Hyperspace, Rasclann Region
Han glanced at Mara. A blue light washed over a pinched and weary face and her cheekbones were harsh in the shadows. Her smile, though slight and business like, was a surprise. "I'm fine, Captain Solo. We're about to leave hyperspace now."
Han's fingers flew over his board as he confirmed the coordinates. "Anytime, Mara," he replied, resisting a twinge of exasperation. "And I really wish you wouldn't do that....."
For a moment, Mara saw Luke's face, heard the affectionate words and felt a twinge of aversion. "I wasn't reading your mind, Captain," she said pleasantly, if a little preoccupied, banishing the vision. "A cross- eyed ewok could've figured out what you were thinking."
He decided to ignore her. "It's time to get Leia. She knows what we're supposed to meet."
Mara rose from her seat, sideways and out. "Certainly, sir," she replied a little too smartly and escaped through the hatchway without giving him a chance to reply.
Muttering to himself, a soft undertone familiar to the cockpit, he gazed at the wrinkles in time spreading in front of him and wondered if it would ever end, if anyone would ever really tell anyone else what they thought, tell anyone how they felt. He smiled wryly, his lips crooked.
They could save Luke, of course, if Luke hadn't already fallen to the Darkside. And then Luke and Mara would shake hands, give each other a guarded, oblique glance or two, and just as they had countless times before, insult each other in some way that was not quite what it seemed. And that would be the end of it. Han shifted in his seat, exasperation rising again.
Or, Mara could actually make a confession, be vulnerable for once. Although, even Han could not really envision this, the strangest of all happenings. He had a feeling though, an intuition, that Luke would be more than amiable. Why couldn't Mara see the same thing? Maybe she could, maybe that's what was scaring her. His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of hatch door.
"Where's Chewie?" Han asked, all business.
"Coming," Leia's voice replied.
"Well, he'd better hurry," Han put in, flipping a toggle. "Chron says it's time."
As if on cue, Chewbacca made his way through the hatch, his head dipping from habit as he pushed his way through and slid, with unlikely grace, into his seat. A barking whine greeted the co-pilot's controls.
Han grimaced. "Don't ask me, Chewie. Mara set it up."
"Problem?" Mara's voice was sharp with deflected irritation.
The whine came again. "He just wants to know....." Han began.
"How you set up the navicomp diagnostic. He's never seen that configuration before." This was Leia, who appeared to be doing nothing more than gazing out the front viewport.
Han, startled, leaned back toward her, his hazel eyes wide for once. "Since when do you speak Wookie?"
She grinned at her husband. "After........ how long has it been? I'm not stupid, in case you've forgotten."
His smile turned dangerous. "Believe me, I know," he put in, self defense drawing a picture of a well-defined face in shadow. "But you've never said anything before."
Her dark eyes glinted and he saw a new freedom there, a shining limitlessness and clear eyed optimism. "Why spoil the fun? Besides, Chewie's been helping me a little."
A warning interrupted this tete a tete. Chewbacca was speaking, all business. But Mara was the one who, unwittingly, translated. "Rasclann system in 3..... 2....... 1....... mark!"
And, as if by sound of her voice alone, the freighter found itself sitting in space, stars indifferent in the velvet sky. Han stood and gave the viewport a critical look. There was a silence while Chewbacca busied himself, in his accustomed role as copilot. A sensor scan flashed on, then off again, and a warning beeper sounded.
Han did not need anyone to tell him what that meant. "Company!" he said, his voice rising a little.
Leia half rose behind the pilot's chair and looked over his shoulder. "It should be Lepnatos," she said in a serious undertone.
"Let's just hope it's not Ackbar....." Mara put in, her eyes flashing as her blood began to rise.
Seconds later, in what had been only an empty, black field a small military cruiser, flanked by several of the experimental Z Alpha Starfighters flashed into existence and then held to unnatural stillness, their gray hulks glinting within the faded light. A flatness surrounded them, as the Rasclann system swung through its eternal, elliptical movements, its sun radiating light, warmth, promise. A long second passed, and then the comm board beeped.
"Freighter Millennium Falcon this is recon cruiser Dagobah. Do you read?"
Leia nodded, relief mixed liberally with satisfaction. "That's them," she put in, a light tone in her voice.
Han, staring at the screen with eyes pouring disbelief, retained his wits long enough to hit the comm board. "Millennium Falcon to cruiser Dagobah, confirming. Sending transponder signal now."
"Copy, Millennium Falcon. Will return same."
The comm crackled off and Han turned swiftly to his wife. "You mean that's it?"
She gave him a long look, one of disturbing, if wifely, understanding. "What do you mean?" she asked, coy but not altogether surprised.
"We're going into the Core Systems with that?" He pulled another look at the viewport. One of the fighters moved to the forefront, changing position handily with the leader. "That's not enough firepower to...."
Leia's voice was settled, deciding. "We're not taking over. We're only trying to get Luke out. Not even Ackbar knows about this, Han."
"Then how'd you do it?"
She lowered her eyes. "I pulled a few strings, called in a few favors. I couldn't put the Admiral in that position."
"Who's manning the ships?"
"Mostly people from Alderaan, Lepnatos' crowd. They feel they owe Luke, too, even though he didn't save Alderaan itself." She sighed, wistful. "When I put out the call, I received notices from people I haven't spoken to in years. People I didn't remember, even people who've been in retirement. Wedge is there, some people from the days on Hoth, some from Yavin. There's even a couple of Tatooine natives." Her voice became small with wonder. "That's how I did it. It's all for him."
Han's mouth opened and then closed. Fleetingly, he gave Mara a glance but saw only a studied control as the woman's calculating eyes took in the ships phalanxed in the window. "But, it's not gonna be enough," he protested. "We need, at least, a destroyer...."
Leia pulled at his shoulder. "Why, Han? We can't take Byss. We may not even be able to get there. Secrecy is our best bet. We're getting Luke out and then we're leaving."
"What if he's turned?" Han's face was shadowed, suddenly unreadable. "We won't be able to fight him."
Mara's head jerked back, as if someone had slapped her. "Do you really think he's turned, Solo?"
Han shrugged and tugged at the underside of the pilot's console. The transponder code beeped through. "Well, with Jedi there's no telling," Han replied unhelpful. "Do you think he found Callista?"
"Yes," two female voices answered in perfect unison, high and low tones oddly blended, the sound penetrating and rich before it faded. Static crackled over the comm. Millennium Falcon do you need supplies?"
Chewbacca, who had been running a scan program over a limping control board, barked a reply.
"Ah, yeah, Dagobah sure do," Han's voice replied, his eyes on the Wookie. "We need three meters of cabling #2 and five meters of #10. Got any to spare?"
Soft static played over the cockpit and then the young voice came back. "We've got #10. We'll look for #2."
"Copy, Falcon out." Han swiveled in his seat. "Chewie, why didn't you tell me the left board is bad? Is that what's been bugging you?"
There was an affirmative bark.
"Anything we can do to help?" Leia was all business.
Han shook his head. "The cabling's burned out, which is a pain where we're going. Normally it'd be a simple thing to replace, but....."
She nodded. "I'll get Lepnatos on it. Is it possible to substitute?"
Mara eyes lit up and she put in before Han could reply, standing with surety and grace in one of the seat wells. "No, Solo, don't shake your head. Seems to me you could use #9 cabling with #7 as filters. I've done that before. It's not perfect, but it'll keep the board up."
Han nodded and waved a hand in Chewie's direction. "Yeah, we've tried that, but it burns out under stress, any kind of stress. We'd take a turn too sharp and the board would go out again."
Mara's eyes held a competitive look. "Okay, then how come I was able to beat off a shipful of Norlinga Raiders the last time I was on the Rim? And my board was in no better shape than yours is now."
Han was disbelieving. "Why didn't you mention it before?"
She moved and her features shadowed into relief, highlighted by the usual sharpness. "'Cause no one asked. I'll get the tools," she said. The old Mara was back. "There's a way to rig it, you'll see."
Chewbacca lifted his head and gave her an unlikely whine but Han waved him off. "Well at least she's had experience with it," he said, placatingly. Then he, too, stood and taking his wife's hand for emphasis, he looked deep into her optimistic brown eyes. "We gonna need it," he said. And together they turned to gaze at the blank starfield and the silent ships gathered before them.
Khaali's Quarters, Byss
The voices whispered away, wind in the grass. A breeze appeared and waves tossed foam into the air. The sky was blue and unforgiving. Cloud cover moved swiftly, shadowing the sunlight, restless and angry. Eyes aching, she sheltered her face and blinked. Tears of pain came but she held still, proud and unrelenting. An animal called in the distance, a wild, free sound. She gazed around after it only to catch sight of a young man standing just out of reach.
"I wondered when you would wake," he said. His voice was whispered but familiar. She jerked back, trying to retreat into the dunes but the breeze and the tall sea grasses had vanished. Instead she was faced with flat blackness.
Hesitantly, she moved toward him. "I..... I know you," she said, her voice hoarse, like graveled road. Her bones hurt.
The young man laughed. "You should," he replied, confident and cold. "I am your Master."
A sudden hissing anger pushed through her soul and she closed her eyes against him. "You are only an apprentice," she said, her reply oddly faint and murmured.
"I should kill you," the young man said, his form now only an ominous aura. "You've failed."
She closed her eyes and memory flooded her mind. "Irek.... Irek I told you, I told you I would have to....." But her words fell away unspoken. His darkness, vengeful and angry reached into her, clutching at her beating heart.
"I could kill you, Khaali," he said, delighting in the familiarity of her first name. "I have the power. You've given it to me. One wrong move....."
She gasped, suddenly unable to breathe as the heart muscle began to falter, as blood pounded heavy and lethargic against closing valves. There was an irregular, fluttering motion, as if a captive bird were caught within her chest. "Irek!" she cried, all defiance. But physical weakness won out, compelling her to weary knees. Even then, in submission, her back remained straight, head unbowed. "I will never give in........"
The pressure stopped. "You betrayed me." His voice turned petulant, a child wishing for a forbidden toy. "You want only him."
She gasped for breath and longed to retreat into the oblivion framed by sea grasses and unbearable sky. Instead, she was surrounded by Irek's aristocratic, commanding face; his cold, blue eyes; his greedy fingers. A haze of confused vision appeared in her mind and one word formed on her lips. "Who?"
The reply slipped through her hearing, the consonants silken, the vowels humming and low. "Skywalker," his voice replied as she felt herself slide back into a yawning pit. "You want Skywalker......."
Her fingers clutched at smooth, wet stone. There was a falling feeling, a sensation of tumbling from a endless height into a great, water shrouded depth. Her fingers slipped away and she heard herself screaming as she fell through a widening cave. Panic rose as the light retreated into a dim pinprick and then vanished.
Caught in the midst of her pounding heart, she found words, desperate words, to throw them back at him. "I'll never give him up! I will die before I........." The words echoed away, instantly cut off. She fought him, but her arms and legs were useless within the cold void. A sudden, assaulting stink rose up, enveloping her in an odor of death and a sinking, burdened hopelessness.
Then, there was a piercing light and she heard someone, a woman, screaming, words incomprehensible within the flat metal walls of the small room. The scream died to a humiliating whimper and she put out a hand. The edge of the bed felt smooth, cool and disarming through the tight darkness of shut eyes.
"Are you quite finished?" This was another familiar voice. She struggled to open her eyes, but they remained weighted, forced shut.
There was a whispering laugh. "Notyetnotyetnotyet..... " it breathed the words run together and intimate. "I am the Master now......."
"I've almost roused her, Admiral." Irek's voice.
Impatience cut through the room, a swift, sharp knife. "Confine your sadistic tortures to your own time, Irek. I need her conscious, now!"
A moment of tense silence played back and forth as Irek resisted. After a time, though, a sneaking cowardice gained hold and he relented. "As you wish, Admiral. But she's in no condition to talk."
Pellaeon gave Irek an irritated glance. "Or for anything else for that matter."
Irek replied nothing. The weights disappeared.
Slowly she pulled heavy lids open. She was prone, on her own bed. The artificial light was flat and mundane. The old fishing net hung motionless. She turned her head, her gaze moving upwards and back to see two men standing there. One was Irek, arrogant, hurt, pulsing with violent anger. The other was Admiral Pellaeon, who seemed carved out of ice. Her tongue fell over dry lips.
"Why.....?" Weariness called to her, a siren over the rustling ocean.
"Why, what?" Pellaeon's impatience was burning, dangerous. A rise colored his old man's words as he began to pace. Even in her weakened state, she recognized the perilous note in his voice. A shiver of fear raced through her, followed by a paralyzing, challenging unrepentance.
Irek's voice came through, following along. "You've been stunned, Khaali. You'll be fine after a couple of hours."
She put a hand up to her face and felt something sticky. Eyes closed and opened again as memory returned. "Where's Skywalker?" she asked, her voice stronger, her heart racing.
"In the Medical Center," Pellaeon replied, smooth as blue water in a summertime pond. "He's in a trance. He cannot, or will not, be roused."
She gave the Admiral a scornful look before closing her eyes again. "He tried to kill himself," she said through swollen lips.
Pellaeon stopped pacing and came to stand, weight securely on both feet, directly over her. "You drove him to it, Jedi," he said, contempt shading his smooth voice. "What in Azniath did you think you were doing?"
