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Never That Simple
James Brosseau, TK-0480 of Makaze, rested his hand on the curved, porous surface and said, "Julia, I miss you."
He sighed. "I know you probably can’t hear me. You probably don’t know how often I’ve been here. But if you do… or if you’re listening now…" He’d told the story in full several times now, and this simplified version just about every day. There was still an ache, but he didn’t have to force the words out anymore.
"I’ll say it again. You died just over two weeks ago." It had been that blasterproof shark with metal insectoid legs, the one that they’d been told to look for, since it had eaten two bystanders and injured several more. Other patrols who hadn’t been able to kill it had warned that you could tell if it was near by the smell, but Makaze had been in a skunked area that hadn’t been neutralized yet, and even Julia, who had kept taking off her breath mask, hadn’t known it was there until it was among them. She hadn’t been in full armor.
"We killed it. You don’t have to worry about that." Its skin had been blasterproof, or at least highly blaster-resistant, but it hadn’t been able to withstand a lightsaber. Getting back to base with her body had been a nightmare. The SL wasn’t organized like Julia was, and he’d generally relied on her to call the shots. The whole patrol had.
"And some Femtroopers found us on the way back. I don’t know what would have happened if Aurek Four hadn’t been there and reinforced us," he lied. If not for Aurek’s sharpshooters, SL-0075 would have killed them. They weren’t supposed to do that, not with anything remotely intelligent – there’d been paperwork and questioning over the shark, even though they’d dragged it back to be analyzed and it had been proven that it was just a rampaging monster. But officers were able to sort of modulate Vaders, keeping them that much calmer, and without Julia there to remind him…
James rubbed his face with his free hand. "ID-5290, I don’t know if you know him, got assigned to the patrol. I don’t think he’s as good as you, though. He’s a little too diffident. Though he also hasn’t been choked yet, so that’s something."
"Anyway, I got leave from the squad and went through attendant training. Except for the waiting, it’s not that difficult." He let his gaze drift over the surface of the man-sized egg, its subtle discolorations not really evident in the dim lighting of the incubation room. "I asked SL-0075 to come in and identify which one had you in it, and he did. He left right after. Said it was the humidity. I think rebirth just makes him uncomfortable."
As he always did at about this point, James said, "If he was wrong and you’re not Julia, uh, I’m sorry for doing this all the time. Come back soon, whoever you are."
"My shift isn’t until midmorning." He hesitated. "I'm just here because I had a nightmare where you came back lagniappe." She’d broken through the shell and stood up, her head down, and when he’d touched her chin to tilt her face up… The chamber was very warm and humid, but he shivered.
Rebirth through these giant eggs took time – roughly fifteen days of incubation and another ten to recover, usually at Outpost where it was safe – but it was the safest, simplest, and most practical way to raise the dead, as far as he knew. Even so, there were issues, like the chimerae, the ones who hatched as Strangers, and of course lagniappe. The word meant "something extra and unexpected".
"Don’t do that, okay? I’ll be here. I love you."
On the other side of the chamber, the door opened and the oldest attendant, Amelia, came in with a kit in hand, glancing briefly at the humidifier. She clearly knew he’d been talking to Julia’s egg, but out of all the incubator attendants she was the one who made the least fuss about it. Some of the girls thought it was sweet. Others said it was weird or creepy, or brought up the whole issue about the problems that could result when a subordinate trooper had relations with his immediate superior. Amelia, if she’d passed judgment, didn’t tell him.
"This isn’t your usual shift," she said instead. He’d come in just before Rosie’s shift ended and just before Amelia’s began, and Rosie had decided that leaving him there meant the eggs weren’t unattended, so she could just go to bed instead of waiting. That wasn’t something troopers would have stood for, but most attendants were from the Imperial Service Organization, not troopers.
He told her, "I’ll be out of here soon enough. I just couldn’t get back to sleep," which was true.
"Nightmares, hun?" Amelia got down on her knees next to an egg, took a stethoscope out of her kit, and started listening to various points on the shell, a small, distracted frown on her face.
"Yeah." Talking to Julia had helped, and there was always something calming about Amelia, how matter-of-fact she was, that made bad dreams snap into perspective. He was getting sleepy again. Stifling a yawn, James said, "The usual. Just dreams about everything going wrong."
"Try not to worry too much, honey. Eggs very rarely go wrong. I’ve worked here since we started, and I’ve been at every hatching. I’ve only ever seen one lagniappe. Everyone else, well, they don’t come out at their best, but you don’t usually know if they’re Strangers until later, and chimerae are mostly just confused." She took the stethoscope out of her ears and put it around her neck, then stood up to look him in the eye.
"If she is a chimera, though, you still have to take care of her. Even though she’ll be mixed up with someone else, and she won’t really be your Lieutenant, she’ll need someone to lean on and to tell her that she matters. Chimerae are their own people, and they need a lot of support." Her lips twitched up into a sardonic half-smile. "And don't hold it against her. I’m told that it’s very depressing to find that everyone either half of you knew rejects you."
James winced. "I know. I’ll try to do that."
"You're not in a kiddie-league competition. Trying doesn’t count. You have to do." Even as she said it, Amelia scowled and put her hand to her forehead. "Argh. I swear, I didn’t mean to paraphrase a Jedi." ISO women and the few men among them shared a lot of 501st sentiments, including distrust, at best, of Jedi.
