Chapter 1: I
"TELL ME WHAT YOU REGARD AS YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH, -- "
"My powers and knowledge will achieve things beyond anyone's comprehension."
"Someday I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!"
"I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
" -- SO I WILL KNOW HOW BEST TO UNDERMINE YOU -- "
"You're weak. Too weak to complete your training."
"Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth ... Vader."
"Your hatred has made you powerful."
" -- TELL ME OF YOUR GREATEST FEAR, -- "
"I will not be seduced by sentiment."
"I will do whatever you ask. -- Just help me save Padme's life. I can't live without her."
"You won't convert me as you did my father."
" -- SO I WILL KNOW WHICH I MUST FORCE YOU TO FACE -- "
"Kill him and complete your training. He is a threat to your power."
"It seems, that in your anger, you killed her."
"Let the hate flow through you!"
" -- TELL ME WHAT YOU CHERISH MOST, -- "
"I have feelings for him, is that what you want to hear?"
"You are so ... beautiful."
"They're my friends, I've got to help them!"
" -- SO I WILL KNOW WHAT TO TAKE FROM YOU -- "
"I cannot allow such sentiment."
A woman crying, choking up "Anakin ..."
"Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends."
" -- AND TELL ME WHAT YOU CRAVE, -- "
"I need help. I have to disappear. I will do as you ask."
"you and I can rule the galaxy... make things the way we want them to be!"
"I have to save you."
" -- SO THAT I MIGHT DENY YOU... "
"Help you I cannot."
"You're going down a path I can't follow!"
"You already have," the dying man wheezed.
Elphrona. A rocky planet located in the Outer Rim Territories, right on the edge of the Unknown Regions. It was home to an ancient High Republic Era Jedi outpost used as a treasure trove for a number of artifacts. Elphrona's terrain consisted of iron hills, as well as cliffs and mountains. It had an atmosphere that was breathable to several species, including humans but had harsh conditions. Some regions of the planet were magnetized in such a way as to make air travel impossible in those areas, and the powerful magnetic field lines underlying this phenomenon were a major factor in the formation of the planet's distinct topography. Rust storms were a known weather phenomenon. Locals considered any natural precipitation to be an exceedingly rare event, with as long as a decade between rains. However, Elphrona had at least some natural bodies of water located in underground reservoirs and lakes far below its mineral-rich surface.
The outpost's entrance was sculpted on the side of a stone mountain, with the insignia of the Jedi Order proudly displayed over the blocked entrance. Once, instead of a pile of rocks collapsed in front of it, there were two, tall statues depicting Jedis in their robes, guarding the gate.
Kylo Ren knew the place all too well. He had visited it in the past with his uncle. That was also when he was first introduced to his Knights, which used to be under different leadership at the time. He had been here only a little over a year ago, right after the destruction of the Jedi temple. This was where his first duel and, quickly after, kill happened. The victim's name was Hendrix, a young Quarren and a padawan of Luke's.
As he stood over the ruins of the outpost, brooding and reminiscing, the stormtroopers and site workers were laboring to remove the stones that covered the entrance in the vault. Also his work from when he tried to escape from the two other padawans who took it upon themselves to chase and straighten him up. Both dead hours later.
"How can you be so sure there's something of value left here?"
"Skywalker had a way of looking only at what was in front of him. Like most Jedi do." Snoke's voice echoed through Ren's brain, sinister yet comforting. He had been ever-present in Kylo's head since he was little, it was almost like a part of him now. "He had no idea what treasures could lie underneath the surface."
"You haven't told me what I'm looking for or what you want me to bring back to the base with me."
"My boy, you'll know when you see it. It's the only artifact that doesn't -- belong there."
Vague, as always. He felt Snoke had closed himself off from the conversation, meaning the rest of the task was entirely up to him now. To find this out-of-place artifact. And the way to it.
The inside of the outpost looked very much like a museum, high ceilings held in place by sturdy yet elegant columns, with different types of objects displayed from the top to bottom across the walls. Most of them were meaningless pieces of junk gathered by the Jedi and anything of value had been long plundered or moved away. But Snoke wouldn't have sent him this far for nothing. He wandered around the place, going up and down on different sets of stairs, trying to find something that was not in plain sight. His frustration only grew when no one reported back with pleasing news.
Even now, after a year of training in the dark side of the Force, his anger was still out of control, rampant, hard to keep in check. He drew out his lightsaber from his utility belt and started swinging it around, destroying vases and entire shelves of metallic scrap. Whenever the flaming cross blade would touch the structure of the wall, burning marks would be left simmering behind, like open wounds in the stone.
A brave—and somewhat unfazed by the tantrum— Utapaun archeologist came up the stairs with much-awaited news, "Sir, we found a hidden passageway under one of the staircases."
The man stopped in his tracks, put away the lightsaber, and acted as though nothing happened whatsoever. "Is there anything inside?"
"We haven't looked past the entrance, but we had to analyze it. It appears to have been made many years after the finalization of this structure. If I were to approximate, I'd say it's at least a century younger than the rest."
"Well done." With that said, he strutted down the stairs towards this corridor, curiosity now burning into his brain.
What was this artifact? How was it going to help the First Order or Snoke? If this was such a valuable object that Kylo Ren himself had to go oversee its retrieval, why was it placed on this forsaken planet and no one came back for it? Further questions arose in his mind as he wandered down the long, dark passage. The designer of this place had to be a genius. The structure was leading somewhere below the outpost, the ground being ever so slightly inclined. There were spiraling stairs, crossroads meant to get one to lose themselves, kind of like an unending maze, destined to drive one mad before ever reaching their destination. Kylo felt as if he had been walking for hours. The humidity alone was killing him and the rest of the party that followed him.
"There has to be some type of underground hot spring for it to be so muggy inside such a dry planet," one of the troopers said to another, a bit too loudly for a place that created such a resounding echo.
Ren halted abruptly, causing everyone else to stop, somewhat terrified. The trooper who spoke was now praying to the stars to have his life spared and not be the object of this man's anger outbursts. But Kylo couldn't be bothered with that, not when he finally felt something. An indicator that he was on the right path, that there was an end to this tunnel. It was as though something was calling him, urging him in the right direction. Some kind of invisible hand pulling him forward, shining light on the destination. At the end of the road, something was oozing dark power.
Without actually acknowledging it, his determined strut turned into a slower sprint, navigating through the remaining distance with newly found confidence. Just before he turned the last corner, a sinister, red glow lit up the room. The artifact in front of him was, simply put, magnificent. Unlike anything he'd seen before. It had the shape of an obelisk, at least one foot taller than him, with carvings and edges pulsing with that ghostly red glow. The hieroglyphs on it had to be ancient Sith, for that he didn't need the confirmation of the archeologists. The elegance and sleekness of the design made him wonder how old this had to be. At least a millennium, he told himself, reminiscing his teachings about the times of the Sith Empire.
A loud gasp of admiration that came from the Utapaun snapped him out of the trance he fell into. "This is it. Bring it to the ship. Carefully." Resuming his dark, brooding figure, he turned on his heel and started walking back towards the surface. Even the dry air of Elphrona would've been welcomed after so much time in this sauna.
"Wake up." A sinister voice commanded.
The ever-present voices, images, feelings, all disappeared at once.
"Why so silent?"
A static sound buzzed around, ever so slightly interrupted by faint beepings of machines.
"Where am I?"
Around the wrists, something felt cold and suppressing. Tight. After gaining motility back in the limbs—which felt like it had been absent for decades—there was an attempt at breaking free from the binds, which soon turned out futile at best.
The woman’s eyelids felt as though they'd been stitched together, the prospect of opening them seemingly terrifying, as if it had been years since she'd seen any kind of light. And for good reason, the moment she brought herself to do it, it burned like a thousand needles poked at her retinas.
Alright, even slower this time , she encouraged herself.
With utmost care, one eye opened before the other. A quick glance around the room confirmed that she had no idea where she was. The room looked and smelled clean, not quite like a medical bay, but she clearly recognized the powerful scent of chemicals. Other than that, there wasn't much to go on. A datapad next to the door, probably for basic commands such as opening and closing the door, as well as calling for assistance or dimming the lights. Those annoying bright lights. It felt like some kind of holding cell, but it had no bars. Supposedly, they were not needed, the single-occupant was shackled tightly to her chair, unable to do much more than move her head. A torture chamber, it would explain the chemical smell in such a place, used to clean up blood and fluids and whatever else fell out of the creatures brought here. She knew she should've been flattered, they weren't taking any chances with her. Even so, she wasn't one to enjoy being cuffed to a piece of metal.
One swift movement of her wrists resulted in the automated bindings to fall to the sides and release their grip on her wrists, ankles, chest, and waist.
With a casualness fit for a person belonging to the place, the woman stood up from the complex restraining apparatus, put in the command in the datapad to open the door, and proceeded with caution into a long hallway. The building seemed too modern and well equipped to be the layer of some type of low-life organization such as smugglers or bounty hunters. She moved graciously, careful to stand close enough to the walls in case she needed to hide from plain sight, by using the nooks and crannies of the structured hallway—just in case anyone felt like sounding the alarm on an escaped prisoner.
After all, she knew for a fact she couldn't have done anything wrong to these people. She had no idea who they were. And not knowing anything about them meant a disadvantage for her.
As she tried to guide herself out of the base, a sign marked the path to one of the emergency exits.
How thoughtful of them. Two armed soldiers, both in white armor, guarded this said exit. She recognized what their attire meant, stormtroopers. With another half rotating gesture of the wrists, both guards flew in opposite directions, hitting their heads against the wall then dropping like pieces of metal on the sleek, grey floor. "Amateurs," she mumbled just as she stepped over one of their bodies and pushed one of their guns out of the way with her leg.
Opening the hatch sent her entire body into shock for a brief moment. The small vacuum created by the door unsealing sent the freezing air rushing in, which hit her like a boulder, her modest robe and suit no match for the planet's low temperature. However, as this was clearly a military base, they must've had a hangar where they kept shuttles or some kind of smaller ship she could use to fly out of there. And it was easier to try and find it from the outside than return into a maze of corridors where she could be spotted and stopped. She took one last moment to enjoy the warmth of the base and then strutted out, facing the harsh cold. Luckily enough, there was hardly any wind.
There was no movement in the forest. A few flakes of snow drifting down made no sound as they fell to the ground. She realized she was leaving her thermal signature everywhere, therefore any type of droid patrol could've detected her, but in the absence of any type of heat distorter device, she had taken the more primitive but also effective precaution of using a branch to wipe out her footprints as she advanced. If someone was going to come looking for her, she wasn't about to make it easy for them. Where she could, she kept to rocky surfaces, the better to minimize evidence of her passage. As her feet were sinking into the fresh snow with each new step taken, she tried to get farther away from the light of the base to look at the stars, maybe recognize the system she was currently into. After careful consideration of galaxies, nebulas, possible moons orbiting around, the look and temperature of the planet she was inclined to say this was Ilum. But what was a military base doing on Ilum? What chances did she stand of getting to another habitable planet on just a TIE? And what were the odds this planet, home to a military base, didn't have any shields protecting it? The questions were only piling up while her body temperature was decreasing with each second spent away from warmth.
A fleet of Star Destroyers stood off the white world. Spectacular and isolated, with a mean surface temperature varying from merely cold to permanently arctic, the planet had been altered: its mountains tunneled into, its glaciers hacked, and its valleys modified until it no longer resembled its original naturally eroded form. Those who had remade it had renamed it.
Hollowed out of one snow-covered mountain was a central control facility. At its heart was a great assembly chamber that held hundreds of workstations and their attendant seats. At present, it was occupied by only two figures. One was Kylo Ren.
Seated on the raised platform that was the focus of the chamber was the blue-tinted holo of Supreme Leader Snoke. Tall and gaunt, he was humanoid but not human. The hood of the dark robe he wore was down, leaving visible a pink, pale face so aged it verged on translucence. Poorly reconstructed, the broken nose added to the asymmetry of the damaged visage. So did the position of the left eye, which was situated lower than the right. Beneath wispy gray eyebrows, they were a startling cobalt blue. Long since healed over, old cuts and wounds marred the chin and forehead, the latter scar being particularly noteworthy.
Seated in shadow, the tall, slender form loomed over the other man. Other than the face, only long, spindly fingers showed from beneath the dark robe. "You have looked inside the artifact," Snoke declaimed, his voice deep, soothing, and very much that of someone in complete control, "haven't you?"
Ren sat impassively, neither commenting nor visibly betraying his thoughts. But inside, he was struggling to understand what had happened only moments before the meeting. He had looked inside. It called to him. He felt a connection to it as if he was the one who was meant to use it. But instead of gaining ancient knowledge or power, he found himself catching a girl in his arms as the artifact opened. And there wasn't anything else inside either. The pulsing red glow stopped, the power he felt attracted to was gone. All he was left with was a limp body.
When next Snoke spoke there was a certain intimacy in his voice, "I have never had a student with such promise -- before you."
Ren straightened as the words snapped him out of reminiscence. "It is your teachings that make me strong, Supreme Leader."
Snoke demurred. "There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"
In truth, he was highly confused but Snoke gave no signs that he wanted to explain what happened. Allusive, as always.
The figure leaned down from his chair, making all his features easier to observe, the deformity most of all. " Bring the girl to me ."
The freezing temperature was starting to get unbearable. Nothing she did could warm her up. The base was stretched out too far across the planet's surface, she realized she'd never get to any hangar in time, she would freeze to death long before that.
Unwilling to die this way, the only option was to retrace her steps back to where she came from and hope for the best. Even a droid patrol would have been welcomed at this point, they could zap some heat into her. However, the forest was thick and by doing such a good job clearing her footsteps in the snow, finding the way back seemed unlikely. Especially now when her legs moved even slower, feeling heavy and unresponsive.
When Kylo Ren found the restraining room empty and the passed-out stormtroopers near the closest exit out of the base, he deployed his Knights to retrieve the girl. However powerful she might have been, she couldn't take down all of his knights, not after being outside in the cold for so long.
The Knights of Ren were an enclave of masked elite warriors wielding distinctive weapons for ranged and close-quarters combat, making them the elite and fearsome enforcers of Kylo Ren's will. The Knights hailed from the galaxy's Unknown Regions where their name and reputation inspired centuries of cautionary tales about the dangers lurking in uncharted space. They were neither Jedi nor Sith, but a new generation of warriors imbued with the power of the Force, and now they were after the mystery woman.
Tracking her down wasn't difficult, especially with their heat-detecting devices, even in temperatures such as these. They could tell by the traces that at some point she made a turn for the base, but the warmth was dissipating quickly, meaning her body temperature had dropped drastically. They knew she must have been important, otherwise, they wouldn't be the ones in charge of getting her back.
Trudgen huffed. "The heat trace stops here. What's happening?"
Vicrul pulled the scythe out of its holder on his back, ready for something to jump at him any second now. The rest followed his lead, taking out their weapons and waiting.
If it weren't for the soul damning cold, the girl would have taken her time to play a little more with them, but for now, they were the only chance of making it back to the base in a timely manner. She jumped from the tree branch she sat on right in the middle of them, the freshly laid snow scattering all around her. "Hello there!"
The men all pointed their weapons at her the second they heard her make contact with the ground. They were a scary lot, their helmets, outfits, and weapons made in that fashion to enhance the fright one might feel when confronting them. But not her. She only kept herself tightly wrapped in the robe she had on, her current shape resembling the one of a cocoon. "I would put my hands up but I'm afraid I'll lose the remaining heat maintained by this cloak."
No one replied, but she could see a slight relaxation occurred in the group when she didn't seem willing to fight. "I would love to chat some more, but I'm freezing out here. Could any of you, gentlemen, be so kind as to take me somewhere --" her teeth were gritting from the cold, while her pale complexion was turning blue to purplish, "with heat, maybe? After all, I'm not a Tauntaun."
With a swift blow to the back of the head, the woman fell to the ground. All the knights looked at Trudgen, not necessarily disagreeing with his action, but rather quizzical as to why he chose that course of action.
"What?" He defended himself with a dismissive shrug. "It's alright, I'll carry her."
The complex restraining apparatus held her upright against an angled platform in the cell. She woke slowly, with a throbbing headache as a reminder of her first encounter with Ren's hounds. Disoriented, at first she thought she was alone again. Her oversight was understandable, since the other person in the holding area did not move, did not make a sound, and at times scarcely seemed to breathe.
Though startled at first by his unsettlingly silent presence, she took a moment to take stock of her surroundings. It wasn't the same room as before. This one was similar in design, but larger and with fewer lights. Probably to aid in this man's intimidation performance. Her best bet was to play dumb and to seem unaware of anything going on.
"Where am I?"
"Does the physical location really matter?" In Kylo Ren's voice, there was unexpected gentleness. Not quite sympathy, but not hostility either. She would've expected at least some, especially since she escaped. Well, tried to. Maybe being willing to return gained her some points. "You're my guest."
Her eyebrow raised, switching her glance from him to the restraints and back to him repeatedly. "Is this how you treat your guests ?"
He waved his hand casually in her direction. A couple of clicks and clacks later, the restraints fell away from her arms. "I assume you would have taken care of that yourself sooner or later. Just like you did not so long ago."
And there goes any chance to play dumb . She leaned forward slightly, looking at the masked man, intrigued by his appearance. "What is the point of it?" The question was followed by a short gesture of the hand, pointing at the helmet.
He didn't reply. Instead, he only cocked his head to the right ever so slightly, as if trying to figure her out, to study her features. Her hair was all ruffled up, her clothes were simple, yet elegant. A uniform of some sort, maybe a customized one. There was an aesthetically pleasing contrast between her light gray hair, the pale skin, the black attire, and her piercing blue eyes. Yet, even though her hair was all over the place and her clothes were wrinkled, the way she stood, the way she carried herself, it reminded him of his mother. It was––noble.
"You were abandoned, weren't you?" She mimicked his head movement. "By the ones who should have cherished you the most."
Her words threw him off, the casualty with which she talked resembled the one of a long-lost friend, not a stranger. At that moment, he was thankful that his helmet was hiding his facial expression. He didn't know how he felt vis-a-vis her words, whether he was angry or threatened or slightly intimidated.
The woman standing right across from him must have been around his age, or perhaps a bit older. And yet he could feel it, there was great power inside of her, waves of it rolled out towards him. Not raw and untamed like his power was described by his Master. Hers was balanced, something more frightening when thinking about it in depth. It dawned on him that she could, in fact, be what Snoke was after, not the artifact per se. A weapon for the First Order, but not in the way he had imagined.
"Who are you?" The modulated voice inquired, clearly dismissing the last question.
"Are you looking for a name or some kind of purpose? Because if it's the latter, I don't know what to tell you."
"A name will do fine for now."
For the first time since she came back to her senses, the man made a step into the light. "Maeve who?"
"Just Maeve is fine."
Since he approached her, the difference in height between them became more obvious. From her leaned forward position, she straightened her back before leaning back against the angled platform, prompting her right boot against it too. She looked as though she was being playful for some reason. Her slight smirk added to that impression.
"Since you're the host and I'm the guest, I think it's about time you introduce yourself as well."
"I am Kylo Ren, Master of the Knights of Ren."
His chest puffed up slightly, pride clear in his tone, even with the voice modulator on. A moment of weakness on his behalf made him a little too cocky, easier to figure out.
"And who is your Master?"
There was no ill will in her voice, nor a particular snarkiness, but the question made him angry. It wasn't the tone, but the implication that he seemed like someone still in training, someone who wasn't in control, someone lacking authority, someone -- weak. From behind the mask came a growl: feral, but still human. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You're obviously a Force user, but you lack discipline. However, you do seem to have a grasp on the theory, which indicates someone is training you. Showing you how to use the ways of the dark side."
He squinted his eyes as his body tensed, hiding one of his clenched fists behind his back to not give away his built-up anger. "I'll show you the dark side."
She threw him a defiant look, "Maybe I'll show you."
Kylo Ren seemed to grow before her. Rage flared behind the mask as reason gave way to fury. A lightsaber appeared in one hand, roaring to life, a barely stable crimson shaft notable for two smaller projections at the hilt: a killer's weapon, an executioner's fetish of choice.
His anger almost made him forget all the trouble he went through to retrieve this woman and what she represented.
Snoke didn't. "I SAID BRING HER TO ME!" His commanding voice felt like a clap of thunder in his head, causing him to almost drop the saber.
Somehow, even though embarrassed, he was thankful for the intervention. Sometimes he could hardly control himself, especially since he gave in to the dark side. He turned off the saber, clipped it back to his belt, and looked back at the woman.
She was staring right through his visor into his eyes, causing an involuntary chill to run down Kylo's back. She was in his head, she heard what Snoke said. Confused and a little rattled, he stumbled back from her. Finally, she could see him for what he truly was: a scared boy.
Chapter 2: II
For the following three years, Kylo Ren had trained with Snoke, and his skills had increased exponentially since he learned how to best control and use the Dark Side of the Force. It was his true calling, the chance he had been waiting for all those years while studying at his uncle's temple, the opportunity to have power beyond his imagination. He had always felt powerful, his lineage providing him with a great connection to the Force, but nothing ever felt quite like this. He could reach inside people's minds, fracture bones with a single thought, and fight like no other. Allowing his emotions to fuel his actions and power was something that only worked in his favor, as opposed to how Luke made him suppress his feelings, keep them bottled up to the point where he felt he would burst. He had been promoted to the rank of Commander in the First Order army due to his proven skills in battle, both in coordination and in execution. He was fierce, the perfect killing machine, one of the best assets the organization had.
The promotion had gotten him closer to working with Maeve, the still mysterious woman that fell into his arms years ago. Snoke had kept her separated from him, even though she was the only other Force user in the Order. Whenever Kylo would inquire about her, he would be swiftly cut off, most of the time with no explanation given as to why. The only answer he had ever gotten that resembled justification was that she was more advanced than him and it would create an imbalance in his training if he spent time around the woman. Curiously enough, she seemed to be about the same age as he was, give or take a couple of years. And yet, following her first private conversation with the Supreme Leader, she was immediately appointed Commander, a position which she still held to the day.
The presence of the woman within the ranks of the Order only ever raised questions for Kylo Ren. He had seen firsthand that she had power, balance, maybe even more training when it came to the Dark Side of the Force. But what recommended her for an instant promotion in their ranks? What was her relationship with his Master? Why the secrecy?
From what he had noticed from afar, she wasn't much of a talker, people said she spent most of her time either with Snoke or in her quarters, yet everyone referred to her as efficient. From what he'd heard, her strategies regarding the future and expansion of their organization were always good, none failed so far. She had established a shadowed presence of the Order on different trading routes and various planets of interest while forming alliances where needed. But apart from her name, no one knew anything about her or her past. Most likely, Snoke wasn't in the same situation. Her body being found in an ancient Sith artifact was something known only by him and the Supreme Leader. Even so, that was the only extra information he had that others didn't.
He felt left out when it came to the matter. The girl and Snoke clearly had some kind of arrangement going on that he wasn't privy to. Sometimes he found himself wondering why Maeve never seemed to be curious about him, not that he had any way of knowing for sure if that was true. Another Force user in their time wasn't something you found on every planet or in any system. Whenever he would catch a glimpse of her, she would either avoid his gaze or silently stare for a couple of seconds from afar before heading off. He preferred to interpret that as a direct order not to engage with him she didn't wish to disobey rather than pure disinterest. At least one of those times, her gaze felt otherworldly, and her eyes seemed to have an eerie glow. He never got the chance to take a closer look, so there was always a possibility of it being only a glare from the light that caused him to see something that wasn't truly there.
The year was 32 ABY. The First Order had received intel about a Resistance affiliated base on the planet of Vestar, spinward to the Rimma Trade Route, but far enough not to be detected by common passers that might stray from the main route. It was said that the Resistance base was not only built on a great source of fuel that they were keeping for themselves, but they also had the location where Luke Skywalker was hiding. It wasn't good news just for the Order, but for Kylo too. He could find his uncle and end the Jedi once and for all, just as Snoke instructed him.
The mission was a reconnaissance one. Four squadrons of troopers were assigned for the mission, equally divided between him and another experienced officer. When Kylo inquired about who was going to be accompanying him, the answer caused him excitement. The day came for him to go out into the field with none other than the mysterious Commander Maeve. Was that a sign that Snoke thought he was ready to interact with her? Was he prepared? Was he close to finishing his training? Having known his Master to be sly when it came to matters such as the one at hand, he only took it as a sign of good will. A chance to be with someone like him, someone his age, someone who could provide a new perspective.
The briefing for the meeting was forwarded to all members on their personal datapads.
SENT AT 0930 GST
Sender: STARKILLER DEBRIEF DEPARTMENT
The details of your mission are as follow:
Mission type - GROUND RECONNAISSANCE
Destination: Vestar, Outer Rim Territories
Assigned Commander 1: Maeve
Assigned Commander 2: Kylo Ren
Assigned squads of stormtroopers: 4
Assigned squads of stormtroopers per attending commander: 2
Total number of assigned stormtroopers: 40 ( as per procedure, each of these squads contains nine ordinary stormtrooper slots and one specialist slot, to be determined and filled accordingly by Captain Phasma )
Please promptly present yourselves at 1100 GST in hangar 7.
Take off scheduled at 1115 GST.
He found himself daydreaming in the middle of reading the message, unable to help but wonder what the woman was like in a battle. As far as he was informed, she had only attended diplomatic meetings so far, so her skills in a fight were still unknown. Did she use a lightsaber? She had to, it was one of the best weapons for someone who wielded the Force. What was its color? What style did she go for? Did she partake in any training before, what was her technique like? For some reason, he imagined it to be artistic rather than brutal.
But this time he wouldn't get the chance to see it, this was only recon. Dull work, better suited for drones, not him. He did, however, enjoy the prospect of exerting his power over a group of stormtroopers.
Kylo snapped out of his daydream when the datapad in his hand made another alert sound, urging him to reply to the message with a confirmation. He hardly got a chance to read it before his mind started wandering. The sight of her name written right above his brought about a craze of restlessness, suddenly overwhelming him, new intrusive thoughts flooding his mind. He shook them away, not giving them a chance to affect him, and readied himself for the mission.
There were definitely more beautiful worlds in the galaxy than Vestar, but even so, at that moment, it made Maeve forget about the others. Being stuck on a frozen planet for most of her time there had created new appreciation for sights of flourishing life. Verdant and mild, flecked with bands of white cloud and necklaced with small seas and brightly reflective lakes, it appeared before them as the transporters dropped out of hyperspace. The pilot sent the ship into a shallow dive, heading for the established landing location for her squadrons. Speed stripped away the clouds around them, revealing what looked like an endless evergreen forest. As the ship slowed to suborbital velocity, other features lingered in her gaze: rolling hills, rivers, and lakes that glistened like sheets of silver foil. However, there was no sign of any base.
The mission was simple. The instructions were clear: get in, do surveillance, get out.
Since there was no point in having two commanders leading the same group of stormtroopers, the two were assigned different regions. Close together, in case one needed the other, but far enough apart as to cover a large area. Maeve had noticed that even though they were nearly at the destination, there wasn't any good place to set down the ship.
"I think there's been a mistake. You can't land us into the forest, there's no visibility. How will we know it's safe?" Her words indicated distress, but her tone was calm.
The pilot looked over his instructions again to double-check the information he'd been given. "I'm sorry, Commander, but these are the coordinates I have received." He also handed her the removable datapad from the cabin to see for herself. "Perhaps they thought of visibility too, but considered the thicket of the forest to be the best way to hide our ships while we're here."
The instructions were in her hand, yet she couldn't believe it was the best course of action. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she mumbled to herself.
Just as the landing gear was prepared, she picked up her transmitter to see if Kylo Ren was in the same situation.
"AAL-2, this is the Commander of AAL-1, do you copy?"
Static. Perhaps they already landed, but that was no reason for them not to have their coms opened and available. Just as the pilot set the ship on the ground, she tried again.
"AAL-2, do you copy?" A short pause, followed by static once more. "I repeat, do you copy?"
She would have tried to shake or slap it if she knew somehow it would improve the signal.
The pilot also wanted to send out an encrypted message back to the base, to update them on their position. When that failed too, Maeve knew it before he said it. "Commander, our coms are dead. Someone has cut off or blocked our signal."
The troopers were already disembarked, awaited in formation for their leader to give new orders. The radar onboard started emitting signals. "Life forms are approaching, Commander." The pilot's voice began to shake a little, even if he did his best to stay calm.
"Call everyone back! Get us out of --"
Before she could finish the sentence, shots started firing upon the ship and the troopers outside. Through the window, Maeve noticed what seemed to be an ion cannon being dragged across the forest ground. She knew they wouldn't get the ship ready for launch in time before it was fired. Even if they did lift off, they wouldn't get too far and them crashing mid-air wasn't a better option. They were paralyzed on the ground before the others even used their weapon.
"Grab a gun, we're not giving up this easily."
As she rushed outside, she pulled out her weapon. At first glance, it was nothing more than a long piece of black metal, about the size of her extended arm. In the blink of an eye, both ends lit up and long, humming blades of crimson light roared to life. It was a unique sight, the weapon in itself was marvelous. But the way she wielded it, the grace with which she deflected the plasma shots headed for her squads–was mouth dropping. Especially for someone who hadn't seen a lightsaber before.
The hand closest to the troopers next to her urged them to flee and find shelter away from the trap they stepped into. "Go, go, go!" She commanded, all the while using the red blades as propellers to keep away the bullets.
One of the troopers argued, "Commander, our orders are to protect you."
"Who looks like they're in need of protection at the moment?" She knew their intentions were good, but she couldn't find a nicer way of putting it.
Having successfully covered the retreat of the entire squad, including the pilot, under the protection of the ship, she took the time she had left until the attackers were in closer range to form a plan.
"We have no way of communicating with each other unless we're face to face. So try to stick together as closely as possible. If your best judgment tells you to run, you run." The shots rang against the opposite wall of the ship, coming down on it as lethal rain. "This isn't surveillance anymore, it's a survival mission. We need to get to Commander Ren and his squads, they might be in the same situation as us. Regardless, we have to try." She pointed in the direction where she saw the ion cannon. "When that thing gets fired, our ship will be dead. Scrap metal. They might even blow it up. We have to run, as far as our legs hold. That way." Her arm switched positions, now pointing about 180 degrees away from where she did before. "Those hills look like they're the only option for a possible hideout for now. We can't stay here like sitting ducks."
The worst thing about this plan was not knowing the terrain better. If the surveillance had already been done, preferably by drones or probes, she would have been briefed about the whereabouts, possible hiding places, best spots to lurk in the shadows. Unfortunately, they were the surveillance team. They could have just as well walked into another ambush, strategically placed further away from the ship.
The squads retreated silently through the forest, still under the threat of pouring bullets. At least now they were more aimless.
She couldn't help but notice how perfectly planned this whole operation was. Not for them, obviously. The two Force users in the Order, two of their greatest assets, were sent together on a recon mission, miles away from one another, with only twenty stormtroopers as a backup.
The landing point was in a spot with no visibility from above, something satellites should have picked up on in advance, their communications were blocked as soon as they turned off the engines to their ship, and the ambush began immediately after disembarking. The only possible explanation for such a failure was a traitor in the organization, one that fed them intriguing intel that had to be checked out. Maybe there wasn't even a base or a lead for the map to Skywalker, just a suicidal mission.
Her racing thoughts halted as shots started pouring down on them, less than a click away from their initial location.
One of her arms extended forward, holding in place all the fired blasts as the troops around her marveled at the feat.
"Commander, 10 o'clock!"
The warning came too late. Just as Maeve sent back the green plasmas to hit their initial shooter, a new wave from their left flank caught her off guard.
The surprise and intensity of the attack killed half of her men almost instantly, since she was unable to stop most of the shots. They managed to hit her as well, one shot in the right shoulder and one pierced through the side of her thigh. The rest of the troops circled around her, using their own bodies as shields for their Commander.
After a quick exhale to let the pain of the wounds fill her with dark energy, she stomped the ground with her good leg once. A small but concentrated seismic charge sent the attackers flying back, giving her troops enough time to advance further. Maeve's lightsaber ignited once more, but this time, due to the lack of dexterity in her dominant arm, she unscrewed the lance into two separate weapons.
While the troopers ran to the right, she took the opportunity to sever some heads, thus lowering the number of shots that she'd have to deflect further on. The crimson blades ran through the attackers like knives through butter. The burning pain in her shoulder and thigh fueled her actions, the dark side flowed through her body, allowed her to move faster, with more precision. However, even with the Force on her side, she was outnumbered and injured. The attackers got back in formation, and their blasts overwhelmed her.
Though she deflected most of them, either by using corpses as shields or her lightsabers or by moving out of their way with as much skill as she could Master, some of them got through. Most of them were harmless grazes, some only damaged her cape. The two shots that threw her off her game were the one that pierced her side and the one that got her in the arm, causing her to drop one of the sabers.
Even so, she extended the wounded arm towards the daring shooter when pure dark energy came out of the tip of her fingers in the form of lightning bolts and killed the woman responsible for the new scars.
To her surprise, the stormtroopers she thought she had temporarily saved, returned and contributed well to the kill count of the Order. Whether they were Resistance or mercenaries, they were suffering great losses. Maeve stayed behind as the troopers advanced, her head getting loopy and vision blurry. How she hated blood loss, the greatest letdown in a battle. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, tried to bring herself to focus for a while longer. Little did it help her. As soon as her vision recovered, she saw the remaining squad get butchered by what she could only assume were the people that attacked them upon landing that finally caught up.
The whole ordeal couldn't have taken longer than an hour. One might consider an hour in such conditions a great achievement, but none of it mattered in the face of failure.
“Failure is unacceptable.”
“Failure is unacceptable.”
“Failure is unacceptable.”
Scarred across most of her body, gravely shot in at least three places, soaked in a mixture of blood, sweat, and dirt, and exhausted from blood loss, her mind finally caved to the hurtful pleas of her body.
First, her knees gave in under the weight of her carcass. All wounds were bad, but technically, none of them were fatal. The blaster shots cauterized most of the affected area as they passed through. But the pain combined with exertion made her fall face first like a piece of wood on top of another fallen soldier. Her mind, however, refused to let itself go just yet. She could hear yelling through the forest, agitated people, but she couldn't care less about those people.
