Leia woke slowly, mind numb, listening to her own breathing as her vision slowly cleared and she realized that she was staring at the plain, semi-illuminated tiles of a medi-bay ceiling…and a face.
“Hey, sweetheart. How’s the headache going?” Han asked solicitously, his blurred face coming slowly into focus.
“Uh…” It was all Leia could summon in the moment. She blinked rapidly, the space behind her eyes pounding in time to her heartbeat. “What happened?”
“The Wasp got a direct hit from that Imperial frigate, just before you went to lightspeed. Took most of the damage around the main bridge. Apparently you were in there and decided to catch a falling main-beam with the top of your head. You took a chunk outta your arm too, but you’re all bacta’d up now.”
“Wait…we took a hit?”
Han nodded. “Your shields were down.”
Leia sat abruptly up, and was rewarded for her troubles by a pang that felt like someone had just hit her across the back of her head with a club, making her gasp.
Han leaned in. “Hey, take it easy, sweetheart. You’ve been out a full day, you know. You should…”
“Han, it was me!”
“It was me—I dropped the shields on the Wasp.”
“No, the Imperial frigate took down…”
“Listen to me! It was me, I dropped the shields… Don’t look at me like that!” The last she added because Han was staring at her with his very best, ‘Okay, I’ll humor you ‘cos you’re clearly still off your head’ look.
It didn’t change when he spoke. “Hey, in my own defense, you do have a concussion.”
“That doesn’t mean…” She broke off, grabbing for Han’s arm. “Luke! What happened to Luke?”
Han pursed his lips, and really that was all Leia needed to know. She slumped back down onto the bed, knowing it had all been futile. “No…I did it to get him off. There was an Imperial gunboat trying to board, to pull him off the Wasp. I dropped the shields so it could get into the bay.”
“Wait, you were tryin’ to get Luke off? Correct me if I’m wrong, but last time we spoke—yelled—you were backin’ Madine’s plan to catch him and telling me it was the right thing to do. Bigger picture, and all that.”
Leia covered her face with her hands, her injured arm throbbing painfully as she lifted it. “Oh, this is terrible…where is he now?”
“Could we just clarify the Luke thing,” Han said. “Cos right now I don’t know whether to hug you ‘cos you’ve finally seen sense, or hug you ‘cos you’ve got a concussion and you’re not making sense.”
Leia kept her hands over her face, shaking her head. “Han, I know…I know he’s Luke—Luke Skywalker—I know that now. Whatever else he is, he was Luke Skywalker. I just…oh I listened to too many people and not the right ones.” She pulled her hands away. “Where is he?”
Han was sitting slowly, his manner that of someone who didn’t quite know what to do; didn’t have a response equal to the moment. He let out a long, slow sigh, and only after stretched seconds did he finally looked up. “Is this a bad time to say this is a bad time to realize this?”
“Where is he?”
“Madine has him,” Han said at last, voice quiet.
Leia glanced around the large, well-equipped medi-bay. “Where am I? This isn’t the Zephyr.”
“You’re on Home One. I told you, you were out a full day.”
“Still on the Wasp, with his Special Ops team—and Luke. He’s in contact via HoloNet link.”
“Why isn’t he with the fleet?”
“Cos no one could give him that order but you.”
Leia threw the blanket back and swung her legs from the bed, ignoring the pounding in her head. “I need a comlink.”
A quiet rap on the door stopped her. “Yes?”
Tag Massa entered, looking about as relieved as someone who was clearly on the very edge of holding it together could manage. “Leia, you’re awake. Thank…” She paused, pulling herself together. “I’m glad to see you’re okay, Ma’am. We were worried for a while.”
“I’m fine. What’s happening with Madine?”
Tag’s frown deepened. “We have him on a HoloNet link at the moment; there’s a Council meeting about to start to decide what…”
“A Council meeting? Why wasn’t I informed?”
“You were out cold, sweetheart,” Han said.
“We’ve been trying to delay it for the last twelve hours,” Tag added gravely. “But General Madine and his supporters are pushing to convene and get permission on a course of action regarding the Emperor.”
Tag’s voice dropped. “The General is pressing to set up some viral on the HoloNet; he and his supporters want us to claim responsibility and…”
“Wait, we’d already agreed on our course of action, Madine knows that.”
Tag frowned. “What course?”
“A trial—the Emperor’s to stand trial.”
Tag glanced briefly to Han. “That’s not what they’re pushing for now, Ma’am.”
Leia blanched. “Tag…what if Madine's done the wrong thing; what if we could actually trust the Emperor? I think he was serious about the talks.”
Tag stared at Leia for long, uncomfortable seconds… “Ma'am…is there a reason for this change of heart?”
“Reason?” Leia frowned. “Just…everything he said, everything he didn’t say. Everything we’ve talked about in our last three meetings… It just all came together and…I don’t know, made sense. Tag, I think he’s Luke Skywalker, the Luke Skywalker who was here. I think that’s the Emperor! I’m not saying that I trust him absolutely, I’m not saying we blindly leap to his aid now, but should we have given talks a chance?”
Tag stared, pausing a long time as if expecting more. When Leia couldn’t offer it, she tried again. “There’s no other reason… Nothing more…concrete you’re placing your trust in, perhaps?”
“Concrete? Like what—an offer?”
“No. Concrete may not be the right word… More…basic perhaps, more visceral. A reason to feel that you have some connection with the Emperor?” Leia hesitated, and Tag tried again. “This will be one of the most important meetings in your leadership, Ma'am, and I’d hate to go into it without all the available facts. Truths have a habit of coming to the surface when you least expect them to, and the wrong ones coming to light at the wrong time can cause incalculable damage.”
“I don’t…” Leia rubbed at her forehead, her skull pounding.
Han leaned forward, voice gentler. “Listen, maybe you should sit this meeting out.”
“No! I can’t. I’m not going to let Madine and his cohorts push something through because I’m not there.”
“Just what are you gonna do?” Han asked doubtfully. “Cos believe me, sweetheart, if you go in there now and start sayin’ we got it all wrong and the Emperor’s not only an ex-Rebel pilot, but he’s also been tryin’ to instigate peace talks with the same guys who tried to blow him up a few years back, they’re gonna figure that maybe that blow to your head was a little harder than they thought. Believe me, I know; it’s not a popular line round here. You sing his praises and you’ll be doing it alone.”
“Han, we still have to look at the bigger picture here,” Leia said, knowing this wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “Yes, I know the Emperor was Luke, but the fact remains that he’s also the Emperor, and he gained that position by serving Palpatine.”
“You’re seriously saying that you still don’t believe him?”
“I’m saying… I don’t know what I’m saying!” Leia sighed. “I’m saying I’m open to the possibility that things aren’t as they seem. But I also have to consider the bigger picture, Han…it has to be my first priority here. I have to do what’s best for the Alliance. I have to let democracy take its course, even in this. And maybe that’s not the course I personally want, but I still have a responsibility to see it through.”
“Ma'am,” Tag said gravely, “now isn’t the time for this. The Council will meet in less than an hour. Madine is doing all he can to pull more support around him on the strength of his success, and to push for decisive action. Action which is more in line with a military junta than a future democracy.”
Leia shook her head, ignoring the pounding there. “There’ll be no impromptu executions here. That’s not who we are.”
“I would seriously advise you to hold to a moderate line until we know the lie of the land. Play for time and stabilize the Council’s focus and your own support.”
“And Luke?” Han asked. “Madine's rounding up a lynch-mob out there, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Tag kept her eyes on Leia. “You go in there and defend the Emperor too strongly and it could polarize the situation further and push people towards Madine. More than anything else right now, you need to try to have the Emperor brought to Home One and therefore under your own and the Council’s influence at the first possible opportunity, by whatever means. You need to gain control of this situation quickly and decisively, or it could very easily spiral from your control. You need to be the voice of reason here, the voice of balance, of integrity. The Council respect you; they’ll listen to you.”
Leia pursed her lips, forcing her mind to work. “Madine's on rocky ground in pushing for immediate action and he knows it. We’re fighting for a fair democracy and he’s trying to sidetrack that. He’s effectively asking the Council to bypass everything we’re fighting for.”
Tag nodded. “If you want to push for a trial then I’ll back you, of course, and I know over half the Council will do the same with little persuasion. My worry is that if you and Madine had agreed to a trial and he’s changed his mind, he’s now had time to form a case against it.”
“Well then, let’s find out what he came up with,” Leia said, unable to quite keep the edge of apprehension from her voice.
“He’ll stand trial…” General Rieekan nodded in agreement with Leia, staring at the grave faces of the other Chiefs of Staff who comprised the Alliance Council, all sitting around the wide expanse of the circular table in the War Room. Save for Madine, of course; he remained on the Wasp, present by HoloNet link.
And right now, Leia was uncomfortably aware of his eyes on her, as they had been for most of this meeting. Still bandaged and sore, she really didn’t feel ready for the full ten rounds with the Council in general and Madine in particular.
“What I’m asking is, under whose law will he stand trial, Sir?” Commander Odig, Madine's long-time supporter, said, as she shook her head. She turned again to the gloss black droid who stood one step behind her, a protocol designation programmed for legal functions, which just happened to have been brought in by Odig today, Leia reflected wryly.
“El-Dee?” Odig prompted now.
“No law, Imperial or Republic, can legally enact any subpoena against an acting Head of State,” the legal droid supplied in authoritative tones. “You cannot serve an indictment or file a judicial summons against an acting Office.”
“We could impeach him,” Leia said, Tag’s advice to play for time and get Luke onboard Home One foremost in her thoughts.
“I’ve already checked this,” Odig replied. “There’s no legal precedent within the Empire to impeach the Head of State, in fact there are clauses in the Supremacy Act which specifically obstruct it. A prosecution is simply not the answer in this case.”
This was the line Madine and his supporters were taking, and Leia had to admit it was a clever one: they were claiming that it was quite simply legally impossible to bring the Emperor to trial. Palpatine had made very sure of that.
The droid straightened, supplying an explanation to the Council. “If you impeach the Emperor, in legal terms you are effectively impeaching the Empire itself, and thus its constitution, and only the Empire's own legislative body is authorized to do that. The Empire’s main legislative body is the Court, and the Supremacy Act created when the Empire was founded and Palpatine took office as Emperor stated that…” El-Dee paused to indicate that he was reciting law verbatim, “… ‘The Imperial Court will bear and be responsible for instigating, upholding and enforcing all matters pertaining to the legally recognized Imperial constitution. The jurisdictional autonomy of such Court to create or pass new legislature will remain at all times conditional until enacted by the Emperor.’ This means that all law is subject to being accepted or nullified by the Emperor himself.”
“So we can’t impeach him without his permission?” Leia asked dryly.
General Gall, another staunch Madine supporter, took his cue, inadvertently revealing that this was a pre-organized confrontation when he too prompted the droid.
“Oh, it’s cleverer than that. El-Dee?”
“Theoretically, it is possible to impeach the Emperor within the laws of the constitution. However, to do so one would need to petition the Imperial Court, which is responsible for such laws, and persuade them to initiate a legal motion to impeach their own Emperor. They would then need to pass that motion unchallenged in legitimately recognized sittings of Court and the Royal Houses, at which point it would be acknowledged as a lawful legislative ruling. Once approved in theory by Court, that legislative ruling could then be brought to the Emperor's attention in a formal Court session—which would require his presence at Court on Coruscant—when they could request of him to pass that ruling into a legal statute, thus giving them the power to impeach him. Such a statute can only be brought before the Emperor three times for his consideration, though he is no more bound to accept it in any presentation and perfectly entitled to amend or dismiss it all three times. If the ruling were to be approved by the Emperor, however, it would become a legally binding statute. Court would then be required to enact that very unlikely statute into law and enter it into the constitution without further challenge, at which point it could be legally cited as law, and used to impeach the Emperor.”
“By which point he’s presumably died of old age, and all of us with him?” General Cotta said dryly, though despite her tone Leia knew she could trust Cotta to hold a moderate path.
For the first time, Leia realized that she was making conscious mental notes as to whose support she could rely on, the Council separating off into two camps in her mind.
The legal droid continued in those same indomitable tones. “I would also point out that even with that law in effect, the legislative right to remove the Emperor from office still does not exist. The Office of Emperor is, according to the legal Imperial definition laid out in the Supremacy Act, ‘subject to no other authority.’ Further, it states that ‘No man may prescribe conditions, nor make him abide by any oath, nor hold him to account during his reign.’ Therefore to try an Emperor even according to Imperial law, would be exceeding its legitimate mandate as defined by the Supremacy Act. It would effectively be unlawful.”
“Then we find another way to bring him to trial,” Leia said firmly.
Admiral Ackbar straightened, huge glassy eyes swiveling to Leia. “Republic law, perhaps?”
The legal droid tilted his head. “The Old Republic required a vote of No Confidence to remove a serving official from power before it could press legal charges, Admiral. A vote of No Confidence required an independent legislative body—it required a Senate. There is presently no legally recognized Senate in existence; it was disbanded and declared unlawful ten years ago.”
Commander Odig shook her head. “Palpatine covered himself too well. There are no exceptions in Imperial law which would enable us to bring a case to his successor, and Republic law had no precedents for absolute rule. Bringing the Emperor to trial is simply not an option. We need to move to a more decisive ruling without it.”
“Decisive ruling,” Leia repeated. “Would you care to clarify that statement, Commander?”
“I’m saying we have no need of a trial, Ma'am,” Odig said definitively. “We all know the truth.”
“Which is?” General Cotta said tersely, her voice rising.
“We know his guilt, General.”
“That doesn’t give us the right to carry out a sentence without a trial, Commander.”
Leia mentally chalked Cotta up as a definite moderate, and hated herself for being forced to think in these terms.
“Forgive me for appearing obstructive,” Odig said insincerely. “But I’m citing the basic legal requirements which would be asserted by any authorized legal representative in any courtroom on any planet. I’m trying to stop us from a premature decision to press for an impracticable trial which would be, to all intents and purposes, a waste of time. Either the trial would be dismissed on legal grounds and leave us in an untenable position, or it would go ahead and a guilty verdict would be delivered anyway, enabling us to carry out a sentence that we’re already in a position to carry out.”
“Thank you for your opinion—and your obvious diligence in researching this possibility so thoroughly in the limited time available to you,” Leia said pointedly, making everyone aware that they were being railroaded here. “However, the fact remains that we have a moral responsibility to let democracy take its course if we wish to remain true to the ideals of the Alliance we fight for. And its most basic foundation, its founding principle, is that all beings are entitled to justice.”
“Even one who has placed himself above the law?” Odig said.
“All beings,” Leia repeated.
General Madine's voice was tinny from the heavily compressed and coded Holo-link, but lost none of its fire. “And justice, in this instance, is surely to expose the Emperor to the very same justice that he has allowed to flourish in his Empire for three decades. Convictions without trial, sentences without verdicts. He seems to feel no such qualms when it comes to Rebel lives.”
“I wasn’t aware that the present Emperor had held the throne for so long, General.”
“He sustained it long before he held it, Ma'am. We all know that.”
“And we all disapprove, General. We fight it with our very lives. Do you now mean for us to become that which we know with every ounce of our being is fundamentally wrong?”
“We know the truth, Ma'am. We know what is fair, and just. We know what this verdict should undoubtedly be—as does every right-minded being. The only logical course of action would be to invoke immediate action.”
“By immediate action you mean what, General?”
“We are all well aware of the Emperor’s past actions, Ma'am. We are in no doubt as to their accuracy and we are well acquainted with the judgment that such charges would undoubtedly confer under Imperial law. All that remains is to enact them.”
‘We are in no doubt…we know the truth…the logical course'… Clever, divisive words, Leia knew, Madine speaking as if the decision had already been made, as if they were arguing now only how to act upon it. She nodded slowly. “I must congratulate you on your certainty, General Madine—on your confidence in your own judgment. However, I can assure you that we do not all know with such cold conviction what should be done. We do not all have so little faith in the legal system, and so much faith in our own superior ability to second-guess it.”
“The Emperor is directly responsible for the murder of Mon Mothma. The last time I checked, the charge of murder in Imperial courts carried the death penalty.”
Leia felt a heat bloom in the center of her chest; when she’d said he should be brought to trial, she hadn’t even considered the possibility of capital punishment. She had, in her own mind, been placing the Office of Emperor under trial, to rule it unjust; not the man himself. Now, suddenly, she was faced with the grim reality, and even without her change of heart, she knew she would have blanched at this.
“The last time I checked, even under Imperial law it was the conviction of murder which carried the death penalty, General,” Leia sidestepped. “Our meeting today is to discuss a method by which a trial could take place, not an execution.”
Tag straightened. “I have to agree that a trial would seem the most rational, reasonable course here—but I do agree with Commander Odig that a premature push to take this to court would be disastrous. It needs a solid foundation that wouldn’t be dismissed within hours from any recognized courtroom. A defendant can only be tried once for any crime; we get this wrong, in terms of due process and even the wording of the arraignment, and the case would be dismissed. We need to prepare. We need to bring the Emperor into a secure environment onboard Home One and make our case.”
She was pulling the issues back to what they needed to achieve, Leia realized. Now, having seen Madine's zeal, she understood Tag’s fears all too well. They needed Luke here, and they needed everyone committed to the same path—the right path.
“Military law,” Commander Rieekan suggested. “Would a court-martial be possible?”
“Military law covers military personnel,” General Madine said with a shake of his head.
“The Emperor is head of the military.”
“But he’s not himself a member,” Odig said firmly, always ready to back Madine. “Military law simply doesn’t cover him.”
“Martial law,” Leia tried, eyes to the legal droid. “Martial law enables the military to try civilians. The Caamas Convention allows any military body to try an enemy prisoner of war for war crimes.”
The legal droid bent forward, speaking in hushed tones to Commander Odig.
Odig nodded once, and the glossy black droid straightened, turning to Leia. “In both Republic and Imperial law, any individual is entitled to be tried lex terrae, that is, according to the laws in force within the political state of which he is a member, which is Imperial law. However, that rule could conceivably be challenged under martial rather than common law, if the officers of the jury were Alliance military.”
At the corner of her vision, Leia saw Tag Massa tense abruptly and knew something was wrong. Was convinced of it when Tag spoke out…against a trial. “The laws of lex terrae would still apply, meaning the Emperor would remain protected by the Supremacy Act.”
“Not necessarily, not under a trial conducted under martial law,” Odig repeated—the first tolerant words she’d spoken. “A court-martial could legally be convened to General level. Such a martial trial answers to the laws of the force who holds it, which in this case is deemed to be the constitution of the Old Republic. They could also reasonably dismiss the need for the necessary vote of No Confidence under Republic law. To have such clauses passed by a military jury would free the way for a trial.”
“You’re saying we should twist the law to fit what we need it to be?” Leia asked, uneasy now.
“I’m saying we could set a legal precedent,” Odig said firmly.
“And is capital punishment still in effect?” Madine asked.
The legal droid straightened.
“The judicial process of capital punishment was not legally abolished in military courts, as it was in civilian courts, merely discounted.”
And there it was again, Leia knew; Madine wasn’t just searching for a way to depose an Emperor and so challenge an Empire at its very heart…he wanted to remove Luke permanently. To dethrone him wasn’t enough; he wanted him dead.
“This isn’t the way to do it.” Tag shook her head, turning to Leia—and from the expression on her face, Leia knew that despite their agreement on pushing for a trial, something was going horribly wrong. “At best we will be clutching at straws, pulling vague and obsolete legal statutes out and dusting them off to prop up an unsupportable claim, and at worst—and certainly before the eyes of nine tenths of the galaxy—we will be acting outside of the law as they understand it. And believe me, Sirs, we will be doing so before the whole galaxy.”
Odig turned on her. “If all you can do is quote negatives—”
“I am trying to be the voice of reason,” Tag stated through clenched jaw. “This is an unprecedented act; do you really think the Empire will have any reason at all to keep it quiet? We, who claim the moral high ground, are reduced to kidnapping and concocting ad hoc inventions of unconstitutional, unlawful statutes to justify our actions?” Tag turned to Leia. “Give me some time, Ma'am. Give me two weeks and I can come up with a viable alternative—a legitimately sound one. This will be nothing short of a drumhead trial, with no legally recognized judge or jury. It would be a shambles before the entire galaxy—is this truly what we wish to become known for?”
Leia grasped the opportunity offered. “I think Commander Massa has a point, General Madine; this is not our sphere of expertise. You so often rightly worry that Council members are forced to make decisions with neither preparation nor proper discussion. In line with that, I’m sure you’ll be the first to admit that it would be recklessly premature to push through a major precedent on such terms. Under these circumstances, I’d suggest that the Council allow Commander Massa a two week interval in which to investigate the legalities of this matter further, at which time we’ll put it to a vote.”
It felt good to use Madine's standard delaying tactic against him for once; even better to watch his face redden because he knew he was cornered. Still, Leia kept her voice level as she pushed for more. “In the meantime, the best course of action would be to have the Emperor moved to a more secure location onboard Home One. We can reconvene and discuss this further when we have him safely confined here. Can you give us a timetable on that?”
Madine straightened again, voice steel. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible at present, Ma'am. We have specialist, heavily reinforced holding facilities onboard the Wasp, a duplicate of a cell built specifically to hold a Sith. I believe our best chance of keeping him confined is to do so here, onboard the Wasp.”
Leia cut through the empty manners. “Are you telling me you refuse to hand him over to us, General?”
“I’m saying, Ma'am, that at this time I believe that it is in all our best interests if the Emperor remains onboard the Wasp. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that we still have a high-level spy working from Home One, and in view of that fact, I will repeat my intention to keep the Emperor here, under controlled conditions. After all this work, I would hate to deliver him into the hands of an…unknown spy, and so aid an Imperial extraction. I'm sure you feel the same.”
The tone of Madine's voice as he said the last caused Leia to frown, uncertain at its inference. “What I feel, as I’m sure the rest of the Council do, is confident of our ability to manage this situation—and disappointed in your own lack of faith, General Madine.”
“It isn’t a question of faith, Ma'am, it’s a question of relative strengths. I have a select, carefully assembled crew of Special Ops, all of whom I trust implicitly, and we have facilities here which have been many months in preparation—facilities which cannot be moved or transplanted, the culmination of a huge investment of time in research and construction, specifically tailored to hold him. Here is where I can guarantee that the Emperor will be secure, so here is where he stays. I think it would be a far better expenditure of our time to discuss the questionable validity of any kind of trial. We all know what should be done—what should have been done already.”
A sudden fear twisted within Leia. “I want to see him,” she said quickly, “speak to him.”
“Out of the question,” Madine dismissed immediately.
Rieekan half-rose, such was his indignation. “Are you refusing the Commander-in-Chief of the Alliance access, General Madine?”
The compressed image of the holo-link gave little away of the subtleties of Madine's expression, but his pause spoke volumes. “You are, of course, correct, General Rieekan. I was concerned only for the Chief’s safety. She may speak with the prisoner whenever she wishes. I’ll have a holo-link set up so that…”
“No, I want to see him in the flesh,” Leia said, determined to lock this down now, when Madine was cornered into making a very public concession or risk loss of face before those he still hoped to win over. “How far away are you now, General?”
“…We’re two days from your location, Ma'am.”
“Then we can rendezvous tomorrow at…”
“Unfortunately the Wasp is still undergoing repairs. We presently have only one reconstructed sublight engine, which is limiting our ability to make lightspeed.”
“Really? Yet I’m told you’ve managed to limp to lightspeed twice?” Leia realized her opportunity though. “If you’re under repair, it may be better for us to bring Home One to your position. If you supply coordinates to…”
“There’s no need to remove Home One from what’s presently a secure location, Ma'am. Give us an extra day for repairs and we’ll be mobile.”
Leia sat back slightly, looking to clarify for the whole Council just exactly what was going on here. “I’d prefer you hand your co-ordinates over to the Council now, General.”
Madine was silent long seconds, and again Leia was aware that there was more than the obvious going on here. “I’m quite willing to do that, Ma'am—after Commander Massa has handed over the results of the test I requested of her earlier.”
The Intel Chief shook her head slightly. “Test? I’m sorry, General Madine, I haven’t checked my messages in the last several hours—we’ve been in upheaval here, with the Chief’s injuries and the news of your actions. I’ll be sure to check my inbox when I return to my office. I hope it wasn’t time-sensitive—I would hate to think that some opportunity had been lost to you because of my actions.”
Madine remained silent for so long that even Leia began to squirm uncomfortably. When he did speak again, his voice was low and menacing. “May I ask exactly what you were doing, Commander Massa?”
Tag met his glare with equal gravity. “My duty, General—as I always have. As I said, I was dealing with the issues your actions had incited. I considered it my responsibility to ensure that Chief Organa would be properly safeguarded.”
Again, Madine remained silent for a long time, staring Tag down, though she sat with composed cool, shoulders relaxed, face neutral, just slightly expectant. Whatever it was that Madine thought she should have done, Tag was clearly oblivious. Either that or she was a consummate liar, Leia reflected.
“I see.” Madine turned back to Leia, and the distance did nothing to lessen the tautness of his voice. “Ma'am…I require a word privately, please.”
“I would prefer to speak in front of the Council, General Madine,” Leia said firmly. “We have no secrets here.”
Madine paused for a long time, and Leia knew some decision was being reached by the man, some line of battle being drawn, his eyes knowing, his jaw tight… “I believe your Intel Chief may disagree with you, Ma'am.”
Leia glanced to Tag, who shook her head as she shrugged, uncertain. “Security?” Massa hazarded quietly. “The co-ordinates, perhaps?”
Leia turned back to Madine. “Very well, General, with the Council’s agreement, I’ll continue this meeting in my office.”
She glanced about the table and received nods of consent, everyone well aware of Madine's point that there remained a high-level spy onboard Home One.
“Then we’ll call this meeting adjourned for now, gentlemen, and schedule another take place after I’ve spoken with the Emperor.”
Han was pacing in Leia's office, waiting for the Council meeting to finish, trying to be calm and patient in a situation that, as far as he was concerned, needed a bit less calm and a bit more action, when the ‘call waiting’ light lit on Leia's desk. He was just contemplating answering it and telling whoever it was that seemed to feel the need to talk to her this time to take a hike out an airlock, when the door finally opened and Leia entered, still pale from her injuries and cradling her arm, but with eyes as sharp as all hell.
She turned immediately to Tag Massa as the door closed behind them, the Intel Chief looking as put out as Leia was—in fact Han was getting nervous just looking at them.
“What? What is it?” Leia said hastily.
“If you let the trial go ahead under martial law, you may well be abdicating any official control of the situation,” Massa replied tightly.
“Wait, what happened?” Han demanded, wanting to be up to speed.
Leia glanced to him then to the small light which was flashing on the desk console, then back to Massa. “Why—quickly?”
“We represent the remnants of the Old Republic. Ours has always essentially been a political organization forced into a military stance. You’re in fact very close to the Emperor in that you are a political leader of a largely military party. A trial under martial law requires only military personnel.”
The Intel Chief hesitated, and Han took his chance. “What happened?”
Massa glanced momentarily to Han before continuing to Leia. “You do this and you’d essentially be passing all control of the Emperor and the trial—including the choice of a military-only jury—over to the military. And whilst I have great faith in General Rieekan and Admiral Ackbar there is, as you know, a more…radical element who support Madine and may seek to exclude yourself and any other moderates entirely if the trial goes forward on this basis—and it could well work.”
“Would someone tell me what…wait, I got that.” Han felt his jaw grind, not surprised at this little development; it was hardly news. “So he’s tryin’ to freeze us out?”
Massa turned to him. “I’m not saying that it would happen, Commander. I’m simply saying that it would be judicious to avoid a situation developing where it could be possible. A trial under martial law would effectively remove all non-military individuals within the Council from the decision-making process—and therefore the majority which Chief Organa presently holds. It would create a hung military Council of equal parts moderates and…”
“Madine’s gun-toting lackeys,” Han finished for her, since Massa clearly didn’t know how to say it politely.
Leia looked to Han, the strain in her face obvious. “They were…they’re pushing to find out if a death penalty could be made to stick.”
Massa nodded grimly. “With an all-military tribunal cherry-picked by Madine, they probably could, even citing Republic laws.”
“Son of a skeeg,” Han bit out, turning to Leia, both arms out, palms up. “Can I punch him now?”
Leia sat heavily back onto her chair. “Yes, you actually can.”
“We need to get control of the Emperor,” Tag underlined. “We need to get him away from Madine and in our possession as quickly as possible.”
The small light on Leia's console was still flashing blue, indicating a call waiting, and Han suddenly realized who it was.
Leia frowned, looking back from the console to Massa. “Madine's not going to hand him over if he knows he could use this to force me to declare martial law.”
“He doesn’t know how much the Emperor means to you, Ma’am. He’s playing power games, that’s all.”
“So what, you’re saying we call his bluff?”
“No, uh-huh,” Han said decisively, shaking his head as he stepped forward. “I’ve played a lot of sabacc at a lot of tables and let me tell you, I know the kinda guy you don’t try to browbeat. Some folks’ll call you just because they can’t stand to back down.”
Leia sighed, eyes to the flashing light. “Well, let’s see what he wants first, shall we? Then we can decide how not to give him it.”
She reached forward and keyed the activation, Han and Massa rapidly stepping back from the pickup lens’s field of view. A small Holo-image burst into life in a rift of static over Leia's desk before it coalesced into Madine's tight-jawed face, and Han felt his hands ball to fists.
“General Madine,” Leia said, nodding. “In all the commotion, I don’t think I’ve congratulated you yet on your successful mission.”
