Title: The Protege
Disclaimer: As usual, Lucas owns everything, and this fanfic was written purely for fun.
Summary: Darth Vader has an unsettling encounter within the Imperial Palace.
Darth Vader knew his master would be displeased. The Emperor was displeased any time one of his subordinates acted with too much initiative, and returning to the Imperial Palace unannounced definitely qualified as that. But the news he carried of the Rebellion's plans was too urgent to be left for the next scheduled report, and too valuable to be sent via holotransmission, the security of which were becoming more dubious by the day. And so he found himself making the journey through the labyrinthine halls of the Palace towards his master's sanctum.
The vastness of the place always struck him as an exercise in excess, the luxurious materials with which it was built as more of the same. What use could Palpatine have for all of these rooms, anyway? Many floors appeared completely vacant, but it was not possible to bypass them, as though the Emperor wanted every visitor to comprehend the immensity of the Palace. Thankfully, he was almost to the final elevator which would take him to the uppermost floor and to the Throne Room.
He was prepared for the reprimand he would receive, but it would all be a mock show. While Palpatine might have been at first unaware of his return to Imperial Center, by now security recorders and the guards that monitored them would have relayed his presence to the Emperor, if the Force had not already done so. He could have warded off some of his punishment by asking for permission to enter the Palace, but that would have lessened the ritual exchange that was about to take place. His master, exerting his authority, and he defying it. It was the glue that bound them together, and let them know everything was as it should be between them.
But as he stood waiting at the turbolift doors, he had the distinct impression that all was not right. There was an odd current in the Force, something he could not quite identify, because when he focused on it, it seemed to recede as mere echo. He shook his head, and returned to composing the report he would give to Palpatine. His reward was a sharp pain, almost as if someone had jabbed him in the sides, though no being would ever be so bold as to touch him. A ripple of laughter drifted away in the Force, and he turned abruptly towards the source.
This time he diffused his awareness, allowing the Force to settle over him like a cloak. At the very edge of his perception he sensed a repeating pulse of energy, timed like a heartbeat. Someone waited down this wing of the Palace, someone who had not quite the skill to conceal their presence completely.
Though the silver doors slid open, he abandoned the elevator and strode purposefully down the corridor, his boots clacking against the glittering Sittana marble floor. A flash of blond hair disappearing around a corner gave substance to the phantom presence, and he quickened his pace. At every turn though, his quarry increased the distance between them, and he realized the futility of direct pursuit. When he was young he would have thought of nothing except chasing after his prey, but age and the limitations of the suit had taught him other methods.
He intentionally chose a hallway that took him away from the presence, and smiled when he felt it begin to follow him, just as he had predicted. He wandered as if lost, though in truth all the levels of the Palace followed the same floor plan and he knew exactly where he was going. The presence trailed behind him, smugness emanating from it as it prided itself about its lack of detection. It never came close enough for him to see it fully, though if he turned quickly enough he sometimes caught sight of the same head of golden hair.
It was likely only a minor Force adept minion of the Emperor. He wouldn't have even bothered investigating it except that there was an infuriating arrogance to the presence that made him want to put it in its place. Chastising himself for allowing it to provoke him, he turned onto the main corridor and headed back towards the turbolifts. Abruptly, the presence brightened in the Force, and he heard padding footsteps behind him. Growling in annoyance, he called his lightsaber to hand and whirled about. Just outside the reach of his humming blade stood a tall, slim youth, who stared back at him, hands raised in a defensive posture. The band of scarlet that edged the fine charcoal fabric of the youth's clothing announced the boy's status with the Emperor.
"We're not supposed to meet," the youth said, grinning. "Not until I'm older, anyway."
A more true statement had probably never been uttered. He was thankful for the concealment of the mask, because he knew his jaw had dropped in astonishment. The face before him was more than familiar, it was him, save that when he had been sixteen years old, his hair had been shorn close, with a Padawan braid hanging behind his ear.
He didn't know why he was surprised; Palpatine's loyalty was a nebulous concept at best. But to see evidence of his fall from his master's favor still hurt, digging into him like a vibro-shiv to his gut. For all that his master had invested in rebuilding the ruined shell that was his body, the end result was apparently not satisfactory. Instead, Palpatine had required this, this flawless duplication of who he had once been. The perfection of the clone suggested Kaminoian technology; the age of the youth said he would have been grown from cells harvested while Vader was being reconstructed in the Emperor's medical center. The boy, then, was as much a survivor of Mustafar as he was.
Vader knew he should run the boy through and be done with it, but something stilled his hand.
"What has he promised you?" he said, finally.
The youth lowered his arms.
"To take your place."
Of course. What other answer could there be? He was deceiving himself to think that this boy was kin; they were rivals. But he was mesmerized by the way his clone's chest expanded so effortlessly, and by how the long limbs tapered into graceful fingertips of flesh. All the potential that had once been his, this boy still possessed.
"You should know that he promises more than he can deliver," he said, powering down his lightsaber.
The youth smirked.
"You think you can stop me?"
He sighed to himself, remembering the first time he faced Dooku, and how he had felt that same boundless confidence.
"Of course. But that is not the point. Be careful of your friend Palpatine."
"You're the one who calls him 'Master'," the boy shot back.
His finger twitched over the lightsaber's activator. The youth's insolence irritated him, but he couldn't deny the truth in his words.
"And you are a fool if you think you will not."
"Someday, I will be more powerful than him," the youth said. "Then I will be the master."
"You think you are the first to have that dream?" he said angrily, striding forward until he had the boy backed against a wall.
Physical characteristics, temperament, even midi-chlorian counts were all genetic traits, but how could the Kaminoians have duplicated his fate as well?
"He allows you that dream so as to control you."
For the first time, the boy's self-assurance faltered.
"He doesn't control me," he said, his brow furrowed.
The words might have come from Vader's own mouth, once upon a time. The problem was, they weren't true.
"Then leave while you still can."
Confusion filled the boy's face, but then he swallowed hard and thrust his chin forward.
"Why don't you leave?"
Vader backed away, giving the boy room. He shouldn't be saying any of this. The boy was an opponent, nothing more. But looking into his own face, he couldn't stop himself.
"Because I can't."
"See, that's why I will take your place," the youth said, the annoying smirk returning to his face. "Because I'm stronger."
Why was it so difficult to make the boy understand? "If you are truly stronger, then you will not seek my place."
"Why do you care what I do?" the boy said, gesturing into the air.
"Because you're me. You're my clone," he said. It shouldn't matter, but it did.
The boy's face screwed up in distaste. "I'm not a clone of anyone."
"It is not a disgrace," he said. "But it is the truth."
"I cannot here," he said, knowing he'd never convince the boy with words."But ask Palpatine to tell you of Anakin Skywalker."
"How do you know my name?" the boy said indignantly.
He felt faintly nauseous. Physical duplication had not been sufficient; Palpatine had sought to recreate him entirely.
"Because it was mine first."
"You can't be me," the youth said, staring at his own hands as if his flesh had betrayed him. "I would never kneel before him like you do."
Vader remembered the first time he had done so, desperation filling him as his destiny seemed to narrow to one path. It would be impossible to count how many times he had performed the ritual since, and its numbing effect had never diminished.
"At your age, I would not have believed it, either."
The youth looked distinctly uneasy. Maybe there was no reason to be envious of his clone's intact body. The boy had still to face the humiliation that would come with discovering he could never best Palpatine, and that he would always be a servant. Having already learned that lesson, Vader could afford not to to look at that painful fact directly. A whisper of sadness came to him as he gazed at the now deflated boy, but then he walked away. Palpatine was expecting him.
"Wait," the youth called after him.
He paused, turning back towards the boy.
"Does he ever make you feel stupid?"
Apparently the boy did not enjoy protected status after all. A thousand jibes echoed in his head, insults swallowed while in service to his master.
"He tries. It's among his favorite pastimes."
"How do you make him stop?"
Any sense of rivalry that still remained yielded to the protectiveness that rose in his chest. He knew well the cycle of praise and condemnation that Palpatine used to maintain his superior position: praise, to make you care what he thought, followed by criticism to make you try harder to regain his approval. It had taken him many years to understand the method, and even now he sometimes succumbed to its lure. The boy, of course, had no such perspective, allowing the game to impact him with full power.
"Don't fight with him. It's what he enjoys most," he said. "But if you are like me, you cannot help sparring with him."
The youth managed a weak smile. He stepped closer and looked directly into the mask.
"What's it like out there?"
"Outside Imperial Center. Anywhere."
"You've never been off-world?"
The boy looked embarrassed.
"Only the places he's taken me. Not very many. He's says I'm too valuable to be permitted out."
The outrage that had been simmering within him bubbled stronger. He was not meant for captivity, and neither was this boy. It went against their nature. The boy deserved more than to be raised like a creature in a zoo.
"I will see to it that your education is expanded," he said. "That I promise."
The youth's eyes searched the mask, and then he nodded, a trickle of hope leaking past the boy's imperfect mental shields.
"In the meantime, you stay here," he said. "I cannot keep the Emperor waiting any longer. You know how he gets."
When the red cloaked Imperial Guards refused to move out of Darth Vader's way, he knew the game had begun in earnest. He resigned himself to waiting outside the huge doors that marked the entrance to the Throne Room, not even protesting when the delay stretched far beyond anything reasonable into the ridiculous. At last Palpatine sent silent command to the Guards, and he was allowed entry, although the Guards flanked his approach to the Throne as if he were a common supplicant, and not the Emperor's right hand. When he was within two meters of the massive chair and the hooded figure who occupied it, he dropped to one knee.
"Were you lost?" the Emperor asked pointedly.
"No, Master," he said, keeping his head bowed.
"First you arrive when I have not requested your presence, and then you make me wait for you," Palpatine said, not bothering to disguise his irritation. "What have you to say for yourself?"
"Sorry, Master," he said slowly. "I was talking to myself."
Their conversations were always embedded with hidden meanings, and Palpatine did not miss the message he had sent in this one.
There was a marked silence before Palpatine replied, "Guards, leave us."
He smiled inside his helmet, but did not move until he heard the doors shush open and closed after the Guards departed. When he looked up, the expression on the Emperor's face was as peevish as he had imagined.
Palpatine glared at him as he leaned back in the throne.
"I trust it was a good conversation."
He rose to his full height. "Yes. Most enlightening."
"He's a clever boy," the Emperor said casually. "About as eager as you were to prove his abilities, which is why he must have chosen to reveal himself to you."
"You gave him my name," he said, stepping closer to the throne.
Palpatine shrugged. "You weren't using it anymore."
"You have no right to keep him caged like an animal."
"No right?" the Emperor said, sneering. "I commissioned his creation. That gives me every right."
He struggled to contain his disgust at Palpatine's claim of ownership.
"It is customary to seek permission from the donor before creating a clone."
"Oh, well pardon me for not asking first when all that remained of you was a charred carcass," the Emperor said, descending from the throne. Anger sparked in his yellow eyes. "When did you become so ungrateful, Lord Vader? You'd be dead if it were not for me. Perhaps I should have simply left you there like Kenobi did."
His lightsaber was in his hand and ignited before he could think about it. Palpatine's face went grim, and they began the slow, circling dance of well-matched combatants. This was it, the collision that was so long in coming, no longer hidden behind precisely chosen words and inflammatory actions. He thrust his saber forward, and Palpatine retreated wordlessly, but brought his hands up, gnarled fingers extending in warning. His mind leapt to imagine defenses that would keep him protected from the Force lightning he knew was coming.
As if reading his mind, arcs of blue energy flew from the Emperor's fingertips, and Vader angled his lightsaber to deflect them. It took all of his strength to keep the saber in position against the relentless storm that issued from Palpatine. Somehow, he summoned his reserve and pushed back abruptly, the recoil knocking the Emperor off balance. The onslaught of lightning stopped, and Palpatine's gaze shifted to the side. With the crackle of energy silenced, he picked up the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps.
From behind him came the voice of the youth, breathless from running. "Wait! I need him."
He caught the subtle smile that came to Palpatine's lips, and a sense of dread filled him. There was something about the situation that was familiar, so very familiar.
"He's a traitor, Anakin," Palpatine said.
It took him a moment to realize the Emperor was speaking to the boy. He stepped back so that he could see both Palpatine and the youth, who now clutched a lightsaber in his hand. Despite the oddness of it, he let his own name roll off his tongue.
"Anakin, he's the traitor. To us."
The boy stood solemn faced between them, his eyes darting back and forth as he considered their pleas. In a flash it came to him why he felt that he had already lived this scene, because he had, only unbelievably he now stood in Mace Windu's place, arguing against the evil that was Palpatine. His heart sank. The boy would become Palpatine's next apprentice, just as he had done, because it was their destiny. Even though his own life was at stake, this stand-off had little to do with him. It was a test for the boy, as Dooku had been for him.
He might be expendable, but he was not going to go quietly. He charged towards Palpatine with a mighty swing of his lightsaber, and was met with a renewed blast of Force lightning. Calling on the Force for strength, he leaned into the fury and made Palpatine work to repel him.
"Help me, Anakin," the Emperor said. "I can't hold him any longer."
"Don't listen to him, Anakin," he growled in reply, knowing full well that he appeared the aggressor to the boy's surrogate father.
"Help me," Palpatine cried. "Don't let him kill me."
At the edge of the helmet's vision, he caught sight of the boy somersaulting with the Force into the middle of the fray. The lightning ceased abruptly, and the sudden loss of resistance made him fall forward to his knees, his lightsaber tumbling from his hand. Arterial spray painted the lenses of his mask, and he readied himself for the end. Around him the Force went nova, blindingly white even from behind closed eyelids. Maybe it was as they had first taught him...There is no death, there is only the Force.
His vision darkened, and he waited for the transformation. And waited. When nothing changed, he slowly opened his eyes and saw that against the durasteel shinguard of his right leg lay Palpatine's unblinking head. He pushed himself up with a speed he didn't know he still possessed, and summoned his lightsaber. The youth was standing over the Emperor's body, lightsaber deactivated, but the hilt still held in a trembling hand.
"I did it," the boy was muttering, his expression dazed, "I did it."
Vader moved away from the Emperor's corpse to gaze at his clone head on. His eyes, his face, his frame, not yet grown to maturity, but this boy was not him.
Thank the Force.
Darth Vader looked away from his clone and towards the great doors of the Throne Room. Apparently Palpatine had been caught so unaware by Anakin's attack that he had no time to send warning to the Imperial Guards, or otherwise they'd have stormed the room already. Instead, the room was peacefully quiet, with only the ebb and flow of his ventilator disturbing the silence. The Galaxy had changed forever, but only two people knew it.
In his head he understood that he was safe, but his body still pulsed with the adrenalin of near death. The task he had believed insurmountable, the boy had accomplished with ease. Did that mean he could have done the same all along? To his surprise, the concern fell away, and he realized that with the Emperor dead, much of his outrage had cooled. He had always thought Palpatine's chains sapped his strength, but perhaps they fed it, because without them he felt not joyous but hollow.
Anakin seemed similarly affected, remaining steadfastly next to Palpatine's body, frozen in place by some glimmer of attachment that persisted beyond death. He considered the boy carefully. Without Palpatine, the youth was no longer his rival, nor a point of contention to argue about with his master. Even the promise he'd made to the boy -I will see to it that your education is expanded - seemed far less pressing. The boy was free now, just as he was, free to find his own destiny.
Without his mentor, though, the boy wouldn't last long in the rancor pit that was Palpatine's inner circle, so perhaps the kindest thing was to eliminate the youth, and let him be laid to rest with his creator. Vader's fingers tightened around the hilt of his saber, his thumb resting on the activator. Strangely, Anakin seemed to have no inkling of the threat that surrounded him. Looking at the unsuspecting boy, a memory drifted forward of other children who thought he had come to rescue them, and who failed to see the danger he presented. In his mind, a blond youngling approached, gazing up with innocent eyes of blue. What are we going to do? the child asked, though by the time the sentence was finished, it was Anakin's face he saw.
His mouth went dry, and he almost dropped his lightsaber. He shut his eyes against the flood of revulsion that poured forth as he remembered the circle of small corpses he had left inside the Council chamber.However weak it was of him, it was an act he wouldn't repeat. And what was it the oldest of the clone troopers called each other? Ner vod-my brother? He might not feel that towards Anakin, there was undeniably...something.
Whatever it was, they couldn't linger here, because it was only a matter of time before Anakin's deed was discovered and the consequences of the Emperor's death began to unfold. Unless Vader seized control quickly, there'd be a free for all among those who aspired to the throne. He clipped his saber to his belt and called to the boy. When Anakin didn't respond, he reached out and grabbed the youth's arm to pull him away. Anakin reacted as if the touch of the black glove burned him, flinging his arm out of reach, and igniting the saber he still clutched in his other hand.
The boy's eyes narrowed as he stared into the mask. "What do you think you're doing?"
Vader could sense the boy's agitation. He'd seen the response many times among green recruits, those who had been trained in combat, but were not yet inured to the realities of battle. Undoubtably Palpatine had taught the boy to kill, but he was far from being a seasoned soldier. "We need to leave," he said calmly.
"Oh, and so you think you're in charge?" Anakin said. "You think I'll just follow you now?"
He snorted. "It would hardly work the other way around."
"Oh, I don't know," Anakin said, his expression as hard as durasteel. "I'm the one who killed him. Maybe I'll be the next Emperor."