Is anyone else alive?
Did Kylo Ren have a better winning chance? If so, is he coming back for me?
Why would he?
He's probably dead too.
We'll see --
Cold. It's so cold.
My head hurts.
I can't feel my body.
Where am I?
In that particular moment, moving mountains out of their places with a small shovel felt like an easier task to accomplish than Maeve opening her eyes. Her lids were shut by more than the sweet embrace of sleep. A crust of tears and blood, that leaked from a possible gnash on her head or forehead, sealed her eyes shut like nails into a coffin. Lifting her arm proved to be an equally difficult task, the initial wave of pain shocked her since sleep took away the memory of getting shot. Eventually, after a series of grunts and huffs, the blood was rubbed away. It was almost night, and it was getting chillier with each minute passed, the midnight blue slowly taking over inch by inch the once lit up sky. When she looked around, she was reminded that she was laying in a field of corpses, but it was silent, morbidly peaceful.
She was all alone now, her squads were gone, communications were still blocked, and she had no way of contacting the Order to get her off the planet.
Alright, so what now?
She couldn't help an eye roll at herself.
How about you start by standing?
Easier said than done.
Her wounds felt like they were on fire, she needed to disinfect them immediately. She had two options: go back to the ship, hope it's still there, and not raided, in order to get the first aid kit, which was a highly unlikely scenario, or try to find a water source, to clean wounds the old fashioned way. Perhaps even find some plants that would aid the healing process. It was days like these when she really got to appreciate modern medicine–when she didn't have access to it.
With all the grunting, limping, and dragging of the body, Maeve sounded more like a zombie than a living being. As a speed walker in every day life, she found the slow advancement was highly aggravating. The thirst she felt, however, overshadowed every other symptom of pain, annoyance, or even the dizziness that came from losing blood. Unlike when she arrived here, the forest was now humming and buzzing with life, making it even harder to concentrate on locating a water source.
Finding water is gonna be a great relief indeed, but what next?
With each new step, she had to consider what the next move was going to be. Somehow, she would have to get back, she wasn't ready to die there. Not like that. Not as a victim of a failed surveillance mission. Not from infection or dehydration.
Someone was blocking the signal, one way or another, meaning there had to be at least an outpost around she could get to and send out a distress alert.
A sort of wasp came and buzzed around her head for a moment, only contributing to her irritation.
Stupid bugs all over the place.
One of the things she truly enjoyed on Ilum was the absence of insects; it was too cold for them to survive. Once the buzzing stopped, she halted and reached out with both her mind and ears. A stream. If her legs were in better shape, she would've leaped with joy. The energy that came from her excitement was not wasted but converted into a higher-paced limp in the direction of the running water.
Once arrived on its bank, Maeve's body sort of crashed against the ground, with her face straight into the stream. Washing away the dirt, sweat, and blood was invigorating, but not as much as the first gulp down her dry throat.
Funny how frail bodies are , she thought. Something as simple as dehydration could kill her. Simply not feeding herself liquids.
After the frenzy of hydration dulled down, it was time to take care of the rest. There was dirt and dried-up blood in all of her wounds, which made them sting. Happily for her, they didn't get to fester yet. She was going to need some clean bandages to cover them up. All her clothes were a no-go, so she tried to fashion something out of the leaves and vines that grew around.
As she struggled to rip the vines, something else, perhaps a twig, snapped in her proximity. In the absence of any source of light, she couldn't see what was lurking around. Whether it was a predator or another group of rebels.
Before she could even reach her lightsaber, she felt a gloved hand cover her mouth as a strong arm tightly immobilized her body.
"Don't make any loud noises. It's me," the modulated voice ordered.
The taste and smell of leather were a sweet relief now that her brain made the connection between her restrainer and his identity. Her body went almost limp in his grasp, the adrenaline that went into tensing it taking a bigger toll than expected on her beaten up self.
Kylo Ren couldn't deny it, he was relieved to see she had survived as well. But he felt her energy, and it was weaker than he'd ever felt in her before. More gallantly than he was used to be, he kept a firm hold on her body as he aided her in a sitting position rather than let her collapse.
He looked around and saw the fallen leaves and the already severed vines scattered on the ground. He removed his gloves and shoved them in his pockets, picked up the leaves, and began washing them.
"How --" her voice started as croaky and coarse, but after swallowing once and clearing her throat, Maeve continued. "How did you find me?"
He gestured with his arm for her to show him where the wounds were.
"When they attacked, I was close to this stream. After everyone else was dead, I thought the best chance of finding survivors was walking up its banks." He almost cringed when he saw the shot in the shoulder, which seemed to be the worst of them all. He was used to seeing gore-ish wounds, but on her pale skin, something didn't sit right with him. The contrast seemed too vivid between the colors.
"That was smart," she admitted. "I actually assumed everyone was dead."
He didn't reply, he was rather concentrated on getting her fixed up rather than making chit-chat.
"You don't seem to have many of these," she pointed out as she gestured towards her wounds. "Are you that good of a fighter?"
"Most likely. But that's not the case now. The moment I realized it was a setup and I was vastly outnumbered, I chose to flee rather than fight a losing battle and get myself in your situation."
He took a rather long look at her, trying to understand how an immediately promoted Commander, the mysterious Force user, the woman who infiltrated his mind so slyly, could end up in such a bad shape. Perhaps she had a dying wish––or perhaps she enjoyed the pain.
After a moment of silence, he couldn't help himself. "You look awful."
His attempt at a joke amused her. "Well, I only had a nap today in a field of dead people. Didn't have enough time for full-on beauty sleep."
And just like that, the situation they were in didn't seem so bad anymore. Two -- well, one and a half Force users were better than just one. Together, even though hopeless and planless, they stood a better chance.
After some hours of rest, proper hydration, and a couple of energy sticks–courtesy of Kylo's well-equipped utility belt–the duo was ready to try and take on the wilderness. It was still night, so they had stealth on their side, but still no way of guiding themselves. The satellite pictures weren't helpful around their coordinates since the forest was too thick and tall to tell if there was anything hidden inside, but at least now they had the beginning of a plan. Find an outpost to send a message or the source of what blocked their signal and destroy it.
Once again, easier said than done.
The source could've been miles away, perhaps even on the other side of the planet. There were no intelligent life forms on this planet, at least not evolved enough to use advanced technology. They couldn't get any help from them. However, this also meant there were no scavengers around, they'd have no use for the devices that were on the ship Maeve came on. Unless the Resistance cleared it out, the radars and even the medical kits could still be inside. So they had to give it a chance.
Thankfully, the trip wasn't long and the ship, although damaged on the sides by blaster fire, was otherwise fine.
"How stupid of them, they wouldn't even take the ship, not wanting to associate their image with that of Imperial armada."
The girl rolled her eyes and pushed him aside, so she could look for the medical kit.
"I don't see why you're complaining. This is excellent news for us."
Kylo proceeded with his walk towards the front of the ship and got into the pilot's seat. Before he could press anything, hissing and ouches came from the back of the lander. He took a minute to listen to it, trying to be attentive in case the woman needed his help. He also started pondering the situation and assessing the damage, losing himself in thought for a while.
A loud moan came from the armored haul, which brought him back to reality from the moment of contemplation. A couple of seconds later, after weighing in whether he should check on her or not, another moan came, this time a quieter one.
He got up and looked inside the haul, with a raised eyebrow and a confused expression, luckily hidden by his mask. Maeve was laying on her back on the floor, with leaves and vines, wrappers, syringes, and little empty bottles spread all over the remaining surface. All her wounds, in less than five minutes, were properly disinfected and then covered up with bacta patches.
The woman would make one hell of a nurse, he thought to himself.
Her eyes were closed, but the expression on her face resembled the one of a kid whose belly was filled with candy and sugary treats. He shook his head and returned to the console, trying to dismiss how pleasantly surprised he was by her personality.
To his shock, with the press of a button, the ship hummed to life. All the consoles lit up, the lights came back on, the engine started. He heard Maeve run into the cockpit and almost slam into the back of his chair, unable to believe her eyes.
She couldn't help a small, happy exhale. "I can't believe they didn't even deactivate it." She shrugged, a little too high on the intravenous painkillers to linger on the matter, "they probably thought we were all dead."
Now that her hood was down and the lights were on, he noticed how her gray hair was stained with dried-up blood. Her clothes were too, but the contrast between gray and red was so much more obvious than the one between her dark clothes and the blood.
"Can you fly this thing?"
Her hands were aimlessly trying to grab or press buttons but were hesitant about whether to touch commands or not.
He grabbed one lever and pulled it towards himself, and the soft humming engine rumbled.
"It's not my specialty, but most ships have the same basic functions. I don't see this one being any different." He switched his gaze from the consoles to her, only to notice how attentively she was listening. "I might need help. Are you up for it?"
She shrugged casually, "I've done my fair share of flying. I'm sure I can manage."
He was ready to take off, but her hand on his arm signaled him to wait. "What?"
"I just realized it's gonna be at least a couple of hours till we get back, so I kind of need to --" her finger pointed at the forest, "-- take a leak."
He pushed back the lever and told her to go for it with a curt gesture of the hand. Just as she was walking down the ramp, he shouted over his shoulder. "I'm coming for you if you're not back in five minutes."
She scoffed, "Give me ten." A small laugh followed. "It's a tiny bit more complicated for a girl, and my legs aren't a big help today."
Five minutes go by, then six, then seven, and so on. Time seemed to get by so much slower when all one wanted was to get back and take a long shower.
Kylo tried to distract himself by meditating but he found it to be a difficult task when he wasn't in his own room. Meditation was never really his strong suit, he much rather preferred to harness his energy by fighting, whether it was on a dummy training doll or with an actual opponent. Perhaps anger and pain were all he needed.
Then there she was, the mystery girl, who seemed to have it all figured out. The mission wasn't the perfect example for it but she didn't seem at all affected by the injuries. Not mentally, anyway.
He glanced at the clock on the screen. She had been out there for over twelve minutes now and she didn't seem to be anywhere close. As much as he didn't want to run into Maeve with her pants down, he was getting anxious.
He strode out into the darkness, this time with a flashlight on him. He tried to recreate her path in his mind with the help of the Force, to see in which direction she went. He followed in her footsteps for about three minutes, all the while thinking that she could have chosen a closer spot to do her business. From behind a wide tree, he could see light, probably from another flashlight.
"Alright, come on, you've had enough time in nature. Let's go."
The casualness in his voice made him wonder when he became so relaxed. Usually, his tone came out more seriously, more intimidating. When no answer came, he tried again, somewhat more compassionately this time.
"Do you -- need help?"
He smelled fuel in the air. That would have been fine since he originally thought it came from the lander, but now he wasn't so convinced.
He walked up to the other side of the tree to see the flashlight and the flashlight alone, fixed upwards inside a hollow at the base of the trunk. He ran his gloved fingers over the trunk and noticed the bark was scratched on one side. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a picture formed, Maeve's boot caused it when she used it to try to free herself from her captors. He searched for further information, to see if there was any blood, any indicator of how far they might have gotten with her.
Of course–the ship still in functional state, still there, was another trap. As moronic as the Resistance was, even they had to have known they didn't take down at least one Commander. And that one might have looked for a way off the planet.
A few feet away from the damaged bark, the fallen leaves were scattered unevenly on two sides, in the middle uncovering a sort of path. Speeders. That would also explain the smell of fuel.
He dropped the now rendered pointless investigation and ran as fast as his feet carried him back to the Lander. He was gonna sort it all out. One way or another.
"I still have to pee, you know?"
Maeve tried to pull her arm from the guard's grip. Not because he was being rough on her, but because he assumed she couldn't walk by herself. Surely, there was always a possibility she'd try to run away, but how would a man's arm restraining hers stop her? And why would she try? If she had any brains, she knew she wouldn't make it out, not without getting injured again. This time, there was no one to protect but herself.
The man wasn't thrilled about her being so agitated either. "Shut up or I'll stun you and drag you to your cell."
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Then be prepared to grab a mop. My bladder won't take that lightly."
That time, he pulled harder on her arm. She stopped in her tracks, ripped herself from his grip, and with a short but expertly applied leg push in the small of the man’s back, as well as a tiny bit of Force aid, the guard flew a couple of feet further down the freakishly white hallway. It reminded her of a medical bay rather than the way to the cells. She strode to where he landed and glared down at him.
"Now how about you start being a little nicer to me, huh?"
The guard was speechless, yet he didn’t spare her a death scowl.
She glanced up at the crossroads in front of her and then back at the man. "You're still gonna have to lead the way, I don't know where you're taking me."
From around the corner came a tall, light-brown-haired woman. Her skin complexion was a combination of milk and caramel, almost like the sun kissed her upon birth. Her hair was up in a ponytail, the perfectly curled strands cascading down over her shoulders. She was possibly the most beautiful woman Maeve had ever seen. She barely helped herself from vocally expressing her awe. The bland, khaki uniform was the only indicator that she was real and not a figment of her imagination.
"What's the meaning of this, officer?" She snapped at the man on the ground.
He clumsily got back on his feet and brushed his hands all over his clothes in an attempt to straighten the ruffles. "Lieutenant, I– I–"
If it weren't for the cuffs restraining her, Maeve would have felt compelled to fix her hair a little, make herself a little more presentable in front of such natural beauty. Alas, given her status as a prisoner, she wouldn't have had much of a chance anyway.
The lieutenant shook her head disapprovingly. "The General ordered this one to be put in a different cell, not on this side of the ship. Weren't you informed about this?"
The woman entrapped Maeve's arm once again, but the new restrainer wasn't as discomforting as the previous one. "I'll take her there myself, you can resume your usual duties."
Both of them started back in the direction from which they came and left the man behind with no additional glance back.
The difference in height between them was so much more obvious now, Maeve's head was barely an inch over this woman's shoulders. They made a left, and continued into an even longer hallway.
"Is this gonna be a much longer trip? I really need to find a bathroo–"
The woman cut her off swiftly. "Commander, my name is Kharra, I am a former lieutenant of the First Order. I infiltrated the Resistance five years ago and I am an active spy for our organization." She leaned her head lower towards Maeve's ear before continuing. "General Hux has personally informed me you might be brought here, and I am going to aid you in your escape."
The woman looked her up and down incredulously at first, but with a short receptive nod, she urged Kharra to continue.
"When you receive your first meal, on the bottom of the plate there will be a fake bottom with a keycard for your new cell. I would've given it to you now, but the orders came in only a few minutes ago and I rushed to see you. However, I do have a comlink for you with encrypted transmissions. No one on this ship will be able to pick it up. Whomever is coming to extract you will use this to let you know when they're close and where to rendez-vous." She searched in a pocket on the inside of her uniform, then handed the small device to Maeve, which she palmed for the time being.
"Thank you, Kharra. I'll make sure you're properly rewarded for your loyalty."
Ren struggled to control himself. A great deal of his education had been devoted to learning how to live and move forward in the absence of emotion. Right now, he needed every bit of that training to stay calm. His arrival back on Ilum raised murmurs around the crew, everyone wondering what happened to the rest of the party he left with. That wasn't what concerned him. He knew there was a way to resolve all of it. Once his coms were outside the reach of the signal blocker, he sent out a message explaining the situation. General Hux, as useless as Ren found him at times, said he took care of it.
It was Snoke he feared, not because he lost some troopers. Because he lost her . The other Force user the Order had as an ally and weapon.
At the moment, he did not feel powerful.
He recalled the events clearly. By the time he got the Atmospheric Assault Lander in the air, it was already too late. Beaten to the punch by speeders and a much faster, lighter ship, Kylo had lost the opportunity to stop the kidnappers from making the jump to hyperspace with Maeve on board. He was unable to shoot them down, the blaster cannon being accessible and maneuvered only from the crew compartment, preferably by a gunner, not the person flying the ship.
He shook the memory away as he barged into the training area. He was met by six pairs of eyes, all looking at him in different ways. Some confused, some curious, some excited. When they saw their recognized leader huffing and puffing, the Knights knew some action was in store.
His tone was commanding, and urgent. "Come with me, and prepare your ship. We're going on a rescue mission."
They always appreciated his swiftness. No boring briefings, just pure action. They weren't exactly the military type anyway, more like a pack of unleashed wolves of mayhem.
"Who are we rescuing?" Ap'lek inquired, clearly the only Knight interested in hearing at least a short description of what was about to happen.
Vicrul rubbed his chin in between his index and thumb."Didn't he just go on a mission with blondie?"
"The other Commander, you know–" Cardo raised his eyebrows three times in a row, pointing jokingly at Trudgen.
Ushar nudged him, in their own brutal-friendly way. "Trudgen remembers her best."
The accused Knight rolled his eyes and pushed Ushar off of him, then grabbed his helmet and put it on.
"You never forget the first woman you hit!" The remaining crowd burst out into a mocking chuckle.
Trudgen growled, offended by the remark. As he headed for the door, he threw the words over his shoulder. "You know damn well she's not the first one."
Chapter 3: III
She had thought that with the fall of the Empire it would all be so easy. That people would understand the need for patience, that time would be required to rebuild that which the Empire had taken away. Cities, communications, trade. All these could and were well on their way to full restoration. It was the intangibles that proved so much more difficult to re-establish throughout galactic society.
Freedom, for example. The freedom to speak one's mind, to object, to dispute. Leia sighed. Those who had led the rebellion had underestimated the deeply buried desire of far too large a proportion of the population who simply preferred to be told what to do. Much easier it was to follow orders than to think for oneself. So everyone had argued and debated and discussed. Until it was too late.
She was headed towards the prison cell. Striding through the hallways, she caught a glimpse of herself in a length of polished metal. She knew she looked tired. Sometimes she wished she had been born a commoner, an ordinary citizen, instead of a planetary royalty. Such thoughts led her inevitably to memories of Alderaan. Her homeworld, now many years gone, reduced to ashes.
Leia despised the current situation she faced, but in her already frail position before the New Republic's Senate, she couldn't let an important military ranking member, such as Commander Maeve, get away. She needed proof to bring before the Senate that the First Order was a very real threat, not just a pretext to relive the old days of glory or get ahead with a promotion. Since an individual in a stormtrooper armor wouldn't do, she allowed the elaborate scheme to be put into practice. Her advisor, Korr Sella, had been in charge of designing a plan that would result in minimal loss of lives for a much greater purpose. She came up with a simple enough strategy: feed the Order false intel, have them send someone to investigate, and hope the intel is juicy enough that they assign someone remotely important to the mission. Then overwhelm the forces that had been sent and restrain the person in charge. She never would have imagined Snoke would make her son go too. Had she known he was assigned on that mission as well, she would have called the whole ambush off. She was first a mother, then a general.
Almost the entire room was designed to restrain an individual, except for a small antechamber, separated from the detention block by thick glass. Whoever was on the other side, was meant to feel like an animal in a cage, exposed for anyone willing to come close and watch. It provided no intimacy which, in all fairness, wasn't something a prisoner could opt for.
Once arrived, the automatic door opened with a hiss, announcing her presence in the antechamber. She looked at the young woman who stood before herself, seemingly unbothered by the new person in the room. The girl was sitting on the bench with her legs crossed, hands in her lap, and eyes closed. It looked like she was a statue rather than a person, her breathing so calm that her chest didn't seem to move at all. She was meditating, something Leia hadn't done in a very long time.
As peaceful as the girl looked, the general had an agenda that couldn't wait. After all, she was sided with the enemy, the organization that rose from the ashes of the Empire she worked so hard to eliminate.
"I don't want to have to fight the First Order," her voice began softly, yet firmly, "I'm sure we can reach an understanding. Something that can keep the galaxy at peace."
She was counting on at least some form of admission, a confession she could have recorded by the security camera in the cell. Anything she could bring before the Senate that would make them believe in the cause, in the Resistance.
Maeve was submerged in her thoughts, reminiscing about various moments of her existence. The fact that she was now imprisoned in such a short-termed cell didn't bother her, she was used to much more lasting ones.
She opened her eyes, the cold light of the room making her squint initially. The first feature she noticed about the older woman were the eyes. She had, the girl mused as she gazed deeply into them, dark eyes that had seen too much.
"Leia Organa, isn't it?" Her casual tone echoed through the room, as she set her feet down on the ground.
The older woman nodded gracefully. Even if Maeve hadn't known who she was, it was clear from the way she carried herself that she had a noble upbringing. Back straightened, chin parallel to her feet, gray hair styled neatly. She was beautiful, there was no denying it. A proper princess.
"Pardon me for sounding so blunt, but --" at this point, Maeve was taking slow, casual steps through her glass cell, and made sure to keep her appearance as nonchalant as possible, "as you can imagine, I have no idea what you're talking about. I've never heard of this First Order you speak of."
Leia hardly abstained from a sigh. The Order was in the shadows, any movement of theirs couldn't reach the ears of the senators or the Resistance would've taken a new form, a military junta just like theirs, but under the protection and recognition of the New Republic. That meant funds being sent their way and probably even an army being formed, just like it was back in the Clone Wars. Before any reply came to mind, she was thrown off by the girl's intense gaze, looking deep inside of her soul. It was like she was reading her.
"We both know you're not getting anything from me, princess." Her head tilted slightly, "or would you prefer General now? Unofficially, of course. The Resistance is an illegally declared army, just as the rebellion used to be."
"We fight for the Republic and democracy," Leia's response came off softly, but with a defensive undertone, mute to most. But not to the woman sitting across from her.
"I can see your father in you." Her voice suggested admiration, making Leia believe she was talking about Anakin rather than who he became later. "As clearly as you used to see Vader in your son."
Leia's eyes sparkled with hope, even though there was sadness behind them. "You know my son, don't you?"
Searching through someone's mind without them catching onto it, especially another Force user, even one with little proper training, was a tricky business. Maeve had to build up to the moment, slowly bring the princess to the point of lowering her barriers, make her susceptible to such an intrusive procedure, and then have her think about exactly what she was looking for.
"Your brother is the one who made it all possible."
A satisfied smirk flashed over her lips, masking her pride in the achievement behind something she knew would be interpreted as smugness.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, General ," Maeve slid down into a crossed-leg position once more before closing her eyes, "I'd love to sit and chat for longer but I have recuperation to go through after the wounds your men caused me and I need some sleep."
The entire point of the mission on Vestar was to get something useful out of it. Either fuel reserves for the Order or the current location of Luke Skywalker for Kylo Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke.
The first option was clearly a lie, meant to attract the attention of officials. The second one was a little bit of spice, added to intrigue the head of the organization. Unfortunately, by disclosing such information, one could only wonder if there was some truth to it. So it happened that Maeve didn't want to go back empty-handed after her escape. The intrusion in Leia's thoughts was purely meant to reveal if the information was fictitious or not. What she found was -- satisfactory. There was indeed a map that marked Luke’s last route taken from the Jedi temple, after its destruction. A map that the Resistance was in possession of.
With the general's stolen credentials–which offered clearance to all files on the Resistance as well as her own private files–and the access keycard, Maeve was out the door as soon as she received a confirmation beep on the comlink that she had to be in standby for the extraction, and once everything seemed to calm down around the Star Cruiser. She knew she had to get to a hangar, where she also had to hijack an X-Wing or a smaller ship to meet the rescuers outside the gun range of the cruiser. She wasn't about to risk losing the only way back to the base.
Firstly, she had to find the hangars. In moments like these, she was happy she didn't need a routed map, and that she could appeal to the Force. She let her body be guided by the invisible, soft pull, through endless corridors, dodging patrols or other members of the Resistance, all the way to the hangars.
Once arrived there, the main control room of the hangar was empty. Maeve was aware that there was a shortage of staff in the Resistance, but she found it foolish to leave such an important place unguarded, especially since there was a highly important prisoner aboard. Certainly, they had to expect someone would come for her eventually.
When she shrugged it off and sat down at one of the computers, an officer entered, surprised to see someone already there. Surprise turned to horror when the girl turned around in the chair, with her hair and clothes still covered in blood and dirt. Before he even got the chance to raise a finger towards the comlink, his neck snapped to the side, and the corpse fell on the white floor like a boulder.
Having not left the chair, Maeve turned once again, with a careless look on her face, then entered Leia's credentials in the computer, logging herself into the system. She knew this would alert someone. The General had no business being alone in the control room of a hangar. She needed to move fast.
First of all, she looked up the map. Once opened, she couldn't help but curse under her breath. The map was incomplete, a huge chunk of it missing from the screen. She tried to find the rest of it, but in absence of that, she could only assume the Resistance didn't have it either.
"It will have to do," she said to herself, then downloaded the intel on a portable hard drive.
As soon as the comlink alerted her that help arrived, she felt someone was close, so the only thing left to do was to open the hangar door and run to the closest ship available. There was no time left to download additional files, as disappointed as she was with that. With one flick of her wrist, she made the window between the control room and the bay fly out of its frame and jumped out of there, gracefully landing in front of an X-Wing.
The interior of the X-Wing left a lot to be desired, compared to what she was used to when stepping into a TIE fighter. They had droids and techs who did their jobs well, leaving them ready for pilots and gunners, whereas this one, even though it was a newer model, lacked maintenance.
She closed the trap and started the engines, ready to get out of there when blaster shots were fired at the ship from above. There were no shields available for activation, she realized with annoyance. To avoid damaging the vehicle, at least for a little while, she got it in the air and positioned the engines right in front of the missing window before speeding out of the bay, leaving burnt corpses for the others to find.
Once out of the range of the cannons, she used the comlink to get the coordinates for the rendez-vous.
"This is Commander Maeve, what is your location?"
From the little device came a familiar voice. "Just sent them over to you, blondie."
She rolled her eyes playfully and calculated the jump to hyperspace.
The Night Buzzard was a modified Oubliette-class transport used by the Knights of Ren. Since it was a non-official ship, it couldn't be traced back to the First Order in case any scrummage arose. Originally a dungeon ship on Osseriton, a penal world in the Unknown Regions, the vessel was liberated by the Knights during a raid on the planet alongside many prisoners, becoming the home and transport for the Knights. The Knights made several alterations to the Night Buzzard to better suit their tastes, such as altering the vessel's appearance to match their dark side aesthetic. The vessel's engines were also crudely modified to generate more thrust.
The sweep of the external observation portal on the Buzzard allowed anyone standing before it an uninterrupted view of the vastness of space. Suns and nebulae, mysteries and conundrums, all were laid out before the observer. It was a view intended to awe and inspire.
Kylo Ren regarded it in silence. So much beauty among so much turmoil. He couldn't help but think that, in a way, they were but an infinitely smaller reflection of the same conflict. It was the task of the First Order to remove the disorder from existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promoted progress. The stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited in turn by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by them. Future historians will look upon it as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization.
Approaching from behind, all Maeve could see was a tall, caped figure silhouetted against a spray of stars. In retrospect, anyone who would watch the two of them, now side by side, would be met with the same image. She didn't look at him, and he didn't look at her, but they were both aware of each other's presence.
Finally, the modulated voice broke the silence. "The X-Wing?"
"And the tracker ins-"
She cut him off before finishing his thought, "Thank you."
The true appreciation behind her words took him by surprise.
They both turned their heads to look at each other.
"For coming to get me and for taking care of my injuries back on Vestar," she added as clarification.
Whilst he faced blue eyes, she was kept at a distance by the helmet. She could see how most people would find the sight unsettling, having to gaze at the metal mask beneath the cowl, but she understood what it meant to him, the reason he needed something to put a wall between him and the outside world.
As if reading her thoughts, he reached up, unlatched, and removed his mask. A gesture of vulnerability. Of trust.
In itself, the narrow face that looked back at her was not remarkable. It was almost sensitive. If not for the intensity of his stare, Ren could have passed for someone she might have met on the streets of Coruscant, or the back alleys of Corellia. But there was -- that gaze. That, and what lay simmering behind it.
After a lengthy break, he broke the silence once more. "You don't seem surprised by who I am behind the mask."
She raised an eyebrow, then smiled knowingly. "It's not the first time I see your face, Ren."
He was confused by her statement. He never removed his mask in public, only with Snoke and on rare occasions with the Knights. He wanted to inquire further but was stopped as the woman reached in the pocket inside her robe and pulled out the portable hard drive, then handed it to him.
"Here, I know you really wanted this."
He studied the small, metal disk for a moment then looked at her mystified. "What is it?"
"It's the mapped out last route Luke Skywalker took before disappearing."
As she saw his eyes light up, both with a sense of achievement and something she could only interpret as a desire for revenge, she lifted her hands in the air, gesturing a halt.
"Before you get too excited, it's not complete. The part with the last location is missing."
His eyes fixed onto the object in his hand, the next move lost into a storm of emotions.
"I don't know if it helps the situation in any way, but the Resistance doesn't have that missing piece either."
Kylo's gaze shifted to hers, his face betraying the turmoil going on inside his mind.
Maeve found herself overtaken by a wave of affection for the man standing before her, so in an attempt to comfort him, she put her hand on top of his arm.
"We'll find that missing piece. And when we do–"
For a second there, so fast he thought he had imagined it, Ren could swear her eyes glowed in the darkness of the room. It was ethereal, a bright yellow, almost like a film of gold over her irises, just as he had noticed before when observing her from a distance.
"–we will take down the last Jedi."
Chapter 4: IV
Two years passed like a fleeting moment. During this time, the New Republic had sunken into the same old habits as its predecessor: corruption, ignorance, negligence. They had been so distracted by their political games, they were oblivious to the increasing threat that was the First Order. The military junta had spread its reach across the galaxy, having allies and connections in almost all civilized systems.
Even so, the greatest achievement of the Order wasn't their political strategy. It was Starkiller Base. They designed a superweapon under their operational center on Ilum, built into the planet's core. The weapon was powered by a type of dark energy called "quintessence," which was ubiquitous in the universe, and offered a practically unlimited power source to the First Order. Using a star as a power source, an array of collectors on one side of the planet would gather dark energy in stages, redirecting it to the planetary core, where it was held in place by the natural magnetic field of the planet, as well as an artificial containment field maintained by the machinery the First Order had installed within the crust. As the planetary magnetic field would not be enough to contain the amount of energy that the weapon required, a thermal oscillator was built into the planet. It generated an oscillating containment field which allowed the installation to expend considerably less energy at containing the dark energy than would be required using a steady containment field. A colossal hollow cylinder, embedded within the massive trench left by the Empire's mining and large enough to dominate the view of the planet from orbit, penetrated the containment field to a predetermined distance, in order to direct the blast towards its target, and also to absorb its energy, which would otherwise cause catastrophic ground quakes. It was a thing of beauty, a Masterpiece of engineering. And it wouldn't be long until they would unleash its power.
It had been two years since the mission on Vestar, two years since there had been no more leads on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. Two years since the relationship between the two young Force users had started to flourish into a meaningful bond. Maeve and Kylo Ren, even though separated for most of their time, one training under Snoke, one busy strengthening the Order's influence and power, had formed an atypical friendship, a comradery within the military ranks. It was most beneficial for them to collaborate so well, but there were times when it showed that both of them were still only grown-up children–such as when they'd have entire telepathic conversations with each other during briefings.
As calm and calculated as Maeve seemed in general, she would sometimes end up in situations like the one on Vestar. It seemed to happen almost on purpose each time. Recklessly throwing herself into battles, getting injured, then spending entire hours in the medical bay under observation while also complaining about missing out on her duties. Her adventurous-at-times attitude didn't negatively impact her tasks, but it did feel like she wasn't bent on following certain procedures. Sometimes, Ren mused about the reasons behind this heedless nature. It seemed as though she didn’t think she could be killed, or as if she was testing the limits of her own body against the laws of life. Sometimes he would catch glimpses of her getting patched up and would shudder at the sight of all the marks that were left on her skin after so many injuries. Perhaps she wanted to paint her skin as she would a canvas. Perhaps this was her own way of letting out steam, and Ren understood it to some extent.
He would usually find excuses to be around the hangars whenever she returned, purely to see if she had gotten herself into anything once more.
He recalled one particularly funny incident. It was when she returned from a mission with awful back pain, caused by a Guavian cannon aiming at the Command Shuttle she was on. The pilot avoided the hit, but not very gracefully. Not being strapped to her seat, Maeve flew with her back against one of the panels, leaving her with an equally nice bruise. The crew gave her some muscle relaxers, which made her loopy for that entire day.
When she walked down the platform and saw Ren, she threw her arms in the air and started giggling. "He-eee-y, buddyyy!"
His wanna-be formal posture in front of the crew was compromised when he had to extend his arms to catch the barely conscious woman.
"I think I need to go to the med bay," she whispered, then started laughing again.
"Oh, oh!" Her finger poked his arm childishly. "If anyone there wants to know, my blood type is–" she trailed off as her eyes rolled into the back of her head, just as the medical droids brought a stretcher.
He set her down on it, but before he could leave, she woke up for a brief moment to say, loud and clear, "red!"
And then passed out again.
Kylo could barely contain himself from laughing, especially after he heard General Hux mumble a disgruntled ‘not again’ as the droids floated past him.
Due to her methods, even though unconventional at times, and perhaps a little favoritism from the Supreme Leader, Maeve was promoted over time to the rank of Grand Admiral. A title that felt, as she expressed many times to Kylo privately, honorary at best. One of the people she admired the most was Grand Admiral Thrawn; having given the same rank as him with fewer accomplishments felt like a betrayal of the grand title.
However, she couldn't complain about the perks it came with. She had a final word in decisions regarding their fleet thus, with the help of an elite team of spies strategically placed all over the galaxy, she orchestrated many attacks on supply runs for the Republic, the Resistance, and other organizations the Order was not in cahoots with. Every successful mission, the result of good intel, meant a great compensation for the spies. Maeve knew the importance of rewards. Kharra, the spy planted in the core of the Resistance was one of her favorites, and one day, she delivered much-awaited news. The missing piece of the map leading to Skywalker was on the desert planet of Jakku. The planet where technology went to die. Mountains of metal, cliffs of plasticine derivatives, oceans of splayed ceramics, all jumbled together in an amalgam of industrial badlands. A despicable planet, inhabited by junk traders and scavengers.
