Author's Note: As a warning, this chapter contains some M/M elements.
Canaida. A small, snowy planet in the far Unknown Regions. Currently the seat of the New Empire.
The next morning.
"How is he?" Major Kaine asked, looking down at the sleeping Kaven.
"He's doing remarkably well," said the doctor. "He's begun bacta treatments, and he's started walking around a little. He complains a lot, which I take as a good sign." He bustled about, checking on the equipment, making sure Kaven's bandages were tied securely. "What a lucky young man." Shaking his head, he took his clipboard and left.
You are lucky, Kaine thought coldly. Kaven was medicated and fast asleep, and he had not so much as stirred an eyelid at their voices.
He sat there for a while, watching the knight, and then stood up, reaching into his pocket to touch the coordinate card. He had called Stavan and told him their meeting time, and the silly little card felt like it weighed a thousand kilos. He felt the weight of something else as well, and drew it out. Staring down at it, he drew his com. "Is the shuttle prepared?" he asked.
"Yes, Major Kaine. We're ready to go anytime," the pilot answered.
"Good." He turned his com off and put it back. His gaze moving to Kaven, he drew his blaster and clipped the experimental silencer onto it. Let's see how well this works, he thought. He raised it, pointing it at the young man. You can say goodbye to your precious knight, Rathbone, in three, two, one...
He didn't fire right away, but just watched the knight instead. Kaven slept peacefully, not knowing that he was never going to wake up. Kaine's finger tightened on the trigger—
—and the door slid open and a Stormtrooper walked in. "Major. I was just coming to—" Kaine whirled on him, blaster in hand, and the trooper went for his rifle, cursing. The officer fired noiselessly, and the trooper hit the wall and sank to the floor. With a few quick steps Kaine crossed the room and locked the door, then turned back to Kaven.
"You are lucky," he said. "Ha. But not lucky enough. Ha. Ha." The silencer had done its job, but the noise the trooper had made might be heard, and that meant Kaine would be lucky if he got as far as the hangar. But he had never been very lucky. He giggled nervously. "Well, Kaven, it looks like we're both screwed, so I might as well take you out with me." He went to the knight, drawing his holoprojector. "But why don't we see what the captain has to say about this, hmm?"
When the little image of Captain Rathbone formed, he was puzzled by the unexpected transmission. "Kaine, what...oh." This last came out when he saw that Kaven was there as well, and when he saw the blaster in Kaine's hand. He looked at the major with mounting horror.
"Hello, Captain," said Kaine. "How are you?"
"I'm...Kaine, what are you doing? Put that blaster away." Beneath the tones of command there was real fright; it was the first time Kaine had ever heard such a thing from the captain, and he did not enjoy it. He thought he would, but he didn't.
"Make me," said Kaine. "Captain."
Captain Rathbone was silent a long moment, and then he asked, "Why are you doing this?"
Kaine glanced at Kaven. "Good-looking kid," he said. "Well, normally, anyway. I guess crowning him wasn't all you had in mind."
The captain's face darkened. "That's not how it is, and you know that very well."
"Oh, really?" The younger man looked back to the captain, his face hardening. "What am I supposed to think, then, when he's pining away for you day and night? Or maybe you prefer Demarco instead? Oh, that would break Kaven's heart to hear that."
"Kaine, stop it. Whatever problem you have with me, you can leave Kaven out of it, and Demarco as well."
"No, Captain. I can't. Because Kaven is at the centre of it, and I think you know that very well." Kaine gestured with the blaster. "He comes to the faction, and you make him a knight. That's fine, he's bloody Force-sensitive and all. But then you're planning on making him your emperor, when he's been here less time than any of us, when there's no reason for him to ever lead us, and we're supposed to follow him? It makes one wonder why you're giving him such honours, Rathbone."
Captain Rathbone looked horrified. "No, that's not...I don't..." He shook his head, gathered himself, and said, "Yes, I was planning on crowning him...if he would make a good ruler, and if I had the consent of the faction. But this...Kaine, I have my faults, but I'm not that kind of man."
Kaine's stomach was in a knot. "And if you didn't have the faction's consent?"
"Then...he would never become emperor. Only a knight." The captain's hands were shaking. "Please, Kaine. Don't do this."
"I was going to hand you all over to the Empire," Kaine said softly. At his side Kaven still slept on. "For my own freedom, Captain, and for the chance to get away from you. You don't know what you do to me." When Rathbone was there, Kaine could not help but see him, and when he spoke, he could not help but hear him, and he hated him for that.
"Let him live," said the older man, "and you shall have your freedom. I promise that, Kaine. Just don't kill him."
"You must care for him," Kaine replied, "if you're begging me not to hurt him." The captain didn't reply. "I'll think about that. But...call me sir, for once. I'm the major and you're the captain. I outrank you, so call me sir."
He had hoped to anger Rathbone with that, but the man just nodded and said, "As you wish, sir."
"And kneel." Come on, get angry. Let me know that there's something under all that frost. Let me know that you feel something. But the captain's face was expressionless. "And say please again, that sounded nice the first time." Now Kaine was the one getting angry, but it was at himself more than anything. His jaw clenched as he waited for the captain's answer.
To his horror the captain did kneel. "Please," he said. "Don't kill him. Wait for me. We can talk about this."
"Get up," Kaine snapped. He had thought he might take some pleasure from the captain's subservience, but all it did was leave a bad taste in his mouth. "Get up, you old—we can't talk about this! After all this, there's no way I'm going to survive the day!" He gestured at Kaven, again with his blaster. "So what was he to you? Answer me, and tell me the truth, or I will shoot him right in front of you."
"He was my knight," the captain answered, getting to his feet, "and my hope for this faction. I care for him as I would for a friend, and I had hoped that I might call him my emperor someday."
He's telling the truth, Kaine realized, and that realization cut through him. He stared at the captain, and when he turned suddenly to Kaven, raising his blaster, Rathbone lifted his hand, screaming, "KAINE, NO!"
Some instinct made Kaine drop the holoprojector then, and the little ghost of the captain fizzled out when it hit the floor. A heartbeat passed, and then Kaine's finger relaxed on the trigger. "Damn me," he hissed, dropping the blaster on the bed. Then he turned and ran out, ran down the corridor as fast as he could, and by some miracle he made it to the hangar unscathed, his heart pounding.
"Oh, Major," said the pilot of the shuttle he was to board. "I was wondering when you—"
Kaine struck him with his shoulder as he went by, and the pilot sat down abruptly. The officer ran up the ramp, shut it, then leapt into the cockpit. Through the viewport he saw the pilot yelling something at him. He started the ship forward, and the pilot ran for it, diving out of the way. Metre by metre the grey walls of the hangar were replaced with the dazzling white snow and clear blue skies of Canaida. If I can be lucky just once in my life, he thought...
...and he was. He cleared the hangar, rose into the sky, and got away.
When he had gone into hyperspace, he drew the coordinate card from his pocket and looked at it for a long while. Then he took it in both hands and snapped it in two. "Never, Stavan," he whispered. His voice sounded hoarse, like he had been swallowing broken glass. "Never."
When he finally awoke, Kaven looked around muzzily and saw that there were a lot of people in his room. "What?" he asked, raising himself on his elbows. There was a doctor there, and Jan and Demarco, and Lieutenant Gammell, who was talking a mile a minute, half with his hands, and when Jan saw that his brother was awake, he came over in a rush and threw his arms around him. "What happened?" Kaven asked, after he had freed himself.
"Kaine tried to shoot you!" Jan and Gammell said at the same time.
The world came to a screeching halt. "What?" Now Kaven sat up fully. "Where's Kaine now?"
"No one knows," Demarco said, his expression grim. To Gammell he murmured, "I want extra guards posted here, and the only ones allowed in otherwise will be Captain Rathbone, myself, and Jan Kaven." The intelligence officer nodded.
"Erril, he was going to kill you," Jan told him. His already-wide green eyes were wider than usual.
This all had to be some kind of dream, Kaven thought. Nothing about it seemed real. "Why would Kaine want to kill me?" he asked. Nobody answered, and Gammell looked away, biting his lip. Kaven glanced down and saw a cleaning droid cleaning up a bit of blood on the floor by the wall. So it really did happen, he thought, and fell back on his pillows in a faint.
When he awoke later on, he was alone in the room. Did he die? the knight wondered, sitting up a little, thinking of the person whose blood was on the floor. Whose was it? He looked up hurriedly as the door slid open, and to his surprise Captain Rathbone came hurrying in; he was white as a sheet except for two spots of colour that blazed high in his cheeks, and he was visibly angry. When he saw Kaven looking at him in amazement and intimidation, he said, "Oh, thank the gods."
"He hadn't a scratch on him," a low, pleasant voice said, and Captain Rathbone turned to face Demarco, who had followed him in. They put their heads together and whispered some, and Kaven cleared his throat. They looked at him.
"What happened to the one guy?" the knight asked. "I'm guessing he shot Kaine, or something?"
"Kaine took a shuttle and left," Demarco replied. "We're searching for him now. We think he's...deserted." He looked ill at ease.
Captain Rathbone was looking at the pilot strangely, and Kaven shrank back under the covers, away from his stare. It, it's not my fault, he thought, looking away. I was sleeping, I didn't do anything.
"Demarco," said the captain. "Leave us. It's time I spoke to my knight."
To Kaven's horror Demarco nodded shortly and left, without a single protest. Demarco, you're throwing me to the wolves! the pilot wanted to yell after him. I thought you liked me! And then the door slid shut behind the younger captain, and Kaven was left alone with the older one.
"He had mercy after all," Captain Rathbone said, after a long silence. He had not taken his eyes from the knight. Kaven nodded, not meeting his gaze. "So, you didn't wake up at all during the incident?"
Captain Rathbone's jaw clenched. "Good," he growled. "I'm glad for that, at least."
Now Kaven looked up at him, wondering why he was so angry. "What did I do?"
"Apart from disobeying my orders to return to Canaida following the Mustafar raid, wandering off to Korriban, and nearly getting yourself torn to shreds? Nothing, Kaven. Nothing at all. Although I must say, you ought to be glad for Demarco."
Kaven's lips thinned. "I am," he said, coldly. He was the only one that went to Korriban for me. He saved me, not you.
"Why did you run off? Why did you feel it so necessary to go with those Dark Jedi?"
"The one they work for wants to be a Sith, and he's been wanting me to be one, too."
Captain Rathbone's breath caught. "Was it a good offer?"
"It was a rotten one, and I told him so, and he tore me to bits." Kaven sat up straight, glaring up at the older man all the while. "You know what, Captain? I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I'm so useless right now, I'm sorry that I can't go on any more missions at the moment, and I'm so very sorry that I obeyed Demarco's orders and went to Mernall to help you!"
"Erril, watch your temper—"
"I'm sorry, MASTER!" Kaven exploded. "After all, it just wouldn't be convenient if I went to the dark side, now would it!"
"Erril, that's enough," the captain said, severely. "This is ridiculous."
"Ridiculous?" At that Kaven threw back the blankets and got out of bed, stomping toward the captain in his bare feet, stronger in his fury than the other times he had walked around the room. "Ridiculous? No. Ridiculous is you trying to deny that you've been using me like a—a chess piece to be moved about at your leisure!" Captain Rathbone had begun to back up by now, and Kaven stabbed a finger at his chest, punctuating each word with a poke. "Can you deny that, Captain? No, you can't! Ever since I arrived I've been nothing but a bonus to you! You call me your knight, and the first of your knights, but I might as well be a droid!"
