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Chief of State’s Briefing Office, Coruscant
The adviser’s voice was like the droning of insects, and Darth Caedus knew what to do about insects–ignore them or step on them.
But in this case, he couldn’t afford to ignore the drone. The adviser, whatever her failings as a speaker, was providing him with critical data. Nor could he raise a boot to crush the source of the drone, not with Admiral Cha Niathal, his partner in the coalition government running Coruscant and the Galactic Alliance, sitting on the other side of the table, not with aides hovering and holocam recorders running.
To make matters worse, the adviser would soon wrap up, and inevitably she would address him by the name he so disliked, the name he had been born with, the name he would soon abandon. And then he would once again feel, and have to resist, the urge to crush her.
She did it. The blue-skinned Omwati female, her feathery hair dyed a somber black and her naval uniform freshly pressed, looked up from her datapad. “In conclusion, Colonel Solo–”
Caedus gestured to interrupt her. “In conclusion, the withdrawal of the entire Hapan ﬂeet from Alliance forces removes at least twenty percent of our naval strength and puts us into a game of withdrawal and entrenchment if we are to keep the Confederation from overrunning us. And the treachery of the Jedi in abandoning us at Kuat is further causing a loss of hope among the segments of the population who believe that their involvement means something.”
“Thank you. That will be all.”
She rose, saluted, and left silently, her posture stiff. Caedus knew she feared him, that she had been struggling to maintain her composure all through the brieﬁng, and he approved. Fear in subordinates meant instant compliance and extra effort on their part.
Usually. Sometimes it meant treachery.
Niathal addressed the other aides present. “We are done here. Thank you.”
When the ofﬁce door whooshed closed behind the last of them, Caedus turned to Niathal. The Mon Calamari, her white admiral’s uniform almost gleaming, sat silently, regarding him. The stare from her bulbous eyes was no more forbidding than usual, but Caedus knew the message that they held: You could ﬁx this mess by resigning.
Those were not her words, however. “You do not look well.” Hers was the gravelly voice so common to her species, and in it there was none of the sympathy that Admiral Ackbar had been able to project. Niathal was not expressing concern for his health. She was suggesting he was not ﬁt for duty.
And she was almost right. Caedus hurt everywhere. Mere days before, he had waged the most ferocious, most terrible lightsaber duel of his life. In a secret chamber aboard his Star Destroyer, the Anakin Solo, he had been torturing Ben Skywalker to harden the young man’s spirit, to better prepare Ben for life as a Sith. But he had been caught by Ben’s father, Luke Skywalker.
That ﬁght . . . Caedus wished he had a holorecording of it. It had gone on for what had felt like forever. It had been brutal, with the advantage being held ﬁrst by Luke, then by Caedus, in what he knew had been brilliant demonstrations of lightsaber technique, of raw power within the Force, of subtle Jedi and Sith skills. For all his pain, Caedus felt a swelling of pride–not just that he had survived that duel, but that he had waged it so well.
At the end, Caedus had lost a position of advantage– Luke had slipped free of the poison-injecting torture vines with which Caedus had been strangling him–when Ben had driven a vibroblade deep into Caedus’s back, punching clean through a shoulder blade, nearly reaching his heart.
That had ended the ﬁght. Caedus should have been killed immediately. For reasons he did not understand, Luke and Ben had spared his life and departed. It was a mistake that would cost Luke.
Bearing dozens of minor and major wounds, including the vibroblade puncture, a lightsaber-scored kidney, and a ﬁerce scalp wound, Caedus had been treated and resumed command of the Anakin Solo, only to experience more injury–emotional injury, this time. In Kashyyyk space, his Fifth Fleet had been surrounded by Confederation forces. Late-arriving Hapan forces could have rescued him . . . but the Hapan Queen Mother, Tenel Ka, his comrade and lover, had betrayed him. Swayed by the treacherous persuasion of Caedus’s own parents, Han and Leia Solo, she had demanded a price for her continued military support of the Alliance, and that price had been his surrender.
Of course he had refused. And, of course, he had battered his way out of the encirclement, leading the remnants of the Fifth Fleet back to the safety of Coruscant.
So when Niathal said he did not look well, she was correct. He keenly felt his worst injury. Not the vibroblade wound, not the scalp tear, not the kidney damage–all three were healing. All three were the kind of pain that strengthened him.
It was the wound to his heart that plagued him. Tenel Ka had turned on him. Tenel Ka, the love of his life, the mother of his daughter Allana, had forsaken him.
Niathal’s severe expression didn’t waver. You could ﬁx this mess by resigning.
