Detention Center, Coruscant
Mara Jade, looking alert, strode up to the large booth that marked the subdued entrance to the Detention Center and halted in a flash of self-confidence. Her green eyes held the guard's, steady. He was young, young enough to be proud of a three day stubble on his rosy face, young enough to have unruly hair and a small case of acne. A passing thought left her wondering why he didn't go over to the med center for it, like everyone else.
He gave her a questioning look, not recognizing her. "Can I help you?" he asked, masking his youth, along with the attendant inexperience, under his impression of a gruff exterior.
She smiled a little, but not too warmly. It was a short flashing of teeth, meant to prove there was no weapon, so please don't check. She nodded. "Yes. I'm here to see Luke Skywalker," she said quietly.
A small whitening of his scarred face answered her question. "Uh.....he's not really seeing anyone at the moment," the guard began, flipping a switch on his console.
She retained her outer calmness. "I know that," she replied calmly. "But I'm not some holonet reporter. I'm Mara Jade, of the Smuggler's Alliance. If you'll check, I think you'll see my name's on your list."
His eyes flicked in non-recognition. She resisted the urge to stand on tiptoe to look and merely watched passively from flat feet as he perused, very carefully, a small list on a tiny screen. Her name was there, small and official. She could just make it out upside down and backwards.
"So, it is," he said quietly and glanced back up at her. "But first, I need an ID and a weapons' check."
She spread her hands and pulled the holoed ID wafer out of a convenient pocket. "Go ahead," she replied, handing it to him and obligingly stepping away from the booth. A golden light appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, tiny tendrils of energy pinged down and through her clothing. An alarm went off. She frowned at the room and glanced at him. "I don't have any weapons," she said, seemingly mystified, shrugging her shoulders.
"You have a lightsaber," he replied as her gave one more up-and-down look, just for good measure. "You'll have to check it here."
She hesitated, fingering the precious thing. "I'd rather not," she replied calmly.
He shifted in his seat, but otherwise showed no sign of backing down. "I have my orders," he warned, his voice hiking a bit. "If you prefer, you can key it into one of the lockers along the wall. That way, you're the only one with access to it."
She glanced back at the wall. Sure enough, it was honeycombed with small holes, some of which held various and sundry things lit with dim energy fields. Most of the holes gazed back at her, dark and empty. She glanced back at the guard, a new respect flashing through her expression. "I don't have a choice, do I?" she said, unnecessarily.
"No one visits Master Skywalker with a lightsaber," he replied tightly, handing the ID back to her. "I have very specific orders."
She sighed. "Okay, I give in. Give me one of the keys."
He handed her a small, pill-sized box. She did not actually pull lightsaber from her belt, it unlatched itself and floated, seemingly of its own volition, through the air and into an appropriate place. Her hands remained unmoving as the field was activated and the key box dropped, magically, into a side pocket of her flight suit.
She glanced up at the guard, waiting for him to remove the force field. He hit another point on his board and grinned. "Very impressive," he said, not intimidated at all. "Just don't try that down the hall. We've got ysalamiri."
She nodded, grinning back at him. "I'll remember that," she replied.
An escort appeared, noiselessly, as if from the air itself. This surprised her a little, as the place looked rather non-threatening for a medium security cellblock. She did not see any other guards. The walls had once been an institutional white, but the now the color was faded to worn-out cream. The lights were flat and hard and the whole thing looked threadbare, if humane. Mara grinned a little. A Jedi Master in medium security? Maybe Leia figured Luke had too much integrity to make a run for it.
The cells were private, clean, even comfortable, at least by Imperial standards. There were no open, barred holding areas, or ominous doorways leading to windowless caves filled with the forbidding technology of torture. Only neat rooms, simply furnished and painted the same faded white. Some were even equipped with doors for privacy, but the bare floors were noisy and echoing. The escort nodded, his head indicating a direction, gave her a wary eye, and led her down a further hall.
She glanced around, her old training taking over as she absorbed her surroundings while appearing to only glance at them. She noted no more guard stations, but every meter or so there were motion sensors along with sophisticated force field traps set into the halls. A surveillance camera, a newer model, eyed the hall, up and down, quiet and methodical. Her study was interrupted when the guard came to a small energy field which shielded a door leading down another, unexpected corridor. He keyed it off, stepped over the threshold, and keyed it back on again. "Wait here," he said to her, not cold, but not entirely polite either.
She waited behind the silent but shimmering light, a rising impatience not entirely hidden. She lifted her head and wondered where the ysalamiri had come from. Maybe, she thought in passing, Talon had supplied them after all. She shook her head, noting that sometimes he wasn't always truthful with her, especially when he thought facts would hurt. She grimaced a little, wincing at a few memories. But then, what were friends for, if not to spend the worst moments of your life with? Her thoughts were swiftly interrupted when she saw the guard step out of a cell towards the end of the hall. The force field keyed off.
"Please enter," the guard said from his place, not having to raise his voice at all. She glanced around, marveling at the acoustics. Whispered conversations, conversations of any kind for that matter, would have to be avoided, she warned herself. She stepped over the lightless threshold which lit up again with alarming swiftness just as her rear foot crossed over. Quietly, the impatience again muted, she made her way to a doorway, the one the guard had just exited from.
The man stepped aside, his well exercised muscles lending grace even to that simple motion. "He's ready to see you now. You have half an hour. No more is permitted." He held out a confident hand. "Watch your step."
She nodded but refused the hand. "I understand."
She stepped carefully over an almost knee high threshold and into a room where she was suddenly blind and deaf. Glancing around in a moment of disorientation, with only her regular senses making all seem flat and two dimensional, she saw that it was actually a comfortable space, clean, the aged cream simultaneously blinding and drab. There was a holonet receiver in the corner, silent, blank faced and nosey. A series of slits let in light from somewhere near the ceiling, ringing three fourths of the wall area in an improbable necklace of sunshine. She turned, noting a couple of chairs, a desk and a metal bed. Luke was sitting on one of the chairs.
"Nice of you to get up," she said as the door closed behind her.
He waved a hand. "No need," he said softly. "Not that you're the first person in here today."
She smiled. "The Master Skywalker Fan Club, I assume?"
He grimaced. "Hardly. Friends are dropping like flies in winter," he said, smiling, but it was a hopeless expression. His face was pale and rather haggard.
"Well, tell me about it," she said, pulling at the empty chair and coming to sit near him. "Just who has graced you with their presence today?"
Luke turned in the chair, gave her a quiet look and then twisted back, lacing his hands behind his head. "Han, for one. He's trying to cheer me up. And Chewie." A smile graced the face here. "And a while after that Kyp, but he's not really in a talking mood......"
She glanced away from him. "I think the incident, during the time you........ regained consciousness really took a lot out of him. Even Tionne's had a little trouble since...."
His face darkened and she pulled silent. "She's not the only one," he put in, with a large sigh. The room was flat and ordinary, all contact with the Force cut off. It was as if they were under a shroud, held in a lead coffin, buried within imprisoning ground. She glanced at him, but his eyes were closed. Quite suddenly, she began to realize how disturbing this was for him. For not only was he under indictment for some rather serious charges, but now it was as if he had lost the use of his eyes or his hearing. His thread to the Force, usually so strong and true, was now useless and the ache of its loss was growing, hour by hour, within his already torn soul.
Her face softened a bit. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring her up, unless of course, you want me to."
He frowned. "Seems like she's all I've talked about ever since I regained consciousness. Her and Callista...."
"What does Leia say?" She took her gaze away, a little thrown by the mention of Callista.
"Not much," he replied, his voice low. "She's informed me that it's out of her hands now. She has a conflict of interest, so she's had to appoint an Independent Investigator." He shook his head. "It looks bad."
She dropped her head. "Luke, you've got to understand," she began, trying to reason with him, and perhaps, with herself. "She can't leave the perception that she's trying to throw this in any way....."
He stood, a sudden movement, his weight was centered on the ground, his usual grace completely exiled along with the Force. "But, I didn't do it, Mara!" A desperate note sounded in his young/old voice. "I didn't try to kill Tionne. All I did was try to send her away. I was worried about her. I was never jealous of Kyp's feelings for her. In fact," he sighed here, a little embarrassed, "I tried to get her to notice him more." Here a wry grin momentarily replaced resignation. "Still, I guess we didn't handle that very well, Kyp and I. I wish I'd had some advice...."
She gazed at him, at his slender frame now moving from one corner of the room to the other, at the well used hands, at the sand colored beard stubble. The eyes, long ago a heartthumping blue, now seemed almost gray with uncertainty and exhaustion. She felt a rising anger not only with Luke, but also with Kyp, for his arrogance in the matter of Tionne. It angered her that the young Jedi's desire for the standoffish musician/administrator had led to this. "Well, I agree with that..... Leia was right. It was an arrogant thing to do," she put in, with little or no sympathy.
He shook his head, hearing the hardness in her voice and she held silent for a moment, thinking. "Leia doesn't believe you, though," she said after a time. It wasn't a question.
He stopped and came to stand beside her, a hand on her narrow shoulder. "I don't know if that's really it anymore," he said, resignation in his voice. "You're right about the perception stuff, though." He removed the hand and waved it, narrowly missing hitting her on the side of the head. "It's just that there has to be something else to all this. I know there is. I just can't figure out what happened."
Moving with some deliberation, he pulled the empty chair closer to Mara's, so that he could grasp her hands. "Mara," he said, facing her, turning her small hands over in his work worn ones, "do you remember any of the visions you saw during the time I regained consciousness?"
She let him turn her hands over and over again, let him rub his fingers along the palms and the delicate backs, let him study the short, stubby fingernails without embarrassment, without resistance. She closed her eyes, her mind on the question. "Well, I only remember this deep sense of fear, and maybe rocks or dirt ...... something gritty anyway. I kept thinking afterward I should take a shower......" She smiled here, but the expression faded as she concentrated. "There was salt there too, I could taste it, which doesn't make any sense." Her hands fell limp. "But, you're right, there was something else ......... something red..... maybe sunlight or a fire......"
Abruptly he dropped her hands. She opened her eyes and gracefully pulled them out of the way as he straightened. "A red light..... and sand." His face pulled for a moment. "No, it can't be!" he said after a while as she watched, quizzical. His face changed and the eyes shone, momentarily, in the indirect light. "Beggar's Canyon!" he exclaimed, his voice echoing a bit off the bare walls.
A puzzlement spread across her face as her brows furrowed. "What about 'Beggar's Canyon?'" she ventured, not really sure where he was going.
"It may be nothing," he said, his face brightening. "But for a while there, while I was in Tionne's room, or thought I was anyway," he said, giving her a hopeless grin, "it seemed as though I was back home, running my landspeeder through Beggar's Canyon. I had the impression that......"
Mara's brows furrowed even more. Hastily she glanced around the room, looking for a stashed bottle. "Skywalker, you haven't been drinking, have you?"
He answered without thinking, his mind somewhere else. "Don't be ridiculous, Jade. Alcohol isn't allowed in here." He stood and continued. "I kept thinking there was someone there beside me, someone I was talking to. I thought for a while that maybe it was Biggs....... but no, that's not right somehow."
She gave him a hard glance, resisting the urge to grimace at the mention of his long dead friend. "Who could it be then? Or was it just a dream?"
Again, he walked to the corner and back, a motion she could see had become already habitual during the short time he had been there. "It wasn't a man, or a boy, I should say...... that's ........ that's what's throwing me off...... Trouble is...." here his face puckered in something like old embarrassment, "I had no girlfriends on Tatooine....."
