Left Guardian Welcome to Bast Castle
Right Guardian
 

Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links

The Vader Chronicles - Part 2

Chapter 6 : Anniversary

Anakin awoke gradually. He turned over to lay his body against Padme. The slow rhythm of her breathing told him she was still asleep. Her skin felt so soft and warm against his chest. He put one arm across her belly, pulling her tighter against him. He nuzzled her hair out of the way, first kissing, then gently biting the nape of her neck. "Careful," she whispered, "you'll wake the baby." As if on cue, an infant's cry arose from the nearby crib.

Darth Vader sat bolt upright in his bed within the darkened hyperbaric chamber. His heart pounded, the sound of the baby's cry still ringing in his ears. The dream felt so real he thought he could taste her on his lips. He sat in the dark, holding on to the last tendrils of the sensations, before reality intruded completely. This was unlike his other Force driven visions. Always before they had revealed events in progress, or yet to be. He knew Padme was dead; this was not their future, and he had mourned the death of his child as he had mourned for Padme. Still, he had learned not to doubt that which the Force chose to show him.

The implications of his vision filled his head. What if his child did exist somewhere in the Galaxy ? Certainly it would have been Obi-Wan who took the child ; he had been there on Mustafar, and must have flown Padme's ship offplanet at the end. He couldn't imagine Obi-Wan raising the child, though, toting a small infant as he slunk in exile, wherever he was hiding. And if he was not hiding, he was dead; there had been no evidence of Obi-Wan in the past year.

So if Obi-Wan did not have the baby, who did? It seemed unlikely that the baby would have been given to Padme's parents on Naboo, since that would have surely caught Palpatine's attention. As for himself, there was only his stepfamily on Tatooine. Not his blood, and not of very long acquaintance, the Lars were the closest people in the Galaxy to pass as his family. The desolation of Tatooine did make it an easy place to hide things. Logic told him to look for the baby there.

He admitted he was thinking as if the baby's existence was a certainty, when he had nothing but his vision to support that view. A visit to Tatooine would solve the mystery, but that was out of the question. The Emperor had assigned him elsewhere, and would not take well to him following his own agenda. Then there was the matter of Palpatine's denial of the baby's life. If the baby did live, then either the Emperor had lied to him, again, or he was unable to see clearly in this matter. Perhaps the Force spoke louder to him regarding the child than to Palpatine.

It was a daunting task to find a single small consciousness from this distance, but he felt the need to try . He quieted his mind, and with utmost concentration tried to reach across the Galaxy with the Force. He sat for several minutes, intently feeling for the slightest ping of return.

His heart opened to hope for a moment, an emotion he had thought he would never feel again. Realistically, though, he was not going to be able to sense the child's presence from this distance. If the baby lived, it was but a toddler, of insufficient awareness to answer. He would somehow have to make the trip to Tatooine. He would patiently await the opportunity, and if he was very careful, he might even be able to nudge the Emperor's thinking in that direction.

When his mind returned to the present, he realized he had been unconsciously tracing the seam where the metal of his prosthesis met the flesh of his leg. For all the advanced circuitry present in his artificial limbs, the sensation did not match living tissue. He glanced at the time. Too early to get up, he thought, better get a few more hours of sleep. He was shipping out in the morning, his first assignment without the Emperor.

------

Captain Mazdan, commander of the Victory class Star Destroyer Justice, stood before his lieutenants at the conference table in the officers' strategy room. He had worked with most of these men for many missions, and they were a solid team. Uncharacteristic anxiety had infiltrated that team, however, the result of rumors circulating regarding a visit from an emissary direct from the Emperor.

"Gentlemen," Mazdan began,"I want to give you the details of our new assignment, as well as answer any questions you may have about our, uh,... envoy from the Emperor who will be on board for this mission."

He waited a moment to let them grasp the fact that the Imperial representative would be discussed, and felt the tension in the room decrease. He continued," Our assignment is to go to Neria and negotiate an agreement with the planetary authorities to allow the Empire to establish a military base there. Neria had no direct Senatorial representation under the Republic, and is content to continue its independent path. Its location, however, is of strategic importance to the Empire. The Nerian Council will be allowed to continue local control as long as they cooperate with the Emperor's demands. If they are resistant, then the Empire will assume control of the planet. Questions?"

"Yes, sir." The first to speak was Lieutenant Vierda, who had served with Mazdan the longest. "If the inhabitants are uncooperative, what will be the extent of our engagement ? This ship is certainly no Imperator. "

"Point taken, Lieutenant," replied Mazdan."Our instructions are to maintain a presence until reinforcements arrive. However, the Emperor feels that his envoy will make resistance less likely." There, he had opened that door.

"Permission to speak freely, sir, " asked Lieutenant Grylta. Younger than most officers of his rank, he had earned top marks at the Academy, and his ambitious nature was always noted in his performance evaluations. When Captain Mazdan gave a consenting nod, he asked the question that was on everyone's mind. "Ok, so who is this special envoy ? Darth Vader is the name I keep hearing, but who is that ?"

Throughout the room murmurs echoed, as neighbor leaned in to neighbor to discuss their own views on the subject.

A reprimanding look from Mazdan hushed the room."You are correct, the envoy is named Darth Vader. I cannot tell you much about his background, except that he appeared about 10 months ago at an Imperial Senate meeting, where the Emperor introduced him as Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith. Since then he has appeared periodically in public and military settings, always in the presence of the Emperor."

"Sir, but what does this mean for us ? What is the chain of command ? Do I have to obey his orders ?" Grylta asked.

"I am still commander of this ship and the ultimate authority onboard," Mazdan assured them."Military decisions will follow the normal chain of command. However, being that he is a direct representative of the Emperor, it would be prudent to follow any instructions he gives you that do not conflict with normal military operations."

"Excuse me, sir," interjected Lieutenant Okka, "but what if he gets in the way ? What does he know about military protocol ? And who are the Sith, anyways ?"

From the back of the room came a reply that was completely out of order. "I heard that he used to be Anakin Skywalker, from the Clone Wars."

Heads turned to look at Lieutenant Bren, the source of the errant comment.

"Not likely," disputed Vierda. "Skywalker was a Jedi, and they were all wiped out at the Emperor's command. Why would he save just one of them ?"

"I've got a cousin stationed on Tarkin's ship, and I'm just saying, that's what I heard," insisted Bren.

"Gentlemen, enough speculation," Mazdan said, taking back control of the room."Our guest will arrive at 14:00 Standard hours, and I expect you all to be in the hangar bay to welcome him. I also expect your complete commitment to the success of this mission. Dismissed."

The line officers of the Justice filed out of the strategy room. Bren was not ready to give up his assertion."I still say he's Skywalker."

Vierda had had enough of this conversation. "Fine, when he gets here, you ask him."

Bren took the gauntlet."You watch me."

------

Darth Vader looked out through the cockpit glass of his fighter, a former Jedi ship rebadged as Imperial property. Now that TIE fighters had become the new small ship of the Imperial Fleet, he supposed he was going to have to give up his familiar Eta-2 Actis. From the fighter's position on the floor of the Justice's hangar, he could see a small group of Imperial officers and troops standing in formation. Not the kind of spectacular reception the Emperor received, but enough to show respect.

He popped the hatch on his ship, unbuckled himself, and stepped down from the fighter via the wing. He walked towards the waiting group, as the commander came forward to greet him.

"Lord Vader, welcome to the Justice. I am Captain Mazdan, commander of this ship. I have to say that when your clearance code came in, we were expecting you to arrive in a transport, not a fighter."

"Thank you, Captain. I fly myself whenever I can," Vader said. "When will you be conducting the briefing for this mission ? I need to go over your plans."

The inquiry caught Mazdan off guard. Already Vader was not what he had expected, although he really was not sure what he had expected."We..I already held the officers' meeting. After you are settled in your quarters, I will arrange to go over the details with you separately."

"Good," Vader pronounced,"it will take less time with just the two of us there."

They passed the detachment of crew waiting patiently in parade rest. All eyes swung to watch the imposingly tall figure in black pass by. Whatever bravado had existed in the strategy room quickly wilted. Vierda glanced questioningly at Bren, who had become an uncharacteristic model of decorum. When it became obvious that Bren was refusing to make eye contact, Vierda counted himself the victor, and allowed himself a broad grin.

------

Ambassador Tan Nikord from the Governing Council of Neria waited outside the terminal of the spaceport serving the capitol city of Zillah, supported by Nerian Security forces. More troops waited at the Capitol building, not to defend against the contingent from the Empire, but to keep the Independent Society of Neria from attempting a guerrilla attack on the negotiations. Ambassador Nikord prayed that the ISN would not interfere with the negotiations. The presence of a resistive force on Neria could only make total occupation by the Empire a more likely scenario.

Nikord watched the landing craft disgorge its passengers. Stormtroopers, two squads of them, marched down the ramp, followed by two Imperial officers, and, finally, a tall helmeted figure all in black. Nikord had never seen this type of Imperial armor before. Was this a Special Ops soldier, or perhaps a nonhuman representative from the Empire, unable to tolerate atmospheric conditions on Neria ? He rubbed his jaw in concentration. He had not had many dealings with nonhuman lifeforms ; he hoped he would not breach some alien protocol.

------

Darth Vader stood before the steps of the Nerian Capitol building, flanked by Lieutenants Grylta and Vierda. "Give me a stormtrooper from each squad, while you remain outside with the rest of the troops," Vader instructed.

Vierda and Grylta glanced at each other. "You'll be highly outnumbered if there's a problem. Caution says to take a squad inside with you," Vierda said.

The two lieutenants thought they sensed a smile flash across Vader's face, though it was impossible to see through the black mask. "The stormtroopers are for appearances. I am in no need of protection," Vader said.

The lieutenants each motioned a man forward, and the stormtroopers ascended the steps of the Capitol behind Vader, where Ambassador Nikord and his entourage awaited.

"Welcome to Zillah, Lord Vader," Nikord said with a bow of his head. Inside the spaceport the dark figure had introduced himself as Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith. However, Nikord was still unsure what sort of being he was facing. "Do you have any special requirements that we can attend to before the meeting begins ?" the Ambassador asked courteously.

"No," Vader said curtly,"this will not take long."

Nikord led Vader to the Nerian Council chambers, which were paneled with purple liawood, the predominant tree in the great Nerian forests. Inside the Council members rose from the oval table emblazoned with the planetary crest, as Nikord made the introductions. "Honorable members of the Council, may I present Lord Vader, special emissary from the Emperor Palpatine. Lord Vader, these are the leaders of our world, representing the nine continents of Neria."

The chairman of the Council, Par Lasko, called the meeting to order. "Lord Vader, previous communications with the Empire regarding the Emperor's desire to establish a presence in this region were not very specific. What else can you tell us about this plan ?"

" As you know, Neria sits very near the intersection of the Corellian Run and the Hydian Way space routes, a strategic position. Denon sits precisely at the intersection, but it is too developed and too well represented to permit the establishment of a new base. Neria's location is a satisfactory alternative. The Emperor is willing to allow you to continue local rule, if you concede to his requests," Vader said.

"That carries a veiled threat of conquest," responded Lasko. "We are a sovereign world. The Republic always left us in peace."

"The Empire is a 10,000 kilo Rancor; it sits where it likes," Vader replied. "The Emperor is only asking for land on which to construct a base, and an open orbit around your world for the installation of a military space station. These are small concessions to maintain your autonomy. Your planet would then be under the protection of the Empire. This could be of benefit to both sides."

"What assurances do we have that the Empire would uphold to its end of the bargain if we agree to the Emperor's demands ?" asked Lasko.

"The Emperor never gives assurances," Vader laughed, "but I can tell you that the Empire is an enormous beauracracy to maintain. Places that manage themselves are quite valuable.The less attention you draw , the easier things will go for you. If there are problems the Empire must attend to, the more likely it is that the Emperor will take direct control."

"It sounds as if we have no choice in this matter- the Empire is coming regardless of our wishes," Lasko said.

"You have a choice, but it is a matter of degree, " Vader countered. "Again, conform to the Emperor's requests, and you will have only an Imperial outpost on your world. Resist, and you will have stormtroopers in every major city."

"Lord Vader, what specifically would the Empire require from Neria in terms of land requirements ?" inquired Councilor Rako. His continent was the least densely populated on Neria, and he could see the other Councilors voting his continent the home of the Imperial base.

Darth Vader did not answer immediately. He was gazing out the windows of the Council chambers, and appeared to be deep in thought.

