The Force can operate at a molecular level within the body—that’s how we heal ourselves.”
“So then, are you saying that a Jedi would have the potential to create life within their own person?”
“But we can use the ability to heal on others too. The Force is, at its most basic level, a molecular entity. I don’t make a conscious decision to work at a molecular level and I’m not specifically aware of doing so, but if I can reach into another body and manipulate the organisms within at that level to destroy an infection or disperse a drug, with the proper knowledge surely I would be able to divide a single cell?”
Nathan shifted uncomfortably. “Are you intending to do so?”
Luke glanced up, obviously shocked that Nathan would even consider him willing to try such a thing. “Me? No—no, of course not. I’m just…” He trailed off, leaving Nathan to gaze at him uneasily, searching the reason for this sudden preoccupation.
Luke remained silent for a long time, lost in thought again, though his mind was clearly racing. When he finally looked up it was with another question. “If, theoretically, a Force-sensitive were able to do that—to manipulate the Force and induce life in another human being…would the life which had been created have any real link to its creator? Would it carry its creator’s characteristics as if they had been a physical donor, good and bad? Or would it be solely a creation of the Force—and if so, would it carry the fingerprint, the orientation, of that which had been used to create it?”
“Those are big questions,” Nathan said gravely, but Luke’s eyes steady on him made him consider. “Theoretically—medically—it would carry only the genetic makeup of the human parent. Only their DNA could be present so only their DNA would be available for use. So you’re effectively talking about a type of clone.”
“But would the Force itself—the midichlorians which induced the cell-split—become the second donor? If it did, that child would hold an unprecedented midichlorian count—a connection at a more basic level than any before. But if that were so, then would the aspect of the Force used to create it, be the aspect of the Force to which it would be inescapably attuned?”
Realization slowly dawned on Nathan that this was a more personal discussion than it seemed. "Are you...talking about yourself?"
Luke shook his head just slightly. "No...no, I'm talking about my father—and Palpatine..."
Nathan fell to a shocked, considered silence as the far-reaching implications slowly dawned.
It went to Luke then, to ask the next logical question, one that he clearly didn’t want to believe possible but he felt he had to consider: “Could the genetic footprint of the instigator be passed on through the Force? Would they be, to all intents and purposes, a biological donor?”
“I don’t think so—individual genetic make-up is incredibly complex.”
“So is the Force. It has the ability to influence a sentient mind, to affect individual perceptions and memories, to communicate without words even over extended distances. Human DNA is at its most basic a construct—it has mathematical, reproducible margins. Could that pattern of DNA be reproduced by the Force—and if so, would that constitute a biological link?”
Nathan was silent for long moments. “That’s…that’s way out of my experience or field of knowledge. Anything I said would at best be conjecture. Without proof, it’s all little more than speculation and supposition anyway.”
Luke nodded thoughtfully and fell to silence for a few seconds. When he looked up again he was very sure, as if voicing his agreement with Nathan. “I need a sample of Palpatine’s blood.”
The words left Nathan near-speechless.
“Anything else?” he managed at last, voice high with shock.
“Of course! Whilst I’m at it, why don’t I get you a sample of…” Nathan struggled to finish the sentence. “I’d say something even more outrageous but I think you’ve actually topped off the scale there.”
“I realize it will be difficult.”
“But this is important, Nath,” Luke said, voice steel. “To me—to everything I’m trying to do.”
“Is it though? What would really change if it were true, aside from your self-perception?”
Luke shook his head. “I won’t be the next Palpatine.”
Nathan glanced down, uneasy. “You’re not Palpatine.”
“I’m getting a little more like him every day. I can see it, Nath, so I don’t believe you can’t.”
“You’re learning to deal with him, to operate within that world, to use it to your advantage, that’s all.”
“The logical conclusion of that statement is that in order to nullify Palpatine, I would have to become him,” Luke argued quietly. “He once…he once said to me—when I asked him why he didn’t kill me when he first saw me—he said, ‘Darkness recognizes its own.’”
Nathan paused, choosing his words with care. “You know that this is what Palpatine does—that he'll use any means to…”
“No. That’s an excuse; a validation. I can’t afford to be ignorant. When…” Luke glanced down, frowning. “When I was in the cell six days ago Palpatine said that the only thing stopping me from leaving was my own weakness—my own conscience. He said that if I opened the door, the price would be paid in lives. The lives of those around me.”
