Irek Ismaren moved with his usual grace into the small room. He sighed and gave the place an impatient look. It was time for lessons, the most fruitful lessons he had ever had in his short life. But ever since Pallaeon had called he and his mother off Rasclann, his teacher hadn't been quite the same. Idly he glanced around but he did not need his force sense to know that Khaali had not yet arrived. He stood for a moment, uncertain, and finally sat down, his feline muscles smooth as running water.
It was a utilitarian space. The only decorative artifiact was a heavily repaired fishing net common to the oceans of Chad. It spread along one wall. A small bed was alongside another wall, along with a light source. A datapad lay on a built in desk.
Idly, as if he were but a curious child, he fingered the pad and threw his gaze back over his shoulder at the netted wall. Ventilated air passed from a small, background vent, causing the diaphanous net to waver as if it were floating on cream-colored water, mundane and peaceful. He pointed a cautious glance at the door. Although, Master Khaali had managed to hide from him from time to time, he was certain he did not sense her presence.
Carefully, experimentally, he lifted the data pad off the desk and activated it. The red letters floated into perfect symmetry on the dark page. It was not encrypted, a careless mistake. Although, encryption would not have been much of a barrier for him. A swift smile of satisfaction came and went, flickering moonlight on a cloudy night. It was mid-document. He cycled the thing back to its beginning and was not surprised at what he found.
"Intelligence -- Restricted -- Skywalker, Luke"
He closed his eyes. He knew she had been Skywalker's lover at one time. In fact, if the tales were true, Skywalker was the reason she existed. This recollection, however, brought back some unpleasant memories.
He and his mother had fled Belsavis in disgrace. They had been forced to lay low for a while afterwards while Roganda tried to repair the damage done by Leia Organa. But, Roganda no longer had any credibility amongst the old houses. It looked as though she and Irek were left to fend for themselves. When Admiral Pallaeon had come into control of Byss and the Core Worlds even he had wanted them both to retire, at best, into obscurity. They both knew they were fortunate that he had not had them hunted down and killed. Only Roganda's eloquent pleading combined with the most strict of promises had won them this second chance. That and Khaali's sudden appearance.
For it was about this time that the Ismarens were allowed to remove to Rasclann as a protective measure, a quiet place to train, or so they were told. But Irek knew, in his dark heart, that somehow it had all had to do with Khaali.
Slouching in dissatisfaction, he lifted the pad and began to read. Most of it he had either read or heard before, although some of the Emperor's early files regarding a force-strong boy who had appeared about the time of General Kenobi's death were intriguing. Irek wondered how much Vader had really known about his own progeny.
Of course, there was the incident where the Lord Vader had actually captured and tortured his own daughter, the Alderaanian princess. All unknowing, but then he'd never had chance to explain himself. Presumably he himself had only found out about his daughter right before he died. However, the Empire had only unsubstantiated rumor for this supposition. Irek smiled in a most malicious manner, grinning at the Sith Lord's fatal blindness and misfortune. Hopefully, his son was just as blind.
Irek's brow creased as he returned to his original problem, pulling his handsome face into a grimace. A short, running fear pushed through stifling self satisfaction, only to be replaced by the memory of Roganda's whispered assurances. He was powerful, she told him and the Master would be with him always.
The grimace grew into another malicious smile. His Force sense distracted, he had only a moment's warning as the door slid open and Khaali stepped in. He straightened, swiftly depositing the pad on the desk exactly where it had been before. She stopped and gave him an evil look.
"Any reason for your presence, apprentice?" she asked, her voice soft.
He was not taken in by its softness. "I thought perhaps.... " his eyes stole toward the bed.
"No time for that, apprentice," she replied, her voice quick and authoritative. "Besides, I believe you were snooping." She came forward, retrieved the pad and pushed the encryption key.
"Careless of you to leave that laying around," he said, smiling, bearing down on her. "I heard about our new prisoner. Where did you put him?"
She gave him a smoked, uncertain look and, if he had not known better, he would have thought she was hiding something. "If you are referring to the Master, he is in detention. I've located a few ysalamiri for the occasion."
"I hear he broke out of detention on Coruscant even though they had a room 'specially equipped for yasalmiri. Perhaps you should drug him."
She gave him gimlet look, the gray eyes clouded and secretive. "I could put him into a trance. That's how I got him here." She turned away, her stride short in the small room. "I want him conscious, for now," she said. "Besides," she continued, moving toward him again, "he had friends on Coruscant. He arrived here alone."
He leaned into her as she moved passed him, stopping her forward motion. His hand reached up to loose her plait. "When do I meet him?" he asked, his lips buried in the hair on top of her head.
She smiled, a cunning expression but he did not see. "Soon." She pulled away quickly a quicksilver uncertainty falling and rising before it disappeared under a subtle Force wave. "I have to turn him first."
He was derisive. "That's impossible, Master. Vader and the Emperor have already tried, twice if the rumors be true. The Emperor's clone turned him for a time, but his..... sister.... pulled him out of it. He will never be turned."
Khaali turned her back to him, her hair now loose around her shoulders and down her back. She flipped it, pushing small tendrils away from her face. "That was before me," she replied simply.
His eyes held a blue, puzzled look as he pulled at her shoulders. His expression looked as if he thought he had not heard correctly. "What?"
She gazed at him, her face a blank mask. "He and I were lovers once." The words echoed. The net moved. "He told me he would love me no matter what, whether I was Jedi or not. Now," she said, her voice lowering to a dangerous level, "I am Jedi again. He can't help but love me."
He glared at her, a snapping, grabbing motion pushing through the Force. "But Master, you're with me," he said quickly, snatching at her.
She gave him a confident look as he put his arms around her waist. "Yes, but Master Skywalker does not know that." Her voice was perfect, the vowels wrapped quietly around the consonants in a plainspoken way. "At first it must seem that I am in love with him, that I want only him. With this weapon I can turn him. I know it."
A glowering moment lit the room, which seemed suddenly small, closeted, coffin-like. "Does that mean.....?" he gestured, a slight movement, over to the bed again.
"If need be," she replied, smiling her conquering smile and pulling back from him.
He stepped back, his eyes blazing and angry, his hand high and violent as it sliced down in dangerous motion. Immediately, her force blow backhanded him. "Don't try that with me, apprentice!" she spat, her anger only just under control. "I know where my obligations are." She paced away from him, all pretense gone. "You are obligated to marry well and get an heir for the Empire, preferably a son. I am obligated," she paused, giving him a venomous look, "only to train you."
He sighed, his hands beaten and stinging in a suddenly pleasurable way, and wondered how it had all become so tiresome. "I know, Master," he whispered, his words a hissing abomination. "But I want only you...."
She snorted contemptuously and walked around him. "You don't want anyone, Irek Ismaren, except, perhaps, your....."
His voice stopped her. "Don't even say it." he whispered, as a thin, burrowing pleasure snuck up through his sense although his eyes flashed dangerous and killing.
There was a moment between them, swift and angry. He was impatient, betrayed, lustful. His face glowered with desire. She felt a disconcerting tightening at her throat. The Force seemed to suddenly double in strength, boiling angry but promising, just held under a transparent patina of control. She regarded him, her expression at first forbidding but gradually she allowed a pleasured smile to creep over it, a seductive expression.
She let out the line a little, just to make him think he was free. The moment settled, like fine net cast into a small breeze. She moved away and all but passed him before she took his hand. A torrid mood spilled over them like poisonous water. He was waiting, unsure. She took advantage of it, exploiting his high emotions.
"In the meantime, my apprentice, it looks like we've got some time to kill," she said, her voice now soft, the overtones of seduction unmistakable. He did not smile as her sharp fingernails raised welts on the back of his hands. Pain roused him and his grasping hand stopped her, her wrists blanketed by long, fierce fingers. She only grinned.
Quietly he let her lead him to the bed.
After a night/day cycle had passed, Luke found himself well rested. The ysalamir, in an odd way, granted him peace, the first peace he had felt in a long time. Without the Force his restless dreams stilled, the visions and voices fled leaving his mind to empty oblivion. He knew that he could do very little without the Force. But he also knew that she could do very little as well.
"Detention" was well prepared, even relaxing. He was living in a room with a bed, a rug on the floor and with complete refresher facilities. The lights were soft and glowing and his estimation of Imperial jails was considerably improved. If no flickering force field had anchored the arched opening, he could have thought himself anywhere on a thousand worlds in a bland hotel room, during any number of official visits. He rested on the bed, prone, empty, light. His eyes were closed.
"Well, I see we're feeling better." The voice was clear and familiar. He opened his eyes to see her standing at the edge of the force field, hands clasped behind her back.
He rose, his boots soft against the rug. "Yes, I feel much better," he said, his voice even, almost normal. "Thanks to your excellent facility here...."
