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Boba, how has your illness progressed? Has my data been of use to you? My offer still stands.
–Taun We, former human clone development supervisor on Kamino, now Head of Clone Adjustment at Arkanian Micro
Galactic City spaceport, Coruscant
It was a planet of a trillion people, and Ben knew Coruscant well enough now to vanish within it.
He shut himself down in the Force long before the ﬂight from Bespin landed in Galactic City, more out of fear of implicating the people he intended to contact than worrying that Jacen would sense him and come after him. Knowing Jacen, he’d probably written Ben off as a weakling who couldn’t take it. Ben was consigned to the also-rans, minor disappointments Jacen would deal with when he came across them.
And Ben had his sources. They said Tahiri had pretty well taken his place at Jacen’s side.
At Galactic City Spaceport, the transport disgorged its long-haul passengers and Ben slipped through in the merging streams of bodies from all parts of the galaxy, a single ﬁsh in a multicolored shoal. With the easy obscurity of sun visor and a cap, he was just another young man out of millions in the Galactic City area. And maybe it was wishful thinking, but he thought he detected a faint growth of beard, more ﬂuff than anything, but it was still . . . different. He didn’t look like Lieutenant Skywalker.
Ben logged his identichip at the transit security control gate–bogus, naturally, one of a dozen he carried–and was still expecting a sudden wail of alarms for a good ten paces as he headed for the open walkway. But nothing happened. All he had to do now was remember to disguise his walk to defeat the gait recognition system on security cams, and then he could wander around at will. A small pebble in each boot changed his stride enough to cheat the software without crippling him. In his bag–a reversible bag–there were various changes of clothing. He got as far as the ﬁrst public refreshers by a branch of the Bank of Aargau and started adding to the deception.
That’s your problem, Jacen. You taught me all this. Or at least the GAG did.
In a cubicle, he changed his tunic, cap, and pants, turned the bag inside out to show its light brown side, and repacked. He changed shoes to ones with stack heels. Then he emerged a totally different person, walking differently and dressed differently. He’d keep doing that, and the security cams would have no pattern to track.
Lon Shevu’s girlfriend, Shula Palasj, worked for a haulage company. He’d start with her; no comlink calls, just in case. The GAG might be monitoring, the same way Ben had eavesdropped on Senators and politicians when he was in the Guard. He made his way to Shula’s workplace, doubling back occasionally just as Jori Lekauf had–
It hit him hard sometimes. Even when he was mired in grief over Mom, Lekauf would suddenly appear in his mind, and he’d feel it all over again. It wasn’t any less of a sense of loss than the one he felt for his mother, just different, and it could still make him stop breathing for a moment while he steadied himself. Lekauf had taught him about evading detection and tracking others, so this was another way of ensuring that his sacriﬁce to save Ben hadn’t been in vain; using that training to bring down Jacen was right.
Ben swung right into a walkway lined with clothing stores and tapcafs. What do I really mean by “bring him down”? He was sure now that he didn’t mean killing him. It wasn’t Ben’s job to be the judge. He was just getting a case together, and someone else would decide what to do with Jacen in the end.
What do you do with a deposed dictator? A Sith, too? And if Dad sorts him out and gets him back to the light side, how can I even be in the same room as him after what he’s done?
First things ﬁrst; and ﬁrst was proving a case against him, although Ben knew there were ordinary folk who’d say that Jacen was already guilty of enough, and that killing a Jedi didn’t actually take him into a new category of monstrosity. It was just a personal act of betrayal, and Ben knew he had to put that aside.
Most murders happen within families. Did I think we’d be any different?
Yes. I did. We’re Jedi.
Ben alternated between speeder bus–paying by cash credits, not traceable chips–and walking between docking stations. He was ﬁnding he didn’t need to affect a different walk now. The slightly higher heels had altered the angle of his spine, giving him twinges. An hour and a few changes of appearance later, he stood outside a branch depot of GalactiSend.
When he walked in, he couldn’t see a face he recognized. It was a busy place; beings of all kinds lined up waiting to dispatch parcels or held datapads in their hands, checking in consignments. He intercepted a droid in GalactiSend livery skimming through the reception area.
“Is Shula around?” he asked. “Shula Pakasj?”
“She no longer works here,” said the droid.
Well, that was sudden; it could only have happened recently, because the last time he’d spoken to Shevu, she’d still been here. “Thanks,” he said, and wandered out to amble along the walkway and rethink his strategy.
