Story written by lim@merck.com In the early morning light, the wide Alderaani forests were

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Story written by: lim@merck.com In the early morning light, the wide Alderaani forests were tipped with gold. Danah Antilles, Dowager Princess of Alderaan, surveyed the dappled pelt of gilt leaves and shadow from high above. She sat at her breakfast table as if enthroned. Although she was nearly ninety, her back was sapling-straight, and her eyes were as clear as the jewels clasped around her throat. Another strand of gems shone above them, wound into her silver hair. On the other side of the prismed tower chamber, her son nodded to the servant droids, dismissing them. Danah turned away from the view, waiting for the soft drone of the elevator shaft to diminish and fall silent. "Well," she said at last, "What is the news from the Senate?" "Bothersome," Bail Organa said. His pale blue robes flowed behind him as he walked back to his own chair. Sitting down, he took a sip of tisane. "Nearly half now support Palpatine's proposal, and many of the rest are whispering secession. I don't know which party alarms me more." "Unfortunately, Palpatine is right. If we do not present a unified defense, we may soon have nothing to defend. Alderaan was much like that before you were born. If external arbitration had not intervened, the noble houses would have torn one another apart long ago. Imagine what would have happened if invaders had come from outside, as the Republic now faces." She shook out her napkin with a sharp snapping sound and laid it across her lap. "You were hardly innocent of the vendettas, Mother." "I never said I was." A predator's smile leapt across her features, vanishing as she bent to examine the fruit. "But I knew when to halt and make peace, unlike Helice. She never did accept my alliance with your father; she went to her death accusing me of having betrayed our house. A pity, really. She and her daughter might have been useful to us." Selecting a piece, she began to open it with a small silver knife. "Yes, well, at present, we have more pressing concerns. Have you been able to gauge the mood here at court? How do the people stand on the war?" "Which party would they prefer to be in, do you mean? Our people have an easier decision than most; since we have no longer have armed forces nor legal weapons, they need not fear death, only taxes. Without the fear of conscription, they seem willing enough to forward funds to the front, if it proves necessary." She watched Bail bite into another spiced bun. "So, shall you declare a necessity?" "As little as I like to, we may have no choice. The Nechti have retaken Gefras and are advancing toward the Ikatya system." "Truly?" With careful motions, she put her fruit rind and her knife down on her plate. "I think this might be an opportune time for me to inquire about Castra's health." "Castra? What has my wife to do with--" Setting down his half-eaten bun, he wiped his hands on his napkin. "No, she is not pregnant yet. We've only been married a year, you know. Isn't one of Liane's children at Academy in this sector?" "He graduated into the sector fleet this year. His contingent is being forwarded to Ikatya to appease the Senate. I had understood the combat front had drawn back from there. I thought he might enjoy seeing his sister again, but perhaps now I should recall one of them." Her voice was devoid of enthusiasm. "Only one?" "Very well; both if you insist. I would just as rather leave them there, but if you haven't a direct heir yet, they're all we have. Unless, of course, you wish Alderaan to dissolve into civic feuding again. I doubt the Senate will have the patience to spare us more arbitrators so soon. "It is a pity about those two, really." Danah chose a small pastry and daubed it with yeast-spread as she spoke. "I do hope you and Castra will provide an heir soon so I can put Liane's children out of the way." "I do hope you're joking." Bail paused cautiously. "The vendettas are over, Mother. Assassination as a preventive measure is no longer considered good domestic policy." "Scarcely domestic. They're five sectors away." She poured more tisane into Bail's empty cup, then into her own. Before he could retort again, she said, "I take it you have forgotten Liane's manuevering, then." "She paid the price for her treason. I see no reason why her children should be forced to as well." "Your father said the same of Liane, as Helice's daughter. She killed him." Bail leaned back in his chair and gazed out through the glass-paned walls, his cup of tisane in hand. On the sunward side, the panes were automatically darkening in a latticed arabesque, screening out daylight as it intensified. Without looking at his mother, he said, "I know you've been monitoring Liane's children. Is there anything you wish to tell me about them?" "Not yet. The older one, Arcadia, has been a little mouse of a healer ever since she emerged from Jedi training. I doubt much danger from her alone. But her brother is of an age to be delighted with intrigues and secret plans, and if he recruits her into his schemes, she may become capable of dangerous subtleties." "And is he scheming?" "He may be. I've instructed General Kenobi to keep them out of trouble. If matters progress...unwisely, perhaps I will ask him to put them into trouble. Dipping a spoon into a lapis bowl, she dusted her poached melon with nut-powder. "If the Organa line should fail, the Viceregency will very likely fall to the Antilles-- but not without some dispute, and the vendettas would begin all over again. I tried to merge the two claims by wedding your father, but Helice disagreed with me." Bail turned back toward her fiercely. "Helice has nothing to do with this. If there is no evidence against them, why even consider their deaths? You know they're my presumptive heirs." "Yes, I do. And so do they." * * * Lady Arcadia Antilles looked up as the two men entered emergency medical quarters. She brushed a strand of fair hair from her face and nodded in greeting, but did not rise from the cadet she was tending. Her fingers continued to hover over the unconscious girl's shoulder, where charcoaled flesh was buckling and flaking away. As fragments tumbled onto the cot, the hollows left behind were filled by new skin, smoothly flowing up like water in a spring. When the process was complete, Arcadia gently blew away the flakes of debris and stepped back, smoothing down grey healer's robes with her palms. She signaled a medical droid to monitor the cadet and joined the uniform-clad newcomers in the antechamber, closing the door to working quarters. "Well," she murmured, "no permanent damage this time. General Kenobi, is this the lieutenant who's been sending me these casualties?" The lieutenant stepped forward before Kenobi could speak. "Lieutenant Commander Anakin Skywalker at your service. Is Rouvel badly hurt?" Skywalker's broad shoulders towered over both of them; he stood only a head taller than Kenobi, but Arcadia found herself confronted with his chest at eye level. She had to move away several paces to look at him without craning straight up. "She was. I've reconstructed her arm, but we can't yet test nerve function. She should revive in a day or two. Are you aware that she collapsed a few meters out of training bay and was found in the corridor?" His dark hair accentuated his pallor. "She said it was a minor wound. I took her word for it. I came as soon as I'd finished training session with the rest of my cadets." "Blaster fire richocheting inside thermal armor can kill without striking bone, and it passes through so quickly that