It had all been for nothing.
Bail Organa sat in the darkened halls of the Imperial Senate Floor and listened to the edict being passed that would soon affect billions of lives across the galaxy. With the failure to get their hands on his daughter to force his vote to accede with their wishes for segregation, Palpatine had resorted to the time and true method of gaining his votes. Bribery. Senators whom Bail had believed would support his condemnation of the racist policy had suddenly conducted abrupt bout faces. Bail was uncertain what form of coercion was used but in the end, it mattered little for the results were the passing of the act that would make non-human life forms second class citizens. Considering much of the Imperial Senate was compose of human senators, the non-human citizens of the Empire went completely underrepresented.
Palpatine was never present at these sessions but Bail could imagine him in his dark fortress, sniggering in delight at the victory he had managed to achieve, despite the fact that Bail had kept Leia from this clutches. There would be appeals from many quarters to rescind the law Bail expected but those voices would either be crushed by oppression or disappear in the night. Palaptine had already proven that he was prepared to kill to get what he want. He sometimes wondered what made him the exception that Palpatine was prepared to thread lightly around him. Bail hoped whatever that mysterious element was that kept the Emperor from eliminating him, it would remain indefinitely.
If there was any consolation to be had in the loss and in truth, there was not very much at all when one considered what the future held for the billions of non-human life forms that populated the galaxy, it was the fact that at least now his daughter could be returned to him. He had never thought how large the halls of the palace he dwelt actually were until Leia was gone. Since Padme's death, Leia had been the one thing that made his fight worthwhile, that gave him the strength to go on.
Thus, for the present moment, his focus was returning his daughter home. She had been staying with the rebels in part of Wild Space called the Territory, under the command of Mary Travis herself. Bail knew Travis by reputation and was glad that if his child were to seek sanctuary, it was within the purview of such capable hands. The Hero of Jofa's fame was known throughout the Empire, although not everyone would call her a hero. He was certain the Jofans would call her a criminal but then according to rumor, the Jofan incident was what had caused Travis to change her loyalties in the first place.
Prior to her departure, Bail and Rayne had already set the pieces in place for the return of Leia to Alderaan without rousing the Emperor's suspicion that the Princess had been anything but a genuine kidnapping. Naturally, scapegoats had already been selected to take the blame. Bail had opted for Laurel Chase' Black Sun organization. While not as blatantly brutal as the Hutt gang lords, the Black Sun was growing in prominence and preparing to give Nal Hutta some serious competition. Fortunately, not much was known about the organization itself thus the blame of the kidnapping had enough ambiguity to pass close inspection.
For the moment, it was safer that Leia remained where she was.
A few days from now, when Palpatine was still giddy from his victory and busying himself and Vader for exploitation of the new powers granted him by the act, Bail would send word to Rayne to bring his daughter home. He only wished that he could have told her that her few days away had been worth something important, but with the segregation bill now a reality, all he could do was be grateful she was too young to understand what dark cloud had fallen over the world they knew. However, he had to confess the victory of the segregation bill had incited his fighting spirit against the Empire. Unfortunately, Bail was certain that this was only the opening chapter in Palpatine's reign of terror.
Secretly as he heard the voting end and was certain that no matter where he was at the moment, Palpatine was probably lording over his triumph, Bail made a secret vow to increase his involvement in the Rebel Alliance. This would be fought, he told himself resolutely.
Whatever the cost to himself and to Alderaan, it had to be fought.
Days followed the resolution of the segregation act and new of the momentous decision had already swept across the expanse of the Empire, inspiring outrage and dismay by non-humans and humans alike. Such demands against the unjust laws to be repealed were met with equally extreme displays of force to quiet the angry voices. The Empire moved in with force. The memory of what had happened to the Caamasi who had stood against such injustices were fresh in the memories of those who saw the Imperial war machine bearing down on them. Just the threat of genocide was enough to quiet many of the discontented voices. For those who would not be silenced, their end came far swifter and with shocking finality. The Rebel Alliance from every hidden enclave condemned the actions but was nonetheless powerless to prevent the slaughter.