“That isn’t a weakness, Luke—I think you know that.”
Luke lifted his head to stare at Nathan in silence for long seconds. “I nearly did it. I seriously thought about opening the door—just going ahead and opening it anyway. I can’t tell you how close I came.”
Nathan knew that he had been watching the weight of that knowledge settle on Luke’s shoulders for the past few days as his friend finally voiced his greatest fear.
“What if that’s all I am—all I can be? If Vader was created by Darkness, then how can I be anything more? Palpatine fell by choice, but what about my father? There is still good in him, I can feel that—some part of him that wasn’t consumed. Perhaps Vader still thinks he’s simply playing the game when he stands beside Palpatine, just as I do. I have to know, Nath—I have to know that when I play Palpatine’s games, I can still step back. I have to know that I won’t get lost in that game.”
“You won’t get lost,” Nathan assured. “You haven’t yet.”
Luke shook his head. “Is that what my father thought? What if he did the wrong thing for the right reasons…because he simply didn’t have that ability within him to recognize the difference—to step back. And if he couldn’t do that because of what he is…how can I?”
Eight days into its maiden voyage and having left the Peerless and the Dauntless behind in its last brief emergence from hyperspace in dead space at the edge of Sullust, the Patriot was reaching the end of her journey, somewhere in the Moddell or Ablajeck Sector as far as Luke could calculate based on time and some vague, indistinct sense of direction, though it could just as easily be the Spar or Vivenda Sector.
The journey had gone surprisingly smoothly thus far in terms of undisclosed secrets. Almost too much so, given the situation. It wasn’t that Luke was looking for trouble—in fact it seemed that the more secrets he himself held, the less Luke was prepared to rock the boat—but in his experience, life seldom went the way one hoped, and if it did, then it was generally the lull before a storm.
Now, Luke walked beside his Master on the vast bridge, Palpatine yet again dissecting the events which had marked the new Destroyer’s launch, Luke lost in his own thoughts, remembering how easy it had been to turn on the Rebels; to validate their removal as somehow being in their own greater interests.
“What is relevant is that this signifies a substantial change in tactics for them.” Palpatine turned slightly as they made their slow way from the rear to the front of the bridge along its outer pathway, voice quiet but still quite audible in the hushed bridge, though to all who heard, this was no more than a discussion of tactics between the Emperor and his Heir.
The subtler game which was hidden beneath the words was theirs alone—and Palpatine was pushing for a reaction. “They’re becoming bolder, taking more risks… Why do you think that is?”
“Honestly?” Luke said. “I think that without Mothma to hold him in check, Madine is beginning to make his presence felt amongst the leadership there.”
He had expected the name of one of Palpatine’s officers, long since defected to the Rebellion, to have a greater effect but in fact Palpatine remained silent for several seconds as they walked, before asking casually, “Is that what your spy thinks?”
Luke didn’t turn round but kept walking as he stated evenly, “Yes. And yours?”
He had no proof that his Master had managed to place another spy among the Rebels, but for the safety of Argot, Luke needed to find out, so the game played on. Palpatine paused to gaze out of the long, wide viewscreen, clearly not wishing to be drawn. But the lack of answer was an answer in itself, Luke knew.
Still, he was aware of his Master’s subtle curiosity as Palpatine tried a different thread, seeking to clarify his own unspoken suspicions. “Perhaps it is Leia Organa. She is after all the new leader of the Rebellion.”
Luke didn’t hesitate or make any move to defend her. “Perhaps. She has a more military perspective than Mothma ever did, and she’ll doubtless feel the need to establish herself.”
Brief flash-images of Leia’s face seared through his thoughts—of the moment when he’d turned on her group with a vengeance, of the fear in her eyes when the choking smoke had cleared and she had stared at him, horrified.
Where was the line then? Had he crossed it in attacking at all, even when he knew they were already betrayed, or had he simply sought to buy Leia’s life with that of those about her, his eye on the greater picture. Acceptable losses. The wrong thing for the right reasons—or was that the other way around?
His fear was no longer whether he could play the game—it had become far more whether he knew when to stop.
The Emperor spoke on, still pushing to find some perceived weakness, and Luke tried to concentrate, to hide gnawing doubts from his Master’s searching mind as Palpatine sought to lay subtle traps. “In your opinion, is this the kind of action she would instigate?”
