The Art of War - Part 8
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 8 - Revelations
The low whine of the fighter's engines was somewhat dimmed by the humming jungle noises as the ship landed gracefully on the swampy ground. Master Yoda lowered one hand and eyed the X-wing critically. There was no one on board. After a minute or so a tentative beep from the fighter's astromech droid preceded a prolonged inquiry. Yoda frowned. The droid warbled something, then heaved the equivalent of a sigh. When he still got no response Artoo screamed shrilly, desperately hoping for some comforting answer.
"Be silent," the ancient Jedi Master ordered sternly, then turned to face his companion. Obi-Wan Kenobi stood quietly, his lips pursed in deep thought. "The trials, begun they have," Yoda announced solemnly after a while and resumed staring at the starfighter.
The younger man shook his head, then hesitated: "You don't mean Luke's trials, do you?"
Facing the shimmering image again, the tiny alien huffed indignantly:
"A prisoner he is. Trial enough, I think, that is for one so young."
"But not what Anakin is keeping in store for him."
"See we shall, how fortunate."
Pursing his lips thoughtfully the old Jedi Master frowned. There was more going on here than it seemed at first glance. The Emperor's death had not shed the cloak of darkness that still held the galaxy firmly in its grasp. But then, the civil war was raging on. And yet, Yoda mused, there was something else. Change was coming, he could feel it in his bones. Shivering slightly he closed his eyes. Very soon now he would not be able to ignore it any longer.
"Tatooine! Of all places! And what was Needa doing there?"
Wrenga Jixton swallowed hard. Of late he found that he had preferred to face Vader's anger when he had still worn that mask of his. Now, having to bear the fury in those icy blue eyes was like watching Hoth explode. But he refused to avert his own gaze.
"I have no idea," he answered truthfully.
"Really," the Dark Lord snorted and turned away to stalk the small expanse of his office aboard the Dominator.
It was not that the room was really small, it was just the length of the strides Vader took which made it seem so. Leaning against the far wall, both Gerran and the Princess watched the warlord's pacing warily.
When he spoke again his voice was a low hiss, not unlike the sound of a burning fuse.
"His mission to Chandrila was successful. We have the planet's support now and no doubt Brental and Corulag will follow their neighbor's example. But we need the resources from Pakrat Minor."
"I could go there," Leia offered.
Her father whirled around to face her, blue eyes narrowed dangerously:
"No way, princess. You are needed here."
Jix noticed that Vader did not mention his relationship to Leia in front of Jay Gerran. Neither did his daughter, for that matter. Precaution? Possibly.
"Then maybe you should go yourself, Your Lordship," Jix put in, smiling.
"What a brilliant idea," Vader shot back, sarcasm dripping off every syllable.
"No," he continued, "I have a much better suggestion. You," he declared, pointing at Gerran, "will go."
The aide jerked back in horror: "Me, sir?"
"Exactly. Is there a problem?" Vader inquired coolly.
"No, my lord."
"Good. I will debrief you about that mission presently. Jix, princess, you are dismissed."
"Thank the stars," Jix breathed and was firmly dragged out of the room by Leia, who in turn couldn't suppress a smile herself.
Once outside both almost broke into a run. "The poor man!" the princess managed in between bursts of laughter when they had rounded the nearest corner.
Jix wore a wolfish grin on his face: "Yeah, poor Gerran. That guy is so pathetic! By the way, where is Solo?"
Leia stopped herself and threw him a quizzical look: "Why do you ask?"
"Well, if you must know: he is making some deal with Karrde."
"Karrde. The smuggler chief?"
"The very same."
Jix' eyes twinkled gleefully as he started rubbing his hands in anticipation.
"Good. So, what are you doing tonight?"
Leia shook her head slowly: "Jix, you are-"
"Just kidding, Princess, just kidding."
Bringing her shuttle into position, Mara Jade glanced at the twinkling city lights suspiciously. Apparently her codes were still valid and she had received clearance for Coruscant space almost immediately. Bu the delay told her one thing very clearly: Thrawn was already waiting for her. Well, it was too late to turn back now anyway. Following her assigned landing beacon, she let the ship sail towards the Star Destroyer looming in the distance.
There was exactly one man waiting for her on the deck of the hangar bay. She recognized him instantly. Mara gave the tall officer a curt nod:
"Welcome back," he returned pleasantly and led the way towards the bridge.
Strange, Mara thought as she followed him along the bleak, clean corridors, something here feels not right. But she could not pinpoint the feeling. It was something between uneasiness and dizziness.
And then they were there. The room was plunged in nearly total darkness. Only a few holograms were glowing softly, casting a bluish light. But Mara had not become the Emperor's Hand for nothing. She spotted the pair of glowing red eyes immediately. Straightening herself she waited for the Grand Admiral to acknowledge her presence.
"Mara Jade," he said finally and stepped out of the shadows, looking her up and down. "It has been a long time."
"Yes, that it has."
"I am glad to see you so well."
"And I am unfortunate that I could not join you earlier."
Thrawn's eyes narrowed for a split-second.
"Indeed," he mused. "A shame."
Abruptly he turned his back on her, seemingly to stare out of the viewport upon the glittering city of Coruscant. And as if on cue Captain Piett withdrew from the room, leaving Mara wondering. For a long time only silence filled the air. Then the Grand Admiral gestured for Mara to join his side. She walked forward, shoulders tense.
"Coruscant," Thrawn said, nodding towards the planet, "alas bereft of true leadership. Don't you think?"
"Indeed," Mara answered, her voice hard.
"I have heard of your valiant efforts in tracking down the traitor who caused all this. What was his name again?"
"Ah. Yes. Jixton. One of Lord Vader's agents."
"Did you catch him?"
Mara hesitated: "No."
"No? The Emperor's Hand. A failure? I do not believe so, Mara Jade."
She swallowed slowly. Here we go.
"In fact, I believe that you were trying to capture him here, on Coruscant, not so long ago."
This time Mara did not even bother to hide her surprise: "You know?"
"I suspected. Tell me what happened."
"There is not much to say. He was trying to delete the mainframe. And I was trying to track his progress to see what files he was after."
"And then you started deleting data yourself."
"Precaution. If he was after the Emperor's files I wanted to prevent him from copying them. There was no risk of losing the data because I had a copy myself."
That got his attention: "You did? How fortunate. A coincidence?"
"Not really. Jix deleted Vader's files too, at least I suspect that he did. And we did not have copies of those. After that disaster I did not want to take the risk of losing valuable data again."
"But we do have those copies," Thrawn laughed silently. Mara blinked once.
"I-did not know that."
"You were not here when Intelligence retrieved those files from Vader's fortress on Vjun. You know the planet?"
"I have never been there."
"I see. Nevertheless you could not prevent the mainframe's destruction."
"No, that I could not."
"What went wrong?"
Just then the deck shuddered underneath her feet and the ship started moving. Mara glanced hard at the Grand Admiral:
"Where are we going?"
He smiled at her:
"Not far. By the way, do you still have the copies you made of the Emperor's files?"
Mara sat brooding on the small bed in the cabin she had been assigned aboard the Relentless. Thrawn had dismissed her shortly after the Star Destroyer had jumped to lightspeed headed the Force knew were. The Grand Admiral had not questioned her further and if he was trying to make her feel safe now he had missed his goal by miles. Mara was worried. He knew far more than she had expected and, additionally, he had a knack for asking the wrong questions and drawing the right conclusions.
The Grand Admiral had an expert knowledge not only of tactics but also of people. Something Vader seemed to lack entirely. The fact was though, that she would have to be extra careful in maintaining her story. One mistake and Thrawn would catch her. What he would do then, Mara did not even want to know.
When suddenly the deck lurched underneath her again, she went to the viewport and stared. She knew this planet well: Gyndine, one of the Empire's major drive yards. Space was crowded with half-completed ships and work crews, but there was one construct that held her eyes fixed. There, in the middle of it all and suspended in a dock, the largest ship she had ever seen hung over the planet like a raptor ready to strike.
The door behind her chimed open and Mara whirled around, surprised. She had not felt anyone approach. The young lieutenant gave her a weak smile: "The Grand Admiral requires your presence on the bridge," he informed her and waited. Mara threw him a hard glance, and with a last look back at the Super-class Star Destroyer left the cabin.