Despite all this, Bail Organa wanted his daughter home and after two weeks following the historical edict, Buck Wilmington finally prepared the Rogue for the trip to Alderaan. The pilot was happy to be back in the cockpit of his beloved ship after spending more time than he liked on the swamp world of Dagobah where he was forced to leave Vin after Chris had been well enough to travel to the planet himself. The Jedi had remained on Dagobah, relieving Buck of the duty of keeping an eye on Vin while he conducted his Jedi training. Although watching Yoda train Vin was fascinating, Buck soon found himself to out of his depth to understand fully what master was attempting to pass onto his latest student. As for the Jedi Master himself, Buck found that Yoda left an indelible impression in his mind when the Jedi claimed that he was a creature who at peace with himself and ought to be envied. Buck was not entirely certain what that meant but did not complain since Yoda had meant it as a compliment.
"Are we almost ready to go?" The lovely form of Princess Leia's bodyguard slipped into the confines of the small space that made up the cockpit, carrying the child in her arms.
Buck looked over his shoulder and admired the approach of the lovely young woman, who even clad in a shapeless red dress that swung around her ankles managed to look utterly mystifying and radian as she cradled her young charge. He supposed that made her so effective as Leia's body guard because her looks were so disarming to those who might attempt to harm the young child. He had little contact with the woman while she had been staying at the Alliance, but judging by the looks she and Nathan seemed to exchange whenever neither thought they were looking at each other, it was just as well. Buck had no intention of interfering a budding relationship between the Alliance officer and the young lady, especially when his animal magnetism was likely to steal her away at a moment's notice.
Sometimes, it was such a curse.
"Soon enough," Buck grinned at her and stood up from his chair as she slid into the passenger seat. Lie was giggling playfully in her care, finding amusement in a strand of the lady's jet colored hair. "I've just got to do a few things and we'll be ready to go."
"That is good," Rayne eased back into the seat. "The little one misses her father."
"Well that's no surprise," he retorted gaining Rayne's permission before he liberated Leia off Rayne's lap. "If you were my little girl, I couldn't rest until you were home with me."
Leia was charmed and immediately grabbed the pilot by his bristly moustache, tugging experimentally before chortling at the feel of it against her palm.
"You are good with children," Rayne commented. "Have you any of your own?"
"Me?" Buck almost balked at the thought. "No ma'am. Not yet. Not for a long while," he declared staunchly so that there could no be any confusion on that fact before looking down at Leia and feeling a little smile tug at the corner of his lips, not to mention his heartstrings, when he saw the girl beaming up at him. "She just has a soft spot for rogues and scoundrels, don't you Leia?"
"Hey Buck, we ready to go?" Nathan asked, starting to enter the cockpit when he stopped short at the realisation that Buck was not alone. Upon seeing each other, the both of them averted their eyes as if meeting each other's gaze was some sin from which there was no redemption if committed. Buck almost rolled his eyes in disbelief, having seen this behavior enough in his lifetime to know that something was going on between the captain and the young woman. There seemed to be an underlying sexual chemistry between them both that neither was willing to admit to and Buck wondered what they were so afraid of.
With Nathan it was easy enough to guess, it was the loss of his wife. Buck had been through the trials of such loss with Chris to know that it was not easy to overcome. However, he had always thought Nathan appeared to be capable of handling it a lot better than Chris, mostly because the captain did not seem to believe that not everything in the universe was within his powers to change. The young woman's issues were no less complex, Buck suspected. Although she seemed level headed and sure of herself, Buck had the impression that her experience did not extend too much into relationship and supposed that someone's who mission was to protect a small child, it gave little opportunity to cultivate friendships.
"I've got to go check on a few things," Buck answered casually as Nathan lingered by the doorway to the cockpit, almost afraid to enter. Rayne in the mean time had taken to staring at the cockpit controls with equal nonchalance, pretending not to ignore him or that his presence was uncomfortable in any way. The little drama was too much for Buck who pushed himself to his feet whilst still holding Leia in his arms. The child had shifted his interest from his moustache to his shirt collar and was tugging at the soft fabric. "How about it your worship?" He looked down at Leia. "Want to take the Buck Wilmington special tour?"