He shrugged, aware that Palpatine was seeking to get a reading of his opinion of Leia, given her convenient escape, but unwilling to supply one. “It’s a long time since I last spoke with her. Time changes people.”
“Still, you knew her well.”
Palpatine paused before the forward viewscreen, looking into the maelstrom of lightspeed without truly seeing. Luke kept his expression and his thoughts guarded, aware that his Master’s acute senses were trained on him. Was this an idle discussion; a taunt, no more—a reminder of his former naivety—or was Palpatine aware that something was amiss but unable as yet to chase it down?
Whatever else it was, the conversation certainly wasn’t a genuine request for opinions; Palpatine did as he pleased regardless of those around him.
“Based on past experience I’d say that she wouldn’t shirk from this kind of action if it were suggested,” Luke replied calmly, shaking his head slightly, forcing his mind to focus past the distracting images which burned into his thoughts. “All the beings who advise her at present are military in outlook and experience—I’d say it’s inevitable that she would develop a more militaristic attitude.”
“Do you think I should remove her?”
“I think you should remove the Rebellion entirely, but that seems to be proving difficult,” Luke dodged neatly. Was he failing to see the desert for the dunes? Something bigger was going on here, carefully hidden behind Luke’s own smaller, more routine concerns, his thoughts distracted; he was uneasy about Mara, Nathan was at meltdown level, and Palpatine kept on leading Luke’s thoughts back to the actions of the Rebels. Was this a diversionary tactic? Carefully played along by his Master, was Luke failing to ask the bigger question, and if so…what?
Luke frowned, mind split between his Master's words and the reason for his speaking them. The big question was surely not what Palpatine said or where he led this one conversation, but... Why was Palpatine here at all?
“Perhaps I should place a bounty on her head?” the Emperor pushed.
“I would be very surprised if you hadn’t already.”
Palpatine let out a small laugh at that before trying another lure. “Heh, perhaps I should send you after her?”
Luke didn’t flinch. “Perhaps you should give me sole responsibility for pursuing the Rebellion in its entirety.”
Again Palpatine laughed, clearly amused at Luke’s single-minded determination. “You’ve wanted this for a long time.”
Luke half-turned, completely drawn in to the conversation now, though he remained silent, knowing when to push and when to allow the Emperor time to feel that a decision had been reached by his own will.
It was, of course, true that he wanted responsibility for the insurgents turned over to him. Not for the reasons he allowed his Master to believe, though Luke had to admit that Palpatine’s teachings had probably influenced his view on how to deal with this.
As his Master was so fond of saying, knowledge was power, and if he intended to change the status-quo which had existed between Empire and Rebellion for the last two decades then Luke needed, no matter how covertly, to move information both ways through contacts in the Rebellion. It was the only way to contain them—to direct them. But his father’s deeply held disdain of the Rebellion would mean that he’d never allow Luke that kind of contact, even to Luke’s own ends. In fact, fearing a split in Luke's loyalties, Vader would undoubtedly do everything in his considerable power to stop him. Notwithstanding their recent cooperation, the fact remained that whilst responsibility for the Rebellion rested with Vader, Luke knew he would always be reliant on his father’s good will—and that was tenuous at best.
He still hadn’t revealed his ultimate goals to his father, nor did he have any intention to do so, because whilst their relationship had settled, Luke had to admit that he didn’t for one moment actually trust his father. Couldn’t depend on him not to place his own goals before Luke's, as he consistently had in the past. And whilst that fact remained, Luke still needed to gain control of the anti-insurgency taskforce dealing with the Rebellion. It was the only way to guarantee his own access to them.
“I will…consider your request,” Palpatine allowed into the extended silence, his eyes turning again to the radiant, mottled splendor of hyperspace. “You will have new duties soon—new responsibilities—and I would not like to see your attention too divided. But perhaps in the long term, these undertakings could be made to integrate… Yes, I will consider.”
“Thank you, Master,” Luke murmured, head down to hide his satisfaction.
Less than a day later, he stood in the same spot beside his Master and the game Palpatine had been playing in coming here had taken on a devastating new twist.
“You disapprove,” Palpatine intoned from his position before the viewport, keeping his eyes on the half-constructed battle station which hung like a silvery pearl in the velvet darkness, but growing larger every second—and more unmistakable.