She merely laughed, cutting him off and despite himself his heart leaped in anticipation. A whispered thought dogged his consciousness. It had been a long time since her laughter had graced his hearing...... so long.
She turned. "Guard!" she called, her voice normal as it echoed off the corridor walls. Immediately a guard appeared. She put out an imperious hand and the force field keyed off.
Luke did not smile nor make any sign, only moved through the opening. The guard stepped back. If he was surprised by the Jedi woman's behavior, he made no sign. Khaali turned and headed up a hall. Luke glanced around, noting the relative desertion of the corridor.
She turned to give him an amused look. "You could overpower me," she said, reading his thought despite ysalamiri, "but it would do little good. You would be stunned before you reached the docking bay." She smiled at him in a formal way and Cray Mingla's face brought back the past with an iron clarity.
He felt his cheeks flush and only just caught himself before he turned to look, a sudden aching in his heart, for Nichos Marr, Cray's constant companion. "Come," she said simply turning down the corridor. After a hesitating moment, he moved to follow.
They moved past a barrier and she made no sign as the Force swept back into both of them, an ocean wave washing in over dry beaches. He sighed to himself as the voices and visions returned, murmuring through his consciousness, the full richness of its many layers colorful and magnetic in his mind.
They followed a few twists and turns until they came to a large door. A comm console sat at its side. Expecting an interrogation chamber, he gave her a startled glance as he recognized a small holovid theater. "Why here?"
She smiled. "You'll see," she said, her voice low. She pressed a series of buttons on the console and the door opened. A blank, gray room stared back at his curious gaze. There were a few seats here and there, isolated and odd. A musty odor betrayed months, even years of disuse. Dust settled on the forgotten chairs and rose spirit-like as they moved across the dirty floor. A large viewing area resided in quiet malevolence at the center. She came to a halt beside a single chair. He followed.
The door slid shut behind them and he heard the computer locking sequence clicking after it, an aftershadow of sound. She lowered her head and waved her hand. A field of stars appeared at the center, where the holovids were customarily presented. She continued to move about the room, shadowless and specter-like. He pivoted on one foot in a practiced fashion, as his hand searched instinctively for his saber. He did not find it.
Sensing his discomfort, a low laughter, murmuring and vicious, began to fill the room. He glanced up and around. "Luke," the perfect voice said, clothed in a foreign accent that echoed sharply off the walls, "I'm so glad you've finally come."
He turned to gaze at her. "I answered your call," he replied simply, facing her and standing perfectly still.
The laughter became softer, but more distinct. "Yes," Khaali answered. "I thought perhaps, for a time there, I had been too strong. After all, you almost killed Tionne."
He blushed. "It was only because of Kam...." he began, quick, rising anger edged with a tingling dirtiness stealing his words. Bleak embarrassment choked him for a moment.
"I sent Kam. I was the one who woke him." Her voice was now matter-of-fact, almost clinical. She moved toward him. Her face was astonishing; bright, perfect, the lips moving against the white teeth. "You weren't the only one who loved her."
Luke shifted his stance. "Kyp loves her. I..." his words stopped here, choked. He lowered his gaze. "I desired her. Kam doesn't love..."
He heard rather than saw the smile. "Tionne cut a wide swath." Khaali began to pace back and forth, like a caged vronskr, tagging the echoing walls. "It was so easy, much easier than I'd ever dreamed. She was the perfect in. Better, even, than your sister."
A hasty vision returned, of Leia's face surrounded by a rasping nightmare, black folds obscuring her delicate skin. "What do you mean?" he asked, his voice a straight line.
"I tried her first. But you've blocked her out. I only succeeded in making her sick." She turned her gaze to him, stopping. "Why? Was it that she didn't like me, Luke? Or perhaps she just didn't approve of me."
Luke leapt to his interrogator's defense. "She loved you, Callie," he replied, his words quick with uncertainty. "She loved you because I loved you. She knew how happy...." His words caught up with his sensibility and he stopped, confused.
Swallowing his rushed words, he suddenly realized Khaali was right. He had been blocking out his sister for months. Perhaps it was Leia's happy family life, or her concern for him, or her increasing responsibilities and dedication to her work. Something about it all put him off. He had isolated himself from her, for the first time since he had told her the truth about her parentage, all those years ago on Endor.
Her laughter, this time dark and earthy, fouled his ears. "You still love me, don't you?"
Something within warned him not to answer. He took a step backward and glanced back. But, there was nothing there, only blackness. Suddenly, the room stank of old smoke and something rotting. A clanking sound rang in his ears and, for no reason, his leg ached. An agonized yell fell through a sightless corridor and he resisted the urge to run toward it. A vision flew through his mind, carried within the dead, skeletal hands of old memories. He took another backwards step.
"Callie?" he said, into empty, dank air.
But he could not stop it. Before him appeared a deserted quartermaster's office, blankets and odd cushions piled in front of a computer monitor. He stepped toward it, his heart aching in sudden, unbearable bursts. There was no organic voice, only the sound of the sea in his head.
Amber words burned onto the screen. "Luke, I love you. How could you leave me?"
Moving toward it faster than he ever intended and he sank to his knees on the pile of cloth, the rough seediness of the uppermost blanket grinding through his clothes. "I won't leave you," he said.
"But you want to go," the words replied, appeared in one warm burst. A breeze wandered through his mind, salt riding on the air. He lifted his face into its coolness and closed his eyes.
"No, you've forgotten, I never wanted to go," he reasoned, his voice now quiet and whispered. Determination lanced into his soul. He opened his eyes again.
"I don't believe you," the words read. "You left me to die here, you left me to die over Yavin IV. You don't love me. You are a liar and a tease, Luke."
The words echoed within his mind and a picture of Tionne's astonished, resisting face floated up and away as he saw the words, glowing with damnation, on the visionary screen. Speechless, he studied the familiar script for a while, his heart breaking in slow motion. He rose and his knees ached. When he found his voice again, it was soft and slapping like rain soaked laundry. "Callie, please... don't do this. You left me... remember?"
As soon as he spoke the smoky ship vanished, the amber words blinking out last, floating disembodied within the disused theater. The letters shrank so that they resembled only tiny orange teeth in the gloom. He watched as they vanished, one by one, like small, mischievous spirits, mocking and derisive. A horrible fascination seized him and feeling suddenly as if the walls were slamming down, he turned, seeking escape.
He made for what he thought was the door, but found her instead, standing before him. She was barefoot, only half dressed in a pale shift of some kind. Her hair was down, flowing like a river all around her graceful neck and bony but well muscled shoulders. Her arms were bare, sloping down to sniewed elbows and elegant, capable hands.
Her face was soft in the suddenly appealing light. Her eyes glinted sharp, a barrier. A faint memory stirred of light pulsing within ancient stones as it ran along a sliver of punishing, jungle warmth. "You have hurt me, Luke," she said, holding out a conciliatory hand.
He refused it, stepping back, lifting his eyes to hers. "You've gone to the darkside, Callie." His voice was defiant, determined now. "I can help you."
She threw back her beautiful head and laughed. To his dismay, even the scornful laughter made his pulse race, made him want to take her. "Luke, you're the one who needs help." Her voice held no hesitation. "Come," she said, turning toward the center of the room, her hands spread along the rejuvenated starfield.
Defensively, he turned away. Despite his movement, she caught his hand and he felt within a suspicion, a hint of perilous surrender as her palm burned into his. "You've been sitting in the jungle too long. Look at the galaxy...."she said, her voice a weapon. He wanted to shut his eyes but they remained open as if under a spell.
A tale of misery and woe instantly surrounded him. A family fled through open streets, hunted down by a squad of troops, blasters firing mercilessly into the parents and, finally, into the children, killing them all one by one. Blaster fire continued, raining down on people as they scrambled through the street, like hydrorodents scattering in a killing game.
A slave appeared, standing in a field bounded by hot breezes, his face swollen and disfigured by a brand. The crude design swam smoothly across the old man's cheekbone as he collapsed only to be roused by a relentless, overseer droid. Delicate fruit hung all around, exquisite and expensive. Rough hands moved to pick it, dull eyes escaped the drudgery of the soil only to face a blazing sun. And in the faraway quarters, an unattended baby cried, its mother too far away to hear it in the burning fields.
It was dusk. A young man ran across weary, bedraggled streets, clutching something in a thin, skeletal hand. Luke watched as the fugitive halted, gave his surroundings a guarded look, and as if possessed by an evil spirit, turned the clutched injector on himself. An expression of bliss transported his skull-like face as he sank down uncaring in the middle of the street, his eyes staring in death. Another ran by and, finding the dead man, bent in a furtive, rat like motion, to pick through the torn and filthy pockets. Trembling hands pushed stolen, pitiful possessions into his own and he moved off in disgusting haste, searching for another fix.