He’d have to go direct to Shevu’s apartment now. He hadn’t wanted to, just in case Shevu was under surveillance, but he still had the passcard, and if Shevu had changed the code . . . well, that wouldn’t slow Ben down much. He spent the next couple of hours taking a circuitous route to the apartment block. By the time he got to the last leg of the journey, he was tired and fed up with changing his clothing.
As in most apartment buildings in the capital, an array of crime prevention cams kept watch on the entrance. Ben visualized the sensors getting a sudden burst of intense light, using the Force to overload them for a moment to give him time to pass into the turbolift. All the monitoring system would see was a short period of dark shapes as the cam tried to compensate for the light levels its sensor told it were there. At the four hundredth ﬂoor, Ben slipped out into the corridor and stood outside Shevu’s door for a moment, trying to sense if anyone was inside.
It felt empty. Ben tried the passcard and it didn’t work. It took him a couple of seconds to Force-wipe the lock to its default setting and slip inside.
He’d stayed here before when Shevu had given him a bolt-hole so he wouldn’t have to go home and face Luke; there was a sense of familiarity about it that was at odds with the feeling that he was violating his friend’s privacy. But Shevu would understand. The clutter of personal possessions had gone–Shula’s collection of stuffed toy animals in unlikely colors, piles of holovids, the Heptalian embroidered throw that used to adorn a chair–and Ben wondered if the pair had just sold up and left, and he was now in a stranger’s home waiting for the new owner to walk in to ﬁnd a Jedi burglar sitting on the sofa.
A quick check of the closets and kitchen cupboards showed that Shevu still lived there. Those were his uniforms, his bolo-ball gear, the boxes of pepper-ﬂavored breadsticks he seemed to live on. But every trace of Shula was gone, even the holopics of the couple enjoying a vacation on Naboo.
Maybe they’d broken up. That would have been a surprise, but a job like the GAG put a strain on relationships, and under Jacen the GAG was getting harder for former CSF cops like Shevu to handle. Ben settled down facing the door, and resisted the temptation to comm his old captain to check which shift pattern he was on. That didn’t seem to count for much with the GAG lately, though. It was a round-the-chrono job.
Ben occupied his time by reading his datapad and speculating. Four hours later, Force senses on edge, he felt a familiar presence and rehearsed all the different ways he could start telling Shevu that Jacen was now out of control.
Do I mention Mom ﬁrst, or do I work up to that?
He decided to play it by ear. Footsteps paused outside the doors. The silence went on longer than Ben would have expected for Shevu to ﬁnd his passcard, and then the doors parted and Ben realized what a bad idea it was to surprise a trained cop.
The whir of a charging blaster made him leap up just as Shevu burst through the gap and ﬁred. Ben deﬂected the bolt, sending a stack of holozine pads smoking to the ﬂoor. “Sir, sir, it’s me! It’s Ben!” He held out both arms well away from his body. “Hold ﬁre!”
Shevu, panting and wide-eyed, was down on one knee by the cover of an armchair with his service blaster still leveled at Ben.
“Stang, Ben,” he snapped. His shoulders relaxed instantly and he shut his eyes for a moment. “Don’t do that. Call ahead, for goodness’ sake.”
“Sorry. Sorry about the damage, too.”
Shevu stepped back into the corridor and said something to a person Ben couldn’t see. The neighbors had stuck their heads out of their doorways to see what the noise was about, and Ben heard a few words like thought I had a burglar, but it’s a buddy before Shevu shut the doors behind him and stood looking down at Ben.
“It’s lucky you’re a Jedi.” Shevu seemed much more shaken than he would have been on a genuinely dangerous mission. “Or you’d have been a dead buddy.”
“I tried to ﬁnd Shula ﬁrst. I didn’t want to compromise you by comming you direct.”
Shevu picked up the scattered and melted holozines. Some had fused into a single lump. “You’re in trouble.”
“No . . . Jacen is.”
“Oh, that’s okay, then.” Shevu ﬂashed his eyebrows. “We’re all in the poodoo. We’ve been told you’re not GAG personnel any longer. Jacen didn’t say why you’d left, but when he suggested that we tell him if we ever saw you, I reached my own conclusions. It’s kind of hard to ignore the mayhem going on with the Jedi Council.” Shevu checked himself as if he’d just made a terrible gaffe. “What kind of buddy am I? I’m sorry about your mother, Ben, I really am. That was thoughtless of me.”
Ben took a breath and dived straight in. The cue was there. “It was Jacen who killed her.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
It wasn’t the casual way Shevu said it that shocked Ben as much as the fact he said it at all. Shevu wasn’t appalled. He wasn’t even mildly surprised.
