The Final Iteration

Chapter 1: Lord Luke

The apartment was still, warm, and slighty stuffy. It was as dark as night ever got on Coruscant, with the endless lights of buildings, air vehicles, and billboards outside filtering around the edges of the curtains. Muffled sounds of air traffic vibrated softly through the transparisteel window.

Luke looked around muzzily. He must have gotten up out of a dream. Or, no. This apartment had weapons displayed on the walls. It was still furnished to Mara's taste. He felt confused, then wondered why he was confused.

Mara slept peacefully in their rumpled bed. Her chest rose and fell gently with her breathing.

Luke froze and stared, scarcely daring to breathe.

Mara!

Grief, relief, love, a thousand shattered dreams, and one perfect moment. Luke clamped down on the mind-shout. Only a tiny wave of it got past his shields.

Mara stirred and turned uneasily in her sleep. Her hair, its color stolen by the shadows, fell across her face as she curled toward the place where Luke should have been.

Slowly, he took one step forward. He almost expected wooden floorboards to creak and give him away, although he knew this Coruscanti tower was built of no such thing. Mara did not wake up.

He took another slow, careful step. Then another. Should he try to lie down beside his wife? She might wake up, and then who knew how this would all turn out. She might vanish into a puff of cloud like the fairies of Craickmore 8. But she might not, and he might be able to hold her again, and look on her with his own real eyes, not the eyes of Force-visions only.

She might wake up and smile at him, and hold him one more time. But for some reason he knew that was not going to happen. Even though he had no specific memories or visions of this particular night. There was something wrong.

Whatever it was, it would arrive in its own time. For now, he had one perfect moment, after another perfect moment. One perfect hour. For however long it stretched. Time was elastic for him now. He could not remember why.

Mara. She was really here. Well, why wouldn't she be here? They lived here. Didn't they?

Didn't they?

Mara was alive.

Luke gasped out loud as the memory took him. A memory of finding Mara's body on some rocky, deserted world; but Ben had found her first, and he wept, cradling his mother's corpse.

No, not memory. Vision. It had to be a vision. So he could still prevent it. Couldn't he?

Mara! Mara was alive!

Mara woke up. She rubbed her eyes and said, "Luke? What's wrong? You're back early." Then she sat up in bed and gestured to the curtain, throwing it back with the Force, to let in the light from the traffic stream outside. Aircar lights streamed across Luke's face. Mara screamed.

"What? What?" Luke said, panicking with her panic, jerking his face from side to side, looking for some adversary.

Mara jumped out of bed and called her lightsaber, activating it without looking as she charged straight at him, the blade describing a perfect arc in the dimness.

Luke ducked and backed up, and tripped on the unexpected hem of a cape. He did not try to pop cleverly to his feet or pull his own saber to defend himself. This was not their usual game of stalk and pounce; the feelings pouring off of Mara were dark with fear and outrage, not the sly, amused arousal that he would expect if Mara were just playing with him.

"What are you doing?" Luke whined. "Mara!" Her name had the longing of years behind it. Years, stretching out in front and behind and to the side, as if time were a ball field marked off by merely arbitrary lines. Years, years of grief, years of peace, years of darkness and revenge, years of resolute brittle strength, years and years and tears long since shed and fallen to the ground.

The sense of her name in the Force stopped Mara cold. She squatted over him in the blue-white light of the weapon that had once been Luke's, and that had once been Anakin Skywalker's. She held it up to his face like a glowrod, moving it slightly to examine his features.

Luke shied from it and flattened back against the floor, making no move of defense.

"Who are you?" Mara leaned forward, reaching one hand across him to lean on, enclosing him. The gesture could have been possessive and intimate, but it came across as merely convenient. Mara moved the lightsaber to within a centimeter of his face, studying him closely. The intense light made him squint like the Tatooine moisture farmer he had once been.

"What do you mean, who am I? I'm Luke."

"You're an old man. And you have tattoos like a Dark Lord of the Sith out of the Golden Age."

"Oh. That. Um. I can explain that. I think."

