Star Wars fan fiction
So Let it Be Written Publishing © 2004
introduction to Circles Complete
Can’t Go Home Again
Trial by Fire
Turning Points: So Alone
Turning Points: So Alive
Steer the Shore
Seed of Deceit
Euphoria and Foreboding
Out of Darkness
Out of Doubt
~~ ~  ~ ~~
One Year Later
Immediately After "The Last Command "
With a final wave, Talon Karrde handed the leashes of his pet vornskrs over to Chin and followed them up the boarding ramp, disappearing into the Wild Karrde. Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade stood shoulder to shoulder on the landing platform watching him go. They stayed until the ship was just a bright speck in the Coruscant sky. Then Mara tilted her chin toward Luke and shrugged her shoulders in a half-hearted gesture as she turned back toward the Imperial Palace.
Luke was still a little surprised that she had decided to stay. Her loyalties to Karrde ran deep, much more so than any loyalty to the New Republic, but then she wouldn't really be serving the New Republic. This smuggler's coalition had been Karrde's project from the start, and no matter how cool he tried to play it, it was obvious that he very much wanted for it to succeed. Of all the reasons Mara Jade had to leave the New Republic's capital, that one reason was probably the one keeping her here. Karrde wanted her to act as the go-between connecting Coruscant and the other, shadier, information sources that he had cultivated for membership into this venture. So Mara would remain on the planet as long as was necessary to get the framework of the information relay in place. After that, Luke wasn't sure when he would next see her.
"What?" she asked, half turning to face him as they entered the Palace.
Luke grimaced. Either he was much easier to read than he realized, or her talents in the Force were expanding much more quickly than he had expected.
"I was just wondering what your plans are after you've finished here."
"Don't worry," she replied sardonically. "Between the rate of the data pushers around here, and the generally overflowing enthusiasm both sides are showing for this crazy idea, you're gonna have plenty of time to keep an eye on me."
"Well, I am glad that you'll be around for a while, but not because you need my supervision." Luke hesitated, taking a look around the open, atrium-style room that served as a waiting area for the nearby landing pads before he continued his thought. They had finally stopped the Delta Source information leak that had plagued Palace security for so long, and the atrium area was almost deserted. There was no reason he couldn't say what he wanted to say here, even if it was something he wanted kept in confidence. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you about," Luke offered carefully.
"Yeah?" Mara retorted. "It's kinda hard to find a quiet moment between Thrawn's breathing down our necks, and the insane not-quite-Jedi-Master demanding our devoted service."
He had to smile at her appraisal of the past several months. Mara's tone held the same blend of straight-ahead logic and uncompromising toughness that he had grown accustomed to from her, along with her own brand of dry (and often bitingly sarcastic) humor. But underneath all that, Luke could tell that she realized his question was a serious one.
"I guess given our track record, I'd better ask while I can," Luke pointed out lightly, then hesitated again. "About a year ago, in the Aci system," he began, with the slightest hint of a prompt. He only had to wait a few seconds to see the recognition that he had suspected begin to show itself in her face.
"I almost had you that day," Mara said with an acknowledging nod.
Luke's eyes locked on hers, his gaze steady. He was as impossible to intimidate now as he had been all throughout this strange journey, the partnership they had somehow developed out of necessity. It was strange to stand face to face with the man she had so desperately hated and casually talk about having almost killed him. He didn't hold it against her, but that only made it stranger.
"I was working for a pirate group that carried a lot of pull in the system," Mara began, remembering back to that time. "It was their main goal to increase that pull by taking over Aci's trade concerns. They were well on their way when Aci requested help from the New Republic."
The pair walked casually across the atrium and entered a smaller room which had been transformed into a conversation alcove. About a half dozen sets of tables and chairs were scattered throughout the little room, but the area was otherwise empty.
"Now, I knew the leaders on Aci didn't suspect us," Mara continued, pausing as she took her pick of comfortable seats at one of the empty tables. "In fact, it wouldn't have hurt us at all to just stand back and let the New Republic jump to the wrong assumption, right along with the Acii. Let our main competitor take the heat for us – but not me," Mara cooly contradicted that logic. "I had an ulterior motive.
