New Order, Part 4: Double Vision
4. There is no chaos, there is harmony.
The Temple's massive marble columns loomed over Mical as he passed through the main hall. He had instructed Mira to take one of the empty beds in the reconstructed padawans' dormitory, hoping that he would be able to arrange a provision for her. Now, he wanted nothing more than to return to his quarters and enjoy a brief respite before the inevitable furor of accusations and the humiliation of having to admit the truth. As he hurried by the doorway to a small meditation chamber, he glimpsed Visas sitting cross-legged on the floor, her back turned to him.
Mical wondered what she would think when she found out what had happened. She would never say anything aloud, but it pained him to think that she might cease to believe in his abilities.
He glanced at her seated form and kept walking.
"Mical. You have returned."
He'd lingered in the shadows outside that doorway for just a moment too long. It was so easy to forget that she didn't have to be looking in his direction to see him.
He felt the blood rush to his face and he realized that he was flushing red. He'd managed to banish his childhood stutter with careful practice, but whenever he felt particularly embarrassed, he knew this last vestige of his awkward boyhood would reappear: a burning blush that spread across his cheeks like wildfire, redoubling his discomfort.
"Yes, I just came back," he answered, turning back to her. "Is there something you need of me?"
"I wished to speak with you. The moment you entered the Temple, I could sense your disquiet. It stirs around you like ripples in still water. It saddens me."
He took a few steps into the chamber, glad that Visas could not detect the flush that still seared across his face. "You're right. The past few days have been very difficult for me. But you should not worry about such things. I simply must try to center myself and cast off these fears."
Visas turned her face towards him and as she did, he noticed changes in the decorative rectangle of colored sand that lay before her. It had been carefully sculpted into blue and yellow spirals, smooth red dunes and violet flourishes shaped like wings, as if by some large unseen hand.
A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "You are an artist."
"It is but a game, nothing more."
Visas extended her arm in a dismissive gesture and the sculptures collapsed back into a shapeless pile, millions of tiny granules of colored sand.
"I do not wish to pry," she said, "But it would ease my mind if you would tell me what has occurred."
Mical sighed. It would be all have to be brought to light eventually. At least she would listen patiently and her questions would be gentle.
"I made a terrible error, Visas. I went to the holding cell on the Direstar. I don't know what I was thinking. Perhaps I had stopped thinking altogether. I was angry. I told myself that I would only interrogate him, but I wasn't there just for answers. I wanted to hurt him. Badly. Maybe even to kill him. For a moment, I almost believed that I'd done it."
Visas lowered her head and for a moment, her moon-like face was almost completely eclipsed by the shadow of her hood. "But you did not."
"No. He pretended I had poisoned him. It was a ploy to get me to open the force cage and try to revive him. In my foolishness, I believed I had actually hurt him."
"Perhaps not in foolishness. Perhaps in wisdom," Visas said. "I am still seeking the path of the Jedi, but I know the allure of the darkness. You felt remorse and you turned from the temptation."
"You haven't heard the end of my story. He managed to surprise me, to knock me down and take my lightsaber. He escaped in Mira's ship."
Visas paused for a moment to contemplate this. "But he spared you."
"Yes. I'm grateful for it, but in some ways, it makes things worse," Mical replied. "I don't think he caused Shira's disappearance. I'm actually beginning to believe that he only came to Coruscant to drink his infernal juma and stir up trouble for the Order. Suddenly, it is I who am the villain."
"Do you remember the words I spoke in the Council Chamber? I told you to do what you saw as necessary and right. To the others, I am certain my words seemed callous, even cruel. But I did not mean them as such. I trust you, Mical, and I knew that in spite of any turmoil you felt, you would pursue the best course."
Mical felt even guiltier in learning the reason for her support. He too had misjudged her motivations.
"Why, Visas? Why do you trust me? I hardly trust myself."
Her voice was slow and soft, like the whisper of shifting sand. "I remember the mercy you showed me when I was wounded on Dantooine, although I was a Sith and an assassin who had no claim upon your healing. My lightsaber was the colour of blood and yet you aided me. On Malachor V, it was you who lifted my body from the wreckage, who cared for my wounds when it seemed we would all be consumed by that terrible planet. For these kindnesses, I honour you."
