SUMMARY: Imperial Army Lieutenant Marcus Aquila thinks he has the worst posting ever—stuck in the lousiest garrison on the lousiest planet in the galaxy, with nothing to do but mind a desk and play Angry Mynocks, he'll never restore his family's honor.

Then one of his men marches suspected Rebel spy Esca C'noval through the door, and Marcus finds out he was wrong. Things can always get worse.

An Eagle/Star Wars fusion AU, set in the Star Wars universe.

CANON: Eagle/The Eagle of the Ninth/Star Wars

PAIRING: Marcus/Esca

RATING: M for sexuality and some mild consent issues.

NOTES: I can't believe it took me this long to think of this fusion.

As far as Star Wars canon goes, this overlaps with the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, the first original movie; I've dragged in a few details from the Expanded Universe, but mostly I make up things that aren't in the movies, so it's not guaranteed to be EU-compliant.

Many thanks to Sineala, Isis, seasight, and osprey_archer for helping me more or less beat this into shape.

I am only posting some of my fanfiction to this site, due to FFN's content restrictions; the rest can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen. Also, if anyone here is looking for more Eagle or Eagle of the Ninth fanfiction, ninth-eagle DOT livejournal DOT com is Ninth Eagle, where there is a whole lot of stuff by a whole lot of people.

Prisoner of Conscience

Imperial Army Lieutenant Marcus Aquila would almost have welcomed another rowdy drunk or unlicensed small-time bounty hunter who needed to to cool off in a cell for a few days, because at least the paperwork would give him something to do. But he was near the end of yet another long, tedious shift on this forsaken dustball of a planet, and absolutely nothing whatsoever had happened, except that he'd managed to beat his high score at Angry Mynocks.

They probably wouldn't put that in his obituary, but there weren't exactly a lot of opportunities for glory and military honors on Tatooine, armpit of the galaxy. It was a joke post for joke soldiers, the ones who had too many disciplinary black marks or who had narrowly avoided flunking out of training.

And Marcus, whose record was spotless and who had been top of his class at Carida.

He'd just logged out of his comconsole, wondering where the hell his relief had got to, when the patrol squad returned.

They had a prisoner. Probably another drunken brawler, Marcus thought, noting the prisoner's rapidly purpling eye and surly expression without really seeing him.

"Sir," said Sergeant Cassius, saluting. "We caught this Rebel feeding false information to one of our informers—"

Marcus barely heard the rest of the report over the sudden roaring in his ears. A Rebel on Tatooine? This could mean real work, even a promotion—transfer off this shithole planet.

Then the panic caught up with him. They had two minimum-security cells, designed to hold drunks and petty criminals. They wouldn't even hold some of the larger species of humanoid. The Anchorhead prison barely deserved the name. Marcus knew they weren't prepared to hold a spy.

They'd have to make do. He looked at the Rebel again: despite the man's glare, he didn't look like much, certainly not a dangerous Rebel agent. He was short and wiry, handsome in a sullen, angular way; looked like one of the engineering wonks you'd find on a real base, except for the black eye. Surely they could keep him contained for a few days, and by then Command in Mos Eisley would have decided what to do with him.

"Thank you for your report, Sergeant," he said automatically. "You can put him in the smaller cell." The smaller cell was in the main office, where the officer on duty could keep an eye on the prisoner. Hopefully once he sent in his report, the brass would take the Rebel off his hands sooner rather than later.

The Rebel went into the cell without resisting, where he promptly sprawled across the cot, his legs propped up against the bars. Marcus ignored him and logged back into his console so he could write up an initial report.

"You have any painkillers? My eye is killing me." The Rebel's accent was unfamiliar, something from the Core Worlds. "Or is this part of the torture?"

"What? No!" Marcus felt a little horrified; torture—interrogation—certainly wasn't in his job description. A prisoner was still entitled to reasonable treatment before trial. He pulled the medkit out from under his desk and found some painkillers, then fetched a small cup of water from the 'cycler and took them over to the prisoner. "Command in Mos Eisley will decide what to do with you."

"Thanks." The man swallowed the pills, tilting his head back as he drank. "What's your name, jailer?"

"Aquila," Marcus said. "Lieutenant Marcus Aquila."

The prisoner grinned. "So you're the man stuck commanding these clowns? Come on, do you really trust them to recognize a Rebel agent when they see one?"