The tiny shuttle dropped out of hyperspace just a few clicks away from the planet of Pakrat Minor. It had not been a long voyage, but the ship's single occupant had spent it mostly in sullen silence which was only interrupted by the occasional heart-felt curse. Now, keeping a steady eye on his radar read-outs, the pilot felt a bit calmer. And when he finally discovered the single Star Destroyer looming in the distance a tiny smile crept onto his lips.
"Unidentified shuttle, this is Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera," a harsh voice suddenly blared from his comm speaker. "State your business."
Jay Gerran sighed deeply:
There was a slight pause. No doubt the comm officer was asking himself if that was any sort of business at all. There was a strange sound form the comm and then another officer picked up the conversation:
"Your code, please," the man asked smoothly and Gerran's ears perked up with interest.
"I have some urgent news for the Grand Admiral."
"Fine. I hope they are good ones. For a change. We will take you on board."
Grand Admiral Thrawn was seated in the command chair with Captain Piett standing loyally by his side. What a pair, Mara snorted inwardly and walked up to the two men. But when she opened her mouth to speak, Thrawn raised one hand to silence her, his eyes intent on the forward holoscreen. Mara followed his gaze and nearly jumped when she saw Jay Gerran standing on the bridge of another Star Destroyer, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. When he noticed Mara his eyes flickered for the merest fraction of a second. She pressed her lips together in a grim line and folded her arms in front of her chest expectantly. This should become pretty interesting.
"Gerran," the Grand Admiral began, his tone pleasant. "Were you given the impression that he suspected something when he sent you on this mission?"
"No, sir. He seemed upset at Needa's capture."
Mara started in surprise and knew without turning her head that Thrawn was keeping a sharp eye on her reactions.
"Well, obviously he had not expected it."
"Not expected the capture or not expected the capture taking place on Tatooine?"
"I am not sure, sir, but he seemed surprised at Needa being on Tatooine at all."
"Why did he send you to Pakrat Minor then?"
"There are two possible answers to that question, aren't there?" Gerran replied miserably.
"Then he knows?"
"Maybe. There is a difference between knowing and suspecting though. Which is why you will return to Hoth."
"Sir!" the agent wailed.
"Dismissed, Gerran. And keep me posted."
Turning off the holo screen the Grand Admiral turned to face the Emperor's Hand smiling coldly:
"Now, let us continue our previous conversation. You were about to tell me why your mission failed, I believe."
"Actually I was disturbed by a squad of storm troopers. They wrecked the entire place."
"A bar of the seedier kind, if I remember correctly."
"I was badly injured when the building exploded."
"But you survived."
Mara closed her eyes: "Yes. He saved my life."
"Wrenga Jixton saved your life?"
It was all she could do to hide her satisfaction at having surprised Thrawn for a change.
"I believe he sees this as some sort of competition. And fair sportsmanship requires helping your opponent when a third party enters the game."
"A third party," the Grand Admiral mused aloud and again his lips twitched silently. "Thank you, Mara Jade. And if you allow it, let me apologize in the name of my troops, who unfortunately spoiled your mission."
Mara took a deep breath, but before she could thank him for his concern he continued softly:
"And where have you been hiding until now, gravely injured as you were at that time?"
Her mouth still open Mara was searching her mind frantically for a suitable answer.
Unfortunately the Grand Admiral himself came to her rescue:
"No need to bother with that, I think. It is time to welcome another - guest - on board."
Rising elegantly Thrawn left the bridge and Mara had no choice but to follow.
"Captain Piett," he said in passing, "please resume the command. I will rejoin you shortly."
Mara could not but notice the implications in that last statement. I will rejoin you... Not we. But then, who was she kidding? He knew! Thrawn knew where she had been. Knew where he could find his enemies. And Vader had never even considered the possibility that Jay Gerran might not be Mon Mothma's spy but in fact... She froze inwardly. No. He had known. From the very beginning.
"You see, Jade, he is so caught up in this game that he is missing the whole point completely. This is not a contest to determine who has the better scheme, the better agents or even the better tactics. This is a war."
She did not reply.
"Did you know from the beginning what he is?"
Mara shook her head no. Who in the galaxy could know what Vader really was? She noticed Thrawn studying her intently. Looking up to face him fully Mara smiled a bit: if he ever learned who his opponent was, the Grand Admiral would be surprised indeed.
"Who is this guest?" she asked finally.
"You will see."
Following the alien into the small holding cell, Mara expected the worst. And her intuition did not fail her. But the man sitting on the cell's single bunk jerked with surprise at seeing her and his cool gray eyes narrowed suspiciously. What was Needa thinking? That she had been the one who betrayed him? Possibly. Mara threw him a tiny smile.
"You know each other, I believe," Thrawn ventured and it was hard to not hear the satisfaction in his voice.
Captain Needa nodded slowly. "We do indeed. What is she doing here?"
"I am not sure myself. But maybe she wants to tell you."
Raising his black eyebrows coolly Thrawn gave Mara an expectant look. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath:
"I am sorry having to tell you that Wrenga Jixton made a mistake in taking me to your friends."
Needa's eyes flickered for a second. Good. He was not stupid and with any luck he would catch up on this game pretty soon. But when he turned his head slowly, taking in his surroundings deliberately as if seeing them for the first time she did experience some doubts.
At her side the Grand Admiral frowned. Then the Captain's eyes came to rest on the alien admiral's face and he smiled coldly. Mara felt her breath catch in her throat. That look she knew all too well.
"He was not the only one, it would seem," Needa told her mockingly, "But a mistake, Mara Jade, is so easily undone."
Thrawn cocked his head to one side and then smiled at the captive:
"Jay Gerran told me about that particular trick. He also said that it does require a lot of concentration."
"I would not know about that," the other answered, laughing quietly.
"You deliberately allowed Needa to be captured."
"But to what purpose?"
"Maybe I just like to play," Needa bit out and for a split-second his gray eyes were a distinctly ice-blue shade.
Thrawn acted so fast that Mara did not even realize what had happened until she found herself pressed against the corridor wall with the Grand Admiral holding her.
"What was that?" she exclaimed, aghast.
"Apparently the Sith can enter and control another's mind."
"He knows about Gerran then. That was why he sent him, just to annoy me."
Mara blinked in surprise, then understanding. Yes. That was very much like Vader. Very much so.
"And maybe we can still surprise him," Thrawn added slowly. Raising his head sharply he locked his eyes with Mara's: "But I will need your help."
"Yes. The choice is yours, of course, but let us at least talk about it first. In my office."
Following him on weak legs, Mara tried to gather her senses. Obviously Thrawn knew about her entanglements with the Rebels and now he wanted her to decide which side she really was on. If she betrayed Vader now... Her last vision flashed across her inner eye again. His blood on her hands. And he wanted her to do it. This was a sick game he was playing. And she did not understand any of it. In time maybe you will. He had said that, hadn't he? Heaving a small sigh Mara decided not to rush anything. For now she only had to survive.
Grand Admiral Thrawn took his accustomed place in the semi-darkness of his meditation chamber. The silence was welcome after the very recent events which, he had to admit, had indeed surprised him. His opponent was toying with him so obviously that he would have to move very carefully in the future. Why had he sent Mara Jade here? And with the files too he himself had tried to obtain on Obroa-Skai and failed. A present? A peace offer? Thrawn doubted it.
The Sith were warriors, and very effective ones. But usually they were no battle leaders. Which was why this particular Sith had avoided meeting the Grand Admiral in open combat so far. He had to draw him out somehow, he knew, but now another possibility had presented itself. And for using it to his own advantage he needed the cooperation of the Emperor's Hand.
"Do you know why he sent you here?"
She simply shook her head.
"Then I will tell you: because he is done with using you. There is nothing more you can do that could benefit him. And he does not trust you. Never has, for that matter."
"What makes you think so?"
"Would he have sent you if he knew that there was anything vital you could tell me? What is it you do not know, Mara Jade? Has he ever trusted you with his plans?"
"He trusts no one," she snorted.
"That I don't doubt. But the more important issue here is that he does not trust you in particular. You were the decoy for Jixton's mission on Coruscant, nothing more. On Hoth you were conveniently injured enough not to be able to attend the vital meetings. That is the truth, is it not?"
"Yes," Mara replied softly.
"Then you have lost everything and gained nothing in return for that sacrifice. You betrayed your Emperor. For what, I wonder?"
"I lost my faith."
"And did you find it again with the Rebel Alliance?"
"What did you find?"
