Zipping along at hyper speed toward her unusual destination, the light blinking on her holo receiver was a surprise to Mara Jade. Such messages were rare, expensive, usually serious, and invariably important. Prepared for the worst, she was all the more surprised when the display identified the sender as from Coruscant Palace.
A visual of Han Solo flickered onto her screen. Momentarily stunned, she managed to blurt out a greeting. He looked like he had been dragged from bed by wild animals. A check at the chronometer and some quick calculations confirmed that her initial impression was not far off -- it was indeed the dead of night at Coruscant Palace. All normal mortals were long since in bed; the wild animals she was not so sure of.
"Solo, what in the skies do you want?"
His mumbled answer was as coherent as his appearance suggested. "Uh, hi, Mara. Sorry to just barge in like this. How are you?"
"I'm fiiine," she drawled, trying to coax some logical explanation for a holo call from the Chief of State's husband in the middle of the Coruscant night. "What's wrong, Solo? What's got you calling me at this hour?"
More incoherent hems and hahs followed. He was obviously uncomfortable and probably regretting now that he had dialed her up. "Uh, well, I need to ask a favor."
Mara waited through yet another long pause. "Yeesss, so what's the favor?"
Evidently Solo resolved whatever momentary indecision had robbed him of comprehensible speech, for he stumbled on. "You probably haven't heard about Luke. Well, I mean about Callista. I mean, Lu..."
Mara made a quick decision and interrupted Solo, sparing him the ordeal of telling that tale. "I've heard the news, Solo," she curtly interjected.
He was instantly alert. "How did you..," but Mara interrupted him again.
Trying to keep the irritation out of her voice, she explained patiently, as to someone who has been too long out of the game to know how it is played, "Geez, I'm a trader. Of course I knew. I probably found out the same time you did." This was not quite true, but close enough for these purposes. "Besides, I keep pretty close tabs on your family members, given their penchant for getting into trouble."
Solo was quiet, no doubt digesting the implications of Mara Jade, the former Emperor's Hand, following the personal lives of his family generally and his brother-in-law in particular. But having gone this far, he plunged ahead. "Well, you may not know that Luke is taking it really badly. We haven't heard from him in weeks. Tionne called me up yesterday saying she was very worried. She wanted me and Leia to come to Yavin, but she can't 'cause she's off planet on some diplomatic thing."
"It's a trade show and negotiation on Chandrila."
Solo grinned at her, evidently savoring the humor in Mara Jade thinking she knew as much about his family as he did. "Yeah, Chandrila. Anyway, Leia can't go."
Mara could see where this "favor" was leading. "I don't see what this has to do with me. Why don't you go, take the kids to visit their Uncle -- that might get his mind off things?"
Han gave her a long inscrutable stare, and then shrugged. "Because I have a feeling that seeing the kids, and maybe even me would just make him worse. I thought maybe you could go and see him instead."
Ahh. Mara leaned back, mulling his little confession. "I'm not exactly in the neighborhood, I've got a hold full of goods and I'm bound for Verrat."
"You do the Verrat run? Hold on a minute." She saw him turn away, rummage around on the desk and then pull out a data pad. He thumbed the pad and then looked up. "NRI reports some unusual activity there."
This was far too convenient. Of course Solo knew she did the Verrat run; he probably knew she was headed there when he called. Was this supposed to be a quid pro quo to pique her interest? On the other hand, any time New Republic Intelligence reported 'unusual activity,' it was certain to be entertaining, lucrative or simply dangerous. She took the bait he dangled. "All right, what does that mean?"
Solo looked exceedingly smug, even over a grainy transmission. "I dunno," he offered ever so helpfully, casually perusing the data pad. "It says here there may be some smuggling going on, although NRI doesn't know what."
"No? Really? Smuggling? I'm shocked. You have to do better than that to get me to change my plans and go to Yavin first."
He pretended to consult the pad again, as if this really were some last minute inspiration. "NRI says there's been a lot of credits changing hands, for unknown reasons." Mara pointedly stifled a yawn for his benefit. "Oh, this is interesting . . . " He paused again and looked at her.
She waited, and he finally continued. "NRI says that whatever they have for a government has been having some unidentified, mysterious problems with their aerial security defense net. Say, you wouldn't know anything about this now would you?"
She gritted her teeth. "No. Solo, I don't. I've done the run for years, and unless you've forgotten everything about trading you ever knew, which is highly likely in your present, cushy office job, you should recall that profits are very high there if you can get through the asteroid belt without being pulverized. "
He feigned a hurt expression, "Oh, Mara" and then swung back with a deadpan return. "Lots of ex-Imperials on Verrat aren't there?"
She had better things to do then engage in a holo match of wits with Han Solo. "Yes," she said wearily. If your NRI agents are any good at all, they'll also tell you I lived there once too. She continued aloud. "Plenty of current Imperials too, who pay top credit for luxury items they can't get in exile."
Solo was silent again, before pushing on. "So will you go and see Luke?" Then came the big sell, "Mara I wouldn't ask this of you if I didn't think it was important. Tionne was very concerned. Luke won't talk to any of us, won't see anyone, and he's not answering messages. Nothing. Leia can't reach him and she's frantic. Could you just check up on him, see how he's doing?" He took a deep breath. "I'd really owe you one."
A thought struck Mara. "You owe me or you and your wife owe me?"
"Well, I haven't told Leia yet."
Mara grinned at that one. "Hiding secrets from a Force-trained spouse is never a good idea Solo."
"Yeah, well I can handle that."
"I bet you can."
"Just swing by Yavin, Mara. Try to get Luke to go with you to Verrat. You can sell your cargo, the two of you can check out the NRI report, see if you can find their missing agent..."
"Oh did I forget to mention that?" He looked oh so innocent. "NRI seems to have misplaced an agent on Verrat."
"How very careless of them." But Mara realized he had played her well. This was too interesting to pass up, which was no doubt what Solo had intended all along. All the innocent questioning; doing the Verrat run indeed, he probably knew her entire manifest, down to the last wine bottle.
"You'll go though, won't you Mara," he continued, somewhat more contritely. "And take Luke with you? Please."
Mara wondered whether in all the years she had known Han Solo, if she had ever heard him say "please." He could be quite charming, in an aw shucks sort of way. She still wasn't buying it, but ... "If you're going to be so nice about it . . ." She paused, considering. "Sure, I'll stop by. No promises though."
"Just give it a try. I'll transmit the entire NRI report, such as it is, to Yavin by diplomatic encrypt."
"Good idea. It's probably worthless, but more information on the situation there would help. I don't like trading blind. And, before I forget, tell Jaina thanks for the picture and the story. Her picture's hanging in my cockpit. But where did she get that particularly lurid color of red for my hair?"
His grin and relief were genuine this time. "I'm glad you like it Mara. I'll tell her. She worked really hard on it. Did you know that she wants to grow up to a Master Trader and fighter pilot just like Mara Jade?"
She laughed, thinking how much Mara Jade as a role model for her daughter might distress Jaina's mother. "Tell her to aim higher."
"She could do a lot worse."
Mara laughed again. "How's Jacen doing?"
Han affected a heavy sigh, but his delight in his children's foibles was palpable, even over a holo transmission. "Better. He only mentions your name three or four times a day now." After the Corellia insurrection, young Jacen Solo had developed an intense crush on Mara. If anyone saw a particular irony in the situation, they were too polite to comment.
"Give them both a hug from me Solo."
"I will. And thanks again, Mara."
As he turned to disconnect, Mara interrupted him. "One thing, Why me? What makes you think Luke'd see me if he's not seeing anybody else?"
Han stared at her again. She tried to read something in his sabacc straight face, but got nothing. He just shrugged. "I dunno, he may not, but my guess is you'll find a way. It's just a hunch."
"Yeah. Besides, if you think about it, there really isn't anyone else who could go except you." He sighed, and suddenly looked very tired.
"Go back to bed, Solo, before you change your mind. I'll see what I can do."
Han switched off, leaving Mara staring at the star lines from her cockpit's view screen. She glanced at the chron; she'd drop out of hyperspace in about an hour, right into orbit around Yavin IV. She had been planning to go there all along, but had decided not to mention that to Solo. It never hurt if the Chief of State's husband felt he owed you a big favor.
The more she considered their conversation, the more extraordinary his request seemed. He was genuinely worried about Luke, that was clear, and probably did not want Leia to worry about her brother. Mara knew Leia had her hands full with the Chandrila conference. But that Solo would call her, in the middle of the night, without Leia knowing, and try to convince her to go and see Luke, well that was something else entirely.
He had clearly been reluctant to do so. Calling at this hour meant that it was probably an impulse that Solo thought he might regret if he had slept on it. On the other hand, he had taken the trouble to learn both her destination and something to pique her interest, no doubt figuring that she might need a lure to get Luke off Yavin for a while.
His and Leia's persistent mistrust of her continued to grate. What did they expect? She had not actually killed Luke, or even really made a serious effort to do so. Sure, she had her own Imperial past to contend with, but, in the years since she had come to know them she had done a lot for them personally, and for the New Republic. She had rescued Luke from the jungles of Myrkr, had fought and nearly been killed in the Dreadnaught battle, led them to Thrawn's cloning facility, and almost been killed there too for her trouble. More recently, she'd been injured again, at Almania, had helped Leia escape from Corellia, and had fought with them in their subsequent air battle against the Triad. Solo probably couldn't decide if she would sit and hold Luke's hand or just stab him with a vibro knife.
Han and Leia's mistrust was comical in comparison to their own children's adoration of her. After Corellia, she had taken Jacen and Jaina on a few jaunts around the system in the Jade's Fire. She had let Jaina sit in the co-pilot's chair when they made the jump to hyperspace and it evidently made a big impression on the young girl. Jacen's schoolboy crush had subjected him to much ridicule by his twin, but he had persevered. Mara liked both Jacen and Jaina a lot, in part because of and in spite of their parents' misgivings.
She thought again about Han's call. His concern, no, that was not it, fear, for Luke had been so great, he had sought her out of all people. Why? Was there truly no one else to go to Luke?
Soberly, Mara realized that maybe there wasn't. Luke had become increasingly detached and emotionally distant in the wake of Callista's abrupt and to Mara's mind, callous, flight. Although she had forcefully argued the point with him many times, he felt responsible for Gaeriel Capistan's pointless death at Centerpoint. His isolation had deepened after the Corellian insurrection. He had withdrawn to Yavin to be with his students and had remained there, in seclusion, to wallow in guilt and depression. Mara had not seen him in months.
And now this. Although Mara had known about Callista and had, even, expected it, she had no intention of imparting that particular story to Han. It was, she thought, not his business, nor hers. Mara had not wanted to be involved in the subsequent fallout. Luke, however, had changed her planned aloofness. She had not expected to feel his jolt of pain half way across the galaxy and shuddered, remembering again that night almost three weeks ago.
It had happened at yet another retirement party for her old boss, Talon Karrde. She had suddenly been overwhelmed with grief, awash in waves of despair and rage. She had, incredibly, burst into tears, and fled the party, utterly desolate, spending the night inconsolable and alone, curled on her bunk in her ship. The next day, she had been able to pinpoint Luke, light years away, as the source of her anguish. It was several more days before she was able to regain her composure sufficiently to stammer an apology to Karrde.
The realization that she had been so attuned to Luke through the Force had shocked her. They had been on more or less good terms for years, building a firm friendship based on trust, respect, and some slight mutual attraction amid the seemingly endless political upheavals and military crises of the NR.
There had always been some indefinable connection between them, a linking through the Force that had made their collaborations so successful. Luke had once simply explained that they worked well together and she had never been able to divine a better explanation. But nevertheless highly suspicious of the situation, Mara had sometimes deliberately ignored him for months. She sensed that his own feelings for her were as complicated and ambivalent. Perhaps recognizing that their delicate equilibrium could rapidly careen in unpredictable and unsatisfactory directions, they had both studiously avoided looking at the situation too closely.
Yet somehow, despite all the obstacles, their relationship continued to deepen as forces, or as Mara now recognized, the Force continually propelled him into her orbit, and she into his. Her powers in the Force had grown since knowing him. When she was with Luke, he acted as a catalyst for her own strengths and tempered her weaknesses.
Mara's Force sensitivity had cost her dearly, enslaving her for years to the Emperor's voice. In a final act of spite, Palpatine had implanted a nightmarish vision of his death at the hands of Luke and Vader. She learned it had all been a lie, the dying Emperor's last vengeance on Vader and his son. With Luke's help, she had been able to exorcize that demon from her mind and soul.
The experience, though, had not been without its repercussions. Mara had not been anxious to repeat that mind to mind link with anyone ever again. She had shielded herself from such contact, unable to open her mind fully to him and others through the Force. And then she had felt Luke reach out across the stars that night. His anguish was as fresh in her mind as if she had been in the same room with him.
For the thousandth time she pondered what that cry had meant. Like the Emperor's death, had it been so strong that others sensitive to the Force had felt it as well? Or had he knowingly or unconsciously directed it to her specifically, a plea summoning her to Yavin? And if so, for what end?
