She knew; she knew before she reached the door of her apartment who was outside, and that alone was reason to raise her heartbeat. When was the last time Luke had come to her?
He looked up as the door slid aside and Mara glanced about, even more curious; he was alone. No guards, no adjutants. Alone.
"Can I come in?"
Mara stepped aside in silence, heart pounding—why did she have a feeling of dread gnawing at her now? This was it—this was her future sliding from her grasp and she had no idea how to stop it.
He followed her through the reception room into the long, open space of her main living room, glancing about as she turned to face him.
"You changed the furniture," he observed calmly, mismatched eyes taking in the familiar, comfortably proportioned room.
"Yeah, well, eighteen months is a long time." Why had she said it like that? Why had she bitten when he hadn't even told her why he was here?
He brought crystal eyes to Mara, cooled by her words, looking clean through her and down into her soul. "I should leave."
He was half-turned about when Mara spoke, and it gave her some measure of satisfaction that her words, part accusation, part betrayal, stopped him dead. "You're going to marry her, aren't you?"
Luke broke step at the wounded accusation in Mara's voice, silently wondering why he'd come here tonight; what possible misguided, illogical reasons had been running through his head? Still, he turned back; he should at least have the decency to face her when he said it. "Yes."
Luke sighed. It was so much harder now, to see the fire and the injured dignity in those forest green eyes. "Because I have to. Because the timing is right. Because it's an unmatched opportunity."
"Because you love her?"
"I don't even know her, you know that."
"Really?" There was a brittleness to Mara's voice, her foot tapping in fast staccato. "Because she seems to spend an awful lot of time here."
He almost replied and then caught himself, his own barriers raising now. "I don't have anything I feel the need to justify to you, Mara."
"And to her?"
Oh, that was a low blow. He saw her chin lift as she watched it land—wondered if she noticed the shadow of injured uncertainty which brushed his face before it was concealed. "I'm sure she's old enough to take care of herself."
"Of course. We're all adults," Mara agreed acidly.
He looked up, eyes sharp. "Do you have something you want to say?"
"To you or to the Emperor?"
Luke set his head to one side at that. "Aren't you always telling me they're one and the same?"
She had to give him that one, eyebrows arching. "Just…tell me why?"
"I just told you why," Luke said evenly. "That's it; those are my reasons, all of them. There are no others." He shrugged, realizing at last why he had come here. "I just…wanted you to know that."
They stood just a single step apart, each locked in place, Luke by his responsibilities and Mara by her pride. Seconds stretched into eons and neither spoke, neither moved, drawn together but held apart.
Finally Luke tensed his jaw, turning to leave—what had he expected?
"Don't do it." Mara's own voice surprised her, dredged up from the depths of her soul.
Luke paused without turning back. "You always wanted me to be Emperor, Mara… Well, this is what it takes to stand here, to be this person. Surely a man in this position must make his decisions based on the greater picture—based on how well they serve and what they gain him, as Palpatine did. This is what you wanted…this is it."
"This isn't what I want," she said, shaking her head.
He turned, a mixture of frustration, request and disbelief in his voice. "What you want… Should I rule an Empire on what you want—is that what you're asking?"
"No! You know it's not. Why do you do this, why do you twist everything?"
"You forget who my teacher was," he said darkly. "But I don't forget who yours was… I'm not the only one who's twisting the knife." Mara raised her chin as Luke held his ground, unmoved. "You're asking me to give up an opportunity that could save countless lives. You're asking me to make that decision, Mara—to take that responsibility. On your whim—on a personal inclination."
"Whose?" Mara asked. "Yours or mine?"
Luke paused; just a fraction of a second, but she knew he'd slipped in the heat of the moment and said too much. Still, he shook his head, refusing to be drawn. "I don't know what you really want, Mara—and I don't think you do, either."
"You!" And how could he even say that? "I've always wanted you!"
"I offered me! I asked you to leave with me the day before my accession… But you said stay. Because you always wanted both, Mara—you wanted the Emperor, but you wanted him with blue eyes and wide shoulders and—"
Mara stepped in, hand coming up in fury at the accusation; that he'd been a substitute, a surrogate.
He caught her wrist easily, holding it still before his face without effort. "You wanted the latest model, Mara—isn't that the truth?"
Oh, he knew so well how to hurt her. No one alive could cut like he did; to the quick in an instant, no mercy spared. Did she admire that too? Secretly, privately, in the darkest shadows of her heart?
He brought her arm down and she snatched it away, hand about her wrist, making him lower his eyes for an instant, a shade of guilt in his expression.
When he spoke it was calmly and quietly; in control again. "I don't want to argue, and I haven't come for your consent, or your blessing."
"Then what have you come for?"
Again that change came over him—deeper this time, in his stance, in his sense, in the blue of his eyes…
"To say I'm sorry."
"Not sorry enough, apparently," Mara bit out, and he tilted head, but said nothing.
He'd come to apologize out of respect for their past, she knew, and he'd done so. He owed her nothing more that he could see, now, so he turned to leave.
"You're a cold-hearted son of a Sith, Skywalker." The curse was out before she'd even realized it and he gave her an empty, lopsided smile, full of self-depreciation and knowing cynicism… And she laughed; she laughed because if she didn't, then she'd cry. "Stars, we're still two of the most screwed-up people I know."
The last time she'd heard that said, it had been from his mouth… She'd told him that it was lucky they'd found each other, then.
"Maybe we shouldn't have..." Luke murmured quietly in a knowing nod to that distant conversation.
"What, and miss the planet-sized gyro-coaster that's Luke Skywalker on an off-day?"
He glanced up sharply, but in good humor. "I think there may be a case of glass houses and stones there."
"Or unstoppable forces and immovable objects?" Impulsively, she reached out and ran her fingers down his cheek, across the scar there. "No one will ever come close," she murmured thoughtfully. A genuine smile came to her lips, soft and open, lost in the memory of all that they'd been.
He paused; seemed suspended in time for long moments, as if indecision held him to tense, uneasy inaction; that kinetic, wired stillness at the heart of the storm.
"This will be the most stupid thing we ever do," he murmured, blue eyes searching hers.
She frowned, tilting her head, intensely aware of their closeness. "What?"
He was there in that second, before the word had even left her mouth, arms about her, pulling her close, every inch of their bodies yielding, desiring the contact. The heat of his lips against her own drew Mara in, pulling every single thought to the act. The room, the Palace, their lives, their responsibilities…it all blurred to nothing as it always had before the thrill which burned in her chest and lit a trail down to the pit of her stomach, tightening every muscle in the buzz of addictive anticipation. Dance with me…
It was a wordless request sent out into the void—alive, tingling with need and desire and longing and craving. Too much denied for too long.
She felt his arms slide gently down, and just as she'd felt that night in the ballroom when she'd first whispered those words, his fingers trailed across her hips lighting a twist of featherlight shivers in their wake as she hitched a broken breath against his smiling lips, glowing, radiating passion, fire to fire…
Squinting against the morning light which streamed into the galleried corridor beyond, Mara opened the door of her apartment. Turis, one of Luke's adjutants, quickly pushed himself up from where he was leaning at the far wall, obviously waiting for her to appear.
"Commander Jade? I'm…I was ordered to deliver this. With the Emperor's compliments."
He made a formal bow as he spoke, offering a small, hand-sized box and adding that he'd been told by an aide that the Emperor himself had picked the bloom from the glasshouses before leaving the Palace this morning.
Inside the black gloss box was a delicate single bloom, velvet white with a ghostly luminescence. 'Evening Star' it was called, a type of orchid so-named because it lasted only one night.
Only one night. Was that the implication so delicately presented here?
Or was it a statement that the night had meant more to him—something precious?
"Did he leave a message?"
"No, ma'am," Turis replied. "No message."
Ambiguous as ever; Mara had to let loose the slightest of lopsided smiles at that.
"Thank you," she said, realizing that the adjutant was still watching her closely; that this little fact would be all over in the Palace rumor-mill by midday.
Turning, she retreated back into her quarters to place the bloom in water for the remainder of its short life. It would be the center of her thoughts for the rest of the day, but no matter what she did, by tomorrow it would be gone. The flower she would let go, but the man?
Despite everything, despite where he was right now and what he intended, she still believed that they had something worth fighting for. Everything that they'd had, she wanted back. And she was prepared to fight for it. She just didn't know how…and against greater obligations, neither did he.
So what did she do now?
If it was over, if there was nothing to salvage, he would have removed her by now, she knew that. But he hadn't, and she hadn't left—wouldn't until he dismissed her from his life entirely. And there were very probably a plethora of people telling him to do just that, right now. Offering to do it for him, more than likely.
Yet he had sent her a flower—one that he had taken the time to pick himself. Which meant he couldn't let go either; didn't want her to go.
For now that was good enough; that was worth fighting for.
"We're going where?"
Wez Reece turned from the wide sweep of viewscreens at the fore of the Patriot's command bridge, where Mara was watching him with narrowed eyes. She'd been interested to see what his reaction to the course change would be, considering that Reece had handed the Emperor's itinerary over to an unknown conspirator and now, three days out of Coruscant, Luke was about to deviate from it.
"Giju—on the Rimma Trade Route," she replied tersely. "I'm sure you've heard of it."
"Yes, I've heard of it," Reece bit out tightly. "I want to know why we're going. Our itinerary puts us at Commenor today."
"I requested the diversion to attend to military business and the Emperor agreed." Mara glanced to Admiral Joss, standing beside Reece and looking equally confused—though far more receptive. Which was hardly surprising. "You're ordered to make the course change please, Admiral."
As Admiral Joss nodded, turning to the Ship's Captain to pass the order, Reece closed on Mara. "We can't simply change the itinerary at will."
She arched an eyebrow. "Really, why? Because last time I checked Luke was still Emperor."
"What's so important on Giju that it can't wait?"
"Do you have some reason for this, Reece?" Mara parried, tempted to touch at the truth, although Luke had expressly forbidden her to make so much as a vague hint that they knew what he was really doing. "Because you seem exceptionally put out."
Reece pursed his lips, turning away. "No, of course not. But the itineraries are planned months in advance."
"We'll make a few changes and shuffle dates by a day or two. We'll probably be back on course by our homeward journey, or near enough."
In truth, Mara was quite curious as to why they were making this particular diversion too. All she knew was that Luke had called her into his ready-room on the bridge of the Patriot this morning, four days into a short, planned voyage taking in Corellia, Commenor, Nemoidia and Kuat.
Luke's well-known reluctance to remain on Coruscant when still Heir, often travelling with the fleet, had been one of the methods that he had utilized to extricate himself from Court in the early days of his reign, since Court traditionally convened only on the capital planet. It had also enabled him to build up a kind of an alternative itinerant Court of trusted advisors who had traditionally travelled as part of his entourage, further distancing Court from the daily workings of the new Empire, since no law could be passed without the Emperor's permission.
Whilst his main objective, of changing by default rather than decree the day to day running of the Empire, had been achieved, a secondary effect was that travel of this kind wasn't unusual for the Emperor. Nor were unplanned diversions—in fact, he was well known for them. But this one, for which he'd asked Mara to take responsibility in order that he could disrupt his planned itinerary without visible connection, was as much a mystery to Mara as anyone else. All she knew was that in order to put their timetable out by four days and miss one stop entirely, thus rendering the information Reece had passed on useless, Luke had told Mara to claim they needed to make an unplanned stop on Giju.
It all made perfect sense…which was why, taking into account her new practice of dismissing on principle anything Luke did which seemed undeniably plausible or patently logical, Mara knew there was something more going on.
Luke was up to something.
Just what exactly didn't become clear until they'd exited hyperspace and made orbit around Giju. Luke had remained unavailable for the remainder of that morning, effectively enabling him to avoid any questions from Reece but now, with an adjutant contacting the Emperor's ready-room to inform him that they were in orbit around Giju, Luke finally appeared on the Bridge, turning everyone's heads expectantly.
When he approached the small gaggle of officers which included Reece, Mara, Joss and Captain Kavanagh, it was the Captain who spoke first.
"Do you have a course, Excellency?"
Luke turned to Mara, mismatched eyes twinkling gamely. "Mara?"
Aware that she was supposed to have requested the change, but with no idea of what for, Mara knew damn well that Luke had put her on the spot for his own amusement, and was sorely tempted to name something outrageous just to see what he'd do. She searched her memory for any city on Giju's surface to order geostationary orbit over, but was saved when the Comm officer spoke out loudly from the sunken Ops pit.
"Sirs, I have an incoming alert from the shipyards at Fondor; they're requesting military aid. The shipyard's under attack from an unknown source."
Eyes still on Mara, Luke raised his eyebrows in the worst pretense of surprise Mara had ever seen. "Really?"
Mara narrowed her eyes, tilting her head and tapping her foot in silent disapproval as he continued, eyes smiling though he kept a straight face.
"Helm, how far is Fondor by fastest speed?"
Reece stepped forward immediately. "Sir, it's my duty to advise you against taking the Patriot into a pitch battle."
"Thank you, Reece," Luke replied without turning to him. "Your dutiful advice has been noted. Helm?"
"It's in-system, Sir." The Helm officer hesitated as the calculation came through. "Best speed is thirty-one minutes by lightspeed."
Mara grinned sweetly. "Oh, what a pity, it'll be over by the time we arrive. Hardly seems worth going."
Luke glanced down, evidencing disappointment, but not quite enough for Mara's liking. She, Nathan and Clem had been fighting a discreet, unspoken battle to wean Luke off any further front-line action in the last year, despite Luke's constant desire to remain there. It had, apparently, come to this now: Luke resorting to games within games to catch them out, clearly playing on Mara's awareness that Reece needed to be kept out of the loop in certain decisions to ensure that the Patriot would be in the right place at the right time. Because he had surely known when the Fondor attack was about to take place, emerging from his ready-room with pinpoint timing—just to let her know that she'd been played, albeit good-humouredly.
That he still found pleasure in such mischievous tricks still had the ability to amuse Mara, the edges of her lips twitching just slightly at the roguish look in his eye. Because this time, his calculations had been just slightly out; they were too far from the battle to intervene.
Luke nodded in assent, pursing his lips in disappointment as he turned away…then paused as if a thought had just occurred. "Helm, what would it take off our time to use the Gandeal-Fondor hyperlane?"
Mara narrowed her eyes, already knowing the answer; this was why they'd come to Giju. It was on the classified, military-only hyperlane created to move military hardware to and from the Fondor Shipyards. If he'd had information from Argot, Luke would never use it as patently as going directly to Fondor, but he'd want to ensure he was, just coincidentally, within easy reach.
"Sir, it would take the jump down to eleven minutes."
Luke let out a beatific smile to Mara. "Oh isn't that handy?"
"Yes," Mara nodded wryly, still tapping her foot. "Isn't it just?"
They didn't bother to set the drop-out point too closely; by chance, Fondor happened to have an operational Imperial Interdictor in its military shipyard, so they'd simply set co-ordinates to skim the outer edge of the shipyard, knowing the Interdictor's gravity well would pull them out of hyperspace right in the middle of the battle, albeit rather roughly. It wasn't what you'd call a textbook reversion, but then this wasn't a textbook situation—and off-the-page was the kind of category that Luke excelled at.
"Sir, there are about fifty snub-nose fighters and one small frigate, all using Rebel channels. The two ISD's are the Hurricane and the Sentry. The Interdictor is the Thorn."
Standing at the fore of the bridge, Luke glanced about taking in the ongoing battle, mostly small dogfights, with both Imperial Destroyers concentrating their firepower on the Rebel Frigate, which had left a wide trail of heavy damage where it had obviously opened up every gun it had on the Fondor Shipyards. Three small freighters were doing their best to stay to the fringe of the ongoing battle as all the Rebel ships powered for the invisible edge of the massive gravity well being created by the Interdictor, which presently held the Rebel ships from entering lightspeed as efficiently as it had pulled the Patriot from it.
"Are either of our Destroyers DEMP shielded?"
Luke frowned, eyes drawn to the shipyards as another massive explosion burst out of one of the covered airtight docking bays of the shipyard, collapsing quickly to nothing as it consumed the available oxygen, the small freighters rocking precariously as they ran alongside the damaged spacedocks trying to stay ahead of the frigate's guns. "Tactical, bring our DEMPs online with a one-eighty forward spread and wait for my order. Helm, bring us around the back of the fight and get us between it and the shipyards, tail to the yards. Don't open fire yet. Comm, get me the Captains of our ships—and contact the shipyards on a secure channel."
Han Solo glanced starboard as a massive blur slid into realspace, coming in like a juggernaut, several snub fighters impacting on her shields as she emerged practically in the middle of the battle.
"Great," he muttered. "Fantastic."
Where the hell had that come from? There were supposed to be no further Destroyers in attack range today. It was bad enough that the Interdictor which should have been inoperative was clearly pretty damn functional, now they had…the blur had came to an abrupt halt, solidifying into gargantuan proportions and Han cursed again.
"Flight, this is Blue Leader, we have a Super Star Destroyer just landed practically on top of us," Han said. "You got an ID on our new headache?"
"Blue Leader, no ID's being transmitted. Stand by."
"Hmm." Han grimaced as he switched channels again. "Blue Leader to Rogue Leader—your Artoo unit got a make on the gatecrasher there?"
Wedge Antilles sounded about as happy at the situation as Han felt. "Blue Leader, this is Rogue One. No, it's not transmitting. You think it has DEMP?"
"I think I don't wanna find out the hard way," Han said, juking his A-Wing away from the newcomer. This was why running sorties in the Colony Systems wasn't smart.
Wedge's voice came back on the comm seconds later. "Blue Leader? My Artoo thinks it's either the Eclipse or the Patriot."
Han grunted again, cursing under his breath. "How lucky you feelin' today?"
"All things considered, not very," Wedge replied wryly, and Han had to concur.
There were a good few Super-class Star Destroyers divided up between the Core and the Rim fleets, but as yet only four sported the new DEMP technology. The Patriot was one of them, the Eclipse, as yet, was not. And either two answered the configuration of the Destroyer which hung like judgment between them and the Fondor Shipyards.
"Could be the Annihilator too, based on its spec," Wedge said, considering.
"Not helping, Wedge," Han growled.
"Wing Leaders, this is Flight." The calm voice of mission control cut over all channels. "We still need about four minutes to get the lugs clear."
"You're kidding me, four minutes!" Han grumbled without activating his comlink. "You sit in this suicide sled for four minutes." He glanced about, identifying his wing as he flicked his comm on. "Blue flight, this is Blue Leader—you heard what the nice lady said. Let's give 'em four minutes."
"Sir, we have the Destroyer Captains online. They're requesting an ID."
Luke half-turned, "Send a coded ID only. Tell them to pull to either side of the Interdictor and box the Rebel ships in with crossfire—and tell them to concentrate fire on the Rebel frigate; it's trying to get close enough to the Interdictor to shut the gravity generators down. Then order the Interdictor to start pulling back from the shipyards, slow enough to keep the Rebels racing for the edge of the gravity cone. I want them as far away from the station as we can get them."
Mara turned, realizing what he was about to do. "You're going to fire the DEMP?"
Luke kept his eyes on the battle without speaking.
"You have two Destroyers and an Interdictor out there," Mara said. "If you fire the DEMP they'll all be in range."
"The two Destroyers can jump," Luke replied. "We'll only lose an Interdictor. And fortunately it just happens to be at an Imperial shipyard anyway." He half-turned to her, tone light. "Convenient."
Oh, he was loving this, she knew; being in the line of fire again, making split-second decisions without the endless cross-examination and deliberation required of any action taken in the Capital. She turned to look out across the ongoing battle. "How will you co-ordinate deactivating the gravity well from the Interdictor?"
"We'll charge the DEMPs and follow their lead, not the other way round," Luke said distractedly, attention on the side of the shipyards as the Patriot made a close pass to place its colossal bulk between the battle and the shattered docks of the shipyards, where huge plumes of flames still burned up the remaining oxygen from damaged bays. "Why are there freighters here?"
Mara turned. "What?"
"Freighters—why are there civilian freighters in a military shipyard?" He turned quickly to the Ops pit. "Comm, contact those freighters and tell them to power down or we'll open fire. I want them held."
"Yes, Sir. Sir, the TIE Flights are seeking permission to launch?"
"No. Contact the freighters first, then tell the TIEs they're to stay in the bays."
Han grimaced as heavy laser fire flashed past nearby, whiting out his vision and making him blink rapidly to try to clear it. He glanced to his scopes to check that his wingman was still there. "Bravo Three; Vince, you still flyin'?"
"In one piece, boss."
"Blue Leader, this is Flight," Han's earphones crackled. "We have a request from the lugs; they have a little too much attention on them right now and need a diversion."
"Roger that, Flight." Han switched channels. "Blue leads and elements; load torpedoes, let's see if we can get their attention."
The nimble A-Wing interceptors swung about, loosely closing together into three finger-four formations as they streaked towards the nearest Destroyer.
Wedge Antilles took his X-Wing in a tight twisting spiral before pulling out as close to ninety degrees as he could coax the straining fighter. Bright lances of fire shot past below him, but Wedge knew it was his wingman Wes Janson, taking the opportunity Wedge had given him to shoot down the TIE which had sat on Wedge's tail for long, agonizing seconds. Pulling up so tightly had forced the TIE to cut its speed drastically to follow Wedge, as well as getting him out of Janson's line of fire, and that had been all that his wingman had needed.
"Finally!" Wedge said into his pickup. "I thought you'd fallen asleep back there."
"Ha ha, very funny," Janson said dryly. "Next time I'll just close my eyes and fire into your flight path, huh?"
"Red Leader, could I get a bit of cover here?" It was Han; Wedge had heard Flight's request, and could already see six offensive interceptors from Blue Group dropping into a tight formation, wingmen to their edges, as they headed for the Hurricane.
"Yeah. You wanna pull a slash?" Wedge was already bringing his X-Wing about.
"Yeah, on the fore dock. You got enough ships to spare?"
"Hey, we're Rogues!" Wedge said, looking to his scope. "Rogue Group, let's form up and hide the poor little A-Wings, shall we? They're not as good a pilots as us; they need a little help now and then."
Pulling into tight formation behind them, Blue Group hid in the rear wash of the X-Wings' wide spearhead as they closed on the Destroyer, Han glancing down compulsively to check one more time that his torpedoes were armed. Almost blind, with limited sensors and comm silence, all he could do was follow close on the X-Wing's tails and wait as they ran interference, the tiny A-Wings' sensor signatures lost in the concentrated wash of the X-Wings' combined drives.
It wasn't too long; as one, the X-Wings peeled aside, taking all the Hurricane's defensive fire with them to give Han a clear, uninterrupted shot at the forward docking bays.
"Blue Group—fire all torpedoes!"
The interceptors slowed, a cluster of concussion missiles fired straight into the Destroyer's bay, so that by the time Han was twisting his fighter away, the roof of the bay was collapsing and fragmenting under the concerted bombing, the contained explosions funneled out through the open bay in a focused blast that rocked his A-Wing as he powered away with a triumphant yell.
Onboard the Patriot, the Comm officer lifted his head. "Sir, the Hurricane is reporting heavy damage. They're requesting TIE support?"
"Negative. Order all active TIEs to disengage and start pulling back past our nose. Ask the Sentry and the Hurricane to confirm they're ready for a coordinated jump, then contact the Interdictor. Tell it to collapse the gravity cone on their mark. And get the shipyard on-comm; tell them if they have any DEMP shielding to bring it online."
A fleet-wide comm cut through Han's headset as he brought his interceptor around, bracing for the incoming fire from TIEs… "All fighters, this is Flight; the lugs are clear and you are 'go' for exit. I repeat, all ships are cleared for lightspeed."
Han pursed his lips. "Yeah, could somebody tell the Interdictor that." He was practically skimming the trench which formed the inset edge of the massive Star Destroyer now, hoping to narrow the angles from which the inevitable TIE response would come…
Should come… "Red Leader—are you gettin' TIE fire?"
"Negative, Blue Leader. TIEs seem to be thinning. The Destroyers are still concentrating fire on our frigate though."
Han glanced down to his scopes, risking turning the scan system from tactical to broad for a moment. Both Destroyers were powering up for something. Han glanced again to the brooding bulk of the Super Star Destroyer, which as yet hadn't fired a single shot. On impulse, he yanked his craft around to take a sensor sweep of the immense airborne fortress. Powering up; practically off the scale. Juking away, he switched comm channels. "Flight, you got an ID on the SSD yet?"
"Negative, Blue Leader."
Wedge's voice cut in. "You think it's the Patriot?"
Han grimaced. "There's one way to find out."
"Sir," The Comm officer onboard the Patriot glanced up, voice uncertain. "We're being hailed…by a Rebel A-Wing."
Luke turned about. "An A-Wing?"
"Yes, Sir. Blue Leader's requesting to speak with the commanding officer."
A slow grin spread over Luke's face. "Put him on speaker."
"…say again, this is the Alliance A-Wing Commander requesting..."
There was a long pause, then, "I knew it!"
"We seem to have you at a slight disadvantage."
Luke suppressed a smile at Han's usual outrageous overconfidence. "Really? It seems that way to me, from the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer that's pointing straight at you."
"Yeah, well…it would."
Luke remained silent, and eventually Han's voice came on the comm again. "Listen, if we keep flyin' toward it, are you gonna keep moving that Interdictor back outta reach?"
"Why don't you try, and find out?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
"You could always try flying away from it."
"Toward you? No thanks. You're not seriously thinking of firing the DEMP, are you?"
"I'll tell you what, you tell me what you're really doing here and I'll tell you whether I'm seriously thinking of firing the DEMP."
"You fire the DEMP and you lose two Destroyers and an Interdictor."
"You know, I think I have a few other ships in my fleet."
"You're gonna lose three front-line ships for us?"
"No, I'm going to exchange one Interdictor for something else entirely. You just happen to inhabit the same space, I'm afraid."
"What the hell does that mean?" Han automatically juked the stick again as he shot out of the side-trench of the nearest Destroyer, waiting for those TIEs to pick him up…still nothing. In fact, the amount of TIEs in the field had noticeably thinned now, most of them heading away from him, powering for the Patriot.
Han frowned, glancing to the two Destroyers which boxed in the battlefield with heavy fire. Since the Patriot's arrival they'd maneuvered into key positions at the edge of the field of combat, one firing over its opposite's head, the other creating a wide barrier of heavy fire below and beneath its opposite, effectively boxing the field of combat. Now, that box was beginning to loosen slightly as both Destroyers brought their noses clear of the melee.
Brought their noses clear… TIEs had thinned… powering up…Han slowed his fighter, pulling its nose up to stare again at the Patriot, mind racing.
"You're gonna lose three front-line ships… "
"No, I'm going to exchange one Interdictor…"
Brought their noses clear…
"Lose three front line ships.."
"No …one Interdictor…"
Sith! "The Destroyers are gonna jump clear so you can fire the DEMP, aren't they?!" Han was already bringing his interceptor screaming around in a tight loop and powering back towards the nearest Destroyer, knowing that in seconds it would be gone and he'd have a clear exit to hyperspace as the Interdictor collapsed its gravity well to allow the Destroyers to hit lightspeed and escape the DEMP's crippling charge.
He could hear the smile in Luke's assured voice over the strained scream of his A-Wing's engines. "I have to go now, Han—and I suppose you'll need a short break to tell your cohorts that yes, the Destroyer they're looking at does indeed have DEMP capability."
Han paused... Fact was, he'd toggled the comm to broadcast this conversation over the open Alliance channel moments after Luke had first answered, so there was a slightly apologetic tone to next words. "You're already patched through to the fleet."
All around Han, other Rebel craft were reorienting and pushing for safety, their frigate taking the insane risk of turning directly into the path of the Star Destroyer's fire…
Onboard the Patriot, Luke smiled for a second, tilting his head. "Ah. Well then, there's nothing more to be said. I'll speak to you shortly, Han."
"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute…"
"Comm, cut the transmission. Order the Hurricane and the Sentry to lightspeed. Inform the Thorn to collapse the gravity cone on their mark."
"Sir, we have confirmation from all three ships."
"Do it. Tactical, set a one-eighty spread, single DEMP pulse….." Luke paused, waiting for the brief flicker of motion from the Destroyers which forewarned their jump to lightspeed. "... Fire."
Han's dead A-Wing drifted randomly in the ominous silence, one of a myriad of small fighters tumbling helplessly without power, the light of the Fondor Shipyards picking out their angled surfaces as they spun slowly, no way to correct their arbitrary drift. He'd spent the last minute or so letting loose a string of curses in Corellian, Bocce and Huttese, and had stopped now only because he'd run out of words.
Releasing his now pointless joystick, he brought his hands up to rub his face…and his small A-Wing jolted with teeth-rattling impact, jostling Han in the flight harness he wore. "What the hell?"
The darkened battlefield before him began to slowly retreat, and it took a few disorienting seconds for Han to realize that he was being pulled backwards by a tractor beam. Luke's last words, forgotten in the heat of the moment, came keenly back to mind: "I'll speak to you shortly, Han."
So this was just turning out to be a great day, Han reflected wryly.