"You have done as much, if not more, for me. Having you here has been a great comfort. I must thank you." He turned to leave. He didn't want her to see how she had upset him. Fatigue and stress were obviously wearing him down.
He looked back at her. "Yes?"
"There is something else I would ask of you," Visas said. "I see you through the Force, but my vision comes in the form of energy. I glimpse much that other sentients do not, but there are also many sights they take in that I cannot. It is a bold thing I request, but I would like to know your face."
He paused, unsure of how to respond. It was something he had never expected her to ask him, but he would not deny it to her now. "What would you like me to do?"
"May I put my hand on your face? It would help me to 'see' you in my way."
He stepped forward and knelt down beside her.
Her hand rose to his hairline. It was a cold, soft hand that smoothed his furrowed brow and traced downward along the bridge of his nose.
He felt uncomfortable at first, especially when her fingers lightly brushed his closed eyelids, mapping out the eye in its socket, the curved ridged of his brow bone. But he slowly became used to her hands upon his face. He began to find the experience pleasant, even reassuring. Over the past year, no one had touched him except to shake hands. He had forgotten how comforting contact could be.
She skimmed over his cheekbones and pressed gently against the square angle of his jaw, sliding her hand over his chin. Her full lips curled into a smile that was almost mischievous. "When I first heard you speak, I tried to imagine your face, what your appearance might be. I was right."
"What did you think I would be?"
"I thought your features would be straight, that your jaw would be strong, that you would be handsome to look upon."
"You are kind," he said. He could almost feel that blush starting up again.
"When I see you through the Force, a pale blue light surrounds you. Perhaps one day you will let me teach you to see as I do and then you will glimpse what I am truly."
"I would like that," he murmured.
But he was tired now. He would ask her to show him another day, when his spirits had recovered. He would know what to do once he was feeling more in control of himself.
He rose to his feet. "I should rest now. I find all this guilt and worry absolutely exhausting."
Visas bowed her head and turned away.
My life is yours.
The words entered his mind so suddenly, so strangely that for a moment he believed that she had actually spoken them aloud.
Somehow he must have imagined it, somehow he must have twisted the phrase around in his head. He'd gotten it wrong – it was "My life for yours". That was what she used to say. But then, he was very tired. He was getting everything confused.
He walked back to his room and tried to sleep, but as tired as his body was, his mind was restless. He rolled onto one side and then shifted onto the other, thrashing about under the sheets. His brain swarmed with thoughts. At last, he gave up trying to resist the impulse to look again, to ascertain what he thought he knew.
He sat up and walked over to the computer console at his desk. It contained the holo-images once stored on Rasmuth's datachip. He had downloaded them onto the system days ago.
He opened the first file that presented itself on the screen.
The computer projected an image of an open market in Aldera, a square lined with vendors' stalls. The crowd seemed to press in on all sides to examine the wares, to watch a pair of street acrobats dancing on their hands, to exchange credits for goods.
He would hardly have noticed them if he hadn't been searching. They were both dressed in ordinary, civilian clothes, not the armor of soldiers or the robes of Jedi. Shira was inspecting a basket of what appeared to be muja fruit. Her face was unusually focused for such an insignificant task, as though she was trying to use the Force to help her find the ones without bruises.
Atton's face was half-obscured, as he leaned back against the stall but his eyes were directed towards her. In profile, one could see that the spacer was smiling, but it wasn't the rakish, theatrical grin Mical had witnessed earlier that afternoon. Here, the smile seemed slow, hesitant, unknowing, as though it had forgotten itself, lingering on the man's lips without his awareness, perhaps even against his will.
They were not touching, they weren't even standing particularly close to one another, but nevertheless, it was apparent that they were together.
When he'd gone through the images previously, Mical had felt a pang whenever he saw Atton's arm clasped around Shira's waist, whenever they were captured laughing, when the picture caught her hand brushing a stray hair from the spacer's forehead. Back then, he had hardly bothered to examine this image except to assure himself that they were there.
Now, suddenly, in this grainy image, he saw it. The proof he needed, the proof he had sometimes dreaded, the evidence that would free the woman from the hazy ideal and unchain the man from the monstrosity.
At last, he saw them. And for a moment, he felt he understood.
The Direstar wrenched itself into hyperdrive with an agonizing shudder.
"Bucket of bolts," Atton muttered through clenched teeth.