She smiled weakly and opened her eyes again. "I'm owe you nothing, old man," she whispered, her voice laced with venom and hatred. "I was the one who got him here, I'm the one he wants." Her pale smile was victorious. "If Irek had not interrupted us....."
Pellaeon stepped away quickly, as if her words were actual, flying weapons. "You almost turned him, you Jedi bitch....." The vulgarity was shining and harsh under the lowered lights. "I was very specific. Under no circumstances was Master Skywalker to be turned. He's useless if that happens."
Irek grinned. "How so, Admiral?" his voice the very manifestation of innocence.
Pellaeon gave him a contemptuous look and dismissed the next Emperor with hardened voice. "Thank you for calling this to my attention, Irek," he said with complete confidence. "You will be rewarded."
"I want my reward now," Irek replied immediately, the words following and hot.
Pellaeon's face settled like old stone, readying. "Yes?"
"I want Skywalker," Irek said, his voice rising as a tide of hatred swarmed within his soul like disturbed instectoids.
Pellaeon drew closer, willing calmness. "And what, precisely, are you going to do with Skywalker?"
Irek's face settled into an intelligent innocence but the words were somehow chilling. "I just want to talk to him, Admiral," he continued, reasonable enough. "I feel a kinship with him, the sort of thing that Jedi only feel with other Jedi. I thought perhaps I could learn something from him before Khaali, here, destroys him."
A red rage flushed through Pellaeon's iced eyes, causing the usually arrogant Irek to take a step backward. "I will give him to both of you, just as soon as his sister's government grants us what we want. After that, you..... both of you," he said, turning his gaze from one to the other, "can do with him what you wish." He turned back to the bloodstained woman on the bed, but his voice addressed both of them. "You, Jedi, are not allowed anywhere near him for the time being. He must be intact or his sister will not bargain. Is this understood?"
Khaali only gazed back, hatred, passion and intractability passing swiftly through her eyes. Irek, in contrast, was placating, nodding too quickly. "Yes, Admiral," he said, his voice smooth and oily.
At that, Khaali began to laugh. If there were replying words they were hidden by the bitterness, pain and rebelliousness of that rippling laughter. After an expectant moment, Pellaeon gave her an incredulous look and, perhaps hiding sudden misgivings, made for the door. It slid open and then shut again as the cold, humanoid presence of the Admiral vanished down the corridor.
There was a hanging silence as Irek let time slip a little, let it pool and congregate in the blank air. Then he came to stand over her, bending down to caress her bloody face. "You should rest, Khaali," he said, his voice ominous and tender.
She lost her smile and her eyes flashed antipathy. "Don't touch me," she said, reaching to push his hand away.
With one powerful blow he slapped it back. The sound reverberated, cruel and cutting. "I am the Master now, Khaali. I'll touch you whenever I please."
"You'll never have me," she replied, her tongue stumbling around the defiant words.
He gave her a look that promised violence but then stalked to the door. Stopping, he turned toward her, his words damning. "You will call me Master or you will die!" he whispered, his words creeping, soft and sly. She grimaced in pain as he raised a hand, long fingered and elegant. It moved as he shaped a vision in her head.
She began to writhe on the bed, clutching at her clothes. The pain entered deep; stabbing, burning. For an instant, on the cusp of a great, dark wave of unbearable existence, she wished herself dead. "He will die, Khaali," Irek said, cursing her. "And you will be the instrument. It will be your freedom." A quiet satisfaction entered the powerful voice. "And after that, I shall kill you." Her death sentence but somehow, somewhere, part of her soul greeted it with joy. "There is only room for one."
Her darkened soul rose to the fight as she struggled. "Never! He is too powerful," she murmured, words cut and slivered in the face of that crashing, black water.
His reply was laughter and, with a small movement of his hand, he returned her to the flat nothingness of oblivion. She struggled, one last moment, but her hands and feet were again entombed. Her body went limp on the bed.
Approaching her again he knelt beside her bedraggled form. Putting up a hand to her cheek, he loosed his nails on it, drawing fresh blood. With a knowing forefinger he streaked the pulsating liquid to her mouth and painted her lips with it. Then, in a graceful, hunting motion, he kissed the new blood. Her lips molded to his, warm, salty, compelling.
He stood, triumphant, licking his lips. "Now, you are mine," he said to her slack body. Then, with great purpose, he turned and vanished through the sliding door. The lights dimmed and she slept.
The former Admiral Pellaeon of the Old Imperial Navy was so angry he could barely find his way to his office. In a last gesture of self- control, he did not allow himself to slam down his fist on the comm console until the door was completely shut. A pulsed breath escaped him as he pushed away from the innocuous desk and came to a halt against a cold wall. Closing his eyes, he reached for a shred of sanity, of coherent thought. The door opened.
"Admiral?" Jelila Daala's plain face went from dispassion to astonishment. Her mouth was a mere parting of the lips, which she immediately pursed in vexation, switching a data pad from one hand to another and stopped her forward motion. A rushed surprise flashed and faded through eyes that had seen too much and her aging face was almost delicate with concern. "Admiral, are you well?"
He opened his eyes again. "Not entirely," he replied, words rasped. Slowly he made for a chair and sank into it. "She almost destroyed us, Jelila."
Daala blinked. The Admiral never used her first name. "Did she injure the Master?" she asked, a sarcastic edge easing into her tone.
He shook his head. "No, I don't think she's capable of it." He looked directly at his assistant, his confidant. "But I don't think any of us understood that until now."
Carefully, Daala put down the data pad on a clean table. "Are you saying she's not a Master?"
He allowed himself to laugh, a small snort of contempt. "Ah, Jelila......." He let the sounds roam about the room, willing serenity. "Do you know anything about Jedi?"
Daala scowled. "What are you getting at, Admiral?" Her voice was frayed with suspicion and, perhaps, hurt.
He laughed again, this time in sympathy. "Of course, I'm sorry. I've forgotten. You were almost destroyed by one...."
"Is there some purpose in bringing up the past?" She shifted with impatience, her words suddenly abrupt.
"Not that particular past." He drew breath. "No, I mean Jedi in general, their lore, their hierarchy, their teaching techniques. They were ancient when I was a child and I remember well how they and their ...... kind... dominated the Galaxy. "
She decided to play along. "I know nothing about Jedi, sir," she replied, perfectly composed.
He signaled her to sit. "Jelila, perhaps you should learn something about Jedi if you are to deal closely with them."
She took her seat, her physical training regimen evident in the supple grace that slid into the chair. "How so, Admiral?"
He smiled, but his eyes hardened again. "Khaali studied under Master Djinn, one of the last of the old masters. The only other I can readily recall was Kenobi's teacher, a non-human, Yoda. Master Yoda, however was very reclusive. Djinn was by far the most accessible of the two.
"That's very interesting," Daala put in, bored.
Pellaeon decided not to notice. "Master Djinn was one of the best the Jedi teachers of the modern era. His students held great renown, even those not strong in the Force. Khaali studied with him, served her apprenticeship under his tutelage. She may have been one of his best students."
Daala merely nodded and stifled the urge to yawn.
This time Pellaeon allowed himself to notice. "I'm sorry, I'm lost in times forgotten." His face was animated and alive and quickly she wondered that she had never seen this side of him before. "What I'm getting at is that she was one of the finest examples of a modern Jedi ever trained. The fact that she was able to cast her soul into the *Eye of Palpatine,* a feat well beyond most Jedi, proved that. She gave her life for her order."
"Not so, " Daala said, suddenly awake again. "She's alive."
"Yes, but in another's body. Remember how she came to us, weak, embittered, lost? Remember how we trained her, guided her, let her true gifts return?" He thought for a moment. "There was a price for her life and she's paid it."
"All I can remember is how she cursed us...." Daala began, scowling.
"She came of her own free will, we did not coerce her," he said, his face gray and serious.
"True, although, in my opinion, she should not have been allowed to live," Daala said, allowing a trace of bitterness to color her carrying voice.
Pellaeon stood. "We would never have been able to kill her, Jelila. She was too powerful for us, even then." He sighed and gave the room a studied glance. His eyes fell over the simple furniture and equipment, over the familiar data pads and reports. There was a touch of regret, of creeping sadness, of foreboding in his aging voice. "I never approved of this aspect of the plan, Jelila."
"I know that, Admiral."
He stood and paced to the comm console, fingering a toggle. "A Jedi brought down the Grand Admiral, a Jedi brought down the Emperor, brought down the Empire." A short silence punctuated this thought as it settled like fine dust over the room. "A Jedi will do the same to us, if we aren't careful."
She scowled. All traces of boredom fled from her expression to be replaced by puzzlement. "Are you saying you want to get rid of her?"
He sighed, still facing away from her. "I wish it were that simple. If not for Irek, I would order it immediately."
She stood, unable to stop a sudden rush of passion that flushed her face red. "I will do it myself, Admiral....."
He raised a hand. "Your self-sacrifice is noted with gratitude, Jelila, but it is misplaced here. She would kill you before you killed her. And that would be a waste."
She stopped, surprised, and gave him a half grin. "Why, thank you, Admiral."
He shrugged. "Otdjel is in need of loyal people. You've proven yourself over and over again, Jelila."
The grin became a smile. He grimaced and looked away. Smiling did not become her. "We thought she could be an instructor for Irek," he continued, letting an uncomfortable moment pass. "We had no other choice really. He needs a Master, someone to teach him to control his temper, his urges, his compulsions. And, at first, she herself was most pliable. I had hoped...." He paused, thinking. "I had hoped that her affair with Skywalker had not affected her deeply, that it came more from gratitude than passion. It seems I have miscalculated." He sighed and allowed himself to smile. "Up until recently, Khaali has done well, much better than we could have hoped. But now....." He hesitated and she noticed how fragile his aging face was as he frowned again. "Now, her method has become all too clear."
Daala was mystified. "Method?"
"It's obvious," he replied, a sigh of resignation stretching between them. "She's been controlling Irek through sensuality. One of his Irek's most pronounced weaknesses." He closed his eyes in disgust. "She's grown much more powerful since she's been with him, both on Rasclann and here. I believe that, in some way, she's been feeding off of him, drawing off of his power."
Daala lifted her eyebrows. "But how is that possible?"
Pellaeon smiled in a resigned way. "There are techniques..... She had good teachers. She's the only Jedi alive who had a Master worthy of the name."
This unexpected statement prompted an objection, a different train of thought. "But what about Skywalker? He is considered a Master. What about his training?"
"True, he had good teachers. He was with General Kenobi for a while and he's rumored to have studied with Master Yoda. But in both cases he was given no time. His truncated training has always given him trouble."
She frowned, not sure where he was going.
He caught her expression and backtracked. "Skywalker only knew General Kenobi for a short time, before Lord Vader killed him. And he was with Master Yoda only slightly longer. Lord Vader's trap at Bespin, if you'll recall, put an end to that. It seems," he continued, his voice pulling tight with conclusion, "that Master Skywalker has had almost no formal training whatsoever. And there's nothing more dangerous than a half trained Jedi."
"But.... but he's so powerful....." Jelila put in, wonder in her voice.
Pellaeon's face was a mask. "Yes, that's why he's so dangerous. He is more powerful than his father, or even the Emperor. He is the most powerful of all. Even Irek, with all his natural gifts, will never wield so much power."
Daala began to protest. "I don't understand, after Khaali's training, Irek should ....."
"Khaali didn't teach Irek anything." Pellaeon snapped, suddenly impatient. "She merely harnessed him, used him to lure Skywalker, used his Force gift. She never had any intention of seeing Irek on the throne. She's been after Skywalker all along."
Daala's face changed completely with realization and she made to rise, reflexively jerking at her blaster. "No, Jelila, not now," Pellaeon said gently, motioning her downward. "It is not yet time."
"But, Admiral, she's betrayed us."
The moment spun away in silence. His face moved in a strange, almost regretful, way and his native intelligence took over. "In a way, we have betrayed ourselves. We were willing ..... too willing." A shadow appeared over his lined face, a face that had seen too many battles, too many strategic failures, too many careful plots unravel. "I tried to warn the Committee, tried to convince them to move slowly. But between the Ismarens' promises and their own hunger for power, their longing for the exhilaration of the old days, it was no use. And now we're paying the price for it."
"What are you going to do with Skywalker?" she persisted. Her uncertainty made her nervous and a little impatient. She was tired of it, tired of all the swords and mysticism and talk about the Force. Where had it gotten them? What use was it?
Pellaeon smiled, a cruel smile, reading her thought. "If he's relatively unaffected by that incident in the theater, I'll keep him as a hostage." He paused, in thought. "But if he has turned, I would like to know now." Here he gave Daala a gleaming look. "Besides, if he has not, or if she attempts to turn him again, it is my assumption that he'll kill her. And that would save us all a great deal of trouble."
Daala's face whitened. She stood, her right hand now securely on the handle of her blaster, eyes blank with surprise. "Perhaps, you are correct, Admiral," she replied, forgetting herself. After all, the Master is probably the only one who can."