As the days had gone by, she considered what to do, whether to approach him, what to say if she did. None of the answers she devised seemed satisfactory. His call had badly shaken her, and Mara was exceedingly uncomfortable with the thought that, by whatever whim of the Force, she was now more linked to Luke than she had ever wanted or intended to be. Her first instinct had been to ignore it, to run as far from that cry as she could, to block the searing pain and loneliness. Calling upon some of the same calming and shielding he had taught her, she was able to restore her more customary veneer of competence and control. But his dull, gnawing ache remained in her mind. It was then that Mara had realized that she could not in justice use those same techniques he had shown her to keep him away. So, on an impulse, she set off for Yavin.
Although Solo had not given her any particular information she had not already surmised, he had provided a new perspective on a matter that she had been fretting over for weeks. Mara reflected that sometimes Han was more sensitive then he let on. As difficult as it may have been to stay on Coruscant and not immediately go to Luke, he was probably right in concluding that his presence, or that of his family could do more harm than good. If Luke was already despondent, seeing his happily married sister and brother in law and their children would probably only draw him into further gloom. She wondered idly if the Force had prodded Solo as well.
For whatever reason, and by whatever means, Mara had been summoned to Yavin. And so to Yavin she would go.
The navicomputer beeped, announcing the imminent drop from hyperspace. Mara strapped in, prepared and ready as the seconds ticked down.
Mara felt it immediately, almost as soon as she dropped out of hyperspace, and into orbit around Yavin IV. There was a heaviness, a brooding anger that was new to Yavin. She also felt a brief touch on her mind, a momentary lingering that others not as attuned might have missed altogether. "Just ringing the doorbell" she said to the air.
She easily found the beacon and adjusted the Jade's Fire navigation to its frequency. The ship responded smoothly to her touch, and descended gently into the atmosphere toward the Jedi Training Center landing pad. Mara loved flying, she loved her ship, loved skimming just a little too close over the heavy jungles of Yavin, feeling the forces push her ever so slightly back into her chair. It was always a disappointment to land. The Jade's Fire touched down lightly, with the ease of much practice.
Standing at the hatch, she felt a sudden stab of doubt. It was terribly wrong for her to come here. Who was she to interfere with Luke's grief, even if his lack of control was invading her life as well? Why not just turn around and head back out? If Luke did not wish to see his own family, why would he see her, much less follow her on some wild hunt to a mostly Imperial held backwater like Verrat?
Surprised at this compulsion, Mara directed her attention inward, probing for the source of these unexpected feelings. She recognized something external, from without, that was prompting this self doubt. Something wanted her leave, something weak, malicious, petty. This abrupt identification of an insidious variation on the Dark Side was disquieting.
Mara paused. If the Dark Side was operating so strongly in the Jedi Training facility, she began to understand Tionne's concerns. She quickly brushed these fleeting misgivings aside; Mara had faced down the worst of the Dark Side a long time ago, and it would take more than niggardly doubts to rattle her self-confidence. Yanking the hatch release, she stepped out into the humid Yavin atmosphere.
It was deserted; none of the instructors, the Jedi or the students were about. She walked toward the Temple and living quarters, increasingly disturbed at the change in the facility. The place reeked of mold and decay. A vague, unpleasant odor hung in the air. Yavin teemed with life; touching that breathing, living richness was an important part of training here. Usually one could hear the squawks of exotic birds, and the calls of animals deep in the forest. Instead, it seemed silent, watchful, ominous. It was as if the very life of the forest was suspended, tense, waiting for a calamitous outburst or an electrical storm.
What had happened? She tested the air. The same hostility she had felt in orbit hung heavily, but seemed here, more intense and directed, more personal. Although the midmorning sun should have begun warming the air and burning off the early mists, a cold, clamminess permeated.
Becoming frustrated at the lack of any welcoming at all, Mara reached out through the Force and simultaneously heard and felt Tionne running down the path from the dormitories. Tionne rounded a corner and careened into Mara. "I'm so glad you came." To Mara's surprise and embarrassment, Tionne threw her harms around her, clinging to her Mara's shoulders. Tionne's face was red and wet from crying. "Did Han come? Where's Leia?" she gasped.
Mara gently disengaged from the grasp. She knew that Tionne was not very strong in the Force, but had devoted herself to Jedi lore. She was an excellent teacher and had been a tremendous aide to Luke.
Mara was aghast at the change in her. The normally serene woman was distraught and haggard, her clothes were filthy, her hair matted, and deep circles rimmed her blood shot eyes. "They couldn't come, Tionne. Han asked if would. What's happened? Where is everyone?"
"Oh Mara, I didn't know what to do. It's been so horrible." She sobbed. "We all knew something happened when the Master got the message cube, but we had no idea. He just erupted, I've never seen him so angry. Even I could feel it. He's locked himself in his room, and won't come out, and, and ..."
Tionne burst into a fresh bout of tears. Mara was torn, with concern for what had so reduced Tionne, concern for the students exposed to such an intense and destructive influence, and profoundly irritated with both Luke and Callista for perpetrating this nonsense in the first instance. She grabbed the woman by the shoulders. "Tionne, where are the students? What's happened to them? I don't sense them anywhere."
Tionne abruptly seemed to remember that Mara too was trained in the Force. "After a few days, I knew something was terribly wrong. The students were fighting, having nightmares. They were somehow being affected by the Master. I told Kyp Durron and the other instructors to take the students off planet. They've been gone for over two weeks but I told Kyp to wait until I contacted them before they tried to return."
"I'm sure that was the right thing to do. Your priority was to the students, Tionne."
Tionne smiled wanly and then tears began welling in her eyes again. "Mara, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't do anything, I'm so weak, and I.."
Mara had to arrest these feelings of inadequacy. She firmly grabbed the woman's hand. "You know that this is the Dark Side working, don't you?"
Tionne's eyes widened, and Mara felt a gush of fear from her, "I knew there was something wrong, but I've been all alone after Kyp left, and I was so afraid, it's so dark and cold here ..."
As Tionne choked back another sob, Mara reached and squeezed her hand again. "Don't doubt yourself, Tionne. Sometimes the Dark Side isn't always evil, dead Dark Jedi. Sometimes it can be something much more personal and hurtful. You have done everything you could do, and more. You knew you had to get the students away." Mara stopped and looked toward the dormitories, reaching for, and through the Force, finding Luke "Luke has been through things worse than this before. He's a fighter, he'll survive." He had better, or I'll kill him myself.
Tionne snuffled back her tears and wiped her face on a grimy sleeve. Mara felt Tionne attempt a calming technique and gently reinforced the feeling of peace. Even as she did so, the stifling dampness around them seemed to dissipate.
"It has been so frightening Mara. The Master always seems so controlled, so powerful, I can't believe the change in him, or in this place he has worked so hard to build."
"Even Jedi Masters have their weaknesses, and Luke has had a terrible shock. Han asked me if I would try to talk to him and get him to come with me off planet for a few weeks, to give him something new to do and keep him away from here."
Tionne bent toward Mara and whispered. "We don't even know what caused it. Was it ... something from Callista?"
"Yes" Mara said, and her voice was cold.
The two women began walking toward the dormitories. "I should be getting a diplomatic encrypt from Solo on Coruscant. Could you check and see if you can downlink and encode it while I find Luke?"
Tionne nodded, some of her purposefulness returning. "If I can't read it with our encryption equipment, I'll ask Artoo to try it." They stopped at the entrance to the building. "Do you want me to go with you? It's very dark and..." She bit back the rest of her sentence, seeing now what had been the Dark Side's influence upon her, feeding her fears and insecurities.
Mara shook her head. "There's nothing in there you or I can't handle by ourselves." As it was intended, her bravura cheered Tionne. The other woman left her at the door, and turned toward the communications center.
Mara pressed the door and it swung quietly opened. She ventured into its dimness, thinking that the dormitory was normally filled with the voices of young, exuberant trainees, not this cold and brooding silence. Their light seemed to be a dim echo; she heard only her own footfalls reverberating in the damp stone.
A fresh wave of disgust passed over her. This was ridiculous, other people had suffered more grievous losses than the precious master, without imperiling the balance of the Force. What made him think he was so special?
She had felt before that this particular manifestation of the Dark Side was not one of evil, but a weak willed malice. She slowly walked the dusky corridor testing the feeling. There was a will here, but rather than strong, it seemed indecisive, lonely, irritable. It did not want her to go further, but also would not exert itself to stop her. Mara wondered whether Luke was the source of this childishness, or whether, without his active Force presence, the Dark Side was merely trying to reassert itself, and keep her from seeing him. Either way, he or it, or whatever it was, was in for a disappointment. Settling herself firmly into the Force, she could feel that pathetic will slink away like a frightened, gibbering animal into the darkness.
She had no difficulty identifying Luke's room at the end of the hall and strode to it. She pounded at the heavy door.
A muffled and petulant "Who's there? Go away," came through the door.
Mara almost laughed in surprise. "You know perfectly well who it is, Skywalker. You've known since I broke orbit over this wildlife sanctuary you call home. Open the door."
"Why are you here?" came the reply.
Mara thought this was very diverting and answered in kind. "I'm here for a holiday and wanted your suggestions for local night life. No, that's not it, your Force power compels me to tell the truth. I'm here because the late Admiral Thrawn has invaded my mind. He keeps telling me to sell everything I own, donate it to a charity and live in a hut on Kessel. Satisfied, Skywalker? Now open the door."
The gloom lifted marginally. She could sense his amusement at her sarcasm in spite of himself. There was a brief touch of the Force, and the door opened inward; no one stood at the entrance. She peered into the darkened room, allowing her eyes to adjust to its dimness before trying to enter. "Ohhh, you did that without hands, I don't suppose you could find a light too?"
Hearing no response, she walked in and promptly stumbled on something on the floor. Very graceful she thought, and quickly righting herself, fumbled for a switch on the wall to illuminate the gray. The sudden brightness momentarily blinded her and she fiercely blinked her eyes to correct her vision.
"I prefer the lights off." came Luke's voice from somewhere further into the room on the left. The lights abruptly dimmed again.
"And I prefer them on," she responded tartly, and reached the glow pad through the Force and clicked it back on.
Able to see, Mara looked around the tiny room. It was a sty. Debris, clothing, bottles and paper were strewn across the floor and every surface. She identified the offending item she had tripped over, a discarded bottle, picked it up and sniffed it experimentally. "Uhmm, fermented grains from," she studied the label, "Corellia. A fine vintage. This will pack a wallop."
Looking up, she finally saw Luke curled on his bed in the corner wrapped in his brown Jedi robe, and quickly had to still the shock of his reduced condition. She waited a moment, expectantly. When he did not acknowledge her, she moved across the room to the only chair, and swept the clutter from it. "Since you offered, thank you, I will sit down."
He glanced up that time, and cracked a thin, smile. Luke had aged. He was pale, thin and very grim. His eyes were deeply stained with red and stared out of a white, drawn face. A week's or more growth of beard hung around his face. He and the room smelled of old spirits, sweat and malaise. It was appalling.
"I love what you've done with the place Skywalker. It's very welcoming, and so tidy."
"I'll tell my decorator and housekeeping droid you like it. Now that you've had your way and got me to open the door, tell me what you want so then you can go, and leave me alone. I assume that Admiral Thrawn was just a pretext."
"Hey, it worked, didn't it," she retorted brightly, her mind whirling. She had played this conversation over and over in her mind the last three weeks, and the real thing was beginning as badly as she had feared. "Actually, I need a favor." When he did not respond, she continued. "I've got a hold full of cargo that is burning a hole in my wallet. I'm due in Verrat in sixteen standard days and need a copilot. I had to leave the last one on Rishi."
This part was at least true. She could feel his fleeting amusement at her predicament. Mara's problems with her copilots were well known, and he had heaped a lot of good natured abuse on her over the years about the subject.
"Lost another one Mara?" Mara's 'copilots' were invariably young, good looking, fighter jocks with lots of experience in the cockpit, and maybe not much else. The episodes were usually brief and a disappointment for both, neither getting out of the arrangement what they had hoped, and ending with Mara depositing them unceremoniously on a planet much like the dump they had come from after a few trading runs with Captain Jade.
"Ha ha. Anyway, for this trip, I need a pilot who can actually fly, and I thought of you."
She sensed him study her, testing for some falsehood. "Why can't you fly it by yourself? You're good enough to handle a solo without somebody in the co- pilot seat."
Mara snorted. "You evidently don't know the Verrat run."
In spite of the gloom and apathy, Mara could not entirely suppress her excitement and knew that he felt it as well. "Verrat is out on the rim. A nice, quiet place, with a lovely, temperate climate, practically no industry, lots of agriculture, a small, sparsely populated planet with the population concentrated in only a few cities. The trading there is very lucrative."
"Why is a small agrarian paradise interesting to you?"
She ignored the jibe, and answered him seriously. "Two reasons, first, and this is where you come in." She picked up another bottle from the floor and righted it to demonstrate. "Think of the top here as the planet. In orbit, around Verrat, is a nasty little asteroid belt." She circled the top of the bottle with her finger. "Nothing too serious but between that and the distance, it's a pretty effective barrier to most space traffic."