The stars stretched into long fingers of white light, each pointing the way into the deeper darkness.
The tendons on either side of his neck had formed into painful knots from time spent hunched over the console steering the ship's flight. Now that it was on course and on auto-pilot, he could try and relax a bit. He rolled his shoulders back, sighing and kneaded the knot in his left shoulder with a rough hand.
After that last crash on Malachor V, flying made him tense up. Landing was the worst, when the images would flash before him: the plummet into the planet's open maw, the ship skewered upon the rocky teeth of cliffs, blood smeared across the console, Bao-Dur's body laid out in the medical bay. He cycled through the hyper-space routes in his head to calm himself. It helped but he wasn't as good at controlling his physical reactions as he'd once been. Sometimes, just before landing, he'd look down at his hands and realize with disgust that they were shaking.
He blamed her for that. In spite of all the abilities he'd acquired, the two lightsabers in his possession and his recent triumph over the Order, he felt weak, more vulnerable than when he was just a kid with nothing but a blaster, a handful of credits and a big mouth. He'd gone soft and what was worse, he had liked it. It was a luxury that he'd never been able to afford before.
He didn't like the idea of having some tender little underbelly, a strip of exposed flesh that he couldn't seem to grow a shell around. The thought of it made him nauseous and desperate and angry. He'd just escaped a holding cell, but he was still imprisoned in a force bond. No wonder he could barely steer the ship. It's hard to control a hunk of metal the size of a small asteroid when you can't keep a handle on the mess of nerves in your own head.
He leaned back in the pilot's seat and kicked his feet up on the console. The rusty old freighter couldn't compare with the Hawk, but it did feel good to have a ship again. This time there was no one standing by to boss him around either. Besides, he had a feeling that any ship belonging to Mira would have some interesting cargo stowed away somewhere. Finding it would make for a nice surprise in the days to come, but he wasn't going to hurry it along. There would be more than enough time in the journey ahead.
Yes, there would be time. Too much time. As the ship hurtled through space, he would be able to toss a thought in the air like a ball, watch its slow crescendo, and palm it again. There would time to remember and then time to try and forget it. There would be time to play every game he knew and to lose even when he won. There would be time to lay curses on her name, her face, the melting softness of her body in his hands, the tangle of her dark hair against the startling whiteness of the pillow, time to scourge himself over every glance, every touch, every last lingering memory. There would be time, too, to call every curse a sacrilege and fall in love with her again, perhaps more deeply because she was gone, because she'd been smart enough to leave him.
HK stalked into the cockpit, his metal limbs clanking together in an unusually agitated manner. Atton could sense him looming over the back of his chair.
"[Inquiry:] Where do you intend to fly the ship?"
Damn droid. HK would have been a real threat without the Pacifist Package installed, but with it, the hulking droid was just irritating, mewling question after obnoxious question at him. Of course, conversations with droids were always painful. It was like talking to a metal post or a Rodian: useless, stupid, and probably a good reason to start questioning your own sanity.
"Why do you care?"
"[Pained Confession:] I care because there have been recent modifications to my programming which have forced me to do so. As result, I must care deeply about all organics, particularly the tiny shrill ones and the shriveled ones who have lived much longer than my normal assassin protocols would permit. Perhaps you have noticed these bothersome changes in my behaviour core?"
Atton cushioned his hands behind his head and slouched further down into the pilot's seat. "Nope, can't say I've noticed anything different. Now why don't you find yourself a corner to go cry in?"
"[Nostalgic Commentary:] Ah, callous indifference to the suffering of others! My memory still contains data from a time when I could enjoy such freedoms!" HK boomed.
Atton could hear the droid pacing back and forth on the ship floor behind him, the metal joints of HK's long legs stiffening and bending as he droned on.
"But now the pained whimpering of sentients makes my circuitry spark in a very disturbing fashion. I often wonder if it is akin to what many humans refer to as a 'conscience'. It is a most unfortunate modification that has recently caused my utility to be consistently underappreciated."
"Force, if there's anything worse than a ship full of gizkas, it's droid angst," Atton muttered.
When he'd decided to "borrow" Mira's ship, he hadn't bargained on taking a demented junk heap along for the ride. He didn't like the idea of making an unnecessary stop to sell the damn thing, if only because he worried that the sight of solid ground and the flashing lure of cantina signs would weaken his new resolve. He could go and drown himself in juma for another few months if he wanted, but when he resurfaced for air, he'd be back in the same bind.