“Thank you, Ma'am, although I consider your words a tad premature,” Madine said coolly. “I won’t regard this particular mission as complete until I have the outcome I intend for it.”
Leia tipped her head. “On behalf of yourself, Sir, or the Alliance?”
“I like to think our interests are one and the same, Ma'am…though I find myself wondering about yours.”
“I’ve made the Alliance my life’s work, General. I think perhaps you misunderstand my position—my intention here is to see justice done.”
“As is mine, Ma'am. To that end, I’d advise you to step down and hand this matter over to the military, where it belongs.”
Watching from the far side of the room, Han felt his jaw tighten; he had to hand it to Madine—the guy sure didn’t beat about the bush.
Leia straightened to her most regal. “And why would I do that, General?”
“I would have thought that your conflict of interest in this matter would be obvious, Ma'am…or have you never felt any such conflict? Perhaps it was always clear from the beginning…if not particularly well known.”
Han frowned; how the hell did Madine know about Leia's admission of split loyalties—she’d only told Han a few hours before. Had he tapped the room onboard the Wasp the last time Leia and Luke met? Unseen, he shook his head at his own question; Leia always carried the 'sweeper' that Han had given her into those meetings—the small, credit-sized counter-surveillance device would emit a whistle if any bugging or surveillance gear was near. Plus there’d been a complete comm blackout at the time, both parties probably carrying scramblers. The thought occurred that maybe Madine knew somehow that it’d been Leia who had dropped the Wasp’s shields?
Uncertain, he glanced momentarily to Massa…and paused. The eternally unflappable Intel Chief was standing tensely against the opposite wall to Han, her arms wrapped tight about herself, her expression somewhere between dread, rapt attention and mounting alarm as Madine continued to speak.
“Though apparently it was known by Commander Massa. I must congratulate her on her performance today, by the way…and the speed with which she removed the evidence. You know, the one thing I didn’t see coming was Tag’s little betrayal.”
Already standing well back beyond mic range, Massa backstepped further to lift her own comlink to her mouth, speaking urgently but quietly. “Lieutenant Lowan, this is Massa. Lock down all access to Chief Organa’s medical files right now, on my command. In fact, lock down the whole medical and Intel systems. No access—even the Council. And no one goes into or leaves the medi-bays…or General Madine's office. Do it quietly and do it now, then comm me back.”
Han was starting to get that real cold feeling in the bottom of his gut, though to her credit Leia didn’t even flinch, shaking her head slowly, voice dismissive.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Madine wasn’t impressed. “Really? Because I would very much hate to be the one who was forced to clarify for the Council just exactly what I’m talking about… if I believe that’s the only way to ensure that justice is done.”
“Wh..” Leia glanced up through the holo as Han too turned back to where Tag Massa was making wild gestures to cut the sound.
Leia reached out and killed the pick-up mic as Tag stepped forward, agitation raising her voice to near-panic. “He knows…how does he know?!”
Han frowned, straightening, that cold feeling travelling up his spine. “Wait a minute, what the hell’s going on?”
Madine continued, unaware of what was happening outside of the range of the HoloNet link now that the mic was off. “I would hate for this situation to escalate further.”
Leia flicked the mic on. “Are you threatening me, General?”
“Let’s just say I’ve been considering my options in the last few minutes…as I’d advise you to consider yours very carefully, in the next few.”
“On what grounds exactly, General?”
“Give me some credit, Ma'am. Despite Commander Massa's best efforts, I’m well aware of the fact that right now, I’m speaking to the genetic sister of the Emperor.”
For long seconds Leia stared at the holo, trying to figure out who Madine was even speaking about…then it slowly dawned on her, as it did on Han. She glanced up to him, her delicate face a mixture of bewildered confusion and out-and-out disbelief. In that moment, Han had no idea what expression held his own features.
Leia looked back to the holo. “Don’t be absurd!”
“What strikes me as absurd, Ma'am, is the fact that the woman who leads the rebellion against the Empire is, in actual fact, the Emperor's genetic sister. And I very much believe that it will strike others the same way.”
It was the seriousness with which Tag Massa was treating this outrageous claim that was unsettling Han. Without her reaction, he would have probably dismissed it outright—laughed at it even—and he knew Leia was thinking the self same thing, the surety slowly falling from her face as she stared at her Intel Chief, who was signaling to cut the connection now.
“I…I need a minute…” Leia said, breathless and flustered, her eyes skipping between Tag and the holo of Madine.
The General clearly wasn’t moved. “You have one minute. Leave the line on hold.”
Han was speaking before the holo-image had even darkened to pause—shouting, almost. “Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?!”
Massa was still shaking her head, thinking aloud. “He can’t know, not for sure…how did he even find out?” Her eyes were on Leia. “Who else knows…anyone, ever? Was it ever recorded anywhere? Alderaan, here—did Chief Mothma know?”
Leia half-rose. “What is he talking about, why is he even saying this?”
Massa stopped dead. “You…” She trailed to silence, unsure what to say as Leia sat again heavily. “You didn’t… Ma'am, Madine asked me to do the genetic test when you were in the medi-center. Your relationship to the Emperor…you didn’t know?”
“It’s wrong…” Leia was shaking her head in denial, words almost lost beneath her breathless confusion. “The test is wrong.”
“No, Ma'am. I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”
“I had it checked and verified.”
Han too was shaking his head, finally finding his own voice. “Wait a minute…Leia and Luke?”
Massa glanced to Han then back to Leia, and when she didn’t answer, Massa nodded. “They’re siblings—twins, probably.”
“Leia and Luke?” Han looked to Leia and she shook her head again, words failing her.
He’d known she was adopted, of course, though even that was a closely kept secret. The sole heir to the Alderaanian Royal House had access to their hidden assets, all of which had been plowed into the Alliance, and as that high-profile survivor, she was a cause to rally round. Everyone knew who Princess Leia was…everyone.
“I want to see those tests.” Leia was standing again, rallying like the indomitable princess she’d always been. “Right now.”
“Ma'am, I’d suggest we wait a short time; Madine has supporters here. To go directly to—”
“That’s what he was talking to you about in the Council meeting, isn’t it?” Leia realized, cutting across Massa.
“General Madine contacted me whilst you were still unconscious and asked me to retrieve the stored genetic samples of the Emperor to make the test. When I had the results…” Massa paused, uncomfortable. “I had to make a difficult decision under pressing circumstances. That decision, given the rifts already present in the Alliance Council, was to remove all evidence pointing to any link between yourself and the Emperor. If I was in error then I apologize, but given the instability of the present situation within the leadership, I don’t believe I was. With respect, Ma’am, this fact would tear us apart. Right now, we could not survive its disclosure.”
“You destroyed everything? “ Leia asked, dismayed. “So now I have nothing: no evidence, no proof, nothing.”
“I didn’t destroy anything, ma’am. I removed it and reclassified all the information and samples to another file. Everything is still stored under that name. Everything exists—the samples, the tests, everything.”
“I want to see it,” Leia repeated.
“So this is actually true?” Despite everything, Han couldn’t help but ask one more time.
Massa nodded patiently. “Yes…yes, it is.”
Han looked her in the eye as she said it...then thought for long seconds, slowly digesting this astounding fact and finally coming up with the only reaction he could possibly think of: “Hn.”
“That’s it?” Leia asked incredulously. “Just,hn!”
Han stepped forward to kiss her lightly on the forehead. “Sweetheart, nothin’ about you surprises me any more. Or Madine, but in a whole different way.”
“Why not just come out and say it today in the Council meeting,” Leia asked Massa. “Go public and force another DNA test?”
“Yeah, not that I’m the suspicious type, but we’re talkin’ about Madine here. If he knows about Leia, why isn’t he…” Han slowed to silence, considering.
Massa shrugged. “He expected my corroboration. When he didn’t get it, he knew that any evidence would have been removed or destroyed. Given that, he may have felt forced to—”
“Wait a minute, we’re not thinkin’ like Madine here!” Han pursed his lips in dawning comprehension as he turned to Leia. “He now has somethin’ on the only person who’s standing in his path with this trial thing, the only one with enough power to hold it off. Clearly he thinks you knew. And if he thinks you knew then he’s gonna think you’ve been withholding it—and if he thinks you’ve been withholding it, then he’s gonna think he can control you with it. He actually thinks he can use it to force you to let the trial go through!”
Leia pursed her lips in determination. “Well then, he’s wrong.”
Massa stepped forward, voice strained. “Ma'am, you let this go public right now, in the middle of this crisis, and not only will it remove you from any influence over the Emperor's circumstances, but it may well rip the Alliance apart.”
“I’m not going to be blackmailed.”
“I’m not saying that, Ma'am.”
“Well then, what are you suggesting?”
“Like you said before,” Han stated firmly, “let’s find out what exactly he’s asking for first. Then we decide how not to give it to him.”
Leia took long seconds to compose herself before she reached out and reactivated the holo-link, Madine's expression having lost none of its self-satisfied conceit as the image flickered into life. Despite his calm before Leia, the desire Han felt to somehow reach through that holo-link and knock the high and mighty look clean off the General’s smug face was overwhelming.
Always the diplomat, Leia's own aversion barely sounded as she spoke. “You understand, General, I didn’t know of this fact until today.”
Madine didn’t even acknowledge Leia's words. “Here’s the way this is going to go: you’re going to stop making noise about Skywalker…or I’m going to start making noise about Skywalker’s sister.”
“Whether I object or not, everyone in that Council knows you’re still attempting to sideline basic human rights according to—”
“I’m not finished yet,” Madine cut in. “When that vote comes around in two weeks’ time, I want confirmation from the Council that a trial under martial law will go ahead. Otherwise I will make this public.”
“I can’t guarantee that,” Leia said.
“You have two weeks to bring your people into line, Ma'am.”
Leia was an experienced enough negotiator to automatically play for time, however outlandish the demands. “That’s not long enough. I can’t turn the Council in two weeks.”
“Then you shouldn’t have set the vote at that time, should you? Two weeks, then I want the outcome of that ballot to be that all control of this situation is turned over to the military where it belongs, and myself in particular.”
“I still want to see him.” Leia held her ground as Madine's eyes narrowed. “You’ve already agreed to let me see him before open Council—are you going to retract that?”
“You want to see him? Then back off. Home One stays right there, you don’t press for the position of the Wasp again in Council, you back my decision to keep the Emperor here, and I might—I just might—let one small ship rendezvous with us for a limited length of time, under my terms and conditions. But you can tell your Corellian friend—I’m sure he’s skulking around there somewhere—that he isn’t invited.”
Han tensed against the provocation though he stayed where he was; wouldn’t give Madine the satisfaction of a reaction. Still, he really should’a punched Madine last time he’d had the chance.
“I’ll need to bring security with me,” Leia said firmly.
“You can bring who I tell you to bring,” Madine said tartly. “But don’t think for one minute that you’re taking the Emperor back with you. I’ll shoot him myself before I’ll let you do that—at any point. Let’s just be clear on that now.”
“We’re clear,” Leia said calmly as Han ground his teeth, eyes narrowing.
Madine nodded once. “Good. Meanwhile, you have a lot of work to do, Chief. I want that vote.”
“How am I supposed to convince them?”
Madine smiled thinly. “Don’t worry, Ma'am; I’m sure I’ll have plenty of evidence to present to the next Council meeting which will indicate that a trial would move smoothly to the right verdict—maybe even a full confession. I intend to have a few…conversations with the Emperor over the coming weeks, and I’m expecting him to be compliant—eventually.”
Leia tensed. “Madine…”
“Concerned for the prisoner’s welfare? How touching—and how very unsurprising whose cause you choose to defend.”
“I didn’t know about any of this.”
“Really?” Madine sneered. “And you were having secret meetings with the Emperor for what reason?”
“I told you, they were a prelude to peace talks. He came to me—we were discussing a ceasefire.”
“Of course you were. One in which everything Mothma fought to build, you’d sign away to the Emperor.”
“No, I would have brought it to the Council,” Leia ground out, her patience wearing thin. “You know that—or why would I have admitted the meetings to you?”
“Because you were cornered and thought you could control it. And you almost did…you almost got that Imperial frigate there in time.” He paused, leaning forward slightly. “In fact, where were you standing on the bridge when the Wasp’s shields came down?”
Leia leaned back slightly, eyes widening, and Han cursed silently—wanted to lunge forward and cut the line before it got any worse. As it turned out, Madine did it for him.
“Perhaps we should talk about that in the next Council meeting. That, or your support for a trial under martial law—your choice. I won’t take up any more of your valuable time, Chief Organa…I’m sure you’ll be very busy in the next two weeks—as shall I.”
“Madine…” Leia started. But the General was already leaning forward to cut the channel, the room doused into darkness as the holo faded to static.
“Two weeks isn’t much time,” Massa said into the silence.
“Two weeks is all we have…” Leia paused, head in her hands. “In two weeks, this’ll be over—one way or another.”
Han stared, unsettled by the portentous tone of her quiet voice, needing long seconds to pull himself together… But he did so; forced everyone to do the same as he turned to Massa. “Okay, I have a question: if you didn’t tell him, then how the hell does Madine know all this?”
Tag frowned. “I’m assuming that he got the information from the Emperor.”
“Already? No, Luke wouldn’t crack, not this soon. Madine’ll get nothing from him for a good long while. And why are you assuming he even knows?”
Tag shook her head. “I certainly didn’t pass any details on to General Madine.”
“We already figured that, but he got them somehow…so how? Could he have asked Odig or Gall to retrieve the information from the medi-center?”
“I don’t think so. It’s possible that the General contacted the medi-center directly during the time that I was removing the data cards to the secure Intel store and reclassifying them by name—I wanted to do it immediately. Then I had the blood samples stored and reclassified, and wiped the Two-OneBee’s memory. Between removing any and all other evidence and returning to wipe the Two-OneBee’s memory was a gap of maybe…less than thirty minutes. The General had asked me to contact him as soon as possible, because the Wasp was jumping to lightspeed inside the hour. When I didn’t, he could have contacted the medi-center directly to get the information before he jumped; he would have the necessary clearance.”
“So would he have been able to transfer any of the relevant files at the time?” Han asked.
“No, definitely not. If he missed me when he re-contacted the medi-center it was because I was already removing the physical samples, and the data and test results were always isolated off the network. They never went out of my sight.”
Han was nodding slowly, everything becoming clear. “So if he spoke to the medi-droid he knew…but he had no proof.”
Massa smiled in understanding. “Which is why he spoke to Chief Organa in private. Why this isn’t out already.”
Han’s voice was gaining confidence as the facts became clearer. “Clearly you didn’t get back to him when he expected you to, then whatever you said in the Council meeting clarified just exactly where your loyalties were…so he was figuring he was on rocky ground. Before he knew for sure, he couldn’t just stand up and start accusing the leader of the Rebel Alliance of being…well, you know.”
For a brief second Leia scowled, and Han knew that she was burning to say, ‘Just say it!’, but if he’d done so, he knew she would have been equally offended. He had no problem at all with her being Luke's sister…in fact he kinda liked it, the more he thought about it. Leia though…three days ago, she’d been prepared to help capture Luke to put him on trial; just a day ago the kid had upturned all her previous opinions somehow, and then today…this was a hell of a lot to assimilate this quickly.
But as ever, she was taking it on the chin, already thinking round it.
“And are we sure?” Leia turned again to Massa. “Can you guarantee that those samples were accurate?”
“The Two-OneBee droid that did the test took the sample from you itself, and I had the test done twice, once with the stored blood sample from the secure medical base and once with a sample from the Intel base. The Intel sample was stored under a false ID. I broke both anti-tamper seals myself to have the samples tested.”
Leia turned from Tag to Han. “I need to speak to Luke.”
“Yeah, you and me both, doll.” Han tipped his head. “You take the file in the cake and I’ll take the blaster made entirely of flimsiplast.”
“I’m going to that meeting,” Leia said firmly. “I’m speaking to him onboard the Wasp.”
Massa was quick to step in. “In light of all this, I’d seriously advise you not to go. The Wasp should be regarded as under Madine's control and you’re now in direct contention with him.”
“It may be under Madine's control, but he’s still an Alliance General and the crew he has there are still Alliance soldiers.”
“Yeah, Alliance soldiers hand-picked for this mission because Madine knows he can trust ‘em implicitly,” Han added pointedly. “They’re gonna be hard-liners and they may well see you as being the wrong side of that line.”
Leia frowned, and he knew it was because once again they were all being forced to think of the Alliance she’d fought so hard to hold together as two separate camps here: those who’d back Leia and those who’d back Madine. Not that the fact was even gonna slow her down, Han knew. She’d always been the kinda fireball who flared when the heat got turned up. It was one of the reasons he loved her—that and, of course, the galaxy-class package it came wrapped in.
“I’m going anyway,” Leia said without hesitation, making Han silently curse the fact that sometimes she could run a little too fiery. “Two days’ time is the opportunity I have and two days’ time is the opportunity I’m taking.”
When Massa pursed her lips Han thought that she’d push her objection…but she surprised him by nodding slowly, clearly running the numbers in her mind. “If you need to speak to him, then we should make arrangements and take any precautions we can. I want to ensure that I can get you safely in and out of that ship without it seeming too obvious to the rest of the Council what we’re actually dealing with. And I need to go and ensure that Madine's supporters aren’t running amok on Home One right now looking for those samples—and that even if they are, that they don’t know why.”
Han shook his head. “I’m bettin’ that Madine’s figuring he has some serious leverage to back Leia into a corner right now. He’s not gonna share that with anyone and risk losin’ control of it, and he’s not gonna just blurt it out in Council, not when he thinks he can gain more from it. As long as we play along, he’ll keep it to himself.”
“For two weeks,” Leia said grimly.
Han paused, tilting with exaggerated casualness as he stared at his nails. “You know, I’m just gonna put this out there the once, ‘cos I can’t help but think that it occurs to me that…well…what if someone kinda…shot him?”
Massa glanced to Leia, and Han got the distinct impression that the Intel Chief wouldn’t have put too much of a fight up if Leia had okayed it… But of course, he’d known her answer before Leia spoke out.
“Don’t even think about it, Solo,” Leia said emphatically. “That’s not how I deal with my problems.”
“Just, ya know, a suggestion,” Han said contritely. “Worth a try.”
Massa pursed her lips, glancing to her comlink as it sounded a tone. “That’s Lieutenant Lowan. If you’ll excuse me, Ma'am, I need to go and deal with…all this. Come to my office when you’re ready to see the results—I’d prefer to keep them limited to that one off-system copy for security.”
Leia nodded. “Of course, thank you, Tag…for everything.”
The Intel Chief nodded once with her usual unassuming manner before turning to leave.
Leia remained silent as the door closed, still looking to make some kind of sense of all this. It reeled in her thoughts, one moment completely manageable, the next profoundly bewildering.
“I gotta say, you’re takin’ this so much better’n I’d’ve ever thought. I’m impressed.”
Leia looked to him wryly as he stepped forward, wrapping one arm around her in proud reassurance. “What did you expect?”
“I dunno really…” Han shrugged. “This is pretty much off the map, even for me.”
She glanced down, leaning into his support. “I think… I think maybe if I’d just found out that I was the new Emperor's sibling….maybe it’d be different. But…but I’m not—I know that now. I’m Luke's sister… I’m Luke Skywalker's sister…”
Han nodded. “And that’s all right, huh?”
Leia too nodded, slowly and with great deliberation. “That’s all right.”
He frowned, the enormity of this revelation only now beginning to percolate, even for him. “Wait a minute, if you’re his sister,” he hesitated, “…why can’t you do the stuff he can do?”
Leia paused, examining thoughts and memories—the strange dreams which had always seemed so real in the moment; the nightmares of people she knew, lost within days of her having them. The wolf…that silent, enduring wolf, always standing in her shadow and never once baring its teeth to her. The sense of Luke when he was close in the meetings, of his intent so often completely contradicting his words and actions—of knowing which to trust.
“I think…” she hesitated again, uneasy at saying it out loud but realizing now with absolute conviction, “I think I can.”
Four hours earlier, long before Leia had even woken, Tag Massa had stood alone in the empty medi-center, staring at the small vial in her hands, the truth still ringing in her ears and buzzing through her thoughts, too vast to process.
She’d stood like this for minutes already…precious minutes in which she needed to act—but she had no idea of how, so she’d remained still, staring at the vial containing the stasis-stored blood sample. Something so very small, so incredibly fragile, so easy to destroy…and yet so absurdly dangerous. And she held it in the palm of her hand.
To let it go public or to sit on it—and what in Sith had the Emperor intended in allowing this fact to fester as a possibility without himself acting? Had he planned to have it go public at a later point? Had he left it to give Organa the means to check and verify the facts, if he threatened her with the same? Something to control her, something to unsettle her, something to persuade her, what? If he had left the sample here he would surely have known that there was a chance that Organa’s DNA and his own could be compared, so perhaps it was part of a greater plan to destabilize the Alliance further? If so, Madine’s stumbling across it under these conditions could hardly have been part of that plan.
Or perhaps the Emperor simply wasn’t aware that the sample was here? But then it was standard practice to maintain DNA and blood samples as part of the larger medical records system, and whilst records of dead pilots were routinely discarded, the record of a pilot who had been accused of spying and was closely linked to Palpatine would obviously be kept, so he must have known it was stored. Surely he would never overlook such a thing.
So what now? Let Madine’s discovery run its course, or bury it; remove any and all evidence? As Intel Chief, Massa had the knowledge of how to hide facts—how to remove all verifiable data, in order to stabilize the Alliance at what had suddenly become a crucially volatile time. Or should she take it to Organa and watch her reaction; see if it changed her opinion, her actions, even slightly?
Remove it or acknowledge it—and which would help or hinder whom?
So she'd simply stood, aware of the fact that she was holding the fate of the Alliance in her hands. The fate of the freedom she’d risked everything—her very life on a daily basis, in more ways than one—towards achieving. Aware that any misstep, any loss of focus now could have appalling consequences…
Her longstanding remit, of course, had always been to protect and guide Leia Organa, and to stabilize the more moderate Alliance factions which supported her, as the Alliance itself divided and fragmented. But now, given the unprecedented events, the stability of the Alliance had become tied in to far greater issues and loyalties.
Under unanticipated circumstances, the best thing to do was to maintain the status-quo; try to limit Madine's reactions, contain any further access to the information as it stood, and react to any and all responses and consequences as they arose. For her to try to influence results without yet knowing the larger picture would be recklessly hasty.
Yes; failing any other orders to the contrary, she decided, replacing the small vial back into stasis under a randomly chosen name, she would continue to follow her existing remit to the letter.
Luke lay alone in the darkness…truly alone, for the first time that he could remember. No Force, no contact, no familiar thrum of the galaxy about him, its aching scale and ceaseless, bass undertone of resonant power eerily silent. Nothing but the small, insular thoughts within his own head, adrift in a barren, isolating stillness. He had wished so often that the flame within him that Ben Kenobi had kindled and Palpatine had set ablaze could be doused forever… Now it was gone, yet there was no relief, no reprieve. All that he felt was totally, utterly alone…
He lay in silence on the hard bed, little more than canvas stretched across a heavy welded frame, chained by one ankle to the bulky framework as he stared into the cold, dense darkness, trying to fathom whether it was a hardship or a blessing that they left the cell unlit.
Hours ground on alone in the impenetrable, oppressive silence of his all-too-familiar prison, and left with nothing but his own thoughts, this place was opening the floodgate to so many things Luke had locked away, conjuring the writhing mass of black memories he’d tried so hard to forget. Of Palpatine, of that cell beneath the Palace, of endless days merging into weeks and then into months, locked away from everything real and forced to deal with a bleak, brutal existence which filled every waking hour and pierced broken, restless, drug-induced sleep with hunger and thirst and constant, harrowing pain.
Words and threats and derision lit those memories with a familiar, grating voice filled with dissolute menace. Cold bone-thin fingers touched scorched, scalded scars as promises were whispered between yellowed teeth and bloodless lips, burning across fevered skin. “As soon as you defy me, I will deliver retribution. It is my forte, my fascination, my passion…an indulgence which I allow myself… You will obey, or I will make you obey…”
It was all he could think, all he could see, all he could hear in the darkness, old memories mixing with this new reality and pervading every thought, waking or sleeping, until Luke took to pacing barefoot across the small space before the metal bunk he was chained to, the only part of the freezing cell that he could reach.
He knew somewhere in the back of his mind that he had to find a way through this. Find a way to get past it and get his brain working again. But the memories of that hopelessness came constantly, crowding out any other consideration, leaving him distracted and disoriented, thoughts in turmoil, that voice always whispering, echoing through the darkness,
“What do you fear, Jedi? What do you see in the dark when your demons come?”
The sound of his own movement in the darkness, the way the curve of the walls in the circular cell deadened and muffled the dragging chain about his bare ankle, the dull, distorted huff of his breath in the dense, unremitting darkness… memories and moments constantly burst forth, triggered by the familiarity of the curved-ceiling cell, Palpatine, so clear in Luke’s thoughts that he could have been walking beside him now, stood so close that Luke could hear his breath as he drew it to speak, grinning that death’s-head grin, trembling fingers reaching out to touch that which he so adored and envied, curved, splintered nails catching on open wounds: “We are the same, you and I… didn’t I always tell you we were. We are the same…it runs in your blood…”
Mara…she had no idea; no idea.
“The curse of your line…it runs in your blood.”
Eventually, when he was too tired to pace any further, he’d laid again on the canvas bunk, knowing they’d wait until he slept before they came; that was what you did, that was how this worked.
A sharp, stabbing pain as he laid down had brought his hand to the base of his skull—and a scar there, just to one side of his spine, the skin still swollen about it. So now he lay on his side facing the wall in silence, eyes closed as if in sleep, waiting…because anything was better than this. Anything was better than the memories that this cell could conjure.
Waiting…running through the facts as he knew them in his mind and cursing his own decision to remain in the meeting with Leia, knowing something was wrong.
He remembered again her tightly clasped hands, her initial questions: ‘Can you read my thoughts—specific thoughts?’
He’d known that something was wrong but had let it pass. Let it pass because he needed this meeting to work; because he’d already decided that this would be the last time. Either they made some kind of breakthrough or he abandoned this plan and went on to his backup, instead using the meeting and the seeds he’d long since sown to rip the Alliance apart. So he’d stayed—even though he knew something had shifted, he’d stayed. Because he’d wanted it to work. Wanted it enough that he’d ignored every sign. Luke let out a low laugh at his own willful blindness; hindsight was a scornful teacher.
His thoughts went back to the ysalamiri which were isolating him from the Force right now. He knew of their existence from Palpatine, of course, though to his knowledge very few others did. And yet somehow Madine knew enough to use them in Luke's capture. Knew enough to have them here now—and he’d gotten that knowledge from somewhere.
“I don’t know,” Leia had hissed in her hasty warning. “I don’t know how they’re doing it.”
Had it been Reece perhaps, who’d handed that information over? Handed over not only the opportunity to get to Luke, but the way to confine him, the drugs to control him, and the one method which could isolate and limit him. Handed them over because he wanted to remove an Emperor whom he believed too lenient… Handed them over to a man who would use them because he thought the new Emperor not nearly lenient enough.
That held an empty ring of dry amusement to it in more ways than one. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, once for being insufficiently or overly lenient, depending on who he listened to, and trapped all over again because Luke had known Reece was the traitor—had known for a long time—yet he’d let it stand rather than risk losing Nathan as well, one of his last truly trusted friends. Wanting to wait until Reece did something significant to incriminate himself.
He laughed all over again at hindsight; be careful what you wished for.
He was still laid on his side when the ear-popping hiss of the hermetic seal made him turn, bracing as the double doors opened with a staggered grind, making him flinch in the sudden flaring glare of bright lights.
Two soldiers entered, their guns already trained—new faces; never keep the same men on a prisoner, never let anyone get to know a prisoner or establish any habits he can use. Madine had always been good. Another two entered carrying a small, heavy metal table. Behind them, dragging a chair noisily over the roughcast floor, was Madine. Luke frowned, uncertain what was going on.
The chair was half-thrown to the center of the room as the first two guards yanked Luke upright, freeing his tie from the bunkframe and hauling him up to drag him over to the chair, forcing him down unnecessarily as he sat anyway, the heavy table dragged before him. The short bar which linked his wrist binders was tethered to a hook in the center of the table before they walked away without once meeting Luke's eye.
Released, still blinking against the light, Luke looked about him. Another two guards had entered before the door had closed, this time stopping at the far side of the cell to angle the leg-struts of a basic three-lens holo-recorder and point it towards him. Ignored by all, Luke watched the purposeful flurry of activity, wondering if this was the first interrogation, what they would even ask.
Finally Madine came forward, pausing only to throw an autoreader onto the table.
“Read that aloud,” he said simply, already turning away.
Frowning, uncertain, Luke stretched forward, the tips of his fingers just reaching the autoreader, so that he was able to fumble and drag it awkwardly back across the table to look at the screen.
‘I make this statement to confess to the fact that I have in the past voluntarily and willingly worked to pass sensitive military information between opposing forces, thus knowingly committing…’
Luke slid the autoreader away. “Not a chance.”
Madine turned from the man who was setting up the holo-recorder and stalked back to the table, picking up the autoreader in a wide sweep and catching Luke full across the face with it, knocking his head to the side so hard that he saw stars.
“It wasn’t a request,” he hissed, banging the ‘reader back down.
Luke licked at the inside of his cheek, aware that he’d bitten into it—but he held his ground. “I say that and I’m admitting to espionage.” Did Madine really think he was that stupid; it held the same penalty in the Alliance or the Empire: death.