"Erril—" the captain began.
But Kaven interrupted him. "And you hate droids! They give you the creeps, don't they? What, so do I give you the creeps now? Do you think I've gone to the dark side, do you think I'm going to up and start strangling people like Darth Vader did?" The captain's back hit the wall, and the momentary look of alarm on his face only aggravated Kaven further. "You can't even bring yourself to touch me, can you? Not even a pat on the back, not even a handshake, just a 'Well done, Erril, now here's your next mission'? Nice to know I disgust you that much, that you have to act like I was Palpatine—"
"Shut up!" Captain Rathbone snapped. It was the first time Kaven had heard the man raise his voice in anger, and it shocked him into silence. "Just...Erril, bloody hell. I do care for you, it's just..." He trailed off.
"No," Kaven murmured. The world seemed to be moving. He swayed and took a step back. "I don't think you... ..."
He felt the captain catch him before he fell, and then he lifted him and carried him over to the bed, where he sat him down. "Are you all right?" he asked. He was very strong.
Kaven's burst of angry energy had gone, leaving nothing but regrets. "Yeah," he murmured. "Just tired."
The captain's grey eyes studied him. "Did you mean what you said?" he asked. "Do I seem so cold to you?"
"To me...?" When they had first met Kaven had felt that he couldn't lie to the captain, and he did not now. "Yes."
The captain's brow furrowed. After a long silence he asked, "Erril, had you...spoken to Major Kaine at all since coming here?" When Kaven nodded, he looked all the more concerned. "What did he say to you?"
The pilot thought back to his conversation with the officer that one night, and told Rathbone what he remembered of it. "I knew he didn't like me much, but...why would he try to kill me?"
The older man looked uncomfortable. "I...can hardly say. Ah, I have to ask...why is it that you find me, my attention...why is my approval so important to you?" Captain Rathbone gave him a chary look. "You're not...?"
There had been plenty of awkward moments in Kaven's life, but few of them had ever topped this one. "No," he said, turning crimson. "I'm not, uh, interested in guys." He didn't know what to say after that, so he kept silent, his cheeks burning.
"What is it, then?" Rathbone looked puzzled. "Are you lonely at this base? Or have I done something?"
"No, I'm all right, it's just..." How can I tell him? Do I even know? "...I wanted to be friends, but you were always distant." Not quite it, but close enough. "I know, it's dumb, you're my commander, but..." Kaven shrugged.
Captain Rathbone seemed to get it more than he did. "I think I understand," he told his knight. "It wasn't appropriate to be friends so quickly after your coming...but I think enough time has passed, if you're still willing."
Kaven smiled. It felt like he hadn't done that for years. "Yeah," he said. "I'm still willing."
Stavan was in his quarters getting ready when Diehl knocked. The door slid open, and the major went in to where Stavan was putting on his holster. Beneath the visor of his cap the commander wore a preoccupied look, and he was frowning. "The shuttle's prepared," Diehl told him. So this is it. We'll pick Kaine up, get the card, and then go our separate ways. He hadn't expected the thought to bother him as much as it did, though Stavan would surely be glad to get the ISB out of his hair.
He watched the younger man go to the dresser, where he picked something up and slipped it onto his finger. He saw what it was in the second before Stavan pulled his gloves on over it. A ring, a plain gold band. "You're married?" Diehl asked, with some surprise.
Stavan glanced at him. "No," he said.
There was a landing pad on a platform on the upper reaches of the Black Tower, and the winds there were stronger than Stavan had expected. A gust pulled at his tunic as he went to the edge of the bridge between the tower and the platform. Lucinia lay spread out beneath him, a barren wasteland dotted with steaming vents and deep canyons. For all the view he had, he could not see a single tree or bit of greenery. This is not a good place, he thought, not for the first time. There was something unsavoury about Lucinia, something in the very air and water of the place. Stavan had been to more than one hellish planet, but he had never before gotten the impression that the land itself hated him. But here...
"For god's sake," said a voice. "We've been waiting here for five hours. When is your friend going to show up?" Stavan turned to see that Diehl had emerged from the arched doorway leading into the tower, his white tunic pale against the tower's black rock.
Stavan shook his head. "It's far past time."
"That's for damn sure," Diehl said. Then he gave Stavan the look of vague discomfort that always seemed to herald a kinder moment from him. "You've been pacing out there the last three hours. Come in and sit down, or something." Then he turned and went back inside, not waiting for Stavan's reply.
Despite himself, the commander smiled. With another glance into the stormy skies of Lucinia, he followed Diehl into the tower.
They went down a flight of steps and emerged in a large, circular chamber where Diehl and his troopers had been waiting for the last while, along with half a dozen of Stavan's own men. "He hasn't shown up yet?" Omar asked. "Do you think he's left us hanging, sir?"
"We'll give it another two hours," Stavan said. After that it would be dark, and they would return to their ship for the night. He took a seat on a stone bench next to Diehl.
"Nice place," the ISB officer remarked sarcastically, after a while. "I've had my men doing a bit of exploring while we've been stuck waiting."
"And?" Stavan asked, leaning his elbows on his knees.
"It's a dump," Diehl said flatly. "There's a big spiral staircase going down the walls between the sixth floor and the second, but you can't get down that way unless you can jump three metres at a stretch. Good thing we brought hook-shots and climbing gear, otherwise we'd have to call the shuttle to get us out. ...Other rooms are filled with rubble. It's a wreck, Stavan. I can't wait to know what's in the dungeons...or even better, what the bathrooms look like."
Stavan felt a chill prickle down his back. "You should leave the dungeons alone," he said.
Diehl gave him a strange look, but to Stavan's surprise he then drew his com and spoke into it. "HM-2086, are you there?" He listened to the squiggle from the com. "A dog-thing bit you? ...Anything else? ...All right, get back up here and get a bacta patch on that, on the double. The same goes for anyone else in the dungeons." He put the com away. "So you think Kaine got cold feet?"
Stavan thought of how Kaine had looked when he had contacted him. The man had been a wreck, grey-faced and haggard, not at all the same man that the commander had met in the restaurant. Is there something wrong? Stavan had asked him. No, Kaine had replied, his voice flat and lifeless. There's nothing wrong with me.
Stavan looked at the flickering torches lining the walls, watched the way the lights made the troopers' shadows dance. There were fourteen of them in that room, Stavan and Diehl included, and there were a lot of shadows. Kaine is dead, he thought suddenly, and knew instinctively that Kaine would never arrive at Lucinia.
Presently a white shape came into the room from the dark hall opposite Stavan, and it was one of Diehl's troopers, with his hand held to the crook of his arm. There was blood on his bracer, dark in the light of the torches. Diehl nodded to one of his men, who moved to help HM-2086.
After another half hour of waiting Stavan got up and went back out onto the bridge. Night was coming, and it was colder now. He heard a shriek on the wind; surely one of the steppes cats, who hunted at night. Another shriek answered it, and something in the sound chilled his blood. Get back to the ship while you have the chance, a voice whispered in the back of his mind. This is not a place to be at night. He looked up at the tower. It was a spire of dark rock several hundred metres high, built in an oddly scrappy way, as if the builders had used whatever they found lying around without bothering to smooth the rough stone. It was full of crevices and nooks, and Stavan imagined that he could climb all the way up or down the outside of the tower if he wanted to.
Another shriek came, and with more haste than he had intended Stavan went back inside. "Kaine is dead," he told Diehl, "and we need to be getting back to the ship. If we're going to be staying here through the night, it will have to be there. Not here."
"Getting scared?" Diehl asked, with a wry smile. Behind him, HM-2086 moaned. Even though his arm had been cleaned and bandaged, even though he had gotten a bacta patch on the bite, he was holding his arm, his shoulders hitching.
Infected? Stavan wondered. "That man needs medical attention," he said, and pointed to another of Diehl's troopers. "You...HM-403. Take him back to the ship and get him into the infirmary." The trooper stood, then hesitated and looked to his own officer.
Diehl nodded. "You heard the man. Get going." As the two left, he shot Stavan a warning look. My men, not yours, it said. "What makes you so sure Kaine is dead?"
There's something wrong here, Stavan thought. The torches were still lit, but the room seemed darker. He looked at their shadows. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, he counted, and then stopped. No, that can't be right. There were only thirteen of them in the room. He counted again. Twelve...thirteen...fourteen. A chill went down his back. He counted again. Twelve...thirteen...fourteen...fifteen. He looked up. The torches' light only went so far, and it seemed to him that the darkness was creeping downward, like black paint running down a wall. "There's something in here with us," he said. Before then there had been the soft murmur of voices, but at that they stopped completely.
His eyes locked on a bit of the darkness, which raised its head and looked at him with red eyes.
He gasped and went for his blaster, tearing it from its holster and firing in one quick, jerky motion. Diehl jumped, along with the troopers, and there were exclamations as something fell to the floor amongst the troopers, with a heavy sound.
"What is it—"
"That thing was crawling down the wall—"
"What is it?"
"It's all oily—"
"—Looks like a man—"
"Quiet!" Diehl snapped, and all the troopers, his and Stavan's alike, snapped to attention. "Let us have a look at that. Out of the way, all of you." The troopers parted, and Stavan got a look at what looked like a black, man-shaped creature lying facedown on the floor. Its arm twitched, and it began to get up. Diehl nodded to his men, who opened fire. There was a black splatter as four holes suddenly appeared in the thing's back.
"That's that," said Diehl. "All right, use your night vision and see if there's any more of these guys around." The troopers started to turn.
The thing got up.
Stavan had enough time to see the holes the blasters had made filling in before the thing lunged at him. He sidestepped, and then a warm spatter of black liquid hit his shoulder as one of his troopers shot it in the face. What happened next was very quick, as the darkness above fell on them in the shape of half a dozen snarling black creatures; there were screams and shots fired, and then Diehl was grabbing him by the arm and roughly hauling him out of the chamber while the Stormtroopers had their backs, firing repeatedly at creatures blasters did not kill.
The tower was alive with shrieks now, and they got as far as the next chamber before more of the dark things fell upon them. Stavan saw a man go down with two of them on him, and then the breath rushed out of him as a third creature tackled him to the floor. For a few seconds he evaded its snapping teeth, then punched it hard enough to get it off him, rolled to his feet, and shot it twice. He got to his feet, eyeing it as it began to get up again. How do you kill something that can't seem to die? Out of the corner of his eye he saw Diehl struggling with another of the wraithlike things, the sleeve of his tunic stained red. Then more shots rang out, and it dropped away from Diehl with three holes in its side. The ISB officer ran toward Stavan, and together they retreated to the other side of the chamber where the troopers had clustered, pinning the black things down with suppressive fire. "Look out!" one of them called, and threw a grenade.
The officers had the sense to turn away, and Stavan felt a warm splatter on his back a second after the grenade went off. Stone chips rained down around them, and the commander coughed. When the smoke had cleared, he saw a scorch mark and a mess of burnt black stuff where the wraiths had been clustered.
"Are you all right?" Stavan asked Diehl, looking at the blood staining his sleeve.
"Yeah." Diehl flexed his arm, hissing through his teeth. "Crap, it burns, though..."
Stavan raised his voice. "This mission is over," he said to the troopers. "We're going back to the ship, and we are returning to Leto on the double." A few of them looked delighted; no Stormtrooper's helmet had ever managed to hide his emotions from Stavan. He waved them into position and they started down the hall, the troopers surrounding the officers.