the victim may never feel it. If she often reflects the bolt from her epauliere, I suggest you discourage her, unless she's quite sure the angle's tangential. But after this, she may not need a reminder." Arcadia stepped past the officers to a wall console, where she keyed in a short code. "Lieutenant Commander, I regret meeting you in these circumstances. Could you tell me what you see on this display screen?" "Medical record headings." He studied them for a moment. "They're all from my squadron since the start of this year-- from all three rotations so far, in fact." "Would you name another squadron leader for me?" When he produced a name, she pressed another sequence of keys, bringing another, much shorter list beside the first. "This is Commander Baria's casualty list for the same period. Over the past five months, nineteen serious injuries have been reported from your squadron, three of them fatal. Baria had eight casualties, all of whom survived." "Baria fusses over his pilots like a mother Nebbit." "Then name two others," Kenobi countered. The first new list contained four names; the second, nine. Only the last of these comparative lists also contained death's red notation. "These injury rates are typical for every squadron in this division, except for yours." "Are you saying I deliberately injure my charges? Come on, Ben, you know me better than that. I'm just trying to teach them everything I know." "We've had this discussion before, I believe." Kenobi shook his head. "Some things cannot be taught. For example, not everyone can sense the angle of enemy fire quickly enough to react. Perhaps you can, but you must respect others' limits. "I'm giving you a month's leave from your duties as squadron leader." As the younger man's expression shifted from shock to anger, Kenobi continued, "I'm doing this for your own good, Anakin. Believe me, the Republic needs your skills as a pilot and leader. But if it comes down to a question of losing other pilots because of you--" "My squad won't stand for this. They're proud to serve under me; they know I have higher standards than the others--" "And you make them pay dearly for it. Remember Ismar Kevvat? He survived the battle of Gefras, and died in one of your training drills. Or Asde Varine-- she was killed in combat attempting some damn fool evasion tactic you taught her, when a less... spectacular move could have saved her life." The General pronounced the adjective with distaste. Arcadia moved away as if balancing on a narrow ledge beside the wall, and began to add Cadet Maris Rouvel to the casualty lists. Her usual measures to screen out sensory input were not working; Anakin Skywalker's anger slashed through the haze like icy sleet through fog. "Are you asking me to resign my commission?" he said in dangerously calm tones. "I'm asking you to reconsider your methods. When the month is over, I'll return your command to you, but if you continue to maim and kill good warriors at this rate...." Skywalker said nothing. "Very well," Kenobi said at last. "Lady Arcadia, my apologies for our disruption. Anakin, would you care to dine with me?" "I would not." "Then you may tell me your plans tomorrow." The outer door panels slid together in Kenobi's wake. * * * Arcadia completed the record entry and glanced up at Skywalker. He was gazing at the lists still on the screen, and the new entry flashing at the bottom. His anger began to fade from her senses as he traced a hand down the display. As he neared the end of his squadron's list, he asked, "Did you treat all of my wounded?" "Some of them. There are three other Jedi healers on base, and medical droids and technicians for lighter injuries." "Did you bring this to Ben's attention, or did he already know?" "General Kenobi reviews casualty reports on a regular basis." She began to key up random file headings, biting her lip. "Yes, I know, but I didn't think it was time for review yet. Or has he halved his review period?" He was regarding her with a cryptic half-smile now, like that of an ancient mask. Arcadia noticed uneasily that he was resting his right hand very near his blaster. "Oh, truly now," he responded. "Do you really think I'd shoot a healer? I'm simply curious why you might've informed on me-- unless you haven't." Switching off the record display, she turned to look directly at him. "My younger brother has been assigned to this base. General Kenobi is a friend of the family, and gave him a choice of squadrons to join. Denis chose yours." "How protective of you." Skywalker paused, evidently considering his squadron roster. "This would be Cadet Denis Colton?" "Or Antilles. Our naming conventions can be confusing." "As in the Alderaani Princess-Dowager Danah Antilles?" "She's my mother's aunt." "I see." He began to stroll around the perimeter of the room. "You knew about my squadron's casualty rates before now, but weren't disturbed by them until your brother thought to join me? The Alderaani noble houses train their children well in politics." "We're no longer a noble house." "Not even Danah?" "She was the only one of the Antilles to salvage any status from the ascendancy dispute. You heard General Kenobi call me 'Lady Arcadia,' but my family has no power on Alderaan. Danah made certain of that." She looked away. "Denis and I have no hopes on Alderaan, and the General has helped us secure positions. I understand he's done the same for you." "The two of you appear to be helping me out of my position at present." "I didn't want Denis' death on your hands." "I don't kill my pilots," he snapped. "I train them to be the best squadron in the Republic. And if you think I--" The outer door slid open again. "Arcadia, has Anakin--" General Kenobi began, then stopped. Anakin compressed his mouth tightly. "Perhaps," Kenobi resumed, "it might be advisable for you to dine with me instead, Arcadia." He turned back to Anakin and studied him carefully. "Or have you changed your mind yet?" Anakin lingered only long enough to outstare Kenobi before moving toward the door. "Perhaps not. I'll expect to hear from you tomorrow," Kenobi said at the closing panels. "Arcadia, are you off duty now?" * * * The officers' mess was nearly deserted at this hour. Arcadia had stayed on duty late, and so service for the evening meal was nearly finished. She and Kenobi ate quickly, more from a desire to get it over with than from any real enthusiasm. Most of the food was the same nondescript dun color as the general's hair. Taking a second bite of the crushed-fruit paste, Kenobi reconfirmed his opinion of the first bite. He did not venture a third. Without looking at Arcadia, he asked, "Have you reconsidered my offer?" "I gave it more thought. But I haven't changed my mind." "So what do you think of him?" She regarded Kenobi, her brown eyes perplexed. "Lieutenant Commander Skywalker? In what sense? You weren't matchmaking again, were you?" "Again? Heavens, no." His tone of wounded astonishment was marred only by his grin. Both were abandoned as he leaned closer over his meal. "You felt his strength in the Force, didn't you? He isn't aware of it himself, but it's part of what makes him a brilliant pilot." "Is he? I wasn't certain where his balance lay between truth and pride." "He's the best warrior I've ever known," Kenobi said quietly. "Almost impossibly proficient, courageous to the point of recklessness-- if he learned to keep a better watch on himself, there would be no limit to his career. "But he is not aware of how strong a role the Force has had in his success. Many of his combat strategems are only possible with the help of the Force. I've been reviewing his squadron's records again, and