I stood at the transparasteel doors which led to the balcony and watched as the blood red sunrise flooded the cityscape with colour. I hadn’t slept, I couldn’t sleep. Plagued by terrifying dreams and even more terrifying memories, the bedroom had now become a place I feared. More often than not I ended up dozing on the couch until the quiet hours just before dawn. My uncle watched this behaviour with silent concern but he knew well enough to leave me alone. What could he do? What could anyone do?
My friend was dead and even though over two weeks had passed since I had watched her die with my own eyes the reality of it all had still not sunk in. I half expected to hear from her telling me about her newest creation or the latest bit of celebrity gossip but that would never happen again. She, as well as her apartment and shop, were now gone.
After her death decontamination crews had quite literally destroyed everything she may have touched to erase any traces of virus from her home and her shop. Everything else had been taken care of by Shiv and I in accordance with her last wishes. It had been a painful, numbing experience and I know Shiv had felt the same way. His normally boyish good looks had been marred by grief and exhaustion and his usual cheerful countenance had been replaced by a melancholy that was so unlike him I wondered if he had been replaced by a bad clone.
“Ynyth doesn’t sleep well at the moment, nor do I.” he had told me by way of explanation. “And from the looks of it neither do you.”
I did not have an answer for that because he was right. “You should take Ynyth off world, get away from here.” I had told him as we had sat in Thrawn’s flat drinking wine.
“Where would we go?” He asked with a shrug. “This is our home, we were both born and raised here.”
“What about Naboo? What about the Emperor’s retreat there?”
He had just shaken his head. “Ynyth needs the familiar and she needs time. She and Cati became close friends after you vanished at Endor. We thought you had died and mourning your death had brought the two of them closer. When we got word you were still alive you can’t imagine the relief and happiness we all felt. You are the glue that holds our group together, Merly. Sending Ynyth away will not help her, spending time with you talking about Cati and what happened will. She needs your strength.”
I had looked at him in surprise because that I was considered strong was the very last thing I had thought of myself as. Shiv had smiled at the look of shock on my face.
“After all you have gone through and survived, you are still the same good, sweet Merly I knew when we first met. You could have turned into a bitter, angry person lashing out and hurting everything in sight but you didn’t. Instead you stayed hopeful and kind. You cared enough to stay at Cati’s side so she would not be alone. No wonder Thrawn loves you so much, you’re magical. Aside from Ynyth, you are the best thing to come into my life and considering what I thought about you when we first met, that’s pretty cool.”
I had just stared at him after he had finished this speech then reached over and clasped his hand in mine. “I love you too, Shiv.” I replied and that had made him smile which was nice because there was precious little to smile about on this planet right now.
Beings were dying all across Coruscant from a virus no one understood and for which there was no vaccine. What had begun quietly and unnoticed was now rapidly turning into a nightmare from which there was no waking up. An eerie, surreal quality had settled itself on the every day life of Coruscant and it felt as though the entire planet were holding its breath waiting for a storm to break. Calls for a cure and more bacta seemed to fall on deaf ears and Isard had vanished. Two days after Cati’s death I had gone to see her only to be told she was not available to speak with me. When I pressed about her whereabouts I was told that she had returned to the Lusankya facility to over see general operations from there.
My fury knew no bounds when I heard this and my first instinct had been to lash out and destroy everything in sight but common sense and the nagging voice sounding an awful lot like that of Qui Gon Jinn in the back of my head had held me back long enough to find my way to my old training room where I had spent several hours destroying combat training remotes until I was almost too exhausted to stand. By the time I had returned home it was more early in the morning than late at night and my uncle, who worried more since he had learned about Jyrki’s return, had waited up for me. He was not pleased at me for not letting him know where I was and made no bones about it. We had clashed then, our respective frustrations and fears coming together in one of the worst fights I could ever remember having with him.