They got to the main body of the tower, where the spiral staircase began to wind downwards, before they were attacked again. There were large wraiths, small ones, and even tiny ones that were smaller than Stavan's hand. Not all were person-shaped, and in the black horde the officer saw the familiar shapes of Lucinian animals. One the size of a cat leapt onto the commander's arm from where it had been crawling down the wall, and Stavan let out a yell when it sank its teeth into his arm. He tried to shake it off, and it bit him again. Finally he managed to dislodge it, and flung it over the railing.
Then he clamped a hand over his arm, hissing. It felt like liquid fire was spreading outward from the bites, and he had never felt anything so painful in his life. From far away he heard Diehl curse, and then his Stormtroopers were ushering him down the stairwell. There were hissing dark things all around them, and now it seemed to Stavan that they were talking in some slithery tongue. If he tried hard enough, he thought, wincing as the fire spread, he might understand them. But the blasters were too loud.
They made it to the first landing safely, but then the creatures they had been firing at scuttled across the walls and leapt on them from above. Omar was knocked down by one, and began to roll down the stairs. He was stopped a few metres later by Marek. Stavan was separated from his men at that point, and as he was borne away down the hall by a man-sized wraith, he saw one of them go down. He screamed when the wraith pulled him close and bit his shoulder hard, and shoved it away. Then he was sprinting, running away as fast as he could go, while the creature hissed and ran after him.
The sounds of battle faded behind him.
By the time they joined the group on the first landing, Diehl noticed that Stavan was no longer with them. "Where is he?" he demanded of one of the commander's Stormtroopers, who just shook his head.
"He went that way, sir," said one of Diehl's own troopers, pointing to a shadowy hallway. "One of those things was chasing him."
Diehl cursed and waved three of his men over. To the other two he said, "Return to the ship. When you do, bring it up to the landing pad—" He winced at the burning in his arm, "—and contact me immediately. We'll board from there." It would be hellish trying to get down six floors while those things were running around. The troopers nodded and hurried off down the stairs, then found a good place to attach their grappling lines.
With his own men flanking him, Diehl started off down the corridor after Stavan.
As he went along, the hissing of the wraiths sounded more and more like voices, and every now and then Stavan felt that he could make out a word...at least among those who had been people once.
He was lost. He had gone down the corridor, down a short flight of stairs, up a sloping ramp of a tunnel, through a half-hidden hall in the rock, and he had even climbed around a treacherous path along the outside of the tower, and somewhere along the way he had lost the wraith that had been chasing him. Now he stepped into a round chamber lined with torches, and cursed. It was the room he had been waiting in with Diehl and the others. He had gone in a circle.
He plucked a torch from a sconce, glancing around warily at how the shadows in the room danced. But there were no wraiths here, he was sure of that. When they were there, he could feel them, like presences walking around in his mind, like ripples on a pond. He didn't know how, and wondered if Diehl and the others felt the same way.
It was some effort holding the torch aloft, but he needed his right hand for his blaster. By now his left arm and shoulder were burning so badly that it felt like someone had jammed a torch into them, but the fire was under his skin and not on it, and it was spreading. He glanced down at his arm. There was no sign of infection, from what he could see beneath the torn cloth, but in the light of the torch his blood looked darker than before. The torn skin around the bites had stopped bleeding, but it had taken on a grey cast that he didn't like.
He left the room and went down the corridor to the main body of the tower, where the stairwell circled down and down. When he peered over the edge he saw the broken stairs, and a group of Stormtroopers moving downwards far below, but he did not see a white tunic among them. There were wraiths too, prowling around, scuttling stealthily after the group, on the walls or even on the underside of the stairs. Every now and then a pair of troopers behind the group shot at the black creatures, trying to keep them back.
It's no good, Stavan thought. You need to be darker to talk to them and keep them back. If Hrakis had been with them, he could have ordered them away. There was something in these creatures that made the commander think of the Chistori, something in their low, greasy darkness that tied to the way the Dark Jedi had been. Stavan wondered if he could order them away, or if it had to be a Force-sensitive.
A whispering behind him caught his attention, and he turned to see a pair of wraiths stalking toward him, out of the corridor by the first landing down. "Go away," he said. They didn't listen. "I order you to be gone!" he said sharply, raising his blaster. When they didn't listen, he shot each of them twice. They kept coming, the blaster holes filling in like he had shot jelly instead of flesh. He waved his torch at them, and that they did not like; they shied back, the firelight glistening on their oily skins. Oil burns, he thought, then lunged forward and thrust the torch into the belly of the one on the left.
It caught immediately, and it was only a couple of seconds before it was a shrieking, flailing, man-sized torch, and when it made a grab at Stavan the commander gave it a hard boot in the chest that sent it toppling over the ledge. The second had been shying back from the flames, but now swiped at him, drawing blood, and he clobbered it with the torch. Even from such a swift blow it caught fire, and he kicked it off the ledge like its partner, with a peculiar enjoyment that he had never felt before. Blood that felt hotter than it ought to ran from the cut at his hairline to his jaw, dripping from his chin. He looked at the chamber.
He had no climbing gear; that had been left to the troopers to carry. Looking at the stairwell and at the rough-hewn walls around him, he felt an absurd urge to climb over them the way the wraiths did. Only common sense held him back; common sense, and the knowledge that he would slip and fall to his death if he tried it. He might make a rope, if he had anything for it. I could climb a sheet rope well enough, he thought. After they forbade me to see her, I got out of my room that way almost every night.
Then he laughed at the absurdity of it. "No sheets here, dummy," he said aloud. "Find another way down." He started down the stairs, but he had only made it past the second landing down when he encountered the first break in the stairs. He cursed to look at it. It was nearly a four-metre jump.
To his surprise, Diehl and a trooper came out of the hall at the third landing. The ISB officer looked up at him, and his dark eyes widened. "Hi," Stavan said, kneeling by the ledge. "How's it going?"
"Stavan, damn it, I've been looking for you for the last hour!" Diehl snapped. There was more blood on his tunic, but he looked healthy still, and angry, and...yes, even frightened.
"You need a torch," Stavan told him, and tossed it to them. Diehl scrambled to catch it, and managed to do so without burning his hands. "Burn the wraiths. They catch fire easily."
The major pointed at him. "You stay where you are," he said, glowering. "I'm coming to get you."
Stavan heard more whispering on the edge of his hearing. "No," he told Diehl. "They're coming to get me. You get to the bottom of the tower, I'll find my own way down." When Diehl started to yell at him again, he shot to his feet and growled, "ISB or not, I am the commander here! Now go!" In his own ears his voice sounded funny; sometimes a metallic rasp got into it, as if he had not spoken for a long time.
"Just leave him, sir, he got us into this!" the trooper at Diehl's side piped up. "The crazy son of a—"
Diehl wheeled around and backhanded the man so hard that he staggered against the wall, almost dropping his rifle. "Shut up!" the officer snapped, shaking some life back into his hand. "We're not leaving a man behind, do you hear me, trooper? Do you?"
"Yes, sir," the trooper muttered, subservient in the face of his officer's rage.
Stavan found himself laughing at the spectacle, but it wasn't his usual laughter; in his own ears it sounded almost cruel. "I'll find a way down," he said. "Don't worry about me, I can get another torch."
Diehl took a breath. "All right," he hissed. "You get that torch, then. But don't go down. You just get to the landing pad and wait there, all right? We're bringing the ship back up." Stavan nodded. With one last look over his shoulder at the younger man, Diehl disappeared into the darkness of the corridor.
Stavan waited until the firelight faded from view, and then stood. Though his arm and shoulder burned still, the rest of his body was tingling. The tower did not seem so dark now; either his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, or the wraiths' poison had given him some kind of night vision. "You were people once, weren't you?" he asked.
A dark shape slithered out from under the stairwell. It was wearing Stormtroopers' armour. "Yes," it hissed. It looked like it had been HM-2086 once. "You join us now."
Stavan raised his blaster. "No." It was blocking his way up; taking care to aim for the chinks in its armour, he shot it four times. When he ran up the stairs past it, it took a lazy swipe at his leg, but the regeneration had slowed it down. He turned and watched it get up. "Race me," he said. He was no longer feeling so afraid of the wraiths; there was little they could do to him that they hadn't done already, and he knew that he would be one of them by the time Diehl and the others managed to get the ship up, if they survived that long. "Beat me to the room with the torches."
The ex-Stormtrooper came after him, and he ran.
It was nearly an hour later that Diehl managed to get off the ship at the landing pad. It was full dark by now, and a moonless night. He had kept the torch, though, and nothing attacked him as he ran back inside.
There, inside the round chamber they had waited in, he found Stavan sitting on a stone bench, the hollow, scorched shell of a Stormtrooper's armour at his feet. His blaster was in his hands, and a torch lay on the floor nearby.
More than the armour, Diehl was struck by how awful Stavan looked; his skin had taken on a grey cast, and beneath it the major could see dark veins like webs along his jaw and brow and the sides of his face, just below the skin. The dried blood on one side of his face was black, as black as his hair, and his eyes were closed. When he opened them and looked at Diehl, the officer was shocked to see that they had turned red. Not pink, like something had irritated them, but red.
His irises were still visible, a darker red against the more vivid crimson of his whites. He's turning into a wraith, Diehl thought, as he and Stavan stared at each other. For a moment there was something hostile in Stavan's face, as if the commander wanted nothing better than to bite him, but then the moment passed and he sagged back against the stone wall. His clothing was torn, the skin beneath bruised and bloodied. "Septimus," he said. His voice was harsh. "You came."
"We need to get you to the medical bay immediately," Diehl said. Part of him noticed, uncomfortably, that the wraiths were keeping clear of the room. Possibly because Stavan was in it.
Stavan shook his head. "I don't think—" He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again the rasping hiss was gone. "—I don't think it will help." He got up, swaying unsteadily. "Thank you for coming. But I want a different favour from you." He came closer.
Diehl had a mental image of Stavan suddenly biting his face, but did his best to ignore it. "Yeah...?"
The commander took a breath. "I want you to shoot me."
"I'm out of—I'm out of shots." One corner of Stavan's mouth twitched. "I don't want to be like one of these things, crawling around in the dark. Septimus. Shoot me." He came closer, close enough for Diehl to feel the puffs of air on his skin as he spoke. "If you have any mercy in you, then do it." He reached for Diehl's blaster but the ISB officer jerked back, away from him. "Do it. Do it!"
Not you, Diehl thought. He took another step back. Not you, Stavan.
Stavan tore his hair. "Septimus, do you know how hard it is to hold onto myself right now?" he demanded. "Either kill me now, or give me your blaster and let me do it myself!"
Diehl drew his blaster. "Damn you, Erich," he spat, and shot him.
Maldict stepped into the captain's office, and the door slid shut behind him. The window was open, the room cold, but Maldict was used to Captain Rathbone's habits and it wasn't unexpected. The captain was sitting at his desk, typing at his computer. Obviously there was something troubling him, but he made no mention of it. "Commander Maldict, reporting as ordered, sir," the younger man said.
Captain Rathbone looked up. "Have a seat," he said, and the younger man sat down across from him. "We'll keep this brief. Kaine has deserted, and I want you to find him. See Snake-Eyes about possible locales; evidently one of his little birds reported seeing an imperial shuttle in the vicinity of the Nestar system. Given the political climate at this time, it is best you go undercover, without your Stormtroopers."
