The two battered Rebel freighters hugged close together well away from recognized shipping lanes but still in Bothan space, proof of their close shave already written across the hull plates of the larger vessel in the form of multiple dark carbon streaks, a sure indicator of mid-gauge laser cannon fire.
In the Ready-Room of Madine's freighter, the Sol, still relatively undamaged compared to the Arcturus, Leia Organa, Han Solo and General Crix Madine were equally huddled, still trying to figure out just exactly what had gone so catastrophically wrong.
And more importantly at this point, as far as Leia was concerned, how to put it right again.
“I’ll tell you what we’re gonna use,” Han said, as cock-sure now as he always was and seriously—and vociferously, as ever—disgruntled at the fact that they had not only lost Mon aboard the Attin’Cho, but almost lost the Arcturus and Leia with it into the bargain.
Blissfully unaware of the fact that the Rebel freighter Sol was operating unrecognized right beneath its guns, the Star Destroyer Fury had instead responded to a summons on Imperial channels from the Attin’Cho and pulled a virtual slingshot around Bothawui to ensure the Attin’Cho’s safe escape, tractoring the Arcturus halfway towards its hold in the process. Only the timely arrival of the Sol, knowing instantly where the Fury would had gone and having just barely loaded their cargo, had saved the Arcturus.
Han looked to Madine, still fuming. “We’re gonna use that damn thing we all risked our necks for, so you could sneak off and pick it up today.”
The General paused, considering; the fact was that they'd gained two vital weapons today, Leia knew, as well as invaluable intelligence—the only problem was, they were in no position to use any yet. “We have no way to deploy the DEMP generators from the ships we’re in now—nothing has sufficiently hardened systems.”
“We’ll deploy them from the Sol,” Han argued, unmoved.
“If we use them now, we’ve lost them—we'll never restore and reset them in time to use against the Invincible. Plus we’ve lost the element of surprise—they’re presently unaware that we have them at all.”
“So that’s what you want ‘em for—the Invincible,” Han said, prompting a momentary tightening of Madine’s jaw at his frustration of having let that out in present company. He and Madine came from opposite ends of the military arena and only ever seemed able to meet head-on.
But then, this was news to Leia too, the whole of Madine’s mission seeming to be known only to himself and Mon Mothma, though it was all beginning to fall into place now. The Empire's latest Super Star Destroyer was due to be launched in five month's time, Leia knew, itself fitted with the revolutionary DEMP technology—the only ship in existence that would be.
Han remained unrepentant before this larger plan, eyes on the present situation. “It comes down to this General: which do you want more, the Invincible or Mon Mothma?”
The General looked away, clearly divided.
“Do we have any reason to assume that any Star Destroyer in the fleet is hardened against DEMP technology yet?” Leia prompted, looking for a clear path.
“No,” Madine said. “To our knowledge, none of the fleet has yet taken the time in space dock necessary to have all upgrades implemented. All that manpower's gone into having the Invincible ready on time.”
“Not even the Peerless?” Leia said, aware that it had been the Fury which had been at Bothawui, a Destroyer known to travel in The Heir's attachment—which meant that perhaps the Peerless was involved too.
“No. the Peerless and the Executor are next in line.” Madine glanced to his fellow Corellian then back to Leia, who was very much aware that in Mon’s absence, she had become the de-facto Commander-in-Chief. “However, let me point out the flaws in this plan—firstly, we haven’t tested the DEMP generators we just received from the Bothans, nor have we recalibrated them following their transit. Secondly, we have no solid proof that the Fury is vulnerable. Thirdly, we are very, very sure that both the Sol and the Arcturus are vulnerable and if we fire the DEMP both will be damaged beyond repair. And finally, even if all these things were resolved, we still have no idea where Chief Mothma is.”
They’d made contact with Home One as soon as the Arcturus and the Sol had exited their short hyperspace jump; the Fury had gone to lightspeed within minutes of their own narrow escape, clearly with another destination in mind, firing Leia's worry that perhaps the Peerless was involved too. Informed of Mon's capture, the Rebel baseship had immediately initiated an all-points search for the Fury as well as establishing that both the Peerless and the Executor had entered hyperspace, which rendered them untraceable until they reverted to realspace—and both had been less than four hours from Leia's current location.
The Fury and the Attin’Cho were nowhere to be seen—and the Alliance had a lot of ships scattered, looking for them right now.
“I’ll tell you where she is,” Han said without hesitation. “She’s onboard the Fury. They'd never risk keeping her on a freighter when they had a big fat Star Destroyer just waiting to go to their location. The Attin’Cho’s probably already been abandoned somewhere or blasted into space-dust. She’s onboard that Destroyer.”
“Why the Fury… Of all Destroyers, why the Fury?” Madine murmured, logical mind searching for reasons, playing the kind of hunch which all good field Generals had, that this fact was important…somehow.
“The Fury is part of the Core Fleet,” Leia said, stating the obvious in the hope of prompting some unanticipated realization. “That’s The Heir’s fleet; it shouldn’t even be out here—this is well outside his borders.”
Han nodded in agreement. “Luke can’t come this far out—we know that. The Fury must have left the Core Regions for this specific job and been in contact with the Peerless; last position we have for it was right at the edge of the Core systems—almost as close as it could come. I’m guessing that’s where the Fury's heading now.”
“If they make it to the Peerless then we’ve lost Mothma,” Madine said decisively, his voice cracking just slightly. “We can’t make an attack in Core Space—and not on a Super Star Destroyer; it’d be suicide.”
"How many ships do we have close enough to form a task-force, if the Fury came out of hyperspace close to the Peerless' last position?"
Madine didn't need to check. "None," he said, disgusted. "We were trying to keep a low presence in the area in the warm-up to Chief Mothma's meeting."
“I’m guessing the Executor’s heading to the same rendezvous,” Han said darkly, placing another hurdle in their path. “Interesting though, Luke and Vader together on this—the kid’s never done that before.”
“But theoretically…” Leia paused, glancing at the door; a second later, a quiet knock was heard.
She stared, momentarily uncertain how she’d known to look…
The door slid open, Captain Wyatt entering, her huge, glassy Mon Cal eyes full of hope. “We have a position for the Fury and the Attin’Cho, less than three hours from here…and they're alone.”
Leia walked down to the Sol’s hold, Han beside her, on her way back to the shuttle which would return her to the Arcturus. The Sol was already calculating the lightspeed jump which would take it to Mon Mothma and the Fury’s location, Leia's own ship, the Arcturus, intending to follow just minutes behind. Pausing though, Leia headed across the Sol's hold to where the two newly-gained Dynamic Electromagnetic Pulse generators were.
They were quite small really—roughly her own height, which wasn’t that tall, and about twice as large round as her reach; a large sealed cylinder connected to a smaller one, the second coiled about by a fine, copper-colored alloy. Laid on their sides in clear support cradles, a series of delicate copper aerials extended and interhooked about soft, silicon-based processing units. They looked like nothing at all; not particularly like a bomb or even an EMP weapon.
The techs were already swarming all over them, Chewie among those who were working on the first generator, the second remaining untouched as yet, almost concealed behind the close grid of its protective isolation cage.
“Chewie—” Han stepped around Leia, shouting across the bay as he ran forward, still in his pilot’s gear after the debacle at Bothawui. “How long?”
The massive Wookiee turned, keening a guess, shrugging as he did so. Han kept on running, reaching the exposed generator and craning his neck to look at the reassuringly simple trigger mechanism hotwired in by the techs. Theoretically they all knew how to work it and what the result would be if they threw that switch, and theoretically, Dynamic EMPs did no damage to flesh and bone—but Han had already voiced his reluctance at the thought of being close by when it went off. By the time Leia reached them, the conversation had moved on to the delay between triggering the first and second DEMPs, the latter having already been fitted with a jury-rigged timer.
“… we don’t know—that’s the problem,” Han continued, turning from Chewie to glance at Leia. “There’s no telling how many systems the first pulse will bring down and we need to give enough time for full emergency power to cut in onboard the Fury otherwise the second DEMP won't knock it all out. D'you have an estimate on how many systems it'll bring down?”
“All systems, we hope,” Leia said, glancing up at the new technology. “Obviously not propulsion, but we think the safety cut-out will shut down the engines when it ceases to receive information from the automated regulating systems. We’re pretty sure it’ll take those down, even though they’re hard-shielded.”
Theoretically, the DEMP was little more than an advanced electromagnetic flux compression system with bells and whistles. What made it special was the Empire's development of an innovative dynamic access system, which made it capable of overriding and overrunning all previously safe, battle-hardened systems.
Unfortunately, it did so for a large radius…on everything in the vicinity. Ships, deep space platforms—even surface based planetary technology if the DEMP was close enough.
Any technology requiring integrated circuits, power conductors, resistors, capacitors or remote connectors was killed. That included communication networks, signal processors, automated systems, flight control and digital engine regulation—nothing was immune. Any system connected to any mainframe would be incapacitated. If it was active when the DEMP blew, it was dead. Even the few systems onboard any starship that were purely mechanical-based and therefore theoretically immune generally relied on binary programs to monitor or regulate them, which would be burned out by the DEMP, so that though mechanical systems remained functioning, there would be no way to control them or regulate them.
To any mainframe system, the damage would be wide-ranging and devastating—to something the size and complexity of a Capital Ship, the combined effects would be nothing short of catastrophic, system-wide failure.
This was the Empire’s new toy, and it could potentially leave any ship in any fleet older than the soon-to-be-launched Invincible dead in space. Designed specifically to be utilized by the newly shielded systems onboard the technologically advanced new Super Star Destroyer, the data had been surreptitiously smuggled out by Bothan spies, with two exact duplicate systems being built, running apace with the Invincible’s system as it was built at the Kuat Shipyards and taking advantage of any new data and any flaws which were corrected along the way.
It gave Leia a secret, self-satisfied buzz to know that its first use in field combat would not be by a Star Destroyer, but against one.
The only problem was, they didn’t have a sufficiently shielded ship to use it from. Shield technology, massively complex and developed at a separate shipyard, hadn't yet been acquired—and even if it had, they didn't have time to implement it today.
So they were going to use the Sol.
Mara was her regulation two steps behind as Luke strode briskly forward across the main access walkway on the bridge of the Fury, the Attin’Cho having just been taken into its main hold after reversion to realspace, Karrde’s two disguised freighters visible in the bridge viewports just forward and to port. The Fury's Captain, Kavanagh, bowed nervously as the Commander-in-Chief approached, uncertain of his fate.
“Explain,” Luke tilted his head expectantly to one side, dark hair falling before mismatched eyes, one blue, one cast through with darkest brown near his heavy scar.
“Sir, a second Rebel ship came out of hyperspace behind us as we closed on the Rebel freighter Arcturus.”
“A military Corvette?" Luke prompted, already knowing the answer. “A Frigate perhaps?”
The Captain paled even further, if that were possible. “No Sir, a…bulk freighter—heavily modified. We’ve now identified it as the Sol, a re-spec’d and upgraded Rebel freighter.”
“What capacity—how big was it?”
The man visibly swallowed against his dry mouth. “Fifty thousand, Sir.”
“A Star Destroyer was stopped in its duty by fifty thousand cubics of freighter,” Luke growled, voice low in disbelief. “I’m moved to wonder which side you’re on, Captain.”
“Sir, we had the Arcturus in tractor restraint, but the second Rebel ship emerged from hyperspace and came in from beneath our engines. It knocked out the tractor-beam array and…”
Skywalker shook his head, eyes closed in dismissal. “Don’t even try to explain, Captain.”
Luke stepped in slightly, eyes hard and unforgiving, and Mara tensed slightly...but in the event, he only huffed, disappointed. Despite Luke’s words, Mara knew he considered Kavanagh a capable Destroyer Captain, and that was always something he seemed to feel worthy of recognition, regardless of any lesser frustrations, so Mara had held only the slightest uncertainty.
Now he leaned in just slightly, his words more in the tone of a casual reproach than a formal reprimand. “If you’re already in a hole, Kavanagh, you should know when to stop digging.”
The Captain looked up, a glint of hope in his eyes. “Yes, Sir.”
Luke sighed, letting the disappointment leave him with the breath as he turned to Mara. “Does Intel have anything yet?”
Mara nodded. “They’ve confirmed that Madine was onboard the second freighter, which they've tentatively identified as the Sol. We don't know who was onboard the first freighter—possibly just Mothma and the freighter Captain.”
Which pretty much negated Luke’s desire to have captured the first freighter anyway, since Madine hadn't been onboard. He’d actually known over two hours ago that the Fury had failed to capture its target, immediately ordering the it to his present location, well off any known shipping lanes on the edge of the Core and Rim borders, Nubia’s distant sun casting the faintest of glows.
The Attin’Cho had been busy whilst waiting for the Fury to arrive though, Luke clearly not yet willing to give up his chance to catch Madine. Thus, the Peerless, waiting at the edge of the Core Systems, had been placed on alert and Luke had surprised Mara by sending out a call to Vader's Destroyer, the Executor, which was only two hours away by lightspeed—quite a coincidence, to Mara’s mind.
If Palpatine found out that this was because Skywalker and Vader were communicating behind his back, there would be hell to pay; so much so that Mara hesitated to put this suspicion in her report until she had proof one way or the other. Any unauthorized contact between the two was strictly forbidden; if the Emperor even suspected such it would be Skywalker who paid the penalty—and it would be severe.
For the first time, Mara found herself torn between her loyalty to the Emperor and her developing amity with Skywalker; she didn’t wish to be the one who took this to Palpatine. She would if she had to, but still, she felt a certain…unease at the thought that it would be her who had informed on Luke—and he would know it.
She didn’t wish to lose what she had—even if she didn’t know quite what it was yet.
He brought those mismatched eyes to her now, expression thoughtful. “Order Intel to work on the Rebels who came onboard with Mothma. I want to know what Madine was doing with the Sol at Col Din—why he wasn’t with Mothma.”
Mara shrugged. “Probably backup.”
“Then he should have been closer.” Luke shook his head, “And he should have arrived sooner when the Arcturus put out a distress call… What took him so long?”
Mara nodded, conceded the point. “Why don’t we go straight to the source; Mothma will know.”
“No, no one’s to go near Mothma,” Luke said tightly.
Mara had already noted that since her capture, he had very pointedly avoided any contact with the Mothma, allowing no one else near her either. Despite the Emperor’s warning to Mara that she should monitor closely how much time Skywalker spent with the Rebel leader he had known so well, exactly the opposite seemed true; whether he was uncomfortable with her capture or whether he simply wanted nothing more to do with her, Mara wasn’t certain. Either way it seemed strange that he now showed so little interest in that which he had invested so much time and effort in securing.
Still, she nodded, already lifting her comlink from her belt.
“And tell them to find out who was commanding the Arcturus,” Luke added before turning away, back to Kavanagh.
It was a more relevant question than it first seemed, Mara knew.
When he had found out that the Fury had failed to capture Madine, Luke had... Well, first he’d flown into a temper—not the wild, uncontrolled rage which Mara associated with his father’s outbursts; this was something far more cold and calculating, so that by the time he’d calmed, he already had the outlines of a plan in mind.
He still wanted Madine and he clearly intended to go after him—using the one lure that he knew the General just couldn’t pass up.
To that end, he sent a short communiqué to Coruscant on a frequency which it was known the Rebellion monitored, using a code which Intel knew the Rebels had recently broken, acknowledging the capture of Mon Mothma and informing of his intention to remain at his present co-ordinates until the Fury had arrived as escort, at which point she would be taken onboard and he would cross the border to the Core Systems and transfer his prisoner to the Peerless for their return to Coruscant.
He was, Mara realized, gambling that the Sol would be the nearest ship, knowing that if it was, the Rebellion would try for an extraction in this brief window of opportunity—with Madine in command.
He'd also, strangely, taken Kavanagh to one side to request that the Comm Officer who had been in the unit which had boarded the Attin'cho be found something to do which would keep him occupied in the bowels of the ship for the next few hours, and for someone to be with him to make sure he had no outside view and no access to ship's comms. Kavanagh had merely nodded, following orders, but Mara knew the careful exclusion of a suspected spy when she saw it. Luke had a habit of keeping them in active play rather than simply removing them, feeding them information until he felt their usefulness had come to an end.
She'd wondered more than once in the past whether that was her position here too.
When the Executor arrived, dwarfing the Fury as she came in for a slow pass, Luke made the unprecedented move of heading down to the forward docking bay as a single shuttle made its way across to the Fury.
Mothma was already in the bay, surrounded by a phalanx of white-armored stormtroopers, but Skywalker gave her barely a glance as he entered the bay, remaining to the far side, his attention on the incoming shuttle. When the tri-wing Lambda-class shuttle came to a stately landing inside the bay, six stormtroopers marched smartly down the ramp and Mara knew immediately who was inside.
Darth Vader stalked down, his height forcing him to bow his head slightly to clear the end of the ramp, and Mara was left standing—both mentally and physically—as Skywalker walked forward.
When she finally did manage to get her feet moving, a subtle move of Luke’s hand told her to remain where she was, leaving her to frown in confusion… Not particularly that she had been excluded from the conversation; even with Vader, that wasn’t uncommon—she was after all Palpatine’s agent at the end of the day, and everyone present knew it, and Luke tended to keep all conversations private, even the most inane or adversarial, more out of a point of principle than any greater incentive. No, what surprised her was firstly that Skywalker had come down to the bay at all—something he had never done before—and secondly that he stepped forward to acknowledge Vader, the slight nod of his head as his father stepped onto the docking bay floor far more telling than his neutral body-language or his impassive face.
Mara watched closely as the two began a slow walk forward, but they spoke quietly and were past her too quickly for her to get any useful reading from Skywalker’s lips as he spoke, and even if she had, it would have been at best a one-sided conversation.
Vader took a long look at Mothma, the woman he had spent so much time hunting through the vast Rim Systems, but she didn’t look up and anyway, his conversation with his son was of greater importance. Strange—once nothing else would have mattered except catching this elusive quarry; now she was almost below notice, both for himself and more curiously, for his son, who had been made both pariah and prey at her command.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice,” the boy said, nothing more than filler to get them past the Emperor’s little spy, Vader knew, her green eyes watching intently.
They had after all, made arrangements that he would remain coincidentally close to the Bothawui system, entering lightspeed and drawing even closer the moment the battle was launched in case he should be needed, which apparently he was though he couldn’t see why; Mothma was in custody and the Fury was halfway back to the Core Systems. Why Luke had stopped here at all was a mystery.
“You require assistance?” he asked, straight to the point as always.
“I need you to take Mothma aboard the Executor. The Fury failed to secure its second goal, and I’m hoping to correct that now.”
Luke paused, fighting the urge to tell Vader, his enemy for so long, that his intentions were none of Vader’s business. Instead he took a short breath…and told Vader everything. “I want Madine as well—this may be the only chance I get, since he’s not about to come into the Core Systems any time soon and Palpatine has made it very clear that this is a one-off permission for me to go beyond them. The Fury was charged with picking him up over Bothawui when I had already left with Mothma, but it failed to do so which means I’m going to have to try to reel him in now.”
“Using Mothma as bait,” Vader finished; he too had picked up the transmission sent to Coruscant by the Fury, and wondered what games his son was playing.
“Yes. Only I’m not willing to risk her to gain a lesser prize and I have no intention of being accused of such by the Emperor—so I need her safely removed.”
Vader considered. “To hand her to me is contentious; she should be transferred to the Peerless.”
Luke shook his head. “I need the Peerless as back-up. I have no idea what the Rebels will do to try to regain Mothma; Intel says they don’t have the firepower close enough to this region to threaten a Star Destroyer, which is why I’ve chosen this location and given them a small window of opportunity time wise, to limit their responses. But they’re used to uneven firepower, so they’ll try something unexpected—they always do—which is why I need the Peerless to hand. Admiral Joss and Captain Kavanagh have three years experience working together in the field; if it comes to a fight, I want them both here.”
Vader looked away, tone dismissive. “The Rebels are undermanned and under-equipped. They are hardly a threat to a Star Destroyer.”
“And yet we lost eight to them already this year in the Rim Systems,” Luke said without looking up, tone neutral. Newfound amity or not, he wasn’t prepared to acquiesce to his father’s domineering attitude.
Vader clenched his jaw but didn’t argue; what could be said? “Then you should have leaked that Mothma was aboard the Peerless not the Fury, and had a Super Star Destroyer waiting for them.”
