You have travelled a long way, my apprentice.
You waited for this. I should have seen your urge to build an empire. That age-old instinct of the Sith could not quite be quelled, even in you, the one who was always meant to be the sacrificial animal. The spirits of Darth Bane and Freedon Nadd, the old ones, all of them flow through you via the Force just as they do through me. The past is never as important as the present, but I should have known.
And I did know, Darth Maul, from the moment you bit my hand. You were a boy, then, but those small realizations did not stop as you aged, even though you learned the same lessons over and over. First you learned that I was breaking the Rule of Two, and then you learned who I was breaking it against: Darth Plagueis, the late great father of too much dark life. He achieved almost enough to create his own Chosen One before I killed him. Then, you, Darth Maul, would never have survived at all.
But now the playing field is a bit more level. Plagueis is dead, my Chosen One thinks he is the most righteous man in the galaxy and will even more so now, after his Padawan walks out of the Jedi Temple to get away from him. We are all just fathers watching our children leave us, my apprentice. I doubt you'll live to understand. It's what we do after that matters. It is how we turn our hatred for our children into greatness.
But that is all permutations, options, possibilities - you don't operate like that, do you? There's one thing in your mind, one at a time. In creating that focus, I have succeeded completely.
You tried to fight me, here on Mandalore. You tried to create your own small empire out of rocks and dirt and blind beings leading the blind.
I trained you to rule men, certainly. That is the way of the Sith. We must know some subterfuge. But look at you. Even on the black ground of this plaza, even with your clothing torn and your skin burnt and smoking, your instinct is not to rally help from anyone else. They have all left you, your brother dead and the Mandalorians engaged in their private war of political and parochial revenge.
You snarl up at me and are poised, perfectly, alone.
I cannot kill you yet. It would be like tearing up a symphony.
But I cannot have you around, either, following me to Coruscant like a stray dog. Look at you. It's a fortunate bit of chance that Zabraks look so much like the devils of human stories, and utterly convenient that the Dathomirians made you even more fearsome with their marks. Ithorians and Devaronians and sentient blobs of gas hold seats in the Senate, and Zabraks too, but you were raised to walk like a monster, and you would never survive in the congress. A perfect assassin, you are a terrible spy.
You are still trying to rise, the Force lurching and crackling inside your presence. When the lightning hits you you fall again, panting, sparks jumping between your jaws.
"I will not kill you yet," your master says. "I still have plans for you."
Darth Maul slumped with his hands between his knees as if he had been cuffed.
He had not. Sidious was surely testing him, allowing him to sit freely in the rearmost, smallest passenger compartment of this lavish, sleek ship and watching his every move. It was odd to be back in his master's presence, thinking these thoughts. For a long time he had just wanted to get back to Sidious, to bow before him again, to take orders. Then, after Sidious had killed Savage just as Maul was beginning to feel a grudging respect for him that may or may not have had its roots in their familial bond, Maul had realized that his master had discarded him. All Maul's work, all the time he had spent fighting across the galaxy to make a massacre big enough to draw Sidious' attention, had failed. He raged against his master, lifting hands that felt as heavy as if they had been chained. He growled, lips pulled back from his teeth. It ached to move. The Force lightning had not scarred him, but it hurt. It would hurt, he knew, for days, and the pain was already setting his face into a frown and pulling at the skin between his eyes. He would not refuse the offer of a Mandalorian helmet now.
But his days as a crime lord were over. He was back with Sidious now.
Except that Sidious had strange plans for him.
Maul had been swapping back and forth between those thoughts for the last half an hour, while the ship lifted off to parts unknown.
Stay? Go? Wait?
He was tired. He shifted, dragging his mechanical foot back and forth across the floor.
Perhaps Sidious was allowing him to walk relatively free in the ship because Sidious wanted to give an illusion of freedom.
Maul did not know, and after real freedom - years, unpleasant and murky but free, without a master - the idea rankled as much as it comforted.
But it did comfort.
Obi-Wan was still alive. That was the one thing that had not changed through all of Maul's years - he had always been hunting for that man, no matter what mission he mentally put before it. Obi-Wan could throw Maul off any trail he was following, could drag Maul back into the blind hatred that had come close, so close, to destroying Obi-Wan.
