Turbulence hit the shuttle as it pierced the layer of clouds above Coronet City. Luke tightened his grip on the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white. He felt nauseous at the way the shuttle was bouncing around in the atmosphere. Or at least he tried to convince himself that was the reason.
Darth Vidius sat at his side, legs stretched out lazily in front of him, watching out of the viewport in front of them. He glanced at Luke and smiled reassuringly, but Luke felt too sick to smile back.
Instead, he looked out at the world below, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the view. He had vague memories of Naboo, the planet where he was born, but apart from that his only experience was of the harsh deserts of Tatooine. Corellia seemed very different. Softer.
The capital city of Corellia nestled between a series of low rising hills and an ocean. Luke could just make out a series of beaches running along the coastline. The city herself was a metropolis of graceful towers and supple domes, spread out across a vast area. From his vantage point, Luke got the feeling that he could have fitted a dozen Mos Espa's in the space taken up by Coronet.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Vidius asked beside him. Luke could only nod.
The pilot, a human dressed in the dark colours of the Empire, began to level the shuttle off as they neared a landing area on the east side of the city. Vidius had still not informed him of where they were headed exactly, though he had told Luke it would give him a new vision of the Empire. Luke remained sceptical that anything Vidius could show him could change his opinion.
The shuttle swept in closer to the landing area. A green square appeared on the viewport, projected holographically to help guide the pilot. As they drew closer, Luke could make out a handful of other ships already parked on the wide area, as well as tiny white dots he took to be a stormtrooper escort for Vidius.
At the last moment, the pilot pushed a button on the command console in front of him. The shuttle's wings rose with a rumbling sound, shaking the shuttle slightly and setting off Luke's nausea again. The shuttle drifted forward, eased down, and then softly settled to the ground.
Luke sat there for a moment, enjoying the sensation of solid ground beneath him. Vidius had already unbuckled himself, and Luke struggled with a moment to release his own restraining harness. He stood, his legs wobbling slightly beneath him.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Vidius said, nodding to the pilot who smiled back. It took Luke a moment to recognise the look in the man's face. Respect bordering on adoration. He had seen it in the faces of some of the smuggler crews back in Mos Espa. Like them, this man looked as though he trusted Vidius with his life.
How could a dark lord make someone respect him so much? It doesn't look like fear. What could he have done to earn that?
His mind still whirling, Luke followed Vidius back to the ramp and down, stepping out into the Corellia air. He gasped as the heat struck him like a wall. The southern continent where Coronet City was located seemed to be in the middle of a heatwave, and the temperature was sweltering. The heat, though, was totally different to what Luke was used to back home. Full of humidity, which made the air so thick he had trouble breathing.
At the bottom of the ramp, four stormtroopers stood at attention. They turned as one once Vidius and Luke stepped into their midsts and marched them toward a waiting speeder.
"Where are we going?" Luke asked.
"I want to show you exactly what the Empire has done for this planet, Luke," Vidius said gently. "I don't think you can truly understand unless you do."
Privately, Luke doubted Vidius could show him anything to help him 'understand' but he was willing to play along. For now. As long as it takes for him to release me.
As they climbed into the speeder, which eased out of the airport into the streets surrounding it, Luke wondered suddenly what had happened to Mara Jade. He hadn't seen his captor since they arrived - Vidius had informed her that she was expected on the bridge for a communique from their master. She hadn't been to see him, and he wondered whether she was even still onboard the station.
His musings were rapidly extinguished as they moved into the city itself. He gaped at the size of the buildings, all of which seemed to conspire to form a massive canyon of metal and transparisteel around him. He could hardly even glimpse the sun above him. And yet the buildings maintained an elegance and a beauty unlike any he had ever seen in Mos Espa or even Mos Eisley on the rare occasions he had been there.
"Impressive, isn't it?"
Luke turned his head to see Vidius considering him, a smile playing on his lips. Luke nodded and crane his head back to peer up at the domed top of the building they were passing.
"I've never seen anything like it."
"And this is nothing compared to Imperial Centre. Coruscant is a true
Luke nodded, unable to imagine anything being more impressive, more beautiful, than Coronet City.
After a few minutes, the speeder began to slow. Luke looked around, trying to find their destination. He realised that they were coming to a stop in front of a smaller building that hunkered down between the larger palaces around it. Red and ochre tones from the brick construction mingled in the shadows. Luke felt a chill.
"Where are we?"
Vidius didn't answer. He waited for one of the stormtroopers to open the door and hold it for him, then stepped out. His cloak billowed in a gust of wind, and Vidius let it. Luke gazed at him, taking in his impressive stature, his effortless confidence and wondered what could have happened to turn this man into... Into my father.
Shaking his head, he followed Vidius out onto the street. He wrapped his arms around his middle and stared at the building.
"Where are we?" he asked again.
"This was the Coronet Community Centre," Vidius said softly. "When we arrived, we found it packed to the brims with the dregs of Corellian society - the poor, the misfortunate, the crippled and the handicapped. They had been left here to rot, provided with a few meals, just enough to keep them alive."
Vidius started forward, flanked by the stormtroopers. Luke had no choice but to follow him. They walked up a series of steps, then through the open doors.
Inside, darkness reigned. The first thing Luke noticed was the smell - the stench forced his mind back to the day his father had taken him to visit an old friend of his in Mos Eisley. The family of Rodians had lived thirty in a small room. That same funky smell of trapped beings, of unwashed bodies, of despair, filled this space, so strong that Luke took a step back.
One of the troopers lifted his arm and shone a torch over the corridor. Mats covered the floor, dirty and falling apart. A couple of rats scurried away from the light. Luke swallowed. The light continued, showing metre after metre filled with the bedding.
"This is where some of them slept," Vidius said, his voice cold. "The King and his government had done nothing to improve their living, had locked them away in here with a handful of keepers who were little more than guards, and abandoned them to rot."
He guided Luke forward, avoiding the mats, and led him into a room off to one side. The stench was stronger here. When the light played over the same mats, these encrusted with blood and excrement, Luke tumbled to his knees and threw up.
His throat burned as he stumbled back to his feet, his head spinning. He had never imagined anything like this. He put a hand out to steady himself, and found his hand pressed against Vidius' chest.
He met the Sith Lord's eyes, and saw the anger and rage and sorrow burning there. "I vowed, a long time ago, that I would never allow another person to die in these conditions. I swore it. To your grandmother."
"But... But what can you do?" Luke whispered.
Vidius smiled, and it was as though he lit up the darkness, fighting it back. "I'm so glad you asked."
The sound of children laughing met Luke's ears as he exited the speeder.
They had driven out beyond the city limits, inland through a series of fields and forests, to this small farmhouse. It was idealic, especially to Luke who had never known anything but sand and dust and super-heated wind. Although it was hot, a cooling breeze wafted in from a nearby stream and a handful of large trees provided shade.
Some of the children ran over when the speeder stopped. Luke was astonished when Vidius fell to his knees and opened his arms. Laughing, he enfolded two of them, a boy and a girl, and lifted them. They squealed as he spun them around, then put them down. They ran off again, their cheeks red from the exertions.
Vidius turned to Luke, and Luke would have sworn he saw tears in his eyes. "It's good to see them so happy," he said, gazing off after the children.
"What is this place?" Luke breathed.
"This is the new Corellia Communitee Centre. Completely paid for and subsidised by the Empire. In the old days of the Republic, an initiative like this would have had to turn to big business for the money, because it would have taken the Senate years to push through the legislation. Thanks to the Empire, this place was found, the installation complete and the families moved within three days."
Luke shook his head. "It's amazing."
Vidius smiled. "This is the Empire, Luke. This is the sort of thing that we can do, the sort of help that we can provide."
"But... But the Empire has destroyed liberties. Has stopped people from doing what they want."
"A price." Vidius nodded. "I'm not going to lie to you, Luke. I never will. The Empire is far from perfect. There are a handful of people who suffer under the stricter conditions of the Imperial law code. A few newspapers were closed for spreading sedition, a few groups were slapped down, a little too hard. But look at these people, Luke! Look at the happiness the Empire has been able to bring."
Luke looked. He looked at the children running through the trees, swinging on branches and kicking a ball. He looked at the parents, working hard in the barn or putting extra paint on the walls of the farmhouse. He looked at their smiles. And he felt totally lost.
"I know this must be overwhelming. I know what you must think of the Empire - what the other me must have told you. This is what he threw away, though, Luke. This is what he sacrificed for his Jedi. His Force. And what did we get for it? War. Suffering. The sort of places you saw in that community centre."
Luke nodded. "I... I need some time to process all of this."
"Of course you do. But first, come and speak to the people. Ask them what it was like before and how they have been treated since. Talk to the people, Luke, the real people. See how they feel."
Nodding, Luke started to follow Vidius towards the farm. He had only taken a few steps, though, when he felt a surge of heat rush through him. An urgent compulsion filled his mind, and he cried out, throwing himself forward to knock Vidius to the ground.
He heard the whine of a laser and saw an explosion of dirt half a foot from where Vidius had stood.
Before he could make sense of what had just happened, he felt rough hands grip his arms and haul him to his feet. Two stormtroopers dragged him off Vidius and Luke was convinced they would have shot him on the spot if Vidius hadn't intervened.
"No," he said, coughing out dust. "No."
The Sith Lord climbed to his feet, dusting himself off. Luke saw the other stormtroopers rush towards the farmhouse behind him. Most of the families had scattered, taking refuge behind farming equipment or in the shade of the trees. The children were crying, looking terrified.
"Let him go," Vidius ordered. "He just saved my life."
The stormtroopers released him immediately and Luke stumbled a little. He felt weak at the knees, and his stomach was roiling violently.
Vidius stepped towards Luke and before he could stop him had grabbed Luke in a hug. He pressed Luke to him for a moment, then released him, holding him at arm's length.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you."
"I... I..." Luke fell to his knees and vomited in the dirt. He felt his head begin to spin, and then darkness rushed in and took him.