Marcus tried not to wince. It was true, Sergeant Cassius and his men were...not the sharpest Imperial troops. But that wasn't up to him, and he certainly wasn't going to let this prisoner know anything about the sorry state of the Anchorhead garrison. "I have full confidence in my men," he said stiffly, and, he hoped, convincingly. "I need your name for the report."

The man snorted. "If I were a Rebel agent—and I'm not saying I am—I'd just lie, wouldn't I?"

"I have to put something."

The man stared at Marcus for a long moment. He had blue eyes, Marcus noticed; the kind of eyes you remembered. "Esca. Esca C'noval. You can put that. It might even be true." He was, Marcus thought, awfully insolent for a prisoner, but truth or lie, he needed a name for his report, and that would do.

Esca sprawled on the cot again and closed his eyes; he said nothing more as Marcus wrote up his initial report to send to the company stationed in Mos Eisley.

Sergeant Major Galba showed up half a standard hour past when he was supposed to be on duty, in rumpled fatigues, unshaven, and reeking of alcohol. Marcus grimaced, but a reprimand would have to wait for later; not in front of the prisoner. Galba saluted sloppily. "Sorry, sir, overslept."

Marcus gritted his teeth. So much for not letting the prisoner know he'd been captured by the worst garrison on Tatooine, and possibly in the galaxy. "Second shift patrol will be in soon. First shift brought in a prisoner." He nodded at Esca, apparently asleep in the cell. "Feed him when he wakes up." He looked at his report; it wouldn't hurt to send it in the morning, after he'd had a chance to look at it fresh and make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. He saved it as a draft and logged out again.

He had been planning to hit the cantina and drink until he forgot he was on Tatooine, but now he just felt exhausted and gritty. He always felt gritty here, probably because there was no dealing with the damned sand. So he palmed the doorlock to the sleeping quarters behind the office and headed back to his cell. He'd just have to hope he didn't dream about Tatooine, for once.

"So do you just sit on your arse and play com games all day?"

Marcus started a little at Esca's voice, and released the mynock at the wrong angle, so it fell short of the spaceship it was supposed to be demolishing. He refused to feel guilty. It wasn't like there was any actual work to do, and he wasn't really supposed to chat with prisoners. Especially prisoners who might be Rebel traitors.

"No, sometimes I drink," Marcus said drily, against his better judgement, and added, "Not when I'm on duty."

"Of course not. You are a shining example of the Imperial military, aren't you?"

If he wasn't a Rebel, he was almost certainly a sympathizer, Marcus thought. "What exactly do you have against the government, anyway?"

Esca was staring at him again, a cold, contemptuous stare that gave Marcus the irrational urge to defend himself somehow; he shoved it away. It didn't matter what this prisoner thought of him—or the Empire. "Are you serious?" Esca raised one hand and starting ticking points off on his fingers, "One—the Emperor just disbanded the Senate, the last vestige of any pretense at a balanced government. Two—Humans First. I don't think I need to say anything else about that. Three—just last month three Chandrilan political activists were arrested on charges of sedition, although there was no evidence they'd done anything but speak out against unjust policy. They disappeared into the black hole of Imperial detention. They're probably dead by now. I could go on—"

"What about the good the Empire does? The Emperor brought order to a fragmented galaxy-the Republic was crumbling-"

"'Oh, yes, our democracy is bogged down in committee. I know, let's try a dictatorship! That'll be so much better!'"

"Palpatine brought the Rim planets into the Empire and outlawed slavery."

"Lieutenant Aquila," Esca said, his voice gone suddenly quiet. "What exactly do you think will happen to me, if I don't die during interrogation?"

He would be sent to a prison planet, of course, to work in the mines or construct heavy machinery. But that wasn't slavery; those were prisoners. Convicted criminals.

Although he had to admit it might not seem so different from the prisoners' point of view.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you."

"By all means," Esca said sweetly. "Don't let me distract you from your very important game of—" He squinted. "—Angry Mynocks—with my questioning of your entire belief system."

Marcus really, really hoped somebody would come and take him away soon.

"You have to admit that the Empire is more efficient," Marcus said.

"Mm. Move my shuttle piece to Beta-5, would you?" After the second day of awkward, prickling silence, Marcus had dug up an old physical chess set and set it up outside of Esca's cell; it was really old, old enough that half the pieces were Clone Wars-era ships and there were Jedi Knight pieces instead of Imperial Guards. So far, Esca had won two games, Marcus had won the third, and this one appeared to be rapidly progressing towards a draw. "Efficiency isn't a substitute for democracy," Esca said. "Besides, the Imperial bureaucracy has become nearly as good at developing committees as the old Galactic Senate was."