Luke watched as children were orphaned, taken from powerless parents. The old were destroyed piece by mortal piece, dying in poverty and want, unattended and unloved. He saw the poor beaten down, dirty, living in heaped tenements, dark and airless.
Then he blinked, his eyes aching from an elegant, comfortable light as a woman dressed in the height of fashion tossed a high denomination credit chip onto an elegant gaming table, enough credits to feed an entire planet for a year. A wheel turned, a gracefully carved stick appeared and the money was pulled away. She had lost. Her elegant, ringed hands flicked in disgust as they curled around a small drink glass. She retreated.
Before his eyes, a line of dignified senators, in perfect order, rounded a corner in the fortress-like Imperial Palace on Coruscant, dignified, peaceful and, most damning of all, oblivious. The government of the New Republic, now hopelessly in over its head, moved in deep, meaningless silence through its pompous and utterly useless representational procedures. An echo, a graceful flutter of a senatorial robe followed as, far away, home planets and populations lived in misery, resigned to their fate.
And finally he saw the noble remnants of the Empire, unrepentant and fierce, living on the short rations of isolation and pride. Unwavering martyrs, imprisoned within unheeded poverty, held fast to their beliefs and goals as systems and worlds slowly succumbed to lurking chaos all around.
"You can help them, Luke, these innocents," she said, her voice startling him with its reasonable tone. "You're the only one who can help." He glanced after her, as she dropped his hand. A swift moment and she vanished, leaving him alone with the boiling, holographic depiction.
His searching gaze could not find her within the flashing images. "How?" he whispered, even though part of him knew that what she was going to say would be unthinkable.
"Become the new Emperor, Luke." The words were seductive and shimmering, wavering through the reconditioned air as if they were alive.
A sharp breath rattled him, rasping its way through his lungs. A pulling motion appeared, almost embodied within the dirty air. Her lightsaber suddenly appeared in his hands. One practiced flick and it was activated. The lighted blade pierced the confused images, a pure shaft searching through dim, night dreams. Her elixir of passion and power called to him in a voice at once compelling and disgusting. He swung the saber in an elegant, offensive motion and stepped forward.
He longed for her next words but when they finally echoed within his hearing he raised the saber and whirled as if to ward off a whispering spell. "The Empire shall rise again." The voice was clear, precise, almost cold. "However, what you choose is of no matter. For if you refuse us, there is another."
Taken aback by her words, he continued to search for her face through the flashing vision surrounding him, the light of the saber turning with him. He parried into the images, willing them gone. "But, Leia's resisted all of your attempts to....."
The quiet, cold voice interrupted. "Leia's dead. She died on Tatooine. Didn't you know?"
"No!" he shouted, the word bursting up through his lungs. The lightsaber flashed, lethal and beckoning as he paced back, her voice suddenly unbearable. His boots scraped across the floor in fast, graceful steps. Gloom settled over the pre-formed images as they darkened and danced away.
A flowering of light lit his tortured gaze as stinging dust entered his eyes. His sense collapsed. He held the saber out in the classic defensive stance, his hands firmly encircling the handle. Faintly, sounds on the edge of hard consciousness, he heard Ben's voice and a baby crying. His mind grasping at the somehow hopeful sound, he saw that the roiling, mist-like darkness had returned. Only the topaz lightsaber remained unshadowed.
A sharp image of grave markers came and went. White, hot sunlight burned into scrub and sand. Leia was there, seemingly asleep as the metallic markers shimmered under intolerable heat. Her face was pale, eyelashes curled against cheeks, childlike and fragile in death. He remembered the faraway princess of a lifetime ago and stumbled in despair toward her body. Khaali's laughter was a tracing on the ground, a ghastly border, daring him to cross. The graves seemed to sink as he set foot upon them and cadaverous darkness swallowed him as the light broke into small, shattered pieces and fell away.
He opened his eyes to the shadowed room. His hands were trembling as they gripped the handle of the saber. "Leia's dead," he echoed, repeating the inconceivable thought in a stunned whisper, heartbroken. The lightsaber dipped almost to the floor as he pivoted, searching.
"You killed her," the witch replied, her words rising like a malevolent mist, freezing in midair as soon as she uttered them. "You and your absurd idealism, your high standards." The jeering words cut him through, like a hunter's precise cleaning knife. "You're to blame -- you led her to believe you could uphold the entire New Republic with your inadequate Jedi.
She seemed to move through her evil, worded mist, her voice changing direction. "It was all for naught. If you do not take the throne Luke ..." she continued and the sound of her lips around his name caused the saber to rise dangerously as he swung toward her. Her figure appeared, commanding, powerful, edged in an aura of red light. "There is another Jedi. But he is cruel and wicked."
An exploding thought raced through the depths of his mind, and his heart pounded so that he feared it would leave his chest. The small, half light of the room faded to nothing as black realization took over. They did not need him. He could die and it would not matter, except perhaps to a few adoring students and a relative or two. He held the lightsaber perfectly still, statuary, a shaft of old, weather-beaten stone. Luke did not recognize the sound of his own voice. Her heard only words, a stranger's words. "Irek Ismaren," he whispered, his voice now ragged and worn. The saber pulled fleeing shadows across his open features. "Irek is the dark Jedi, the new ..."
She appeared before him, melting out of the dust and debris, a ghost reeking of filth and treachery, her every utterance a condemnation. "Irek Ismaren is prepared to take the Empire to new glories. "But," her voice was again cold, a winter wind over low hills, "if he were to take the throne, Luke, what would happen to the galaxy?" The words flowed from her molded lips. He heard the unclean sensuality buried there, heard the evil. "He will kill and cripple and those he does not, he will surely torture. What will happen to your fledgling worlds, Luke? What will happen to the new generations, to the Jedi? For these........ these Jedi he will surely seek out first. Just as the Emperor did, years ago." Her voice changed, became taunting. "Are you willing to condemn your students to death, Luke?"
The words burned through his soul like fired arrows tearing through pure flesh. Unthinking, driven by the demons of power and possibility he moved too swiftly for her. The lightsaber swung wildly as he pushed into her, the force of his blow sending her toppling, thrown with supernatural strength halfway across the room. He scrambled after her as she struggled to stand. He saw a jagged scar open over her forehead. Blood ran down her face, a river of laceration. He lunged again and caught at her, pushing her brutally back down onto the floor. Dust and debris scattered, obscuring the air between them. Relentless, he came through it, the saber bearing down on her as he advanced.
Its handle was now familiar but strikingly cold, as if it were some artifact he had found in an old, ceremonial grave. He barely felt it. Instead he pulled toward her, the tip now pointed at her heaving chest. "Callie.... please ..... don't make me do this!" His voice held a hiking note of desperation.
She gave her own activated blade, shimmering next to her perfect skin, a cool look. He waited. Blood ran down her cheeks, onto her lips, down her chin. She made no move only turned her gray gaze into his blue one. He was breathing hard, and she could feel the crazed circle of his mind as he searched for reasons, any reasons, not to kill her.
She smiled at him, the intelligence resting in her face at once primordial and sophisticated. Her hair was disheveled, her feet were bare, vulnerable and white on the metal deck. A vision appeared in his head, of her face as she slept in his pallet on Yavin, serene, an old legend come to life. Even her bloody lips were soft and inviting.
Giving him the moment, she pulled herself to kneel at his feet in homage. The head was lifted, the eyes were penetrating, promising. Her mouth moved, and the seductive curse issued from it. "Darkside, goodside, what does it matter, Luke? The power's the same in the end." She spread her perfect hands in chilling imitation of his dead sister. "Help me, Luke Skywalker. You're my only hope."
A horrible threat tore through his body and he lifted the floating lightsaber over her. Something in her expression changed and she bowed her head, exposing her long neck as disheveled hair fell away from it, a killing gesture of submission. She closed her eyes, her face expressionless and sacrificial. The lightsaber began its long fall through the thick air as the loose hair stilled. The back of her neck was pale and stemlike. The saber sliced the air, imprisoned within the gloom that closed in after it, its light useless and dull. The starfield winked out and another creeping darkness flowed all around him.
A jolt of despair shook him and feeling the sickening downswing of his muscles he stopped just before the blade fell, instead throwing the lightsaber across the room. It clattered through the mist and came to a rolling halt, loose teeth in a skull's sightless head. He sank to his knees as she lifted her bloodied face to greet him. Hot, passionate hands reached out to his, feeling along his roughened and workworn fingers, pushing her hands up and through them. A sudden image of another woman's small hands, the fingernails stubby and ill-kept, fleetingly cluttered his mind and then was gone, swallowed by the dragon of Khaali's darkness.