The mission was of great importance, not to Order itself, but to the Force users within its ranks. Snoke, Kylo Ren, and Maeve all understood the importance of extinguishing the remaining Jedi.
Though, the Resistance had luck on their side. Even after the torture and interrogation of a pilot, Poe Dameron, they still didn't get their hands on this said map. The droid it was hidden in, a BB unit, escaped, aided by the same traitor who liberated the pilot from their grasp. FN-2187, a common stormtrooper. The escape from aboard the Finalizer was something regretful, an error in judgment caused by the ignorance of those involved. The entire conundrum was, to the First Order, obsolete. Most high-ranking members considered the search for the map a whim of Kylo Ren's. A waste of time and resources, especially since they had something much bigger awaiting. The Supreme Leader never interfered in the matter, and instructed Maeve to do the same, somehow dumping the weight of it on the young Commander.
The assembly chamber, at present, was occupied by only three figures. One was Kylo Ren. The second was General Hux, who wore his particular mask internally.
Seated in shadow, the tall, slender form loomed over the other man. Other than the face, only long, spindly fingers showed from beneath the dark robe.
"The droid will soon be in the hands of the Resistance," Snoke declaimed, his voice deep, soothing, and very much that of someone in complete control, "giving the enemy the means to locate Skywalker and bring to their cause a most powerful ally. If Skywalker returns, the new Jedi will rise."
Ren sat impassively, neither commenting nor visibly betraying his thoughts.
Hux dipped his head by way of apology and took a step toward the dais. "Supreme Leader, I take full responsibility for th--"
Snoke cut him off. "Your apologies are not a strategy, General. We are here now. It is what happens next that matters."
Aware that he had just been spared an unknown but certainly unpleasant fate, the redheaded officer spoke up immediately. "I do have a proposition. The weapon. We have it. It is ready. I believe the time has come to use it."
"The Republic. Or what its fractious proponents choose to call the Republic. Their center of government, its entire system. In the chaos that will follow, the Resistance will have no choice but to investigate an attack of such a devastating scale. They will throw all their resources into trying to discover its source. So they have no choice but to investigate fully, and in doing so..."
"Reveal themselves." Snoke was clearly pleased.
"And if they don't ... we've destroyed them."
"Yes," Snoke said in satisfaction. "Extreme. Audacious. I agree that the time for such measures has come. Go. Oversee the necessary preparations."
"Yes, Supreme Leader." Bowing stiffly, Hux turned and exited the chamber. He took long strides, walking briskly, clearly pleased with himself.
Snoke and Ren silently watched the general go.
When next Snoke spoke there was an intimacy in his voice, a familiarity that stood in sharp contrast to the commanding tone he had used with Hux.
"You have such promise inside you. It's more than anything I could teach you. It is where you are from. What you are made of. The dark side--and the light. The finest sculptor cannot fashion a Masterpiece from poor materials. He must have something pure, something strong, something unbreakable, with which to work. I have--you." He paused, reminiscing.
"Kylo Ren, I watched the Galactic Empire rise, and then fall. The gullible prattle on about the triumph of truth and justice, of individualism and free will. As if such things were solid and real instead of simple subjective judgments. The historians have it all wrong. It was neither poor strategy nor arrogance that brought down the Empire. You know too well what did."
Ren nodded once. "Sentiment."
"Yes. Such a simple thing. Such a foolish error of judgment. A momentary lapse in an otherwise exemplary life. Had Lord Vader not succumbed to emotion at the crucial moment--had the father killed the son--the Empire would have prevailed. And there would be no threat of Skywalker's return today."
"I am immune to the light," Ren assured him confidently. "By the grace of your training, I will not be seduced."
"Your self-belief is commendable, Kylo Ren, but do not let it blind you. No one knows the limits of their own power until it has been tested to the utmost, as yours has not been. That day may yet come. There has been an awakening in the Force. Have you felt it?"
Ren nodded. "Yes."
"The elements align, Kylo Ren. You alone are caught in the winds of the storm. Your bond is not just to Vader, but to Skywalker himself. Leia..."
"There is no need for concern." Despite the Supreme Leader's cautioning, Ren's assurance remained unbounded. "Together we will destroy the Resistance-- and the last Jedi."
"Perhaps," Snoke conceded. "It has come to our notice that the droid we seek is aboard the Millenium Falcon, once again in the hands of your father, Han Solo. Even you, Master of the Knights of Ren, have never faced such a test."
Ren considered his reply carefully. "It does not matter. He means nothing to me. My allegiance is with you. No one will stand in our way."
Snoke nodded. "We shall see. We shall see."
It was a dismissal. Turning, wholly preoccupied now, Ren followed General Hux in exiting the vast chamber. When he was gone, a grotesque smile twisted across Snoke's countenance. Then it vanished--along with the rest of the holo of the Supreme Leader.
The night before the big event, the launch of the Order's superweapon, Maeve couldn't find it in herself to sleep. Not because of excitement, but because she felt a disturbance in Force. An awakening, something -- familiar.
After sending a message to Kylo Ren to meet her outside the base, she walked out of her room, dressed in warm attire. She was surprised to see there was little to no commotion, not in the hallways, not in the main control rooms. Only the usual patrols and a few scattered officers going about their night. Everyone was getting ready for the end of life as they knew it for the past three decades. She felt like she was walking around like a shadow, with the dark long robe and the hood over her eyes.
As soon as she opened the pneumatic doors, the frosty wind shocked her. The temperatures were below freezing, but unlike five years ago, she was better equipped for such weather. She wandered for a while in the snow, searching for a good place to watch the sunrise.
Footsteps rustled in the snow behind her.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" She muttered as she watched the horizon change its colors.
A somewhat annoyed Kylo caught up with her, his attire not as well suited for the weather. "And freezing."
She laughed and shook her head, "I did tell you to bring warm clothes."
He wasn't as amused. "Why are we here?"
"I wanted to watch the sunrise. Our lives are so hectic, we forget to stop and enjoy the little things. Like this special sunrise."
He cocked an eyebrow. "What makes it so special?"
The expression on her face suggested confusion. "These are the last hours of this sun's life." There was melancholia hidden in her words. "It will die, consumed by our weapon."
“The weapon is a planet killer, you know the basic mechanics of it. Nothing had this much power before it.”
Maeve smiled bitterly. “Don't be too proud of this technological terror we've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet, or even a whole system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
Kylo felt indifferent to her words. "Everything dies."
His ignorance amused her. "Of course everything dies. But this isn't just another creature dying. It's a star that has been around for longer than you and I can imagine. A star that allows life to grow, even on a planet as cold as this one. Many years ago, entire civilizations worshipped suns as their gods." Her eyes reflected the orange light that crept up from beyond the horizon. "Today we kill a god."
Her words made sense to him, but something so beautiful and meaningful was the opposite of what he used to keep himself under control. Blood, death, destruction, that's what he used to keep his mind away from wandering. The light and darkness inside him were always in an unending battle. Sometimes it was easier, sometimes it wasn't.
Her hand on his back brought him back into the present. She never said it out loud, nor did she ever inquire about it, but she felt his struggle. He had never asked for help, and she had never offered it out of respect for his privacy. When it came to using the Force, her energy was balanced, her allegiance was to the Force itself, not necessarily a side of it.
The sound of another pair of boots in the snow made them both turn their heads backwards. General Armitage Hux walked towards them, with his hands held together at his back, keeping the illusion of a composed figure, although from his slight shivering, he would have much rather preferred to keep them wrapped around his body.
"Having fun?" His tone denoted mockery.
Ren wanted to reply with something snarky, but the girl stopped him with a gentle hand on the outside of his thigh, unperceivable from where Hux stood.
She walked up to the General, and made a small circle around him, checking him up and down like a predator toying with its prey. "We are," she purred, "wanna join us?"
The red-headed man felt befuddled, losing track of what he came there to do. After breaking eye contact with her, his gaze focused on the tall brooding man.
"One of our informants saw the droid. It's on Takodana with the scavenger girl."
Kylo mused for a mere second, then strode off back into the base faster than one could blink.
Maeve pondered the situation. She knew she couldn't go with him, she had bigger responsibilities than chasing a droid throughout the galaxy. Something told her that the retrieval was bound to fail once more.
Hux gestured for her to go ahead in front of him, back into the base. He was rough around the edges, but one couldn't deny he was a caring man deep down. That vulnerability was, however, buried under layers of hidden insecurities and perhaps even childhood abuse of some sort.
The girl wrapped her arm around his, then looked back at the sun rising. "Come on, General. The First Order will still be there in five more minutes, even if we're not inside."
His body relaxed a little under her touch, and silently conceded to her request.
The mass rally was impressive. Those who were present would never forget it. Which is the point of such things.
A thousand or so stormtroopers and their officers fronted assembled TIE fighters and lesser machines of war. Around them rose the central edifices of Starkiller Base. Towering still higher above the buildings were the snowy crags of the surrounding mountain range that simultaneously shut off and shielded the central portion of the base from the world around it.
Glorying in the moment, General Hux stood at the head of the assembly, flanked by his senior officers, all aligned atop a raised platform backed by an enormous crimson and black banner stamped with the insignia of the First Order. Enhanced by artfully concealed amplification, his voice boomed across the troops assembled on the parade ground.
"Today is the end! The end of a government incapacitated by corruption! The end of an illegitimate regime that acquiesces to disorder! At this very moment, in a system far from here, the New Republic lives and wheezes, staggering onward, depraved and ineffectual and unable in any way to support the citizenry it claims to serve. Meanwhile, a host of systems are left to wither and die -- without aid, without care, without hope. Drowning in its own decadence, the New Republic ignores them, unaware that these are its final moments." A hand swept sharply downward.
"This fierce machine which you have built, to which you have dedicated your lives and labor and upon which we now stand, will bring an end to the worthless Senate and its dithering members. To their cherished fleet. When this day is done, all the remaining systems will bow to the First Order. And all will remember this as the last day of the Republic!"
Turning, Hux solemnly gave the signal as the assembled thousand turned to face the mountainous, snowy landscape. Turned, and waited.
Deep within the mountain, engineers and techs concluded the final firing protocol for the new weapon. The last connection was made.
Above, the rally ground was silent. Then, at a great distance, an impossible blast of light shot into the sky. Despite the remoteness of the actual firing zone, the light was so bright that, even with their protective masks, a number of the troopers had to cover their eyes.
Maeve, who wasn't on the platform, but rather in the shadow of the stage, watched the beam fascinated by its power, the red light it produced reflecting itself in her pupils. The blast was followed by a terrible concussive roar as a vast column of the atmosphere was displaced. In spite of the distance, everyone was pushed back and many were knocked down by the ground tremor that followed. Airborne creatures by the thousands took fright and took flight.
Having been gathered in stages by an immense array of coupled collectors located on the other side of the planet, a tremendously compact volume of a type of dark energy known as quintessence had been accumulated at the center of the planet. Held in place inside a roiling molten metal core by the frozen world's powerful magnetic field, augmented by the weapons system's own containment field, it grew until there was nothing like it -- nothing natural like it -- in this corner of the galaxy. Penetrating to within a predetermined distance of the containment field, an immense hollow cylinder permitted a way out while ensuring that when the weapon was unleashed, gigantic ground quakes would not roil the world's fragile surface. When the weapon's engineers fired the device, a breach was induced in the containment field. At incredible velocity and accelerating exponentially, the concentrated volume of quintessence escaped, transforming as it did so into a state known as phantom energy and following the artificial line of egress that had been provided. Assuming that the rotation and inclination of the planet had been taken into account, the released blast of concentrated phantom energy would travel along a perfectly linear path, punching a small Big Rip through hyperspace itself until it left the galaxy -- or encountered something in its path that was of sufficient mass to intercept it.
Traveling faster than anything generated by artificial means, through a torn portion of space-time whose properties were not fully understood, the concentrated ball of energy lit the night sky above Republic city. Everyone gazed uncomprehendingly at the inexplicable phenomenon. Disturbed space was energized and lit up by its passage. It was as if a minuscule sun had suddenly appeared from nowhere, heading directly for the world on which they stood.
It struck with enough force to penetrate the crust and the mantle. Stunned scientists assumed the globe had been hit by an asteroid. The reality was worse, much worse. So powerful was the orb of phantom energy that as it dissipated within the planetary core, it blocked the free flow of elysium. Gravitons that normally moved freely and harmlessly through the planet suddenly were blocked from doing so. Almost immediately, the resulting graviton flux released enough heat to ignite the core ... turning the planet into what astrophysicists called a pocket nova.
Expanding outward from the explosion, a tremendous burst of heat tore through the Hosnian system's other worlds, searing their surfaces clean of life and incidentally obliterating all settlements, installations, and outposts, as well as the hundreds of ships belonging to the Republic fleet. In its wake, the detonation left behind a blazing, spherical mass. The home of the Republic had become a new binary system: one utterly devoid of life.
The minute the Hosnian System was destroyed, the event rippled through the galaxy. The stormtrooper sitting next to Maeve looked to his right, suddenly alarmed, as the woman swayed where she was standing. "Admiral, are you all right?"
Leaning against the side of the stage for support, she steadied herself. "A great disturbance -- in the Force. Deaths and passings." She took hold of the trooper's extended arm, but her eyes were unfocused on the world around her. "Too many deaths, too many passings."
Straightening, her expression grim, she signaled her escort it was time to go. After a coup of this magnitude, order would have to be brought to certain places while also establishing new operational headquarters for the First Order. This time on a proper planet, not on the wandering capital that they had now — Snoke's ship, the Supremacy .
The trooper's energy indicated uncertainty, not necessarily in the cause, but in whether or not eliminating the Republic was right.
Maeve placed a hand on his shoulder, then reinforced his belief. "Remember, the Republic spent decades doing nothing. And all along, we were preparing... for this day. We will bring peace and order to the galaxy. Fear not."
Within the corridors and confines, the administrative rooms, and the technical control sectors of Starkiller Base, there was mass panic. Technicians reacted with despair as, despite their frantic efforts, one monitor after another went to red as critical systems began to fail.
"Lower-order cells are overheating," declared one tech in the command center. "Emergency crew can't get to the site. Full system load shutdown." When he turned back to Hux there was a look in his eyes that the general had never seen in any of his techs. "The oscillator is failing. We're losing containment."
"Oscillator has been hit." Another officer struggled to keep fear out of his voice. "Assessing damage. Attempting to sustain power."
Hux watched it all in silence as he backed away slowly. There was no point in doing anything else, he knew. The tech team would stabilize the oscillation of the containment field. Otherwise, there would be nothing to back up to.
Onboard the Finalizer , every comlink was beeping frantically. The Star Destroyer was buzzing, every officer on duty engaged in conversation. When Maeve entered the main control room, she went from screen to screen to see what all the fuss was about. Everything blared alerts in big, red letters. No additional information.
Before she could ask the question, one of the techs said it. "Starkiller Base is compromised. The weapon might destroy the entire core."
"Increase the speed and get us there faster," she ordered before looking on another screen to see how much it would take them to get there. "If there's an evacuation, we'll need to be ready."
She strutted out of the room, meanwhile contacting one of the lieutenants. "Hask, I need you to have all medical personnel on stand by. Soon we'll drop out of hyperspace into madness. I'm going down there, you're in charge. Over."
The man on the other side of the connection knew not to argue with his superior. "Copy that. Over."
Something told her the day wouldn't end well, and there it was. All she knew was that she had to get down there, and get Ren. Something was off and her instincts seemed to always be right about these things.
Within the base, pandemonium reigned as buildings began not just to crumple, but to collapse into a succession of huge sinkholes as the ground itself surrendered to the slowly failing containment field. Observing the cataclysm out a command center window, a young tech rushed for the presumed safety of the building's interior. A senior officer confronted him and stopped him.
"Lieutenant, back to your station!"
Fully aware that in the present situation rank no longer meant anything, the tech paused only long enough to reply.
"Look, we won't survive here. Even Hux has gone!"
He pushed past the dazed officer, who this time did not try to stop him.
In the darkness of the cavernous assembly room, Hux stood before the image of Snoke. Try as he would, it was proving increasingly difficult to maintain a semblance of control.
"Supreme Leader, the oscillator is failing. The collapse has begun." He looked downward. "There is nothing that can be done."
Furious as he was, Snoke knew there was nothing he could do. So many plans so carefully laid, so many intentions that must now go unfulfilled...
"You will leave Starkiller at once and come to me with Kylo Ren. Leave immediately." He added grimly, "It appears he may have been right about the girl."
Pain, confusion, failure. That's what she felt. Following the position sensor on Ren's belt, Maeve landed the TIE fighter in a small clearing close to the location where he currently was, then jumped out of the ship, into the snow. Her landing was gracious, snowflakes rising around her at the impact with the ground. Once on her feet again, she darted quicker than an arrow, not even allowing her feet to sink in the snow before taking another leap. Time was not on her side. Not even the possibility of slipping and breaking her neck slowed her down.
Her sprint came to a screeching halt when the world beneath her shook and the ground began to split. On the opposite side of the trench, she distinguished the shape of a woman turning and running back into the forest. The scavenger. Her head shifted slightly and saw the black figure of Kylo Ren, on his back in the snow, and marched over to him.
His eyes were hollow, betraying the conflict inside him. She felt it, she knew he had made his sacrifice to the dark side and his training. But it split his spirit even more. Her hand reached underneath his head for support, then aided him in standing again. A stretched arm called for the metal hilt laying in the snow a couple of feet away.
He sat there, limp into her aiding grasp, blood trickling down his face and seeping further into his clothes. His skin was so cold, the loss of fluids he suffered did not help in keeping his temperature under control. The girl removed her cloak and put it over his shoulders like a blanket.
"We really need to get going, we're sitting on a ticking time bomb."
Just as he nodded, the landing lights of a shuttle appeared in the distance, coming over the trees in their direction.
General Hux and his troopers located Ren and herself, tracking them in the same way Maeve found Ren.
Hux would have taken Rey and Finn, as well, if not for the command that had been issued by the Supreme Leader. That took precedence over everything. There was simply no time left.
The two renegades are going to die here anyway , he told himself as he followed the troopers carrying Ren and the woman into the nearby shuttle. As soon as he was aboard, it lifted off, its occupants dying to leave the planet. In moments, they were beyond the atmosphere of the imploding planet. The jump to lightspeed was accomplished without incident, preventing them from observing the final cataclysm. Which was just as well.
A moment after they fled, Starkiller Base system became a binary.
Chapter 5: V
Named for a long-dead rebel admiral, the Raddus was the Resistance flagship, a bulbous MC85 Mon Calamari star cruiser bristling with guns and augmented shield projectors. Measuring nearly thirty-five hundred meters from its pointed beak to the cluster of engines at the stern, the Raddus would have been a mighty warship even during the years in which Emperor Palpatine had turned the Empire into an unparalleled military-industrial complex.
But the Raddus was puny compared with the massive First Order Dreadnought cruising slowly through space towards D'Qar, accompanied by three Star Destroyers. Aboard the Resistance warship's bridge, Admiral Ackbar stroked his barbels and gazed down at a hologram table showing the situation above D'Qar. Beside him stood Leia, the starfighter pilot Poe Dameron, and C-3PO.
The Resistance's three other warships––the Anodyne, Ninka, and Vigil––were moving out of low orbit, having taken on most of the transports bearing evacuees up from D'Qar's surface. But the First Order arrivals were closing quickly.
"They've found us," said a Resistance monitor.
"Well, we knew that was coming," Poe said, his gaze sliding from the holographic table to a viewscreen. "Connix, is the base fully evacuated?"
"Still loading the last batch of transports," Connix replied. "We need more time."
Poe looked at Leia, but the general had anticipated what he was going to say.
"You've got an idea," she said with a weary fondness. "But I won't like it."
Poe opened his mouth to make his case, hoping something eloquent would come out. But Leia had anticipated that, too.
"Go," she said.
General Armitage Hux stood on the bridge of the First Order Star Destroyer Finalizer , gazing out at the blue-green planet hanging in space.
Four ships hung in orbit above the planet, below its asteroid rings––a bulbous Mon Calamari cruiser, an angular frigate, a cargo ship with rounded front and a jagged rear, and a smaller ship with an oversized bow like a broken crescent.
Within a few minutes, it would be academic: All four would be space dust.
The Finalizer's gleaming black bridge was a model of efficiency, with controllers and monitors briskly exchanging information from the Star Destroyer's targeting computers and sensor suites. Hux smiled at the thought of himself as the center of all that activity––a slim, dignified figure in black, uniform perfect, standing at parade rest.
"We've caught them in the middle of their evacuation," said Peavey, the Finalizer 's captain. "The entirety of the Resistance, in one fragile basket."
Hux suppressed a surge of annoyance. Edrison Peavey was old––a veteran of Imperial service who'd served with Hux's late father. He and a handful of Imperial loyalists had managed to escape the New Republic's hunters by venturing into the uncharted stars of the Unknown Regions.
Those men and women had been useful in their time. But that time was at an end––the First Order had decapitated the New Republic leadership with a single demonstration of its technological might.
True, Starkiller Base had then been destroyed, but Hux told himself that was merely an unfortunate setback—one that had been less a military defeat than the product of incompetence and treachery within the First Order. Those failures had been dealt with, or near enough. Most of those who had failed Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke had been vaporized with the base; those who'd escaped punishment would get what they deserved soon enough.
Hux smiled thinly. Truthfully, it didn't matter much. The New Republic Senate was in ashes, the heart of its fleet was incinerated, and the Resistance vermin who'd had the temerity to assault Starkiller Base had been careless enough to leave a trail back to their nest. Once these few remaining insurgents had been destroyed, no one in the galaxy would dare oppose the First Order's dominion. Hux would be free to build a dozen new Starkillers—or a hundred.
And in the meantime, the First Order had no shortage of other weapons— including ones Imperial commanders such as Peavey had only dreamed of.
That was it right there, Hux thought. Peavey and his generation saw the First Order's impending triumph as a restoration of the Empire, not realizing how that only proved their obsolescence. They couldn't or wouldn't see that the regime they'd served was not merely gone but superseded. The First Order was the fulfillment of what the Empire had struggled to become. It had distilled and perfected its strengths while eliminating its weaknesses.
Or at least most of its weaknesses, Hux thought, eyeing Peavey. But there would be time for another culling. In the meantime, a reminder of Peavey's station would have to suffice.
"Perfect," he said. "I have my orders from Supreme Leader Snoke himself. This is where we snuff out the Resistance once and for all. Tell Captain Canady to prime his Dreadnought. Incinerate their base, destroy those transports, and obliterate their fleet."
The order was transmitted and received by Moden Canady aboard the bridge of the Fulminatrix , the enormous Mandator IV-class Siege Dreadnought at the heart of the First Order formation. On Canady's command, the two massive cannons slung beneath his ship's belly began to slowly swivel, reorienting themselves to fire on the hot spot of transmissions and energy emissions that sensor crews had detected on the planet below.
Canady's warrant officer, Bascus, was gazing at the holographic screen and tracking the cannons' progress with something akin to ecstasy on his face. Canady scowled. His crew was half his age, with scant experience outside of battle sims. That they were untested wasn't their fault; that they were arrogant and undisciplined was.
"Reorient the topside batteries to target the Resistance fleet," Canady ordered. "And prepare our fighter squadrons for launch."
"General Hux ordered no fighter deployment," objected Bascus. "He feels a demonstration—"
"Do I need to explain the difference between 'prep for launch' and 'launch'?" Canaday asked Bascus.
"Captain!" called a scope monitor from the bridge pit, his surroundings lit red for ideal visibility during battlefield conditions. "We have a single Resistance X-wing fighter approaching. It's moving to attack formation."
"A single light fighter?" asked an incredulous Hux, peering into deep space. "What is this?"
The bridge crew said nothing. Hux looked from one side to the other, exasperated by the impassive faces around him.
Before the gunners could carry out this order, a ship-to-ship transmission crackled over the Finalizer's audio pickups.
"Attention, this is Commander Poe Dameron of the Republic fleet," the voice said. "I have an urgent communiqué for General Hugs."
Hux felt all eyes turning his way, and red threatening to bloom in his cheeks. He knew that pilot's name all too well—Dameron had fired the shot that destroyed Starkiller Base, and he'd been an irritant long before that. Hux had sworn he'd see the pilot back on a First Order torture rack one day soon—and that this time he'd oversee the interrogation personally. Where Kylo Ren and his sorcery had failed, Hux and his technological prowess would triumph.
"Patch him through," he snapped. "This is General Hux of the First Order. The Republic is no more. Your fleet is made of rebel scums and war criminals. Tell your precious princess there will be no terms. There will be no surrender."
He was proud of that last part and made a note to revisit it during the tribunals that would be carried live over the HoloNet to the entire galaxy. But Dameron, to his bafflement, didn't reply.
"Hi, I'm holding for General Hugs?" the pilot asked after a moment.
"This is Hux. You and your friends are doomed! We will wipe your filth from the galaxy!"
Another moment, and then the reply: "Okay, I'll hold."
"What?" Hux looked around in consternation. "Hello?"
"Hello? I'm still here."
Hux glowered at a communications officer. "Can he hear me?" The officer nodded gravely.
Peavey, Hux noted, seemed less concerned with whatever was wrong with his ship's short-range communications than he was with the readouts displaying the distance between the lone X-wing and the First Order battle line—a number that was steadily shrinking.
"Hugs—with an H?" Dameron asked. "Skinny guy, kind of pasty?"
"I can hear you, can you hear me?" Hux replied.
"Look, I can't hold forever," Dameron said, sounding exasperated. "If you reach him, tell him Leia has an urgent message for him. About his mother."
Hux could faintly hear something else in the transmission—it sounded like an electronic chortle.
"I believe he's tooling with you, sir," Peavey said.
Hux glared at the Finalizer's captain and found that the older man's face was a carefully expressionless mask—as was the face of every other officer on the bridge.
"Open fire!" he screamed, bringing his fist down on the nearest console. It hurt abominably, but fortunately, all eyes on the bridge were fixed ahead as a web of turbolaser fire filled the emptiness of space, searching for the X-wing and its infuriating pilot.
Aboard the Supremacy , en-route for the action unraveling above D'Qar, an injured Kylo Ren was licking his wounds under the close supervision of his comrade. Even though her attention was engaged on the datapad in her arms–closely keeping an eye on the action with the Resistance–Maeve couldn't help herself, for the first time, to intrude on Ren's silence.
"I have seen you fight so many times. You are not easily defeated."
His troubled eyes met hers.
After pondering the question, he chose to dismiss it. "You wouldn't understand."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
He didn't. However, his latest failure had left him feeling ashamed, unwilling to talk aloud about it. He felt weak.
"She is strong with the Force," was all he managed to mumble in his defense.
Rather than take it as a defense, Maeve chose to reply to his statement differently than he had expected. "If she's as strong as you suggest, perhaps we can recruit her as one of our own." Her ever-present robe flattered behind her as she paced the room.
Ren followed her with his gaze. "I tried to tell her. I offered to be her teacher."
"Yes, darling. But you did it after kidnapping and torturing her," she snickered softly. "You can't expect her to think of you as a viable option after that. The relationship between a Master and an Apprentice is a delicate one, and quite intimate in many ways."
Somehow, in all the commotion, he never put it quite like that.
"We must exploit her weaknesses, her need to be part of a family. Her loneliness. Show her that with us, she can have all of that and more."
Before Kylo could add anything, Maeve's datapad exploded with alerts.
As her eyes scanned the notifications, her mouth betrayed her thoughts, "Those damned fools!"
Before she stormed out of the room, she gave him a quick look and an apology. "We shall continue this conversation, but right now I need to do some damage control."
As the dreadnought broke apart, the Resistance starfighters peeled off and raced for the safety of the Raddus , pursued by TIEs.
Poe whooped in triumph, opening the throttle up as he raced toward the distant Resistance fleet.
"Start the lightspeed jump. Now!" he yelled.
Fire lanced out from the Star Destroyers behind him. Ignoring BB-8's squalls and the red lights all over his flight console, Poe flew into the Raddus's fighter hangar at full speed.
A moment later the Resistance ships had vanished, leaving the laser fire from the First Order warships to bisect empty space.
On the bridge of the Finalizer , jubilation was replaced by shocked silence. Hux stood and stared at the empty space where the Resistance fleet had been a moment earlier, then turned his head to regard the burning remains of Canady's shattered Dreadnought.
"General, Supreme Leader Snoke is making contact from his ship," called a communications monitor.
Hux forced himself to look impassive, not daring to wonder if he'd succeeded.
"Excellent," he told her. "I'll take it in my chambers."
But a moment later a huge hologram of Snoke's head had appeared on the bridge. The leader of the First Order's face loomed over Hux, his startling blue eyes blazing.
"Oh good, Supreme Leader—" Hux began, but an unseen force slammed him into the polished black floor of the bridge.
"General Hux," Snoke said. "My disappointment in your performance cannot be overstated."
Hux fought to rise and reclaim his dignity.
"They can't get away, Supreme Leader!" he insisted. "We have them tied on the end of a string!"
As the turbolift doors shut, General Hux tugged at the cuffs of his uniform, even though he knew they were perfect. He tried not to think how long it had been since Supreme Leader Snoke had summoned him to his throne room aboard the enormous warship known as the Supremacy .
The Supremacy was a massive flying wedge, measuring 60 kilometers from wingtip to wingtip. Its designers had anointed it the first of the galaxy's Mega-class Star Destroyers, but such a classification struck Hux as essentially meaningless. True, the Supremacy could deliver the destructive power of a full fleet. But that was a decidedly narrow perspective from which to assess its capabilities. Within its armored hull were production lines churning out everything from stormtrooper armor to Star Destroyers, foundries and factories, R&D labs, and training centers for cadets. The Supremacy's industrial capacity outstripped that of entire star systems, while its stores of everything from foodstuffs to ore ensured it could operate independently for years without making planetfall.
All of which was by design. Snoke had been steadfast in his refusal to designate a world as a capital of the First Order, explaining icily that he had far more in mind for his regime than ruling the handful of sectors it claimed in the Outer Rim or colonizing clusters of worlds beyond the frontier.
Such ambitions would make the First Order no different from the various nonaligned states that had sprung up in the wake of the Galactic Civil War, or the hermetic kingdoms of the Unknown Regions—many of which had been dismantled or destroyed by the First Order during its secret rise. No, Snoke had a grander destiny in mind—the First Order would restore all that had been stolen from the Empire and then build upon that rebuilt foundation.
But until that promise was fulfilled, the First Order's capital would be mobile. It would be the Supremacy.
It was a strategy Hux had helped formulate. The Supremacy couldn't be cut off from its supply lines, as it carried them with it. Besides, Hux had seen the dangers of fixed capitals—they had their own gravity, drawing in everything from fleets to economic muscle to intellectual talent. They were cultural centers but also sinkholes—and that made them vulnerable.
Hosnian Prime had proven that vulnerability, Hux thought, a smile playing at the corner of his lips. The former capital of the New Republic was now a charnel house—the churning ember of a star, orbited by shattered planetary cores being slowly drawn into rings of dust and ash. Millennia from now, the Hosnian system would remain as a monument to the day the First Order had swept away the Republic's weakness and dishonesty, reestablishing the principle of rule through strength and discipline.
And the name of Armitage Hux would be remembered, too—of that he was certain. It would be exalted as a builder of the First Order's armies, architect of its technological revolution, and executioner of the New Republic.
And, very soon, the destroyer of the Resistance.
For which he would earn another reward, Hux mused.
Supreme Commander of the Supremacy would be an excellent title...surpassed only by that of Supreme Leader Hux.
Hux almost whispered those three words to himself but caught himself in time. Snoke had spies everywhere in the First Order—including, quite possibly, electronic ones in the turbolift leading to his private domain at the Supremacy's heart.
The doors opened and Hux stepped into that domain, one of the few beings ever accorded the privilege of seeing Snoke in the flesh. The First Order's leader sat on his throne, flanked by eight members of his crimson-armored Praetorian Guard. Banners bearing the regime's emblem hung overhead, reflected in the gleaming black floor, and red curtains veiled the chamber's viewports. In the throne room's shadows, Hux glimpsed droids attending to their duties and the mute, purple-robed aliens that had helped the First Order blaze hyperspace lanes through the Unknown Regions.
As soon as Hux dropped to one knee, Snoke's blue eyes were upon him, glittering in his ruined face.
"General, I handed you a war hammer and pointed to a nug-gnat," he said.
"As I assured you, Supreme Leader, the setback is merely temporary," Hux replied.
Snoke studied him appraisingly. The Supreme Leader wasn't the towering figure seen in his holographic broadcasts, but he still dwarfed a human. The face was asymmetrical and the body hunched, but Snoke radiated power. A malign energy seemed to emanate from him, one that Hux imagined he could feel sending questing tendrils into his brain.
Hux knew the Force was real—his body still ached from being slammed to the deck of the Finalizer. But such sorcery was a last dying echo of ancient history, unreliable and unpredictable where technological prowess delivered certainty. Snoke commanded no legions of Force warriors, as the Jedi once had. No children were plucked from the ranks of First Order stormtroopers after displaying abilities beyond those of ordinary beings. There was just Snoke, and his loathsome creature Kylo Ren. And the Grand Admiral, but his ongoing competition with her was rather professional, and had no relation with her supernatural abilities, which she seldom paraded around anyone else apart from the other two, and a very select few others.
And Skywalker, whom Snoke, Maeve, and Ren had hunted so avidly, at the expense of much else that needed doing.
"After your failure today, General, your assurances do not inspire confidence," Snoke said.
Hux's shoulders tensed at the icy anger in his voice. He forced himself to remain impassive. If Snoke had wanted to kill him, he would have done it aboard the Finalizer , where Hux's demise would have served as an object lesson to others. He wouldn't have wasted time by summoning him here to do away with him in secret.
"You say you can track the Resistance fleet even after its escape to hyperspace—something no military force in galactic history has been able to do," Snoke said, and Hux relaxed. Now the Supreme Leader was in Hux's arena.
"No military force in galactic history had access to the technology we have created, Supreme Leader."
"The Resistance fleet will be on the other side of the galaxy by now," Snoke said. "In any of a billion star systems. The prospect of checking them all makes me weary, General."
