In Shadows and Darkness
"It is shadows whose edge define the light
At the brink of the dawn and the darkness."
Extract from The Son of Suns Prophesy,(Jedi Master Egorin Dovas translation; 3/14,159 -minus.)
Engraved into the Sunburst Throne (The Seat of Prophesy) circa 23,711 -minus.
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Leia woke in the dead of night, the vaguest of ghostly shapes defining the twisted bulk of massive trees crowded in about her and stretching far above the small clearing where she stood, twisted branches blocking out the light of distant stars.
When she looked down again, Mon Mothma was standing before her, so close Leia could have reached out and taken her hands…
Dry, dead leaves rustled in the darkness close by and she knew…she knew what prowled in the night.
“Don’t look,” Leia whispered urgently to Mon, her words turning to mist in the frigid air. “Don’t look it in the eye. If you don’t look it won’t attack.”
They remained still, Leia’s eyes locked on Mon’s as it slipped silently across the clearing, the wiry sable of its fur brushing against her leg so close did it stalk about them, clinging to Leia like a shadow. And yet…afraid as she was, she knew—she knew—that if she didn’t look, it wouldn’t attack.
A dry branch cracked like bone and Mon’s gaze flickered…
“Don’t look!” Leia whispered urgently.
But Mon glanced down, eyes widening—and the growl that the black wolf loosed from the back of its throat was wild and feral, grating up Leia’s spine and setting hairs on end, her breath catching in her throat.
It lunged past her in a blur too quick to follow, black against black in the shadows of the night, Leia’s loose hair whipping forward with the violence of its passing as she flinched…
And Mon was gone. In an instant—no struggle, no noise—she just…fell away into the dense shadows, though Leia knew what had taken her.
And she was left alone, the constant rustle of the wind dragging through the tall, twisted trees stealing away the sound of its presence as the black wolf melted like a ghost into the night, a shadow in darkness, the sound of its howl sending an involuntary shiver up her spine and shocking her awake with a jolt…
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Wide-eyed and breathless, Leia lay staring into the darkness of her sleeping quarters, slowly gathering her thoughts as her breathing slowed, reassuring herself that it was just a dream—just another dream. Beside her, Han stirred in his sleep momentarily before settling to silence, and she rolled over, pulling the covers over chilled skin, tired to the bone but unable now to drift back to sleep, knowing that it would be there if she did.
It was always there in the shadows of her dreams, at the corners of her mind, ever since the destruction of Alderaan six years ago. Some…elemental link bound them together, she and the black wolf, as deep and as compelling and as irresistible as the turning of the universe. It would always be there, no matter what else happened. She knew that absolutely in every fiber of her body. No matter what beliefs she held to and what fell away, whether she acknowledged it or denied it, it would remain forever a part of her.
It would always be there—like shadows in darkness.
The Lambda-class shuttle glided silently through the void between the two Super-class Star Destroyers, the Honor Guard of twelve TIE’s hardly necessary this close to the Core Worlds. As it flew, it slowly rotated on its axis to correct its path in relation to its intended destiny, the SSD Peerless, which maintained position at a twenty-degree roll to the SSD Executor, the shuttle’s origin.
Generally, it was standard practice for two military ships in close quarters to maintain a synchronous axis, the lesser ship rotating to match the higher ranking one. In this case, the two ships were both Flagships, one of the Core Fleet, the other of the Rim Fleet, each carrying their relative Fleet Commander-in-Chief, so that neither was prepared to give way to the other. It was a subtle little game, both Fleet Admirals unwilling to concede on behalf of their own CIC, neither so impolitic as to mention this out loud, and if the relative CIC’s had noted the stubbornness, they had chosen not to mention it.
So Vader did not speak as the Peerless seemed to rotate in the black void of space before him, an optical illusion caused by correcting the pitch and yaw of the small Lambda shuttle he was on to match the looming bulk of the Peerless, the distant, glowing orb of Duro tiny by comparison to the closing hulk of the massive Super Star Destroyer.
Nor did he remark when the Core Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief was not present at the full Honor Reception of perfectly turned-out troops of the 701st who lined the landing bay even at short notice, since the attendance of the Core Fleet Admiral meant that official protocol had been strictly adhered to—in theory at least.
Admiral Joss bowed politely to Lord Vader rather than salute him, Vader’s status in the Emperor’s household outranking even his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Rim Fleet. Joss had to turn quickly, however, since Vader stalked past without acknowledgement. “Lord Vader. May I welcome you aboard on behalf of the Comman—”
“Where is he?” Vader growled, his bass voice reverberating through the cavernous hanger.
“The Commander is on the bridge at present—perhaps you’d like to accompany me there?” As he said this, Admiral Joss was forced to practically run to keep pace with Vader, who had slowed his pace not a whit.
The turbolift door opened onto the bustling bridge, all eyes lifting momentarily as it did, the slight susurration of unease at Vader’s presence testament to the fact that their own CIC of the last two years was equally difficult to handle when the mood was on him. Vader walked forward without hesitation, betraying none of the agitation or anticipation he always felt when in the presence of the Core Fleet Commander, known everywhere only by his rank, never by his name.
Never his name—he had other names now, all carefully chosen by the Emperor over the last three years and each with a purpose, either tactically or for his own amusement. His feral Jedi, his wild Wolf, Commander of his Fleet, but never his own name—his real name.
So few knew it now, but in private, Vader made a point of referring to him by it. To remind him who he was, who Vader was—what they were to each other. He knew how uncomfortable the boy was to hear it, and some needle of that pricked at Vader's own memories—of his own name, his own secrets, his own identity, long since abandoned in payment for the power Darkness offered. He didn’t want that for the young Fleet Commander standing to the far end of the bridge, and more than most, Vader felt he had a vested interest, having been so instrumental in his rise to power.
Vader was, he believed, very much entitled to make such decisions on the young man’s behalf, despite the boy’s resentment of this. Entitled to decide what should and should not be sacrificed for the greater goal. And he was willing to accede a great deal—to force the boy to do the same, regardless of his own desires or consent. Neither was particularly necessary in Vader’s carefully laid plans.
But there were some things he wouldn’t sacrifice, and the boy’s name—his identity, his sense of self—was one of them.
Everything that he had once wanted for himself, Vader now intended for the boy: power, position… And Darkness would offer it—at a price. But when he achieved everything Vader planned for him—and so for Vader himself—then it would be in his name. In their name.
He wanted it for the individual—not for the Darkness which gave the power to take it. He wanted it for the man. For his son.
For Luke Skywalker.
He stood now before the wide bank of viewpanes speaking to his Generals, though he knew Vader had entered the bridge; would have sensed when he boarded the Peerless, even without constant comm updates from his own carefully recruited clique of loyal officers.
The ever-present Mara Jade turned to glance down the main walkway toward Vader, green eyes ablaze. Part bodyguard, part Aide, certainly the eyes and ears of Palpatine, she disliked Vader with a vengeance—but the feeling was mutual. Vader remained uneasy at her presence so close to his son—at Luke’s apparent trust. Though his spies told him that this had its limits; Luke had learned to trust no one in the past year as Commander of the Core Fleet, least of all those close to him. But like his Master the Emperor, he seemed a great proponent of the old adage to keep one’s friends close—and one’s enemies closer.
Vader glanced at her for only a second, his eyes drawn inexorably to his son. Oh, he was so much like Anakin now—slim and lithe, strong and straight. He dressed in black, hair wild and loose, long enough to fall into soft, unruly curls. So much like Anakin…
Absolutely in command here, on the bridge of his Destroyer, all activity centering around him. So very different from the callow, idealistic youth Vader had brought to the Emperor almost three years ago, which made it barely twenty-four years since Padmé’s…
Vader broke the thought automatically, unwilling to allow his memories to follow that path, instead turning his attention to the man who watched him now with such wary animosity, as stubborn and as wilful and as headstrong as Padmé had ever been.
Realization of their son’s existence after all this time had been one of the most momentous events in Vader's life. His decision to take the boy to Palpatine, forced by Luke’s rebuff in Cloud City, had in retrospect probably been one of the most ill-considered, and he had spent the last three years trying to undo the damage done by the Emperor’s involvement in the boy’s conversion. To little effect in truth; Palpatine held his son so completely in his power now that nothing Vader said seemed to get through to the boy, his mind poisoned by his Master’s contriving manipulations.
And Palpatine was hardly about to give any ground. The boy’s power was incredible, and still developing. He had yet to find his limits, save for his own self-doubt, which Palpatine alternately fed and criticized, his command of Luke requiring its control but his fascination with the boy’s power driving him to test its limits constantly. Why Luke had not already challenged his new Master remained a mystery to Vader; the boy’s powers equaled Palpatine’s now, and if Vader knew this then Luke must too…but something held him back. Something always held him back.
Sooner or later though, Palpatine would push the boy too far and he would turn on his Master with a vengeance. Could he take the Emperor down? Accomplish what Vader never had?
Absolutely. Vader had complete, unconditional faith in that fact—even if his son did not.
Was this pride? Was it possible to feel such for a son who called him father only to remind him of how far away the reality of their relationship really was? Because he still held aspirations for his son—the driving ambition to see him on the Emperor’s throne one day. Was pride not part of that? He did not love—Darkness could not love. He had loved Padmé and she had loved him…once. But they had destroyed each other…as he had destroyed everything of value in his life.
Even his son. He knew that—he wasn’t blind.
He knew how completely he had betrayed Luke in handing him over to Palpatine, fully aware of what the Emperor would do in order to convert and control him; that he would break the boy to pieces physically and mentally in order to dominate and possess, to make that power his own. But he had given his son every chance to embrace the Darkness which would augment his emerging abilities, every chance to acknowledge and instigate his own destiny, and had been refused. What was left to Vader but to take him to the only man who could possibly accomplish what he could not—by force, if necessary. It had been…unexpectedly difficult—disturbing in its ruthless severity. An unforeseen complication.
Who would have thought that the boy would be so obstinate, so committed to those who had done nothing more noble than use him and lie to him. Palpatine had been forced to invest long, grueling months in breaking the boy, finding it necessary to destroy him completely in order to build his new Sith. And during that process he had very deliberately severed any link between father and son, binding Luke to his new Master completely. Considering his appalling maltreatment, his relentless manipulation and harsh indoctrination by Palpatine, the boy should have been an empty shell, a willing slave, nothing left but diffident obedience. But he had risen above it, like a phoenix from the flames. Even Darkness couldn’t destroy him.
That was how powerful he was.
He was the only thing of value which Vader had ever created in his life.
And of that…he was proud.
His son turned, glancing up momentarily as Vader slowed to a halt before him. He towered over the boy, as he did over most humans, though Luke remained not in the least intimidated. Their saber duel two years earlier in the Imperial Palace had settled all scores and clarified only four months after his conversion just how much power Luke had already gleaned from his new status as a Sith. He had nothing left to prove, least of all to his father.
“Lord Vader.” He nodded curtly in acknowledgement.
He never referred to his father as such in public, another of Palpatine’s little manipulations, all references to Luke’s identity having been removed from public records, replaced by rumors and falsehoods and misdirections.
The boy didn’t particularly care to correct them; he had long since abandoned his old life, though he seemed to Vader equally uninvolved with his new one. He went through the motions as was required, but very much like his father he remained pointedly uninvolved with Court and the machinations and power-plays of Palace life, avoiding them whenever possible in favor of his involvement with the Fleet.
Ever paranoid, Palpatine still contrived to keep his new Sith close at hand however, keeping him confined to the Palace on Coruscant for over a year after his conversion, before finally granting him command of the Core Fleet. But even now, almost two years later, he was never allowed outside of the Core and Colony Systems which he commanded in the Emperor’s name. And even here, Luke’s interests lay not with the acquisition and dispensation of power, but in the complexities of management required to maintain and subjugate the massive diversity of planets and cultures in the densely packed Core Systems, consciously losing himself in the minutia rather than stepping back to acknowledge the greater picture—both of his position within the Fleet and of his life.
“We need to speak,” Vader said simply, never one to procrastinate, having never been in a position where such was necessary, considering his status.
Luke’s pale blue eyes remained guarded as he studied his father for long moments, then the slightest of gestures tilted his head to the side as he acknowledged the request and turned, heading for his private ready-room to the rear of the bridge. Vader followed, noting that Jade also fell into step.
They entered the large, grey, featureless office, the boy walking to stand before the wide span of the desk there and turning to face Vader’s looming form as Mara Jade slipped into the room behind them.
Luke had worn black today and in view of his visitor, was regretting it.
Despite the Emperor’s preference for his inner elite, Luke generally chose to wear darkest blue, a half-shade away from black, but away nonetheless, the subtlest of independence expressed even here. The impeccable cut of his clothes remained almost but never quite a military uniform, a tiny sliver of white at the high stand-collar of his fitted, side-fastening jacket, the top three fasteners undone, giving a more casual air. At first glance they seemed such insignificant expressions of dissent given his position, but he held to them. Appearances were important here, and he’d long since learned that in his Master’s rigidly controlled world, the subtlest of divergences could cause incredible ripples. Elusive power plays and political subterfuge were not his forte—but he was learning.
“You have something to say which couldn’t be spoken over the HoloNet?” Luke asked pointedly of his father now.
He tried hard to discourage any face-to-face meetings; everything he had to say to his father he’d said long ago, and it was he and not Vader who would have to answer to Palpatine when he found out they had met. Which he would—there were two of his Master’s spies on the bridge; three in fact, if Luke included Lieutenant Wez Reece, who had long since swapped allegiance, though of course he still had to report most of Luke’s dealings to the Emperor to avoid suspicion.
Vader didn’t speak, only turned pointedly to Mara, who lifted her chin, unimpressed. She was one of the few who knew what Vader really was to him, Luke having consciously robbed his Master of whatever machinations he had in play long ago by choosing to tell her himself. Indirectly of course, the act appearing a momentary slip rather than a conscious defiance—he’d long since learned that lesson too. Now he turned immediately to Jade.
“Mara?” he invited simply, and she walked from the room with the slightest of bows, conspicuously choosing to acknowledge Luke before his father.
Luke waited until the door had closed before speaking again. “Well?” If his father was not in the habit of prevaricating, then Luke was well able to match him.
“This room is safe?” Vader asked.
“You have a new infiltrator in your command staff.”
“You mean Ogo?” Luke prompted of the new Security Officer who had been assigned to the Peerless only two months earlier. Her record was impeccable of course, but records could be faked. Luke had done so himself many times now in order to place his own spies. Vader said nothing, but Luke sensed the slight fluctuation in the Force and was pleased that he’d been able to come back with her name. “Yes, she’s good, but a little too…excessive in her sense of duty.”
“Then why is she still here?” Vader referred to his son’s habit, much like his own, of removing on principle unwanted spies placed by the Emperor in positions close to him in the most permanent way possible.
“She’s useful to pass on information of my choice at present. When she outlives that usefulness…” Luke shrugged, unmoved.
Both men remained where they were for long moments, Luke knowing that this was not why his father had come here and prepared to wait him out, refusing to blink before that blank, glaring mask.
“You are playing a very dangerous game,” Vader said at last.
Without seeming to move, Luke’s stance turned from waiting to wary. “I’m always playing dangerous games. Which one are you referring to?”
“Using forged access codes to smuggle communiqués out of the Palace.”
Luke’s expression changed not a whit, but his mind was racing now; if Vader knew, then others may also know, and he needed to maintain that line of contact. He glanced down, considering, hoping to buy time or redirect his father. “And who would you have close enough to me to know that?”
“Irrelevant,” Vader stated flatly, refusing to be drawn. “The important fact is that I do—and it will cease.”
That brought Luke’s eyes back up to his father, his innate stubbornness kicking in though it was, if not mastered, then at least tempered by the experiences of the last three years. “I don’t think so,” he said resolutely.
Every meeting with his father was a contest to some degree. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost, but he seldom backed down without a very good reason—it wasn’t in his nature.
Nor was it in his father’s. “Then you wish me to bring it to the Emperor’s attention?”
Luke hesitated, pushing past the freezing burst of adrenaline at this ultimate threat, knowing that the punishment for such subversion would be extreme—but even before this he didn't yet concede, mind racing to pull the pieces together.
In truth it was unlikely that Vader would take this to the Emperor if he hadn’t already done so; to do so now would require him to admit that he had approached Luke beforehand, which their ever-paranoid Master would consider a damning betrayal on Vader’s part. Palpatine knew he was breaking every lore of the Sith by holding more than one advocate; history had illustrated time and again the dangers inherent in balancing the ambitions and power struggles which resulted, and the blood connection between Luke and his father made their cautious Master obsessively distrustful. More than anything else, Palpatine would tolerate no connection between father and son; he had made that very clear again and again, usually at Luke’s expense. But this would be unmistakably his father’s doing. It wouldn’t change the fact that Luke had been smuggling illicit communiqués—wouldn’t save him from Palpatine’s wrath—but it would mean that he would take Vader down with him this time.
“Who are you passing the information to?” Vader demanded, interrupting Luke’s thoughts.
So he didn’t know everything; if he didn’t know their recipient then likely he didn’t know their content, which meant he hadn’t cracked their code—possibly that he didn’t even have the messages, only the second-hand knowledge that they were being sent.
“That’s none of your business,” Luke said simply, looking casually away.
“Everything that you do is my business.”
That was a step too far and Luke felt his hackles impulsively rise at it, eyes narrowing as his muscles tightened… Then the brief burst of emotion was gone and he turned calmly away and walked behind the desk to sit, his voice cool and disengaged, the momentary flare of resentment giving him the nerve to call Vader’s bluff.
“If you wish to take it to the Emperor, then do so,” Luke said at last without even bothering to look to his father, tone composed and even.
“I wish you to stop doing it,” Vader repeated, having no real counter now that Luke had called him on it.
“Which I’m not going to—so do what you must.”
Vader stepped forward, though the wide desk stopped him from coming too close to his unresponsive son, his tone derisory. “You won’t beat him by playing him at his own game. You’re playing to his strengths.”
“Thank you for the advice,” Luke said distantly, eyes to the automemo on his desk. He neither wanted nor needed his father’s involvement in his life—and he certainly wasn’t going to be preached to by a man who had stood in the Emperor’s shadow for the last two and a half decades.
Vader stared down, indignation and exasperation fairly blasting out of him now. He had no idea, Luke knew, none whatsoever, of how to speak to him, except in the way that he dealt with everyone else—as a menial or an adversary. Someone to order and dismiss, intimidate or oppress as he saw fit.
“I made you what you are,” he asserted, voice clipped in anger.
That brought Luke’s eyes up, burning with accusation. “Do you expect gratitude?!”
“I expect respect!” Vader slammed his clenched fist down on the desk, making its contents jump.
Luke only smiled tightly, amused that he could instill such blind frustration, his final barb delivered with acerbic dismissal. “Respect is earned.”
For a split-second, Luke thought his father would actually lunge forward for him, his own muscles tightening in response, regretting sitting now, aware of the vulnerability of his position. But then he hadn’t expected his words to elicit such a response, and already now some uneasy pang whispered, so that it was he who lowered his gaze, not in submission and certainly not in guilt, but regret, on some level.
He sighed quietly, rubbing at his eyes, uncertain as to how he could feel even the slightest trace of compassion for the man who had caused nothing but pain and misery to him, frustrated that he allowed himself such weakness, yet completely unable to do otherwise. Such heated discussions as this were perhaps the nearest his father ever came to expressing some sense of protection for his son… Or should Luke open his eyes and see it for what it really was—a protection of his investment, nothing more?
“If you want to help me then tell me who Lieutenant Reece’s watcher is,” Luke said quietly at last, speaking of the deep-cover agent placed by Palpatine to watch even his own most trusted agents such as Reece and Mara, both of whom were permanently assigned to Luke, supposedly as Aides, more correctly as spies. Luke had the identity of Mara’s watcher, but more importantly he needed Reece’s, and repeated searches had come up blank.
Vader tempered his own voice just slightly in reaction to his son’s, but he didn’t concede—and he wouldn’t, not on this. “I won’t help you to play these foolish, ill-conceived games. Palpatine owns everything on Coruscant. He sees everything. You know that.”
“We’re not on Coruscant.” Luke said levelly.
“And you think that will protect you?”
“No, I think knowing my enemies will protect me.” Luke stared into his father’s resolute silence, his own frustration beginning to rise again. “Either help me or get out of my way.”
Vader remained silent and unmoving, only feeding Luke’s resentment. It was, after all, Vader who had instigated this—all of it.
It was Vader who had brought Luke to Palpatine thinking he could use his own son to solve the problems he hadn’t the willpower or the capability to resolve for himself, and in doing so destroyed Luke’s life completely without even a moment’s hesitation or guilt. He didn’t see his son when he looked at Luke, not really—he saw an advantage to realize all of his goals with none of the risk and sought to use it, just as Palpatine did, with neither consideration nor remorse. And until he believed that he had guaranteed control, Vader remained always duplicitous and undependable, aiding or hindering Luke as it suited his own ends, often erring on the side of greatest power in giving empty loyalty and lip service to the man he wished to depose.
And Luke was tired of it.
He rose, eyes locked on Vader’s—no mask could hide his father’s eyes from him. “It will come down to this—sooner or later it will come down to this one fact: him or me. I won’t do what you want, it’s not going to happen. I have my own mind and I have my own agendas. But you’re still eventually gonna have to make that decision—him or me. I’d start thinking it over if I were you because one day you’ll have to take a side. You forced it on me without compunction, well get ready, because it’s coming to you now. Which will it be, father? Make a choice.”
Mara’s eyes narrowed as Vader strode from Skywalker’s ready-room and off the bridge without pausing. She didn’t bother to follow him, Admiral Joss and Commander Reece already setting forward; they all knew that Skywalker would go ballistic if he found out that Vader or any of his crew had been allowed to wander the Peerless alone. Instead, Mara headed back to the ready-room, pausing to knock lightly before pressing the release.
Skywalker stood at the far side of the room, hands clasped behind his straight back, staring out into space. Or so it seemed—she’d fallen for this trick many times in the past and knew him too well now to be fooled.
He had positioned himself so that he was able to see the door in the reflection of the transparisteel pane, watching her enter. In truth he needed only call on the Force to know her emotions or intent, but he used this method of studying without turning mostly on those who had Force abilities of their own and so would know if he was reading them and shield themselves in response. Though Mara’s own grasp of the Force was limited, one of the few things the Emperor had taught her well was how to shield her own thoughts. Despite her suspicions that he was able to break through her shields, Skywalker seldom actually did so—more as a matter of courtesy through familiarity than anything else she suspected, much as she would like to believe otherwise.
Like Reece, Mara had remained with Skywalker from the beginning, both ostensibly operating as something between aides and bodyguards, and she and Skywalker had reached a kind of informal status-quo quite quickly, each learning to operate around the other’s restrictions, neither so impolitic as to mention this directly to the other.
The first year and a half of his new life, Skywalker had been a constant trial, alternately listless and disinterested, holing up in the same three rooms to the back of his extensive quarters for weeks, even months at a time, then tearing about the Palace like a vornskr with a sore head, striking out at anyone who came close when he was summoned to attend Court by Palpatine, who had never once stopped baiting and chastising, provoking and punishing, until one or the other of them cracked and the game began afresh.
It was the event of his promotion to the military which had finally settled Skywalker into his new life—or rather, Mara suspected, the attendant freedoms which came with it. As Commander-in-Chief of the Core Fleet, Skywalker had gained relatively free access out of Coruscant, even though the Emperor had placed a strict veto on his leaving the Core and Colony systems. To Mara’s mind it was a pointless restriction; in the first place, he was traveling with the Core Fleet, so was hardly likely to come to any harm, and in the second, placing any restriction further out than the actual Imperial Palace was academic, since if Skywalker intended to leave, he had proved very early on in his association with the Emperor that pretty much nothing could stop him.
In truth she suspected that this condition was just another round in the eternal game that the Emperor played with his Jedi, though these days they weren’t quite the one-sided affairs that they had been in the past, the stakes rising subtly over time as Skywalker learned his craft and his opponent, making each victory on the Emperor’s part a little harder won. Yet Palpatine always enjoyed the challenge. He alternately adored his ‘feral Jedi,’ heaping gifts and power and accolades upon him, then turned on him with a vengeance, finding fault in the slightest transgression, his temper mercurial, his punishment always extreme.
And Skywalker took it all with equal withdrawn indifference, never involved, always impassive and aloof, equally wary of praise and punishment both.
This was his retribution on his Master, and he knew it drove Palpatine to distraction—and he knew why; knew his Master’s particular obsession. He wasn’t blind and he certainly wasn’t naïve anymore, Mara knew. Nor was he above playing to the Emperor’s weakness—to a point. But he remained forever distant and detached, always reserved, always removed, well aware of the dangers inherent in the game he played.
Because eventually Palpatine would lash out in frustration…and Skywalker would endure it without protest—even incite it—until that too became part of the contest. The vernacular of a familiar language with which they were both chillingly conversant. Because for Luke it meant that he had scored a blow; he had provoked in Palpatine the same impotent frustration that his Master took such great pleasure in inflicting on others.
That his proof of this came in the form of violent reprisals deterred him not in the least, even Mara could see that. He suffered in the moment—terribly sometimes; she had seen the proof etched into his skin, scars upon scars now—but the ability to trigger that reaction, no matter how severe, was his triumph. And Palpatine was always pulled back in for one more skirmish. She knew her master well enough to know that this veiled tension was what he thrived on; any interaction with his Jedi was rewarding, but this battle of wills had become a fascination bordering on obsession.
And Skywalker just kept on pushing. Partly because it was in his nature to be headstrong and stubborn, but also because deep down, Mara suspected that he believed he deserved no better. In this they fed each other.
Now Mara remained just inside the door, uncertain of the Commander’s frame of mind; visits by his father often induced quicksilver swings between seething rage and bleak melancholy. Knowing he was watching her reflection, she glanced back meaningfully in the direction which Vader had just exited. “What did he want?”
“He is Lord Vader,” the Commander corrected without turning, a warning to Mara to correct her tone when referring to his father. Though there was no love lost between them, Mara knew that Skywalker would tolerate no disrespect from others towards his father.
She also hadn’t failed to note that it was an effective avoidance of the question, and since Mara hadn’t the authority to demand an answer from the Emperor’s Jedi, if he hadn’t chosen to reply the first time, he certainly wouldn’t do so if she tried to rephrase it and ask again. As it turned out, he didn’t even give her a chance.
“Bring the ship about. Join up with the Fury and the Dominant and resume course to Neimoidia. Alter lightspeed calculations to take account of our delay.”
“Of course, Commander,” Mara acknowledged, letting the moment go; she would try again later when he was in a better frame of mind. “What should I enter into the ship’s log as the reason for the delay?”
He turned to her, clearly amused by the uncharacteristic lack of subtlety in the question. Mara knew she was probably closer to him than anyone else in his life at present, yet there were still gaping chasms between them, measured by wary amity and divided loyalties. “The truth, Mara. I’m sure the Emperor expects no less from you.”
Luke remained hidden away in the privacy of his ready-room as the Super Star Destroyer came about, its companions visible for a short time as they lined up in preparation for the jump to hyperspace, tiny fleeting glimpses of TIE’s catching the sharp light of Duro’s sun, dwarfed by the Star Destroyers’ bulk as they headed for the safety of their relative ships for the jump.
He should have been out on the bridge, but the meeting with his father had left him uneasy and edgy, as they tended to do, and to go out onto the bridge now would only invite some poor, nervous unfortunate to err beneath his exacting gaze and bring his wrath down upon them. Better to stay here and cool down; his reputation was harsh enough without underlining it.
Because his Master continued to place spies within his Command Destroyer, Luke continued to play the endless game of removing them as and when he saw fit under the guise of frustration at some apparent failure in their duties, suspecting very much that his reputation for running through fleet officers at a rate of knots was in truth for the same reasons as his father—a thinly disguised method of replacing Palpatine's spies with his own loyal recruits.
There were those of course, whom he never removed. Some by dint of converted loyalties, some in the belief that it was better the devil you knew, and a few who had gained some measure of immunity through familiarity. Which of these categories Mara Jade inhabited remained very much under question. It had been the latter two which had defined their relationship for the three years that Luke had been here, but he still held out some distant hope that it may become the first—to some degree. Every ounce of rational intelligence told him to abandon this thought but some tiny spark of conviction remained, which was why he allowed her so close, even knowing that she was his Master’s informer, her limited ability in the Force enabling her to communicate information and receive orders from Palpatine at surprising distances.
Still, he was still expecting at some future date to sense that grating burst of presence in the Force which meant that his Master had made contact, and turn just in time to see her bring her assassin’s knife up to his throat…
The slight stomach-churning lunge as artificial gravity rushed to compensate for incredible speed marked the Peerless’s jump to hyperspace, the stars outside streaking to infinity as they outran the sluggish drag of light. Luke stared blankly out into the void, completely unmoved by the spectacle which he had imagined a hundred thousand times as a boy, still locked to the dry deserts of Tatooine. Tatooine—it had been a long, long way from there to here, measured in lost souls and broken dreams rather than lightyears and parsecs…
He turned quickly away, aware that he was dropping into this melancholy state simply as a reaction to his father’s visit, glancing about the featureless grey walls of the room—he never bothered to add any kind of human touch to his surroundings here; what was the point? It was in reality little more than a prison. Carefully disguised of course—Palpatine awarded his precious Jedi the illusion of freedom but they both knew the truth...in this at least.
But there were other secrets, greater lies... Luke had, after all, learned at the feet of a master. Learned to conceal, walls within walls, to twist the truth just enough to serve his own ends without ever resorting to lies. To appreciate the irony of every lesson learned.
Because the freedoms his Master so judiciously doled out when he had awarded his Jedi command of the Core System Fleet, enabling Luke to escape the stifling restrictions of Palace life on Coruscant as well as his Master’s close presence, were in truth granted on the strength of an unknown lie. A lie committed three years earlier and reinforced many, many times since that fateful duel between his father and himself. A lie that Luke was more than happy to have his Master believe; he could assume whatever he wanted as long as it bought Luke the freedom he craved…
Only it was never quite that. Palpatine never let his prized ‘Wolf’ run completely free. He simply awarded a longer chain. And even that would be snatched back in an instant if Palpatine knew the truth—because what freedoms Luke was allowed were based on Palpatine’s belief that he controlled his new Sith absolutely—and in many ways he did, Luke acknowledged that fact. But one of the cornerstones of that belief was his Master’s conviction that Luke had stayed the lightsaber blow that would have killed his father because of Palpatine’s direct command—that his order had overridden Luke’s one driving desire.
The truth—and Luke had learned long ago to hide such things from his Master’s searching mind—the real truth was that Palpatine’s shouts and orders as that duel came to its explosive conclusion had affected Luke not one whit. If he had wanted to kill Vader he would have done so, and faced the consequences. It had, after all, been his intention when he initiated the duel.
But something else had stayed his hand that day—some hidden spark, some muted cry. He hadn’t killed his father because in that moment…he couldn’t. Despite everything he believed he’d thought, everything he thought still…he couldn’t bring himself to land that blow.
Was he weak? Yes, and he hated himself for it. But then he hated himself for so many things—this was simply one more, lost in the crowd and easy to ignore. He didn’t think about them anymore. It was too hard and they were too many.
Palpatine believed him fearless because he would answer any challenge, take any risk, throw himself against any enemy without hesitation.
“My Feral Jedi,” his Master called him so indulgently, as if this were a commendation rather than a curse—“My Wild Wolf.”
In truth all he craved was a quick death. The chains his Master had so diligently wrapped about his fallen Jedi, mind and soul both, precluded any easier option, but if he was too bound to do the job himself, then others were queuing up for the privilege, and though his Master had taught him well, Luke had to believe that there was someone out there who was faster or more committed than himself.
And eventually, he would face them.
He had no illusions—they were too close to hope, and that was long lost.
Leia leaned in, studying the image closely, Mon Mothma and General Madine doing the same.
Taken secretly from a distance with no sound, hand-held and compressed to smuggle it out, the grainy 2-D image showed three Lambda-class shuttles settling to a smooth landing, twelve of the Empire’s new Interatmospheric TIE fighters overflying in tight formation as they did so. From the first two shuttles, full squads of stormtroopers marched in perfect unison—the 701st, Leia recognised, from the dark blue pauldron on their shoulders. They formed two wide double-lines at the entrance ramp of the third shuttle, Neimoidia’s official representatives shuffling nervously as the ramp lowered.
A man walked down, long cloak billowing in the fierce wind, high collar turned up. Following him were the same two humans who accompanied him everywhere—a tall, wide-built man with dark hair and olive skin and a lithe, slim redhead with the kind of athletic frame and bearing that suggested a lifetime of training, her eyes everywhere, always tensed for action. The cloaked man strode forward confidently, completely at ease, indisputably in command.
Leia frowned, squinting at the image of the man she had known so well—and not at all.