He remained stock still, his senses trained on Skywalker, searching for any telltale sign as the boy stood close by. But there was nothing; he was too accomplished now to allow any chink in his armor, even at this.
“I see no use for it,” Skywalker said mildly, hands clasped behind his back as he stood to loose, wary attention, his tone casually dismissive though Palpatine knew his thoughts must be reeling.
They had finally emerged from hyperspace, still maneuvering closer to the massive, partially complete battle station over a verdant green planet whose name Palpatine never could be bothered to remember.
He had walked slowly to the front of the bridge to stand beside his Jedi as helm announced their imminent reversion, wishing to be close when the Patriot came out of hyperspace, the other officers present instinctively withdrawing to leave them alone.
Now Palpatine turned to his Jedi, watching his jaw tighten as their destination became apparent. Skeletal though it still was, he was sure its familiar shape, the massive dish almost complete, must be firing memories of its predecessor, which Skywalker himself had destroyed over Yavin IV—the very act which had first brought him to the Emperor’s attention.
“There is always the need to maintain stability,” Palpatine said at last, pressing for a reaction.
“Perhaps,” his feral Jedi allowed. “But I don’t believe it will do that.”
“It is a manifestation of my power. Power is stability; one will above all others.”
“Too much oppression encourages dissent.” The boy was taking care to keep any emotion from his voice or his sense, clearly aware that his Master was looking for a reaction and disinclined to provide one.
“Dissent can be dealt with.”
“If you know it exists,” Luke said. “And where. This is only a deterrent if you know where to point it. You assume you have a single enemy; they scatter themselves widely for that very reason.”
“You will find a target,” Palpatine said confidently.
The boy glanced over, realizing, and Palpatine brought sharp, yellow-flecked eyes to his Jedi.
“You are charged with the responsibility of completing this project and bringing it online, my friend—it needs a strong hand now to guide it. Your arrival on Coruscant meant that I became remiss in pushing it forward; I had other, more important concerns. But whilst the Rebellion is gone from the Core Systems, it remains very much a presence in the Rim worlds. In retrospect, I believe that perhaps you were right when you claimed that you could do what your father could not.”
“The Rim is a difficult area to police—” It was almost a defense, and it brought Palpatine’s eyes to the boy immediately, but he was still staring at the unfinished Death Star, his next words tempering Palpatine’s suspicion, his thoughts clearly on the appointed task. “Even this can only be in one place at once.”
“That is all it needs to be, if used properly,” Palpatine said. “But any deterrent is only as effective as the hand used to guide it; if I gave this to your father, he would use it without compunction and it would, as you said, only encourage dissent.”
“If one has nothing to lose, then why not gamble—why not fight?” the boy said, aware of the paradox. “This is global, impersonal; it can’t separate between innocents and insurgents. Retribution is indiscriminate and non-selective.”
The boy turned slightly to his Master, knowing that Palpatine wanted to hear that he saw both the disadvantages and the advantages in this. “But you think that’s also its strength, because it will make the Rebels unpopular—unwelcome wherever they try to hide. Reprisals would be absolute, unconditional and global. A whole world could potentially pay for the mistakes of one being. Insurgents taking refuge on the far side of a planet could no longer be ignored when by doing so it places one’s own family at risk. There can be no degrees of allowance or tacit disregard when the result will be felt so close to home. Every single being on any given world would have a vested interest in removing such dangers from their own planet—reporting them. Its existence is enough.”
Palpatine smiled; the boy had learned his lessons well. He could, he supposed, have invested the same effort in teaching his father—in many ways it would have been far less problematic, given how young the boy had been when Palpatine first met him. But Vader had given up any rights when he had failed to bring down Kenobi. He had lost the power Palpatine had devoted so much to investing in him and in that moment, he had become as every other Sith apprentice was in Palpatine’s eyes—a commodity. A tool to be used and discarded. A pity; he would have been easier to control than his son—but then again, therein had laid the pleasure…and the satisfaction of leading the boy to this moment.
“You understand—appreciate the delicate nature of such a weapon.” He turned back to study the distant battle station, successor to the first Death Star, tone indulgent. “You always were my fine blade.”
Luke’s gaze was held completely by the specter before him, present and past colliding and reducing him to tense, irresolute silence; he understood—he just didn’t necessarily agree.
