AN: I wrote this in two super intense days. I don't think I've ever completed anything so quickly. Thanks to Hypostasis for the awesome beta-ing!
There were times in my childhood when I would be overcome by a sense that I was meaningless. I could take or leave adventure and excitement, but I truly wished for the chance to prove my worth to the galaxy. I ached for my existence to change its face and set it on a new course, I pined for sentients far and wide to know my name and utter it with wonder. I've heard it said be careful what you wish for.
REPUBLIC WARSHIP VINDICTIVE
It's been a long time since I last truly slept. This is a season of my life where every night is a trial, where horrifying images roil and burn through my dreams until I pitch forward from sleep, screaming. Perhaps it is the absence of the whisper of wind through the endless plains of Dantooine that unsettles me. Perhaps it is my own frothing guilt. Peaceful sleep is something reserved for the unburdened, the innocent, the light. Peaceful sleep eludes me.
I have been a General of the Republic forces for over a year. I have led soldiers in countless battles against the Mandalorians; some won, more lost. I have to but enter a room and every man in it will spring to his feet and address me as his superior, though I am still a girl in many senses. I am respected and feared, and treated as a great mind in warfare. I have become a master of this charade.
In truth, I am nothing more than a terrified Padawan in my heart, and in my quarters, or kneeling before Revan, it is all the more evident that I do not belong. I am always tired now. There are shadows under my eyes, dark as if I'd tattooed them there. The men look at me as if I am liable to break, and I fear I am. My skin is not papery and grey, and my eyes don't burn with the potency of the dark side, but they fear me anyway. My exhaustion terrifies them.
I am a General, and my weakness disgusts me. When Revan first told me of her intentions for me, I was proud, I was eager. I was a true Jedi, I would be a shining light, a bastion of hope to the weary soldiers, weak with their resignation and defeat. I would lead and be strong. I would not hide in the Archives and soft halls of the Enclave, content to watch the galaxy be destroyed. I was a defender in my mind, rising above the cowardice the Masters displayed. A true Jedi. The idle fantasies of a child.
I had not bargained for the pain.
For every soldier of mine who dies, a part of me dies with him. For every man whose eyes I close in death and whisper a benediction of the Force, my heart breaks. For I had known these men, felt them full of life, known them through the Force. They were as much a part of me as the Force itself.
I swing my legs over the side of the my bed, and my feet are bluish from the cold. My limbs ache dully and there is a throbbing just above my left temple. My body does not respond well to the lack of sleep. But more than that, my soul is not at peace. It has been many months since I last felt it.
Dutifully, I slide to the floor and fold my legs under me, breathing, feeling. My senses stretch out tentatively, and I can hear each breath of every man on this ship. I feel their emotions; anger, joy, fear, lust. I see flashes of their thoughts press against my mind, delicately as the wings of a small bird. The hyperdrive thrums beneath me. Distant conversations slowly reach my ears, a soft buzzing. A name is on the men's voices . . . I suck in a sudden intake of breath. I had forgotten; Revan was coming today.
Whatever peace I had been close to finding is gone now. Though Revan is my friend and comrade, she terrifies me. She seems to inhabit neither Jedi nor Sith, and wastes no time worrying about the fine details of the extremes. Her eyes are shrewd; she is not fooled by anything. Perhaps this is why I fear her.
I shrug into my robes quickly, thinking it is something of a mercy that Jedi clothing is so loose. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to encourage the men in fantasies. When I was first stationed here, there were a few soldiers who showed an interest, choosing to express it in various ways. It is still embarrassing to remember; I had been a sheltered Padawan of the Enclave, and there was very little I knew about the nature of men. Now, if a new recruit is stationed with us, the others are a bit protective of me. There are no come ons, and little flirting.
The halls of the Vindictive are quiet now. There are a few men who prefer to stay awake during the sleep cycle, but aside from them, the ship is as silent as a tomb. The mess hall is sparsely populated with a few night owls, and their voices are hushed, pausing as they see me enter. I smile and nod at them, waving my hand to dispel the usual formalities. There is no need this late at night. They jump to their feet anyway.