“Were our people out?” she asked, eyes still on the screen.
“Yes,” Mothma assured, voice uneasy. “He’ll work it out though; he always does.”
“It doesn’t really matter—it’s too late now," Madine said. "Everything’s underway. They only need stall him for a few more weeks.”
Leia turned on him. “And the Neimoidians?”
He looked away, contrite.
“They’ll pay the price for helping us when this all kicks off,” Leia said, frustrated, turning back to the image.
“And how long do you think they will stall a Sith?” Mon asked absently, eyes on the image.
“There’s no one left there who was involved—he can’t pull from them what they don’t know,” Madine murmured, thoughts as ever on the greater mission.
The cloaked man stood before the Neimoidians, who all bowed nervously—with good reason, Leia knew. She frowned in scrutiny as he waved one hand in dismissal or refusal, cutting them off, speaking briefly to the assembled dignitaries and planetary representatives before walking through them, forcing them to step aside submissively, heads down, body language apprehensive and anxious; whatever he’d said, it had panicked them.
He walked from the landing platform without looking back, stormtroopers filing in behind him. At its edge he paused, turning his head to the side, waiting for the slim redhead to catch up. She did so, raising on the balls of her feet as she was little more than shoulder-high to him. He spoke, gesturing with his hand…pointing directly into the long-distance lens filming him. He kept his gaze on it for a few seconds more, the redhead pulling a comlink from her belt and glancing up.
Obviously realizing that his cover was blown, the agent who was filming stood to make a hasty retreat, the view of the landing field shaking wildly before the image twisted onto its side, giving a fleeting view of the camouflaged hide he’d been in, incoming fighters visible in a momentary glimpse of the sky.
“They bombed the bluff he was on, but our agent managed to get out.” Mon Mothma reached down to reverse the image as she spoke, rocking it forward again to play out from the moment the Commander had stalked through the assembled dignitaries, making them back away deferentially.
Leia frowned in scrutiny, eyes on…whoever he was—certainly not the name he had once used here; Luke Skywalker's past trailed into nothing when the Bothans had tried to track it back three years earlier, just months after he'd inexplicably shown up in Cloud City. He was looking up to the lens again now, giving Leia the unnerving feeling that he was staring straight at her. “He’s so.…”
“Different,” Mon Mothma finished at last, watching the soundless recording, the image enhanced and the shake stabilized to give it clarity. This was as close as they got to him now—as close as anyone got to him. “Changed. Or perhaps not at all—perhaps this was always his true self.”
“Do you think he was ever one of us?” Leia asked, the slightest tremor of hope in her voice even now.
“Think about it,” Madine said. “Think about what he could do and where he said he came from. His abilities and his supposed background just didn’t add up.”
“Why didn’t we question it at the time?” Leia asked, then in answer to her own query, she murmured, “He seemed so…genuine. So sincere.”
“So did Palpatine before he took office,” Mon Mothma replied, unmoved.
Leia sighed, tucking a stray lock of auburn hair behind her ear, still unable to believe she had been fooled so completely, almost three years after Luke had returned to the Emperor.
Madine shook his head slowly. “He has to be Vader’s son—he’s so like him.” It was one fact they’d never managed to substantiate, rumors abounding that he was the Sith Lord’s son. But then there were just as many which linked him to an even greater threat—
“No,” Mothma said, eyes narrowing in consideration. “Like the Emperor.”
“I thought you’d have been in the Command Center today,” Leia said casually to Han over dinner, sitting on the pressed plasteel seats of the mess hall onboard Home One. They were tired to the bone, but this was their only remaining opportunity to steal any real block of time together when they were both at least partway awake. Han’s promotion to A-Wing’s Flight Commander had caused all kinds of complications, not least of all the fact that Leia knew he’d be Unit Commander in another year or so, which meant that even this time would be taken away by duties and commitments.
She glanced down unenthusiastically at her plate. “There were some new images of the Commander from the Bothans. He’s backtracked Madine's operation to Neimoidia already. They’ve covered their presence there and the fact that they were supplying us with technology from the manufacturing plants at the Kuat shipyards, but losing that source will slow us down… It’s months of planning up the…”
“The kid? How’s he doin’?” Han turned, face lighting. He’d never accepted the truth, Leia knew; he’d always believe that Luke was…Luke.
Leia shrugged. “Sharp as ever. And he’s not a kid, he’s twenty-four.”
Han grinned, clearly speaking of an old friend as much as Leia now felt she was speaking of an old enemy. “Ah, he’ll always be the kid to me, you know that.”
She frowned, annoyed more at his determination to still speak of Luke in such terms than at his belief. But it was an old fight, and everything had been argued into exhaustion long ago, leaving their only option in this instance to agree to disagree. “He’s the same age as me—am I a kid?”
Han leaned sideways to kiss her on the cheek. “No, you’re a doll, sweetie.”
“Suck-up,” she teased, unable to hide her amusement.
“Pushover,” he grinned, tensing his arm against her incoming fist.
They each turned to their meals in silence for a few minutes, but Leia knew Han wouldn’t let it go so easily—he just couldn’t. Even now.
“I’m just sayin’…” He glanced up from his plate, weaving the food on his fork around before him, “that he’s never done a thing against us—never lifted a hand.”
“Because he’s in command of the Core Systems, you know that,” Leia reminded easily; the Core Systems were hardly the kind of place that the Alliance liked to be operating—not any more.
Han shrugged, unmoved. “Whatever. All I’m saying is it’s pretty convenient; the one thing that I think Palpatine couldn’t force Luke to do just happens to be the one thing he’s not required to.”
“For a cynic, you have a very gullible side,” Leia accused lightly.
“I’m serious—name one time that he’s actually come after us. He stops us, but that’s it. He never follows up and finishes the job. Which is pretty rare for him, you gotta admit—he doesn’t generally leave unfinished business, doesn’t leave an enemy at his back...unless it suits him somehow. This Neimoidian thing will get handed over to Vader, you’ll see.”
“Because Vader’s in charge of the counter-insurrection taskforce,” Leia said. “He always has been.”
“And Luke’s in charge of the Core Systems and the Colonies,” Han countered. “Neimoidia’s his responsibility—doesn’t that make it his jurisdiction?”
“I’m not going to argue with you over this again,” Leia said, tired of covering the same ground. Maybe because it still upset her deep down; it stung that she’d trusted Luke so completely—and been wrong. Been hurt. She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of beings she’d actually trusted that much—and she could count with just one finger the ones she’d been wrong about: one. Luke Skywalker.
It never stopped hurting…and she could never figure out why.
Mara let not the slightest hint of triumph show on her face as the sabacc cards changed again, giving her the nine. Along with the four cards she had in the interference field, that totaled twenty-three—and a winning hand.
She sat in Skywalker’s quarters onboard the Peerless, the stars streaking past as they headed back to Coruscant, the Neimoidian incident suppressed and settled in less than four weeks—quite an accomplishment, even for Skywalker. The price had been a month of very long days and very short nights if he rested at all, not one break taken from his duties, pursued to obsession as they always were with Skywalker. But he’d achieved the unthinkable—put down a planned insurrection, broken a specialist Alliance saboteur ring, trained and re-established Imperial control with the minimum of resentment and maximum long-term efficacy.
Despite his rank in the Rebellion, Mara had held her doubts when her master had appointed Skywalker as Commander-in-Chief of the Core Systems Military, but she’d learned to respect his judgement as again and again he’d proven his worth, both in small, frantic skirmishes and complex, system-wide insurrections. The huge amount of knowledge that Palpatine had imposed on him in his enforced incarceration when he’d first arrived on Coruscant must have crystallized it, but that kind of leadership required some innate abilities which couldn’t be taught. The Rebellion had lost more than they knew when they’d abandoned Skywalker to the Emperor. But their loss—carefully manipulated by her master—was the Empire’s gain, and Mara had developed a genuine respect for the Commander.
Did it make her job more difficult? No—they were both aware of what she was and why she was here, and each was professional enough to respect that. Palpatine trusted nobody; it wasn’t in his nature, they both knew that—and neither was prepared to allow it to limit their friendship, which suited Mara perfectly.
Now, finally, they were off-duty—or as much so as the Commander ever was—so naturally, he was playing sabacc…again. She glanced up at Skywalker. His expression had changed not a whit with the interference field’s action. This time, she had him!
“I bet…fifty,” she said at last, her voice very casual, tinged with the slightest hint of carefully feigned self-doubt.
Which nonetheless brought his eyes up. “Why, what do you have?”
“Put your credit down and I’ll show you,” Mara challenged, casually placing the nine face down in the interference field to freeze its value as she slid her own credits forward.
Luke looked down at it now, narrowing his eyes. “You don’t have anything.”
“Care to bet on that?”
He lifted his chin just slightly—which meant he was considering it, Mara knew. She knew him well now; almost three years of playing sabacc over countless tables had granted her that, as well as accompanying him on endless missions at her master’s command. The Emperor had never rescinded his original order to Mara charging her with responsibility for Skywalker, and she still took it as seriously as she took every command from the Emperor, becoming Skywalker’s de-facto bodyguard as well as his Aide. And his watcher, of course, along with Reece—Palpatine trusted no one. Mara still occasionally wondered who her own watcher was…
“Fifty…?” he asked now, bringing her mind back to the game, her face a neutral mask, knowing he would be looking for subtle clues. He always did—in life and on the sabacc table. He played selectively, choosing with care the hands he betted on but betting aggressively when he did, not afraid to put his funds where his faith was. And every now and then, just to keep her on her toes, he’d bluff big style, always waiting until there were lots of chip-cards in the field, lots of possibilities in play. In life and on the sabacc table.
He narrowed his eyes at her now, running his free hand through loose, unruly curls to pull them from his face as he searched Mara’s neutral expression looking for those clues. Use of the Force was strictly prohibited in their games, but in truth she couldn’t really tell whether he did or not, her own abilities far too limited. Still, he claimed he didn’t and Mara believed him—whatever else he was, he was still a man of his word.
“It defeats the object of the game,” he’d maintained, when she accused him once.
“I don’t believe you—the temptation’s too great…and you always like to win,” she’d charged.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to win.”
“And you never play by the rules,” Mara had added, remembering the countless times he had subtly edged around or adapted the Emperor’s direct command to his own needs, knowing that this had become a larger conversation now.
“I play by my rules,” he’d said, humor in his voice, purposely keeping the conversation light, as he always did with Mara. “You simply don’t know them.”
“You don’t have it,” Skywalker repeated now, and Mara lifted her eyebrows in expectant silence.
“…… One hundred,” he said after a long pause, his voice issuing a hesitant question as he pushed the gently chinking pile of credits forward.
Mara’s heart did a little flip at that—was he bluffing? Drawing her out? Or did he believe she was bluffing and he was trying to make her back down? He had three cards in the field, but they’d been locked in there for three rounds now…plus the table had just flipped the cards he held—had it given him a hand too?
What are you worried about, Jade—you have pure sabacc!
“Fine.” She pushed her chips forward, slapping the flat of her palm on the pulse-generator to stop it and freeze the cards at their present value. Then she reached down and turned her field-cards, a note of triumph in her voice. “Pure sabacc.”
“Ah,” Luke said lightly, turning the mismatched chip-cards in his hand over as he placed them down. Mara was already reaching for the credits, triumphant, when he spoke again. “Array,” Luke said simply, freezing her mid-reach.
“What!” She reached out for his cards in the interference field, turning them over; the two, the three…and the Idiot face card grinned back at her. “Son of a… You’ve had those in there for ages—why didn’t you play them?”
“I was waiting for you to put some serious currency down—I don’t get an Array very often, I have to make the most of it,” he said, amusement breaking through that detached calm—probably at the look on her face, Mara mused.
She slammed down the cards, as if it would make any difference. “You are so lucky at cards…”
“I like to think there’s a little skill involved,” he said, that perfect neutral façade slipping just a little, giving her a glimpse of Luke Skywalker behind the stony face of Palpatine’s precious Sith. “You know what they say—lucky at cards…” He shrugged lightly, stepping up from the table without bothering to take the credits scattered there, knowing they wouldn’t play again tonight.
Walking toward the side table where he’d left his drink, he paused with his back to Mara, looking out into the glowing void of hyperspace. Probably because he’d realized that he’d let his guard drop just a little, Mara realized, and was uncomfortable with it, even in front of her. Though she didn’t know why; she knew him better than anyone else—had seen him in pieces in the Palace cells when Palpatine’s wrath was on him.
She never judged him; she’d learned that from him.
Palpatine, her master as well as his—Palpatine always judged, and never kindly.
She glanced up at him, taking in the sight as she always did. He was slim and strong and…and she should stop that thought right there. Instead she spoke out, knowing the rest of the rhyme he'd stated: “Unlucky in love.”
“No—very rich,” he said easily, turning those sharp sky-blue eyes toward her.
She took her leave around an hour later, Skywalker claiming tiredness, though Mara knew he was nothing of the sort. She would get a call in an hour or so from whomever was on watch to let her know that the Commander had returned to the bridge and was working in his ready-room, as he often did well into the early hours of the morning. Or perhaps that he was in one of the exercise bays with his lightsaber, or that he had entered the 701st’s restricted hold, or summoned the unit commanders to his quarters.
Whatever; he wouldn’t sleep, she knew that—she could see it in his eyes, no matter how many times he beat her at sabacc.
He hadn’t so much quietened down over the past few years as become more circumspect, more cautious in what he allowed to show and before whom, as Palpatine invested ever more time year on year in creating his perfect advocate. Emotions were something to be exploited in his Master’s eyes, as well as in the treacherous Imperial Court which Luke was so often forced to endure on Coruscant.
Oftentimes he was calm, confident and centered, the Emperor’s Dark Jedi, absolutely in command of himself and everything about him. Yet other times he seemed so lost, so discontent and deranged as to crumple her heart in empathy, leaving her with the unsettling impression of a wild animal caged, pacing the same short path over and over in the solitary dead of night like a wolf howling at the moon, desperately trying to outpace the bars which caged it, knowing it never could. But she knew with absolute certainty that if she tried to reach out to offer it comfort in these bleak times it would lash out at her as surely as if she were its captor, so blinded by frustration did it become.
Which was real and which was the front? Both and neither, as she had often told the Emperor. The changes seemed involuntary and mercurial, though Skywalker tolerated no pity or concern—nor for that matter did the Emperor. His Jedi was isolated here, by both his own and Palpatine’s intent.
Did she feel any guilt at making her reports? No—she’d never hidden her reason for being here, and eyes and ears were everywhere, Skywalker knew that. Though Mara knew she was among them, she at least prided herself on holding some sense of honor and integrity. And she knew Skywalker appreciated this; that he too held to his own moral code, skewed though it was. In this they were, she supposed, kindred spirits.
Which was as close as Skywalker came to genuine friendship these days.
“I’m just sayin’,” Han said defensively, eyes scrunched up against the bright light of hyperspace, pouring in from the viewscreen behind Leia’s office desk and creating a diffuse halo affect about her, “what about the Death Star?”
Leia frowned from her cluttered desk. “Han…”
“What the hell was going on there, huh?” he interrupted, affecting his best offended, unbelieving tone, as if he felt she was surely arguing just for the sake of it, because he was patently right.
“Please,” Leia dismissed, frustration in her voice, as much at herself for being taken in so easily at the time as at Han for still holding faith now, when it was all so obviously a lie. “They needed information: a location. He broke me out so that I would lead him back to…”
“No, I’m talking about Yavin—when he blew that thing to dust. What was that about?” He was tired and cranky; everybody was.
Blue Group had made the six-day round journey flying escort to supply frigates a total of nine consecutive times now, and it was beginning to wear pretty thin for Han. Much like the seat of his flight suit, he’d claimed vociferously, from countless hours spent hanging around in lightspeed in an assortment of cold, bare-board supply frigates waiting for that burst of adrenaline as the Blues launched on an exit from lightspeed, waiting to see if the Empire had caught up with them yet.
“I don’t know why he bombed it. I don’t have all the answers,” Leia defended without looking up.
“That’s a pretty big answer missing, sweetheart—‘cos that was one of the most expensive fireworks I ever saw.”
Leia shrugged, anger quickly waning, tired of going over the same argument yet again. She had so much to do; they were trying to set up new bases on Rishi and Ord Biniir, almost a galaxy apart in terms of creating and sustaining supply lines. The last bases were out of the Core Systems now, no longer sustainable under pressure from the Imperial Fleet—under Skywalker’s command, no matter what Han claimed of him. But then Luke had always been an exceptional Commander even when he was here, hiding his true identity. He had the knack of seeing the greater picture whilst keeping his mind on the end goal, willing to use unanticipated, unorthodox means to achieve it. Madine, a tactical mastermind himself, always had such faith in him. ‘Outstanding aptitude,’ he’d always quoted—‘he’ll go far.’ Leia laughed mirthlessly at that; he hadn’t been wrong.
Han was still sitting on the edge of Leia’s desk looking at her expectantly, and she glanced up at him, hoping that he would take the hint that she was too busy to go through this again. “Ackbar wondered if it had some basic flaw.”
“Seemed to work pretty good to me,” Han replied—and instantly regretted it at the haunted look in her mahogany-brown eyes. “Sorry—I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, nothing to say against those memories. All of them—Alderaan, imprisonment… Vader.
And Luke—once again the rumors were doing the circuits: that he was Vader’s son… Was it true? The son of the man who had tortured her on the Death Star. The man who’d stood behind her and watched her world, her people, everything destroyed. Was it his son who’d then come to her in her darkest hour, claiming to be her savior, knowing…knowing what his father had done.
Knowing that if he could deceive her, she’d lead him back to the Alliance base that she’d given so very much to protect.
How could she have been so stupid?
How could he have been so cruel?
General Veers didn’t turn when an Aide entered the Emperor’s Private Audience Chamber behind him—one did not turn one’s back on the Emperor.
It was rare that the Super Star Destroyer Executor, Lord Vader’s command and flagship of the Rim Fleet, came to Coruscant, but they had been recalled a few weeks earlier, though if Lord Vader knew the reason, he had chosen not to mention it to Veers—as had Emperor Palpatine in this private audience. Veers had made all his official reports, of course, but this unofficial one was always made directly to the Emperor.
He was always invited to a private audience with Emperor Palpatine when on Coruscant—just to clarify that he was one of Palpatine’s more valued agents in the field. Which was good, because Veers was an ambitious man, much like the man who left the Emperor's Audience Chamber before him, passing Veers as he waited patiently in the antechamber beyond. Beladon D’Arca, head of the powerful D’Arca family, strode by without a sideways glance, a contented smile on his smug face.
An influential Royal House in their own right, the D’Arca’s had increased that sphere of influence with shrewd connections by marriage into other prominent Royal Houses, as well as impressive military ties, with several family members awarded the rank of Moff and Admiral, whilst still maintaining extensive industrial links everywhere from the Core to the Rim, which kept them in the extravagant style to which they were so very accustomed. They were fervent supporters of Emperor Palpatine; had been since the days of the waning Republic, willingly providing any backing in whichever form was required. As such, they’d remained always in the Emperor’s favor and had prospered tremendously—favored inter-system industrial contracts, auspicious military careers and ever-widening governorships and borders proof of their continued favor in Court.
What exactly had pleased D’Arca so very much today Veers didn’t know, but he was sure it was in the Emperor’s interest too, since when he entered the Audience Chamber, it was to a very self-satisfied Palpatine, smiling a yellow-toothed grin to no one but himself .
Now, when Mas Amedda bowed formally before Palpatine at the edge of the dais and waited to be acknowledged before passing on his information, the Emperor grinned once more.
“My Jedi is in orbit,” Palpatine announced contentedly to Amedda, who bowed in acknowledgement.
“Yes, Excellency. His exact whereabouts, however, are unknown.”
“Explain,” the Emperor said, voice hardening.
“I contacted the Peerless and requested to speak to him, but was answered by Lieutenant Commander Reece, who stated that the Commander was unavailable at this time. When I informed the Lieutenant Commander that an official military reception had been prepared on the Palace landing platform and requested the Fleet Commander’s projected arrival time and shuttle designation, he became…evasive.”
To Veers' surprise, the Emperor seemed not in the least perturbed by this, the first signs of a grin tugging at the corners of his thin, cracked lips. “And where is he?”
“He has apparently taken an Interatmospheric TIE Interceptor and is…en-route to the Palace. I understand that Commander Jade followed,” Amedda said neutrally.
The Emperor laughed out loud at this, completely unconcerned. “Inform my errant Jedi that I will see him upon his arrival.”
Palpatine settled as Amedda bowed and left, turning to his favored General, taking the opportunity to address this point with Veers. The man was dedicated and devious, but lacked the vision to accompany his ambition. “You seem…perturbed, my friend?”
“Forgive me, Excellency. I find I am perhaps a little…uncomfortable with the Fleet Commander’s often…unorthodox actions,” Veers explained politely, knowing better than to lie to his Emperor, but clearly hoping to remain politic, knowing the Commander’s favored position.
“You disapprove of my feral Jedi?” the Emperor said, cutting through Veers’ politeness.
The General bowed his head just slightly. “I acknowledge the Commander’s tactical skills, of course—I respect them very much—I simply…struggle with this…impulsive unpredictability. I find Your Excellency’s disposition is far more indulgent than my own.”
Palpatine still smiled, settling back; yes, he was indulgent with the boy—sometimes far too much so. But then, when he did use force, it was equally without bounds.
“He is a Sith, my friend. All Sith need to be handled with due care,” Palpatine said easily; Skywalker was still the wild thing pulling at his leash, and the Emperor knew full well that if he were to pull too hard or too often in return then every exchange would become a battle of wills. “He simply needs to stretch his wings. Now, he’ll return to the Palace without trouble.”
Veers nodded without truly understanding—how could he? How could anyone without an ability in the Force hope to comprehend the complexities and subtleties which existed within it? But he could perhaps grasp at its edges, which was important, because Palpatine had a place for him in his future Empire—and to fulfill it the General needed to see some glimpse at the larger picture, carefully distilled down into something he could comprehend.
“You should start learning how to deal with this particular Sith, General—he will rule my Empire when I am no more.”
Veers raised his eyes, shocked, but Palpatine only smiled. “Do you find it so surprising that I should plan for my Empire to continue long after I’m gone? Or did you perhaps think I would hand it over to Vader?”
Palpatine smiled, noting the subtle shift in Veer's sense with his realization that he was, if not backing, then certainly giving empty lip service to the wrong contender. “That would destroy it. Vader isn’t strong enough to control my feral Jedi—he doesn’t have the will to hold him in check. The legacy I have begun to build would crumble in just a few years. The moment I died, Skywalker would leave the Palace, taking anyone who remained loyal to him with him—and there would be many; he has built a solid base in the military—yourself excepted. It would divide my Empire in two and Skywalker would rip apart what was left in taking control from Vader—he would never accept him as Emperor—and he would take control in the end, despite Vader probably holding the greatest number of forces in my name.”
Veers stared in open surprise—that the Commander would take power by force, that his Emperor was telling him this…
“No,” Palpatine continued casually, voice little more than a murmur, as if lost in thought, “my Jedi will be Heir to the Empire. Only that will hold him and keep him here.” It would be the only thing which would have held Palpatine in similar conditions, and as much as he told the boy he was his father’s son, he now very much reminded Palpatine of himself. He would provide Palpatine’s Empire with the power and the focus it needed to withstand any threat. And he would provide it with an all-important heir—a natural chain of succession. A Sith dynasty which would endure generations—in Palpatine’s name.
“It’s natural selection,” Palpatine said to Veers at last. “The strongest wolf will lead the pack.”
Veers was silent, and Palpatine smiled knowingly. “You’re wondering if that natural selection will cut in a little sooner—if my protégé will challenge my leadership?” He shrugged, supremely confident. “In all likelihood he will—and I shall put this down decisively and without compunction, as I do any dissent. When one teaches a lesson, one should do it in a manner that will never be forgotten, otherwise one must teach the same lesson again and again.”
The Emperor held yellow-flecked eyes on Veers, his gaze as sharp as ever. “I am not weak; when the challenge comes I will be ready. And it will—he would not be worthy as my Heir if he did not test those bounds.” He turned away, self-assured as ever. “Yes, he has the power to lead you—as only a Sith can. To continue my Empire in my name, as I have decreed.”
Now was the moment—to clarify Veers’ part in this, to instill some sense of genuine commitment in the ambitious General, albeit self-serving. Because when Skywalker eventually made that bid for power then Palpatine, for all his self-confidence, wanted to know well in advance. Of course, to place Veers among Skywalker’s staff as a spy would be to invite his advocate’s usual reaction…but to incite subtler methods—to cover Veers’ purpose with simple ambition, would perhaps get him past Skywalker’s close radar and into his trusted elite.
“If you were wise, General, you would look to establish some kind of dialogue with your future leader. By the time he takes the throne, his own power base will be in place and there will be no room for latecomers. A request for transfer to the Core System Fleet and the Peerless would not be looked upon unfavorably.” Palpatine let this final point dangle before he turned pointedly to Veers, confident and assured. “But remember who leads you now—and who will do so for the foreseeable future. When he takes power, it will be because I allowed it. By my decree and not before.”
The massive suite of rooms collectively named ‘the Cabinet’ extended over a full floor of the South Tower in the monolithic Imperial Palace, and was the working place of Palpatine’s personal ministers and aides, the site where the actual act of daily government of the extensive, far-reaching Empire took place. Situated immediately above the vast, four-story-high Throne Room where Court was held daily from early evening well into the night, the Cabinet housed two huge, lofty ante-chambers leading to the Emperor’s Private Audience Chambers, as well as the Emperor’s personal offices and those of his favored few, rooms here being awarded only to the ‘established’—those personal advisors who had held high office for many years.
The equally well-appointed Council offices one story below the Throne Room, where sessions of the Ruling Council met, also boasted offices for the favored, these too allocated and revoked at the Emperor’s whim, as were individual invitations to attend Council or Court. Like apartments in the East Tower, offices carried great import; no one understood better than the Emperor the art of enhancing the value of a favor, and once granted, the fear of having this newfound status revoked held many a Royal House or powerful individual to silence.
On being awarded command of the Core Fleet, Luke had been allocated two offices in the prestigious Cabinet. He had never once entered them, continuing to work in the private offices within his own apartments or those long-since allocated to him within the War Cabinet in the North Tower. Whether the Emperor knew this or not Luke had no idea, though he couldn’t imagine Palpatine failing to note something of such import so close within his own sphere of influence. But his Master had never remarked upon it and the still-empty offices remained allocated to the Commander, their permanently closed doors visible at the end of the long corridor which stood just beyond the entrance to the ante-chamber of the Emperor’s Private Audience Chamber.
It was in the gilded opulence of that crimson-walled ante-chamber that Luke stood in uneasy silence now, waiting to see his Master, the command to attend already waiting when he had arrived on one of the small, inset landing platforms in the North Tower, successfully avoiding the pointless pomp and ceremony of an official return.
Uneasy because he’d been summoned to the Private Audience Chamber—the cavernous room where he had fought his father years earlier. It wasn’t the first time he’d returned here, of course; he'd been here many times at the summons of the Emperor, but it never failed to send some burst of emotion through him. Regret, frustration, confusion—he didn’t know; didn’t care to look too closely. He only knew it was here where he fell—truly fell. Where he lost his way so completely. He had fallen far earlier in many ways, he knew. He was already in that cage; had built the bars which held him. But the day that he'd fought his father—that was the day those bars fell away…and he stayed.
Did he want to be here? No. Did he trust Palpatine? Absolutely not. Could he leave? Never.
Because Palpatine had invested a great deal of effort in ensuring there was simply nowhere left to go. Wherever he went Palpatine would hunt him down—he had made that absolutely, unreservedly clear. On his own, trying to cover his tracks, Luke knew he would never outrun or elude his Master—Palpatine simply knew him too well; knew his sense, his presence in the Force, and Luke knew his connection was such that he would be detectable even if he tried to hide it.
If he tried to return to the Alliance, even ignoring the fact that he was under the death penalty there as an Imperial spy—not an unwilling captive or even a defector, thanks to his Master’s maneuvering, but an actual double agent—Palpatine would throw the whole fleet at it; rip it to pieces just to get him back.
Wherever he went and whomever he came into contact with—anyone, everyone, every stop, every aid, no matter how unknowing, any contact, any reason—Palpatine would track him and would, he had clarified, leave a path of destruction and retribution in his wake to bring his fallen Jedi back, whatever the cost.
Though he would never destroy his precious Jedi, he had made that clear too; he would simply break him to pieces and rebuild him one more time. One more grating, grinding trial; a tortuous reprisal executed with pitiless, surgical precision or self-indulgent gratification depending on his Master's mood from moment to moment, and damned if Luke didn’t even know which was worse anymore, because they too had become a part of his life, incensed, raging outbursts and the cool, cruel manipulations both.
Why? Why bother, Luke had often wondered, to deal every single day with the snarl of complications and aggravation that his precious new advocate so very purposely embodied? He very much suspected that somewhere along the way, he had simply become just one more of the Emperor’s possessions. Whether Palpatine wanted this complex, long-standing complication was immaterial; what mattered was that Palpatine owned him—which meant that nobody else did; that he would never have this power turned against him.
In an effort to control his new advocate, the Emperor gave his wolf an ever longer leash—the illusion of freedom when they both knew it was nothing of the sort. Still, they played the game, Luke remaining at first because he quite simply had nowhere else to go, forcibly isolated, all other options stripped away. Then, damn himself for his own stupid weakness, held by obligations and associations, acquaintances and allies formed even here. Because Palpatine had made it very clear what would happen to them should Luke steer too far from the accepted path. Besides, he had become used to the situation. It had become, Force help him, the norm.
So he walked the knife-edge between opportunistic dissent and resenting obedience, taking chances wherever they were available and living his life in the gaps between his Master’s overbearing, incontestable presence, as his father had said he would learn to do.
And just as Luke had stated to his father three years earlier, it was no life at all.
Still, in some private corner of his mind he felt he deserved no better…and his Master knew this and used it and treated him accordingly.
And slowly, the lines of battle and tolerance had been drawn on both sides, the contentious, often explosive disagreements which had marked his early interactions with his Master mellowing now and settling out into a subtler game as experience taught him the futility of open conflict.
The basic rules of the game hadn’t changed; Luke still found a large proportion of his Master’s conduct and commands offensive and Palpatine still bulldozed over his unease as if it were simply not there, dragging Luke along by force of will. But slowly the dissents came smaller and fewer and Palpatine’s resultant retribution less violent, though it irked Luke to think that the two were linked.
He had long ago stopped trying to look at his own motives, the reasons always too uncomfortable to consider. Because either he had grown tired of the constant battle and now gave ground more often simply out of defeated indifference, or he had simply grown used to his role here, jaded cynicism rendering what had once seemed outrageous demands on his Master’s part commonplace. What discomfort Luke still held he clung to, all the more so because it had become so easily ignorable, just one more drop in a sea of misgivings, leaving the distasteful suspicion that he had not so much surrendered to his role here as he had perhaps grown into it.
But there had been at least some concessions on his Master’s part, because Luke’s time away from the Palace and his Master’s manipulations had increased steadily, and he knew that wasn’t by his Master’s choice. And occasionally Palpatine did now defer on a point of contention.
Victories were small here—one took what one could…and planned.
The tall, ornately carved doors of the Audience Chamber whispered open and Veers—one of his father’s generals—walked out. Turning when he saw Luke, he paused momentarily to click his heels together and incline his head deeply in a smart, military bow. Luke only watched him, expressionless, filing the fact that he was here at all away for later consideration.
Chancellor Amedda stepped out and inclined his head just slightly in invitation as Luke turned away from the departing general. He took one last clean, clear breath of air and put the thoughts and doubts he connected with this haunted place carefully away behind mental shields—they were his alone and not for his Master’s scrutiny.
Then he stepped forward.
Palpatine watched his feral Jedi walked calmly the length of the long room, taking the steps at its midway point without looking either left or right, keeping his eyes on his Master. But he knew, Palpatine could tell—he knew already that something was wrong. Perhaps because the room was empty save for Amedda, and when he was to be chastised, it was always behind closed doors. There was no public discord between the Emperor and his Jedi.
When he reached the throne, the boy stepped smoothly down onto one knee, the slightest hint of uneasy resentment coloring his sense. He’d never grown used to this as his father had—chose never to do so. “The Neimoidian insurgency has been dealt with, Master. The plot was unsuccessful and all of the military factories remain intact. Intelligence regarding the Rebel cell has been passed on to the Anti-insurgency Taskforce and martial law has been imposed on the Northern Continent only, but I foresee few problems. It will be relaxed within the month with only curfews and weapons restrictions remaining.”
Palpatine remained silent as his Jedi spoke, studying him without really listening to his words—there was no need; he would have done as ordered or he would not yet have returned. And what he had not done, Palpatine already knew.