Maul should not have bothered with killing Satine. The role of warlord had worked for him, and killing Satine was something that Pre Viszla would do and his troops would support. So Maul had played at barbarian Mandalorian, enjoying the waves of horror and grief from Obi-Wan's Force presence even as the nature of his victim mattered little to his choice of fate for her.
Satine had bought Obi-Wan time, though, even if she hadn't known she was doing it.
Maul stood up. More aches made themselves known along his shoulders. He made a mental note of the numbness of his metal limbs, which was not so much a relief as a mark on a checklist.
My arms will ache tomorrow. My legs will not.
He had gotten used to the balance of the legs the Mandalorians had built for him.
He knocked on the inside of the door of the passenger compartment and received no answer. Darth Sidious would not travel with a crew, but it looked to Maul like the ship had been requisitioned from the Republic in Sidious' role as Chancellor Palpatine. The carpet was yellow and plush, the walls silver, curving, and clean. There were Naboo touches in the design, if Maul recognized them correctly. Sidious had not quite shaken off the aesthetic instincts of his peaceful home planet.
When the door did not open, Maul dug his fingers into the shallow groove of the handle and pulled. The door shushed against the carpet. The second room was, as he had guessed, a larger sitting room: both also had entrances onto the central hallway that lead to the exit ramp. He could barely feel the ship's floor shaking beneath him as the engines underneath did their work.
The ship couldn't have gotten far, being in hyperspace this long. It could not have gotten from Mandalore to Coruscant. Maul would have time to find out what Sidious was doing.
He could not decide whether to take an angry or a subservient mien in front of his master, and it was strange not to simply go with his emotions, to have to make that decision. But his time on Mandalore had taught him the value of a sabaac face, and, before that Lotho Minor had given him years to do all the expressing he had ever wanted. It was time for something a bit more contained now. Something with purpose.
He moved into the hallway and found the doors to the bridge. They opened with a touch. Sidious was sitting just to the right of the canopy, with three short, square droids plugged into other systems. This ship would normally need a larger crew, Maul noticed. Instead, Sidious had brought his mechanical helpers - droids who didn't look like they had a lot of personality. Their memories would be wiped as soon as they got back to Coruscant, he was sure.
Sidious turned to look at him. The old man's hood was raised, his gnarled hands folded inside his sleeves.
"Where are we going, master?"
"Do you know why I haven't shackled you?" Sidious said.
Maul narrowed his eyes. Again there was that sense of decision. He was not used to playing conversations like card games, but he had learned - from Pre Visla, from his time in Cog Hive Seven, that vast sums could be won or lost in the game of words. Maul had viewed disappointing his master as the worst possible transgression, before he head learned. "I had wondered."
"Discard your guesses," Sidious said. "You will be taken to your next mission. you will find out what it is soon enough."
"You have a mission for me?"
Maul could hardly see Sidious's eyes, but he saw the man's expression go crafty. The Force tickled at the back of Maul's mind, warning him of deception.
"I am curious about your time among the Mandalorians," Sidious said. "You nearly killed Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"He was my second priority. I wished to return to you."
"Yes. Well. And you had your brother with you."
"I understand that Savage had worked against you before." There had been a lot that Maul missed while on Lotho Minor, a lot of names like Count Dooku and Asajj Ventress that he did not recognize, but he had pieced together from Savage's opinionated narrative an image of the war that he had been involved in.
Maul nodded. What had happened in the past didn't matter any more.
Sidious looked up. "Ah. There are our visitors now."
Maul did not know what signal Sidious had received. Presumably it was from the Force, not from the ship, because hyperspace was still whipping by outside the canopy. The ship slowed, then, through no apparent effort of Sidious' own. The droids were bringing it in to coordinates that he must have pre-set.
As soon as realspace snapped back into visibility, Maul felt dread in the Force.
There was a ship floating in front of them, far enough away that it would not be washed by the gravitic waves of Sidious's ship's exit from hyperspace but close enough that Maul could see it was large, five stories if it had been a building. The outside was brown, whether from paint or age Maul could not tell, and studded with irregular rivets and yellow-shining windows.
The occupants of that ship were riled and uneasy.