The Councilors turned to each other, dismayed. If the answer was this long in coming, it must be a terrible truth.

The silence continued, and the Governing Council grew more uncomfortable. Ambassador Nikord sought to gain the attention of their black cloaked guest. "Lord Vader ?" he inquired, with great trepidation.

Vader whirled about suddenly, causing the collective Council to flinch in their chairs. His attention was not directed at them, however, but at the pair of stormtroopers. "Rejoin your squads, and make a perimeter defense around the building !" he ordered them.

He then swung his attention to the Nerian Council. " A group of fighters is advancing on this building, and they mean to mount an assault. They are coming for you as much as for the Imperial presence. Is there anything you need to tell me ?"

"That can't be possible. If there were intruders, the city alarms would have sounded," Chairman Lasko assured him. "You must be mistaken. No one in their right mind would attack the Empire."

"I have seen them, and they are coming," Vader insisted. "If you are unwilling to defend yourselves, I will take matters into my own hands." He rose from the great table, and strode out of the Council chambers.

At the head of the Capitol steps, Vader could see that the stormtroopers were not in a perimeter defense, but were gathered in formation by the Imperial lieutenants. "Why have you disregarded my orders ?" he said angrily. "There is an approaching offensive."

Lieutenant Grylta spoke first. "We are in charge of our men here. We assessed the situation, and decided a defensive posture was not necessary."

"Would you disobey an order from the Emperor ?" Vader fumed. "Because that is tantamount to what you are doing."

Grylta was unwavering in his certainty. "With all due respect, the command of my men is my responsibility. We conferred with the Nerian Security Force, and they will alert us to any approaching hostiles."

"Fool ! The Nerian Security Force does not know how to use the Force. They cannot see the intruders like I can," Vader said.

Lieutenant Grylta meant to respond, but the sound of blaster fire disrupted his thoughts. Then a thousand things seemed to happen at once. A stormtrooper in his squad collapsed in a heap, taken out by sniper fire. A crackle and a hum sounded loudly behind him, and then Vader shoved past him, his lightsaber deflecting incoming blaster fire. Screams and shouts errupted from pedestrians in the Capitol streets, and, in the background, he heard an alarm sound.

The stormtroopers were kneeling now, returning the blaster fire that came from the rooftop of a building a few hundred meters from the Capitol. Grylta looked for Vierda. He found him at the side of a downed stormtrooper; Vierda's squad had lost a man, too. In his ear came Vader's deep electronically amplified voice ordering him to get his men under cover. Grylta nodded, recovered his wits, and ordered his squad to make a retreat into the Capitol building. Vierda was now doing the same, and only Vader remained on the steps. Grylta wasn't sure how Vader could track multiple snipers, but the blazing lightsaber was always there in time to meet the incoming fire.

Nerian Security troops made their way into the building in pursuit of the snipers, and the blaster fire ceased. Vader returned to the interior of the Capitol building to find the stormtroopers in a protective ring around the Nerian councilors and Ambassador Nikord.

"Now, Ambassador, are you sure you have nothing to tell me?" Vader boomed.

"They must be crackpots, renegades, rogues," answered Nikord, a tremor in his voice.

"I can feel your fear, Ambassador. You are lying to me!" The volume of Vader's voice had ratcheted up a notch.

"Lord Vader, please," Chairman Lasko stepped forward from the group of councilors. "Let the Ambassador be. He is only following our orders."

The Chairman gave a great sigh before proceeding. "Not all of our citizens agree with letting the Empire on to Neria. We have been combating an insurgent group, the Independent Society of Neria. I'm sure the snipers, when caught, will prove to be members of the ISN."

"It is unwise to lie to the Empire," Vader said. "I will have to report to the Emperor that many troops will be necessary to secure Neria. If you can prove you enough control over the situation to return us to the troop ship without incident, then I may soften my report."

"Absolutely, Lord Vader," Said Chairman Lasko."The ISN makes trouble, but we can handle them. Please reconsider your report to the Emperor. We will cooperate with all Imperial requests."

------

Once again, Captain Mazdan headed the table in the strategy room onboard the Justice. This time not only his officers were seated at the table, but also Darth Vader. "Gentlemen, I need your reports. "

Vader rose to speak first. "The Nerian Council has agreed to allow the establishment of an Imperial base planetside. They have an opposition group, however, that will probably make it necessary for the Empire to assume control of the planet in order to avoid needless guerrilla attacks on Imperial troops. Needless like the loss of the two men that this mission suffered."

Lieutenant Grylta spoke without requesting permission. "Captain, we were attacked by snipers. These losses were unavoidable, sir."

"I told you they were coming !" Vader thundered." You countermanded my orders to put the squads in a defensive position. Your action, or better said, inaction, led directly to the loss of those men."

"But, Captain, you told us we were still in charge of our men. There was no indication of imminent attack, other than Lord Vader's hunch." Grylta was determined to admit no fault.

"Do they teach you nothing of the Force?" Vader was livid."The Force is not a 'hunch'. The Force allows me to see the future. It is idiocy to go against the will of the Force."

"Lord Vader, you must understand that the use of the Force as a strategic weapon is not part of Imperial military training," Captain Mazdan said, as he stepped in to deflect Vader's anger. "They were following my orders, and I take full responsibility. I have to admit you are a bit of a mystery to us. My instructions from my superior officer described you as an envoy from the Emperor, not a commanding officer."

"I am right hand to the Emperor. To disobey me is to disobey the Emperor himself," Vader said. "Your opposition to my orders will be noted in my report to the Emperor."

------

From his quarters onboard the Justice, Darth Vader configured the portable holoprojector to send his report to the Emperor. Though his words in the strategy room had been unswerving, he had to admit his relationship with the Emperor was at times vague. His apprentice, the Emperor called him, but he knew the Emperor intended no ascension for him. That left him not as heir, but as what, enforcer, errand boy, servant ? The encouragement Palpatine had given him when the Jedi were slow to use his talents had vanished now that Palpatine stood as his master.

The holoprojector signaled the presence of an incoming message, and he positioned himself in the visual range of the transmitter. A small holographic image of Palpatine arose from the device.

"Was your mission a success, Lord Vader ?" began Palpatine.

"Yes, Master. The Nerian Council has given full agreement to the establishment of Imperial bases on their world. Internal opposition exists, however, among their citizenry, possibly requiring Imperial military intervention," Vader said.

"Excellent. I had forseen that you would do well. The minor resistance on Neria will be of little consequence to the Empire," Palpatine concluded.

"Master, I do have a concern about the mission," Vader said.

"And what would that be, Lord Vader ?"

"Apparently I am outranked by even the lowest Imperial officers. My commands to the stormtroopers were overridden by mere lieutenants, resulting in the unnecessary loss of men."

"Why would you wish to be part of the Imperial Naval hierarchy ? And the loss of stormtroopers is like water over the Deeja Falls- they are instantly replaced, and the power of the whole is undiminished. That's why we bought them."

"Future missions will run more smoothly if my position is made clear," Vader insisted.

"Are you asking me to intervene on your behalf, Lord Vader ?" Palpatine said with derision.

Vader realized that, once again, Palpatine had maneuvered the discussion so that only one reply was possible. "Of course not, Master."

"You're a smart boy. You will find a way to circumvent the military structure. We can talk more about this when you return to Imperial City". The holographic image disappeared, an inarguable end to the conversation.

While Palpatine had easily dismissed his concerns, Vader's conviction was undiminished. His lack of formal position within the military was an obstacle, apparently placed there by Palpatine's design. The stormtroopers would be at his command only so long as the military did not contradict his orders, a failsafe measure that protected Palpatine. Always his abilities were feared by those above him; in this the Emperor was no different than the Jedi. There would come a time, he promised himself, when he would throw off the restraints placed by his masters. Especially if, indeed, he was father to a living child.


Chapter 7 : A Visit to Tatooine

The Imperator class Star Destroyer Assurance exited hyperspace near the Outer Rim world of Exarga. On its bridge Darth Vader silently paced the length of the command walkway, trying to keep his thoughts focused on the task at hand. The Exargan Mining Authority had failed to pay the expected amount of taxes to the Empire, and the Emperor had sent him to correct that deficiency. He pushed away his personal thoughts by reviewing the information he had been given about Exarga.

Exarga had a history of underreporting their production of ore, and hence the payment of fees, to their own Mining Guild almost a decade ago, before the start of the Clone Wars. Now it was possible they were trying the same ploy on the youthful Empire. Perhaps the Exargans felt their remote location protected them from their governors, or that the Empire was spread too thin trying to keep the systems of the former Republic in line.

Whatever their reasoning, Vader was here to convince them that the Emperor did notice the small things. The Empire was a ravenous mouth that demanded to be fed; revenue sources would never be allowed to dry up. If the Exargans could not be depended upon to provide the expected level of taxes, then perhaps the Empire would have to assume control of the entire mining operation. The metallic ores produced therein were more directly valuable to the Empire than credits. The expanding Imperial Navy,with its the planned Super Star Destroyers, and projects like Governor Tarkin's Great Weapon required almost incomprehensible amounts of materials.

The seizing of an independent authority by the Empire would have some repercussions in the Senate, but most of the commercial organizations that banded together under the Separatist flag had already been absorbed by the Empire. The Emperor's ability to handle criticism had never been in doubt, and Vader knew Palpatine could convince the Senate, as he done countless times in the past, that such an action was taken only for the good of the Empire, Senators and citizens alike. For those systems that whole heartedly supported the Emperor, the explanation would seem quite reasonable. For those that glanced at him with distrust, they would be powerless to act on their suspicions.

For Vader, the trip to Exarga presented another opportunity, one he had gently nurtured into fruition. With the Emperor's blessing, he was being sent into the same region of space that also contained Tatooine. Since his first vision of his child two years ago he had hidden that secret deep down, Jedi-style, not trusting himself to keep it concealed by cloaking.While the delay in beginning the search had been trying, the truly difficult task had been finding a way to come to Tatooine that did not draw the Emperor's attention. He did not understand why, but it seemed the existence of his child was something the Force had not shared with his Master, and he meant to keep it that way.

------

The agents of the Imperial Revenue Squad were not all from the same species, but they might as well have been. The emotion that pervaded their thought processes was suspicion, profound suspicion of all things.This was true whether they were computer technicians, financial specialists, or the elite interviewers. Whether they had been selected for this outlook, or whether it had been trained into them, Darth Vader was not sure.It had made them remarkably effective in their work, though, and more than one system had confessed to misdeeds when simply threatened with the prospect of being reviewed by the Imperial Revenue Squad.

It helped that the Emperor had given the Squad expanded police powers with which to conduct their business. Minus the weaponry, of course. It would have been irresponsible to arm a group so inclined to see the enemy in everyone. They could, however, enter private property, open sealed records, and confiscate computers with impunity. It was probably safer to spit on an Imperial Guard than to try to evade the civic duty of paying taxes. But pride in one's intellect was a common fault among the Galactic citizenry, and the IRS was kept quite busy by those who thought they could outsmart the Empire.

The Squad supervisor on board the Assurance, Special Agent Srre, sat next to Vader, and across from the ship's commander, Admiral Tresad.

"Admiral, it is your responsibility to safely bring the IRS to the offices of the Exargan Mining Authority. You are to provide complete troop support to their needs, transport them to further sites as needed, and most of all, keep them completely protected. The Emperor will be quite displeased if any member of the IRS is harmed," Vader said.

"But I thought you, as the Emperor's representative, would be escorting the IRS," said Admiral Tresad.

"Are you telling me that you are incapable of landing troops into this situation ?" said Vader.

"Of course not, Lord Vader. I could place troops in the living room of the Hutt Syndicate. That is not the issue," said Tresad.

"Everywhere we go, we are treated the same," Special Agent Srre interrupted."Other Imperials avoid us as if we carried the brain plague.You should be more grateful. We may not be soldiers, but we are likely the most valuable squad in the Imperial service. Without us, the Emperor would have no credits to place in your accounts on payday. You eat because of our work."

"Agent Srre, I couldn't agree more. The successful resolution of this shortfall is of extreme importance to the Emperor. I'm sure the Admiral is in complete agreement, and will be proud to escort your squad to the Exargan headquarters. Isn't that correct, Admiral ?" Vader had learned more than Sith skills while at the side of the Emperor.

Admiral Tresad stared at Vader's mask in a manner some might have found intimidating. "Yesss...The crew of the Assurance can always be counted on to follow the Emperor's will. We are at your disposal, Agent Srre."