The child shook her head in response uttering a few nonsensical words which were meant to express her acceptance of his invitation. "You don't mind do you?" Buck glanced at Rayne for permission to take Leia, more than aware of how protective the young woman was of her charge.
"I do not see why not." The young woman nodded off handedly and Buck wasted no time vacating the area, eager to leave the duo alone so that they could talk things out.
Rayne did not speak for a long time after Buck had gone and neither did Nathan. The awkwardness in the room seemed almost suffocating but both were too hesitant to speak their mind to break it. Nathan continued to stand at the door, remembering what he had said to her when they had been on Zhar and how much it hurt that she reminded him of Ana. The wounds inside of him were still fresh and raw even though it was a year since her death and each time he looked at Rayne, the sensation was both pleasant and terrifying. He knew he was not ready to let go of his wife but a part of him was also certain that he would be fool to let Rayne leave without at least telling her of how he felt. Despite her aloof manner, Nathan was certain that he was not alone in his feelings. She had felt something between them too but like him, she was too unsure to speak it out loud.
"I'm sorry you have to go," he spoke at last, finally gaining the courage say something to break this damnable silence between them.
His words had the effect of the first few drops of rain following a particularly virulent strain of drought. The mood in the room altered considerably and though none of them displayed it, they were both secretly sighing in relief at the dissolution of tension between them. Words had demanded speaking between them and hung like a meteor about to drop until Nathan had finally taken the all important first step.
"The Princess' father misses her," Rayne explained softly. "He wants her home as soon as possible."
"I can understand that," Nathan replied clearing his throat. "If it was my daughter I would feel the same way. It's not easy to be away from the ones you love."
Their eyes met then in a silent exchange that conveyed more than the words they could not utter. At that moment, she understood that he was as far away with being able to deal with his emotions, as she was surprised to find out she actually had them for another being. All her life, she had lived with the notion that duty did not leave room for such attachments and she was still uncertain about the wisdom of giving into her feelings for it. Fortunately, their equal hesitation meant that both of them would have time to acclimate themselves to the evolution their hearts were presently undergoing.
Rayne stood up slowly, deciding that it was time, long past it actually that she said something. She could deny much but she could not deny that she was opening up inside for the first time in her life and surprisingly enough, it did not precipitate the end of everything she knew about her existence. If anything it suddenly painted the black and white situation of her life with shades of color it had been sorely lacking in recent years.
"Nathan Jackson," she stated as she approached him and paused in front of the rebel captain. He had been something she had never anticipated when she had first come to the Alliance for help. She had thought only of the princess, not to meet someone like him. Rayne did not understand how cavalier Fate could some times be but she could not denying its sense of humor. "You are a most unusual man."
"Is that a compliment?" he tried to joke but his anxiety showed.
"You may take it as such," she smiled a little. "I do not know how things will be between us in the days to come but I will be pleased to see you again."
Nathan felt his heart quicken with elation at the offering. "Really?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Really."
"I'm afraid," he confessed. "I haven't felt like this in a long time."
"I know," she answered, touched by his honesty. She suspected that despite the fact that he was a soldier, Nathan was a man who tried very hard to do what was right, whatever the consequences to himself personally. It was a rare thing to find a man who cared that much. "I am just as uncertain as you but I think in time, we may find our way together." She did not wait for him to answer. Instead, she lowered her lips to his in a gentle kiss. Nathan returned it, imprinting her scent upon his memory and the feel of those silken lips against his. It was not a deep or lingering but one of promise and for Nathan who was finding his way through the mists like she was, it was all he needed to find her again when he was ready for something more.
"Would you come see me when you are on Alderaan?"
Nathan grinned, grateful for the invitation and the time she was affording them both. "Try and keep me away."
