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Calamities II: Myrkr

Chapter Text

The sound of metallic feet clanking against the deck resounded through the observation deck of Vader’s personal dreadnought, the Executor.  The five-kilometer-long ship had been under construction as an eventual replacement for the Invisible Hand.  With the destruction of that ship, this one had been rushed to completion.  Vader had been surprised when Plagueis had given it to him, rather than taking it over himself.  My energies and attention are required elsewhere for a time, Plagueis had said.  The Executor is yours in my stead.

“Lord Vader,” a mechanical voice announced from behind him.  He stood at the enormous window, gazing out at the planet below him: vast tracts of sand peppered with occasional mountain ranges, illuminated by the light of two suns.  “The prisoner is here.”

Vader did not turn to look at the command droid which had come to make this announcement.  He kept staring down at the planet, wondering what it must have been like to have been born there, lived there, been molded there.

“My lord?” the droid asked.

“Bring the prisoner in,” Vader said.  “And then return to the bridge.”

“Yes, my lord.”  The droid shuffled away.  There was the sound of the door opening, more metallic footsteps interspersed with soft, shuffling organic ones, and then the door closing.

“Were you born down there, as well?” Vader asked his prisoner.

Shmi Skywalker came to stand beside him, her hands manacled in front of her.  She wore a comfortable-looking gown in muted green, as well as dark leather boots.  According to the report he’d been given, she had arrived at Geonosis in a small ship, asking to be allowed to surrender personally to Lord Vader.

“As well?” Shmi asked.

“As well as your son,” Vader explained.  “Anakin.  My origin.”

“I was.”  Shmi pointed as best she could at a tiny stain on the surface of Tatooine that might have been a settlement.  “In Mos Enres.  My mother died giving birth to me, or so I’m told, and my father was a drunk and gambling addict.  He sold me into slavery when I was only a few years old, in order to cover a debt.”

Vader furrowed his brows.  “The records on you that Central Intelligence pulled during our last data raid suggest you were captured by pirates at the age of six, and your parents were sold into slavery to different masters.”

“The Order tells me those records were planted by my father, or to be more precise a slicer my father hired.  He was trying to disappear, and wanted to give investigators as many false leads to follow as possible.”  Visible in his peripheral vision, her smile was calm, almost beatific, and held none of the bitterness Vader would have expected.  “I think it probably pleased him to rewrite his history, to make him seem less pathetic.”

Vader nodded.  “And ‘Skywalker’?”

“My father never provided his surname, or by extension mine, when he sold me.  My first master, a Rodian named Ooloota, named me ‘Haishar,’ a Rodese idiom for a daydreamer, because my head was constantly in the clouds.  When he died and I was sold off with the rest of his estate to Gardulla the Hutt, who didn’t speak Rodese, her majordomo translated its constituent roots to ‘sky strider’ in Huttese.  Gardulla said, ‘Slaves don’t stride.  They just walk.’  So from then on I was called Skywalker.”

He nodded again, finally turning to face her directly.  “Why are you here?”

She gestured at him with her bound hands.  “To help you.”

“I don’t need your help.  You are an enemy, noncombatant status notwithstanding, and a potentially useful hostage to use as leverage against Vice-Admiral Skywalker.  I only allowed you an audience because you said you had something important to tell me.”

“The important thing,” Shmi told him, “is that I’m of no value as a hostage.  Do you know why?”

He shook his head.

“Anakin returned recently from the engagement where he helped destroy the Invisible Hand,” she said.  “He told me something while we were having yarba tea.  Lord Admiral Thrawn had let him know that Padmé was onboard, but he was ordered to destroy the ship anyway.  And he did it.  He destroyed the ship not knowing if she would be able to escape in time.”

Vader pressed his lips into a thin line.  “Just because he’s arrived at a point where he can knowingly endanger the Ambassador doesn’t mean he’ll be so sanguine when it’s his mother’s life on the line.”

“But it does,” Shmi replied gently.  “Padmé is the most important person in the galaxy to him.  She made a great impression on him when he was a child and he’s spent the rest of his life learning to handle that fact in a healthy way.  I’m his mother, but it’s not the same.  So – whatever you choose to do to me, I’m not going to be of any use as a hostage.”

“Amidala gathered up a little band under dubious authority to rescue Venge,” Vader said, privately wondering how Plagueis’s little scheme with Terminus and deep-conditioning Venge a second time had gone.  They’d had no news out of Kamino in the three weeks since the destruction of the Invisible Hand.  “A similar team might be assembled to rescue you.  Such teams are useful as sources of intelligence when they are captured and interrogated.”

Shmi nodded slowly.  “Perhaps.  But Anakin is also a dutiful son.  I left him a note telling him why I’m coming here, and that note has explicit instructions not to let anyone mount any kind of rescue.  I walk out of here under my own power, or I die here.”

The simple, flat declaration baffled Vader.  “How can you even begin to think you’ll walk out of CIS custody alive?” he asked.  “What’s your plan for that?”

With a slight shrug – the only kind of shrug her manacled hands would allow her to perform – she responded, “You’re going to help me.”

He just stared at her for nearly a minute, trying to think of something to say, before he finally was able to articulate his thoughts.  “That’s foolish.  You are a fool.  You think because you bore the source of my genetic template that I’m beholden to you?  That I’m sympathetic to you?”

Shmi leaned forward, resting her elbows on the rail in front of the window.  She seemed to be admiring the view of the planet.  “Terminus cut a deal with us,” she said.  “I know this because my son – somewhat foolishly, given how secret they were hoping to keep that news – told me.  He traded valuable information for his freedom.”

As flabbergasted as Vader had been at her statement that he was going to help her escape, this was nothing compared to his reaction to this new revelation.  He physically could not speak, to say nothing of knowing what to say.  Terminus had betrayed them?  How was that possible?  Plagueis had literally woven him out of the Force to be a loyal tool, a creature of the Dark Side.  This was utterly unthinkable.

“I have some of the Force within me,” Shmi said.  “I’ve never been trained.  When he was still alive, I spoke with Qui-Gon about it.  He told me that while I have the power, it’s been buried so long that it would be the work of decades to unearth it, and even then it would never be enough to be a Jedi.  But because I have that connection to the Force, Qui-Gon felt he could speak to me frankly about metaphysics.  I understand the Light and Dark Sides of the Force.  Do you know what defines the Dark Side, my young Sith Lord?”

“Freedom,” Vader said automatically.  “The Dark Side breaks your chains and sets you free.”

“That’s a nice bit of propaganda,” Shmi replied, adjusting her stance to take a little weight off her elbows.  “I asked Venge to recite the Sith Code for me, once.  By that point, of course, he wasn’t Sith any longer, so he didn’t really channel any belief in it.  But even without that, I could tell how compelling it is.  Absolute freedom.”

Vader bristled.  “Calling it propaganda implies that you don’t think it’s true.”

“Do you know what the freedom of the Dark Side really is?” Shmi asked.  “It’s the freedom from others.  The freedom to be alone.  The freedom to be selfish.  That’s what rests at the root of the Dark Side, Vader.  Selfishness.  It’s why Venge came over to the side of the Order – because he found he needed someone more than he needed to be alone and selfish.  Most people are like that.  Sentient beings aren’t meant to be islands.”

“You are trying to toy with my perceptions,” Vader said.  “It will not work.  I am not alone.”

Shmi tilted her head.  “Aren’t you, though?  Who are your friends?”

That made Vader snort.  “I need no friends.”

“Your loved ones, then.  Do you love Plagueis?”

“Love is a chain,” Vader said.  “The point of the Dark Side is to break chains.”

“So you do not love him.”  Shmi shook her head.  “He raised you, and trained you, and gave you a purpose in life, and you do not love him.  Is the point of the Dark Side to make you hollow?”

“Love does not make you strong.  Lord Plagueis taught me strength.

Shmi smiled at him, and for reasons he could not explain the expression chilled him.  “Does he love you, Vader?  You are good as his son.”

Vader opened his mouth to snap at her and found, for the third time, that he had no words.

“I see.”  Shmi turned back to the view of Tatooine.  “I know what it is to live a loveless existence, Vader.  I was a slave.  I went where I was told, did what I was told, when I was told to do it.  I was not paid, not with money or gentleness or gratitude.  I was just another tool owned by my masters.”  She paused for a moment.  “Does this sort of life sound familiar to you?”

“I have power,” Vader hissed.  “I have power, and prestige, and a purpose in life.  Plagueis has given me strength!  He has given me freedom!  You dare try to compare yourself with me?”

“Let me ask you something else, then, if the comparison rankles,” Shmi said.  “Will you ever leave him?  Failing that, will he ever give you an order you refuse to obey?”

“You are here to suborn me!  Yoda or Thrawn sent you!”  In an instant, Vader’s saberspear was in his hand, pulled across the room into his grip.  He ignited the blade and held it to her throat, the humming plasma a bare centimeter from severing her windpipe.  “I should kill you now.”

“Are you certain you don’t need to call Plagueis and ask his permission first?”

Blind fury surged through him.  Vader whirled his saberspear clear so he could backhand her across the face, sending her sprawling to the floor.  He towered over her, the Dark Side roaring in his blood.

Shmi carefully brought her manacled hands to her face so she could wipe the blood from her mouth.  She looked up at him.

“I love you.”

Vader froze.  “What?”

“You are my son, Vader.  The fact that I didn’t bear you has no weight here.  You are the flesh of my flesh, and it wounds me to see my son be a slave without even knowing it.”

“What kind of trick is this?” Vader spat.

“It’s not a trick.  Why do you think I came alone, unarmed?  I have wanted to tell you this ever since I first heard that you existed, but it was only recently that my coming would not endanger Anakin.  I love you, and it breaks my heart to see you used.”

Vader swallowed.  “How can you love me?  You have never met me.  You know that I have tried, more than once, to kill the people closest to you.  This is a trick.”

Shmi tried to sit up and failed, her bindings and her pain defeating her efforts to right herself.  “It is not a trick.  No one sent me but myself.  That is how I know I am not a slave.”

“But how can you love me?” Vader barked through gritted teeth.

“Do you refuse to consider even the possibility that you might be worthy of love?”  Shmi groaned, sucked in a quick breath as something in her jaw clicked painfully.  “Did Plagueis only ever praise you or reward you when you succeeded, when you were useful?  Of course he did.”  She finally managed to right herself, then laid a hand against her breastbone.  “My slave chip was implanted here, where its detonation would pulp my lungs and heart instantly if I tried to escape.  Do you know where yours is?”

“I don’t have one,” Vader said numbly.

“Could it be because Plagueis is so confident of the job he did with you that he doesn’t think you need one?”

“I AM NOT A SLAVE!”  The Force exploded out of him, involuntarily, in a pressure wave that sent Shmi skidding across the floor to slam into the far wall.  He staggered, taken aback.  He hadn’t lost control like that since the very earliest days of his training.

“Know that I love you,” Shmi said shakily, using a guard rail to help her regain her feet.  He could see her trembling even from this distance; he had injured her severely with his outburst.  “You are my son.  I –”

She collapsed.

Without thinking, Vader rushed over to her.  Part of him noted the fact that he was checking her pulse, examining her for injuries to ascertain precisely what his outburst had done.  He had never displayed this kind of concern for – well, anyone.

He pulled out his commlink.  “Dispatch a medical team to the observation deck,” he ordered the bridge officer who answered, keeping his tone level.  “Full bio bed, with a human medic, not a droid.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Closing down the commlink, he sat back on his haunches, trying to master the maelstrom of emotions churning through him.  This had to be a trick.  She had been sent by Thrawn, or Yoda.

But if she had, why had she revealed that Terminus had defected?  Was that true?  If it was, she certainly would have been instructed not to reveal it.  What was the information he could have traded?

He got out of the way as the medical team arrived.  “Ensure she survives and is treated with bacta,” he told the medic.  “If she dies, she will not be the only one.”

“Of course, Lord Vader.”

His commlink buzzed, and he answered.  “Lord Vader.”  It was the Neimoidian captain of the Executor.  “Transmission from Lord Plagueis.  He requires the Executor at Myrkr.  Shall we set course?”

“Proceed, Captain.”

“Yes, my lord.  Lord Plagueis also requests a situation report.”

Vader hesitated.

“Tell him there are no developments worthy of note.  The ship is performing adequately.”

It was the captain’s turn to hesitate.  “My lord, did we not bring a prisoner aboard for interrogation?”

“No, we did not,” Vader snarled into the commlink.  “There are no prisoners aboard this ship, Captain.  And if Lord Plagueis were to somehow mistakenly receive the impression that there are –”

“I understand, my lord!  Of course!  No prisoners.  No noteworthy happenings.  Of course –”

Vader switched the commlink off.

What, he wondered to himself, have I just done?

Chapter Text

Thrawn’s voice seemed unusually loud in the relative silence of the Order’s war room.  “As of this moment, the Jedi Order and its army have two months of operational life left.”

There was a moment of silence as the seven other people gathered around the war table absorbed this pronouncement.  Venge looked at the other six: Padmé and Anakin, and four members of the Council, including Yoda.  All of them were grim-faced.

Venge spoke first.  “We’re that hard up?  I was given to understand that the Order commanded wealth on the order of trillions of credits.”

Shaking his head, Thrawn replied, “Credits are not the issue here.  The Corulag incident damaged popular support for and faith in the Order, and the revelation of Palpatine’s identity as a Sith Lord – a revelation the Order obviously knew and kept secret – has destroyed what little was left.  Simply put, no one but the fringe will do business with us, and even working our contacts at maximum capacity, we cannot possibly import enough food and other supplies to keep our forces operational.  The Hapans can only make up for a small amount of the shortfall, and popular support for Dormé’s alliance with us is waning.  Thus we will have to fall back on our reserves, which will last us no more than two months.”

“I can’t believe the CIS is going to win the war by default,” Padmé said, her eyes blazing.

The merest elevation of Thrawn’s shoulders served as his version of a depressed shrug.  “Simply put, war is won on three fronts: popular support, supply lines, and good strategy.  You may be able to triumph with only two of them, but one alone is not enough.”

“Time for a bold move, then,” Mace Windu spoke up.  The Jedi Warmaster crossed his arms across his broad chest.  “Brief us on the Myrkr situation.”

With only the barest hesitation, Thrawn keyed in a command to the war table.  The holographic display flickered and produced an image of a planet: blue seas, small continents speckled with brown, gold, and green, moderate cloud cover.

“The planet Myrkr is approximately four days’ lightspeed jump from Kamino,” Thrawn said, his tone shifting to a didactic mode.  “Generally habitable, it has no notable resources or other anomalies save one: the hunting relationship between the predator species of vornskyrs and the prey species of ysalamiri.  Adult vornskyrs supposedly possess the ability to hunt via the Force, sensing Force-users especially.  The ysalamiri have adapted to this ability by evolving the capacity to create Force-free ‘bubbles.’  A lone ysalamir may create a bubble as large as three meters; reinforcing one another, many of them can encompass kilometers.”

Ki-Adi-Mundi, the Cerean Council member, stroked his beard contemplatively.  “I fancy myself something of a xenobiologist, and yet I have never heard of this world or these creatures.”

“In the Jedi Archive, no record of these species or this world do we have,” Yoda told him.  “Lost ages ago, this knowledge was.  From our special informant does this information come.”

Windu all but sneered.  “Terminus.  I know he testified to all this in front of Maul, but still.  I don’t trust him.”

“Nor should you,” Venge said mildly.  “But, in the presence of a Truthsayer and motivated to save his own skin, he would know better than to try to pull the bantha-hide over our eyes.  Whatever he told us about this planet is as true and accurate as he knows.”

Thrawn nodded.  “I concur with the Justicar.”  There was an uncomfortable moment of tension from the Council members – Venge’s reinstatement to the Justicar rank had been Yoda’s decision, and they were not at all pleased with it – but then it passed and Thrawn continued.  “According to Terminus, Plagueis has set up a long-term research laboratory on the surface of Myrkr and is using Sith Alchemy and other dark techniques to experiment on the ysalamiri and vornskyrs.  Terminus was unaware of Plagueis’s end goal, but we can be certain he is creating weapons for use against the Order.”

Adi Gallia spoke up, her striking face pinched with confusion.  “If these ysalamiri push back the Force, how is Plagueis using Sith Alchemy on them?”

“Unknown,” Thrawn replied.  “From what I have been told of Plagueis’s abilities in the area of midi-chlorian control, I assume he has developed a method of neutralizing the ysalamiri defensive trait.”

Padmé placed her hands flat on the table to either side of her, leaning forward in the same motion.  “We need to stop these experiments, obviously,” she said.  “And if what happened at the battle with the Invisible Hand can be replicated –”

“I have already instructed our shipyard facilities to begin outfitting as many Venator cruisers as possible with copies of the interdiction generators from the Manticore,” Thrawn agreed.  “We will be ready to launch the attack in two days.”

Venge raised an eyebrow.  “I missed most of the details of that assault.  What are these interdiction generators?”

For the first time since the briefing had convened, Anakin spoke.  “They simulate a planet-sized gravitational field in a cone of space.  They can stop any ship from jumping to hyperspace within that cone.”

That got Venge’s attention.  He whipped his head around to stare at Thrawn, wondering where the Lord Admiral had gotten something like that.  “So what you’re saying is –”

“Myrkr is remote, and unlikely to have a full planetary shield,” Thrawn said, his voice cool.  “With enough interdiction generators, even those enemy ships which make it out of the planet’s gravity well can be kept in realspace and destroyed.  The planet itself can be invaded or simply bombarded into dust.

“In two days, we will strike a decisive blow against the CIS by trapping and killing Darth Plagueis.”

Dormé had dismissed her Jedi guards, with careful instructions on what actions to take if she didn’t survive this upcoming meeting.  She needed to ensure that no matter what happened tonight, the Hapes Consortium would not fall into CIS hands.  Still, if there were any hope of not only surviving, but turning the situation to her advantage, it rested in her carrying this meeting off under her own power, not with lightsaber-wielding wizards at her back.

She sat in her bedchamber within the royal quarters.  The room was richly appointed, with many fine hanging silks and objets d’art, and the walls and floor were built from ancient, smooth wood grown on Hapes itself.  Glowglobes illuminated the space, hovering close behind her wherever she moved.

Late that evening, Garan finally arrived.  Her royal husband looked drawn, serious, and tired.  He let himself sink to the bed, the dark green septsilk of his robes rustling softly with the movement.  “Well,” he said.  “The Traditionalists have officially withdrawn their objection to the Bill of Ideologies.  It took several aggravating compromises, but it is ready to be put to the Senate.”

Dormé nodded idly, as though she had only barely heard him.  She made a show of putting her datapad down on her desk before turning to face him.  “We need to talk,” she said.

That made him sit back up from his slouch on the side of the bed.  “What’s the matter, my Queen?” he asked.

“I received an interesting communication from the Jedi Order today,” Dormé told him.  “They captured a Sith spy, and he cut a deal with them.  Important information in exchange for his freedom.”

Garan waved a hand dismissively.  “That’s good, but the Sith can hardly be trusted.  Even when their own lives are at stake.”

“He gave his testimony in the presence of the Order’s best living Truthsayer,” Dormé countered.  “It can be regarded as reliable, almost absolutely so.  And it was quite revealing, what he told them.”

Now Garan’s brow began to furrow.  He looked confused, yes, and intrigued, but beneath those carefully cultivated expressions was something almost perfectly hidden.  Dormé might never have seen it if she had not been explicitly looking for it.


“What was it?” Garan asked.

Dormé got up, walking around the bed to stand before the balcony, looking out through the windowed doors but not actually stepping outside.  “Do you remember when I first came to Hapes with Ambassador Amidala?  When we were about to see the Queen Mother, we were told that only she would be allowed to wear jewelry within the throne room.  I had to put aside my father’s ring.”

“Such has been our custom for generations,” Garan acknowledged.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a custom I’m going to abolish,” Dormé said.  “Given that it was used to kill her.”

She purposefully kept her back to Garan, but she observed his reflection carefully in the windowed doors in front of her.  He definitely stiffened, and looked over his shoulder at her, half-twisting his body.  “What?”

“Vader didn’t kill your mother,” Dormé said.  “It would have been too difficult, even with so many traitors collaborating, to get him close enough to actually do her harm.  But he provided a very convenient scapegoat, and even went out of his way to kill Cerin to provide us with a blindingly obvious murderer.” 

She continued looking out at the balcony, even as she watched Garan’s reflection come slowly to his feet.  “Do you remember that autopsy report you so casually told us about and then dropped on a table, as though it were completely unimportant?  It said that she died of forcible closure of the windpipe, but without obvious trauma to the throat.  That led us to make the obvious conclusion: death by Force choke.”

“What killed her?” Garan asked.  His voice was too soft to carry genuine surprise or anger.

“She inhaled a deadly nanovirus which had been released into the throne room’s ventilation system,” Dormé said.  “It was perfectly designed to escape every possible mode of detection: it was not poisonous, and it drew its power directly from the bioelectric field of its victims, rendering it totally dormant on scans.  Once in her bloodstream, it activated and attacked her windpipe, constricting it in a manner very similar to a Force choke.

“It was drawn to her, and specifically to her, because she was the only person in the room wearing precious metals.  Precious metals which had secretly been magnetized that morning by a traitor among her ladies-in-waiting.  All throughout the morning’s court sessions it slowly but inevitably was drawn to that magnetic field, finally reaching her just before our arrival for our audience with her.”

Garan was now moving very slowly toward her, hands behind his back, not obviously threatening but far too casual to be anything but deliberate.  “Ingenious,” he said.  “Who introduced the virus into the ventilation system?  Who supplied it to them?  Who supplied it to them, and so on?”

“Fortunately, the chain is not much more complicated than that,” Dormé said.  “The person who placed it – a small, innocuous metal box – in the ventilation system was a member of the custodial staff.  They were told by the captain of your personal guard to put it there, that it was a new kind of poison snooper.”

She finally turned to face him, as he had drawn within a meter of her.

“She, in turn, was provided that box, and given that instruction, by you.”

He suddenly had a blaster pointed at her, which was unsurprising.  “Well,” Garan said.  “I must admit that I’m relieved, in a way.  It hasn’t been pleasant lying to you all these months.  I really do like you, you know.”

Dormé looked at the blaster, then back at him, raising an eyebrow.  “You have a strange way of showing it.”

Garan half-shrugged, but his aim remained dead on.  “Frankly, that’s the entire problem right there.  You’re not Hapan, Dormé.  A Hapan will shoot his best friend in the back, given the right reason, and still feel bad for his friend.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed our marriage, and it’s a shame it has to end.”

“Does it?” Dormé asked.  “I’ve revealed that I know about your involvement with your mother’s death.  But I haven’t said what I plan to do about it yet.  Why, Garan?  If you actually have valued my companionship, indulge me and tell me.”

Again, the half-shrug.  “My mother wanted an alliance with the Jedi Order because she saw it as a rising power and wanted to be on the winning side,” he said.  “She was a good ruler for Hapes, but she never had a true grasp of the sheer logistical problems of combating the CIS from the Order’s position.  I did.”

Logistics.  “You were working with Oalla?” Dormé asked.

Garan shook his head. “Cerin, in fact.  She always wanted to be Queen Mother.  We worked out a scheme where we contacted the CIS, offering an alliance in exchange for their assassination of my mother.  It was Plagueis who came up with the idea of using the nanovirus, then having Vader present to serve as a scapegoat.”

“So if Cerin was involved –”

“She was too dangerous to be Queen Mother,” Garan said with a pained smile.  “Oalla or Tsarya were both anti-Jedi and both would have been much easier for me to manipulate.  Plus, selling Vader as a patsy and removing the potential for a confession were nice bonuses.”

Dormé nodded.  “But then the bumbling representatives of the Jedi Order turned out more competent than you expected.  We figured out half the plot – we recognized that Vader was a patsy and that he had purposefully let you escape.  We just didn’t make the final connection.”

“Forcing me to improvise and accept the marriage Ambassador Amidala and you proposed, since to do otherwise would have been suspicious,” Garan agreed.  “Of course, I couldn’t let the marriage last forever.  Even if you never discovered the truth about my mother’s death, you still allied Hapes with the Order.  I couldn’t allow that to stand.”

Dormé gave him a bitter smile.  “Well.  Is this the part where you tell me you were just doing what you thought was best for Hapes this entire time?”

“I genuinely was,” Garan replied.  “And I genuinely do regret this.  I wish I didn’t have to kill you, but it’s more humane than locking you in an oubliette or handing you over to the CIS.  You’ll be found dead tomorrow, murdered by assassin droids, and I will tearfully and reluctantly offer myself to Tsarya.  Or maybe Oalla – I honestly haven’t decided.  Oalla’s sharper, but she would also make a better Queen Mother.  I’ll think on it tonight.”

He pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Dormé grinned at him.  “Your power pack seems like it had the capacitor pin removed.  That drains them pretty quickly, I’m afraid.”

Her first kick took him in the groin, which bent him double.  That put his jaw in the perfect target zone for her follow-up, which knocked him clean off his feet and laid him out on his side, limbs twitching.

“You should have tried to strangle me,” she said.  “In a grapple, you might have had a chance.  But you needed to make the speech and keep your hands clean.”  She crouched over him, grabbed a fistful of his hair, and pulled his head up to force him to look her in the eyes.  “You’re right, Garan.  I’m not a Hapan.  I’m from Naboo.  And on Naboo, politics don’t revolve around murdering people who are no longer convenient.  No, we take a much more subtle approach.  We let them reveal themselves as traitors, record the whole thing, and let them find their own way to Hell.”

Garan groaned inarticulately.

“That’s right,” Dormé said, injecting a bit of saccharine into her voice.  “You’re finished.  That is, unless we make some major changes in the nature of our relationship, starting right here and now.  Are you interested?”

He managed a nod.

“I thought you might be.  From now on, you do as I tell you.  In everything.  You will be watched, every minute of every day, until we’ve established trust.  The second you step out of line, I will be finding myself a new Prince Consort.”

“I… understand,” he husked.

“I’m guessing that you have a plan in place for betraying the Order to the CIS.  I’m going to let you in on a secret: the Jedi are moving against the Sith in two days, at a planet called Myrkr.  We’re going to be part of that assault, and you’re going to tell Plagueis about it.”

Garan opened his mouth, then shut it again at the look on her face.

“Good,” Dormé said.  “Glad you agree.  Plagueis will make plans for a trap, and they’ll naturally incorporate your sudden betrayal.  When that betrayal doesn’t happen, you will have bought yourself your right to live back.  If this compromises his plans to the point where we can take him – well.”  She let go of his hair and let his head smack against the wooden floor.  “Then perhaps I’ll even consider telling whatever child I have that you’re the father.  You won’t be, since you’re never going to touch me again, but it would save you some embarrassment.”

She pulled her commlink from her robe and keyed it on.  “I’m finished.  Get him out of here.”

No more than twenty seconds later, her Jedi guards entered, picked Garan up off the floor, and dragged his limp body away.