those members who have survived and prospered under his leadership have all tested well for Force-sensitivity." "And those who cannot sense the Force have died." Arcadia pushed her own plate aside. "How can he not know? And have you told him this?" The General's pale eyes were uneasy. "His home system had no place for Jedi. Not only has he never been formally tested, but he knows almost nothing of us. At this level, testing is scarcely necessary; I know he has the strength. But if I tell him of his powers, he'll ask for training as a Jedi Knight. Now, if you'd been willing, I could have sent you to Pyret to train with Master Tegie or Mistress Tamra. "But as for Anakin--" He broke off, shaking his head. "I can't transfer him to another base while he has teaching duties himself, and there are no full Jedi Masters here. I'm not certain I can keep him under rein, but I fear his actions should I refuse. His pride would drive him to seek training from another, and he may not choose wisely. "But if I tell him nothing, his casualty rates will continue at their present rate. Neither alternative is ideal." "I see," said Arcadia, although she was not certain she did. She picked up an eating utensil and briefly fiddled with it. "But why tell me of this? There's no advice I can give to you." "Not to me, no. To him. Anakin does not like to be instructed by superiors. I thought that you might be better suited to lend him moderation." At the far end of the hall, a few more late stragglers arrived and disappeared into the meal service corridor. Arcadia absently watched their progress while considering his words. "But we scarcely know one another, and he does not appear to like me. Why should he listen to me? Why not use one of his subordinates as your vehicle?" "Perhaps I should adjust my earlier statement." Kenobi grimaced. "Anakin listens to no one, except in cases of military necessity. He has been known to ignore combat orders when he has other plans, although I must admit his alternate methods have had good results so far. But that's irrelevant for now. "I would like you to befriend him. He knows and likes me, but I doubt he'll take my advice in this matter. But I think he might heed you. You're not a fighter pilot, so he'll feel no sense of rivalry with you. Your military ranks are approximately equal, so he won't engage in snobbery in either direction--" She shook her head. "He asked about my family. He didn't like what he heard, even though I told him about...." "About the ruin of your house?" "Except for Princess Danah." The name was imbued with a soft weariness that surpassed malice. "She could have rescinded our exile, once she and the Viceroy had an heir for House Organa. And that condition was fulfilled nearly fifty years past." "She still has no trust in her sister or her descendants. Helice was a savage adversary during the Alderaani vendettas, and your mother--" He surveyed Arcadia's features as he considered his words. "Liane had certain disputes with House Organa as well." "And it gained us nothing." With an effort, Arcadia moved her gaze from her tightly clasped hands to an indefinite distance behind Kenobi. Blanking her expression, she said, "It seems that your friend Skywalker has decided to join us after all." "Good. I rather thought he might." Kenobi's expression had certain undertones that disquieted her-- a fractionally raised eyebrow, a twist to his smile. She suddenly realized how her appearance had changed since her last encounter with Anakin Skywalker. She had left her voluminous healer's robes in medical quarters, revealing the narrow tunic and leggings she wore beneath them, and she had freed her hair from its coiled plait. In a quick, nervous gesture, she gathered her hair at one side of her neck and began to twist it into a loose citrine skein. Meanwhile, Kenobi had turned about. "Anakin?" Anakin presented Arcadia with a smile that was astonishingly sweet and guileless, considering that he was completely ignoring Kenobi. "I owe you an apology for my earlier remarks, my lady. How may I best express it?" Kenobi merely shrugged and resumed eating. After a moment, Arcadia relinquished her grasp on the rope of her hair, which promptly unwound again. "Why this change of heart? Did you consult the records files to corroborate me?" "Well, perhaps so--" With admirable economy of motion, she shoved her hair back over her shoulder, pushed her chair away, and rose. "I decline your apology. I am sorry you cannot trust my word." She left the table and the hall. Anakin was on the verge of following her when Kenobi tapped his sleeve. "What is it?" "Forget the quarrel with me for a moment. Do you agree with what I said of her?" "No. She'd never make a pilot; she doesn't have the right bearing for it. May I go now?" "I haven't formally dismissed you, Skywalker. Now sit down." The younger man's posture seemed to momentarily crystallize, bristling with razored edges and angles at every side. "I wasn't aware I was in parade formation, sir." "Just sit." Anakin sat. "Well, sir, I'm afraid your exact words slipped my mind, sir. But if you weren't speaking of piloting skills, sir, I don't think I have much to say, sir." "Oh, stop it," Kenobi said mildly. "Don't try this with other superior officers, or they'll have your head. I'm sorely tempted to, despite the fact you're my protege." "I don't feel particularly protected." "Do you know what would have happened if your casualty lists had gone unreviewed until the end of the year? They'd be much longer by then, and I'm not the only one who inspects them. High casualty rates are bad enough, but in your first year as squadron leader? You'd receive a formal reprimand, and possibly be demoted. As difficult as it may be for you to believe now, Arcadia and I have done you a favor." After a moment, Anakin dropped his gaze into Arcadia's abandoned cup. He lifted it and idly tasted the rim. "One month. What am I supposed to do for a month? And who'll take over my command while I'm away?" "Aren't any senior cadets in your squad fit to lead yet? I thought you were training them, not taking them nut-gathering." The return smile was automatic, but like its accompanying words, it seemed to lack Anakin's full attention. "Oh, Anset might do, or maybe Damesta." He surveyed the cup in his hand again before draining it. "So what did you have in mind for Lady Arcadia? I think I'll have to apologize to her by proxy." "I was attempting to judge whether she has the potential to train as a combatant." "If not a pilot, what sort? She doesn't have the physique for armored shock troops, and I don't know whether healers have enough experience with machinery to handle combat walkers." "Actually, I was considering her for training as a Jedi Knight." Anakin slowly put the cup down. It made a hollow clink as it met the table surface. "A Jedi Knight." "Yes, I said that." He leaned over the table, pushing the cup aside. "Ben, you're an intelligent man, aren't you?" With a wry smile, Kenobi said, "I like to think so. Why do you ask?" "You don't really believe in all this Force nonsense, do you?" The general's smile peeled away. "I take it that you don't." Anakin snorted indulgently. "I've seen this sort of thing before. The system where I grew up-- there weren't any Jedi, but there was a priesthood with total authority. The temples had the most ridiculous rules about keeping this or that goddess happy-- what colors you can wear, how many times to chew your food, what you can't do with your sister-- but all of them were just ways of controlling people who don't know any better. "I got off-planet as soon as I could. The sweetest sight I ever saw was Leucothea