"How can people live there?"
"There's an aerial defense net surrounding the populated areas."
"So why do you need me?"
"Oh, didn't I explain?" she affected innocently. "The only way to get there is to fly through the belt. I won't do it unless I've got a competent copilot."
Luke had been leaning forward to catch her explanation, and suddenly rocked back onto the bed, stunned horror on his face.
"I'm not crazy!" she slapped back, before realizing that she was responding to a strongly voiced censure that Luke had only thought, and not actually said. She continued. "I've done the run many times, and never damaged more than a sensor array. Do you think I would do this if I would damage my ship, or get annihilated by an asteroid?" Her sense of priorities was revealing: ship first, life second.
"You said there were two reasons the trip is 'lucrative.'"
"It's all related to Verrat's inaccessibility. It's always been a popular hide away for those anxious to avoid attention: Jedi at one time, the Rebellion had a base there once, and now lots of rich ex-Imperials. If you can get through the belt with the kinds of luxury goods they miss from the Core Worlds, wine, silks, foods, whatever, they will pay top credit. Not many people do the run, and the demand there is very high. My profit margins from a Verrat trip pay my expenses for an entire year."
She paused, and responding to her hesitation, Luke asked suspiciously, "What else?"
Mara frowned at him. "NRI has reported some problems on Verrat. Nothing too serious, but Solo told me that they have lost contact with an agent. He asked me to check it out while I was there."
Luke did not bother controlling the flash of anger that struck out at Mara. She glared at him, but stood her ground. "Hey, don't blame me."
"Why'd he contact you?" Luke asked sullenly.
"I think he knew I was headed there anyway. His calling me like that was a little too coincidental, don't you think?" Luke did not reply, still fuming. "Anyway, Solo was going to transmit the NRI report here. I asked Tionne to run it through your encrypt equipment. Solo hoped that you would go with me."
"He still could have asked me," Luke repeated petulantly, clearly irritated at her presumption.
"Maybe he tried," she said softly and after a long pause. "But since you have not been returning messages..."
He jerked as she finished her sentence in his mind, without words. "Let's just pretend, shall we, try to preserve some dignity. You know why I really came, don't make me say it."
Luke slumped back down onto his bed and said nothing, the depression and futility threatening to engulf him again.
Mara interrupted the self flagellation. "Will you come? I really need the help. It could be fun." Yeah, right she thought. C-3P0 would be more fun than the disheveled lump now before her on the bed. She could feel the apathy willing him to stay here, curl up, and let the darkness take him. She fought against it.
For a moment, apathy seemed to win. "I don't know. I have so much to do here. It's hard to leave right now."
Mara took the sarcastic approach. "Oh yes, students everywhere clamoring for attention from the Master. Important events to preside over." She looked over his slovenly cell. "And then of course you can always clean your room." She felt a fresh spurt of anger and was encouraged. Anger might motivate him to do something that sitting here and hoping the world would end would not accomplish.
"Since you asked so nicely, how could I possibly refuse?"
She smiled. "Great. I'll let you pack a few things and wait outside. It's about fourteen standards there, the same back, and plan on about three there. And Skywalker, thanks a lot. I owe you one." She stood up in a fluid movement. "I'll see you at the pad." and picking her way through the trash, headed out the door.
* * *
After Mara left, Luke sat for some time. At first, he had been suspicious of her, thinking that she and Han had plotted something between themselves. It seemed more that Han had orchestrated this trip. He agreed with Mara, it was too convenient that Han had just happened to know something about, where was it, Verrat. Han knew she was going there, and somehow convinced her to try to talk him into going too. Just what he needed. A long trip cooped up on a little ship with Mara was likely to be as peaceful and contemplative as an Imperial invasion.
He surveyed the cubicle that had been his refuge and prison for more than three weeks. No, it has been longer than that, he thought. Years. I've spent years here, perfecting the skills that have robbed me of any hope of a normal, adult life. I can open doors and switch on glow pads without ever leaving my bed. He idly pushed a bottle along the floor with the Force, wondering how hard he could press the fragile glass before it shattered. He could do that too, and then probably heal most of the self inflicted wounds. He was, why practically omnipotent.
And, he thought, a miserable failure. I have none of the other things that truly matter to the average man: a permanent home, a wife, a family. Every fool in the galaxy has what I want. He bitterly realized that Mara was right, there was no reason to stay, and every reason to go: without any commitments, he could leave in a moment. Without anyone to return to, he could stay away indefinitely.
The room seemed to contract and grow darker, even with the light. Luke felt a mind seeking his, and recognized his sister reaching out to him from wherever she was today. He shut off the contact, imagining a door slamming between himself and Leia. He did not want to speak with her, feel her presence, or suffer the humiliation of her concern and pity.
Clutching the message cube, he felt anew the betrayal and waste since he had heard Callista's words. "Please try to understand, I will always be your friend." Friend, what an asinine statement. Sustained by the belief that the visions of the Dathomir witch, and his own on Bakura had not been wrong, he had waited for her. He would have gone on waiting, until she either regained her powers or become reconciled to their loss. He didn't care, and had loved her, waiting for what he had fantasized would be their ultimate, and joyous reunion. Well, Callista had not waited, and what a fantasy.
The visions had been lies. Yoda had warned him that the future was always in motion, and his certainly had been. It had careened right off a cliff. Every woman he had loved was dead to him, or might as well be. Dying with Callista on the Eye of Palpatine would have been preferable to this.
He rolled over and stood up, feeling slightly light headed and wobbly. Luke had not actually left his room for a long time. The empty bottles of wine and distilled spirits he had liberated from the dining facility littered the floor. He wondered what Mara thought of that, and then decided he did not care. She was not in any position to adjudge him.
But why had she come? Although Han undoubtedly thought he had maneuvered her into coming to Yavin, he knew that Mara generally did not acquiesce to such manipulation unless it otherwise suited her ends. So, what did she want? It was flattering that she trusted him to co-pilot, but Luke wasn't fooled. Mara was always able to find some mostly competent, decorative male to help her pilot.
At least she was consistent. Mara's taste in co-pilots ran toward the young and brash; he had once told her only a cloning facility could account for the sameness of those exuberant boys who always made the mistake of telling Mara how to fly. They usually ended up walking home.
She obviously knew a great deal more about Verrat then she had told him. However, the prospect of a whole world of Imperials in exile was tantalizing. All that white armor could make for some excellent blaster practice. Pulling a bag from under the cot, he began carelessly tossing things into it. It didn't matter how long he would be gone. He thought about slipping back into the dining area, but figured Mara of all people would have a well stocked selection of distilled drinks on her ship.
Although she had not said anything explicitly, Luke had heard Mara in his mind; she knew about Callista. He was not surprised at the exchange. Simple communication between them had always been good, better even than between Leia and himself. Although he doubted she could breach the many barricades he had constructed between himself and the rest of the world, Mara had been able to penetrate his basic shielding easily, understanding things not even said. Three weeks ago, drunk and raging against Callista and the mess of his life, he had thought he had reached Mara somewhere in the reaches of space. The memory was faint and murky to him now. But, if Mara had felt him through the Force, she had not said so, and she certainly took her time getting to Yavin.
He sat again on the bed, thinking perversely that maybe he would not go with her. Pushing the bottle again, this time, like a mere mortal, with his foot, he watched it list across the floor. She had said going to Verrat might be 'fun.' Fun. He wondered how long it had been since he had had fun.
He and Callista had enjoyed themselves, but then he thought miserably, she hadn't really been all there. On the Eye of Palpatine they had found each other in some inexplicable, noncorporeal way. And afterwards, the Force had been closed to her, and he to her.
When he and Mara had broken Karrde out of Thrawn's Star Destroyer, when he had first met Han and they had recklessly rescued Leia and wandered the first Death Star, those times had been dangerous, terrifying, fun in a way. But really enjoyable?
When was the last time he had been really happy? Tatooine, blasting wamp rats? Before the Force, before his father, before his sister, before the War, before the responsibilities of being a Commander, a Jedi Master, before the wreck of his life. He could hear Yoda's admonishments: "adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things." Well, denying himself those things in the name of some Jedi ascetic had not brought him peace or love either.
He pulled on a flight suit, tossed his light saber and long unused blaster into the bag and closed it. Nothing was ever quiet when Mara was around. Yoda may not approve, but he was a Jedi Master too. It was time to get off this jungle rock.
* * *
When Mara emerged from the dormitory, Tionne was waiting outside with Artoo. Handing her a cube, Mara noted that some of Tionne's assertiveness had returned.
"There was a message waiting for you from General Solo." She paused. "Is the Master going with you?"
Mara nodded. "We're leaving right away." They stood silently as Mara looked around sensing the place. The chill seemed to have returned to the air.
Responding to her unspoken thoughts, Tionne interjected, "I've already spoken to Kyp. He and some of the others will return tomorrow. I told him that I believe we need to cleanse this place before the students return."
"I think you're right. There is a feeling here of malice and ill will. I don't think it's particularly evil, just mean spirited." She smiled. "Nothing like what you all faced with Exar Kuun. You'll have those students back to work in no time."
They were chatting in earnest when Luke finally joined them. He felt a pang of remorse when he saw Tionne. Although he had been annoyed with her rueful concern for him and perpetual weeping, he was genuinely sorry to see the toll the past three weeks had taken on her. As he approached, he could feel Tionne's own uncertainty and insecurity, and a fierce protectiveness emanating from Mara. Mara's warning was clear: behave, she is better than you deserve. Although he had no intention of doing anything solely to please Mara, he was blasting out of here, and feeling more magnanimous. He forced a smile and reached out to Tionne.
Tionne gushed. "Master, it is so good to see you again." If he winced at the word "Master," only Mara noticed. "We have all been so worried."
He nodded and then said stiffly, "Thank you Tionne. I appreciate your concern." He looked around. "You sent the others with Kyp." It was a statement, rather than a question.
"Yes, Master. I have already contacted him. Kyp will return tomorrow with Kirana Ti and Cihgal. Streen will bring the students back the day after."
"I don't know when I will return, Tionne. It will be several weeks at least. You and Kyp can handle the students." Again, his question was more of a command.
"Of course," was her subdued reply.
He saw that Mara held a message cube. "Is that the NRI report?"
Mara nodded. "We can read it on the ship. Let's get going." She turned and gave Tionne a quick squeeze and a wink. "Keep those trainees in line."
Luke reached to sling his bag over his shoulder and caught Mara's eye. "Artoo's coming." He felt a quick, and then suppressed flash from her.
"I don't have a problem with that," she said evenly, implying that it was her choice and not his order that was responsible for the droid joining them.
With that, the two of them trooped toward the Fire, Artoo trailing behind. Luke turned to wave to Tionne, and watched as she moved briskly toward the Temple. As he followed Mara up the ramp, she could not resist a swipe. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" If this was any indication of her temperament, it was going to a long trip.
At the hatch, Mara hesitated. "You haven't been aboard the Fire before have you?" Luke shook his head. "Weellll, let me give you the three credit tour." She grabbed his hand and whisked him into the interior. The central cabin was snug, but well apportioned, a table with a built in for seating hugged one side. The central cabin included a small galley and in the corner, a couch cluster facing a blank view screen and audio equipment. She showed him the compartment near the hatch with emergency equipment, extinguisher, environmental suits, torches, and a medpac kit. Rungs built into the wall reached to the top hatch.
The sleeping quarters were aft. Mara beckoned him to the left. "Captain's quarters are back there," she pointed. "And copilot's are here." He pushed passed her, into the cabin and dropped his bag to the floor. "The necessary's in the back," she said, with a toss of her head and the slightest suggestion that he should avail himself of the shower there.
At the aft of the ship, a metal staircase spiraled down. He scrambled down after her. "Cargo hold?"
"Yep, the manifest's in the ship's computer under inventory. You will probably want to get familiar with what we've got at some point."
A door stood at the bottom of the steps, and she pushed the pressure plate. The hold automatically became illuminated, revealing neatly secured and color coded cartons stacked deck to ceiling. Mara gazed at the ordered sight adoringly and sighed.
She was suffused with pride for her ship, her cargo, her trading run. Even his dark mood did little to suppress her high spirits. Mara bounded back up the steps and he followed more sedately. By the time he joined her in the central cabin she was already pulling up the metal plating from the deck to show off all of the ship's principal systems: life support, propulsion, sensors, shields, hyperdrive, operating computer, hydraulics, defenses, and everything else. She would have insisted on dragging him down beneath the deck to inspect the power couplings and coolant connections, but then thought the better of it.
She grinned apologetically. "Sorry, I get carried away."
They replaced the floor plates and he looked around. "Do you keep this area so clear for maintenance?"
"Partly, but I also need the space," Mara said mischievously.
Luke was mystified. "What for?"
She grinned. "Lightsaber practice and dancing."
Of course, how obvious. To that, he had no response, and they headed to the fore of the ship.