"What about all the worlds with enough food, because of Imperial ag engineers? The advances in prosthetic and life support technology?" He moved his Jedi piece to take one of Esca's soldiers.

"The Republic wasn't ignoring those needs," Esca said. When he talked, he came alive, no longer sullen, but passionate and animated, gesturing with slim, clever-looking hands—but Marcus was not thinking about his hands, or how he looked. The only reason he had noticed at all was because he hadn't gotten laid in months; he would have noticedanyone who was even remotely attractive. Esca was a prisoner and a Rebel spy—suspected Rebel spy—and Marcus was not going there even in the privacy of his own head. "How do you know the Empire really accelerated the pace of research?" Esca continued. "I suppose all the wounded soldiers have been useful test subjects."

Marcus entirely failed to suppress his grimace. Just thinking about it made his leg twinge-or rather, where his leg had been, and where a brand-new prototype limb replacement now was. He'd lost his leg during his first post, courier duty that was supposed to be uneventful, and was, right until the Rebels attacked the convoy. He'd lost his best friend, too.

So far the replacement locked up whenever a speck of sand got into the joints (which was often, on Tatooine), and the phantom pain had never really gone away. He'd heard there were better models on the civilian market—but even if he could have afforded one, that wasn't an option. The army wanted cheaper, easier to install replacements, and when the Empire called him to serve, he served.

"Check," he said, refusing to give Esca the satisfaction of agreeing with him. His leg was none of the man's business, anyway.

Esca regarded the board for a moment. "Jedi Councillor to Delta-8, and checkmate."

Marcus blinked. He hadn't seen that coming.

The week was almost over and Marcus still hadn't heard back from command in Mos Eisley about Esca. Esca had continued to needle Marcus at every opportunity, but he hadn't tried to escape. Surely the brass would decide what to do with him soon.

The problem was that Marcus was starting to actually like Esca, and the thought of him being interrogated or sent to hard labor and death seemed worse with him every day. Even if Esca were really a Rebel agent and not just a sympathizer, he couldn't possibly know much, could he?

But it wasn't his call to make, so he kept playing chess and trying to counter Esca's arguments. He was getting better at the chess and worse at the arguments, although it didn't occur to him until after Esca was gone that he'd been skirting sedition himself, just by listening.

Marcus asked Galba once if the prisoner ever spoke to him. "Sure." He shrugged. "Asked me to let him out for a few minutes, the first night, to 'stretch his legs'. Told him no. He hasn't said a word to me since, 'cept to ask for water." He added defensively, "I'm not stupid."

The last point was debateable, but Marcus wasn't going to go out of his way to be cruel. It wouldn't make a difference—and even if Galba and the rest suddenly became model soldiers, they'd still be an understaffed garrison with little to do and less power to do it, in a town that was so thick with Rebel sympathizers that the only thing that kept it from being a Rebel base was the lack of a fleet.

He didn't ask whether Sergeant Lutor, the third-shift duty officer, had talked to the prisoner. Lutor was from some backwater planet called Dacia that Marcus had never heard of, and spoke Basic with an accent so thick it was a miracle he'd been passed out of training. On top of that, he was so surly to his squad and fellow officers that Marcus couldn't really imagine him chatting with the prisoner.

No, apparently he was the only one prone to that particular kind of stupidity.

But he kept setting up the chessboard, every shift.

In the dream, Marcus was naked, in a bed with much softer sheets than his Imperial-issue synthfiber ones. There was a great deal of warm, smooth skin pressed up against him. Male skin: a broad chest, strong arms and a hard, hot cock trapped against his thigh.

It felt so, so good to be touching someone that Marcus could have kept doing this forever, just roaming his hands over back and thigh and tightly-muscled ass as they rolled around in the silk-sleek sheets. Neither of them was really trying for control—it was just tussling for the the joy of it, the little spike of adrenaline that made hearts beat faster and skin feel more sensitive.

Then he opened his eyes, and for a horrible, disorienting moment, he was looking down into his own face. Everything tilted dizzily, and as he blinked he found himself lying on his back, looking up at Esca.

Esca's hair was sticking out in all directions and he had a slightly wild look in his eyes. This is interesting, he said, but he didn't move, just sat there straddling Marcus's hips, slim and wiry and inappropriately attractive, everything Marcus could not have.

