The lush, ornately opulent surroundings of the huge Main Audience Chamber were silent and empty in the small hours of the morning, the room dim, its vast clusters of jewel-bright, hand-blown light globes high above muted to reflect only the slightest luminosity onto the rich gold of the gracefully arched ceiling. Their subtle radiance reflected down to cast diffuse shadows into the velvet gloom, barely enough to light the many corners of the vast chamber, though Palpatine needed no such vulgar aids to know he was alone.
On the high dais, his ornate, gilded Sunburst Throne stood on its pale disc of inset stone, inlaid with a motif in rust-red and indigo blue. It had been taken from the Council Chamber of the old Jedi Temple at Palpatine’s order, and it never ceased to delight him that the throne from which he ruled his Empire was set on a floor which he would once have been forbidden to stand upon.
The throne itself, a relic from centuries past plundered from its secure hiding place in the vaults of the Jedi Temple, boasted a massive disc at its back hammered from precious metal into the image of a sun surrounded by flares, the lowest flames touching the floor, the highest beyond head-height, the fluted sunbursts of the hammered metal catching the smallest rays of light and refracting them about the throne and its occupant.
His hands resting lightly on its wide armrests, Palpatine smiled again at this most treasured possession.
Its true role long lost to history, the throne had always been a venerated Jedi artifact, its existence hidden, its portentous truth concealed. Because the ancient throne carried with it a hidden prophesy—if one knew specifically where to look. One which both threatened destruction and promised salvation. A new era, a greater empathy, connection beyond all known limits, whose secrets were whispered in both Sith prophesies of mastery and Jedi prophesies of balance.
Because hidden within the intricately tooled surface in an unknown, archaic text, were a series of inscriptions scribed in tiny, stretched letters so distorted as to be near indecipherable within the massively complex sunburst, their origins, like that of the throne itself, lost in the mists of time. Combined, these fragments provided one of the greatest prophesies known:
‘Sun of Suns’
Arbitrary and obscure, the inscription repeated about the sunburst, the hieroglyphics so distorted as to form little more than a decorative pattern.
Scholars had argued over its exact meaning for centuries, meticulously interpreting and retranslating random and jumbled text many times in an effort to bring clarity to chaos, no other example of its type existing anywhere. But scattered as it was, the prophesy had always defied definition, the minutiae endlessly discussed and disproved, many versions and interpretations existing.
What they had needed, it seemed, was a key. Ironic then, that at the time the key came into existence, the Jedi were all but gone—that by the time this key first saw the throne, they had dwindled to just one survivor, and he hidden in the wilds, a forgotten hermit.
Yes, the vaunted Sunburst Throne had, considering its credentials, seemed the natural choice when Palpatine had created his Throne Room, the finalization of the massive behemoth of his ornate Imperial Palace, completed almost ten years after he had cemented his reign. All that he had felt the need to add was a heavy, sumptuously carved footrest, engraved with images of his far-reaching Empire, the allegory hardly subtle.
Now he sat alone, his Empire beneath his feet, lost in thought. The room was silent and still, Court long since dismissed, though Palpatine had remained here, in his seat of power. Even twenty-four years after he had taken control, he still gloried in being here. Now more than ever, because if he held Skywalker—commanded the loyalty of this most unique of keys to unlock a prophesy—then everything was possible.
He had known it for two years now, since, within months of Skywalker’s conversion, he had followed that distant, whispered twist in the Force to his Throne Room to find the boy there, drawn back into the shadows, staring hypnotized at the throne, the Seat of Prophesy. Unaware of his Master's close presence, he'd stood, transfixed, moments ticking into minutes and minutes lapsing unmarked. On impulse, Palpatine had invited the boy to read the inscription, knowing that there was no way that he could even know of its existence, let alone of how to decipher it.
And the boy had read it. Just like that. As if it were the most natural thing in the world—which perhaps to him it was. The key to a prophesy.
Palpatine narrowed yellow-flecked eyes, contemplating his meeting with Skywalker that night, aware of the fundamental shift in attitude and commitment evidenced in his actions and intent, immensely pleased with the outcome of his gamble. Because it had been a gamble—one which had gathered pace at an unexpected rate, moving from a minor contrivance to a major campaign without any further interference from its instigator. Palpatine had publicly recognized Skywalker as Heir in a ploy to draw him further into his new position and life and so finally separate him from the Rebellion to which he still held some sense of reluctant allegiance.
The end result had spiraled beyond all expectations.
His entire demeanor had changed—had been changed by this experience, as if some final, deeply rooted barrier that had hindered and held him for so long had fallen away.
The Sith that Palpatine had seen contained behind those ice-blue eyes the very first time they had met had finally stepped free, raw potential realized. Self-assured and incisive, willfully independent, the volatile edge which had always plagued Vader was tempered in his son by a cool, calculating quality which afforded perspective—sometimes too much so, Palpatine felt. There was far more going on behind that detached, dispassionate facade than the boy was willing to admit, that much was obvious.
It would make him harder to control, of course. But that was all part of the game.
He’d once wondered whether he would ever bring this wild thing to heel, whether he would ever truly control it. Even now, some tiny part of Palpatine questioned whether he was training a Sith apprentice…or creating a Master. That had never been a concern with his father, who had lost so much of his connection at Obi-Wan’s hand and had always felt in some way beholden to Palpatine, having known him since childhood.
No, his son was different; he had no such allegiance, and while Palpatine had gone to great lengths to clarify to Skywalker that his own abilities were greater when the boy had first arrived, they both knew now that this was no longer the case—that they were at the very least equally gifted.
Oh, Skywalker held a healthy respect for his Master—for his power and his position and his ruthless will—but more and more as his confidence increased, the fact was that if he truly wanted to do something, the boy would never let caution sway his resolve. He was too headstrong and too spirited and too stubborn to ever do that.
Yet he still deferred to his Master’s will in the end… Would hold absolutely firm for so long then finally, at some private impasse, would concede. And to date, Palpatine had never quite managed to isolate what that was...because it wasn’t threat of force. That was simply a punishment that he knew he would have to endure when he had gone too far. It never actually stopped him from his next insubordination, it simply made him choose it with more care.
So it was something else which hindered, some greater threat which held the boy in check—and Palpatine needed to know what that was. Needed that ultimate threat and control in his own hands—because without it he never truly knew whether his Wolf was merely waiting for its moment to strike.
Lost in his musings, Palpatine felt the vision tingle up his spine, lifting the hairs on the back of his neck and freezing the air in his lungs as he fell willingly back into its all-encompassing power—
... ... ...
... ... ... ... ...
He saw again the wolf in the night, the feral creature which had haunted his visions for two long decades.
It whispered through the darkness, wild and capricious—in a flurry of shadows it was gone and he stared at the empty stillness, waiting…
He turned, uncertain, the silence profound.
Knelt before him in mute stillness was his feral Jedi, eyes turned down in submissive defeat, the dark heavy cloak of dense, black fur draped about him, absorbing all light.
The wolf in the night…
Pull the leash too tight and he will bite—why did Palpatine know that so absolutely?
His Jedi stood, the confining sable cloak he wore slipping from his shoulders as he wordlessly held out his hand and once again, Palpatine’s eyes were drawn inexorably down to the lightsaber there, smeared scarlet red, the color of anger and passion and betrayal…
Vader’s lightsaber—Palpatine wondered again if the boy would ultimately turn on his father.
Take it... his Jedi said, though his lips did not move.
Palpatine looked again to the lightsaber, perfect scarlet streams seeping over the inactive hilt, running in ruby rivulets, dripping in dark drops from his Jedi’s fingers to pool on the floor at Palpatine’s feet, soaking a stain into the trailing hem of his cloak...
Something tugged at Palpatine’s mind as never before, making his heart skip a beat in trepidation—in…fear.
His Wolf remained silent and impassive but something…something had changed in his eyes… Take it…or it will kill you.
Palpatine looked up at this—never before had this been part of the vision.“Vader?”
His wolf said nothing, merely held out the blood-wet saber, the pool of scarlet beneath it spreading out unevenly, fed by a trailing, glutinous trickle of blood which still oozed unevenly down the metal hilt.
Liquid life, rich and viscous.
Liquid death, weeping ruby tears.
Death… The lightsaber was not activated, but he could hear the bass hum of that non-existent blade, the hiss of superheated light.
... ... ... ... ...
... ... ...
Reality ripped through the vision, tearing away contact and leaving Palpatine to a still, solitary silence, unsettled and isolated in the bleak solitude of the huge, empty chamber.
Reece entered the dark drawing room where Luke stood quietly before the tall bank of windows, gazing out into the night, his injured left arm cradled in his right, broken ribs aching from standing too long. “It went as planned, Sir?”
Luke shrugged without turning. “As much as these things ever can.”
“But the Emperor is satisfied?” Reece pushed.
“Then we should proceed?”
Luke paused a long time in consideration, some part of him still unwilling to commit to a course of action which, once begun, would be difficult to escape or derail. But he’d delayed and procrastinated for too long now, and look what it had gained him. The galaxy had moved on and he’d been left floundering and vulnerable, and paid the price.
Palpatine had spent a great deal of time and effort tying Luke’s hands, and now Luke would have to invest much the same to extricate himself. And at present, there were very few people he trusted enough to depend on in this. Reece was one of them, as was Hallin. Mara was most definitely not; likewise his father.
As for the Alliance… He had hoped that he could open a dialogue with them and avoid direct conflict but that too seemed out of the question now. Still, the chances of their agreeing to his terms had always been remote, becoming more so with every passing year. What he needed was a change in their leadership, he knew that, but that had always remained beyond his control—until now. Now was the moment that he could move forward beneath the cover of vengeance and retribution.
It was the perfect alibi because he genuinely wanted it, and that would be all that his Master would sense. And those little pangs of guilt which had whispered at the corners of his mind for so long were finally falling to silence, struck dumb by the reality of his betrayal.
How could he feel guilt for stopping someone who was trying to destroy him? It was simply self-defense. Survival of the fittest, laws of the wild. He’d run with the pack long enough now to understand that the only way to stop others snapping at his heels was to turn on them.
Luke smiled at that; his Master would be proud of him. But before the Sith congratulated himself too much for creating his precious ‘wolf,’ he should realize the nature of the beast—
Palpatine had wanted commitment—well, now he had it. He had his wolf. And the one driving ambition at the heart of every wolf...was to lead the pack.
“Sir?” Reece prompted gently, bringing Luke’s thoughts back to the moment.
In truth, he’d already begun the campaign, having ordered Reece to contact his Bothan infiltrator and tell him to be watching The Heir’s apartments in the West Tower today. By now, the images of himself, alive and well and standing out on the Perlemian Apartment's wide balcony, should be well on their way to the Rebellion.
“I’ll contact Argot—say that the snare is set, and that we need reports of any changes in routine,” Luke said at last. “You should contact Admiral Joss on an official comm and tell him to take the Peerless, the Dauntless and the Fury on a wide sweep of the colonies by my command. Then contact him again on a secure channel and tell him to release the Specials from the 701st on their own recognizance when they reach Onderon—they’re to be given the White Code. They’ll start making their way to Bothan space immediately. I want to know the moment they reach it. Contact General Reiss—”
“I’m sorry, Sir—General Reiss has been reassigned to the Rim Fleet,” Reece interrupted, of the commander of Luke’s Core Armies—and a reliable ally.
Luke frowned, mismatched eyes narrowing. “By whom?”
“By the Emperor’s command. General Veers has replaced him as head of the Core Fleet Armies—though I understand that he petitioned for this himself.”
Luke turned away, frustrated, the memory of visiting his Master months earlier and seeing Veers leaving after a private audience with the Emperor coming immediately to mind. “He’s an agent.”
“Palpatine’s?” Reece frowned. “I don’t have him on my lists.”
“Well then put him on. And let me know when Reiss manages to contact you on a secure channel from the Executor. I doubt we’ll get anything useful from him since my father will be watching him like a hawk, but he may be useful in the future. When he makes contact, establish a secure frequency then tell him not to do so again—we’ll leave him dormant for a while, until things cool down.”
“And Veers?” Reece prompted.
“Inform Admiral Joss that Veers is an agent. He’s to have no contact with the 701st,” Luke said of his own squadron, which he protected absolutely from outside influence. “If he queries Joss on this, tell him to let Veers know it’s by my command and direct Veers to me.”
As his personal command, The Heir’s own regiment the 701st maintained a visible presence onboard the Peerless as a recognized detachment, but in truth everything from squad numbers to assignments to whereabouts was carefully concealed, no more than half of the squadron being onboard the Peerless at any given time, the rest scattered in small independent covert units. There were numbers and names duly reported to Palpatine’s Statistic and Intel branch on Coruscant, of course. Some of them were even correct—or near enough to get past scrutiny.
It had taken Luke two years to build them up from a small, standard regiment assigned to his personal command as the 501st had been assigned to his father, to the independent, loyal, crack unit it was now. To be promoted into the 701st was the ultimate recognition in the Core Fleet, every being there recruited by Luke’s own hand in recognition of exemplary conduct, and consequently to date every single one was trustworthy. They had slowly been disconnected from the regular units to become a completely separate entity and while Luke was pretty sure that Palpatine’s secretive Intel unit had a reasonable idea of numbers and allegiance, he also knew that they had no knowledge of where the units were or what they were doing at any given time—and he wasn’t about to let Veers change that.
Palpatine could, of course, revoke Luke’s command of the 701st at any time, but Luke had played a discreet, delicate, calculated game, careful to make no outward show of dissent, and he knew that his Master liked there to be no public display of mistrust between himself and his Heir, so to terminate his command of the 701st would be politically detrimental. Plus of course, he had to give his Wolf some sense of independence and autonomy…and in the final analysis, they both knew that the truth was that the unit was now so entrenched and loyal that if Palpatine gave the directive to rescind his command, Luke would simply order the majority of the 701st to go covert, thus creating a stealth ex-military unit of unknown numbers and whereabouts with allegiance only to The Heir.
Necessity overcame many principles here and over time, Luke had found that despite his early misgivings, disliking political subterfuge and artifice didn’t mean that he was beyond it, nor it beyond him. He had spent his entire life enduring harsh environments and it was in his nature to fight—to survive—whether it be the deep deserts of Tatooine or the diplomatic jungle of Coruscant.
“Any orders for General Veers at this time?” Reece asked.
“Standard Fleet Maneuvers,” Luke said, then added, “I’ll speak to him when the Peerless breaks orbit. Personally.”
“Do you think he…has potential?”
“I very much doubt it,” Luke said. “But I want to know why Palpatine removed Reiss and gave me Veers. Either he knows Reiss had split loyalties or he simply wanted another spy in my camp, which seems unlikely given that Veers’ arrival is so obviously linked with the Emperor. I’m assuming Veers knows though, and I’m more likely to be able to pull it from his thoughts than from Palpatine’s.” He considered a moment, then added, “And we need to hire a mercenary—an independent infiltration specialist who could get into the Rebellion quickly and with reasonable anonymity . They don’t need to last too long undiscovered. See if Karrde knows anyone… Tell him they need to be expendable. And tell him I need three smuggler-modified, armed bulk freighters with… Name a major transport company on Bothawui...”
Reece paused, thrown sideways by the unexpected question. “Uh… Tionn Kallat? Munil?” he recalled off the top of his head.
“They need spotless ID’s as either of those company’s transports. I’ll give him dates when I next see him.”
“May I ask what we’ll be smuggling in them?”
“You, me and the 701st,” Luke said cryptically, offering no more at this point. He sighed, weary of these endless games he was forced into, exhausted from the long day and frustrated by Veers’ untimely arrival. “That’s all for tonight, Wez. Contact Admiral Joss in the morning. And wake me at seven, please—I may as well start getting back into some kind of routine. I’ll go to the Practice Halls in the morning.”
Reece raised his eyebrows. “And you will be practicing how, if I may ask, Sir?”
“Carefully,” Luke replied dryly, turning away to indicate that the conversation was over as far as he was concerned.
Reece, however, was not so easily put off. “I believe that Hallin recommended that you wait until the bars and pins were removed before commencing lightsaber practice,” he reminded politely.
“They’ll be removed shortly,” Luke said simply.
Reece remained still for long seconds, staring at Luke’s back. He remained, as always, unreadable to Luke, a naturally muted presence in the Force. But Luke knew him well enough to know that he would well understand Luke’s need to push his recovery. He’d disobeyed the Emperor many times, but this was one step further than Luke had ever gone before and if Palpatine found out then there could be no reasonable rationalization to explain away the obviously premeditated act of insubordination.
The only thing which would buy him immunity from Palpatine’s wrath would be success. That alone might just enable Luke to hide his true intent within the results…and in doing so advance his own objectives.
And if he failed and Palpatine found out… Then he could afford no weaknesses, because Palpatine would take him to pieces.
Mara slowed with a frown on her face as she approached Skywalker’s apartments, realization slowly percolating through her still-waking thoughts that there were only two Red Guard at the doorway, which meant that Skywalker probably wasn’t there.
She wandered down the main hallway in the vast apartment and found only Reece in Skywalker’s Day-Office, glancing up as she reached the door. Though they were both under the Emperor’s covert command, neither theoretically knew about the other’s true duties but Mara was pretty sure that Reece was too smart not to know the truth, which had always made his wary enmity and mock-polite distance that much more confusing.
“Good morning, Commander Jade. Can I help you?”
“Where’s Skywalker?” Mara asked, eliciting a very icy reply.
“The Heir is in the Practice Halls at present,” Reece corrected cuttingly.
Mara ignored the barb. “Doing what?”
Reece raised his eyebrows pointedly.
“You’re not seriously telling me you let him go there with a lightsaber in his condition?”
“I was hardly about to take it from him, Commander,” Reece replied sardonically.
“Does Hallin know?”
“Yes. His medic has stated that if The Heir is—his words, not mine—‘fool enough to try practicing with a lightsaber,’ then Hallin will be awaiting a comm to go to the Practice Halls and pick up the pieces shortly,” Reece replied dryly.
Mara was already turning away, heading out of the apartment. She’d reached the wide basalt stairwell before she slowed slightly, considering… There was enough time to make a quick detour and pick up something from her own apartments…
The two Red Guard stepped smartly aside as she opened the double-doors to the vast Practice Hall, the heat of the glass-walled room rolling out over her although it was still early. Skywalker was more or less in the center of the huge space, the pure white of the fitted athletic vest and pants which he always practiced in so bright in the morning sun that he seemed to glow against the absolute black of the polished ebony floor.
Squinting against the low morning light, Mara set forward, Skywalker half-turning in easy acknowledgement, lightsaber in his right hand, his left arm still held near-immobile by the polymer casts and the metal bars which glinted disturbingly in the morning sun.
He seemed strangely at ease and off-guard in that moment, as he often did during saber practice, as if everything else was put away for the time necessary to completely dedicate himself to this passion. Whenever he was in the Palace he fell back on countless hours alone in the Practice Hall, as he had when he was first being taught by the Emperor. It was, Mara knew, both his method of remaining detached from Court and so sane in these cut-throat, paranoid surroundings, and a genuine compulsion bordering on obsession. But then that was forgivable—given the company he kept, chances were one day it would save his life.
He glanced up, his hair tousled, face breaking into a warm, unpretentious grin which Mara couldn’t help but return. He looked so relaxed. No wariness, no suspicion, no degrees of detachment. It was very…appealing.
“Practice?” She kicked herself for stating the glaringly obvious, but he didn’t chide her for it, simply nodding.
“Trying,” he admitted, swinging the saber casually in a one-handed infinity-loop to either side of his body with his good arm, then ending it by twisting the blade up behind his arm as he lifted the arm out straight to his side, the tip of the live blade remaining parallel, stopping a fraction before it hit the back of his arm and his head, making Mara wince slightly though he seemed completely relaxed at the maneuver.
“You know, I distinctly remember Hallin saying you shouldn’t be practicing with a lightsaber yet.”
“I thought you never listened to Hallin,” Luke said easily.
“I didn’t say that,” Mara countered gamely. “I said I listened to him less than you.”
“I’ll give you that one,” he allowed, smiling as he saluted with the blade, lifting it neatly before his face, head bowing slightly. He took two steps back, obviously clearing sufficient space to swing the lightsaber.
“You’re very gracious,” Mara deadpanned, though she couldn’t help but allow a slight smile to twitch at the corners of her own lips as she stepped forward to maintain the space before them.
Undaunted, he took another two steps back—and Mara took another two steps forward. He glanced up, the deep scar on his face wrinkling as he furrowed his forehead. “Are we dancing now?”
Mara let the sarcasm slide. “I’m still waiting for an answer to my question.”
“I thought I gave you one.”
“I mean the question about Hallin saying you’re not ready for this kind of high-stress exercise yet.”
“So do I.”
“And when did you do that?”
“When I backed up so I wouldn’t hit you during my practice,” he said levelly.
“See, that’s not an answer, that’s just ignoring the question.”
He set his head to one side, tone indulgent. “If you’re splitting hairs, I’d like to state for the record that you didn’t really ask me a question—it was more of a statement.”
He stepped back again, his smile arching the heavy scar on his face and reaching those sky-blue eyes—always a rarity, though Mara had seen it a surprising amount in the last week. She was still trying to decide whether she was pleased or suspicious. Either way, she was charmed by this appealing new twist to Skywalker’s character. Hallin had warned of mood swings and temperament changes following the coma; if this was the result, she could certainly live with it.
He stepped back one last time. “And you’re still in my way.”
Mara frowned, not yet defeated; if she couldn’t make him stop, then she could at least try to limit how much he did—
“We should duel,” she said, holding out her hand, the simple, utilitarian lightsaber which Palpatine had given her many years ago in her grip, little more than a brushed steel tube with button controls. She’d never said so, but she often suspected that her master resented giving her, a non-Jedi, a lightsaber.
Petite and fine-boned, at this close distance her slim frame brought her not much higher than Luke’s shoulder, though she wasn’t daunted by the thought of a duel. She didn’t have his strength, but she had a trained, athletic body, was nimble and agile, and had been taught from an early age how to duel. Admittedly he’d effortlessly trounced her in their one short spar, but she’d been practicing since then.
Still, her offer actually made him laugh out loud, his Rim-System accent suddenly coming to the fore as he dropped the lightsaber to his side and deactivated the bright ruby blade. “Yeah, because you’re so gracious in defeat.”
“Maybe I’d beat you,” she teased, taken by this unguarded attitude.
He left just enough of a pause to let her know how unlikely he thought that was, that perfectly modulated Coruscanti accent completely restored. “No.”
“I don’t know,” Mara ribbed easily. “You have a broken arm, your shoulders don’t work and your hip and ankle were dislocated—I think I have a pretty fair chance this time.”
“No, you don’t.”
Mara raised her eyebrows. “Am I that bad…or are you that good?”
He shrugged, ignoring the compliment but confident in his abilities. “A little bit of both.”
“Maybe you should give me a few pointers then… I’ll try not to lose my temper this time.”
“I think the first one is, don’t lose your temper,” he said dryly. “Come back when you can do that.”
“I think there may be stones and glass houses involved in that comment somewhere,” she countered easily.
“See?” he replied, though she could hear the humor in his voice. “You’ve not even activated your saber yet.”
Mara shrugged, accepting defeat, so was surprised when he offered, “Perhaps another time.”
He backed away but she spoke out again, unwilling somehow to let the conversation end when he seemed in such an easy, charming mood, instead glancing down at the lightsaber in his hand. “May I see it?”
It was an unbelievable breach in etiquette, she knew, but she was genuinely curious. He’d worn and used the saber for three years now, and she’d never really seen it close up. He looked up, smiling, his fingers tightening just slightly on the hilt of his saber.
“Do I get to see yours?” He held out his open hand pointedly, striking, mismatched eyes full of humor.
Smiling, Mara placed her lightsaber solidly in his left hand, rattling against the hard shell of the polymer brace which encapsulated it, though she didn’t let go. At the same time, she took hold of the hilt of his saber. He closed his hand and for a moment held onto both of them, as did she, each of them pulling just slightly.
“I see our whole relationship to date condensed into this moment,” he observed, genuine humor in his voice.
No ploy, no suspicion, just honest, straightforward amusement. She couldn’t remember when she had ever caught him in such a good mood. Such an…appealing mood. Maybe it was the high of returning to his precious saber practice, the feeling that he was actually doing something, of being on his way to recovery. Whatever.
Now, she could only grin back, something which seemed to come very easily to both of them this morning. “Very funny. Let go.”
He did so, as did she, and Mara found herself holding the hilt of his saber, studying it closely. A lightsaber was an intensely personal object, and even though the shell of this saber had been gifted to him, Skywalker would have doubtlessly created and engineered the blade within—the heart of the saber.
Long ago, a lightsaber was believed to represent the soul of the Jedi who used it—it was said that another Jedi could get a ghostly sense of its wielder simply by touching it. Though Mara didn’t for a second believe the romanticized fairy-tale, she could well believe that another Force-sensitive could get some kind of reading from an object individually created and so intensely and personally used by another Jedi, part of their sense perhaps imbuing the saber from long use and familiarity.