“Let me make this very easy for you,” Madine said, pulling the sidearm from its holster and slamming it down on the table beyond Luke's limited reach, his hand remaining on the stock, finger resting against the trigger. He smacked the autoreader heavily onto the table close to Luke again, and as Luke glanced down to it, Madine lifted the blaster and put it to Luke's head—
With a grating clack the safety released, the muzzle of Madine's blaster pressing hard against the bone of Luke's skull.
Abruptly Luke had an intense flashback—to the Imperial Palace long ago, when Palpatine was still alive; to standing with an uneasy Mara on the open balcony of his quarters, still recovering from the assassination attempt. “Mara, I just survived a four-click explosion at point-blank range—how likely do you think it is that one blaster shot is gonna take me down?”
“Read it,” Madine growled.
Luke clenched his jaw, muscles tensing…but he didn’t look back to the autoreader.
The blaster trembled just slightly as Madine pressed it forward, a subtle quiver against Luke’s skull. “Personally, I’d just as soon pull the trigger right now, but they want to do this the right way, they want you to stand trial—and if that’s the case, I need that confession… So you’re gonna give me it.”
“I don’t think so.”
The General raised his eyebrows, amused. “You assume I care how I get it.”
Luke nodded slightly, the hard muzzle of the gun moving with him. “See, I wondered how long it’d take you to drop Alliance policy, Madine. I gotta admit, even I gave you more than two days though.”
“Sticks and stones’ll break my bones but words’ll never hurt me.” Madine recited the old verse then paused, grinning. “Let’s try that out, shall we? You can have the words, I’ll have the sticks and stones—and maybe a few high-tech stand-ins—and we’ll see who bleeds first.”
“I wasn’t joking. Read it.”
Luke took a slow, tight breath, every nerve in his body ringing to the pressure of that blaster, his thoughts buzzing…
“You cannot be afraid,” Palpatine’s voice in the cell so much like this one, whispered to Luke above the pound of his heart in his ears. “You cannot be afraid. I will teach you to fear nothing because I will make you live your fears, every one, and survive, in some form. I will take that last fear, death itself, and make you stare it down because it holds no mystery any more. I will push you to that brink so often that it becomes an old friend, a craved release…”
The cool muzzle of the blaster dragged against his skin as Luke lifted his head to look Madine in the eye. “If you were gonna kill me for nothing I’d be dead already. So I’ll say it again: I’m not reading it. You want to kill me for that, then get it over with and pull the trigger.”
The blow was a wide backhand with the weight of the blaster butt in Madine's grip, Luke’s restraints stopping him from rolling with the strike which caught him across the temple and snapped his head to the side. He straightened slowly, but Madine was there instantly, grabbing at the collar of the faded flight suit Luke wore, shaking him straight as he leaned in close, pressing his blaster to the side of Luke’s temple.
“You know how this goes; I can make it very, very uncomfortable for you…in fact, believe me, I am just looking for an excuse to do so. I think I’ve earned that right. You know why? Because you crossed me. You had the gall to stand among my men and claim allegiance. You came onto my turf and made a fool of me, and I don’t like that. I don’t tolerate that. You made this personal.”
Luke laughed, actually laughed, head still reeling from the blow. “That’s it? I bruised your ego? You’re a small man, Madine.”
“Really? Well then, this small man will be the death of an Emperor, because there’s only one way this will end. Whatever happens, you die.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’m only surprised you haven’t done it already. But I know something else about you as well, Madine… You’re not just a small man, you also have a narrow, flawed vision. Killing me won’t destroy the Empire—it won’t stop it. Or do you know that already? Is this really just about hurting someone who hurt you…and you’ve dressed it up for all these people around you, given it some respectable justification.”
“That justification will remove the single greatest advantage that the Empire has, and the one thing we can never gain—would never want: a Force-sensitive, a Sith. I’ve seen what your kind can do, given the opportunity. But remove you, and we’ll reduce it to an even fight…and I’ll take that chance. Read it out.”
“No. You want to kill me then kill me, but I’m not gonna give you any easy excuses to hide behind. I’m not gonna appease your own guilty conscience or let you come out of this blameless.”
The muzzle of Madine's blaster never broke contact as he studied Luke closely. “In a way, I’d like to see you go on trial—see what truths come out. You, you’re the worst kind of agent; how many Imperial troops died onboard the first Death Star? You killed your own just to keep your cover intact.”
The slightest of smiles twitched Luke’s lips at Madine’s twisting of the truth. “That’s good; very clever.”
The blaster muzzle pressed a little harder against his temple, the situation already escalating beyond control…control…
Again that whispered memory in grating, grasping tones: “Take control, Jedi. Use those around you: anyone, everyone, always, no matter what. Move everything to your own intention because if you do not, others most certainly will, and which would you prefer?”
Take control: act, or you'll be forced to react. Stop answering his questions and turn them around. “Sound like someone else you know? How long were you passing over information to the Rebels whilst still maintaining your rank as an Imperial General? You think no deaths occurred because of your actions? People you knew well, people you’d fought beside and lived amon—”
The slight movement of Madine's finger against the trigger silenced Luke momentarily, and that maddened him most of all. Swallowing against the warm, coppery blood in his mouth, he let out a slow breath, leaning forward into the pressure of the blaster at his head. Either get it over with or take control. “How many Rebels did you kill when you served the Emperor, Madine? You were quite the celebrated strategist. How many policies did you put in place, how many campaigns in Palpatine’s favor? You were so proud to put your name to them then. How many do you think you’ll condemn by trying to stop peace talks now, on both sides of the divide? I’ve always fought for the same thing, Madine; I don’t feel the need to validate a single action to you because Rebel or Imperial, where I was stood didn’t matter. I was fighting for the same thing; I always will. You…” Luke shook his head. “I don’t think you even know what you’re fighting for, do you? I don’t think you even care.”
“I’m fighting for freedom.”
“Hm,” Luke let out the briefest of unamused laughs, knocking the automemo slightly with his bound hands. “Your freedom, your way, where anybody who you personally don’t approve of isn’t entitled to those same rights.”
“You’re not entitled to anything—you gave those rights up when you became Emperor.”
“Why, because you disapprove? That’s your brave new order, is it, Madine? This being is entitled to justice because I say so, but that being isn’t because I personally dislike of him. Sounds suspiciously like a dictatorship to me.” Luke was speaking as much to the guards who stood to silent attention about the cell as to Madine now, pushing out questions, because if just one of them listened and began to question Madine’s actions…
Madine slammed a fist on the table. “The Rebel Alliance…”
“The Rebel Alliance want to put me on trial, Madine, you just said it yourself. I don’t see any jury here, do you? I seriously doubt this is the kind of confession they’d consent to. Which means you’re acting without their sanction in this, aren’t you…aren’t you?”
“Maybe they just don’t care how…”
“Don’t waste your breath, Madine. You’re running your own little show here, with your own little contingent. Your own little Empire.” Again Luke was speaking to his audience standing about the cell, wanting them to know that Madine was acting on his own—that he was dragging them all down with him.
Madine straightened, and the blaster he held pulled back a few inches but remained trained on Luke’s face. He forced himself to look past it to hold the General’s gaze, watching his eyes narrow dangerously at the provocation. “I’d be very careful if I were you, because if I am running my own show, believe me, you’re surplus to requirements.”
“Well then, pull the trigger,” Luke grated. “C’mon, Madine, I know that you did it in Imperial detention cells to countless Rebel prisoners…”
Madine’s chin rose a fraction and there was understanding in his eyes of what Luke was doing; realization that Luke was baiting him in front of his own men. “You know nothing of the sort.”
“Oh, I’ve read the transcriptions. I know all about your tawdry little career. It must be quite a restriction being here now, with those you spent so many years trying to obliterate. Operating against the grain for you, isn’t it, all these regulations? Or maybe it’s not…maybe this is how you run all your side-scams. Your rules, your way, and everyone else closes their eyes. I’m sure you tell them that this is a necessary evil, that y—”
Madine caught Luke a teeth-rattling blow across the face with the butt of the blaster, the sheer power of it striking him dumb for long seconds—and this time as he raised his head he felt the warm seep of blood burst from his lower lip and bloom over his chin, felt it flow in a choking surge from his nose—and he knew he’d won this round. Because either Madine shot the footage of a confession by someone who had clearly just taken a beating, or he had to wait… So Luke had gained a day’s grace.
Three days after losing Luke, Mara arrived back on Coruscant to a full honor-guard on the main roof of the Palace monolith, as if the Emperor himself was returning. The seals of the documents pertaining to the line of succession had been broken at General Arco and Admiral Joss’s request just one day after Luke had been caught, the inner elite of Luke's Empire looking to maintain stability and clarify the line of succession as soon as possible, despite Mara's disquiet. Rendezvousing with the Patriot, still reeling from events, she had been present when Commander Clem, Admiral Joss and General Reiss had provided the three authorized signatory codes necessary in one place in order to be able to open the document.
She’d been sworn into power that same night, her first command as Regent being to restrict knowledge of the Emperor's abduction to as few people as possible. The unenviable job of passing the facts on to the Empress on Coruscant then, fell to Intel Chief General Arco.
He’d also organized the Patriot’s rendezvous, three hours from Coruscant, with the Spur, the Fury and the Peerless, whose joint arrival in orbit was engineered as an unmistakable display of military backing and endorsement intended to head off any potential conflict developing between the Royal Houses and the military, without the Emperor's unyielding presence to hold them together.
For the first time Mara realized just why Luke had seen D'Arca as so essential to continued stability; to have her as the moderator who could willingly hold the widespread and massively influential Royal Houses in line had been the perfect answer to a long-standing problem that even Palpatine had wrestled with. In fact, Mara had to admit that Luke’s shrewd inclusion and recognition of D'Arca, to provide the Royal Houses with the acknowledgment and representation they desired and so ensure their continued compliance, had been an ingenious strategy—now that she was forced to look at the larger picture. It had just one small flaw: Kiria's commitment may well be total, but it was to Luke, and not Mara.
How that would play out exactly, she was about to find out, Mara reflected; one more thing to deal with, at a time when dividing her attention could lose her everything.
Stepping down from the lambda transport and between the massed ranks of Imperial military was the most daunting, overwhelming and plain terrifying moment of Mara’s life to date—yet as she made that walk alone, it paled by comparison to the far deeper fear that she had lost Luke forever.
Palace officials and dignitaries were already waiting, bowing in recognition of their new Regent and looking about as uncomfortable with this whole thing as Mara felt. She probably should have worn something a little more dignified than her standard catsuit, she reflected, but then she had no real idea of what she was expected to wear. She thought of Luke; tried to remember a single suit of clothing he’d worn, but had only a vague awareness of dark, somber clothes. Instead what came to mind was the night of the levee to announce his marriage to D'Arca; of how handsome he’d looked in the short, fitted jacket of the flawlessly tailored black serge suit. Of their hiding away on the balcony…of dancing in the seclusion of the warm night. She remembered the subtle gleam of the Order of the Imperial Star at his throat, black stones barely visible; the pang of desire to touch this thing which she so associated with him, to hold it, to keep it with her, was overwhelming.
Uncomfortably exposed before the parade-perfect lines of troopers, she felt her eyes glass over again and resisted the urge to wipe at them. She’d made this walk a thousand times three steps behind Luke, completely comfortable, but now suddenly all eyes were on her and not him, all expectations—and it was a daunting thing. Was this what Luke had felt, every time he saw the massed ranks of a formal honor-guard? Was this why he had hated them so much for so very long? Mara had always put it down to some remaining fragment of Luke's private shyness but now, having to face that same spectacle, holding her head high as she passed before the mass of inquisitive eyes, simply braving her own honor guard felt more like running the gauntlet.
She glanced about, looking for the moral support that Hallin would have given, but he was nowhere to be seen. He’d retreated into his own quarters on that first day when the facts came out and Reece was brought aboard the Ecliptic already in restraints, and Mara had seen neither sight nor sound of him since, though she knew he had transferred to the Patriot. Having been the one who had both lost Luke and accused Reece, Mara hadn’t the heart to question his absence, but after just two days, she was surprised by how keenly she felt the lack of his presence.
The day was a blur of reassigning security protocols, collating data and organizing meetings with ever-escalating numbers of command staff to oversee a combined course of action, leaving Mara with the distinct impression that not only were they searching for a needle in a haystack in trying to locate Luke, but that trying to do so with the massive juggernaut that was the Imperial military was akin to trying to find that single needle with an agri-harvester. By nightfall, despite uninterrupted meetings throughout the day, Mara was itching to separate the 701st from the juggernaut, split them off into smaller teams and get out there with them, in an arena that she understood and on a scale she could personally deal with. Everything moved painfully slow, so that although they had incredible reserves of ships and bodies and equipment to throw at the situation, reassignment would take precious days to achieve. She was beginning to understand just exactly why Luke had a tendency to fall back on the likes of Talon Karrde if he wanted something done quickly and quietly; she was already tempted to do the same. In fact, if she’d had a way to contact him, she would probably have done so already.
By nightfall of her first day on Coruscant and her third without Luke, Mara sat at the desk in Luke's private study and stared into the gathering dusk, nursing her frustrations whilst the minutes ticked away. She’d locked the office door for privacy, feeling a cloying sense of claustrophobia at being followed everywhere by Clem’s bodyguards, no matter how discretely. The barest hint of a smile lifted her lips in the quiet room, at Luke's wry reference to his ‘red shadow,’ trailing after him everywhere he went. Mara had always come squarely down on Clem’s side in any discussion on security, but after little more than a day, the temptation to try to lose her own guards was beginning to whisper.
She’d always venerated the Palace and the power it bestowed: the way of life Palpatine had always considered the ultimate goal. Always placed this above all other things for Luke. But now, here, without him, it seemed an empty charade. A pointless, endless game of moves and counter-moves, the weight of the galaxy heavy on her shoulders… Had it felt this way for Luke? Was this what he’d privately felt, when she had believed so completely that he had finally achieved everything he deserved.
Everything she’d wanted for him… Now, sitting alone in his office at the burr-wood desk she’d watched Luke work from so very often well into the early hours, all those pressures and demands, the fear of making a single wrong move already making Mara double-think her every decision, she wondered…were those values hers at all, or simply a leftover from another life? A life which seemed pale and insubstantial now, compared to the very real fear that she may lose what truly mattered to her. As she shook her head slowly, she felt that black despair tightening about her chest in fear, making it hard to breathe, leaving her dizzy and nauseous and completely lost.
Before her on the translucent glow of the virtual screen was a locked, out-of-date file marked Extrapolated Rim Fleet Movements, pulled from Luke's private retrieval system. She’d run through the gamut of security passes, DNA, biometric and passcodes, and now all she needed to do was input the final code, Emerald Eyes. A code for a document that no one else would have bothered to even try to access, given its vague title. A document that had been left for Mara's eyes alone. This was Luke's plan, his ultimate goal, his final objective for the Empire whose future he'd already given so much to change. All she had to do was open it and read… But somehow, to open the file as he’d asked—to even contemplate doing so—seemed an admission of failure. That he was gone already. That she should move on without him…
Still staring, her mind looking for any escape, Mara’s eyes fell on the smooth organic curves of a small, tarnished silver holo-projector and she smiled, recognizing it of old, wondering how long it had actually sat on Luke’s desk…and yet she’d never once seen him play it, didn’t even know what it contained.
He had few personal belongings. Mara had always wondered whether it was because deep down, he’d never wanted to put roots down here; never wanted to believe he would stay.
She reached out and took the familiar object, studying it, wondering what had earned it that most rare of entitlements: a place in Luke’s life. It was clearly vintage, the graceful sweeping curves and flowing lines a style she recognized as very late Republic, probably just pre-reform. Expensive though; an elegant, select piece. Mara turned it over in her hands, the etching on its tactile curves worn smooth in places from handling, needing long seconds to find the concealed activation toggle.
The image flared into life, no taller than her hand and semi-transparent, but still a vibrant splash of color. It was of a woman, younger than Mara probably, with a mass of dark curls which fell from a complex headdress clearly of a similar era. The image wobbling slightly, shot from a handheld device.
“Don’t—Annie, don’t, I look terrible.”
“You look beautiful.”
“But I’ll take it with me back to the Outer Rim—take you with me. Carry you in my pocket everywhere.”
“Really? Then take this: I love you, Annie. I always will.”
Mara smiled slightly, lifting the vintage transmitter to study that final image of the unknown woman whose earnest expression was frozen forever, framed by that mane of rich dark curls, wondering who she was. Was it someone from Luke's own childhood and if so, who? And who was Annie? The unknown woman was very well-dressed, so it was unlikely to be from his life on Tatooine, or his guardian, Beru Lars. Where had Luke even gotten it from? She couldn’t believe she’d never asked him, that she’d seen it so very often yet never thought to find out, always taking it for granted that she had all the time in the galaxy to ask him…
Her eyes were drawn through the semi-transparent image and back to the more utilitarian virtual screen which glowed brightly in the dark room, and Mara abandoned the holo-emitter, placing it gently down as its image darkened so that once again the screen became the room’s only light, and that unwelcome.
She couldn’t do this; couldn’t open the document. Governing his Empire was neither here nor there, the endless bureaucracy and layers of administration Luke had so painstakingly put in place were easily able to tick along quietly for a month or so, delaying and deferring major decisions and running a holding pattern for now...but how long was now?
What if it was…
She couldn’t do this; couldn’t walk through Luke's rooms and sit at Luke's desk and organize a fleet to look for him when all the while, she stayed here. She couldn’t be here. With an intensity that was near-painful, Mara realized what she had asked of Luke so often, in trying to curtail his desire to actively participate. Because the need to be out there right now—with the troops on the ground—was a pull to the very center of her being.
She’d sat there for an hour feeling nauseous, sick with worry, because she couldn’t open that document—she wouldn’t. Not now, not while he was still… Mara swiped at her eyes again, straightening; it was Luke's plans and she’d damn well get him back here to carry them out himself. If she broke this seal now, it would feel like she was letting Luke go, admitting defeat, and she damn well wasn’t. Not now, not ever.
Rising, Mara strode from the room and, followed by her 'red shadow', spent the rest of the night walking the empty halls of the Palace, resisting the urge to return, as Luke had done, to Palpatine’s deserted, dusty apartments to shout her frustrations and accusations at the empty rooms.
Morning saw Mara sitting again at Luke's wide desk in the private office in Luke's apartments. Why exactly she kept coming back to this room she didn’t know, except that this was the room she remembered him sitting in hour after hour, one elbow on the desk, eyes down, head in his hand, concentrating with studied silence.
There were already a few dozen senior officers waiting in the Stateroom and the pile of issues which had now been flagged up as requiring his personal attention totaled five hundred twenty-nine on Luke's autoreader. In the time it took Mara to contact the Emperor's offices in the Cabinet and check that the system was being monitored and filtered, another nineteen had arrived.
A light knock on the door brought her eyes up as Turis entered, his nervousness such that Mara could sense it even at this range. “You asked to be informed when General Reiss arrived, Ma'am…and…the Empress is here. I’ve shown her to the Marble Hall.”
The Marble Hall. As a matter of course, Luke had long encouraged Aides and staff to follow the unspoken rule that general visitors were shown to the grand, imposing Stateroom, and personal friends to the smaller White Drawing Room. Anyone anticipated to require…extra attention was shown to the Marble Hall, well out of the way. Mara had always found this unspoken procedure of categorizing visitors endlessly amusing. Today, it made her want to put her head in her hands.
“Thanks, I’ll be there shortly. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting now, would we?”
Turis bowed and left, clearly unsure whether that was meant to be a joke or not, and Mara sighed, looking to the desk console. Finally she typed in a contact code and waited…and waited. When she received no answer, she commed the security desk in the Aide’s Office.
“Could you give me a location on Nathan Hallin?”
There was a pause as the man ran it through the system. “I have him as in his quarters, Ma'am.”
“Override his comm and activate it; patch me through.”
The image of the guard disappeared as Nathan’s quarters, still dark from the window’s privacy filters on full, coalesced on the holo-comm set into Luke's desk. Mara frowned. “Nathan… Nathan, I know you’re in there, answer me… Nathan? ………Are you actually going to make me come down there—because I will.”
A muted shadow crossed the room and Nathan sat carefully at his desk within the holo-lens’s range, elbows on the desk, hands clasped. Eyes ringed with dark shadows, he looked like he’d gotten roughly as much sleep as Mara in the last few days, still wearing the same things he’d worn on the Eclipse, his normally impeccable clothes ruffled and creased, shirt undone at the neck.
“Nathan…what the hell are you doing?”
“Really, very little.” His somber, miserable voice was slight and subdued.
“Except sitting and stewing?”
“Well…I have a good deal to stew over, even you have to admit that.”
“And I don’t?”
“This is hardly your fault.”
“…Are you saying it’s yours?”
Nathan shook his head slowly. “Wez said to me…so many times, he said that the reforms were too much, that the Empire was losing its way. But I let it pass. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me to do otherwise. It was Wez, you see…it was Wez. I trusted him implicitly.”
“We all did, Nathan; he lied to us all.”
“Not like he lied to me…and I didn’t see it. I really didn’t see it.”
Mara hesitated at the wounded and bewildered grief in his voice. “You told me once that in some things, we’re all blind.”
Nathan loosed a bitter laugh. “I did, I said that…because I wanted to protect Luke. Apparently I was looking in the wrong direction.”
“Nathan, I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for your guilt trip when I’m as much to blame myself. I was with him at the time—I should have gotten him out.”
“You shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. Because of me.”
“No, because of Reece.”
Nathan seemed not to hear. “You know I was the one who originally persuaded Luke to consider Wez, don’t you? I said he…I said he had a good heart. I said he could be trusted.”
“Nathan, Luke already knew. He knew what Wez was doing, he’d known for a while. But he made the decision to wait. To let Wez stay.”
“Why did he…oh Sith!”
Mara frowned. “What?”
“Oh, please tell me it wasn’t because of me?”
Mara swallowed hard; until now, the thought hadn’t even occurred to her. “I don’t…”
“Oh no…” His head was in his hands now, disconsolate. “Can this get any worse!”
“Worse than what—worse than having lost Luke, or worse than doing nothing about it because you’re too wrapped up in your own problems to get off your ass and do what Luke would have expected you to do? You want to know who Luke trusted—it was you, Nathan. It was always you…more than me, certainly more than Reece. And I’m damned if I’m gonna let you blow that now by just sitting in the dark and stewing.”
“Mara, it’s three days and there’s been no word. You know what everyone’s thinking—that Luke's already…”
He couldn’t bring himself to say it and Mara sure as hell wasn’t about to let him. “Listen to me—now you listen to me; Luke is coming back. He’s damn well coming back, and you and I are going to do everything in our power to make that happen, you understand me?”
Nathan was already shaking his head.
“Nathan, you can’t just stay holed up in there forever. You wouldn’t do this if it were Luke asking. You’d help him.”
“Mara…what use could I possibly be?”
“Use? Right now, I have about twenty senior staff in the Stateroom, all waiting to tell me that whatever the hell they’re intending is the most important thing on the agenda. I have Arco waiting in the Cabinet to tell me what actually is important, I have Admiral Joss, having freed up over one hundred sixty ships, waiting for me to tell them where to start looking, I have General Reiss wanting to know which of those ships to put troops on, I have the 701st chomping at the bit…and I have Kiria D'Arca waiting in the Marble Hall… And frankly, I have no idea of what to say to her. I do know this though: I need you here. I need to have one person I know I can rely on. One person I know I can trust.”
Nathan shook his head, the words coming out in a pale sigh. “You don’t need my help, Mara. You never did.”
Mara hesitated for a second, her inability to admit any weakness flaring—but the sight of Nathan looking just as lost and wretched as she felt right now gave her voice. “Nathan…I can’t do this alone, okay? Are you happy now? I can’t do it alone and you’re the only person who knows what the hell I’m going through right now, so you have ten minutes to wash up, get changed and get up here or so help me, I swear I will damn well come down there and get you.”
Mara paused outside the doors to the Marble Hall, turning to take in the hunched, drawn figure of Nathan, standing beside her. Slight and diminutive at the best of times, he looked like a walking wreck today—but at least he’d come.
“Okay, how we doing here?” Mara asked quietly.
“Like poodoo. How about you?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
Nathan nodded, lips pursed. “Well, at least we’re putting on a united front, then.”
Mara straightened, standing tall. “We damn well are in front of her.”
Kiria D'Arca turned as they entered the room, and Mara experienced a second of blind panic that Nathan would simply remain where he was beyond the door and leave her to walk in alone… But D'Arca’s eyes flicked to the side as her face fell to a confused frown, and Mara knew she had her backup.
It was long, long seconds before D'Arca bowed hesitantly from the neck, the rich scarlet dress she wore rustling quietly, elegant folds resettling. She was absolutely the picture-perfect Empress, head held high with all the grace and fortitude that only someone such as she could ever muster, lips just a fraction too tight, glassy eyes blinking rapidly. Projecting flawlessly the part of the injured party, Mara knew; the distraught spouse with too much pride to ever allow more than the barest chink to show beneath that china-doll façade.
Dressed formally in dark trousers and a fitted jacket, her hair pulled carelessly into a tight plait at the nape of her neck, Mara felt drab by comparison, fragile and resentful. But one thought kept ringing in her head, the self-same thing she’d been sternly telling herself since she’d arrived back at the Palace in anticipation of this moment: Luke's words on that last day onboard the Wasp, about Reece’s betrayal. “Kiria said he actually took an offer to her directly.”
Which meant that D'Arca had already gone to Luke with that fact; because he hadn’t said that he knew Reece had gone to Kiria, he’d actually said, “Kiria said…”
Luke trusted her; always with limits, but he’d trusted her. Right now, that was going to have to be enough for Mara. Unable to bring herself to open the document he’d left for her, Mara was trying hard to take on board everything that she remembered from Luke's actions as Emperor. Trying in every situation to ask herself those two vital questions, ‘What would Luke have done? What would he want me to do now?’ And much as she’d tried to convince herself that actually, Luke would have wanted her to punch the petite little debutante in the nose and have her thrown out of the Palace, she knew that the truth was that Luke believed he needed her; needed her co-operation to hold the Royal Houses in line. Believed it totally. And if Luke Skywalker, with all his powerplays and machinations, had needed her, then Mara Jade sure as hell did. She just didn’t want her.
But since she fully intended to have Luke's House be in order when he returned, to actually eject the Empress bodily from the Palace may not be the politic move Mara would so very much have liked it to be. And she'd made a promise, freely given on the night they’d stood alone in the enclosing shadows of the Pageant Ballroom’s balcony, a riot of noise and celebration at the imminent wedding continuing behind them which neither felt any part of. “I’ll ask you this one last time, then I’ll never mention it again,” she’d said of his need for Kiria's involvement. He’d said yes, he needed her—needed that conduit to the Royal Houses—to stabilize the future Empire.
So that was that; whether he was here or not, Mara had made that promise to Luke and she’d damn well keep it. Kiria D'Arca stayed.
But that didn’t for one second mean she had to like it, Mara reflected, nodding just slightly. “Excellency.”
Silence; Mara heard Nathan shuffle nervously behind her, and broke it more out of consideration for him than respect for D'Arca. “I’m sure you’ve been made aware that in the event of his absence Luke left governorship of the Empire in my hands…”
“I’m well aware of the documents, Comman…Madam Regent. I checked them very carefully.”
“I’m sure you did.”
D'Arca braced, indomitable. “I won’t go without a fight.”
“I won’t leave without a fight. I have as much right to be here as you do.”
Mara frowned, not ready to give ground already. “Your pardon, Excellency, but you’ll do as you’re commanded.”
D'Arca’s chin rose a fraction. “No, Ma'am, I will not. I will do as my duty demands, and that is to stay right here. I have easily as much right to be here as you do, as much right to put my backing and my willpower and my commitment into the Emperor's safe return. More so in the eyes of the people than any anonymous Aide or bodyguard, I assure you. So if you think you can make me leave, then I invite you to try. You may be Regent, but I’m Empress. Who do you think the people will back? Who do you think the Royal Houses will put their strength behind?”
“Then I suggest you do your job as acting head of state and move to diffuse it before it comes into being. You are Regent, Commander Jade; you are neither Emperor nor Empress—remember that. You are custodian of the Emperor's dynasty, nothing more. Your job is to ensure its continued prosperity until the Emperor's return…and to do everything in your power to ensure that return.”
Mara's eyes narrowed. “And you think I won’t do that?”
“On the contrary, I have every faith in your readiness to do your duty; the Emperor would not have chosen you otherwise. But remember, I too was chosen by the Emperor, and it wasn’t lightly. I have a place here; I have a value, a purpose, and I can assure you that I am very, very capable. And I won’t allow that duty to be derailed.”
“And what exactly is this self-ordained duty, Excellency?”
“What it has always been, Madam Regent. To continue to stabilize and to maintain the Empire to the Emperor’s design, until and beyond such a time as he returns. To that end, I will back you, Madam Regent, because the Emperor desired it…but I will not defer to any command you issue that I see as contrary to the Emperor's ruling principles. And I will consider it my utmost obligation to ensure that you pursue your own duty with equal diligence—and the Emperor’s safe return is most assuredly your primary goal.”
Mara frowned, uncertain; was that real concern, or was she simply protecting her position as Empress? “Then perhaps, Excellency, you would remove yourself and allow me to do my job.”
D'Arca held her ground, the picture of unyielding resolve. “Perhaps, Madam Regent, you would tell me what exactly you have achieved to date, in pursuit of such?”