Like Thrawn, Uncle Vahlek tended to argue with a cool headed logic which drove me absolutely crazy. I wanted to scream and be screamed at in return. I wanted all the fury and passion and anger to pour around me like a Hjal spring storm because it was how I felt inside, but Uncle Vahlek wasn’t like that and his ability to remain level headed infuriated me beyond reason. He understood better than I could have imagined what I was going through but I didn’t want to hear it or believe it. He battled my white hot rage with compassion and concern until, over tired and over wrought, I had burst into tears like a little girl and stormed off into Thrawn’s library, slamming the door behind me.
This room had always been Thrawn’s. Even when he had not been on planet I had rarely ventured into what I had always considered his private sanctuary but now I needed this space because it was as close as I could get to being with him. Tired beyond belief and wracked with a guilt and grief I couldn’t come to terms with, I had curled up in Thrawn’s favourite chair and wept bitter tears. Uncle Vahlek knocked on the door only once and left when I yelled for him to leave me alone. This room still seemed to hold Thrawn’s scent and presence which comforted me somehow. I missed him dreadfully and this only compounded my current misery. I sat for a long time in the darkness nursing my pain until, contrite and exhausted, I emerged to apologise for being such a bitch. My Uncle had simply nodded, enfolded me in his arms, told me he loved me and then poured me a glass of brandy.
We sat in silence for along time until he finally broke it by asking, “Why do you stay here Lei’lei? Why don’t you return to Nirauan to be with your Ta’kasta’cariad? I am quiet certain he misses you as much as you miss him.”
“Because I am afraid to.” I had replied after a long, serious silence.
“Afraid of what?” he had asked genuinely puzzled.
“Taking this virus off world. Humans may not catch it but it is possible we can carry it.” I had admitted. “Thrawn is not human, Zte’sa. If he were to catch this and….” I could not even finish my sentence because to voice what I was thinking was simply too awful.
His sigh had told me that he thought I was right to be concerned and his kiss on my forehead told me that he did not take my frustration or my temper tantrums personally.
“Well,” he had said after a while, “I guess we are both stuck here until they figure out how this disease works and then we can both go home. In the mean time you should find something to keep you occupied, especially as you’ve done the job you came here to do.”
I had nodded. I had accomplished the task at hand but I had no way to get the information to Thrawn. I had not seen or heard from Jarack in what seemed like forever and the data I had was not the sort of thing I wanted to risk sending as a holo-message not even fully encoded. The rebellion had Bothan spies who were very adept at picking up transmission and they also had slicers who were good at their jobs. Dantassi code or not, I couldn’t risk the information that I had falling into the wrong hands. So we waited and it was the waiting that drove me crazy. Luckily I wasn’t alone.
When they could, Shiv and Ynyth spent much of their free time with me in Thrawn’s apartment. They lived in an area of town that was near to one of the alien districts and was now, as Ynyth had said, scary as all hell to walk through alone. I was grateful for their company, especially as I had precious little to do to keep me occupied especially when my uncle was off on one of his mysterious haunts.
We talked about everything, usually over good take out food and with more than one bottle of Thrawn’s wine. I was grateful he had left most of the wine collection behind though I suspect it had not bee n on purpose. He had left thinking he would return but fate had other ideas on that.
When we were tired of talking we watched holovids and passed the time together. The days passed one after the other, blending together like some sort of surreal dream and it felt a lot as though I was waiting for something else bad to happen but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.
Jyrki’s sudden reappearance had not helped either, knowing he was on Coruscant made me edgy and restless which in turn made me even harder t live with. My uncle’s solution for this restlessness was to insist that we go to the Imperial palace and burn up some of that unwanted energy sparring in the training room that Lord Vader had given to me. I had not been unhappy with his suggestion.
The first couple of times we had trailed into the palace I had been worried about getting stopped and arrested for trespassing or something but that never happened. The entrance I always used was in a mainly disused part of the palace, it was quiet and relied more of surveillance than guards. My ID cards were still good and my uncle had arranged for my access to remain despite theoretically wiping me from the system. I was surprised by the fact that no one bothered to challenge me, to challenge us as we came and went. When I had asked about this he had tried to explain it to me but it was so confusing I had just stared at him like an idiot child.
