Disclaimer: I do not own the Star Wars universe, nor the canon characters of the films and books, but all other characters and worlds depicted in this work are mine.
The events in this story take place a few months after the events of Champions of the Force, putting them roughly seven years after the Battle of Endor.
She recognized them the moment they walked into the bar. It wasn't too difficult; their images had cropped up frequently in the reports and communiqués that passed across her desk. Still, she wondered at the capriciousness of a universe that would bring them here, of all places, in a galaxy as wide as it was.
The taller and older of the two men retrieved several mugs from the barkeep, then settled the two of them at a table only several meters away from where she sat. Strange the holos didn't do justice to the cocky insouciance of the one, or the aura of subtle power that surrounded the younger man as surely as his dark cloak. But their features were as familiar to her as her own, and she could feel her fingers tighten on the slender stem of her own glass at the sight of them.
Between the ever-present rumble of both human and alien voices, and the sounds of the string band which pounded out the latest Doranni equivalent of a popular song, it was quite impossible for her to hear what they were saying. Damn it she wasn't trained for this sort of thing, and was certainly not expecting it. This had been a simple pleasure trip, a few precious stolen days away from the duties of a command which weighed more and more on her shoulders with each passing day. She had no backup, no reinforcements Doranne was a neutral world, although the New Republic had been lobbying hard of late to swallow up the Doranni system, just as it had so many others.
Just then, the older of the two men, the one with the lop-sided grin, looked up, catching her intent gaze. She could feel the color rise to her cheeks, and was thankful the lighting in here was dim enough that her blush surely couldn't be visible. Then she smiled back, ever so slightly, and waited to see what would happen.
It didn't take very long. There was a brief exchange between the two men, ending with the younger of the two shaking his head in a resigned manner, and they rose, coming to stand by her table.
"Would you mind a little company?" asked the older man, and she smiled again.
"Not at all," she replied, and spread one graceful hand to indicate that they take the empty chairs facing her.
They both sat. She noticed the younger man drank only Doranni crystal water, although the other one's wide mug obviously held some sort of beer or ale. Well, that would be typical of what she had heard of them.
"Marne Ledishian," said the older one, extending one hand to her.
She took it, and felt a shiver pass through her as she touched flesh to the man she had made herself hate for so long. Well, he had handed her a false name, and she had one equally as false to give back to him. "Shelinda Orr," she said.
"Brenn Mirsholme," said the younger man, and she shook hands with him as well.
Bringing her glass of rare Gindene liqueur to her lips, the goblet as delicate as the liquid it contained, she drank, and then asked, "So what brings you so far off the beaten path as Doranne?"
The one who had identified himself as Marne Ledishian said, "A little spice trading. And you?"
Only in neutral space could someone still admit to spice trading and get away with it. She wondered a little at his audacity, but realized he could have no idea to whom he was really speaking. "Trade as well. I'm here on business for the Castopol silk guild."
The younger man, the one who had called himself Brenn Mirsholme, raised an eyebrow. The wealth of Castopol silk traders was legendary, but she had thought the cover a fitting one, as it allowed her entry to the finest restaurants and hostels during her stay here, gave her leave to dress in elegant clothing and jewels, and gave her protection as well, as the Castopol guild's wealth was surpassed only by its paranoia, and reprisals against those who threatened or were even suspected of threatening guild members was swift and deadly.
But he said only, "Good trading this trip?"
She shrugged, noting how he watched the movement of her shoulders beneath the glinting fabric. "Good enough. And yourself?"
He shot a quick look at the man who accompanied him and said, "We can't complain."
"I'm glad to hear it." She sipped at her liqueur again, feeling the delicate aromatic fumes tickle and then massage the back of her throat. This was her second glass this evening, and perhaps it was not altogether wise to be facing these two with her wits dulled by the alcohol, so she set the glass back down on the table and smiled, letting the dimple show at the side of her mouth. "So tell me all about yourself."