disappearing down that hyperspace funnel, and I hope I never see that place again. But the entire Jedi organization reminds me of that priesthood-- a lot of talk about the supernatural, and not much to show for it except a lot of rules." The older man set his utensils down and closed his eyes. Arcadia's cup popped into the air and hovered in front of Anakin. After a moment, Anakin shrugged and flicked the cup with a finger, setting it spinning. Lowering his own lids, he pulled the cup back down. His hands remained loosely clasped on the table. Impatiently, he said, "Yes, I know. But I don't see why you Jedi make so much fuss about a little psychokinesis. All that talk about center and balance makes it sound like a circus routine. Why should it make any difference to the universe whether you pick something up with your hand or your mind?" Kenobi had opened his eyes and was steadily gazing at Anakin. "It doesn't, much. But the Force flows through all life and all matter, and the mind is both. When you use the Force, your intent can be as important as your actions." "You're spouting dogma, Ben." Anakin leaned back in his chair. "And get out of my mind, will you? I thought we could talk frankly." "Aren't we?" "You see, I was thinking about what you said earlier. I suppose I've never really realized that other people couldn't sense some of the things I can. It's the Force, isn't it?" "Yes." "Well, I was hoping you could teach me how to use it without stuffing me full of religious propaganda." Dropping his gaze, Kenobi began to assemble his utensils on his empty tray. "Do you know, I was going to ask you to train as a Jedi? But if you don't want to learn about the Force itself, I don't think we should speak of this matter any further." "Oh, come on, Ben. You really believe the Jedi doctrines?" "They're not just doctrines. I'm not a Master, and I don't know much about Force theory, but I can feel the way it works." "You mean you've been told they work." Kenobi stood up, tray in hand. "I don't think we should discuss this any more. Ask Arcadia about the Force. Maybe she can convince you." Tardily, Anakin began to gather up Arcadia's tray, preparing to follow, but Kenobi sharply motioned him back. "No. If you're ready to listen tomorrow, come back. But no more talk tonight." * * * "But Dia, why shouldn't I come to Ikatya now? Even if Commander Skywalker is taking leave, I can still use the time to get settled on base. I'll be able to learn where everything is by myself, so you won't need to show me around." Seated before the comm panel in her private quarters, Arcadia closed her eyes and tipped her head back against her chair. "Denis, it's not too late to change cadet assignments. Are you certain you want to join Crescent Squadron? I'll admit it has the best combat record on this base, but there are starship assignments that have similar records-- the _Ravage_, the _Frenzy_..." When she opened her eyes again, her brother's hand-sized holo image was shaking its head. Although both siblings had the fine-boned Alderaani build, only Denis had the dark hair of the Antilles. He brushed this out of his eyes as he answered. "I think Ikatya base is the only real option. Both you and General Kenobi are there, and...." He tilted his head, considering, then shrugged. "Well, our dear Aunt Danah--" "Great-aunt, twice maternal." "Whatever. She's made it known that she'd appreciate the two of us staying in a single location, so as to both be monitored with less effort." "Denis!" "Well, we both know that Danah's been keeping watch on us, and she certainly knows it. So," he took on unnaturally emphatic tones, "I doubt this news will come as a surprise to her when she reviews this tapped transmission." "Don't bait her. We're living on her sufferance." "And that's why I have to train at Ikatya, unless you want to be on a medical frigate at the battle frontiers." He paused uncertainly. "Is something wrong with Crescent Squadron? Or with Commander Skywalker?" "There was some... statistical irregularity. General Kenobi is smoothing things out. As for the commander, I only met him today, and that by accident. He's self-assured, but I don't know anything about his real skills." Arcadia glanced at the small state portrait beside the comm panel. "But why has Princess Danah tightened security?" As Denis made a vague, noncommittal response, he blinked in a familiar message-pattern: one blink, two. One blink, two. _I'll tell you the truth when we can speak in private._ Arcadia sighed. "In private" meant in person, in a location too public or too distant from Alderaan to be tapped by its royal house. In this case, it would have to be both. "So when are you planning to come to Ikatya?" This time, his reply was undercut by chime-tones from Arcadia's apartments. "Next week, if the route stays safe," Denis said. "But someone's at your door. Should I sign off?" She frowned. "No; I'm not expecting anyone. This should only take a moment." She stood, lightly stretched, and crossed the chamber to the entrance portal. As it slid open, Anakin Skywalker chuckled. "You step away every time we meet. May I come in?" "You already have. I'm sorry, but I'm otherwise occupied at the moment. If I could contact you later--" Denis could hear the tension in her voice, but was unable to see anything but the chair on the comm transmission tile. "Dia, is something wrong?" "'Dia'? A family nickname, I take it-- is that your famed brother Denis?" When she reluctantly nodded, Skywalker moved to the transmission tile, resting his forearms on the back of Arcadia's chair. "Hello there. Your sister has told me so much about you." The boy's voice nearly cracked. "Commander Skywalker? Is that really you?" Remembering himself, he pulled himself into some semblance of military posture. "I mean, it's an honor to meet you, sir. I hadn't expected it until I got to base-- but are you really going on leave for a month?" Skywalker cast a sideways glance at Arcadia, who had seated herself with a data pad on a wall-mounted bench. She looked up at him, then back down to the pad as he sat down in her chair. "I will soon, but I may stay on base. Next training rotation doesn't start for a month anyway, so you'll only have your first few weeks with my replacement. Your academy records are quite good, by the way. Do all cadets start multiphase tactics that early now?" "A lot do, ever since you used them at Raek Starfall. How did you ever..." Arcadia closed her eyes again, stifling a yawn as Denis continued effusing. She had worked long hours today, and her evening meal, although not especially good, had been filling. Denis's and Skywalker's voices blurred into alternating washes of sound. * * * Anakin grinned foolishly as he powered down the comm panel. Even after several years, he still had not lost the thrill of being a hero. His flight and fighting performance in his first battle, the seige of Ysdaa, had propelled him into the notice of General Kenobi, who had been coordinating planetary and fleet maneuvers there. His squadron's strategy at Raek Starfall had become legendary. His success had become so spectacular that Kenobi had transferred him out of danger to a training position, in hopes of teaching his skills to other pilots. Leaning back, he steepled his fingertips, still smiling. When Ben had made him a trainer, he had resisted fiercely, resentful of being pulled from combat. But he had since learned the advantages of this post. Granted, it lacked the electric delirium of real warfare, but he enjoyed shaping the reflexes of his students. Some were cadets just out of the first-level academies; some were already veterans of several campaigns. All