Title : Remembrancer - Flashpoint of
Summary: The ways of the Force are mysterious, indeed.
Disclaimer: Star Wars is the property of Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries. I am not making any profit from this.
Betas: Many a weary eye amongst friends and family...my deepest thanks!
Talissmald was verdant and lush, pristine. Nevertheless, it was primitive when compared with Coruscant. The world had gone virtually unnoticed during the Clone War. That war was over. Talissmald's anonymity was about to end if Emperor Palpatine had his way, and Sidious excelled at getting his way. This insignificant speck had piqued his interest despite its great distance from the Imperial hub. Satisfying his curiosity went hand in hand with his insatiable hunger for advancing galactic conquest.
"Go, Lord Vader," the Emperor had bidden, enjoining his new Apprentice who was at his ironfisted beck and call. "Confirm my suspicions. Investigate, and report your findings to me. I await your evaluation of the matter."
Departing with the bulk of the Imperial fleet, his fearsome servant had obeyed....
The inviting planet was blanketed with lofty, leafy trees at every turn. The Dark Lord was not here to admire them. He was here to seek out his Master's curiosities, if they did indeed exist. In hindsight, the many garrisons that Vader had ordered to the planet's surface had been too many. The surprise incursion was excessive for what had taken place down there. Surrender was what had occurred, with the words total and unconditional before it.
The Talissmaldians were humans, and markedly physically fit, both men and women. Not one had resisted their invaders. No one had fought, Vader reflected. These people had welcomed them with open arms, wanting to be friends. He had expected some sort of defense mounted, some position held, at least an effort of counterattack if only for the sake of appearances. What he and the troopers had found instead were gracious folk who owned no weapons. The Dark Lord doubted very much that anyone would have used one even if they had had them.
"The Emperor ordered that they not be slaughtered. He wants proof," Vader muttered under his breath, sounding brusque.
Expelling breath loudly, he stole another curious look. Silently, he posed to himself, 'Killing her would be a difficult task, a most difficult task, indeed. She is...'
He wheeled around, throwing his piercing blue-eyed captive an accusative look.
He could have sworn that she had said something. Since her arrival, she had spoken not a word. Though his eyes were concealed from hers, he had the feeling that she saw clear through the mask to them.
His Master's telling words sprang to his mind. "They are Force-sensitive, Lord Vader. The indications are strong and irrefutable...if it is as I sense, they could pose a threat..."
Vader recalled that he had witnessed dignity in those who had quietly allowed themselves to be captured. They had not cowered in fear, nor had they bent low in defeat.
"Most impressive, but appearances are known to be deceiving," he whispered, eyeing the prisoner waiting before him who epitomized serenity.
The Sith Lord admonished himself, lest he make a critical error in handling this situation. Ambiguity gnawed at him, clouding concise judgment.
He turned away from her, baiting himself. What was coming over him? He fought to regain control of his feelings, but it was pointless for him to deny. This woman held his interest, something no woman had been able to do since...
'NO,' Vader warned.
He squelched the fair image from forming in his mind as he always did whenever anything threatened to remind him of...his wife.
He felt the freshness of this woman's youth color his perceptions. This lovely person could be no older than his spouse had been at her death. This beauty was a slight thing. What she lacked in girth, however, she made up for it in height. She was tall, as nearly as tall as he was. She was raven-haired. Ah, her hair, how long and luxuriant it was. She had high cheekbones, and how lovely they were. Her skin had a gauzy quality about it. The reddish tinge of her cheeks was natural. Rightly so, he judged that she was exquisite. The commander of his personal garrison of elite troops had made the right decision in bringing her to him. She was the rarest find amidst a host of rare finds.
He liked the fact that they were alone in his quarters. Feeling her through the Dark Side was good, but looking at her was even better. Slowly, he turned back to her. He found that the longer he looked, the more enlivened he felt. Posturing, he stood with his hands on his hips. Was she capable of speech, or was she a mute? On the whole, her silence intrigued him. In his experience, most women used their mouths more than he used his lightsaber. By his bearing alone, he conveyed to her that she was in the presence of a great Lord of the Sith. She should be grateful that he had chosen to spare her life.
He nearly jumped out of his pitch-dark sheathing when he heard her say, "I am truly grateful, my Lord. My people and I humbly wish to thank you for the gift of our lives. Perhaps we might build upon this foundation of goodwill." She finished speaking as abruptly as she had begun, becoming even more subdued.
The sweet sound of her words regaled him. Though he knew full well that goodwill wasn't what he offered, still, he enjoyed hearing what little she had spoken thus far. Her voice was melodious. Intentionally, Vader sounded stern.
"What is your name?" he demanded, waiting to hear the music interlaced in her intriguing inflection.
"I am Joquiss Oaz," she promptly replied with deference, casting her eyes downward.
His preoccupation with her grew. While he examined her closely, he felt her draw him to her the way a tractor beam could hook a fleeing vessel. Her bearing was regal. Although she carried herself as a queen would, she lacked the haughtiness most rulers possessed.
Her diffidence beguiled him, and surprising himself, he said, "You may sit."
He indicated that the cushioned, high-backed chair was at her disposal. The ornate piece of solid furniture footing his restorative chamber suited her.
Not looking up at him, Joquiss humbly replied, "Thank you." Seated, she lapsed into deafening silence.
Gradually, it was dawning on him that her reticence was disturbing. There was no reason in the seized galaxy for his feeling off balance, but he did. Anticipation, familiar and disquieting, had begun building in him. He labored to hide his true feelings from her, feelings that were all too recognizable. He used to feel this way whenever 'she' came into view. Approaching the comely oddity, Vader hovered, towering over her. Without warning, he flicked some of her glossy hair with a finger, then strode back to the position that he had held before.
"You speak for your people?" he charged more than asked, with a gloved hand perched on the hilt of his lightsaber.
With her head still bowed, Joquiss answered, "No, my Lord. Each of us speaks for ourselves. Of course, that is only if you allow us to." She was peeking up at him now.
Petting his weapon's hilt, he advanced on her again. He felt certain that it was his own idea that he come near. With his other hand, he hooked two fingers beneath her delicate chin. He lifted her head higher so he could gaze perfection squarely in the eye.
"You are their ruler, aren't you?" he asserted. "You can hide nothing from me."
"I am a servant. We have no ruler. We have elders who serve as counselors. In turn, we serve each other, my Lord, and live in peace as one." Demurely, she assured, "I have nothing to hide from you, Great One. I wish to serve you..."
"Serve me?" Vader repeated, strongly accentuating each word.
She was a woman who spoke with soulful eyes, Vader appraised, and hers were flawless. 'Exotic,' the Dark Lord couldn't help but think. Gruffly, he mentally shook himself. Why had he thought that? She was doing something inexplicable to him, he gauged. Whatever it was, he determined that he was going to learn what she was. His Master would have his answer. He edged even nearer to her.
"Why do you stare at me so?" she asked, her gentle eyes widening.
Vader exacted that he stop allowing her to shift his focus. He was powerless to though; her beauty and her peaceful bearing were potent goads. He couldn't halt his sensing how kind and gentle Joquiss was, how forgiving her nature. A floodgate of memories burst open.
What he had meant to say was, 'I ask the questions here.' Instead of that, however, he was stunned, hearing himself declare, "I stare because you compel me. You remind me of all that I have lost." His fingers fell away from her face, and his hiss of breath filled the breadth of his stark quarters. "And will never have."
Before his hand was at his side, Joquiss seized it and held it firmly in the clasp of her gossamer-like hands.
"Never? You sound so certain, my Lord." She was uncanny, and it gave the Dark Lord pause as he shrank back from her. "What has you so convinced?"
"Never," Vader said with finality. He began freeing himself from her restraining hands. "Never is what I know!"
She rose to her feet. Her sheer, long-sleeved and high-necked garment, the hem of which brushed her slender calves, accentuated her glowing coloring. The blueness of her dress reminded him of one that 'she' had once worn. Using his superior strength, the Sith Lord forced Joquiss back into the chair. Her mildness shunted much of his bloodlust way off to the side. His anger was held at bay.
As he continued to regard her, regret suddenly welled up within him. He tried holding back, but whether it was her mellow expression or his perpetual despair that moved him, he confessed, "I destroyed the only one who was the true center of my life."
His attentive captive waited, reserved. She perceived that he would have his say if, and when, it suited him. Powerless to suppress it, Vader released a moan, stricken. Behind the mask, he trembled. His mechanically-enhanced sight flickered. All too easily, his thoughts betrayed him.
"You loved her greatly," Joquiss intuitively lent.
Without hesitation, the Dark Lord stridently proclaimed, "I worshipped her!"
"You love her still, but you live denying that she loved you with all that she had."
Vader's retooled voice shook powerfully when he admitted, "I killed her..."
Joquiss said nothing and opened her heart to him. He heard her thoughts, and she embraced his.
"He told you that. He told you that because it suited him."
His captive stared at him with clement eyes.