So he watched, admiring again his Wolf. Admiring those cold blue eyes, like ice in twilight. His wild hair was raked loosely back from his remarkably youthful face, long enough to twist into disarray, dark against pale skin. Scarred now, as he hadn’t been when he’d first arrived here—mentally as well as physically. But then it suited him, gave him a dark edge to temper that naive countenance; depth and interest where before he had been unpolished and artless.
When he finished speaking, he made to stand, and Palpatine brought his mind to the moment. “I have not given you permission to rise, Jedi,” he said, the slightest hint of cold threat in his voice.
Luke froze mid-move—then settled dutifully back into position, his jaw tightening just slightly, awaiting the accusation. When it came, it wasn’t the one he’d expected.
“You met with your father,” Palpatine prompted curtly.
“My father met with me,” Luke corrected, not lifting his head.
“For what reason?”
“He believes there is a spy working onboard the Peerless.” This wasn’t the time to be playing games, but Luke couldn’t resist.
“Indeed?” Palpatine said blandly. But Luke noted from the corner of his vision that his Master placed his gaunt, pale hand before his mouth in a considered gesture, as he often did when caught out. “And who would that be?”
Luke didn’t hesitate. “His name is Drea Vose. He’s an engineer.”
Ogo was too useful to simply surrender knowledge of now—especially when he was expecting retribution in one form or another anyway.
Palpatine settled back slightly, his hand lowering at the believed reprieve. “Is Lord Vader correct?”
“Forgive me—he was an engineer,” Luke corrected smoothly, setting a mental reminder to communicate the name to his father as soon as possible—for his own protection rather than Vader’s.
“Then the matter is dealt with?”
“And you are sure he was working alone?”
Oh, the temptation was just too great. “One must always remain vigilant, Master.”
Palpatine narrowed his eyes at that, then settled again just slightly. “What of the ringleaders on Neimoidia?”
Palpatine watched his Jedi tense just slightly at the change in topic and the facts he knew would follow, the action visible in the changing folds of his cloak. He had changed before meeting with Palpatine in an effort to diffuse what he knew would be a problematic meeting, wearing more traditional black robes rather than his customary military-cut suit, in a subtle expression of deference. It was discreet and understated, but he knew that his Master would not fail to have noticed. “The Rebels were already gone, Master. I passed their identities—”
“The Neimoidians,” Palpatine cut in. The boy did not raise his head though he knew instantly he’d been found out—then again, he knew he would be; there were few secrets here and this was not exactly concealable. All he didn’t know was the extent of his punishment.
“They were dismissed from office. New leaders of a more…”
“I gave the command to kill the ringleaders.”
“They were not the ringleaders, Master. They were merely…”
“I did not ask for your opinion. Merely your obedience.”
“You ordered that the ringleaders…”
“Don’t argue semantics with me. You chose to interpret my command as it suited you—you knew exactly what I had ordered.”
“Yes, Master,” the boy grated.
The Emperor sat in silence, staring at the kneeling form for a long time, considering.
“Perhaps you should stay awhile and consider your actions, Jedi,” Palpatine said at last in dry tones, and the boy shifted uneasily at the implied insult in that designation, though he didn’t look up.
Palpatine turned to Amedda. “Chancellor—the disruption on Bimmisaari?”
Luke remained in genuflection, one knee on the hard marble floor, one arm resting on the bent knee which was not, eyes fixed on the point at which the dais raised in carved relief from the main floor. So long that his muscles trembled, his spine cramped and his ribs ached. But he didn't move—wouldn’t give Palpatine the satisfaction of seeing him do so.
Time trickled slowly by, the sun pushing shadows across the vast, ostentatious room as Luke stared resolutely at the floor before him, beginning to call on the Force to maintain the awkward position. By early afternoon, Palpatine had found four opportunities to chastise Luke for distracting him when Luke had attempted to resettle his weight, moving even slightly. Now the Emperor stood a good distance away at the huge arched windows which stretched to the vaulted and fluted extravagance of the gilded ceiling, gazing silently out into the distant metropolis, his next audience not yet admitted.
No longer the subject of his Master’s attention, Luke leaned back just slightly onto his haunches in an attempt to ease burning muscles, and Palpatine turned on him.
“Are you incapable of so simple an act?” he bit out venomously. “You’ve knelt so often that I would expect it to be second nature by now. It’s where you belong, lest you forget.”
Luke turned slowly, even this slight movement lighting fireworks down the tense muscles of his spine.
“Isn’t it?” Palpatine provoked, meeting his feral Jedi’s eye.
Luke held that gaze for long seconds, knowing he could so easily push this over into a genuine fight… “Yes, Master,” he allowed at last, though they both knew it cost him.
Palpatine only smiled, voice amused and mocking now. “You bitter little creature. I made you everything that you are—you were nothing without me.”
“I’m nothing anyway, Master—isn’t that what you always say?” There was the barest hint of defiance in his voice—but it was enough to ignite Palpatine’s anger again.
“Don’t dare think to challenge me!” His voice dropped from wild yell to threatening growl as he stalked forward, lips pulled back over spoiled teeth, hands held loosely before him, fingers stretched out as he disappeared behind the boy's view, the threat implicit in his action.
Luke remained still, reaching out with his senses, searching for the familiar sharp mental buzz of Force lightening being summoned into razor-sharp focus, his stance tightening in unwilling response.
Instead a strong hand grabbed at his hair, nails scraping his scalp, yanking his head back. “You are nothing! An irrelevant amusement for a powerful man. Everything that I grant you I can take away—position, power, freedom…life.”
Head held tightly back, Luke met his Master's gaze without struggling, no real fear in his eyes, even in the face of this. But Palpatine knew how to slice through that indifference. “And everyone around you,” the Sith growled pointedly, leaning close. “Do you understand?”
Luke held his gaze for long moments before he broke at that, turning his eyes down though they were still as defiant as ever.
“Yes, Master,” he said at last, another hard capitulation.
Palpatine released him, turning away, voice scathing. “You’re weak. How many times have I told you that if you allow yourself a vulnerability, people will use it against you?”
Luke said nothing, face a mask, boiling with frustration inside.
“Do I have a weakness?” Palpatine goaded, and Luke almost said it—almost turned and said it: 'Yes—me.’
He wanted to do it—just to see what his Master would do. Because they both knew it was true. Instead, aware of how close to the edge he was skating, he maintained his silence.
“Clearly it would do you well to stay awhile yet and consider what I have just said,” Palpatine ordered as he turned away, not yet feeling he had made his point…
And the day wore on, Palpatine remaining in his Private Audience Chamber attending to matters of State, Luke remaining on one knee before the throne, back straight, eyes set on the middle distance, calling the Force to him to maintain the unnatural, awkward position, his mind eventually wandering, no matter how unwillingly, back to Palpatine’s words.
He was nothing. His Master hurled this fact at him over and over with such absolute certainty. Had done so since Luke had first been imprisoned in the cell beneath the palace, when he’d still naïvely believed that he had some kind of determination in his own future…that he could change anything at all—that Palpatine’s will wasn’t absolute. Every time he wavered, every time he faltered, every time he hesitated, Palpatine was there with that same damning question: who was he to question? He was nothing.
He was nothing. Not even himself; even this his Master claimed—his name, his will…his soul, in due course, just like his father. He existed only to serve, to fulfill Palpatine’s expectations, despite his continued rebukes and punishments. This was his life now, to stand by his Master, prey to his commands and coercions and volatile, mercurial temper. Perhaps that would never stop…
He sighed against the trembling muscles of his aching ribs, resigned to the realization. It didn’t matter—very little did anymore.
By mid-afternoon he was well past discomfort, his whole body beginning to tremble, spasms causing short, jerky movements as the bunched muscles of his stomach, back and legs tensed to cramping every few moments in dire complaint, his breath coming harder now, diaphragm compressed against the rigid tension required to maintain the position. But he remained silent, remained focused.
Palpatine allowed three private audiences to prolong the day, each representative walking forward and coming to an uneasy stop beside the silent, kneeling man, each invited to rise when they had knelt, none daring to make comment on the Emperor’s Jedi, Palpatine conducting the audience as if the boy was not there at all, watching the representatives trying without success to hide their furtive, nervous sideways glances.
And all the time, his Jedi stared resolutely ahead.
Finally his Aides were dismissed and the Emperor stood for a short time staring out over the city as the sun dipped below the line of distant buildings, before walking slowly back to his throne to sit, taking his time to settle before, at length, bringing his eyes back to his errant Jedi. He watched him in silence for a short while. Watched the headstrong determination in those hooded eyes which would not meet his, watched his muscles trembling with fatigue, watched his chest rise in short, sharp breaths.
“You are so stubborn,” he observed at last, amused and exasperated in the same breath. “How can you be this obstinate over so small a thing?”
The boy remained looking steadfastly ahead, jaw clamped tight, head tilted forward slightly at the continued effort.
“Why did you not simply kill them?” Because he knew, Palpatine reflected, he knew there’d be a price for his disobedience; there always was. It never stopped him.
“It was unnecessary,” the boy said at last, between clenched teeth. “At the very least it would have fed the Rebellion’s cause with a new surge of outraged idealists ready to fight. At worst, it would have caused riots which would have spread civil disorder across the continent and probably the planet; it would have taken months to fully subdue and reinstate order, and countless troops would have had to be committed to the action. As it is the leaders are gone now and there is nothing to react against. The situation will dissipate within weeks.”
“Have I taught you nothing, Jedi?” Palpatine dismissed easily, bringing the boy’s eyes momentarily up to his own.
He still revelled in calling him that, knowing how it stung: his fallen Jedi, his feral Jedi, his dark Jedi… his Jedi. His. He had given the boy no other name, though he had taken his true name away long ago. Now this was all that was left: his Jedi, his Wolf, Commander of his fleet. But nothing more. Let them whisper and guess. The boy would never tell the truth; he did not care for his own past, had lost so much of it that he no longer bothered what name people gave him.
He knew what he was, no matter how much he disliked it.
Palpatine frowned at this; had it been mercy which had driven him to disobey, or logic, as he claimed? He had killed many times at his Master’s command—and always with such savage grace, like setting a hunting-bird free—so why had he held back this time? He still occasionally had the power to surprise his Master, even three years after his arrival…which was why he remained of interest—of value.
“Never hesitate,” Palpatine admonished, leaning forward indulgently. “It is your greatest weakness—conquer it or your enemies will conquer you with it. Anyone who can get the better of you will do so—it is basic nature, pack mentality. Someone will always seek to challenge you. If you react swiftly and violently to make examples, people will remember and you will not be forced to repeat the same lessons again and again.”
“Yes, Master,” the boy said levelly without meeting Palpatine’s eye.
“Conquer your flaws, my friend. Or I will do it for you.”
The boy brought his head up at that, knowing…
Palpatine only shrugged elaborately. “The Neimoidian sympathizers you left free were rounded up and killed this morning on my order. If there is rioting in the streets, then perhaps next time I shall not make you kneel quite so long.” He rose, satisfied that he had proven his point—disobeying was not only painful but pointless, the futility of even this small dispute underlined.
Walking slowly past his Jedi, cane in hand, Palpatine paused without looking down to pat the kneeling boy on the shoulder. “Don’t make me remind you again. Today I found it amusing, given what is about to transpire. Next time I will not be so indulgent.”
He walked from the room and the silent, kneeling man, his cane tak-takking on the cold marble floor.
When the doors closed, Luke collapsed down, burning, biting cramps searing at this final release, agonizing as blood returned to numb muscles.
He sat alone for a long time on the Audience Chamber floor…for the simple reason that he was unable to stand.
Standing before the bank of tall windows in the private rooms within his sprawling apartments, Luke remained silent before his father’s words, tired, at low ebb, wishing him to leave. The room was barely lit, so he was able to stare out into the ever-moving lights of the Capital planet, Vader’s voice a bass background tone which rumbled at the edge of his awareness.
Reece, Luke's Aide and a scarce ally here, had remained discretely in the room beyond, his presence a wash of concern and disapproval as Luke spoke with his father. Having now passed on everything which was necessary to maintain his deceit to the Emperor, Luke now simply wished Vader gone before one of them lashed out at the other, as they always did when their obstinate wills eventually clashed.
It was well past midnight and much as he disliked it, he knew that his talk with Palpatine had made it necessary to speak with his father, Vader answering Luke’s unspoken nudge in the Force. If it had been safe to pass the information on through a third party then Luke would have done so without hesitation, but each extra person in the chain was one more possible double-agent and even a trusted ally could be easily read by the Emperor, so that, distasteful as Luke found it, he had contacted his father directly.
That they were seen to have met was unfortunate but unavoidable here in the Palace, so it was better to do so out in the open rather than try to hide it at all. Still, Luke had limited the damage as much as possible, admitting Vader to private rooms within the vast Perlemian Apartments, his designated residence in the West Tower of the Palace. The three private rooms set together in the corner of the sprawling, extensive quarters were his only safe haven within the Palace, all surveillance equipment here rendered inoperative. Every time he left the Palace with the Fleet, the devices were carefully restored or reactivated from the empty levels above and below his apartments, and every time he returned, Luke immediately invested the time in finding them and disabling them using the Force. It was yet another ongoing battle of wills with the Emperor which neither ever mentioned but both upheld.
Now he remained silent, listening to the familiar rasp of the breathing mechanism in his father’s suit, leaning subtly back against the upright chair behind him for support, his body still fatigued from Palpatine’s unexpected choice of chastisement. In truth, he’d gotten off very lightly; his Master had flown into violent, vindictive rages over far less.
Which prompted the question—why? Why had Luke been allowed that defiance? Palpatine had even used the term indulgent—not generally a word he associated with his Jedi…
And what was ‘about to transpire’?
He turned, suddenly realizing that Vader was speaking his name. “Yes?”
“Did you hear my question?”
“No. I wasn’t listening,” Luke said curtly, wishing to clarify that he had no interest in his father’s claims—no curiosity in digging up old vendettas one more time.
“Why did you not seek me out?” Vader asked, his tone indicating that he was condensing several previous questions into one.
Luke turned away again to look out into the distant city lights, considering….not what to answer, but whether to answer at all. Should he simply turn around and leave the room?
After another long pause punctuated only by Vader’s grating breaths, Luke sighed, annoyed as much at himself for allowing this conversation to continue as his father for initiating it. "I’ve told you—Ben said that my father had died, killed by Darth Vader."
The resentment bit out in Vader's bass tones—roiled through the Force like a wavefront. "Kenobi was a bitter, weak old man who filled your head with lies."
But though Luke was willing to tolerate his father, he was certainly not prepared to humor him. "Kenobi was right; my father died twenty-four years ago, when Darth Vader came into being. Everything he was, was destroyed by that creature—and him just the empty husk of pointless ambitions.”
It was a cutting accusation intended to bring this discussion to a close, but his father remained silent, prompting Luke to push further, his exhaustion giving him a brittle edge. He met his father’s eyes as if looking at an object of curiosity, his voice distant and uninvolved. “Was it worth it, all your ambition? Was it worth all the suffering you caused? How do you sleep now…or do you sleep at all? Can a machine sleep—or feel guilt?”
“I am trapped in this suit because of your precious Jedi teacher!”
Luke shook his head mildly, unoffended. “I don’t defend him—I have no more loyalty to him any more than I have to you.”
Another subtle barb, casually delivered but with awareness of its power. Luke had long since learned to play the discreet games of the Palace which the Emperor had instigated—he had, after all, learned them from the true master. Intrigue, contrivance and artifice, true intentions hidden—or politely, patently clear.
He turned away to look out to the distant city, that reality growing ever more insubstantial now, a fading dream, like so much of his old life.
“But you’re right, Kenobi was weak. He failed in his duty on Mustafar. He failed whatever beliefs and tenets he had held to in that moment. He failed the Jedi, he failed the galaxy—and he failed Anakin Skywalker.”
Vader thought of all the misery and anguish Kenobi had rained down on his old student since that day, a revenge far worse than mere death. “I would have killed him, given the chance.”
His son turned, that dispassionate expression a sting in itself, though it was nothing compared to his words: “But you did have the chance—you were there. You lost.”
That brought Vader’s head up, the acerbic harshness of it surprising even him. “You could not possibly understand—you were not there.”
“No, which is a pity.” His son turned away again to stare at the lights of the city. “Because I would have killed you.”
He did not turn back, the conversation clearly over as far as he was concerned. Vader remained for a time, staring at his son, wondering whether the boy would eventually feel obligated to acknowledge his father. But he didn’t, and finally Vader turned to leave, seething, wondering why he had pressed; why he continued to ask these questions, searching for some connection, some spark, when the boy pushed him away time and again.
He had no answer—except that he knew he could not do otherwise.
Luke was lost in sleep when the sharp susurration whispered within the Force through his dreams, making him frown…then everything tilted, reality itself realigning, Luke gasping out, jerking upright, hands out to steady himself against the ethereal motion, his surprise lighting the dark room with a flash of Force-driven brightness, every surface, every wall, every structure within highlighted…
Then darkness as his awareness settled, no specific threat apparent.
Seconds later, he sensed Reece walking purposely through the withdrawing room adjacent to his bedroom and twisted about. “Yes,” he allowed in permission, though the Aide hadn't yet knocked on the door. “Something’s happened,” Luke prompted as the thick doors swung open and Reece bowed before entering.
Wez Reece set quickly forward, his tone somewhere between excitement and portent, the backlit screen of the automemo he was holding illuminating a small circle about him in the thick gloom of the cavernous, sparsely furnished room. “Forgive the intrusion, Sir, but I thought you’d want to see this.”
He handed the automemo over to Skywalker, who read it, re-read it, then glanced up. “This is verified?”
“Yes, Sir—it's already been announced across the HoloNet.”
“Hn.” The tone of Skywalker’s short exclamation said that this explained a great deal, though probably only Reece could have read so much into so little, knowing him as well as he did. “This changes nothing, nothing at all—you know that?”
Reece tilted his head, uncertain whether Skywalker perceived the relevance of this—just how much everything would change on the strength of this one formal announcement. “I think perhaps in the eyes of others…it may make certain alliances easier.”
“Too easy. Allegiance and ambition are not the same thing.” Skywalker shook his head, clearly too tired to consider the implications right now. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Reece bowed then, realizing new protocol, he backstepped and bowed again before turning to walk from the room.
“And don’t ever do that again when we’re in private quarters,” came Skywalker’s voice from the darkness.
Reece smiled, amused, pleased that the Commander hadn’t ordered him never to do it at all, which considering the news would have been a breach of protocol, but had chosen to dismiss the pointless etiquette in private—which was very much his modus operandi. And one of the many reasons why Reece had defected.
“Of course, Sir,” he acknowledged, leaving. Busy night ahead, once this got out…
Leia was awakened in the early hours of the morning by the comm, Han turning over and pulling the pillow over his head with a groan. Flicking the low light on, squinting from its glow, she fumbled across the nightstand.
“Leia,” she acknowledged, not in the mood for talking.
“Leia, you need to see this.” It was Mon’s voice, tense with concern and trepidation, dragging Leia’s eyes open with the same.
“Where are you?”
“In Ops,” Mon said tightly, her voice obscured by a buzz of others close by.
Feeling her stomach tighten, Leia sat up. “C’mon flyboy,” she prompted Han.
“What is it?” he drawled, still clinging hopefully to the pillow.
Leia shook her head, already dressing. “I don’t know—but it’s big.”
Fifteen minutes later, she was in Ops, staring at the message on the HoloNet channels with the same mixture of disbelief and unease as everyone else.
“Well, that’s it then,” Leia said firmly, a sense of empty finality flooding the small pocket of hope she'd secretly nursed for so long. “No arguing with that. When did it come in?”
“When I commed you,” Mon replied, looking as disheveled and sleep-weary as Leia felt. “We got a message a few hours ago from the Bothans, but nothing was verified.”
“Well, it seems pretty authentic now,” Leia said.
Mon nodded, looking back to the screen. “Heir Apparent.”
The message was lengthy and authoritative, sent over all official channels on the HoloNet, the language decorous and legally relevant, painstakingly refined—but it ultimately boiled down to one thing.
Palpatine had named a successor; the Commander of his Core Fleet was now the Heir to his Empire.
“I’m not surprised—it was always heading that way,” Crix Madine said uneasily.
“It seems so unlike him though,” Mon reflected out loud, reading the proclamation for the fifth time. “Palpatine’s never shown any willingness to share power.”
“This isn’t sharing; he’s really offering nothing more than everyone already knew,” Ackbar said, gravelly voice low, lost in consideration. “This has simply made it official.”
“And bought him a few years’ grace,” Leia added. Mon turned to her, and she shrugged. “All the analysts say the Commander’s formed a strong following within the military. Intel says he’ll take power within a decade—maybe Palpatine is officially confirming his position to head that off… Why risk a coup when you can get everything you want just by waiting? It’s all guaranteed now.”
“We need to take this to the War Room,” Mon said firmly. “We need a course of action—a response.”
“In your opinion?” Mon was trying to lock Tag Massa, the Alliance’s Intelligence Chief, down. They sat around a large circular table in the War Room, the plain walls and low light giving weight to the discussion, everyone staring at their automemos to check again this totally unanticipated turn of events.
“This is a very unexpected move, Ambassador,” Massa evaded, never one to be tied to a statement prematurely. “However, I doubt that it’s a stabilizing move on the Emperor’s part—it’s simply not necessary.”
“What about all the reports of the Commander forming a retinue in Court?” Leia prompted.
“It’s true that The Wolf has started to form a very strong power base in the last year, particularly in the military, but he’s never exhibited any serious intention or desire to usurp the Emperor,” Tag said, her casual mention of the Commander’s alias, often quoted in Imperial circles, setting Leia ill at ease and prompting her to wonder once again what his real name was. He’d never been referred to by the names of either Luke or Skywalker by anyone in the Empire; it was a name used only when he’d been here, spying for his Master. Even the Bothans could find no definite links to that name, save for unsubstantiated verbal accounts relating to an Old Republic Jedi by the name of Skywalker. But as much as she tried not to, Leia still couldn’t ever think of him by any other name.
Massa continued over Leia’s thoughts. “Certainly nothing above the normal level of power play that one would expect in such circles. And on the few occasions that we have noted any real conflict forming, we’ve also noted that the Commander will disappear for days or even weeks. Whether he’s banished from Court or chooses not to attend in order to diffuse the situation is unclear. What information we have is in his case-file…screens ninety through one-five-eight,” she added, flicking quickly through them on her battered, well-used automemo.
“And he goes where?” Ackbar prompted with a flick of his elongated, webbed fingers.
“That, we have no idea, Sir,” she admitted, rubbing her eyebrows. She too had been up all night over this one, and clearly didn’t expect to get to sleep anytime soon. “But when he returns to Court, he appears more elusive and insular than ever, often for an extended period. That’s in his psychological profile—screens…”
“And the conflict’s always dispersed?” Mothma half-stated, half-asked, prompting Tag to look up without finishing, nodding just slightly in reply.
“Certainly it seems a good deal less contentious, yes.”
“But he is loyal to the Emperor?” Leia asked, feeling something important was being left unsaid.
“His psyche profile lists him as such,” Tag said.
Which didn’t answer the question, Leia knew. “And in your opinion?” she pushed.
“Opinions are biased, Ma’am,” Tag said flatly.
“Please…” Leia soothed, inviting Tag Massa on. She was a balanced, thoughtful woman, young for her post at two years Leia’s senior, having taken it on the death of her predecessor, Odin Latt, who had been lost in an Imperial raid just eight months ago. He’d been grooming the sharp-witted Massa for almost a year previously, but many had worried that her experience wasn’t yet up to the task. For herself, Leia found the woman’s inexperience an asset. She tended to veer away from many practices common in the Intel community, and this ability to ‘think outside the box’ made it difficult for her Imperial opposites to predict or lead her. Possessed of a quick, inquiring mind, she seemed very unlikely to be swayed by either mass opinions or flights of fancy and as such, Leia respected and trusted her judgment enormously.
Tag glanced down as if considering, then looked Leia in the eye. “In my personal opinion,” she emphasized, “I question whether The Wolf has any explicit loyalties within the Empire. He accords every respect to Palpatine but as far as we can tell, makes no friendships outside of the professional, maintaining a discreet distance from Court and the Emperor’s entourage as much as possible… He remains, to all intents and purposes, outside of the society with which he is theoretically allied. Most of his own small entourage and known associates are military or ex-military, and he seems to spend time away from Court whenever possible, travelling with the Fleet in the Core and Colony Systems. Which is—in my personal opinion—the reason for the Emperor’s acknowledgment of him as heir. I believe he will find it very difficult to remain outside of Imperial Court or political life now. Beings from across the board will attempt to connect themselves to him—it will be seen as a good long-term political investment, particularly as it now comes with the Emperor’s seal of approval. Court will, effectively, be built up around him, whether he wishes it or not. Palpatine will still remain the Emperor, unassailable, but The Wolf will be inescapably dragged from what I’d consider a predominantly military position into a hierarchy he has thus far deliberately avoided.”
The table remained very quiet for long seconds, in which Tag looked nervously down to her automemo. “In…my opinion,” she finally added.
Leia blinked, taking all that in. Tag Massa had certainly given the issue some thought—but then, that was her job. “And Lord Vader?” she asked, moving the conversation on.
“Lord Vader would never have been given the Empire, Ma’am, not with The Wolf in the sidelines. Palpatine would always have held back power for him. It’s clearly what he’s been prepared for.”
“Why?” Madine prompted, never one to mince words.
Tag considered before answering. “As far as we’re aware, no one outside of Palpatine’s most trusted allies were aware of The Wolf's existence until he was presented to Court at age twenty-one, and awarded command of the Core Systems the following year—a reasonable age, considering his future position. Despite his reluctance, he remains attached to Court and has a position of power second to none. The Emperor always keeps him close at hand…”
“I thought that was because he’s considered unpredictable?” Madine said.
“If the Emperor considered him so very unpredictable, I would question why he was given control of the most affluent, influential planets in the Empire with the Core Fleet,” Tag countered evenly, back on familiar ground now. “All our profiles indicate that he’s in a highly favored position with the Emperor and he always has been. Taking all of this into account, the unsubstantiated reports that he’s Palpatine’s son rather than those that he’s Vader’s may well be correct.”
“I don’t believe that. It just doesn’t ring true,” Leia maintained, searching in vain for facts to back up her gut feeling on this. “If he were Palpatine’s son, why not declare him earlier? Why wait until he was twenty-one before presenting him to the Palace?”
“He would be better able to defend himself effectively by then,” Admiral Ackbar suggested. “From both external and internal threats,” he added pointedly.
Leia frowned, unconvinced. “If that was Palpatine’s concern, then why send him out on missions as dangerous as infiltrating the Alliance?”
“Perhaps Sk…” Ackbar almost said it, Leia knew; almost committed what had become the unforgivable mistake of referring to Luke by the name he’d used here whilst spying on the Rebel Alliance. But he recovered admirably, continuing without further pause. “Perhaps he felt the need to test himself, to gain some practical experience—it would certainly increase his standing within the military. Or perhaps Palpatine felt the same?”
“It’s too much of a gamble. Would you risk your son and heir by sending him to infiltrate the Alliance—it’s like throwing a lamb to the wolves…” Even as she said it, Leia knew her error, given the nickname which had rifled through the Empire’s military circles since Luke's promotion to Fleet Commander.
Surprisingly, it was Mon Mothma who called her on it. "Considering his success, it seems that it was rather more like throwing a wolf in among the lambs. Perhaps Palpatine knew it would be the same.”
There was a long silence at this, everyone stewing on the past; Skywalker’s alias as The Wolf was first heard from the Bothan spy network immediately following his return to the Empire after infiltrating the Alliance, a codename first made reference to by Black Sun. But that was all they had, that was all anybody had on him—a few disjointed accounts and untraceable details. Everyone remained silent in consideration of the conundrum he still represented.
“I would argue that given his new position it’s immaterial whose son he is,” Mon Mothma said at last, bringing everyone’s minds back to the present. “It’s what he will be that concerns us.”
It was Crix Madine who voiced what everyone had thought but no one would be the first to utter: “It would seem reasonable for us to break the chain—to stamp out this line of succession before it’s established.”
No one reacted, no one made eye contact. It fell to Leia to speak it out loud: “Are you talking about assassination?”
“I would say yes,” Madine said, meeting her gaze. “It would be difficult, but not impossible, given that he travels around the Core Systems regularly, unlike the Emperor.”
Leia squirmed in her seat, deeply uncomfortable with this. “No one would ever get close enough.”
Had she said that? Was she inviting discussion? She felt her cheeks heat—what would her father have said? He had believed that there would eventually be a diplomatic solution, believed it with all his heart. What would he have said now?
“There are other ways,” Madine said, all business now. As an ex-Imperial, Leia always felt he believed he had something to prove—and he was never afraid of getting his hands dirty. He seemed to her to have retained that particular confidence that all Imperial Officers enjoyed—the absolute conviction that he was right, that whatever means he saw fit was an acceptable action, no matter how…blunt. “There are numerous methods which require no direct contact and therefore would be difficult for even a Sith to trace. Methods on a grander scale.”
Leia frowned, uncertain she wanted to hear this. “Like what?”
Madine shrugged elaborately, looking to Mon Mothma for support. “A bomb, perhaps?”
Leia didn’t fail to notice the meaningful glance that passed between Mon Mothma and General Madine, though Mon turned her eyes down in warning. As Leia turned to Madine, she caught Tag’s eye as the Intel Chief glanced curiously from one to the other; this was something going on between Mon and Madine then; something even Tag Massa didn't know.
Mon Mothma considered, finally speaking out loud. “We’d have to consult existing records, find out exactly what he’s capable of. I’m sure it would require more complex consideration to ensure a favorable result.”
Leia was dragged from her reverie by Mon’s casual air, hard intent disguised by oblique references. Why didn’t she just come out and say it—to guarantee we could murder him.
“Is this what we’ve come to? Is this what we are now?” The tone of her words brought everyone’s eyes to her. “What has he really done against us?” Leia couldn’t believe she’d said that, almost word for word Han’s argument. She’d dismissed it so easily then but now, faced with—it wasn’t even that she liked Luke Skywalker or whatever the hell his real name was, it was just that…it felt wrong. In every fiber of her body, it felt wrong.
“I assume you’re talking besides standing second-in-command to the Emperor, maintaining and stabilizing his dictatorship, murdering individuals without trial, infiltrating and informing on the Alliance, overriding inalienable sentient rights and practicing Sith doctrines?” Mon challenged smoothly.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“I think we’re beyond superficial sophistries now, Leia,” Mon chided. “Sometimes one must look at the greater picture. Can we really afford to let a Sith dynasty take hold?”
Leia shook her head, not certain why she was fighting in this corner, but very sure that she was doing so alone. “I’ll say again—what has he ever done to indicate that he would be a threat to us if he came to power? He may well be the one to end this civil war.”
“One way or another,” Madine said grimly.
Leia turned to Tag Massa for support. “You said yourself—he has no loyalty to the Empire.”
“He’s already illustrated the extent of his loyalty to the Alliance,” Mon argued, shooting that argument down.
“If we’re going to make an assassination attempt, should it not be for the Emperor?”
Mon shook her head. “The Emperor is far harder to reach. Even if that were possible, the logical path would be to remove his successor first, otherwise all we do is aid The Wolf’s accession to power, create a dynasty by putting another Sith on the throne, an unknown, unpredictable quantity. General Madine is right, better to stop this line of succession now.”
Leia rubbed her forehead, tired and irritable. “I can’t condone this action. I won’t.”
“May I ask, Leia,” Mon said, voice like steel wrapped in silk, “are you speaking as a leader in the Alliance—or as his friend?”
That was a low blow. Leia drew herself up in her chair, fixing Mon with her most unassailable stare. Mon had been a master in the Senate chamber, but Leia had served too, young as she was—and she’d learned a thing or two. “That was uncalled for. Yes, I was deceived, as we all were—but my loyalties remain the same. They are to the Alliance and to democracy. And I won’t have that brought under question to serve ulterior motives.”
Mon held her stern stare for long seconds, everyone else at the table suddenly finding some pressing reason to look elsewhere as the two strongest wills in the Alliance hierarchy met head on…
“Perhaps,” Ackbar offered at last, always the voice of reason, “we should reconvene at a more convenient hour. We’re all tired and this isn’t the time to make far-reaching decisions—it requires a more considered approach before we move forward.”
Both women slowly settled back into their chairs, but Leia couldn’t quite let it go yet. “I’m not happy about playing devil’s advocate in this, but I won’t see us make a decision which would shape the view which the rest of the galaxy holds of us and the course of all our future dealings, without considering all possible ramifications.”
“Are you suggesting that we would?” Mon asked, unyielding.
“I’m suggesting that our principles seem a little compromised here. You accuse me of having a biased opinion of the Commander. I would accuse you of the same. He hurt us and he undermined our image…and you want retribution.”