“We have more than forty ships-of-the-line at the Emperor’s last known location, triangulating possible routes and passing those co-ordinates on to a convoy of incoming vessels who are working to clear or exclude each possibility on a radial basis. We have over five hundred craft which have been applied to the sole duty of locating the ship that the Emperor was abducted on. We have Intel being collated by the minute, we’re holding full COS meetings four times daily to unify our strategy and we’re mobilizing more than half the military to cope with the crisis.”
“You’re telling me that you don’t know where he is, Madam Regent,” D'Arca said. “I’d like to know what you’re doing about that fact.”
Mara narrowed her eyes. “Aside from wasting my time here, I presume? The fact is that at this time, we don’t even know whether the Emperor is still onboard the craft which was used in the abduction. And even if he were, that particular craft was a Type Six Bulk Freighter and apparently there have been, to date, more than seven hundred thousand manufactured by the Corellian Engineering Corporation. We’re presently mobilizing forces at local, planetary and system level to track down and place every single freighter of that type at the time of the abduction. We’re using existing security footage and intel seized from Kwenn Station to narrow our search. We now have every single Class Six freighter that we’re presently aware of locked down on whatever planet or location it happens to be at. We’ve discounted any registered as having been professionally destroyed by licensed breakers, but not those registered as simply scrapped. We’ve identified those belonging to existing smuggling groups and are enlisting help from Black Sun in tracking and eliminating them from the enquiry. All of which leaves us with a little under one hundred thousand freighters to track down and account for. This is one of almost fifty separate lines of enquiry that are being pursued at this time.” Mara paused dryly. “Perhaps you’d like to attend the COS meetings in future, to save my repeating an explanation of strategies so numerous that I’d waste the next hour recapping. I’m sure you’d be the first to agree that I have better things to do with my time right now.”
“I understand that someone has been arrested?”
“Someone is being held in Imperial custody.” There seemed little point in bluffing when D'Arca clearly knew.
“They’re being held here?”
Mara nodded, aware of Nathan shifting uncomfortably behind her. “By Intel.”
The Empress’s eyes narrowed. “Just one person?”
Mara hesitated; if D'Arca had actually told Luke about Reece, then there was one easy way to check: offer a partial answer now and see if D'Arca volunteered the rest. As she took a breath to answer, it also occurred to Mara that D'Arca may well be testing the same fact with Mara; whether Luke had trusted Mara enough to tell her about his talk with the Empress.
Both women held the other’s eye, guarded and calculating, as Mara chose her words with care. “So far everything confirms our intel that there was just one person within the Palace.”
D'Arca hesitated, eyes flitting just once to Nathan. “I see… May I speak with you in private, Madam Regent?”
Mara knew immediately that D'Arca had made the connection, and just exactly what the conversation would be about—and with that realization came an unanticipated problem. Because now the Empress clearly wanted to talk further…and Mara sure as hell wasn’t about to defer to D'Arca over Nathan. “Commander Hallin is one of the Emperor’s closest Aides. Whatever you have to say, you say it in front of him or not at all.”
Nathan took a half-step forward, the hollow tone of his voice letting Mara know that he too understood what the topic of conversation would be. “No, that’s all right, Mara. I’ll wait outside.”
“Nathan, you don’t have to, it...”
“I know, I understand. I’ll just… I’ll be in Luke’s…in the Emperor’s drawing room.”
For a second as he turned to leave, Mara seriously thought that D'Arca was going to object to Nathan’s choice of where to wait. But she clamped her jaw and held her tongue… First time for everything, Mara reflected dryly.
Still, by the time the double doors closed, what little patience Mara possessed was wearing thin. “What?”
D'Arca arched her eyebrows. “Would you rather me have spoken in his presence—really?”
“Just say what you have to say.”
“You’re holding Wez Reece, aren’t you?”
“That information is classified.”
“He handed Luke over to them, didn’t he?” The Empress’s eyes narrowed as she looked to Mara. “Then I’m moved to wonder why he’s still alive.”
Mara shook her head. “That’s Luke's call.”
“I’m also moved to wonder why Nathan Hallin is still free to go where he wills.”
“Commander Hallin’s beyond suspicion. He had nothing to do with it.”
“That’s a very sweeping presumption.”
Mara shook her head. “No, Nathan’s beyond suspicion. Luke trusted him, and that judgment’s good enough for me.”
D'Arca’s almond eyes narrowed again just slightly and Mara cursed her own repeated reference to Nathan by his given name, knowing the Empress would doubtless now consider Mara too close to make that call. “Forgive me…but Luke also trusted Wez Reece.”
“Wez was the exception,” Mara said simply.
“You can take that up with Luke—when he comes back.”
D'Arca sighed, frustration obvious. “Why did he leave the man in a position where he could do this much damage? I told him… I told him Wez Reece was a threat.” Her eyes came up to Mara's, and there was something in them, something close to an appeal. “Did he say anything to you—did he believe me at all? Did I not make it clear?”
And in a flash of understanding, Mara realized that she was looking at a woman running the self-same questions through her head as Mara herself was. She’d come in here braced for a confrontation this morning, for D'Arca’s usual undisguised scorn… But the fact was that, just like everyone else, D'Arca was questioning her own actions, worried that she had in some way been responsible for this, just as guilty and fretful as everyone else.
Mara nodded, her voice a fraction more tolerant. “He knew Wez was a threat.”
“Then why didn’t he act on it?”
“You think I didn’t say that to him a dozen times?”
“He is completely impossible sometimes! Everything comes before him—it’s like a pathological obsession!”
“I said that–” Mara broke off, abruptly realizing that she and D'Arca were actually agreeing; they were both furious and frustrated and for once, it wasn’t at each other. Unsettled, she glanced quickly away. “Luke had a small team from Intel watching him. All Wez’s actions within the Palace were screened and checked before being forwarded, and his exposure to sensitive information was reduced; there was no way he could harm the Empire, Luke had made sure of that.” Mara glanced down now, uncertain. “As to why he left him alone…I wish I could say.”
“He protected his Empire, but not himself,” Kiria said, frustrated.
Mara nodded knowingly. “Sounds about right.”
D'Arca frowned, calming a little as she considered. “I should have known he already knew. He said… When I told him Wez Reece was working against him, his only question was whether I would stand up in court and give evidence against him.”
“He didn’t need a legal case," Mara bit out. "He could have moved against Reece anyway.”
“I said that too! I said that he was Emperor, he was above common law.”
“And he said no one was above the law,” Mara finished knowingly.
“It can’t be that way,” D'Arca said with absolute conviction. “Power must be wielded in order to be protected and certain laws are absolute; they have to be. Even the suspicion of sedition should be severely dealt with. There can be no shades of gray, no extenuating circumstances—not in this.”
The view of the aristocracy, Mara reflected; monarchy was incontestable and categorical. It was that uncompromising strength of belief that Luke had always sought to tap into through D'Arca, knowing that with it, he could turn the path of an Empire. For a fraction of a second, she allowed herself to wallow in the fear that it would now never come to pass… Then she tightened her jaw, resolute. “What happens to Wez Reece is for the Emperor to decide.”
“But you’ve questioned him?”
“He’s been interviewed several times by Arco’s Intel specialists,” Mara said levelly, aware that D'Arca’s anger was her concern for Luke and not a criticism.
“And he said what?”
“Nothing, but then he’s an ex-Imperial Guard, so he’s going to be resistant to interview techniques.”
D'Arca tipped her head, unimpressed. “Is he resistant to drugs?”
Mara glanced down. “We’ve gotten no additional information from their use, only the same facts: he was acting alone, voluntarily passing information onto the Rebellion for the sole purpose of removing the Emperor. He had no contact with those he passed information to, and no knowledge of what they would do.”
“Have you exhausted all drug types—are you sure you have all the information?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t say at this time what we have and haven’t used.” Mara could hardly admit to D'Arca that she’d ordered Arco to hold off using a few of the more potent extremes in consideration of Luke's next set of upcoming statutes. Ones that she knew should actually have been enacted into law the day that Luke was taken.
“Have you used tricliptidines?”
Mara lifted her head, surprised that D'Arca had such specific knowledge. “No…no, we haven’t.”
“May I ask why?”
“They were about to be declared illegal in the next set of statutes. Statutes that should have been enacted four days ago.”
“Were they enacted?”
“No, the legislature’s still on my…on Luke’s desk.”
“Then they’re not yet illegal?”
Mara swallowed against the temptation. “In all but name they are.”
“Those drugs were created by the Empire for this specific purpose.”
“By Palpatine’s order, not by Luke’s. If Luke passed edicts outlawing them, then I won’t use them, full stop.” Was she really doing this—actually arguing against the regime she’d grown up with, the regime she’d believed for so long was unfaultable?
D’Arca only scowled. “So that’s it, you’re not going to use them?”
“I’m not going to countermand Luke’s edict, no,” Mara said firmly. “You just said you thought it was your duty to make sure I didn’t do anything that was contrary to the Emperor's ruling principles, and now you want me to start going against his orders after just four days?”
“I want you to get him back,” D'Arca said, unfazed by the fire in Mara’s voice.
“I intend to.”
“Then speak to Wez Reece!”
“Intel is already doing so.”
“And you’re confident that these anonymous interrogators know Wez Reece better than you do? That they’ll know which leads to follow and which questions to pursue, without the knowledge of minor facts that might pass anyone who wasn’t familiar with both Reece and the Emperor? Things that only someone close to both on a daily basis might understand?”
It was, Mara knew, a valid point…so why had she been putting it off? Why hadn't she once been near Reece?
“Tomorrow,” Mara said with a single nod of her head, annoyed at having been called on it. “I’ll interview him myself tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is too late, Madam Regent.” D'Arca raised her chin, eyes lancing Mara with undisguised challenge. “Now is barely soon enough. I’ll interview him myself if need be.”
“You think it’s that simple—that you just walk in there and start asking random questions.”
“I may not have the experience, but I do have the resolve.”
Mara raised an eyebrow, freshly motivated to find her own composure and determination. “Fortunately, I have both.”
Luke lay awake, staring at the curve of the cell walls he couldn’t see in the darkness, forcing himself to think; to analyze the facts and not simply allow his mind to roam again to the endless memories which this room invoked. Even in darkness and by the perception of more mundane senses, it demanded recognition: the dull silence of his own breath against the curve of the walls, the smell of the surgically scrubbed oxygen exchange, the white-noise hiss of its internal filter, the cool chill of unheated air. Every sigh and every breath and every movement conveyed the knowledge of this cell he was caged in even without the Force.
Without the Force… He blinked slowly, concentrating his thoughts; but the void yielded nothing, leaving only an internal shudder, like the momentary glimpse of a chasm in darkness. Not for the first time, the disturbing thought gnawed at him…what if he were to die here, never again touching it, the measured echo of the universe that had pulsed for so long in his awareness that it had become as familiar as his own heartbeat. He remembered again his nightmare just months ago…only it hadn’t been a nightmare, of course; it had been a vision, an echo of the future, a momentary impression of this cell, wrapped about with the same sense of this impenetrable void within the Force, of people and events shuttering past, whirling about him, steps away yet light-years from his reach as he remained trapped in this perfect, empty bubble of isolation created by the ysalamiri…though he hadn’t recognized it as such at the time.
Ysalamiri. He laughed just once, the sound deadened by the cell—ysalamiri. Smart move. He never would have released the plans to the cell—would at least have hesitated, walked into this trap forewarned—if he’d had that one, vital fact. Ysalamiri. He’d had released the cell plans believing that it was no longer a threat, knowing that his power had overtaken even the purpose-built cell’s ability to hold him. And it couldn’t…if he had access to the Force. Now…they could have placed him in a secure room with a pair of binders on and he would be as trapped as anyone else.
Luke frowned again, forcing himself to concentrate, to study that fact: as trapped as anyone else. So the question was…why all this? Why bother with the cell at all—what was different?
The cell was the same, but Palpatine would never have used ysalamiri—would never have risked them being close, even to control Luke.
Here, now…these people were dealing with the ultimate unknown, something they could neither see nor hear nor measure. Yes, they were using ysalamiri to sever Luke’s contact with the Force, but…they’d built the cell because they had no way to measure whether Luke was able to access the Force at any given time; no way to ensure that the ysalamiri were working, or how completely they severed contact. No way to know that with the ysalamiri present, any door with a lock and key would hold him. They didn’t know what worked and what didn’t, or to what extent…so they were using every means they had to control him, every rumor and method they’d ever heard. And it was working.
But all these back-ups were covering that one vital flaw: they didn’t know what was effective. They were working blind—and people working blind in a fluid situation could easily make mistakes without even realizing it…
Lights flared suddenly across the curved sphere of the cell as the doors ran through their protracted opening cycle with that same delayed, rasping scrape as before; different somehow though—different to the original. How? Still flinching at the unaccustomed light, Luke barely saw the young man who came through and walked a wide arc to the far side of the domed, circular cell.
“Food.” The soldier placed a flimsiplast bowl on the floor just inside the wide, roughly painted circle on the floor and stepped back, wary.
Luke rose, stiff and sore, hand going automatically to the scar at the base of his skull. The swelling had gone, leaving a deep ache…and if Luke pressed against it, he could just feel the edge of something solid. He wanted to believe that it was a tracker, but knew that wouldn’t be the truth of it. On Tatooine in his youth, he’d often seen slaves in the major townships, and anyone on any backwater world knew that slavers embedded distance-triggered chip-charges in slaves' bodies to keep them put, usually against the spine or at the base of the skull. He’d be deluding himself to believe this was anything else.
Frowning at the thought Luke walked forward, just able to reach the dropped bowl at the full stretch of the chain about his ankle. He nodded at the floor as he backstepped to sit on the edge of the heavy bunk frame. “Clever.”
Luke looked up, surprised that the man had answered. None of the others did. “The circle drawn on the floor; that’s how far I can reach when I’m chained to the bunk frame.”
“Yeah, we have to stay outside of it if we come in alone.”
Luke studied the man as he spoke. He was young, maybe eighteen, with a Rim accent, fair hair and a baggy S.O. uniform that looked too big for him. For some reason, he instantly made Luke think of himself at that age.
He looked at the food, flatbreads and overripe juja. The quality of rations hadn’t changed in the last seven years then. Eventually, aware that the youth wasn’t leaving, Luke glanced up. “What?”
“I have to wait for the bowl.”
Luke glanced down at the flimsiplast bowl and laughed, the action re-opening the deep split in his lip and making him wince.
Eyes still on the dish, Luke watched a perfect circlet of blood drop onto it, staring for long seconds…
The youth’s voice, hesitant but fascinated, pulled him from the moment.
“What’s it like?”
Luke laughed humorlessly. “Today it’s very much like sitting in a small, cold cell whilst a bunch of people you once trusted decide how to kill you.”
The young man glanced away uncomfortably, and that alone made Luke look a little closer. He really couldn’t be more than eighteen, probably all fired up with righteous indignation and revolutionary zeal, as Luke had been at that age. He was also, being the youngest man Luke had seen and given his guilty reaction just now, the most likely to crack a little.
Luke glanced to the now-closed door, then back to the youth. Making a conscious effort, he dropped every trace of the Coruscanti accent Palpatine had spent so long grinding into him. “So how d’you end up working for Madine?”
The young soldier pursed his lips. “We’re not supposed to talk to you.”
“You can’t just stand there in silence and watch me eat. Look, there’s a security lens on us right now and doubtless a fair few of your friends watching on a viewscreen somewhere—I’m sure that if you said anything untoward they’d let you know pretty damn quick.”
The soldier looked away then back to Luke. “Your…your lip is bleeding.”
“Yeah, someone punched me in the face with a blaster butt.”
“D’you…want…something for it?”
“No. They’ll do it again in a few hours.”
The youth looked away again at Luke's deliberately provocative words, but then Luke had still nursed a conscience at that age too, when he’d been green and innocent and blindly trusting. When it had all been some kind of inspiring cross between an adventure and a passion; a calling in his life. When he’d still naïvely let others tell him the path he should take and dictate the way that things should be.
Now, looking at all that same credulity in the youth before him, all Luke saw was an opportunity to be used. Was that what Madine had seen when he’d first set eyes on the naïve pilot that Luke Skywalker had been back then, always so ready to risk his own life for someone else’s ambitions and objectives?
Then again, was Luke any different from Madine any more…because he was willing to do the same with the youth in front of him right now.
“What’s your name?”
“Tam... I don’t think I should tell you my surname.”
“Fair enough…but it’s on the name tag on your uniform.”
Tam glanced down, panicked, hand to his chest…before he realized he had no such tag. Special Ops didn’t wear them.
Not been here long then, Luke reflected as the young man glanced back to him, frowning. Luke gave an easygoing grin as if sharing a joke, before looking down to eat a little more of the flatbread. He didn’t want it—had a loose tooth which gave a shooting pang with every bite—but he wanted to prolong the soldier’s time in the cell as long as possible; wanted to try to get him talking.
As it turned out, it wasn’t that hard. It was Tam who spoke out, blurting the words as if desperate to know.
“Why did you let them go at Fondor?”
“Fondor—the raid on the shipyards there. You let all the pilots go. Why d’you do that?”
“Were you there?”
“My brother was. Cal—he’s a pilot. That’s how come I’m here; Cal flies on the General’s Special Ops missions, and he got me in too. He says they were dead in space, sitting targets, but you let them all go.”
Luke nodded slowly. “I let them all go.”
Tam frowned, uncertain. “Madine says it was all just political. That you were playing some kinda game and they just happened to be involved. He says you could just as easily have killed them—that you’d do it next time without even flinching.”
“Madine projects his own narrow views onto a situation he doesn’t understand and a scale he has no concept of.” Luke stared at the young man, who just looked back uncertainly, blinking. “I let them go because there was no reason for them to die. Because no one should have to die for their beliefs. Because that’s not a reason to kill either—no one can claim that right. I let them go because they were just trying to do what they thought was the right thing in a difficult situation—which is no different from what I’m trying to do.”
“By ruling an Empire?”
“By changing an Empire.”
“It—it’d still be an Empire.”
“But not the Empire.” Luke hesitated just slightly, wondering how far he could press this, wanting to use this opportunity before either the kid walked away or someone came in and curtailed it. He wanted to get word outside this cell, wanted to stir things up— because if all it achieved was to make just one man hesitate just one second before he fired on Luke, it could be the difference between life and death.
“But an Empire; your Empire,” Tam said. “You’re still the Emperor.”
“I am—just not the one you think. Not the one who’d continue Palpatine’s Empire. I’m the man who’s already rescinded the Slavery Edict and the Classification Act. The man who opened up the HoloNet again. The man who reinstated the legal system and incorporated inalienable rights into the constitution. I’m the man who’ll change it completely, given time… But it’s difficult to do that if I’m dead.”
Tam took a step back, glancing down uncomfortably. “They say you’ll go to trial.”
Luke reached up to wipe the blood from his lip. “Do you think Madine will let that happen—or that it would be a fair trial if it did?" He paused; took a gamble based on the fact that he'd still seen no other member of the Alliance's leadership than Madine. "Why do you think I’m here, and not on Home One?”
“Madine trusts everyone here…” Tam's voice was quieter now, a little less sure.
Not on Home One then....maybe still on the Wasp.
The first thing Luke heard was the hiss of the vacuum being discharged in the short corridor between the inner and outer doors of the cell as it started its opening cycle. “Madine has control over everyone here,” Luke corrected, glancing meaningfully to the door.
“It’ll be a fair trial,” Tam said firmly.
The heavy clack of multiple bolts releasing sounded as the door ran through its lock cycle.
Luke glanced back to Tam. “Your Alliance leadership wants a fair trial,” Luke emphasized. “Come back in a week’s time, when Madine's getting a little more frustrated because I won’t read out the confession he's already written for that fair trial…”
The inner door opened into the room, shielding whoever had opened it from Luke's view, though he’d kept his eyes on the young soldier anyway. “One week, Tam; come back and look me in the eye and say that again.”
“I have to go.” Tam backed out, breaking eye-contact and shaking his head.
Luke watched in silence as the heavy doors closed with a reverberating clang, wondering if he’d gotten through to the young man.
“That’s how come I’m here; Cal flies on the General’s Special Ops missions, and he got me in, too…” Tam wasn’t one of Madine's men; he was here by chance, not design.
He needed to speak to him again, to draw him out, to… Luke paused, smiling as he licked the blood that had formed on his lip, vividly reminded of his first few weeks in Palpatine’s custody, when Mara was his carefully appointed jailor. He remembered trying to draw her out, to get her speaking, to form some kind of connection in a situation so similar to this…
Only not, because when he’d spoken to Mara, it had been to try to establish a genuine connection, part curiosity, part hope. Now…now he was older and wiser, and the reason he wanted to get the kid talking was far less principled. He wanted information—about what was outside this cell, he wanted to get word out there, of what was taking place in it…and he wanted the kid used to talking to him, so that if it came to it, he may hesitate that fraction of a second before he pulled that blaster he wore—and that may be all that Luke needed. The difference between life and death…for either of them.
He remembered Palpatine mocking him, amused that Luke had bought Mara's life with a hard-to-ask appeal to his old Master not to kill her. ‘In your position I would have let her die,’ Palpatine had said.
Then, the idea had been unthinkable.
Now…he didn’t disagree with the soldier; didn’t oppose his views, even respected his willingness to fight for them… But to do so put him in Luke's path, and it was that simple.
Luke frowned at that. He’d wondered often, in his final years with Palpatine and beyond, whether he was truly a Sith. Yes, he had a conscience; yes, it tore at him sometimes like the turn of a knife. But in the moment, if instinct took over…that wouldn’t stop him, and he knew it.
And if so…that same notion beat at Luke's thoughts once again as he looked down to the drying drop of blood in the bowl that Tam had abandoned; had Palpatine won after all?
Words once hissed in malice as the ultimate threat, whispered again through Luke’s thoughts: “What do you fear, Jedi? What do you see in the dark when your demons come?”
Had Palpatine known, even as he asked the question, the ultimate fear that burned at the very core of Luke’s being?
Still staring at that drop of blood, uneasy misgivings were overtaken by a far more immediate realization as Luke dropped the bowl, rising as he held out his hands and turned them over, alarm overtaking him—
His ring—his mother’s ring. It was gone.
Mara arrived at the detention block just after dawn on the fifth day without Luke…she hadn’t slept yet anyway.
Standing beside her, Nathan looked about as rough as Mara felt, his big brown eyes ringed by dark circles from sleeplessness. She knew that for sure because they’d both spent the entire night wide awake in Luke’s study, going through the ever-increasing pile of documents awaiting attention and prioritizing them into new, smaller piles based on Nathan’s quickly scribbled headers of “Do Now,’ ‘Do Later,’ ‘Put Off’ and ‘Try to Ignore.’
“I don’t think Luke does it like this,” Mara had said, eying Nathan’s classifications wryly.
“Oh, he has a ‘Try to Ignore’ category,” Nathan had maintained. “He just doesn’t write it down.”
He’d worked in silence most of the night though, speaking only when he had a query, occasionally slowing to nothing and simply staring at the documents without seeing them, lost in his thoughts, that expressive face pinched and vulnerable. So Mara had been shocked this morning when Nathan had pursed his lips into a line of determination and said that he wanted to come down to the detention center with her when she spoke to Reece…and hardly surprised when, as they reached the cell door, Nathan had backstepped quickly, shaking his head.
“I can’t do it—I can’t go in.”
“You don’t have to,” Mara reassured. “I didn’t expect you to.”
He nodded, bewildered almost… then, as Mara set forward, he reached out to take her arm. “Mara!”
She turned, and he sighed, anxious but unable to stop himself. “You won’t…”
“I’m just going to ask him some questions, Nathan. That’s all.”
He’d been so close to both Wez and Luke; Mara couldn’t imagine what was going on in his head right now at finding out that one had turned on the other so spectacularly. For Mara this was an easy, clear-cut line; Wez was a traitor who had been instrumental in taking Luke from her. And she’d known for so long; had the time to work through the shock of betrayal that Nathan was feeling right now. Mara felt a small stab of guilt at the knowledge that she’d not told Nathan long ago, but now, looking back, she could easily see where Luke would have held off telling Nathan simply because he didn’t want to be the one who had to bring this rift to Nath—not without good cause. And of course, Nathan had taken that fact onboard as a huge lump of guilt; that Luke had held back for him. What exactly would pull Nathan out of his dark depression now Mara didn’t know, and she didn’t want to even begin to speculate what would happen if…if Luke never…
She scowled at the thought, at her own superstitious inability to even think it. And secretly, as she set towards the opening cell door, she wondered whether she maybe envied Nathan a little too, in the choice that she simply didn’t have: the choice to avoid this moment.
By the time she entered the room, Mara’s chin was held high, her face set in stone. Wez Reece sat at the far side of a long table, wrists in binders, watching her closely as she walked forward.
She didn’t meet his eye yet, placing the reader she’d brought in down on the table, all business. Though it wasn’t her forte she was more than capable of such interviews, having done hundreds of interrogations in Palpatine’s name. This time, however, she couldn’t quite bring herself to look at the subject, her anger bubbling up already, her jaw tightening—and she knew why she hadn’t once been down here, hadn’t even listened to the interview recordings, reading them as transcriptions instead. Because the golden rule in interrogation was, 'Never take emotions into the room', and as she sat and looked down at her own white knuckles holding her autoreader, Mara realized that for the first time ever in such an interview, she might actually go off the deep end and just lunge at the subject.
Instead she took a long breath, staring hard at the reader as if studying her notes, taking a moment to rally her thoughts into the more neutral frame of mind that she knew was essential. Took her time all over again to activate the record system on the reader…before finally she lifted her head to look Reece in the eye.
“This is interview session number…eleven. Commander Jade conducting. Time is six fifteen a.m. on forty-five, fifth, third, Coruscant Standard.”
Reece set his head slightly to the side, a half-smile on his face, his voice very calm. “Up early, Mara—that’s not like you.”
Mara narrowed her eyes, and in the silence, she heard her own nails scrape across the back of the autoreader she held. The temptation to yell, to rebuff the familiarity, to force him to refer to her as Commander Jade and so impose that much-needed distance, was almost overwhelming. But she knew that chances were he’d be more likely to make a slip if he was relaxed, so she let the moment slide, dragging a thin smile to her lips as she nodded. “Busy.”
“I’m sure… You know that I’m sorry that all this had to fall on you, don’t you? That was never my intention. Well, it was my intention that you come to power, but…”
“Let’s just skip the validations, shall we?”
He paused a few seconds. “I presume you’ve been elevated to Regent?”
Mara didn’t speak, having no intention of enlightening Reece as to what was happening outside of this cell.
He only smiled, offensively content. “It’ll be permanent inside of a month. I was hoping to guide you through this period, I admit—to stabilize the Empire and the pass over of power… You’ll make a great Empress, Ma'am.”
Mara leaned back, biting at the inside of her cheek, resisting the urge to ask Reece why he wanted Luke dead. You didn’t do that; you didn’t get bogged down in personal opinions. You asked key questions, you listened, and you stuck to the facts…
Reece shrugged as he gave another half-smile that grated on her raw nerves. “I was hoping you’d come eventually—that we could talk.”
“Well then, make it worth my while or I swear I’m walking out that door within the minute.”
Reece leaned back slightly, body-posture very open—but then he knew all the techniques. “Ask me anything.”
“Who were you passing information on to?”
“I’ve already told Arco this. As far as I’m aware, it was being passed on to the ex-Imperial General Crix Madine directly, using methods the Emperor had already established to deliver anonymous information within the Rebellion.”
“You used Luke’s access?”
“Yes—not to contact Argot, of course. Older access routes; ones he thought he’d closed down.” He tilted his head. “I’m not an idiot.”
“You still got caught.” She shouldn’t have said it, she knew, but in that second she couldn’t resist.
“So did the Emperor.”
Mara raised her chin and bit down on a caustic reply. Facts—stick to getting the facts. “What exactly did you give Madine?”
“I’ve already answered that about ten times. I gave him dates occasionally—places the Emperor would be when he was at his most vulnerable, numbers of guards, comm frequencies, that kind of thing. I never passed on anything that would damage us; I’ve always remained loyal to the values of the Empire.”
Unseen, Mara’s foot tapped rapidly on the floor beneath the table, every muscle taut. “You passed on other information too—more specific stuff.”
“I gave Madine previous ways that Emperor Palpatine had held Skywalker, yes. Nothing that would compromise wider galactic security.”
He said it so staunchly, as if that were something to be proud of.
“You passed on information about the cell Palpatine had used.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Why? Why that?”
“As persuasion. Argot passed information back to the Empire about a plan Madine had proposed a while back that had been dismissed by the Rebellion as unworkable. I gave him the methods to make it viable again…”
“So you know what Madine intends to do?” This wasn’t in the briefs she’d read; why was he telling her now?
Reece nodded slowly. “Argot’s information regarding that plan was passed on to Commander Arco in an Intel brief probably just over a year ago, remember? It was another assassination attempt, but with a twist. Madine wanted to seize the Emperor and put it on a viral on the HoloNet, claiming responsibility on behalf of the Rebellion. Then when the viral was at its height, he’d kill him—live, on the HoloNet. No more Emperor.”
Mara was on her feet as he finished, lunging forward around the edge of the table to grab the scruff of his shirt, her wrists automatically crossed at his neck; strangle him—she could do it easily like this, even with a man of Reece’s bulk, the power of her arms greater on the outward pull. She knew that…
Nathan’s words came back in a flash of conscience: “Mara—you won’t…”
Frozen inches from his face, Mara felt her lip twitch; frustration, disgust—simply an overload of emotion, she didn’t know. But she loosened her hold; stepping back was one of the most difficult things Mara had ever done in her life.