“You are a ghost in the machine.” He finally said. “I left your clearances intact but you, as Lord Vader’s assistant, no longer exist at all. I though it would be useful to maintain your ability to move around this building unimpeded.”
“How the hell did you do that?”
He had given me a slight smirk. “I left traces that would suggest to people who actually know what they are looking for that you may have been one of the Emperor’s favourite courtesans.”
I glared at him. “What?!?”
He sighed. “There was a belief in the inner circle which was allowed to circulate outward and downward that the title favoured courtesan was a euphemism for an agent or hand of the Emperor himself.”
“How the hell is that supposed to make me invisible?” I asked crossly, not liking the idea of being thought of as an Emperor’s hand.
“Because most people not in the know will think simply think you were a part of the decorative fluff Palpatine littered his court with, the worst they will do to you is spit on you at best they will leave you alone. Those who do understand will leave you alone because they will think you are dangerous and beyond reproach. Palpatine’s agents had the highest clearance and the deadliest reputation. It seemed the best way to deal with your dilemma.”
“And this is your idea of safe?”
He nodded. “Yes. There is no actual proof that you were an agent of the Emperor, it is simply playing on assumptions and allegations. Trust me on this. It was the best way to make you invisible yet keep your access viable.”
The whole discussion had left me shaking my head feeling very glad I had not gone into the espionage-slicer side of things. Still, we were never bothered when we entered the palace and once in the older part, in my training room no one came near us.
Despite the fact that he was probably old enough to be my grandfather, my uncle was in remarkable shape. He was well versed in many forms of melee along with other styles of hand to hand combat and he kept himself fit. He had once joked, when I had asked about this, that a fat assassin was usually also a very dead assassin. I had just made a face, I could not picture my Uncle fat or old or even dead for that matter.
While Lord Vader and the Emperor had lived I had been trained under the watchful eyes of a Bunduki Master named Taisto Kjestyll. I had long suspected there was much more to my Bunduki master than ever met my eye but now I would never get to ask him because after the Emperor’s death, he as well as the rest of the Bunduki teachers had seemingly vanished into thin air. When I had been sent to Tatooine as punishment by Lord Vader and had spent time at my Uncle’s house my training in these melee arts had not escaped Uncle Vahlek’s notice. He had continued my education by teaching me slight variants of the moves Master Kjestyll had begun, much to my own master’s surprise and delight.
I loved the art form of movement in this manner, it was so much like dancing yet at the same time it was deadly and I knew that first hand as well, having been forced to kill once. That had been a lesson I had never forgotten and to this day I could still feel the rising sensation of the force as I had allowed my anger to consume me. In the end I had fought against it and I suppose won, but my opponent had died by my hand so really, in the end, I didn’t consider it a win at all, merely a matter of survival. My shoulder, the one that had been dislocated violently and then badly relocated during that fight, still ached when the weather turned. There were some wounds that bacta could never heal.
In the quiet of the training room my uncle and I sparred with each other. He was better than I was but I had learned much and I had been well taught by some of the best melee fighters in the galaxy, Lord Vader included so I gave as good as I got. Occasionally I was able to teach my uncle a new move or two, especially when I used some of the tricks Thrawn’s Noghri body guard, Rukh, had taught me.
At first, my uncle had gone lightly on me, taking it easy not wanting to hurt me but after I had decided that the jax footing around was tedious and had planted him on his ass a couple of times all bets were off. I knew that in the back of his mind he worried about hurting me or perhaps even setting me off on some disastrous downward spiral into the dark side of the force but that was not going to happen.
After one particularly frustrating session where I could feel him holding back and being careful I had stopped the fight and asked him about his concerns. “You were afraid I had turned to the dark side weren’t you?” I had asked as we paused for a moment to catch our breaths.