Maldict raised an eyebrow. "If I may ask," he said, "why me? This kind of job is usually for lieutenants and Stormtroopers."
"The galaxy at large thinks you're dead," the captain replied, sitting back in his chair. "You're not likely to be arrested, especially if you remain alone. And you know Kaine somewhat, I'm told. And, to be perfectly frank, Erril Kaven is no longer bedridden, and I think it best that you and he be kept separate for the time being." A look of distaste passed over the Mobian's face. "Considering."
"Thank you, sir," said Maldict. He didn't come back from the dead just to die on a lightsaber. "All right, I accept the mission. If I find Kaine, what then?" Deserters in the Empire were often executed, though the thought of killing Kaine left a bad taste in his mouth.
The captain sighed. "Capture him, report to me, and I will come to deal with him myself." He looked like he was about to say something, then shook his head instead. "That is all. Go see Snake-Eyes."
After Maldict had left, Captain Rathbone passed a hand over his eyes. I hate this, he thought. He felt as though a sword were hanging over his head suspended by a hair, ready to drop at some unforeseeable time in the future. Its presence made him feel helpless and frustrated, and sad as well. I never got a chance to do half the things I wanted to, or needed to. Maybe Lady Delphian was wrong; oracles never were right all the time, and she hadn't been the one to dream of a Mobian cemetery. It's all nonsense, it has to be. A wolf fighting a dragon? Roses in the snow? That sounds more like heraldry than anything, and the Empire doesn't fly such banners. A knight kneeling in front of his queen? There are no queens here.
He got up and went to his shelf, then selected a holodisc book about the political and cultural natures of various planets on the Outer Rim. Erril might hate me all over again for making him read this, he thought, looking over the ghastly thing, but it's high time he learned how to play this game of empires. He would teach him as best he could, but he was not going to be around forever, and after that it would fall to Demarco and the others to be his tutors.
Stop thinking like that, he told himself, and left the office.
When he went to the knight's room it was empty, but he heard Kaven's voice around the corner, talking to someone. A female someone, if the flirty tone in his voice was any indication. The captain moved closer.
"Are you mocking me, Erril?" the woman's voice asked, sharply.
"Of course not, Bryn," Kaven answered. "There's nothing to mock. You outdid me, good on you. I heard you were being called the Red Queen now."
The woman sounded proud. "Yes." Then she sounded suspicious again. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like?" Kaven asked, and now Captain Rathbone peeked around the corner to see the knight kneeling before a pretty, but stern-looking young woman with dark hair, wearing the uniform of a captain in the Starfighter Corps. "You outrank me, Bryn; a knight ought to kneel before a queen. So, my queen..." He bowed his head, a picture of chivalry.
Bryn seemed to like that, and she opened her mouth to say something, but then noticed the captain standing there. Kaven looked over his shoulder. "Should I come back another time?" Rathbone asked.
"No, we were just...ouch, Bryn, give me a hand up, will you...talking." Without taking her eyes off the captain, the flight officer groped at Kaven until she found his arm, then yanked him to his feet. Kaven wobbled and leaned on the wall. "You didn't interrupt anything. Captain, this is—"
"—Captain Bryn Shar of the Starfighter Corps, serving under Admiral Makar aboard the Star Destroyer Imperial Dawn," the woman said smartly, straightening. "The admiral gave me leave to go planetside, sir...?"
"Captain Rathbone," the older man answered. Upon learning that he was the faction leader, she looked him over anew, and he had the feeling that he was being scanned thoroughly. He decided that he liked her. "Canaida Base is quite large, so be mindful you don't lose your way," he told her. "As for shore leave, there are more than enough things to keep us occupied here in our spare time." Lately the men had taken to snowboarding, he was told.
"I heard tell of a hot spring," Kaven piped up, cheerfully. "Maybe you and I could visit it at some point...and catch up."
"I'll think about it," said Captain Shar, whose tone said clearly No way. She nodded to the captain, and then walked off down the corridor.
"She likes you," Kaven said, when she had gone. Then the captain gave him the holodisc book. "Hello, what's this?" He read the title, then gave Captain Rathbone a mournful look. "I thought you liked me."
I saw a knight kneeling before his queen, the captain thought, and felt a little ill. "You know I do," he said. "But a knight ought to know the surrounding territories. Study it at your leisure; someday you will be involved in negotiations." He cocked his head, examining the knight. Kaven seemed surer on his feet than he had the day before. "Perhaps later on you could join me for a walk outside?" The pilot nodded.
"I'm joining Demarco for dinner," Kaven said, almost shyly. "So maybe after that?" The captain nodded. "See you then."
"Yes," Rathbone said. It was remarkable how much things could change in a day, he thought. "See you then."
When Diehl dreamed, he dreamed of a round chamber in a dark and draughty castle. He was lying on a stone slab, and in distant halls he could hear the drip of water on stone. A cloth draped over his hips covered him from navel to knee, but otherwise he was naked, and the slab was cold on his skin.
What is this? he thought, trying to glance around. It was hard to move. In the gloom he could see dark figures with bovine skull faces and ram's horns, wearing dark red wraps that hung low on the hips. The men were bare above the waist and the women wore bikini-like tops to cover their breasts, but both wore bronze bangles on their arms and curved daggers at their hips. Stygians? Diehl wondered, disquieted. Am I about to be sacrificed?
One of the figures came forward, a slender man of average height and fair skin. Diehl watched him approach. He stopped at the side of the slab on which the officer lay, and reached up.
When he lifted his skull mask, the face beneath was Stavan's, solemn as always. He leaned down, inhaling deeply, and put his mouth over Diehl's as if he were going to resuscitate him. Then he exhaled, and a gust of flame suddenly rushed down the major's throat and into his chest cavity, so hot that Diehl felt as if he were being burned to a crisp from the inside out. His body arched, and though he tried to scream, there was no sound but the rush of the fire. The heat spread from his chest outwards, burning his arms and legs, his hands and feet, his fingers and toes. He clutched at Stavan's shoulders, kicking and thrashing, and it seemed an eternity before the fire died away and Stavan's lips left his. The commander leaned back, sighing.
Steam rose from Diehl's skin and from between his lips. "What did you do to me?" he asked breathlessly, each word accompanied by a puff of steam. His chest was burning in three spots, but when he ran a hand over his skin, it felt smooth under his fingers. He could move again. He sat up, feeling his body burning. Stavan turned and walked back into the gloom. "Stavan! Get back here!" Diehl got to his feet, catching himself with one hand when his knees buckled beneath him, holding the sheet up around his hips with the other. "Stavan! Ah...it burns...it's burning..."
"Please relax, Major Diehl," said the medical droid, as the human thrashed about. "There will be a burning sensation as the poison is removed." It lashed him down, and when Diehl awoke fully, he found himself lying in bed in an unfamiliar infirmary, while the droid poked him relentlessly with needles. "We're almost finished," the droid said.
"Stavan," Diehl said. It felt like every muscle in his body was on fire. He turned his head to see the commander lying in the next bed, lily white and with his hands folded on his stomach. His eyes were closed and he lay still, but his chest rose and fell. His wounds had been bandaged. The major looked back to the droid. "How is he?"
"He will be healthy again, with proper nutrition and bed rest," the medical droid replied. Its needles filled up with blood and some nasty black stuff that made Diehl feel dirty just to look at. "The commander is a young man, and he will recover quickly."
Diehl fell back against the pillow. "So I got him back in time," he said. He had taken a gamble and shot Stavan on his pistol's stun setting, and then carried him into the ship's medical bay before he took his own treatment. The wraith poison had seemed to rip through him faster than anyone else.
"Another hour, and he would most certainly have died," the droid agreed. "Rest, sir. You are not near well enough to perform your military duties at this time."
"I'm fine," Diehl said, but he was tired and sore, and even his eyelashes ached. "Where are we?"
He glanced again at Stavan. When they had undressed him they had left the ring on his finger, and it shone gold in the light. "Pretty close call, huh," he murmured, and settled down again.
"Captain," asked Kaven, as they walked through the outskirts of the forest together, "what's wrong?" The older man had seemed melancholy that day, and even now some shadow of sadness clung to him. Jan was often like that, the knight mused, when something was bothering him.
Nothing, the captain seemed ready to say, but then just shook his head and said, "A great many things, but I won't trouble you with them."
"I guess it's not any of my business?"
Captain Rathbone looked pained. "It could be," he admitted, "but I don't think I ought to tell you. You've had enough to worry about as of late. ...Let's rest here."
Kaven's legs had begun to get tired, and he sank down gratefully onto a fallen log. It was snowing that day, coming down in fat, feathery clusters, and his head and shoulders were thoroughly dusted. He brushed a gloved hand over his hair and, strangely, found himself thinking of falling ashes. "You can say it if you want to," he told the older man. "Is it about the faction? Or...about me?" The captain didn't answer, and just looked away, away to the snowy woods.
For a while neither of them spoke. And then the captain asked, quietly, "Erril. After Bal Kodar was killed, what did you do?"
Kaven lifted his chin. "He was a Jedi. Talos told me that Jedi cremate their own, so we made him a pyre and gave him a Jedi funeral. After that we left Mustafar. It was still burning when we left."
The captain was biting his lip. "There was another Jedi," he said, eventually. "A woman...a Togruta...on Bal'demnic. What became of her?"
Kaven thought. Bal'demnic seemed so long ago, but it hadn't even been a year yet, had it? He tried to remember his orders. "The Kon'me do their burials at sea," he recalled, "so I had her given the same, I think. Captain, why are you asking these things?"
Captain Rathbone kicked at some snow. Then he spied something in the woods, and Kaven looked as well. Far off he saw what looked like a trio of iron-grey wolves, though they were bushier around the chest and shoulders than other wolf species, almost like they had manes. "Why...they're tiny," the captain said, sounding charmed.
"They look normal size to me," said Kaven, squinting. He guessed that one would have gone up to about mid-thigh on him.
"No, they're tiny. They're so...little."
Kaven smiled. "What's normal to you, then?"
"They ought to be taller than I am," the captain said firmly. The wolves saw them, and quickly trotted back into the cover of the trees. After a moment Rathbone turned back to Kaven. "Erril. Do you ever have visions?"
"Uh, sometimes...but mostly I think I just have bad dreams." He remembered dreaming of fire and blood once, and he supposed now that it might have been Mustafar.
In a swift motion the captain knelt in front of him, looking at him intently. "Have you ever dreamed of me?" he asked.
Kaven tried to remember. One of his sick dreams came back like an old memory mostly faded, and he said, "Yes, I think so. It was snowing...and you were in a forest. Maybe this one, maybe not. You were on your knees, there was red in the snow...blood, maybe."
He supposed there might have been a dark form lying nearby, and he was about to say so when the captain hissed, "I've heard enough." Kaven's mouth shut with a clack, and the older man bowed his head, sighing, then got up.
"Let's go back to the base," he murmured, helping the knight up. The melancholy was back on him again.
"You were okay," Kaven insisted. "Nothing bad had happened to you, but Demarco started yelling at you."
For a moment the captain looked uncertain. Kaven looked up at him, then put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed gently. "You'll be all right, Captain," he said.
When Diehl awoke, Stavan had regained consciousness and was sitting propped up on his pillows. He was looking at the major. The irises of his eyes were blue again, the whites white, and those eyes were narrowed now. "I thought I told you to shoot me."