And then, without further ceremony, he pulled at her and together they fell to the floor. He lay alongside her and with trembling hands, cupped his fingers up around her bleeding face. A trickle of violent red marred his cheeks and his lips tasted of blood as he kissed her. Uncloaked willingness rang through his scarred soul, burning away the old memories, the old hurts. Now there was only her. Now there was only the future. The past was dead.
But one last time, in one brief flicker of purity before he gave himself to lust, to his gnawing incompleteness, he glimpsed Mara's face, pale, hair pulled back, a half smile lighting her green eyes. A shadow fell across it, worry causing her brows to pucker angrily in a heartbreaking expression. His heart tore within him, his soul reached one last time for the light as a disembodied voice rang through time and space. Mara reacted, as if caught by surprise, her eyes lifting and something within her reached out......
But no, a pounding, destroying darkness sucked at his being, dragging him into evil. His soul fell away. The stars flashed in their eternal paths before winking out, system by system. His soul writhed one last time and surrendered. He was alone with the darkside.
Locks were never a problem for Irek. He had never regarded them as a barrier or even thought about them much, one way or the other. They existed for the sake of other people, people much less powerful than himself. The Force was alive in his mind, the workings of the life all around him moving in waves as he pushed through it. Machinery clicked and whirred as he read through schematics and circuitry in a split second. His mind wandered, purposeful. He had not found what he was looking for.
His stride, perfectly silent, an ancient pterraleopard living again within the cold world of space technology, served him well as he slunk toward a forgotten place. A hissing moment passed as he halted and changed direction, his sense unerring. She had taught him well. Perhaps, too well.
He found himself standing before the door to the forgotten theater, his mind alive with hate and betrayal. He hit the locking mechanism with a small, subtle fingernail of darkness. The archway opened quietly. He moved through it smelling burned circuitry. He smiled in satisfaction and knew that Khaali's closing spell was utterly destroyed, the circuits were now only burned and useless wiring.
A stinking darkness assailed him, palatable and real. The blackness was a living thing a barrier, he knew. The red light of his saber came forward, its glow cutting with ominous purity through the gloom. Smoke and the smell of ozone drew themselves around him. Undeterred, he passed through them and found another barrier. The smell of fresh blood flowed around him, a clotted, red river. His senses pricked and expanded.
With his lightsaber held before him, his grip perfect, his sense clear, it did not take him long to find them. A passionate gloom beat and pulsed, a living thing. Her defenses were wearing away as she lost herself within her old lover's embrace.
Animalistic scrambling, coupled with low, intimate whispers assailed him first. His jealous heart flew into a stormed rage, forced quiet within a tomb as he searched, seeking her sense. His saber jerked and parried, unsupported in the thick air. Murky lightness flashed as he saw Luke Skywalker jerk Khaali up off the floor, bruising hands manacling her sinewy arm.
Irek flowed out of Khaali's Force darkness, his blue eyes raking the two Jedi Masters up and down, searching and insane. He took in the disturbed debris on the floor, the smears on their clothes. They looked dirty, bedraggled and startled, animals interrupted in the middle of something primitive and uncontrollable.
Khaali stood barefoot in her ripped and stained clothing, her hair tangled and ratted. Luke's hands grasped Khaali's waist and arm in a deathgrip, ignoring a sharp cry of pain as he held her back. His eyes were slitted, one side of his tunic torn so that it fell away from bare skin. A red whelt appeared there, stinging and painful. At first Irek thought that the dark smears on their faces were only dirt from what must have been one helluva fight. But no, the lightsaber, its purity unassailed by the disgusting scene before it, told him differently.
Even Irek, in all his perversions, was unprepared for what the red energy of his lightsaber revealed. The smears on their faces were not dirt, they were blood. He came to see that what he had taken as dirt all along was in fact a trail of blood. It stained both Skywalker's tunic and Khaali's shift, it glistened in their hair, it stained their fingers. And, worst of all, as they turned to gaze sharply at his intruding presence, he saw blood on both sets of lips. Like two evil creatures of old folklore, they gazed at him for a long moment, a grave-like darkness stretching before them, their eyes red-rimmed and crazed. Shocked and astonished, Irek was pushed backwards.
That was all the opening Skywalker needed. He fell away from Khaali and into the protective blackness. Irek made a decision and followed. Khaali screamed. "Irek! No, don't......!"
But she was interrupted by the topaz shadow of her own lightsaber. Skywalker had found it along the floor and was now standing before Irek, his powerful presence teasing, playing with the darkside. Luke's light, almost moon eyes, gazed at him, a feral look. Instinctively Irek lifted his blade.
The two blades met with a blinding crash, the energy thundering through the room. A roiling energy heat stirred and beat upon the walls as Luke ripped apart Irek's inadequate defenses. Blind with rage and the fury of interruption, Khaali's blade beat upon Irek's red one again and again, forcing the young man, step by step, back toward the door. Irek gave the room behind him a quick glance, seeking cover.
Grasping with his dark mind, Irek threw a chair at Luke who saw it coming and sliced it clean through with the lightsaber. Instantly a whirlwind of objects followed. Luke only grinned as Khaali's lightsaber sang in the dark. Disheartened in a sudden deflation of overconfidence, Irek continued to retreat, making a steady pace for the destroyed door. Cut and bleeding, Luke continued to advance on the would-be Emperor, mighty and inexorable.
Irek shuddered at the enormous power of the Master. Luke's Force sense was commanding and horrible, his terrible emotions seemed to enfold the entire space around them in hideous darkness. Visions of grotesque monsters spat and flew through the air around them as Irek fought with all his strength. They lunged at him, wild cries ringing in his ears. He began to panic as the sound of prehistoric voices crashing through vanished forests pounded all around him.
Luke's offensive shattered the red light, splintering it as he ran Khaali's blade through it again and again. The handle in Irek's hand sparked warningly and he knew, in a swirling mass of confusion and sudden weakness, his saber was in the process of shutdown. Smelling defeat and the hot odor of fresh kill, Irek finally pulled his weapon into a defensive position and deactivated it. And then, with the light, cowardly fleetness of a hunted herbivore he jumped the rubble of the doorway and vanished like a vision within the dim corridor.
A quick, slamming silence rang through the room. Nothing reverberated off the dank walls as the topaz saber flinched within the dust and dirt stirred up by furious fighting. Khaali, held motionless and deaf, hesitated wondering what Luke would do. But then, watching him, pulling apart his hurt, aching soul piece by piece, she knew. Her heart filled with panic.
Luke, standing alone, panting, covered in blood, dirt and sweat, held the topaz light up to his face as if seeing if for the first time. A white light arose around him, outlining him with a supernatural fire as the saber shone undimmed, singing a dirge.
Khaali's saw Luke study the lightsaber's handle for a moment. Sensing something wrong, a yawning, limitless pit rising up through clear night, she stumbled toward him. Her words fell into the silence, desperate words holding meaning her consciousness did not understand.
"Luke....Luke.... Luke, listen..... listen to me!" she screamed, her voice now cutting and desperate within the soiled air.
The blade lit his expression as if it were a graveside portrait, peaceful and uninformative for the casual visitor. The stains of the darkside marred him, marred his pure face and hands, marred his plain tunic, marred his limitless eyes. The odor of wet, freshly turned soil arose, assailing her sense.
Slowly, as if in deep thought he schooled his expression into the silent blankness of a statue. With sure, deliberate hands he turned the blade of the activated saber to his own throat. Cool decisiveness settled about his soul. He was a man with nothing to lose, with nothing more to live for.
Khaali pushed away her fear and stumbling into him, knocked her hand into his, breaking his hold. Luke's grip was not broken but the saber was tipped down instead of into his own throat. Sparks flew, a welder's destructive fire, along the floor as it scored metal flooring. An extinguished hissing brought the flooding darkness upon them as she pulled back, readying for another strike.
She pushed at him again, and he resisted as if by rote, held prisoner within a mechanical oblivion. Again, sightless, he pulled the reactivated blade back to his throat. This time, his right hand, singed, synthetic skin pulled back from blackened circuitry, reached out and without warning, bore down on her. She struggled, animal like and wild.
"Luke..... you can't .... It's not time........!" Her voice, hoarse with fear and no repentance, actually pleaded with him. "Luke, listen to me," she said, uttering the words quickly, trying desperately to push her mind back into his consciousness. "You've got to live. You've got to come with me. You must rule, instead of Irek ......."
But it was no use. The lightsaber, its elegant handle obscured by the Master's grip, it's flowing energy translated into a voice heard only by the dying, was ominously motionless, the long, preparatory silence before premeditated murder. His grip on her arm tightened and she was immobilized, astonished at his strength. A great wave of smooth, cold water broke over her head somewhere and she fought to keep her slipping consciousness.