"General," they shout, spines straight as boards.
I address them all by name. It has always been easy for me to learn the names of my soldiers, even though there are thousands of them. "Is there anything good on the menu?" I ask, nodding my head towards the mess line.
Mathev grins. "Same old slop," he says cheerfully. The others nod.
"Figures," I say. I bid them goodnight and make my way to the line. Mathev was right, this is slop. The cook deposits something colorless and shapeless on my plate, and I fight off a wave of nausea, but I smile and thank him.
I've been picking at my food for the better part of a half hour when some one clears his throat behind me. "General?" the voice says, and I turn. It's one of the techs, the Iridonian.
"Good evening, Bao-Dur. Or good morning. I'm not sure what time it is," I say.
Of course Bao knows. "It's 0400 hours."
I'm not sure how to respond. "Would you like to join me?" I ask him, hoping to get him to relax, as he looks stiff and very uncomfortable. "I could use some company."
"Sure, General," he says, his voice quiet. He sits but doesn't relax.
"What's on your mind?"
Bao-Dur doesn't beat around the bush. "It's ready," he says, and I detect a hint of pride in his voice. He looks up at me as if he is seeking my approval, as if he wants to prove his worth to me. I know the feeling well, for I feel it when I speak to Revan, when I think of my old masters, when I address my soldiers. It is the stare of one who feels they must earn their respect.
I nod. "Good work, Bao-Dur. Excellent work..."
I know what this means. The Mass Shadow Generator has the power to end the war. It is Revan's masterstroke, her magnum opus, shaped by the hands and mind of this young tech thirsting to prove himself. She had expressed to me the desire to end this pointless war in one fell swoop. No more skirmishes, no more fruitless battles, no Pyrrhic victories. A quick and final end. So I had given her Bao-Dur's name. I had seen his talent firsthand; many of his inventions preserve the lives of the soldiers in battle.
"Thank you," Bao-Dur says. He seems to relax a little, as if he was waiting for my approval.
I look at him carefully. Bao-Dur isn't much older than I am, maybe by two or three years. The planes of his face are strong, the set of his jaw is determined. But there is an anger that seethes beneath his surface, one that he struggles to control. I remember what the Mandalorians had done to Iridonia and I understand; he fights for them. "This war will be over soon," he says, as if to reassure me. "We will end it."
I break out of my reverie. "I sincerely hope so," I say, and I can't keep the weariness out of my voice.
Bao is above such deception anyway, he seems to sense my exhaustion. "Are you alright, General?"
I regret not trying harder for him. I'm sure he has enough to worry about without fearing his General will fall to pieces. "I'm just tired," I say, and it is such a small part of the truth it feels like a lie.
Bao-Dur nods, he understands this. "We worry about you, General," he says, his quiet voice becoming even more soft.
This is hard to hear, because it means the men see right through my charade of strength. They see my exhaustion, they see me struggle with the minutiae of war.
Bao sees me coming to this conclusion, because he elaborates. "You worry about us too much." I look up at him in shock. "We see what happens to you when one of us falls." He is starting to get uncomfortable again, as if he regrets his candor.
I nod. I can't speak. My throat is tight. He's right, of course. Every death affects me deeply.
Bao-Dur has an earnest look now. "But that makes us fight for you harder. Because we aren't just another grunt to you. We matter."
I look away, to hide the tears welling up in my eyes. For some reason, Bao-Dur's words strike something deep in me, and I am dangerously close to breaking down completely and sobbing. Bao sees my tears and is horrified. "I'm sorry, General," he says awkwardly. He wants to escape, to bear his humiliation in private but before Bao can get to his feet, I hear the snap of heels behind me. "General!" someone says.
"Yes, Lieutenant," I say, wiping my eyes hastily. The distraction has allowed me to control my sudden outpouring of emotion. I regard the Lieutenant calmly.
"Lord Revan is here. She wishes to speak with you." The Lieutenant looks terrified; not of me, I realize, but at the prospect of reporting to Revan again.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Why don't you get something to eat?" I ask, making my voice kind.