Again that brief glance passed between the two men. "So what did you want to know?" the younger one asked, blue eyes ever so slightly amused, as if he guessed just what her game was.
"Everything," she replied, clasping her hands under her chin so the ruby nail tips sparkled briefly in the dim light of the luma at the center of the table. Perhaps her last evening here on Doranne wouldn't be so dull after all.
Han waited until the Millenium Falcon had broken orbit to turn a look of pure disgust on Luke. "You know," he commented, as he waited for the hyperdrive to finish its calculations for the jump, "it's not to often that I'd call a Jedi stupid, but that's sure what I want to call you now."
Luke shifted in the co-pilot's seat, looking like a young boy caught sitting in his father's chair. The seat had been modified to fit Chewbacca's not-inconsiderable bulk, and Luke had had to pull the belts to their tightest adjustment to keep himself even somewhat in place. "What do you mean?" he asked, his gaze never lifting from the blue-green crescent of Doranne, far beneath them.
"I mean, kid, that that woman Shelinda was interested. Damn interested. And when I try to gracefully leave, and say I need to get back to check on the ship so that the two of you can be alone, what do you do? You say goodbye and come with me!"
"Well, maybe I wasn't interested."
"And why not?"
Ahead of them, the starfield shifted into white streaks that flashed past faster than the human eye could follow. With the barest of shudders, the Falcon leaped into hyperspace, and Luke waited a moment longer before answering.
"I don't know. Something about her just didn't seem right."
"Uh-huh." Han flicked the clasps on his safety belt and rose out of his seat to lean against the console, arms crossed, as he stared down at his brother-in-law. Sometimes Luke's obtuseness regarding the fairer sex could be downright annoying. He'd thought there might have been something between the younger man and that girl on Bakura all that time back, but it had come to nothing. Happy in his marriage and family himself, he wished Luke could somehow share in that same sort of contentment. Sure, he was a Jedi, but that didn't mean he had to be a monk. At least, Han was pretty sure that wasn't necessary. "What wasn't right? You prefer blondes, maybe?"
Even Luke grinned then. "No, it certainly wasn't her looks."
"I don't know. She smiled, but I never saw that smile reach her eyes. And when we left, and she shook my hand good-bye, I felt something when I touched her."
"I'll bet," Han muttered, and thought briefly what he might have done, if he weren't a married man. Married, but not dead, he reminded himself, as he recalled the woman's delicate but well-curved shape, and her small, full-lipped mouth.
"Not like that," Luke protested, but he was smiling now. Then the smile faded. "No, it was more like she hated the very sight of me of both of us and would have happily seen us dead."
"You're imagining things, kid."
"Maybe," Luke said, but he didn't sound very convinced. "Listen, Han, maybe I don't I read minds, necessarily, but I can feel things about people, and all I felt from her was hostility, no matter how charming she might have seemed. I'd no sooner have been left alone with her than with the Sarlacc."
Luke was serious, Han saw. He himself wouldn't have minded being left alone with her if he were single of course—always that if—but Luke saw and knew things that Han couldn't, so Han supposed he'd have to trust Luke on this one. Too bad, because Han had liked her, found her witty and charming, with a sly sense of humor, someone who could have been a good foil for Luke, whom Han thought took himself all too seriously much of the time.
"If you say so, kid," he said at last, then grinned at himself. He wondered if he would ever stop calling Luke "kid." Probably not. They'd be watching their grandchildren playing together, and Han would still be calling Luke "kid."
If, of course, Luke ever had any grandchildren.
"Well, at least we've got some positive reports to take back to Leia about the Doranni system," Han went on, trying to cover up Luke's brooding silence. The hyperspace-ravaged heavens left strange ribbons of light across the younger man's features, like tears of celestial blood.
"Right," Luke commented, still staring out the viewport.
"Nothing like mixing a little business and pleasure, is there?" Han ventured.