“Come on, Ben, you know rules of evidence as well as I do. I’ve got nothing solid.” Shevu checked the window locks and rechecked the door, as if he was used to watching his back these days. Then he went into the kitchen, and the noise of clacking plates, running water, and snapping cupboard catches drifted into the living room with the sudden scent of fresh caf. “It’s got his ﬁngerprints all over it, though–not that Jedi leave any, of course. He’d be the ﬁrst suspect whose collar I’d feel, believe me.”
“My folks and the other Jedi think it was Alema Rar.”
“A crazy Dark Jedi with a grudge against Aunt Leia. She liked using poison darts, and we know that was . . . the cause of death.” If Ben avoided personalizing the crime for just a few hours while he was working, he could hold it together. I’m not forgetting you, Mom, I just have to do this. “Alema’s dead now, so we can’t corroborate anything.”
Shevu snorted in mock amusement. “You have to learn not to mislay suspects, Ben. It’s a bummer when it comes to squaring the custody records.”
“She slugged it out with one of the Jedi sent after her. It was her or us, really. She kept trying to kill Aunt Leia.”
“That explains why you look so much older these days.” Shevu made that huh noise again. Ben knew he disapproved of boys of Ben’s age being sent into live-ﬁre situations, but he didn’t understand that it was different for Jedi. “Okay, Jacen is the prime suspect. A couple of days ago, he killed a lieutenant on the Anakin Solo, just like that, in full view of the bridge crew. He snapped Lieutenant Tebut’s neck without even touching her, and threw Captain Nevil across the deck.” Shevu emerged from the kitchen with two steaming cups. “See what I mean about ﬁngerprints?”
Ben should have been shocked. He tried hard, but all he had was a sinking feeling that the only beings who couldn’t see Jacen for what he was were Jedi, and his family at that. Jacen was leaving a trail of bodies.
“He even tortured me,” Ben said, realizing it sounded self-pitying as soon as it left his lips. At least he was still alive. “Dad fought with him and stopped me killing him.”
Shevu’s face was instant cold control, as if he was reining in an outburst. “He should have let you. Jacen Solo’s a nutter. A psychopath.”
“Jacen’s not mad. He’s a Sith. You know what that is?”
“It’s a Jedi who uses only the dark side of the Force. Not a Jedi at all, really.”
“A bad guy. But not illegal. Wrong cult.”
“Yes. I suppose.”
“Okay, crazy, Sith, ethically alternative, whatever you want to call it–Jacen demonstrates a tendency to extreme personal violence, and my cop’s gut tends to take notice of that. What’s your theory on your mother?”
Ben could deal in basics with Shevu. “Jacen was in the right place, he had the means to do it, and I think his motive was that she found out he was a Sith. I don’t have evidence linking him to the scene except he found me with her body, and he shouldn’t have been able to. The only thing I can pin down is location.”
“Crime scene’s compromised now, I suppose.”
“I recorded it.”
“Good man. We’ll make a CSF detective of you yet.”
“I’ve been telling everyone Jacen did it, but with Alema ﬁrmly in the frame, they all think it’s my grief talking. I suppose it’s easier to think the perpetrator wasn’t a member of the family. So I need your help, sir.”
“Drop the sir. It’s Lon.” Shevu slurped his caf. “The vast majority of murders are carried out by people who are close to each other–family, lovers, close friends. Emotions run high, they have easy access, one thing leads to another . . . you get the idea. The random homicidal maniac is still pretty rare, even in the lower levels of Galactic City. And yeah, I’ll help you. This is a murder investigation.”
Ben never expected otherwise. He’d judged Shevu right, but he was also putting the man in danger. “Can I ask what happened to Shula? Looks like you scrubbed the place clean of her.”
“I sent her back to her parents on Vaklin, for her own safety. We got married in secret and then I got her off Corsucant, and got rid of everything here linking her to me.”
“Because people who oppose Jacen Solo end up a bit dead, and I’m building a ﬁle on him. The situation’s going to get a lot worse. Once I got Shula to somewhere safe, my only dilemma was whether I wanted to see him impeached and charged by the Alliance, or whether it would be more satisfying to see Fett or the Jedi Council get him. I think Fett’s revenge might be more fun.”
Shevu’s dislike of Jacen’s methods had been obvious since the time Jacen had killed Fett’s daughter under interrogation. Ben hadn’t realized it had developed into full-blown hatred. “Let’s do it together, then.”
“Whatever it takes, and I’ll stay on the inside as long as I possibly can.” Shevu looked resigned. “And he likes to have me around, even on the Anakin Solo.”