“They wouldn’t have risked the attack. It had to be the Fury; on its own it’ll draw them out. Any more and they would have hesitated, waited for backup.”
They stopped, having reached the far side of the bay, and Luke turned to his father, no time for extended discussions. “Will you take Mothma?”
“Yes,” Vader said at last, still uneasy that this would seem too much of an accord to their Master; they couldn’t be seen to be allies, even for the Empire’s advantage. Even that would be too much for their paranoid Emperor.
Luke nodded and they began a slow return to the shuttle. “You need to leave as quickly as possible; the Rebels can’t be that far behind us and I don’t want them to pick up traces of the Executor’s drive waste if they scan. The Peerless is in orbit around Nubia in case I need to summon her—if you could wait there too?”
“Whatever happens, don’t bring Mon Mothma back into the battle.”
Vader turned, the slightest shade of dry amusement in his bass voice. “I have no intention of returning to the battle. If you cannot stop the Rebels with the Fury and the Peerless combined, then you do not deserve the Executor’s aid.”
Luke glanced to his father, allowing no trace of a smile to show on his face, knowing that Jade would be watching them now as they neared the shuttle again. “A comforting thought,” he murmured in sardonic reply. “Motivational.”
Vader offered nothing more and Luke glanced away uneasily, suddenly aware with whom he was conversing so casually.
As they reached the ramp of the shuttle Luke nodded to the stormtroopers, gesturing for them to come forward. A thought occurred and he turned to his father. “I trust you’ll keep her in a safe place.”
Vader glanced at his son, the implication clear; ‘safe room’ was the code they had always used to refer to any untapped place—a room without surveillance.
He nodded once. “She will be kept safe,” he stated simply, and his son nodded, knowing he had understood.
Luke stepped back without another word to watch his father return to the shuttle in measured strides. He didn’t once look back, but then Luke hadn’t for a moment expected him to—such were the circumstances they lived in.
He needed to talk with Mothma yet—there was nowhere in his own Destroyer’s detention center where he could reasonably deactivate surveillance all of a sudden and he didn’t wish to cause suspicion by suddenly summoning her to a standard room onboard the Peerless in which there was ‘coincidentally’ no surveillance. This would be better; harder to monitor, particularly if he could make the trip to the Executor unnoticed. Palpatine would be less wary of Mothma being kept there because he knew quite rightly that Vader would have nothing to do with any tryst with the Alliance, and that he would allow no such transgression in his son either.
But Vader would allow Luke to speak with Mothma if he believed it would further his own ambitions—and to that end, he would take all precautions necessary to ensure that Palpatine did not find out, including covering up a visit to the Executor by Luke.
He turned away as Mon Mothma was escorted to his father's shuttle, not wishing to meet her eye. He would have to speak to her of course, but that could be dealt with later; he didn't yet have the time to unravel the knot of convoluted feelings which tied tighter every time he saw her. But he would have to, sooner or later, because a lot rode on the conversation's outcome—not least of all Mon's life.
Too many games in play, he thought sourly; too many balls in the air. He briefly remembered Master Yoda teaching him to float and juggle airborn stones whilst standing upside down in a handstand. Now he was doing it with lives, with destinies.
Was he forcing his own will upon the future and the Force—or simply finishing what he had begun, as he'd promised the old Jedi Master he would?
“So what was the thing in the shuttle bay all about?” Mara finally asked into the silence, deciding to try the direct approach; chances were Luke knew exactly what was on her mind anyway, and he didn’t generally appreciate prevarication.
The Executor was long gone, the Peerless already waiting at Nubia until summoned, and now they were finally alone, returning to the turbolift from the final rundown in Ops, on their way to the bridge.
“What?” Skywalker asked without looking round.
“That whole Vader thing. You’ve never asked him for anything in your life—now suddenly you’re handing Mon Mothma over to him.”
“I’m not handing anybody over, least of all Mothma. She'll be returning to the Peerless at the first opportunity, I assure you. I simply don’t wish to risk her just to get Madine. Mothma is for the Emperor—Madine is just because I want him.”
“I’m sure Palpatine would like to see him again too.”
Madine was a traitor of the worst kind—an Imperial General-turned-Rebel, taking classified intelligence and countless codes over with him when he defected, still using his knowledge of Imperial infrastructure and methods against the Empire to this day. Their master would be more than happy to see him again.
“Unfortunately he won’t get the opportunity," Luke said coolly. "Madine organized and implemented the assassination attempt against me; he won’t make it as far as Coruscant if I get him.”
From the tone in Skywalker’s voice, Mara doubted the Rebel General would even make it down to the detention cells. She risked a quick glance as they walked, but he was still looking dead ahead, expression as unreadable as ever. He’d been in a foul mood since… She wanted to say since he’d found out that Madine had escaped at Bothawui but in truth, it had been since he'd taken Mothma captive.
“Wow, you really know how to hold a grudge.”
Luke turned to her just slightly. She was standing to his right, so the long, deep scar which ran down his face from above his eye through his lips and over his chin was painfully visible, as was the twist of darkness which had colored his right eye ever since the assassination attempt.
“I’m learning,” he stated, and the quiet tone of his voice did nothing to dispel its menace.
They walked on in silence, Mara having nothing to say against that, on edge in a way she associated far more with being around the Emperor than with Skywalker.
She didn’t mind it particularly, in fact she rather liked it. She was used to being around men of power and Skywalker was becoming just that, slowly beginning to take his place, flexing his authoritative muscles as he worked to reinforce—to earn his position as the Emperor’s second-in-command. He was becoming a force to be reckoned with, both in Court and in the military arena, and she was fascinated by the gradual shift; drawn in rather than intimidated by the man he was becoming.
It occurred to her for the first time to wonder where she fit into all this—from Skywalker’s perspective, rather than the Emperor’s. Yes, she was here by the Emperor’s command, but she’d seen many times what Skywalker did to those he didn’t wish close, whether the Emperor approved or not. No, more and more lately, she realized that she was here by Skywalker’s sanction as much as Palpatine's—and she wanted to know why.
Because she was realizing just how important that was to her; that she wanted to remain right where she was. In fact…she wanted to get closer.
They stepped into the turbolift and Luke keyed for the bridge, staring ahead blankly, thoughts obviously elsewhere.
“Quiet?” Mara said at last, bringing his head round to her.
He seemed to consider that for a moment, then turned to look straight ahead again without reply.
“Know what your problem is?” Mara said casually without looking round. “You need to get out more,”
“Thank you,” he replied dryly. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Maybe a little company,” she elaborated, steadfastly refusing to take the hint. “Not one of those airhead little fripps who hang around in Court batting their carefully curled eyelashes at you, you understand. They’re just a waste of space.”
“You’re all heart,” Luke said, the slightest hint of amusement coloring his voice now, knowing she was trying to draw him out, though he wouldn’t look round.
“Please,” Mara dismissed. “You wouldn’t look twice at them. You don’t—I’ve watched you.”
“Really?” He turned at that, affecting a suddenly interested air at her claim. “And that would be because…?”
Mara ignored his teasing tone. “They’re decorative, I guess. But I don’t think you go for that. I think you like the type that has a little something between her ears—which basically puts all of them out of the running. Too much inbreeding in the Royal Houses, if you ask me. Plus they’re a little too eager; kinda like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Luke glared at her, eyes widened slightly in mock offense to hide his amusement, but it only egged Mara on. “Oh come on—half the women in Court would climb over their dead grandmother to make you notice them.”
“That’s not actually a selling point,” Luke said. “And anyway, they’d climb over their dead grandmother to get The Heir to notice them. I just happen to inhabit the same space.”
“What you need is a challenge,” Mara continued, flashing a sideways grin without meeting his eye.
He glanced away, but she knew that he was trying hard to disguise the half-smile that was turning the edge of his scarred lips up. “I’m flattered you’ve put so much thought into it.”
“What are friends for,” Mara said with an elaborate shrug, carefully not looking round as she saw his head turn to her at the categorization.
He held silent for long seconds, then looked forward again. “I didn’t know they were for this.”
“Well, you don’t seem to be getting very far on your own,” Mara was enjoying the banter now, very much aware of the fact that they were suddenly charting new territory.
“I didn’t know I was being judged, either,” Luke countered easily, eyes on the turbolift display.
Mara turned, arching her eyebrows. “I haven’t seen anything to judge yet.”
“Maybe if you’d clarified that you were waiting…”
“Maybe if you’d—”
Without a second’s warning, the lights in the turbolift all fell to darkness and it lurched to a stop, Luke reaching forward to steady Mara as she put her own hands out, her heart skipping a beat, equilibrium lost at the rapid deceleration.
For a moment they remained still, eyes struggling uselessly to adjust to the absolute black of the enclosed space, Luke’s hand still to Mara’s arm, one of her hands against the wall, the other clutching Skywalker’s outstretched arm. Luke moved slightly in the darkness, so close that Mara could feel his breath rustle her hair as he began to speak, then she felt his other hand brush lightly against her waist, touching on her hip—
“Now w…” Luke’s words were lost beneath Mara’s lips as she leaned in from the darkness, one hand to his cheek…
And kissed him.
On impulse, given a reckless daring by his sudden closeness and the anonymity of the pitch black within the stilled turbolift, Mara stood on tip-toe, reaching up to touch Luke’s face and raised her chin to his, his breath warm against her as she leaned in...and kissed him.
For a second—just a moment—he leaned in toward her and the radiant burst which coursed through her in the darkness was brighter than anything mere light could conjure...
Then he pulled away, free hand to her shoulder though he didn’t step back—and his tone when he spoke seemed laced with genuine surprise. “What are you doing?!”
“Couldn’t you tell?” Mara teased, still flush with courage by the cloak of absolute dark and his apparent actions.
There were several long seconds of silence in which Mara could practically hear Skywalker trying to pull words and thoughts together...
“...Now?!...” was all he could finally muster.
She leaned back just slightly, a terrible thought occurring, making her stomach churn. “You didn’t turn the lights off and stop the turbolift...?”
Another long silence. “...No.”
Mara’s lips made an ‘ohhh’ shape in the dark. In the silence that followed, she realized that they were still standing very close and she was still holding his arm...and he was still holding hers.
“Well then, where was your hand?”
“On your arm... Where did you think it was?”
“The other one,” Mara said flatly, unamused.
There was another short silence in which Mara knew Luke was putting it all together. “I was reaching for your comlink...on your belt.”
She shook her head slowly in the darkness—of course! He never carried a comlink; always used someone else’s... “Ah.”
They remained silent for a few more seconds before something occurred to her. “Why are you still holding my arm then?”
He let go quickly and she heard a rustle of movement as he took a step back.
“Your comm’s not working,” he said, sidestepping the question completely.
Though the very fact that he had it proved he wasn’t making all this up, she knew. Small comfort. She felt—sensed—that distant attunement in the back of her mind which she’d come to recognize as his reaching into the Force.
“This is shipwide.” There was an edge in his voice now, everything else forgotten, and Mara again glanced pointlessly around in the pitch black.
“Really?” That didn’t seem very likely. Why was he so bothered by this? “Are you...claustrophobic?”
There was a long pause before he asked warily, “No... Are you?”
Mara rolled her eyes in the darkness. “No—you just seem a little edgy...”
“Well, the timing seems a little convenient...”
Mara frowned, aware of the fact, but not willing to actually panic yet. “Give it a minute—the emergency power will...”
The lights in the turbolift flickered on and they both flinched beneath its bright glare, looking down. When Mara looked up, Luke was holding out his hand—in it was her comlink. It wasn’t particularly in Mara's nature to get embarrassed, but Skywalker seemed to have a special propensity to make her so—though if he knew, he had the good grace never to draw attention to the fact. Mildly discomfited, she quickly took it back and changed the subject. “Weird—why aren’t we moving again?”
Luke took a half-step back to look at the turbolift panel. “ ‘System failure—please wait’,” he read aloud.
Mara’s comlink pipped a tone and he reached out, taking it from her hand. “Yes?”
“...Commander?” The voice sounded both surprised and relieved. “Sir, we had a ship-wide...”
In the next instant, everything was black again, the comlink falling to instantaneous silence, not even a static hiss escaping it.
“Great,” Luke said into the darkness.
“I think that was emergency power that just blew,” Mara said, the first inklings of alarm casting tension into her voice.
She heard him move again, the slightest sound of hard metal. “My lightsaber’s out.”
Now that was odd; she fumbled for her blaster and pulled it free, pointing it at the floor. ‘click’ “So’s my blaster.”
She was pulling the power pack with the blind familiarity of a professional soldier when he spoke again.
“Don’t jump,” he said cryptically, and she was just lifting her head to the sound of his voice when there was an almighty, rending ‘WHUMP!’ from the ceiling above her, making her crouch down with a yelp, arms above her head.
In the long, dust-choked silence that followed, Mara’s pounding heart slowly leveled off.
“I said don’t jump,” Luke’s amused voice came from the darkness.
“Very funny,” Mara growled, standing. “You’re supposed to also say why. You’re supposed to say, ‘Don’t jump; I’m about to make a lot of noise.’”
“I did, but the noise drowned it out,” he deadpanned smoothly. If she’d known exactly where he was in the darkness, Mara would have taken a swing for him, Heir or not. “Don’t jump...but I’m leaving.”
Mara’s hair rustled in a flurry of displaced air, a sound from above indicating that he’d jumped and landed. He must have used the Force to peel part of the turbolift roof back to get a clear jump out, she realized.
“Give me your hand.” His voice came from above, echoing slightly in the turbolift shaft, and Mara glanced blindly up, flailing in the darkness. “Where are you?”
“Not even close. Stay still.”
His hand locked around her wrist and she’d barely gotten a grip and braced herself before he hauled her up, her feet scrabbling at the edge of the remains of the turbolift roof as she leaned forward blindly and grabbed for him in the darkness. He held onto her for a few seconds as she steadied herself.
“Don’t step back,” he said calmly, arm still about her.
“If this is all some elaborate hoax to get me to cling to you...” Mara grinned, unable to resist.
“Yes,” he said, dryly amused, attention clearly elsewhere. “I really do have so few lines that I need to resort to this.”
“Just checking,” she said with mock-seriousness.
Mara felt him turn slightly to reach his arm over her shoulder toward the wall behind her, then heard the reluctant grating of plasteel against plasteel as he spoke.
“You can back out now. Take a big step back over the shaft and a half-step up.”
“You’re sure there’s a floor there?”
“As tempting as it is to lie, yes, I’m sure there’s a floor there.”
Mara stepped gingerly back; for a short distance, her foot hung over nothing, presumably the void at the edge of the lift shaft, then her heel hit a hard ledge and she lifted her foot up to feel the non-slip floor beneath her feet, just slightly up from their level. They must have been very close to a set of doors when power failed. She finally released Luke to turn around and take a long step out...into absolute darkness.
“Well, this is so much better,” Mara stated sardonically, reaching her hands out before her. “I’m assuming this isn’t the bridge.”
“That’s a good few levels up,” Luke announced from close beside her, making Mara jump. His voice trailed away as he spoke though, and she turned slightly to keep it centered, her only indication of where he was.
The dry, grating, metallic rasp sounded again and a sliver of dusky light cast a hazy glow through the opening door, outlining Skywalker where he stood, one hand held before him, palm to the door.
Mara had never been so happy to see starlight.
She walked quickly into the room; it was empty, a tech station set up for human interface, but all the screens were blank.
She pushed a few buttons and toggled some switches pointlessly. “Dead.”
Skywalker turned to the wall beside him as he entered and banged his fist into the fire alarm, breaking the transparent cover and hitting the alarm at the same time. Nothing happened.
“Everything’s out,” he repeated calmly, then paused as a thought occurred. “Wonder if life support’s working?”
Mara frowned. “Why do we have gravity?”
“Good question.” He walked towards the viewport, and Mara followed his gaze as he looked out. They were at the very base of the Command Tower, the turbolift having just left the main body of the Destroyer, the tech room affording an impressive view of its massive bulk—or it would have been, had anything been working. There wasn’t a single light or visibly active system to be seen across the long, streamlined hull.
Luke was pressing the side of his face to the viewport now, and Mara frowned as she walked towards him. “Are you...listening?”
“Yes,” he said dryly. “I’m listening to the viewport.”
“Hey, you’ve set something of a past precedent for weirdness,” Mara retorted, belatedly realizing that he was trying to see to the very edges of the viewscreen’s field of vision. “What are you looking for?”
She glanced out, eyes drawn to the dead-in-space bulk of the freighters Luke had used in the attack at Bothawui, drifting dangerously close.
“This didn’t just happen on its own,” Luke said distantly, eyes further afield.
“EMP?” Mara said, having come to the same conclusion herself, though she hadn’t said it out loud for the simple fact that all Star Destroyers were of course hardened against the overload effects of an electromagnetic pulse. She gazed out over the dead ship, trying to work this through in her mind, then spotted the slightest flicker of starlight on metal near the heat exhaust ports which vented to either side of the Destroyer's apex gunnery platforms. “The fans are still working.”
Luke glanced down, following her line of sight and squinting. “They’re mechanical—no link to the automated systems.”
So it had to be an EMP. “But we’re combat-hardened. Nothing can...”
She stopped as it occurred to her in exactly the same moment as Luke—
“The Invincible,” Mara said, as if it were a kick to the gut. The as yet unlaunched Invincible sported the latest advance in dynamic flux compression EMP technology. Supposedly the only system in existence—obviously not.
Luke didn’t reply, a more immediately relevant thought occurring. “Shields...”
“They must be down—they’re linked into the mainframe.” Mara cursed under her breath as she joined him in leaning her head against the cool transparisteel to widen her field of view.
The Fury’s engines must have powered down within a split second of each other but not quite simultaneously, since as well as gliding slowly forward, she was gradually tilting on her axis—and it was this which brought the small freighter slowly into view.
“There!” Luke was the first to see it, pressing a finger against the viewport, but then he was looking expectantly at exactly that spot. Mara scowled into the darkness, struggling to make out a shadowy shape against the void about it.
“It’s dead too.”
“They didn’t have shielding either. Where the hell did they get that DEMP from?”
“Two,” Mara said. “They must have fired one to take out the Fury’s systems, then waited for our emergency back-ups to come online and fired a second to be sure they’d overloaded everything.”
“Well, it worked,” Luke said flatly. He took a half-step away from the viewscreen, both palms still resting against it, eyes on the distant ship. “What are you doing, Madine? This isn’t like him; it’s not his style to come in with guns blazing.”
“What, an ex-Imperial officer?” Mara reminded.
Luke shook his head, unconvinced. “He’s confident, yes, but he tends towards small actions which generate large effects—that’s why he’s so useful to the Rebellion...”
“I’d say that pretty much covers this scenario,” Mara said dryly.
“Not when he traps himself, too. He wouldn’t voluntarily limit his own options like this, wouldn’t pin himself down. He’s doing something, this is for something.”
“He’s not doing much of anything anymore,” Mara said dryly, eyes still on the dead freighter. “He’s just as stuck as we are.”
“There’s a reason for this,” Luke murmured as he stared at the shadowy ship, dead in space. “He wants Mon and he thinks we have her...”
“Maybe he’s slowing us down—maybe he’s called for backup?”
“He doesn’t have time.” Luke’s fingers tapped lightly against the viewport as he considered. “When we scanned a few hours ago there were no Rebel ships within three hours of here—that’s why I chose these co-ordinates. They know the Fury would be reported as having failed to check in within an hour of missing a broadcast and that the fleet would start the search from our last known location, which gives him two hours at the most...”
Mara glanced out at the ship again. “He’s too far away to do any damage from...”
“Chell!” Luke whirled away from the viewscreen striding quickly back into the inky shadows of the corridor, Mara rushing behind him as he explained, “Another ship! He has another ship coming in from hyperspace right now!”
Mara shook her head pointlessly in the darkness. “You just said Intel confirmed there were no other ships in the area...”
“The second freighter,” Luke reminded. “There were two Rebel freighters at Bothawui. They must have met up just outside the system then jumped to our location a few minutes apart. That freighter out there’s dead in space from the DEMP pulse it released, but the second freighter would only need to be a minute or two behind at lightspeed and...”
“It’ll be undamaged,” Mara finished, realization hitting her. “If it’s still coming in to Madine’s co-ordinates at lightspeed, they’d be outside of the pulse range!”