The Doranni casinos were famed throughout the sector, and Han had done quite well at the sabacc tables well enough that he'd picked up a few trinkets for Leia, and exotic toys for the twins and Anakin. The excitement of the sabacc tables had almost compensated for the dreary diplomatic duties he'd had to perform. Almost. They'd come here on the quiet, to speak to those members of the Doranni planetary council they knew to be sympathetic to the New Republic cause, and the results had been promising. It would be some time yet before the Doranni tradition of autonomy and isolation could be overcome, but Han never doubted the Doranni system would come in on their side especially, he thought with a mental grin, if the New Republic sicced Leia on them.
The Doranni, he thought, wouldn't know what hit them.
Luke remained silent as Han checked the nav-computer readout, and thumped a switch that appeared to be malfunctioning. Good old Falcon. Somehow, it just wouldn't be the same if he let Leia have her way, and got the professional technicians in here to give the ship a complete overhaul. He liked the old girl's quirks, her strange blend of unpredictability and reliability—the Falcon's, not Leia's—and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"So who do you think she was?" Han asked at last, after assuring himself that all was well.
"I don't know," Luke replied, and then frowned. His blue eyes had that strange inward gaze that Han sometimes referred to as his Jedi look. "But I do know one thing."
"Whoever she might be, Shelinda Orr was no more a silk merchant than we are spice traders."
"Welcome back, Admiral." Commander Venn, her adjutant, snapped to attention, and then held out a datapad. "Your messages."
"Thank you, Commander." Admiral Viraess took the proffered datapad, and then frowned. "When did Grand Moff Kezler come on board?"
"This morning, at 0900. He seemed—annoyed—that you weren't here, Admiral." Venn's voice was expressionless, but Viraess thought she could see the tension in the tight lines around his mouth. Being the object of a Grand Moff's annoyance could end a career.
"I'm sorry about that, Venn," she replied, and flicked the datapad off. The heavy wool of her uniform felt stiff and strange after days of lounging in Castopol silk. "I got held up in customs. The curse of traveling as a civilian."
"As you say, ma'am." Once again, she caught the familiar flicker of surprise in Venn's dark eyes. It seemed she startled him at least once a day, but she supposed a subordinate wasn't used to be being apologized to by a superior officer—especially a member of the Imperial Forces High Command.
"Is he occupying his usual suite?" Her bootsteps echoed hollowly off the dark metal of the corridor's floor as she hastened her pace. Venn kept up with her easily; he was a head taller than she.
They reached the repulsorlift, and she said, "Deck seven, please."
Beside her, Venn shifted, as if he could not understand why someone would bother to say "please" to a computer. Just another one of her peculiarities they would all have to get used to. There would be many, she thought. She still wasn't used to being called Admiral, still couldn't believe that this great Super Star Destroyer, its kilometers of shining metal corridors and chambers, its banks of lasers, its deadly complement of troops and TIE fighters, was under her command. The face of the Empire was changing radically; it had to, or face annihilation.
The repulsorlift slid to a stop, and she stepped out, Venn at her heels, moving briskly down the corridor to the set of double doors at the far end, the entry to the Imperial suite.
When this Super Star Destroyer was constructed, chambers had been built within to accommodate a visit from the Emperor, should he ever care to visit. But the ship was only just finished when he perished above Endor, and so the ship had orbited in lonely splendor in its secret shipyards, far away from the conflict between Empire and New Republic, until the man who waited for her behind those doors discovered it, and pressed it into the Empire's service. Now it served as a sort of roving command headquarters for Grand Moff Kezler and his High Command, for his far-ranging plans to restore the Empire to its former glory.
If the stories were true, then Kezler was not trespassing on the Imperial suite, for he had presented himself as a son of the late Emperor, born when Palpatine was still only a Senator in the Old Republic, still plotting his rise to power. Genetic testing had, indeed, shown Kezler to be Palpatine's son, although the Grand Moff still went by his maternal family name. He didn't need to call himself Palpatine. People knew.