She gave way to a feeling of surprise. "Girlfriends? Are you sure it was a girlfriend?"
He shook his head and stopped moving. Now he simply stood, flat on both feet, in the middle of the drab room. "I'm not sure about anything, anymore. But that's the feeling I got......"
"You didn't ever take your Aunt out riding, did you?" she asked before she thought.
"Blast! Don't say that!" he replied swiftly, his voice ratcheting a little. "Besides," he grinned in old memory, "if she had been with me on some of those trips she wouldda never let me out of her sight again."
Mara sighed. "So, its a girlfriend, on Tatooine, riding in your old landspeeder, through Beggar's Canyon....... makes no sense at all, Skywalker.
"And a red light," he put in, frowning.
"And a red light," she repeated, like a child being led through a lesson.
A silence followed. The guard buzzed the comm, which broke through the silence like razor blades, sharp, startling and painful. "Five minutes!" The filtered voice echoed harshly from the faded walls, onto the bare floors and away again, reverberating disagreeably.
Luke sighed, the old resignation falling back over his features. He sat in the chair again. Her hands were in his. "You'll have to go soon......" he said softly, fingering her thumbs.
She gazed over his bent head, ignoring him. There was something there, something that wouldn't leave her, some picture in her mind. The red light...... if only she could relax enough, be passive enough........... Silence fell, precious time ran by, water down a lost stream. The Force was silent. But then, the vision was already in her mind. All she had to do was see it. A picture presented itself and she moved, her head jerking a little.
"It was a lightsaber," she said, her voice clear and cold in the warm, little room.
His head came up. "What.....?" And then the blue eyes snapped in recognition. "That's it, that's when I knew I wasn't in Tionne's room! I was carrying a red lightsaber....."
Mara stood, a thumping in her heart. "But, how did you get it? Why do you remember being there?"
He shook his head, following her to his feet. "I don't know, Mara," he said, his confusion becoming palatable. "All I know is that I never meant to do it, that I had no intention of doing it, that it never even occurred to me. And then there I was..... or thought I was, anyway." He looked down at his hands, empty and but somehow, despite everything, still powerful. "All I know is that, when I saw that lightsaber, that's when the whole thing started to crumble......" he stopped, his words inadequate.
Gazing at him, time running out, she gave him an assessing look. A sour, thinking look appeared on her face and, it seemed to him that she made a momentary motion, a subtle shifting of weight toward him. But the moment passed, fleeting seconds lost and irretrievable. Instead, she moved away, her hands disappearing into pockets. "Don't worry, Luke," she said softly, her voice low, but businesslike "we'll figure out what happened."
He nodded at her well meaning words and stepped away. Without further ceremony, she met the guard at the door. She fully intended not to, but found herself glancing back as she turned up the hall. Just before the door swung shut, she saw that he had sat down in the chair again and now held motionless, head bowed, hands limp in front of him.
Mara made her way back to her apartment, the one she always occupied when on Coruscant. Quietly, in the warm, wood scented room, she checked the comm for messages, scrolling through several, glass in hand. Nothing interesting, nothing even pertinent. There was evidently a minor deal going down within the Smuggler's Alliance. The news of the day was, of course, the implementation of negotiations with the Core Systems. And, further, the incarceration of Master Luke Skywalker on suspicion of attempted murder. Mara smiled at the shock, the outrage. As for the first, amongst smugglers, it could only be seen as opportunity. As for the second, the foibles of the high and mighty were of little concern.
She turned away from the console about an hour later, following an old fashioned knock at the door. She opened the door to find herself looking straight into Kyp Durron's steely face, along with Kam Salusar who stood slightly behind and the left. They both wore dark, Jedi robes, and looked rather too mysterious for the nondescript corridor they currently occupied. She smiled wryly and let them in.
"And to what," she began in a voice laced with sarcasm, "do I owe this august visit?"
Kyp gave Kam a questioning glance, as if deciding who should speak first. An awkward silence ensued. Kyp glanced down at the floor. Kam was the one who spoke. "We've come to ask for your help," he said in a slow, serious way.
She motioned for them to sit and, without asking, poured drinks all round. "Is this a negotiation?" she asked, more for time than information, setting the glasses down carefully. Kam leaned forward, but Kyp remained aloof and sat back.
"Uh, well, I guess you could call it that," Kam continued. "We need your help with Master Skywalker."
Mara sighed and gave them a sharp look, the green eyes flashing. "Master Skywalker is currently in detention," she said flatly. "What's the point here?" she continued, a little impatient.
Kyp was the one who answered. "Master Skywalker is innocent. You know this as well as we do...."
Mara stood. "Do I?" She turned away from them. "And how do you know this?"
Kyp gave her a look that fairly bristled. But she only felt it. "I've heard you say so, at least privately. Besides," his eyes took on a certain gleam, "I can feel it in your thoughts."
This caused a quick anger. "How dare you!?" she said her voice rising. "How dare you invade my thoughts!" She turned back to face him, the stem of the delicate glass in her hand held suddenly too strongly. "Is this what you've been taught on Yavin?" She took a furious turn away from him, striding suddenly long and sure. "Then, perhaps, it's a good thing it dies....."
Kam's face puckered and he gave the other Jedi an impatient look. "What Kyp means......"
"I know what Kyp means," Mara said, fairly spitting at the both of them, still moving. "I would throw the both of you out of here,...... now, Jedi or not.......... " a savage silence filled the beautiful room, "that is, if I didn't agree with you."
A moment of astonishment followed as the two digested this morsel of information. "You mean you'll help us?"
She nodded and took another sip from the glass. "Of course I'll help." A sigh of exasperation for the willful blindness of Jedi occurred here. "We've got to get him out of here. Whatever's really gunning for him will return and this time," she said, remembering vividly the ysalamiri laced room, "he won't be able to defend himself." A moment of gathering thought followed this statement. "We can't take him back to Yavin, though, that's too obvious. Besides, I have a feeling Yavin's been cleared out ....."
Kam sighed and wondered why Mara was always two steps ahead. "They sent everybody on 'sabbatical.'" he said, almost delicately. "That's why we were considering taking him there, since, right now, it's deserted."
Mara sat. "That's the first place his sister'll look," she said quickly, brooking no argument. "No, that's not a good idea." She thought for a moment, unconsciously pulling one leg up underneath her in the cushioned love seat, as if she were reading a light novel or filing her stubby nails. After a silent time her gaze returned from a long distance and she focused on the two young men sitting before her.
"I think we should go to the Rim," she said, startling both of them.
"Why?" Kam asked after an astonished moment.
"Because, whatever's happening, whoever's attacking us, or Luke, through the Force.......... It's all got something to do with this Core Systems proposal, I know it."
"But how.....?" Kam began, but Kyp put a hand on his arm, silencing him.
"Because that's where this hot, political proposal came from, from the Rim.... someplace in the Rasclann system........" She pulled her green eyes back to them, a certainty waving through them, strong, almost physical. "And, I don't think it's much of an accident that all this Force stuff started at about the same time our friends in the Core Systems began making overtures." She stood again, turned and began pacing, placing one foot gracefully in front the other, like a panther stalking through forest. "Something's going on here, folks. And Leia's certainly not going to find it. We gotta find it ourselves. And we gotta take Luke with us."
The two, darkly dressed men looked at each other. "Then, you'll help us," Kam said after a time, making certain.
Mara gave him a withering look. "I think we've covered that already, Jedi Salusar," she said icily. "All we need now is a plan."
It was the same guard as before. Mara saw his pudgy face from a distance and smiled to herself. After all, it's much easier to talk up someone you've established a relationship with, no matter how cursory. She frowned a bit, giving in to a ridiculous, embarrassed feeling. Mascara tickled her eyelids, making her fight not to rub them. And blush, liberally applied, greased the sides of her face. Her hair was upswept, pulled attractively off what turned out to be a rather long neck. Her flight suit had been replaced with something slightly more stylish, if still rather practical but tight fitting. It's material was black, soft and a little luminous, even under the drab, prison lighting.
Once in range, she smiled for the guard's benefit, another wary, smuggler's smile, not giving too much away. Excessive friendliness would tip him off.
"Hello," she said formally, walking slowly up to the isolated booth. "I'm here to see Master Skywalker."
He glanced up at her, no doubt absorbing the makeup job, not to mention the clothing, but refrained from comment. "You know the rules," he said, gesturing slightly. "ID and weapons' check; no lightsabers."
She gave him another wary smile, this time of submission. "I didn't bring it with me, tonight," she said, lowering her voice with just a hint of suggestion.
He squinted at her, looking her up and down, just as before. After the checks, the force field was dutifully lifted and the escort appeared. A small breeze seemed to move in behind her and, suspicious, the booth guard glanced up at the ventilation grid. A few points on his console lit up, colorfully suggesting a malfunction in the air conditioning system. "Damn techs!" he said, muttering to himself.
She stopped. "What was that?" she asked, polite but a little nervous. A moment of control allowed her to keep her hands perfectly still.
He glanced at her, but failed to register the expression on her face. "Sorry," he said quickly. "We had some repair people in here today, but looks like they didn't do their job...."
"Oh," she replied, sounding truly concerned. "Anything I can do?"
He smiled at that, as an adult smiles at a well-meaning child who offers to help with something complicated. "Thanks, but I'll just put in a work order later on," he replied, pressing yet another series of pressure points on his board. He signaled at the escort. "The field's up."
Swiftly, as if leading someone along, she pushed her way into it. She glanced back as the lethal lights snapped back into position. His head was bent over the board again, absorbed in the malfunction.
The escort smiled a confident smile, affecting the neutral facial expression of all who worked in detention. He kept his eyes straight ahead, although he noted her clothing, her hair, even the trace of gold on her wrist. They approached the force fielded door.
Signaling her to wait, he keyed it off and stepped through. The lights buzzed on instantaneously, startling her in spite of herself. He gave her a quick look. "Wait here," he said unnecessarily. She nodded and watched as he moved off, down the corridor.
"That was too obvious," she sent to the young man standing beside her, as soon as the guard disappeared into Luke's cell. Kyp shrugged.
His thoughts were more positive. "I don't think so. Anyway, they fell for it."
She glanced up at the second guard, who was returning. She turned her back to him, noting with rising uneasiness the surveillance camera. "Remember," she thought to him, even her mental words hasty and low, "they've got the place rank with ysalamiri down at the end of the corridor. You can't do anything down there. You'll have to wait here."
Kyp gave her a searching look but nodded. "Alright, but hurry," he replied, although no words passed his lips. "We've only got a window of about two hours ......... "
Mara nodded and Kyp, gesturing toward the guard with his hand, remained perfectly still as the man approached. The guard sniffed as he keyed off the force field. Smiling in an even way, he led the woman to Skywalker's cell and, with a comforting leer, which took in, much to her discomfiture, her outfit in one practiced look, opened the door. She was allowed to enter after the standard admonition regarding time limits.
Quietly, Mara stepped over the high, barrier-like threshold. Quickly, her eyes took in the room, even as her Force sense suffered a sudden disorientation. "Luke?" she said. She heard the door shut behind her.
He was sitting on the edge of the bed. "Over here," he replied, his voice still soft with sleep. "What's up? Another visit? Or did someone find more evidence?"
Agitated, she hurried over to him. She sat down beside him, so closely that their legs touched. "Are you ready to leave?" she asked, turning her head away from the holonet receiver.