"He lied," she said as softly as a gentle breeze.
The air stilled, time seemed to fall away and Vader distinctly heard...
'Anakin, let me help you.'
Everything in the known galaxy came to a roaring halt in that resonant moment. Wincing, battling for breath, Vader shuddered as rational thought clogged. This was madness! That voice in the form of an appeal, cooing to him, sounded like... No--it could not be! Bewilderment flooded him, then warmth. An intimate goodness that had been lost to him reclaimed him.
Joquiss gripped his hand tighter.
The Dark Side demanded that he resist this woman and her mystical grasp. Vader resisted the Dark Side, following the Talissmaldian's irresistible lead. There was no mistaking it; it was 'her' voice! He had pined for so long, had whispered her name countless times in his fitful dreams. He needed her desperately, despite the battle of wills that he had waged to rip everything about her from memory. Despite his having vowed never to speak it again, it escaped him.
"Padme!" he cried out as though in pain. Saying her name after so long a time of denying himself to even think it shocked him.
Joquiss pressed her cheek to his hand, and it shook in her smooth palms.
Barely parting her lips, she replied, "Listen with your heart..." The soft-spoken woman brought her eyes up to bear Vader's searing scrutiny. "Accept the truth."
"Betrayer," Vader rasped, violently tearing himself away from Joquiss.
He tore off for the far side of his quarters, wanting to get as far away from the woman as he possibly could given the spatial limitations of his place.
'No, Anakin, no. I never betrayed you!'
His mild-mannered guest looked after him. There was a marked difference in her as though an aura of some kind had eclipsed her totality.
"You betrayed me with him!" Vader railed, as though his words had been torn from his throat.
'How could I, Ani, when you mean everything to me?'
"You were with Obi-Wan!" He removed his lightsaber from its place and was moments away from igniting it.
'I had no idea that he had stowed away aboard my ship.'
"You betrayed what I knew would be best for us."
"No, she did not," Joquiss mildly interposed, perceiving the conflict raging within Vader.
Torment filled him with fury and incredible pain, and she saw that it was the root cause of much of his need. She was filled with compassion for this tormentor who had come to her serene world bent on dominating its people.
"I believed that she did," Vader was forced to admit, sounding bitter and frustrated.
If this were one of his tormenting dreams, it was the worse one yet. He was being driven to madness!
"Trust your true feelings, not your Master's deceit," the Talissmaldian, seamlessly advised. "Let them guide you, for I assure you this is no dream." The look on her face made what she said fact.
Whether he had fought his way over to her, or she had come to him, it was of no consequence to Vader as he drank from the mysterious soul gazer's riveting eyes. Like beacons, they were there for him to assuage, reassure and steer him.
As though it were happening to someone else, Vader let her ease his weapon back to its rightful place at his side. He marveled at her hair, liking how black it was. It reminded him of his armor. He hesitated, wanting to touch it again. He held off, thinking that this wasn't why he'd been sent here. Master Sidious expected him to carry out his will, not his own. He backed off from her, regaining the upper hand.
"What--what are you?" he demanded.
"What are you?" Joquiss pointedly parried. "Do you truly know?"
"I am Darth Vader!" Abruptly, he turned away from her, his heart beating nearly out of control. He felt her delicate guidance gently nudging him towards a fork in the enticing road that the Emperor had urged he go down. It was an unforgiving road that never ended. "I am a Sith Lord!" Recoiling, he paused before turning to her again. It was as though she was telling him to spit in Palpatine's face. "I...can...not. I have only one Master." He could almost feel the wild lightning from the Emperor's shriveled hands streak towards him to strike him down. The deck beneath his unsteady feet seemed to pitch. "I obey only him, as I must." He was in her face in less than a stride, threatening to unleash his full wrath on her.
"Obey your true feelings just this time, my Lord. They are the way back to..." Breathing deeply again, Joquiss closed her eyes. When she opened them, they radiated clarity, and glimpses of what he thought he would never see again.
'Anakin, you know the power of the Dark Side, but you never understood the depth of my love for you. Feel it now. Know it...please...'
When he asked, his voice betrayed just how desperately he wanted his wife, the girl who he had wanted to be with forever. Unlike those times when he heard her, he was wide awake now, not dreaming. In his dreams, over and over, that same ugly scene on Mustafar replayed. Unlike what had really happened, here and now, he believed her, with all of his heart.
"Is it truly you?"
After all this time, hers was still the only name holding any meaning for him. Vader fought to breathe. He was listening to the side of him that was urging him to believe in Padme's faithfulness and accept the impossible. Indeed, the voice was hers, the voice of his wife!
"Wh-where are you?"
'Never far from you, my Lord.'
'It is the will of the Force, can't you see? The Force has made this possible, Ani. You can't go on like this, living as though you're dead inside. It breaks my heart, even now. I love you so much, my brave knight, despite all that happened; you were seduced in so many terrible ways. You must know the truth. I cannot rest until you do, Anakin. Thank the Force for allowing this.'
"The Force!" he thunderously shouted. "The Force..." He stopped speaking, feeling dazed and starved for breath. "Then the Force knows that I never stopped loving you, Padme. I couldn't lose you! I only wished to save you, but I could not. He told me I killed you, but I never accepted that. I never could, nor will I ever! I hide it from him!"
Joquiss smiled at Vader, feeling the resolve of his conviction overturn his morose, murky thoughts.
'Your anger came between us, Ani, but you didn't take my life.'
"I failed you, my love, the same way I failed my mother. I wasn't the man I ought to have been." Vader faltered, heartsick. "I wanted to save you from dying. Instead, I drove you away! I will never forgive myself."
The Dark Lord choked on his anguish. The grief was always there, lurking like a voracious predator, primed for attack. He hurt as he had when Sidious had pressed his advantage, and had blamed him for the crucial role that he had played in her untimely death. His losing her had never lost its riveting bite.
'You must heal, Ani, or all is lost.'
Reflected in the deep-set eyes of the young Talissmaldian was a look of boundless commiseration coupled with tenderness.
She murmured her advice. "Hear her."
Joquiss' compelling expression rendered him speechless. Feelings that defied verbalization overwhelmed him.
Struggling, he suddenly blurted, "If only. If..."
"Your feelings for her will heal you," Joquiss whispered.
"I am beyond healing."
"I am meant to help you," the Talissmaldian succored. "Allow this."
Vader clenched his gloved hands, fisting them. He shook them. "I thirst for retribution against the Jedi, those who managed to survive. They ruined my life!"
"Your new Master wished to rid himself of the Jedi. He used you to accomplish that. He rescued you, only to exploit your abilities. You are his victim. He promises much, but gives little. He doesn't trust you, but he needs you, and he fears you. He knows the true potential of your power, that one day you can destroy him." Holding her breath, Joquiss imparted, "He is not your friend."
Vader, burning with anger, prepared to lash out.
'Ani, there is still good in you. I never stop feeling it.'
"Heed what she says," Joquiss prudently informed. "It is the truth."
Vader quaked within his protective encasement with his heart racing, hating that word. The truth was like goodness. It depended on one's viewpoint. The time for soul searching had long passed, or had it?
As far as Sidious was concerned, it had. All discussion about 'cheating' death had long since ended. Any preoccupation with what the Emperor now termed, 'trivialities,' had been effectively offset. Vader's only concern was Imperial business, and the Emperor constantly impressed upon him that the Empire was his universe now. The ties to the old ways that had bound him had been severed once and for all with the demise of the Jedi. Covering this bitter old ground reopened scabbed wounds and they had the power to poison him all over again.
"Only the Darkness possesses me." He sucked in a lumbering breath. He felt Joquiss' eyes draw his, because they had strayed, back to hers. His admission sounded more like a sigh of relief. As his anger slowly began diminishing, he frankly disclosed, "I am lost without you, my love, but I am what I am." Vader nearly buckled to his knees. "I crave the Dark more than the Light, but, this truth remains. You were..." He lowered his head, allowing his voice to trail. When he found better words, he corrected himself. "You are still my life!"
'And you are mine, my only love.'
"Padme!" Vader cried out, in agony. "Heal me!"
'Oh, yes, Ani, yes! The Force will guide you.'
Her abiding love enveloped him, gripping him tenaciously. Through the Force, he felt as though she was holding him tight, the way she used to when he had been his own worst enemy. It had been at those times when she had made him feel all powerful.
Silence intervened for a time before Joquiss addressed him. "Powerful One," she calmly uttered. No hint of strain marred her primal composure. "There are powers you have yet to discover."
"The Emperor used to speak often of this."
"Limitless power is an illusion. One day, nothing will be able to save him from his delusions."
"He..." Vader held off, adrift in a bog of dense uncertainty.
"With, his darkness, is not your destiny." Tenderly, Joquiss added her sentiments. "Goodness reclaiming you is your destiny."
Perplexed, Vader pressed, "I renounced goodness long ago."
'No, Anakin, no...there is this chance.'
