Die, Jacen Solo, Die!: Go with da flow
The fifth AU tale in the "Die, Jacen Solo" series.
It was all becoming a little tedious, Darth Caedus former Jedi decided, as he took Tahiri's arm for the umpteenth time in order to guide her into the current that would take them to the Baanu Ras. Yes, he knew it was his fault to an extent that Tahiri had become so hooked on these little visits, and yes, he knew he needed her allegiance and support, now more than ever. But even so, there was a point at which it all became too much, and that point was rapidly approaching.
It reminded him in a strange way of a holodrama he had seen once about a man who was stuck in a kind of time eddy, where he kept waking to the same series of events every day. Eventually, of course, something miraculous happened to free him from this somewhat entropic state, and he got together with the girl of his dreams and woke the next day to a normal and progressive reality. The strange thing about the holo was that it was one of his brother's favourites. Odd because Anakin Solo was not the sort that you would think could ever be enticed to sit still long enough to watch something that was ostensibly a banal romance with a humdrum comedic ending. And with not even a speeder race or swooper fight in sight. Very, very odd, but there was never any accounting for taste; even when you thought you knew someone well, you could still be surprised.
But there were certainly no surprises here. Ho hum, no.
He turned his attention back to the scene slowly resolving out of the pitiless vacuum the cloning lab with its blocky gestation bins from which protruded the throbbing umbilicals he recognized as nutrient vines. How many times Tahiri would want to return to this vision of gloom was unknowable. How many times would she reach out to propel her younger self into Anakin's arms, so she could try and reassure herself that he died warm and cosy knowing she loved him? The possible answers to that were alarming.
The fact was that Caedus had begun to have doubts about the brilliance of his plan to ensnare Tahiri in his emotional net. It was beginning to become a burden. It had certainly become very boring. Even the fiery explosion of thermal grenades overhead wasn't enough of a distraction to keep him completely focused on the task, and he found his gaze wandering around the scene, noting some of the more interesting features. Tahiri's fifteen-year-old butt, for instance very nice. One quality at least that hadn't deteriorated with time. Such a pity. Had Anakin lived, Caedus was sure that was something his brother would have enjoyed a lot, not to mention some of the other exquisite offerings Tahiri could have provided.
His gaze wandered away to the other side of the grashal and drifted over the sprawled bodies of dead Yuuzhan Vong, dismembered limbs and writhing amphistaves. He saw Anakin rise to his feet; and then a faint movement, like a brief scintillation of light, caught his attention and he felt a frown crease his forehead. There was something strange happening in the space to Anakin's left, something that, for reasons unknown, was making the hair on the back of Caedus's neck prickle. He squinted, and noted a curious shimmering effect, almost as if a column of air had been captured and locked into a kind of convection current perhaps as a result of the thermal grenades. A reasonable explanation, he thought, and yet somehow the anomaly seemed too localized, too contained. He watched in amazement as the shimmering dimmed into a blur, which then rose and floated sedately towards him completely unaffected by the flying shrapnel and thud bugs.
Without realizing he was doing it, he had squeezed Tahiri's arm strongly enough to make her wince and turn around.
"Wha-?" she began and then stopped, fixated by the cloud drawing to a halt in front of them.
Nothing had prepared Caedus for what happened next, and he could do nothing other than stare dumbly as the mysterious blur slowly resolved into the shape of an old man an old man enveloped in a matte black cloak that unfurled as he came to rest as if the fabric itself was feeding on the dark energies in the grashal.
The apparition's thin lips parted revealing yellowing teeth. "Greetings, young Solo," it rasped in a voice that sounded like vermin's feet on dry grass, "and friend." It tipped its head to acknowledge Tahiri.
"But," Caedus began. He swallowed, a plethora of possibilities running through his mind, which then consolidated into one overwhelming reality. This was no apparition! "But ... you're dead. Aren't you?"
Tahiri leaned close to Caedus. "Is that who I think it is?" she mouthed.
Caedus nodded dumbly.
"From a certain point of view," Palpatine said sardonically in reply to Caedus's question. "But death isn't as confining as you may think, young Solo. I do a lot of this." He waved to encompass the expanse around them in a gesture that was almost theatrical.
Caedus's frown deepened. "Flow-walking, you mean, er ... sir, uh, I mean, my Lord?" He heard Tahiri's muffled snort beside him. It irked him that she seemed to be coping with this drastic turn of events better than him. But there again, she could be quite hard to read sometimes to the point of being inscrutable. If Anakin hadn't enjoyed puzzles so much it would surely have driven him mad.