"Explain quickly, Dark Lord."

"Well, it's – complicated. And a very long story. Why don't I just show you? Look, I'm open to you. I've dropped my shields. Look into my mind."

Cautiously, Mara extended a mental tendril. Her eyebrows rose as she found no shields at all, not even the normal unconscious shields that even non-Force users usually possessed. Whoever, whatever he was, he was clearly willingly allowing her entry to his mind.

She explored the contours of the landscape within. Luke winced a couple of times as Mara pushed a little on some closed off areas. Finally she deactivated the lightsaber and stuck it through the waistband of her pajamas.

Luke sighed in relief, but stopped mid-sigh as Mara abruptly grabbed him and rolled him over. Mara extended a hand as she opened a drawer with the Force and a coil of rope flew into it.

"Hey!" Luke objected. "Not that I don't love this game, Mara, but somehow I don't think you're playing right now."

"Shut up, Sith." Mara tied his hands behind him with shock-cord.

"I showed you my mind! Can't you see it's me?"

"I see that you sincerely believe that you're Luke. That doesn't mean you really are. I think you're a clone. An evil Sith clone."

"A clone?" Luke scoffed. "You said I looked older than you expected. Why would a clone be older than the original?"

"I don't know," Mara said. She pulled him to his feet with an assist from Force levitation, and added menacingly, "But I'm going to find out."

Casually, she flicked on the lights in the room with the Force, using it to subtly press a button. She frisked him professionally, never letting go of his arm, never touching the shock cord, or letting him get his balance, in a way that left no doubt she had once been trained in Imperial commando tactics. She relieved him of the weapon at his belt.

The taste of her emotions in the Force grew sharp and dangerous as she examined it. "This is Luke's lightsaber! What have you done with him?"

Mara wheeled him around and deposited him in a chair, which thumped back against the desk behind it. She looked like she was contemplating using the lightsaber as a truncheon.

Trying to stay calm and reasonable, Luke said, "Of course I'm wearing Luke's lightsaber. I'm Luke."

In an instant Mara had both lightsabers out and lit, pointing them at either side of Luke's head. "You Sith bastard. Where's Luke?"

Luke looked more hurt than frightened as he looked up at her. "Why can't you see in my mind that there's only me? I'm still open."

Mara moved the lightsabers to a less threatening position, out and pointed mostly down. "You are open. Through all that, you never raised your shields," Mara said softly, and her Force-aura lightened in contemplative probing. "And I can sense how powerful you are."

"It's me. It's me, Mara. Look into my mind."

Mara's voice went sarcastic, which was to say, it returned to normal. "Your mind is a mess, Sith-boy."

"Probably," Luke shrugged. "My memories are all confused. I think I've sorted them into a kind of order, but you being alive falls somewhere in the middle, not at the end where the present should be. I don't really understand myself, yet. But can't you still tell it's me?"

"You are generally, Luke-ish, I suppose. Inside and out. Your mind feels older and well, Sithier, than the Luke I know, just like your face. But you have memory caps."

"I know about that," Luke said calmly. "Please leave it alone. There are so few of the many horrors I've lived that I don't have to remember. Leave that one."

"Not just one. Layers of them, in fact. And there's a broad swath of completely vaped-out black nothing in there. I've only ever sensed anything quite like it in one person. Qwi Xux. You've been mind-rubbed. Badly and violently."

Luke winced. "I actually remember that. Oddly enough."

Since he was still shieldless, when the memory came it played in front of Mara like a holofeature.

Luke, looking much as he did now, his face lined and tattooed, dressed in a black bodysuit and cape like a Sith mercenary, knelt in front of the black iron Spider Throne. The room was full of tattooed Sith Lords. Like Luke, they had the Blackstar tattoo on their foreheads and the columnar lines on their cheeks.

On the throne sat Queen Dije Kun in black snakeskin and the iron Chain of Office, the forehead eight rayed star tattoo, the cheek lines, and the forehead crenellation tattoo of her royalty making her face a mask, and yet there was an odd, stern pity in her eyes.