Srre brightened for a moment, then let his happiness slip away quickly, lest it take hold. "I will go prepare my men. This is likely to be a complicated investigation."

Tresad turned back to face Vader. "So, if you will not be helping me with the IRS, what will you be doing?"

"This mission has two phases. While the IRS looks for the record trail of the missing funds, I will be determining what happened to the ore production."

"I suppose that involves the rattletrap ship you loaded into my hangar ?" Tresad said.

"Making planetfall in a new Imperial shuttle about guarantees that the locals won't talk to you," Vader said.

"I'd hardly call you inconspicuous."

"I know more about the common man than you think, Admiral. Besides, I have an assistant to do the actual legwork."

"You mean that criminal I wanted kept in the brig ? I'll have to have the utensils in the mess counted since you let him loose on the ship."

"Kel Wezla is an interpreter, not a thief. He speaks 24 languages, and will be most helpful in Mos Eisley."

"Mos Eisley, eh ? Well, as long as you take him with you, I'll be happy."

------

Darth Vader had to admit Agent Srre was right about the IRS being responsible for the credits in all of their accounts. Courtesy of the Emperor, he had an expensive apartment in Imperial City, access to most any ship he wanted, and an ever rising sum in his personal account. It rose mostly because he had never acquired the habit of spending, having gone from being a slave to being a Jedi Padawan, neither of which had much opportunity to handle credits.Every once in awhile he did come across something he wanted to buy, like the battle scarred ARC-170 that Admiral Tresad had spoken of with such distaste. He recognized it would suit his needs for the expedition to Tatooine, so he had bought it from the salvage yard, refurbished the hyperdrive, and made it spaceworthy again.His credits had also facilitated the release of the former Separatist operative Kel Wezla, who sat in the copilot's seat of the ARC.

"I haven't seen one of these for awhile," Wezla said, "not since the War for Freedom."

"On what planet was that ?" Vader said.

"You know, the Clone Wars. Except in the Confederacy of Independent Systems, we called it the War for Freedom.That's how I ended up in detention on Coruscant. My neighbor heard me call it that, and turned me in. One slip of the tongue, and they turned me in for having an anti-Imperial attitude."

"Fortunately for you, your talent for languages was noted. I expect you to make good use of those skills while you are in Mos Eisley," Vader said. "I need you to listen for any mention of Exargan metals being bought or shipped out through Mos Eisley. It is equally important to listen for the buyer's identity."

He flipped a credit disc into Wezla's hands. "There's 1,000 credits on this to feed yourself, or buy access to information. You decide which is more important, but do remember I expect results when I return."

"Return ? Are you leaving me alone in Mos Eisley ?" Wezla asked.

"I have business elsewhere on Tatooine. I will return shortly for you. And remember, the credits on that disc are completely traceable, so don't have any thoughts about running off. If I have to hunt you down, you will regret it. Give me the information I am seeking, and I'll pay you 5,000 credits. Come up empty handed, and it's back to the detention center in Imperial City."

"Don't worry," Wezla said,"if I could find embezzlers among the Neimodians, I can find your smugglers."

------

After leaving Wezla on the outskirts of Mos Eisley, Vader flew the ARC far enough out beyond the city to be certain he would be alone. He closed his eyes, emptied his mind, and made himself completely receptive to the Force. Only his ventilator made background noise in his head. He felt its pull, the Force, first faintly, then stronger as his concentration increased. He turned his body towards the pull, at last feeling it rush to him and through him. He remained in meditation for a moment, reveling in its touch.

When he opened his eyes, he saw he was facing the direction of Anchorhead. Of course. The child would be at the Lars homestead. Someone would have brought the baby there : Obi-Wan. Would Obi-Wan be there, too, helping to raise his child ? The thought made his heart turn black. He cloaked his emotions to prevent the imagined Obi-Wan from detecting his presence.

He returned to the controls of the ARC, hit the throttle, and flew the craft near its atmospheric limits. Focusing on the signal coming from the direction of Anchorhead, he let go of conscious piloting control and followed the trail that the Force set before him.

The homestead came into view at the edge of the horizon. He turned on the zoom function of the helmet, something he rarely did, preferring to keep his visual field as natural as the helmet allowed. He scaled back on the throttle of the ARC to make a reasonable approach to the homestead. It had been six years since he had been here last. He had come then to rescue his mother, but he had been too late. He would not be too late for his child.

The Force resonated in him now. Was this what Qui-Gon had felt at their first meeting? He landed the ARC, setting it down in the glaring Tatooine sand. The homestead looked the same. He looked towards his mother's grave, finding it neat and well tended. A fourth headstone stood near hers; had Cliegg Lars died?

He turned his attention to the entrance of the home, and saw what he had come for, a small boy, blond and fair, in whom the Force sang. Inside the ARC he froze, not able to take his eyes off the boy. He had wondered if the child would be like Padme, dark haired and intense, but instead he looked just like his father.So, it was true; his son lived. Palpatine was wrong, disasterously wrong, whether by deceit or ignorance.

If Palpatine was wrong about his son, then perhaps he had lied about Padme as well.He reached back into that dark place, relived the memory that he could not bear, and once again felt his certainty that she had been alive. He had hurt her, no doubt of that, but maybe he had not killed her. The relief contained in that possibility washed over him. He felt his tears, hot as they left his eyes, then cold as the pressurized air of the ventilator hit his face. Maybe there was hope in life after all, in this boy, in this last trace of Padme. If he could not save her, he would save their child.

A woman came up from the interior of the home. Beru, he recognized Beru. A man came from around the garage, and walked toward the ARC: his step-brother, Owen. His mind raced. He had not fully thought out what he would do if he found the child; he had only known that he had to discover if his vision was true.

He had to take the boy, of course, his son, his and Padme's. He would take him now, raise him, teach him everything he would need to know. But how? If he were to remove his mask and helmet, struggle to breathe in the hot dry air, Beru would not recognize him. She would not hand over this child she had raised as her own. To take the boy, he would have to kill Beru and Owen.

He watched the boy talk excitedly to Beru, pointing at the ship. He felt the excitement within the boy, but also his underlying security. He remembered his own mother, how good she made him feel, the sense of peace and safety she brought to him. How could he replace that, if he were to take the boy by violence, tear him from the only home he had known? And then there was the matter of Palpatine. How could he continue to keep the boy hidden from his Master, who would only be too delighted to have another toy ? With that thought he knew that he could not take his son, no matter how much he wanted to, not until he could keep him safely out of the Emperor's reach.

Owen continued his approach to the ARC, meaning to engage the stranger on his homestead. He knew not that the shadow of death had passed over him.

Vader climbed out of the ARC into the blazing Tatooine sunlight, his cloak billowing in the desert wind. Beru called the boy-- he heard her call him "Luke"-- and took him downstairs into the home. He repeated the name, "Luke", softly so that the voice modulator did not pick up the sound, so that he could hear it in his own voice.

Owen stood before him now, a man who had offered to be his brother once, might still offer to be his brother now. " Are you lost ?" Owen said to him. "Can I help you find something?"

"I'm looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Have you seen him ?" he said. Not the truth, but it would do.

"No, I don't know who that is," Owen said.

Not the truth either, he sensed. The mention of Obi-Wan's name had made Owen flash with fear. Obi-Wan had definitely been here, was probably watching over the boy. His boy. It didn't sit well with him to leave him here with Obi-Wan close by, but the Emperor was the greater threat.

"Probably have the wrong town. I'm probably supposed to be over by Mos Espa, " he said.

And with that he made himself turn away from Owen, and Beru, and Luke. I will return, Luke. I promise you, he thought.

The battered ARC-170 rose off the sand and headed back towards Mos Eisley.

------

Back on board the Assurance Darth Vader was eager to give his report to the Emperor. Kel Wezla had done an exceptional job on Tatooine. Vader had been so pleased with Wezla's findings that he not only paid him, but let him vanish into the desert shadows. The information that Wezla had unearthed could be used to stop the growing opposition to the Empire. With this mission, Vader had accomplished something of importance, made a real contribution to protecting the Empire. He was sure Palpatine would be equally pleased with the information.

"So, Lord Vader, have you found where the Exargans have been hiding their credits ?" Palpatine asked.

"Yes, Master. The Exargans have been holding back part of their ore production to sell on the black market to Chandrila. I'm sure Chandrila is processing the ore to use in building their own starships."

"Why would you think that, Lord Vader ?"

"Chandrila is an agricultural planet. What need would they have for shiploads of doonium ?"

"Farm machinery, perhaps. The leap to the idea that they are building a secret navy is quite large."

"But the Chandrilan Senator Mon Mothma is your most outspoken critic. She could be working with other senators to build an opposition force.This possibility demands immediate investigation."

"When I want political analysis from you, Lord Vader, I'll ask for it."

"But if they are building a rebel force, wouldn't you want to crush it right away ?"

"Why would you think that you know better than I how to run the Empire ? Perhaps you should look up the meaning of the word 'apprentice'. But don't worry, we will separate Exarga from its ill-gotten profits. If they are selling materials to Chandrila, they will have income to spare."

Darth Vader was dumbfounded. He had been certain the Emperor would congratulate him on his efforts, and send him on to Chandrila to bring an end to their rebellious activities. Instead, Palpatine was turning a blind eye to the situation. If he didn't know better, he might think Palpatine wanted the resistance to grow.

"Did you find anything else on your travels, Lord Vader ?" Palpatine asked.

Even though he had triple barricaded his thoughts of Luke, Darth Vader was suddenly relieved that this was only a holographic conversation. "No Master, a few stories of doonium mines in Mos Eisley, but nothing of importance."

------

With his belly full, Obi-Wan Kenobi should have felt content. Instead, he felt the leadened lump in his gut that usually followed him out the door of the Lars homestead. Another week, another family dinner, and another opportunity to feel he was doing the wrong thing. Sure, the Lars were good people, but this was no way to raise a Jedi.

Owen Lars came up the interior stairs to join him outside the entrance to the home.

"Someone came asking about you today," Owen said casually, as if it were a common occurrence.

Obi-Wan stared silently at Owen, unaware that his mouth had fallen open. He probed Owen's mind, feeling for amusement, but found only confusion. "So are you going to tell me who it was, or make me guess ?"

Owen shook his head."I don't know who it was. A ship came, smaller, pretty beat up. Only one person on board. He didn't say much, just asked me if I knew where Obi-Wan Kenobi was. I told him 'no', and he got in his ship and left."

"If you didn't recognize him, what did he look like ?" Obi-Wan said.

"Well, that's the thing. His face was covered by a helmet. I couldn't see any part of him. He was really tall, though, dressed all in black."

Obi-Wan's face tightened. "Did he ask about the boy ?"

"No," Owen said, "Luke was right there with Beru, but he never said anything about him. He just asked if I knew where you were. So, do you know who it was ?"

"I must take Luke. We need to leave right now," Obi-Wan said.

"What are you talking about ? Who was that?"

"That was Anakin, or what's left of him. Senator Organa saw him just as you described at the Imperial Senate. He's come for the boy. I must take him to safety," Obi-Wan said.

"He didn't say anything about taking Luke, he just asked about you," Owen replied."You're not taking Luke anywhere."

"You don't understand. He will come back. He must not be allowed to see the boy."

"The only one talking about taking Luke is you, and I'm not going to let you do it."

"The boy is not yours to keep. You are only watching him for the Jedi. You don't know his importance."

"Luke is not property. He does not belong to you. We love him as our own son, and you are not taking him from us."

"You don't understand who Anakin has become. Luke cannot be allowed to go with his father. You must send Luke with me now."

"If that was Anakin, I felt no danger from him. The only one threatening Luke is you. I'm tired of all your Jedi nonsense. Don't ever come near my family again."


Chapter 8 : In the Name of the Empire

As a boy, Darth Vader had looked up at the Tatooine night sky, ablaze with the glory of a million stars, and wished that he could visit them all. As a man he had visited more than most, but of course realized the impossibility of his boyhood wish. Still, the thought of going into Wild Space, to explore the unknown, fed his very soul. He wondered if his boy, gazing up at the same night sky, would grow up with the same dream of adventure.

He would once again be setting foot on the sands of Tatooine, but not to rescue his son.The temptation to make a side trip, to set eyes upon Luke again, had played through his mind, but he knew it was a self indulgent wish. Risking bringing Imperial attention on the boy would not help him bring Luke home. Only when he walked as his own master would that dream come true.