It was much heavier than hers, slightly larger, the dense, ebony-black surface of the precious metal perennium shell which Palpatine had gifted him painstakingly tooled with a fine crosshatch and embellished with graceful organic curves of platinum, the whole saber interspersed with finely tooled bands of platinum and gold. The upper half of the shell had at some point been cut back on a long curve to expose the eight disc-shaped cycling field generators beneath, each one banded in a thin platinum strip. That, she was sure, had not been part of the original shell Palpatine had given him, the exposure of its internal workings a reminder of its purpose, leaving the distinct impression that it had been intentionally defaced to reduce a near-priceless object to a more utilitarian status.
The blade shroud was a classic staged taper and flare design in polished platinum, as was the heel. Despite its obvious value, the myriad of fine scratches and nicks from years of use took away any pretension it may otherwise have had, the etched finish of the perennium already worn mirror-smooth in places, the tactile nature of such heavy wear appealing.
A work of art, but understated and unassuming, belying its deadly nature. It felt...dangerous, its unfamiliar weight making it unstable, difficult to hold easily. A little unpredictable, a little unnerving.
Unrestrained power beneath a civilized shell.
“May I?” Without waiting for permission, Mara held the hilt away to the side and activated it.
It burst into life with an unexpected kick of power and she had to tense the muscles in her arm against its pull. She sensed rather than saw the slight change in Skywalker’s stance, though he neither lifted nor activated her own lightsaber, which he still held.
Nor did he seem to feel the need to move away.
All blades had a slight pull, a ‘cant’ caused by the resonant vibration unique to that crystal, which gave the blade its weight—its ‘heft.’ Some were smooth and light, which made them easy to handle and fast through the air. But with no heft to the blade, all momentum must come from the wielder, making the more complex moves easy to achieve, but robbing them of any power.
‘Heavy’ blades had a low resonance and a more marked cant, requiring far more of the wielder in order to control them. They enforced a different fighting style, since constant movement was required in order to control the gyroscopic cant. But the trade-off against these difficult, heavy blades was that their momentum gave them power through the most complex moves, making them far more deadly—if one could land a precise blow.
All blades were in essence a trade-off between the ease and speed of a slight cant and the difficult-to-control, deadly power of a hefty blade. Her master’s blade, like Mara’s, was light and fast, enhancing speed and requiring less of the wielder in terms of commitment to training, applied expertise and dexterity. Vader’s blade was very much like his son’s, leading Mara to wonder momentarily at the spectacle which the duel that she knew had taken place between the two would have presented.
The pitch on this blade was very low, almost like a pulse, and she felt her own heartbeat quicken in empathetic response. The kinetic cant pulled against her, so marked that she had to fight just to hold it still, as if it were alive in her hand. Yet when she turned it in a slow figure-eight it almost took the movement from her, pulling her on it in its eagerness to move.
It was a unique, kinetic blade, tuned far more towards offensive than defensive moves—defense required speed of reaction; attack required power. This blade was designed to take the initiative, to press the attack home.
A Sith blade.
She hefted the intense ruby blade in sweeping movements, keeping the tip low. Though she stared at it, she was aware now that her complete attention was centered on Luke—and his on her.
Aware of his gaze she glanced up at him, those piercing, mismatched eyes held steady on her. Now, looking up into his scarred face, Mara was intimately aware that somehow, this had moved to a different level. The atmosphere buzzed between them, making the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
She looked again to the blade which fought against her hold, fascinating in its contradictions, both resisting and desiring interaction.
“It’s a curious blade. It feels...dangerous."
“All blades are dangerous.”
She turned to look again into those steady blue eyes. “This more than most.”
“Then perhaps you should stop.”
“I should. But I find I don’t want to.” She said this as casually as she could, again moving the blade in a figure-eight, watching it closely, the low thrum intense in the echoing emptiness of the cavernous room. “It draws me in.”
He smiled just slightly, the scar at his eye twisting, though his quiet, wary voice held neither amusement nor warning as he spoke, his eyes on the slow-moving blade. “Think carefully—don’t begin something believing you can control it... These moves have a habit of gaining their own momentum.”
Mara knew exactly what he was saying, but in that moment she remained completely lost in those distinctive mismatched eyes. “Do you think I should stop?”
He hesitated, and that was all the answer she needed. They held each other’s gaze for far too long, neither willing to break the moment. Finally, his eyes still on her, Luke reached out to slip his hand over hers on the hilt, deactivating the saber.
“I think we should stop playing dangerous games,” he said, quietly taking his saber back.
“I thought you liked playing dangerous games?” Mara murmured, heart beating fast at her own audacity.
“Not here,” he said simply, glancing pointedly at the surveillance lens in the ceiling as she released the hilt.
Was that a blanket dismissal or simply a deferral to a more secure venue? He was already walking away, effectively ending the conversation.
“You have another location in mind?” Mara baited to his back.
He laughed briefly without looking round as he reached the doors. When he spoke his voice was guarded, dry and amused in that coolly detached way he had, as if this had been a momentary distraction, nothing more. “Surprise me.”
“What I want,” Luke announced thoughtfully, arm resting on the table before him against the weight of the polymer braces and metal bars which held it together, “is something on Mara Jade.”
Reece shook his head decisively. “She’s impeachable—you know that.”
Luke glanced down, feeling the healing scar on his face wrinkle as he frowned. “But is she? I don’t think she’d ever go against a direct order, but I’m beginning to think maybe she’ll skirt the edges of unspoken rules.”
“Wait—why do you want something on Mara Jade?” Hallin asked.
Luke shook his head, the movement still stiff from too many injuries, his frustration at Jade clearly evident. “Because she’s like my shadow at the moment. Everywhere I go she’s right there behind me, too close for comfort. I want to know how much she’s telling Palpatine—in what detail.”
“Everything,” Reece assured. “She speaks with him regularly and she submits a written report every two days—you know that.”
“Is there any way to cross-reference her information with the information you supply? Get some feel for her reports?”
Again Reece shook his head. “No, I’ve tried that before, giving slightly inaccurate reports to see if I was picked up on it. I never have been.”
Despite his change in allegiance, Reece still carefully sustained his position as one of Palpatine’s spies within Luke’s household, passing on selected information, though now it was more in an effort to encourage specific responses than to give any real insight.
Gaining Reece’s trust had been a major step forward for Luke, both in terms of his freedom within the Palace and his ability to pursue a greater plan. Reece’s analytical mind and knowledge of the inner workings of the Palace and the Imperial military remained invaluable.
“It doesn’t help that I have no contact with Palpatine or any of his staff,” Reece continued. “My reports are made in isolation and sent by secure channel to Pestage. I have no feedback, none at all.”
He, Reece and Hallin were in the drawing room of his private quarters, safe from the all-pervasive surveillance which was rife in the Palace. He didn’t like meeting with them here like this, since although his Master’s Internal Intelligence unit would have no idea what was said in the secure room, they would know that all three of them were there, which would perhaps be enough for them to consider pursuing it further. They’d gotten round this for the last few weeks by having Hallin visit early every evening on the pretext of carrying out a short medical check on his charge, Luke sometimes receiving his medic in his study or his library, both of which were bugged, in which case the visits were just that—a medical check-up. But occasionally, if he had something to discuss, Luke made a point of being in his drawing room when he sensed Hallin nearing his apartments.
That Reece, as his primary Aide, was there was hopefully not something they would question, as he spent most of the day in Luke’s company or at least very close by. In fact, Luke was playing on the fact that there had always been a standing order by Palpatine that he was to be left alone as little as possible, at least one agent close by, since Reece was still considered to be a loyal agent, working on Palpatine’s behalf and sending covert reports to Pestage.
Still, they tried to keep these meetings short when they were in the Palace, aware that they were on borrowed time.
Now Luke considered, eyes in the middle distance. “I want to know where she draws the line—if she’ll still pass on information that would get her personally into trouble, place her in an undesirable situation.”
Reece raised his eyebrows in question as Hallin spoke out again. “Why that?”
“Because she came into the Practice Hall this morning and…” Luke narrowed mismatched eyes, studying his memories of that morning. “I thought I could push her, make her back down, but…she didn’t.”
He remained silent for long seconds then, realizing his company, he shrugged. “Anyway, since I’m stuck here for some time, I need to start getting information in and out of the Palace or this chance will be wasted,” Luke said of his opportunity to move against Mon Mothma. “Hallin said that Mara was reprimanded by Palpatine over the assassination attempt. The question is, if she were to have to admit another failure in her duties—one which could be easily left unreported—would she do it?”
“How would you check?” Reece asked, logical as ever.
“That’s where you come in. Let’s try her with something small to begin with.”
“Tomorrow. I need to start moving around without being tailed anyway, so let’s see what she makes of that.”
“Why take the risk?” Hallin asked, ever the voice of caution.
“Firstly, it’s the principle of the thing; I’m sick of being followed around. Secondly, I need to test her; something’s changed and I want to know why. Most importantly I need to regain access to Argot, and to do that I need to be in a secure situation; I'm not risking the identity of my only spy in the Rebellion. I also need to get information in and out which I’d normally attend to onboard the Peerless, and I need to speak to Karrde again.”
Luke had long used the relative freedom afforded by the Peerless’ distance from Coruscant to hide his actions, the encryption systems he used in illicit communications created for him by Talon Karrde’s slicers.
Karrde’s organization, which Luke had come across when they almost successfully managed to cross one of his picket lines twelve months earlier, was small and kept a very low profile, which meant they were relatively overlooked by Imperial Intelligence, and Karrde himself had turned out to have that same warped but reliable sense of morals and integrity which reminded Luke so much of Han Solo.
Still relatively new to the big league, they had nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain in backing what had been, when they first began their wary association, if not actually a rank outsider in the Imperial hierarchy, then at best a total newcomer, much like themselves. As it turned out, they’d backed the right runner and now all they had to do was sit tight and wait, and they would soon be in the coveted position that Black Sun now enjoyed with Palpatine—and Karrde knew it.
There was nothing concentrated loyalties like the realization that one’s client was next in line to the Imperial Throne.
None of which helped Luke if he couldn’t actually get word out to them. Right now, trapped in the Palace, he was completely isolated, unable to give or receive orders from contacts and field agents he had spent the last two years placing.
“What do you need from Karrde?” Reece queried.
“I need the names and locations of any Bothans who supply information to the Rebellion. Any at all, past and present. And I want to know if he’s got me my mercenary yet.”
“Because the Rebellion is Lord Vader’s mandate—it always was. If I go after them openly then I’m countermanding a direct ruling from the Emperor, and I need him in an amenable mood when I make my play. The Bothans, however, are fair game, and everyone knows they would have been the ones who passed information to the Rebels about the Peerless being at Kuat Shipyards.”
“Bothawui is in the Rim Regions,” Reece reminded. “Palpatine won’t allow you outside the Core Systems. If you take the Peerless...”
“I won’t. Covert units from the 701st will go after them—we’ll rendezvous close to Devaron, inside the Core Systems. I just need Mothma to know it’s me who’s doing this.” At their bewildered, expectant faces, Luke finally relented a little and gave them the key. “It was Mon who personally brokered the deal with the Bothans to supply intelligence to the Allia…to the Rebellion.”
It was, Nathan noted, Luke’s first slip since the assassination attempt; previously he had always made the subtle differentiation of referring to the Rebels as the Alliance—a name only he used here in the Palace, probably because he had been among them for so long and this was how they referred to themselves. Now, he had made a choice, conscious or not, to distance himself from the group.
“So you want her to become personally involved?” Nathan asked, uncertain at the turn this conversation was taking. It wasn’t like Luke to expend this kind of energy in simply wounding someone who had wounded him.
“I know Mon and I know that if I harass the Bothans enough, she’ll feel responsible. If I can predict where she’ll be for just a few hours…”
“You’re going after Mon Mothma?” Even Reece was taken aback, and Nathan didn’t blame him. Reece paused, clearly searching for the right way to say the next, “I thought this was to get rid of Palpatine's spy in the Rebellion and reinforce Argot... Is this perhaps dividing your attention a little?”
Both Nathan and Reece had long known that Luke had no particular loyalties to the Rebellion; that had never been his intention in passing select information over for a year now under the guise of a mid-level officer in the Core Fleet. If it had been, then Nathan very much doubted that Reece would ever have defected and helped Luke. But even Reece knew that to try to take Mothma down now, with neither backing nor permission from the Emperor, was incredibly risky.
Luke was holding his ground though, his tone inviting no argument. “Palpatine wants a show of commitment from me and I need to remove Mon. She’s now given me the perfect opportunity to do both and I won’t pass it by.”
Nathan’s eyes turned to the military-minded Reece, who had fallen to silence, considering Luke’s intentions, looking for flaws in logic or judgment. Luke waited, willing to consider any reasonable opinion.
“How will you know where Mothma will be?” Reece asked at last.
“Argot will tell me, as well as trying to get Mothma as close to the Core Systems as possible—if I can re-establish contact.”
“Why not use Admiral Joss as a go-between for you and Argot?” Nathan asked. “Just whilst you’re stuck here on…”
“No—absolutely not,” Luke cut in decisively. “I won’t pass Argot's access codes to a third party—even one I trust implicitly.”
“Surely it would be the easiest method right now.”
“It would be too much of a risk—I’d have to give Joss too much information. He has no way to gain access to a reliably secure channel, and even if Internal Intel couldn’t slice the encryption codes I gave him, simply catching Joss sending encrypted messages to the Rebels would be enough to condemn both Joss and consequently myself of treason. That would put me back in your medi-bay and Joss in front of a firing squad as well as revealing every active agent that I’d just given Joss the codes to. And we finally have the identity of Palpatine’s Rebel agent. Argot’s risking discovery from Leemarit, and I want to deal with that now.”
Nathan frowned at that, unsure why exactly Luke felt the driving need to deal with Palpatine’s agent himself. “Joss wouldn’t give your name up.”
“Maybe not under standard interrogation, but he’s still my Admiral—Palpatine would become involved the moment it was reported and I guarantee you he would drag those codes and my involvement from him. No—no one uses those contacts but me.”
“If you’re so worried about Palpatine, then how come Reece and I are safe?” Nathan argued mildly.
“Because Reece is a deep-cover agent so has no contact whatsoever with Palpatine, and I think he probably already knows about you but I would imagine he doesn’t want to waste what will be a one-off opportunity to bring you in for information; he’ll bide his time until it’s worth his while.”
“Well that’s nice to know,” Nathan deadpanned, mouth dry. It had never really occurred to him before that the Emperor may know of his loyalties and be simply waiting for a convenient moment to strike.
Luke smiled tightly. “Relax, Nathan, he has to give me some breaks, some illusion of independence, and you know he’s a great advocate of ‘better the devil you know.’ If it makes you feel any better, it’s also why I try to keep you out of the Imperial Palace and travelling with the fleet as much as possible.”
“But I’ve been here three months now.”
“Which is why I want you back aboard the Peerless. But it’s a little difficult to rationalize sending my personal medic away when I’m still like this.” Luke held up his pinned and immobilized arm, the frustration in his voice evident. “Which is why you’re taking it off tomorrow.”
“Two weeks,” Nathan corrected.
“I’ll take the polymer forms off tomorrow,” Nathan bargained. “The bars have to stay.”
“All of them?”
“I’ll look at the ones on your collarbones. And you’ll stop doing lightsaber practice.”
“Good,” Luke said, and Nathan knew that he’d continue—he’d neither agreed nor argued the point, just passed it by. If he held true to form, he’d distract with a quick change of subject or disguise the avoidance with a question.
“To get back to the point,” Luke continued without giving Nathan a chance to reply, “I need to get a message out which means I need to influence a comm officer to get his access code, which means I need to be far enough away from the Tower that Palpatine won’t pick up on it. I can hide it to some degree, but I’d need to be in the main Monolith to be sure.”
The Monolith was the massive bulk of the Main Palace on which the four Habitation Towers of the residential palace rested, the mile-square central hub of the Empire where Nathan had come to realize that all information, reports and requests eventually ended up before being processed and delivered up to the Emperor's Council in the Cabinet of the South Tower for deliberation. Palpatine, ever paranoid of insurrection, kept this procedure close to hand, watching and listening, always searching for any betrayal.
“I’m uncomfortable with you sending illicit messages out so close to the Emperor,” Reece fretted, always the bodyguard. Though for him to voice this out loud, Nathan knew he must be sincerely worried—which meant that Nathan knew he should be too.
“Options are limited until I can get out of the Palace,” Luke said firmly, not wanting this to devolve into an extended discussion, probably because he was all too aware that time was short. “I can get down into the Monolith without being seen, you know that. But not with Mara Jade on my tail and reporting my every move.”
“Which is why you want her to be used to losing you for short periods of time,” Nathan realized, of Luke’s original assertion.
Luke nodded. “We just need to break her in gently. If it’s happened several times and she always finds me quickly and somewhere reasonably innocuous, she won’t bother to report it—or she won’t want to admit it. I’ll take either.”
“Just another of your little personality quirks,” Nathan said dryly.
“When tomorrow?” Reece asked.
“First thing,” Luke replied. “First few will be very short—nothing unexpected except that I’m not in my quarters. She’s smart enough to figure out where I am if I don’t vary my routine. If she can find me within a few comms, with a little encouragement she won’t bother to report it.”
Reece nodded, understanding his role. “If I may, Commander, I think our time’s up tonight.” He glanced meaningfully at the door, and everyone knew he was right.
Luke stood, his companions automatically rising. They may be his co-conspirators, but protocol and etiquette were so deeply instilled here in the Palace that everyone still obeyed them, even privately. Luke was, after all, Heir to the Empire, and despite his early misgivings at such protocol, it had slowly become routine that one did not sit in his presence unless invited to do so.
Nathan held back as Reece set forward to the door though, waiting until he and Luke were alone. “I’d just like to clarify something if I may, for my own edification.”
Luke lifted his eyebrows in invitation.
“Yourself and Commander Jade… I thought…I was under the impression that you and she were…”
“No,” Luke said simply, saving Nathan the trouble of trying to continue.
“Ah. Then you should probably know that the reason that Jade was so...upset by the termination of her position was…”
“I’m aware of why, Nathan. Thank you,” Luke said, his dismissive tone indicating that the subject was closed.
Nathan held still, eyes remaining on Luke.
“Are you telling me I should trust her?” Luke asked doubtfully, his voice indicating just how unwise he thought that was. “She remains what she’s always been, Nathan—Palpatine’s prime agent and a thorn in my side.”
“But her own feelings may…” Nathan fell to silence, suddenly realizing the larger picture.
That was why Luke felt it was worth pushing Jade’s reaction; he thought that she would back down and not report information because she knew it could jeopardize her position close to Luke. Not because he believed she’d fear a reprimand—that was nothing to Luke. Withstanding the Emperor’s volatile temper was such a way of life for him that he wouldn’t consider it important to anyone else either.
No, he was gambling that Jade’s interest in himself would buy him some breathing room.
Yet their casual closeness in the medi-center had seemed so genuine to Nathan… Had he been wrong—or was the man who had been so unremittingly taught by the Emperor that success necessitated a willingness to use any opportunity which came his way, now prepared to use his own feelings as ruthlessly as he would use Jade’s?
“I wonder…” Nathan paused, searching for the right words…
“Come on, out with it.”
“I just wondered how you’re sleeping at the moment?”
“Get to the point, Nathan.”
Nathan glanced down tactfully, a touch of nervousness in his voice. “I’m wondering if this is a good time for us to discuss the whole inadvisability of making major decisions following a traumatic head injury?”
“You remember our discussion about postconcussion syndrome—I said that you may find it necessary to manage certain…personality changes for a period of time. That you may find yourself more irritable or short-tempered. That you may find it more difficult to come to an…unbiased decision. That your judgment may be impaired for a while.”
Luke lifted his chin, mismatched eyes sharpening. “You think I’ve made the wrong decision?”
“I think, perhaps, you may find that...you’re taking a more aggressive stance,” Nathan tried diplomatically.
Luke glanced away, voice losing none of its edge. “What I find is that I’m sick and tired of tip-toeing around Mara Jade. Let her do the hard work for a while, I’m done with it.”
“But it’s not really Mara Jade you’re tiptoeing around, is it? It’s Palpatine.”
“Perhaps I’m sick and tired of tip-toeing around Palpatine, too.” Nathan remained silent, but Luke was in no mood to allow it. “Do you have some kind of problem with that?”
“No,” Nathan said gently.
“Because it’s nothing that I haven’t said before.”
“Absolutely. I just haven’t heard you say it quite as…directly before.”
“Which doesn’t make it wrong.”
“I’m just saying that perhaps you should hold off making any major decisions for a while, that your sense of judgment may be slightly skewed. You may be willing to take greater risks, or action which wouldn’t normally be in your character, though it may not seem that way to you.”
“And in your professional opinion—as my physician—do you believe that’s happened?”
Nathan hesitated, not wishing to place Luke in a position where he would constantly try to second-guess his own every decision. In a situation when the slightest flaw was magnified and used by the Emperor’s all-seeing eye, hesitation and self-doubt would kill.
But under scrutiny from a Master who was famous for utilizing such subtleties, Luke’s own abilities were honed to razor-sharpness and his next words let Nathan know that his own hesitation had spoken volumes.
“You think I’ve lost my way.”
“No,” Nathan said immediately.
“Then you think I’m about to.”
Again that telling hesitation.
Luke couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. “Do you disagree with what I’ve said?”
“Is it contrary to anything I’ve said in the past?”
“Luke, please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to catch you out—that isn’t the reason I’m saying this. I just want you to understand that your injuries may be more than the obvious”.
“The people whom I trusted with my life—the people who I would have given my life to protect three years ago—have just tried to kill me. Of course my injury is more than physical.” Luke set his head to one side, a little of his anger softening now. “But you want to know that this is more than just revenge.”
Hallin almost flinched; had Luke read his mind? He couldn’t name the last time Luke had done that without consent…but he held firm. “Tell me this is all part of some greater strategy. Not just to gain power or some level of independence—I need to know it’s more than just that.” He needed desperately to hear it.
“And if it wasn’t?”
Nathan hesitated, not at his friend’s words, but at the tone of his voice, the look in those uncannily mismatched eyes… Because it wasn’t misgivings or uncertainty, it was…a dare, almost. The desire to push Nathan just to see how far he could be pushed.
Then he blinked, and the moment was gone.
“You know it’s more than that. This—Mothma, Palpatine—it’s a means to an end, Nathan, it’s not an end in itself. It never has been to me—I thought you understood that. But I thought, hoped, that when the time was right, I might eventually be able to open negotiations with the Rebellion—with Mon Mothma. That’s not going to happen; Mothma’s now made it clear that she’ll never be an ally, and I won’t leave an enemy that powerful at my back when I have an opportunity to remove her. I can’t fight on two fronts and I can’t afford to be trapped in the middle any more. It’s been an expensive lesson hard-learned, but as Palpatine is so fond of saying, those are the ones we remember. We need to put ourselves beyond that kind of threat on both fronts. We need to move forward—I need to move forward—or this was all for nothing. It’s not enough to learn; the lesson’s not realized until you act upon it.”
Nathan frowned, looking at his friend anew. In all the time he’d had known him, Luke had always been someone who, so much like Nathan himself, had endeavored to remain as much as possible under the radar. Yes, Luke was headstrong and willful and all the things that the Emperor had always accused him of, but essentially, he had tried his hardest to remain neutral and detached.
Only once did Hallin think he’d seen a glimpse of what Luke was capable of, and that had been when he had so single-mindedly set out to get his friend, the Corellian, free from the Palace. Then, with a goal to direct it, all that unassailable will had been pinpoint-focused, relentless, resolute and indomitable…and shockingly effective. Was that the real Luke Skywalker? Was that why he had been considered so dangerous when he had been allied to the Rebels? Was the true Luke Skywalker that man—a man who, once he had a mission, an objective, a belief, pursued it relentlessly and unwaveringly to the exclusion of everything else, his own safety included?
Now, Luke held Nathan’s eyes without compunction, showing no trace of misgivings. “Everything I’ve done to this point has been in avoidance or defense, Nathan. I made the basic error of letting events overtake me, believing I could stand back, impartial and nonaligned, and all it did was make me an easy target. The only way to remedy that is to be pro-active, not reactive, to start moving again. To take control, to take events into my own hands and push forward.”
Nathan still held Luke’s eye, searching to understand whether his injuries had sharpened his edge or overwhelmed it. Had Luke’s visceral realization of just how vulnerable he really was here finally shocked him out of his longstanding reverie, or had it brought out his underlying nature—had Nathan always been looking at Palpatine's wolf without realizing it?
Nathan stilled, realization of Luke’s words a blow to the gut...
‘To take control, to take events into my own hands and push forward.’
Because as Heir to the Empire, there was only one position left for him to push toward, only one goal to secure.
“You’re going after the throne, aren’t you?” Nathan uttered the unthinkable—and Luke didn’t even blink.
“Where is he this morning?” Mara leaned into the Staff Offices to the front of Luke’s apartments, an edge to her voice. Though the Royal Guard stood to stiff attention at the apartment’s open doors and Clem, Luke's Palace-assigned bodyguard, was standing in the main cupola, Mara had made a slow loop of the apartments and Luke himself was nowhere to be seen. Why did he always do this on her shift?