"How many times have I told you to stop using the Great Machine?" Dije said. She spoke in Ancient Sith, as was her custom in the later part of her rule, when increasing prosperity among her people made her hold even closer to kasenth, and she tried to create luxury out of nothing by decreeing the court language to be the ancient tongue.

"No times, in this timeline," Luke said softly in the same language. He had long since become fluent in both Modern and Ancient Sith, living uncountable years in the court of the Queen in many timelines. "I haven't been here before."

"But it is still you, and it is still me, and I remember. Or, I have seen. Whichever it is. Vision and memory are all one for you, are they not? For me also. For I have seen the dreaming face of Fala, and I am Queen."

Luke bowed his head slightly, not in submission but in resignation. "It is still you. And you are kind and merciful. For a Sith." His mouth quirked slightly as he said it, not in irony but in memory of her as a young Dark Lady out to find a path out of the darkness. "I don't believe that you want to harm me. That is not your way."

"You're right. It's not. But you are still afraid. As well you should be. Drop your shields, Luke."

"What are you going to do?"

"Take away your knowledge of how to find the Great Machine."

"Oh."

There was a soft sound in the room as the courtiers stirred uncomfortably. They had known the Queen was displeased with Lord Luke. They had almost expected her to torture him with Force-lightning, in the traditional way that a Dark Lord dealt with dissatisfying underlings, although no one had ever seen the Queen use the lightning for anything but initiations and combat. And they had all heard the stories of the Queen hunting down her enemies and committing sarav on them in the days before she returned to Sith-ta. They had even heard that she had once committed sarav against Lord Luke himself. But no one now living had ever seen her do it.

"Drop your shields, Luke," Dije repeated. "I have more than enough Sith here to hold you in a suppression field if I have to. This will hurt less if you don't resist."

Even the toughest of the Sith Lords in the room flinched to hear this. Sarav was a terrible crime on Sith-ta. Many thought it was even worse than sar, the physical violation of the body. Her words strongly recalled that sarav was a form of sar. That their gentle Queen could do this to a loyal follower, and one who had once been her teacher, horrified even the Sith.

"I do this as an alternative to killing you, Luke."

"I see," he whispered, nodding. He inhaled a calming breath in the Jedi way. Then he dropped his shields.

Before he could change his mind, Dije knifed into him, cutting at his memories with a practiced surgical precision. It had been decades since her campaign to eradicate the knowledge of how to make the Purple Tears drug, but she had not forgotten how to seek and burn.

Luke shrieked and clutched his head with both hands, his hair standing up between his fingers like stalks of grain in the field ready to be scythed down. He fell over wailing, started to leak tears and was suddenly and terribly embarrassed to cry in front of Dije, for all the terrible old reasons, and curled up around himself and pulled his hood over his head.

As he took a ragged breath, Dije speared one of her subordinate Sith Lords by eye and commanded, "Get him out of here." Then she softened it by saying, "Take him somewhere quiet where he can rest and recover."

The image wavered as Luke remembered the view from near the ground, being picked up in the Force and floated off like a box out of a ship's conveyor belt. The grey expanse of the stone floor, a glimpse of the skin of one of Queen Dije's enemies displayed on a column behind the Spider Throne, a slantwise view of Dije watching him in concern and regret, a snake-headed goddess with her hair in a hundred plaited black ribbons, a stray sparkle of light reflecting off the white jewel in her gauntlet.

Mara took several large breaths as she came back to herself out of Lord Luke's memories. She whispered, "Who are you, really?"

"I'm Luke," he groaned.

"That was no Force vision," Mara said. "That memory had weight. Substance. But it hasn't happened."

"It happened to me," Luke said. "About thirty or forty years from now. I think."

"I'm going to solve the mystery of you," Mara said. "I'm going to peel you back one layer at a time. Whatever you are, I'll figure it out."

"Whatever you need, Mara," Luke said. "Whatever you need to do to convince yourself I'm real, and I'm really me, I'll let you. You said yourself you can feel how powerful I am. I could get out of these restraints any time I want, you know."