The cockpit was compact and very well designed. She took what was her accustomed place, and gestured to his. The front screen commanded a wide view. They both busied with the instrumentation. Mara was running a preflight sequence, and he accustomed himself to the layout of the controls. It was all accessible, clean, well marked. She ticked off the systems, as he found them. Everything was distressingly normal and within spec. As Mara fired the engines, he eased the ship off her repulsors. They gently rose, clearing first the dense tree line of Yavin IV, and then its atmosphere.
Luke had already punched in Verrat and was waiting for the navicomp. With a hum, it spewed the coordinates, flight path and... "Thirty-five standard days!!! Mara you are crazy. You said it was only going to be fourteen!!"
An amused humph greeted his wail. "Think about it Skywalker. Would I want to be on a ship with you for that long either?"
He chuckled, in spite of himself. "Short cut, right?"
"If I had to rely on the normal hyperspace lanes to get to Verrat, I could never afford to trade there. Lay in for Rekweg."
"Rekweg? I've never heard of it." He returned to the navicomp. "Just how close will we be coming to massive gravity wells, supernovas, black holes, Maws and other hazards?"
"You know me better than that," she responded smugly. "As if I'd risk the Fire or my cargo."
Luke punched in the Rekweg coordinates. "Now what?"
Mara swiveled in her chair, giving him an apprising look. "I guess I don't need to worry about you stealing my route."
He realized, amused rather than stung, that she was serious. "Trade secret?"
With a grin, she turned away, and with rapid movements, her fingers flying across the console, entered another series of coordinates. "Ready?"
"Let's blow out of here."
She laughed. "Why don't you do the honors," suggesting he could take the captain's prerogative. Luke reached for the hyperspace levers, and the stars of Yavin IV dissolved into lines.
They both sighed audibly and sat in silence. "No matter how many times that happens, it's still a thrill," Mara said reverently.
"It's easy to take for granted."
He unstraped his chair belt, and as he stood, hit his head on a picture hanging from above. It was done in a childish hand in bright colors and showed ostensibly a silver ship and a figure in black with streams of blazing red hair. The perspective was a little peculiar: the figure was many times larger than the ship. The background of the picture was also littered with things falling from the sky, including what appeared to be fiery remnants of ships and carefully drawn black stick figures with tiny parachutes.
"Oh Mara, you're an artist."
"Don't snicker at your own niece's art work Skywalker," she chided. "That's Jaina's gift to me, and I won't hear you criticize it."
He studied it again. "I especially love the hair."
"I've been trying to find that color in a bottle for weeks now," she said with a laugh.
"Any more love letters from Jacen?"
She chuckled again and shook her head. "No, and Solo said he doesn't mention my name more than a few times a day so don't be mean. Unrequited love is very hard at that age." Mara made the jest without thinking and them immediately regretted it.
Luke's features faded into a scowl, and he stalked out of the cockpit. "I'll be in my cabin if you need anything."
Mara cursed herself, and him, as he went.
Luke could feel Mara's solicitude as he stomped aft, which only added to his ill temper. He would have slammed the door to his cabin, but its smooth little slide prohibited even that simple expression of anger. He threw himself on his bunk and contented himself with struggling out of his boots and hurling them at the wall.
Callista. How could she have done this? Why did she wait so long? The message had been so short, so devastating. "I've met someone who can love me as I am. I'm sorry and hope you can forgive me. Please try to understand, I will always be your friend."
After having thoroughly rehearsed the arguments and recriminations for three weeks, he was not certain if he was more angry at the fact she had found someone else, that she had waited who knows how many months or even years to tell him, that she somehow thought she could be his 'friend,' or that believing her promise to return, he had placed his life in a dismal holding pattern.
He knew that Mara's slip had not been intentional but it still aggravated him. She could be so insensitive sometimes.
He pulled out a holo of himself and Callista and pressed it between his fingers, trying to will away the sense of betrayal. The familiar darkness enveloped him. It seemed so comforting in comparison to this harsh reality of failure. He finally slept.
* * *
The pounding in his head became louder and more insistent: a voice screeching and laughing, and a lightsaber crashing down on him. With a start, Luke bolted upright, his hazy, disturbing dream mingling with the sounds of Mara beating on his door.
"Hey Skywalker, you've slept long enough, now wake up."
"I'm up, I'm up," he repeated irritably, anything to get her to cease that banging. He tried to rise, and fumbling for a light, tripped over his bag still in a heap on the floor. Swearing, Luke limped over to the door. Mara was still rapping on it when he depressed the pad. He was pleased to see that the door opened so quickly she nearly fell into the room.
Tantalizing smells of food wafted in. "Uh, sorry for waking you, but you've been asleep for hours. I was fixing something for myself and thought you might be hungry."
Still groggy from the sleep, and grumpy from being awakened, Luke blinked at her in the brightly lit corridor, any retort dying on his lips at the audible sound of his stomach growling. Abashed, he looked down. "I guess I am, thanks. Let me wash up, and I'll join you."
Mara was already heading back down the corridor, calling over her shoulder, "Okay, but don't be too long."
Finding the light switch, he was able to navigate unimpeded and headed to find a sink to splash the last of sleep away. The image that stared back at him from the mirror was depressing. He rubbed the stubble on his chin, thinking that although three weeks of beard on some might be appealing, on him it was mostly pathetic. Where has my self respect gone, he thought and then immediately knew the answer. It fled when Callista did. Well, it was just Mara.
She was already sitting at the table with a steaming plate of something in front of her, and another waiting for him. He eased his way into the booth, across from her. "What's this?"
"Dinner," came the unhelpful reply.
"Thank you for clarifying that Mara, I have a much better understanding of the subject now." She smirked. He began toying with the colorful mound with a fork and tentatively tried a bite. It wasn't bad.
Mara was actually apologetic. "I don't waste space with much in the way of food stuffs and the ship's culinary capabilities are limited. You'll have to wait until Verrat for fine dining. But in answer to your concededly fair question, it's a mixture of legumes and grains, some vegetables and nuts."
He wondered how long it had been since he had eaten proper food and began attacking the plate. "No meat?"
She wrinkled her nose. "On a hyperspace jump?" as if the answer were obvious. "Or are you one of those people who doesn't think it's a meal unless something dead is served?"
"Of course not," he retorted. "I was just trying to make conversation."
"Oh." She then said more contritely, "The drinks are in the shelf behind your seat. Why don't you grab something?"
He slid back a panel and beheld a dazzling array of spirits, wines, ales and other mysterious looking bottles. "I knew you'd be well stocked." He began pulling bottles out and setting them on the table. "Let's save the Corellian for later, shall we?"
She nodded. "Definitely not with food. How about that one?" She pointed several tall bottles with some type of amber brew. "Those are good, it's a Wallchilian ale, distilled from grain."
"I'm not picky."
As Luke poured out two glassfuls and slid one over to her, she commented, "I didn't know you drank much."
He shrugged. "I didn't until about three weeks ago. One of the consequences to being a Jedi Master; it takes a lot before you feel the effect." He quickly downed his glass and helped himself to another, taller one.
"Wouldn't you be able to neutralize the alcohol in your body anyway?"
He shrugged again. "Sure, but then what would be the fun of that?"
"Fun? You have fun? I didn't know that."
"Yes, well, now you do, it's the new me." He slammed down another drink.
Mara eyed him speculatively and then downed hers and gestured for more. "I don't think I'll be able to match you better than two to one. We'll see who's standing at the end of the night." They ate in silence and, once finished, Mara cleared and stowed the plates. Luke had replenished their drinks by the time she sat again.
Mara peered at her glass, and then spoke aloud. "We need some evening entertainment. Do you know any drinking games?"
He thought a moment. "You mean like up the river, down the river or credit bounce?"
Mara rummaged in her pockets for a couple of credit chips and set them on the table. She arched an eyebrow. "Since I used to work in bars, that's how I learned them, but I bet drinking games aren't part of the Jedi curriculum."
"Nope, but they are on Tatooine." He massaged a chip between his fingers and then abruptly bounced it off the table and with a gentle nudge of the Force, arced the chip into her glass.
"I am not going to drink that glass, you cheat. You used the Force."
"I did not."
She stuck her lip out at him. "You did too. I could feel it. If we're going to play, you have to promise not to use the Force." And with that, she expertly bounced a chip into his glass. "Drink up farm boy."
"Just what I get for playing credit bounce with a cocktail waitress." He drained his glass and fished the chip out of the bottom. Mara gulped down her ale, and then caught the chip in her teeth.
Credit chips, aided and unaided by the Force were soon bouncing off the walls of the cabin. Luke, trying to match Mara's oral dexterity with credit chips, swallowed one. Mara was laughing so hard, she swallowed hers as well.
Having gone through several bottles of amber whatever it was, Luke began perusing the cabinet for more. "I figure that once we finish your liquor cabinet, we can break into the hold and drink your wine too." Mara sputtered her drink at him in outrage. "That's the problem with you Mara, no sense of humor."
She was ready to fling a stinging retort when she saw him stiffen and slowly draw out a cut glass bottle filled with syrupy orange liquor.
He was studying the label. "Is this what I think it is?"
She swallowed hard and nodded, "Bakuran namana spice nectar. I'm sorry, I.." she stammered. "I forgot it was there."
Luke uncorked the bottle and swirled the nectar into their glasses. "Although Gaeriel was quite a distraction at the time, I recall that this is wonderful." He sighed and seemed to retreat into himself.
Mara raised her glass and caught his eye. "To Gaeriel." He lifted his glass in tribute and their glasses clinked. Mara added, "May we all go down fighting." He nodded and they both drained their glasses and he refilled them.
"I didn't really know her. You met right after Endor didn't you?"
And so he told her the story, of Bakura, the Ssiruuk, the entrenchment process that would murder and enslave humans to the aliens' battle droids, Dev, the young man who had been his first student, the treachery of the Governor, the almost comical attempts to cooperate with an Imperial world, his reflexive reaction to stormtrooper armor, the then budding romance between Han and Leia. As they continued to sip the fiery liquid, Mara listened, and eventually, he told her of Gaeriel, of her religion, her commitment to her people, her decision to stay, her husband, her daughter.
They sat in silence, and he shook his head trying to clear it. Luke steadied himself, and then asked the question to which he thought he already knew the answer. "How did you know about Callista?" As Mara hesitated, he could feel conflicting emotions welling from her: reluctance, apprehension, compassion. He tried prompting her again. "You were already on the way to Yavin, weren't you." She nodded stiffly, not speaking. "So you already knew before Han contacted you."
She nodded again, frozen to her seat, and then finally whispered, "I felt it. When you heard from her, I knew."
He leaned back, absorbing the fact that they had linked, knowing why this would be so traumatic for her. "I'm sorry Mara. I didn't mean to do that, to you of all people." He tried to lighten the mood. "I'm amazed you didn't just plot a course for the point furthest from Yavin."
She responded in kind, forcing a thin smile. "I tried. I was with Karrde and some of his people. They thought I was having a nervous breakdown."
He grinned at that and gestured to the namana liquor. "If we keep drinking this stuff, we'll end up addicted to it." He turned back to the cabinet. "Since we're drinking to my old loves, I don't suppose you have anything from Chad."
Unbidden, the response formed in her mind, unsaid, "I have to tell him..."
She might as well have spoken aloud. Luke whipped around and stared at her. "Tell me what?" His tone was icy, threatening.
Mara shrank back, but he lunged across the table and seized her wrist. "Tell me what?" She tried to snatch her hand away, but he held it in a vise. "Tell me," and suddenly plunged into her mind, trying to rip the memory from her.
Without any conscious effort or thought, in an instant, her mental barrier slammed into him with a power that sent them both reeling. Mara shook free of him and hissed, "Don't you ever do that to me again."
The air was thick with an electric tension between them, the Force crackling with potent friction. Both were momentarily stunned from the Dark Side that had unexpectedly surged. The anger was palpable, straining against a wall that threatened to burst out, and cut a swath of destruction. Luke struggled to find a calm place within himself, and felt Mara fighting for the same control. Both were breathing hard from the exertion and concentration it took to avert what had been a dangerously close brush with violence.
Mara recovered sufficiently to speak in a measured tone. "I did not mean to hide this from you. If you want to know, I'll tell you, but you have to ask."
He exhaled deeply, responding to her implicit apology. "I'm sorry too. Please, can you tell me what happened."
She took a deep breath. "I've been trading on Chad for several years now," she began. "There are some good sea based products, fish eggs, fertilizers with high iodine and nitrogen content, some interesting medicinals." She hesitated. "I won't try to deny it, I guess. I did think that if Callista was around she might show up there. I never actually looked for her, but, I knew you would want to know what she was doing, where she was, so I just kept my eyes open. I never really examined my motives too closely." She glared a challenge at him, threatening that he had better not scrutinize her motivations too closely either.
Perhaps not liking the hanging implication, she added, "Don't get any wrong ideas. I thought she had been a callous bitch leaving like that, and then continuing to dangle you along. To the extent I thought about it at all, I guess I figured that if you knew what she was doing, then maybe you could get on with your life."
He thought Mara's characterization of Callista was a little strong, but stayed silent.