Terse military conversation crept up the corridor and through the door. They were human voices, guards' voices. Her eyes felt as if they were weighted but she forced them open one last time. Sparks flowed through her line of sight, obscuring her vision. A bright, artificial light seemed to come from the corridor, the door controls broken and unmoving. The lightsaber moved through the morbid darkness and she shouted with all her fading strength. In one hallucinogenic moment, its light combined with the lights from the corridor. Then a blanket shrouded sight as her hearing was punctuated by pulsing blaster notes, creating a dark symphony of desperate sound. Failing vision told of Imperial troops.
Hot laser fire hit Luke full in the chest and his grip fell away as he went down. The loss of his hand sent her sprawling with pent up momentum and released pain. She drew upon the Force, willing consciousness, but Luke's attack had been too strong. She heard the ominous sound of clattering, clicking boots against metal. The room seemed to shrink and fade into oblivion as someone shouted and the lightsaber clanged away, dropped by a lifeless hand.
Mara Jade glanced up from the pilot's console. Hyperspace glowed through the front viewport, wrinkles and odd lines aging the galaxy into a friendly, old man. Han Solo sat down in the co-pilot's chair. He seemed relaxed, but as he sat, his hands hit the co-pilot's console a little too hard.
"I didn't run her into any black holes, sir," she said by way of greeting, grinning.
"Thanks," he replied. "Although, I've already noticed, ensign, since she's still intact." He gave her a sidelong look and then pretended to study hyperspace through the viewport. His profile was sharp within the darkened confines of the cockpit. "You feeling any better?"
This question, well-meaning though it was, produced a frown. "Captain Solo, my health is not a concern of yours."
A grimace followed. "You've been, at best, a Menatan Tiger with Durron and Salusar. Kyp almost punched you back there." He paused, only half smiling. "If you're going to fight with your compatriots my only request is you do it after we dock at Byss."
She turned the chair to face him, her eyes glinting like green durasteel. "Are you saying this is all my fault?"
Han moved his gaze to hers and then returned it to wrinkled hyperspace. "No, not exactly. I blame a little of it on Luke."
A mini explosion took place inside the green edged expression, audible only within muffled silence. "What's that supposed to mean?" Her voice took on its habitual edge, sharp as a knife, but at the same time, uncertain. "We're here to save Luke, remember?"
He nodded, his eyes masked. "That's something I wish you would remember. Besides, I didn't think you would be affected so badly....."
She turned away from him, from his friendly, oblique concern. The old chair creaked a little. She noticed that the upholstery was frayed and that the floor around it was worn and dull. "I'll be alright..." she began.
"Oh, no you don't." His voice was quick and hard edged and for once he didn't let her finish. "You're still sick, Mara. Even you have to admit you're not the same. What happened to you?"
Her voice played flat and uninspired off the backup navicomp console on the far side of the cockpit. Her answer was simple. "Skywalker broke my collarbone."
Han stood and moved quickly, catching her by the shoulders which were a lot more vulnerable than they looked. He spread his fingers protectively and she flinched. "That part's healed, Mara," he said quietly. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
A slow silence entered the cockpit as hyperspace held them within cold, crystalline stillness. Lights and computerized sensing systems blinked on and off, methodical and silent. The ventilators kicked in. Suddenly, she felt too warm. "It's hot in here, don't you think?" she said, pulling in the direction of the hatch. "Maybe I should go clean up...."
"Not until you've answered my question," Han persisted, his grip tightening over the top of her arms.
Mara sighed and felt nothing but weariness. She had not been able to sleep for days now. That's why she was here and not in the back, playing chess with Artoo and Kyp. Dully, she gave in. "He didn't do anything to me, Han, aren't you listening?" she said turning. Suddenly she found herself standing too close to him, an easy arm's length. His hands rested pleasantly on her slender frame, his dark hazel eyes concerned but holding to a studied carelessness. A passing thought about how lucky Leia was pushed its way through her mind and then fluttered away, gone.
She stepped away from him, suddenly nervous. "Uh..... it's just a vision, that's all." She smiled at him, most insincere. "That's why I can't sleep."
He sat down again in the co-pilot's seat, leaned back and idly flicked a switch. An indicator blinked in readiness and he pushed it back again. His voice was undiplomatic, his words blunt. "It's a vision of Luke with Callista, isn't it?"
Her sudden, indrawn breath was the answer to his question. "Uh....Han... you know... this is kind of personal, " she began, looking for words, any words to ward off describing what she had seen in the depths of her mind.
"It's more than personal when you're worse company than a Dathomir witch." He shook his head. "Like I said before, I don't envy you people." His hand moved over the switch again. "Do you think it's coming from Luke or Callista?"
She gave him an assessing glance. Only crossed arms betrayed her defensiveness. "It's not easy for me to talk about this stuff, Han."
He snorted with laughter. "Like that's news," he replied, his grin fading as soon as it appeared. "But you've gotta tell me, Mara. We're in a dangerous situation, headed into what's still enemy territory. And we're following nothing more than intuition and a few visions, not to mention the fact that I got you all out of jail on false pretenses."
She gave him a searing look. "I thought you called in a few favors," she said.
"You could call it that. You'll notice that I wasn't too clear about who I wanted to take with me on this little expedition. My rear end's on the line here," he continued, dropping his gaze, "not to mention my wife's. I gotta know you're not just crazy, Mara, or sick," he tapped his temple, "in some way. Are you sure about this?"
She sat again, the chair creaking unnoticed as her light frame curled into it. "As sure as I've ever been," she replied, so softly that he had to strain to hear her, even in the small cockpit. "Luke's out there and he's in trouble. I think Callista's got him....."
"What makes you think that?"
She let a silence roll through. "I can see Callie's face," she said, preoccupied. She did not notice a fleeting grimace. "I can see it as if I were there. I only hear Luke's voice. He's trying to reach me."
Something about her eyes cautioned him as he let the silence pace away. He decided to play a hunch. "You've been upset about this from the beginning, haven't you?"
Her brows puckered in warning. "What do you mean?" she replied, each word fully enunciated, each sound equally weighted.
"I'll spell it out Mara. But have to promise not to kill me before we get to Byss. That way I can die an honorable death fighting some leftover stormtrooper squad."
Mara's eyes were the cloudy emerald of deep seawater under a coming storm. "I promise," she said after a time, wondering why she was even listening to him. She steeled herself and turned a cool gaze to him. "Go on," she said.
"You've been bothered by all this," he said, pulled the threads tighter. "After the Eye happened, you disappeared for months." He smiled a little, his innate good nature showing through. "But, I noticed, you stopped at Yavin on your way back in."
She looked a little as if some had grazed her with a red hot poker. "How would you know, Solo?" she rejoined obliquely, her voice still easy. "Keeping tabs on me? Does Leia know about this?"
He refused to play. "Well it was kind of strange. When I looked last there were no lucrative business deals going down on Yavin."
She just sat there, flabbergasted. "Luke invited me Solo," she said when she found words again. "In case you've forgotten he was always after me to develop my Jedi side." Her voice hiked a little but he could not decide if it was from anger or just plain self-defense. "I was just being courteous, that's all." A note of amusement crept into the air between them. "After all, it wouldn't do to alienate the galaxy's only Jedi Master."
He shook his head. "Don't feed me that, Mara. With Callie right there all the time it must have been....."
This almost caused another explosion from the other chair. As it was, only a banged console caused him to stop his line of speculation. He took a breath, uncertain. He had never seen Mara look quite this way before.
He moved in, pulling the circle ever tighter. "When Callie left I notice you made a point of staying for a while. As I recall, you even passed up a chance to do some deal for Karrde, something that turned out to be very profitable, according to rumor. Lotta people got rich off it, something about Tatooine....."
"You've been hanging out in too many bars, Solo."
Han smiled and expression relaxed. "I have my sources, but I can't really maintain my dignity in the local bars anymore." He spread his hands, not at all apologetic. "The price of legitimacy." He leaned forward so that his elbows were on his knees, his chin on his folded hands. Once again, he looked nothing more than a charming boy, intelligent and, maybe, dangerous. "So, what's the story Mara? I don't recall ever hearing you express a desire to become a Jedi. In fact," here he let his voice rise in amusement, "I always sort of admired that about you."
She gave him a contemptuous look. "I didn't think you admired me at all, Captain," she replied formally, on the run. "As for Karrde's deal, he only had room for a limited partnership. I didn't get back in time."
Han pushed back into his chair, ankle to knee. "Hummm. That's funny. It musta been pretty wide open for a while. Someone even approached me on it....."
"You?!" she exclaimed with more superiority that she had, perhaps, intended. "Why would anyone approach you?"