"The higher-ups were more ambitious than they were bright, and I had no trouble convincing them that our show of strength would be just the right push to make Aci see that the New Republic couldn't protect them, and they couldn't trust their current partners to play fair."
"You were right," Luke noted. "Aci's Magistrate had every intention of asking that the New Republic help them break their current agreement and fight their partners. It was the bombing, and its convenient timing, that made me suspect a third party was trying to sabotage the agreement."
"As I said, they were ambitious," Mara scoffed. "That kind of blind ambition tends to cloud common sense. But they bought my fluff story, and I had my ulterior motive: our little warning to Aci would actually serve as a nice ambush for you."
Luke seemed to take it in objectively, the point of the story being more important than the rest, the part that plotted his death.
"Then what?" he asked.
Mara favored him with an exasperated smile. For a fleeting moment she remembered her emotions and intentions on that day, and Luke could see how badly she had wanted her plan to succeed. Briefly, the Jedi's objectivity failed him and a shiver ran down Luke's spine. The Emperor's Hand had wanted him dead, and very few people who learned that fact had remained alive long enough to reflect upon the knowledge.
"I had everything in place," Mara stated with remembered confidence. "I spotted you coming into the spaceport from my lookout up on the forth level, and I started the timer on the first set of charges." She paused for emphasis. "I had the entire midsection of the second level wired." Then she explained, "The first explosion would cave in the entrance between the second and third levels; that one would lure you in. Then, when I set off the second explosion behind you, you'd be trapped there. That midsection of the spaceport, most of the second level, would become my own rancor pit."
"For a fight to the death." He could hear her remembered exasperation over a plan that should never have failed, and Luke suppressed another shiver.
"It was a good plan," Mara conceded, holding on to an almost regretful grating intone. "But for it to work, I had to be waiting for you on the second level when my timed explosion caved in the ramp between the second and third levels. That was the catch, and it didn't happen. When I got to the third level she was waiting for me."
If Skywalker was any more than idly curious he didn't show it. He sat patiently, waiting for the rest of the story. When Mara realized that he wasn't going to ask, she suppressed a snort and continued.
"We fought. The momentum swung back and forth, and the fight went too long. I couldn't keep the advantage for long enough to finish it, and I knew I wasn't going to make it down to the second level before that charge went. Then all of a sudden you were there.
"I pulled my sleeve blaster and fired, but she caught me with a glancing round kick that was enough to knock off my aim. The shot hit the pillar in front of you, and my blaster went flying. I got in a couple of quick blows, knocking her down before she could get her momentum back. That bought me a few seconds just as the timed charge went off somewhere below us.
"I was about to go after my blaster when I realized that you were down with half the ceiling caved in on top of you. It was too good to pass up," Mara smirked. "All I could think was that I finally had you. I grabbed your lightsaber and held it up high, ready to swing with all my might."
Mara took a breath, deliberately drawing herself back from the intensity of the past as she looked hard at Skywalker. A long moment passed as she was tempted to ask him if all this unnerved him in the least. He was still staring, patiently, waiting for her to continue. She wondered against her own frustration if she would ever get used to that maddening Jedi calm.
"I knew she was coming," Mara continued. "She yelled her charge to distract me. Maybe it did. I remember thinking she must have been crazy to rush me. Hardly a fraction of a movement, if I had turned on her, and she would have been finished. But I couldn't." Mara paused, retrospected amazement sinking into her voice. "I had to go for you," she whispered, realizing anew that her actions hadn't truly been her own. They had been an extension of the Emperor's last command to her, an insistent voice in her mind that Mara hadn't been able to silence. "A second more, and I would have cut you in two." Mara found herself marveling between the strange mixture of past regrets, their previous strengths remembered, and her present gratitude that she hadn't succeeded in killing Luke Skywalker.
"She bowled into me, taking my legs out from under me," Mara picked up the story, a new sharpness to her voice. "I had to let the lightsaber go to keep from cutting us both to shreds. And we both hit the ground hard. I was still trying to clear my head when I started to hear voices, coming to investigate the explosion. I knew I had run out of time. I grabbed my blaster and beat it out of there. Even after using the second explosive for cover, I had to blast my way out with half of planet's security on my tail."