“It was not me who brought the question as to how to deal with this subject to light, Leia,” Mon challenged levelly.
Oh, that was good, Mon, Leia had to allow as General Madine stepped in, Mon having neatly brought him into the argument, deflecting Leia’s last comment towards him.
“May I remind you, Princess, that we are at war,” the General said sternly. “And our enemy’s strategy has suddenly become very clear. It is my duty to do everything within my power to shorten this war and ensure a positive outcome. Or do I misinterpret the parameters of my post?”
Leia turned to him, forced to defend on two fronts now. “No, General. But there are conventions, even in war. It would be rather difficult to maintain the moral high-ground when we’re holding assassins’ knives.”
“In case you failed to notice, Your Highness, The Wolf's primary Aide is an Imperial assassin,” Madine countered, voice full of scorn.
“And you disapprove of that, General?” As good a soldier as he was, Madine was no diplomat, and Leia again blessed her father for drilling those skills into her before she had the slightest sense of their value.
Madine paused, seeing that he had been cornered, glancing momentarily to Mon Mothma.
General Rieekan took the initiative in the ensuing silence. “I think that perhaps we should break for now, to give Intel some time to put forward a more rounded view of this situation. We’ll reconvene in the morning¬—details will be sent to your offices. Thank you.”
There was a pointed finality to it which no longer invited debate, everyone looking to disperse before the situation deteriorated, even Leia. It wasn’t what she was there for, it had just somehow happened. But she hadn’t failed to notice that Mon, ever the consummate diplomat, had managed to get someone else to fight in her corner rather than dirty her own hands. Leia sighed, rising to walk from the War Room, her automemo clutched to her chest, Han catching her eye as she passed into the ante-room.
“Hey. You got that ‘someone just stepped on my toes and I’m about to jump up and down on his’ look in your eye,” he murmured easily, falling into step beside her, hair still mussed from sleep.
“Not at all,” she said tersely, eyes on Madine as he walked from the room ahead of her, deep in discussion with Mon.
“O-kay,” he said, clearly unconvinced. After several silent steps, he tried again. “So what’s going on?”
Leia’s mind was still reeling, trying to find a path through too much information. But she turned to Han, knowing this would be a blow for him. “Luke’s been named by Palpatine as Heir Apparent to the Empire.”
Han’s feet stuttered to a halt as he stared at Leia, who felt for some reason strangely guilty, as if it was she and not Luke who had let Han down.
“That’s…not…” It was all he could manage, his face bewildered and wounded, Leia regretting now having told him so bluntly.
“I’m sorry, Han,” she said, but he was looking away now, eyes to the assembled Chiefs as they walked away, heads down.
“So what were you talkin’ about in the War Room?” he asked, voice low with suspicion.
“They’re…we’re,” Leia corrected herself, “trying to decide a course of action.”
Han’s eyes narrowed. “Like what?”
Tag Massa passed through Leia’s field of vision behind Han, and Leia briefly rested her hand on Han’s arm in reassurance. “Wait here.”
Leia hurried her step to catch up with Massa, Han holding back, knowing her well enough to know that she was up to something.
“That’s quite an interesting opinion you hold, Chief,” Leia said as she drew level with the Intelligence Chief.
Tag turned those sharp eyes on Leia. “If not a particularly popular one.”
Leia shrugged. “I’d rather be fair than popular…fortunately,” she added wryly.
Tag smiled just slightly at that. “I stand by it,” she added, though she glanced down, Leia feeling that she was uneasy at saying so aloud.
“May I ask you a question?” Leia said breezily, the memory of Tag’s studied expression at the meaningful look between Mon and Madine still foremost in her mind.
Tag smiled. “On or off the record?”
Leia too smiled at that; never try to get smart with an Intel Officer. “Off. But then you knew that.”
“Go on?” Tag invited.
“If you were outside of this situation—an impartial observer—given the characters and the present leadership here…what do you think the outcome of this debate will be?”
Massa glanced down, walking on for a short time in silence, Leia not pushing her as she turned that pin-sharp mind to the question, running through all possible scenarios.
“Given the disposition and the objectives and the history involved, particularly in General Madine’s case… I think they’ll go for an assassination attempt. I think the General will push for it because he has his own agenda and logic and I think Chief Mothma will back him for two reasons: firstly, because this has seriously rattled her—she generally has a pretty good handle on the Emperor but in this instance she didn’t see it coming and has no idea what Palpatine’s doing though this is a major, major event. And secondly because she and Madine work well together; she trusts him and Madine seems so sure of the necessary response. He’ll pressure her into a decision because he’s ex-Imperial military and they’re used to having their own way and because there’s no more fervent an anti-smoker than someone who’s just quit. Madine still feels he has something to prove here—he still wants to hurt the Empire and he’s still smarting that The Wolf just walked in here and took everyone in, himself included. Admiral Ackbar will try to be the voice of reason, but Mon Mothma will sway his opinion because he’s Mon Cal and they respect authority, and because he and Chief Mothma have a long history, and between them and their support they’ll sway the vote. General Rieekan and a few others will hold firm, but they’ll do so quietly so that won’t change the result. And finally there’s yourself; but your opinion in this matter is considered—forgive me—somewhat biased; you had a close relationship with The Wolf when he was here and you now have a very close relationship with…” She paused, looking significantly at Han, no more needing to be said. “So yes, I think they’ll go ahead. Despite your continued objections.”
She glanced apologetically to Leia, forced amusement in her face. “But that’s just a personal opinion, you understand. I haven’t run it through any programs.”
Leia smiled again without looking up. “And in your personal opinion…is that right?”
The smile fell away from Massa’s face and she let out a long breath. “No. I don’t think we should be lowering ourselves to the Empire’s level. We don’t assassinate people on a whim; we put them to trial by jury. If we can’t maintain that basic tenet then I think we should seriously re-evaluate our ties because we don’t deserve to associate ourselves with the values of the Old Republic. And I also think your assessment was valid—The Wolf has never made an unprovoked move against us. That may seem like splitting hairs to some, but given the subtle plays which define the circles in which he moves, any gesture, however small, would have been carefully considered by himself and therefore should be taken into account by us.”
Leia glanced down, blessing Han for giving her this opportunity—and an unexpected ally. Massa was one of the very few beside those directly involved who knew the full story of Luke Skywalker; it was considered necessary to her position.
“I would add one thing, Ma’am,” Massa offered, stopping in the corridor to face Leia. “I’ve watched him a long time and read every psyche profile and incident report, and I think I know him well enough to tell you this much—if they do decide to make an assassination attempt, then I will do my level best to make sure it’s flawlessly executed and hope with all my heart that it will be successful...because Force help us all if it’s not.”
Luke sat in the huge, coffered-ceiling dining room in his private quarters eating breakfast, the tall balcony doors flung open to the morning, dispelling a little of the stuffy gloom that always encapsulated the dark-paneled room.
“So what is my title?” he asked doubtfully of Wez Reece, who was sitting at the table opposite him, automemo in hand as he ran through the day’s schedule, the medic Nathan Hallin beside him. Between them Reece knew they constituted the total number of people Luke believed he could trust on Coruscant.
Neither man ate, of course, but it was amazing how comfortable Skywalker had become with the fact that there always seemed to be an inordinate amount of people who found it necessary to be close to him at any given hour of the day.
Right now, besides Hallin and Reece, there were two footmen on the other side of the door, waiting to clear the table—there was a standing order that no servants were allowed to attend in the actual room—being dutifully watched by two plainclothes members of the Palace Guard always referred to as ‘escorts,’ who trailed the Commander around the Palace, other than when he was with the Emperor. Two Royal Guard were always on sentry duty outside the apartments, with a further four Palace Guard on duty in the guard house, a small suite just inside the apartment, this opposite the larger suite of staff rooms, in which two Court Ministers, two adjutants, three advisors—whom Skywalker had never once consulted—a chamberlain, a chief steward, three stewards and two equerries.
Three stories down but connected internally to his apartments were various attendants, harbingers, cooks, house staff, and a wardrobe master. Aside from servants assigned by the Palace, most of his in-house staff were military or ex-military, as were all members of his retinue. Though few made it this close of course; his entourage had remained pointedly small, restricted to the half-dozen or so people whom he genuinely trusted, another half-dozen allowed to remain not-quite-as-close in order to belay the Emperor’s suspicions.
An awful lot of people, requiring an awful lot of managing to keep them always subtly removed from the unpretentious Commander—now The Heir—a fact that Reece, who had assumed this responsibility, supposed would continue to cause him headaches in the near future. Though he had a feeling that his next major hurdle was looming right now—
“Imperial Highness,” Reece said simply, identifying the Commander’s new title and waiting for the anticipated reaction.
It was now three days since the official announcement had been made and though he hadn’t said as much, the Commander was clearly trying his best to keep a low profile, which was difficult within the Palace at the best of times. A steady stream of Courtiers, politicians and military climbers had been contacting his secretaries and requesting permission for an audience to congratulate the new heir, none of which had been granted as yet. Many others who knew his reclusive ways opted to leave messages or gifts, believing this the more politic choice.
Neither would work of course, since the Commander hadn’t wanted the title in the first place and placed little store by it anyway—this was in fact the first time he had even asked his title, prompted by Reece’s insistence that certain matters of State needed to be dealt with, a string of gradually more insistent communiqués arriving from the Ministry of Court Protocols.
So all in all Reece was braced for a less-than-enthusiastic reaction.
Luke practically balked. “Really? Couldn’t it be something a little less…pretentious?”
Reece raised his eyebrows, his tone both formal and familiar, something he had spent the last three years developing. Ten years Luke’s senior and an ex-Red Guard-turned military Aide, he had been recruited to his present post by Saté Pestage, and regarded a large part of his job as grooming the reticent young Commander—now officially heir—for his future position.
“It’s not a multiple choice, Sir. That is your correct title now. The Emperor should of course be Majesty, but since that’s also the title of any ruler to any Royal House, it was felt that a distinction should be made and Excellency is also an acknowledgement of his previous position as High Chancellor. His Imperial Majesty is, however, also correct, which makes your title as Imperial Highness correct form, as it would be for any heir to a throne.”
Luke frowned, pushing back his plate, his provincial accent coming defensively to the fore as Reece had known it would. At the Emperor's command and after almost a year of avoidances, the Commander had finally relented and an etiquette tutor had invested a great deal of time in eradicating his Rim accent, but one could only ever overwrite such an old habit, Reece knew, never remove it entirely. It now faded in and out as Luke saw fit, depending on his audience, mood or provocation at any given time.
“I don’t just don’t particularly want to be referred to as Your Highnessness.”
Reece lifted an eyebrow, “Highnessness is not a word, Sir.”
“I’ve still heard it used,” the Commander said wryly.
“I’m sure that won’t be the case, Sir—at the very least, I would think a spell in the detention center would result, should the individual be heard.”
“I think you’re missing the point.”
Reece stifled a sigh, considering. “You could perhaps petition to be referred to on official documentation as ‘The Heir.’ The request could reasonably be made on the grounds that, like the Emperor, some distinction should be made between yourself and any Crown Prince to a planetary house. The title could also be used when referring to you in the third-party, which is general etiquette for someone of your stature anyway. Recognized form is for someone speaking directly to you to acknowledge you for the first time each meeting as Your Highness and subsequently as Sir.”
The Commander glanced askance to Nathan Hallin, who shrugged elaborately into his friend’s distaste. “Who’d have thought a name could be this complicated?”
“Can’t they just call me Sir like they do now?”
“No, Sir,” Reece said flatly.
“You just did.”
“That’s because I have already addressed you several times in this meeting, so I may now properly address you as Sir,” Reece clarified, aware that his experienced voice in matters of decorum and form were always made alone and never received well, having been compared more than once by the Commander to a Threepio protocol droid on a bad day.
“This is nothing,” Hallin dismissed. “Wait until you get to who may and may not address you directly and how close they may stand and how they enter and leave your presence…” He paused momentarily as the Commander turned to him, appalled, then shrugged apologetically. “They gave us all lessons the day before yesterday.”
Exasperated, Skywalker twisted up and out of the chair, turning on the other two men as they both made to rise, finger pointing in warning. “Do not stand up!”
Both men froze uncomfortably as he turned and left, heading for the privacy of his withdrawing room. The silence stretched out for long minutes before Hallin asked casually, “Happy now?”
Reece settled back down, eyes on the large automemo he had brought in with him. “I haven’t even mentioned the flag yet.”
“He has to pick a flag…for when he’s in residency.”
Hallin rose, quietly sliding the heavy carved chair back beneath the table with exaggerated care.
“Where are you going?” Reece asked of the medic.
“I think I’ll be giving The Heir a wide berth for a few hours,” Hallin observed matter-of-factly. “But good luck with that flag thing.”
When Mara arrived, passing on to Reece what was apparently the fifth message of the morning politely requesting clarification on the new Heir’s decision regarding the flag, Reece had been forced to admit that he’d ‘not yet found the right moment’ to broach the subject. Mara raised arched eyebrows and turned about, retrieving the designs from the staff offices, well aware that her own unique relationship with Skywalker often bought her immunity in situations where even the stalwart Reece would hesitate to tread.
Knocking on the door to the drawing room she entered without hesitation, the large autoreader under her arm, images already called up. “You need to choose a flag.”
Luke didn’t even glance up from the table where he was working, automemo and stylus in hand, doors once again flung open to the morning. “Aren’t you supposed to call me Highness or something?”
“You need to choose a flag, Highness,” Mara stated without hesitation.
It had come as less of a shock to her when she’d heard a few hours before the official release that Palpatine was about to name Luke as Heir; he’d always privately made it clear to Mara that this was his ultimate aim, from the very first time she had seen Luke when he’d arrived unconscious, battered and bruised from Bespin. It hadn’t exactly been a seamless transformation from Rebel pilot to Sith Heir and judging from Luke’s less than gracious reaction to the news, more was undoubtedly still to come. But essentially the change was made and set in stone; even she could see that.
“Where’s Hallin?” Luke countered as she stepped forward, throwing Mara momentarily.
“Hallin—where’s Hallin?” he repeated expectantly in that particular tone that everyone, even Mara, couldn’t help but react to.
“I don’t know—do you need him?”
“Yes, find him.”
Mara turned about and was three steps to the door before she faltered; oh, he had the whole confident authority thing down to a tee now, she reflected irreverently. The amount of time he’d spent at the Palace and in Court, no matter how unwillingly, had forced him to learn to use every tool in his box to prevail, and his position and people’s perception of such, was just one more.
Did he realize that these too were lessons Palpatine had forced upon his advocate? If he did, it didn’t stop him utilizing them, but then Skywalker was nothing if not pragmatic.
“I’ll organize that,” Mara said aloud, turning about to set back towards him. “In the meantime, you need to look at this.”
Skywalker raised his eyebrows, glancing from Mara to Reece, who had entered with her, clearly seeing that he was under a two-prong attack here. “Reece, find Hallin please; Commander Jade seems incapable.”
Reece automatically backstepped and left the room with a sharp bow, leaving Luke and Mara to square off, Mara realizing she had just lost half her team.
Still, she kept walking, placing the automemo on the table before him. “Flags—would it kill you to choose one?”
Luke sighed, sliding the automemo away. “No, not really—I’ll choose one later.”
“Chose one now and then it’s done.”
He glowered, squinting up in the morning sun. “Why, have you got someone sitting at a table with needle and thread, waiting?”
Mara sat opposite him, unfazed. “If I said yes, would you pick one?”
“Aren’t you supposed to wait until you’re invited to sit now?”
“Who told you that?”
“Reece, and he’s seldom wrong about pointless etiquette,” Luke countered, pulling his own automemo back to him, which Mara had subtly slid aside when she’d put hers down before him.
“See, some of it does sink in,” Mara said of Reece’s constant lessons, turning as he re-entered the room.
“Hallin is on his way, Highness.”
Luke glanced up, so very clearly not amused at the title, however ‘correct form’ it was. “I think I’m gonna ban that right now—in fact I am. No one uses it again.”
Reece turned a long-suffering look to Mara, who shrugged; she didn’t like it anyway. It didn’t suit him—it was a pretentious title and he was many things but that wasn’t one of them. “Well, now that’s sorted, could we move on to choosing a flag?”
Luke sighed, placing his stylus down with exaggerated frustration. “Why now?”
“Because one needs to be flown on the pole in front of the main Monolith whenever you’re in residence—which is now.”
“Yes.” Mara held his eye, refusing to buckle.
“That is the most pointless thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Welcome to the Palace,” Mara countered, unmoved.
Luke sighed, turning the automemo Mara had carried in with her around to face him to glance briefly at the image. “Fine. I’ll have that one.”
“You can’t just pick the first one you see.”
“I’m sure it’ll do just fine,” Luke said unconvincingly, looking back to the image. “It has colors, it has…what the hell is that?”
“It’s a….” Mara leaned in, looking at the design and reading the short explanation that came with it. “‘Modified Navy Jack of the Core Fleet, to make reference to The Heir’s military standing,’ it says.”
Luke squinted. “It doesn’t look anything like the Fleet Jack.”
“It’s modified,” Mara repeated pointedly, reaching out to press the image replace key. “The point is that there are thirty or so designs. You’re supposed to choose one which you feel best exemplifies you.”
“Do they have one with a womp-rat on it?” Luke grumbled.
“It’s not a literal translation,” Mara countered, unable to resist.
There was a quiet knock at the door and Hallin entered, performing his usual flawless bow before glancing over to Luke. “Am I supposed to call you Highn—”
“No, Highness is banned,” Luke said sharply without looking up. “And so apparently is waiting to be allowed to sit, so you may as well do that too.”
Hallin paused a second before setting forward, his manner changing abruptly, voice open but droll. “Ah, let normality reign—or as near as we get around here.”
Luke smiled and glanced up at that, and Mara shot a surreptitious sideways look at Hallin, aware of what he was doing. She’d never really thought about it before, but the medic had always seemed to be somewhere near Skywalker, whether he was in the Palace, with the Fleet, or planetside with Imperial forces. She’d always just considered him a medic in attendance rather than part of Luke’s entourage—someone on the fringes of the elite rather than closely involved, though Luke tended to be guarded even in this.
Still, much as she dismissed him, it was Hallin's casual, flippant air which had effortlessly dispelled Skywalker’s difficult mood now, and if she’d had any doubts as to his position here, then Skywalker’s next words shattered them.
“Hallin will do it,” Luke said, gesturing him forward.
“What?” The medic had just made to sit and froze mid-action, aware of all eyes turning to him.
“Come and choose a flag,” Luke said, ignoring Mara as she spun back to him, green eyes narrowing as her jaw flexed.
“For what?” Hallin asked, stepping forward uneasily, though Mara knew that he knew full well; had been trying his best to avoid it, according to Reece.
“Me,” Luke said, turning the automemo about.
Hallin glanced uncomfortably at Mara as he walked around the far side of the table then stretched out to press the image-change, leafing through the designs. Mara resisted the urge to snatch it back, frustrated that Skywalker wasn’t taking this seriously.
“Really—a flag?” Hallin asked, echoing The Heir’s own indifference.
“Absolutely,” Luke assured, coming round to the idea now. “Choose with care—one day soon you may be flying it at half-mast.”
“Why?” Hallin asked, tone glibly dismissive. “What have you done now?”
“Nothing yet,” Luke grinned, teasing eyes turning to Mara, aware that she was fuming. “That Mara knows of anyway.”
Hallin leaned in to rearrange three images on the screen. “This one is good, with the stylized lightsaber hilt against the two… Are they moons or suns? And that one with the… What is that?” he asked, finger on a wreath on one of the flags.
Mara pursed her lips, so Luke prompted her expectantly. “Mara?”
She ground her jaw, but answered without looking to the medic. “It’s lorric willow—a sign of royalty. They used to crown their rulers with it in the Teta System because they thought it encompassed the best attributes of a leader; it’s strong but flexible and never breaks.”
“I’m not from the Teta System,” Luke parried without hesitation.
“Hey, I didn’t design it,” Mara grumbled. When she glanced up at Luke though, his expression was laced with wicked amusement rather than genuine confrontation, and she huffed, annoyed that he could bait her so easily, frustrated by his lack of interest in or excitement about his incredible new position and title. She held his eye and he grinned momentarily, then glanced down, finally conceding and giving a moment’s considered thought.
“I like the twin suns…” Again he paused, seemed to reflect. “But with two sabers, crossed, not one.”
Mara frowned. “Why two?”
“I like the symmetry,” Luke replied vaguely, adding, “And why don’t we have Palpatine’s precious wreath of lorric willow behind them, just to keep him happy.”
Mara frowned; Palpatine had of course dictated the designs that Luke would be given a choice of, though he’d been sure that Luke would choose the twin sun design, given his heritage. But Luke was right; the lorric willow had been his Master’s concept.
“How did you know?” It was all she could ask.
“You said lorric was flexible,” Luke said, rising dismissively as if tiring of the game now. “That which is flexible is also compliant.”
Mara turned back to look at the image. Was that what the Emperor was inferring when he’d ordered the design? Was he still playing his games, even here? It would be so like him to do that—and typical of Skywalker to spot it, his close association with his Master ensuring that he’d identify any double-entendre no matter how subtle.
“Then why use it?” Hallin asked, offended on Luke’s behalf, though Luke himself seemed completely indifferent, having already turned away to gaze distractedly out over the city below.
“Because I don’t care; let him have his petty game. I really don’t care.”
Mara stared uneasily at the design of the two suns, the smaller of the two set part way before the larger, not hearing Luke’s words, something disturbingly familiar about the images, as if she’d seen them in a dream once…
As he left, Mara slipped away to catch up with Hallin. He cut through the unofficial shortcut which everyone used, taking him through Luke’s spacious office and down the curved corridor beside the library, Mara taking the alternate route through the main cupola and running to be at the intersection point of the main hallway before Hallin passed, leaning casually against the wall as he rounded the corner. He slowed a few steps as he saw her, but clearly decided to try to brazen it out, setting forward again.
He didn’t break pace as he continued down the corridor and past the silent Mara, aware of her disapproving gaze on him every step of the way, her eyes narrowed to emerald slits though she didn’t move, didn’t speak until he was three steps past her, the relative safety of the more public, surveillance-heavy hallway tantalizingly close.
“That was quite a show,” Mara said, voice studied but casual. “Amazingly I never really realized until today.”
“Realized what?” Hallin stopped, turning as he spoke, feigning ignorance though he knew what she was talking about.
Mara only nodded. “As I said—quite a show.”
“Whatever it is you’re referring to, I’m sure you’re right,” the medic said vaguely, clearly hoping to disperse this, setting forward again.
“Don’t get too comfortable though,” Mara sniped, stopping him dead.
She shrugged. “I’d hate to think you…abused the position you’ve obviously worked so hard to gain. The repercussions would be…grave.”
Hallin half-turned. “I think you have me confused with someone else, Commander Jade. I have no ambitions above backing up a friend. And yes, I have worked very hard to gain that position—because I happen to value that friendship.”
“Really? Because that was quite a display of persuasion today and if it was for my benefit, I’m not impressed.”
Hallin rounded on her, tone wounded and affronted at once. “Did it ever occur to you that the Commander’s actions today may be due to his discomfort at his new position? That he may feel that this is being forced upon him, or that he’s uncertain what the Emperor expects in return?”
Mara paused before his sharp words, embarrassed by the obvious insight. “He doesn’t need your protection,” she maintained, unwilling to back down.
“Then whose does he have, Commander—yours?” Hallin countered, and Mara was surprised at the fire she saw in his eyes; it wasn’t something she associated with the diminutive, easy-going medic.
“Does that seem so unlikely to you?”
“Actually, no,” Hallin said, that perfectly modulated voice as self-possessed as ever. “I’d like to think we’re arguing the same point here, Commander. I don’t wish to see him hurt—I assume you are searching to clarify the same. So if it helps, I can assure you that I am sincere in my commitment. I’d like to say I hold the same confidence in you…but the truth is that I can’t, can I? And I can assure you, I’m not alone in recognizing your conflict of interest.”
With that final sting, he set off down the corridor, leaving Mara to watch him go, surprised at the bluntness in his words. She glanced down, the slightest of smiles touching the corners of her lips, amused in the way that a timber bear might be when cautioned by a pup’s yap; it was kind of nice to think that Skywalker had someone watching his back, even if it was only Hallin.
She pushed off from the wall, shaking her head in amusement; still, she shouldn’t get complacent. Some pups grew up to be house dogs…and others grew up to be wolves.
“Autonomy is earned.” The Emperor remained casually seated on the heavy, carved chair without looking round to his charge, who paced before the bank of tall, slim windows in the Audience Chamber of his Cabinet like an animal caged, eyes roving the cityscape beyond, always on that dark horizon.
The boy had asked permission to leave Court and been refused again. He desperately wanted to return to his ship, to the fleet, and Palpatine’s refusal had instigated yet another replaying of this old argument. Not that Palpatine minded; it was never quite the same, the boy always managing to bring some new twist to it, especially when he was as frustrated and discontent as he was now. Darkness suited him; he wore it like a second skin. Just like the bespoken, hand-tailored clothes he wore, what had once seemed so obviously uncomfortable and unfamiliar had become second nature. It never failed to mesmerize—to push Palpatine to keep his work of art here for his personal appreciation just one more day.
Though to say such out loud would be breaking the unspoken rules of this particular game. “When I trust you.”
“Trust!” The word came out in a disbelieving, derisive laugh. “You’ll never trust. Try another tactic, Master—that will never work.”
Palpatine set his head on one side, unoffended. “Tell me, Jedi, what do you really want?”
“Freedom,” the boy said simply.
The Emperor only smiled. “Freedom is an illusion.”
“Then give me the illusion,” he replied doggedly.
Palpatine shook his head tolerantly, tone laced with patronizing familiarity which he knew would grate against the boy’s terse irritability. “You would always look for the bars, child; always seek to test them. It is in your nature.”
“Why do you always speak in riddles?”
The frustrated accusation in his voice amused Palpatine endlessly.
“Because you do not want to hear the truth.”
“Because I don’t believe that you speak it,” his Jedi said, turning to face him, pulled back in to the battle for one more round, irritated as much at himself for allowing it as at his Master for instigating it.
Palpatine only smiled, enjoying the game. He had in truth no reason to keep the boy here and they both knew it; all the official functions were done, the long list of formal procedures and protocols which accompanied the Emperor’s announcement of his heir observed and concluded, yet still Palpatine kept him here—in truth for no other reason than that he enjoyed the boy’s company, reluctant as it was. And Skywalker knew it too. It unsettled him; offended him, as all Court life did, the distanced, indifferent façade he maintained transparent before the Force.
The Emperor grinned, thin lips pulled back from stained teeth at his fallen Jedi’s discontent. “Black and white exist only for the pawns in board games. The Force will not be bound by such absolutes—life will not be bound. The truth will not be bound…and neither should you.”
“There is right and wrong,” Skywalker held firm.
“Yes…but they are not the constants you try so hard to cling to. You know that now, and yet still you hobble yourself—try to judge your actions according to the simple allegories of children’s tales. The universe is far too complex to be bound by yes and no, right and wrong, light and darkness. They are only words.”
“They’re not words, they’re ideas,” the boy refuted. “Ideals.”
“Ideals which destroyed the Jedi because they tried to hold to a principle which was not viable—one which was fundamentally flawed in its naïve rigidity. The Jedi themselves were great advocates of the value of history—that we should learn by the mistakes of the past—yet they failed so completely to do so themselves.”
“They gave their lives defending something they believed in,” Skywalker said, adamant.
Palpatine set his head to one side, allowing the defiance in order not to alienate the boy before he had made his point. “You would be surprised how many doubted. How many questioned the decisions of the Council. But they were locked into a course by their own inability to adapt when it became clear how flawed their tenets truly were. Those few who understood—who tried to amend their actions accordingly—the Jedi hunted them down. Persecuted their own kind for nothing more impertinent than asking Why?. How is that a crime?”
The boy glanced to the Emperor, pale eyes searching. “And that’s the truth?”
The slightest smile traced Palpatine’s thin lips; how wonderful that the boy would ask that of him. That he even asked it inferred that he was willing to accept the answer Palpatine gave…and there was the victory.
“That is the truth,” Palpatine stated without doubt.
Skywalker tilted his head just slightly. “But there is no ‘truth’—isn’t that what you just said, Master? Everything is relative. Everything you tell me is simply a point of view.”
They remained still for long seconds, steadfast blue eyes locked onto calculating yellow ochre… Then Palpatine threw back his head and let out a grating laugh, amused and indulgent.
“You play this game too well, child,” he allowed at last. “And here I thought you did not listen.”
Luke glanced away, uncomfortable. He listened. He listened to refute, but he still listened. Somehow Palpatine had always held that influence over him. That was the problem—because sometimes, the arguments wouldn’t come, and then…then just occasionally, something slipped past all Luke’s denials and his contentions and it lodged in his thoughts and stuck fast. Did that mean… Force help him, did that mean he listened to the old man? Were acceptance and the inability to summon yet another coherent argument the same thing?
And was it all a waste of breath now anyway, all these endless arguments and petty semantics? Did his refusal to accept the fact that he had already fallen make it any less true? Or was it simply self-delusion—the worst of all possible lies.
The dour stillness of the grand, cavernous room crushed in on him, overwhelming. He hated this place—the vast, excessive extravagance of endless maze-like halls and countless sprawling galleried enfilades, sterile and soulless, isolating and restricting despite their imposing majesty. He hated this place; palace, prison—call it what you would, the name meant nothing. He knew what it had done to him, what had been taken from him inside these towering walls. What had been stolen and what had been lost, slipping through his fingers like dry desert sand.
The truth, the truth was that he had already fallen. He knew all that he had done in the past years and he could not call it any name but evil. He knew the power which cringed at his feet and leapt with impatient, impulsive agitation whenever he lifted his hand—absolute, infinite, unrestrained power. And yet sometimes, when he meditated and reached instinctively beyond the hulking mass of writhing Darkness, he still sensed…Light. All around him, like an uplift of air, like a pure, perfect note which fired a resonant tone within his own soul. And he knew, he knew, that it too was part of him. He didn’t even need to reach out to it; it was part of him.
When he listened to the secure confidence behind Palpatine's rasping, grating tones, the undisputable certainty rolled out from him in waves, engulfing and suffocating, shaping reality or rolling over it regardless. Luke’s own fragile faith felt pale and ghostlike by comparison, so battered and beaten for so long that these arguments were little more than a pointless game anymore; the motions they both went through out of blank, established familiarity. Even when Luke disagreed his Master still laughed; allowed the dissent because he knew how empty and automatic it really was. In a way that was worse—harder to fight than intimidation or pain.
He wanted to believe; wanted to believe that he still had some faith, some convictions—principles, no matter how skewed, how broken and ragged. But if, in his heart of hearts, Luke believed he had fallen, then was it the truth…or was it simply two differing points of view: his and the Emperor’s?
Which was right and which was wrong…and if everything, even truth, was subjective, then how could either be either? Or was that too just another delusion he allowed himself rather than face the truth?
He shook his head, lost.
Where did it all go so wrong, he wondered bleakly into the darkness of the city’s night, eyes on that distant horizon, the dull glow of the city burning the Coruscant night clear of a single star.
Though he hadn’t voiced the thought, Palpatine answered, taking any opportunity to impose his will. “Nothing is wrong—except that you are still looking for bars to a cage which no longer exists, because you still want to believe that if you can find those bars, if you can break them down, you will finally be free.” Palpatine rose and walked slowly over to Luke, resting pale, bone-thin fingers on the boy’s shoulder, the gesture of empty reassurance masking his need to control, to possess. “You are already free, my friend. I told you once, long ago, that I would do anything to free you. I held true to that promise. That is why you are here today; you are exactly where you were always meant to be.”
“Then why does it feel so wrong?”
“That is in you, child.” His voice was indulgent and condescending, like a teacher with a favored savant. “You project your own doubts onto the Force, when it has no such reservations. You are so determined to deny the truth, but destiny is a hard thing to fight. I did not make you Sith, child, I only released that which was inside you already. You are your father’s son and you despise him for that. That is your choice…but your heritage remains. The blood which runs through your veins is a constant. That is your strength—that is what I see when I look at you. Darkness and destiny. You think that you can renounce it, reject it, but this is the Force at its most basic, elemental. This is the power which turns the galaxy and even we cannot fight that. You think you are refusing me but you are fighting a far greater force…one that will not be denied.”
—I shouldn't be here—
The moment Luke arrived onboard the Peerless, he knew something was wrong. The moment his foot made contact with the deck, the shiver of warning skittered up his spine through the Force, like being submersed in freezing water.