All his recent assignments had begun to run together : quell an uprising here, seek out a fugitive there, instill the fear of the Empire in yet someplace else. Much of it was politics, not leadership, in his eyes. If it didn't seem so illogical, he would have said that Palpatine enjoyed the intrigue and secret maneuverings. If he really thought about it, it did seem that Palpatine, from Senator, to Chancellor, to Emperor, always seemed to play one side against the other, and then preside over the mess. Now with one hand the Emperor permitted the Chandrilan Senator Mon Mothma to speak in open defiance of the Empire , and with the other hand he built an increasingly powerful Imperial Navy that could crush such growing resistance.

And crank up the fire on the great Imperial war machine Palpatine did. The naval fleet was expanding, the new class Star Destroyers, ten times the length of the current class, were advancing in the design phase, and Governor Tarkin's Great Weapon project continued with generous governmental support. The demands for metals required by these construction projects led the Empire to search for raw materials in increasingly creative ways. Thus, Vader found himself back on Tatooine, chasing down two year old leads on a high grade doonium find.

Kel Wezla had come across the rumored Lost Sundarian Planetoid legend during his surveillance to discover the truth about missing Exargan ore . According to the tale, Run Vangermes, a native of Sundaria, was a small time prospector who began paying his cantina tab with pebbles of almost pure doonium. His tongue loosened by drink, he confessed one night that he had stumbled across a planetoid in uncharted space on which doonium nuggets were scattered on the surface. He left a marker buoy in orbit to help him find the planetoid again, and kept his jump routes secret, though many tried to follow him. He was finally killed in Mos Eisley by other spacers who tried to extract the planetoid's location from him.

In the time since Vangermes' death, other fortune seekers had determined the first few jumps from landmark systems that Vangermes described, but the planetoid with the buoy marker, and its potential fortune in doonium had never been located. While the planetoid had never been found, the existence of the high grade doonium Vangermes presented was undisputed. Somewhere in the uncharted regions of Wild Space, in the area beyond Lamaredd, the resources to build the Super Star Destroyers lay waiting. Darth Vader was assigned to lead a scientific ship into the unknown, and claim the planetoid in the name of the Empire.

------

The Imperial mining frigate Distant Star entered hyperspace, making the jump from Tatooine to Lamaredd, the most distant Outer Rim system charted on Galactic maps. Inside, the geological crew were double checking their sensor and analysis equipment. The senior geologist of the pair was not very senior at all. Zhan Rion had earned his doctorate from the Imperial Institute of Technology only a few years before. His family had opposed him joining the Imperial Forces, but it seemed to him a good way to pay for his education, and he had not regretted his choice.

"So, what do you think of our commanding officer?" asked Zhan's coworker, Spir Tazny, who had been two classes back at Imperial Tech. For emphasis, Spir cupped his hand over his mouth and made loud breathing noises.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you not to make fun of the disabled ?" Zhan chastised."Besides, maybe he's nonhuman. I think your Imperial bias is showing."

"Highly unlikely," countered Spir."How many nonhumans have you seen in the Imperial Forces, especially at the command level?"

"Well, I've certainly had worse. At least his meetings don't go on for hours. I can deal with him," Zhan said.

Spir was not done aggravating his supervisor. "So how do you think we're going to find this Lost Sundarian Planetoid ? After Lamaredd, we have two, maybe three, marked jumps. Then we, what, cross our fingers ?"

Zhan shook his head."I'm sure they have it all planned out. The Empire isn't known for flying by the seat of its pants. Anyways, didn't you get into geology with the hopes of making discoveries, exploring planets, understanding the origins of the universe ?"

Spir laughed."I got into geology with the hopes of working in the Corporate Sector and making the choice credits."

"That's where you and I differ," Zhan said." I'm looking forward to expanding the known edge of the Galaxy."

------

Darth Vader leaned over the dining table in the mess hall that doubled as a briefing room on board the Distant Star. The four men who comprised the navigation crew leaned as far back in their chairs as gravity permitted in an effort to maintain distance from the looming black figure.

Vader's tone was even deeper and more unyielding than usual."You are all aware that we are heading into uncharted space, and that there is great danger involved. If you follow my commands precisely, we will all come through this alive. We may not find the planet we are after, but we will be safe. Disobey me, and we may all end up as particles floating through the Galaxy. Is there a man among you who does not think he can follow my orders exactly ?"

"Sir," began Ensign Draig,"you will tell us when to come out of lightspeed ?" His voice carried the uncertainty that the whole group felt.

"I will tell you exactly when to exit hyperspace. Can you do this ?"

Four heads nodded in unison.

"Good." Vader's voice softened a bit. "Let's get to work."

------

The Distant Star was a large vessel, but most of its bulk was occupied by its enormous cargo hold, meant to transport quanties of ore, and the equipment needed to extract that ore. The crew compartment was relatively small, leading to a minimizing of the usual barrier between commanders and crew on Imperial ships. That may have contributed to most of the crew being near the bridge when the first jumps into Wild Space began, but more likely it was because they all shared the same apprehension about where they were going.

The first jump from Lamaredd had been accomplished by several prospectors at Mos Eisley, so when the Distant Star exited hyperspace uneventfully, the coordinates were charted, and the known area of space was extended further. The second jump proceeded much as the first, ending in the perimeter of a system with a dwarf sun and five planets, the location of which was also duly noted.

The third jump was the problematic one. Those who had forced Vangermes to reveal the location of his find had tried to follow his directions, but never returned from their search. The next wave of fortune seekers were divided between those who lost their courage before entering jump three, and those that lost communications after jump three. Perhaps the coordinates were written incorrectly, or perhaps the Sundarian had exacted his revenge on those who had murdered him, but either way the location of the planetoid remained Vangermes' secret.

Darth Vader instructed his navigators on how to proceed with the third jump. "Enter the coordinates for the next jump, but put the ship on manual control. Tell me when we have attained the coordinates, but only exit hyperspace on my command. Is that clear ?"

The navigators affirmed their understanding. "Aye, sir."

"Then take us to lightspeed," Vader commanded.

Through the viewing windows, the star fields went first to starlines, then began a clockwise rotation that took on a swirled appearance.

"How long shiptime before we reach the set coordinates ?" Vader asked.

"Two point three standard hours, sir," replied Ensign Draig.

"Then alert me point seven hours before we arrive," Vader said before leaving the bridge.

------

Nervousness among the crew began to increase as the time approached to leave hyperspace. Even the scientific crew gathered in the corridor near the bridge, waiting to see if they, and the Distant Star, were to be part of the fleet claimed by the flaw in Vangermes' instructions.

The heavy footsteps of Darth Vader parted the crowd as he approached the bridge, but it quickly reformed behind him. He walked to the front viewing windows of the Distant Star, then swung around to stare briefly at the silent crowd.

When he did speak, it was only to the navigators. "Tell me when we have arrived at the coordinates, then await my command."

Vader moved dead center to the window, spread his feet wide apart as if bracing himself, and folded his arms across his chest.In front of him, the starlines swirled in their same inscrutable pattern.

Time passed, but Vader said nothing more, and did not change position. The navigators glanced nervously at each other, but maintained the silence, as did the crew gathered at the back of the bridge, who dared not even whisper among themselves. The Distant Star continued hurtling through hyperspace, the passage of time marked by the eerie metronome of Vader's breaths.

"Coordinates attained," said Ensign Draig, but Vader gave no sign of acknowledgement. The navigators remained fixated on their instruments, poised to bring the ship into normal space.

Spir Tazny's voice broke the silence before Vader's did. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Vader shot one black gloved hand into the air, but did not turn to answer.

Tazny's fear had grabbed hold of him, and would not turn loose. "We're all going to die!" he shouted.

"Silence that man and get him off the bridge! " Vader ordered, without turning from the starlines.

Zhan took hold of Spir's arm and shoved him through the crowd into the corridor. "You're the one who's going to get us killed. You can't break rank and take on the CO like that. What's wrong with you ?"

Spir slumped against the corridor wall, eyes closed, breathing rapidly, but didn't reply.

The ship gave a small shudder. "See, we just exited hyperspace. Nothing happened, not even a bobble," Zhan said. "I'm going to have the med droid give you some Taldol, and let you sleep it off in your bunk."

------

After depositing the Taldol sedated Tazny in his quarters, Zhan made his way to the metallurgical analysis lab. Spir would sleep for a few hours, and his anxiety should be diminished when he awoke. Zhan hoped so for Spir's sake ; it sometimes took only a single negative report to get a geologist permanently stationed planetside on some dreary quarry of a world.

Zhan decided to make another attempt at fixing the erractically operating thermal analysis sensor. He looked at the battered casing on the device, and could only shake his head. If he had one complaint about the Empire, it was that it would spend untold fortunes on new Star Destroyers, but wouldn't spring for new scientific equipment. With a sigh, he picked up his tools, and began removing the casing from the device.

In the background he could hear the mechanical ventilator that foretold the arrival of Darth Vader. With luck, Zhan thought, he'll keep right on going.

Zhan turned when he realized that not only had Vader not passed the lab, but that he had walked into it.

"I apologize for the conduct of my colleague," Zhan said, trying to lessen Spir's punishment by beating Vader to the punch. "I hope you can forgive him. He's young, hasn't been on many missions yet. But he's really smart. He'll do a good job for you."

"Age is no excuse, Doctor. He's hardly any younger than we are," Vader said."Make sure that it doesn't happen again. Distracting me at a critical time like that could have been a fatal error."

"Absolutely, sir. I've had him treated by the medic. He'll perform without fail," Zhan said, trying to contain his astonishment at Vader's statement. Of all the things he had guessed might be inside the black suit, none of them had been a peer.

"What are you working on ?" Vader asked.

"Uh, this pulse thermal sensor is a little unreliable. I can work without it, but it'd be nice to have if we do find our mystery planetoid."

"Let me see it," Vader ordered.

Zhan stepped aside, and thought, whatever propels your speeder. He hadn't ever had a CO express such personal interest in his work before.

Vader examined the sensor closely. He touched the input connections on one of the circuit boards, then handed the device back to Zhan. "I grew up fixing machines, and used to really enjoy it, but my fine dexterity is not what it once was. Try replacing the optical coupling on the flash generator. I think you'll find it's bad."

"Uh, thank you, sir," Zhan stumbled."I missed the exit from hyperspace. Did we find the system we're after ?"

"No marker buoy appears to be present in this system, but we are conducting a brief patrol to be certain," Vader said.

"How will we know where to go next ?"

"I will meditate with the Force for guidance."

"The Force," repeated Zhan."You mean like what the Jedi used ?"

"Not all Force users are Jedi," Vader said with a hint of anger, " but, yes, that same Force."

"Can you read my mind ?" Zhan asked with trepidation. Maybe he should have been guarding his thoughts more closely.

Vader snorted through his mask. "That's a myth. I can sense your feelings, broad thoughts, images, but not exact words."

"So how does the Force help you navigate ?" Zhan said, hoping Vader would sense he spoke to satisfy only his curiosity.

It had been a long time since anyone had asked Vader about the Force, since anyone had appreciated his powers. "The Force allows me to see the future. I see events before they happen."

"But it wasn't possible to see the route ahead of time ?"

"It's not that simple," Vader said. "I do have visions of the far future, but they are less detailed. The future is always in motion, swirling around multiple probabilities. The farther away an event is, the more difficult it is to see with certainty. When I fly, I see things before they happen, because the window is shorter. As an event approaches, one probability becomes a near certainty, and I see it."

"So when the ship was in hyperspace, you saw when it would be safe to exit ?" Zhan said.

"Yes, exactly," said Vader, pleased that Zhan had understood. "At the moment we passed the preset coordinates, I sensed death. I think we would have impacted something. When I could feel only that we would survive, I gave the order to return to normal space."

"But if we don't find anything in this system, we're going to have to make another jump ?"

"Yes, and if your subordinate is continuing to have difficulties with space travel, you need to keep him confined to his quarters. I will not allow another disruption on the bridge," Vader said.

"Yes, sir. I'll make sure he's 100 percent good to go," Zhan said.

------

Zhan Rion had almost finished installing the new optical coupling in the ancient thermal sensor when Spir walked slowly in to the metallurgical lab. "You doing OK, Spir ?"

"Feel like I got run over by a turbo tank, but otherwise I'm OK," Spir said. "Where are we ?"

"We're patrolling the system we landed in after the third jump. I think we'll be heading out on the next jump soon," Zhan said. "Can you handle it ?"

"I'll be all right. I guess embarrassment isn't a terminal condition, though I'm not sure I'll want to show my face on the bridge again."

"I spoke with the CO. You're OK this time, but I wouldn't cross him. I don't think he tolerates the same mistake twice," Zhan said.

"Don't worry," said Spir. "What are you working on, anyways ?"

"I'm testing this thermal sensor, now that it's all back together."

"That hunk of junk ? We tried fixing that a million times. It's beyond repair," Spir said.

"Our CO didn't think so," Zhan said.

"What does he know about pulse thermal analysis ?"

"All I can tell you is that he diagnosed the problem with this sensor just by touching it. No test equipment or anything, just touching it," Zhan said.

"How did he do that? " Spir said.

"He used the Force," Zhan said with a smile.

"The Force, you mean what the Jedi used ?"

"That's what I said, but don't say it to him; it makes him mad," Zhan said. "He's also using it to navigate the ship."

"Ugh, maybe I don't feel so good afterall. Whoever heard of that ?"

"I don't know, but he's dead serious on the subject. We did arrive all in one piece. And this sensor does appear to be working correctly now. I don't which of the two is the greater miracle."

"You know, that bonus for accepting an assignment in uncharted space sounded really good when I signed the contract," Spir said, "but they never mentioned this Force mumbo-jumbo."

------

Darth Vader loved the Force. He was never more at peace than when he felt it fill his mind and body, aiding him, guiding him. The Force had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember, even when he only knew the sensation, but not what it was, or how to use it. He pitied those who did not have Force sensitivity, did not understand how they could live without the Force's touch surrounding them.

He did miss the brotherhood of the Jedi, even if he did not miss the organization itself. He missed the comradery that came of saying "I feel a disturbance in the Force", and having that perception echoed by another. Visible proof of the Force was easily demonstrated by the simple levitation of objects, but it was the subtle glimmerings of future events and emotional waves that were more difficult to capture, making a concurring perception reassuring. He could discuss the Force with Palpatine, but such conversations were infused with the tension of oneupmanship and competition. There was no philosopher in Palpatine.

So now, as he concentrated on finding the small space buoy that marked the location of the Lost Planetoid, he immersed himself in the Force, going where others might drown.For some Jedi, finding the connection to the Force had taken great effort, and it had remained an elusive presence in their lives. For him, it was life, as consistent a sense as sight or touch.It was maybe a petty usage of the Force to find some planetoid in the name of the Empire, but who else could reach into the void of uncharted space, and return with a pathway ? He was afterall, the Chosen One.

When the Force whispered to him the location of the buoy, he had no hesitation. The Force had never lied to him, never betrayed him, never let him down.

He felt drowsy, almost intoxicated, still by his meditation with the Force. On board military vessels, he always waited until he was completely recovered before venturing out of his quarters, lest anyone mistake his slowness for weakness. But here, with his own crew, he felt no need to hide himself, to protect himself.

He wished he could keep his contact with the Force as strong in the awake state as it was in the meditative state, but the more conscious intent he used, the more the Force receded. In the slow state, it was so simple to read the crew members as they passed him in the ship's corridors. He felt them shrink back from his approach, an effect he sometimes relished, and other times just found to be tiresome. But beyond that expected response, in many of them he felt hope. Hope directed at him. Hope that he would have the answer to deliver them to their destination and home again. They were counting on him, and he enjoyed the feeling.

On the bridge, he found the familiar face of Ensign Draig. Even in Draig, who, like the other navigators, had struggled to maintain physical distance from him during the briefing, he sensed anticipation. Draig had gone from fear to faith that he would lead them in the right direction.

Vader stepped to the navigation console and entered a set of coordinates. He closed his eyes, and verified the setting matched his vision. As the crew put their faith in him, he put his faith in the Force.

"Ensign Draig, we're going to handle this much like the last jump," Vader said. "Target is these coordinates, ship on manual control, and alert me before we reach the coordinates."

"Yes, sir ."

Vader assumed his meditative stance near the viewing windows of the bridge. This time he felt certain of their destination, but he still waited for the approach to confirm the safety of the exit point. No premonition of death entered his mind as the coordinates neared, and he gave the command to exit hyperspace. The ship gave the usual shudder upon entry to normal space. In the viewing windows, a system lay straight ahead. He smiled within his helmet; the Force was never wrong.

"Scan all frequencies for signal transmissions," he said.

The bridge was not packed as it had been at the first uncharted jump, but a few crew spectators had assembled, including Spir Tazny. Vader observed Tazny, noting with satisfaction that Tazny was holding himself together. Some Imperial recruits never adapted to the rigors of space travel.

"Simple repeating signal detected, non-military code type," a technician announced.

"Take us to the signal source," Vader said. " Dr. Tazny, I assume you and Dr. Rion have your gear packed. Prepare to suit up- I think you're about to go planetside."

------

Spir Tazny was sweating as he hefted another piece of equipment into the hold of the mining shuttle. "I wish droids hadn't fallen in disfavor after the Clone Wars. I could use one about now to load all this stuff."

Zhan nodded. "In a perfect world, we'd be sending droids down to the surface to collect samples, not us. That was the whole point of droids. I guess if one boozy old prospector from Tatooine could make it there and back, it can't be that hostile down there."

"We've got gravity and a thin atmosphere, what more do you want ? Besides you're the one who said you wanted an adventure."

"Truth is, I never thought we'd find this planetoid. Thought we'd just tour some new systems, but I didn't think my boots would actually be touching the dirt," Zhan said.

"Dirt. The profs at Imperial Tech would slap you for using that word," Spir said."This'll be the first time since school that I've put on a space suit."

"Yeah, it's like riding a swoop bike. It'll all come back to you as soon as you put it on. Or you could ask our CO to give you a lesson."

"I'll tell him you said that," Spir said. "You know, I was up on the bridge again for the last jump. I'm a man of science, and I have no idea what he's doing, but it ain't luck. There's got to be something to that Force business."

"Come on Jedi-boy. Let's get our highly educated scientific butts down to the surface."

------

With the geologists busy planetside excavating and loading ore samples, Darth Vader took the opportunity to rest before the Distant Star made its return journey. Like all the ships he had been stationed on, this one had been retrofitted with a hyperbaric chamber in his quarters. While it was possible for him to make it through a mission without one, it wasn't very comfortable. As the Emperor's apprentice, he felt he deserved, at the very least, to sleep, eat, and bathe as much like a normal man as was possible.

Between the pressurized refresher and the pressurized bed chamber he had to cross a short distance in room air, and even that brief exertion left him winded. His breaths came short and fast, as his body struggled to oxygenate itself. He had developed a post 'fresher ritual where he sat down to catch his breath, and made use of the time by performing maintenance of his helmet. He picked up the inner helmet assembly, wiping down the outside first, paying special attention to the electronic connections, making sure they were immaculately clean.

By the time he had finished with the inner helmet, his breathing had slowed, and he could think again. He turned his attention to the outer helmet shell, exterior now facing him, to buff the surface back to its high gloss state. He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the brilliant shine of the helmet, the only way he ever saw his own face. He had no mirrors in his private chambers.

He turned the helmet in the light, the gold of his fingers contrasting sharply with the gloss black of the helmet. His face became reflected in the depth of the shine, and he focused on the image. With one golden hand he felt of his left ear, the pinna shriveled, almost gone from fire. He watched his hand follow the scar from his ear across his left cheek, then up his forehead and over the massive scar ridge that ran down the back of his head. Would he be able to reveal himself to Luke, show him how the gleaming perfection of metal almost overcame the mangled reality of the flesh ? Or would there be no face he could show his son, save for the one of polished black ?

They would speak through the Force, his boy and himself. He would teach Luke to sense what lay beneath the surface, even if his child's eyes could not see past the horror of his physical self. In the pure, undeniable truth of the Force, Luke would know him as a man, as a father, not as a monster.

Truly, he did not understand how it was that one Force user taught another. It was like teaching someone to see, like explaining the color blue. One could give a technical explanation of the rods and cones of the eye, or how Angstrom length defined a color, but they were only words. A being could either see or not see, just as they were either sensitive to the Force, or not. But while it was not possible to know if two beings really saw an object in the same way, when two beings felt a ripple in the Force, they also felt the interconnectedness of life, and of themselves.

They would rise above the Forceless place that the Galaxy had become, the one that Palpatine had created after the destruction of the Jedi. The Force was no longer celebrated within the Empire, and Palpatine, despite the enormity of his Force skills, chose not to reveal them to his subjects, allowing only a private few to know. Vader saw no good reason to hide such gifts, and had finally decided that Palpatine wished for it to appear that his ability to forsee events and rule the Empire sprang entirely from his own native intelligence. For Palpatine, the Force was merely another tool at his disposal.

In Vader's Galaxy, it would be different. Force users would be the governing council. Those strongest with the Force, would occupy the high positions, sharing their prescience for the benefit of all. The Force would speak through them for the many who could not hear its voice. It would be neither a hidden skulking order like the Sith, nor a restrictive rule-bound organization like the Jedi. All aspects of the Force would be studied, and passion would be encouraged. A life of fulfillment, not a life of denial.

He would train his son in the ways of the Force, and together they would rule the Galaxy fairly and justly. They would establish a new era of stability, not the endless cycle of chaos and conflict that Palpatine's rule had brought. The Republic had stood for a thousand generations, but Palpatine's rule had become troubled in less than a decade. As the Chosen One surely he was meant to restore the Force to a position of respect and glory, to create a new dynasty to last another thousand generations.

It was time to reclaim his son, time to meet his destiny. Only one man stood in his way.


Chapter 9 : The Chosen One

"You have done well, Lord Vader," the Emperor said. " Analysis of the samples you brought back on the Distant Star proves it to be the purest doonium find ever recorded. Governor Tarkin will be quite pleased."

"Yes, Master," Vader said. He had almost forgotten how much he had to guard himself to avoid revealing anything to Palpatine. Communicating by hologram was far preferable to standing in the same room as the Emperor. "Finding the route was only possible through use of the Force."

"Of course it was. Not so difficult, really," Palpatine said."Still, it will quite impress the Senate."

Palpatine's comments stung him.The Force shows me things it does not show you, Master. "What will we present to the Senate?"

"I'm going to need you to make another appearance, tell them of the great accomplishments the Empire has done for its citizenry.Governor Tarkin needs more credits, so we must convince the Senate to release funds from the Departments of System Exploration and Public Works towards the completion of his project. If his project were finished, it would make harvesting of materials from your newly found planetoid much easier. The Senate will have no choice but to vote funds for its support, " Palpatine said.

"But Tarkin's project is a weapon, not a mining tool, Master", Vader said.

"I sometimes despair that you will never be more than a Tatooine slaveboy," the Emperor said."Do you think that the Senate would vote to fund a superweapon ? Of, course they wouldn't. Things must be presented in a manner that they will understand."

"Isn't that misleading the Senate, Master?"

"It is the absolute truth. Tarkin's project can be used to break up dead planets and asteroids to facilitate the harvesting of materials. That it can be used for other purposes is quite beside the point. Too much information would be confusing to the Senate," Palpatine said.

The truth. Like the truths you have told me ? "Yes, Master, you're right. Not everything need be revealed."

------

What a joy it was to be back amidst the Imperial Navy. As Darth Vader walked the corridors of the Star Destroyer he recognized that it had been more than a small adjustment returning from the Distant Star. The time among civilian Imperials had been a mental reprieve. Now he was back in the military limbo where his lack of formal position required him to jostle with the commanders to get his work accomplished. The protective alertness he had to maintain was a tiring thing, a habit it had been welcome to drop.

Then there was Palpatine. It was one thing to follow his command from the other side of the Galaxy, and quite another to be a lackey at his side. Palpatine's frequent verbal jabs were designed to either quell or incite his insurgency, he wasn't quite sure which. Additionally, the manner of the Emperor's rule had become increasingly difficult for Vader to stomach. The convoluted manueverings that took place instead of clear leadership. The half truths, semitruths, and outright lies. And Vader was part of that political machine, one of the coterie of seconds that surrounded Palpatine, each with their own separate use. At least, until that use was gone, and that person dropped off the edge of the Galaxy, like the long gone Mas Amedda and Sly Moore.

It doesn't have to be this way.

The thought snuck past his defenses to the front of his mind. How clear his path of action seemed to be while on the Distant Star.So simple, so clear. Kill Palpatine, become leader of the Empire, rescue his son, restore the Force. Just a few steps to change the Galaxy.

But on board this Star Destroyer, in the proximity of the Emperor, it no longer felt so simple.

Without an ounce of wasted effort to give hint of the lethality that lurked within, Palpatine was like a coiled spit adder.The wizened exterior that made him seem more ancient that he really was revealed nothing of the boundless power that waited patiently to be unleashed. But Vader had seen with his own eyes the fury of the Force lightning that Palpatine had sent forth into the body of Mace Windu. He knew from personal experience the pain of Force lightning, but what he had received from the hands of Dooku had been nothing compared to what had been dealt to Windu. The Force lightning that Palpatine sent into Windu glowed so hot that Windu's skull had been briefly visible through his flesh. Even when Palpatine appeared unarmed, he carried death in his fingertips.

Vader found that while his mind had caution, his body had fear. The organic portion of himself remembered the pain and darkness of Mustafar, how close he had come to dying. Now, even when his mind said "Go", his body shrank back, reluctant to risk itself again, preferring to live. To support its case, it flung flashbacks of agony to his mind.

He needed to meditate, to focus himself, to find that strength of connection with the Force that he had found in Wild Space. This particular Star Destroyer had no hyperbaric chamber in his quarters, but it would still afford him privacy.

Inside his cabin he removed the armored cloak that so defined his visual presence. He sat back in the chair, hands interlaced, index fingers resting on his mask at the level of his lips. He exhaled as deeply as he could, closed his eyes, reached for the sustaining embrace of the Force. He felt himself slip away towards the trance like state, drifting. The Force surrounded him, and he strained to see what it might show him.

Wmpff ! Like a blast door closing he felt a blocking presence in his head. Palpatine. The Emperor's mental cloak limited Vader's ability to see the future, much as it done against the Jedi. He stopped pushing the barrier, not wanting to cause ripples in the Force that Palpatine would sense.

His frustration made him feel like a caged Ralltiir tiger aboard this Star Destroyer, with nowhere to go, no place to escape Palpatine's presence, no task to bury himself in. If meditation could not provide the focus he sought, then perhaps exertion would accomplish it. He grabbed a bag of training remotes off of one of the cabin's built in shelves.

He redonned his cloak, running a hand down his lightsaber as he did so. His familiar weapon would be of no use against Palpatine.Even when whole, his reflexes wouldn't have been fast enough to overcome him. The time it took to thumb the lightsaber into action would be more than enough for the Emperor to generate the Force lightening that would kill him. No, to achieve the death of the Emperor would require use of his unique skill, the one that already gave the Emperor pause: the use of the Force within the body of another. He would have to surreptitiously block the air from Palpatine's lungs, bringing him to unconsciousness before finishing the deed.

Dangerous thoughts these were. He paused before exiting his room, making sure his mental cloak was securely in place.

Heading towards the ship's gymnasium he passed by the quarters where stormtroopers were housed separately from the rest of the crew. Long ago, when they were the original clone troopers, he had found such comfort in their company, in the clarity of their purpose and intent. Comfort in their reliability, in their consistency, in their courage, and in their honor. He felt to be a better man when in their presence, whether from their conduct, or from the thoughts they exuded, he wasn't sure.

But that was long ago, and now the stormtroopers were a hodge-podge of cloned templates and recruits that would have looked like a kaleidoscope, had it not been for the white armored uniforms. They were still better disciplined than the rest of the Imperial services,though, without the penchant for insolence found in the higher ranks.They would follow his command without hesitation, until a more senior officer of the Empire contradicted him. If he killed the Emperor, and assumed that mantle, would they follow him without question ? To whom was their allegience pledged ?

He had not thought through the consequences of assassination. While he pondered how to accomplish the death of Palpatine, the real danger might lay in what came after. Would the Imperial Forces acknowledge the natural order among the Sith, nod and accept his right to take Palpatine's place? Or would the headless body of the Empire rise up to oppose him?

He stepped into the ship's exercise complex, halting conversations as he did so. He ignored the furtive stares that came from lowered heads, the open mouthed glances, equal parts curiosity and fear. At least these men would offer no resistance.

He moved to the open space of the sport court, the cushioned surface dampening the sound of his boots. The group of servicemen playing shockball halted their game.

"Get out," he said, and they complied.

He knelt down to set the bag of remotes on the floor, pulling them out one at a time to activate them, setting them all to the highest speed. Their stings, if any found their mark, would not even singe his armor, but they would work as targets.

He closed his eyes, sensing the five remotes hovering around him.He unclipped his lightsaber from his belt, activated it, and awaited the commencement of firing by the remotes.

As he swept the arc of the lightsaber in time to meet each shot from the remotes, he surrendered his conscious control. While his body moved swiftly to counter the fire of the remotes, his mind became smooth and tranquil. He did not attempt to see forward through the Force, knowing already the clouding effect Palpatine exerted there.

He would have to accomplish his attack in the same way, in the moment, in the now, not focusing on a future that Palpatine might detect. Unless Palpatine had already forseen his intentions. The thought interrupted his concentration, and he felt a barrage of hits from the remotes, soft, like raindrops, against his armor. He switched each remote off with his mind, and they bounced lightly as they hit the cushioned floor.

Palpatine was such an omniscient opponent. Everything was always going as he had forseen. Was it even possible to take an action that he had not already glimpsed through the Force? Without the element of surprise, he knew he could not succeed against the Emperor. His confidence shrank.

He hated that Palpatine made him feel afraid.

He reactivated the remotes, and they sprung off the floor in a buzz. This time as he took aim against the remotes his mind was not calm, but filled with anger. With each strike of his lightsaber he battled back against his fear .His parries increased in speed as he raged against his own inaction in confronting Palpatine. Palpatine who had lied to him about having the power to stop death, about Padme's end, about his son. At each instance he should have challenged Palpatine about his deceit, held him accountable, but instead he had done nothing. Because he was afraid, afraid to fail again, afraid to die. Whatever travesty his life had become, he still clutched at it preciously.

The existence of Luke had restored his drive to live. His earliest Force vision of his child had helped through the dark times, to look forward when his mind so often had fixated in the past. He thought, he focused, he planned around finding his child. When he finally saw Luke, real, and beautiful, and full of the Force, he dreamt. He dreamt of a future in which he and his son would rule the Galaxy, bringing fairness and peace to its inhabitants.

The Empire would stand behind him, because just as surely as Palpatine had lied to him, he had lied to the Empire. He promised peace, and delivered war. He called his rule the New Order, but it was really the old chaos. He worked to maintain his own power, not be a leader to the Galaxy. He forsaw the future, but kept it for himself.

Vader's rule would be different, and the people would follow him; he felt it. No matter how fearful of him they might be at first, they would grow to respect him, just as the crew of the Distant Star had done. They would come to count on him.Yes, he would be the guardian of the Empire that Palpatine had called him so long ago.

All these things he wanted, for himself, for his son, for the Galaxy. But the man who stood in his way was a far stronger opponent than Obi-Wan could ever have been, while his own physical powers and agility had waned since Mustafar.He stood no chance of defeating Palpatine in open battle. His stumps throbbed in agreement, a sensation he had thought long gone.

If he did not confront Palpatine, he still failed, and not just himself. Inaction would fail the Empire, stop the will of the Force, and keep Luke from ever knowing his father, or of his mother.There was no one else who could stop Palpatine but the Chosen One.

The situation tormented him. It was a puzzle he could not solve. Leaving things as they were was the wrong path, but he could not stop doubting his ability to overcome Palpatine. He channeled his frustration at the remotes, and he watched each one explode in a burst of dazzling light.

He stood for a moment, breathing heavily from exertion. He turned to see men lined against the back wall of the sport court, watching him. He felt of their minds; the balance had tipped towards curiosity, and away from fear. Yes, they would follow, just like on the Distant Star. It must be done; the Galaxy was waiting.

------

Vader approached the Emperor's private office. The Imperial guards did not move as he came closer to the door, indicating Palpatine would allow his entry. Inside the chamber Palpatine was seated in his usual chair facing the expanse of space outside the viewing window. The Emperor did not greet him, but remained in intense concentration over a handheld document reader.

Vader slid quietly into a side chair, trying to see what held Palpatine's focus. He had to use the zoom function on his helmet to read the title of the document. The Collected Works of Hari Seldon. Vader had not heard of the volume, but based on how engrossed Palpatine was in the document, its information must be extremely valuable.

He turned his gaze to Palpatine's face, looking for any clue as to his state of mind. Not that the Emperor ever revealed much, but he was more likely to show a microexpression on his face than to relax even for a moment the cloak that covered his mind. He knew that he was registering somewhere in Palpatine's consciousness, but the Emperor was not to be distracted from his task.

He turned his attention away from Palpatine and inward to himself. He closed his eyes, let his ventilator take over full auto control, and made his mind very quiet. What he was about to do would require the finest control of the Force that he had ever attempted. He would have to summon its power while simultaneously smoothing its surface so that no ripples would be created for Palpatine to detect. He had never encountered a Force user more skilled at reading others than Palpatine. He was not entirely sure he could keep his thoughts hidden while he engaged the Force in action.

Very slowly he used the Force to constrict the Emperor's airways. He held them in a restricted state for a moment, trying to sense any surprise or dismay from the Emperor. Feeling nothing, he tightened his grip slightly.

The Emperor coughed, startling him and causing him to lose his concentration, and hence his grip on the Emperor. He doubled his efforts at cloaking his intent, and worked to steady his nerves.

"Do you think there is something wrong with the circulation in this room, Lord Vader? Your ventilator seems to be triggering rather frequently," the Emperor said,as he cleared his own throat.

"I will have it checked, my Master. I had been unaware," Vader said. He wasn't doing a very good job controlling himself; his own tension had unconsciously increased his respiratory rate. He must refocus. I will never be able to raise Luke unless Palpatine is gone. Palpatine deserves to die for all the lies he has told me. He twists the will of the Force for his own use. I am the Chosen One of the Force.

Vader swallowed and began the process again, starting at an even smaller level. Carefully he called to the midi-chlorians in Palpatine's body, feeling how easily they responded to him. First he closed down the smallest alveoli in the Emperor's lungs, then continued upward to the larger structures.

The Emperor yawned. "Really now, Lord Vader, I think there's something wrong with the air exchange in this room."

"I'll have it checked immediately," Vader said, with uncharacteristic softness.

He closed the fingers of his left hand and constricted the bronchioles of Palpatine's lungs. He needed Palpatine to lose consciousness so that he could finish the deed without the Emperor summoning help. He tightened his hand into a fist, blocking the airways more completely still. Soon lack of air would bring the Emperor down.

Suddenly Palpatine spun from his seat, trying to gulp in air, but to no avail. He clutched at his throat, his yellow eyes bulging madly. Vader prepared to stop Palpatine's heart, to deal the final blow. All too easy.

Vader heard a loud crack that echoed in his jaw, then felt excrutiating pain in his neck. He winced inside his helmet, then the pain was gone, replaced by numbness. His concentration failed and his grip on the Emperor was released.

Great heaving gasps came from Palpatine as his body fought to restore itself. With one arm he braced himself on his chair, doubled over while he panted for air.

Vader felt increasingly distressed as he realized he could not move his limbs. His ventilator kicked into automatic mode, not being triggered by voluntary breaths. His weight shifted, causing his chair to whirl from underneath him, and he slid to the deck, paralyzed.

He looked up to see Palpatine standing over him, his face contorted with rage. Searing fury blasted from the Emperor's eyes.

"How dare you !" Palpatine roared. "How dare you try to kill me ! You think that you are more clever than I? You ignorant fool. Your skills are no match for mine."

Palpatine was frothing now. Droplets of spittle hit the lenses of his mask.

Vader lay still on the floor, having no choice to do otherwise. The Emperor must have perfected the skill of manipulating the midichlorians within the body of another, as the crack he had heard could only have been the sound of his neck breaking.

Above him, Palpatine was still ranting. "You are the first of my apprentices to try to kill me. You think I am unaware that in Sith tradition the apprentice eventually takes the place of the master? That is one tradition I intend to change. Except for those apprentices killed by others, I have disposed of my aides when they ceased to be of use to me.

"You, you would kill me? And what, think that you could become Emperor yourself? For all your Force talent, you are young and inexperienced in the ways of politics. The Imperial Senate would not accept you. You could not hold the Empire together."

The Emperor's indignation could not be tempered. The venom in his voice still issued forward at full toxicity. "You don't even know who you are. You, who is without a father, without even a shadowy name to hang paternity on."

Always the softest spots he went for, always the tenderest areas. Vader awaited the death blow he knew was coming, be it physical or psychological.

"Do you remember when I told you the legend of Darth Plagueis?" Palpatine's voice was suddenly soft, the storytelling voice."You recall that Darth Plagueis could influence the midichlorians to create life. Now of course he used this skill to save people from dying; we've already discussed that. But did you ever think that skill could be used in other, more literal, ways?

"Darth Plagueis decided to use this skill to create an apprentice who was extraordinarily gifted with the Force. Now, he already had an apprentice who was extremely Force talented, but apparently he wanted another.

"He went to a remote planet, found a slave woman, and summoned the midichlorians to create life within her. Is any of this sounding familiar? Now of course, he was never able to see the outcome of his project, because his talented apprentice killed him in his sleep, as I told you before. Fortunately, the apprentice took up watching over the child.

"That's why I always had to suppress a laugh whenever I heard the Jedi call you "the Chosen One". Little did they know, but that their "Chosen One" was a Sith creation. I do love irony.

"Now as I'm sure you have figured out, your neck is broken. When we arrive at Imperial City, you will be taken to the medical center that was your place of reconstruction, and I will decide whether or not you shall have surgery to repair your neck. I like having you around, though, you who was bred to be my replacement. Having you as my apprentice reminds me that no man will ever best me. Undamaged, you would have grown more powerful than me, but destiny eliminated that possibility. So you think about your predicament a little, and I'll think about restoring your mobility. Again."

Darth Vader could do nothing but lay awkwardly on the deck floor. He had known he risked grave injury, or even death, in his assassination attempt, but he never imagined ending up in such a helpless condition. As always, no matter how well the Force let him see the future of others, it never revealed to him his own future.

He could hear Palpatine addressing the Imperial Guards. "Bring the medical droid- Lord Vader has had an accident."

Failure. It was to be his hallmark. Always he failed those most important to him, his mother, his wife, now maybe his son.

Palpatine's revelation rung in his ears. What else could be expected of someone who was an experimental creation, a mere tool for others? The path of the Chosen One had not been his to claim. From his days as a slave on Tatooine, he had not improved his circumstances much, especially as far as controlling his own destiny.

He could not move his limbs, but he could still feel the familiar texture of the leather suit against his body. The suit had transformed from prison to trusted companion, as it sustained his life when he could do nothing to help himself.

He had never felt so alone. Not a being in the Galaxy would step forward to champion his cause, save for Palpatine, who dangled his life in front of him like a bone before Tusken massiffs. He felt as though even the Force had turned away from him. But even as the Galaxy abandoned him, he would not abandon Luke. He had not failed him yet; Luke remained safely hidden on Tatooine.He would not give up the dream that someday he and his son would stand together.

As he lay waiting for the whim of the Emperor to swing towards repairing his injuries, he broadened his vow to Luke. I will mercifully take your life before I ever let you feel the shame of being Palpatine's servant.


Chapter 10 : To Serve the Empire

Darth Vader walked out of the Emperor Palpatine Surgical Reconstruction Center, intending to fly his speeder back to his apartment in Imperial City. It would seem to be a simple thing, walking, but he no longer took it for granted, having just completed several weeks of physical therapy to regain that ability. Following surgery to repair his fractured neck, he had to retrain his nervous system to communicate with his prosthetic limbs, again, and had worked to regain voluntary respiratory control as well. Synthetic vertebrae had been added to the list of things within himself that were not himself. His two stays in the rehab center had left him with the desire to never see its pale green walls again.

He also no longer took for granted that he was the Chosen One.Gone was the unswerving sense of destiny that had carried him through the hard decisions in his life. Recovery from spinal surgery had given him plenty of time to think over Palpatine's tale of his origin. A lie. The truth. He had not been able to decide which, but he had concluded that he must be fighting the will of the Force. Nothing else would explain his catastrophic defeats at the hands of Obi-Wan and Palpatine. He doubted he would survive a third error in judgement on his part.

Though he might dream of being Emperor, of ruling the Galaxy with his son at his side, it appeared the Force did not flow in that direction. He would stop trying to create his own future, and accept his destiny, bring what it may. He had been born a slave, and if Palpatine was to be believed, had been designed for that role as a Sith manipulated conceptus, meant to be a Force gifted apprentice, but never a master. He could not deny that his efforts to put himself in a ruling position had brought only disastrous consequences.

Much as he could resign himself to awaiting the destiny the Force meant for him, he had difficulty letting go of his dreams for Luke. He would not bring him out of hiding to become another prize for Palpatine, but he could also not bear to think of him wasting his life away as a moisture farmer in the barrens of Tatooine. The Force shone too brightly in the boy to let such gifts go to waste. Maybe next year he would be stronger, maybe next year the Force would show him how to rescue Luke. Maybe next year.

------

Today was a good day. Darth Vader was returning to duty, and the Emperor Palpatine found he was eager to see him.

From his office in his private residence, Palpatine gazed out upon the Imperial City skyline. He had constructed the office so that it was possible to watch both the expansive window and the entry door at the same time, allowing him to sit in the position of power without denying himself the pleasure of the horizon. As he awaited Vader's arrival, his mood became increasingly triumphant. The weight of nearly twenty years of doubt and tension had lifted from his mind. The Chosen One was vanquished.

He should have killed him in the beginning, that hated child that Plagueis had designed. He had killed Plagueis over the matter, when he learned of his master's treacherous plan to replace him. He had suffered much, given up much, to achieve the position of Plagueis' apprentice, and he would not be discarded like so much garbage. But the project fascinated him, and he could not deny that it was a remarkable achievement to create a child with the power of the Force.

He had allowed the child to be born, knowing he could halt the experiment any time he wished. A supernatural glow of the Force enveloped the boy from the beginning, more than Palpatine had ever encountered in a being. It vexed him, the idea that the boy could grow to be more powerful than himself. Still, it was only a child, and who would be afraid of a child? It was intolerable to him to think that he would back down from a challenge, and so he had let the boy be, and watched him from afar.

Back then he entertained no thought of taking the boy as his own apprentice, as he had already invested considerable time and energy into raising his own protege, the Iridonian Darth Maul. Maul was a laundry list of Sith qualities : intense, focused, Force powerful, and as trustworthy as a Sith could be expected to be. With Maul nearly fully trained, he had no need to take the evidence of Plagueis' disloyalty under his wing.

He would have left the boy, Force talented, but untrained, in the forgotten town of Mos Espa, but for the unfortunate arrival of Qui-Gon Jinn on Tatooine. Only a renegade like Jinn would have ever considered training a child as old as Anakin in the ways of the Jedi. He cursed himself for dismissing this possibility; how could he have not forseen this event? The Chosen One, Jinn declared the boy, and took him under his guidance.

Even though Palpatine knew the boy's origin to be of Plagueis' design, there was no denying that the child had not been conceived in the usual way, that he was a product of the Force. It pained him to think that the boy might hold special status, that he still could be the result of the will of the Force.

When the Jedi accepted the boy into their order, Palpatine knew he would have to turn Anakin to ensure his own survival.With training, doubtless the boy would become more powerful than himself, and that was simply unacceptable. From that day forward, his life was marred by a twinge of fear that he could not eliminate.

No matter how high he rose to power within the Republic, he could not rid himself of the nagging voice that asked him, "Will this boy be more powerful than you ?"

Even when the Republic fell, and he became Emperor, his doubt ate at him.

Even when the Jedi became no more, and the Sith resurfaced to victory after 1000 years, the voice mocked him.

Even when the boy knelt at his feet, and pledged his loyalty, he wondered if he could control him.

He had shepherded the boy most of his life, knew how strongly the Force was with him, but that had not prepared him for the pipeline of Force energy that poured from Anakin, then overwhelmed by desperation and fear, as he made his choice to follow Palpatine.If the boy had not been so dangerous, he would have been a thing of beauty.

When he found Anakin butchered and burned on the rocks of Mustafar, he had been angry, angry at Kenobi for once again taking something of value from him. But he had also been flooded with relief, because he knew that Anakin, reborn as Vader, would now never be able to reach his full potential.

When it all played out, and the reconstructed Darth Vader stood at his side, the voice had still not been silenced. He had been reasonably, but not completely, sure that he could control Vader in the wake of his injuries. Still, he knew a challenge would be forthcoming from Vader, both because it was the way of the Sith, and because Vader had proven to be more headstrong than he had known.

Now it was over. He had beaten his rival, his nemesis, his apprentice. Never again would he worry that he would be unable to defeat the Chosen One. The relief was so delicious, he laughed. He had been confirmed; the Galaxy had never known a stronger ruler. The name of Palpatine would be remembered across all time.

------

Darth Vader was surprised to find himself walking down the long corridor that lead to the main office of Palpatine's private residence. He was even more surprised that he walked unflanked by Imperial Guards. After nearly succeeding at killing the Emperor, he had thought Palpatine would have relegated him to "hologram only" status, rather than inviting him to a private meeting.

He hesitated a moment at the doorway, watching the face of his master. He had not seen Palpatine since the day he had tried to kill him.That day he had been filled with hate and outrage and promise, but that fire had been smothered by his own failure. Now when he looked at Palpatine, he felt nothing but despair. He was Darth Vader, who lived not once, but twice, by the grace of Palpatine's favor.

When he had received the summons to appear at Palpatine's residence, he didn't know what fate awaited him.Surely Palpatine would not have repaired him only to turn around and destroy him. A warning, a demotion, a punishment - all those scenarios had played through his mind, but he hadn't thought he'd be walking down that long hallway solo, like an old friend.

Palpatine looked up from his desk. "Ah, Lord Vader, please come in. I must say you are looking quite fit."

Vader saw that the Emperor's face bore its typical controlled expression of repose, rather than the contorted grimace of rage that had been present at their last encounter. Beneath that practiced mask of complete self-confidence, Vader sensed something different in the Emperor. Somehow, Palpatine seemed more relaxed, as if a great burden had been lifted.

It was such an odd feeling that it took Vader a moment to comprehend what he was sensing. He knitted his brow as he confirmed his perceptions. For the first time in his experience, the barrier across Palpatine's mind had cracked open, and Vader could feel inside.

He felt Palpatine's exaltation, his mad triumph, his rampant sense of superiority.The deeply furrowed face gave cover to a drunken celebration of domination and confidence. Not a trace of fear sullied the Emperor's mind as he faced the man who had almost killed him.

The subtlest of smiles flitted across Palpatine's face as he acknowledged the emotions he revealed to Vader.

He now understood. If Palpatine had danced atop the chest plate of his life support suit it would not have been a more effective display of victory than this mental revelation. Palpatine saw him as a beaten man, who would never again pose a threat to his master.

He couldn't argue with that assessment.Unless the Emperor weakened with infirmity or age, he held no edge over his master. He didn't have to like it, though. He stabbed a probe deeper into Palpatine's mind.

No, came the answer, and the barrier was once more impenetrable.

So many times he had wished that his masters did not fear him, that they would not place restrictions on him in their efforts to contain his power. Now as bitter bile rose in his throat at the thought of Palpatine's elation, he found that this was worse, to be considered harmless and of no concern. This must be the prelude to his demotion.

"The medics tell me you are well recovered from your...accident, Lord Vader," Palpatine said.

"Everything functions as it did before," he said. The subject of assassination would apparently not be broached.

"The Center does provide the finest medicine credits can buy," the Emperor said. "Tell me, Lord Vader, do you still think Chandrila presents a real threat to the Empire, beyond the chatterings of Senator Mothma ?"

He looked straight into Palpatine's yellow eyes. The Emperor rarely asked for his opinion; surely this was the set-up to a trap. "Yes, Master, I do."

"I've decided you may be right. I want you to take a platoon of the 501st along with agents from the Imperial Security Bureau into the Raioballu sector. There have been odd reports of commercial ships being unable to make orbit on some worlds because of hostile activity. I want you to find the truth of the matter."

"Yes, Master," he said. It appeared that Palpatine was willing to forgive his trespass.

"Lord Vader, there is one more thing," the Emperor said.

Or not.

"As a reminder of the outcome of the incident a few weeks ago, you will kneel before me whenever we meet," Palpatine said.