Four white-armored stormtroopers waited outside the double doors to the suite as Admiral Viraess approached. She stopped, then turned to Commander Venn and said, "I'll see him alone. Please go to the duty officer and inform him that the Admiral will be on the bridge within the next hour."
"Yes, Admiral." Venn bowed, then took the datapad she handed to him. Around him again was that faint air of surprised disapproval, and she smiled to herself.
Someday I'll remember I don't have to say "please," she thought, as one of the stormtroopers palmed open the door and she stepped inside. Four more stormtroopers and two red-robed Imperial guards waited there, but moved aside as she entered.
The suite was spacious, occupying a large space on the forward bulkhead, with the farthest wall composed entirely of transparisteel viewing screens. Silhouetted against the flashing stars was Grand Moff Kezler, slender and hard as a knife blade against the blackness of space. He turned upon hearing her enter, the gray-white light from the overhead lamps harsh on his clean, sharply etched features.
"Ah, Admiral Viraess," he said, and she stood at attention, and bowed neatly from the waist.
"Good day, sir," she replied, and then straightened. "You wished to see me?"
"Yes, Admiral." He moved away from the viewing port, and indicated that she follow him into the smaller of the two conference rooms with which the Imperial suite was equipped. Once there, a server droid bustled to draw away a chair for him, and place a hot cup of caf at his elbow. "You may sit, Viraess," he said.
She pulled out her own chair and sat, wondering what he wanted from her this time. Normally Kezler stayed out of her affairs, and left her to lead her fleet as she saw best, but she could not forget that he was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Empire, Emperor in all but name.
"A cup of caf?" he inquired, and she nodded.
"Yes, thank you."
The droid poured for her as well, and then left, the door closing with a soft snick behind it. Admiral Viraess lifted her cup and drank, holding back a wince at the bitter-chocolate taste, and wondering if she would ever get used to it. From another world, she remembered the taste of Gindene liqueur, and the feel of silk soft against her skin.
Kezler sat watching her as she drank, blue eyes expressionless. His face was composed in pleasant lines, giving no hint of what he might be thinking. But that was the way with him; those who displeased or were found wanting never knew directly—they just found a squad of Compforce troops waiting for them, or worse, simply disappeared.
He was young, barely over thirty standard, only a year older than she. Babies, both of them, she thought, comparing them to the forces of the Empire of the past, where a man might serve for twenty years before he made captain. But here he was, a Grand Moff, head of COMPNOR, and thus, indirectly, the entire Empire, and she an Admiral of the fleet—Admiral, she added to herself, indirectly because of him. Whatever else one might say of him, Kezler rewarded those who showed promise or who could be useful to him.
She did not think she had done anything to displease him. Her leave had been approved by his offices, and her record since achieving Admiral's rank exemplary. No, there was nothing she could think of—which, as she knew, after twelve years of experience, first at the Academy and then in the fleet— meant absolutely nothing at all.
The silence stretched between them, as she waited to hear what he had to say. That was another of his ways to put those who attended him on edge, keeping them off-balance. In one way, she admired his tactics, his ruthless skill at handling his subordinates—a skill she thought she could use more of—but she also disliked being on the receiving end of it. Not for the first time, she wondered where he'd accumulated these tricks, if there were some secret Imperial facility for training high-ranking officers and bureaucrats. Of course, being Palpatine's son, the talent could just be in his blood.
Finally she said, with a light movement of her shoulders conceding her loss in this small skirmish of wills, "And to what do I owe the honor of this visit, sir?"
The smooth, handsome face betrayed no satisfaction, save the quickest twitch at the corner of his mouth, but she knew he was pleased. Briskly, he said, "Our sources have come across some disturbing information."