The Peerless had taken the opportunity afforded by its Commander's accession to Heir and his subsequent enforced stay on Coruscant to bring forward its intended visit to the Imperial shipyards at Kuat for the latest upgrades to navigation and atmospheric shields, bringing her up to par with the partially constructed Invincible. When he had finally been given permission to leave Coruscant Luke had immediately set out onboard the Fury, to return to the upgraded Peerless at the Kuat shipyards.
A full honor-guard of the 701st, The Heir's own regiment permanently attached to the Peerless, had been waiting in perfectly lined ranks for his arrival, everyone onboard well aware of the mark of distinction which had been bestowed upon them by extension when their Commander-in-Chief had been named Heir. At two years old still the newest Super Star Destroyer in the fleet, the SSD Peerless had become the pre-eminent vessel of the entire Imperial military—the flagship of the Heir to the Empire. Now she was slipping majestically from dock, her massive bulk dwarfing even the sprawling mass of the Kuat Drive Yards, the Fury and the Relentless forming her guard—as if she needed one.
In the main docking bay, surrounded by the bustle of official practice and parade procedures, Luke knew, awareness travelling up his body as surely and familiarly as the physical vibration of a starship in motion...something was very, very wrong. He paused, reaching out, spreading his senses thin to encompass the whole of the huge Super Star Destroyer—thousands of minds and intents and thoughts…
—shouldn't be here—
Already aboard and awaiting Luke’s arrival, Mara had bowed and walked forward from the command staff to greet Skywalker as he slowed to a halt at the foot of the ramp. “What?”
“Shhh…” Luke intoned softly, manner distant and preoccupied.
Mara frowned, her own danger senses flaring in response as she glanced around. Skywalker remained absolutely still for a long time, eyes unfocused, head tilted just slightly, as if listening…
She too remained still, glancing back to Reece where he stood further up the ramp behind Luke, his hand slipping casually behind his back to the compact blaster Mara knew he kept concealed there as his eyes roved the hangar.
Suddenly Skywalker set forward, jaw locked, eyes stormy.
Mara spun about to keep up. “What’s happening?”
“I need to go to the bridge.”
“Wait—is there a problem?”
“What is it?” She felt that she was having a decidedly one-sided conversation here…
“I don’t know yet.”
As he walked through his staff, Luke glanced to Admiral Joss, who had been waiting with Mara. “Battle stations. Full alert.”
The Admiral stared momentarily, taken aback—but to his credit he was acting within seconds, pulling out his comlink and issuing commands to other officers, everyone rushing to keep up. A siren blared through the massive hanger, red lights above the main entrance beginning to pulse then steadying to a scarlet glow.
Some distant feeling pushed at the back of Mara’s thoughts, prompting her next words: “You should leave the ship.”
Luke turned to her, not even breaking pace in his stride. “How likely do you think that is to happen?”
Mara looked to Reece, who was stepping closer beside Luke now, the blue-pauldroned stormtroopers who were his personal bodyguard pulling in about him.
“Commander,” Reece spoke up, using Luke's military designation onboard the Destroyer, “is the danger connected to the Peerless?”
“Then let us do our jobs and deal with it, Sir. Please return to the shuttle—we’ll have a phalanx of TIE’s escort you back to the Fury.”
Luke paused to turn to Reece, tone dry. “You want me to leave so you can deal with a problem you had no idea existed and have no indication what it is?”
Reece had spent too long in the Commander’s company to flinch beneath that gaze, and held firm. “Yes, Sir. Protocol dictates…”
"Do you think that argument's going to work?” Luke asked distantly, eyes still scanning the bay.
Reece looked helplessly back to Mara as Skywalker turned away again, starting forward. Mara reached out to place a hand on his arm—and everything stopped.
It was now an incredible breach in protocol to even step within a certain distance of The Heir publicly, and long before this, Luke’s own insular solitude had always meant that to reach out and touch him was unheard of. But Mara knew Skywalker and she knew what he would and wouldn’t allow. She was one of less than a handful of people who could do this and get away with it—she hoped.
He turned to her, expression fixed and unreadable, pale eyes locked on hers…
But he didn’t chastise so she held her ground, making one last try. “Luke, please…” It was a quiet, personal request, laced with genuine concern, and as such it actually held his attention for a moment…but only a moment.
“It’s up and aft of our position,” he said, eyes roguish and teasing, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to resist…
“Where?” she asked at last, and he set forward, grinning.
Shaking her head, feeling a reluctant smile come to her own lips, Mara followed him.
The corridors were all empty now, the Commander and his mixed band of aides, officers and stormtroopers roving the ship, Luke walking several steps ahead, closely followed by a very edgy Mara and Reece, everyone waiting expectantly—for what, no one knew…
Finally, decisively, Luke stopped and turned to an access hatch to his right.
Mara stepped forward to the sealed hatch, glancing back to Luke. “Give us a minute to check…” Skywalker made the slightest motion with his hand, eyes on the shoulder-height hatch, and it slid open causing her to whirl back to it, blaster leveling.
“There’s no one in there,” Luke said calmly, stepping forward and ducking into the low hatch which would normally allow the ship’s maintenance droids access to internal workings.
Cursing roundly beneath her breath at his stubbornness, Mara followed…and nearly walked into him when he stopped dead just beyond the entrance.
Inside, set within a clear cylinder within a clear cylinder, was an explosive compression bomb, resting against and wired into what looked like the shield and propulsion systems.
Mara stared at it for long seconds—it had no chrono, no visible timer to indicate when it would blow, no remotes, no visible workings at all. But it did have two long chambers of silver-colored fluid behind about a dozen tremblers within the cylinders and, judging from the greasy taste of the air in the restricted space, some kind of energy shielding. She took a half-step forward and broke her step mid-stride, realizing what she was doing, Luke stretching his hand out to take her arm in the same moment—
“Floor,” he said simply, though her eyes were already turning down to the deck plates. Three of the eight fine panel-locks were missing from the corners of the tiled plates, indicating they’d been lifted recently and replaced in a hurry…
Mara backed carefully out, followed by Skywalker.
“Big bomb,” she said dryly to Reece. “Very big bomb.”
The head of security was already on his comlink summoning the bomb squad, others comming commands to vacate the area, isolate or re-route command functions and close airlocks.
Reece stepped forward, glanced into the access hatch without stepping in then turned back to the Commander. “I think it really is time to go now, Sir.”
Luke stared at him for long seconds, lost in thought, and Mara felt a shiver slice up her spine, setting hairs on end, until he turned. “You can handle the bomb squad? Keep me informed?”
“Of course,” Mara said, nodding; that was way too easy…
“We’ll bring the Fury alongside,” Reece continued. “You can monitor the situation from there.”
Skywalker turned without speaking and set off down the long corridor, the security compliment in tow. As he turned to go, Mara reached out and grabbed Reece’s arm. “You don’t seriously think he’s leaving the Peerless, do you?”
Reece frowned. “Well then where’s he going?”
Mara glanced after Skywalker. “I have no idea. Maybe you should ask him.”
Reece turned and set off after Skywalker at a run.
Luke was still heading forward, following that pale, ghostly tendril of flux within the Force, when Reece caught up, his agitated tone and sense distracting.
“Sir, are we heading for the docking bay?”
“Sir, are you intending to leave the Peerless?” Reece clarified.
—shouldn’t be here—
“There’s another bomb.”
“That one was placed to be found—who leaves a bomb in plain sight? And why in a clear casing? It had more trips on it than a Hutt’s purse—and after going to all that trouble, would you be so careless as to leave locking catches out of floor panels? It was left to be found and slow us down.” Luke glanced sideways at Wez, raising his eyebrows. “Nothing like a big bomb to concentrate your attentions.”
Reece didn’t miss the implication. “So there’s another?”
Luke glanced ahead, drawn on and warned away in the same instant, senses on edge, threat blaring out through the Force. “Yes. Near the forward bays somewhere, I think.”
He continued to scout the ship, aware that he was running out of time, that something big was looming—an event wrapped about by some indefinable nothingness…and the closer he walked to the fore bays, the more defined this void became—the less ambiguous, the more fixed...like the future consolidating…
They entered the forward Troop Docking Bay directly above the TIE’s Deep Storage hangers, several techs pausing in their assigned duties to stand to attention before the trailing band of high-ranking officers. Scattered members of the 701st, also in the hangar, came to smart attention as their Commander entered the bay.
“Reece?" Mara's voice came out over Reece's comlink and Luke tilted his head to listen as he paced across the bay. "We have the specialists here. The floor’s up. They say it’s a staged bomb—several separate detonations—but the trigger mechanism is behind tremblers and there are remotes on the floor under the decking. No sign of any timer yet. We’ll keep you informed.”
Luke turned and took the comlink. “Keep going. Be aware there’s another bomb in the forward Troop Docking Bay.”
There was the slightest of pauses. “And where are you?”
“In the fore Docking Bay.”
—shouldn't be here—
“Figures. I’ll send the team there.”
“No, keep working on that one. We don’t have an exact location for this one yet. Be ready to split the team though.”
“Standby.” As he had spoken, Luke had finished walking the length of the cavernous bay and was now changing direction, trying to lock the nebulous feeling down, time trickling away… Finally he stopped before one of the thick internal walls, hands flat against it. There were no marks on the wall, no signs of tampering—but it practically vibrated through the Force.
—shouldn't be here—
Time ticked in the back of his mind…counting down.
—shouldn't be here—
The words, the knowledge coalesced with absolute clarity in the center of his being, pushing his body for action, making Luke tense against the bone-deep need to leave…
—shouldn't be here—
Fingers trailing the wall, Luke walked on, his heart pound against his ribs, breath coming short...
Everything twisted, with a spike of alarm so extreme that he flinched beneath it.
“It’s here.” Luke backed up two fast steps. “What’s on the other side of this wall?”
Reece turned to the Security Officer, who frowned, remembering. “Probably ordnance storage for the 701st—they’re all around here. It may be munitions or fighters this close to the hanger.”
Luke turned on him. “Probably?!”
The man paled and turned quickly, gesturing for a trooper to go and check, Luke stepping back from the wall and motioning for the officers to back up, catching Reece’s eye...
—shouldn't be here—
“Start evacuating the area.” Luke lifted the comlink as sirens began sounding, maintenance crew and techs who had been watching the strange gathering starting for exits, the 701st Deck Officer starting forward—probably to offer assistance; the whole company were theoretically his personal bodyguard. “Mara?”
Her voice came back reassuringly quickly. “We have a three-stage device—three separate explosive charges—connected into the defense and navigation shields—the connections to propulsion seem to peter out. There’s no timer; it’s a remote trigger device.”
“Can they isolate the frequency, put up a dampening field?"
“No, it’s receiving a constant signal; the moment it stops, it’ll trigger automatically. They say about twenty minutes to diffuse it.”
—shouldn't be here—
“Too long.” The whisper in the center of Luke's mind was connected to every fiber of his body now like a live wire spiking, ever more demanding, spurring for action. “This one will blow first. Evacuate everyone from that area and seal it. Do what you can to protect and re-route the defense shield system and get the bomb squad down to…”
In the access corridor nine stories away and to aft, Mara frowned as she listened to Luke's order, hearing the tension in his voice. Grabbing the bomb-squad commander by the shoulder and gesturing for them to bug out, she turned to walk quickly down the corridor as they gathered their tools and specialist droids. From a distance, she heard an unknown voice over her comlink as someone walked closer to Skywalker... “Sir, the next hanger is tech storage. There’s no device visible in there.”
“It’s in the cavity.” Skywalker’s voice was tight with unease. There was a long pause, then… “BACK!!”
The distant explosion still held the power to rock the floors even at this distance, setting decompression warnings off in sequence, Mara’s heart rising into her throat…
Already deeply immersed in the Force, Luke dragged it in so intensely that it seared through him, cutting like a knife—
In that same instant he threw it out, hands outstretched, containing the massive power of the explosion, deflecting the force in an arrowhead about himself and the small group of officers and troopers behind him, the blast pushing him back, feet sliding against the smooth floor, huge chunks of debris thrown out about him as if they were leaves in the wind, glancing off invisible defenses, fragmenting and embedding in walls and deck and docked ships. The floor below the bomb wrenched away, fissures ripping out, tearing solid ground from beneath his feet in a fraction of an instant—
Luke fell unprepared into the TIE hanger bay below, the shock of the blast and the massive drain of countering it leaving him stunned, darkness drowning his awareness—
A second blast detonated as he fell, the shockwave throwing him back mid-air, hurling shattered fragments toward and about him, propelling him into the side of a heavy transport which scraped across the already debris-littered bay into others—
He was oblivious before the brunt of the impact broke bones.
Mara came bursting into the docking bay, having run at full-tilt across and up several levels, the turbolifts no longer operational as the Peerless’ emergency systems had closed airlocks and forced Mara to backtrack again and again until eventually she’d taken to entering hard-wired override codes to release blast doors and airlocks, klaxons blaring throughout the ship as she did so, her heart in her mouth, adrenaline burning her throat by the time she reached the bay.
She entered a scene of total chaos, black smoke roiling up to gather at ceiling-level, small fires being attended by droids and humans alike, the thin air aiding them, though the atmospheric shields had cut in to maintain the ship’s integrity, emergency systems pumping oxygen into the choked air to make it breathable again.
Many people were down—troopers mostly, medics already in attendance. Everyone capable of standing was gathered near a huge fissure ripped through the floor at the site of the blast, the space before which was strangely untouched, the perfect floor still parade-polished though a wide split had cleaved it in two. Mara ran forward, desperately scared, wildly hopeful that Luke would be standing there...
Everyone looked down through the broad gash in the floor, organic steel girders and power cables twisted back by the fury of the blast to spike into the massive Deep Storage Bay below, it too heavily damaged by the blast, fighters and transports thrown back or over, dragging massive gouges into the soot-streaked floor, a mass of unsalvageable scrap. Below and behind the huge fissure which now cut through the two bays were a large group of people, gathered about a single spot. Mara climbed down the twisted wreckage, still hot to the touch, jumping the final few feet into the storage bay and running forward, pushing through the throng—
Hallin and a team of trauma medics were already gathered about Luke, who lay crumpled on his back, his eyes closed, face blackened, a long deep wound gouged from close beside his right eye down past his cheek and through his lips, seeping blood over his face and into his hair and onto the scuffed, grubby floor.
Was he breathing? She couldn’t see him breathing…
Hallin was positioning a clear tracheotomy frame to his throat with frantic, brittle efficiency, a second medic holding a massive laceration on the side of his neck together, dark, arterial blood pumping from between his fingers. Hallin pulled the release free and slapped the insert forward forcefully, the tube cutting a neat hole in Luke's throat, the back of the clear, curved frame instantly red with blood.
Skywalker’s stomach hitched twice as Hallin leaned in, listening, then his chest heaved in a breath and the medic immediately leaned back. “It’s clear. Quickly please.”
A third medic leaned in, pressing conforming medical strip over the tracheotomy form to tape it to Skywalker’s neck as Hallin took a powered field ventilator and attached it to the cleared tube.
Still Luke didn’t move, didn’t react. Didn’t open his eyes.
Mara dropped down beside him, reaching out her hand, afraid to touch him. “Luke?”
The name, so rarely spoken by Jade, brought Nathan Hallin's eyes up momentarily in surprise. Then he was all business again, taking the IV needle as the second medic set up an intravenous feed. “It’s bad—he has massive blood loss from his neck, blunt force trauma to the skull, multiple fractures and internal hemorrhaging. He’s hypovolemic—we can’t wake him—he’s going into shock.”
Jade gently touched his shoulder, his left arm bent awkwardly away.
“Please—don’t move him at all,” Nathan warned, glancing at her now, belatedly realizing how much this was affecting her.
His eyes went immediately back to his patient, mind completely focused. It was a hard thing, to be a personal physician, and have a friendship with the one you safeguarded. He'd spent so long worrying that this would happen—now that it had, he was at once on fire and strangely calm. “We need these people to get back—there’s a trauma capsule on its way. I need to get fluids into him before we can move him or we’ll lose him right here from multiple organ failure.” He glanced up. "Mara…? Commander Jade?”
She stared at him blankly for several seconds, all color gone from her face, then seemed to realize where she was and rose quickly, turning on those about her. “Everyone back! Get back—give him some room.”
Mara spent anxious hours standing outside the Peerless’ main surgical bay as medical capsules were brought in, some carrying wounded, others carrying those long past any help.
Wez Reece was among the wounded—concussion and shrapnel injuries—and though he hadn’t been able to help, the story of what had transpired came together very quickly. Mara hadn’t yet bothered to go up to the security Ops room to check the surveillance images which would have been fed to the main bank right up until the moment the blast had severed the connection. She had, however, been the one who’d had to go to Comms and tell her master. Which hadn’t gone well.
The Executor was en-route, the Fury and the Relentless having already been joined by the Intrepid and the Dauntless, everyone primed for another attack. So now all there was left to do was wait…
After sixteen straight hours of surgery, Skywalker was laid on his back in Intensive Care, the bed carefully angled to protect against ventilator-assisted pneumonia from the tracheotomy, sutures running a long line down his face and resuming over the deep, ragged laceration at his neck, his right eye swollen closed, another deep, sutured gash disappearing into his hairline.
A series of pins had been constructed to support his left arm, shoulder, both collar-bones and his left shoulder-blade, all shattered in the explosion, and another long line of sutures marked the surgical scar which ran from collar-bone to stomach, where he’d been opened up to deal with internal bleeding. And five hours after surgery, he still hadn’t woken.
Not yet stable enough for bacta, he was on full life-support, one of his lungs collapsed, heartbeat arrhythmic, blood pressure not yet stabilizing after massive blood loss. He was, apparently, of a rare blood group and despite Hallin’s constant requests, Luke had never bothered to give any of his own blood to be kept in storage for just such an emergency. It wasn’t particularly that he thought he was untouchable, Mara knew; he just didn’t really care.
“What are his chances?” Mara whispered, voice broken with guilt; he had been her responsibility—hers alone.
Hallin remained silent for long seconds—probably choosing his words with care, Mara reflected. “We will, of course, do all we can for him, but until we can stabilize him it’s difficult to provide any prognosis.”
Mara turned to him. “Which means?”
“Very serious. Critical, until we can stabilize him.”
Mara tried a different tack—she was after all a trained agent, and knew how to keep pushing until she got the truth. “Will he wake up?”
“I don’t know. His coma could be as a result of the hypovolemia—he lost around thirty percent of blood volume—or more likely traumatic brain injury. He had four seizures on the operating table, which would seem to indicate ongoing damage from brain contusions, though there’s no serious skull fractures. We’ve re-established perfusion to the organs, but we weren’t able to put him on anticoagulants due to the internal bleeding into his abdominal cavity. Now he’s out of surgery we can monitor that more closely, but all indications are that the coma will persist so I daren't put him into bacta. We’ll know more within the next few hours, I think.”
The silence hung for a long time, punctuated by the steady wheeze of the respirator and the gentle pips of the life support, before Mara found her voice. “Vader will be here in four hours. We’ll transfer him to the Executor then and jump for Coruscant, with a mid-jump stop to allow trauma specialists to board from the Dominant, which is en-route from Coruscant now.”
“Move him?” Hallin’s voice expressed his opinion of that.
“Well we can’t fly back in the Peerless, can we?”
The Peerless had sustained damage to her forward bays, leaving them partially open to space over several levels, only the outer environmental compression shields maintaining atmospheric pressure. The first bomb connected to the shields had been far smaller than originally thought, so with internal seals engaged and mobile blast shields set about it to minimize the damage, it had caused little harm outside of a close radius when it detonated. But it had still done its job efficiently; they were effectively flying without navigation shields, so the Peerless certainly wasn’t in any fit state to jump.
How anyone in the fore bays had survived that explosion was beyond Mara; that gravity had held and the whole bay hadn’t decompressed was a miracle.
Or maybe not—initial reports indicated that the blast from the two-stage explosion in the bay had been channeled down, preventing the force of the discharge from ripping the external walls of the bay wide open to space and thus explosive decompression over many levels, which would have instantly killed everyone in the bays affected. Yet on early inspection the recovered fragments of the bomb casing indicated no such feature.
Had Skywalker found the time, Mara wondered, to limit the damage—to direct the blast?
Was that even possible?
There was, to Mara’s memory, only a fraction of a second between his shouting ‘Back!’ and the sound of the explosion. Had he been able not only to form a Force-shield strong enough to withstand a four-click explosion, but also have enough power left to actually control the direction of the blast itself?
She looked at the broken, bruised man before her, still as death, a cold weight settling in her stomach. He’d probably saved a couple of hundred lives…but had the cost been his own?
Leia sat quietly in the noisy, bustling main fighter bay of Home One, waiting for Han’s flight to come back; they were due about five minutes ago, so it could be any time now. In the meantime, she stared out into the velvet blackness, eyes drawn to the distant moon of the inhospitable Anzat, thoughts far away. Beside her, his fur warm against the chill of the cool docking bay, Chewie crooned lightly, dismayed by the news she’d just given him. Enough so that he’d decided to come along to mediate in this coming confession, though it was hardly Leia’s fault; she’d been as in the dark as everyone else here, and she knew exactly why; they hadn’t trusted her not to tell Han…
They were probably right.
The first of the A-Wings came in hot and effected a sharp stop, repulsor engines cutting in as its sublights cut out, bobbing it precariously on the spot as several others came in to land close by, the rest waiting outside the bay for a clear slot. Leia sighed as Han's A-Wing came in to a fast landing, then she rose, dusting imaginary dirt from her pale blue trousers as she set forward.
Popping the canopy on his fighter Han grinned, seeing her set toward him, Chewie in tow. “Hey, what’s this, a welcoming committee?”
Leia didn’t smile, and Han pulled off his helmet, sitting up on the side of the cockpit to swing his legs clear. “Whoa, who died?” Even as he said it he bit his tongue; it was a real day-to-day occurrence here and he felt he’d jinxed someone by even saying it.
“Han, I heard some news and…I thought you should know—I wanted to tell you myself.”
Kini, one of the techs, stepped in, oblivious to the grave conversation, running her expert hand over the still-freezing panels of the A-Wing as she did so. “Hey, Commander, hear the news? There’s no Heir anymore, courtesy of the Alliance!” She paused, unaware of his widening eyes, rolling her panel-gauge backwards over her fingers like a gunslinger. “Boom!! Just like that!”
Han spun round to Leia, who cursed beneath her breath; she’d wasted the last half-hour in the bay waiting for Solo to come back, wanting to be the one who broke it to him…
“Is that true?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know—nobody did. It was a covert operation, strictly need-to-know.”
“Whose?” Han ground the word, making Leia worry that he may well march from the bay right now and find them.
“Madine had a unit at Kuat Shipyards, the Peerless was being outfitted there…” She didn’t know what else to say.
In truth it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; Mon Mothma had made no secret of her intent to bring The Heir down, though no specific plan had ever been mentioned. Somehow Leia still couldn’t believe it and somehow…she’d known it would happen. She’d dreamed of the black wolf last night, though as often transpired in the safe light of day, she couldn’t quite bring the dream to mind anymore. All she knew was that it had been there again…hunting. Had Mon been there too? She narrowed her eyes, almost remembering…
“So, what, they planted a bomb?” Han asked, disgusted. “If you’re gonna kill somebody, you should at least have the decency to look him in the eyes when you do it.”
“Two. Mon disclosed the details about an hour ago. Madine had organized and implemented the action from his own Special Ops, and she had authorized it. No one else was told, to avoid any leaks.”
“Avoid any leaks!” Han dismissed skeptically. “Avoid any arguments, more likely. All wrapped up, nice and neat, huh?”
She looked down and Han’s gaze turned up to Chewie who keened in mournful agreement.
The truth was Leia had no idea how to take this news herself—no idea if this was a bad thing or a good. But she knew Han, and she knew that regardless of…everything, he still considered Luke a friend, and there weren’t many he gave that name to. And now…
“They’re…sure?” Han asked awkwardly, looking for hope.
Leia nodded. “Pretty sure, yes. They had confirmation that he was inside the bay when the bomb blew. We’ve been listening on all official channels since before dawn, and they've been like livewires, but nothing’s been mentioned to contradict that.”
Han nodded his head, clearly bewildered as to what he should do next. Finally, pursing his lips, he set off across the bay, jaw tense, face like thunder. Leia made to follow, but Chewie took her shoulder to keep her there, shaking his head as he gruffed advice, knowing she would understand his action if not his words: “Let him go.”
Nathan turned back into the medi-bay, having been called away yet again to answer a deeply troubling comm. Not only because its originator, the Emperor, expected almost hourly updates on his patient, but once again because of its content.
In his first comm, on the day of the explosion, he'd been closely quizzed on every aspect of The Heir's injuries whilst actually still in surgery, the comlink being held by a rather squeamish-looking officer whilst Nathan stood, gloved hands held out before him, five surgical droids continuing to work to repair internal injuries, another team of five attempting to reconstruct the shattered arm.
Palpatine had gone to great lengths to clarify in no uncertain terms that, although Nathan had explained that the nature of the extensive injuries to The Heir’s left arm would suggest amputation, under no circumstances was this to happen. Amputation was not an option unless the injury became life-threatening, and even then, it was only by direct permission of the Emperor; if this caused complications later, then they would be dealt with. For now, Nathan's job was to stabilize Skywalker until Lord Vader’s arrival.
On his next comm, the Emperor had clarified which drugs may and may not be used, based on their effects on a Force-sensitive individual.
Another comm was to communicate the fact that should The Heir die, various organic samples were to be collected before any cellular breakdown began, this to be done in absolute secrecy, even from Jade, Reece and Lord Vader.
This latest comm had been to make very clear, as only Palpatine could, the consequences that The Heir’s death would have on Nathan's own life-expectancy. Which weren’t too rosy.
All of which left Nathan in something of a quandary. Because, if it came down to it, his loyalties lay squarely with Luke and not with the Emperor—as they had been for some time now. Consequently he’d stopped off yet again at Reece’s quarters, where The Heir regularly removed any surveillance devices, to discuss the mounting comms. Now, on his way back to intensive care, he was yet again fretting over the fact that, unless Luke woke, their hands were pretty much tied…
He passed the numerous troopers and security details arranged outside his medi-bay and trudged tiredly through the darkened bay, glancing through the semi-closed, slatted privacy blind of the transparent wall, momentarily able to see through the blinds at this particular angle—and stopped dead.
Mara Jade was still in there, as she had been almost every hour of the last four days, sitting on a chair beside the bed, her unmistakable gold-flecked red hair almost glowing in the low light. In the darkness of the room she was sleeping, head leant on the edge of the Commander’s high medical bed, arm crooked up…hand resting on Skywalker’s, her fingers entwined around his.
Nathan remained frozen, stock-still. Had he not glanced up at just the right moment, he would never have seen. Were they…?
Mara had always been with the Commander, as long as Nathan had known him, and though he purposely kept her close and allowed no slurs of her, he had also repeatedly told both Nathan and Reece that she was not to be trusted. Then again, he always played his cards close to his chest and unless he felt they actually needed to know, chances were he wouldn’t tell them. And even Nathan could see that Mara was a stunning woman—if one was that way inclined, which he wasn’t. It occurred to him suddenly to wonder if Reece knew about this… Or maybe he was reading far too much into it?
Stepping toward the entrance, he kicked against the bottom of the door before hitting the release, coughing deeply, eyes down as he walked in…and lo, when he’d entered the room and looked up, Jade was sitting bolt upright, both hands on the chair arms.
One day later, Nathan was nervously escorting Skywalker down the ramp of the shuttle which had landed on one of the small dedicated Tower pads close to the Palace’s private medi-center, a full-array medical capsule serving as life support. Luke’s condition had remained critical as he had dropped into a coma, the arrival of Lord Vader halting that gradual decline as Vader remained every subsequent hour with his son, often standing at the head of the bed, gloved hands resting against Luke’s temples, or to the side, hand resting on his son’s surgery-scarred chest, head down in concentration.
Twice now he’d been readmitted to surgery when his blood-pressure had drastically dropped, the second time enabling one of the trauma specialists the Executor had made a brief stop to bring onboard to lend his own expertise to the medical team presently staking not just their reputations, but very probably their lives on their ability to heal The Heir.
At the moment, it was a battle just to keep him alive.
They paused briefly on the platform as the Emperor stalked forward, face tight and pinched, skin sallow in the harsh light of day. He reached out briefly to rest his hand on the sealed sled, then stepped back to allow the solemn, nervous little contingent of white-dressed medics to pass, all eyes and attention on the sled’s delicate passenger.
Nathan didn’t even particularly relax when Luke was ensconced in the Intensive Care Unit, since all they had been able to do to date was keep pace with the situation, no real stability ensured as yet, and the truth was that there were no more advanced facilities or staff available here in the Palace than had existed onboard the Peerless.
Luke hadn’t once gained consciousness, nor had his brain dropped into the particular pattern that would indicate any kind of Force-induced trance, save for when his father stood quietly beside him, hand resting gently on his temples, as he was now.
Lord Vader had been…surprisingly subdued throughout his son’s struggle, remaining at his side almost constantly, thus rendering Jade unable to do the same since they had boarded the Executor five days ago, she and Lord Vader having a history as a volatile combination at the very best of times. Nathan had expected explosive retribution rained down on all about Vader, yet he had kept strangely, uncharacteristically passive. Restrained and self-possessed, even when his son had been rushed back into surgery.
Now the medi-center doors slid open to the Emperor and his entourage, whom he gestured to remain outside as he stepped forward, cold yellow eyes locking mercilessly on Hallin. “How is my Jedi, Medic?”
“He’s, um…st...em..” Pull yourself together, man! “He…remains in a critical condition I’m afraid, Excellency. His injuries were very severe—the proximity of the blast caused blunt and penetrating trauma leading to internal hemorrhaging and hypovolemic shock. He also has blunt trauma hairline fractures to the skull which caused early seizures. Subsequent scans have shown this to be under control, though we have no prognosis as to complications yet. He also suffered internal injuries from shrapnel, some of which are very serious—one piece punctured his trachea, causing acute damage and consequent blood loss. The resultant dip in blood-pressure further restricted oxygen flow to the brain. As you know, he also has compound, comminuted and spiral fractures to his left side which have shattered the radius and humerus of his arm as well as the acromion, scapula and both clavicle. The final impact also caused spinal injuries to L-four and five, and it was probably this which dislocated his femur and ankle and broke several ribs, one of them puncturing his right lung.”
“I did not ask what had happened,” the Emperor ground out. “I asked his present condition.”
Nathan took a heartbeat to calm himself. Not blinded by medical terms then. “In this kind of severe trauma, there are often secondary repercussions due to shock and resultant complications, and it’s these which are causing problems now, making it difficult to stabilize the patient, though the team presently in attendance are extremely experienced, and we are trying our level best.”
“Without any real effect, is that what you’re trying to say?”
Nathan could only remain silent before that cutting observation.
Palpatine turned away, disgusted, to walk into the dim of the life-support bay and stand beside the boy, his father stepping back, straightening to bow deferentially, the act completely ignored by the Emperor.
There was a stillness to the boy, in body and mind—a stillness within the Force. He reached out to rest his hand on the boy’s lacerated chest, fingers spreading as he closed his eyes and searched… A tiny spark remained, neither dwindling nor trying to reignite. Palpatine opened his eyes, frustrated and apprehensive. Had all his work, all his expenditure of energy and time, been for nothing?
It would not be the end of his greater plan were the boy to die now, though it would delay it considerably. Still, now that he was here the boy could be kept alive physically until his usefulness was at an end.
Even so, Palpatine didn’t wish to lose that which he had invested so much in creating—didn’t wish to lose this source of power. He stared at his fallen Jedi for a long time, watching his chest rise and fall mechanically in the dim lights of the medical units. Finally he reached up to brush a long, curved nail down the deep, severe scar which ran from above his Jedi’s blood-bruised eye down his cheek and through his pale lips, still swollen and split.
Slowly, he became aware of the boy’s father standing silently nearby and lifted his head.
Vader watched the Emperor press his hand to the boy’s chest, searching for his familiar presence in the Force, normally a rush of incandescent light—now little more than an ember, and he knew what his Master would say.
He watched him study the boy, lost in thought, seeing only his precious plans and his manipulations, afraid that he might lose them, and still he knew what the Emperor would say.
He watched him reach out to touch the angry, ugly gash which scarred his son’s face from forehead to chin, burning Vader as if it were his own, and he waited for the words he knew would come.
He knew they’d come because he'd thought them himself a thousand times since he’d seen his son laid unconscious and injured, bloody and bruised, still as the grave.
Palpatine looked up to him, cold voice hard and gravelly, absolutely unyielding... “It should have been you.”
He turned and walked from the room, leaving Vader to lower his head back to his son, wishing absolutely that it had been.
Nathan stood quietly by the bed, checking the readouts for the umpteenth time that day, willing some kind of change.