"We need not check them all, Supreme Leader. Our tracking system's computer network contains millennia worth of data: every after-action report from Imperial history, as well as many from the Republic's Judicial Forces and Planetary Security Forces. It contains astrogation reports, briefings from scouts and commercial guilds, Separatist intel—"
"A full inventory would be tedious," rumbled Snoke.
Hux dipped his chin. "Of course, Supreme Leader. Our sensors pinpoint the target's last known trajectory, and tracking control analyzes it against our data sets. Trillions of potential destinations are sifted and reduced to hundreds, then dozens, and finally one."
"And so why are we not headed to that lone destination?" Snoke asked.
"We are cross-checking the results of our initial analysis, Supreme Leader," Hux said. "The final calculations should be complete within minutes."
Snoke leaned back in his throne, considering that. His guards stood unmoving in their imprisoning red armor. Behind him, the alien navigators carried on their inscrutable work.
"So your solution to this ancient problem is no conceptual breakthrough," Snoke said. "Your invention is a product not of genius, but brute force."
"Brute force is underrated, Supreme Leader," Hux said with a smile. "The New Republic's home fleet is destroyed, and its surviving senators have dissolved the remaining task forces to protect their homeworlds. Their division makes them defenseless. No power in the galaxy can stand against us, Supreme Leader."
His comlink trilled out a high-priority alert.
"With your permission, Supreme Leader?" Hux asked, and was favored with a nod. The message was the one he had hoped to hear.
"We have the Resistance fleet's coordinates, Supreme Leader. Five-nines confidence level."
"Then go, General. You've explained how your invention works—now show me that it does. Bring Organa's rabble to heel."
As Hux got to his feet, the turbolift opened behind him and Ren stepped into the throne room, face hidden behind his black-and-silver mask. Hux couldn't resist grinning at him.
"Hux's new toy appears to be working," Snoke told Ren. "The Resistance will soon be in our grasp."
"Thank you, Supreme Leader," Hux said and stepped into the lift.
Snoke had summoned him to answer for his failure and sent him away praising his inventiveness. Hux knew Kylo Ren had arrived with no accomplishment that might deflect the Supreme Leader's wrath—he'd needed to be rescued from Starkiller Base as it came apart and spent much of the time since then being put back together by medical droids.
Snoke had shepherded the First Order through its years in the galactic wilderness, transforming a band of Imperial refugees into a weapon forged to reclaim the galaxy. As such, he would always be remembered. But Hux knew the future would need a different kind of leader—one able to direct the galaxy's industries and nurture their innovations while commanding its citizens' respect.
Snoke wasn't that leader. And neither was Ren.
Kylo Ren studiously ignored Hux as the black-clad general all but strutted out of the throne room. But Snoke had no difficulty sensing the anger that boiled out of Kylo at the sight of Hux's smug smile.
"You wonder why I keep a rabid cur in such a place of power," Snoke said once they were alone. "Mark this—a cur's weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool."
Kylo ignored that—he was in no mood for Snoke's teachings, not after all that had happened.
"How's your wound?" Snoke asked, making no effort to hide the derision in his question.
"It's nothing," Kylo said.
That wasn't true—the lightsaber slash to his face had been closed with microsutures, but Kylo would bear its scar for the rest of his life. And his abdomen ached where a bolt from Chewbacca's bowcaster had struck—a blow that would have been instantly fatal if Kylo hadn't instinctively contained its energy with the Force.
"The mighty Kylo Ren," Snoke said, considering his student. "When I found you, I saw what all Masters live to see: raw, untamed power. And beyond that, something truly special—the potential of your bloodline. A new Vader. Now I fear I was mistaken."
Behind his mask, Kylo glowered at the tall figure in golden khalat robes. "I've given everything I have to you—to the dark side," Kylo said, his
voice distorted by his mask. "Everything."
"Take that ridiculous thing off," said Snoke, his voice dripping with disgust.
Shock froze Kylo momentarily. He slowly reached up and removed the mask, revealing his scarred face. Snoke rose from his throne, the slow shuffling of his feet hinting at pain that dogged every step. Kylo stood stone-faced as Snoke approached him, willing himself to remain still as one finger stretched for his cheek, then higher.
The fingertip traced Kylo's eyelid, leaving a streak of moisture behind.
"Yes," Snoke said. "There it is. You have too much of your father's heart in you, young Solo."
Kylo's eyes snapped to Snoke's, burning with rage. "I killed Han Solo. I killed my...when the moment came I put my blade through him. I didn't hesitate."
"Petulance, not strength," sneered Snoke. "And look at you. The deed split your spirit to the bone. You were unbalanced, bested by a girl who had never held a lightsaber. You failed."
Kylo felt rage ignite deep inside of him—ignite and become an inferno demanding release.
But Snoke had anticipated that, too. Kylo had only taken the slightest step toward his Master when lightning erupted from Snoke's fingers, blasting Kylo backward and leaving him reeling in pain. The Praetorian Guards snapped into combat stances, faceless visors fixed on Kylo.
A dismissive wave of Snoke's hand and the guards straightened again, though they still regarded the black-clad figure on the floor with wary suspicion.
"Skywalker lives!" Snoke howled at Ren. "The seed of the Jedi Order lives! As long as it does, hope lives in the galaxy!"
The Supreme Leader fixed Kylo with a contemptuous look. "I thought you would be the one to snuff it out. Alas. You're no Vader, you're just a child with a mask."
Kylo turned his back on Snoke, fighting to keep the fires of his anger banked—and so missed the cruel smile that twisted the Supreme Leader's face.
So cruel, a voice echoed in Snoke's mind. The tone indicated more pride and admiration rather than contempt or scolding. The grin only deepened as the deformed humanoid sat back in his throne.
In the turbolift, doors shut, he stared down at the helmet cradled in his hands. This time the rage came without warning, a live thing that felt like it would burn and blister his very flesh. Kylo smashed the mask into the wall. The Force was howling inside him, giving him the strength to hammer his mask against the metal until it had been reduced to a twisted hunk of black and silver.
The turbolift doors opened and two frightened officers took an instinctive step backward from the seething man in black.
"Get my ship ready," Kylo snapped.
Chapter 6: VI
Poe couldn't remember a time he hadn't known Leia Organa. She'd been a mentor to his parents, Kes Dameron and Shara Bey, both of whom had served alongside her in the Alliance. She'd kept tabs on him as he grew up, learning to push starfighters to their limits—and sometimes beyond those limits. And she'd convinced him to leave the New Republic for the Resistance.
He knew her well enough to recognize the cold fury on her face as he entered the bridge of the Raddus , with Finn and BB-8 trailing behind him.
An angry General Organa was a force to be reckoned with—and one for which Poe had a healthy respect. But he felt certain he could talk her down. He always had before, after all. They understood each other. She knew he could be rash and foolish, but he knew she wouldn't have him any other way. When she'd recruited him, in fact, she'd said the Resistance could use some rashness—and added that foolishness and passion were often confused.
Poe had never forgotten those words, and he knew Leia hadn't forgotten them, either.
So it was a shock when she slapped him across the face.
"You're demoted," she said, ignoring the stunned faces around them on the bridge.
"For what?" he protested, his cheek stinging. "A successful run? We took out a Dreadnought!"
"At what cost? Pull your head out of your cockpit!" "You start an attack, you follow it through!" Poe said.
"There are things you can't solve by jumping in an X-wing and blowing something up. I need you to learn that."
"There were heroes on that mission," Poe said, unwilling to concede the point.
"Dead heroes," Leia snapped. "No leaders."
The silence that followed was uncomfortable and seemingly endless. It was Finn who broke it.
"We're really nowhere—deep space," he said. "How's Rey going to find us now?"
The fleet had emerged from hyperspace at an old Alliance rendezvous point that was nothing more than arbitrarily chosen coordinates, and Finn was staring at a holographic chart of their position, seemingly in dismay.
Something about the plaintive need in Finn's question touched Leia. The former stormtrooper was brave and capable, but there was a childlike quality about him—unguarded and almost innocent. In a galaxy riven by war, she thought, that was something to be cherished instead of punished.
Leia smiled and lifted her sleeve to reveal a faintly glowing bauble strapped to her wrist, ready to explain what it was to Finn.
She didn't need to—he recognized it.
"A cloaked binary beacon."
Leia nodded. "To light her way home."
"All right," Finn said. "So until she gets back, what's the plan?" "We need to find a new base," Leia said.
Commander D'Acy nodded. "One with enough power to get a signal to our allies scattered in the Outer Rim."
"And most important, we need to get there undetected," Leia added.
As if in answer, a klaxon began blaring on the bridge.
"A proximity alert!" said a startled Ackbar.
"That can't be," Poe said.
But a glance at the Raddus's holographic displays showed that it was. A massive warship had emerged from hyperspace, accompanied by more than two dozen Star Destroyers.
Poe was one of the few Resistance officers who recognized the huge ship. Its existence had been revealed by intelligence brought to D'Qar just before the evacuation. He'd hoped that intelligence was somehow mistaken, but what he was seeing proved rather definitively otherwise.
"That's Snoke's ship," he said. "You've got to be kidding me. Can we jump to lightspeed?"
"We have just enough fuel for one jump," Connix said gravely, her face pale.
"Do it fast—we have to get out of here!"
But Leia held up her hand.
"Wait," she said, a grim realization dawning on her. "They tracked us through hyperspace."
"That's impossible," Poe replied.
"Yes, it is. And they've done it."
Once again, it was Finn who broke the stunned silence on the bridge.
"So if we jump to lightspeed, they'll just find us again and we'll be out of fuel," he said. "We're trapped. They've got us."
That shook Poe out of his trance.
"Not yet they don't," he insisted, then turned to Leia, risking a cocked eyebrow. "Permission to jump in an X-wing and blow something up?"
Poe hurried off the bridge, finding himself oddly relieved to be returning to battle. Leia had been genuinely angry with him, and he promised himself he'd find time to think about what she'd said and why she'd said it.
But she'd also remembered something more important: She really did need him to be reckless sometimes.
Like now, for instance.
The wail of the klaxon jerked Tallie out of her nap in the ready room just off the Raddus's main starfighter hangar.
Fighter pilots learned the necessity of being able to nap anytime, anyplace, for as long as they were allowed, but Tallie's sleep had been fitful and uneasy. She'd kept dropping back into the same dream, one in which she had to protect Resistance bombers that didn't appear on her scopes; she'd only located them by the screams of their pilots as they died.
She looked around in befuddlement and found Starck sitting up on a cot nearby, looking equally confused.
The ready room's holotank lit up and both pilots peered at it, then at each other.
"That's practically an entire starfleet," Tallie said.
"And two of those ships are the same ones that were chasing us at D'Qar," Starck said. "Can't be right. It's gotta be a glitch."
Red dots began flashing in the emptiness ahead of the enemy flagship.
"Your glitch just launched a squadron of TIEs," Tallie said.
She pulled on her boots and her flight vest, practiced hands automatically adjusting the straps to fit snugly, then scooped up her helmet. Starck was hopping on one foot, trying to get his other boot on.
"Practice your dance moves later—we gotta fly," she called over her shoulder, activating her comlink and selecting the squadron channel.
"Boss, you seeing this?" Tallie yelled into it as she sprinted across the hangar deck, dodging squalling BB units and harried technicians who'd been working on routine maintenance a moment before.
"I know—on my way," Poe said breathlessly.
The Raddus shook beneath Tallie as she reached her A-wing, waving off a Sullustan tech fumbling with a ladder and scrambling onto the fighter's fuselage, then dropping into the cockpit. Starck was yelling for his astromech to load in and for the ground crew to get his fuel hoses disengaged. She made a note to remind him not to do that. The techs knew their jobs and were working as quickly as possible—yelling at them didn't help anything.
The Raddus trembled again. Tallie cold-started the engines and the little fighter growled a brief protest, then began to thrum around her, as if eager to get into space and confront the fleet's tormentors. Black One was still empty, but the ground crew was detaching hoses from the X-wing and closing access panels with frantic speed.
As the pilots began their roll call, Tallie spotted Poe's orange-accented astromech rolling into the hangar from the main corridor. The squadron leader sprinted right behind the droid, eyes fixed on his X-wing.
Then the sensors in Tallie's A-wing flashed red, prompting an urgent warning.
Missile lock? We're still in the hangar. That one really is a glitch.
Tallie's fingers reached for the interrupt. Before she could silence the alert, everything around her became heat and light.
A cannonade from the First Order task force ripped into the Vigil , breaking the cargo frigate's back. A moment later the warship exploded into a cloud of glittering fragments as a flight of First Order TIEs swept past. The starfighters skimmed the Raddus's hull, laser fire arcing from their weapons, and the cruiser groaned and shuddered.
"Torpedo!" cried out a senior officer. "Direct hit on the starfighter hangar!"
Leia had no time to think of the losses they'd sustained on an already unbearable day, or to wonder if Poe had reached the hangar before impact.
"Full engines ahead," she ordered, her voice cutting through the hubbub on the bridge. "Get out of range of the Star Destroyers and the fighters will fall back."
"All craft, full engines," Ackbar said. "Concentrate rear shields."
Leia nodded. The Raddus was at the tail of the Resistance column, its shields between their First Order pursuers and the other three ships.
And then she went rigid. Staring, she fumbled for a chair and half fell into it, the Resistance officers' worried faces turning in her direction.
Her mind had brushed a familiar presence in the Force—one she knew intimately. A presence that had once been bright but had turned black as space, becoming a soundless scream of rage and need.
She knew instantly that it was Ben Solo, her son.
Ben was leading that TIE squadron. He had fired the torpedo that had killed her pilots, and now he was coming to kill her and everyone else.
Kylo banked his fighter—a prototype TIE Silencer with a night-black hull —away from the ruin of the starfighter hangar, his wingmates matching the maneuver.
The Resistance fleet was barely worthy of the name—his fighters' initial attack run had reduced it to a Mon Calamari heavy cruiser and two smaller craft. The smaller ships were of little consequence. The heavy cruiser had rebalanced its shield envelope to protect it against the turbolasers of the First Order vessels harrying its stern. That was a sound strategy, but it left the cruiser vulnerable to the prowling TIEs—and Kylo had just ensured it wouldn't be launching starfighters anytime soon.
"Target the main bridge," he said.
His mother would be there, he knew. It wasn't Leia Organa's style to lead from the rear or to put her own concerns above whatever cause she held dear at a given moment.
For a moment Kylo let himself recall his parents' worried conversations behind closed doors, the ones they'd deluded themselves into thinking he wouldn't know about. Conversations about the anger and resentment that had boiled over once again in their son. Conversations in which they talked about him like he wasn't their son, but some kind of monster.
They were frightened of him, he realized. And so they got rid of him, sending him away to his uncle Luke—whose betrayal would prove far worse.
But Ben Solo was no more—Kylo had shed his childhood identity and the pathetic weakness it represented. Han Solo's days of cheating and disappointing people were over. The New Republic was destroyed. And now the Resistance—the last of his mother's causes—would follow it into extinction.
The heavy cruiser's bridge was bracketed in Kylo's sights. He glanced at his instruments, verifying that his torpedoes were loaded and armed.
His mother was indeed there. He could feel her familiar presence in the Force, and he could sense her determination and focus—along with a deep weariness. And sorrow. And worry.
It's too late to be sorry, Mother. Though you're right to worry.
His thumb hovered over the trigger, even as his senses drank in impressions from the Force. The panic on the bridge ebbed and flowed around the calm focus that was his mother. Her anxiety pulsed in the Force, in this last moment before her death...but she wasn't afraid.
She was worried for him, he realized. And she wasn't angry. She ached for him to come back to her.
Kylo depressed the trigger slightly, not quite enough to fire. And then he lifted his thumb.
He couldn't do it.
A moment later, Kylo's wingmate fired.
The torpedo sheared through the bridge of the Raddus and exploded. In a nanosecond, it became the center of an expanding envelope of overpressurization that hurled crew members and equipment in all directions, shattered the viewports, and buckled the bulkheads separating the bridge from the rest of the ship. Then the torpedo's payload of superheated plasma vaporized everything that the blast wave hadn't flung into space, leaving behind a ruin of twisted, blackened metal, already cooling in the vacuum.
The explosion buffeted Kylo in his cockpit. If he had known, he could have stopped the torpedo—freezing it in space with a thought. But he had been surprised. Now he couldn't sense his mother—the shock had shattered his focus, leaving him breathing hard behind his fighter's control yoke.
He couldn't do it.
From the Supremacy's main control room of weapons, Maeve was carefully monitoring the action. While her eyes roamed through the launched squadrons of TIEs, her mind was undividedly concentrated on one particular individual, targeting the one she had the most interest in, Kylo Ren.
Through the invisible, telepathic tendrils she wielded with the Force to stay connected to his thoughts, the woman was alerted of his indecision. It was indeed too much. She knew he couldn't bear having both his parents killed, not yet.
However cruel Snoke had been with him before the attack, there was an undeniable truth in his words. Even if Ren managed to kill his father, it only tore him apart more. This wasn't the time to push him even further into the turmoil.
Another alert on her datapad informed her the squadrons were getting out of range. She turned to Hux on the bridge and signaled him to inform the party to retreat.
"The Resistance ships have pulled out of range," Hux said over his comlink. "We can't cover you at this distance. Return to the fleet."
Kylo turned back toward the Raddus , determined to erase the cruiser and the rest of the Resistance fleet from existence. The Mon Calamari ship's point-defense cannons spat energy at the TIEs, and the fighter to port vanished in a ball of fire.
"Maeve's orders," Hux insisted. "They won't last long, burning fuel like this. It's just a matter of time."
Hux sounded patient as if he were addressing a child. Kylo would show the arrogant general that was a fatal mistake.
The Raddus's guns incinerated another TIE.
Teeth gritted, Kylo broke off the attack, streaking for the distant line of First Order warships.
Maeve looked at Hux once more. "They will try to escape, one way or the other. Be on the lookout for any suspicious activity coming from them, or from us ," she said, then turned to leave. "They seem to have a fondness for interfering with us from within."
The redhead followed, then pulled her aside where other officers couldn't overhear them. "Pardon me, Admiral , but you cannot boss me around like everyone else. And where are you going? We're in the middle of something."
Maeve pulled her arm back from his grasp. "In fact, General , on this ship, as well as any other ship in our fleet, you are under my command, as is everyone else," she sassily replied. "And we're not in the middle of anything. We're at the beginning of a race that won't end in the next few hours. I can come and go as I see fit."
He surrendered his position, but not without another remark. "You're really pushing all my buttons, you know?"
"If so," she leaned closer to him with a cheeky grin on her face, "I'm looking for mute."
Chapter 7: VII
In the silence of the chamber, Maeve felt his rage, like a ruinous storm that filled his head, and his hatred, and his lust to dominate and humiliate those who had wronged him. But she also felt his hurt and his loneliness. And his fear—that he would never prove as strong as Darth Vader, the ghost who haunted his dreams.
"Where is your mask?"
Her question came suspiciously close to him thinking about it laying shattered in the elevator leading to Snoke's throne room, but Ren was too preoccupied with the latest events—his dubious, repeated meetings with the scavenger.
"I destroyed it," he stated absently.
His lip twitched. "It was ridiculous."
The woman let out a long exhale. "Snoke?"
His first impulse was to lie, but he knew she would be able to tell. A curt nod answered her question.
After a moment of carefully considering the next words that came out of her mouth, Maeve spoke up. "Just because your grandfather used the mask to survive, doesn't mean your use of one is unjustified. You're using it to hide your insecurity in the choices you made.”
Ren threw her a glare, to which she raised one arm in defense. “Now, now. Don’t feel offended, that’s not how I meant it and you know it.” She resumed her straight posture and returned to pacing around the room. “You were pushed into every decision you made regarding your future. Luke failed you by thinking your choice was made, and later on so did Snoke. That's why there's still conflict in you, why you feel torn apart. That's why you need reminders of your loyalties. That's why you need the mask ." She paused to let her words sink in, then added, "maybe it's time to let old things die."
"He said I have too much of my father's heart in me," he spat out, with clear suppressed anger in his tone.
Ren followed her gaze as she took a moment to look him up and down, and took notice of how there was nothing physical about it––she was looking into his soul.
Finally, she continued. "I don't see it. Maybe something about the wits or the way you carry yourself, or perhaps the occasional cheekiness."
He hadn't looked that way at himself––her characterization made him contemplate his behavior.
But she went on, "However, I see a lot of your mother. The leadership spirit, the passion, even her eyes."
He noticed the way she spoke about her, as though she had met his mother––which she did, but she had never mentioned it to him, since it could have led to unnecessary turmoil. The certainty with which she referred to Leia astounded him, especially since he knew it was accurate.
"Of course, that was something she got from your grandparents. Both born leaders, both passionate about their beliefs." She looked like she was somehow reminiscing the whole thing. "Shame for what happened afterwards."
After a small sigh, her voice picked up again. "Even so, Vader was a great leader and warrior. Too bad he fell prey to..." she trailed off, as if what she meant to say just flew out of her head.
"Sentiment?" Kylo inquired after the break became too long, somehow knowing it was the right answer. Snoke had told him the story over and over.
His voice seemed to startle her, snap her out of some kind of self-induced trance.
"Sure," she nodded absently, seemingly trying to hide another thought she had on the matter. "Sentiment," she mumbled.
Kylo's interest was piqued when her agreement felt half-hearted. He didn't want to ask and risk dismissal, he tried to read into her mind. Surely enough, he was only met by a steel wall, separating her thoughts from his curiosity.
Moments later, both of them sensed it––the Millennium Falcon .
"She's coming," Maeve said before she turned to leave the room.
Ren grabbed her arm when she headed in the wrong direction. "Where are you going?"
She smiled as her hand reached his and patted it gently. "You need to do this on your own. I can't be a part of it."
He retracted his grip, frowning. Although he was puzzled, she was already a few feet away, with no further information about the meaning behind her words.
Three TIE fighters flew in close formation, their pilots' gloved fingers hovering near the ‘FIRE’ button on their control yokes.
Every First Order pilot assigned to the fleet wanted to avenge the disaster at Starkiller, pitilessly dissected in after-action reports as a failure of the starfighters corps to contain a numerically inferior enemy. But the all-out blitz against the Resistance that the pilots hoped for kept failing to materialize—instead, there was this strange, sublight pursuit, with most of the pilots stuck watching.
Things had begun promisingly, with a frantic dogfight with the bombers that had destroyed the Fulminatrix (another round of after-action reports no one was looking forward to); and the attack run against the enemy flagship.
But the fleet had been pursuing the Resistance stragglers—now supposedly reduced to a lone ship—for more than twelve hours since then, each minute of which had been spent on high alert.
The pilots were edging beyond tired into exhaustion. Shift rotations had been canceled to guard against the possibility that the Resistance—whose spies and infiltrators were rumored to be within every droid pool and under every trash bin—might know about the switchover and use it to mount a lightning-fast raid. Pilots who should have been in their bunks were still in their ready rooms, overstimulated by bad caf and the weird mix of hope and dread that this next minute would become zero hour, with fighters launched and battle joined. The first wave of pilots' replacements had arrived after being unable to sleep, hoping that the slow-motion chase would drag on long enough to deliver the chance at glory to them.
The alert that finally did sound had come as a relief, one that had curdled into puzzled disappointment before the TIE flight cleared its hangar: Their orders were to investigate an anomalous sensor contact.
That was it. A lone ship had come out of hyperspace between the two fleets and jumped almost immediately, ejecting something that began flying toward the First Order task force. The sensor profile indicated it was too small to even be a starfighter, so what was it?
The logical conclusion was that it was a bomb—but even a hundred devices of that size would have been incapable of doing more than cosmetic damage to the Supreme Leader's flagship. That made this the worst kind of hop—one you could only screw up.
So what was the object flying out there?
To the pilots' bafflement, it turned out to be an escape pod—one with a single life-form. As they escorted it toward the hangar, all three pilots pondered a variation of the same thought: What lunatic would head into a battle before abandoning ship?
Kylo Ren knew who was in the escape pod even before it opened with a hiss of vapor—her presence had been a steady pulse from the Force the moment his father's junk-heap freighter once again somehow heaved itself out of hyperspace without disintegrating. The stormtroopers behind him stood ready, but he just smiled at the sight of Rey crammed into the pod's tight confines.
His smile faded at the sight of his uncle's lightsaber.
"I'll take that," he said. "It belongs to me."
Rey was tempted to tell him to come and get it, as Finn had—and to remind him that she'd driven him to his knees at Starkiller Base and disarmed him. That he would bear the mark of that duel forever, and lived only because she had chosen not to strike him down.
But that wasn't why she had come, and they both knew it. Still, she held the lightsaber appraisingly for a moment, to remind Kylo that she was the one who had set this chain of events in motion.
"Strange, then, that it called to me at the castle," Rey said, studying the ancient weapon almost idly before snapping her gaze back to Kylo. "And not to you."
The corner of Kylo's mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile, and he inclined his head at the soldiers filling the hangar. "You're in no position to dictate."
Rey held the hilt out to him as if daring him to take it. The stormtroopers shifted uneasily. Kylo frowned, then reached out, his scarred face momentarily uncertain. The slightest tremor disturbed his black-gloved fingers as he reached out for the weapon sitting motionless in Rey's steady hand.
He snatched it away and gestured curtly for a First Order officer to approach with binders.
"That isn't necessary," Rey said.
"It is," Kylo said, hustling her into the depths of the massive flagship. "We have an appointment."
Rey quickened her pace to match his long strides, not wanting to be seen scurrying to keep up. Behind them, the accompanying stormtroopers' armor rattled. Rey could feel their anxiety about a situation they couldn't fit into the lockstep of their training regimens. That anxiety was shot through with fear—not of her but of the mercurial, unpredictable Kylo.
She didn't blame them—Kylo's turmoil all but filled the Force around them, roiling and churning it. The troopers couldn't sense it the way she and Kylo could, but that wasn't the same as saying they couldn't sense it all— they were part of life and the Force, and couldn't help but be affected on some level.
Kylo stopped at a lone turbolift ringed by stormtroopers and dismissed the guards. The doors shut and left Rey alone with him. He was still contemplating the lightsaber in his hands.
She nodded upwards. "Snoke? You don't have to do this."
"I feel the conflict in you growing since you killed Han," Rey said. "It's tearing you apart."
"Is that why you came? To tell me about my conflict?"
There they were again, his usual tactics—deflection and derision. As if he were the Master and she was his student, to be kept at bay and off balance by questions. But things had changed, even though not much time had passed. She wasn't the young woman he'd kidnapped on Takodana or confronted on Starkiller Base. Not anymore.
"No," Rey said. "Look at me. Ben ."
He turned at the sound of the name he'd been born with, the one he'd abandoned. He looked lost.
"When we touched I saw your future," she told him. "Just the shape of it, but solid and clear. You will not bow before Snoke. You will turn—I'll help you. I saw it. It's your destiny."
She watched the emotions chase themselves across his face, echoed by jitters and spikes in the Force. Anger. Confusion. Pain. Loneliness. Longing. Sorrow.
Then he lifted his eyes to hers.
"You're wrong," Kylo said. "When we touched I saw something, too. Not your future—your past. And because of what I saw, I know that when the moment comes, you'll be the one to turn. You'll stand with me. Rey, I saw who your parents are."
Rey stared at him, but there was no lie in Kylo's eyes. And a terrifying realization bloomed in her mind: Kylo's churning emotions weren't just about himself. They were also about her.
The turbolift doors opened with a hiss and Kylo led Rey into the throne room, where the Supreme Leader of the First Order awaited them on his throne. His faceless, crimson-armored guards stood on either side of the throne, bladed weapons ready. Snoke himself was almost slouching— indolent in his golden robes, secure in the safety of his sanctum.
But his eyes were piercing and hungry. Rey tried to avoid them, but his gaze was like a lodestone, dragging her attention involuntarily to him. Their pull was akin to what she'd felt near the pit on Ahch-To—whispering of secrets that had been reserved for her, that belonged to her. Ancient, hidden knowledge that would destroy the weak but elevate the strong. The worthy.
Snoke grinned hungrily at her and she found she couldn't look away until the Supreme Leader fixed those dreadful, bottomless eyes on Kylo instead.
"Well done, my good and faithful apprentice," he said, the voice deep and slow. "My faith in you is restored."
Then his gaze pinned her once again. "Young Rey. Welcome."
Captain Peavey stood at attention on the Supremacy's bridge, watching as yet another Resistance transport vanished into flame.
"Your gunnery crews have done excellent work, Captain," he said to Yago, pitching his voice to be heard in the crew pits. "I commend them."
Yago received this praise with a stiff nod, but beneath his reserve, Peavey thought the man was pleased.
The Mon Calamari warship's captain had clearly hoped that the transports fleeing its hangar would go undetected at such long range—a gambit that might have succeeded if not for a tip from Hux, of all people, to zero in on trace emissions in the cruiser's vicinity.
Once the Supremacy's crews had analyzed the emissions, it had been relatively straightforward for comm/scan to home in on their signatures, discover the ruse, and begin picking off the transports one by one. But at this range, the crews' accuracy was still impressive.
Yago's officers had trained them well, and Peavey intended to make sure they got the credit. Given all the work they had ahead of them, it wouldn't do to have resentments fester among the navy's top ranks.
"What is that heavy cruiser doing, though?" Yago asked, eyeing the holotank suspiciously.
Peavey glanced at the holotank, curious what the other captain had seen.
At this range, the First Order's turbolaser blasts could destroy the transports, but simply bounced off the heavy cruiser's shields—and the Mon Calamari warship's own guns were no threat to the First Order flagship. So the Supremacy had simply ignored the Resistance ship, dismissing it as a distraction.
"She's coming about," Yago said. "Scan the engine signature for gamma radiation."
Peavey nodded. He had expected the Resistance captain either to jump to hyperspace in the hope of drawing off the First Order pursuit or to make a suicidal attack in order to buy time for the transports. It appeared the captain had opted for the former, though he had to know it was far too late for that tactic to succeed.
Before Peavey could consult with Yago, Hux swept onto the bridge, looking agitated. His boot heels rang on the polished deck.
"Sir, the Resistance cruiser is preparing to jump to lightspeed," a monitor called up from one of the crew pits.
Peavey turned an inquiring glance at Hux, hoping the hotheaded young general wouldn't do something rash.
For once, he didn't.
"It's empty," Hux sneered. "They're just trying to pull our attention away. Pathetic. Keep your fire on those transports."
Peavey offered Yago a look of mild surprise—carefully calibrated to be too mild for Hux to notice—and saw that Yago had reacted the same way, matching Peavey's ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow with a minute cock of the head.
Then, subtle messages having been exchanged, they resumed their rigid, unimpeachable posture.
Maeve was monitoring the continuous movement of the cruiser from under the command deck, sitting cross-legged in an empty seat in the crew pit, finding the chatter of officers tedious and preferred to not have to deal with it unless truly necessary.
The ship's latest trajectory made her wonder what the Resistance was planning, taking aside the possibility of a con.
Finally, she reached out into the mind of the pilot, only to find something horrible.
"Fire on that cruiser! Now !" she yelled through the comlink.
Ahead of the Supremacy , the Mon Calamari warship was turning, its bulbous nose swinging around, back toward the First Order task force that had harried it for so long.
Peavey waited for the ship to vanish, followed by the telltale twisting of space and burst of Cronau radiation that marked a hyperspace wake. He idly tried to imagine where the heavy cruiser might be heading. It didn't much matter—Peavey doubted the cruiser had enough fuel for another jump once it arrived. Once these last few transports had been eliminated, the First Order could retrieve the warship at its leisure.
But the cruiser hadn't jumped. Peavey leaned forward, curious, and realized Yago and the other officers were doing the same—horrified realization etched on their faces.
They knew what the Resistance captain planned to do. "My God," Peavey said.
"Fire on that cruiser!" screamed Hux.
Under ordinary operations, the presence of a sizable object along the route between the Raddus's realspace position and its entry point into hyperspace would have caused the heavy cruiser's fail-safes to cut in and shut down the hyperdrive.
But with the fail-safes offline and the overrides activated, the proximity alerts were ignored. When the heavy cruiser plowed into the Supremacy's broad flying wing, the force of the impact was at least three orders of magnitude greater than anything the Raddus's inertial dampeners were rated to handle. The protective field they generated failed immediately, but the heavy cruiser's augmented experimental shields remained intact for a moment longer before the unimaginable force of the impact converted the Raddus into a column of plasma that consumed itself.
However, the Raddus had also accelerated to nearly the speed of light at the point of that catastrophic impact—and the column of plasma it became was hotter than a sun and intensely magnetized. This plasma was then hurled into hyperspace along a tunnel opened by the null quantum-field generator—a tunnel that collapsed as quickly as it had been opened.
Both the column of plasma and the hyperspace tunnel were gone in far less than an eyeblink, but that was long enough to rip through the Supremacy's hull from bow to stern, tear a ragged hole in a string of Star Destroyers flying in formation with it, and finally wink out of existence in empty space thousands of kilometers beyond the First Order task force.
The decks of the Supremacy that had been in the path of the Raddus's jump to hyperspace no longer existed—they had been excised as if with a surgeon's knife. Elsewhere, whether crewers lived or died depended on quirks of the mighty warship's construction as systems failed in cascades up and down the severed halves of the flying wings. Clouds of escape pods surrounded the remnants of the mighty ship, and all channels were jammed with frantic calls for assistance.
The Raddus had hit left of center, sparing the section of the Mega-Destroyer that housed the overbridge and the throne room. Which was fortunate for Hux—as the bridge descended into chaos, he had hurried to the turbolift connecting it with the Supreme Leader's sanctum. It wasn't until after he'd stepped into the lift and used his code cylinder to access the throne room that he realized it might not work.
He looked around frantically, gripped by the fear that he had consigned himself to an ignominious end—the architect of the First Order's military domination spending his last moments trapped in a turbolift. But the lift descended so smoothly, Hux had no idea anything was wrong.
Then the doors opened and that illusion was snuffed out. The throne room was a scene of unfathomable carnage. Snoke's alien navigators had fled, his fearsome guards were dead, and the Supreme Leader himself lay crumpled in a heap in front of his throne. Kylo Ren, motionless, was sprawled nearby.