Luke paused, taking the story in. "That answers a lot of my questions about Aci, but it still doesn't explain how I woke up in a medical facility with no idea how I got there – and this second person disappeared without a trace. How did she get away clean when you couldn't?"
Mara seemed a little surprised, and a bit miffed, at his question. "Simple answer to both," Mara shot back, "she was Force-strong." Then she shrugged, almost self-consciously. "All I had was the Emperor's voice in my head, and his hatred for you." The edge of self-consciousness abruptly faded as her voice turned deliberately frank. "She used the Force to send those guards after me and away from you. I'd bet it was no task at all to get you into a med fac, virtually unnoticed, when everybody was distracted by a couple of explosions and a security chase." Mara snorted with mock contempt. "I could almost do that.
So, she had been Force-sensitive. "When I woke up in med, I kept trying to make sense of it," Luke offered, the last piece of the puzzle now falling into place. "I remembered flashes of what happened while I was unconscious. I even remembered seeing her face, but no one really believed it. They said it was the concussion, or adrenaline, or anything else that might explain it away – but I knew it was real." His voice fell to a whisper. "I even tried to find her."
Mara could hardly hide her amusement.
"I know how crazy that sounds," Luke conceded.
"You don't have a clue how crazy it is," Mara retorted. "You, trying to find Lyra." Her voice crackled in amazement, which barely surpassed her sarcastic amusement. "She was with you for six years. Your guardian," Mara exaggerated the word in remembered contempt, "stubbornly refusing to let me kill you," she growled. "Not that that's such a bad thing now," Mara reluctantly admitted, deliberately ignoring the stunned expression on Luke's face, "but at the time–"
Mara let go a sigh as she gave up on the doomed attempt at humor. Total incomprehension was still visible in his face, but his eyes held a thousand questions that were all fighting to get out.
"Six years?" he asked, finally finding his voice.
"More or less," Mara answered evenly. "I had been chasing you since Vader made that overture of partnership to you, after Solo was frozen. Lyra chased me. She was very good," Mara conceded, picking up the silence after a moment. "Even I don't know exactly how long she followed me. I would've liked to have asked her." Her voice started to trail off again, but Mara Jade's piercing green eyes flickered back to Luke. He still looked a little lost, which she couldn't help but smile at.
"I guess it is a heck of a bombshell, but c'mon," she challenged him. "You already knew I was trying to kill you. Wouldn't you expect Vader to send someone up against me? I know I would."
The mention of Vader abruptly brought Luke back. His eyes flashed over Mara's face as his brow wrinkled with surprise.
"Maybe you'd better start at the beginning," he suggested carefully.
Mara took a deep breath and slowly sat back in her seat. There was a twitch of her red-gold hair as she tossed her head a little impatiently.
"I didn't know her well–" she grated the last word slowly, "but I considered her an equal," Mara admitted with a measure of approval. Then she thought for a minute before she continued. "I know she was a conscript, and one chosen by Vader himself."
"Then perhaps she was the same to Vader as you were to the Emperor, a hand who could hear his commands," Luke offered.
"That's what I assumed too, at first, but I don't think so. I always got the feeling that there was something unusual about her strength in the Force, but I could never narrow it down...."
Luke had taken on an absent, thoughtful look, but he remained silent.
"Anyway," Mara continued, "Vader brought her in around the battle of Yavin, which also could have made her an Alderaan survivor, but I could never find any evidence to support that either."
"Was this before or after Yavin?" Luke asked next. It suddenly felt as though the mystery of this person's identity was becoming more connected to him all the time.
Mara thought briefly before frowning. "I'm not sure exactly. I was on a mission that started before Yavin. When I returned it was just after, and Vader was bringing her before the Emperor then."
Luke suppressed a shudder at the shared memory.
"She worked a lot around Imperial Intelligence early on," Mara continued.
"Could have been looking for me," Luke noted.
"Or the Rebellion in general," Mara pointed out. "Both were Vader's main focus at the time but, at that point, I don't think he wanted anyone finding you but him."
Luke only nodded this time, leaving Mara to continue her thought.
"The Emperor knew she had a great deal of strength, and he intended me to monitor her progress. I think he also wanted to make sure that he kept Vader's loyalties all to himself. If Vader had taken on an apprentice, instead of merely a second...."