He glanced at her, at her position on the bed next to him, startled as she put her hand tenderly on his forearm. His face was puzzled. "They're letting me go?" he asked, with more hope than he first intended.
"Not in so many words," Mara replied, leaning into him, quick and sure.
His eyes snapped to, awakening all in one instant. "What's the plan?" he asked, to her relief, leaning toward her. She rested her head on his shoulder, an intimate gesture, all the better to be certain that her lips could not be seen by the holonet receiver. Quietly, efficiently, even ruthless, she told him the whole thing.
A few minutes later, Luke and Mara were prone on the bed, her black, high necked suit unbuttoned almost down to the cleavage. Her hair was pulled out of its bonds, it's red gold falling in shimmering light over his hands, disheveled, almost windswept. A smear of make up, the kind affected by certain females of ill repute, dirtied one side of his face. A flush fell over both of them.
She gave him an appraising look. "At least you look the part," she whispered passionately, with more than a little amusement.
"What now?" he whispered back, all business.
She rolled her eyes. "Well, if you have to ask......"
"Mara!" This was exasperation.
She grinned. "I couldn't resist." She reached up to put her arm around his neck drawing him to her. "Okay," she said into his ear, "you need to get on top of me, as if you're holding me down....."
A fierce blush arose at that. But, a little to her surprise, he rolled his body expertly, effectively pinning her. At that, she began to cry, large wet tears spoiling whatever was left of her rather overdone makeup. It streaked in a most unattractive fashion. For good measure, he grabbed her arms, pulling them fiercely down to her sides, against the bed.
"Am I hurting you?" he asked, real concern on his face.
"It's only for a minute," she replied a little too briskly. Giving him no chance to reply, she, turned her face away and began to shout. Her voice was surprisingly well-developed and carrying for so small a woman. "Luke!" she yelled, "you can't do this to me! I don't want... No!...Luke!!" The shout became a scream and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Luke blanche and felt him release his grip.
"No!" she whispered urgently at him, out of the side of her mouth. "Tighter!" A quick, frenzied glance registered a red, blinking light on the control panel of the holonet receiver.
He resumed his hurting grip just as the guard keyed open the door, who tripped awkwardly over the high threshold as he rushed in. Mara struggled, a wild woman under Luke's weight, almost throwing him off. He found himself holding her arms in a killer grip, using all of his weight to keep her down. It was perfect.
The guard ran quickly to the bed, more than ready to stop the rape in progress. But, just as he grabbed one of Luke's arms, distracting him, Mara saw her chance and threw her weight over. Both Luke and the guard tumbled off the narrow bed. The two men hit the floor hard, Mara bringing up the rear, scrambling to her feet. Quickly, her reflexes surprisingly good without the Force, she got around to the rear of the guard and wrenched his arm up behind, to a painful, breaking angle. Luke struggled to his feet, breathing hard. Smoothly, his reflexes taking over, he rescued the blaster from the guard's surprised hand.
"Stun him!" Mara hissed, realizing that the holonet receiver had a full view of her face. The look on Luke's face spoke of palatable resistance.
"Stun him! Or we won't make it out of here!"
A blast of white hot light felled the guard into a pitiful heap. Mara dropped her grip and stood. She took his hand as he swung around and leaned into him. "Hold the blaster on me. Hurry!"
He pointed the blaster at the vicinity of her neck, helped her over the high, barrier-like threshold that marked the doorway to his cell and they ran, still holding hands, full out, up the corridor. About halfway up a wave of knowledge and light hit the both of them, like swimming from murky to clear water. Mara staggered a little, but Luke, as if coming into a full state of consciousness after a light doze, clutched at her arm in earnest, pulling her along. Traps and motion sensors began to blink and die in disorienting showers of sparks as Luke pulled at them through the Force. The force field at the end of the corridor flashed as they neared it, but there was no alarm yet. It darkened, and Mara almost collapsed with relief. He pushed her through and followed hastily. The lights rang to life behind them, as if they were spring loaded.
"Kyp!" Luke whispered, his voice cutting in the perfect acoustics.
"Are you alright, Master?" Kyp asked, taking him by the shoulders.
Luke smiled, the first big smile Kyp had seen on his face in a long time. "For now, Kyp." He gestured with a good-natured grin. "Where to?"
"Trouble," Mara said, indicating direction with a worried gaze. As she feared, the perfect acoustics had betrayed them. There, standing in full view, behind a fully activated force field, was the guard at the booth. His weapon was raised in shooting position and his sense was very clear.
"Halt!" the guard yelled, all youth lost under the influence of very good training. For a wild moment, Mara cursed the New Republic enlisted infantry training regimen, casting her eyes around, at the walls, the smooth, impregnable ceiling, even at the floor. She kicked an impossibly small vent.
Luke read her thought. "Now there's one of your older tactics, Mara," he said almost lazy, his grin flashing. "That's the first thing they eliminated when they rebuilt...."
"No garbage mashers, huh?" she put in, her eyes never retreating from their study of their surroundings. "Damn! That'd be about perfect right now...."
The voice came through again. Disconcertingly, the guard had heard every word they said. "There's no way out!" he said, raising his weapon a little. "I order you to surrender!"
Luke glanced at Kyp. "Ready?" Kyp nodded. A small humming at the back of her mind warned Mara, caused her to take a small step backwards. An alarm sprang to life somewhere down the corridor and she knew reinforcements were on their way.
With a suddenness that belied reality, the force field in front of the guard vanished as if it had never been. The young man, startled, shifted his weight. Knowing, somehow, what was coming, he fired. At almost the same moment his weapon flew out of his hand, leaving only clutching fingers. It flew down the corridor, racing the light, a black blur, into Kyp's waiting fingers. The gun came first and followed by the light. Kyp fell with a cry, clutching his arm. The guard, glancing at his empty hand in surprise, immediately ducked as Luke scooped up the weapon and fired. The thing was only set for stun, but off balance, Luke missed completely, so now they had not only a conscious, if disarmed, guard but, about this time, another problem rounded the bend.
"The alarms!" Mara hissed. "That'll be reinforcements! We gotta get outta here!"
Luke nodded and his face furrowed in a sudden concentration,. After a long moment, he signaled and they ran forward, Kyp supported by Mara and Luke, past the now unconscious guard. Mara spared the inert form a glance, hoping he was alright. Luke did not look back but replied to her concern. "He'll be fine, Mara -- just a headache, that's all."
A group of uniforms clattered at the far end of the hall, forcing the escapees back into a side doorway. The sign read Administration, lit by the red flash of the emergency beacon. The three sank into the temporary cover and drew together. Kyp shivered and clutched the top of his arm, holding it close. Mara put her arm around him, leaning him, with strange gentleness for so straightforward a woman, into her shoulder. He closed his eyes concentrating on the pain.
"You gonna make it?" she asked, looking into his face.
He nodded. "It's painful, but I'll be fine," he replied, a complete sentence. His voice was strained.
Luke, suddenly powerful again, gathered the other two to him with his eyes. "Remember....... quiet," he said, his voice coming back to its habitual command mode. Kyp nodded, eyes closed but an exhilarated half grin on his face. Mara closed her eyes, bent on remembering the exercise. Luke gave her a questioning glance.
"Listen, I haven't been to Yavin in a while....." she began, noting his regard even with closed eyes.
"You should drop by more often. Looks like you need the practice," Luke said wryly.
. "Okay, ready," she said after a moment, willing away a sudden urge to belt him. Her mind was quiet serene, peaceful, like an ocean of glass or a breezeless pond sleeping in afternoon sunlight.
The uniforms clattered into the side corridor, right on time. Their new boots shone dully under the harsh, public, detention lights. A brigade leader moved smartly, without hesitation, over to the booth. The others fanned out, weapons held in readiness, moving like smooth ball bearings in a mechanical housing, noiseless and true.
A low exclamation followed as someone found the guard, still unconscious. A few ran to help, someone got on the comm board in the booth and several headed back down the corridor, carefully checking force fields and doors. All was strangely quiet. No conversation passed back and forth, everyone remained professional, alert and at their posts. A burst of static raked through the air, as every once in a while a filtered voice communicated volumes in terse military language.
Despite everything, all the alertness, all the good training, all the force fields and low range sensor pickups, a group of three humans moved silent past them, back down the entry corridor, flowing along the gleaming floors, as if they were only spirits, disembodied and transparent. One of the younger troopers, perhaps slightly force-sensitive, glancing a second time at what he thought was movement, found himself gazing intently only at faded, white, institutional walls.
It was as if the very air itself was held in crystal stillness. And so, no one saw Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker, supporting the wounded, almost unconscious Kyp Durron, move away, lost in a clear haze of institutional lighting and recycled air.
Jade's Fire was docked at one of the close-in spaceports, it's place surrounded by ships owned and used by the diplomatic corps. Kam stood by the main hatch, which was open. A comforting light issued down the small ramp and out onto the hangar floor. He held to complete stillness, as one who is in a trance, silent, forbidding like warning words embedded in old stone. His robes shifted as ventilated air flowed around him. Various techs and mechanics, work stained with grease and the flotsam of spaceship maintenance, completely ignored the wraith-like Jedi.
"Hey -- 'Warts! Ya got another length of number five?" This was shouted by a tech, flat on his back underneath a small cruiser. Half its guts were pulled out and was spread along the gleaming floor like the entrails of some metallic animal.
"Yeah, hold on a minute!" came the drifting answer. This was soon followed by a tall woman, making her way swiftly across the floor with a length of cabling slung over her shoulder.
"Isn't it kinda cold in here?" he asked from his place on the floor as she stood over him, handing him out length of wire, hand over hand.
"A little," she replied, gazing around with a small shiver. "I keep thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye. Is it always this creepy here this time of night?"
"Not usually....." the man on his back glanced around the room. It was huge and echoing and, seemingly, empty.
"I've had this feeling for the past half hour or so....." she put in, handing out another length. "What's wrong with the cabling here, anyway?"
He made a disgusted face. "Oh, some idiot tried making home repairs on the replicator system -- burned the whole thing out. I wish the diplomats would stick to....well, whatever they do." He shifted a little, gesturing. "I just replaced the panel and circuit board. Now I'm down to the cabling......"
"Could we recycle it?" She asked, indicating the meters of wire cascaded along the floor.
"Naw, I wouldn't trust it. Throw it in with the stuff to be melted down. Maybe New Equipment can make something out of it."
She stooped and fingered a handful of old cable. "Blast, it's almost like they got into a battle or something......."
At that moment, a slight air movement caused her stop and glance around the room. A shiver snaked its way up her back and, stepping backward, she turned in a circle, pivoting gracefully on one foot. Nothing. Just an unusual air current. Out of the corner of her eye, though, she could have sworn she saw, momentarily illuminated by the flat, work lights, a robed figure being supported by two others, moving without footfall along the floor, communicating an air of haste despite a calm demeanor. A double take did not confirm this, however.
She shook her head, as if to clear her vision.
"What?" the other said, pulling a delicate, electromagnetic wrench away from a blinking light on an almost microscopic circuit board.
"Nothing," she replied, her voice distracted. "For a minute, I thought I saw....."
He grinned, a working man's grin. "Double overtime'll do that to ya," he said jovially. "You've been working too hard. Maybe we could go out later, take your mind off all this excitement." His hands waved a trifle sarcastically at the room around him.
She yawned and relaxed, suddenly feeling sleepy. "Yeah, I'd like that," she replied, grinning back. She dropped what was left of the cabling on the floor, moving to retrieve a trash receptacle.