Mara nodded. "I think I know that. Yes. I also think you're enjoying it, a little."

"Even the Luke of your time period would have enjoyed that much, if I remember. I was such a wreck when I married you, Mara. Well, I had a right be. Considering my, ah, romantic history. It didn't take you long to figure out I wanted to feel like I wasn't really making choices, when we were together. Too many of my choices had gone wrong."

Mara sighed, and shook her head slightly. "You really feel like Luke, when you think of the past. But… you are a Sith Lord. Aren't you?"

"Yes. Of that much I'm sure."

"Well. How much of the Sith culture have you internalized, Lord Luke?" Mara asked, almost as if talking to herself. "There are things I could never share with my Luke. Things I kept safely buried. Shall we explore your memories and your responses, together, Luke-shaped Sith that you are?"

"If you're trying to ask me if I've learned to enjoy the pleasures of the Sith court, only by proxy. I've seen Sith play, of course. Felt their emanations in the Force. But I've never participated."

"Well then. Perhaps you're curious," Mara suggested, a half sweet, half twisted smile on her face.

"Um, not really. But if that's really what you want. As long as you're here with me. Any moment with you, even in pain, is better than any moment without you, no matter how picture-perfect."

Mara shook her head. "You really love me. Sometimes you're very much like Luke. But you're not my Luke. You're a Sith who looks like him. Who are you?"

"Luke," he insisted.

"No. Lord Luke, perhaps."

Luke shrugged. "As you wish."

"Now. Let's see if we can produce a little more truth. Lord Luke." Mara gestured, and the drawer from which the shock-cord had come opened again.

A packet zipped into her hand. From it, she shook a slender needle. It was not the kind of needle used to inject pharmaceuticals; it had no interior. It was just a tiny metal rod.

Mara paused a moment, in a kind of dark nostalgia. "I once knew all the common pressure points of hundred species. Humans are easy to remember; I had practice."

Luke's saber started to shift in her waistband, and Mara pulled it back out and reactivated it. "Let's start the peeling process with the outer layer, shall we?" She cut away the snakeskin suit, not being too careful about the skin underneath.

The first time he got singed, Luke instinctively drew on the Force to heal and suppress pain, but then he dismissed it a moment later. The next few times, he did not draw on the Force.

Mara finished carving away the protective layer of leather, and carefully sank a needle into a pressure point in his upper arm. He made a noise of protest but sat still and did not call on the Force. With his shields down, Mara could sense the sharp pain wafting off of him.

Mara tilted her head and looked at him sideways, as if trying to get a new perspective on the puzzle. "Why are you intentionally letting yourself feel pain you could suppress? Why are you letting me do this to you?"

"Because you want it," Luke said quietly. In his mind, he added, I love you, Mara. I'm Luke.

Mara heard him clearly. She twirled the needle, and Lord Luke cried out. He did not try to endure in stoic silence; he knew she could feel his reactions in the Force, so there was no point.

Mara took out another needle. She put a finger over the same spot on his other arm, the right one, and traced it down his arm to what should have been a pressure point on the inside of his forearm, just a few centimeters from the shock cord. He did not struggle against the cord, perhaps knowing that Mara had shock cord and that pulling against it would cause it to deliver a shock. Mara inserted the needle in his arm, and he felt nothing.

After a moment, Mara realized it was not a real arm. "You have an artificial hand. Like Luke. The real Luke."

"I am Luke," he said softly.

The memory that came then was one located firmly in the actual past: the searing pain of losing his hand, the terrible fear, the even more searing truth. And the wind. The wind, as levels of Cloud City went by, in a long fall into shadow.

Mara took the two needles out, shaking her head. "I can see that you believe that. But a clone would believe it. Somewhere in your jumbled memories there's got to be a clue to your creators."

"Why do you think torturing me will help sort it out?" Luke asked, so softly she heard it more in her mind than in her ears.

"Maybe I don't!" Mara said sharply. "Maybe this is a drill." She tried to be completely closed off in the Force, but it was hard to do that and still read his mind. She could tell that he knew she had fallen back into a trained habit out of shock at finding a Sith Lord in her bedroom.