of them looked to him as a master of the craft. His reverie was broken by a small noise behind him. He had half-forgotten Arcadia; when he turned to look, he saw the data pad finish slipping from her hand. She lay curled on her side, her feet still shod and hanging off the bench toward the floor. She woke after he had already carried her around the room once, and was considering another circuit. Without moving, she tried to decipher her situation-- she was bunched up in the air, her hair smeared across her face. When she opened her eyes and tried to see through her hair, she could see a broad uniform-clad chest pressed against her nose. She remembered that vantage point from earlier in the day. "What are you doing?" He nearly dropped her. "Oh-- you're awake. I was going to put you to bed, but I can't find any doors beside the main one. Where are you hiding them?" "Put me to bed?" "I couldn't leave you sleeping on that bench." "I've only this one room; there are no other doors. And that is my bed." He looked at the bench again. It still looked like a bench, cloth-surfaced and unpadded. "How can you sleep on that thing?" "Usually quite soundly. May I request that you put me down somewhere?" He placed her on the bench again, in a half-seated position from which she immediately slid down the wall onto her side again. With an effort, she levered herself back up. "Thank you for your concern, really, but--" "It's nothing," he said modestly. "But as long as we're exchanging courtesies, would you like me to apologize for this afternoon now or tomorrow?" "Whichever more pleases you." "In that case, it can wait 'til tomorrow. I'll need a few more hours to get into a properly groveling state anyway." He saluted, pivoted with military precision, and left. She watched the door owlishly for a while, to make certain he wasn't coming back in. With a sigh, she dropped the data pad under the bench, pulled a mantle from a wall hook behind her, and lay down wrapped in it. After a moment, nearly asleep again, she nudged her shoes off. On his way back to his own quarters, Anakin whistled softly to himself, carefully considering what he had learned from Denis. * * * "...And if it requires a war to bring the Republic back to its former glory, then perhaps we should be grateful for war." Palpatine ignored the shock around him in the Senate, raising his resonant voice to drown out dissent. "We have spent the last century bickering and feuding amongst ourselves. Before the Nechti came to our borders, each system fought against its neighbor, in armed combat or with economic strangulation. The galaxy wasted many lives and credits in these struggles for petty advantage. "But since the arrival of the Nechti, we have ceased our internal quarrels. If we can retain this solidarity after the Nechti are defeated, our combined power will be greater than ever before." A gaunt woman near the front said bitterly, "You are quite blithe about the Nechti. You would be less so if you had seen the border systems: Avisa stripped to magma; Martelle reft of its atmosphere-- my diplomatic suite and I are all that remain of the people of Erenat." Senator Palpatine lowered his eyes. Knife-edged crescents of gold gleamed from beneath his lids. "I do not wish us to forget the many innocents who have lost their homes, their families, or their lives to the Nechti. But think of all the similar losses our internal battles have claimed. If we can eliminate such sad waste from our Republic by remaining united, then the Nechtian victims will not have died in vain. "But let us forget the future for now. We must deal with the present. It is true that relatively few systems have met with the enemy to date, but is there any doubt we must unite now to drive them out?" Castra Gatou yawned flamboyantly. She was a tawny-haired young woman with pale green eyes; seated in Bail Organa's empty chair, she was in the first tier of seats, in excellent view of the council. Almost as an afterthought, she lifted one languid hand to conceal her mouth. "Why?" she asked. The Erenatese senator lunged to her feet. "Why? You've seen the comm holos sent by the Nechti, and you ask why?" "Why not?" Palpatine turned a speculative eye on the young princess, while waving the Erenatese back to her seat. "Your Highness of Alderaan, do your people have so little compassion on those less fortunate than themselves?" Castra smiled, showing all her teeth. "Less fortunate? The border systems brought this war upon themselves. Avisa and Martelle were the planets that first met with the Nechti; they made secret trade agreements with them for their technology. They willfully violated the laws of the Senate and the Republic by keeping knowledge of the Nechti civilization a secret. And you of Erenat--" she gestured at the livid ambassador-- "in fact, your very family signed the Nechti pact with full intention to violate it. "And once you did... well, small wonder that the Nechti sought revenge on you. What concern are your border squabbles to the rest of the Republic?" "The Nechti have advanced far past the border by now," Palpatine began, but Castra flicked her nails at him. "Past the borders of your own summer planet, you mean. Leaving my own opinions aside, you can hardly expect my people to support armed intervention in your internal affairs. If you can't maintain civil relations with your neighbors, why should we enforce them for you?" "Civil relations?" Palpatine elevated a dark golden eyebrow, smiling warmly. "Oh yes, Alderaan has always been known for its peaceful self-government, especially as carried out by its web of noble kinsmen who are all--" his smile attained angelic proportions-- "terribly civil to one another." "Enough of this squabbling!" In the open center of the chamber, the President of the Senate lashed the rostrum with her gavel. She was a stately Twi'lek, whose cranial appendages were shifting like cats' tails under their wrapping of silk. "Senator Palpatine, the Alderaani vendettas are not the subject of this debate. And if I may say so, Your Highness of Alderaan, the diplomatic failings of the border systems are irrelevant as well. Avisa and Martelle have already been destroyed." "And Erenat," the gaunt woman whispered. "And Erenat. Whatever their complicity may have been, the Nechti have surely taken vengeance. But now other systems are being attacked, ones with no prior involvement whatsoever. These are the peoples whose aid we are determining. The period for debate has ended. May we call the vote?" As the Senators drew together in small groups, Palpatine stepped down from the central dais. A Senate page with two bowls of pebbles passed through the chamber, giving every Senator a stone from each bowl, one black and one white. Leaning on the rail near Castra's seat, Palpatine jounced the pair of stones in his hand. "Which one do you plan to cast at me?" he asked her. "Surely you're planning to cast yours first." "It's the President who gets to throw the first stone of the season, my dear." They watched a second page approach the Twi'lek with a tall, opaque urn, into which she inserted her hand wrist- deep to conceal the color of the pebble she released. The remaining one was dropped into a disposal chute beneath the rostrum, for later collection from a common receptacle. "But here comes the press, I believe." As the page passed by, they dropped their respective pebbles into the urn, then the chute in Castra's desk. The remote comm camera in the corner lingered on Castra and Palpatine after the page had moved on. In a leisurely fashion, she spat on her hand and slapped him. "Your Highness, desist," the Twi'lek snapped. "I will not permit