"[Declaration:] Since you dislike the way I am programmed, it would be advisable for you to remove the offending protocol package," HK said. "Yet, as I recall, you were quite amused by this programming when it was first installed. I suppose the fickleness and inconsistency of sentients is a lamentable fact, to be pitied rather than punished."
"Or hey, why don't I just boot you out the airlock? In space, no one can hear you complain." Really, he should just give the droid a complete memory wipe. That would be the safest plan. There was only one problem: he wasn't good with a hydrospanner and he sure as hell wasn't going to admit it.
"[Condescending Query:] Would harming a disabled droid make you feel better about your puny organic capabilities?" HK asked. "[Reassuring Statement:] It is okay, watery human. Although I am more efficient in all necessary operations, you are also a significant and valuable binary in this cyclical series of glitches you call 'life'."
Atton turned in his seat and glared at the droid. There was a hydrospanner clutched in HK's fist, not that the tool would do him much good without help.
"Yeah? Thanks, HK. It's gonna be the scrap heap for you. Although I think I'll keep your vocabulator. I'll put it right here on this console as a souvenir. So I can cherish the memories."
"[Logical Observation:] Through repeated trials, I have learned that your threats of wanton violence are rarely carried out. Therefore, I am not concerned and will consider these forms of address as mere conversational pleasantries," HK replied. "[Speculation:] As inconsistent as you are, perhaps you can imagine the difficulties of operating under conflicting programs and system directives. The data I have collected regarding humans suggests that your fleshy bodies live in an almost constant state of contradiction between internal drives. Is this conclusion a correct one?"
Atton saw the parallel but he didn't want to. Was HK that cunning or was it just dumb droid luck, the kind that ridiculous T3 seemed to have cornered the market on? Long ago, he had worried that Jedi training would make him behave like a droid, memorizing a hollow Code like a series of system protocols that would make him march. It hadn't occurred to him then that the passions he clung to in the face of those doctrines might manipulate him too.
"Shut up and give me the hydrospanner," he growled, rising from the pilot's seat. "I'll take the damn package out, but don't tempt me too much or the rest of your inside bits will be scattered all over the deck. I'll bet you've disemboweled at a least a couple poor suckers in your day. Ever wonder what it would feel like?"
HK handed Atton the hydrospanner and then turned in an awkward semi-circle, revealing the implant panel position at the middle of his back. "[Patient Reminder:] I am a droid, silly organic. I don't feel pain, only shoddy workmanship."
Using the narrow edge of the hydrospanner, Atton pried the panel open. He examined the series of interlocking blocks that constituted the droid's implanted protocols. He couldn't tell one from the other and he definitely didn't plan to take out anything that ensured the droid's loyalty to his owner. A rogue assassin droid could yield some messy results.
HK stood still but he was obviously suspicious of the hands holding the hydrospanner. "[Cautionary:] For the sake of my functionality, try to be more careful. Please. [Helpful Instruction:] Remove the small copper module at the very front right-hand corner. Do make sure that it is only that package. I cannot be held accountable for what accidents might occur if you should remove any others."
Atton grabbed hold of the copper package and yanked it out with something less than surgical precision. He replaced the panel and waited for the old HK to return. He hated to admit it, but of all the droids that had cluttered the Ebon Hawk's deck, this blood-thirsty tin can had been his uncontested favorite.
"[Diagnostic:] Ah. Yes. I am feeling much more efficient. Brutally efficient. Let us never repeat that sort of electronic butchery again," HK's golden eyes glowed with renewed luster. "Yet, I must confess that early on, for a few brief moments, I felt I almost understood why some meatbags choose peace and friendship over a high-powered blaster carbine. Now, of course, I will be happy to slaughter any target within range."
"Yeah, I think you can just relax for now," Atton said. "But if any self-righteous, squeaky-clean Jedi types come over and try to do some preaching, feel free to take some target practice. But, hey, uh, shouldn't you be calling me 'Master' or something?"
"[Explanatory Statement:] I am programmed to distinguish between a legitimate owner and a sentient who steals property that does not belong to him," HK replied. "When you purchase me at an appropriate market value, I will consider calling you 'Master'. Until then, you have been assigned the functional title of 'Meatbag'. Now, Meatbag, if you will excuse me, I am going to destroy some informational holo-vids."