He smiled. "Of course. He defeated Khaali in a fair fight, after months of what, reportedly, has been a debilitating illness. And he defeated Irek in even less time. Of the three, he is the only one worthy of the name Jedi, formal training or no." He gave her a straight look. "Besides, Khaali, for all her betrayal, has perceived him correctly; he is flawed. He is impatient and has become arrogant over time, especially since the inception of his school." He shook his head. "General Kenobi was the same way. Pride and lust of power were his weaknesses." The smile became slightly more knowing. "The weaknesses of Anakin's firstborn son seem, however, to lie in another direction."
She scowled at him, an expression much more suited to her harsh face than smiling. Reflexively, he smiled back, liking her anger more than her concern. "Admiral, did I hear you correctly? You are relying on Jedi to find the truth. You hate Jedi."
He scowled back. "Your hearing is excellent. I want him dead, too, Jelila," he said, softly. "However, all prudent action is tied to the truth. And I will know the truth in this matter." He gave the wall a faraway look. "If experience is any guide, she has turned him."
Silence poured between them, all in one, rushed, realizing glimpse. Daala, not generally a visionary person, suddenly caught sight of the future, a future she might actually live to see. A gleam pulled her eye to his. "This would destroy his sister."
"It would destroy her government, once and for all." He drew into himself. "We must not lose sight of our true goal. His sister is the more formidable of the two. After all," a smile settled over his expression as he studied Daala's weather-beaten face, "we could kill Skywalker now and very little would change. But if we destroy his sister, that would change a great many things."
She removed her hand from the blaster and sighed in reluctant acceptance. A quick moment flew between them, eye met eye for a lost moment before she lowered her head. It was risky and tenuous but it seemed they had no other choice. Except defeat. And defeat, this time, was unthinkable. "I'll go check on the status of the prisoner," she said quickly, needing something concrete to accomplish.
He nodded, giving her permission. "Dismissed," he said, old habits returning. She rose and exited the room in smart, military fashion. The door slid open and closed behind her.
Pellaeon, alone, smiled at the space where she had been. The plan, as he had feared all along, had been in error. Fatally misconceived. But, there was no time for a new one. It was still viable, but the players had changed, had shown their true colors. Irek had turned out to be entirely predictable and if Roganda could keep him in line he would make a suitably frightening Emperor, terrifying window dressing for Otdjel's ruling influence. The only flaw, he reflected in a cold moment, was Khaali, whose weaknesses were now manifest. Her obsession had doomed her. He shifted in his chair. But, perhaps she could serve just one more purpose before she died.
It had already occurred to him that Skywalker, when he awoke from what the medical personnel described as a healing trance, would be most safely placed in Detention with his erstwhile lover. An alarm went off in his mind, but he had no other choice. Ysalamiri were quite rare and many died in transport. He had no reserve, none to spare. Almost all in his possession were in Detention now. And the only way to neutralize Skywalker was to keep him under a ysalamir cloak.
He sighed and turned to his message board. All in good time.
Luke Skywalker stood in a shadow. Quickly, wondering where he was, he glanced around but nothing answered his startled movement. Only the loud, vulgar sounds of tropical birds in the high trees betrayed life. Insects hummed and gathered in the dappled gloom, fading in and out of the underbrush like bits of bright, shifting glass. Wings buzzed, iridescent lace, under the canopy that makes up a living jungle. He studied the faraway sun and concluded it was morning.
He looked down at himself. He was dressed in his blacks. They were fresh, showing no trace of dirt or dampness. His head jerked up again and he gazed around, wondering how he had come to be standing alone in the middle of a wilderness. A bird came at him, brushing his cheek and causing him to pivot, off balance, in a circle. The underbrush parted as he stumbled to his knees, his weight intrusive and noisy.
Pulling himself to his feet, he watched the bird flap lazily back to its high perch. Bright and obnoxious, the species was known for its fearlessness. It fluffed a blue feather or two and merely regarded him in uncharacteristic silence. Then, as if it were a signal, it made a harsh sound, its cry echoing up through the latticed canopy into the unforgiving sky. Luke put his heels down in the damp vegetation and squinted into the distance.
There was a tall rock formation directly within his line of sight, about 10 meters of bewildered path away. Luke wasn't sure, but he thought he could see a human settled there, and a certain sense told him the human was expectant, waiting for something. Giving the vaguely familiar terrain one last glance and realizing there was nothing for it, he began to walk.
His feet squished through the mud of the small, almost obliterated path as he approached. The figure now appeared wizened and bent, an old man frail against the crumbling, overgrown rock. Luke's pace picked up. But the man made no sign or movement that he was aware of another's presence, leaving Luke to wonder if the figure itself was simply an illusion.
The path had become steep. As he neared, the bird called again, pulling Luke to a stumbled halt. His breath was hard and sweat poured down his face. He longed to strip off his tunic but something told him, somehow, that would not be appropriate. A whispering of feathers fluffed through the air and beat away as Luke studied the fragile being in front of him.
The figure made no movement and only glistening eyes spoke of life. "Who..... who are you?" Luke asked, his words weary and edged with suspicion.
"Master Altis Djinn," the figure replied succinctly, as if it were sitting in a cool study somewhere instead of an ovenlike jungle.
Luke willed away a sensation of breathlessness and something clicked in his mind just as words formed on his lips. "Why have you come to Yavin, Master?" He smiled. Yavin, that was it. He was on Yavin.
Master Djinn seemed to give the query some consideration, along with a slow look in Luke's direction. "Jedi Skywalker, you have come a long way. Perhaps you should sit."
Questions formed in Luke's mind like thin foam on the lips of a dying man but he swallowed his words and sat. An unusual silence sliced through the pulse of the jungle and there was a sense of profound expectancy. Luke prepared himself to wait, but a familiar, rising impatience began to wash through him, reaching the shores of reason. He closed his eyes, opening them when he sensed a mental probe.
"Have you come in humility, in purity of heart?" the Master asked. It was the Jedi penitential exercise. Luke knew it well and something inside of him froze. The Master's voice was venerable but was in no way weak or fragile. In fact, its casual power pushed through the intertwined trees, the words clear and distinct.
Luke hung his head and held back a burning shame. "I have, Master."
The Master did not move but it seemed to Luke that the old man began to grow in size. The voice changed and acquired a menacing edge. "Where is your purity, Jedi? Your longing for truth? I sense only passion and desire."
Luke took refuge in defiance. "I came in honesty," he protested. "I have not turned, despite...."
"Despite Callista of Chad," Djinn replied, his serious face settling into a remembering mode. "She is powerful, is she not?"
A feeling of overwhelming sorrow welled up through Luke's body and he felt moisture gather in his lowered eyes. A silence passed as he pulled at the loose threads of his soul, fingering the tattered edges. His voice was tortured. "She has turned, Master," he said, ruefully. But he could not stop a secret thrill, a delight that scrambled through him, like rats before a fire.
The Master was not blind. "You risk the Dark side, Jedi!" he warned, his disapproval terrible despite a businesslike, neutral tone. "False humility is worse than no humility at all!"
Luke lifted his face to see that the old man was trembling and a gnarled hand released a distinctive walking stick, carefully leaning it against an outcropping. Djinn leaned forward, staring directly into Luke's eyes and it seemed as if a great, crushing hand came down upon Luke's soul, pressing upon it, filling it with light that illuminated the scurried, hidden secrets of darkness. And in Djinn's merciless light he began to see, for the first time since he had met Callie, the magnitude of his folly. He saw their history together in one long flash; saw himself speaking to her ghostly presence on the Eye of Palpatine, he saw her as she first was when she returned to mortality again, frail and trembling. He saw her within the confines of an airless ship, lost in an eternity of space, biding out her small time and deciding upon death. A part of him realized that her death at that time would have redeemed her, redeemed them both.
Luke lowered his eyes again, the revelations piercing his soul. He wondered at his own naiveté, amazed at the power of love to blind even Jedi. "I loved her," he said, after a rustling silence of jungle grasses moving in a small, hot breeze. "I never meant to hurt her, to take her soul," he continued even as the light began to scour through the corners of his mind. It washed over his impatience, his desire to turn to toward darkness. And underlying it all there was the ordinary, mundane but searing pain of existence, almost unbearable. "I have failed, Master...." Luke whispered finally, anguish hanging in the air between them. These were the bare bones of truth.
The Master's voice became compassionate. "This is not entirely your fault, Jedi," he said, his voice settling like a balm over Luke's split and shattered soul. The Master's words were sensible and comforting. "She chose her own path, she has her own destiny. Ultimately, she alone, is responsible for herself." He smiled down at Luke's bowed head. "It is a burden we must all bear during our corporeal life."
Luke's reply was shameful. A feeling passed through him, a perplexed confusion. Surely he was not saying this about Callista, beloved Callista. "She has attempted to turn me as well, Master," Luke said, lifting his gaze.
The Master's serenity continued to flow, unabated. "She cannot turn you if you have not already chosen it." The old man paused as a flock of birds took flight, frenzied wings beating heavily in the sultry air. "Have you so chosen?"
Crushed plants sprang back to knee high as Luke came to his feet. But his shame pulled him around, making him unable to face the Master. He closed his eyes and fought roiling emotions for control. An ocean of temptation rose before him, promising power beyond imagining, pleasure for an eternity, an end to his heartache and incompleteness.
He longed for that place, he could feel his senses open to it, creep into its compelling borders. He sampled the lovely, pleasured shores of it and wanted nothing more than oneness with it. He knew he was wrong, but he also knew that these were his true feelings, that he wanted this. He opened his eyes, fighting back and just as he did the jungle opened up. As if called, the figure of his father rose up before him, not as Anakin Skywalker, but as Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith and Master of the Darkside.
Luke stood perfectly still as the figure paced through the black, jungle shadows, pantherlike in the sun shadowed gloom. The figure moved with confidence and certitude, its strides long and sure over the soft ground. The cape swirled, its cold highlights picked at by stray light particles. The respirator mechanism was loud over the surrounding undercurrent of birdcalls and breezes.
Luke awaited him, awaited the evil being his father had been for most of his life, awaited the pain and pleasure this being offered. Soft laughter rippled away. Was it Callie's laughter? But it was distant, lost somehow. In passing, Luke wondered if he was only remembering it.
Lord Vader stopped, his cloak flowing into stillness. Sunlight gleamed off his helmet, his breastplate showed ebony and polished within the layered, green jungle. The dead eye sockets, sensors for the mangled being within, were flat.
"Why have you come, Father?" Luke asked, his words sunk in wariness. Impatience rose again. He had already fought this evil, he had already put it away and here, once more, was his father, seeking in an eternal gesture, to take his son back to the cavern of shadows. But, Luke had been able to save him once. A younger, purer Luke. An arrogance filled him and he stepped forward, mechanical hand outstretched.
At that moment the sunlight moved. A shaft of pure, white energy lanced down through the trees. It disturbed the birds and their wings were ominous against the breezeless undercurrents. Lord Vader stood as if made of stone for one limitless moment before melting into the gloom from whence he came. But, it seemed to Luke, just before he vanished, vanquished once again, that he held out a beckoning, or perhaps it was a forbidding, hand.
Luke strode forward to take it, to pull his father, once again, out of the abyss. Or was it to accompany him? But, he could only watch, impotent as always, as Lord Vader was devoured by fierce sun and relentless heat.
Filled with shame but too weak, too uncertain to fight it anymore, he gathered his courage and made to face the Master. Djinn now had every right to strike him down, to put an end to Luke's pitiful Jedi dreams. It was his duty. Luke closed his eyes and pivoted.
But, when he turned, he found Djinn had vanished. Instead, Callie lay at his feet, statue-like as if in death. He gazed down at her helpless body, sorrowful and guilt-ridden. So powerful before, almost omnipotent, able to leap the eternity of distance and time, now she seemed only a fragile woman, bruised and battered as she fought to find her way back to the Force.
After a moment, he knelt beside her, taking her cold, limp hand in his. She made no reaction. "What am I to do now?" he whispered to her, wallowing in his grief. "I have driven you to the Dark side........"
His breath stopped as her eyes opened and a stranger gazed at him, serene, but trapped. "You must help me," the lips said slowly, the words unnatural and deep. "I am lost," the voice said, a voice he had never heard before. "You are lost. We must be redeemed."
He clutched at her hand even harder. "Callie, come back with me, I will not fall if you are with me! I can save you..." But to his sorrow, the eyes closed again, unwilling, as if her soul had been dragged back into the condemnation of an unredeemed death. He released her hand and, grabbing her by the shoulders, shook her. But there was no reaction, no flickering of movement, no hint of resistance. Only cold, white death, stiffening on the ground before him.
"No, Callie, not like this.... Don't go! I can't hold out if you go......" His bereaved voice died to hopelessness, becoming inaudible against the background of uncaring life.
"Think, Jedi," Master Djinn's voice suddenly surrounded him, seeming to emanate from the very stuff of the air. "What were you trained to do?" Momentarily confused, Luke glanced around, squinting for the old man's figure. But only sunlight and stifling heat greeted him, laced with incessant birdcall.
Luke stopped his fruitless search of the shadowed jungle and turned back to study Callie's beautiful face for a long moment. The Force told him she was in pain. "I was trained to remain always with the Light," he replied, leaning to push away dark hair from her brow and caressing her scratched face. His voice was suddenly simple and childlike, as he allowed himself to be led by the Master.