Diehl pulled himself up, feeling oddly weak. "I did."
"On the stun setting, obviously." Stavan glared at him. "What if I had turned into a wraith and killed you all on the way back?"
"What if, what if," the ISB officer muttered. "So I should have just let you die instead of saving you, is that it? As it happened, you weren't a wraith yet. I didn't go back into that tower to shoot you, Stavan. I went back to get you out of there."
Stavan shook his head. "Kaine never showed up. He never will. I'm useless to you and the ISB now. They said only a few of us survived; you, me, Omar, Marek...and one of your men. The rest were killed. You shouldn't have come with me."
"I'm glad I did," Diehl shot back. If Stavan felt like fighting, so be it. "And don't think you're getting away that easily; you're still working for the ISB."
"I owe you?" Stavan asked, coolly.
Diehl saw the trap in agreeing. "We're square now," he said gruffly. "You at the nightclub, me at the tower. Anyway, since Kaine's gone, we've got a lot more work to do. And you and me make a pretty good team." He had begun to honestly enjoy his time with Stavan. He wasn't ISB.
Stavan seemed mollified. He settled down, fiddling with the ring on his finger. Diehl watched him a while, then said, "You were playing with that in the tent the one night, weren't you?" The younger man nodded. "So, uh...about that ring..."
Stavan sighed. "I wear it sometimes, for luck."
Diehl grinned. "It didn't bring you much luck in the tower, now, did it?" He lay back, lacing his hands behind his head. "Well, we've got plenty of time. Why don't you tell me about it?"
"No," said Stavan, not smiling.
In the silence that followed Diehl rolled onto his side, looking at him. "Hey," he said quietly, "you're not a widower, are you?"
The commander shook his head, slipping the ring from his finger. "No," he replied, "but I'd rather not talk about it right now." He set it on the nightstand.
Then he lay back, and they spoke no more.
The painkillers had made Diehl drowsy, and later on, when he had come out of a restless sleep, he found Stavan sitting up in bed, working on a datapad. "I might have been unfair," the commander said, as the ISB officer sat up on his elbows. "I should have thanked you for saving my life, not yelled at you." He looked up from the device. "Thanks."
"Uh, no problem." Diehl rubbed his eyes, still half asleep. "How long was I out?"
"All day." Stavan smiled. "You ought to have a shave. You look disreputable."
Diehl reached up to his cheek and felt bristles. "An ex of mine would have disagreed with you," he said, getting out of bed. He felt a little dizzy and a little tender, but otherwise all right; he had always been a quick healer. There was a bathroom attached to their room, and when he glanced in the mirror he saw that he had nearly two days' growth of beard. Not regulation at all. He began to shave. "Whenever I took my leave with her, she'd make me skip a shave. She thought the stubble was sexy." He liked himself clean-shaven much better, but hey, whatever made her happy, right? He tended to spoil his girlfriends.
After he was done, he came out again. "Better?" he asked. Stavan nodded; he seemed in a better mood than before. He went back to his bed and sat down. "So only three of our troopers survived."
"One of your own had to be shot on the way back," the commander answered, quietly. "He would have turned into a wraith before the medical droids could get to him. He was put into the morgue...and I have troopers guarding the place, in case he—" He hesitated.
"In case he gets up," Diehl finished. That was a disturbing thought, and it made him think of the fire Stavan had breathed down his throat, in that odd dream. Painful, agonizing...but somehow wonderful at the same time, somewhere between agony and ecstasy.
Wait, that doesn't mean I want to kiss Stavan, does it? Diehl gave him a sideways look. He liked Stavan well enough, but that didn't mean he wanted to get into the guy's pants. Or any guy's pants, for that matter.
"What are you eyeballing me about?" Stavan asked, returning the look with a wary one of his own. "Of course I don't believe in zombies, I'm just being careful."
Before Diehl could answer, the door to their room slid open and Commander Marwyn came marching in, looking fit to be tied. "You two!" he thundered. "Where is that Kaine? More importantly, where is that card? Neither of you reported to me after your trip to Lucinia, and I had to be informed by your troopers when I got here that you even came back at all!" He stepped up to Stavan's bedside. "Report, Commander. Was the mission a success?"
"No, sir," Stavan answered.
Marwyn reared up like a viper. "Why not?"
"Kaine never showed up," Diehl said, verbally placing himself between them. Marwyn looked at him, lips thin. He quickly explained about how the mission had gone, and the ISB officer's expression moved from anger to disbelief to intrigue as he told his side of the story.
"Lucinian wraiths," said Marwyn. "Hmm...tell me more about them." He sat down on the side of Stavan's bed, and listened quietly to the tales of both men. "Highly poisonous, self-propagating...hate fire. I see. Very interesting." He looked at Stavan. "Stavan, I'm sure you would do me the courtesy of allowing me to borrow your pathologist for an autopsy on my trooper." It was not a question, and most certainly he would not expect a refusal; Stavan nodded, his expression neutral.
Marwyn got up. "Wonderful." Looking strangely pleased, he went to the door. "Oh, and...Stavan. You are to continue working with the ISB."
"As you wish, sir," the younger man replied. The door slid shut behind Marwyn, and Stavan glanced at Diehl. "This can't be good," he said.
Maldict had found nothing on Nestaria itself, and nothing on the other inhabitable planets of the system, though an imperial shuttle had been found in a field on Nestaria. Its moon had been terraformed aeons ago, and that was where the officer continued his search. Have you seen this man? he had asked what felt like a million times, showing a picture of Kaine, and each time all he had gotten were head-shakes and replies to the negative. For days, that had been all he had gotten.
The lunar locale he was in now was a lakeside town abounding in greenery and smelling of flowers and fresh air, and the breeze was very warm. Though shuttles came and went to the moon, which was called Obos by the Nestarians and Mersia by its inhabitants, it was a haven for those who did not love high technology, and there were few droids and even fewer spaceships visible as he made his way down the street. I'd like this place if I were on the run, he thought, looking around. It had good weather and beautiful women (the men were a disappointment, though), and the food was better than he had had in a long time.
It had success, as well.
"Yes, I saw this man," one wrinkled old man said, lifting a nut-brown arm and pointing down the street. "I saw him today. He went that way."
Maldict thanked him and started down the street at a faster pace, looking hard at the face of every passer-by. It was too soon for Kaine to have grown a beard, but he could have dyed his hair or cut it off, and put colour-changing contacts in, or...
He turned a corner and caught a glimpse of the man. Major Kaine was standing by a vendor's stall, looking over a row of newspapers. He was out of uniform, dressed in a white shirt of the local style, dark pants, and knee-high boots. Maldict jogged closer. "Kaine," he called.
Kaine looked his way, turned white, and bolted.
Maldict cursed. I should have kept my mouth shut, he thought, running after him. He sprinted after Kaine, who led him first down one street and then another, hopped a fence, ran through a garden, hopped another fence, ducked through a hedgerow, and ran on and on. He was faster than Maldict, but did not have as much stamina, and he was beginning to slow down. He turned a corner, and Maldict followed him. By the time he got there Kaine was out of sight, and when he turned to look, Maldict saw the major standing against the wall of a building, breathing hard, almost out of sight behind a fruit merchant's stall. Their eyes met, and Maldict lunged at him. Kaine let out a yelp and leapt out of the way of his grasping hands, and then he was off again.
After that the chase led down to the beachfront, and Kaine's heels kicked up sprays of sand as he ran. It was getting closer to sunset, and the light off the water was by turns gold and pink and orange. "Leave me alone!" Kaine shouted. He at least still had breath for speech, but Maldict had lost that capacity since he had chased the man down the boardwalk. "I broke it, leave me alone!"
Maldict had no idea what he was talking about, but made himself run faster. Both his legs and his chest were burning, and he doubted he would last much longer. Kaine was slowing and stumbling as well, and he was catching up.
Finally, on a lonely stretch of beach below a sheer cliff, Maldict caught him by the shoulder. Kaine turned, and his fist passed less than ten centimetres from the older man's face. He went off-balance. Maldict seized him by both arms, he began to struggle, and they both went down, kicking and struggling in the sand. Kaine fought like a wildcat, but he had no energy left after that long run, and Maldict was much stronger than him besides. He collapsed, panting, with the officer pinning his arms down. "Don't kill me!" Kaine cried, wriggling about underneath him. "I broke it, I didn't give it away, please—"
"Broke...what?" Maldict's breath was starting to return to him, but he was dead tired after the run-around Kaine had given him, and he put his full weight on the younger man to keep him down. "I'm not going...to kill you, Kaine."
Kaine's brown eyes were huge. "The captain will!" He struggled some more, feebly. "Just let me go, you never saw me here, if the captain finds me, he'll kill me..."
Maldict didn't reply to that, but just spent some time catching his breath instead. "I can't let you go," he said, when he had rested enough. "I was sent to find you."
To his surprise, Kaine gave up. "Fine," he hissed. "I knew running would never help. I've never been that lucky." He glared up at the older man. "Why don't you just drown me and be done with it?"
Maldict wanted to shake some sense into the man, but right now his instincts were telling him to treat him gently. He studied him. Kaine's face was pale, his brown hair tangled and mussed; his arms and his slender body were shaking with exertion, and his chest rose and fell rapidly. He looked only marginally better than he had on Canaida. "What made you run?" he asked. Kaine didn't answer. "I remember you telling me that Captain Rathbone was sleeping with Kaven...is that why you...?"
Kaine looked away pointedly, but the redness in his cheeks told Maldict the answer. "I see," Maldict said. He let go of Kaine's wrists and sat back in the sand. Kaine sat up and scrambled back a metre or two, but didn't run. He curled up, eying Maldict over his knees like a caged animal. "I was sent to find you and capture you, but I'm not to hurt you," Maldict told the younger man. "If the captain wanted you dead, he would have just had me do it." It was technically a lie; Captain Rathbone disliked sending others to do his killing, and it could well be that the captain intended to execute Kaine for murder and desertion himself when he arrived.
Whether Kaine believed him or not, he gave no sign, and just watched him quietly. "So it was jealousy," Maldict said. "I never took you for a bunny-boiler, Kaine."
"I'm not," Kaine growled.
"You shot a Stormtrooper and you were going to shoot Kaven for being around the captain so much," Maldict shot back. "If that's not mad jealousy, I'd hate to see what is."
Kaine hid his face. The older man drew his holoprojector, switched it on, and contacted the captain. Rathbone's small blue ghost looked gloomy. "Sir, I've found Kaine," Maldict said. "He's on the Nestarian moon of Obos." He gave their coordinates. "He's with me now. Do you want to talk to him?"
"No," the captain replied. "Keep him with you until I arrive. I shall be there the day after tomorrow."
After Maldict had put the holoprojector away, Kaine moaned. "A day," he said, muffled. "A day and a half." He lifted his face. "He will kill me. The things I said to him...no, Maldict, it was not just jealousy. I wanted...I w-wanted the captain for years, but I didn't know until I talked to him the last time. If it was just jealousy, I would have hated Demarco like I hated Kaven. For being his second." He waited a moment, watching Maldict's face, but the older man didn't reply. "I was all right before Kaven came...I felt all right, I wasn't crazy. I wasn't comfortable with the captain, but it was all right. But then things got worse, and I started hating Kaven more and more, and the captain, too. And I wanted to leave. I had to leave."