physical assault of other Senators. If you should become President, you may change policy to suit yourself. But as long as I hold office, I will not allow it." Palpatine dismissed the guards who had hurried to him from the Coruscanti suite. "I doubt intervention is necessary, unless Her Highness plans to escalate. Have you any weapons?" "Regrettably, no." Castra rose, gathering her train over one arm. "But you may yet persuade me to give a different answer." Tracked by the comm recorder, she left the Senate chamber before the tally was complete. * * * In his private apartments, Palpatine keyed the holoprojector to replay the day's events. He leaned back and watched himself complete his speech. "...But let us forget the future for now. We must deal with the present. It is true that relatively few systems have met with the enemy to date, but is there any doubt we must unite now to drive them out?" His companion touched her goblet to his. "Marvelous arm gesture. Think it'll catch on?" "I hope to gain followers for more than a gesture." After a few sips, he reliquished his wine for a wafer of mycotal pate. "How do you think the rebuttal was received?" They watched Castra flick her nails. "If you can't maintain civil relations with your neighbors, why should we enforce them for you?" Story written by: lim@merck.com The first guard staggered back and collapsed. As the intruder prepared to engage the second guard, the doors slid open. The white luminescence of the corridor tarnished to dark gold, reflected from the hair and robes of the man who stepped forward. Senator Palpatine took a sip from the jewelled goblet in his hand. "Good evening, Lady Arcadia. Would you care to join me for dinner?" Backed against the wall, the second guard gasped out, "My lord, this woman has infiltrated the palace somehow, and--" "In fact," Palpatine continued, "I was expecting you somewhat earlier. This excellent Fentaraj vintage has been warming for a half-hour now. Do come in before its bouquet deteriorates further." "But my lord!" His voice took on a harder edge. "Have the next shift relieve you from your posts for the night. You are dismissed." The guards limped away, one half-dragging the other. Before they had gone two meters, Palpatine drew a blaster from his sleeve and shot them both. The blade of Arcadia's lightsaber flashed up like indigo dawn. "What do you want from me?" The Senator graciously extended his blaster, grip first. "Your company at table, of course. Once you have obliged me with that, we may discuss other matters. For example, your reasons for coming to Coruscant in this way, or at all." She hesitantly took the blaster from him, shoving it into her belt with a stare of disbelief. A momentary shudder of indecision rippled through Arcadia. Her blade flickered and went out as she dropped out of defensive stance. "I never wanted to set foot on Coruscant again. But you refused every petition I sent, and you made it impossible for me to seek justice in your courts. This was the only way left." "Yes, I intended it so. But come now, you must be hungry after your jaunt through my security perimeter." He stepped back into his chambers, obliging Arcadia to follow him. The bodies of the guards continued to smolder in the empty corridor. * * * The oval table had been set with two places. Palpatine resumed his seat and filled Arcadia's goblet. She hesitated on the iridescent tiles, her dusty grey fatigues out of place in the rich surroundings. He motioned toward a chair so intricately worked that it seemed made of silver lace. "If I'd wanted you dead, I'd've called an armed detachment, don't you agree?" "Perhaps. But that might've denied you the pleasure of killing me yourself." He leaned back and smiled. "Ah, but I had far more entertaining alternatives in mind. Believe me when I say this meal is unpoisoned and undrugged." Although she could sense a concealment of truths in his words, there was no falsehood. She ate slowly, waiting for him to speak. Instead, he simply watched her, his topaz eyes dark in the dim light. The tension made the complex sauces and gels taste like ashes. When she could no longer bear the silence, she asked, "Anakin is alive, isn't he?" "Certainly." "Then why have you indicted General Kenobi and me for his murder? And where is he?" "All in good time. I, for one, find that a short stroll after dining helps my digestion. Let us walk in the gardens, for now." He led her to an enclosed courtyard adjoining the chamber. Espaliered branches pressed against the walls, vainly reaching toward the glass dome high above. Palpatine chose a path enclosed by thick-foliaged trees, their branches interwoven and grafted together overhead. The darkness would have been near-absolute without the small utility lamp clipped to Arcadia's belt. "I would make a bargain with you," he said. "What bargain?" "Tell me, have you any interest in becoming Vicereine of Alderaan?" She stared back at him, at the pleasant, unreadable expression on the handsome face. As the implications of his question struck her, she recoiled. "I don't understand your meaning, my lord." "You lie, Arcadia. And do call me Palpatine." "I would prefer not to, my lord." He snorted. "Very well. Your kinsman Bail Organa has been troublesome to me in the Senate. His position as Viceroy gives him a great deal of authority against me. As I understand Alderaani politics, the title is hereditary, and is granted for life. Other than his infant daughter, you are his nearest kin, and therefore his next heir." An image of Leia flashed before her. She forced the thought to the back of her mind. "And what if I am? The rank was granted to the Organas. If they should perish, the Antilles family has no greater odds of ascendency than several others: House Gatou, House Liachne--" "The odds can be altered. Are you content with your life as a simple healer, Arcadia? You've travelled with the fleet; you've seen the damage that the Republic's internal feuds can cause. But if you were Vicereine, you could join your faction to mine. Instead of healing mere individuals, you could heal the wounds of the Republic. The combined strength of Alderaan and Coruscant could unite the galaxy, and bring peace to all our quarrels. What is the life of one man, compared to that?" The jewels of his rings glittered as he spread his hands. The tiny reflections from the facets etched into her eyesight; she could feel her vision and her mind beginning to fade into a dark golden haze. Yet there had been no tampering with her meal-- with an effort, she said, "But I don't...why not ally with Bail?" Palpatine shook his head sadly. "He and his followers dote on anarchy and call it freedom. But your influence could make them see reason. The Senate and the Republic have too much of this anarchy already, and I intend to restore order." The last sentence slashed through his spell on her, and she stopped walking. "Your order." "Not mine alone. As Vicereine of Alderaan, you would be my equal. Join me as my consort, and we shall rule the galaxy together." "Why should I wed you? Anakin still lives--" "At present, yes." She caught her breath. "And if Bail is killed, I will know it as your doing. If you force me to become Vicereine against my will, you will find no ally in me." "Not even for Anakin's sake?" Arcadia's fair hair fell down across her face as she jerked her head away. "You're holding him prisoner, then. If you harm him, I'll tell the Senate of your plans, and--" Almost gently, he said, "But you have no proof. Fully- trained Jedi might draw the knowledge from your mind, but most of these are in your kinsman's faction. The majority of the Senate supports