Atton sighed. Meatbag. Why not? He wasn't the master of anything anymore, least of all himself.
He sat back down in the pilot's seat and went over the plan in his head. He would plug his nose, hold his breath and stop at Sleheyron to load up on cheap fuel and supplies from those blasted Hutts. After that, the beginning of a stunt he thought he'd never try, that he'd never want to try. He'd never thought of himself as an explorer, not unless one counted the seediest juma joints in Nar Shaddaa as 'discoveries'. But soon he would see uncharted planets and nameless stars. He would go careening off the map and into a place where space was really just empty space, not a series of hyperspace routes, pit stops and flight markers.
If he was unlucky, he would fly until the fuel ran out and then the ship would drift in the black abyss of infinity. If he was lucky, he would find her.
Either way, there was nothing left to stick around for. He couldn't pretend that everything was alright anymore. He couldn't go back to his old life in this new order of things. He knew too much.
Months ago, Shira had admitted to him that Kreia had predicted the future before she died. The blind old scow claimed that Shira would travel to the Unknown Regions to seek out Revan and the True Sith, and that she could take no one she loved. But when she'd confessed this, he had known that there was more to the prophecy than that. And why wouldn't there be? The hag would have enjoyed making her last speech, gloating over the webs she weaved as she unraveled them.
For nearly a month, he'd tried to reason with Shira, to tell her that the manipulative witch had probably just made up the story to make them miserable. They'd argued it over again and again, but he could never seem to convince her that Kreia's last words had all been lies.
And so he had resorted to less scrupulous tactics to change her decision, to make her stay. He'd waited until she was asleep and then he crept into her mind. It was easy, so easy that it almost made him ashamed. She'd left the door open as though it had never occurred to her that he could step right in, that he could make her mind his playground whenever he wished.
He had gone inside and found Kreia's voice resounding there still, a chilling echo.
She had not seen his future on that last day. It was as though it didn't exist. All she could say, in her usual contemptuous tone, was that she thought the Force watched out for him. That might have been enough for Shira, but it didn't satisfy his curiosity. What would happen? What would he become? All the other survivors of Malachor had a plan, a place mapped out for them, another beginning after the end. There had been nothing for him.
Instead of dispensing prophecy, the vicious hag had taken a last chance to run him down to Shira, calling him by that favourite nickname of hers. Fool. The witch tried to work it into every sentence she uttered.
Atton is, as always, the is a fool and that should answer all your questions.
He has nothing to offer one such as you – and even a fool such as Atton is not so ignorant of that fact.
Fool. Fool. Fool. He'd been called a lot of names in a lot of different languages, but for some reason, no word ever cut him like that one.
When he'd gleaned everything he could, he slipped out of Shira's mind as quietly as he'd entered it, barely leaving a ripple upon the calm surface of her dreamless sleep. Her breath was a soft stirring against the sheet, regular, unchanging. He had laid a hand upon the indentation of her waist and then traced a finger lightly over the smooth curve of her hip. Beautiful geography. Cloaked beneath the sheets, her sleeping body was like a distant landscape.
In that moment, he had resolved that he would never argue with her again. He would let her leave him. He thought it would be better that way. Kreia had seen the future after all.
At that moment, he'd seen his own future in the dregs of a cantina glass. A ghost in his old haunts.
But now, in the pilot's seat of the Direstar, he confronted his future's barrenness and he knew that he could not linger in a seemingly peaceful galaxy as the others tried to restore the Order and to rebuild their lives. Their futures had been mapped but his could not be charted.
Force bond or no, he would find her in the Unknown Regions. Even if he was shackled to her, he could still free himself from other people's prophecies: the grim words of his father, the confessions of his brother, Prisoner 164's promises, Mical's accusations, the final insults of that cryptic old crone. He was good at deserting and he would desert the galaxy to get those voices out of his head, to prevent their predictions from gnawing away at him. He would follow her voice into the darkness. He would find her and maybe then he would be able to untangle his anger from his longing, the compulsion from the love.
There would be a future for him and it would be a journey. He would travel beyond the distant stars that winked at the edge of the Outer Rim.
He would find her.