On the other side of the hangar, Mara and Luke moved like silent ghosts over the stained floor, never halting, but not really running either. Between them, Kyp fell in and out of consciousness, his feet dragging. Fighting to retain enough serenity to make the trick work, they jogged along awkwardly, each pulled toward the other by Kyp's dead weight. Kyp's robe kept getting under Mara's feet, tripping her and, with growing irritation, she wondered why he had worn such an awkward garment on such a sneaky operation. She decided, through gritted teeth, that she'd have to speak to him about that.
Mara signaled Kam, who moved from his odd, statute-like pose and signaled back, his face betraying alarm. Mara's pace picked up. Luke's pace followed and he too almost tripped on the cloak. A female tech glanced up and turned in a careful circle. A betraying air current seemed to flow in suspicious smoothness and a warning went off in Mara's head.
About two seconds later, the same klaxon sounded audibly, echoing through the hanger. "That's it!" Mara said reflexively.
"Don't lose it!" Luke put in, flanking her. But it was too late. Mara, burdened by Kyp's weight and worry, fought tooth and nail her inability to hang onto the stillness of the Force. It did no good. A flickering in the female tech's field of vision caused the woman to look up in alarm.
Mara gave the tech a scowl through Kyp's flaccid hand draped along Luke's shoulder. "That's it, she's seen us!" she whispered.
"Keep going!" Luke said, pushing her along. "They're unarmed, besides....."
This was interrupted by a shout from the girl, who pulled away from the large bin she was pushing and began running toward them. "Hey.....this is a restricted area....!" she began.
Luke sighed and a small hesitation flickered across his face. "Go!" he said softly to Mara, stopping completely. He dropped Kyp's arm and Mara found herself fighting to keep the young Jedi upright. She thought about just dragging him, but that seemed, somehow, inappropriate.
Mara halted and, hastily rearranging Kyp's weight, she continued toward the ship. "Hurry!" she hissed back at Luke, her pace slowing as she tripped on the cloak again. At the foot of the ramp, with the help of Kam, she let Kyp down slowly to the ground. Kam grabbed the now completely unconscious Kyp solidly under the armpits and pulled him into the ship.
Turning, Mara saw, to her surprise, that Luke was engaged in a grinning, good-natured conversation with the tech, who seemed to reply in an almost flirtatious way to his comments. She started as she heard Kyp shout something unintelligible. Kam poked his head out the door.
"Jade, you'd better get up here," he said quickly. "I'm gonna have to give Kyp some attention." His face lifted with concern as he gave the Master a glance. The female tech was gesturing in a relaxed way at what looked like another tech flat on the ground, underneath a luxury cruiser of some sort. "I figure we don't have a lot of time," he continued, speaking quickly. "I got the start sequences keyed in while I was waiting, but I couldn't get the hyperdrive coordinates to come up..."
Mara turned her head, pulling her eyes away from Luke, who was now gesturing in a careless way, as if he had all the time in the world. "Yeah, that's tricky......" she replied, momentarily distracted. A scowl fell across her face. "Better let me do it, I know the ship better than you do, besides...."
"Besides what?" Kam echoed, hurried, as he made his way back into the ship.
"Besides, you'll screw the sequences up if you keep messing with 'em," she put in bluntly.
He only nodded. "Thanks, Mara," he said, a trifle sarcastic.
"No offense," she said quickly, forgetting about him. "Go help Kyp. We're gonna have to leave soon, immediately -- that is if I can ever get Skywalker's attention......"
At that, as if he had heard her, Luke turned away from the tech, who meandered back to her push cart. He walked casually, putting his hands in his pockets. But, about halfway to the ship, his face lost the casual grin. The warning klaxon continued and Mara flew through the computerized sequences, hands nervous and jumpy.
Luke entered the cockpit looking not so much like a the Jedi Master, as a worried jailbird on the run. "Ready?" he asked.
"Almost, " Mara said, hitting a switch. The preflight sequences were keyed in and lights began blinking with comforting regularity, the machinery warming up. "It's been on standby, just another ten seconds or so......"
"What'd you do about the shield?" Luke turned to Kam who had come to stand at the back of the co-pilot's seat.
"I've made flight control think they're operating normally, but there's a malfunction in one of the sectors....."
"Let me guess, right above this particular portal, right?"
Kam smiled. "Should be easy enough to get through. I'm worried about the outer defenses though......."
Luke sat down. "Yeah, me too," he said, his voice lowering a little.
The klaxon became louder and movement appeared at the far end of the hanger. Kam gazed at it, heart sinking. "I thought we'd have more time," he muttered. "Troops at two o'clock!" he said calmly.
Mara's heart was thumping, but her fingers moved swiftly from habit and skill. She pressed on a console and glanced up. "Strap in, guys, we're getting out of here!" Kam disappeared silently into the back, all the better to attend to Kyp. Luke settled himself into the co-pilot's chair.
He glanced at her as he pulled at the straps, feeling the old, familiar excitement as his hands moved with surety and grace over the console. "I haven't had a chance to thank you yet," he said quietly, glancing at her profile.
"It's not over," she replied, a little irritated. "We've still got those outer defenses...."
"All the same, it's a good plan, although I think Medium Security will never be quite the same."
She grinned at this, a wicked expression. "Not for Jedi, anyway," she said. She keyed the ingnition sequence into a console and the ship began to shake. The engines, powerful and noisy, drowned out the klaxon. The troops, now halfway across the cavernous floor, began to run, blasters drawn.
"Cannon?" he asked, eyeing the oncoming squad of troops and pulling at a switch.
"Good girl," he replied, straightening.
"Don't thank me yet."
With a sudden, almost instantaneous motion, the ship pulled straight up off the hanger floor. A portal opened above it, right on time and the repulsors flared, blinding the troops. A rush of noise and energy pummeled through the hanger, throwing a hunk of stray cable out through the hole and into Coruscant's atmosphere. Jade's Fire pushed through, following, like a pterafalcon after a smonolescent cow swallow. The small ship's inertial dampers were momentarily overloaded. Luke felt his stomach fall to the floor and a hard pull held him firmly in the seat.
Then it lurched forward, seeming to ratchet itself out of the clutching gravitational pull of Coruscant. Then she was free, rocketing out through the lazy, evening sky, up through the dawn of upper atmosphere and into the black, jeweled reaches of space.
Jade's Fire, accelerating hard, lurched one last time as most of the planetary, gravitational pull fell away. Not waiting for the motion to stop, Mara unstrapped her harness and stood, all the better to study a console blinking overhead. She handed it, glanced at Luke and then out the front viewport. "We're gonna have company, soon," she said.
Luke moved to the opposite panel, still playing co-pilot and, expertly, worked a sensor scan. "We've got, three, four minutes before they arrive, maybe sooner. Looks like they didn't expect us to get this far...."
She smiled. "Just goes to show that Palpatine was right about Jedi."
He frowned. "Don't push it, Jade. Any way we can monitor communications?"
"You mean the regular way?"
"Everybody's a comedian...." he muttered.
"At least you got the joke," she put in, but her voice was flat.
"Are you saying I don't have a sense of humor?"
"Company coming!" She said, her voice rising in a sharp angle. Straight off, flanked neatly at 2 and 10 o'clock were two sentry ships, the first about 15 degrees to port below them, and the second in a reciprocal , starboard position about 15 degrees above. It was a classic confrontation formation. Each was a hulking thing, built for strength rather than speed, bristling with armaments, spacedocks and communications equipment. They resembled metallic, cocooned insects with what appeared to be stray twigs and dirt inadvertently dug into feathery coverings. A flash of light appeared and disappeared starboard.
"Warning beacon!" Luke said tightly.
"Unidentified ship, you have no flight clearance!" A computer generated voice reverberated through the small cockpit, resisting all attempts to shut it off. "Please return to spacedock! This is your first warning!"
"Should we try and communicate with them?" she asked, frowning at the noise and switching from one console to another. She sat, swiveling the chair to watch the starfield up ahead.
"How long before hyperdrive?" he asked, not glancing at her.
"About three minutes. We've still gotta pull up confirmed numbers..."
"Yeah....yeah... I know," he replied, a little exasperated. His adrenaline level was beginning to drop and suddenly, he was weary. He pulled on the Force for the fading energy, but it wasn't easy.
"We gotta get past these ships," she muttered, pointing out the obvious.
He smiled, but it was a warrior's steely expression. "Let me take control," he said calmly, but his voice held something new, an impatience she hadn't heard before.
Her green eyes snapped. He gave her an impatient look. Suddenly, looking at her for the first time since they'd left his cell, he realized that her suit was still half unbuttoned. Embarrassed, his impatience faded a little as he pulled his eyes away. But not before she was able to follow his gaze.
"What are you gonna do?" she asked after a infinitesimal pause of embarrassment, pushing swift, remembering hands through the complicated buttons.
"Out fly 'em. I can still do that, you know."
"You mean you think you can still do it. As I recall, it's been a while," she replied swiftly, buttoned up, protected, leaning back in her seat.
His face held a puzzled look. "Why? Don't you trust me?"
She gave him a skeptical look. "Not with all that stuff all over your face, I don't. You look like a low-life to me."
He grinned. "That was your idea. And a damn good one too. Now let me return the favor."
Her face remained hard, but something in the way she shifted in the chair signaled acquiescence. She made a small gesture with her hands. "Okay, flyboy," she said quietly. "But if you damage my ship...."
His face held a momentary, mock innocence. "Who? Me?" he said, before turning back to the main console.
She sighed but let it pass. Luke had evidently picked up a few bad habits from his brother-in-law. Moving fast, pressing a preparatory button or two, she tested the navicomp NAacc function and glanced up at him. "Ready," she said, all business.
"Jade's Fire!" an insistent voice cut through the cockpit like a knife, slicing the mood. "You have no departure clearance. Request you return to Spaceport 10!"
Mara glanced at Luke who signaled the comm. "Well, now they know who we are....." she muttered. Her voice hiked into a normal, audio range. "Sentry ship, I was informed I had clearance," she said, putting a touch of innocence, bordering on uncharacteristic fright, in her voice.
Luke grimaced and rubbed his hand along his face.
"Clearance code?" the voice demanded, not convinced.
"Uh," she said, involuntarily, glancing around the cockpit. Then she punched up a series of numbers on the command console. "Transmitting now," she said helpfully.
Luke gave her a look but she only shrugged and pressed the mute button. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Buying us time," she whispered even though there was no need. "It'll take 'em at least 10 seconds to figure out that's the wrong code."
"That long?" he replied, fingering the controls.
"Every little bit helps," she put in. "You figured a way out yet?"
He gave the viewport a calculating glance. "Yep, a couple more seconds of drift and the ship to starboard will be out of position. That's our chance."
She frowned, a sudden alarm in her face. "Are you sure? That's cutting it awfully close."
"Do we have a choice?" he asked, straightening.
"Jade's Fire!" the voice commanded again. This time it was human, and all the more threatening for that. It reverberated through the little cockpit, the flat vowels hurting their ears. "That code is invalid. Reset transponder and retransmit."
She turned back to the comm. "Uh, roger, sentry ship" she replied, her voice suddenly hesitant and very feminine. "I think I was pressing the wrong button, here...." a second of silence as she seemed to hesitate, "is it the small console to the right of the hyperdrive controls?" She waited another half-second and Luke grinned at the palatable impatience he felt from the sentry vessel. "Oh....here, I found it. Sorry for the mix-up. Transmitting now..."