She laughed weakly: "Distrust, threats, lies, nothing real, it seems. But what about Needa? He knows more than anyone else."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Anyway, the Captain is nothing but a puppet now. He will not yield anything his master does not allow him to. He is of no use. As are you."
For a long moment the silence between them was nearly suffocating.
"You said I could help you," Mara whispered finally, her voice trembling.
"Yes," the Grand Admiral purred, "there is that possibility. And now I am asking you: will you help?"
She nodded slowly, her shoulder slumped ever so slightly. So, despite her toughness and cool demeanor Mara Jade was still a very vulnerable character. But she was young and in some ways inexperienced. Her slyness could not compare to that of her master, in no way, and somehow, despite everything, she was very honest, with herself and others. Thrawn rose from his seat again and waved her closer.
"Thank you," he said softly, "I knew you would make the right decision. And now that things have been put straight between us I must make another request."
Her head came up and emerald eyes bored into him questioningly. "What is that?"
"Trust you?" she smiled at him mirthlessly. "That is a bit much to ask now, don't you think?"
"It is much, but it will save your life. That should be worth it. And now, I would like some time alone."
She turned around and left quietly, while Thrawn watched her go with a thoughtful frown on his forehead. A thrid party, she had said, involuntarily, as he believed. Still, it made him recall something his agents had picked up not so long ago. A rumor about someone, name unknown, who was said to know more than anyone else alive. Thrawn had dismissed this as some sort of ruse, maybe initiated by one of the primary information brokers. A joke, nothing more. Still, he had the rumor tracked down without any results so far. The various informants were hard to find and somehow he had the feeling that he was not the only one looking for that mysterious someone. As long as it did not bind too many of his resources he would coninue this search. Who knew? Maybe there were still surprises to be found out there.
Anakin Skywalker stood at the viewport of his cabin, his hands folded behind his back, and smiled at the multitude of stars scattered across the black canvas of eternity. Easing out of Needa's mind gently, he was careful not to disturb the other's thought in any way. No traces. That way the Captain would retain his sanity, and he still needed him alive and well. Grand Admiral Thrawn was now firmly caught in the trap the Dark Lord had laid out for him.
Just as much as Mara Jade. She had no idea what game he was truly playing at, and neither did Thrawn. He laughed softly in delight. They would not realize the truth until too late. He would make certain of that.
"Anakin," a familiar voice intoned softly.
The Dark Lord turned around slowly:
"Obi-Wan. Don't tell me. Something to do with Luke?" he asked, unwilling to give up his good mood just yet.
"Yes." The ghostly image seemed to shake his head slightly, "He was captured on Chandrila."
A tiny gasp caught in Anakin's throat: "What?" he croaked, completely taken aback.
But it did not take him long to recover. Never look back. A problem is there only to be solved, not to be mourned. Finally Obi-Wan continued:
"His astromech brought his fighter to Dagobah."
"Does it know where its master is now?"
"Apparently it was monitoring Imperial comm traffic. Luke is being held on Myrk."
"Myrk," the Dark Lord closed his eyes for a moment. "You realize, of course, that there is no one I could contact. Karrde and Solo might be willing to go, but Thrawn knows about that deal we made. And the rest -"
He paused, then barked a short laugh: "Oh, he will love this one. Indeed, he will."
It had been a long flight so far and Padmé had had only her worries to deal with. Her nameless captor had kept mostly to herself, vanishing into the aft hold for hours at times. Exercising or meditating, the queen guessed. She must have searched the whole ships during those periods, but had found no clues as to where they were headed, who they were going to meet or why.
Now though the alien's rising agitation told Padmé that they were nearing the end of the voyage. Sitting together in the spacious cockpit, Padmé fought valiantly against the fear and anxiety trying to crush her heart. She could not break down now. But in the end she could not bear the uncertainty any longer.
"Are we going to meet with my husband?" she asked finally, her voice calm and composed.
The alien blinked her yellow eyes in surprise:
"Your husband? Who is that?"
A feeling of sudden triumph flooded the queen's mind, but she was careful not to show it.
"Why, Lord Vader of course. You did not know that?"
There was just the slightest hint of disapproval in her tone, enough to let the other woman know what she thought of misinformed kidnappers.
But she did not rise to that challenge. Smiling broadly at the smaller woman and showing off her sharp teeth, the alien shook her head slightly:
"How strange. He never mentioned you."
Just then the nav comp sounded an alarm and the pilot reached forward to bring the ship out of hyperspace, allowing the former queen a spectacular view of the world laying before them.
For a moment Padmé's breath caught in her throat. This was not Coruscant, as she had feared. No, this planet was the most desolate she had ever seen. Except, maybe, for Tatooine.
Huge, craggy cliffs of black stone rose into the sky miles high, and storm winds tore at the ship, howling with thundering voices through the steep canyons of the ragged mountains.
After a wild ride through this maze the ship shot into an open valley, which actually looked pretty pleasant. The flat bottom was only interrupted by a strange construct of parallel stone slabs forming a sort of ramp leading towards a low entrance. Padmé frowned.
"What is this place?"
"Home," the alien answered, pride shining through her voice, "Welcome to Korriban."
The touchdown was uneventful, but when Padmé stepped off the landing ramp, the choking heat hit her like a wet blanket. Her head spinning, she paused for a moment, to take a deep breath.
"You will get used to it," the woman told her gruffly as she went past. "Come. Let us meet with the Lords."
Sighing, Padmé followed her slowly through the open corridor the huge slabs formed on both sides. The gray earth had been beaten flat to form a ramp leading into what seemed to have been a cave once. Compared to the brooding heat outside, the shadowy cave, its walls dripping with moisture, was welcome even. Despite herself Padmé smiled with relief. But not for long. She was all alone on enemy territory and she did not know what was awaiting her here. Well, whatever it was, she would not give the Sith the satisfaction of seeing her cowed in any way. She was a queen, after all. And she would deal with this somehow.
The other woman quickened her pace and stepped towards the three men assembled at the far end of the room. In the gloom it was impossible to make out their faces, but the queen refused to let that intimidate her in any way. Drawing herself up haughtily she remained standing at the entrance and waited.
Finally the men came towards her, one spear-heading the group, while the woman slipped to one side of the cave, where a hushed conversation suddenly rose up, but quieted quickly as the trio reached Padmé.
The leader of the group was a tall, handsome man, his long white hair bound back in a pony-tail and what startled her most at first glance was the red armor covering his forearms, a stark contrast to his black clothes. His weathered face conveyed certain wisdom paired with hidden deviousness, a combination Padmé had first seen on Chancellor Palpatine's face.
"Welcome, Lady Vader," he began pleasantly and she was surprised by his beautiful voice, "I am Roj Kell. Please permit me to introduce the Council to you."
Pointing towards the two remaining men he indicated the one to his right first:
"Lord Goir and Lord Sedriss, at your service."
The pair nodded an acknowledgement and Sedriss even smiled at her, but Padmé shivered at the predatory gleam in his eyes.
"A pleasure," she almost choked on these words, but there was no need to alienate them at this point.
A slow smile spread on Roj Kell's lips. Reaching out, he took her hand carefully and led her towards the second group. Padmé forced a likewise smile on her lips and followed him, seemingly without concern.
A short alien stepped forward, bowing to her sharply and when his head came back up to face her, Padmé could not suppress a small scream. Huge eyes fixed her in a curious stare and his protruding jaws boasted a full assortment of needle-sharp teeth. The reptilian skin was gleaming with moisture and when he smiled it was a smile full of irony.
"This," Kell, told her," is Chi'in. His apprentice, Naas Deron." Here the Sith Lord pointed at a tall human hulking behind the much shorter alien. "You have already met Nuron, and this is her apprentice Puket." A short Twi'lek female nodded at her, smiling. "And Cronn, another apprentice." A gangly alien eyed her coolly. A Falleen, Padmé realized.
And she could not help noticing that where the Council was entirely made up of human males, this group consisted of mostly humanoid aliens. Coincidence? Hardly. And a fact to keep in mind. Maybe it could be turned into an advantage later on. Turning to face Roj Kell again, Padmé gave him a cold smile:
"I am so pleased to meet you all. But where is my husband?"
"Ah, I am afraid that is a rather complicated story. And I am sure that you are tired from your long journey. I suggest you rest first. Then we can talk."
"What a charming idea."