"With her, through the Force, and with my knowledge, it will reclaim you. Trust what is more powerful than evil could ever be."
"Why would you help me? I have butchered scores upon scores. I am drenched in blood of all colors."
"And your torments eat you alive. Your suffering is great. Among my people, those of us who can, are compelled to help all who suffer."
Within Joquiss' beseeching gaze lay power in its purest form, and this startled Vader.
"What are you?" Once more, Vader peered into Joquiss' inviting eyes.
They were windows of a miraculous kind. Astounded, he saw everything that Padme and he had shared. The sheer beauty of it filled him with contentment from head to toe. He beheld her ready, generous smiles, her superlative honesty and goodness, her purity and her limitless love for him. How wise she had been, wiser than he, he freely admitted. He missed her insights. He discerned the essence of what they'd meant to each other. What he felt touched him profoundly. Moreover, through the Force, he saw the agony that she had gone through because of his blindly rejecting the good to embrace villainy. Inexorably, Vader grappled his guide's hands with his right hand, crushing her fingers within his palm.
"My...my dreams were the truth," the Dark Apprentice clamored in acrid remorse. Addressing Padme through Joquiss he shouted, "You died in childbirth!" Having stage three frostbite on Hoth would have hurt far less.
Padme's gentle voice dominated him.
'Ani, I didn't want to live, not without you. I knew our life together as we had known it was over. A heart that is too broken to go on beating stops. It has no other choice. It was the will of the Force.'
"Then I 'was' told the truth. I killed you by breaking your heart. That's what you said I was doing, but I refused to listen. It is my fault! I am to blame!"
'You did what you thought was right, Ani. Blaming yourself won't heal you. Doing what I ask gives you that chance.'
"Do? What more can I do? I destroyed us. Isn't that enough?"
'Ani, let the good that is still in you guide you. Trust the Force, and fulfill your true destiny. It's not too late.'
Despite his determination to blot her out of his mind, his stubborn heart had refused to go along. She still lived within it. The Force had intervened, and, ironically, in its own twisted way, Sidious was responsible for this unexpected turn of events. His Master's wishes had delivered him back to her. What was left of his natural eyes stung, but there were no tears.
"Padme, Padme." With each utterance of her name, his heart beat stronger. My destiny lies with you."
'And our babies, Anakin, the twins...they need you to be a good father to them.'
Muzzy images bombarded his mind, nagging him. Memories of what had occurred on Mustafar induced a cold shiver to creep up what was once a spine intact.
'Yes, a beautiful girl and a handsome boy, so much like you, Anakin.'
"You gave birth to twins?" Vader cried out, a second time.
'How are they?'
"I do not know," Vader gasped, his voice shaky.
'Surely you've seen them.'
"No, Padme, I have never seen them. I do not have them." Though having been caught off guard, Vader swelled with pride. He unclenched a hand, raising it to caress Joquiss' lovely face. He saw only his wife's transcendent countenance. "By the Dark side of the Force, I will have them! I will find them!" Several moveable objects in his quarters began gyrating crazily in their respective places.
'I saw them before I...before I told Obi-Wan that there is still good in you.'
"Obi-Wan!" Vader bellowed. The hated name sent shock waves through him again. The gyrating objects that had come to rest resumed gyrating as though the Dark Lord was determined to pulverize them. The fires of Mustafar blazed within him, rekindling white-hot hatred. "He has them! He stole them!"
'Anakin, they belong with you, they're ours. Their being with you will help you re-embrace good.'
The Dark Lord continued to rant, his anger whipping him into sheer frenzy at the thought that his offspring had been stolen away by his archenemy. He hated Obi-Wan Kenobi, his mutilator, who had left him to die, more than anyone in the galaxy. He had vowed that he was going to kill the sanctimonious treasonist if it was the last thing that he ever did, once he had his children.
He saw himself slaying Jedi all over again at the temple, with greater vehemence this time. The thankless servitude to the defunct Jedi Order, the loss of his mother and most of all, his losing Padme, were all Obi-Wan's fault. Surrendering that belief was non-negotiable, and now he added his old master's theft of his children to that list. Viciously, Vader turned on Joquiss.
"Show me," he commanded violently. "Where has he taken them?"
"I cannot." The gazer's sudden pallor and languor eluded Vader's angry notice. "That is beyond my abilities."
He felt as if he were poised on a cliff, about to make an impossible plunge, and trembled when Padme's whispering voice mollified him.
'You will find our babies, Anakin, I know you will.'
Vader recalled the final time that they had been together. She had been desperate for him to leave everything behind, to make a clean break, just the two of them and the children that she carried. Unlike then, he instinctively obeyed his wife's voice now.
"I won't fail you, Padme. Not this time!"
Urgency bonded with desperation had never felt so immediate. Compared with how he felt in this setting, his podracing days, with Sebulba of Malastare being at his worst, had been cakewalks.
"But, where do I begin?"
'Trust the Force.'
"And I trust you, my love."
Then, as though some toothy creature had bitten him, he realized that Joquiss wasn't looking well, not as well as she had looked when he had first laid eyes on her. He stroked the soul gazer's cheek with his index finger. Was she dying?
'Begin where we began, Ani, when we were so very young. Begin where our friendship, that paved the way for our love, began.'
The light in Joquiss' earnest eyes had faded. Her pallor was alarming. She coughed several times before she was able to relate, "The longer I'm away from my world's surface, the shorter my time. Removed from Talissmald, we die, regardless of whether we possess the gift or not."
"No!" Vader demanded, greedily gathering the deathly pale woman to himself. "I need you," he confessed to his wife's waning presence as well as to the enervated soul gazer. The Dark Side gathered around him, biding its time, opportunistic as it always proved to be. "Padme, don't leave me--not again!"
Padme's dulcet voice overshadowed Vader once more, silencing him for the time being.
'When you find them, we will all be together, Ani. I love you so. Be the good man I fell in love with because you never stopped being that man, my husband.'
"Padme, please--don't go!"
'It won't be for long, I promise...'
"Padme, did you name them?" Vader clamored to know.
Joquiss had fainted dead away in his arms. Vader, embroiled in turbulent thoughts, ignored her condition, cursing himself because he hadn't thought to ask that before this. He shook the soul gazer, but she remained unresponsive.
"Do they have your looks or what I once had before this violence was done to me? They are Skywalkers, and by the Dark Side of the Force I will find them," Vader fed into the air.
He rose with Joquiss securely in his arms to settle her upon the free-form couch underneath the only portside view-wall his quarters contained.
He gazed out upon the vast expanse that was clustered with the most beautiful stars that he had ever seen, and vowed, "One day, I will know you, claim you as mine, my children. Then Obi-Wan's defeat will be complete."
He glanced down at the unconscious Talissmaldian. She had seen past his deformities to grasp the man. Gratitude welled up in him. The Dark Apprentice made his decision, an irrevocable one.
Abruptly, he went to the communications uplink at the opposite end of his quarters, activated it and insistently announced, "Commander, prepare my shuttle."
Buoyed, Vader brimmed with purpose and determination. The joy that had spiked in his heart surged through him like a tonic. Sidious habitually made reference to captives worthy of his examination as, 'ambiguous specimens.' Whatever these meek souls who possessed their gift were, they would be spared the Emperor's sadistic torture. He must keep Joquiss safe, apart from his Master. It was imperative that he convince the Emperor that this world did not warrant his interest.
'I will have my beloved in one form or another,' Vader silently vowed, picking Joquiss up to carry her in his arms. He had to get her back to her planet's surface before she expired, and there was no time to waste.
"Padme," he said, sighing heavily, waiting for her to answer. There was silence. Resignedly, he voiced, "We will speak again...of many things with this special one's help." He looked upon Joquiss. "She is a treasure of the Force," he uttered with reverence. "She has the power to bridge the gap of the void separating us."
Supporting her with one arm, Vader eased the side of his artificial hand to Joquiss' pale cheek and moored it there. He remembered Padme's beautiful smiles, how they had once rivaled the rays of Naboo's magnificent sunshine. While they had resided in the lake country, under his guard, the countryside had shone replete with the ardent splendor of their undeniable love. The sublime memory empowered him, making him feel whole instead of sad.
The Dark Lord embraced hope, and found that he had never lost it entirely.
Joquiss squinted, opening her eyes. Two standard Talissmaldian hours had elapsed. In stages, she raised her head a little from the delicately byliff-scented headrest.
'Home,' she thought contentedly.
With a sigh, she rested her head back down. Her kinsfolk were wise, and their counsel sound. She was back where she belonged, sensing that her people were no longer captives. They would never be made to serve invaders. The Force had always seen to that, and always would.
Vader stood in the cramped doorway of her small, minimalist abode which was starker than his boyhood home had ever been. A little nostalgia had come over him while he had waited for her to revive. He had done several double takes since his bringing her to her home, imagining his mother doing the motherly things that she had once done in their home on Tatooine. He should have never left her behind despite her urging him to do so, coupled with his own ardor for becoming a Jedi. The word 'Mom' had escaped him a time or two, and he had stiffened each time.