Ben wondered when his father would notice he hadn’t checked in, and start asking where he was. He’d switched off the comlink, just in case Luke commed him and the signal was spotted. He’d tell Dad soon. He felt better about that now; he had ways of expressing it–just tying up loose ends, Dad, just making sure we didn’t miss anything, it’s okay, Lon Shevu’s stopping me doing anything crazy–but at that moment it made him realize that Dad would want Shevu to help, to be a spy in Jacen’s inner circle. And Shevu would agree to it, because he couldn’t get justice from the GA for the foreseeable future, and he was too decent and honest to turn to the Confederation.
Everything Jacen touched became corrupted. Ben took a deep breath, downed some caf, and concentrated on not letting his anger about that taint and all the people it was poisoning–boil over.
“Let’s pool our resources.” Shevu slammed his cup down on the low table and propped a blank holochart against the chair opposite. He took a stylus and began drawing columns on one side and the beginnings of a chart on the other. It was how the CSF detectives worked on a crime, Ben knew. “Let’s write down everything we know . . . discreetly, of course.”
Ben tried to imagine how utterly miserable it must have been for Shevu and Shula to marry and then have to part. He got the feeling that Shevu had been in a rush to marry her so that if anything happened to him, she would be taken care of as a service widow. It was depressing, but folks had to think that way these days.
Jacen really knew how to tear families apart.
Admiral’s private launch, en route for N’Zoth
Niathal was never convinced that Jacen wouldn’t change the locks when she turned her back on him, but she refused to be tainted with the culture of paranoia that she could see developing in the civil service and among Senators.
Even so, she broke her journey to N’Zoth and switched vessels two, three, four times, on the pretext of inspections across a number of ships from auxiliaries to troop carriers, then left in her private launch alone, without a pilot. There was healthy unparanoia, and then there was just asking for trouble. She could still manage to pilot a vessel without ten ofﬁcers to carry out her every command. It was the safest way. She rather hoped that the buzz around the ﬂeet would suggest that Old Iceberg Face was having secret assignations with a lover. It was always a handy story to ﬂoat.
And she had to see Luke Skywalker.
It was the ﬁrst time she’d been completely on her own, without crew on the other side of a thin bulkhead or security close to her quarters, for what seemed like years. It was probably a matter of months. She’d become wary of who she was seen talking to, who she commed, and who she ate lunch with; even Senator G’Sil, a man she had been relatively close to in political terms, just acknowledged her in the corridors and went on his way. The Security Council had no real function now beyond worrying what Jacen was going to do to it, and he certainly didn’t consult it; he seemed to need reminding that he had a duty to consult her.
Well, she wasn’t consulting him now. She took up position at the rendezvous point, ﬁfteen thousand kilometers off N’Zoth, checking her scanners for vessels and wondering if it was always going to be this way. The Rebels had lived like this for twenty years trying to overthrow the Empire. It seemed daunting.
She was joint Chief of State, and here she was fretting as if she were helpless.
“Stang . . .” she said aloud, disgusted with herself. “It’ll only be twenty years if you let it.”
Luke Skywalker was late. She kept checking her scanner, increasing the range and looking for a wider spectrum of signals, and feared the worst right up to the moment the launch’s proximity alarm sounded and she nearly ejected.
The short-range comlink buzzed. “Admiral Niathal, permission to come aboard . . .”
“Master Skywalker, you almost gave me a cardiac arrest.”
“StealthX. No point taking chances.”
“I’ll tell the manufacturer that they work just ﬁne, shall I?”
The pragmatist in Niathal told her to make a note that stealth technology like that was great as long as the people you gave it to were always on your side. The ﬂeet had even found it hard to search for Mara Skywalker’s downed StealthX; it was a two-edged sword. She waited until all the docking lights showed green and then opened the aft hatch to the tiny cargo bay.
The top canopy of the StealthX was wedged into a vacuum-tight docking skirt that made it look as if it had rammed the launch from the rear at a ninety-degree angle, canopy ﬁrst. Luke dropped out of the ﬁghter’s open cockpit and landed on his feet.
“I braked too hard,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Remind me to ask Incom to ﬁt a docking tube.” Luke grasped her hand as if he was grateful to see her. “Sorry, I just don’t take chances these days.”
“None of us do. Thank you for seeing me.”
“This is mutual, Admiral. I’ll have a favor to ask of you, too.”
“I’ll be brief, then. If you haven’t already heard, Jacen has taken to killing members of his wardroom in full view of others. Using Force methods.”