"Good, Jedi." The voice expressed a distant satisfaction. "You have held to your vow and remained pure so far." There was a pause, a gentle closing of the door. "She was once as you are now, deciding and strong," the ancient Master said, his voice fading. "You have chosen your path well, but she has not. Now she has weakened and cannot find her way back. You must help her."
Luke closed his eyes and swallowed. "I cannot....." he began, whispering in the midst of a rising cacophony of calling birds and humming insects.
"You must," was the drifting reply. A flash of blue feathers flitted at the tops of the grass, and it waved like restless green water.
He resisted. "But...... I cannot help her, she has chosen! You yourself have said .....!"
Djinn was hypnotic and commanding. "She must not die unredeemed." A swift cloud blanketed the sun and then moved away, leaving Luke's face bathed in harsh, glaring light. He straightened and saw, in one unblinking moment, all he had forsaken, lost before it was ever gained and the knowledge of it gnawed at his very being. He concentrated, trying to block out the dead Master, unwilling to hear anymore. But it was no use. The drifting voice was soft but implacable. "You must finish what you started," it said, as it faded away, lost forever in the pooling currents of the afterlife.
He gazed around.. The quiet grass called, a soft voice heard under a comforting breeze. Having nowhere else to go, he lay down beside the cold body of Callie, a gesture of defeat and acceptance. Gradually, as the sun crept across the sky, he kept vigil, watching as her body faded, as if it were being spirited away by nothing more than the breeze. His heart was heavy but he could only watch her go, knowing that all gestures were futile. And, as she retreated into her original incorporeal existence, the last of her essence, the part of her he had known from the beginning, left lingering comfort in his heart.
"You are weary, Luke." It was her voice at last, timbered, soft and pure, the oceans of Chad fleetingly pictured in her slight inflection. "Now you must sleep."
And he did.
Medical Center, Byss
Irek Ismaren walked, quick and silent, into the Medical Center. A Two Onebee droid gave him a gimlet look. He addressed it with contempt. "Where's Skywalker?"
The droid was irritating in an inanimate sort of way. "He is in a restricted area," it said. "Visitors are prohibited."
Irek gave the mechanical apparition a sordid look. The proper schematic appeared in his mind and the medical droid began to blink in distress. "What did you say?" he demanded, his voice now pointed and dangerous.
The droid dropped its instrument and moved away from him. But it was too late. Swiftly it was lashed into muteness as it struggled. Moments later it was dead, its awkward limbs useless and hanging. Irek gave the inoperative pile of new junk a shrug. "That's what you get for resisting," he muttered as he headed back into the restricted area.
Skywalker was prone on a diagnostic bed. Respirator tubing hung as if it had just been disconnected. Irek approached and noted the older man's clothing was worn, that his face was lined and the hair, which had one time been the color of light sand, was now only dull brown. One hand lay on the bed beside him, the other, the right hand, had been placed on his stomach. It was singed about the wrist and there was a hint of sophisticated micro-technology as it lay inert, all the more subtle and powerful for its seeming acquiescence. The rise and fall of lungs betrayed life and, perhaps, consciousness.
Irek halted, boots noiseless on the shiny floor. Nevertheless, Skywalker's head came up, his face a little startled, puffy with sleepy confusion. He pushed himself up, his eyes coming to full alertness in the time it takes to blink. Irek put up a hand.
"Master Skywalker," Irek said, his tone cursed and contemptible. "I've heard a great deal about you."
Luke gave this strange, young man a long, studied look. "Who are you?" he asked, his voice still cracked and hoarse, an aftereffect of blaster fire. Irek replied nothing, momentarily transfixed. Something about the Master's eyes, the way they flickered in the flat light, were a flashing portrait of paradox; innocent but knowing, prophetic but immediate, light shadowed and defined by darkness.
Irek, who was just beginning to understand how charismatic this understated person was, inclined his head slightly. His mother's training came into play. "I am Irek Ismaren," he replied, assured and arrogant.
Luke closed his eyes, a cold, shuddering running up his spine. "And you have come to kill me," he said quietly.
"Not so fast, Jedi Skywalker," Irek said quickly, shifting his weight and gesturing gallantly to the room. "Your lightsaber has been taken to a safe place. You are defenseless."
Luke swung his legs over the side of the high bed and let his booted feet dangle. The movement was oddly graceful, even assured, and Irek took a step back. Luke fixed Irek with a faintly, familiar gaze. "And are you willing to give it back to me, just to even it out?" His eyes flickered, registering intelligence and wit. "Even if you don't, I'm not exactly defenseless. There are no ysalamiri here."
Irek's face flashed a grin, this teeth shining as the expression became a mere grimace. "They wanted you to heal yourself, Jedi," he hissed. "You'll be in Detention, and cut off, soon enough."
Luke put his palms down on the edge of the bed and leaned into his arms. "Then, you're not here to kill me?" he asked, the timbre of his voice low and searching.
Irek blinked. "I cannot...... yet," he replied ominously but with a creeping undercurrent of uncertainty. "You must go back to Khaali first."
Luke nodded, mystified. "Why?"
"Because we wish it," came the reply.
Luke's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure we've never met?" Another studied silence. "You seem familiar somehow."
Irek threw back his head and laughed, a terrifying sound. Luke remained immobile as the rolling voice echoed off the bland walls. "I've met your....... sister," Irek said finally after indulging in a rasping breath. Luke winced and a fleeting, disturbing picture of his father came and went, fading into the dangerous laughter.
"I know, she told me," Luke replied slowly. There was something here, something he should know, but he was unable to put his finger on it. The feeling slid through his fingers, to be consumed by a raging subconscious.
"Then she must have told you I wanted to kill her." A wicked smile. "I almost did."
Leia's face appeared briefly in Luke's mind, animated and smiling. Involuntarily, he smiled but his face pulled taut as her's faded to morbid paleness, grave markers casting shadows over it. Luke cut his thoughts short as his feet hit the floor, pushing away hopelessness. "She defeated you," he said, advancing a stride and putting his right hand to his belt. "You tried to weave a spell of Father, on Belsavis, but she saw through you."
This time Irek's laugh was but a short ripple in the air between them. "Not before I scared her out of her small wits! Although she did exhibit exceptional intelligence in that she was suitably frightened of Lord Vader."
Luke's voice came up a notch. "Lord Vader is dead," he said, his tone now flat and antagonizing. "He can no longer harm her."
"That's what you think, Skywalker," Irek rejoined, suddenly pulsing with power. And, as if he had been standing there all along, Darth Vader appeared, life-size and life-like, moving in his studied, elegant but ponderous way. Luke gasped, not expecting the fearsome reality of the vision, the raw power exhibited in the detail and precision of the black cape and flawless helmet. "Here he is, Skywalker. Perhaps, you'd like a few words with your father."
Luke fought to remain motionless. "My father is dead, Irek," he said after a time. His voice was cold.
The figure of Vader never faded. "As you wish. Perhaps, I should conjure up my father also." And even before the sound of his words had a chance to fade into the walls, The Emperor appeared, wizened and terrifying, golden eyes unnatural but compelling and powerful. The figure of Palpatine raised its right hand and, involuntarily, taken by an old memory, Luke stepped backward.
"What's the point, Ismaren?" Luke questioned, his voice hiking. He called on the Force for serenity and fought his weakened body for control.
"You shall be with them soon," Irek replied, wrapped in unassailable, youthful confidence. "You are right. I am going to kill you. When I am Emperor," here the figure of Palpatine flicked away, "I will tolerate no rivals."
It was Luke's turn to laugh. "What makes you think I want to be like the Emperor?" But secretly, in his mind, Khaali's seductive voice whispered in creeping tendrils of thought. And a vision appeared unbidden, a memory of oppression, wars and eternal hatred. He willed it away.
Irek merely stood for a moment and Luke, whose field of vision retained both Irek and the figure of Vader, saw how the two moved in the same way, how the distinctive head and hand movements were strangely similar. The figure of Vader stilled to motionlessness as the young man began to lose concentration. Irek's voice was knowing, ripping like a predator through Luke's secret thought. "She offered it to you, didn't she? That...."
Luke's hand came up, halting the other mid-sentence. "I did not accept," he said, eyeing Vader.
Nonetheless, you must die. I'll have no rivals."
Luke's brow furrowed in fleeting puzzlement. "What do you......" Then an image rose through his mind, of his hands on her face, of her lips rounding to his, the sensation of her heart pounding as he..... He closed his eyes, the picture suddenly all too clear. "We did nothing, Irek," he said, his voice dangerous but quiet. "She is still yours."
Irek took a step forward and melted into the figure of Vader. For a moment, both of them were there, occupying the same place at the same time and then, as if a light had been cut off, the image of Vader disappeared. "You had your hands on her, Skywalker. You desire her. You cannot live."
Incredulity crept into Luke's voice. "You mean that's what this is about? Jealousy?!" To Irek's creeping astonishment, Luke began to laugh, scorn resounding off the walls, releasing a primitive competitiveness. "You..... you're nothing but a child! She's loved me since the Eye!" He was rewarded by Irek's frown at the mention of the name. "She's called me all the way from Yavin, just to be with her, to be her Emperor." Here he pulled into himself, ready and alert. "She will always desire me, Irek, no matter if I live or not."
Irek stepped forward and his movement was suitably soft, ponderous and menacing. A grating, rasping sound rose in Luke's mind but vanished as he tried to identify it. "She can never love you, Skywalker," Irek hissed. "How could she? You are weak and childish. You teach Jedi, you call yourself a Master, but you are no Master. All your Jedi have been killed, bested by the Darkside! You......" He drew breath, gathering curses. "You are a failure! You are General Kenobi's failure, Master Yoda's failure....." He gestured with his hand. "Your father's failure." He laughed, delighted with his own damning eloquence. "You fail because the Jedi failed. They will always fail!"
Irek's hand stopped in mid-motion, ready to call his lightsaber. Robotic breaths murmured back into Luke's hearing, pushing and loud in the corner. The disconnected respirator had somehow returned to life. At the same time, the saber slid into Irek's palm and long fingers closed around the handle. In a threatening motion, he activated it and it rose, almost of its own accord, over Luke's head.
But Luke was ready and with a Force blow, knocked it away. Irek's arms swung wide in an attempt to retrieve it. "I thought you weren't going to kill me, Irek!" Luke shouted, retreating. "Remember, Otdjel wants....."
Irek managed to catch the swinging saber and stilled, temporarily, as surprise echoed between them. "Sometimes, Otdjel doesn't know what's good for it!" he growled, beginning a lethal, downward swing.
Luke put up both hands and the blade fell into motionlessness as, for a moment, two sets of blue eyes met, lethal and searching. A timelessness took hold. But then, Luke jerked away as Irek spat in his face. "She's mine, Skywalker!"
A savage grin lit Luke's profile. "No, Irek," he replied, putting the boy in his place, "she's mine!"
A flush of rage caused Irek's hands to tremble as he pulled the saber back, readying for the killing blow. "You bastard! I'll kill....."
"Not if I can help it," Luke rejoined instantly, his voice cracking with the strain. The saber slashed down between them, almost taking Luke's hands with it. It was only at the very last second that he pulled them away and pivoted, moving quickly so that the bed was between them.
The respirator exploded in a distracting burst of oxygen and circuitry and Vader's voice seemed to permeate the room. Luke gazed around, looking for the source of the strange sound. And when his eyes returned to man level, Irek was there.
Irek advanced again, the blade taking part of the bed. The odor of burning synthetics was stifling and noxious gases began to rise through the room. Luke coughed, retching, his lungs suddenly poisoned by the gas. But all the same there was realization there, and clear vision. It was as if the smoke cleared away and, for a moment, the room was pristine, light, free.
And then the walls closed in on them again, but Luke looked upon it with new eyes. "Irek....... Irek you must listen....." he rasped, moving away from the bed, away from the drifting smoke.
"Surrendering, Skywalker?" came the sly reply.
Luke choked again and then regained his voice. Pulling himself together, he began a roundabout circuit, making for the door. "No.... you don't understand...."
Irek was confident now. The Master was on the run. He would relish killing Skywalker and delivering the head to Khaali. Who would be the better man, then? The saber dipped a little. "Understand what?"
Luke stopped his meandering motion and the room seemed to still into a concerted, unified silence. Even Irek himself, agitated and joyful, held to the moment, remaining where he was. The only sound was that of the lightsaber.
"Who was your father, Irek?" Luke said, his breathing beginning to steady.
Irek did not the like the new expression on Skywalker's face. A suspicious puzzlement began to sour his killing joy. "Palpatine, of course...." he replied, making to raise the sword again.
Luke stalled for time. "Wait! Before you kill me, you must know....."
"Know what?" Irek was smiling, seeing only the death of a vaunted rival.
"Who your father was," Luke was weak but he knew he had to tell the boy, had to tell him who he really was.
"Haven't you been listening, Skywalker?!!" The irritation was lethal. "You bastard.... I'll see you dead!"
Luke put up a solid hand, the left one. It trembled slightly. "I'm not the bastard, but I think," and here he paused, giving the young man across from him a haunted look, "you are."
"Of course, the Emperor never took a wife....." Irek began, spitting in impatience.
"I wasn't speaking of the Emperor," Luke said, this time very quiet.