"Yes, yes," Palpatine replied, and then added scornfully, "You're not the only one privileged with knowledge of such things, you know. Quite a few of us like to get out and about like this." He grinned his lipless grin again and leaned towards Caedus confidentially. "Keeps us in touch. Lets us see what's cooking."
Caedus wiped a fleck of spittle from his cheek and cast a quick glance around the shadowy corners of the grashal for signs of further visitations from the Force netherworld. The smoke and gloom were rent by an explosion that flowered into a yellow-orange fireball, and Caedus was aware of Jedi bodies hurtling in several directions. The residual glow tinged Palpatine's skeletal features with a jaundiced sheen.
"This was something of a disaster, wasn't it?" he observed.
Beside him, Caedus could feel Tahiri bristling. "No, it wasn't," she burst out heatedly. "It was a well planned mission. We knew the risks, and we accepted the losses."
Palpatine eyed her. "Did you really, my dear?"
Tahiri glared back at him, balefully at first but then more out of determination not to blink first. She lost. Palpatine had relinquished the need to blink decades ago.
The ex-Emperor withdrew his right hand from the sleeve of his cloak and raised one sinuous finger to enforce his point. "Then why come back here time after time after time?"
Tahiri opened her mouth, gazed up at Caedus and then clamped it shut again.
"It was an honest question." Palpatine's voice was like syrup. "I'm curious. In fact I'm curious about a lot of things. The whereabouts of Master Skywalker, for instance. Did he really send you all here by yourselves?"
"We were perfectly okay by ourselves," Caedus explained, trying to keep his voice even and reasoned. Something told him Palpatine, if it was indeed Palpatine, was playing at some game, although he couldn't quite fathom out what. But he maintained a firm placement within the time current he'd used to bring them there, just in case. "And we had an excellent leader in my brother Anakin."
"Ah, yes, young Anakin," Palpatine nodded sagely. "Such a pity he died, wasn't it? Such potential, such vigour." He turned to Tahiri and reached out skeletal fingers to pat her shoulder. "You must miss him terribly, my dear."
That was it for Tahiri. She clasped her hands over her mouth and turned to look at her beloved, while stifling anguished sobs.
Caedus drew himself up, and was about to explain to Palpatine in no uncertain terms what he could do with his pity, when suddenly the air in front of them shivered and shimmered, and disgorged a shadowy figure clothed in dark leathers.
"Ah, Kun, my friend," exclaimed Palpatine, as if meeting dead Sith in scenes of mayhem was something he did every day. "Got sick of the bickering, too, did you?"
Exar Kun grunted, a sour expression distorting the contours of his once handsome face. "I tell you if that damn avian tries out any more of her kriffing paradoxes on me, I'm going to let Maul put her on the barbecue!" He glared at Caedus and Tahiri. "Who are they?" he demanded.
"This is young Solo the one who defeated the Yuuzhan Vong," Palpatine replied smoothly.
Kun regarded him suspiciously, a look that slowly turned into disgust as he took in Caedus's scrupulously neat, wrinkle-free vac suit. "Looks like a bit of a fancy boy to me. Real Sith don't need pretty suits to face vacuum." His rheumy eyes flickered over Tahiri hungry as a serpent. "His floosie's a bit of alright, though."
Tahiri, despite her grief and shock, was outraged. "I am NOT his floosie!" she scowled.
"No, no, Kun," Palpatine waved a hand towards Anakin, who was peering round the corner of a gestation bin and aiming his blaster at two Yuuzhan Vong warriors. "She's HIS floosie. He's the other Solo Anakin named after his grandfather before he saw the light and became Darth Vader."
"Oh, Vader," Kun nodded sagely, and then spat. "Now there's a loser for you." He turned to study Anakin for a moment as the young Jedi rose clutching his wounded abdomen. "I like the look of the boy, though. Doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. Look at that, half dead and covered in his own blood but still sticking it to 'em. Now there's a Sith in the making for you."
Tahiri gasped, and let out a ragged sob that sounded as if her heart had just snapped in two. "Anakin would never have become a Sith he was good. He was ... he was-" Her voice was swallowed by anguish.
Palpatine folded his arms and huffed. "Ah, Kun, still charming the ladies, I see." He poked a hand judiciously at Tahiri again and prodded her shoulder, as if he was testing a Sith celebratory roast to see if it was tender enough to eat. "It's alright, my dear, it's just his unfortunate way of expressing himself. They're not all as urbane as me."