Marcus wanted to kiss him, and this was a dream, so if he thought about it, it would happen. And it was a dream, so it didn't matter that he wanted it, wanted Esca.

Very interesting, Esca murmured, just before their mouths came together. He kissed like he played chess, with a careful tactical exploration of all avenues to victory. Marcus felt like he was floating, the only thing anchoring him Esca's solid weight on his hips.

Esca's hands were stronger than Marcus had expected. He gasped and arched into Esca's grip on his cock, perfectly, achingly tight. Most men he'd been with had to be coaxed into squeezing as hard as Marcus liked, but Esca just seemed to know.

They were still kissing, deep and slow and wet, as Esca worked his hand from base to tip, alternately squeezing and stroking, finishing with a twist of his wrist that made Marcus whimper into his mouth and come.

Esca drew back a little, and he was smiling, smiling in a way that made Marcus's gut twist uneasily.

Marcus woke sticky and panting, the aftershocks of orgasm still echoing through his body. He'd come in his sleep like a teenager, and couldn't quite shake the humiliating feeling that it had been Esca in his dream somehow, the real Esca.

He lay there in the dark watching the glowing numbers of his chron tick over, mind whirling unpleasantly in circles, until he finally gave up on sleep. It was still a few hours before he had to be on duty. He'd go for a walk, buy breakfast, and maybe by the time he had to be on his shift he'd be able to look Esca in the eye without blushing. Esca already enjoyed needling him too much to give him a new and more tender opening.

"You're up early, sir," Lutor said, or at least that was what Marcus thought he said.

"Couldn't sleep." He carefully avoided looking at Esca's blanket-wrapped form, in the cell. "You want me to bring anything back?"

"This caf's shit," Lutor muttered, lifting his thermal mug, by which Marcus deduced that he wanted fresh caf from the stall on the corner.

Outside, the chill of a Tatooine dawn hit him like a blow: it was one of the uncountable joys of this planet, that it was scorching during the day and freezing at night, with only a brief period of tolerable temperatures just after dawn and right before dusk. Tatoo I was rising, peeping over the horizon in a ball of pale fire. There wasn't even enough moisture in the air here for decent sunrises.

By the time he reached the diner that served his favorite breakfast, he was shivering a little and wishing he'd grabbed a jacket to put over his civvies, but his libido had been effectively cowed into submission. It had just been a dream. Perfectly normal, dreams, and there was no telling why his subconscious had picked the Rebel prisoner to star in his pornographic fantasy, but it wasn't real.

It was starting to warm up as he ambled back to the office, stopping to buy two cups of hot caf for himself and Lutor. After a moment's consideration, he added a third. Might as well let Esca enjoy it while he could.

But he was done playing chess and chatting. Esca could amuse himself for the rest of his stay without Marcus's help.

When Lutor raised an eyebrow at the third cup, Marcus shrugged and said, "Hardly slept last night. Have to stay awake somehow."

After Marcus had changed into his fatigues and Lutor had grumbled his way off to his bunk, Marcus took the second cup of caf over to Esca.

"Why, Lieutenant Aquila," Esca said, with an exaggerated drop of his eyelashes, his hands lingering against Marcus's as he took the cup through the bars. "I didn't know you cared. A condemned man's last drink?"

His hands were narrow and strong, and with a vividness that caught him by surprised, Marcus remembered how those fingers had felt wrapped around his cock, squeezing and stroking in perfect rhythm. Except it wasn't a memory, it was a dream. Only a dream. Esca's fingers curled against his, just slightly, and Marcus stumbled back, jerking his hands away so quickly that a few drops of caf splashed out of the cup onto Esca's hands.

Esca cursed, and then gave Marcus, who felt like his face was on fire, a narrow-eyed look followed by a smirk. "So that's how it is," he said softly, and then turned and sat on his cot, back to Marcus, and began sipping his caf, quite calmly.

Marcus's hands were shaking as he sat down at his console and logged in; it took him three tries to type his password correctly, and he had to fingerprint himself twice because the first time he jerked and blurred the scan.

He spent half an hour reading the same message, over and over, because the dream kept replaying behind his eyes, as vivid as if it had just happened, as if it were real: Esca's mouth, his hands, the way his body had felt, every texture and sensation.