When he did not respond, she continued. "I went to Chad a few months ago on a buying run to prepare for this trip. I had landed on one of these weird floating cities they have, and contacted my usual broker. We were just gossiping about routes and prices when he mentioned that there had been some changes with one of our suppliers, a family I had been trading with for a while. He said that a woman from the family had returned after years away and had not aged a day. He said she had left Chad, had been a Jedi, had been terribly wounded in a fight with the Emperor, and even Mr. Luke Skywalker himself couldn't save her powers."
"Well, it had to be Callista and I asked my broker to arrange a meeting. It turns out, she had heard I was there too, and was looking for me. So, we met." Mara stopped. "I think I need some of the Corellian stuff now."
He picked the brandy bottle out of the debris on the table and sloshed some into glasses for both of them. "So what happened then, how did she look?"
Mara drained her glass in a gulp and gestured for more. "She looked good. Happy. She..." Mara gave him a warning look, and he tried to steel himself for the next revelation. "She brought her husband, and their baby daughter."
He groaned, and sunk his head, realizing that it wasn't only that Callista had met 'someone.' She had already married and had a child, while he had rotted on Yavin waiting for her. He took a deep draught of the brandy, waited for Mara, and then refilled their glasses again. "Callista said they had been on Chad for less than a year, that they had met on Marffren, in a library at the capital city there."
"What was she doing there?"
"I asked the same thing. She said that she had been following a lead Tionne had given her. Some Jedi who dabbled in the Dark Side, and lost his powers."
Luke nodded. "Jedi lore teaches that a man named Ulic Qel Droma turned to the Dark Side to fight in the Sith War. He ultimately betrayed Exar Kuun and helped to defeat him. But even in turning away from evil, Qel Droma was blinded to the Force."
"Oh. Well she explained that both she and her now husband had gone there for the same reason. They had both lost their contact with the Force and were trying to regain it. She had thought that if they examined QelDroma's library on his home planet, they might find something to help them."
"But they didn't find anything."
Mara shook her head. "Callista said that they did learn that although the Force is not corporeal, it does emanate from life. When a person's body undergoes a severe, near death trauma, she thought the Force may move onto the next plane, and leave the body behind. It was all speculation, but the best explanation they found. So they stayed on Marffren for over a year, researching and then trying to reach the Force, together. Only the Dark Side was open to them. So they gave up and returned to Chad. Her parents were dead, but her brothers and sisters, and their children were still there. They remembered her and welcomed them back."
"And somewhere along the way, she fell in love with this person." Luke tried, but did not wholly succeed in keeping the bitterness out of his voice.
"Callista said that each of them was only a half of their former selves, and together they made a whole."
They downed more brandy. Luke knew he was rapidly approaching some severe state of intoxication, and the way Mara was listing to the side, she wasn't much better. "What was his story, how did he lose the Force?"
He saw Mara shiver, with the memory of it. "Callista didn't say at first, except that there had been a terrible accident. But as soon as I saw him, I thought I knew."
"Do you remember during the Dreadnaught battle and again on Wayland, that sort of buzzing in your mind?"
A wave of revulsion passed through him, echoed from Mara. "He's a clone?"
"Callista said that his parents, well, I mean his host's parents had been Jedi. They had tried to train him in secret, somewhere in the Outer Rim. But Vader found his parents and murdered them. He managed to escape, and eventually became a trader, and with the Force, apparently a very skilled pilot. He stayed out of the Rebellion, and would have probably gone on living a quiet life in obscurity except that Thrawn found him. He was conscripted into the Imperial navy, strapped into a fighter, and performed too well. You can guess what happened then."
He surprised himself by feeling pity. "It's horrible. We don't really think about what happened to all those people Thrawn cloned."
Mara shrugged. "I suppose he behaved as honorably as he could. His host was so horrified at what he had become a part of, he killed himself, piloting a Howlrunner into a Star Destroyer. The clone, or at least this one, found that he had lost the Force, remembering it, but unable to contact it."
"So cloning destroyed his Force sense. That idea of trauma to the body may explain why the ability is so rare in clones."
"Could be. Anyway, he deserted the Imperials and wandered a while before, like Callista, ending up on Marffren."
Both Mara and Luke simultaneously reached for the brandy and a refill. Mara looked at him closely, apparently trying to gauge his reaction, or maybe wishing, in her state, that he didn't have two heads staring into two glasses. "I couldn't think of a way to bring up the subject. I thought drinking might loosen my tongue. I guess it did."
"Was she ever going to tell me? Or was she just going to, how did you say it, dangle me along for a few more years?"
Mara squinted slightly. "I don't know. I came down on her pretty hard. I told her that she had to tell you, that you still loved her and had been waiting for her. That surprised her. She said that she'd been certain that in the end, you would've realized that she couldn't give you what you really needed, and would move on. I didn't believe her. Maybe she was afraid to tell you, maybe she didn't want to hurt you, and thought you would take it, well, like you did."
"What did she expect?" he swore. "Of course I'd be hurt, but that still doesn't excuse leaving me hanging for so long."
Mara flared back at him. "Hey it's not my fault. This kind of paternalism drives me wild." Her voice became shrill, in a high pitched mimicking whine. "'I was just trying to protect him, it was for his own good.' I don't know about you, but I want the bad news, and if I don't like what I hear, well that's my problem. She actually suggested that I tell you. I almost ripped her head off. But before I left, I got her to promise that she would contact you. You know the rest."
He hunched over, feeling an increasingly familiar black rage creeping inside him, the desire to do harm, to take revenge. Mara interrupted his brooding suddenly, reaching across the table and delivering a stinging slap, furious. "You can cut that out right now. I won't tolerate that kind of garbage around me or on my ship. If you keep it up, you'll be floating home."
He gaped at her in open mouthed amazement. "Geez Mara, thanks for retracting your claws first." He rubbed his cheek, then said more soberly, "I didn't mean. . ."
"Yes you did," she snapped, but then softened as she felt him battle against the anger he had aimed at her, at Callista. Even in his now thoroughly bleary state, he could feel her reinforcing his struggle for control, trying to create an aura of calm in his wild desperation.
They continued swilling the brandy in silence, each fighting a battle with consciousness and comprehension. Mara finally blurted, "Listen, Skywalker, all I can say is, she isn't worth it. Nothing is worth the Dark Side. You want revenge, fine. But don't give her the satisfaction of thinking she had the power over you to wreck your life. The best revenge is to live well."
"So I'm getting advice from Mara Jade on how to be happy?" He did not think he meant the statement as a jibe, and she evidently did not take it as such.
"If you're looking to me for suggestions on satisfying personal relationships, then you deserve everything you get." She waved her hand for emphasis and almost rocked out of her seat. "But seriously, this moaning poet thing is just not you. You're a fighter, so start acting like one. It's time to get on with your life." She giggled at the self importance of her pronouncements. "I know I've had too much Corellian when I start dishing out advice."
That time he laughed too. She pounded the table. "I have an idea. Let's see if we can find you a new girlfriend on Verrat."
He objected, "Verrat's too far."
She considered that a moment. "See, problem is, you're always wait'n in the wilds for them to come to you. You hafda to go where the women are. We gotta develop a ... a marketing plan for you. We'll plot out where you can go and find a girlfriend, like what Calrissian did. He did pretty well."
Luke cringed slightly at the memory, but then brightened, catching her enthusiasm. "We could go on some trading runs together, and scope out the local eligibles."
"Hey, if you come with me, I get a commission if you find a good one."
"Yeah, I want, uhhh, twenty five percent of gross, not net, gross."
"That's outrageous, sixteen and a half, tops."
"Hey, it's my ship, and my idea, twenty four."
"Twenty two and a half, and that's my final offer, or you'll have to find a girlfriend without my help."
Luke protested, but if he could get a girlfriend out of it, it might be worth this exorbitant sum. He tried to focus on Mara and wondered whether he or she was the one leaning to the left. "Except, we still gotta find one before you get your commission. And how are we gonna do that, when you'd scare them all away."
"I would not."
"You would too. No respectable woman would come near you, Mara."
"That's not very nice, even it is true. I don't like respectable women, they're boring. Why do you want one?"
"I dunno. But do you know any?"
"Uhhhh, what were we talking about?" Mara had lost the thread of the rambling conversation.
"Do you know any?"
"I think so."
"So will you introduce me to them?"
She stuck out her chin stubbornly. "I'm not going to introduce you to any respectable women unless you can find me a better supplier of copilots."
He could solve that problem. "I know lots of pilots."
"Are they cute?"
"How would I know that?"
"Would I like them?"
"I dunno. You'd have to meet them."
"I like `em cute, dumb and real uncomplicated." They both started giggling.
Mara resumed, with great earnestness. "But farm boy, I don't know many respectable women. What if you don't like them? Where are we going to find you a girlfriend?" Pondering this profundity required further fortification.
A light suddenly shown through the haze of Luke's rapidly ebbing coherence. "I know!! I could put an ad on some of the system wide boards or mags, '30 something standard year single, male, humanoid Jedi Master seeks single, female humanoid for relationship, possible long term commitment."
Mara added, "Some Force proficiency preferred, but not necessary. Must like jungle worlds and Corellian brandy."
She reached for the bottle and chugged several swallows. Luke was in awe; Mara was so talented, he didn't know if he ever recalled seeing a woman do that before. She handed the bottle back to him, and not to be outdone, he drained the rest.
They both looked mournfully at the now empty bottle. "Mara, it's all gone." He had an inspiration. "Let's go down to the cargo hold, and find some more." He lurched to his feet and she staggered after him.
"Wait," she grabbed him by the collar. "The hold is this way."
The force of his change in direction sent him sprawling into her. He slung an arm over her shoulder for support. "Does your ship always spin this much?" She nodded sagely.
They reeled along the corridor, Mara almost pitching down the stairs into the hold. This time, he grabbed her collar and leaned her up against the door to his room. She looked at the spiraling stairs. "Oh damn . . stairs. Farm boy, I don't think I can do stairs." He had to agree, it looked awfully far.
"Maybe if we rest a moment."
Mara was very amenable. "Okay, where? The deck looks comfortable . . ." She started to slide down the wall.
"No, wait, we'll rest in my room."
It took them a few moments of fumbling to find the control pad. When by virtue of luck and repetition, he and Mara managed to get the door open, he fell into the dark room, and promptly tripped over the bag he still had not cleared from the floor. He grabbed Mara for support, and they both tumbled onto the bunk, laughing hysterically.
They lay there until Mara tried to extricate herself. He tugged her arm and she slipped, almost to the floor. He complained, "Stop making the bed spin, I'm trying to rest."
She lay back down. "Which way are you spinning?
"I'm going left."
"No wonder we can't navigate." More giggling, thoroughly at odds with the images of a Jedi Master and Master Trader.
Mara offered a helpful suggestion. "You know, I've always found that if you put a hand on the floor, you won't get the spins."
Mara tried to demonstrate, and almost fell out of the bed again. Luke latched onto her and pulled her back up. Wanting to test her theory, he tried to put his hand on the floor, but found something softer and more yielding instead.
"That's not the floor."
"What is it?"
"I think it's my breast, but I'm not sure."
"Oh," he pulled his hand back. "Sorry."
She flopped over onto her stomach. "I'm going to rest. Wake me when you want to go to the hold." He was already asleep.
* * *
Mara's first thought on waking was, only the dead feel this lousy, and then where am I? From years of repetition, she was immediately able to identify the nasty repercussions unique to excessive amounts of Corellian brandy: a telltale pounding in her temples and a dry, foul taste in her mouth. She heard a soft snore abruptly in her ear, and froze. A snore? She willed herself to stay calm. Her foggy brain battled with mounting dread as she frantically tried to remember where she had last been drinking Corellian brandy and, more importantly, judging from the sounds next to her, with whom. Slowly opening one eye, Mara then quickly shut it, the ensuing heart attack perhaps the best remedy for her whammy of a hangover.
She groaned inwardly, fighting every instinct that cried out to leap up, run screaming into the corridor, and launch herself into the vacuum of space. Death was definitely preferable to this.
At least, she thought grimly, this time, I know his name.
Panic set in. She could feel the weight of his arm across her torso. She had to get out of there. Forcing herself to confront the inevitable, Mara steeled herself for what she was certain would be an appalling sight, opened both eyes, and glanced downward. His arm was resting on top of her, she tried not to whistle audibly, fully clothed body. She slid out from under the offending arm and stood up, far too quickly as her head protested this abrupt and unfair treatment. Mara slithered out of Skywalker's room, mercifully avoiding the debris on the floor, and fled.
In the privacy of her own cabin, Mara indulged in the relief that flooded her. Gods... If there are gods, she thought silently, I thank you. She lay down in her bunk, replaying the evening in her still throbbing head. Keeping Callista secret from him had been a strain; she was relieved that he finally knew the whole truth. Now, to administer to this wicked hangover. Some cold water, an anti inflammatory/vasodilator, a toothbrush and a clean flight suit did wonders to restore her equilibrium. She grabbed her lightsaber, clipped it to her belt and headed to the main cabin. She could use some exercise with the remote . . . after clean up.