The boy's emotions were flying high, that was obvious. He knew how lightning fast his own responses were when he was in that state, and how little thought preceeded his reactions. Until Anakin was disarmed, he was a danger to them both. "All right, your highness. What is your first order?"
Anakin blinked, then stood a little straighter. His brow furrowed, and he walked away from the Emperor's body for the first time. He appeared to be deep in thought as he paced a circle in front of the throne, but if Vader approached him, the boy's lightsaber came humming upwards.
Finally, Anakin stopped. "I will order Sate Pestage to announce me to the Senate."
Not a bad idea, except that Pestage would more likely push the boy over the rail of the central dais. "We'll have to get past the Imperial Guards first."
Anakin's eyebrows raised for a moment, and he bit his lip, nodding. He powered off his lightsaber and began to pace again, fumbling to attach the saber to his belt. Vader watched him closely, feeling the churning activity in the boy's mind. With precise timing, he called Anakin's saber to his own hand. The boy looked over at him, astonished.
"Lack of focus," he said. "Was my problem. Is still your problem."
Anakin's gaze fell to the floor, and when at last he raised his head, there was a cold clarity in his eyes. "You were never trying to help me. You only used me to defeat him."
The youth's words startled him. Many years after he had led the assault on the Temple, he had reached the same conclusion about Palpatine. How was it that this boy could see the truth of things so quickly? Except that it wasn't the truth. He'd never dreamt that destiny could be altered so abruptly. In advising the boy he'd only been trying to...trying to what? Save him? Take care of him? He frowned. "I did not mislead you. And the Imperial Guards are still waiting. Let's go."
Anakin's feet remained planted. "Why should I go with you?"
He felt his temper flare. He couldn't remember the last time someone had questioned his orders. "Name one ally you have if you stay here."
Anakin stared at him for a moment, the looked away, shaking his head. "None. There's no one I can trust."
"That is why," he said. "Though the choice is yours."
"What will you do with me?" Anakin said.
He studied the boy, the oddness of seeing his own face beginning to lessen. He had hunted a long time for a Force strong apprentice, but he'd never considered anyone so young and untested. In the end, he simply told the truth. "I don't know. But to start, you can help me deal with the Guards."
"What, with my bare hands?" Anakin said, the cocky grin returning to his face at last.
He regarded the confiscated saber, and then proffered it to the boy. "Don't make me regret this."
As they entered the main hangar of the Palace together, Darth Vader had to admit the boy had been an able partner. Following his directives exactly, Anakin had dispatched the two guards on the side assigned to him with little fanfare. Afterwards, when they were standing back to back, lightsabers ignited and surrounded by fallen Guards, he felt a satisfaction he hadn't experienced in years.
Matching him stride for stride, Anakin looked toward the row of lambda shuttles lining the far wall of the hangar. "Which one?" he asked.
Vader activated the transponder, and the ramp to his personal shuttle began to descend. Anakin stepped into an easy jog, crossing the hangar ahead of him, and disappeared up the ramp. He shook his head. The boy could hardly be made to stay in one place. When he finally entered the shuttle, he found Anakin occupying the pilot's position. He looked at him in annoyance. "Get out of my seat."
"I thought maybe you'd let me fly," Anakin said.
He hesitated a moment, remembering the joy that flying had brought to him in his youth, and still did to this day. "Do you know how?"
He could sense the boy's deception. "Your thoughts betray you."
"I've flown speeders," Anakin said, frowning. "And didn't you say you were going to expand my education?"
"Out!" he said with a gesture. If this boy were to be his apprentice, he was going to have to learn his place.
Anakin shrugged, and moved over to the co-pilot's seat. Vader raised the shuttle ramp and performed the pre-flight check, then eased the ship upward and free of the other vessels. Once clear of the hangar doors, he accelerated the shuttle, bypassing the Imperial Center flylanes and heading for the stars. He glanced over at the boy and found him absorbed in the view outside the transparisteel window. A small smile escaped him at the sight, but he pushed it back.
They were almost through the atmosphere when the boy spoke. "I didn't bring any of my things."
"There are uniforms on board Devastator," he said. "You will be less conspicuous that way."
"I don't see why we're even going there," Anakin said, swiveling towards him. "Why didn't you just tell the Senate you're the Emperor now?"
His neck prickled at the boy's insolence. "It's not that simple. The transition will be smoother with proper troop support."
"He didn't need an army behind him," Anakin said. "No one dared to disobey him."
The last thing he needed was the boy to remind him how easily Palpatine maintained control. "That was because he had me to enforce his decisions."
"Then why did he want me to replace you?"
That question had gnawed at him ever since he'd learned of the boy's existence. However easily Palpatine changed allegiances, it was never without reason. In what way had his old master thought him deficient? Had his losses in Force ability been too great? Had he proven incapable in some way? He felt his anger rising as he thought of how much of his life he had spent in service to an unappreciative master. "Enough! What I fail to comprehend is how he tolerated listening to your incessant questions."
Anakin looked at him through narrowed eyes, and then flung himself out of the co-pilot's seat and towards the rear of the ship. Vader glanced back and saw the boy curled up in a first row seat in the passenger compartment. He returned his gaze to the viewscreen, sighting Devastator's ever enlarging profile. He sighed, hoping he had not made an error in bringing the boy, because it was seeming that having Anakin present was less liking having an apprentice, and more like having a child.
"Lord Vader, there is a priority call from Grand Moff Tarkin on channel two-nine-two."
Darth Vader stared at his desk com speaker. That had to be a record. Since his return to Devastator, he had only issued the command to retrieve the 501st Legion, and settled the boy into a cabin. An hour, tops. Yet there was Tarkin, somehow having already received word of his change to the status quo.
"Send the call to my quarters, Lieutenant."
"Yes, m'lord. Transferring now."
Even though he was expecting the call, he let the com chime several times before answering it. "What is it, Governor?"
"Bevil Lemilisk tells me you are removing the Five-oh-first from the project," Tarkin said, his voice spiked with anger.
Ahh, there was the source of the leak: the mealy-mouthed chief engineer of the Death Star. "The Five-oh-first has always been under my direct control," he said. "I have a more urgent need for them."
"More urgent? What is more important than the project?" Tarkin stormed. "The Emperor must be unaware of your manuever."
Tarkin was silent for a moment. "Things will not go well for you once I inform him."
"Be my guest."
"What are you up to, Vader?"
Tarkin's refusal to grant him the respect he deserved had long irked him, particularly the way he addressed him like a common soldier. That was one habit that was going to change. "Is that any way to speak to your new Emperor?"
"What?" Tarkin's shock was evident over the speaker. "Palpatine is dead? Why have there been no reports?"
He couldn't help feeling smug. "You're the first I've told."
"Are you saying you killed him, then?"
"No," he said innocently. "Not me. Not exactly. But he is dead."
"I have no time for your games, Vader. And even if the Emperor is dead, you don't automatically inherit the title."
His humor faded in the face of Tarkin's continued opposition. "It is too late for debates, Governor. Control of Imperial Center will be mine shortly."
"You have few friends, Vader. You'll never be able to keep it."
He was done with this conversation. "I suggest you stop worrying about me and instead ensure that progress is maintained on the project now that the Five-oh-first is gone. And that, Tarkin, is an order from the Emperor."
Pacing the length of Devastator's bridge windows, Darth Vader calculated the time remaining until the 501st Legion arrived. Their battle honed discipline would have allowed them to mobilize quickly, and by now they should have loaded their gear onto a transport and be enroute to Imperial Center from Despayre. That left only the two hour hyperspace journey before the unit rendezvoused with Devastator and the occupation of the Palace could begin. As long as no one on Imperial Center was yet aware of Palpatine's demise, that brief delay should present no problem.
He paused at the center of the bridge and turned his head from side to side, attempting to relieve the tension in his neck. In all the times he had imagined taking over Palpatine's position, he had never dreamt that when it actually happened, he'd be so unprepared. He berated himself for allowing Tarkin to irritate him, because it would have been much smarter not to have informed the Governor. But even thinking of Tarkin's words still perturbed him, as the Grand Moff would not be the only one to dispute his right to the Throne. Until the 501st filled the halls of the Palace, and he could demonstrate the overwhelming control Palpatine had always mustered, there was a chance his bid could fail.
It all hinged on whether Palpatine's death was discovered before he could pronounce himself Emperor. In truth, Tarkin was unlikely to spread the news because he harbored his own dream of ruling the Empire. But if the body were to be found accidentally... He shook his head. No one would enter the Throne Room without permission, and if Palpatine had been expected for a meeting, his tardiness or absence would be completely accepted. And anyone seeking audience with the Emperor would know that access was not always speedily granted. But if someone had something to report, something so important that they would fear not reporting it, that might drive them to search for Palpatine. Something unusual, such as the disappearance of the boy.
With an abruptness that startled some of his crew, he whirled about and headed down the command walkway of the bridge towards the turbolifts. Once inside, he selected the level of his own quarters; the boy was housed only a few doors away. When he arrived at Anakin's cabin, he activated the door chime, but received no response. Frowning, he pushed the button again and again until the boy answered from within.
"Go away!" Anakin growled.
Instead, Vader reversed the servos in the door lock with a twist of his hand, and waved the door open. The interior of the cabin was darkened, but the brilliance of the boy's presence revealed him at the back of the room. He motioned on the overhead lights and walked towards Anakin, who squinted as his eyes adjusted. Dressed in the Imperial uniform Vader had provided, the boy was sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up, and his back against the cabin wall. The scarlet banded shirt he had worn previously was clutched in his hands, and dried tear tracks lined his face.
"You don't listen very well," Anakin said.
For a moment Vader wondered what had happened to prompt the change in the boy's emotional state, but he made himself ignore the distress he sensed in Anakin. There was business at hand. "I need to know if anyone will be looking for you. A tutor, perhaps, or a caretaker of some sort."
"What, did you come here to rub it in?" Anakin's demeanor changed from sullen to outraged. "The only person who cared about me, I just killed."
Even as a sense of relief flowed through him about his own plans, the profound lonliness emanating from Anakin resonated within him. The sorrow consuming the boy was so familiar. He remembered all the losses of his own youth: his mother, his arm, and the last, when everything went away on Mustafar. When he killed the person who loved him most. His hand went to his chest, pressing against the leather of the suit as the dull ache in his heart sprung anew. It was a pain he had tried to will away, but could not. He looked away from the boy to the cabin desk, where the meal he'd ordered for Anakin lay untouched.
"Is there something wrong with your food?" he said, trying to bridge the gap between them, as if assuaging the boy's pain would soothe his own.
"I'm not hungry," Anakin said, leaning his head back against the cabin wall.
Though rusty in offering comfort, he persisted in spite of Anakin's rebuff. "When I was your age I was hungry all the time."
Anakin met his gaze, holding it for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe later."
A small acknowledgement, but he would accept it. With nothing else for him to offer the boy, he headed for the door.
"He wasn't all bad, you know," Anakin said.
Silently, he turned back towards his clone.
"He told me he found me on a beach of black sand," the boy continued. "He said I was all alone and would have died if he hadn't saved me."
He listened, fascinated. The boy hadn't been found anywhere. He'd been decanted in a glass vat somewhere.
"When I was younger, I did have tutors, but never the same ones for long. He was always there for me, though," Anakin said. He unclipped his lightsaber and held it gently. "He taught me how to make this, and how to use the Force."
Vader could almost say the same thing about his own life. If not always, Palpatine had often been there for him, too, with words of advice and encouragement. Of course, that all changed after Mustafar, and he now recognized his master's kindness as a ploy, but he still remembered what it was like to bask in the warmth of Palpatine's praise. Sometimes he wondered if the memory of that warmth was what had kept him from severing his tie to his master, the remaining person in the Galaxy to know who he had been. And since Anakin existed, perhaps Palpatine had valued his former self. Unbidden, a ripple of sadness spread through him at the thought of the slight form sprawled across the Palace floor.
Anakin gazed up at him. "He said that I was special. That there was no one more gifted in the Force than me."
How many times had he worn those same words as a cloak of protection against the bitter wind of Jedi disapproval? To strip the boy of their comfort was to leave himself bereft as well. He walked up to Anakin and looked down into his own troubled face. "Not everything he said was a lie."
It was hot. But then the days were always hot on Tatooine.
The kitchen tabletop was rough beneath his palm. But then everything in his home was covered in a thin layer of grit.
The utter monotony of his life in exile, which at first had driven Obi-Wan crazy, was now a source of comfort. It meant nothing was wrong. And even though he wouldn't classify what he felt as a disturbance in the Force, it was a change, and it made him uneasy. The Force had been quiescent for so long, that to feel its waves pulse through him with such energy was almost nauseating. He knew that once he had lived in the midst of the Force, surrounded by such intensity on a daily basis, but that life belonged to a different man.
The one he was now was equally concerned by the rising trail of dust visible through the window of his hut. He'd been watching it move ever closer, the signature of repulsors on some vehicle too distant for him to identify among the rocks of the Jundland Wastes. Only madmen and off-worlders traveled during midday on Tatooine, and he was expecting neither. Unwilling to wait until the pilot was close enough for him to sense, he fetched his macrobinoculars, and focused on the approaching dot.
Seated on a decrepit swoop bike was a man who'd probably be happy to never speak to him again. Nevertheless, Owen Lars was headed straight towards the hut. This couldn't be good.
Anakin sighed heavily as he walked down the Palace hallway. Though he had dreamt many times of escaping its confines, it was actually a relief to be back home. At least here he knew his place, unlike the teeming corridors of the Star Destroyer, where every crew member saw only his youth and not his importance.
While the helmeted figures who stood watch throughout the Palace were no longer scarlet robed Imperial Guards. Their replacements, the white armored members of the 501st, accorded him the same respect that their predecessors had. Known on sight, he traveled unchallenged throughout the Palace. It was a freedom appropriate to the protege of the Emperor.
It was as if nothing had changed.
But what he'd done had to have changed his destiny. He'd risked his position and all that was important to him on the idle words of a stranger and the nebulous images of a dream. The horror that had flooded him when he finally understood what the images meant still lurked in the back of his mind. If he had chosen differently, he'd be standing openly at Palpatine's side right now. He'd be the emissary of the Emperor's word, ensuring order in the Galaxy. But he would be doing so from a bended knee and with an averted gaze, too beaten to ever defy Palpatine's will. His own face would be in the black helmet, just like in his dream.
He swallowed hard and lengthened his stride, as if to distance himself further from that fate. Escaping one future, though, meant accepting another, and he wasn't even sure what he'd accepted. He was placing all his trust in the one person he'd just refused to become. But it was not as though he had much choice. Lacking both credits in his own name and a working knowledge of how to negotiate Imperial Center, he was effectively imprisoned in the Palace. Vader had been right about Palpatine controlling him; he just hadn't wanted to admit it.
Winding deeper into the interior of the Palace, his comfort at being home was disrupted by the sight of the armored troopers. Each one was a reminder of Vader's revelation. He furrowed his brow. Maybe it wasn't true. After all, he didn't feel any different; he felt like himself. He slowed as he reached his destination, concealing himself behind a massive pillar. From his hiding spot he watched troopers enter and exit the former Grand Ballroom of the Palace, now converted into barracks to house the 501st.
In the Force each trooper felt distinct, but Palpatine had once told him that the 501st composed the greatest concentration of remaining Kamino clones. To one side of the Ballroom, a squad of troopers stood at ease, talking among themselves. Each had a helmet tucked under an arm, and the faces revealed were identical. Seeing the same smile flit across all four faces filled him with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Suddenly his decision to come here seemed like a bad idea. He fought the impulse to run away, and made himself approach the quartet of troopers. He had to know.
Surprise flickered over the first man to spot him, but the trooper's expression quickly returned to its disciplined norm. "Can I help you, sir?"
He licked his lips. "You're clones, right?"
All four men were facing him now, and they exchanged glances before the first trooper answered, "That should be obvious, sir. What of it?"
He realized his question had offended them somehow, but he persisted. "How did you know for sure?"
"When I found the production number tattooed on my neck, sir," a second trooper said.
His hand went automatically to the back of his head, causing the squad to burst out in laughter. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, his face flushed hot. He should have never expected that they would help him. He spun away from the barracks and towards the haven of his room.
"You look like him," came a voice from behind him.
Catching himself, he slowly turned back. A fifth soldier had joined the group, his armor marked with battle scarred accents of blue. Likewise, his face was heavily lined, and his hair, though wavy like the rest, was flecked with silver.
"Like Vader," the trooper said, and even the other soldiers paused to listen to him. "There's still a few of us around who fought with him in the Rebellion at the Jedi Temple. And you look just like him."
He was considering the trooper's words when abruptly the squad stiffened at attention. In the background, he became aware of the sound of Vader's breathing.
"Anakin," came the mechanical voice, "I have work for you."
He turned towards Vader and stared up into the black mask. He had tried so hard to keep his vision from becoming a reality. But apparently his efforts had been doomed from the start, because his face had always been behind the mask. All he could do now was find out what that meant.
Standing in the shade of Obi-Wan's modest hut, Owen nodded curtly in place of a greeting. He'd declined the invitation to come inside, his eyes flicking suspiciously through the open door to the interior of the home. His face was a little more creased than the last time Obi-Wan had seen him, his hair a little more gray. Obi-Wan supposed the same could be said about himself.