"Yes General!" The Lieutenant's voice is filled with relief.
I stand and my limbs feel weak. I touch Bao-Dur on the shoulder. "When you've finished here, prepare the weapon." I am no longer a scared girl, but a General again. My orders are followed.
"Yes, General," he says, still sounding unhappy.
Revan is sitting in the briefing room, watching the Republic ships fall into slow formation. She has taken her mask off, as she always does when she speaks with me. Perhaps she thinks this will put me at ease, but in truth her true face terrifies me more than her mask. She is still relatively young, but her expression is drawn and grey. Her eyes are oddly bright in the darkness.
"Anet," she says as I shut the door behind me. My heart is slamming against my ribs, beating my nervousness out. At the very least, she has left Malak aboard her own ship; her apprentice's demeanor unsettles me even more than her own.
"Revan," I say. I kneel before her, but the gesture is more fear than the respect it once was.
"Do you know what day it is today?" she asks me, still watching the Republic cruisers fall into line.
I'm not sure where she is going with this. "This is the day the war will end," I say. It may not be her right answer, but at least it is correct.
She shakes her head and turns to face me. "It's your nineteenth birthday."
I've always been somewhat annoyed at my age, which is probably why I had forgotten. I was many years younger than my friends in the Enclave, and they were all chosen by Masters long before I was the appropriate age. I don't tell my men how old I am, for fear that they will not respect me if they learn I am dwarfed by them in years. Revan herself is ten years my senior.
"I had forgotten," I say.
Revan smiles and it does not reach her steely eyes. "Yes, I know."
I had always wondered why Revan chose me as a General even though I was so young. My grasp of the Force is not exceptional. I am a fair combatant, but only because I trained twice as hard as my peers. It almost seems a mockery of me and my sensibilities. "I'm sure you didn't call me here to remind me of my insufficient age," I say, irritated.
"I suppose not," Revan says. She turns towards the window again. "I have received word that the Mass Shadow Generator is complete."
"Then it is time to set the trap. Position the fleet around Malachor V. We will draw the Mandalorians in, tempt them with the honorable slaughter they so desire. After I have slain Mandalore, you will activate the Mass Shadow Generator. If your Zabrak's invention works, this war will end."
There is something wrong with her plan. "But what of our own soldiers? The Jedi who fight with us? How will we withdraw them without leading the Mandalorians out?"
She looks me dead on. "We will not."
I am horrified. "Revan! Those men are loyal to you, loyal to the Republic! Those Jedi followed you when the Council forbade it! And you send them to their deaths?"
"The Mandalorian clans are cunning warriors. They will pursue if I withdraw our men." Revan is satisfied with this explanation.
"There is another way, and you refuse to look for it."
"How many more years do you want this pointless war to drag on to assuage your Jedi moral code?" Revan asks me, her voice cold and hard as ice. I've overstepped my boundaries. "Sacrifices must be made in war. Soldiers understand this, the Jedi understand this. They have given their lives already for this cause."
I bow my head to hide my angry tears. "Yes, Revan." My voice shakes.
Revan stands slowly, as if her limbs ache. "You wonder why I have made you my General, answerable to none but me. Yes, I see it in your face, along with your anger. It is because you are a leader without meaning to be, because your care for life makes you effective as a General." Her eyes are far away. "You will need that in the years to come, I feel." She focuses on me again. "People will go where you lead. I need that now."
I know she isn't telling me everything. Revan never tells anyone the entire truth, and sometimes I wonder how she keeps her machinations straight in her head without bouncing the whole picture back at someone. I want to withdraw from her. My anger has made me pliable, and I won't confront her further. There is no justice in her plan, there is no honor, no reward for the unswerving loyalty these men have shown her.
"I can't do this," I say, against my will. I can't end millions of lives, men I have come to know and respect, to care for.
"You must. There are hard choices in life, but they still must be made. You are not a coward who sits in the Temple, cowed into fear of the dark side. You will make the right choice."