They passed into the darkness, Luke pausing at the first intersection to get his bearings, and Mara barreled into him from behind with enough force to send him staggering forward a few steps.
“Sorry,” Mara said sheepishly. “Can you see anything?”
“The Force can enhance sight enough to... What the hell are you doing now!?”
Mara was fumbling in the darkness for his waistband as he half-turned towards her. “Oops! Sorry. I was...just...” She finally found his belt and wrapped her hand about it. “Tell me if we hit steps.”
He made a sound somewhere between a snort and a sigh and set off again, jerking Mara’s arm as she was pulled forward, one hand holding his belt, the other out before her in the pitch black.
“Three steps down,” came Luke's voice from the darkness.
Mara slowed slightly and waited until Skywalker stepped down the first, his downward pull where she held onto his belt giving her the location of the stair’s edge as she gingerly stepped down. When he leveled out she knew she should too and they both set off again at a slow jog.
They were getting a good routine now. Luke had headed back to the midship turbolift shafts which were wrapped about with the emergency stairwells, Mara assuming he’d head up to the bridge from there, so that there’d been a brief spat when he’d headed down, Mara hauling him to a halt by his belt, Luke telling her in no uncertain terms exactly why she shouldn’t do that.
They’d crossed the paths of various officers, troopers and non-comms already of course, most of whom had been calmly making their way towards the emergency assembly sites. Luke had sent four separate officers to the bridge now, using them to relay orders. Priority was to get long-distance communications working to call in help from the waiting Peerless, then check life-support and carbon monoxide levels.
He’d not taken any troopers with him; he and Mara were moving too quickly and troopers would slow them down, the night-vision capability of their helmets now rendered useless. Most had taken them off, their unfiltered voices sounding uncharacteristically human to Mara’s ears.
They’d also come across numerous droids in their travels, collapsed in a heap wherever they happened to be when the DEMP had gone off, Luke using the Force to push their heavy bulk to the sides of corridors so that no one would stumble over them in the absolute darkness of enclosed internal corridors.
Mara was getting strangely used to the impenetrable pitch now. She’d found it easier for some reason to actually close her eyes, learning to feel for the slightest change in Luke’s stance, the break in his even stride, the way his torso moved against her fingers where they touched his back, to listen to the rhythm of his breathing in the complete silence... To just...let him take charge and be led, relying on him not to let her get hurt. It was a strange thing to be suddenly so completely dependent on another person, yet to have absolute faith that they wouldn’t fail you—like the longest ‘trust exercise’ in history.
He slowed to a halt and Mara stopped close behind him, panting from having run so far, her free hand against his back, feeling it rise and fall as he too breathed heavily.
“They’re here,” Luke stated simply. “Another ship, close by—a hundred or so crew. We need a...” He walked to the side without finishing, Mara yanked with him in the darkness as she held onto his belt, feeling the changing tension in his body and the pull of his shirt as he lifted his arm.
Another door grated reluctantly open, the pale wash of starlight incredibly reassuring to Mara, like being able to take a breath after swimming under water. They walked forward to the small viewport there; they’d been among Petty Officers’ living quarters for the last few floors, the corridors here narrow and twisting, hallways that were so familiar in normal light suddenly seeming a near-indecipherable maze. Luke had tried to stay close to outside walls to maintain some sense of bearing, always keeping the dead Rebel freighter to his left, so Mara wasn’t surprised that the first outside room they entered afforded a view of it—and its new companion.
“There!” she announced pointlessly; it was the only thing with running lights in the vicinity, a blaze of light to Mara’s dark-adjusted eyes.
They waited, watching the ship for a while, but it seemed to come no nearer nor make any offensive move, despite the Star Destroyer’s obviously crippled state.
“What are they waiting for?” Luke murmured, frowning.
Again Mara sensed that precise draw of Force-attenuation resonate across her own limited senses as Luke’s focus narrowed down to pinpoint accuracy, perceptions trained on the distant newcomer…
Ignored in the moment, Mara subtly shifted her gaze from the distant ship to Skywalker as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled in response to that particular flawless, formidable timbre in the Force which had always pulled across her senses like a bowstring. Even Mara knew that this was intense contact, incredible capacity and accurate control channeled like a laser specifically at the Rebel ship.
Was he everything that the Emperor was now, she wondered? Just as powerful, just as precise...but a completely unknown entity. She knew that he was Sith... She thought she knew; Palpatine was so sure now, so convinced... But Skywalker used his abilities so rarely that unlike Vader, aside from these brief glimpses, Mara really had no concept of how extensive they were.
One thing she did know; he wasn’t the man who had come to the Palace four years ago. Palpatine had invested a great deal of time and effort in creating his new Sith. Some of those manipulations, compulsions and coercions were glaringly obvious, other so subtle that she was sure even Skywalker didn’t know…
A flare of shock lit Luke’s senses so intensely as to elicit a physical reaction, jerking him upright—
“Leia,” he whispered beneath his breath.
Luke turned to her, his pale eyes almost black, so wide were the pupils. He loosed a feral smile...and in that moment, looking up into his face in the dim light of the starry night, Mara knew absolutely why Palpatine called Skywalker his Wolf.
“An old acquaintance,” he said at last, an edge to his voice, though he spoke deceptively quietly, his complete attention on the Rebel ship as he tilted his head just slightly. “I wonder if she’ll come and visit?”
Leia was already on the bridge of the Arcturus as it came out of hyperspace onto the surreal scene. Even expecting it, her heart skipped a beat in trepidation, fluttering in her chest. The massive bulk of the Imperial Star Destroyer Fury floated dead in space before them, a huge shadow blotting out distant stars, the Sol, which had released the DEMP, was barely a speck in comparison, utterly dwarfed by the Destroyer’s looming mass. Both still floated slowly forward under their own inertia, the Fury making a ponderous corkscrew turn on its axis as it did so.
Close to the Fury were the two battered freighters that had been so innocuously undercover amongst the bona-fide shipping at Bothawui, both dead, affecting slow-motion tumbles dangerously close to the front edge of the massive Destroyer. The true potential of the DEMP suddenly came home to Leia: the realization of what it could do in a pitched battle if one side had shields and the other did not—if they did not. She took a slow breath to calm her sudden attack of nerves as they nestled closer to the Sol, helm struggling to match its slow drift for tractor beams to engage, the vessels too close in mass for one to anchor the other securely without using its engines.
Leia forced her eyes from the scene of silent devastation to turn to Wyatt. “Are we in position, Captain?”
“Yes, Ma’am—we have a lock on the Sol. We’ll begin evacuating immediately.”
“Do so. Estimated time?”
“Around fifty minutes Ma’am—the best we can do with one shuttle.”
If only they’d had the room to take the Sol’s short-range shuttle onboard the Arcturus before it went to hyperspace and released the DEMP, they could have halved the evacuation time. But with two of the Arcturus’s short-range cargo shuttles already committed to ferrying boarding parties to the Fury, and their only lightspeed-capable shuttle lost along with Mon, only one cargo shuttle was left to ferry people from the dead-in-space Sol onto the Arcturus.
Still, Leia was painfully aware that every minute spent so close to the damaged Star Destroyer increased the risk of a second Destroyer turning up to check on its last location.
Theoretically they had up to an hour before the Fury would be considered to have missed a routine communication—longer if it was supposed to be in hyperspace—plus another hour in response time from the nearest Imperial ship, but they had no guarantee of either of these facts. The Fury could have been just minutes away from its hourly check-in and another Destroyer could already be trying to raise it by now—in fact, there could already be a Destroyer on its way here. And if it was, anybody who wasn’t onboard the Arcturus would have to be left behind when it arrived. There was no way this poky little freighter was about to outrun or outgun even a Frigate or Corvette, let alone a Destroyer. They’d been lucky once today, escaping the Fury, only because of the Sol’s intervention; she didn’t want to have to try that luck again without it.
Which made her next command all that much harder...
“Contact Commander Solo and Commander Luss—tell them to launch their teams.” Something buzzed at the back of Leia’s mind which she couldn’t quite place, making her heart race and setting her nerves on edge all over again. “And start the calculations for a lightspeed jump in case we need to get out of here in a hurry.”
In the bowels of the petty officers’ quarters, Luke stared out of the small viewpane from a cramped, empty room, watching the lights of the distant freighter and feeling...something trickle up his spine.
“Why aren’t they coming in any closer?” Mara asked uneasily.
Luke had shut out Mara’s close presence, her dormant connection always making her glow within the Force, and reached out to the distant ship, narrowing his focus to try to track down just exactly what was happening. He was a long way away from the ship and the minds onboard were a diffuse mix of humans and aliens, all tense and wired. But leaders were seldom that difficult to find; they tended to have a singularity of purpose, a clarity of intent which made them stand out from the crowd. This time was no different.
Except that, whilst searching again for Madine, he had turned that intense Force-scrutiny on the commander of that second Rebel freighter...
And there she was, like a distant figure in a sandstorm, scattered and diffuse but bristling with outrage and brimming with determination, as sharp and as focused and as doggedly determined as every memory he still held of Leia Organa... But he sensed something else as well. It was only now, when he was acutely aware of Leia but still searching for Madine that he sensed it—like trying to see a star in the night sky by not looking directly at it.
An unmistakable aura. Pale and faint, as insubstantial as a whisper... For a moment he dismissed it as some echo of Mara’s presence, but this was different... The corners of Luke’s scarred lips lifted just slightly in surprised amusement and he let out a short, disbelieving laugh, only too willing to consider that the galaxy could throw him this curve-ball so completely without warning.
She was Force-sensitive—how had he never noticed?
He could sense it quite clearly now, muted though it was, untapped and untamed. A resonance in the Force, compelling despite its indistinct diffusion. He held still for long seconds, mesmerized...
Palpatine must know—his Master had made several veiled attempts in the last few years to get hold of Leia Organa, always careful to try to keep them hidden from his fallen Jedi. Luke had assumed that this was simply because of his past friendship with Leia—now he wondered...
“Well, well, well...”
“What?” Mara whispered, confused at Luke’s obvious revelation.
For long seconds Luke remained silent and still, aware that his features would be just visible in the cold starlight and wishing to give no more away, though his mind still raced to process this new fact and how completely it skewed this whole confrontation.
“There.” He pointed to the vague shapes which slipped through the blackness, relieved to have something to turn Mara’s attention away. Visible only by their edges, defined by the merest trail of diffuse starlight, their presence was detectable only when their shadowed bulk momentarily obscured the stars behind them—and in the Force, of course. “Two shuttles—I think around twenty in each one.”
Leaning forward, Mara squinted into the endless pitch towards the point Luke indicated...and for a second the bright burst of a maneuvering thruster flare in the darkness. “I see them... No running lights."
"Wouldn't want to draw attention to themselves," Luke said, eyes locked on the moving shadows, black against black.
Mara frowned. "A boarding party?”
“They’ll likely go for the aft bays; they’re closest to the Detention Center.” He turned and set off into the darkness of the enclosed corridor, Mara’s hand brushing against his hip and slipping over his belt.
They were another three levels down, moving quickly now, accustomed to their system, when Luke slowed again.
“What?” Mara asked
“They’ve docked. Both ships in the same bay. I don’t think they’ve encountered anyone yet.”
“Probably because the bay atmospherics would have failed—they’ll be in vacuum until they can get out of the bay and they’ll have to hand-crank the doors and risk some loss of atmosphere—they can’t cut their way in or they’ll just remain in vacuum.”
Luke paused; he hadn’t considered that. “Which could be exactly what they intend—just suit up and open a continuous corridor to vacuum between the bay and the Detention Center, one set of doors at a time. It’s a quick way to get rid of any opposition.”
“Efficient,” Mara conceded. “Would it be worth their while to cut their way through? Doors can be closed again if someone onboard the Fury finds a working pressure suit.”
"Plus their line of withdrawal would be very obvious. We could set up an ambush at any point along the way and just wait."
"Too much of a gamble for them?"
“I guess it would depend on how many stormtroopers they were expecting to meet along the way. I think they'd try to go for the quieter, less obvious option, considering the numbers onboard the Fury. As far as they know, no one's even seen them yet... Though I’d still consider venting corridors in their position.”
“Well, let’s hope they haven’t.”
“I don’t think that hiding our heads in the...” Luke paused again, tilting his head. “No…they’re in the same corridors as troopers. They’re moving too slow and the troopers are still in the corridor—if it was vacuum, the stormtroopers would be dead by now.”
“Maybe it didn’t occur to them.”
“It should’ve—if...” Luke paused again, and this time he sensed the subtle brush of Mara’s own sensitivity; her awareness that he’d just realized something significant. Here in the darkness with no normal senses to rely on and their close proximity, she seemed acutely attuned to his thoughts—more so than ever before. He frowned, then shook his head, ordering himself to concentrate. “They’re splitting up—some are staying back.”
“Presumably to guard their shuttles. If we...”
Luke turned in the darkness, Mara’s hand slipping from his belt to slide over his hips as he did so. “There’s a full-range munitions store one level below and just forward of that landing bay. It’ll have slug-shooters in stock—ones without smart grips.”
Smart grips had coded recognition chips which recognized the palm-print of the holder and only fired for that individual, which would have left them as dead as all standard-issue blasters. Old-fashioned explosive-based slug-firers would be as dangerous as ever though, and right now Luke would take any break he could get.
And break number one had suddenly become to redirect Mara. Luke knew who was heading to the Detention Center, and he didn’t want his Imperial ‘watcher’ reporting back to Palpatine. Because he had no idea, none whatsoever, of what would happen when they met.
“Is it worth the time that a detour to the munitions store would take?” Mara asked. “The infiltration unit’s already heading down to the Detention Center for Mothma.”
The trouble with redirecting someone as sharp as Mara was, it had to be a pretty damn watertight excuse. Fortunately, Luke had one right there—in fact, he’d been wondering just how to turn it to his own advantage since the Rebel ships had landed in the Fury’s hold. “The Rebels shuttles have power...and that means they have comms.”
“You can get into one of the shuttles in the aft landing bay and call the Peerless in,” Luke nodded of the Super-Star-Destroyer, which was minutes away by lightspeed, waiting for their signal. It was perfect; it was logical, it was necessary…in more ways than one.
“Wait a minute—where are you going?” Mara asked, suddenly realizing he didn’t intend to come.
“I’m going to the Detention Center.”
“Well then, I’m—” She didn’t get a chance to finish.
“I need you to get that comm through now. I need the Peerless back here. Pretty soon, with no life support, we’re gonna start breathing in what we just breathed out, and then we’re all dead, whether the Rebels are here or not. You want to help me? Then the best thing you can do right now is get to the landing bay.” Luke headed off further remonstrations by reaching down to squeeze her hand reassuringly, trying a little humor now. “I promise you I won’t get shot.”
Mara hesitated, moved by the unanticipated act of intimacy—but she wouldn’t drop it that easily. “Is this like when you promised me you wouldn’t get blown up?”
“I never said I wouldn’t get blown up. In fact, I think I said my bomb would go off first.”
“Yeah, but you failed to mention that you’d be standing in front of it when it did. On purpose.”
“I had...other things on my mind.” It was a huge admission, given in the hope of reassuring her. “I don’t anymore. This isn’t going to fail and they’re not gonna come close to stopping me. If you can get word to the Peerless.”
“Anyone can get word to the Peerless.”
“I can’t rely on anyone but you, Mara. You’ll get the job done, I know that. I trust you.”
She hesitated, still torn...
He could have just ordered her—could have made it a command and just walked away, he knew. But he didn’t—and he didn’t even know why. Why he was trying to show that consideration—to recognize her as something other than another subordinate, as he did with others in his close entourage. Ironically it was realization of this, of the fact that for the first time she was being included rather than politely, pointedly excluded, which finally made her concede defeat.
“Fine. Just don’t get shot, or Palpatine will have my hide.”
“And here’s me thinking you cared,” he said it easily, meant as a joke, but for once Mara had no rejoinder, her unease palpable as she backed away.
“Mara,” Luke added as an afterthought, hearing her turn back to him, “tell the Peerless to fire across the bow of the second Rebel freighter, but let it leave. They’re not to take it into custody.”
He could sense her confusion, hear the uncertainty in her voice— “I thought you’d want it captured?”
“No—it’s not Madine. He isn’t onboard.” He lied easily, no guilt in the action, even now. It had become as natural to him as a bluff on the sabacc table, a legitimate tactical practice in the circles he moved in—the only way to maintain any autonomy, particularly with the Emperor who always played his games, wheels within wheels.
Before someone with such far-reaching power, the only way to beat the system was to play it. Despite his father’s warnings, Luke had quickly learned that the sole way to manipulate the Emperor was to manipulate or withhold the facts he acted upon, just as Palpatine did with others. Because his Master's weakness lay in his insular existence; he seldom left the Palace and so relied on information being brought to him rather than seeking it out—that was why he had so many spies and watchers.
And that was where he was vulnerable. Because getting a lie past Palpatine was incredibly hard; getting it past Mara and having her deliver it believing it was the truth was immeasurably easier—if he dressed it right.
Whatever Palpatine wanted Leia Organa for, Luke could pretty much guarantee that it wasn’t the same as he; in fact, his own plans depended greatly on Leia remaining right where she was. This whole operation—coming after Mon, shaking up the Rebellion’s leadership—was specifically to place Leia where Luke wanted her. Yes, he wanted to remove Mon from power before she did the same to him, but he wouldn’t have done so with such single-minded zeal had he not held ulterior motives—motives which were kept very carefully hidden from his Master. And to do that, Luke needed to lie not just to Palpatine but to the eyes and ears his Master had placed so carefully about his advocate...and Luke did so now without compunction.
“I want them to go back without Mon and without the stolen DEMP generators. I want them to have to admit to all that—losing Mon, giving her away, then wasting the generators trying to get her back. I want the people who were here today to try to work out what happened because the reasonable conclusion is to think they had at least one informer onboard who gave away their identity and location on Bothawui—and if they do, they’ll believe them to be highly placed. I want to make their sanctimonious Council look to each other and wonder.”
He heard the grin in Mara’s words as she spoke. “Lighting the blue touch-paper again?” She’d often accused him of that of late—setting fireworks beneath the Rebels and standing back to watch the show.
“It’s my only entertainment, Mara—give me that one.”
“What about sabacc?”
“Sabacc’s not an entertainment, it’s a life-lesson,” he said with dry indignation, already backing up, sure that she’d do as he’d asked now.
“I’ll remember that the next time you want your winnings.”
“I didn’t say it was free,” Luke countered, humor in his voice, as he turned to leave. Mara letting out a final depreciating snort as she headed down to the aft docking bay.
Madine walked onto the bridge of the Arcturus, having just arrived, tense and wired, from the crippled Sol. “Any word from the teams yet?”
“They’re in. Another fifteen minutes and the Sol will be evacuated too—we need them on their way out by then,” Leia said as Madine slowed, clearly unsure whether he should acknowledge her rank and settling for a brief click of his heels as he tipped his head, a little of his Imperial past seeping through. Madine had been uncomfortable with Han’s insistence on using the DEMP generators but thus far, it seemed to be going to plan. The only problem they’d encountered was that residual currents from the surge were causing patchy communications from the assault team onboard the crippled Star Destroyer.
It had been a bold move and Leia’s backing of it had no doubt upset the General; were Mon in charge, under similar circumstances she would have taken Madine’s advice and surely gone for a more conservative response. Leia could only hope she’d made the right decision. In truth there was no right or wrong here given the circumstances, but she knew that any Imperial Captain, such as the one on the Fury, would no doubt have come up against the combination of Mothma and Madine before, so hoped that her distinctive response would at least have the edge of surprise.
“How long since we fired the generator?” she asked of her Ops officer.
“Twenty-seven minutes,” the pike-thin Utapan replied, a lisp in her voice.
The DEMPs—the precious DEMP generators which had bought them this opportunity—the first was blown beyond repair, unprotected from the second discharge, and the second was in bad shape. The tech who had run all the way to the bridge after he and his companions had finally risked returning to the hold, had chased Madine down as he prepared to board the shuttle to the Arcturus, quoting between gasps that the URG superconductors, which they’d had neither the time nor the technology to calibrate before its discharge, had suffered a ‘catastrophic failure’ of their own.