"Not so fast, Trader Jade," Han said, holding up a long fingered hand. "I was a smuggler once, ya know. A good one."
"Yeah, good enough to get boarded. You were never the same after that, were you?"
He gave hyperspace a speculative look, chewing on the inside of his cheek. A flash of annoyance held steady and then was absorbed by the low light of the cockpit as a moment of silence flattened between them. His eyes remained calculating and intelligent, observant.
"Gratuitous insults will get you nowhere, Jade," he said tightly, sitting up straight. "I'm here to help, remember?"
Deliberately she moved her gaze back to the console in front of her. A faint note of affection colored her voice. "How did you find out about Karrde?"
He smiled. "From Karrde himself. He's been worried about you. When you left Lando....."
The warm note disappeared. "Sith Lords on Azniath! Why does everybody always bring up Lando!"
The smile became affectionate, which would make her angrier, he knew. "He told me to keep an eye on you. You have a knack for disappearing for long periods of time. Although we were amused when you started traveling with that 'co-pilot' of yours a while back. Whad'ya do with him?"
She made a careless gesture and her mood lightened. "Oh, I dunno, we had some disagreement and parted company. I find that I like to travel alone."
"Pretty dangerous for a person who spends so much time on the Rim and the Core. In case you haven't noticed, Karrde keeps track of you, that is when he can get a sighting. And I have been too, although I have to be more discreet about it than he does."
Her head jerked up, a wicked grin on her face. "Why? Because of Leia?"
He laughed and the sound filled the small cockpit, resonating quickly through the nooks and crannies fashioned by the decrepit equipment. "No, not really. More likely because of people like Knezar and his crowd at NRI. The spies always spy on their own first. And, of course, that includes the Chief of State's family."
"Poor Han Solo!" she said, sarcasm laced liberally with black humor. "Former smuggler extrodinaire, now just a consort to a Princess......"
He leaned forward and grabbed her hand, stopping her in mid- sentence. "That's enough, Mara," he said, quiet and suddenly serious. "Leia and I love each other very much. We've both given up a lot, been through a lot." He tossed her an angry, significant look.
After a bright moment it was she who looked away. "And so have I," she admitted, surprising him. He was astonished that he wasn't dead or unconscious by now. He wondered how much further he could push her.
He drew another deep breath and gambled on one more nudge. "Luke helped you out of it, remember?"
Her hand remained within his, unresisting. "Luke was the cause of it," she said softly. "Although I guess you could say that, after C'Baoth ......"
He did not hesitate. "Did Luke ever help you with......?"
Her eyes became as hard as plate glass at noon time. Her whole body jerked as she snarled and wrested her hand away from him. "Are you asking if he's ever helped me with ..... with what came before? That's none of your business, Captain!"
She stood as if unable to bear his nearness, his concern. Her voiced words were bitter, covering an ocean of hurt. "Lando and I parted company about the time Luke found Callie. Everyone knew-" A choking softness struck her, pushing the words back into her mouth. She closed it, gnashing her teeth, teetering on the edge of an alarming, full-blooded confession.
Han stood and followed her so that his hand almost touched her. At the last moment he pulled away. "Mara don't you see? Luke gave you his father's lightsaber, remember? Haven't you ever really thought about that?"
She snorted in contempt and nervousness. "It was a grand, forgiving gesture. Skywalker's prone to that sort of thing, you know," she replied, her voice slowly coming into its normal range. "We'd been through a lot." She became more confident. "It was just that, nothing more."
"And you really believe that?" Hans voice was almost inaudible under a sudden burden of incredulity.
She turned to face him, sharp and unforgiving. "Of course I do, Solo."
A silence reigned as the ventilation shut off. He shook his head. "Human blind. All Jedi are human blind..."
He spoke up. "You heard me, Mara. You're all blind." Impatience and creeping sorrow rose between them. "You've been angry with Kyp for loving Tionne, for being manipulated by her. And" his eyes flashed hazel, "I'd say the same goes for Kam. He loved her too...."
Mara was derisive if a little confused. "What?"
Han shrugged. "I've been watching people for a long time, Mara. That's how I used to survive. And, in my book, those two fell for the same woman, head first into the gravity well, so to speak."
She gave him a superior look. "My, my, Solo! Perceptive today, aren't we?"
His face was dead serious. "Not so fast, Jade!" he said, his voice brooking no argument. He took a calming breath and pressed on. "Looks like you're the victim of the same thing. You've been following Skywalker around for years, first as an assassin, then as a fellow fighter and lately as an occasional 'friend.'" He moved toward her, pulling her by her shoulders, ignoring a grimace of pain as her still tender collarbone protested. "You've always been there for him, Mara."
She opened her mouth to speak, to protest, to laugh, to throw his offensive words back in his face. "Solo, I....."
He only gripped her shoulders hard, and the pain interrupted her words. "How could he hurt you so badly? Why are you so blind, Mara? If you don't feel anything for him, why would you care if he runs off, turns to the darkside?" He took another breath and the words poured out, bright and perfectly clear.
"Aren't you the one who's always laughing at his 'nobility?' Well, now here's your chance to prove your contempt. He's run off in search of another noble cause -- to save Callie from the darkside, to redeem her. He's an adult, a Jedi Master, one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy. It's my bet he can take care of himself." He allowed his gaze to fall directly into her hers, a direct challenge. "Why are you going after him?"
A simmering silence fell between them. She realized she was trembling. A cold light ran over her face, followed instantly by warm shadow. A tearless visage, gaunt with suffering stared back at him.
"He can't save Callie," Mara said finally, her voice edged with cutting pain. "I've told you that before. He's been summoned by Callie or whatever Callie's become. She shifted her stance and pulled away from him. "She's stronger than he is. And if she doesn't kill him, she'll turn him, I know it."
He gave her a quizzical look and retreated into the netherworld of politics. "Why should she bother, Mara? Otdjel doesn't need another dark Jedi. They've got one already. And as we all know, all you ever really need is one. Why would they bother with Luke?"
She was surprisingly earnest. "Because she wants Luke, not them. She's the one that wants to possess him." She regained a sense of movement and turned away from him. The far bulkhead rose to greet her as she halted. "Remember Han, when she left? She wanted to find her power again. Then she and Luke could be together, like it was before on the Eye.
She did not see Han's derisive look. "Yeah, but she wasn't real, even then, except maybe to him." He shuffled his feet and leaned on a softly lit console. "I know you Jedi make a big deal about mind to mind communication and I suppose it was important to Luke, but he's a grown man now and he knew that what Cray and Callie did was wrong. That's been the problem all along.
Mara's voice was muffled. "Did Leia tell you this?"
Han laughed, a hard sound. "Well, I certainly know what she thinks. But you don't have to be a Jedi Master to know right from wrong, Mara. And I knew Callie was wrong from the beginning. And, it looks like, "here he paused and a genuine smile entered his voice, "you felt the same way."
A warmth flooded the cockpit, making the cold computer controls and levers seem frail and hopeless. She turned back and striding the short distance between them, took his hands in hers. He almost jerked away in surprise. Her sudden show of familiarity was uncharacteristic and, oddly, unwelcome.
A voice, Luke's voice, fell through her mind, audible only to her, echoing and painful. There was desperation there, mixed with surrender. "We've got to save him from her, even if we have to kill him to do it, Han. He's got no one else." The words were a startling admission in negatives, the nearest she was ever going to get to confession. Even the offer of murder for the sake of Luke's soul was rife with forbidden realizations. "All he wants is her and I'm certain he doesn't care anymore if he falls. Can you really consign him to that?"
"Does it really matter, Mara?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Of course it matters! Everything he stands for, everything he's worked for, everything he's learned and all that he's survived will all be for nothing if he falls now."
She dropped his hands and turned to gaze out the front port. Eternal space and the cold reaches of time lit her eyes, making them flat and unmoving. Only a small glistening told that they were alive, organic and fragile within the creaking freighter and the dark desert through which it traveled. Han knew it was impolite, but he could not take his gaze away from her face. He realized that, for the first and probably last time, he was seeing Mara Jade unmasked. He wondered, in the depths of hidden amazement, how he had missed it all these years. He found his voice again, but had enough sense not to voice what he was thinking.
"You care what happens to him, don't you?" he said, his words sliding into the comfortable space between them like an unnoticed breeze.
With no sense of defensiveness, or even real awareness she nodded. Then, as his words began to register, her head jerked up with a flash and she called herself away from the eternity outside. Turning to him, he saw that her eyes had become lethal and overflowing with fire and, he thought just before he moved out of range, hurt. She opened her mouth to speak, but he got there first.
"Aznaith! Mara..... I didn't mean to pry....."
"Damn right, you didn't General Solo!" she replied her words hot and quick.