The reply was almost instantaneous. "Trader Jade, you have no clearance, this is restricted space." All attempts at civility had been abandoned. "Come about to 158 Mark 2."
A warning flash of dangerous light flashed across her bow. Startled in spite of herself, she had no time to reply as her ship lurched forward and then propelled itself straight up so that it was above the reference plane of the starboard vessel. Before it had a chance to change position, Luke, who evidently understood something about the problems sentry ships have when maneuvering, shot out directly over the top of it. Laser fire flashed ominously close.
Quickly, in fast motion, another pair of sentries pulled up above and opposite the first two, weapons firing. One scout ship peeled away from the other describing a shoe for a quadruped against the stars. The other continued on its course, straight for Jade's Fire. Mara glanced at Luke.
He was already in motion. He pulled the same maneuver, but this time he dropped straight down. The inertial dampers, unaccustomed to such swift changes in position, suddenly quit, causing everyone to feel as if they had left their stomachs on the ceiling. A data pad began to float up from a back console. Mara swallowed and she noticed that Luke was looking a little pale.
"You alright?" she shouted as the laser fire came nearer. They had a small fighter on their tail now, flying securely there as if it were tethered. A continuous blast of fire now filled the rear viewport. More were racing to join it, flying flack through the friendly fire all around them.
He only nodded. He turned to the nav console and keyed up a weapons schematic. A jeweled sequence flashed across the screen and the ship darted away, directly in between the first two sentries. Luke had been right, the starboard ship had been allowed to drift a little too much. A gap in the laser ranges allowed the Jade's Fire to move swiftly through. In a smooth maneuver, Luke flipped the ship onto its side, edging through the space, the target suddenly a knife's edge against the limitless void. The fighters tailing them peeled away to avoid being crippled by the cross fire, now aimed directly at them.
A bright suddenness brought Mara up short. She punched up the rear viewport and saw the flashing remnants of what had been a fighter. She glanced up to see Luke's face contort with something like regret and then they were free of them, the ponderous sentries too slow to make up such a flying head start.
But, just then, as she moved to take a breath, more slashing fire came from behind. Mara glanced at a sensor readout and shook her head.
"More company, Skywalker!" she yelled, "ten o'clock high!"
"It's disabling only! he said quickly, not waiting for commentary. He took another crazy turn, more to improve their chances of avoiding fire than for directional purposes. He continued his evasive maneuvers concentrating, using the Force to give him a split second warning as fire began to rain through black sky. She noticed that he meticulously avoided the fire now emanating from the big, insectoid ships, like a graceful wave snaking away through clumsy, clutching fingers.
A streak of laser fire glanced off to port, startling her. "Good, Skywalker!" she growled. "Just remember, if you damage my ship....."
"You'll get a new one!" he replied, his tone hiking in excitement. "We're almost there......"
He put his hand on the hyperdrive levers, but at just that moment, as his fingers touched the cold metal, he must have lost concentration. The ship lurched and rattled, throwing them forward. "Evasive!" she yelled.
"Blast it, Mara! Whaddya think I've been......!" he yelled. The smell of something burning came up through the floor. Mara hit the fire retardant button.
Luke, ignoring a sudden, killing ozone odor, pulled the ship into another zig, zagging half turn, simultaneously pulling the levers down. Offensive fire laced straight out from the fighter that had picked them up, sitting too tight on their tail. It sprang away, unable to follow the sharp turn, white, hot lasers spilling uselessly into the void.
A slight falling sensation welled up through Mara's stomach as she identified the familiar feeling of jumping into hyperspace. A split second later, the fighter came around again in hot pursuit, firing, more by instinct than by sight, a precise beam where Jade's Fire had been only a fraction of a second before.
In the control room of the sentry ship a filtered voice cursed in very specific language. "Sonofanerfherder! Green leader, did you get any secondary explosions?"
"Affirmative, nicked their aft quarter, something flashed -- maybe the motivator...." the exhilarated fighter pilot replied, breathing hard with excitement. "They'll be dead in a couple of days, if they don't get repairs somewhere......"
"Fire's out," Mara said, climbing back into the cockpit. Kam's looking at the engine now, looks like the aft motivator, maybe the....
"Don't say hyperdrive," Luke put in ominously.
"Don't think so," she replied perfectly serious. "Hyperdrive's working fine, at least for now. We need to get to spacedock somewhere though."
"Where?" he asked, hunching over the navigational data base. A green light shone in his face, washing out the blue eyes.
"Hummm, well we'll have to avoid anything affiliated with the NR," she said, putting her face close to his. Maybe some place that isn't real political......"
"That eliminates almost all spacedocks in this quadrant," he said, sounding tired. He'd been in a healing trance just five minutes before, helping Kyp. A dry feeling rimmed his eyes and he felt as if he could sleep for standard day.
"You've been legit too long," she said, allowing her grin to return. "Look, you're forgetting about the resorts. A lot's changed since the war ended." She gave him a daggered, if somewhat goodnatured look and continued. "True, they usually don't service military craft, but then this isn't exactly a military ship. Somebody's ship's always breaking down somewhere, particularly on vacation....."
He grinned at her, lifting his face away from the green light. "Must be all those hot rod maneuvers ......."
She laughed, the first time he'd heard her do so. "Showing off for the new girlfriend, I'm sure..... anyway, they usually have excellent facilities. They certainly charge enough for their services. Here," she said, indicating with a greased finger. "Kraseevits Resort and Casino. Situated right next to the lovely fields of Khonaria...... " She shrugged. "It's a little out of the way, but it'll do." She nudged him, a sharp elbow in the ribs. "Just what we're looking for. It's one of the premier honeymoon establishments in this part of the galaxy.
He straightened and gave her a pained look. "Don't tell me....."
"Well, it helps if they think you're married. But, they take singles too," she said, her voice rather too bright. "Still, it'd be good camouflage....."
"He nodded rather strongly. "Maybe Kam...."
"Well, you decide among yourselves. Maybe Kyp'd be better, then we could get him some medical attention. Still," she gave him an interpretive look out of the corner of one green eye, "they don't like let you into the facilities, spacedock or otherwise, unless you look like you're there to have a good time...."
He gave her a very irritated look but because of certain sudden difficulties holding a straight face, she wasn't able to meet it. "You did this on purpose, didn't you?"
She glared at him, mockingly, but nevertheless a little stung. Her voice hardened. "Listen, Skywalker, I have better things to do than to maneuver Jedi into ludicrous situations. We're only gonna last a couple days, tops, on that engine. After that," she lifted a greased-stained fist palm upwards. The fingers flew apart as she made a graphic motion, "the motivator's gonna blow out, causing a chain reaction and we all know what happens when the hyperdrive blows. Not to mention Kyp....."
A sudden image entered his mind, himself struggling to come to consciousness, her voice over the comm, chalky starlight reflecting preflight sequences that ran only flashing red error messages.... He put his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay, I get the message."
"Yeah, well, you need to clean up," she said, giving his face a hard look and changing the subject. "A shower might not be such a bad idea. And some rest too."
"What about you?" he asked, his voice becoming serene again.
She grimaced more at the tone in his voice than the question. "I'll be alright for a couple of hours or so. Besides," she gestured to the cockpit, "I've got some diagnostics to run, so if you don't mind...... Maybe you should check out Kyp's condition."
And without further words or ceremony she sat, swiveling the pilot's chair into a far console. Lights began blinking in code as her fingers ran swiftly over them, the computer pinging like lost ducklings searching for their mother, in low distress. Wordless, he turned, headed out the small hatch. But some small feeling stopped him, something quicksilver and unknown caused him to look back. Momentarily, he caught sight of her profile again, now serious with concentration.
If she knew of his regard, she made no acknowledgment. An indecisive moment later, moving carefully, he turned, his eyes pulling at the low light, and was gone.
Coruscant , COS's Conference Room
Leia moved with quiet grace, her informal khakis rustling within the understated colors of the room, the small sound disappearing into the folds of a decorative curtain entwined around an ornamental corner window. Her blouse was a dark jacquard and her hair was down. She wore plain, dark boots that made no sound as they passed over the expensive carpet. She took her customary seat. Admiral Ackbar and Major Knezar already held places, waiting. She bowed her head for a preparatory moment, then lifted it again. Her face was resolute, emotionless.
"They got away," she said. A small part of her awareness noted a muted bell in the corridor, probably an elevator. Voices wavered through, snippets of conversation, terse, understated....
"When?" This was Ackbar, his aging voice soft and throaty in the muffled silence.
"About an hour ago. Jade broke him out."
If Ackbar could have paled, he would. As it was, he merely held his position, his large eyes gazing back at her. "Why?"
She closed her eyes, pained. "That's what I can't figure out. She never seemed to have any problems with his incarceration, so why would she go to all this trouble?"
Knezar sighed, tired of the question he was about to ask. Ruefully, he reflected that Jedi Masters were reputed to be ascetics. Evidently, his information had been somewhat erroneous. "Is there anything between them?"
Leia sensed his discomfort as he shifted in his seat, along with a controlled, but rising anger. She shook her head. "Not that I know of. She wanted to kill him for a while there, but that was a long time ago." She cast an oblique glance in Knezar's direction. "But I'm sure you know all about that," she continued brisk turning back to Ackbar's more comforting visage. "I know they've been friends for a while, but she has her own life.... They really don't see each other that much. Besides, I was under the impression that she's got this on and off thing with Calrissian...."
"Any accomplices?" Knezar's sense was still rising, almost burning through the studied control on his features.
Leia straightened, an acknowledgment. "It seems so. No one's been able to locate Kam Salusar or Kyp Durron."
"Tionne and Cilghal?" Ackbar's voice was gentle, his soft accent smooth and comforting.
"Still in the Med Center, as surprised as we are, I'm afraid."
"Are there any holos?" Ackbar was pacing his way through, gentle but ruthless. A little coldly, Leia remembered that, despite this taciturn behavior, Ackbar had been an underground agent and revolutionary for most of his life. He was a pro. She pulled at a breath and pushed a button embedded in the table.
Immediately the room lights dimmed and a grainy, detention-center-issue holo appeared in the middle of the large table. The first thing they saw was Mara Jade, unexpectedly attractive in what appeared to be a casual, evening outfit of some kind. She was relaxed and smiling. "That's from the entrance booth," Leia said, unnecessarily.
The holo then flickered to reveal a truncated view of Luke's cell. Willing herself to watch, Leia saw Mara sit down next to her brother on the bunk with startling familiarity. The small woman then leaned, dropping her head onto his shoulder, so that her face was hidden. Leia noted a sudden expression of discomfort and surprise on her brother's sleepy face, to be gradually replaced with a certain, unmistakable sharpness Leia had always associated with action. She shifted in her chair, uncomfortable.
"It appears they know each other very well," Knezar put in sourly.
Leia did not entirely agree, but grimaced all the same. "So it would seem," she replied formally.
Pressing another button, she fast forwarded the holo to the point where Luke and Mara were prone on the inadequate bunk. She watched, her expression schooled and controlled, as Luke loosened the high collar of Mara's suit. Gradually the reddish hair became disheveled as he pushed his hands through it. Even in the grainy holo, Leia could make out the smears of makeup dirtying one side of his face. A sinking feeling seized her, but she made no sign, sitting motionless in the dark, under an iron veil of icy control. Silent, she allowed the thing to run to its end, every horrible moment of it.