Getting any more information at this point was useless, Leia knew; it tied personnel up running between the hold and the bridge onboard the Sol, and any description containing the words ‘catastrophic’ probably meant they weren’t getting it back on line any time soon—certainly not in time to turn on another Star Destroyer if it appeared—which also assumed that the Arcturus would somehow be able to escape the discharge itself.
A team was now in the Sol's hold, hoping to secure the badly damaged DEMP and get it onboard a shuttle to the Arcturus, but if it came to the crunch, Leia wouldn’t exchange lives for hardware. The Sol was already being set with charges to cover the origins of the two DEMPs and if she had to, if another Destroyer came in... Another Destroyer...
Something was scratching at Leia’s thoughts, like a distant whisper that she couldn’t quite make out, like a shadow at her shoulder... She half-closed her eyes in concentration, trying to track down the hunch, to see into that indistinct shadow...
The realization, when it finally coalesced and hit her, took her breath away, spinning her about. “Where’s the Peerless!?”
“The last known location was close to Nubia, Ma’am, with the Dauntless.”
“Do we have a contact onboard?” Leia turned to the Intel officer, regretting not having Tag Massa in attendance; the razor-sharp Intel Chief would have known immediately. As it was, there was a pause before the Intel Officer stated, “I believe so. We can check?”
“Do so. Ask Home One to send out a constant message; we urgently need contact. We need to know where Skyw...” She paused, correcting herself—it was a long time since she’d made that slip out loud. “Whether The Heir is still onboard the Peerless.”
Leia turned back to Madine, dark eyes wide, voice low so as not to be overheard. “What if he’s onboard the Fury?”
Madine frowned, alarmed. “No. He never leaves the Core Systems, you know that.”
“What if he did?”
Madine was still shaking his head, very sure. “That’s impossible. He never leaves the Core Systems.”
He said it like a mantra, Leia knew. For all his strengths, Madine always worked on the evidence at hand, and all previous intelligence stated that The Heir wouldn’t leave the Core or Colony Systems. It gave Palpatine’s Wolf a big arena to play in and the Alliance a well-defined ‘danger zone’... But what if the parameters of the hunt had changed? What if he’d finally been given permission to range further afield?
“The operation to catch Mon wasn’t headed up by Vader,” Leia said, very sure. It had none of his trademark behavior; he was accustomed to having the massed power of the Imperial fleet to back him up and tended to use it in force. This had been too subtle—disguised freighters and small units, relying on subterfuge and surprise rather than brute force. That was why it had worked; they were doing as they always did, watching for Destroyers, watching for a fleet. No one had thought to look for anything less—why should they?
They’d all been watching the sky for dragons and a viper had slithered up and bit them on the foot. This was creative and Vader didn’t do creative; he went for the jugular, he took the shortest route between two points. He had superior firepower and he had superior numbers and he threw them against the Alliance without hesitation. This—this had been...
“Think about it,” Leia said urgently to Madine. “That was a hit-and-fade attack against us at Bothawui—minimal troops, civilian starships, make your move then get clear of the field of battle. It was an action planned by someone who was used to having few resources, someone used to using any method to gain the advantage. Someone who learned to lay low, make the sting then get out... Someone who was a Commander in the Alliance...”
Madine considered the alarming consequences, eyes skipping about the deck before him as he spoke. “Even if that’s true, if we accept the possibility that it was The Heir who planned this, there’s still no reason to assume that he would be onboard the Fury.”
He’s on that ship! Leia knew it as certainly as she knew that Madine was standing in front of her right now—she didn’t know how or why she knew and she certainly couldn’t explain it in rational terms but...he was onboard the Fury.
And she knew something else as well—he knew they were coming...
Leia turned back to viewscreen, attention held completely by the hulking, silent shadow of the supposedly defenseless Fury. Suddenly it didn’t seem nearly so vulnerable.
She had to go with her gut on this. She so very seldom did, but…she had to. She walked quickly over to the comm station and leaning in to murmur, “Contact Commander Solo—tell him The Heir’s onboard the Fury.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, communications are down again. Last we heard, our units were deployed and moving. I’ll keep trying.”
For an instant, Han thought the soldier beside him had simply tripped in the poor light and fallen heavily headfirst toward the wall, making an incredible amount of noise as he did so—but as he spun about to try to catch him, Han realized that the ten other commandos who had been close on his heels were also down, collapsing into still, crumpled little heaps in the near-darkness, illuminated by the limited glow of the pinlight set into his earpiece which flitted around as his head moved, their own headlights pointing randomly this way and that as they fell.
They’d made it to the Detention Center without incident, leaving commandos behind to keep key exit lines clear. Moving quietly and keeping out of trouble, they’d taken out the guards on duty there using silenced blasters with low-visibility tracer-burst and night-vision lenses. When they were sure they’d cleared the area, they went onto side-lights, small pinlights set into their earpieces. But only when they were sure—so why the hell were all of his unit now laid out? If it was gas, why wasn’t he down?
Finally Han’s thoughts caught up with him and he spun around in the dark, narrow corridor, hoisting his gun, realizing who would be there—
Head tilted, long, dark hair falling over pale eyes, Luke Skywalker stood like a sentinel in the corridor, barring any further advance.
Even in the narrow beam of the pinlight, Han couldn’t fail to miss the deep scar slicing from his right eye down his cheek and through his lips, cast into sharp shadow by the uneven light. He seemed...bigger. Seemed to fill the corridor from side to side, immovable, blocking any chance of access, every muscle taut. He didn’t have a weapon that Han could see, other than his saber, but for some reason Han didn’t feel inclined to lower his own blaster.
“Why did you come, Han?”
When he spoke, despite his cold, steely tone, it was like the years just melted away for Han.
Somehow he couldn’t reconcile the voice of the man he’d known so well—had fought beside and laughed with and gotten fall-down drunk with—with the man who stood before him now, eyes ablaze with contained fury, absolutely confident despite Han’s blaster, making every danger sense the smuggler ever had blare out so that it was a struggle just to hold his ground, to make himself hold onto his goal.
“You know why—I came for Mon.”
Luke only shook his head slowly. “Not gonna happen, you know that.”
“Look, I got no fight with you, Luke—let’s both just calm down, okay?” Despite his words, Han was aware that his hand was tightening about the butt of his blaster, finger resting lightly on the trigger.
“You gonna shoot me, Han?” It was a raw challenge rather than the uneasy request it should have been given the circumstances.
“No, I’m not gonna shoot you,” Han denied, deeply uncomfortable. “I just want what I came here for.”
“I told you, no. Turn around—let someone else try, not you. Don’t make this a fight.”
Han hesitated, unable to kick the tightness in his stomach, wishing to avoid just that... “I can’t just walk away, you know that. I know Mon too well.”
Luke paused, seeming to weigh the situation, and his voice when he spoke had lost some of its edge. “She’s not here.”
“Well then, you won’t mind if I pass,” Han maintained, squaring off though he didn’t move forward.
“You too, Han?” Luke’s voice was now disturbingly calm and neutral. “Do you think I’m lying, too?”
Han almost, almost said it—Are you?
But in that last moment his own conscience held him to silence. He’d never once faced the same question from Luke, despite all appearances to the contrary. When everyone else—Han included—had tried to convince the kid that Han Solo was just another untrustworthy smuggler, Luke had stubbornly stuck with his own gut feeling, had held faith when everyone else had judged Han on sight—on principle even. The kid deserved no less from Han; he didn’t give a damn what anyone else said.
“No, I don’t think that. I don’t think Luke Skywalker lies.” Han purposely used his old friend’s name—his real name.
Luke smiled tightly, clearly amused at Han’s nerve. “Actually, he does,” he countered easily. “But not to you—not about this. She’s not here, Han. She’s not even onboard.”
Han’s heart skipped a beat at that. “What?”
“She’s not aboard. I wanted Madine.”
Han blinked, mind racing. “So you came out of hyperspace and sent that handy little acknowledgement to Coruscant saying you had Mon onboard and helpfully added your stop-off point.”
“He should have led the assault. Not Leia.”
In that moment, it didn’t even occur to Han to question how Luke would know that. Instead he simply answered automatically, distracted by the buzzing in the back of his mind. “Madine was onboard the Sol—he keyed the generators so his ship was caught in their influence—” Han faltered, suddenly aware of what he was saying, seeing the realization on Luke’s face as he pieced it all together.
He glowered at the kid. “Did you just do that Force-thing on me?!”
Luke brought his eyes back to Solo, unrepentant. “Are you pointing a gun at me?” he reminded easily, no real animosity in his voice.
“No, I am pointing a gun near you,” Han corrected. “There’s a big difference.”
“Not from where I’m standing.”
“Well, you don’t seem particularly put out,” Han said laconically.
The kid set his head to one side fractionally, little more than a shadow, dark clothes lost against the limited light. “If it were anybody else, they’d be dead already.”
Luke glanced to the downed figures of Han’s infiltration team, scattered behind him, then further up the corridor and into the darkened ship before turning those sharp eyes back on Han. “Where are the others?”
“Around,” Han evaded uneasily, immediately kicking himself for admitting that there even were others.
“Keeping your exit clear?”
“Maybe,” Han skirted, then, at Luke’s disparaging look, “Hey, I don’t know how to lie to a Jedi, okay?”
That seemed to jolt the kid, stopping him dead, sufficient that those cool, detached shields melted for just a moment as a myriad of emotions flitted across expressive eyes…then his expression hardened, more dangerous than ever.
“I’m not a Jedi, Han...” Han shook his head firmly against the kid’s words, but Luke spoke on regardless, “And you’re right to point that gun at me, because the moment your guard’s down even a fraction I’ll take it from you.”
“Really?” Han said, a challenge in his voice. Before Luke could reply Han spun his blaster expertly in his hand and held it out to Luke, butt first. “Then take it.”
Luke remained still, shaking his head slowly, genuine threat in his voice. “Don’t. If I take that gun, you’ll not walk out of here.”
“Take it,” Han repeated, holding the gun out, willing to call Luke’s bluff. “I’ve never pointed a blaster at a friend before in my life and I’m not gonna start now.”
The kid stood frozen, head tilted to one side, eyes flashing a final warning in the low glow of the lightbeam, making Han chillingly aware of the fact that his blaster was now muzzle-in, though his finger remained inside the trigger-guard so that he could spin it about again in an instant, the reason for his nerves watching him closely, coiled spring-tight, unmoved by Han’s actions.
“I’m not a friend—don’t make me prove that.”
“Really? ‘Cos the guy who busted me out of that Imperial prison on Coruscant sure looked a hell of a lot like you.”
“See that’s the thing—I don’t think he is. ‘Cos I’ve met a Sith and I know how low they go...and that’s not what you are.”
“Don’t.” There was a raw threat in the word as Han saw the kid’s chin come up and his eyes narrow at the inferred defamation of his father. The last time he had seen Vader and Luke together, they’d practically been sparking. What had changed, Han had no idea...but he did know one thing—
“No—I know you.” Han shook his head decisively. “And I don’t believe you think they’re right. You’re better than that.”
The kid seemed to cool a little as he straightened, one side of his scarred lips turning up in dry amusement. “How very gracious of you.”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Han said, letting his blaster drop to his side. “You said you wouldn’t lie to me; well look me in the eye and tell me I’m wrong.”
“I’ll do better then that, Han,” Luke whispered...
Something...something overwhelming and nauseating reached inside Han’s head and made him flinch and he looked back to the kid in slow motion, consciousness slipping away as reality dimmed to a hushed whisper, a smothering wave of devastating weakness overcoming him. And Luke was just...standing, an ominously intense look on his face in the tight beam of harsh light, no trace of emotion in those uncanny, mismatched eyes.
The strange thing was that it didn’t hurt, not really; he’d thought it would—like getting hit around the back of the head and knocked unconscious—but in the event Han just...collapsed down, a long sigh escaping him, his whole body sagging in one instant as if someone had hit the off-switch. He crumpled, legs giving way, head going cold, eyes losing focus, every single muscle loose as the floor seemed to rush up at him in the small pool of unsteady light—
The world sideways on, Han saw polished, black booted feet approach him, then Luke crouched down before him, his words fading into the ether... “I told you not to put the gun down...”
Mara was crouched by a side corridor which led to the aft hangar, listening intently in the darkness, when it happened—
She’d managed to gather up about three dozen stormtroopers on her way down to the hangar, leaving officers and non-coms where they were, thinking them more of a hindrance than a help in a close-quarters firefight, particularly one requiring this kind of subtlety.
A stop-off at the munitions store two levels up had turned up enough slug-firers for her impromptu unit, plus three packs of old-style explosive putty. They had no way to remote-trigger it, of course; the detonators were working perfectly, but the remote activators were all blown. Still, she knew from experience that the explosive could be detonated by actually firing into it, though how she intended to do that in the pitch-black she wasn’t sure.
It was, in truth, the least of her worries. Top of her list at the moment was the lack of atmospheric shields in the bay beyond and the fact that each of the emergency oxygen masks in the corridor outside the landing bay were regulated by a small chip—which had of course blown, rendering them all useless.
She needed to get to the Rebel ships and the Rebel ships were in the now-airless docking bay and she had no air. The Rebels guarding the ship had air—she could see them through the small series of viewports which ran down the corridor to one side of the bay—but they were all standing in the airless landing bay.
Bit of a vicious circle.
So she was crouched down in the dark corridor, trying to figure out a way to get those damn masks, when it happened.
It was a shout and a whisper, sharp as a knife and soft as a breath, and it spoke directly into the center of her mind, powerful and focused and crystal clear. Like the Emperor.
But it wasn’t the Emperor.
It wasn’t even a word, not exactly, but it was her name—hers specifically—and it commanded her attention completely, making her draw a shocked breath in, amazed and disbelieving in the same instant.
Stupidly, she glanced up the darkened corridor, expecting to see Luke there, even though the word had formed in some vague point directly between her ears.
Impressed upon her thoughts was the sudden need to be silent, that more Rebel troops were nearby; if she made a noise they would hear. An image formed in the shadows at the edges of her vision, shifting and erratic, trying to close in. It seemed the most natural thing in the galaxy for Mara to close her eyes and fall back into it willingly...trusting him.
She saw the main access corridor from the landing bay to the lower decks, the image inverse, a miasma of fine lines, in places describing intricate detail, in others the vaguest of profiles fading to nothing, but enough to let her understand where it was and show her the three Rebel soldiers crouched expectantly in the darkness, all looking away from her point of view. Occasionally different parts of the image would sharpen as he passed on specific information. She saw in crystal clarity the firearms they carried; she saw that they were wearing night-vision, recognized the need to be careful.
The moment she understood, the image broke down and coalesced: another three men at an intersection five levels down, gathered on the emergency stairwell, two looking up, one looking down... Again the image broke down and reformed: three more men, close to the entrance to the Detention levels. She had the distinct impression that she needn’t worry about these—that he was already nearing their position, his intention clear.
She saw a momentary image of many slumped bodies in the narrow hexagonal corridors of the Detention Center, these ones diffuse and indistinct—unconscious but alive.
Mara squeezed her eyes shut, heart pounding, adrenaline making her breath tremble—she could do this; she did it all the time with the Emperor and this was already so much easier, so much more natural. She recreated in her mind her earlier frustration, frowning in concentration as she remembered exactly the moment that she had looked at the oxygen masks on the wall, cursing when she realized that they were inoperative—
Almost as the thought was forming, another Force-augmented impression pushed into her mind: the three in the corridor nearest her, small rebreathers drawn in sharp focus hanging on cords about their throats... It dispersed and resolved, the night-vision in sharp focus—dangerous when they had them, useful if she could get them... Then it buzzed, redrawing itself one final time: comlinks on their belts—be careful, the channel may be open to those in the hangar.
The moment she understood, the images scattered, leaving behind hazy, red-green outlines as she blinked repeatedly in the darkness.
The connection lasted all of a few moments; a mass of information passed over in a burst of direct mental contact, leaving her reeling at the implications, her mission momentarily forgotten. She knew, of course; knew that Skywalker could do this but...to other Sith, not to her. She had...sensed him, had understood completely. And he had understood her, intent and communication crystal clear. Like the Emperor...but not.
Because whilst contact with her master had always been sharp and invasive, condescending and demanding, just as he constantly was...this had been...
What? Just as powerful and as focused and as defined but...empathic. Tempered and measured, even under stress...just as he was.
Another thought occurred—how long had he known? How long had he known that he could contact her—that she would be able to understand? Her one gift, taught in meticulous detail by her master.
Had Skywalker admitted it to her now out of necessity...or as a further development of trust? Either way, the implications were significant. What would she tell the Emperor?
For the first time, a thought surfaced which made her heart pump at its audacity...
...Should she tell him at all...?
Luke stood in the Fury’s reclaimed docking bay, the battle long-since over with the arrival of the Peerless, partial power routed into the crippled Fury’s systems by front-line military mainframes shuttled over from the Peerless and patched into the Fury via miles of emergency cabling which snaked in bundled disorder through open corridors, providing basic life-support and power-hungry shields. Outside of the slowly freezing bay, the massive bulk of the Peerless was just visible, casting long shadows over the Core Fleet Destroyer Dictat, which would remain as an escort to the damaged Fury until she was taken under tow.
Repairs were estimated in months and double-figures at that. The Fury had always travelled with the Peerless as fallback support, so much so that the crew of the Peerless had nicknamed her ‘Little Sister,’ much to the good-natured indignation of the Fury’s crew.
In the low lights, her aft bay was a scene of shattered destruction, Imperial and Rebel soldiers still laid on the floor where they'd fallen, pools of blood almost black in the dim light, their slick reflections picked out by the white glow to the edge of the hold’s newly slaved atmospheric shield and the dim glimmer of the stars beyond. Slugthrowers made a hell of a mess.
Frowning, Luke crouched before the nearest corpse, setting his head on one side as he studied the glassy eyes of the anonymous Rebel in a pilot’s flight-suit, staring blankly into infinity, absolutely still.
He remembered vividly when he wore a flight suit so similar to that, when he was a Commander in the Alliance...and when it was his responsibility to write that letter—the one that began, ‘Dear Sir, it is with deepest regret that I must inform you...’
He always wrote them, whether they could be sent or not. He’d written a great many of them, as he recalled.
He was still staring at the dead man when Mara walked up beside him, glancing momentarily at the downed Rebel before looking back up, eyes taking in the ruined Destroyer. “Call me a cynic, but I don’t think you’re going to get your deposit back on this one.”
Luke didn’t speak, didn’t acknowledge her at all, his head still on one side, eyes on the lifeless Rebel…on the dark, glassy pool which had seeped out about him, forming perfect right-angles at its edges as the blood had been channeled along the indented corners of the grey deck-plates, already beginning to frost in the icy bay. It could so easily have been him when he’d been a Rebel pilot, Luke reflected dispassionately. A hundred times over. Why had he survived but this man had died—what would have changed in the galaxy had their fates been reversed?
Mara continued, not noticing his distraction. “The Fury’s crew are aboard the Peerless and the prisoners have been transferred over.”
“The Rebel task force from the Detention Level?” Luke asked distantly without standing or looking up.
“Aboard,” Mara confirmed, glancing down at the inventory on the automemo she carried, her mild curiosity as to why he should bother to check a subtle whisper within the Force.
“The Attin’Cho and Karrde’s freighters?” Luke prompted, moving her thoughts along.
“Get a tractor lock on the Attin’Cho; transfer her to the Peerless’s hold.”
She briefly thought to query this, but Luke’s distant manner held her to silence, so she merely nodded, stepping back and pulling out her new comlink to pass on the order as the shuttle came in on its final journey between the Peerless and the Fury, all other non-essential staff now evacuated.
Luke had remained to oversee the securing of the Fury, reluctant to leave the crippled vessel, so Mara had of course stayed with him. But now they too were leaving, the Destroyer already cold enough despite emergency life-support that their breath misted before them, the edges of the bay nearest open space twinkling as frost crystals formed.
“I won’t be sad to leave this outsized coffin,” Mara murmured. Seeming to finally realize how silent Luke was, she glanced to him, then back to the corpse on the deck, whom he still crouched before on his haunches, staring.
“Friend of yours?” It was a passing comment, a dry voicing of Mara’s curiosity at his fascination with the lifeless Rebel pilot, and he instantly sensed the flare of mortified embarrassment as she broke off, realizing what she was saying and appalled at her own tactlessness, wishing she could kick herself.