Chapter Text

The corridors of Plagueis’s Myrkr compound were almost dizzyingly cramped and labyrinthine.  Vader found himself wondering how his much-taller Master moved through these tiny capillaries.  They were dimly-lit, made of durasteel, and seemed endless.  He had already walked several kilometers from the hangar bay, and was just now coming to the doors of Plagueis’s laboratory.

They slid open before him, too quickly for it to have been a sensor trigger.  Vader had no doubt that Plagueis’s will had opened them, sensing his approach.  He stepped inside, preparing himself.

It was like suddenly losing his senses of sight, hearing, and touch, only that he still saw, heard, and felt the world.  But what he perceived lacked substance, as though he were moving through an endless and intricate series of unreal images which distorted themselves around him as he moved to preserve perspective.  He let his fingers trail against the frame of the door as he stepped through, and while he felt the cold metal against his skin, it was as though the sensation were a random misfiring of neurons, a phantom touch without any meaning or significance.  He felt weak and stupid.

This was what Plagueis planned for every Jedi, he thought.

The one good thing about this situation was that last thought had truly been in the privacy of his mind.  In this Force-empty place, his Master could not probe his thoughts.  The secret of the prisoner aboard the Executor would, for now, stay that way.

Assuming Plagueis didn’t return the Force solely for this conversation.

As Vader stepped inside, he surveyed the laboratory.  Specimen tanks filled with pale yellow liquid and the bodies of many different creatures, sentient and otherwise, lined the walls of the vast, high-ceilinged chamber.  Gleaming metal tables stood in two parallel rows down the room’s length.  Supported on them were paraphernalia of all tech levels, from the most basic – test tubes, syringes, scalpels, bits of flimsi – to the very highest – phenomenoscopic analyzers, scanning tunneling electroscopes, multimodal positronic computation processors.

At one of these tables, Plagueis sat in a hoverchair, bent over something small and furry.  Vader approached, unable to reach out with the Force to get a sense of what his Master was doing and so reliant on sight to inform him.  He saw that Plagueis was dissecting the body of an adult ysalamir; the flesh of the creature’s belly had been carefully sliced open and pinned to permit Plagueis access to the chest and intestinal cavities.  Mercifully, the ysalamir was definitely dead.

“Lord Vader,” Plagueis said, not looking up.  His metallic, transpirator-filtered voice sounded especially raspy.  It was odd, listening to him like this.  Normally, Vader could feel Plagueis’s words in his mind, meaning conveyed just as much by the Force as by the phonemes produced by the Muun’s hidden mouth.  Now everything felt flat.

“Master,” Vader acknowledged as he bowed.  “You summoned the Executor and asked to see me.”

“I did indeed,” Plagueis said.  He carefully sliced out a small gland of some sort and placed it on the table in front of him.  Even to Vader’s relatively untrained eye, he could see that the organ had fallen victim to a metastatic tumor.  “Word has reached me from our contact in the Hapan court.  The Jedi Order has subverted Terminus.  In exchange for his life, he gave them the location of this planet and told them its significance.”

Vader felt anger flare up inside him, despite the doubt which had been clouding his mind for the past three days.  “How is that possible?” he demanded.

“Venge is a traitor,” Plagueis said, not seeming to share Vader’s anger.  “Terminus was formed from him.  The entities I weave out of the Dark Side and install in the minds of my pawns necessarily have their origin in those pawns.  Even I cannot produce something from nothing.”

With a frown, Vader pointed out, “That did not seem to compromise Ghūl.  He fought against his former apprentices, just as you wished him to.”

Plagueis did not reply immediately, instead extracting another tumescent organ from the dead ysalamir.  He considered it for a few moments, then spoke.  “Ghūl’s function was to cause pain to those who had loved him.  Qui-Gon Jinn was not above causing pain to those closest to him in order to achieve a goal.  He was ready to cast aside Maul in favor of Anakin if the Council would not let him have his way.  He was ready to leave Anakin’s mother in slavery on Tatooine.  He was ready to leave Maul on Melida/Daan if the young Zabrak had chosen to remain and assist the Young in their struggle.”

Vader had carefully controlled his expression throughout the conversation, knowing that even in this Force-empty place his face could still give him away.  Plagueis’s casual mention of Shmi Skywalker, however, nearly broke his control.  He felt a muscle twitch in his cheek before he was able to impose stillness again.

Fortunately for Vader, Plagueis was too absorbed in his examination of the dead ysalamir’s guts to look at him.

“You know much about Qui-Gon’s past,” Vader observed.

“I know everything there was to know about him,” Plagueis replied.  “You do not break a one like that without coming to know them intimately.  My point, Lord Vader, is that Ghūl’s function was not diametrically opposed to Qui-Gon’s nature.  He was a teacher, and sometimes to teach requires pain; he was a selfish man, in his way, and these qualities I worked on.  With Terminus, I was yet less skilled then than I was when I made Ghūl.  And with a self-interested, treacherous, cunning mind to use as a foundation – well.  Even I am not infallible.”

Vader knew he was supposed to take this as an end to this conversational fork, and return to the issue of the Order knowing about Myrkr.  But the doubt coalesced, suddenly, into a burning desire, one so hot it felt as though he were in actual, physical pain.  Almost before he knew it, he was opening his mouth to ask the question that desperately needed to come out.

“What did you make out of me?”

For the first time, Plagueis looked up at him.  The glowing yellow eyes burned into him, seeming to rake his soul even in the absence of the Force.

“I fashioned no such entity in your mind, Lord Vader,” Plagueis said.  “Venge and Qui-Gon were tools, to be used and then discarded when they had served their purpose.  You are a true Sith.  I need no such assurances with you.”

Again, that was supposed to mark the end of the conversation.  But Vader pressed him, ignoring the obvious danger.  “That is precisely what you would say in order to keep my loyalty.”

Plagueis stood, a sudden movement.  Vader noted that his Master’s hand now rested unsubtly on the hilt of his lightsaber, which he wore clipped to his belt.  “Answer me this, apprentice,” he said, and there was no mistaking the dark menace in his voice.  “If I had created such a creature in your mind, would it not stand to reason that I would also have created one in the mind of Sidious?  I have known his treasonous intent toward me for more than a decade, but still I chose to accord him the respect due a true Sith Lord and let him make that decision under his own power.”

Vader felt naked without his saberspear, but he had left it on his Infiltrator.  To bring that weapon to a private meeting with his Master would have been as good as announcing murderous intent, after all.  “Sidious is powerful,” he said.  “He could have detected and destroyed the interloper within his mind.  From what Dooku reported to us following the Battle of Kamino, Qui-Gon evidently managed to suppress Ghūl just before he died.  Surely a true Sith, aware of the trap before it had been sprung, could do more.”

“I do not deny the possibility,” Plagueis said stiffly.  “Nevertheless, I deny that I did this thing to you or to Sidious.  I trained you from infancy to be a true Sith Lord, to be the Dark Chosen One.  You are my greatest achievement, and if I were still mortal you would be my successor and heir.  Is that not enough for you?  Why this sudden suspicion?”

Slowly, Vader crossed his arms over his chest.  “This defection by Terminus is disturbing,” he said, carefully modulating his tone to give the impression of embarrassed concern.  “First Venge, then Sidious, and now this.  I wondered that we did not have more measures in place to prevent it, given your powers, Master.  Which led me in turn to wonder –”

“Yes,” Plagueis said.  He did not sound less suspicious, but his hand had moved away from his lightsaber, at least.  “I see the train of your thoughts, now.”

“What is thy bidding?” Vader asked, switching to the old Sith mode of address.

“The Order will be launching their assault in forty local hours,” Plagueis replied.  “You will muster all the forces within range.  They will come here expecting to trap me; they will instead themselves be trapped.  Their situation is such that they cannot attack me without wholly committing to the effort, so this trap will spell the end of them as a military force.”

Vader nodded.  “Yes, my master.”

Plagueis re-seated himself and returned his attention to the ysalamir.  “Go then, Lord Vader.  Keep me apprised of the situation.”

As he turned to go, Vader hesitated.  One question yet remained.  It was the most dangerous of questions, because there was no way to ask it without arousing Plagueis’s suspicions yet again.  No easy excuse about Terminus’s betrayal would serve to cover his doubts.

But still, he had to know.

“If you were mortal,” he said, “I would be your heir.  This is what you said.  Am I then not, in some sense, your son?”

“Indeed,” Plagueis replied, beginning to remove another organ from the dead ysalamir.  “Just as Anakin Skywalker is in some sense my son as well.”

Vader took a deep breath and steeled himself.

“Do you then love me?”

To his horror, the scalpel actually fell from Plagueis’s fingers.  The Muun looked up at him with an expression of utter bewilderment.

“Where comes this sudden desire to know my mind?” Plagueis demanded.

Vader shook his head.  “If you do not, then say so and have done with it, Master.  It was only a passing thought.”

“You evade my question.”

“As you evaded mine.”

They locked eyes for a long minute, neither saying anything.  Every one of Vader’s muscles were tensed, ready to take him clear of a sudden attack from the Muun.

“I have only ever loved the subjects of my experimentation,” Plagueis finally said, “because one cannot help but develop feelings of attachment for the creatures in whose company one spends such a length of time.  But as I once told Sidious, it was love without compassion – for compassion has no place in the heart of a Sith.”  He placed his hands flat on the table, to either side of the dead ysalamir.  “Would you have me say I love you, apprentice, knowing that for me love is nothing but simple appreciation for what another may do for me?”

Vader shook his head.  “No, Master.”

“I thought as much.”  Plagueis deliberately picked the scalpel back up.  “I grow weary of conversation, Lord Vader.  Go now, and make our fleet ready for the trap.”

With a bow, not allowing himself to show any hint of the emotions roiling within him, Vader swept out of the room.

Chapter Text

Padmé found Anakin in his quarters, packing up the last of his gear.  Scant hours remained before the Order dispatched their forces in their last-ditch assault on Myrkr.

“I wanted to check on you,” she told him in response to his questioning gaze.  “I know that since Shmi disappeared you’ve been having a hard time.”

Anakin smiled wanly at her.  “I appreciate it.  But she told me to do my duty and not to worry about her, and that’s what I’ve got to do.  So… I’m doing it.”

Seating herself on his bed, Padmé reached out to touch his arm.  He permitted the touch, and she decided not to withdraw it.  “I know you are.  But I wanted to tell you that I’m going with the Mandalorian detachment.  As a ‘special observer.’”

That provoked a raised eyebrow from him, and he sat down on the bed next to her.  “Did Skirata get you some beskar armor?”

“He did,” she replied.  “I spoke to Jango and Walon, as well.  They’ve all agreed that the Mandalorians will stay mobile throughout the battle, and if Shmi’s location becomes known, we’ll mount a rescue attempt.”

Anakin’s eyes widened.  She could tell that he’d noted her unconscious use of the word ‘we’ – Kal had been rubbing off on her, she realized – but he was more focused on the ramifications of her statement.

“We can’t commit an entire detachment of our forces to rescuing one noncombatant,” Anakin protested.

“But she’s not a noncombatant,” Padmé said.  “She’s my friend, and your mother.  And if her note is true, which we have no reason to doubt, she’s involved herself in the war by trying to suborn a major enemy figure.  I’ve asked Master Yoda for special dispensation to treat her as a captured intelligence operative, and he’s agreed.”

“She said in her note not to –”

“Are you going to let that stop us?”

He finally sagged a little and moved his hand to cover her own.  “Thank you,” he told her.  “Really.  I – it’s been hard.”

“I know,” she said.  “And you’re welcome.”

There was a moment of tense silence, neither one of them wanting to withdraw first.

“There’s no telling if we’ll survive what’s coming,” Padmé said.

“That’s true.”

“If we do – if this attack is really going to help end the war – then I want to talk more when we get back.”  Padmé gave his arm a squeeze.  “You’ve grown a lot.  Changed a lot.  You’re a good man.”

She hesitated, unsure how to phrase what she wanted to say next, but Anakin filled in the gap for her.  “You want to see if there’s more to what you’re feeling right now.  About me.”

Padmé pursed her lips at him.  “Cheater.  Using the Force.”

That made him grin.  “No Force use at all, actually.  I made a guess and you confirmed it.”

Now she withdrew her hand and gave him a light slap across the back of his own.  “You’ve got a lot of cheek, you know.  Toying with an Ambassador’s affections.”

“Your affections, yes.  But you, I’d never toy with.  You, I’m very serious about.”  Anakin’s grin sobered into a soft smile.  “Take care of yourself out there, Padmé.  May the Force be with you.”

“You, too.”

And on an impulse, she leaned over and kissed him, very lightly, on the cheek.

He turned a very gratifying shade of pink, and his eyes sparkled.  “See you on the other side.”

“See you then,” Padmé acknowledged. 

She took one last look at him and left, hoping this was not the last time they would ever see one another.

Venge still wasn’t sure he was qualified to be standing in the center of this briefing room, but he didn’t let that show on his face.  Less than four hours ago, Yoda had called him in and granted him, in addition to his existing rank of Justicar, command over the 501st and 212th Legions.  With Vice-Admiral Skywalker otherwise engaged in the naval side of the coming engagement, he had explained, someone was needed to manage the 501st, and the 212th’s last commander had died in a battle over Umbara.

So Venge stood next to the projector and looked serious while Rex and the 212th’s Commander, a redoubtable fellow named Cody, went over the invasion plan with the division lieutenants.  Planetary assault was far from Venge’s forte, so he was happy to let the men handle the logistics.

“Once we’ve secured Hyllyard City,” Cody was saying, “the mobile armor detachments and scout bikers will advance into the Gruppa Forest to the north.  Intelligence has pinpointed this forest as the location of the enemy commander’s stronghold.  The forest is a few hundred klicks in diameter, so we’ll need to go for rapid coverage rather than search in detail.  Our hope is that the compound isn’t well-hidden enough to require a meter-by-meter scan.”

He hesitated as Boss, one of the eight clone commandos assigned to Venge raised his hand in a question.  “Yes, Sergeant?”

“Any special instructions for Delta and Prudii squads?” Boss asked.  “Or will we be assigned to infantry support?”

Venge spoke up, keeping his tone dry.  “You can be frank here, Boss.  ‘Are you going to use us properly or make us rough it with the meat cans?’”

Chuckles sounded around the room, which told him he’d managed to defuse a little of the pre-mission tension.  Scorch spoke up.  “I mean, you’re not wrong, sir.”

Rex gave Venge a look that said, you realize you’re enabling their bad behavior, then answered Boss’s question.  “Delta and Prudii squads will be assigned to Justicar Venge here as escort.  He’ll deploy you as the situation requires.  We have little hard intel on the precise locations of hardened defenses, enemy VIPs, and so forth, so it’s difficult to give you special assignments before we have boots on the ground.  I do hope these orders don’t offend your delicate sensibilities.”

“No, sir,” Boss said, his tone perfectly even and all the more sardonic for it.  “Thank you, sir.”

Cody continued.  “Once we’ve located the enemy compound, we secure it by any means necessary at whatever cost required.  Let me make this point perfectly clear, gentlemen: if the only way neutralize this place is to bury it in our bodies, we do it.”  He looked at Venge.  “Any other instructions, sir?”

“A warning,” Venge said.  “Not that any of you have ever relied on Jedi support –” more chuckles at this observation – “but if this would be the first time, think again.  This planet is home to an arboreal species of sessile herbivore called ysalamiri.  They push the Force away from themselves.  There are thousands of these things in the Gruppa Forest.  It’s possible that they’ve been seeded throughout orbital defenses, too.  The Jedi, and I, are going to be going into this fight with the expectation that we won’t have access to the Force.  We’re going to be relying on your skill and mettle more than ever before.”

“We’re up to the task, sir,” Rex told him.  “Isn’t that right, men?”

The entire briefing room thundered with the perfect unison of the men’s response.  “Sir, yes sir!”

“I never doubted it,” Venge said.  “Thank you, everyone.  Go and get your divisions in order.  We board ship in forty minutes.”

He knew what a Jedi would say at this point.  But he was not, and had never been, a Jedi.

So instead of wishing for the Force to be with them, he told them, “Good hunting.”

Grandmaster Yoda watched the men board their ships as the eternal rain of Kamino poured down.

The Force told him that the coming day was the day for which he had spent the entire war in preparation.  Ever since his fateful meeting with Darth Sidious, he had moved from one front to the next, visiting ship after ship, as well as returning to Kamino to ensure that the clones still in training were not neglected.

He did not know if he had done enough.  He had done all he could, but only time would tell if that was sufficient.

Standing next to him, Mace Windu asked, “What are you thinking about, Master Yoda?”

“Loss,” Yoda replied.  “The loss these men represent.”

Mace looked at him, and Yoda could read his confusion in the Force.  “Loss?”

“Picked up a blaster, we did,” Yoda told him.  “Asked it if it would fire, we did, yes.  But a blaster it still is.  Say ‘no’ to the thing it was made to do, could it truly?”  He sighed.  “That we had to ask the blaster to fire, the loss is.  That we could not ask the blaster if it would be something else.”

“We were put in a corner,” Mace argued.  “We were put there and the blaster was put in front of us.  Our choice was to pick it up or to let the galaxy fall.”

“Avoid the corner, we should have.”  Yoda poked Mace in the gut with his gimer stick.  “Blame the Sith, we should not.  Think about how we could have done better, we should.  Always think on that, we must.”

Mace rubbed absently at his stomach where Yoda had poked him.  “You’re right, of course.  I’m sorry, Master.”  He crossed his arms.  “What else can we do now, though?  Plagueis is a clear and present danger.”

“Consider how we will change afterward, we can.”  Yoda closed his eyes.  “Decide if there needs to be a Jedi Order, we can.”

“What?”  Mace rounded on him.  “Master Yoda, I can’t believe –”

“Believe it, you must!” Yoda scolded him.  “Old I am, Master Windu.  Too old to know what is best for these times, perhaps.  Go soon, I will.  Change, there will be.  What that change will be, we must decide.”  He gave Mace his best glare.  “And accept I will not that too set in his ways to change is Master Windu, when eight hundred and fifty years younger he is than me!”

Mace raised his hands in a gesture of mock surrender, though his expression and Force signature held deep pain at the thought of Yoda ‘going.’  “I understand, Master.  I’m sorry.  My mind is on the battle.  I find it hard to think about the day after tomorrow when tomorrow might kill all of us.”

Yoda chortled.  “Practical, young Master Windu is.  Admire that, I always have.”  He reached out and placed his small, green hand on Mace’s arm for a moment.  “And appreciate you, my friend, I always have too.”

“Thank you, Master.”  Mace gestured at a nearby dropship.  “Shall we go?”

“Yes.”  Yoda began making his way to the ship.

To war.

Chapter Text

Vader wasted no time as he entered Shmi’s cell.  “Admit that Yoda sent you here.”

Shmi looked up at him.  She still bore faint scarring from injuries he’d dealt her in his Force-driven tantrum, but the ministrations of doctors and bacta had dealt with them.  How odd, Vader thought, looking at this woman he had never actually known before the past few days.  I had never seen her – no images, no descriptions – until she surrendered to us, but her face is still familiar.

“I cannot admit to something that is not true,” Shmi told him.

Incoherent rage surged through Vader.  He whirled, slamming a fist into the wall of the cell so hard that the durasteel dented.  There was pain, but it was distant and the Dark Side shielded his body from damage.  “I refuse to believe that you came here and risked your life solely because you pity me!”

She frowned at him.  “Doesn’t the Force tell you that I’m truthful?  Can’t you sense my feelings?”

The rage disappeared, replaced by embarrassment and shame.  He adopted a haughty expression to cover this lapse.  “Lord Plagueis focused on my training in the useful aspects of the Force.  Manipulation, combat, domination.  He didn’t waste our precious time teaching me how to sense the feelings of those who can’t even use the Force themselves.”

“Could it be because he doesn’t want you to sense the genuine pity I have for you?”

Vader almost hit her, but he kept an iron grip on himself.  If he struck her and didn’t kill her on impact, she would have to go back into the bacta tanks, and there wasn’t time for that.  Projections indicated that the Order’s fleet would be arriving in less than six hours, and the Hapans less than an hour after that.  He needed answers, proper ones, before –

Before what?

Shmi must have seen the confusion and indecision on his face.  “You’re trying to determine,” she said softly, “what you’re going to do when the Order comes.”

“You said you couldn’t use the Force,” he barked.

“I can’t, not consciously.  But I’ve always been told I have very good instincts.  And that I’m quite empathetic.”  Shmi scooted herself over on the cell’s metal pallet.  “Sit.  We can talk.  There’s time for that.”

“I prefer to stand.”

“Because while you’re standing, it’s easier to run away if you don’t like the direction of the conversation?”

Vader glowered at her.  She knew precisely what she was doing.  Regardless of whether he stood or sat, he could either admit she was right about his fear, or he could manufacture a transparent excuse for why he did what he did.

He sat.  “Are you happy?”

“I’ll be happy when we’re both away from here, safe,” Shmi told him.  “Or, failing that, when you’re away from here and safe.”

“Do you value your own life so little?  Is that why it’s so easy for you to talk about your death?”

Shmi shook her head.  “It has nothing to do with my own life.  It has everything to do with my unconditional love for my son.  And, as I’ve said, you are my son.  Anakin never had a father; in the face of that, how can I draw an arbitrary line at the fact that I didn’t actually give birth to you?”

Vader looked down at his hands.  His fingerprints, he knew, would be different from Anakin’s.  The same with his eyes, his teeth, the fibers of his hair.  Genetics only went so far.  In every way that mattered, he was not Anakin.

Not that it seemed to matter to Shmi.

“What about the Myrmidons?” he asked.

“I know they’re failed clones of Anakin,” Shmi replied.  “I want to help them, too.  But I’ve seen the reports on the genetic abnormalities that afflict them, and the careful lobotomies that are part of making them into Myrmidons.  I cannot help them.  The only way to help them is to kill them, and I am not a killer.  But I can help you.

“It’s too perfect a coincidence that you appear wanting to help me only days before the decisive battle of the war.”

“I told you.  Before now, Anakin would not have been able to understand my motives.  He would have come after me, putting himself and others in danger.  If I died, it would have shattered him.  But he’s grown so much.  He’s become the man I knew he could be.  He will withstand the worst, now.”

“So you would have sacrificed my life to protect his,” Vader said triumphantly.  “There is a clear preference.”

Shmi shook her head.  “I could not destroy one son to save another.  No mother can truly make that choice.  By the numbers, I had one son safe and one in peril, and if I left then it would become two sons in peril with no clear path to bringing them both out.  But now that I know Anakin will persevere through my death, I can be here to help you.  The worst-case scenario is now only one of my sons being destroyed.”

Damn her for being right, he thought.  The numbers argument was dispassionate, which was not at all how he thought of her, but he recognized she was trying to make her point in a way the Sith would comprehend and even respect.

“We can go on beating this dead dewback,” she told him after a moment of silence, “but that will not get more distance out of it.  The question that falls to you now is this: will you accept that my purpose is to help you, without any ulterior motives?  Certainly if you choose to leave the Sith, it will help Anakin and the Order, but that is not why I came.  If you can accept this, we can discuss how we will proceed.  If you cannot, there is nothing more to say and I would appreciate solitude while I wait to die.”

Vader had no special sense for truth, unlike that Zabrak Jedi he had fought during the Battle of Kamino, but something in her expression, tone, and body language rang absolutely true to him.  His doubts and fears distilled themselves to a single point: She loves me despite everything I have done.  Plagueis will never love me, despite everything I have done.

He knew what he should do.  He should kill her, or order a proper mind-sifting by interrogator droids to determine if she had any useful information.  After doing one of those things, he should walk out of this cell and never see her again.

But her arguments had revealed this crux.  Some part of him, a part that Plagueis had never been able to successfully repress, needed this love she offered.  He craved validation for reasons beyond the strength of his sword arm or his power in the Dark Side.  Plagueis would never give him that validation.

So he would do the only thing he knew how to do: he would take it.

“Get up,” he told her, coming to his feet.

Shmi did as instructed.  “Where are we going?”

“To the bridge,” Vader replied.  “If you will insist that you love me as your son despite everything, then we will test that.”  The cell door slid open at his command, and he gestured to the two Super Battle Droids assigned to guard her.  They clapped binders onto her hands and began marching her after him as he strode toward the turbolift.

“How?” Shmi asked.

“You,” Vader replied, “are going to watch me destroy the Order’s fleet, massacre its troops, and ensure the destruction of the Jedi.  If your desire to see me liberated from my ‘slavery’ is truly independent of your hope to see the Order victorious, then my crushing that hope should not affect your other feelings.”

He did not have to look back at her to hear the carefully controlled horror in her voice.  “This is not the way.  Torture me to the point of death if you need to test the truth of my words, but the Order –”

“The Order and its puppet clones will die,” Vader snapped, whirling on her.  “I will spare Anakin, because I will need his help to overcome Plagueis if my old Master survives the coming battle.  The sons of Skywalker will destroy him, and we will rule the galaxy as brothers.  I think that should fulfill the Order’s ridiculous prophecy, no?  The two Chosen Ones, light and dark, ruling with absolute power, both the Jedi and the Sith destroyed.”

“You cannot believe that this is what I wanted when I came here,” Shmi said, her voice low and trembling slightly with strain.  “It is agony to see you trapped in the Dark Side.  I wanted to guide you away from it, to a place of peace.”

“Peace is a lie,” Vader shot back.  “There is only passion which leads to strength, strength which leads to power, power which leads to victory, victory which breaks my chains.  You wanted to show me that I was an unknowing slave, bound by chains I could not even see.  Congratulations; you’ve succeeded.  Now I am going to break those chains, and you will have the privilege of being there in person to watch me do it.” 

She shook her head.  “I refuse to believe you are beyond redemption, but this is wrong and you know it.  My love for you will not change, but if you do this, I will have no choice but to hope that Anakin and the other Jedi stop you.”

He grinned savagely at her, letting the flames of the Dark Side rise in his eyes.

“They can try, mother.

Chapter Text

Anakin watched the clock tick away the seconds and fractions of seconds until the entirety of the Jedi Order’s naval forces decanted in the Myrkr system.  He had a bad feeling about this, but so did literally everyone else on the bridge, so he felt there would be little point in sharing that opinion aloud.

That didn’t stop Captain Antilles and the other officers from working off a bit of the tension through banter, though.  “Ten credits says it’s a trap,” Antilles said to nobody in particular.

The principal weapons officer, a clone lieutenant named Sharps, laughed.  “Do you expect anyone to bet against that possibility, sir?”

The helmsman, a Sluissi recruit named Arvano, coiled his ophidian lower body a little tighter around his chair.  “We need to be talking over-under bets,” he contributed.  “Not whether it’s a trap, but how much of a trap.”

Antilles favored the two men with an amused look.  “All right, then.  Ten credits says it’s a trap with one and a half times our capital ship numbers.”

“Twenty says double,” Arvano immediately said.

It was the turn of the sensor officer, Eyes, to speak.  “Are we counting the Hapan contingent in these calculations?”

“No,” Antilles told him.

“Then let’s make it a little more interesting,” Sharps suggested.  “Let’s make a pool, and call whether over or under twice our number of capital ships, either with the Hapan reinforcements or without.”