He moved quickly remaining always out of range but his words were cutting. "Oh, come on, Mara! Give it up already! With all that's happened how can you deny it?"
She only gazed at his handsome face, realizing that it was much more handsome than Luke's. Hazel eyes, shadowed to brown, fell through her soul and she knew he needed no force sense to see the truth. He never had. Still, something within her pulled away from self knowledge and her betrayal of it. "You're seeing ghosts, Solo!" she replied, angry. "Luke and I are friends, sometimes, when he's not off on some damn fool mission or being adored in that silly school of his or doing a favor for his sister...."
His grin pulled her up short. The fact that he was not in the least afraid of her made her stumble backwards. She knew in one killing instant that she was getting soft. Solo used to be terrified of her.
"You're protesting an awful lot for somebody who's really not interested," he said, his voice now calm. "Does he know?"
"Know what?" came the time buying reply.
A sigh. "Okay, okay," he said, retreating in earnest this time. "You're really willing to face the fact that Luke might not make it this time?"
She said nothing but her face became set. The green eyes went stonelike with determination.
He stared at her, trying, one last time to figure out how Luke came to deserve all this. The ocean of passion she felt for him was a secret known only to her. Han knew it had to be it was killing her.
He smiled at her, the kind of smile reserved for lunatics, innocents, small children and, perhaps, misguided Jedi. "Then, so be it," he said. She replied nothing as she pulled her gaze back and slipped into the shadow beyond the hatch, leaving him alone with eternity.
Kyp Durron gave the computer a hard look. They had dropped out of hyperspace, to take a course correction and to make a few minor repairs on the old ship. The Millennium Falcon was game but she was still as pasted together as always. Kyp sighed.
"No lights yet, Chewie!" he yelled informally back through the hatch. An answering whine greeted him and he grinned.
An ominous clanking sound, followed by what had to be Kashyyyki curses rang through the corridor. An indicator light flicked, momentarily, before disappearing again. "Chewie...." Kyp began but then noticed the light had gone out again. He stood and leaned against the wall. It was going to be a long shift and, quite suddenly, his back hurt.
"Trouble?" Kam entered through the hatchway. Quietly, with characteristic deliberation, he folded himself up into one of the back seats. If he hadn't been so dignified he would have looked ridiculous, a large man in a chair much too small for him.
"Nahh, the circuit just keeps cutting out. It's bugging the Sith out of Chewie."
At that moment, as if to emphasize Kyp's words, an irritated wookie word drifted through the corridor and up through the cabin. Artoo, standing nearby, replied in perfect binary. Kyp shook his head. "How do you think they understand each other?"
Kam shrugged his large shoulders. "You got me. I figure they spent so much time with Master Skywalker that it affected them somehow....."
"Oh yeah, I forgot. You and your theories about the Force."
Kam did not react. His face was perfectly calm. "Yeah, well it rubbed off on Tionne," he said.
Kyp sighed and pushed himself away from the wall. "Are we back to that again, Kam?"
"Yep," Kam replied relentless. "She barely noticed you on Coruscant. She's still got a thing for the Master."
Kyp steadied himself on two feet, weary of the conversation. "How do you know?"
Kam smiled. "I know everything. You forget, I'm a Jedi."
That did it. Magically, a small, plastic cup flew through the cockpit and hit the far bulkhead just to one side of Kam's head. This prompted a grin. "Your aim's bad, Kyp. You need practice."
"Yeah, well your timing's bad, as usual, fellow Jedi." An uncomfortable pause filled the air between them and then drained itself leaving behind a small eddy of hurt. "Why'd you bring up Tionne, anyway?"
Kam's face pulled to serious. "Because of the Master." A short hesitation. "And Mara."
Kyp's face held a sudden interest. Chewbacca said something and Artoo answered, the unlikely conversation now only background noise. "Mara?" he repeated, a gleam in his eye.
"Okay, forget that she got the best of you the other day. You really shouldn't provoke her, Kyp. She's much stronger than she looks."
Kyp rubbed his jaw and grimaced. "So I noticed. That was a perfect right cross. I didn't know she had it in her."
"You really don't know her very well, do you?" Kam was quiet again.
"Why should I? She's a lot older than I am and she never stays at the Academy long." He lifted his face. "What's this all about, anyway?"
Kam sighed and his grin faded. "I'm a little worried about her, Kyp."
Kyp's brow furrowed "Why? She's a big girl." He rubbed his chin for emphasis. "She can take care of herself."
"She hasn't been sleeping," Kam said, his reply quiet.
Kyp gave the hatchway a short, cautious glance. "Are you sure she's not awake now? She'll kill us if she hears us talking about her like this." Another moment of silence embraced the small cockpit and his glance fell back to his compatriot. "What do you think's eating her, anyway?"
Kam sighed. The large hands moved along an inadequate armrest. "I think she's seeing something, some kind of vision." He shook his head and hesitated.
A moment of pure silence slammed down onto the floor. Kyp shifted his stance and put a hand up to his only recently healed arm. "What kind of vision?" he asked quickly. Then he backed away, reconsidering. "No, no don't answer that. I've had enough trouble in my life with darkside visions."
Kam replied nothing, momentarily preoccupied. When he spoke his words were soft. "It has something to do with Callista," he said, the voice of his intuition strong and confident. "Perhaps she's seeing the Master and Callista together."
The implications of this statement were rather startling and Kyp reached for a way to get around a sudden, too sharp mental picture. Mentally he pulled a hasty, swinging curtain over it and dived into the conversation, seeking escape. "Right," he said to another general silence. "But my question is, why? Why would she see this? Unless one of them is trying to reach her....."
Kam shook his head. "It can't be Callista, that doesn't make any sense. But," here he faced Kyp, "perhaps the Master's trying to reach her."
Kyp sighed and suddenly wished for a very large, complicated technical job with a spice load of circuits to repair. Anything for distraction. "I know there's a connection there," he said, giving the front viewpoint a hard look. "They both faced down C'Baoth. He's saved her life a couple of times." He grinned. "She's even pulled him out of a few bad places. Maybe there's more there than we think."
Kyp turned back to the console. Chewbacca was now scrambling around in the innards of the Falcon, rambling his way through the unorthodox series of repairs that made up the inner nuts and bolts of the grand, old freighter. A drifting question made it's way into the suddenly silent cockpit. "Not yet, Chewie!" Kyp replied, in a steady voice.
Kam grinned at the resulting curse and retreated, leaving Kyp to the mercies of an irritated Wookie, an incomprehensible Artoo unit and his own, churning thoughts. **************************
Several standard hours later, Kyp was still in the cockpit. A raging sleepiness that had more to do with boredom than weariness circled him, urging him to drop off. He kept repeating a Jedi alertness routine but it seemed to wear off a little faster each time. It was with some gratitude that he heard a small warning in his head, persistent and unavoidable. He leaned to gaze out the port but saw nothing. The sound became louder and a familiar voice laced through it, one of reassurance. A gesture of warning took hold of his hand and he hit the comm switch.
Kam, sensing the same thing, got there before Kyp found words. The comm played off. Somewhere in the back, a clanging tool sounded now and again, noisy but somehow comforting. Artoo said something and Kyp knew they were testing a loop.
"Did you feel that?" Kam moved directly to the transparent, plastiglass, reaching out a hand.
"Yep, although I thought I was dreaming for a minute."
"We're about to have company," Kam replied.
"It's gotta be trouble. Where's Solo?"
Kyp gestured toward the back with his head. "Asleep. I'll get Chewie."
"Get both of them."
Company turned out to be a light cruiser, although definitely of military make. The Falcon nosed away, holding its distance. No transponder signal popped up on the board, a bad sign. Han Solo readied lightspeed as his ship swung gracefully into an elliptical curve. Chewbacca growled.
"I can't help it, Chewie. Besides, I think its just a bad indicator."
Chewbacca growled again, this time in disagreement.
Han smiled but the expression did not touch his eyes. "Kam, how long has the ship been here?"
Kam leaned forward in his cramped chair. "About two standard minutes, Captain."
"No attempts at communication?" Han stood and gave the sensor array a good look.
"None at all. She's just sitting there."
"Yeah, but she's not adrift, so somebody's awake over there...." Han muttered, sitting down again. "I don't read any powered up weapons, but that's the circuit Chewie's been having trouble with." He gave the front port a calculating glance. "I don't think it'd be a good idea to have a back fence chat. Chewie, power up."
Chewbacca was ahead of him. The lightspeed console was fully lit and raring to go. Solo pulled the Falcon into a further elliptical course. "Calculations all set?"
The Wookie replied instantly. And, at that very moment, Kyp Durron's voice cut through the clutter of the surrounding technology. "Han," he began warningly.
"Don't bug me, kid, I'm trying to get us out of here in one piece."