This was ridiculous, he told himself. He'd just had a wet dream. That had never stopped him from concentrating on his work (or, to be perfectly accurate much of the time, com games) before. He would just push the thoughts aside, get through the shift, and later he'd go by the cantina and see if he could find a friendly spacer interested in a mutually enjoyable release of tension. Should have done that a long time ago.

He had just managed to actually read the message—something jargon-filled about changes to the pension plan—when Esca spoke.

"You know," Esca said, "I think you're missing out on an opportunity here."

Marcus clenched his fists. He shouldn't answer. He knew he shouldn't answer. "How so?" he asked, without turning around.

"Well," Esca said, "You obviously need to get laid, and this might well be my last chance at the same. And here I am. In prison. Can't really say no."

"I'm not into that," Marcus said, tightly, for a moment genuinely angry, in a way none of Esca's other barbs had managed to provoke. What cause had he given Esca to think that of him?

And how had Esca even thought to try that tactic for getting under his skin? He'd been so careful, so careful not to give any sign of attraction. He was sure he hadn't, not in reality, and dreams were only dreams, no matter how disconcertingly real they felt.

Esca said nothing, remaining silent for long enough that Marcus found himself turning around despite his firm intentions to ignore him. Esca was leaning up against the bars of the cell, almost draped against them. His shirt was open at the collar, exposing a triangle of pale, smooth skin at the throat. Marcus wasn't stupid, and he knew calculated vulnerability when he saw it; it was the same kind of trick the workers at the brothels used, and if Marcus wanted that he'd go to them instead of picking up spacers at the cantina.

Maybe Esca wasn't so good at getting under Marcus's skin, after all.

"Not interested." Marcus turned back to his console. It was half-true.

"I could fuck you," Esca said, "if you'd rather." His voice had dropped into a lower register, a warm husk that sent blood rushing straight to Marcus's cock. It wasn't an unappealing picture. "You like a bit of rough trade? Like the idea of the prisoner getting the better of you?"

"Still not interested," Marcus said, and then wished he hadn't said anything. Every time he ruled something out, Esca would just try a new tactic, and sooner or later he'd hit a nerve.

"Come on. I'd like it. You'd like it." Esca was almost purring now, his very tone obscene. "Any way you want it, I'm game. Look, I'll even suck you off through the bars, if you don't want to come in."

Marcus jerked, banging his hand hard against the console, and swore. The bright, sharp pain of it cleared his head somewhat, and he managed to grit out, "No."

Esca left him alone the rest of the shift, but it didn't make much difference, because all Marcus could think of was Esca's hands, warm against his; Esca's mouth, purring obscenities; and that stupid, stupid glimpse of his throat, which shouldn't affect him when he knew it was deliberate.

He had wanted to open the cell, to step inside and kiss all the cutting words from Esca's mouth, almost from the first, and now he couldn't stop thinking about it.

"I'm bored."

Marcus was almost afraid to turn around, but he did anyway, to find Esca sprawled across his cot on his back, tossing and catching his empty water cup.

"I think Lutor has some holonovels around somewhere," Marcus said.

"Not...exactly...what I had in mind," Esca said, sitting up with a swift grace that made Marcus's breath catch annoyingly in his throat. "I was hoping for something more...interactive."

"Some of them are the kind where you choose your own ending," Marcus offered, trying to keep his voice even.

"I prefer mine happy." Esca was leaning on the bars again; this time his shirt had come untucked and rucked up on one side, exposing a pale sliver of his waist. Marcus imagined walking over there, putting his hands through the bars and fitting them against Esca's waist, under his shirt. His skin would be warm and smooth, covering all that firm, wiry muscle Marcus had dreamed about.

"I'm sure you do," Marcus said. His hands were fisted in his lap, hidden from Esca by the angle of his chair, and he felt sickly guilty for the fact that, if there weren't any security holos recording everything that happened in the office, he might well get up and go over to Esca and then—no. Better not to even think of it. "You'll have to manage without me."

He turned back to his console.

Behind him, Esca sighed, loudly. "I suppose I will."

The cot creaked under Esca's weight. The sounds that followed were unmistakable, and Marcus could imagine very, very clearly what he'd see if he turned around. It took all of his willpower not to turn and look, or flee into the 'fresher until Esca was done, but he refused to give Esca the satisfaction either way.

Later, it took him only three minutes in the 'fresher to bring himself off, leaning against the wall and panting, remembering the slick sound of Esca's hand against his own cock and the way Esca's harsh breathing had hitched as he grew closer and closer to climax.