Standing upright on the seat of his A-Wing as its canopy opened in the Patriot's massive bay, he’d been greeted by the sight of six stormtroopers, blasters already raised, motioning for him to get out. Another four full rows of blue-pauldroned troopers stood at-ready close by, without looking at him, but he figured that could change real quick if he made a wrong move. Slowly, hands up, he climbed out. One of the nearest troopers reached to take the blaster from his hip-holster as he stepped to the polished bay floor. They must have quite a collection of his blasters by now, Han reflected irreverently.
The massive bay-doors which would be kept sealed in battle in case of decompression, began cycling open…and the reason for those four full rows of parade-ready troopers became clear. Walking calmly into the bay, that lithe redhead one step behind him as ever, was Luke.
Hands still above his head, Han tried a wide grin as the kid closed. “Hey…is this a good time to remind you about that thing you said—something about there being complications to every friendship but that shouldn’t exclude ‘em?”
“Did I say that?” That flawless Coruscanti accent; so perfect that even Han sometimes wondered… Luke came to a halt as the six stormtroopers stepped back to either side of him, guns still aimed squarely on Han.
He tried another grin. “Yeah…I distinctly remember.”
Luke frowned. “I seem to remember saying something about us always seeming to meet on Star Destroyers, but…”
He was looking Han up and down as he spoke, taking in his pilot’s attire. The slightest of smiles twitched at the corner of the kid’s scarred lips and Han knew he was biting down on the temptation to make comment. “Go on, say it,” he invited.
“Didn’t you tell me piloting for the Alliance was suicide?”
Remembering well his warning to Luke just before the kid had flown against the Death Star, Han tried his best lopsided smile. “Yeah, right after I offered you a get-out. Care to do the same?”
Luke set his head to one side in a half-shrug, doing a passable imitation of a Corellian accent. “You’re pretty good in a fight, I could use you.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Han said.
Luke studied him for a few seconds, that half-smile tempered by shrewd blue eyes…then the moment of amity was broken as he turned quickly away. “Come on. I have a job for you.”
Great; any Rebel agents here and that sounded just great. “Do you actually try to make me look bad?”
Luke didn't even pause. “Were you actually trying to destroy my shipyard?”
“That’s not the point. You…wait–” Han turned quickly. “The fighters still out there, what are you gonna do with them?”
Luke half-turned to the span of open space beyond the atmospheric shields. “Do with them? Nothing.”
“You’re just gonna leave them out there? They’re gonna run out of air pretty damn quick.”
“Yes, I would imagine so—if the cold doesn’t kill them first.”
For a second, Han felt his anger rise…but he knew the kid better than that. “Nah, you’re not gonna leave ‘em out there.”
“Believe me, I am sorely tempted.”
“But you’re not gonna do it.”
“That depends on you.”
Luke turned away and started walking, and the sharp-eyed redhead motioned for Han to follow with a curt jerk of her head. If looks could kill, he’d already be down, Han knew.
He glanced to the troopers then set forward, walking for a few paces before uncertainly dropping his hands and glancing back to the trooper who still held his blaster. “Don’t lose that—I’m gonna want it back.”
Back in those dark, opulently furnished quarters that Han had visited last time he’d been onboard the Patriot, he studied Luke with the same open, nonjudgmental regard as the kid studied him. He wanted to think that Luke looked exactly the unchanged; that the last eighteen months hadn’t really touched him at all...but considering the maelstrom of events since their last talk that could never be true, and with the best will in the world, Han knew it.
Still, it would be easy to look at Luke now and see a man possessed of a confident, composed calm, the slightest edge held under strict restraint, absolutely under control of both himself and his surroundings. Most people probably did. To Han, he looked tired, dark circles beneath those pale, mismatched eyes, his slim frame held taut, everything locked up tight, nothing revealed despite their years of close friendship.
“So how’s things?” He had to open with something, Han figured; may as well be that.
“Well, y’know, not so much today. Started off that way, but I ended up just hangin’ around.”
“Does around you,” Han said wryly.
Luke looked away, almost as if embarrassed. “You’re flying A-Wings now?”
Han stifled a smile at the kid’s hasty change of subject; still got flustered when people complimented him then. “Yeah—I know, I know; bone-rattling suicide sleds.”
Han shrugged, already settling, lulled into a sense of casual comfort by Luke's familiar traits and by the kind of talk that any two pilots anywhere would have. “I’d fly the Falcon if they’d let me.”
Luke let out a slight laugh. “A fighter-wing of YT freighters—that I’d like to see.”
“Hey, ain’t nothin’ wrong with YT freighters. I’ve taken Leia in under many’s a blockade with the old bird.” Han pursed his lips, aware that his sense of familiarity had loosened his tongue. “Probably shouldn’t have told you that, should I?”
Luke glanced down, uncomfortable, a split-second too much silence straining the moment. “You think I’d hurt Leia?”
“At what point was putting her neck in the noose by tricking her into meeting the ruler of the Empire on Devaron considered completely safe?”
“We all take risks for what we believe in.”
“Yeah, but most of us like to take ‘em knowingly,” Han said, a touch of reproach in his voice.
Luke took it without offense. “Leia knew she was taking a risk in meeting any Imperial informer. She gained more from me than she ever could have gained from any fleet officer—if she chooses to take it.”
Han hesitated. “Leia's figuring you won’t want to speak again, because of…this.”
“The way I’m not speaking to you now?”
“I’ll point that out to her…as soon as I get back.”
The kid didn’t miss his meaning. “I’d never try to hold you here, Han—you’re too much trouble.”
“An art I’ve taken years to perfect.” All the same, Han felt the tightness in his chest ease just slightly—then felt a pang of guilt that he'd believed for even a second that the kid might try to do so.
They both smiled momentarily, the silence hanging a fraction too long again.
“So, really, how’s things?” He had to ask—because despite Luke's carefully presented veneer of calm and confidence, he still had that unsettling aura of wired restlessness about him, that insular distraction.
“Busy,” Luke repeated—but the tone in his voice had changed, and there was a weight to the word this time which spoke volumes.
Han stared for a moment, then looked quickly away. His attention was taken by the view down the endless stretch of the Patriot’s apex and to the dotted glints of the Rebel fighters beyond, uncertain how to voice his concern. Whatever he’d thought to even try was left unspoken as the kid spoke on quickly, his brusque voice rejecting any hint of sympathy before it was offered. “Fortunately, for those few minutes a day I get to myself, I can rely on you to fill them.”
Han shrugged, taking the hint. "You could'a just not come,” he said lightly.
“You could have just not tried to blow up my shipyard,” Luke replied in kind.
“What, like you'd miss one.”
“Not really the point.”
Han looked again to the dotted glints that were the Rebel fighters. “You know, I think this has got to be the first time ever that we’ve met, where you didn’t win hands down.”
“Don’t get too excited,” the kid said wryly, clearly not sharing Han's opinion of the outcome. “The game’s not over yet. I am mildly curious as to what you were actually doing though.”
“I thought we never discussed work.”
“I don’t remember saying that.”
“You said a friendship could lie outside of the actions we have to take.”
“I say a lot of strange things,” Luke said good-humoredly.
“Made perfect sense to me.”
“Well then, you’re one of the few.” There was a wry irony to his voice, a sense of someone under siege, though Han knew if he tried to pursue it he’d be shot down.
Instead he turned to look at the distant battlefield, the fighters little more than fragmented diffractions at this distance, the scene strangely serene. Two tugs from the shipyards were gliding silently towards the dead, black bulk of the Imperial Interdictor, their bright running lights catching Han's eye.
“Must be getting pretty cold out there,” he said, thinking of his fellow pilots.
Luke stared out again at the distant specks. “Yes…”
Han studied Luke, uncertain. “So what are you planning to do with them?”
The kid half-shrugged, his demeanor switching swiftly to something far more professional and detached. “As I said, it all depends on you.”
“Go on?” Why did he have a bad feeling about this?
“There’s a comlink on my desk. You need to speak to your superiors—”
Han grinned. “Seriously? You think I’m gonna connect one of your comlinks to an Alliance Command frequency?”
The kid gave one of those tell-tale little shrugs. “Not at all; we’ve already connected you to the Rebel base-ship that was operating as Flight Control—Home One, I believe. You just need to tell them that you’re speaking from the Patriot, and tell them what happened. Tell them how many of their ships are dead in space… Then tell them that I will personally guarantee their safe passage to and from the battleground to retrieve their men. The Patriot will pull back to a distance of three thousand clicks to witness this and to ensure that no further damage is inflicted on the Shipyards, but they have my word that we will not open fire unless provoked.”
Han just stood for a long moment, staring, but the kid’s face remained absolutely neutral, whatever was going on behind that mask completely hidden. “…You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“They won’t be allowed to salvage the frigate," Luke continued, all business. "But the one-man fighters may be taken into whatever transport they send.”
“What if they won’t come?”
Luke’s voice remained completely neutral. “Then all their men die. By their own hand, not mine.”
Han shook his head. “They won’t do it.”
Now Han was growing wary too. “You’re making them put more ships under the Patriot’s guns.”
“I’m not making them do anything. I’m offering them an opportunity.”
“You’re backing them into a corner. If they don’t come and those pilots out there die then they’re to blame—and I’m sure you’ll make that known, won’t you?”
“I’ve given them my guarantee—why would they not come?”
Han didn’t miss Luke’s avoidance of the question. “Why are you doing this—just tell me why? The truth.”
Luke seemed to pause a second, considering, then he glanced down, voice quieter, less guarded. “You know what I said to Leia; this has to end. All of it. This is the Patriot, the Imperial flagship, and the Emperor is onboard. Everything this ship does is a public statement of Imperial intent…and we are standing down to allow you to retrieve your injured from battle. We're making an official, formal concession, the first we’ve ever made to the Alliance. Simply by doing it, we’re acknowledging your existence.”
Spoken in those terms, Han suddenly understood the relevance of what Luke was doing—and the risks. “That’s a big gamble.”
“I’ll deal with the repercussions, they’re not your concern.” Luke shook his head as he walked around the far side of the polished desk, pressing the inset comlink. “Comm, this is the Commander. Order Helm to take us back to a distance of three thousand clicks and hold there. And open a link on channel zero-one-zero.”
“Yes, Sir. Scramble the channel?”
“Yes. Use an active Rebel code.”
There was a brief click as the comm disconnected to hold, in which time Han studied Luke closely, mind racing at the knowledge that the kid had such information…then a second pip reconnected the line, and Luke took a half-step back in anticipation. Han looked to the comlink set into that flawlessly polished desk, Luke’s distorted image mirrored in its deeply reflective finish, his eyes steady on Han. It occurred to him only now that he was putting his own neck on the line too. But then, Luke had already done that for him, in bringing him here at all. Again, in fact, with his words in the hangar—and again in asking Han to pass on the message right now. Would Madine and his cronies seriously believe Han when he said that the Empire already had this frequency and this scramble code?
Then again, the kid was taking a serious and very real gamble that his own military would continue to stand by him when this got out…
Han hesitated just slightly. “You know if she accepts this, Leia's taking the same gamble?”
“Yes,” Luke said simply.
Han sighed, searching Luke's eyes for some reassurance. “Is she doing the right thing, if she does?”
Luke held his eye without speaking.
"If I persuade her to...am I?"
Still Luke said nothing, but then Han hadn't really expected him to. Whether he was lying or not, the only answer he could've given was yes, and in every talk they'd had, the kid had shown time and again that he wouldn't be made to validate his sincerity. Han looked to the comlink. “So this is a direct comm—to Home One.”
Han lifted the comlink mic to his mouth as if he thought it might reach out and bite him, then depressed the connection. “This is Wing Commander Solo, who am I speaking to?”
There were a few seconds of silence, then, “Commander Solo? Sir, this is Ensign Newir Lestin. Can you give me your co-ordinates, Sir, we’ve lost contact with the task-force.”
Lestin, Lestin… Han knew the name, and was running through his memories trying to pull out a face… Lestin! Yeah, the short Twi’lek, kinda bluey-green. “We’re right where we were, Ensign. We just ran out of juice.”
“…Sir?” the young voice said, uncertain. “Sir, we’ve had a partial communication from General Madine. He confirmed that all the lugs are clear but there’s been no further communi…”
“Just shut up and listen; don’t say anything. I’ve been taken onboard the SSD Patriot. I’m speaking to you right now on a line they supplied. You need to contact Chief Organa and get her on this line.”
The comlink went to standby and Han looked up. For a second he stared, uncertain what exactly had changed in the kid’s stance…whatever it was, it was gone in an instant, his voice coolly casual. “Madine was here?”
“Yeah, and you know what? The kinda trouble he’s been stirring up in the last twelve months, if you’d’ve commed me ten minutes earlier, I’d have pointed his ship out and told you to have some fun.”
“Madine was here, in a ship which cleared the battlefield…" For a second Luke's words made Han wonder whether mention of Madine had caused that subtle change, then he realized that Luke was barely listening as he continued, mind clearly racing to connect the dots on the scant information he’d been accidentally supplied. "Which means that he’s not onboard that frigate, because the frigate is still here and Madine isn’t. Which means that the frigate wasn’t the main ship of your task-force…because whatever he came for, Madine wouldn’t have left unless he was taking it with him. Whatever his mission was, the main objective was accomplished.” Those shrewd eyes came up to Han with a new intensity. “You said that yourself, Han—you said I hadn’t won this one, and your Ensign just said the lugs were clear. What’s a lug, Han? Because I’m betting Madine made it out on a lug, didn’t he? Lug’s clearly a coded ID for something…what?”
Han straightened, freshly cautious, deeply aware of the change in the kid’s voice, in his stance, in the pattern of his speech. Still, he tried to brush it aside. “Hey, I just do as I’m told. We grunts don’t get the details—especially if Madine's runnin’ the show. We don’t have ‘em, we can’t pass ‘em on.” It was a gamble, he knew; if Luke chose to read his mind…but he wouldn’t do that. Not to Han. And it would do him no good anyway; Han knew only that his mission was to buy time for and protect the lugs, not what their objective was.
Luke’s eyes skipped away as he continued. “Lug…lug nut. Lugg Space Platform, lug-set array…” The kid frowned, looking for connections, thinking aloud. “Lug…carry, move…”
This close, Han kept his face straight; ordered himself not to think, not to listen, not to react. What little he knew wasn’t enough to provide the whole picture, but he sure wasn’t about to hand out any further clues.
Then again, the kid seemed to be doing fine without them, already looking back to him, tensing with each word. “Lug; haul, move, transport.”
He was backing up again to that wide polished desk, flicking on the internal comlink. “Ops, this is the Commander.”
“Do you have a status on the three civilian freighters I told you to detain?”
There was a short pause, and when the man came back on the line, Han could practically hear him blanch. “Sir, the freighters are no longer here. They must have remained close to the Shipyard at our tail and the DEMP charge was concentrated forward.”
Luke lifted his head—and just as he had on the crippled Destroyer when Han had gone after Mothma and met Luke, Han saw the other side of that cool, insular calm come to the fore; the edge that was held in check beneath those polished shields. His eyes hardened as his jaw tightened, his stillness more threatening than any outburst could be. “You let them get away?”
“Sir, they were ordered to heave to, but…”
Luke’s hand, on the edge of the desk, tightened until his knuckles whitened. “Was the order to hold them passed on to Tactical?”
“I’m…not sure at this...”
“Not sure? It was your responsibility to pass the order.”
“Sir, I…co…” The unseen man stuttered his words over the comm, seeming to gasp, winded.
Han frowned, eyes going to Luke, who remained stock still, jaw tight, pale eyes locked on the desk before him without seeing. A commotion sounded over the comlink, other voices being picked up over the comm as they neared, the occasional word crystal clear: “… bleeding!” “…coughing blood…”
Suddenly a woman’s voice came on over the choking gurgle of the unknown man. “Luke, is this you? Luke?”
Luke remained wrapped in that kinetic stillness, every muscle taut…the comm sounded again, the woman almost shouting. “Luke?!”
He straightened, whirling about to look directly at Han, the sounds of gasping coming over the comlink as the unknown officer was suddenly able to draw breath again. Han heard no more as Luke flicked off the comm, accusing eyes turning to him. “What were they doing?”
Han stared for long seconds, unable to believe the lightning fast change in the kid’s temper. Against their dark shadows, his eyes seemed unnaturally bright now, glowing almost.
“Han, don’t mess with me. What were the freighters doing?”
Han shook his head. “What the hell is wrong with you?! That was you, wasn’t it? That was you who...”
“I’ll ask you one last time—what were the freighters carrying?”
Han took a breath to shout—and for a fraction of an instant he felt intense pressure on the inside of his head, burning in pinpoint pain, as if there were tiny explosions bursting beneath the surface. A rush of adrenaline burned the back of his throat as he flinched, staggering back— Then it was gone completely, within the space of a single heartbeat, and Luke backstepped, forcing himself to back down as his brow knitted into a deep frown of realization; an exercise in willpower over temper.
“Don’t answer,” Luke said quickly, voice hoarse. “Don’t answer that. I didn’t…” He broke off, shaking his head in self-censure as he fell back into the desk’s chair, resting his head in one hand to cover his face without looking up, fingers pressed against his temples.
The pip of the external comlink seemed loud in the tense silence. When Luke made no move to answer, Han eventually reached forward himself, flicking the channel open. “Solo.”
“Han?” Leia's voice was filled with concern. “Han, are you okay?”
“..... I’m fine, just fine.”
The edge of fear didn’t go from her voice. “The Ensign said…” she didn’t finish, as if by not speaking it aloud, she could render it untrue.
“I’m onboard the Patriot…with Luke.” Leia didn’t speak, and Han launched into the whole story: the DEMP, the crippled task-force, the unprecedented offer Luke had made to let them retrieve their people, everything.
And through it all Luke remained silent, head down, lost in his own thoughts. Occasionally he shook his head again just slightly, all confidence gone, that insular focus which kept him so removed from everyone around him slipping…and Han just watched as he spoke to Leia, wondering if the kid knew how vulnerable he looked right now.
Vaguely, he became aware of Leia's voice again. “So you’re onboard the Patriot now, Commander Solo?”
“And the Emperor is in the room with you?” Han could hear the tight formality in her voice; there must be others in the room with her, listening. That was probably why she hadn’t once spoken to Luke...probably.
“I’m lookin’ at him right now.” It occurred to Han to wonder in that moment if it stung the kid, that Leia wouldn’t even acknowledge him.
Luke raised his head to look at Han with haunted eyes, as Leia hesitated only a fraction of a second.
“In your informed opinion, Commander Solo, bearing in mind the risks…do you believe we can trust the Emperor in this?”
Han looked into Luke’s eyes, but the kid glanced immediately down, hand to his dropped head again... But really, it wasn’t a difficult decision, even now. “…Yeah. Yeah, I think you can trust him.”
Luke rose at this, turning to walk quickly and stand in silence before the wide viewport, arms wrapped about himself, obviously deeply uneasy. Han watched him remain like that for the length of his conversation with Leia, not moving even when he signed off. The silence hung for long seconds, the kid seeming unaware.
“They’ve agreed,” Han said simply, not even sure whether Luke had registered the fact, so agitated was he. “There’re three frigates close enough to make the retrieval. They’ll be here shortly.”
Luke nodded without turning, as if unable to meet Han's eyes, seeming now the polar opposite of that calm, confident man who’d walked into the docking bay.
Han stared, no idea what to say to diffuse this. “Listen, I’ve taken more than one swing at a friend before now, not meaning any…”
“I could have killed you.” His voice was quiet and weary and wired.
“But you didn’t.” The kid didn’t turn, so Han tried again. “So you made a mistake, it happens. You learn, you move on.”
Luke finally turned to meet his eye. “Would you be saying this if it had been Leia?”
Han stopped dead, and Luke looked away, eyes to the distance as the massive Destroyer slowly turned, maneuvering ponderously back.
“You should go,” Luke said.
Han hesitated, torn now between his worry for Leia’s safety and Luke's sanity—because the tone in the kid's voice sounded disturbingly like he was voicing a genuine fear.
The door behind him opened of its own accord and after a moment Wez Reece entered, effectively ending the conversation, his tone as unyieldingly polite as ever. “This way please, Commander Solo.”
Han held still, eyes on Luke, looking for some way to...
“You should go,” Luke repeated, voice no more than a whisper.
Luke stood alone on the bridge of the Patriot as he watched the three unknown Rebel craft working to extricate their people. Han had gone, returned to his A-Wing when the Rebel frigate first arrived, preferring with his usual stubbornness to be cast adrift and wait his turn rather than be returned to the Rebel frigate in an Imperial shuttle. Luke couldn't say he blamed him; he would have done the same.
Two of the three Rebel frigates were turned towards the Patriot as the third continued its rescue. A pointless gesture to have the two ships there for protection, Luke reflected distantly, since he’d already proved their vulnerability by destroying the task-force. But he could understand their nervousness. Yet they’d still come. Had to come—which was why he had done it, of course. He’d made the Rebel Alliance publicly deal with him—with the Empire. Coerced Leia into relying on his word alone to get her people out.
So in a way he’d gained everything he needed from the encounter; he’d forced the Alliance to deal with him and forced Leia to place trust in him, however reluctantly… But there’d been a price. He hadn’t anticipated Han's being here—or his own reaction when he’d realized that Madine had also been here, however briefly. When he’d realized their mission was a success.
It was easy for Han to dismiss Luke’s momentary lapse; he didn’t know how close Luke had come, how easy it would have been for Luke to unleash his anger, how quickly he could have killed, how cleanly…or how brutally, how sickeningly. Probably didn’t know how close all those pilots out there had come either. Because as sure as Han was that Luke wouldn’t have injured him, he'd been equally sure that Luke wouldn’t have let the Rebel pilots die.
Far more so than Luke himself was.
The real cost of this exercise, of course—the repercussions of both his own actions in allowing their retrieval, and the Rebels’ success in their unknown mission—had yet to be felt and dealt with, Luke knew.
Mara whispered up behind him, her russet hair a vivid reflection in the curve of the bridge viewport. Luke remained silent; there was nothing he could say that would put her mind at rest. She glanced down, considering, then her eyes followed his, staring out at the bright specks of the distant Rebel ships involved in the recovery.
When she finally spoke her voice was quiet, for him alone. “Did you know there was going to be a raid?”
“Yes,” Luke replied simply.
“Do you think Reece knew?” It was of greater importance than it first seemed, Luke knew. Because if Reece too had known, then that meant that the information he was handing over was probably to the Rebellion.
Luke shrugged. “He seemed as surprised as the rest of you were—and I was watching him closely. But that could simply mean that he’s handing over information without knowing how or what will be utilized. But I got the tip-off of the raid from Argot, not from Reece’s head, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Standing this close to him, Mara could practically feel the tense frustration roll off him in waves, though outwardly he seemed as self-possessed as ever. She hesitated, resisting the urge to glance behind her, though she knew that no one was close enough to hear their murmured conversation. Wez Reece had that damn ‘quiet mind’ that Palpatine had chosen him for in the first place, but still… “Can’t you read who he’s handing it over to?”
Luke had, as ever, an answer for everything. A validation for anything he didn’t want to do. “No, not unless he makes a slip, and he’s not in the habit of doing that. I could sit him in a chair, tell him that I know he’s the mole and ask him repeatedly, naming every institution he could possibly be in contact with, and when I named the right one I’d know, whether he tried to cover it up or not. But that’s not a route I want to take—not yet. I’d rather use him to pass false information back and see where it resurfaces first.”
Mara exhaled briefly, reining in her annoyance. “You know you’re taking an unreasonable risk, don’t you?”
He glanced to her. “That’s what I have you for, Red. You get me out of the scrapes.”
“I’d rather stop you getting into them,” Mara retorted. When Luke didn’t speak, she sighed. “Why Solo—why did it have to be Solo you brought onboard?”
She’d said nothing in the docking bay, of course, but at the time, Mara had been fuming; it was bad enough that Solo actually had the gall not only to comm the Patriot, but to ask for Luke. Bad enough that Luke had chosen to acknowledge his own presence onboard the Patriot in pitch battle, however assured the outcome. For Luke to have then brought Solo's fighter onboard so that he could have a second, undisclosed talk with him was infinitely worse, as Luke’s present disposition proved.
Given the option and Luke’s absence, Mara would have used Solo’s disclosure of his own attendance today to blow his fighter out of the sky without even a moment’s hesitation. Solo was trouble; he always had been. He had that air about him in the first place, and when you put him together with Luke, it increased tenfold. She hadn’t forgotten that Luke had risked his neck to get the Corellian out of the Imperial Palace six years ago, and Luke’s claim that Solo had afforded Palpatine too much of a hold over him had rung a little too perfectly plausible for Mara’s liking. The Corellian had remained another complication in Luke's already-complicated life, one whom Luke already made too many allowances for—and she didn’t like to think he still had that kind of influence on Luke.
Luke didn’t turn now at Mara’s obvious frustration, his voice quiet and even. “It had to be Solo because I knew Leia Organa would listen to him, and I knew he’d listen to me. Otherwise there’s no way she would have put more Rebel ships at risk. No way I could have made her do that.”
Mara shook her head. “I don’t like it when everything’s perfectly logical, not with you. It makes me nervous.”
Luke half-turned, amused at her admission, his mood lightening just a fragment as his soft rim-world accent came to the fore. “Any time you want me to devolve into total recklessness just let me know. I’m sure I can come up with something spectacularly less rational than letting a spy keep operating right under my nose and allowing the Rebels to retrieve their trapped forces to throw at me another day. This is an average week for me, Red.”
“Don’t even joke about it.” Mara shook her head ruefully, turning back to the distant recovery operation. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I,” Luke murmured quietly in reply, his humor dampening slightly.
Mara turned to glance at the bridge crew in the pits, keeping her voice low. “Lieutenant Commander Arin is recovering in sick bay.”
Luke looked away immediately, his sense cooling several degrees.
“Lieutenant Commander Arin is a very lucky man.” There was no trace of regret in his now-distant voice, that flawless Coruscanti accent reinstated. “He’s to be relieved of front-line duty and demoted on a charge of incompetence. He can retain his commission but he’s to be transferred to a non-active fleet position. Put him planetside—somewhere he can’t do any more damage.”
Mara couldn’t disagree with him; Arin had blundered spectacularly. If he couldn’t keep his cool in the heat of a battle then he didn’t deserve to serve on a Destroyer, particularly not this one. Still, “He...”
“He changed the course of a battle and may have rendered everything I’ve undertaken today worthless. Now I’m forced to spend hours of my own, my advisors’ and my Intel units’ valuable time trying to unravel the Rebellion’s objectives and gains, and more importantly the repercussions of its success. He’s lucky my father isn’t here.”
In insular moments like this, when he seemed to purposely place himself beyond any emotions, Luke remained as much an enigma to Mara as he’d always been. “Sometimes I look at you and I see Palpatine so clearly.”
He turned… She had expected some passionate denial or some cutting retort. But instead he simply looked to her with no trace of emotion before turning away, eyes the pale, cold blue of ice. For a moment she thought he was watching the distant rescue taking place at his mercy, but then realized that he was staring at his own reflection in the viewport, eyes half-closed in consideration, voice less than a murmur. “Sometimes…so do I.”
The large, functional boardroom adjacent to the Admiral’s ready-room to the rear of the Patriot’s imposing bridge fielded the post-battle analysis by the inner elite of the new Empire, everyone looking for motives—as much for the Emperor's reaction as the Rebel’s attack. Not that anyone would be so impolitic as to say so out loud. The new Emperor was widely known as a reasonable, rational man, but he still had a spark of his predecessor in him, and in the right frame of mind, it could easily ignite.
Now, everyone was looking to the small table-top holo of the general manager of the Fondor Shipyards, trying to decipher the facts.
“So the sections which bore the brunt of the main Rebel attack weren’t military?” Admiral Joss asked from his position at the long table, frowning.
About him, sporting equally worried and uncertain faces as they clawed the facts together, were Wez Reece and Nathan Hallin, along with Clem Vassigo, Captain Kavanagh and of course, Commander Jade.
The sprawling Fondor Shipyards, whilst mostly taken over by the military early in Palpatine’s reign, still had sections which catered to the civilian market, and what interested everyone at that table right now, was the fact that the attack had seemed to concentrate there.
“No, sir,” the general manager confirmed, looking harassed even in this small holo. “The last section to be attacked was military, but it was an empty dock. We were fortunate that their frigate was intercepted so quickly.”
Captain Kavanagh turned to Luke, who sat at the head of the table, himself trying to wrestle some kind of sense from the scant facts. “The Hurricane and the Sentry were both outside of their normal duty roster when the battle commenced, so they were close enough to respond.”
Not really that surprising, Luke knew; expecting the attack, he’d taken care to place them within response distance days ago. Normally it would have been something he would inform Reece of and leave the details to him, but this time he’d been forced to make the changes himself and cover his involvement, delaying the schedules of the two Destroyers just enough to keep them close by.
“And they attacked no other area?” Luke asked now, baffled.