The rest of the bridge crew – with the exception of Lieutenant Avery, who was the most straight-laced among them – seemed to think this was a good solution, but Anakin did the correct thing for the commanding officer and interrupted.  “Two minutes to realspace.  And naval regulations forbid gambling while aboard ship.”

There was the predictable series of groans and half-hearted protestations.  Anakin allowed them with good grace.  None of them cared about the bet.  It wasn’t that they were unafraid, and bantering to show how fearless they were; the banter was the acceptable way for fighting men to all admit that they were scared shitless and needed distraction.  It was good for morale to allow it.

After giving them the appropriate amount of time to vent, Anakin told them, “Organize the pool now and place your bets, but no money changes hands.  At all.  If we make it through this, I’ll have a sabaac game back on Kamino, and people’s buy-ins will be higher or lower depending on what they bet here.”

Antilles couldn’t help but snort.  “That’s so flimsy I don’t even know that it keeps to the letter of the regulation, sir.”

“Maybe,” Anakin said.  “Do you want to report me to the Lord Admiral?”

“No, sir.”

“Didn’t think so.”  Anakin went back to watching the countdown, letting his men get the pool in order with the sixty seconds they had remaining.  He didn’t think it was immodest to say that he’d gotten very good, over the course of this war, at giving his men something to look forward to when battle loomed.  There had certainly been enough of it.

“Decanting in ten,” the navigation officer began the countdown.  “Nine, eight, seven…”

In Indomitable’s hold, crammed into a larty with Rex, two commando squads, and as many clone army regulars as would fit into the gunship, Venge finished the countdown.

Two.  One.

The larty lurched a bit as Indomitable dropped out of hyperspace.  Venge didn’t have a helmet, but his earpiece was wired into the clones’ tightbeam communications, so he heard the collective intake of breath as the men saw the visual feed from Indomitable’s bridge.  He felt the dread pound through the Force like a seismic wave.

“One thousand, two hundred and eighty-six capital ships of varying sizes,” Rex reported.  “Over a million droid starfighters.  This has to be the CIS’s entire navy, or at least so much of it that it hardly matters if some hang back.”

Venge nodded grimly.  The Order had done well, numbers-wise, during the war, losing only eleven Venator cruisers, leaving them with four hundred and eighty-nine for this operation, as well as their support craft.  Even so, they were outnumbered more than two to one.  He could still feel that the Force was with him, and perhaps the Jedi taking part in the naval battle would still be able to use it.  But he knew that Force deprivation awaited him on the planet surface.

“Doubt we’ll be needing the Lord Admiral’s magic gravity projectors,” Rex sighed.  “They’re going to be trying to keep us from escaping, not the other way ’round.”

“The Hapan reinforcements are forty minutes out, and they’ll go a long way toward evening the numbers,” Venge reminded him.  “Thrawn knows how to work a superior enemy force to draw the battle out.  All we have to do is land on Myrkr in one piece, find the enemy compound, and capture or kill the most powerful Sith Lord ever known, and the battle will be good as won.  It’ll be fine.”

Through his earpiece, he heard the sound of Rex swallowing, an unavoidable side effect of having microphones wired into men’s helmets.  “When you say it like that, sir,” Rex said dryly, “I wonder if we even need the navy.”

A new, cool voice broke into the circuit.  “This is Lord Admiral Thrawn.  All ground forces will launch with starfighter cover in thirty seconds.  Enemy numbers make clearing a safe path for you… impractical.  We will be relying on your superior abilities and a bit of luck to see you down.  Good hunting.”

“Oh, good,” Venge sighed.  “I was afraid this might be boring.”

“You heard the Lord Admiral, boys,” Rex barked at the rest of the clones in the larty.  “What are we here to do?”

“Scrap clankers!” they thundered at him.

“What else?” Rex demanded.

“Win this war!”

“What does that make us?”

“Kriffing heroes, sir!”

Rex chuckled.  Venge knew he was not a man given to laughter of any kind, but he recognized this chuckle.  It was a carefully calculated display of bravado, designed to let his men know that he appreciated them, and recognized their bravery, and was with them until the end, and that he was both worried for them and not worried at all.  It was all encapsulated in a single, wordless exclamation.  It was the sound of a true commander.

“There’s the green light, pilot,” Rex said.  “Brothers, let’s earn our keep today.”

Padmé, seated in the copilot’s seat in Slave I, angled the deflectors toward a particularly thick cluster of droid starfighters.  Her caution was rewarded when the reinforced screens turned aside a withering hail of laser fire that Jango’s expert piloting didn’t quite manage to avoid entirely.  A moment later, another Mando ship – that one piloted by Rav Bralor, Padmé tentatively identified it – lanced a missile into the center of the droid formation and blew it apart in a spectacular shower of fire and scrap.

“Thanks, vod,” Jango barked into the comm.  “Kal, do your boys have a course for us yet?”

“My lads have finished their probabilistic analysis,” Kal’s voice crackled in reply.  He and the Nulls were all aboard a Mando light corvette, and Padmé knew the Nulls had been putting their daunting intellects to work figuring out where the Mandalorian contingent needed to go for their special mission.  “They say it’s damn near a hundred percent certain that the dar’jetii we want, and Shmi, are aboard that big ship, the Executor.  How we’re going to get there is the part they haven’t solved yet.”

Padmé couldn’t blame them.  The space above Myrkr, at only ten minutes into the battle, was a seething mass of fighter craft, laser bolts, missiles, and debris, and it was only intensifying as the two sides’ capital ships swung into broadside range.  If they tried to fly straight through it toward the Executor, chance alone dictated that they would be destroyed almost instantaneously.

She hadn’t even been able to see if Venge had landed safely.  It was too intense up here.

“What about a flanking approach?” Padmé asked.

“If we left the melee to do that, it’d be too easy to see us coming,” Jango told her.  “We need some kind of shabla cover to get us across the thick of it, but it’s not like that’s readily available in vacuum.”

Padmé considered the problem for a moment.  “I have an idea,” she said.  She swiveled in her seat to the communications panel and tapped in the high-level access code that she was definitely not supposed to have.  “Anakin, I need your help.”

Anakin’s voice was strained when he responded.  “Padmé?  Listen, I don’t know how you got access to this frequency, but I’m trying to help run a battle.  Our forces are already committed.”

“I don’t need forces,” Padmé said.  “I need as many torpedoes fired at the Executor as possible.  Straight-line, no guidance, simultaneous launch, along the following vector.”  She keyed in a coordinate sequence that would be transmitted to Indomitable’s targeting computer.

There was a moment of silence.  “You realize that everyone is just going to fly out of the way of these things, and then the Executor will shoot down every single one of them with point defenses.”

“Yes.  Can you do this or not?”

“I can.”  There was a barely audible sigh.  “I trust that you know what you’re about, Padmé.  Torpedo launch in thirty seconds.  May the Force be with you.”  He clicked off.

Padmé switched back to the general Mando comms.  “In less than thirty seconds, our fleet is going to launch as many torpedoes as possible on a straight line at the Executor, along this vector,” she told them.  “Haul your shebse over there and prepare to ride in the torpedoes’ wake.”

There was a chorus of acknowledgments, along with several exclamations of “Kandosii!” and “Mandokarla!,” and she was thrown against her safety restraints as Jango corkscrewed Slave I around to come to the proper heading.  “Good thinking, Ambassador,” he said.  “Starfighters won’t bother with unguided torpedoes; they have better targets to worry about.  The torpedoes’ propellant wash will give us sensor cover.  And by the time we get into point defense range of the Executor –”

“We’ll be too close for them to stop us from boarding,” Padmé finished for him.  “I hope you’re ready for a boarding action.”

“Born ready,” he said, flashing her a savage grin.  “Oya!

Unnoticed by any of the millions of combatants battling furiously in the space above Myrkr, a single, Stygium-cloaked craft swept down into the planet’s atmosphere.

Its sole occupant grimaced as he felt the Force-dampening effect of the ysalamiri engulf him.  This was not a planet meant for Jedi or Sith, he reflected.  But he now had nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.  Power, position, vengeance.

Especially vengeance.

Darth Sidious settled the Sith Infiltrator into the forest, shut all its systems down except for passive sensors, and prepared himself for the wait.

Chapter Text

Captain Gilad Pellaeon looked up from his board at Lord Admiral Thrawn.  “Message from the Death’s Head,” he reported.  “Our left flank is beginning to weaken.  Huge numbers of droid bombers have concentrated their missile fire there, and our own interceptors and point defenses are being pushed past their limit.”

Thrawn’s mouth was drawn into a thin, tight line as he regarded the tactical board.  “Whoever the fleet’s commander is, he displays a keen understanding of target prioritization and focus,” Thrawn observed.  His voice was calm, but Pellaeon could hear the strain in it.  “Get the Vice Admiral on the line.”

Pellaeon obeyed, punching in Skywalker’s comm frequency.  The young man spoke a moment later, the transmission voice-only.  He sounded strained, too.  “Lord Admiral.”

“Can the right flank spare any of its fighter screen?” Thrawn asked.  “The left flank is being pounded to dust by enemy bombers.”

There was a noise that sounded like air being sucked thoughtfully through teeth.  “I think so.  Twelve squadrons?”

“Appreciated.  Thrawn out.”  The Lord Admiral drew a finger across his throat, an instruction for Pellaeon to cut the comm.  “Detail eight of our own squadrons to bomber hunting duty on the left flank as well,” he ordered.

Pellaeon cleared his throat, internally bracing himself.  It was his job to raise possible problems with the Lord Admiral’s orders.  “With all due respect, sir, we’re already being savaged by long-range torpedo fire from the enemy capitals.  If we divert our fighter screen –”

“Noted, Captain, but the enemy capitals are holding position in high orbit of the planet to deny us bombardment positions,” Thrawn cut him off.  “Their bomber force is their most mobile threat at the moment.  If we can neutralize it, their numbers will become less formidable as maneuverability is ceded to us.  The Hapans are still twenty minutes out.”

“Yes, sir.”  Pellaeon keyed in the order and watched the tactical display show eight dots veering away from the Order’s central force.  He prepared himself for increased reports of torpedo damage from the other ships.

A new voice came over the comm system.  “Lord Admiral.”  It was quite unmistakably Grandmaster Yoda.  “Drawn squadrons off of the right flank, Warmaster Windu says you have.  Cover it, should my Jedi starfighters?”

“I leave the decision of covering the right flank or the central force to you, Grandmaster,” Thrawn told him.  The vast majority of the Order’s warriors – those who had not been left behind on Kamino to lead a potential defense, or preemptively scattered throughout the galaxy to ensure that the Order could not be wiped out in a single engagement – were participating in the orbital battle, where they could still use the Force.  Thrawn had ceded command of them to Yoda and Windu, rather than deal with potential difficulties arising from Force imperatives conflicting with his orders.

“Understood,” Yoda replied.  “Tell me the status of the ground forces, can you?”

Thrawn motioned at Pellaeon, who brought up the numbers on his board.  He winced a little before reporting to Yoda.  “Twenty-eight percent of our ground forces were destroyed, lost, or forced to retreat en route to the planet,” he said.  These were hideous losses for any engagement, and the men hadn’t even hit the ground itself yet.  “Among the confirmed losses are three of the nine Masters who volunteered for the ground assault, as well as their accompanying Knights and Padawans.  Our remaining forces are making assault landings at Hyllyard City.”

It was disgustingly unfair, he thought bitterly as he scanned the names of the dead Padawans in particular.  Children no older than sixteen, volunteering for such dangerous work, crammed into landing craft and then burned out of the sky before they ever saw the ground they had intended to fight on.  For that matter, none of the clones were chronologically older than fifteen.  Most trended closer to between nine and twelve.

“Captain,” Thrawn said, his voice almost gentle.  “Are you all right?”

Pellaeon straightened, blinking his macabre thoughts away.  “Yes, sir.  Apologies, Lord Admiral.  I was… distracted.”

He saw Thrawn’s lip twitch, just slightly.  “Understood and accepted, Captain.  To your station.”

“Yes, sir.”  Pellaeon turned back to his board with a renewed sense of purpose.  If he did his job well, he could perhaps lower the amount of child soldiers who died today.  That, regardless of who his enemies were or what they would do if they won, was reason enough for him.

The battle went on, and Pellaeon watched the casualties rise.

“Maybe,” Venge growled, “we should have gone in from the north.”

A plasma artillery round detonated nearby, drowning out Rex’s first attempt at an answer.  The two men, along with the hundreds of other nearby troops currently advancing on Hyllyard City, threw themselves to the ground as dirt ejected from the explosion rained down on them.

“Anti-aircraft fire was too intense on the north side to put anyone down,” Rex said after the roar of the detonation faded.  “They knew exactly what they were doing.”

Venge had to agree.  The Order’s troops had been forced to land south of Hyllyard City, in a hilly but otherwise featureless plain.  Waist-high, pale green grass covered the land as far as the eye could see.  The men, numbering in the hundreds of thousands even after their approach casualties, had disembarked in a kilometers-long swath.

The CIS’s ground forces had been waiting for them.  Fortified artillery positions within the city had opened fire, while atmospheric fighters and other repulsorcraft rained more fire down from above.  Venge’s heavy armor had been hit especially hard; they had lost twelve of the 501st’s fifty assault walkers in the first quarter hour, to say nothing of the thousands of troops dying in droves.  He was almost thankful he couldn’t feel the Force right now.

They had advanced meter by brutal meter, however, until the city was in sight three kilometers away.  Between them and it were nothing but open fields and legion upon legion of battle droids.

“Cody!” Venge called into his comm.  “Status of the 212th!”

“We’re having the stuffing beaten out of us,” Cody replied, not trying to hide the pain and anger in his voice.  Venge could hear the sounds of fighting in the background of his transmission.  “Heavy casualties from artillery fire and their air support.  This blitz was a bad tactical decision, sir.  We should have landed farther out and gone in slowly with flanking forces.”

“Agreed, but we don’t have the time,” Venge told him.  “If Thrawn has to pull the navy back, that frees up the CIS capitals and fighters to focus on bombardment duty.  If we’re still out in the open and that happens, it won’t matter how smart we’re deployed.  We’ll be roast dewback in a Coruscant second.”

Cody growled something that Venge didn’t catch but was probably profane.  “Yes, sir.  We’re still pushing up the right flank.  Lot of spider droids in our way, though.  It’s going to be a rough time.”

“Master Gallia,” Venge said, telling his earpiece to tie the Council member into the transmission.  A beep told him a moment later that it had been done.  “Master Gallia, see if you can swing your 181st around to help the 212th.  Commander Cody tells me he’s got spider droids in his way.”

Adi Gallia’s voice crackled back, her words barely audible over the sounds of repulsor engines.  “Can’t!  We’re engaged with an outrider force of – by the Force, they’ve got lances –”

Her transmission cut out abruptly.

“That didn’t sound good, sir,” Rex said.  “I’ll keep things moving here if you want to check it out.”

“I think I ought to,” Venge agreed.  “Cody, tighten up the 212th and engage the spider droids, but don’t commit until you hear from me.  I’m going to find out what’s giving the 181st such a hard time.”

“Roger, sir.”

Rex waved at a scout trooper.  “Give the Justicar your bike,” he called.  “He needs it for a recce.”

Boss, the de facto leader of the two commando squads assigned to Venge, protested.  “You want us to shift it after you on foot, sir?”

Venge gave him a look.  He knew that the commandos were already upset about being forced to play infantry – meat-canning, they called it.  They had every right to be, of course; they were fine soldiers with exceptional gear, but they had been trained to perform asymmetrical warfare and wet work, not charge artillery in the open plains.  “Captain Rex will flag down –”  He stopped talking and dropped at the sound of another plasma detonation.  “He’ll flag down eight more bikes, or maybe a larty, for you,” Venge told the commandos a few seconds later, regaining his feet.  “Rejoin me when you can.  Keep him in one piece until then.”

Snapping a salute, Boss told him, “Yes, sir.”  He wasn’t happy, but he was a good soldier.  He would follow orders.

Opening the bike’s throttle up, Venge sped east over the plains in the direction of the 181st.  He piloted himself just behind the Order’s lines, not wanting to get caught in a crossfire between the men and the droid army in their way.  The entire time, he silently cursed his Force-blindness.  He was having to slow the bike and maneuver carefully around friendlies where he would have otherwise blasted through at full speed.  Plagueis knew what he was doing, picking this planet to force a confrontation.

The bike sped over a final hill, its momentum taking it high into the air in a potentially risky move that Venge felt was justified due to the vantage it gave him.  He looked down at where the 181st was supposed to be holding the line and swore.

Dozens of what looked like late-model IG-series combat droids were riding roughshod over the troops.  The IGs were mounted on swoops, and gripped in their outstretched arms were two-meter-long, razor-sharp lances.  Venge winced as he saw one droid impale two clones in a single thrust, then whip their bodies back off its weapon and send them flying into three more men.  In the open plains, with their own armor damaged or destroyed by artillery fire in the approach to the city, the infantry of the 181st were being slaughtered by the swoop cavalry.

Jedi Master Adi Gallia was easy enough to spot, since she was the only one with a lightsaber in the seething mess.  She was engaged in a one-on-one duel with a monstrous humanoid figure.  The thing stood three meters tall, and was encased in what looked like durasteel armor from head to toe.  She was slashing at it with her lightsaber, and it was blocking her attacks with a pair of rounded energy shields projected from its vambraces.

He beelined for the duel, simultaneously ordering armored backup for the 181st.  As he closed, he aimed his speeder straight at the armored figure and braced himself.

The collision sent him flying, as he’d known it would.  Without the Force, his landing was clumsy, but he managed to tuck into a roll that got him back onto his feet, lightsaber in his phrik hand.  The speeder had literally torn the giant in half, carving through its waist.  The torso lay in one spot and the legs in another, viscous liquid oozing from both ends.

“Justicar Venge,” Gallia said to him, nodding gratefully.  “Your timing is excellent.  There was no chance I was going to win that fight without the Force.”

“It was –” Venge started, then clicked his jaw shut when he saw what was happening behind her.

Long, thick tentacles were extruding from the gaping hole in the thing’s torso, sliding through the grass toward the legs.  Even as Venge watched, the feelers made contact, and the two halves of the monster’s body jerked and twitched back together, making obscene squelching noises.

“Oh, hell,” Venge muttered.

It leapt at him, moving much faster than he’d anticipated, its gauntlet ejecting a long blade which it stabbed straight toward his face –

Chapter Text

The battle above Myrkr continued to rage.  The exchanges of fire and countless explosions illuminated the otherwise dimly-lit bridge of the Executor.  Seated in his command chair, Darth Vader watched the conflict – but with only a fraction of his total attention.  The rest of his focus was on reading Shmi Skywalker in the Force.

Despite his almost nonexistent talents in the realm of emotional detection, he could feel her pain.  She stood next to his chair, uncuffed but guarded by a Super Battle Droid standing behind her and to her left.  It hurt her to watch his forces destroy all of these clones, along with the occasional non-clone volunteer or even a Jedi.  Her desire to see him stop keened at him like a wounded animal.

What was missing was the anger.  Vader knew, instinctively, that perhaps barring Yoda himself, any other being who stood where Shmi stood would be angry.  Whatever their efforts to control that anger, corrosive hatred for him and his casual annihilation of all those lives would make itself plain to him.  Anger he knew intimately.  Anger was the one emotion he was absolutely certain he could detect with perfect accuracy – hence his decision to bring her up here and make her watch the massacre.

Was it the love she professed to have for him?  Was that blocking the anger?

“Admiral Trench,” he said.  “How many enemy soldiers have we killed so far?”

The Harch officer turned to look at him, his chelicerae clicking in the species’ most distinctive vocal mannerism.  Vader instinctively found the arachnid being repellent, and correctly identified that repulsion as a learned survival trait ingrained into his species at the evolutionary level.  Humans knew that spiders were venomous, dangerous, and had too many limbs.  He didn’t actually know very much about Harch physiology, but Vader was certain that at least the latter two descriptors applied to Trench.

“Impossible to say, Lord Vader,” Trench told him.  “I could give you an estimate based on the number of enemy ships downed so far.”

“That will do,” Vader replied, keeping his senses focused on Shmi.

Trench turned to confer with a tactical droid, then looked back at Vader.  “Seventy-nine thousand, give or take several thousand in either direction.”

There: a fresh wave of pain, but still no anger.  Could it be that Shmi simply didn’t care about the clones?  Did she view them as subhuman because of their origins?  Vader rejected both ideas almost instantly.  As far as he could tell, she was an empathetic, caring person, precisely the kind of moralizing fool the Jedi Order held in the highest regard.  She would absolutely regard the clones as living beings and care for them as such.  The amount of emotional pain she was feeling permitted no less than that.

The Hapans were due in less than five minutes.  For more than half an hour now, Vader had watched Shmi’s every reaction to the ongoing battle, and he had no choice but to conclude that she had been telling the truth.  She had come to him of her own free will, with no designs on him beyond urging him to free himself from his unknowing slavery to Plagueis.  What was happening now was the result of his doing just that, but in a way that hurt her.

She wanted me to turn away from the Dark Side.  To go with her to the Order.  But I am a Sith.  I will take my freedom the way every Sith has taken it for a thousand years.

If he ruled the galaxy, after all, there was no way he could ever be a slave again.

“Lord Vader!” Trench spoke up.  “We have additional ships dropping out of hyperspace!  The Hapans are here early.”

Vader looked at the tactical board next to his seat.  Sure enough, there they were.  The Battle Dragons and Novas were decanting, dropping into realspace with the distinctive jolts of pseudomotion characteristic to ships returning from hyperspace.  Vader’s fleet was largely positioned above the planet to deny orbital access to the Jedi’s forces, which were in turn attacking in a wide crescent formation, forcing the CIS to spread out their fire.  The Hapans had come into the system in a flanking maneuver, evidently designed to let them come around Myrkr’s orbital plane to slash into the CIS’s flank.

Evidently, at any rate.

Vader touched a control on his armrest.  “Garan,” he said.  “Are your people in control?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, then the traitor prince’s voice sounded over the Executor’s comm system.  “Yes, Lord Vader.”

“Good.  Bring your ships around the planet as though you were executing the maneuver the Jedi expect.  Then slide into formation with us, shields forward, and take the fight to the Order.”

“Copy.”  Garan clicked off.

“Admiral Trench,” Vader called.  “Let’s do some quick battlefield projections, shall we?”

“Of course, Lord Vader.”  Trench keyed his console and pulled up a tactical hologram of the battle, suspending it in the air before him and Vader.  “What do you want to project?”

“If the Hapans were to intervene in the battle on the side of the Order, double-crossing us, what would be the likely outcome?”

Trench entered the data into the tactical simulator.  The hologram showed the Hapan forces, represented by green dots, sweep into the blue mass of CIS ships.  Between them and the red Order ships, the CIS suffered a crippling blow.

“It would still take at least an hour, but the simulator indicates they would force us to retreat or destroy us,” Trench announced.  “I concur with its assessment.”

“Next,” Vader said.  “If Garan keeps his word, and intervenes on our behalf?”

That simulation was even faster.  “Total loss for the Order,” Trench said, gesturing at the hologram with his three left hands.

“And,” Vader asked, “if the Hapans had never come into the equation at all?”

Trench hesitated, obviously confused, but he dutifully programmed the parameters into the simulator.  “As expected, Lord Vader,” he reported.  “The Order has been doing better than the initial projections we made half an hour ago, but without a massive shift in their favor – either in numbers or in some other tactical sense – they will eventually be forced to withdraw or suffer devastating losses.  The disparity between our fleets is simply too great for even Thrawn to overcome.”

Vader grinned at him.  “So, in your opinion as an expert military commander, the Hapan ships are unnecessary for a CIS victory in this battle?”

With a nod, Trench replied, “That is correct, my lord.”  He cocked his head at Vader, his many eyes dilating slightly in the Harch version of a suspicious narrowing.  “If I may, why are we exploring these projections?”

“I’ve just had a revelation,” Vader replied.  He hadn’t, actually; he’d just been waiting for the opportune moment to reveal what he’d deduced earlier that day.  Plagueis had instilled in him a flair for the dramatic, after all.  “Consider, Admiral Trench.  The one way this engagement goes in their favor is if our puppet prince fails to do his job.  Do you seriously believe that Lord Admiral Thrawn would agree to lead the Jedi Order’s forces in a suicide attack?”

Trench sputtered, which was a truly hideous sight.  “Lord Vader, Garan is the one who informed us of Terminus’s treachery!  Without his intel, the Order would be attacking a defenseless target!  Lord Plagueis specifically chose to rely on secrecy for the Myrkr project rather than on overwhelming defensive force!”

“Again, let us consider the possibilities,” Vader said.  “The Order receives intelligence from Terminus about Myrkr – its location and the fact that it is important to the CIS.  Plagueis himself is there, Terminus tells them.  What does the Order do?  Do they dispatch what ships they have in a lightning strike to assassinate him, relying on Thrawn’s gravity well projector to keep him from escaping?  No.  They contact the Hapans and arrange a huge attack, a last-ditch, all-out joint effort, to take Myrkr.”  He held up a finger to silence Trench’s incoming protest.  “They do this, Admiral Trench, despite the fact that they know there is still a traitor within the Hapan government, and word of their movements will doubtless make it back to the CIS.”

Trench’s mandibles hung open for a few moments before he regained the presence of mind to click them back together.  “Terminus also identified the traitor to them,” he said.

Vader nodded slowly, letting a smile spread across his face.  “The Queen Mother then moved against Garan, subdued him and his faction, and used them to draw the CIS fleet into a battle that we would be sure to lose when the traitor failed to actually make his move.”

“I am amazed,” Trench said, “that Lord Plagueis did not warn us of this.”

“Signal the fleet,” Vader told him, ignoring the comment.  “If the Hapans open fire, crush them instantly.  Ignore the Order’s ships entirely.  However, I expect them to follow our battle plan and to insert themselves as closely as possible into our formation in order to increase the effectiveness of their first strike.”

Trench bobbed his head.  “I agree, my lord.”

“Use the simulator to project the ideal time for them to attack.  Send that information to the rest of the fleet.”  Vader swiveled to gaze out the port viewports at the specks of light which were the incoming Hapan ships.

“Three minutes before they are ready, annihilate them.”

Chapter Text

Padmé shot another droid in the head and ducked back beneath their makeshift barricade, narrowly avoiding the withering hail of fire which its fellows hurled at her.  “How’s that door coming?” she called.

There was a loud sparking sound, followed by a hearty Mando curse.  “They really don’t want us getting into the command superstructure, that’s how,” Kal’s son Kom’rk growled.  He was sitting on the floor, surrounded by a mess of wires trailing out of a console in the wall.  To the left of the console was a truly massive door, which was – as far as the boarding party had been able to determine – the only way that creatures larger than a mouse droid could get into the command tower of the Executor.