“Friends are an unaffordable luxury,” Luke murmured impassively, the words frosting as they left his mouth. He stood and walked silently away, an insular, isolated shadow in the gloom of the bone deep cold.
Han struggled to consciousness, the light bright enough to make him squint, his head pounding at the effort, a distant ringing in his ears. Slowly, memories leached through his addled mind—of the mission, of his capture...of Luke.
Hands covering his still-closed eyes, he rolled onto his side, groaning, aware of the cold, hard floor below him, the vibrating hum of a struggling air exchanger rattling loose deck plates. It smelled empty and musty, as if no one had been here for a long time...which was never true of any Imperial detention cell. Realization that the high-pitched warbling wasn’t in his head finally filtered through, along with vague recognition as to what it was; comm signals weren’t generally a feature of detention cells either...
He dragged his eyes open...and stared at the underside of an aging holo-chess table, set into the corner of a battered hold, surrounded by a half-curve of dilapidated acceleration seats.
“Chell!” He scrabbled upright, staggering back a few paces then stumbling over a huge roll of something on the floor, to hit his hip against the corner of the hold ops console, his arm grabbing at the chair there.
“What the...” Was this a dream? How hard had the kid knocked him out?
Han looked back to the console, where his hand was dragging a line through the dusty surface. Every bang and hum and patter was right—every vibration trembling through his boots and buzzing right up into his brain...
He was in the Falcon. The Millennium Falcon.
He had no idea—none whatsoever—of what to do. His battered brain just couldn’t come up with something equal to the moment. For a long time he just stared, waiting to wake up.
Finally he staggered forward, stepping over the mass of the huge roll on the floor without even seeing it as he reached out for the dust-encrusted holo-chess table, a gradual, unstoppable grin spreading across his face.
He could have hollered and whooped and yelled himself hoarse...but in the moment, he simply reached out to the wall and ran his fingers over her, feeling again that familiar vibration which had always made his heart beat in quick time.
“Hey, baby—ya miss me?”
The comm still trilled for attention and Han staggered, lightheaded, back to the ops console and flicked a switch—it was a little sticky; he really needed to fix that.
“...vessel, this is the Frigate Arcturus—do you read me? I say again, you are adrift at the edge of a battle-zone. Do you require...”
Han grinned. “Hey, hey, hey—look what I found!”
Leia’s voice came over the comm, echoing slightly with distortion, her shock and relief audible. “Han!”
He was grinning so wide now that his cheeks were starting to ache—his two favorite ladies, together again. “Hey, doll, don’t go... I mean, Highness. Don’t go crossing me off the Duty List yet.”
“Han, how did you... Never mind. Standby, we’re coming alongside. We’ll tractor-beam you in.”
In his excitement Han didn’t even bother to refuse. He just turned about to take in the old bird all over again. “Yep...” he murmured deliriously, “still there.”
Heading for the cockpit, still giddy from exhilharation, wondering where the hell he was, where the Fury was, what had happened, Han stepped again over the huge canvas roll on the floor and was three paces up the corridor before he paused and returned, frowning.
Laid across the deck plates of the main hold was what looked like a massive roll of very old, stiffened canvas about twice as long as Han was tall and easily as big around as Chewie, tied in the center with a braid cord.
Frowning, Han nudged the roll with his toe, but it was heavy enough not to move. Reaching out, he took the end of the slip-knot and stepped back, pulling the knot free. The bulky roll immediately sprang open, partly unfurling into a huge stiff sheet across the floor, covering the big hold from wall to wall.
On it was a painting—a very famous painting. It depicted a night-battle beneath the stars of some foreign planet, rendered in blacks and midnight blues, bright flashes of red and caustic yellow traced across the darkness.
It was the artwork Han had wanted to take as payback when they’d first been taken to the Imperial Palace and he’d said he would stay with Luke. He remembered distinctly pointing the massive canvas out; remembered Luke agreeing on the condition that he didn’t have to carry it...
As it had unfurled, a small piece of loose flimsiplast was thrown free to float lightly down.
Han fumbled and caught it midair, turning it over. The short message was handwritten and unsigned, but Han recognized Luke’s writing. It said simply:
Now we're even
Han grinned from ear to ear, then carefully folded up the piece of flimsiplast and stowed it away in his breast pocket.
Mara knocked lightly on the Peerless’ ready-room and entered without waiting for a reply. Skywalker was standing to the far side with his back to the room, feet apart, hands clasped behind his back, still looking out at the Fury.
She frowned, still uncertain why he remained in such a melancholy mood when the operation was a significant success. Yes, there were unexpected complications, but he’d taken the leader of the Rebellion into custody after two decades of the Empire hunting her, and he’d done so with a small force and minimal conflict or collateral damage, which made her capture that much more embarrassing for the Rebellion.
For herself, right now Mara felt...what? Buoyant, infused with confidence—certain that he would lead them to further victories, more convinced daily of his loyalty to the Empire and convinced of Palpatine’s faith in him.
She remembered when she had first seen him unconscious in the Perlemian Apartments—now referred to by all as The Heir’s Apartments—and the Emperor had said that he would lead the Empire one day. Remembered her indifference, her skeptical disapproval. Now...now she simply couldn’t imagine life without him; didn't want to. She had a vague memory of it being…serious and somber, less stimulating, less energizing. But then in the Palace it still was, she supposed—she’d always preferred to be out here in the galaxy… It was just that now, she preferred to be out here, in the galaxy with Skywalker.
With The Heir.
It had been a rocky road from that first wary meeting to his acknowledgement by Palpatine as the man who would one day rule the Empire, but more and more she had faith in his ability to do just that, as she saw in Skywalker the man worthy to be a successor to Palpatine. They still had their disagreements, he and the Emperor, the friction occasionally bordering on blatant dissent, and she didn’t expect them to stop any time soon. But what she’d once seen as a stubborn, obstinate flaw, she recognized now as part of his strength; he wasn’t easily browbeaten or bribed, even by a Sith Emperor. In Vader, her master had always sought to create a savant, a loyal advocate… In Luke, he was molding a leader. She saw that now, saw the lessons he taught, the distinctions, the subtle adaptations and tolerance.
But he surely would, given time; she believed that absolutely now. Mara couldn’t for one moment imagine anyone else in the role Skywalker had achieved. Nor, she suspected, could the Emperor.
Yes, she knew Skywalker still had ties—more probably than Palpatine thought. She'd played a hunch and gone back to check the security images from the prisoners who had been transferred over to the Peerless from the scuppered Fury, and Han Solo had been among them. Yet magically, when Mara had checked again less than an hour ago, Solo was no longer in the manifest. What exactly Skywalker had done with him Mara didn’t know, but she could pretty much figure out the bigger picture. She did know that Skywalker had kept the Corellian smuggler’s freighter in deep storage aboard the Peerless since about three months after he had taken command—knew it because Palpatine had given Mara a covert order just weeks after it arrived onboard, to go quietly down there and check that the neither the freighter's computer log nor the two deactivated droids onboard had anything in their memories which could contradict Palpatine's carefully constructed version of his Wolf's past. She'd done as she was commanded of course, though she hadn't seen the necessity. In retrospect, it seemed that the caution wasn't wasted...because Mara would bet a year’s salary that if she went down to deep storage right now, that freighter would be gone.
But this was small-fry, unimportant in the larger scheme of things; one of those quirky little contradictions which made Skywalker so intriguing. What mattered was that Luke had taken prisoner the person of most value to their master, as well as the added bonus of the Bothan spy-leader Ollin’yaa.
It was this which she reflected on now as she looked to Luke’s reflection in the tall viewpane to the rear of his ready-room, Luke remaining still and silent, eyes on the hulking shadow of the dead Star Destroyer. It didn’t matter, she knew; he had many more in his fleet.
Luke stared at the crippled Fury, lost in his own thoughts. Aware of Mara’s silent study, he changed his focus just momentarily from it to her reflection in the viewpane, then back to the Destroyer again without speaking.
An awful lot of mess and loss in this last desperate tussle and nothing to show for it, on both sides. But at least his was by choice. Could he have caught Madine? Yes, easily when the Peerless had arrived, but he'd ordered them to leave the distant Rebel freighter alone, claiming there was no one of value onboard and feeding Mara, and therefore Palpatine, the lie that he wanted to let it return to its Rebellion with the full tale of their failure and Mothma's loss. The truth was that he wasn't prepared to risk Leia's involvement to catch Madine, and since they were together on that freighter, if he caught one then he also caught the other. First rule of sabacc: never get pot-committed. So he’d let Madine get away; after everything he'd risked to bring him here, the price was just too high—this time.
Some small part of him had been tempted to tell the Peerless to disable the tiny Rebel freighter and reel it in anyway, firstly because he wanted Madine and secondly because he wanted to confirm what his Master wanted with Leia. But it would have required a massive editing of Luke's own plans to gain what was probably only a minor and, now that he knew what she was capable of, unsurprising piece of information. Presumably Palpatine wanted Leia Organa because she was Force-sensitive; either he wanted to train her or he wanted to kill her, and neither were particularly conducive to Luke's own plans.
No—he needed her where she was for now. And he’d needed Han to watch her—and hopefully intervene on Luke’s behalf, when it came to the crunch. Leia was integral to his long-term plans and Han… Han was his insurance. That was the only reason for his actions today… Luke smiled just slightly, the action pulling at the scar over his lips—and anyway, he couldn’t imagine Han Solo without the Falcon; it set the galaxy to rights.
Seeing him smile slightly, Mara returned the same, relieved that her initial reading of his mood had been wrong.
“Congratulations,” she said, the first time she'd felt safe to do so. “I haven’t contacted the Emperor yet. I thought you’d want to make this report yourself.”
“No,” he replied casually, turning back to walk to his desk. In someone else, she would have thought it false humility, but in Luke she knew it was more calculated than that; he was playing his political games, even now. “Make the report. Send it to…” He paused, glancing up at her without lifting his head, voice teasing wickedly. “…whoever the hell you send those things to that I’m not supposed to know about.”
Mara set an unimpressed expression on her face, head to one side, but was prevented from making any reply by a quick knock at the door. Skywalker gave his best ‘how convenient’ look in return as he spoke out, “Yes?”
Lieutenant Fallin, another of Luke’s newly appointed bridge officers, entered. “Sir, all the prisoners are logged and confined; just under a hundred in total. We’re ready to make the jump to join up with the Executor at Nubia. Ops is asking what’s to be done with the Bothan ship—the Attin’Cho.”
Mara half-turned, reciting the Commander’s usual order under such circumstances: “Set it adrift and use it for target practice. Have the gunners...”
“Wait,” Luke interjected. “Is it still capable of life-support?”
“No, Sir,” Fallin replied, glancing down at his automemo which clearly held a tech run-down of the freighter before adding, “But I think engineering could get it made ready in a few hours, if you require it.”
Mara took a long look at the young officer—that kind of initiative wasn’t common among his kind any more; in the Imperial fleet it was more usual to keep one’s head down. Fallin was another one of Luke’s finds, poached from the ISD Hurricane a few months earlier and given a promotion to earn him a place in the Peerless’ bridge crew.
She hadn’t failed to notice the recent turnover of staff onboard the Peerless—nor the subtle change in attitude which had accompanied it. There was a pragmatic, get-it-done mindset now; a sense of purpose, promotions suddenly depending not on who you knew or where you had trained, but on aptitude and attitude, less relevance placed on following the rules and more on achieving results. The consequent determined optimism was quietly contagious, spreading not just through the Peerless, but beginning to be whispered further afield. Skywalker was no longer leading someone else’s forces; he was creating his own.
Luke nodded. “Do so, and leave parts onboard so that its comm system can be repaired.”
Mara glanced back, confused. “Why do you want it spaceworthy?”
Luke turned mismatched eyes to her. “The Attin’Cho’s Bothan crew held in the detention center are to be returned to the ship when it’s been made safe, then it’s to be cast adrift before the Peerless goes to lightspeed.”
Mara frowned. “You want to let them go?”
“I am letting them go,” Luke stated simply, tone inviting no argument as he turned back to Fallin. “See to the freighter—as quickly as possible. I want to be in lightspeed by the shift change.”
Fallin clicked his heels as he bowed his head. “Yes, Sir.”
He turned smartly and exited, leaving Mara to stare at Luke as he sat down and turned his attention to the automemo on his desk. He remained silent for long moments, but Mara held her peace, and eventually he spoke out without looking up. “You disapprove.”
She shrugged. “I simply wonder what you’re doing.”
“Perhaps I’m feeling generous,” he evaded, eyes on the automemo screen.
Mara smiled just slightly. “Yeah, ‘cos I would fall for that.”
Luke sighed slightly, looking up. “Well then perhaps it’s the fact that in the last three months I’ve taken over sixty-five prisoners, all Bothan. The Attin’Cho was another Bothan ship with a predominantly Bothan crew—if I hold those who were onboard that will effectively double the number of Bothans who have been arrested on my command recently. I’ve no wish to alienate the Bothan species and create further problems for myself in the future over what’s effectively nothing more than circumstance; that’s not my objective here.”
He turned back to his automemo, voice dismissive. “Plus there’s a long-established Bothan spynet which serves the Empire and I don’t wish to lose it—and neither does the Emperor. More importantly, I’m not about to create a time bomb which will make all future dealings with the whole planet difficult simply for the sake of a few political miscreants. To do so would be to hand a moral victory to the Rebellion, and I won’t give them something valuable to pull out of this defeat. Let them go.”
Mara nodded slowly, very aware of the fact that more and more, Luke was thinking and acting with a real awareness of his future with the Empire, his eventual position. He was becoming a leader.
“I’ll make the arrangements,” she said simply, turning to leave. She was at the door before he spoke again, bringing her eyes back to his own.
He’d always had such flawless sky-blue eyes; now that wide segment of darkest brown left those perfect pale blue eyes mismatched so that when he looked at her, she often felt some vague uneasiness for several moments which she was unable to pin down, just as she did now. Then she would notice afresh the dark shard tainting them...and realize she was staring just a moment too long, just as she was now.
He paused just slightly and she looked away quickly, aware of those unsettling eyes on her, curious. Then he continued, all business again, the moment broken. “The Bothan leader Ollin’yaa—he stays. Tell Intel I want to know how the Rebellion got the information about the Dynamic EMP from the restricted Invincible dockyard and how they managed to get the resources to build their own. And I want to know what the Rebellion intended to do with them, because it certainly wasn’t for this.”
She nodded and turned away, hand to the door release…
“Mara.” His voice brought her instantly back round.
“You did well today. Thank you.”
She blinked, unused to praise from him, then shrugged. “We make a good team.”
Luke smiled, the action pulling the scar through his lips to a crescent. “Yes...we do.”
He held her gaze for a few seconds before turning back down to his work and she was left to stare at his dark hair for long seconds before wiping what was probably a very foolish grin off her face and turning to leave.
The two immense wedge-shaped hulls of the Super Star Destroyers made an impressive sight holding position close to Nubia, just beyond the well-travelled trade route crossing points of the Hydian and the Corellian Way. With the two Flagships were a total of nine Imperial-Class Star Destroyers, an outrageous show of force made more for political effect than to actually protect the prisoner they held.
This imposing squadron, a mix of Core and Rim Fleet Destroyers, remained in tight formation, ostensibly awaiting confirmation to make the last leg of the return to Coruscant together, synchronizing mainframes so that they would arrive in orbit at the same time. In truth, the relative Fleet Admirals had made all arrangements hours ago and were simply awaiting confirmation from their Commander-in-Chiefs, who had spoken to each other only briefly by inter-ship comm several hours earlier.
It was common knowledge among the Fleet that Lord Vader and The Heir had a strained professional relationship bordering on hostility…
And they both worked hard to maintain that perception.
The Heir had remained in his private office through the changing shift onboard his Flagship, as was his habit, before returning to his quarters to continue working there, as was also his habit, Mara and Reece retiring for the night when he did.
So no one noticed the man who slipped away in the carefully timed gap between the patrolling guards’ attention, the surveillance lenses along the corridors about The Heir’s quarters always incidentally pointing the wrong way in their pre-programmed sweeps. He left the Peerless on a maintenance lugger, which was waiting for him in the off-limits bay occupied by the 701st, and landed in the docking bay of the Executor dedicated to Vader’s own trusted troops, the 501st. He’d return the same way in a few hours’ time, no one being any the wiser. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it and he doubted that it would be the last.
But it was of particular relevance because he had one stop to make, and though the arrangements had been made by his father, for once it wasn’t him Luke was going to see.
Mon Mothma woke with a start to the near-darkness of the detention cell, staring at the blank wall before her. For long seconds she lay still and listened to her heart beat loud… Then the slightest of sounds scraped through the darkness behind her, tingling up her spine as she twisted about.
There, crouched down and sitting on his heels, leaning back against the far wall, was a hunched, dark-clothed figure who watched her through pale eyes, cold as ice in darkness…
“What do you want?” She had meant it to sound stern and unafraid, but it had come out as little more than a whisper.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said simply, eyes intent on her.
Mon sat up, pulling the thin blanket to her, uncertain what to say, all her resolve bleeding away into the dim shadows. His eyes remained steady on her, face unreadable in the low light, and Mon couldn’t help but look again to the deep scar which ran down the right side of his face. She glanced away, then made herself look back as those unsettling, mismatched eyes remained steady on her. Had they always been that: one eye blue, the other cast through with brown, so dark in the low light as to seem almost black?
“You’re being taken to Coruscant for trial,” he said finally, voice emotionless. “I should imagine the verdict is pretty much a foregone conclusion.”
“Is that what you’re here for? To gloat?”
“No.” He seemed strangely placid, not rising to her accusation. “I thought you would want to know. Nobody should have to go to death unprepared.”
Mon felt lightheaded at this, angry and outraged all at once, her passion giving her courage.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she announced, and he moved just slightly, making her start despite her words.
“Yes, you are. You’d be a fool not to be, and you were never that, Mon. Blind perhaps—willing to be led.”
She frowned into the shadows, shaking her head in refusal. “I’m not going to play your word-games.”
He remained hunched against the wall, a shadow in darkness, those star-bright eyes glinting. “No? Not even once, for old-time’s sake?”
Mon searched his face in the dusky light, but nothing was there save muted amusement, any real intent or emotions well hidden, the man she had thought she knew completely discarded.
“Do you have anything you’d like me to pass on?” he asked at last, completely serious.
“To whom?” Mon challenged. “We hardly move in the same circles.”
He only shrugged, unoffended. “To the Alliance perhaps…to Leia. I know how close you were to her.”
Mon suppressed a shiver at the fact that he spoke to her in the past tense—as if she were already dead…then realization of what he'd said brought her chin up. “Leave Leia alone!”
He shook his head, bringing his steepled fingers up before his scarred face, the deep slice through his lips twisting as he smiled just slightly. “I can’t do that, Mon. You started a war—you opened the floodgates.”
“Don’t blame me for your own vindictive desire for revenge.”
“I have no need for further revenge—the score is settled. And in truth it was only partly that anyway; my desire to remove you coincided with your attack. The latter hid the former—bought me permission I would never otherwise have had.”
Mon frowned, uncertain, and he tilted his head just slightly, murmuring gently though that did nothing to ease Mon’s trepidation. “You see I have plans…an Empire to build. When all the obstacles are removed.”
“She’ll stop you,” Mon said of Leia, absolutely sure.
He smiled genuinely, but in anticipation rather than agreement. “Perhaps. If anybody can then it’s her...but I don’t think so.”
“She knows what you are.”
“So did you, Mon,” he said easily. “But you still let me lead you.”
Mon dropped her head as she rubbed at her temples, lost, and he gave her the time, not speaking as she struggled to come to terms with this—the realization that he would go after another leader, then another, then another. Hunt them down; single them out and split them from the pack, then close in for the kill like the wolf Palpatine always claimed he was.
And still he sat, mute and mild, watching her with those strangely mismatched, feral eyes…
“Why?” she murmured at last. “Why do you hate us?”
He only shrugged, impassive. “I don’t hate you, Mon. But as I said, I have plans—and you were in the way.”
Mon lifted her chin in defiance. “How inconvenient for you.”
“Yes, it was. And I had no idea how to deal with it, none at all. Until you forced my hand—made it personal.”
“You think removing me will make a difference but it won’t—not at all. You’ll only feed the fire. Leia will replace me. She’ll lead the Alliance when I’m gone.”