He had looked at me for a moment. “I had wondered if Palpatine had done more than just break your trust.” He had said very carefully.
“You have had some bad experience with this dark side before?”
He had drawn a long, deep breath and then let it out slowly. “Yes, this power can be channelled through anger, through hate and passion and when it is done so with malice the results are terrifying and terrible for both the victim and the aggressor.”
I had given him a look but hadn’t pushed him to explain further. I had not only seen but felt what it had done to Anakin Skywalker. My uncle didn’t need to tell me any more. “Well, you need to trust that I know better than that.” I had told him simply, “You would have felt it by now if I was all dark and sithy.”
“Sithy?” This had made him laugh.
I had nodded. “Plus,” I had added with a contrite look, “I also know you’d have given me what for if I did.” That had made him smile then I added quickly, before he could interrupt. “I don’t like how it feels. It is like being painted on the inside with something sour, with something rotten.” I had shivered.
“You’ve touched it though, this side of your powers?”
I had nodded as a memory of sweeping anger and then a sense of shame washed over me. My Uncle watched the play of emotions on my face without word or comment for a moment then he had asked me to explain.
I wavered for a moment because despite the time that had passed, these memories were still fresh, still painful and difficult to bring up. He remained quiet, all the while never taking his eyes from my face until slowly, carefully recounting every detail, I had told him what Palpatine had done to me shortly before Lord Vader’s death.
He had sat back on his haunches and sighed. “Oh Lei’lei, I am sorry.”
I had shrugged. “It was like going mad, Zte’sa and it wasn’t a very good sensation. I could see myself lose it but it was like I was some where far away watching it happen. No wonder Anakin was so twisted; because that’s what letting this power have control does, it twists you up in your soul until you don’t know how to find your way back. I could feel that happening and it was exactly what Palpatine wanted.”
“What brought you back from it then?”
“I’m not sure.” I shrugged, “The voice of the dead Jedi I sometimes see in my dreams maybe, perhaps the thought of being turned into something Like Lord Vader, I can’t really say. I do know that I would have killed the Emperor myself right then and there if I could have. I was consumed by anger and hatred and it was terrible. I think that given a choice I would rather take the grief of loss than living with that hatred any day.”
“So it is a choice then? A conscious thing, to go from one side to the other?” My uncle had mused.
I had given him a small shrug. “I think it must be. How can there be a light side or a dark side to something that has no sides? It is not a switch. One day you are light the next you are dark, it just doesn’t work that way at all. As Master Kjestyll once explained it to me, the force works just like everything else in the galaxy, it’s a tool and you decide how to use the tool. A blaster doesn’t kill people the person holding it does, making that choice a conscious one. I think that by defining a line of Dark against Light the Jedi were trying to terrify the children they taught into towing the line but they took that control too far. How can you control emotions into nothing? How can you forbid love or even hate? All that does is confuse the issue so instead of being taught to confront these negative emotions and the dangers of using them they were all taught to fear them and this led to the feeling of guilt when ever that line was crossed. It really was a stupid way to teach control no wonder the jedi eventually failed.” I said.
For some reason this had amused my Uncle greatly. “I remember reading theories about this line of thought when I was much younger and the Jedi were still the main peace-makers in the galaxy but the doctrine of the time called this way of thinking heresy.”
“All religions cry heresy when people begin to veer from the given line of doctrine.” I had snorted. “They get scared when new possibilities of thought come along because they get scared they will lose their power but power doesn’t really exist so how can you lose something you don’t really have. I never understood that ever.”
“You must have some fascinating conversations about these things with your Ta’kasta’cariad.” My uncle had commented.
I had nodded,“He also has some very interesting thoughts on these topics.” I said quietly the added, “And yes we do have many interesting conversations.” Not all of them verbal either…. I had thought with a smile which my uncle had pretended not to notice.
“Well Lei’lei, I, for one, am glad to see that your common sense has managed to keep you from going off the dark end.” He had grinned at his own joke and with that we had gotten back to the work-out we had taken a break from. I was relieved to have a way to let go of my energy in a more productive albeit sometimes painful manner.