Skirata’s other five Null ARC sons, as well as the little Sergeant himself, were gathered around the door, either trying to slice its controls, jump-start its hydraulic release, or just burn through it.  Padmé, Jango Fett, Walon Vau, Rav Bralor, Mij Gilamar, and half a dozen other Cuy’val Dar Mandos were holding off the droid advance.  Their barricade had begun its life as ten large cargo crates they’d appropriated from a nearby hangar when it had become clear they needed to batten down for a siege.  It had since expanded considerably in the last twenty minutes, as more and more dead droids had been heaped atop and between the crates themselves.

There was a loud blast, and Jango dropped back behind the barricade to Padmé’s left with a hiss.  “Shab!

“What happened?” Padmé asked.  “I was reloading.”

“One of these di’kutla hut’uune just shot a mini-spider droid in the fuel cells,” Jango growled, jerking a thumb at the rest of the Mando contingent.  “I just felt a piece of shrapnel hit me under my left arm.”

Usen’ye, Jango!” Bralor bellowed at him.  “It was shoot it in the fuel cells or watch it plant a be’senaar right in the middle of our wall!  Or did you not see the underslung launcher?”

Jango gave her a rude gesture as he slashed open his undertunic with his wrist knife and slapped a bacta patch against the impact site.  That would keep the wound from getting infected, Padmé thought, until the splinter of metal could be removed.

Be’senaar?” Padmé asked, popping back up to take another few shots before the droids began focusing on her again.  “I don’t know that one.”

“Missile,” Jango said.  “Specifically a low-yield one used against people.  Proton torpedoes and the like are me’senkyr’am. ‘Ship death.’”

“We could use one of those to deal with this blasted door,” Padmé said.

To her right, Vau, who had spent most of the protracted shootout silently offing droids with a Verpine rifle he’d borrowed from Skirata, laughed quietly.  The sound was barely audible over the blaster fire and occasional grenade, but Padmé could still hear it.  “We’d need to be a quarter kilometer away not to go up with it if we tried that.”

“And?” Padmé asked.  “Any other reason why that wouldn’t work?”

“It might destabilize the ship’s structural integrity too much for us to even be able to get access to the command superstructure,” Jango told her.  “This is the slow, annoying way to do it, but it’s also the way that’ll work.”  He snapped off another shot at the droids.  “Assuming that certain people haven’t massively exaggerated how good their sons are at slicing!” he called pointedly over his shoulder.

Mir’osik,” Skirata barked back at Jango.  Dung for brains, Padmé mentally translated.  She was picking up quite a lot of Mando’a, at this point.  “My lads know their stuff.  Not their fault that Vader’s got his ship sealed up tighter than a –”

The door made a loud boom as its seal broke, and the two massive halves began to slide apart.

“See?” Skirata laughed.  “Like magic.  I –”

Padmé stared in horror as the passageway on the other side of the door began to disgorge dozens of Myrmidons.  Lightsabers blazing, they fell on Skirata and his sons, while others leapt over their fellows’ heads to take the fight to the rest of the Cuy’val Dar, pressing them up against the barricade which had been keeping them alive a moment earlier.

One of them landed in a crouch of in front of Padmé.  She felt a terrific, invisible force slam into her chest, crushing her against the cargo crate behind her.  If she hadn’t been wearing beskar, she was certain the impacts would have broken every bone in her chest and back.  The Myrmidon followed up with a lightsaber jab straight into her heart, but the beskar turned the blade aside.  It corkscrewed away along the surface of the Mandalorian iron to embed itself deeply into the crate.

Padmé, in pain and winded, still managed to snap her blaster up to fire half a dozen shots into the Myrmidon’s gut.  Its armor absorbed the first three shots, but the last three penetrated.  The cyborg staggered back, Anakin’s eyes glaring out at her from beneath its metal mask.  Padmé seized the opening and twitched the blaster up to beneath the thing’s chin, where there was a hint of flesh visible between the mask and the sheath of armor around the throat.  She fired a single bolt.

Green plasma flames erupted from the eye holes in the mask and the Myrmidon dropped.  Padmé knew, from Ordo’s report, that it could get back up if the cybernetic implants in its brain were still functional.  Fortunately, she was confident that this one no longer had a brain.

Myrmidons and Mandalorians were struggling everywhere she looked.  Vau, wielding his beskar saber, deftly parried a vicious blow from an opponent, then skewered it through the torso.  He tossed the saber to his other hand, drew his pistol, and shot it in the head to keep it down.  Gilamar got his crushgaunt-clad hand’s fingers hooked into the eyes of another Myrmidon, then let his weaponized gauntlets trigger, literally pulping the creature’s face.

She looked for Skirata, and felt her heart stop.  He was down, a Myrmidon towering over him, lightsaber held aloft.  The Nulls were all occupied with foes of their own, too far away to get to him.

Padmé screamed a challenge, knowing that it was useless with these cold-blooded things but unable to contain her fear and anger.  She snapped up her blaster and fired into the Myrmidon’s back, over and over, not expecting to penetrate the thicker armor there but hoping to distract it, keep it from delivering the coup de grace while she closed the distance.

It staggered around to confront her.  She was less than a meter away when it lashed out with a deadly kick at her head.  Helmet or no, it would definitely drop her if it landed.  Padmé let her legs go out from under her, and she skidded beneath the kick into the Myrmidon’s other leg, spilling it to the floor.

Grappling with it was a poor decision, but letting it keep its lightsaber hand free would be a worse one.  Padmé flipped herself onto her back, whirled a leg around to kick out at the blazing weapon’s hilt.  Her armored toe landed perfectly against the Myrmidon’s metal wrist, sending the lightsaber flying from its grip to skid across the floor.  It twisted on top of her, its other hand going for her throat.

Self-defense reflexes kicked in.  Padmé got her left forearm between the Myrmidon’s grasping fingers and her throat, keeping it from strangling her or just ripping out her windpipe.  She tried to bring her blaster around next, but it pinned her wrist with a heavy prosthetic knee.  Its saber hand, now empty, came around, fingers curled into a metal fist, and slammed into the side of her helmet with bone-jarring force.

I can’t take another hit like that.  She might already be concussed, and if she lost consciousness that would be the end of her.  Padmé got a knee into the Myrmidon’s stomach, levered her other foot beneath her, and pushed her muscles into a convulsive wave, hurling the cyborg off of her while also kipping herself back up.  She landed on her knees rather than her feet, which was less than ideal, but at least she was no longer on the ground.

The Myrmidon had turned, going for its lightsaber.  Padmé shoved herself to her feet, took three running steps, and leapt atop its back, wrapping her left arm in a chokehold around its neck and grabbing her wrist with her other hand.  With all her might, she squeezed.

Its neck was armored, but by necessity it was light, flexible material rather than hardened plates.  Padmé’s crushing grip forced that material into the flesh of the Myrmidon’s throat, pressing on its windpipe.

It took less than fifteen pounds of pressure to collapse a human windpipe.  Myrmidons, seemingly, were not exceptional in that regard.

When it collapsed beneath her, taking her down with it, Padmé scrabbled for its lightsaber.  She got the hilt into her hand, ignited the crimson blade, and stabbed down through the back of the dying creature’s head.  It gave one last shudder and died.

Padmé dropped the weapon and ran back to Skirata, picking up her blaster as she did.  Around her, the Mandalorians were recovering from the ambush, killing the last of the Myrmidons and resuming suppressing fire against the droids on the other side of the barricade – none of which had managed to make it over, thankfully.  It had been a brutal melee, but it had been mercifully short.

“Kal,” she breathed as she got to him.  He was face-down, not moving, his helmet fallen several feet away.  Blood slicked the deck beneath him.  “Kal, we got them.  Stay with me.”

With a grunt, she managed to turn him over.  She felt the blood drain from her face as shock flooded her.  The Myrmidon had punched its phrik fist clean through his beskar chestplate.  Blood frothed at his lips every time he breathed, and his breaths were shallow.

His eyes fluttered open.  “Pad’ika,” he murmured.  “Shabla thing jumped me.”  He coughed, violently, his blood spraying all across her breastplate.

“MIJ!” Padmé bellowed for their unit medic.  “MIJ, HURRY!”

Gilamar was there in two seconds, bleeding himself from a nasty head wound but seemingly unaffected.  He swore when he saw Skirata’s chest.  “Kal, you di’kut.  Not good.  Not good.”  He knelt, began undoing the seals on Skirata’s armor.

“Mij, it’s too late,” Skirata told him, his voice quiet.  A terrible gurgling sounded beneath his words.  “Punctured lung.  Slashed aorta.  Drown in my own blood, if blood loss doesn’t… get me first.”

Padmé barely heard the weapons of the fire of the Cuy’val Dar returning to the barricade, beating back the advancing droids.  Her own pulse seemed to thud in her ears, unbearably loud.  This was war, she knew.  People died.  People you cared about.

But not Skirata.  He wasn’t supposed to die.

She became aware of the fact that six white-armored figures stood around her, Skirata, and Gilamar.  Looking up, she saw the Nulls, helmets off, all staring down at their father.

“Got to… do it now,” Skirata gasped.

Udesii, buir,” Ordo whispered, dropping to one knee next to him.  “Mij is the best.  Let’s just get this armor off, and –”

“No!” Skirata barked, his eyes blazing.  He shoved Mij away.  “No rest.  Got to do this now.”  He grasped Ordo’s hand, reached out and grabbed Padmé’s too.  “The gai bal manda.”  He swept his gaze across his sons.  “Ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad – Ordo, Mereel, Jaing, Kom’rk, A’den, Prudii.”

Padmé forced herself to breathe as he looked at her.  “Ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad – Padmé.”

He closed his eyes, sighed, and was suddenly gone.

“Kal,” Padmé said, almost not recognizing her own voice.  She sounded weak, and lost.

“Not Kal,” Ordo told her, looking at her over Skirata’s body.  “Buir.  He adopted you.  He made it official with us, just now, but he also adopted you.  You’re kin, now.  Aliit.

The other Nulls began moving in.  Each of them took something off of Skirata’s body; Padmé realized they were all taking a piece of his armor.  A gauntlet, a vambrace, his belt.  Jaing lifted the Verpine pistol free from Skirata’s holster.

Ordo let his brothers finish before he claimed Kal’s armor tallies.  He hung them around his own neck, nestling them beneath his armor.  Then he looked at Padmé.  “You too, vod,” he said.  “We take him with us, now.”

Padmé nodded.  There would be tears later, she knew.  Right now, they were still on a mission, and the other Mando’ade were fighting back droids to give her and the Nulls this moment, this sacred moment to say goodbye.

Gilamar had gotten Skirata’s breastplate half-off before he’d been pushed away.  A jagged piece of beskar protruded from the wound in his chest, punched free of the rest of the armor by the Myrmidon’s fatal blow.  Padmé seized it and pulled; it came free, though she felt it bite into her palm even through her gauntlet.

She slipped the metal, still slick with Skirata’s blood and her own, into a pouch at her belt.

“Let’s go,” she said, getting back to her feet.  “We still have someone to save.”

Chapter Text

As the armored monster leapt at Venge, clawed hands slashing toward his face, he did something he never would have done while the Force was his ally.

He stumbled backward in a panic and tripped over his own feet.

Venge landed hard on his back in the tall grass, momentarily winded and disoriented, but the move saved his life.  The monster passed straight over him and landed several meters away, tearing up chunks of soil and plants as it skidded to a halt.

Hurling himself back to his feet, Venge whirled, saber ready, and as it charged again he took its arm off, angling his blade around the small energy shield projected from his opponent’s forearm.  He smoothly transitioned from the arm chop into a gut stab which penetrated his foe’s abdomen.  The monster’s own momentum tore the lightsaber blade through its body, and it landed behind him, nearly in two pieces.

Even as Venge turned again to confront it, he saw the abdomen wound knitting up, pink and purple tendrils weaving together between armor plates.  Moving quickly, he took three quick steps, snatching up a frag grenade from the belt of a dead trooper.  He armed the grenade, flipped its adhesion selector to on, and slapped it onto the monster’s severed forearm.

The move was just in time.  The creature sent Adi Gallia flying with a vicious backhanded energy shield bash, then practically hurled a forest of tentacles from its other stump to envelop its missing arm.  It drew the limb back to itself –

Venge hit the ground fast enough that the shrapnel whizzed harmlessly over his head.  His enemy was less fortunate.  The grenade annihilated the arm, spraying viscous chunks of pinkish gore in all directions, and did quite a number of the rest of its body as well.  It reeled, momentarily stunned.  Scrambling back to his feet, Venge cut it in two with a rising slash from its groin to the crown of its skull.

Then he kept cutting.  Adi Gallia got back up, looking perhaps concussed but still alert enough, and joined the effort.  They slashed at the monster’s tentacles, rending its body into so many pieces that Venge felt as though he were doing prep work for the galaxy’s most disgusting goulash.  After three solid minutes, with the clone troopers’ battle against the droid lancer cavalry raging around them the entire time, he panted, “I don’t think we’re actually having an effect.”

“We need high explosives,” Gallia agreed, just as out of breath as he was.  There was nothing left of the monster’s armor by now except rivulets of molten, burned metal running through the squirming mass of horror.  The stink was incredible, even by Venge’s standards.  “Something to do such immense structural damage that –”

A gunship came to a landing within four feet of Venge, drowning out her words.  He turned to look at it and saw his commandos leaping out, weapons at the ready.  They obviously didn’t know the specifics of what Venge and Gallia were doing, but they immediately began pouring DC-17 fire into the nightmare mound of flesh.  “We’re here, sir!” Boss shouted over the immense noise.  “Orders?”

“This thing isn’t going to die without high explosives,” Venge told him.  “Thermite base, preferably.  Scorch, can you make this happen?”

The commando holstered his Deece, pulled his pack off his back, and withdrew a truly enormous bomb, easily the size of Venge’s head.  The dramatic flourish with which he performed this told Venge all he needed to know about the man’s expression, despite the fact that he couldn’t see Scorch’s face.  “Never leave the house without it, sir.”

Venge heard a chorus of sharp breaths through his headset as the other commandos saw the bomb.  “Scorch,” Atin asked, his voice artificially calm, “what happens if you get shot in the back?”

“It’s a very stable compound, ner vod.  It wouldn’t explode.”  Scorch began priming the device.  “Probably.”

“Our biggest problem is going to be blast radius,” Fixer observed.  “We need to take this… thing out, but we can’t torch half this flank to do it.”

Venge heard Orar grunt.  “We also, ideally, want to have enough time to be clear of the blast ourselves,” the sergeant said. “But, too long a fuse and I’m guessing it’ll put itself back together in time to grab distance itself.”

Adi Gallia grimaced as a tentacle tried to wrap itself around her wrist.  She severed it and redoubled her efforts to continually cut the thing into pieces faster than it could reconstitute itself.  “I think I have an idea.  We move this creature into your gunship, put the bomb in with it, and have it fly straight up.  When it’s high enough, we trigger the bomb.”

“I’ll rig up the autopilot program to do that on a signal,” Fixer said, already moving for the ship.  “Pilot!  Move your shebs out.”

It only took Scorch and Fixer a couple minutes to get the bomb ready and program the ship’s autopilot, respectively.  Actually hauling the uncooperative lump of angry, flailing tentacles into the gunship without the aid of the Force was much more difficult, even with six burly commandos helping.  Venge took a smack right across his eyes during the process; he saw stars and came to a moment later flat on his back.

“Stubborn di’kut,” Boss growled as they finally slammed the creature down onto the gunship’s deckplates.  “We all ready?”

“I have been ready for the last thirteen minutes,” Adi Gallia deadpanned.

They all hurled themselves out of the gunship.  Venge heard Fixer’s helmet give a little beep as he triggered the remote signal for the autopilot.  With a roar of repulsorlifts, the ship lifted off the ground, pointed its sublight engines straight down, and in a huge wave of engine wash that battered Venge once more to the ground, it exploded into the sky.

“Reaching safe detonation height in five,” Fixer reported.

Moved by a sudden instinct – not the Force, but instead his years of fighting – Venge snatched a pair of macrobinoculars from Orar’s belt and pressed them to his eyes.  Sighting in on the gunship, he watched the rangefinder on the binoculars.  It was already half a kilometer up and climbing.  Another few hundred meters, and –

He saw the tentacles explode from either side of the ship, flailing wildly against the forces of acceleration and wind.  “BLOW IT!” he roared at Scorch.  “NOW!”

Scorch was already ahead of him.  Before he could get the second word out, the commando triggered the bomb.  As he said the third word, the gunship was replaced with a brilliant white light, a sphere of roiling destruction expanding outward in every direction, incinerating everything in its path.

“HARD COVER!” Boss bellowed.  The ten of them hurled themselves under whatever was nearby and capable of shielding them from falling debris – wrecked speeders, dead droids, armor plates that had been shot off of Republic walkers.

There was, however, surprisingly little debris to speak of.  A light rain of shrapnel fell on them, deflected by the dwarf spider droid Venge had hidden himself beneath.  When that was over, he gave it ten more seconds before he crawled back out and looked up at the sky.

He saw a great deal of smoke, but that seemed to be the extent of it.  Then he realized he felt as though it were misting slightly.  Tiny pinpricks of moisture were landing on his skin.  He wiped his hand across his face and it came away bearing a liquid sheen, colored the palest possible shade of pink.

“Whatever is waiting for us in Plagueis’s compound,” he muttered, “it can’t possibly be as disgusting as this.”

Queen Mother Dormé, seated in her throne aboard her flagship and flanked by a pair of Jedi guards, watched the Separatist fleet open its ranks for her ships as they approached.

“It seems as though Vader believed your performance,” she said, speaking to Garan without turning to look at him.

The Prince was seated to her left, not in a throne but in a simple bridge chair.  He was also flanked by Jedi guards, but not for his protection.

“It does,” he agreed, and she could hear the defeat in his voice.  Since she had exposed him, she had hunted down all his allies, and either forced them to swear fealty to her or given them the choice of execution or suicide.  It was remarkable, Dormé reflected, how the threat of imminent death made patriots out of so many otherwise recalcitrant people.

She realized he had asked her something, and she shook herself out of her sudden reverie.  Now was not the time to become distracted, she thought.  They had a battle to win.  “What was that?”

“I asked,” Garan told her, “what you will do when we win this war.”

There was more to this question than his own fate, Dormé could tell.  He was asking about what she would do for Hapes.  He may have been willing to betray her, but she knew his first loyalty was to his home.

“I intend to make Hapes strong,” she said.  “I intend to ensure that it has a voice in whatever government, Republic or otherwise, comes to pass after the war is won.  Our involvement in this affair will not be for nothing.”

Garan sat up slightly.  “Truly?”

“I came to the throne a woman of Naboo,” Dormé told him.  “And I will always be of that world.  But I am Hapan now, Garan.  If nothing else, the way I dealt with you and your nascent rebellion proves that, no?”

“It does,” he acknowledged.

“So,” Dormé said, “as a Hapan, I will put the needs of Hapes first.  Does that answer please you?”

He demurred for a few moments, obviously finding the right words.  “It does,” he finally said.  “I begin to think that I misjudged you.”

Now she turned to look at him, giving him a thin smile.  “Remember that the next time you think about betraying me.”

He actually returned the smile.  “I will.”

Smart, Dormé thought.  He doesn’t deny that he might still consider it one day.  It would be too soon for me to believe a blanket declaration of loyalty.

“Helm, how long until we are in position?” Dormé asked, turning her attention back to the viewscreen.

“Three minutes, Queen Mother,” came the reply.

“Good.”  She looked at her Captain, a stern, middle-aged woman of supremely confident demeanor.  “Captain, please remind all ships that the Executor is to be disabled, not destroyed.  There are friendlies aboard.”

“Of course, Queen Mother.”  She turned to the communications officer.  “Ensign, relay –”

There was no warning.  The bridge suddenly exploded in a storm of light and sound.  Dormé felt herself hurled from the throne to slam bodily into the far bridge wall.  Something cracked in her ribs.

It took several seconds for her to regain enough of her senses to lift her head and blink the dark purple splotches out of her vision.  “What –” she started, then found herself wracked with terribly painful coughs.  Bloody ones.

The bridge had taken a direct hit from… something.  The starboard wall had been blown away completely.  If Hapan ships did not have emergency ray-shield systems to seal hull breaches, Dormé would be floating free in space.  As it was, there was still atmosphere, but –

She could only lie there, feeling the deck beneath her grow slick and warm with her blood, and stare out the enormous hole in her bridge.  Out there, the CIS ships were firing on the Hapan vessels.  They were ignoring the Jedi ships completely.  With their first massive surprise attack, they had crippled the vast majority of Dormé’s fleet, and now they were picking off the stragglers.

Her gaze focused on something moving barely two feet away from her.  Garan was flat on the deck, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.  He was trying to reach for her, one hand flailing slowly through the rapidly-chilling air.

He kept at it for another few seconds.  Then his hand fell to the floor, too, and he was dead.

As consciousness ebbed, Dormé found her thoughts going to Anakin.  Even when things had seemed to be going well with Garan, she had missed him terribly.  She still did.  They had not kept in touch – not deliberately, but neither of them had made the necessary effort to keep close.  It was understandable, of course.  She had a kingdom to manage, he had a war to run.

She wished she could see him again.

Dormé closed her eyes, and did not expect to open them again.

Chapter Text

Pellaeon stared, mouth hanging open, as the CIS’s surprise attack ripped into the Hapans’ undefended flanks.

“Lord Admiral!” he finally managed to get out.  “They’re –”

Thrawn cut him off.  “Signal all ships, Captain,” he barked.  “Omega strategy.  Close to point-blank range with the CIS forces and target their weapons systems.  Maximize shield power.  Our only hope now is to draw out the melee and buy the ground forces time to neutralize Plagueis.”

Pellaeon moved to issue the order.  “Yes, sir,” he murmured.  Even with Thrawn directing them, he knew their odds of survival were essentially nonexistent.  They were all going to die up here.

But they’d all known going in that was likely to be the case.

A moment after he sent the command, Vice-Admiral Skywalker’s voice crackled over the comm.  “Lord Admiral, permission to begin relief operations once we’ve closed to point-blank range.”

Pellaeon saw Thrawn open his mouth to say denied.  But then the Chiss hesitated.  Even through those alien features, Pellaeon could tell that he was conflicted.

“Fleetwide rescue efforts would compromise our survivability,” Thrawn said a moment later.  “But we may be able to effect priority target extraction.”

Translation: go after the Queen Mother.  She might not be dead.  Pellaeon hid his smile.

“Understood,” Skywalker acknowledged, and there was no mistaking the relief in his voice.  “I’m transferring command of my flank to Admiral Yularen.  I’ll carry out the rescue on the Queen Mother’s flagship myself.”

He signed off, then looked at Pellaeon.  “Is something amiss, Captain?”

Pellaeon blinked.  “Sir?”  What wasn’t amiss, he wanted to say, but he knew better.

“You appear to be smiling, Captain.  Just slightly.”

Apparently he hadn’t hidden the expression as well as he’d thought.  “Nothing, sir,” he said.  “Just – it’s good of you, to let the lad go after the Queen Mother.  Given what they had together.”

Thrawn cocked a blue-black eyebrow.  “If she is still alive, the Queen Mother is still a valuable ally,” he pointed out.  “There are strategic considerations to my decision, Captain.”

“Of course.”  Pellaeon returned to his board, not bothering to disguise his smile any longer.  Strategic considerations, when they were all going to die anyway?  Whatever the Lord Admiral needs to tell himself.

He watched the CIS fleet grow larger, and prepared himself to die fighting.

Anakin was off the bridge and into a turbolift in seconds after Thrawn gave him the go-ahead.  A minute later he was running a medical shuttle through the fastest possible preflight sequence.

He was about to launch when the ship’s comm system buzzed with a familiar voice.  “Vice-Admiral Skywalker,” Yoda said.  “Escort you, the Jedi will.  To these coordinates, set your course.”  A moment later, the navicomputer informed him he’d been given a navigation vector.

“Acknowledged.”  Anakin lifted the shuttle out of Indomitable’s hold into the seething chaos of the battle still raging all around the Order’s fleet.  Indomitable itself was in a pocket of relative calm, however, one made possible by the screen of Jedi Aethersprites swarming around it, shooting droid after droid out of the sky.

The coordinates Yoda had given him took him to a point above the relative plane of the Order’s fleet, far enough removed from the worst of the dogfighting that a medical shuttle stood a solid chance of making it into orbit.  Waiting there were a dozen more Aethersprites.  Looking up through his cockpit canopy, Anakin spotted Yoda in one, and Mace Windu in another.  Even as he gave them a wordless thumbs-up, two more of the sleek fighters roared by overhead, piloted by Maul and Ahsoka.

“I was wondering where the two of you were,” Anakin said, trying to keep his voice light.  He was no longer a Jedi, so there was no real need to play serene for Yoda, but old habits died hard.

“Form up on us,” Maul told him.  “We will ensure you reach Dormé’s ship.”

Anakin let the Jedi burn a path into the CIS formation, following close in their wake.  The medical shuttle was not a combat craft, and while it was heavily shielded, it was not designed for maneuverability and sported no weaponry.  He was grateful for the fighter cover.

As they closed on the crippled Hapan fleet, Anakin felt his heart sink.  Dormé’s ship had been hulled.  He could see a massive hole blown in the bridge canopy.  If Dormé had been on the bridge – and there was no way that she hadn’t been, as Queen Mother –

“It looks like an emergency ray shield’s being projected around the hole in the bridge hull,” Windu said.  “Hapan tech.  Haven’t seen anything like it before.”

“I’m bringing the medical shuttle to the bridge airlock,” Anakin told them.  “Give me cover.”

He nestled the craft against the side of the much larger ship, letting the computer automatically align the docking ports.  With the process underway, Anakin leapt out of the pilot’s seat, drawing Qui-Gon’s lightsaber as he moved to the rear of the shuttle.  He wanted it already in hand if there were enemies or debris in his way.

With a hydraulic hiss, the paired doors slid aside.  Anakin leapt onto the bridge of the beleaguered Hapan craft, sweeping his gaze around.  Corpses, destroyed instrumentation, and lots of debris, but –

Dormé was on her back on the floor, eyes closed, blood pooling on the deckplates beneath her and staining her lips.  Anakin felt his throat tighten, but he fought down his panic and touched her through the Force.  He could feel her life, faint and quickly growing fainter, but it was still there.

“Hold on, Dormé,” he murmured, returning Qui-Gon’s lightsaber to his belt.  He got his arms underneath her and carefully lifted her clear of the deck, assessing her wounds.  There was a large chunk of shrapnel protruding from her right side, as well as numerous other lacerations and contusions.  The shrapnel had probably slid between her ribs and punctured one of her lungs; her breaths were faint and wheezing, and blood frothed between her lips with each one.

Anakin had her strapped into the bio bed of the medical shuttle inside of thirty seconds.  He activated the ship’s Too-Onebee and let it go to work, gluing shut wounds and applying rapid sutures.

“Have you retrieved the Queen Mother?” Maul’s voice sounded faintly from the cockpit.

“Yes,” Anakin said, forcing himself to leave her side and seat himself in the pilot’s seat again.  “The Too-Onebee is trying to stabilize her now.  She’s got a bad piece of shrapnel in her side and a tension pneumothorax, though, and she’s probably going to need surgery to remove it safely.  This ship doesn’t have the kind of facilities we need.”