Roj Kell watched her go with a smile. An attractive woman, no doubt. And intelligent too, if what Sidious had told him about her had any merit. Her being here gained him an advantage over the others that he sought to exploit. She was the key to the Dark Lord, one Sidious would miss dearly in the nearest future. Folding his hands on his back, he made his way back to the surface and stood there, regarding the ship perched on the slick black valley floor pensively. If he left now... But no, this game was not over yet, not by a long shot. Still, he would need some allies of his own. Chi'in was completely loyal to the Dark Lord, but Nuron was another matter entirely. And the queen. He smiled to himself. By the time Sidious found out what game was being played at all, it would be far too late for him. To achieve his goal though, the respective players would have to take a few steps further. If necessary, he would gently lead them or even push them in the right direction. But Roj Kell suspected that with this set of participants everything would unfold just perfectly.
The room she had been given was airy, yet cool. But since it was underground there was only artificial light, reflected in billions of tiny water droplets. Along the walls some sort of moss had grown and its ruby-red blossoms gave off a faint scent that, together with the ever-present water, reminded her of Naboo. Nothing she needed right now. Dropping down on the soft bed decorated beautifully with red and yellow gold-embroidered pillows, Padmé heaved a tiny sigh. Despite the pleasantries, this room and everything else, she had seen the truth in Roj Kell's eyes: she was a prisoner. Period now, and maybe forever.
They had not known who she was, Padmé was sure of that, and now she began doubting her own sanity. Why had she told them at all? Anakin was not here. Would he return soon? And where was he at all? Doing what? There were far too many questions and Padmé decided that for now she should not try to ponder them all. Instead she decided to explore the fortress a bit and test the limits the Sith had set for her.
Leaving the room she was surprised to find no guards stationed at her door. When Nuron had led her here they had seemed to be everywhere. Maybe this was a good sign. Silence permeated the dark hallways and she had to take care not to slip on the moist stone floor.
Still, no one was in sight. But she could hear voices not far off. Stalking closer, she tried to stop breathing. There were two men talking and her heart leapt higher when she recognized Anakin's voice.
"All is well. Thrawn has received my little gift and no doubt has drawn his conclusions."
"I have the greatest faith in your abilities, Lord Vader," Roj Kell answered smoothly.
"Really? Then why call me in the first place?"
Padmé could not miss the sting in his tone and neither did Kell. Rather stiffly he replied:
"There seems to have been a slight anomaly."
"What do you mean?"
"Captain Needa is who I am referring to."
"And what does he have to do with your call?"
"Apparently he was captured on Tatooine."
There was a slight pause and when Anakin spoke again the heat in his tone was unmistakable:
"I did not order him to be monitored, Lord Kell! If you doubt his loyalty you doubt me! Are you doubting me?"
"No, not at all. It was mere curiosity..."
"Curiosity," Anakin snorted, "I am warning you: I have tolerated your interfering long enough. But no more."
"Your scheme hardly allows for -"
"And yet you have just told me the contrary. If I find Nuron again on a mission I did not order, she will suffer my wrath. And so will you. Keep that in mind. By the way, if you are thinking about interfering with my son, think again."
"Has been captured by Thrawn's troops. He is being held on Myrk."
"Again, do not interfere. If he does not pass this test so be it. I cannot allow any weakness."
"Of course, Lord Vader."
"If that is clear then, let me not keep you."
Padmé stood rooted in place, still as a statue, one hand pressed to her bosom. She could not have just heard him say that, could she? No. Luke was in danger! And he did not care. Oh, Anakin.
Looking up she was for a moment surprised to find Roj Kell standing in front of her.
"Oh, I - I was just having a look around," she explained weakly.
But there was no need for pretense, was there? He must have known that she had been standing here all the time.
"I see," he answered with a smile. "Maybe you would care to join us for dinner?"
"With pleasure." Taking his offered arm, she decided to push her luck a bit: "What scheme were you talking about with my husband?"
"The Sith will rule again, my lady, and soon. But we are few and have many enemies. Therefore great care has been taken in developing this plan and it seems to have been worth the effort so far."
"Still, you seem to doubt your strategist's abilities."
"Not at all. We trust his military skills completely."
"Then why are you monitoring him this way and interfering?"
"Consider this a major investment. Much depends on it and we simply want to make sure that everything flows along smoothly."
Upon reaching the dining hall, Padmé was slightly taken aback, her eyes dazzled by the bright colors and warm candlelight. The stone walls were covered with beautifully crafted tapestries and only on second glance did she understand the events they depicted: battles, conquest, the rise of the Sith.
Roj Kell led her towards the huge wooden table laden generously with different plates of food, where the Council was already waiting. Taking her place next to him, Padmé gave the other men a cool smile. Their scrutinizing gazes seemed to bore into her, seemed to look beyond what the eye could see. But she had been married to a Jedi Knight. She knew how to deal with this. Eyeing the food, she realized that she had not eaten in what seemed like days. And eating would take her mind off other things, that she was sure of.
Halfway through dinner Padmé leaned back in her chair, sleepy-eyed and fighting to follow the Council's conversation. But then one name caught her immediate attention.
"Tieman's execution was a master-stroke," Sedriss was just saying, his face betraying a certain grudging admiration.
"Yes. And the Rebels did come so close to freeing him," Vil Goir agreed dreamily, just the slightest hint of sarcasm in his tone.
"Did they? I was under the impression that the fleet's presence was just a decoy for that other operation."
"You are right. But it could have been interpreted that way too."
Padmé leaned forward: "Other operation?" she asked sweetly.
Everyone seemed surprised at her sudden interest. Apparently they had all but forgotten about her. Another fact to keep in mind. Roj Kell smiled at her and Padmé decided that this was not a good sign.
"Well, my lady, Lord Vader had this brilliant idea for discrediting the Grand Admiral: while the very real execution of the Chandrilan governor would certainly cause a public uproar, the phony attacks by Imperial Star Destroyers on three peaceful worlds did even more so. Thrawn was called back to Coruscant and we can all guess what his superiors had to say to him there. Politicians!" he snorted in disgust.
Padmé's smile froze in place.
"Truly amazing," she nodded at last.
"Yes, but his latest move is even better. You see, he has let his most trusted officer become Thrawn's prisoner. Captain Needa is very well liked even though he has betrayed the Empire. When he is executed the Navy will most certainly protest and Thrawn will lose their support."
The only give-away for Padmé's surprise was the sudden flicker of her amber eyes:
"Interesting. But couldn't Needa reveal crucial information to the Grand Admiral?"
"I doubt that Lord Vader has allowed him to retain his sanity."
"Then who will take the Captain's place?" she asked, fascinated, and raised a miraculously refilled wine-glass to her lips.
"In fact," and here Roj Kell's smile deepened dangerously, "I am told that Lord Vader has found himself a new apprentice: your daughter, I believe."
Padmé nearly choked on the sweet wine she had just been sipping. Coughing furiously she put the glass down and stood, wiping tears from her eyes.
"I am sorry. Will you excuse me?" she whispered and left quickly, not caring what the Council might think of her reaction.
Storming out into the dark hallway, her face contorted with rage, Padmé shook her head in dismay. How could he? How? Tears were flowing freely now, but she couldn't care less. Looking around wildly she spotted the cave's entrance and made for the exit. A sudden sound made her turn around in surprise. She could just make out Chi'in's small form and a faint smile on his alien face. Padmé gave him a barely perceptible nod and marched out into the night.
The heat had not lessened at all and wrapped itself around her like a warm blanket as she picked her way carefully over the wet stones, not really knowing where to go. Far away. From them. From him. Did you really think that he would change? a tiny voice demanded harshly.
Padmé shook her head. Tieman dead and Needa as good as dead. They had risked so much for her! She had seen them as friends, and she had no others left. Not anymore. And Anakin simply had to go and destroy that, just like he had destroyed everything else she had ever held dear.
Dropping to the hard ground, Padmé wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged them against her chest tightly. She remembered sitting like that before, waiting for him.
"Where have you been?" she growled, but Anakin did not even seem to realize that something was wrong. Or was he trying to hide his worry behind that smile of his? He was a Jedi. He must know what she felt. She turned her head away, looking out over the green plains of Naboo. "Obi-Wan said that you were late for your training session this morning," Padmé explained, "And you told me that you had to leave early because he already had complained that you have less and less time for his lessons."
When she faced him again he wore a mask of cold rage. But he wisely kept silent. "So, where have you been?"