Kyp did not smile, only gave the neat, little cruiser a lingering look. "Han, it's Leia."
Han slumped in his chair for a moment, his hand still on the lightspeed levers. So she had finally caught up with him. He shook his head. If it had been any situation but the present one he would have smiled. As it was, he cursed the fact that he could hide nothing from her and pulled his hand up. Kam's eyes were still on the cruiser, but Kyp was watching Han, his expression perfectly neutral, although somehow forbidding.
Chewie flipped a switch and gave the Captain a questioning look. The interrogatory whine was soft and slow. Han's fingers played lightly over the levers. One tug and they would vanish and no one would not be able to locate him within the vastness of the galaxy.
His hand came down, his decision made. But just then the comm speakers crackled to life. "Han! Thank the stars! I thought we were too late!"
Captain Solo sighed and slumped again. Giving one of his escaped fugitives a resigned glance, he hit the comm switch. "How's that, diplomatic ship Alderaan?" he replied, most unprofessional.
Her voice crackled with static. Han made a mental note to get new speakers. Or, better yet, a new comm system. "Do you have room for one more passenger?"
Han was perfectly still. Chewbacca pulled at another switch and glanced away from his old friend. Kam leaned back in his chair and Kyp, unnoticed, moved to stand near the hatch. "We've got some things to discuss, Han," her voice continued hopeful, assured, even comforting.
Han's face pulled one last time and, retreating from decision, he let his hand fell away from the compelling, lightspeed levers. He gave the Jedi in back of him an apologetic glance over his shoulder. "Looks like the gig is up, guys. I'm sorry."
Kam said nothing, merely put a large hand over the smuggler's shoulder as he rose. "I'll get the airlock ready," he said quickly.
The airlock only malfunctioned once, a minor miracle since it hadn't even been maintained in over six months. Han was frantic with worry, although his hardened face did not show it. But the Jedi around him knew. And Chewbacca. The former had the insight within the Force, the latter was familiarity born of long friendship.
When Leia was safely on the Falcon, Han sighed as he extinguished the fragile, oxygen rich passage. It pulsed out once and disappeared into the void. Leia got out of her survival suit, pulling it off like the old pro she was. Han nosed the Falcon a little leeward to the Alderaan, and headed back to the common area.
Suddenly speechless in the face of his own deceptiveness, he stood perfectly still as she kissed him lightly. "Regrets?" she asked quickly.
"Only that I got caught," he replied, just as quickly.
She grinned, the old flash in her eye. "A good smuggler to the end. Cheer up, it's not as bad as you think."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Wanna explain?"
"Hold on a minute. I've got to get to the comm board."
By the time she had made her way into the cockpit, Chewbacca had already punched up the numbers for her. "I made it, Captain." she said into the transmitter. "Please return to rendezvous point as soon as possible. We'll be waiting."
"Copy, Your Excellency. Alderaan out." Still astonished, Han and Chewie watched as the little cruiser maneuvered into a darkened distance and then, shadowed in a last instant, became one with hyperspace, disappearing in a silent flash.
She gave Han's astonished face a hard look. "We need to talk," she said. Han only nodded and together they made their way out of the cockpit.
"You're just as bad as Mara and the boys here," Han said, his voice hiking slightly in exasperation. Mara Jade blinked and wished she hadn't taken Solo's advice. Or his meds. Evidently he wasn't very knowledgeable when it came to sleeping drugs.
Leia smiled at her with something akin to real affection. "You should never let Han prescribe meds for you, Mara. He's not qualified."
Mara gave the Captain a sour look. "I'm beginning to find that out," she replied, steadying herself. A cool look fell over her face and Leia knew that was the last moment of vulnerability they would get from the mysterious, green eyed woman.
"What's this about Master Skywalker?" This was Kyp, interested but pondering.
"I saw him with Obi-wan," Leia said, the bright vision still flashing through her mind. "He's still alive, Kyp. But he's in trouble, as you've all surmised." She leaned forward, folding her small hands over the pitted table. "He's saved us, all of us, time and time again. Now it's our turn."
"But what about the charges, what about your governmental responsibilities? What about the negotiations?" This, surprisingly, was Han.
She held her dark eyes down in what Han realized was embarrassment. "The negotiations were a failure. Some of that was my fault, and," here she lifted her head to face all of them, "some of it was deception on Otdjel's part. My conclusions are that they had no intention of negotiating in good faith."
"Not when they send Pallaeon and Daala," Kyp put in, an aside.
Leia gave the Jedi a meaningful look and turned to Han. "They're up to something and now they've got Luke, who's there of his own volition, or at least under his own power. Do you think they really want to turn him?"
Han leaned back, his thinking pose. "I don't think so. Why would they bother? I figure they've got a dark Jedi already -- Callista." The room was stony. Kyp's brow puckered, Kam made no sign and Leia was motionless in her chair. Chewbacca regarded the room through intelligent wookie eyes and put in a perfunctory growl.
Han continued. "They don't need another one. Besides, Pallaeon got burned bad by Joruus C'Baoth a while back. I don't think this guy is a big fan of Jedi, dark or otherwise."
Leia sighed and let her gaze fall about the small common area. It was as cluttered and as disorganized as ever. She relaxed in the familiar surroundings and shifted her shoulders. "Let's examine what we know. First of all, someone or something has managed to entice Luke," she gave Kyp and Kam a hard look and continued, "to walk into a trap. After, of course, thoroughly ruining his reputation." She shook her head and became introspective.
"Perhaps Mon Mothma and I made a mistake when we gave the Academy our official blessing. When that happened a great deal of the New Senate's integrity, not to mention my own, was tied to what happened at the Academy, and what the new Jedi did when they left there." She nodded at Kyp. "We've already had some trouble with this."
Kyp spoke up. "You mean that business on Dalinga?" He grinned but his eyes were flat. "I was waiting for transport from Coruscant when Tionne was attacked. I was supposed to get Jedi Waterling out of trouble. We should never have sent him."
She did not smile at him. "You're right, Kyp, more than you know. And I should have never let the New Republic become so closely connected to the revival of the Jedi. And now, all in less than a standard month, Otdjel has not only managed to discredit the Academy, they've captured the only Master in the galaxy." She let a quiet moment pulse through and then continued. "And they knew all along that, once they had Luke, I would do whatever I could to get him back."
Kam was the only one who saw Mara's eyes glint, a quick beacon light spreading through fog bound darkness before fading again. Leia held her eyes straight ahead, facing her confession. Han watched, deceptively casual. The fact that he agreed with his wife did not lessen his heartache as he watched her facial expression harden.
"This is a show of power, a very convincing show of power," the Chief of State said. "They have done this because they are able to, to put us in our place and, perhaps, because they want us to leave them alone."
Mara' s face changed. "And the best way to be left alone is to be part of the crowd. They asked for diplomatic recognition, didn't they?"
Leia bowed her head in shame. "And after that I almost killed the both of them, right there. Part of me still wishes I had."
Han's face moved and he leaned forward, almost touching his wife's elbow. "Then why are we worried about Callista? We should be worried about Otdjel in general. Callista's only a part....."
"Not even that, Captain," Mara said, her face animated and sharp. "She's a tool, a way to get at Luke. I'm amazed I didn't see it before. It was a perfect plan."
Chewbacca leaned forward here, his huge, tree-like frame folded onto a disproportionately small work stool, and spoke. Han smiled. "Right, Chewie. I was about to say the same thing. If Pallaeon hates Jedi so much and he already has one, why in the same of the Sith would he want two?"
Leia's words were quick. "But he still has only one. He wants Luke for a hostage, that's all."
A derisive snort emanated from Mara's direction. "There's something else going on here, Your Excellency," she said, unclenching her teeth.
Leia looked Mara directly in the eye, brown eyes boring into green ones. "Do you have any new information, Mara?" Kam and Kyp leaned forward but Solo pulled back, as did Chewbacca. Artoo made a low, wondering whistle.
"That's why the kindly Captain here was prescribing meds for me, unqualified though he is." This earned her a sarcastic smile from Han.
He shrugged. "Nobody forced you to take 'em," he said.
Mara pulled her eyes away from him and back to his wife. "I've been having a vision, the same one, ever since we left Coruscant." She was silent for a moment, choosing her words. Suddenly, Han, Kyp and Kam looked away, uncomfortable. "Callista's with him, Your Excellency. She's turning him."
Leia's face paled and, for a moment, Han realized her hands were trembling. "Has she succeeded?"
Mara's face remained completely neutral. "I don't think so, not yet, but it's been close."
Leia was blunt now. "Do you think she'll succeed?"
Han made an impatient gesture. "But that makes no sense!! Pallaeon doesn't need any more Jedi! He needs a hostage."
Kyp put a placating hand on the table. "Han's right, there's something