Reece rose from a holo-screen, glancing sideways to her. “That’s just what I’m trying to find out, Commander,” he said flatly, glancing back down. “He was here a few minutes ago.”
“I swear he does it on purpose.” Mara walked easily into the room, not yet alarmed; it was the third morning that Luke had gone missing, but he generally turned up pretty quickly, and nowhere unusual. She’d actually made the effort to get up a little earlier this morning, in an attempt to try to catch him out.
“Yes,” Reece agreed absently. “I think he just gets a kick out of knowing that I have to fill in a report sheet every time he goes walkabout.”
“Have you tried the practice halls?” Mara asked, though she knew that Reece would be doing so; it was where Luke generally turned up.
“Just patching in,” Reece said, eyes still on the translucent display—and there he was, the view distorted by the small ceiling-height lens. “Got him,” he declared. “Will you go or shall I?”
“I’ll go,” Mara said. “It’s my shift.” She had in truth been a few minutes late to arrive despite her early rise, caught in the corridor by Hallin, in a talkative mood for once.
Reece stood as she headed for the door, voice casual. “I would…imagine The Heir may well make this a regular thing, now that his health is improving. As long as we find him quickly, I see no cause for alarm. I think we’re perfectly capable of dealing with this in-house.”
Mara glanced back, realizing what he was saying… “Sure,” she said at last. “I see no problem with that.”
“Well, well, well,” Mara said lazily as she crossed the hall toward Luke, her own saber in hand. “You’re a hard man to find.”
He gave her an easy smile. “Clearly you were looking in the wrong places.”
“No, I was looking in the right places, you just weren’t there.”
“That’s ’cos I was here,” he said as she drew level.
“Without your guards.” She couldn’t quite keep the chastising tone from her voice.
He swung his lightsaber nonchalantly, tip down. “Just keeping in practice.”
Mara didn’t fail to spot the double meaning in his words, but let it pass. “Yeah, well, keep in practice on…” She almost slipped and said Reece’s shift, but caught herself in time. “...someone else’s shift, please.”
He shifted his grip on his lightsaber, holding it hilt upwards so the blade pointed down, and swung it in a lazy infinity loop to either side of his body, his tone light and genial. “What’s wrong, Red—bit of a stretch at this time on a morning? Maybe you’re slipping.”
“Maybe you’re just trying to get my back up.”
“Everything’s always about you, isn’t it, Red?” he accused lightly, still swinging the blade, eyes on Mara.
“Hey, I’m not a morning person, okay?" she grumbled, made aware by his amused tone that she was overreacting. "And would you stop swinging that saber around when you’re not watching the blade.”
“If I have to watch the blade to know where it is then I’m abysmally inept, and I hate to disappoint you about my morning walk, but it’s the principle of the thing,” he said mildly. “I get tired of being followed around by my little red shadow.”
Mara met Luke’s eye, wondering if the double meaning had been on purpose. He had been speaking, presumably, of the scarlet-clad Royal Guard who accompanied him everywhere, but Mara’s blaze of long, gold-flecked copper hair had long-since earned her the nick-name of Red from him. He was the only one who got away with it.
“They’re there to protect you.”
“Right,” he said dryly—but then Mara hadn’t really expected him to go for that. “You know I managed to get along just fine on my own for twenty-one years.”
“You weren’t Heir to the Imperial Throne then.” Mara stepped just a little too close to Skywalker in an effort to call his bluff and stop him spinning the blade, but he only took a half-step closer to her and adjusted the loop of the blade slightly so that it now included a slice to either side of her own body on the return loops around his. She raised her eyebrows, determined not to flinch before the whirling blade.
“I wasn’t The Heir when they started following me everywhere either,” he countered without animosity. “And are you trying to tell me that two guards would have been able to protect me when the bomb detonated?”
“I’m not trying to tell you anything,” Mara replied, her tone beginning to sharpen again, uneasy at the low thrum of the swinging blade as it whipped past her head. “I really couldn’t care less.”
Skywalker stopped swinging the blade and glanced down at the lightsaber in her hand. Mara knew exactly what he was going to say—his previous caveat about her losing her temper too easily for him to be willing to teach her lightsaber stanza obviously foremost in his mind.
“This doesn’t count,” she claimed before he was able to speak. “We haven’t started yet…technically.”
“We’re in the practice hall and you have a lightsaber—I’d say that counts.”
“That’s an interesting point,” Mara allowed, not rising to the bait. ‘No ill temper,’ Skywalker had said. ‘Come back when you can do that.’
Luke raised his eyebrows, a mix of skepticism and disbelief in his eyes, but Mara only imparted her most composed, serene smile. “See? No crabbiness. I’m the soul of discretion and calm. No more tantrums...whilst I’m holding a lightsaber.”
He grinned. “None at all?”
“So is this a good time to ask you what was going on with your hair last week—with the weird braids and the…”
Mara lifted up her lightsaber hilt. “This works, you know…”
He smiled, tilting his head. “Tell you what, Red, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll polish up your lightsaber skills and you teach me close combat.”
She frowned. “What do you need close quarters combat for?”
“What do you need lightsaber skills for?”
And once again, everything boiled down to this, Mara knew; chances were, the only person each would need to use those skills against was the other—and Skywalker knew it. Like her, he was willing to trade a portion of his knowledge for a portion of hers—in more ways than one. He could have any instructor he chose come to the Palace to teach him close combat—had in fact trained with the Red Guard instructors intermittently. But after three years, she knew how his mind worked, and knew that he probably figured that this also gained him the opportunity to familiarize himself with a possible opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Or maybe, like her, there was something else as well…something too difficult to admit as yet. Things seemed to have turned about since his injury, everything shaken up—for the better, it seemed. There was something palpably different about him—some sense of commitment, of direction.
She grinned impishly. “I see our whole relationship to date condensed down into this moment,” she uttered knowingly, repeating the words he’d spoken to her just a few days earlier.
He smiled disarmingly then stepped to the side, settling into a ready-position. “Well it’s nice to have a little consistency in one’s life,” he murmured, eyes front. “Ready?”
Still smiling, Mara adjusted her own feet accordingly, bringing her hilt to the ready position, wondering how this easy-going, affable charmer could also be the mercurial, volatile Sith whom Palpatine deemed it necessary to invest so much in controlling.
Turned away from the door and apparently gazing out into space from his private ready-room to the rear of the Peerless’ bridge, Luke watched General Veers enter in the reflection of the transparisteel viewport, eyes narrowing.
He had been given permission by Palpatine to return to the fleet only hours earlier and had done so immediately, his haste throwing his staff into pandemonium as they rushed to comply—why exactly he didn’t know as he’d made it clear for weeks that the moment he was released from the Emperor’s entourage, he would leave.
It was time to put his own house in order.
The Peerless was already on a course out of Coruscant’s high orbit, the Dauntless, the Fury and the Dominant in close formation for the short hyperspace jump to Corulag where Karrde would be secretly waiting, before Luke had finally summoned his new General—or rather, Palpatine's.
Normally Luke would tolerate someone of Veers’ seniority as a member of his staff even though he knew that the General was reporting directly to the Emperor, amusing himself by feeding or denying his Master’s new mole information as he saw fit. It was a fact of life here, and he’d had every intention of doing the same with Veers.
Then he had seen the General on his bridge and the black knot that pulled tight in his gut had pushed all other considerations aside.
Veers had informed on his father, probably for years, and while once that would have instilled nothing more than detached amusement, now it seemed…intolerable. The General had remained safely outside of Luke’s reach as long as he had stayed with the Rim Fleet, but now he had transferred to the Core fleet—to Luke’s own flagship—and no doubt had the insolence to presume that he could do the same here with impunity.
Just a few words, Luke assured himself—nothing too contentious. Just to let the arrogant, self-satisfied General know that Luke was watching him. He shouldn’t, of course; should just play him instead—string him along for months with spoon-fed information and carefully manipulated facts. He knew that.
Veers turned to Luke now, saluting smartly with a click of his heels. Luke remained motionless, neither turning nor acknowledging the gesture.
“Commander,” Veers said confidently. “Thank you for accepting my request for transfer. I understand that you had a good working relationship with General Reiss and I hope to maintain that tradition. I look forward to a long and favorable co-operation between…”
Luke turned just slightly, voice ice and steel. “Co-operation? There is no co-operation between us, General. You are my subordinate and you always will be—unless you intend to rule the Empire one day?”
“No, Sir.” The General faltered just slightly. “Forgive me, I simply meant…”
“Why did you request this transfer?”
“Sir?” Veers was floundering now, uncertain.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Why did you request to transfer from the Executor?”
“I felt…that…your style of dynamic leadership was more in keeping with my…”
“Stop there, Veers.” Luke turned at last, locking hard eyes on the General. “I think the best that we can possibly hope to achieve from your assignment to the Peerless would be that we understand each other, you and I. So let me explain my views, before you talk yourself any further into an undefendable position.”
Veers was held to an uneasy silence, the tone of Luke’s voice demanding no less. “You see, I know what you are, Veers. I know why you’re here and I know what you think it will gain you. You invested a great deal of time and effort in paying Lord Vader lip service whilst you informed the Emperor of his every move. For whatever reason, he chose to ignore that. I, however, am not Vader. I don’t tolerate such actions from those close to me.”
Veers had paled to ashen white, eyes wide at the direct accusation. “My Lord, I wouldn’t dream of…”
Luke set his head on one side, incensed. “DON’T... Don’t lie to me, Veers.”
The General fell to silence before the outburst and Luke held his eye for long seconds, shoulders tense, jaw tight, voice filled with quiet malice now, so clearly at the edge of exploding.
“If I once catch you delivering information to Palpatine about myself or my crew… I will turn your smug face inside out, Veers. And if you think that your affiliation with the Emperor will buy you any immunity from my wrath, then you're sadly mistaken. If I invested the greater part of every day for the rest of this voyage making sure that your last days were a living hell before I finally ripped you apart, then I can guarantee that the most I would get from the Emperor would be a rap on the knuckles for dividing my attention whilst on duty.”
Luke set slowly forward as he spoke, voice low with undisguised menace, uncanny, mismatched eyes narrowed in threat. “You come in here and you have the gall to think that you can stand before a Sith and tell bare-faced lies. You assume that because Lord Vader allowed you that indulgence then I will do the same... You are gravely mistaken, General. I will be watching you very closely. Members of my staff will be watching you very closely. Members of your own staff—those you think you can trust—will be watching you very closely. All day, every day. I am just waiting for you to stumble, Veers, privately or professionally, because the moment that you do…you’re mine. Do we have an understanding now, General?”
Veers remained locked in shocked silence for long seconds, intimidation and uncertainty freezing him to the spot as the black-clad man came to a slow halt before him, tense expression completely composed though his eyes were seething and his low voice clipped with barely restrained fury.
“If I were you, Veers, I would say ‘Yes Sir’ and I would salute smartly, then I would turn around and walk very quickly from this room...and think myself very lucky to have gotten out before that volatile Sithspawn of a Commander lost any last semblance of control. And I would make it my mission for the remainder of this journey to stay the hell out of his way because he is clearly on a very, very short fuse.”
Mara watched General Veers walk shakily from the Commander’s ready-room to the aft turbolifts and enter without a sideways glance. Frowning, she made her way to the ready-room and knocked lightly before entering. Skywalker looked up from his desk, that easy, open expression making him seem far younger than his years.
“What did you say to the General?” she asked as she wandered over. “He looked pretty rattled as he left.”
Luke steepled his fingers before scarred lips. “Really? Just clarifying our working relationship. Nothing I haven’t said to a hundred others like him.”
Mara scowled as Skywalker turned back to reading his automemo, though she kept her voice casual. “You don’t like him, do you?”
Luke didn’t look up, attention seemingly on his work though Mara knew it was nothing of the sort. He had that brittle edginess to him right now, that volatile, quicksilver sense of someone teetering at the brink, like the calm eye in the center of the storm. It was as compelling, as charismatic as ever to Mara.
“I liked my old General,” Skywalker said genially, eyes still on his automemo. “We worked well together. We knew how each other thought.”
“You know how everybody thinks,” Mara countered.
Luke shrugged, glancing up. “Yes, but people who understand how I think are few and far between.”
“Tell me about it,” Mara said dryly. “Maybe you’ll get General Reiss back one day.”
Skywalker smiled that easy, charming smile. “Yes—I’m sure I will.”
“Mon, you need to get up here.” It was Leia, voice full of apprehension, making Mon grimace in the privacy of her office.
“On my way.” She didn’t bother asking what had happened—after the last few weeks, she had a pretty good idea, and the details would become apparent soon enough, no doubt.
She entered Ops to see Leia, Ackbar and Massa staring at status screens, the readouts still too far away for Mon to decipher. “Report?”
“They have Toll’daa,” Massa said without preamble. “His whole unit.”
Mon blanched, stepping forward. “Is this confirmed?”
Toll’daa was the leader of yet another of the deep-cover Bothan spy cells which routinely supplied the Rebellion with information. The arrest of his troop would make a total of five Rebel-biased cells which the Empire had now closed down in the last month. Or rather, the 701st—The Wolf’s own private little army.
Ever since he’d been let loose from Coruscant he’d been hounding the Bothans, covert, plain-clothes units of his 701st turning up everywhere, quietly taking down the deep-cover Bothan spy cells then disappearing back to the Core Systems with their prisoners in tow. Very neat and very professional, as they always were. And it wasn’t just complete cells—they were taking the trouble to hunt down individuals, those who worked in isolation, any Bothan who had any connection with the spy rings which served the Alliance.
It was a personal little vendetta being methodically executed against those who had been involved, no matter how insignificantly, in the assassination attempt. Leia's anonymous informer onboard the Peerless had smuggled out several messages of warning, though he’d had no specific details. Why exactly it was being visited specifically on the Bothans they didn’t know—so far, despite Vader's anticipated clampdown, the Alliance itself had escaped relatively unscathed, but that couldn’t be expected to continue.
“They missed a scheduled contact, and Toll’daa’s name just came up in a routine report from the SSD Peerless back to Intel on Coruscant—encrypted, of course. Ten others are listed, so they’re one short—either someone escaped or they were killed in the raid.”
Mon sighed, fighting back her rising panic. “Where are they getting their information from? Someone’s supplying this—they didn’t already know about all those groups. They couldn’t have.”
Obviously The Heir had his own informants outside official Imperial Intelligence, but to date they had no idea who they were.
“I would surmise that they’ve known for several weeks and have been taking their time to get in place and watch for any bolt-holes or safe exit routes whilst they were waiting for The Heir to be released from Coruscant,” the Intel Chief said, voice calm and unaffected as ever. “This is a planned campaign, it hasn’t just happened. The attacks are too close together. The Heir must have been gathering information and assigning tactical groups to their targets over the last three months whilst he was still in the Palace on Coruscant.”
“Then why not take them all down in a single strike?” Leia murmured.
“That I don’t know,” Massa admitted, eyes still to the information scrolling down the screen. “There must be a tactical advantage, otherwise The Wolf wouldn’t do it. I doubt it’s coincidence and I don’t think he’s getting information from one group which condemns the next, though that may be what he wants us to believe—that they're breaking under interrogation. It’s more likely to be a psychological ploy to panic the Bothans into severing ties to the Alliance. He of all people would know how much we rely on the Bothans—he may be trying to isolate us.”
It still unsettled Leia when Massa occasionally referred to Luke Skywalker—he’d always be that to her—by that disquieting epithet, more commonly used in Imperial circles, but then the groups Tag moved in and the reports she read from Imperial spies often referred to him as such. Why exactly it bothered her so much Leia had no idea; she’d long since let him go and had no reason to change her mind. She narrowed her eyes, considering; if the Bothans withdrew support it would be a major setback.
“Why now, after all these years?” Ackbar murmured.
Massa didn’t even hesitate. “As I said before, if you plan an assassination attempt on The Wolf, then make sure it’s successful because Force help us if it isn’t. I never met the man personally, but all of the psyche profiles indicate he’s someone with his own set of morals no matter how skewed, and he adheres to them quite stringently. I think as far as he was concerned, this has long been a case of ‘You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.’ He now believes we've crossed that line. We made the declaration of war and now it’s open season. He'll no doubt believe we have only ourselves to blame.”
“So if we retaliate for the Bothans, the situation will escalate?” Leia asked.
“I would say yes,” Massa replied. “Which doesn’t mean I advocate just sitting here and taking it.”
“But if we do anything, he’ll go after the Bothans, not us,” Leia said. Very neat, very specific—if they reacted at all, then they made the Bothans’ plight worse. If they didn’t…probably he would continue to provoke in this steady, ongoing action until they had to. Either way, the Bothans were paying for the Alliance’s actions—who could blame them if they chose to distance themselves in an attempt to diffuse the situation?"
“Your recommendation?” Mon asked the Intel Chief.
Massa paused, considering. “If you choose to retaliate, then I would suggest keeping any campaign well outside his reach—outside of the Core and Colony Systems. I believe that’s why we’re still here; we’re outside his jurisdiction so he has no way to get to us. But I would advise you to bear in mind his continued persecution of the Bothans. He’s working hard to drive a wedge between them and ourselves, to make them feel that they’re paying the price for our actions. Any retaliation that we effect now may be at their expense and serve to further alienate them, which would be playing into The Wolf’s hands.”
Leia turned to Mon at this. “Do you think it could work?”
Mon more than any other, knew the Bothans’ minds. It was she who’d first made contact with them over a decade ago and she who’d brokered the deal which both parties had held to since then. She remained their main contact and had worked hard to keep the deal in place. The Alliance relied perhaps a little too heavily on the Bothans’ extensive spy network to supply information on a scale which they simply couldn’t match. The thought of possibly losing that connection was enough to make everybody nervous.
“No, it won’t work, because I won’t let it,” Mon announced, fire and durasteel in her voice.
She turned to Ackbar. “Admiral, please make preparations for a small team to go to Bothawui. I’ll contact Olin’yaa and provide you with a time and location as soon as I’m able.”
“Of course, Chief,” Ackbar acknowledged, his deep, gravelly voice indicating concurrence with the decision. “Who will head up the team?”
“I will,” Mon said simply.
“What?” Leia blurted out, before reining in her reaction. “I wonder whether that’s wise, Mon.”
“Bothawui is outside of The Heir’s reach, and a small contingent would easily be able to slip in and out of the system without being noticed,” Mothma countered.
“Still… Perhaps I could go,” Leia murmured, unsure.
“No, it should be me who attends in person,” Mon insisted. “I’ve always maintained close ties with the Bothans and with Olin’yaa in person. For me to send someone else now would be politically unsound. We’re seeking to reassure them.”
“Olin’yaa would take this as a statement of supportive collaboration,” Massa confirmed of the leader who represented the Bothans’ interests in this. “And Bothawui is in the Mid Rim—well outside of the Core Fleet’s jurisdiction. However, perhaps we could suggest a more neutral ground than the planet itself; in view of The Wolf's actions, I'd imagine it will probably be under observation by Lord Vader's fleet and perhaps the 701st. I’d be more comfortable if we could name the location ourselves, Chief Mothma—and as late as possible. I’m sure Olin’yaa would accept this as reasonable security measures.”
“Within the system though, Tag. I don’t want it to look like we’re afraid to be near them when they're under fire because of our actions.”
“How exactly are you going to reassure them?” Leia couldn’t help but ask.
Mon turned, voice quiet. “I don’t know, Leia—I really don’t know.”
“Sit,” The Heir invited without turning, and Talon Karrde set forward casually, collapsing his big frame into the memoryform chair in the private quarters of the man who was both Heir to the Imperial throne and Commander of the Core Fleet.
It was, Karrde knew, a uniquely privileged position that he was in, though he’d yet to work out why exactly. He watched as the Commander poured two glasses of brandy, neither man feeling any need to fill the silence, both confident in their own position and respectful of each other’s.
Karrde sipped at the dark spirit when it arrived, looking appreciatively at it as he swirled the heavy glass. It was a good vintage, of course—very good in fact—but there were better out there, which prompted another question from the man who had made curiosity his profession: why?
“Corellian?” he murmured, glancing up. “I never understand why you don’t stock Ruusan.”
“I like Corellian brandy,” the Commander said conversationally as he settled into the chair opposite, glancing down at his own glass. “An…acquaintance introduced me to it. It was the only spirit he drank and he’d let you drink nothing else when you were with him.”
“Then he must have been Corellian—they’re always quick to sound their own praise.” It was a test really—an attempt to dig a little deeper.
The Commander glanced up, a knowing half-smile on his face, and the smuggler chief knew that even this most casual of interests, spoken with no other motive than to answer his own private curiosity, was impermissible.
“Do you have my bulk freighters?” the Commander said simply, and Karrde smiled just slightly beneath his dark moustache. He genuinely liked the Commander, much as he’d tried to convince himself otherwise. If he didn’t, he would have extricated himself from this little ‘business arrangement’ long before now, profitable as it was. But despite all hearsay to the contrary, the young man who faced him now was no arrogant tyrant and no callous murderer. He had an edge to him, yes, the smuggler didn’t argue that, but Karrde had met more than his fair share of hardened killers and icy assassins in the circles he moved through and he prided himself on his ability to read a person quickly and accurately—it had kept him alive in a profession where longevity was the exception rather than the norm.
“Yes, three, all with credible ID’s,” Karrde said easily. “Do you have my dates?”
“Not yet. Bill me from one month from today.”
“For how long?”
“Until I say otherwise,” the Commander replied casually, refusing to be led.
Karrde had intended to push further, but the Commander moved the conversation on too quickly. “They need to be well-armed and shielded, and be able to give false readings to DER and lifeform sensors.”
“What are they hiding, and from what?” Karrde asked, a more reasonable question than it sounded; hiding inactivate technology from passive sensor scans was a hell of a lot easier than hiding charged ion cannons or starfighters on warm-up, and hiding anything from a small fighter’s broad-range sensors was a breeze compared to the full-spectrum data and analysis systems on a frigate or a destroyer. Still, the Commander wasn’t in the habit of giving too much away, especially to Karrde, a self-professed information-dealer.
“They’re hiding lifeforms, small-scale technology and TIE’s, which will be on active pre-flight. As far as the mark, it could be anything from another freighter to a small corvette or cruiser, but I’d guess the scans will be passive; they won’t want to be detected just as much as me.”
‘As far as the mark…’—The mark was a smugglers’ term, referring to the party to be fooled. For smugglers, the mark was generally Imperial Customs and Excise—hardly the term an Imperial Commander would generally use then—or those he would need to hide from. “Where will it be?” Karrde asked casually; it was worth a try.
“I’ll send someone to pick them up at Obroa-skai. I’ll supply my own crews, so you’ll need to send a transport to get your people off.”
Not terribly informative; Obroa-skai was a huge port-cum-shipyard with hundreds of transports arriving and departing every day. The Commander obviously intended for his freighters to simply get lost in the crush. “I generally like to leave a few of my own people onboard, just as insurance,” Karrde said. “Bulk-freighters are extremely expensive items—especially retro-fitted with that much technology.”
“Not a chance,” the Commander refused point-blank, but there was humor in his tone, as if he’d expected no less from Karrde. “If I don’t bring them back you know where to come and find me.”
“Then I’ll have to double the deposit.”
“Whatever. Triple it if it helps you sleep at night.”
It was, Karrde had learned, very difficult to coerce someone for whom credit was no object—one had very little leverage. Again, the Commander pushed on before the smuggler could query further.
“I’ll need contact frequencies and ship blueprints two weeks from now. Send them through the usual channels, with your fees. I’ll transfer the credit within three days.” He paused, considering. “Do you have any Bothans or Chadra-Fan in your workforce at the moment?”
Karrde raised his eyebrows. “Probably—why?”
The big smuggler shifted just slightly, not in the least offended when his question was ignored; he would have done the same. “Perhaps a dozen or so Bothans, half that of Chadra-Fan. I’m not certain.” Perhaps the difference between the two amounts would draw out which he was really interested in, since clearly it would only be one group; the other would be a misdirection.
“Can they crew your ships?”
“I suppose so—not alone, obviously.”
“Use them—tell them they’re to stay with the freighters and follow my command.” Before Karrde could speak, the Commander added, “Bill me. You can take it off the double-deposit since you’ll have crew members onboard.”
He grinned, looking very young in that moment. “Look at it this way, Karrde, not only will you get to keep an eye on your precious freighters, you’ll have an eyewitness account of what went on.” Again, he smiled. “Obviously, we’ll be disabling any trackers or transmitters you place in the freighters’ systems.”
“As if I would.” Karrde smiled. That was the thing about the Commander; he expected professional subterfuge—he didn’t take it personally.
“Did you find my infiltration specialist?”
For a second, even Karrde was thrown by the sudden change in subject, but then it was par for the course from the Commander, who wasn’t one for small talk. “‘Assassin’ was the word in the comm I received,” Karrde corrected, and the Commander made the slightest of gestures in acknowledgement.
“I presume you have a score to settle,” Karrde said, glancing only momentarily to the deep scar which ran from beside the Commander's eye down over his cheek and through his lips.