Finally Anakin sighed and took a seat in one of the chairs at the window. Stretching out his long legs before him he seemed deeply immersed in studying his boots. New ones, she noticed. "Chancellor Palpatine had to leave very, very early and I had some questions that needed an immediate answer."
Padmé raised her eyebrows coolly: "And that is reason enough to lie to me? To Obi-Wan?" He did not answer. Padmé frowned. In the past months there had been a lot of these laden silences, with words unsaid and secrets untold. She nearly had enough of it.
When Anakin had started taking a sudden interest in politics. at first Padmé had been flattered because he always came to her for advice, pestering her with questions about responsibility, difficulties, fractions and what not else. But her teachings seemingly did not suffice to satisfy him. Not after long he started criticizing her, telling her that she was too lenient, too passive. And when he began talking about manipulation and deception as more effective means to reaching her goals Padmé had refused to teach him any more. He had only blinked at her, smiled, and said that it was all right. Was it? Who did he think he was? The most powerful Jedi alive should know about responsibility, shouldn't he? And now he had tried to enter her domain, criticized her even, as if she did not already feel humbled by his fiery presence and power.
But things had gotten much, much worse. Not only did the political climate in the Galactic Senate turn decidedly more hostile. But at the same time Anakin buried himself in his political studies, scrutinizing laws, court sentences, history and everything that seemed of any use to him. They did not see each other for days at times and although he always tried to make up for it, Padmé knew that his thoughts were on something else. His Plan. That stupid plan that upset Obi-Wan and the entire Jedi Council. Padmé closed her eyes, seeing yet again Anakin's red face when he came back from another fruitless Council meeting. She herself had tried to concentrate on a recent report on the new cloning techniques Chancellor Palpatine was praising so highly. And then Anakin had burst into the room, trembling with rage.
"I know what he is planning!" he screamed and Padmé flinched back at the sheer heat of his anger.
"Anakin," she tried soothingly, "Calm down." When he turned on her, his blue eyes burning, she knew that this time he was on the brink. Obi-Wan had told her about the Council's worries concerning Anakin. That his anger would get the better of him someday. That he might turn to the Dark Side. Padmé had not liked the sound of that at all.
"What do you know," he hissed, cutting her heart open without mercy, "He will push this through and then there will be no stopping him."
"Then why do you keep on taking his advice? If you know why don't you try to uncover that plan and reveal it to the Senate?" Although she tried hard to remain calm her voice was trembling.
"Because I cannot prove it!"
"You are a Jedi Knight. They will trust your judgement."
"Anakin, what did the Council say? Did you tell them?"
"They believe that I should cease this - investigation," he spat and strode up to the window to frown down at the busy lanes of Coruscant.
"They don't trust him. And they don't trust me. Some of them never have."
"Oh, Anakin. I beg you. You must decide what is best. And remember that the Council is more experienced in these matters than you are."
"More experienced? They do not even know what game they are playing."
He had been sent on a mission to Alderaan within the month. Alone. Padmé did not know what the Council was trying to accomplish with that, and Obi-Wan refused to tell her anything. But whenever she asked his eyes became hard and cold. It was bad. And then it got even worse.
"I think you should leave Coruscant," Obi-Wan told her resignedly.
"You are not safe here anymore, Padmé. Go back to Naboo."
"What about Anakin?"
"I will talk to him."
"Then you are going to Alderaan?"
"Yes. I am leaving early tomorrow. And you should too."
"I cannot leave now. There are important issues to be discussed in the Senate."
"Please, it is for the best."
Even now, in the brooding heat of the Korriban night Padmé could not stop shivering. Hugging herself tighter she pressed her forehead against her knees, trying to fight the memories. To no avail. They kept on haunting her, tormenting her. A tiny sob escaped from between her lips and then the tears came. Just as they had all those years ago.
On the same night Obi-Wan had told her that she had lost her husband to the Dark Side.
"Where are you going?" Anakin demanded, when he surprised her in her chambers, packing.
"Why? Did Obi-Wan tell you to?"
"Yes. He seems concerned-"
"You will stay."
"Oh no, Anakin, that I will not. I for one trust the Council's judgement."
"You cannot be serious," he told her contemptuously and then she really had had enough of his arrogance.
"I am very serious. And you are supposed to be on a mission on Alderaan. I will return home and you better return to where you came from."
"You heard me, clearly, I am sure. I am leaving and you will not stop me."
"Padmé, you do not understand-"
"And I do not care. You want to play games? Fine. But not with me."
"Padmé Naberrie, you will stay,"
His low, compelling voice froze her in place and it took her a moment to realize what he had done. Turning around slowly Padmé faced him down as only a queen could:
"You dare! You dare use that filthy trick on me!"
Anakin flinched back, but almost immediately his face turned sullen, enraging her even more:
"I do not have to take this from anyone, let alone my husband! Who do you think you are, Jedi!"
She was shouting now, but she did not care. Not at all. But when he stepped up to her his eyes were so cold that she shivered with sudden fear. Grabbing her right arm brutally Anakin drew her very close. Padmé refused to look up at him, her heart frozen with dread, but his left hand turned her face around slowly, as she tried to fight him, unwilling to give in. And afraid of what she would see. Or hear.
"You are making a mistake," he whispered, his voice like thin ice threatening to break at any point to plunge her into the roaring fire imprisoned underneath, "And if you leave now I will find you wherever you go. I will find you, Padmé. You will stay here, or suffer my revenge. If you leave now, Padmé, I swear I will kill you."
Crying softly Padmé shook with fear and despair. She had left then, but there had been no time to recover from the wounds her soul and heart had received by Anakin's unthinking cruelty. No time at all. And now, after all those years, he had made his threats come true. She was suffering greatly. And she did not know what to do anymore. Suddenly she jerked in surprise when huge raindrops started falling ever faster, bursting on the black stone, drenching her clothes, her hair, assaulting her with brute force.
Rising on shaking legs, Padmé rubbed some life into her numb arms and started back towards the underground cave. The open corridor funneled the water into the entrance and she was first taken aback by the seeming stupidity of the construction, but then her eyes followed the flow and she realized that there was a purpose to the whole design. Following the stream downwards, she walked deeper into the fortress.
The darkness swallowed her whole; her eyes, already accustomed to the nightly gloom, found the shimmering crystals leading the way quickly. In a natural pattern they decorated the walls, shining like stars. Padmé smiled a bit. It was beautiful, she had to admit that. Carefully she took one step at a time, trying not to slip on her way deeper into the mountain. Not before long the air around her turned cooler, but not too much so. Like spring rain, clear and refreshing. It reminded her of Naboo.
And then she stood in another cave, this one lit almost entirely by tiny crystals, millions and millions of them scattered throughout the rocky walls. Padmé sighed with delight. The middle of the cave was a huge pool of invitingly clear water. She felt compelled to touch it and knelt down gracefully, smiling. Just then she became aware of the tall alien tailor-seated on the opposite shore. The Falleen apprentice had his eyes closed and she could see his chest rise and fall evenly. It was a calm picture and somehow it did not seem to fit the image of the Sith. A movement by her side caught her attention and she suppressed a scream, intent on not disturbing Cronn in his meditation, when Chi'in appeared out of the shadows and took her hand, still stretched towards the pool's surface.
His skin was cool and rough, but his close presence unnerved her. Drawing away she gave the alien a small smile. "Do not touch the water, Lady Vader. Watch," he explained and pointed at the Falleen. Turning her head, Padmé sat down beside the crouching warrior and they waited together. Very slowly she became aware of the rising temperature, the mist rising off the water. Ripples began to form and the tiny waves slapped harder and harder against the shore. And then, very suddenly, the water started to boil. This time Padmé did scream. And Cronn's concentration broke. The Falleen hissed something in his own language and shook his head, frowning at her. Chi'in simply laughed. Turning towards Padmé, his lantern eyes twinkled mischievously: "Would you care for a swim, my lady?" Padmé only shook her head and smiled at him.
This little performance should have helped the queen decide on her course of action, Roj Kell mused. She must now believe that Vader was acting on the Sith's behalf, helping them win this war. If she ever found out the truth... But that was not for now. It was astounding how contradictory her feelings were in regard to her husband. Obviously she still loved him, but that love was on the verge of hatred, born out of deep hurt and disappointment. Both were emotions he could use to turn her into his own tool to gain some sort of control over the Dark Lord-who was very adept at playing his own game, as the most recent conversation had shown. Although he had apparently decided that Kell could not endanger his plans no matter what, he was still trying to use him for his own ends.