I hate her for making me choose. I hate the Jedi for their cowardice. I hate the Mandalorians for their bloodlust. I hate myself for my weakness. But I nod and bow my head in acquiescence. "Yes, Revan," I whisper.
She squeezes my shoulder in an uncharacteristic gesture and there is finality in her eyes, almost as if she is wishing me goodbye. "Good," she says.
It takes less than a day to amass the fleet. It was almost as if the preparations for the final stroke had already been underway, and I was the last to know. I would not have been surprised if that were the case. I spent the time in my quarters, selfishly preparing for my choice. There is no solace in my meditation.
The soldiers don't know of the Mass Shadow Generator. Naturally, it is an immensely secret operation, privy only to myself, Bao-Dur, and a handful of the officers. I hear them bustle around, shouting to each other, joking. They carry on with their duties as if this were any other battle, one of hundreds. But there was no denying an anxious edge to the preparations.
The war could be over, I console myself. All I have to do is nod and the threat would be gone, utterly destroyed. But at what price...
"General," a voice startles me out of my thoughts. It's Bao-Dur; he's come to escort me to the bridge. We decided that it would be appropriate for him to be there, since this is his creation. I am letting him activate it, although it isn't out of a sense of graciousness. "The fleet is in position," he says, and there is excitement bubbling under the calm of his voice. It hurts to hear it.
"Alright," I say. It is time to be a General, a leader. I arrange my features in a cool expression; I stand and my movements are decisive, although I am anything but. Our walk to the bridge is silent. We are both absorbed in our own thoughts and fears, but there is a moment where Bao pauses and reaches toward me, as if to console me. The expression on his face is so earnest and tender I feel my heart twist, and I turn away. He becomes embarrassed and continues through the doors of the bridge as if it never happened.
The battle is already under way when we enter. Ships streak through the sky, illuminated by laser cannon shots. Occasionally one will connect and I feel life snuffed out instantly, like a candle being blown out, and I can't stop myself from flinching. I close my eyes; I don't need to see this. I fold my hands in the sleeves of my robe and breathe through my nose, attempting to release the stress in my neck. I feel very alone, although I'm in a room full of soldiers and officers, although Bao-Dur is standing next to me, his hands clenched tight.
He wants this over, I realize as I observe him, his anxious eyes watching the ships dance across the sky. We all want it to end. Fathers want to go home to their children, husbands to their wives. The expression on Bao's face has decided me.
"Mandalore is dead! Revan has slain Mandalore!" the comm echoes from Revan's ship, and the bridge erupts in cheers. Men clap each other on the backs, joking about the warlord's title of the Ultimate. "Revan has dispatched your Ultimate, Mando scum!" they jeer.
"Now, Bao-Dur," I say, and my voice betrays no emotion. I don't have to say it twice; Bao's hands pull the switch with deliberate force, the muscles in his jaw are tight. We watch, we hold our breath. Time stops.
It isn't a sudden explosion. Nothing happens at first, and I see Bao's lips twitch nervously. It is indistinguishable from the gravity of the planet. Then there is a subtle change, like the slow clenching of a fist. The planet seems to shudder and pull in on itself, and I see small fractures mar Malachor's surface. There is a crack that echoes through my body, like the snapping of bones. The ships closest to the surface are reversed slowly and dragged down in a violent crush, screaming hunks of steel raining down on Malachor's wasted surface. Explosions dot the surface. The battle stops, pauses. Everyone watches Malachor's sudden vehemence, but they turn on the burners too late. Any ship within miles of Malachor is dragged slowly, cruelly towards its death.
I look at Bao-Dur and he looks at me, and between us there is an understanding. Our horror is shared, our guilt is mutual. In that moment we are bonded so tightly by our actions that I cannot imagine another sentient sharing the responsibility suddenly slung on our shoulders. This moment will haunt us both until the day we cease to breathe. I nod, numbly. I cannot do anything else.