"I can't do it already!" Vin snapped for the tenth time when the rock he had been attempting to suspend above the ground dropped softly onto the wet earth again. Vin watched it leave indentations in the mud with growing irritation, feeling frustrated because he had actually managed to lift it off the ground and yet the dynamics of keeping it aloft seemed to elude him.
"Always with you can't!" Yoda shook his head reproachfully from the moss covered fallen tree trunk he was perched upon. The Jedi Master tapped his gim stick on the rotting wood to capture Vin's attention as he continued his lesson and rebuke all at the same time. "Can't is not a word for the Jedi. Can't, try, perhaps, maybe! Poison these words are to the Jedi. To feel the Force takes strength of mind! You must know a thing to be able to do a thing! Inside you I feel the Force. It is strong, as strong as any Jedi I have trained. Doubt yourself you do because you did not come to us the way others have in the past. You must let go of that doubt, break you it can." The impish creature stared critically at Vin and suddenly the bounty hunter felt like a small child throwing a tantrum.
"Be at peace," Yoda repeated once again until the words left the part of Vin's brain that understood, numb with tedium. "One of us you will but first you must let go of that fear. Fear is all it took to lead Obi-Wan's apprentice to the dark side. Never underestimate its power."
Vin shuddered, remembering the cold sensation that had filled his body when he had been in close proximity to Vader. He never wanted to feel that again nor did he ever want to inspire it in someone else. Vader was like a singularity, drawing light away from everything else until there was no escape.
"I don't know whether I want to be a Jedi. I just wanted to keep in control of my own mind." Vin looked seriously at Yoda, unable to understand how that simple desire had become the prelude to his becoming a fully fledged Jedi. From what he understood, it would take years to become one and until then he would an apprentice. How did he go from being a bounty hunter to a Jedi apprentice? "You knew that and yet you trained me why?"
Yoda seemed to sigh as if he should not have to be answering this question but conceding to do so just to humor Vin. "Because need us you do. You have spent your life searching for something to be one with, to not be alone. Train you I did because you have overcome your fear of being alone to accept that perhaps that is how things are meant to be. Search you have but look inside yourself you have done too and it rare. Jedi look inside themselves when there is nowhere else to turn and it strengthens them. All your life you have done this, have you not?"
"Yes," Vin nodded astonished by Yoda's insight but then he should not be surprised either. It was true. While he searched for something beyond his existence he was also terribly aware of himself and he feared nothing because he knew who he was. "I guess I have."
"Good," Yoda declared decisively, tapping his stick against the trunk once more, this time scraping some of the moss onto his walking stick at the same time. "Now, no more talking. Lessons. Remember, be at peace with yourself."
"Be at peace," Vin grumbled and sat down on the ground once again, folding his legs beneath him as he stared at the collection of boulders, wondering if he would ever get the hang of this. "Easy for you to say when eight hundred years old you are, if eight hundred years old I was, I'd learn something too," he sniggered, doing a pretty fair imitation of the Jedi Master until he noticed the glare that Yoda was giving him.
"Sorry," he said meekly and then turned back to the task of completing the exercise his teacher had set for him.
In truth, he had surprised himself more than he had ever thought possible since his arrival here. Vin had never imagined that he could do any of the things he had seen Chris performed but with Yoda's tutelage, though extremely tiresome at times had progressed his understanding of the Force considerably. Instead of it being a vague insight to which he sometimes drew upon to hunt his prey, it had seeped into the blood and become a part of him in a way he never imagined. He was more attuned with his body then he had ever been and it was a good feeling to be able to feel oneself a part of a greater fabric. For the first time in his life, Vin actually felt a part of something.
The Force was really with him.
It was not just the lessons though, talking to this wizened old Jedi Master had opened his mind and given him a perception of the universe Vin had never though to consider before. Yoda was eight hundred years old and in that amount of time, the Jedi had seen a great deal and yet did not feel the need to bombard his students with endless stories of everything he did. He seemed to pick the choicest morsels that had the most relevance. Vin found himself growing very fond of the Jedi Master and had resolved himself to come back here regularly, even if he did not need any more training. He just liked hearing the Jedi speak.