"That's all you have?" Knezar put in after the lights came up again, a little defensive this time. "I submit, that some changes will have to be made...."
Leia sighed, looking for serenity. "I agree about the changes," she said, quietly. "As to further recordings of this..... incident, Luke blew out the cam and the sensor fields when he cleared the ysalamiri screen." She gestured to empty air at the middle of the table. "That's all we have."
"They were hit before they jumped?" Knezar's voice was low and controlled.
She nodded, seeking, momentarily, the technical to blot out the emotional. "The pilot estimates he hit either the aft engines or one of the rear motivators. If it's the motivator, the hyperdrive will fail within two standard days."
Ackbar chimed in. "Then they'll need a spacedock...."
"NRI," Leia said nodding at the Major, "has already put out an alert. I think, though, that they'll have enough sense to stay away from military facilities."
"Any ideas regarding destination?"
"Probably Yavin," Ackbar said, with certainty.
Knezar gave the Princess a questioning glance.
Leia shook her head. "With all due respect, I don't agree, Admiral," she began reasonably. "After all they know that's the first place we'll look. I think they've decided on another destination."
Knezar's brow puckered. "Where?"
Leia sighed. "Your guess is as good as mine, Major," she relied slowly. "Although Mara is our main contact for the Core Systems.... she's the one who delivered their last message. Of course, she's a smuggler, so she could have contacts anywhere."
She glanced up to see that Knezar's face had turned almost murderous. A thundered tone played about the edges of his voice as he spoke. But somewhere, somehow, he found an edgy control. "Why wasn't I informed of this?"
Leia shook her head and waved a distracted hand at the angry functionary. "It's too late for that now, Major," she replied bluntly, but her face had taken on a thoughtful expression. "I wonder....." she began quietly as if thinking out loud.
Ackbar remained still. He knew his old comrade well enough to know when she needed to think without interruption and when she needed to be prompted.
Major Knezar, however, did not know enough to pay attention to Ackbar's cautioning glance. "Wonder what....?"
Leia gave him a dangerous look, surprisingly intimidating from so small a woman but continued in an even tone of voice. "I wonder," she repeated in a stronger voice, "if she's deduced, along with some factions in the Senate," another dark flash from the eyes here, "that this Core Systems proposal and Luke's malady are connected in some way. There are some," she stood, and took a small turn behind the chair, "who feel that this sort of tactic is exactly something the Emperor or.... Vader would have planned." Something shrouded the room here, but she pushed on. "If that's so, then I think I know where she's going."
The Chief of State's reasoning had completely lost the Major. "Where?" he asked, mystified.
Leia turned her gaze directly to the both of them, her dark eyes carrying certainty, piercing sleepy confusion as a spotlight cuts through fog. "The Rasclann System, on the Rim," she said simply.
Knezar gazed at her for a stretched moment, mouthing the name, the slight moving of his lips eerie within the silent room. Then he rose. This time he did not need Ackbar's implacable cue. "I'll prepare a ship."
Irek awoke with a start. A red light drifted through tight shades, filtered but ominous. His quick, indrawn breath sounded loud in the small, rustic room, as if pulled through a respirator. Beside him, sleeping soundly, Jelila Daala shifted slightly, her hair spread like a knotted mane behind her. He studied her sleeping face for a moment. He could see, even in the early morning gloaming, the crows feet and mouth lines usually hidden by her daytime visage. It was an aging face, a lived in face, hard and unforgiving.
He shifted turning his gaze away, but a movement out of the corner of his eye pulled him back. His field of vision was held by a flickering, fleeting vision. His heart began to pound as he saw her face go to delicate white and hair darken to black. It rained over her shoulders, a soot waterfall over white nightclothes. The lines disappeared, bitter skin replaced by fair, smooth silk that had never known the hardness of the training field, nor the years of institutional air and light in the Maw. Startled, he saw that her eyes were open, and even as he drew breath to speak, he noticed they were the color of the ocean in bright summer and that the eyelashes were perfect and straight.
He reached out a trembling hand, hoping it was real, that she was real. In anticipation of forbidden pleasure, he closed his eyes. A falling feeling seized him even as his reach failed. Shifting weight in sudden recalibration of position he opened his eyes. There was no one but Jelila, sleeping peacefully amidst the rumpled bedclothes. Momentarily weakened by the vision, by its cruel illustration of things he could never have, his breathing came harsh as he bowed his head. After a silence woven with breezes, he flicked a cautious glance at the sleeping figure. Then he pushed the bedclothes away, making to rise.
The floor still held the chill of pre-dawn as he made his way over to a chair carelessly draped with clothing. Noiselessly, he dressed. Spirit like, he moved over to the doorway, a darkened shadow illuminated only by a red glow, silhouetting his wavering form. At the last moment, he handed for his lightsaber and it flew, faster than reality, into an outstretched hand. As if on velvet hinges, the door opened of its own accord.
He made his way through the darkened house, noting his mother's sleeping sense. Furniture loomed here and there in the chilled light. The birds, sensing first light, were in riot outside. But the verandah, usually so noisy, was strangely quiet. Light, dark and glowing, flowed through his vision, like river water scarred with the blood of battle. A strange murmuring filled his hearing, water rushing over rocks in chilled winter. His heart beat faster. The sound, wordless but filled with hidden, twisting visions, baited him, dared him, compelled him out, into the red morning.
He opened the verandah door, its curtains swinging wide as he stepped through, exuding confidence into the shadowed woods. He hesitated, stymied by the emptiness he saw, but his Force sense did not believe. He turned slowly, pulling at the lightsaber, all in readiness. A large bird of prey called from the brightening sky and then fell into a hunting dive, streaking after a flying jay grown careless with hunger. With a feral cry, the hunter fell upon its hapless prey, killing instantly, the cold talons puncturing feather, skin and brittle bone. Irek saw it pull away, swooping out, over the trees, off to some isolated nest, dead prey clutched in ferocious talons. He watched it for a moment, distracted, fascinated by the rushing display of cold brutality.
The sound of an activated lightsaber made him turn, his senses astonished and startled. His own sprang to life, its red blade sultry and crimson in the last of the dawn. But, pivoting, he found himself staring at the tip of another burning blade, pointed directly at his throat. He swallowed, involuntarily taking a step backwards. The attacking blade followed, never losing a centimeter.
Quickly, compelled, he found himself gazing up, up along the blade, to the strong, long boned hands, thin but finely wrought, up along the muscled arms, up a long, swan-like neck and into a face. It's squareish features and high cheekbones were breathtaking. The mouth, now held in a victorious grin, was large, lips inviting. And finally the eyes, gray, the color of smoke over a primitive, wintertime village, held derision and pitilessness. The hair was pulled back, its dark color shadowed in the early light.
"You are no Jedi!" the vicious voice proclaimed, whispered and evil. "I could kill you with one thrust..." The topaz , energy blade pulsated ever nearer his throat, causing him to take another step backwards.
"Who, who are you?" he finally bleated after a convulsive, swallowing silence, his blade locked down and away.
"That doesn't matter, apprentice!" the woman whispered back, following his backward steps, pace for pace. "I'd kill you now......"
At just that moment a restless, agitated movement appeared at the open door and Roganda stepped out from it, her crafty eyes wide with fear. Immediately she began to run. Her white gown was ghostlike and clinging in the growing light. A shawl of wafting silk was clutched in tight fingers, boring through the delicate material, held white knuckled at her throat.
The strange woman stilled, outlined in shadow, her blade held only centimeters from Irek's precious throat. He was motionless, transfixed, as if caught in a net or as prey trapped in a spider's web. The lightsaber, pulsating, pushed ever nearer. Roganda's heart pounded, an earthquake under her small rib cage, as she ran dreamlike through an invading light. The harsh sound of her own breath rattled through her ears, drowning out birds and a joyful morning breeze.
"Irek! ........ Irek!" she yelled, her voice rough and carrying , in startling contrast to it's usual drifting quality. "Irek..... your blade!" she shouted again, pulling her unwilling feet along the wooden deck. "Use the blade.....!"
Suddenly, a shroud seemed to envelope her, blotting out all light and awareness. Dawn disappeared, the verandah vanished from beneath her feet, the forest faded into moving shadows. She saw was the cold blue blade cleaving swiftly through her son's exposed neck. Bloodless he fell, the head neatly cut away and rolling.
She screamed, wholly lost in the shadow as the blade turned toward her. The woman laughed and her hair loosed from its bonds, abundant, the color of rich, dark rope. "Irek.......!" Roganda screamed one last time and then the ground flowed up to meet her, pummeling into her pampered body, a killing jolt that almost knocked her out.
Spitting dirt, Roganda looked up, her face scraped and bruised, her fingers clutching at the smooth wood, the skin under the fingernails bleeding freely. Tears ran down her cheeks, she could taste the salt on her lips......
"Deactivate your blade," the woman said softly to Irek, dangerous and mean.
He saw, out of the corner of his eye, his mother take a violent fall, tripping and frantic. But he found he could not remove his locked gaze as a vision appeared, flashing through his mind; one of dominance, and fast, swift hatred. He saw his mother dead and limp on the wooden floor, he saw the strange woman standing opposite him raise her saber in victory over the white clothed body. A rising flooded anger filtered through his being and a roaring filled his ears, shutting out reality.
His next thought was of the woman supplicated his feet, pleading for mercy and then, as a musical notes follow one another to make a song, saw her standing, in the woods, as a summer creek singing between the trees, the grass soft and warm...... Hesitantly, his hands trembling, his reason gone, he complied.
"Throw it on the grass."
He threw it, heard it land, thudding onto the greensward. A bird rose up in the air, a burning jewel, it's call violent and reaching.
At that, as if it were some kind of signal, the topaz blade at his throat fell silent and before he could see it was put away. He caught a glimpse out of frenetic eyes as she allowed it to fall back into place. It was a beautiful blade, an antique, a small line of cavorting creatures on its handle.
Painfully, without regard to modesty, Roganda lifted herself off the wooden floor, clutching at a hand. She grimaced in pain and stumbled upright, her body now stiff. The shawl was left on the deck, dirt soiling its delicate fringe. She tottered over to stand next to her son, a remarkable show of courage for such a selfish creature.
"No, I won't let you!" she said quickly, stepping toward the strange woman. "You can't have him..... he's mine....."
Laughter greeted this proclamation. "He is, is he?" a sardonic voice demanded, cutting through the sweet dawn like daggers through skin. "He looks grown enough to me," the Jedi woman said, giving Irek a flashing glance that made him shiver with delight. "Perhaps he should decide."
Roganda's expression dropped. "What do you mean?" she asked, before she thought.
Irek glanced at his mother, her face now bleeding from ungraceful scratches along her cheekbone, her hair rumpled and disheveled, her clothing dirty. And then he gazed at the Jedi in front of him, standing calmly in a powerful military stance, her gray eyes holding a snapping serenity along with lurking, black desire. Irek stared, not really wanting to resist the transfixing feel of her, but, pulling himself together, swallowed and allowed his gaze to drop.
"He was never in any danger," the woman said, lifting her chin in a gesture of superiority, her smoked gaze finally leaving Irek's face. "Your son is in great need of further training, Roganda."
Roganda continued to breathe heavily, but her dirty face suddenly held the imperious look of a powerful courtier who's been crossed. Her cultured voice rose a fraction, making her seem momentarily small and shrill. "He's quite accomplished.... he fashioned the lightsaber himself....."