“Why Leia?” he asked, openly curious.
“She was born to lead. It’s in her blood…” Mon paused, unsure why that statement seemed to interest the Sith so very much.
“Why Leia—why not Madine?”
“You know why—have you forgotten or did you never really listen?”
He remained silent, expectant…and as good as she was, Mon fell for the oldest trick in the book and kept talking. “Madine is a General, and a good one, but he’s a military man and ours is not a military organization, no matter what we’ve been forced into. The military are there to support the Alliance’s ideals—not to lead. Leia is a political leader therefore she can take power… Madine never could. But she’s also a pragmatist—and a fighter. She’ll find a way to bring your precious Empire…”
He rose, making Mon’s words trail off.
“Thank you, Mon,” he said at last, his tone indicating that the conversation was finished as far as he was concerned.
“… What…?” Mon Mothma rose, uncertain.
“Thank you. Since I didn’t catch Madine this time, I needed to be sure that Leia and not Madine would take command before I could move forward. Anybody else would have required an editing of my plans.”
He gazed at her for long seconds, face strangely open yet completely emotionless. “I’m sorry it had to be this way, Mon—but the choices were yours, not mine.”
She shook her head. “I don’t regret them.”
“Really?” He looked at her for a long time, eyes calculating, searching… “And if I told you that there was an opportunity here, despite everything, to work together and help both our…”
“We don’t need your help.” She lifted her chin in defiance, cutting him off. “We can fight our own battles.”
His silence invited further comment, and Mon heard her own voice harden as she issued through clenched teeth, “I don’t trust you, and nothing you can do and nothing you can say would ever make me.”
“No, I thought as much…but I had to try.” That effortless smile which reminded her momentarily of the idealistic boy she had known turned so easily into a feral grin. “Time to move on...”
And finally, like a bolt from the darkness, Mon Mothma put all the pieces together—his offer to pass any message on to Leia, his confidence that he could, his need to know that Leia would succeed Mon…
“You’re in contact with Leia!”
“Among others,” he allowed, no triumph at all in his voice. “Don’t worry, Mon; she’s not a traitor. She doesn’t know it’s me—yet.”
Before she knew what she was doing, Mon had lunged forward, striking out, connecting a hard blow across his face.
He caught her hand as it left him, yanking it down to leave her defenseless, his own body tensing...
Then he smiled, though it never reached those cold eyes. “I’ll give you that one, Mon—perhaps I deserve it.”
She tried to pull free but he held her wrist, grip like steel. His gaze stayed on her for a long time, contradictory emotions flitting across those disquieting, mismatched eyes.
Eventually he half-shrugged as he let her go, the action casually dismissive though there was something—some unspoken apology in the tone of his words. “Look at it this way, Mon—one way or another, you walk free of this prison in a few days… I’m serving a life sentence.”
She frowned, confused at his words, though she still struck out. “I hope it’s an eternity.”
“Every day, Mon,” he assured as he turned to leave. “Every single day.”
Vader was aware of his son’s approach long before the commotion began outside his quarters onboard the Executor—though commotion may have been the wrong word, as brief as it was. There were two guards in the long corridor which led to his door, its entrance closed for the night, permitting no further visitors. Vader heard the sharply spoken words then sensed the brief spike in the Force, followed by silence…
He stood, waiting for his son to enter, aware that the boy’s senses were ablaze with confusion and anger.
The heavy, reinforced door ground open forcefully against its own inset bolts, not even slowing Luke as he stormed in. “You once told me that I was beyond Light and Darkness. Why!?”
Vader kept his voice calm in the face of the boy's obvious vehemence. “Because you are everything that I once was—but you are not only my son. You are your mother’s child as much as you are mine and no evil could ever come from her. If you had known her, you would know that absolutely.”
Luke stared wild-eyed and disbelieving, and Vader knew it was not enough. “Because if Darkness could claim you it would have done so long ago.”
“How do you know that it hasn’t?” It was almost a plea, part desperation and part fear.
“You are not evil,” Vader stated simply.
To hear, simply to hear those words, was a release in itself and Luke’s sense and voice calmed as he took a trembling breath.
“How do you know?” he repeated.
“Darkness would not ask,” Vader assured. “Darkness would not care.”
Luke considered for a long time, eyes skipping the room, mind racing. “Palpatine told me I was lost—he was right.”
“You are not lost. You are finding your way—finding yourself.”
The boy let out a broken sigh. “I’ve surrendered everything I believed in.”
“For…” Luke faltered, frowning.
“For everything that you now believe—everything you know,” Vader finished. “The world is never as simple as our childhood wishes. At some point, we must all accept that truth… We must grow up and put impossible ideals behind us.”
Luke glanced up. “What if I’m wrong?
“As long as you consider that possibility, then…”
“No.” The boy was unwilling to be mollified so easily. “That’s just words. This is lives—people I…”
“Respect?” Vader said into Luke’s guilt-ridden hesitance. “It is no weakness to respect your enemies.”
“She isn’t my enemy.”
“She tried to kill you.”
“Maybe she was right.”
“Then why did you stop her?” Vader asked of his son; not a challenge, but a genuine request for an explanation.
Luke considered for a long time, shaking his head slowly. “Because I had to—she and others like her will just maintain the status-quo. The war will never end—old prejudices and deep wounds will always hold them apart. They’ve fought too long, become too entrenched, and Palpatine will always use that against them. They’re lost in their ideals.” He pondered his own words for a long time, looking for answers to the questions they posed—though all he found were further questions. “But that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.”
“Nor you, for stopping them.”
Luke sighed, and Vader too held his peace; he knew better now than to push too hard—the boy would come to his own conclusions, he always did. This was merely a sounding, a testing of his viewpoint. That he came here, came to Vader to do this, was gratifying. Carefully directed, it would ensure that Vader was the power behind his son's potential.
Luke glanced up at his father now, looking for confirmation as he spoke. “Palpatine’s no better, his actions only fuel the extremism and he knows it—wants it. He would never negotiate but he’ll never wipe them out because he doesn’t want peace, only an opportunity to exercise his supremacy. We can never move forward whilst people like that hold power.”
“Then change it.”
The boy turned away, clearly knowing where Vader was leading him. But he shook his head, unable to say it out loud yet. “If I removed him then whoever took power would have their own agenda.”
“There is an easy way to guarantee that the Emperor’s agenda is your own.”
Again Luke shook his head. “No. I have no right to take power.”
“If you believe the Emperor’s actions unbefitting, then you should stop him. Isn’t that what you had always intended to do?” Luke remained hesitant, so Vader tried again. “You believe his methods destructive—that he should be removed from power.” They were long past prevarication now; it was in neither of their characters to do so and the boy had danced on the edge of treason long enough.
Now he lifted his chin, decisive. “I believe there should be no place for such actions in a new order.”
“Your New Order.”
“Everyone’s,” Luke avoided.
“But you will lead it. Because no one else can.”
Luke considered, eyes down, lost in thought.
“You will do what has to be done,” Vader continued, voice very sure, pushing his son on, only now able to nudge Luke into the path Vader had chosen for him four years ago—and so of course for himself. “You will always do that—it is in your nature; you will look for a path, you will find a way and you will make it happen. You will make it happen—that is when stubbornness is a strength. You will never shy away from what needs to be done.”
His son remained silent for long seconds, eyes to the floor as his mind raced; were he able, Vader would have held his breath in rapt anticipation. Luke frowned, mismatched eyes hidden beneath a thoughtful scowl…then he nodded, just once, but firmly, the decision finally made, the path committed to... For both of them—together. And in that single nod of a head, four years of anticipation came to fruition for Vader.
“I’ll broker peace,” Luke said at last, a challenge in his voice for his father to disagree with his ultimate intent. “My way.”
Vader smiled beneath his mask, aware of the significance of the moment—that this was the first time that they had come to any accord in this. That he could finally move forward with his son at his side.
If the boy wanted some invented belief to ease his conscience, then let him have it. When they held power, when he realized what they could do—that all previous barriers were eradicated—he would reconsider. But those barriers must first be removed. “And the Emperor?”
Luke remained silent for a long time, his face and sense slowly hardening to Vader’s searching perceptions as he finally acknowledged the necessary truth.
“He doesn’t feature,” Luke stated calmly. “At all.”
Mara paused in the Peerless’ corridor, leaning back against the wall. Do it or not, Jade. Make your mind up.
Still she hesitated, mind a flurry of exhilaration, guilt, uncertainty, nerves... She glanced up at the surveillance lens on the ceiling, knowing its cycle of movement exactly—when it showed her end of the corridor, the crossover between lenses; Force knew, she'd sat and stared at the monitors enough nights. She glanced again down the empty corridor—he allowed no guards here. Onboard his flagship, things worked to his own rules, and rule number one was No Guards. There were plain-clothes guards watching, of course, at the Emperor's command, but Mara knew their routines and had picked this moment in the early hours of the morning very specifically.
What she hadn’t intended was to hesitate, and if she didn’t take this chance right now, then she wouldn’t get another for hours. Taking a deep breath, Mara walked quickly and casually down the corridor and keyed the override code to open the door to Skywalker’s quarters. She catstepped quickly into the still darkness, momentarily blinded as she went from the light of the corridor to the pitch black of his rooms. Still holding her breath, she started forward—
And a weight like a Ronto bulldozed into her from the side, impacting with her left shoulder and sending her staggering away as she rolled with the blow—
Years of honed survival instincts cut in and somehow Mara remained upright, half-staggering, half-sidestepping clear, her right hand automatically grabbing for her gun—but Luke was on her in a split-second, hand reaching out from behind and grabbing at her wrist, twisting it and her gun up as he stepped in behind her—
Her gun hand pinned, Mara drove her left arm back, elbow catching him heavily in the ribs, hearing his breath leave him in a rough gasp in the darkness though he managed to hook his other hand around her free arm, pinning it to her side—
Mara snapped her head back without hesitation, intending to catch him in the face now that he was close behind her, but he was already ducking down and stepping back from her limited range. Still, she managed to free her gun arm at roughly the same moment that he finally forced her to break her hold on her blaster. It clattered away into the shadows, already invisible—
Using the hold he had on her right arm as a solid pivot point, Mara swung swiftly around on her right leg, lifting her knee as she spun, intending to deliver a high kick, but Luke was already crouching from avoiding her last blow, so grabbed at her right ankle and yanked it up, dropping her heavily to the floor on her back, the air knocked from her lungs with enough force to flash stars in the darkness—
Mara scrambled back and twisted to her side, reaching for the vibroblade she wore in a scabbard at the small of her back as he lunged forward, dragging her arm away and twisting her onto her back, dropping his bodyweight onto her body over her hips to hold her still, his silence terrifying. She tried to kick up with her knees but his legs were already on hers so she lunged out with the heel of her hand. His reflexes were just too fast and she brushed past his jaw, his hand coming from nowhere to pull her arm up and pin it to the floor above her head—
Mara struck out with her other hand as he leaned over her, intending to hit him in the throat, but he caught the heel of her hand against his own, powering it back—
Again she writhed to free herself, putting all the strength of her stomach and legs into the movement—
“Stop it! STOP!!” Luke shouted, dragging Mara’s arms together to pin them both with one of his own, and she was so shocked that she fell loose for a moment before finally finding her voice.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
“What am I doing?!” he yelled, disbelieving, hand reaching down to brush her sides, obviously searching for any other weapons. Mara heaved her body up again but he sat down heavily against her hips, pushing his own bodyweight down against her, pinning her again. “You’re lucky I don’t bounce you off all four walls!”
“Seriously? You sneak in here in the middle of the night...”
“You’re kidding me!” Mara shouted, trying one last time to wrench her hands free. “Let go!”
He loosened his hold slightly but stayed where he was and Mara pulled an arm free but didn’t strike out, instead letting it flop out beside her as she blew a breath upwards to waft her long hair from her face, glancing up at him and realizing belatedly in the wan light that he was in his nightwear, chest bare, his drawstring sleep-trousers twisted from the scuffle.
“What the hell are you doing creeping in here in the middle of the night?” he repeated, but his voice had lowered as he calmed a little.
“I was coming to see you! Don’t tell me you didn’t know that.”
“Yes, I knew—I picked you up two levels down, sneaking around.”
“I wasn’t sneaking around.”
“Well you sure as hell didn’t want to be seen.”
“So naturally, you took that as a license to floor me.”
“I hate to quote precedents, but you just drew a blaster,” he said, unapologetic.
“You tried to floor me!”
“You had a blaster!”
“Fine. Whatever. I’m not gonna argue specifics with you.” She glanced around casually. “Where’s my gun?”
“Right, because I am gonna give it back to you,” Luke deadpanned.
Mara grinned wickedly. “Worried?”
He raised his eyebrows, letting his weight drop a little against her hips. “From up here? No.”
“Well since you’re not worried, could I have my other arm back?” Mara asked dryly, and he released her wrist, sitting up on his heels now, his bodyweight lifted slightly from Mara’s hips.
They stared at each other in the faint starlight for long moments.
“Feel like getting off yet?” she asked caustically.
“I don’t know if I’m that unworried,” Luke said, but she felt the last of his weight lift from her as he stood, then leaned forward, offering his hand. Mara stared at him warily for long seconds but he didn’t move, so eventually she reached up to take it and he hauled her upright.
“Better?” he asked into her still-narrowed eyes.
“I will be when I get my gun back,” Mara said, glancing around in the near-darkness.
Luke grinned, throwing her own challenge back at her: “Why—worried?"
“Yes,” she countered tartly. “It was a very expensive gun.”
“Well then, you shouldn’t let people take it off you so easily,” he parried.
“Hey—you are the only person who can take that blaster off me unarmed,” Mara argued unequivocally, but Luke was already turning away, heading into the bedroom he must have come from when he’d first sensed her approach. Mara glanced inside, noting peripherally that his bed was still neatly made; he hadn’t been asleep then, despite his appearance.
“Only one is one too many,” he said genially without stopping, tiredness creeping into his voice now.
It was very...human. And strangely appealing, reminding Mara of why she’d headed up here in the first place, pushing her to keep him talking... “So, are you generally in the habit of bulldozing anyone who comes calling or did I catch you at a bad moment?”
“No, I’m not, but then most people knock—or call in advance; that’s why we have comlinks,” Luke said, still walking.
“You never carry a comlink.”
He finally paused, turning as if realizing she wasn’t about to take the hint and leave. “Is there a reason you’re here?” he asked with forced good grace.
Not sure how to just out and out say it, Mara hedged. “Not surprisingly, I’ve forgotten. I think I’m concussed,” she added theatrically.
Unimpressed, Luke raised his eyebrows as he leaned against the doorframe to his sleeping quarters. “I think your skull’s thicker than that, Red.”
She ignored that, massaging her wrist. “I also think my arm will be black and blue tomorrow.”
“Well if it makes you feel any better, remember that my ribs will be looking exactly the same.”
Mara considered, glancing down at his bare torso as he lifted his hand to it. “Yeah, I think it does a little.”
“Good. Can I go to bed now?”
She stared at him long seconds...and when she spoke again, it was with genuine frustration in her voice. “You are the hardest person to keep talking.”
“You’re not actually talking about anything!” Luke charged, exasperated.
“Just...” Mara stuttered to momentary silence, so irate was she. “...Why the hell do you think I’m here?”
He stood upright, bewildered frustration raising his own voice. “I don’t know—that’s why I’m asking!”
“Maybe you should have done that before you tried to break my arm!”
“You had a gun!”
“I always have a gun.”
“Exactly! I was going with the odds.” A slight edge was creeping into his voice now, prompting the same in hers.
“Oh, what does that mean?”
Luke shied back from stating exactly what had been in his mind—that he had secretly visited his father on the Executor earlier tonight, that together they had effectively agreed to depose the Emperor. That was the reason that he thought she’d crept into his quarters—that she somehow knew what had transpired, had already reported it to the Emperor and was now carrying out his resultant order. “It means Palpatine’s assassin just broke into my rooms under cover of darkness at the precise moment that all those ‘non-existent’ watchers happened to be elsewhere—you figure it out.”
“You think I came to kill you!?”
“It’s what you are.”
Mara stepped forward, at once confused and offended. “Why!? Why the hell would I kill you now?”
“You don’t generally seem to need a reason,” Luke charged, unrepentant. “You just do as you’re told.”
“You son of a sauron...” Incensed, Mara raised her hand and he straightened, hand lifting, finger out in blunt warning.
Mara swung a tight, powerful blow intended to connect with his face and his hand shot out to catch it, stopping her dead, twisting her hand behind her and yanking her forward in one fast move with enough force to send her barreling into him, her arm twisted behind her back.
Caught, she glanced up, free hand pulling back, a curse on her lips—
And he leaned in and kissed her. Fervently, passionately, his hand to her arched neck, pulling her to him.
Her balled fist fell lax as she leaned into the kiss, all else forgotten, all differences and reservations abandoned before this greater desire, finally seeming as much his as hers. Still held captive, she pushed him forwards and he backstepped through the doorway with her, their bodies never breaking contact as she leaned her weight against him and he fell back onto the bed, arms wrapped about her waist, pulling her with him.
Mara smiled, grinned in the muted starlight as she kissed him fiercely, eagerly, fingers in his hair, distantly feeling his hand slide smoothly from her hip to the small of her back to pull free the vibroblade she kept there, its dull double-thud as he flung it to the side and it hit the floor unheeded in the heat of all-encompassing passion...
Luke watched her wake with a slight jolt, subliminally aware of being watched. She glanced about the darkened room, lit only by the cold light of distant stars reaching in through the viewport, momentarily thrown by her sleepy state as to where she was.
He was already sitting in a chair to the far side of the room, a long linen dressing gown wrapped loosely about him, unfastened. He stared at her without blinking for long moments, aware that he was making her uneasy beneath his piercing gaze.
“You need to learn to hide your thoughts,” he said at last. "And you need to learn to do it tonight. Tomorrow we'll be at Coruscant."
Mara sat up, holding the sheet about her, pushing her long red hair back from her face to cascade down her bare back, intense red against pale skin. “I already know how to shield.”
“From Palpatine,” Luke corrected, making her glance down uneasily.
“It’s a little late for second thoughts,” he said, coolly, but without judgment.
Luke had spent the last hour watching her sleep, giving their...situation serious consideration. Because if he did this, if he taught her how to hide specific thoughts from Palpatine, as he could—and how to hide the fact that she was hiding anything—then he was also teaching her to do the same from himself. A significant fact, when in truth he trusted her so little.
He’d also considered the implications of teaching her a technique which she could very easily take back to Palpatine, providing him with a breakdown of the methods Luke employed and a willing accomplice on whom his Master could practice breaking those same shields which Luke presently utilized with such success.
But he’d also considered that, like him, she had simply made a foolish, impetuous mistake last night, which in the cold, mercilessly logical light of day, she must surely be beginning to regret.
One which she was determined never to repeat—just as he was. The costs were just too high.
Either way, he couldn’t in all good conscience send her back to Palpatine unprotected. Not when he knew, as they both did, how outraged their master would be at this...incident. He frowned…good conscience. An interesting choice of words for a Sith, he reflected.
Or was it that at all? Wasn’t the truth far more damning—
He had wanted something to control her, something to test her loyalties and pry her away from Palpatine. She would never admit this tryst to the Emperor, Luke knew that—had tested that theory repeatedly in the last few months, if on a much smaller scale. Which meant that in order to maintain this secret, she would now have to lie to Palpatine. And she would have to rely on Luke to do the same. She would have to trust him. Which limited how much she could inform on him; it was difficult to betray someone who had equally damning information on you.
A reasonable, logical course of action to control a spy he couldn’t remove...or simply a rationalization to cover a moment of weakness? Why did it feel like he had gone too far and it had all become very, very complicated?
Because there was, of course, one problem with letting someone past one’s shields, even for your own ends: they were within striking distance. And now, suddenly, that made him very uncomfortable. He'd sworn he'd never be vulnerable again—that he'd paid the price too often and would never give Palpatine another means to control him.
He had to push her back; for her own safety as much as his own sanity, he couldn't afford this weakness, he had to stop this now. He'd let her closer only to control her, nothing more. Nothing more. The fault was his, not hers; he’d thought he could ignore her feelings, remain removed from them, use them as a hold over her, at least partially. And it had worked...at least partially. But to control her, he’d had to let her close...