He gently tried to pry open the Commander’s right eye, both the white of the anterior chamber and the iris itself still flooded completely red from internal hemorrhaging, blood darkening over the days but not yet clearing. This too had been injured by whatever had hit his face, the iris split and the lens damaged, causing fears that he may well lose sight in that eye. Specialists had reassured that it could be treated or replaced, and everyone was simply waiting for the blood to clear and the lens to reattach as the swelling went down, before they made a more accurate prognosis.
Everyone was simply waiting…
Fifteen days since the explosion, and everyone was still waiting. Fourteen days put Luke past the preferred norm for coma recovery, though still a long way from the upper limit of thirty-five. But he was now officially beginning to cut into his chances of a full recovery and increase his chances of regressing into a vegetative state.
Nathan leaned in close and said loudly and clearly, “Wake up. You’re doing this on purpose and it is not funny.”
He checked Luke’s left arm, still encased in strapped polycarbonate forms, long organic steel tension bars protruding from wrist to elbow and elbow to shoulder, taking the strain of broken bones too badly damaged to hold otherwise, another two maintaining tension across his shattered collarbones. A separate team of five surgical droids had taken almost seven hours to reassemble the shattered fragments of bone to save the arm whilst Nathan's team of surgical droids had concentrated on tracking down internal injuries in that first mammoth surgical session.
Supervised by Nathan, they’d replaced lost fragments of bone with porous, lab-grown polyhusk, laminating the shattered remnants together and securing them with dozens of fine surgical pins, using external tension bars to relieve pressure on the delicate repairs, veneering the reassembled bones and joint surfaces with xenotol. They’d re-laid shredded muscle, scaled from the bone by the fury of the blast, packing the wound with more cultures where mass was lost before suturing the surface, using bacta-impregnated synthiflesh where nothing was left to suture then setting the arm in molded, polycarbonate splints, sections cut free to allow for the bars set into the bone, two further external tension bars set into bloody, bruised skin over his collarbones, rising gently now with the rasp of the ventilator.
Nathan checked the tracheotomy tube which kept Luke's reconstructed trachea open and the fluid tap which drained his collapsed lung, remaining due to necessity, then he turned his eyes back to the organic steel pins and bars of Skywalker’s arm, frowning. It was a mess, and would have been far better removed. Nathan had intended to do so—had already loaded the amputation program into the surgical droids when the Emperor’s comm had stopped him. Now it would be at best a long, difficult recovery.
Luke's prosthetic right hand, damaged beyond repair, had been removed. Synthiflesh was already being cultivated over a new replacement prosthesis, the wet-wired connections which joined synthetic and organic nerves together carefully re-spliced and left inactive, bundled together in preparation for the fitting. The long, chromed locking bar which had been grafted into the bone when the first prosthesis had been fitted three years ago protruded unnervingly from the scarred stump, the bundle of wet-wire connections pulled back and taped to his arm.
In short, he looked dreadful—scarily so in fact, even to Nathan. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “You may have slept, my friend, but you’re costing me way too much of the same. If you wouldn’t mind waking up now, maybe I could get a little shut-eye?”
Someone tapped lightly on the door, catching Nathan's attention; Commander Jade raised her eyebrows in question and he nodded her in.
“Any change?” she murmured, hesitant and hopeful. It had been fifteen days since she’d last visited—the day they’d arrived at the Palace.
Nathan shook his head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. Perhaps you’d like to sit a while with him? Lord Vader will be gone for a few hours.” He instantly regretted adding the last; it was impolitic of him to speak so openly here—proof of how little sleep he was existing on—but she didn’t glance up from Skywalker, only nodded and stepped forward.
“You should speak to him,” Nathan prompted. “His eardrums are repairing so he can hear you now. Sometimes it helps.” He heard the defeat in his own voice but was too tired to hide it, turning to shuffle from the room.
As he reached the door, Jade called him gently. “Hallin? I just wanted to…” Her face was uneasy as he turned to her, her voice lacking its usual confidence. “… Thanks. For stepping in. I know it was you.”
He smiled tiredly. “Are there no secrets in this place?”
She set her head to one side, green eyes bright in the low light. “More than you think.”
Nathan froze at that, his memory of Jade's hand wrapped about Skywalker's when she'd thought them alone firing. He managed the slightest of disconcerted smiles, and for the first time Jade allowed one back, glancing away as she did so.
He raised his eyebrows, glancing pointedly to Luke before he turned to leave, his perfectly modulated tones as pithy as ever. “I didn’t do it for you.”
Mara turned back to Skywalker, smiling affectionately. “Hey, remember me?”
She had been banned from visiting Luke since they’d arrived, Palpatine rounding on her that first night when he had found her in the medi-bay.
“What are you doing here?” he’d grated, making Mara flinch inwardly. This was the first time she had seen him since her arrival, and she’d been expecting some kind of rebuke.
“You have no right to be here.” His words were caustic with accusation and Mara had frowned, uncertain, his stare withering her. “Since you seem incapable of carrying out the task which I assigned you, you are hereby relieved of it. Return to your quarters. There will be no more contact between yourself and my Jedi.”
Mara had shrunk back before that, the punishment settling like a stone in her stomach, leaving her cold. “I couldn’t stop him—I tried to make him…”
“Tried?” He bit the word out, tone mocking and dismissive. “The Emperor’s Hand does not try—she does not whine like a child. You’re pathetic—get out.”
He’d turned to his Jedi, hand reaching out, then glanced up at Mara who had remained frozen to the spot.
“GET OUT!!” he’d shouted, and the body-blow in the Force had sent her staggering backwards, knocking the air from her lungs in a gasp, making her lift her hands in defense as she slammed into the wall behind her.
Skywalker had flinched in sleep, the readouts on the monitors peaking momentarily, bringing the Emperor’s eyes back down to him.
He hadn't look up as Mara gathered herself together, bowed before her master and walked shakily from the room. She'd passed Hallin in the corridor—he never went far from The Heir—but didn’t turn or acknowledge him, head down, eyes glassy.
And now, suddenly, she was allowed back. After fifteen stomach-churning days of worry and countless comms to his apartments inquiring as to his condition, all of which had been returned with the short, official form explanation that The Heir was unavailable at the present time, his whereabouts confidential.
Then, less than an hour ago, she’d been visited by Saté Pestage. The Emperor, he informed her, had in his magnanimous generosity, decided that she would be allowed one more chance to reprieve his low opinion of her. She would be reinstated—on parole—to her previous position. Not because he had any great faith in her, but because he had been advised that medically, at the present time it was in The Heir’s interests to keep those with whom he was familiar close.
She’d walked straight here—practically ran.
Now she sat alone in the room with the man who had slowly crept under and around every barrier she’d constructed to keep him out. Without even realizing it—that was the galling thing; he didn’t even know. But whether he knew it or not, he was under her skin and messing with her head and making her stomach do little backflips whenever he let his own shields down just enough to flash her a grin or a sideways glance full of dry humor and easy charm. Fifteen days away from him, the threat that she may never see him again hanging like a thunderstorm over her head, had clarified a few things which had been stewing for way too long.
From an early age she’d lived in the Palace, and she’d always been taught that one day she would be a soldier, and a soldier learned that in any tough situation, you step back and you calm down and you look at the facts. You come to a conclusion based on those facts then you decide a course of action which will bring that conclusion and your mission objectives to a convergent route.
It had taken her a long, long time to reach those conclusions about Skywalker and realize just exactly what she wanted that optimum outcome to be; that some things just defied logic and when they did, you had to throw the rule book out the window and damn well get on with it. Deal with it. Stop trying to ignore it. She’d tried that for the last three years and the results weren’t exactly sparkling to date.
New tack. New direction.
“Talk to him, huh?” Mara murmured. “Fine. You listen to me, Luke Skywalker...”
She’d meant it to come out fierce and angry but it was small and scared and the rarity of that just made her all the more so. “You listen to me and stop messing around. You get your ass back in gear and open your eyes ‘cos if you think for one moment that I’m gonna let you leave me all alone again then you are very wrong. This is all your fault—you and your stupid, big blue eyes. Well you’d just better open them before I black ‘em both! Who the hell am I gonna play sabacc with if you’re not here? I don’t even like sabacc! I spend ten hours a week playing a game I don’t even like and owe you about two years’ wages! That should tell you something… For a guy who can read minds, you seem to have a hell of a hard time knowing mine.”
She studied him for a long time, looking for some response…
Eventually, she slumped again, reaching out to run the back of her fingers down his bruised cheek, pushing his hair back gently as she sighed deeply. “Wake up, Skywalker,” she murmured at last. “Don’t mess with my head. You’re already messing with my heart.”
Nathan stood in attentive silence several steps away from the door, still able to hear but hidden by the turn in the wall, smiling. This was what he needed—forget all the scans and the facts and the figures—this was what Luke Skywalker needed. He needed someone who cared for him, whom he had some connection to, to come in here and lead him back out. He needed someone he wanted to hear—he needed someone who needed him.
“Damn I’m good,” Nathan murmured, walking away.
Days of waiting were marked by the staggered disappearance of medical machinery as a broken body slowly took time to heal, and the featureless square room which was once crowded by life-support systems fell to still silence as each one was removed. The pips and the beeps and the regulated, rasping breaths of the tracheostomy air exchange, which had formed the clinical background chatter of the room for so long, fell one by one to silence as medical intervention was no longer required, until eventually all that was left was the neural monitor interface and the cradle scanner which still ran its silent track up and down beneath the bed, scanning its occupant and updating readouts with a muted ‘pip’ every time it returned to the cradle.
And still he didn’t wake.
Sometimes, unsettlingly, he would lay for long periods of time with his eyes open, staring blankly at the ceiling, blinking with exaggerated slowness. This was the most disquieting thing of all to Mara, who didn’t know that coma victims did such things, disturbed by the impassive stillness behind those blank eyes.
His right eye remained swollen half-closed, the deep slice which ran the length of his face having taken a gouge from his lid and rendered the eye—barely visible beneath the swelling—completely red, both white and iris infused with blood.
Hallin would enter often, talking and bustling about as he checked IV’s and performed hourly tests without fail, explaining his actions to Luke, warning him when something would hurt, looking for a reaction, acting always as if Luke were awake and aware.
But he wasn’t.
Mara knew she should stand on guard outside the room, but couldn’t bring herself to leave him alone to stare in blank silence at nothing. Couldn’t bring herself to think that he may remain in this state as the days came and went…yet he did.
All the while her master’s accusations rang in her head—that she had failed. Both her master and Skywalker. And for the first time she began to wonder—which bothered her most?
Days came and went. Five, then six, then seven…and Nathan began to worry that maybe he wasn’t quite so good.
He knocked politely and leaned in through the door to look at the ever-present Jade. “How’s he doing?”
“Oh, he flashed the little blue light at me a few times,” she said dryly, glancing up at the readouts behind her. “I think he was just showing off.”
“That’s good—blue is good,” Nathan said, smiling slightly before stepping back out of the room.
They’d come to an unspoken agreement, he and Jade; neither of them mentioned anything. He acted as if he hadn’t worked it all out about she and Skywalker, and she acted as if she hadn’t realized he’d worked it all out…which dovetailed quite nicely.
He wandered over to conference room nine, where yet another group of specialists had been brought in by the Emperor to deal with the problem. Nathan was quite proud—very proud in fact—of the way he’d managed to deflect blame neatly away from himself for the last few weeks and onto a variety of specialists whom he’d basically shipped in specially for the purpose of keeping Palpatine off his back until Luke finally opened his damn eyes. It wasn’t as if any of them could refuse…
Time to meet this week’s cannon-fodder.
Mara sat quietly in the room, automemo on her lap, reading today’s dispatches out loud for want of anything else to say, pointing out to Skywalker any she thought he might like to know, passing the occasional comment as she did so. “… of course, it’s easy for them to say changing the Rim borders will clarify the…” She trailed off as the life-support made a disturbing new sound—what had been a low, regular beep for the last week raising in pitch then joining to a staccato tone.
“Chell!” she cursed, jumping up to reach over to the alert resting on the far side of the bed—
and glancing down into open, slow-blinking eyes.
“…Luke?” She dropped the alarm comm in her surprise, distantly hearing it clatter to the floor, realizing that there was something different this time—that this was awareness.
“Hey, look at you,” she said gently, heart pounding. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
He blinked several times, and Mara tried not to notice his right eye, which still had no white at all, even the iris shot through with the dark, ruddy-brown of old blood, then his unfocused gaze drifted up to the ceiling. Mara was prevented from saying any more by Hallin barreling in through the door, skidding to a halt and leaning in close, fumbling for something in his many pockets before eventually giving up.
“Commander, can you hear me?”
Luke didn’t look, and Hallin repeated the question a little louder, Mara stepping back to give him room. He moved in, snapping his fingers before Luke’s eyes, to worryingly little effect as far as Mara was concerned.
“Commander…? Luke? Luke, I need you to look at me. Luke?” Hallin again snapped his fingers, and Luke finally lowered his gaze just slightly towards them, though his eyes bobbed and weaved and he blinked constantly.
“Luke, I need you to speak to me. Can you say your name?” With no answer or acknowledgment forthcoming, Hallin leaned in closer. “Luke, can you hear me? Luke, I need you to say ‘yes’. This is very important…you need to say ‘yes’.”
Mara watched hopelessly as Luke’s vague awareness drifted, bruised eyes gradually closing.
“Luke?” she asked at last, but he was gone, eyelids fluttering shut, the audio marker on the display dropping slowly to a pulse again. Mara sighed, deeply dispirited.
“Well, that was pretty positive.” Hallin beamed, bringing Mara’s eyes to him in disbelief.
“How the hell do you work that out?”
“He woke up.” Hallin nodded in reassurance as he looked to the readouts. “Everything will be fine—there’s nothing wrong with his brain activity, minimal damage on any scans. We just needed him to open his damn eyes.”
Mara raised her eyebrows in accusation. “You said that some patients never progress beyond basic responses.”
“I did, that’s true. But neurological damage is minimum and he’s regained consciousness well within that thirty-five day window of maximum potential… Everything will be fine now, Commander Jade. Trust me.” He practically buzzed with excitement and relief, gesturing to the automemo she held when Mara continued to stare at him. “You should…keep going with that. Clearly he likes it. What were you reading?”
She glanced down, askance. “Just dispatches.”
“Ah,” Hallin deadpanned, keeping a serious face. “He always likes to keep up with current events.”
Mara raised her eyebrows, not knowing whether the strange, slight medic was joking or not.
Day fell into night but Nathan remained in a buoyant mood as the scanners showed sustained, elevated brain activity, Luke just a few beats away from sleeping now. Despite his assurances to Jade, somewhere in the back of his head Nathan had been dreading the specter of a slow decline from coma to a persistent vegetative state then a minimally conscious one and eventually brain death, or death from complications.
He hadn’t realized until now just how afraid he’d been of losing Luke. He headed back to do a final check of his patient for tonight, confident that in a day—two at the most…
He stopped dead as he entered the room. The Emperor was leaning forward over Skywalker, hand resting lightly on the long surgical scar which ran down his chest.
Nathan hadn’t been informed that the Emperor was here and no extra guards had given his presence away, so now he simply froze, uncertain what to do.
Palpatine didn’t turn as Nathan finally remembered to bow.
“My Jedi woke today.” It was a statement, not a question. Hallin had of course informed the Emperor’s office as soon as Luke had woken, but still, something told him that Palpatine would have known anyway. A small shiver ran down his spine, at what he didn’t know; some distant alarm sounding…
He finally found his voice. “Yes, Excellency. Just for a few moments, but I’m confident that he’s turned that corner.”
He stepped forward just slightly then stopped, deeply uncomfortable. Palpatine didn’t move, didn’t turn away from his study of Skywalker’s face, hand remaining lightly pressed against the long scar on his chest. The brittle silence stretched out, until Nathan could stand it no more. “The um…the scars, we’ve been treating with Inabertol and bacta. It will diminish the…”
“Not these,” Palpatine said, finally lifting his hand to gently run the back of one ridged nail down the long, severe scar which ran from Skywalker’s eye down his right cheek and through his lips, trailing down onto the still-severe wound at his throat. “These he’ll keep. A permanent reminder of betrayal—the limits of misplaced trust.”
Nathan frowned, voice barely a whisper beneath the intensity of the Emperor’s will. “You want me to stop treating them?”
The Emperor set his head on one side, continuing quietly as if Nathan had not spoken, “Art should have a signature. Until it does, one is never quite sure that it is truly finished. And it suits him—suits his nature… He’s become rather…striking, don’t you think? Charismatic; fascinating in his contradictions.”
Nathan slowed, realization running cold down his spine. “I’m not…”
Palpatine turned on him, yellow eyes seeming to glow in the low light. “Don’t you think?”
Nathan fell to silence, frozen to the spot, no idea of how to diffuse this… Then the Emperor laughed just slightly, amused. “Oh, don’t worry, medic. This one has a built-in immunity—it’s kept him safe for this long.”
He turned back, leaning in to touch the grim scar just above the sleeping man’s lips, long, thin fingers so pale as to be bonelike in the low light, trembling just slightly as they hovered there. Then he turned away, walking slowly past Nathan, his gnarled cane clicking against the sterile floor. He paused beside the medic without looking round, voice coolly perceptive, as if sharing some unspoken mutual accord. “One may appreciate a work of art even if one cannot own it, but then you know that, medic…no?”
Nathan remained still, eyes down, and eventually the Emperor walked on, his cane tak-takking into the distance, its every strike sending a jarring pulse up Hallin's spine.
“He’s not dead,” Leia said simply as she came to a stop, bringing Han’s eyes quizzically up to her from his breakfast plate.
“He’s not dead; we didn’t get him. He’s on Coruscant.”
Han’s eyes lit, a lopsided grin of realization spreading across his face. “Luke?”
“Whoever.” Leia shrugged, sitting down beside him and gazing down at her own plate to hide her face. For some reason, she could feel the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth too, much as she tried to repress it. It had just never felt right—not that way.
“Hey, kid’s bombproof as well now, huh?” Han crowed, amused.
“No. We hurt him pretty bad, we think. We only have a few fragments of information, but Tag put it all together and could only make it make sense one way. He’s alive but badly injured. He was taken to Coruscant immediately, she thinks, when the Executor made orbit there a few weeks ago. The Bothans say the official line in the Palace is that The Heir is unavailable at present, on an assignment for the Emperor, yet all his Aides and adjutants are still at the Palace, including Jade and Reece, both of whom he never goes anywhere without. But there’ve been absolutely no sightings of him, and there are only two guards outside the Perlemian Apartments, which Massa thinks points to his being too ill to be allowed to return to his own apartments.”
Leia sighed. “This is all conjecture of course, but since they’ve not announced his death by now, we have to assume he’s alive. Added to that is the fact that his personal medic hasn’t left the medi-centre for weeks and he’s generally close to The Heir, plus all kinds of specialists are being summoned to the Palace on a daily basis, and no one else seems ill. The reasonable conclusion is that they’re there because of The Heir. Tag’s working every trick she knows and pulling in anything even vaguely related to try and get something more concrete. ”
Intel had been going ballistic since the assassination attempt had been announced, firstly because they were kept out of the loop and secondly because they now needed to get some kind of solid evidence either way. But because they hadn’t known about the attempt, they had no one in place to do so. Every resource had been committed to that goal within hours and the initial intelligence had looked good. The Peerless had returned to the Kuat Shipyards and The Heir wasn't seen to disembark, the official line being that a recent repair had failed. But the unit Madine had placed there to lay the bombs had verified that there was visible blast damage as it came in to dock… then they disappeared. No more contact; nothing.
Again, the normally cool, unflappable Massa had stood up in Council meetings to make her point in no uncertain terms that if she’d been in the loop, then this could probably have been avoided.
Leia lifted up one of the graincakes from the plate she’d been carrying—it was almost lunchtime and she hadn’t had breakfast yet—and it was cold.
She ate it anyway, pulling a strip off the edge and chewing thoughtfully, both Han and Tag Massa’s words ringing round her head as she tried to decipher whether she was disappointed or relieved at the news.
Han wanted to believe Luke was honorable because he and Luke had a history, but Massa… Despite her official line, Leia had a feeling that privately, the Intel Chief felt pretty much the same, and there was no connection there that Leia knew of—no history.
“I can tell you this much though, without any Intel—whatever remote chance we had of ever negotiating with him when he came to power is now effectively ruined. Whatever he was, we’ve made him an enemy now.”
Han glanced away, still euphoric at the unanticipated turn of events, clearly not willing to consider that right now. Strange, Leia thought; he’d finally begun to let Luke go, then here he was, back in the picture one more time.
She watched his grin turned into a slow frown...
“Kid’s had been in the medi-centre an awful long time,” Han said. “No idea how bad he was injured?”
Leia frowned. “Not really. Bad, all things considered.”
“But recoverable?” Han prompted.
Leia said nothing and Han glanced down at his food, no longer hungry.
“Look at it this way,” Leia said in solace, unable to keep a touch of wry hostility from entering her voice, “he’s Palpatine’s Heir and he’s in the Imperial Palace on Coruscant; he will, I promise you, be getting the best care the galaxy can offer.”
“When will he wake again?” Palpatine demanded, sharp gaze turning to the uncomfortable medic, Hallin.
“I’m not sure, Excellency. The side-effect of the painkillers he requires is drowsiness. I’m confident that…”
“Stop them,” the Emperor ordered.
The medic paused, uncertain how to continue but feeling he must. “The uh…the painkillers are vital to…”
Palpatine turned just slightly, and it was all that was needed to make Hallin’s voice trail off into silence, his resolve lost beneath a sulphurous stare. Still, Palpatine clarified his wishes as he turned back to the boy. “As of now, he’s to be given no more.”
“It will slow his recovery.”
It was a last-ditch attempt by the medic, Palpatine knew, and quite immaterial. He had made this decision days ago.
“Then he will have time to consider his betrayal. This is not something he should forget or easily dismiss. His final lesson has been a long time coming—and knowledge always comes at a price. I am not blind to what he has been doing, medic, the fine line he’s been treading, and he can no longer remain neutral. It’s quite impossible in his position. There is no mid-ground, there are no misgivings. Insurrection is a crime. Rebellion is a crime. Betrayal is a crime without equal. He must learn to destroy his enemies or they will destroy him. It is a hard lesson but it must be learned; one must surrender the past to own the future.” Palpatine glanced momentarily to the medic, dismissive. “You are treating a patient—I am creating a Sith.”
“The drugs are keeping him alive—suppressing infection and sepsis, preventing biochemical cascade and organ failure. They’re managing hypermetabolism and aspiration pneumonia. We’ve only just begun to deal with complications presenting from TBI.”
“The drugs which deal with life-threatening injuries are to be continued. All else—including painkillers in any form—will stop.”
“What you are asking will cause…considerable…distress.”
“That is the point,” Palpatine dismissed blandly, gaze still on the boy.
Of course it would hurt him, but there was no greater teacher than pain. No greater reminder. And the boy was no stranger to this lesson. He didn’t like to think so, Palpatine knew; didn’t like to think such things influenced his thoughts and reactions, but they did, no matter how reluctantly. It was human nature. It was one of the most basic impulses in the galaxy, written into every cell in the body from the time that life first crawled from the seas—self-protection. Self-preservation. And no matter how many times he dug his heels in and resisted, even his own outrageous stubbornness could not fight the mass of evolution.
Months of chastisement and indoctrination locked in that cell when he had first crossed Palpatine had made him obey—for a while. Six months, almost. Then the boy had finally pushed too far—pushed to see how far he could push, and lessons had to be re-taught, as they often did when such a relationship was new. His Jedi had woken once again in that same cell beneath the palace—his cell—a prison built to hold a Jedi.
And again, eight months later, when he had challenged too brashly on some minor point. And again five months after that, when he pushed the limits of Palpatine’s patience.
There were smaller incidents in between of course, things which could be dealt with harshly but immediately without resorting to weeks of brutal imprisonment, caging and taming that wild will all over again. One must be always ruthless, in dealing with even small disputes or dissent—pitiless and unforgiving, regardless of who instigated them. It was not only a lesson but an example to be followed. Had he done so, the boy would not be injured now.
Proof of the value of this method lay in his Jedi’s own actions. It was almost a year since he had last laid half-conscious on that cold white floor of the cell—his cell—drugged to subdue and restrain him, but still awake enough to be aware of his own helplessness, resentment boiling up inside him as it always did, feeding the fires Palpatine had ignited.
He watched the boy now and remembered…remembered sensing the dread of his comprehension of where he was burning through the drugs, though he was too weak and too injured to move from where he lay on his back on that flawless white floor, to even turn away as Palpatine settled comfortably down beside him, using the long sleeve of his scarlet robe to gently wipe the blood from the boy’s face as the guards had left the cell.
Palpatine remembered quite distinctly how dark the blood had been, even against the claret red of his own robe—true red, like liquid rubies, the rich scarlet of his robe paling by comparison. Remembered being fascinated by its depth of color for long seconds before tearing his eyes away and back to the flawless blue of his Jedi's eyes...
“It should not come to this. Not between us,” he had said at last, regretful and impassioned in the same moment.
His Jedi had turned his head just slightly, eyes heavy with drugs, aware of his Master’s true driving emotions, though he did not speak.
“You are mine, Jedi,” Palpatine had said with total conviction. “You always were—you know that. Why do you fight what was preordained?”
“I am… not…”
“You are mine.” Palpatine had repeated it with absolute certainty across the boy’s broken words, reaching out to wipe again at the open wound above his Jedi’s eye, holding the cloth of his sleeve there until it blossomed beautifully through the fabric. “Perhaps I should tell you the past…”
“I don’t…want...your lies,” his Jedi had whispered weakly, though Palpatine knew he didn’t mean it, not really.
“My Master, you see, was a great Sith.” He’d continued as if Luke had not spoken at all, his voice kind and fatherly, as if telling a familiar tale to a young child. “A powerful Sith Master. He found me when I was very young, and he showed me the pre-eminence of the Force and told me that I could learn these things—if I went with him. Simply walked away from everything: my family, my world...my life. I walked away without hesitation, because I recognized greatness…and because I heard its call within myself.”
The boy had looked away, but Palpatine had reached down to gently take his chin and turn his face back, no admonishment in the gesture. “His name was Darth Plagueis, and he taught me well. Taught me everything I knew…but he didn’t teach me everything he knew, I realized. Plagueis had become obsessed with his own mortality, spending years studying Sith doctrines and holocrons to discover the secrets of renewing and prolonging life. He believed immortality was a personal journey. He did not understand... You see, immortality is also the continuation of one’s bloodline, one’s lineage.”
He had wiped again at the gash which bled profusely over the boy’s eye, seeping a wide, viscous trail across his bruised skin and down hair and scalp to bloom into a rich burst of vibrant color on the blank white floor, smiling benignly as he continued. “But what can one do in the face of natural selection? I thought…that I would always be denied. That nature had decreed that I be the last of my line. One cannot clone a Force-sensitive without repercussions—the Force will not be bound by science—and why would I want anything less? Without the Force, the child would be nothing. But in his search for eternal life, Darth Plagueis discovered an ancient text…and with it the ability to create existence. Truly create; the Force itself bringing forth life. My Master learned this dark art…and destroyed the texts, knowing that through this he could control me."
Palpatine had leaned back, eyes risen in proud remembrance. “At the height of our combined power we did this—created life. But we did not know that we had succeeded. I believed that we had failed—that my Master had failed…and so he ceased to be of further use to me.”
Palpatine had paused at that, remembering… “And then something miraculous happened. A chance meeting, a serendipitous moment—a child, conceived at the moment that the rites were performed, had been born…on the far side of the galaxy.”
He had shaken his head, voice distant, lost in reliving the memory.
“I had succeeded—I had simply not realized it… But a being created of the Force could not remain hidden forever—not from his creator—his power was simply too great. It shone like a beacon, it sounded through the Darkness like a note of perfect pitch, striking instinctive resonance. The Force wanted us to find each other. So I found him, and he me…and the connection was instantaneous, the draw irresistible. He was mine, created on my command to fulfill my aspirations. Mine alone.”
The boy’s attention had begun to falter then, made weak by drugs and injury, eyelids flickering. Still Palpatine had continued speaking, reaching out to push back blood-matted hair from the wound, the gesture full of empty, indulgent compassion.
“I thought I had everything that I wanted in this child—that all my ambitions could be fulfilled. He was an elemental being, raw power contained, exceeding my wildest hopes. Everything was possible through him. When I knew that I alone owned him all my far-reaching plans were instigated and for a while I was unstoppable—invulnerable...invincible. But then he was injured, badly—and the power that I had poured into his creation was lost. Not all, but enough. And, more importantly, he had no heir—my line was broken yet again.”
Finally the boy’s head had dipped to the side. He caught it once, eyes flicking open momentarily, but he soon drifted again, the sound of his Master’s even tones hypnotic, soothing even, though Palpatine wondered whether the words still held any meaning for his Jedi, lost beneath a battered body’s need to repair. Still, he had continued, wishing to finish the account, even then.
“My Master, in his final revenge, had not told me all that was needed to create life, it seemed. And so everything—all my aspirations and ambitions...my dynasty—was lost beyond retrieval. I was left only power, but power of itself is never enough, one always wants more...and that which I truly desired had been placed far beyond retrieval.”
He had smiled indulgently, raking the back of his nail slowly up from the deep gash, drawing a line in scarlet blood up into the boy’s long, wild hair as he combed curved, ridged nails through it, voice contented and quietly triumphant. “And then you appeared, and everything, everything was within my grasp again. You are mine; that same resonance still sounds true. I created your father—brought him into being. Therefore I created you. You were destined to come here—to serve. To continue my work. You are my immortality, child. You are my dynasty. My legacy. You are mine.”
Everything changed—everything descended into pain and fevered confusion. Luke woke briefly from time to time, driven more by sudden peaks in agony than by any real awareness. The drugs which had given relief had numbed mind and body alike, but now, in their absence, he was left with pain which lanced through him and twisted about him so intensely that all hope of concentrating around or through it had been burned away.
There had been no time, it seemed; no moment’s grace to gather the Force about his hazy, paralyzed thoughts as the effects of the powerful narcotics left his body, the grating pain already bone-deep before he tried to bring his drug-numbed mind to focus, leaving him too distracted, too injured to reach out as Master Yoda had taught him. He needed only a moment, a fleeting respite from the all-encompassing pain to gather his thoughts and try to understand what blocked his path, but it dug and grated and twisted like knives with every barbed intake of breath, the exhaustion of simply withstanding it crushing any hope of concentration. Too much—too much to process, to even react to.
Time broke into short, shattered clips of awareness punctuated by long periods of pain so intense that all he could do was lie still and breathe. Just that. To simply breathe against it was a triumph, every intake of air lancing through cramped chest muscles and aching bones, grating against the immovable metal pins drilled through them with every rise of his chest and every beat of his heart, requiring concentration so complete that all else paled and fell away, senses muted to insignificance by the need to deal with the intense agony carving through him.
He was occasionally aware of the presence of others in the room—Mara, Nathan, or just as often his father—but the idea of speaking, of even opening his eyes to acknowledge them, was so completely beyond him as to be inconceivable.
Time passed like this—how long he had no idea, but every moment burned through him like an eternity—so that when it finally began to subside even slightly, just enough for him to become aware of his father’s presence in the room, he reached out for him like a lifeline.
“Help me…” It was all he could manage to utter past his injured throat, through dry mouth and split lips, but the man he had rejected so completely stepped forward without hesitation.
Vader moved to the head of the bed, his black-gloved hands reaching out to gently take the weight of his son’s head, thumbs to his temples. “Calm, now,” he uttered in deep, bass tones, the words so composed and pacific, reaching out to Luke’s enervated awareness, soothing and settling, benignly guiding. “You need to find your focus…fall back into the Force—it is all around you. Just breathe—relax. Stop struggling. Let it guide you—let it heal you. You know how to do this. Reach within yourself—remember that path, calm your mind and listen. Everything that you need is here, waiting. Sense it. Call it to you. Let it heal you.” His resonant tone was even and hypnotic, leading his son on, soothing and centering…
Vader had no idea if his son could still do this—the ability to heal was not of the Dark Side. It could sustain, could enable an individual to operate far beyond his injuries, but it could not heal. That ability was long lost to Vader. Yes, he had maintained his son’s condition on the fraught journey back to Coruscant, but it had been just that—the ability to sustain, to slow any further decline. Any capacity to restore or revive was beyond his reach, then as now. All that he could do was try to lead his son through the motions and hope that Luke was still capable of reaching out in this way, channeling the Force even to a small degree to gain some limited relief, though in truth he knew this was in vain—the boy was no longer a Jedi.
It hadn’t failed to occur to Vader that the aspect of the Force which he always berated and dismissed for its weakness had the power to help his son when the Darkness Vader had so resolutely wrapped about himself for so long, so sure of its invulnerability, was of no value whatsoever.