Sidious stood. The droids beeped and blinked, quite possibly bringing the ship into a docking vector with the brown craft. "Come with me, my apprentice," Sidious said.
He glided out of the bridge. Maul looked across the room at the hooded face for a moment. Even with his mechanical legs and Sidious' increasingly wizened stature, the master was still taller than the apprentice.
Something was wrong with the ship they were meeting. Maul could sense it.
He hesitated at the door. Sidious looked back at him, his hood falling from his wrinkled head. Sidious had wisps of white hair and heavy eyebrows. "What do you sense, my apprentice?"
"Such are the ways of the galaxy."
They proceeded to the door, Sidious was staid, and Maul wary and curious. The two ships docked a few minutes later with a slight clunking sound. It relieved some of Maul's boredom and some of his tension. Whatever happened, would happen. He did not have his lightsaber at his side, which could pose a problem if anyone he faced was heavily armed, but he was confident in his ability to quickly acquire a weapon. If the beings beyond this door were of such authority or such inscrutability that he needed to fight them with something besides a physical weapon, well - time would also tell. He blinked.
The airlocks opened, warning lights changing from angry red to mild yellow and verdant green.
The group of people standing beyond were dressed in mis-matched clothes and armor: a flightsuit here, a vest there, a poncho with a hood over the face of a woman with wrinkled tan skin. A human carrying a blaster rifle in a shoulder holster lead the group. He had a neatly trimmed black mustache and beard, and light blue eyes; he carried himself like a noble but wore oil-stained brown pants and a loose-fitting, equally stained tan shirt. His forearms were armored with metal gauntlets.
"Welcome, gentlemen," Sidious said.
The leader stepped into the ship, looking around at both sides of the hallway as if afraid that something would rush him from just beyond his field of vision. "Hello sir," he said. Even with that tiny sentence he talked with his hands, gesturing in a sort of shrug, perhaps a practiced movement to show off the gauntlets. The jointed green-black armor plates covered his hands to the knuckles, but did not seem to be equipped with any kind of projectile or energy shield. The people behind him shifted, also looking suspiciously at Maul and Sidious. He could not read anything in their Force senses more than the sense of betrayal and anger he had been receiving on the whole mission.
It wasn't that Maul did not want to fight Sidious, but that he was at this point simply curious about what Sidious would do next: Maul had taken all this time to get back to him, and now, he would let Sidious move the next piece in the game, if the rest of his life was going to be a game.
"Go with them," Sidious said.
Maul looked at him. The newcomers shuffled forward, the Force rising more and more nervous around them. The second person in the group was a tall Twi'lek, blue-skinned, the lekku hanging behind his shoulders down his back almost hidden from view under bands of leather, a handband, and a brown cloak.
"This is your mission," Sidious said.
The armed newcomers were looking more and more nervous. The leader glanced at Maul's hands, and Maul thought that he was surprised to see them unbound. "Who are they?" Maul asked, not looking at Sidious.
"They are the next step," Sidious said, and put a hand on Maul's back to push him toward the grimier ship.
The Twi'lek came forward with binders. Maul flinched backward, and felt an abrupt, powerful push from behind him that knocked him off his feet. Only once he was on the floor did he feel the intent behind it - Sidious was trying to get rid of him, and these were his jailers. Maul levered up onto his elbows, the boots of the nearer two beings filling up his field of vision. He started to frame the word "why" and took a breath in instead, projecting his question at Sidious through the Force and saving his breath for the punch the Twi'lek was swinging at him.
Maul caught it on his forearm and reared back to put some distance between him and the second human, who was raising a blaster just like their leader had.
He saw Sidious put a gentle hand on the leader's shoulder. The man flattened his back against the wall.
A twisted streak of Force lightning lanced through the connecting corridor and slammed into Maul. He felt his shoulder collide with the floor of the other ship, uneven rivets digging at and dragging into his skin. Two blaster shots landed on either side of him, striking sparks off of the floor and the wall. Maul heaved himself up again, looking back at Sidious, half furious and half imploring.
"He's yours now," Sidious said quietly to the leader, and Force-pushed that man too.