“The Hurricane was the first on the scene, and it forced the Rebel frigate to withdraw, otherwise they would almost definitely have continued their bombardment of the shipyards,” Captain Kavanagh rationalized.
“So they were interrupted,” Luke clarified, reaching forward to cut the audio link with the shipyards.
“Yet we know that they still completed their mission.”
Mara’s eyes narrowed. “We have only Solo’s word for that.”
Luke shook his head. “No, the Rebel Comm Officer onboard Home One confirmed to Solo that the lugs were clear; whatever they needed, they’d gotten.”
They’d all listened to the comm recording between Solo and Home One repeatedly, everyone trying to decipher the facts, a copy already sent to Arco, the Intel Chief, to see what he could pull from it.
“They were here to remove something from the Shipyard,” Luke reiterated. “Everything else was to cover their tracks.”
“It would suit Madine’s psyche profile,” Clem acknowledged. “He would try to confuse the facts as much as possible to hide the motive.”
“Why not just try to smuggle it out—or steal it?” Nathan asked.
Luke shook his head. “He’s a soldier; he fights. This is how he deals with a problem.”
“He smuggled the duplicate DEMPs out at Col Din,” Nathan reminded.
“Madine wasn’t in charge of that operation,” Luke corrected. “Mothma was.”
“So Organa should have been in charge of this one.”
“But she wasn’t,” Luke said with certainty. “If she had been, Solo would have known more. Madine was working on his own.”
“But with her permission.”
“Yes,” Luke confirmed. Han had also said Leia had been worried that Luke wouldn’t wish to continue their meetings after this, so she must have been aware that a mission was about to take place. “But Madine was interrupted today. Whatever he wanted, he’d already taken, then begun to destroy the evidence, including all the security feeds, which came down minutes before the attack started. Then he started to cause general mayhem to cover up his objective. ” He looked back to the holo, reconnecting the audio. “The destroyed civilian sections—what exactly did they hold?”
The nervous general manager looked down to his autoreader; it wasn’t every day one spoke to the Emperor. “They were mostly storage. Only one of the bays actually had any work being done in it, Sir.”
“Work on what?”
“Deep space mining ships. Just upgrades to existing four-man miners. All the ships are damaged but accounted for.”
“You say the other bays were storage—for what?” Clem asked, searching for clues.
“It would have to be small enough to load in minutes,” Luke added. “And mobile enough to be moved by hand or with light-load droids.”
The manager scanned down the list, a copy of which was already on the autoreader in front of Luke. “Of what’s unaccountable for—and we haven’t been able to gain access to the damaged areas yet—our best guess here is that they’ve removed a quantity of TSC. We store it in its basic compound here, so–”
“Wait, TSC?” Mara asked.
“Tensile strength composite. It’s an additive used in building work and in alloys for shielding heavy, deep-space vessels for more rigorous work such as asteroid mining and demolition. It’s used when a great deal of strength is required for physical rather than power-based shielding. But it has to be mixed with an aggregate. It used to be used extensively in the fabrication of high-end military vessels due to its weight to strength ratio, but it’s been replaced in the last five years, though it’s still occasionally used as an alloy in deep-space vessels. What we had here was old stock.”
Nathan frowned. “So they stole an obsolete additive?”
Luke was shaking his head. “Is there anything else, anything unaccounted for?”
“Nothing which would be easily removable, Sir.”
“You’re sure? Nothing could have been taken from another part of the shipyard in the hours leading up to the attack, and placed in those bays ready for collection?”
“We’ve been checking what security footage we have, Sir, for the week leading up to the attack. And of course you’ve been provided with copies of the same.”
Everyone fell to silence, until Nathan, with his usual compulsive need to understand everything around him, asked, “So, the composite…?”
“It’s a meta-fiber which increases the yield strength in sheet or cast alloys,” the manager said patiently. “It was used a great deal in aramid derivatives, but it’s been all but replaced by pro-para-aramids in the last few years, which are a fraction of the price.”
“Could it be needed for the repair of an existing warship?” Nathan asked.
The manager shook his head. “Conceivably, though I can’t think of an instance where pro-para-aramids couldn’t be substituted at a fraction of the cost.”
“Other uses?” Luke prompted.
The manager hesitated. “Very little save heavy military. It’s been used in specialist construction occasionally in the past; high-stress units where weight wasn’t an issue but structural integrity was paramount, such as military front-line bunkers. It can form a high-density cast composite which is near bomb-proof, but the cost would be enormous.”
“Physical shielding…” Luke frowned; why in the galaxy would they want that? No matter how good it was, at the end of the day there was no base which could withstand sustained aerial bombardment and even if it could, for the Rebels to create one and consider using it would be ridiculous; they’d be trapping themselves in a stationary fortress against a larger enemy; they’d effectively have made their own tomb. They maintained what effectiveness they had through their mobility—to give that up was suicide. “Other uses?”
“Absolutely none, Sir. It’s a tensile additive and nothing more, and that outdated.”
“How moveable is it in its present form?”
“Very, Sir. Until it’s mixed with an aggregate, a man could easily lift two barrels. But as I say, it’s not really used anymore; it’s been replaced by materials better suited to aerospace use.”
“How much is missing—or more importantly, how much could it be reconstituted into?
“It would depend on its use, but really very little. If it were being recombined as physical shear-strength in hull plating, not nearly enough to plate the hull of a single frigate.”
“How many fighters—snub-nose?”
“It couldn’t be used in inter-atmospheric craft, Sir; its weight would prohibit it. And even in deep-space fighters, the thickness that the hull plates would have to be cast to would prohibit its use in small craft.”
Luke covered his eyes as he tried to think, out of options. “Vehicles—land-based?”
“No, Excellency, not any more. The new pro-para…”
“Right. I get it.”
It was Nathan who thought to ask the obvious. “Do you actually have any of this pro-para-whatever on the station, that they could have taken instead?”
Everyone’s eyes lifted in hope.
“Yes, a much larger amount. As I said, the TSC was remaining old stock.”
“And it couldn’t be mistaken for the newer product?” Luke asked.
“Presuming one could read the barrel labels, no Sir.”
Nathan looked meaningfully at Luke over the hologram. “And presuming one knew the difference.”
Luke sighed. “And nothing else is missing at this time?”
“Thank you. Keep us updated,” Luke said distractedly, deactivating the hololink and staring at the three Rebel frigates beyond the viewscreen, still retrieving personnel. “What the hell are you doing now, Leia?” he murmured quietly.
“Why don’t we ask them?” It was Reece who had issued the quiet words. Luke turned to look at him, and Reece leaned forward. “There are three Rebel craft out there, plus any number of pilots from the original mission. We could detain any or all of them and find out what’s going on.”
“No one knows, Reece—no one who’s left at any rate. We lost that information when we lost the original three freighters.”
“Can you guarantee that?”
“You seriously think they’d send anyone who has even an inkling of what this is about, back here?”
Reece looked down. “Then perhaps we should have taken more detainees when the battle ended.”
Luke sat back slowly, eyes remaining on Reece, and everyone there looked down slightly, the Emperor's body-language unmistakable.
“How many Rebels are out there?” Luke asked, voice clipped. “One hundred—a hundred-fifty? I could have a dozen small battles like this every month, and it wouldn’t change anything. We can’t and we won’t fight them on these terms…it’s pointless. We’ll never take them apart by outside pressure, all we'll do is fuel the fire. Our actions today will do more than any short-lived reprisal—we’re creating the cracks which will eventually break them to pieces, trust me.”
“By giving them the opportunity to retrieve their soldiers?”
“By making Leia Organa deal with us. By making her be seen to be doing so. Because you know as well as I do that every military member of her Council will see today as a capitulation and they’ll obstruct it. They’ll argue. They’ll split.”
“Because of this?”
“No, but this is the start. Ten years from now you’ll look back and say, ‘This was the start and I was there—I saw the future instigated.’ I’m asking you to wait that long. I’m asking you to wait half that long…or not see it at all.”
Reece sat back slightly, clearly uncertain whether he’d been threatened with his own removal or simply the failure of Luke’s strategy, and Luke turned immediately away, tempering the words he’d spoken by glancing down the long table to hold everyone’s gaze for brief seconds.
“If anyone here has doubts about this action then they should speak out now, because this won’t be the last time it’s employed. One dissident, uniquely placed, can destabilize a regime.” Luke resisted the urge to look to Reece as he said this. “One weakness can tear it apart. I don’t want that to happen around this table. I don’t want there to be such divisions—but I do want to use them against my enemies. We can’t fight the Rebellion with numbers—Palpatine tried it for two decades and got nowhere. But we can disassemble it from within. With the right tactics, we can nullify them and render them publicly obsolete. What we cannot do is lose our nerve at the first hurdle.” He’d subtly changed his wording from I to we as he'd spoken, bringing everyone into the strategy, making it theirs. Only Reece, his knowing eyes remaining on Luke, would have spotted the ploy, he knew.
“Do we need to keep our actions today quiet for the time being?” Captain Kavanagh asked, voicing the tacit acceptance of all about the table in moving the discussion on. “Begin procedures to contain it?”
Luke didn’t let his muscles relax even a fraction; didn’t allow his relief at their unspoken support to show. “No flaws,” his Master had ground into him. “If you allow yourself a vulnerability, people will use it against you. Show no doubt, no nerves, no misgivings.”
“No.” Luke turned to smile at Kavanagh. “We let this out. We’re being so reasonable, don’t you think?”
“Should we be seen to be?” Reece asked.
Luke nodded. “Let’s steal a little wind from the Rebels’ sails, shall we? Let’s be the voice of reason for once.”
“What about the voice of authority?” Reece said.
Luke turned on him, chin lifting, eyes narrowed. Kavanagh, Clem and Joss were military men and comfortable following orders, which was what he needed right now. Even Mara was to a degree, though she’d challenge tenaciously if she disagreed. Hallin, ever the negotiator, would question if he saw fit—but he had the sense to hold his questions back for more private discussion. Reece, however, a former Red Guard, respected and reacted to only one thing: command. “This is the voice of authority. You’ve been given an order and your duty is to fulfill it. This is not a discussion—it is a statement of how things will be.”
Reece looked away and Luke sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, very much aware that to those around the table who didn’t have the full facts, he would be seen to be heavy-handed. He still wanted to give Reece that chance to pull back from his present course, but he was very much aware that he didn’t want the same trick he was using to split up Leia's Council, to cause rifts in his own. “You have an alternative?”
“Yes! Go after them in force. Send the whole fleet and wipe them out.”
“Fine. Give me the co-ordinates and I will.”
Reece turned away again in frustration.
“It won’t work.” Luke held a thin veneer of reason over his rising frustration. “It won’t work because they spread themselves over a wide area to avoid it. They never have more than a fraction of their forces in one place—I know their tactics, I was with them. And every time you wipe out a single cell you simply fire up more resistance.”
“There’ll always be resistance to any legitimate government.”
“Yes, but let’s make it marginal. Let’s make it isolated.”
“At the risk of losing order?”
“I’ll never take that risk, you know that.”
“I think you risk it already.”
“I think we both do.” Luke rose quickly, aware that this conversation was becoming too personal, touching too close to the truth. Everybody around him rose automatically, and he gestured for them to sit, shaking his head. “This is immaterial. The Rebels are here and I’ve given my word. I don’t go back on it. When I meet with Organa again, I’ll have our actions today as a show of sincerity in contentious circumstances. It will need others, but this is a start. This moves us forward.”
“To what?” Reece asked soberly.
“To my intention and my strategy,” Luke countered, aware that this was the only way to deal with Reece—through force of will. “And my intention is to stabilize and cement my Empire.” Luke held Reece’s eye, wanting to underline the dangers of any action against him, even by one as close as Reece. “And believe me, I’ll use any method I see necessary to ensure that.”
Wez Reece walked quickly to catch up with Mara Jade as they walked down the main corridor away from the bridge, the meeting concluded. The Emperor's extreme actions today must no doubt have unsettled others as well as himself, and he needed to sound out opinion, particularly from Jade, who remained second in line to the throne, though the fact wasn’t well-known.
“Commander,” he greeted, stepping alongside her as she glanced sideways at him, her green eyes narrowing. “Quite a day.”
“Yes,” she replied coolly. “But then, I’m getting used to surprises now.”
“Still…” Wez glanced through the corridor’s long viewport, to where the distant Rebel ships were finishing their retrieval. “I think this ranks special mention, even for the Emperor.”
“I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“Perhaps it’s not a question of that any more…perhaps what’s important here is how we’re perceived by the galaxy at large. We need to be seen to maintain order.” Wez was aware that he was stepping on eggshells here; Jade was completely loyal to Luke, and he had no intention of trying to challenge that, nor of revealing his deeper doubts to her. But he needed to begin to foster some kind of relationship with her—because if and when the Emperor was removed, the line of succession put Jade in power.
“Luke will always maintain order in the Empire,” Jade said tightly. “That’s why he’s doing this.”
“Still, I worry that he’s placing trust in the wrong people.” Wez glanced sidelong to Jade. “I understand that the Corellian was brought onboard.” Her lips narrowed, but she didn’t speak, so Wez tried again, sure this was already a sore point. “I personally worry about these…encounters.”
“Personally, I would like to see the damn Corellian disappear off the edge of the galaxy,” Jade said tersely. “But since he just keeps on showing up, personally doesn’t seem to count.”
“I worry that Solo’s drawing the Emperor into these meetings with the Rebellion more than he realizes. If I were being honest with you, I’d like to see the meetings stop. ”Again Jade didn’t speak, so Wez pushed on. “I think they’re dangerous and they’re unnecessary, as I’m sure you do. These people are extremists; by their very nature they can’t be trusted. Particularly Solo, who espouses claims of friendship whilst wearing a Rebel pilot’s flightsuit.”
“Yes…it’s difficult to know who to trust.”
“To be honest I was more than a little alarmed when the Emperor engineered a meeting with Leia Organa. I know you must have felt the same. It gave me some degree of reassurance that you were able to accompany him.” Wez hesitated. “Given your position, I do worry, however, when you go into the field of combat with the Emperor, Commander Jade.”
Jade turned, and Wez shrugged. “You’re aware that according to protocol, the Emperor and the Heir shouldn’t enter a hazardous situation together.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to Luke, not whilst I’m drawing breath,” Jade said, her tone absolute.
“Of course,” Wez placated. “But if something should, you realize that…”
“Nothing’s going to happen.” Mara slowed to a stop as she spoke with absolute finality, taking the time to look Reece in the eye to let him know just how much she intended to make that claim a reality.
Still smarting from the knowledge that he was smuggling information from the Palace and frustrated that she’d been ordered by Luke not to broach the fact with Reece himself, Mara didn’t even want to be near the man right now, let alone converse with him. Had it been up to her, Wez Reece would have been arrested the day Luke had realized the truth...in fact, some part of her was silently musing what Luke would actually do if she turned and floored Reece right now. Instead she glanced sideways at him, a thought occurring; Luke had maintained that he wanted the facts before he made a move, and right now, Reece seemed in a talkative mood. Maybe this was the ideal time to see what she could draw out of him. “And anyway, the line of succession may well change when Kiria D'Arca…” She couldn’t even bring herself to say it.
Still, Reece was surprisingly accommodating. “I don’t think so. The contract that they’ve ratified states categorically that D'Arca has no power and no rite of succession. She has no legally recognized claim to the throne, only the title of Empress.”
Mara rolled her eyes as she began walking again, drawn into the conversation despite herself. “Well I’m sure she’ll be working very hard to change that just as soon as the dust’s settled.”
“I think you may be surprised. The D'Arcas have been loyal since the formation of the Empire. They trade on their influence, yes, but I think this is as ambitious as they get. Neither Palpatine nor Luke considered them a direct threat to the throne, and I don’t think that either Sith would have allowed them the influence they enjoy, had they sensed any threat whatsoever.”
It occurred to Mara for the first time to wonder whether it was the D'Arcas that Reece was handing information to. But what could they possibly offer him that Reece didn’t already have? He could, she supposed, be backing a contender who had a more traditionalist view of the Empire and the role of Emperor; the D'Arcas were, as he’d just said, staunch Imperialists.
“Would you support a change in the line of succession to incorporate the D'Arcas?” she pushed.
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Oh come on—you always see every angle.” Mara tempered her tone, aware that she was trying to encourage him to talk. “You’re right, Luke wouldn’t have allowed Kiria D'Arca close if he didn’t believe her loyal, whatever the gains.”
“Perhaps. Loyalty and leadership aren’t necessarily the same thing though.”
“She’s tougher than you think—and more ambitious.”
“But ambitious to seek higher rank, or ambitious enough to try for total power? The Emperor thinks the former and I’m inclined to agree with him.”
“I hope you’re right. Because if they’re looking for more, Luke will obliterate them without a trace. He doesn’t leave enemies at his back—not ones with their political influence.”
“I think they’re well aware that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo.”
“I hope they remember that. We don’t need anyone rocking the boat, least of all from within.”
Reece didn't turn, eyes on the corridor ahead as they walked. “I hope that wasn’t aimed at me.”
Mara didn’t break step. “Why would it be?”
Reece shrugged, clearly seeking to smooth the waters. “I think I’m sometimes viewed as the only objector to the more moderate stances the Emperor's taking, though the fact is I’d hate it to color our working relationship.”
Mara stared ahead, fuming, as she took a second to force her voice calm. “Why would you possibly be concerned, Wez? Luke would never mistake honest debate for duplicity—or the other way round. I would be more worried about people like Kiria D'Arca, if she seriously believes she can deceive him. Tolerant as he is on a day to day basis, he’s not the man to cross, and I hope D'Arca doesn’t have to find that out the hard way. Push him too far and you see the Sith.” She slowed her pace, intending to enter the door to Ops, but couldn’t resist launching a final warning. “Anyone thinking to cross him would do well to remember that.”
Wez nodded a polite goodbye, walking on without looking back, considering the specifics of the conversation. Were they suspicious? Jade had made more than one veiled threat, but they seemed more aimed at the D'Arcas than himself, and even that may well be more due to her unease at finding her own position under threat, rather than any greater cause. But it did pose an interesting consideration, and with it new options. Because Jade was right—if Kiria D'Arca did gain in favor sufficiently to be acknowledged by the Emperor in the line of succession, then she may well be just as traditional and conformist a ruler as Jade had the potential to be…and therefore just as useful to Reece.
Nathan Hallin also had his thoughts on Luke’s disposition at that moment, but for very different reasons. He'd remained behind in the boardroom onboard the Patriot, hoping to draw Luke into conversation and maybe lighten his mood, aware of the insular frame of mind which had gripped Luke and stayed with him since the Corellian’s latest visit. It wasn’t looking good though; Luke had spent the last few minutes since the others had left staring at the automemo in front of him, resolutely refusing to look up.
Still, Nathan prided himself on his doggedly patient streak—something he’d had a great deal of opportunities to practice recently—so he waited a good five more minutes before he finally drew a breath to speak—
Luke interrupted with pinpoint timing, speaking out without looking up. Playing his power games, however subconsciously, even here. “Were there any casualties caused by the DEMP onboard the Interdictor?”
Nathan hesitated briefly, thrown by the question. “Um, as far as I’m aware there were two. Someone broke their wrist in a fall and someone broke four toes—don’t ask me how. A few knocks and bruises; that’s it.”
“Do we have figures in from the two Destroyers yet?” He still didn’t look up.
“No, not yet. I’m sure Ops will send them up to you when they come in.”
“We lost eleven TIE pilots in the skirmish.”
“Statistically that’s high. I need to find out why.”
“I’m sure Captain Kavanagh will have that report on your autoreader before the day’s out.”
Luke nodded once, then fell to silent study for long minutes, and again Nathan waited him out. Finally, his voice somewhere between exasperation and irritation, Luke put the autoreader down to massage his forehead. “Go on.”
Luke glanced through his fingers, tone long-suffering. “Are you intending to say something, or are you just hanging around for want of somewhere better to go?”
Nathan half-smiled. “Can I be both?”
“You generally are.” Luke returned to studying the automemo with a sideways look, though his expression had lightened.
“So,” Nathan said, feeling the conversation had relaxed enough to broach the subject. “How was your Corellian friend?”
Luke scowled at the automemo. “Fine.”
“Ah. Is that fine as in ‘well,’ or fine as in ‘stop bothering me and go away’?”
Luke glanced up, clearly unable to resist the temptation to quote Nathan’s words back at him. “Can it be both?”
“Very funny,” Nathan deadpanned. “You know, Wez was less than pleased when he found out you’d gone wandering off with a member of the Rebellion and no security. I think he came down to your quarters and waited outside the door.”
Something changed unexpectedly in Luke’s tone and the set of his shoulders at that. “And how did he find out?”
Nathan frowned. “I didn’t know it was a secret.”
“It wasn’t,” Luke said. “Which is just as well.”
Nathan nodded, understanding the unspoken message. “It’s very difficult to know what you want passed on and what not. You may have mind-reading down to a tee, but the rest of us still have to struggle along with plain old spoken Basic.”
Luke seemed unreasonably troubled as he rubbed again at the bridge of his nose. “Could we just assume that nothing’s to be passed on to anyone without my say-so?”
“We could indeed. Do we need to?” Nathan didn’t speak for a few seconds, but Luke didn’t elucidate, so the medic sighed. “Luke, everybody here isn’t your enemy. The politics which exist in the outside galaxy don’t come into this sphere of close supporters, you know that. There’s no harm in letting your guard down a little, not here.”
It was a dismissal of the subject, Nathan knew, nothing more. Hoping to draw Luke out further, he affected an injured air. “Besides, I’m perfectly capable of keeping a secret. I know, for instance, where you were when you disappeared off the radar last time and worried Clem and the Palace guards half to death trying to find you all night.”
It wasn’t at all uncommon for Luke to drop off the radar within the Palace, often for several hours at a time, and since no security protocols had been breached that night, no one had been truly worried save the guards on duty, who would have to answer to Clem, Captain of the Guard.
Luke glanced up warily through the loose half-curls of his long fringe, and Nathan nodded knowingly. “You see, I was the one who tried Mara Jade’s comlink. She seemed…surprisingly unconcerned—in fact she told me it was fine. Not at all like her. One could almost believe that she already knew where you were. I commed her again a short while later…and her comlink had been deactivated. I didn’t tell anybody that, of course. But I did listen with interest to the little anecdote which was going round the Palace the next morning regarding the Emperor's unexpected visit to the glasshouse.”
Luke sighed, running his fingers through unruly hair. “I went to tell her about Kiria and the D'Arca contract.”
“I assumed as much," Nathan said. “How did it go?”
“You know, I’m not really sure…” Again Luke was silent, and Nathan let the moment hang, knowing there was more; that Luke was analyzing not only what had happened, but whether to pass any part of it on. Eventually Luke shrugged, arm dropping onto the polished table before him, his head sinking to one side to rest on it in that casual self-effacing manner he’d always had—a rare glimpse beneath his shields. “But I have a feeling I’ll be getting an automatic renewal on my club membership this year.”
Nathan frowned for long moments, then remembered their conversation long ago, on the widely subscribed club of men who made unfortunate choices in their relationships. At the time Nathan had claimed himself an honorary lifetime affiliate; it seemed Luke too felt he'd earned his entitlement over the interim years. “Will you still go ahead with the…D'Arca contract?”
“Yes. I need it, especially after today. If I don’t get it, it could slow me down by years—and it has to be now, to dovetail in with the Rebellion. That’s moving forward quicker that I thought, and I need to be ready.”
“Because of their actions today?” Nathan asked. “The attack on the shipyards?”
Nathan leaned back, exasperated. “Oh come on—for once, tell me something.”
“When I spoke to Solo…he genuinely didn’t know the finer details of the mission he was on, which means that Leia Organa probably didn’t either… Which means that certain members of the Rebel Council are now running their own independent little operations, without feeling the need to inform their own Chief of Staff.”
Nathan abruptly remembered Luke’s earlier words to Wez, that the Empire couldn't fight the Rebellion with numbers alone. “But we can disassemble it from within,"[i] Luke had claimed. "[i]Every military member of her Council will see today as a capitulation, and they’ll obstruct it. They’ll argue. They’ll split.”
“How long do you think you have?” Nathan asked.
“Not long enough, and I can’t break the momentum. A year, maybe slightly more. I need the Royal Houses behind me before then.”
Nathan settled slightly. “Well, the wedd…contract is in a few months.”
Luke sat up again, head in his hand. “The contract gets me in, it gets me fifty percent of the way. I need something to push that up, something to bring them round. I don’t want to have to work against them continuously.”
“I think you’re missing an obvious point here. Luke, you’re Emperor—you have the jurisdiction to make them stand down.”
“I can’t, and I won’t, continually curb and restrict them. I’m not Palpatine.”
“I never said you were.”
Luke glanced away, clearly uneasy at having been caught out in making his own feelings known. His expression took on a thoughtful cast as he toyed with the heavy-set ring on his little finger, turning the pale blue cut stone full circle as he studied it, lost in thought, an unconscious meditative habit whenever he was hesitant.
“Mara's worried,” Nathan tried at last.
Luke looked up, stifling a smile. “You two have got to get your stories straight. Mara was in here recently telling me that you were the worried one.”
Nathan shrugged. “I am, but I thought you’d listen more if I said it was Mara.”
“Because of course I never listen to you.”
“Oh, you always listen…then you go away and do exactly as you’d intended anyway.”
“Yes, but I feel bad about it.”
Nathan laughed slightly. “You never feel anything of the sort. Reece is worried too.”
“That you’re holding things back.”
Luke considered that a moment. “And what are you worried about?”
“About why you feel that you need to hold things back.”
“You’re wasted as a medic, Nathan—you should have been a diplomat.” Luke’s brief smile dropped away. “Would you consider a change of career?”
Nathan shrugged, not taking the remark seriously. “I don’t even know what a diplomat does in the Empire.”
“That’s an advantage, not a shortcoming,” Luke said dryly.
Nathan half-smiled. “And anyway, why should I give up my enjoyable little job of following you around and nagging you?”
“How about because I never listen to you?”
“No, not biting.”
Luke set his head to one side just slightly, suddenly very serious. “Because it would be more help to me than you could possibly know. I need allies out there as well as detractors.”
“Oh, that’s a low blow.”
Luke straightened, manner both brooding and self-deprecating. “Well, you know me…it runs in the blood.”
The bridge comlink sounded and Nathan was grateful for the interruption, having no answer to the critical condemnation in Luke's voice.
Luke leaned forward to answer. “Yes?”
“Sir, you have a text-only message on one of your secure lines.”
“Put it through to my autoreader.”
“Yes, Sir. We don’t have the necessary code to decipher it.”
“No, I have it here. Put it through.”
The autoreader on Luke's desk made a brief pip as Luke glanced to it, activating the decode algorithm. When he looked up, his voice and face were neutral, though with his words, Nathan knew that wouldn’t be the truth of it at all.
“The message is from Leia Organa; she wants to meet again.”
Nathan walked away reassured that Luke's larger plan—the gamble he’d made today—was paying off, even if no one else, friend or foe, knew quite what it was. Still, he couldn’t help but reflect on the latter part of that conversation; on the conceived character flaw which still crippled Luke—had done so for so long now. It had been one of the first things Luke had asked when he had woken from his duel with the Emperor.
As Luke was still undergoing surgery, others in his small, trusted entourage had already begun working feverishly to stabilize the Empire. In the Palace, members of the 701st had begun to be drafted down, and loyal Star Destroyers recalled to Coruscant. Reece had returned to the site of the duel, locking the Throne Room until they could repair, remove or destroy all evidence, Palpatine’s body ordered to be secretly cremated.
When Luke had come round, it was the first thing he’d uttered: “Did you get a sample of Palpatine’s blood, his DNA?”
Of everything, every threat he'd made over the years, Palpatine had gotten through all of Luke’s shields with that one—the declaration that he had ‘created’ Luke’s father. That this fact gave Palpatine the right to claim some patrilineal link to Luke: the bad blood that Luke believed had damned him. Even though Luke accepted that it didn’t necessarily mean a physical paternal connection, somehow he just couldn’t get this notion out of his head.
Nathan still remembered that first discussion years ago, held in Luke's quarters after Luke had suffered yet another punishing incarceration at Palpatine's command for some perceived misdemeanor. Remembered distinctly sitting for long days afterward in patient silence, Luke still battered and bruised, that insular, impassive stillness which was so familiar now only just beginning to take hold. Remembered waiting for Luke to voice the doubts which took him almost a week to put into words... And when he did, the questions he had asked of Nathan, fired off in quick succession and without preamble, were deeply disquieting:
“If, theoretically, a Force-sensitive were able to manipulate the Force and induce life…would the life which had been created have any real link to its creator? Would the Force itself—the midichlorians which induced the cell-split—become the second donor?”
“Would it carry its creator’s characteristics, good and bad, as if he had been a physical donor?”
“If so, then would the aspect of the Force used to create that life, be the aspect of the Force which to which that person would be inescapably attuned?”
Nathan had said the only thing he could before the barrage of questions: that anything he said would be, at best, conjecture—that without proof, it was all little more than speculation and supposition. And Luke had nodded gravely, falling again to contemplative silence.