He’d tried hard not to stare when he’d entered the room, the first time he’d seen the Commander since the hushed-up assassination attempt. But the severity of the scar was hard to ignore, as was the dark slice which discolored his right iris, mismatching his normally pale eyes, and to do so felt more forced than to simply look, when he knew that one of the things which had cemented their…association was his own innate, upfront honesty—again, something of the exception in his line of work.
“You know I don’t work like that,” the Commander corrected easily, unoffended.
Chances were that by now he knew who was responsible, Karrde figured. Though unlike Vader, he wouldn’t simply strike out in a rage. His response would be more measured, more calculating...like the Emperor he was so clearly being groomed to succeed.
“I have two mercenaries,” Karrde said. “Both of whom have infiltrated the Alliance before.”
“Neither of whom have any traceable connections to you?”
“And they wouldn’t be recognized?”
“Not as long as they weren’t required to interact with the same beings—they weren’t caught last time. May I ask what the job is—aside from an assassination—and where?”
“It’s onboard the Rebel Flagship, Home One. I need to remove the Comm Chief, named Leemarit.”
“May I ask why?” Karrde didn’t particularly expect an answer, though he knew it would be out of professional habit rather than any personal distrust. To someone moving in the kind of circles the new Heir frequented, knowledge wasn’t simply power, it was a vulnerability too. And young as he was, the Commander didn’t strike Karrde as allowing himself many of those.
“He crossed me,” the Commander said simply. “I don’t take well to that.”
“So I’ve heard,” Karrde said, taking another sip of the bitter-sweet brandy as he surreptitiously studied the Commander’s scarred features. Was he telling the truth? He’d told Karrde just minutes ago that he didn’t indulge in empty vendettas, so was this something more—or had he been lying the first time and this was the truth? It was always difficult to tell. Karrde got the distinct feeling that sometimes he lied for good reasons and sometimes just on principle, like a sabacc player keeping his opponents guessing, but he'd also noticed that occasionally the Commander told the truth as a kind of double bluff for his own amusement.
He made a mental note never to play the Commander at sabacc—then dismissed it as hardly the kind of game that a future Emperor would lower himself to.
But then, infiltration and spying hardly seemed fitting pastimes for a future Emperor either—not in person—and though nobody had any proof, Karrde had it on good authority that the Commander had done both. Within the Alliance, no less…which dovetailed quite conveniently with his present target.
“Did he cross you in person?” Karrde asked casually, eyes on his glass.
“What?” The Commander frowned.
“I just wondered how the Commander of the Core Fleet would know a Rebel Comm Chief.”
“You’d be surprised who I know, Karrde,” the Commander dismissed, pushing the conversation on before Karrde could delve any further. “Which would you recommend now that you know the job?”
The new Heir also wasn’t above taking advice if he thought it would serve him, Karrde had noted that, too—something very rare indeed in a man of his rank. “Probably the Malastarian, named Issig, but he’s not cheap.”
“Immaterial,” the Commander dismissed out of hand, reminding Karrde whom he was dealing with. “What do you know about him?”
Karrde shrugged, curious at the question—it wasn’t something the Commander would generally bother to ask. “He’s reliable. He’ll get the job done.”
“Do you trust him?” Another strange question coming from the Commander, who trusted practically nobody, and certainly wouldn’t trust based on someone else’s perceptions.
“Trust?” Karrde pushed.
“Like, I suppose.”
Now that really was odd. “Not particularly—why?”
“Because if he takes the job, it’ll kill him.”
Karrde missed a single beat, then, “Yes, the message mentioned that. Perhaps he’s better than you think.”
The Commander tilted his head, voice emotionless. “I sincerely hope not. I’ll be handing him over to them and I’d rather he didn’t make a last-minute escape. I don’t particularly want them to catch him alive either, but just in case, I need him to be primed with certain information.”
Interesting—and it did explain to Karrde one thing: “Which is why you’re using a go-between.”
The Commander paused just slightly before allowing Karrde some glimpse at the greater plan. “The ideal would be to use an Imperial agent, but in this instance I can’t. I need to remain unconnected to the death for a few weeks—after that it doesn’t matter. If you have a problem with providing someone on these terms…”
“No.” Karrde considered a moment, knowing that the offer of a get-out was genuine and he wouldn’t be judged for choosing to take it. It wasn’t generally the kind of thing he got mixed up in, handing out jobs with a foregone conclusion, but in his line of work one always knew a few beings who had played both sides to the center once too often and deserved this special kind of skewed justice. “But I’d like to use someone else, if I may?”
“If he’s capable—I still need a clean kill before I hand him over. Timing is important.”
“Yes, I think so, particularly if the target is unaware. I’m sure in fact.”
A short silence ensued, but the Commander just couldn’t help himself, setting his head slightly to one side, a dry smile tilting the edges of his scarred lips. “What—does he owe you currency?”
Karrde smiled sardonically. “Perhaps I owe him.”
The Peerless came out of hyperspace well clear of Coruscant’s gravity, maneuvering her massive bulk into a military shipping lane with graceful precision, the Dauntless, the Fury and the Dominant following close behind.
On the bridge, Mara stood close to the Commander, who remained statue-still before the span of the main viewport, the glistening jewel of Coruscant’s night side as the Peerless took up geostationary orbit changing his expression not a whit.
He had, she knew, greater things on his mind.
He had been summoned to Coruscant by the Emperor’s personal command—not that anyone else could order him anyway, but it was rare that the wording of a summons to Skywalker included the statement, “By the Emperor’s Command—”
Luke had been released from Coruscant by the Emperor only eight weeks earlier, and had immediately ordered so convoluted a course for the Peerless that it was instantly clear that he’d had his destinations planned for some time.
He had, of course, sought prior permission from his Master to use any means in his power to find those who had aided and abetted his attempted assassination, but Mara knew that Palpatine hadn’t anticipated this response. Luke had begun hounding the Bothans almost as soon as he’d left orbit, the first raid by the 701st having already taken place by the time the Peerless exited from her first hyperspace jump at Corulag. This was a carefully orchestrated, premeditated plan and it seemed to be gaining momentum. In fact, Mara couldn’t quite shake the hunch that she was looking at the tip of the iceberg…
She got the distinct impression that Skywalker was deriving a certain satisfaction from putting a light under the Alliance then standing back to watch the ensuing fireworks.
And Palpatine had encouraged it, of course, referring to it as putting his Wolf among the herd.
Still, even he had started to grow a little edgy at this very specific, unrelenting operation, curious to know what exactly was going on in his feral Jedi’s head. Because Skywalker certainly wasn’t admitting anything out loud—which usually equated to his skirting the very edge of what he knew would be acceptable to his Master…
So Mara could well understand Skywalker’s edginess today. He had been recalled without further explanation to Coruscant and it was pretty clear that he was expected to provide some kind of justification for his actions when he arrived.
Palpatine had always maintained a deliberate lack of continuity or predictability in his dealings with Skywalker, sustaining the wary trepidation he held for his Master, but as much as the Emperor had learned the most effective way to keep his wayward Jedi off-balance in the last three years, Skywalker had also learned the best method of dealing with his Master, Mara noted. He spent his life now steering the fine course between what could easily be considered by his Master as unwarranted disobedience and what may be categorized as the kind of blatant, fascinatingly willful insubordination which occasionally—but not always—bought immunity from Palpatine’s wrath. Sometimes under the most outrageous circumstances.
It had become more and more a game of wits and will between them as the years passed, and Skywalker’s sudden burst of motivation following his assassination attempt had upped the ante once again, Mara knew. Of course, any genuine dissent or defiance would be met with the most severe, implacable force, requiring days or even weeks to recover, but eventually Skywalker had learned the rules of the game and remained forever just within the bounds of acceptable behavior.
The plain truth, however, was that this alone wouldn’t protect him from his Master’s wrath if Palpatine believed Luke was challenging him, and even Mara, who had known the Emperor far longer than Luke, had no idea how he was going to take this very precise attack on Bothan interests, which made whatever the hell Skywalker was implementing right now that much more of a gamble and he knew it.
A Lieutenant walked quickly up and saluted smartly, catching Mara’s eye simply because he was around the same age as Luke—very few people who had risen to serve onboard the Peerless were so young. “Sir, Chancellor Amedda sends official greetings and requests a projected arrival time.”
Luke turned just slightly. “Acknowledge and send a reply. Fastest course by shuttle.”
The Lieutenant was snapping his heels in response when a second message was forwarded to his autoreader.
“Sir, the Emperor commands you to an immediate private audience,” he said, looking up, no concept of what this really meant. It was, to most of the people on the Bridge, an accolade rather than a threat. Mara glanced at Skywalker, whose expression remained neutral.
The silence hung expectant, the young Lieutenant unsure what to do, waiting for some reply.
When the Commander turned to exit the Bridge, the Lieutenant spoke out, “Sir—may I send a response?”
“No,” the Commander replied simply without turning.
Mara looked with trepidation from the closed turbolift doors to the Lieutenant, aware that Luke would be expected to reply to any message from the Emperor immediately, any delay a message in itself. She let out her breath in a slow sigh, which did nothing to ease her nerves. The game was on.
“You are, of course, kiddin’ me?” Han prompted, stopping dead in the corridor, so that Leia was three or four steps forward before she realized and turned about and Chewie, who had been behind Han, plowed into him with a startled grunt.
Leia glanced back at the Wookiee and Han seriously suspected that the two shared a long-suffering glance before she looked back to Han. “Why would I be kidding you?”
“Because… Seriously—you need me to tell you?!” Han said. “I’m just... I’m…speechless.”
Leia set one hand on the curve of her hip. “That’ll be the day, Solo.”
Chewie gave a short guffaw at that, then turned to look innocently up at the ceiling as Han glanced back at him.
“Hey, since I’m the only one around here who ever talks any sense, not surprisingly, I feel it my duty to keep talkin’,” Han claimed, a picture of indignant, injured pride.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I told you weeks ago that Mon had decided to meet up with Olin’yaa and…what did you say?” When Han wouldn’t be drawn, Leia set her head to one side in mock consideration, then feigned remembering. “Oh, that’s right, you said—and I quote—‘Well, it’s about time.’”
Seeing Chewie nodding from the corner of his eye, Han turned on his friend, tone wounded. “Would you stop backing her up?!”
The Wookiee keened a reply, grinning to show sharp, white teeth.
“That was before I knew where they were holding the meeting!”
Chewie shrugged slightly, ruffing a considered reply. Han grasped at it with both hands, turning back to Leia. “See! Even Chewie thinks it’s a bad idea!”
“He didn’t say bad, he said ‘not ideal,’” Leia countered. Apparently three years' company with Chewie was finally beginning to rub off. “And sometimes we just have to do things anyway, whether they’re ideal or not.”
"But Bothawui?” Han said, still incredulous. “At least persuade her to choose somewhere that’s even halfway safe.”
“It has to be Bothawui, Han—you know that. Mon can’t afford to seem afraid to ally herself with them, especially now, when they’re paying for our choices. We need to send a message of unity, not hesitation—that we’ll support them under any circumstances. We’ll be as careful as we can.”
We, not she. And that was the problem—just when had Leia become involved in this, ‘cos all of a sudden she was in the task force heading out there. “But Bothawui!? Why not just go to Coruscant and have done with it—hell, why not just camp out on the steps to the Palace?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what Bothawui’s main export is? Information. Intelligence. You’re about to put the leader of the Alliance on a planet that sells secrets for a living. To both sides, I hasten to add. All you need is for one Bothan in Olin’yaa’s camp to be a double agent and…”
“We’re well aware of that,” Leia said grimly.
“Well then, don’t do it! Am I the only one here who realizes what a phenomenally bad idea this is?” He couldn’t believe it—he just couldn’t believe they were actually going to do this. The trouble with this place, Han knew, was that everyone went round all googly-eyed; they'd spent so long spouting all that stuff about trust and honor that they’d actually begun to believe it! It was all very well trying to live up to your principles, but that didn’t mean you should assume that anybody else out there would feel under the slightest obligation to do the same.
“We have to do this, Han—we have to show that we’re not afraid and that we’ll stand by the Bothans no matter what.”
“Can’t we do that from Ammuud?” Han asked, the furthest planet he could name from the top of his head.
Leia smiled now, amused by Han’s tenacious exasperation, leaning forward to kiss him on the chin—as high as she could reach when he was adamantly refusing to be mollified. “Relax, flyboy—you get to watch our back. We’re taking Red, Blue and Gold wings on two cutters.”
“Great—two cutters and three combat wings. That’ll stop a Super Star Destroyer,” Han said dryly.
“We’ll be far more likely to just be able to slip in and out with the Arcturus and the Sol, rigged as merchant vessels,” Leia assured of the small, fast cutters, each carrying only a hundred or so crew. “The Bothans have provided us with ID’s and permits for comparable vessels which do the Bothawui to Farlax run regularly.”
“The Bothans know already!?” This was unbelievable. “Just…please—for me—at least move the venue.”
Leia turned and started up the corridor again, Han trailing after her, Chewie patting him companionably on the back hard enough to make him stagger forward a step.
“The venue will be moved with a couple of hours to go—the Bothans don’t know that yet. Only Mon, Madine, Massa and I know where. Happy now?”
“No,” Han griped. “Just…marginally less unhappy. Where are you moving it to?”
“I’ll tell you on the day,” Leia teased.
“What—don’t you trust me?” Han affected his most offended air, drawing level to the diminutive Princess to give her the full benefit.
She smiled primly, not in the least moved. “Well, you are a smuggler, Solo.”
“Yeah, but look how cute I am!”
Luke flew the small one-man Interat-TIE at breakneck speed through the upper atmosphere, piling on more power, pushing up the G’s so that even he was beginning to feel the pressure. The tiny, nimble craft, little more than a cramped cockpit between two huge air intakes and a complex series of stabilizer fins to compensate for the fierce propulsion system which threw it forward at formidable speeds, had become his fighter of choice.
Tighter in the turn than an X-Wing and faster on the straight than an A-Wing, it demanded a great deal of its pilot, but these days Luke flew only when he needed a distraction, so its temperamental nature appealed. It was the fastest thing in the Imperial fleet, and the newest; only four wings existed, two on the Peerless and two on the Executor, leading Luke to wonder briefly whether his father had flown one yet. Probably; like Luke, he flew a TIE Interceptor in space, but they were near-useless in gravity dogfights, where the swift A-Wing and the agile X-Wing still ruled supreme. Designed specifically to fill this gap they would, Luke knew, appeal as much to his father as they did to him. It had, after all, been his father who had kept pace with him when he’d hurtled down the cramped Death Star trench at suicidal speeds, Vader jockeying for the perfect kill as Luke had been juking his X-Wing to avoid presenting just that.
The Interat-TIE chose that moment to do a little juking of its own as it hit an air pocket which almost wrenched the stick from Luke's hand.
Chiding himself for not paying attention, Luke eased the erratic craft back under control as Coruscant’s surface loomed, shipping lanes becoming visible now. The comm panel flickered briefly to indicate that the ship was communicating with Flight Control, then a series of circles lit the heads-up display, forming a virtual corridor in space high above the civilian flight paths. Luke fell into the near-empty military shipping lane, twisting the stick on impulse so that the I-TIE corkscrewed neatly upside-down, its long clear canopy facing the planet's surface, leaving him dangling in his acceleration harness, looking at the world ‘above’ him, the diplomatic shuttle in which he was supposed to be travelling to the Palace disappearing from his line of view.
No one had even flinched anymore in the docking bay of the Peerless as Luke had simply strode past the Lambda shuttle and up to the fighter escort nearby. Reece was never happy when the Commander-in-Chief of the Core Fleet decided to take a jaunt in a one-man fighter—and an unpredictable one at that—but he’d learnt that this was just a method of letting off steam and didn’t even utter a word. Nor did the fighter pilot, who simply stepped aside as Luke had neared, politely holding out his flight helmet. Mara Jade was less cooperative—in fact she was already heading to the next fighter when Luke took a long step back and into her path.
His voice was quiet when he spoke, but firm and resolute. “Don’t follow me. I don’t need a wingman and I don’t want company.”
She arched her eyebrows at him, tilting her head. “I think I’d already figured that out on both counts,” she replied dryly. “But I’ve still got a job to do.”
Luke remained in her path, but she only set her hand on one hip, a sure sign that she wasn’t about to back down on this one, Luke knew.
“Look,” she took a half-step forward, keeping her own voice low enough that only he would hear, “we can bicker and argue about it and keep everyone standing around uncomfortably and trying not to stare for the next hour if you want, at the end of which, short of you knocking me unconscious, I’ll still get into that fighter and follow you down, otherwise the Emperor will want to know why. So why don’t we just cut out the poodoo and set off now?”
Luke stared at her for long seconds, aware that she had pulled her trump card; the trouble with letting people get close to you was that you got close to them too, an unwanted complication when he knew that if he stopped Mara from following him, then he would be putting her in all kinds of trouble. But the trick of dealing with a problem was to turn it to one’s advantage.
“Fine—you want to come? Keep up.”
He turned before she could reply and climbed the three short steps to the cockpit. Mara watched him suspiciously for a few seconds, then realized what he was about to do and sprinted for the next I-TIE.
Reece, who had watched the distant argument with only mild interest, but enough to guess at what had been said, watched as The Heir's fighter took off out of the docking bay like a spooked ronto, Mara Jade only just stepping into her cockpit as the backwash from its engines blustered through her hair. Cursing, she dropped the canopy and set off after him, her helmet still in her lap. Reece turned back to the shuttle and set off up the ramp.
“Like she has a chance,” he murmured to himself as he boarded.
It took Luke only minutes to lose Mara. She was a good pilot and she had nerves of steel, but she was well behind and it wasn’t her forte. Against an ex-Wing Commander with natural aptitude and the kind of edge honed in battle conditions, she couldn’t compete. Luke pushed the tiny fighter to its limits, taking the shortest path over the Dauntless, which hung between the Peerless and Coruscant, throwing sharp loops and tight twists about radar towers and external emplacements as he skimmed the surface, proximity alarms blaring in his helmet, the fighter buffeting as it skimmed the destroyers’ navigation shields.
By the time he leveled up to hit the correct shear for atmospheric entry, she was practically off his combat scope, and he had to extend its range to locate her.
She’d catch up of course—she really wasn’t a bad pilot, she just wasn’t a combat pilot—and Luke had every intention of making sure that they landed on the Palace roof together. This was simply one more test as to whether she’d admit to Palpatine that she’d lost him for a while, knowing that Luke would do no such thing.
Now he eased back, aware that they were nearing the Capital, rolling the ship in a neat quarter-turn to squint into the evening sky above him, looking for her. Frowning, he reached out, casting a wide net of perception within the Force…
And flinched before the massed consciousness of the thousands of people below him.
Thousands of people…
He straightened the craft slowly, somehow strangely fascinated by that—by ordinary people, living ordinary lives… He couldn’t remember anymore what that was like. Had he ever really known?
Slowing further, he pulled the I-TIE out of its authorized military course and down into civilian shipping lanes, the sleek lines of the powerful, cutting-edge fighter at odds with its more sedate companions now.
All those minds… How did they live their lives so blindly?
On impulse he closed his eyes, closed down his contact with the Force… and let go of the stick. Reaching out without opening his eyes, he ran his fingers over familiar controls and flipped the breakers for the shields.
Blind, he relaxed his shoulders and gave the moment over to fate—
He felt…absolutely calm, listening to his own slow breathing, aware of the erratic fighter gradually banking to one side, his weight leaning heavy in the acceleration harness…
If he just stayed like this then all of his problems would be gone, he knew… The immense weight pressing down on him would be lifted and he would fall into the blackness of oblivion. No more Emperor, no more plans and deceptions, wheels within wheels and lies within lies—Palpatine’s and his own. It had become so hard, just to hold against the storm.
He didn’t recognize himself anymore… Didn’t like what he saw in his place.
And it would be so easy… Just stay like this—just close his eyes and let fate rush in…
A pacific calm came over him at that, at the knowledge that it could all be gone in an instant if he could just let go—stop struggling to survive, to change things, to prevail. Stop trying to take responsibility for everything—let someone else fight this fight…
The harness dug at his shoulders, the playing over his closed eyelids as the ship turned unheeded…
Seconds now… How could it be more…
His hand twitched involuntarily to the stick in the last possible second, wrenching the I-TIE down in a twisting corkscrew which pulled it just clear of the massive oncoming transport, close enough that he sheared off the short induction antennae from its hull. Mara was still yelling in his headset, her voice wild and panicked and angry all at once.
“What the hell are you doing!? Are your stabilizers out? Do you have a malfunction? Can you hear me? Luke? Luke!”
“I’m fine,” he said simply, voice composed and neutral.
“What were you doing?” Mara repeated, still almost shouting.
“I was waiting for you,” he replied easily, as if nothing at all had happened.
“You were almost upside down heading into an oncoming shipping lane!” She clearly couldn’t believe what she’d just seen, so shocked that her panicked thoughts were blaring out unchecked to Luke’s acute perceptions.
“Really?” he said blandly, possessed of an unruffled, detached calm. “Then it’s a good thing you got here.”
“I…are you…” Mara was still struggling to pull a coherent thought together, horrified fear that had gripped her when she’d seen his craft in freefall still audible in her voice.
“We should pull up into military shipping lanes—we’ll be in Palace airspace any time now.” Luke paused just slightly, mind completely back on track, wishing to be sure that his next remark sunk in. “They won’t have picked us up yet—we should go in together.”
He pulled up into the military flight corridor, waiting for the comm to request ID’s as they neared the restricted airspace around the Palace. Mara was close enough now that the buzz of her adrenaline-laced thoughts were crystal clear as she went through the motions of taking up wing position on mental autopilot, her heart pounding against her ribs, breath short, mind racing, her raw panic only slowly receding at the sound of Luke's voice...still trying to figure out what the hell she’d just seen.
The Throne Room of the Imperial Palace actually consisted of a sumptuous suite of grand chambers with a huge counterweighted system of sliding, gilded partition walls running either side of its length which could open the divisions into a single immense, imposing space or divide it off into a series of private audience chambers to the sides of the main chamber. To be received in one of these smaller private chambers generally inferred some kind of endorsement or favor, the individual required to traverse the processional through the cavernous central Throne Room under the watchful eye of all those attending Court, to clarify this point.
Most of Luke’s audiences with his Master were in private and despite common opinion, they had never, in his experience, inferred anything other than the fact that the Emperor was playing his games on a larger scale, everyone involved, whether they wished it or not. So he had walked impassively through the main processional, unmoved by the jealous eyes on him, pausing to bow before his Master prior to continuing on to the private ante-chamber to the side of the impressive space.
It had always seemed strange to Luke that the Throne Room had no windows as such, only three tall, narrow slits in the feet-thick walls to either side of the dais, their limited size allowing only the tiniest of slivers of daylight without giving any view of the Empire beyond. Two small circular skylights at roof level projected perfect discs which trailed across the pale circle of marble set into the Throne Room floor beneath the throne, fading from bright, dazzling white to blazing sunset red as day turned to night, but they too gave no view of the city beyond.
But then Palpatine had always looked inward, never out to his Empire. Hard-earned experience of his Master’s perspective had long-since afforded Luke the knowledge that Palpatine’s interest in ruling lay with the power he personally wielded rather than the Empire he controlled, his fascination in dominating and manipulating the individual. If he had bothered to look out to his Empire more often, he might realize how it groaned beneath the oppressive weight of heavy governing, greedy taxes and unwarranted restrictions—might see how this could fire revolt and feed rebellion.
But he didn’t care to look. Didn’t care.
It would be his undoing, his lack of compassion. The greed, self-serving conceit and blind arrogance which had made him willing to pay any price to gain power in the first place, would one day bring him low.
The tall gilded partition slid smoothly aside and Luke entered the empty stillness of the ante-room, the partition closing soundlessly behind him. Lights in the ante-chamber raised to a subtle radiance which made the intricately etched, precious-metal panels glow luminous in the low light, their surfaces enameled with a complex rendition of the Deep Core Systems. One of twenty-three sets of such incredible, priceless panels which ran floor to ceiling to either side of the entire length of the main Throne Room, each set depicted a separate sector of Imperial Space—‘lest the Emperor forget what he owned, Luke supposed dryly.
Aware that he would have a long wait, divided and hidden from Court now, Luke stared at the enameled panel as he had done so many times before in the extravagant opulence of the gilded chamber, his back to the empty throne within, the only item in the long, imposing ante-room. Lost in his thoughts, he studied the elaborate artistry, appreciating again the incredible talent and expertise of the craftsmen who had realized it.
Trying not to think about how in the galaxy a kid from Tatooine had come to be standing here, on Coruscant, in the Imperial Palace, in the private chamber of the ruler of the Empire…
Wondering which of the many gilded panels in the massive Throne Room depicted his homeworld of Tatooine as some tiny, insignificant little dustball circling fierce, binary suns.
It had never occurred to him to look before. Now he was driven by an intense pang of desire to track it down. For what he didn’t know; it was only a mark on a map, and an inaccurate, inventive rendition at that—but the longing to find it in that moment was all-consuming. To just…touch that point on the elaborate star charts… To touch home—to touch innocence, integrity…or as close as he would ever come again.