Still, he sensed the boy calming now at his words, the bewildered twist of pain and turmoil which had gathered to a knot within him beginning to unravel just slightly. His shoulders slumped in response as he finally regained some contact, his breath slowing and regulating, head falling heavy against Vader’s hands. Vader felt his own tight chest relax in response, aware that he had remained tense as a wire in the face of his son’s pain, unable to help.
Unable to help… He reached out now and sensed that mental link with his son re-established and with it...that particular mindset, the willingness to merge without loss of self, to accept with grace, to surrender oneself completely to the Force.
Darkness never surrendered…so it was not this that the boy touched now.
He knew Luke had built his barriers, walls within walls within walls; knew how much he was able to hide, even from the Emperor…
Vader reached out again to touch that sense and it slipped away like a half-imagined haze, diffuse and oblique, hidden completely from him now. But the memory of that momentary contact remained and he studied it again, searching to categorize it. It was not Light…nor was it Darkness. It was neither and both, defying any classification, giving Vader cause for deeper thought.
Palpatine believed him converted completely, as did Vader, even now…so then what was this?
Something—some distant awareness of voices and senses and disparate minds—swirled about Luke, obscure and indistinct to his twisted perceptions. Voices murmured words he couldn’t hear as shadow-senses closed in about him, though he remained in the void, neither truly aware nor completely unconscious, the scarlet haze of pain wrapped about him, cutting him off from reality.
A hand reached out to rest lightly against his chest, cold as the grave, and the grief and finely honed shock which burst through him lit old memories, dragging them to the fore in his fevered thoughts with absolute focus and staggering intensity…
…of that room—that cell—cold as the tomb, blinding white or dark as pitch. And his Master, always pushing and provoking and punishing, of force-pikes and broken bones and lightening arcing sharp through the gloom to sear skin and burn through flesh, so much that his bones felt hot within his skin, blood and adrenaline in the back of his throat…
Luke jolted awake, gasping a breath in, bringing his arms up to protect himself in anticipation of the sharp stab of Force-lightening. The motion sent a vicious shock of pain searing through his arm and across his chest, making him cry out. Someone grabbed at his arms, pressing them down, their voice alarmed and stern and worried and demanding all at once as the agony lanced up through his left arm and across his shoulders. For long seconds he was so stunned, so shaken by the intensity of the pain that he didn’t recognize it, couldn’t work out the words, struggling against their hold... Then Mara Jade called out his name again, telling him to stop, that it was okay, that he was safe…
Slowly, reality filtered in and he collapsed back in dazed silence, Mara releasing his arms, the pain from the sudden burst of movement rolling over him in waves to leaving him nauseous and weak, breath ragged, the blood draining from his head in a disorienting blur.
Silence hung heavy and expectant, the fog of personas within the Force settling slowly out into Palpatine, Vader, Mara and Hallin, and though he knew all eyes were on him he felt too weak, too drained to even pull words into a thought, let alone speak them out loud.
His Master’s voice grated out, completely unmoved, his close presence looming, blurred both in Luke’s vision and in the Force. “There was a bomb. You were injured. Can you remember this?”
Luke closed his eyes, made the slightest nod of acknowledgement, even this lighting fireworks down his spine and across his chest. “Where now?” It was barely a whisper and it cut down his throat like a blade, but he knew Palpatine would hear it and understand.
“You are on Coruscant. You were badly injured—the assassination attempt was almost successful.”
There was the slightest hint of amusement in his Master’s voice, mixed in with his outrage at having something which belonged to him damaged. No pity, no empathy, his only concern that his possession would be taken away. But then Luke expected no more. A word slowly percolated through the haze, making him frown, trying to whisper beneath the searing stab within his throat. “Assassination?”
“They wanted you, my friend; you were the target.” Palpatine's tone was absolute. “The bombs were not time-triggered; someone waited to activate them remotely. Waited for their target to arrive. They were too small and too few and badly placed to do any lasting damage to a Super Star Destroyer—they had a very different target.”
“How many?” Luke grated, making Palpatine frown. “How many…died?” He was faltering now, even this small exertion draining him.
Palpatine hesitated, clearly unsure why his Jedi would care, but Mara spoke up, her eyes on the Emperor. “Forty-seven dead—mostly troopers from the 701st. Another sixty-odd wounded. The count would have been much higher, but we were already on alert and the bays had begun to evacuate.”
Luke sighed, distracted thoughts winding slowly from disturbed to incensed as those facts sank in. Forty-seven dead, sixty wounded—just to get to one man.
His Master’s voice cut through his thoughts. “We will find out who did this.”
“I want them...” Luke whispered, putting all of his remaining strength into the breathless words so that his Master would remember, “...alive—I want them alive.”
His Master set his head on one side, voice half-curiosity, half-challenge. “For what?”
Words were beyond him now, no energy left to even whisper, but he reached out through the Force to Palpatine, passing through that link all of his growing outrage. His desire to deal with this personally—to look his attackers in the eye before he killed them, so that they would know that it was he who did this. Himself, face to face, not hiding behind the anonymity of clumsy weapons which killed and maimed indiscriminately, but he and his enemy, face to face. Retribution.
Palpatine smiled indulgently, eyes on his broken, battered Jedi, so weak that his breath was labored, his failing awareness a static haze within the Force—but invested even now with that gloriously dogged, indomitable strength of will and singleness of purpose that had always lit it, turned now to a new aim—and this he understood.
“I will give them to you, my friend.” His quiet cackle pulled pale lips to a thin line as he watched his wounded, aggrieved Wolf’s eyelids flutter closed, exhaustion and injury quickly overtaking that burst of dark emotion. “I will give you your revenge.”
“There’s probably something you should know, now that he seems to be more aware.”
Nathan Hallin walked closer to where Mara stood beside Luke’s high medical bed, her attention held by the twisted line of the deep, angry scars on Luke’s sleeping face. She’d remained, attentive, when everyone else had left, and Hallin had stepped forward, his tone quiet though the words held an ominous ring.
She turned immediately, and he rushed to reassure. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing terrible—just something that we may have to deal with in the coming weeks…and beyond.”
He seemed to have softened a little in the last few weeks, Mara had noted, treating her, for some unknown reason, more like some kind of secret co-conspirator than the unwelcome complication he’d clearly seen her as previously.
“What kind of something?” she asked warily.
“Well, typically with this kind of condition resulting from deep coma following traumatic brain injury or hypovolemia, the patient may exhibit a range of resultant secondary effects collectively called postconcussion syndrome…”
“Basic please?” Mara prompted tersely, hearing Hallin drop into his professional medic mode.
He paused a few seconds, searching for the right words.
“You may find him a little…different. Unpredictable, erratic perhaps. People recovering from coma's following head injuries—brain trauma—will often exhibit new character traits. They generally complain of racing thoughts, they’re unable to sleep, they may loose some social function...interpersonal and social judgment may be impaired for instance, so they may act inappropriately or out of character. They may exhibit a tendency towards violent episodes, become more mercurial or impulsive, swinging between inconsistent, often contradictory mood swings.”
“Fantastic,” Mara deadpanned, a thousand scenarios involving Luke and Palpatine coming horrendously to mind. “But this is temporary?”
“Probably isn’t yes.”
The medic shrugged. “There may be some permanent changes; it’s too early to say. He may exhibit few or practically none of these symptoms—suffer no more than temporary memory loss and headaches. He may experience them without acting them out, or be unable to stop himself doing so. If he does evidence further symptoms, recovery of cognitive deficits is greatest in the first six months, but it may be total or minimal.”
“Don’t feel you have to commit to anything substantial, Hallin,” Mara said sardonically.
“Postconcussion syndrome is notoriously unpredictable,” Hallin defended. “The mind is a complex organ and personal consciousness, temperament and cognitive ability is subjective at best. There’s no data at all as to how it may affect a Force-sensitive. If it reassures you any, his coma was mid-level and relatively short, and the speed with which he received treatment for hypovolemia and hypoxia was favorable. Plus there’s been no further indication of post-traumatic epilepsy following surgery, therefore all indications point to a positive prognosis. In the meantime you should know that his short-term memory will be affected. It’s not obvious yet because he’s not entirely coherent, but he presently has no ability to lay down new memories. It’s perfectly normal—nothing to worry about. Remember he’s still recovering from major trauma, his brain simply doesn’t have the resources to both repair injuries and create new synapses at present.”
Mara frowned. “But he still remembers everything from his past?”
“As I said, given his circumstances, chances are he’s lost nothing from his past save perhaps the last few minutes or hours leading up to the explosion, but he’s not going to recall from waking session to waking session for a short while. It’s perfectly normal. Remember that the actual blow to the head isn’t the problem; it’s the resultant swelling, internal hemorrhaging and hypoxia—oxygen deficiency—which causes across-the-board damage to the brain. It basically closed down for a while and in doing so may have lost certain parameters. He’ll improve every day now but for the time being, a good amount of your talks with him will be spent going over the same few facts.”
And they were, the same few facts over and over. It became something of a rote, Mara learning to recite all relevant points in a rush of information whenever he woke, Hallin far more patient—more willing to indulge.
She hadn’t really noticed before how committed he was to Luke, how protective, but then Luke had never really needed it before, Mara supposed. She’d always scorned Hallin, believing him little more than an opportunistic hanger-on, but everything she’d seen in the last weeks had put that into question. He’d helped Mara when he hadn’t needed to, making it clear that it was in consideration of Luke’s wishes not his own, had remained always attentive and dedicated, often sleeping in the medi-centre if he had the slightest worry or doubt about Luke’s condition.
And now that Luke was briefly waking, everything about Hallin’s actions—his casual, cordial manner and open, informal demeanor around him, and more importantly, Skywalker’s comparable, comfortable reaction—all suggested a long-standing connection. As much as she hated to admit she’d had him wrong, it seemed the medic sincerely cared about Skywalker. They had after all, arrived in the Palace together, she supposed, and now had three years of shared chaos and confusion as they’d found their way; that was a lot of history—the kind of adversity which built a genuine friendship.
And all she could think in the face of that realization was one thing—at what point, she wondered, would Palpatine decide to use it against Luke?
Luke’s eyes fluttered open and came to rest on Mara, blinking rapidly. She knew his sight was still blurry, but figured her shock of long russet hair was unmistakable.
“Hey, Red,” he croaked, speaking still grating his raw throat.
“Hey black and blue.” She beamed at the brief, crooked smile he flashed before he flinched as it pulled at the deep scar which sliced through both lips. She’d been about to launch into her usual burst of information, but he surprised her by coming back with a cognizant reply, more aware than usual.
“Suppose you think that’s funny,” he whispered gamely, eyes already beginning to close again.
The smile fell from Mara’s face as, suddenly very serious, she admitted, “No, not in the slightest.”
She reached out to push his hair from his face, but instead, on impulse, gently touched the deep wound on his lips, the continuation of the disturbing gash carved from above his eye down to his chin, left untreated by Hallin save for the long line of neat sutures closing it.
“Is this sore?” she asked, finger hovering above his lip.
“No,” he said quietly. “It’s split, isn’t it?” It was the understatement of the year…and quite suddenly Mara realized that he hadn’t seen his reflection yet. Unable to touch his own face, he had no idea of the severity of his wounds there. Probably no one had even mentioned them in the face of far greater injuries.
Moved in that moment in a way she couldn’t decide, but very sure, she leaned over…and gently kissed him.
His lips were warm and soft, the heavy scar pressing rough against her own lips as he leaned toward her, head turning just slightly. For long moments they remained like this, willingly lost in the moment, an unconditional expression of relief, of deliverance.
It felt so completely right to Mara; left her wondering why his heart rate hadn’t missed a beat on the monitor because hers had surely skipped, still thumping against her ribs, a warm glow spreading to the pit of her stomach. She finally pulled back and he studied her for long seconds, both suspicious and at ease—and surprisingly self-possessed.
When he spoke, still no more than a hoarse whisper, there was doubtful, unassuming humor in his broken voice. “So…is this something we generally do?”
She smiled, green eyes teasing. “You don’t remember?”
He was already beginning to drift, exhaustion overtaking him so quickly still. “See that’s just unfair,” he murmured, eyes fluttering closed.
She shook her head at that, watching him drift asleep, knowing full well that when he woke again, this moment would be forgotten, lost to him the moment he slept.
“Yes,” she whispered regretfully, “…yes it is.”
Luke opened his eyes slowly, the world swimming before him, his vision still dark and hazy down his right side, forcing him to turn his head slightly to bring his Master into focus, even this small movement cutting deep across his collarbone, forcing him to freeze, unable to even breathe for long seconds. Time still condensed into short bursts of awareness, no real sense of any specific length between them, leaving him with the unsettling sense that people simply appeared and disappeared about him in the single blink of an eye.
Seeing his Jedi’s jarring, mismatched eyes flutter open, Palpatine spoke, unheeding of the boy’s obvious disorientation. “I have news, my friend. My agent within the Rebellion’s main base has sent the proof I have been waiting for—confirmation that your attack originated there.”
Palpatine paused just slightly, almost unwilling to finally impart this damning information. It had been a long time coming and he had worked hard to achieve it, to force the Rebellion’s hand whilst not betraying his own. “The assassination order came from the Rebel Alliance, dictated by their ‘honorable’ leaders, so full of their own pious, self-righteous morals—until it’s no longer convenient. They are your aggressors, my friend—those you fought beside, those you never once harassed or denounced. How quick they are to condemn you now... But didn’t I always warn you of their treachery?”
He fell to silence, sharp yellow eyes locked on his Jedi’s, searching for some reaction, for the explosion of fury which would have welled up inside of himself had he been given this news—for the continuation of his Jedi’s outrage just a few days earlier when the true motive behind the attack had come to light.
Strangely, the boy only slumped, his head turning away, expression completely void of any emotion. Palpatine reached out subtly with the Force, but all he sensed was a momentary impression of a weight pressing in, deep and profound; disappointment not anger, loss rather than outrage. But acceptance; this remained a momentous victory for Palpatine, no matter how subdued. The final severance of old ties, even those which lay buried, something that could not be commanded or induced—such a profound parting of the ways had to be incited by those his Jedi trusted.
He was almost immediately pushed back, barriers raised and true emotions hidden, but he’d glimpsed the truth, and that was enough. Enough to bring the veiled ghost of a gratified smile to the old man’s lips.
The grief washed over Luke in waves, yet he felt strangely quiet as he turned away, shutting down the emotions which he knew his Master was searching out, pulling back inside himself and listening to the sound of his own ragged breathing, hearing his heart beat slowly. If he could have stopped them, stilled them both beneath the weight of this tearing loss, then he would have done so without hesitation. Simply closed his eyes and slipped away...
Memories and moments which had sustained him for so long came intensely to mind, recollections of trust and fellowship which had held him grounded in the eye of this endless storm.
Had Leia been there, when they’d made this decision? Had Mon? The woman who’d shook his hand and told him that she was proud of his commitment—that they needed more like him. Had Rieekan, the man who’d promised him that there would always be a safe haven for him within the Alliance on the same day he’d become top of the Empire’s Most Wanted list? Had Madine and Ackbar? Had Han?
After a long time, Luke became aware that his Master was still speaking, still pontificating on some detail or indictment. He wanted to tell him to stop—that the battle had been won, that he understood this final betrayal, that he accepted its implications and consequences.
But all he could do was to lie there and watch those thin, bloodless lips move in self-righteous accusation and listen to the profound silence which existed between the beats of a wounded heart.
He woke again late at night, a familiar presence in the room scratching at the back of his mind. Vader stood back in the shadows, though he could hardly be missed, the hiss of his respirator loud in the silence despite the fact that what had once seemed harsh and jarring was now so familiar as to be…reassuring.
Luke recalled his father’s presence in the room through the haze of broken awareness that had punctuated countless days. He didn’t trust Vader, well aware that the sense of anxiety, concern even, that colored those moments could of course be nothing more than self-serving on his father’s part. But now, at low ebb, he hadn’t the energy or the inclination to maintain their usual distance.
Perhaps Vader sensed this, because his words brought Luke’s head around in their rare empathy. “Don’t dwell too long on this. It was inevitable. Greater forces were at play.”
He knew that his father wanted to say more, wanted to say all that the Emperor had, wanted to say ‘I warned you. I told you. I knew and you wouldn’t listen.’ If he could have, Luke would have wiped at his eyes, but his arms were still useless, and all he could do was to shake his head, sending a shock of pain across his chest and shoulders. Eventually he let out a bitter little laugh, finding his voice in his anger at himself.
“Go ahead and say it,” he invited, the monotone invitation little more than a rasping whisper, his throat still too injured to do more.
Vader remained silent beneath the boy’s bitter challenge; there was nothing to say which he had not already said. He knew his son well enough by now to know that voicing self-righteous reminders would gain nothing, and in the absence of knowing what he should say, he was learning to remain silent. They were quiet for a long time, Vader recognizing that his son was falling deeper into the cynical, melancholy state that sometimes crippled him now, but having no idea of how to stop it. Finally he offered, “You were not at fault. They did not understand you—they could not.”
“And you do?” There was the slightest of challenges edging Luke's voice, quiet as it was.
“No,” Vader said without sarcasm. “Not at all.”
For some reason the boy couldn’t hold his anger against that and laughed mirthlessly, stopping with a wince as the action grated against his injured throat. He looked away, then back thoughtfully. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh.”
“I laugh,” Vader allowed, with the dry addition, “just not out loud.”
“At what?” Luke challenged—but there was humor in his rasping voice.
Vader remained silent, suddenly uncomfortable, and Luke looked away, sensing this. Both were aware that they were charting new territory here, and neither was willing to step too far from the safety of a path already littered about with deep-rooted grievances and accusations.
Tiring already, Luke's head fell back onto the pillow, and Vader studied his son. The severe injury which had punctured his throat and the scar which gouged a deep path down the right side of his face remained painfully obvious, as did the darkened bloom of deep red within his still-glassy right eye, though the lens had re-attached and the medics said he would not lose his sight.
His son glanced at him momentarily and despite everything those blue eyes seemed so similar to Vader’s own. It was a long time since he had cared to look at his own reflection, but Vader hadn’t failed to realize how much the boy looked like him; the same eyes, the same hair, the same jawline. Lean and sinewy as Anakin had been in his youth, but compact and trim, very much like his mother. A mix of them both, of himself and…
What would she think, to see her son like this? Consideration of her grief allowed Vader to acknowledge a little of his own—to realize that the weight which had settled cold and hard, like a stone in his stomach from the moment he knew what had happened was…fear. Not for his plans or his intentions or his loss of potential gains. Not because of what the boy could achieve or the goals he could fulfill…but that he may lose his son. Just that.
Realization that he did not wish to lose the one thing in his life which was of true value to him. In the absence of his ability to say any of this out loud, he merely observed, “You are recovering—which is good.”
Luke didn’t bother to reply, knowing that his father had spoken simply to end the silence, an unstated prompt to Luke to do the same. Instead he remained lost in his own thoughts, torn by truth and regrets.
“They were my family,” he whispered at last, the loss and disillusionment undisguised in his voice. “I trusted them absolutely—they trusted me.” He fell into silent consideration and when he spoke again, his quiet voice was wistful and subdued, lost in the past. “I served as a bodyguard occasionally to Mon Mothma, if she was travelling in dangerous situations—and to Leia Organa—did you know that? Mon said that there were a dozen or so people she trusted enough to appoint to that position when she first asked me. I told her I was honored. And Madine—Crix Madine only ever used the same ten pilots for Special Ops. The same team—never changed it. Said they were the ones he knew he could count on to get the job done. Leia…” He paused for a moment at speaking her name, then continued, his affection undisguised... “Leia Organa told me she would always trust me. Always, no matter what. I once found a bottle of Alderaanian mead on a tapcafe on Ansion and took it back for her. Cost me a month’s wages and I would have paid twice that to see her face when I gave it to her. We sat on the flight deck and drank it from plastic cups. She told me that she couldn’t remember what it was like before I was there—that she couldn’t imagine it without me.” He trailed off into silent reverie, lost in the memories.
“They did what they had to, to control you. To keep you there.” Much as he tried, Vader was unable to keep the accusation from his voice.
“No,” Luke murmured without looking up. “I belonged.”
“You belong here,” his father stated, as sure as ever. “Your life is here.”
Luke shook his head. “There’s nothing for me here.”
“That is by your own making,” Vader rumbled, bringing his son’s head about in open question.
Open question… Was this the breaking point, Vader wondered, the incentive that the boy had needed? He’d edged around his life here for so long, remaining resolutely uninvolved—perhaps now the choice had been made for him. Vader made a brief mental note to look a little more closely into the events which had led up to the assassination attempt, but didn’t dwell on it now, aware of his son’s eyes on him.
“This is your life,” he repeated. “If you do not like it, then it is within your power to change it. Do so.”
His son looked away, expression neutral, but Vader sensed his mind racing, tired as it was. He pushed forward, aware that the boy was listening as never before.
“Look at your life, your position. The opportunities available to you. Take them—make them your own. You stand in Palpatine’s shadow out of choice. You allow him control.” His son glanced up momentarily at that, a flash of uncertainty lighting his scarred face. But Vader felt no such doubt, no lack of confidence in the boy. “You’ve learned all that you can from him… Before he was an advantage—now he is simply an obstruction.”
Luke remained silent, blood-streaked eyes skipping over the room, lost in thought. “He’s too powerful,” he rasped at last against the pain in his throat.
“Because you allow it. Because you will not use the power he has taught you to access. If you drew on that, if you tapped that potential…” Vader paused, knowing that if he pushed too hard the boy would automatically push back—he always had. But he could sense his son wavering now; on the very brink of commitment. “Take control,” he urged, bass voice no more than a whisper.
His son remained silent for long seconds, then his eyes turned to his father, sharp and searching despite their appalling injury. “And if I did—where would that leave you?”
“Where I am now,” Vader avoided, but the boy was not fooled, shaking his head in wary amusement.
“I know you better than that.”
Vader didn’t relent; this was the first time ever that the boy had discussed this openly, the first time he had examined the details. The first time he had considered the consequences. The first time he had considered Vader a part of it—as an ally, not an enemy.
“That is something which can be dealt with when the need arises,” Vader avoided smoothly.
“Not good enough,” Luke maintained. “I need clarification—without it, I can’t move.”
He stopped suddenly, as if he’d said too much, and even though he couldn't see exactly how, Vader knew the boy believed his exhaustion had made him slip. For long moments Vader held silent, searching for the error, the play of thoughts beneath those words, sensing a mind still stretched thin by exhaustion and pain but aware enough to be cautious of the errors in judgment either could cause. A specific sense of misgivings, a fear of compounding error with error…
Realization, when it came to Vader, was a revelation in every sense of the word; why Luke had hesitated this long, why he had shied back from confrontation, allowed Palpatine control…
If he removed the Emperor, Luke believed it would put him in direct contention with his father—and despite everything he said out loud, he didn’t want that.
Was this what constrained him? Was his reluctance to be forced into conflict with his father so great that he had been willing to withstand Palpatine’s restrictions and punishments for so long, rather than confront the power struggle that would be left by the Emperor's removal? Vader felt a burst of gratification at that—that he would have such control over the boy, that…
He instantly shied from his own reaction, horrified. He should be proud that he could inspire such feelings in his son—such kinship. Realization that he had almost lost him had clarified for Vader just how much the boy had come to mean to him and yet now, when his son had finally admitted some connection, Vader saw only an opportunity for control—a way to use that bond to his own advantage.
It was hardly surprising that the boy was so reluctant to acknowledge it, even now. Luke was right; he did know Vader too well. His discomfort, both at his own reaction and his son’s knowledge that it would be so, held Vader to an uneasy silence.
His son looked away, voice quiet... “So you see, the decision isn’t mine at all…”
Vader looked up at that. “Apparently, I am not the only one capable of manipulations.”
The barest hint of a smile lifted the corners of Luke’s split lips. “Maybe you were right... I’ve learned what I can from Palpatine—from any Master.”
The words were carefully chosen, Vader knew, an acknowledgement of what would be made possible—if Vader relinquished any perceived right to authority. He narrowed his eyes, amused, though it didn’t sound in his voice, his words neither agreement nor refusal of the boy's terms. “Then you will consider what I have said?”
“Will you do likewise?” his son pushed.
“There is nothing to consider,” Vader said, still loath to acquiesce.
“Then I must say the same,” Luke replied, unwilling as ever to back down.
Vader held silent for a long time as his son’s gaze remained steady on him. He was so close—so close to pushing the boy forward. How could he back away now? “You are a stubborn man,” he accused without malice.
“I can’t imagine where it comes from,” the boy replied, head dropping back against the pillow, eyes closing momentarily.
The door slid open and Nathan Hallin looked up from an automemo, a medical scanner in his other hand. “Oh. I can come back…”
“No, come in, Nathan. We were done.” Luke seized on the interruption, pleased for the excuse it provided. He’d already made two mistakes because he was tired, and his father knew it—he would push for a third, and Luke didn’t wish to oblige.
“We will speak again,” Vader said, looking to clarify that this discussion remained open, before turning and leaving without pause.
Luke collapsed back as his father left the darkened room, leaving Hallin to stare after him, uncertain. “About what?”
Much as he trusted the medic, three years in the Palace meant that Luke wasn’t in the habit of giving out unnecessary information, even to him. Exposed allies couldn’t let slip under duress information that they didn’t know—he’d learned that from his Master, too. “Nothing new,” Luke said simply, offering no more. Lies had to be remembered and often ended up being compounded and his memory was still poor. And anyway, he felt no need to explain himself, even to Hallin.
“He’s been here a great deal, while you were still unconscious,” Hallin said neutrally, holding the scanner to Luke’s chest, the readings appearing on his automemo.
Luke sighed, exhaustion beginning to drag him down again now that the burst of adrenaline-laced concentration needed to deal with his father was spent. “He’s just protecting his investment.”
“You still don’t trust him?”
“No,” Luke rasped, tired to the bone now. “Like I said, nothing new.”
He considered again his father’s words. Despite working to his own agenda, Vader was right about one thing; Luke had tip-toed around the corners of his life for too long, caught between past and present loyalties. He should probably thank the Alliance for spelling out to him that it was time to move forward. Thank the Emperor for…
It suddenly occurred to Luke to wonder whether this had all been another of his Master’s manipulations, designed to finally clarify in the most explicit way possible where everyone’s loyalties lay—and in doing so, to lock down Luke’s own. If it was, then it had been a big gamble… But then, perhaps he had not expected so direct a reaction.
“Thinking?” Hallin prompted into the silence.
“Wondering whether I see Palpatine’s hand in this,” Luke replied, still thoughtful.
“In what?” Hallin asked, eyes on his medical readouts.
“This.” Luke lifted his shattered arm just slightly, to indicate his injuries.
Hallin frowned, using the stylus from his automemo to touch the back of Luke’s left hand below the last tension bar. “Can you move these fingers yet?”
Luke drummed each of his fingers in quick succession on the bed, and Hallin didn’t even bother to look up. “Without using the Force to augment,” he added dryly, completely familiar with this illogical phenomenon. He'd admitted more than once to Luke now that whilst scientific proof and corroborative genetic verification were all very well, one couldn’t argue with what was in front of one’s eyes.
Luke stared in focused silence at his hand for long seconds before his index finger twitched just slightly. Hallin watched, his face impassive.
“Should I be worried?” Luke prompted.
“I would imagine I’d be pretty worried if the Emperor was trying to assassinate me,” Hallin replied vaguely, misunderstanding.
“I don’t think it was that,” Luke assured, allowing the misdirection to pass, whether it was accidental or not. “I think he just wanted to prompt a response—to shake things up, polarize the situation. What their exact reaction would be was the single variable, the one thing over which he had no control.”
Luke considered whether his Master actually knew about the carefully selected information Luke had been passing to the Rebels for almost a year now under the guise of an unknown ‘Rebel sympathizer’… then dismissed it as paranoia. As much as he loved his schemes, Palpatine would have dealt with such a massive breach of trust in far more direct terms. It would have provoked another of his ‘lessons’ taught in such a way that Luke would never forget. No—if he knew that, then Luke would have been in the cell below the Palace by now.
“That would seem to make it a rather large gamble,” Hallin said, breaking Luke’s train of thought.
“Depends on what was in the pot,” Luke replied, speaking in sabacc terms. “Sometimes a major gamble is worth it.”
Hallin glanced up, doubtful. Luke almost shrugged then caught himself, still very much aware of the tension bars which stretched shattered collar bones straight. “There’s a point in a sabacc hand where, if there’s enough in the pot and you’re already committed, based on the odds and the possible returns—and your knowledge of the players—it’s statistically worth your while to take a gamble.”
“We’re not talking about sabacc,” Hallin dismissed.
“Same theory,” Luke said. “It wasn’t even that much of a gamble; he knew the Rebellion would react if he forced their hand with a big enough gesture.”
Luke could sense Hallin’s doubt—but then, he didn’t know Palpatine as Luke did. Long hours trapped in that cell beneath the Palace with only his Master’s goading manipulations had cost him dearly, but if there was one thing he could pull from those painful memories it was this—he knew Palpatine. Knew how that twisted, self-centered, self-serving mind worked. Yes, his Master knew him too, inside out, but as Palpatine was so fond of quoting, all knowledge came at a price, and Palpatine’s knowledge of Luke—of how to manipulate and use him—had come at the cost of Luke’s knowledge of Palpatine, of how he reacted, how he schemed. It wasn’t at all beyond Palpatine to do this—to believe that he could control it, direct it to attain his desired result.
“Aside from the minor complication of almost killing me, it worked perfectly—he achieved everything he wanted.”
“Only if you let him,” Hallin said, eliciting a dry, rasping laugh from Luke.
“Why is everybody saying that to me today?” Luke mused, then added quickly, to forestall Hallin’s question. “I think I have to concede this particular game.”
“What will you do?” Hallin asked, knowing he’d get no specific answer.
“Palpatine’s looking for a response—expecting one,” Luke said thoughtfully. “I’d hate to disappoint.”
Mara was thirty minutes early for the start of her shift, but in the eleven week stretch that Luke had now been in the medi-center, she’d developed the habit of eating breakfast with him before her actual work-shift started. The last few weeks had seen leaps and bounds in his recovery, in terms of his alertness and the amount of time he remained awake, stretching to an hour or more at a time.
Though his memory was patchy to non-existent for the month afterwards, Luke’s memories leading up to the day itself seemed intact, and his old character was reasserting as he gained confidence. Perhaps a little more abrupt as yet, a little less patient, a little more insular but then again so would Mara be, sat in the same bed in the same room for this long.
She stopped at the door to Skywalker’s room in the medi-center, almost bumping into Hallin on his way out. “How’s he doing today?”
“Well, he must be getting better because he’s driving me insane,” the slight medic said, smiling tightly.
“What’s he doing now?”
She knew Skywalker had basically nagged Hallin into fitting his new right hand before the medic wanted to, but she could understand that even if Hallin couldn’t; she too had found the sight of the chrome locking bar extending from the bone of the disfigured stump deeply unsettling—and it wasn’t even her bone it was set into. And anyway, he’d developed the disquieting habit of using the blunt tip to scratch at the healing scabs on his face. Plus, with Skywalker’s left arm still immobile, without his right hand he could do nothing, which Mara had to admit would have left her feeling pretty vulnerable in a place where vulnerability was a dangerous thing. Admittedly, he still had little control of the new hand, but that would come, and that much sooner for having been fitted already.
“Well, now he’s got it into his head that he wants to leave the medi-center,” Hallin said, as if Luke were asking the outrageous.
“To go where?”
“Back to his own apartments. Which is out of the question and he knows it.”
Skywalker’s hoarse voice grated weakly from the doorway in reply, “He is still awake and can hear everything you’re saying.”
There was indulgent humor in his voice, but that unmovable, authoritative tone was beginning to creep back in, his stubborn streak returning with his gradual recovery. Hallin remained unimpressed—the advantage of long familiarity. “Well then, The Heir knows that there is no absolutely no way that he can return to his apartments yet.”
Mara catwalked into the master bedroom of Skywalker’s apartments, trying not to wake him.
It was the third day he’d been back, Hallin having caved completely, though not without complaining bitterly about the necessity of bringing all his medical equipment from the North Tower to the West Tower where the massive Perlemian Apartments sprawled over one complete level of the Tower, taking every opportunity on the rare moments that Skywalker was actually awake in the last two days to state that the reason for his exhaustion was that he wasn’t ready for this kind of stress yet.
So much so that Skywalker had finally asserted that the reason he’d wanted to return was that he could now legitimately throw Hallin out of his room if the medic nagged too much, which he was on the verge of doing right now.
But Skywalker was recovering, his memory repairing, his blurred vision sharpening. The white of his injured eye had almost cleared, though the blue iris had sustained dark scarring from the iron deposits of the clearing blood, which had resulted in the disconcerting effect of rendering a large slice of his pale, sky blue iris almost black. Even knowing this, Mara often found she needed several seconds when looking at him to lock down that uneasy feeling that something had changed—not the obvious scar which sliced a long, twisted path down the right side of his face and through his lips, but something more subtle, more fundamental.