"Why won't you speak to me the way Padme did?" he had mumbled. "I need you too..."
Sensing Joquiss' alertness, he wheeled around, hearing her call to him with her mind. He moved out of the doorway, sensing how intently she studied him.
"Your color has returned," he observed, coming to Joquiss' bedside.
Her bed looked more like an elongated cistern padded with a lumpy mattress. It comforted him, seeing her where she was. The pallor of death had long since vanished from her face. Her cheeks were rosy, as they rightly should have been.
"Aboard my shuttle, I feared you would die before I could return you."
Although sounding authoritative, naked concern for her had amply filtered through.
Joquiss propped herself upon her elbows. She looked like an orphan lodged in that outlandish bunk.
"The Force clings to us, and we to it. We are its obedient dependents." Her eyes locked with Vader's unexpressive artificial ones. She regarded him at length, looking quizzical. "There is more I must do for you."
"You have already done the unexpected," Vader countered. He took hold of her hands. "But, I want her near again. Her, and my mother."
"You will. In time, you will have your mother too." Joquiss squeezed his hands. "Trust the Force; you will have them both."
As though he had spent a good deal of time in reflection, he said in reconciliation, "You can never leave here."
With her mouth twitching, she felt his regret along with his intention of keeping her and her people safe. Joquiss lifted her hand so she could stroke his highly burnished, obsidian-colored cheek.
Her feelings were always on the surface, he had come to appreciate in just this short time.
Her kindness made him blurt, "I am in your debt. You have done the impossible. You will remain, undisturbed, protected. You have my solemn promise."
"And you will return."
"I will return, I must. You have shown me that the Force is greater than any one person can know. What I thought was lost to me forever is with me still," Vader said kneeling by her bedside, almost reverentially. "With you."
"Our being friends, true friends, makes the difference."
"The Empire isn't out to make friends, as I've told you. The Emperor rules the way he sees fit, and imperious subjugation is his standard."
"We shall see," Joquiss retorted jovially. "I'd say you and I are off to an impressive start."
Vader regarded her intensely, as it was becoming a fast habit. He was inclined to agree about his showing goodwill despite the Empire's ruthless policies. His hatred for the Jedi was alive and well, and it gratified him greatly that she certainly wasn't one. She was her feelings, empathetic to the core, and wasn't his judge. She was as clear as crystal, and her candor, as though it blazed, consumed him. She was goodness incarnate, and that did not infuriate him. He had surrendered himself totally to the Dark Side, but the subtleties of Joquiss were having an infectious effect on him, nevertheless.
"What are you, really?" he found himself delicately inveigling.
"What do you think some, but not all of us, are?"
"Force sensitive," he replied, and had taken care not to sound overly accusative, as though it was something to hold over her head to be exploited later.
"The gift, is what we few who possess it call it. We are capable of allaying great pain. Suffering of any kind is our enemy."
"Then the entire galaxy should be at your doorstep," Vader insinuated testily. "What about those who cause it?"
Joquiss laced her fingers with his and shook her head, indicating no. "Those who cause suffering are often the greatest sufferers."
"You are a healer," Vader stated with a sense of finality. A lump the size of a juicy tangerfrit had lodged itself in his throat. On that day filled with rage and hatred, he had slaughtered her kind right along with the other traitors at the temple.
"I am your friend." She rested her hand upon his shoulder and smiled. "Our friendship is the start of your healing."
"I have no friends, only my Master." He patted her hand.
"You were meant to come here so I could become your friend. Your torment had a beginning, but as with all things, it must have its end."
"I came here to learn what you are. Subjugate you, and then bring you before my Master to be exploited," the Dark Lord sternly admitted. "I am your destroyer."
Joquiss sat up straight, bent her knees and wrapped her arms tightly about her spindly legs. "But you won't destroy me, or any of us." She looked and sounded even younger.
"No," Vader answered, without hesitation. "I will not. Not now. You, and what you possess, are my secret."
As though she were saying it for the first time, she reiterated, "I am your friend, my Lord, and I am meant for helping you. It is the will of the living Force that you heal. Much was given you, but much more was taken away. There must be balance."
Stunned to his core for as many times, Vader stood, wishing that her planet wasn't her prison. If she were at liberty to leave, barring any fatal effects, he could take her to Coruscant, hiding her from Sidious. Combining their abilities, she and he would succeed, and there would be so much more than what his Master could ever give.
"My Lord?" She sensed that his feelings had transported him far away elsewhere.
The sound of her silky voice called him back. "I have decided that a garrison will remain here," he snapped at her.
"Why, my Lord? We are quite safe, I assu--"
"You are perfectly vulnerable. You must be protected from intruders. The troopers are under strict orders not to interfere with your affairs."
"Please, my Lord, it isn't necessary. We have never been threatened by anyone until you."
"Your world is ripe for exploiters." Vader paused, thinking before he spoke. "Odd that you have not been enslaved up until now." His gesture wasn't threatening when he ran his hand down her head. "This particular quadrant has long been known for Hutt and Rodian trafficking in human flesh for the sole purpose of enslaving it." Before he realized what he was saying, he explained, "I was once a slave...when I was a boy."
Gently, Joquiss vouched, "I know."
Her answer did not surprise him. Her ally was the Force.
"I dreamed of freeing my mother and all the slaves from their greedy masters when I was that naïve boy."
"Your exploiters," she said simply. "Lost souls, in other words."
"Notorious exploiters. I speak from firsthand knowledge and experiences."
"We have never been exploited by anyone," Joquiss stated crisply, giving him big eyes, humoring him.
"And with Imperial enforcement, it will stay that way."
"We trust the Force; it is all we need."
"Why are you so sure that this isn't what the Force dictates? These are dangerous times, coupled with some of the worst souls in the galaxy, Joquiss Oaz."
True, the bulk of the galaxy was under his Master's control, but that didn't mean it was going to be that way forever. If he gained the upper hand and ruled, the end of injustice would be assured. He and Padme would have been superb rulers. Yes, one day it would be up to him to rehabilitate the entire galaxy, after he dethroned Sidious. For now, under the Emperor's exacting tutelage, he bided his time, learning all that he could from the man who had saved his life, who was a master of deceit.
"I am only sure that the Force is salvation for all who yield to it, my Lord."
"I yield to its Dark Side."
"In order to heal, you must embrace the totality of the Force," Joquiss entreated, taking his masked face into her hands.
"Hearing my wife's voice again is all the salvation I need."
"Her voice, your will...and the Force." The soul gazer stared into Vader's concealed face that reflected her elegant image. "I yield then. Station what you will."
"Good. The garrison remains. Anyone who violates my mandate by interfering will answer to me. No harm will come to you or your people. You have my solemn word."
"No harm," Joquiss whispered as though the entire galaxy, being a party to their conversation, would overhear.
"I will return and sojourn without arousing my Master's suspicion." Vader's next breath, a forceful hiss, filled her humble abode. Once its sound petered out, the Dark Lord's words were monumental. "I lost her, but have found her again."
"She was never very far away as long as you held are so tightly in your heart," Joquiss softly reassured. "In time, your mother will speak with you too. Your love for your family will never die, and it will heal you. It will."
Overwhelming gratitude welled up in Vader again, and meaning it with all his heart, he said, "Thank you." He rose in one flowing movement, not looking back as he left, and was moved to tell Joquiss again. "Thank you for giving my life back to me." He cleared her doorway, but made no move to walk away.
"Thank the Force, my Lord."
As though he had somehow unwittingly stepped onto a firm-fast flat peculiar to the vast Jundland Wastes back on Tatooine, Vader appeared powerless to leave. He waited for her, already knowing that she was about to insist that he hear what more she had to say. He faced around with an air of expectancy.
Scrambling from her bed, she implored, "Wait...please."
"As you wish," the Sith Lord replied, deferring. Amused when Joquiss bounded up from behind him, he recalled what playfulness had meant to him once. He let her take his mechanical hand in her dainty ones. "A formidable task is ahead of me. I must convince my Master that you, and those like you, don't exist. If I fail, you will serve him, or die. He will remove me, and get an apprentice who never deceives him."
"Come, I'm going to show you something you've never seen before..."
"Apart from you?" Vader baited, anticipating what was on the tip of her tongue.
"You must see them," she fired back, willing that he stop resisting. She tugged on his hand, using more strength, amusing him even more. "You'll be more convincing, promise."
His tone mocked her; habits, which had become like taming wild banthas, were hard to break. "Oh, is that so?"
"Yes," she avowed."
"My savior isn't easily deceived."
"My Master saved me from destruction. I was left for certain death by my sworn enemy. If not for Lord Sidious, I would have perished in that roaring inferno."
"I know," Joquiss said with the forgiving-sounding inflection. She meant to convey that she had a working knowledge of what his life with Palpatine was about. "But if not for her..."