"How can I help you, Owen?"
"I was hoping you could tell me you've seen Luke," Owen said, the concern in his eyes belying his gruff demeanor.
A tingle of alarm spread through Obi-Wan.
"Not since the last time I ran into him in Anchorhead. It's probably been a few weeks or more. I take it he's not at home?"
"You know how kids are," Owen said, his jaw tightening. "We had a little argument, and anyways, it's been a couple of days. I had the idea he might have come to stay with you."
He couldn't believe Owen was just standing there.
"Should we start searching? The sand people..."
"No, it's not like that," Owen said. "His travel case is missing, and some of his clothes."
Obi-Wan stared at Owen, but in his mind he saw a sparkling white strategy room inside the Tantive IV. They had all agreed on a plan: Until the time is right, disappear we will. And so he had waited, waited for that time. He had never imagined Luke would leave without him.
"I will teach you how to fly it when you know how to fix it," Darth Vader said with disgust.
It had been four hours since he'd left Anakin with this assignment, and ion drive components from the TIE still lay scattered all over the hangar floor.
Anakin ran a hand through his hair, clearly frustrated. "But you didn't teach me how to fix it, either."
"You should be able to figure this out on your own," he said. "When I was a boy, it came naturally to me."
"What's the point?"
He gritted his teeth. "The point is, a pilot should know how to repair his own craft. So that if it were to become disabled, he would not be stranded."
"If I was stranded, I'd just summon the Imperial Navy," Anakin said with a shrug. "That's what it's there for."
"The Imperial Navy is for maintaining order in the Galaxy, not your personal use," he said."You...we... do not come from privileged stock. We are self-sufficient."
Anakin looked unimpressed."Well, I was taught that if you had to do it yourself, you weren't a strong enough leader."
He shook his head. "Strength is born of competence."
"I still don't see how you expect me to just know how to put it back together," Anakin said.
Sighing, he called two pieces of the ion drive to hand, and snugged them together.
"Feel how the Force changes when function is restored. Let it guide you."
"Guide me?" Anakin snorted. "The Force doesn't guide me, it serves me."
"Partially," he said. He'd wondered exactly how much Palpatine had taught the boy, and this was an obvious gap in his education. "But you must also let it guide you if you are to find your true destiny."
Anakin laughed, and his voice filled with derision. "Now you sound like a kriffing Jedi."
Time seemed to skip a beat, and when it resumed the boy was laying flat on his back. He realized he had shoved him with the Force.
"Never say that!"
Anakin considered him for a long moment, then gracefully pushed himself to his feet, maintaining a careful distance between them.
"I'm surprised myself. Palpatine always said that was the Jedi's weakness: that they surrendered control to the Force."
He stared at the boy, blinking. He followed the Force probably as often as he commanded it. It had always seemed natural to do so, especially when flying or fighting an opponent. Wasn't that his gift, that the Force spoke so loudly to him? Even in the light of the boy's statement he could not see the error in the technique. Had Palpatine interpreted this as a deficiency? As a sign that he was not fully committed to the Sith Order?
"Pride," he said finally. "Pride was their weakness. That they knew best."
Anakin watched him silently.
His interest in showing the boy how to repair the fighter was gone. And he didn't like the wariness with which the boy now regarded him. He closed the distance between them and put a hand on Anakin's shoulder.
"Come, I have another task for you. Perhaps more to your liking."
Anakin flinched and slid out from under the leather glove. "What now?"
Vader walked away from the TIE, and was relieved when Anakin followed him. "I need you to review some records, and write me a summary report."
"Don't you have a clerk who could do that?"
"Analyzing intelligence is an important part of being a commander," he said. "And you are dreadfully short of practical skills."
"I thought you said I might like this better," Anakin grumbled.
"It involves sensitive material," he said, glancing down at the boy. "You will only be permitted to see it because you are my apprentice."
"Yeah?" Anakin said, interest lighting in his eyes.
"Yes," he said, pleased to have found something that attracted Anakin's attention. "This information needs to stay between us."
"Hey Biggs," Luke Skywalker said, giving his best friend a nudge over the armrest that separated their seats. "Thanks for signing that form for me."
"Shhhh," Biggs replied, lowering his head. "You don't want them to send you back, do you?"
Luke realized his error and looked quickly around the crowded transport. All he saw was rows of other young men like himself, the Imperial officers having taken their seats in the forward cabin. Still, Biggs was right: he had to watch himself a little more closely now. This wasn't Tatooine anymore. He tried to peer out one of the side windows, but his seat was too far from it for him to make anything out.
"I wonder if we're in hyperspace yet?"
"Nah," Biggs said casually, as if he had been to deep space hundreds of times. "You feel it when the ship makes the jump to lightspeed."
Luke glanced at his somewhat older friend and wondered how he knew that. But then Biggs seemed to know a little about everything, including the fact that enlisting in the Imperial Services did not require the same graduation certificate that applying to the Academy did. He'd wanted to go to the Academy like Biggs was, but being an enlisted man would be fine. After all, his father hadn't been an officer; he'd been a navigator on a spice freighter. And anything would be better than endlessly repairing vaporators on the moisture farm.
At the thought of home, his anticipation for his new life was replaced by guilt. Even though he'd told his uncle many times that he wanted to move on from the farm when he graduated, quitting school to join the service was, well...reckless. And his Aunt Beru must be worried sick about him right about now.
"Uh oh. I know that look," Biggs said. "Don't tell me you're having second thoughts."
He frowned. "I shouldn't have left without saying anything."
"What, and have your uncle stop you from going?" Biggs said. "Make contact when we get to Raithal. When it's too late to change anything."
"Yeah," Luke said, feeling only marginally better. "I hope none of the droids break and leave Owen shorthanded for the harvest."
"Who taught you how to fix them in the first place? Owen can handle the droids," Biggs said. "Besides, you're going to send them credits, right?"
That had been his plan, the final point to tip the balance of his decision to join the Imperial Navy. Unlike Academy students, recruits to the regular Navy received a paycheck. This way he could follow his own dreams and contribute to the family finances. At least that's what he convinced himself the night of his latest argument with his uncle.
"You really think they'll let me fly, Biggs?" he said, turning in the narrow seat of the transport. "I'm signed on for fighter mechanic. I might never see the outside of a hangar again."
"You're the best bush pilot in the Outer Rim," Biggs said with a hint of envy. "There's no way they can ignore your talents."
Nodding thanks to the moisture farmers who had graciously allowed him a ride, Obi-Wan slid out of the back of their worn speeder and onto the Mos Eisley side street. When he first arrived on Tatooine, Obi-Wan dared not show his face in the space port for fear of attracting those who wished to collect the Imperial bounty on Jedi. Over the years, though, his fear of discovery had faded, and now he simply disliked coming here. Too crowded, too dirty, too full of pathetic lifeforms. But after questioning Luke's friends in Anchorhead, he realized he had no choice.
His hood shielding him from the intense sunslight, Obi-Wan made his way to a storefront he'd previously always avoided, and paused outside its door. If this was truly the decision Luke had made, then his failure was indeed complete. The first thing he felt as he stepped off the sand-banked street and into the small office was the fifteen degree drop in the temperature. Few on Tatooine could afford cooling systems, and this total escape from the searing heat must have impressed more than a few young men with the power and the resources of the Empire. The second thing Obi-Wan felt was the flash of amusement coming from the Imperial recruiter seated behind the desk at the rear of the office. With a flawlessly creased uniform accenting his muscular build, the recruiter's square jawed face completed his poster perfect appearance.
"It's too late for you to be a hero, old timer," the recruiter said with a laugh. "You're a little over the age limit."
Obi-Wan held the man's gaze and flipped down his hood. The soldier before him couldn't be more than thirty standard years, his military experience most certainly limited to serving in Palpatine's New Order. He was sure the man had never known real war, or what it was like to be prepared to fight to the death for something he believed in.
"I need to know if my...nephew...enlisted in the service."
The recruiter smiled pleasantly. "I'm afraid I can't tell you. That sort of information is confidential."
"Oh, but you can," Obi-Wan said in a honeyed voice, gliding closer to the desk.
The man had no idea how small an obstacle he presented. From within the bell of Obi-Wan's sleeve, two fingers swept an arc.
"You can tell me about Luke Skywalker."
The recruiter looked thoughtful for a moment, then accessed his computer. "However, I can tell you about Luke Skywalker."
"I thought you said these reports had to stay between us," Anakin said.
Darth Vader glanced up from his computer and across the oval conference table that dominated what used to be Palpatine's anteroom. He'd only allowed the boy to work in here on the condition that he remained quiet.
"Yes," he said, and returned his attention to the report from the governor of the Harron Sector.
"But these test results are coming in straight from the Imperial Services," Anakin said, his eyes fixed on the screen of his own computer. "Lots of people could have seen them before they get to me."
He leaned back in his chair and considered his clone. The boy was nothing if not observant. However much Anakin might have complained about this assignment, his analytical ability was first rate.
"True, but they have no meaning to anyone else."
Anakin looked puzzled. "No one else knows what a midi-chlorian is?"
"No one else cares," he said.
Anakin was silent for a moment. "So did you start the testing?"
"No. Palpatine did," he said, wondering why the boy was concerned. "I only intercepted the task after I realized what he was doing."
"Looking for more Force sensitives to add to his stable," he said. He gestured in the air to amplify. "All those Emperor's Hands he liked to keep around."
The boy's crestfallen expression matched the ripple of emotion that emanated from him.
"Surely you knew that," he said, although he remembered how disheartened he'd felt when he'd discovered his status with Palpatine was not unique. "You must have seen the collection of seconds he kept hidden from each other."
"Like he did with you and me," Anakin said, nodding slowly. "But you're not like that, are you?"
He saw a glimpse of what was bothering the boy.
"Hardly. I value loyalty far more than he ever did."
"Well, then I don't need to look through these anymore," Anakin said. "Because you have me, right?"
His answer caught in his throat. While he had wanted a different future for the boy than what Palpatine offered, he hadn't realized until now that Anakin had his own expectations of the future. And that included expections the boy had for him. He couldn't tell Anakin that he searched simply because the Force instructed him to, because he could feel that there was something, someone, he was supposed to find. No, that wouldn't do at all after their last exchange on the nature of the Force. He reached for a reply that would be truthful.
"Don't worry. I'm not looking for another apprentice."
Luke rolled his shoulders against the confines of his gray uniform, unaccustomed to the stiffness of the fabric after years spent in loose desert garb. The din of voices surrounding him in the concourse of the Raithal processing center was almost overwhelming, as was the sheer numbers of recruits, who turned the concourse into a sea of gray and black. He would have never guessed that he could feel lonely while in the midst of so many people. Of course, the call home he'd just finished didn't help, either.
He looked up at the wall chrono. If he didn't find Biggs soon, he'd have to board the shuttle to basic training without saying goodbye. He jostled his way through the crowd, trying to catch sight of his friend, but Biggs' height was no longer distinguishing as it had been on Tatooine.
"Luke!" he heard to his left, and he turned to see the one familar face in the whole processing center.
Smiling, he made his way over to Biggs, and they carved a spot for themselves against the wall of the concourse.
"Hey, I guess this is it," Luke said. "From here on out I call you sir."
Biggs grinned back, but lowered his eyes. "You should be in my class. You wouldn't believe some of the idiots who are signed up with me."
"It's okay," Luke said. Despite their friendship, he was always aware that Biggs came from money and he didn't. "I'll bet I have more fun than you do."
"Maybe. But I'll get all the perks," Biggs replied.
"I don't know about that," Luke said. "Doesn't look like your barber was any better than ours."
Biggs ruffled his hand through his newly shortened hair.
"Yeah, I bet they wouldn't even recognize us back home."
Luke touched the back of his own hair, feeling it stop above his collar. Bending his arm made the sore spot in the crook of his arm throb. "So, I made contact with Uncle Owen."
"Yeah?" Biggs said. "Was he mad?"
"No, that's the hard part," he said, dropping his arm back down. A feeble smile escaped him as he thought of the conversation. "He just told me to be careful."
Seated in a dim corner of an undistinguished cantina, Obi-Wan sipped his drink. Even though he'd known what the recruiter was going to say, the actual words had still been a shock. Luke, his ward and the last hope of the Jedi Order, was now in service to the Empire. His sip turned into a gulp.
How could he have let that happen? Why hadn't he told Luke sooner about his heritage, about his destiny? Surely if Luke had understood his importance, he would have never placed himself in such jeopardy. Instead, Luke was completely ignorant of the Force and his own abilities. So many times throughout Luke's youth he had wanted to begin his training, but he had always held back, restrained by Yoda's instruction to let the Living Force decide the time. It felt wrong to wait, but then he no longer trusted himself. After all, the Galaxy had never recovered from his last lapse in judgement.
He slipped his left hand under his robe to the lightsabers resting on his hip. The first, his own, comforting and familiar, especially when he was traveling into unknown circumstances as he was now. The other he usually kept hidden away, touching it only when he needed a reminder. A reminder of who Anakin had been, and that he had actually existed. In his first year of exile, his former padawan's presence had reflected from the saber as brightly as a gleam of light, but with time the sensations he received from it had faded. Sometimes he wondered if it were all in his mind, the feeling of irrepressible energy that still brought a smile to his face.
Luke was like that, a reminder of Anakin. On the rare occasions when he talked to the boy, the words of the conversation tended to slip away, and he saw only Luke's face. A flash of a smile or a glint in the boy's eye would make his heart jump, and then memories of Anakin would come flooding back. Many times he realized that Luke was looking at him expectantly for a reply, and he could only nod, never having heard the question. It probably confirmed the boy's impression of him as a crazy old man, but he didn't care.
He clunked his empty glass against the table. If only he understood better what had happened to Anakin, he might not be so afraid for Luke. Though at first he blamed himself for Anakin's fall, Yoda's and Qui-Gon's insistence that Anakin's own choices brought that reality finally rang true. But absolving himself brought him no peace. Placing the blame on Anakin's shoulders only made the situation more incomprehensible. All he knew was that the darkness had swallowed his padawan and transformed him into someone unrecognizable. And with Luke now a part of the Empire, it was only a matter of time before the Sith discovered him, and swathed him in that same darkness.
The barkeep motioned to refill his glass, but Obi-Wan waved him off. From somewhere inside him, the man he used to be pushed aside his desperation and replaced it with determination. He would not lose them both. Whatever it took, he would make sure Luke did not share his father's fate. But he was going to need help, help from someone able to negotiate the Imperial bureaucracy. He rose from the table, his sense of purpose now augmented by a sense of direction. This time he didn't need Yoda's help, he needed the third partner in their deal.
He needed passage to Alderaan.
If he was going to be at the Senate Rotunda, this was the location Darth Vader preferred. Standing far outside its walls. From the edge of its plaza, he watched a stream of senators enter the building in preparation for the upcoming session. It had been one thing to declare an emergency gathering to announce his assumption of the throne, because that had all the adrenalin of military invasion. He'd used the same strategy, too: launching an overwhelming numbers of troopers on a completely unsuspecting group, demanding their cooperation while they feared for their lives. In fact, becoming Emperor had been easier than an invasion, since Senators were ill-prepared to return fire.
But as he readied himself to lead the first general session of Congress under his rule, he realized that the hard part was not becoming the Emperor, but staying the Emperor. As much as he hated to say it, Tarkin had been right: he had few friends in any part of the governmental structure. Every time he presented himself in public, he was an open target for those who hated him, or simply wanted the power of the throne for themselves. It might be necessary to become a recluse as Palpatine had been, seldom venturing out of the Palace except under heavy guard. He shook his head at the irony: now that his master was gone, he was even more a prisoner.
Imagining a life spent confined to the Palace made his lip curl in disgust. But to release the Empire from martial law, he would have to do something even more distasteful. He would have to gain the support of either the senators or the increasingly powerful regional governors. Either way it was politics, and he could hardly believe he was considering such a manuever. He longed for the simplicity of life on his command ship, wherein duty and performance were all that mattered. But if he refused to wade into the tainted waters of the politicians, he risked the Empire falling into the hands of Palpatine's inner circle, or worse.
From behind him he sensed Anakin's approach, and turned his head to see him coming up the plaza walkway. He had to admit that he was becoming accustomed to having his apprentice with him. Despite their disagreements, the boy's straightforward manner and lack of an agenda was refreshing, especially given the current circumstances.
Anakin bounded up to him, a micropad in his hands, and angled the device so that they both could see the screen.
"I configured the security holocam to send images to my handheld."
The boy's display of technical ability warmed him. He glanced at the screen, and saw that it captured each senator as they entered the foyer of the Rotunda.
"There's Nimal," Anakin said. "Nothing but trouble."
He squinted at the micropad, not recognizing the face at all.
"Oh, and there's Gerdd. He'll vote however Mor-Kaffeq tells him to," Anakin said.
"And how do you know all this?" he said.
Anakin shrugged. "I overheard a lot of conversations. With Palpatine. About Palpatine. You know."
He looked at the boy with new appreciation. He'd never dreamt Anakin could be so useful. As he refocused on the micropad, a face familiar to him finally came across the screen.
"Mon Mothma," he said absently.
"Now there's one we should off right away," Anakin said.
He was aware of Mothma's suspicious activities, but killing her hadn't been at the top of his to-do list.