"I heard some of the others saying that Kaven leaks into the Force," Maldict said, carefully. He felt like he was walking on eggshells. "Maybe that's what the dark side feels like?"
"Whether it is or not," Kaine said, with finality, "I'm not going back to Canaida."
The officer shook his head. "You'll do what the captain says, Kaine. Sorry." Then he got to his feet in a hurry as Kaine rose, ready to go after him if the man tried to run again.
But Kaine didn't move. "Are you judging me?" he asked. "I tried not to be this way, you know. But I'm not like you. I don't have the luxury of knowing who I can want."
"Nobody does," Maldict replied, nonplussed. "Not me, or you, or Demarco, or anybody else. It's not some infallible sixth sense." He gazed at Kaine for a moment, and then said, "There's nothing wrong with you."
The major looked away. "I wish I had met you twenty years ago," he said quietly. Maldict did not know what to say to that. Kaine looked back at him and lifted his chin defiantly. "Anyway, you're not going to leave until the captain comes to shoot me, and we're not waiting on the beach for a day and a half. I've been staying near here. We're going there."
The older man followed the younger, noting the tension across Kaine's shoulders and the way his hands had curled into fists. He seemed to have resigned himself to whatever fate Captain Rathbone was planning for him, and he didn't say anything else as they walked across the twilit beach and up a meandering path to where a small, round hut stood. Kaine unlocked the door and they went in. When the major lit a series of kerosene lamps hanging in various places around the room, the cabin was revealed to be nearly one large room, with a second room off the first for a bathroom. There was a bed, a kitchen area, a dressing screen, and a table, and everything was quite neat and clean; Kaine was not a messy bachelor. "Tiny place," Maldict commented.
"It was enough," Kaine said. He was standing in the centre of the room, looking lost. "I touched down on Nestaria and came here. I didn't think anyone would find me, in such a quiet place." He went to the bed and sat down, staring off into space.
Maldict glanced around. "You won't run away?"
It was either the floor or the tub, the older man saw. "I guess I'll be sleeping in the bathroom, then," he said, moving to the doorway. He nearly sighed when he saw the tub. It was galvanized tin, and looked none too comfortable for sleeping.
"Where you sleep," Kaine said from behind him, in a strange voice, "is...entirely up to you."
Maldict turned. The major was still sitting on the bed, his back to him. He went around so that they were facing each other, and Kaine looked up. He didn't flinch away when Maldict touched his cheek, nor did he move when the older man leaned down to kiss him.
Even after their lips had parted, their foreheads remained together. "Maldict," Kaine murmured. "Be...nice, all right?"
"Sure," Maldict replied, and kissed him again.
"You may wish to cover your nose now," said Doctor Morrigan, the pathologist at the Letoan base, as she lifted a small drill with a round saw blade at the end. She was a small, older woman with grey-blonde hair, only her eyes visible behind a white surgical mask. "You may also wish to look away."
Commander Marwyn stood nearby, a scented handkerchief lifted halfway to his face as he watched the autopsy with repulsed fascination. "I can watch," he said; in truth, he could not take his eyes off of the procedure. The Stormtrooper lying stretched out on the table, HM-332, had been badly infected with Lucinian wraith poison when the others had been forced to shoot him before he turned. Four blaster wounds were visible between the man's—but was it really a man anymore?—collarbone and groin, like little red holes burnt into the skin. The doctor had cut a giant Y into his torso. It was all very clean in truth, but what bothered Marwyn was the man's grey complexion and the dark lines of the veins beneath his skin. When the doctor had cut open the man's arm to have a look at them, they had been black, as if oil ran through his veins instead of blood.
He watched as the doctor used the saw to slice through the breastbone, and then jumped back with a gasp when the trooper sprung open. The doctor was not bothered by the sight, and merely spoke calmly into the microphone dangling over the table, describing the damage the blaster shots had made before moving on to the more horrific details.
Marwyn crept forward, holding the kerchief tightly over his nose. The inside of the man's chest cavity was black, and all the organs were greasy, oily, and dark as pitch. He thought he knew inner organs passing well, but he had no idea which was which in the black mess. Then he noticed something else.
His handkerchief dropped away from his face. "It's moving!" he exclaimed. He took a breath, and promptly wished he hadn't. He raised the handkerchief to his nose again, gagging, breathing in the cologne he'd put on it, and trying to forget what he had just smelled.
Morrigan's blue eyes had widened a bit above her mask, but her voice was calm as she spoke, describing the way the black mess seemed to be flowing and quivering slightly, like an oil slick floating on the sea. If he hadn't been a vegan to begin with, Marwyn decided, he would certainly have become one after this. He was beginning to regret his arrogance in deciding to stay and watch the autopsy.
"You may leave if you wish, Commander," the doctor told him, taking up a syringe from the table. "I will be taking tissue samples from here."
Marwyn nodded to her and left the morgue. He had a crawly feeling, like worms wriggling beneath his skin, and when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror of the washroom down the hall, he looked pasty and ill. He took off his cap and splashed his face with cold water, then went and took a seat on one of the chairs outside the morgue, took out his datapad, and went to work.
It was an hour later that Doctor Morrigan came out again, her mask down around her neck and her gloves off. "I think it best that the subject be cremated," she said. "I have taken enough samples of flesh, blood, and...substance, to run the tests I want."
"I shall take a vial of the wraith substance as well, for our own research," Marwyn told her. He knew of one particular imperial scientist who would be very interested in this. "Doctor, are there any antidotes to this?"
She shook her head. "None that are known. Sir—"
"But the condition can be cured."
"Yes, though the procedures are barbarous and take hours to complete."
If a population were infected, it would be like a plague, Marwyn thought. He had not been idle while the doctor had been performing the autopsy; on his datapad he had found and read through legends on the wraiths, and it was said that a dark Force-user could control them, could command them. The moment he had learned that, he had made a mental note to go to Bastion and take it up with Lord Kratos.
"If you wish to have a sample of the substance," Morrigan said, "then you must have Commander Stavan's signature and consent."
I'll have that easily enough, the ISB officer thought. "Very well." I ought to see the director about this. If the Sith can control those wraiths, then we shall have a nearly unstoppable army on our side. And if they get too unruly...we'll burn them.
He smiled. "I'll have Commander Stavan sign the forms right away," he said.
"You've done remarkably well," Admiral Makar told Kaven, as the knight settled down on his bed. It was his own bed, in his own room. The doctor had declared him fit enough to leave the infirmary, and he was looking forward to the comfort of his own tiny territory. "A little over a week ago, you were mostly dead. Now you're quite well, if a bit scratched up—" he gestured with his cane to the bandages still visible beneath Kaven's shirt, "—and you've settled things with Lee, I see."
"We had a good long talk. Admiral, do you know why the captain's seemed so depressed since coming back from Relinquish or wherever he went to see, um..."
"Lady Delphian? And it's Reliquus, Erril, not Relinquish."
"That's the one." Kaven ran a hand down his arm, where a cast had been a couple of days ago. It was disturbing how easily Hrakis had broken his arm. At least it wasn't my neck, he thought. "This Lady Delphian isn't the captain's girlfriend, is she?"
Admiral Makar laughed. "No, no. That might be robbing the cradle, on her part. He goes to her for advice sometimes. She's no Jedi, but she's well-attuned to the Force. She's something of an oracle, that old lady."
Kaven could use some advice. "I wonder if he'd take me to her," he said aloud.
"Maybe, maybe not. He wouldn't take me. It's a whole monastery of young women, he said, and I'm too much of an old rascal to be trusted with that crowd."
The knight smiled at that; it sounded like his kind of place. "All right. Why is he depressed now? Did she tell him something bad?"
"I don't know," the old man told him, twitching his moustache. He was sitting on Kaven's chair, with an elbow resting on the small desk. "Lee's not the sort to tell anyone anything he doesn't strictly need to, or so it seems. To tell the truth, he can be rather maddening." There was a pitcher of water on the desk, and he poured himself a glass. Sipping it, he turned back to Kaven. "Has he ever told you why he joined the Empire?"
I want the Empire that should have been, Kaven remembered the man saying, and told the admiral so. The old officer grinned and said, "Oh, really? Well, that's only half a fib, I suppose. He never told you why he originally joined, did he?"
The admiral poured a second glass of water. "It threw me when I found out," he said, reminiscing. "He was close to your age, maybe a little older. Such an intense lad. When I found out what he was about, we had a standoff in my office, blasters out."
Kaven could not imagine Captain Rathbone and Admiral Makar fighting. He accepted the glass of water the old man gave him. "And then what?"
"He didn't really want to shoot me, otherwise he would have done so in a moment. I managed to talk some peace into him, calm him down. And then, for better or worse, I joined him in his madness. I suppose that was when the seed of the New Empire was planted, though we didn't really get started until the disaster at Endor."
"So," Kaven asked, sipping at his water, "why did the captain join the Empire?"
Admiral Makar came back to the present. "Why," he said, "he joined to kill Emperor Palpatine."
"They're here," Kaine said, when he saw the imperial shuttle through the bathroom window. Maldict made a questioning noise, but made no attempt to get up. He was very comfortable where he was, sitting back in the bath with his eyes closed and Kaine lying back against him. "Maldict, the captain!" the younger man hissed, and the officer's eyes snapped open. With a curse he let Kaine get out of the steaming water and wrap a towel around himself, then climbed out of the tub after him.
Still modest, Kaine went behind the dressing screen. Maldict dressed where he was. After they were decent again, they went outside. The imperial shuttle had landed in a grassy field beyond the beach, and the ramp was coming down. Kaine's hands shook as he watched Captain Rathbone disembark, flanked by a pair of Stormtroopers. They made their way up the hill, the captain's hair shining like burnished steel in the morning sunlight.
Kaine turned to Maldict. "You made me happy," he said, hurriedly. "It was only a day and a half, but it was the best I've felt in years." He kissed the older man on the cheek, and then turned to face his doom.
Captain Rathbone was close enough that Kaine could see his face clearly now. He looked saturnine. He was walking up the hill with leggy grace, with the air of a man determined to do a duty he did not like, and there was a blaster holstered at his hip. Kaine swallowed nervously.
The captain glanced at him, standing beside Maldict, and then turned to his troopers. "Go back to the ship," Kaine heard him say. "I shan't be long." Then he came the rest of the way, until he was standing in front of Kaine and Maldict, looking them over with eyes the grey of iron. "Maldict," he said. "Leave us. This is between Kaine and myself only."
"Yes, sir," Maldict replied. With one last unhappy look at Kaine, he turned and went down the hill, walking quickly, leaving the two of them alone.
The captain and the major stared at each other. Rathbone had never reminded Kaine more of frost and iron than he did in that moment, and he admired him as much as feared him. "Captain," he said, softly.
"Major," Captain Rathbone said. His right hand rose, and he slapped Kaine hard across the face. The crack of it was so loud it seemed to echo.
The force of it made Kaine stagger. "I, I, I guess I earned that," he said, putting a hand to his cheek. It felt on fire.
"I can hardly begin to tell you what you've earned," the older man told him. "That was for me. The way you spoke to me, the way you made me grovel." Then he reached down, and the major shut his eyes. But when he heard the rustle of paper instead of the rasp of a blaster being drawn from its holster, he opened first one eye and then the other. The captain thrust something into his hand. A form of some kind. Kaine could hardly believe it. "For the crimes of murder and desertion, you are hereby granted a dishonourable discharge from the imperial military," Rathbone said, gruffly. "Do not return to neo-imperial territory, Kaine." He made to go.
