Looking out of the Imperial Shuttle at the Death Star II was absolutely nothing like looking out at Naboo. Where Naboo had filled Athara with a sense of anticipation and wonder at the beauty of the small planet, the Death Star only inspired a sense of anxiety and revulsion. Its skeletal form loomed ahead of them, menacing in its sheer staggering size and for the unmistakable presence Athara could feel waiting aboard.
The Emperor was most certainly waiting for her. She could feel his presence as they drew closer, the darkness roiling within him enough to turn her stomach. She understood now that, even when she was a servant of the Dark Side, she had never truly embraced it, not in the way her master and his master had. It was starkly evident to her in a way it hadn’t been before as she was brought ever closer to the Emperor. Every cell in her body felt like it was recoiling away from him, from the unfathomable evil that waited for her. It was like a noxious cloud that engulfed the unfinished Battlestation. She could feel it fogging her senses as the shuttle drew into the Landing Bay. It clouded her thoughts and left her feeling muddled.
As she was led off the shuttle she was barely paying attention to where they were taking her, she was fighting so hard to shake off the effects of the Emperor’s presence. Normally she would have drawn on things like memory of Luke’s smile when he saw her, or perhaps his kisses or the way he’d told her he loved her. Or perhaps the memory of her time with the Jengals, or her friend’s faces, childhood memories of her Master’s true nature, Qui-gon’s praise and pride when she began to pull herself from the quicksand that was the Dark Side, or the knowledge that despite everything, her Master cared enough to risk everything to protect her.
Yet even in her muddled and confused state, she was aware enough to recognize the creeping tendrils of the Emperor’s thoughts trying to sift through her own. Long before they had reached the location of the second Death Star, she had tamped down and hidden anything and everything she could anticipate or imagine that the Emperor might possibly try to use against her, Vader or Luke. As jumbled and disarrayed as her thoughts were, she knew better than to retrieve the memories and thoughts that usually served as her anchor from where she had locked them away. Somehow the knowledge that she could keep what he sought to use against her from him provided just the strength and clarity she needed. A faint grin came involuntarily to her face when she felt the intruding consciousness reacting with frustration as, despite the way he was meddling with her thoughts, she retained control over her own mind, and kept her thoughts shielded from him.
“Impressive.” A voice, smooth and sibilant, yet virulent and threatening in its soft reserve, glided through the fog of the Dark Side, startling Athara out of the bounds of her mind. Her mind was her own again as the veil the Dark Side had cast over her senses fell away.
She was standing alone in the centre of the Emperor’s Throne Room aboard the Death Star, looking up at the dais where Palpatine himself sat. In all the years she had known him, the Emperor had not really changed. His skin was still deeply creased and scarred, paper thin and nearly translucent while burning yellow eyes gazed out from the deep folds of pale skin amid a deeply hooded black cloak. For all his power and pride, he did not display any of it on his person, sitting quietly without ornament on either his garments or about his throne. It was the same in the Imperial Palace, to an extent. The Palace Complex itself was huge and richly ornamented, but similar to the scene before her, the Emperor’s Throne Room was nearly bare in its stark decoration. It left the Emperor himself as the sole focus, and somehow it seemed to magnify his power and mystery. Likewise, his Throne Room here was even a step beyond bare, with its dim lighting and exposed superstructure of the Tower itself creating the illusion that Athara stood amid the looming skeleton of some great beast.
She stood between two giant viewports at the bottom of the stairway that led up to Palpatine’s Throne. Behind her, over a short gantry that appeared to look straight down to the core of the Battlestation from what was sure to be an almost unfathomable height, was the turbolift that had brought Athara into Palpatine’s presence. Her wrists were beginning to ache a little from the binders the Stormtroopers on Naboo had placed about them, but Athara pointedly ignored it. He wanted her uncomfortable, as it was part of his strategy, his game. She had no intention of playing by his rules. Out the viewport behind Palpatine, Athara could see the surface of the moon over which the Death Star resided during its construction. She didn’t even know what system they were in.
Up on his dais the Emperor was looking down on her with an expression she imagined was supposed to look pleasant but only managed to send a chill up her spine. He sat back in his Throne, his fingers lightly tented before him as he watched her with consideration. She noticed with an uneasy shudder that her lightsabre was laying next to his left elbow, gleaming in the low light as though to taunt her.
“You are indeed more powerful than I had predicted. It is impressive that you and my Apprentice kept it hidden from me for so long.” Athara couldn’t help the way her jaw clenched as he spoke. She could feel his ire at his apprentice but also his curiousity at her. She hadn’t known what to expect upon coming face to face with Palpatine for the first time since her true strength was revealed.
“Is your flattery intended to accomplish something, Your Highness?” She said, not bothering to hide the impatience or the sarcasm from her voice. It only took a moment to prod the catch of her binders with the Force, letting them drop with a pointed clank on the polished durasteel floor. His smile didn’t dim, though a flash of anger appeared in his eyes for the briefest of moments.
“You knew to find me on Naboo, and yet I didn’t even know any connection to it existed in my past at all,” she continued, but her baiting tone was met only with a sly, pleased smile.