Tahiri moaned, sucking in great gulps of air in a paroxysm of sobbing. "I, I ... can't do th-this any more!" she heaved. "But I, I ca-can't help myself."
"There, there, my dear. You go to him go on."
Before Caedus could move to stop him, Palpatine had grabbed Tahiri and pushed her towards where Anakin now stood with her younger self, poised to offer her the kiss she had refused to return. The kiss that had haunted her for thirteen years or so Caedus had convinced her. Even as he stumbled backwards and lost his grip on the flow, Caedus couldn't help but admire Palpatine's speed and alacrity: somewhat amazing for one who was so ... decayed.
Nevertheless he recognized only too well the source of the woeful sound echoing around the grashal and reverberating down the silvery corridors of time. "Noooooo!"
Feeling simultaneously despairing and embarrassed, he snapped his mouth shut, and watched with a sense of impending doom as Tahiri reached her younger version and shoved her forcefully into Anakin's arms. He still didn't believe his eyes, however, when Palpatine grinned, and thrust out his hand towards them ... and Tahiri and the two young Jedi simply ... vanished.
He fell to his knees feeling sick, and glared up at Palpatine. "You fool! You old fool! You can't do this!"
Palpatine cocked his head curiously and studied Caedus rather as if he were an interesting example of insect life. "But I have."
"Sith can do whatever they like," Kun explained pragmatically. "We don't like rules. And we don't like you."
"Yes, yes," chuckled Palpatine gleefully. "But so good of you to oblige us by making these visits. I must admit it made it a lot easier for us."
"I don't understand," gulped Caedus. "I mean you're interfering with time, with history. And what have you done with Anakin and Tahiri, and Tahiri?"
Palpatine sucked in his cheeks pensively ... which made him look even more ghoulish. "Admittedly, we're not sure that will work or not. Ideally Dooku will catch the two young ones and fling them into one of the slow reverse currents, while Qel Droma will grab the sobbing one and flick her into the fast lane. That way by the time they all meet up again on Yavin 4, the older Tahiri will fit neatly back into the younger one."
"Bit of alright, that one," Kun nodded avariciously. It was becoming obvious his thoughts tended to remain on a rather singular tack.
"But ... why?" Caedus was still perplexed.
Palpatine leaned down until his face was within a few inches of Caedus's; the stench of putrification made him catch his breath. "Because we like them," he hissed triumphantly.
"And we're bored," added Kun.
Caedus stared at the void where Anakin and Tahiri had been standing a moment before, while Palpatine's wheezing chuckle filled the dank, smoky air. "You don't really understand the power of the Dark Side at all, young Solo. You don't have the patience, unlike me who has waited years for this moment. I knew you'd come here, reawaken the girl's grief and use it. But you didn't realise, did you, that that was part of the plan."
Caedus felt as if his head was about to explode as he tried to make sense out of the ancient Sith's words. "What plan?" he whispered.
"My plan, of course, foolish boy. I foresaw the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, and I knew that to defeat them would rip the galaxy apart. I didn't want that on my record, so I decided to leave it to your uncle and his ... friends."
"Yeah Master Luke Smartypants and Han Bolo-ball," sneered Kun.
Palpatine's expression took on a mournful aspect. "I was so disappointed in Vader, so disheartened. But I kept watching and thinking some of that good black Sith blood would come through." He eyed Caedus regretfully. "But when it did, well ..." He raised his palms as if in supplication. "We got you."
Caedus had struggled to his feet, and held out a hand to steady himself. Things felt as though they were whirling out of control. "But I've studied hard," he insisted fighting the sense of rising panic. "For five years I travelled the galaxy learning all there was to know about the Force. Everything. And I'm using it to bring order."
"Order!" Kun had screwed his face up and looked as if he was about to puke. "Order? Sith don't like order, we like chaos. It's much more fun."
"But that's not what Lumiya said," countered Caedus, thinking just for a moment that he had the advantage of Sith doctrine, disseminated from a reliable source, on his side.
Kun rolled his eyes and grumbled something that sounded physically impossible, even for Sith.
Palpatine just laughed. "Oh, young Solo. You should know better than to trust a woman."
Caedus's mouth worked, but the ability to come out with something articulate escaped him. "But-" He tried again, forcing his racing thoughts to remain focused so he could overcome his fear and consternation. "You don't seem to understand. You're messing up everything I've worked for; and what you've just done is ... well it's against the laws of physics."