I looked forward to our training sessions, they had become a pocket of normality in what had become a very abnormal time. I could forget about everything else while I combat-danced around the beautiful training room Lord Vader had given me, trying to avoid my uncle’s punishing moves. I think he also enjoyed the physical release of pent up energy and as if it were mirroring our lives, as we sparred on this particular day, Coruscant let go of its energy also in one of the worst, most impressive lightening storms I had ever seen.
It was raining heavily when we left the flat and by the time we made it to the training room what had started as a mild micro storm was beginning to show its teeth. It was dark enough outside that I had to turn on the studio’s lights, something I rarely ever did given the amount of ambient light that usually poured through the room’s lancet windows.
With a cursory glance at the weather outside my uncle had made let’s get on with it noises. Once we had changed and were ready, we warmed up together side by side in a graceful dance that I had missed without even knowing it. Sparring with my Uncle was not like sparring with Master Kjestyll or Lord Vader. Fighting Uncle Vahlek was a little like fighting smoke and he reminded me a little of Rukh.
It was fun, after a fashion and it kept me on my toes because he varied his methods and his techniques enough I could not usually predict what he would do next. After many such lessons and sessions together I had begun to discern patterns but still he could usually best me and today was no exception.
“Come on Lei’lei, if you are going to fight me then fight me. Quit messing around.” My uncle taunted as I circled around him, now wary after several sharp knocks with his combat stave had caught me by surprise. He was trying to teach me some of the more aggressive Anzati moves but it wasn’t going terribly well.
“The Anazti have the reputation they do because they are fearless and cunning warriors. This method I am teaching you is called Gh’zjann. It is a one of the five assassination lines. This is the defence line. I have taught you the mechanics of the moves now use them.” He said patiently.
I flew at him and the sound of wood on wood reverberated around the room followed closely by the sound of all the air leaving my lungs as I was caught by my uncle’s foot in a move which sent me flying across the floor.
“You leave yourself wide open when you attack like that, what have I told you before? This is how Jyrki gets past your defences, now do it again!”
So I did as I was asked and while this time I saw his attack I was still too slow to avoid the blow but I was able to deflect it a little so that it hurt less giving me more time to move away and regroup for the next attack. He fought with an earnest that surprised me, goading me into fighting him back with everything I had to give. He feared that if Jyrki and I were to face off again, I would not be prepared for it. I understood this fear because it was mine also but I’d hoped that Jyrki would just leave me alone, after all he could have attacked when he had found me alone in the med center quiet room but he had not done so. Still I was grateful for the chance to better my skills and regain some of the edge I felt I had lost and my uncle was a good teacher. By the time two hours had passed we were both breathing heavily and soaked in sweat.
“Do you use the force when you fight me?” He asked as we stopped to take a breath.
“Not consciously unless I am pushed.” I admitted. “It seemed a little like cheating.”
That had made him laugh. “What if I were your mortal enemy and this was a fight to the death?”
“Well…” I hedged, “I would probably be more open to the Force’s suggestion that I let it fly and try to kick your ass.”
“I want to see you do this, I want to see how much better it makes you.”
“I don’t want to hurt you Zte’sa.” I said cautiously.
He grinned. “You won’t.”
So with a deep breath I opened up that part of me which touched that unseen world and felt that magic everyone called The Force flow through me. It was like being poured all over with sunlight and it made me smile. Thinking that I was not paying attention my uncle swung and me but I saw his move before he could even complete it and without having to think I blocked, moved and attacked taking him down to the mat, the end of my staff caressing his throat. He smiled and swept the staff away with the back of his hand.