But regret bought nothing here and guilt was simply a weakness to be exploited in his Master’s eyes—he’d learned that long ago. He resolutely turned his back on the map and stared without seeing at the throne, waiting for his Master, aware of the buzzing pressure in the back of his mind which signaled Palpatine’s close presence. The momentary freedom afforded by the massed anonymity of the Capital beyond was lost to him now, the restless, rueful mind-games he allowed himself when hidden by its densely concentrated populace forbidden. He could afford no misgivings before Palpatine, no fractures in his shields.
He had an agenda, and while he didn’t expect to forward it today beneath his Master’s desire to re-establish authority over his wayward advocate following Luke’s unanticipated actions against the Bothans, as long as Luke kept his head and was suitably contrite—and had the lure of a greater incentive to distract and cloud the issue—then some degree of success was attainable.
Today was simply laying the groundwork…and paying the price. It was the instigation of yet another reworking of boundaries, both mental and physical—and there was always a price to be paid for that, Luke knew. It was, as ever, simply a question of how much.
He took a deep, calm breath and went again through the mental discipline of putting all the thoughts and doubts he held carefully away behind mental shields. There were to be no weakness here—not before his Master’s harsh scrutiny.
And so he remained, standing to loose attention in the opulent, airless room, his feet set apart, his hands clasped behind his back, ignoring the grating, nagging pain deep in his left shoulder even months after his recovery. The overshadowing presence of his Master cloyed his mind this close, though he sensed nothing specific in it, neither anger nor tolerance, all intent hidden walls within walls—a mirror of Luke’s own mind when in the Emperor’s presence; they both played these games too well.
Still he waited, aware that this too was part of his Master’s intent—to set him on edge and give time for his thoughts to wander.
Minutes turned into hours and he waited, head down, eyes closed…
He was roused from his reverie by the smooth slide of the massive etched-metal panels, the mechanism almost silent. He didn’t turn as his Master entered, the whisper of heavy robes over marble floors sending a momentary twist of foreboding up his spine at the still-intense memories of too many days and nights caged in the cells far below the Palace, when the entrance of his Master to the cell marked the beginning of yet another cycle of taunts and torment.
Palpatine walked the length of the long room in silence, aware of the brief instant of panic which his feral Jedi quickly quashed, a sure sign that he was guilty of something, even if Palpatine didn’t know what yet. It was rare indeed that the boy allowed even a sliver of emotion to show through his impenetrable shields aside from that steadfast resolve not to be intimidated.
He had called his Jedi here to answer for his curious actions against the Bothans…but perhaps there were deeper issues to be exposed.
The Emperor took the final two steps onto the low, raised dais and settled on his throne before looking to his Jedi as the boy knelt quietly before his Master, eyes down.
They remained like this for long seconds, Palpatine waiting for the boy to crack and ask why he had been summoned, Skywalker clearly willing to wait his Master out in silence, one knee to the ground, his arm resting on the other, head down.
Even now though, Palpatine was well aware that his Jedi was subtly utilizing the same muted, passive awareness of the Force as Palpatine himself was, each seeking to gain insight as to the intent of the other, subtle intents readable even now...
Eventually Palpatine settled again, letting out a loud, theatrical sigh. “Why are you here?” he said at last, tone long-suffering and exasperated.
“Because you summoned me, Master,” the boy replied smoothly, nothing revealed.
“And why would I need to do that?” Palpatine prompted, and watched his Jedi pause just slightly, weighing up the consequences of continuing to prevaricate for no other reason than his own innate stubbornness.
“I’m sure you have your reasons,” Skywalker said at last, eyes still to the floor.
Palpatine narrowed his eyes; the boy would of course have his own reasons for everything that he’d done, he knew that; he wasn’t in the habit of simply lashing out to ease his frustration as his father was wont to do. If he’d pursued an action this relentlessly then there was some logic to it even though such facts had been pointedly left off the official reports which had been sent from the Peerless.
None of which persuaded the Emperor to give even one inch in such an audience with his Jedi.
Luke kept his head down, chiding himself for continuing to defy simply because he resented the condescending, self-righteous tone in his Master’s voice. He’d come to validate his actions against the Bothans and to gain permission to go after the Rebellion. He wouldn’t get that by digging his heels in; he’d be lucky to get it at all.
Ordering himself to back down, he stood, lifting his eyes to the Emperor, arranging a penitent expression on his face.
Mollified, his Master resettled his weight, lounging comfortably on his throne, subtle messages even in this. Finally, the tone of his gravelly voice hovering somewhere between annoyance and exasperation, he launched the inevitable game: “What are you doing?”
It was so incredibly tempting for Luke to claim he was simply standing before his Master, but he bit back the sarcasm and made a direct reply. “What my father seems incapable of—removing those who present a threat to your Empire.”
“Really? Yet my Empire seems to have stumbled along with only your father’s service for the last two decades.” Palpatine’s reedy voice was hard and dry, making Luke aware of just how fine a line he was walking right now. He needed to diffuse this, and quickly.
“Command me, and I’ll stop,” he said, knowing Palpatine would call his bluff which was, at this point, irrelevant. He was already prepared to concede; it had served its purpose, its only further value to forfeit as an appeasement to his Master.
“Stop attacking the Bothans,” Palpatine said immediately.
“As you wish, Master.” Luke bowed his head just slightly in acquiescence, the perfect advocate.
Again Palpatine fell to wary silence and Luke didn’t need to look up to know that he was suspected of manipulation, but he lifted his eyes to meet his Master’s, trying to keep his expression if not his mind as open as possible, hoping to satiate Palpatine’s anger enough that he was prepared to listen.
“Why them?” Palpatine asked, voice low.
Luke suppressed any trace of satisfaction. “It wasn’t arbitrary, Master. I had a goal—and it was successful.”
The Emperor stared at him for a long time, hard ochre eyes glinting beneath the folds of the heavy black hood and cowl he wore. Luke forced himself to meet that gaze, not to blink before it…
After long seconds, reminding himself again of his true goals here, he glanced away, averting his eyes. The silence hung heavy in the soulless extravagance of the magnificent room, Luke willing his Master to ask…
But Palpatine was not so easily led.
“The Bothans provide a great deal of information to Black Sun,” his Master said at last, ignoring Luke’s claim of success.
“They also provide a great deal of information to the Rebellion. I chose my marks with care.”
Palpatine sat back considering, not even nearly willing to let this go as yet. “You asked for wide-ranging permissions knowing the specific action you intended to take.”
“I asked for authorization to go after my attackers, which you gave me. This was simply the first step, a means to an end.”
Palpatine settled just slightly—because there it was again, that same blurring of the lines that the boy always used to hedge around the edges of disobeying, the same justification he so often applied to his Master’s orders to bend them to his own needs. Skywalker stood tall and straight, hands clasped behind his back—not nearly as confident as he seemed, Palpatine knew, but at least as determined not to be intimidated. The Emperor brought a sallow hand to his mouth to hide the slight smile, suddenly indulgent of his Wolf’s composure, his coolness under fire.
“And what do you have to show for your efforts?”
It was, Palpatine knew, exactly what the boy had wanted him to ask and he looked up, eyes alight. “The location of Mon Mothma. Guaranteed—a specific day, an exact time.”
Palpatine leaned forward, instantly drawn in, the game of wits forgotten. “Guaranteed?”
“Mothma brokered the deal between the Bothans and the Rebellion herself.” Still angling for permissions, the boy offered this piece of information openly, intending to underline both his commitment to Palpatine and his inside knowledge of the Rebellion; the only two cards he could play to try to force his Master’s hand. “Because of this, she’ll go personally to Bothawui to reassure them—firstly because she feels responsible, and secondly because they’re part of her own power base. That’s why I pursued the Bothans—to draw her out. To force her actions.”
Palpatine considered, pale waxen fingers rubbing against thin lips. “And you know when she will be there.”
“To the hour. I even know that the venue will be changed shortly before the meeting. Give me permission to take a task force out to Bothawui and I’ll bring her to you—that’s all I ask.”
Palpatine brought his eyes to the boy again, a subtle tendril of the Force reaching out to search... He could feel his desperate desire to gain this permission—and he knew exactly why his Wolf thought he wouldn’t get it. “Bothawui is in the Rim Regions—it’s outside of your boundaries and your jurisdiction.”
“Vader won’t catch her. He doesn’t know the Rebels like I do.”
“Then tell him.”
The boy shook his head, not yet willing to let this go. “The situation will be too fluid. I know their procedures. I know their Commanders. I know their weaknesses. It has to be me.”
“It has to be?” Palpatine repeated, amused.
“I’m asking for permission.”
Palpatine didn’t miss the insinuation—that at least his Wolf was asking this time, not just twisting his Master’s previous consent to go after his assassins; stretching it to imply permission to leave the Core Regions in pursuit. That would be a step too far and he knew it—not even returning with Mothma would buy him immunity from Palpatine’s rage if he disobeyed to that degree. Palpatine settled back again, eyes on his Jedi, who held his breath in anticipation…
The boy had invested considerable time and commitment in this; where was the harm in letting him take down his enemy in person? It was after all what Palpatine had originally hoped—that he could incite Skywalker to turn on his previous allies. Now the boy was trying to make that very show of commitment, Palpatine knew, and an undeniably valuable one at that… And the fact that he had achieved this in less than three months, the last month with limited Intelligence, due to the silence of Leemarit…
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed as a sudden realization occurred. “How do you know when she will be there?”
Aware of the darkening twist in his Master’s muted sense and shrewd gaze, Luke paused, mind racing at the unexpected question—what did Palpatine know? Was he digging for information or laying a trap? Answer! Quickly!
“Intelligence, Master.” Luke gave the vague reply dismissively, as if curious that Palpatine would even bother to ask, hoping to draw him on without closer scrutiny, though he didn't yet know why that tightened his throat in apprehension. “There are…”
“Your last Bothan prisoners were taken onboard the Peerless ten days ago…” Palpatine spoke across him, tone cooling.
Veers! Luke bit back the frustration. He’d worked hard to hide the specifics of various capture dates from prying eyes, constantly moving and re-splitting the Bothan prisoners, dividing and recombining them again and again so that no one had the complete picture. Except perhaps Mara, whom he’d taken great care to keep busy…and Veers, the only other person onboard the Peerless with high enough rank to afford some kind of overview.
The Emperor set his head to one side, manner increasingly dangerous. “Yet there have been no transmissions to Intel from my Rebel spy Leemarit for a month… If you had Mothma’s guaranteed decision a month ago then continuing to harry insignificant Bothan minions seems…uncommonly wasteful. Uncharacteristically so, one might say. If you did not, then I am moved to wonder where your recent information regarding Mothma’s decision came from. Your explanation?”
The question blaring in Luke’s mind now was, did his Master already know of Luke’s removal of Leemarit and this was all simply a trap being laid, or was all this an educated guess? As far as Luke was aware, Karrde’s assassin had fulfilled his brief to kill Leemarit and been killed making good his escape—hardly surprising since Luke himself had contacted the Rebels under his pseudonym, to hand over the man’s identity. It had been, from beginning to end, a textbook operation…as far as Luke knew.
Suddenly, with Veer’s unanticipated interference, the issue of whether or not Luke would be allowed to go after Mon Mothma had become secondary; whether or not he spent the following weeks in a cell, subjected to Palpatine’s vindictive ‘chastisement,’ had become the relevant issue. The Emperor tolerated a great deal from his wayward protégé, but lies to his Master were the ultimate offense and were always met with the harshest punishment.
Luke’s thoughts reeled, though he kept his face a mask and forced his mind to work; he could, of course, claim that the staggered series of arrests were to keep up the steady pressure—to ensure Mothma’s continued intent. He could even claim some implacable, vindictive drive for revenge on any and all detractors involved in his attack. But if Palpatine already knew the truth, either one would be a direct lie—to his Master’s face.
The alternative then, was to tell the truth—or as near to the truth as the situation allowed. The absolute truth was that he was serving his own long-term strategy—looking to the greater plan. Whilst a spy belonging to his Master in any other position within the Rebellion would be an acceptable risk, Leemarit was the Communications Chief aboard the Rebel flagship and Luke’s continued involvement with those onboard in handing over information, however unsympathetically, would result in an extended spell of ‘correction’ if his Master found out. Which there was a good chance of, if the Comm Chief—the being who monitored all ingoing and outgoing comms—happened to be Palpatine’s spy.
His chosen course of action in having Leemarit assassinated then revealing the assassin—carefully timed to be too late to prevent it, of course—had gained credibility and trust for his own invented identity whilst ensuring the ongoing safety of Argot, Luke’s own spy on the Rebel flagship. All this had been hidden away beneath Luke’s action against the Bothans, and it had worked perfectly—until now.
Handing Mothma over was to be a useful distraction from Luke’s need to remove Leemarit in order to further his own goal, the definitive intent which had crystallized during his recovery. Explaining the finer details of how he’d achieved the capture of the elusive leader of the Rebellion—after he had done so—was to have been proof to Palpatine of Luke’s commitment, as well as persuasion of his familiarity and expertise in matters to do with the Rebellion. Because before he could set his greater plan in motion, Luke needed two things: control of the campaign against the Rebellion, which his father currently commanded, and to create a certain mindset within it—guarantee a specific weakness that he alone could exploit. One that would be invisible from both the outside and within.
Wheels within wheels within wheels—a precarious game for the highest stakes, just as his Master had taught him, in actions if not in words. But all this later, when the situation allowed—not now. Now it only clouded the issue, jeopardized his chances to go after Mothma. But there was nothing to be done now except roll with the punches and watch for his chance to take the conversation back where he needed it. Trying to avoid or redirect it now would only make Palpatine more suspicious.
His mind raced, searching for something Palpatine would understand—would believe. “I needed their trust to get to Mothma. Leemarit bought me that.”
“You gave them my Rodian,” Palpatine grated, eyes narrowed in threat. “He has been a reliable source of information for many years.”
Luke didn’t flinch beneath that gaze—perhaps he should have, just a little? Too late now—go with the plan; it was too early and he knew it, but concocting something under pressure would force mistakes and his Master was too wily an opponent to ever try such a gambit with. “I’ve replaced him. There’s already another agent in place—I wouldn’t leave us blind.”
“And he is?”
“Trustworthy, Master. You taught me well.” Oh, he shouldn’t have said it like that. Luke saw his Master’s eyes narrow, but he couldn’t give up that information, not yet.
The Emperor didn’t fail to notice the double meaning behind Skywalker’s words, nor the fact that he didn’t yield beneath his Master’s obvious disapproval, didn’t pass over this new agent’s name; well-taught indeed.
“There was no need to replace him,” Palpatine stated, not caring about the agent, only that his Jedi had done this without his permission.
“For you, Master—for me, there was every need.”
Palpatine only lifted his eyebrows in impatient expectation.
“He crossed me,” the boy stated flatly, chin high. “Whether he knew who I was or not was immaterial. Three years ago he sold me out to the Alliance. You taught me never to leave a score unpaid, Master—what did you expect, once you gave me his name?”
The brief memory of his Wolf's interest when Palpatine had first quoted Leemarit's name came abruptly to mind, though at the time Palpatine had assumed it interest in the information which had so completely condemned Mothma. Palpatine seethed at his own misreading of the situation, his anger turning instantly on the boy. Even if his reason for removing Leemarit was genuine, it was still done without his Master's consent.
“Besides,” his Jedi added, hastily throwing out a second reason, equally valid, “it was a gamble to leave him in place—what if he’d been discovered? He knew far too much about Luke Skywalker—knew that he wasn’t an Imperial…not at the time Leemarit implicated him. If they’d found out that the Rodian was your spy…”
“So you sold him to them. And now they’ll check his past and question everything he’s ever done—including uncovering you.”
“No, Master. He died with his reputation intact—I sent a mercenary in to assassinate him. One who believed that The Heir wanted revenge on the Rebel who had first broken his cover. I believe the mercenary was killed, but if not they can interrogate him all they want, he’ll only corroborate their beliefs. I’d already put another agent quietly into position, completely unconnected. Someone I trust, well-placed.”
“You have been planning this for some time.”
This was no gut reaction—placing people within the Rebellion was difficult even for Palpatine. Admittedly, as the boy had just illustrated by being able to do this, he knew their methods better than most, having fought alongside them for three years. But still, this was a long-term plan—even more than it first seemed, Palpatine suspected. Here was the reason behind his Jedi’s momentary burst of misgiving when Palpatine had first entered the room—as well it might be!
“As part of a greater plan, yes,” the boy said, wary and rightfully so, since Palpatine had banned him from any involvement in hunting down the Rebels. “I wanted Mothma—you told me yourself that it was she who signed the order for my assassination… You knew when you told me I’d act on it.”
“With my permission! I gave permission to go after those who had aided in the attempt within your jurisdiction.”
“Then give me the jurisdiction; give me control of the anti-insurrection task force.”
Palpatine hesitated, momentarily thrown by the unprecedented request, by the raw desire in his Jedi’s voice. Had his surreptitious plan in spurring the Rebels to reject Skywalker been this successful? Because the desire, the need in the boy’s appeal now sung out undisguised, like a pure note in the Force.
It mollified him…somewhat. Calmed his tone as he settled back into his ornate throne. “Vader is charged with command of the anti-insurgency task-force.”
“Vader is too slow.”
Skywalker made no connection in any way between himself and his father before the Emperor, knowing from long experience that this was something Palpatine would not tolerate. He studied his feral Jedi, who made no attempt to avoid or avert his own gaze. His cold blue eyes were as guarded as ever, aware that he was skating on the edge, but that was where he lived his life now anyway so it held no real fear for him. Which was why Palpatine enjoyed his company; he was hard to intimidate, hard to control. But therein lay the thrill.
Still, he wouldn’t let the boy off so easily. “If you had wanted Leemarit dead, you should have asked for permission to kill him.”
“Leemarit was a minor detail. I wanted to prove my value—that I could bring your enemies down better than Vader.”
His Wolf inclined his head, making a show of submission when he felt no such thing, Palpatine knew.
He hadn’t failed to realize that with the removal of Leemarit in favor of his Wolf’s own spy, any information which Palpatine now received would come first through his Jedi, and not directly to himself. He could force the boy to tell him the spy’s identity, take over the contact, but it would be a show of weakness on his part and he had no guarantee of allegiance from an agent he had not himself recruited and placed. He would of course place another spy, but that would take time and wouldn’t negate the fact that his Jedi still had his own reliable source of information, legitimately placed.
He was learning his lessons at the hand of the Master a little too well, Palpatine sometimes suspected—and certainly far more than he let show.
“And the action gained so much...” the boy said persuasively into Palpatine’s calculating silence. “Mothma, if you’ll let me bring her to you.”
“Let you bring her,” Palpatine repeated, emphasizing the word, nodding knowingly. “And of course, it should be you, because you know her intent?”
Skywalker almost slipped—almost said ‘my’—but caught himself before his lips had begun forming the word. “Your newly placed informant does. Exactly—to the hour.”
Still working to bring the conversation back where he wanted it, Palpatine knew—though the boy would know that his Master’s tolerance was anything but.
“I can deliver her to you, Master—if you’ll let me.” Skywalker stepped forward without realizing as he spoke, so driven was he. And here, Palpatine realized, here was his opportunity to punish the boy.
“No,” he said simply, settling back and waiting to watch the fireworks.
He wasn’t disappointed.
“No!” The boy practically shouted, so disbelieving was he, all composure shattered.
How wonderfully he snapped—Palpatine never tired of seeing it. “No. You acted without my permission. This is your father’s jurisdiction and you know it.”
“I gained the information in months that he’s wasted decades chasing! Because I know them—their strengths and weaknesses. I can trap her.”
“Why should I let you?” Palpatine goaded, amused at his frustration now.
“Because I deserve it. Because she tried to kill me. It’s my right to bring her in, not his.”
“Then you defied me simply to fulfill your own private vendetta?” Palpatine said, his own voice rising, knowing he had the boy now, that his anger and exasperation left chinks in that normally unassailable armor. That he still had something to learn was reassuring.
“No, Master,” the boy ground out, frustrated at being cornered.
“You have no rights!” Palpatine boomed, making him drop his head genuinely now, clenching his jaw against his Master’s wrath. Palpatine pointed one bone-thin finger to the floor and without looking up the boy knew and bent to one knee before him. Slowly though, reluctantly—which only served to feed Palpatine’s anger. “You’re nothing! Everything that you are, I have made you. Everything that you think and everything that you do is to suit my purpose—do you understand?!”
“…Yes, Master,” he spoke quietly, and it cost him dear. Palpatine could see that.
He rose, stalking toward the tensing boy, stooping before him—to reach out and gently stroke his cheek with the back of his fingers, his nails catching over the ridges of the scar there, his Jedi tensing, unsettled at the unanticipated touch.
“Don’t think to cross me,” Palpatine murmured menacingly, leaning in. “You are not nearly beyond me yet, child.”
He lifted the boy’s head, nails digging a fine line into the skin of his jaw as he trailed them free. “Don’t make me repeat the same lessons again and again.”
The threat inherent in those quietly spoken words brought the boy’s mismatched eyes up to his momentarily. They were lessons hard learned in blood and broken bones, and they both knew that Palpatine would not hesitate to reinforce them if he thought his control slipping. Had not hesitated in the past.
“Do you understand?” Palpatine murmured, pale hand trailing back over his Wolf’s scarred lips.
Skywalker jerked back just slightly in distaste, unable to stop the reflex action. “Yes, Master. I understand.”
Oh, there was resentment in those eyes. Fury and fear both. Palpatine smiled, gratified far more by his fallen Jedi’s reluctance than he ever could have been by his submission. Three years since he had first knelt before Palpatine and he was no less the wolf today than he had always been. Just as wild and as feral; still trying to run, still searching to test the chains which bound him. But held in check now, tame enough to walk to heel, controlled by sheer force of will on Palpatine’s part.
Which was a wonderful, empowering, enthralling thing.
He turned his back on the boy and walked easily away, dismissive and purposely so, keeping him on edge, unsure what his Master would do next.
“Turn the details over to Lord Vader,” Palpatine said brusquely, pausing before the elaborate screen as it slid open. “He commands the anti-insurrection force; he will deal with this. You are not to involve yourself further.”
“Yes, Master.” His Jedi bowed his head, though there was no respect in the act, only wary capitulation. But that was enough.
Reece walked wearily into the medi-center onboard the Peerless, glancing about for Hallin. The slight medic was in a side room, engrossed in some chemical breakdown on the holo-screen when Reece stepped in, his bulky frame dwarfing the smaller man.
“We’re back in the Palace,” Reece stated simply, his tone one which indicated that this was no great revelation.
“Have we been grounded again?” Hallin asked, resigned, though they’d expected this to some extent. It was a regular thing for The Heir to be restricted to the Palace for some supposed insubordination and this time it wasn’t even ‘supposed,’ so no one was really surprised, least of all Hallin.
The truth, Hallin deeply suspected, was that the Emperor simply liked his Heir close at hand, and would use any excuse to keep him so without actually restricting him permanently to the Palace, which Luke, being Luke, would be taken as an open challenge to leave by any means possible.
Which was why Reece’s answer came as a genuine surprise to Hallin. “No. But The Heir was refused permission to leave the Core Systems as he’d intended.”
The ideal of course, Hallin had always thought, would be for all of his medi-center, along with Reece’s and The Heir’s offices and private quarters, to be kept free of all surveillance devices so that they could talk freely, but Luke had logically pointed out that to do that was tantamount to admitting their collusion out loud, so there were few rooms in the medi-center which were safe to talk out loud in and this wasn’t one of them, requiring a little mental editing to read between the lines of what was spoken out loud—kind of like learning another language.
“I believe The Heir’s hoping that he’ll be able to persuade the Emperor to rescind the veto,” Reece said diplomatically for the benefit of surveillance transmitters, the translation of which, Hallin knew, was that Skywalker wished it known that he was still willing to negotiate some kind of deal on the Emperor’s terms.
“But if not, I know he’s making preparations for an extended tour of the non-trade route Colonies along with the Fury and the Dauntless. I believe he’ll use this return to the Palace as an opportunity to make sure that his affairs are in order for the protracted tour of duty.”
Translation: If Palpatine didn’t let him go on this little jaunt outside the Core Systems, then Skywalker would make it his mission to stay away from Coruscant as long as possible.
Sometimes surveillance could be a rather helpful way to put one’s point across without having to resort to anything as crude as speaking it out loud.
“The Heir’s ordered all of his personal staff back down to the Palace—your shuttle leaves the main bay in four hours. Please be prompt. If you have any queries, then I’ll be in The Heir’s ready-room on the bridge tying up his affairs here.”
Which meant, of course, ‘I’m in one of the few rooms onboard the Peerless which isn’t bugged, so come up and see me if you need to talk before you leave.’
Life was so much easier when you knew the language.
Mara found Skywalker in the ebony-floored practice hall, beginning his early morning lightsaber stanza. They now practiced together every other day, though he’d resumed daily practice, as his injuries allowed. They also practiced close-quarters combat every other evening, each proficient at the other’s specialty but appreciating the chance to polish their own skills.