If his son truly had been captured... Well, this was a trap, and an obvious one. The question was if it had been Sidious' idea or the Grand Admiral's. Somehow Kell suspected the first. But Vader had no idea what the old Sith truly had in store for him. He still treated Kell as an enemy, untrustworthy, and he did well in doing so too. By telling him about his son's capture he was giving him a possibility to strike. And strike he would, even if the reasons were different from what the Dark Lord might anticipate.
Nuron would free the boy and bring him to his father. Then they would see if Lord Vader was brave enough to take the challenge and strong enough to win the game. Besides, if it was Nuron who freed her son, the queen would be deeply grateful and maybe even less suspicious. If not... Well, there were always ways to ensnare the proud and troubled.
Pacing the length of his cabin Anakin Skywalker was fuming. At his side Obi-Wan Kenobi waited patiently for the Dark Lord to calm down.
"This is a dangerous gamble, Anakin. What if he doesn't fall for that trick?"
"I know Roj Kell," waving a hand in dismissal, he resumed his place at the viewport, "But I would much rather know why he called me at all. Needa was not the reason, I am sure of that."
"Maybe he knew about Luke's capture already."
"No, it is not that. If he suspects something..."
When the door crashed open it took them both by surprise. Leia did not even break stride at seeing the shimmering ghost by her father's side:
"Threepio just received a very interesting message," the Princess began without preamble.
"Indeed. What about?"
"It was from Artoo. Did you know? Did you?"
"I see. No. Obi-Wan just told me."
She took a step back, aghast: "You did not plan this?"
"Then how are we going to get him out?"
"I have already arranged that, don't worry."
Leia gave him a cold smile: "Worry? Me?"
"Nothing will happen to Luke. Trust me."
"What about him?"
Leia sighed in exasperation: "Father. Something is going on. I can feel it. So stop playing with me. Father. Are you listening at all?"
"Wait," he told her, his voice barely audible, and grimaced painfully. "Wait, I think- Needa!" Anakin gasped and shook his head, moaning softly.
"What is it?"
Mara was unconsciously leaning towards Needa, ignoring his screams, or at least tried to. By her side Grand Admiral Thrawn wore a faint smile. The trick was to get Vader to shield Needa against the pain and then trap the Dark Lord with the help of some Ysalamiri. Mara had been surprised to see those reptiles in Thrawn's possession, but in hindsight she should have known that he would not leave any possibility uncovered. They could do nothing but wait now. And finally they got a reaction. Very suddenly the Captain's eyelids flew open and his gray eyes sparkled with anger. "Jade," he hissed between swollen lips which slowly contorted into a forced smile. "I never had thought that you would agree to such methods." Mara blinked in surprise. But he couldn't be serious. He was playing again.
"Maybe you just don't know me well enough," she whispered and held her breath when a sudden wave of nausea hit her.
Needa's body stiffened almost immediately and after a few seconds he started shaking so violently that Mara almost rose to protest a continuation of this experiment. But then his struggles ceased as quickly as they had started. Rushing to his side the former Emperor's Hand was relieved to find the readings on his heart rate and pulse in the normal range.
"A success?" Thrawn asked softly as he stepped towards her, his glowing red eyes fixed on the seemingly unconscious prisoner.
Mara shook her head: "I am not sure. Maybe when he wakes up-"
With a gasp Needa came to and blinked his eyes rapidly, apparently still in shock. Looking around wildly he frowned first at Mara, then at the Grand Admiral. Finally he stopped to stare at the three slender creatures lounging in now open metal containers. His frown deepened.
"Welcome back," Thrawn told him coolly.
"Hardly," Needa snorted and sank back again, closing his eyes tightly. Mara and the admiral shared a glance. Mara simply shrugged. How was she to know if this had worked out or not? She could not feel a thing with the Ysalamiri around.
"Your lordship," Thrawn began anew. Needa did not stir, but after a while he opened his eyes again, his mouth a grim line. Mara gasped. Could it be?
"We meet again, it seems," the Captain said softly and shook his head slowly.
Thrawn seemed surprised: "We do?" Suddenly realization dawned on his face. Turning towards Mara his lips drew back in a silent snarl. She raised her eyebrows coolly.
"Not my fault," she told him, shrugging again.
"Not your fault, Jade?" he whispered dangerously: "You knew all the time that it is Darth Vader opposing me and you never told me. Not your fault? I don't think so."
Behind him Needa shook with silent laughter: "She tricked you, it would seem. But your plan has failed."
Whirling towards him again Thrawn stared down at the Captain, incredulous: "Failed?"
Needa nodded with a cool smile: "Utterly."
Thrawn's glowing eyes narrowed dangerously before he turned away to leave. "Get him back to his cell," he told the two guards, "And you, Mara Jade, will come with me."
Sighing, Mara threw Needa a sympathetic smile. He did not return it. If only she could get rid of that guilty feeling! Shaking her head in disgust at herself, Mara stepped out into the corridor and followed the Grand Admiral in some distance. He was in a foul mood, she could see that, and there was no need in angering him further. Her little game had blown in her face and she had the sinking feeling that this too had been part of Vader's plan. What did he want? Humiliate her? Well, he had succeeded in that. But why the praise before she had left? Strange. Very strange.
When Thrawn stopped suddenly, Mara nearly bumped into him. Turning towards her, he wore a deep frown on his face: "Did you know that we have captured Luke Skywalker?"
She blinked once or twice: "What?"
He smiled coldly: "I will take that as a no." Nodding to himself the Grand Admiral resumed walking again. "Good. There is the slightest chance that Vader has not planned for that to happen. I would be surprised if he had. Although, who knows?"
Who knows indeed, Mara agreed inwardly. But she just had to assume that Vader loved his son and would never deliberately put him or his daughter in harm's way. Otherwise she would have yet another reason to hate the Dark Lord for his cold calculations and manipulations. Needa evidently had had no clue about his part in Vader's scheme. And he was his most trusted officer. Shaking her head again, Mara decided to give up trying to understand the Dark Lord. He was not her concern anymore.
The landing on Hoth was uneventful, but Han Solo had a wary eye on everyone standing even remotely close to Leia. Her father, luckily, was nowhere in sight. "Wait here, okay?" he asked Chewie and waited for the other's growled affirmation. "Thanks, pal. I'll meet you later." Striding out of the cockpit Han smoothed down the front of his jacket. His shirt was a complete loss, crumpled after long hours of flight. But she wouldn't care. He hoped. Grinning broadly he took the princess in a fierce embrace and kissed her, ignoring the whistles and good-natured comments by the deck crew. When he let her go again she was beet-red.
"Let's go," she whispered breezily and led him away.
"How are things here?"
She did not answer at first.
"That bad?" Han continued and slowed down a bit until they came to stop in the middle of the North passage. Turning to face him again, Leia tried a smile. And failed miserably.
"Leia, what happened?" he asked finally, exasperated.
"Not here," she sighed and drew him towards her own quarters.
Once inside she dropped down on her bed and put her head in her hands. Han took a chair, dragged it up to her and sat down. Reaching out he stroked her head gently, kissing her forehead. "Tell me, will ya?" he whispered and took her hands in his. They were icy cold.
"Luke has been captured," she began, "and Needa too." Han stopped breathing for a second.
"What?" he exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief, "How could that happen? Don't tell me he planned that!"
Leia looked away. "He did with Needa. But he had expected the capture to take place on Pakrat Minor. Don't ask me why. Thrawn tried to trap him and failed. Don't ask me how. He doesn't tell me much of late. As if that were surprising in a any way."
"I have no idea. Artoo sent a message. He is at Dagobah right now."
"Does he know where they took Luke?" She nodded:
"A planet called Myrk."
"Me and Chewie can go there, get him out -" he offered and Leia's face blossomed into the most beautiful smile.
"Thank you," she said and kissed him quickly, "but that won't be necessary."
"Is Jix going?" Han asked, suddenly suspicious. She laughed out loud.
"No. Father has arranged something."
"He wouldn't say. But he is certain that nothing will happen to Luke."
"And you believe him?"
"I have no choice, have I? And besides, I trust him. He will not let any harm get to Luke."
Waking up seemed to become harder every day. He had lost track of the time pretty soon, right after he had given up trying to touch the Force. He simply couldn't. Blinking heavy eyelids Luke pushed himself up on his elbows and for a while regarded the metal cuffs fixed around his wrists. They had taken his lightsabre, of course, and injected him with something, but once they had arrived on this planet everything had changed. He remembered waking up the first day and throwing up almost immediately.