Without warning, I am doubled over in pain. Pain! I am dying slowly, my heart is being ripped to shreds! I feel thousands of tons of pressure on my body, crushing my bones to dust. I am being stabbed countless times over, each death on the cruel surface of Malachor is echoing endlessly through me. Hundreds of thousands of bonds are being snapped in half. The pain! I retch raggedly, my hands scrabbling on the floor.
"Anet?" I hear voices. "General!"
I cannot respond; I am being choked by the agony. Hands are on my shoulders, they burn where they touch. I twist away from myself, into myself. I am curling into the fetal position. I hear the groaning of steel and the blaring of alarms before I sink into unconsciousness.
A woman lies on the floor. Her robes are spread around her, her dirty blond hair has fallen into her face. She is pathetic looking, small and fragile, and totally unconscious, sprawled out on the bridge of a ship. There are sirens blaring, and the terrible sound of twisting steel. Panicked voices are everywhere.
"Get to the pods if you value your lives!" someone is yelling. "Malachor is taking the Vindictive!"
It's a panic. The bridge has emptied totally now except for the fallen woman and a Zabrak man. His face is agonized, horrified. He gropes for a pulse frantically and then scoops the woman in his arms easily. She is too light, he notices. He remembers her pushing food around on a plate, not eating.
The ship shudders and twists, accelerating towards the now flaming planet. Thousands of ships dot the surface. The Zabrak kicks the crushed door angrily, pushing the remains away and leaping through the opening with a surprising grace, considering the woman limp in his arms. His rage makes him fast, though the gravity holds him back. He races through the groaning halls with a speed that is not his own.
The way to the pods is blocked. The engine room is the only way. He doesn't want to go through the engine room, which isn't safe in the best of circumstances, but he has no choice. The gravity of Malachor is crushing this ship; it will be a misshapen lump of steel in minutes. There are crushed panels and walls, electricity flaring through them. He sidesteps them but has to set the woman down to work the ruined door. There is barely a second to make a choice; a flaming piece of wreckage is careening toward her. He seizes her around the waist and pulls her aside, his left arm shooting out to catch his balance; it is sheared cleanly off inches above the elbow, flames licking his bicep. He screams, grasping his wound, and it is terrible to hear.
He's fighting the urge to vomit, but he pushes at the door, exertion making the veins in his neck stand out, ramming it with his shoulder until it gives. He lifts the woman over his shoulder in a fireman's lift, and runs for the pods, praying they still work, praying Malachor's gravity isn't strong enough to suck down the pod, praying his General isn't dead.
Garish light peeks through my eyelids. I am sore, every inch of me screams in protest to the smallest movement. I feel like a corpse. I open my eyes slowly. I cannot sense anything, I am totally blind, deaf, and dumb.
My brain struggles to piece together the last moments of consciousness but I'm sluggish and slow. There are images first, a planet suspended in the sky, clenching in on itself. Screams, panic. Pain beyond anything I've ever felt. The surface of Malachor dotted with flaming wreckage. Death. I shudder and gasp, and my heart is pounding. The Mass Shadow Generator. Revan's ace in the hole, Bao-Dur's triumphant invention. Who could have foreseen how gruesome it would truly be to witness, how terribly and perfectly it would carry out its purpose?
I open my eyes slowly, squinting against the painful light. I'm in a med bay somewhere, my hands are folded on a crinkly hospital issue blanket. My skin has the scent of kolto on it. This isn't the Vindictive; I've never seen this med bay before. I reach out for something, anything, but a blank wall pushes back at me, oppressive and impossible. The hum of the Force, so often present in my ears, is gone.
I am too numb to make anything of it. I am too numb to care. It is fitting the Force has left me, I accept it without panic or question. I have committed atrocities even the Sith would stop at, and this is my punishment.
I struggle to sit upright, but a gentle hand pushes me back. "Easy, General." It's Bao-Dur. He had been sitting next to my bed, just outside of my line of vision. I am unsettled that I could not sense his presence.
"Bao-Dur." My voice is hoarse for some reason, as if I had been screaming for days. "What happened? Where are we?"
"We're on Coruscant. I . . . I failed you, General."