And of course, Mara simply enjoyed his company, though she’d never admit that out loud.
He was always at his most relaxed during these sessions, Mara knew, his mind completely focused in the moment, all those tight defenses slipping just slightly.
Which was good, because she had a mission today. He’d shut himself away in the private rooms of his apartments yesterday following his meeting with the Emperor and even Mara had known better than to try to follow him. Instead, she’d spent the evening thinking about his actions on the incoming flight, eventually taking a trip back down to the maintenance bays to check the download of his fighter’s system log.
According to the log, there was no malfunction in any system when he’d spun slowly out of control and into oncoming flight lanes. The onboard systems registered the near-collision—in fact it had sounded proximity warnings in the cockpit a full ten seconds before the projected impact but no action was taken. Checking back further revealed something even more puzzling—shortly before that, the shields had been deactivated and the log registered no pressure on the stick for thirty seconds, which should have been the cut-off at which the ‘dead-man’s stick’—the system autopilot—activated. The stick itself had ‘buzzed’—the vibration a standard warning that autopilot was about to cut in—and there had been brief pressure on it…just enough for the autopilot to begin its countdown from thirty again.
Which meant Luke had actually released the stick of his fighter and just…allowed it to drift into oncoming shipping. Purposely, because when it had tried to activate the autopilot he’d done just enough to disable it again and leave the tiny craft in freefall, shields down…
She’d sat in the fighter for more than an hour trying to fathom that one. Unable to come up with any rational explanation she’d decided to go straight to the source, and to stand any chance of getting the truth from him, she’d chosen her moment with care...
Luke completed the Kata as Mara set forward, studying his form. He was growing a little smoother every day now, a little closer to his previous level. His left side was still weak and stiff to Mara’s trained eye, but not enough that it offered her any advantage anymore in lightsaber practice though in the close quarters combat it still left him vulnerable…and she wasn’t above taking any advantage she could get when going up against Skywalker. Either in combat practice or in drawing information out of that wary forest of defenses.
The trick, Mara knew, was to catch him at his most confident and therefore at his most relaxed—and that was always with a lightsaber in his hand.
He turned to her, waiting for her to cross the ebony floor of the large Practice Hall, chest still rising from the exertion of the forms. As he waited, he swung his saber in a slow loop to either side of his body, then began to release the hilt of the still-active saber as it made its return loop, catching it with alternate hands, making Mara wince.
“I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but these things are dangerous,” she said, holding her own saber hilt up.
He smiled loosely, unperturbed. “Your trouble is that you practice too much with those ‘safe’ blades,” he said of the practice sabers in the cabinet at the far wall. “You’re afraid of a live lightsaber.”
“I’d say that’s a reasonable reaction to something that cuts limbs off on contact.”
“There’s a galaxy of difference between being nervous of something and holding a healthy respect for it. If you flinch every time a live blade comes close to your face, it’s pretty much a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Mara raised her eyebrows. “I don’t flin—”
As she spoke, Luke whipped his saber up in a lightening-fast roundhouse blow which leveled out at her chin. Mara activated her own blade and bringing it up fro a clumsy block in the same moment, but Luke's ruby blade stopped dead at her shoulder as she shied back, no power in her hasty parry.
“You flinched,” he said simply.
“Well you would have flinched at that!!” Mara shouted, heart pumping.
“No, I would have ducked.” He grinned, lowering his blade. “With your arms pulled in so close to your body like that, you’d never have anywhere near the force necessary to stop this kind of wide, sweeping blow—unless you took the strike very close to the hilt, which is always a gamble because either you’d just get carried back with the incoming blade or more likely, your opponent needs only make a slight change in trajectory to cut your saber hilt in two—which would be the least of your problems because he’d probably drop just a little lower and slice both your hands off…then just keep on going through your neck.”
“Fine,” Mara said, internalizing that burst of information. “Next time I’ll duck.”
He shrugged. “I'd probably make some effort to make contact with the incoming blade too, just to limit my opponent’s responses but yeah, basically I’d be getting the hell out of its way. Any blow with that kind of power is difficult to deal with.”
Mara nodded, considering; Skywalker had turned out to be quite a good teacher, casual enough in his approach that she didn’t take umbrage or feel that he was talking down to her despite his obvious expertise. His own openness and willingness to listen to Mara in their sessions together working on close-quarters combat, in which Mara was still holding the upper hand—just—were the example which enabled her to view his lightsaber lessons with the same conscientious grace.
“So,” she said, “if they’re so difficult to block, why don’t they get used more often?”
He pulled his saber up and back, as if to deliver another wide blow, then froze. “Because there’s a good half-second when the blade’s back here past my own shoulder line, leaving me wide open to any attack if my opponent has fast reflexes.” He brought the blade around again, slower this time, and Mara forced herself to keep from flinching as it came in, though she still somehow ended up with her own blade pulled in tight to her body as she blocked instinctively.
“You need to catch the blade and just guide it past yourself,” he said. “Deflect it, don’t try to stop its momentum—it’s too great. Here, make the move on me.”
She brought the live blade around slowly and he simply batted it down dismissively. “Like you mean it.”
Raising her eyebrows, Mara swung back and brought her saber in horizontally with real force. Skywalker caught it up with his own, leaning back just slightly on his center of gravity as he angled the two blades forward without looking, to guide them over and past his head, taking a short backstep as he did so. The move ended with his own blade over Mara’s; always the desired position since it gave the wielder control.
Mara nodded in appreciation as he straightened and took a slow step forward and to her side to illustrate this, his saber remaining high but horizontal, so that as he moved forward he was effectively inside her defenses with a killing blow.
“That’s why you can’t be afraid of your own blade—it’s always got to be between you and your opponent’s lightsaber, no matter how close that is.” He stepped to the side, hands out low before him, making slow loops with his saber to either side of his body, passing the hilt smoothly from one hand to the other as he did so. “Just try this—you can go wide to start with.”
Mara followed suit, holding her blade out before her in deep concentration as she made the first loop and tried a cagey pass-over of the hilt, making Skywalker stifle a smile.
“Are you laughing at me?” she said, stopping dead.
“Absolutely not,” he countered. “Keep going…”
Mara started the slow loop again then paused. “You are!”
“I’m not! I’m laughing with you.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Really? You would if you could see your expression.”
“Okay, that’s it.”
“Sorry,” he smiled disarmingly. “Sorry; I take it back. You should…keep practicing. When you can do it without…scrunching your face up like that, you’ll know you’ve mastered it.”
“Is that why you do it—” Mara asked. “So you’re not afraid of a live blade?
“Yeah—” He grinned wickedly, allowing the casual drawl of his natural Rim accent for a moment—something he occasionally did when alone with Mara. “But I also like to do it just because it freaks you out.”
Mara just couldn’t help but flash a sarcastic smile in return. “Hey, you want to cut your own ears off, that’s fine with me.”
“You just don’t want to have to be the one who has to tell Palpatine when I do, right?”
“Precisely,” Mara said primly. “He was just trying to make sure he wasn’t afraid, Excellency, and he accidentally cut his own head off.”
Luke shrugged. “No great loss.”
Mara glanced down to her saber, her own smile fading just slightly. “Is that why you did the thing in your TIE fighter yesterday?”
“What thing?” Luke was instantly, visibly uncomfortable, his Coruscanti accent returning as all his shields slammed into place.
“What—did you think I hadn’t noticed?” She glanced up, trying to keep her tone at once light and sincere. “Every so often you go completely off the deep end and do something outrageously stupid. Like that firefight on Neimoidia. And when you were flying down to the Palace yesterday. You just…flip out.”
“Thanks,” Luke said dryly.
“I’m serious,” Mara maintained, an earnest tone coming through in her voice; no side, no pretence—just genuine, upfront concern. “Why do you do that?”
“I just…” He shrugged uneasily, caught off guard by the undisguised gravity in her voice, that perfect accent falling away again in response. “I guess I’m…giving Fate a chance.”
Mara frowned, uncertain at the explanation, though she knew he was telling the truth. “What does that mean?”
He sighed, eyes to the ground. “Just…giving it a free shot, I guess. If I’m not…meant to be here, doing what I’m doing—if I’m wrong—then…that’s Fate’s chance to set it right.”
“So you’re…giving Fate a free shot at you?” Mara asked doubtfully, voice softening. What was going on in his head that he would do that?
He held her eye for long seconds and without seeming to change, his expression moved from honest and open to flawlessly unreadable. Mara took a breath to speak—
The movement was lightening-fast, the strike of a snake as his saber came up and round in a blurred blaze of speed, cutting her own fast reaction time to nil as she shied back from the power of the incoming blow… It stopped an inch from her face, stray strands of her hair sizzling against the bright blade. Mara stood motionless, the speed of the strike shocking…
“You flinched again,” he said, grinning now, that intense, edgy mix of wayward mischief and dry dare lighting uncanny, mismatched eyes.
Then just as abruptly he pulled the lightsaber back, the blade whipping away to the side to twist in a single powerful loop about his own body as he backstepped, the action ending with his lightsaber held blade up behind him in open invitation for Mara to attack. “Ready?”
Blade droning a low pulse, his weight perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet and shoulders subtly twisted to give power to the blow she knew he’d loose the moment she moved, he was anything but vulnerable right now, the epitome of restrained menace.
The conversation, as far as it had gone, was very clearly over. Mara backed up, regaining enough composure to muster a distraction. “I want to keep practicing that infinity loop we were doing. Show me it again?”
He remained still for a second longer, head tilted, eyes locked on hers… then stepped abruptly forward and to her side, sweeping his saber in a complex twist to change his grip and hold it out before him, waiting for her to follow.
She went through the motions on autopilot for the rest of the session, her thoughts racing as other incidents fell into place, fitting together now in some surreal sense.
An incident long before the assassination attempt, when Luke had made Mara’s heart rise into her mouth as, arriving at a running firefight between the 701st and local militia on Neimoidia, he’d simply walked out from cover and over to a wall panel to close the heavy access gates rendering the militia trapped within the storage compound. Just walked out—not crouched or run, not lifted a hand in self-defense—just walked out, as if he were taking a quiet stroll.
Another a few months before that on Ord Mirit, when a Twi-lek had stepped out from the crowd and taken two shots at him—two shots from a heavy handgun at close range— and he’d just stood there and let her, the shots barely going wide. Just watched her step from the crowd knowing her intent, because by the time she pushed forward he’d already stopped and turned face on to her, just…waiting.
What could possibly be going on in his head that he allowed—even sought out—these insane moments of risk? What did he believe he was doing that was so reprehensible that the only way to appease his own conscience was to allow ‘Fate’ its chance at redress?
He remained as ever a puzzle within a mystery within an enigma to Mara, and the more she tried to fathom him, the less she realized she knew. But the more it drew her in, that distant whispering presence at the edge of her consciousness as addictive as ever, pushing all other considerations aside in her fascination. Did he feel the same? Because despite his recent unprecedented easing of that composed reserve with which he’d always maintained a guarded distance between them, Mara realized abruptly that when he turned those distinctive mismatched eyes on her, cool and self-possessed, the truth of the matter was that in this as everything else…she had no idea—none at all.
Luke stood again in the huge, gilded ante-room which connected to his Master’s Private Audience Chamber, staring out through the massed banks of tall windows to the distant Capital, his mind focused on the delicate negotiations which he was about to initiate.
He had remained in the Palace for almost a week now, trying to maintain a low profile in his quarters aside from his daily trips to the Practice Halls and his attendance at Court when commanded to do so by the Emperor.
His Master had of course noted this, but so far had elected to hold his silence, choosing instead to charge his Jedi with a thousand petty assignments in and around the Palace, forcing Luke to interact with various Courtiers and sycophants and attendants, all of which he had completed without comment, remaining as ever just within the bounds of respectful behavior without involving himself further.
Vader had also been summoned to Coruscant, enabling Luke to delay having to pass the information on by recommending that communicating such sensitive information over even secure channels was inadvisable, and based on his present schedule, Lord Vader would have time to be briefed in person on Coruscant before setting out to Bothawui. On these terms, the Emperor had permitted Luke to continue making preparations for the strike, allowing the illusion that he may yet have some involvement even though Luke knew that Palpatine was simply waiting for the perfect moment to snatch it from his grasp again.
It was the kind of petty battle of wills which Luke tired of very quickly yet his Master seemed to thrive on, leaving Luke feeling frustrated and trapped, knowing that Palpatine was simply playing his games with no intention of ever letting his precious Jedi out of the Core Systems and so forcing Luke into the kind of underhanded, circuitous schemes that he so detested in others.
Learning his craft, no matter how unwillingly. Because now he was waiting to see his Master again, intending to ask one last time for permission to lead the task force. But he had something new to throw into the pot. One last lure—his most persuasive yet.
The ripple had been subtle as a whisper, a gentle sigh cast to the ether and let loose. The final breath of a thankless life.
But Luke had sensed it, some distant, twisted connection to his previous Master remaining despite the distance, both physical and spiritual, which separated them now.
Sitting cross-legged in the silence of meditation on the ebonized wood of the cavernous Practice Hall floor, he had stilled in rapt, focused attention, his lightsaber laid before him, sweat from the hours-long training session cold against still-heated skin, studying the subtle ripples of cause and effect within the Force.
His ability to meditate following the exertion of dueling exercises was always incredibly heightened by the intense concentration required to master his art. If nothing else, the long years he had spent here beneath Palpatine’s demanding, uncompromising scrutiny had presented him the reason to develop a precise, powerful attunement to the Force, partly because he learned from the formidable example set by his self-assured Master and partly as vital defense before this most unforgiving of critics.
Was it Darkness that he touched, in such moments? Was he irretrievably lost, that he could call this raw power so decisively and fluidly to him…and if so, then why could he dismiss it with equal effortless ease?
Because he could step beyond it, could reach out with precise, delicate focus to slide between the hair’s-breadth chink, the brink which separated shadows from darkness. Connect with a unique, distinctive power of such incredible, flawless harmony that with it he could almost feel the galaxy turning, sensing the infinitesimal changes in currents and eddies which marked any event of relevance and trace their effect spreading out into the void, complex patterns of reality and potential overlaying and rebounding…
And it was here that he sensed the shift, frail and insubstantial, this final point of potential closing in on itself and collapsing entirely.
It was strangely reassuring that the passing of a single life, even one as significant as this, caused barely a ripple on the surface of that complex order. Humbling to realize how utterly inconsequential the lives of even the most influential of beings were in the greater scheme of things, the galaxy rolling on heedless of their struggles, failures and accomplishments both.
Still, he’d felt a certain sadness…regret even, that events had unfolded this way. The last thing he had said to his old Master was that he would return. Now that option was spent—though perhaps it had been long before today.
Luke opened his eyes and stared at the burnished black floor, allowing a moment of silence out of respect if no greater sentiment; he was, after all, probably the only being in the galaxy who had a close enough connection with Master Yoda to have sensed his passing.
The moment stilled, expectant…
The only being with a close enough connection…
Now, finally that wave of effect impacted against his receptive perceptions—
Luke rose quickly, heading for the door, plans and tactics whirling through his mind. He had an audience with his present Master to arrange—and Master Yoda was the subject.
Ushered in by Mas Amedda, Luke quickly walked the length of the Private Audience Chamber, working hard to conceal his anticipation and intent. It was a gamble, he knew, but one he was willing to take—at this point, with time running out before Mon Mothma’s meticulously incited trip to Bothawui, a calculated risk was a reasonable one.
Chances were that his past close association to Master Yoda had afforded Luke the connection to sense what Palpatine had not; Palpatine had, after all, been unaware of the old Jedi Master’s continued existence before Luke had exposed him.
Which meant that for once, Luke held the upper hand. Knowledge was power, his Master had drummed that into his head time and again. This was something that Palpatine had always wanted but until now, Luke had been unwilling to relinquish for any price. Now…fair trade was no robbery. If Luke played his hand well, he had a chance at what he wanted in exchange—what he needed in order to move forward.
Palpatine watched his Jedi walk smoothly the length of the chamber, new purpose in his step. One week after being denied permission to go after Mothma, his Jedi had not been so impolitic as to mention his objective again, but Palpatine had been waiting for his next move. Tenacious as he was, the boy didn’t give up on anything so easily, particularly something of this much importance to him, so the Emperor had been curious as to what his Jedi’s next strategy would be.
He remained furious that Skywalker had interacted with the Rebellion, no matter how remotely. No matter how much Skywalker maintained that luring Mon Mothma out of hiding was his only objective, there was a greater issue at stake here, one that seemed not to have occurred to the boy as yet. Because whether he believed Skywalker or not in this was immaterial—the fact remained that his Jedi had been able to conceal enough information from Palpatine to be able to carry out this complete operation, probably over a protracted period whilst he was in the Palace recovering from the attack, without once revealing any aspect of it to Palpatine, either physically or mentally.
Which had revealed the disturbing realization that the boy could now lie to him very effectively—and the obvious question in response… What else was Skywalker hiding?
He dropped to one knee before Palpatine now, head lowered, long, dark hair still wet from the ‘fresher following the extended lightsaber practice which he always hid behind when incarcerated here in the Palace, falling back on countless hours alone in the Practice Hall as a method of remaining removed from Court and the company of the unworthy, the power-hungry, the Courtiers and the sycophants which populated any center of true authority. The boy hated them all, Palpatine knew, though he himself rather enjoyed their company; it remained a constant fascination how low sentient beings would stoop to realize their own greedy ambitions. A private entertainment to push until he found each one’s breaking point…and then to coax them that little bit further.
True power lay not in the possession of planets and systems, but in the complete control of those who lived their lives within his influence. To own one soul—to truly command it—was worth a system of planets, more addictive than any dry and distant census of populace and assets.
His fallen Jedi had yet to realize that…but he was learning; Palpatine hadn’t failed to notice the changing dynamics of his relationship with his ‘watcher,’ Mara Jade. In hindsight, she had presumably become an impediment when he had begun his operation to snare Mothma and, unable to remove her without drawing attention to the fact, he’d begun a far subtler game.
Whatever it was that had brought him to his Master today, it was significant. Mas Amedda had received a short visit from Skywalker less than an hour earlier and had promptly cancelled and rearranged long-standing appointments planned for that morning, entering when Palpatine’s previous meeting was finished to inform the Emperor of the ‘essential’ schedule changes, completely committed to providing The Heir with immediate access.
It was rare indeed that the boy used the Force to compel his requirements on Palpatine’s personal staff, not least because he knew that his Master disapproved—as point of principle rather than any more benevolent consideration. Still, it amused him that his Jedi had done this now—and to Amedda, enforcing his will so adeptly and so completely that the Chancellor still had no idea that he’d been manipulated.
So his tone now was indulgent rather than inpatient, in light of his Wolf’s tenacious maneuvering. “What do you have to say, that cannot wait?”
Luke kept his head down as his Master spoke, eyes low, forcing his breathing to a slow, regular rhythm.
Last chance; make it count.
He knew that Palpatine preferred to keep him on a short leash, keep him in the Palace, keep him close at hand—and he knew why. But he also knew how much it would mean to his Master to see the final fulfillment of his precious prophesy, the vision he had seen only days after they had first faced off against each other; his absolute belief that the idealistic, naïve boy who had so adamantly refused to give up Master Yoda’s location would one day hand it over to him willingly.
Palpatine would see this as the ultimate confirmation of his control of Luke. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps Luke’s readiness to use Master Yoda’s death for his own ends would place Luke beyond redemption even had he sought it—or possibly his willingness to lie so guiltlessly to the Emperor and manipulate him so readily was proof that Palpatine would never truly own his precious Jedi as he wanted. Luke didn’t know, and he’d long since stopped looking for answers.
They were seldom what one desired.
Now, all he knew was that he finally had the ammunition to force his Master’s hand—so the words Luke spoke aloud were as much a surprise to himself as they probably were to the Emperor. “The completion of the SSD Invincible is back on schedule, Master. It will be released from the Bilbringi shipyards in five months’ time en route to Coruscant for its official launch.”
“I see,” Palpatine acknowledged neutrally, continuing to stare at his Jedi. They both knew that this wasn't what he had come here to say.
Luke remained in genuflection on the cold marble floor before the dais, a deep reluctance beginning to creep into his thoughts. Could he do this? Use Master Yoda’s death as a ploy to help bring down the leader of a Rebellion which the old Jedi Master had probably helped instigate.
He held silent, eyes down, uneasy qualms tying a knot in his stomach as old memories pulled old principles to the fore…
“Something troubles you,” his Master prompted at last, curiosity giving his words an uncharacteristically compassionate tone.
Luke remained still and silent, torn between present needs and past loyalties…
Palpatine watched as the boy remained statue-still, jaw clamped against whatever he had come intending to say, curious as to what could bring him to this, leaving him visibly shaken in the presence of the one man before whom he never allowed any show of weakness.
“Rise, my friend,” Palpatine said at last, wishing to coax the boy on, fascinated now. “Rise and walk with me.”
His fallen Jedi stood and set mechanically forward beside his Master, still lost in this unspoken struggle, caught behind some deep-rooted barrier which left him bound and distracted, unable to proceed. Palpatine walked casually out onto the wide terrace, the late summer sun beating inexorably down on pale marble flags. He disliked intensely the burning heat of Coruscant’s summer, but he knew that such things set the boy at ease so was willing to withstand it, such was his curiosity.
He eventually stopped to rest pale, gaunt hands on the intricately carved terrazzo balustrade, looking absently over the Capital—it held no interest for him; he already owned it completely. That which he desired to command was standing in subdued confusion beside him, eyes to the ground, adrift in his own thoughts, oblivious to the breathtaking view laid out before him.
“What has the power to leave my wolf at such an impasse?” Palpatine invited benevolently, grating voice tempered to wheedling tones.
The boy remained silent, shaking his head just slightly, plagued to distraction.
Did he know how vulnerable he left himself by clinging to these broken fragments of forfeit morals? Looking into the boy’s face now, Palpatine could see that he did, could sense how much this grated, how desperate he was to shed these final, tattered ties. What held him to so irresolute a silence then?
Enthralled, Palpatine reached out into the Force, ochre-flecked eyes half-closed in concentration, stretching out a trembling hand to his Jedi’s cheek without touching it.
“You are lost, child,” he said in empathy, hoping to coax him on. “These are old doubts, long since mastered. Why do they plague you now?”
But his Jedi remained silent so Palpatine stepped back, knowing that if he pushed too hard, the boy would inevitably back off further. Even now, his Jedi resisted every step of the way—just more subtly; opposed his own decisions as much as his Master’s, it sometimes seemed.
The Emperor turned again to look over the Capital, though his attention remained centered on the struggle taking place behind the boy’s tense, distant expression. Without turning Palpatine spoke again, his voice quiet and calm as if making a casual observation, though his words were anything but.
“How easily your resolve crumbles, my friend. Did I teach you nothing? Are you so weak that you would surrender years of struggle and sacrifice and accomplishments before a moment’s jaded conscience—do all of your aspirations and ambitions mean so little?” He turned just slightly to deliver his last... “Anything of worth comes at a price, you know that—the first thing that one must be prepared to sacrifice to any true goal is oneself.”
The boy remained silent for long seconds then, as if finally realizing his Master’s words, he stepped back and brought his head up, mismatched eyes the intense blue of the summer sky, the dark twist in his right eye startling in its contrast.
He reeled about and walked quickly from the wide terrace without a word.
Palpatine gave two heartbeats before turning to follow, but such was his Jedi’s desperation to leave that by the time the Emperor had entered the cool darkness of the cavernous, opulent hall, the boy had already reached the tall double-doors at the far side—
Luke had strode quickly from the balcony through the overbearing, ostentatious opulence of the cavernous Audience Chamber, so that he was almost to its exit before he sensed his Master enter the shadowy gloom behind him.
Palpatine did not speak, but simply watched his Jedi leave…and even that held the power to stop Luke in his tracks. Or perhaps it was something within himself because he stood, breathing heavily, eyes on the doors before him, body tensed against the need to act.
But he didn’t leave—remained still, struggling against conscience and demons. Silence lay leaden in the gloom of the massive, soulless room...
“Will you give me what I want?” Luke asked at last, eyes still on the doors before him, voice low and quiet.
“And what is that?”
Luke didn’t turn, didn’t deign to answer. It was Palpatine for once, who broke the silence. “I have made my decision.”
“In light of what?”
Luke half-turned, pale eyes bright in the low light. “Master Yoda’s location.”
The Sith’s own yellow eyes widened as he took two quick steps forward—
And Luke knew that he had him. There would be posturing, details to be argued, ego to be placated…but it was all academic now. He would go—and he knew it.
Palpatine walked slowly to the throne without speaking and Luke turned to face him, waiting for the first volley.
“I do not barter permission and favors, Jedi,” the Emperor opened.
Luke bit down his sarcasm at the bare-faced lie. Irrelevant of what was said from now on, he’d won and he knew it. “This is neither, Master, only acknowledgement of services rendered. You said it yourself—three years of loyalty and obedience.”
“I used neither of those words—nor am I in the habit of doing so when it comes to my feral Jedi. You are as much a liability as an advantage.”