"Wait," Kaine called. The captain stopped. "You're not...executing me?"
There was a moment of silence. "I promised you freedom for your mercy," Captain Rathbone replied, turning back to him. "I keep my promises. Good day, Kaine."
And then he left, walking back down the hill, leaving Kaine behind with nothing but the paper in his hands and the knowledge of why he had fallen for him.
"You spared him," Maldict said, when the captain got back to the shuttle. He was standing beside the lowered ramp, with his arms crossed and his face uncharacteristically grey.
"Yes," Rathbone replied. "I had a promise to keep." Your honour is your light in the dark, Terra had told him once. Do not let go of it, or you will be lost. Erril was not the only one who had to stay away from the dark side. "You may remain here for a few days if you wish, Maldict, but I expect you to return to Canaida within the week."
"Thank you, sir," the younger man said, and it was not just for the leave.
Rathbone climbed up the ramp, took his seat in the passenger compartment of the shuttle, and sighed. "Get us back to Canaida," he told the pilots. "We're done here."
They were having dinner together in the cafeteria when Diehl asked, "So you were wearing that thing the day we got attacked by wraiths, and the day Marwyn mistook you for Captain Demarco. Does that ring ever give you luck?"
Stavan stirred his rice with his fork. "I was wearing it the day I met you," he said. Diehl was about to ask whether that was a good or a bad thing, but after a moment's thought he decided that he really didn't want to know the answer. Disgruntled, he poked at his dinner, but before he could say anything, a shadow fell over them. He looked up.
It was Commander Marwyn. Smiling, he set a datapad before Stavan, who looked nonplussed. "Release forms for tissue samples?" he asked. "Why?"
"That's the bureau's business," Marwyn replied. "For research purposes...I'm sure you'll be so good as to sign that for me, to make it nice and official. I would be very happy if you did, Commander Stavan." And very unhappy if you didn't, his tone implied.
"Uh, okay." Stavan fumbled for the sensor pen, and quickly wrote his signature. Marwyn looked pleased, took the pen and the datapad back, and left them in peace. Stavan watched him go. "That was for the wraith poison," he said quietly, after the Mobian was out of earshot. "In my time with the Empire I've done a few distasteful things...but I've never felt evil until now."
"It's not like you had a choice," Diehl told him.
"What's he going to do with it?"
"Hopefully nothing stupid."
Stavan looked back to Diehl, a thoughtful look on his face. "Yesterday," he said, "when Marwyn came storming in, you took his anger off of me. Why did you do that?"
Diehl shrugged. "Could be I've got a soft spot for nerds," he said.
Both of Stavan's eyebrows raised. "Nerd?" he repeated, affronted. Then he snorted. "Yeah, right. You probably stuffed them into lockers during high school."
"So you think I'm a bully, huh?"
Stavan sat back. "When you first came here," he said, "I thought you were. Now I'm not so sure."
"That almost sounds like a compliment, Erich."
After they had finished their meal, Stavan stood up, taking his tray in hand. He was still favouring his left arm some, and beneath his sleeve Diehl could see bandages. "See you later," he said.
"Yeah, all right," Diehl replied, watching him go.
It was about a week after Captain Rathbone had returned from his trip to Obos, and when Jan entered the meditation room to talk to his brother, he found Kaven sitting on one of the round cushions with his head bent over a datapad of some sort. Outside the sun had just lifted over the horizon, and the sky was a watercolour wash of pink and orange and blue.
"Erril," said Jan, and his older brother lifted his head and turned to him. He had been complaining of some lingering soreness, and under his clothing his stomach was still purple, but with his uniform on he looked almost like the incident on Korriban hadn't happened, save for the fading bruises on his cheek. "What are you reading?"
Kaven smiled. "Just a holodisc book on knights around the galaxy. I've been doing a lot of thinking, and...well." He shrugged and handed the datapad to his brother. "There's usually a knightly code of conduct for each of the orders, and I was thinking that we ought to adopt one. I should, at least. I haven't been a very honourable knight, I don't think, and even if knight's honour sounds old-fashioned, I think it could do us a lot of good."
Jan looked over the datapad, which was open now to an encyclopaedic entry on the white knights of Annalys. "Chivalry?" he asked.
His older brother laughed, a bit self-consciously. "Yeah. There's nothing further from the dark side than some good, old-fashioned chivalry. If I stick to the code, I might not stray again."
Let's hope he remembers his chivalry in a few hours, Jan thought. He had heard that Maldict was returning to Canaida that day, and he wanted them to meet while he was there to put himself between them. "That's true," he agreed, and handed the datapad back. "Erril—"
Kaven stood up. "I was also thinking about something else," he said. "Since we're starting an official order of imperial knights, we'll need to have some distinctive markings of some kind. I was talking with the intelligence guys...actually, they were the ones that scrounged up that holodisc for me...and we were plotting out a uniform."
Jan cocked his head, the business with Maldict temporarily forgotten. "Yeah?"
"At first I was thinking to have just an army uniform with the officers' pips different," Kaven said, waving the datapad, "but then Snake-Eyes said that was boring and that I was boring, and Gammell got on my case as well. After that...all right, so imperial colours are white, black, red, and grey, and we ought to incorporate that. A red cloak is nice and dashing, but we can't put it with a black uniform because of unfortunately Sithy implications. A white tunic would work, but it looks too much like ISB for comfort, so we decided on a grey tunic with black boots and pants and a red cape. No cap. That's nicely streamlined and imperial, with just enough dash and it gets the job done. What do you think, little brother?"
Smiling, Jan asked, "Where does the white come in?"
"On our lily-white arses," his brother replied promptly, and Jan knew then that things really had gotten better. "No, the cloak clasp could have the imperial symbol in white on black."
"Maybe you should have become a fashion designer, Erril."
"I like being a knight more." Kaven sat back down, crossing his legs.
"I've gotten my first mission," Jan told him, suddenly. The older knight raised an eyebrow. "I'm going with Lieutenant Nalian to Ordo Scrugg's party on Misketalia. We're going to try to get him to side with us, or at least do business with us."
"When is this party?"
"Inside of two weeks. Captain Rathbone wanted me there in case things got hairy, and we'll be keeping backup nearby in case things get even hairier."
Kaven's brow furrowed. "If it's well-known that Scrugg is hosting this party, you can bet there's going to be rebels and-or ISB there," he said. "Everyone's fighting over neutral planets like scraps of meat these days. I'm going to worry about you, Jan."
"I'll be all right, I think," Jan replied. "They're hiring imperial soldiers as guards, so imperial citizens are allowed in freely. Intelligence is making me and Nalian fake IDs." Kaven's look didn't ease. "Erril, there's one other thing. Uh. Commander Maldict. He's alive, and he's coming back to Canaida."
His brother shot to his feet. "Oh, is he? That's good, I'd love to meet him. And then chop him into little tiny bits!"
"That's exactly why I'm telling you," Jan said, hurriedly. "You are not going to hurt him."
"Fine, I'll be nice. One quick swipe, and—"
"Erril!" Jan brought his heel down on the floor with a thump. "You were talking about chivalry five minutes ago, or have you totally forgotten? You're not going to do anything to Maldict beyond yell at him!" Kaven began to protest, but Jan held up a gloved hand and said over him, "He may be a scumbag, but he's one of our men, and if you were to kill or harm anyone on our own side, what do you think the faction would say to that? Or Captain Rathbone, or Captain Demarco? Erril, do you think I like him any better than you? But he's a neo-imperial, we need everyone, and if you ignore everything I just said and give in to the dark side again, you might as well just hang up your knight's cloak and rejoin the Empire proper."
Kaven's mouth opened, but for a long time he didn't reply. For one moment he looked angry and ready to toss the fire back in Jan's face, but then he relented, broke down, and said quietly, "This is why I need a code to live by." Then he gave his little brother an irritated look. "I won't hurt Maldict, and I won't kill him, either. But don't think I'll be forgiving him anytime soon, either. You're my brother."
"And you're mine," Jan replied. He went to him and hugged him. "So we have to look out for each other," he said, parting from him. "That includes keeping each other away from the dark side, right?"
Kaven shook his head. "Little brother," he said. "I think you were made to be a Jedi."
It was a warmish day on Canaida, and Demarco went walking along the winding paths outside with Captain Rathbone and Kaven. The pilot was getting back to normal, to Demarco's relief, and he was boiling with ideas. The ones about chivalry sounded particularly antiquated coming from the pilot, but if it kept him on the straight and narrow, the young captain would be pleased to have an imperial knights' code. Besides, talk of knightly virtues from Erril was rather charming, and Captain Rathbone's sidelong looks at Demarco seemed to indicate that he liked the idea quite well. "Just don't dub anyone with a lightsaber," Demarco said, with a smile. Kaven grinned.
Then Demarco grunted as something wet and cold hit him in the back of the head with a hard plap. When he reached up, he felt snow caked in his hair. Kaven began to turn.
"A snowball?" Captain Rathbone wondered aloud...and promptly got an earful of snow for his trouble. "Agh!"
"Oh crap, you hit the captain," someone said from a distance off, and they all looked to see a quartet of off-duty Stormtroopers standing on the side of a nearby hill with snowballs in their hands, ready to assail each other.
"I did not," said a trooper. "Somebody else must have."
Two figures in black greatcoats emerged from behind a snowdrift just beyond the troopers. "Good shot, Gammell," said Soren Fenn, head of intelligence. He was wearing his sunglasses, a striped silver-and-green scarf, and a huge piratical grin.
"Same to you, Snake-Eyes," said Gammell, smirking. For once he had some colour in his cheeks, and his breath fogged in the cool air.
Captain Rathbone finished clearing the snow from his ear. "Which one of you got me?" he called up. Gammell pointed at Snake-Eyes.
Recognizing his cue, Demarco handed the snowball he had been making to the captain, who pitched it at the head of intelligence with a trajectory and force not unlike that of a cannon. There was an explosion of snow, Gammell jumped in surprise, and Fenn went down with a muffled yell.
"Wow!" said Kaven. He tossed a snowball to Demarco. "Therefore, Gammell got you. Fire away."
Demarco whipped the snowball at Gammell. The lieutenant half-turned, and there was a plap and a white explosion against his shoulder.
War broke out after that.
As the officers pelted each other with snowballs, the Stormtroopers went into a huddle. "Can you throw snowballs at officers, or is it classified as assault on a superior?" one inquired.
"Well, if hostilities were to extend to us—" one began, and jumped when he took a stray snowball straight to the buttock. Then all four of the troopers turned and joined the fray, and it quickly turned into officers versus troopers, though loyalty on the officers' side broke down some when Demarco and Kaven began pelting Captain Rathbone, who was laughing for the first time in human memory. With his black hair full of snow and his sunglasses askew, Snake-Eyes turned on Gammell at the same time as Gammell turned on him, but the alliance was repaired as soon as the Stormtroopers, sensing weakness, went after them.
The crazed melee continued for a few minutes, until Snake-Eyes noticed a pair of redheaded figures coming around the side of the building, quite independently of each other but still close together. Major Rose and Lieutenant Ramsey, both with their hats off. "Oh look, it's Team Ginger," he said, moulding a snowball. "Such red hair. But you know what else is red?"
Gammell held one in each hand. "What else?" he asked, knowing what was coming.