Luke shut his eyes for a moment. He looked older than Niathal recalled, with noticeable folds in his cheeks and a dull gray tone to his skin. She dared think something unthinkable about Jacen, that he might have been behind Mara’s death–no, that was an outrage too far, even for him–and waited for Luke to say something. He didn’t.
“I know he’s fairly cavalier about killing,” she said, “but I suspect I was right in assuming this would mark some threshold for you, too.”
“Depending on how you look at it, then, it could lead to some advantage, and poor Lieutenant Tebut’s life won’t have been spent in vain–Jacen may lose the loyalty of his troops. Or it could simply consolidate a reign of fear.”
Luke rubbed one hand across his face, brow to chin. “I think I recall how that morale-boosting technique played out in my father’s generation.”
“Well, I still have a duty to the Alliance and my personnel, and I’m still prepared to pass intelligence to you provided you can use it to remove him. I don’t care what you do with him–restraint-jacket therapy at some quiet monastic retreat, or shove him out the nearest air lock– but I want him gone.” That sounded harsh, but Niathal wasn’t sure how far humans would go to bring wayward relatives into line. “And out of ofﬁce. Another coup is impossible at the moment, so the best I can achieve is to help neutralize his impact on the GA and hope I don’t lose the lives of too many good beings doing it.”
She wouldn’t have been the ﬁrst ofﬁcer faced with a terrible choice when her leader pursued a course of mutual destruction. Her loyalty was to the common good of the GA, not to Jacen Solo.
Hang on, I’m talking and thinking as if I’m his deputy, not his joint and equal colleague. What am I doing– absolving myself of responsibility? I helped put him in power.
“I have Jedi working hard to seize him, Admiral,” said Luke. “Do you think he’s insane?”
“No.” Niathal had no hesitation. “I’ve seen too many perfectly sane beings become utterly corrupted by power. Jacen’s not insane. He’s just had his own way once too often, and now he can’t see the world any other way.”
“Do you know what I mean by a Sith?”
“I’ve heard the term. But I know nothing about them.”
“They’re Force-users who prefer the dark side. Like Pal-patine.”
“Oh . . . I see. Fallen Jedi.”
Luke pressed his lips into a little humorless smile and looked away for a moment. “Oddly, that’s just what the Mandalorians call them. Their word means ex-Jedi, although that’s not always the case.”
“And does this make any difference to how we approach him? Does he have different powers from regular Jedi?”
Luke looked strangely embarrassed. She wasn’t sure why. “Not really. He’s just very strong, and he has an ability to use a battle meditation technique that gives him a remarkable awareness of the battleﬁeld.”
Ah, I noticed that. “He has a young woman called Tahiri Veila running his errands now.”
“Which brings me to Ben.” Luke moved closer to Niathal and looked into her face, which required some head tilting on Luke’s part because of the set of a Mon Cal’s eyes. He clasped her hand again as if he were searching for a pulse. “Apologies, Admiral, we’re all scared of our shadows these days. I might be putting a man’s life at risk, so I have to be certain. Ben has gone off again, and I believe he’s back on Coruscant. He thinks I don’t know, but he’s probably trying to build a case against Jacen for killing Mara.”
Niathal almost sighed with relief. So she wasn’t the only one who thought Jacen could kill his own relatives. “If I see him, I’ll make sure he gets every assistance to stay out of harm’s way. Especially if he goes after Jacen to take revenge.”
“He already tried that, after Jacen tortured him.”
“Just when I thought the man couldn’t get any worse . . .”
“Revenge isn’t the Jedi way, and Ben’s come to terms with that, but stubborn persistence is Ben’s way, and he may come to your attention. He might be with Captain Shevu. They were close.”
“You trust Shevu?”
“Yes. There’s such a thing as Force certainty, and I have it in that young man.”
Niathal revised her view of the GAG captain. His attitude was courageous dissent, then. She’d have to persuade him out of that. “A GAG insider would be helpful to us all.”
“We become exploitative for all the right reasons, don’t we?”
“Until next time, then.”
Luke swung back into the StealthX cockpit in a gymnastic move that would have taxed a much younger man, and braced his body using his knees while the seat restraints closed around him. Then the canopy closed, he gave her a thumbs-up gesture as if he were just an ordinary pilot taking a ﬁghter for a test ﬂight, and the safety bulkhead closed to release the vacuum in the docking skirt. He was gone.
Poor Ben, Niathal thought. She wished him luck, and decided she would make some for him if she got the chance.
No, Jacen. You won’t get away with this. Not in my navy.