Maul saw the leader's pale palms coming toward him as the man fell over Maul and rolled, springing to his feet further inside the corridor of his own ship. The Twi'lek and the female human were momentarily shocked. Behind them, the airlock at the edge of Sidious's ship closed. There was no window: Maul could only fear the retracting presence of his master, and that same thrum of betrayal that he had always known was there.
It had been a prophecy, Maul knew now. He growled, baring his teeth. He just hadn't known who was going to fulfill that prophecy.
Either these people were going to kill him or he was going to fight them until the ship broke open and released them all into space.
He thought for a moment of asking his new shipmates who they were. The leader rounded on him, cursing in what Maul thought might be Correllian but still maintaining his stiff, upper-class demeanor. They were confusing, wondering whether the door to the ship had short-circuited, stunned by Sidious's powers. Maul shoved to his feet.
"Get back! Further inside!" The Twi'lek yelled, and Maul realized that the lights on their side of the airlock had just shifted from green to yellow. The leader was inside the ship fully, beyond the second set of doors, but his two underlings were still very close to the ship's skin.
And that change in light meant that Sidious' ship must be undocking.
Maul jumped toward the inner hallway, and slapped the door closed with the Force while he did it. He saw the two crewmembers flinch away from the outer door.
"Stop!" The leader yelled ineffectually.
The crewmembers had figured out rapidly that they were going to be exposed to space in a moment. Sidious's ship had started up: Maul could feel the engines humming.
He turned to the leader, reaching out to choke the man from two feet away. "Where are the escape pods?"
Maul squeezed tighter, imagining the ridges of the man's esophagus under his fingers, maybe even his teeth if this lasted too long, because those other two were -
The two crewmembers figured out quickly that they had an emergency seal inside the airlock. White gases were just beginning to escape the door seal as Sidious' ship pulled away when the human punched a button that shut the door on their side.
Maul slammed the leader against the wall. "Where?" he tried one more time, and the door to the airlock opened. The two came out guns blazing. One bolt hit Maul, burning what felt like a hole all the way through his right side. He wrenched the blaster out of the human's hand with the Force, smacking the Twi'lek with the gun on the way. The blaster clattered against the wall. There was a cross-corridor just a few steps away, but all Maul knew about the ship was that the escape pods didn't appear to be in this corridor.
(Worries wormed up inside him - even if he got in an escape pod, its very name an implication of relief, would Sidious' ship turn and shoot him down? Sidious did not want him.)
"This was a terrible deal!" The Twi'lek yelled.
"I didn't think - " The leader started, and Darth Maul grabbed him by the throat again.
"Where are we?" Maul asked. "What system?"
He threw the man against the other human, and both of them slumped against the wall. "We're in Hutt Space," the Twi'lek said, his voice shaking.
Maul's lip curled.
"Terrible deal," the leader repeated.
"What was the deal?"
The leader hesitated.
Maul picked up both of them and threw again. They skidded down the corridor, skulls slamming against the floor. He knew in the Force that one was dead and the other dying The Twi'lek lunged at him, raising his heavy blaster high above his shoulder to bring it down toward him like a club.
Maul grabbed his opponent's arm and twisted to the left, breaking the wrist with one of his own hands. The Twi'lek cried out, and Maul hit him in the face with the heel of the other hand, sending him reeling back toward the wall with a broken nose. The urge to kill them roiled in him, but he was reminded too vividly of Hondo's pirates. A gang could be useful. It was almost a pity, that he had learned to work in that way. Killing them would have been much more satisfying, much more quickly.
"Tell me why I was handed over to you," he said, backing the Twi'lek against the wall. Blood started running in dark streams out of his nose.
"This, this is a prison ship!" he said. "He told us you'd be - we thought it was routine!"
Maul narrowed his eyes. This was the second time in his life he had been on a prison ship and he had a lot less reason to stay on this one now. So Sidious had thrown him out again, intending to grind him between the gears of the big machine. The last time, it had been the conflict between Sidious and Plagueis that had required the sacrifice of Maul's time and body. This time, what? Maybe Sidious was simply done with him. This was not his war.
He felt suddenly tired, like weights had been strung from his arms and shoulders.
The Twi'lek, eyes wide, shook his head in confusion.
"Where is the prison you serve?"
"We're freelancers - Bandomeer! We're going to Bandomeer. This was going to be our last stop."