When he’d looked up, his voice had been resolute—as if everything, every question, every doubt, every fear, had instantly become crystal clear: “I need a sample of Palpatine’s blood.”
The wily old man had been, as ever, maneuvering Luke's fears to fit his desires, Nathan knew. But it had stuck. It had weaseled its way in and taken hold, and with Luke’s father typically less than forthcoming about his own veiled past, Luke had been left, as ever, to seek his own answers.
So it had sat in the back of Luke’s mind and festered all these years: that there really was some genuine connection there, some link between Luke, his father, and Palpatine. Some unbroken line whose weight dragged down all who shared that bad blood.
And the more Luke believed it, the more he’d been tormented by it; the more that weakness which Palpatine had placed to exploited, had gnawed at him.
If Nathan could have passed his own absolute belief off as fact he would have, in an instant. But whilst he had never once feared that Luke would search his thoughts, he also knew that an outright lie simply wasn’t an option, not with Luke. So he could only avoid and deflect, seeking instead to reassure that despite any self-serving claim of connection, Palpatine had no hold over Luke's decisions or his destiny. Force or no Force, blood or no blood, Luke remained, at heart, a good person…despite the endless claims and assertions and accusations that Palpatine had planted to control him.
Because it didn’t matter—that was what Nathan could never make Luke understand; it didn’t matter the blood that ran in his veins, it didn’t matter any claims of darkness or destiny. Luke was bound by none of it; his own father had told him that.
Yet Luke feared it more than anything else. Feared becoming the very thing that he had loathed, to the point that Nathan knew that it crippled him at times, this fear that the vindictive malice, the darkness which Palpatine had carried also ran in his own blood. Perhaps he was right, because there were times when Luke could be as harsh and as volatile as either his father or Palpatine had ever been. The Ops officer in the Patriot’s medi-bay, suffering from internal hemorrhaging and tissue damage so fine and so severe that he had hypoxia and hemoptysis, was proof of that.
But there were also times when Luke could be incredibly benevolent; the lives of the stranded Rebel pilots who could so easily have become target practice for the Patriot today, or simply been left to suffocate in their small metal coffins, were proof of that. Yes, Luke had quoted a neat, logical reason for their freedom, but Nathan knew him long enough now to know that if he chose to, Luke could quote a neat, logical reason for pretty much anything.
And the more he quoted them, the more Luke asked himself, ‘Do I believe this…or am I rationalizing my actions?’ Nathan could see it so easily in his friend’s silence; in that insular, introvert distance and brittle edge. The longer this fear raged through Luke, the more it crippled him…
He glanced out now at the distant flash of power as the Rebel ships launched into lightspeed, believing themselves safe. Did they know the new Emperor so little?
Because the last time Luke had been genuinely provoked—by Mon Mothma—he’d turned on her with a vengeance, out-manipulating even Palpatine, to turn a complex string of events to his own personal gain…and in doing so, taking his destiny—and damnation—into his own hands, he believed.
Because of Palpatine, Luke believed himself dark; he believed himself beyond redemption…and so he was. And given this conviction and his incredible abilities, he was the wrong man to cross. Leia Organa and her subversive Rebellion would do well to remember that.
Like the Devaron Staging Post Leia had previously chosen, Hosk Station was old and tired, and its crowded inhabitants truly believed they had seen it all before, so seldom bothered watching anymore—which was probably just the way the Alliance liked it, Luke figured. A natural moon entirely covered by a vast Esseles-class Space Station, it had probably been a hive of activity as a low-gravity dock and transfer point at the height of the Old Republic, but as shipping patterns had changed, it had been left behind and become just another orbital station, staying alive on the strength of its massive repair bays.
Wearing civilian clothes, his lightsaber concealed, Luke made his way through the Human-climate sections, lackluster and worn nearer to the civilian spaceports, but gaining quality and stature as one traveled to more affluent areas. Which he wasn’t doing. Instead, Luke and his small, plain-clothes security contingent were moving inwards through the complex, twisting walkways of the industrial heart of Hosk Station, where massive hangars catered to starship repair, upgrading and construction. Gravity here was a little closer to the underlying moon’s innate norm, which was lower than Galactic Standard, though not enough so that one would notice at this level.
Mara alone walked at his side, the others fanned casually out before and behind, everyone alert and attentive, looking for traps or pitfalls. Like himself, Mara's step was far looser and calmer, a professional agent blending seamlessly with the general populace despite her misgivings. And she’d had plenty, and given voice to every one of them in the staggered five-day journey up the Trade Spine and down the Corellian Run, from Fondor to Kalarba. Luke had listened patiently to them all, and then, just as Nathan would have taken great delight in pointing out, had gone on with his plans exactly as before. Sometimes the medic was just a little too perceptive for Luke's liking.
They pressed on, Luke aware of his own tight anticipation and growing silence as they neared the venue, his mindset shifting in mental preparation. As he’d said to her before, he relied on Mara to watch his back in moments like this, his focus internal. But he did rely on her…in this at least. And she knew it—and was all the more alert because of it. Particularly this time, because this time the Rebel leader was awaiting Luke, and not the other way round. Against Mara's advice, Luke had again allowed Leia to name the venue, a concession to her uncertainty. She’d likely have more security in place, knowing who she was meeting this time, but she’d still come. He could sense that already, her pale, wavering presence in the Force radiating subtly.
It wasn’t until Luke's own security detail had fanned out at the last turn, only Luke and Mara continuing, that Luke sensed another familiar presence—and once again was taken completely off-guard by it.
Han Solo stood with an unknown Rebel at the door to the meeting room, and Luke stifled a momentary panic—though he kept walking smoothly forward.
Han turned, his face somber, resettling the weight of the gunbelt he wore. At the edge of Luke's vision, Mara's hand dropped smoothly to her own firearm in a mirror of Solo’s, though she didn’t draw it. Instead, she stopped a few paces back from the door where Solo stood—where she felt she’d have a wider field of fire, Luke knew.
He stepped forward, mouth dry, still uneasy at the events of their last meeting. “Han.”
Han nodded, expression somewhere between sociable and apprehensive, his mouth set at that habitual lopsided angle. “How y’doin?”
“I don’t suppose it’s gonna make any difference if I told you not to hurt her. That I’d come after you if you did,” Han stated levelly.
No wasted pleasantries there then, though it was said without malice. Luke’s calm, composed expression changed not a whit. “No, not really.”
It was hardly a reassurance, but Han nodded slowly all the same. “You know, when she first told me that she was gonna speak with you again…I got real nervous. And I couldn’t figure out why, couldn’t figure out what was making me like that ‘cos…” Han shrugged, as straight as ever, “well, I trust you.”
Luke glanced down uneasily, but if Han realized his guilt, he didn’t comment on it as he continued. “I told Leia, and she said this wasn’t about trust. Said this was something else entirely. She said my problem was that…that I never quite knew what you were gonna do. Each time I met you I never quite knew what you’d do this time—how you’d react. And then she said…the reason why I didn’t know was because she didn’t think you knew yourself.”
“She’s a very perceptive woman,” Luke allowed without further elaboration.
“Yeah she is. So if she thinks she’s safe comin’ for these talks, I’m gonna trust her on that. If she thinks she’s safe, then she’s safe.” Han’s eyes searched Luke’s. “But I tell you, I’d sleep a whole lot better at night if you told me the same thing.”
Luke considered that, his brow tightening to a frown. “I’d sleep a lot better if I knew it myself.”
Without waiting or looking back to Han, he walked quickly forward, the door sliding closed as he entered the meeting room.
He took a single step forward—and broke pace just slightly. Something about the small, bare room was intensely evocative of the cell beneath the Palace to which Palpatine had condemned Luke so often in the early years—harsh, brutal punishment for any misstep. White walls, low ceiling, only a simple, stark desk and chairs—and cold, the stale air icy. He blinked twice, quickly, dispelling the memory and recovering his pace by force of will before looking to Leia, who sat coolly in one of the two hardback chairs before the single desk. The second chair opposite her own remained empty, and Luke stepped forward and sat without comment, resting his hands on the table before him, a subtle, subconscious message that nothing was being hidden.
Leia held her calm as the Emperor entered the room, glancing briefly about the Spartan space, though his dispassionate expression gave no hint of the thoughts beneath. But this time she was ready. This time, when Leia had sat in anticipation at the far side of the small table, she was prepared. There were no surprises; she knew who she was coming to meet, she knew what was on the agenda for both of them. She was braced and she was primed to fight her own corner. So when he sat opposite her she held her silence, waiting. Prepared to wait as long as was necessary.
He sat to casual attention, his air of composed confidence sharpened by a subtle edge, everything about him a contradiction wrapped about a sense of refined, restless power. Maturity had etched fine lines about the eyes which took measure of her with the same close scrutiny that Leia brought to him, but aside from the scars which marred that youthful countenance, little else of his experiences in the interim years showed.
Was he all that they said? Could he kill her with a single blink of those mismatched, ice-blue eyes, or was the vague, intuitive sense of immunity which she felt wrapped about her like a shield, true? He’d protected her in the past—surely it wasn’t uncalculated?
Perhaps the sense of indemnity which had given her the confidence to come here today was simply her own wishful thinking, Leia reflected—or worse, his careful planning. Because now, here, sitting beneath that predatory gaze, Leia was intensely aware of her own vulnerability. And the tiniest fraction of an upturn in the corners of his scarred lips let her know that he saw this too; all of it. But physical vulnerability didn’t hold sway on her thoughts, Leia maintained. She’d be stupid not to be nervous, given their positions. But she wouldn’t be intimidated, not by him.
He watched her for long seconds more before suddenly, as if sensing that this first game was done, he leaned back slightly, the swiftness of the movement lighting a brief jolt of reaction from Leia’s frayed nerves and tense muscles.
Those cool eyes rested on her again, tinged with amusement. “Shall we speak, or shall we spend the evening staring at each other?”
Leia narrowed her eyes, aware that he was trying to take the moral high ground, accusing her however indirectly of childish games. Moral high ground… “Why did you let the pilots go at Fondor?”
“Would you prefer I hadn’t?”
“If you meant them no harm, you could have simply not fired the DEMP…but you did. Then when you’d rendered them helpless, you turned round and let them go. Why?”
He held silent for a long time, no intimidation in the action, just a pause in which he weighed his reply. “To bring you to this table.”
“You let almost two hundred Rebels and a front-line frigate go, just to get my attention?”
He tilted his head just slightly—and he seemed so young. Blameless and guiltless…and completely, unquestionably dangerous. “It worked.”
Leia stared for long seconds before she found her voice again. “Who are you?”
Luke hesitated as if thrown by her question, a flicker of annoyance furrowing his brow and pulling at the heavy scar which traced a deep line down the right side of his face. “Is that important?”
“Yes! You want me to trust you, but I don’t even know your name. All I know is that you lied to me. You lied to me about who you were, about why you were among us…”
“You still think I was the spy?”
“You tell me. Did the information leak stop when I was gone?”
Leia pursed her lips momentarily, but before she could speak again Luke dismissed the matter, his tone indicating that the subject was clearly not up for debate. “It’s immaterial anyway. I brought you here to speak about the future, not the past. I released your troops to demonstrate my sincerity.”
“There is no future until I know the past… Can’t you see that?”
Luke sighed, shoulders sagging slightly as he closed his eyes, searching for patience already… And it occurred to Leia for the first time that perhaps—just perhaps—she drove him as crazy with her own stance as he did her, with his. Though at least he knew where she stood…
He spoke without looking up, voice already slightly strained. “You tell me again and again that you don’t trust me… Yet you expect me to trust without condition. You expect me to trust my betrayer; the leader of the organization which just a few years ago tried to assassinate me—have you considered that?”
“I didn’t…” Leia shook her head, refusing to be pulled in. “You’re muddying the water.”
“For you perhaps. To me these things are crystal clear.”
“Fine, you want the truth? The truth is that they wanted to stop you becoming Emperor.”
Sitting opposite Leia, his hands still flat to the table, Luke glanced sharply up, wondering if she knew the slip she’d just made: They; not we. He held quiet, waiting, and after a moment Leia continued.
“They wanted to stop this exactly: you taking power.”
“They wanted to stop this exactly? And what would this be—the Emperor here, now, trying at least to open a dialogue?”
Leia hesitated, chagrined. “They had no way to know that you would do this.”
“They had no way to know that I wouldn’t—that’s my point.” Luke shook his head, realizing that he was allowing himself to become caught up in the past. He reined all those old grudges and questions back by force of will, and when he looked up again it was with a clear head and sharp eyes.
“I have a question for you—itineraries, mine, recent…do you receive them?”
Leia frowned, already looking for the catch. “…No.”
“The schematics to the SD Sterling…do you have them?”
“I wish I did,” she said honestly.
Honestly… Luke stared for long seconds, senses trained: she was speaking the truth. Wherever the leak was, it wasn’t to the Rebellion.
“I have a question for you,” Leia countered. “The attack on Fondor—did you know it was about to happen?”
Yes. “No.” Luke gave nothing away as she studied his face, making no further explanation; validations were often the sign of lies, and Palpatine had long since made Luke a master of deception. Still, she stared for several seconds longer, until, uncomfortable beneath that perceptive gaze, Luke moved the conversation on. “I made a gesture of goodwill at Fondor. I could so easily have destroyed the task-force.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Or I could have simply left them to freeze or suffocate in poisoned air. But I allowed you uncontested access.”
“I just said, I know that.”
“… Would it kill you to say thank you?”
Leaning back as Luke had leaned forward, Leia blinked, reeling at the change. In that moment he seemed lighthearted, teasing even. She stared, wrestling to keep focus. “Is that why you did it?”
He tipped his head in a half-shrug. “You were on my mind, as I’ve said. This meeting; this moment.”
“And what did you picture?”
“I imagined you understanding that this was a gesture of faith. A first step, made because one of us had to break the deadlock. Was I wrong?”
“I would have felt a whole lot better if you'd just said that you couldn’t kill them.”
“Yes, that would have sounded better, wouldn’t it?” he admitted ruefully. “At least you know I tell you the truth.”
“Are you? Or are you simply admitting that you make mistakes?”
“I’m admitting that I stood down. I relented at Fondor for no other reason than that I want change. I’ve effectively instigated a cease-fire…will you continue it?”
Leia hesitated, as unsure now as the very first moment she’d seen him on Devaron. He leaned forward, his voice almost a whisper, eyes so bright they seemed to glow. “Work with me.”
“Why should I give you this…why do you want it?”
“Because I need the troops and the resources which are presently committed to keeping the Rebellion in check. I need them to enforce the changes to the constitution over more systems. I have enough to implement the changes in the Core and Colonies, but to even begin to enforce them in the Mid and Rim Regions, I need every resource I hold—or nothing’s going to change.”
“So you’re saying if the changes to the constitution don’t work, it’s because of us?”
“I’m saying that they can be brought into effect far faster. There are other, more sweeping changes I intend to bring in. Changes to sentient rights and freedom of speech and local governorship… But without military power to back them up all they’ll ever be is words.”
“But I have no guarantee of any of that.”
“I can give you all the guarantees you want, but we both know that they’re meaningless.”
“So you want me to risk everything on the off-chance that you might come through?”
“I want you to take a step back—and I’ll do the same. If you stop all offensive action against Imperial targets, I’ll stop any action against the Rebellion, unless it’s disturbing the peace or actively inciting insurrection. I’m not asking you to disband, I’m asking for a suspension of hostilities. Talks to negotiate a cessation of actions, in which both parties will be held to certain pre-agreed targets. I’m asking for a chance to put my case forward to the Alliance leadership.”
“And if we refuse, we’re directly responsible for the continuation of Imperial tyranny, is that what you’re trying to say?”
Luke grinned, actually grinned at that. “Now you’re putting words in my mouth,” he said, half reproachful, half-indulgent. “I’m saying that we have a chance to change that law together. Quickly, effectively. Without my having to commit my military to controlling you, and without your actions providing the impetus for the Royal Houses to claim the need for their continued intervention. Whilst these restrictions are still necessary, I can’t move the Empire forward as effectively as I otherwise could. And if I can’t outpace the ability of my detractors to organize themselves, then I and my policies remain at risk—as does interplanetary stability.”
“You’re asking me to facilitate the reign of a dictator.”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table, fingers steepling before his scarred chin. “If I were the tyrant you seem so bent on labeling me as, why would I need your help?”
“You just said why; to stabilize your own rule.”
“Oh believe me, if that were all that I wanted I could do it inside a month. I could arrest my detractors, dismantle any resistance, reinstate unrestricted military power, weaken and destabilize the Royal Houses and rule as my predecessor did. I know exactly how that model goes—I had years of experience in enforcing it.”
“And now you’ve had a change of heart,” Leia said dryly.
“No, now I have an opportunity…and so do you. This is a chance to achieve it without unnecessary suffering.”
“Suffering?” Leia echoed accusingly. “You have no concept of it—no concept of hell other than how to inflict it on others.”
“Oh believe me, I know what hell is.”
In that first second as he spoke Leia thought it was a threat, but watching that face she knew so well, she realized it was anything but. For a single heartbeat she saw the splinter, heard the pain… And it seemed so very real, like a cry for help. But it lasted all of a second and was smothered—
And something in him changed. So abruptly that Leia saw it happen, watched his expression harden as those shields came up. Saw him search for a way to push her back, to alienate her. Saw the Emperor sit straight and tall, heard the tone and the timbre of his voice change. “You're full of accusations, yet your Rebellion has a very narrow idea of liberty—you believe absolutely that for your freedom to exist then nothing else can co-exist; the very thing you accuse me of. You blindly chase the wanton destruction of your perceived enemy, and knowingly cause global and system-wide destabilization to achieve it. You suffer the worst, most delusive of all vices: you consider yourself just.”
Leia recoiled, stung at the unexpected ferocity of the barbed accusation. “And you’re willfully blind. The Empire flaunts even the most basic civil rights. For years you’ve endorsed and encouraged slavery—”
“Which is now illegal.”
“You detain people without trial—”
“A practice which is being strongly dealt with now—all Imperial citizens are entitled to arraignment and trial.”
“You subjugate by force.”
“We preserve order between otherwise hostile borders.”
“You maintain a massive military.”
“To patrol and uphold stability over an extensive area—something your Rebellion is forcing me to do.”
“Words,” Leia dismissed, tiring of the game, knowing he’d have an answer to every accusation. “These are just words. Surface sophistries to buy your own power.”
“I have, I assure you, no need to ‘buy’ power.”
“Then why are you here?” Leia asked. “Why am I here, and not in some detention center?”
Luke looked down, his steepled fingers before his lips as if to stop himself speaking further, eyes closed as if searching for patience. Leia’s eyes were drawn again by the heavy ring he wore on his little finger, intense blue…like those pale eyes which looked to her now, barred by many layers of shields.
“Master Yoda was the Jedi Master who taught me when Ben Kenobi died…did you know that?”
“No…” Leia shook her head, wondering where this new assault would lead.
Luke nodded, face a mask of detached indifference. “He was one of the Jedi Order’s Council of Twelve, leading up to the fall of the Republic; those whose views led the Jedi, shaped the galaxy they protected.”
Leia remained wary, looking for the trap as Luke continued, his tone casually conversational now.
“When I realized that you were in danger on Bespin—when I wanted to help you—do you know what he said?”
“No.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“He said to let you die. He dressed it up in some empty semblance of honor and duty of course; cited his greater cause… But basically, that’s what he ordered me to do. If I honored what you fought for, then I should sacrifice you.”
And look what happened when you defied him. “Perhaps he was right.”
“Really?” Luke set his head just slightly, and Leia knew she was watching the snare close. “He was right, and I should have left you to die.”
“We didn’t die.”
“That’s completely immaterial. The fact remains that I should be expected to sacrifice those around me to achieve certain goals. Prepared to.”
“They were your goals once.”
“Again, immaterial. What I’m asking is, is it right to allow three beings to die, simply because it furthers my own ends? In fact, it didn’t even do that; it was simply convenient.”
“We were soldiers. We knew the risks and…”
“We? I wasn’t aware that Chewie and Han had joined your Rebellion way back then. In fact, I think if I’d asked Han at the time whether he would mind laying down his life on the offhand chance that it served my plans, he would have given me a very different answer—and I wouldn’t have blamed him.”
“Some sacrifices are…”
“Yes, but which ones? And when do they become too many…when do the ends fail to justify the means? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? You absolve me of all guilt if I’d left you to rot, yet you judge me for making the same sacrifices with others.”
“Yoda was a Jedi.”
“And so of course you would have me be just like him? Prepared to pay any price, surrender any life to achieve my goals? To simply dismiss those around me as irrelevant before my personal destiny? To judge myself above them; entitled to decide who lived and who died based on my own narrow objectives? Is that what you wanted me to become?”
“It’s what you are.” Leia saw the trap as she sprung it, clamping her mouth shut on her reply a second too late, realizing that either way it would have sprung just the same. No, and he would have accused her of hypocrisy, of wishing him to serve an order whose views she rejected as unsound; yes and he would call her on the fact that somehow, the same actions committed for similar reasons could be judged differently… As he did now.
“Then why am I so different from a Jedi?”
“Your reasons are different. Your justifications…and you know it.”
“Really? And why do you think I kill…assuming I do.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You kill to f…”
“Further my own objectives?” He lifted his eyebrows knowingly. “Yes, we’ve covered that already.”
Leia raised her chin. “Ambitions. Further your own ambitions.”
Again that head-tilt. “I think we’re arguing semantics now.”
“No, we’re arguing motivations. You’ve killed to further your own personal ambitions.”
“To what end, do you imagine?” She hesitated, and he was there in an instant. “Power isn’t an end in itself, it’s simply a means to an end.”
“Only someone with your kind of power would say that.”
“Perhaps only someone in my position could truly appreciate it.”
“Meaning…what I do, I do for a reason.”
He gritted his teeth. “I just told you, power is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I give you enough credit to know that you don’t lead the Rebel Alliance simply for the kudos of leadership.”
Leia leaned back slightly. “Go on then?”
He hesitated; steepled his fingers again, voice that smooth veneer of quiet calm. “Everything I do is for a reason…why do you assume that reason has changed?”
She almost laughed aloud. “Seriously? Because you claimed you wanted to overthrow the Empire you now rule.”
“Because I wanted to change a system I believed unfair,” he corrected. “I find I’m now in a position to do that.”
“You think that validates the path you chose to get there?” Leia couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her voice.
“I didn’t choose this path… But I did take the opportunities it presented.”
“Now who’s arguing semantics?”
He let the slightest of smiles touch his scarred lips at that, in acknowledgment of her landing a blow—and why did she want to smile with him, as if this were all a game.
“I’ve told you before, I don’t excuse my actions; I need neither your forgiveness nor your approval.”
“Then what do you need, Luke?”
“Your agreement—your accord.”
“And how do I know we’re not just another set of lives to be sacrificed to your private cause?”
He lifted his chin and looked her squarely in the eye… And something changed; in his voice, in his manner, in his sincerity. “Because you know me. Whatever else I am—and you know that I’ll accept all blame willingly if I think its true—I’m still that man who wouldn’t leave his friends to die on Bespin. I take no life lightly.”
Leia sat back, eyes narrowing; could she believe him? Should she trust the man who had murdered Palpatine to gain his throne, or was this all just power games with a deadly sting? He half-shrugged, a self-effacing gesture that Luke had made so often—the Luke she had known. She had known… Leia wondered again what was real and what was created; wondered whether she could break through those shields to find out.
She glanced down, taking a moment, looking for a path…and a line of thought came abruptly to her mind. Without even thinking, she spoke it aloud. “You know, when I returned home after Devaron, I pulled up an old file. I’m not sure why, but I searched it out on the archives and pulled it up and watched it four or five times.”
Luke remained silent and still, expression impenetrable, as wary of Leia now as she had been of him moments before.
“It was a file we got from the Bothans, about nine months after…after Bespin," she continued. "The first images we’d seen of you since you’d returned to Coruscant. Just a short run of images taken from high orbit. It was you… You, walking beside Palpatine on the roof gardens of the Palace. Just…walking—like it was nothing! Like you belonged there!”
“The Monolith,” Luke corrected mechanically, unmoved by her burst of emotion, rebuffing her search for connection. “We call the main Palace the Monolith.”
“Just walking!” Leia continued, refusing to be sidetracked. “With Palpatine. The first images since your supposed capture.”
Staring at Leia, aware of what she was doing, Luke remained still, trying hard not to remember, not to be manipulated, as a glut of memories impacted on conscious thoughts with crippling effect, induced by her words. They seeped up through the cracks of those deep-set shields, enveloping his thoughts and dragging them down. He remembered the biting cold of the night wind across his skin; the exhilaration of standing outside that damn Palace after almost nine months caged inside it, the most controlling, intimidating, dispiriting tomb of a place he’d ever experienced. Remembered the release of breathing fresh air, real air, not baked and scoured and filtered to death, the perceptions of that all too brief moment of release still fresh after all this time—
“You’ve done well,” Palpatine had conceded as he'd settled back into his grand, carved chair, set on a stepped dais which placed himself and his advocate at eye level. “We’ve made much ground in the past weeks. You should be rewarded.”
Luke remembered exactly the tightening of his chest, the wary suspicion that had seized him. Already he knew his Master well enough to know that ‘rewards’ were often double-edged swords. His eyes had narrowed beneath the shadow of his growing hair, long enough now to twist into loose curls, unheeded.
“What would you like, my friend?” Palpatine had asked indulgently, clearly amused at Luke’s cynicism, already becoming so natural to him.
Luke had remained silent for a long time, unsure whether to believe the Emperor, or whether this was just another game, one of so many. But he had to ask…
“I want to go out,” he’d said with quiet, distanced dignity, little hope in his voice. “Outside the Palace.”
“Out? And what is out there that you cannot find here, my friend?”
“Air,” he’d wanted to say. “Fresh air.”
Not the dry, dead, desiccated stuff which hung in these halls, but life—real life. But he'd remained silent, holding the Emperor’s eye, allowing neither hope nor mistrust to color his expression, having learned that either one spelled failure in his Master’s eyes. The silence hung heavy as neither man moved, Palpatine studying his Jedi, sense taunting.
“Very well,” he’d allowed at last. “Out we shall go.”
We; Luke hadn’t missed that. Even in this he would no longer be left alone. But he'd nodded just once, his shoulders dropping imperceptibly now that the decision was made. It was better than nothing; it was still out. Small victories were all that anyone gained here—you took them when you could and valued every one.
It had been winter; he remembered distinctly the glacial cold that had settled in the lofty halls of the Palace Towers. The way the colors were bled dry, the thin light leaching them of any life, always cold. Parts of the Palace never warmed, the light of the sun never once touching them. Palpatine had ordered cloaks for himself and his advocate and Luke had stood in still silence, waiting, barely able to control his anticipation though he was terrified that Palpatine would know anyway, and rip this small concession from his reach at the very last second.
There had been guards everywhere, of course. It was an hour since Luke had made the request and Palpatine had acquiesced, summoning Cordo to his quarters immediately to inform his Aide that he and his Jedi would walk in the private gardens on the roof of the Monolith, and ordering him to make arrangements and bring cloaks…which clearly meant to assemble suitable security, Luke had realized, as he had finally stepped out into the freezing night, breathing deep.
Probably close to a hundred sets of wary eyes watched his every move, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was out of that damn Palace. Out of those staid, silent, hushed halls where everyone whispered and bowed and tiptoed around the Emperor’s will, tempted and terrified in the same instant, desperate to leave but hypnotized by the power and position they believed they could gain here. He saw it daily, as he was dragged everywhere with Palpatine, forced to become a part of that world, no matter how much he despised it. They were all fools, of course, those who stayed. Blinkered and blind, playing empty, doomed games. Every hour he spent in his Master’s presence only reinforced Luke’s knowledge of that. Palpatine gave no power save that which served him; he allowed no advancement save that which benefited him. There was nothing here but shadows and lies.
After nine long months, it was this more than anything else which was burned into Luke’s soul: Palpatine’s will was absolute here. It could not be circumvented, it could not be bought, it could not be bartered. He would do what he wished. What empowered him, what benefited him…what amused him. His will was absolute, and everyone else here was reduced to ciphers and shadows. Pale lives lived in the dust and the shadows of these dead, choked, airless halls.
That first night standing in the freezing darkness and breathing fresh, frigid air after so very long, he felt, just for a short while, alive again.
But he knew at the back of his mind that sooner or later he’d have to return to the oppressive silence of those leaden shadows… That was where he belonged now.
His Master had already begun to publicly refer to Luke as his 'Wolf,' and privately, Luke knew why; knew the visions and the nightmares which plagued his Master’s thoughts when he looked to Luke. But if he was a wolf, then he was kept chained. Even when he was outside of his cage, the chains were always there, Luke knew; always there. His Master had taken great care to place them, to lock them about his precious wolf lest it disappeared into the night.