Something about Skywalker's voice froze Irek's heart. A motionlessness assailed him, paralyzing his weapon.
"I was speaking of Vader."
Very gently, almost tenderly, Luke spoke, his tone wondering. "Lord Vader was..... was your father and I....." he gestured slightly with his hands, "I am your brother."
Irek lowered the sword so that it almost touched the floor. "No, that's impossible," he said, so shocked that his voice was perfectly normal. "You can't be.... he wasn't....."
An echo of old words, accursed words, pummeled through Luke's soul. He stretched out his right hand. "Search your feelings, son," he said, his voice suddenly powerful, "you know this to be true."
The saber came up again. "You're not trapping me with a lie, Skywalker!" The sword point approached Luke's undefended chest. "You just want Khaali all to yourself!" The power of the Force roiled through the boy, forcing Luke backwards. "She will never...." Luke felt the wall against his back. "She will never love some motherless castoff!"
Like a rising tide of water before a storm, something in Luke rose to the defense of a woman he had never known, had never once seen, even in dreams. "Sonof.....!" Luke yelled, forcing the blade back with his bare hands. "You're Vader's son, the son of darkness! You are cursed.....!"
The lightsaber pushed through Luke's barriers and he found himself at the limit of his defensive maneuvers. He gathered his concentration, willing the blade back but the boy was powerful, extremely powerful. A certain sense of ending began to haunt his heart but he refused to give in, only struggled with the saber as it pushed its way through his barriers. Irek was readying for his last swing when something pulled him up, mid-swing. It was the sound of familiar laughter, cascading around a small phrase carried through the room on the wings of a clear, military voice.
"That'll be quite enough, boys!" It was Daala, come to check on the prisoner.
A frozen moment grabbed hold and, taking advantage of the distraction, Luke pushed himself away from the wall with all his strength and rolled through Irek's feet, causing the young man to topple. From the floor, Irek gazed at Daala. And Luke, defeated again, pulled himself up from the floor on the other side, following his brother's gaze. This was prudent, for Daala held a very lethal blaster at the both of them, her hands steady and sure.
"Put down your weapon!" she commanded, motioning to Irek.
Irek resisted. "No, he's insulted Khaali, .... and Mother..."
To their surprise, she burst out laughing and the words that followed were contemptuous and piercing. "You pitiful boy!" A lover's revenge flashed through her dark eyes, like heat lightening on a clouded night. "All this over a whorish concubine and a streetwalker Jedi!" Then she leveled her gaze and let forth a killing blow. "You're Vader's alright. They've got proof!" she snorted, her contempt a palatable thing. "And as for Khaali, the little Jedi's obsessed with Skywalker here! Haven't you noticed?" Irek's face contorted in rage and Luke, looking from one to the other, recoiled at the dark heart suddenly laid open.
The young man's reason began to break down and his next words were uttered in a full throated scream. "No.... it's not true!" he said, the sound scoring the walls. Reflexively, Luke covered his ears. Equipment began to implode, a whirlwind rose instantly in the middle of the room, and debris became projectiles thrown with insane velocity. All hearing was obliterated.
Daala closed her mouth tight and ducked to the floor. Quickly, she took cover behind one of the still intact beds, only her occasional glance around the corner showing that she was there at all. But she needn't have worried. Irek was enraged and his rage seemed to be directed at the entire galaxy, rather than just the puny beings in the Medical Center. With grace and competence, Daala studied the situation, looking for a way out. She began to realize that Skywalker was yelling something at her. But such was the din echoing through the room, she was unable to hear his words. She only saw his lips moving.
Luke, realizing she was unable to hear him, went for her mind. She stilled in amazement, eyes wide, as his voice became audible from within. "Shoot him, Daala!" Luke urged. "Or he will kill us both!"
"Why should I help you, Jedi?" came the defiant answer, black hatred flooding her suspicious heart.
"Do you want to live?" the voice rejoined, presenting a final, compelling reason.
"Stupid question!" was the answer. And without any hesitation whatsoever, she fired the blaster. But it was too late. Blaster fire hung flashed, a fleeting moment caught in a dark grip. Then the red blade came forward and pushed it away, as if it were but bits of frozen glass. And then, the weapon was pulled roughly out of her hand, bruising her fingers.
Irek smiled, now in the cross-hairs of a black rage. He raised his saber again, but the blaster skittered across the debris-strewn floor, coming to life as Luke reached for it. Irek yelled, a cry of death, and swung the blade.
Luke went into action as the blade made for his throat and fired. Using the Force, he punched a hole into Irek's shield. Breathing hard, he watched as his brother fell into a crumpled heap of dark clothing and tumbling lightsaber. He reached for the magical blade and it answered his summons, aching over the room and into his hand, smooth and obedient.
The blade shimmered as he held to it, its hum loud again in the suddenly silent room. Luke was now confident, armed and battle ready. His blue eyes glistened fiercely under the smoked lights. Smiling a grim warrior's smile he turned to Daala.
But, to his surprise, she made no move to back off, only held still and regarded him with something like irony. "Well done, Jedi," she said, her face schooled and her voice even. But he knew her heart was racing.
"Let me go," he said into the silence. "I have not turned and I will not help your cause."
She remained motionless and silent, the power of his presence falling through her soul like an avalanche. She wondered how she could have ever thought Irek more than a child. Even Khaali retreated into apprenticeship as the full strength of his mind bit through her mental defenses. 'Pellaeon was right,' she thought, wondering why she was so surprised.
"Whether you fall or not is of no concern to me, Jedi," she said, outwardly matching his calmness. "I think that you are not finished here."
He let the moment pass and said simply, "I must take Khaali back with me. She belongs to me."
Daala laughed, once again contemptuous. "Such nobility! You're everything your reputation says you are, Skywalker!" But then her voice turned hurtful and he began to realize her hatred for Callie was personal. "She would sacrifice you in a moment if she thought it would gain her something!" That said, she stopped and gave him an uncertain look. "She's not worthy of you, Skywalker."
"Worthiness is not the issue here," he said, implacable. He deactivated the lightsaber but held the blaster steady. She faced it with unblinking courage. "I have come for her. You will take me to her and we will go."
Daala did not move. "She'll never go back. You will have to kill her."
Her words, uttered in spite, cut at his heart and the blaster dropped a fraction. "If I must, I will," he replied, although he seemed suddenly shadowed. A foreboding rose through the room, a living, breathing creature. The respirator, completely dead only moments before, breathed once, sparked and caught fire. Searing heat made him step away, glancing backwards.
That was the opening Daala had been waiting for. Without warning, a tribute to her early training on Carida, she threw herself at him, pushing him into the fire. Reflexively he rolled but not before he loosed the blaster. It tumbled between them as he tried for his feet.
She continued away and came to a sure footed stance, the blaster securely in her hand. He pulled at the saber but another cloud of gas overpowered his lungs and, with a horrible rasp, he choked. He fell to his knees, unable to breathe, the lightsaber still unlit, reaching for her. But she took advantage of the clearer air near the doorway and before he could wrest the thing from her hand, fired.
The saber reached one last time, but his fingers fell away, his hand limp. It rolled masterless as he collapsed onto the floor.
The room settled, smoking and disheveled. Two brothers lay at opposite ends of the floor, as if posed, right arms extended toward the other. Holding her breath, she headed into the poisoned atmosphere of the room, scooped up the deactivated saber, the blaster and retreated to the comm console.
"Security to Med Center! Fire Hazard!" She coughed and caught her voice again, just in time. "And bring ysalamir, fast!"
And then, in the quickness born of the very real possibility one or both would tap into the Force and fight his way back to consciousness, she retrieved an injector and expertly set it. Braving the fumes, fighting the smothering smoke, she injected both of them with massive amounts of a sleeping drug.
Irek made no movement but Skywalker's hand lifted and curled around her wrist as if to ward her off. In a fit of superstitious fear she pushed the thing into his neck and then backed away to stand by the door.
At that moment, security trooped through. Hearing them arrive, she turned and fled the medical area, holding her blaster down along her side. She was afraid to replace it in the holster lest that small motion betray her uncontrollably trembling hands. Knowing Pellaeon would be informed, she made for her quarters and as the door closed behind her, her nerveless fingers finally dropped the weapon onto the floor. She followed it and sat, in the middle of the room, in teeth chattering silence, rubbing her wrist where Skywalker had touched her, shivering and contemplating the Admiral's reaction.
According to plan, Khaali was placed in Detention. Pellaeon, his crafty mind moving with its usual elegance, wanted information and control. Detention, laced cleverly with the precious ysalamiri, was the perfect place to obtain both.
They had given her something comfortable to wear and allowed her to clean up. Her hair was again braided into a thick, dark column against her elegant neck. Her face and hands were clean and pale, the scratches on her cheeks stinging, but the gash on her forehead no longer hurt. She wondered if it would scar, but then turned away from the clouded mirror, the thought gone, eyes weary.
She was in a non-descript, maximum security cell, her nightmares of Irek finally stilled. Her mind was curiously empty and she realized with a sinking feeling that the Force was gone. Suddenly she felt cold and with clumsy hands reached for a rough blanket.
A sudden noise in the corridor, beyond the security field, caused her to stop mid-movement, startled. She lay down and watched in helpless amazement as the guards escorted Luke Skywalker to the cell. Motioning her not to move, one of them keyed off the security field. Without further ceremony, Luke was pushed in. He stumbled but held his feet, the right hand, showing signs of a recent fight, rubbing the left wrist.
An eagerness took hold as she sat up on the bunk, simultaneously graceful and awkward. He only gazed steadily at her booted feet. A moment stretched between them as one of the guards made an off color joke and the rest of them answered with raucous laughter. The squadron retreated, congratulating each other and giving the Jedi in the cell suggestive looks.
She ignored them and moved to stand, putting a hand up against the top bunk as she did so, her long fingers spreading in an unconsciously precise motion over the dilapidated bedding. He remained perfectly still.
"Luke!" she said with great joy and, perhaps, a creeping relief. "Are you all right?"
This prompted a wry smile and he lifted his face. His voice was stretched and thin. "For a man who almost succeeded in committing suicide, I think I'm doing pretty good."
She made a small forward motion, standing. Instantly, he stepped backward. "Callie, we shouldn't......" he began.
"Shouldn't touch each other?" She smiled, her face simple and good natured. "Why, Luke? Don't you want to be with me?"
He gave the tired cell a weary, encompassing look. "Callie, don't you see?" he said, knowing she didn't. "They want you to turn me, except, maybe, for Irek....." A quick look to see her reaction. "He wants only to kill me."
She smiled, her face open and her words brisk. "Why shouldn't he? He and I...... well, let's just say we've become very close." Her voice became settled and confiding. "I don't care about him ........ I never have. You're the one I want." Then her tone changed, filling with passion and hunger. Her eyes were lit with the longings of a hundred nights alone, awake and wondering within blank stillness. Her voice fell to a whisper. "I've been waiting so long, Luke, too long....."
With an effort, he ignored the seductive swell of her cheek against a tendril of dark hair and how shadows had crept over her slender but strong shoulders. The scratches looked painful and the gash had been inexpertly tended. An old memory told him it would scar and, for a moment, he felt nothing but compassion for her. His heart hardened. "If you think I'm going to fall for that one again, especially in a detention cell," he said, fixing her with sharp, reminding eyes, "you're mistaken."
She was undeterred, her face animated and quick. "It's true," she said, her voice never changing, never losing a beat. "You still love me. You would have stayed away, stayed with your sister, if you hadn't." She paused, eyes suddenly calculating, considering the words. Her voice was low, forbidden. "You love her too, don't you? You've always loved her."
This prompted a paleness in his face she did not think possible in such a fair person. His eye sockets were positively deathly. Without warning he stepped forward and grabbed her wrist with his powerful, mechanical hand. "Don't ever say that again, Callie, or I swear......" His teeth unclenched as his voice became a whispered snarl, "I swear, I'll kill you."
She gazed into his agitated face, into the flickering eyes and saw cold anger, rising frustration and, most gratifying, controlled and muted lust. She laughed. "You can't kill me, Skywalker. You want me too much. Remember?" Her confidence rose, her tone goaded. "Remember how you tried?"
He flung her wrist with punishing strength, pushing her away. She stumbled backward, but her face never changed. "You heard me," he said, his voice low and even, as if he were taking a vow. "I said I'll kill you."
Her brow furrowed for a moment and a time passed, a deciding time. "You can't," she said finally, his sudden stillness pushing her off balance. "You want me to return with you, remember?"
He gave her a cold glance and changed the subject. "You've been training Irek, haven't you?"
She smiled. "You could say that," she replied in a voice full of satisfaction. "He's strong, an adept. In Djinn's time...."
Passion flooded his heart. "In Djinn's time he would have been killed, probably by one of Djinn's students." He stood before her, eyes challenging. "That he is my brother does not alter the fact that he is of the Dark side, Callie. He cannot be turned."
She laughed, but with an uncertainty that warmed his heart. "How do you know, Luke?" she asked. Despite the careless words, she held her face away and her eyes were masked.
Luke jerked his eyes away. "Stop, Callie! You really think you could hide that from me?" His voice, in contrast, was assured but there was rebuke there, stinging and irritated. "He is very much like me, isn't he?"
