With a final click, the magnetic lock collapsed and the door to Luke's cell whirred open. He stood there for a moment, listening carefully, then stepped out into the ship's corridor.
He had been working on the door for a couple of hours now, using a piece of metal wiring he had broken from the bed. He said a silent thanks to his friend Whistler - if the thief hadn't taught Luke how to pick a standard magnetic lock, he'd never have gotten out.
Tiptoeing carefully, he made his way down the corridor. He glanced in every room he came to, checking either for the presence of his captor or something he could use as a weapon. Most of the rooms seemed to be empty, though a large storage room filled with unmarked cases seemed to suggest he was aboard a smuggler’s ship.
As he turned the corner into another featureless corridor, he froze at the sound of grunts and groans coming from somewhere up ahead. Pressing his back against the wall, Luke eased down the wall until he reached an open archway. The sounds seemed to be coming from inside. Dropping down to his haunches, he put one hand on the archway’s cold metallic frame and peered around it. What he saw made him gasp.
Inside the room, the woman who had caught him was working through some kind of strange martial art. Dressed in a very revealing body suit, which left little to the imagination, her body flowed through a series of exotic moves, twisting and turning in the artificial light. Luke could only crouch down and stare at her, captivated.
Lifting one foot high in the air, she propelled herself forward, catching her weight on her hands and sommersaulting into the air. Half way through her tumbling mid-air spin, she kicked out suddenly, both of her legs stretched out straight. She landed with her legs split, her hands supporting her weight. As he watched, astonished, she flexed her arms once, twice, then was somehow able to spring upwards, spinning in the air again and landing on her hands.
It was all he could do to tear his eyes away from her, but he forced himself to look around the room. His attention was drawn to a silver and black cylinder on the side of a unit close by. Her lightsabre! This was his chance. Keeping a close eye on his captor, who now seemed to be fighting with some unseen opponent, he waited for her to turn her back to him and ran into the room.
He reached the unit just as she turned back around. He would have sworn her eyes met his just as he ducked behind it, but when he risked a quick glance over the top, he saw that she was still engaged in her exercise.
Ducking back down, he reached up his hand, feeling along the wood for the metal tube. Come on, come on
, he prayed, straining for the sabre. Come to me, come on, where are you?
He reached out with his mind, imagining the sabre in his hand. If he could just…
Suddenly, he felt the metal against his palm. Clutching his fingers tight around it, he quickly drew his arm back. He crouched there, staring at the beautiful hilt. He found the button that would turn it on, but he hesitated. If he did this, if he attacked her... He might have to hurt her. He might even have to kill her. Can I do that?
He didn’t know. Telling himself that it wouldn’t come to that, he closed his eyes, preparing himself for what he was about to do.
"Are you just going to sit there stroking that or do you plan on using it any time soon?"
Luke scrambled backwards, his eyes snapping open. His kidnapper stood over him, her smile taunting.
“Get back,” he said, struggling to his feet and pointing the lightsabre at her.
“Ooh, what are you going to do, Son of Skywalker? I’m just a poor, defenceless woman.”
A surge of anger overwhelmed him. She’s making fun of me.
With a snap hiss, a green blade appeared from the end of the sabre. He tried to steady his hand.
“Don’t come any closer,” he repeated.
Her face changed, her sneer replaced by a snarl. “You want to play, do you?” She reached behind her, unhooking something, and when her hand reappeared, she held another sabre in her palm. She activated it, revealing a red ruby blade. “Alright then, let’s play.”
She lunged forward, her blade hissing towards his head. He stumbled back, bringing his blade up, his hand guided by fear. To his surprise, he parried her blow, more by accident than intent. The sizzle of the two blades’ meeting left a hint of ozone hanging in the air. His opponent took a step back, more amused than surprised.
“So, you do have a backbone after all,” she said. “That should make this much more interesting.”
She surged forward, her blade moving round in an arc towards his head. He raised his own blade to catch hers, but her arm moved as quick as lightning on the Dune Sea. Before he knew what was happening, her blade was speeding towards his belly. He jumped back, his feet landing at an unnatural angle. He felt something pop in his ankle and he stumbled back, almost falling to the deck. He reached down, clutching at his strained ligament.
“Did that hurt, farmboy?”