“That serious, it is?” Yoda asked.

Anakin glanced back at the Too-Onebee, which paused in its ministrations to give him a nod.  “Yes,” he said.  The Force pulsed urgently at him, telling him what he already knew.  “If we don’t win this battle, and soon – she’s not going to make it.”

Padmé strode through the bridge doors of the Executor.

Jango, Vau, and all of the Nulls walked in with her.  The rest of the Mando’ade took up position behind them, keeping their exit secure.

A grotesque, arachnid creature she recognized as Separatist Admiral Trench whirled to confront them.  The familiar, dark-robed figure seated on the opposite end of the bridge did not.

Shmi Skywalker turned to look at them, though.  Even from this distance, Padmé could see the look on her face: pale, withdrawn, and pained.

“How did you get up here?” Trench demanded.  “Guards!”

Jango shot him in the face.  Trench went down in a tangle of hairy limbs.

“We’re here for Shmi,” Padmé called to the Sith at the other end of the bridge.  “Let her go and we’ll be on our way.  There’s no need for more people to die.”

Vader finally rose from his seat and turned, taking up his saberstaff and beginning to stride toward them.  He gave a gesture to the Super Battle Droid guarding Shmi; it laid a heavy durasteel hand on her shoulder, keeping her from going anywhere.

“That was rude,” Vader said.  “I’m going to have to cybernetically resurrect him, now.  He’s too useful to just let rot, tempting though the thought may be.”

“Did you hear what I said?” Padmé demanded.  “Let Shmi go, and we’ll leave.”

Vader gave her a thin smile.  “Yes.  Because your chances of making it out of the system, to say nothing of off this ship, are so very high.  I think she’s actually safer where she is.”

“Leave, Padmé!” Shmi called to her.  “I’m where I need to be.  Don’t let yourself get hurt for my sake.  I told you not to try to rescue me.”

“A good man has already died getting us here,” Padmé growled.  “We’re not leaving without Shmi, Vader.  Are you going to let us have her, or is it going to be a fight?”

Vader raised an eyebrow.  “A fight, Ambassador?  You bring a few dozen Mandalorians and some ARC troopers, and you think you seriously have a chance against me?  You don’t even have any Jedi with you.”

Jango leveled a Westar pistol at Vader’s face.  “We Mando’ade have been killing jetii for millennia, chakaar.  You may be tougher than average, but even you can’t fight this many of us at once.”

With a shrug, Vader crooked a finger.

The bridge doors slammed shut behind them, cutting off Padmé, Jango, Vau, and the Nulls from the rest of the Mando’ade. An armored security curtain locked into place a moment later.

“It’s still nine against one,” Vau said, brandishing his beskar saber.  “You can’t seriously think this is even going to be a contest.”

“No,” Vader told him.  “I don’t.”

Padmé felt a huge, invisible hand crush her into the deck.  Her blaster went flying from her grip.  The simultaneous sounds of eight other armor-clad people suffering a similar fate echoed off the walls of the bridge.

“I have used my full strength against the forces of the Jedi Order precisely once,” Vader said, his tone studiously casual.  Padmé tried to look up at him, but the terrible pressure on her made it impossible to so much as lift her head.  She could only stare at the far wall, body screaming, as his boots rang against the deck.  “It was against the Zabrak Jedi and his little Togruta apprentice, when I was trying to assassinate your Chiss admiral.  That confrontation seriously taxed me.  But it took being shot in the back to stop me.”

There was the snap-hiss of an activating lightsaber.

“Every other time,” Vader continued, still prowling around them, “I have been constrained by orders.  Maim the Jedi rather than kill them.  Let the Order valiantly drive you off of Hapes.  It was tiresome, to say the least.”

Padmé heard him come to a stop in front of Jango.

“So when I say that not bringing Jedi to this fight was a fatal mistake,” he concluded, “I meant it.”

“Don’t,” Padmé gasped, almost unable to speak for the pressure on her back and chest.  “My idea… to come here.  Not… his.”

“That makes you responsible for him, then?  I seem to recall hearing about another time when you were faced with a Sith and had to make a decision, with the lives of those for whom you were responsible hanging in the balance.”  Vader moved to crouch next to her, the buzz of his saberspear growing much louder as he held the weapon just above her head.  “When was that?”

Padmé ground her teeth, but gave him nothing.

“Oh, yes,” Vader hissed.  “It was Naboo.  Venge wanted you to surrender.  You refused.  He killed Panaka.  So you can imagine what I am going to do to all of these men if you do not surrender.  Now.

“Let them go, Vader,” Shmi called.  Padmé could hear the desperation in the older woman’s voice.  “Please.  Haven’t you done enough today?”

“The answer to that question depends entirely on what the Ambassador’s next move is,” Vader replied.  “Well?  What is it going to be?”

“He can’t possibly be able to keep this up forever,” Ordo wheezed.  “And our allies will have that door down soon.  We just have to outlast him.  Don’t do it, Padmé.”

Vader snorted contemptuously.  “I can do this for hours, Captain Ordo.  And that security curtain is a treated phrik-beskar blend.  It would take a proton torpedo to breach it.  Face it, Ambassador: you made a mistake.  And unless you surrender, this instant, your men are going to pay for it.  Decide.  NOW!”

Padmé squeezed her eyes shut and silently prayed that Anakin would forgive her.

“All right,” she said, the words choking her for reasons entirely unrelated to the crushing power of Vader’s Force assault.

“We surrender.”

Chapter Text

Venge deftly sliced the command droid’s head off.  The now-useless hunk of durasteel and circuitry clattered to the ground with a loud thunk, and the sound made him abruptly realize that the enemy command center had fallen strangely quiet.

He turned to look at Rex and the two commando squads who’d fought their way in here with him.  They were all standing still, their body language that of men listening intently to a commlink transmission.

Venge prodded at his earpiece and found that it was dead.  They had taken on a pair of MagnaGuards in the process of securing this bunker, and one of them had slammed its fist into the side of his head.  He’d twisted, which had kept him from getting concussed, but clearly it had not saved the little commlink.

I’d have noticed that in a second if I still had the Force.  I wouldn’t even have taken that hit.

“What’s going on?” Venge asked, surprised at how hoarse his own voice sounded.  He must have been inhaling quite a lot of battlefield fumes.

“Hyllyard City is secure, sir,” Rex reported.  “But – there’s a transmission from the fleet.  Hapan forces annihilated in a surprise attack.  Our fleet is moving into omega position to try to buy us time to get to Plagueis.”

Fierfek.  “Not good.”

“No, sir.  And Lord Admiral Thrawn is –”  Rex stiffened.  “He’s calling for you, sir.”

Venge held out a hand with the dead earpiece in it.  Without needing to be asked, Boss stepped forward, scooped up the earpiece, and slapped a cylinder commlink into Venge’s palm.  Venge held the new device near his mouth.  “This is Justicar Venge, Lord Admiral.”

“You have an incoming transmission,” Thrawn said, his tone audibly strained.  “From Darth Vader.”

“Put him through,” Venge told him.

There was a crackling noise, followed by a slight change in the background hum transmitted through the commlink.  “Venge,” Vader’s familiar voice said.  “I know you’re in the command bunker we installed in Hyllyard City.  My ground troops just reported the city’s loss to Order personnel.  Switch on the viewer.  I have something you need to see.”

His gut twisting, Venge moved to the control console at which the command droid had been standing before he’d forcibly deactivated it.  He keyed on the viewer, and a large, flat panel on the far wall came to life, showing nothing but static for the moment.  Even as Venge flicked the commlink’s frequency selector back over to Thrawn’s, however, an image began to materialize through the visual noise.

Vader stood on the bridge of the Executor.  Behind him, kneeling on the deck, hands on their bare heads, were more than two dozen Mandalorians, as well as six clone ARC troopers.  A B-1 battle droid stood behind every single one of them, a blaster pointed at their respective prisoner’s skull.  In the background beyond them was Shmi Skywalker, a remote figure guarded by a single Super Battle Droid.

Next to Vader was Padmé.  She stood stiffly, her face pale, her Mandalorian armor blackened with the impact of multiple blaster bolts.  The Sith had a single black-gloved hand placed on her shoulder, an almost comradely gesture that Venge knew was anything but.

“I destroyed the Hapan fleet rather than trust the word of a known traitor,” Vader said loftily.  “And when the Ambassador came kicking down my door with her Mando thugs, I dealt with them.  They’re all still alive, as you can see, and will remain so if you follow my very specific instructions.”

“Don’t bargain,” Padmé snapped at Venge, her eyes blazing.  “Remember what you promised me, Venge.”

“I don’t recall giving you permission to speak,” Vader said, and Padmé suddenly went even more rigid, her throat muscles visibly spasming in a futile effort to draw breath through what Venge knew was a windpipe pinched delicately shut by the Dark Side.

“What do you want?” Venge asked.

“Simple,” Vader replied.  “Your personal surrender to me, as well as the surrender of all Order personnel and troops in this system.  Your fleet will drop its shields and power down its weaponry.  In exchange, the Ambassador, as well as the rest of my prisoners, will live.  I will guarantee proper treatment as prisoners of war for all members of the Order and its forces.”

Venge locked gazes with Padmé, who was still unable to breathe but gave no sign of giving up her efforts.  She also was giving him a look that told him not to go along with this.

Thrawn spoke before Venge could, his voice coming from the command center’s speakers.  Clearly, Vader had spliced him into this transmission, too.  “We will not surrender to you in exchange for the lives of some two dozen hostages.”

“Think about this,” Venge urged Vader, trying a desperate tactic.  “Plagueis is just using you, Vader.  If you consider yourself a true Sith, your ultimate goal is to bring him down and seize power for yourself.  You will never do that unless you make a temporary alliance with us, right now, to bring him down today.  He’s too powerful even for you.”

 Vader smirked at Venge.  “A thought that had crossed my mind, in point of fact.  No one being is strong enough to destroy him, it’s true.  But there are now two Chosen Ones, Venge.  When Anakin and I combine our strength, we will be more than a match for Plagueis.  I don’t need to make any deals with you or your Order.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Venge said, knowing better than to waste time arguing against Vader when he could turn the man’s thoughts against him.  Padmé was starting to fade, and if Vader didn’t stop choking her within the next minute there would be brain damage.  “But your plans hinge on Anakin being willing to join you.  And I can guarantee you something, Vader: if you kill Padmé, Anakin will sooner watch the galaxy burn to the ground than help you.”

Vader shrugged, and Padmé suddenly heaved in a huge, desperate gasp of air.

It wasn’t easy to hide the immense relief he felt at that sight, but Venge managed to keep his sabaac face intact.  I’ve bought myself time.  Room to maneuver.  Got to use it, now.

“All right,” Venge said.  “Like the Lord Admiral says, we’re not surrendering to you just for the lives of your hostages.  But again, your plans hinge on Anakin joining you.  Right now, there’s not a chance in hell of that.”

“That’s for me to resolve, not you,” Vader growled.  “I need an answer, Venge.”

“Here’s my answer,” Venge said smugly, careful to project an aura of confidence.  “If you were set on betraying Plagueis, why wouldn’t you just reduce the surface of Myrkr to slag?  Answer: his bunker is deep and fortified enough that any planetary bombardment would take too long to destroy it.  He’d be able to reach whatever escape route he has lined up and make it off-planet, probably in a Stygium-cloaked ship, and you’d never get this chance again.  Your plan to defeat him hinges on you winning this naval battle, bringing Anakin down as a ‘gift,’ and the two of you turning on him and killing him.  Don’t deny it, I don’t need the Force to know I’m right.”

Vader glowered at him.  “Fine.  Suppose you are correct.  What of it?”

It took all of Venge’s control to keep the relief off his face.  Most of what he’d just said had been wild supposition, coupled with what he knew about Plagueis’s habits, and it seemed he’d hit the mark.  “Your only chance of being one hundred percent certain that Plagueis doesn’t make it out of the system is the gravity well generators in the ships you’re so busy destroying,” Venge snapped.  A thought occurred to him, and he seized on it.  “I’m guessing you’re making this hostage ploy now, when you’ve received word that Hyllyard City has fallen, because you can’t afford for us to make it to Plagueis’s bunker.  He’ll flee if we do, and you need to buy yourself time.  You need to keep him there for your own treachery.”

The look on Vader’s face was all the confirmation Venge needed.

“But,” Thrawn cut in, “if you agree to a cease-fire, Lord Vader, we can send Vice-Admiral Skywalker to you, and you can implement your plan.  Our objective is to kill Plagueis, no matter the cost.  Killing him, and living to fight another day, would be a bonus.”

Vader’s expression darkened even further.  “The war ends today, Lord Admiral,” he hissed, the emphasis on Thrawn’s title making it quite clear what he thought of the Chiss.  “I’m not going to let the Order weasel its way out of this trap.  All my enemies will fall in one sweep.”

“Except they won’t, because sometimes our plans simply don’t work the way we hoped they would,” Venge told him.  “Right now, Vader, you need to make a choice.  Do you seize the one chance you have to kill your Master?  Or do you destroy the Order, and give him time to escape?  Because if you don’t agree to the cease-fire, and release all your hostages, Anakin won’t help you.  He’ll die first.  Whether by his own hand –” he laid his phrik hand on his lightsaber – “or someone else’s.”

The rage was almost a physical thing emanating from Vader, at this point.  Even without the Force, Venge was nearly overwhelmed by it.  “You would purposefully compromise the only plan that might destroy Plagueis?” Vader roared.

“It’s the only card we have left,” Venge replied.  “You, we might be able to defeat another day.  Plagueis – this is the only chance we have.  He’ll never be vulnerable like this again.  Think, Vader.  Right now, he thinks he’s got us trapped.  He thinks he has the upper hand.  The one way this goes against him is if you’re smart.  If you turn on him.  But the only way you can turn on him and make sure he dies is by playing the game our way.”

Vader stared daggers at him.  Venge stared back, jaw set, willing the other man to do the one thing that would result in Plagueis dying today.

Finally, he turned to look at something off-screen.  “Order all ships to cease fire,” he said.  “Thrawn, bring your ships into position to interdict all traffic off the northern hemisphere.  If Anakin and I fail, he’ll still try to flee, and you’ll have to shoot him down somehow.”

“Understood,” Thrawn said.  “All Jedi Order forces, cease fire.”

Vader looked back at Venge.  “When Plagueis is dead,” he growled, “I will take the reins of the CIS.  Your fleet will depart Myrkr immediately.  Then, a standard day later, the war will resume.”

“Will you release Anakin back to us, if he wants?” Venge asked.

The Sith’s lip curled.  “Yes.”

A new voice cut into the transmission.

“One additional condition.”  It was Anakin.  “You have a full medical suite aboard the Executor.

“You’re going to use it to save Dormé’s life.”

Darth Sidious watched his monitors.  The fire had ceased between the CIS and Jedi fleets, and Thrawn’s modified ships were swinging into position to interdict the northern hemisphere.

Just as he’d anticipated.

Vader is ambitious, but he knows the only way he can kill Plagueis is treachery.  And he is not strong enough to kill him alone, even with treachery.  He will need an ally, one from the other side.  This is the result of that.

Sidious steepled his fingers and looked at the strings of Aurebesh characters on his display.

One was the master command override for the CIS droid army.  The one that Plagueis had ordered removed from all models, because such a feature – while useful for the droids’ masters – was too dangerous to tolerate.

Of course, Sidious had quietly countermanded that order.

The other string was a series of letters and numbers, followed by a single phrase.

Good soldiers follow orders.

Chapter Text

Anakin stepped off the medical shuttle, making way for the team of emergency responders who rushed inside with a mobile bio-bed.  They emerged less than a minute later with Dormé, supine on the bed, an IV drip in her arm and an oxygen mask pressed to her face.

Watching all of these proceedings was Darth Vader.

Behind him were Padmé, the Mandalorian contingent, and Shmi, still under the guns of Vader’s droids.  Anakin turned to Vader as Dormé was hustled off the hangar deck.  “If she doesn’t make it –”

“She will,” Vader cut him off.  “And once she’s stabilized, we’ll return her to you.”  He glanced over his shoulder at the droids.  “Load the prisoners into the troop transport, then take them to Thrawn’s command ship.  They are not to be harmed.”

The Super Battle Droid next to Shmi buzzed its acknowledgment, but before it could start in the direction of the transport, Anakin spoke up.  “Wait.  I want a minute with my mother.”

Vader speared him with a glare.  “We waste time.  The longer we maintain the cease-fire, the greater the chances of my Master glancing at a sensor board and seeing that something is wrong.”

“You’re right,” Anakin told him.  “Enjoy being right.  I know it’s a real treat for me, personally.  I still want a minute with her.”

With a growl, Vader gestured for Shmi to step forward.  “A minute,” he said.  “No more.”

Shmi moved to Anakin and they embraced.  Her body felt thin in Anakin’s arms; she’d clearly lost weight while a prisoner here.

“Thank you, Mom,” he murmured.  “I know what you were trying to do.  Thank you.”

She pulled away so she could look at him.  “I’m sorry it backfired so spectacularly, Ani.”

He fervently shook his head.  “But it didn’t, Mom.  If you hadn’t tried to get through to Vader, I’m betting he never would have realized just how far under Plagueis’s thumb he really was.  He would have just destroyed us out of hand, and that would have been the end.”

That, at least, made her smile.  “I appreciate the sentiment, Ani.  I really do.”  She laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Please – take care of him.  He’s my son too, whether I bore him or no.  I have to believe there’s some hope for him, even after all he’s done.”

Anakin nodded.  “I will, Mom.  I promise.”

Vader cleared his throat loudly.

Scowling, Anakin gave Shmi another hug and let her go back to the rest of the prisoners.  He looked at Padmé and Jango.  “Thank you for coming aboard to rescue her.”

Padmé shook her head.  “For all the good it did.”

“We’re standing here now, aren’t we?”  Anakin smiled at her.  “Take care of yourself, Padmé.  I’ll see you on the other side.”

“Stay alive,” Jango told him.  “Don’t give the Sith the satisfaction.”

“I will.”

He watched the droids march them into the transport, leaving him alone with Vader.

Vader held out a hand.  “Your lightsaber.  It will be suspicious if the weapons detectors in my Master’s bunker pick up the fact that you’re armed.”

Reluctantly, Anakin drew Qui-Gon’s lightsaber and passed it to Vader, who clipped it to his belt.  “Don’t let anything happen to it,” he warned.

“Of course I’m not going to let anything happen to it.  You’ll need it when we fight Lord Plagueis.”  Vader pointed at a sleek, vicious-looking craft near the front of the hangar bay.  “My personal Infiltrator.  We’ll board that.”

The interior of the ship was dimly lit in red tones, its chairs utilitarian and uncomfortable.  The cockpit was cramped.  Anakin recognized the lack of space as an indicator of just how much of the ship’s frame was given over to power systems.

“Venge and the rest of the Order have agreed to hold their ground troops in Hyllyard City for the time being,” Vader said.  “If my Master detects them approaching, even while he is engaged with us, he will probably try to flee.  The illusion of victory, or at least stalemate, must be maintained.  He will think even the two of us, once we turn on him, are not his match.  Beyond that, however, he may prove too pragmatic to stay and fight.”

Anakin nodded.  “You realize that we’re going to be facing him in a Force-empty zone, if my intelligence reports are accurate.  He should be fairly easy to kill if it’s just the two of us against him, fighting without the Force.”

That made Vader snort.  “Even without the Force, he is an incredibly deadly opponent.  Do not underestimate him.  And I have the suspicion that the bunker will not remain devoid of the Force for long if he feels the need for it.”

Frowning, Anakin asked, “How could he possibly turn off the defensive response of thousands of scattered ysalamiri?”

“I do not claim to know,” Vader said.  “But that is what the Dark Side is telling me.”

Steeling himself for what was coming, Anakin settled into the uncomfortable chair and let Vader fly them down to the surface.

Toward destiny.

“For the record, sir,” Rex said quietly, “I’m not a fan of this plan.”

Venge shot him an annoyed look, but the impact was dulled by the foliage in the way of his eye-line.  The two of them were crouched in undergrowth, about twenty meters out from an obvious armored bunker entrance only a few kilometers into the forest from the city.  Venge’s forward scouts had reported the location before the order had been issued to pull back and stay within Hyllyard City.

“I recognize that the Council has made a decision to abide by both the letter and spirit of the agreement, and let Anakin and Vader go in there alone,” Venge whispered.  “But given that it’s a stupid decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.”

Rex sighed.  “If we trip a single alarm while getting in there, sir, the entire scheme’s blown.  There could also be automated life-sign scanners, security holocams –”

“I’m sure there are all of those things,” Venge agreed.  “Fortunately, there’s a way around all of it.”

“And what way might that be, sir?”

As if in answer to Rex’s question, the sound of a decelerating repulsorlift vehicle became audible through the thick woods.  Venge motioned for them to effect a slow retreat, and they withdrew a quarter kilometer to meet the vehicle in question.  It was a military landspeeder, the kind used to move nonessential equipment and personnel around non-combat zones.  Commander Cody leapt out of the pilot’s seat as Venge and Rex emerged from the foliage.

“Commander,” Venge acknowledged.  “You’ve got the suits?”

Cody nodded.  “For the record, sir, I’m not a fan of this plan.”

Venge gave him a frosty look, then turned it on Rex.  The Captain was entirely silent, but for all Venge knew, he could have simply turned off his helmet’s mic so he could laugh without being heard.  “Duly noted,” Venge growled.  “Let’s unload them.”

Keying a command into the miniaturized datapad built into his armor’s left vambrace, Cody activated the repulsorlifts on three large crates in the back of the landspeeder.  They slowly floated out of the craft to hover in front of the three men.  At another command from Cody, the crates opened, and something unfolded from inside.

“No,” Rex said, his tone more disbelief than denial.

The suits looked like Super Battle Droids, but as they finished telescoping to their full height, the limbs and chest plates blossomed like metal flowers, revealing a space within each droid just large enough for a man to fit inside.

“I saw these mentioned in an R&D report from our labs on Kamino and knew I needed them,” Venge said with a grin.  “Off with the armor, both of you.  It’ll be cramped, but you should be able to fit if you’re wearing just bodysuits.”

Both men exchanged a glance, then began unsealing the various parts of their armor.  “I take it these are more than just for visual infiltration?” Cody asked.

“They obscure life-signs, come pre-loaded with known CIS recognition signals in binary speak, and have functioning, detachable blasters built into the right hand,” Venge replied.  “And so long as the ysalamiri keep the Force away, Plagueis won’t be able to detect that anything’s off.”

“I haven’t seen any of the things on the trees so far,” Rex pointed out as he stripped off the last of his armor.  “Are they that well-camouflaged?”

Already stepping into his infiltration suit, Venge couldn’t shrug, so he gave a verbal equivalent.  “They must be.  I haven’t had access to the Force since we hit the upper atmosphere.”

As the suit’s plates closed him in, pressing his lightsaber uncomfortably into his thigh, Venge thought for another moment about that.  He hadn’t seen any of the ysalamiri, either, and he had sharp eyes.  Could they be that well-camouflaged?

They had to be, he decided.  After all, what else could be pushing back the Force like this?

Padmé, Jango, and Vau emerged from the turbolift onto the bridge of the Manticore.  Thrawn looked up at them from his command chair.  “Ambassador,” he said, nodding.  “I am glad Vader held up his end of the bargain and released you.”

“But Dormé is still on the Executor, getting medical treatment,” Padmé told him.  “Vader said when she’s been stabilized he’ll release her back to us, but –”  She glanced at Jango.

“We didn’t just charge in and try to rescue Shmi,” the Mando said.  “We left high explosives all along the spine of the ship as we made our way through it.  Explosives that’ll put a serious dent in its ability to fight, when we set them off.”

Thrawn actually gave them a thin smile of acknowledgment.  “Ah.  Well done.  But you cannot do that while the Queen Mother is still aboard.”

“Exactly,” Padmé said.  “And I don’t trust Vader to let her go once she’s been seen to.  We need to go back.”

Captain Pellaeon, who was standing at a console just past Thrawn, grimaced.  “And risk the cease-fire?  The second we send a boarding craft –”

“I do not intend to send a boarding craft,” Thrawn cut him off.  “It should be possible to persuade the command droid aboard the Executor to allow one or two of our starfighters to land in their hangar.  To make emergency repairs.”  He cocked a blue-black eyebrow.  “And perhaps receive medical treatment.”

“One or two, sure,” Jango agreed, looking unconvinced.  “But if things get violent, only one or two Mando’ade won’t be enough.  We’re tough, but not that tough.”

Vau chuckled quietly.  “I don’t think he had us in mind, Jango.  I think this is a job for the jetiise.

“Indeed.”  Thrawn touched a switch on his armrest.  “Grandmaster Yoda, I believe you should have been able to hear this conversation.”

“Hear it I have, Lord Admiral,” Yoda confirmed.  “Two volunteers already do I have.  Knight Maul and his Padawan, Ahsoka Tano.”

“They’ve suffered damage and been injured?” Pellaeon asked.

A cool Zabrak voice interrupted.  “Not yet.  But it will be simple enough to induce malfunctions in our ships and injure ourselves.”

“Don’t overdo it,” Padmé told him.  “Everyone needs to come out of this alive, remember.”

“Of course,” he replied, his tone even.  “We will ensure the Queen Mother is retrieved safely.”

Thrawn flicked off the comm channel.  “And now we wait for word from the surface,” he said.  “From Vice-Admiral Skywalker, Darth Vader, or Justicar Venge.”

Padmé frowned.  “Venge isn’t going in.”

“Certainly he is not supposed to.  But before the fleet left for this operation, he requisitioned three Super Battle Droid infiltration exo-frames, and I have just been informed that the 501st’s quartermaster has dispatched them via Commander Cody for in-field deployment.”

Pellaeon gawked at him.  “Is he insane?  If he’s discovered, and Vader calls off the cease-fire –”

“I am aware of the danger, Captain,” Thrawn assured him.  “Would anyone here like to try contacting the Justicar and telling him not to do this?”

Everyone looked at Padmé.

Smirking, she shook her head.  “He knows what he’s doing.  I trust him.”

“I bloody well hope so,” Pellaeon murmured.

Plagueis’s commlink buzzed.

He tore his gaze from the thing, the victory, floating in the nutrient tank, and answered the call.  “Lord Vader.”

“Master, the Order’s forces have been neutralized,” Vader told him.  “They have surrendered or been destroyed.  The Jedi themselves have fled.  I have captured Anakin Skywalker and am bringing him to you.  As a… gift.  I will be landing in two minutes.”

Without the Force to read his apprentice, Plagueis had no way of knowing how accurate his report was.  He could leave the lab and go to his bunker’s command center, of course.  Look at the screens, determine the state of affairs for himself.  But that would be unnecessary.  Vader’s earlier behavior – asking Plagueis if he loved him – had put the Muun on edge.

So he’d had a tap installed in Vader’s personal commlink, as well as the comm system of the Executor.

He was rather impressed with Venge’s ability to read Vader, to say nothing of himself, and use the situation to force a cease-fire.  The man had been right, of course – Plagueis could be on his Infiltrator and fleeing the planet in minutes, if he felt the need.  He was also impressed with how Vader had seen through the Jedi ploy with the Hapan fleet and preemptively destroyed it.

It would be a shame to kill them, but it was necessary.  Venge had clearly managed to overcome Plagueis’s subtle conditioning; he’d returned to Kamino, but the CIS fleet within a micro-jump of the planet had never received a signal from him alerting them to an attempt to disable the planetary shield.  Vader, meanwhile, was looking to seize power the old-fashioned way, by killing his Master, and now Plagueis knew why: Shmi Skywalker had gotten to him.  Venge and Vader were too dangerous, and would have to be eliminated.

But Anakin Skywalker – that one, Plagueis still had hopes for.  He would take Anakin alive, if possible.  He had sensed great fear and anger in the Chosen One; better-controlled now than ever before, perhaps, but still present in him.  Plagueis could work with this.

And it would be a special pleasure to take for himself the apprentice Sidious had wanted.

“Bring him to the lab,” Plagueis instructed Vader.  “I will reward you appropriately when you arrive.”

He flicked the commlink off and checked his lightsaber.

It would be good to get a little exercise.

Chapter Text

Plagueis’s lab was a sickening off-white.  Tipoca City had a clean, if antiseptic, glow; this place felt dirty, even though every surface was obviously laser-sterilized.  Anakin suspected this had more to do with its owner than the actual materials used in its construction.

When Vader shoved him through the door into the lab, the first thing he noticed was the Muun Sith Lord, seated in a high-backed chair at the far end of the room.  The second thing was that the elongated tables running the length of the room were bare.  There was no lab equipment, no obvious technology of any kind.  It must have been recently removed.

“Lord Vader,” Plagueis said, rising.  “And Vice-Admiral Anakin Skywalker.  How good of you to join us.”  He gestured at the stun-cuffs Vader had slapped on Anakin’s wrists.  “You no longer need those.”

Vader obediently stepped forward and removed the cuffs.  Rubbing his wrists – to better convey the falsehood that he had been wearing them for an extended period – Anakin glared at the Muun.  “Pretty confident for an old man who doesn’t have the Force to protect him.”

“I have my apprentice,” Plagueis said lazily, his radiation-yellow eyes focusing briefly on Vader before returning to Anakin.  “Please, both of you follow me.  I have something to show you.”

He turned his back on them and began walking toward a blank section of the wall.  At his approach, a hidden panel slid aside, revealing a hallway.  Plagueis disappeared down it.

Anakin felt Vader prod him in the back with his deactivated saberspear.  “Move,” Vader growled.

“Don’t lose yourself in the part,” Anakin hissed at him, but complied.

The hidden hallway was just as bare and dirty-feeling as the rest of the lab.  It curved to the left, and eventually opened into a truly enormous chamber.  This room was filled with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of glass tanks, filled with a nutrient liquid and lit from within by a sickly green glow.

But all of them were empty.  All of them except one.

Plagueis stood in front of a tank several times taller than him and twice again as wide.  Inside it –

“What the hell is that?” Anakin breathed.

The Muun emitted a low, dry chuckle, the sound made even harsher by his respirator.  “It is Project Myrkr, my young friend.  Glorious, no?”

Glorious was not the word Anakin would have used.  The huge, twisted shape inside the tank looked like Plagueis had taken several hundred ysalamiri and somehow fused them, layering one body over another and grotesquely blending flesh together until the mass resembled a gigantic, lumpy, furry sphere.  At the very top of the creature, a single ysalamiri head protruded, bobbing gently in the tank.

“Master,” Vader said.  “What – truly, what is it?”

“The ysalamir is a fascinating creature,” Plagueis observed, looking admiringly at the abomination and laying a long-fingered hand against the glass of the tank.  “Its evolved ability to repel the force is truly unparalleled in the known galaxy.  One ysalamir has a defensive radius of one to three meters.  When they cooperate, their power increases exponentially.  Myrkr’s original population of the species produced a Force-repelling effect out to ten kilometers above the planet’s surface.”

Anakin felt his blood chill just a bit more.  “Original population?”

“Yes.  Sadly, I needed all of them to eventually produce this end result.”  Plagueis shrugged, a minimal gesture.  “It matters not.  The new template has been documented and can be reproduced in any sufficiently large cloning tank.”

“You destroyed an entire species to create this… thing?” Anakin demanded.

“I call it an ‘ultramir.’  Not particularly inventive, but given the scope of my other accomplishments I believe I can be forgiven the plebian nomenclature.”  Plagueis’s eyes narrowed in a smile.  “The ultramir, thanks to Sith alchemy and careful enhancement of its midi-chlorians – which number in the tens of millions – is capable of producing a Force-negating field out to a distance of one standard orbital unit.”

Anakin stared at him, dumbfounded.  “I’m sorry, an orbital unit?  As in, the distance of Coruscant from its sun?”

“One hundred and fifty-five point two eight three million kilometers,” Plagueis confirmed.  “Plus or minus a few hundred thousand for the abilities of the individual ultramir.”  At Anakin’s even greater shock, the Muun said, “Yes, individual.  Once my cloning facilities scattered throughout the CIS begin producing more, we will begin using the plural ‘ultramiri.’  My calculations predict that each ultramir will increase the negation field diameter by a factor of one point four five.”

Anakin looked at Vader.  “Can you do enormous amounts of math in your head?  Because I can’t.”

Vader gave him a chilly look.  “No.  But my Master can.”  He glanced at Plagueis.  “So, two ultramiri working together…”

“Would increase the bubble size to just over five thousand orbital units.”  Plagueis’s smile did not abate.  “Or eight-hundredths of a light-year, if that proves easier for you to grasp.  But add in a third, and that eight-hundredths becomes seventeen thousand.”  His eyes blazed.  “And a fourth – well.  Tell me, Vice-Admiral Skywalker.  Do you know what the diameter of the observable universe has been measured to be?”

Anakin mutely shook his head.

“Less than one-tenth of the size of the Force-negation field that would result of four ultramiri working together.”

Silence lay heavily on that room for a long minute while Anakin and Vader processed Plagueis’s words.

“Of course, unlike the original ysalamiri, ultramiri are quite capable of controlling the precise factorization and dimensions of their power,” Plagueis continued.  “Right now, this one is simulating the negation field of the planet’s original ysalamiri population.  It has, coded into its DNA, a biochip, a living mechanism which recognizes verbal orders from me.  With this chip, I can specify as small or large a field as I desire.

“So, for example, with four ultramiri working together, I could Force-blank the entire galaxy.  Or any single section of it.  Multiple groups of three or four, placed strategically around the galactic disc, will allow me to control the ebb and flow of the Force throughout the galaxy as I see fit.  Once we have cloned enough of them, this system can be exchanged for a more granular one, with one ultramir for every inhabited system, and then eventually one for every inhabited world.

“Picture it, Lord Vader.  The remains of the Jedi Order, powerless, no matter where they hide.  Any potential Force-users who are not controlled by us will never know their abilities, and thus will never become a threat.  Our rule will be safe from the whims of the Force – its eddies and permutations, its tendency to seek equilibrium by throwing down those of puissance.  The goal of the Sith has always been to conquer the Force itself, and this allows us to do that. 

“We will have total and complete control of access to its energy.  Hydraulic despotism, Lord Vader, describes a system where power is concentrated in the hands of a select few who control access to a necessary resource.  In the past, that resource was water.  Then, as societies industrialized, it was fossil fuels.  Now, we will control access to the greatest necessity: the Force itself.”

Anakin saw Vader swallow.  The other man was tempted, he saw.

Then it hit him: why was Plagueis making this grand pitch to Vader, his own apprentice?  Why did he feel the need to tempt him?

He stiffened, then widened his stance, preparing himself for combat.  “Vader,” he hissed.  “He knows.

Vader blinked.  “What?”

“He’s making a bid for your loyalty,” Anakin snapped.  “He wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t doubt it, which means he already knows you’re going to betray him.

Plagueis gave another dry chuckle.  “Very good, Vice-Admiral.  Yes, Lord Vader, he is correct.  After our suspicious encounter the other day, I had your personal and ship comms tapped.  I know everything.”

He gestured.  Five Super Battle Droids suddenly appeared in the hall behind the two men, blaster arms ready.

“I applaud your brokering of an alliance with the Order to bring me down and seize the mantle of the Sith,” Plagueis said.  “Treachery and manipulation are among a Sith’s most useful tools, after all.  But these, as with all your skills, you learned first from me.”  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “So, Lord Vader.  Will you swear your loyalty to me once more?  Will you rule the galaxy with me?  Or will you die here?”

Vader straightened, his features drawn but still composed.

“I do not want to see a galaxy where the Force is caged,” he said.  “I do not want to serve a man who will never appreciate me for anything beyond my usefulness as a tool.  I will find my own path, Master, and to do that, I must kill you.”

Sighing, Plagueis shook his head.  “Admirable, Lord Vader.  But mistaken.”  He looked at the Super Battle Droids.  “Kill them.”

Anakin whirled, knowing that without the Force he had no real chance, but determined to make a fight of it anyway.  The first two SBDs were leveling their blaster arms –

To his complete bafflement, the three in the back opened fire even faster, but not at him and Vader.  They shot their fellows in the back.

Anakin, Vader, and Plagueis all stood there, too surprised to move or say anything for several moments.  In those moments, the three remaining SBDs straightened, and their chasses opened, blossoming like bizarre metal flowers to reveal three very familiar men.

Venge, Rex, and Cody stepped out.  Venge had discarded his voluminous black robes for an under-tunic and trousers, while the clones wore standard-issue black bodysuits.  Venge drew his lightsaber, while Rex and Cody detached cunningly-integrated hand blasters from the droids’ gun arms.

Grinning, Anakin turned back to Plagueis.  “Oh.  It looks like you’re screwed.”

“Rex,” Venge said, stepping to one side to give the two clones a clear line of fire.  “Would you kindly do the galaxy a favor, and shoot Plagueis?”

“With pleasure, sir.”  In a single, smooth motion, Rex leveled his pistol at Plagueis and pulled the trigger.

Anakin wasn’t sure precisely what happened next.  Plagueis’s lightsaber somehow leapt into his hand, ignited, and deflected the bolt into the ceiling, but that shouldn’t have been possible, there wasn’t any Force in this hellish place, how had Plagueis done it –

He had an instant to replay the sight in his short-term memory, and it became clear to him.  The Muun wasn’t using the Force; he was impossibly fast.  He’d drawn, ignited, and deflected in less than a quarter second, without the Force.  Anakin’s personal record of going from empty-handed to lightsaber deflection was a hair faster, but that was with the Force as his ally.

“Captain Rex,” Plagueis said.  “Commander Cody.  Override code Mern-Krill-Usk.”

Vader leapt at him, saberspear ignited, and Plagueis easily turned his thrust aside and slammed the pommel of his weapon into the back of Vader’s head.  He slapped away a follow-up attack from Venge as well, delivering a spinning kick that sent him staggering back.

“Phrase,” Plagueis continued.  “Good soldiers follow orders.

Anakin felt a chill crawl up his spine.  He turned to look at Rex and Cody.

Their eyes had gone strangely blank.  Their faces were slack.  And their weapons were no longer pointed at Plagueis.

“Kill them,” Plagueis said.

Anakin leapt into an evasive roll.

Rex and Cody fired. 

Chapter Text

Venge hurled himself back to his feet just in time to see Rex and Cody draw beads on Anakin and fire their blasters.  Anakin managed to tuck into an evasive roll that carried him clear of the bolts and into cover behind one of the many nutrient monitoring consoles in the vast chamber, but he was unarmed and didn’t have the Force to call on.  He wouldn’t last long against the two seasoned veterans.  And it wasn't clear to Venge how long Vader could hold out against Plagueis, who was hammering his former apprentice with incredibly fast lightsaber blows.  Venge needed to take out Rex and Cody quickly.

If it had been two clones he didn’t know turning on them like this, he might have cut them down out of hand.  But he respected Cody, and Rex – well.  It dawned on Venge that he would rather die himself than kill Rex.

He decided he had to make sure they both survived this, so they could figure out precisely what that meant.

“Take Cody!” he barked at Anakin.  “I’ve got Rex!”  He hurtled toward the two clones, returning his lightsaber to his belt and holding up his phrik arm like a shield.

Cody turned to fire at him, while Rex kept hammering at Anakin’s cover.  That was fine; Venge dropped into a slide, Cody’s bolts slicing over his head, and took Rex’s feet out from under him.  A moment later Anakin leapt on Cody, twisting the blaster out of his grip, and Venge was left to deal with an angry, brainwashed man, genetically engineered to be the perfect soldier.

Still on his back from Venge’s trip, Rex rolled, sighted in on Venge, and was about to fire when Venge pulled his deactivated lightsaber from his belt and hurled it at Rex’s weapon hand.  The hilt was heavy, and the impact sent the blaster flying.  Rex grunted, whether out of pain or frustration, and leapt off his back to his feet in one sinuous motion.  He turned toward the lightsaber and blaster, which had fallen a few meters away.

Knowing that he couldn’t let the fight return to being an armed one, Venge tackled him, trying to get him into a sleeper hold.  He abruptly realized that, while he might be intimately familiar with Rex’s body, it had never truly occurred to him precisely how much muscle and mass the man had.  Especially in comparison to Venge’s own, leaner form.

Rex snaked an arm up inside Venge’s half-formed sleeper hold, broke it, then whirled.  He delivered a snap kick to Venge’s gut, which sent the air whooshing from his lungs, then followed up with a pair of one-two punches which snapped the Justicar’s head back and made him stagger.  Reeling, Venge nevertheless managed to block the next strike – a knife-handed jab at his throat – with his left forearm, and follow up with an open-palmed shove of his phrik hand.  The move pushed Rex back almost two meters, giving Venge room to catch his breath.  He also circled to place himself between Rex and their dropped weaponry.

Throughout the melee, Rex’s eyes showed no sign of recognition.  It was brainwashing, all right.  A last card up the sleeve of the Sith.  Venge knew that random clones had undergone extensive psychological testing by the Jedi in the early months of the war, as a precautionary step, so there were two possibilities left.  Either this was something so deep-seated within the clone psyche as to be indistinguishable from their normal personality patterning – which was nigh impossible for this degree of control – or there was an unknown, intervening factor.

Something Plagueis had said occurred to Venge.  The ultramir floating in its tank only a short distance away – it had an organic control chip, one woven into the fabric of its DNA.  Could the clones have something similar?

“Rex,” Venge said.  “It’s me.  Venge.  We don’t have to fight.”

Rex said nothing.  He crept forward, fists clenched in a pugilist’s stance, and Venge realized he was going to have to render the man unconscious to stop this fight.  And he couldn’t grapple Rex, try to cut off oxygen to his brain with a hold, because he didn’t have the raw muscle.  So he had precious few options left that didn’t involve massive head trauma.

Of course, he could always change the rules of the fight.

When Rex lunged for him again, Venge danced away, dodging and weaving back from his opponent’s attacks.  He tucked into a backward roll, scooping up his lightsaber with the movement, and then tracked to his left, circling as Rex took advantage of the apparent opening to leap in and snatch up his blaster.

Rex liked to aim high, either for the chest or the head.  With droids, it mattered less, but with organics, a gut-shot could leave them standing and still in a condition to use a blaster.  A shot to the heart or face did not have the same potential disadvantage.

Coming to a halt, Venge anticipated the shot as best he could.  The question was going to be if Rex would go for the chest or the head, in this case.

It was the head.  A good thing, too, because even in anticipation of the shot, Venge doubted his Force-bereft reflexes would have let him duck fast enough to avoid the blaster bolt if it had been aimed lower.  But it flashed past him, over his head, to strike the nutrient tank in which floated Plagueis’s ultramir.

Of course, a single blaster bolt would have had no effect on transparisteel.  But Venge knew that transparisteel was eight to ten times more expensive than simple, old-fashioned glass, and he had been gambling that even a man as vastly wealthy as Plagueis would have elected for the cheaper option when commissioning the construction of thousands upon thousands of tanks.

The nutrient tank exploded.  The fluid within gushed out in a gross, thick wave, and the ultramir came crashing to the floor.

Venge only had time to glance at it, but the glance was all that he needed.  A genetically engineered monstrosity like that would not have been made to survive in anything but a tank.  Plagueis’s priority would have been getting its Force-negation field stabilized, not making it robust.  When it hit the floor, its epidermal layer ruptured under the weight of its own bulk.  The ultramir disintegrated.

A moment after that, as Rex’s next shot came unerringly toward Venge’s chest, the Force flowed back into him.

He ignited his lightsaber, batting the bolt into the ceiling.  Rex got off two more before Venge extended a hand, seizing him with the Force, and pinched his aorta shut.

It took only seconds for Rex to black out.

Venge immediately released the hold on the artery, internally beseeching the Force not to let there have been any permanent damage.  He glanced right, seeing Anakin drop Cody to the floor with a wild, Force-assisted haymaker to the jaw.  The Commander tried to rise, then slumped, unconscious.

He turned around, ready to confront Plagueis, and froze solid.

“I am disappointed,” Plagueis said.  He carefully ducked under Vader’s saberspear, which was arrested in mid-swing toward his face, its wielder just as paralyzed as Venge.  “I was hoping to avoid having to replace my initial specimen.  As I said, the genetic template has been saved and disseminated throughout the CIS network, but it will be expensive to manufacture.”

He came to a halt in front of Venge, looking at him with baleful yellow eyes.  “It was a good move, of course, to eliminate the ultramir so you could use the Force against your ally.  Of course, with the ultramir still in play, you might actually have stood a chance against me.  Without it…”  He shrugged.

Venge tried to speak, but even the muscles of his throat were paralyzed.  He realized, with a sudden feeling of cold shock, that his body had stopped breathing.  Both Vader and Anakin stood stock-still as well.

“I am afraid this is the end,” Plagueis said.  “When I give the signal, your loyal clone army will turn on the Jedi Order.  The CIS fleet will destroy them in turn.  Whatever surviving stragglers remain in the galaxy will soon be neutralized by ultramir production.  Die, knowing that all your efforts have been utterly futile.”

He swept his lightsaber toward Venge’s head.

Maul cut down the last of the droids which had protested his declaration that he was taking the Queen Mother off the Executor.  Ahsoka, dutifully standing guard over Dormé’s bio bed, beamed at him.  “We ready to go, Master?”

“Yes.  Put the bed in hover mode and stay behind me.  We will –”

He stopped, sudden knowledge rushing into his mind.  The Force had returned to Myrkr.  He could feel the lives of the clones and Jedi on its surface, could sense the planet’s own native flora and fauna.

And he could sense –

“That’s Plagueis?” Ahsoka asked.  The little Togruta’s face had gone pale.

“Close your mind to his presence,” Maul told her sharply.  “If you try to read any part of his signature, even at this distance, he may be able to influence you.”

She nodded, putting on a brave face, before keying a command into the bio bed’s control panel.  It detached from the wall and began to float free until Ahsoka took its maneuvering handles and began pushing it after Maul, looking grim but determined.

Maul activated his commlink.  “Master Yoda, we have Queen Mother Dormé.  We are extracting her now.”

“Well done,” Yoda’s familiar voice responded.  The Grandmaster sounded strained, tired.  “Return her to the Manticore, you will.”

“Yes, Master.”  Maul hesitated, but decided to ask the question despite his misgivings.  “Are Anakin and Vader going to be able to defeat Plagueis now that the Force has returned?  Should we not send in reinforcements?”

“In lockdown, Plagueis’s bunker is.  Hours it would take to break in, our scouts report.  Depending on them – and Venge – are we.”

Maul felt a smile tug at his lips.  “Venge disobeyed orders and went in before the lockdown?”

“Yes.  And expected it, I did.”  There was dry humor in Yoda’s voice, but no hint of actual joviality or laughter.  “Up to us it now is to be ready to support them.  And to ensure Plagueis does not escape, if fail they do.”

“Understood.”  Maul closed down the commlink and looked at his Padawan.  “Come, Ahsoka.  The sooner we are off this ship, the sooner we can get planetside.  And the sooner we can test just how secure this lockdown truly is.”

Plagueis’s lightsaber never made it to Venge’s head.

It met the green blade of Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber, which Anakin Force pulled from Vader’s belt even as he leapt toward the two men.  The weapon slapped into his palm and he ignited it just in time to save Venge from the galaxy’s messiest and most lethal haircut.

“How?” Plagueis hissed, staring at Anakin.

Anakin shook his head.  It felt as though his body were moving of its own accord, and yet it was still performing the actions he was trying to effect.  It was a disconcerting experience.  “I don’t know.”

A voice, oddly familiar, sounded in his head.  Keep your eyes on him.  He’s much faster than you.

Indeed, Plagueis disengaged with a twist of his wrists and launched no less than eighteen cuts, jabs, and slices at Anakin within seven seconds, his crimson blade flicking through the air so quickly that it seemed to lose cohesion and become a solid red blur.  But the force motivating Anakin’s body kept up with the storm, moving him through a series of Ataru acrobatics combined with Soresu blocks.  He spun away from Plagueis, breathing hard but still alive and uninjured.

“This is not possible,” Plagueis growled.  “You should be paralyzed.  Not only that, I have spent decades increasing my physical abilities through midi-chlorian manipulation.  Even with the Force, it should be physically impossible for your reaction speed to match my own.”

He’s programmed his body to attack without mediation from his central nervous system, the voice in Anakin’s head murmured.  Like the reflex action of your knee, only with a lightsaber.

“You’re forgetting an important detail,” Anakin said, not knowing if it was smart to be taunting Plagueis when he wasn’t even sure how he was still alive and moving but determined to give the evil old bastard a hard time regardless.  “I’m the Chosen One.”

They came to blows again, red blade crashing against green.  Anakin caught ten more strikes millimeters from his skin, slid away from another two, riposted, and Plagueis’s transpirator was suddenly charred from an incredibly near miss.  Another centimeter and Anakin would have cut it straight off his face.  The Muun staggered back, saber in a guard position, eyes wide with the knowledge of how close he had just been to the death he so feared.

That’s his vulnerability, the voice said.  He’ll be more cautious from now on.  I can continue enhancing your reaction speed to match his, but I can tell you now that you’re not a match for him alone.  He’s no longer overconfident.  You need Venge and Vader.

“How?” Anakin asked.  Plagueis’s brow furrowed – the Muun must have been wondering at the seeming non-sequitur – but Anakin ignored him.

The rest of the Jedi.  They can help.

And it clicked.  The familiarity of the voice.  The way it referred to the ‘rest of the Jedi,’ as though it were one.  The way it was clearly using the Force to circumvent Plagueis's ability to paralyze him and give him back control of his body.

“I’ll figure something out,” Anakin promised.  “Thank you.


Chapter Text

Yoda closed his eyes, feeling the flow of the Force around him.  It was almost time, he knew.

He reoriented his Aethersprite and started on a course back toward the Manticore.  It would be easier for the rest of the Jedi if they did not need to retrieve him from a moving fighter.

“Master Windu,” he said.  “Lead the Order in meditation, you will.  On Venge and Vader, focus your energies.  Strength, give them, to break Plagueis’s grip.  That way only can they fight him.”

Mace audibly hesitated.  “Yes, Master.  But shouldn’t you be leading us?”

“Elsewhere is my strength required,” Yoda told him.  “Worry, do not.  Need me, you do not.”

“Very well, Master.”  Mace began issuing orders to the rest of the Jedi, having them assemble their fighters in static formation well within the Order’s lines and protected by the overlapping shield bubbles of several capital ships.  The temporary cease-fire meant nothing, Yoda knew, if Vader saw the opportunity to cripple the Jedi with a well-placed missile barrage.

The Force had shown him what would happen next.  It had been the only vision with any clarity he had received for decades.  The Dark Side clouded everything, but he knew his course.  He did not know who would triumph in the duel on the planet below, but he knew what he had to do.  The triggering event was highlighted in his prescient memory – the return of the Force to Myrkr.

Yoda landed in the hangar of the Manticore, hopped out, and began making his steady way to the bridge.

Sidious instantly detected the return of the Force.  He sighed, welcoming its familiar presence, feeling the reawakening of power.  Now he no longer had to rely on crude instruments to tell him the situation in orbit and in Hyllyard City; the Force would tell him everything he needed to know.

Deep within the planet’s crust, his old Master was engaged in combat.  Even as he observed, careful to keep his presence shielded from both the Jedi and the Sith, he sensed the Jedi Order entering battle meditation, strengthening Venge and Vader so they could break free of Plagueis’s paralysis.  Just as he had known they would.

It had been clear from the start: he needed the Jedi Order to win this new war with Plagueis.  He was not powerful enough to destroy his Master; his one real chance had been that night in Plagueis’s suite, on the eve of their joint election to Supreme Chancellor.  But Plagueis had been wary, and he had avoided his favorite Sullustan wine.

It was Venge’s fault, of course.  Sidious had realized, early on, that Venge would never be content with simply being a tool of the Sith.  He was ambitious, cunning, and vain, and would want true power sooner or later.  To delay the onset of traitorous thoughts, Sidious had trained him more extensively in the methods of the true Sith – treachery, deception, manipulation – than he would have another, more blindly loyal apprentice.  This had, in turn, made Plagueis suspicious of Sidious’s intentions for his apprentice.

But once Plagueis was destroyed, the Jedi Order would cease to be useful to Sidious.  It did not matter that the Republic had ousted him after Terminus had revealed his identity as a Sith Lord.  Sidious could wrest control of the CIS from Vader and conquer the Republic from there.  Vader was young and incredibly powerful, but he was a fool.  With the right application of Dun Möch, Sidious was confident he could drive Vader to suicide or capitulation within minutes.

So, the instant Sidious felt his Master’s death, he would transmit the override to the clones in the Order’s army and have them turn on their commanders.  He would send a similar command to the droid army, having them target the Jedi exclusively.  Once the Order was crippled, Sidious would have the droids destroy the clones – the chips were too unknown a quantity to rely upon for long-term control – and proceed from there.

He eyed the data packet he had intercepted from Plagueis’s bunker – the complete genetic coding for an engineered life-form called an ultramir.  Ridiculous name, but if Sidious understood the attached notes correctly, this was how Plagueis was planning to deal with any survivors of a Jedi purge.  Total control over the apportionment of the Force, throughout the galaxy.  A most intriguing plan.

Sidious resettled himself in his seat and rested his hands on the transmission controls.  It would not be long, now, and he was patient.

He could wait.

Padmé rushed forward to pull Maul into a hug as he and Ahsoka emerged from a stolen CIS shuttle, Ahsoka carefully pushing Dormé’s bio bed down the ramp.  “Thank you,” she murmured.

Maul stood there for a comical half-second, arms splayed out at his sides, before he decided to briefly return the hug and pull away.  “Of course,” he said, looking down at Ahsoka.  “Well done, Padawan.”

“Thank you,” she chirped.  She turned her big blue eyes on Padmé.  “She’ll pull through just fine, Ambassador.  That’s what the CIS medical droid said.  Right before we took its head off for not letting us leave.”

Padmé smiled at her and hugged her, too.  The little Togruta was much more demonstrative than Maul, wrapping her arms around Padmé and displaying surprising strength for such a slight frame.

“Where is Jango?” Maul asked.  “And Shmi?  And the rest of the Mandalorians?”

“Having an impromptu battlefield funeral for Kal,” Padmé told him, her good cheer evaporating instantly.  “Ordo told me that I was welcome, since – well, Kal adopted me before he died.  I’m technically his daughter, and Ordo and his brothers are my siblings.”

“My condolences.”  The statement was flat, but for Maul, it was almost an excessively emotional display.

“Thank you.”  Padmé shook her head.  “But I felt like I would be in the way.  I don’t really know Mando customs.  Not that Shmi does, either, but she wanted to be there.  If they’re all right with it, I’ll have a proper – I mean, not proper, but a formal, Naboo funeral, in Theed, when this is done.  I won’t have his ashes, but I can pour memorial sand into the river and over the falls.”

“I do not doubt they will approve.”  Maul laid a hand on her shoulder.  “If you can see Dormé to the infirmary, Ahsoka and I must join Master Yoda on the bridge.  The entire Jedi Order is using battle meditation to support Venge and Vader in their fight against Plagueis.”

“Of course.”  Padmé looked down at her former bodyguard, now the Queen Mother of Hapes.  Dormé was pale, still unconscious, but Padmé could see a visible pulse at her throat and her breathing was steady.  “And Anakin too, right?  He’s still alive?”

“Yes,” Maul told her, “but he does not need our help.  He already has aid more powerful than we can give him.”

She stared at him.  “What?  From whom?”

To her surprise, Maul actually cracked a smile.

“Qui-Gon Jinn.”

Suddenly, Venge could move.

It was as though a wave surged through him, breaking invisible chains he hadn’t realized bound his limbs.  Intuitively, he recognized that the Jedi were joining their abilities in battle meditation, empowering him – and Vader, he saw – to resist Plagueis.

It was none too soon.  Whatever abilities or power Anakin had tapped into to let him move, he was already having to give ground to Plagueis.  The Muun had nearly two centuries’ worth of experience and practice on him, even though Anakin was somehow matching the Sith Lord’s unholy speed.

Venge ignited his lightsaber, leaping to the attack.  Vader dove in as well, saberspear whirling in tight, vertical arcs around his body so he would not imperil his temporary allies with the weapon.  In response, without turning to look at them, Plagueis suddenly produced a second lightsaber, igniting the crimson blade in a flash and turning to confront them.

The three of them took up positions in an equilateral triangle around Plagueis, hammering him with blows, but it was like fighting an impossibly fast machine.  There was no Force sense of what Plagueis was about to do, Venge realized, because Force foresight in a contest like this relied at least partially on reading the opponent’s intentions.  But Plagueis was somehow attacking and defending without thinking about it, moving his arms into textbook-perfect blocks, parries, and strikes with the precision of an automaton.  He was also twisting and torqueing his tall, thin body in ways impossible for a human, displaying amazing mobility in the restricted space.

“I,” Plagueis laughed, “am not even trying.  You are all going to die.”

Anakin spoke up, getting words out between great, heaving breaths to maintain his activity at the blinding speeds necessary for this fight.  “He’s used – Sith science – to program – his body – to fight independently – of his brain!”

The concept so flabbergasted Venge that he nearly missed a block and ended up with a neat burn line scorched across his phrik arm, which he’d brought up barely in time.  “That’s impossible.”

“You’re still saying that – with Plagueis?” Anakin asked, laughing despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

“How can you possibly tell this?” Vader demanded, his breathing not nearly as ragged as Anakin’s.  His genetic enhancements were serving him well in this battle.

“Qui-Gon – told me!  He’s – helping me!”

Venge took a risk and extended a tendril of his Force sense to Anakin.  Doing that nearly cost him his concentration on the fight, but he recovered and came away with confirmation.  Anakin wasn’t crazy; Venge could sense Qui-Gon Jinn’s presence, impossible as it was.  Not only that, but the dead Jedi seemed to somehow be suffusing Anakin’s own presence in the Force, reinforcing it.

He had no idea how Qui-Gon’s – spirit, ghost, whatever – could be here, helping Anakin, but he could tell it was.  Venge decided that if he believed Qui-Gon had this ability, which he clearly did, then he might also be able to detect self-modifications like the one he claimed Plagueis had made.

So, how did this reflex programming work?  Venge tried a low cut at Plagueis’s feet, which resulted in Plagueis leaping over the strike, kicking him in the jaw, and then nearly disemboweling him with a quick saber cut, all while continuing to press Anakin and Vader despite nominally being on the defensive.

All right.  Now here’s the test.

Venge went through eight or nine different attacks, to at least attempt to make the test less obvious.  Then he performed precisely the same maneuver – a low cut from Ataru, his body going through the same partial turn to build up the momentum of the swing.  Bracing for the kick to his jaw did not make it hurt any less, though he was much better at deflecting the disemboweling stroke.

Same stimulus, same reflexive response.  The weakness of his technique is clear.

If he, Vader, and Anakin could pin down a particular reflex response and coordinate their actions to take advantage of some opening in it, then they might be able to take Plagueis out before he decided to get serious and begin murdering them in earnest.  But he could not for the life of him think of any good way of communicating his find, and the strategy, to the two other men without alerting Plagueis too.  A telepathic Force bond would be too easy to pick up on, and he couldn’t just blurt the idea out loud.

Then he felt the familiar presence in his mind.  Hello, Venge.

Qui-Gon, he acknowledged.  Don’t you need to be helping Anakin?

I am, still.  But I sense that you need me, too.  The advantage to being dead is that you no longer need to worry so much about only being in one place at a time.

I’ll take your word for it.  Not particularly eager to die, myself.  Can you tell what I just figured out?

Yes.  Give me a moment.

It was time for some Dun Möch, Venge decided.  “If you’re so powerful,” he growled, purposefully entering a saber lock with Plagueis, “then why don’t you just kill us and have done?”

Plagueis broke the saber lock and erupted in a Force shockwave.  It blasted the three of them back, sending Venge hurtling ten meters and through five different glass nutrient tanks before slamming hard into a duracrete wall.  He staggered back to his feet, feeling some of his ribs shifting in unpleasant and unhealthy ways.

“I take it back,” Venge coughed.  “Can we go back to taking this less seriously?”

He threw himself into an evasive roll to get away from the storm of Sith lightning that came next, which quite literally blasted the duracrete wall into a collection of small pebbles and powder.  Venge barely got his saber up in time to block a double-saber overhead slam from Plagueis; the sheer power of the move crushed him into the floor and sent his weapon flying from his hands.

“This is why,” Plagueis said, towering over him.  “Because when I single you out, you die too quickly to be any fun.

Venge felt himself yanked out of the way of Plagueis’s follow-up blow.  He skidded to a halt next to Vader, who Force pulled his fallen weapon to him and handed it back.

“Try not to embarrass yourself like that again,” Vader growled, pulling Venge to his feet.  They made eye contact, and in that instant Venge knew that Qui-Gon had communicated the weakness of Plagueis’s reflexive technique.  He glanced at Anakin and saw the knowledge on his face, too.

“I’ll do my best,” Venge assured him, reigniting his saber.

Plagueis fell on the two of them, crimson blades flicking for their faces, throats, and chests.  Venge and Vader fell back, letting the Muun set the tempo, while Anakin charged in from behind, leaping in a Djem So overhand power strike.  Venge could feel the crackle in the Force as both he and Vader realized Anakin was taking the initiative and setting up their plan.  They needed to watch Plagueis, read his reaction to the Djem So attack from behind, and exploit it the next time Anakin performed the move.

Of course, Venge had managed to make Plagueis angry, so the Muun’s reaction was bone-crunchingly violent.  He whirled in a full three-hundred-sixty-degree spinning kick just as Anakin was about to land the blow, his foot crushing into Anakin’s side and hurling him to the ground, smashing him into a tank monitoring console.  The metal console was crushed flat by the impact, and Anakin hissed, rolling onto his back in clear agony.

The kick was so fast that Venge and Vader had no time to take advantage of Plagueis showing his back, but with the power of hindsight, Venge knew where he could strike.  It was the one opening, the one fatal flaw in this particular programmed response.  The Force, Qui-Gon, or both must have moved Anakin to try that particular move at this particular time.

He spared a microsecond’s glance at Vader.  They exchanged a glance, and Venge knew Vader understood what Venge would need to secure that opening.

Venge turned, angling the ongoing duel away from Anakin, giving him time to get back up, catch his breath, possibly reset his shoulder if it had been dislocated in the landing.  They would only get one shot at this, and they needed Anakin to be the one to repeat the move.  Vader didn’t have the right weapon, and Venge had never trained in Djem So.

Get back up.

Venge heard Anakin take several fast breaths.  There was a popping sound – it seemed like Anakin had needed to reset his shoulder – and a gurgled, cut-off cry.  But then Anakin was back on his feet, charging again, leaping into the same Djem So move.  Venge tensed, readying himself –

Plagueis snapped off the kick.  Anakin went flying again, but Venge could instinctively sense that he had used the Force to cushion the impact of the blow, and his landing was not going to be nearly as disastrous.

As Plagueis whirled back around, Vader thrust the blunt end of his saberspear at an acute angle between Plagueis’s sabers, catching both their blades on the shaft of his own weapon.  In the same instant, Venge lunged forward in a Makashi stab, aiming for the one part of Plagueis’s body that he could not twist or jerk out of the way.

His transpirator.

Venge’s blade sheared straight through it, destroying the device and sending Plagueis staggering away.  The steady mechanical hiss of the Muun’s breathing ceased, and he stared at Venge, eyes wide with shock.  He dropped one of his sabers to the ground, reaching a long-fingered hand up to the ruined, sparking metal at his mouth and throat, as though he might be able to somehow repair it.

“Die,” Venge told him.

Plagueis grasped the transpirator and tore it away.

Beneath the device was pale flesh that had not seen light for more than twenty years.  But where the Muun should have been missing a hunk of his jaw and part of his throat from a botched assassination attempt, there was nothing but smooth skin.

“Decades,” Plagueis rasped, his natural voice rattling through the air for the first time in Venge’s experience.  “I had decades to perfect my regeneration, anti-aging, and healing abilities.  And you think, during that entire time, I would have been so foolish as to never address my dependency on that device?”

Venge swallowed.  “I was hoping so, yes.”

Plagueis smiled.  Venge had seen Plagueis’s eyes smile many times, but he had never seen the Muun’s lips.  They twisted in a gross parody of the expression, a bitter, vicious sneer as the Muun bared his flat teeth.

“For that, I will make you suffer.

Chapter Text

It became clear within moments that Plagueis had not actually been trying.

For much of the fight up until this point, at least, he had been letting his programmed fighting reflexes do most of the work.  His only Force attack had been the shockwave which had thrown Venge, Anakin, and Vader back.

But now that Venge had destroyed his transpirator and made it clear that the three of them had seen the weakness of Plagueis’s reflexive fighting, he was trying.

Plagueis flashed toward Venge so fast his actual movement was invisible.  He seemed to blur, moving from three meters out to right in Venge’s face, and the lightsaber swing that followed thrummed with the full power of the Dark Side.

Venge got his own lightsaber up in a two-handed block.  He tapped his own reserves of Force power, anchoring himself, becoming as solid and immovable as a mountain.

The attack from Plagueis lifted him off his feet, tore the lightsaber from his grip, and crushed him into a duracrete wall twenty meters away so hard that the impact exploded the wall into a thousand pebbles.

He dropped to the ground, fell flat on his face, and promptly died.

Venge found himself standing over his body, staring at it in abject shock.

Looking down at himself, he realized he was ethereal, almost ghostly, and quite transparent.  The world seemed dim, removed, its colors desaturated.

Qui-Gon stood nearby, a hand on Anakin’s shoulder.  He looked just like Venge did.  He acknowledged Venge’s sudden presence with a weary smile and nod.

The next thing to occur to Venge was that the action all around him was paused.  Anakin stood there, lightsaber raised in an en-garde position but his eyes wide with shock as he stared at Venge’s body.  Vader had a similar look, his saberspear actually lowered slightly as he began to drop his guard in surprise and perhaps even fear.

Plagueis wasn’t moving, either.  The Muun was frozen in mid-leap at Vader, lightsabers raised over his head for a vertical hammerblow.

Only one thing occurred to him to say, so Venge said it.  “That’s… not fair.”

“No, it isn’t,” Qui-Gon agreed.  “You were doing quite well up until that point, too.  Shame you misjudged and went for the transpirator instead of a torso stab.”

Venge gave him a hard look.  “Shame,” he agreed.  “So, I’m dead.  Is this what happens when Force users die?  I was under the impression that Jedi simply merged back into the Force, and Sith or other Dark Side devotees disappeared into the Void.”

“I undertook special training during my life,” Qui-Gon told him.  “It is a long story, and despite appearances we do not have unlimited time.  To make the story a short one, the training was ultimately designed to teach me one thing: that anyone can do this.”

With a snort, Venge crossed his arms.  “Sounds like you wasted your time with that training, if I’m able to do it without it.”

Qui-Gon gave him a thin, almost icy smile.  “You wouldn’t if I were not here.  I have anchored you, so to speak.  Helped you to retain yourself while you bridge the gap.  You’re welcome.”

Venge sighed and gave him an obscene gesture before saying, “Thank you.  Not that I can say what good I’ll be now that I’m dead, Force ghost or no.  I could lend Vader power the way you’ve been helping Anakin, but given what Plagueis just did I somehow doubt that will be enough.”

“No, it will not be,” Qui-Gon agreed.  “Plagueis has decided that the three of you might actually kill him, so he has gone into a sort of crisis mode.  He has widened his personal channel to such an extreme extent that it is literally burning out his midi-chlorians.”

“Small price to pay when he can just order his surviving ones to regenerate afterward,” Venge growled.  “He’ll kill Anakin and Vader, then spend however long he needs to recovering.  He’s immortal; he can wait.”

“Indeed.  There is a chance, however, that you can counter him.”

Venge stared.  “I’m dead, if you didn’t notice.”

“Plagueis has demonstrated that even death is not an absolute,” Qui-Gon reminded him.  “He killed me and brought me back multiple times while he was warping me into Darth Ghūl.”

“Brilliant,” Venge drawled.  “I’ll just pop over and ask Plagueis if he wouldn’t mind resurrecting me so I can fight him some more.  Unless you happen to know someone else who has spent two centuries learning the ins and outs of midi-chlorian manipulation to the point of having power over life and death.”

I,” Qui-Gon said sternly, “spent days forcibly linked to his mind.  It was not a pleasant experience.  He was much stronger than I was, and had control of the encounter.  But I was, and am, a Jedi Master.  They don’t just hand the title out when your beard reaches a certain length.”  He raised an eyebrow and stared at Venge, waiting.

It took Venge only a second – or what passed for a second when time was effectively frozen – to get it.

“You know how to resurrect me,” he breathed.

“I know everything Plagueis knew when he forced the link between us,” Qui-Gon said.  “That includes the method of bodily resurrection, and the technique he is using right now to tap the Force to the point of burnout.”

“And you never used this knowledge to reverse the damage he did to your brain?  To destroy Ghūl from the inside?”

“I was weakened and most of my power had been stolen by Ghūl,” Qui-Gon told him.  “A state of being you should be familiar with, given your experiences with Terminus.  Now, I cannot actually perform the resurrection myself.  The power I am giving Anakin to resist Plagueis’s paralysis is really his own.  I have widened his channel, I can give him guidance, but I can do nothing to affect the physical world independently of him.”

“Then we’re doomed.”

“Not entirely,” Qui-Gon countered.  “Now that you are here, with me, I can give you the necessary knowledge.”

“I’m dead.  My body might be lying there, but I clearly suffered brain death.”

Qui-Gon shrugged.  “Clearly, you are more than your brain.  If you really only existed as a collection of sparks flickering between neurons, you could not manifest as a Force ghost, could you?”

Venge opened his mouth, then closed it.

What the hell, he thought.  It’s not like I can get any more thoroughly dead.

“All right,” Venge said.  “Go ahead and – no.  Wait.”  He turned and searched the increasingly-destroyed laboratory for where Rex lay.  “I need just a minute.”

Qui-Gon nodded.  “Of course.”

Venge walked over to Rex.  He knelt over the man’s body, instinctively sensing his life, seeing it as a sort of aura suffusing him.  Hesitantly, then with greater resolve, Venge reached out a hand and laid it against the side of Rex’s face.

Instantly, there was a contact.  A spark appeared in his mind’s eye.  It resolved itself into an abstract shape – a familiar one.  A pair of jaig eyes.

“Venge,” Rex said.  In Venge’s mind, the eyes pulsed brilliant blue in time with his speech.  “What’s happening?  Am I dead?”

“Unconscious,” Venge told him.  “And waking up.  I’m the one who’s dead, actually.”

He felt the shock ripple through Rex.  “No.  You’re not serious.”

“Quite serious.  But I may have a fix.  Or, rather, Qui-Gon has a fix.  He’s helping us fight Plagueis.”

“I’m concussed.  This is a nightmare.”

“You’re not concussed, Rex.  I was careful about how I knocked you out.  Any idea how Plagueis did what he did, by the way?  I doubt if he was using Force influence he would have needed a command phrase.”

Rex hesitated.  “Good soldiers follow orders, sir.  It’s what we were made to do.  Or at least, that’s the answer that comes to mind.  I don’t know what actually happened.  Everything just went blank.”

Venge carefully sank his hand beneath the surface of Rex’s face, sweeping ghostly fingers up into his brain.  If there was some deep conditioning, there might still be something he could do –

There it was.  A black mass which felt cold to his ethereal touch.  Something other, that did not pulse with Rex’s life.  It wasn’t conditioning; it was literally a physical object planted against Rex’s right cortex.

But, even as Venge considered how he could deal with it, he realized that there was already a Force link which touched it.  He frowned.  The nature of the link was odd, like nothing he’d ever seen.  If anything, it resembled a Force bond.  He’d read about Force bonds between individuals, especially lovers – back when the Jedi had allowed that sort of thing, they had been more common.  But this bond was detached, almost impersonal.  He tried to follow it, but found he couldn’t extend his consciousness very far beyond the vicinity of Qui-Gon.

Examining the bond more closely, Venge saw that it was meant to contain the black thing, to impede or neutralize it somehow.  Why hadn’t it worked?

The ultramir was still alive when Plagueis issued his order.

Venge withdrew his hand back to resting against Rex’s cheek.  “I think I know what happened,” he said.  “And I don’t think it’ll be a problem again.”

“That’s a relief.  So, getting back to this issue of you being dead, and Qui-Gon having a fix…”

“It might not work, Rex.  This might be the last time we see one another.  So, I…”  Venge swallowed.  The knowledge that he no longer had a throat did not stop it from feeling tight.  “I wanted to say goodbye, just in case.  And to tell you that – you’re very important to me, Rex.  You have helped make this war bearable.”

Rex chuckled.  “You have too, sir.  The feeling’s mutual.”  He paused, clearly deciding how to articulate his thoughts.  Venge could sense them, of course, but he waited patiently, giving Rex time.

“I won’t say goodbye, Venge,” Rex finally said.  “Let’s face it – if you don’t get back up and put Plagueis down, I’ll likely be joining you soon enough.  So I’ll just say that I’ll see you when I wake up.  One way or another.”

“Agreed.  By the way, work on waking up quickly.  I could still use your help.”

“Will do.  Sir.

Venge reluctantly drifted back from Rex, severing the connection between them.  He turned to Qui-Gon, nodded.

“Do it.”

Vader had recognized the move that killed Venge.  His former Master wasn’t merely using the Force to enhance his physical strength and speed; he was using the lightsaber swing as a conduit for a massive Force pulse.  That was what had sent Venge flying, not the lightsaber impact itself.

As Plagueis literally fell on him, Vader summoned up his own power, pushing his channel as far open as it would go, and blasted the Muun with a raw kinetic burst.  His attack met Plagueis’s and dispersed the vast majority of its energy.  A pale shadow hammered through him, making his knees buckle but failing to bring him down.  Plagueis’s lightsabers crashing down on the shaft of Vader’s saberspear buckled him further, but Vader still stubbornly held his ground.

The issue was that he did not have an infinite number of those massive bursts left in him, not even with his enormous Force potential.  He especially did not have the number required in such a short span of time.  Plagueis, he could sense, was literally overloading himself with this kind of Force usage, but since the Muun would kill both him and Anakin long before he risked killing himself, it hardly mattered.

If Vader could figure out how to tap his own power the way Plagueis was –

He bore the brunt of another massive shockwave, narrowly avoiding being lifted off his feet.  Even if I could go past my limits the way he is, what of the aftermath?  I cannot regenerate the way he can.  I must have my power to finish what I’ve begun.

Anakin came in with a downward cut at Plagueis’s legs, but the Muun swung his saber up into the blow, the Force roaring behind.  Plagueis’s crimson blade impacted Anakin’s weapon just below the emitter pommel. 

Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber literally exploded, spraying shrapnel, sparks, and shattered emerald kyber crystal in all directions.  The Force component of Plagueis’s blow sent Anakin into a parabolic arc.  He managed to save his life by crudely using the Force to brake to a halt in mid-air before dropping ingloriously to the floor, but he was now weaponless.  It was down to Vader, and he suspected – no, he knew – that he couldn’t win.

But worse than that, he was going to die knowing that he had underestimated his Master.  Plagueis had not grown soft and complacent.  There was simply no need for concern, about anything, when there was nothing he was incapable of destroying utterly.

Plagueis grinned at him.  “I would ask, Lord Vader, if you will accept one final chance to serve me.  But for one, I know the answer would be ‘no.’  And for two – well.  Even after all the time I spent creating you, training you, honing you – you have turned out to be a disappointment.

Vader summoned his anger with a roar, lashing out with a storm of Sith lightning from his right hand and a saberspear thrust with his left.  Plagueis took the lightning in the chest without any visible effect, parried the saberspear, and struck Vader a backhanded blow across his jaw with the butt of his other saber’s pommel.  The world actually went black for a moment, and Vader came to on the ground, head spinning, nausea and fear welling up in him as Plagueis loomed over him, raising his sabers for the killing strike.

Then he turned, eyes widening in shock.

Forcing his vision not to blur, Vader looked too.  He could sense something happening – something incredible, something impossible.  And it was happening to Venge’s body.

The corpse was twitching.

Not merely twitching – it was spasming, making cracking and popping noises.  It writhed on the ground, limbs flailing and beating against permacrete.  Vader abruptly realized, horror filling his gut, that the bones were resetting themselves, muscles knitting back up.  Even as he watched, the writhing thing levered itself to its feet, its head snapping up as the vertebrae in its neck clicked back together.

“What the hell is that?” Anakin swore.

The corpse’s twitching became less and less pronounced.  Its shoulders settled.  Its fingers flexed.

Its eyes opened.

“Impossible,” Plagueis rasped.

“You yourself proved that it’s possible,” Venge said, cracking his neck and stretching, as though he had simply taken a tumble rather than been hurled into a wall so hard he died.  “You, of all people, shouldn’t be surprised that someone else eventually figured it out.”

He called his lightsaber back to his flesh-and-blood hand.  He flexed the fingers of his phrik hand, the only part of him that had weathered the collision more or less intact.

“So,” Venge said.  “What was it you were saying, Plagueis?  That singled out, we die too quickly to be any fun?”

And before Vader could even blink, Venge flashed across the space between himself and Plagueis, lightsaber blurring forward in a thrust.

Plagueis turned the thrust, of course, but the shockwave made him stagger.  The redirected force kept flying like a pressure wave, smashing through tank after tank until it smashed down another section of the lab’s wall.

Venge grinned, eyes blazing with the full power of the Dark Side, his Force signature so bright it hurt for Vader even to sense it.

“Now,” Venge hissed, “we’ll have some fun.

Chapter Text

The Force was with him.

And it was with him like never before.  Venge had never felt so on, so totally and completely aware of every detail in his surroundings, visible to him or not.  And the sheer power he was able to project staggered him.  Every slash of his lightsaber was accompanied by a visible ripple in the air as the Force coursed out of his blade.  When he used Sith lightning, the bolts were so bright they left burning afterimages on his eyes, and whatever they hit, they annihilated completely, organic or otherwise.

But for all that, he was still going to lose.

Plagueis’s strikes were just as powerful, his lightning just as devastating, his situational awareness just as perfect.  Even if Vader had not been down for the count, too out of it to fight after Plagueis’s last blow had dumped him on his back, it would not have mattered.  The Muun was too good.

And Venge’s perfect, Force-driven awareness told him that while both he and Plagueis were burning out their midi-chlorians by channeling this much energy, Plagueis was burning out less quickly.  He had more of the organelles to sacrifice, and his mastery of the Force allowed him to smooth the edges of the channel where Venge could not.

Right now, if things continued as they were, Venge would burn himself out completely in six minutes.  Plagueis would last at least ten.  The remaining four minutes would be more than enough time to let him murder Vader and then turn on Anakin, who was now unarmed and dealing with dozens of lacerations to his chest and face from the shrapnel of his exploded lightsaber.

Both he and Plagueis had access to enough power to completely vaporize the other, if they had a few moments to channel it.  But both of them knew it, and so both kept the pressure on, pushing one another to the limits of concentration and ability.

“It is not too late,” Plagueis rasped, battering at Venge over and over with lightsaber blows strong enough to slice starfighters clean in half.  “Surrender.  Swear your eternal loyalty to me.  I will spare you, and I will spare Padmé and Rex.”

Venge didn’t bother replying to the transparent play.  Plagueis would never let someone else with his knowledge of midi-chlorians live.  He would kill Venge the instant he got an opening, and use his power to vaporize Venge’s body so he could not repeat the self-resurrection.

For a moment, Venge considered the possibility of having Qui-Gon link up with Vader and try to give him the knowledge necessary to enter this heightened-channel state.  But he rejected the idea almost instantly.  Even if Qui-Gon could communicate that knowledge to a living being, giving Vader that kind of trump card would be just as bad as letting Plagueis live.  The younger Sith did not have his master’s ability to warp minds, but he had so many midi-chlorians to spare that entering a burnout state for brief periods of time would not seriously impact his total Force potential.  If he could do it at will, nobody would be able to kill him.

“If you do not surrender,” Plagueis growled, still hammering at Venge, “I will hunt Padmé down.  I will torture her to death, return her to life, and repeat the process.  Forever.  No sentient in history has known, or will ever know, such pain as she will.  Rex, I will take and re-mold into a death commando for my new empire.  I will empower him, twist him, and send him out to kill Jedi.  He will spend his life a pawn, an empty husk.  And both Padmé and Rex will know that their pitiable, unbearable existences are your fault.

Venge said nothing.

“You have always been mediocre.  What ability you possess has always been outshone by others.  Your only true strength was in manipulation and betrayal, and you sacrificed it when you joined forces with the Jedi.  That is why you cannot defeat me now.  All the power of the Force at your command and you simply are not good enough.”

Venge still said nothing.

“The name ‘Kenobi’ will be a mark of shame, given to the untouchables and failures, and the story of your hypocrisy and mediocrity will be the subject of derision throughout the galaxy.  When the operas are composed about the Sith conquest, your part will be that of the fool, the dupe, the greedy child who aspired beyond his station and was justly punished for it.  Your entire existence will be a cautionary tale told to children.”

Venge gave no sign he was even listening.  He just fought harder, using every trick he’d ever learned, feeling his power burning away even as it kept him alive.  He would not even last six minutes, he thought.  At a certain point, his connection to the Force would be diminished enough that he would no longer be able to destroy Plagueis, even with an opening.  Another minute, perhaps two, and it would all be over.

He refused to let himself feel guilt or shame at the fact that even now, at the end, he simply wasn’t strong enough.  If he compromised his connection to the Force, wavered in his righteous fury, Plagueis wouldn’t even have to outlast him.  If nothing else, Venge would not let Plagueis’s Dun Möch be the end of him.  He would die on his feet, fighting.

That was the kind of person, he decided, who was worthy of Padmé and Rex.

“You are weakening,” Plagueis hissed.  “Your thoughts betray you, Venge.  You are not worthy of anyone, or anything.  You deserve no love, no hate, no pity, no sorrow.  You are nothing, and I will return you to nothing.  You –”

There was the sound of a blaster shot.

Plagueis reeled, whirling around to confront its source.  Rex was back on his feet, eyes narrowed, a blaster pistol in his hand.  As Plagueis turned his back on Venge, he saw that Rex had managed to land a shot directly in the small of the Muun’s back.  The flesh was charred black, though the sheer power burning through the Sith Lord had absorbed the lethal force of the bolt.

“Anyone ever tell you,” Rex asked, “that you talk far too much?”

Plagueis literally screeched, an inhuman noise of rage that seemed to set the air on fire.  He lashed out with a Force wave that would disintegrate Rex from the waist up if it hit, but Anakin was already there, bowling into the Captain and hurling them both to the floor.

Both Venge and Plagueis knew that had been a mistake.  Venge felt the Sith Lord’s sudden spasm of fear, the certain knowledge that he had let the pain and humiliation of being shot by a lowly clone cloud his judgment for a crucial second.  The Muun was already whirling back around toward Venge, lightsabers ready to deflect a cut or stab, but Venge was not attacking with his lightsaber.

He knew just as well as Plagueis did that this was his absolute last chance to win.  There would not be another opening like this.  If he did not take total advantage of it, if he held back even the smallest fraction of his strength, then the fight was as good as over.

So he reached into himself, summoned up every scrap of rage, hate, love, determination – he poured the entirety of his being, the whole well of his power, into a single thought –

Die, Plagueis.

There was a thunderclap, so huge and deafening that it felt as though the world itself had exploded.  There was light, heat – he felt his feet lifted off the ground –

He slammed onto his back, every part of him screaming as though it were on fire.  Venge blinked, trying to refocus his vision, found he couldn’t.  The world was a blurry, grainy black-and-white image, quickly disappearing down a long, night-colored tunnel.  He was falling away from it, spiraling down into darkness.

He didn’t even know if he’d killed the bastard.

Slowly, Vader got to his feet.

Venge was supine, fifteen meters away, apparently unconscious or dead.  Rex and Anakin were both still on the ground, alive but clearly stunned by what had just happened.

There had been a perfect sphere of white, impossibly bright light.  It had only been for a split second, and it had been centered on Plagueis.  Then it had exploded, the luminosity so intense that even Vader had been forced to close his eyes.

There was no sign of Plagueis.  Where he had stood, there was nothing but a blast scar darkening the permacrete floor.

“Did he do it?” Anakin asked, getting slowly to his feet.  His wounds were still bleeding, but Vader could tell at a glance that none were fatal.  Some stitches, a night in a bacta tank, and he would be fine.  “Is Plagueis dead?”

Vader touched the Dark Side, seeking the answer.  Obvious exceptions concerning ysalamiri aside, he had always been able to sense his Master, no matter where in the galaxy the two of them had respectively been.  Plagueis’s presence had been like a dark constant, underscoring the entirety of Vader’s existence.

That constant was now gone.

“He is dead,” Vader said, not bothering to hide the triumph in his voice.  He turned to look at Venge, who was definitely still alive, if unconscious.  “And now Venge will join him.”

“No!” Rex barked, struggling to stand back up.  “I won’t –”

Without even looking at him, Vader slapped him back down with a Force shove.  “Stand down, Captain.  You are not in a position to stop me, and I see no reason to kill you.  You may prove useful.”

Anakin interposed himself between Vader and Venge.  “Why?” he demanded.  “We had a deal.  Plagueis dies, you take over the CIS, and we leave Myrkr.  The war starts again a day later.”

“I am altering the deal,” Vader told him, lip curling.  “I specified that your fleet would leave.  Venge is not your fleet.  I am not going to pass up this opportunity to kill a powerful enemy while he is vulnerable.  You have no weapon, Vice-Admiral Skywalker, and you are more wounded than I am.  You are also slower, weaker.  This is not a fight you can win.  So do you let me kill Venge, and live to see your allies again?  Or do I have to kill you, too?  I truly do not want to.”

Scowling, Anakin asked, “You still want to rule the galaxy together, like you were saying earlier?  You think I’ll be willing to do that if you murder my friend?”

“Let me put it this way,” Vader told him.  “I am going to win this war.  The offer to join me will remain open.  I have the feeling that if you have the option to – shall we say, ameliorate certain harsher aspects of my rule – then you will take it.  So, again: do you stand aside?  Or do you die here?”

His scowl deepened, but with a sigh, Anakin stepped aside.

“No!” Rex shouted.  Vader turned to look at him, on the off chance the Captain was going to try something stupid.  “Anakin, you can’t –”

“STAND DOWN!” Anakin bellowed at him, so loud that even Vader started slightly.  “That is an ORDER, Captain!”

Rex glowered at him.  “I’m not your direct subordinate at the moment, sir.  The man who could give me that order and expect me to follow it is lying over there, about to be kriffing murdered!”

Vader sighed.  “Do as he says, or I kill you too.”

“I know it’s wrong, Rex,” Anakin said, his voice gone from authoritative to pleading.  “But either we all die, or only Venge dies.  What’s the better alternative?  I’m not a Jedi, I’m a soldier.  Soldiers think about what will get the least amount of people killed.”  He crossed his arms.  “Are you a soldier, too?”

“I’ll never be a good soldier again,” Rex snapped.  “Not after today.”  He glared daggers at Vader.  “You want to kill Venge?  Fight me first.”

Vader shrugged.  “Fine.”

A single thought slammed Rex into the floor.  His head bounced against the permacrete once, then lolled.  He fell still.

“Well,” Vader said.  “That was strictly unnecessary, but I hope when he wakes up he can feel good about taking a stand.”  He glanced back at Anakin.  “Are you still going to be practical, or is his example going to inspire you?”

Anakin spat at Vader’s feet.  “I don’t have the luxury of not being practical.  I have lives to save.  Do it and be damned.”

Smiling, Vader turned and started toward Venge.

And stopped, startled, as something happened to his chest.

It – hurt.  He looked down at himself, and to his utter shock, there was a shaft of pure, white light protruding from just to the left of his sternum.  His flesh smoked where it met the light.

“What?” he managed to choke out.  “How?  The – weapons scanner –”

“Stygium lightsaber,” Anakin said.  His voice sounded distant.  “Invisible to weapons scanners.  Borrowed it from the Jedi Archives when we were tracking the Vigilante Jedi.  I never did remember to return it.”

The blade deactivated, and Vader found himself slumping to the floor.  The academic part of his mind knew that Anakin had stabbed him straight through the back into his heart.  All the blood in his body was pouring out of a muscle that could no longer beat or contain it.  The pain intensified.

Vader landed on his back, found himself looking up into Anakin’s face.  He really did look like he regretted this.

“You were waiting,” Vader rasped.  “For me to… turn my back.”

Anakin smiled ruefully, crouching over Vader.  “Best way to kill someone.  Stab them in the back.”  He sighed.  “I really didn’t want to do this.  Mom will be hurt, you know.  She loves you, despite what an irredeemable bastard you are.”

Vader coughed, noting the way blood misted the air with the violent exhalation.  Anakin, of course, leaned back in time to avoid the spray.  “She… yes.  Tell her… I’m grateful.  That she tried.”

“I believe you.  And I will.”

Darkness began to creep in at the edges of his vision.  “Would you have… spared me… if I had… agreed to let Venge… live?”

Anakin shook his head.  “No.  I was always going to kill you, Vader.  I just never wanted to.”

Vader laughed, though it came out as another bloody cough.  “That’s… almost Sith… of you.”

“Almost.”  Anakin stood from his crouch.  “Let’s hope I can fake the rest.”

It occurred to Vader to ask what Anakin meant by that, but when he tried to form the question in his mind, he found he couldn’t.  The words wouldn’t come.  Everything was slipping away.

He closed his eyes.  He was so tired.  It would be nice to rest for a while.

Just a little while.

Sidious felt Plagueis die.

He sent the twin messages.

Burn, he thought.  All of you will burn.

“Lord Admiral!” Pellaeon barked.  “Signal from the surface.  It’s –”  He frowned.  “Two signals, actually.  One on our emergency broadcast frequency, and one on the CIS’s.  They’re –”

He winced as a sudden blast of static erupted from the comm speakers.

Before he could say, That was the one on our frequency, the sensor officer shouted, “Lord Admiral, enemy activity!  The CIS fleet is moving!  They’re bringing weapons to bear!”

“Prepare to resume combat,” Thrawn ordered.  “Weapons officer, draw a bead on the Executor.”  He paused, obviously waiting for the response.  “Weapons officer.  Did you hear me?”

Pellaeon looked at the man.  The officer – a clone lieutenant – sat stiffly in his seat, eyes unfocused, staring straight ahead.  Then Pellaeon abruptly realized that every clone on the bridge was sitting precisely the same way, looking precisely the same way.

“What the blazes?” he growled.

Standing quietly near Thrawn’s seat, Yoda closed his eyes.

The blast of static was, of course, not merely static.  It was a highly compressed packet of information.  Every clone that heard it – which was all of them, since the transmission had been piped through the entire Jedi Order’s comm network – had no idea what it meant, but the control chips monitoring their brain activity certainly did.

Each and every clone was immediately ordered to take any and all actions necessary to effect the deaths of their Jedi commanders, as well as any other Jedi within killing distance.

None of them moved.

Instead of being forced to the unthinking, perfect execution of that order, every clone was presented with an unconscious question.

Are you a killer?  Or are you a protector who must, at times, kill?

To a man, they answered: I am a protector.

Another question.

Who will be protected if you kill the Jedi?

To which they replied: No one.

A last question.

Will you kill the Jedi, then?

And they said: No.

The control chips had been well designed.  When a chip attempted to force a clone to a particular course of action, and then detected that the clone was not responding, it immediately arrived at the conclusion that its unit was defective.  Defective units were to be destroyed and later replaced.

The chips sent a neural signal to the cells into which they had been embedded.  It was a biological self-destruct sequence, a carefully modulated electrical pulse that would begin a chain reaction of total brain-death.

Then the chips shut down.  Their constituent parts immediately broke down into a series of proteins and amino acids, substances that would pass harmlessly through brain tissue and past the blood-brain barrier into the bloodstream, where they would eventually – in the remaining hours of autonomic body functions left to the now-brain-dead unit – pass, undetected, into the kidneys.

After all, a dead clone might be autopsied.  He could not be found to have a control chip in his brain.

The chip’s architects had been clever.  Absent any external factors, this entire process would have worked perfectly.

But they did not account for the Force.

The cells around the chips did not accept the signal.  No brain-death occurred.  The chips, of course, were not designed to check if the signal worked, so they dissolved away regardless.

Pellaeon, his chest tight, felt himself sigh in relief as the clones snapped out of their seeming trance after only a few moments.  “Are all of you all right?” he demanded.

They nodded.  “Sorry, sir,” the weapons officer said.  “Something about that signal – I blanked out for a second there.”

“We all did,” the gunnery chief confirmed.

From behind him, by Thrawn’s chair, Pellaeon heard a small, satisfied sigh.  Something compelled him to turn around.

Grandmaster Yoda looked up at him, a smile curving his wrinkled, green face.

Then he closed his eyes, his smile faded, and he fell, soundlessly, to the deck.

Chapter Text

It became quite clear, at the conclusion of the Battle of Myrkr, that the issue of a droid army was its total dependency on structured leadership.  With Admiral Trench dead, Darths Plagueis and Vader disposed of, and the various other sentient ship commanders in the fleet lacking the authority or gumption to assume supreme command, the droid army was vulnerable to a single bad order.

Such as the order to totally ignore all Jedi Order ships and focus exclusively on hunting down the hundreds of Jedi starfighters in orbit around the world, as well as the Jedi commanders on the planet surface.

If the clone troops had been successfully made to perform the same, mass rush for the Jedi, the Order might well have been so crippled that its remaining offworld members would never have been able to reconstitute the organization.  But the clone troops remained firmly on the side they had chosen, and when they did not have to spend any effort on protecting themselves, they racked up astonishingly high kill-rates.  The Jedi, meanwhile, focused entirely on defense, and took minimal losses.

The tattered remains of the CIS fleet barely managed to limp far enough from both Myrkr and Lord Admiral Thrawn’s interdiction fields to make the jump to hyperspace.

Anakin Skywalker stood, tired and sick at heart, over the small, rumpled, empty robes.  Captain Pellaeon had carefully folded them and placed them, along with the little shoto, in a standard ship’s coffin.  It was the sort made to be ejected from a torpedo tube, committing the remains within to the fiery heat of atmospheric re-entry or a solar corona, or to the cold, vast mystery of deep space.

“He smiled at me, and then closed his eyes and just sort of… crumpled,” Pellaeon murmured.  “And a moment later, he disappeared.  Nothing left but these.”

Anakin closed his eyes and bowed his head.  His relationship with the Grandmaster had never been good.  But he had respected him, and after he had left the Order, Yoda had been the one Council member not to give him the cold shoulder or snipe at him.  The distance, he thought, had actually brought them closer.

Be at peace, Master Yoda.

“I felt what happened,” Siri Tachi spoke up.  The three of them were, for the moment, alone in the Manticore’s officer’s lounge, where a small funerary shrine had been hastily erected.  “That signal went out, the white noise, and it paralyzed all my clone troops.  Then there was some kind of psychic surge, a huge amount of energy being dumped through the Force.”

Pellaeon nodded, withdrawing a datapad from his uniform jacket’s pocket.  “We’ve had the fleet’s med staff working for the past six hours – not just on triage and battle wounds, but on running scans on as many clone troops as volunteer to stick their head in an imager.  And one of the imaging techs on the Steadfast found this an hour ago.”  He handed the datapad to Anakin.

The image was of an ugly, almost amoeba-like pinkish-grey blob.  A biochip.  “This must have been in all of them,” Anakin said.  “Why was this trooper the only one who we found it on?”

“Private Tup’s chip was apparently undergoing a slow but steady progressive failure,” Pellaeon replied.  “A slight genetic abnormality caused his immune system to identify the chip as a foreign object and attack it.  They’re well-designed and resistant, but years and years of low-level rejection were beginning to take their toll.  From it, we’ve determined that the chips had a built-in system to dissolve them into their constituent biomolecular parts, to avoid detection in a dead clone.  They also had a kill-switch function that worked by sending a series of neural impulses to the surrounding cells, touching off systemic brain failure.”

“That’s what happened,” Siri said.  “He somehow knew that the clones had this thing in them.  It must have been after the meeting where Sidious told us about the plan for Order Sixty-Six.  Yoda must not have believed that the clones would just blindly obey an order, even from the Chancellor, so he investigated and found this.  I remember hearing that he spent most of the war just moving from front to front, ship to ship, meeting the men and checking in on them.  He must have been establishing Force bonds with all of them.  When the chips activated their kill-switches, he… stopped them.”  She discreetly wiped at her eyes.

“And the psychic feedback killed him.  Just like he knew it would.”  Anakin grimaced.  “He could have told someone.”

Pellaeon cleared his throat.  “With all due respect, Vice-Admiral, you’re a military man.  You know that if the enemy has a skifter in his sleeve, you wait for him to use it and then catch him in the act.  You don’t tell the other people at the table about it, because then he denies it and finds a different way to cheat.”

“You’re right, of course.”  Anakin hesitated, then laid the tips of his fingers against the rough fabric of Yoda’s robe.  “He knew what he was doing.  We have to respect that.”  He removed his hand, then looked back at Pellaeon.  “Have we found any personal effects in his cabin?”

“Some kind of glowing pyramid that the other Council members are calling his ‘holocron,’” Pellaeon replied.  “And a note, saying that it won’t work without all the surviving members of ‘the conspiracy’ there.  I assume that means you, the Ambassador, Knights Tachi and Maul, and the Justicar.”

“Yes.”  Anakin crossed his arms.  “The question is, of course, if Yoda took into account that some of us might not survive the battle.”

Siri took a sharp breath.  “Is someone –”

“Venge is in a coma,” Anakin told her.  “As far as I’ve heard, anyway.”

She shook her head, her expression miserable.  “That’s – just not fair.”

“No, it isn’t.”  Anakin rested a hand on her shoulder, then began striding out of the lounge.  A lot of things had happened today that, objectively, were not fair.

And the day was not yet over.

Venge found himself standing over his body again.

“Of course,” he sighed.

His body was now supine in a bio-bed aboard a medical frigate in the Jedi fleet.  They had an IV in his arm, a tube in his throat, and a bio-monitor taped to his forehead.  He looked like hell.

After a few moments of standing there, not sure if he was angry, upset, or merely tired, he realized he was not alone.  There were other people in the medical ward, of course, but they were not really there in the same way he was.  There were two other presences with him.

As soon as Venge looked up, they solidified into Qui-Gon Jinn and Yoda.

Venge looked at the little green Jedi Master.  “They got you too?”

Yoda cackled.  “Got myself, I did.  From controlling the clones, I kept Sidious.”

“And that killed you?”

The diminutive Jedi jabbed a green finger at Venge.  “Stop the brains of millions of men from spontaneously failing, I would like to see you do.”

“Fair.  Well-played.”  Venge glanced at Qui-Gon.  “So.  I’m dead again.  Twice in one day is two times too many, if you ask me, but I know what happens next.  I’m ready to go with you.”

Qui-Gon chuckled.  “Your composure is admirable, Venge, but neither of us is the psychopomp you’re clearly expecting.  You’re not dead, merely in a deep coma.”

“‘Merely,’” Venge said.  “It’s so deep that they have a breathing tube stuck in me.  People in comas like that don’t ever wake up.  If I could still touch things, I’d pull the tube out and finish the job with a thick pillow before I spent the rest of my life like that.”

“As Jedi, we must disapprove of suicide,” Qui-Gon said, just sternly enough to make it clear to Venge that he was being only half-serious.  “But you don’t need to go that far.  We came to say goodbye, and thank you, because this is the last time we will see one another.  You will wake up soon, pull the tube out of your throat, and demand to be discharged despite being in no condition to even sit up in bed.”

Venge brightened.  “Good news at last!  But you don’t need to be so morbid.  If I ever want to listen to your self-righteous drivel, I can just meditate.”

He felt his smile fade as Qui-Gon slowly shook his head.

“Now only in this place can we reach you,” Yoda said quietly.  “Half across the veil, you are.  This deep you will come only once more, and by then, moved on, we will have.”  He smiled at Venge.  “Thank you, Justicar Venge.  Lay aside your title and your Sith name, you can.  Rest, you have earned.  ‘Kenobi,’ you can now be.”

Frowning, Venge asked, “I don’t understand.  What are you saying?”

Qui-Gon answered him, but the words were fuzzy, indistinct.  When Venge opened his mouth to ask him to repeat himself, he found that his mouth was already open, and there was a tube in it.  It took far more effort than it should have to lift his flesh-and-blood hand to grasp it and yank it out of his throat, a thoroughly unpleasant process, but he did.  A coughing fit seized him, but when he got through it, he was awake and breathing normally again.

A female, blue-skinned Twi’lek that Venge recognized as Chief Jedi Healer Vokara Che was standing over him.  Her hand was half-extended in what she had obviously recognized as a futile effort to stop Venge from pulling out the breathing tube.  “Glad to see you awake,” she said.  “I’d have preferred you let me do that, but you seem to be breathing well enough on your own.”

Venge’s throat was raw from the tube, and his voice was scratchy and hoarse, but he ignored the pain and forced himself to speak.  “Call… Thrawn.  Have him… tell people… I’m up.”

The Jedi raised a hairless brow.  “You’re not leaving until we’ve run more tests and you’ve spent at least another four hours in a healing trance.  There have been major changes in your body that –”

“You can kindly take your tests… and your healing trance… to Hell,” Venge said mildly, his ability to speak rapidly returning.  “I don’t need you… to tell me what I already know.  I can’t… touch the Force anymore.”

Vokara Che stared at him.  “How can you not want us to try to –”

“There’s no fixing it,” Venge snapped.  “I destroyed the vast majority… of my midi-chlorians.  My last attack needed to kill Plagueis.  That was that.”  He swung his legs out of the bed, glanced down and saw, somewhat amusedly, that he was naked.

“Robe?” he asked.

Thrawn, the surviving members of the Conspiracy, and the surviving members of the Jedi Council – a total of sixteen people, after taking into account the losses of Yoda, Ki-Adi Mundi, and Eeth Koth from the Council – gathered in the Manticore’s conference room to view Yoda’s holocron.

“Questions, you doubtless have,” the Grandmaster’s wizened eidolon said to them.  “Briefly try to anticipate and answer them, I will.

“When told I was by Sidious of Order Sixty-Six, believe I did not that blindly follow orders, the men I had met would.  Investigated, I did, and the truth of the inhibitor chips, I found.  Upon myself, the responsibility for subverting this plot I took.  Kill me, I knew it would.  My choice it was.  Alerted the Sith of our knowledge, any other plan might have.

“On what to do next, for many weeks I meditated.  After the war, after defeated the Sith were.  Clear to me it became: continue, the Jedi cannot.”

Even in a room full of Jedi, the shock was palpable.  Venge – still in pain, but sitting comfortably on a bench seat with Padmé under his arm – glanced around at people’s faces.  Mace Windu and the other Council members, with the obvious exception of the inscrutable Plo Koon, were not even trying to hide their disbelief and dismay.  Interestingly, both Anakin and Siri, the youngest Force-users in the room, seemed to take the statement in stride.

No surprise there.  Siri was given the rawest possible deal by the Council.  Anakin’s entire adolescent life has been defined by his inability to be the kind of Jedi they want him to be.  Neither of them has love lost for the Order.

“Not,” Yoda continued, “as we have been.  In a Temple, we have sat, out of step with the galaxy.  Amassed so much power, the Sith never could have, had blind we not been to all going on outside our halls.  A doctrinal and structural matter, to my mind this is.  What for the Jedi was correct seven hundred years ago, correct it is no longer.

“My decision it therefore is that the next Grandmaster of the Order will be Vice-Admiral Anakin Skywalker.”

Mace Windu came half out of his chair before he checked himself and sat back down.  The rest of the Council stared at Anakin, looks of mistrust and shock on their faces.

“If respected me you did, then your support, please give him,” Yoda concluded.  “The Chosen One, he is.  The Chosen One, we must let him be.  What the Chosen One is – now, decide he must.”

The holocron switched off.

Every gaze in the room was firmly centered on Anakin Skywalker.

He stood.  “I accept the position of Grandmaster of the Jedi Order,” he said.  “I agree with my predecessor: the Jedi can’t continue as they – we – were.”  Looking directly at Mace Windu, he asked, “Are we all agreed on that?”

Windu met his eyes, expression icy but no longer directly confrontational.  “Master Yoda said as much,” he said.  “Appointing you the new Grandmaster by fiat instead of having a proper election seems to be part and parcel of .”

Anakin grinned at him.  “Well, what are you going to do.  Chosen One, prophecy, and so on.”  He turned to Thrawn.  “Lord Admiral Thrawn, are preparations ready for Operation Finale?”

“They are indeed,” Thrawn replied.

“Good.”  Anakin looked back at the Council, sparing a glance for Venge and Padmé.  “Sorry you weren’t briefed, but Operation Finale is something I came up with just today.  Handy that I now have the authority to implement it.  We’re going to end the war, capture or kill Darth Sidious, bring the galaxy back under a single government, and revamp the Jedi Order.”

Siri whistled.  “Anything else on that list?  Inventing viable teleportation, maybe?”

“I’ll file that one under ‘miscellaneous secondary goals.’”  Anakin spread his arms.  “Are you all with me?”

“Yes, with the caveat that you haven’t yet told us precisely what Operation Finale entails,” Maul, who had been silent up until now, pointed out.

“We’ll get to that.  For right now, the Jedi Order needs to withdraw its forces to Kamino.  The Battle of Myrkr is over.”

Padmé sat with Venge in the waiting room outside the bacta therapy chamber where Rex was currently recovering from the nasty head injury he’d been dealt by Vader.  Everything was white or off-white, but unlike Tipoca City’s blinding corridors and rooms, here the effect was muted, even somewhat soothing.

Venge had flopped over onto his side, resting his head in her lap.  She absentmindedly ran her fingers through his hair, too tired to do much more than sit and try to sort through the grief.  First Kal, now Master Yoda.

“Tell me something,” Venge murmured, seemingly apropos of nothing.  “Do you remember what you said, on the way back to Kamino from the battle at the Invisible Hand?

Padmé looked down at him, forcing a smile through the pain.  “Of course.  I said I love you.”

“Do you still feel that way?”

She frowned at him.  “Of course I do, Venge.  What could possibly make you think that would have changed?”

He didn’t say anything, and it hit her.  Resisting the urge to smack herself for not seeing the obvious, Padmé kept her voice calm and said, “You lost your connection to the Force.”

He nodded.  The way he was oriented, he seemed to be staring at a spot on the bulkhead opposite them.  “The rational part of me knows that my ability, or inability, to use the Force should have nothing to do with it.  But –”  Venge gave a fractional shrug.  “I don’t know.  I was flippant about it with Vokara Che, because I refuse to accept any Jedi’s pity.  But… I don’t know what use I’m going to be from this point on, Padmé.  I don’t know what I am, without the Force.”

She wrapped an arm around his torso, giving him a tight squeeze.  “You’re Justicar Venge.  You’re the man who stopped Darth Plagueis.  You’re going to have to get used to life without the Force, but trillions of people muddle through every day without it.  I find a way, somehow.”  Padmé carefully tilted his head so he was forced to look up at her, see her smile.  “We’ll deal with it together.  You, me, and Rex.  I promise.”

He managed a slight smile in return, and she let his head rest in her lap again, returning to running her fingers through his hair.

Despite Venge’s loss, despite her own losses – for the first time in what felt like forever, Padmé realized she genuinely thought they had a chance of ending the war and restoring the Republic.

And before this was over, Padmé promised herself, there was one more thing she still had to do.

She would make Sidious pay for what he had done to Naboo.