Our sources. He could be speaking of COMPNOR's not-inconsequential intelligence-gathering operations, or those of Imperial Intelligence itself. The rivalry between the two bureaus was intense, but since Kezler had moved up to his current position from within COMPNOR itself, he had no compunction about having his own people sweep the files of Imperial Intelligence and pass off the results as their own. Moff Naren himself, head of Intelligence, was here on the Overlord presently; the great Super Star Destroyer served as a roving headquarters for the High Command. It was safer that way—it was far more difficult for the forces of the New Republic to track down a moving target, a command that had no set location.
Admiral Viraess somehow doubted that Kezler had bothered to visit Naren so soon upon his arrival.
"Information?" she asked at length, crossing her slender black-gloved hands on the table before her.
Kezler's glance did not waver. "You know that after the debacle involving Admiral Daala, I encountered some opposition to naming you on the High Command. They felt that a woman was perhaps too emotional, for the position."
She could feel her insides slowly congeal into ice. This was how it began—the soft, veiled accusations, the aspersions on her record—all heading toward dishonorable discharge and a life of obscurity.
If she were lucky, of course.
Somehow, she found her voice. "I have always endeavored to serve the Empire to the utmost of my ability, sir."
To her surprise, he laughed, and laid a hand on hers. "My dear Admiral, you jump to conclusions. Your service has been exemplary. Would that all soldiers of the Empire were as dedicated as you." He withdrew his hand, still smiling, a smile that faded as he went on. "I was going to say that Admiral Daala managed to salvage the science records of the Maw Installation, and was supposed to return to the Core and deliver them into safe hands."
He paused, fixing her with that icy blue gaze she found so unnerving. "She never got there. Any multitude of reasons have been given—the ship was already damaged, and could have been destroyed, the hyperdrive could have malfunctioned, stranding her in some backwater—whatever the reason, valuable scientific data has been lost."
"A great blow to the Empire," Viraess managed to say, shaky with the ebb of the fear-induced adrenaline rush his first words had produced.
"Yes." Lifting his cup, Kezler drank slowly, and then set the cup back down on the black gleaming surface of the conference table. His eyes never left her. "But now we have the opportunity to strengthen the Empire's chances against the upstart New Republic."
She wondered how he managed to instill such venom into those two simple words. Heavens knew, she hated the New Republic, hated what it had done to her, to those dear to her—and its greatest sin was that it preached freedom and liberty, where it left only chaos and death in its wake. How many dead Imperial citizens were now blood on its hands? Yet its leaders kept bleating on about the Empire's atrocities. What could be more terrible than the fiery death that had consumed her brother and all those with him when the Executor plunged into the half-finished Death Star above Endor? But Kezler's hatred seemed somehow even more personal than hers.
Of course, he had lost a father, even if that father had never acknowledged him. Perhaps that was what drove him, gave him that will to prove himself, as if the shade of the Emperor still lingered, exacting a heavy toll from his son. This, of course, was all speculation. Kezler never spoke of his father, never spoke of his life before COMPNOR. No one else did, either. There were some things that were better not discussed.
"Our sources have intercepted a set of transmissions from an independent research station on the outskirts of the Klandos sector. A wild area, populated by only a scattering of primitive outposts." Kezler pressed a button, and the viewscreen on the wall opposite them flared into life, showing a view of some unfamiliar system taken several degrees above the ecliptic. "Five days ago, the spectrum of the system's star abruptly shifted, putting out a particularly deadly form of neutron radiation. Any life in the system would have been immediately eradicated." He paused, watching as the picture on the viewscreen moved in closer to a small moon of the fourth planet, showing a complex of some sort, shielded and domed against the vacuum of space. "Luckily, the only life in the system was in this research outpost, and the scientists there managed to escape before their shielding failed."
"And what caused this spectrum shift?" Admiral Viraess glanced over at him, saw again that hint of a smile which touched only the corners of his mouth.