me, and would most likely see your claims as mere Alderaani slander. "Furthermore, I am scarcely holding Anakin against his will. General Kenobi left him near death, and my physicians and healers have been treating him. But since you are averse to the first bargain I suggested, I have another you might prefer." She looked back up at him, her brown eyes bitter. "And if I do not agree, you'll let him die. What is the life of one man, compared to the good of the galaxy?" "Tush. As I said, he was badly injured. A meeting at this point might be a shock to both of you. But if you will administer a short test for me, I will let you take your Anakin wherever you desire." "What would you have me do?" "I have recently taken on a new student, and would like to test his mettle. Cross sabers with him for a time. If you defeat him, he will be no student of mine, and I will give you Anakin Skywalker. I will even remove all mention of my previous offer from your mind, since it so distresses you." "And if I lose?" "That depends on his whimsy." Palpatine plucked a green- petalled flower, twirling the bleeding stem between his fingers. "I fear that this lad dotes on duelling to the death. "He may reconsider the matter, if you ask. If he defeats and spares you, I think I can still arrange for you to join Anakin. But as for my would-be student, I'll divulge that I've not yet begun his training, while you've been taught the skills of a Jedi Knight for...three years now, perhaps? By General Kenobi?" When Arcadia remained silent, Palpatine tsked and dropped the flower underfoot. "May I see Anakin before the duel?" "Alas, no." "Then what proof can you offer that he still lives?" "Lady Arcadia, you surprise me. You can sense the truth; do I lie?" "You're holding something back." "But do I lie when I say your consort lives?" He observed her with great interest. Her gaze was softly unfocused as she raked her lips with her teeth. "You do not," she murmured at last. "I will accept your conditions, but I refuse to kill." Just as softly, he replied, "Your vow may not be necessary." * * * Having escorted Arcadia back from the gardens, Palpatine keyed her prospective opponent on the comm, voice only. "I have a visitor who wishes to bargain for a former comrade's custody. Come to my quarters through the hidden passage, and be ready for a duel." He did not wait for a response before keying off. "He should arrive shortly. I have a suit of protective armor you may wear, and I do suggest you use it." "But why? I've never used armor before." "My student does. I wouldn't want you to accuse me of setting this duel up on unjust terms." She put the troop armor on, inspecting each piece for structural flaws. "Why not test him yourself? And am I to fight him here?" The sweep of her white-gloved hand encompassed the wealth of the chamber's furnishings: carved wood and stone, Cheline mirror tapestries, lamps hung with amber drops, flame sonnets from Reseau. "Why not here? As for testing, I prefer to observe combat from a distance, rather than in flagrante delicto." He watched her make a face at the helmet, checking the fume filters before lowering it over her head and carefully tucking her hair inside. "Is your helmet firmly secured? Good. I believe I hear his approach now." He moved to the wall mosaic and pressed several tesserae in sequence. One panel sank a hand's depth into the wall and slid back to reveal opening blast doors. Unhurriedly, he moved a chair onto an opaline carpet and seated himself, arranging his robes in flowing folds. Arcadia froze as her opponent entered the room, sealing the blast doors behind him. "What is that?" she breathed. Even distorted by her helmet, her voice was audible to Palpatine. His eyes ignited with savage amusement as he nodded across the room. "Introduce yourself, my friend." The armored figure turned toward Arcadia, breath hissing through its black mask. "I am Darth Vader. Whom do I face, my master?" Even as Arcadia opened her mouth to speak, Palpatine made an airy gesture. "The name is unimportant. This person wishes to spar with you, Lord Vader." Vader took his lightsaber from his belt, activating it and holding it ready before him. The red light of the blade spilled over the floor like blood. He waited. "This is your student?" Her incredulity survived the passage through the helmet filters. "Why, you disappoint me. But if you wish to cancel our agreement and leave alone, I'm sure your former comrade will understand." He was answered by the whiplash flare of Arcadia's lightsaber. Bracing herself, she moved warily toward Lord Vader. The two sabers crossed, red against blue-violet, barely touching. "You are the challenger," the obsidian mask rasped. "Commence." "Senator Palpatine has said you often fight to the death. Will you ease your terms?" "If I find you a worthy opponent. Now will you begin, or must I?" She darted forward and swung her blade low, toward his legs. He blocked the blow easily and carried the motion up to throw her back. As he lunged in attack, his cloak billowed behind like black wings. Vader's reach was greater than hers, she saw. Ordinarily, she would have had an advantage in speed and agility over this armor-clad giant, but her own armor impeded her. She stepped aside more slowly than she should have, and the blood-hued saber bit into the carpets centimeters from her moving feet. She evaluated her adversary as they fought. Like herself, his movements were stiffened by the armor; despite Palpatine's words, Vader seemed scarcely better-accustomed to it than she was. Dodging behind a tall stone screen, she drew him behind it then leapt over to the other side to wait for his return around the edge. The crackle of vaporizing amethyst warned her to wheel about as Vader slashed through the screen and advanced through the severed halves. She was still able to strike his thigh, leaving a dull melted smear on the surface of his cuisse, but he moved away before she could reach the weakened spot again. He inclined his head. "First blood," he said, and thrust at her again. By implicit pact, they both avoided the lethal targets of head and torso. But the narrow beams of energy could cripple as well as kill; a blow from Vader skittered down Arcadia's reflective vambrace and fell aside, removing a thin shaving of plasteel. It would have taken her arm off at the elbow had she been unprotected. She parried his next blow, and the next, turning her damaged side away each time, then drove him back until he stumbled on a fragment of the felled stone screen. He fell heavily, jarred enough to lose his hold on his saber. The blade hissed and winked out as the handle rolled away. Palpatine stretched out his hand, to which Vader's deactivated lightsaber obligingly flew. Arcadia lowered her own weapon, releasing the activation stud. "Have I fulfulled our bargain, my lord?" His expression was beatific. "I believe so, my lady-- provided, of course, that Lord Vader agrees. Do you concede the match, my friend, or do you wish to demand lethal terms? I think our visitor would like to take her friend back to Alderaan as quickly as possible." Vader, who had been regaining his footing, froze in place. Fleetingly, Arcadia thought the joints of his armor might have been damaged by the fall. "Alderaan?" he repeated. "Why, yes," Palpatine said brightly. "Did I neglect to tell you before?" He tossed the lightsaber back to Vader. Vader straightened and stood up with savage abruptness. He crushed his gloves around the saber handle as he spoke, stepping slowly toward her. "I would yield to an equal, but I will enjoy your death, Alderaani bitch!" His blade ignited and slammed down at her as