"In some ways," she replied quietly, an unspoken admission. "But you are ever more powerful. "If you would come to our side....." The remark served as a retort but he heard the plainativeness underneath the words, heard again the uncertainty. Sensing an opening, he leapt upon it.
"I will not turn for anyone or anything. You know that." He eyed her quickly and then continued. "But you could come with me."
She shook off the possibility and faced him again. "Did you tell him?" she asked, although she already knew the answer.
"Yes," he replied, his one word full of doom.
Her sharp intake of breath said it all.
"You mean I wasn't supposed to?" There was a smile here, a killing smile. "But you forget, Callie," he continued, his voice dying almost to a whisper, "I know what it's like to wonder about your parents...."
"You shouldn't have, Luke," she interrupted, thinking. "None of us knew what Irek would do if he knew the truth...."
He swallowed. "Why do you teach him? You know what they intend, don't you?"
She laughed. "How could I not? I am his Master......" she said, giving Luke a meaningful look.
Luke's eyes fell to shadowed gray. "Callie, you have fallen to the Darkside. But there is still a chance, you can come with me, together we can break the bonds of the Darkside...."
Incredulity spread across her face. His idealism, even at the end of the world, was astonishing. She found she could no longer bear the purity of his gaze and turned her back to him.
And then a vision swam up in his mind, a vanished moment in the past. Gazing at her, he saw the past and present meld and had a disconcerting feeling that Nichos was nearby, that Cray had only come to give him a small message before she disappeared with her beloved for the night. Pain for all that had happened since ran through his heart.
"I cannot return, Luke," she said, quite reasonable, her voice even and low. "My life is here now, teaching Irek. He will be Emperor.... unless you change your mind." And here her voice changed, a lacing of intrigue laid over it like the old hunting net latticing up the wall in her quarters. "He is mine, now. Together we shall be powerful....."
"He has to die, Callie," Luke said softly, sighting her stiffening defenses and moving forward, his booted feet silent against the hard floor. "Can't you see how hopeless this is? Even I cannot turn him. He will become another Vader."
She turned back to him, not realizing he was upon her until she found herself mere centimeters from his scarred face. "He will rule," she murmured, gazing straight into his eyes, blue, deep and free, like the flocked waters of her childhood. She started as she felt his fingers curl over her shoulders.
"He will be dead ......... either by his own hand or someone else's, but dead nonetheless. You, however......" He put a gentle hand to her cheek. "There's still a chance for you. You still love me, don't you, Callie?"
Now that it had come down to it, to the moment she had planned for months, years, she found she was not ready for the question. The words threw her somehow. "Luke... you know I...." Her voice was hushed and urgent, his sudden nearness splintering her awareness.
He looked over her face casually, possessively as she stuttered to a stop, her words choking and thick. She lowered her eyes, unable to meet his gaze as he put a hand to her chin. He lifted it and she did not resist. The kiss was long and passionate, an endless, pulsating joy. They drank of each other, as humans do, a long draught of mesmerizing loneliness, of longing, of incompleteness. Bitterness flowed between them, painful and perverse. He pulled away first, her damned soul revealed to him.
But she would not release him. She clung to him, her fingers clutched over his shoulders, her eyes closed, her mouth begging for more. His parting motion was somehow inevitable as he put a finger against her lips and she opened her eyes. "I love you, Luke," she whispered hungrily. "We belong together, we always have. We were made for each other."
Gently, as a breeze moves a feather across smooth dirt, he drew away from her. As the space between them opened up she stumbled forward, reaching for him even as he turned his back to her. He let the moment settle and drew breath The ventilation system kicked on and rushing air lifted a tendril of her hair, causing her to tuck it back, Cray Mingla's old habit. "We are wrong together, Callie," he said after a heavy silence.
She came forward but was suddenly afraid to touch him. "How can you say that, Luke?" she asked, pushing away bewilderment.
He remained where he was, his head bowed, his hands behind his back. She noticed that they were loosely folded, palms up, one to the other. They were powerful, but gentle, almighty but forgiving. A sudden compassion, a regret seized her and she moved to put her hands into his. At the last moment, sensing her intention, he stepped forward and pivoted to face her, out of reach.
"Don't!" he said, holding up his right hand.
"But why, Luke?" Her voice was pleading, its control fragmented and split. "You want me, I want you. We were born for each other."
To her surprise, he laughed. It was human laughter, welded to the ground, to the ordinary air, to the conquering biology of all living things. But his face held an infinite sadness. She stopped, motionless and gasping, involuntarily clasping her hands together. His voice was commanding. "You are at least thirty years older than I am, Callie. By the Force, you should be dead. You were a noble Jedi, one of the best. Master Djinn was proud of you.
Her face puckered as she fought to absorb his words. "What are you saying, Luke?"
He gave her a genuine smile and, unprotected by the Force, her heart began to ache. "Don't you see?" His voice was gentle, reasonable, as one would speak to a recalcitrant child. "We were never meant to meet, much less......." He paused and shook his head. "We are from different times, Callie, different places. We have different destinies." A deep sigh settled over everything, a pall. "I was at my wit's end when you, when Cray ...... returned. That's the only reason I ever accepted you, ever accepted what you and Cray did.
"That's not true," she said defensively. "There was a problem before, but now that I'm Jedi again......."
He sighed and interrupted her, his words soft but stinging. "Don't you see, Callie? You're not Jedi at all. You've turned to the Darkside, you can only draw power from evil. You are powerful, Callie, but you are not the same person, the same spirit......." There was a small hesitation, an acceptance. ".......who saved the Eye. That woman is dead." He closed his eyes in painful memory, seeing clearly for the first time in years. "Cray was right and so was Nichos......"
Her face paled. Cray's lips moved, her voice spoke. "Cray is dead."
He opened his eyes and gazed in bruised silence into Cray Mingla's resurrected face. It was puzzled, even bewildered. He blinked and knew that a distance was widening between them. His heart turned and pulled within his chest, resisting to the last, but he pressed on. "Yes, but not before she did everything in her power to save Nichos," he said, shaking off a strange feeling that Cray was there. "You made ...... she made his body for him, preserved his memories, replicated his face, his hands, his eyes. And at the end," he continued, his heart burning with sorrow, "he was still dead. She was not able to resurrect him. She had only saved a memory of him, an elaborate holo, or perhaps, simply a perversion of him."
Khaali lifted her chin, thinking to see a solution. "That's why she wanted to die, Luke," she said dutifully. "She couldn't live without him."
Luke gazed steadily at the brilliant scientist's face, at its familiar sharpnesses and roundnesses. He had put his loving fingers over it a hundred times, relished the softness of her skin under his hands, relished the sound and feel of her breathing, relished the quiet glistening of her eyes as they turned toward him in passion and desire.
The silence was low and quiet, as if they had finally come to an end, a place where the path faded into a deep, trackless forest, a place where there was nothing more. There was no joy, no sorrow, no passion, no longing. A part of him longed, pleaded, to turn back, to return to the old place. His own loneliness sang the old obsessive song and her imagined face came through, his forever. It was beguiling, promising safety and freedom from hurtful, fruitless searching. He would never need another, he would never want another, he would never be hurt by another. But, no, the time was gone. He could not lie to himself anymore. He closed his eyes and said something he never thought he would hear himself say.
"I can't love you, Khaali." His voice was soft, but decisive and the sound of her new name brought it home. "You are not Callie. You are a ghost who is only clinging to corporeal life, too greedy to die. The woman I fell in love with died with the Eye, just as she was supposed to." He opened his eyes and gave her a compassionate look. "Cray tried to tell me. I should have listened."
They merely gazed at each other for an eternal moment, an exchange of memories, feelings, of a simple, flowing humanity. Two strangers, each caught in a web of illusion, confusing need with love. Reality finally breached the seawall and cold, awakening water poured through, resuming, instinctive and oblivious, its natural course.
She stepped back, speechless. Her mouth closed and opened again as she fought a pounding sensation in her head. Something was gone, something she had possessed only a few, fragile seconds ago. Now he stood before her, someone she did not know, his scarred and worn face lit only by the platonic light of compassion.
He remained still, for in his touch her pain would be more than it already was. But, even though he knew it hurt her, he could not keep his eyes off her face. It was a farewell, a leave-taking and the moment was endless and bittersweet. He was not sure, but for an instant it seemed as if the light caught the glisten of moisture on her cheek. And for that fleeting, eternally remembered moment he found himself resisting a familiar urge to enfold her in his arms and give her the companionable comfort of an old friend.
A guard moved into sight and the moment fled, scattered and irretrievable. "Do Jedi eat?" he asked sarcastically, his voice slicing through the heavy air as he slid what passed for food in Imperial prisons into the cell. The couple, connected soul to soul only seconds before, turned away from each other and a bond was finally broken.
The force field keyed on again and he gave the prisoners a hard look. A thought arose, but uncharacteristically, he did not voice it. His eyes flicked back and forth and he indulged himself by shrugging his shoulders. "Well, you've got 20 minutes," he said, his voice curiously flat and uncomfortable within the listing silence. A feeling of not being in control made him throw in a threat. "And if you make a mess, I'll be glad to see you get solitary." He stepped away from the force field and put his hands behind his back.
"Come," Luke said kindly to the motionless woman opposite him, as if the guard did not exist. "Eat. You must be hungry."
Rebuked, Khaali made no answer, only made her way, deaf and dumb, to the bunk. In a hypnotized motion, she lay down on it and turning to the wall, curled up, a defeated child. Luke watched in perfect silence and then followed the guard's example and shrugged. Casually, his motions calm and ordinary, he retrieved one of the indifferent trays, sat down on one of the dirty chairs, and without compunction, began to eat.
The guard shook his head and turned back toward his station. "Jedi!" he muttered in disgust as he rounded the corner and left them to their wordless dinner.
Detention, Night Cycle
Traveling within a bubble of invisibility, an agitated young man bearing a small, elegantly clad, if unconscious, woman over his shoulder, garnered no comment at all as he moved deliberately toward the Detention Area. The guard was dead before Irek even entered the correct level. He considered the ysalamir screen but he had no time to do anything about it. Besides, his mind was filled with Skywalker, for now he knew that only the death of his rival would release him from Otdjel's prison.
The Force disappeared, nattered away by the invisible ysalamiri. He came to stand in front of a darkened cell, surrounded by nothing more than the strength and arrogance of youth. It was the night cycle and he had expected to find Skywalker and Khaali wrapped in each others' arms. He was more than surprised when Skywalker stirred, sitting up. It was obvious the Master slept alone.
"Who is it?" Luke called, the absence of his Force sense particularly acute in the darkness.
A snarl greeted this question. "Someone you should know, Skywalker. I believe we have business."
Luke, awakening in the narrow, top bunk, leaned over to glance down at Khaali, who was rubbing sleep from her eyes. She pulled herself into an upright position, astonishment registering on Cray's sleepy features. "Irek!" she exclaimed softly, "did Pellaeon change his mind?"
This prompted a shrill, contemptuous laugh. Luke winced. Without the Force, it was a niggling sound, full of weakness and desire. "Pellaeon's not in charge anymore, Master, he said, addressing Khaali, sarcastic. "I am the new Emperor. Or I will be in a short while."
A questioning look fell through Khaali's features. "Is Pellaeon dead?"
Irek's eyes became lethal. "Not yet," he said dismissively. Even Khaali shivered at the sound. "I will take care of him in time. But first," he continued, "I have business with our guest here."
Luke jumped to the floor, strangely agile, placing his weight firmly on both feet. He lifted his eyes to Irek's. "What do you want with us?" he asked, his words calm, serene in direct contrast to Irek's precarious, trembling control.
"Khaali is mine. You cannot have her," Irek said abruptly, his voice tracing through the room, off the drab walls, reverberating away into the dim corridor.
In answer, Luke stepped forward. "Then, you have finally come to kill me, Irek Ismaren," he replied quietly.
Irek made to laugh but the expression on Luke's face stopped him cold. "She's mine, Skywalker," he repeated, his voice noxious. "You are a liar. I am here to finish what you started."
Luke longed for the Force. He felt blind and his only comfort was that Irek and Khaali were just as blind as he was. A stab of well-placed guilt rattled his heart but he remained calm, impassive. "I did not start anything, Irek. Khaali and Cray, they were.... are responsible."
Irek gave his rival a triumphant look. "That's what you'd like to think, Skywalker!" The accusatory tone of his voice rose through the corridor, human and harmless within the cold walls. "Your desire, your lies led to this. And now," his voice filled with blood lust, "now you want to take her back, to banish her from the Force. I will kill you before I let you take her."
Luke's brow furrowed and his next words were fell to soothing. "Irek, you must be calm, I know you've had a lot to think about."
Irek drew breath to answer but at that moment a movement on the floor caused him to glance down. Luke followed the other's gaze to a lightly clad form. In the darkness he had taken it for no more than a pile of dirty laundry but now he realized it was a human being. A woman.
"Roganda!" Khaali breathed, a sudden, bald eagerness in her tone. "Irek, what is she doing here?"
Luke glanced back at Khaali and noted that her eyes were cold and glittering under the still dimmed lighting. The woman could only be Roganda Ismaren, whom he had never met.