"Why do you say that?"
"Oh, come on," Anakin said. "Even you must know that she leads the Rebel Alliance."
He smiled at the boy's confident attitude, and allowed the insult to slide. "That's never been proven."
"What?" Anakin said. "You're going to just ignore the Rebellion?"
"No. But cutting off its head won't eliminate it," he said. "Instead we must stop feeding its roots."
Anakin looked at him quizzically, seeming not to understand. He felt relieved to know he could stay ahead of the boy at least some of the time.
"There is a difference between discipline and oppression," he said. "Since we had the same master, I doubt I need to explain."
Anakin stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
"Populations respond like individuals," he elaborated. "When pushed too hard, they fight back."
Anakin tilted his head. "So you're saying the Rebels are just like us?"
It was his turn to stare. He'd never thought of it like that.
"I only meant that increasing pressure does not always bring the desired result."
Anakin appeared to consider the idea, then turned back to the parade of figures on his micropad.
"Wait," he said, pausing the display. "Who's that?"
He glanced to see who had so captured the boy's attention, and saw a young woman, dark haired and almond-eyed, with a regal bearing. Ah yes, the other thing he had been continually at sixteen besides hungry. He leaned his head towards Anakin.
"She is a distraction."
Anakin shot him a hard look.
"But seriously, I've never seen her at the Senate before."
On the other hand, the young woman was faintly familiar to him. Vaguely he recalled meeting her at some Imperial function. Anakin resumed the display and a bearded man now appeared beside the girl, his head bent down to reach her much shorter stature. Now he remembered her.
"That is Senator Organa's daughter."
Even though he knew it was senseless to shout into a holoprojector, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin was unable to stop his voice from rising.
"I don't care what it looks like. Will it work?"
The flickering blue figure on his desk faded away for a moment, and then Bevil Lemilisk reappeared.
"At the very least, more work has to be done to brace the superlaser."
Good. A solution. "Put all efforts into that, then. Forget everything else."
Lemilisk's image shook its head. "But the structure could be breached if the external shielding is not in place."
"I have a fleet of Star Destroyers to protect it," Tarkin said. "Nothing will get past them."
"I don't know," Lemilisk said, a pained expression on his face. "I'm not sure how well it will stand up to the stresses of hyperspace if it's incomplete."
"You're not understanding me," Tarkin said. His blood pressure surged as he thought of Vader. "I will not have that posturing simpleton sitting on the throne."
"Did you know there was a Jedi named Anakin Skywalker?"
With his shuttle nose to tail in Imperial Center traffic, Darth Vader restrained himself from turning the pilot's seat towards his apprentice. As a matter of fact, he was aware of that. But since that tidbit was apparently news to the boy, the question was, why had it surfaced now?
"Where did you come across that?"
"I did what you told me," Anakin said, retrieving a piece of flimsi from his jacket pocket. "There was a recruit who tested very high, so I had them run his sample against the genetic database."
He'd established that protocol as a way of sifting for evidence of any surviving Jedi. He'd wondered if he would catch Shelvay or Justiss, or even Obi-Wan, but apparently, he'd caught himself?
"Are you saying this recruit is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker?"
"Yeah. Skywalker the Jedi," Anakin said, reading from the flimsi. "And some senator. Padme Amidala."
His head turned reflexively at the mention of her name."That's..."
Untrue. Impossible. Unbelievable. He swallowed hard. A miracle. After all these years. All that time wasted mourning when he should have been looking. Did that mean...no...he'd seen a holo of the funeral. But maybe it meant he hadn't killed her, not directly, not immediately. But where had the child been all these years? Who else knew? Palpatine, certainly. Fury gathered in his chest and he wished he could resurrect the old geezer just for the satisfaction of killing him. But that wasn't necessary. Palpatine was gone, and he had a son
"You're certain about the results?"
Anakin rattled the piece of flimsi.
"Yeah, it says in red letters, Skywalker was a Jedi."
"No, no," he said shaking his head. Why had Palpatine instilled such an obsession in the boy? "About the recruit. Are you sure it's a match?"
"Oh, yeah. I had them run it twice," Anakin said. "Don't you think it's strange for someone to have the same name as us?"
"The Galaxy is enormous," he said, taking the shuttle down a level. "There must be many Anakin Skywalkers."
Anakin swiveled in the co-pilot's seat.
"But you killed most of the Jedi. So you might have killed this other Skywalker."
"I suppose I did," he said, without meeting the boy's gaze. From a certain point of view.
"Just like how Palpatine wanted me to kill you," Anakin said, nodding. "Except that I didn't know you were me. Did you know about Skywalker the Jedi?"
This was the last thing he wanted to talk about right now.
"What does it matter?"
"I don't know. It just seems weird somehow."
"It's nothing. Forget it," he said.
But the news Anakin had just dropped wasn't nothing, it was everything. He wasn't even sure what to do with it. A son. He drifted the shuttle lower to make the approach to the Palace hangar. Warning claxons sounded until he activated the shuttle's transponder, and then the hangar doors began to part. Strangely, he was tired of flying and couldn't wait to get the shuttle on the ground.
"Is that how..." Anakin said. "Is that how you were injured?"
"What?" he said, annoyed at the interruption. Besides, this was not a question anyone dared ask him. "What do you mean?"
Anakin flushed. "Umm...you know...your armor. Did you get hurt fighting Jedi?"
"You could say that." Better to have the boy think it had been many, instead of just one.
"That's what I thought," Anakin said. "It must have been quite a battle to infiltrate their Temple."
"You have no idea," he said.
He wasn't about to tell the boy the greatest struggle had been with himself, and that gaining admittance had been as simple as entering his pass code.
"I guess you're right," Anakin said, crumpling the piece of flimsi and tossing it on the floorboards. "They're gone, and it doesn't matter about the other Skywalker."
As Vader lowered the shuttle to the hangar deck, he noted where the flimsi had landed, and reminded himself not to allow the cleaning crew to come through until after he had retrieved it.
Every so often guards walked past Obi-Wan's cell, casting suspicious glances through the small transparisteel window in the door. In truth, he could have undone the lock and freed himself, but there was no point. While finding his way to Alderaan had been as simple as stowing away on a cargo ship, now that he was here he had only a vague idea of where the Royal Palace was located in Aldera. It was much easier to let Bail come to him.
At first he was afraid the security agents wouldn't pass on his message. When the chip Bail had given him so long ago wouldn't read correctly on their datapads, the small benefit of the doubt they had granted him evaporated. With a toss of his head, the lead agent had summoned two guards to Obi-Wan's side, and they had begun escorting him back to the docking bays. He was in the middle of considering his options when the same agent gave a shout to halt, the Royal Seal embedded on the chip apparently finally opening. After that, they had led him to this detention cell, and here he waited.
He didn't mind. Even before Tatooine taught him the infinite patience of the wilderness, he had been very good at waiting. He laid down on the thin mattress and stared at the stark lines of his cell, the smooth white walls so different from the rough synstone of his own home. It had been quite a while since he'd been somewhere that didn't have sand lodged in every crevice and crawling things skittering across the ceiling. He smiled to himself. How many times had he been trapped in a situation like this, only to escape by his wits? His wits, and Anakin's help.
His smile faded. He didn't know why he was thinking of his old padawan so often. Maybe because of the second lightsaber that rested at his hip. But he couldn't afford to become nostalgic now. The Anakin he remembered no longer existed, and he needed to stay focused on his task. He was here to save Luke, and the future of the Jedi Order.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside his cell, accompanied by a flurry of voices. He sat up from the bed in time to catch Bail Organa's face framed in the cell door window. A look of astonishment came over the Viceroy, and then Obi-Wan heard Bail's voice commanding the guards to open the cell. He pushed himself to his feet as the door slid open, and walked out into the corridor.
"Good to see you, old friend," he said, and then time stopped.
From within the shadows of the entourage that flanked Bail emerged a ghost, small and beautiful. He only realized he was staring when Bail shifted uneasily and moved his tall frame between them.
"General Kenobi," Bail said, "May I introduce you to my daughter, Leia."
That couldn't be true. Leia was a tiny baby, and this young woman before him must be Padme. Except that he had watched Padme die, and if Luke was old enough to join the service, then his twin would be almost grown as well. Besides, there was a fierceness in the young woman's eyes that wasn't Padme at all, but Anakin.
Leia stepped forward from her father's side.
"It's an honor to meet you, General. My father has told me so much about you."
The power of speech left him, and he dropped his gaze.
"An honor for me, as well," he murmured.
"You must be tired, General, after your journey," Bail said. "If you come this way, my shuttle will take us back to the palace."
The tiny room on a vacant floor of the Imperial Palace was hardly suitable for the Emperor, but it was exactly what Darth Vader wanted. It had taken some effort to make sure that neither the troopers nor Anakin observed where he was going, but at last he was in a place of complete privacy. Probably designed for some low-level clerk, the featureless room held only a small workstation with a computer. Leaning forward in the plain chair that faced the computer, he clutched a wrinkled piece of flimsi in one hand, and typed with the other. The Imperial Services database thought about the serial number he had entered, then filled the screen with details about a recruit named Luke Skywalker.
He peered at the small picture accompanying the recruit's information. Blond hair peeked from beneath the boy's cap, and a pair of ice blue eyes stared from under its brim. His father's son, all right. Vader flitted through the information accompanying the image. Currently assigned to basic training at Raithal. Transported from Tatooine prior to that. Tatooine? The boy had been living on Tatooine? That was either a cruel joke of the Universe, or someone had taken the boy there on purpose.
He shook his head and moved on. Job classification: fighter mechanic, no doubt assigned on the basis of the impressive aptitude score listed. Age: sixteen. Enlisting at that age would have required a signature from a guardian. Either Luke wanted desperately to get away from Tatooine's emptiness, or the guardian wanted to be rid of the boy. His eyes narrowed at that thought, that someone might have thrown his son out of his childhood home. What hardships might he have averted, what pains might he have eased if only he had known to look for his son?
He dropped his gaze back to the piece of flimsi. It was so strange to see her name. For a long time he had thought of her every day, but at some point he discovered it was less painful not to think of her, and he willed himself to forget. But reading her name, especially printed next to his, made her face fill his mind. And even his own name seemed different when listed with hers as the parent of this boy. Though the letters were the same, it was not the one that belonged to his apprentice, nor to the man who had brought down the Jedi Order. Instead it belonged to the man he used to be, the one who had known love and hope.
He closed his eyes and let the memories come forth. He remembered the smell of her hair, and the taste of her lips. The pride he felt when she came to him for comfort. The too brief moments of ordinary life that they had shared. It all might have been as from a dream, so foreign were the sensations now. But when he opened his eyes, the computer screen showed him proof that he really had lived that life.
He traced a finger over Luke's image. His son. His blood. And hers. This boy was part of what he had fought so hard to protect. A piece of a life he thought no longer existed. The flickers of emotion in the ashes of his heart said that the man he thought no longer existed had survived, as well. He drew in a deep breath, and though the hiss of the ventilator accompanied it as usual, it felt like the first real breath he had taken in years. A choked laugh escaped him. Palpatine was dead. He was no longer bound to the path his master had shown him. He was free.
The lock on the door behind him whined as someone attempted to manipulate its servos. He'd been so caught up in his thoughts that he'd failed to sense Anakin's approach. Hastily he shut down the computer, and swiveled in the chair just in time to watch the door slide open.
Anakin looked troubled as his eyes searched the small room.
"It's time for us to go. We're due at the Senate."
Obi-Wan ran his hand over the silken fabric of the clothing Bail had given him. He couldn't deny that it felt luxurious against his skin, as had the warm water in his 'fresher, but it also made him uneasy. The comforting weight of his tunics and robe were all he had ever known, and without them he didn't feel like himself. But he sensed that there was more to Bail's suggestion that he put on a fresh change of clothes than hospitality. Though the Viceroy seemed genuinely glad to see him, Bail also seemed disquieted to have his guest dressed in traditional Jedi attire.
Not that Obi-Wan could blame him. While Tatooine's isolation had brought lonliness, he knew it had also offered protection. He wasn't sure if he could have carried on as Bail had, directly in Palpatine's line of sight. And if Obi-Wan had wondered if Bail would answer his plea after sixteen years, certainly Bail must have wondered about Obi-Wan's motives for suddenly reappearing. All the more reason to don the proffered clothing and ease his host's mind about his intentions.
When he finished dressing, he exited his room and found an aide stationed outside the door. At least he thought the man was an aide, and not a guard. Regardless, he followed his escort through the hallways of the Palace. Stopping in front of a pair of doors emblazoned with the Alderaanian planetary crest, the aide bowed and swept an arm towards the doors. Obi-Wan gave a nod of thanks, and motioned the doors open. As he passed through them, he decided it might be prudent to cease displaying his abilities.
Inside, the room was furnished with what had to be antiques, their ornate style contrasting with the flowing lines found elsewhere in the Palace. Bail was seated in a dark leather armchair adjacent to a tall window, and he stood as Obi-Wan approached.
"Did your room contain everything you needed?" Bail said, indicating the chair opposite his own.
Obi-Wan smiled as he sat down.
"Yes. You've been most gracious. Especially after all this time."
"Of course," Bail said, his eyes not echoing the smile he gave. "But I must ask. You're not here for my daughter, are you?"
"No, no, I didn't mean to worry you," Obi-Wan said. In truth, his life had focused around Luke, and he had seldom thought of Leia. "Though it was extraordinary to see her."
"Good," Bail said, exhaling with visible relief. "Then I can let you stay. So, what has brought you here?"
"Let's just say I received a bit of bad news," Obi-Wan said.
"Yes, it's still hard to believe," Bail said.
Obi-Wan nodded. "My feelings, exactly. But I'm surprised you already know."
Bail gave a hollow laugh. "If the news made it to Tatooine, then you can imagine the amount of coverage it's received in the Core Worlds."
Obi-Wan winced. Luke's identity must have been discovered if he was on the front screen.
"They haven't hurt him, have they?"
"You're concerned about Vader?"
"Vader? No, I'm speaking of Luke."
Bail rubbed his chin.
"Then you haven't heard. Palpatine is dead and Vader is the Emperor."
"What?" Obi-Wan squinted in disbelief. "Did Vader kill Palpatine?"
"He's never said as much, but one can only assume. Who else could have done it?"
Against an opponent who had humbled Yoda, Obi-Wan could think of no one. It had to have been Vader. I have brought peace, justice, freedom, and security to my new Empire. Words of madness finally brought to fruition.
"I was hoping that was why you'd come," Bail said, leaning forward. "To destroy Vader, and topple the Empire."
"No," Obi-Wan said quietly. Was that the tremor he had felt in the Force? Had Luke's departure been only a distraction, and his real destiny was to finish what he started on Mustafar? "I hadn't known."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Bail said, sinking back into his chair." But you mentioned Luke."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, almost ashamed to ask for assistance now that he knew Bail had expected an avenging warrior. "He's joined the Imperial Services. I was hoping you could help me locate him."
Bail shook his head.
"They grow up too fast, don't they? Leia's determined to run for Senator next year, even though I keep telling her it's too dangerous."
Obi-Wan nodded with silent empathy.
For a few moments, Bail seemed lost in another world, but then he regained his focus.
"Of course I'll help you. But it will have to wait until Leia and I return from Coruscant. You are welcome to stay here in the meantime."
Anakin immersed himself in the Force, feeling for tendrils of fear and deception amongst a band of stragglers to the Senate Rotunda. Sensing none, he silently moved on to the next aisle. From the top of the auditorium he could see Vader standing at the podium of the central dais. One day, he too, would stand to address the Senate, but for now he was satisfied with his role. At least he had a real assignment, instead of being kept locked away as Palpatine had done. Ironically, his former isolation now served him well, as his appearance generated no recognition among the senators he encountered.
He was halfway through his perimeter patrol when he sensed two beings cloistered in the shadows of the alcove at the head of an aisle. This was exactly what he was looking for: sidebar conversations taking place outside of the reach of the holocams. He passed by the pair of humans as if he had no interest. The one who faced outward he recognized as the senator from Eriadu, but he couldn't identify the other. Doubling back, he came close enough to pick up whispers of their discussion.
"...only a matter of time..."
"...the pressure will be too great..."
"...yes, until then..."
Apruptly, the senators vacated the alcove, one of them eyeing him as they walked by. Anakin smiled blandly until they disappeared down their respective aisles, presumably to take their seats. That conversation was definitely something. He was sure it wasn't a coincidence that it involved the senator from Tarkin's homeworld. Vader would be pleased when he received the report this evening. Buoyed by his discovery, Anakin strode down the corridor with renewed vigor.
He'd almost completed the entire circuit when he sensed another being hidden in an aisle alcove. Oddly, the person was alone, and even stranger, the being was Force sensitive. A Dark Jedi left over from Palpatine's days? He thought Vader had rid the Palace of those. He crept closer, a sense of danger prickling his skin. The being turned towards him, and his heart jumped at the sight. It was the girl who had caught his attention on his handheld, the one Vader identified as Senator Organa's daughter.
He paused when she held his gaze. Palpatine had told him women were an amusement, but also a test of focus. And Vader had called her a distraction. They had to be exaggerating. Undeniably he felt a pull towards her, but he was in no danger of losing control. He tossed her his best grin as he approached.
"Do you need help finding your seat, Senator?"