"Bulls' eyes," said the head of intelligence, and threw the snowball.
It was a beautiful shot. It hit Major Rose square in the back of the head, and the officer stumbled in surprise. Then he whipped around and fired a look at Snake-Eyes that had been known to melt lesser men, and Ramsey dropped to his knees to duck a snowball from Kaven, only to be hit and knocked over by Gammell's shots. Then Team Ginger well and truly entered the fray, and at some point in the conflict one of the Stormtroopers shifted allegiances, whipping off his helmet to reveal a thatch of wild red hair, showing his true colours at last. More alliances cropped up, broke down, and reformed, sometimes over a span of thirty seconds or less. It was very much like modern politics, but with less bloodshed and more icy water dripping down the collar.
Then Kaven spotted Captain Bryn Shar walking down the path Ramsey and Rose had taken, her hands behind her back and her uniform perfect and tidy. "Oh, this is too perfect," he said, balling up another wad of snow. He lifted it, cocking his arm back, aiming for her cap.
Then Demarco hit him in the back of the head with his own snowball, purposely throwing off his aim, and the ball of snow exploded at Shar's feet. She stopped dead, looking down, then looked up and saw the miniature war zone. She had just enough time to widen her eyes before Kaven threw another one, this time hitting her on the thigh. "Erril!" she shouted. It sounded like a war cry, and at that she sprinted for him.
"Help!" Kaven cried, but no one came to his defence. Captain Rathbone was busy dodging shots from the redheads, and Demarco had joined Intelligence for the purpose of fighting off the Stormtroopers. Shar barrelled into the knight, knocking him down, and a few seconds later he was being thoroughly face-washed. He managed to roll over onto his back, still with the pilot on top of him, and threw handfuls of snow into her face until the air was full of sparkling snowflakes and neither of them could see.
From that point on the fight only got bigger; it was a nice day and quite a few off-duty personnel wandered by, only to be attacked. Those who were drawn in were Jan, Madeen, Verdan, Kid, and Barrie, among others. Some others were attacked, but ran away ducking snowballs as they went, never to return. Some even looked affronted at the thought of a snowball fight on an imperial base. In any case, the fight continued until it simply petered out, leaving them all lying or sitting in the snow, panting and spent.
"I feel better," Kaven said. Bryn Shar lay next to him, and both looked like abominable snowmen.
Demarco lay on his stomach in the snow, his cheek resting on a hard-packed patch of snow. "I think I needed that," he murmured. For its duration he had ceased to be the second-in-command of a rogue faction and had reverted to just being an ordinary twenty-five-year-old. At his side Captain Rathbone didn't say anything, but sat up and brushed clumps of snow out of his hair, sweeping it back from his face with a satisfied look.
"You know what?" Snake-Eyes asked, from where he was lying in a snowdrift. "Right now the rebels are probably wondering what those dastardly neo-imperials are up to."
"What new evils we're plotting," Barrie added. She was hunting for her hair clip. Ramsey shifted, found it under one leg, and tossed it to her.
"We're pretty evil, all right," Jan agreed, looking at a snowman someone had built in the distance. "I don't know how we live with ourselves."
The head of intelligence got up, brushing snow from his coat and straightening his sunglasses. "I want hot chocolate. Who's with me?" He turned to Captain Rathbone, who was slapping snow off of his hat.
"Don't look at me," said the captain. "I can't abide sweets."
Fenn took his hand and pulled him to his feet. "Too bad I have some sweet news, chief," he said. "Lieutenant Aeron is alive, and so is Commander Dias. Lieutenant Fay is bringing him back. Both parties would like to know a rendezvous point and time."
Captain Rathbone smiled as he replaced his cap. "That I can stomach," he replied. "We'll pick them up on Misketalia the night of the party." Then he turned to Lieutenant Quinn Darling, one of the young officers that had been drawn into the conflict. "Did you finish running that check I asked for, Darling? ...Lieutenant Darling?"
The officer nodded. He was as much of a skirt-chaser as the next man, provided the next man was Erril Kaven, but due to his unfortunate last name being compounded by the military habit of calling everyone by their surnames, he was mistaken for gay more often than he would like by the uninformed. "Yes, sir," he said. "There are two Fells that we picked up from Shanast and sent to the garrison on Kantos. They are the parents."
"Have Lieutenant Fell informed, and allow the family a meeting." Darling nodded, and started down the snowy hill when no further orders were forthcoming.
Demarco went to the brothers Kaven, amused at how much snow Bryn Shar had managed to cake over the elder. Not that she looked any better, mind. "You two should come with me," he told them. "There's a hot spring nearby..." He hesitated.
"Sounds great," Kaven said. Melted snow dripped off his chin, and his hair fell in dark curls on his forehead, still with clumps of snow caught in it. A drop fell from his bangs, tracing its way down one sculpted cheekbone.
"You want me, too?" Jan asked, then blinked. "Me there, I mean."
Demarco's snow-reddened cheeks darkened further as he remembered his conversation with Jan in the meditation room. Don't tell your brother, he thought, looking at the younger knight. I like being friends with him. "I would like to talk to the both of you," he said. "There are some things you ought to know."
The two looked at each other, then back at him and nodded. "Mind if I get a fresh uniform first?" asked Kaven. "I try not to run naked in the snow when I can help it."
Demarco snorted at that, and they went inside. They hadn't gotten far before Jan missed a step, his green eyes widening. The captain followed his gaze to see that Maldict had returned, and that he was walking down the hall in their direction.
Maldict's dark eyes settled first on Jan, then moved to Kaven and obviously saw the resemblance between them. He came to a stop, his lips beginning to form the words Oh, f—
"Uh, Erril," said Jan nervously, as his brother looked at Maldict with polite puzzlement and a faint smile on his lips. "This is..."
This is the first test, Demarco thought, and said, "Commander Maldict." He tensed, ready to bring the knight down with a flying tackle if he needed to.
Kaven's smile froze. "So you're Maldict," he said, slowly, and moved closer. Demarco couldn't help but think that he was getting within stabbing range. "That bloody rapist."
Maldict looked irritated. "I didn't—"
"—succeed," the knight finished. His eyes were green ice.
"I never tried to," Maldict said, gruffly. "Nothing happened between me and your brother."
"Well, it wasn't for lack of trying, was it?" Kaven asked. At his side Jan was looking between them with wide eyes, the tension visible in his body. He could read emotions through the Force; heaven only knew what he was picking up between the two men right now. "Are you planning a second try at it?"
"Erril," Jan said, a little breathlessly. "Remember..."
Kaven had been leaning closer to Maldict, but at that he straightened. "I remember," he said. "He's one of ours. And I'm not Darth Vader."
No, thought Demarco, you're not. You're not. Now prove it. He didn't say anything, and moved neither to help Maldict nor hinder him, nor did he move to defend or reprimand Kaven. The knight's true nature had to show itself on its own.
"I'm so grateful," Maldict said, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his tone. He was playing with fire, taking his life into his hands.
"I've been assured that nothing happened," Kaven said to him, with cold courtesy. "But I want you to stay away from my brother from now on, and if I hear about anything else like this, I will—" Demarco held his breath, "—report your conduct to Captain Rathbone and see to it that you answer for it." He reached out and put a hand on Jan's shoulder, dropping his gaze. "Come on, Jan. Captain. We have a meeting to attend."
They had only just gotten around the corner when Kaven let out a shaky breath and said, "You have no idea how hard that was for me."
"Erril, I'm...so glad," his younger brother said. He looked drained, in the aftershock of tension.
Kaven looked at Demarco, his face wan. "Does it get easier with time?" he asked.
The captain thought a moment, then decided to answer in all honesty. "No," he admitted. "It doesn't." Duty always was a harsh mistress.
The knight was silent a while as they walked. "Then," he said eventually, "I'll just have to weather it."
Commander Marwyn was enjoying the coolness of the laboratory's antechamber when the door slid open and Doctor Alyssa Hyde came in with a faint smile on her face. "Well?" he asked. "Interesting, isn't it?"
"Oh, very," the scientist said. She was only a couple of months older than Marwyn himself, but already her black hair was shot through with grey at the temples. Premature greying never bothered Mobians, though, and she was a child of Johanneston, the same as him. "The first rebel injected took seven hours to turn, the second only five hours, and the third twelve." She took a seat next to him. "I was puzzled by the incongruity for a while, as the subjects were all of the same age, species, and general health. And then I took the blood samples to test for midi-chlorians."
Marwyn was intrigued. "And?"
She smiled at him. "Adrian, I do believe you've discovered an anti-Jedi weapon."
He smiled back, his mind already working. "We ought to present our findings to Director Lestrade. After a test run, say."
Hyde had always been quick to take his meaning. "It might be difficult to get to Yavin IV," she said, "but the rebels have been creeping into our territory these days, setting up bases like little anthills. Do you think there might be such a place near Leto...an anthill that needs to be stomped?"
He studied her. She was still smiling a little, her fingers folded beneath her chin and her eyes glittering like sapphires. Yes, he thought, she'd always been quick. It was one of his favourite things about her. "You've been talking to someone," he said. Not even Commander Stavan knew that a rebel garrison had sprung up on Tir Nazel, only one good hyperspace trip from Leto. The Empire had only discovered that recently, and he supposed he ought to take the news back to Stavan. "You should have joined the ISB, Alyssa."
"But that would take away the fun of buggering about in my laboratory all day," the scientist said with a mock frown, reaching into her white coat and pulling out a datapad. She fiddled with it for a minute, then put it in front of him. "Have a look."
He did. On the datapad were photos taken by a probe droid, of a rebel base that was three quarters of the way finished. As he looked at it he noticed the terrain, noticed the thick, hard-looking trees and impenetrable forest quite a distance from the base but in a rough circle around it, and then he noticed a second circle closer to the base; a dry-moat of sorts, deep enough to discourage AT-STs and AT-ATs and other basic vehicles, should they manage to get through that adamantine forest. It would be a bugger to attack from the land, and he imagined there would be shields against bombardment. He glanced at Hyde, raising an eyebrow.
"The commander's second took the liberty of giving those to me to figure out a method of taking that base out," Hyde explained, "but when the commander found out, he cancelled it. He wants to fight the rebels in a sporting fashion."
"Bloody idiot," said Marwyn. "He'll kill half his men taking that base in his sporting fashion. He's too afraid of getting his hands dirty." Commander Octavian's methods were scrupulous, and to him war was a gentleman's game. But the fact of the matter was that there was nothing less gentlemanly than war. Methods be damned, it was the results that mattered.
"Exactly," said Hyde. "You see that moat?" Marwyn nodded. "I imagine the wraiths will have no problem with it. And it might make a useful barrier afterward...a ring of fire, keeping them inside."
"We can't have them escaping, after all." Yes, this would make a good test run for the wraiths, he decided. Some men with flamethrowers could take care of the wraiths after they had taken care of the rebels. "Octavian needn't worry. I'll take over this assignment and put my own men to it. Alyssa, do you think an antidote to the wraiths' poison could be developed?"
She thought. "I had heard that Doctors Lesard and Rosa had been in charge of developing one...but they're both dead now, and their notes were lost. It would take time, maybe even years, but...yes, I suppose I could find a way to make an antidote."
"Good. Do that." Marwyn knew how dangerous this new weapon was, how quickly and easily it could backfire on him if he put a foot wrong. "And then we'll be the only ones with the antidote."