"Ha!" Irek snorted, contempt lurked there, along with something else, something evil and not quite tamed. Luke's human intuition, going on nothing more than a knowledge of human behavior and what seemed like several lifetimes of experience, warned him that this was the source of Irek's passion. He took a step backward, suddenly feeling the need to be in readiness.
Roganda handed the cold floor and pushed herself up, hair disheveled, falling like a petrified waterfall in her face. Her arms and wrists, usually so birdlike, now seemed only thin and wasted. She lifted her eyes and cast them upon her son. Astonishment gave way to a lifetime of intrigue and bedroom statecraft and she became controlled, although defiant.
"Where are we?" she asked from the floor, her voice a stage whisper of anger and spiteful humiliation.
Irek smiled down at her, desiring and hating her all in the blink of an eye. "Detention," he replied simply.
A flash of anger rose through her small body but she pulled herself to her feet gracefully enough, her elegant clothing falling in the just the right fashion as she stood. Luke gave her credit. She had a good dress designer.
Not that this was her only attractive quality. Before him stood a petite woman, childlike, with an ethereal, air-like physicality Her sensuality was masked, all the stronger for its hiddeness. Her eyes were a beautiful, piercing blue, her hair was fine, straight, thick and shining, falling to her waist in one dark fall of obsidian. Her skin was perfect, soft and fair. A strange feeling ran though him as his eyes met hers and gaze answered gaze. He realized in a cold flash that they were of an age.
"Luke!" This was Khaali, calling him back from a distance that hadn't existed only a moment before.
"What?" Luke replied, suddenly preoccupied. "Uh...." Then his circumstances took hold and he was once again all alertness. But still he could not help stepping forward, as if drawn. "What do you want, Irek?" he asked again, a raw edge in his voice. A shaft of piercing irritation for the two young people watching like dumbfounded children scattered like fine dust through his sense.
Irek, in his turn, gave his mother a belligerent look. "Mother?"
Roganda returned it with a wary, crafty look of her own and then turned toward Luke, all her well-developed senses keenly aware of Skywalker's sudden regard. He was much like his father, much more than she had been lead to believe. For a moment she was young again, the Emperor's favorite. "It is pleasant to meet you, Master Skywalker," she said, righting her lovely voice. "I've heard so much about you."
The precise, low, almost lazy quality of her speech recalled the glory days of the Empire and reminded him sharply of his childhood. "And I, you," he replied, inexplicably awkward, once again nothing but a farm boy from backwater Tatooine. He resisted the urge to lower his gaze.
Something in her eyes told of victory. And interest. "Irek, why don't you lower the security field, so that we may speak in comfort?"
Irek gave his mother a quick, questioning look but, without a word, did as she asked. The field flickered off in one bright instant and the two prisoners came forward. Khaali was suspicious, cautious, but Luke was filled only with a promising light. Even without the Force the charisma of his person was unmistakable.
Roganda, sensing his power, took the initiative and stepped forward to take Luke's hand in greeting. "I knew your father well," she said quickly, her eyes following up on a promise her hand had quietly, subtly, initiated.
For a moment the small fingers were supple, soft and smooth against Luke's palm then they were withdrawn again. A part of him made to reach for them as she drifted away, suddenly unobtainable. A banked fire came to life in Irek's eyes. Luke glanced at his rival, startled by the expression there, by a sense of something........ Khaali, imperfect intitution sensing trouble, moved closer to Irek.
Luke wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he heard a distant explosion and a small scent of leftover smoke trickled through the ventilation system. And then, as if he were awakening from drowned sleep, a small glimmering of vision and light pushed through, followed by voices and a sense of deep knowledge. Khaali's head moved and her eyes were wide for a moment as she felt it too. It was the Force. Something was killing the ysalamiri.
Luke glanced at Khaali but she blocked him out, resolute. Inwardly he sighed and turned to Roganda. Irek's voice cut through a heavy silence. "Mother?" he said, his tone harsh, almost condescending. Involuntarily, Khaali gasped. She had never heard Irek address his mother in such a way before.
Roganda gave her son a guarded look and turned away, her mask falling into place. "Tell him, Mother," he prompted, grabbing her by the arm.
She looked down at the suddenly hurtful fingers and then jerked her arm free. "I have nothing to say to Master Skywalker, Irek. I did know his father for a time, after all....."
Irek turned to Luke. "Tell her," he ordered Luke.
Luke was mystified, eyes flickering back and forth, mother to son for a silent moment. He drew breath and his heartbeat picked up as realization swept through. "Ah.... Vader," he said, a tendril the Force palatable in the dimness. "You are referring to Vader."
Roganda lifted her face in a girlish gesture of defiance. "Is that why you brought me here, beloved? To confront Master Skywalker's lies?" She smiled and a slim, flickering lattice of thought appeared in Luke's head, unbidden. The images were hushed, but somehow tawdry. Luke pushed them into oblivion.
"Skywalker, answer my question. Was Emperor Palpatine my father?"
Luke knew the youth was on the brink of insanity. The slowly growing Force tide told him of Irek's blank, flat anger for his protector, his confidant, his true teacher -- the only person he had ever trusted in the world. He moved to speak, wondering how to disarm so dangerous and powerful a young man. He knew, now, why Roganda was here.
"Why would you believe this Jedi's lies?" Roganda's voice cut through the dirty air. "He has no reason to tell the truth. He only wants Khaali," she hissed softly, as if she were a witch casting a spell. But again there was something else there, something, a balm over the shadowed air. It was as if she willed away a shadowed cloak, banishing a half-seen vision. Luke could feel her interfering with his perceptions, trying to entice him, to make him gaze at her. He closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated.
Irek, not understanding, took a step forward. The lightsaber was activated, glimmering in hand. "Do you refute him, Mother?" Despite all the lies, the vagaries of the Force, despite Khaali's manipulation on top of his mother's incessant incantations -- a lifetime's worth of mythology, this was a genuine question.
A quick popping sound interrupted and blaster fire sliced away down the corridor. Luke flinched as he heard men screaming in pain. At first he thought that Pellaeon had sent troops and, reflexively, he cast his gaze along the walls, looking for a way out. But no, that didn't feel right somehow. Quickly, he realized that the sounds and feelings were carried on a returning Force wave, slowly, in little creeps and crawls, snaking up through the old Imperial jail like a river rising steadily along a dim shoreline.
Roganda smiled as she saw the activated saber and left Luke's resistance as she turned her full concentration on her son. This was her chance. Perhaps, her only chance. "Irek!," she said, a hissing half whisper, "It is time, beloved! Kill him now......"
Immediately, the words his signal, Luke put both hands up as the Force flowed back full strength, a barrier against Irek. The young man stepped back, but the little whore, merely remained where she was, unmoving.
A primal feeling of competitiveness along with a surging instinct for self-preservation filled Luke's being. A knowing grin lit his face. "Your mother's been lying to you, Irek."
Momentarily, the blade was held in a defensive position symbolic and motionless and then it fell toward the floor, it's humming now loud in the corridor. "But my Mother has told me," Irek said as he cast an unbelieving glance at Roganda and, momentarily, Luke pitied her, "that I am Palpatine's son. Who is telling the truth?"
A warning klaxon rang through the corridor, drowning out voices, even thoughts. Then it cut off, interrupted at its power source. The lights dimmed and then brightened again. Luke felt a nearness, a familiar presence and joyfully his mind turned towards it. But no, he had to think of now, to think only of the dangerous youth with the red lightsaber, seeking to kill him. The Force brightened in his mind and the presence retreated.
Luke moved nearer and his voice was clear. "I have seen it," he replied simply, his eyes shining through on the red light.
And then, to everyone's surprise, Khaali's voice chimed in, her inflection bringing to the unguarded mind the power of ocean waves and tossing winds. "You are Lord Vader's son, Apprentice," she said, her eyes raking into Roganda. Luke glanced over at her and saw that the Force had given her back the brooding, simmering Darkside. Her hands were powerful and reaching as they floated easily toward her student. Her face, once so shadowed and beaten, was now a study in triumph. She moved closer to Irek, as if suddenly compelled, drawn to him. Luke wanted to stop her, to halt her forward motion, but she was too far away. And always, the red saber blocked his path.
Irek pulled the saber down, where it shimmered just centimeters above the floor. He turned to his erstwhile teacher and lover, seeking a planetshattering truth. "How do you know?"
Despite the winning moment, Khaali did not smile and her face was shadowed, immobile as if in death. The heartbreaking words spilled out in a jumble, falling over themselves, clumsy. "Pellaeon found out just before he sent me to you, on Rasclann. Palpatine had kept secret records. Daala was able to confirm his suspicions."
Roganda gasped and an expression of instant, black hatred marred her delicate face. "Lies! All lies!" she hissed, her words venomous. "This Jedi," the word was uttered with twisted contempt, "is under her spell!" Her eyes paled with passion, her mouth fell open, and even in overwhelming anger it seemed a tempting red fruit ready to be plucked. Neither realized it, but momentarily drawn by the seductive vision, both Luke and Irek moved toward her. Her voice continued, pretty words fell from her mouth, but she stammered to an awkward halt as a vision stopped them all, playing out like a holovid in the middle of the corridor.
Khaali, seeing Roganda at full strength, watching as her rival was revealed at last, knew she had what she wanted. A turning, twisting feeling of satisfaction and strength settled over her soulless heart like a cloak lined and shining with power. Gray twilight seemed to shadow the older woman, as she wrested control from birdlike hands, as she manipulated visions, memories. Words rattled on, eloquent but unheard. Instead, there was color and light. And an essential revelation, hidden behind pretty words, subtle insinuations and misinterpreted gestures was finally revealed.
A mechanized bedchamber opened before them. Boxy bio- renewal units, slim blood manufacturing and cleansing sub-systems generators and oxygen regenerators lined the walls, all run by oblivious, robotic hands. A cloaked darkness obscured vision for a moment, but when it retreated, it revealed a woman.
She was small, almost ghost-like, filmy within the heavy room. Her voice, as insubstantial but as constant as small bells ringing under a summer breeze, fell to a seductive hum, its silvery echoes almost inaudible. A great, gloved hand reached for her delicate shoulders, but instead of resisting, she merely smiled, her trained laughter inviting and unafraid. Her's was an expression of sheer delight, of desire and vengeance. A word was spoken, deep within the pulsing silence and the bedchamber withdrew.
They all stared, motionless, as the vision compacted, folded in on itself and vanished to a pinprick. And as the soiling, cadaverous images melted away, Roganda took a step backwards. Subtlety and control were abandoned.
Irek pursued her in a following step, but Khaali stopped him, touching his forearm in a gesture of warning. Roganda gazed at him through unseeing eyes and words began to fall from her temptress's mouth, ugly, clutching words. "He came to me," she said, breaking the condemning silence. "I was in my fifth year as concubine and still I had not conceived. Another who came after me was rumored to be with child. Palpatine was ecstatic. I knew I was cut off. There was nothing......"
A choking sob entered her voice and Luke realized that, perhaps, for the first time in her adult life, she was telling a simple truth. Her voice began to shatter, the helpless cry of a child caught in a web beyond its own making, of a woman, used up and thrown away even before maturity, her life already spent. "It was then that Lord Vader came to me."
"He offered you your life," Luke put in with certainty and not a little pity. "In return for what?"
She bowed her head, but her words were not muffled. "He told me he desired me. His first wife was long dead....." she said, her words tearing at his wondering soul. Luke resisted the urge to push his way into her thoughts and merely flinched, holding a tight check on the curiosity of a lifetime.
Roganda, for her part, did not seem to notice. "...and he made no practice of taking concubines. He told me the Emperor was plotting my death." She glanced at her son's suddenly deathly face. "You see, Irek, I had no choice. I was but a pawn in Lord Vader's game...."
At the mention of his father's name, Luke recalled himself and moved away. But his right hand reached out in warning as he saw Irek's reaction before it occurred. Khaali, also knowing, gave Irek a mental shove that spurred him to action. The red lightsaber flew up, pulsating and murderous. Khaali grimaced as she sent raging shadow into her student's mind. Luke held steady on both feet seeking to block Khaali's furious mental assault, looking for an opening. Roganda was simply motionless.
Another muffled explosion reached through the now smoky corridor and the faint, familiar odor of ozone and coolant followed on its heels, wafting through the air around them. The ventilation system sputtered and died and the open place suddenly became unbearably close.
Luke got a picture, a complete flashing expression of gray ships gleaming within a deep, black field. He gave Khaali a quick glance and he could tell by her almost infinitesimally small reaction that she too had seen it. For good or ill, the New Republic was on its way. A familiar presence made itself known again, searching, seeking. Luke longed to answer its summons.
Irek was oblivious, his mind taken solely with his mother. His words were stunned and small in the chaos and Luke found himself stepping forward to hear. "You lied to me!" Irek said, his words giving sentence to Roganda's suddenly helpless figure. "Everything you've ever told me was a lie!"
Luke saw Roganda give the raised saber a glance, fighting for control, and felt a sudden admiration for the calculating soul at the bottom of those fetching eyes. At the same instant, he realized just how dangerous an enemy she really was. Cornered, her selfish motivations laid bare, she looked her wounded son directly in the eye. "I...... It was for your own good, Irek," she said quickly, neither flinching nor losing eye contact. "I had to hide you from the Emperor, and after...." she threw Luke a glance here, "he died, I knew you were the only one worthy to sit on the throne...."