He gave her a tight smile. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m recovering quickly. And I have a plan. We’ll need to follow the recommended protocol of a ﬁghting retreat for the next few days . . . at which time the Hapans will come back into the war on our side. Our job today is to ﬁgure out how best to employ them when they return to the battleﬁeld. Since the Confederation thinks they are staying on the fence, we can utilize the Hapans for one devastating surprise attack. We need to decide where that attack will take place.”
“You are sure the Hapans will rejoin us.”
“I guarantee it. I have an operation in motion that will ensure it.”
“What resources do you need to carry it out?”
“Only those I already have.”
“Have I seen details of your operation?”
Caedus shook his head. “If I don’t forward a ﬁle, no one can intercept it. If I don’t speak a word of detail, no one can overhear it. Too much is riding on getting the Hapans back for me to wreck things by divulging details too freely.”
Niathal remained silent. A more incendiary personality would have taken offense at Caedus’s implied questioning of her ability to handle secret matters. Niathal chose not to recognize it as an insult. She merely turned to the next matter on her agenda. “Speaking of secrets . . . Belindi Kalenda at Intelligence reports that Doctor Seyah has been pulled off the Centerpoint Station project. Seyah reported that he had come under suspicion of being a GA spy.”
“Which, of course, he is. What’s his new posting, and can he get us any useful information from there?”
Niathal shook her head in the slow, somber way of the Mon Cals. “Kalenda ordered him out. He is already back on Coruscant.”
Caedus resisted the urge to break something. “She’s an idiot. And Seyah is an idiot. He could have stayed, weathered whatever investigation they brought against him, and begun feeding us information again.”
“Kalenda was certain that he would be arrested, investigated, and executed.”
“Then he should have stayed in place until arrested! Who knows what his cowardice has cost us? Even reporting on ship and troop movements could provide us with the critical advantage in a battle.” Caedus sighed and pulled out his datapad. Snapping it open, he typed a brief note to himself.
Niathal rose and leaned over so that her bulbous eyes could peer, upside down, at his screen. “What is this?”
“A note to myself to have Seyah arrested. He provided Kalenda with false information that led her to extract him from a danger zone, which is the equivalent of desertion under ﬁre. He will confess. He will be executed.”
“Ah.” Niathal resumed her seat, but offered no protest.
Caedus appreciated that. Niathal was clearly growing to understand that Caedus’s approach was best–it kept subordinates motivated, kept deadwood out of the ranks. “What next?”
“Bimmisaari and some of her allied worlds in the Halla sector just announced they were defecting to the Confederation.”
Caedus shook his head dismissively. “Not a signiﬁcant loss.”
“No, but it’s more unsettling as the possible ﬁrst sign of a trend. Intelligence has detected more communications trafﬁc between Corellia and the Imperial Remnant, and between Corellia and the worlds of the Corporate Sector, which may be nothing more than an increased recruitment effort by the Confederation. Or it may have been initiated by the other parties, a prelude to negotiations and more defections.”
“Also irrelevant.” Caedus felt a ﬂash of irritation. Yes, these were matters that the joint Chiefs of State needed to address, but they would all be resolved when the Hapes Consortium came back into the fold. “Anything else?”
When the meeting was done and Niathal had departed, Caedus remained in the ofﬁce. He stared at the blank walls. They soothed him. He needed soothing.
Inside, he was ablaze with anger, resentment, a sense of betrayal–all the emotions that fueled a Sith.
In the days since his ﬁght with Luke, he had come to the realization that he was all alone in the universe. It was like the plaintive wail of a ﬁve-year-old: Nobody loves me. He could manage a smile at just how self-pitying it sounded.
But it was true. Everyone who had once known love for him now hated him. His father and mother, his twin Jaina, Tenel Ka, Luke, Ben . . . Intellectually, as he had embraced the Sith path, he had known that it would happen. One by one, those who cared about him would be peeled away like the outer layers of his skin, leaving him a mass of bloody, agonized nerves.
He had known it . . . but experiencing it was another matter. His body might be healing, but his spirit was in greater pain every day.
Everyone he had loved now hated him . . . except Allana. And he would not allow Tenel Ka to turn his daughter against him. He would cut down anyone who stood between him and his child.
Sanctuary Moon of Endor, Abandoned Imperial Outpost
Years earlier, before Jacen Solo had been born–before, in fact, Luke and Leia knew they were siblings, before Leia had confessed even to herself that she was in love with Han–Yoda had told Luke that electrical shocks, applied at different intensities and at irregular but frequent intervals, would prevent a Jedi from concentrating, from channeling the Force. They could render a Jedi helpless.
But Yoda had never told Luke that emotional shocks could do the same thing.
They could. And just as no amount of self-control would allow a Jedi to ignore the effects of electrical shocks on his body, neither could self-control keep Luke safely out of his memories. Every few moments a memory, freshly applied like a current-bearing wire on his skin, would yank him out of the here and now and propel him into the recent past.