"No, I know what you mean." It was a painful thought. He’d half-lost Cory and too many other friends to Xanadu already. In some ways it was worse than outright losing them. But Amelia had a point, and it wouldn’t be the chimera’s fault. "I’ll do that. I just hope I won’t have to."
"Good." The ISO worker posted her hands on her hips and looked over the egg chamber. "We’re very close to hatching now. It could happen in five minutes or in another four days."
"You heard me. If one egg’s not entirely silent anymore, all of them are like that. That’s how it works. Each clutch is linked, and when one starts, they’ll all start."
He already knew all that. Everything anyone in the 501st knew about rebirth through these eggs had been taught to him during attendant training. Even so, James felt a prickle of alarm. This soon? He’d wanted this to be over quickly, but now…
It wasn’t up to him. He just had to deal with it. Taking a deep breath, he nodded.
He hung around for a little after that, trying not to be rude, until Amelia put on her music and got out a reading light. Then he made his excuses and left. James didn’t really care for big-band music.
As an attendant, he’d been assigned a small room very near the incubation chamber, right in the best-defended heart of Base. It was only a floor down from the suite the new Council had claimed.
His room’s dimensions were identical to those of the other attendants, big enough for a narrow bed and a dresser and not much else. There was a full-length mirror on the inside of the door, and that was about it. The other attendants, he knew, decorated their rooms. But he hadn't planned to be here for long, and he knew that there would probably be another trooper in this room waiting for the next clutch.
James lay down on his bed and closed his eyes. So soon. Admittedly, there had been times during the past two weeks when he’d wondered if it was possible to die of waiting. Several times he’d thought about resigning as an attendant and going back to the patrol. He’d always felt incredibly guilty for thinking that, though. People who’d just been brought back were at their most vulnerable. He couldn’t leave Julia like that.
Leah, Makaze’s female trooper, had encouraged him, telling him about her stint as an attendant months ago, back when the revival eggs were new phlebotinum and she’d been volunteering. The ISO hadn’t been involved in it back then, when they hadn’t been sure if it would even work in Base, or if what came out of the eggs would be dangerous.
And then Leah had been killed on patrol, and from time to time James wondered if he could have made a difference if he’d been there. More guilt. He’d have to talk to her when she came back. If she came back. A lot of people didn’t. He'd heard various explanations for that, including that the people who came back had only been "mostly" dead, or that they had unfinished business, but frankly he thought all of those explanations boiled down to "I don't know."
He knew Julia was in that incubation chamber. SL-0075 wouldn’t have lied about that. He hoped. It wouldn’t be long now before he found out.
The waiting had felt like it was taking ages. But now that the time was here, or almost here…
He was 501st. He had to deal with it. James turned over and tried to get back to sleep.
He must have succeeded, since the alarm woke him up. It was several long confused seconds before he realized that this wasn’t the invasion alarm, it was the gentler but equally urgent chimes that meant the rebirth eggs were moving. The attendant in the incubation chamber had pushed the button.
By the time he registered that, James had already pulled up his lowers, slid his cuirass over his head, and was locking his thigh armor and greaves in place. Donning his armor was a much easier, more automatic task than it had been before Xanadu; he had literally done it alone, in less than a minute, and without help. Making a snap decision, he put on his bracers but left his gloves, hand armor, blaster, belt, boots, and helmet where he’d lined them up. There would be no place for them in a hatching.
He left the room without a glance at the mirror and lined up with the other attendants outside the anteroom to the incubation chamber.
The attendants mostly yawned or fidgeted, clearly not as anxious as he was. With one exception, they were all ISO and wore the uniform – a tan short-sleeved button-up shirt with a unit patch over the heart, black skirts or slacks, hose if there were skirts, and sturdy black shoes. The only other non-ISO was TI-7531, a TIE pilot who went by Kepler, and who looked almost as out-of-place as James did.
James had gotten to know Kepler fairly well in the past two weeks. Pilots had been quite effectively grounded, and unless they had the leadership skills to be officers or the inclination to become troopers, they were fairly useless outside of strategy sessions. Since they were 501st with or without their equipment, most of them found ways to make themselves useful.
Kepler made eye contact with James, who nodded tightly. His stomach was putting itself in knots. This was no time to talk.
James was both dreading this and wishing it was over. One way or another, it seemed like a very long time before the door opened and Amelia waved them in.
The attendants all packed shoulder-to-shoulder and front-to-back into the tiny anteroom just outside of the incubation chamber, James pulling the outer door closed. The eggs needed heat and humidity, and an anteroom kept both from escaping into the rest of Base.
"Now remember," Amelia said, ostensibly to all of them but probably to James, since he was the newbie here, "it’s like with birds. You assist the hatching. You don’t force it. Wait until they’ve actually made holes before you do anything except encourage. And take it slow. We’ll be here for a while."
She opened the inner door and let them come the rest of the way in.
The incubation chamber already seemed very different than it had been only hours ago. It was as dark as before, and almost as quiet, but back then the atmosphere had been one of rest and melancholy, no more than a few people inside at any one time. Now, three senior attendants only slightly younger than Amelia milled purposefully, making initial checks and fiddling with the climate controls to make it still warmer.
The other attendants boiled out into the room among them, already forming lines for the blankets and the medkits and the soft hatching tools. James held still, uncertain despite all the times he'd imagined this.
Amelia swept up behind him and patted him high on the back, making him jump. "It’ll be fine," she said when he looked at her. "Get in line, drink some coffee or water or tea when it get here, and settle down. Take a nap if your nerves let you. It’s going to be a while yet before we get any pipping." Another ISO worker called to her, and she went over, telling him over her shoulder, "You’re not the first trooper to be in here waiting for someone, and you won’t be the last."
He took her advice, collecting the items and lowering himself to sit besides Julia’s egg. When he touched the shell, he could feel the nearly-imperceptible shifting as it moved, very slightly. It put an unbearable excitement in his chest.
James wanted to get up, run around, hug people or shake them and demand to know if they’d heard this. He wanted to run to where the Makaze patrol bunked and wake everyone up to make them come see. He wanted to crack the shell now, and finally see Julia and tell her that he wouldn’t let this happen again. Ever.
But he would get to see her again, soon, and he could wait a few more hours. James settled on getting up, helping the attendants who brought in things to eat and drink, accepting reassurances from the many people who evidently could see his nervousness, always coming back to Julia. Some time passed that way, and he couldn’t have told how long it was before the hatching started in earnest.
Someone else started first, in the egg next to this one. Kepler, for all that he’d done this before, almost fell over at the tentative scratching sound, and he whooped and started talking to the egg in excited, energetic tones. As if this had been a signal, the room filled with scraping and tapping sounds and attendants’ voices.
Julia started. She faltered when he said her name, then started up again, stronger if anything.
Sometimes she stopped to rest, and he did his best not to bother her, but inevitably she would start again or he wouldn’t be able to keep quiet.
When he spoke, or when he tapped the shell with his fingers, she tapped back, jarring the shell. James found himself grinning ear to ear, hardly able to take his hands off the surface.
Moment by moment, the tapping became less uncertain, more impatient. Some of the eggs, he noticed during one rest period, were all but knocking, and there were muffled voices from one or two. Nothing coherent yet, mostly nonverbal things like coughing or moans.
Eventually the shell pipped – Julia’s eggtooth, repeatedly hitting the same spot, first cracked, then pulverized a small section of shell, then made it bow outwards, conelike, and finally broke through the membrane. The eggtooth showed pale and gleaming and smooth for a moment, then withdrew.
James used his fingers to break off and pull away the shell fragments around the hole, not caring that the edges were sharp or that the membrane was damp and clung to his skin. Wet human fingers reached through, grabbing at the edges of the hole.
He stroked them and they moved, reaching out to catch his hand. He could have pulled away – the grip was weak – but he stayed, stroking them gently over and over with his free hand, until they let go and withdrew back into the dark egg.
Then they got to work. James had hatching tools made of a sort of rubbery material, which he could use to widen cracks and holes, but he could only help. The real work was Julia’s. She had the eggteeth, those short, sharp, temporary projections on her elbows, and they worked just fine, even without much room in the egg to swing them. He could improve on her efforts whenever she rested, which was often.
During one of those breaks, when he was trying to lever open the top of the shell, a woman screamed. He dropped the tool, shoved himself to his feet, and turned to see an ISO attendant throwing herself away from the egg she’d been working on, away from what was coming out of it.
A wordless dread swept through him as he reached for his holster and his bare hand slapped his armor. He’d left his E-11 in his room.
There was a silent moment as all of the ISO workers stared and, almost in unison, instinctively drew away from it. Slowly, it rose to its feet.
It was a bit bigger, the calm part of him observed, than the shell should have been able to hold. Unless it had been compressed somehow. My, that was a lot of tentacles. And legs too? What unusual physiology. Vaguely cthuloid, although since it fit in the room and he hadn’t gone insane from looking at it, it probably wasn’t Lovecraftian.
The rest of him had a short and furious argument about staying with Julia versus protecting the ISO workers. Protecting won. He and a TIE pilot were the only able fighters in a room full of civilians.
He interposed himself between it and the closest of them – why weren’t they running? – with his arms out, barring the way. It was not taller than him, but it was more massive. If it caught him, he was going to get hurt.
It turned, smaller facial tentacles questing, and he interposed himself again, looking directly into what he had to assume were its eyes. There were a lot of them.
"Don’t look away!" Amelia shouted from somewhere behind him. Almost immediately his eyes started to water. He’d never been that good at staring contests.
She was talking again, quietly enough that he couldn’t hear what she was saying, far too quietly to be addressing him. Comlink? Did she have a comlink? Yes, he remembered, a little silver one on the collar of her shirt. She’d be calling for backup. An SL, he was hoping. One of the surgical ones, who didn't cause collateral damage.
The thing groaned low in its throat with what sounded like at least three voices, all disharmonious.
"Don’t do it," James said in what he hoped was the right tone. "Don’t do it!" His eyes were burning and tearing. All at once, it moved and he felt himself switch out of rational mode and into fight-or-flight, and the world seemed to slow down and get simpler.
It lunged at him, but he’d seen it gathering himself and was able to dive out of the way. As it hurled past, oddly graceful, he realized that that being out of the way meant he wasn’t between it and the civilians. It landed, he pushed off of the ground, and as it was reorienting he lunged at it.
Not his brightest idea. It turned and swatted at him. He twisted aside, but not quickly enough to keep it from catching at his chest. His armor saved him from its claws, but its hand or paw or foot drove him to the floor.
James rolled out of the way and surged back to his feet. He had its full attention now. Just great. What was he supposed to-
It started after him again and recoiled as a blaster bolt hit it, backing up and groaning, facial tentacles writhing.
"We have to split its attention," Kepler said, edging into James’s field of view and appearing as a factor into his narrowed worldview. He had a hold-out blaster. Tiny, with only enough charge for a few shots, and evidently not enough to bring it down, but much better than nothing. And now James had backup.
As it started to focus on the pilot, James took a step forwards, stomping, distracting it. Kepler, a second later, took his cue and stomped as it turned again.
It groaned again, more loudly, throwing what passed for its head up like a dog baying, and then it lowered its front section like it was sniffing the floor, turning its narrow back on them.
James waited, and Kepler also did nothing. His adrenaline was up, but he forced himself to wait. They had to be cautious, reactionary. He doubted they could subdue it, and if it realized how little they could hurt it, they probably wouldn’t be able to stop it.
It was… heading back to its broken egg? Did that mean it had had enough, and it was going to lie down and the whole situation could be resolved?
It spun, startlingly fast, and flung a large piece of its eggshell at Kepler, who was lightly built and unarmored and not at all ready. The pilot fell with a sharp cry, reflexively firing once into the ceiling.
James hissed an obscenity and went after it as it started moving. He barreled into its side, knocking it off its feet, and rode it down to the floor, knotting his hands in its bizarrely soft, yielding flesh. The impact didn't stun it; it bucked and slapped at him; most of its claws just scraped against his armor, but one found its way into the collar of his cuirass, just barely going through his bodysuit and nicking his lower throat, but hooking the armor and drawing him close, not pushing him away.
Its facial tentacles parted, and he saw that it didn't have teeth or jaws, but that beak was formidable enough. And he wasn't wearing his helmet. James tried to brace his bare feet against the floor and scrabbled at its forelimb, bending its digits backwards, gouging for sensitive spots before it could get him close enough to bite.
Another blaster bolt hit it, close enough that James felt the heat of it singe his skin, and saw the facial tentacles that had been hit blacken and curl. It let go, groaning, and he scrambled back.
Amelia snapped "Don't do that again. We have an SL on the way," and shot its face a second time. She also had a hold-out blaster. Actually, four of the ISO workers had tiny blasters trained on the thing. They were, James saw while risking a glance around, covering the others, who were moving the cracked eggs back towards the door.
That would have been just fine if they’d been threatened by something that could be put down by a few hold-out shots. But while being shot was making this thing flinch and growl and paw at itself, it wasn’t acting like it was really hurt.
They didn’t have to kill it, just stall it before the SL got here. But if it went on a rampage...
Keeping an eye on it, James went to where Kepler was trying to sit up.
"I'm fine," the pilot said tightly. "Leave me. I can still fight." James ignored this to half-drag, half-carry him back towards the entrance and look him over. The eggshell hadn't cut through his flight suit, but James didn't like the crease it had left. He started opening Kepler's flight suit, only to have his wrists seized.
"Hey, hey! What are you doing!" The pilot's blue eyes were as wide as they'd been when the shell had hit him.
Kepler had said at one point over the past two weeks that he'd been a woman before Xanadu. "Sorry," James said. "I don't mean anything by this. I just need to see if you're hurt."
"I told you, I'm fine. I just had the wind knocked out of me, that's all."
James had to stop and look back over his shoulder when he heard more groaning. The ISO was keeping the situation under control, it seemed. He wasn't needed, and could turn his attention back to Kepler.
"All pilots say that." No matter if they were 501st or Rebel Legion, absolutely right or completely wrong, it was just what pilots said. Admittedly a lot of others said that kind of thing too, but pilots were infamous for it. "Look, I just need to check. Because if you pretend you're not hurt if you actually are, you're going to cause us a lot of grief."
Kepler sighed and let go of James's hands. "All right, all right. But I get to do it." He opened his flightsuit to the waist, spread it wide, and raised his undershirt. "Happy?"
"That's going to be a very nasty bruise," James told him, eyeing his skin critically. "You should definitely see a healer and make sure you don't have a cracked rib."
"At least I'm not bleeding from the neck. Emperor's black bones, James, worry about yourself."
The door opened then, and the SL strode in. James saw the suit and briefly thought he was a Vader, but the man's uncovered face and head and lack of a chest box ruled that out. He walked into the room without pausing to evaluate the situation, like he'd known what was there.
"You will stop," he said, calm and steady-voiced. The ISO workers backed away from it, leaving him closest.
It growled, and the SL shook his blond head. "No."
He stood by as it groaned, and although James only saw him from the back, he thought the man seemed to be listening with every evidence of fascination. "I see. Consider this a friendly warning, then. If anyone here is to be killed, it will be you."
James flinched as it snarled, a higher and much louder sound than it had made before. The SL was utterly unmoved. "Because they're all on my side, more or less, and some of them are my friends. And you're not. And you won't be able to hurt me at all."
It made this bizarre snorting, snarling coughing noise and started advancing on him, not leaping but stalking, showing its beak.
In one fluid motion, the SL drew and ignited his green lightsaber and took a ready stance. For the first time, he didn't sound entirely serene, but mildly irritated and supremely confident. "You think I'm lying? Try it."
The SL was ready when it jumped at him - it hung suspended in midair and started flailing and writhing has he walked slowly up to it and reached for it with his free hand, his lightsaber lowered casually. It groaned and keened and tried to twist away, but he lowered it to the ground and laid his palm on what passed for its head. It went still.
A moment passed like this, and another, long enough that James jumped in surprise when Kepler touched his neck, causing the pilot to mutter something unkind about stormtroopers and poor situational awareness while putting something over the scratch it had given him.
Finally the SL let out his breath in a long sigh and lifted his hand away from it, and it rose to its feet, facial tentacles completely still and limp. He closed his lightsaber down, turned around, and James finally got a good look at his face. It was the Darkluke.
"Take it out of here. Tell it to follow you, pull it along, whatever. Find someone who can tell you where to put it." No one moved. Shaking his head, the Darkluke stepped right up to it and slapped its side, right over one of its blaster burns. It didn't react, although the blow was loud and made its flesh wobble. "It's safe. It should stay in a trance for at least a few hours, maybe more. And I think its reaction time just got a lot slower, maybe permanently. I had to get rough," he added, apologetic and a little regretful.
"Right. Rosie!" Amelia clapped, once, like a schoolteacher. "Are we 501st or not? Stop staring and get to work." Over the sudden bustle, she called out, "Rosie, take it to... hmm. Go find whoever it is on guard duty who's up at this hour. Thanks, Luke."
"You know I'm always happy to help, Amelia," he said, surveying the incubation chamber.
"Well, that's done," Kepler muttered, calling James' attention back. "Hopefully the eggs didn't come to any harm and we can get back to this."
Eggs. Hatching. Julia!
He was able to find her again, and tell her that there had just been an attack but everything was fine. He heard her saying something incoherent, and they went back to work.
It was easier now, with the Darkluke striding confidently from one egg to another, not touching anything but somehow making the work less tiring. Eventually, Julia's eggshell split down the middle, and he caught her, not caring that his hands and forearms got covered in a wash of leftover egg fluids.
Her body was limp, with no strength in it, and she couldn’t quite hold her own head up. Her skin was coated with slime and seemed gray-tinged, though it could have been the lighting, and the hooked eggteeth on her elbows were strange and alien. But her eyes, though half-closed, were still bright and alive, maybe brighter than before, maybe just in contrast to the rest of her.
"I, I, I," she gasped, shivering. James almost wrapped his arms around her to try and warm her up, but remembered just in time that he was wearing armor. Instead he put a blanket around her, knelt, and took both of her hands, rubbing his thumbs over them to try and improve her circulation.
"It’s okay," he told her. "It’s okay. I’m here. I love you."
She flashed him a smile, and then closed her eyes and took several deep, purposeful breaths, clearly working up her strength.
"I… I have, I have something important... to tell the, the Council," she gasped.
"You're much too weak for that, sweetie," Amelia said, standing over them with her arms crossed.
"That... doesn't matter." Just speaking was an obvious effort, but she continued, "This is... important."
"Sweetheart, rest. We'll take care of everything. They'll hear about this in due time."
Breathing hard, Julia opened her eyes. "You don't... understand. It's not that. I, I have to give them... a report." She had to stop to gasp for air in the middle of each sentence.
The Darkluke came up and stood over Amelia, though not by much. Both of them were smaller than stormtroopers and the Darkluke's glossy boots didn't help that much. "I don't sense deception or any great confusion," he said. "She's telling the truth to the best of her knowledge."
The ISO worker turned on him with a scowl. "She's in no condition to even be conscious for more than a few minutes at a time. Look around. It will be at least another twenty hours before anyone should even be holding a real conversation."
"If it's really as urgent as I sense, we might not have twenty hours," the Darkluke countered, folding his arms. "Lieutenant, if you told one of us, we could relay it to the Council for you. I could do it."
The muscles in Julia's neck tightened, but she wasn't quite able to lift her head. "No. They won't... listen to you. They'd... listen to James or... the Servicewoman, but they wouldn't... wouldn't act. Not fast enough."
The Darkluke sagged, his entire posture turning dejected. He was an odd case, unique. He responded to "Luke" and had no SL designation, even though he was technically more Sith than any of the Maras. The 501st wasn’t particularly comfortable with him. Neither was the Rebel Legion. Most people weren't. According to rumor, he wasn’t particularly comfortable with him.
After all, he was a Luke; idealistic, forgiving, moral, readily placing others before himself, gentle, simply and genuinely good in a way not many people were. And even on the Dark Side, those Luke traits were there. Yes, he was prideful, he had a temper, he wasn't terribly patient, and he believed the ends justified the means. But he was so openly unhappy about those means, and he didn't fit in with anyone. Rumor said that he only had so long as a Sith before someone talked him into becoming a Jedi again, sort of sad-eyed and wiser like the other older Lukes.
James found his voice. "Julia, I don't want you to hurt yourself. You shouldn't stress yourself like this."
"Sorry, James." She managed another smile. "Priority... override. Bigger than me or... you."
"In that case," the Darkluke said, shaking off his gloom and gesturing with a gloved hand. Julia rose away from James like a puppet, clear off the ground, and floated to him. He closed his eyes and put his palm on her forehead, the same palm he'd used before. Julia's eyes closed.
"Wait, what are you-" James blurted, getting to his feet.
"Relax," Amelia said, resigned. "I've seen him do this before. He's done it to me, come to that, that time he was defending us during the Femtrooper raid. It's just a strength-transference thing. It looks strange, but this will help." In an undertone, she added, "And he gets so tortured if he can't help. That's Lukes for you."
Julia gasped. James took her in his arms and felt her weight settle as the Darkluke stopped using his power to hold her up. Now she wasn't entirely limp, holding her head up, her eyes more open.
"That's as much as I can do without knocking you out," the Darkluke said. "About as good as a day of rest. You can still overexert yourself, though, so take it easy."
"Thank you." Julia smiled. "That's much better."
"You're still about as weak as a furkit," he warned, his face serious, hooking his thumbs into his belt like a younger, more benign Vader. "See me later, and I can put you in a healing trance. Actually, maybe I should trance everyone who needs it, if it would help. They'll be sleeping even if I don't."
"If you'd like," Amelia said, standing out of the way as he swept away, his cape flagging behind him. She stared after him for a moment, watching him kneel and touch someone's forehead, then turned back. The ISO worker eyed Julia for a moment. "All right. I'll comm some people and tell them that we need the Council to meet, or at least a few members. Don't expect a miracle." She turned away and brought her comlink up to her face.
"Julia, you're sure about this, right?" He'd been prepared to care for her until she was strong enough to be driven out to Outpost to recover. Plans were flexible, of course, but if something major was happening...
"I'm sure." She pressed her face against his armor and tried to reach for him, but she missed. He shuffled her weight carefully, freeing one hand to take hers. "It's that important. Trust me." She closed her eyes. "I missed you."
"I missed you more," he said immediately, making her grin.
Her eyes flew open. "Oh, oh. My greens. You have to get me into my greens, they won’t take me seriously if I’m not in uniform."
He carried her into his room, since he'd had one of her uniforms folded in a drawer, and laid her on his bed. She tried to sit up and just about managed it, but she shook badly enough that he stopped her. He'd have to do this for her.
James wiped the worst of the egg-slime off her with a soft cloth, seeing as he did that it was vaguely reddish, and her navel had been covered over with smooth skin. Then, moving her arms and legs like she was a doll, he dressed her in her underthings and her uniform. He had some trouble getting her arms through her sleeves, since the eggteeth caught on and pierced the fabric, wriggling like loose milk teeth.
"I was hoping," she told him while he secured her boots, "that Luke was exaggerating when he said that I'm as weak as a furkit."
"Well, don't die next time," he told her, trying for a flippant tone.
She nodded seriously. "I don't plan to. I didn't plan to this time. Why didn't 0075 warn us in time?"
There was a knock at the door, saving him from trying to answer, and he opened it to find Kepler.
"Half an hour. Give the council that long at minimum to wake up and assemble," he said. "Some of them are out on patrol, and they need to get back. And the boss had me bring this."
"A wheelchair," Julia said flatly.
Kepler nodded. "You can’t walk. You won’t be able to walk for a couple of days, and not for more than a little ways at a time."
"They won’t take you seriously if I have to carry you in, either," James said.
Julia sighed. “I know. I just – ugh. I hate being this weak.”
Amelia arrived, took the wheelchair handles from Kepler, and bulled into the little room while the pilot found somewhere else to be. "You’re going to have to get used to it, sweetie. Just staying awake and talking is going to tax you. This news had better be important."
"It is. I wouldn’t give an override for something trivial."
Amelia took Julia’s feet, and James took her under the arms, and they swung her into the wheelchair. It had a back high enough that her head didn’t loll back far enough to keep her from seeing in front of her - she could hold it up now, but this way she could rest her neck muscles.
"Don't try to stand, don't get into any screaming arguments, and don't gesture heavily," Amelia ordered. "If you have to make some kind of a speech, make it a short one. You'll start getting the shakes and might pass out, which is not going to help your case."
Julia frowned at this, but she agreed. "All right. No overexertion."
Amelia left, muttering something about paperwork. Pausing long enough to kiss her forehead, James wheeled Julia out into the hall.
Which was, unexpectedly, more crowded than when he'd left it, and not just with attendants carrying out people on stretchers. In fact, it was full of healthy troopers, most of them in armor, yawning and talking together and lining up, eyes on him and Julia. He took a moment before he was able to recognize them. It was Makaze Squadron. All of Makaze Squadron, or nearly. He hadn't seen everyone together at once since they split into long-term patrols, taking a different name for each one.
They greeted Julia gladly, each seeing her for a moment and congratulating her, or saying that she'd been missed, or trying to fill her in on something she hadn't been there to hear about. The troopers nodded at or otherwise acknowledged James, but he obviously wasn't what they'd come for. For her part, Julia was clearly a little startled, but was gracious.
James grabbed Roan, someone from his fragment of Makaze, the one that had kept the name. Roan wasn't a close friend, but he was one of the ones who had visited him while he was languishing as an attendant, and who had told him about Leah's death. "Was this planned?"
"Not really, no," the older trooper said. "We heard that she was out and wanted to see the Council - you know how fast news travels here, even when we have to wake each other up to trade it. The Lieutenant is well-liked. As officer types go, she's a good one."
"We could have used the squadron during the attack," James said, slightly bitter.
"Yeah, I heard about that." Roan scratched the back of his head, looking down at the floor. "News travels fast, but all I heard was that there was an attack in Base and an SL was taking care of it. Sure, I armored up just in case, but I didn't even know it was happening in the incubator until it was over. And I'd vouch for everyone else here thinking pretty much the same thing."
Now it was James' turn to look down. "I know, I know. Sorry. I'm kind of on edge."
"Well, it's a busy night, and it's probably not going to get much better. Take care, James. We're on the old frequency if anything comes up."
The troopers who had seen Julia and said what they'd come to say sort of hung around talking until someone saw the attendants struggling with a stretcher and went to help, and the others joined in. Troopers, as a general rule, didn't particularly like having nothing to do.
As the line disappeared, the officers showed up one at a time to see Julia. There was less variety in how they greeted her, James noticed; some troopers had been dignified, some had been exuberant, some touched her shoulder or clasped her hands. Some had tried to make her laugh. Among the officers, he could generally tell who was closest to her based on how long they talked to her, how broadly they smiled, that kind of thing, but all of them kept their dignity up.
While waiting, he went back into the little room and finished putting on his armor, including his belt and blaster, cradling his helmet down around his side rather than putting it over his head. Coming out, he saw her looking for him and smiling as she saw him. He stood by as a couple of SLs turned up. A Revan, masked and robed and very quiet, appeared rather dramatically and told Julia something in a voice too low for James to understand. Julia said something equally low, and the Revan swept out again. A Mara showed up with much less fanfare, but she said barely a word before seeing the Darkluke and going to talk to him, to his obvious surprise.
James watched her herding him off to the side and briefly considered trying to separate them, but no one else seemed really concerned, so he shrugged it off. Lukes had to be kept away from Vaders, and the Darkluke moreso than the young one or any of the ones in the Rebel Legion, but Maras as a rule didn't start fights. Arguments, sometimes, but no one would get killed.
Finally, ID-5290 seemed not so much to approach as to simply appear at James’s elbow. Like every other time James had seen the officer, he was impeccably well-groomed. "Lord 0075 requested that I convey to Lieutenant 4102 his deepest regrets that he was unable to save you. He desired me to tell you that it is his fault entirely for becoming too confident."
With equal formality, Julia said, "Thank you. Please tell my lord that I appreciate his regrets, and in the future I trust he will be able to warn us in time." This made James wince - SL-0075 had never exactly spilled out his heart, but not long after Julia died he'd said something about how his power was useless if he couldn't save people. Roan had, on his last stopover, said that it had gotten even worse after Leah's death.
The other officer bowed slightly. "I will give him your message. My lord has also instructed me to give you this. In private?"
Enough people had already gone into his attendant room. "We'll go up a floor and use one of the side rooms," James said.
"So we'll be closer to the Council room when they're ready," Julia observed. "Good. Walt, would you carry the chair up for us? Thanks."
All three of them went into a side room with a small conference table, and after closing the door 5290 held out his hand. There was something glossy and dark in his palm. At Julia’s fractional nod, James took it and showed it to her.
"Bring it closer. My eyes aren’t focusing right." She squinted at it as James first brought it close, then turned it so she could see the other side. Then her eyes widened. "What? Why would he give me this?"
"My lord believes that if you are to give the Council news they will not like, it would be best if you had the strength to stand, lieutenant," 5290 said. "It’s to be administered intravenously."
Julia stiffened, inhaling sharply and pushing herself almost upright. "I can’t do that. That’s not – look, Walt, I know 1984 trained you, and he had to have covered this. These are very specifically tailored to – and won’t he – it’s…" She sagged back into the wheelchair as muscle tremors started. Too much effort, too soon.
"I shouldn’t. But I just hate being so weak," she muttered, staring at 0075’s gift.
As far as James could tell, it was just a flattened glossy cylinder, as big around as Julia’s little finger and nearly as long, cool to the touch and oddly heavy for its size. "What is it?"
"That," Julia said, "is a dose of very powerful stimulants and medications designed and made, I don’t know by who, for Vaders."
"I - Julia, no." His voice came out much more quietly than he'd intended.
5290 cleared his throat. "Actually, ah, our Federation trading partners synthesize it." He said it self-consciously and deliberately, like he expected them to be shocked and horrified. "The Council has decided that it is counterproductive to make a secret of our alliances, so I probably won’t get written up," he added defensively.
"That shouldn’t have been a secret anyway. We’ve been on decent terms with the Trekkies since day one," Julia told him, frowning. "Aside from some blustering back and forth, we haven’t even had any serious disagreements. And they already make our fuel and blaster canisters, and a few other things. Or is that secret too?"
"No, but still, what the Council decides is secret should not be common knowledge," 5290 started, then shook his head. "At any rate, this discussion is for another time. The Council will be ready soon."
"Julia, you can't take this," James insisted, almost pleading. "This has got to be a very high dose."
5290 said, "0075 informed me that one dose probably won't hurt."
"Probably isn't good enough," James growled.
"Calm down," Julia said, not loudly but firm.
James blinked, and consciously settled a bit. "Look, this is made for Vaders. They've all got ridiculous tolerance to stimulants, don't they?"
"So this," and he held up the dose, "has got to be extremely potent. And Julia, you've got a lot more blood for it to move in, but you haven't built up tolerance for this kind of thing."
"I understand that, and I think 0075 does too," Julia said. "I burned off too much energy with Makaze. This won't be pleasant, but I'll live. We can find Luke again, and he can clean it out of my system."
"I just don't want to lose you again," he said.
She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. "Oh, James. Have faith."
He pulled the cap off and yes, there was a needle, darker than hypodermic needles usually were, and fairly large. It had a point, but it didn’t look nearly as sharp as he'd expected.
"None of them have a lot of peripheral veins left, and there’s actually a chestbox port that takes fluid directly to the heart. So they really don’t need these to be sharp," Julia told him, anticipating his thoughts.
"This is a bad idea," he said, knowing this would change nothing.
"I don’t have a good feeling about this either, but I can't be passing out in the middle of a report. Do it."
Wincing, he rolled up her sleeve past the eggtooth and found a vein in her forearm. 5290 pulled out a small brown bottle and a swab - why he had those, James had no idea - and wiped the spot down.
Julia turned her face away and tried to keep from crying out as James forced the needle in. She stiffened in the chair and made a strangled keening moan. He felt like a monster doing it. Julia started bleeding as he pulled the needle out, and she closed her eyes and held still while 5290 wrapped a bandage around her arm, like she'd been donating blood.
After a moment she opened her eyes again, frowning.
"I don't think it's wor- oh." Her eyes rolled up in her head and she started to shake.
Julia convulsed, her back arcing against the chair, breathing in fast, ragged gasps, not responding to James when he shouted her name, a trace of foam showing on her lips. And then, just as he was about to go for help, it was over, and she was moving.
She pushed herself out of the wheelchair, stood up stiffly, and took a few uncertain steps. "I'm fine." She sounded as much like she was arguing as making a statement. "I'm... perfectly fine." Julia winced and clutched at her ribcage with both hands.
"Well, mostly. It's just chest pains. Ow. Pretty sure that's because this is a slight overdose. Maybe more than slight. It's that, isn't it?" she demanded, whirling to stare at them with wild, dilated eyes. "My uniform isn't changing color? I'm not getting covered in burn scars?"
"You're not," 5290 said, watching her pace up and down. "You're very red, but I think that's just bloodflow. How do you feel?"
"Good. Good. I feel... wow. I can't hold still." Both of her hands, now back down at her side, were closing into fists and opening, again and again. "Mostly I feel good. Not entirely. It's... interesting. Look, after this is over, if I want more, don't give it to me. But I'm functional. Wow." She held absolutely still, staring blankly at a wall.
"Are you okay?" James asked, almost afraid to touch her.
"I'm... fine. Fine." Julia shook her head rapidly and scrubbed her hand once up her face and over her head, from her chin to her forehead over her scalp. Her motions were quick and not particularly smooth or coordinated. "It's like my veins are filled with ants. There are chest pains, but they don't hurt, except that they do. This is not nice stuff. Hah, wow. I know I'm not making any sense."
With a growl of "Emperor!" she put one hand to the side of her neck, raised that elbow, took hold of the eggtooth on that arm, and wrenched it off with a thin snap and a trickle of blood. She did the same with the eggtooth on the other arm, tossing both to the floor and very reluctantly letting James bandage her arms, all the while shifting restlessly.
"Lieutenant, I'll check to see if the Council is ready yet," 5290 said cautiously. He waited until her nod before leaving Julia alone with James as he finished wrapping her elbows.
She focused on him, and putting her hands on his shoulders, to look searchingly into his eyes, and although he knew she was smaller than him, he could see it, there was a split second when she seemed to tower over him. He'd imagined it, he was sure.
Julia’s eyes had always been a dark amber. He’d fixed that in his mind since that time that she’d teased him about not knowing. It was hard to tell around her huge, dilated pupils. Were her irises a different color now? A shade paler? Almost gold?
"I missed you," she said at last. There was still a confrontational slant to her tone, but her voice was gentler. "I know you were waiting for me. If this had happened to you, I wouldn't have been able to do as much as you did. I'd have visited you as often as I could, and I'd have been there, but I couldn't have stayed."
"Well, you're an officer," he told her. "You're more important than I am. I'm just a trooper." He'd made his peace with that during the wait. If he hadn't been 501st he might have had more trouble. But the need of the Legion outweighed personal matters.
"Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?" Then she kissed him, suddenly enough that their teeth clashed, savagely, wrapping one arm around the back of his head to pull him closer. He leaned in, closing his eyes.
"They're ready now," 5290 said from the doorway, breaking them up. "And they're not all that happy about being called together like this. Your report had better be good."
"Oh, it is," Julia promised darkly. "We need to be ready now." She strode, still a bit stiff and jerky, out. James followed.