The placating voice, fighting to remain soft and fawnlike, was harshly interrupted. "Despite what you have been raised to believe, a lightsaber does not always make a Jedi," the woman said coldly, shifting her weight. She was rather tall, and now, in the growing light, her beauty was enthralling. The perfect face moved in a stately fashion, the mouth shaping words, lips moving around the vowels with a sensuality that sent a shiver through Irek's soul.
"Who are you?" Roganda demanded, whispering with hot anger, approaching in a fit of hatred that forced Irek to step backwards. Even the Jedi had a perturbed moment, a slight hesitation flickering in the air between the two women, opposites; one, a tropical feathered jewel on a small branch, the other a powerful, winged falcon, sharp eyed and wild.
But the answer was calm enough. "I am the Jedi Master, sent here by Admiral Pallaeon to instruct your son, Roganda." The voice was now ordinary, quite low with the dispassion of everyday conversation.
Irek's head jerked around in astonishment, his eyes boring into the woman's perfect face, dawn finally throwing a crystal clear cheekbone into sharp, refracted light. "What did you say?" he said, roughly, his voice dark spite.
Roganda recoiled at the sound of her own son's voice, involuntarily stumbling backwards. Momentarily it was as if the years had dropped away and she was again a frightened teenager, being presented to the aged Emperor. The scent of age and ozone assaulted her consciousness as a darkness overtook her, as an aged hand reached down to clasp her childish one.... She closed and opened her eyes, willing away fear. "No! You can't be!" she exclaimed, throwing the words back at the temptress standing so casually in front of her.
The Jedi woman smiled, a small, cheerful note replacing the hooded threat of only seconds before. "Sent by the committee, in all their wisdom. Do you have quarters for me?"
Roganda blinked and suddenly realized that her shawl was gone. She turned for it but it was too far out of reach. Daala, now watching from the drifting door, knew the small, helpless motion was a silent plea for assistance. A snaking tendril of pity moved her to pace across the wooden planks with cool deliberation. Quiet, her nighttime hair loose and heavy down her back, she retrieved it and carefully, with something like graceful defeat, handed it to the little concubine.
The Jedi turned back to Irek, who was rooted where he stood. "You failed the test, apprentice," the woman said, her voice smooth as the silks Roganda enclosed herself in, dangerous as a c'yeenraptor hunting calm waters.
Irek's blue gaze dropped, his confidence falling as he stood now shamefacedly before his new teacher, suddenly, to his own creeping astonishment, and a secret thrill, begging forgiveness. "I'm sorry, Master," he whispered, feeling a lust, a desire, a willingness......
The woman gave him a devastating gaze, momentarily drinking of him. Then, without warning, she freed him and his mind was reluctantly void of her resonance. He raised his eyes, cowed but already scheming, and smiled at her, one of his hard, steely smiles.
"What should I call you?" he asked, quietly.
A grin was his answer. "Khaali," she replied simply, turning at once for the house.
Daala simply stood, gazing, as they all passed by. Roganda was in front, tottering on her inadequate feet, bowing her head in agitation and clutching her injured hand. Irek followed, his deactivated lightsaber now clutched in his hand, his head down but eyes glazed over with thought, and perhaps, anticipation. Khaali was last. A penetrating, gray gaze raked the former Admiral up and down and, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone. They vanished through the door, the curtains swinging ghost-like in the breeze.
Daala watched, motionless, as the door closed. She was forgotten.
Admiral Pallaeon's face came through clearly on the screen, his usual gray reticence more pronounced than usual. Daala smiled formally. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" she asked, as if she really meant it.
Pallaeon gave her one of his calculated smiles. "You look well, Jelila. I hope this has not been too difficult."
She dropped her eyes but immediately brought them back to the screen. "It has..... but, it will soon be over...."
A sighed escaped Pallaeon here, as if in exasperation, or perhaps, impatience. "We have no choice now, Jelila," he said, his voice brisk. "We've yet to receive confirmation, but intelligence reports that the Rebellion has accepted our proposal, only this week. We will now be called upon to begin negotiations."
"Any idea who we're going to send?"
A slight frown creased the face. "Not really. Someone rather unimportant, unknown, would probably be the best choice. I don't wish to antagonize them by sending someone from the military. Perhaps, someone from the committee."
She nodded, agreeing with him. "But, that's not why you've called," she said, changing the subject.
Pallaeon sighed and his face darkened. "We've stumbled onto some very disturbing information on Byss, within the old, Imperial Library. I've encoded it and sent it along to you. I want you to investigate further and then let me know what you find out."
She nodded, giving his words due weight. "As you wish, Admiral."
I will communicate with you in less than a day. I expect at least a partial answer by that time."
She did not smile. "I understand," she said and signed off.
Daala finished her work early that evening. The Core Systems Otdjel kept her busy. She functioned as the quiet go-between, in addition to fulfilling a secondary role as inside spy on Rasclann. True, Irek was powerful as his mother claimed and Roganda's loyalty to the Imperial Cause unquestioned. But, the concubine's methods were not always trusted, and some disturbing facts concerning Irek had come to light over the years since Belsavis. Cornered several times by New Republic Intelligence, almost captured once (due primarily to Irek's yarrock habit) Otdjel intelligence wanted the Ismarens watched. Everyone maintained that the young man was clean, for now. Otdjel Intelligence needed a mole, however. Daala had been the perfect choice.
That was, until Daala herself had fallen for the would-be emperor. A familiar note of humiliation played through her heart, mourning once again for something she had never known. Irek and Khaali vanished for days at a time into the woods, training. But Daala was no fool. She grimaced and let herself lean against the ornamental wood railing circling the verandah. What had been a place of refuge, in these isolated and ancient forests, was fast becoming an intolerable prison.
She let her gaze drift. Before Khaali's arrival, Irek had been an attentive lover, if a little careless, only occasionally violent. Everything had happened the way Pallaeon planned. She knew the old Admiral was very pleased that the promiscuous Irek was kept in the next best thing to celibacy by Daala's willingness.
She squinted, turning to gaze to the west. Daala knew she was no catch. After all, she was Moff Tarkin's leftovers. She had even heard herself described that way, by no less than Pallaeon himself. For it was the careful hand of Pallaeon that had led her here, to this remote planet. He was not giving her a second chance so much as he was opening the door for a graceful drift into obscurity.
She sighed, not really willing to sort through it all, and absently moved to check on the familiar nest underneath the railings. It was empty, but underneath, on the grass, she could see several dead birds, the hatchlings by the looks of them. Something must have got one or both parents. A choking feeling seized her and she turned quickly away, sad. Once so bright with pulsing life, now the avian family was dead, destroyed before it had a chance to thrive.
Silent, even in petty grief, she shook her head and felt through her weariness. Yet, perhaps there was hope. Perhaps Roganda's son had not forgotten about her. Perhaps her feelings were only an aging woman's reaction to too much worry and too little sleep. For, once again, the night before, she'd awoken in the middle of the night to darkness and an empty bed.
At first, in the midst of her dark heart, she had suspected yarrock. She was dutiful above all else, following orders, thoroughly searching the house. She remembered, without emotion, the very specific orders she had been given concerning Irek and his mother, if it came to light that he had resumed his habit. Pallaeon and the Imperial faction that backed him were fast running out of patience with the Ismarens.
To her surprise and relief, she found no yarrock, anywhere. She never even found Irek. It was as if he had vanished, bodiless within the shadows of the shrouded forest. For a time she took to sitting in the outdoor gloom, wrapped in comforting darkness, waiting. And too many times dawn returned with no sign of him.
A slight breeze picked up, rustling the tops of the trees. The birds were subdued this evening and the sun had already turned the corner toward sunset and twilight. She stood, considering dinner. But, as she turned, something caught her eye, a red flash at the edge of the forest.
Two lightsabers were dueling, blading back and forth, vicious in give and take. She moved to the edge, to get a better look. Shadowed trees grew softer as the light changed. A shaft of sunlight pooled suddenly across the grass and under the trees. It illuminated, as if it under prison searchlights, the duelists. Irek and Khaali stood across from each other, eyes flashing, bodies slick with sweat.
He was in his oldest clothes, rumpled and stained. His movements were weary, as if it took all of his skill to match her feints. Her brown tunic and leggings pulled and stretched over lean muscle as she pulled away, her lightsaber, catching a stray shaft of light. It flashed and Daala, for a moment, could see the grasstains and dirt that covered her. Her heavy hair, braided into a careless tail, was falling from it's bonds in tender wisps and tendrils. Reflexively, in an almost fussy, feminine motion, Khaali pushed them back from her face, never leaving her guarded stance.
A word was exchanged, a gesture signaled halt and the blades were held down, away. They hummed, now quiet and with only implied danger, filling the held moment with seductive sound. With growing fear, Daala watched as Irek approached. Khaali merely waited, very still, breathing hard. He pulled his left hand through her hair, yanking it away it completely out of its bonds. It dribbled down her back, thick and loose. He wrapped his hand in it, and pulled, a brutal gesture. Not really resisting, she moved forward. Roughly, his searching, bruising hands forced her face up to his and, opening his mouth, he kissed her.
Daala's heart ceased to beat. For a time it seemed as if reality ceased. It was as if any motion; of the sun or the birds or the breezes the evening seemed to conjure up, had been frozen. Her heart sank all in one swift, sickening motion and a great hurt reared upwards through her soul, like fire eating bone dry brush. But, at the very moment when it would have burnt through her cunning barricades, it faded as in the face of flood. And in its place, standing still and shock silent, was hatred and clinging to it -- entwined in it like a lover, was revenge.
A scraping sound, humming and violent drifted across the greensward as Irek and the Jedi kissed. He lifted his activated lightsaber and slashed it downwards along hers in a shower of sparks. Then, the Jedi and her apprentice then turned away from the house, plunging back into the woods. Immediately, sunlight shunted away, evening settled and the breeze returned. Playful, it lifted Daala's hair as she stumbled into the dark house.
It was already late morning when Daala exited her small office and entered the great room. It was rustic, but well turned out with fine, ornamental rugs and even a stone fireplace at one end. A large loveseat inhabited the other end, underneath an intricately paned window. Quiet light played through it, gleaming off brass handles here and there, shimmering over the colorful, but understated rugs. Roganda looked up.
Daala took a chair opposite.
"News from Otdjel?" The small woman had a floating voice, shimmering over the silence like a breeze over water.
Daala's face was as hard and intrusive as the harsh tone of her voice. "Yes, as a matter of fact," she said.
"What news from the New Republic Senate?"
Daala gazed out the window. "They've passed the proposal. Official confirmation came through this morning."
Roganda nodded, but did not put down her data pad. "I knew they would," she said, with a satisfied tone.
Daala tried to keep irritation out of her voice. Over the years she had found that people never say that unless they are uncertain. "Yes, it looks good," she said. "We're to send a representative to one of the Rim worlds, perhaps Tatooine...."
Roganda's laugh was quicksilver and smooth. "I don't envy anyone that assignment. Tatooine's not my idea of a resort...."
"Not unless you love sand, or...." here Daala paused, mostly for effect, "Jedi Knights."
Roganda's face darkened but she held her silence. For a while the only sound was the that of an old-fashioned chrono on the grand fireplace mantle. Daala's chair creaked as she shifted in it, crossing her legs.
"I've also received other, more intriguing news," she said, watching Roganda's face with tight eyes.
Roganda smiled, vague, reading again. She did not bother to look up. "What was it?" The voice was bored.