She took her time as she rightened the chair she’d toppled and sat down again slowly, mind and body buzzing with the desire to give vent to her anger, adrenaline and enmity making her feel like she was itching inside her own skin.
Get the information… An intense headache was forming behind her eyes from having to deal so civilly with the man who had taken everything from her.
Reece moved just slightly. “I know you think that I betrayed him…”
“But I couldn’t serve both him and my Empire. I couldn’t remain loyal to both.”
“You gave the Emperor over to the Rebels—you don’t think that was harmful to the Empire?!”
“You understand, Ma'am, this isn’t some kind of personal grudge. Skywalker simply wasn’t the right person to rule. He was dismantling the Empire.”
“He was…” She paused; there was no point. No point in arguing. No point in saying he was wrong—because he was wrong.
Yes, you could so easily look at it as the dissolution of the Empire; the edicts, the slackening of military power, the leveling of the constitution—they were changing everything—the course of an Empire. At first, she’d chosen not to think of it that way because it was Luke who was doing it, because she trusted him. But now…now, seeing the results begin to play out… Was Luke’s Empire really any less stable? Any less lawful, as Palpatine had always claimed it would be without such measures? Or was it simply more fair?
It came to her in a rush of realization so strong that it was almost dizzying, almost euphoric. Because it was only now, facing Reece, facing the kind of strong-armed, narrow-minded totalitarianism that had typified the old Empire, that Mara knew. She didn’t want that old Empire back; had not, for a single day, lamented its loss.
The truth was, she didn’t need to open the document Luke had left her to see what he intended; she already knew. Had known, deep down, for a long time…
And she'd known, deep down, for a long time, that it was the right thing to do.
“He wasn’t fit to rule Palpatine’s Empire,” Reece said again. “For the sake of that Empire—the one we both swore an oath to protect—I had to act.”
“So you gave Madine a way to hold Luke."
"I gave the Empire another chance to find itself, to reinstate its values under a new ruler."
“By selling the Emperor out to a man who intends to publicly execute him.”
“But look what it gained us, Ma'am: an Empire united against the Rebellion, against the canker and weakness that has spread with these supposed reforms. I’ve given you an Empire that will follow you into battle. An Empire that’ll give the Rebels no quarter any more. All it needs is a new leader. Someone with grit and resolve—with a single-minded aim and a clear target.”
“And you think that would be me?!”
Reece leaned back, his faith in his own abilities clearly not lacking—but then she didn’t suppose they ever had been. Mara wanted to yell, to scream at him that he was wrong; that she’d back Luke whatever, that she’d follow his plans to the letter with the same tenacity and faith and commitment as if he’d been standing beside her. That they were…
That they were her goals, too.
“They’ll follow you now," Reece said. "The military, the Royal Houses…I’ve given them a just war, I’ve given them a righteous cause…”
Mara frowned, understanding. “This wasn’t just to remove an Emperor. This was to drive a wedge between the Empire and the Rebellion, when you knew Luke was trying to bridge that gap.” She ground her jaw, furious and belligerent, hands balling to fists. Because he’d given her cause too, Mara realized; given her a reason to fight… And Force help her, if they harmed Luke, she would. Even now, knowing everything, she’d still turn on them. She’d still turn every last gun in the fleet on them if they took Luke from her.
Reece shook his head. “Skywalker had the ability to destroy the Rebellion years ago—he just lacked the resolve.”
Resolve. Mara would have laughed aloud, had it not been so dire. He’d already shown it in his every choice, in his determination to change things…
Just as much strength, in his own way, as Palpatine. All that tenacity and drive and vision that Mara had once respected so very much in Palpatine, she saw now in Luke.
Resolve enough to hold to his own goal of a bloodless coup which had taken him to the negotiation table with those who’d tried to assassinate him. Because he believed in something bigger. Bigger than the rigid, dogmatic Empire he’d grown up in, bigger than the narrow vision of personal supremacy that Palpatine had tried so hard to bind him with—certainly bigger than Wez Reece’s petty power plays.
“So you went to Madine, to solve all your problems?” Mara said evenly.
"It had to be Madine I gave the information to. Skywalker had learned his trade from the master of manipulations. I needed a tactician to beat him—a very good one. As it happened, the best one I could name was also a Rebel General.”
“But even he couldn't do it without help...so you gave Madine a way to catch him, at the one time that Luke would be unprotected. And you gave him the ysalamiri, to ensure Luke's capture.”
Reece frowned. “Ysalamiri?”
She’d been thinking on their use; holding on to the one fact that gave Luke, and therefore herself, a sliver of hope. Because the thing about ysalamiri was that unless you were a Force-sensitive, you couldn’t really know where their influence started and ended, which meant that you were using a method of restraint that you couldn’t see or measure…and that kind of inaccuracy led to mistakes. So she needed to know just exactly how much Madine really knew about the creatures’ abilities…
And she’d thought that Reece would be the man to come to. “You didn’t give him that information?”
“I’ve never heard of it.” Reece held her eye as he spoke, and even with her rudimentary awareness in the Force Mara knew, as she had done throughout this interview, that he was telling the truth.
“Then how did Madine think he was going to keep a Sith under control, even with that cell? You know as well as I do that it wouldn’t be sufficient any more.”
“No, it wouldn’t…” Reece paused for long seconds—and Mara felt an uneasy shiver slide up her spine.
“I gave Madine the drug that controls Skywalker—I gave him SK-seventeen.”
And that slow shiver turned into a nerve-slicing flash of fear that constricted her throat as Mara shook her head, struggling to speak. “No, there were no existing samples of that drug or its formula. I watched you destroy them. I was responsible for checking that you destroyed every copy—I made sure.”
Reece leaned back, clearly surprised at her admission. But a tight, knowing smile came to his lips very quickly. “Is that a fact? Well then, isn’t that ironic…you see, I was still blindly following orders back then and you’re right, I really did do it; I made it my mission to destroy every single sample of that drug, every reference, every trace. It was only a few months ago that I wondered if there could still be one source in existence. Because even though I’d destroyed every trace of SK-seventeen, and even though I knew that you yourself always followed Skywalker’s orders, there was one man whose command had always overridden even that, wasn’t there? I wanted to tell you this personally, Mara. I wanted to remind you of who you were, where your true loyalties lie, even now. Who you still are, deep down—otherwise you wouldn’t have kept it.”
Mara stood abruptly, the chair clattering away behind her as she turned and set out of the cell at a run.
Nathan was still waiting tensely at the far end of the detention center corridor when the banging began on the locked door of Wez’s cell, Mara’s muffled shouts alarming him. The guard rushed to open it as Nathan hurried forward to see her practically fall out of the room, recovering her balance and setting forward at a dead-run, not even acknowledging him as she passed, despite his shout.
Glancing once back to the still-closing cell door, Nathan set off down the corridor after Mara, shouting her name though she didn’t slow.
He trailed her all the way back to the North Tower and her apartment there, entering the thrown-wide door a good few paces behind her, panting heavily. It wasn’t hard to work out where she was though, her shouts of frustration and anger guiding him on. By the time he’d stopped at the door to her bedroom, she’d pushed aside the sliding doors to the wall-long closet and was dragging clothes from the hanging robe store, hurling them aside as Hallin watched, breathless and confused.
“What…what are you doing?”
“I have a safe…”
“Safe?” None of this made sense.
With a frustrated yell, Mara yanked the last of the clothes clear and leaned in to the palm pad of a small safe set into the wall. She wrenched open the door and reached within, dragging a collection of fake ID’s and memory-chips and small boxes out and simply abandoning them to fall to the floor in her wild search. Finally she found what she was clearly looking for, backing up into the room with a small metal box in her hands—the same small metal box that Nathan himself had found in Mara’s quarters onboard the Patriot three years ago.
And abruptly he put it all together. “Oh Sith, no, Mara… You didn’t…”
Breathless with anxiety, lost in her own nightmare panic, Mara didn’t answer Nathan, didn’t acknowledge him at all as she forced the lid open with trembling hands…
Inside were two medical vials barely the size of her little finger, each containing one measure of dirty brown liquid… SK-seventeen, the drug Palpatine’s specialists had tailor-made specifically to control Luke. The drug that Luke had ordered Reece to destroy every single sample and formula of, then secretly ordered Mara to check that he did. And Reece had; he was telling the truth, he had destroyed every single sample… It was Mara who had kept the last two vials in existence.
Luke had told her; he’d said at the time, “That includes the samples you hold.” And she had—she’d taken the three vials she’d kept in her apartment within the Palace and destroyed them… Then months later, she’d found another two secreted away in her quarters onboard the Patriot and…oh, she should have destroyed them there and then—why had she kept them? But she had. She’d brought them back to Coruscant and locked them away and somehow managed to convince herself to ignore them, to forget about their existence entirely. The last time she’d even thought of them had been when she’d been called to Luke in the Practice Rooms of the Palace after midnight, though she wouldn’t have used them; never that.
The vials grated and chimed against each other as she pulled them free, her fingers trembling. “They’re still here.”
Relief made her dizzy, her breath escaping her in a sigh as Nathan set forward.
Why had she kept them? Some fleeting memory of Palpatine’s order to never be without them, wherever she and Luke travelled, flitted even now through her mind. The absolute authority of that command, his ochre eyes locked on hers, grating voice issuing an undeniable demand: never be without them.
Stupid; she’d been so incredibly reckless to keep them. Clung mindlessly to some old directive pronounced by a long-dead man and pushed the vials to the back of the safe, doing her level best to forget about their existence entirely, torn between that lingering command from her past and the tiny fragment of fear—that brief, tormented memory of Luke’s return to the Palace when his father was dead. Of the fury and accusation and open hostility in his eyes when he’d caught hold of her and powered her back against the wall, hand tight about her throat. The knowledge, in that second, of what he would be capable of if he ever surrendered restraint to become Palpatine’s Sith wolf.
But they were here; both vials were here and despite Reece’s goading claim it wasn’t her doing. They didn’t have the drug that could hold Luke. The reprieve left her trembling, nauseous, furious at herself. She’d destroy them now; right now. She held them out, intending to drop them to the floor and crush them—
Nathan reached out and caught the vials as Mara released them. She paused, looking to him he lifted them up to the light to study them for long moments with a professional eye… And once again that icy quiver chilled her spine and froze her lungs…
“They’re not the same,” Nathan said quietly.
“They’re not the same; this one’s gone just slightly cloudy.” He lowered them, voice quiet and perfectly even, as people are when they’re too angry to shout. “We’ll take them to the lab and get them tested, but I can pretty much guarantee you that the clouded one is fake—it’s clouded because it wasn’t sealed in a sterile atmosphere.”
Mara dropped back onto the edge of her bed, legs weak, head spinning, the momentary relief ripped away…
Because she had done this. She had made it possible. Reece had always known that Mara was one of the few people entrusted with the vials back when Palpatine was alive. He must have wondered if she still had any, must have broken in at some point—and in her own desire to dismiss their existence, Mara never checked the vials abandoned at the back of her safe—tried not to even see them. Her breath left her in a low sigh, a tight band constricting about her chest, a numbness taking over her thoughts… She had done this.
She was aware of Nathan watching her for a long time before she could finally bear to look up. He asked the only question there was, his voice still wrapped about with the restrained timbre of one who knew that if he started shouting he’d lose control entirely. “Why did you keep them?”
“I don’t know—I really don’t know.” She’d told Luke they were all destroyed; she’d given that assurance. She was responsible for this. The memory of that tuft of red passing in a blur to embed in the wall behind her and Luke onboard the Rebel freighter came back with painful insight, a momentary imagination of his falling to the deck when the darts hit knifing into her mind.
He’d always said…hadn’t he always said it: “My fate is in your hands.”
Leia walked down the narrow corridors of the Wasp feeling, for the first time ever, on edge in an Alliance vessel. Because of Madine; Madine, who was playing his own power games. Madine, who was splitting the Alliance in two with this. Madine, who had captured and imprisoned her own…her own brother.
Though the General’s ongoing power plays had gained her something. She’d been allowed onboard the Wasp with minimal conflict after only four days’ wait due mainly to the fact that Madine was still working hard to gain popularity and standing on the back of his actions, and since the Council had backed Leia's request to see the Emperor, he’d been unable to object too much. And for the same reason, Leia felt reasonably safe in coming here…for now. Not that safe that she hadn’t brought two Frigates to the meeting point and an ‘honor guard’ of ten commandos onboard with her, of course, but that was just common sense.
In fact at the moment, Leia was far more worried about what Han—who had remained conspicuously onboard Home One when Leia had left, in accordance with Madine's conditions of her visit—might do off on his own than whatever Madine would muster, still seeking to maintain favor in the Council.
Han, however, had no such political leanings, so the only thing that was holding him in check right now was Leia's request of him not to do anything yet, for Luke’s sake. But she knew that the moment she got back, Han would fire a hundred questions at her about the Wasp, its layout and its defenses. And she knew why.
To Leia's mind, their best bet was still to get Luke off the Wasp and onboard Home One, where she had so much more control, and to that end she was unwilling to do anything which would exacerbate the situation until she had to. Han was right—Madine wasn’t the kind of man you backed into a corner or tried to bluff.
Still, at the back of her mind as she walked the Wasp’s corridors behind her wary guides, she was aware of counting troop numbers and looking for security and defenses, should it come to a fight. And since four of the six commandos Tag Massa had assigned to Leia were Intel, she was pretty sure that Tag was thinking the same, sending trained eyes and ears in to gain valuable information.
Tag had, of course, been her usual efficient self before Leia had set off for the rendezvous, trying to offer a level voice when Han had been pushing to get a transmitter onboard the Wasp so they could track it.
“What’s he gonna do if he does find it,” Han had held, “tell the Council? I don’t think so. Worst case, he finds it and disables it.”
“And becomes even more awkward because of it,” Leia had said firmly.
“Could he be any more awkward?” Han had growled.
Tag had shrugged, voice neutral. “He could take what he knows about Leia to the Council.”
Han had rocked back in the chair he sat in, rubbing his face, frustration obvious. He was, she knew, painfully aware of the days counting down from that two-week allowance Madine had stipulated before he wanted permission for a military-only trial to go ahead.
In a quieter moment, just before Leia had set out for the Wasp, Tag had again come forward. “I’m assuming you’ll want to speak to him privately…”
She was holding out a small anti-surveillance scrambler, about half the length of Leia's little finger and close to the same size round. Smiling, Leia had pulled the smaller anti-surveillance device that Han had given her long ago from her pocket. “Snap.”
“May I?” Tag had taken Leia's device and studied it with a professional eye before holding out the one she’d offered. “Take this one. It won’t show up on any surveillance sweep unless it’s active at the time, plus we know for a fact that it’ll de-rezz any surveillance equipment within about ten standard meters. Just press the button to activate or deactivate it—it’s magnetic so you can place it or leave it just about anywhere onboard a ship. They’ll know you have it the moment you start using it though.”
“But if they admit that, then they admit they were trying to eavesdrop,” Leia had said, and Tag had smiled approvingly.
“Hey, want a job in Intel?”
Leia had taken the small device, then paused. Though she doubted they’d frisk the leader of the Alliance, putting it in a pocket wasn’t an option, even small as it was. For a moment she’d dithered, uncertain, then she’d lifted her hands and pushed it onto the inside of the wide, hammered metal slide she wore pinned across the plaited bun of her hair, gathered at the nape of her neck. Now, when she wanted it working, she had only to reach up as if neatening her hair to push the button.
Tag had taken another step forward as Leia had turned to go. “Ma'am? Here.” She’d held out a small, short plexiglass sample syringe, the needle inset and still sealed. “Push it against his skin and slap the back. The needle will release and take a small sample.”
Leia had glanced up to see Tag shrug. “You want to be sure? This is sure. Don’t let it out of your sight, and…” Tag had shrugged again, “I’d probably ask first.”
Leia had to smile.
Now she and her escort passed into the main storage bay onboard the Wasp, where a huge dome had been roughly constructed from a jigsaw of interlocking blocks in some kind of composite that Leia didn’t recognize, a series of heavy, flexible pipes set into its surface, trailing back to what looked to Leia like an industrial vacuum system, rattling on its heavy tubular mounts. It all looked ad-hock and out of place, a weighty, cumbersome construction in the center of the freighter’s vast, empty hold.
She walked round its edge following her four guides, all of whom seemed so unsettled at her appearance that Leia was beginning to wonder whether Madine—who hadn’t yet bothered to show his face, though that was more of a relief than a snub—had told anyone of her impending arrival.
When they slowed, Leia frowned, confused; she was assuming they’d go round the dome and on into the living quarters…
One of Madine's men hit an industrial switch box roughly bolted into the dome beside what appeared to be its only, heavily reinforced, door. A series of heavy inset bolts, visible from the outside of the door, began to release in sequence…and Leia realized that she was looking at the construction they were using to keep Luke captive. This was a cell—this was his actual cell!
The door opened on a powered cycle, revealing a short, two-step corridor to an inner door, the cell itself built within that outer dome. Glancing back once as she motioned for her commandos to wait, she squared her shoulders and set forward.
In the locked cell, Luke sat tethered to the heavy table again, gritty, burning eyes intent on the locked door. They’d woken him at least a half-dozen times last night, each time shaking him awake and hauling him over to the table to force him to sit, tethering him to the hook set into it by the short, solid post that linked his wrist binders, then leaving him there, waiting, one guard always behind him to shake him awake if he tried to rest his head on the table. Within the hour they’d return, drag him upright and haul him back to the bunk...only to do the same thing again and again throughout the night and what was now presumably the following morning, though he had no real concept of time any more. It should have bothered him a lot more than it did, but Palpatine had used similar softening methods so often over the years that now the mental haze and vague dizziness which came with this kind of deprivation was, if not comfortable, then at least familiar enough that he knew what to expect when. This was only one night—he knew he could make three before the cramps started.
Still, this was the longest they’d left him sitting at the table in the center of the room, and more interestingly, this time he was alone, which should have left him torn between studying the exit which he was unable to reach at full-stretch when chained to the bunk, or simply laying his head down on the table to take even the briefest chance to sleep. But this was also the first time that they’d left the inner door to his cell open as they’d walked out, not bothering to reinstate the vacuum and locking only the outer door, giving Luke a clear view of the short, two-stride corridor which spanned the void between the inner and outer walls of the cell. He’d watched in silence as the heavy outer door had closed with a reverberating clang; heard the dull thud of the door’s substantial four-stage powered lock pushing home…and it came in a flash of realization:
Powered—the doors had powered locks. Unlike the original… Why?
He could see from where he sat that the short, confined corridor which separated the inner and the outer walls of his cell had the same wide, automated vent system on its sides as the original on Coruscant, separating the short corridor from the void between the inner and outer walls, and so enabling them to keep the void within the walls under vacuum whilst simply opening or closing the corridor vents to pressurize or depressurize the passageway. It seemed, to all intents and purposes, the same as the cell beneath the Palace...so why have powered locks?
The original cell had relied on the massive force of the vacuum to hold the doors closed more securely than any lock, a method Palpatine had devised to stop Luke concentrating his abilities on forcing a conventional lock…so why this—why use a powered lock in a vacuum? Luke stared intently, aware that he was weaving just slightly with tiredness, mind going again and again over the same facts… The vacuum; concentrate on the vacuum… The only explanation for the fact that the doors weren't being locked by the vacuum itself was that the vacuum was insufficient. Hadn’t he thought that the very first time he’d woken here? He couldn’t quite remember, his tired mind struggling to find a use for that fact; to remember every detail he could see so that… The staged outer lock released as the outer door opened again…
And Leia stepped into the corridor, tense and wired.
Leia saw him as soon as the door opened before her; saw him lift his head, saw his eyes widen…then everything else was lost beneath the shock of his appearance, dirty and bruised, a swollen lip and wide gash across the bridge of his nose which had spread to black one eye to the same side as that long, old scar. He wore a creased, faded flight suit, his dark hair ruffled into disarray, his wrists tethered...but when he saw Leia he straightened, eyes sharpening, as if it were any other meeting that they’d had, nothing more given away or allowed.
Watched in silence by him, his back straight, face completely unreadable, Leia stepped into the strange cell, two of Madine's troops following closely behind to take up positions to one side.
She turned to them, head held high. “You can go, it’s all right.”
The two troopers paused, uncertain. “Sorry, Ma'am, we have orders from General Madine to…”
“Now you have orders from me.” Leia drew herself up to her full height, which was hardly imposing. But she’d been a diplomat and a leader all her life, and as Han took every chance to tell her, if there was one thing she knew how to do, it was hand out orders.
The stalemate held for a few seconds longer as Leia stared, expectant…then the nearer soldier glanced to his comrade. “C’mon. It’s not like he’s going anywhere.”
For a moment Leia thought the second soldier would argue, but then he grinned, following his comrade to the door. “Nowhere outside’a ninety meters, at any rate.”
Leia remained still as they left, listening to their voices recede. Alone now, she paused, suddenly uncertain how to proceed. “May I sit down?”
Luke glanced briefly to the closing outer door behind her, then to the security lens on the wall, clearly uncertain what was going on. After a few moments, Leia pulled out the chair opposite him to sit. Closer now, she could see how tired he was, how drawn. Could see the split in his swollen lip—and she realized that he was actually tethered to the heavy desk before him.
“I…came to see how you were.”
“Seriously?” He seemed amused for a second, then gave a small smile and a tilt of his head. “I’ve been worse.”
“Is there anything you need?”
“That you can give me? No.”
Leia glanced down. “The intention is to have you stand trial on...”
“Yeah, Madine's explained to me exactly his intention.”
Leia paused, taking in his obvious tiredness, his reticence, his wary confusion and intractable manner. She’d thought he would be different—but she supposed she should have known otherwise; she would be exactly the same in this situation…
Exactly the same. She was looking at her own brother, probably her twin. Leia had run over these facts a thousand times in the last few days, and slowly, it had all begun to make a kind of sense; that was why he’d protected her at the Patriot’s launch over Coruscant years ago, that was why he hadn’t simply arrested her and handed her over to Palpatine. Why it was her alone he’d wanted to speak to when he made first contact with the Alliance. Why it was her he’d tried to win over, why…everything.
It all seemed so clear; it all made sense. Leia straightened, bracing herself, lifting her hand casually to straighten her hair…
“I’ve just deactivated their surveillance system. I don’t know how long we’ll have before they decide they don’t like that and come in to make me leave.”
Fine creases at the edges of Luke’s mismatched eyes betrayed his confusion as they flitted briefly to the lens, then to the closed outer door, then back to Leia.
Knowing they’d have little time, she rushed to explain. “You should know it’s taken me four days of negotiation and rallying the Council to back Madine into a corner sufficiently to get this meeting. We’re trying to get you transferred over to Home One, but Madine's…”
“Where am I now?”
“You’re still on the Wasp.”
“What’s outside the cell?”
“Nothing. It’s in the main hold—that’s where they’ve built it.”
“The soldiers—they’re loyal to Madine, not to the Alliance?”
“I don’t know…maybe. Probably, if it comes down to a fight.”
“I don’t know; I saw maybe twenty. Luke, I need to talk to you—”
“How did you get here?”
Leia frowned. “By shuttle—I travelled over from the Verity.”
“Not Home One?”
“No, Madine won’t let Home One anywhere near you. We have to talk…”
“Were there other shuttles in the bay when you landed?”
“Luke, I know. I know the truth; about you—about us. Madine told me.”
“You shouldn’t believe a word Madine says,” Luke dismissed automatically.
“I don’t, but we’d kept a sample of your blood on our medical files. We tested it against mine. Luke, I know who you are, who I am—and I want to know the rest. Tell me.”
He shook his head. “You tell me…because I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Where were you born, Luke?”
He almost laughed. “Alderaan, if you believe some people.”
Leia tensed. “Who?”
He didn’t miss it, face falling serious. “What’s going on? Where was I born? You know where I was born—Tatooine.”
“No you weren’t, were you? The truth, Luke. I already know part of it—I know I’m your sister.”
The binders at Luke’s wrists rattled against their anchor as he jerked back in his chair, eyes widening, his reaction sufficient to halt Leia………
Then he laughed. He just laughed, uncertainty and dismissal and genuine amusement in his face.
And slowly, as he quieted, Leia realized the truth. “You really don’t know, do you?”
He shook his head, still smiling. “I really don’t know what you expect me to say to something like that.”
“Luke, we’re brother and sister. I had the genetic tests done…three times.”
“Just…” His smile was beginning to fall away, eyes narrowing in confusion. “I don’t…why are you even saying this?” His frown of confusion turned to an angry scowl, eyes flicking to the surveillance lens as his voice hardenend. “What is this, what are you trying to do?”
“I thought you knew…”
“Knew—knew what, that you had some bizarre scheme to…”
He half-rose, hands rattling his binders against their keep as he lifted them, and Leia had recoiled before she realized it, pushing her chair quickly back, body tensing as she rose…
“Wait!” Luke tried to hold his hands out, but was again stopped by the restraints, and Leia froze, uncertain. Still, he sat quickly, hands palm-down on the table, consciously relaxing. “Please?”
Leia slowly pulled her own chair back to the table to sit, heart still pounding, as angry at herself for overreacting as she was at Luke for the same…
She sighed, taking a moment to get her thoughts in order. “Madine contacted me four days ago claiming that you were my brother. I denied it too…but I had the test done. Luke, we’re brother and sister—probably twins.”
He was shaking his head in denial. “That can’t be right—it can’t be. You’re from Alderaan—you’re a member of the Royal Family.”
“I was adopted, when I was just a few days old.”
“This isn’t…it can’t be right.” He tried again to lift his hands, this time to bring them to his face, and was jarred to an immediate halt by the binders.
Leia felt her heart crumple, watching him go through the self same doubts and disbelief that she’d had, with nothing and no one here to cushion the blow.
“Luke, I know this is hard to accept, and I’m coming here with no proof, no explanation, nothing…but I promise you, on my life, this is true.” He was still shaking his head, eyes wide now, his scowl melting into bewilderment and denial, but Leia held her ground. “The truth. What can I do to prove it to you?”
“You can’t. I don’t…” He stuttered to silence, staring at her.
“I have no answers. Nothing but this, this one fact: we are brother and sister.”
“No…we can’t be. Bad blood—this line is bad blood.”
Leia frowned, uncertain. “Bad blood?”
Luke only shook his head as he looked down, lost.
Leia sighed gently. “What can I tell you? What can I do to help you believe me? Luke, when they told me…I think some part of me always knew—can you understand that? Don’t you feel the same? I should have seen it long ago—I did. I dreamed of you so often.” She shook her head. “I should have known. I always saw you in my dreams… I saw the wolf howling in the moonlight and I thought…I don’t know, I…”
“Wait—you saw a wolf and the moon?”
Leia shook her head in apology. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know then that…”
“It doesn’t matter,” he brushed it away, instantly focused, the change mercurial. “What else did you see?”
“They were just dreams.”
“Some seemed so much more though, didn’t they? Some you had over and over; some seemed so real.”
“…some.” Her voice was small, uncertain now beneath the intensity of his attention.
“Tell me the others…tell me what you see?”
“I don’t remember.”
Leia hesitated. “I knew when you were coming for Mon—I knew!”
Those striking, mismatched eyes were locked on her, passionate and earnest and so completely Luke again in that moment, calling her on, drawing her in. “Tell me what you dream now—tell me exactly what you see?”
Leia shifted, uncomfortable beneath this keen attention. “Nowadays? Just…a ring…two rings, I suppose. And a sun.” She hesitated and he nodded reassuringly, closely attentive as she continued. “Sometimes one sun, sometimes…it might be two, very bright, sunflares forming a corona around them, but… I don’t think… I don’t get the impression that they’re real. I don’t know…it’s just a dream.”
“If I could just…” He tried to bring his hands up to his temples, but was forced to lean forwards, the binders that held him too short even for this.
For long moments his head remained down on the table, resting in his hands, and Leia’s eyes were drawn by the wide blood stain which had spread and dried unheeded across the back of the old flightsuit’s collar and down onto his shoulder, his hair matted by a scar to the base of his skull. She wanted so much to put her hand to his shoulder in reassurance, but something held her back.
When he looked up, there was wild hope and utter frustration in his eyes. “I could take you through it if I just had access to…” He shook his head again.
“…I hear words,” Leia said at last, hoping to soothe him. “Well, not hear…but not read either—I can’t read it but…I just know.”
“You see words…written?”
Did she? She hadn’t thought about it before; it was only a dream. “I don’t know, I think so, but not written; chiseled maybe….cut into something, like stone.”
Luke stared for long seconds, a weight so great pressing down on him that he could barely breathe, a stillness taking over him as he heard his own voice, muted and resigned, finally accepting. “It’s a throne…was. The Sunburst Throne. Two suns form the backrest, mirrored opposites, one to the front, one to the back, surrounded by sunflares. There’s a prophesy engraved onto it, hidden in the carvings—an old prophesy. That’s what you’re seeing. Part of it’s in the shape of two circles, one interlocking the other.”
Leia frowned, clearly uncertain why this meant so much to him.
“It’s us,” Luke said simply into her confusion before glancing away, angry at himself even though he knew he could never have seen it. “That’s what it always was: us. Twin suns. Twin rings, twin riddles.”
She was part of that balance—the balance was within them, good and bad, dark and light, yin and yang. It was so obvious; so obvious…now that he was looking at that one final piece of the puzzle. Staring at her and scaring her with his own precarious, insular calm; he could see it quite clearly, Force or no.
Palpatine’s words whispered again, taunting. “What do you fear, Jedi? What do you see in the dark when your demons come?”