By Esca's smug, lazy smile when Marcus reemerged, he knew exactly what Marcus had been doing in the 'fresher. "Imagine how much more fun that could have been if I'd helped," Esca said.

That was the problem: Marcus could imagine that all too well.

Sergeant Hilaron burst in shortly after Marcus came on shift, while he was still blearily sucking down his first cup of caf. He had spent the night alternating between incredibly vivid and even more frustrating dreams about Esca and staring sleeplessly at the ceiling of his bunk, feeling like a terrible officer and a worse person.

"Sir, you have to turn on the Holonet!" Hilaron said, skidding to a stop by Marcus's console. It was an unprecedented display of alertness from the usually languid-to-the-point-of-lazy Hilaron, so Marcus fumbled around until he found the remote and turned the display on.

"...a highly placed source in Imperial Intelligence informed our reporters that evidence points to this being a terrorist attack. If this is the case, the Rebels have much greater military capacity than previously suspected. This footage is the last broadcast from a weather satellite orbiting Alderaan."

The camera cut from the pretty young Twi'lek reporter to show Alderaan, blue-green and peaceful in the blackness of space. Then it wasn't: the planet seemed to explode from its core outward, debris flying towards the satellite, and then static. It looked impossible, like something from an adventure holo.

The clip looped twice more.

"You've just seen the destruction of the planet of Alderaan, which happened earlier today," the reporter said, professionally grave. "Sources point to this being the work of Rebels using a new top-secret superweapon..."

Marcus exchanged a look with Hilaron, and they both turned to look at Esca, in the cell. Esca was sitting on the edge of his cot, face white; he looked like someone had punched him in the gut.

He didn't look like someone who was happy his friends' new superweapon worked.

Marcus looked back at Hilaron again, who said, very quietly, "It's hard to believe, sir, the Rebels having something like that." Lazy Sergeant Hilaron might be, but he wasn't stupid, and they both knew there were security recordings.

"Incredible," Marcus said, just as quietly.

When he looked back again, Esca was lying on the cot with his back to them, and his shoulders were shaking.

Marcus let him be.

If the Rebels hadn't destroyed Alderaan, there was only one other possibility: the Empire had done it, blown up a wealthy, peaceful Core world for reasons far, far above Marcus's pay grade. For the first time since Carida, Marcus was desperately glad his post meant nothing.

He'd thought nothing was worse than parking his ass in a desk job on Tatooine, to rot with the scum and scrapings of the Empire.

He'd been wrong. He could have been the man ordered to pull the trigger, forced to choose between duty and justice.

Esca was unnervingly silent the rest of the shift, to the point where Marcus was almost beginning to miss his constant seduction attempts.

Finally, he turned around.

Esca was lying on his back on the cot, and his water cup was floating, spinning in midair above his hands, which moved in tight circles under it as the cup spun faster and faster, untouched.

It should have been impossible, without some kind of anti-grav unit, which Esca certainly didn't have.

He remembered, when he was very small, when his father was gone, his mother curled up under the covers with him telling stories of the Jedi, who could move objects with the strength of their minds alone, without touching them; even objects far too heavy for an ordinary person to life.

They had killed with those powers, in his mother's stories. Always murderers and torturers, the bad people a little boy might imagine his father facing.

But then his father had disappeared during the Clone Wars, an entire legion of troopers with him. Marcus had grown up and gone to Carida, and they had taught the recruits that the Jedi Order's so-called "powers" were but trickery and illusion to fool the gullible, that they were dangerous vigilantes and traitors who operated outside the law. Emperor Palpatine had made the galaxy safer by exterminating their order.

The floating cup didn't look like an illusion.

"You're a Jedi sorcerer." Marcus's throat felt dry and his heart raced almost painfully. If Esca had a Jedi's powers, why hadn't he escaped? A floating cup was nothing; what else could he do? He could barely remember the stories now, much less guess what truth there might have been in them...

Esca snorted, still watching the cup. His hands never stopped moving. "No, Lieutenant Aquila. My mother was a Jedi, a Jedi who survived Palpatine's purges." The cup stopped, abruptly, and the tough plastic, designed to be nearly indestructible, crumpled like foil and fell to the floor with a clatter.

Esca sat up, his clenched fist white-knuckled and trembling. "She didn't survive Alderaan."

The face he turned to Marcus was ghastly, pale and sick, his eyes like dark bruises in his narrow face. But it was his expression that made Marcus shiver, for there was something dark and cold in it.