"I'm not a senator yet, and no, I don't need your help," she said, turning back towards the auditorium.
He positioned himself at her side and looked down at her.
"Just enjoying the sight of government in action, then?"
"I would be if you'd stop talking," she said.
A flush ran up his neck as her audacity caught him off guard. He stared at her a moment, then decided to grant her request. Following her lead, he faced the auditorium and listened to the speaker. After a few minutes he found he couldn't contain his opinion.
"But it's just Korattine. He never says anything worthwhile."
"You can't say that," she said, flashing him a conspiratorial grin. "All viewpoints are valuable."
A feeling of warmth spread through his body, and he realized he would do almost anything to see her smile like that again. He leaned in towards her.
"What about Negus? Or Zarrk? You'll find more substance in deep space than in their speeches."
She rewarded him with a chuckle.
"You seem quite knowledgeable about the Senate."
"I've been around it all my life," he said.
"Then I'm sure I'll see you at the next session," she said as she slipped by him. "You'll have to excuse me. I must finish a report for my father's office."
Anakin watched her walk away.
"I wouldn't miss it."
The Sergeant Major of the Raithal Center flickered in blue holoprojection atop Darth Vader's desk.
"Might I suggest someone more suitable, m'lord? That one is only part way through basic training."
Vader was used to quavering voices, so this one had no impact on him.
"I am aware of that."
"But m'lord, your standards for discipline are well known," the Sergeant Major said. "This recruit has not yet attained them."
"I have plenty of staff well versed in protocol, Sergeant," he said. "What I need most is a good mechanic for the Palace. Send Skywalker immediately."
There he was.
Sprawled out under the engine compartment of the dissassembled TIE, was his son, Luke. Smaller than he expected, but lean and with enough muscle to heft the bank of thrusters back into place. The boy worked methodically, as if he knew what he was doing, even though it was unlikely he'd ever been this close to a TIE before. And although Luke's presence glowed in the Force, the boy appeared unaware of his gift, reaching to pick up even the smallest of tools.
Darth Vader continued watching from the edge of the palace hangar. What did the boy know? Not his parentage, certainly, or why would he have joined the Imperial Navy as an enlisted man? Anything of the Force? Of the Jedi or the Sith? The boy's ignorance would seem to be matched only by his own. Had Luke come to be on Tatooine because the Lars family would be his next of kin, or was there more to it than that? Who had brought him there, and when?
He might be able to solve the mystery simply by asking Luke, but that felt like an impossible task. How was he supposed to begin their relationship? Just walk up to the boy and say, Luke, I am your father? He swallowed hard. Perhaps. But not today. He strode towards the TIE, stopping next to Luke's prone body.
The boy apparently noticed the pair of boots that had appeared next to him.
"Say buddy, can you hand me the servodriver?"
An easy request. He called the tool to his hand, and placed it in Luke's outstretched one.
"Hey, how'd you do that without moving?" Luke said, sliding out from under the fighter.
Vader stood silently, thumbs hooked on his belt, as Luke caught sight of him and scrambled to his feet, fumbling for the cap he'd stuffed in his pocket.
"Sorry, sir," Luke said, attaining a semblance of military decorum. "I'm a little new at this."
He gazed at his son's face. The golden hue granted by Tatooine's suns still lit the boy's skin. And despite the pressure of the situation, Luke's expression remained open, his presence in the Force revealing tension, but not fear. Vader received an impression of sleeping strength, different from the coiled energy he usually sensed in Anakin.
"Do you know who I am?"
"I'm not that new, sir," Luke said, his eyes focused forward as he remained at attention. "You're the Emperor."
The Emperor. And nothing else. Not a glimmer of recognition.
"Yes. And that fighter is part of my fleet. Tell me of your progress."
Luke relaxed from attention and turned towards the fighter, ducking his head into the engine compartment. Technically, the boy should have asked for permission before abandoning his formal stance, but Vader ignored the oversight. Luke ran a hand along the fuel tank, and his presence in the Force brightened.
"There's a leak in the fuel compartment, sir," Luke said. "I think that's it's biggest problem."
Vader stooped down to peek into the compartment. Even with the visual enhancement features of the helmet, he could see no crack in the fuel tank.
"And how do you know this?"
Luke stepped back from the fighter and shrugged. "I can feel it, sir. I kind of have a knack for machinery."
Vader ran a hand down the side of the tank. Indeed the leak could be felt, but only in the Force. Even if the boy was untrained, he was unconsciously using some of his ability. As Vader straightened to his full height, Luke was right there, looking into the mask.
"I'm going to confirm that with a sniffer, of course," Luke said, a flush coloring his cheeks.
He obviously had no idea Vader could sense the same stream of escaping noble gas.
"Very well," he said, turning back towards the Palace. He'd gained a sense of who his son was, and that was enough for today. "Carry on."
"Yes, sir," Luke said. "By the way, how do you get a fighter like this into space?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, an ion drive's pretty slow in an atmosphere."
He smiled to himself. So the boy had a knowledge of propulsion theory. Perhaps he was a pilot, too, not just a mechanic.
"That is true. When functional, this TIE will be loaded into the hold of a transport vessel."
"I'd like to see that someday, sir," Luke said earnestly.
He found himself smiling again. There was something...soothing...about his son's presence. Almost like...He pushed away the memory, but couldn't stop himself from fulfilling Luke's wish.
"If you repair this one correctly, I will permit you to accompany it back to the command ship."
Obi-Wan still wasn't used to the sight of Leia. While she and Bail had been away on Coruscant, Obi-Wan had plenty of opportunity to explore the Royal Palace, and he had come across many images of her. Some current, some taken when she was small, and a very few with a woman he presumed to be her adoptive mother. He'd gathered from the curt responses the staff gave to his inquiries that something had happened to Bail's wife, something that wasn't talked about. Through the images, though, he'd gained a sense of passing time, and of a little girl growing into the young woman he'd met.
But to see Leia in the flesh again undid all the progress he'd made. Watching her stride with Bail down the corridor, the weight of the Galaxy on their faces as they discussed some matter of importance, he could have sworn she was Padme'. But as they approached, a grin lit her countenance, and he knew he'd never seen Padme' smile like that. She was a stranger, then, no matter how she looked like her mother. Just before she and Bail stopped in front of Obi-Wan, Leia assumed her serious face again.
"General Kenobi, did my staff treat you well in my absence?" Bail said.
He made sure not to stare at Leia, but couldn't help noticing that she did not return the courtesy.
"Very well. My stay here has been exceedingly comfortable."
"Good," Bail said, his face softenening, but only for for a moment. "And I have the information you requested."
He caught the vague reference and nodded. Obviously Luke was not to be mentioned in front of Leia.
"Thank you. I'm most eager to hear it."
Leia transferred her gaze to Bail. "Father, what are you up to?"
"Just an matter between old friends," Bail said, returning the playful tone in her voice. "Nothing to concern you. In fact, if you'll excuse us, I'll catch up with you later."
Leia looked hurt for a moment, but then she graciously yielded to her father's wishes.
"Of course," she said, with a bow of her head. "I'll be in the library."
Bail's eyes followed his daughter until she was beyond earshot, then he returned his attention to Obi-Wan. "If you'll come this way."
Obi-Wan fell into step behind the Viceroy as they traveled further into the interior of the Palace. They went past the elegantly furnished room in which they had their first discussion to one which required Bail to use his palmprint to gain access. Inside, the room was stark and windowless, with only a circular table and a few chairs. It had the feel of a war room, cold and functional.
Bail did not take a seat, nor offered one.
"My contacts were able to locate Luke."
The flatness in Bail's voice filled him with dread. "And?"
"He was on Raithal," Bail said. He looked away before continuing. "But now he is assigned to the Imperial Palace."
"The Palace," he echoed.
With the new Emperor. With Vader. How had he found Luke so quickly? Obi-Wan cursed himself for not having the gift of farseeing. He should have changed Luke's name. Watched him more closely, instead of from afar. Told him the truth. Trained him. Anything to prevent the future that was now unfolding. He pulled out a chair and sank into it.
Bail put a hand to Obi-Wan's shoulder.
There was something final in the Viceroy's words that made Obi-Wan realize that Bail was offering his condolences. As if Luke was already lost, forever. Outrage surged through his veins. He was sure Bail wouldn't give up so easily on Leia. Those exact words almost tumbled out when the Force crackled darkly around him, and he caught himself. First and always he was a Jedi, and he would not succumb to the destructive power of anger. He exhaled deeply and released his emotions into the Force.
And then it struck him. Yes, he was a Jedi, and Bail was not. It probably did seem impossible to Bail to defeat Vader, not only for the military machine that surrounded Vader, but for the military machine that he was. The imposing height, all that durasteel armor, that impenetrable mask, even without the Force Vader looked unstoppable. And then to add a power unfathomable to an ordinary being would make him seem almost supernatural. But Obi-Wan knew the truth. He knew what terrible injuries lay beneath the black armor. Armor that was a crutch for broken flesh. He had beaten Vader at the height of his physical prowress, so he should be able to repeat it now. Luke's future depended on it.
"I have to go after Luke," he said, looking into Bail's solemn face.
Bail's brow furrowed.
"Then you'll take on Vader?"
Memories of Mustafar drifted forward, and Obi-Wan's stomach tightened.
"I will do what I must."
With every step further into the Palace hangar, Anakin's anger billowed stronger. Had Vader really thought he could keep the transfer of this son of a Jedi a secret? Even if Anakin had never noticed that his abandoned project was steadily being rebuilt, the increasing ripples in the Force would have been enough to tell him something was awry. But he had noticed that fewer and fewer pieces of the TIE littered the hangar floor, and it had been a routine matter for him to find out who was assigned to the repair of the fighter.
But to top it off, this Luke Skywalker reeked of the Force. In fact, that might be what angered him most, that this intruder didn't even bother to conceal his presence. It was just as Palpatine had said, the Jedi were arrogant beyond belief, and this kid obviously had so much confidence in his abilities that he felt no need to use any mental shielding. Well, if it was a fight this Jedi wanted, then that could be arranged. There was no way he was going to allow this interloper to become Vader's next apprentice.
He was broadcasting his own feelings so loudly, he was surprised that Luke hadn't noticed him. Instead, his rival kept on working on the TIE fighter, without so much as a backward glance. He clenched his teeth as he approached Luke. He would not be ignored.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Luke swung his head around and gave Anakin a slow appraisal. "I'm swapping the fuel tank on this fighter."
"This was my project," he said. Vader must have given Luke some instruction, whereas he'd been expected to figure it out on his own. "I didn't give you permission to work on it."
"Easy, pal," Luke said, raising his hands. "I just got here. I'm doing what they told me to."
"Yeah, right," Anakin said, feeling his control slipping. "You're not here to fix TIEs. You're only here because of your father."
Luke flinched like he'd taken a blaster bolt.
"What are you talking about?"
"Come on Jedi boy," he said. "You think you're the only one who's strong in the Force?"
"The Force?" Luke said. "I think you have me confused with someone else."
"Oh no," he snorted."I know exactly who you are."
He wasn't going to let his rival hide behind Jedi passivity. Using the Force, he picked up the autowrench that lay near the TIE's solar panel and heaved it at Luke. It should have been an easy task for Luke to deflect the wrench, but he didn't even attempt to motion the tool away. Instead, he only turned aside, and the flying piece of metal clipped him on the shoulder.
Luke muttered a Huttese curse and then he closed the short distance between them until they were toe to toe.
"I'm sure you outrank me, but the next time you hit me with something, I'm going to let you have it."
Anakin stared down into the blue eyes that were only centimeters from his own. Now that he succeeded in provoking Luke, there was something terribly familiar about the fire that emanated from the other boy's presence. It reminded him of...Vader. The Force whispered its agreement, and a chill ran through him. Why had he been so gullible as to accept Vader's explanation about Luke's father? Because it was more believable than the truth? Perhaps, because if what he was thinking now was true, that would make Luke...
"You're right," he said, backing up. "I was thinking of someone else. Sorry about the wrench."
"It's okay," Luke said, "but I'm glad I'm not that other guy."
"Yeah," Anakin said, still dumbfounded.
It was as if everything he knew was unraveling. Maybe it wasn't true, he tried to console himself. But maybe it was. One way or another, he needed proof. He turned away and headed for the hangar exit.
Luke's voice sounded behind him. "Well, if this was your project, could you give me a hand?"
"What?" he said. This Luke sure was the forgiving type. "Um, yeah."
"I need you to hold the fuel tank in place while I secure the bolts," Luke said. "Either that, or you can find me a droid."
"I can do it, " he said, returning to the fighter. "I was supposed to fix it, I just didn't know how."
"It's not that hard once you've done it a few times," Luke said. "Have you ever brazed a fuel line?"
He shook his head, and looked, really looked, at Luke. He hadn't felt this disoriented since Vader first told him he was a clone.
Luke smiled. "Well, I can show you that, too."
Plunging through Coruscant's atmosphere on board the Tantive IV, Obi-Wan was pummeled by an unrelenting sense of deja-vu. Though sixteen years had passed, here he was in the cockpit of the same ship, seated next to the same man who had brought him here the last time. The anxiety he'd felt knowing something was terribly wrong flowed back to him as the Tantive continued its journey towards the governmental core. That anxiety had been nothing compared to the horror that had met him in the smoldering interior of the Temple, a horror that was compounded when he learned the awful truth of how it came to be that way.
He'd lived with that truth for a long time now, dissected every aspect and mourned every loss, until he was able to relegate it to the unchangeable past. At least he thought he had. But as the Tantive dropped into the upper traffic lanes, he had the nauseating feeling that the bodies still waited for him inside the Temple. He stared out the viewscreen, trying to find the five spires amongst the skyline. The five spires that had always said home. The touch of a hand gentle upon his knee pulled him back into the present.
"General, are you all right?" Leia said, her eyes searching his face.
"Yes," he said, managing to twist his lips in an imitation of a smile. She withdrew her hand, but looked unconvinced. As he returned her gaze he realized how long it had been since someone had offered him comfort. He allowed the genuine concern that streamed from Leia to warm him, and this time his smile was real. "Yes. I'd just forgotten how chaotic it is to fly on Coruscant."
It wasn't a false statement. After living in the wide open spaces of Tatooine, Coruscant looked impossibly crowded. Other vessels passed at breakneck speeds, and he couldn't believe that he used to pilot his own ship routinely through these skies.
"Speaking of that," Bail said,"will you be all right on your own, Obi-Wan?"
"I seem to be able to get myself where I need to be," he said.
"I'd offer you the use of the Tantive," Bail said, "but I can't appear to be...rebellious."
"I understand," Obi-Wan said. It wouldn't do at all for the personal vessel of the Viceroy to be found carrying a Jedi. Especially this Jedi. "The transport and the apartment you arranged are more than sufficient."
Bail nodded. "When we refuel the ship, there'll be an air taxi waiting for you. Someone I trust."
Obi-Wan leaned back in his seat. It was beginning to feel like the old days, when they had planned the future of the Galaxy within the Tantive's polished white walls. With their mutual dedication to common ideals they had entrusted their very lives to each other. But now the future of the Republic and the continuance of the Order no longer felt so interwoven. While he did trust Bail with his safety, something stood between them, and she was sitting right next to him. Once the children had been just an aspect of their overall plan, but it seemed that for Bail, Leia had become more dear than almost anything else. Maybe he was fooling himself to think he was different. Where did his loyalties lie? To the Republic, and democracy? To the Order? Or simply to Luke? He rubbed his forehead. All he knew for certain was that he couldn't turn back.
He wasn't shirking, Anakin told himself, he'd just become very efficient at his job. If he spent a few less minutes feeling for currents of discontent among the outliers to the Senate, it was only because he'd become so attuned to identifying troublemakers. At any rate, having finished his circuit of the Senate Rotunda, he'd earned a respite from his duties. Especially if the reward for his hard work might be to be replaced by Luke. He just wanted to talk to her, and escape to the one part of his life that had nothing to do with Vader.
He quickened his pace as he approached the aisleway where he'd found her last time. A tingle in the Force announced her presence even before he laid eyes on her. Remembering her reaction last time, he crept to her side and stood wordlessly, staring out into the auditorium.
She turned casually towards him. A smile played over her lips before she reestablished control.
"Well, well, maybe you're smarter than you look."
A thrill ran through him. He didn't know why he allowed her to speak to him that way; such insults would have bought anyone else an introduction to his lightsaber. But the way she said it was so personal. "In fact I'm smart enough to know there's a better place to watch than standing on these duracrete steps."
"The Recopian delegation, they're absent today," he said. "We could go sit in their pod."
Her eyes flashed to him. "We'll get caught."
"Their pod is at the top of the auditorium. No one will see us," he said. Her internal struggle wafted to him in the Force, and he leaned towards her. "C'mon. You know you want to."
She stared back at him, and chewed her lip.
"Okay," she said finally, shaking her head, "but if we do get caught, it's all your fault."
He smiled and tugged on her sleeve.
He had no idea it would feel so good to have her come with him. As they slipped into their seats, the Kuati delegation looked over disapprovingly, but he gave them a nudge with the Force, and they appeared to forget their concerns. In the center of the auditiorium, Vader was leaning against the podium, a finger pointing vigorously at the crowd to accent his point.