"The Force is with you when you feel it become a part of your soul. See now what you have done," Yoda remarked, cutting through his thoughts.
Vin opened his eyes and saw the mud encrusted rock hanging perfectly motionless in the air where he had had been holding it with his mind the past few seconds. Vin could feel his grip on the rock, could feel its texture inside his mind and for one perfect moment, he was where he had been trying to be for the last week. "I'm doing it!" Vin exclaimed happily and burst into a euphoric laugh of pure delight. "I'm doing it!"
Of course his exuberance shook his concentration considerably and the rock fell again but this time, Vin did not care. He was too filled with accomplishment to let that damper his spirit and without warning he rushed at Yoda and grabbed the Jedi Master into his arms, hoisting him onto his shoulders.
"What now are you doing?" Yoda demanded as his enthusiastic apprentice carried him away.
"Running the course!" Vin cried out with exhilaration as he obstacle course he had been running since coming here. To the untrained observer, they would have seen typical swamp land with gray water covering the landscape before them in uneven patches, swirling around the few steady islands of mud that had managed to survive the rains that almost fell continuously in the swamps. Tall trees that disappeared into the misty sky, had their origins in the bog, their enormous roots providing sold ground for anyone attempting to cross this uncertain terrain. It was a dangerous place, with unseen terrors lurking just beneath the surface of the water or were waiting to sweep down from their hiding places in above. It was home to things that crawl, slithered and flew and as a training course for a young Jedi, there had been none better.
Since his arrival here, he had been forced to run through this quagmire and though the course had been enough to tax even one who was as used to tracking over difficult terrain like this, it had slowly become easier. On the first day he had made the attempt, Vin forgot how many times he had fallen and slipped into the mud. However, this time he was running with a confidence inside him that felt boundless after his minor success. The ground beneath him barely registered in his mind and it almost felt as if he was flying across the track that led back to Yoda's hut.
There was no doubt that he could feel the Force because at present it was surging through his veins like he was a shooting star as he ran across the muddy trail, leaping over rotting and fallen logs, protruding roots and half buried rocks in the wet dirt. The foliage moved past him in a blur as he propelled himself into the air to avoid obstacles, somersaulting across the pools of murky water amongst the swampy way before him. He grabbed thick veins and jumped into the air, sailing over swamp and over the parts of his course that would not allow him reach through a terrestrial approach. All Vin could hear as he continued running was the beating of his heart, pounding with exhilaration because he was finally home.
He finally knew the way of the Jedi.
Chris Laramie was already at Yoda's home when Vin was presently traversing the countryside and though he was aware of their eventual approach he did not stray his concentration too far from his meditations, no matter how intoxicating Vin's euphoria felt at the moment. Following his battle with Vader and his subsequent recovery from the injuries sustained during that occasion, Chris had decided that it was time he also paid a visit to the Jedi Master, not merely to train but to regain his own sense of focus. For the last year, he had let himself wallow in self-pity over Sarah and Adam's death, preparing himself for death by drowning himself at the bottom of a bottle. He had disconnected from everything that still had value to him because he believed after the death of his family, he had nothing else to lose.
He was wrong. Not only had he lost a great deal since their deaths, Chris had also gained in equal proporations. Nothing could ever replace his wife and son but then the Force had not sought to replace them at all but rather fill his life with new faces that were just as important. A bounty hunter, who wanted only to belong and finding more than he ever, bargained for. A childhood friend who remained a friend through hardship, never giving up on him and more importantly, never letting him give up on himself. The idealist who wanted him to be a part of a cause, to fight for something worthwhile again. Not because he needed to fight but because he needed something to believe in. The senator, who understood that was above all else, a Jedi was a man who could hurt just like any other. A boy poised on the edge of manhood, looking to him as a model for himself and an Imperial officer who simply wanted to be trusted and be accepted into fold.
And then there was Mary and with her, words were not enough to describe how he felt.