A single glance was enough to tell Hux that Snoke was dead. But Ren was merely unconscious, his chest rising and falling.
Hux stood over the Supreme Leader's body in shock for a moment, trying to process everything that had happened and calculate everything that could happen
The First Order's flagship—which was also its mobile capital, its greatest shipyard, its best research-and-development facility, and so much more besides—was doomed. Yet the Resistance had been reduced to a pathetic handful of ships trapped on a backwater world. And the New Republic was no closer to resurrection.
The imminent end of the Supremacy would change surprisingly little about the balance of power in the galaxy.
But one thing was certain: The First Order would need a new Supreme Leader.
Snoke was dead. Ren was not.
Moving quietly and carefully, Hux stepped away from the Supreme Leader's corpse and looked down at Ren. His hand crept to the pistol in his holster.
Kylo stirred, his eyes fluttering.
Hux turned the move for his blaster into scratching at a phantom itch on his leg and took a step back. When Kylo's eyes opened he would find the general looking down at him with apparent concern.
"What happened?" Hux asked.
It took Kylo a moment to gather himself. "The girl murdered Snoke," he said.
The throne room lurched sickeningly around them. Hux knew what that meant—the complex system of inertial dampeners and acceleration compensators that protected the core decks of the Supremacy was failing. They had to hurry. But Kylo was confused. He braced himself, staring out in disbelief at the mangled half of the flagship and the wrecked Star Destroyers beyond it.
Hux marched over to a sealed door, studying the readout next to it.
"What happened?" Kylo asked, seeing his expression.
"Snoke's escape shuttle is gone," the General replied.
Kylo considered that. Rey had recovered first. She must have realized he was at her mercy, yet she'd left him alive.
Almost as if she cared for him.
Well, it was another foolish, sentimental decision. And this one would be her destruction.
"We know where she's going," he snapped at Hux. "Get our forces down to that Resistance base. Let's finish this."
The General fixed him with a look of disdain.
"Finish this? You presume to command my army? We have no ruler. The Supreme Leader is dead."
Kylo said nothing. Screeching speeches and superheated rhetoric were Hux's departments. Sometimes action was a far more effective message.
He raised his hand, commanding the Force and directing it to coil around Hux's throat.
"The Supreme Leader is dead," Kylo said.
Hux's airway closed and the world began to go gray. He sank to his knees before Kylo, eyes wide with fear.
"Long live the Supreme Leader," Hux told Kylo.
Kylo released him, the gesture offhand and almost contemptuous, leaving Hux to gasp for air.
After the small rager, the new leader strutted towards the turbolift, only to notice Maeve waiting for him, leaning against the side of its door. There was pride written all over her face. Only now had he realized the meaning behind her earlier cryptic words.
When he was right in front of her, she took an artistic bow. "I'll spread the word," she straightened her back and gave him a wink, " Supreme Leader ."
While the new Supreme Leader and the First Order armada descended to Crait to eliminate the remaining members of the Resistance, Maeve made sure everyone who wasn't killed by the plasma’s trajectory was safely evacuated on the Star Destroyers she called to aid after the impact.
Her mind started getting fuzzy, overwhelmed by a presence inside it. No one managed to get inside her head in a very long time, not without her allowing it first.
That only meant one thing.
It was time.
" Come ," the voice commanded. The same sinister voice that awoke her from her slumber all those years ago.
Handing over the responsibility for the remaining evacuation to lieutenant Mitaka, she jumped into her private Special Forces TIE fighter and introduced the coordinates forever imprinted in her memory. The nav interface lit up with new information, but it also blared a warning.
For these coordinates would take her beyond the Western Reaches into the Unknown Regions. Maeve overrode the warning and jumped her TIE to lightspeed. The stars turned to streams of matter.
The Unknown Regions remained uncharted because a chaotic web of anomalies had created a near-impenetrable barrier to exploration; only the most foolhardy or desperate ventured there—criminals, refugees, and, if the reports were true, remnants of the old Imperial fleet who had refused to accept New Republic rule.
A few planets had been discovered, but their populations remained small, and their trade with the rest of the galaxy had been throttled by the navigational risk. The Sith and the Jedi had found paths through to even more dangerous, more hidden worlds—or so legends said—and the specific, carefully stepped coordinate jumps required to safely navigate the anomalies were among their most closely guarded secrets.
The TIE bumped out of lightspeed into rough space; it felt as though she were flying through gravel.
Oh, I don't miss this, she thought to herself as she held a tight grip on the steer.
Maeve drew on all the rage and frustration of the last few days and gripped the controls in cold focus. Once her flight steadied, she sent her TIE to the next set of coordinates.
This time, instead of the streaming stars of hyperspace, her ship entered a glowing red mesh of hexes. The Red Honeycomb Zone of exotic space—some called it the Blood Net, others called it the Ship Eater—but she knew how to navigate through it. It was one of the only known safe passages through the anomalies of the Unknown Regions, but it was malevolent and angry, and the sensor indicators on her console flashed wildly, unsure what to make of it.
It seemed as though only a short time had passed before her TIE lurched out of the red zone and slowed. After the hectic chaos of the Honeycomb, the planet Exegol loomed before her, peacefully stranded in space. It looked dead and gray, shrouded in massive dark storm systems. As she neared, the clouds burst with jagged light. It would be a rough ride down.
Maeve strode away from her SF TIE, across the boundless cracked ground. The entry had been difficult, but the landing was easy. The planet's entire surface was a landing pad—flat and empty.
The air was hazy and hot and dry, and lightning split the sky in unending rage. Her boot knocked over a small silica tree, where lightning had turned grit and sand into a branching tumor of glass.
The planet's atmosphere didn't afford much visibility, so she couldn't see the citadel until she was almost upon it; it hovered over the barren ground, a brutal edifice of stone towering high enough that its peak was nearly lost in haze. She ignited her lightsaber.
Maeve didn't need to see the entrance to know where it was, because she could feel it beckoning her, welcoming her. It was not the soft, warm welcoming of home or safety but rather one of conquest and need. Her skin prickled. The Force was strong here, but it was different. Twisted, rotten, as though filtered through a miasma of decay.
Lightning crackled in the gap between ground and edifice. The space was high enough for her to stride comfortably, but not without giving the impression it could collapse over her at any moment. She felt the weight of the massive structure as she walked beneath, trusting it to not fall and crush her.
The woman's footsteps echoed, and the bare stone ceiling seemed reddish in the light of her blade. Something clanged, like a gigantic gear moving into place. Suddenly the area she stood upon separated itself from the floor, becoming a floating disk that lowered her into the depths of the citadel.
As she descended, she found herself captivated by the wall before her, which was carved with colossal stone faces, all rendered in exquisite detail. Massive iron chains trailed down from the ceiling as if mooring the statues in place. Something dark and inescapable moved within her as she was regarding the monument. So much history and memory all in one place.
The disk came to a gentle halt in a vast space that brought to mind a cathedral. The stone faces were high above her now, crowning enormous statues of ancient lords. At her feet, dark chasms jagged through the floor, and Maeve could not gauge their depths. The chasms crackled with lightning, searing her vision, as though a bit of the planet's sky had been trapped within its crust.
She was not alone. Figures moved in the shadows, slight and stooped. Not dangerous, as they went about whatever work they were doing. They wore black, threadbare robes, and bandages shrouded their faces.
A figure began to materialize before her, still cloaked in shadow, silhouetted against the angry lightning flashes of the chasms around them. It moved oddly, as though with a mechanical gait. If not for the power emanating from the creature, Maeve would not have been certain it was alive.
Before the creature could say anything, the woman's face twisted into a grin, the wickedness behind it accentuated by another flash.
Chapter 8: VIII
"I need help. I have to disappear. I will do as you ask," Maeve implored, her eyes filled with desperation.
"Help you, I cannot."
"Grand Master, I come to you as a citizen of the Galactic Republic, not as a Sith." Her eyes flickered, a yellow glow overtaking the piercing blue. "I am willing to surrender my ways as long as you will keep me hidden. Somewhere my Master won't find me."
"Already consumed by the darkness you are," the old creature croaked. Even so, he fell into deep consideration.
The girl's eyes were glued to the Jedi Master, still pleading silently.
"Follow me," Yoda finally contended.
It felt as if she was falling. She fell into water, the cold like a knife in her lungs. She struggled, surfaced, and gasped, eyes stinging from the salt, then hauled herself out onto the slick, flat stone.
Before her, the sea had ground and polished the walls of the cave until the stone was like a dark mirror, cracked but glossy. Maeve could see her reflection in it—a reflection repeated a thousand times in the stone's labyrinthine facets, so they created a line of Maeves retreating from her gaze.
Maeve gazed into the mirror—and realized it was gazing back. The Force was quivering in response to the approach of something.
She could hear herself breathing—slowly and raggedly. Then her breathing quickened as she realized she was inside the stone, within the mirror world, with several Maeves between her and the soaked, shivering girl standing on the ledge in the cave.
Then that Maeve was gone and a hundred Maeves stood between her and the tiny figure on the ledge. She turned her head and all those Maeves obediently did the same, each one's turn coming a moment after the one before it until all were staring along with her deeper into the dark stone.
Maeve knew she had to go deeper—that the world inside the stone only seemed to go on forever. It was leading somewhere, and if she only had the courage to follow, that secret place would show her what she was meant to see.
There were Maeves deeper in the stone, part of the line yet ahead of her. She told herself to follow them, to become them, to ignore the voice in her head that kept babbling that she would be trapped forever, down there in the infinite darkness.
She followed the line of Maeves, willing the surreal succession to end until finally, it did. Until at last there was one final Maeve, breathing hard and staring at a large, round, clouded mirror of polished stone like the one that had called to the girl in the cave.
This last Maeve stood in front of the stone, gazing into its depths.
"What am I meant to do? Show me," she begged. "Please."
She stretched out her hand and the clouded surface of the mirror seemed to ripple, its darkness melting away. She closed her eyes, allowed the Force to guide her. Her heart was in the right place, she wanted more knowledge not to gain power, but to be able to bring balance. A balance she was never taught to seek, not by her Master Plagueis, definitely not by Master Yoda, whose only resolve was to put her in a dungeon for eternity, suspended in time and space. One less Sith to deal with, in his opinion.
The Force rippled through the clouded surface and into her body, through her fingertips, sending her into a deep trance.
Once her eyes opened, the mirror was gone. Instead, she found herself in an ethereal place. Something she could only explain as a dimensional plane where the two aspects of the Force–the Cosmic Force that binds the universe together and the Living Force which is associated with life–came together in union.
An acolyte like herself in such a pure place could only mean one thing. There was a connection made, a bond of trust between her energy and that of the Force, a silent agreement that this knowledge will be used to acquire wisdom, not to interfere with the plane in any damaging way. A promise to keep the balance. A privilege that came with her sacrifice.
It was a surreal world of limitless paths, an endless labyrinth of roads leading to what looked like portals. Each of them whispered something, some softer, some louder. There was something louder than everything else, a cackling laughter accompanied by a sinister metallic wheeze. For whatever reason, she couldn't yet identify the portal from which it came.
As she strode down the translucid pathways, Maeve found herself overwhelmed by the myriad options to explore. With each step she took, a temporary ripple of light appeared, making her wonder if this was the way the Force meant to show her this was a path towards enlightenment.
In one of the portals, she saw a young girl, not much younger than herself, kneeling in front of what seemed to be a mirror, inside a cave. There were tears rolling down her cheeks, desperation, and anguish radiating through the veil between them. It was the same mirror she had seen, the one in which the infinite Maeves came together. This girl, this brown-haired, stranger girl, had to take the same test. Why did Maeve pass it and this one didn't? Was this the future or something that had happened in the past?
She chose not to linger over that particular moment, although she felt a connection with the other girl, something she couldn't quite explain––something familiar but just outside of her mind's reach.
The rotting remnant of Emperor Palpatine smiled.
"Lady Morana," he enunciated. His voice was raspy and half mechanized, straining as though in pain, and yet the sound reverberated within her very being.
"Don't call me that," she snapped. "I'm not that with you."
There was a lingering silence afterwards, only vaguely interrupted by the creeping around of the cultists around them.
The two Palpatines stood across from one another––they were raised in the same family, almost at the same time. Their physical appearance, however, seemed to contradict that very fact. One was the embodiment of youth and vitality, another was a decaying corpse clinging to life with its last powers.
The silence was broken by Palpatine's slightly mechanical voice. "I've seen inside your mind. I've seen your desires and goals. And they happen to be aligned with mine."
She dismissed him, too familiar with his speeches and ambiguities. "How did you think this would go?" Maeve's voice was calm, but there was resentment emanating off of her. "You put me away like a toy and take me out to play whenever it suits you?"
The Emperor kept his silence, only analyzing her movement and spirit.
"Go on, Sheev," she urged him. "I partook in your little dance for the past five years, getting bits and pieces about what I was supposed to do only through your puppet. Hardly even, considering its tainted memory. After my awakening, you kept me in the dark, in the same haze as everyone else."
His fingers twitched as a grin flashed across his features. "Look at you now. All-powerful, with ancient proper training, young . You're here now because it is the best time for it. The perfect weapon for the Final Order."
"I could have been the perfect weapon for the Empire and it wouldn't have collapsed the way it did,” she almost growled. “Why did you do it?"
"You were interfering with my plans."
She glared at him, the memory of their last discussion darkening her vision.
He cackled, "Ah yes, you remember. You were weak. Too weak to become a true Sith."
"That's funny," Maeve scoffed at him and crossed her arms over her chest. "That's what Plagueis said to me when I refused to kill you ."
"I did what I had to," he snarled at her. "I brought you back, didn't I? You weren't left in there forever."
"Am I supposed to thank you for it? It was a lifetime."
Palpatine squinted his eyes, trying to capture her image before him better. "Come closer. My vision is not what it used to be."
As she reached him, a decaying hand reached out for her hair, assessing it closely. He fell into a state of reminiscence.
"Where am I?"
It felt as though she'd been ripped through the fabric of the universe, dragged through a nebulae, then dropped from the sky against a rocky, cold ground.
Once Maeve opened her eyes, she could only see the high ceiling above her. She was on the floor, the pulsing light of the Sith obelisk basking her skin in a red glow.
Her skin––it was paler than she remembered it to be. As she turned, her bones cracked and whined. Her hair fell on her face as she struggled to stand. Her once dark blonde hair was now light grey. Alarmed by the changes, she patted herself down, checked for any signs of decay, trying to figure out if her body aged despite it being cryogenized. To her relief, the changes stopped there. The girl initially blamed the changes on her body's state of shock.
“No, the Force…” she mused shortly after, realizing that the power that had flowed through her body during her imprisonment had to have left an imprint on her appearance. Her consciousness had been touched by powers greater than one could imagine––such exposure had its price.
"You're on Coruscant," a warm voice announced. "It's the year 3643 after the Treaty of Coruscant."
The voice was accompanied by a helping hand, wrapped around Maeve's arm. As she got to her feet, she was met by a grim picture. The eyes were a cold and feral yellow, and they gleamed like those of a predator lurking beyond a fringe of firelight; the bone around those feral eyes had swollen and melted and flowed like durasteel spilled from a fusion smelter, and the flesh that blanketed it had gone corpse-gray and coarse as rotten synthplast. But that energy, even though different than she'd felt it the last time, was unmistakable.
"Sheev?" she marveled incredulously, the image much different and more realistic from a few inches away than how she had seen it through the portals.
He smiled and let go of her arm, then removed the hood concealing his face. "Welcome back, sister."
Her eyes teared up uncontrollably. The last time she had seen her brother face to face was back on Naboo, not long before Plagueis ordered her to eliminate him and the rest of their family. Maeve never cared for her parents and other siblings, but Sheev was powerful, ambitious, something she had always admired about him. He was so young when she went to surrender to the mercy of the Jedi Master Yoda. Barely seventeen.
Yet now he stood before her, deformed by the Dark Side, and crippled by time.
Her arms wrapped tightly around him, "I've seen what you have accomplished, and I am so proud of you."
The Emperor pulled away from her, confused. "How could you have seen ?"
"I have watched you during my entire time in there. Your training, your rise, your plans, your Empire. Everything."
Months went by. The Final Order was ready to be released into the galaxy and finally put the base for the new Empire. A broadcast had been sent and received across the entire galaxy, announcing the survival of Emperor Palpatine. It was meant to frighten, to discourage any new act of rebellion against the First Order––and it was working. From the jungles of Ryloth to the shipyards of Corellia, the shadow of the First Order loomed large, and those with the bravery to face them were scattered and isolated. Chatter from all over had been intercepted and analyzed. The plan was going right so far.
"You are slipping up," Sidious's voice reverberated against the walls of his private chambers inside the remodeled Jedi Temple. "You're acting foolishly."
Taken by surprise, Maeve defended herself. "I have no idea what you mean."
"Do not try to play dumb with me," he snarled.
Her right eye twitched, determined to keep her stand. "Enlighten me then."
The room was filled with tension, but something else made the girl feel like there was a pit in her stomach, as the Force swirled around her, buzzing indistinctly, warning her. Something was calling to her, whispering indistinctly in the back of her head.
The relic. Maeve noticed it in the corner of her eye, pulsing in the darkness of the chamber's corner.
"Has your memory been refreshed?" Sheev purred, the anxiety he stirred up inside his sister feeding off his sick mind.
Her eyebrow raised, partly confused, partly challenging him to make a move. "Are you threatening me?"
As soon as she finished her question, the door to the artifact was opened by an invisible hand and she gulped.
This wasn’t another game and she felt it, knew it. Blue lightning erupted from Maeve's hands—pure dark energy, as raw as it was desperate—directed at the man in front of her.
He dismissed it easily, then cackled. "As powerful as you may be, you do not possess the power of all the Sith." His voice was different, powerful, aggravated by the Dark Side. "You are no match for me."
It was true, there was no point in denying it. She had no moves prepared for a situation such as this. Although it had been a possibility that someone would use the relic against her again, the woman held hope it wouldn’t be her own brother.
Maeve stumbled back, breathing raggedly and unevenly, then fell to her knees—a poor attempt to ground herself better, to slow down the process of being pushed back into the abyss. Back to living everyone else’s lives but her own.
"Alright, I'll admit," she almost pleaded. "I have feelings for him, is that what you wanted to hear?"
His gaze didn't soften, obviously not moved by the confession. "I cannot allow such sentiment."
Maeve threw her hands in the air in surrender, anxiously trying to come up with a plan. Anything at all. However, the panic that had settled over her body and mind only made her babble, whatever nonsense presented itself in the moment made its way out of her mouth in the same disorganized manner as were her thoughts. "It's one-sided. It's only causing me pain––pain from which I draw my anger. It's all for the–"
"You can try to fool yourself all you want, but not me!" his voice boomed, then he smirked at Maeve’s slight flinch.
"If you weren't so important to me, I would have him kill you right here in front of me." The distress he was stirring up inside her was intoxicating, as was her turmoil rolling out in continual waves. "I would have you look him in the eyes as he mercilessly slaughters you, see the monster you love so dearly not give a damn whether you live or die."
The woman didn't reply, and chose not to betray any more of the torment he was causing her; she just stared at him, her eyes glistening with a flaming glow. Already surrendered to her fate, to her imprisonment, however hurtful it was to just––give up on everything.
"Alas," the Emperor waved his hand effortlessly and flung her back inside the artifact, then slammed its door shut, "I still need you."
"If only you didn't put me back in that prison, brother. You would've been further along by now." One of her eyebrows arched in a specific way that indicated mockery, "Or alive."
"Finding the relic hidden underneath the Jedi temple was a great accomplishment, especially since I thought you were killed by the Jedi. But it wasn't right. It didn't feel right. Vader and you,” he snarled, clearly still resentful towards the events, “just like Kylo Ren with you now, you created a bond that didn't suit my plans."
"What did it matter to you? You were already planning on replacing him as your apprentice. Vader stopped being your interest the second you realized he wasn't at full capacity anymore, despite his massive accomplishments."
"You loved him," his voice thundered, in complete synchrony with the flash of light in the citadel. "That was sentiment I couldn't allow."
"It wasn't yours to allow," she growled back at him, but regained her cold composure immediately after. A momentary slip. She couldn't let him get to her, there were much more important matters at hand.
After a few moments of silence, Sidious picked up the conversation with a reminiscing tone. "Palpatines and Skywalkers, what an interesting dance we've created between our bloodlines."
She couldn't argue with that–the Force kept bringing them together for some reason. The most impromptu of them all was Rey and Kylo's. Nothing planned–not a result of some elaborate scheme, just chance.
Maeve reached for one of the tubes going into her brother's neck and replaced the fluid at the end of it. "I just meant–" she couldn't help a sigh, "I could have helped you. If not with the Empire, at least with some better way of preserving your body. Don't get me wrong, what you achieved here is marvelous but I could have perfected it. You wouldn't be––decaying like this."
Something was in the air at that point, some sort of hard to share, brotherly affection that couldn't be put into words. Not by two people who had been through what they have been. Not by two people who hurt one another the way they have. But it was there, they could both feel it. For a brief moment, while white film stared into washed out blue, each of them could picture the other when having adoring feelings wasn't such a hard thing to admit. Sheev and Maeve, not Sidious and Morana. Brother and sister, who had once played together or had meaningless fights over who gets the last piece of cake, not over who has the better plan for taking over the galaxy. A simpler time, in many ways.
Then there it was, a disturbance in the planet's atmosphere.
"He is here," the guttural voice of Palpatine broke the silence.
Maeve nodded before strutting into the shadows, hiding away from sight, "just as planned."
"At last," came a voice, and Ren whirled, seeking its source. It was raspy and half mechanized, straining as though in pain, and yet the sound reverberated within his very being. "Snoke trained you well," the voice said. Kylo knew that voice. He'd heard it his whole life. As a young man, it had been like the wisp of a dream, one he couldn't quite grasp. Then the Emperor's transmission had flooded the galaxy, and Kylo had begun to dread that Palpatine had somehow survived, that his had been the whispering voice that had comforted, guided, tormented him for so many years.
"I killed Snoke," Kylo said. "I'll kill you."
"My boy, I made Snoke. I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head." He spoke slowly, deliberately, the timbre of his voice morphing, becoming first Snoke, then Vader, and settling on Palpatine. "I have been your Master all along."
A flash of lightning illuminated a huge glass tank, containing three creatures, liquid life being pumped into them through mechanical umbilicals. They were all the same creature, he realized with a start, with wrinkled skin and an oversized bald head and features caught in a state of everlasting anguish. They were all Snoke.
Snoke came from this place. Yet Kylo's former teacher had told him nothing about it. What else had he kept from him?
When Kylo didn't respond, the robed creature added, "Do you know who I am?" He leaned forward, which disturbed his sleeve enough that Kylo caught a glimpse of his hand, half-rotted away, leaving only a few fingers covered with skin like melting candle wax.
Kylo's grip on his lightsaber tightened. He said, "I know you built the First Order. That I will not be your servant as Snoke was."
"Snoke." The voice filled with glee. "He was nothing but your test. You did well to destroy him."
Kylo Ren was Supreme Leader of the First Order. Before that, he'd been the leader of the Knights of Ren. Before that, he'd been the presumptive heir to the Skywalker legacy and the son of a princess. So he'd been subjected to false flattery and sycophantic compliments his whole life, and he refused to give them power. Then, and especially now. "Who are you to speak of me?"
The voice deepened, shaking with barely restrained power. "I am the one who led you here. Who has foreseen your destiny..."
The figure moved closer. He was unspeakably frail, his body dangling from an enormous mechanism that disappeared into the darkness above. Kylo had seen this before, while studying the Sith, and again while researching clues about Vader's wayfinder. It was an Ommin harness, a mechanical spine once worn by an ancient Sith king.
Without it, the emperor could not survive.
But the Force itself belied any perception of frailty because a cloud of darkness and need swelled from the creature, along with power like Kylo had never before encountered. It was exhilarating.
"The First Order was just a beginning," the creature said. "I will give you so much more."
"You'll die first," Kylo said.
"I've died before. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to abilities some would consider to be... unnatural ."
Kylo knew better than to allow himself to feel a kinship with the creature, but there was no denying that the Jedi would consider Kylo Ren to be unnatural, too. An abomination. A monster, the scavenger had said.
He raised the tip of his lightsaber to the creature's face, which brought clarity to his features. The Emperor's eyes were filmed over with milky blindness, and vials punctured his neck.
All the vials were empty of liquid save one, which was nearly depleted. Kylo peered closer. He'd seen this apparatus before, too, when he'd studied the Clone Wars as a boy. The liquid flowing into the living nightmare before him was fighting a losing battle to sustain the Emperor's putrid flesh.
"What could you give me?" Kylo asked. Emperor Palpatine lived, after a fashion, and Kylo could feel in his very bones that this clone body sheltered the Emperor's actual spirit. It was an imperfect vessel, though, unable to contain his immense power. It couldn't last much longer.
"Everything," Palpatine said. "A New Empire."
The creature raised his ruined hand; Kylo sensed him drawing on the Force, but before he could react, his surroundings disappeared as if into a fog, and a vision filled their place.
A black void, like space without stars. Then lightning flashed, revealing cracked ground. The barren landscape shook, then shattered. A mountain erupted onto the surface. Dirt and chunks of soil fell away, revealing a metal hull, striped with red. Around it, more mountains broke the surface, resolving into massive Star Destroyers, half again the size of the Destroyers from the days of the Empire. A single, giant obelisk erupted also, a navigation tower that would coordinate their final ascension. It unfurled like a metal flower, exposing its petal-antennae to the violent sky.
More ships rose—and more and more—until tens of thousands hovered in the atmosphere.
"For a generation, my disciples have labored," Emperor Palpatine said, his voice dark and deep.
Kylo's heart was racing. So much power. A starfield of Destroyers. The largest fleet the galaxy had ever known. The rumors were all true. Exegol was a world populated by the Sith Eternal, true believers in the dark side of the Force, devoting their lives to this.
"They've built a fleet that will bring an end to the galactic rebellion once and for all."
The vision was whisked away, replaced by hundreds of thousands of stormtroopers, shining in crimson armor. Thunderous marching filled his ears, and with it came the barest hint of a scent he recognized...blaster- seared blood.
With tremendous effort, Kylo thrust the vision aside. Everything he'd seen would be his. But he was no fool. Nothing was really that easy.
No Sith willingly gave up a throne.
"The might of the Final Order will soon be ready," the Emperor continued, his voice uncannily compelling. "It will be yours if you do as I ask. Kill the girl." Kylo had no doubt as to whom the Emperor was referring. "End the Jedi. And become what your grandfather Vader could not. You will rule all the galaxy as the new Emperor."
His breath became a mechanical wheeze, then stopped completely. The robed creatures hurried over, adjusting the machinery attached to his body. One quickly replaced a filter at the end of a tube. Another used a syringe to insert an additive into the remaining regeneration fluid. Kylo watched with detached interest, trying to gauge the creature's strengths and vulnerabilities.
At last, speech returned to him. "As you can see, you must act now. Before my final breath."
Kylo sensed deception in his words, but also truth. "If I don't?" he said in defiance.
"Then the girl will become a Jedi. The First Order will fall. And you will die."
No deception this time; only truth.
"You have already sensed this," the creature added.
Kylo had tried to turn her once. His second-greatest failure, that he could not convince Rey to join him.
"But beware. The girl feels a stirring, that she is not who she thinks she is."
Kylo's eyes narrowed. Finally, he lowered his lightsaber.
He'd glimpsed her parents in a vision, a poor, frightened couple eking out a meager existence, surviving on the edge of desperation. He hadn't been lying when he'd told her they were nothing, nobodies.
But Force visions were filled with tricky truths and potential realities. Maybe he had missed something.
Bringing all the power of the Force to bear, Kylo Ren demanded, "Who is she?"
The rotting remnant of Emperor Palpatine smiled.
"I'll be the one who fills you in," Maeve's voice echoed as her silhouette appeared from the shadows behind the Emperor.
Kylo's look shifted, and there was no more anger rolling into the Force. He was only puzzled, yet happy to see the woman alive and well. "I do not understand," was all he managed to say.
Her hand extended towards him, waiting to be taken by his. "Do you trust me?"
He didn't linger. "Yes."
A full explanation was something Maeve thought to be––unwise.
However, she did tell Ren everything about Sidious's plan. Told him who the scavenger was, and where she came from, as well as what happened to her parents. Something else she explained was her Sith affiliation. Although she preferred to cherry-pick all the best parts of their teachings and leave some of the more radical ones aside, she was a Sith nonetheless––which led to her being imprisoned by Master Yoda many decades ago.
Even though she skipped over the part in which she had been an active participant in the preservation of law and order during the reign of the Galactic Empire for a few years, and the one in which she is also a Palpatine, she did tell him about the Vergence Scatter. How she had been a silent observer of the galaxy's tumultuous story for the past century. How she had seen the sides of all stories.
Something else she mentioned was the suspicion that the bond between him and Rey was more than a simple mind breach allegedly created by Snoke. The woman explained to him the concept of a dyad in the Force and the importance of such a connection in the Sith lore, and advised him not to go through with Sidious's plan to kill the scavenger before making sure the dyad was nothing more than that suspicion.
Kylo had no immediate reaction. In fact, his mind was such a swarm not even she could tell what was going on inside. Maeve understood that what she revealed was a lot of information, including her very presence on Exegol. She knew it would take some time to process, but his silence kept her on edge.
Despite the mastery behind Palpatine's plan and her own promise to never let feelings interfere with her goals again, Maeve had a weakness for the man standing before her. His presence at her side mattered, and not just because they were powerful together.
The silence turned into footsteps stomping away from her. She didn't know what Kylo Ren was about to do, and frankly, at that point, she didn't want to preoccupy herself with his decision. There was still much to be done, with or without his aid.
Most of Maeve's time was spent scheming with her brother, while also keeping close tabs on him. Although more powerful than anyone alive and in no need of additional protection, Maeve felt like it was a risk too great to take. She had given up her freedom to save him, she wasn't going to let anything happen to him now.
Even so, there were many tasks she had been assigned to away from the Emperor, usually in the company of the legendary Darth Vader.
Although they had no military rank, their positions were referred to as Emperor's enforcers. Being the most experienced and talented in the arts of the Force, both Vader and Maeve were tasked to purge the galaxy of the remaining Jedi after Order 66, alongside the squadron of Inquisitors under their command.
"Lady Morana," Vader spoke out as he saw her come out of a conference room.
Her stomach clenched in anticipation. A moment most-awaited, a chance to get closer to the man–or monster–behind the mask and past the formalities.
"Yes, Lord Vader?"
A wave of heat coursed through her body as he approached her and closed the gap in between them, his imposing figure casting a shadow over hers.
"Would you take that walk with me? Sometime soon?"
She smiled, "Of course." After a quick glance at the datapad in her hands, she added with a small shrug, "I'm free now."
His stance changed ever so slightly, but she noticed. Perhaps he wasn’t used to people being so eager to spend more time in his company, not in this form anyway.
"Also, I should mention," she started, "there is no need for that when we're alone," she waved her hand in the air, dismissively. "You can call me Maeve."
"My birth name," she clarified.
"I'm not sure that's indicated."
She laughed, "I do not have a preference between my identities. My Sith name is just as much a part of me as my birth name. I neither reject nor exclude any of them. I just think 'Maeve' is less formal."
He silently mulled over her remark, his mechanical wheeze filling the empty corridor.
After careful consideration, she chose to push her luck and see where it got her. "It's alright to choose between your identities. Especially if one of them causes you pain and you don't want to associate it with your current self. I would never call you anything you're not comfortable with."
"I am Vader," he announced solemnly, "and only Vader."
She shook her head and concealed a smile. "I do not contest that," she replied and placed a gentle hand on his arm, taking notice of the absence of actual flesh. "I, of all people, truly do not contest it."
The memory of his out-of-body experience on Mustafar flashed before his eyes and it made him recoil his arm from her touch.
Vader cautiously kept in mind that the woman before him was his Master's sister—it was entirely possible she was a temptress of some sort. A test to see where his loyalties stood. With his Master, or his old self. As he analyzed her features, he realized the reminiscence was an involuntary act, not an induced phenomenon, the one standing before him unaware of its manifestation.
Almost as if the girl read his mind, she gave him a reassuring smile.
"If I'm crossing a line here, please let me know. Our relationship can be strictly professional if you prefer. One where we keep our titles around one another and act formally."
She didn't care much for that option, Vader felt it.
"But I do hope we can be more than that. I have a feeling we would get along well."
The way she said it led him to believe she had something in mind, a hidden agenda presumably, something that would benefit from their potential alliance. The waves of emotions that rolled out from her into the Force felt genuine. Perhaps their time spent together could turn into a partnership.
In her proposal, he saw an opportunity, a way to make himself even more powerful, with another Sith by his side, one more experienced than himself in the ways and subtleties of the darkness. And one that had truly seen him in the most intimate ways imaginable.
He chose not to respond in the moment, but he kept it in mind, though.
Meanwhile, she looked down at the red carpeted floors, half smiling to herself, concealing the satisfaction of her achievement: successfully infiltrating herself inside the Dark Lord's mind, introducing herself on a more personal note, perhaps even as a potential ally.
< Maeve's hand leaned against the hard glass tank,
staring longingly through the liquid. >
During their time together, they had never been truly alone, whether there were inquisitors or stormtroopers or Imperial officers around. Not until she had been summoned to his fortress on Mustafar.
"Join me on Mustafar," Vader said, extending a command cloaked as an invitation. "There is something that might interest you there."
Maeve was a few feet away from the man when he spoke, staring at a newly filed Inquisitor report on her datapad. She didn't turn around fully, only her head tilted slightly backwards, as to show he tickled her curiosity.
"I am aware that's a personal space of yours. Do you think it's wise for me to invade it?"
"I am positive that you have already seen me in much more private moments," his normal tone lacking emotion suddenly didn't feel so soulless. "A very few select people have seen me outside my suit. You have seen more than that."
So he confirmed it––he knew she had partaken in his spiritual journey through the heart of the Force, lurked into the deepest corners of his soul. Something no one else had been privy to. Not even his Master.