The cabin was a scene of carnage. Her head still tender, Mara repeated a mournful refrain common the galaxy over; how in the stars did we polish off an entire bottle of Corellian brandy? The number of empties, albeit degenerate, made for an impressive tally. Sticky credit chips were stuck to the walls, deck and furniture. She marveled at how far they had bounced. As Mara scrubbed at the table, she began to think of the trip in a much more positive light. Skywalker was, all things considered, not a bad drinking buddy. She wondered if he could dance.
She was on her hands and knees and so intent on prying a recalcitrant credit chip off the deck that she did not immediately feel the Force presence behind her. A tingling on the back of her neck alerted her. She looked up and around, and for the second time that morning, her heart stopped in her chest. A beneficent, serene man in a brown Jedi robe was staring down at her. He was illuminated in soft glow. Scrambling to her feet, she retreated to a corner. Skywalker, she swore, this is your doing.
He or it, or whatever it was spoke first. "It has been a long time since we met, Mara Jade." Mara remained mute. "Do you not recognize me?"
Mara sent a brief tendril out to the whatever, and then felt a shock of recognition as its own Force presence rose to meet her. She tried to keep her voice from quavering. "Vader?"
He paused, as if considering. "Yes, I was once known by that name, but now I am as I was before, Anakin Skywalker."
Mara thought ruefully, this is what I get for meddling with Jedi. "Yes well, your son is sleeping off a hangover in the next room. Why don't you go and appear to him instead of me."
Vader smiled. "You have changed much since we last met, Mara, but in some ways you are very much the same. The Force is strong in both you and my son, but it is difficult to bridge the divide between this place and mine. Because you knew me better, even in my old life, it is easier for me to appear to you now."
"Oh lucky me." Despite her sarcastic reply, Mara did relax slightly. She was dumbfounded that the awful creature she had known so well for so long could now be so benign. But still. "Listen, Vader. We were not exactly on the best of terms then, and frankly, I have no desire to continue the acquaintance now. So, please save your breath, or whatever it is that you have now and get off my ship."
The infuriating shape looked quite solemn. "Despite what your pride may lead you to believe to the contrary Mara, I have not made this difficult journey for your benefit. I have come for the sake of my son, to deliver a message and a warning."
I knew it, Mara thought. Skywalker was going to feel a hell of a lot worse than a mere hangover after she was through with him. "Yeah well, speak up and get out."
Vader continued quietly as if she had not spoken. "You must remind him that fear and anger are not the only ways to the Dark Side. Despair and loneliness are also of the Dark Side."
Between the rebuke and now an order, Mara's apprehension dissolved into anger. "I am not your errand boy, Vader. Skywalker is a grown-up and how he chooses to wreck his life is not my concern. Others have suffered more than he has. If he wants to wallow in self-pity, let him."
Vader/Anakin just looked at her sympathetically for a long, uncomfortable moment, and then gently remonstrated her. "If you examine your feelings Mara, you know that is not true. Whether you have wished it or not, the Force has bound you and my son. He has been in great danger. His path is clearer now, but the Dark Side remains a compelling and seductive temptation for him. You have shown him a path. You must help him remain on it."
Mara exploded. "Who do you think you are? I don't take orders from you. Your son is not my responsibility."
If she had hoped to goad him out of that contemptible Jedi serenity, she was disappointed. He simply looked at her pityingly. "Mara, my son once saved me, and he has saved you. Now we must save him."
Mara tried to absorb the extraordinary conversation but words failed to her. It was all just too bizarre. Vader continued. "Luke believes that he will spend the rest of his life alone and unloved. Tell him that is not his path, tell him to remember the words of the Dathomir witch."
Anger was replaced by mystification. "Dathomir?"
"He will understand."
"Listen Vader, I've no idea what you're talking about," she said brusquely. "I mean, sure he's depressed, but we all get over it. I think he just wants to believe that Callista might still come back to him."
Vader was quiet for several heartbeats, then said harshly, "I have come here to speak to you of my son. I cannot see the way of that woman."
Mara felt foolish arguing with something that wasn't really there, and it galled her on principle to ask anything of Vader, but she tried anyway. "I think it would make a difference to him if knew for certain."
Another long silence filled the room before he spoke again. "The Force demands that when the time comes, we abandon our corporeal presence here, and move willingly to the next plane. When one refuses to do so, even for the best of reasons, there will be a price. Our corporeal sense remains, but the Force may move on. Only the Dark Side is open to such people."
She just stood in the middle of the cabin staring at the deck. This was all Skywalker's fault, and she was thoroughly cursing her impulsiveness in going to Yavin. Vader must have sensed her irritation and confusion. "My child ..."
She hardened at the intended endearment. The irony of Vader calling her by such a gentle and familiar term was infuriating. "I am not a child."
"No, forgive me, I know that you are not."
He looked down at the light saber dangling from her belt. "You bear my old blade."
"Yeah, so, do you want it back?" He smiled at her, and she responded defensively, "Skywalker gave it to me," realizing that he probably already knew that.
"Ask yourself Mara Jade, why did a Jedi give you his father's light saber?"
She tensed, unwilling to say to him what she herself had often wondered. "I don't know why he gave it to me."
Vader just gave her an inscrutable smile. It was vaguely reassuring to know that Vader had not changed all that much; he still enjoyed making others uneasy, it was only a matter of degree. "Use it well. I must leave now. Good bye Mara Jade. I do not know if we will meet again. Love my son well."
Now that was a low blow. She erupted in fury as he dematerialized, stomping around the deck to relieve her frustration. Damn, damn, damn Jedi and all who fly with them. Who the hell did he think he was? Last time she had seen Vader he was choking some poor servant at Coruscant Palace for dropping a plate. The incongruity of him now dispensing tender counsel was simply beyond comprehension. Save her indeed. She was the one who found Skywalker floating in the middle of nowhere with a busted hyperdrive. She was the one who got him out of Myrkr. And now she was supposed to save him? Yeah, right.
"Love my son." What a jerk. Who did he think he was? So she had linked with Skywalker half way across the galaxy; big deal She had also shared a mental link with the late, unlamented Emperor for years without ever once featuring him in any erotic fantasy of hers. If Vader actually thought that he could compel her to do anything, he was sorely mistaken.
Stomping and banging about the deck was not providing a sufficient release for her foul temper. Between inadvertently waking up in Skywalker's bed, her Corellian sized hangover, and now the long dead Darth Vader showing up on her deck to proffer advice to lonely hearts, it was shaping up to one hell of a morning. She stalked over to her weapons closet and pulled out a blaster remote and a helmet. It was time to let off some steam. She set the remote at one of the upper difficulty ranges, and just to make it fair, lowered the blast shield on her helmet and activated **her** light saber. If she got a little burned during practice, so much the better.
* * *
Luke's own return to the land of the conscious was only slightly less alarming than Mara's, albeit for different reasons. Waking was like crawling out of a dark pit, his own reaction to the after effects of Corellian brandy similarly excruciating. Why, oh why do I do this to myself? He considered using the Force to cleanse the worst of the toxins, but then stopped. He deserved this pain.
As he was counting the bones in his skull, he heard the unmistakable sound of a light saber against blaster fire. He leaped out of bed, and instantly regretted the sudden moves.
This time, I will pick up the damn bag from off the floor. As he fell to the deck, he reached out to Mara, and then realized that, no, the ship was not, in fact, under attack.
In defiance of all normal endurance and decency, Mara, from the sounds of it, was engaged in an intense light saber practice with a remote. He groaned, and crawled back into the bunk. Her energy was exhausting. Not wanting to disturb her concentration, he reached out cautiously, trying to gauge how long she had been at it, and most importantly, when the appalling noise would stop.
He was surprised at her concentration and, well, ferocity. She was firmly aligned with the Force; he could feel it rippling powerfully from and through her. The sounds of her light saber deflecting the remote's blasts and Mara's intense focus evidenced a competence and skill he did not know she possessed. It also felt that she had some time to go yet in her workout.
Mara. Hadn't she been here, in this bunk last night? He went over the evening, and recalled her nearly falling out of the narrow bunk, once, no twice. So what had happened? Even when thoroughly drunk, he was not generally in the habit of throwing attractive women out of his bed, but then this was Mara so anything was possible. Belatedly, he realized he was still in his flight suit, which was at this point, a more reliable indicator of what had happened the previous night then was his own memory.
He grinned. She must have woken up at some point, had a near death experience and fled. Too bad she didn't leave something compromising behind. He was looking forward to giving her a real hard time for this intriguing combination of wantonness and sheer cowardice.
Musing on how the night ended, brought him round eventually to how it had begun. Callista was gone and the Force lost to her. He might have accepted her, but he had begun to understand that she could have never tolerated the dependency she believed that would have entailed. He felt genuine pity for her new husband, whoever he was, and supposed that he and Callista, both scarred by horrific experiences, would be able to carve out some kind of precarious happiness. What remained inexplicable to him was that Callista had not told him. He wondered if, but for Mara's precipitous arrival on Chad, he would have ever known.
Whatever her purported reasons, he simply could not forgive or condone such cold heartedness. He could feel the rage and betrayal surge in him again, but this time, summoned the strength to beat it back.
The sounds of intense fire penetrated his cabin. He groaned again. Might as well face the day, there was now no possibility of further sleep with Mara sounding as if she were defending against an entire battalion of storm troopers. As he stumbled to the sink, he again caught his reflection in the mirror. He looked even worse then yesterday, bleary eyed, blood shot, greasy. Luke stared at the sight. Callista was gone. Debasing himself was not going to bring her back.
He wondered if maybe Mara was right. Maybe the best revenge on Callista would be to find happiness somewhere else, with someone else. He started searching the room, certain that its previous occupants would have left something to shave with and clean clothes. It was with a considerably lightened heart that he began a symbolic and physical cleansing.
Later, well scrubbed, and desperately seeking a remedy for the lingering after affects of the Corellian, Luke cautiously entered the central cabin. He spied a carafe of some steaming stimulant on the table, and carefully inched toward it, prepared to wait out Mara's workout only if properly fortified. Although disturbing her concentration could be hazardous to both of them, he was chagrined that in her total focus on the remote, she was not aware of his approach from the rear.
He examined her technique with a critical eye. He recognized some of his own instruction, and some stances that were unfamiliar to him. She held the light saber with the ease that only long practice awarded; her defenses against the remote were swift, graceful, feline. As he had been taught, and now taught his students, he could feel the Force flowing through her, feel her draw strength from it as she deftly parried shot after shot. As she abruptly turned to deflect another bolt, he was startled to see that she had been practicing blind, with the blast shield on her helmet down. He flexed his fingers in anticipation, a match or two against Mara during the trip might be a real challenge.
The remote suddenly stopped and beeped. Luke watched Mara close down her light saber, slowly straighten and then quickly turn toward where he was standing. He sent out a quick touch.
"Oh," her voice was muffled through the helmet. "It's just you."
He was about to respond with a tart "and good morning to you too," but then caught the tension in her mind and voice. Her hair and face were slick with sweat as she pulled the helmet off.
"What did you mean, 'just me?' Where you expecting someone else?" He asked, not really expecting a reply.
She stood, studying his face, and then shrugged. "I guess I see a family resemblance."
"Huh? Uh, Mara it's too early and my hangover way too painful for guessing games."
She ambled to the table, deposited her gear and tossed him a bottle of tabs. "These'll help." She sat heavily on the seat, still breathing hard from her practice.
"Anakin was here."
Luke was bewildered. "Anakin...?"
Mara shook her head. "No, not your nephew, Vader, your father."
"What?" He sank down on the seat across from her and as his head began to throb anew, promptly downed two anti inflams.
"Vader was here, not more than an hour ago, while you were still sleeping off the Corellian."
Luke was incredulous. "My father appeared to you, here, and I missed him?"
"Are you listening to me, or is mimicking the best you can do?" The strain in her voice was clear. "Yes, as I said, your father, Anakin Skywalker, formerly Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, Champion of the Emperor Palpatine, etcetera, etcetera. You know the heavy breather with the black mask, who used to go around killing lots of people, was here, on my ship, speaking to me, this morning, on top of one of the worst hangovers of my entire life. So be nice, farm boy, I've had a real bad morning."
Luke felt a pang of loss. His father had once appeared to and spoken with Leia, but had not sought him out since Endor. "Why didn't he appear to me?"
"You mean apart from the fact that you were still unconscious? Believe me I tried, even offered to wake you up . . . sort of. But no, he was quite insistent, said that because I knew him better it was easier to appear to me than to you."
He supposed that made sense. "Why did he come?"
Mara did not answer right away, but finally sorted out a cool response. "He came because he wanted to warn you. He wanted me to tell you that fear and anger are only part of the Dark Side. He said loneliness and despair lead there too and he thought you were being tempted to the Dark Side."
"But that's ridiculous. Why would he think that?" Even as Luke uttered the denial, he felt foolish. Even if not consciously aware of it, he knew that the Dark Side had been at work, sapping his will and esteem and making him more vulnerable to destructive impulses.
Mara concurred in his self realization with a disgusted snort. "Oh the mighty Jedi insight at work. Think about it farm boy, or do I need to slap you around some more?"