"And you've dropped out of hyperspace to meet my ship?"
"We're at the planet now. We were just going to meet...whoever your patron was...before we landed..."
"Had he paid you yet?"
"I don't know. Cap - the captain does that..."
Maul recalled what he could of the planet Bandomeer. Cut in half by one large continent and one large sea, it was a mining planet, if he remembered correctly. He had whole libraries of mnemonics with which he had learned about the galaxy, and Bandomeer was mining. He had an inkling that it was dangerous but not inhospitable. He air was breathable, but perhaps it had local infighting, or dangerous animals. It could have been worse. He could have been near Kril'dor or Mustafar.
Maul closed his lips over his teeth. He would play nice, now, to perhaps get this information faster.
"Where are the escape pods?"
The Twi'lek glanced to the left.
As soon as Maul thought that the captain might be sending reinforcements, though, he heard their footsteps ringing on the decking.
Maul reached out, grabbed a hunk of the Twi'lek's headdress on the back of his head, not caring whether it was cloth or skin he held. He held his other arm across his jailer's neck like a bar, hauling him backward. He kicked and struggled and smacked his head into Maul's nose. His vision blurred as pain burst across the bridge of his nose. He rolled his arm up, pressing down on the Twi'lek's throat, and felt him stop moving as he gasped for breath. When four similarly ragtag crew members careened around the corner where the captain had fallen, blasters in hand, Maul pushed the Twi'lek in front of him.
"Don't shoot!" Someone called almost immediately, a human man with blonde braided hair wrapped around his otherwise bald skull.
Maul looked down at him over the top of the Twi'lek's head.
The man got the idea.
Maul walked to the left-hand corridor and saw the escape pod doors there, the thick, ridged clamps around the doors a universal give-away. The message was clear. Let me go, or I kill him. He pushed further on the Twi'lek' throat for emphasis. He was more angry than scared: Maul could sense that in the Force. Maybe the Twi'lek would try to break away again. Maybe that would work out in the long run. Sow some confusion among the ranks. Maul had implied that he would make a deal, after all.
The other troops shuffled slowly backward as Maul approached the airlock. He pressed down on the release with the Force, and the door clicked as it opened.
"Don't come after me," he said.
The braided man's brow furrowed, and that as well as the Force warned that he was about to shoot. The Twi'lek wouldn't like that.
Maul was about to move anyway. He pushed the Twi'lek out of the way and backed into the escape pod as the blaster bolt impacted against the wall between them.
Hopefully, when that door closed he wouldn't have to think about these people any more
Hopefully, they wouldn't shoot him down.
More people emerged at the end of the hall. The Twi'lek straightened up and glared both at Maul and the braided man, raising his fisted blue hands in a shaky fighting stance.
Maul snatched the blaster out of the braided man's hand with the Force. As soon as it smacked into his palm he pumped the trigger, firing two bolts into the man's chest and one into the crowd. They returned fire, one bolt burying itself in his shoulder and others burning painlessly into his metal legs as he somersaulted backwards. His legs whirled, acting as a shield. When he landed, he could still walk. He took one step back into the escape pod and punched the release. It would take time for the computer to send the pod flinging out into space, time in which the jailers might rally to stop him. He crouched, tired, wanting to fall backward into the small gray jumpseats on either side of the spherical pod, but he had to be ready for whatever came through that door. The Force was crowded with frustration and malice, and he thought that he should have killed more of them. They seemed so incapable, so disorganized. This wasn't a prison ship: it was a bunch of pirates at best, the only transport Sidious could have found out here.
The ship lurched, and Maul looked at the computer lights behind him. The escape pod was falling away. He took one step to a seat and sat heavily, waiting for what would come next. They could shoot at him if they wanted.
That had, really, been nothing like Cog Hive Seven. It had not lasted as long, for starters, and had not been as difficult.
As revolutionary, maybe. It was just now hitting him that Sidious had truly abandoned him. Fear was his ally but he could take hints even through all of the fear. What now? Even after Lotho Minor he had some direction - find Savage, find Obi-Wan.
He could still find Obi-Wan.
The idea of facing the Jedi, though, just left him tired. Had he grown bored of revenge? The idea sloshed around in his head while the escape pod lights started a landing sequence.