She discarded the used needles by dropping them into the blue-white blade of the lightsaber. It was so hot, instead of melting and dripping to the floor in molten heat, the steel flash evaporated into a metallic stink. Mara deactivated the lightsaber and tossed it casually onto the desk behind Lord Luke, as if tempting him to take it.

She shook out another needle into a precise grip between finger and thumb. Her other hand pulled up on his thigh, lifting and separating. Lord Luke caught his breath and helped.

Mara glanced up at him, at his wide-eyed breathless stare. "No, I'm not going to torture you there. You might enjoy it."

I long for your touch, Lord Luke thought.

Mara grimaced as she heard him. "This is your sciatic nerve," she growled, sticking the needle into a precise spot on the back of the leg.

He shrieked unselfconsciously.

Mara took the needle out, but Lord Luke kept screaming, his leg cramping up so that the knee bent under the chair. He tipped his head back and panted, and sweat broke out on his forehead.

Mara felt a stirring in the Force like a dusty breeze, as if Lord Luke was barely containing the urge to use a pain suppression technique.

"This is ridiculous," Mara said. "Alright, go ahead. Block the pain."

A wave of gratitude floated out to her from Lord Luke's mind. He called on the Force and sighed in relief, not only blocking the pain but using heat to relax the muscle. His foot came back to the floor.

Mara threw the third used needle onto the desk next to the lightsaber, and then tossed the mostly full needle packet beside it. "Stang! How am I supposed to interrogate you, you filthy Sith doppelganger?"

"I'm still open, Mara," Lord Luke invited.

Mara balled up her fists and stared into his eyes. She projected herself into the flotsam of his chaotic mind. No, not chaotic, she realized. There was a trained and focused mind in here, as disciplined as any Jedi, and if it was possible, she thought he might actually be stronger than the real Luke. He was just temporally confused. Not in the way that a senile old man would be, although she sensed an impossible span of time within him. The memory caps and the burned-out place within him made the architecture of his mind convoluted and encysted. There were strands of memory where he seemed to be self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom, and threads where he let himself run to dark desires as twisted as anything Mara had seen in the Emperor's court, and oddly, some of them seemed to coincide. He was a beacon of light; he was Sith to the core of his being. He still thought he was a hero through both the day and the night.

"How old are you?" Mara whispered.

Another memory welled up in him. The dim humidity of Dagobah: Yoda saying, "When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not, hmm?"

Irony, that was the emotion Mara sensed from him. Because he had lived dozens of full human lifetimes. He was older than Yoda.

"That's impossible," Mara said. "Time travel is impossible. Flow-walking, yes, but no one has this much physical reality when they're flow-walking."

"I'm not flow-walking," he responded. "You can't change anything that way. I keep trying to make it all come out right." He sat up straight and gasped, "That's it! I must have come here to do something!" Then he blinked. "But what am I here to do? I thought I had it the last time. Or was that the time before last? Did I spend my just previous lifetime as… no."

Mara caught a glimpse of the throne room here on Coruscant, in the Imperial Palace. She had once bowed before that throne, to her teacher, her mentor, her beloved leader, her everything… Palpatine. Now she saw Lord Luke on that throne. Hands gripping the arms of the throne like a death grip on the galaxy. But no, he was not Lord Luke as he appeared here, and did not have the tattoos.

"Perhaps that was my first lifetime? Or my second?" Lord Luke wondered aloud. "Yes, my second, I think. The first altered future out of the Great Machine. That's why it appears so clear to me. Or I came here to do something related to that? I almost had it."

"Time travel," Mara said.

"You believe me?" Lord Luke said eagerly. "Mara, I've been without you for lifetimes. Maybe I only came here to die—to have one perfect hour with you before I go. No, that's not it. I wouldn't risk changing time if I had it right the last time. I must be here to change something again."

"I believe that you believe it," Mara said. "Just like you believe you're Luke. Let's see what's under those memory caps of yours."

Mara stretched out with her feelings.

Lord Luke remembered…

End of part 1