And eventually…eventually he’d stopped trying, stopped craving…stopped hoping. Because it was just too hard to keep on believing that he could somehow step beyond Palpatine’s all-pervading influence. That he could return to a life that was already dead. So he’d stayed in the Palace; stayed in his rooms and sat in still silence until he was summoned to Court or to his Master’s chambers or to the Practice Halls, to train under his Master’s critical eye. He did as he was ordered without resistance or dispute, no emotion at all, whatever the command. Then he returned to his rooms, locking himself away again, Mara always there like his shadow…but silent now beneath his own bleak mood.
He refused permission for anyone to visit him, even Hallin turned away without reasons, again and again. He simply sat, staring at the floor, or at the fire set in the open grate against the creeping cold which pervaded the place, Palpatine preferring the frigid temperatures of the Coruscanti winter, his will absolute even in this. He ate little and spoke less, still in mind and body, and he waited to fade away like so many others had here, lost in the shadows and the darkness…
In a strange way it had saved him. Palpatine had held out for a long time, ignoring Luke’s increasing isolation, considering it a ploy to gain him…something. What, Luke didn’t know. Didn’t care, at the time. But eventually he’d heeded Hallin’s repeated requests, and Luke had been allowed short, heavily guarded respites from the Palace.
Few at first; an hour spent inspecting a close Garrison, a half-day flight to a nearby dignitary as part of Palpatine’s entourage… And he hadn’t expected any more would come, waiting, as ever, for the twist of the knife. But they had, half-days stretching to days, then two or three, then a week. Always surrounded by security, always closely watched, but still, it let him breathe. Gave him the illusion of autonomy, no matter how futile.
It was a long time before he had learned that if he wanted anything in this place then he must take it, by subterfuge or by force. Either would do, and neither were discouraged by his Master—unless Luke was clumsy enough to be discovered; then the punishment was always severe. Longer before he had realized that if he wanted freedom from Palpatine’s controlling contrivances, then he must take it. Longer still before he had recognized that even that wasn’t enough; to be free of Palpatine’s reach wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted true freedom; he wanted everything that the naive, raw, idealistic pilot had wanted, the first time he’d climbed into that X-Wing. He wanted freedom for everyone, everywhere.
The only way to gain that was to take Palpatine down—and the only way to ensure it, was to take his place.
Right? Wrong? Flawed? Blind?
He didn’t know. All he knew was how badly he wanted everything that Luke Skywalker had once craved. How much he wanted to rescue some part of his former self from this damned life, no matter how small. All he knew was that he had a goal, a reason to exist, and it kept him sane through Palpatine’s ruthless manipulations and vicious, pitiless reproaches. He wanted freedom—true freedom—and thanks to his Master's oppressive influence, this was the only way he knew how to gain it any more.
Awareness of the room—of the fact that he was under close scrutiny by Leia, her curiosity blasting out through the Force—dragged Luke back to the moment. To the musty room whose austere proportions reminded him once more of the cell that had once held him…or was it more than that? Was it the room, or something else?
He blinked, dragging his thoughts into line as he focused on Leia, who watched him as he reflexively turned the heavy blue-stoned ring on his little finger. Her eyes came to his, still uncertain which was the act and which was the man—unsure if Luke himself knew anymore.
“Who are you?” The same question she’d asked of him so often… But this time, the tone of her voice was softened by compassion, by deep uncertainty, by a real willingness to believe. Another question left her lips, formed by some deeper insight which left Luke deeply uneasy. “Who were you?”
“It’s immaterial.” Luke fought to bury old memories which only left him exposed, his voice tight with warning and dark with self-reproach at his momentary lapse. “I know what I am now… I told you I have no illusions. It’s you who’s trying to deceive yourself. You’re looking for the shadow of someone long dead, and every moment that you see the slightest shade of it, you try to twist it and force it and fit it into your vision of what you wish to see. You think that you can will that person back into being but you’re wrong. I can tell you for a fact that you’re wrong.”
He wanted her to understand—to realize that the man she was now clearly trying so hard to reach was shattered and broken beyond repair. If it were possible to resurrect him, did she not think that Luke himself would have done so long ago? Did she not understand the danger she placed herself in, just by being here—that from minute to minute, he could change; he could not be trusted. The knowledge of that moved him with the urgent need to make her protect herself, for her sake. Because every time that she came here, every time that he had her so completely in his power, he walked the knife-edge of temptation to simply remove her—destroy her. To fulfill the plan he’d told others was in effect, and convince Leia to bring the Rebellion’s leadership here simply to destroy them. All of them, completely.
It would be so easy and he knew it. Had made plans for it again and again. This plan, everything he did now, in speaking to her, in gaining her trust…it could all so easily be channeled to that goal. The Rebel Alliance continued to exist by the most slender of threads, and even Luke knew that his own good grace was a capricious, precarious thing.
“You're searching for understanding…then understand this: I will always do whatever I perceive of as necessary to achieve my goal. I will always pay that price.”
Leia frowned, hearing the implied warning. “Then why are you telling me this?”
That flicker of emotion had ignited his eyes in a spark of frustration, his demeanor changing again before Leia’s eyes, from calm and controlled to volatile and dangerous. “I want you to understand what I am. What I’m capable of. How likely do you think it is that you, whom I’ve spoken with so little in the last six years, could see within me so clearly, and judge my character more accurately than those who are closest to me? Because believe me when I say that they were amazed that you came here—that you were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt a second time.”
“And yet here I am, still in one piece.”
Luke shook his head. “I could so very easily destroy you. Remove you from the equation completely and continue with my plans unchallenged.”
“Just like that?”
His lip twitched just slightly at the resolute confidence radiating from her. Too much: it was no use to him, and it was plain dangerous to her. He straightened slowly, loosing a little of the darkness at his core—let her see that. “It took me three months to get Mothma.”
It was calculated to shock, Leia knew; spoken to instigate a reaction, and despite the edge that his eyes and his demeanor had taken on as he’d straightened, she wouldn’t be so easily led. “It would take a good deal longer to get me, I assure you.”
Again that smile, like a garrall staring down at its dinner. “Not too long, considering you’re four steps away from me right now.”
Leia felt a surge of adrenaline as her heart skipped a beat, but she clamped her jaw shut against the threat… And surprisingly Luke backed down, standing to turn and walk a few steps back, putting some space between them, as much to cool his own temper as to reassure her, Leia felt.
“That was unfair—I apologize.” He turned back towards her, voice even now. The fire didn’t leave his eyes though; that sense of a feral edge held in check. “Though that doesn’t make it any less true.”
It wasn’t a threat, that last. When she looked to him, his face, like his voice, remained neutral…and in an unexpected flash of insight Leia remembered her own words to Han just days ago: that she suspected it was because from one moment to the next Luke didn’t even know himself what he would do anymore.
“Why do you say these things?” she asked at last, no challenge in her words.
“I told you.” He turned coolly aside, though there was something in his eyes, something that couldn’t hold her gaze anymore. “I take no life lightly.”
“But you still take them.”
He straightened, instantly shifting to the offensive again. “If I have to. And don’t deny the same; you’re a leader—you’ve sent soldiers into battle knowing they wouldn’t return.”
“I haven’t shot them myself.”
“You’ve killed soldiers on the battlefield.”
“I’ve killed my enemies,” Leia emphasized.
“So have I.”
She could so easily have flinched at that; at the ripping awareness of just how much the man she’d thought she’d known had changed, that he did this so easily, twisting words and intent with equal ease.
Or had he changed at all? Had this always been the speed of his mind, and he’d simply hidden it before, behind easy smiles and gentle shrugs—because when she thought back, Luke Skywalker had always been sharp in the actual field of conflict. Always been smart enough to think on his feet and stay cool and logical enough under pressure, to get himself and those around him out of whatever trouble they were in.
Those around him… Hadn’t he always fought so hard for those around him, always tried so very hard to bring the same amount of people back from any conflict that he had entered it with? Hadn’t he always seemed so devastated if he didn’t?
Hadn't he always been the man who took no life lightly.
Leia paused, looking at the man who stood five paces back from the table now, remaining in the shadows of the room as if he belonged there. “Please…sit down.”
Luke held back a few seconds longer, then sighed and strode quickly forward, sitting, and they both glanced down, neither willing to launch into another round of arguments.
Leia too sighed, shaking her head wryly. “You make it so difficult sometimes.”
“To do what?” he asked. “Argue or talk?”
“Either,” she said. “Both.”
He glanced away with a half-smile, the atmosphere dropping a few degrees closer to comfort for both of them. Resettling in his chair, Luke stretched his legs to the side, resting his chin in his hand, the act familiar and unassuming and very…Luke.
“I was born around the same time as the Empire,” he said at last. “We grew up together. It’s always been here, my whole life. I was born into a totalitarian state and lived my whole life in the same, never once knowing this…ideal that’s been taken from the past, dusted down and held up as some paradigm of perfection. In that, I acknowledge my weakness; I’m trying to reinstate something that I’ve never myself seen or been a part of: democracy. I guess we’re the same in this…because for all your claims that you wish it reinstated, you're asking for something that you have no knowledge or experience of.”
“Meaning?” He didn’t move as Leia narrowed her eyes, only now it was because she wondered whether that relaxed, unassuming position was more empty contrivance than unaffected habit.
“I guess I’m asking whether the democracy you’re fighting to reinstate is true democracy, or some idealistic notion. I, at least, am realistic in what I can achieve, and how. Or do you think that toppling the present regime will bring about instant democracy? Because I don’t believe you that naïve.”
“Are you claiming that Palpatine’s Empire can ever give birth to true democracy? I don’t believe you that naïve.”
“This isn’t Palpatine’s Empire,” Luke corrected. “It’s mine. I’m offering a genuine, realistic alternative to the endless fighting. My intent is to make this Empire a democracy—but to do that I realize that I’ll have to make compromises.”
Leia remained silent, aware that he was asking the same of her.
When she didn’t reply, he straightened slightly, maintaining that deceptively open tone. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a simple, overnight solution; I think that it may require years to do this—to achieve a bloodless coup without the military turning on its own and the Empire devolving into civil war. But believe this—if you accept nothing else today, believe this: I am committed to it. I will do it. If possible I will do it with your help; I will reabsorb the Alliance, and give it a political voice and entitlement.” He tilted his head. “If not…I’ll do it without you.”
“You can’t bring democracy about by threats and ultimatums.”
“How about by debate and compromise?” Luke asked. “The former is what your vaunted democracy stands on, isn’t it? And the latter is what’s necessary to make it work.”
“Work with me.”
“Which means we stop opposing you.”
“Which means that you’re required to do your part in creating a peace that will enable us to move forward, yes.” Luke shook his head, mismatched eyes searching her face. “You seem so eager to give up your life for freedom… Is it so hard to give up this—this distrust, this suspicion, this cynicism? You were always prepared to take up arms in the name of peace…are you willing to lay them down for the same?”
Leia glanced away, more torn than ever, more hopeful, more afraid. He’d become the consummate statesman, pulling stirring speeches from the air about him and launching them with unerring aim. But how much was true? How much was empty persuasion from the man who was tutored by Palpatine—Palpatine, who had instigated a war and undermined the Senate at its height, never once under suspicion…until it was too late.
Leia brought her hands to her face and sighed, irresolute. “Tell me how I can trust you?”
He leaned forward. “You want a display of how serious I really am? You want a true gesture of good faith?” Resting his weight on his elbow he turned his hand palm-up, holding out his first two fingers—and between them was a data chip. “There’s a set of co-ordinates here. Follow them. Go alone. Along with the co-ordinates is a security access code and transmission frequency, which you must broadcast as soon as you drop from lightspeed to stop the unmanned automated defenses from firing on you.”
Leia glanced down to the chip, the gravity in his voice as Luke continued making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
“There will be a single Destroyer in orbit, but if you’ve transmitted the code it won’t challenge you. Understand: this must be kept secret…” He hesitated… “If you choose to make my actions public, then it may well topple me from power. The choice is yours, Leia… I’ll just have to trust you.”
Luke stood when she rose to leave, the data chip he’d given her clutched in her hand as she paused just once to meet his gaze…and again, Luke had that momentary sense of recognition as he stared into serious, strong, mahogany-brown eyes… Then it was gone, as she was, and he was standing alone in the shabby, austere room which could well have spawned the beginning of a democracy…or the end of a two-decade-long rebellion.
She didn’t know whether to trust him or not, that much was clear, and Luke couldn't blame her. But maybe she understood now; recognized his resolve if not his incentive. Because Force help her if she stood in his way—if she crossed him. He didn’t know what he would…
Luke shook his head, interrupting that thought; no, he would make it work. He’d sworn to his rancorous old Master, who had taken such delight in breaking Luke to pieces, that he would do the self-same thing to the Empire that Palpatine so loved. His one true child.
Because Luke wouldn’t give Palpatine his victory—wouldn’t give him his precious Sith Dynasty. He’d vowed that he would take down everything that Palpatine had done, everything he’d built. Take the Empire whose casual cruelty had destroyed Luke’s own and so many other lives apart, a piece at a time, until there was nothing left. Until even the memory of it was gone, a momentary aberration fading to nothing.
And when he had done that, he’d take his Master’s ashes and he’d scatter them to the wind, just as he’d sworn. He would do it. As he'd said to Leia, he would pay any price. He’d known what the price had been when he'd first made that vow, and he knew what the price might be now.
He sighed, gazing again to the empty door through which the woman he’d once been so close to had just left, giving him one final glance, so full of wary distrust. The fact was that there were people on both sides of the divide queuing up for the honor of slaying him. He had no illusions…but he had his goal. And he would see it through. Then maybe the Force would be through with him. Maybe it would let him sleep—for one night or an eternity; it didn’t matter anymore.
Mara entered through the same door of the small, spartan room in which Luke and Leia Organa had just spoken, having watched she and Solo walk down the long corridor which led back to the relative safety of Hosk Station and the plain-clothes Rebel troops who waited there, closely watched by their Imperial counterparts. Organa hadn’t spoken, her arms wrapped about herself, her thoughts clearly on the meeting.
Luke too was quiet when she entered, though he had that air of volatility about him, that brittleness, chest rising quickly in short breaths, obviously on edge.
“I take it from Organa’s expression that there wasn’t an epiphany. You don’t seem to be getting any closer.”
“I don’t need to yet,” Luke replied, straightening, visibly pulling himself back into a more steady, authoritative mindset, aware that Mara would pick up on his mental state. “I told you, there’s no timetable for this.”
“But there is a goal?”
“There are always goals,” Luke evaded, as he rose and strode quickly to the door.
She sensed something then—a nervousness, a wired tenseness that had nothing to do with the meeting that had just taken place… This room—it was this room that he didn’t like. Mara glanced about, unsure what had unsettled him. He paused at the threshold, eyes flicking between the corridor that Organa and Solo had left down, and the small, stark room, mind immersed in the Force, as if chasing something down. Instead, he became aware of her scrutiny, and shook his head briefly, pulling his thoughts back to present goals by force of will.
“There’s more going on than my persuading her to come here. She’s now keeping secrets from her own leadership. Withholding information and making decisions on their behalf, that they’re not even aware of. Even if she never brings her Council to the table, if this all amounts to nothing, then I still have that fact to use.”
“You’re dividing them,” Mara realized.
Luke nodded. “I don’t need her to bring them to the table to do that.”
“You’re going to leak it?”
“No—and neither will you. Everything goes to my schedule.”
Mara faltered. “No? But the damage is done—she’ll be ousted from power.”
“And then what—be replaced by another? By Madine maybe? Then I would have to bring them down.”
Mara's voice dropped shrewdly. “As opposed to…?”
“Stop trying to corner me, Mara.” Luke didn’t turn, his voice hardening.
“Why?” There was more force than she’d meant in the challenge, and it turned him about, furious. From the tense way he’d whirled on her, Mara had expected an outburst, a reprimand, an argument…something. So when he simply stared at her, jaw locked, eyes teeming with suppressed emotion, Mara stared…
It was a slow comprehension, gathering momentum as more and more facts fell into place, realization burning through her thoughts like wildfire, widening her eyes.
“You don’t know yourself, do you? You don’t know what you’re going to do—whether you’re going to use her or not…” All the vague claims Luke had made so many times, always shifting, always evolving as the situation changed—but never willing to elucidate, never giving enough to be tied down, even among those he trusted. “You don’t even know whether you’re going to do this… This whole plan, this whole strategy...you haven’t decided yet.”
Luke turned about and started walking mechanically down the corridor, eyes ahead. “My goal remains the same, whatever path I choose,” he replied levelly.
Mara shook her head, more at her own blindness than anything else, because what had she claimed to have learned so well about him: if it seemed perfectly logical, the obvious choice, then Luke was at the very least misleading and probably outright lying. That was what he did; what he'd always done, even with Palpatine—how he'd learned to survive. He presented the logical choice and made it seem the only choice, then hid his real intent beneath the facts and somehow made you see them as the same thing.
If it seemed flawlessly logical and patently obvious, he was probably using it to hide the facts… She’d said it to herself a hundred times, applied it without fail to even his smallest actions…yet never once thought to bring it to bear on the greater picture. “Why do I get the feeling that I don’t even know what that goal is? The plan you’re speaking out loud isn’t the one you intend, is it….is it?”
She took his arm and he turned on her, that perfect façade cracking in a burst of anger. “I don’t know, okay?! I can’t tell you what I don’t know myself. Because it changes from day to day, Mara, from minute to minute sometimes, and I can’t...” He broke off, turning away, frustration and bewilderment obvious.
Because it wasn’t just this; it wasn’t just Leia Organa, Mara realized. It really was everything. It was the Empire, the future…everything. It was Light and Darkness, it was his soul and his sanity…and from one moment to the next that was shifting, the fractures deepening. He simply couldn’t be what Palpatine had forced him to be—not completely—but he couldn’t step back from it, not any more.
“Everyone’s trying to second-guess me. You, Nathan, Han, Leia Organa…everyone’s watching and analyzing and trying to second-guess me when I don’t even know myself… I don’t know if Leia is safe around me or not! I’m balancing every day on the edge of the blade and I don’t know what it will take to make me stumble—all I know is that I will…sooner or later, I always do. I can’t…”
The words locked in his throat and Mara stepped in close, voice quiet now as she brought one arm up to wrap about his neck, moved by his anguish, by the nerve-edge desperation in this rare outburst, more emotion overflowing those tight, locked-up shields in this last minute than she’d seen in months.
She tightened her arm about him, felt his own wrap about her back as he pulled her tight and she shook her head against his chest. “Luke, you can’t go on like this.”
He tensed beneath her genuine concern, those perfect shields raised again in quicksilver rejection, the flash of shredded torment tempered to that familiar brittle edge, all else locked away. “You’re right,” he stated, deadpan. “I’ll just stop now, shall I?”
“Stop this at least. Don’t see her again, find another way.”
He straightened, slipping free of her to start walking again, jaw flexing. “I have to.”
“Because the fact remains that I have those goals, and they're the constant here. Only how I achieve them is…flexible. Either I destroy her, or I incorporate her into them. Either way my goal remains the same.”
“Then remove her from the equation.”
“No. I can handle this.”
Mara shook her head—he was still the most stubborn man she’d ever met. “What if she’s using you?”
“She won’t use me. I won’t let her,” Luke said coolly, completely in control again, though Mara knew how tenuous that poise really was.
“She’s saying exactly the same thing to Solo right now!” Mara was rushing to keep up with his stride, frustrated that he couldn’t see this—that he wouldn’t. “She’s saying ‘He won’t use me because I won’t let him.’ Can’t you see that? Can’t you see how much alike you are?”
Luke almost smiled at that. “I’m like the leader of the rebellion against me?”
“Yes! You’re both commanders by the strength of your own accomplishments, you both lead from the front, by action not words. You both think you still have to get in there and get your hands dirty or you feel you’re no longer in touch with what you’re fighting for. You both look at your greater cause, the bigger picture. You’re both stubborn and willful and once you lock onto a course you won’t back down or let go, whatever the cost to yourself.”
Luke paused at the doorway to the more public sections, his undercover guards loitering beyond. “You could say the same of over half the people you know.”
“No, I couldn’t,” Mara said, her voice quieting. “You just don’t see that; don’t know how exceptional that makes you.”
Mara turned away, sullen. “It just makes her dangerous.”
“That’s what I have you for,” Luke soothed, tone teasing now, though Mara didn’t let it drop.
“Yeah, well, I’m not much good if you don’t tell me what’s really going on, am I?”
“You know everything that’s going on in my life, Red.”
Oh, how quickly he could flip it round, even now. From explosive to distraught to charming in the space of twenty steps, twisting his own emotions as easily as he twisted the facts to fit the moment. “No, I just know more than other people—which isn’t saying very much.”
“You know I’m not very good with the trust thing,” Luke dismissed lightly. He stopped abruptly, and for a second—just a second—his hand raised, the backs of his fingers brushing against her cheek, and it would be so easy to fall for this proffered closeness…
But those sky-blue eyes were too bright and too beguiling, and she knew him better than to be so easily led. “And yet you came here with less than two dozen soldiers.”
His hand dropped—but his smile remained, genuine now, no artifice behind it. “That doesn’t mean I trust her, simply that I accepted the necessity in this instance, just as she did.”
Mara nodded. “Just as she did. Just as you knew she would, because she’s just like you. Because she’ll do what she believes is right…and so will you. Because she’ll suffer and she’ll fight and she’ll take outrageous, unreasonable risks for what she believes in.”
“Perhaps we both believe in the same thing,” Luke said evenly.
Mara frowned, wary, because that made no sense whatsoever…which filled her with trepidation. “Perhaps you do. But if so that’s the most dangerous thing of all…because you’ll trust her. In the end, that’ll make you trust her, because you’ll think that you have the same views, the same goals. And that really is the most dangerous thing of all, Luke, because I’m damn sure you’re walking two very different paths to achieve them.”
Leia sat in silence curled up on the Navigator’s seat in the Falcon’s cockpit, considering. Chewie had gone back to the engineering bay to check out the sublight engines now that they’d gone to lightspeed, after Han had claimed that they’d made some worrying noises on takeoff. But then, they always did that, to Leia's ears.
She hadn’t even batted an eyebrow as Han had grumbled yet again that Luke had held the Falcon for four years and he hadn’t even fixed the rattle in the sublights. Hadn’t blinked when, as if it were a legitimate complaint, Chewie had argued that the cub probably had more pressing things to deal with at the time. Hadn’t reacted when Han had replied in kind, grumbling, “Whatever. I’m just sayin’ it’s a small job and I’m figuring he had a whole Star Destroyer’s worth of engineers hanging around, waitin’ to be told what to do.”
To them it was all so simple. All so clear.
She’d remained in the cockpit, lost in thought, as Chewie headed aft, running the debate on Hosk Station over and over in her mind. There was so much to consider, so much to weigh up, personal feelings against the greater good… What felt right in her gut weighed against larger responsibilities and duties.
'It’s not what you call us and it’s not where we stand. It’s what we do which defines us.’
Her father’s words, long ago. Had it been this hard for him too? He’d always seemed so sure to Leia, as if every decision had only one possible right answer, every objective only one path. What would he say now—what would he do, confronted with this? Would he tell her to answer her conscience, as he always had, or would he admonish her to bear in mind all those whose lives were dependant on her decisions; that duty came before personal feelings?
One thing was slowly percolating down into a troubled realization for Leia, and she didn’t know if it was the truth or just another manipulation, carefully calculated to mislead. Because for so much of that conversation, she had argued with Luke Skywalker. Not the Emperor—not Vader’s son or Palpatine’s protégé, or the spy who had infiltrated the Rebellion to take secrets back to his Master—but Luke Skywalker.
“Everything I do is for a reason… why do you assume that reason has changed?”
“Seriously? Because you once wanted to overthrow the Empire you now rule.”
“Because I wanted to change a system I believed unfair. I find I’m now in a position to do that.”
The man in that room had spoken today as if Luke Skywalker were real.
Luke Skywalker, who had lived on Tatooine and rescued a princess and joined a Rebellion, to fight for what he believed in. Luke Skywalker, who had been taken by force from everything he knew and had lost his way so completely. At the time, in the moment, Leia hadn’t even considered it, hadn’t even realized that as she quarreled and queried today, it was with Luke. Not the Emperor, not Palpatine’s advocate; she was arguing with Luke Skywalker that he’d lost his way…and his replies had remained totally in character, his arguments stemming exclusively from that point of view, that reality, as if it had all been true…
And Leia found herself secretly wondering all over again…what if it was?
“Quiet?” Han didn’t turn.
“I said you’re quiet,” Han repeated. “Not that I’m complaining, it’s just such a rarity that I thought it deserved a mention.”
“Thanks,” Leia said dryly.
Han turned back from the glazed twists of light which whipped through the void of lightspeed. “So how’d it go?”
Leia shook her head, pulling her knees up tighter.
“That good, huh?” Han asked easily, giving her a lopsided half-smile.
Leia buried her head in her hands with a long sigh. “Ohhhh… I think I should tell the Council.”
She hadn’t yet. She should have, but she hadn’t. She should have told them the first time she’d met with the Emperor, and now she was compounding the error….because the fact was, she had no intention of telling them—not yet. She absolutely would do so, but she wanted to do it when she understood what was going on, when she knew what Luke was really trying to do. It had to be when she had a clear idea as to whether they should either help or hinder—and she sure as hell didn’t know that yet.
“He gave me something,” she said at last to Han.
“Keys to the Empire?” he quipped.
Leia pulled the small chip from her pocket. “It could well be. He gave me a data chip…then he told me if anyone knew he’d given this to me, it could depose him.”
Han swung his chair completely around from the console to look at Leia, who held up the data chip. “That’s it?”
“This is it.”
“What’s on it?”
She turned it over in her hand. “You know, I have no idea. Co-ordinates, he said.”
Han took the chip. “And you didn’t think to mention this earlier?”
“I was…deciding,” Leia said slowly.
Han apparently didn’t feel a similar uncertainty, having already taken the chip and fed it into a data slot in the navigator’s console.
“Wait!” Leia said. “It could have a relay signal or…”
Han gave her his best dry glance from the corner of his eye, already leaning forward to the small viewer. “Co-ordinates all right. Way out though. What’s all this stuff with it?”
Leia leaned in, unable to stop herself now that the decision had been made for her. She’d spent the last hour deliberating over whether or not to view the chip, agonizing over whether to play Luke's games or take this to the Council. Whether it was a ploy or a persuasion, or neither or both…and Han had just plain looked at the damn thing.
Sometimes you had to love him.
She frowned at the run of code. “Wait, he said something about a security code and a transmission frequency.”
“This is some serious code,” Han said, watching the numbers scroll. “This is high-end stuff; it’s self-perpetuating… Look at this; it’s rewriting algorithms as we’re watching it.”
Leia leaned in, a cold twist writhing down her spine and making her shiver. “I don’t like this.”
Han grinned. “We have got to find out what this is for.”
Leia nodded. “As soon as we’ve been back.”
“Seriously…you’re seriously telling me you don’t want to find out what this is to, right now?”
“I don’t know,” Leia said reluctantly.
“C’mon, this is a day out of our way. Two at the most.”
“This could take us straight into the middle of an Imperial fleet putting out a code that everyone’s waiting for.”
“Hey, if he wanted to catch us, he was sitting right opposite you a few hours ago. Anyway, this isn’t an identity code, it’s way too complex. This is something bigger.”
Han turned, and Leia knew he must have seen the doubt in her face, because he pulled out his best grin—the one he kept for when he wanted to fly in the face of all reasonable logic. “C'mon, it’s us…what could possibly go wrong?”
They came out of lightspeed to make a brief course change, sending a short message to Home One to inform them that the Falcon would be a day or so behind. In doing so, they lost their escort, still unreachable in lightspeed, winging their way back to the fleet.
They didn’t mention why they were detained, some part of Leia wanting to uphold the faith that had been placed in her by Luke in giving her this, though she couldn’t bring herself yet to consider whether he deserved such consideration.
It was barely a day’s travel, and Han seemed determined to fill most of it by quizzing Leia again and again on what instructions Luke had given her when he gave her the chip.
“I’ve told you, that’s all he said,” Leia sighed, tired of repeating herself. “He said there’d be a Star Destroyer in orbit, but as long as we broadcast the main code on that frequency as soon as we arrived, it wouldn’t challenge us.”
Han and Chewie had spent hours tinkering with the code, trying to unravel it, but though they’d gotten as far as separating out two individual codes within the transmission, one complex, the other a more standard recognition code, they’d been unable to unravel the compound, self-writing cipher which took up most of the bandwidth of the transmission.
Leia was saved from further questions when the navi-computer pipped its first warning, and everyone rushed to the cockpit, the frequency loaded and ready to transmit.
“Coming up on reversion,” Han said, hands resting on the sublights as Chewie toggled through systems, pulling up shields and diverting power to charge up the quads…just in case.
Leia licked dry lips as the blaze of lights reverted back to streaks then pinpoints of distant stars…and they dropped into realspace in the midst of a gas giant’s system, whose one inhabitable moon glowed like an emerald in the inky darkness.