He shook his head, standing up and taking a step back. She danced towards him again, the point of her lightsabre darting towards his arms, his belly, his face. Her arm looked like a snake. Luke realised that she was backing him towards the wall, but he couldn’t do anything except take careful step after careful step, keeping his sabre half raised towards her. She’s going to kill me, he thought.
The blade of her lightsabre scythed towards his head again. This time, he managed to get his blade in the way in time, but the impact almost drove his lightsabre from his hands. “You’re going to have to do better than this, Son of Skywalker. Come on. Use your feelings. Use your hatred, your anger, your fear.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Really?” She smirked. “You know that I can sense your feelings, don’t you? I could feel you, looking at me earlier on. I could sense your lust.”
She stopped moving forward, her lightsabre dropping slightly. Her free hand started to caress the collar of her bodysuit, a single finger running over her lips. Sliding the length of her body, her hand moved down over her breasts, across her uncovered midrift, then began to softly caress her hip. His eyes were glued to her fingers as they trailed across a bare patch of skin. “Tell me, Luke,” she whispered. “Have you ever been with a woman?”
He swallowed. His voice was hoarse when he spoke. “Stop it. I know what you’re doing.”
“I’m just asking you a question”, she pouted. “Well? Have you?”
“You haven’t, have you? You’d like to, though, wouldn’t you? I could feel it as you crouched behind the door, I could feel your eyes roving over my body, burning with desire...” She stepped towards him. “Would you like to touch me, Luke?”
He looked up into her eyes and felt his hand begin to drift upwards. Then he saw something in her eyes, the mearest hint of a smirk. He realised she was toying with him. He felt another surge of anger – closer to fury this time – that washed up and over him, overwhelming whatever effect she was having on him, overwhelming his fear. He allowed the anger to feed itself, felt it strengthen him. He could feel – something – building within him. With a roar, he surged forward, gripping the sabre with both hands.
The element of surprise more than any ability on his side carried him the first few steps. His opponent was forced back, her lightsabre mo ing just fast enough to deflect his battering blows. Ozone filled the air and the crackle of phased energy against phased energy filled Luke’s ears. He roared again as he used his superior height and strength to force her even further back.
Her superior technique and experience was always going to work in her favour, though. With a few simple twists of her hand, she disarmed him, sending his lightsabre skittering across the floor. She kicked out, taking his legs out from under him. Before he knew what was happening, Luke found himself on his knees, the tip of her blade at his neck.
“That… was interesting,” she said, out of breath. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time to play anymore.”
She waved a hand. Luke felt the very air harden around him and lift him to his feet. Then he was floating off the ground and something
was tightening around his throat. He reached up to try and tear whatever was choking him from his neck. His captor began to laugh, her fingers clenching into a fist. He kicked out wildly, darkness already beginning to gather around the edges of his vision.
Suddenly, she waved her hand to the side. Luke flew across the room, his head striking the bulkhead, hard. Darkness rushed in, then stars, then nothing. The last thing he heard was her laughter echoing in his ears.
Mara stopped above Skywalker’s prone body and tapped a finger on her lips. That had been… interesting. Disappointing, but interesting.
She had been expecting something more from the boy. After everything she had heard about Anakin Skywalker and his strength in the Force… Towards the end there he had begun to show a hint of his potential, but it had fizzled out so quickly that it might as well have been nothing. She shrugged. There would be more than enough time once he was back on Coruscant to turn him into whatever her master required him to be. Plenty of time before his father tracked him down and her master got everything he wanted.
Deactivating her lightsabre, she hooked it behind her, hanging from her belt. Stepping over Skywalker, she headed for the door. She left the other lightsabre behind on the floor – if Skywalker wanted to have another go at her when he woke up, all the better. It couldn’t hurt to start his training a little early.
Out in the corridor, she wrinkled her nose. The whole ship stank of Rodian. The two smugglers she had stolen the shop from now floated in the sewerage tunnels below Mos Eisley, but their scent still seemed to infect the walls. Trying to breath through her mouth, she walked rapidly down the corridor and up a couple of steps into the bridge module.
An insistent beeping sound filled the small circular chamber as she arrived. It took Mara a moment to realise that it was coming from the comm unit on the far wall. She crossed the bridge and dropped to her haunches, studying the readouts. She felt a surge of adrenaline when she recognised the signal encoding. The incoming transmission was coming from Coruscant.
Pressing a series of buttons to decipher the code matrix, she stepped back as the comm unit lit up, projecting a life-size hologram into the middle of the room. Mara fell to her knees as her master stared at her across the gulfs of space.
“My master,” she breathed.
“Rise, Hand Jade.”
She stood up on trembling knees, daring to look up at the cloaked figure. Two golden eyes glowed from beneath the shadows of the hood, seeming to pierce her. She sensed his presence in the Force grow stronger in the back of her mind as he smiled.
“I did, master. I have Skywalker’s son, here on this ship. We are two days away from Coruscant and should be arriving…”
“That is why I am contacting you, my Hand,” the Emperor interrupted her. “The Son of Skywalker cannot be brought to Coruscant, not now. It would be too much of a risk with the Alliance on world, especially with his mother as part of the diplomatic delegation. The final part of our project is at hand, I will not allow anything to ruin it.”
“Of course, master. I will take him to Korriban instead.”
“No! No. I do not trust the priests to teach him what he needs to know. No, I wish for the Son of Skywalker to begin his training at the hands of a true Sith. You are to change course and take him to Corellia. Darth Vidius is waiting there with our new weapon. He will take the boy off your hands.”
Mara’s jaw tightened. Darth Vidius?! No!
The Emperor saw her reaction and he chuckled. “You should not be jealous of my apprentice, Mara Jade.”
“I am not jealous, master,” she said quickly. “I… I do not trust him.”
“And well you should not, my young Hand. We are Sith. Trust is not the way of the Dark Side. Do you think I trust any of you?” He laughed again. Then his voice hardened. “Nevertheless, you will take the Son of Skywalker to Corellia. It will give you the opportunity to see the final part of the Project in person and report back to me on the progress of our little surprise.”
Though her every instinct screamed out for her to object, to fall on her knees and beg her master to change his mind, fear held her in check. She dropped to her knees again. “I obey, of course, my master.”
“I know you do, Mara Jade,” he said, his holographic hand resting on her head. “You always have.”
She felt a surge of pleasure through the Force, allowing a tiny gasp to escape her lips. Gone as quickly as it had come, the surge left her trembling. She looked up at her master. He was smiling.
“Contact me when you reach Corellia, Mara Jade. I will have new orders for you.”
She bowed her head. “May the Force serve you, master.”
“And you, my Hand.”
His holographic presence faded away, but his presence through the Force lingered a moment longer. He maintained this link with all of his Hands – a constant presence in the back of their minds. Some claimed that Darth Sidious could use that link to read his Hand’s minds, to see through their eyes, even to kill them at distance. Most assumed it was the reason why no Hand had ever been captured alive. Mara didn’t know how true the rumours were, and she did not care. She had no fear of her master’s displeasure – her loyalty was beyond question, the loyalty of an adopted daughter for the man who had raised and cared for her.
Still… Darth Vidius. She could not understand why her master persisted with his obsession. The Tantiss Project had been a disaster from beginning to end, leading only to madness, pain and death. Vidius may be an improvement on her master’s previous apprentices, but only by a little. And now she was to hand the Son of Skywalker over to the man. Why did her master continue to trust him?
She channeled her frustration into pure rage. Rage and anger fueled her and she embraced them, as she embraced her healthy fear of her master. Her emotions gave her strength. They gave her power.
Sitting down, she manipulated the ship’s commands, pulling it out of hyperspace. The blue tunnel of light before her collapsed into a starfield. She quickly checked her sensors – there wasn’t a single star within a dozen light years from her location.
Calling up the ship’s navigational charts, she checked her course. Following the Imperial Corridor would take her directly to the Core systems. That seemed to be the easiest solution.
She calculated the vector and laid the course into the nav computer. Once she was satisfied that there were no hidden dangers along the route, she engaged the hyperdrive again. The stars spun around her, then snapped into long lines of pure white light. Revolving, they eventually coalesced into the familiar blue hyperrealm.
She sat back in her chair. Her anger still raged, but she knew that without an outlet, it would simply burn itself out. If she was going to be facing Vidius, she needed her anger. She needed to be ready when she faced him. If he gave her an opportunity to kill him… She smiled. It wouldn’t be the first time she had been forced to slaughter a pretender to the title of Sith apprentice.
Her smile hardened as she realised a perfect way to stoke her anger. Standing, she reached behind herself, using the Force to draw her lightsabre into her hand.
It was time to wake young Skywalker again.