"I would have never lived."
'Ani, I truly came alive the moment I fell in love with you.'
Empowered, Vader's hope-filled heart pounded with the Force. While he looked deeply into the soul gazer's eyes, he longed to hear more. His will, aligned with Joquiss' passion, had made Padme live again for him, just that simply.
"What more will you give me?" the Sith Lord asked, pulling the soul gazer into his arms.
As though trading banter with a devoted friend known for years, Joquiss said, "Truth is the best offense when being convincing is the only thing that matters."
"Show me this truth, then."
'With the Force guiding you...' Padme urged.
"You guide me, my love."
"She, along with the Force will, always," Joquiss told him engagingly.
Vader fell into a momentary quandary, poised to ask the cherished presence if she had named their children. The soul gazer undid herself from his arms, leaving her home behind. She wanted him to follow her, and bounded ahead of him, clear out of sight. The jumble of dwarfing trees, whose rich barks looked as though they'd been emulsified, had swallowed her, or so it appeared.
"This way," her beautiful voice wafted, sounding some distance off. "The sea isn't really that far. I love the sea! Don't you?"
"The sea?" Vader repeated, shouting for her to stay where she was so he could catch up.
A sea meant sand...and how he hated sand, despite his durable sheathing. She was fast, he thought, and it was clear that the Force was with her. She was nowhere in sight, and try as he could, her whereabouts eluded him.
"Show yourself!" he commanded, cursing the ungainly limbs slowing him down in this riotous tangle of lush growth.
He was quick enough in the heat of battle, but this labyrinth of a woodland was besting him. He'd just tripped over a rotted stump the size of an astromech droid, just catching himself in time before landing face down. He half-expected to hear the protesting clicks and beeps. The young Talissmadian would be the one trying to keep up with him if he still had the legs he'd been born with.
"This way, My Lord. It isn't much farther." Abruptly, she was darting around a particularly huge tree with dense leaves, briskly waving him down. A fair distance away, the merry sound of her voice carried. "Don't worry, you cannot lose me."
"For a certainty, by all my power, I must never lose you," he rumbled, now making his sure-footed way to her.
Once reaching her, breathing heavily, he looked about. He noted that the trees were not as tall as they had been a ways back. Their foliage was not as impenetrable. Birds sporting bright plumage populated some of the trees.
"We are here."
The sound of the rushing sea greeted their ears.
By now, Joquiss had grown used to the way Vader stated matters rather than ask pointless questions.
Obligingly, she smiled up at him. "Yes, we are."
On the return trip to Coruscant, Vader had spent most of the journey locked away in his restorative chamber. He had left stern orders. He was to be disturbed only if matters dictated. Matters had not dictated, and that had afforded him ample time to reflect on his momentous experiences on Talissmad. Communing with Padme again was the sole thing that he craved. At all costs, Joquiss, and her special affinity with the Force, must never come under Sidious' domination.
Patiently standing before his Master, the Dark Lord waited. He was prepared, awaiting further inquiry. His thoughts were collected and safeguarded. He felt Sidious' intent. Anything remotely duplicitous would be easily perceived, and be his undoing.
"And so you deemed it necessary to station a garrison there, Lord Vader."
Sidious worked his scarred fingers with their wizened nails into misshapen steeples. Shortly thereafter, he began tapping their cracked fingertips together. It was an unconscious habit, one that he had acquired during his senatorial days. With that one action, Sidious conveyed volumes to his malleable convert. Vader's will was always at the Master's disposal for further molding. He sensed a shading of resistance in Vader, a reluctance to speak freely. Time was a factor here since the Emperor would be entertaining several dignitaries later on this day for a stay that would last a Coruscant week. Before their distinctive shuttles arrived, and his attention was needed elsewhere, he wanted Vader's pivotal assessment of what he had encountered on Talissmald.
Tapping the hilt of his lightsaber, Vader steeled himself, protecting what he was holding back lest he make a critical error, and Sidious breached his sacred ground. He accorded his secret the same vigilance that he had once given to Padme when he had been her bodyguard. A spark of exhilaration zipped through him as he relived his keeping close watch over her on Naboo. What a thrill it had been when he had removed the dainty piece of fruit from her plate with the slightest twitch of his fingers. Her intoxicating smile had made him the giddiest he'd ever felt. Though they had lived beneath a shadow of foreboding back then, life had seemed so much simpler, somehow.
Excitement coursed through Vader, delighting him. He felt lightheaded all over again because she was his, and this time he was going to get it right!
'Padme, I do thank the Force for you...and the soul gazer,' the Dark Lord meditated behind his impenetrable shielding.
Like a powerful mantra, he thought it again and again, coupled with his never telling. He equated his Master's finding out with losing Padme all over again. Rather than speak what he knew, he'd choose death instead.
"And yet you say that those whom you encountered were pitiful, substandard beings." Palpatine stopped tapping his fingers against each other, eyeing his student intently.
"As I have told you, Master, they are weak, incapable of leaving their world's surface and remaining alive." Forthrightly, Vader related, "A female was brought aboard my vessel so I could probe her for myself. She was on the verge of death in less than one standard vessel hour. Once returned to the planet's surface, she revived. There is nothing impressive about them, my Master."
"Nothing, my Lord." Vader knew the look on the Emperor's face well. His Master was unparalleled when he engaged in this form of innuendo. Despite his composure, Vader wanted this watching and waiting at an end. Behind his mask, the Dark Lord's restructured jaw was hard-set.
"And what is your reason for the capricious deployment of our forces unless there is something there worth protecting?"
"I discovered something else, my Master, something truly worthy of your focus. You must see them for yourself." The ploy was deliberate; Vader had begun gaining useful insights into the Emperor's tactics.
Sidious gaped at his Apprentice as though Vader was suddenly the one giving orders. "Must I?"
"Only if you see fit to inspect the wonders for yourself, Master," Vader adjusted, deliberately humbling his tone.
"What wonders could they be, aside from beings whom you deem pitiful and substandard? If they are as you say, why weren't these so-called wonders of yours brought before me?"
"Extensive preparations will have to be made in order to accomplish that, my Lord."
Sidious trained his sunken eyes on Vader as though they were floodlights.
"I hope your feelings regarding this matter are clear, Lord Vader."
The hint of skepticism that he had deliberately laced his voice with had given Vader pause, the ruler noted. Strangely, a barrier of undetermined scope had imposed itself between them, stonewalling the Emperor for the time being. The dignitaries would be arriving soon. Solidifying his new Empire came first. All in good time, he would unravel this sudden complexity, of convoluted origin, in an already complex relationship.
"As clear as your visions, Master." Changing tact, and sounding appropriate in doing so, Vader plausibly continued, "The planet's aquatic life bears further, more detailed investigation. The creatures I saw defy the imagination. I judged stationing a garrison there prudent until such time that you see fit to scrutinize them personally, lest poachers seize what is rightfully yours."
The Dark Lord had never seen the like of the marine creatures that Joquiss had taken great care to show him. Spiny behemoths resplendent in iridescence of every shade imaginable, slinky spiraling briny acrobats of the brackish deep and an abundance of finny winged creatures had filled him with quiet awe. It had been marvelous, experiencing the spectacle of those magnificent beings.
Padme's whisperings had made the experience even more enthralling. He had been so distracted by his feelings that asking if their children had names had completely slipped his mind yet again. The peculiar light, a constant in Joquiss' eyes, had made him it plain for Vader right then and there. The Emperor's interest had to be redirected. Even if Sidious decided to come here personally, Vader knew that Joquiss and those like her must remain beyond his destructive clutches.
Knowing how fond Palpatine was of the spectacular in nature, Vader felt certain that he had succeeded in shifting the focus of the Emperor's interest.
Satisfied, Palpatine sounding pat said, "Very well. Begin with all preparations that you feel are necessary for capturing and transporting these creatures, and return to their world. Once I have finished with our visiting dignitaries, I will join you on Talissmald, Lord Vader." Rising from his cowled chair, Sidious said nearly in an aside to the panoramic view of Coruscant's sweeping cityscape, "The opera has become banal, of late. It is sorely in need of incomparable amusements. Do you believe that these creatures are trainable?"
"Yes, I believe that by your hand, Master, the magnificent specimens I encountered could be trained, easily subdued by your irresistible will."
The Emperor paused, immersed in creative thought, and liking the fact that his Apprentice deemed his will irresistible. He began descending the short stack of steps that separated him from Vader, and then halted. He tapped his fingertips together, looking speculative.
"It would be highly impressive, exhibiting genuine novelties to dazzle our many distinguished visitors to Coruscant. A fitting recommendation it would be for this New Galactic Order to supply the incomparable, even in matters of entertainment."
"Yes, Lord Sidious. I will return to Talissmad immediately."