Still, a return to his own quarters had seen a marked improvement, even to Mara’s eyes; he’d slept through the night again and well into the next morning, Mara keeping the photosensitive transparisteel of the tall bank of windows dialed down to halfway.
Now the balcony doors were pushed open, the warm summer breeze filtering in to tug at Mara's hair as she sat, her back to the room, finally getting a chance to settle and catch up on some Intel reports. Engrossed in her reading, she almost jumped from her chair when there was a loud thud behind her and a flash of surprise which blasted out so strongly through the Force that even she felt it. She twisted round to see Skywalker huddled awkwardly on the floor by the bed, more or less upright. Panicking, she swung up, keying the medical emergency comm on the table then dashing forward to him.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he reassured, though he didn’t get up, his pinned arm held close, cradled by the other.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
“Sitting on the floor apparently,” he deadpanned, voice still low and hoarse.
Mara reached him and suddenly stopped dead, arms outstretched, having no idea how to help him up. He was wearing what he had always worn to sleep in—a pair of tie-waisted sleeping trousers, his torso bare—and now suddenly, when she had to touch him, it seemed way too little.
Which was stupid because she’d seen him dressed like this hundreds of times when she’d come into his apartments first thing in the morning, or when he’d wandered around in this and a loose, open dressing gown before breakfast, long since comfortable with the amount of people who seemed to find it necessary to wander his apartments at any hour of the day.
And when he trained in the Practice Halls six floors down, the huge ebony-floored room boasting a long, floor-to-ceiling glass wall which made it incredibly hot in summer despite the climate controls, he would generally strip off the athletic vest he wore in an effort to cool down. She’d never looked twice… Well, that wasn’t actually true, but she’d never felt this awkward or embarrassed before.
“Are you gonna help me up, or are you just here to watch?” he prompted.
“What happened?” Mara finally managed, reaching out, uncertain.
“My leg went out from under me when I put my weight on it, that’s all.”
“You dislocated your hip and your ankle,” Mara reminded, bringing his eyes sharply up, though his head didn’t move, neck still stiff and painful. “You’ll need physio to get it working.”
“Somebody could have told me that.”
“We did—repeatedly,” Mara said dryly, taking Skywalker’s right arm well above the surgery line of the new prosthetic and trying to lift.
He yelped as his broken collarbone took the strain. Mara let go instantly, crouching down. It occurred to her only now that, among greater pains and injuries, the dislocations may well have been ignored by Skywalker, and his memory from the first few weeks was still patchy. “I’m sure Hallin must have told you recently.”
“I listen to about a third of what Hallin says,” Luke said, leaning away when Mara tried to reach out to his pinned arm. “Not a chance,” he uttered dryly.
“A third?” Mara grinned. “That’s way more than me.”
She moved round his back and, after a moment’s hesitation, slipped her arms under his, hands about his chest, deeply aware of the warmth of his skin.
“Wait! Surgery scar,” he reminded as she closed her hands about the long scar which ran down his chest from his broken collarbones to below his ribs.
Mara pulled her hands back to rest against his sides, trying not to press in, knowing how long broken ribs took to heal. Still, when she tightened her grip, he pulled in another sharp intake of breath. She paused. “What?”
“Those are broken.”
She slid her hands down over smooth skin. “How about here?”
“I think we can just safely assume that everything hurts,” he croaked.
“Well then maybe you shouldn’t have tried to get up,” Mara said, still crouched behind him.
“Thanks,” Skywalker deadpanned huskily. “I really needed to hear that. It’s very helpful.”
“If you just…” Mara felt the smile coming to her lips and tried unsuccessfully to silence the laugh, her ribs rocking at the attempt.
“I’m glad one of us finds this amusing,” Skywalker rasped, but Mara could hear the humor in his hoarse voice.
“Sorry—it’s not funny,” she agreed, still trying to stifle the laugh, leaning forward to rest her forehead against the back of his shoulder in attempt to stop rocking.
“You’re laughing on my broken shoulder,”
For some reason, that was the final straw and Mara could hold back no longer though she tried valiantly, so that the laugh came out as a breathless snicker, her eyes beginning to water at the effort of keeping it in. Luke chose that moment to try to sit up against her weight, but Mara was laughing too much, all strength gone, and though she tried to push back, she simply toppled backwards beneath his greater weight, taking Skywalker with her.
He froze a few seconds against the pain then leaned back to rest his head against her ribs for a moment, his gruff voice cracking, his own laughter breaking through. “Well, you’re useless in a crisis, Red.”
“This isn’t a crisis, this is a fiasco,” she corrected blithely.
Hands still about his chest, she felt it rock in laughter, then his muscles tensed. “Don’t make me laugh. My ribs hurt enough as it is.”
Mara considered a moment as they both paused, breathless, trying to regain the strength to try again. “Is this a bad time to say you probably should have stayed in the medi-bay?”
“If you ever tell Hallin about this…”
The threat was wasted as Hallin came bursting into the room, having answered Mara’s emergency comm. He took one shocked look at the two of them on the floor, Mara’s arms wrapped around Luke, his head resting against her, the pair of them grinning inanely, and tried to back out, eyes to the floor. “Oh, I’m so sorry—please excuse me. I didn’t…”
“Hallin!” Skywalker’s voice broke as he tried to shout, but it was loud enough. “Get back in here.”
His disembodied voice came politely from the other side of the door, “…Now?”
“What now?” Luke glanced up from the suspiciously brief morning dispatches, which he was reading on an automemo whilst walking slowly on a treadmill in the small private gym which had been set up in his apartments, annoyed more at his own lack of stamina than at the incoming intrusion. Even a few minutes’ exercise still triggered near-exhaustion, leaving him feeling incredibly vulnerable here in the Emperor’s Palace. Because the truth was that if he couldn’t protect himself from Palpatine, then no one else had the ability to do it for him.
He was already beginning to push himself trying to regain his fitness. The heavy, cumbersome weight of the alloy cage around his arm and across his collarbone had been removed, leaving only fine tension bars in their place, set slightly clear of his skin and the light, minimal, polymer forms. Still awkward and troublesome, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as the heavy cage of the external fixator. The moment the bars and casts were removed from his arm he intended to begin lightsaber drills again, but for now even this short walk had left him drained and trembling.
He was restless at being trapped in the Palace—he’d never liked being here, had always seen it as a gilded cage and a dangerous one at that, so close to his Master. And whilst he remained, there was no reliably undetectable way to contact agents he had spent the last year and a half placing in the field for just the kind of information he wanted right now.
He needed to know exactly what had happened in the lead-up and the aftermath of the assassination attempt. He particularly needed to know why Argot, his own spy in the Rebel camp, had been excluded—whether the agent’s cover had been compromised. But until he was on his Destroyer and away from the capital he remained isolated from all incoming information save that which his Master chose to pass on. He didn’t believe Palpatine would lie to him—he was far too skillful at manipulating the truth to ever need to resort to lies—but Luke knew that the Emperor would certainly be controlling what information was reaching him, and how. Omissions were just as misleading as lies if carefully handled, and this morning’s discussion with Hallin had brought home to him one more time just how far Palpatine was prepared to go in assuring his own goals, and how precarious Luke’s position here really was—how expendable.
Hallin had been thoughtful since he’d arrived that morning, entering Luke’s private quarters with a politely sketched bow, clearly searching for a way to lead into whatever he wished to say, though it had still taken Luke a surprising amount of coaxing to finally pull the truth out of him.
“I was…uncertain whether you would survive immediately following the explosion,” Hallin had allowed at last, alluding to the day of the assassination attempt. “You had extensive internal injuries and we were having difficulties stabilizing you. When the Emperor commed, that was his first question—would you live?”
Luke shrugged, unoffended. “If I ever don’t I’d advise you not to go back to the Palace—it’d probably be a one-way journey.”
Hallin nodded gravely, made to speak, then fell silent. Luke remained quiet, waiting for his friend to find his words, which eventually he did. “If you had died, I was ordered by Palpatine to recover certain samples immediately, then place your body in medical stasis.”
Luke nodded, unsurprised. “DNA, though I’m sure he already has samples; I need to deal with that at some point.”
“I think…he was looking for more. I was ordered to take pure DNA samples, yes, but… I think he was looking to gain a new generation rather than an exact copy; what little is still medically available to me regarding cloning Force-sensitive individuals indicates it’s highly unpredictable, unstable even. I think he was looking to…create a child rather than a clone.”
Luke was silent for a long time, the gravity of this sinking in. Slowly he nodded, rubbing the bridge of his nose, deathly tired of this constant scheming. He glanced up to Nathan. “Did you take the samples?”
“No, it was only in the event of your death.”
“Ever?” Luke asked sternly but openly, aware that Nathan was uncomfortable beneath that intense stare, uncertain if he was he using the Force to back up his perceptions. He hadn’t, of course, not with Nathan; he was one of the trusted few.
“No, Commander. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t in existence, taken at other times by other medics. Every time you’re released from the cell, you’re never returned straight to your quarters, and when you are returned, your wounds have already been treated. And remember the Emperor also asked me to gather DNA though we know that such samples already exist, stored at separate locations.”
“We have no one reliable at any of them who could follow this up?”
“No; Wez says they’re very small facilities with few sentient staff, and those who are there are extremely loyal to the Emperor. We’ve tried unsuccessfully before to infiltrate them, plus they could be stored at any number of locations under any designation.”
“I need to know if they have samples because if they do we need to deal with this now.” Luke paused, glancing meaningfully back to Hallin. “If you’re ever asked again, provide a false sample—and make sure that no one else can collect a real one.” He hesitated, uncertain how to explain the next, but hoping that Hallin was familiar enough with the Force by now. “If I die… Master Yoda taught me a…practice—my body should simply disappear. But if it doesn’t...you need to destroy it, completely. You understand? As soon as possible.”
Hallin hesitated a long time, eyes down, and Luke sensed his unease. When he finally looked to Luke and spoke it was doubtfully. “I’m not sure I…”
“Well then ask Wez to do it,” Luke cut in, surprised at the medic’s squeamish streak, knowing Wez would have no such qualms. “Or Admiral Joss, or Arco if Wez isn’t there, anyone I’d trust. But be there—make sure it’s done.”
Hallin nodded resolutely, though Luke could sense his discomfort.
“This is important to me, Nathan,” he emphasized. “I won’t give him that opportunity.”
He had watched as his father slowly realized that in his son, he was also seeing his replacement—his comprehension that Palpatine would cast Vader aside in an instant for just the chance of controlling the next generation. Even in his darkest hour, when he had hated his father with a vengeance for bringing him here, Luke had balked at how the Emperor could so easily dismiss and discard that which he had created—callously use one who had served him for so long.
Had experienced firsthand how once the Sith Master had fixed his avaricious sights on something he would ruthlessly exploit any means to ensure his own desires.
Despite his father’s twisted morals, Luke had sensed in recent talks some shade of genuine regret; remorse at his decision to bring his own son here, exposing him to Palpatine’s self-serving ambitions and pitiless wrath. To Luke, the thought that another generation may become caught up in this soul-destroying struggle was abhorrent. All in the service of his Master's greater goal, his precious Sith Dynasty—did he seriously believe Luke would give him that? That satisfaction, that control over another life?
But apparently, he didn’t need Luke’s consent—and why was he even surprised at that?
The morning had slipped by, lost in Luke's appalled disbelief that even Palpatine would stoop to such a thing, resentment crystallizing into adamant resolve that it wouldn’t be so. Whatever it took, any means, any price, he wouldn’t be Palpatine’s puppet. He wouldn’t be used.
And if the only way to regain control of his life was to relinquish the past, then he could do that now. Without hesitation; without regret. How could he afford either when others had no such qualms?
Was that what his Master had wanted? Surely he knew that anything said to Hallin would eventually come back to Luke? Was this too just a manipulation, one more coaxing coercion toward Darkness? If so then yes, he had won this game—because Luke finally found himself willing to cut free of his past. But the victory would be a hollow one—if it took Luke’s last breath he’d ensure that.
Eventually Luke had headed for the gym in his apartments, much to Hallin’s obvious dismay, resorting to exercise in an effort to get his mind off the revelation, grateful for the distraction from guessing and double-guessing every play on his Master's part, but frustrated by how little it took to reduce still-weak muscles to exhaustion. When he sensed Wez Reece heading meaningfully down the corridor, his thoughts boiling with ominous uncertainty, Luke turned expectantly to the door, bringing Hallin’s gaze about too.
Moments later Reece entered, nervous anticipation apparent in his face and his sense as he glanced momentarily at Nathan then turned to Skywalker.
“Sir. I’ve just received word from Chancellor Cordo that the Emperor will dine here tonight,” Reece said, no further explanation for his tension necessary.
Luke ground his jaw, reining back his anger and keeping his voice casual. “Did Cordo say why?” Unless he had a specific reason, Luke seldom used titles save for his Master and his father, and no one was in a position to correct him.
“No, nothing. Only that the Emperor will dine here tonight.”
Luke stepped over to a chair, Hallin half-rising, clearly resisting the urge to step forward in case Luke fell, his fragility still obvious, though he tried hard to hide it.
“Nothing more?” Luke prompted as he reached out for the chair to steady himself before he sat down.
“Only that I was ordered to arrange the meal in your private dining room rather than the State Dining Room.” Reece turned his eyes subtly away, a flicker of disquiet coloring his sense beneath Luke stare.
Already this particular reaction had become sufficiently commonplace that Luke had learned to ignore it. Whether it was the heavy, still-angry scar which traced the right side of his face, his obviously mismatched eyes, or some deeper perceived change which fired it, Luke hadn’t quite fathomed—nor could he be bothered trying.
Instead he considered his Master’s actions, always premeditated, reflecting a moment before allowing the slightest of smiles to turn up the edges of his scarred lips. “I think I need to speak to Darrick,” he said, of his Wardrobe master.
Reece glanced back, raising his eyebrows in question.
“I’m looking for a shirt,” Luke replied enigmatically. “A very specific shirt. I haven’t worn it in…three years, but Darrick will know which it is.”
Reece was fascinated now. “Any particular reason?”
Luke’s gaze turned meaningfully to the door in a pointed indication that someone else was about to enter, though he didn’t speak or gesture, everyone aware of the fact that surveillance was still active in this part of his apartment. Mara Jade‘s entrance precluded any further discussion, though Luke was no longer so inexperienced as to abruptly stop speaking, bringing the conversation to a more natural conclusion.
“I would imagine my dinner guest’s trying to make a statement—I’d hate him to think that I’d missed it.” He turned just slightly. “Good morning, Red.”
Mara remained on duty in Skywalker’s apartments for the rest of the day, aware of a tense brittleness about him, that sense of insular brooding. It didn’t bother her particularly; as with Palpatine, she knew that outward detachment simply masked a racing mind.
One of only three or four people whom he allowed this close, Mara was well aware of both the rareness and the duality of her position. She remained both Skywalker’s bodyguard-come-Aide and, in the final analysis, Palpatine’s eyes and ears close to Luke—his ‘watcher,’ as her master liked to refer to his many spies. Reece, whom Skywalker seemed to trust as much as Mara, was his second observer—her ‘corroborator’—proof that Mara’s own facts were accurate… It never failed to fascinate her that Skywalker allowed them both so close, since he had to know what they both were.
Recruited by Saté Pestage, Reece was, as her master expressed it, possessed of a naturally 'quiet mind’, whose blank silence apparently bought him sufficient trust to remain, though it wouldn’t block a premeditated attempt at reading on Luke’s part, which may be why he was tolerated. Why she was allowed the same, Mara didn't know. This duality in her own status was becoming increasingly…uncomfortable with the passage of time, but Palpatine had made it patently clear that if he had any doubts whatsoever, he would simply remove her from Skywalker’s retinue entirely. It was this knowledge which kept Mara from looking too closely at her own skewed ethics, aware on some level that it would be a rocky road leading only to trouble.
She knew after all that Skywalker was well aware of her reason for being there, yet despite this he never seemed particularly inclined to judge her. He never had—it was one of the things which had fascinated her—drew her to him. If anything, he seemed rather more concerned with why it was her than the fact that she was there at all, and if he had his suspicions then he wasn’t about to mention them out loud—one of the things which infuriated her about him. But then again, she was hardly in a position to judge him for keeping secrets, given her position.
And he did just that—remained quiet and introvert—for the best part of the day, lost in thought. He still wore only his drawstring sleep-trousers and a long linen dressing-gown, left loose in the heat of the day. He hadn’t bothered to dress more than a few times yet and disliked fastening the dressing-gown, which snagged on the long metal tension bars still protruding from the polymer forms on his immobilized left arm and the bare skin across his collar bones.
Now he sat at the table in his private drawing room, gazing blankly at the dust motes which drifted through the shaft of sunlight in the stuffy, airless room, unthinkingly turning a long, heat-darkened splinter of plasteel over and over in his hand—his version of practicing the fine motor-coordination which Hallin had advised for his newly fitted prosthetic—obviously playing some nameless scenario over and over in his head, looking for flaws in logic or judgment.
Hallin had given Skywalker the rough, twisted shard of metal several days earlier, and Mara had been there to watch Luke turn it over in his hand. “What’s this?”
“I though you might like it,” Hallin had said cryptically of the splinter, finger-length in diameter and set in a curling twist, the metal chemically discolored by heat.
“What is it?” Luke prompted.
“That’s the piece that nearly killed you,” the slender medic said casually. “I took it out of your neck in surgery—it’s the reason you couldn’t speak for a while. It had pierced your windpipe side to side. Somebody somewhere is watching over you, because the curl in the metal made it twist around your jugular as it entered but I had to do an emergency tracheotomy on the hangar floor to enable you to breathe past it. You were choking on your own blood.”
Luke had turned the wicked splinter of shrapnel over in his hand. “So naturally you kept it.”
“Actually I felt I did a pretty impressive reconstruction of your throat in the resultant surgery, so I kept it to show you. Thought you might appreciate my talents a little more.” That dry, confident mix of pride and vanity was laced as ever with just enough self-depreciation to make it engaging.
“Well it’s nice to know you had your priorities straight,” Luke croaked, amused.
“I also remember reading somewhere once that back in the days when solid projectiles were used in guns, soldiers had a saying—that there was a bullet somewhere with your name on it. It’s not quite a bullet, but that one unquestionably had your name on it. I thought you might like to keep it—just to prevent it making its way back into the public domain to somehow make another attempt at fulfilling its purpose.” Hallin held Skywalker’s mismatched eyes for a fraction too long at that, then turned away, suddenly embarrassed at the sentimentality.
Luke smiled amiably. “That’s what I have you for, Hallin,” he dismissed easily.
“If I’d have been two minutes later onboard the Peerless, it would have made no difference,” Hallin maintained, all business now, his voice holding that touch of self-righteous scorn which only a medic could ever get away with. “Remember that next time you’re off gallivanting in your precious I-TIE.”
“You’ll always arrive at the very last minute to patch me up—you just like the drama.”
“No, I like sitting on the terrace with a tall drink and nothing better to do than watch the galaxy turn,” Hallin corrected. “I do not like patching you up at regular intervals and nursing my shredded nerves whilst I wait for your next emergency.” He glanced meaningfully at the long twist of plasteel. “Next time you’re about to do something foolish, look at that piece of shrapnel and remember that fact.”
By late afternoon, Luke had wandered out onto the wide balcony overlooking the Monolith's roof gardens and the sprawling metropolis beyond—the first time he had stepped outside since his injuries—and was leaning against the ornately carved terrazzo stone balustrade, gazing out to the city.
Mara wandered casually out behind him, scowling in the bright light, the sun lowering on the horizon as tall, closely packed buildings cast stretching shadows all about, but never quite reaching, the Palace. He still had nowhere near his strength back, Mara knew, but he was getting better every day now. She’d even caught him making a few experimental right-handed test-swings of his lightsaber hilt. He was, she could tell, itching to get back into practice.
“You shouldn’t be out on the balcony,” she admonished at last, eyes scanning the distant high-rise towers. “It’s an open invitation for a sniper with a range-rifle to take a shot.”
He seemed more amused than anything. “Mara, I just survived a four-click explosion at point-blank range—how likely do you think it is that one laser shot is gonna take me down?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“Yeah, well that’s not nearly strange enough for my life,” he dismissed easily without turning round.
She glanced at him, unconvinced. He was hardly at peak fitness, though she wasn’t about to mention that aloud.
“I’m fine,” he said, clearly well aware of what she was thinking, and she wondered whether he’d read her undisguised thoughts; whether he also realized that she knew from his stance that the breeze was making his dressing-gown, light as it was, snatch painfully at the long metal tension bars across his collar bones.
She stood watching him in silence for a few seconds, his linen dressing-gown fluttering in the warm summer breeze, his long, dark blond hair blown into disarray…
Eventually he glanced sideways at her, making her aware that she’d stared too long, so she quickly looked away, following his gaze before turning and lifting herself up to sit on the wide stone balustrade, so confident in her own sense of balance that she remained oblivious to the lethal drop behind her. If it bothered Skywalker at all, then he hid it well.
Mara glanced back toward him just for a moment. “If I had a credit for every time that I found you looking out over this damn city…”
“Then maybe you could pay me back half of the credits you owe me from playing sabacc,” he grinned, still staring out over the densely packed urban sprawl of affluent, luxurious high-rise buildings, the wealthiest and most prestigious on Coruscant. She’d once told him that a view of the Imperial Palace doubled the value of a property here; he’d been genuinely baffled as to why.
Mara smiled, flicking her russet hair from her face in the warm breeze. “I’m just waiting until it’s worth my while to offer you double or quits.”
His own smile faltered, a brief shadow of doubt flickering across his face and gone in an instant. “See, that’s exactly the game I’m contemplating right now, too,” he murmured quietly.
Mara glanced briefly, knowing he was thinking about the Emperor’s imminent arrival. His eyes were locked onto the twisted piece of shrapnel that Hallin had given him as he turned it over and over in his hand.
“I’d think very carefully before I crossed him,” Mara advised, keeping her tone light so that Luke would know she meant nothing by it other than to offer advice.
“I’m not thinking of crossing him—not at all,” Luke corrected, closing his fist about the wicked shard of plasteel. “Just…upping the stakes.”
Mara frowned. “To what?”
Skywalker set his head on one side but said nothing more, lapsing into silent thought once again, eyes roving the distant city, the huge buildings bathed in a carmine glow as dusk fell. Mara sighed, looking down as she kicked her heels against the balustrade, legs swinging. “You know, sometimes you’re worse than Palpatine with your secrets and your scheming.”
He only grinned, unoffended. “I’d be a fool to tell you and you know it,” he murmured quietly, though there was neither malice nor accusation in his voice.
Still, Mara felt a pang of guilt which kept her eyes to the ground, irresolute morals and deep-seated loyalties holding her to an uneasy silence.
Luke walked through to his dressing room to dress for dinner and the shirt that he had requested was waiting, freshly laundered and pressed, on his dressing stand. Ever-organized, Darrick had known exactly the shirt that Luke required and brought it from storage.
It was absolute black—a color he seldom wore. A close-fitted, stand-collared dress shirt of smooth, refined cortal linen with tiny, hand-woven vinesilk knots forming multiple small buttons down the center front, the fine braided loops which fastened them incorporated into a subtle, intricately topstitched pattern, black-on-black. He left them open partway, the fitted style of the shirt pulling against the tension bars set into broken bones, so now the meticulously stitched high collar hung casually loose, the fine fabric cool against his skin, perfectly fitted, handmade to the highest quality.
This was the shirt that he had worn the very first night he had woken here—the first time that he had faced the Emperor. He’d felt deeply, uncomfortably out of place in it then, awkward and self-conscious surrounded by this casual, all-pervasive opulence. Now he thought nothing of it at all; like everything here, it existed simply to serve a purpose and clarify intent, subtle messages conveyed even in this.
The elaborate shirt was not to his taste, having been chosen by Palpatine probably before his arrival, but then that was the point. The Emperor had not dined in the private dining room of Luke’s quarters since those first twelve weeks, when he had visited every single night, Luke escorted by guards to the same room at the same time, the table laid nightly for a dinner which neither ever ate.
Now, in coming here and commanding dinner be served in that same room, Palpatine was looking to make a statement—a return to that moment, that opportunity.
This was, Luke knew, a carefully considered reminder of what had been, of how much had changed since then. More than that, it was the chance at that moment again—for Luke to remake that decision from a better informed, less naïve standpoint. His Master was offering a clean slate and Luke was willing to indulge him—that much, at least, had definitely changed.
But for every point that had changed over the last three years, another had remained the same. Because Luke would still be taking his own agendas to the table; his own will and his own goals. He had simply learned how to conceal them—learned to play the game.
Which was exactly what he intended to do tonight.
Palpatine was looking for a response, a clarification of his precious Jedi’s viewpoint in consideration of what had happened. He had gone to great lengths to prompt, to induce this change—Luke now believed absolutely that Palpatine had instigated this though he wasn’t so foolish as to try looking for proof, which would only alert Palpatine to his realization. It was pointless, since intentional or not, the end result remained the same. In this particular manipulation, his Master had been successful.
Because it had completely clarified Luke’s position, isolated and unsupported as it was on all sides. Made it painfully obvious to him that Luke had no one, no one to rely on but himself.
This one fact was about to become the driving force behind all his actions and objectives. He’d left himself vulnerable for too long, torn between conflicting principles and loyalties—Palpatine had been right to point that out to him. Well now he had a new allegiance—the one he should have adopted long ago.
Himself. His plans. His goals.
Yes, Palpatine had sought a reaction, and Luke intended to oblige. For his own ends.
Standing before the tall bank of windows in the drawing room beyond, Luke waited patiently to be invited into the massive, ebony-paneled dining room, watching the day settle from the sky, city lights casting an orange glow into inky blackness.
When the heavy double-doors were opened and he entered, it was to find his Master standing before the imposing bulk of the massive stone fireplace, exactly as he had that first night, a fire set within it despite the warmth of the evening. The bank of high glass doors onto the wide balcony were all open to counter the heat of the flames, something which would never have been allowed when he had first been brought here—would in fact have been impossible, the doors having been installed only when the room’s occupant was no longer a flight risk.
At the time a series of inches-thick, tensile-wire-embedded military-grade viewports had been installed, cabled into massive girders hidden within the body of reinforced walls. A prison to hold a Jedi, as his Master had said at the time. Luke had still breached them, a single Force-induced blow taking out both the windows and most of the surrounding wall, so well had they been anchored. But he’d done it.
Had it been the Light Side or Darkness which afforded him that strength? He didn’t remember anymore, couldn’t recall at what point he’d begun to falter, though he remembered with pin-sharp clarity the moment of his downfall. His revelation, as his Master often referred to it, though Luke wasn’t sure why—they both knew what it was.
The Emperor turned slowly, his long cloak rustling against the polished marble of the floor, the harsh, flickering light of the fire playing across his wizened, haggard features. The first time he had seen them, Luke had been appalled at their severity—now, they were more familiar to him than his own. He seldom looked in a mirror any more; didn’t care for what he saw.
Luke stepped painfully down into a kneeling bow, injuries still hindering him, and the Emperor immediately gestured for him to stand, voice laden with carefully measured sentiment. “Rise—rise, my friend.”
Gratified at all that this gamble had achieved him, Palpatine walked to the table and sat, smiling in empty indulgence. His feral Jedi followed, sitting only when his Master had, the epitome of restraint and respect, and Palpatine allowed a swell of unspoken pleasure, aware of how much had changed in the boy since they were last at this table.
Servants entered and whisked in silent efficiency about them, uncovering dishes and filling tall, etched-glass goblets. Skywalker waited graciously until the Emperor had taken the first mouthful before eating himself, the action neither pointed nor reluctant but quite composed—at ease with the protocol of Court life. Palpatine did not eat further, but then nor did his advocate—neither man had come here to eat. Instead he settled back, watching his fallen Jedi, remembering…
He had not given a single step of his arduous conversion, had fought Palpatine every meeting, every word, every moment. Nothing had been surrendered—every victory had been dragged blow by blow from that stubborn, recalcitrant, gloriously obstinate will.
It had been a long path from capture to control to commitment.
Not like his father; Anakin’s desire to be with and to protect his wide-eyed, naïve little Senator had in the final analysis been, if not actually positive then at least well-meaning, albeit easily twisted. But Palpatine had needed more to hold Anakin of course—had needed stronger, darker emotions—and thanks to Obi-Wan’s spectacular betrayal he had found them, cementing Vader’s resolve in a way that Palpatine could never have engineered, igniting negative emotions which held a power and a resonance to scar far deeper than Mustafar’s burning flames.
Obedience—deferral to Palpatine’s will—was one thing, and it would have held Vader for a while, as it had his son... but in mind and body, not in soul.
Betrayal and assault—a personal attack by those he trusted absolutely—that had bought Skywalker's soul, just as it had his father’s.
Oh, it was an incomparable, glorious thing to see the boy like this—to see him willingly discard those last tattered shreds of weakness with which the last of the Jedi had tried to tie him to pointless, restrictive restraints. He was beyond them all now—except his Master. Because Palpatine knew what made him tick—he had, after all, set it all in motion. Had taken the Jedi and made the Sith. Before today, there had always been something—some ghost of a memory of the past—which the boy had clung to, believing it pure and untainted, holding it up as some perfect ideal…
And they had destroyed it—not Palpatine, but them. The very people the boy had admired and revered had sullied and corrupted it.
His Dark Jedi glanced up, the movement still uneasy, and those strange, sharp, wonderfully mismatched eyes caught Palpatine’s own. He was still injured and bitter and angry, and he wanted someone to blame…
And Palpatine would give him someone—would make it personal.
“I have a name for you, my friend,” the Emperor said at last with casual nonchalance. “Two in fact. Mon Mothma signed the warrant commanding your assassination herself, and the Imperial traitor Crix Madine countersigned and executed it—it was he who originally brought the idea to the attention of the Rebellion’s Chief of Staff.”
Skywalker’s eyes narrowed in consideration, the cool, contained outrage at hearing those names blasting out through the Force like a wave front, Palpatine basking in its power.
“They alone?” His Jedi placed his fork to the side of the plate, the meal forgotten, uncanny eyes narrowing. “There are no other names—no one else was involved?”
“No one else. I have read the communiqués between the task force and Madine’s office, all encrypted. No one else knew but Madine and Mothma.”
Would he want the names of those who planted the bombs too? That would be unfortunate—firstly because Palpatine wanted to keep his Jedi’s focus, his anger, completely concentrated. And secondly, however unlikely, it may come to light that Palpatine had known about the two Rebel infiltration units as Kuat Shipyards who had been working on the Peerless, and allowed them continued access.
They were long dead now of course—dead men told no tales and in truth, Palpatine had not expected the assassination attempt to be a fraction as close to successful as it was—someone had to take the brunt of his own wrath.
But it was far better for Palpatine to remain completely removed from this. There were to be no ambiguities. Skywalker had taken this final step forward and as far as he was aware, he had done so of his own free will, his own decision, without any influence from his Master. And Palpatine intended for it to stay that way.
“How do you know you have them all—Madine could have been sending the same messages to several Chiefs of Staff?”
He could so easily have implicated other, closer allies, Palpatine knew...but all in good time. “No. My agent is in a position to monitor all incoming and outgoing comms. The only communications mentioning the task force went between Madine and Mon Mothma.”
“He’s sure of that?”
“Very sure. Leemarit has total access. He’s completely trusted—has been for many years.”
Skywalker was silent, nodding slowly as he considered the facts, fists balled one inside the other before his scarred face as he leaned on the spotless linen tablecloth, the white of the polymer form and the steel of the bars which held his shattered arm together just visible at his unfastened cuff.
“Well now, isn’t that interesting…” he murmured at last, almost to himself.
Suddenly aware of his Master’s scrutiny, Skywalker looked up, guarded and wary, and Palpatine smiled a contented grin into those wonderful unmatched ice-blue eyes.
“How far you’ve come, my friend,” Palpatine murmured at last, benevolent and contented. “It was a difficult path you walked, but it has only made you stronger. From ignorance to enlightenment—from day to night...” He set his head to one side, ochre eyes fixed on the subject of his musings, and the boy gazed back unfazed.
Would he do as Palpatine hoped? Would he take that final step—cut that cord—hunt down those he had once venerated?
Because the truth was that even now, after three long years, Palpatine was never quite sure, that knife-edge volatility as wild and feral as ever. Would he ever truly tame it—in truth, did he even want to? “Will you howl in the Darkness…my Wild Wolf?”
Luke tilted his head indulgently, for the first time genuinely accepting of Palpatine’s epithet, willing to give his Master whatever he wished—as long as those wishes coincided with his own intent.
He half-smiled, unaware of the ruthless menace in his own scarred features in that moment. “Give me the hunt and I’ll make sure I’m heard.”
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