< She watched him now stripped of his physical armor,
sunk in a Bacta tank with machines attached to what remained of his
human body. >
Lord Vader was, simply put, Maeve's object of fascination. An ex-general of the Republic, a Jedi turned Sith, a grieving husband, a damaged spirit filled with a repentance that could never change the past, all buried underneath an armor of anger and hatred––an armor so thick and dense that it had swallowed him whole.
It wasn't until Vader severed all his ties to Anakin Skywalker that she had truly expressed real attachment to his character. Through the portals of the Vergence Scatter, she had witnessed first hand the journey to resurrect his beloved Padmé Amidala, after using Darth Momin's design to open a door into the heart of the Dark Side of the Force. Her rejection to come back and be with him was the pivotal point in Vader's true birth: he was free to murder any remnant of his old self, now baptized in the springs of pure darkness.
< Maeve sat there for a while, not shifting her gaze from the twin flames of his eyes,
which momentarily became the only suns she needed to see. >
It was fascinating to contemplate how such a damaged person could still exude so much power, so much determination, perhaps even more than when he was whole. She was still, in all truth, a young woman––impressionable at times. Moreover, she was a Sith, a part of herself always in search of new ways to gain power.
Vader's strong and compelling figure had created an urge inside her, a craving, a lustful desire. Romantic feelings, spawned from a toxic root. From a dark place. She often wondered if he felt it, her yearning for him. She told herself she wouldn't mind it, Maeve wasn't one to feel embarrassed about her feelings––and she considered it good practice when it came to the strength and durability of the shields she raised around her mind.
Nevertheless, his darkness lured her, and it was intoxicating every fiber of her being in a way beyond what she could ever express in words.
Leaned against the railing of the throne room’s slit openings, Maeve let her eyes wander over the fiery pit of molten lava that was spreading out at her feet. The planet's connection to the Dark Side was exhilarating, a locus of power.
"I presume you are satisfied to have accepted my invitation," Vader's voice pierced the air as he neared her.
"It is magnificent, Lord Vader," she purred. "Too bad you destroyed the gateway into the Force, there was much to be learned from it."
"The locus still exists," he argued.
The girl nodded mindfully, then threw him a sideways glance, "Thank you."
Before replying, Maeve focused her gaze on the very spot in which the man next to her burned all those years ago—the scene still vividly replaying in her mind, as well as his. She knew what it meant to him, that he had brought her here, to his fortress of solitude, into the heart of this temple of darkness. "For sharing this with me."
His red tinted lenses remained fixed upon the view, "You are welcome."
"I have your word?" Kylo Ren said to Albrekh.
"It will be stronger than it was before," he hissed back.
Albrekh was the first Symeong whom Kylo had ever encountered. He was small and thin, with a jutting jaw and long, pointed, wide-spaced ears that twitched with every sound or breath of air. Most important, he was a Sith alchemist trained in classic metallurgy, capable of smithing feats unheard of in the modern galaxy. He stood before a heavy stone table, awaiting the shards Ren had promised.
Kylo considered a moment more. He'd been working alone, pursuing the wayfinder without the Knights, without the mask. But he needed them now to help him
find the scavenger quickly.
The Knights were arrayed behind him; he sensed Trudgen and Kuruk close at his shoulders. Calling them together again had been unexpectedly and perhaps uncannily easy. They'd accepted him without question, saying the results of his trial years ago still stood. He remained their rightful leader.
Now to reforge the symbol of his leadership.
Then to find Rey.
He dumped the shards—all painstakingly scavenged from the wreckage of the Supremacy—onto the stone table. He wasn't sure how the alchemist would pull it off. There were too many pieces, some of them warped beyond recognition.
Albrekh rubbed his gloved hands together in anticipation and got to work. It would take a long time. That was fine. Kylo wasn't known for his patience, but even he found some things worth waiting for. It also gave him the appropriate time to have another conversation he had postponed enough.
He searched for Maeve through the labyrinth that was the underground of the citadel, only to find her reflecting away somewhere, staring at the fleet of the Final Order.
When she turned her head, her eyes lit up. Clearly, she had thought he was mad about her disappearance. He wasn't; her disappearance had affected him, especially in a time as unstable as his self-appointment as the new Supreme Leader. None of that mattered, what he hated was that he had lost his only confidant. His friend.
"I know I left suddenly, but I needed to clear my head and put things in order. I gathered the Knights again, and I needed my mask, and I had t-"
She shushed him gently, taking hold of his hand. "That's all right. You don't have to explain anything."
She watched emotions chase themselves across his face, echoed by jitters and spikes in the Force. Something was different though, there was no loneliness, no sorrow, no anger. Instead, she felt determination, confidence, belonging. She gave him an arched look, silently questioning what all that was about.
"Marry me," he blurted out, eyes locked onto hers.
She snorted and dropped his hand from her grasp. "Where did that come from?"
"I care about you…” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, visibly nervous––or uncomfortable? “I need you by my side. To rule with me."
She shook her head, amused. "I do not plan on leaving your side. That doesn’t mean you have to marry me for it."
"I want it to be more."
She dismissed his intense gaze with a sideways smile, turning her head back at the fleet. It had become a habit of hers to give him vague enough answers to not feel rejected, as well as not feel encouraged. "You should save a proposal such as this for someone you have romantic feelings for, I am n--"
"That's never going to happen." He cut her off swiftly, somewhat irritated by her dismissal. "Marriage will consolidate our partnership. I've seen it not work for love. Our bond is strong. And it would help my current position. You have been a Grand Admiral for a long time, you made connections, people know what you're capable of. This will bring everyone on board with me as the Supreme Leader. It makes sense. You are the only person I fully trust."
She turned her head back to him, with a knowing look. "You say it's never going to happen, but what about Rey?"
Ren visibly tensed at the mention of her name. "Well, I-"
A hand on his tensed bicep silently told him to relax, there was no need to explain himself––she just wanted to let him know that he doesn’t have to hide his feelings from her, that he was in a safe space when talking to her.
"Listen, I will use whatever influence I have to rally the entire Order behind you, as its rightful ruler. But you and I both know there's someone else you want––the scavenger. Considering your bond, I imagine it's hard not to want more." She gave him a smile, assuring him of the genuity of her words. "If you want her by your side on the throne, that's fine with me. I'm not the marriage type anyway."
Until the prospect of marriage was on the table, Kylo had to first convince Rey to join him, contrary to the Emperor's wish for her death.
He pulled a black string of leather out of a concealed compartment from his belt, with a small medallion attached to it. A simple, yet elegant piece––inside the cage-like design was a stone so black, her eyes were hardly able to resist its hypnotic effect. Her hand instinctively reached for it, analyzed it.
"It's not much, but I made it myself."
She looked down at it in awe, the Final Order's fleet perishing in the distance.
"I didn't know you had such good taste in jewelry." She recognized the vanta, a great treasure in the right hands. However, by the looks of the one who offered it to her, it was clear Ren wasn't aware of its value.
His face suggested satisfaction at the praise. "It's a vanta kyber crystal. It's one of the rarest, mined from Ilum. You can't make a lightsaber out of it, the color absorbs all the light that makes the crystal useful as a weapon, but it does hold a certain beauty." He hesitated to continue, but there was no need for secrecy between them. "I've had it for a while–there never seemed to be a good time to give it to you."
"Thank you," she purred. "Now let’s hunt down a scavenger, shall we?"
Ren half smiled, then nodded in approval.
Albrekh spread all the pieces across the table. With uncanny perception and speed, he solved the puzzle of their fitting, placing them in proximity to one another in such a way that Kylo could begin to see how the pieces would again become a mask.
The alchemist used heat pliers and a special mallet to hammer the warped fragments back into shape. The whole room glowed red from the molten metal stewing in a cauldron off to the side. Sarrassian iron, Albrekh had told him. The toughest ore in the galaxy.
With steady hands, the alchemist placed adjoining pieces side by side, then propped them together with magnetic forceps. He grabbed a long application tool that looked like a metal snake and used it to pour bloody iron into the crack between pieces. It cooled instantly, forming a red adhesive stronger than steel.
Kylo Ren was fascinated by power. Extreme competence was a type of power, and he watched spellbound as Albrekh repeated the process of fitting the shards together, molding them with molten red ore, over and over with severe patience, focus, and precision. Kylo flexed his own hands, wondering how the alchemist's palms weren't cramping, how his flesh wasn't burning to ash. His gloves protected him, no doubt, their fabric yet another Sith secret lost to the rest of the galaxy.
Finally, the alchemist balanced the mask on a stand and reached for a large ladle. He poured water over the reforged helmet. The water hissed, turning to steam that fogged Kylo's view. Albrekh repeated the process, again and again, until the mask was fully cooled.
The alchemist removed his gloves. With his bare, hairy hands, he grabbed the mask and offered it up to Kylo Ren. "It's safe to wear," he said.
He took it, admired it. The mask was a thing of jagged beauty. Shaped just as before, but now full of red fractures like crimson lightning.
Broken and re-formed. Like the Knights. Like his grandfather.
The Knights of Ren raised their weapons in honor as Kylo placed the mask over his head. It was heavier than ever. It reeked of molten metal. It was perfect.
Kylo Ren and his Knights charged down a corridor of the Steadfast, a phalanx of sweeping black robes and black masks. Stormtroopers and officers flinched away as they passed. He barely paid them any mind. He'd gotten word that a spy had been captured. He knew exactly how to deal with spies.
They came to a halt before Admiral Griss, a dark-skinned man who always kept his uniform in perfect condition. His eyes flicked to the mud Kylo and his Knights were tracking through the ship, but he wisely said nothing.
Behind Admiral Griss, stormtroopers approached, dragging something between them: an alien with yellow-green skin and four horns—two large horns wide against his skull, and two smaller ones hooking under his mandible. He wore an orange mining thermal suit and a defiant expression.
"Supreme Leader," Admiral Griss acknowledged. "Captured at the glacier colony, sir. A traitor."
Kylo did not hesitate. He ignited his lightsaber and brought it down in a single fluid motion. The traitor's head fell. One of its horns smacked the corridor floor with a resounding thunk.
All his officers were already seated around the table of the High Command conference room—Quinn, Pryde, Hux, Parnadee, Engell, and a handful of others—when Supreme Leader Kylo Ren strode inside.
He slammed the traitor's head down onto the table. They all flinched, he noted with satisfaction, even Pryde. Kylo turned his back to them and walked toward the viewport. "He should find it more difficult now," he said, gazing out at the stars, "to deliver messages to the Resistance."
Kylo waited for all his officers to take a good, long look at the severed head before he added, "General Pryde has reported to you the details of my journey to Exegol." Well, not all the details, of course. Little about the scavenger. But they'd been briefed about the fleet they'd discovered there, that Kylo Ren had made a deal with the remnant of Palpatine and his Sith Eternal movement to commandeer everything for the First Order. "The First Order is about to become a true Empire."
Silence around the table. Green liquid oozed from the alien's head and pooled on the surface. Hux refused to look at it, instead staring fixedly at Kylo and his mask.
To Hux, he added, "I sense unease about my appearance, General Hux."
Hux blinked. "About the mask? No, sir. Well done."
"I like it," General Parnadee agreed.
"These allies on Exegol," came General Quinn's voice. "They sound like a cult. Awaiting the return of the Sith. Conjurers and soothsayers..." His voice dripped with contempt. Quinn was old enough to have been a junior officer in the Empire, and he had little patience for anything that even hinted at religion or mysticism. He'd have to get over that if he wanted to keep his position.
Kylo studied his officers. Quinn's words seemed to have made the rest uncomfortable, especially Hux, whose expression had gone completely taut.
"They conjured legions of Star Destroyers," General Pryde pointed out. "The Sith fleet will increase our resources ten thousand fold." He turned to General Hux.
"Such range and power will correct the error of Starkiller Base," he said to Hux, leaving no doubt as to whom he thought responsible for that debacle.
Pryde was one of the few officers who never seemed afraid of Kylo Ren, which didn't sit well. Kylo would have gotten rid of him if he weren't so competent. Also, it fed General Hux's insecurity to keep the vastly smarter, wiser, and higher-ranking general around. Petty of Kylo, perhaps, but keeping his officers at odds kept them from uniting against him. That was until Maeve returned, bringing her influence over these people on his side. Then all his issues as a ruler would be highly reduced.
"We'll need to increase recruitments," General Parnadee pointed out to General Engell with more than a hint of glee. "Harvest more of the galaxy's young—"
Engell nodded. She'd doubled recruitment already after the death of Phasma had left a void in that area of responsibility. Kylo appreciated her enthusiasm.
"This fleet," General Quinn said. "What is it...a gift?"
This was the exact question Kylo did not want to answer. "What is he asking for in return?" Quinn pressed. "Does he—"
Kylo thrust out his arm, calling on all his anger, all his impatience. General Quinn flew high, slammed into the ceiling. Something in his body fractured loudly, but it didn't matter if the internal wound was mortal or not because Kylo kept him stuffed against the ceiling, gasping like a fish out of water, gradually choking to death.
Kylo stared down at his officers. Hux was visibly shaken. Good. "Prepare to crush any worlds that defy us," he spat out. "In the meantime, my Knights and I are going hunting for the scavenger."
The Emperor wanted the scavenger dead. But Kylo had other plans. He wanted to kill the past, yes. Rule supreme over the galaxy, certainly. And the massive fleet on Exegol would help him do it.
But the ambition that cut into his being was the thought of having her on his side, another Force user at the helm of the new Empire.
They were connected. They had defeated Snoke. Together they would be invincible.
General Hux strode down the corridor of the command ship, barely keeping pace with Ren and Pryde. Behind him came the bass-drum boot steps of the Knights.
They were always around now, stuck like adhesive to their Master, Kylo Ren. Hux hated the fact that he couldn't see their faces behind their masks. Maybe they had something to hide. They were probably hideous, scarred beyond recognition. It was cold comfort.
Allegiant General Pryde was updating Ren on their progress or rather lack thereof. Hux wasn't sure how Pryde was able to deliver bad news without getting his head lopped off with a lightsaber or getting choked to death with the Force. Ren had no soft spots for anyone—except maybe the scavenger—so there had to be something else about Pryde. Something that kept him immune. Safe. Unafraid. Hux currently had resources devoted to finding out exactly what that was.
"Sir," Pryde was saying. "No leads yet, but the search for the girl continues."
"There's no time," said Ren. His voice was distant and mechanical now that he'd re-donned the mask. Hux distrusted masks on principle, but he was glad for Ren's because it spared him the indignant assault of the Supreme Leader's hair. A good leader led by example, and Ren's hair was the furthest thing from regulation. A small detail, to be sure, but details mattered, and this one represented everything Hux hated about Ren. He was the exception to everything. Outside the rules. Disordered.
When Hux finally took his rightful place as Supreme Leader, the first thing he'd do was make Ren cut off his hair.
With uncharacteristic acceptance, Ren said to Pryde, "Then I'll need to locate her myself."
"Yes, Supreme Leader," said Pryde.
"When she's found," Hux interjected, "I'll personally take the kill squads to—"
"Scan all systems for a Corellian YT-1300," Ren said to Pryde, ignoring Hux. "The Millennium Falcon is the ship she'll be in."
He turned to Hux and added, "The Knights of Ren will lead this hunt, General Hux. There is no room for error."
There was no smear of contempt in his voice, no impatience or irritation. Just dismissal.
Hux stood alone in the corridor and watched Ren stride away from him, Pryde and the Knights close at his heels. It was fine that they all thought him a useless imbecile, he assured himself. Advantageous, even. In a way, Hux had his own mask.
After all, the fact that they underestimated him had allowed him to put certain things in motion. This was all part of his plan.
Chapter 9: IX
"You're certain?" General Pryde asked.
"It was her," Kylo insisted. Strange how anyone could doubt the power of the Force, after everything that had happened. Or maybe it was him they doubted.
"In that case, once the necklace is analyzed, we'll know exactly where she is," Pryde said.
Tishra Kandia hurried toward them, Rey's necklace dangling from her hand. Kandia was a top intelligence officer, and one of the few who never balked at his orders to expend First Order resources to find the girl.
"Sir," said Officer Kandia. "Microanalysis says this comes from the Middian system, Pasaana, Forbidden Valley."
Kylo felt a surge of hope. He'd have to move fast. Their Force connection had alerted Rey to his intentions, and she'd flee Pasaana as soon as she'd gotten what she'd come for—whatever that was.
"Prepare my ship and alert the local troops," he ordered General Pryde. "Send a division."
Kylo Ren turned and strode toward the TIE hangar. "Yes, Supreme Leader," Pryde said to his back.
"Skywalker has been a thorn in my side, General. Not only did he aid the small remnant of the surviving Resistance, but because of that feat, now their numbers have grown."
Maeve was restless, it would have been unwise not to see this development as a risk to their operation. Frankly, the rebels won against the Empire with far less.
In truth, they didn't win with numbers, but with Vader turning the tables upside down. What unnerved her most was that the situation could repeat itself. Kylo Ren was still tormented, even though his new position as the Supreme Leader appeared to have partly stabilized his struggle.
Pryde nodded. "I am personally in charge of overseeing their situation. I'm taking all the measures necessary to stop any more growth."
The woman noticed General Hux standing close to the sweep of the external observation portal on the Steadfast, staring at the vastness of space.
"I want them off the list of threats, General."
"Do not concern yourself with this, Master. I will do everything in my power and more to ensure the Emperor's success."
Maeve stopped in the middle of the hallway when she realized something eluded her. "Where is the Supreme Leader?"
Pryde hardly abstained from making a snide remark about the man-child in that position, but he knew Ren and the Grand Admiral were close. "He left for Pasaana, in search of the scavenger girl."
"I see," her attention shifted back to the redhead by the observation portal. "Thank you," she said quietly and dismissed the Allegiant General, then walked up to Hux.
The ginger was lost in thought, she felt there was unease inside of him.
"I miss it too."
The man flinched when she spoke; her words snapped him out of the contemplation. "It?"
"Starkiller Base," she almost whispered. "It was... peaceful there. In those frozen woods you could hear the silence. Suspended in time."
Her eyes searched his face.
His eyebrow was cocked up, almost surprised that there was no sarcasm or snottiness in her tone. Only pure nostalgia and understanding.
"You were a vital part to its creation. I know it meant a great deal to you. Just letting you know someone else appreciated it and misses it too."
He almost cracked a smile at her words, but she felt his unease came from different sources. Her mind searched his, careful not to disturb the fragile balance between softly wandering and downright stomping.
Once she found what she was looking for, the almost fleeting initial disappointment of his betrayal turned into an exploitable opportunity.
With a smile, she turned on her heels to walk away.
"Maeve," his voice stopped her from advancing.
Her head turned slightly, as to not yet appear fully invested in continuing the conversation now that she had to put together some new puzzle pieces.
"Thank you." It was heartfelt gratitude, as one would address it to a friend or confidant, not to a fellow officer.
The woman winked back at him before she continued her strut down the corridor to the Command Center.
Kylo Ren sensed her before he saw her. As he flew his TIE Silencer along the flat desert, she was a bright presence in his mind, practically glowing with determination and ferocity. Something odd pulled at his chest. It was the same feeling he'd had when he'd faced his father for the last time when he'd made the decision to kill Han Solo. You had to kill the past, yes, but you had to kill the light, too, to fully claim the darkness.
He finally understood. Han Solo was his past. But Rey was his light.
That's why Kylo was still in agony. That's why he couldn't shake the memory of his father's hand against his cheek, of those eyes full of love and understanding. Kylo hadn't yet destroyed his light.
Maybe the Emperor was right. She needed to die. That, or he needed to kill the light in her.
And there she stood, barely a dot against the ocher sand, her shoulders squared, facing him down. The girl was terrified; he could sense it like he could sense the sweat dampening his gloves. Yet despite her terror, she was unwavering, ready and waiting.
She should be mindless with fear. She should be cowering. She should have turned to the dark when he gave her the chance. How could she resist? How dared she?
Rage turned his vision red. He didn't care about the Emperor. He didn't care about the Star Destroyer fleet. He just wanted his pain to end.
If Rey wanted to survive what came next, she would have to manifest more power than she ever had before. Show him who she was.
He watched as Rey unhooked her lightsaber and lit it. Kylo Ren hit the throttle.
Rey saw the TIE approach, felt his intentions. Kylo Ren's pain and killing rage were breathtaking.
But she knew just what to do now. Healing the vexis had exhausted her, but it had also opened up new avenues of the Force to her—something about both giving and taking, about a more perfect oneness than she'd understood before. She yearned to talk it over with Leia.
For now, though, she had no choice but to let the Force thrum in her blood, fill her limbs with readiness. She was terrified, yes, but she was also strangely calm. Luke had told her that fear leads to the dark side. But it turned out that terror and calm could coexist. Maybe this is what Leia had been trying to teach her.
She allowed the TIE to approach. Sensing it was the right time, she turned away, lowered herself into a fighting lunge.
Rey glanced back. He was close enough that she could see the shape of his helmet through the cockpit viewport.
Rey sucked air as she sprinted. She would only pull this off with good speed and a lot of help from the Force, but her training with Leia was paying off. She was fit and her limbs were strong. Her lungs were capable. More importantly, her mind was ready.
She pressed forward, picking up more speed. The TIE was close now; its scream was bright in her ears.
Still not close enough. She reached out for the connection she shared with Kylo and felt his determination. She threw a wave of ferocity right back at him.
Her shoulder blades prickled as the ship bore down on her. Not just yet...a few strides more...now!
She leaped up and flipped backward, sweeping her legs in an aerial arc. Below her, Kylo Ren craned his neck to track her flight.
She whipped her lightsaber down at the support pylon.
The TIE screamed past in a cloud of choking dust.
She landed neatly in the sand. Eyes narrowed, ready for anything, she watched the TIE start to wobble. She sensed Kylo's frustration as he compensated at the controls. The support pylon buckled, and the left wing clipped the ground.
Out of control, the TIE tumbled, wings ripping off their struts. The remaining ball holding Kylo Ren rolled at an impossible speed, leaving a ditch in the sand. Finally, it slammed into an embankment, where it lay still.
Rey turned off her lightsaber. She hoped he was dead. No, she didn't. She hoped...she didn't know what she hoped.
She hooked her lightsaber to her belt and headed toward Ochi's freighter.
A figure appeared ahead, familiar in his blue pants and flight jacket. "Rey!" Finn screamed at her across the desert plain. "They got Chewie!"
A transport lifted into view, its drive thrusters already glowing blue. Finn punched the air with his finger. "Chewie's in there!"
No. No, no, no, no.
She'd been here before, standing helplessly as sand blasted her skin, watching a ship carry away someone she loved.
Where there had been calm, now there was only terror. It filled her mind, overflowed into pure, hot power. She reached out with the Force, imagined herself grabbing the transport, wrenching it back planetside.
It actually slowed. Wobbled in the air. Its engines began to whine.
Rey gritted her teeth. Sweat poured from her forehead. She would not let them take Chewie from her.
Kylo Ren yanked off his mask to get some fresh air. He was an idiot. His stomach roiled with this inevitable certainty as he gingerly stepped around the burning wreckage of his TIE. She had run like a frightened womp rat, and in his blind rage, he had succumbed to the temptation, not pausing to consider that maybe she had a plan.
With this realization came another certainty, even more gut-wrenching: He was relieved he hadn't killed her.
Snoke had always encouraged him to pursue his impulses. They were a shortcut to the dark side—and unimaginable power. But his impulse to kill Rey had almost ruined everything he'd been planning.
Kylo didn't know how to reconcile that. The path to the dark side lay in succumbing to one's desires. But his deepest desire, the thing he wanted most, would require planning and patience. The Emperor had figured out how to embrace a plan so long-suffering and painstakingly careful it boggled the mind—and he did it without being tempted by the light even a little.
There was a way. He just had to learn it.
Kylo sensed a tug in the Force as he stepped from billowing smoke into clear air. Far away, Rey stood in the sand, straining, her arm reaching toward—
A flying transport? And she was succeeding in slowing it down!
It didn't matter what—or who—was inside that transport that made Rey desperate to prevent its escape. He was not going to let her have it.
He reached out, felt the massive machinery in his mind, yanked it toward himself.
The transport almost jerked out of her grip, and she gasped at the familiar presence. Kylo, alive and well. Rey would not let him have Chewie. Chewie was hers.
She strained to regain control, and she felt the ship lurch in her direction, but then it whipped right back.
Rey tried to remember her training. Let the Force guide your actions, Leia would say. But thinking of Leia, her training, even for the briefest moment made her lose concentration, and the ship listed again in Kylo's direction.
So Rey bore down with all the strength of her being. Blood screamed in her ears, and her heart was a massive drum in her chest. She drew on her rage at Kylo, at the First Order, even at Unkar Plutt. She drew on her terror for Chewie's life, remembered what it felt like to watch Han Solo drop into the abyss at Starkiller base.
She drew on pain too: the aching hollowness of an empty stomach, the bruised knuckles with no bacta to soothe them, the feel of grit in her molars after a windy day, the dagger-sharp silence of loneliness. Rey opened her mouth in a silent scream.
Raw power burst from her fingertips, arced toward the freighter. It was blue lightning, pure Force energy, brighter than a lightsaber, hotter than a sun. It wrapped its deadly, crooked fingers around the transport, which jerked sideways for the briefest instant and then exploded into a sickening fireball.
Rey stumbled back, gasping for air, as bits of wreckage rained down onto the desert plain. The transport—and everyone inside—reduced to nothingness.
She stared down at her hand in horror. Then at the bits of wreckage. Her stomach heaved, and finally, she screamed, "Chewiiieeeeeeee!" as tears poured down her cheeks. What had she done?
A voice penetrated her haze of guilt-madness: "Rey!" It was Poe, calling to her. "They're coming!"
He pointed toward the horizon, and she turned. Half a dozen First Order TIEs were quickly approaching.
"I'm sorry!" Poe yelled. "But we have to go. Now!"
His voice, along with Finn's rapid approach, convinced her feet to move. She would not lose any more friends. She hurried toward Finn, and together they ran for the ship.
From a distance Kylo Ren watched the freighter rise into the sky, Rey inside it. She had beaten him again, and yet he was filled with triumph.
He'd been right to push her.
She had just demonstrated unbelievable, mind-blowing power. Dark power. Sith power.
The scavenger was almost ready to turn. And when she did, they would both kill their light, embrace their darkness. Then the Star Destroyer fleet— and the Sith throne—would be theirs.
General Hux took a deep breath before stepping onto the bridge of the Steadfast . The Millennium Falcon had been commandeered. He himself had supervised as three TIEs towed it into the incineration hangar.
But it would not be enough.
Ren was not currently aboard, but Allegiant General Pryde was, and he had the ear and favor of Ren. Whatever Hux reported to him, and how it was said, would be relayed in exact detail. Hux had one card to play. He had to play it carefully.
He squared his shoulders and strode in as though he had every confidence in the galaxy. Bridge officers ignored him as he headed toward General Pryde and joined him on the upper walkway. A janitor droid scurried out of his way.
"We recovered the scavenger's ship," Hux began. "But she got away."
General Pryde said nothing.
"Under command of the Knights of Ren," Hux said pointedly, "we suffered losses. Troops, TIEs, a transport was destroyed—"
"I've seen the report," Pryde snapped. "Is that all?"
"No, Allegiant General," Hux said.
He often left little things out of his reports. Hux justified these redactions to his superiors by citing security concerns. But really, it was for moments like this. Hux needed to see Pryde's reaction, understand the older man's response in real-time. If Pryde were allowed to read it while behind a desk, in the privacy of his office, Hux would never know how the news landed.
"There was another transport in the desert," Hux said. "It brought back a valuable prisoner."
Pryde's stride hitched. The Resistance forces had been greatly depleted at Crait. Anyone left was immensely valuable. "Prisoner?" Pryde asked.
Hux smiled. "Come with me."
Hux led Pryde to the door of a holding cell just outside the incineration hangar. The shiny black floor around it was peppered with sand and dust from the planet Pasaana. Hux was about to point it out to the stormtrooper guarding the door, but an MSE-6 series droid scurried over to take care of the mess, and Hux decided to let it go. For now.
Instead, he signaled to the stormtrooper that they were ready.
The door swicked away, revealing an impossibly tall and hairy creature in manacles, surrounded by more troopers. When it saw Hux and Pryde, it moaned loudly, revealing long teeth. Its breath smelled like something had crawled up into its throat and died. Sweet stars, but Wookiees were disgusting creatures.
"The beast used to fly with Han Solo," Hux said to Pryde.
The Wookiee roared, blowing Hux's hair back. The general managed to keep from recoiling, but he felt his cheeks quiver with the effort.
"Have it sent to Interrogation Six," Pryde said dismissively.
Pryde headed away and Hux followed, secretly relieved to get out of range of those teeth.
It was a quick shuttle trip back to the command ship, and it hadn't given Kylo Ren nearly enough time to prepare.
"You don't have to go in there. I can do it for you," said a slightly mechanized Maeve over the comlink.
It was gentle, but there was concern behind it. Somehow–even though the man knew she had the best intentions for him–it irritated him.
"I don't need help," he replied coldly, then turned off the device.
He stopped before the door of Interrogation Six, rallying his thoughts.
He had all the power now, he reminded himself. The Wookiee was his past. He meant nothing to him.
Kylo opened the door.
Chewbacca was shackled to the wall. He looked up at Ren, fury in his eyes.
"I have not forgotten that you shot me," Kylo said. That wound had resulted in a defeat at Rey's hands. Had he been in top fighting form, the scavenger never would have gotten the best of him.
With a wave of Kylo's hand, Chewbacca's shackles opened and clanked to the floor. He removed the lightsaber from his belt. Dropped it to the ground.
"Kill me," Kylo taunted. "I'm unarmed. Now's your chance. Have your revenge for Han Solo."
Chewbacca had never been stupid, and so he made no move. But he growled, dark and low.
"Feel that?" Kylo continued, merciless. "It makes you feel alive, doesn't it? That burning. The dark side. It makes you powerful. You understand that. The scavenger will understand it, too."
He sensed a stab of fear from the Wookiee, on Rey's behalf. Kylo smiled, for he'd just been given his way in. Chewbacca loved the girl. In time, he would love her as much as he'd loved Han Solo.
The way he'd never really loved Ben. Snoke had been the one to show him that.
Kylo's voice crackled with rage. "What was her mission? Where is she going? Give me the answer...or I'll take it myself."
It should have been satisfying to watch Chewbacca wince in fear. Kylo should have felt pleasure in reaching out with the Force, inserting himself into the Wookiee's mind, ripping away his memories and thoughts.
Instead, it was exhausting. He saw flashes of the Wookiee laughing with a much younger Han Solo than he himself remembered. Felt Chewbacca's joy when his best friend married the woman he'd come to love like a sister. Saw the Wookiee cuddling a human toddler, teaching an older boy to fly a speeder, target practice with a young man, their blasters set on stun against a haphazard dummy made of rocks.
Uncle Chewie, he'd called him back then.
Nausea rolled around in the pit of Kylo's stomach when he finally walked away from Interrogation Six. He'd gotten what he needed. Surely the sense of triumph would follow soon.
Hux joined Pryde and Admiral Griss in following Supreme Leader Kylo Ren as he strode away from the hangar bay and interrogation rooms.
Ren said, "I want all the Wookiee's belongings brought to my quarters."
Hux hid his smile. Ren was practically frothing at the mouth. He had a history with his father's co-pilot and seeing the Wookiee had done something to him. The Supreme Leader was likely not thinking with a clear head. Good .
"Sir," Allegiant General Pryde said. "The Knights of Ren have tracked the scavenger."
Ren's stride hitched.
"To a settlement called Kijimi," Admiral Griss added.
"They're searching there now," Pryde said.
Hux needed to insert himself before his peers brought any more good news. He asked, "Shall we destroy the city, Supreme—"
Ren stuck a long finger in Hux's face, effectively shushing him. "Set a course for Kijimi," he said. "I want her taken alive."
His words dismissed them all, and Kylo Ren hurried off alone. Hux stood with his hands clasped behind his back and watched him go, wondering how he always managed to say the wrong thing.
Maeve came from behind him, quieter than a Lothal cat, and patted him on the back, which caused him to flinch.
"Don't worry about it, cutie," she purred as she briskly fondled his freshly shaved chin. "Your moment of glory will come."
She winked and walked past him, and left as quickly as she appeared. He was alone in the hallway, wondering if he had imagined the whole scene.
No, he still felt the imprint of her fingers on his chin.
How much has she seen inside my mind?
Chapter 10: X
Rey entered a bright, white space with soaring ceilings and clean perfection. Kylo Ren's private quarters.
She stepped slowly, carefully, still drawn to the dagger. The room was beautiful and light-filled, but devoid of warmth. As though he didn't care about anything or anyone.
Or maybe that wasn't entirely true, because a few more steps brought her to a pedestal, deep black in contrast with its surroundings, jutting unchallenged from the shiny white floor. A place of honor.
Displayed atop the pedestal was a warped black mask, its eyeholes and vocoder still gaping but melted like heated wax, smeared into a display of perpetual agony. She stared at it a long time—too long—unable to look away. She'd seen this mask in Ren's thoughts when he'd tried to pull Luke's map from her mind on Starkiller Base. It had belonged to his grandfather.
But that horrible mask was not what she'd come for, and she wanted nothing to do with it. She glanced around...there! On a table opposite the pedestal were Chewie's things—his bowcaster, his satchel, and Ochi's dagger.
She reached for the dagger. Wrapped her fingers around the handle—
Screams. A woman crying out, "Rey!" A ship's engines roaring...
"No," Rey whispered, even as pieces of a lifelong puzzle began to click together in her head. She'd dreamed of finding out about her parents, but as the knowledge began to clarify inside her, Rey finally considered that maybe she'd rather not know.
The floor shifted beneath her feet, and the air went dark. What had begun as a Force vision changed, became a connection.
"Where are you?" came Kylo Ren's voice.
Rey whirled. Ren stood alone before her, masked, surrounded by darkness. Snow dusted his cape.
"You're hard to find," he said.
"You're hard to get rid of." She began to turn away. He was worth no more of her time.
"I pushed you in the desert because I needed to see it. I needed you to see it. Who you are. I know the rest of your story. Rey..."