Anakin shifted in his chair until his elbow touched hers. To his relief she didn't move away, and he gently set his hand atop her forearm. Their eyes met across the armrest.
"He hates this, you know."
"Vader?" She said with a perplexed look. "How would you know?"
"Oh, he's told me before," he said, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Yeah, like you talk to Vader every day."
She turned in her seat until she was facing him.
"Who are you?"
There was an incisiveness in her voice that made him pull back from her. However mad he was at Vader right now, he probably shouldn't be talking so freely. After all, what did he really know about her? But he couldn't leave her question hanging - that would only feed her curiosity, or her suspicion.
"Well Anakin, I'm Leia," she said, extending her hand out to him.
He paused, wondering what he should do. Just shake it, like he would another man? Hadn't he seen an old vid where the man kissed the woman's hand? Why hadn't anyone taught him more about women? Flustered, he reached forward. Thankfully that was what she was expecting, and she clasped his hand with a firm grip. After the formality of the shake, neither one of them let go, and he became aware of how soft and small her hand was in his.
She flushed and withdrew her hand, but held his gaze.
"I thought I knew all the other Senate brats."
There was something about the term that bothered him.
"What's that mean?"
"You know, Senator's kids who prefer to hang around their parents' offices instead of staying home," she said. "What system are you from?"
It wasn't a difficult question. But how was he going to tell her that he had no idea what system he was from, or that technically, he didn't have parents? Palpatine would have said that the best disguise for the truth was to present one aspect of it, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her any of it.
"It's a small system. You wouldn't have heard of it."
She raised her eyebrows. "Try me."
He could sense that she would persist until he gave up an answer, which meant he had to borrow one. But then again, it was beginning to feel like none of his life was his own.
"Tatooine," he said. "I'm from Tatooine."
"You're sure you don't want me to ride in the transport, sir?" Luke asked.
Darth Vader continued his path across the hangar floor without slowing down to answer.
"Are you in the habit of questioning orders, Skywalker?"
"No, sir," Luke said, hustling to match Vader's stride. "I just don't understand what I've done to warrant special attention from the Emperor."
"I see, " he said. "You question not only my orders, but my judgement."
"No, sir," Luke said emphatically. "Maybe I'll just be quiet now."
"Good idea," he said. They were almost to the ramp of his shuttle. "Get in."
Luke bounded up the ramp ahead of him, and when he reached the cockpit Luke was already seated. In the correct chair, he noted. He took possession of the pilot's seat, and began the pre-flight preparations, which Luke followed with interest. Perhaps more than interest, as the boy's gaze seem to anticipate the correct sequence of controls involved in warm-up. At the other end of the hangar, the transport vessel, loaded with the newly repaired TIE as well as supplies for Devastator, thrummed to life. Aiming towards the sliver of Imperial Center sky that glowed through the hangar doors, he accelerated the shuttle past the transport.
"Sir, does this ship not have flight harnesses?" Luke said, feeling around the sides of his chair.
"Lambda shuttles are built to ferry dignitaries," he said, setting the ship on a course to rendezvous with Devastator. "They are not capable of the manuevers that would require restraints."
Luke nodded. "Yes, sir. It's just that my harness saved me when I crashed my Tee-sixteen."
He couldn't help feeling a modicum of pride. A T-16 was a fast, touchy craft requiring not a small amount of skill to fly.
"You have flown a Tee-sixteen? Where?"
"Back home, sir," Luke said. "On Tatooine."
His ears pricked at the mention of the boy's homeworld. This was exactly the kind of information he had hoped to uncover without revealing his own identity. Yet.
"And who taught you?"
"Some of my friends in Anchorhead, sir, " Luke said.
"Not your parents?" he said cautiously.
In the Force the boundless energy that characterized Luke's presence dampened, and the boy grew quiet.
"I never knew them, sir. They died when I was very young."
Luke's sadness resonated within him, and yet he felt warmed that his son spoke with such reverence. Perhaps the boy would be more accepting than he first thought.
"You know nothing about them?"
"Only what my aunt and uncle told me, sir," Luke said. "My father was a navigator on a spice freighter, and they never said much about my mother."
Anger stirred in him. That deception was at the heart of the mystery surrounding his son, a story concocted to keep the boy from the truth. But why, so that Luke would live a dreary, mundane existence on a backwater planet? That didn't make sense. It would make more sense if Obi-Wan had hidden Luke, or Palpatine. But either way, someone should have begun his training, and there was no evidence of that. To know for sure, he would have to approach the situation more directly.
"Your caretakers, " he said, "did they teach you anything of the Force?"
Luke shook his head. "No, sir, but you're the second person to mention that."
He glanced at Luke. "And who was the first?"
"I don't know his name, sir, but he's my age, back at the Palace," Luke said. "He was mad that I was working on his fighter."
He grunted. Anakin. That encounter had happened sooner than he had planned. Ah, well, his apprentice would just have to get over his hurt feelings. But something about the circumstances of his son's upbringing still bothered him. Even though Luke was ignorant of the Force, someone lurked in the background, he could feel it.
Anakin watched himself in the mirror as he rolled the swab along the inside of first one cheek, and then the other. He pulled the swab out of his mouth and stared at it. He'd never seen the medics take a DNA sample, but the technique didn't seem all that difficult. And there could be no witnesses to the origin of this sample, just as the results could come only to him. He was about to know for sure who he really was.
Anakin glanced back at his speeder before he entered the top floor of the Emperor Palpatine Surgical Reconstruction Center. Even following the nav computer's instructions, it had still been a white-knuckle flight, the farthest he had traveled alone. Strangely, Vader had forgotten to change the name of the facility, maybe because it was usually referred to by its shortened name, EmPal SuRecon. Or maybe because Vader disliked the place as much as he did. Though Palpatine had brought him here many times, the sense of unease that followed him through its hallways had never lessened. Even now an unbidden shiver swept through him as he made his way to the medical lab.
It was undoubtably the most secure place to have the sample processed, though, and that had been his goal. He'd made a similarly nerve-racking trip to bring the swab in, not trusting a courier, just as he had come now to keep the results from being transmitted through the computer network. At the door to the lab he entered his pass code, and let himself in. The waiting area was empty, and he stared up into the security cam to announce himself. To his relief, the same technician who had taken the sample came forward from the back, a folded piece of flimsi in his hand.
The technician gave him a smile of recognition.
"That was a good one. I'm not sure how you did it."
He regarded the man suspiciously.
"What do you mean?"
"Your sample matched a dead man," the technician said, "but those cells looked fresh. No storage deterioration at all."
A dead man? Had Vader lied after all? He resisted the impulse to vault the counter and grab the piece of flimsi. Instead he extended his hand in expectation that the report would be delivered.
"It's a new technology. This was just a test."
The technician passed the flimsi over the counter.
"I hadn't read anything about a new preservative."
"If you work here," he said softly, in his best Palpatine imitiation, "you know better than to ask questions."
The technican immediately bowed his head. "Of course. My mistake."
He turned without replying and exited the lab. Though it was only a few minutes, it felt like it took an eternity to reach his speeder. Once he was snugged in his seat, he unfolded the flimsi. His eyes flew to the bottom, where the results were printed in red. No... no...that couldn't be true. He shook his head as he reread the report. That was impossible.
It seemed his name really was Anakin Skywalker, had always been Anakin Skywalker. Even when he had been a Jedi.
Even a Star Destroyer becomes ordinary when viewed often enough, and Darth Vader was well past that point. But seeing Luke's wonderment at the size of Devastator's main hangar reawakened Vader to the magnificence of his own ship. It had been too long since he'd last been out in space, and he was tempted to give his son a taste of Devastator's capabilities. In front of them, row upon row of TIE fighters gleamed under the lights of the cavernous hangar, and Luke wandered forward from his side, too engaged by the sight to realize he was making a protocol error.
Enjoying the moment as much as the boy, Vader felt no desire to reprimand him for the trespass.
"Would you like to see them up close?"
"Yes, sir. Very much," Luke said, breaking free of his reverie.
As they proceeded towards the fleet of fighters, Vader caught sight of the quartermaster heading across the hangar floor to intercept them. He would have preferred not to be interrupted, but he supposed he had only himself to blame for his crew's attentiveness. He ignored the approaching officer, but soon the clack of boots against the floor announced that some sort of interaction was inevitable. When he sensed the man waiting patiently behind him, he sighed, and turned around.
The quartermaster bowed his head.
"Lord Vader, we're pleased to have you back on board. Do we have a mission?"
"No," he said. "Unfortunately not."
The quartermaster nodded, and turned his attention to Luke. "Then you've brought me the additional mechanic I requested. Thank you, m'lord."
He glanced at Luke. Of course, the uniform. "No, this one stays with me."
"But sir, I'd be happy to help," Luke said, stepping forward.
The quartermaster's face went white. While Vader didn't want to damage the burgeoning rapport he shared with his son, he knew he couldn't let Luke's public impertinence go unpunished.
"You may leave," he said to the quartermaster before focusing on Luke. "And you will not question my orders again."
In the Force, a flash of resentment came from Luke, but the boy contained his emotions and merely averted his gaze.
He hated the discouraged look on his son's face, even more that he'd put it there. Seeing that the quartermaster was now safely out of range, he put a hand to the boy's shoulder, ready to re-extend his invitation to examine the fighters more closely. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, his comlink chimed urgently. Frowning, he grabbed the device from his belt.
"What is it?"
"Yes, m'lord," came the voice of Devastator's admiral, "There seems to be a problem with Grand Moff Tarkin."
"What kind of a problem?"
"M'lord," Admiral Varrel stammered, "I think it might be best if you came to the bridge and saw for yourself."
Obi-Wan awoke with a start to the whine of blaster bolts. He struggled for a moment to orient himself in the darkness. Then he remembered: he was in the studio apartment that Bail had secured for him, in a rather questionable sector of Imperial Center. He waited through several minutes of silence before motioning the lights on. His travel case lay open on the bed, a bed he hadn't been able to bring himself to sleep in. Instead he'd dozed fitfully in the room's sole chair, which he had angled in the corner to face the door. It had been many years since he had been somewhere this unprotected.
Even though the chrono told him that dawn was a few hours away, he pushed himself out of the chair and peered through the dusty blinds in search of the first reflected rays of Coruscant's dim sun. Hardly the glorious light of Tatoo I and II, and he smiled briefly as he realized he missed his adopted home. The air taxi would be returning soon to transport him to the central facilty that processed food for the Imperial government. From there, he'd hitch a ride into the Palace, and begin his search for Luke.
From his travel case, he pulled out the sleek Alderanian tunics and trousers that Bail had given him and tossed them aside. At the very bottom were his old robes. He ran his hands over the coarse fabric, the texture comforting and familiar. He stripped off the silken shirt he'd arrived in, and replaced it with his undertunic. No matter the danger in wearing traditional Jedi garb, it would be impossible for him to face Vader in anything else.
Bail Organa gazed at his daughter from across the dining table. She was still in her sleeping clothes, her long hair flowing over her shoulders. Without her formal attire and coif, she looked like a little girl, his little girl. But it was an illusion. She'd always been a serious child, especially after Breha died. In fact, in many ways it seemed that Leia had always been grown up. He'd never had to talk to her much about rules and responsibilities, rather he'd tried to prevent her from taking on too much. She always seemed determined to rush through childhood, as though she was racing towards some great destiny.
Maybe he should be glad, then, for this bit of youthful indiscretion. It wasn't so bad, really, and fathers all over the Galaxy must have talked to their daughters about similar behavior. It was just so rare for him to have to assume the disciplinarian role, and it felt terribly awkward.
"Leia," he said, waiting for her to look at him, "Senator Ranu of Kuat saw you yesterday in a Senate pod. With a boy."
She lowered her head, nodding.
He sighed. His small hope that the Kuaiti delegate's report was wrong evaporated.
"I can't see you doing this on your own. This boy must have influenced you."
"I decided to do it, Father," she said, her dark eyes suddenly afire. "I did."
No denial, nor any trace of penitence. The strength of her reply took him aback and he had to work to regain his resolve.
"Don't jeopardize all you've worked for with a silly infraction. Once you're a Senator you'll be able to sit in a pod anytime you wish."
"I know," she said quietly, her storm of defiance vanishing as quickly as it had arisen. "I'm sorry."
He swallowed and watched her for a bit. Maybe he should leave it at that. But someone who could entice his daughter into doing something she knew was wrong, he couldn't remain ignorant of such a co-conspirator.
"Are you going to tell me about this boy?"
"What's to tell?" she said, returning to her breakfast.
"How about his name, for starters," he said.
"Anakin," she said, "and he's very knowledgeable about the Senate."
He blinked at the name. That was a strange coincidence.
"Is that all you know about him? Who are his parents?"
Leia shook her head and gave him a knowing smile.
"Oh, Father, don't worry, " she laughed. "He's not really my type. He's kind of a scoundrel."
Everyone needs to eat. Obi-Wan knew that small truth had brought down the mightiest of armies and breeched the most secure of fortresses, and the Imperial Palace was no exception. Just as he'd hoped, the transport he'd snuck aboard at the food processing facility glided into a lower level docking bay of the Palace without a hitch. The vibrations in the deck plates softened, and repulsor vapor shot past the cargo hold viewports as the ship set down. Stealthily he threaded his way through the storage containers and made his way to the forward section of the hold.
Peeking from behind a three meter tall column of crated goods, he saw that the hold doors had been opened. Crew members were shouting to each other as they maneuvered the motorized conveyor mechanism into alignment with the hold. Droids began transferring containers onto the conveyor, and behind them Obi-Wan could see stormtroopers lining the wall of the docking bay. In the old days, he might have jumped right in the middle of all that action, but with age, he'd learned to appreciate the value of discretion. What he sorely needed was a distraction.
With a shove of both hands, he used the Force to accelerate the conveyor chain on its tracks, causing containers to topple off the end of the platform. For good measure, he loosened the trio of domed ceiling lights that illuminated the docking bay, and sent them crashing into the duracrete floor. The stormtroopers scattered like rolled dice and then regrouped, their E-11 rifles pointed at the ceiling. The ship's crew screamed words of blame at each other and the droids. Concealed by the chaos, Obi-Wan slipped off the ship and towards the far end of the docking bay.
There he found an access door, which he quickly motioned open. The hallway behind it was featureless and thankfully empty. He paused a moment to catch his breath. He was getting too old for this sort of thing. Leaning against the smooth metal panels that lined the corridor, he weighed his options. From the air, he'd seen how massive the Palace was. He could spend days slinking down its passageways, trying to avoid the kind of scene he'd just left. Or he could reach out with the Force and let it direct him to Luke. But opening himself like that would also make it easier for Vader to sense him. What would he do if that black monstrosity ambled up to him?
He imagined that scenario for a moment, then pushed it away. The Force would guide him if that encounter ever came to pass. In the meantime, he had no other choice; time was of the essence in finding Luke. He exhaled deeply and released the tension from his body. He'd thought he would detect two presences -Vader and Luke- but there was only one. Though brilliant in the Force, it was definitely not Vader. It had a youthful immaturity, but with more control than he remembered Luke having.
He pulled his hood over his head and locked on to the presence. There was no room for doubts. Who else could it be?
Darth Vader slammed the controls to the shuttle's wing flaps into extension. He was so furious with Tarkin that he'd forgotten to cut his speed when the shuttle entered Imperial Center's troposphere. He never did that. Burdened by added friction, the shuttle bucked wildly, and Luke snuck him a startled glance from the co-pilot's seat.
He gritted his teeth. Great. That was the second time today that he'd been made to look bad in front of his son. And not only his son, but the entire Empire. How dare Tarkin use the Holonet to issue an ultimatum? An ultimatum to him, the Emperor. The man must have a death wish. And what was that boast about possessing the ultimate power in the universe? What was Tarkin talking about? That unfinished hulk that had been under construction for nearly twenty years? Had Tarkin somehow managed to make the thing functional?
And the conceit of the man, to declare that he was the rightful successor to the throne. To smugly state that Vader should step down for the good of the Empire. On the Holonet, no less. But for all his bravado, Tarkin apparently did not want to engage him face to face, because the signal for the transmission originated from within the Seswanna Sector. Once he broadcast his response from the Palace, it would be nothing more than interstellar static, anyway. The Empire would see his disdain for the Grand Moff and his absurd ultimatum, and that the true Emperor was securely ensconced on the throne, not hiding in the far reaches of the Outer Rim.
"Why me, sir?"
"What?" he said.
Couldn't the boy see he was handling a galactic crisis?
"One day I'm in the middle of basic training, and the next I'm in the Emperor's personal shuttle," Luke said. "Why me?"
He had the fate of the Empire on his mind, and the boy expected him to deal with a petty complaint?
"Do you know how hard the rest of my crew would fight for the opportunity you've been given?"
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, sir," Luke said, "but I don't understand. Shouldn't I be doing my job?"
He looked into Luke's earnest face, and his annoyance began to fade. He should be proud of his son's devotion to duty.
"Your destiny is far greater than being a mechanic."
Luke looked perplexed.
"What else would I be, sir?"
Maybe he should tell the boy here and now. The truth couldn't be hidden forever, nor did he want it to be. But the situation with Tarkin required his full attention.
"You have inherited gifts from your father of which you are unaware."
Luke almost leapt out of his seat.
"You knew my father?"
The boy's eagerness almost drove him to confess, but the time wasn't right.
"A very long time ago."
After climbing many levels in a turbolift and winding through what seemed like kilometers of marble floored hallways, Obi-Wan could feel that he was almost to Luke. He rounded a corner and there, at the end of the corridor, was the Force strong presence he'd been tracking. But though this youth was blond, he was too tall to be Luke. Caution said to turn back, but there was something familiar about the boy, something he couldn't quite place. He crept forward, lightsaber in hand, finding cover in doorway alcoves until he was within ten meters of the blond stranger. Now that he was close enough, he could see the boy also clutched a lightsaber. The boy stood frozen, his head elevated, and Obi-Wan felt the touch of a mind sweeping across his. He strengthened his shields against the intrusion, but the youth whirled about, and Obi-Wan knew he'd been caught.
He had every intention of making a hasty retreat, but what he saw robbed him of the power to move. It was a face he'd looked at almost every day for thirteen years, and despite the passage of time, it was as familiar as his own. But the last time he'd seen that face, it had been blistered and burned beyond recognition. The last time he'd seen that face, his heart had been screaming at his head to pull the man who was his brother out of the fire. After all, that was what they did best: save each other. But in the end, his head and his Jedi training had won, and he'd shut down his feelings long enough to walk away. Once, he and Yoda had discussed how they'd each be willing to sacrifice the other for the greater good. The theory had sounded noble at the time, but its implementation on the shores of Mustafar had left him feeling like a coward.
So how could it be that Anakin was here now, untouched and perfect? He'd taken those limbs with the very saber that warmed his hand now. He remembered the sickening thump that Anakin's body made when it hit the black sand, its grace stripped from it. Up until that moment he'd clung to some vague hope that he could salvage the situation, that he could salvage them. But there had been no stopping Anakin with words, only by making it physically impossible for him to fight. Obi-Wan knew he wasn't up to a repeat, if it came to battle here. Fortunately, while the youth might have sensed him, the boy hadn't seen him. The youth's eyes searched the corridor, his brow furrowed in that way Anakin always did. Except, Obi-Wan finally noticed, there was no scar bisecting the right cheek. Not a ghost, then, but a copy. A clone.
He slid back behind the cover of the alcove wall, wondering who it had been who ordered this clone. Somehow, he knew it must have been Palpatine. His stomach rolled at the thought, an endless number of Chosen Ones waiting to be corrupted at Sidious' hand. He suddenly wanted to rescue not only Luke, but this boy as well, to have another chance to bring his Padawan back from the brink. From around the corner came the unmistakable sound of a lightsaber igniting, and he snuck a cautious glance. The youth's blade glowed a Sithly red.
You old fool, Obi-Wan thought. Forget this boy. He's as gone as the original.
If he stayed here any longer, the clone would find him for sure. The only option left was retreat. He peered one more time into the corridor, and then made a run for it, back the way he had come in. His fingers activated the transponder to summon the air taxi. He was about to find out if the pilot was as good as Bail had said.
"Hey! Who are you?" came a voice from behind him, a voice Obi-Wan hadn't heard in nearly twenty years. He turned reflexively, and his eyes met the clone's stare. He couldn't stop the ripple of sadness that swept through him. "You don't need to follow me," he said, arcing two fingers through the air.
The youth seemed startled by his Force suggestion, enough to buy Obi-Wan the time he needed. He fled down the corridor, and headed for daylight. His lightsaber turned a window into a pile of shattered glass, and he climbed through onto the outside ledge. A speeder dove towards him at suicidal speed, and he jumped in. He grinned at the pilot.
"What took you so long?"
Darth Vader was exhausted. The adrenalin stimulated by Tarkin's broadcast had run out hours ago, and the process of preparing his reply to the Senate and the citizens of the Empire had consumed the last of his patience. He entered his personal suite looking to find refuge, but instead found his apprentice waiting for him. Anakin was pacing a circle in front of the chairs in the sitting area, and the tracks in the dense carpet said he'd been doing that for awhile. In the Force, the air was thick with the boy's agitation.
"How did you get in here?"
"I reprogrammed the lock," Anakin muttered, still pacing. Abruptly, he stopped, swinging to face Vader. "You lied to me!"
He crossed his arms. He was really not in the mood for this.
"You're Luke's father," Anakin said. "You were a Jedi."
He should have known Anakin would find out eventually. But he was hardly going to apologize.
"So?" Anakin said, throwing his arms in the air. "That means I'm a Jedi."
"There are worse things," he said. His apprentice certainly had a flair for the dramatic. "Besides, it's not as if it's in your blood."
Anakin looked at him as if he were mad.
"Maybe not, but I've been thinking. You want to know what is in our blood?"
He was almost afraid to ask.
"The Jedi raised you, and then you killed them, right?" Anakin asked with narrowed eyes.
"For a time, and yes," he answered cautiously.
"And Palpatine raised me, and then I killed him," Anakin said, beginning to pace again. "Maybe that's what's in our blood: we kill those close to us."
No. That couldn't be true. He'd never killed out of bloodlust. He'd killed when death was called for, in combat and as a punishment, but never from some uncontrollable urge. His choices had been necessary choices. If his clone had taken a similar path, it was only because they'd faced similar obstacles.
Anakin gave him a feral grin.
"And maybe now that Luke's here, he'll kill you."
"No, no that's not right," he said. Applying the theory to Luke made it appear utterly ridiculous. "You and I are not defined by who we have slain."
"Oh, yeah? Prove it. What else are you known for, except killing people?"
That offended him. He was known for many things. If he was tough on his subordinates, he was also fair, and they respected him for that. He was never afraid to join the troops on the front line. He had shown considerable patience in dealing with the ungrateful apprentice who stood before him now. He was a strong leader, not a killing machine.
"I have spent my entire life working for the safety and security of the Galaxy. Anything I have done has been towards that end."
"So why did you do it?" Anakin said. "If you were one, why did you turn on the Jedi?"
At the time he'd hidden behind Palpatine's explanation that the Jedi were traitors to the Republic. But the argument didn't hold up well to examination, and he was not about to subject it to his apprentice's quick-witted scrutiny.
"I don't have to explain myself to you!" he roared.
"How do I know who I am if I don't know who you are?" Anakin yelled back, his face thrust into the mask.
He stared at his apprentice while he considered Anakin's words. Might not Luke have similar questions? He swallowed hard and walked away. He wanted Luke to be at his side, to have the boy's esteem and loyalty, and he was not going to gain it through lies. He turned back towards Anakin, remembering how much the Council's distrust had hurt him. Maybe his apprentice did need to see that there were other sides to them besides being soldiers.
"All right," he said, "I did it for a woman."
Anakin looked dumbfounded.
"That senator," he said, nodding. "Did she ask you to?"
"No," he said quietly, letting that piece of the past come forward. "She ...did not approve. I did it to save her life."
"The Jedi were going to kill her?"
"Of course not," he said. "Palpatine promised me the power to save her if I became a Sith."
Anakin was silent for a moment.
"But she's not here."
No. No, she wasn't. The scars on his chest seemed to tighten.
"He never fulfilled that promise."
"So you weren't lying when we first met. You were trying to protect me from him."
Anakin sank into one of the black synthleather chairs, and leaned his head into his hands.
"Ever since you told me I was your clone, this is the part I can't figure out. Why did he make me?"
He could tell the boy he'd wrestled with that very same question. It would be easy to say, I don't know, because that wasn't entirely false. But looking into his apprentice's pain filled eyes, his pain filled eyes, really, he decided Anakin deserved his honesty.
"My injuries stole some of my potential. I believe he was disappointed with possessing a Chosen One who was damaged."
Anakin looked at him quizzically.
"It was a Jedi prophecy, one which they said I fit," he said. "When he told you here was no one else more gifted in the Force, it was not a lie."
"We're part of a Jedi legend?" Anakin said.
He hadn't thought of himself that way in a long time.
"If the prophecy is to be believed."
Anakin stared blankly at the floor.
"There was one here."
He quirked his head.
"A Jedi. I'm sure of it," Anakin said. "He had a lightsaber, and the long robes."
A Jedi, in the middle of the Palace? He lowered himself into the chair opposite Anakin. He knew a few survivors still wandered the Galaxy, but in all this time, none had ever come after him.
"What did he look like?"
"White hair, short beard. And somehow I got this weird feeling he knew who I was."
That odd current he'd felt in the Force: he'd dismissed it earlier. But now...now it made sense. Obi-Wan had been here. Obi-Wan! A fountain of anger welled inside of him. At last, he would have his revenge. But what if his old master hadn't come for him at all; what if he was after Luke? A tingle of fear invaded his anger. He couldn't delay telling his son the truth any longer.
Bail Organa had observed many Jedi in his lifetime. He'd sat with them in formal meetings, less often at social gatherings, and he was always struck by how ordinary they seemed. A being who could sense another's thoughts, or see the future, or throw a Senate pod around with their mind ought to have a neon sign on their forehead. But to a one, they looked like the average human, or Mirialan, or whatever their species.
He'd often wondered what it would be like to possess such powers. How different would his life be if he did? Would he have that same easy confidence that they all displayed? Or would he be too concerned with the responsibility? Maybe that was the real reason the Jedi started training initiates so early: so that younglings grew up without giving their abilities a second thought.
Obi-Wan Kenobi always seemed to him the perfect example of that: a man so at ease with his Jedi powers that they didn't change who he was. In person Obi-Wan was kind and gentle, and if Bail hadn't lived through the Clone Wars and read the reports himself, he would have never believed that the quiet man in next to him was also a fierce warrior. Time and again, Obi-Wan had wrung victory from impossible situations, and stopped opponents others deemed unstoppable. If being a Jedi had influenced Obi-Wan, perhaps it was only to give him a cheerful aura of invincibility. At least, that was the way Bail always remembered him from the past.
So to see Obi-Wan return from the Palace pale and tired greatly disturbed Bail. What could Obi-Wan have encountered that would steal his mantle of self-confidence? Luke was obviously not with him, so it could be simply that he'd failed in his quest, but it seemed more than that. Something had shook Obi-Wan to his very core, so much so that he'd instructed the speeder pilot to rendezvous with the Tantive instead of returning to Obi-Wan's apartment. It was almost as if Obi-Wan needed the company. And so Bail simply sat with Obi-Wan in one of the Tantive's staterooms, watching the other ships traversing the upper level flylanes.
Obi-Wan reached for the cup of tea resting on the side table between their chairs and took a sip. He carefully replaced the cup and looked Bail in the eye, as if he were at last ready to talk. "They weren't there. Neither Luke nor Vader."
Bail nodded. That observation confirmed the conclusion he'd drawn. "That doesn't surprise me."
Obi-Wan quirked his head.
"While you were gone, Governor Tarkin demanded that Vader step down," he said. He could still hear Tarkin's speech, his contempt for Vader quite evident. "The Emperor was not immediately available for comment, so I believe he was off-planet. Perhaps with Luke, based on your findings."
"Vader couldn't have taken that well," Obi-Wan said with a wry smile.
Bail found himself smiling back. That was more like the Obi-Wan of old. "No. When he finally responded, he declared Tarkin a traitor and basically dismissed him as a madman. I just hope there was nothing to Tarkin's threat."
"Something about unleashing the ultimate power in the universe, and that the Empire would regret it unless Vader was deposed."
Obi-Wan leaned back in his seat. "With that kind of language, Tarkin almost sounds worse than Vader."
"Wouldn't that be ironic, if Vader was the better choice?" he said. "Truthfully, I think this is the opportunity the Alliance has been waiting for. If Vader is occupied handling a military coup, this is probably our best shot at regaining control of the Senate and re-establishing the Republic."
Obi-Wan nodded. "And I have to try again, as well."
Bail was relieved to hear that Obi-Wan hadn't given up."Yes, your chances have to better if Vader is distracted."
"A day ago, I would have agreed with you," Obi-Wan said, the troubled look returning to his face.
"Why? What changed?"
"I did run into someone at the Palace," Obi-Wan said, his gaze falling away. "A clone of Anakin."
"A clone? Of Anakin?" he said. That was the last thing he expected Obi-Wan to say. "For what purpose?"
"I'm not sure," Obi-Wan said softly. "He's Anakin in his teens, that's all I know."
Cold realization ran through Bail as the conversation he'd had with Leia suddenly took on new meaning. "Did you talk to him?"
"Not really," Obi-Wan said. "But now I understand what I've been feeling in the Force. I've been trying to avoid Vader, but I can't. My destiny is to face him again."
In his brief tenure as Emperor, Darth Vader had had neither opportunity nor desire to explore the vast residence he'd inherited by assuming the throne. Unlike Palpatine, he was satisified with what was functional, and had no need for luxury. To see the various environments Palpatine had created within the Palace was perhaps a window into his former master's soul, but Vader had no interest in reflecting on Palpatine's psyche. It was enough for him to note the similarities of this top floor room to Palpatine's old Senate office and to the antechamber of the surgical theater in the accursed medical rehabilitation center.
If he were honest with himself, the room was also reminiscent of the Jedi Council chambers: the same curved expanses of glass opening onto a grand vista of Imperial Center skyline. Sometimes it seemed as if every pivotal event in his life had taken place in a room such as this. That was probably why he chosen this one for his meeting with Luke, because it felt right for a conversation of importance. And what could be more important than letting his son know the truth? Besides, he wasn't entirely sure Anakin didn't have his private suite bugged.
He could feel them approaching, the stormtroopers he'd sent to escort his son, as well as the dazzling brilliance that was Luke. Though it shouldn't be possible, Vader swore he was sweating inside the suit. He walked to edge of the panoramic windows and stared out, replaying all his speeches in his mind. Most likely the boy would be overjoyed to know the truth, to have a part of the family he appeared to crave. There was no reason to think the boy would reject him. So why did he have this damned sensation of perspiration?
Though he could tell they were now just outside the door, he continued facing the windows. The chime sounded, and he motioned the door open without turning. He heard footsteps pad into the room.
"Skywalker, you may stay. Troopers, you are dismissed."
When he could sense that only Luke remained in the room, Vader turned at last, his cloak shadowing his movements. He eyed the massive desk and semicircle of chairs that filled one corner of the room, then decided on the less formal pair of couches at the other end. He motioned towards them.
"Luke, have a seat."
His son obeyed, perching himself stiffly on the edge of one plush velvet couch.
"Did I do something wrong, sir?"
"No," he said, moving into the space between the couches. He considered sitting down opposite Luke, but then thought of how his legs would splay awkwardly to accomodate his prostheses. And if he leaned back, the suit's air pump would be blocked. Stand, yes, it was better to stand. "I need to talk to you about your father."
Instantly, the worried look on his son's face was replaced by one of complete focus.
"What is it, sir?"
"I...," he said, but the words wouldn't come out. Luke stared even more intently. Say it, just say it. He licked his lips. "I am your father."
Luke's mouth fell open, and he squinted up at the mask.
"You're what? But...," he started, then his voice faded and his eyes searched the room, as if he needed something to anchor himself. "Why didn't you come for me sooner?"
After everything he had sacrificed for his wife and unborn child, he didn't want Luke to think he had been unwanted.
"I only found you after you joined the Imperial Navy."
"I see. I understand," Luke said, and the light in his eyes dulled. "There were some kids like that back home. All they knew about their fathers was that they had passed through Mos Eisley. Once."
"No!" he said. He was a step behind at every turn. Now his son thought he was the product of a casual encounter. "I loved your mother. We were married."
Emotion played over Luke's face before he contained it.
"Then how could you not know about me?"
"So where were you?" Luke said, standing up.
He gazed back at his son. What should he tell him? He couldn't say, I didn't look for you because I thought I killed your mother. But he didn't want to lie, either.
"It's complicated. There were momentous events happening at the time you were born."
"Oh," Luke said. He absently removed his uniform cap and ran his hand through his hair. "Well, then, can I see your face?"
He froze. It was not an unreasonable request. The boy thought he could simply pull off his helmet, as the stormtroopers did. But if he was not ready to tell Luke all the circumstances surrounding his birth, he was truly not ready to reveal what lay beneath the mask.
"That is not possible here. Perhaps at another time."
Luke looked confused, but nodded his acceptance. This hadn't gone exactly how Vader had wanted it to. Luke knew the truth, but they might as well be just Emperor and recruit for all the distance that remained between them. He floundered for what he could do to fulfill his son's wish.
"However, if you wish to see how I appeared at your age, look at my apprentice, Anakin."
"He looks like you?"
He hesitated. "He is my... clone."
Luke furrowed his brow. "You cloned yourself? Why?"
"It was not me," he said. "It was my master's doing."
The tone in Luke's voice made him feel ashamed, as though he was still a slave, not a Dark Lord of the Sith.
"There is much you do not yet understand. Like me, the Force is strong with you."
"I keep hearing that," Luke said, "and I don't know what it means."
He shook his head. Once he, too, had been ignorant of the Force, but it was so long ago he could hardly imagine it anymore. The Force was his strength, his gift, his guide, but to put it into words, he couldn't explain it. Instead, he looked to the desk and called a decorative orb sitting on its top to his hand.
"That is a most basic use of the Force. You have powers you've never dreamt of."
Luke took the orb and examined it. "I can do that?"
"That, and much more," he said. Luke's curiosity loosened his inhibitions. "I want to teach you everything. I want us to rule the Galaxy together."