Another explosion rocked the detention level, much nearer this time. Roganda stumbled backward while outrage alone held Irek unmoving, but both Khaali and Luke were thrown to the floor. Durasteel dust fell through and the ceiling above began to groan. At that instant, the last of the ysalamiri were destroyed, their delicate environment obliterated. The Force flowed freely, a river of vision, power and truth.
Luke climbed to his feet, blinking. Khaali sat immobile, as if listening to something she had almost forgotten. Irek closed and opened his eyes, desiring and sensual. Roganda smiled, suddenly armed again. Her expression changed and her heart of darkness, so well hidden by that carefully kept exterior of innocence, was at last laid bare.
"You stupid boy," she hissed at Irek. Unknowingly quoting Daala, she moved swiftly now, her evil sense freed and dangerous. "Does it matter whose son you are? Does it matter if," a vulgar gesture of contempt flashed from her hand, "he's your brother?" Her eyes were hard, aggressive, sneering. "I was ever more Force-strong than Skywalker's wife...."
A fleeting vision, in the blink of an eye crystal clear and then gone flashed through Luke's mind. A transposition of time, a juxtaposition, a paradox made him question where he was, who was speaking. It seemed as if someone had spoken out of time, had transposed events, had made something flashing and quicksilver clear. Then, instantly, the confusions returned, the images now wrapped in shadows and mystery, unknowable, unseeable. For a fleeting moment, in the midst of confusion, he thought she was speaking of the present. "But I have no wife...." he murmured, off balance.
If Roganda heard Luke's words she made no sign, only kept her deadly concentration trained on her trembling son. "Don't you see, Irek? The Force was strongest in me! That makes you the most powerful of all his children!" Her voice rose in volume as the long, silent plottings of a thousand nights were finally put into words. She became compelling, tempting. "And, together, we can make an Empire such as this galaxy has never known, one that will last for generations!"
Irek's saber was now a living being, a great red-eyed bird of destruction, floating on fire and confused hatred. "You lie!" he shouted, his emotions erupting, unable to leave his one, great, glorious ancestor behind. An ominous wave of dark water seemed to curl up through the corridor, settling over the youth's brain like an obliterating wall. He could smell her deception, her overriding craftiness, her inherent coldness. And this time, following her path too well, he deceived himself.
"Traitor!" he cried. "You're in with them, with Pellaeon, with Daala, with......" and, unable to say the word, he looked over at Luke as if his brother had put words to voice.
Meanwhile, Khaali, righting herself unnoticed, smiled. Luke caught sight of Cray's face illuminated in evil and a tendril of despair crept through his soul. She moved toward the motionless Irek and Luke knew she was prompting him, feeding him, guiding him.
She gave Luke a hard, deciding glance and, pulling her gray eyes away from him one last time, spoke in a powerful voice. "She wants me dead, Irek," she said, her words slapping the floor, stinging through his ears. Another crash sounded, not so far away in the dimness, followed by the clicking of stormtrooper armor and boots. "She means to put me away....."
Instantly, Luke threw Khaali back into the wall with a Force blow, trying to break her concentration, to draw her twisted attention to himself. She slammed into it, thrown off her feet. He let her drop onto the now dirty floor and her enraged words bit into his flesh. "You betrayed me, Skywalker!"
But no, Roganda was there again, even under threat weaving a thread of lies and deceit. Something compelled Luke, a hunger for knowledge combined with a sense of time passing and the frustration of never knowing; these all goaded him as he reflexively reached into Roganda's mind, but all knowledge of his mother skittered away, autumn leaves on the lips of a cold wind. Roganda turned toward the Jedi, her right hand raised. He pushed against her mind, suddenly realizing what she was going to do. "No .....Roganda!" He yelled, his angry voice echoing. But he himself had given her the opening and it was too late.
Roganda planted an image of herself in the recesses of Luke's mind and it burned through his sense even as it wrapped him in warm, lacy shadows. Her skin was inviting and smooth to the touch. A feeling of rushing desire, depraved and evil, shook him to his very bones. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, fighting against this rape of his sense, against the images and desire she coaxed up through his being.
Opening his eyes, desiring only light and peace, he saw that Irek was enveloped in outrage, black jealousy and lust, a true mirror image of himself. With overwhelming disgust, in a flashing moment of truth, he realized that what Irek wanted was a mirror image, a reflection of his own misplaced desire for Callie. He stumbled backwards, struggling to eradicate Roganda's horrible pictures from his mind. And as he began to turn away from the painted shadows and all the temptations held there, Djinn's pale light seemed to settle over him, washing out the faces around him as glare washes out squinting, watered eyes on a cloudy day. Roganda's vision melted away.
"You are a liar, a traitor, ......... a whore........" Irek's voice shook the walls, turning the corridor into an endless well of despair, betrayed passion and overarching evil. Possessiveness settled upon the youth like a stalking vulture, ready to feast. His mother finally revealed for what she truly was, made him shake with anger. "You are mine....!" he shouted, yelled, demanded. His expression was desperate, as if some part of him knew he no longer held any control over himself. "You will have no one else but me...... will love no one else but me!"
Luke, pressing forward, felt rather than heard Khaali's laughter, felt the rippling currents of it as it pressed into the structure of the air, as it squeezed all light and control out of Irek's mind. A masked sense of rightness, of approval muttered after it. And Roganda, catching it too well, made to resist but was suddenly overwhelmed. Goaded beyond all control, instead of resisting, she made a fatal mistake.
Roganda turned back toward her son, her form now flowing and unobtainable. "I am Roganda Ismaren, first concubine of the Emperor Palpatine!" she announced, all pretense finally banished. "I will go with whom I please, love whom I please. I am certainly not beholden to you, beloved!" A short ripple of laughter teased through and Luke studied her lifted face, bearing what he knew to be an habitual expression of powered pride and lifelong arrogance. "And if I choose to toy with your pathetic brother, it is of no concern of yours!"
Part of Luke's mind registered that Irek had lifted the saber high, his hands trembling in uncontrolled rage. The woman, triumphant, her motives revealed at last, merely laughed at him, laughed as her control began, once more, to wrap itself around her son's soul.
Irek heard, as he had always done in moments of indecision, her drifting voice call his name from nighttime depths, beckoning, promising. And always he had followed only to lose her in the mist. The heaving, cumulative effect of a lifetime of teasing and neglect burst through him, a flood of unreason swept away his tortured mind and shallow soul. He tossed on a dark sea of illusion, her words a revelation made only of dim, shadowed moonlight, promising nothing but death.
Irek was completely motionless for a shocked moment and Luke thought wildly that the boy had regained his reason. But the next words proved his conclusion premature. "If I can't have you, woman," he said, his voice oddly even and measured, "no one will!" Roganda, caught off guard, only sensed the downswing at the last moment. She pressed her feet into the floor, her hands swinging as she attempted to turn. The blade flashed, faster than sight, a combination of growing skill and overwhelming passion. A flying, slicing motion moved silent and lethal and a great sigh seemed to escape her doomed lips.
The abrupt sound of a woman's scream cut short jolted Luke into action. He lunged for Khaali but another explosion shook the corridor and foul smelling gas began to seep through the damaged ceiling. Rippling, cracking sounds rattled ominously after it. But, in the midst of hellish chaos and destruction, Khaali and Luke stood transfixed.
Roganda was motionless on the floor, bloodless, her perfectly manicured hands splayed and elegant. Her clothing fell in graceful folds about her, as if she were prone statuary, stretched over an ancient coffin. A half meter from her body, fallen to his knees in the aftershock of his final, spiteful anger, Irek knelt, bloody hands cradling her decapitated head as if it were a dead child. Her hair spread about his knees like a comforting childhood blanket and dusted the cold floor as he lifted it to eye level, all the better to gaze directly into her unrepentant face. A terrible expression of remorse, hatred and satisfaction painted his own as he stared into the wide, blue eyes, crafty and calculating even in death.
Tearing himself from the horrible scene in front of him and knowing this was his chance to subdue Khaali, Luke lunged forward and grabbed her forearm. Instantly she retaliated, entering his mind, her determined darkness pushing him back, beating his hand away. At the same time, Irek, gripped in a black fog of rage and sorrow, carefully, too carefully laid his mother's decapitated head on the floor and rising, turned and pulled at Khaali's willing hand. The menacing lightsaber, its evil work done, was now aimed at his teacher's beautiful throat.
Luke could only watch, helpless, as she laughed and put both hands to her student's face, an intimate gesture that tore through his heart. "Do not kill me, Irek," she said, her eyes smoked and impatient with desire. Promising clouds seemed to gather within and Luke felt the old pull, his familiar obsession threatening to burst through its greenwood barriers. "I will come with you."
"Mother....." Irek whispered, searing, misplaced perception burning through his tortured voice as the two lost souls melted together, undeterred by the poison and grime now all around them.
Luke approached, his voice leveling as he fought to control his emotions, fought to get through to her, one last time. "Khaali," he said, his voice ringing and his presence suitable to the Master he had become, "if you go now ......... I warn you, you will be lost!"
She lifted her eyes to his and he had to call upon the Force to hold temptation and jealousy at bay. There had been two sons, one of light, the other of darkness. With fierce hatred, mixed with the cold, burdened joy of vengeance, she chose the darkness.
"Leave her, Skywalker!" Irek said, brandishing the saber. "She has chosen!"
But Irek, in his turn, was astonished to speechlessness when Luke stepped forward, his right hand held out in a final, futile gesture of forgiveness and, even, friendship. "You're my brother, Irek. You can still come with me."
Irek's blade was defensive and he sputtered, "I will not!" The petulant boy had returned and Luke knew, in that moment, that Irek was doomed. "Khaali is mine. I will kill you if you interfere!"
And as if to echo the harsh words, Khaali laughed again and the familiar inflections of Luke's tortured dreams, the sound that of an ancient spellcaster was augmented by bitterness and the power that was the Darkside. "You'll not have me, Skywalker," she said. "I have chosen, of my own free will! You have betrayed me -- you would take the Force away from me!" She drew breath as she turned away, her words more mortal and wounding than any weapon.
She faced her new lover. "Come, Irek, we must go .........."
"Mother?" he questioned, turning to gaze into her eyes again.
She merely smiled, a seductive, passionate smile and Luke's heart was wrenched in two by greedy, tearing hands. "I will protect you, beloved, come with me....." she said to Irek's captive soul. Luke could only observe as if from a great and ever widening distance, while she gave to another all that Luke has formerly possessed, body and soul.
She turned back to Luke, her eyes radiating power and an awful vengeance. "You've failed, Jedi!" she taunted, her gaze piercing. " I will rule the galaxy! Such is a fitting end! And as for you, my love ......"
Instantly, a coolant line ruptured right over Luke's head. Its liquid, highly poisonous when exposed to atmosphere, began to vaporize into tiny beautiful but lethal droplets. Halfway into a protesting breath, Luke fell to his knees, coughing.
"Khaali, listen to me.....!" he yelled, a superhuman effort, his voice eaten by the mist. His lungs were hot and burning, under pressure as if someone were sitting on his chest. "You ..... will.... will die!" he whispered as the blue mist enveloped him. These unheeded, unheard words were her judgment, her fate as she and Irek turned and ran through the blossoming explosions and fires. He heard her laugh, a parting comment of scorn and triumph, and then she was gone, her soul lost forever to the Darkside.
Slowly, ponderous in weakness and near death, he struggled, now crawling on the floor to escape the lapping tide of deadly gas. Desperately he sent a Force plea to the ships above and a familiar presence, at first uncertain but then joyful, pushed understanding and joy throughout his being. It was immediately discernible, the fingertips of her bond with him new and alive, clear water in the desert. A rasp of joy issued from him as he fought to his feet and stumbled forward, his vision almost gone.
But his sister was dead! Surely she was dead! Had Khaali lied about that too? And so finally, at the end of it all, he came face to face with a simple realization. Callista had become a dead end, a road of beguiling temptation, lined by beautiful but futile gestures which lead only to opelessness and evil.
But his sister, whom he had deserted and repudiated, had left to die in the desert, had returned to comfort him, to save his life. And in death her soul was as free and as light as a feather, a white, floating thing, seemingly inconsequential, but as implacable as the largest, most daunting destroyer in the fleet. He sent a tendril of thought to her spirit, of almost unbearable joy radiating acceptance and a humble, abject plea for forgiveness. After a searching time, it was accepted, and he latched onto her radiating strength as his own withered under the killing poison.
He stumbled past the dead guard and on into the labyrinth of small, airless, passageways, making for the hangar. Bare moments after he left, another line flew apart and the ceiling came down in great, blinding sheets of coolant-fed fire. The flames sprang blue, then red and finally searing yellow. Greedy and insatiable, they licked at the walls, the cell, the bedclothes. There was a popping explosion and, for a moment, a shrieking human cry seemed to echo through the wall of flame.
It faded into the flickering fire and vanished, now reduced to the wandering afterlife of all evil things. And thereby was obliterated all mortal trace of Roganda Ismaren, the only concubine of Emperor Palpatine ever to come to term and bear a son.