Though he wasn’t naïve enough to say such out loud—or allow even a trace of it to slip through ever-present shields.
So Palpatine continued, believing they were of one accord on this. “When it is operational, it will be assigned to your Fleet, together with a charge to turn it against the Rebellion. You have asked me repeatedly for that assignment and I have always refused, believing you not ready. Your actions onboard the Patriot were exemplary. I am confident now that you are equal to the responsibility; that you will fulfill all obligations that the role requires.”
“I don’t need this. Give me access to the Rim Systems and I’ll take them apart anyway. This will take at least a year to complete—give me that one year and control of Vader’s anti-insurgency taskforce...”
Palpatine shook his head as Luke spoke, unyielding…and finally he tendered the reward, knowing exactly how to draw his Wolf in with the offer of that which he desired above all else. “No. But when you have completed this weapon…I will give you free run to use it wherever you see fit, my friend.”
For an instant Luke only stared, speechless…but already, knowing his Master of old, he was examining the details of the offer, considering the implications…
Palpatine gave him what he wanted—at a price.
Always a price.
Luke glanced back at the half-completed monstrosity which hung before him, an echo of a previous life brushing at his soul and leaving deep misgivings. He’d helped destroy its predecessor—was he really willing to help create the progeny? Was he prepared to relinquish so…
He broke the thought, glancing to the small moon behind the skeletal station then out to the stars beyond, looking for a point of reference—
“Where is this?” Immediately he tempered the question behind another meaning. “Can we guarantee that it’s secure?”
“Yes.” Palpatine’s gravelly voice was imbued with its typical confidence. “It has remained so for some time; we are far enough from the beaten path that we can ensure privacy.”
“The planet isn’t occupied? It looks habitable.”
The Emperor glanced down, tone dismissive as he struggled to even remember the planet’s name. “Endor is lost in the Outer Rim, close to the edge of the Unknown Regions. It has no technology and no mineral wealth, therefore no connection with the civilized galaxy—but it does have one thing I need: power.”
Luke barely heard, his mind caught up not by Palpatine’s offer of eventual free reign beyond the Core Systems if he finished the Emperor’s new toy…but by the realization that acceptance of this task may necessitate a far earlier relaxing of restrictions. He maintained a coolly curious expression arranged on his face as his thoughts raced; Endor…In the Outer Rim.
The Emperor continued, unaware of Luke’s split attention. “I would not leave so vital a project undefended—there are a series of shields projected from the sanctuary moon…”
Luke nodded distantly, the possibilities sparking; Endor. If he took this task then he would be required to travel to the Outer Rim regularly—under covert means, since its existence was clearly classified. Falling off all official and unofficial radars may well enable him to evade the Emperor’s close scrutiny too. Just as importantly it would guarantee the one thing that Palpatine had always so vigilantly denied Luke: regular personal access to both the Core and the Rim Fleets.
His mind began to race at the opportunities; he could gradually swap out trusted allies from both fleets on the pretext of specialist manning for the construction; institute a line of command which would give him absolute control here. The amount of supplies and technology coming in would be vast—it would be easy to appropriate and re-route part of it; expand and reinforce the 701st at a far faster rate than he’d anticipated. Double their size and split them between the Peerless and the Patriot—then again between the Patriot and this station. He’d already left a contingent covertly scattered aboard the Peerless along with a reliable Captain; if and when he chose to move, together they would guarantee the loyalty of Luke's previous command.
Which gave him the Peerless, the Patriot, the Executor…and now this. Plus reliable Star Destroyer Captains and Command Staff on many others, combined with deep-cover operatives from the 701st and his father’s 501st, who could guarantee that those trusted officers maintained command at the allotted time…
His Master droned on and Luke nodded from time to time, mind still reeling at the potential…
Once—just once more—he saw again the Death Star, remembered his past convictions… But they were gone in an instant, quashed beneath realization of the opportunity which presented itself here. He was after all not intending to aid Palpatine; this was the opportunity to do all that those distant memories had desired—to bring the Emperor down. In his bitter, blind desire for ever more power, Palpatine had been the architect of all that Luke had lost; it was only fitting that the ultimate statement of that power should be pivotal in his downfall.
He could not turn this down—all he saw now was potential.
His Master was right; power was stability—one will above all others…just not Palpatine’s.
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