"Yes, you will, my restless Apprentice." Palpatine turned from the servant, garbed in a drab blue robe. He had finished informing the Emperor that the distinguished guests had arrived. Sidious was already well aware that they were waiting for him before the servant had given the word. "But first, introductions are in order. I want the dignitaries to see just who it is that serves my interests. You and your abilities make Count Dooku's pale in sickly comparison. You have come such a long way, my young friend." As usual, the Emperor's consistent tone of voice gave nothing telling away. Sidious' implacable deportment signaled that Vader should distinguish himself with the honored guests by being the entertainment.
"As you wish." Vader knelt to his knee, submissively bowing his head.
It wouldn't be the first time Sidious would take advantage of an opportunity to show him off as though he were a trained trophy to be paraded. The Emperor was viscerally adept at mind games. Padme's subliminal presence languished in Vader's memory.
When he replied, "Master," it was pragmatic.
His sounding submissive and loyal had not sounded forced. He would do whatever Palpatine demanded that he do in front of the aristocratic visitors. He would pretend that his wife was among them, doing the Emperor's bidding expressly for her. Far from feeling belittled, he would exude pride. He would soon be on his way to be close to her once more.
Returning to Talissmald had been trying for the Dark Lord. Prone to having terrible dreams, Vader had been plagued by fitful, unspeakable ones. He had routinely awakened from them bathed in sweat. They had been brutal, harrowing for him to face. When he had tried to recall details, he couldn't. They had left him utterly drained, and they had not been about Padme. That, in and of itself, was mystifying. He had dreamed about someone else, someone new, someone he had begun to feel strongly about. The identity of this new someone would neatly elude him each time he taxed himself in his needing to know who it was. His foul mood and his adversarial behavior had made it sheer torture for all who had had to deal with him.
Once the Dark Lord had made planet-fall, he had quickly learned that the one who thought of herself as his friend was nowhere to be found. Losing no time, the searches had begun. Vader had spearheaded the most dogged ones conducted. For a standard planetary week, every person connected with the Empire had combed the environs, searching for Joquiss. There had been no exemptions. His mandate had been explicit.
Until she was found, no one would rest; there would be neither food nor drink.
They had hunted high and low.
No Talissmaldian had possessed any knowledge of the kindly soul gazer's whereabouts. Uncharacteristically, Vader had felt no compulsion to coerce any of the locals. Reading them as if they had been holomaps, he had perceived just how incapable of guile they were. They were so like Joquiss in every way except one.
Vader had had to push that exception far back in his mind just to keep going.
Ominously, the foulness of something being darkly amiss had hung heavily in the air. Nothing stays hidden for long, as life constantly proves. Shortly after daybreak on the third day of this second week, the despicable became reality for Vader. What had become of the soul gazer was finally known. Relentlessly, after much punishing extraction, Vader now possessed what he had thirsted to know. The knowledge cleaved him as though his lightsaber had turned itself on him, rending him through and through.
Acutely in agony, he stood in his shuttle, reliving the horror of what he'd lost for a second time. The gift that had come into his life so unexpectedly had been cruelly ripped away. The irony was stifling. It had been his tendentious decision, leaving troops behind. The wide-eyed soul gazer had pointed out how unnecessary it was. But he had known better, as always. What could anyone tell him? He had all the answers. Now, she was dead. Now, as it had been with Padme, he was to blame.
A detail of three was retrieving his helper's remains. The genetically-manipulated malignancy responsible for making Vader rue his fateful decision had buried Joquiss in the pebbled ravine not far from her home.
Vader had exacted a fitting recompense. The Dark Lord had had the helpless trooper suspended high above the floor with his hand welded to the man's neck, all but crushing it. The Sith Lord had seethed, making his shuttle lift up of his own irrational volition, terrorizing the trooper, minus his helmet, further.
Now, the dead man lay upon the deck of the shuttle, a twisted, ruptured heap. Searing rage whipped around inside of Vader, guiding his hands. He ignited his lightsaber, decapitating the slain trooper. He kept his weapon ignited as his anger fed upon itself. Like the heady drug it was, adrenaline drove him to seek more revenge until his thirst for blood was sated.
He stalked out of his shuttle, looking for others of the garrison to destroy. He sensed a tinge of complicity lurking in some of them. Innocence in the majority of the troopers didn't concern him. Phantom images resurfaced. In his mind's eye he saw himself butchering Sand People. He savored the imagery. Then those images freakishly morphed into younglings and Padawan learners, and lastly healers. He melded his fury with the Dark Side and stood at the center of the galaxy, shredding it from end to end as blue Force lightning streaked everywhere.
The precious link was no more. He sensed that the others who were like Joquiss were sympathizers, and nothing more. The others had been content to remain neutral. Solely, she had been the one who had reached out, showing him the way. She had dared to lift the shroud from his heart by her understanding and bravery. She had cared enough, and that caring had applied salve to his festering soul. Padme was his salve, and he ached worse this time around than that first time when his Master had informed him that she was dead because of his rage.
The Force had given, and it had taken away, yet again.
Vader's rabid thinking shifted, and his attention returned to the dissolute man whom he had just cut down. The killer was carrion, polluting his shuttle. He wished he could bring him back to life along with Padme, his mother and Joquiss, but for an entirely different reason. He wanted to crush the life out of him all over again.
Winning the upper hand with his murderous self, Vader powered down his lighsaber. He replayed the seamy conversation that he had had with the replicated culprit before breaking him to finally destroy him.
Their heated exchange replayed in Vader's mind...
"Before you die-- WHY!"
"...She was alone when I found her...beyond the forest glade, my Lord. She looked as though she was praying to...the stream, to something I couldn't see. Her lips had been moving...her eyes closed...and...and..."
"You murdered her! Because she was beautiful, available, vulnerable--and you wanted her!"
"...She kept...she kept looking at me...I mistook her friendliness for something more...when she...when she didn't...well I thought, my Lord...I thought she was teasing...and...I got angry...and I..."
"You murdered her!"
Vader had reinforced his conviction with Force bludgeons. While the Sith Lord's cut-one-to-shreds tone of voice had continued, the trooper's head had bloodied quickly.
"...No--no! I didn't mean to shove her that hard! She shouldn't have acted like that...like she wanted me!"
"So--it was all her fault." Definitively, it had not been a question. "She was kind to you and you were compelled to kill her--without cause!"
There had been no time for the philanderer to finish his jumbled reply; his life was over. A moment's indiscretion, an impulsive departure from the routine drudgery of his militaristic, regimented life had cost him dearly. Indoctrination and genetic manipulation had produced magnificent fighters. Actual combat and battle fatigue, however, had dramatically altered much about their clonal behaviors. The docility that the Kaminoans had thoroughly engineered into them was repeatedly under fire. The troopers never exhibited outright recalcitrance, or insubordination for that matter, at this stage. The potential for it was growing though. The irrepressible nature of human curiosity along with the ruthless taking of many lives, were upsetting the precarious balance.
Summoning the commander in charge, Vader demanded that preparations for capturing some of the creatures begin. As soon as he was in possession of Joquiss' body, he would pay homage to her in his own way. He wanted the murderer's body stripped and flung into the flowing stream where he had killed her. It was Vader's intense hope that it would be washed to the ocean. He willed its being torn apart and devoured by some monster having the biggest teeth. The very creatures that Palpatine wanted to entertain the lackeys that he pretended to curry favor with would be this scum's grave.
Vader motioned to a brace of troopers, standing at the ready. He ordered them to remove their fellow combatant's corpse from his shuttle. He garnered some hope that, even though Joquiss no longer lived, Padme might manifest herself to him, nevertheless. There were so many things that had been left unsaid.
The killer's body was being hauled out.
Could he cry? The ravages of what he did possess seemed to be tearing to a certain extent. Vader hung his head, cursing his reawakened feelings of acute loss that churned. Slowly, he turned away from the milling bodies encased in their blinding white armor. He fairly trudged up the ramp of his shuttle. He felt dead inside, once again, and he welcomed the Dark Side that would not be denied.
Now, as never before, he knew the truth. He paused, stopping his march. This was his destiny. Submersion in his work, slavish devotion to the Emperor would be his salvation. Instead of fearing it, spurning it, he embraced it with consummate resignation. He resumed his onward course and disappeared into his shuttle.
He didn't hear when the retrievers entered. "Excuse us, my Lord...we have brought her to you as you ordered."
Decisively, Vader ended thinking his dark, innermost thoughts. He focused on the soul gazer's lifeless body, hanging limply in the arms of the trooper who bore her. Numbly, he watched him settle her upon the deck, and felt blistering anger reigniting and burn within him.
"Leave!" he barked.
Had Padme looked as Joquiss did now, deprived of her vibrant color and wearing the cruel mask of death? Disfiguring abrasions littered the soul gazer's body. Her lovely face was so still. It hurt looking at her.
With his anger hot and convulsive, Vader drew closer to his slain guide. Kneeling at her side, he agreed with her.
In a rigidly-controlled voice he said, "You were right, gentle one. Leaving the garrison here was a terrible, irrevocable mistake." Feeling woozy suddenly, he reached out, and lightly stroked her disfigured jaw. "Forgive me, and know somehow that I made the scourge who caused this pay with his life."
Her clothes, now in tatters, drove Vader to distraction. Despite the trooper's fervid denials, Vader knew that he had violated her.
He rose swiftly, looking for something suitable to drape over her. Her near nakedness mocked her. There was nothing, only his cape. He made a decisive alteration, ripping the mantle away from his shoulders and back, covering Joquiss with it.
"Through the Force, you guided her back to me. For that, I will always be grateful. I will repay your kindness, Joquiss Oaz, of Talissmald with my solemn word. I will keep your kinsfolk safe. Before we leave, we will collect some of the creatures that you showed me so Sidious will have his new diversion. You wished to be my friend, but I was your destroyer. Always, the destroyer..."
His thoughts turned further inward, blocking out all pain, desire, remorse. Whether the woman who had once called him, 'Ani' could hear him or not, it didn't matter.
Loudly, he voiced, "Forgive me. I meant it when I promised it, but I cannot do as you've asked, my Love. Wherever they are, our children are better off without me. I won't seek them out. I ruined your life, sweet wife. I will not ruin theirs!" With faltering breath, he pushed out, "It is far too late for me...but it isn't for them. Goodbye, my family, never meant to be. Violence and conquest are my only kindred now. They succor me, and I need them. Truly, I was meant for Darkness. It is what I am."
Before lifting the makeshift shroud, he bent near to Joquiss' forehead. Pressing two fingers into it, he held the middle and index fingers there for a time with his head lowered. The indentations made were a temporary branding. There was a place for her in his heart as well. Swiftly, then, he rose with her in his powerful arms. He streamed down the ramp of his shuttle, ignoring the curious glances of the troopers, and walked the far distance to her home. He left Joquiss in that odd little bed of hers, upon that soft mattress which sagged in the middle. He blanketed her battered body with the soft, shiny coverlet and donned his cape. He stood at the bedside for a moment longer, thinking briefly about his wise, unassuming mother.
There were tears, real ones, as something Shmi used to always say swept through his mind, taming his spiraling thoughts.
"...Some get to be what they are meant to be, my sweet child...most, though, keep trying all their lives."
He left then, not bothering to close the brave one's rough-hewn front door.
The Emperor looked away from the impressive nightfall. Usually, the steady, all-encompassing advance of approaching darkness elevated his mood. Presently, that was not the case. He remained silent a few moments longer, as though sulking. He was not quite done weighing matters before dismissing his follower. The ominous ruler of his growing Empire trained penetrating eyes on Vader again.
The steady stream of airborne traffic could mesmerize most. Way back when, a thoroughly engrossed, highly impressionable young Anakin Skywalker used to be one of those mesmerized. Yes, that was a very long time ago, indeed. What made him think about that, Vader wondered? Something wasn't right. Why did he feel so warm and sticky inside his intimate prison? Perhaps it would be wise to visit the Medical facility when this meeting was over. This meeting was taking forever to end.
Losing himself to the steady flow of commuters wasn't true of Sidious. Perhaps now was the time that he sift through his new Apprentice's jangled feelings.
"So, Lord Vader, why do you think the gargantuan aquatic specimens that you brought here perished?"
Vader's far-reaching vision focused, but not on his Master. The incessant traffic flow had failed to capture his imagination. The penetrating darkness of night called to him, and he strained to hear voices from the past. As his former Jedi self, he and his old master, now his dire enemy, had wended their way through the cavernous height and breadth of this congested district's cityscape. They had been in mad pursuant of Padme's would-be assassin, Zam Wesell, the Clawdite, whose identity they had learned later. Since his interaction with the soul gazer, many stale memories had been roused. What he had buried in earnest was having no trouble clouding his mind, and tugging at his heart. He felt unsure of himself, but he was hardly nostalgic. With the way that he was feeling, it would require all of his resolve to get Palpatine to stop questioning him in this accusative manner.
He wanted to be alone, to mediate in the privacy of his chamber. Maybe he could gather his beloved Padme to himself if he pared his needy heart down to its core and begged the Force to let her live within him again. How he craved to hear her antidotal voice once more. Joquiss had shown him the way. Maybe by trying with all of his might, focusing to the point of passing out, he could have her here with him, and everything would be put right. Her ethereal presence would siphon the poison from his soul.
"Lord Vader, is there something further I should know?" Sidious had since moved to his massive desk and had seated himself.
The limp-looking, misshapen fingers of his right hand rapped lightly against the desktop. His sickly yellow eyes needled Vader. There was the suggestion of his being disappointed in his bearing.
"I sense something is amiss in you. Something is subtly clouding your judgment."
"I dislike disappointing you, Master."
Though Sidious knew that wasn't the true reason, he claimed, "There are times when disappointment is unavoidable. It is all in how one looks at situations." The Emperor meant to have the import of his next words linger. "I will be satisfied, my conscientious Apprentice, as long as you explicitly do what I expect of you, obeying without question."
Agitated, but in adroit control of his feelings, Vader adamantly said, "The several creatures that we captured and housed in the refitted containments aboard the ship were more delicate than was anticipated. I am sorry, Lord Sidious, that they died in less than a standard ship's day." Warily, the Sith sensed that his mentor was accepting his words without reservation. "Perhaps it is endemic with all life there. They cannot live if removed from their world's surface. We were too far away from Talissmad to return them in time."
"It is regrettable," Palpatine said in reluctance. "Pity. I would have liked to have had these creatures put on display since you felt that they were worthy of my consideration. It was quite resourceful of you, bringing them here to Coruscant instead of dumping their bodies in space. Perhaps they can be stuffed and exhibited in the Galactic Museum instead."
"Yes, Master," Vader politely returned, already anticipating his excusing himself from the Emperor's prepossessing presence. "Is there anything further?"
Sidious hesitated, watchful. "Perhaps I will visit Talissmald one day so I may observe them in their natural habitat."
"As you wish, my Lord..."
"Yes, as I wish." In less time than it took for one of his elite crimson-clad guards to reaffirm undying loyalty to him, the Emperor requested, "I was looking forward to having you attend the opera with me this evening, Lord Vader. I've missed your company while you've been away. That is, if you have no other plans..."
"Plans?" The word played in Vader's artificial ears.
When Palpatine used his best statesman voice, the one which drenched every nuance, each syllable in machine oil, only Vader's rigid will stopped him from lashing out. Why the pretense of asking? There was no excuse he could give him. Vader had none. He was at his redoubtable Master's beck and call, and since he had disappointed him with the business of Talissmald, it was unthinkable that he should beg off from the opera.
Vader winced within his armor. Impossible as it was physically, he felt as if he were burning alive inside the suit. A wave of dizziness gripped him for a moment. He hated everything about the opera, the music, the extravaganzas and the antics of the two-faced sycophants, shining up to Palpatine, most of all.
Compliantly, he responded, "Of course I will attend."
"Good." The Emperor raised understanding eyes to him. "Judging by the apparent slowness of your responses, I suppose you will require the requisite time in your restorative chamber before I call for you."
Bowing slightly from the waist, the Sith Lord agreed. "I will." Dizziness hit him hard this time.
"Then, see to yourself, Lord Vader. I sense all isn't quite well with you." As the Dark Lord of the Sith bowed lower, Sidious added, "It's such a shame...your inability to enjoy fine foods, as you once did. I could extend an invitation to dinner, and you could accept, as you used to. The fare tonight promises to be exceptionally exceptional. The foods we once enjoyed on those many nights when we dined together...when you were..." As though he had punched through with a lightsaber, Sidious twisted it further into the wound. "...A whole man."
Stunned, Vader straightened up jerkily, as though the Emperor had just shocked him with the lightning that he wielded so well. He knew some accommodating reply was expected, but none came. Venom seeped through him, and the thought of really lashing out this time enticed Vader. It was probably too late. He knew that his Master must have sensed that feeling. Finding the grit to brush the dig off, he concentrated on making his way to the office doors. He was having trouble with his sight; it kept swimming before him.
"Mediate well, old friend," Sidious solicitously called after him.
"Yes, my Lord."
Making sure that he had the last word, Sidious said, "Mediate as though your life depends on it, for indeed it might very well."
Once the doors had closed, Vader flattened his back against the crack that they made upon joining. Breathing out in a desperate hiss, he implored, "Padme, Padme, please, hear me. I need you. Despite all that's happened, hear me, help me." His inconsolable groaning filled the elegant foyer. "I beg you..."
In that instant, he thought that he heard her sympathetic voice echoing about him, seizing his attention. 'I love you, Ani. Love our children by finding them, and yourself.'
"Padme," Vader choked out, flinching away from the doors supporting him as though they had become white hot.
'Ani...they need you.' He thought that he heard her soft voice evenly murmur.