“Bad blood…you can’t be one of us, Leia, you can’t be. We’re all bad blood.”
She shook her head. “Why do you keep saying that?”
“Look at us! Look at Vader…my own father handed me over to the Emperor, knowing what he’d do! Do you want to claim part of that—part of that heritage!”
Her huge hazel brown eyes widened and he knew instantly that the notion hadn’t even occurred to her—perhaps she’d forgotten his admission of long ago, or dismissed it without another thought until this moment. But she rallied impressively, shaking her head, unwavering. “I think…the more I know you, the more I think that you do only what you perceive of as necessary.”
With painful realization, Luke recognized the self-same thing he’d once accused Palpatine of with such derision: “I believe you capable of anything in pursuit of your goals.”
Was he so very different now? Again Palpatine’s accusations ran like a shiver through him, damning any possible future. “Bad blood…”
“Yes, I do, and I always will…don’t you see? That makes me the most dangerous wolf of all.”
“Let me help you…”
“No—I’ll drag you down with me, I swear I will.”
“I don’t believe you—I don’t believe you’d do that.”
He shook his head. “You’re wrong, you’re very wrong. I know you’re looking at me and you’re seeing the man you used to know…but he doesn’t exist any more. He doesn’t exist. I’m Sith, trained by Palpatine. No matter what you think you see, that’s what I am.”
“But it’s not all that you are, is it?”
Luke frowned, the denial already on his lips, but Leia pushed on. “Because you were trained by Yoda too, weren’t you—you said it yourself the last time we spoke, you said Master Yoda had trained you when General Kenobi had died. I know who Master Yoda was. My father—” She stumbled over the word, freshly uncertain. “My adopted father, Bail Organa, spoke of Yoda many times. He was a Jedi Master, one of the Council of Twelve. Didn’t you say that yourself, that he was a member of the Jedi Council? If you trained with him, as you said, then you trained as a Jedi.”
Luke shook his head, looking down without speaking as Leia leaned in closer, taking his bound hands in her own. “You said something else to me that day too. I remember it distinctly, because it was one of the first things that made me begin to question… You said that whatever else you were, you were still that man who wouldn’t leave his friends to die on Bespin…and I believe you. You are still that man.”
Luke hunched back, unable to pull his hands free, unable to make her understand. “You don’t know...you don’t know what I am…”
“Yes, I do,” Leia said with absolute conviction. “That’s why I’m here.”
Leia stared as Luke held her gaze for a long, long time, watching a myriad of thoughts flash across his eyes quicksilver fast, discernible in the subtle changes on his bruised face as he struggled with inner demons.
When he finally spoke there was fresh urgency to his words. “Do you trust me?”
Leia paused, deeply unsettled—but she held his eye. “I want to—very much.”
“Then keep the talks going, don’t let them collapse because of this.”
“We can do that—I hadn’t ever thought otherwise for…” She trailed off, realizing what he was saying; that he wanted her to keep the talks going even though he wouldn’t be there.
He pushed on, giving her no time to react. “You can’t be involved in this! Cut Madine free, make an announcement today, distance yourself and the Alliance.”
Leia recoiled. “No! Whilst he’s one of us, I have at least some control over him—over this.”
“Do you? You said it took four days just to see me. Leia, Madine will do what he wants, what he always intended. You have to back off from any connection to him—publicly distance yourself and the Alliance from his actions.”
“Whilst he’s one of us and we remain in contact, there’s an opportunity to negotiate with him and help you…”
“He won’t negotiate—he’ll lay down demands and either you meet them or not. If you do, you’ll have publicly backed him; become a part of this by default. Why would you even consider that?”
Leia glanced away, troubled, and perhaps Luke did know Madine as well as he claimed, because he nodded now, voice low and rough. “Because of us. You said Madine told you about us…he’s blackmailing you.”
She looked to him, suddenly recklessly hopeful. “Maybe it doesn’t matter.”
“Who else knows?”
“Han, and my Intel chief, Commander Massa.”
He nodded, eyes on his bound hands as he considered, mind clearly racing. “No one can know—you’d lose control of the Alliance.”
“Maybe I should just step down—”
Luke's eyes came to hers immediately. “No! No, absolutely not. What does he want?”
“He wants this to go to a military tribunal, which would give him complete control.”
“And he’s told you to back him so that it will, all above board and through the right channels?”
“I have fourteen days—nine now—to persuade the Council to vote in his favor.” Leia glanced down. “I should let it go to trial within the Alliance. At least there’s an opportunity to…”
“No—don’t do it.” He was absolutely, unshakable certain. “Going to trial will pull the whole of the Alliance in behind Madine’s decisions. There’ll be no difference in the public’s eyes between Madine's actions and the Alliance’s. You have to remain separate for the talks to work.”
Leia frowned. “What?”
“I don’t have time to explain. You said you wanted to trust me—trust me on this. Don’t let it go to trial. Right now, you still have a chance because if you publicly discharge and denounce Madine, then when he puts a gun to my head, it’s Madine. You let this go to trial within the Alliance with Madine in command, and it will still have only one possible conclusion, you know that…but then it’ll be the Alliance, not the man. You cannot be associated with this, or everything we’re trying to achieve will be lost—and I won’t give that up, to him or anyone else. I won’t let him take that.”
“Luke, one way or another I have to let this go to trial—if I don’t, I lose any control of Madine.” Only now, speaking to Luke, watching his face and hearing his voice, did all this crystallize in Leia's head. Because here was Luke Skywalker sitting before her, as strong and steadfast and absolutely committed to his greater cause as he’d ever been. She had to get him out—she had to.
Luke shook his head, resolute. “You get involved in this and you’ll never be able to step back from it, you’ll always be tainted. The Empire will turn on the Alliance with a vengeance, and it will turn on you as the power behind it. You need to distance yourself right now, before it all blows up in your face. You need to go and not come back.”
“No! I can help you.”
“You want to help me?”
“Then find my ring.”
Leia stopped in her tracks, her line of thought broken by his unexpected request. “…What?”
“My ring—my ring is gone.”
It completely threw Leia; left her blinking rapidly, lost that he would be more concerned about this than his own predicament.
“It was perennium, with a blue stone—I always wear it, look for any image of me and you'll see it. The stone is worthless to anyone but me. The ring…” he hesitated, a frown taking his bruised features, “…it’s the only thing I have which once belonged to my mother.”
Leia stared for long seconds, heart wrenched by the restrained emotion in his quiet voice—and he didn’t hide it, didn’t look away but simply watched her, mismatched eyes made pale by dark-rimmed bruises he didn’t even seem to notice—didn’t seem to care.
“Who was she?” Leia murmured gently, her hands resting on his.
Luke glanced about, understandably reluctant considering his surroundings. “Another time perhaps. Can you help me? It’s very important to me.”
“I’ll try, I promise.”
“If you find it—don’t let it go. My…your father gave it to your mother before we were born. Don’t ever lose it.”
The heavy door sounded as it ground through its staged lock release behind her, making Leia jump as Luke glanced back. “Time’s up.”
As he said it he took her hand where it rested on his, fingers curling around hers, and for a moment he held her…then he pulled away—as much as he could. For her safety, she knew.
On impulse, as the last bolt freed, Leia reached back and took the small anti-surveillance scrambler from her hair, handing it quickly down to his bound hands. “Here; a little privacy.”
Luke glanced down, frowning.
“It’s a scrambler; it’s undetectable unless it’s on,” Leia said quickly, turning it over, “on, off; same button.”
Given the tiny device, Luke floundered a second as the door lock came free, uncertain where to hide it...then he bobbed his head down to his tethered hands and put it in his mouth, sitting straight again by the time the soldier entered. Leia rose quickly, wishing to keep the guards’ eyes on her and not Luke, but she needn’t have worried; he was already the picture of still calm, face falling to blank neutrality, eyes focused on nothing.
Unable to stop herself in that moment as she reached the heavy door, Leia risked one final glance to Luke…and he winked, bruised-rimmed eyes gleaming defiantly.
Turning, Leia walked from the cell in silence, her Commandos falling into step behind her, Madine's soldiers either brazenly defiant or avoiding her eyes entirely. She was halfway back when she pushed her hands into her pockets and her fingers brushed against the sample syringe that Tag had given her. For a split-second she silently cursed, breaking her stride…then a smile spread slowly as Leia walked down the corridor, shaking her head infinitesimally.
Because the truth was…the truth was she didn’t need it. She knew.
Alone in the cell again, Luke waited until after the doors had locked, counting to twenty to give Leia time to be a reasonable distance away so that it would seem logical that whatever she had been using to block the surveillance inside the cell was now out of range, before moving the scrambler subtly about in his mouth, positioning it between upper and lower teeth to bite it gently, hearing and feeling the subtle ‘click’ as it deactivated.
When they came back into the cell minutes later, Luke felt a moment of blind panic that Madine might appear to ask him what he and Leia had spoken of when he still had the small scrambler in his mouth…
But the two soldiers simply released his binders from the table and manhandled him back to his bunk to tie his ankle chain there before walking out without a single word said, as they generally did.
Glancing once to the surveillance lens, Luke lay down and turned on his side, his back to the lens, to spit the scrambler out. He left a few seconds more before lifting his cuffed hands to take hold of it and gently slide it down over the edge of the canvas to the heavy, jury-rigged metal A-frame that the canvas was stretched over. With the tips of his fingers, he slid the small device over the metal and placed it on the inside of the frame, safely away from prying eyes.
He should be thinking of the scrambler, he knew; of the door, of the unexpected locks—of how to combine these things and use them. But all he could think about was Leia's revelation. All he could think about was how this one fact could touch every part of his life.
Always, always Palpatine had pronounced over and over again that Luke was, at his core, a creature of Darkness and so his best efforts could ultimately do nothing but fail. He was his father’s son; how often had Palpatine thrown that at him as a condemnation.
Everything that he was, he had accepted based on Palpatine’s assertions of lineage…claims that he had created Luke’s father—his bloodline—to fulfill the prophesy. Created it of Darkness, and in doing so damned Luke and everyone else in it to the same. That was why they all held this unique connection, this attunement…this curse. They were created by Darkness. How, then, could they be anything else? How could anyone in this line be other than their nature?
Luke thought again of the ring, of the mother he never knew…
“I loved her—very much.” His father’s words…
Palpatine had convinced Luke that because he was his father’s son, he shared his father’s destiny. And he couldn’t forgive his father for that—nor himself. Couldn’t ignore the fear that no matter what he did, Darkness would eventually claim him, because of who he was. Could remember with painful, pinsharp precision those grim, chaotic days in a cell so very similar to this, when he had felt himself slipping increment by increment, and had cursed his father and his heritage and himself.
And now he held himself in check by holding back; by never stepping beyond the safe confines of tightly controlled emotions. People said he was cold, withdrawn, reserved…and he was. Because the alternative was to give those emotions reign; give Palpatine’s wolf room to run.
Those were the two options in his life.
And Mara— Mara he’d held at arm’s length for so long not simply because he was wary to let her close again, but also because of the very real fear that he could hurt her. That because of what Palpatine had twisted him into, Luke could, in some blind rage, turn on her before he knew what he was doing, his father’s shattered past a constant barb.
He knew that she wasn’t afraid, that she’d lived all her days among wolves of one shade or another. But his words to her long ago had been a warning, not threat: “If you put your hand out to a wolf, don’t be surprised if it bites.”
It was in their nature—it was in their blood.
That knowledge had held him from her for so long, fearing that he would destroy her, and take so much more down with him in the spiral of self-destruction that would follow, as it had his father.
But Leia…something good had come from his father’s love of his mother.
Could something of value be salvaged from his own forbidden love of Mara? Could something good be created of it?
Because Leia—Leia, who had that same cursed blood running through her veins—Leia was ethical and honorable, an incandescent beacon of light. Leia—his sister, his twin, his blood; Leia was good—and her blood ran in his veins. Could he claim some part of that?
He thought again of his father, of the connections that ran too deep to ever harbor conditions or constraints. Beneath everything else, every frustration, every accusation, every bitter fear of Palpatine’s dire predictions…beneath it all, Vader was still Luke’s father. And Luke was still proud to have known him.
He did, in tache last, love his father…and that was in his blood too.
“Bad blood.” Palpatine’s endless accusations, ground into Luke for so long by Palpatine, ran again like a shiver through him, damning any possible future for any in this line.
He had always sworn that the one thing he would never give Palpatine was the continuation of this contaminated bloodline, but now…now the fact was that Mara had taken that choice from him, and his deepest fears were becoming real. Only not so, because if Leia was his sister…even though she was his sister, she wasn’t tainted. She wasn’t doomed to a failure of conscience, he knew that. He knew that absolutely.
And where did that leave Luke, in his condemnation of this line; in his desire to end it with himself? The bloodline wasn’t tainted—Leia was proof of that. Nothing was written. It was all manipulation and lies, by the man who had lived by them and died by them.
Now the self-imposed responsibility Luke had always placed upon himself to end this bloodline was not only irrelevant, but out of his hands. In every possible way, the decision had been taken out of his hands. Leia would live, even if Luke died here, and she wouldn’t be bound by any of his beliefs.
And the child…Luke’s child, which he knew Mara carried—the child whose very existence had robbed Luke of all his intentions to end this bloodline and flung him into ever deeper despair for fear of its future—his son would have the same limitless potential that every other newborn had, a galaxy of possibilities and a lifetime to choose and achieve them.
He would come into this galaxy as every other child did, free and untainted, unclaimed by destiny or providence, his future not decided by the blood in his veins. He would make his own way, cut his own path, live by his own actions. It was dizzying, this release. This reprieve. It tilted the universe on its axis, and in doing so brought light to the deepest, darkest shadows.
Luke smiled, tired, knowing they’d come for him soon, shake him awake and drag him back to the table to start demanding and dictating and chastising again, but right now…Luke let out a slow breath and studied the moment, holding silent and still for fear of breaking it.
It was out of his hands…and the only thing he felt was utter relief. It pulsed through him, a monumental victory handed to him with no idea of its depth or scale by the sister he never knew he’d had, simply by her existence.
Even here, even now…nothing could take this moment from him.
Save for one fact, one knowledge which burned through him and dragged him mercilessly back to this small cell and its bleak, grim reality.
Because he very much doubted he’d ever get the opportunity to take this reprieve back to the one person he wanted to tell, the one person he wanted so desperately to share this new future with:
Mara sat in the War Cabinet, staring at the holo-maps as Arco and Joss summed up the vast expenditure of available resources, both visible and unseen, which were being mobilized.
Six days; six days, and all they knew for sure was where Luke wasn’t. They had no leads, no hits. Every tip-off tapered to nothing, every whisper a dead end.
One ship—assuming he was even still on it—one ship in a galaxy of stars and planets and clusters and nebulae and asteroid belts and gas clouds. And whatever you’d searched, search it again twenty-five hours later because all yesterday’s Intel was already out of date. Every informer they brought in knew nothing, every agent drew a blank, every contact, every organization. Time, they said—everyone needed more time; give them a month, they said, six weeks with their ears to the ground and maybe, just maybe…
But if Reece was to be believed, Mara didn’t have a month; she probably didn’t even have half that. And the days ticked down.
This was a job inside a job inside a job. Even the Rebels didn’t seem to know their own affairs between individual groups. They could spend a month chasing down individual Rebel units trying to get close to the right one for even a single nugget of Intel, could commit massive portions of the fleet to tracking them down, and they may still know nothing. Where did you look? How did you pin down groups who had made it their life’s work to remain hidden? How did you track a group who gambled their lives daily on their ability to remain untrackable? They were too spread, too diverse. No one group knew exactly what the other was doing, only the main command frigate of Home One coordinating and synchronizing with the wider picture in hand, and as search for that single ship, Mara may as well search for the Wasp.
Every day they held meetings of the senior staff, morning, late afternoon and late evening, where the advancements of the day—however few—were summed up and the next step decided… And the hours ticked down, and the meetings went on.
Kiria D'Arca had appeared at the very first briefing following Mara's sarcastic invitation days ago, and attended every single one since, the very picture of steadfast concern. And much as Mara had wanted to eject her, she was well aware of the fact that it was she who had invited her—not seriously, but of course D'Arca would take her at her word and publicly call her on it if Mara said something now.
She pursed her lips, returning her gaze to the holographic star chart floating above the table. She really needed to stop making off-the-cuff comments—apparently you weren’t allowed to be sarcastic when you were Regent; everyone took everything you said exactly at your word.
Annoyingly—or thankfully, depending on Mara's given mood at any moment—D'Arca had performed her role flawlessly to date, disguising the Emperor's absence in accordance with Mara's wishes, however much she privately disagreed. The decision had already been made not to go public with this, though convincing D'Arca had been less straightforward. She’d wanted to go to the Royal Houses, to open it up beyond Intel and military Command level, claiming the necessity to make everyone understand just what exactly was at stake. Even when she’d relented, she’d still managed to get one last well-aimed snipe in, stating that she could well understand that it would be a little embarrassing for those present at Kwenn; one simply didn’t announce that one had lost the Emperor.
Still, when she’d finally consented it had been completely, attending state functions and appointments and generally—surprisingly—making every effort to stabilize the situation.
And as it turned out, stabilizing the Empire seemed her forte. Because D'Arca was quite the strategist—in political terms. She had neither interest in nor a flair for the military, and deferred to Mara's organization of the fleet and rallying of Intel without the slightest reluctance. But in political terms, she had a sharp eye and a razor mind for putting out any number of little fires that Mara, short on both temper and diplomacy at the very best of times—which this was not—would have solved by simply having everyone involved, prominent, influential, high-ranking or whatever, arrested and thrown in the detention center to let Luke sort out later if he…when he came back.
So they complimented each other, D'Arca and Mara. Privately, Mara couldn’t help but wonder what was being whispered in the mirrored halls of the vast Palace about this new development, by the very few who knew the truth; the woman whom everybody suspected was the Emperor's consort, and his official wife, the Empress, sitting at the same table, holding his Empire together in his absence…no matter how reluctantly.
Decisions made and assets reassigned, the meeting broke up, people rising and leaving in solemn silence, eyes down, lost in thought. No one had the answers—not in the timescale needed. Tired to the bone, Mara set off back to Luke's apartments in the South Tower, Nathan in tow, still withdrawn and insular as he had been since this had started, silently enduring his own private nightmare, lost in his guilty misery.
And Mara had no idea what to say to him. Tired and numb, her stomach churning, she was fast reaching the point where she didn’t know which was worse— knowing nothing, or knowing the truth.
Finally, after long minutes passing in silence, Mara tried a half-hearted line. “Have you eaten yet?”
Nathan shook his head without looking up, and they walked on for easily a minute before he said quietly, “Not since breakfast. You?”
It had become such a rarity for him to reciprocate that Mara turned and just stared for a few seconds, taken aback, before finally shaking her head. “No. Not really hungry. My stomach’s been tied in knots since...”
He glanced to her, voice knowing. “Have you gotten any sleep yet?”
“A few hours,” he said distantly. “If you want something to help…”
“No,” Mara said firmly. The truth was that she was afraid that even a minute missed may be the difference between life and…
Nathan sighed, saving Mara from following that thought to its conclusion.
“You should get some rest, Mara, otherwise you’ll be no help to anyone. Why don’t you drop in now—I can give you something?”
They were in the North Tower and close to Nathan's little-used medi-bay, so Mara nodded, relenting.
In the familiar territory of his office, Nathan became, as ever, the consummate medic, already taking the tablets from his small, locked wall store. “I’ll give you pro-dioxyl. I can reverse the effects instantly with a shot if need be.”
He handed over the small tablets and filled a beaker of water, passing it over at the same time as he took the handheld medical scanner from his desktop, automatically running a scan.
Mara threw the tablets into her mouth and lifted the beaker—and Nathan reached unexpectedly out to hold it back.
“Have you swallowed them?”
There was something in his tone that stopped the fractious reply on Mara’s lips.
“Spit them out,” Nathan said quickly. “Now.”
Complying, Mara scowled, looking from the tablets to him. “Nathan, what the hell?”
He didn’t even acknowledge Mara’s sharp tone, more interested, it seemed, in taking a second scan...then a third.
Finally, he put down the scanner and walked to the door, glancing down the empty corridor and closing it on Clem’s bodyguards, who waited a discrete distance away at the medi-bay doors. When he turned back to Mara he seemed suddenly more alert than she’d seen him in days.
“Okay…all right…” Nathan hesitated a long time, as if uncertain how exactly to continue. “…Before I tell you this, I need you to do two things.”
Mara stared for long seconds before shaking her head slightly, forcing patience. “Fine, whatever.”
Nathan pulled out his own chair at his desk. “First, I think I need you to sit down here. Then I need you to promise to me that when I tell you this, you’ll remain sitting down.”
Mara narrowed her eyes but sat, watching Nathan walk around to the far side of the desk. He hesitated a few seconds more, perching on the edge of the desk—and Mara could swear he was calculating the distance to the door. When he turned back to her he had that fretful, familiar smile which he had perfected long ago, rather like a small animal in a speeder’s headlights. Finally he said timorously, “...Congratulations?”
Mara stared at him for long seconds, too tired for riddles. When she blinked several times, shaking her head, it was hardly the most coherent reply. “…What?”
Mara started to rise, but Nathan held out his hand as he stood, backpedalling as if he might make a hasty retreat to the door, one hand out. “Ah-ah! Sit, sit, sit!”
“Okay, I’m done with the games, what the hell are you talking about?” Mara glared at Nathan, not in the mood for this. But he simply stared back, silent, willing her to understand…and slowly, the truth dawned.
Mara sat back down heavily, jaw loose, mouth open in shock, no idea what to say or what to feel as an avalanche of emotions crushed in. She actually felt the blood drain from her face, leaning forward, elbows on the edge of Nathan’s desk as she put her head in her hands. “Ohh…”
“So…I’m guessing that my supposition that this wasn’t the tiniest bit planned is correct, then?”
Mara moved one finger aside to glare at Nathan through her hands. “What do you think?”
He half-shrugged apologetically. “I don’t know, it’s not the kind of information I’m called on to hand out very often.”
“No—no, no.” Mara was rallying now. “No, I was careful.”
Nathan shrugged. “I’m sure you were. You’re also young and you’re healthy and sometimes nature is just as determined to remain unbound as modern medicine is to contain it.”
“No wait, seriously…” She ran out of words, simply shaking her head.
“I’m sorry, but no matter how many times you say no, it’s still a yes. You’re pregnant—around eight or nine weeks, I’d guess, though it’s not really my area of expertise. I would recommend someone but…” he glanced away then back, “given the…present situation, I’m not really sure this is the kind of information that should go any further at the moment.”
A whole flood of new implications came rushing in on Mara when she hadn’t even begun to process the first set, and still she had no idea what she should be in this moment, what she should feel. Though she was pretty damn sure that the far-reaching repercussions of Kiria D'Arca’s reaction shouldn’t be what were playing loudest in her mind right now.
Aware of Nathan’s eyes on her, Mara looked up, but the only expression on his face was grave, heartfelt concern.
“So what do you want to do?”
Another wave of emotion surged through Mara, instant and overwhelming; a driving, bone-deep desire to protect that which just moments ago she hadn’t even known existed. “I sure as hell hope you can keep a secret, Nathan Hallin.”
A slow smile spread over his face, and in that moment he was the blithe, self-effacing charmer again. “You have no idea how many I already keep, Mara Jade.”
She almost smiled... Then just like that, when she’d thought she couldn’t possibly miss Luke more, a whole new level of grief and desperate ache assaulted Mara. More and more, she'd found herself in the last few days making endless pacts with the Fates in which she didn’t even believe. Any price; she’d pay any price to get him back and she knew it.
Now she wanted him back so desperately not just for herself, but also for their child…
Their child—it seemed a terrifying prospect, on every possible level.
Because now she needed Luke back not just for herself and for the Empire, but also to protect their baby. She could and damn well would protect it herself, of course, but not in the way that she could with Luke at her back; Luke would protect its heritage and its birthright—and it would need that protection, or it would instantly become a means for and against others’ ambitions.
Her mind raced to analyze what would have happened if Reece had not been caught; if his plotting hadn’t been discovered but had still been successful. D'Arca would always defer to Luke if he were alive but…
Mara paused a second in her realization of that; at how natural and how obvious it seemed in that moment, like a curtain falling. As long as Luke was alive, D'Arca would defer to his choices, Mara knew that now as never before. But if he were gone…D'Arca was strong and smart and she marshaled the support of the Royal Houses; she was Empress, after all.
It would take Luke's uncompromising influence to hold her and the ambitions of the House D'Arca at bay; to make sure that the child’s future was secure.
Then again, did Mara even want their child to have this life—the existence that Luke led, laced with endless burdens and demands and danger? The fact was that their child was already in mortal danger, and it hadn’t even been born.
Their child. Mara straightened slightly, pursing her lips. “So what do we do now?”
“You know, I have no idea.”
“You’re not filling me with confidence here, Nathan.”
“Don’t worry, I can pull out some reference…”
Mara arched an eyebrow. “Hey, I can pull out some reference.”
He affected his time-honored mix of injured pride and self-righteousness. “Yes, but I’d know what I was reading—I did do a medical doctorate. We cover this.”
“You’re sure now?” she growled dryly.
“Very sure, thank you. It’s just that I’m the kind of physician who’s usually called upon to set bones and suture things and generally tell the Emperor that whatever he did this time was a patently unreasonable risk—”
He broke off, realizing too late what he was saying, and Mara returned her head to her hands, regret and elation and fear and grief all washing through and over her one more time.
“We’ll get him back, Mara.”
She shook her head, breath leaving her in a low sigh. “I just…in the hangar on that damn freighter, he said—he said he was banking on me, to find him and get him out.”
“He knows that you’ll do all you can, Mara—that’s all he expects of…”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” Mara interrupted. “I mean…I mean he doesn’t trust me, I know that—I know he doesn’t trust me, so why say it?”
Nathan shook his head. “Mara, the one thing he’s spent his life trying to do is pull this Empire into some kind of accord; everything he’s done and everything he’s hoped and everything he’s endured has been towards that. It has always, in all the time I’ve known him, been the greater part of his life, and he would do anything to achieve it and everything to protect it—and he’s chosen to place it for safekeeping in your hands. Now tell me again that he doesn’t trust you.”
“But why would he…” A stray thought locked into place, and Mara truly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; Luke, pushing her away to safety onboard the Wasp, knowing he’d be caught. Buying her freedom with his own. Then he’d whispered, a grin on his face, “Mara! Anakin—his name should be Anakin.”
He’d known. He’d known, and he gave her that moment, that knowledge, that blessing. She wanted to shout, to cry, to laugh—to get him back here, right now. Because she was damned if she’d let him miss this. Their child would have a father who would love and protect it with all the innate paternal commitment that she knew Luke would give so readily. But if…if Luke didn’t come back…then she would be everything for it. She would be everything that she knew now had flashed across those vivid mismatched eyes when he’d looked to her one final time with such faith and passion.
“Mara! Anakin—his name should be Anakin.”
Mara looked to Nathan, hearing her own voice break. “It’s a boy, isn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
Nathan frowned, uncertain. “He knew?”
Mara nodded, pursing her lips against the tears that were locking her throat even as her lips brought forth a smile. “Smartass,” she croaked, then could say no more.
Luke lay on his side on the bunk, still considering the new direction that everything, everything had taken after Leia's revelation yesterday. Trying to assimilate it, to somehow fit it into his larger plans.
For Leia to admit publicly that she was his sister now, at this moment and under these conditions, would damage her reputation irrevocably—and with it any chance Luke had to hold together the moderate majority in the Alliance and reintegrate it into the Empire.
Because that one fact remained: his goals hadn’t changed. He had to remember that. He had more immediate problems, but just because he was chained up in a cell, his goals hadn’t changed.
“Take control, Jedi. Use those around you; anyone, everyone, always, no matter what.” Palpatine’s words whispered…and Luke narrowed his eyes in contemplation.
He’d always intended to separate Madine off from the Alliance at some point, always known that the General was the extremist of the Council. That he and his supporters would stand in the way of every step towards unification that Luke took. But then he’d long used the fact, too; used Madine to help polarize the Alliance, intending for it to split into two factions, the moderates and the radicals.
The Empire could never simply accept the Alliance back into its folds as it stood; the propaganda machine that was Palpatine’s Empire had seen to that. But if Luke could separate off the moderates from the radicals in the minds of the populous and represent the moderates as a political rather than a militant body, then under the right conditions, he thought he could reintegrate them—and with them the best aspects of the Old Republic—without further bloodshed. And it would give every single member of the Alliance the chance to act as their conscience dictated; the opportunity to stand behind Leia and a political force for change—to take that chance on peace.
But for that, Leia had to remain unconnected to Luke, otherwise her credibility among those from whom she was already asking so much would be lost. Everyone would see this simply as an Imperial conspiracy from the very beginning; see Leia as a plant who had always worked towards this goal. But if she did as he had asked and told no one… He wished he’d had more time to explain, but then he would have needed to reveal everything, and this wasn’t the time or place to try to convince her of his long-term intentions.
He didn’t expect everyone to agree, but, what would be left would be the extremists. Those who were so zealous that they would never accept a truce in any form… And that was where Madine came in, a ready-made die-hard militant for them to gather round. Luke was giving them a choice, but it was an either-or choice; back a peaceful solution or realize just how extreme the alternative was.
Because whatever remained, with Madine at its head it would be a truly seditious faction. A vastly reduced and aggressively radical minority who would soon be marginalized and ostracized, the inconvenient, anarchistic extreme which existed at the fringes of any evenhanded society; the price for true freedom.