She had been the voice that pulled him away from the darkness when he had been prepared to die. He heard her voice like it was a beacon through the fog of his diminishing life and with the same power she used to command those around her, she commanded him and he surprised himself by wanting to be commanded. Her voice had reached inside and ignited something that he thought had. She breathed life into it and saved him in more ways than just the physical. Chris knew that he was sitting here today, descending his soul into the warmth of peace because Mary had saved him. He did not know if anything would come of them in the future but he knew that while he breathed, he would stand by her as closely as he would stand by the six men who had become his friends.
For they were seven and the Force was with them.
The woman was not nervous. She had no reason to be.
As she stood outside the dark chambers in the section of the Imperial palace reserved strictly for one person in the galaxy alone, she knew that to be called here was a great honor to say the least but also because she was the best. Her training had been thorough; she knew everything there was to know about being an Imperial agent. She was the first of many and the Emperor himself had been responsible for her tutelage. She had seen the man who had summoned her here before and knew that he would have good reason for bringing her to Coruscant. Her training had just been completed, the Emperor was pleased. He had called her one of his best and he had recommended her to his most trusted ally to be used in whatever way someone with her talents could be best deployed. Officially, she was just another Imperial officer, a lieutenant in rank but she stood within the highest echelons of power within the Imperial court. She was apart of the Emperor's inner circle and that title was worth more than the admiralty of the entire Imperial Star Fleet.
She was the Emperor's hand.
There would be more after her, she was certain of it but for now, she stood alone and that gave her a great deal of satisfaction. She stood in her uniform, watching through the window, the transports flying across the magnificent skyline of Coruscant, marveling at a city whose size was so enormous, it encased the entire planet in an urban shield. The Empire rotated around this bejeweled orb and from here the powerful could look down upon the weak.
The voice echoed through her mind. It did not surprise her and immediately she turned around and strode towards the dark doors. Upon reaching them, they slid soundlessly open. She did not pause but continued straight through them into the darkness within. The room was kept in virtual black and all she could see with any clarity, was the chair in the middle of the floor. There was one light and it was mostly fixated on a communications panel on the other side of the room. There was a large construct on the other end, she was not sure what it was because she had never seen anything like it but upon closer observation, she guessed what it was. The repair and power station for a cybernetic suit of armor.
Loud breathing broke the silence, metallic and raspy. That too, she had expected.
"Lord Vader," she greeted with a slight bow.
"The Emperor has placed you at my disposal." Lord Darth Vader spoke as he stepped out of the shadows in the obsidian-marbled chair before her. "He recommends you highly."
She could hear the skepticism in his voice but granted him that indulgence for who he was gave him the right to be cynical. "I hope he is not wrong," she said modestly.
"You will not be wrong," Vader said shortly, his voice gleaming with menace as much as his polished helmet against the faint glimmer of light in the room. "I do not accept failure well Lieutenant, be it from a stormtrooper or the Emperor's Hand. I will reward it in the same fashion."
"As you should Lord Vader," she said aloofly, unprepared to let the fear rise inside of her because he would sense it.
"Good," Vader eased back into his chair. "You will proceed to Cordoba on the next available ship and take your place as the first officer to our outpost there."
"For what purpose?" she inquired unable to fathom what could be so important in Wild Space or the Territory as it was more commonly known.
"I believe the Commander of the base there is a rebel spy. He may have access to someone whom I believe is in possession of valuable information to me. You will act as his second in command and find his connections. Do not fail me lieutenant."
"I won't Sir," she nodded, completely aware that if she did it would be the last time she failed anyone.
"Your ship is awaiting," Vader retorted, gesturing he was ready for her to leave his sight. "I will expect your report in a week."
"Yes Sir," she nodded, not waiting to be dismissed. Vader was not that particular about protocol. Certainly, how he promoted officers in the field seemed to indicate that. She was almost out the door when Vader added one final note to their parting.
"Give Captain Standish my regards," Vader responded coldly.
"Yes Sir," she answered, glancing over her shoulder at him one last time. The doors slid open for her again, prompting her departure and Lieutenant Julia Pemberton faced front, striding out of the room to her new assignment.
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