"You are lucky, all of you, that I am not a Jedi," Esca said softly. "I am too angry, you see, to remain a Jedi for long. This is all I have—little tricks to amuse children."

"I'm sorry," Marcus blurted, and cursed himself as soon as he said it. That was tantamount to treason, questioning a military decision. But suddenly Esca, with whom he had played chess and argued, Esca who had come so close to convincing him that it would be a good idea to unlock that cell and step inside, seemed far more dangerous than a hypothetical court-martial. "About your mother. About Alderaan."

Esca stared at him, then gave a harsh, barking laugh. "I expect you are. You're very nice, Aquila, very compassionate. For an Imperial."

It didn't sound like a compliment. "You shouldn't let any of the others see," Marcus said. His throat felt gritty and sore, like it was full of sand, but his palms were sweating. "Galba will sell you to the Hutts in a minute if he finds out, for the arena. They're always looking for novelties."

This time Esca's laugh was brittle. "And do you think that death in the arena is worse than what your people will do to me?"

Marcus opened his mouth to say yes, then shut it. Even the worst death in the arena couldn't compare to an interrogator's craft. At least the beasts let you keep your mind.

Esca was right, and Marcus had nothing more to say. He turned back to the comconsole, Esca's bitter laughter ringing in his ears, and stared at the screen, but all he could see was the bright flash of Alderaan's destruction, over and over.

Marcus had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than for his shift to be over so he could break out the good pain meds and go lie down in the dark. Unfortunately, he still had hours to go.

Esca hadn't spoken to him since he'd crushed the cup, but whenever Marcus glanced over at his cell, he was either glaring balefully, with that darkness in his gaze that made Marcus nervous despite himself, or floating some small object around the cell. Once, a constellation of pebbles, held in perfect orbit by the graceful motions of his hands, only to clatter to the ground when Marcus said mildly, "That's pretty."

Marcus was half tempted to remove everything small enough to float from the cell, but that would require going inside, with Esca, a prospect that had become as emphatically unappealing now as it had been inappropriately appealing a few days earlier.

It was better this way, he told himself. The man was a dangerous Rebel spy. He'd been a fool to let himself forget that.

He heard the voices before he saw their owners: a woman's voice, high and snarling, and a man's voice, low and burred, vaguely familiar.

The woman shrieked something in a language Marcus didn't know, but her meaning was clear enough.

"You'll press charges? Ha, I'd like to see you try it!" the man shouted as the woman burst in the door. She was tall and red-haired, with a pale, pointed face above greasy spacer's coveralls. Marcus couldn't see the man's face at first, only dark hair pulled back in a braid and the line of a stubbled jaw. Their yelling was making his head throb.

"Goddamn right I'm pressing charges, you cheating, scumsucking son of a—"

"Citizens, what seems to be the—" Marcus began, rising from his console, but keeping his hands out of sight.

Then the man turned to face him, and he was a ghost.

"Cradoc?" All the color drained from the man's face, and Marcus knew, even though he was five years older and had grown his hair out and dyed it. It was him. Not killed by Rebels after all, which meant—

"Shit," the red-haired woman said, drawing a holdout blaster from somewhere in her coveralls. "Move and you're dead."

Marcus's own blaster was still in his hand; he'd drawn it when he first heard the shouting, just in case, and it was standard military issue. He had the range on her; she might not even be able to hit him, if he shot fast enough.

"I really wouldn't, if I were you," came Esca's quietly mocking voice in his ear, and Marcus felt the cold muzzle of a holdout blaster pressed to the base of his skull.

Marcus swallowed hard. All the fear he'd felt when Esca had crushed the cup and looked at him the other day—as if he saw not Marcus but the Empire, and he wanted to crush the Empire like he had the cup—came flooding back. "You had lockpicks," he said, "and a blaster. How—?"

Esca's voice went singsong and mystical as he murmured, "You've already searched me, Sergeant, remember? I don't have any weapons."

"Just shoot him, Esca!" the woman cried. "We don't have time for this." Beside her, Cradoc gave a pained, abortive jerk, like he wanted to contradict her, but he said nothing, and he avoided Marcus's eyes.

Marcus glanced sideways and down, at the alarm button that would summon the patrols back-but he didn't think any of them would be close enough to make it before Esca and his friends escaped, even if he could reach it before Esca shot him.