he charged. She barely reactivated her own saber in time. Crimson reflections from Vader's glinted on her armored wrists, just before her eyes, as she blocked the vicious swing at her head. He forced the blade down at her until she could feel her gauntlets scrape against the mask of her helmet. Stunned by the suddenness and strength of his attack, she dropped to the floor and rolled aside. Scrambling upright, she ducked under another swing and struck his side. The blow cut away a great swath of his cloak, but did little damage to his body. He snarled and kicked out at her shoulder. Arcadia cried out as the blow connected, flinging her back, but somehow retained her balance. Out of his reach, she struggled for air and composure. _He's in a killing rage_, she thought. _He'll overreact to any moves I make, if he notices them at all. All or nothing_. A few feints confirmed her conjecture. She led him forward into the glass-domed courtyard, then leaped into the shadowed colonnade. As he followed her, the iolite gleam of her lightsaber vanished. Enraged, Vader ran ahead into the darkness. Just around the bend, Arcadia slipped out of the colonnade between two trees and looped back, reentering behind him. Vader had slowed, looking before him in the dim red illumination from his blade, when she leaped up at his back, catching one arm around his neck and dragging him down. The light for which he had been hunting now flashed up across his vision. "I have no wish to kill you. Will you yield?" He caught her by the wrist, forcing her saber away from his mask as he spun and struck at her one-handed. "You are a fool, Alderaani." She tossed her saber to her free hand, catching it before he could call it to himself. But she was unable to parry at full strength; his slash tore partway into her neck armor before she could stop it. Her flesh was barely touched, but she could hear the vapor seals giving way. He flung her back, and she fell onto the paving, saber handle flying. The loosened helmet tilted up, obstructing her vision. She threw it off to see Vader's blade poised over her heart. Her own saber was in his other hand. She closed her eyes, waiting for the searing blow. It did not come. When she opened her eyes again, Vader was still standing over her. His voice sounded as if his breath had been struck from his body. "Dia. What are you doing here?" That diminutive, coming from that black skull-mask, struck her much as his saber would have done. The shock rippled through her body from the heart outward. "Anakin?" Arcadia levered herself up on her elbows, but the red blade flicked up to aim at her throat. "Why are you here? Was Kenobi not enough to satisfy you?" Light poured over them as Palpatine approached, a lamp in hand. "Ah, I see you two have met." Her fair hair had come undone when she removed the helmet; it poured down now in a smooth, vermilion-lit flow. "Why didn't you tell me the truth about him? Anakin, I-- I came to bring you back from here. I didn't know--" She turned toward Palpatine again, straining back from the awful soft sound of the lightsaber, an electric purr like cloth being torn. "When did I lie to you? Your friend Kenobi fought Anakin Skywalker and left him for dead. My people found him laid out like bracken on the edge of a lava pit, and for a long time, his survival was an exceedingly tenuous matter-- hence the indictment of you and General Kenobi." "But I didn't--" "Anakin was quite emphatic that you'd planned his death with Kenobi." Palpatine polished his nails against his sleeve. "I just wanted to ensure justice was done, in the event of his death." "If he's survived, why haven't you withdrawn the indictment?" "Survived?" Palpatine turned wide golden eyes to the motionless black figure. "Anakin Skywalker no longer exists. You face Darth Vader now. Is this not so, my friend?" "It is, my master." "Well, that settles that. You have lost, Arcadia. And now I will keep my promise and let you join Anakin. If you would step back, Lord Vader?" Vader backed away, saber still in hand. When he had retreated to a safe distance, Palpatine unleashed his power. He shaped his hands as if holding a soft, flat box with his fingertips, and blasted her with pure hell. The lightning wrapped around her and through her. Through the appalling pain, she felt her throat shredding raw from the screams forced from it. Her lungs filled with the thick, corrosive scent of ozone struck from the air. When the pain stopped, a fine froth of blood oozed from her mouth as she gasped through it. "When I am done with you, my lady, my medics will devise life-support prosthetics for you like Lord Vader's. And you will infiltrate the court of your cousin Bail for me and do as I bid, or I will halt your prosthetics by remote and let you drown in your own blood." The ice-blue bolts licked out again. At the next respite, she could only whimper, weakly coughing spume onto her cheek. Her convulsions had thrown her to Vader's feet, and she looked up to see the impassive mask gazing down at her. "Anakin, please," she whispered. "If any part of you is truly still alive, then please kill me. Kill me now." "Move away from her." Slowly, Vader moved back a pace, still looking at her. She was curled on her side, her eyes fixed on him. THe last time he had seen her like that was the morning Kenobi had confronted him-- no, when Kenobi confronted _Anakin_. He shook his head to clear it. Inside one glove, on his intact right hand, he could feel the marriage ring press against his finger, where it had been moved from the remains of his left hand. But on that morning, her face and hair had been luminous in the morning sunlight, not shadowed and flecked with blood. Anakin would not want her to suffer like this, Vader thought. "A little farther, if you please." Palpatine gestured impatiently. Arcadia looked away from the blank eyes of the mask. Within seconds, incandescent brilliance streaked back into her vision, but red instead of blue. She saw the lightsaber slash down across the white armor over her chest, then nothing. Palpatine exhaled sharply. "I thought you had learned obedience. It seems I must remind you again. But first, I must implement my alternate plan." He stalked back to his main quarters and keyed the comm. "Guard captain, a Jedi assassin disguised as a stormtrooper entered my apartments less than an hour ago. I was saved only by the fortuitous presence of Lord Vader, with whom I had been dining. I want the Senate informed about the true aims of these Jedi-- they're dangerous religious fanatics, and the tools of unscrupulous politicians like my enemies. Bring holocams to record the scene when you fetch the corpse from my garden. I will take Lord Vader to have his wounds treated by my own physicians." He turned in irritation when he realized Vader had not followed him. Keying off the comm, Palpatine went to the courtyard doorway. "If you do not come now, I assure you that you will regret this day's work even more." Vader walked out of the colonnade, his rent cloak fluttering behind him. Palpatine gave his mind a touch like hands shaping clay. "Forget everything she said. Think only of her deeds. She colluded with Kenobi against you. She tried to kill you herself." "Yes. She tried to kill me herself," Vader dully repeated. In the deep shadows beneath the trees, Arcadia lay sprawled, half-severed by the saber blow that had killed her. Her body gleamed twice in the faint, distant light. One reflection was from her lightsaber handle, which Vader had tucked back into her hands. The other was from the half-melted ring he had placed on her finger.

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank