Zak watched as Jaina’s eyes flew open to full when she set her gaze on the man outside the cell, and Zak saw that it only took her a split-second to make some sort of silent connection.
He pushed himself to his knees and then fell backwards onto his rump, leaning heavily against the wall for support.
He was still weak from the stun blast to the face, and moreover he had a throbbing headache. Today wasn’t going to be one of his better days.
But through all that, he still recognised the look on Jaina’s face. It was a look that he himself had often worn; a look he had seen on his sister’s face more than once, on their uncle’s, on their friends’. A look he had even seen on Luke Skywalker’s face once or twice years ago. It was the expression of recognition, and complete and total fear of that recognition. Zak began to wonder what in the universe could possibly scare Jaina that much.
He had already performed a physical analysis of the man himself before Jaina had woken.
He was middle-aged with light, close cropped hair flecked with spatters of stress-grey. He had a strong chin with high cheekbones and a hooked nose that wasn’t naturally that shape. His eyes were the colour of deep yellow, ringed in red and shadowed by darkness usually found on someone that had gone without sleep for many days consecutively.
But the most prominent features were the ugly burn scars on his left hand and down the right side of his face, accompanied by the scar of a long-healed gash crossing from the right side of his jawbone down to his neck and across to the middle where neck met chest.
The man was dressed completely in a purple tunic that was so dark it was almost black, and there was a black cape pinned to the shoulders of his tunic, thick and flowing and lined with what looked like silver shimmersilk.
Though he knew that he had never met the man before in his life, he couldn’t get past the feeling that he was somehow familiar. The familiarity was subtle, not pronounced. If he truly did know him from somewhere, it was perhaps before the scars had been inflicted, and that because of the scars marring his features, he was unable to peg the man’s identity.
“You’re … you’re …” Jaina stammered, taking a step back from the ray shield barring the cell in shimmering waves of white. She was clearly unable to articulate the word she wanted.
“Dead?” the man finished for her in deep, menace-filled voice.
Jaina nodded, swallowed heavily and tried to slow her beating heart, which Zak realised he could hear beating away very fast beneath her breast.
The man outside the cell laughed cruelly. “I thought so too … for a while,” he sneered. “But there was one thing that kept me alive; one thing that drove me towards survival from the hell I had been cast into.”
“Insanity?” Jaina suggested, both mocking and bitter at the same time. Zak sensed a little courage build behind her initial faltering as her heart slowed a little closer to its regular pace.
The other laughed again. Zak recognised the laugh. It was the same cruel, deep laugh that he had heard from Darth Vader whenever he or his sister had said something incredibly foolish in his presence. Though, it wasn’t muffled by the presence of a full-body life-support suit, and thus possessed a little more malice behind it.
“No, my dear—the most basic of all human instincts: revenge,” he corrected. “I wanted to exact my revenge on you … or, more accurately, that self-righteous excuse for a Jedi; your uncle: Skywalker.”
“And how, may I ask, do you hope to accomplish such a feat?” Zak said, speaking up for the first time. “By using us, I can only imagine.”
The man’s gaze shifted across to him. Zak, having been under that same cold stare from Vader more than once, did not falter under it now, though he might have years ago. The other’s lips drew into a tight smile of realisation as he seemed to pluck the thoughts from Zak’s mind.
“You are quite brave for a child of your years,” he said simply—avoiding the question, Zak noticed. “And am I to assume that I have that incompetent excuse of a Sith, Vader, to thank for that?” Zak didn’t reply, mostly because he recognised it to be a rhetorical question, but also because he didn’t want to give their captor the satisfaction of getting an answer out of him so easily.
“Don’t you ever—” Jaina started.
The man flicked his wrist and Jaina’s head snapped to the side as if she had been struck hard across the face by something invisible, cutting her off.
“Do what?” their captor mocked her. “Call your grandfather an incompetent fool? Well, the fact of the matter is that he was. Your grandfather was a failure as a Jedi, and he was a failure as a Sith. Any Jedi loyal to his order would never have been so easily swayed by the obvious deceptions of an old man. And any Sith loyal to the Emperor would never have been responsible for his death,” he growled.
Jaina turned and walked the few steps between her and the sink and spat out a small amount of blood from the strike. She turned on the tap to wash it down the drainage pipe and to clean out her mouth before she turned it back off and turned around again to glare at their captor.
“You had better hope I never get loose,” she warned him. “Or so help me …”
“Aw,” the older man cooed. He chuckled to the stormtrooper behind him. “The girl thinks that she can outdo me again. How cute. I really, truly, would like to see that happen, Jaina Solo.”
“I think the expression goes … ‘Third time’s the charm’,” Jaina snapped.
Another chuckle, amused as ever by her defiance. Zak reached out with his feeble skills, trying to get a sense of some sort of exactly who this man was, and what in particular was driving him to taunt Jaina. But his diminutive senses detected nothing out of the ordinary, and even discovered that he could feel nothing immediately outside their cell beyond the man’s presence.
“I assume you have been made aware of me, boy.” Though he spoke to Zak, the man didn’t take his eyes off Jaina’s.
Zak shook his head and shrugged. “Should I have?”
“You mean to tell me that your little … girlfriend here hasn’t told you yet who I am or what I do?” He looked at Zak now, disappointment, feigned or genuine Zak couldn’t tell, showing. “Oh, I’m hurt. I really am hurt.” That was most definitely sarcasm.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Zak retorted quickly.
“And yet, you were captured—alone—together on the ground level of your feeble Jedi facility, after hours no less?” the other said, not acknowledging Zak’s thought.
“And that naturally leads you to think that we’re ‘together’?” Jaina bit back. “Pathetic. Besides, what we do in our spare time isn’t really any of your business.”
“Quite the contrary, my dear; everything you do and everything you say from this moment onwards are entirely my business. Once again, I find myself in the position of teacher of one of the Solos, and therefore it is my highest expectation that everything you, and young Zak Arranda here, do is my business.”
He paused and picked at the scar on his neck idly for a moment. “To remove the introductions from the equation, I am Brakiss … but you will both address me as Darth Pravus.”
Zak started, pushing himself up to his feet so quickly it made his head spin, and he remained leaning against the wall for support. “Brakiss?” he said, eyes wide. He knew the name. He’d heard it mentioned in passing once during his and Tash’s stay on GemDiver and asked Lando about it. Lando had then sat both Zak and Tash down and told them the story.
Four years ago, Brakiss had assigned his second in command, a Dathomirian Nightsister by the name of Tamith Kai, to assault GemDiver with the interests of capturing Jacen and Jaina Solo, whom he hoped to be able to mould as his most promising students to overthrow the Jedi Order and install himself as leader of the galaxy.
This act had started a brief open war between Brakiss’s Shadow Academy, where he trained scores of Dark Jedi, and Luke’s Jedi Praxeum, a war that lasted the better part of a year and culminated with Brakiss leading an open assault against the Praxeum to force Luke’s hand.
However, the attempt had failed and the Shadow Academy had been destroyed. According to Lando, Brakiss had been long thought dead.
He felt the now-familiar brush of another’s mind on his own, and looked to Jaina to see looking out of the corner of her eye at him. There was denial in her eyes, as if something she had sensed in him had triggered contradiction or correction in her own mind. He opted to ask her about it when they were through with the introductions.
“You know of me?” the older man said, straightening up to his full height. Zak just looked at him, not saying a word. “Only good things, I hope.”
“Not likely,” Zak replied.
“Darth Pravus?” Jaina shrieked incredulously. “Darth? Since when in all of creation does someone like you get admitted into the ranks of the Sith?”
Their captor sighed in unhidden disappointment, ignoring Jaina’s outburst entirely, and then scratched again briefly at the scar along his neck, as if it irritated him.
“Well, I suppose that’s going to have to be rectified in our time together, isn’t it?” He paused and clasped his hands together behind his back. “You, of course, I do know. Mister Zak Arranda; appears to be seventeen years of age. Home world: Alderaan. You are quite the catch, now, aren’t you?” It was another rhetorical question.
Zak sensed, and saw, the shock and disbelief etch itself upon Jaina’s face at the mention of Zak’s home world. It was something he and Tash had kept from their friends for obvious reasons. Now that it was out in the open, he knew that there were going to be questions. He was mildly surprised she hadn’t started plucking the information from him there and then.
“Why me?” Zak demanded. “I thought your goal was to destroy Luke?”
Brakiss had implied by his statement that Zak had some measure of value. Did that mean that his abduction was not one of convenience, with Jaina being the primary target, and that he had been the intended target instead? If that was the case, he had unwittingly put Jaina’s life on the line just by being with her when they had come for him. He thought about it as briefly as possible; conversation soon resumed.
He did resolve, however, that this man would not use him to destroy the man he admired, even if he had to take his own life to stop him.
“Now, see, that’s the first thing that you will find to be none of your business,” Brakiss snapped in reply. “My business is very much my own, and I’ll thank you not to pry. Did Skywalker not include basic manners into your training schedules at that sorry excuse for an institution?”
Zak narrowed his eyes.
“I’m glad that we understand one another, Zak,” Brakiss said, somewhat cheerfully. “And while your girlfriend may try to convince you otherwise, cooperation with me is definitely in your best interests from now on.” He turned to leave, then stopped himself and turned his head to look at Zak. “The consequences for your defiance will be extreme,” he added as an afterthought.
And then he was gone, along with the stormtrooper escort.
“Once again, Jaina is not my girlfriend!” Zak called out as the door hissed shut behind the Imperials.
He glared at the door for several long moments before concluding that continuing to do so would get him nowhere. Instead, he decided that Jaina would be the next source of his attention.
According to Lando, the Solos and Lowbacca had spent some time under Brakiss’s tutelage last time, and so that made Jaina the closest thing to an expert on the man that Zak could currently access.
“So … what exactly do you want to know?” Jaina asked him as he turned to face her, before the question was even begun.
He knew that the mention of Alderaan had brought up questions that she herself had for him, but it was a discussion best suited for another time, when they were not in such a dire situation. He reached out and wiped a trickle of blood that had seeped unbeknownst from the corner of her lips with his thumb.
“Everything,” he said.
Zak squinted as he tried to see past the wiring in front of him. After Brakiss’s departure from the cellblock, Jaina had given Zak a biographical speech on their captor, filling him in on everything he felt he needed to know about the man, including his second attack on Luke and the academy. Then the two of them had set to work attempting to affect their own escape plan.
Jaina, using her superior grasp of the Force, had pried loose a section of the wall panelling to expose what was beneath. Zak had then walked over to the exposed wires, supports and conduits behind the wall to analyse through what means they would put their combined expertise into action.
It was technically through Jaina’s insistence that he participated in this plan. His technical knowledge was just a little out of date compared to hers, so most of what he was looking at he had no clue.
He reached out with his index finger tentatively and touched a bundle of wires bolted crossways in the wall, expecting to be thrown backwards by the shock. Nothing happened. He touched another bundle. Still nothing.
“The casing must be thicker than the norm to be able to prevent that kind of shock while the system’s active,” Jaina pointed out. She was adamant that the conduits and wires in this section of the wall directly affected the ray shield blocking their escape. “Try moving as much of the wiring out of the way as you can so we can get to the shield energy diversion conduit.”
“Right,” Zak replied.
He used his already handy index finger to push the two tested bundles of wiring out of the way. Behind them, he saw two conductor cables connected by three bracing fibres. Above that, he barely noticed the underside of a small energy converter and took note of it.
A section of the visible area was covered by a panel with a twist lock. He twisted the lock and slid it aside out of the way, jumping as he touched another wire and received a small static shock for his trouble. He shook it off, explaining what it had been to Jaina who was just as startled.
“Alright, I can see the ED unit, two of the three conductor cables and the undercarriage of what looks like an energy conversion reservoir,” Zak said over his shoulder.
“What type of connection is there between the conductor cables?” Jaina asked.
Zak took another look. “Dual layer, tri-grip prongs. I don’t know what make they are.” He heard Jaina musing behind him and turned his head. “May I assume by your hesitation that you don’t know either?”
“You’d be correct,” Jaina replied thoughtfully.
“Try disrupting the power converter,” Jaina said. Zak sensed that she wasn’t one hundred percent sure of her own suggestion, but he also sensed that it was the only one she had for the moment. He himself had none to offer. “With any luck, that’ll deactivate the ray shield.”
Zak shrugged and reached inside with his left arm, pressing his cheek to the cold durasteel of the cell wall. He reached past the wires and the conductor cables until he felt his hand on the warm surface of the power converter unit which was hidden from their external view.
“Okay, I can feel the unit. Now … what do I do, exactly?” he asked. He hadn’t worked with power converters for quite some time. Normally, he wouldn’t have forgotten such a thing over any length of time, but the circumstances were beyond normal at this point.
“How many connections are there from where your hand is resting? Don’t go looking for all of them,” she added.
Zak felt around as far as he could move his hand.
“Two. One running parallel to the wall and the other comes out towards us for a few centimetres before …” He stopped. Then he felt around some more, following the second connection line. “Before hitting a bend and shooting up towards the ceiling.”
“Pull that one.”
“But,” Zak started, “the other one goes straight for the ray shield.”
“Amateur. Pull it.”
Zak did as he was told with a sigh and pulled the connection leading to the deck above them. He turned his head to look at the cell’s doorway to see that there was no shimmering white glow evident to suggest the ray shield was still activated.
Jaina didn’t move toward it. Zak did.
Naturally, he assumed that it had been as a result of his tampering with the power converter, and he was going to take full advantage of the opportunity by grabbing the nearest weapon and getting the hell out. He should have known that it couldn’t have been so easy.
His hopes were crushed the instant he crossed the threshold of the cell and ran smack-bang into the back of a black-gloved hand that shot out in front of him. The rest of his body continued on, while his head was stopped by the impact, and the dichotomy resulted in Zak falling backwards and hitting the floor hard.
“I … don’t think so,” Brakiss’s voice said from above him. When Zak opened his eyes again and looked up, he saw that Brakiss had been standing just outside the cell, out of sight and out of touch with the Force, as if anticipating that they would try to escape and taking pleasure in watching their attempt.
Zak scurried backwards into the cell and Brakiss followed him casually, as if Zak had not just tried to escape. When Brakiss was also in the cell with them, he flicked his wrist and Zak flew sideways into the nearby wall. He slumped to the floor and heard the gentle thrum of the ray shield being reactivated.
There was a loud scraping sound and Zak and Jaina watched as the wall plating Jaina had pried loose flew through the air across the cell and snapped back into its original position with a loud clang.
“What do you want now?” Jaina hissed.
“As I said to your boyfriend earlier, young lady, that’s not any of your business. If I want to come down and pester my two valuable acquisitions, I will do so,” Brakiss replied before peering over Zak’s shoulder to see if the wall had been sufficiently repaired.
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Zak protested.
“He’s not my boyfriend!” Jaina snapped at the same instant.
Brakiss smiled mischievously at them, as if he didn’t believe them. “I would also very much appreciate it if you ceased your attempts to escape. You won’t be at all successful. Over ninety percent of the facility has anti-Force protective measures, which you have no doubt already discovered. You must come to terms with the fact that the both of you are now … mine.”
“Never,” Jaina snarled.
Brakiss sighed and changed the subject. “Your father’s ship,” he said, looking directly at Jaina now. “Tell me about it; defences, weaknesses, normal space and hyperspace capabilities, unregistered modifications, communications equipment—something.”
Jaina crossed her arms and remained silent.
“No?” He turned to Zak. “I know you’ve spent time on the Millennium Falcon,” he said matter-of-factly. “Would you care to volunteer any useful information?”
Zak too refused to give him what he wanted. He crossed his arms over his chest and just stared back into their captor’s cold, dark eyes and held his gaze for as long as he could.
“I thought I warned you that cooperation was in your best interests?” he said, raising his hand in Jaina’s direction.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zak saw Jaina’s feet rise off the deck and her hands shoot up to her throat as if the older man had his hand wrapped around it. He still said nothing. Not even Vader had been able to get any information out of him this way, so this self-proclaimed Sith would not either.
“Unless you wish to see your pretty little girlfriend dead within the next few moments, you’ll tell me that which I want to know,” Brakiss snarled.
“If you know as much about me as you’ve let on, you shouldn’t expect me to cooperate under such a threat. Vader never broke me,” Zak pointed out, injecting as much venom into his tone as he could muster.
When it didn’t look as though Brakiss was going to let his Force-grip of Jaina slacken any, Zak repeated his statement. He noticed Jaina’s clawing and gagging was becoming more desperate; she was running out of air.
He had to do something. He could feel her need for oxygen becoming direr with each passing second, could see her face turning blue from the lack of it.
His own anger surged within him. If only he could land a hit, pick up some sort of weapon. Something!
Without thinking about it, Zak’s right hand shot out in front of him and Brakiss’s eyes flew wide in surprise. Zak’s anger and panic triggered a connection to the Force so strong that he had caught their captor by surprise. A great deal of Force energies responded to Zak’s will and the older man was thrown against the edge of the wall next to the ray shield so hard he fell to the deck and didn’t get up right away.
The stormtroopers outside the cell responded immediately, lowering the shield and levelling their weapons at the two young Jedi. Zak reached out to them, but could not touch them with the Force.
For the moment, Brakiss’s assurances that he wouldn’t be able to use the Force in most parts of the facility were long forgotten, and Zak just wanted to crush the troopers within their armour against the walls and escape. The fact that he couldn’t didn’t register at first, and he snorted in frustration and tried again before it clicked.
Zak stood still and lowered his hand to his side, staring at Brakiss as the older man slowly pushed himself up from the ground to his feet and propped himself up against the wall. The look he returned was that of purest loathing and disgust.
“You’ll regret that, boy!” he hissed before backing out of the cell. The ray shield flashed back into its activation cycle and Brakiss departed with his escort, his cape billowing out behind him as he turned to go.
When he disappeared from sight, and the door snapped shut behind him, Zak slumped to his knees on the floor. Jaina approached him carefully and put a hand on his shoulder. “What was that?” she asked cautiously.
“What was what?” Zak replied, wiping away the sweat that had beaded up on his forehead.
“When you called upon the Force and threw him like that,” Jaina said. “I didn’t think you had such a connection to the Force! How did you do that?”
Zak barely recalled the incident. All he remembered was the rage he had felt at Brakiss’s callous treatment of Jaina, and then letting that anger take form. It almost mirrored the anger he’d felt in Jaina earlier. “I … I’m not sure,” he replied honestly. “It just … when he had you like that … I got … it just happened,” he stammered.
He fell back against the wall and sighed heavily, exhausted, before shutting his eyes.