“It makes you sharper, faster. You should utilise it more. As you have told me it is just a tool, a very useful one at that. Just keep listening to that little voice in the back of your head.” He said getting up, reaching over to ruffle the top of my head. “Okay again…”
But before either of us could move a particularly loud clap of thunder shook the palace violently and the lights flicked off plunging us into darkness for a second. Lightening seared through the windows making everything in the room a brilliant blue-white and then somewhere a back up generator kicked in and the lights sputtered back on. We both went to the window to look out over the city at the storm which had started when we had arrived. I could see that in parts of the city were still in black out. As far as I knew, this had never happened before, at least not in my lifetime.
“Wow, this is very bad.” I whispered.
My Uncle studied the dark sky carefully. “Yes, most unusual for Coruscant. The weather grid must be malfunctioning.” He murmured then something outside caught his eye. “Turn off the lights Lei’lei!” He commanded.
With a flick of my hand I summoned the force and did as he asked. Once again the room was plunged into darkness. I moved to stand close at my Uncle’s side, sensing his worry as he watched the storm at that was gathering above us.
“We should leave this place and get home.” He said and before I could ask why he had started to put away the combat staves and gather our things together with an urgency that made my heart begin to race. “Hurry, I don’t think we have much time.”
“Time for what?”
“To get home before all hell breaks loose.”
“What?” I looked at him. “How…?”
“This is no ordinary storm. I think that the New Republic is finally making its move.” He said. I was struck dumb by what he had said to the point of not moving. My uncle grabbed my arm. “Now, Lei’lei move, before it’s too late and we get caught in the middle of it all.”
“In the middle of what?” I asked exasperated.
“In the middle of a battle for Coruscant.” He replied tartly and still with his hand around my wrist he dragged me out of the palace just as the alarms had started to wail, through the pouring rain to our speeder. It wasn’t often I saw genuine worry on my uncle’s face but I saw it now and it scared the hell out of me.I glanced upward into the bleak storm and was suddenly blinded by a huge explosion high up in the atmosphere that lit up the sky. “Come on!”
“What the hell was that?” I yelled, stopping dead in my tracks, pulling out of his grip, to follow the huge flashes of light that scarred the night sky.
My uncle grabbed my arm again and dragged me forward. “I think that one of the orbital planetary defence platforms is going down, come on!” He growled all but throwing me into the passenger side of my speeder.
Fear made me obedient and I buckled myself in without further protest. As soon as he could he drove off through the chaos of the panicking traffic, heading for the safety of home.
“What will happen if the Empire fails to drive them back?” I asked as the speeder skidded to a shaky halt at the private docking area.
My uncle glanced upwards at the sky. The terrible storm boiled over the planet, searing the dark with violent flashes of lightening but it was impossible to see anything clearly. “I don’t know, Lei’lei. But the last time there was a battle over Coruscant things got messy and a lot of people died.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth there were multiple explosions coming from the direction of the Imperial palace. I glanced at my uncle who had stopped to stare at the flashes of light. We were getting soaked.
Hearing his answer was not exactly comforting and as the door to the flat shut behind me I wondered if it had been a wise thing to come here, after all, I rationalized, at least the palace had safe places deep in the under-belly to go. I wasn’t too sure how safe Thrawn’s flat would be if the New Republic started hurling area bombardments from the upper atmosphere.
As if he read my thoughts my uncle said “They will try to take the planet as peacefully as they can. They want to be seen as the good guys, as liberators not invaders. The palace will be the first place they will wish to overrun. I do not want you anywhere near it when this happens. I know there are places there which might be from damage. I would not want to have to explain what we were doing there to either side involved in this conflict. We are safer here and if things get very bad we can get to a shelter. I assume this building has one?”
I nodded dumbly, clutching my arms around my sodden body, shivering with cold.
“You’re soaking wet, go and get changed before you get sick and I will make us some tea. As long as the power holds we might as well use it.” Uncle Vahlek said and because there was nothing else I could do I followed his suggestion, welcoming the idea of dry clothes and something hot to drink.
We stood at the window with the lights in the flat off, the HoloNet on, cups of tea in hand, gazing at the light show which unfolded before us in stunned silence as Coruscant fell to the New Republic.