He leaned back, running his fingers through long, tangled hair, pointedly not following that thought any further.
Mara watched Luke fall back against the chair, running his fingers through his wild hair, which fell smoothly back about his face and halfway to his shoulders, its loose curl twisting into disarray, dark tone reflecting the starlight. The memory of running her fingers through it, soft as silk, lit a twist of heat in her stomach and curled the edges of her lips up in appreciation.
And still he just sat, looking at her.
“You think we made a mistake,” she said at last.
“Don’t you?” he countered, no answer at all. He did that, when he wished to avoid—answered a question with a question.
“I asked first.”
“It’s not a competition.”
“Ohhh...” Mara grinned, tilting her head to the side, amused. “You’re never gonna answer that, are you?”
“Are you?” he asked quietly.
“When you do.”
He rose, not bothering to close his gown as he walked past her into the fresher. “Ah—then apparently it is a competition.”
The door slid closed behind him, leaving her completely in the dark.
Luke walked across the long, wide expanse of the Attendants Hall of the Imperial Palace, the antechamber to the main Throne Room where the Emperor held Court nightly. He looked neither left nor right in the always-crowded space, meeting no one’s eye, though that would have been difficult anyway. With his entrance, the Hall had stilled to silence, everyone now bowing in a wave of polite deference as he passed.
Much as he disliked it, he was a familiar figure here, generally ordered to attend Court with his Master whenever he was in residence at the Palace, often summoned on the night of his arrival, as he had been tonight, without even the opportunity to return to his apartments first.
He’d always hated the Throne Rooms; despised the petty machinations of greedy men willing to sell their own soul or their brother’s head for even the opportunity to further their personal goals. But slowly, over time, forced again and again to attend and to deal with petty bureaucrats and power-hungry Royals, he had learned the conventions of Court—the rules and regulations, the customs and traditions.
‘Knowing the Court’ was crucial for day-to-day dealings within the Palace, and Luke came to realize the value of watching and listening, employing his own recruits to remain always informed. Networks and alliances, both obvious and subtle, constantly shifted here, their influence rippling out like stones in a pond. In a place where nothing was obtained without pulling strings, such information was vital both to aid intentions and offset losses.
And even this was a game within a game; kept close to the Emperor whenever he was at the Palace, Luke knew damn well that Palpatine not only encouraged these trysts but often instigated them, showing favor to those who played the games by the rules, distinguishing Courtiers who did so with acknowledgement and the all-important permissions to pass from the Attendants Hall into the Throne Room.
Strict rules and ceremony covered everything here, decreeing anything from whom had access to the Emperor, to the titles employed in Court, to the right to sit in an armchair, a high back chair, a stool, or whether one could sit at all whilst ‘En Court.’
In the Emperor’s presence, of course, no one sat.
The endless rules had seemed petty, pointless and elitist when Luke had first arrived, but forced to accompany the Emperor through countless days, he’d slowly come to recognize that they had been put in place as much for Palpatine’s benefit as any insular discrimination; Courtiers from the powerful Royal Houses, arguing amongst themselves and bickering about who had and had not adhered to the insignificant trivia of countless Court customs, had neither the time to mount any real organized opposition, nor access to enough of the other Royal Houses to form a solid front without infighting breaking out—or being subtly instigated by Palpatine. Those few who did rise above it often found themselves the object of attacks by other Houses based on the slightest of asides from the Emperor, always eager to incite and encourage infighting.
The pack mentality was paramount here—anyone who showed any weakness was singled out, the pack attacking at the first smell of blood. Divide and conquer.
His father had no time for any of it, Luke knew, but for himself, he’d learned that it had its place. No matter how under duress, he was at the Palace far more than his father, so that ignoring it was no longer an option. As Heir he’d found himself more and more caught up in its influence, and hard experience had taught him that he would be a fool to dismiss something without understanding the dangers it represented. If he chose not to do something—not to adhere to rules or expectations—he should know what the repercussions would be, and for those times when he chose to play the game, he needed to know all the rules, if only to bend and break them. He’d long since learned to run with the pack.
The tall double-doors glided open as he approached, the four Royal Guard who stood to constant attention there whether Court was in session or not stepping smartly to the side.
Luke walked on without hesitation, keeping his eyes forward as he strode into the thick gloom of the massive, imposing Throne Room, the myriad of cut rock-crystal lights at lofty vaulted and reeded ceiling making the gilded walls glow with diffuse shards of reflected light. He paced forward to the rustle of heavy cloth as the multitude of Courtiers within bowed in a rolling wave at his passing, their faces lost in the shadows, Luke's complete attention on his Master—and the shields necessary to protect his own thoughts against him.
“My Jedi returns!” Palpatine stated, tone dryly amused, as Luke traversed the long aisle to the Dais.
He set his head on one side as Luke reached the pale inset semi-circle of stone on the floor before the Sunburst Throne and stepped smoothly into a kneeling bow before his Master with a minimal dip of his head, one knee to the floor.
“You seem to be missing something, my friend...” Palpatine continued, pausing theatrically. “Ah! A Star Destroyer!”
Though it was routine in the vast Rim Regions where the Rebellion was more entrenched, this was the first time that Luke had ever lost a Destroyer in battle, so he'd expected his Master to take this opportunity to crow. He rose, unperturbed, noting that Palpatine had neglected to mention the ‘loss’ of General Veers. “I think it bought you something far more valuable, Excellency,” he said levelly.
Palpatine leered, indulgent. “Indeed? And what did the Fury buy me?”
“One ship for two heads, Master.”
“I understand the Executor visited Dagobah recently.”
The Emperor’s expression changed not a whit at his Jedi’s unexpected knowledge of the Executor’s mission, but his sense cooled several degrees. “Indeed. It found very little, however.”
Luke forced himself not to blink before that searching gaze. “Perhaps Lord Vader searches in the wrong place?”
“He searched where you advised, Jedi.”
He loved doing this, Luke knew; holding a private conversation in open Court which only the people involved would understand. Knowledge was power, and his Master treasured any opportunity to illustrate this.
“If you command, I’ll return to Dagobah and aid in the search. I very much doubt that his quarry has left.”
Perhaps he shouldn't have said that; it hinted too closely that he knew the truth. Palpatine watched his Jedi in silence for long seconds, yellow-flecked eyes narrowed in consideration, but Luke had long since learned not only to mask his thoughts, but to conceal the fact that they were being hidden, so he had only to brazen this out—though beneath his Master’s razor-sharp scrutiny, that was no small thing. He had been caught before by the smallest of slips and any hesitation was as good as an admission of guilt.
The Emperor remained silent and Luke arranged the slightest shade of confusion on his face—nothing too indignant or offended, just simple lack of understanding as to his Master’s suspicion.
“No,” the Emperor said at last. “Lord Vader found nothing because there was nothing left to find. Only lifeless ruins.”
“It seems my enemies will resort to any means to escape my wrath,” the Emperor said, loud enough for all to hear, his mood lightening again.
Luke knew better than to allow this matter to drop too quickly though; it would be out of character. “He’s sure? How long?”
“Long enough,” Palpatine said, and Luke knew that his Master didn’t know; was made certain of the fact by Palpatine’s moving on of the conversation, though not too obviously. “And what else did you bring me in exchange for the Fury?”
Luke looked to his Master, not missing the cue. He had of course informed Palpatine of the mission’s success before entering hyperspace for the journey back—knew that Mara would have done so even before that, passing on a full breakdown of the events and his own actions...those she knew of—but this was clearly to be the official announcement of Mothma’s capture.
“I bring the leader of the Rebellion against you, Master," he announced loudly enough for his voice to carry. "Mon Mothma is in your possession now—the fate of any who challenge the Empire.”
It was a subtle distinction—Luke’s defense of the Empire rather than the Emperor—but then it was meant only for the ears of the few, its relevance lost beneath the greater revelation for the majority.
The susurration travelled through the crowd in a wave of astonishment, igniting a burst of emotion in the Force strong enough to make Luke flinch slightly, though he never took his eyes from the Emperor.
Palpatine smiled, settling back. “You have done well, my friend. Very well.” He feigned careful consideration, making Luke narrow his eyes in cautious suspicion. “Two of my greatest enemies, delivered at my feet. Yes—the cost was small indeed.”
The Emperor leaned forward, tone indulgent. “And what would my Wolf like as his reward?”
Luke bowed his head, dipping his shoulders, instantly wary. “To continue to serve, Master—nothing more is necessary.”
“You are too modest, my friend. Such an act deserves reward...” The Emperor paused theatrically as if considering, and Luke kept his gaze down to hide his unease; What’s he up to?
“My new Super Star Destroyer is to be delivered here within months—it’s yours, my friend. Your new flagship.”
Luke didn’t look up, aware that he had been cornered. To refuse before Court would be an intolerable breach in etiquette, but the new Destroyer would be bristling with covert surveillance and concealed stealth equipment of new design—much of which would have been developed in direct response to Luke’s ability to detect and disable existing equipment on his present flagship—all of which would have to be dealt with and cleared from sensitive areas before Luke could resume his own operations.
The Peerless had been his safe haven, and Palpatine knew it.
“An unwarranted reward, Excellency,” Luke said, raising knowing eyes to his Master’s taunting grin. In truth, he’d expected some reprisal when Palpatine found out that Master Yoda was already dead, whether he believed Luke knew or not; it was in his Master’s nature. But that didn’t mean that Luke shouldn’t maintain some sense of tactfully injured pride before the Emperor—any less would seem fraudulent.
He’d become accustomed to these games within games, either before an attentive audience or in his Master’s private Council Chambers. The public presentation of Emperor and Heir—no visible discord and therefore no opportunity for those in Court to try to play one against the other—hid a more fractious game played between a conceited, distrustful Master and a reluctant, headstrong advocate: the veiled battle of wills which that always entailed. And beneath this was another layer of power plays, that of manipulations and evasions, absolute authority maintaining precedence over stealthy insurrection.
It was second nature to Luke now, this life, these games; allies were to be considered unreliable unless one had the means to guarantee their loyalty, and adversaries were little more than opportunities to be used and discarded. The only way to avoid the same was to stay beyond reach.
Power gained position and position gained power, as his Master was so fond of reciting. There was no room for weakness here, where integrity and morality were crippling flaws—he’d learned that lesson too. Learned that the only way to remain beyond reach of the pack was to lead it, credibly and decisively; the moment one showed the slightest hesitation the mob would turn… And Luke had no intention of falling to this pack of cold-blooded, self-serving scavengers.
It had become his driving mantra, to outlast them all, if only out of sheer willful obstinacy. Every time he came back, every time he walked among the manipulators and the opportunists, he felt his own determination fire. That he wouldn't crumble for Palpatine's amusement, that he wouldn't be dragged down by the pack. Every single time he stood among them he felt the same heated resentment, the same revulsion, firing that same stubborn refusal to succumb, to lay down and die for someone else’s gain. The determination to prevail, to become invulnerable, untouchable...whatever the cost.
The trial was held in the massive State Room on the lower levels of the South Tower, an exercise in Imperial pomp and propaganda, a host of high-ranking officials and Royal Houses ‘invited’ to attend.
It seemed to Luke little more than a poorly disguised indulgence of the Emperor’s ego—but then he’d expected no less. The verdict, when it was finally delivered, was hardly unanticipated...
It had been made clear that he was expected to spend a spell on Coruscant, so Luke had hardly been surprised when he had returned to his apartments that day to be presented with a formal invitation to attend the final outcome. The representatives had waited, but only to deliver the message by hand, rather than wait for a reply; any invitation on the Emperor’s behalf was to be viewed as a direct command and never refused.
In a typical display of overindulgence, it had been delivered on a gold platter by two messengers accompanied by four Royal Guards. Luke had taken the vellum card, glanced at its content then turned away, dropping it on the table nearby without comment as he left the room. The act would, he was sure, have been studiously reported to Palpatine before the night was out.
The morning of the execution was bright and still, and Luke had briefly stayed huddled beneath his sheets, turning breakfast away before rising and chiding himself for his own irresolute morals. He’d made his decisions; he should at least have the integrity to stand by them now.
Despite his quiet protestations and subtle avoidances, his Master had made it very clear that Luke would attend Mothma’s execution just after midday, Chancellor Amedda contacting Luke’s Aides to announce that the Emperor had ordered an ‘Honor Compliment’ of twelve Red Guards to be sent to his quarters at the relevant time to accompany him to the event—just to clarify the situation.
Still, when Luke had ordered Darrick to bring a pale jacket and white shirt, his valet had raised his eyebrows in politic silence, though the old man knew better than to say anything out loud. It was an unspoken rule that members of the Emperor’s entourage always dressed in what were termed ‘Court Livery’: scarlet, midnight blue or, for those in his closest entourage, black. Though he was entitled, Luke seldom wore black—but to wear pale tones today would be a glaring statement of dissent.
Aware of his silent disapproval as the old man studiously brushed at imaginary specks on the pale, impeccably fitted jacket, Luke had turned on his valet, issuing a sharp rebuke and dismissal which caused the old man to shrink back, head low, leaving Luke with yet another reason to feel guilty. After long minutes of consideration, he’d called Darrick back in and asked him to bring something more suitable and the old man had nodded diplomatically, nothing more needing to be said.
But it meant that when Mara had arrived, Luke was still in his dressing room. She’d knocked quietly, then leaned in through the door in an unprecedented and unthinking display of familiarity, though Darrick had simply bowed and left with his customary silent discretion.
She didn't speak as Luke tied the fasteners of his high-collared jacket; didn't rush him. Maybe she too had sensed the atmosphere in his apartments, everyone tip-toeing around him with wary caution—with good reason, considering his mood for the last few days. Or maybe it was another softening of the battle-lines long-since drawn between them, that even she had enough tact to be moderate today.
Mara watched Luke smooth non-existent creases in his dark jacket, eyes down, jaw locked, clearly agitated, as he had been every day since his return to Coruscant, walking a knife-edge of guilt, but for a very different reason to her own, she suspected.
When they’d reached Coruscant the reality of their transgression had hit Mara with devastating force, guilt seeping into her at what she needed to do and who she now had to lie to, realization washing a wave of anxious agitation over her.
“What will we do?” she'd whispered.
“You’ll do as I taught you,” he'd said calmly, gazing silently out into the massed lights of the glowing planet. “He has no way to know unless you tell him.”
She’d held still, eyes on his back, so eventually he’d spoken again, lowering his head to rub at his eyelids, as he often did when he was tired or tense. “He’s not all-powerful and he’s not infallible. He’ll know nothing if you do as I taught you. What he doesn’t suspect he can’t take from you and he can’t make you tell him.”
When she’d remained silent, he'd finally turned to look at her. “He only knows what you tell him, Mara. Whatever he learns it’s from you.”
She’d glanced away again, apprehensive, aware from his clipped tone that he was the same despite his veneer of calm, though she didn’t know whether it was because he was about to lie to the Emperor or because he was relying on her to do the same.
“We can’t...meet in the Palace,” Luke had said at last, bringing her eyes back to him.
“You have rooms without surveillance. In your...”
“It’s too risky.” He’d shaken his head decisively. “There are too many eyes and too many systems, you know that.”
She’d glanced down, biting at her lip and he’d sighed, stepping forward to lift her chin. “You can do this, Red,” he’d stated, mismatched eyes almost smiling, providing her the reason and the conviction to try.
She’d reached up to take his face in her hands and draw him down into a heartfelt kiss and when he’d finally stepped back she’d sighed and moved with him, head to his chest.
“It’ll be a week, two at the most,” he’d assured…though they both knew the lie.
In any event, when they returned she’d found it all too easy to stay away for the first few nights, guilt still gnawing at her, but with each day that passed it was becoming a little harder.
Several times now she’d tried to broach the subject with Luke, setting out to embrace him when she knew they were alone in an unobserved room, but always he’d found some way to avoid or prevent her, gently but firmly, in command of his emotions in a way that she no longer was—no longer wished to be, around him.
Still, as she’d returned to her quarters the previous night, Luke having spent most of the afternoon and evening in his office taking a series of appointments to attend to military management and affairs of state which kept himself and Reece working well into the night—coincidentally enabling him to avoid the complications inherent in being alone with her, Mara suspected—she was left wondering whether the words she'd spoken on that first night had been closer to the truth than she'd realized: "You think we made a mistake."
Or perhaps he was simply distracted; this could hardly be easy for him, bringing Mon Mothma here. He had known Mothma well—had served as her bodyguard occasionally in years past, Mara knew. To bring the Rebel leader to justice now, however right he must believe it to be, clearly carried with it certain misgivings, even Mara could see that. So when he turned to her now, she glimpsed something she so seldom saw in his eyes any more, something he had learned to bury so effectively beneath that reserved veneer of detached indifference, at the cost of a volatile, quicksilver temperament...
Emotion—real, genuine, heartfelt emotion—a bewildered, conflicting mix of guilt and regret, so rare on his face anymore, leaving him pensive and preoccupied. A glimpse of Luke Skywalker beneath the Emperor’s prized advocate.
So she didn’t hurry him this morning, aware that he too must know the time, conscious of his brittle, vulnerable air and protective of him in a way she never had been before.
When he could find no further reasons to procrastinate he took a deep, unsteady breath and set toward her. She flashed a brief, encouraging smile at him, nodding once before she turned to walk from the room. When his footsteps failed Mara paused, realizing that he was no longer behind her, and stepped back into the muted, austere dressing room.
He stood immobile before the mirror, having caught a glimpse of himself as he made to leave.
“Luke?” When he didn’t reply, didn’t acknowledge her at all, she walked slowly toward him. He remained still, studying his reflection in the mirror, head to one side, expression an odd mix of detached curiosity and morbid fascination.
“Who is that?” he murmured at last, attention on his reflection.
Mara glanced to the mirror, uncertain what to say, uneasy at his distant tone of voice and his precariously impassive air.
After a long time, he answered himself, eyes narrowing. “It’s the Emperor’s Jedi, isn’t it?”
Barely aware of Mara’s presence any more, Luke studied the man in the mirror—really looked for the first time in a long time; he never looked at his reflection anymore. He checked that his clothes were straight, that he looked presentable, though he never met those unfamiliar, mismatched eyes—didn’t care to see.
But today he’d glanced up and they’d locked onto his and now he stood rooted to the spot, fascinated by the reflection of a stranger, who stared back at him with such an obviously brittle veneer of outer calm masking...what?
He still looked a little like Luke Skywalker—same height, same lean, rangy build, wide at the shoulders, slim at the hip...but there the resemblance ended. His skin was pale, his features unnoticed beneath the shockingly heavy scar which ran from his forehead down over his cheek, almost disappearing at the hollow there to re-emerge above his lips, cutting a deep slash through them both before trailing to nothing, a second scar just visible at his collar. Deep-rimmed hollows shadowed his eyes, making them seem shockingly blue, the right iris shot through close to the scar by a wide twist of darkest brown, almost black against pale blue. His hair fell before his eyes in places, unchecked, long enough to curl into disarray below his chinline, dark brown—hadn’t Luke Skywalker’s been lighter? Or was it just that Tatooine’s intense sunlight had bleached it, and the pale man in the mirror seldom walked in the light of day anymore.
Luke frowned and the stranger before him did the same, stepping closer as Luke did, gaze turning to his clothes. Bespoke tailored and hand-stitched, restrained and refined, midnight blue. Black, handmade boots; impeccably fitted trousers and jacket, a sliver of white linen where the starched stand collar met that severe scar to the side of his neck.
They probably cost more than Luke Skywalker had expected to earn in a year. The man in the mirror didn’t even know; didn’t care. They simply arrived and he wore them until he bored of them and expressed a need for more, which arrived in due course; from where he had no idea. He didn’t need currency, his face was enough—whatever he wanted was instantly made available without question.
But he wanted nothing at all—and the one thing he needed no amount of currency could buy.
He stepped forward again, fascinated, close enough now to reach out to the shadow-man in the mirror, fingertips touching; dark clothes, dark hair, dark sense hanging like a cloak about him. Dark motives and intent.
“The Emperor’s Wolf—isn’t that what they call him?” Luke murmured at last.
Where was Luke Skywalker? Long gone, he knew that—swallowed up by the shadows and the Darkness. Luke Skywalker would never have allowed what the man in the mirror was intending, would have been appalled…or did the ends justify the means?