He had felt so sick that he only wanted to die. Something had been missing and it had not taken him long to find out what it was: the Force. He could not feel anything. Like being pushed in a desert filled with nothing, like being deaf and blind all at once. He had gotten used to it by now. He really had no choice. They didn't treat him too bad, luckily. But it was hard to endure the long hours all alone. Luke sighed and rolled over on his back to stare at the ceiling.
Artoo had escaped, he was almost sure of that. Would he try to get help? Sure he would. And they would come and get him, he knew. Smiling a bit, Luke lost himself in daydreams of Han and Chewie bursting through the door, Leia not far behind, her face a mask of grim determination. Or maybe his father would come. On the other hand maybe not. He could not use the Force here after all. Luke froze. What if the Imperials turned this into a trap for Anakin? He would be helpless, just like himself! Jumping up in deep concern Luke was almost hit immediately by a wave of nausea. But he had learned to control that.
Grimacing in disgust he shook his head wildly, trying to get rid of that sour taste in his mouth. When he looked up again the door of his cell was wide open. Luke stared. The man standing in the doorway was clearly an alien. His pale blue skin was contrasting sharply with his white admiral's uniform and red eyes were glowing dangerously out of a fine-boned face. His jet black hair was smoothed back thoroughly and he was smiling.
"Luke Skywalker," he said softly and Luke's ears perked up at the sound of his voice.
"Who are you?" he demanded, slightly annoyed.
"Permit me to introduce myself. I am Grand Admiral Thrawn." Luke merely smiled at him. The admiral eyed him with interest, then stepped into the cell. Luke's smile froze when he saw Mara follow him closely. She grimaced at him uncomfortably as if she wanted to tell him that she wanted to be here as much as he did. Somehow he even could believe that. She was, after all, a Force-user just like him.
"Mara," he said, ignoring Thrawn deliberately, "what are you doing here?"
"Keeping me company," the alien cut in smoothly.
"Really?" Luke countered and raised his eyebrows coolly. "And what are you doing here, Grand Admiral?"
The other man laughed: "A true Jedi. I recognize your kind."
Luke didn't answer.
But apparently Thrawn had not really expected a response. Nodding at the young man sitting on the bed he smiled again: "Do you think your father will come to free you?" he wondered aloud and Luke simply laughed, shaking his head.
"He is no fool, you know?"
Thrawn gave him a long look. "I had thought you would be more surprised, Skywalker."
"Why? Because you know that he is alive? I guess Mara told you. Or someone else. Maybe he even told you himself," Luke shrugged.
"You know your father well, it seems."
"Better than you do."
A cruel smile appeared on the Grand Admiral's lips. "Then maybe you will share that knowledge with me," he hissed.
Luke shook his head: "You are mistaken. He did not tell me anything. And besides, I do not think that it would be of much use to you anyway. He seldom leaves loose ends behind."
Thrawn jerked back in surprise. Obviously he had expected something else. No, someone else, Luke realized. He felt his chest swell with pride, but crushed the feeling almost immediately. Just because he had realized that he truly was well on his way to becoming a Jedi Knight there was no reason to get all high on that. He was still a prisoner. But he could not help noticing the admiring glance Mara gave him.
Suddenly an aide stood in the doorway, panting as if he had run all the way. And he probably had. "Sir," he gasped, "The ship is ready to leave."
Thrawn did not turn towards him. He was still looking thoughtfully at Luke: "Thank you, lieutenant. I take it the fleet is ready for the Hoth operation?"
This time Luke simply knew that his surprise showed plainly on his face. Thrawn smiled, gave him a military nod and left. Mara hesitated a bit before following.
"Luke, I just want to tell you that I had no idea what he had planned."
"Who? Thrawn or my father?"
"Your - You know. I had no choice."
"I see. But if you had one, Mara, which side would you choose?"
"The right one. Gotta go. Take care."
"Sure. I'll try."
And then she was gone too and the cell door closed again with a loud thud, sealing Luke in the unfeeling desert again. He sighed. Leaning his head against the wall he closed his eyes. There really was nothing he could do that he had not already tried before. No escape. Growling softly he curled into his mattress and tried to sleep again.
Mara Jade stood at the viewport of her cabin, watching the planet Myrk fall behind. Luke had grown a lot since last she had seen him. He was not the slightly naive youth he had been. He was a Jedi. And somehow she did feel proud of him. How he had countered Thrawn's efforts in putting him off balance. He had not revealed anything. Whereas his father would already have ripped off the Grand Admiral's head, Force or not. Mara smiled grimly. Vader would not stay idle. He would try to free his son. Or maybe he would send Jix. Yes, probably that. And Thrawn would be prepared for anything. She shivered. The game had taken on a whole new level now that Thrawn knew the truth. She remembered how he had held a lecture on the Sith to her and Piett, that they were masters of manipulation, but worked alone most of the time. That he held a small surprise ready for the Dark Lord. He had actually laughed at that.
He seemed convinced that only Vader was making the difference with the rebel troops. After all their fleet was still no match for the Imperial Navy, despite their efforts and allies. And now Thrawn could strike in earnest. They would reach Hoth in a few days, a week at the latest. What would happen then? Would Vader take up the challenge and face Thrawn in open combat, match his skills against the Grand Admiral's? Mara doubted it. Thrawn had told her that he had beaten Vader numerous times in simulated space battles. And, knowing the Dark Lord, he would not have forgotten about that. No. Nothing was certain anymore. Nothing at all.
Han Solo stood to attention despite himself. But having Anakin Skywalker stare at you could bring out the eager little trooper in anyone. Anyone except Jix, it seemed. The Corellian agent lounged unconcernedly in the visitor's chair in front of the Dark Lord's desk and was playing around with some datacards. Without even looking at him Anakin slapped down on his hand hard. With an angry yelp Jix jumped in surprise and glared at his employer, who was still staring hard at Han.
"You know what you have to do?" Han nodded. "And Karrde will go along?"
"Sure. He agrees that the Empire needs a pounding and soon. But I guess he just wants you off his neck."
Anakin laughed softly:
"Indeed. Well. There is nothing more to say. Give us a sign once you are past the Coruscant defenses. Don't let yourself get caught and stay put. I am counting on you there, Solo. Do not disappoint me."
Han grinned broadly: "Not on my life."
"I hope so. Karrde will remain true to his word. As will his associates."
"Yeah. I know some of them. From back in the old times, you know?"
The Dark Lord nodded: "Let me not keep you. I am sure there is someone who would like to talk to you too."
Han's face broke into a smile at the thought of Leia and he left without another word. They had until morning and he was looking forward to having her all to himself. She did not seem angry at him anymore. A relief.
Striding down the icy hallways he was humming to himself happily. He knocked at the door to the Princess' quarters, then waited for a few moments, then entered with a smile. To his great disappointment she was bent over some report looking busy.
"Hm?" she sighed and looked up tiredly.
"I am leaving tomorrow morning."
"So I thought we might spend the evening together like."
"Like what?" she inquired, smiling.
"Like a romantic dinner aboard the Falcon? Next to the fourth moon with a spectacular view on Hoth?"
Her smile deepened: "That sounds like a splendid idea."
"There is no but, Han."
"Oh?" he asked in mock surprise. "Good. Whenever you're ready then."
Sitting cross-leggedon his bed in the small room he called his own in the Hoth base, Anakin Skywalker let his mind wander, clearing his thoughts of all distractions. He was tired. And he felt as if he had spent the past months running uphill all the time. It was definitely time for some rest. But not yet, he knew. On the other hand his growing exhaustion was not good at all. He needed his mind focused on the problems at hand. Thrawn was very close to gaining the upper hand. And as the game took on an ever faster pace, his restlessness grew. He wanted to finish it here and now. Not possible, he knew.
Tomorrow Solo would start on his mission to Coruscant. He and some of Karrde's associates would smuggle ten special units into the capitol, where they would lie low for a while.