“No. But it did take you far longer to journey there than I expected. In that I am disappointed in you.” Athara could feel that he was baiting her himself.
“Take it up with Vader; he’s the one who failed to inform me that I was born there.” She could have sworn that Palpatine nearly laughed. She fought back the frown that threatened to appear on her face.
“You never questioned how you came to be in my apprentice’s care?” She didn’t answer him. “Did you think your mother willingly gave you to the Dark Lord of the Sith? For if you did not question that, then you are more foolish than I thought. Surely you were curious as to how you came under Lord Vader’s tutelage?”
“Of course I was. I knew in time I would learn the truth, so I let it be,” It was a bald faced lie, “I trusted in my Master.” That was not.
“A trust you no longer hold,” he crooned. Athara’s breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t meant to say it that way. It was true, but only in part.
“I trust my Master far more than I will ever trust you,” she responded scathingly, avoiding answering him outright. He essentially ignored her.
“Tell me, did your faith in him waver when you learned he murdered your mother, putting his lightsabre through her chest? Or when you learned that he spared you merely to spite your father?” He knew, she realized with dread; he knew who her parents were. Athara could feel her fingers beginning to tremble as breathing became difficult. Images of Vader looming over her mother’s still body, of Kenobi bent heartbroken in the desert of Tatooine sprang unbidden to her mind. She didn’t know if they were real or not, or whether they were creations of her own imagination…or figments planted by the Emperor.
“I take it, then, that you know who my parents were?” She couldn’t quite manage to keep her voice from wavering.
“I knew them both personally. Master Obi-wan Kenobi was a great Jedi of the Republic. The Negotiator, he was called. He served me well enough, weak as the Jedi were. He even saved my life many years ago.”
“Well, he may have been a Jedi, but nobody’s perfect; everyone makes mistakes,” she muttered acerbically under her breath, pointedly ignoring his jibes. He obviously heard her, the corner of his mouth twitching. But he continued as though she had said nothing.
“Neva Adyé was the Princess of Theed when I was elected Supreme Chancellor and was even elected Queen of Naboo before she came to Coruscant with Senator Padme Amidala. Your Father saved her life too, foiling an assassination attempt,” he said absently, still watching her with an expression of consideration on his face. Athara had to force air into her lungs as she processed what Palpatine was saying. She hadn’t known her mother was such a prominent figure on Naboo, nor had she known her mother had been the target of an assassination attempt. She also faintly recognized the name of the Senator he had mentioned. She could feel the tendrils of his thoughts trying to enter her mind. Realizing her mental shields were beginning to slip in her distraction, she clamped down on them again, but not before she caught a hint of something that delighted him.
“Or perhaps your trust in your master was destroyed when you discovered that he murdered his own wife even as she carried his unborn child.” He looked positively gleeful; she most certainly hadn’t known that.
“What?” Her shock and disbelief nearly had her doubling over. He nodded, immensely pleased with her reaction. He’d known that she hadn’t known that.
“Yes. Killed her even as she begged for mercy, strangling her in cold blood.” Another piece of the puzzle that was her Master’s past clicked into place with the Emperor’s words. His pain, his guilt, his reaction when he had nearly killed her on Hoth; he had already killed his wife and child. On Hoth he had nearly killed her, his apprentice, and closest thing to a daughter he had.
But something didn’t add up; Vader killed out of passion and rage and pain. And he always killed for a reason. That he would murder his wife in ‘cold blood’ as the Emperor put it? She had never heard anyone who actually knew Vader to use that term to describe the way he killed. There had to be more to it than that; she could feel it. That she questioned the tale the Emperor was trying to spin was enough. Suddenly she could feel the falseness woven amid the truth of the Emperor’s words. More than that, his child wasn’t dead, she reminded herself forcefully. Luke had lived…another realization hit her then.
“You lied to him; his son survived. You manipulated him; you let him believe it for all these years. What else have you hidden from him? Is his wife even dead? Did he really kill her or did you allow him to believe he did?” For a brief moment he looked a little puzzled at her reaction before he plastered the look of false pleasantness on his features again.
“You believe there is still good in him,” he observed with a hint of amusement. She sucked in a deep steadying breath.
“I do. I have seen it.”
“But you have also undoubtedly seen what else he has done. Things you have done too, under his orders.” There was little point in admitting he was right. It was a weight she already knew she was destined to carry for the rest of her life. So she pushed the guilt he was attempting to unbalance her with away.
“Whether you would have me believe it or not, there is still good in my master. Anakin Skywalker still lives within Lord Vader. Still fights within him.”
“Skywalker is all but gone, Obscura. The fatal blow was struck long ago, leaving a wound that festers in him, keeping him tied irrevocably to me.”
“All wounds heal with time,” Athara said quietly. Again, Palpatine nearly laughed.
“I never anticipated such optimism in you, little Obscura.” He was testing her, toying with her. She was amusing to him. Well, she was not amused.
“If you want to kill me, just get on with it,” she bit back. She was tired of his games already. His sly smile widened to one of glee as he leaned forward in his throne.