For a second, for a long, silent second, she didn't see it... Then Leia felt her knees giving way as she fell back into the seat behind her in the same moment as Han half-rose from his own, voice low with disbelief, eyes focused not on the verdant moon, but in space above it…
“What the hell…is that what I think it is?”
The planet's name was Endor.
Leia stared, simply stared at the abomination which hung like death itself over the tiny, lush world, massive in scale, its metal-gray surfaces reflecting in dull, lifeless tones the burst of forest green from Endor’s moon.
A thousand memories assaulted her: of Alderaan, of the moment, the instant when everything she’d ever known was destroyed in a vivid flash of violent color and energy. Of Tarkin, smug and arrogant, proud of the carnage he’d unleashed, the massacre he’d committed in Palpatine’s name.
Of her time in the small cell, metal gray, cold and stark… Of Vader. Vader, with his machines and his malice and his cold, brutal demands.
And Luke. Luke, who’d released her. “I’m here to rescue you.”
Luke, Vader’s son—by his own admission. Palpatine’s prodigy…
Chewie howled out his discontent, furious, his voice filling the small space and dragging Leia back to the moment, surreal as it was.
Han slumped back down into his chair, shaking his head. “I know, I know! What the hell is this, why would he send us here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Leia said, voice laced with bitter disillusionment. “It’s a threat. We do as we’re told, or he uses this.”
Han was shaking his head. “No, he doesn’t work like that.”
“Do you have another explanation?”
All Han could do was continue shaking his head, turning back to the behemoth.
Leia was pulling herself together now, angry that she’d actually begun to believe Luke, to trust him. Grief, what a fool she'd been, if only for a second. “Is it operational?”
Han turned to his boards. “Yeah, I think so. It has power and an internal atmosphere… It’s pulling an awful lot of juice up from that moon though. Structural integrity, propulsion… This is…it’s almost twice the mass of the original.”
Leia glanced about. “The Star Destroyer?”
“Less than a thousand clicks, behind and above, you see it? The Spur.”
“Is it powering up?”
“No, leaving us alone. Must know we’re here though, at this range.” They were still gliding slowly forward, the massive Death Star looming ever larger in their field of view. Han paused, looking back to his boards. “Wait a minute…I’m not getting any lifesigns.”
“On the Destroyer?”
“No, on that…thing. The Death Star’s big brother. Breathable atmosphere but no lifesigns—none at all.”
Chewie keened a question, and Han looked again to his boards. “No, it has shields up but they’re defensive. I can get a scan on everything else, so...”
The console let out a loud pip, and Han leaned in slightly. “Uh-oh.”
Leia was on her feet. “Uh-oh…what’s uh-oh for?”
“I think we just tripped somethin’… Hold on.”
They waited long seconds, Leia's eyes flicking between the near-complete Death Star and the distant Destroyer, as Han toggled through readouts, Chewie checking his own boards before leaning back to the ops boards behind him.
“Yep…yeah, we definitely tripped something.”
“That’s it?!” Leia heard the panic in her own voice. “What did we trip?”
“That I don’t know. I just keep gettin’–”
Chewie let out another long howl, and Han swung his chair about and stood to look into the reader on the console to back of the cramped cockpit.
“What is it?” Leia asked.
“That damn code, is what it is,” Han said. “That self-perpetuating code is transmitting to the Death Star, it’s…”
Han fell to silence, staring, and Leia resisted the urge to shake him. Chewie too leaned in, whuffing a question.
“Uh-oh,” Han repeated—and if possible, it sounded worse this time.
“Solo, if you say that again, I swear I’ll choke you.”
“It’s changed,” Han said. “The code—it’s counting down.”
“I think we should be more worried about ‘to what’,” Han said, shouldering through the cockpit and dropping into his seat to bring the engines to full power, the Falcon rumbling beneath their feet.
“What do you mean?”
“In my experience, at the end of countdowns things generally go boom.”
Leia glanced out to the Death Star, lost.
Han's console lit up a warning and he leaned in, voice tight as he read the message aloud. “It says, ‘Two minutes to safe distance’.”
“Safe distance from what?”
“Well, I can see three things in front of me, sweetheart. I don’t think that Death Star’s firing on its own Star Destroyer, and it’d be pretty pointless for the Destroyer to fire on the Death Star…which leaves the Death Star and that moon.”
Leia's heart skipped; she felt it miss a beat then boom in her chest. “Is it inhabited?”
Han was already checking his scopes. “No technology…teeming with life though.”
Leia's hand came to her mouth, Alderaan’s fiery death burning through her memories. “Can we stop it?”
“I’m looking,” Han said. “I can’t see any… It’s powering up. Levels are off the scale.”
“We have to do something!”
“Against that?! It has shields up, we wouldn’t even get close—and if we did, what would we actually do?” Despite his words, Han was still accelerating towards it, the Death Star filling a quarter of the viewports now, its scale increasingly daunting.
“You can’t let it fire… Han, we have to do something.”
“Find me something to do!”
Leia's eyes searched the steely surface as her mind spun, searching for something, anything…
“The exhaust port!”
“Don’t know where it is, this Death Star’s got high-power shields up, and I’m guessing even Imperial designers wouldn’t make that mistake twice.”
“Go for the dish.”
“Seriously, you want me to shoot at the dish. In this? I may as well go out there and try kickin’ it.”
Still, the Falcon changed her course slightly, the colossal orb reeling in Leia's vision. “Aim for the dish's emitters.”
“Leia, the ports are wider than the Falcon. I could fly down one of ‘em.”
“We have to do something!”
The Falcon was arcing about now, the stars spinning as it turned, the massive Death Star trailing from the edge of the cockpit’s line of vision as Han pushed for open space.
"Wait, what are you doing?" Leia stood, desperate.
Han was shaking his head. “Leia, we can’t, not this time. We can’t even get to it in time, and now we’re not gonna make safe distance as it is.”
The Falcon powered away, everyone silent, the weight of her own helplessness pressing in against Leia, her breaths shallow, thoughts in turmoil. At the last moment Han wheeled the freighter about, tiling all shields to front as everyone stared in mute, morbid fascination, unable to look away as the console pipped down the last seconds out loud from ten…
The blast was incredible, immense, whiting out the blackness of space in its expanding glare as everyone flinched back. When Leia opened her eyes again, blinking the brightness away, the shockwave was carrying still-burning debris out in a blazing glow, chunks the size of office blocks disintegrating as they burned the last of their oxygen, spinning apart in the fury of the flare, the Falcon rattling and bucking as the outer edge of the shockwave whipped past, her shields glowing momentarily.
When it was done, the last of the debris collapsing in on itself and glowing in the darkness, its energy spent, all three could only stare, shocked, at the tiny green moon that still hung before them, completely unharmed.
The Death Star was gone; destroyed. Reduced to wreckage in the blink of an eye.
The relief was overwhelming, buzzing through Leia like a charge, so that for long seconds all she could do was hold her hands to her mouth and breathe.
It was Han who laughed aloud, whooping as he stood. “Yeah!” He whipped about, grabbing Leia and pulling her in for an exultant kiss, his relief infectious. “Why didn’t I realize?! What the hell’s wrong with me! He was showing us, Leia! He was showing you he had it, showing you he could have used it. Showing you he never would!”
Chewie too was grinning as he let out a jubilant howl, long arms waving and punching the air, the relief of tension in the cramped cockpit incredible as Han yelled again, still grinning widely. “We were transmitting the auto-destruct—that’s why it was so damn complex! That’s why it was tied up with the recognition code, to get us safe conduct. It was for us—it was a message for us.”
Leia sat slowly, the reprieve leaving her dizzy. A message: proof of his intentions, that was what he’d said. A gesture of good faith. Was it real? Grief, let it be real. Her head spun at the wildly yawing change of events, doubts and hopes tangled together, her misgivings, her fears, the weight of her responsibilities pressing down on her, pushing on to that single, star-bright hope—that today she’d been talking to Luke Skywalker.
It was stupid, of course; it was naïve and gullible and hopelessly credulous, and every time she thought it, she had a hundred sound reasons to dismiss it…
But oh…what if it were true?
The ball was to be a lavish affair, as befitting a proclamation of such import—the public announcement of the Emperor's intended matrimony and the presentation of the future Empress. Invitations were like gold-dust, handed out to the select elite, those among the Moffs and the dignitaries who had received them preening at their own influence and eminence, the attending Royal Houses discreetly satisfied, gratified in their stately poise and pride, already approving on principle this most advantageous and significant event.
Rather less auspicious were the tentative coercions leading up to the event, when Luke had arrived at Kiria D'Arca’s apartments in the Palace to present her with a gift. Not out of any great attachment, but simply because it seemed the right thing to do, now that everything was being formalized and announced.
“It’s so very beautiful,” Kiria had said, lifting it from the ornate gilt box, the refracted glow of many faceted stones catching across her caramel skin. “Absolutely exquisite. I adore it.”
You should, Luke reflected privately, you chose it.
Made to order based on requirements Kiria had left in advance with some in-vogue jeweler whose name she’d dropped hints of, both subtle and patent, it was ostentatious, extravagant and exclusive, as the woman herself was. It was also elegant, opulent and richly refined—as the woman herself was. The most exceptional stones had been pre-selected by Kiria, ready to be cut and set, and were now crusted together in dazzling brilliance, an impressive and spectacular display not only of her impending rank, Luke knew, but also of her status, that Kiria could ask for such an incredible, incomparable thing and be given it—by the Emperor himself.
She held it out to him, and for a moment Luke hesitated, then took the heavy ruby-stoned necklace. Kiria turned about, her back to him as she stepped intimately nearer and lifted her glossy raven hair, and Luke lowered the exceptional necklace, fastening it about the curve of her neck, aware of her closeness and the scent on her skin.
She brought her hands up to touch its weight, voice tinged with laughter. “Cold.”
“Stones always are,” Luke said evenly.
“I love them anyway.” Kiria smiled. “It’s an exquisite gift—I’ll treasure it.” Luke lowered his hands but Kiria didn’t immediately turn. “Still, magnificent as it is, I’d swap it for another gift…one that costs not a credit.”
“Don’t bring…your usual bodyguard to the ball.”
He was silent just a second too long. “You should have asked me a week ago.”
She turned just slightly, hand still to the elaborate necklace. “Would you have granted it?”
“No. But at least you would have known, and had a week to come to terms with it.”
Kiria lifted one hand as she turned, making a subtle play of almost placing it to his chest and then refraining. “Oh, but it’s such a small thing to ask, surely?”
He had to smile; she was very, very good—maybe because she half-believed it, and certainly genuinely wanted it. But she also knew full well what she was asking. “If it’s so small, then why bother to ask?”
“And then the next time, and then the next time, and the next. I’m sure you’ll find the reasons. I won’t exclude a member of my entourage on your whim, not when I made it plain that it wouldn’t happen.”
“I’m not asking you to exclude her from your life—I never would.”
“How very generous.”
“But public functions… We surely need to present a proper front…”
Luke looked down, letting out a brief, soundless laugh before he lifted his head. She was still looking at him, expectant, imploring, gracefully persuasive… Only not, because he knew with perfect clarity the flawless performance she gave.
“I thought I’d explained this, but clearly not, so I’ll try again,” he said tolerantly. “You’re a clever, astute woman, Kiria,” a half-smile touched her lips, and Luke knew damn well it wouldn’t be there when he’d finished, “and supremely manipulative… Don’t be offended, I’m simply acknowledging a fellow player. As my Master once said, we recognize our own. So if you want to try to run your schemes and your little manipulations past me, then fine. But let me be clear on this: Mara Jade is outside of your games—understand?”
Kiria hesitated, then tried an engaging smile. “I’m sure she’s capable of taking care of hersel—”
“Oh, she’s very capable,” Luke said confidently. “But that’s not the point. The point is, I just said she’s off-limits.”
Kiria took a breath to speak, but Luke cut her off before she began. “No, this isn’t a discussion. This is a statement of how things will be. If you find you’re unable to comply, then now is the time to cut and run.” He took a step back, composed and self-possessed. “You can keep the necklace.”
Nathan caught up with Luke in the corridor of his apartments less than an hour later, his sense suspiciously cagey—as was his oh-so-innocent smile. “Hello.”
Luke frowned warily. “What now?”
“I think I’m supposed to hold your attention until Reece has sneaked up on you that so that you can’t…ah, here he is.”
“Excellency,” Reece said as he came up on Luke's other side, automemo in hand. “I just wanted to discuss with you the final arrangement for the processional into the hall this evening.”
“What do you mean, processional?”
Reece looked to Nathan, who loosed his best ‘You’re on your own’ shrug. “I told you not to call it that.”
“I simply mean the order in which people will enter the hall, Excellency. This is, after all, the most formal of occasions.” As he spoke, Reece indicated the doors to Luke's office with one hand.
“I think the order is that I put one foot in front of the other.” Luke could hear his own Rim-world accent coming out in automatic reaction against what always seemed pointless protocol.
“Perhaps we should discuss this later,” Reece said, pausing at the tall office doors as they entered.
“No, come on,” Luke relented, sitting. “Tell me now, then I’ll be over it by the time it starts.”
Reece sat, taking a long pause to look at his autoreader. “Your proce…your entrance time has been given as twenty-one hundred precisely. Everyone attending will already be in the hall, of course, including Lady D’Arca. You…”
“Wait, she doesn’t come in with me?”
“No, sir. You will, however, proceed immediately towards her down the central aisle, where she will be waiting at its head, near the official dais.”
Luke could feel himself gritting his teeth already against the comments that he was bursting to make. If Reece was too steeped in his task to notice, then the ever-perceptive Nathan certainly wasn’t, turning his head casually to the side as he scratched his hair in a mock attempt to hide his murmured words to Reece. “Hurry it up.”
Nathan’s act brought the ghost of a smile to Luke's lips at his own transparency, and bought Reece a few more minutes’ grace.
“You should speak to no one before her, and immediately take her hand to lead her in the first dance of the evening. In doing so, you will acknowledge her new status.”
Luke let it hang a heartbeat. “You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you?”
Reece stifled a sigh. “You’re going to say can’t we just send out cards to this effect.”
“Yes I am.”
“We did, Sir. This is the commemorative occasion to which you invited everyone who received such, in order to formally and publicly ratify your intentions.”
Luke glanced once to Nathan, then shook his head slightly, unwilling to get dragged in.
“Fine, okay. I actually have a bigger problem… It’s protocol, kind of,” he added to Reece, “you’ll like it.”
“You need to have someone spot Kiria D'Arca and someone else—who’s very, very good at it—to spot Mara, and make sure they don’t come to blows.”
“Wait, I thought you said Kiria was alright with Mara?” Nathan asked.
“That was yesterday,” Luke said dryly. “Today she’s not. Unfortunately that also coincides with us having…how many guests here?”
“Two thousand, Sir,” Reece said distractedly.
“Two thousand,” Luke said dryly, “…excellent.”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve already assigned Clem to you this evening,” Reece said.
“That isn’t the point. The point is that Mara will be attending.” Luke had no intention of caving to Kiria D'Arca this early in the game; Mara would come tonight if he had to go over there and ask her himself. She’d received an official invitation, and remained the only guest who hadn’t made a formal, written reply, though Luke had instructed Reece not to push the issue.
“Maybe she doesn’t want to come?” Nathan suggested.
Luke turned. “Oh, she will, when she hears what D'Arca asked.”
“Would it be completely out of order to suggest that the prudent path may be not to tell her, then?”
“She won’t hear it from me.” Luke was more amused than affronted, that Nath thought he might still be that naïve. “But she’ll find out…somehow.” His eyes stayed on Nathan, who moved uncomfortably beneath Luke’s consideration. “In fact, she should be your dinner guest. You can spot her, can’t you?”
“Me?” Nathan straightened. “You realize I’m scared of her, don’t you?”
“You’re not scared of anyone, Nath,” Luke dismissed. “Look at it this way: you just get tonight—this is my life.”
Nathan grinned, impish amusement in his eyes. “How’s this year’s club membership coming along?”
“Fantastic,” Luke deadpanned. “Really great.”
“Actually I think it’s a good idea,” Reece said evenly, turning both men’s eyes to him. “I think it’s good for Commander Jade to step out of other people’s concept of her as your bodyguard and into a more recognized, higher ranking public position such as Senior Aide, especially in consideration of her status in the line of succession.”
Luke shook his head. “I’m not going to put Mara in the line of fire, politically or physically, by making the line of succession public.”
“You don’t have to make it public, Sir, you’ve never done so before. However, you’ll be strengthening her hand if future events push her unexpectedly from her position as bodyguard. Who knows, she may well desire a more significant position in the near future anyway. Even if not, it’s something I would recommend, considering Jade’s abilities. This could be a first step in that direction.”
Luke narrowed his eyes just slightly before looking away, privately wondering at Reece’s rare intervention on Mara's behalf, his sudden interest in her taking a more public station. “Fine. That’s a plan then.”
“Wait a minute,” Nathan said quickly. “I haven’t agreed. Everybody’s organizing things to their own requirements behind my back!”
“Welcome to my life,” Luke repeated, the slightest shade of knowing sarcasm in his voice.
The levee was held in the Pageant Ballroom, one of the larger venues in the main Palace Monolith. Apparently, there were various theories for why the Emperor always used this particular ballroom when he intended to be present at a function, Luke knew, ranging from Mara's speculation that the pale sands and warm reds of the décor, combined with the incredible stretch of the painted ceiling—a perfect representation of a clouded blue sky—reminded Luke of Tatooine, to the more common belief that it was his favorite because it was this ballroom which had been used on the day of his accession to Emperor. But it was Nathan who’d guessed right, though Luke had never acknowledged it; the simple fact was that Luke had never once attended an event here during Palpatine’s reign.
So now it was his favored venue for larger, more formal gatherings, where numbers would fill the vast three-story hall, crowding onto the wide columned arcades which lined the walls of the second and third levels, or strolling the long cantilevered walkways at the second level, which seemed to defy gravity in hanging balanced over the ballroom below. To either end of the vast space grand staircases turned in wide, sweeping curves, crossing at deeply staged platforms, the space beneath each of the soaring stairwells given over to shallow mosaic-tiled pools. Between the colonnades to one wall, the vast run of the external Pageant balcony extended out along the front of the Palace, the long row of flags set above it constantly changed on an ever-rotating schedule, to display the pennants of all the planets which comprised the far-reaching Empire.
Luke also secretly suspected it was one of his favorites for the simple reason that it had the most possible places, in its staggered levels and many colonnades and balconies, to hide away.
It was late spring, so the long bank of dark, mercury-glass balcony doors were opened wide onto the night, the slightest of breezes reaching in to cool the vast space, carrying the mingled murmur of many voices and languages with it: the eminent, the elite, the influential. In his years in the Palace, Luke had learned their names and their habits. There were few he wished to know further. If he had his way, over half of them would be replaced within two years.
It went flawlessly; anything organized by Reece always did. Whatever his private machinations, he maintained the public face of both the Emperor and the Empire with dedicated, unswerving zeal…which left Luke to wonder all the more.
Kiria D'Arca wore deep, ruby red vinesilk overlaid with gossamer layers of black lace so fine as to create an ever-changing pattern in a haze of shades from scarlet to darkest claret, to true black, against the ruby silk. The heavy, opulent necklace Luke had given her flashed vividly against her tawny skin, her dress set low on the graceful arc of her shoulders, a simple rose-gold circlet holding sleek sable hair in place, nothing intended to detract from the elaborate magnificence—and just as importantly, the explicit significance—of the jewels at her throat.
She smiled genuinely as they danced, the perfect companion. “Am I pardoned?”
“For my request earlier. You’ll forgive me…I can’t help but fight my corner at times. But I realize that this shouldn’t have been one of them.”
“Too soon,” Luke said simply, of her disingenuous, though flawlessly delivered, apology.
“I was wondering that—whether it was too soon to seem sincere,” Kiria smiled conspiratorially.
And Luke too had to smile at her openness. “Is this a new tactic?”
“Yes… I’ve decided to try honest candor and blatant, undisguised persuasion…combined with my own special line in beguiling charm and natural charisma.” She glanced up through long dark lashes, self-assured mischief in her eyes. “One should play to one’s strengths, after all. What do you think so far?”
“Ask me again in a month.”
Kiria leaned back just slightly to look into Luke’s face as they danced, the act arching the small of her back against his hand. “Now I don’t know whether you’re serious or not.”
“What, losing control of the game?”
“Never!” She smiled irreverently. “Just making a few slight modifications—this is simply a period of adjustment.”
“Ah, always interesting.” Luke felt the edge of a smile curl his lips unbidden, as ever drawn by her charm but hardly blinded by it.
“Is she here tonight?” She was better than to look round as she said it.
His smile melted away. “Yes.”
“Will you speak to her?”
“Yes.” Kiria held her eyes on him, and Luke raised his eyebrows briefly in a subtle shrug. “Just playing by your rules: blatant honesty.”
“I said blatant persuasion.”
“I think the title of Empress is that.”
Kiria smiled again as she leaned closer to him, her dazzling smile made exceptional by the fact that she meant it. “Yes, it is.”
They remained together for a while, and Kiria was charming and elegant and captivating, and all that she’d declared she would be. Spontaneously, effortlessly, sincerely. There was a certain ease in being around her, Luke felt. They each played the game and neither hid the fact from the other; there was an honesty to it, a freedom from the guilt that plagued Luke so often with others. This was manageable; this was workable, he reflected. They both know exactly where they stood, and as long as Kiria didn’t try to shift the floor beneath his feet too often, Luke could deal with this—this strange, almost painfully candid deal which gained each what they wanted without the complications of any closer commitment.
He could do this, he really could…
The sense which whispered against his own lingered only a moment but it was enough to turn him about, knowing who stood to the wall a good distance away, forest-green eyes watching him.
The crowd parted, and for an instant Mara stood in isolation, fiery russet hair an unmistakable flare of color.
She wore a black gown…which didn’t for a second do it justice. The top was a fitted jacket clasped tight at the waist in a knowing, unmistakably feminine nod to the formal black jackets worn by all the men here tonight. But Mara's tightly traced the sweep of her slim hips and flared daringly open down its deep-cut collar-line, with the barest skim of black gauze beneath. Heavy and sumptuous, it shimmered, incandescent in the low light, woven with tiny darkest green and black glass beads—nothing sparkling, Mara Jade didn’t do glitz—but a subtle gleam, black on black, understated and restrained.
The lustrous black skirt held a close-fitting line over her hips to flare out into unstructured folds, its hemline brushing the floor in the slightest of trains. Subtle highlights shifted with every move, the dull sheen of the heavy satin following precisely the line of her body as she straightened, setting her head just slightly to one side, the barest hint of an evocative smile catching her lips as she met Luke's eye.
Then she turned deliberately away and disappeared into the crowds, Luke leaning back automatically to watch her, vaguely aware of Nathan trailing close behind.
And she was gone…and Luke was left to smile at his own reaction—and at her knowledge of it.
For Nathan, the night was not going so well. Mara had already managed to lose him three times on principle, and had skimmed close to Kiria D'Arca on countless occasions when Luke had been elsewhere, raising Nathan’s heartrate to what, as a medic, he knew had to be unhealthy levels. There were probably less than a dozen people in the whole of the Empire who knew the complete truth about the little drama that was playing out tonight and of them all, Nathan wondered how he had come to be in this position. He was hardly the consummate politician, and equally unlikely to be able to control Mara Jade if she really wanted to pick a fight. Luke had claimed that it would be ‘good practice,’ but for what, Nathan didn’t know. Presumably what it felt like to have an extended coronary.
Mara paused beneath the overhanging colonnades, glancing about the crowd with a professional eye. “I need a drink,” she said without looking to him. “Do you need a drink?”
“Good grief, yes,” Nathan said quickly.
“See what you can find,” Mara said smoothly. “I’ll have ansynthe or a grappa, just ice, no mixers.”
Nathan made to go then stopped as it hit him. “I’m not that gullible.”
“Admit it, you almost went.”
“That’s a reflection of how much I need a drink, not of how easy it is to pull the wool over my eyes.”
“Relax, Nathan. If I were going to make a scene I’d have done it before now…about two months before, actually.”
“Well, one never quite knows with you,” Nathan said wryly, fingering the uncomfortably high collar of his dress jacket.
“Thank you. I try my best.”
Level height with the slight medic, Mara turned now to look him appraisingly in the eye. “We never really talk much, do we, Nathan?”
“That’s because you don’t like me,” Nathan said solicitously but without any offense.
“Not true,” Mara said easily, eyes returning on the assembled dignitaries. “In fact, you’re one of the few people who I actually trust around here.”
“Absolutely. I know you try to do the right thing.”
“Well, thank you.”
“You don’t often manage it, but you try,” Mara added dryly.
“I like to think I keep the Emperor on the straight and narrow more than you know,” Nathan defended with quiet pride, rocking on his heels.
“Really? And which side of the straight and narrow do I fall?”
Having turned face-on to Nathan, Mara had expected some reflexive cringe from the medic, at being caught out. Perhaps even a guilty gulp as he avoided her eye… In the event, he seemed genuinely hurt that she would even ask.
“I don’t think I should dignify that with an answer.” He actually managed a good ten seconds of silence before he turned back with his usual earnest sincerity. “Mara, Luke argued to have you attend tonight—in fact he insisted on it, despite…requests to the contrary.”
Mara glanced back to the distant scarlet-clad figure of D'Arca, presently surrounded by a gaggle of ambitious career-climbers. They all laughed on cue, absurdly attentive, D'Arca clearly reveling in the attention; holding Court already, Mara reflected caustically.
She’d received a memo three days ago from one of D'Arca’s aides, copied to all attending females, politely requesting in the most roundabout but unmistakable terms, that no one wear gowns in any shade of red for the levee. Words couldn’t describe how tempted Mara had been to go out and buy one based solely on that message… In fact, if she were the petty type, she would have loved to have put her considerable skills to the task of finding out what D'Arca was wearing, and had an exact replica created in black… Strictly speaking, she would have abided by the ‘rules’ by not wearing red...
“What?” Nathan asked into her thoughts.
“What?” Mara turned.
“I just wondered what you’re smiling at?”
“Just thinking about D'Arca.”
“A hundred and one ways to kill her?” Nathan joked.
Mara smiled. “Oh, I had something far worse than that in mind.”
“See, now you’re making me nervous all over again.”
“Oh don’t worry, the moment for this one's passed.”
“You’re sure now?”
“Yes.” She couldn’t resist adding, after a heartbeat, “and if it wasn’t, do you think I’d admit it to you?”
It hadn’t exactly been a stretch to work out what was going on when Nathan had turned up at her door tonight sporting the kind of petrified expression that she normally associated with small animals in headlights. Privately, Mara had to admit that Nathan had been an inspired choice on Luke's part—though Nathan strongly denied any such strategy, of course. Had it been some unknown, unshakably professional diplomat trying to tail her, it would just have egged Mara on, and Luke had known it. But having Nathan trail her tonight like a little back-up conscience was a master move; doing anything with the fretful, overanxious medic in tow would be rather like kicking a big, brown-eyed puppy.
“You should probably know I handle stressful situations very badly,” Nathan tried plaintively. “I hyperventilate… I also talk, non-stop.”
“You always talk non-stop.”
“I have a very stressful life.”
“That’s because you have an uncanny ability to say exactly the wrong thing at any given moment.”
Nathan smiled disarmingly, voice laced with mock-injury. “I like to think of it as an uncanny ability to say the right thing…just to the wrong people and at the wrong time.”
Mara couldn’t help but smile. “I can go along with that.”
Nathan turned to watch Mara for long seconds, in which time she studiously ignored him, attention on the primped and preening crowds. When he spoke there was genuine warmth in his voice. “Well, this is nice.”
“This little heart-to-heart. I feel we’re bonding here.”
Mara turned, not sure whether to be offended or appalled. “We’re not bonding, Nathan—there’s no bonding going on here. This is yet another perfect example of your saying the right thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.”
Nathan only smiled. “In fact…would you like to dance?”
“Don’t push it.”
Nathan turned away again, for once amused rather than unsettled by Mara's usual brusque manner. He too searched the milling crowds, a riot of color and heady perfume. “I seem to have lost Luke—can you see him?”
“I would imagine that by now, he’s figuring that he’s seen everyone he was obliged to see and made any covert little plays he intended, so I assume he’s lying low.”
“I know that, I was just wondering where… And when he was going to come back out.”
“So is D'Arca,” Mara said knowingly. “That’s three people she’s sent out looking for him now.”
“How can you tell?”
Mara shrugged. “The way she pulls them close to tell them, the way they walk away, looking round. The fact that none have gone back to her yet, but they haven’t left the ballroom.”
“You know I forget sometimes what you do,” Nathan said, impressed. “And how good you are at it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be very good at it if you didn’t, would I?” Mara kept her gaze on D'Arca. “So what do you think of her—really?”
Nathan glanced through the crowd at the distant figure, engulfed by those seeking to court the prospective Empress. “She’s very beautiful, I suppose,” he said. “She’s intelligent and she’s shrewd, and she has a good head for the political…”
“You should probably stop speaking now,” Mara said dryly.