She spun back around. Whipped up her lightsaber and aimed it at his throat. "You're lying."
"I've never lied to you."
Oh, but he had deceived. Kylo's words always had an element of truth, even when their intent was pure falsehood.
"Your parents were no one," he said. "They chose to be. To keep you safe."
"Don't!" she said through gritted teeth. She hated this. That he had knowledge of her that she didn't, that he was the one to tell her.
"You remember more than you say." As she backed away, he reminded her, "I've been in your head."
"No. I don't want this." And she didn't. Not from him.
"Search your memory," he demanded.
"No!" She swung the lightsaber. He brought his own to bear, and they clashed, blue on red.
"Remember them," he said, relentless. "See them."
A beautiful woman in a blue hood, tears in her wide brown eyes. She hugged a tiny girl to her chest. "I know," she said. "Rey, be brave."
A young man, stubble along his jaw, staring at the tiny girl with such love and hope and desperation. "You'll be safe here. I promise."
The Bestoon Legacy flying away, disappearing into the clear Jakku sky. "Come back!" the little girl cried, but Unkar was yanking her arm, yanking her away from the last sight of her parents...
Rey pushed the vision away, even as she pushed against Kylo's lightsaber, thrusting him back.
"They sold you to protect you," Kylo said. They circled each other. "Stop talking."
"I know what happened to them."
His calm was maddening. She rushed him, swiped, and stabbed with a series of blows. She was faster now, the lightsaber more like an extension of herself than a separate weapon, but he countered easily.
Rey swung; he dodged. Her lightsaber sliced through a basket. Red berries came from nowhere, spilled out, brighter than blood against the... white floor of Ren's quarters?
They were together and they were separate, in each other's minds and spaces, but Rey didn't care, she just wanted to land a blow, to hurt him. Their blades sizzled with impact as they fought, creeping closer to Vader's mask.
"Tell me where you are," Kylo demanded. "You don't know the whole story."
Rey attacked again. He dodged, stepped back to give them some space.
"It was Palpatine who had your parents taken," he said, like a patient teacher, as though they weren't in the fight of their lives. "He was looking for you. But they wouldn't say where you were."
She circled him slowly, looking for an opening. Anything to get him to stop talking.
"So he gave the order."
A vision filled her mind again, and Rey was helpless against it: Black-eyed Ochi of Bestoon raising his horrible dagger.
Rey's mother pleading with the assassin. "She isn't on Jakku! She's gone —No!"
Ochi thrusting the dagger into her father's gut. Her mother's cry of anguish becoming sudden silence.
"No!" Rey screamed, launching at Kylo.
Their blades clashed, hummed with impact, and all at once she glimpsed his location, or maybe she was actually there for a split second—the shadowy stone rooftop, the icy air. Kijimi. He had probably just missed her.
She was having no luck getting past his guard, so she swung blindly, chaotically. He moved to block.
The pedestal shattered. Darth Vader's mask tumbled toward the ground...and disappeared.
"So that's where you are," Kylo said, looking down, presumably at the mask. "Do you know why the Emperor's always wanted you dead?"
"No," she said, but the confusion on her face was the only answer he needed.
Immense satisfaction tinged his voice as he said, "I'll come and tell you."
Rey took several steps backward. What had she done? She'd let her anger get the best of her again. Let herself get distracted. Now Ren knew exactly where she and her friends were.
She half expected him to renew the attack, but he didn't. All went silent. Her vision of him winked out. Her own breathing was loud in her ears. The shattered black remains of the pedestal were strewn at her feet.
What just happened?
No time. She had to get everyone off this ship now before Ren returned. She hefted the dagger, grabbed Chewie's things, and sprinted for the freighter.
It didn't take long for First Order officers to appear on the scene. Finn glared as General Hux approached. The other guy was new to Finn, a slender, severe fellow with a perpetual frown and a piercing blue gaze. Rank insignias in the First Order were subtle, but Finn knew them all. This man had extra shoulder pleats and a double rank band on his left forearm. He could be none other than Allegiant General Pryde, outranked only by the Supreme Leader himself.
They were so dead.
"The girl's not with them," blurted one of the stormtroopers holding them prisoner.
Allegiant General Pryde seemed bored. "Take them away. Terminate them."
Finn couldn't believe it. No interrogation? Not even a single question from the allegiant general? What was so important about Rey that they'd ignore the opportunity to get intel about the Resistance from members of its core leadership?
Hux stepped into Finn's space, so close he could feel the general's hot breath on his skin. They locked eyes. "At last," Hux said.
If Finn had a credit for everyone who wanted him dead for deserting the First Order...Well, he had no regrets, no matter what happened next.
Pryde left, but Hux tagged along as stormtroopers thrust rifle butts into their backs and shoved them down the corridor toward the execution chamber.
It was a small room, with jets built into the walls. Once they were dead, the jets would release heat and toxins to break down their remains, then vacuum everything up, leaving a perfectly sterile chamber. All physical traces of their existence would be obliterated.
"Turn around," a stormtrooper ordered.
They faced the wall.
"Actually, I'd like to do this one myself," Hux said, and Finn heard the click of a blaster accepting a new identiprint.
Suddenly Finn realized he did have one regret: that he couldn't see Rey one last time. Tell her that—
"What were you going to tell Rey?" Poe asked as if sensing his thoughts. "In the tunnels."
"You still on that?" Finn awaited the inevitable.
"Oh, I'm sorry, is this a bad time?" Poe said.
Finn nodded. "It sort of is a bad time, actually, the worst—" Chewie complained that he was going to die hungry.
"I suppose later is better?" Poe said. "I mean if you want to get something off your chest, now is not the worst time—"
A blaster shrieked.
Death did not come. Finn opened his eyes and turned.
Hux stood over the stormtroopers' dead bodies, his blaster tip smoking after close-range fire on the highest setting.
"I'm the spy," Hux announced.
" What? " Poe said.
" You? " added Finn.
"We don't have much time," Hux warned.
Finn, Poe, and Chewie all gaped at him.
"I knew it!" Poe said, sticking a finger in Hux's face.
"You did not," Finn said, rolling his eyes, which he knew was petty, but who cared? They were alive.
Hux had good news for Finn and Poe: The Millennium Falcon had been commandeered by the First Order and was right here on the Steadfast . Finn could hardly believe their luck.
But he also had bad news: It was scheduled to be incinerated, by order of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren. They could save the ship and get away in it, but they'd have to be quick. And they'd have to leave the droids behind. Finn would come back for them somehow. And Rey.
General Hux led the way. They passed officers and stormtroopers, droids, and maintenance crew, and although a giant, hairy Wookiee occasionally made someone do a double take, Hux's presence gave them unhindered passage through the ship's corridors.
"Look!" came a familiar mechanical voice behind them. "There they are!"
Finn spun. C-3PO! Looking ridiculous in Chewie's bandolier, and carrying the Wookiee's satchel and bowcaster. With him were BB-8 and the little cone-head droid.
"Friends!" said Cone-head.
Poe seemed as relieved as Finn felt. "Beebee-Ate, Threepio, come on," the pilot urged.
Hux hustled them toward a door. "I shut down the impeders," he said. "You've got seconds."
The general opened the door revealing the Falcon, unscathed except for the entrance lock, which was a conspicuous mess of charred wires. No worries; Rose could have that lock working in no time.
"There she is," said Poe. "She's a survivor."
They headed toward the ship, but Finn felt a hand on his shoulder. "Wait!" said Hux. "Blast me in the arm. Quick."
"Or they'll know." Finn raised his blaster.
"I could kill you," Finn said, testing the thought, letting it roll around inside him. He did not enjoy killing. He hadn't even enjoyed watching Phasma fall into the flaming wreckage of the Supremacy.
Maybe he could make an exception for Hux.
"You need me," Hux said.
True . But Finn could still make it hurt.
He shot Hux in the leg, doing as much external skin damage as possible. Hux grunted, and sweat broke out on his suddenly red face.
"Why are you helping us?" Finn asked. Hux hated the Resistance. Hated them all. Finn was certain of it.
"I don't care if you win," Hux spat out through his pain. "I need Kylo Ren to lose ."
Oh, Ren. No amount of influence on my part can help you with this one, Maeve thought amused as she watched the scene on her holopad, through the cameras of her spy drone. It ended just in time for her meeting with the Allegiant General.
"Ah, General!" she exclaimed as Pryde entered the conference room. "Glad you could join me!"
Rey and Kylo circled each other like stalking wolves, slow and intense. An audience formed around them as stormtroopers charged into the hangar to watch.
He was going to tell her something important. She was desperate to hear it. Maybe she should just kill him. Or maybe she should flee.
She remembered what Leia said to her. Never be afraid of who you are. Spoken as Rey was wrapped in a loving embrace, with no trace of judgment. Only acceptance.
The memory filled her with resolve. With strength. And she asked: "Why did the Emperor come for me? Why did he want to kill a child? Tell me."
He stepped toward her. "Because he saw what you would become. You don't just have power. You have his power."
Dread was a dark miasma, filling her until she was sick with it. She knew what he was going to say. She knew it.
"You're his granddaughter. You're a Palpatine." He let the words settle for a moment.
She backed away toward the hangar entrance, away from his words, away from the certainty rising within her. It was true. She sensed it. All the darkness inside her, the rage...
Kylo pressed forward mercilessly, backing her closer and closer to the void. "My mother was the daughter of Vader. Your father was the son of the Emperor. What Palpatine doesn't know is that we are a dyad in the Force, Rey. Two that are one."
Her heart stopped. The dyad .
His words rang with truth, deep in her very soul. They shattered her, emptied her of everything.
She forced herself to continue edging toward the abyss where the hangar ended and the high atmosphere of Kijimi began. Rey peered over, gauged the distance to the hazy ground. Too high a jump, even with the help of the Force. Maybe she should try it anyway.
"We'll kill him," Kylo said. "Together. Take the throne."
He removed his mask. It suddenly occurred to her how long it had been since she'd seen his face. The scar on his cheek had faded, but it would still mark him forever. "You know what you need to do," he said. "You know."
He extended his black-gloved hand to her.
She looked at it. Remembered. The last time he'd extended a hand to her had been in the wreckage of Snoke's throne room. Their combined power had defeated him. It was true that together they could do such incredible things.
Suddenly, she sensed a weight at her back, and along with it, Finn, his presence a bright beacon of light, piercing the dark.
"I do know," she told Kylo. Rey turned toward the abyss.
The Falcon rose before her. Stormtroopers volleyed blasts at the ship, but the Falcon swiveled on an invisible axis. Poe hit the thrusters, blowing back everything in the hanger. Stormtroopers slid away helplessly.
Rey braced herself. She sensed Kylo doing the same behind her.
The Falcon remained hovering in the air as the access ramp descended, revealing Finn, wearing a breather and wielding a blaster. "Rey!" he called.
Debris flew past her, kicked up by the wash of the Falcon's engines.
She turned back to Kylo one last time. She hated him for telling her.
And yet she was glad he had. A dyad...
"C'mon!" yelled Finn.
She sprinted for the edge, then launched herself toward the Falcon. Finn grabbed her arm before she could sail by, and swung her onto the ramp. They sprinted into the Falcon's belly as the ramp rose, closing them in, and the floor shuddered beneath her feet as Poe whipped the ship around and hit the accelerator.
Kylo Ren and Allegiant General Pryde surveyed the hangar bay. They'd lost four stormtroopers, one cargo pilot, and two maintenance workers when the Falcon's engine wash flooded the hangar, pushing them into the high atmosphere of Kijimi. Kylo considered it a small price to pay to encounter Rey again, to provoke her into a rage, to say the word dyad and watch the truth of it wash over her lovely face.
The remaining maintenance crew had quickly restored the hangar to working order, but small fires burned throughout the bay. A few troopers lay injured on the floor; one bled badly from a leg wound.
He hardly paid attention. He kept seeing her face, the way her lips had parted with surprise, the way her body had canted toward him. If the Millennium Falcon hadn't appeared, she might have come to him, taken his hand.
Kylo really hated that ship.
"Are you sure we shouldn't pursue?" Pryde said. "You scanned the dagger?"
"Of course, sir."
"Then we know where she's going."
He'd been so very close. But now she knew the truth. She would accept it. She would come to understand that darkness was her destiny. Next time he saw her, she would turn.
Chapter 11: XI
"But I don't think you should go," she pleaded with him to stay and reconsider his strategy.
Ren's mood was already unstable. The trouble he had to go through with the scavenger–now Palpatine's granddaughter on top of everything–and chasing her around the galaxy had exhausted him. He couldn’t even remember the last time he rested.
Worst of all was an even greater imbalance going on inside of him. Not necessarily between light and darkness, but trying to decide between killing the girl or using her as a weapon against the Emperor.
The pressure from the members of the order was harsh as well––the entire chase not to their liking in terms of wasted time and resources.
Maeve questioning his decision, especially in front of stormtroopers and officers, made his blood boil. She was supposed to help his position, not diminish it even more.
He roughly grabbed her by the arm and dragged her along to a more private place.
She flinched, surprised by his action. "What's wrong with you? What was that for?"
He thrusted a gloved finger in her face, prompting her to lean back, with an eyebrow raised that indicated her indignation.
"Just because you're you , doesn't mean you're free of consequence," he snapped.
"What do you mean? I haven't don-"
"I am the Supreme Leader!" he said, unusually loud, the mask adding a chilling component to his tone. "You will not question me and my actions!"
She stood bewildered before him and took a moment to gather her thoughts.
Clearly, something disturbed him and he wasn't in the right mood to discuss anything at length. She still wanted to stop him from going, but she knew there was no point in pushing it further.
Moreover, she already had other orders to fulfill.
She bowed her head formally. "Forgive me, Supreme Leader. It won't happen again."
His gaze burned holes into her head, but she refused to look back up at him before he turned on his heels and left in a huff.
She stared as he walked away, knowing he could feel her eyes on him as well. Just as he disappeared from her sight, she climbed up into her TIE fighter and rode off back to Exegol.
"The Jedi apprentice still lives," the Emperor said.
Kylo was in a corridor of the Steadfast , but he was speaking with Emperor Palpatine—whose power was even more vast than Kylo had realized. Only Rey had been powerful enough to communicate over long distances like this—or maybe it was their strange connection that was powerful. Not even Snoke had been able to do it, and Maeve never tried it–she always prefered to use the comlinks.
But such a demonstration of power was costing the Emperor, because he looked even more frail than before. Kylo didn't know how it was possible for the Emperor's necrotic vessel to appear paler than the last time, but it did. His eyes were nearly closed, and his breathing was labored. "Perhaps you have betrayed me," Palpatine said. "Do not make me turn my fleet against you."
"I know where she's going," Kylo said, shielding his thoughts. "She'll never be a Jedi."
The Emperor's voice was like thunder in his head. "Make sure of it," he said. "Kill her!"
Kylo Ren brought down a mental curtain to cut off their connection. Just in time, for he could hardly contain his sense of triumph.
The Emperor was terrified of Rey. Of her power. Once she accepted her destiny as part of their dyad, they would be unstoppable.
General Armitage Hux stood before Allegiant General Pryde, several stormtroopers beside them. His leg wound had been smothered in bacta gel and bandaged. Now his leg was uncomfortably warm and a little bit itchy. Small price to pay for getting away with treason and murder.
"It was a coordinated incursion, Allegiant General," Hux reported. "They overpowered the guards and forced me to take them to their ship."
Pryde stared at him a moment, nose high, eyes narrowed. "I see."
Hux kept his face perfectly, determinedly blank. The bandage around his pants was stained with blood. A good showing that would bolster his account, he thought. But beneath his pant leg, a bit of bacta gel had oozed through the bandage and begun to slither, wet and warm, down his leg.
Pryde's perpetual frown deepened. Something flashed in his eyes, something Hux had never seen before.
He suddenly found the act of breathing to be nearly impossible.
Pryde turned to the unit leader. "Get me the Supreme Leader." Then he grabbed the stormtrooper's rifle, pointed it at Hux, and shot him point-blank in the chest.
Hux's mouth opened and closed soundlessly as flashes of pain lit up every fiber of his being.
"Tell him we found our spy," he heard Pryde say.
His last thought was of the scavenger. He hated that girl. She had ruined everything. Yet over and over again, she had faced Ren and survived. It gave him one bright shining spark of hope against the oncoming dark: Ren might still lose.
Then that spark, too, was consumed by darkness, and Hux knew no more.
"After all this is over," Maeve began as she strutted around the room, "what are you going to do with Kylo Ren?"
Sheev was silent, his features betrayed nothing. That didn't sit right with her.
"You're going to kill him, aren't you?" Her voice was incriminating, yet cold. "Do you really think that's wise?"
"Are you questioning my plan?"
"No, I'm questioning your choice. He has Skywalker blood, he is useful."
"He is damaged, his soul is weak and torn apart." It was his turn to incriminate. "This love interest of yours is interfering with my plan once more," he hissed.
"If you had truly seen inside my mind as you had claimed, brother , you would know this isn't a love interest,” she argued with an eye roll, partly amused to entertain such an idea. “Far from it even."
"He is going to betray you, his heart is set on her. Can't you tell, stupid child?"
She raised a finger threateningly at him, "Who are you calling a child? Need I remind you I'm older than you?"
He squinted his white orbs at her, mockingly. "You are still so young, so stupid." His voice was deliberately deepened, both by the echo of the citadel and the combined darkness of the Sith who came before him. A warning, to put his sister back in her place. "You let your feelings cloud your judgment," he snarled. "Just like you did with Vader."
She took a deep breath, tried to calm herself down, it wasn't the time to act on her anger. Her brother had a way of throwing her balance off. Most likely on purpose, based on his poorly concealed satisfaction when her eyes shifted their color, enhancing the momentary surrender to her darker emotions.
"Love is weakness," he continued somberly. "Plagueis told you, I told you, you learned it yourself. And yet here you are, going through the same cycle once more."
Maeve stared at him, her yellow eyes glowing in the darkness of the room. There was truth behind his words, there was no denying it––she had been weak before.
It was weak of her to want to save her brother, to forfeit the completion of her training, to choose surrender instead of power, which led to decades spent in a prison outside space and time.
It was weak of her that instead of fully focusing on ridding the galaxy of Jedi, perhaps even save the Empire once Luke Skywalker was dead at her own hands, she also opened her heart to Vader, and allowed her feelings for him cloud her judgment–through no fault of his own. It took her off the path to becoming the Sith she was meant to be.
However, the prison itself turned into an opportunity to find balance and knowledge while also indulging in the power provided by both entities of the Force.
Whereas the betrayal of her brother, when he imprisoned her once again, opened her eyes to what feelings caused weakness and what feelings would make her more powerful. Her friendship with Kylo Ren was adequate to her plan. The worst Ren could do was turn back to the light, and she included that possibility long before Sheev mentioned it.
The Emperor was toying with her mind, using her residual feelings for Vader and the pain they brought to attempt to create a false image of Kylo Ren in her mind.
Unfortunately for him, she wasn't as naive as he thought, not anymore.
“If this is your way of trying to make me do the dirty work for you, again , then you are mistaken,” she threw back over her shoulder at the wheezing man. “If you want to kill Ren, you will have to do it yourself.”
Maeve turned around abruptly to see Sheev displeased that his ruse didn't take.
"Your mind games may work on others, but you can't keep them up with me." She walked like a predator towards him, ready to pounce at any moment. "And you might still have some of your little tricks still handy, but in your state, you can't take me. So I'd be more careful when threatening me."
There was a slight tremor in his lip, almost undetectable.
"As you said, feelings make you weak, and I have learned my lesson,” the woman continued somberly. “I will not save you at my expense again." She allowed him to relax as she took a step back. "Now, let's get down to business," she announced.
"Everything is prepared. They have been waiting for you."
Kylo Ren loomed over the scavenger with the wayfinder in his hand, his shoulders dimpled with drops of ocean.
Despair nearly choked Rey. She launched to her feet and ignited her lightsaber.
"Look at yourself," he said. He was maskless. Somehow, she knew that he would never wear his mask for her again. "You wanted to prove to my mother that you were a Jedi." His voice oozed contempt for that notion. "But you've proven something else. You can't go back to her now. Like I can't."
His words cleared her head. Because he was wrong. Her darkest self had told her not to be afraid of who she was. But so had Leia. Leia knew. And she had still chosen to train her.
Kylo Ren did not understand his mother at all.
"Give it to me," she ordered.
He seemed confused for a moment, as though surprised that she could still resist. "The dark side is in our nature," he tried again. "Surrender to it."
"Give it. To me," she said, pushing with the Force.
He lifted the wayfinder, stared at it. His expression turned smug. "The only way you're getting to Exegol is with me."
Rey gasped, began shaking her head. No, no, no...
His grip tightened. The wayfinder shattered. Something viscous oozed out of the remains, slipped through Kylo's fingers. He opened his palm to reveal nothing but sticky dust. The thing she'd come halfway across the galaxy for, risked the lives of her friends for, had been obliterated.
"No!" she screamed.
Hot, primal rage rose inside her like volcanic magma, and she erupted forward, swinging her lightsaber.
He leaped out of the way of her blow, ducked under the next. He whirled away from her, cape flying.
Vaguely, through her haze of fury, she realized he was not attacking her, and somehow this enraged her further. She reached, drew power from the Force as though she were a bottomless whirlpool—more, more, more. Her attacks increased in speed.
Finally, he could dodge no longer. His own lightsaber was suddenly brought to bear, and they clashed, their blades crackling and humming with energy.
Over and over she swiped, slammed, stabbed, and he countered with effort, matching her ferocity. But he gave ground.
Kylo stepped back, dropped into the shaft.
Without a second thought, she leapt after him.
She hardly recalled traveling any distance, but somehow they ended up outside the wreckage, on a bridgelike hunk of metal only meters wide. A massive gun turret loomed over them; beyond it and half drowning in spray was Ren's parked TIE. The ocean raged all around, but she pressed her attack, oblivious to the added danger.
Kylo Ren had no choice but to attack in kind, and it was so satisfying to strike, again and again, only to have their blades clash like cymbals. The impacts shivered into her shoulders, bruised her spine and hips. It was better than thinking about what she'd seen, what he'd done. Who she was.
A presence cut through her awareness, shining and bright. And a voice screaming: "Rey!"
Finn was running toward her, leaving Jannah behind to watch their skimmer. Rey's instinct to protect Finn was overwhelming. With no thought at all, she called on the Force and thrust out with her hand. He flew backward toward Jannah at the edge of the bridge wreck. A wave crashed down on the stretch of bridge between them, cutting Finn and Jannah off from her sight.
The sea was boiling now with a rising tide. As she raged against Kylo Ren, the Force opened itself to her, flooding her with new power, and she found herself leaping out of the way of massive waves, then landing on her feet only to leap again. Kylo leaped after her, using the Force to propel himself into the sky, then again to control his landings.
She would not leave this place until one of them was dead. But her blade was not breaking through his guard. She gritted her teeth and attacked him with Force energy. He flew backward, caught himself, landed neatly.
Kylo advanced, pushing with his own Force energy. Her temples began to throb with pain, but she stood her ground.
He sent the thought directly into her mind: I know you.
No one does, she shot back .
But I do.
She screamed and launched herself at him again.
He was physically stronger. The longer they fought, the clearer it became. But she was a little faster. Their sabers collided. He pushed. She slid backward on the slick metal surface, his chaotic blade gradually getting closer and closer to her face. She felt its vibration near her cheeks.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a colossal oncoming wave. The ocean was reaching high tide. She leaped as the wave crashed down, using the Force to propel herself high and backward.
Rey landed in a crouch before another gun turret. She looked around. No sign of Kylo Ren. Maybe the wave had washed him away.
No, there he was, striding unerringly toward her, ocean water pouring from his hair, his face. He had withstood the wave. The expression on his face said that he could withstand anything.
She attacked, and he countered. But she was tiring, slowing. She hadn't slept in how long? And she had not yet recovered from healing the vexis. Her hand smarted with every blow.
Another attack, another block, and this one knocked her off her feet.
He loomed over her, raised his lightsaber.
Rey stared up at him. She was going to die on this wreck of a space station. But maybe it was better to die now than to give in to the darkness later.
She glared, preparing to dodge, accepting that maybe she wouldn't be fast enough.
Kylo froze, lightsaber held high.
" Ben ..." his mother's voice washed over him like one of the waves.
Kylo Ren's gaze suddenly became distant, and he dropped his lightsaber.
Rey caught it, exultation filling her. She was going to win. Through the Force came a mighty sundering.
Kylo Ren stumbled.
Rey's stolen blade pierced Kylo, running him through—as incomparable loss washed through her soul, carved her out, left her empty and aching. "Leia..." she muttered, as if all the air had left her lungs.
Kylo collapsed, stared up at her in agony, his chest heaving. He blinked hard, against pain, against whatever he was feeling. Leia's last thoughts had been of her, and Poe, and the Resistance—but mostly Ben. Leia still loved him. She had forgiven him. She had called him to the light.
Rey's hands trembled as she turned off her lightsaber, bent, and did the same to Kylo's. She knelt before him, unsure what to say. His wound was mortal, that was clear. His eyes searched her face, though she wasn't certain what he was looking for. His cheeks were wet, and she couldn't tell where ocean spray ended and tears began.
"Your mother..." she said.
He closed his eyes as if accepting the inevitable end. Rey didn't know what to do.
She'd had a chance to kill him before, and she hadn't. With him broken before her, vulnerable, she found she was even less eager to watch him die.
What would Leia do?
Rey reached out, put a hand on his chest.
His eyes flew open. He stared at her in confusion, and maybe...longing?
The air filled with a resonant hum. Rey drew on everything around her —so much life in that violent ocean!—but mostly she drew on herself. She gave.
Kylo's lips parted. His breathing settled. Muscle and sinew and skin were renewed, rejoined. Even the scar on his face knitted closed, leaving his cheek smooth and perfect.
Rey slumped over, exhausted. She felt his astonished eyes on her, sensed his unasked questions. He was alert, now. Whole. Brimming with life and energy.
But he said nothing.
Between breaths, she tried to explain. "You were right. I did want to take your hand. Ben's hand."
Before he could respond, Rey grabbed Luke's lightsaber. The healing had exhausted her, and she was unsteady on her feet as she ran toward the TIE fighter parked on the wreckage.
She dropped into the pilot's seat. It took a moment to orient herself to the strange controls, but they soon made sense to her, as flight controls always did. She took off, looking back to see Kylo staring after her, still astonished. Finn and Jannah were motes on another island of wreckage, and she was glad to see the Falcon approaching. They would be okay.
She didn't know where she was going. She just knew she had to get away. Rey felt like she was being ripped apart, by the truth of who she was, by grief.
Rey let instinct guide her as she punched the coordinates into the navicomputer. She broke the atmosphere and entered hyperspace.
At the top of the Command deck, Maeve stood with her hands behind her back as she regarded the pale blue light of fleeting stars and nebulae through hyperspace, lightyears away from Kef Bir.
A sensation of hollowness took over her body, and caused her legs to shake under the weight of her own body. She took a step back, grounding herself better on the sleek surface of the deck, and raised a hand to her aching head, trying to contain the sudden lightheadedness.
"Well played,” she growled under her breath, addressing an invisible entity.
Loathing simmered inside of her, but she steadied herself. The princess of Alderaan had won this time. There was nothing to be done about Kylo Ren's turn, but there was still much to be done for the rise of the new Empire.
Chapter 12: XII
Kylo Ren stood on the wreck of the Death Star, gazing at the ocean. He'd been standing there a long time, watching the tide gradually recede. Physically, he felt better than he ever had in his life.
But his mind was in turmoil. He hadn't known such healing was possible, didn't understand how it had been done. But that wasn't the question that troubled him most. Why had Rey healed him? Why would she do such a thing?
Why had his mother loved him right up until her last moment? Snoke had lied about that. Snoke had lied about all of it. All those voices in his head, torturing him throughout the years, they had promised him that a moment like this could never happen.
They don't care about you. Just their precious New Republic.
And later , just their precious Resistance.
His mother had sacrificed herself to reach him. Then Rey had healed him, at great cost to herself. In spite of everything he'd done.
He had failed to kill the light within himself because it had been all around him all along. In Rey. His mother. Even...his father.
"Hey, kid," came a voice. The familiarity was like a lightsaber through his gut. He turned.
Han Solo stood before him, untouched by ocean spray. He looked exactly the way Kylo remembered him last—except his features were calm. At peace.
"I miss you, son," he said.
Kylo blinked. This couldn't be real. "Your son is dead," he said.
His father smiled. "No," he said, striding toward him. Their noses were inches apart when he added, "Kylo Ren is dead. My son is alive."
He let his gaze roam his father's face, his jacket, the blaster holstered at his side. Everything felt so real. He could even smell the gear lubricant Han Solo had always used to keep the Falcon's converters running.
"You're just a memory," he said.
" Your memory," said his father. His eyes were so full of love. They were like daggers. "Come home," he urged.
"It's too late." It was something the voices in his head had always said. It's too late for you. They'll never take you back . But this time it was true, because: "She's gone."
"Your mother's gone. But what she stood for and what she fought for... that's not gone."
He stared at his father, afraid to believe his words. Afraid of his own memory. Afraid of what he was feeling.
"Ben," his father said.
"I know what I have to do," Ben Solo admitted, his voice tremulous. "But I don't know if I have the strength to do it."
Han raised his hand to Ben's cheek. Ben remembered it exactly. Rey had been right; he hadn't been able to shake the memory of the warmth of his father's palm, the calluses at his fingertips, the acceptance in his eyes.
"You do," his father said.
Han Solo still believed in him. So had his mother. So had Rey.
Ben raised the handle of his lightsaber, just like he had on Starkiller Base, the last time he'd seen his father. Except this time...
"Dad...?" he said, suddenly small. Vulnerable. Right.
Han Solo smiled. "I know."
Ben turned, and launched the lightsaber into the air. It sailed in a high arc, far above the wreckage, and disappeared into a haze of ocean spray.
When he turned back, the memory of his father was gone, and Ben Solo was alone in the middle of the sea.
He knew what he had to do. Somehow, he would find the strength to do it.
General Pryde knelt in the dark before the hologram. He was in an area of his private quarters. No one had access to this place but him. Even Supreme Leader Ren didn't know it existed.
It took effort and careful planning to erase all record of these transmissions, but the risk was worth it. Everything had been worth it.
The creature in the hologram spoke. "The Princess of Alderaan has disrupted my plan," said Emperor Palpatine. "But her foolish act will be in vain. Come to me on Exegol, General Pryde."
"As I served you in the Old Wars, I serve you now."
The image sputtered. The transmission was weak and fragile, having made a near impossible journey through the Unknown Regions and anomalous space. But it was enough. "Send the ship to a world they know," Palpatine said, and Pryde's heart skipped. This was the moment he'd been waiting for. "Let it burn. The Final Order begins. She will come. Her friends will follow."
As his Master grinned—a slow, centipede crawl across his mouth— Allegiant General Pryde shivered in near-ecstasy. "Yes, my lord."
A flurry of complex coordinate data followed. The way to Exegol. The Emperor was trusting him with his most precious knowledge. "Behold, the fruit of your labor," his Master said, as the data streaming toward him revealed another frequency channel.
Pryde's hand shook as he turned the holodisk to the new frequency. A different image sputtered before him—a flat surface, cracked ground, lightning flashes and haze. A colossal fleet hovered in the atmosphere at a staging altitude. So many of them. So beautiful.
The Sith fleet that was his life's work, hidden no more.
As soon as the image settled, indicating he had a good lock, he gave the signal.
He held his breath, waiting.
A single ship separated from the rest. It gradually rose above the others until it had achieved a safe distance, then disappeared into hyperspace. He yearned to go with it.
Everything he had worked for his whole life was finally coming to fruition.
He was a pragmatist, though, and not even the ecstasy of the moment could allay his concerns. The ships were temporarily vulnerable, unable to raise shields in the planet's hellish climate, but there was no choice. Much of the final building, inspection, testing, and maintenance must occur in atmosphere. The Emperor's crews would work triple shifts to get it done.
Pryde could have stayed forever, admiring the sight of the Sith fleet, but he had work to do. He smiled as he ended the transmission. Everything was proceeding as his Master had foreseen.
The Sith Star Destroyer popped out of hyperspace above the white, frozen world of Kijimi. Final Order captain Chesille Sabrond stood on the bridge and watched as a cloud system shifted, revealing the ridged line of a massive mountain range. It must be huge, to be visible from space.
Captain Sabrond had never been outside the Unknown Regions. She'd been raised on Exegol, belowground. It had taken years of hard work and dedication to get this premium assignment, captain of the Derriphan, the designated advance destroyer. She'd killed three people, sabotaged two others, and barely slept in twenty years, just so she could be among the first to fly out into their new galaxy.
Their virgin flight had been a success. Now to test the weapon.
She glanced around. The bridge was filled with Final Order officers, many raised on Exegol like her, others from various planets in the Unknown Regions. Several were children of the Empire, following in their parents' footsteps. Many of the crimson-clad stormtroopers had been conscripted by the First Order as children—and then carefully culled and "disappeared" by spies based on their potential. Everyone on this bridge had worked toward one goal: the return of the Sith.
"Kijimi is in range," said one of her lieutenants.
Captain Chesille Sabrond smiled. "Fire!" she ordered.
The deck rumbled as the massive cannon under the ship's belly erupted.
The entire planet imploded, sucking in on itself. Then, like an exhale, it exploded into a cosmic mass of ice and rock and magma.
Captain Sabrond wanted to yell her triumph, but that would be unprofessional. Instead, she calmly gave the order: "Contact Imperial Command. Tell them the planet Kijimi is no more. Then set a course for our return to Exegol."
Rey exited hyperspace. The planet Exegol was finally before her, shrouded with dark clouds that flashed bright with lightning. The instruments on her console beeped warnings about the approaching atmosphere.
She ignored them, angling downward into the clouds, grateful to be piloting Luke's X-wing. It was old tech, and it had taken some fast thinking and even faster fingers to get it flight worthy—the wing patched with the door to Luke's hut, shield panels scavenged from the TIE wreckage, and a hefty amount of rewiring. It might never fight again—not without help from Rose and her parts-requisition channels. But it was still fighter-class, and its transition from vacuum to atmo was seamless. Rey had needed its added stabilizers to fly Exegol's unfriendly skies.