Kun let out a guffaw. "I didn't get where I am today obeying the laws of physics," he spluttered.
"You've ruined everything," Caedus insisted, feeling the strength of his wrath returning. "Everything the present and the future. You've upturned the universe."
Palpatine grinned like a vornskyr who'd just discovered a clutch of young and succulent ysalamiri. "Universe, you say. Uni-verse?" He steepled his bony fingers and rested the apex against his nose, peering over at Caedus with considerable amusement. "I have some bad news for you, boy. I'm afraid the universe is a little more expansive than you think. I think you'd be quite surprised at the number of possible realities there are out there." He sighed contentedly. "Why, we're building new ones all the time."
"New ones?" Caedus's anger was once again defeated by trepidation.
"Oh yes. And we've found the perfect one for you." He shared a smirk with Kun, and then raised both hands to point them at Caedus, who steeled himself and raised his in response.
"I'm warning you," he said staunchly. "I'm capable of enduring immense pain."
"It's not pain I'm going to inflict on you, boy," chuckled Palpatine, his features set in a rictus of vicious pleasure. "It's eternal ecstasy." And he thrust both palms at Caedus to deliver a Force blast that lifted him off his feet and spun him upwards at such speed that the force ripped away his vac suit. Palpatine and Kun watched his spectacular departure appreciatively tracking the motion of the body, as it grew smaller and smaller and more indistinct until finally with a flash of ionic blue it disappeared.
Then they turned their gaze back to the grashal, which was still filled with the sickly glow of battle haze and the cries and roars of warriors and Jedi.
"Interesting," Palpatine observed musingly to Kun. "Another pathway to explore. But in the meantime, my friend ..." He slowly began to drift upwards. "I have places to be."
Kun nodded gloomily, and then a thought struck him, and he perked up. "I might head back myself, now that SHE'S got someone to keep her busy."
* * * * *
Caedus awoke to an overwhelming blueness. Everything around him the walls, the sinuous drapes, even the sheets of the enormous bed he was lying on seemed almost to ooze an eerie bluish glow. For a moment he thought he was deep underground in a flitnat cave, but flitnat caves didn't normally contain beds, nor did they possess the peculiar odour he could almost taste in the air here: heady as if tainted with spice, with a twist of sulphur. It was unsettling, but not nearly as unsettling as the face that loomed above him a face tinged with the same subterranean blueness. He blinked in the hope that this was some kind of nightmare.
"Well, hi there."
Caedus recognized the husky voice only too well, not to mention the missing lekku and the demented, lascivious grin. He tried to struggle up but discovered to his consternation, and rising nausea, that his wrists and ankles had been lashed firmly to the four corners of the bed.
In a last ditch effort to save himself from the fate Palpatine had chosen for him, he took a deep breath and, tapping into the revulsion that was rising like bile, he channeled it into his voice.
"Let me get up. Now!"
Alema Rar's eyes slid hungrily down his body like serpents, and her grin widened into a grotesque parody of delight. "Why, Darth Caedus. I thought you'd never ask."
* * * * *
Lieutenant Tebut hurried to the bridge of the Anakin Solo, rehearsing the status report she was about to deliver to Colonel Solo. She was aware that his behaviour was becoming more and more unfathomable, and she was beginning to wonder if scuttlebutt was correct in its claims that he was becoming a replica of his grandfather.
So it was with some considerable surprise that she entered the bridge to find not a pseudo-Darth Vader at the commander's station, but a very realistic looking Emperor Palpatine complete with Sithly cloak and reptilian grin.
"Ah, Lieutenant Tebut, is it?"
She nodded dumbly, wondering what calamity had befallen the Anakin's engines that could propel them back in time. Or into some other universe. Or into a nightmare.
But Palpatine's glee was real, and was definitely anchored very much in the present.
"Find me an open channel to Admiral Pellaeon," he demanded. "Tell him that a friend wants to catch up on old times."
* * * * *
They awoke to the orange tinge that signalled dawn on Yavin 4, and lay luxuriating in the earthy glow two young lovers cocooned in a world of their own. In a universe of their own.
"I had a weird dream last night," Anakin said, pushing a wayward lock of brown hair out of his eyes. "I dreamed I had a brother called Jacen."
Tahiri snorted and then giggled. "That's nothing," she said. "I had a really funny dream."
"Yeah this'll really crack you up. I dreamed we were Jedi."
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