Luke rubbed his cheek expressively. "That's O.K. Mara, I think I got the message."
She looked him up and down, registering for the first time his altered, cleaner appearance. "Looks like you did."
He felt a fresh surge of anger from her. "What did he say that made you so mad?"
She glared at him contemptuously. "One of the reasons why he spoke to me instead of you was that he thought you had started down the wrong path and he couldn't reach you. He said essentially that since you had 'saved' me once, it was now up to me to return the favor."
At Luke's burst of laughter, Mara shot up from the seat with a scathing look and began pacing the cabin. "I don't think it's funny. You may let long dead Dark Lords of Sith tell you what to do, but I sure as hell don't."
Out of deference to her obvious agitation, Luke stifled his humor, and asked more seriously, "What do you suppose he meant by that?"
She raved at him. "How should I know? You're the one who got me into this mess. It was your lack of self control that interrupted my good time at a perfectly fun party." Clearly Vader's appearance had touched a nerve. "You've been screwing up my life for years Skywalker." She stalked around some more and kicked the wall. "The state of your soul is not my responsibility."
Her angry outburst was a small epiphany for Luke. He reached over to still her pacing and gripped her arm. "No, of course it isn't Mara. Only I'm accountable for the path my life takes. You aren't my keeper and I certainly don't want or expect that from you."
She shook him off with an aggressive shrug, but did sit back down. "That's what Vader wanted."
"Yes, and if you never did what he said when he was alive, is now the time to start?" She did smile at that.
"But Mara, who's the one not showing any insight? Hasn't it occurred to you that maybe he was partly right? We are linked, and have been for a long time. Even Leia doesn't hear me as clearly as you do. You did get me off of Yavin, and you were able to tell me the truth about Callista. I'm still," he stopped, trying to say to another, what he could barely acknowledge to himself. "I'm still really angry at what she did. None of this makes you responsible for me, but I am grateful for what you've done and told me. Knowing does make it easier."
Mara was very quiet, digesting what he had said. "I asked him about Callista. I told him it would make a difference to you, if you knew for certain that she could not be open to the Force again."
Luke wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer, however . . . "What did he say?"
Mara furrowed her forehead. "It was rather metaphysical. He was almost angry that I asked, said that he couldn't see her path. He said that there would be a price, those were his words, if a person refuses to move to the next plane. The Force may move on, but it leaves the body behind. He specifically said that such people would only be able to reach the Dark Side." She stopped speaking and looked at him closely.
"That is consistent with what Callista learned."
Mara nodded in agreement, and then ventured tentatively, "How do you feel about that?"
He sighed. "Resigned, I guess. I understand why she left, and why she was attracted to her husband. I don't understand why she waited so long to tell me. It's very hard to avoid feeling bitter about that, and feeling that I've really wasted years waiting for someone who never intended to come back."
Mara restlessly stood up again, thrust her hands into the pockets of her flight suit, and stared at the deck. "I guess that if you don't take those risks, you might never get the pay off. You'll know not to wait so long next time."
Luke replied dejectedly, "I don't know if there will be a next time."
Mara stood, staring at the deck, before answering slowly, "That's not what Vader said."
Luke looked up at her puzzled.
She continued, "He was rather poetic. He said that your path was not to be alone or unloved." Luke just stared at her. "It's bizarre, isn't it, to think of Darth Vader, destroyer of worlds and lives crossing space, time and dimensions to deliver solace to the lovelorn?"
He had to agree with Mara, it was rather paradoxical.
"He also said to remember what the Dathomir witch said. I didn't know what he was talking about, but it seemed to be related."
That really threw Luke into confusion and he just gaped at her, trying to collect his thoughts. "Uh, well it is related, sort of." His mind was whirling, and Mara was clearly expecting an explanation. "I met this woman on Dathomir who was about 400 years old. She was rather confused as to the present and future, but was a powerful seer." He stopped, not willing to say anything further to her.
Mara shifted uncomfortably and Luke sensed that she was still concealing something. "Did he say anything else?"
"No, well, yes." Mara walked to the table and activated her light saber, gazing at it. "He noticed that I had his old light saber." She paused, flashing a wicked gleam, "I asked him if he wanted it back."
He laughed. "Only you, Mara."
Mara nodded with glee. "Vader told me that I really hadn't changed all that much. That was gratifying. Anyway, he asked if I knew why you gave it to me. I told him I didn't know why." She looked at him questioningly.
Luke pondered that. "I never really thought about it. It just seemed like you should have it." He paused, considering, "Did he say anything else?"
"No." Mara responded a shade too quickly, ducked her head to avoid eye contact and became absorbed with closing down her blade.
He was reluctant to press her further. Mara, for her part, had no intention of revealing Vader's last, particularly humiliating catcall before he dematerialized off her ship.
He decided to give her a reprieve. "You've certainly made good use of that light saber. I caught the end of your practice, and you are as good as anyone I've ever seen. I thought maybe we could do some matches. "
Mara was obviously relieved at the change in the topic of the conversation and pleased at the unsolicited compliment. "That would be fun. With all the trading I do, I usually manage to get blocks of days for intensive practice, but it's always with a remote."
She caught his hesitation. "What is it?"
"Well," he began slowly, "you were so focused on the remote, you lost any awareness for your periphery. I came up behind you, and you didn't know I was there until after your workout. That can be dangerous."
Her response was defensive. "I was concentrating."
"I know that, and that type of focus is important, but, if you want, we can work on it over the next couple days. You can learn to divide your attention simultaneously among different tasks."
She stared at him, weighing the critique and the offer. "All right." This time she paused before continuing. "I have never really had the opportunity to do advanced work, like with healing, prophecy, and memory, and some of the trances and meditations. Do you think I am strong enough to learn those kinds of things?"
He tried not to show his surprise at her request. "That means we will have to link, so that I can show you where those places are in your mind. But yes, I think you are very strong and could learn more."
"I can let down my mental barriers that far." She grinned, "Maybe we should start with healing hangovers."
He laughed, agreeing, "Sounds like a good place to me."
* * *
Many hours later, both Luke and Mara were ready for a break. With every mental exercise, they would discover some new barrier that Mara's unconscious would throw up. The psychic effort to coax them back down left Mara irritable and Luke drained. They both came to appreciate anew the damage the Emperor had wrought upon her.
After a particular frustrating attempt to locate the places in her mind that trigger short and long term memory recall, Mara threw in the towel with a groan. "My brain feels like a piece of fruit we've been peeling."
Luke felt equally frustrated. "We're at a real disadvantage, trying to figure out first what Palpatine did, and then how to undo it. He was so strong, we may never be able to reverse everything he did to your mind." Seeing her disappointment, he tried to soften his statement. "Don't get discouraged. I think we've made a lot of progress today, and we can keep working on it."
He stood up and stretched. "Besides, the Force vests different skills with different people; Leia has never become really proficient with a lightsaber, or some of these mental things, but you know what she's capable of in negotiations. Cihgal is a healer. Your talent may be in more external things like communications and battle."
Mara was rubbing her temples softly. "Where do you think your skills lie?"
He shrugged. "Not diplomacy certainly, or healing. Probably closer to yours, fighting, and teaching."
They were both quiet, and then with a sudden movement, Mara stood and unclipped her light saber. "Let's do something we're both good at. Go get yours."
As he hustled down the corridor, Luke allowed himself for the first time that day to consider the import of Mara's messages from his father. He was thoroughly disgusted with himself; a Corellian brandy induced coma was simply not an excuse for missing a rare and precious opportunity that had been mostly squandered on Mara. Or had it been? He could not ignore that Mara had known Vader for years, nor that with his recent malaise he had been more susceptible to the Dark Side. Mara had rather forcefully reminded him of that very point only the night before.
It seemed foolish that the consolation offered by, as Mara had so quaintly put it, a long dead Dark Lord of the Sith, could assuage his feelings of isolation and despair, and yet they had. He had wanted desperately to believe that his own visions and those of the Dathomir witch had not been wrong, that the contentment and fulfillment his sister had found with her family would not be closed to him. His father had offered him hope.
He tried to examine his failed relationship with Callista more dispassionately. Callista's inexplicable transfer from the Eye of Palpatine computer to the body of his now dead student had always been strange; according to Vader, it was also wrong. His reunion with Callista on this plane of existence had been so unexpected and joyous that, he now candidly admitted, he may have been blinded to the repercussions of her decision to attempt the transfer. Callista had borne the brunt of that impulsive act and the Force was probably lost to her forever.
Her own pride and character prevented her from ever joining him in a relationship that, to her, would always be unequal. In recalling how powerless he had felt on Myrkr, he truly found it hard to fault her. In a similar situation, he might have done the same thing. He should not begrudge her the happiness she had presumably found. That it, perhaps, was never meant to be, eased his hurt, and made him think more charitably both of her, and even of her long delay before killing his hopes for a reconciliation.
That Mara had been the conduit for these extraordinary disclosures seemed as incongruous to him as Vader's role had been to her. He did not envision Mara as a confidant to either Callista or his father, and yet circumstances had done just that.
He wondered again at Mara's agitation; although he could see why she would be disturbed, he did not think that the brief contact with Darth Vader could fully account for her violent and angry reaction. His father had said something to Mara that had deeply troubled her; he was certain she was concealing something important. Particularly in light of their violent clash the night before, he was loath to pry it out of her, and given her formidable mental barriers, was unsure he could even do so.
In his preoccupation with Callista he had not really thought that much about Mara. This most recent episode forced him to reassess their long association. Was Mara to play the role that first the witch, and now his father, had foreseen? He had to grin at that one; he imagined trying to explain to Mara that the Force had predestined him to be her mate. He would only say such things to her armed, and even then, victim rather than spouse, and funeral rather than wedding would be more accurate characterizations after delivery of that piece of unwelcome news.
He respected Mara, usually trusted her, admired her competence, her ability to overcome tremendous odds, her strength. Recognizing these good qualities however barely compensated for the considerable costs of her seemingly far more numerous bad ones. He recognized in himself a certain romantic sentimentality; Mara was on the other hand, a cynic, and at worse, mercurial, even a bit of a mercenary.
Yet he could not overlook the implications of the mental linkage they shared. Occasionally, as evidenced by the last two days, the bond extended to a true, thought to thought telepathy. Such a link was very unusual, even among Force sensitives. And then there was the more ephemeral connection that brought them time and again, back into the other's sphere. He mused that it was like Talus and Tralus in the Corellian system; two planets that orbited unnaturally close to each other, but whose gravitational fields forced them far enough apart to prevent one from tearing the other to pieces.
Mara would have soundly, and probably justifiably, abused him for such a metaphysical analogy. She was the only person he had ever met who could so contort the word "Jedi" into a disdainful slur. As a lifelong partner, Mara's qualifications were, at best, dubious. But, as a sparring partner she would be unmatched. He grabbed his light saber, and headed back.
* * *
They had been at it for almost an hour. Sheer cussedness and determination kept either from yielding the point. The air in the cabin was thick with ozone, as Luke and Mara's blades flashed and struck. Mara had warned him that doing any damage to her ship would be fatal.
Although he had the advantage of strength, reach and more experience with live opponents, Mara was a quick, agile and very creative opponent. She was opportunistic, adept with using the flat of the blade, its tip, and the hand guard to repel him. Repeatedly, he would be able to press the advantage, pushing her backwards almost to the wall, before she would parry a downward slash or trap his blade on her own and whirl out of the way.
As they parried, he was able to evaluate her skill better and recognized that some of her defensive reactions were almost automatic; she would consistently turn into a particular angle after deflecting certain blows. Her reaction was subtle, and as he probed this weakness, realized that he was seeing the conditioning of practice with a remote. She would block a thrust in one direction, and then turn almost imperceptibly to meet where she expected the next threat to be. As they tired, he felt that her reflexive action was becoming stronger, and plotted to exploit it.
He drove her hard across the cabin, repeatedly slashing first at one angle, and then another, he hoped, mimicking the attack from a remote. When she shifted her weight slightly left and down to meet the anticipated threat, he pushed in from the up and right. Mara gasped when she saw the trap, but it was too late. Her blade flew out of her hands, deactivitating before landing with a clatter on the deck.
Luke closed his own blade, and exhausted, collapsed on the couch in front of the vid. Mara squatted down, resting her head on her knees, her shoulders heaving. In a thick, dry voice, she asked, "Do you want some water?"
"Please." As she slowly stood, and went to the galley, she queried wearily, but with no anger, "It was that damned remote training wasn't it?"
He could not answer immediately, still trying to quiet his breathing. "It's very hard to avoid, even when on a random, advanced setting. The remote can still only operate within a particular field. You've been practicing a lot with one. With more live work, I think that'll disappear."
Mara reappeared with a towel, wiping her face and swilling from a bottle. She sank heavily onto the couch next to him, relinquishing both water and the now warm, damp towel. "That was great," she was finally able to blurt out.
He looked at her in surprise. "I thought you'd be mad that I beat you."
"I'm not happy about it. You did trick me, but it was a fair win. I know I have remote trained reflexes. You won't get passed them next time."
He groaned. "Probably not. You're very good. And if I can say this without sounding egotistical, very few people have ever been able to last that long against me in a practice."