He thought of Alderaan, exploding like fireworks over Coruscant on the Emperor's birthday, and Esca's face as he'd said She didn't survive Alderaan. He squeezed his eyes shut and whispered, "Good luck," as he waited for the bolt. At least it would be a quick death, instantaneous. No pain.

Instead he felt Esca's fingers, pressed to the side of his neck, and a wave of coolness that spread out from them, washing away his headache and leaving behind blackness.

He woke stiff and sore from lying on the floor, the room empty. Marcus turned his head with some difficulty and looked over at the chron: it had only been an hour, and Galba wasn't due in for a couple more, but Esca and his rescuers were long gone, probably already offworld if they were smart.

Marcus didn't know the woman, but he knew Esca was smart, and he knew Cradoc was as well. He felt empty and flayed, because Cradoc was alive, alive and a Rebel who had said nothing when the woman ordered Esca to kill Marcus. He couldn't even tell if he was glad Cradoc was alive, or if it would have been better to keep thinking he'd been blown to bits, just so much more stardust.

Esca hadn't killed him, though, and he didn't know why.

He'd had to report this, he realized, with a sick churning in his gut. There weren't many worse places they could send him, so it would probably be a court-martial and a dishonorable discharge if he were lucky—and with the security holos of his conversations with Esca, he doubted he'd be lucky.

To think he'd thought this was his ticket off Tatooine.

Marcus dragged himself into his chair. His console was logged out and black-screened, even though he was sure he'd been logged in before Cradoc and the red-haired woman showed up. He pulled up the report he'd sent before, and stared at it for almost a minute before comprehending what the blinking red light meant.

Then he remembered Esca's mocking voice in his ear: You've already searched me, Sergeant, remember?

And before that, the second day: You sent the report yesterday, Lieutenant Aquila, remember?

His head had felt fuzzy for a moment, but then he'd remembered. Of course he'd sent the report.

Except he clearly hadn't. That was what the blinking red light meant.

Marcus felt a little dizzy with fear, or perhaps that was the aftereffects of whatever Jedi trick Esca had used on him this time—this time! how many times had Esca changed his mind? Had he truly made any decisions of his own these past weeks? No, he must have. He had never said yes to any of Esca's propositions, except in the dream—which, he realized, might not have been entirely his dream—but he could not worry about that now. There would be time later to untangle the unpleasant knot of feeling that had settled into his gut at the thought.

He hadn't opened the cell. Perhaps Esca could only nudge people a little, not truly control their thoughts. Surely otherwise he would have made Marcus release him at once, or kept Cassius from arresting him in the first place.

Except he had been able to keep Cassius from searching him for weapons, which meant—

—Esca had wanted to be captured. Why, Marcus couldn't begin to imagine. Nothing important happened in Anchorhead. There was no classified information here that the Rebels might want, no prisoner to rescue except Esca himself, who it turned out hadn't really needed rescuing.

Marcus managed to key in the access codes for the security holos after only a few tries.

WARNING, the screen said, green text scrolling across alarmingly. System Crash 1300 Standard Hours Some Files Are Corrupted And May Not Open.

Marcus started with the recording from that day, but the file wouldn't open, instead spitting back strings of gibberish numbers and incomprehensible error messages. Scrolling back through the recordings, not a single one since before they'd brought Esca in had survived. A handful of older recordings, seemingly at random, were also worthless. Marcus couldn't begin to guess if they had held something important or if it was just to make the crash look more realistic, but he was certain the Rebels had done something to the system.

There was no record of Esca C'noval, if that really was his name, ever having been held at the Anchorhead jail. No record except Marcus's memory, and that of the other soldiers who'd come through the office.

Marcus could tell Galba, if he even asked, that Esca had been transferred to Mos Eisley. Galba likely wouldn't bother checking on it. Marcus could lie, pretend Esca had never been there, and it was entirely possible that no one would ever find out the truth.

Or he could come clean to the brass, tell the truth—fantastic as it was—and end up court-martialed and maybe worse.

Marcus stared at the draft report and its blinking red light, finger hovering over the delete key. He thought of his father, who had lost a legion and stained the family's honor; of his mother at the farm on Etruria, whose heart would break if anything happened to her only son; he thought of Lord Vader, reminding Marcus's graduating class at Carida of their duty to the Empire; and he thought of Esca's face when he saw Alderaan die.

At last he pressed the key and watched the document disappear, and with it, the remainder of his own honor.

There was no way back now.