"It wouldn't be very long before he would have thoughts of overthrowing the Emperor," Luke said softly. His thoughts flashed back to Cloud City, when Vader had proposed just that. Luke could still remember the crest of Vader's voice when he had asked Luke to join him against the Emperor. For a long time after, Luke had remembered that day in his nightmares.
"Yeah," Mara agreed curiously. She suspected that Skywalker knew more than he was saying about Vader's intentions to take his Master's place, but she reminded herself that those things didn't matter any longer as she returned her thoughts to the question at hand. "Being Vader's right hand, she mostly based off the Executor."
"Vader trained her, then – in the Force," Luke ventured.
"Yes," Mara answered. "But I don't think she embraced it."
"The dark side?"
Mara nodded fractionally. "If the truth's known, after Yavin Vader became extremely preoccupied with you. From the moment he learned your name, his search for the Rebels intensified into an obsession. It made sense at the time. Of course Vader would want revenge on the person who had destroyed the Death Star, embarrassed him by escaping from under Darth Vader's nose. But it makes much more sense now; Vader wanted his son at his side."
Luke's clear blue eyes rested on her again, but with more insistence than patience this time, reminding Mara that he still needed an answer to his question.
"Vader was obsessed with getting you, and he had little time to train anyone in the Force. I think that Lyra learned the fundamentals and after that she had to fend for herself. Considering Vader's lethal tendencies when it came to failure, I don't envy the task." Mara offered the bluntly callous statement as a complement. "Whenever we were on Coruscant at the same times, I'd come up with some pretext for sparing with her: refresher training or some similar guise, so that I could feel out her progress. Even after the toughest skirmishes, I usually came away feeling that she was holding back."
Mara paused, and the pause grew longer as she studied Skywalker. He was waiting for her to continue again. "Annoyed me almost as much as your cursed Jedi calm." She spat the words out of habit, without any real anger remaining behind them, causing Luke to suppress a smile.
Mara looked down, her mood slowly turning serious again. "I always respected her though," she admitted quietly, "in spite of myself. She knew how to play the right political power games; that much was survival between the Emperor and Vader. But there was an intensity about her, an air of defiance that she managed to keep, in a place where that kind of depth was usually stomped out quickly."
Luke's silence felt different this time.
"Anyway," Mara hurried on, collecting her thoughts again, "when you slipped away from Vader at Bespin, the Emperor sent me after you–"
"You think Vader saw it coming and sent her after you," Luke surmised quietly.
Mara nodded, the slightest of movements. "I don't know if it was before or after Jabba's. Like I said, she was good, and at the time I wasn't looking to be followed. She was probably on me for a couple of months before I knew it."
"What about Endor?"
Mara was puzzled for a moment. "Why did she stay?" she guessed at Luke's question.
"Vader was dead. You said she was a conscript. Half the Empire defected at Endor."
Mara only shrugged vaguely.
Luke fell silent again. "What happed after Aci, then?" he finally asked.
"I barely escaped," Mara offered, her eyes flashing at the snap answer. Knowingly, it was not the answer Skywalker intended. "By then, I was only a step away from breaking into Karrde's organization," she continued on, "and after that near miss, my nose was a bit bloodied. So I threw myself into making it into Karrde's group, knowing, of course, that it'd come time to kill you later."
"And that you'd have Karrde's resources behind you when it did," Luke supplied wryly.
Mara grinned at him. "Exactly."
"And Lyra?" he prompted quietly.
"My parting shot before entering Karrde's organization. I pulled a few strings to have her detained in Ruasel space. Couldn't have her getting in my way, now could I?" Mara asked, but this time her usual edge of humor and slightly sadistic pride was tinged with regret. It was something she seemed to visibly shake off. "And I left a maze of backtracks behind me, just in case she did make it out," Mara finished a moment later.
They sat in silence for a handful of heartbeats.
Finally Luke looked her in the eye, and for once his farmboy features were totally unreadable. Surprise at her callousness, or just that she regretted it in retrospect? Sadness that he would never get to thank this stranger who had risked so much for him? Regret that he had lost another window to his past?
"That's pretty rough territory," he finally said. "Think she survived?"
"Anyone else, no," Mara answered honestly. "But Lyra–" she snorted. "I can't imagine anything killing her."