But first, of course, he needed to push Leia and her supporters into that political stance in the eyes of the rest of the galaxy—and that was a little difficult to do from the inside of a Rebel cell.
Luke could split the Alliance, he knew he could; he’d already pushed it so far along that path that it would need only the smallest nudge, and the events of the past week were hardly that. The problem, in fact, may be to hold enough of it together through the coming changes. But Leia was smart and savvy; he had every faith in her ability to hold onto that which was worth saving—he always had.
What he sought now was the other side of that plan, the one thing that he'd always needed—something to unite the Empire, public, political and military. Something which would pull them all into a single accord, enabling him to direct all that attention where he chose. Too much of his old Master was left, shaping people’s thoughts and perceptions, and he had to move it away from totalitarianism, from the common concept of an Empire and Alliance constantly at odds. Without that one uniting element he couldn’t move forward, he knew that, so he’d long been searching for something to pull the Empire into that mindset, something for them to gather behind. Now events had overtaken him—he smiled fractionally at that; his old Master would have derided him endlessly for 'allowing' such a thing…which didn’t make him wrong.
That Luke had to try to influence matters from here wasn’t ideal, but this was all he had, and though he had no further way to influence or change Leia's stance right now, he suddenly found himself with unexpected access to the opposite side of this carefully constructed equation: Madine.
Madine; a dinosaur, a relic from the past who, like Palpatine, had no real place in the future Luke intended. Which made him a pawn to be played, as far as Luke was concerned. And yes, right now Madine was holding all the cards, but the last year and a half notwithstanding, Luke was used to being the underdog, used to operating from this position, everything to play for and no fallback if things went wrong—another lesson well taught by his old Master.
He’d lived so long like this that it was comfortable, like being in the company of an old friend; a familiar buzz, a heightening of senses, a sharpened resolve. He wasn’t afraid to die—as strange as it sounded, he truly wasn’t; Palpatine had taught him that with his endless, grinding games—but he’d be damned if he did it on someone else’s terms.
Dinosaur though he was, Madine was undoubtedly the master strategist, capable of laying plans months in advance, of organizing single operations or huge campaigns to the n’th degree. That was his strength, and Luke wouldn’t fight him on those terms. Couldn’t; not here and now. But smaller skirmishes…Madine had already allowed Luke to shape the game more than once in subtle ways; to lay the rules, to force the fight on his terms. And those terms were all or nothing, close quarters, thinking on your feet—because here, now, that was all he had.
Already, after only days here with him, Luke knew that the General had a short temper, and methodical, regimented forward-planners with short tempers didn’t do well under direct pressure. In the heat of the moment, forced to think on their feet, they had a tendency to crack spectacularly. Madine may be the master strategist given time to plan, able to think of and prepare for a hundred possible scenarios, but Luke was willing to bet that if he could come up with something outside of that box, Madine would have no immediate answer.
And as he had with Palpatine, Luke knew he had only one chip to play: himself. But he knew all too well how to play that game; he knew how to take those hits then turn them against his aggressor. Palpatine had taught him that, too. All or nothing; it was the only way to play the game.
Truth was that the moment Madine had captured him, Luke was dead. His life was already forfeit, he knew that. He remembered with pinpoint clarity the vision—that vacant bubble held about him where the Force did not exist; and within it were himself and seven men, blaster rifles held at shoulder height, unerringly aimed. Remembered the shout to fire, the fury which fuelled it. Remembered jerking back in shock as the word became an action and everything shattered and burst.
Remembered Madine's words that first time he’d entered this cell: “…this small man will be the death of an Emperor, because there’s only one way this will end; whatever happens, you die.”
The last time, in a cell so similar to this with Palpatine, Luke had failed—he’d fallen.
He heard again Palpatine’s words, spoken with such taunting provocation in that cell. “What do you fear, Jedi? What do you see in the dark when your demons come?”
Incensed and harried and bordering on the very edge of reason, Luke had turned the question on his tormentor, hissing out the challenge, desperate to wound, if only with words. “I know what you see in the darkness because it burns when you look in my eyes. I know what you see in the dark when your demon comes... I know that it’s me.”
What Luke didn’t admit, would never have given Palpatine the satisfaction of knowing, was what he saw when his own nightmares merged with Force-lit visions. What he’d realized even then. What he saw in the darkness when his own demon howled…
Last time, Palpatine had won—but not until Luke was truly devoid of any other choice. Last time, they’d had to carry him out, because they’d held him and persecuted him for so long that he was incapable of walking. Another week, and they would’ve taken him out in a casket. This time he wouldn’t fail. Because the man they'd locked into that cell wasn't the same one who came out of it. This time, he’d damn well walk out of here.
Everything, every experience, every stumbling block, could be of use; even his failure. Even that, he’d turn into a strength. Because Madine wasn’t Palpatine—he wasn’t even close. Just as he’d been in the Empire, he was a thug who’d tacked himself onto a bigger cause and Luke was damned if he’d fall before that—if he’d surrender all he’d committed toward building. Anything and everything, he would use it…even those dark times with Palpatine would give him the strength and the insight to hold out; even those, he’d finally pull something of value from, to stop Madine.
Glancing to the security lens on the wall, Luke turned slowly over on his bunk, the chain about his now heavily blistered ankle dragging, its weight pulling against his movement as he turned his back to the lens. They’d kept the lights on full since the night before Leia’s visit, still shaking him awake every few hours and hauling him over to that table to tether him. Now, with his back to the lens, Luke was able to slide his hand between the edge of the canvas bunk he lay on and the heavy metal frame; still magnetized to the angle-iron frame where he’d put it yesterday was the small anti-surveillance scrambler Leia had given to him. He didn’t activate it—it was too soon after her visit—but he brushed his fingers over it, a reassurance that it was still there. He had no plan as yet, no way to pull the disparate facts together…but he was still thinking as his eyes drifted closed...
He had no idea how long he’d slept before the door opened with that same ear-popping inrush of air. Luke was hauled up, the metal cuff on his ankle carving new gouges into his skin from the weight of the chain as they dragged him over to the table again, his arms pressed down until the bar between the binders had snapped into the small receiver bolted to the center of the heavy desk.
Madine walked coolly in, nodding to the three men, who backed off a few steps behind Luke's field of view as another two took up position to either side of the door, one of them pausing to drop a third hard chair to one side of the table.
Madine sat, placing a vo-corder on the table before him as Luke glanced to the third chair without comment before turning back to him. It was a long time before either spoke, Madine finally making the move, but then Luke felt no pressing need to move the interrogation session forward.
“Your…” Madine glanced fractionally to the soldiers, then back to Luke, “supporter doesn’t appear to be coming through for you as you might have hoped after her little visit…and here I was keeping you all safe and healthy in anticipation.”
Luke remained silent, internally logging the fact that his relationship to Leia wasn’t common knowledge, even here—but then why would he think for one moment that Madine would wish to share his little nugget of power? Not that Luke was complaining; he wanted it kept quiet as much as Madine did—except that Madine would out it eventually. Right now it wasn’t in his interest to do so, because knowledge was power, but there’d come a time when he could gain more by speaking out the facts than by withholding them.
“I’d expected her to work a lot harder on your behalf,” Madine continued smoothly. “Seems the only person who’s keeping you alive isn’t keeping up to her end of the bargain. Which is a very dangerous thing…for you. Particularly since I promised I’d have plenty of evidence to present to the next Council meeting to indicate that a trial would move smoothly to the right verdict—maybe even a full confession.”
Luke remained silent, still trying to fathom the way that this particular session would go as Madine leaned back, casually assertive, hands clasped one fist inside the other before him. “Seems you’ve also been a little busy yourself in the last few days, spreading rumors among my men. I don’t appreciate that.”
Tam, Luke realized, half-smiling, split lip still tender. That was why he hadn’t been back. “Rumors, truth…it’s all the same to you, isn’t it, Madine? Do you even know the difference in your own head any more? Does it…”
Madine brought both fists down onto the table with a heavy thud, silencing Luke. “No, we’re done with these little lectures. From now on, we talk about what I want to talk about and nothing else. From now on, you keep your mouth shut unless I ask you a question.”
Luke heard the boot steps of the soldiers behind him moving closer and tensed, though nothing happened. For a few moments he and Madine stared at each other in silence…
“Futility Approach,” Luke finally said, keeping his own voice calm, aware that lines were being drawn. “‘I can make this very uncomfortable for you and you can’t stop me’—or how about the, ‘This can only end one way so why not make it easier on yourself’ threat. You might get some mileage out of the method, assuming that I hadn’t read a dozen papers on its use as an interrogation technique. But we both know it’ll take time, and with near enough the whole Imperial military and I’m guessing a pretty unexpected amount of Alliance leadership on your back, you strike me as a man on a tight timetable.”
“What makes you think anybody’s looking for you, Imperial or Alliance…other than a body, of course.”
“Really? You want to try this line of approach? I would have led with that two days ago perhaps, but asking a man who you’re now claiming is thought to be dead, to read out a confession clearly garnered after Kwenn is a bit of a slip. As is letting the leader of your own Alliance in here to talk to me." Luke gave an empty smile as he set his head on one side. "...It is still your Alliance, isn’t it—or have they disowned you already?”
“I wasn’t saying that people believe you died at Kwenn. I was simply saying we can kill you any time we want.”
“ISF: Increased Stress and Fear. You want to go down the list? You’ve probably read the same papers on interrogative techniques that I have, back when you were an Imperial. Mine’ll be a little more up to date, but knowing you, I’m sure you’ve kept your hand in. Let’s go through them, shall we? Direct approach; doesn’t seem to be working yet and since I know that if I actually do read out your statement it’s my death warrant, it’s not very likely to. Obviously you can’t use an Incentive approach for the same reason, and really the Emotional approach is clearly not gonna work. Pride and ego—worth a try, but I’m hardly likely to be goaded into telling you anything just to prove my own worth. Increased Stress and Fear? I’m sure you’ll get to that; we’ve already had a few testings of the water. Deprivation techniques…same thing, but we both know they’ll take more time than you have, won’t they? Establish a False Identity? Can’t really threaten me with the fact that you suspect I’m anyone higher up and therefore more accountable that I actually am, so that’s a dead end. Friend, not Foe—I’ll just laugh right now when I mention it, and that’ll save you the embarrassment of trying. Silent Approach—already blown that one… Have I missed any?”
“File and Dossier,” Madine said coolly, and Luke tipped his head.
“Not on purpose I assure you. No psychological slip-up…but feel free to try it.”
“Why am I not surprised that you know all this.” Madine too was playing to the audience of soldiers scattered about the room now, but for him this was a new technique; for Luke, playing to the larger audience whilst speaking to one man was a way of life. So he shrugged slightly now.
“I read. I’ve read about you too, in Imperial files. You read like more of a…hands-on learner.”
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty for what I believe in if that’s what you mean—unlike you.”
Luke shook his head. “Oh no, you can’t have it both ways, Madine. You can’t accuse me of undercover infiltration into the Rebellion and then tell me I never get my hands dirty—” Again Madine slammed his hands down forcibly, but this time Luke didn’t even pause. “Or are they both true in your own head? Anything that serves your—”
Madine's eyes flicked to a spot just behind Luke, and a heavy blow landed against the side of his skull from behind, the force snapping his head to the side. Luke straightened slowly, dizzy from the wrenching strike.
Madine watched, unmoved, head to one side. “Let me explain again: no more little lectures. We’re through with those. We talk about what I want to talk about and nothing else. When you talk, it’s because you’re answering my question. Step outside of that rule, and bad things will happen.”
“Old games,” Luke said, shaking his head. “These are old games, Madine. I’ve used them and had them used on me too many times. Tying me down every time you come in, having men stand out of my line of sight, no sleep, leaving me sitting here for hours then coming in and staring in silence. I’m surprised you haven’t had me stood against that wall in a stress position.”
“Old games?” Madine nodded again to one of the soldiers behind Luke, and he braced…but the man walked silently past him and to the cell door, comlink to his mouth.
Uncertain, Luke glanced back to Madine, who simply stared, that mocking half-smile on his face, waiting…
Luke forced himself to breathe slowly, every muscle taut, aware that they were taking their time on purpose, playing on his nerves. Eventually the doors ground open and a military medic wearing fatigues walked into the room carrying a medi-case. He stopped by the table, handing something quickly over to Madine, who dropped it onto the table before him, locking Luke's lungs in recognition.
It was a syringe, a dirty brown liquid within.
Madine smiled, knowingly. “Then let’s start a new game, shall we?”
Luke's eyes stayed on the syringe as Madine continued, coolly confident. “Pharmacodynamics: Imperial. We’ve made quite a little cocktail just for you. Kalter here has done a lot of work on it; you could say it’s his specialty. Amo-tricliptidine, he tells me, combined with a little something special just to be sure it works—something kindly provided by one of your own people. SK-seventeen; I’m told that’s the only name it has. Recognize it?” Madine glanced once at Luke's bound hands, tightening to fists. “I see you do. And the tricliptidine, that’s always been an Imperial favorite, hasn’t it? Kalter chose it with care. Kalter?”
The medic had sat on the third chair, not looking up, his voice distracted, preoccupied as he was by arranging the tools of his trade on the table. “Has a half-life of approximately one hundred and sixty minutes per dose. It affects the G protein, blinds serotonin receptors and increases amplitude and decay time of inhibitory postsynaptic currents. Induces intense psycho-physical reactions. Symptoms are variable and include decreased lung function, nerve and muscle spasms, tremors, severe cramps,hypoxia-induced seizures, hypothermia, pathological cognitive confusion, distortions in perceptions and loss of identity. All increased if recipient is in a hostile environment, depending of course on the dosage and tolerance. Higher doses can cause overwhelming cognitive shifts. Those who’ve been administered it over several days say this particular drug has flash-back effects lasting years.”
The medic trailed off, squinting at his apparatus, seeming more concerned with making sure that all the items were laid out in perfect parallel than anything else.
Madine smiled tightly. “It also makes you tell the truth, but then I’m guessing you knew that—it’s an Imperial drug after all.”
Luke leaned back just slightly, adrenaline kicking his heart rate into high gear, and Madine settled, leaning one elbow on the table. “I presume I have your attention now?”
The medic, Kalter, dragged his chair closer beside Luke, still without once looking at him. Luke glanced briefly, then turned deliberately away as the man assembled vein catheters and an old, portable medical scanner.
“Do you have any medical conditions?” the medic asked finally as he worked. “Are you taking or do you have in your system any other drugs at present? Are you aware of any member of your immediate bloodline who is prone to seizures? Are you aware of any member of your immediate bloodline who died as a direct result of an aneurism?”
Luke didn’t look; kept his eyes on Madine, who held that mocking half-smile to the edges of his lips. Two men closed in from behind and pinned Luke’s arms and shoulders, though he didn’t resist; right now, what was the point?
He felt the prick of the needle in the back of his left hand; felt it drag as the pressure changed and the catheter was taped down. Felt the men grip tight against him as the syringe containing the brown fluid was threaded into the catheter. Felt it bloom through his veins, incredibly warm…
The world did one slow, nauseating loop and Luke felt his head rock slightly as he blinked slowly, the drug burning like wildfire. He could feel himself start to rock in an effort to remain upright against failing muscles, feel the buzz as a metal band seemed to tighten within his brain.
“Breathe slowly,” the medic said impassively. “Don’t hyperventilate.”
Everything was becoming more distant now, the pain in Luke's chest increasing by the second. The task of remaining upright seemed more difficult with every labored heartbeat and he slumped slowly forward onto the table, his breath leaving him in a trembling sigh, the drugs overwhelming.
The medic settled down on the chair, taking care to push the vo-corder forward and activate it before he spoke. “Perhaps we can sit him up?”
Heavy hands hauled at Luke from behind, pulling him upright so that he slumped in the chair, head lolling, incredibly heavy, the medic’s words unexpectedly, almost painfully loud in his hears. “Good. Okay, we can start now—this is session one, the date is forty-five, fifth, fifth, Coruscant Standard.”
Madine's voice came, low and satisfied—Luke couldn’t make out his face any more. “I want confessions on the vo-corder—start with the fact that he was a spy—I want to hear him say it out loud, nice and clear.”
“Fine.” The medic leaned in slightly. “Shall we start at the beginning? Shall we start with your name?”
Luke turned away, clinging to what awareness he had, familiar with this game. His Master had often used drugs against him, to control and subdue, among other, less clinical methods. He’d long since read the techniques that enabled you to control it—for a while.
The medic paused expectantly before prompting, voice dripping insincere familiarity. “You have a name which I’m told you once used here—Luke, isn’t it?”
Luke remained still, staring to the desk before him, concentrating closely on that familiar metallic tang at the back of his throat; it was a long time since he’d tasted it…he’d always hated it.
The man leaned back slightly to glance to Madine, voice a quiet murmur. “I think we’ll take him up twenty mil.” His attention turned down, then back to Luke as the dose rushed in a flush through his veins, causing an overwhelming wave of nausea and dizziness, making him grip to the hook at the center of the table which held his hands bound.
“How do you feel, Luke?”
“Can’t breathe.” Had he said that? Concentrate.
“You’ll be fine.” Again that soulless fellowship, completely without feeling. “Luke—is Luke your name?”
“Is your name Luke?”
“Y… no… it was.”
“You don’t seem very sure?”
“I don’t…seem very sure,” Luke repeated the words, more an avoidance than acknowledgement.
The man shifted slightly, the motion making Luke’s head swim. “Is your name Luke Skywalker?”
“I…have no name…I lost it.”
“Is your name Luke Skywalker?”
Eyes still locked on his hands, Luke shook his head slightly.
Silence held for long seconds as the medic regarded him, openly considering…then turned again to Madine. “I think we’ll up the dose.”
That strange heat rolled through Luke again, making his heart skip and his head cloud. His broken breaths were loud in his ears, like the roar of an ocean, his eyes drifting inexorably closed. He felt his head loll momentarily, the action causing the room to spin, the bright lights dragging long, blurred lines across his vision as someone behind him caught the back of his collar, holding him upright. The medic leaned in slightly, his chair scraping across the hard floor, the sound grating across Luke’s painfully acute hearing.
“Perhaps we should try again; your name is Luke?”
He blinked slowly, hypnotized by the sound of his own labored breathing, staring at the vague, imprecise features of the medic as he spoke, digging deep for resolve as the pain began to spike in his chest, temples pounding. He could do this—this was an old game. “……..One hundred.”
His inquisitor’s blurry features transformed into a smudged frown. “What?”
“One hundred. Ninety-three…..eighty…eighty-six….seventy-nine…”
The medic leaned back, realizing. He watched for a short while as Luke struggled to count backwards, the act requiring every ounce of concentration.
“Seventy….seventy-two…sixty-five…sixty—no, fifty-eight. Fifty-eight. Then…”
“Fifty-one,” the man said, attempting to take over Luke’s train of thought. “Then forty-four. Shall we continue?”
Ignore him; concentrate… “Forty—no…thirty-seven?”
“Thirty-seven, thirty. Twenty-three, sixteen, nine, two.” The interrogator completed the train of thought for him. “What’s your name? Tell me your real name?”
The hazy, fuzzy daze blanketed thoughts and emotions to leave him numb and dizzy and diffuse, and Luke knew he should be worried, that he should be on guard, but…he fell momentarily back into the blackout, his body jolting physically at the imagined fall, eyes opening wide, the light painful.
“I can’t breathe.”
The voice that filtered through was calm and completely without emotion. “Your breathing is fine, Luke, I’m watching you. Tell me about the Rebellion. You were a pilot, is that right?”
Luke stared, memories assaulting him, too many and too fast to hold against. “X-Wing,” he murmured, the image of his battered old fighter coming intensely to the fore of his thoughts. Of the tape across a tear in the pilot’s seat, of the failed heating duct which always left his feet freezing, of having to hover one time above the landing bay floor whilst a tech came out and hit the release hatch for the front landing strut with a piece of pipe because it had stuck closed and he couldn’t set down. He smiled; stupid ship…always got him back.
“Rogues…” he said absently. “Rogue Squadron.”
“Rogues…is that the squadron you flew with?”
More memories, thick and fast. Don’t; don’t get pulled in. Individual moments plucked from time crowded in on him though, broken fragments with no order and no sense; stretches spent sitting in the ready-room, waiting to sortie, talking and laughing and playing sabacc. Don’t get pulled in.
...Endless hours in insular isolation listening to the chatter on the comm system when on escort duty, nothing to do but stare at the rear of a freighter’s engines and wait for trouble. Don't get pulled in.
...He remembered Tycho bringing an X-Wing in once with three s-foils and no landing gear. He remembered Dak accidentally shooting Sarkli in the foot. He remembered the still they had set up in the rec room. Remembered Wald throwing up in his cockpit when he took a shot and was knocked unconscious, and everyone drawing straws as to who had to clean it out. Don’t...
...Remembered Wedge walking into the mess hall one time with his flight suit on inside-out, he was so tired. Remembered Madine chewing him out for taking a run on a heavily defended gun-slit…Madine…
Don’t get… but the moments clamored to be heard, to be felt, and he was falling among them, nauseous, heart pounding, chest burning.
A memory surfaced, pulled to the fore by that same feeling of nausea and dizziness: of barrel-rolling in the atmosphere, a spook on his tail. Of turning the ship too tight on the pull out, corner-speed g-forces after the near-stall of the roll pushing his body too close to the edge of endurance. Of the cold, seeping nausea, the slow tunneling of his vision and the sure knowledge that the spook was still there, every shot getting closer. Of yanking clear as the spook overshot and rattling off six fast shots which raked it as other friendly fire exploded it onto a blossom of blazing heat. In the same moment Wedge’s X-Wing screamed by overhead, brash enough to take a victory roll even in the middle of a dog-fight.
“Wedge,” Luke said aloud, grinning.
“Wedge?” The unwelcome voice that prized itself into Luke memories made the name a question, and Luke had some vague inkling that he shouldn’t reply but couldn’t remember why.
“Wedge Antilles,” he whispered, the name of his old friend enough to make him smile.
“A pilot?” the voice prompted. “A pilot like you?”
“Like me.” That twisting mix of relief and deliverance and adrenaline burned inside him again as Luke smiled at the memory of Wedge’s X-Wing wrenching out of the flashy aileron-roll, and Luke grinned; laughed aloud. “He pulls another stunt like that in the middle of a fight and I’ll bust his ass down to wingman.”
“You remember Wedge?” the voice asked.
Don’t get pulled in… Luke frowned, the warning lost in the rush of memories bursting forth. “Yes.”
He could see him absolutely; his cocky grin, his endless confidence—a brief, blurred image of Wedge slouching unevenly in a chair opposite him the time that he’d drunk Luke under the table for a bet. Could recall them both sitting on the floor in separate stalls the next morning feeling green and fragile and way too worse for wear, and praying they didn’t get the sortie alarm. He smiled at the memories; Wedge…
That voice spoke again. “Did Wedge know what you were, Luke?”
Luke frowned, confusion misting the memories…why was it so hard to breathe? “What?”
“Wedge; did he know you were an Imperial spy—or did you never tell him that you were a spy?”
Don’t get pulled in. Confusion, and the memories drifted away but the queasiness remained—the chemical taste in the back of his throat. Luke turned to stare at the voice, and the man who slowly coalesced about it. “Not…a spy.” He dredged the words from dim thoughts as he stared at the man. “Not a spy.”
That head tilted, splitting into multiple images as it fazed across Luke's indistinct vision. “That’s not true, is it? You were a spy, the fact is that you just didn’t tell people… Did you tell people you were a spy, Luke, or did you keep that fact hidden?”
Luke blinked, dredging that knowledge, that determination up to his thoughts. Remembering where he was, what was at stake, struggling to pull in a breath against burning lungs and aching ribs. Don’t get pulled in. “Not a spy.”
“Yes, you were. All you need do is say it just once and we don’t need to ever talk about it again. Do you want this to stop, Luke?”
Reality, cold and hard; his chest cramped from simply breathing, his muscles burned, his heart spike with every pound. “Everything hurts…”
“That’s the drugs, Luke…but we can stop that, no problem. That would be best, wouldn’t it?”
“Then it’s very easy… just say you were an Imperial spy. Just once, and all this will stop. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Obvious what you should do. And it’s so easy. Just you and I are here, Luke—no one else will know. Just say it once, that you were a spy.”
Palpatine’s voice drifted in wheedling tones, so absolutely crystal clear that he could have been standing at Luke's shoulder. “Only you and I are here; would it be so terrible to kneel?”
“I can’t do it—I can’t.”
“Luke, I can’t stop the drugs until you say that you were a spy. It’s impossible, do you understand? This will continue until you say that. Do you want it to continue?”
Luke tried to shake his head, fizzing explosions lighting beneath his skin at the movement, muscles trembling, excruciating. “How many minutes?” He probably wasn’t meant to ask that out loud. “How many minutes now?”
“How many minutes? Not long. We still have a long way to go, Luke…and I can always administer another dose.”
“No more doses…no more doses in….” He struggled to remember, the facts escaping him. “Hours. Twelve hours….twelve hours…”
“Theoretically. But we know your Imperial interrogators use the drug again as close to three hours afterwards.”
Spikes of distant awareness cut razor-sharp in the back of his mind, anger giving them power. “No…illegal. Illegal now, the drugs. Changed…”
“Only not, isn’t that the truth? Now it’s just a little less public.”
“Change…” Luke was fighting to get his point across, aware that his words were slow and over-pronounced, stumbling on each one, “...is slow. But started.”
“Save it for the holo-speeches.You have no audience here.” Another voice…Madine; Madine was here!
Luke blinked slowly, trying to turn his head to the voice, but the muscles of his neck and back locked in spasm. “Change…”
The hand banged forcibly on the table before Luke, making him jolt, his mind reeling at the sudden sensory overload...
A noise so loud that it was painful made Luke open his eyes, though he couldn’t turn to see the source yet. He lay with his face down on the cold table, thankful for its chill against heated skin, still tethered awkwardly to the desk his head rested on, shoulders cramping, though the drug had worked its way clear of his system over the last few hours. The glaring lights lanced into him, but he knew that trying to turn his head away would hurt more, so he lay still, taking shaky breaths in through still-aching lungs.
“I don’t consider myself a moralist.” Madine's voice came coolly from somewhere close, and Luke had no idea if he’d been there all along or had just walked into the room. “War is never clean and it’s never fair…but it’s necessary. I get my hands dirty so that those who cling so stubbornly to their high moral principals can sleep well at night. Myself, I’ll sleep very well tonight—you should try to do the same. Get some rest, something to eat, unwind a little—I know I will when I walk out of here. You…you might find it a little more difficult, what with the boys behind you coming in every few hours to make sure you’re awake. I’ve told them I’m not particularly bothered how they do that.”
Luke blinked slowly, unresponsive, still struggling to heave breaths in hours after the drug was spent.
Madine's voice again, unnaturally loud. “You should sit up.”
Someone hauled Luke up by the scruff of his neck, eliciting a sharp, soundless gasp, his throat too dry to speak yet. The unknown hand released him and he immediately began to slump, but it grabbed him and hauled him straight again, shaking him, the binders on his wrists clattering in their catch, until Luke took his own weight.
Madine sat before him, unmoved. “You know, I was thinking about what you said earlier...maybe a few hours stood up nice and straight would do a galaxy of good. Give you time to think, huh?”
Luke didn’t reply. Eyes down, blinking repeatedly, his body weaving slightly from drugs and exhaustion he was probably, to all intents and purposes, only half-there. In fact, he was staring fixedly at exactly what he needed, laid casually on the table before him, just beyond the reach of his tethered hands.
Madine was already rising, one of the soldiers stepping forward as they always did to release Luke's bound hands from the catch in the middle of the table without ever removing his actual cuffs. Another kicked the heavy chain which extended from the cuff on Luke's ankle back towards the bunk, ready to tether it, the movement grinding its metal edge against barked skin.
Luke’s eyes remained locked on the table; on the stylus and the vo-corder and the two empty syringes which rested on it, all just beyond his reach.
He could think of no other way to get to them; maybe if he’d been a little sharper, he would have been able to…but this chance might not come again and in a few more moments Madine would remove them from the table and the opportunity would be gone.
This would hurt, he knew that. This, he’d pay for.
But he could think of only one way to get what he wanted off that table.
As the soldier lifted his wrist binders free Luke lunged to his feet, pulling still-bound hands back so that he could deliver an awkward sideways blow to the man’s face with his elbow, aiming for his nose, knowing it would send him reeling. It was weak and uncoordinated, but it made contact and as the man staggered backwards Luke made a wide, fast motion to sweep everything off the table with as much power as he could muster, scattering the contents. The vo-corder casing had shattered on the hard floor by the time Luke took the corner of the table in both hands and yanked it aside to lunge for Madine, managing to grab him by the scuff as the big man backstepped, arms up in surprise. His wrists bound, Luke did the one thing he was still capable of: he yanked Madine in and brought his own head forward in a swift head-butt hard enough to make himself reel, let alone Madine—
Then his feet were hauled from under him as the soldier who’d been about to chain his ankle back to the bunk frame had the presence of mind to simply haul on the chain, dropping Luke instantly, no defense possible.
He rolled as he fell, the sharp shards of the shattered vo-corder case digging in through his flightsuit, bound hands sweeping across them, worried they’d stun him and this would have been for nothing, his eyes on his goal—
The blow came from behind seconds later, hard enough to make him see stars. Luke curled up, breath leaving him in a gasp though he didn’t shout out; he never shouted out. Years with Palpatine had taught him that.