I struggle to face him, and it is now I notice most of his left arm is gone, bandaged tightly a few inches below his shoulder. "Bao-Dur, your arm . . . what-"
"I miscalculated. I underestimated the gravitational force Malachor would exert, we were too close. We only just escaped."
I shake my head. "Bao-Dur, no one expects perfection from you." I wish I could stop the words after they leave my mouth.
"I do. I expect perfection from me!" he whispers fiercely. "It's not only that. Force, if it were only that."
I know what he's talking about; I am feeling the same thing. The crushing weight of guilt that bears down on my mind, more powerful than twenty Malchor Vs. I don't want to talk about it, and I know he doesn't either. I wish there was solace in that we are not alone in our guilt, but there is none. Nothing but a terrible numbness surrounding my heart.
I push myself into a sitting position; this time Bao-Dur doesn't push me back. Suddenly I want to leave this place, give this bed to someone who truly needs it. I stand and Bao holds me steady, but I don't need his help. There is nothing physically wrong with me.
Revan's voice fills my ears, her talk of hard choices and the strength to make them. But I realize it isn't strength to make a choice but to bear its aftermath, to survive the consequences, whether it was right or wrong. The Jedi feared the choices I made and instead hovered in the safety of indecision, the fools. At this moment, I want nothing more than for them to look me over and face their cowardice. I want nothing more than to show them my worth, my strength and the sacrifices I made to prove it.
Bao's voice is soft. "The Jedi Council has summoned you."
"Good. I wish to speak with them," I say, and my voice is dead.
Bao rents a shuttle for us after I am discharged from the hospital. His guilt forces him to help me, but I won't hold him to it for long. Whatever the now silent Force holds for me, I will bear it alone. Coruscant is beautiful in the morning light, but I can't see it. I see nothing.
My walk through the Temple is slow. Jedi whisper behind their hands to each other, some openly scoff as I pass them. No doubt the Masters have told them I have been consumed by the dark side and am to be feared and reviled. Their whispers don't reach my ears.
The five Masters sit in the Council chamber, their backs straight with pride and arrogance. Their faces are identical masks of scorn as they watch my progress. I can see now there will be no meeting of the minds. They have called me here to lecture, a slap on the wrist for the naughty child. It is a mockery of all I have seen and done.
Vrook speaks first. "Do you know why we have called you here?"
"Whatever your reasons, speak them, or let me go," I say.
"Why did you defy us? The Jedi are guardians of the peace. This war undermines all that we stand for," Kavar says, his frown etched deep in his face.
"Is Revan your Master now? Or is it the horror you wrought at Malachor that has caused you to see the truth at last?" Atris has her nose in the air, and her lips curl in a deliberate sneer.
"You weren't at Malachor, and you will never understand." I say wearily. I have no use for this charade any longer.
"You refuse to hear us. You have shut us out, and so have shut yourself to the galaxy." Zez-Kai Ell sighs, and he seems truly sad.
Master Vash regards me intently, as if expecting me to erupt in violence. "You are exiled, and you are a Jedi no longer."
A Jedi. If a Jedi sits in meditation and ignores the cries of the people, then yes, I am no Jedi. If a Jedi hovers in the safety of indecision instead of making the choices that must be made, then yes, I am no Jedi. I never was. I feel the insane urge to laugh in their faces.
"There is one last thing," Vrook says coldly. "Your lightsaber. Surrender it to us."
My lightsaber. An extension of my arm for a long as I can remember. I will surrender it but not lightly. These Masters are cowards, passing judgement but no wisdom. Bestowing edicts but not guidance. These Master close their eyes to me, to what I've done and witnessed to preserve themselves and their comfort. They are more in love with the idea of their power and wisdom than the trials they must endure to earn and truly understand it. They will not close their eyes to me any longer.
I look them dead in the eyes, my back straight and proud, and my heart is burning. I cannot feel the Force flowing through me, but a righteous fever floods my veins. With a flourish, I ignite my pure blue blade, the blade of the Guardian, and pierce the center stone with it, my exertion cracking the stone straight down the middle.