"Apparently the purpose of the station was to conduct research on altering the star's electromagnetic makeup. The scientists were trying to discover a way to make more systems viable, thus producing more planets that could sustain life. But something in their test went very wrong, as you can see."
She was silent for a moment, watching the yellow dwarf star and the barren planets that circled it, all so harmless in appearance, yet drenched in deadly radiation. "How long does the effect last?"
"That's one of the most exciting aspects of this event. Long-range scans show that the star is even now reverting to its former state. Our scientists estimate that it should return to normal within the next three months." He touched a button at the side of the table, and the viewscreen faded, even as the lights came back up in the room, their harsh glare causing her to blink at the sudden change.
"So the experiment was a total failure?" she asked, wondering what all this had to do with her.
"Not for our purposes." With an abrupt movement, he pushed his chair away from the table and stood, with the closest thing to a nervous gesture she had yet seen from him. "Think of it, Viraess—a device that causes a sun to emit deadly radiation, yet leaves all of a system's infrastructure intact, and returns to its normal state within a short period of time. Think of what we could do with such a weapon. Nothing so wasteful of resources as the Death Star or the Sun Crusher—our problem is the citizens of the New Republic. This device can eliminate them and deliver into our hands the mining facilities, the heavy industry, we so desperately need. We only have to wait a few months, and then repopulate the worlds with loyal Imperial citizens."
For a moment, Viraess could only look at him in silence, as the implications of what he had described came home to her. It was a weapon of silent death, even elegant in its own way, but she could barely repress a shudder at the thought of it. It was one thing to face an enemy in clean combat, but quite another to murder millions by stealth. But it needn't come to that, she told herself. The mere threat of such a weapon would be enough to pull obstreperous systems into line. That was the Tarkin Doctrine—and an effective one, until the Rebellion had destroyed the Death Star. Still, that was fault of its designers and engineers, and not so much of the philosophy that had led to its construction.
Finally she cleared her throat and said, "It would certainly shift the balance of power in our favor."
As she looked up at him, blond and handsome, the very epitome of idealized manhood as pictured on recruitment posters throughout Imperial space, she wondered why he was telling her all this. Surely now it would lie in the hands of Intelligence and Complink to ferret out where the departed scientists had disappeared to, and retrieve the data regarding the device from them. Of course, she knew she would have been informed at some point; this was a matter of supreme importance to the entire High Command. But she could not understand why Kezler had asked her to come to him first, and had her see him alone.
"And so—" she prompted delicately, not wanting to offend with too much curiosity.
"You're wondering what this has to do with you."
"Yes, sir." She kept her tone deliberately neutral.
"I hadn't mentioned to you the scientists involved in this project. They were a small group, funded by a conglomerate of neutral worlds out in the Lower Rim." Again the room darkened, as the viewscreen flashed into life, showing an official holo of a man only a few years older than herself, dark-haired, with a neat square beard. "This is Markus Klem, the head researcher."
Viraess held herself very still in her seat, not allowing a single betraying tremor to reach Kezler's all-knowing eyes. In her mind, eleven years were wrenched away, and she stood on a low hill on Lanarsk Prime, her homeworld, as the planet tilted toward autumn and the leaves fell like melting copper around her. She remembered his arms around her, his mouth on hers, that last passionate farewell before their lives were irrevocably torn apart, before they had left on their very different paths. That face was still familiar, although then he hadn't had the beard, and a few lines had begun to etch themselves around his eyes and mouth. But she remembered the heavy dark hair, the wide friendly mouth, as if she had just seen him yesterday. Markus.
"I believe you were once acquainted with him?" Kezler's voice was mild, but held a note of subtle satisfaction, as if her frozen shock were exactly the reaction he had been hoping for.
"Yes," she said at last, her voice flat and cold as the icy surface of the conference table which stretched before her. "I knew him." I knew him she thought, realizing why Kezler had brought this news to her. And heaven help him. Heaven help us all.