Boarding the Anakin Solo. Finding Jacen torturing– torturing–Luke’s only child, his son Ben. The duel that followed, Luke against the nephew he’d once loved . . . the nephew who now commanded Master-level abilities in the Force, though he had not been, and never would be, elevated to the rank of Jedi Master.
And no pain Luke suffered in that ﬁght was equal to Ben demanding the right to ﬁnish Jacen. That demand had brought Luke to where he was now, sitting cross-legged on the ﬂoor of an upper-story room of an abandoned Imperial outpost, staring through a wide transparisteel viewport at a lush Endor forest he was barely aware of, his body healing but his spirit sick and injured even after all these days.
Shocked almost beyond understanding by Ben’s blood-thirst, Luke had prevented his son from executing a death blow against Jacen. Nor had Luke chosen to ﬁnish Jacen himself. He had led Ben in sudden ﬂight from the Anakin Solo–a ﬂight to prevent Ben from taking the next, possibly irreversible, step toward the dark side that Jacen had planned for the boy.
But was it the right decision? At that moment, it had seemed like the only possible choice. Ben’s future, his decency, had teetered in the balance. Had either Skywalker killed Jacen, Ben would have fallen toward the dark.
Some people came back from the dark. Luke had. Others didn’t. Ben becoming a lifelong agent of evil had not been a certainty.
What was certain was that Jacen was alive. And now, as Jacen furthered his plans for galactic conquest, more people would die. They would die by the thousands at least, probably by the tens or hundreds of thousands, perhaps by the millions.
And Luke would be responsible.
So had it been the right decision? Ben against thousands of lives?
Logic said no–no, unless in falling to the dark side, Ben became as great a force for evil as Jacen Solo was or their mutual grandfather, Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader, had been.
Emotion said yes–yes, unless Ben interpreted Luke’s refusal to kill as a sign of weakness, and that decision fostered contempt in him, contempt for Luke and the light side of the Force. That could push him along Jacen’s path despite Luke’s intent.
And either way, those thousands would die.
A translucent white rectangle, tall and very thin, appeared on the viewport ahead of Luke. It rapidly broadened, revealing itself as the reﬂection of a door opening in the wall behind him. Jedi Master Kyp Durron stood in the doorway, his brown robes rumpled, his long graying-brown hair damp with sweat and unkempt. His expression, normally one of mild amusement layered over what was usually interpreted as a trace of cockiness, was now more somber–neutrality concealing concern. “Grand Master?”
“Come in.” Luke did not turn to face Kyp. The view of Endor’s wilderness was soothing.
Kyp moved in and the door shut behind him, eliminating the illuminated rectangle from Luke’s ﬁeld of vision. “The door chimes do not appear to be working on this passageway, and you were not responding to your comlink . . .”
Luke frowned. “I didn’t hear it. Maybe the battery is dead.” He pulled his comlink from the tunic of his white Tatooine-style work suit. The ready light on the small cylindrical object was still lit. A quick examination showed that the device had been shut off. Puzzled, Luke turned it on again and tucked it away.
“Just a routine report. The StealthXs are spread, by wing pairs, across a broad area, under camouﬂage netting.
Many of the pilots found useful landing spots in areas where debris from the second Death Star came down and created burn zones. The younglings are packed into two large chambers, acting as dormitories, on this outpost, but a reconnaissance team of Jedi Knights has found a cavern system not too far away that will provide ample space for a training facility . . . and some defense against orbital sensors. The Jedi Knights are relocating a nest of rearing spiders there. Once they’re certain the spiders and their eggs are all gone, we’ll begin transferring the younglings.”
“Good. But don’t put too much effort into making those caverns livable. We’ll be leaving Endor before many more weeks pass.”
Kyp nodded. “Otherwise, we seem to be dealing well with the local Ewoks.”
“Any we know?”
“No . . . Wicket’s family group’s territory is still limited to areas south of here. But your idea of bringing in See-Threepio as an interpreter is paying off. The local clan seems to like him.”
Kyp did not immediately reply, so Luke turned to give him a look. The younger Master seemed to be pondering his next words. Luke cocked an eyebrow at him. “Anything else?”
“There’s been some question about our next action against Jacen.”
“Ah, yes.” Luke turned to look out the viewport again. “I don’t know. Why don’t you arrange that?”
There was a long silence, then: “Yes, Grand Master.”
The rectangle of light reappeared. Kyp’s reﬂection moved into it and it closed again, leaving Luke in silence and peace.
And confronted by the memory of Jacen, bloodied and battered almost beyond recognition, crawling away from him, Ben’s vibroblade lodged in his back. Ben’s face appeared before him, mouthing the words, This kill is mine.