Inside his helmet he closed his eyes. For a moment his anger threatened to grab hold of him, but he recalled his promise to accept his destiny. "As you wish, Master."

------

Being short of stature and wiry of frame, Special Agent Tsova of the Imperial Security Bureau was used to being towered over by stormtroopers. Standing in the shadow of Darth Vader upped that ante some, but Tsova had long ago consoled himself that what he lacked in physical presence was well compensated by his quick intellect.

"So, Lord Vader, you are the muscle on this mission ?" Tsova said.

"The 501st is your muscle. I'm here to track down the secret navy Chandrila is building," Vader replied.

"Conspiracy theorist, eh? That's usually the realm of my department. But do make sure that you keep the stormtroopers in line. Intelligence work is all about subtlety, which they are known to lack," Tsova said.

"The 501st is nothing if not disciplined. They keep themselves in line," Vader said.

"So what makes you think Chandrila is building a navy ? Mothma has quite a mouth on her, but the ISB has no information that it is any more than talk," Tsova said.

"More than two years ago I discovered Exarga was selling doonium ore to Chandrila on the black market," Vader said.

"Doonium ? The metal for ship hulls ? Why haven't I heard anything about this ? " Tsova said.

"Perhaps you should ask the Emperor himself.He decides what information will be shared," Vader said.

"That's a pretty significant fact to withhold from your own intelligence forces. How am I supposed to do my job without good information ?"

"Are you questioning the Emperor's wisdom ? "

"Um, no. Wouldn't dream of it. But obviously you think there's a connection between your discovery and our mission to Verkai," Tsova said.

"The Emperor believes there is a connection. He is rarely wrong about the future," Vader said.

"Well, he must have more information than I have. Complaints from commercial freighters that they are being chased out of orbit does demand investigation, but I could hardly draw any conclusions from that situation, " Tsova said.

"When we arrive at Verkai, it will all become clear, I am sure of it," Vader said.

------

To the casual eye the Omega class freighter Illusion looked like all the other vessels of its type, boxy and practical, the commercial draft beast of the shipping trade. That much of its cargo hold had been converted to house troops, or that the ship was property of the ISB was left unrevealed by its plain exterior. In the recesses of its hull, its battery of laser cannons remained hidden, as did the fact that the ship also carried Darth Vader and a platoon of the 501st.

To the commander of the Clone Wars vintage war frigate that stood guard in orbit over the planet Verkai, the Illusion must have appeared ordinary as well. The ship bristled forwards towards the Illusion when it exited hyperspace and attempted to approach Verkai.

"You are entering restricted space. Please identify yourself," came the message over the comlink.

Agent Tsova thought a minute before replying. "Send this message, Ensign. 'We are carrying supplies from Chandrila. It is necessary for us to deliver them planetside.'"

Tsova glanced at Darth Vader when a reply from the frigate was not forthcoming. "They weren't prepared for that response."

"That ship is old, but it is of Alderaanian design. That may be of significance," Vader said.

"Are you sure ? It doesn't carry any governmental insignia," Tsova replied.

"Spacecraft are a personal interest of mine. It may have been since sold, but that ship began life as Alderaanian property," Vader said.

The frigate in question finally sent a reply. "You are not on our schedule of supply ships. Please transmit your entry code."

"Code, eh ? I think we're on to something," Tsova said.

"We need to raise our shields," Vader said.

"That will tip our hand. Right now they're not sure about us," Tsova said.

"You would prefer that the ship take a direct hit ?" Vader said.

"They're too far away for an effective strike. We'll never get more clues from them if we don't act like civilians.Ensign, tell then we're trying to contact our consignor, that we weren't advised of needing a clearance code."

"If you don't want the ship damaged, the shields need to be raised now," Vader repeated.

In the bridge viewing window, the frigate was abruptly larger.

"Navigator- shields up !" Vader ordered. A flash of light brightened the bridge window as a laser cannon blow struck the Illusion.

"Good call. Combat instincts ?" Tsova asked.

"The Force," Vader answered."Gunner, return fire."

The Illusion maneuvered sideways to reveal its banks of laser cannons. What had appeared to be a lumbering slorth became a roaring Rythii beast as the Illusion directed blasts at the Alderaanian frigate. Outgunned, the frigate returned futile shots before disappearing into hyperspace.

"Not much of a fight," Tsova said. "I'm sure they're on their way home to report this little incident."

"Perhaps their ship was more valuable than what they left behind on the planet," Vader said.

"Lord Vader, the ship sent a coded signal to the planet surface before it entered hyperspace," the ensign said.

"Bring us closer to the signal destination. Have their been any transmissions from a planetary authority ?" Vader said.

"No, sir," the ensign replied.

"Then take us down to the planet surface.The solution to this puzzle is waiting there," Vader said.

------

Reina Neiff bit into her last slice of jasp, savoring the sweetness of the fruit. She closed her mouth around it to minimize how much juice ran down her hand. With the current embargo against Imperial traders, she didn't know when she might taste jasp again. Not that Verkai didn't have its own fruits, but it seemed that the exotic flavor of jasp was a symbol of everything her planet couldn't have, now that the Resistance had come to Verkai.

For her parents' generation, it made no difference that the Resistance controlled the import and export of products on Verkai. They had grown up in the time when Verkai had been isolated from the rest of the Galaxy, too far off the trade routes to be worth the bother. Only the wealthiest Verkains could afford the fares for passenger travel offplanet back then. For the older generation everything had returned to how it had always been.

When the Empire had come to power several years ago, Verkai had been given a regional governor to represent them, whereas they had no Senator under the Republic.The Empire had opened the Galaxy to Verkai, and the new generation of Verkains had embraced what the Empire had to offer : foods, customs, music, clothing.It felt like half of her friends had fled into the Core Worlds, fulfilling dreams not available to them on Verkai.

Reina had hoped to go, too, one day, but now that dream was buried. She had taken this job instead, working in the Resistance led factory, producing mechanical parts under their direction. They told her the skills she used here would be valuable throughout the Resistance, and that someday she might be moved to a Resistance plant on another world. So far, the job had given her only eye strain from reading countless digital x-ray scans. She wasn't sure what the parts would be used for, but she could spot a bad one, no problem.

She must have a few more minutes left on her lunch break, she thought. The sun felt so warm and luxurious on her skin. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the table. Her reverie was interrupted by a background drone that was growing louder. She peeked open one eye towards the source of the sound, and saw a spacecraft still high in the sky, but obviously descending.She frowned; that didn't make sense. They had just picked up a load from the factory, and there was no reason for the Resistance ship to be back so soon.

The drone grew to a roar as the ship approached the ground. Even Reina's untrained eye could tell that this ship was different from any she had seen before. She found it strange that her supervisor had not come on to the open field that paralleled the factory. Weren't the Resistance staff on the com announcing their arrival ?

When the ship touched ground, Reina found herself surrounded by not only her supervisor, Yan Kozur, but by several of her coworkers, all drawn by the unexpected sound and vibration. Yan looked at her quizzically, but she could only shrug her shoulders. They moved as a group onto the open field, to greet the Resistance leaders.

A small man was the first occupant off the ship, his clothing somehow different from the other Resistance members they had met, but then it could hardly be said that the Resistance was uniform. Reina had to surpress a laugh; the man was short, but he walked with the confident stride of a giant.

Yan stepped forward to distinguish himself. "Hi. We didn't expect you back so soon. That last load of parts was our total production for the month. We don't really have anything else to give you."

The small man appeared to consider that information for a moment. "Then why don't you show me what work you have in progress."

Yan frowned . The Resistance knew what they were building; they had provided all the plans and tooling for the parts. They had never been interested in anything but the finished product before. "Sure. Reina, the parts at your station are closest to completion. Come show them what you have."

Inside the factory, Reina handed the individual components one at a time to the short man, who had still not identified himself. While he considered them carefully, it struck Reina that he seemed unsure of what he was looking at. She didn't know what they were used for either, but at least she knew which end was up.With a smile, she turned the piece in his hand so that it was oriented correctly.

He looked up at her abruptly, but then returned the smile."These look quite satisfactory," he said."Can you show me the actual production line ?"

Yan nodded. "Of course. Come this way."

Reina watched the pair walk further into the factory. She wanted to sneak another look at the ship, to imagine for a moment what it would be like to walk on board and take off to another world, one more exciting than her own. Yan ought to busy for awhile; he'd never know if she took a few minutes before she went back to work.

She was almost outside the building when she heard an odd noise, like breathing, but much louder. A man-she guessed it was a man- wearing some sort of space suit was entering the front doors. Tall, imposing, all in black, she knew a stranger like that ought to frighten her, but, like jasp, he was so exotic, so obviously not of this world, that she was intrigued instead.

"My colleague, he came this way ?" the stranger asked.

She nodded. "They looked at the parts at my station first. Did you want to see them, too?"

"Yes. Show me," he said.

She led him to the components she had been x-raying before lunch.When he picked them up, she noticed that he at least knew enough to hold them the right way.

He set the parts down. "Now take me to my colleague."

They came upon Yan and the short man in discussion at the end of the casting line, examining the different parts the factory manufactured. Both registered a look of surprise at the helmeted man.

"Ah...Vader, we were just going over the production line. Everything appears to be functioning well," the small man said.

"Agent Tsova, do you...," Vader started to say, but Tsova interrupted him.

"Tsst ! Mister Tsova, if you must," he said, while making a slicing gesture across his neck.

Vader sighed. "Agent Tsova there is no need to maintain a ruse. The Empire will not be leaving this planet anytime soon."

"You're from the Empire ?" Reina said with excitement.

"These various pieces are components of a hyperdrive system. Further, they are of Kuati design," Vader said.

"Are you sure ? Kuat is a loyal vendor to the Empire," Tsova said.

"I have been to KDY many times. These parts are not stamped as such, but the detailing is quite characteristic. KDY would not be the first merchant to play both sides of the market," Vader said.

"Both sides ? So you think this is part of an opposition force ?" Tsova said.

"Chandrila buying doonium.An Alderaanian frigate guarding a hidden factory making hyperdrive parts. What conclusion would you draw ?" Vader asked.

"That the protestors may be building ships to begin a fortified rebellion. I agree it looks that way," Tsova said.

"No, they don't call themselves the Rebellion. They're the Resistance," Reina said.

"Whoever they are they'll be surprised when they return and find the 501st waiting for them," Vader said.

"Mr. Kozur did you receive a message shortly before we arrived ?" Tsova asked.

"No. We had no idea another ship was coming in," Yan said.

Tsova nodded. "Then some of the... Resistance is still nearby. We need to bring out the 501st and track them down. Lord Vader, can I leave you in charge of that ? I want to see if I can dig up other clues inside this factory."

Reina saw that the discussion was over and that the Imperial strangers would be going on about their business. Now was her last chance. She took hold of the black suited man's right arm, meaning to catch his attention. The leather of his suit felt soft and thick underneath her fingers, but the arm inside felt unnaturally hard.

The man in black took a sharp intake of breath, and pulled his arm out of her hand.

"Sorry," she said," I just wanted to ask you if you've ever been to Coruscant ?"

Vader was unprepared for the electric jolt that coursed through his body at her touch. The last time another human had intentionally touched him, he had not been in this suit. The last time, it had been Padme'. He looked over at the girl; she had an expectant look on her face.She must have asked him a question, but he hadn't even heard it.

"What did you say ?" he said, struggling to regain his composure.

"Have you ever been to Coruscant ? I hear it's beautiful," she said.

"I have an apartment there, and yes, it has its own beauty. But the sky is so bright you can't see even a single star at night," he said.

"I wanted to go there, but the the Resistance came, and I gave up hope," she said.

"The Empire is here now. We will restore your planet's freedom," Vader said."You will still see Coruscant, I can feel it."

Reina flashed a broad smile. "Thanks. I'd better get back to work."

------

Darth Vader began to make his way back to the Illusion, formulating his plan for directing the 501st in their search for the Resistance members on this world, and for the ambush they would make when the Resistance ship returned to Verkai. His heart rate had dropped back to normal, now that the adrenalin the girl's touch had brought had subsided. Maybe he was just a man, not the Chosen One.

Still, he had been right about Chandrila's threat to the Empire. The Force still whispered to him, and answered his call. Perhaps great purpose was not solely the property of the Chosen One.In time, it would be revealed to him what role the Force intended for him. Until then he would work for the stability of the Empire, follow the will of the Force. And, if he was strong enough, next year he would take back Luke.


Part 3


Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links


Graphics by Alicorna