Daala felt a sudden, almost physical, rebuff and violent hatred reared up again. The mother of the man she had fallen in love with clearly regarded her as no more than an inconvenient servant. The man himself had taken up with another with no explanation or even a pretense of leave-taking. Pallaeon was quite satisfied with her work, enough to guarantee her a pension if she allowed herself to slip into quiet obscurity. Except for this small fragment of information. Information that had been hidden for almost 20 years.
"It concerns Irek," Daala said, letting his name smack flat into the beautiful wooden floor.
A cultured fingernail pushed the 'pause' button and the data pad was laid carefully on the elegant couch. "What was it?" This time the question was interested.
Daala shifted again, and then held still. "We've done some tests," she began quietly, not really knowing where to start, now that Roganda was actually here, actually paying attention, cornered.
The courtier's face brightened with false goodwill. "And?" The beautiful voice was angled and a little sharp.
"You really shouldn't speak that way, Roganda, it doesn't sit well at your age..." Daala began, her feelings flashing out, predatory and uncontrolled.
Roganda recoiled a little, but her face held a practiced smoothness that belied her words. "Is there a reason for insulting me? Or are you just feeling abandoned today, Jelila?"
Daala started at the sound of her first name. "What do you mean by that?"
Roganda smiled. "I know about Pallaeon's little plan," she said wisely. "And I know how you feel Jelila. You forget," she said, leaning confidently back into the padded seat, "I'm Force-strong."
"Is that why you were with the Emperor?"
It was a cutting question, but Roganda did not react. She only seemed still, as if caught in a stop-motion holo, eternally held. "As you can see," she gestured slightly with her head to the outside, "I've been rewarded. I was the only one of his concubines to bear a child, a son...."
Daala stood, violent red flashing before her eyes and roaring in her ears. With an effort, she leveled her voice. "You were the only one of his concubines to survive into your fifth year with him, Roganda. I'm beginning to wonder if these two facts are connected."
The small woman gave her a mean look, one meant to intimidate. But Daala was too angry for caution. "Of course they are, my dear." Roganda waved a dismissive hand. "Palpatine was looking for a son, an heir. It's a normal thing. But he couldn't marry..... it wouldn't have been ..... proper."
"You mean he didn't want to share power with an Empress," Daala put in, cutting off the argument.
Roganda smiled. "Is that what you really think, Jelila? Do you think that Palpatine was immune to the pleasures of women? Even in his old age....."
Daala made a disgusted face. "Please don't enlighten me, Roganda," she said quickly, a flush in her cheeks.
Roganda gave her a glittering look. "Now what are these tests and why should I be interested in them?" she asked, after a moment during which Daala realized she had lost the initiative.
Daala fought a sudden, distracting image of an angry Pallaeon from her mind and sat. "You still maintain that Irek is the Emperor's son, am I correct?"
A slight flush marred the beautiful skin. "Why are you asking an impertinent question like that?"
Daala lifted her eyes away, but not before she noted a small, sneaking note of defensiveness in Roganda's voice. Some of her years in the military returned as she let her voice swell to fill the entire room. "There's been a discovery at the old Imperial Library on Byss," Daala said removing her eyes and letting them drift around the well-appointed room. "It seems that the Emperor kept a cache of information, evidently for blackmail purposes...."
"Why does this concern me or my son?" Roganda was leaning forward now, all polite pretenses vanished.
Daala refused to be hurried. "It seems to hold information generally concerning Darth Vader. Evidently, Palpatine feared him enough to keep secret holos, records of clandestine meetings, lists of informants, contacts with smugglers, and other such matters. Even contacts within the Rebellion."
"That makes sense," Roganda rejoined, a shade too quickly. The small hands clutched each other, as if to avert a blow. "After all, it was well known that Vader was a Jedi and was, at one time, close to General Kenobi. Perhaps he still had an informant or two there...."
Daala smiled, putting Roganda off guard. "There's even a record of the deal he tried to make with Skywalker on Bespin."
Roganda frowned. "Yes, I've heard about that. I've always been curious about it." She smiled, her hands relaxing just a shade. "I'd like to see that, if possible."
Daala gave the small woman a quiet but intimidating look, not yet finished. Roganda, with a courtier's acute sense of danger, drew back into herself, unconsciously straightening to her full, diminutive height, her face taking on a cold cast.
Looking it her, it seemed to Daala that, momentarily the woman in front of her was only a statue of herself, warm flesh frozen to alabaster. With difficulty, she pulled her gaze away, focusing on a layer of perfectly lined fringe along the floor. "There is also a report regarding a certain concubine plotting to make certain she was carrying a Force-strong child....."
Roganda smiled, the expression just right. "I didn't know Vader had any concubines!" The small voice was excited, even titillated. "This could be entertaining. Did she come to term?" The voice was pleasant and lilting, as if she were sitting in a comfortable corner at an intimate party.
Daala turned a direct gaze to Roganda's now coquettish but guarded, blue eyes. "Not exactly. This was one of the Emperor's concubines......"
A raw silence accompanied this, shivering through the room. A coldness seemed to envelope them, washing out the warm, elegant colors, turning the brass handles to frozen, gray durasteel. The mantle chrono sounded loud and plodding, suddenly only worthless old wood and antiquated parts. A cloud passed over the sun.
Roganda froze. A unblinking moment passed. "What are you getting at, Daala?"
Daala did not back down. "According to the records, Roganda, Vader evidently was known to be......." Daala stopped, momentarily at a loss for words. She swallowed, and changed her tack. A vision reared up in her mind, one of a monstrous, crippled Jedi held together only by machines and technology, and a woman, small, birdlike, her white skin soft and glowing in the bedchamber. Daala's voice became positively clinical. "Included with these records were a series of detailed, genetic profiles."
Roganda tried smiling. "I don't understand why Palpatine would need such things, unless he was trying to ascertain ancestry, say of Skywalker...... or his sister," she said, with a practiced expression of pleasantness.
Daala suddenly pushed herself to her feet, unable to remain still, unable to gaze into the beautiful, deceitful eyes. "Yes, that's what we'd assumed," she said, quelling a sudden feeling of choking disgust. "That was until I sent Otdjel samples from Irek."
Roganda paled, if that were possible for such a fair woman. The hands were clenched together, knuckles whitened with strain. The clock sounded again, and Roganda held so still, so motionless, that Daala jumped when she began to speak, so sure was she that the former concubine, though sitting straight up, had passed out.
"What are you accusing me of?" Roganda asked, standing a shade to quickly, reaching for the data pad.
Daala took a commanding turn around the room, sensing advantage. Falcon like, she closed in. "We are accusing you of deceit, Roganda Ismaren. You've been lying to us."
Roganda's face held a fleeting expression of confusion. A practiced sincerity followed it, a predator on the heels of an ailing ruminant. "What do you mean?"
Daala smiled, a vicious expression, looking once again like the warrior she was. "The profile does not match Palpatine at all. In fact," here she raised her voice, suddenly enjoying herself. "It is impossible that Irek is Palpatine's son." She let a pause move through, watching Roganda's suddenly aging face. "But, it is almost certain that Irek is Vader's son...."
Roganda's shoulders shivered, just noticeably. Anyone else would have taken it for an innocent movement of daylight through the window. But Daala knew, she had come to know Roganda very well. She knew what that tiny gesture meant.
Daala approached, towering over the dainty woman, her hands clasped securely behind her back. "Irek's father wasn't the Emperor," she said flatly.
Roganda opened her mouth to protest, but Daala did not give her time to interrupt. "Irek's father was Vader." A shaking head accompanied this damning statement. "Whose idea was it, Roganda?" Daala continued softly. "Was it yours to ensure your place? Was it Vader's to get back at the Emperor? Or," she turned her back to the motionless woman, whose features were now blanched whiter than the dress she wore, "was it a love affair?"
Roganda opened her mouth, finally jerked completely out of her role as a royal concubine. "I...... was desperate," she began, stammering. "He was going to replace me with a new one..... he had grown tired of me....." She wrung her hands shifting on delicate and noiseless feet. "I had to find some way...... to conceive. He'd never been successful with any of the others and they all ended up dead once he was done with them." Her voice rose as she remembered those dangerous times. "I was determined to have a child. Palpatine couldn't, but Vader........ I knew Vader could."
"Who knew?" Daala asked, ruthless.
"We killed the medical staff as soon as Irek was born," she said, confessing, even now in pearl-like tones, to murder. Daala felt her lip curl in contempt and amazement at the cold-blooded self-centeredness of the little woman.
"Several of the palace servants met untimely deaths." She gulped at the suddenly stifling room and gazed up at Daala's stern face. "As soon as I was able, I left court for a time." Agitated, she turned to give the window an agonized glance. "I was never sure if he suspected. Soon after that the first Death Star was destroyed and Vader was almost killed. I was certain we'd been found out, but......"
"But, you were allowed to live," Daala finished for her, suddenly, despite all reason, pitying the hapless woman.
Roganda sank back down into the couch. "He never made any indication that Irek was not his son. Although," here, incredibly, her voice turned crafty again, "he never confirmed it either...."
Daala sighed, a heavy, gloomy sound. Pity, compassion, empathy, they were all lost on this brutal woman. "That's all in the past, Roganda," she said, her voice taking on the flat, commanding tone of the military. "I have to let Pallaeon know he was right, and you know what that means, don't you?"
Roganda was crying now, the force of the confession almost knocking her unconscious. But still, she wept in the beautiful, studied way she had been taught. Delicately, with the precise movements of a small bird, she found a hidden cloth and put her hand up to dab at her eyes. To Daala's clumsy words, she held silent behind trembling lips.
Daala, watching the fetching performance, felt nothing but revulsion. Her stomach turned and she faced away from the poetic woman now sitting on the couch. Quickly, with an almost marching cadence, unable to bear Roganda's presence any longer, she made her way out of the room.
A silence blanketed her soul as she returned to the neat office, door closing behind her. She stood for a moment, head bowed, heart filled with crawling, black disgust. Roganda Ismaren and Darth Vader. It was almost impossible to believe. She remembered how Tarkin had held Vader in cold contempt, as an obsolete monster, an attack dog, a vile assassin. He had told her, in confidence, that he was sure Vader and Emperor would eventually destroy each other. She sighed, her skin crawling. That part had almost come true. It was Vader's son who had destroyed them both.
And now there was another son, one she had fallen in love with, one with whom she had... She sat, too suddenly, in the desk chair. A trembling, cadaverous disgust siezed her as she contemplated the depths of her own prostitution. Anger raged, but underneath, lit by Irek, was a white hatred, calm and cold. Her hands trembled and she clutched the arms of the uncomfortable chair, closing her eyes, willing away the fear, the disgust, the rage. A thread of the precious hatred settled into her being, its brightness glowing and unmistakable in her dark mind. Clinging to it, desperate but sure, she fought against a boiling sea. And when she opened her eyes again, they were calm.
And then, with quiet efficiency, as she had been taught almost a generation ago on the vanished military school on Carida, she turned to the comm console. With a few, deft keystrokes, as simple as a child's mathematical lesson, she laid bare a dark secret. Harsh daylight now penetrated gloaming darkness, confirming what some on the committee had suspected all along.
Irek Ismaren was not the heir of Emperor Palpatine, as Roganda had led them to believe. He was, rather, the true heir of Lord Darth Vader, making him half brother to Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and the former Alderaanian Princess and now the New Republic's Chief of State, Leia Organa Solo.
A black silence engulfed her heart, but sitting straight-backed at her desk, Daala refused to weep.