“Get him up here! Get him back up here!”
Luke was hauled bodily back onto the chair, another heavy blow to his kidneys winding him and making him gasp again, doubling over as they yanked him back by his collar and his hair.
He looked up to see Madine, his nose bloody, bad enough that it had already spattered across that perfectly pressed uniform…and he couldn’t resist it. He shouldn’t, Luke knew that, but he couldn’t resist it; he grinned, still gasping, breathless. “Well, look at that—Generals bleed too.”
Madine stepped forward and, held in place by the two soldiers behind him, there was little Luke could do, even in defense.
Fury spent, Madine backed up, the muscles of his back and arms still tensed from his onslaught. Skywalker’s body was lax now, having fallen to the floor long ago beneath the beating. Madine stared at him, panting, still bringing his fury under control.
“We need a little coordinated action here. Densun, where’s that ring he wore?”
The trooper looked up, himself still breathless. “I dunno—I think Coley took it.”
“Get it off him. Bring it here. Tinel, go get the recorder.”
Densun was back within ten minutes, handing the blue-stoned ring over to Madine, who took it, kicking the still-unconscious Skywalker casually over.
“Which finger did he wear it on?”
“Little finger, left hand,” Densun said from memory.
Madine crouched before Skywalker, struggling to get the ring back on over loose fingers before he turned to Tinel. “Take the holo—get his face and the ring. Don’t get anything else in.”
Beside him, Tinel activated the recorder as he slowly stepped in. Madine reached out as the man got close, using his foot to kick the still-unconscious Skywalker onto his back, his face now slick with blood, appalling injuries obvious. Reaching his hands in, he struggled to drag the blue-stoned ring from Skywalker’s unresisting fingers, slippery with blood now.
“Got it," Tinel acknowledged. "You want me to get the statement spliced onto it?”
“Yeah, but don’t put it out just yet.” Turning to Densun, Madine held out the ring. “Here. You’re gonna make a very special delivery—and I want to know just exactly when it arrives.”
“To summarize,” Admiral Joss turned back to the display, keying the console set into the desk before him to highlight three-dimensional areas within the holographic map which was displayed over the large circular table, “we’re confident that we now have the Kwenn System itself, the Vallusk Cluster and the Feriae Sector checked and cleared. We’ll have the Kalamith Sector, including Toprawa, the Arda and Yavin Systems swept and cleared by this time tomorrow, which will have secured the Bright Jewel Oversector entirely. We’re restricting light-speed travel within those areas to permit-only and using Skang-Linner systems to detect lightspeed signatures crossing within forty thousand clicks of official shipping lanes. Nothing is going into or out of those systems without our knowledge, unless they’re risking travelling outside proscribed routes. In total, we’ve now eliminated close to fifty systems from our search, but the area to search is increasing rapidly as the radial expansion from Kwenn increases, so we’re proposing a move to sequester local and planetary forces headed up by military commanders to monitor and maintain cleared areas.”
“Using local law enforcement will start rumors,” Mara said.
“I fail to see why that’s a problem.” Kiria D'Arca said this, bringing Mara’s eyes to her, freshly wary in view of her own condition.
The Empress had, with her usual persistence, continued to attend any and all meetings, including the COS’s. Still, the fact was that she had also performed her role flawlessly to date, disguising Luke’s absence with perfect composure despite her personal opinion in this. There were still subtle undertones of powergames, of course, with D'Arca holding the unswerving support of the Royal Houses, whilst Mara, with the aid of Reiss, Arco and Joss, holding the confidence of the military. But there was also a deeper knowledge that if ever there were extenuating circumstances it was now, and by some unspoken agreement, all older grudges were set aside.
More or less.
“I’m not going to escalate this by going public,” Mara said resolutely. “Not until we have to.”
Admiral Joss straightened slightly, eyes on Mara. “With respect, Madam Regent, the rumors are flying already now. I’ve personally authorized the reassignment of over six hundred military mainline vessels from their standard duties, today alone. I’m sure General Reiss will attest to the same in terms of military units and manpower, as will Commander Arco. If we wish to maintain this pace, then we need the resources to do it.”
Mara pursed her lips, all eyes on her. She’d been trained since childhood to think on her feet and in military terms, so the knowledge of what was necessary was completely clear to her. But now she needed to take into account the political and civilian landscape as well, and that muddying of the waters was pressure she didn’t need. But they were finally getting on top of the problem and eliminating huge tracts of space from their investigations, and she wouldn’t hinder or stop it now.
“Do it,” she said at last.
“I should warn you, Ma'am, that in three days’ time, we’ll run out of sufficient Interdictors to guarantee blanket coverage in terms of restricting lightspeed travel in cleared areas,” Joss said gravely.
Mara turned to Arco, who had been assigned this problem when the success of continued search patterns had begun to make it loom.
“We’ve sequestered a total of one-hundred-seven corporate interdictors, which is all we’re able to trace at this time. None of them are military spec and all will need a Star Destroyer to accompany them, but they will effectively enable us to ensure checked systems remain secure for another three days at our present rate of expansion,” Arco said crisply, eyes on his own automemo. “After that, we’re looking at alternative mobile gravity wells and platforms, particularly for use on space lanes. Plus we’re working on a strategic placement system which will enable us to free up some of the military interdictors from the original systems that were cleared, based on the fact that surrounding systems will now also contain interdictors.”
“When will the sequestered interdictors be in position?”
“We already have ninety in our possession and heading to their proposed posts. The others will be moving by tomorrow. We have sixty of a possible two hundred gravity wells on the move using various requisitioned transport methods, but several systems will need more than one to effect the same coverage that a military Interdictor can achieve.”
Mara rose, the assorted CIC’s standing as she did so; she’d never get used to that. “Then I believe we’re done for tonight, gentlemen. Update at oh-six-hundred tomorrow. Get some rest or get some results and bring either to the table then. Thank you.”
Walking from the War Room, Nathan in tow, Mara was once again reminded of Luke’s constant frustration at not spending more time on the front lines with the troops. He’d always been at heart a do-er, a front-line soldier, and though his ability to make things happen had easily translated into leadership, that didn’t leave him any less frustrated at the restrictions of his own position, just as it was with Mara right now. Everything she had done today was organization. She could do organization—could do it with her eyes closed—but every day that passed saw her more and more frustrated.
Nathan drew up beside her and Mara spoke without bothering to turn. “Nathan, if you ask me whether I’ve eaten in the last three hours I’m going to physically hurt you. There may be bones broken.”
“You know you need to eat little and often,” the slight medic said, drawing level so that his voice wouldn’t carry.
“So, what,” Mara grated, “you’ve read one paper on pregnancy and now you’re a leading expert?”
“Actually I read nine papers which is, I believe, nine papers more than you, so yes, around here I am,” Nathan came back with injured pride.
He had finally tracked down some drugs to help Mara with the nausea this afternoon, which had made him, briefly, her hero. Then the nagging had started; had she eaten? When? What? How much? Was it balanced? Did she need to rest? How did she feel, did she need anything?
With something useful on which to focus his abilities and attention, he seemed to be regaining that same mix of neurotic anxiety and snubbed confidence that he’d always juggled so inimitably. From the moment they both knew of Mara's pregnancy, Nathan had clearly taken it onboard that in Luke's absence, he would be the one responsible. And it was driving Mara insane.
Particularly when she was also having to deal with all these damn hormones which were whipping up a storm right now, dragging her from one extreme to the other in the space of a single minute.
And, let’s face it, Mara reflected in this particular moment’s burst of bitter amusement, as far as rollercoaster unpredictability went, this really wasn’t the ideal situation to be looking for a little emotional stability.
She sensed the flash of near-panic long before she heard the footsteps, and turned round to see one of Arco’s Intel officers practically run up the corridor towards them. What scared her most was that he didn’t stop when he reached Arco—he kept running towards Mara. Three steps away from her he suddenly slowed, uncertain, looking instead to D'Arca, so that when he spoke, though he remained closer to the Empress, his words were, quite correctly, to Mara.
“Ma’am Regent, we’ve got something.”
“A…” Mara bit down on the word she nearly said aloud: a body.
D'Arca stepped quickly forward. “Do you have news?”
“Something was delivered to the military base on Tarn Peninsula. It arrived at the Palace a few minutes ago.”
Mara was breathless from her near-run to the Intel Suite in the North Tower. When she arrived, the package had already been checked and DNA-scanned, the outer wrapping—a simple flimiplast envelope—removed, leaving only the contents on a clear tray on Commander Arco’s desk. Mara knew she should wait, that she should give forensics all the time they needed with it, but the wrinkled, blood-stained piece of paper was clearly wrapped around something small and circular, and she couldn’t hold back.
“The envelope was addressed to the Empress,” the Intel officer continued, though it wasn’t meant as a discouragement as Mara stepped forward. Intel, being a branch of the military, staunchly backed Mara’s authority. The man added, “It was delivered to the stormtrooper barracks by a droid messenger from an automated local delivery service.”
Mara lifted the small crumple of paper, and so badly wrapped was it that the item fell free as she did so and she caught it in the palm of her other hand...it glinted just once as the smeared stone caught the light.
It was Luke’s ring. A mass of memories erupted at the sight of it: of laying pressed against him in their safe haven onboard the Patriot as she’d asked him where it was from, of watching him countless times use his thumb to turn the ring about again and again on his little finger, a subconscious habit he had. He never took the ring off—never.
Like the paper that held it, the ring itself was slicked in dry blood which had caked in the carved mount, rusty red.
She heard Nathan’s voice as if from very far away. “The blood?”
“They’ve run analysis on the outer envelope—it’s the Emperor’s.”
Mara was still staring at the ring when she sensed, then heard the commotion in the next room. She didn’t turn to look, eyes and thoughts locked on the ring, on Luke...
Beside her, Arco and Nathan both turned. It was long seconds before Mara could pull her thoughts together and when she did, she realized that the room had emptied about her, the commotion from the next room becoming too great to ignore. Bracing, she walked through—and everyone stopped, the room falling to ominous silence.
People stood gathered around a single desk. On it a holoprojector was flickering, its image frozen…
Mara walked forward, feeling lightheaded, clutching the ring tightly. “Play it.”
Nathan stepped forward. “Mara, maybe…”
Commander Arco’s voice was grave as he reached out and pressed the holo’s activation stud. “It was picked up a few minutes ago on the open HoloNet and sent straight to Intel. We’re trying to trace it now. We’ve taken the code apart but as far as we can tell, it’s already a copy of a copy of a copy. There’s a synthetic voice-over claiming responsibility on behalf of the Rebel Alliance...”
He trailed to silence and Mara watched, breathless. Watched the shaky image of a pale, rough-cast floor, scuffed, smeared in places with something slick and dark. On it, a man lay in an awkward position, face down, arm twisted behind him. His creased, faded flightsuit had a wide stain on the back of the collar...bloodstain.
Mara clutched at her stomach, suddenly aware that it was becoming hard to breathe.
As the image moved closer to the still form of the man, a booted foot came in none too gently, and turned his unresisting form over. Unconscious, he.....
Luke...his face was covered in open wounds; fresh wounds. Dark, arterial blood smeared his skin, his nose broken, eyes closed. A man’s hand, fist slick with Luke’s blood, reached in and grasped his hand, pulling the ring from his finger. The ring that Mara now held so tightly in her grip that it was pressing painfully into her palm.
It was like a body-blow to see him, a pain so deep and so visceral that it took the air from her lungs and drained the blood from her head so that she staggered back a step to lean against another desk for support as the synthetic voice continued.
“…looking at images of a corrupt and self-serving man who has spent years elevating himself and his own personal power. That time is now over; the Alliance to Restore the Republic has brought it to an end. In seven days’ time, we will bring the Empire’s unjust system of absolute rule to a conclusive end—one that we will share with the entire galaxy. Pass this message on.”
Mara stared, mute, as that final image flickered and froze, every nightmare fear of the last week coming real.
“No terms, no demands?” Admiral Joss's voice was a distant, meaningless drone beneath the buzz of her blood in her ears.
“There are no terms,” Arco said gravely. “This isn’t an opening of negotiations, it’s a statement of what’s going to happen…publicly.”
“How many copies of this are out there?” Clem asked, voice rough. “Can we isolate it, pull it?”
“We’re running the numbers now, Sir...”
Screens scrolled...and Mara watched the man at the console leaned forward, head in his hands. “Present estimate is around seventy or eighty thousand...and counting. It’s all over the HoloNet; it’s viral.”
Isolated in the respectful distance that those present maintained from their Empress, Kiria D'Arca too stood isolated and distraught, one hand to her open mouth to cover her shock as the images played. She was vaguely aware of Mara Jade stepping from her vision, of the medic Hallin turning away.
Luke’s ring; she remembered it well. The heavy, indigo blue stone set in polished perennium that he always wore.
The Emperor’s signet ring, delivered here wrapped in a piece of screwed up flimsiplast as if it were nothing. As if it were worthless. Smudged and smeared with dark, dried, ruddy brown, it had taken only seconds for Kiria to realize what it was when it had fallen from the blood-stained paper into Jade’s hand.
Kiria shook her head, outraged once that someone had done this to the Emperor, and again that they would do such a thing in transmitting these images across the galaxy then sending that same ring to her, his wife. How dare they.
She paused, calculating the immensity of her own reaction, her anger, her fury at seeing the images—at seeing that first glimpse of blood on the Emperor's signet ring, at its stark contrast against the pale, crushed sheet of flimsiplast parchment…
Looking back to her own adjutant she spoke quickly. “Assemble the Emperor's Council—they’re to meet in the Cabinet right now. And inform Dasco that there are summonses to be sent out to all the Royal Houses in the Capital City. They’re to arrive before midnight.”
As she spoke, Kiria was already stripping the large, many-stoned rings from her fingers.
If he’d listened to her, then none of this would have happened. If he’d arrested the traitor Reece when he knew he was treasonous…an argument if ever she’d heard one for swift and decisive action on the part of an Emperor. But it was done; it was out now—the truth was out, and she could do what she’d always known she’d been placed here to do.
She turned to Jade. “I can turn this to our advantage—if you’ll let me.”
Features pinched against emotions Kiria well understood, Jade hesitated only seconds. “Tell me.”
Within hours Kiria stood at the doors to the massive Winter Hall, an official receiving room close to the Cabinet, its coffered ceilings reflecting hidden illumination down over pale silk-covered walls and onto gilded furnishings, their upholstery palest cream. The whole chamber was a study of light, white on white, immaculate and stately.
Every leading member of every Royal House that held a residence on Coruscant had been contacted—and when you received an invitation from the Imperial Palace, you didn’t refuse. And of course they’d have seen; they’d all have seen the short recording by now. It had spread like wildfire across the HoloNet, unstoppable. But nobody knew the truth yet; nobody was sure.
This was her milieu. This was her strength. She knew these people; she knew how they thought and she knew how they reacted and she knew what they respected and the fears they never voiced. Taking a single breath, clutching her closed hand to her chest, she stepped forward and the wide, high doors swung silently open. A sea of faces turned to watch in expectant silence as she walked the length of the long hall alone. No entourage, nothing to diminish her isolation. And she wore white. She, the Scarlet Empress, wore white, a color she hadn’t worn in years. The gown was simple but refined, a heavy overmantle of dove white, refined and understated, chosen, as the pristine white chamber had been, with great care.
Everything had been carefully orchestrated to inspire and influence those attending, stage-managed by one of their own, in a language they understood.
The room held to silence, the assembled dignitaries stepping back with all due respect to give her a wide aisle as she walked on, chin held high, absolutely the Empress. When she reached the head of the room she moved to the far side of the large white basalt table, carefully positioned for its task tonight. Briefly she glimpsed Mara Jade, standing to one side at the head of the room; visible proof of the Palace’s solidarity in times of turmoil. Turning to the room, Kiria waited a few seconds, more for effect than anything else, sure that she already had their full attention…
Stepping to the flawless basalt table, she opened her clenched hand and dropped its contents–
The Emperor's ring, still ingrained with dry blood, clattered across the white surface, sounding a loud tone as it struck. Rolled up within the ring was the small piece of parchment which had wrapped it, and the fall of the ring knocked it clear so that it unfurled, the wide, spattered stain of blood a dark ruby contrast on the pale white surface.
A susurration of shock travelled through the assembled crowd, growing as it did so, gaining in volume and indignation.
And Kiria knew she had them. Even without the speech she was about to make, she knew she’d fired their outrage and their indignation. That they’d pull behind her and hold together; close ranks against an outside force who’d dared to threaten their Emperor, the pinnacle of their customs and their conventions and their way of life.
She waited as the whispers turned to words, then to shouts; waited until they slowly died down again. “On behalf of the Emperor, I thank you for your attendance here tonight. For your righteous outrage at this turn of events. For your unity, for your support, for your strength...”
It was the speech that nine trusted writers had been dragged awake to write and perfect. The speech that would focus the response of those present and cement the Royal Houses’ commitment to a par with the already-incensed military. A speech to inspire the faithful and rally the cause.
As had been meticulously planned in this carefully orchestrated event, Kiria would make the speech, take the ring, place it upon the finger of her now-unadorned hand, and leave…
And the spattered, scarlet-stained parchment would remain on that flawless white table, a statement as compelling as any words the Empress could speak.
The comms came in slowly at first, in ones and two’s on diplomatic channels, from those who had been present at the Winter Hall. Then three channels were constantly taken, then four, then eight, then twenty, as the images spread across the HoloNet and the word of what had happened at the Palace buzzed through the Ruling Houses, every incoming comm expressing the same thing: outrage. The Royal Houses were doing the one thing that they could be consistently relied on to do—they were closing ranks about one of their own, rallying to the Emperor's cause. He was sacrosanct—untouchable. His position was above any lesser petty machinations.
By dawn a room was set aside to deal with the incoming messages of support as the news spread. Then another. Then another. Every head of every House rallying to the cause of an Emperor whom they now considered one of their own.
As the HoloNet images spread, comms came in from other sources too, in unanticipated numbers. Planetary Representatives, System Governors, Ruling Councils. Every and all support; anything they could offer. Their own systems were already mobilized, the civilian populous up in arms, their indignation fired and fed. Non-humans were incensed; the Emperor who had given them back their rights and their liberty and their dignity, now needed them. Their own territories would be searched and scoured. There would be no safe quarter, no harbor for those who committed such an act.
The official rooms worked through the day to field the calls: statements of solidarity, of loyalty, of unconditional support.
As had become their habit, Mara and Nathan were holed up in Luke's office going through new Intel, as the volume of calls still increased, and Mara had to admit that Kiria had pulled a coup of staggering efficacy. She’d played to the audience she knew pitch-perfect, and the results had been incredible. But the populace at large had been fired up by the provocative images too, with a passion and an outrage that no one had anticipated.
Ever the player, the Scarlet Empress had cancelled all public engagements, but allowed herself to be seen several times through the day. Still dressed in white, still wearing the ring, a living embodiment of the people’s resolve. This particular victory, Mara knew, was completely hers.
And she knew why. She’d achieved so much because she’d played to her strengths...which begged the question: why was Mara not doing the same?
An aide entered to inform them that the Empress required an audience—everyone else requested, Mara knew: only the Empress required. When Kiria entered it was with her typical grace, though she at least had the decency to look tired, Mara reflected.
She bowed politely to Mara, always upholding the protocols she’d grown up with. “I came to ask if you’ve heard about the flags, Madam Regent?”
The slightest of cheerless smiles touched Kiria’s lips. “I'm informed that all system, House and planetary flags are being flown at half-mast across the galaxy—all flags save the Emperor's Lorric.
The Lorric: Luke's flag, always flown from the pennant balcony if he was in residence, and emblazoned, much to his chagrin, on most of the official starships he traveled in.
Because it featured as part of its design a wreath of lorric willow, over time Luke’s flag had come to be known across the galaxy first as the Lorric Flag, and now simply as the Lorric.
He’d hated the whole idea of a coat of arms when he’d been named Heir; thought it pretentious and embarrassing. Had to be coaxed and bullied by Mara into choosing one at all. She’d often wondered privately if he’d have taken a little more time to choose it, had he known he’d see it so often in the future…probably not.
In that same moment, another memory came to Mara which sent a pang of desolate grief through her chest: Luke, teasing her as she’d tried to make him choose, a wicked grin on his face as he’d passed the responsibility to Nathan with the admonition, “Choose it with care—one day soon you may be flying it at half-mast.”
She need only look to Nathan’s own face to know that he’d remembered those self-same words.
D'Arca cut into her thoughts, shrewd as ever. “I’ve ordered all flags on the pennant balcony save the Emperor's Lorric to be flown at half-mast until…until he returns.”
Mara glanced to her, a thought occurring. “Where did this start?”
“In the Royal Houses, Ma'am.”
“Really?” Mara asked. “That wouldn’t be on Borleias, would it? Or Commenor—or Teyr perhaps?”
Kiria smiled at the mention of the planets under control of the House D'Arca. “It’s difficult to say where such things begin,” she said blithely. “It was, however, at none of those planets under direct control of the House D'Arca. I’d never be so brazen.”
Mara narrowed her eyes at the indirect answer, convinced all over again of Kiria's sharp diplomatic mind. Of course she would have been smart enough to avoid any direct link, probably requesting this from one of the House D'Arca's less obvious connections first. The D’Arcas’ sphere of influence ranged from connections by marriage into many prominent Royal Houses through to impressive military ties, and D'Arca would think nothing of calling in any and all favors to bend any facet of this particular fight to her—and therefore Luke's—advantage.
“You think this will help?” Mara asked.
“It’s an unmistakable display of loyalty which is spreading across the galaxy—a very public statement which everyone feels they can take a part in, be a part of. Something which will be subliminally visible everywhere, from Coruscant to Ammuud.”
“Will it get him back?” It was petty, Mara knew, but this had been the fifth dawn in a row that she’d seen the waning night turn to day, and she was achingly tired.
“It will put the matter in the minds of everyone, everywhere.”
“I think the images released by Madine are doing that,” Mara said sourly.
“The images released by Madine have made this solidarity possible,” Kiria said firmly. “They’ve made a great deal possible. Had they not been so…contentious, our task may have been so much harder. As it is, they may turn the tide of public opinion against the Rebellion—and where will they hide then? In fact, it may turn the tide in more ways than one.”
“Everything in life doesn’t eventually come down to a popularity contest, Excellency.”
Kiria lifted her chin. “I’m disappointed, Madam Regent; I thought you knew him so well.”
Mara turned emerald-hard eyes on her. “I knew him a good deal better than you, Excellency. I still do.”
Kiria flashed a cool, tight smile. “I was claiming that I know the Emperor's political agenda. I believe I know some portion of what he intended and therefore what he needed to complete those goals. And forgive me, Madam Regent, but I believe that if he were here right now, he would still hold those goals as paramount. That is what made him an Emperor. And when he comes back, Force help me if I haven’t made every possible use of this outpouring of loyalty in his absence. He’s paid a high price for it already. I consider it my duty to make sure he extracts every last ounce of value from that price, Madam Regent.”
As D'Arca bowed stiffly and turned to leave, Mara’s eye was drawn to her hand; to the single ring she now wore—Luke’s ring. Very conspicuously the only ring she’d claimed she would wear until his return.
She felt a brief pang of jealousy, remembering again the thousand times she’d watched Luke unthinkingly turn the blue-stoned ring about on his little finger using his thumb, when he was lost in thought. Her hand went to her neckline where, unseen beneath her jacket, she’d taken to wearing the black-jeweled Imperial Star which she remembered so vividly Luke wearing on his dress suit, the night that they had danced alone in the shadowed secrecy of the balcony. Tied to a ribbon about her neck, its weight had become a familiar reassurance, a constant reminder.
And somewhere, in some tiny corner of her mind that she resolutely ignored, she couldn’t help but fear that she’d be wearing the same black-stoned Star at his funeral.
Karrde?” It was Aves, Talon Karrde’s second-in-command, leaning in through the door of Karrde’s office onboard the Wilde Karrde with a face like thunder. “You really need to come see this. It got put out viral on the HoloNet less than an hour ago. It’s already everywhere.”
Karrde frowned, rising. “What is it?”
Aves shook his head, reluctant to say. “You need to see it.”
They stood before the holo-projector, watching the basic three-D image of a beaten man lying unconscious on a rough, blood-stained floor. As the image closed on the injured man, curling Karrde’s lip distastefully, a boot came into the corner of the frame and kicked the man over none-too-gently, his head lolling to the side, face barely recognizable. The image held on the Emperor’s battered face for far too long before hands still marked by his blood came in towards his scuffed left hand, which had fallen loosely down across his chest, prizing from his finger a large-stoned ring set into a heavy bezel, the indigo blue of the stone almost completely obscured by a slick of dark blood.
“…time is now over; the Alliance to Restore the Republic has brought it to an end. In seven days’ time, we will bring the Empire’s unjust system of absolute rule to a conclusive end—one that we will share with the entire…”
Karrde watched the run of images without reaction for the fifth time now, emotions pulled in tight as they always were, jaw flexing. Around him, sporting equally grave expressions, were Aves, Chin and Tapper.
“Guess this explains why half the Imperial fleet is mobilized and breakin’ off from normal routines,” Aves said grimly into Karrde’s silence, talking over the synthesized voice-over which was claiming responsibility on behalf of the Rebel Alliance and hinting none too subtly at an escalation of intent. “And why they’re shakin’ down every informer between here and the Rim.”
“That’s a Rebel flightsuit,” Karrde said coolly at last, big arms folded across his chest.
“You sure?” Aves narrowed his eyes as he leaned in. There were few people in Karrde’s organization who were trusted enough to know the identity of their primary client, and all of them were all crowded into the communications suite right now, staring at the screen, equal looks of grim appraisal from each of them. “ ‘Cos is it me, or does this seem insanely rash for an organization that’s been pushed pretty much out into the Rim in the last few years?”
“Yeah, and who exactly did that?” Tapper prompted, eyes still on the screen.
Aves wasn’t buying. “Wouldn’t be the same Emperor who just let Rebel pilots fly away from that failed raid at Fondor, would it?”
“Do you know any other organization who has grey-blue flightsuits?” Karrde said, keying for the image to repeat. “And look where the Group patches were—you can see where they took them off. That’s an A-Wing flightsuit.”
“A flightsuit would be easy to get hold of,” Aves said, leaning in slightly to study the image. “Nice subtle little pointer if you’re trying to blame the Rebellion.”
“Has there been anything from confirmed Rebel sources in the last hour?” Karrde asked, watching again.
“No, and you want to know what else is weird? This one has most of, but not all, the official coded authenticity bursts at the beginning and end,” Tapper said.
“So this is mostly, but not completely legit?” Karrde drawled sardonically.
Aves was right though; strange that it would be the Rebels who did this, not so very long after Fondor. And it really wasn't their style. By and large, he believed they pretty much meant all that talk they put out about the higher values of the Old Republic…would they really beat a man unconscious and then proudly paste it all over the HoloNet? No, didn’t ring true.
“HoloNet’s lit up like a hyperdrive from here to Amuud,” Chin said distractedly. “They reckon it’ll collapse soon.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t shut it down already,” Karrde murmured.
How were they even holding him? You wanted to hold a Sith, you sure as hell needed a very special cage… A cell to hold a Sith…
Karrde abruptly remembered the discussion he’d had with the Emperor months earlier, when he’d first heard that there was a request out for a set of blueprints detailing a purpose-built cell installed on the SSD Executor. The Emperor had given Karrde a set of the plans to use as bait to lure out the buyer. Karrde remembered claiming at the time that he’d thought it may well be the Rebellion—and they had seemed the obvious choice…at the time. Now, after Fondor, Karrde wasn’t so sure. He felt abruptly relieved that the deal to supply the buyer with the plans had fallen through and this was none of his doing, even unintentionally.
And speaking of intentions… Karrde turned quickly, looking to Aves. “That contact about the cell, where did we get the word to go?”
“What?” Aves frowned, thrown by Karrde’s out of the blue question, his eyes still drawn by morbid fascination to watch the short replaying of the image from the HoloNet as it repeated over and over again.
“The plans for the cell onboard the Executor, remember—we made contact, we got co-ordinates, a meet was arranged to drop them off, then the buyer cancelled… Where did the buyer's comms come in from? Ghent put a back-door in the relay station to track them.”
“I can check,” Aves said doubtfully.
“Do that,” Karrde said. “And Aves, while you’re at it, start putting some inquiries out. The Corellian—the one who we took off the Patriot a few years back…”
There weren’t many Rebels Karrde knew—it would, after all, be a tad of a liability considering his primary client—but he had the name of one, and as it turned out the one he actually knew and who knew him, had ended up pretty close to the top of the pile.
“Solin? Or should I say Solo,” Aves said dryly.
They’d done a few checks, of course—kept a few useful images from the internal security system of the Wilde Karrde’s shuttle when they’d taken the unknown man off the Patriot at the Emperor’s request. Turned out Lieutenant Solin was actually one Han Solo. Turned out he seemed to have more than one allegiance, which was rare for a Corellian. Karrde had kept an eye on Solo after that, curious as to what exactly was going on, and everything he’d heard pointed to the man being a Rebel Flight Commander with what seemed like very highly placed acquaintances on the either side of the divide.
It hadn’t failed to occur to Karrde that without the Emperor to make direct contact with, he had little to no chance of making some Imperial bureaucrat or dyed-in-the-wool career General listen to him… But he was willing to bet that Solo would, because every Corellian knew that in a tight corner, you took help wherever the hell you could get it. “That’s the one. He flies a YT freighter named the Millennium Falcon. Find it.”
Click here to continue