Luke took a step forward. “You want loyalty? Then let me show it to you—let me hunt down your enemies. Give me this opportunity to prove myself.”
Palpatine remained silent, seemingly unmoved, but Luke knew a sabacc-face when he was looking at one. Again he stepped forward. “I’m worth nothing to you unless you use me. Give me this and in return I’ll gift you the leader of the Rebellion and last of the Jedi.”
He looked down as he spoke his next, unsure whether he was overstepping the bounds, but he knew his Master’s dry humor, and was equally aware that he often responded well to outrageous audacity on the part of his advocate—and a little bare-faced flattery. “I was once told by a wise man that anything of worth comes at a price.”
He looked up to the Emperor, wary—
Palpatine’s yellow-flecked eyes narrowed and Luke held that gaze with equal intensity… Then the Emperor’s thin, dry lips pulled back over spoiled teeth in a cackle of wry amusement.
“Very well—I’ll pay your price. You have my consent, Jedi…on this occasion only. Don’t disappoint me.”
Which was, of course, exactly what would happen when Palpatine sent his stormtroopers to Dagobah. Luke bowed low, to hide the triumph on his face. “I would never dare, Master.”
Palpatine raised heavy brows as he leered a broken-toothed grin. “Yet you would dare anything else, it seems.”
“I have learned at my Master’s feet.”
Palpatine’s eyes narrowed in amusement, aware that he was being lionized but relishing it nonetheless. “And did this wise Master also teach you to deliver on your promises?”
Luke met the old man’s eyes and stood straight, shoulders relaxing, loosing any lingering reluctance within a long, steady breath. “...Dagobah. In the Outer Rim, near the Rimma Trade Route.”
It was, in the last, surprisingly easy to say out loud. Had he lost so much? Or was he finally finding his resolve?
“And where exactly on…Dagobah should one look?”
“There are three continents. The smallest is on the equator, covered with rain forests. To its eastern side there are three major tributaries, all visible from high orbit. I landed between the second and the third, in heavily forested swampland.”
The Emperor raised his eyebrows. “Co-ordinates?”
“No. The planet has wave-scattering attributes which interfere with instrumentation from low orbit down, which is probably why it’s never been settled. I left three visual markers at high-canopy level which will be visible at nightfall if they’re still operational.”
Palpatine nodded, satisfied, and Luke turned to leave.
He was almost to the tall double-doors before his Master spoke out again. “I had thought to send you to deal with Master Yoda personally.”
It was a test, Luke knew, and hardly a subtle one. But he played the game, pausing to half-turn back.
“I’ll do as you command. If you wish me to go, then…” he trailed off in invitation, sensing the carefully concealed tendrils of the Force reaching out to him as his Master sought to gauge his response. But there was nothing to hide, not in this; he had no qualms about returning to his old Master’s hiding place—not anymore. Whether it was he or Vader who attended to this was immaterial, and he allowed his Master to sense that. But that alone.
Palpatine hesitated for long moments, head to one side, then, “No—no, go after your Rebel aggressor. I will send Lord Vader to Dagobah. He has an older score to settle.”
“I’m sure he’ll prevail,” Luke said easily, unruffled by his own barefaced lies, tempering them with a hidden truth for his own amusement. “Master Yoda is hardly in his prime.”
The Emperor’s Wolf walked briskly across floors and levels to the cavernous grandeur of the Crossways, the massive, cathedral-ceiling space which linked the four Habitation Towers at their bases, heading for the Campaign rooms in the North Tower. Luke had purposely withheld much of the finer details from the plans he’d been forming with the Intel Chiefs, both his Master’s and his own, because one way or another he’d intended to go to Bothawui. Now was the time to fill in the blanks and look for flaws.
He and his ever-present scarlet shadow of Royal Guards turned many heads as he traversed the crowded space, Luke oblivious to the fascinated glances and the deferential bows of the many staff here, their whispered voices echoing through the vaulted excess of the vast, ten-story space.
Gradually, awareness of their massed presence filtered in through the Force—not because he was the center of attention for so many minds, which he’d long since become accustomed to, but because of the undercurrent of disquiet and nervous apprehension which colored those thoughts at the sight of the Sith who walked among them.
Luke slowed, looking into their faces, though no one would meet his eye. Eventually he stopped and just stood, gazing about him, an island in the widening flow of people, no one wishing to come too close.
What were they afraid of—what did they see when they looked at him?
Two women passed, Courtiers, from their richly embroidered clothes, willing to risk eye-contact, holding his gaze as they passed by, glancing back flirtatiously. Luke watched them, his expression changing not a whit at their apparent adoration. He knew what they saw—power, status, wealth. Nothing more. For that they’d sell everything.
He frowned as he turned away, starting slowly forward again; was he so very different? What had he sold, to gain what he needed today.
He passed into the North Tower, his reply to Master Yoda’s challenge when he had first arrived on Dagobah searching for a teacher ringing in his ears...
‘Will he finish what he begins?’
‘I won’t fail you,’ Luke had promised in return.
Could the end justify the means…
Or was he lost in Darkness?
Hard experience had taught him that life was seldom as black and white as the pious sophistries his old Master had spouted among the lies he had weaved. How had the old Jedi expected one man to bring down an Empire alone—a task which his practiced, veteran mentor was clearly incapable of himself or he would have done so long ago. And yet he still expected Luke to be willingly bound to those same outmoded tenets which had so clearly failed, even when the Jedi had stood at the prime of their power.
He quickened his pace now, his jaw set in frustration against the self-reproach which he could feel gnawing at the corners of his conscience.
Did he regret giving up the dead Jedi Master’s last resting place?
He may have failed his old Master, but then Master Yoda had failed him too; had allowed him to face his enemy with a glaring, profound weakness. One so easily remedied—except that it would have broken Yoda’s control of his new Jedi…interfered with his own goals.
How did that make the old Jedi Master any better than Luke?
Yes, he had failed Yoda, but his teacher had failed him first, with lies and manipulations. He should have turned the mirror on himself when he was preaching of Darkness and Destiny.
Did that excuse Luke’s actions? No. But he wouldn’t be damned by one who was, to his mind, no better than himself. And anyway, the game wasn’t over until all the cards were played—if he was to be damned, it should be then.
He hadn’t quite failed the old Jedi Master yet.
Vader released the airtight seals on the meditation chamber in his private quarters at the Palace. It was well after midnight, but he had sensed his son’s approach, subtle as it was. He doubted anybody else had.
He stood and walked from the otherwise empty room, divorced from it by the constraints of his life-support suit. In the chamber’s oxygen-rich environment, he could at least remove his helmet—feel the air on his face again—but even that was lost to him in the real world, where his scarred lungs were too damaged to sustain him.
He could have remained in his chamber, spoken to Luke from there, but he didn’t wish his son to see the automated systems which kept him alive. Didn’t wish him to know how little of the man that was his father was left. So instead he waited in the near-darkness of a receiving room, where there was at least some semblance of a normal life on show for the benefit of those few who came here. Vader himself never used the room and had chosen nothing in it save for the large canvas hanging on one wall—a view of the Varykino Lakes, in the mountains of Naboo.
His son entered the room behind him and Vader tore his gaze away from the painting and turned about.
“Good evening,” he said simply—and instantly chided his own inhibitions.
The boy nodded in reply. “This room is safe?”
It was the same thing that they always asked, each of the other, whenever they met—was the room safe to talk in; was it bugged? That was the limits of his association with his own son; stolen moments, watchful for betrayal or discovery.
“The room is safe,” he replied with a short nod, and they both stood in silence for long moments.
Finally his son looked away, uneasy. “The Peerless heads out tomorrow for Bothawui.”
“For Mothma,” Vader replied levelly, bringing his son’s eyes up in surprise. “The Emperor told me. I think he meant it to be a contention between us—that I would believe the task should have gone to me.” He shook his head firmly against the uneasy guilt in Luke’s eyes. “He was wrong. This has been your campaign and your strategy. You should finish what you have begun.”
Vader sensed the burst of self-reproach as his son looked away, some flare of distant memory from the boy’s past whispering in gravelly tones; ‘Will he finish what he begins?’
The momentary allusion was immediately clamped down but still, it was rare indeed that Vader sensed anything from his son—to do so now a clear sign of his deep-seated distraction.
“She would have been proud of you,” Vader offered at last.
“Your mother. She had the highest standards of anyone I ever knew, for herself and for those around her. She would have been proud of you.”
Luke looked away, deeply uncomfortable. “I very much doubt it.”
They remained silent for a long time, though it was no longer awkward, just…uncertain, each wishing to continue, but neither knowing how.
“What was she like?” Luke uttered at last, unable to look at his father as he did so.
It seemed to Vader an eternity since he had first taken the holo-pic of Padmé to Luke aboard the Executor. Now, looking back, he couldn’t believe he had thought that Luke would ever have conceded so much so easily as to have taken the projector—in his place, Anakin Skywalker would have done exactly the same as Luke Skywalker had.
Now though, this question meant so much more than simply a desire to know his mother—because Luke wanted to know from his father. Wanted to know the woman that his father had known.
“She was…very beautiful. True beauty—it shone from within her.”
“How long did you know her?”
Aware of his son’s feelings as each warily dropped their guard just a little in consideration of the other, Vader knew that the boy was shying away from asking the one question he truly wanted to ask: did you ever love her?
“I knew her since I was a boy—nine years old. Before I was even a Padawan.”
His son considered, a slight frown marking his youthful face, scarred now by Mothma’s hand. In truth, Vader wanted very much to go after her himself—longed to with a biting fury. But this was far more equitable, for his son to deal with this himself—for him to want to. For the Emperor to trust him to.
Vader still had no idea what coercion the boy could have used to change their Master’s mind; he had been so adamant for so long that Luke should remain always close to Coruscant, and Vader could hardly blame him—in Palpatine’s place, he would have placed the same limits.
“She was from Tatooine?” Luke asked, mismatched eyes to his father.
“No, she was from Naboo.” Vader wanted to tell his son everything—that his mother had been a Senator, a Queen—but too much too fast would only overwhelm him…and in some selfish way, he still wanted to hold onto this power he had over the boy—the lure to bring him back again. “Padmé came to Tatooine when her starship was damaged, looking for parts. That was how we first met.” Vader chose not to give her family name yet, which was still easily traceable in Imperial archives. But to say even this out loud made something wrench deep within him despite the years—another wound that never healed.
He fell to silence but his son waited expectantly, so eventually he offered more. “I…became a Padawan soon after that, coming to Coruscant. We did not meet again for many years, but I always remembered her.”
Luke stared, fascinated, aware that the conversation was moving ever more into truly uncharted territory. “You were a Jedi when you met her again?” Which meant he shouldn’t have been with her, Luke knew. So much information, so quickly—this was as much an education of who his father was as his mother.
“Padmé had no part in my…decisions,” Vader said evenly, and Luke was intensely aware of the defense in his father’s words. That he wished to protect her was…touching. “She would have held me to the Jedi’s misguided beliefs and I would have eventually fallen with all those around me, defending a flawed cause.”
Luke was past trying to challenge his father’s warped views; they were too deeply entrenched and both knew that now was not the time—even his father had cited them only in defense of…
“Her name was…Padmé?”
“Padmé Amidala. That was her given name.”
To listen to his father speak with such hesitant regret of his mother was intensely…humanizing. At once disturbing and elating, breaking down every assumption Luke had believed, holding him to captivated silence as his father continued.
“She was intelligent, strong-willed…passionate in her beliefs. She would not be dictated to—in that you are very much alike.”
Luke smiled, glancing down—and a rush of emotion overtook him, leaving him struggling to temper the deep regret he felt. “I wish…” He stopped, as much out of consideration for his father as chiding himself; there was no use in longing, the past could not be changed.
Vader remained silent for long seconds, the keenly felt remorse which knotted his own stomach painfully clear to Luke’s perceptions. When he finally spoke, it was with a burst of movement, excitement almost.
“Wait,” he said simply, striding quickly from the room.
When Vader returned a few minutes later, it was to find his son standing before the painting, staring into it, fascinated. Did he know? Could he pick up some trace in the Force of the endless hours Vader had spent standing in that very spot, staring with desolate melancholy.
He turned as his father entered the room and for a split-second Vader faltered—he had so little that had been hers…
But that was why he should give it to his son. To their son.
He held out his closed fist and Luke reached out his open palm, uncertain. Dropping it from his hand, giving it voluntarily to another, was strangely freeing. Not at all difficult, when it came to it—because of the one he gave it to.
The boy glanced down as it fell into his palm, small and cool and heavy. He pulled his hand back to stare at the ring, a large, square, pale blue stone set in dark, mirror-polished perennium.
“It was your mother’s,” Vader said, though he knew the boy had known. “I brought her the stone from Jabiim. She had it made into a ring and wore it on…the first finger of her right hand.”
Jabiim—painful memories twisted up about Vader’s thoughts…memories of Obi-Wan, of the shock in the eyes of the man whose windpipe he had crushed using the Force. He blinked quickly, willing the memories away again; they had no place here. “She…”
He didn’t say it—couldn’t. He had brought her the uncut, worthless stone simply because he had seen it and thought of her in that moment—known that she would like it. She had been so enchanted—had held it up to his face and claimed it was the same pale blue as his eyes, and had it cut and set into precious perennium—black, polished perennium, dark as the robes he wore, she’d teased.
She had worn it always, as a ring on her first finger, lamenting having to remove it when…when her pregnancy made her hands swell. He’d stolen it from her jewelry box, intending to have the ring resized so that she could wear it again. But duties had pulled him away and he never seemed to have the time and suddenly…
Suddenly she was gone, and everything had changed. Except the ring, whose stone was still the color of his eyes, set in polished black…like the armor he now wore.
It had been a long time before he could look at the ring, so completely did it remind him of her.
And yet, it had eventually become one of his most treasured possessions.
And now he gave it to his son—because he wanted the boy to have something which was hers. Because in that moment, aware that he had taken Padmé not only from himself, but from his son, aware that nothing he did or said now could ever change the past or make amends, he had felt the desperate need to offer some contact, however distant, with the mother Luke would never know…because of Vader. Because of Anakin. Because of Obi-Wan.
The boy remained silent, staring at the ring in his hand for a long time. When he finally lifted his pale blue eyes to his father, Vader knew that his son had sensed the desperate play of wretched emotions which plagued him.
“I can’t take this,” he said at last, voice quiet and certain, holding his open hand out.
“You should have something which was hers,” Vader said resolutely, making no move.
“Not this. I know what it must…”
“Take it. She would want you to have it.”
Luke studied his father, and Vader knew that his mask hid nothing—not from his son. The boy looked again to the ring and finally tried it on his index finger, where Vader had said that his mother had worn it—it didn’t pass the first joint, and Vader could hear the gentle amusement in his son’s voice as he pulled it free. “It’s tiny. She must have been…” He said no more but Vader remembered again how delicate she was, how graceful. How fragile.
He tried the ring on each finger; it was just large enough to fit his little finger and he left it there, unable to take his eyes from it. He was silent for a long time, searching to find the words which were equal to this priceless gift. Finally he said the honest, uncomplicated truth. “It’s… Thank you—it’s an incomparable gift. I’ll take good care of it, I promise.”
Vader took a step back, suddenly uncomfortable, voice gruff and dismissive. “It’s nothing—a worthless trinket. Do as you wish with it.”
“Then I’ll treasure it,” his son said genuinely, eyes still on the ring. He glanced up suddenly, realizing something. “You have blue eyes!”
“I had blue eyes,” Vader replied awkwardly.
His son looked quickly back down to the ring. “I'd always thought that they were brown for some reason. I’d thought mine were from my mother.”
“Your mother had brown eyes, like heartwood, and long, auburn hair.” It occurred to Vader only now that he had not mentioned out loud that Padmé had said the stone was the color of his eyes—could the boy read his thoughts so completely? Had this been a momentary slip on Luke’s part which revealed the extent of his ability?
“…What happened?” The deep loss of a child left alone and abandoned shone out through those words and took Vader’s thoughts completely, leaving him speechless with guilt.
But his son only waited patiently, so that eventually Vader had to speak, though he could not find the courage to face his son. “I…cannot tell you.”
Luke’s gaze fell to the floor, regret and remorse twisting through his sense at the realization of what his father was saying. Yet he made no accusation, no move to condemn or rebuke. Perhaps he sensed Vader’s own grief, his burning, knifing shame.
Silence drew out again, marked by the deep, rasping breaths of Vader’s suit, Luke bringing his eyes back to his father only slowly.
“Why?” he asked at last, the only question left to him, Vader supposed. But even now there was no censure in his quiet voice, only the desire to know.
Vader had wished a thousand times for the opportunity to explain his actions—to defend them before the only one who still mattered, when he was finally prepared to listen. Yet now, before those blue eyes so very much like his own, words failed him and he could only shake his head, shame holding him to silence.
“I’m sorry…” his son murmured at last, eyes turning down, though Vader did not know whether it was regret that he had asked, or at his father’s unforgivable actions.
Vader took another step back, trying to deny the emotions which threatened to overwhelm him now. “You…should go.”
His son looked up at that, and Vader found the excuse to support his words. “You’ve been here too long already; the Emperor will know.”
It didn’t fool the boy—not for a second—but he looked away and stepped back, prepared to give his father the space he needed. “Of course. Will you be here when I return?”
“I would imagine,” Vader replied. “The capture of Mon Mothma will be a major event. The Emperor will want everyone in attendance when he receives his new toy.”
The boy looked away, uneasy again, face and sense haunted by tearing uncertainties.
“You are doing the right thing,” Vader assured.
“No, I’m doing the wrong thing,” his son replied quietly, looking to his mother’s ring. “But I believe it’s necessary.”
He turned to depart, and Vader blurted out the words, unwilling to allow this to end on such a bleak note. “I loved her—very much.”
The words stopped Luke in his tracks, shaking him to the core so that his normally tightly veiled emotions rang out in the Force, mind buzzing in shock at the revelation. Because Darkness did not love. The word was anathema—unthinkable; impossible.
“What am I to do with that?” he asked at last without turning.
“Learn from it,” Vader said bleakly, bringing Luke’s gaze back to him. “We are…solitary creatures by necessity. We can only destroy that which we value.”
Luke remained silent, so Vader pressed. “You cannot be close to another—you cannot allow another to be close to you.” It had been a devastating, irretrievable mistake and Vader wished to spare his son the misery of regrets which had plagued his own life for as long as he could remember. “Failure is inevitable and the consequences will spiral from your control.”
His son glanced away uneasily, willfully refusing to understand, setting forward again only to pause at the threshold of the door, unable to leave such a damning prediction hanging over his head.
“I am not you,” he murmured, as much to himself as his father.
Then, as if not wishing to leave under the shadow of discord as he so often had in the past, he turned.
“Goodnight, father.” He glanced again to the ring. “And thank you.”
Vader remained still as his son left the room, all his frustrations dissipated by those few short words— “Goodnight, father. Thank you.”
It was the first time that his son had ever said them—and meant them. Everything else paled by comparison.
Luke gazed quietly out of the wide viewport in his ready-room to the rear of the Peerless’ bridge, back straight, muscles tense, eyes set in the middle distance, seeing nothing, possessed of the kind of kinetic stillness which alluded to the coming storm.
General Veers was on his way to his ready-room and Luke was...considering his options.
Reece, aware of the larger picture and of Luke’s antipathy towards the General, had wisely gone out of his way to find constant tasks for Veers to attend to far from the bridge since Luke’s return to the Peerless, hoping Luke’s temper would cool before he needed to deal with the General in person. The reason that Reece had quoted—that since Luke had seen Veers leaving the Emperor’s presence he should, to all intents and purposes, be considered to be under Palpatine’s protection—was a valid one, and it had stayed Luke’s hand for almost ten hours now, but less than a day into the journey the black knot which had been steadily growing in his stomach could no longer be ignored.
He could of course dispel this situation in any number of ways, he knew; he could play the game, take the hit, chalk this one up to experience and learn his lesson... The trouble was, the lesson which was whispering so insistently in the back of his thoughts right now was this: Never leave an enemy at your back.
In truth he had, at the end of the day, achieved all he’d wanted; he was on his way to Bothawui and a rendezvous with Mothma—and Madine.
But then there was that one point, still whispering... Never leave an enemy at your back.
If he did nothing now…had he learned nothing?
It had occurred to Luke to give Veers temporary command of the Fury during the coming mission, knowing this wasn’t the General’s forte and therefore Luke may well find an excuse for retribution.
He could easily validate the command; the Fury was set to go after Madine and Veers had worked alongside Madine several times when the Rebel General was still an Imperial officer. He could easily claim that it took a General to catch a General—that Veers would have a better insight than anyone here into Madine’s mind. He could offer the command as an opportunity for Veers to show his new Commander what he could do.
It was the ideal situation; if Veers succeeded, which Luke very much doubted considering that his milieu was ground-based battle, then Luke gained Madine. If he failed, then Luke had the perfect excuse to remove Veers—permanently.
It was playing the game, and he knew how to do that so well now—even when it burned him up inside to do so.
Or he could play a different game—could choose not to see Veers at all and simply begin to feed the General a string of ever-more outlandish nuggets of false information until Palpatine realized that his mole had long since been discovered and Luke was now simply baiting him. Load Veers up with contradictory, inaccurate, illogical trivia and send him back to the Emperor—force him to deal with the problem he had created.
In a cool, calmer mood that was probably what he would have done. But he wasn’t calm and he wasn’t in a mood for games, and all of his qualms about more direct action were long since spent.
Once he would have held back because he felt he had something to lose: integrity, the moral high-ground...whatever. The man who had so pitilessly and fastidiously stripped those traits away from him would do well to remember that, to bear in mind the inevitable outcome of creating his precious advocate.
Because that was the trouble with owning a wolf—every now and then, without any warning…
It would just turn around and bite.
The door to Luke's ready-room sounded an entry chime then opened as Veers stepped inside.
He was hardly in the room before Luke turned on him, the power of the Force-blow sending him flying back against the wall with a resounding ‘thud.’ He lay on the floor, winded, looking up in fear as Luke stalked towards him, eyes ablaze.
Luke crouched down to grab the breathless Veers by the scruff of his uniform, hauling him roughly upright and powering back against the wall again, any consideration of the moderate path already lost in a haze of vehement fury at the sight of the man who had wheedled his way into Luke’s staff, lost Luke a valuable senior officer and so nearly obliterated months of groundwork and preparation for his own self-serving ambition.
“I thought I made myself very clear, Veers,” Luke growled through clenched jaw.
“Sir, I don’t…” Veers struggled as an incredible weight crushed against his chest and windpipe, pushing the air from lungs in a gasp and widening his eyes.
“I don’t want to hear—I don’t care what worthless little excuse you’ve spent the last week dreaming up—it won’t save your life.”
“Nnnn…” Veers grabbed weakly at the incensed Commander’s hands, still grasping the front of his jacket, and Luke narrowed his eyes, unmoved.
“I believe I explained very carefully the consequences of informing on me.”
Again Veers struggled to speak, weaker now. “Wasssnn’t…m…”
Luke kept the pressure for a few seconds more, unwilling to break off the attack…then he turned, the General dropping forward onto his knees, pulling in huge gulps of air.
Luke started toward his desk and the chair before it slid back towards him without visible aid. Veers, still gasping, shouted out in shock as he was suddenly hauled about by the Force, his body dragged towards the chair and thrown into it with enough power to topple it backwards, Luke twisting about to catch the back one-handed and haul it back upright before it fell, Veers almost toppling forward out of it, white-knuckled hands clinging to the chair’s arms.
“You have just seconds of my time, Veers, so I suggest you make it interesting—I have a very short attention span.” He leaned down to the cowering General from behind. “Go.”
“I didn’t do it…”
“You don’t know what I’ve accused you of yet,” Luke countered, standing behind the terrified man.
“I haven’t done anything, I’m not active at the…”
“So you were intending to?”
“I…” Veers fell to desperate silence, then, “Spies! There are five active spies onb…”
“There are seven,” Luke corrected, hands clamping onto Veers’ shoulders from behind. “But names would be interesting.”
“Uuuh…” Veers struggled to remember. “ Sinsa…Ogo…uhhhh…”
“Faster,” Luke whispered, leaning in, using the Force to begin again that gradual downward pressure on Veers’ chest.
“N.. uhhh Ni…Ni…”
“Nishima,” Luke said. “Another?”
“Jiddick!...Jiddick and… Findallen.”
Luke rose, though he maintained the Force-pressure against Veers. “Apparently there are eight. Thank you.”
Veers struggled to raise his arms, still pinned to the chair, breaths coming in short gasps now. “Sir...Sir, I didn’t... I didn't do it! Whatever it is…it wasn’t me…”
Without releasing Veers, Luke walked slowly to the tall viewport behind his desk, gazing out, his voice calm and cold. “I’d like to believe you, Veers, I really would. But the fact remains that even if you didn’t do it this time, you would, eventually. And everything I suspect you of here, you've already done onboard my father’s ship.”
Veers turned slightly at that, eyes wide. “Father…?”