She smiled at the compliment and stretched her hands, looking at them. "Sometimes I think the hand grip is too big for me; it's a heavy blade."
Locating the saber on the floor, with a weary gesture, Luke brought it rolling toward them. She stooped to pick it up, and clasped the handle in her right hand.
Luke studied her hand on the handle, tracing her grip with his fingertip, and turning her wrist back and forth, "It is large for you here," and he placed his hand over her own on the handle to demonstrate how the gap where her fingers encircled the handle closed. "See?" He gestured with his other hand. "Your thumb should be closer to your other fingers."
"Yeah, that's where it pulls a little bit."
He drew his hand away, suddenly and irrationally feeling that he and the cabin were too warm, and she, too close. Mara was engrossed in manipulating the handle, and he concentrated on studying her arm movements. He hoped his voice sounded normal when he spoke. "Vader was a lot bigger than you are and I'm sure his grip was larger too."
"I've thought about making a new one, but . . . I dunno. I'm pretty used to this one, I think I would have to unlearn a lot of what I've done to compensate for the weight and size of the blade."
"Besides," he drawled at her, "don't you like having something that Darth Vader wasn't worthy of?"
Mara smirked and gave him a shove with her elbow. "Very perceptive." She sprang up, "I'm starved. Let's get cleaned up and get some food."
"Aye, Cap'n." She grabbed the hand he proffered, and pulled him out of the couch.
* * *
Luke beat her to the galley, and after rooting around for a while, opening various things and pushing some buttons, thought he started a dinner cycle. He turned back into the cabin to look for something kinder to drink, vowing that he would never imbibe of anything Corellian again, loyalty to Han notwithstanding. Armed with a glass of apparently passable wine, he wandered to the blank vid screen and recorder to peruse Mara's many titles.
The entertainment of a dozen worlds all neatly secured and labeled: news shows, game shows, some lurid serials that even he, on a primitive rock with very little awareness of pop culture, had heard of. There were many recordings of what appeared to be regional dancing and, several bearing the alarming title, "Tales of the Jedi." He was studying this last category when Mara joined him, scrubbed, damp and in yet another of her nondescript flight suits.
She sniffed the aroma. "And he can cook too!! Amazing what they teach at the Jedi Academy."
"You should know better than that as a fellow confirmed bachelor. It's either cook, hire a kitchen droid, which I can't afford, or starve."
She stopped at the table to pour herself a glass and then joined him at the vid screen. "Like my collection?"
"I've never heard of most of this stuff, but I have to ask, what is this?" He handed her one of the "Tales" tapes.
She chortled with wickedly. "Oh, you don't know about these? It's one of the most popular space operas in the galaxy right now. You really haven't heard of it?"
Mara's gleeful reaction was setting alarms off in his head. He asked warily, "Is there a particular reason why I should have?"
Her response did nothing to assuage his concern. "Farm boy, you don't get out much do you? I've got most of the series. And I know just the one we'll watch." She returned "Romance on Ord Mantell," and reached for another, which to his chagrin was entitled "Hand of Thrawn" and inserted it into the vid player.
They settled on the seating unit in front of the screen, food in their laps and a bottle of wine between them. Mara tucked her legs under her, and activated the remote. "Now, I'm not sure exactly where this one picks up, but you won't have any problem following the story."
The titles began rolling identifying actors he had never heard of, and then emblazoned across the screen: "A not so very long time ago, in this galaxy, after the defeat of the much hated Emperor and his much hated side kick Darth Vader, there was a daring band of fighters, sworn to protect the New Republic Alliance. These fighters, the Royal Order of the Most Powerful and Noble Jedi Knights, possessed of mystical powers, charisma, and bravery are led by the most courageous, dashing and sexy Luke Skywalker . . .."
Luke had chosen that inopportune time to take a bite of his meal and started choking. Mara stopped her laughing long enough to turn off the vid and administer a series of hard slaps between his shoulder blades. "Are these about me?" he gasped in horror, hoping that his last vision would not be of that dreadfully written prose.
"You bet Master Skywalker."
"And you really watch this?"
"Me and billions of others." She mocked, "Skywalker, have I gone too far? You look worse now than you did on Yavin."
At last choking down dinner, Luke muttered, "You could have at least warned me."
Mara said more apologetically, "I guess it might be a shock. Let's at least finish eating, have another glass or two, and then you'll be properly prepared." She hurried him through the meal and then they settled back down. It would be easier to bear, Luke thought, if Mara were not acting so smug. She started the vid again.
The story scrolled onward in awkward, pretentious verse. "A new threat has come to the young Republic. The wicked and alien Admiral Thrawn has secreted a cloning facility on a distant world, and our brave fighters are resolved to destroy it, or die. In our last episode, the Jedi, aided by the loyal, dashing, but regrettably happily married Han Solo, and the loyal, dashing, but single Lando Calrissian venture forth on their sleek, dangerous craft the 'Millennia Hawk' to discover Thrawn's evil place. With them is of course, the dashing Skywalker, and the bold, brave and beautiful Jenna Marrd." The visual began with the sleek, dangerous "Millennia Hawk" gently landing in a forest.
Luke reached over and grabbed the remote. "Wait a minute, how come you're not in this trash?"
Mara snatched the remote back. "I'll explain later, now be quiet and just watch."
The scene then shifted to the interior of the ship, and to a spacious, luxuriously appointed bedroom. "I've never seen a cabin like that on a freighter," Luke said sullenly. Mara shushed him.
A very dark, broad, towering, muscular, swarthy, shirtless man with a full beard stalked about the cabin. "Jenna," he called to the air, "come to me. I am in need of your womanhood." Moments later, the door flew upon and a willowy, pale blonde woman in a nearly transparent gown burst into the room and threw herself into the arms of the giant. "You are so strong through the Force, Master. I heard you and came. Oh Luke . . . take me now . . ."
Luke seized the remote and almost threw it at the screen. "What the hell is this? Is that supposed to be me?" Mara was now clutching her stomach, shaking with laughter. "As soon as you are done with your hysterics, at my expense, would you please explain this outrage?" He was furious, well mostly.
He had to wait because every time Mara tried to speak, she would look at him and start laughing again. After some minutes in delirium, she finally was able to sigh gustily. "That was rich. Your reaction, better than I had even hoped . . ." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "To billions of people, that's Luke Skywalker. The actor, I forget his name. Doesn't matter. He's hugely popular. I mean everyone knows he's not you, but most people think you," and she pointed at the couple in the frozen embrace, "look like that." She began snickering again.
"And where are you in this farce Jenna Marrd?" he asked in a chilly tone.
If it was possible, Mara looked more smug then she did before. "I paid the maker of the series a huge sum to keep my name out of it. I figured it would be bad for business."
"Too bad you couldn't have parted with a few more credits to salvage my reputation as well," he said acidly.
Mara laughed again. "Lighten up Jedi. Have some more wine. Try not to think of it as you, but as some other bizarre sort of alter ego or younger brother."
"That's easy for you to say. You wouldn't be so amused if that was you being summoned for your 'womanhood.'"
Mara tried to affect a sober expression, but her mouth kept twitching. "Seriously, I don't think your reputation has been damaged one bit. Probably helped it," she added slyly. "Really, just don't take it seriously." She started the vid again.
The story progressed rather predictably, particularly since he had lived a version of it. After recovering from the initial mortification, it was easy to enjoy. The acting and writing were terrible, Mara calling it "so bad it's good." She was very familiar with the entire recording. She would shout out bad lines at key moments, freeze the recording periodically to prepare him for some absurdity to come, or to comment upon the characters' sexual prowess or anatomy. He was eventually able to overcome his embarrassment and join her in a ribald running commentary.
They had plenty of targets. The heroes, when they were not wading through freshly slaughtered bodies, were mostly writhing passionately with gorgeous women who regularly popped into the story, had sex with one of the characters and then died a grisly but valiant death. Mara kept shouting at the screen, "Don't do it, he's not worth it, you'll die."
None though compared to the exploits of "Duke," as he and Mara dubbed Luke's "evil twin." Women sprang from everywhere, and he bedded them accordingly, in the most improbable of places: trees, caves, forests, deserts, walkers, in and on X, Y, and A Wings and TIE fighters, under water, in the air, and incredibly, in zero gravity. Jenna was kidnaped by the evil Thrawn (a humanoid in a very unconvincing green breath mask), and died, crucified on the leg of an Imperial walker, only to be resurrected by Duke. She was completely naked for the last half of the serial, and spent a good portion of it chained to a rock terrorized by a mutant Rancor.
After one very outlandish interlude, involving Duke, a brunette, a hologram and a speeder bike, Luke stopped the vid. "Mara, you were on Wayland too, do you remember this much sex?"
"Oh sure, don't you? All I can say is, he'd have to be using the Force to do it that many times a day, and still have the energy to cut down a clone army."
Luke arched an eyebrow. "That's not an application of the Force I've ever needed to call upon." Mara hooted appreciatively.
Duke's Force powers were indeed impressive, and his number of kills very high. Mara said she had tried counting once, and lost track at over 300 dead humans, 187 dead aliens, and one defoliated plant based life form. Although his light saber was a useless prop, Duke could lift boulders, fire blasters with astonishing accuracy, withstand fire, flood, mud, and poisonous reptiles. And he did it all without messing his hair.
Somewhere in the tangled tale, the heroes immolated the cloning facility, and then flew off into a dazzling sunset, each with a live woman on his arm, except Duke who had two.
As the credits rolled, Mara stretched and nudged him with her foot. "I love that series. Sorry about the shock."
He ran his fingers through his hair, shaking his head in disbelief. "Never seen anything like it."
Mara rose and flipped on some music. "I am surprised you hadn't seen it. It's so popular, done wonders for the image of the Jedi."
"I'm not sure I care for that particular image."
Mara shrugged. "I bet you've seen an increase in applications to the Academy." She added mischievously, "Every adolescent thinks becoming a Jedi is a sure fire way to get laid."
"I knew it! So that's why you decided to have advanced training. You just want to be assured a steady stream of copilots."
She was tapping her foot to the music, and he turned his ear to catch the rhythm. "What's this?"
"Uhh, traditional dance music from Rhinnal, instrumental with no vocal accompaniment, 12 piece band of metals, keyboards, and acoustics, 3/4 beat. It's called, in Basic anyway, a fling or spree, that's the dance it's done to, not the music. Haven't heard it before?"
"Is this an invitation for another swipe at my rim world parochialism?"
She swept over to him with a glint in her eye Luke was learning to identify as Mara in her impetuous mode. She held out her hand. "It's an invitation to dance."
He allowed her to haul him out the couch, protesting, "Aww, don't you ever let up? Remember, I'm just a farm boy whose spent his entire life in the backwater. I don't know how to dance."
"Oh, and of course you could never learn." She dragged him into the center of the cabin. "It's fun. Besides, you can't be the teacher all the time."
He sighed, arguing with Mara was a fruitless effort.
"Okay, now stand there." She stood in front of him, and looked up, frowning slightly. "You're about the right height."
"I'm not going to do anything about that just to satisfy your whim for a dancing partner."
Mara ignored him, and began positioning his hands, his left one in hers, and his right on her waist. She stopped abruptly and began shaking his left wrist, "Loosen up, I don't bite."
"Oh yeah, that's not what the co pilots say."
"Try to look like you're having fun, Skywalker."
When Luke reflected on it later, he decided it was fun. He had first recognized it primarily as an opportunity for Mara to reverse the roles, and teach him something. For the sake of her temperament and obvious enjoyment, he was willing to humor her. But Mara was a good teacher, patiently explaining and demonstrating basic steps that they could adapt to different music. When at the beginning, he kept crashing into her, Mara lit on the idea of establishing a light mental contact. From the visualizations in her mind, he was able to follow her movements better and the evening passed quickly.
It was when she tried to explain the concept of 'leading' that they called it a night. They kept moving in opposite directions and even the mental rapport was not helping.
Mara stretched and bent over to massage the top of her foot -- he had tread upon it one too many times. "I'm having problems keeping the image you're following separate from what I am supposed to do."
He yawned. "Do you always work this hard on a trading run?"
She wandered over to the computer console near the table. "Just making you earn your keep."
He followed her, and looked over her shoulder at the display.
"We should be dropping out of hyperspace tomorrow morning for that first course correction, right?"
She punched some numbers and they both examined the read out. "Yeah, about 0900." She looked up at him. "All in all, you're not a bad a copilot. You can drink, dance and fly. I don't think I'll dump you on Rekweg tomorrow after all."
"Thanks for the ringing endorsement Cap'n. I'm turning in." He paused, not quite willing to let her go unscathed. "Unless, you care to ahh, 'rest' in my bunk, or ah maybe help me find the 'floor'?"
To his astonishment and infinite amusement, Mara actually stammered and blushed. "Uhhh, no thanks." Her embarrassment was short lived. "I can still leave you on Rekweg."
"Oh sure, and then how would you get through that asteroid belt? Good night Dancing Queen." Luke ambled off to bed, thoroughly pleased that he managed to rattle Mara.