Her ship dipped below the cloud line and she gasped. The Sith fleet spread out before her, even more vast than her vision had led her to believe, shining bright in relief against the perpetual storm, stretching as far as her eyes could see. The vessels were based on an older model, from the days of the Galactic Empire, but they were so much bigger than those. Extra gun turrets and laser cannons attested to a much greater ordnance capability than her Resistance friends were expecting.
Her ship wobbled a little—gravity well. She compensated quickly, and cruised to an altitude considerably below the Sith fleet. Exegol was a horror of a planet, but its atmospheric anomalies might confuse the Destroyers' sensors and keep them from noticing her tiny ship. In fact, she was counting on it.
Moments later she was on the ground. The air was hot, the soil fissured with dryness. A dark building breached the clouds ahead of her, and for the briefest moment she considered giving in to terror. Such malevolence radiated from the building that she knew exactly what—who—she would find inside. Even more terrifying was the fact that the presence was familiar. As though some form of it had been watching her, maybe her whole life.
Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi.
Rey pressed on.
She stepped beneath a massive monolith that seemed to hover in the air. She would trust Luke and his lightsaber to light her way.
Rey removed the lightsaber from her belt and ignited it. She startled a bit when the section of floor she stood on detached from the rest, began to descend. She looked around, alert to any sight or sound, but all was as silent as death.
Then a rumble sounded, too distant to identify.
The lift settled, and Rey stepped off. She raised her weapon, and its blue light snagged on huge stone faces, sparking with electricity. She knew, without knowing how she knew, that the statues commemorated Sith Lords who had come before. This place of evil must have been here for centuries, maybe millennia, for the air was heavy with the weight of time and dark secrets.
Rey was suddenly aware that she was not alone. Figures scurried in the shadows, but she sensed no immediate threat from them, so she continued on. A few more steps took her past a dizzying array of lab equipment— monitors, tubes, some kind of tank, all empty and abandoned.
Just like the planet's surface, the floor here contained fissures, and light flashed deep down—Rey couldn't tell how deep—as though Exegol's entire crust had formed around a core of electricity.
She came to a narrow stone corridor, and her gaze was pulled forward. A chill pimpled the flesh of her arms, because resting upon a dais was the shape from her vision. A chair with spikes curving up and around it, like a halo of giant thorns. The throne of the Sith.
Rey stepped toward the dais. The rumble grew louder.
The corridor broke open into an amphitheater as big as a hollowed- out mountain, brimming with robed figures. There were thousands of them, faceless in the dark distance, but pulsing with zealotry. Religious disciples, awaiting the return of the Sith. As she approached, the rumbling swelled, became a collective, worshipful welcome.
"Long have I waited," came a voice from her nightmares, deep, resonant, and slow, as though he had all the time in the galaxy.
Rey turned toward the voice. A robed figure materialized, suspended from strange machinery. Her grip on the lightsaber tightened when she saw his face. He was monstrous, repulsive, with red-rimmed eyes, skin barely clinging to his skeletal form, disintegrating into oozing sores. One of his hands had half rotted away.
It was her grandfather, his spirit trapped in an artificial form, his power too devastating to contain.
"My grandchild has come home!" he added triumphantly.
He radiated evil, but her feet twitched toward him. She could not look away. There was something oddly compelling about him.
"I never wanted you dead," he said. "I wanted you here, Empress Palpatine ."
This was nothing she wanted, she reminded herself, even as her feet threatened to step forward.
"You will take the throne," he assured her. "It is your birthright to rule here. It is in your blood. Our blood." Several figures stepped forward, draped in crimson,
similar to Snoke's guard, which she and Kylo had defeated together. Rey had a feeling these guards would prove more formidable adversaries.
She forced herself to sound strong, to back away from the Emperor. "I haven't come to lead the Sith. I've come to end them."
"As a Jedi," the Emperor said, his voice oozing contempt.
He smiled. "No. Your hatred. Your anger. You want to kill me. That is what I want. Kill me and my spirit will pass into you. As all the Sith live in me. You will be Empress. We will be one."
The Emperor said, "The time has come!"
As one, thousands of disciples fell to their knees, chanting something in a language Rey had never heard.
Palpatine's eyes widened with zeal. "With your anger, you will take my life, and you will ascend. As I did, when I killed my Master, Darth Plagueis." He grinned, showing gray teeth and oozing red gums. "Now. Raise your saber and strike me down."
Rey frowned. Luke had warned her about this. "All you want is for me to hate. But I won't. Not even you."
"Weak! Like your parents."
She shook her head. "My parents were strong. They saved me from you."
As if reading her thoughts, the Emperor said, "I've made this very proposal before. But on that unfortunate day Luke Skywalker had his father to save him.” He almost laughed darkly, “The only family you have here––is me ."
The cavernous room shook. Light poured down as a vast stone ceiling opened, revealing Star Destroyers silhouetted against a furious sky. The Resistance fighters were gnats in comparison, darting in and out, dodging fire from monstrous cannons and Final Order TIEs. Explosions lit up the sky. Her friends were dying.
"They don't have long. And you are the one who led them here," the Emperor pointed out.
Tears filled her eyes. The Resistance fighters were losing badly. The Emperor was manipulating her, yes, but he was doing it with the truth. This was her fault.
"Strike me down. Take the throne as Empress. Reign over the new Empire and the fleet will be yours to do as you wish. Only you have the power to save them all. Refuse and your new family dies."
The thought swelled in her head, until she was giddy with it. Empress. Would that be so bad? Maybe taking on this mantle would be worth it. To bring peace. To save her friends. The whole galaxy would have no choice but to be saved.
Rey stared, agonized, at the battle above her. "Very well," Palpatine said. "Finish them." "Wait!" she said. "Wait."
He paused, thinking she was nearly his. But a presence was making itself known to her, even through the cloud of evil and rage and terror. She gazed off into the distance for a moment, probing, all the while shielding her thoughts.
Kylo Ren had given her lots of practice at shielding her thoughts.
She turned back to the Emperor, filling her mind with thoughts of surrender. With resignation.
Her grandfather smiled indulgently. "Good," he said. "It is time for a scavenger to rise as an empress. Strike me down and pledge yourself as a Sith."
It had taken Ben Solo too long to climb through the ruins of the Death Star in search of a hangar bay, even longer to find an old scout-class TIE and coax it into flying for him. He'd then followed Rey's transmitted tracking markers toward Exegol, but the scout's barely functioning navicomputers had taken a wrong turn, and he'd found himself grinding through unknown rough space. It had taken all his concentration to correct his course and get back on track.
All that had been the easy part.
He landed his TIE scout beside an old Rebellion X-wing. He couldn't help pausing to stare at the two ships. Old enemies, parked side by side.
Something tingled at the base of his skull, a familiar awareness...Rey! She sensed him. She understood that he was Ben again. He caught a wave of relief from her, of joy. Then, abruptly, nothing.
She was in trouble.
He was unencumbered by helmet or cape, and he sprinted for the monolith, ducked beneath it, launched himself into the shaft. Nothing would stop him from reaching her.
He caught himself on one of the massive chains dangling from the ceiling and looked down. The floor was so far below him that it was lost in shadow. Too far to climb down quickly, probably too far to jump down safely.
Rey had healed him. He had accepted his father's forgiveness. He might even forgive himself someday.
He would find the strength to make everything right, no matter what. Ben Solo called on the Force, and dropped.
"The ritual begins!" the Emperor cried out, and the mass of followers surrounding them responded with a ceremonial chant so loud and deep it shook the very ground. "She will strike me down, and pledge herself as a Sith."
The lightning in the cavernous cathedral intensified, reflected against her grandfather's milk-blind eyes. She took one step forward. Another.
Thoughts shielded from the Emperor, she sent out her awareness, searching. There!
She just had to stall a little bit longer.
The robed figures had not bothered Ben at all when he was here last, but this time they launched themselves at him with fury. He blasted them easily, one shot for every kill. Not long ago, he would have taken pleasure in this, but now he had only one consuming desire: Help Rey.
He reached the end of the Sith monoliths and rounded a corner. Familiar figures manifested in the flashing dark. First Vicrul and his scythe. Then Kuruk and his plasma blaster. And suddenly all six were arrayed before him. His Knights.
For the briefest moment, Ben actually thought they'd come to help.
But hate rolled off them in waves like fetid air. The Knights of Ren had never been his. They had belonged to the Emperor all along.
A final betrayal.
Snoke had been nothing more than a pawn. The Emperor had whispered poison to Ben his whole life. Now even the Knights, those whom he thought his faithful brothers, were raising their weapons for the kill.
They surrounded him slowly, like predators stalking their prey. He could take two or three at a time, but these were his very own. He'd trained with them. They could even touch the Force in a small way. He didn't stand a chance against all of them at once, not armed with just a blaster.
Maybe it had been premature to throw his lightsaber into the sea.
An image lit up his mind, another lightsaber, flashing blue. It was a message from Rey.
"She will draw her weapon," the Emperor intoned.
Rey made her face blank. She unhooked Luke's lightsaber and ignited it.
"She will come to me!" he said, and the crowd responded with a collective yell.
Rey stepped closer still. Her grandfather smelled like rotting meat.
Ben blasted one attacker, thrusted away another with the Force, spun to face a third...
...as something cracked the back of his skull, sending him to his knees.
Another blow crushed his abdomen, robbing him of air, and he bent over gasping.
The Knights, in their supreme arrogance, backed away, allowed Ben to gain his feet. He seemed defenseless to them. They must have never really respected him, or even his abilities, to give him ground now. Ben sucked in air as they circled for another attack.
"She will take her revenge," Palpatine boomed.
Rey continued to approach. His power was intoxicating. She found herself raising her weapon, almost against her will. If not for the other presence in her mind, bright and shining with light, she would not have been able to resist him.
"And with the stroke of her saber, the Sith are reborn! The Jedi are dead!"
Wave after wave of triumph emanated from him, and along with it came knowledge, memories. Maybe it was their shared blood that enabled her to see his
thoughts, but somehow she could, and Rey saw it then, how he'd done it, what he was about to do again:
falling... down a massive shaft, the betrayal sharp and stinging, a figure high above, black clad and helmeted and shrinking fast. His very own apprentice had turned against him, the way he himself had turned against Plagueis...whose secret to immortality he had stolen.
Plagueis had not acted fast enough in his own moment of death. But Sidious, sensing the flickering light in his apprentice, had been ready for years. So the falling, dying Emperor called on all the dark power of the Force to thrust his consciousness far, far away, to a secret place he had been preparing. His body was dead, an empty vessel, long before it found the bottom of the shaft, and his mind jolted to new awareness in a new body —a painful one, a temporary one.
It was too soon. The secret place had not completed its preparations. The transfer was imperfect, and the cloned body wasn't enough. Perhaps Plagueis was having the last laugh after all. Maybe his secret remained secret. Because Palpatine was trapped in a broken, dying form.
The heretics of the Sith Eternal toiled, splicing genes, bolstering tissue, creating unnatural abominations in the hope that one of these strandcasts would succeed and become a worthy receptacle. The heretics would do anything, risk anything, sacrifice anything, to create a cradle for their god- consciousness.
Nothing worked. But their efforts were not entirely in vain.
One genetic strandcast lived. Thrived, even. A not-quite-identical clone. His "son." But he was a useless, powerless failure. Palpatine could not even bear to look upon such disappointing ordinariness.
The boy's only worth would lay in continuing the bloodline through more natural methods.
And it was through that eventual union, unexpected as it was, that Rey was born. The perfect vessel. Strong enough to contain all the power of the Sith. His granddaughter...
The vision shifted. It was Luke, sitting crosslegged on the island of Ahch-To, trembling with effort as he projected himself onto the battlefield of Crait.
And yet another flash, this time of Leia in her jungle quarters, giving everything she had to send a final thought to Ben.
They were all manifestations of the same power. And now Rey would use it in her own way.
She lifted her saber as if to strike—
—and reached for the connection she shared with Ben. Showed him.
He acknowledged her, and Rey's lips parted in surprise. It felt different now. The connection was...right. Good. Like coming home.
Ben was similarly stunned, and together, they wasted a precious moment reveling in this new sharing. This is how it should have been all along. A true dyad.
The Emperor and Snoke had robbed them of this.
"Do it!" Palpatine screamed. "Make the sacrifice!"
Rey lowered the lightsaber behind her back, as if readying for a massive blow. She reached for the Force. The effort made tears sting in her eyes.
The Emperor leaned forward with gleeful anticipation.
She raised her hand...which was now empty. She had projected her weapon away.
Rey watched her grandfather's dawning horror as he finally realized his mistake, allowing Rey and Ben to come together. Their bond—refined in the fire of mutual searching, shared grief, rage and hate, but also of compassion and empathy—was the one thing he had not foreseen.
The moment Ben felt the grip of Luke's lightsaber in his palm, he knew it belonged to him, an extension of his very own self. He raised it slowly, relishing the feel of it.
The Knights startled backward a few steps.
Surprise , he imagined his father saying.
Rey grabbed Leia's lightsaber from where she had hooked it to her belt, behind her back. Ignited it.
Suddenly, she was surrounded by the crimson-clad guards. They raised their blasters and fired. She deflected one blast with her hand, sent it careening into the abdomen of one of the guards, while whipping her lightsaber around to block the rest.
She drew on Ben's strength, and he drew on hers, and just like before, they were separate but also together, Rey battling guards, Ben battling the Knights.
Behind you , she warned, and he brought up his saber to block his back, whirled, impaled Trudgen, flipped over his falling body, spun, and did the same to Ushar.
He stared at the bodies of his fallen former comrades. Then he sprinted for the throne room—
—as Rey used the Force to collapse a guard under his own weight, and then throw him back into the darkness. She deflected another blaster bolt, dodged another.
She spun to face the final guard, but Ben got there first and tossed him aside like a piece of garbage.
They stood facing each other for the space of one breath, two...together at last. Ben was different. Relaxed. Unguarded. How had Rey not noticed before that he had the long face and posture of his father, the warm brown eyes of his mother?
As one, they turned to face Palpatine, dropped into fighting stances, raised their lightsabers.
The Emperor snarled. "Stand together, die together," he said. Then he raised his rotting hand and impaled them with the Force.
Their backs arched against their wills, and the pain was breathtaking. Their lightsabers dropped from their hands and clattered to the ground.
The Emperor yanked them toward himself, and they slid across the floor, helpless against his power, as he took, and took, and took.
The Emperor gasped. Stared at his hands, which had begun knitting themselves back together, bones regrowing, pale flesh closing over them. "The life-force of your bond," he said, his voice tinged with wonder. "A dyad in the Force!"
Had Maeve known about the dyad? he wondered. She had spent more time around Ren, she couldn't have missed the signs. If so, she never mentioned their connection to him, not one as strong as this one. He decided he would deal with his sister later, when she would return from her mission.
His gleeful triumphant thoughts washed over Rey, as she struggled against his grip, unable to move. He had won. At last. All those years, all that searching. He'd tried to create a dyad with Anakin, as his Master had tried to create one with him. The Rule of Two, a Master always in desperate search of a yet more powerful apprentice, was a pale imitation, an unworthy but necessary successor to the older, purer doctrine of the Dyad.
"Unseen for generations," he crowed. "And now the power of two restores the one true Emperor!"
He raised his perfect, healed hands, and called on all the dark power of the Force and the Sith who had come before him, and pulled their life from their very bodies. It poured from them like a river of light, leaving them weaker and weaker.
The Emperor laughed as his body strengthened, became whole. The milky film faded from his eyes, revealing golden irises around obsidian pupils.
Rey and Ben lay collapsed on the floor as Emperor Palpatine released himself from the Ommin harness and drifted down. He stood straight and strong now. Invincible.
The Emperor raised his voice to the throng. "Look what you have made," he said. Their chanted response was thunderous, and he stood, hands slightly raised, as if absorbing their worship as power.
Ben forced his near-lifeless body over onto his hands and knees. Rey remained limp beside him as he struggled to his feet and faced his enemy.
The Emperor was not impressed. "As once I fell, so falls the last Skywalker."
He lifted Ben with no more than a thought, thrust him away with such force that he tumbled end over end through the length of the cathedral, then disappeared into a flashing abyss.
Rey would have screamed, but she could barely draw breath.
"Do not fear their feeble attack, my faithful!" the Emperor said, Ben already forgotten. His lips spread apart into a nightmarish grin, and he lifted his face to Exegol's sky. "Nothing will stop the return of the Sith!"
He raised his hands as though reaching toward the battle overhead. Even through her haze of weakness and exhaustion, Rey could sense him draw on the Force.
The Emperor's power was staggering now. No, their power. Hers and Ben's.
Tears streamed down her face as he used their stolen power to create a conduit of Force lightning. Writhing, crooked tendrils of light shot from his fingers, coalesced into a thick stream of light that burst into the sky, flooding the Resistance ships. They sparked helplessly against the onslaught, tilting on their axis.
The Emperor would not stop laughing as he took his throne, light still shooting upward from his fingertips. Rey hated the sound—grating, smug, oddly familiar.
She was near death; she knew it with certainty. She didn't want his laugh to be the last thing she heard.
She could hardly move, but she managed to roll over onto her back. Her vision blackened with the effort.
She reached for Ben—nothing. Their connection had weakened when the Emperor stole their life-force. She'd vaguely sensed Ben falling, but it was like he'd fallen out of existence itself, leaving her carved out and broken.
Rey's limbs refused any order to move, much less stand, so she stared at the battle above. Not that it was a battle anymore. Explosions peppered the sky. Black debris rained down everywhere, trailing smoke and fire. The Tantive IV listed, then plummeted.
She had failed so utterly.
The Emperor's power was beautiful to behold, reaching ever higher, spreading out like a flower of light. In a way, she and Ben had made that. But the Emperor was using it for unspeakable evil. And now she was helpless. Dying.
What would Leia do?
The answer came to her gently, like a soft morning breeze.
She had to give. She had to give everything.
Rey remembered her training, and she reached into the Force. Steadied her mind. "Be with me," she whispered.
Her true power would always come from oneness.
"Be with me. Be with me."
The battle above disappeared. Instead, Rey saw a perfect sky, vast with stars. Peaceful. Light-filled. It was like she was staring through a window to somewhere else, a place between places.
"Be with me."
Her body relaxed. She embraced peace and calm, the way Leia had taught her.
Through the calm, came a voice. These are your final steps, Rey. Rise and take them.
Then others joined.
She didn't recognize them all, but somehow, she knew them the moment they made themselves known to her. They'd been with her all along; she just needed to learn how to hear them. Like Leia had promised.
More voices came at her fast but gentle, as though she lay at a confluence of the Force, possibilities, futures and pasts all stretching away from her, or maybe leading toward her. The cosmos, time, energy, being— nothing was the way she'd thought it was.
Bring back the balance, Rey.
In the night, find the light, Rey.
Presences filled her awareness, some recent, some ancient, some still anchored to the living in a strange way. Rey didn't understand. But she accepted.
Alone, never have you been.
Every Jedi who ever lived, lives in you.
The Force surrounds you. Let it guide you.
As it guided us.
Palpatine had wanted Rey for himself. But she chose to be their conduit.
Their vessel. She was a Jedi.
Rey moved an arm. Then a shoulder. She let the voices surround her, fill her, strengthen her. She turned over, placed a palm to the ground, pushed up.
We stand behind you.
Rise in the Force.
She got a knee beneath her, leveraged herself up onto her toes. Rey paused, crouched, gasping for air. Her muscles didn't want to obey. Every movement turned her very bones to knives of pain.
In the heart of a Jedi lies her strength!
The voices were becoming louder, even more powerful.
Luke's voice became deep and insistent, rising above all the others. A well of power from which to draw: "Rey, the Force will be with you. Always."
She rose. Summoned Luke's lightsaber, which skidded across the stone and smacked into her hand. The blade ignited, and Rey stood, full of strength freely given to her by those who had come before.
The Emperor’s maniacal smile disappeared, replaced by a scowl. The avalanche of light from his fingertips ceased.
He rose from his throne and stepped forward. His eyes glowed with lingering power. "Let your death be the final word in the story of rebellion." Palpatine reached with his arms, sent Force lightning zagging toward her.
She whipped up her lightsaber and blocked it. The impact nearly knocked her from her feet, but she reached for the Force, and stood her ground.
His attack intensified. "You are nothing!" he yelled. "A scavenger girl is no match for the power in me. I am all the Sith!"
Her wrist felt like it was going to break. But it wouldn't. Not today.
"And I," she said, reaching for more strength, for Leia's lightsaber. It clicked into her hand. "I am all the Jedi."
She brought the second lightsaber to bear, crossing its blade with the first, creating an impenetrable shield.
Rey stepped forward, pushing back against his onslaught. Then again. Every step was anguish. It was taking everything the Jedi had given her, everything she had.
The lightning began to feed back on the Emperor. It ravaged his face, and he tossed back his head in agony, and in denial of what was happening. Rey pursued mercilessly, one foot in front of the other, absorbing power from the Force. Finally, she was ready. She gathered her strength, her faith in the Jedi past, her love of her friends, and she thrust it all at the Emperor.
He staggered backward, his own power reflected against him. It devoured him completely, ripping away his newly healed fingers, searing away the skin of his face, his very bones, until he disintegrated.
And like collapsing stardust, what remained of him coalesced into a single point, which then exploded with a massive shock wave that threw Rey to the ground. The Sith throne shattered. The ceiling bouldered down around her, crushing thousands of disciples in the amphitheater.
The Emperor was no more.
Rey gazed at the tumbled wreckage of the cathedral around her. She couldn't feel her arms and legs. Vaguely, she heard the clink of her lightsabers hitting the ground—when had she let go of them?
She reached for the Force one last time...Some of her friends were surely still up there somewhere. She sensed...Finn! And...Jannah?
Giving absolutely everything was no big deal at all—compared to saving her friends.
She reached for Ben too, but her legs gave out, and she crumpled to the ground.
Ben's fall had been caught on a jagged outcropping. His ankle was twisted, and he was pretty sure he'd broken at least two ribs. But he had to get back to the throne room.
Because he couldn't sense Rey at all.
The climb up was agonizing. Each time he reached for a handhold, a hot knife of pain stabbed his left side. Dizziness threatened to send him tumbling back into the abyss, but he kept on, one hand over the other, until finally his fingers grasped the top.
He hauled himself over the side. Paused a moment to catch his breath. Dragged himself to his feet.
Ben made it only a few steps before he crumpled, forced himself to his feet yet again, limped forward.
He could see her now, collapsed on the floor, and the pain in his chest was suddenly so much worse than that of a couple of broken ribs.
She seemed at ease, almost as though she were sleeping, except her eyes were wide and staring, lifeless and dull.
He hardly knew what he was doing as he crouched beside her, wrapped his arms around her limp form, yanked her onto his lap. Rey's skin was growing cold. Her barren eyes stared up at him, and he imagined them accusing him. You did this. This is your fault.
No, Rey would never be that way. Those thoughts were the vestiges of Snoke's conditioning. Rey was good. Kind. No matter what had happened between them, what he'd done, she'd always showed him compassion.
He cast his gaze around the ruined cathedral, as if answers might lie in the shadows. But there was nothing. Just aching emptiness and a sense of loss so sharp and terrible it was like a vise around his gut.
Ben pulled her against his chest and hugged her to himself for a moment. He'd just found her, really found her. He'd wasted his life, he knew that now. But anyone who could have shown him the way forward, helped him be Ben again, was gone. Luke. His parents. And now Rey.
He couldn't make himself believe it. Rey was the strongest person he'd ever known. She'd fought off the darkness in a way he never could. She'd saved everyone. She deserved better.
As he held her, he sensed something. The tiniest spark. And he realized: The Force hadn't taken her yet.
He knew exactly what Rey would do, in his place. It was the easiest decision he'd ever made.
He cradled her gently and placed his hand on her abdomen. He closed his eyes. Called on the Force. Ben didn't have much strength left, and he was about to do something he'd never done before. Fortunately, Rey had shown him how to give.
Ben poured everything into her. He found reservoirs he didn't know he had. He gave her his whole self.
Then his head snapped backwards, then the rest of his body followed and collapsed only moments later.
Rey's diaphragm rose with a breath, and her warm hand covered his, but it was cold. Her eyes lit up.
She sat up, but she realized she wasn’t alone. Rey stared at the lifeless body on the ground. Tears streamed down her face.
He had sacrificed everything for her.
She did not mourn Kylo Ren. She would never mourn Kylo Ren. But she dearly would have loved the chance to get to know Ben Solo. It felt like half of her was missing, and she supposed it was. The girl who had felt alone for all those years on Jakku had been part of a dyad the whole time. And just when she'd discovered that precious connection, that incredible oneness, it was ripped away.
She retrieved her lightsabers and sprinted from the ruined cathedral.
A haze slowly lifted from Ben's body and the initial whiff of air inside his lungs felt like he had just drawn his first breath. He smelt smoke and burning flesh, combined with combustible and dust. It wasn't the best first breath, but it made all the difference.
His senses were so dulled, it made him wonder if he was conscious. It felt as though his mind was a stranger in the body he inhabited. He tried to assert control over his limbs, but found it to be futile. Even his eyes refused to open.
He tried to remember where he was, and what happened.
He and Rey were on Exegol, she used all the life Force she had to save the world from the rule of her grandfather. He gave her all he had left, in hope that she would live on and bring balance to an unstable galaxy. Then he remembered seeing a starry sky, followed by darkness.
Am I dead? Is this what death feels like?
His answer came moments later when he heard a series of restrained grunts nearby; moments later, arms pulled up his limp body. Gentle hands pushed aside the hair that was stuck to his sweaty face. He recognized those hands.
The thought acted as a shot of adrenaline that went straight to his numb mind and his eyes flew open. The image before him awakened the rest of his slumbering body and jolted him into sitting up instantly.
Corpse grey arms covered in swollen dark veins, as if the blood running through them turned into black plasma, reached for his hand. Charred fingers like the tips of black leather gloves gently held him.
"Maeve, I–" he paused, lost for words.
The woman's whole appearance was ghastly, an object of nightmares. Her once light gray hair was now pitch black, with only a few stray, white strands. The veins on her neck and face looked just like the ones on her arms, and the white of her eyes almost disappeared, leaving two glowing, red rimmed yellow irises on a bleeding sclera. The rest of the skin was so sickly looking, it reminded him of the Emperor’s, the only difference was she didn’t seem to be rotting away. Not yet anyway.
He couldn't help a gulp, but she smiled.
"It can't be a pretty sight," she admitted, too casually for his own taste, "but everything comes with a price."
"I was gone, wasn't I? How did you–"
A hand pressed against his lips and put an end to the interrogation. It smelled like embers and smoke.
"I know you must have a lot of questions, but I'm not sure if I have time to explain. I also don't know how this is going to come to pass," she said, then drew a deeper breath of air.
A low wheeze came as the air went down her throat, as if her airways were scorched and strained. Waves of pain rolled out into the Force––he felt the ripples of her agony, but she was doing her best to restrain herself.
"I want you to do something for me. Go join the Resistance, their base is on Ajan Kloss. Go be with them, it's where you belong now. You deserve it." Another surge of pain coursed through her body––this time she squeezed his hand, unable to hold it within herself. "Give it a shot with Rey," she continued, more faintly this time, "I have sensed your bond and your feelings for her. I don't want you to miss out. I..." Her face grimaced, contorted with pain. “I want you to be happy,” she breathlessly rasped eventually.
Ben felt conflicted. This was the same woman he had seen almost every day for the past six years. The woman whom he had trusted more than anyone else. A Sith , he reminded himself, but one who saved him, a Sith who had given him a new chance. And now, she was dying...
"You did all this... for me," he said, heartbroken with realization.
He wrapped his arms around her, thankful for her sacrifice, and hoped that the embrace would have the power to somehow trap her life force inside her body, that perhaps it would keep her alive for longer.
"One last thing," she whispered in the crook of his neck. "Leave my body here. With my own kind."
He agreed silently with a nod.
As her body went limp in his grasp, tears spilled down his cheeks and he let out a ragged breath. When he made the choice to go back to the light, he didn't realize the extent of what it would cause. He didn’t think it would mean losing Maeve. His turn killed her... it didn’t matter that he had helped Rey, it didn’t matter that Palpatine was gone. All he could think about was that his existence is the reason why another someone dear to him was gone.
He couldn't face her death just yet, he didn't want to let go of her. He imagined her as she looked the first time he laid eyes on her when she fell into his arms.
Peaceful, asleep for decades.
He cradled her body as if trying to lull her back to that sleep. It was easier to picture her consciousness safe in a Force Netherworld rather than wasted into nothing.
He let out a pained, ragged sigh as he looked up at the sky covered in the smoke of burning Star Destroyers.
He lost track of time. It could have been minutes—or even hours.
In the end, he let go of Maeve's body and made peace with the idea that she wasn't coming back.
He set her down gently on the rocky ground and left.
The Falcon touched down on an empty desert plain. The twin suns of Tatooine had yet to show their faces, but early-morning light washed the land in pink and white. Rey and BB-8 descended the ramp and squinted against the reflected brightness. The place was so stark, the ground so bleached, it was almost like the salt flats of Hiila Basin back on Jakku.
Rey stepped forward, toward a domed adobe building jutting from the sand. BB-8 accompanied her. All her friends had offered to come with her, but Finn had insisted they stay behind. He understood that she needed to do this on her own terms.
She carried three lightsabers with her. Her own, which she had finally finished, was hooked to her belt, and the other two were in her haversack.
The adobe building had an arched doorway, but years of wind and sand had half-buried it. There'd be no accessing the Lars homestead that way.
Moisture vaporators rose in the distance at irregular intervals, tall spindly towers much like the wind-grain traps on Pasaana. The intervals were irregular, she realized because some had fallen over.
She stepped past the building and discovered what appeared to be a large sinkhole, half-filled with sand. A closer look revealed an arched window and a half-covered door at the base of the sinkhole, built into adobe walls.
At her feet lay a tower panel from one of the fallen vaporators, slightly curved, large enough for one person to sit. She yanked it aside, turned it around, and aimed. A few hours from now, the metal would be too hot to touch. Until then, it would make a perfect sand sled.
She climbed in, drew up her knees, and pushed off. The sled whipped down a sand drift into the heart of the sinkhole, where it gently collided with the base of a broken condenser tower. Rey stepped out and looked around.
So many memories here. She could feel them—yearning, loss, worry, desperation, love—and not just Luke's. Two generations of Skywalkers had visited this place.
A cave-like entrance in the wall drew her forward. As she passed into shadow and her eyes adjusted, she noted a long dining table, covered with dust. She ran a finger through the dust, tracing a line of soft blue. Luke had dined here. And also—she reached out, sensing—Anakin?
An adjoining alcove contained some kind of beverage dispenser, but most of the levers and paneling had been scavenged, probably by the local Jawas. A single tall beverage cup made of plastex lay on its side, oddly pristine.
She wandered around for a few more minutes and discovered what used to be a speeder garage, Luke's sleeping loft, and the remains of an electrostatic repeller that had probably kept sand and dust away for years.
Other rooms remained inaccessible to her, their entrances buried in drifts.
Rey stood in the center for a while, taking it all in. Would her life have been different? If she'd been raised in a real home like this, by an aunt and uncle who loved her?
Perhaps not. The family she'd been seeking had been ahead of her the whole time, and she wouldn't change a thing.
The cracked adobe walls and jutting pipes made for an easy climb. She reached the top and pulled Luke's and Leia's lightsabers from her haversack.
Holding them side by side in her hand, she gazed down at them for a long moment. They belonged to her teachers. Her family.
She placed them on the ground, wrapped them gently into a small package, using some fabric and a leather tie. Calling on the power of the Force, she pushed, and the lightsabers sank, lower and lower until the ground had fully welcomed them, shrouded them in cool, quiet rest.
Rey stood, pulling out her own lightsaber. She ignited it.
Her lightsaber glowed white-gold, and she gazed at it for a long moment. It was single-bladed, with an outer casing and emitter salvaged from her quarterstaff. The final result felt like the exact inverse of the lightsaber held by the dark Rey of her vision, and she loved it. It was beautiful, it fit so perfectly in her hand, and she would carry it with her forever.
"Hello!" a strange voice came, and she turned. An old human woman approached, skin wrinkled and sand-blown, hood pulled up against the elements. She held the reins of a tall, gangly etobi, probably on her way to the nearby trading post.
"There's been no one for so long," she said. "Who are you?"
"I'm Rey," she said.
"Rey who?" the old woman asked.
Light snagged Rey's gaze, and she turned her head.
Leia and Luke stood on the edge of the homestead, glowing blue, smiling at her. Rey missed them both so much.
Then looked back in the direction of the Falcon , and smiled, knowing Ben was waiting for her to do this.
She turned back to the trader woman. Standing tall, she said, "Rey Skywalker."
"Ah," the woman said, unsurprised. "See you around?" And she hobbled off without sharing her own name.
Rey Skywalker headed toward the Falcon to return to her family. People were precious. They were life and light. She couldn't have survived the Emperor, couldn't have resisted him, if not for the goodness and strength of her friends, and the generosity of the Jedi who had come before. And Ben, she reminded herself. She smiled as she thought of him back on Ajan Kloss, waiting for her to do what she needed to do alone.
As she approached, BB-8 warbled that he'd had enough of desert planets. But he gave no complaint when she paused to gaze into the vast desert morning.
Together Rey and BB-8 watched as Tatooine's twin suns rose on a new day.
1 year later
Aboard the Chantrix there was endless murmuring and buzzing. Everyone was at their posts in the main control room, supervising attacks and sending off encrypted transmissions.
Allegiant General Armitage Hux strutted down the sleek black floor, all the way up to the observation portal.
"Supreme Leader," he saluted, "all targets have been destroyed."
"Good,” said a hushed, pleased contralto.
They both grinned, watching the fleet of Star Destroyers drop out of hyperspace at the rendez-vous point.
The first chapter of the sequel is posted as well. Enjoy! ;)