“Lord Vader,” Luke said easily, turning just slightly to observe the shocked look in the General’s eyes, wondering if he comprehended that this forbidden piece of knowledge had now sealed his fate. “You may not have crossed me yet, but you’ve crossed mine—so you can understand why I don’t like you, Veers. You can understand why I’m hard-pressed to let you walk out of here.”
“My...Lord…” Veers strained to even talk now—
“You know, I was once a tolerant man—very tolerant.” Luke’s voice was quiet, lost in thought as he turned back to gaze out into the endless darkness. “Perhaps because I believed I was doing the right thing...”
There was a dull ‘cr-ack,’ the wet splinter of bone muffled by flesh, and with a last, broken gasp Veers crumpled forward, falling deadweight from the chair, his final breath driven from his lungs by the impact.
“I don’t anymore,” Luke said simply, no trace of regret in his voice.
“Sir, we’re coming up to reversion.” Admiral Joss stepped close to The Heir before he spoke, the bridge crew hunching studiously over the unfamiliar consoles of the modified freighter, staring intently at readouts with the grim, single-minded concentration of men trying hard not to be noticed.
General Veers’ demise several days earlier had caused a buzz of trepidation about the Peerless, all the senior officers feeling the wind blow, so that although Joss was confident in his own immunity, his loyalties to The Heir long-since decided and declared, he too felt a little jittery in the wake of recent…actions.
The Heir had, of course, taken the time to circulate to those who were loyal that Veers was the Emperor’s spy, and indeed Joss remembered having been informed of such by Commander Reece within a few weeks of Veers’ arrival, long before the campaign against the Bothans had even commenced. Still, The Heir's method of removing his spies left one a little…anxious when dealing with him.
Leadership, they had taught Admiral Joss on the Imperial Military Academy at Carida, was part respect, part fear. One should learn to inspire respect in those who are sincerely loyal, and fear in those who are not—and if a little fear was scattered around the feet of the faithful, then that too commanded a healthy respect.
Certainly the Admiral felt just that as The Heir turned to him now, gaze as calm and impassive as ever.
“Thank you, Admiral. Have the crews stand by. Verify that we’re all present and correct then contact the Peerless and the Executor and confirm our arrival. All further comms are by running lights only until we’ve secured our target.”
Joss voiced his confirmation, turning to the bridge officers to ensure that they had heard as the battered freighter they now flew dropped out of hyperspace at the busy outer orbit ring well beyond the distant Col Din Orbital Platform, responsible for all shipping, handling and duty processing for Bothawui’s planetary cargo. Joining the queues, the innocuous mid-weight freighter and its two accompanying transports were immediately lost in the bustle of the loose groupings of ships waiting for their turn at the Col Din platform.
They were running with what Joss would normally have considered to be a skeleton crew aboard one of the three anonymous, battered freighters that had rendezvoused with them at Obroa-skai, though there were ten units of the 701st in its hold awaiting the green light, the dozen or so Bothan and Chadra-Fan crewers which the smuggler Karrde had provided along with his carefully camouflaged freighters looking decidedly and deservedly nervous in their company the last time Joss had been down to the hold to check preparations.
The Heir turned, pulling the black leather gloves he wore tight as he flexed his fingers, glancing up as Joss stepped back to his side. “Move to secure channel only. Let me know when the ISD Fury is in place and our friends arrive. We’ll go dark at that point.”
Joss clicked his heels smartly in acknowledgment, glancing briefly to Mara Jade who hovered nearby, listening vaguely, re-checking the small holdout blaster she occasionally wore strapped to her wrist, a special-forces blaster rifle already slung over her shoulder.
Aware of his eyes on her, Mara glanced up at the Admiral, mind too locked on the moment to be bothered looking for clues as to what he was thinking. He raised his eyebrows just fractionally at her though, and the inference was clear: Do your job; keep him safe.
It wasn’t at all unusual for Luke to accompany ground troops on this kind of operation—quite the opposite, Mara knew—but this would be his first sortie since his injury, and with Reece still onboard the Peerless, Mara would be his sole bodyguard. The strain of this knowledge was already beginning to pull her edgy nerves taut. Skywalker disliked having bodyguards at the best of times and two sets of eyes were far more able to keep up if he took it upon himself to leave them behind, as he had a habit of doing.
Still, his insistence on not only planning and overseeing but very often participating in field missions was one of the reasons why Skywalker had gained such a solid base of popularity among the military, Mara knew. His day-to-day presence in the Core Fleet, only ever returning to Coruscant under direct orders from the Emperor, meant that he was considered very much a ‘military man,’ with real field experience and genuine tactical ability. The military were essentially pack animals, and there was nothing inspired loyalty like a sense of fraternity. Skywalker’s willingness to listen to advice from those with experience also stood him in good stead, as did his backing of and faith in the senior officers he trusted, all factors which Mara hadn’t failed to notice he’d been subtly underscoring of late.
“I’m sure I can leave things in your capable hands, Admiral,” Skywalker said, voicing casual confidence as he glanced to Joss. “Now...find me a freighter running under the name Attin’Cho—passive scan only.”
“Ma’am—we have the freighter Attin’Cho on our scopes, bearing one-seventy by fifty-eight by nine-oh-one.”
Captain Wyatt turned to her helm officer, her low, measured Mon Calamari tones making her words seem far more solemn then they were. “Send a greeting and transmit the Alliance code within it. Keep us a good space behind that forward freighter,” she added, bulbous head nodding in the direction of the freighter in the ‘stack’ before them, already aware that another dilapidated transport had cruised slowly into the space behind them, half its running lights inactive.
But she wasn’t too worried; they had chosen their queuing stack with care, one to the outside of the roughly queuing cluster of weary freighters, all waiting to pay their duty and unload their cargo so they could fill up for the next haul. The Alliance freighter, battered and merchant-rigged, fitted into the bustle of the large port without notice, staying on practically the outermost stack, a good-sized exit to deep space to their port side. “Any sign of any trouble?”
“None, Ma’am. All the boards are clear, and the Sol has just sent confirmation that they’re docking in order to load. They have one Star Destroyer near the Col Din Orbital Platform, close to them.”
That brought Wyatt’s head around, as well as Leia’s and Mon’s.
“Does he foresee any problems?” Leia asked tensely—like Wyatt she’d originally been puzzled by Mothma’s choice of Madine as commander of this operation; he was ex-Imperial army, and well-trained, but he wasn’t generally placed in charge of a space-based mission, which came under the Navy’s remit. She hadn’t questioned it too much though, knowing that Mon and Madine often worked closely together, Mon relying on both his abilities and his opinion.
It was only during the jump here that they had been called into a meeting in which Mon had explained Madine’s mission whilst she met Ollin’yaa: technology garnered in a deep-cover covert operation by the Bothans was to be transferred from the Col Din Orbital Platform to the second freighter, the Sol, commanded by Madine. The nature of that technology had opened Leia’s eyes wide...
The Empire’s new weapon, a Dynamic Electromagnetic Pulse Generator, was being built in the closely guarded military docks of the Imperial Shipyards at Bilbringi, in readiness to be loaded into the new Super Star Destroyer Invincible, due to launch later that year. Madine was responsible for loading two duplicates of the new weapon onto the Sol, secretly built at a separate site in concert with the Imperial original, using information from several spies within the shipyards.
This was an incredible break for the Alliance, and although the weapons couldn’t yet be safely fired, they were already committed to an upcoming assault, the nature of which neither Mon nor Madine were willing to discuss, citing the ongoing problem of information leaks, leaving Leia uncomfortably aware that she had been excluded from this loop—which meant that she was in some way implicated.
Something to worry about later. Now, however, her mind was on the success of the missions—both of them. If there was a chance that either mission would encounter difficulties, then Madine needed to abort now rather than compromise his mission and lose the DEMP generators or alert the Empire that they had them. Everyone waited, eyes on the Com Officer.
“Ma’am, the General reports that the Destroyer is in a standard holding pattern on the edge of their scanners; he says he’s confident that there’s no further risk implied by its presence. The Bothans say it’s been in the area for almost two days.”
Leia turned to Mon, who relaxed a little, raising her eyebrows.
“Fine,” Leia replied. “Acknowledge the message and tell him we’re going dark now. We’ll contact him when Chief Mothma’s meeting is over.” Then, unable to shake some uneasy misgivings, added, “Ask him to break com silence and let me know immediately if that Star Destroyer leaves Col Din.”
She didn’t like the fact that the Destroyer was at Col Din Platform; it had, after all, been the supposed rendezvous point for the meeting between Mothma and the Bothan leader, Ollin’yaa. It had been changed at the very last moment by an encrypted message from Intel Chief Tag Massa, who had chosen the new site herself—an innocuous tramp-freighter park well outside the Col Din Platform consisting at any given time of about fifty or so dilapidated mid-size freighters and worse-for-wear merchant vessels huddled together in a synchronous orbit waiting for permission to unload their cargo.
There were always several of these unofficial parks about any industrialized planet, Imperial Customs never quite up to speed in checking permits and authorizing permission to unload. If one was willing to pay a little extra, the necessary access to the Col Din Platform for required customs checks could always be speeded up, but many of the smaller haulage companies simply didn’t have the profit margins to oblige, and so these loose, unofficial clusters of ships huddled together to wait out permission, crew members travelling constantly from ship to ship with little regard for procedure, catching up on trade gossip with fellow-haulers.
It was a nice, nondescript, easily escapable setup—and a commonplace one too, likely to attract little attention. With less than an hour to go Chief Massa had named this particular cluster with care, providing ample opportunity for their Bothan contacts onboard the Attin’Cho to make their unanticipated in-system jump from Col Din to the new co-ordinates—and for either Madine onboard the Sol or Leia and Mon onboard the Arcturus to do the same, should either need back-up.
The Com Officer nodded as the Arcturus slowed, dropping into place in the loosely queuing starships, another dilapidated, rusted freighter which hovered to starboard seeming momentarily to be going backwards due to its stationary position beside the slowly advancing Arcturus. The Com Officer glanced to the side, then stated, “We have the confirmation code from the Attin’Cho, along with docking co-ordinates. Commander Ollin’yaa sends his greetings, Chief Mothma, and invites you aboard.”
Mon turned to Leia, smiling. “I’ll leave things here in your capable hands.”
Leia smiled at the compliment, watching Mon walk from the bridge of the disguised freighter, unable to shake the feeling that something...something...
Mon walked sedately from the shuttle now docked in the Attin’Cho's small hold, three Bothans waiting at the end of the ramp, an irregular line of several others forming an Honor-Guard, a few Humans and a Devaronian making up the line. The trip over had taken less than five minutes, only one freighter between the Arcturus and the Attin’Cho, and that clearly trying to jockey a position forward of them, pinned in from starboard by a large, ponderously slow merchant vessel just as the Arcturus was. Mon glanced momentarily at the reassuringly open depths of space visible beyond the docking bay, the pale corona of Bothawuii just perceptible at its edges. If they had to make a run for it, then the Attin’Cho was well-placed to do so.
“Good afternoon, Chief Mothma,” the first Bothan said easily as he stepped forward, his fur rustling forward then back in the Bothan equivalent of a nervous tic.
Mon smiled politely, pretending not to notice as she held her hand out to the nervous Bothan, who took it in his own momentarily before gesturing for her to continue walking. “You must forgive us—we aren’t used to having so illustrious a guest on board our humble transport. We believed we were simply transporting Commander Ollin’yaa to the Col Din Platform. We had little time to make preparations.”
“No special preparations are necessary…?”
“Forgive me, Chief Mothma—my name is T’indarr. I’m Ollin’yaa’s aide.” The Bothan clearly realized from Mon’s pause that he’d failed to introduce himself, another ripple brushing his pale fur. “If you’d follow me, I’d be honored to take you to the Commander now.”
Mon nodded politely, setting forward with the Bothan and his two companions, her own guard of six Rebel Special Ops soldiers falling in behind her. The Bothan very pointedly didn’t look back or mention them.
They walked only a short distance into the ship, very few crew in evidence, only a few Bothans and a Chadra-Fan pausing, bowing their heads respectfully as they passed, the Bothans’ fur rippling in a motion Mon recognized from long experience with the species to be nervous curiosity. She nodded easily as she walked by, always the politician.
Finally T’indarr paused before a room, reaching out his hand to rest dramatically on the door release, waiting for Mon and her entourage to catch up.
The door slid open…and Mon stopped dead.
The Bothan Commander Ollin’yaa, whom she’d come here to meet, sat tensely in a chair to the far side of the room—
Around him, weapons held ready, were two phalanxes of stormtroopers, their blue pauldrons identifying them as units from the 701st... And standing just behind him, hands on Ollin'yaa's shoulders…was Skywalker.
There was a flurry of sound and motion behind Mon as her guards drew their weapons, and Skywalker’s sharp eyes flicked from Mon towards them— A sickening smack sounded behind her as bodies hit the walls, not one shot fired before they fell to the floor, unconscious or dead, she didn’t know which. Mon flinched just slightly at that indecipherable crack of bones and armor, but remained motionless as those cold blue eyes came back to her own and a slow half-smile spread across Skywalker’s face.
Leia resisted the urge to pace the Arcturus’s bridge, aware that she was making Wyatt as uneasy as she was. Why exactly, she had no idea—everything was going exactly as planned.
They’d had a positive sighting of Vader’s main fleet almost two hours at lightspeed from here, and every other Rim Fleet Destroyer could be accounted for. Nothing was within striking distance, save for the Star Destroyer at Col Din of course, but Madine would let them know the moment that it made any kind of move. Again a stray concern worried at the edges of Leia’s mind but she couldn’t lock it down, try as she might, her thoughts with Mon Mothma.
“Any problems?” she prompted Wyatt, walking up close to the Captain to peer out of the viewscreen at the jumble of decrepit freighters waiting for permission to unload. Her eyes locked on the Attin’Cho, clearly visible around the rusting bulk of the single freighter between them.
The Mon Cal shook her head, bulbous eyes remaining on Leia. “None,” she replied simply, though her tone indicated she was willing to be led by Leia on this.
But what could she offer? Mon’s shuttle had landed and sent back the short confirmation code that all was well, as agreed. The Bothan leader Mon was coming to reassure had accepted the change of venue without rancor, the Attin’Cho making a short jump out and back into the system in order to clear the mass of Bothawui, the meeting now taking place on his transport, whilst Madine continued to load the generators from another Bothan transport onto the Rebel freighter Sol, at Col Din.
Everything was going exactly as planned—so why did she have the creeping feeling that...
“Ma’am, I have General Madine on the comm.”
Leia swung round to the comm officer, but it was Wyatt who spoke first.
“Put it on speaker,” she said quickly, stepping to the center of the small freighter’s bridge.
Madine’s voice was tight and urgent as he spoke, as near to panic as Leia had ever heard it.
“Where’s Chief Mothma?”
Leia walked into the comm system’s pickup range. “She’s on the Attin’Cho. Why?”
“The Star Destroyer here—it’s the Fury. It isn’t part of the Rim Fleet, it’s a Core Fleet vessel. It travels with the Peerless!”
That was what had been niggling her—all the Rim Fleet Destroyers were accounted for…how could there be one here? The full meaning of Madine’s words seeped in then; the Peerless was Skywalker’s Super Star Destroyer. Leia’s stomach tightened into a knot. “You’re sure?”
“The Destroyer’s not transmitting ID, but the Bothans did a close fly-by. They said it has Torrin maneuver thrusters from Soro-Sub. That puts it less than three years old, and it has a mark-nine transmitter array, plus Mytor equatorial heavy gun-emplacements. It’s the Fury.”
Leia’s heart skipped a beat as she turned to Wyatt, breathless. “Contact the Attin’Cho. Tell them to go to lightspeed and get Mon out; we’ll fly interference. Launch the fighters to protect the Attin’Cho’s exit—we’ll brief them while they fly. Bring us around this thing.” She indicated the decrepit freighter before them as the Arcturus’s deck-plates began to vibrate, her engines firing into life. Leia turned her thoughts back to Madine. “General, are you finished loading?”
There was a short delay whilst Madine confirmed this. “About three minutes. We’re too far in to be able to abort. We’ll let you know before we’re ready to make the jump to your position.”
Leia didn’t bother to tell him to hurry.
“Fighters have launched,” Wyatt announced sharply, part of the freighter’s main viewscreen overlaying with a limited, retro-fitted military-style heads-up tactical.
“Ma’am—the Attin’Cho is powering up. Our fighters are closing to escort positions.”
The Attin’Cho had turned ponderously on her axis, coming about toward the stretch of open space when Leia felt something tickle at the back of her thoughts, turning back to the Mon Cal Captain. “Wyatt—did we get confirmation from the Attin’Cho?”
Wyatt frowned at the Comm Officer, who nodded.
Then why were the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end? “Tell them we need to speak to Chief Mothma—urgently.”
The Comm Officer nodded, passing the request on. Leia turned back to the Attin’Cho, still powering away with Red and Blue fighter groups flying escort.
“Have they acknowledged the request?” Leia asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. They say Chief Mothma’s on her way up to the bridge now.”
Too slow—Leia shook her head. “Tell them to patch us through to her comlink. Now.”
The nervous Comm Officer nodded, speaking into her pick-up. She glanced up. “They're patching us through now…”
“Put it on speaker.”
Everyone waited, the low hiss of background noise indicating that the line was open, the tense, human voice of the Attin’Cho’s Comm Officer announcing, “Standby, Arcturus... Patching you through now...”
Leia waited, chewing her nail...
Too slow. Make the choice, Leia—make the call. She watched the Attin’Cho push for open space, Rebel fighters protecting her, almost clear of everything now…
Clear of everything...including them!
“Get on a closed frequency: tell the fighters on to pull back. Tell them to take out the Attin’Cho’s engines.” Everyone on the bridge turned to Leia, horrified. “Do it!”
The Comm Officer turned to Captain Wyatt for support, but the Mon Cal nodded assent, Comm turning back to relay the command, having to repeat it since it was clearly queried by the Flight Commanders, Han’s voice audible from where Leia stood— “Command, this is Blue Flight—could you repeat that?”
Seconds later both flights pulled back, turning on a tight axis to come up behind the Attin’Cho.
“Bring us about," Leia said tightly. "Get us to the Attin’Cho—quickly.” If they could get there immediately, they had easily enough firepower to bring the bulky freighter to a stop.
Their viewscreen wheeled in a deliberate, stomach-churning inverted turn as the Arcturus maneuvered to bring the Attin’Cho to the center of the screen again—
And all hell broke loose.
Suddenly everything around them seemed to be moving, several other freighters powering up their engines and starting forward.
“What the hell’s happening?!” Wyatt’s normally gravelly voice topped out in surprise.
“I scan three heavy freighters on the move…” Helm announced tightly as previously innocuous freighters suddenly powered forward to barricade the gap between the Arcturus and the Attin’Cho. “They’re boxing us out, away from the Attin’Cho.”
The rusty bulk freighter which had been creeping in to their starboard side was powering toward them at a rate of knots now, on an obvious collision course. Twice their size, it forced Wyatt’s hand. “All stop—take evasive maneuvers. Try to bring us over this one.” She was indicating the freighter before them which had previously seemed to be trying to do nothing more suspicious than sneak ahead in the line, but was now clearly maneuvering side-on to them, hindering them further, another two freighters to their port side confusing things further by trying hard to get out of the way of what was clearly becoming a ship-to-ship ramming contest.
“Ma’am, we have multiple energy signatures from the forward vessel! What the— Wait... The freighter's launching TIEs!!”
Their clear line to the Attin’Cho was completely gone, blocked by the bulk of the two unknown freighters. The Arcturus began to maneuver in an attempt to keep a clear view, though it was becoming harder as the two freighters closed, the Arcturus's only exit now in the opposite direction to that which the Attin’Cho was flying.
And now the seemingly innocuous freighter which had been turning side-on before them spewed forth scores of TIEs from its main docking bay, two wings of which came swarming in towards the Arcturus, ion cannons blazing, drawing the A- and X-Wings from their action.
“No!” Leia shouted, stepping forward. “Tell all our fighters to follow orders! Tell them to stop the Attin’Cho before it breaks clear.”
She knew damn well that this would leave her freighter vulnerable, but at this point, she had only one objective—and it was presently powering away from her at speed, with the leader of the Rebel Alliance onboard.
Luke watched dispassionately from the bridge of the Attin’Cho as the first wave of TIEs exited from the first of Talon Karrde’s hired freighters just aft of his position, drawing the Rebel fighters away.
The second hired freighter was already moving into an intercept course with the Rebel ship Arcturus, effectively blocking any chance the Rebels had to follow the Attin’Cho, Karrde's third freighter coming up behind them now, though he doubted they’d spotted it as yet.
“Sir, we’re clear of the stack—lightspeed co-ordinates programmed.” The Imperial Helm Officer looked expectantly to Luke. The whole bridge was now commanded by Imperial military of course, only the original Bothan Captain remaining, four stormtroopers guarding him, just in case some coded acknowledgment had been required whilst the ship began to creep clear of its Rebel counterpart. He’d already pulled two sets of codes from the unwilling Bothan’s mind to get Mothma here without suspicion.
“Stay awhile yet, Helm,” Luke said easily without turning from the battle, which was very pointedly following them as they powered ponderously away from the freighter stack, everything moving painfully slowly compared to the speed and maneuverability of Capital ships. “I want the Rebel ship to remain here until the Fury can pick her up, and she won’t do that if she has no reason to stay. Let them think they might just reach us yet.”
“Sir, the aft shields are sustaining damage from Rebel fighters,” Ops announced, looking up, awaiting orders.
Luke didn’t turn, still at ease, unaffected by the news. “Contact Freighter Three—tell them to release their TIEs and send them to our position. Have them engage the Rebel fighters.”
Mara took a half step toward him but managed to hold her tongue, worried that they’d lose the prize Luke had planned so carefully to gain, the Attin’Cho hardly up to this kind of punishing treatment.
He glanced sideways to her, unruffled, voice no more than a private murmur. “The Fury is minutes away—a few snub-nose fighters can’t destroy our engines, land in our only docking bay, fight through ten stormtrooper units, find Mothma and get back to their own ship in that amount of time—but they could jump to lightspeed and escape without her.”
“You’re risking Mothma to catch Madine,” Mara muttered in reply, aware that he was staying here simply to hold the Rebel freighter’s interest.
Skywalker turned away dismissively, but that composed voice had a hard edge to it as he spoke. “Let them come—no one’s taking Mothma.”
Mara frowned, turning just slightly from where she stood beside Luke to glance at him, wondering whether he actually wanted them to try… This had all gone perfectly—a textbook operation, well-planned but with flexibility and contingencies in place. So much so that in the actual event, he’d had nothing more to do than stand on the bridge and give out orders calculated months in advance. He was spoiling for a fight and she knew it.
The question was—did he? Would he throw it all away simply because he wanted a challenge?
She’d just opened her mouth to voice this when a flicker of motion at the corner of the viewscreen drew both their eyes, Ops speaking out.
“Sir, the Fury's arrived to port. She’s requesting orders.”
“Tell her to launch TIEs—see if it will draw the Rebel fighters off us.”
“The Fury acknowledges, Sir. They’re launching three squadrons now.”
“Sir, enemy fighters are driving us off-course—three degrees st…”
“Correct it,” Luke ordered, turning to the Helm Officer, the ramshackle freighter beginning to buck slightly beneath their feet as heavy laser fire hit home from close range. “Stay on-course for the lightspeed jump.”
He turned back to Comm. “Tell the Fury that the Rebel freighter is boxed in. Have her move around to a clear line and engage tractor beams—I want that ship.”
He’d barely finished before Ops called out, “Sir, the Alliance fighters are staying with us—we have a partial failure of the aft shields; engine shields are critical.”
In the middle of all this pandemonium Mara saw Luke glanced momentarily at the man, then look pointedly to her, holding her eye a moment too long. She stared blankly for a second, before her fast mind made the link—in the pressure of the moment the Ops Officer had said ‘Alliance’ and not ‘Rebel’. Only Rebels referred to themselves as the Alliance: which meant that there was a chance the Ops officer may be a Rebel spy.
“Tile remaining shields to compensate,” Luke continued, turning casually away to Comm. “Is the Fury in position?”
“She estimates another minute, Sir.”
“Divert power from the forward shields to shore the aft. Tell Freighter One to come up behind our engines to protect us from strafing runs. ”
“TIE fighters are engaging the enemy… Sir, the Rebel freighter is attempting to pull away.”
Luke turned. “Will she make it clear before the Fury locks on?”
There was a brief, tense pause as Ops ran simulations. “No, Sir. The Fury has the edge.”
“Sir, aft shields three and eight have failed—shield four is critical.”
The failure of a single shield was bad enough, but manageable by tiling adjacent shields to reduce the unshielded area, Mara knew. If shield four failed combined with three, however, it would give a sizeable hole to aim for if the Rebels took another run at the engines.
Luke glanced knowingly to Mara. “Time for us to leave, I think.”
He didn’t bother giving the order; Mara turned instantly to Helm. “Contact Freighter One then engage lightspeed engines.”
The stars before them turned to streaks as the Attin’Cho powered away with her prize, leaving the battle behind in a distant blur of light.
CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE