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Spectre

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Kylo Ren watches the stars wheel with the drift of the damaged Supremacy. Snoke lies behind him, cold beneath the remains of a singed red drape Hux had torn down to cover his blank eyes and slack mouth. Kylo keeps his back turned to the body and stares through the curved window-wall of the throne room. Crait looms outside, red and white against the velvet dark. They’d detected a single ship jumping to lightspeed just outside the atmosphere, but scans continued at Hux’s insistence. Kylo had left the bridge long ago. He knows the planet is empty; he can feel it. His mother and the girl are both long gone.

“How does it feel?”

The voice startles him. He whirls, one hand clutching for his lightsaber. The figure waiting for him is tall, human—and an apparition. Translucent and faintly glimmering, it moves with soundless steps and silently flowing robes. Jedi robes. Kylo knows it’s possible for ghosts to surface from the powerful currents of the Force, but astonishment seizes him regardless. Knowing had only ever intrigued him, but seeing has stolen his speech.

“You can see me.” Surprise registers in the apparition’s voice—a youthful tenor—and in the lift of one spectral eyebrow split by a scar. “I wondered if you ever would.”

The apparition’s face shifts disconcertingly as he steps forward again, skin flickering as though there are other scars beneath the surface, only just covered by a film of translucent blue. The figure drifts to stand beside him, moving with visible but silent steps. “Having everything you ever wanted. How does it feel?”

“Who are you?” Kylo wants to sounds forceful, unperturbed. But his voice shivers and he only sounds afraid. The apparition gives him a glance at once appraising and disappointed.

The ashes of memory stir, whirl, and coalesce into his mother’s face, arranged in a similar expression. The strong nose, grim mouth, and piercing eyes with an iron will visible behind them. He blinks the image away. Tentatively he touches the presence of the apparition. It’s solid as a rock and vibrant as a rushing river. Something about the shape of it reminds him very much of his uncle. The figure leaves him to his investigation, turning to regard the stars instead. He clasps his hands behind his back, and stands tall—nearly as tall as Kylo.

For a moment, Kylo remembers ghost stories told around fires at night. Students huddled in the shadow of Luke’s temple, sharing the tales of death and haunting they’d brought from their homeworlds. In their stories, ghosts were often echoes of their former selves: hollowed-out shadows, brimming with revenge or agony. But the apparition in front of him is no shadow. His features are clear and distinct, translucent and gleaming bluish-white, like a far-off star. He isn’t an echo or a malevolent desire for revenge. If anything, he feels like a distilled essence, something compacted into a smaller space than it ought to occupy. His eyes are piercing and very blue.

“Grandfather,” Kylo breathes at last.

The apparition nods. “I didn’t think you’d recognize me. You haven’t, for a long time.” There’s military precision in his posture, but when he turns to face Kylo, the rigid lines turn to liquid grace. Even in death, a master of the Force is evident.

“You didn’t answer my question,” his grandfather continues, regarding him with Luke’s eyes. His voice rings with authority and Kylo’s spine straightens in automatic response. “You’re the Supreme Leader of the First Order. How does it feel to have what you wanted?”

Kylo considers the sphere of transparisteel all around him, the empty view, the vista of Crait, settled like a mass of blood and pale skin in the distance. Ash smears beneath his boots when he turns. All around him, there is nothing but the smell of burning.

“Cold,” he says at last.

Grandfather blinks in surprise. To Kylo’s exhilaration, he looks almost impressed.

“An honest answer,” Grandfather begins. “That’s good. If you tell the truth, things will go better for you.” His pale eyes have drifted to stare through the hull again, away from Crait and out into the endless stars. He looks nearly alive. “My mother used to say that to me. It took me many years to understand that ‘better’ didn’t mean easier. You have a hard road ahead of you.”

“My road has never been easy,” Kylo replies. The anger comes easily, rushing through a deep channel worn by its constant flow. “Why did you never come before? I reached out to you many times. I spoke to you.” His voice is molten with anger and something far more humiliating.

Desperation.

Grandfather is silent for a long moment. Kylo notices that despite his solid appearance, his eyes don’t reflect the stars. “I heard you,” he says at last. “And I was here. But you didn’t hear a word I said.”

Kylo is already shaking his head. “That’s not possible. I called out for you. Turned all of my concentration on the Force around me. I couldn’t have missed you.”

His appearance is youthful, younger even than Kylo, but something about Grandfather’s voice is heavy with age when he speaks. “I’m not going to argue possibilities with you. We both know that’s a waste of time. You can hear me now, so I intend to make the most of it. Maybe you’ll listen to me.”

Kylo nods, equally desirous of making the most of this opportunity. He’s spent his life surrounded by questions with no answers. Perhaps he can begin to remedy that. “You mentioned your mother. Who was she?”

“Or maybe not.” Grandfather offers only a pointed look for so long that Kylo thinks he will not answer. But then he sighs. “My mother,” he says, “was a slave on Tatooine.” Kylo isn’t sure what expression has escaped him, but Grandfather’s look is darkly amused in response. “You wanted to hear something better? A fairytale, perhaps. Justifying your power and your worth. Child,” he says, and Kylo bristles at the word, “I don’t have that sort of legacy to offer you.”

“You have a better one,” Kylo’s voice comes out deep, proud, and defiant. “You’re Darth Vader.”

Grandfather doesn’t answer for a long moment. All Kylo can hear is the rasp of his own heightened breaths, the scrape of his boots on the floor as he tries to force himself into stillness. Grandfather’s steps are silent when he turns away from the stars and faces Kylo. Something lingers in the air around him, shapeless but heavy like the static buildup before a storm.

Stories about his grandfather have permeated Kylo’s mind for many years. Darth Vader, the executioner of failures. Darth Vader, the leader whose appearance on a battle field signaled automatic victory. Darth Vader, the ender, punisher, and destroyer.

Kylo feels his recent failures as his grandfather’s eyes pierce him with the burning accuracy of a blaster bolt. Shame and fear both attempt to take up residence in his chest, jostling each other for supremacy. When he meets his grandfather’s eyes, he has the uneasy feeling that his heart and mind are utterly exposed. But when Grandfather sighs, the heavy silence drains like a wound, leaving only an empty ache between them.

“Ben,” he says. “My legacy faced you on Crait—and you tried to destroy it.”

Kylo could have faced anger or danger or both. The disappointment in Grandfather’s eyes is unbearable. His anger flares in response.

“You think Luke is your legacy,” he says, venom welling between the words.

“And your mother. Although I don’t deserve to take credit for who they became. Do you know why I’m here now?”

Kyle’s anger recedes when desperate hope forces past it. “I thought you’d come to speak to me at last.”

“I’ve come to speak to you many times. I’m here now, instead of with my son, because he asked me to come to you.”

Kylo remembers a piercing emptiness. The salt and rock of Crait crunching beneath his boots as he left blood-red footprints behind. He’d felt the moment when Luke Skywalker’s essence had slipped from one plane to another. For a mere moment, there had been a gaping wound, barren and cold. He’d swayed where he stood, feeling the absence like the echo of a scream. And then the universe had healed itself again, closing over the open wound, filling the empty space. Luke Skywalker was gone.

And his first act beyond death was to send his father to Kylo.

It’s an insult. An affront. One last attempt to address the darkness in his nephew. It feels like a knife between his ribs. Or, Kylo reflects bitterly, like a saber in the dark, poised to run him through the heart.

“Your legacy,” he answers, voice rising in pitch and intensity, “tried to murder me in my bed.”

Grandfather only grows more still and quiet in the face of Kylo’s anger. “Did he?” he asks simply.

Kylo stares at him in wide-eyed rage, fists clenching until he releases them with a roar and a burst of energy that flings every scrap of debris against the curved transparisteel walls. The air is filled with a series of dangerous cracks. Kylo breathes hard in the aftermath; the apparition is still and silent.

“You’re not Darth Vader,” Kylo murmurs hoarsely.

The apparition with Luke’s eyes breaks into Leia’s smile. Kylo would know it anywhere. He’d thought only his mother could smile with equal parts humor and sorrow.

“No,” his grandfather says—because he is his grandfather. Kylo can feel the truth deeper than his bones. “But I was.” He pauses again, looking Kylo over grimly. “I wonder who you will choose to be.” His eyes fall to the empty throne where Snoke’s severed hand still clings relentlessly. “You’ve killed your master. Don’t become a slave again. Not even to your own desires. Our family began with slaves—don’t let us end in the same way. You’re the last of us.”

Kylo shakes his head to dislodge his own confusion. “I’m not the last. My mother still lives.”

Grandfather’s eyes are full of fire and ice. Kylo eventually recognizes the raw look for what it is.

Grief.

“Not for much longer,” he says. He speaks in a whisper, but his words split the silence like the toll of a bell.

Kylo can’t breathe.

He imagines a universe where his mother’s presence is not at the other end of their strained bond. A universe where he reaches for her—and finds only the emptiness that swallowed Luke’s presence.

“Then I’m alone,” he whispers. Cold pierces him, pricking his skin, freezing through skin and bone. For a moment, he hurts down to the roots of his teeth.

And then he blinks, his gaze snapping up to meet Grandfather’s. “I’m not alone.” The cold ache recedes and his voice grows steady. “You’re here. You can come back.”

“I can,” Grandfather agrees, but his voice is heavy. “But I can’t promise that you’ll see me. Only you can decide that. I hope you will choose well. I didn’t, until the end.” Grandfather’s face flickers and cracks; in the space of a blink, he looks both young and old, whole and broken. “Not everything is what it seems, Ben. Not me. Not even you.” He smiles Leia’s smile again. Something in Kylo’s chest rips at the sight.

Grandfather looks farther away and less defined. The light of his presence begins to fade like water soaking into fabric. He’s disappearing.

“Grandfather?” Kylo asks, an edge of demand in his tone. It quickly turns to desperation. “Grandfather!”

There is nothing but ash and the scent of burning.

Kylo’s commlink chirps. His presence is requested on the bridge. Reality rushes back into focus with the deep ache of a bruise. The ship is still critically damaged. He still has a failed mission behind him and an difficult task ahead: destroying the Resistance. An entire army waits for his command.

Kylo ignores the shrill cry of his commlink, drifting to the window to watch scraps of debris float past. The sounds around him fade from his mind, and he wanders back to the campfire in the shadow of the temple. He’d never had a ghost story to share. He’d known no tales of apparitions more shadow than man, only mere echoes of their true selves, fueled by anger and vengeance and terrible emptiness. Luke never told stories without hope.

He lingers by the phantom campfire, listening with half an ear to the laughter of his fellow padawans as they leaned in close to share stories of the dead. Do the dead walk? they whispered—and laughed. Do they feel?

He steps forward until his reflection distorts against the curved transparisteel hull. The face staring back at him has dark sockets instead of eyes; the black of his tunic blends with the vacuum. A suggestion of a face, he thinks. Like a spectre emerging from hell to weep and whisper warnings. “Not everything is what it seems,” he echoes faintly. He stares at his reflection, solitary against the endless dark—and does not agree with his grandfather.

Kylo Ren grinds his teeth and turns away.