Thrawn might suspect something, but he would have other things to deal with. The attack on Hoth, for example. An accusation of treason and an enemy right on his door-step. But, Anakin told himself with a smile, all in good time and order. He was keeping himself so open that the Grand Admiral must start wondering. And he would feed his suspicions diligently. What is the Dark Lord planning, Thrawn must be asking himself. Why the ruse with Needa? And why send the former Emperor's Hand? Why give me the files to solve my problem with manning that Super Star Destroyer? Thrawn could not possibly know that the files did not really contain an answer, but a trap. Maybe he would be willing to take the risk, but Anakin would not let him choose. No way. To Thrawn all this must at the same time be highly suspicious but also very tempting. And he must be asking himself one question: could it be that his opponent was really planning to join him? Could it be that he had been deceiving the Rebels all along? Oh yes, it could.
Laughing out loud, Anakin closed his eyes. The Grand Admiral would very soon find himself on open ground. Open, deadly ground. Two choices, both fatal. The trap was sprung. There was no escape anymore. For none of them.
Strictly speaking it was still night-time when Han Solo strode up to his ship, patting the Falcon's outer hull affectionately. Wrapped in a warm jacket he was waiting for Chewbacca. The Wookiee roared an excuse across the great hangar before he dropped his gear at Han's feet.
"Rise and shine," Han remarked sarcastically at his friend's foul mood. Chewie cocked his head to one side questioningly, then huffed a small laugh and an inquiry. "Yeah, it was a great evening. And no, I couldn't convince her to come with me," Han told him gruffly and brightened up very suddenly when he saw Leia hurry onto the deck. Leaving his co-pilot with the ship he came forward to meet her halfway.
"Did you think about it?" he asked again and again she shook her head.
"I really cannot go. I am needed here."
Kissing her left ear softly Han sighed: "Too bad. I will miss you."
She grinned up at him: "And I you."
"Hey, think you can do this without me holding your hand?"
Han looked up to singe Wrenga Jixton with his fiercest stare. Leia quickly wrapped an arm around his waist, turning towards the agent. "Of course he can," she told Jix reproachfully.
Han took her hand and squeezed him gently: "You just keep an eye on her, all right?"
Jix simply nodded. And then it really was time to leave.
Han was not looking forward to this. Sneaking into Coruscant was dangerous, but Jix had assured him that the Imps would not even think of a threat this close to home. Not that Han believed him. But he had agreed to do this, so he would. He just hoped that he would see Leia again. And soon.
Leia decided to go back to sleep for some more hours, since she hadn't gotten enough rest the last night. The memory still made her smile. It had been perfect. And she missed Han already.
Hugging her pillow tightly, she snuggled against its warmth as if it were him. But such a poor substitute! She fell asleep fast and was wakened much later by Threepio's concerned voice.
Grumbling a bit, she rose and dressed, then left her room to go see her father. She had, after all, some responsibilities. But, still sleepy, she did not recognize the man just leaving the Dark Lord's office at once.
"Gerran? Back so soon?" she murmured at his retreating back. He didn't answer.
"He says there was an Imperial Star Destroyer waiting for him there."
Turning around Leia was suddenly wide awake. Stepping into the freezing room she eyed her father speculatively. He was standing behind his desk, his hands resting lightly on the tabletop. She frowned at him: "Then they knew?"
"Wait. Wait. You arranged that, am I right?"
"Leia, Gerran was well aware of just what was waiting for him there. That was why he was so reluctant to go. No doubt he would rather have seen you or me leave to walk into Thrawn's little trap."
She took a deep breath. "But you had me clear his name off the list of possible Imperial agents. And you said he was one of yours."
"Yes. The list. I have something for you. This is a file Jix retrieved from the Coruscant mainframe before deleting it."
He slid a datacard across the desk and Leia quickly put it into the reader of his datapad. She stared at the screen for some time, then looked up at her father:
"So you had the names of the agents all along. Why didn't you tell me?"
"There was no need for you to know and your investigation served as a very effective distraction. I wanted to put the agents on edge."
Leia let that pass for the moment and removed the datacard again:
"But Gerran. He is your aide! What do you tell him?"
"Everything he needs to know."
"Who does he answer to?"
"Grand Admiral Thrawn."
"Then he knows that you are leading our troops?"
"By now he probably does."
"I do not understand. Why?"
"It is quite easy once you think about it."
Leia's eyes narrowed suspiciously: "He will want revenge for the recent attacks on civilian targets and for the rebellion on Chandrila."
"He knows where we are and he will try to catch you off-guard."
"Well, I am sure he has realized by now that this is nearly impossible."
"But he will attack Hoth."
"Yes, that he will. And I am putting you in charge of this operation."
Leia smiled at her father slowly: "Thank you for your trust in my abilities. And what have you planned?"
"Our Star Destroyers will attack Reecee, Corulag and Kuat at the same time as Thrawn arrives here."
"Those worlds are on the Inner Rim."
"Too close to Coruscant."
Leia smiled: "I see. This is my test, am I right?"
He simply nodded. The Princess closed her eyes gently and let the possibilities pass across her inner eye. Remembered her lessons and her defeats. Attack where no attack is expected and defend where no defense is expected. Finally she looked at her father again:
"I have a plan."
"We will evacuate everyone to the cruisers. Once the Imperial Fleet arrives half of our ships will engage them, faking surprise. We will retreat. They will search the base eventually," she waved the datacard in her hand. "They will only find this. And the people fitting those names."
"Including Gerran?" Anakin asked with a smile.
"No. I think you have other plans for him."
This time he laughed out loud: "Excellent, Leia. You passed the theory. Now let us see you in action."
Luke frowned deeply at the sounds echoing down the hallway outside. A scream. A holler. Another scream. An unidentifiable humming noise. There was definitely something going on out there. When the door to his cell crashed open, he jumped nevertheless. No one was there. Rising slowly he took a few steps towards the gaping hole named freedom. And hesitated. Was it a trap of some sort? Leaning against the doorframe he risked a cautious glance outside. The corridor was littered with bleeding, broken bodies.
"Are you coming or what?" an angry female voice hissed at him. For a second Luke hoped that it was Mara, but the woman suddenly appearing out of the shadows was a complete stranger to him. Her yellow glowing eyes were the first thing he noticed about her. The second was the red lightsabre in her hands. He frowned at it, then raised his bound hands wordlessly. With a grunt she broke the cuffs with her blade and grabbed his arm brutally. "Come on, we don't have much time."
Running with her, Luke did not permit himself any questions. She wanted to get him out of here and since that coincided very much with his own wishes, that was enough for now. Everything else could wait. Leading him through the maze of hallways in the complex, she seemed completely focused. Suddenly she stopped and whipped out an arm, pressing Luke against the wall. He kept silent. For a while they stood like that, frozen in place, until she let go of him and slipped around the next corner.
Finally they stood underneath blue sky. Luke smiled. The nameless woman growled at him, then pushed him forward. The building they had just left stood at the edge of a pretty big town, Luke noticed. And there were at least twenty storm troopers coming their way. Hunting around for the next best hiding place, Luke's gaze fell on the distant forest.
And then the shooting started. A cinnamon hand grabbed his neck brutally and pushed him down. Standing over him the woman raised her lightsabre, grim determination painting her beautiful tattooed face.
"You cannot-" Luke tried to warn her, but then she picked off the first laser bolt screaming at them with her glowing blade, directing it back at the advancing troopers. Then another and another. Luke gaped in awe. When they were too close for defensive action, she held out a hand, palm outward and concentrated visibly. He could almost hear the wind rushing past as a wall of air hit the attackers with crushing force. When she sank to her haunches next to him, sweat beading her forehead and her hands shaking, Luke frowned at her.
"How did you do that?"
She threw him a mirthless smile: "It takes a master to teach you that trick."
"Your master perhaps?"
She shook her head, laughing: "I follow no master, not anymore."
"Really? That was very impressive. I think I would like to learn that too. By the way, I am Luke. What is your name?"
"My name, Luke, is Nuron." Holding out a hand she helped him rise. "Come, we have to go. They will be searching for us soon."
Throwing a last look back at the fortress, Luke shook his head: "I don't even know the name of this planet."
"It is called Myrk," Nuron told him calmly and started walking towards the forest, "And it is quite deadly. So you better stay close to me."
"Wait. Did my father send you?"
She turned her head back to smile at him: "Yes, he did."
"Funny. He never mentioned you."
"Well, he never mentioned you either," she retorted and arched her eyebrows coolly.
"Really?" Luke replied with a smile, "And here I thought that having a Jedi Knight as son would be any father's pride and joy."
When he saw her face darken suddenly Luke knew that she had lied. Whoever had sent her was apparently playing his or her own game. And for now, if he wanted to stay alive and in one piece, he had no choice but to play along.