“Not just yet.”
The silence that followed stretched on as they both eyed the other, each musing and calculating, trying to discern anything from the other that might be of some use.
Finally the Emperor stood, nearly causing Athara to take an involuntary step back. With a slow, almost hobbling gait he made his way toward her. It was a ploy she had been aware of for years; the pretense of frailty and illness had served him well over the years. She managed to stand firm, her face empty of the revulsion that surged through her as he walked past her, deliberately invading her personal space, over the gantry and left toward another spoke of the tower they stood in. She knew he meant her to follow him and reluctantly she did so.
He had climbed another stairway to stand before a massive Holoprojector. He was little more than a black void amid an incredible projection of their galaxy that had sprung to life as she turned the corner herself. As she ascended the stairs, the projections swirled and expanded, until the Emperor was silhouetted by what looked like the Sullust System.
“I must say, I am most disappointed in you for many reasons, Obscura, despite your impressive abilities,” she could feel him preening as she felt her own anger rise at his repeated use of that name. It took a concerted effort to draw back from the emotion. It was like the Emperor’s presence was latching on to any hint of the Dark Side that still resided in her, shadowy hooks catching on to her anger, feeding it, making it hard for her to shed it as Qui-gon had taught her. “Your attachment to the Alliance is most puzzling. You are a survivor; that you would ally yourself with those who are destined for extinction is against your character.” She bit her tongue, willing herself not to snap back at him. He was baiting her, and she wasn’t about to indulge him again.
As she came to a stop beside him, she realized she had been right about the system as the Emperor further zoomed the projection in on the planet Sullust. She could feel the blood leaving her face as she understood the implication, especially as that damned feeling of foreboding surface in the back of her mind. The Emperor sighed quietly, a sound that was faintly pleased. He knew she knew why he was showing her this.
“Your Rebel Fleet means to attack my vulnerable, incomplete Battlestation, plagued as it has been by construction delays. Your Bothan spy networks were certainly eager to discover its secret location, and the critical intelligence that its only defense is a shield generator on the Sanctuary Moon.” He was taunting her…and it was working. Horror threatened to overwhelm her as the realization that the Death Star was the bait in a wicked trap.
“It is operational, then,” she said quietly, her voice measured in a concerted effort not to betray the fear growing deep in her belly. The Emperor smiled widely, though there was no softness in it, only a cruel pleasure.
“You fed them the information,” she said reproachfully. He turned to her, his reptilian eyes boring into hers as she persisted, “did you purposefully delay construction on the rest of the station too?” She knew she was right. Her feelings told her as much, as did the pleased and knowing glint in his eyes as his lips twisted into a harsh grin.
“Your hate is potent, Obscura. It is a pity you do not use it.” She froze, desperately fighting the hate that was indeed growing within her. It was then that she saw something flicker across his face, too fast for her to really place precisely the emotion that he was hiding from her.
It hit her then, swift as lightning.
“Fear,” she murmured, naming the emotion as the wheels of her mind brought her revelation into focus, “I’m dangerous. You think I’m dangerous.” His shrewd smile soured.
“You are little more than a girl. How could you possibly be dangerous to me,” he said offhandedly, his hand making a subtle indifferent gesture to add to the illusion his words were meant to render. But she felt it. She was right. And she saw the flicker in his eyes that belied his casual dismissal of her realization. She knew it was foolish to bait him like this, but she pressed on anyway.
“Because I’m pulling away from the Dark Side. Because I have learned how to resist it, even separate myself from its clutches.” His soured smile was now a grimace. She smiled amiably back, her eyes glinting with her newfound knowledge, “and you fear that if I can resist it, leave it, how long will it be before Vader follows, before he realizes he can turn back too. How long before he realizes that he can turn away from you?” His lips had pulled back from his teeth in a feral sneer as his eyes narrowed at her.
“Then why haven’t you killed me yet? There is no way you will permit me to leave here alive.” She said it softly, a hint of genuine curiousity in her voice. She couldn’t quite figure it out. Surely killing her made sense; it would eliminate her as a threat, punish and demoralize Vader and show her master that none could defy the Emperor. But keeping her alive? It was a risky move. Unless…“I’m a test…” she murmured, raising her eyes to the Emperor. He was looking at the projection of the galaxy again, his brow faintly furrowed. Athara continued, feeling faintly sick at her realization.
“I am to be a test of loyalty,” she said, her voice steady despite the dread she could feel growing within her. Palpatine turned back to her again. A hint of his pleased smile had returned to his face, though he still looked distracted.
“I have no need to kill you, as my apprentice shall do it for me,” he crooned, his hand raising. It was then that she felt what had caused him to frown a moment before.
Vader was approaching the Death Star.
Before Athara even realized what had happened she was flung back against the wall, her body connecting with the dark durasteel with a sickening thud as sizzling bolts of Force lightning surged through her body, every nerve ending on her body on fire as electricity licked across her skin. Her head cracked against the wall, starbursts exploding before her eyes as a metallic taste coated her throat. Then everything went black.
The last thing she felt was the Emperor surging through her mental shields, weakened in her shock and pain.