The affecting sound of what Vader thought he heard centered his thoughts. He stretched out with his feelings, envisioning their children, and mulled what being their father meant. What were their chances of survival in a galaxy fraught with uncertainty? Yes, they were without their mother. Did they have to be fatherless too? Obi-Wan had been a terrible master. What made him think that he could raise Padme's and his children? The living gall of that man!
All at once, an extreme possibility rushed in on Vader, urging him to obey feelings that Padme engendered.
"What if..." he muttered. "What if I..." the Dark Lord speculated, caught up in a tantalizing reverie. "If I find them...will having them by my sides fulfill all our destinies?"
The more he thought about it, the more he came under the temptation's irresistible spell to hunt for his twins.
He must have seclusion, he abruptly thought, as though his thoughts were out in the open. He needed his haven. His spacious apartment, as well as the beautiful gardens that bordered it, were where he enjoyed a measure of peace, away from the Emperor and his supremacy. He craved being with Padme, there in that verdant retreat. He would easily imagine seeing the gentle breeze finger the luscious tendrils of her fragrant hair, and how her face would glow after he kissed her.
The Dark Lord wheezed, feeling malaise grip him like a searing pang of distress. Vader buried impossible feelings way down deep, knowing how easily Sidious could have him confessing to his knowing the truth about Padme if he weren't more careful. The fleeting thought of having his children one day besieged Vader's mind again. What would be his legacy for them? The Empire should be their inheritance. If not with Padme, he would rule with them once he put Sidious to death.
Inside his protective suit, he was sweating buckets as dizziness overwhelmed him. What was happening to him? He was weak, feeling violently ill. He contemplated his next step, but before he could initiate it, he faltered and toppled to the floor.
Struggling to remain coherent, he uttered feverishly, "Padme, you must help me! Help me find them! Padme!"
Silence was his answer. Enfolded by the Dark side, Vader lost consciousness.
"Lord Vader, Lord Vader... Can you hear me?"
It was his Master's voice, at least it sounded like Sidious' voice, but he wasn't sure. He wasn't wearing the mask, he perceived. The voice sounded muffled. Vader pondered where he was. If he could just raise his head; he tried doing it. He wasn't wearing his specialized suit either, for that matter, he indistinctly saw. Only his loins were clothed. Why? What had happened? That terrible sensation of dizziness overwhelmed him and so he rested his head back down. He was aware that medical droids were scurrying about in the background.
It hit him then that he knew this place. He was familiar with its feel, its foreboding. It was here where the little of him that had survived Mustafar had been salvaged. He had been reborn here.
"You aren't well, old friend. You have contracted some form of viral infection. I've been told that it's unusual and, in your case, virulent."
It was his Master, and he was near, by Vader's right shoulder.
"I am ill, Master?" What illness was capable of felling him? His protective suit was inviolable, wasn't it?
"Yes, Lord Vader, very ill, I'm afraid."
"How you contracted the virus is presently unknown. Blood work is ongoing. Your blood is being subjected to lengthy analysis. I have been informed that you are anemic at this stage," the Emperor carefully supplied. His mood grave, he stared down upon the man whom he had rescued from the tortures of Mustafar some time ago. "I emerged from my office to find you in an alarming state right outside. You were unconscious, but then you suddenly regained consciousness. You lunged for me, and I deflected you, driving you to the floor. You thrashed about, foam oozing from the grill of your mask, and you were yammering your dead wife's name."
"I don't remember," the Dark Lord admitted, sounding as though such a thing was inconceivable.
Why had he called her name, the forbidden name? Despite his being strapped to the medical table, he shook a great deal.
"You have been ill for a number of days. It is conceivable that the world I sent you to investigate was your undoing, from a medical standpoint. You are suffering from amnesia. I have just returned from that forgettable world. I did not remain there long; there was no point for me to tarry. I viewed it safely aboard my shuttle, unwilling to risk contracting your malady, perhaps. It is an inhospitable wasteland, offensive and toxic, devoid of life, of any kind. It appears as though I was very much mistaken, sending you on a fool's errand. The creatures you brought back have been disposed of for fear the threat of contagion could be spread here through them."
"The world you send me to, Master?" Vader tried lifting his head again, but the Emperor, with the weight of his hand, prevented him.
"Rest. Rest until your strength..." Palpatine held off saying more, seeing doubt strengthening in the Sith's eyes that were consumed by anguish.
Turmoil seamlessly laced with Vader's voice. "What world was that, my Master?"
"And your memory returns."
A contingency of four med droids approached with the suspended ribbed containment crib. Skillfully, they transferred the Dark Lord from the table into it so he could be taken to the medical facility's rehabilitation suites to begin the initial phase of his critical recuperation. Sidious looked on, wondering whether his new apprentice was going to survive. Replacing this accomplished phenomenon would be intolerably difficult, the sort of insidious inconvenience that sorely rubbed the Emperor the wrong way.
Something primal inside himself made Vader cry out, "Where is Padme?"
"Padme?" Palpatine fairly winced, hating having to hear that name repeated. "Why, she is no more, old friend."
"No! She lives, I felt her!"
Frantically, he called out to her again, and then again. But it was pointless. The Dark Side was reasserting itself with a vengeance; light fled, leaving in its wake the void.
"Delirious," Sidious barely mumbled. Patiently, but with an edge the Emperor made certain that he honed, he replied, "You ended her life." He patted Vader's ragged, scarred forehead. "You killed her," he said, more cruelly. "Surely, you remember?" Then, moving in for the coup de grace, he pricked, "She betrayed you and the Republic. She chose your former master over you, and espoused the Jedi's lies over true freedom and peace. For that, she paid with her life."
As the droids conducted Vader away, he, sounding like an executioner, capitulated, "Yes, my Lord, Padme is dead. I killed her because she betrayed me with her unfaithfulness, and deserted the Republic by siding with the Jedi. It is true." The Dark Side had effectively reclaimed its agent, permitting that Vader retain only what had gone before. "I remember, my Master. I remember..."
Rubbing his hands together as he watched his gifted protégé being taken off, the Emperor smiled. "And you are well rid of her, old friend."
Six people were huddled closely around the radiant fire. Shadows leaped and danced behind each sedentary figure. Intelligent eyes that had shed tears earlier in the evening for their slain kinswoman were dry. Eyes stared past flames, and faces shimmered in the firelight. Somber, soft-spoken voices gently stirred the air of this balmy starry night.
Soothing sounds filled the forest of this world. Far from being barren wastelands, the vast lands had been restored to their sylvan beauty not long after the Emperor and his interchangeable contingents had departed.
"She is at peace now," the oldest member of the group, a silver-haired man with a graying beard, said with dignity, carefully eyeing the faces of his companions.
A svelte, short-haired woman of indeterminate age spoke with equal deference. "Yes, that she truly is. The ceremony befitted the way she lived. She was a delight to us all, one who clung to what she knew to be right despite the price it demanded."
"She will be sorely missed."
All in the group voiced how true that was.
It wasn't long before a young-sounding voice haltingly asked, "Why did she have to die? Why Joquiss? Why? It's not fair. Joquiss was our exemplar."
The air grew stiller as though a defense were being prepared. The affable, more mature-sounding voice of the woman asked, "Why does the Force ask a thing of one, and something different from another?" She had the kindest eyes as she eyed her companions, politely waiting for a response.
Following the negligible pause, the blond young man who had vocalized his poignant question replied, "Because it is the way of the Force, my sister."
Sagely, the silver-haired elder contributed, "Just as it was why the Dark One came here...to be befriended and guided by Joquiss. Why it was that after he went his way to appease his ruler, she offered her friendship to the one left here to guard us, who later proved to be her slayer. In turn, her death caused the Dark One, when he returned, to slay him."
"And why their crafty, disfigured leader of those misguided souls in white, who sought to delve into our true nature, came here to see for himself if what he sensed about us was true," the lanky blond correctly deduced with a smile that had grown. "But what he found was what we made him see."
"Our world as he would have left it, if he had had his way with us," five of them expressed in unison, watching the intent eyes of the blond search their faces.
"And since we imbued him with our vision, so he would believe what we wanted him to believe, he will never come here again." The blond folded his hands. He looked as wise as he had sounded, as wise as his elders were. He would be just as wise, one day. "He will have his downfall, just as all of his shadowy kind before him have had theirs."
Letting that sink in, and rising to offer his hands to the firelight's warmth, the silver-haired elder offered, "The will of the living Force many times calls for unflinching sacrifice. You still have much to learn, Jiytah, and you will."
"Yes, wise one," the blond conceded. "Because the Force is with us."
"It is, indeed. The Force remains, although we must go when it is time. Joquiss served the Force well, and the Force will preserve her in its essence, forever." The elder brought the tingling palms of his hands to his face to warm his remarkably smooth cheeks. "Serving the Force is its own reward."
Collectively, and as though the flames fired their words, the five chorused, "Yes, since by doing so, we...will...have...peace..."
"Peace," the confirmatory voice of the elder gently inflected. "Peace here...and one day in the not too distant future, peace restored throughout the known galaxy."