Nathan hesitated for a second. “But I can tell you for a fact that it’s a business arrangement, nothing more.”
“Maybe somebody should tell her that fact.” Mara's eyes remained on that vibrant flash of scarlet silk. “Do you think she can be trusted?”
“Luke does—and I assume he would know.”
“I assume Palpatine was too, in a different way. You know Luke; he tends to walk his own path.”
“It’s not Luke I’m worried about.”
“Worried?” Nathan teased lightly. “Mara Jade is worried?”
Mara turned to glare at him from the corner of her eye. “Remember that thing where you said you sometimes forgot that I trained as an assassin…”
“I do now,” Nathan said, only half-joking. He paused for long seconds in consideration before adding, “Mara, I can look around this room and name two dozen political marriages, and that’s just the ones I can see. That’s how so many in the Royal Houses conduct their affairs, and that’s what D'Arca is to Luke.”
“And what am I?”
“Right,” Nathan replied without even thinking.
Mara wanted to hug the man. Instead she just humphed, and turned away in silence to stare into the crowds, wondering if the diminutive medic knew of his own understated abilities when it came to effortlessly smoothing the waters. “Took you a long time to decide that.”
“You know me,” Nathan smiled. “I’m the naturally cautious type,”
“In fact, I think you once out and out threatened to remove me—permanently.”
“Really?” Nathan brightened. “I’m impressed.”
“Well, yes. I don’t do threats very well. In fact, do you remember when we…”
“Let’s not do reminiscences,” Mara said without turning. Just because she like the man, that didn’t mean she’d cut him any slack.
“I was just remembering the flag,” Nathan continued regardless. “You remember the problems we had getting Luke to choose one?”
Mara let out another huff. She remembered the day of the flag-choosing very well. She’d had to practically bully the typically stubborn Skywalker into even looking at the designs, then he’d promptly turned them all over to Nathan, having him choose one instead, much to Mara's simmering annoyance. He’d always known exactly how to push her buttons, she reflected wryly.
Now, the Lorric—the flag Luke had chosen, so named because it pictured a lorric willow wreath—was synonymous with the new Emperor, flown over the Palace whenever Luke was in residence, as well as being painted as a coat of arms on many of the smaller ships which the new Emperor used, though he’d put his foot down at the suggestion that it should also grace the Patriot. Lorric wreaths were a traditional sign of royalty, originally used to crown rulers of the Teta system because they were said to encompass the aspects of great leadership: strength and flexibility which never broke under pressure. Still, at the time, Luke had maintained that Palpatine had suggested the lorric willow as a private slight between himself and the Heir; a subtle allusion to the fact that that which was flexible was also pliable, and therefore compliant and obedient.
It was the kind of complex double-meaning powergame which even then, Luke had become used to spotting and dealing with on a daily basis—and to Mara's mind, had made him so capable of eventually stepping into the position of Emperor with such innate ease, holding the massive, diverse Empire together and his own position intact against a multitude of opportunistic challengers. No matter what Luke thought of Palpatine, he had, without a shadow of a doubt, prepared Luke for this position as no one else could, and the fact that Luke knew it—that he utilized the lessons Palpatine had taught him on a daily basis—was a constant, needling irritation to him.
Still staring at Kiria D'Arca, Mara narrowed her eyes in consideration—because it would be just like Palpatine to set something like this up, to hold his Sith Dynasty together in its early years. The man who had always regarded everyone around him, even his protegé and heir, as little more than pawns in the games of his choosing…
That splash of vibrant crimson was all that was visible of D'Arca between her overly attentive little clique as she set forward across the hall, lackeys in tow. Realizing, Mara looked quickly down to catch Nathan’s eye and his attention. “Say that again?”
“The flag—I was asking, do you remember the flag?”
“Actually, I do remember the whole flag debacle…but why don’t you tell me your side of it?”
Nathan actually hesitated, so thrown was he by this sudden burst of amicable interest from the suspiciously chatty Mara Jade. She actually smiled, holding his eye expectantly as she took another half-step to the side. He was still frowning in search of the reason, when it became horribly clear…in the scarlet silhouette at the edge of his vision. Eyes still on Mara, Nathan’s face was completely mortified for long seconds before he recovered, dredging up a flustered smile as Kiria D'Arca drew level with him and an unknown Moff stepped forward to do the honors.
“My lady, may I present Nathan Hallin, one of the Emperor's Senior Aides.”
Nathan bowed politely, scrabbling to regain some composure. “Forgive me, I find I always consider myself more in terms of my original role here. I’m the Emperor's physician.”
Kiria D'Arca smiled graciously. “The Emperor's physician—so may I assume that it’s you who bears the burden of responsibility when others fail to adequately protect the Emperor?”
“No, no.” Nathan let out a nervous little laugh, realizing immediately who this conversation was actually aimed at. “No…no, no.” He was aware that he was repeating himself, but seemed unable to stop. The sight of Mara straightening in the periphery of his vision gave him a serious incentive to move the conversation forward, though. “In fact, his Excellency has an excellent and dedicated team of professionals who look after him. They do a fantastic job.”
“By and large I'm sure,” D'Arca said with a gracious nod of her head. “But...I was under the impression that the Emperor was injured quite badly in an assassination attempt just a few years ago?”
“Well, um...” Nathan blinked several times. “Yes, but the Emperor's own Guard generally deal with, diffuse and disrupt several such attempts every month.”
“Ah…” Kiria didn’t for a second look away from Nathan. “That’s most reassuring. But then one would imagine that in such an atmosphere of consummate professionalism, those who were less than exceptional—those who had perhaps failed in their duty in the past few years—would maintain their position here by the most slender of threads.”
Nathan fingered at the high collar of his jacket again; it suddenly seemed phenomenally warm in here. Hoping to gain the momentum and steer the conversation to a safer topic, he tried again. “I don’t believe I’ve offered my congratulations yet, Lady Kiria. You must be very pleased.”
“Yes, it’s good to be able to formally announce our relationship. Keeping such a thing quiet is so very testing…” Again Kiria's dark almond eyes flashed momentarily to the side without once touching on Mara. “It becomes so very tiresome and places such stress on the participants. One could imagine such pressures easily breaking such a relationship down in time.”
“Ah…” Again Nathan floundered, but Kiria pushed forward as if she hadn’t noticed.
“I thought that you would attend with Commander Reece tonight, Commander Hallin.”
“Well, you know, never off-duty.” Nathan smiled...then glanced quickly to Mara. “Not that coming with Commander Jade tonight was in any way, shape or form any kind of duty or chore!”
Mara barely spared him a glance, narrowed eyes remaining on Kiria.
Nathan blinked for long, lost seconds in the still silence before trying again, searching once more for a safer topic. “The um…your necklace is stunning, Lady Kiria…”
Looking to the magnificent necklace, Mara spoke out for the first time. “Yes, that’s very…ostentatious.”
Nathan coughed nervously. “It was a gift, I understand?”
Kiria's chin rose a fraction though she didn’t acknowledge Mara's words. “Yes, a gift…the Emperor knows me very well.”
“Yes,” Mara nodded, “yes, he does.”
Nathan was beginning to notice that several of the closer Courtiers had now begun to drift uneasily away, sensing the impending confrontation, and he couldn’t help but envy them. Kiria's eyes remained on Nathan as she again ignored Mara's words, bringing one perfectly manicured hand up to touch the heavy, faceted stones.
“They’re beautifully matched, don’t you agree? It’s so very rare to find matching stones of this exceptional size and quality.”
“You know, I was thinking…” Mara’s casual tone made Nathan sweat. “Someone once made what they clearly believed was a very sharp observation about jewels and trinkets, and their relative values. But you see sometimes trinkets can be worth more than all the jewels you can hang around your neck.”
Kiria finally turned to Mara, a perfect smile remaining on her delicate oval face, almond eyes cool. “For a moment perhaps, Commander Jade. But as you can see, novelties cannot replace significance. The Emperor's incomparable gift illustrates his appreciation of that.”
“But you see I know the Emperor so very well,” Mara glanced dismissively at the heavily encrusted necklace at Kiria's neck, “and precious stones mean very little to him…however polished they are.”
“I believe you underestimate the Emperor's acumen in such things, Commander Jade. I’m sure His Excellency is well aware that stones of equal value and consequence always compliment and enhance each other. A perfectly matched arrangement cannot be replaced by a decorative trinket—it would be tantamount to replacing logic with folly, and that’s simply not in his nature.”
“I think you may be confusing your own opinions with the Emperor's—perhaps you don’t know him quite as well as you think,” Mara said coolly.
Surprisingly, D'Arca wasn’t there with some instant, acerbic come-back—though aside from lowering her voice, it didn’t seem to inspire the same restraint in Mara, who continued before Nathan could even begin to think of anything to fill the leaden silence.
“And speaking of blinkered and biased opinions, you once accused me of being a resource to fill a temporary requirement in Palpatine’s eyes. Well, I’ve been thinking…and tonight it occurred to me that I also knew Palpatine far, far better than you ever could. And I have news for you—you were the same. You’re here because you fulfill a need, a niche—a temporary requirement. Me, I probably am now surplus to requirements these days, as you said, but—and here’s the other thing I realized—I’m still around. I’m still here, for no other reason than by the Emperor's wish. I have been for a very long time.” Mara paused, to give gravity to her next words, “That’s the thing about trinkets—they always know their value, because it’s whatever others place on them. Those big, cold, sparkling jewels…well, they’ll never know whether they have any true worth or whether they’re kept for no other reason than their incidental value—and if they’ll be discarded as soon as that value is spent.”
In the taut pause that followed, Mara held the initiative by nodding her head in a polite if minimal bow. “You’ll excuse me, my Lady. The evening’s almost gone already…sometimes time seems to fly, and I wouldn’t wish to intrude on your moment in the spotlight.”
She walked coolly away, leaving Nathan to stare at the floor for long seconds. Finally Kiria turned to him and he found his voice, lifting his hand to point hesitantly at Mara's receding form as he backed up. “Um… I should…excuse me.”
It was almost midnight when Mara finally spotted Clem standing to loose attention just inside one of the smaller, more secluded balcony doors. She loosed a private smile; one more thing that Kiria D'Arca knew in theory but not in practice was the unique protocol which surrounded Luke’s habits, and how those close to him reacted to them. Clem being alone at the half-closed balcony door meant one thing: Luke was on the balcony… And if Clem was looking into the ballroom rather than out onto the balcony, then Luke was alone.
For a scarlet second as she drew close, Mara worried that Clem might stop her from walking onto the balcony, as he would most others, but in the moment he simply nodded briefly then turned his eyes back to the crowds. Nathan, still doggedly following, slowed as he reached the doors, remaining discretely at the threshold.
She walked into the sultry, balmy night, and knew instantly why Luke had retreated here; he loved the heat, even when it was as close as this. Mara paused in the half-light between the ballroom and the shadows Luke stood among, and he turned immediately, straightening as he let out a long sigh, his dark clothes rendering him almost lost in the darkness.
He wore a flawlessly tailored dress suit in black serge, the dark enameled perennium buckle of the belt to which his lightsaber was attached a subtle gleam below his short, fitted jacket. A wide, wine-red riband sash over his right shoulder had one of the only two insignia of rank Luke ever wore in public, despite Reece’s constant attempts to add more: the six-pointed Imperial Order and, at the high, cream-piped neck of his jacket, the Order of the Star.
Despite the fact that they were both definitive, elite Orders patronized by and awarded at the discretion of the Emperor, Mara always suspected that Luke selected them for rather more specific, if less than regal reasons. The Imperial Order was enameled a dark ruby red, and the Order of the Star was faceted jet inlaid on black perennium, which meant that the red Order medal became almost invisible against the red riband sash, and the black Order of the Star was absorbed into the black of Luke's dress jacket, both so subtle as to be barely visible from a few paces back. He played the game, but as ever it was on his terms.
“Congratulations.” She didn’t mean to have her first word come out quite as hard or as cutting as it did.
“You look beautiful,” he said, ignoring the remark completely.
“It’s the dress.”
“No, it’s not,” Luke said simply, and Mara felt the heated buzz in the pit of her stomach spread slowly to her lips in a warm smile.
“Don’t ruin my irritable mood. I’ve spent a long time nursing it today.” Mara set forward to lean on the balcony, eyes roving the hazy glow of the cityscape, and sensed him turn to do the same. “It’s too hot out here.”
“I like the warmth.”
She smiled without turning. “You’d go back to your damn desert tomorrow, wouldn’t you?”
“No, I really wouldn’t.”
“But you’d walk out of here.”
He paused a long time and when he spoke his voice was thoughtful, as if examining his own answer. “No…I really wouldn’t.”
She turned to him and, realizing he was under scrutiny, Luke glanced to her then out toward the ever-changing streams of light which wove endlessly among the lofty, illuminated structures. “I like the city at night. It looks so much more appealing than in the plain light of day.”
It was hardly a subtle avoidance—but then most people would have taken the hint, Mara knew. She wasn’t one of them. “How’re you holding up?”
“It’s actually harder than I thought it would be,” he said with absolute calm. “It wasn’t…then I saw you.”
“I watched you dance.” Mara fought to keep her tone light. “You make a terrible couple, you know; she’s too short for you.”
“Thanks,” Luke said dryly.
“Maybe I should go tell her,” Mara added blithely.
Luke smiled slightly, his tone lightening. “Don’t you dare. Besides, I thought you’d had your little spat for tonight.”
“We have…and we didn’t even make a scene—aren’t we good?”
“Good would have been not to have the spat.”
“No, I think that would have been just plain unrealistic,” Mara countered. “Maybe you shouldn’t have invited me.”
“I would never do that, Red.” Luke smiled, eyes still on the horizon. “Not when it gives me the opportunity to see you looking this good.”
“See, it is just the dress,” Mara smiled
“No,” he repeated categorically. “But that’s definitely not standard Palace issue.”
“Maybe it should be.”
He tilted his head. “I’m not sure Clem could pull that off…not and wear his usual arsenal.”
“Oh, I’m carrying a blaster,” Mara said with feigned offense. “And a vibroblade.”
Luke took a step closer but Mara pulled the rustling, lustrous fabric back in mock anger. “Hey, hands off the expensive dress, Skywalker.”
He grinned now, and in the low light, despite his scars he looked very much the indomitable young pilot who had arrived here, full of attitude and indignation. Taken by the moment, Mara stepped forward to kiss him, but Luke backstepped quickly, glancing to the partially open balcony doors. She stopped, frowning.
“Breaking the rules?” she bit sarcastically.
“Here, tonight—yes,” he said simply.
“Well, how very crude and uncouth of me,” Mara growled. “Maybe I’m not sophisticated and urbane enough for your little games any more.”
“Why do you always make this so very difficult?”
“Me? I’m not the one marrying some conceited little blue-blood to cement my position.”
“You wanted me to be Emperor—you wanted this. Remember that.”
It was an old accusation, leveled at her more than once, and every time Mara wondered at it—that he could somehow not have wanted this for himself; not have seen it as the ultimate goal.
She looked back to the brightly lit ballroom, then turned to meet his eyes, holding his gaze for long seconds as she carefully considered her next words. “I’m going to ask you this one last time, then I’m never going to mention it again… Are you sure this is the only way to gain what you need?”
Luke sighed, looking down. It was rare that he avoided her eyes, Mara knew.
“I’ve tried to think of another way to gain all that this does for the last year, and wasted time I could have invested in moving forward. I can’t name one other way to gain this—not in the timescale I need. Even this may not work, any more.”
“What exactly do you need?”
“The co-operation of the Royal Houses.”
“You have that!”
“No, I have their tolerance. I have their compliance.”
“That’s all you need and you know it. That’s all you’ve ever had and your reign hasn’t suffered for it.” Mara could hear the edge of her tightly controlled frustration leaking through. “You can hold the Empire easily without Kiria D'Arca.”
“Yes, I can—Palpatine’s Empire. I can stand at the head of Palpatine’s Empire. Not mine, his…and I won’t do that.”
“And what do you intend to do that’s so very different that you need the Royal Houses to…” Mara paused, realization of her casually thrown out words filtering through into her own thoughts: “so very different…”
Her voice dropped, suddenly very serious, memories of his outburst on Hosk Station coming sharply to mind, a tremor sliding up her spine. “What are you going to do, Luke?”
He glanced away, voice quiet, for her alone. “Did you really think I’d give Palpatine his dynasty, Mara…ever, for one second?”
“What are you going to do?” Mara repeated, voice a breathless whisper.
He shook his head. “I wish I could tell you, Red.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because I think you’d disapprove.”
“Of all the things you’ve done, suddenly now you’re worried about my disapproving,” Mara observed dryly. “Maybe if you just got it over with and told me, you might be surprised—I might even be able to help you.”
“That’s a good point,” Luke said easily. “I’ll think on that.”
“No, you won’t!” Mara almost laughed. “You won’t think about it for one second. Luke, you don’t have to do it all alone.”
“Yes, I do. Right now, everyone’s safe. If this all goes wrong, you can stand in any Court and take any test and say with your hand on your heart that you knew nothing. That I was acting alone.”
“I don’t need your protection.”
“I know that. But I have to do it this way anyway, otherwise I’ll never sleep at night.”
“You never sleep anyway.” Her frustration was laced with humor now, at his enduring protective streak.
He smiled wryly. “Again, a good point. I’ll think on it tonight…”
“I know—when you should be sleeping. You know you are, without a doubt, the most single-minded, stubborn, irritating, frustrating, infuriating person I have ever met.”
“I don’t know if there is a but, yet.”
He shook his head, indulgent, but she could see that brittle edge as close to the surface as ever, and felt her heart go out to him. He was trying so hard to be what he knew he needed to be, what he knew the aristocrats and the diplomats and the military expected him to be. What he knew would hold the Empire together and hold them at bay whilst he dragged it forward by strength of will alone, to some unnamed plan. “Why can’t you tell me—do you trust me so little?”
Luke looked down, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as he glanced back to the bright lights of the ballroom. “I can’t do this now, Mara.”
Her breath left her in a low sigh, because once again it all came back down to this; he took her everywhere, risked so much and probably complicated his life and his plans by a factor of ten by keeping her close…but he still didn’t trust her.
“I wish I could go back to that day.” The words came out in a low, defeated murmur.
Luke shook his head. “It was my fault, not yours.”
“No, it was Palpatine’s.” Had she said that—had she blamed her old master outright? It was the first time Mara had ever openly questioned Palpatine in anything.
“No. I shouldn’t have left you there—it was my fault.”
“Then why can’t you trust me?”
He shook his head in defeated silence, and she sighed again, realizing that he was trying just as hard to be what she wanted too; trying somehow to shoehorn her own expectations in with those of the military and the Royal Houses and the greater picture. Trying to be everything for everybody…because she’d asked this of him. Because she’d asked him to stay. Was it that which he couldn’t forgive her for—was it that which truly stood between them?
She sighed, smiling gently, knowing he’d see, despite the heavy shadows which concealed them both. The distant strains of the formal music reminded Mara of that night long ago in some other ballroom, celebrating the launch of the Patriot under Palpatine’s ever-watchful eye. When they’d stood inches and yet chasms apart, just as bound by outside obligations and responsibilities as they were tonight, and Mara had whispered quietly beneath the music, “Dance with me tonight—alone?”
She spoke out now on impulse, “Da–”
“Don’t. Don’t ask.” He brought his hand up, rubbing it slowly across his eyes. “Don’t make this any harder.”
“You didn’t read what I was going to ask.” She knew she’d been shielding her thoughts—how could she not, tonight?
“I don’t need to. Do you think after all this time that I don’t know you, Mara—do you think I wouldn’t know anyway?” He sighed, head down. “This is so hard, Mara. This is so phenomenally hard and every single time I look at you it makes it harder. But I have to do this—I have to do this.”
She studied him in the darkness; the tense set of his jaw, the tight line of his shoulders, the frown which pulled that heavy scar into a crescent, creasing into the lines of worry about his eyes as he spoke. “You do what you have to, Mara—whatever it is, I understand… But I have to do this.”
'Do what you have to.' Didn’t he know—if he knew her so well, didn’t he know by now? Without thinking, she’d moved towards him in the darkness, lifting her arms to wrap about him as she leaned in close...and feeling in that moment as his arms wrapped about her, that this was more than enough.
The minutes stretched as they stood still and silent in each other’s arms, hidden by the dark of the night, the music soft and distant…and Mara had no idea if this was acceptance or goodbye on either of their parts. Then slowly, she felt Luke take her hand and lift it out, sliding his other hand about her waist. Gently, he began to move to the rhythm of the faint music, taking her with him. Deeply touched, Mara melted to him, resting her head on his shoulder, hugging him closely to her, feeling him relax as he rested his cheek against her hair.
They danced together for a long time in the darkness.
Luke was in his office before dawn the following morning, Reece entering with dispatches when the working day began a few hours later, as he generally did as soon as they were available.
“Good morning, Excellency; dispatches. Also your…” Reece had the good sense to stop himself before he even tried to go any further, “the Lady Kiria has sent her compliments this morning, and has requested an audience…lunch perhaps?”
Luke didn’t look up. “Send her my compliments and my apologies. Redirect her to the social secretary and have him make an appointment at some point.”
Reece hesitated. “I thought perhaps, considering her station now, certain concessions could be made.”
“Fine; make it this week.”
“… I envisioned larger concessions than that, Sir,” Reece said dryly.
“I think we’ve made enough concessions to Lady Kiria at the moment.” Luke's eyes and his attention were on his work as he slotted the new data chip into his reader. He was aware of Wez’s continued presence but didn’t look up, instead watching his Aide’s reflection in the polished surface of his desk as Wez licked his lips before continuing.
“Incidentally, I did have a question regarding the final wording on the D'Arca agreement,” Reece added casually. “I noted that Lady Kiria is to be acknowledged as Empress Consort and wondered if you wished me to amend that.”
“Amend it why?”
Reece hesitated a second. “I simply wondered whether such a clause was necessary. Since Lady Kiria isn’t listed in the line of succession, it would seem a tad petty to…”
“You want me to remove a clause that clarifies the future line of succession of an Empire, for fear of it seeming a tad petty?” Luke didn’t look up, voice calm and distant, as if only half-interested in the discussion.
“Because I was under the impression that acknowledging Kiria D'Arca as Empress Regent would also acknowledge her as potential ruler in my absence.”
Wez hesitated, clearly surprised that Luke would have the knowledge of such conventions, unaware that it was his own actions which were forcing Luke to learn such self-reliance. “…That is correct, Sir… However, if Lady Kiria is not listed in the official line of succession—”
“Assuming that documents pertaining to the official line of succession were to become available, should it be necessary.”
“… I cannot imagine why they would not.”
“Neither can I—but then I can’t imagine why this point is so relevant that you’d bother to bring it up right now.”
“Also in regard to this, Sir, I did mean to point out that I tried to access the succession documents this morning, in relation to the D'Arca agreement, and they seem to have been removed from the private access hub.”
“I’ve locked the documents,” Luke said simply as he glanced up, aware that Wez had neatly sidestepped answering. He gave a reassuring half-smile though, projecting subtle reassurance out into the Force. “Nothing has changed, Wez—they’re still on the coded hub in my Cabinet office. I’ve just decided to take them off the private access hub—it has too many people able to retrieve it.”
“There are twelve people able to access that hub, Sir.”
“I consider that too many. The documents remain in the Cabinet office, so they can still be accessed when needed.” The hub in Luke's office within the Cabinet was the most secure of all data bases. With no access point save from the desk within Luke's office, it was DNA coded to just six people aside from Luke, requiring three of those six separate codes to access it without Luke's permission, effectively meaning that if Luke were not present, this most comprehensive data base could only be unlocked with the consent of three of the six members of his Inner Council. Even then, there were countless codes to access individual documents, the passwords for which Luke handed out with careful consideration as to who would conceivably use or abuse them if they were unlocked on his death. As ever, even in his absence, his old Master’s guarded habits dictated Luke's actions—a fact that continually irked him, though never quite enough that he was prepared to abandon logic simply to flaunt them. It irked him even more that his old Master was right; Wez Reece, a former ally who had the gall to stand calmly in front of Luke right now and believe he could lie to a Sith, was proof of that.
Finally, it irked him one last time that thanks to his old Master, he was equally capable of the same, meeting Wez’s gaze with that same empty amity and composure. “Is there anything else?” He sensed Reece brace, and realized that this little aside wasn’t the reason that the man had entered.
“Dispatches this morning, Sir; I was checking through and came across a communiqué from Captain Tolemy of the SD Spur. It was a coded transmission, and I don’t appear to have the decrypt. I tried to clarify the situation with Captain Tolemy, but was informed that the communiqué was confidential.”
There was the barest hint of a question behind Wez’s tone, but Luke remained silent, eyes back on his dispatch notes as he pulled up Tolemy’s report, seeking reassurances that the sanctuary moon was unharmed by debris and radioactive fallout from the destruction of the second Death Star.
No damage sustained; the shield generators originally designed to protect the Death Star had successfully been inverted and phased by the specialist detachment Luke had installed onboard the Spur. Though Luke had never once set foot on the surface of the verdant, blue-green Endor, every night as he’d slept onboard the monstrosity that his old Master had delighted in building, he’d sensed the vibrant rush and swell of life from the fragile moon, a burst of mental color seeping through the endless leaden gray of Palpatine’s new toy.
Reece waited patiently, looking for some kind of reaction as Luke studied the report. None was forthcoming, but Wez was familiar enough with his Emperor that he wouldn’t be so easily derailed by silence, and so tried again. “What seems odd is that the Spur is currently well outside of its mission route parameters—almost two lightyears from Endor. When I questioned Captain Tolemy on his position, he informed me again that he was under instruction from a higher authority, and couldn’t make comment.”
Finally Luke looked up, aware of the fact that his bluff had been called; the only higher authority than Wez was the Emperor himself.
“Captain Tolemy was operating under my instructions. The report he’s returned is to confirm that Project Redress has been destroyed. That’s why he was no longer in orbit around Endor.” There was little point in trying to hide this from Wez; in spite his recent actions, he remained in his privileged position by Luke’s choice, and much as unseen restrictions had been placed, Wez still had access to high-level Fleet information, something Luke had allowed despite Mara’s misgivings. He still believed absolutely that Wez would act in the Empire's best interests—and he still hoped privately that he could turn Wez from his present course.
But if he wanted to dissuade Wez, then Luke knew he couldn’t put him off forever—and in truth, he’d rather have it out and dealt with now than let it fester. Wez was living on borrowed time, allowed him because of their past history and because Luke didn’t want to be seen to turn on his own Senior Aide without tangible proof of a kind that others in his Cabinet—especially Nathan—could understand. Mara thought he was crazy, of course, and privately there were moments when Luke agreed with her, but still, if he could, Luke wanted to pull Wez back from what was so far a few isolated indiscretions…and he couldn’t and wouldn’t do that by outright lying to his primary Aide; Wez was too smart and Luke was too stubborn for that.
The man blinked now, fighting to hold his composure. “Project Redress is… Is this confirmed? How did it happen—and why isn’t Captain Tolemy here to answer for his failure in person?”
“It happened at my command, which was followed to the letter by Captain Tolemy. Project Redress had fulfilled its requirements and was little more than a drain on Imperial resources.
“You ordered the second Death Star destroyed?”
“For my reasons and to fulfill a greater plan, yes. I gave it to the Rebellion—or rather, I gave the co-ordinates to Leia Organa at our last meeting.”
Wez looked down for long seconds, and Luke knew the man was trying to hold his temper. “To gain what?”
“You gave her the co-ordinates of Project Redress… What if the Rebellion had turned up in force? What if they had commandeered it, completed it?”
“That was never an option. I told her when I gave her the co-ordinates that she could tell no one and I…trusted her to hold to that. I’ve said before, I know her; I know how she’ll act and that she’d uphold a trust placed in her personally, even from me, so she’d go alone. Within the safe-passage transmission that I gave her for entry to the area was the Death Star’s self-destruct code. Even if they’d separated it and only used the safe-entry code, it would have alerted Captain Tolemy, who would have passed the fact on immediately as ordered, and I would have triggered the self-destruct directly from Coruscant. There was never any question of them trying to return and take control of Project Redress. It was always intended as a gesture of good faith, not a gift to keep and certainly not one they would ever have the opportunity to use against us.”
“You gave them the one thing that could have effectively removed them?”
“It could never have done that, Wez, it just appeared to have that potential. That’s why I gave it to her—because she would see that danger too.”
“The Death Star had massive potential…”
“No, it didn’t.” Luke kept his voice firm but without enmity. He’d been judged in the past on his own actions without all the facts; had those he’d trusted come to premature conclusions. He wouldn’t do to Wez what he himself had endured at the hands of others; wouldn’t condemn those who had done it to him, and then turn around and do the same. “It could never be anything other than it was, Reece—an overblown relic that would only ever incite more insurgence. Another one of Palpatine’s indulgent, self-gratifying schemes that could never be what he blindly believed.”
“It could have worked as part of a greater plan.”