The man in the mirror believed so—because no matter what else he felt, he was clearly going to go through with this, Luke could see it in his eyes... But then, the man in the mirror was a stranger too, no more real to Luke than the nightmares which clawed through his dreams.
Which left him...where?
He stared mutely as memories came to mind—of the cell beneath the Palace where this dark-dressed man had come into being, the only protection left against relentless pain and provocation, every reserve torn down, every option burned away. Remembered his Master’s goading words...
“What do you see in the dark, when your demons come?”
And what did he see? Palpatine believed it was he who invaded and inspired Luke's visions and nightmares alike.
But Palpatine wasn’t Luke’s demon...he only created it.
Mara’s reflection reached tentatively out in the mirror, hand to his shoulder. “Luke?”
Who was she speaking to? Didn’t she realize?
He glanced to her reflection, suddenly intensely curious. “What do you see?”
She frowned, squeezing his arm in reassurance. “I see you.”
Luke turned away again, back to the shadow in the mirror.
“What do you see?” Mara whispered at last, and he could hear her uncertainty, sense her disquiet.
He faltered, lost within the shadows and the Darkness, turning to the woman who now held him anchored, though he knew the fundamental danger inherent in this weakness, knew he could not trust her...
Knew that somehow, some day, she would betray him. As everyone he had ever trusted had.
And he wondered what the shadow-man in the mirror would do when she did...
“What do you see in the dark when your demons come?” Palpatine’s words whispered again.
Luke turned to the man in the mirror, dressed in darkness... “I see you,” he murmured quietly, knowing it absolutely.
Aware of her gaze on him, of her unease and her concern, he looked at her reflection. “I see you,” he said again out loud, arranging an empty smile about his features which pulled at deep scars.
That evening Luke stood quiet and brooding at the back of the huge, sumptuous State Ballroom, isolated and apart from the revelry around him, every iota of body-language demonstrating his terse, volatile temper, no one daring to come near.
Palpatine sat on the dais at the head of the cavernous, grotesquely opulent hall, a rare ‘public’ appearance among the Royal Houses and diplomatic and planetary representatives who had attended the day’s event, illustrating just how pleased he was with his accomplishments.
The gathering this evening was little more than a thinly disguised celebration as far as Luke was concerned, and he had no stomach for it.
His ‘Honor Compliment’ of twelve Royal Guard had arrived at midday to accompany him to the wide private terrace where the act would take place, representatives from all the major Royal Houses, planetary systems and the military in attendance, a wild mix of contradictory emotions whipped up into an unblockable frenzy by the anticipation, making him flinch at the intensity within the Force as he stepped out onto the terrace, security off the scale, conspicuously visible everywhere.
And then he was applauded. Applauded—the shouts and cheers from the gathered crowd making his stomach turn in disgust.
Even Palpatine stood, grinning provocatively, hands coming slowly together to maintain the applause as Luke walked deliberately forward, ignoring the assemblage, jaw clenched, eyes locked on his Master’s. He reached the dais and stepped down onto one knee, Palpatine lifting his open hands, keeping the applause thundering about Luke for an eternity as he was forced to remain kneeling, the Emperor making a great act of being unable to order him to rise for the noise.
And so he'd closed his thoughts and his awareness; had shut off, as he'd learned to do here, face neutral, eyes glazed. Had let it all take place around him though he remained separate from it, as if viewing it through a pane of glass, in the same way that he viewed all life outside the Palace now—the distant haze of an old dream too far away to touch him anymore...
She was dressed in gray when they brought her out, and he looked to the ground, jaw tightening. On the pale terrazzo of the wide terrace, he saw a scarlet drop appear to the side of his boot...then another. Realizing, he looked down to the clenched fist of his left hand, opening his cramped fingers with difficulty. So tightly had they been clasped, that he'd cut four perfect slices into the palm of his hand with his nails.
He was still staring at his hand when the shots cracked through the air, making him jerk just slightly. He didn't look. He owed her that much.
For Palpatine, watching his feral Jedi as he brooded in the farthest corner of the massive Ballroom with no attempt to even try to cover his disgust, the day had gone from strength to strength. Now he observed with self-congratulating amusement as the boy created a small island for himself in the crowds, everyone subconsciously diverting around him like a shoal of fish about a shark.
Occasionally the odd Moff would consider approaching to curry favor, but at the last minute would lose his nerve and veer awkwardly away, followed every step of his retreat by those wonderful, mismatched ice-blue eyes.
It had been, from beginning to end, a wonderful day. Mothma's demise had finally put to rest two decades of irritation. Her precious Rebellion had never been a real threat of course; without a Jedi to withstand the Sith they challenged, the Rebellion could never be any more than a minor nuisance, an inconvenience which, between brief bouts of anarchy, Palpatine manipulated to his own ends…except briefly. For a short time, they had held among them someone who had been capable of turning them into a real threat. Yes, briefly, when his first Death Star had been destroyed, he had heard them roar. Until, in their blind stupidity, they had rejected that which could make them a power to be reckoned with—delivered him into the open arms of their enemy, no less.
They still had a Force-sensitive, Palpatine knew, and he would have to deal with her sooner or later. But she was untrained and of no immediate threat. Better to focus his efforts on that which he had already invested so much in creating—that which he derived so much pleasure from persuading and provoking.
Today had been the cruelest taunt Palpatine had engineered in a long time and he'd reveled in it. In the biting discomfort that his Jedi felt before it, the boy’s determination not to allow his disquiet to show before his Master conflicting with his obvious burning desire to turn and simply walk away from this painstakingly arranged circus.
It was, Palpatine reflected, the most wonderful irony, that the boy had argued for this—had demanded that he be given the satisfaction of hunting Mothma down for her attack on him—but now, having to face the result of his accomplishments, was so profoundly, intensely uncomfortable. It had provided the crowning glory to a perfect day. A flawless plan from beginning to end, the results surpassing his wildest expectations. From the day he had acknowledged Skywalker as Heir Apparent events had unfolded with unerring aim, requiring only the smallest nudges to guide them, channeling the boy closer and closer to this point of no return.
Skywalker had cut his last ties to the Rebellion—willingly, decisively, with full awareness of what he was doing. And he’d accepted his role here, by Palpatine’s side. That was obvious in many subtle ways, but Mara had confirmed it with her own considered opinion of his actions over the last month, when she had arrived at Palpatine’s private quarters to deliver her report the very evening that the Peerless had made orbit.
Though her opinion, if not her loyalty, would soon cease to be quite so reliable. Objectivity required impartiality, and he had long sensed her detachment wavering. Nothing specific, but then that in itself was relevant. When last she’d been here, the focus of her fascination had been quite clear; now those feelings seemed muted, completely buried. He didn’t doubt her loyalty; he’d held her long enough to ensure that, and anyway, he had no desire to question too closely this sudden change—it was after all, what he had always intended: for her to become close.
Close enough to hold Skywalker here.
Because Mara would never leave, her allegiance was guaranteed. Which meant that if she could hold him, neither would Skywalker. And even if she couldn’t, she could still be used as leverage.
Hadn’t he warned the boy often enough—if you have a weakness, others will use it against you.
His Jedi had not so much removed his major weakness, formerly the Rebellion, as simply exchanged it for another. Which was just as well, since despite his outward confidence, Palpatine knew that if he didn’t have these levers, he would find the boy far more difficult to control.
He had already dealt with his connection to his father; broken it beyond repair. There was no association allowed between his two Sith; that would be intolerable—and far, far too dangerous. Divide and conquer—Vader had the ambition and his son the power. Of the two, Palpatine knew that Skywalker remained the greatest threat; Vader had been in his service for many years and despite his ambitions, he hadn’t the power to stand against Palpatine alone and survive. It had long since been taken from him.
His son, on the other hand, had the power to be a real threat, though he had chosen not to utilize it; he had no desire to rule an Empire which on some level he still despised, and as long as he held that view, he remained controllable. Palpatine had no doubt that this would change in the future, but as long as he could read the boy accurately and therefore head off any insurrection, then he still remained by far the most appealing of the two Sith advocates—in every way.
He tolerated a great deal from Skywalker, though he was never quite sure why. It had become a fascination bordering on obsession, his need to control the boy. That first burst of accomplishment when he had broken him, taught him the futility of resistance and finally pulled that latent power to the fore in a burst of aggrieved fury, had been... Palpatine sighed now at the memory; it still had the power to move him, distant as it was.
But such raw expressions had given way now to a far subtler game achieved in near-imperceptible increments, each meaningless when viewed in isolation but slowly, over time, accruing and taking their toll—though he doubted the boy saw it as such.
Skywalker’s action and inaction today was proof of that, as was his willingness to use Jade, though Palpatine still had faith in her ability to creep under Skywalker’s defenses. He'd taken great care to surround the boy with those whom he thought might appeal; attachments were such wonderful constraints—they required so little pressure to exploit. And he’d yet to fully cure his fallen Jedi of his other weakness: the obstinate, willful tendency to fight every dispute, even to the extent of fighting on behalf of others, exactly as he had once done with his precious Rebellion. One should choose one’s battles with care—how many times had he told the boy that? Step back and examine the greater picture, ask oneself if each and every fight is really so vital to one's own goals and not simply a challenge on principle. There were times when the ability to step back, to control one’s emotions, was the very key to success even for a Sith. How could one dominate one’s opponents if one was not in control of oneself?
What was so wonderful was the fact that Palpatine had told the boy all of this—to learn to choose what was truly important, because only then would he fight with his whole heart and soul—yet still he fought, even when he knew he had no hope of winning.
That was why he foundered; that was why Palpatine could make him stumble again and again.
He considered all of this now as he watched his Jedi where he had retreated to the far end of the cavernous, opulent room, as far from his Master as he could be without actually leaving. But he was hardly difficult to locate, despite his distance; his presence sung out through the Force, as powerful as ever. Muted though...by choice; Palpatine narrowed ochre-yellow eyes as he watched his fallen Jedi, considering... Yes, muted. Very little emotion ever leaked through those carefully constructed shields anymore. One was left to wonder what else was cloaked...
The boy turned and Palpatine knew he was looking to his Master, aware of being under scrutiny, meeting Palpatine’s gaze with equal intensity, nothing lost despite the distance and the crowds between them.
Palpatine leaned back, settling on his throne, arranging a smug, self-satisfied expression about his face, bloodless lips curling in the slightest of smiles, inviting the boy forward—another battle he should learn to decline. Skywalker remained still for long seconds, clearly considering…then, to Palpatine’s surprise, he set forward, the crowds instinctively parting as he strode through them.
Would he force an argument here, now? Surely he knew Palpatine couldn’t allow that. After such a public display of accord between the two over the last several months, enough to assure even the most doubtful that there was no discord between them, a heated dispute now was unthinkable. It would negate all of that carefully constructed unity, especially before this wide-ranging, unselect audience.
The boy knew all of this—he knew it—knew that a scene now would command the harshest punishment. Not here, but later, when there were no eyes to see. But knowing that, did he now think he would have nothing to lose, no reason to hold back?
He was halfway across the hall now, eyes dark and stormy, jaw locked, muscles taut as he stalked meaningfully forward, wrist brushing subtly against the lightsaber at his hip. Palpatine felt his own heartbeat begin to rise, body tensing as he sat straighter in the throne in preparation for the confrontation, aware that he must disperse it as quickly and quietly and decisively as possible—
Three Moffs crossed before his Jedi, momentarily obscuring him—
And when they had moved, he was gone.
As quickly as that.
Palpatine glanced about the room, still aware of the boy’s presence in the Force but unable to pin him down, his sense veiled and diffuse. Frowning, he drew further on the Force, glancing about the massive hall, awash with color and movement...
The tall double doors were open, the Red Guards at the top of the short, wide stairwell coming to smart attention as Skywalker passed through, and Palpatine briefly caught fragmented images of his fallen Jedi’s dark form as he set down the long, winding, mirrored gallery which led from the State Ballroom, pacing from the light and the noise back into the dim shadows, like the wolf he had become.
The Emperor smiled, relief relaxing him back into his seat, amused that at the last, his wolf had made his presence felt—and that without actually doing anything. Yes, he was learning his craft; a conflict was fought as much in the head as with the hand. Lightsaber skills were not the only contest he had learned to master whilst confined within the walls of the Palace.
He glanced about the hall again, reaching into the Force to summon Mara to the dais.
She approached with feline elegance, hips swaying gracefully in the svelte, fitted black vinesilk dress she wore, fiery titian hair aglow in the low light. She’d always known how to dress provocatively; had used it to good effect many times on various targets... But she had no such assignment tonight, leaving him to ponder momentarily why she had dressed this way; it certainly wasn’t for him.
She bowed respectfully, loose hair falling about her bare shoulders. “Master?”
She had, Palpatine realized, already been halfway to the doors when he had recalled her. “Go after him,” he ordered. “I want to know what he does—stay close to him tonight.”
Mara had felt a pang of adrenaline-laced guilt at her master's words, but quashed it quickly, turning obediently to leave the Ballroom before he could question her further, then pausing in the long, curving gallery set with a seemingly endless run of hand-cast mirrors, each two stories tall, their size and handmade nature causing slight distortions unique to each one, endlessly refracting the same disjointed images back and forth across the walls of the long gallery.
She stood expectantly before one, ignoring the twisted, grotesque image it reflected, and it opened with the slightest click onto a small guard room-come watching post. Stepping in as the unmarked mirror-door closed behind her, she contacted Security, waiting for them to track down Skywalker’s location, which seemed to take an excessive amount of time given the level of security here tonight. She eventually ordered surveillance to check security images rather than try to track or locate Luke by the guard’s recognition, knowing that if he didn’t want to be seen by another sentient then he simply wouldn’t be.
He turned up, surprisingly, in his own apartments, Reece logging his arrival there as a matter of course.
Mara set off walking from the South to the West Tower, taking her time, giving Skywalker breathing space, time to cool down. She’d watched, breathless, the little game of nerves he’d played out against his Master, setting Mara’s heart in her throat at the certain belief that he was about to make a very public challenge, knowing that Palpatine couldn’t allow it, seeing her master actually tense in uncertainty as Luke approached. Mara had set forward too, hoping to intersect Luke and dispel it before it erupted…then he’d vanished, disappearing into the crowd like a cipher even though she was watching him, and Mara knew that had been his intent all along: simply to unnerve—a pointless risk for no other reason than his own brittle temper.
In view of this she didn’t particularly want to have to follow him tonight; his mood had been foul all day and that final game of brinksmanship with Palpatine would hardly have dispelled it—and he would know that it would be their master who had sent her.
She reached his apartments to find the lights of the wide, galleried main hallway turned down, indicating that the household had retired for the night. Stepping past the ever-present guards at the door, she leaned into the small office just inside the hallway as Reece glanced up to her.
“I’d leave him alone tonight if I were you,” he advised, expression serious.
“Palpatine sent me,” Mara said simply, explanation enough for anything.
Reece nodded, glancing down the hallway. “Rather you than me, Commander,” he said. “Don’t bait him...and sit close to the door.”
“Thanks,” Mara muttered dryly, setting off down the wide, dark hallway and across the elaborate, glass-roofed central cupola to the private rooms he always retreated to when he wished to be left alone.
Surprisingly they were dark and empty, her light footfalls echoing beneath lofty, ornate ceilings. Backing out, she walked a slow circle through his private office and down the curving halls about the central rooms, then back into the terrazzo-tiled grandeur of the central cupola, aware that all she could do was start a slow sweep of the thirty or so imposing, somber, seldom-used rooms in his extensive apartments.
She finally tracked him down in the grand, sweeping curve of the silk-walled manila library, sitting in the dark, his back to the door.
“Skywalker?” Mara whispered into the darkness, instantly reminded of her first visit after Palpatine had converted him—of her shock at the changes his conversion and maltreatment had induced.
He didn’t reply, so she stepped lightly forward around the curve of the echoing, coffered-ceiling room to see him slumped in a chair, a bottle of spirit on the table beside him, looking tired to his bones, eyes fixed unseeing on the vague, indistinct glow at the edges of the many data chips which lined the retrieval system on the far wall.
“You okay?” Considering his state, it was a fairly inane question, so she wasn’t surprised when he didn’t bother to answer. Instead he reached out and poured a lethal measure of the spirit into his glass. White camphor; she could smell it as it hit the air, the glass stopper abandoned nearby.
He looked at the clear liquid for several seconds, the heavy glass tilted dangerously in his hand, then—
“Here’s to late nights in Mos Espa,” he stated obscurely, taking a swig from the glass.
Mara remained still, unsure what to do—she had never seen him drink before, ever. The fact that the bottle was already one third down when they were generally left untouched didn’t bode well. Eventually she glanced around the dim room and went to get another glass from the liquor cabinet, returning to pour herself a drink in silence. If she couldn’t stop him, then she could at least limit the amount he could drink.
Taking her tumbler, she walked over to another chair before the tall beveled-glass bookcases which held old-fashioned paper-page books and settled down, the cool, clinging folds of the smooth black silk settling about her.
He didn’t turn to her but instead lifted his glass again. “Here’s to Fixer...and Camie, and Deak and Windy. And Biggs Darklighter.”
He paused expectantly, eyes hidden by the shadows of his unruly hair, and Mara lifted her own glass in uneasy salute, having no idea what he was talking about. Then he drained his glass and set it down again, reaching out for the bottle. Mara took a sip of the neat spirit and it burned a path down her throat, sharp and bitter.
“We used to go out when the week was done and hit the races in Mos Espa or Mos Cata,” Skywalker said absently, eyes fixed again on the far distance. “Swoop racing. Forty credits entry fee and if you got lucky, you’d make it to the finals and win two hundred. That was it. I saw guys break bones and lose limbs for two hundred credits. Saw a few scraped off the walls. That’s all people came for—to watch the carnage. If I won, I’d split it with Fixer, who kept the swoops, and we’d all go into Mos Eisley and blow it. Drink ourselves stupid so that for just a few hours we’d forget the scuzzy, dead-end dirtball of a planet we were stuck on... I watched it bleed Uncle Owen dry a day at a time, trying to scratch a living from sand and dust. Watched it wear him down and make him old before his time, and I swore it wouldn’t do the same to me.”
He paused, sinking into silent thought before finally lifting his glass again. “Here’s to Tatooine. I’d give everything I ever was to be standing there again.”
He waited until Mara lifted her own glass to her lips, then drained his glass again, slamming it back down on the table to refill it. “Here’s to...those stupid, battered, dilapidated vaporators that never worked. Here’s to Sandpeople—may they die in the desert. And to Jawas and their wrecked, worn-out, second-rate droids...”
He paused at this, considering a long time before taking another gulp of the liquor. “And here’s to crazy old men. And naïve kids stupid enough to listen to them. May they both disappear without a trace.”
He turned to Mara as she took a sip of the neat spirit, her nose wrinkling at its raw potency, Luke already lifting his glass in another toast.
“Here’s to ends that justify their means,” he said cryptically, and they both took another drink. Luke paused to refill his tumbler again, and Mara realized that he was going to drink himself unconscious, struggling to find something to say which would stop him, wondering if it would be better to just let him get on with it...
He turned to her, lifting his glass high—
“And here’s to Palpatine. May the black-hearted Sith-Spawn die a hard death.”
Mara jolted at the venom in his words. Though she knew that he had no great attachment to the Emperor, in the last year he’d remained by and large dutiful and trustworthy, isolated insubordinations becoming fewer and father between, so that she’d genuinely thought he was settling, finding a place for himself here in Palpatine’s exclusive and jealously envied entourage. But to say this, here—and with such fierce conviction—was tantamount to treason and it shook her to the core.
She was aware that his eyes were still on her, his glass held up expectantly... Finally, she blinked and lifted the glass to her mouth, touching the burning liquor to her closed lips.
“You didn’t drink,” he said coolly, his own glass still held high.
Mara almost—almost—drank from the glass, but her own stubborn streak cut in. “You know I can’t drink to that.”
“But you were prepared to fake it. To me.” His sharp eyes burned into her now; he seemed to have gone from half-cut to chillingly lucid in the blink of an eye, and she found she had no answer to the searching words.
He rose, draining his glass and abandoning it on the table to take the bottle instead, as he turned to walk from the room.
“You should be careful, Mara, it’s a hard thing to keep a foot in two camps. Take it from me, it’s an impossible balancing act—all you can do is fall.”