“And it did. It was pivotal…as part of a greater plan. Now we move on—we build on what the Death Star gained us. We’re taking the wind out of the rebellion's sails by stealing their thunder a piece at a time; by negating the tenets on which they fight, as part of our bigger plan, part of the long-term scheme. You know that. We can pretty much force Leia Organa and her insurrection into an untenable position by freely enacting some of the constitutional freedoms they’re presently fighting for. On our own terms and to our own schedule. We put these changes in place and the Rebel Alliance becomes nothing more than a marginalized, redundant guerilla force which will hold no sympathy with the general populace. I always told you that I’d do this—that I’d take their support a piece at a time, if I had to.”
Wez raised his chin. “What I don’t recall is your assuring me that any of these gratuitous allowances already placed in the constitution would be retracted at a future point.”
Luke hesitated; did he do this? If he told Wez the truth, was he inspiring trust or simply pushing him further away? In the end, it didn’t really matter—because Wez deserved that opportunity to redeem himself; Luke owed him that. After all that he’d accused others of, now that he found himself in the same position with one of his own, he didn’t want to look back and question his response. Whether Wez stood or fell, it should be on the truth.
“If we hold our rule and maintain order, then why would retractions be necessary?”
Wez remained silent, lips pursed to a narrow line.
“Wez, the Empire as it stands is unsustainable. Anything that needs a massive military to keep it in power is basically untenable. You know that.”
“The Empire ended a civil war and has held the peace for almost three decades...”
“Yes. But times change, and Palpatine wouldn’t let his Empire change with them. It’s time to correct that.”
Wez’s eyes hardened. “Tell me you don’t intend to make a deal with the rebellion?”
“As it stands, no. Never. I have very specific requirements of the Alliance before talks could even begin to be considered—and always on my terms.”
Wez stiffened at the Emperor’s words but held himself in check, mentally and physically, as he’d always had the ability to do, even here. Even beneath this final truth… The Alliance; not the Rebellion, the Alliance. A slip of the tongue, or an inadvertent admission? Had that been the truth all along, Wez wondered? Despite everything, had Skywalker always been in some way sympathetic to the Rebellion at heart?
“I see,” Wez said at last in knowing monotone, nodding his head slowly.
“You never said that this was your intent before.”
“I said that my intent was to remove the Rebellion and stabilize the Empire. It still is.”
“I question your methods, Excellency, not your motives.”
“I’m not dissolving the Empire, Wez, nor am I handing it over to the Rebellion—I will never do that. You said yourself we need to move forward—this is how we do it.”
“Making a deal with the Rebellion will not– “
“I haven’t said I’ll make any deal with the Rebellion.”
“Yet you’re speaking with Leia Organa.”
“For my own reasons, and to my own ends—ends I’ve just explained to you.”
“If you believed that it would stabilize your Empire, Excellency…would you negotiate with them?”
‘If you believed’… in other words, ‘however erroneously’; Wez didn’t say it, but the Emperor was an astute man. He straightened now, putting absolute commitment into his words.
“I won’t allow the Rebellion to continue in its present form. What I’m doing now will ensure that, one way or another. And no, I have no qualms about bringing force to bear if…”
Skywalker stopped, but Wez knew his error: if
“Tell me again, Excellency, that you don’t intend to make a deal with them.”
The Emperor raised his chin, refusing to give. “I’ll tell you again what I’ve just said; in their present form, no. Absolutely not.” He sighed, looking down. “I know that you want to do what you think is right for the Empire, Wez… I’m confused as to why you suddenly don’t believe I think the same.”
“I will never hand the Empire over to the Rebel Alliance—to do that would be consigning it to civil war and I can promise you, I’ll never do that. I will never sign, or be any part of, any treaty which breaks this Empire up or feeds those who would do the same. There is no question of that. But the Rebellion cannot be beaten.” Wez lifted his chin, but the Emperor pressed on, hand opening before him. “No. By its very nature it can’t be proscribed, and it can’t be removed because it will always spring back in some form. As long as people feel they have no voice, they’ll rebel. As long as people feel they have no options, they’ll fight. I could destroy every last member of every faction tomorrow—and believe me, it’s a tempting proposition—but they would be back in greater numbers within a year. New people with those same ideals, people who believe that the only option left to them is insurrection. How do I deal with that—you tell me?”
“What? I’ve said before, give me a target and I’ll give the order. They’re scattered, broken down into small units. I know—I know exactly how they fight.”
“You could draw them out; draw them into the open, lure them into a single action—that’s what you said, that this would place the heads of the Rebellion in one place at a set time.”
“And afterwards, when the next wave forms and they shout out the names of the supposed martyrs we’ve created?”
Wez stiffened. “We do it again.”
“And again, and again. It’s not an answer; it’s not even a postponement. If anything, it’s an escalation. Give me a solution, Wez—because I don’t have one, other than the path I’m taking. I’m trying to hold the Empire together, I’m trying to take it forward. I’m trying hard not to consign a third of its citizens to death as traitors when all they want is a fair constitution. I’m trying to make the Empire all it could be, to realize the potential that everyone saw when the Clone Wars ended. And I need you with me to do that—I need your vision, and I need your ability, and I need your belief.”
In so many ways Wez knew he was looking at—arguing with—the perfect Emperor. Skywalker was sharp and he was shrewd and he was persuasive. He had a long-term vision and he had the resolve and the drive and the pragmatism to find or create a way to bring that vision to fruition. But in others he was far, far too moderate.
Wez had never truly approved of the excessive relaxation of existing laws which had served the Empire well for decades, despite the obvious benefits their easing had brought in rooting out opponents and detractors, and Skywalker knew it. The revamp of the legal system he could understand on those terms, but the equality statutes and free speech had been grossly unwarranted and so very carefully placed; too meticulously considered and perfectly worded to ever have been a temporary charade—he should have seen that at the time. In fact he had—but persuasive as ever, Skywalker had put forward a hundred reasonable, rational motives to support them—and Wez had let it pass…and let it pass, and let it pass.
As he did now…outwardly. He nodded just once, eyes down. “You have my loyalty, Sir, and my support. You always did.”
The Emperor loosed a long, low sigh, and Wez wondered for a fraction of a second if he had seen the truth within the Force, but Saté Pestage had always assured him that Skywalker would find him unreadable, and Skywalker himself had often assured Wez of the same, if Wez were ever to have needed to face Palpatine.
Now the new Emperor spoke quietly. “I value both…more than you realize, I think.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Wez backed to the door. “If you’ll excuse me?”
Skywalker nodded, and Wez backstepped. His last glimpse of the Emperor as the heavy doors separated them was of those distinctive mismatched eyes, disconcerting in their piercing intensity.
Wez turned and walked swiftly down the wide corridor, heading for his own office within the Cabinet, slapping the door closure before he was through and leaning back to rest against the sealed doors, eyes closed, breath short.
So there it was—only not; a complete explanation without a single fact, as only the Emperor could do. Another sermon to reassure the faithful, a way to break it to Wez gently that the single, most effective means to remove the Rebellion had been destroyed—by the Emperor's own command, no less!
He’d known—he’d known that something was going on the moment he couldn’t get that damn information from Tolemy; it wasn’t part of the Spur’s general remit to be out that far. He’d tried to get more out of the Destroyer Captain, but Tolemy was completely loyal to the Emperor and would of course stick by his order to speak to no one, issued by the Emperor himself.
Recruited by Skywalker when he was still Heir, and making ongoing trips to Endor to oversee its construction, Tolemy was an unwavering backer of the new Emperor. As soon as he'd known it had existed, he’d also been a discreet detractor of the second Death Star, which was probably why Skywalker had recruited him in the first place. With the change in power, Tolemy had gained in stature and in nerve, citing the Death Star more than once as an oversized relic of Palpatine’s reign. A clumsy dinosaur at odds with the swift, reaction-oriented fleet which the new Emperor was creating. That he’d been given the remit of protecting it had seemed strange to Reece at the time, though he hadn’t for a moment considered this possibility.
He should have known—he should have known! Skywalker had showed no interest in the Death Star since Palpatine’s death, maintaining its confidentiality but having all work suspended and basically abandoning the massive battle station by relegating it to ‘standby’ status, leaving the unrivalled military structure that he had helped to build guarded but disused, destined to redundancy without once having fired a single blast. Wez knew how much Skywalker had always hated Palpatine’s opus, referring to it often as the old Emperor's folly, but this…this was outrageous in the extreme. This was a weapon that could have ended the Rebellion in no uncertain terms. Skywalker had never thought so—had said as much to Palpatine more than once—but Wez knew him; if he’d wanted to elevate the Death Star to active service, he would have found a way. Would have dovetailed it neatly into other plans, as he did so much else. If he hadn’t, then it was by choice—everything that he did was by choice. Everything.
Yes, the Death Star had been brazenly overstated, an excessive monument to Palpatine’s exaggerated hyperbole, but Skywalker could have made it work as the vanguard of the fleet. It exemplified the power and the means and the resolve of the old Empire, and knowing the Emperor as he did, knowing his constant balance between integrity and intimidation, between honesty and insinuation, between threat and compromise, Skywalker could have made it work.
He had chosen not to—had chosen to abandon the tenets of the true Empire and pursue his own ends. Because of Skywalker, this was not the Empire Wez had aspired to, not the path he had intended, and now…now, the new Emperor had all but admitted that the ‘fraudulent’ dialogue with Organa and therefore her Rebellion could yet be a prelude to legitimate talks!
Wez shook his head as he leaned back against the tall doors…because this was it. This was the point past which he could not and would not follow the Emperor.
He was becoming too lenient. Too progressive. It was time to set the Empire back on course. The method to achieve such was extreme—but then, one could not use half-measures in turning the course of an Empire. Skywalker had taught him that.
If he were to deal with this…problem, it should be in a managed fashion, with an ultimate goal: the reinstatement of the true Empire. If the line of succession hadn’t been altered—and Wez very much doubted that Skywalker would have done so without good reason—then Mara Jade was next in line to the throne. She too was strong and assertive; she didn’t have Skywalker’s breadth of vision, but then perhaps that was no bad thing—she would have no desire to change the Empire to some toothless, ungovernable shambles just a half-step away from anarchy. Jade had always been a staunch Imperialist, brought up to respect the Empire and its values.
For Wez himself to move against Skywalker was out of the question of course. What he needed was to orchestrate a situation which would not only bring Jade to power, but ideally clarify for the new Empress just exactly what depths the Rebellion that Skywalker actually intended to enter into negotiations with, was capable of and leave her intent on pursuing them with a vengeance, obliterating both the Rebellion and these ever-deteriorating and subversive statutes once and for all. He had the contacts—thanks to the procurement and presentation of a few facts, ‘on good faith’—and he’d had all the lessons he’d needed in how to enact such plans…
The present Emperor, despite all early indications to the contrary, had proved himself to be unfit to hold the title...and as a staunch and unfaltering Imperialist, it was Wez’s duty, his obligation and his honor to maintain the Empire he so revered, whatever the cost. No individual, no matter what his heritage or his status, could be placed above the continued survival of the Empire.
Yes, the Emperor was to be revered…but the Empire—the Empire was sacrosanct.
“Those were the actions of the Emperor—he gave you the code to destroy a completed Death Star? He did that firsthand?”
“Yes,” Leia said simply. “And now I’m asking you, do I take all of this to the Council?”
She watched as Tag Massa leaned back, resting her hand to her mouth as she considered all that Leia had just told her. Leia found herself holding her breath from where she sat at the desk in Tag’s office onboard Home One, the privacy glass about them dimmed. Han had slouched with typical cavalier fashion in a chair close to the door, though there was an innate tension to his frame, an unspoken agitation as he fumbled with the toggles of his flight suit, deeply uneasy. He hadn’t wanted her to come, Leia knew; had wanted to keep this between themselves. But it was too big and too important, and Leia had needed to discuss it with someone impartial. She’d chosen Tag, and already knew it was the right choice. The Intel Chief knew that Leia had met Luke once, and had remained typically unperturbed at news of a second meeting…though the outcome of this one had rocked even her, underlining its relevance.
Glancing down to the blank automemo before her, Leia reflected on the fact that the concept of relying on her own decision in this seemed completely impossible now. With the best of intentions not to, she knew she’d become personally involved—that she’d been pulled in. Slowly and gradually persuaded to make some kind of emotional investment in her continuing discussions with the Emperor. She could no longer view this with a detached, balanced viewpoint and she knew it, so she was now relying on the council of those she trusted to provide the balance she needed. Was it a limitation, her inability to come to a decision, or simply an acknowledgment of the facts? Should she follow her own heart in this, or was it too important to let personal feelings hold sway? Lost in thought, Leia doodled idly on the automemo, drawing repeats of the same image, one circle linked into another; not quite right though—something was missing. Shaking her head, she scribbled them out and they deleted.
She found herself wondering what the Emperor would do, were it him in this situation, and shook her head abruptly, furious at herself that she’d even consider such a thing! Or perhaps not; he’d held his Empire together through everything that had been hurled against it by the Rebel Alliance. Her father, Leia knew, would have told her that it wasn’t a fault to respect one’s enemy, simply the acknowledgment of a more than competent leader. One should have a healthy respect for one’s rivals, surely?
Tag was shaking her head, lips narrowed to a firm line as she came to a decision. “No. At this time, my advice would be not to go public with this, even to the Council. I’ll log the events here in my own reports so that it can be confirmed that you came to me with this, but in the present atmosphere, I would advise against telling the Council that you’d met with the Emperor. If the information’s logged, you can change that decision at any time without loss of face because you came to me and made it known, and I advised against it.”
“Not even the moderates like General Rieekan?”
“I would say that once information of this relevance is leaked in any form, you would have a hard time containing it, Ma’am. I may change my mind tomorrow myself, when I’ve had more time to consider the implications, but… no. Right now I would advise you to hold fast.”
Leia sighed uneasily, rising to pace the small Intel office. “I’m…uncomfortable keeping this from the Council.”
“I fail to see what it would gain at this time, other than to further destabilize it.”
Which was the painful truth, Leia knew; the Council was already torn by infighting from opposing factions, thanks to Madine’s constant calls for what he euphemistically referred to as a ‘more pro-active stance.’
“In fact, that may well have been the Emperor’s ulterior aim,” Tag added thoughtfully.
“Then why tell me not to tell anyone?”
“Oldest trick in the book,” Han shrugged, leaning back. “If I tell you to think of anything other than a tauntaun, what are you thinking of right now?”
Leia narrowed her eyes. “I think we’re a little past that, hotshot.”
“Worked though, didn’t it?” Han grinned.
“Maybe,” Leia conceded. “I’m just not sure why you’re the one saying it.”
“I’m not stupid, swee…Leia,” Han said, glancing to Massa as he curbed his familiarity, “and I sure as hell ain’t naïve. I know Luke's not the same kid who walked off Tatooine nine years ago. Hell, he couldn’t have been that even if he’d stayed with the Alliance—but that doesn’t mean he’s not genuine in this.”
"Perhaps we should be looking at what the Emperor, rather than ourselves, has to lose by making this public,” Tag suggested, always the voice of reason. “Looking solely at this last action, why wouldn’t he want to go public? He has some reason, or he would have done so. Why not do this publicly?”
Han sighed, lapsing to consideration, if only because he was aware of how uneasy this was making Leia. “Okay… because…it cost a lot of credits to build.”
“No… Maybe…” Leia shook her head as she paced, hands clasped before her chin; this was too hard! Being placed in a position where she was now double-thinking a man who, deep down, she maybe even wanted to believe. Where did her personal feelings end and her ability to lead begin? “He has to have a reason. He doesn’t do anything without one.”
“Okay,” Han said again, “it’s gonna upset his military; he has something that would make them practically invincible and he ups and destroys it.”
Leia clicked her fingers at him. “Point! Plus, he wouldn’t want to give his military any more power than they have already. He said that more than once when we spoke—that he didn’t trust them.”
“So if he’d admitted that he had it in the first place, he’d’ve basically handed over to whoever he appointed to command it, the power to hold him to ransom—or even overthrow him entirely—which he’d never do… But he wouldn’t have wanted them to know that he didn’t trust them.”
“Wouldn’t want to incite revolt,” Leia agreed, nodding. "It could have been classified as much from his own military as from us. Probably very few knew it existed."
“He’d never want to use it himself,” Han added, very sure. “But he’d never want to give anyone else the opportunity to use it against him.”
Tag shrugged, adding her own thoughts to the mix. “As we’ve said, he’d know as well as we do that for you to admit to this now would be a destabilizing factor within your own leadership. If he relieved you of the burden of acknowledging any of this publicly, then his intentions would remain constant—so we’re back to the question, is he genuinely trying to help you?”
“He may simply want proof that he can trust you,” Han said, voice neutral. “He asked you not to tell anyone about it.”
Leia frowned, about to ask why he would need Leia to prove her trustworthiness—then realized that she’d already told Tag. Han’s eyes, still on her, reminded her of the greater picture too; that it was she who had brought the proof about Luke’s Imperial origins to light, years ago. But why should she feel guilty about uncovering a spy?!
Tag shook her head. “This is all second-guessing and conjecture. Even if we touched on the truth, we wouldn’t know.”
“You could ask him,” Han shrugged…and both women turned to stare at him. “What—when’s the last time he lied to you?”
“I don’t know!” Leia exclaimed. “That’s the point!”
“No, that’s not the point,” Han said, looking to Leia. “The point is, whether you admit it publicly or not, he still made the gesture… My question is, what are you gonna do in reply?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said he’d done it to prove his intentions, right? By my reckoning, that means it’s now your turn.”
Leia stopped dead in her pacing of the small office; he was right, of course. Could she afford not to take the chance—to make a gesture? If she didn’t react to this, the fact was that Leia would always privately wonder if, because of her own suspicions, she had been the one to throw away the first genuine opportunity to move forward in almost three decades.
Tag sat up slightly, voice wary. “What exactly was he asking?”
“A step-down in hostilities,” Leia said. “The first stage which would lead to official talks.”
Massa nodded knowingly. “That’s why he broke off the attack at Fondor.”
“That’s what he said,” Leia confirmed.
Tag considered, on firmer ground here. “I think that’s a reasonable point which you could take to the Council—a change in Imperial policy sufficient to deserve a response from us, based solely on the Empire's actions at Fondor. You wouldn’t have to mention the Death Star, as yet. If you do intend to make a gesture as a prelude to talks, then you’re going to have to curb the Alliance’s military responses sooner or later, and people will start to ask questions.”
Han slouched further into his chair, “Well, that’ll be a fun day. Right up there with cleanin’ Chewie’s hairs outta the Falcon's air exchange.”
Leia threw Han a wry half-smile as she sighed, though it didn’t relieve the tension in her taut muscles. “Thanks. I’ll take that inspiring image with me into the meeting.”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, could you repeat that?” It was telling that it was Ackbar, Leia's own Fleet Commander and a stout backer, who asked the question.
“I’m recommending that we tone down military hostilities against the Empire for a trial period,” Leia repeated. “As part of a larger strategy.”
“And this strategy would be?” Commander Odig asked. One of the Supreme Allied Commanders who formed the Alliance Council, and recently a supporter of Madine's more aggressive stance, she formed one third of the opposition Leia fully expected to rail against this proposal. Like General Werth, Odig had always leaned towards a more military perspective, but it was Madine's ability to play on that which had cemented her stance, and given him the backing he needed to affectively challenge any moderate proposal.
“I believe the actions taken by the Empire at the Fondor Shipyards form a clear, if presently unspoken, invitation to decrease hostilities—maybe even a precursor to enter into talks,” Leia continued. “I’ve conferred with Intel on this, and there are numerous files pertaining to the events of the day. It’s clear that the Emperor himself was present and as such, we have to appreciate that the actions taken on that day were doubtless at his command. If you check the debriefings taken from those pilots present, you’ll note that previous to the Patriot’s arrival, the Star Destroyers were mounting a solid attack.”
“You’ll also note in those debriefings that when the Patriot arrived, it fired off a DEMP charge which disabled over fifty fighters,” Madine countered. “The Patriot didn’t attack further because there was no need, Ma’am. It had won that particular fight.”
“Yes, it had. And then it promptly contacted us and allowed us to retrieve our pilots. Men it could have easily left to die.” Leia looked around the large circular table, chin high, not a shadow of a doubt visible before this most astute of audiences. “This was an unprecedented action. We were given a message, sirs. We were shown in no uncertain terms that all previous assumptions were outdated. We saw an act of good will, offered in good faith.”
“I would put it to you, Ma’am, that the message we were shown was one of dominance and ridicule.”
“In sparing lives?”
“If they had wished to spare lives, Ma’am, they would have not initiated their attack. We lost six pilots in the early stages of our retreat,” Werth ground out.
“You seriously expect them not to respond to a military attack on Sovereign territory? When we look back over the last decade, our history is one of military escalation, General—what reaction are we to expect? Was this really the intent of those political luminaries who first formed the Alliance? And again I reiterate, General Werth, that the attack was suspended when the Patriot came into the battle.”
“Because the battle was effectively over!” Madine said.
“How often does one get the opportunity to shorten a war?” Leia said, trying a different angle. “How often can one do such a thing with no further loss of life—simply by a change of attitude? Our readiness to judge replaced by a willingness to listen. To take a chance. To make a step which would in truth bring us closer in line to the Alliance’s core ideals. The first move has been made, sirs, and it wasn't by us. It costs us nothing but our patience to wait and watch the outcome of a cessation of hostilities…and it could gain us so very much.”
The table fell to silence, and Leia knew that she’d reached at least some of those sitting there. But not all.
“Those are persuasive words, Ma’am—if a little naïve,” Madine said artfully. “Perhaps I should bring in the partners of Lieutenants Ruskin and Feroll, both of whom died this week on active duty, and you could tell them of your intention. Perhaps I could request a list from Intel, of Alliance sympathizers who have simply gone…missing this week alone. Perhaps I should relay your message to the inhabitants of Bettok and Tallaso, or Kashyyyk, or Fislan, which still groan under the yoke of heavy-handed Imperial occupation.”
“I didn’t say this was an end to Imperial practice, General. I said that it was an opportunity to open talks—to begin that transformation.”
“If they wished to talk, then we were right there,” General Werth said, always one of Madine's strongest backers. “All they had to do was open a channel.”
“And would you have listened, General?” Leia asked. “Would you have considered any proposition made with the same openness that you consider this discussion today?”
The double-meaning wasn’t lost on him, and Werth fell to silence, lips narrowing.
“Fondor was one isolated incident,” Madine said. “You wish us to make a far-reaching change in the course of Alliance policy on that alone?”
For a brief second Leia considered, the temptation to tell them everything overwhelming. What would they say? What would Madine and his cohorts have to say about the fact that their own Chief-of-Staff had already spoken with the Emperor himself, twice, face to face?! She slumped just slightly, well aware of what they’d say; they’d probably make a good attempt at Court-marshalling her. “That doesn’t make the action or its intent invalid, General, particularly given its source. Every journey must begin with a single step. I genuinely believe that this was a testing of the waters... Are we so set in our ways that we’re incapable of responding? Are we no better than those in the Empire we presently call for sustaining its own narrow view?”
“If this were true, then it’s the very actions you wish to cease, that have forced the Empire to this point, Ma’am.”
“Are we sure of that, General?” It was Tag Massa, Force thank her, who finally spoke out in Leia's defense. She seldom liked to be seen to take sides, so when she did speak out, her opinion tended to hold weight. “Do we have any factual proof? As far as I’m aware, there have been no changes to our recent policies which would have forced this response, and there have been no noticeable changes to the basic efficacy of the Empire. If you have data of which I’m unaware…?”
“I’m talking of attrition.”
“As I say, there have been no measurable changes in the Empire's underlying structure which would indicate such a theory.”
“Then to what are we attributing this action?” Ackbar asked, glassy eyes swiveling to Leia.
She pursed her lips; if she did this now—if she said his name—she effectively tied her lot with the man whom she claimed as her adversary.
Again it was Tag who came to her aid, saving Leia the unwanted association. “If I were to attribute it to a single factor, Admiral, then it would be to the change in leadership.”
“Indeed?” Commander Werth said dryly. “Then he seems to have taken his time to come to this decision.”
“I would hypothesize that the new Emperor needed to place his own house in order before he made any such grand gestures, Commander Werth,” Tag replied easily without looking up, and Leia marveled again at her unerring ability to both back Leia up and yet still remain completely neutral, her professional reputation untarnished. “Considering the changes to the Imperial Edicts placed within days of his accession to power, I doubt very much that this is a sudden change of heart.”
“That’s quite an assumption, Commander,” Madine clipped. “Tell me, is it made based on careful evaluation of the available intelligence…or is it simply a guess?”
“Forgive me, General, but based on the discussion so far, I wasn’t aware that everything we brought to this table had to be backed up by empirically referenced evidence.”
“Should I take that as a no?”
“No, Sir, it is not backed up by evidence,” Tag said, unfazed. “It is simply obvious.”
“So—and forgive me if I repeat myself, but I’d like to make this clear—you wish us to stop military action based on this one event?”
“Thank you, General Madine,” General Rieekan said dryly. “I think you’ve made yourself very clear.” Another level-headed voice added to the fray. Leia smiled. Rieekan’s promotion by mutual agreement from Sector Commander to Minister of War last year had headed off Madine's play for the role. Bombproof and reliable, Rieekan hadn't particularly sought the position, but had accepted it knowing that in doing so, he had bought Leia the more open-minded, less militarily oriented Council she needed to counter Madine's schemes.
“Forgive me, but I fear I have not, General,” Madine said hotly. “Because we are still considering the cessation of the very military actions which have clearly caused the Empire to falter. I would argue that our response to this development should be to escalate incursions.”
Leia rose. “May I remind you, Sir, that this is not a military organization; it is a political one, forced into a military stance, and I won’t be the one who reduces the Alliance from its political pedigree to a junta.”
“And what would have us do, Ma’am—talk the Empire into submission?”
“Would you rather throw lives at it, General? Would you rather maim and kill on both sides of the divide in the name of freedom, when your opponent is offering a bloodless truce? Are we all so blindly mired in this conflict?”
The faces about the table turned down, no one speaking.
“With respect, Ma’am, you’re asking the members of the Council to make a decision which will change the direction of the Alliance with neither warning nor proper discussion.” Commander Odig kept her voice calm and reasonable, though Leia knew she was simply pushing to gain time for Madine to recover. He often relied on her years of experience in the Council to buy him credibility and proficiency.
And he certainly wasn’t slow to follow her lead today. “Under those circumstances, I would suggest that the Council should have a recess of four weeks in which to prepare their cases for further discussion.”
Rieekan sat up straighter as Leia turned on Madine. “We are discussing it now, General.”
“Indeed, Ma’am, however I’m sure that I speak for everyone in this meeting when I admit that I feel at something of a disadvantage here. It would be most…unconstitutional to push through a major strategic precedent on such terms, do you not agree?”
Leia blanched at the outrageous timescale, aware that Madine was playing with the tenets of democracy as he played with any other military convention, but also aware that on principle, he was correct. She had no right to force a decision from those here today when they’d had no time to consider the facts…but a month? “And in the meantime?”
“And in the meantime, I would advise you to do the same, in preparation for extended debate, Ma’am—or do you expect us to fundamentally change Alliance policy on the outcome of a single meeting? I’m sure that I speak for everyone here when I say that this development is unexpected to say the very least. Perhaps when we are a little more prepared, we can better discuss this frankly extraordinary proposition. For now I feel we should consider your demands very carefully—and our own principles and consciences, in respect to all those who’ve given their lives in this conflict.”
Oh, he was getting way too good at this, Leia knew; divisive words and guilty implications and past grudges scattered into the considerations of those here, and left to fester. And she knew damn well that if he gained a recess, he would indeed put his own arguments in order—as well as seek any support he could stir up, using any uncertainties to strengthen his own support. And he’d made it quite clear in everyone’s thoughts that the return to this subject was only an opening of discussions—yet another delaying tactic.
Leia was all too aware that Madine had become a magnet for all the fanatics and the radicals whose existence had become more a drive to hurt the Empire than to broker any possible peace. Tag Massa had warned more than once that Madine was playing his own little power games, though she’d dismissed Han’s claims that Madine was on the verge of generating a splinter-movement within the Alliance. Still, Leia was suddenly intensely aware that any attempt to force a decision today would only weaken her position; which didn’t mean to say that she thought her actions incorrect—nobody said the course of democracy was a smooth one—but she was becoming acutely aware of the friction and the rifts which one clever and ambitious individual could trigger within her own Council.
“Very well then. I propose a recess of three weeks, in which time we can all look to the greater picture as you say, General Madine, without tethering ourselves to the past, or the grudges and the prejudices that such things conjure.”
She stood, deliberately meeting the eyes of every being there, wishing them to remember her words, to understand the significance of their decisions. “We have an opportunity here as never before, sirs,” Leia said fervently, conjuring the words from some distant memory. “It’s not enough for us to have a goal—we have to find a path to get there, to get everyone there. And if we see it, whatever it is, we have to seize it with both hands…because it may never come again.”
It was only when the room had emptied and she stood alone, wondering at her words, that Leia realized where they had come from.
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