Luke looked long and hard into the mask, and then he sank down onto the couch. "I'm overwhelmed...sir."
"No more 'sir' ", he said, trying to make Luke understand. "You are my son. You are with me now."
Bail Organa put an elbow on his office desk and leaned his head into his hand, taking a moment to close his eyes. For years the Alliance had struggled along, underground and underfunded, but its leaders had managed to maintain a unified front. Now fate had gifted them with an enormous opportunity, and he was afraid they were going to squander it because they couldn't agree on a course of action. Mon wanted to gather their entire fleet and make a direct move to retake Imperial Center, while Garm Bel Iblis wanted to blockade key trade routes, as the Separatists had done. As for himself, he favored simultaneous insurgencies on multiple worlds, too many for the Empire to address at once. His plan might not give them immediate control, but neither did they risk losing everything. They'd given themselves two standard hours to cool off, and then they'd resume their negotiations over an encrypted channel.
"Father, you should get some rest," Leia said from behind him.
He was tired enough that he hadn't even heard her come into his office. What to do about his daughter during this whole mess was the other matter that had been keeping him awake. Would she be safer at home? With him here in his Senatorial apartment? Or on some distant base? He supposed it all depended on what path the Alliance chose. And then there was the issue of her dating the clone of her biological father. Whatever the Alliance did, he had to stop that scenario here and now.
"I know, sweetheart. There'll be time for that later," he said. "Come sit with me. I need to talk to you."
She pulled one of the chairs around to his side of the desk, and sat near its edge. "Has there been an agreement?"
"No," he said, turning to face her. He knew she wasn't going to take this well. "But I think it would be best if you went back to Alderaan."
Her response was immediate. "I can't leave. What if you need me?"
"Things are going to be unpredictable, and you'll be safer at home," he said.
Her dark eyes pleaded with him. "But you said I was always safest with you. That we'd always watch out for each other."
He had said that. Often. But he couldn't give in this time. "I know. But there's something else. I have new information that suggests the boy you've been seeing is closely tied to the Emperor."
For once, Leia had no quick retort, and merely looked away.
"You knew that was a possibility?" he said, shocked at her response, or lack thereof.
Leia's cheeks flushed. "He made some comments about talking to Vader every day. I thought he made it up."
"I can't allow you to see him again. Or, more importantly, for him to look for you," he said. "That's why you have to go home."
"Maybe I should keep talking to him," she said. "He might say something that could help us."
"No! I forbid it!" he said, loud enough that he surprised himself.
Leia drew herself up in her chair, looking every bit of her regal heritage. "Why?"
"Because I'm your father and I say so," he said, desperate.
She snorted. "That hasn't worked since I was about five. What's going on?"
If revealing the truth would have only hurt him, he'd have done it already. But the damage to Leia would be far greater. "Please, just trust me on this."
Luke placed the last of his clothing into the dresser in his new room. More than triple the size of his old quarters, and minus the bunkmate, this room was apparently more befitting the son of the Emperor. He still wasn't sure what he felt about that. As many times as he had wished that he could have known his father, he almost preferred his childhood daydreams to the reality he'd been given.
In his imagination, his fantasy father had always been there with a warm smile, and a clap on the back for a job well done. They'd taken voyages together on the spice freighter his father navigated, the only real bit of information he'd had. His father's face was always blurry in those fantasies, because he'd never seen a holo to fill in the details. He could hardly believe that after finally meeting his real father, he was no more enlightened about what he looked like. Or that after talking to him, he had more questions instead of less.
Still, he did feel some sort of connection to the Emperor. In place of the spice freighter, there had been a Star Destroyer. And even if he didn't really understand why his father hadn't known his whereabouts, there was no denying that the Emperor had taken immediate action as soon as he discovered him. Luke had no doubt that his father did want them to be together, and maybe that was all that mattered. Maybe he should ignore the sense of unease that his new position of power had given him.
He wished he could magically walk into the old garage back home. Taking things apart and putting them back together always helped him sort out his problems. He supposed he could go down to the Palace hangar, but it was hardly the refuge that the Lars garage had been. With the alternative being to stay in his room, though, it was an easy decision. Now he just had to remember how to get there from the top floor. A stormtrooper had escorted him from the lower level crew barracks, but he'd had been so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn't paid attention to the route they'd taken.
Once outside in the corridor, he picked the direction that felt right, and was relieved when he passed the entry to what the trooper had identified as his father's private suite. He expected to find the turbolifts next, but then a door he hadn't noticed last time opened up, and a young man dressed all in black stepped out into the hallway. Anakin looked down as he adjusted his heavy belt, from which hung a cylindrical weapon similar to Vader's.
Luke paused. Of course Anakin would carry the same type of weapon: he was the Emperor's apprentice. Luke felt a pang of jealousy as he wondered why his father had raised this boy instead of him. Anakin probably knew everything about the Emperor. He might even know everything about Luke.
Anakin smoothed his trousers and swung his head up. His eyes registered no surprise when they met Luke's, as if he had known without looking who waited in the distance.
"What are you doing up here?"
The question made him feel like an intruder.
"I just...uh," he said, jerking a thumb back towards his room. "My father transferred me up here."
"I suppose that was only a matter of time," Anakin said, an odd smile flickering over his face.
Luke moved closer, despite the lack of an invitation.
"The first day we met, you said I was only here because of my father. Did you know all along?"
"No, not exactly," Anakin said, giving Luke an appraising look. "I failed to understand that Vader and the Jedi Anakin Skywalker were one and the same."
Anakin Skywalker. So he did share his father's name, after all. But, then, so must his apprentice. "So, I guess you're Anakin Skywalker, too."
"Yeah, that's right."
"Do you look like him?" he said, trying to imagine an older version of Anakin's features.
"I guess. I've never seen him without the helmet."
That didn't make sense. "But you're his apprentice."
"He'd been injured," Anakin said. "He can't just take it off."
Luke remembered his father's words: There were momentous events happening at the time you were born. He wondered if that included whatever had happened to his father. "Do you act like him, then?"
"Sometimes," Anakin said. "What's with all the questions?"
"He's my father, but I don't even know him," Luke said. "I thought if I got to know you..."
Anakin's expression softened. "Yeah. He's not very good with the details, is he?"
"No," Luke said. "I'm not even sure what he wants from me."
"Join the club," Anakin said, with a mirthless laugh.
Luke suddenly realized that maybe Anakin's life hadn't been as easy as he first thought. "Do you think I'm like him?"
Anakin shrugged. "You're strong in the Force, that's for sure."
Wow. If he had a credit for everytime he'd heard that. "How can you tell?"
"I can feel it," Anakin said. "Can't you?"
"No, " he said, lowering his head. "I don't know anything about the Force."
"Well," Anakin said, shifting in his boots, "I could show you a few things. If you want."
"Yeah, I'd like that," Luke said. He remembered the jealousy he'd felt earlier, and was ashamed. He should have given Anakin more of a chance. "I'm heading down to the hangar. You want to come with me?"
Anakin looked startled. "Umm, sure, I've got a little time."
"Good," Luke said. He had the feeling they both could use a friend. "You can help me work on one of the fighters."
"What I'd really like to know," Anakin said, "is how to fly one. Do you know how?"
"I've flown something similar," Luke said. "I'm sure I could figure it out."
Anakin smiled broadly, the first time Luke had seen him do that. "Teach me that, then."
Obi-Wan stepped out of the rented speeder and onto the plaza surrounding the Imperial Palace. Things were going far too smoothly for his taste. As soon as he violated Palace airspace, some sort of defense should have scrambled to repel him. But there had been nothing. Setting the speeder down on Palace grounds should have sent a squad of stormtroopers rushing up to him, but instead he was alone on the duracrete walkway, sunlight warming his shoulders as if he were taking a stroll through the park.
The only logical explanation was that Vader was expecting him.
His heart pounded in response to his body's tension, but he kept his mind tuned to the Force, and the Force told him all was as it should be. It was now further back to the speeder than it was to the ornate towering doors that marked the formal entrance to the Palace, so escape was a moot point, anyway. He maintained his steady pace down the walkway, the eerie calm weighing on him. The shimmering Palace walls only reflected back his own image, revealing nothing of what waited in the interior. He had almost decided he was going to have to knock and ask if anyone was home, when the tall doors swung open, and an armored figure in black stepped onto the plaza, its cloak rippling in the breeze.
The figure was massive, and the flickering lights on its chest made it seem more droid than human. It remained stationary, arms crossed, even as Obi-Wan drew close enough that he could hear the repeating wheeze that accompanied the figure's breathing. A lightsaber gleamed at the figure's side, completing the impression of ominous power. Just another Sith Lord, he told himself. He repeated that mantra as he walked to within two meters of the still silent figure, wondering what the Force could possible want out of this encounter. Insectile red lenses stared down at him, and he stared back, daring to reach out with the Force.
The presence he sensed was cool and controlled in a way that Anakin had never been, and yet there was something familiar about it. Then a storm of emotion smacked him, seething and roiling, white-hot and intense, and Obi-Wan almost fell to his knees. He sucked in a breath and gazed into the mask. Vader had let down his shields, just enough to remind Obi-Wan who really dwelt inside the armor. Anakin, kriff, it was Anakin. All those times he'd told himself his old padawan was gone, he'd been wrong. Whatever resolve he had mustered to take on Vader again failed, and he knew he was powerless against him. He felt Anakin sneer at him, and then the shields went up, and Vader's cool persona returned.
"Obi-Wan," Vader's mechanical voice boomed, "you should not have come back."
Darth Vader thumbed his lightsaber to life. How many times had he dreamt of this moment, of having Obi-Wan at his mercy, about to pay for everything he'd done? He sensed Obi-Wan's pity, and it only enraged him more. He didn't want Obi-Wan's pity, he wanted Obi-Wan to suffer as he had suffered. He waved his lightsaber at Obi-Wan's chest.
Obi-Wan extended his hand, as if to call his lightsaber, but then hesitated and his hand dropped back to his side.
"Defend yourself!" he roared.
What kind of game was Obi-Wan playing? Vader would not be denied the satisfaction of seeing his old master humbled. He wanted to see the defeat in Obi-Wan's eyes when he realized that Vader was now the master. And he couldn't have that unless Obi-Wan would fight back. Obi-Wan's face was expressionless, but his eyes held that hint of sadness that told Vader he'd disappointed him. Again. He hated that look.
"I won't fight you," Obi-Wan said quietly.
The ridiculousness of the statement threatened to douse his anger, but he nurtured it until its fire grew bright again. He would have his revenge.
"Then this is the end for you," he said, raising his lightsaber.
"Ben! No! Don't kill him!"
Vader paused, lightsaber ready to strike, as Luke came rushing past him. However quiet and reserved Luke had seemed earlier, he was now fully engaged, eyes blazing, and Vader decided he had never really seen his son's true nature before. He stared pointedly at Luke.
"You know him?"
"He's my old neighbor," Luke said, standing protectively in front of Obi-Wan. "You know him?"
"He is my old master," he said, lowering his still lit saber.
So, it wasn't a coincidence that Luke had been raised on Tatooine. Obi-Wan had to have engineered Luke's disappearance, yet another reason Obi-Wan should die.
"Step aside, Luke," Obi-Wan said. "This doesn't involve you."
"Yes it does," Luke said, not budging a centimeter.
Vader's hand clenched around his lightsaber. Luke's face expressed a durasteel resolve. If only his relationship with his son was closer, then Luke would understand. But there hadn't been time yet. If he killed Obi-Wan here, Luke might see him as a murderer, not an avenger. As much as he hated to deny himself the pleasure, it was probably better to leave Obi-Wan alive. For now. He powered down his saber.
"All right. But he is a prisoner."
Just as the hum of his saber faded, another one sprang to life, and a second blur of motion sprinted past Vader towards Obi-Wan's unprotected flank.
"If you're not going to kill this Jedi scum, then I will," Anakin shouted.
Luke leapt from a standing position and tackled Anakin. The impact sent Anakin flat on his back, and his lightsaber skittering across the duracrete. Luke went to get up, but Anakin grabbed his leg and pulled him back down. Luke jabbed an elbow into Anakin's side and suddenly it was a tangle of arms and legs as the two boys wrestled on the walkway.
Vader could scarcely believe his eyes. He didn't allow his crew to conduct themselves in this manner, let alone his son and his apprentice. On the front plaza of the Imperial Palace no less, for the entire Galaxy to see. He reached one black gloved hand down to the scruff of each boy's tunic and pulled them apart, setting them on their feet.
"Enough!" he growled, glancing between Luke and Anakin, who glared at each other as they caught their breath.
Behind him, Obi-Wan chuckled, and he spun around.
"What are you laughing at old man?"
"You, as a father," Obi-Wan said.
"What, you didn't think I had the capacity?" he said, his rage springing anew. "Is that why you stole my son from me?"
The amused expression faded from Obi-Wan's face, replaced by one of great weariness.
"The last time I saw you, you were not yourself."
He certainly had been a different man the last time they were together. Young, whole, filled with a desperate hope that he'd finally freed himself and ensured the safety of his family. But also naive and gullible; he'd fallen for all of Palpatine's tricks and had yet to realize that what he'd done was for naught. Thank the Force he was no longer that boy. He noticed Luke listening attentively, no doubt trying to make sense of the exchange between Obi-Wan and himself. It was time to take Obi-Wan inside before the public spectacle got any bigger.
"Anakin, check the prisoner for weapons."
Anakin retrieved his lightsaber before approaching Obi-Wan. Luke stepped forward, but Obi-Wan stopped him with a quick shake of his head, and held open the sides of his cloak to grant Anakin access. Vader frowned at the sight: Luke had obeyed Obi-Wan without a second thought. Anakin gave Obi-Wan a quick pat-down, removing the lightsaber that hung at Obi-Wan's left side, and then reached further back to unclip a second saber.
"He came prepared, that's for sure," Anakin said, holding a hilt in each hand.
"Let me see that," Vader said, and snatched the second saber from Anakin's grip. The design, the feel, the wear marks: he had no doubt that this was the one he'd lost on Mustafar. He turned to Luke, who was watching the whole process grim-faced and silent. "The prisoner will be held for possession of stolen property."
"Ben is not a thief," Luke said with a hint of anger.
Vader shook the saber hilt at Luke.
"He stole this from me. Among other things."
Obi-Wan retied his sash and secured his cloak. Vader hadn't expected his old master to be so passive, and it made him wonder what Obi-Wan was doing. Was it all a ploy to get into the Palace and to Luke? If so, the sooner he had Obi-Wan secured in a cell, the better. He handed his old saber back to Anakin. "The two of you are to return to your quarters and wait for me while I escort the prisoner. And no fighting."
"Move," Vader said to Obi-Wan, and motioned open the tall doors of the Palace entrance. He ushered Obi-Wan past the line of stormtroopers who waited inside, declining their offer of assistance. "I will handle this myself."
Anakin and Luke headed towards the turbolifts, leaving Vader alone to take Obi-Wan to the detention area. As the two of them made their way through the Palace, their boots clacked against the marble floor in a steady rhythm. Somehow, they had fallen in step together. Vader glanced at Obi-Wan, who seemed unaware, and purposefully altered his stride until they were out of sync.
"I have to say, I was a bit surprised to come across your younger version," Obi-Wan said.
"Then you can imagine mine," he said.
"I thought I sensed Palpatine's handiwork," Obi-Wan said. "Is that why you killed him?"
"I didn't," he said. "Anakin did."
Obi-Wan seemed astonished. "Really? Why?"
"Ask him yourself," he said.
This casual conversation annoyed him, and he didn't want Obi-Wan getting the wrong impression. He stopped and grabbed his old master by the shoulder, turning him until they were facing.
"Look, you're only alive because of Luke. Don't think I've forgiven you."
Obi-Wan knocked away Vader's hand and drew himself up. "Don't think I've forgiven you, either."
He stared for a moment, startled by the flash of shame that ran through him. It had been a long time since anyone had viewed his actions at the Temple as anything but a heroic defense of the Empire. He'd hidden his own feelings behind Palpatine's version of events, and buried his conscience. But Obi-Wan's words stirred an inner voice he didn't like hearing.
He swallowed and resumed walking down the corridor leading to the detention area. To his dismay, fragments of memories were drifting forward, as vivid now as they were then. The acrid smell of smoke as the Temple burned. The shouts and cries of the wounded and dying. The utter detachment, as perfect as the Jedi had always wanted him to have, that had been required to send his lightsaber through the smallest younglings. His stomach churned with disgust, as it had then. His head pounded with uncharacteristic headache, and he looked to Obi-Wan, afraid his weakness had been detected by his old master.
Instead he saw Obi-Wan had stopped several paces back, and was leaning heavily against the wall. Obi-Wan placed a hand to his forehead, and grimaced in pain. It was then that Vader realized the nausea and discomfort he was feeling were not entirely from his memories, but from something happening now. The Force itself seemed to be weeping in anguish, a more massive disturbance than anything he'd ever experienced. He moved closer to Obi-Wan, their differences seeming smaller in light of the horrendous rent in the Force.
"What is that?"
"A great disturbance in the Force," Obi-Wan said. "As if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced."
That was what it felt like. Unfortunately, Vader thought he knew how that could have happened.
Bail Organa squinted at the flickering blue image. Even though he knew holotransmissions were a necessity, there were times when he absolutely hated them, and this was one of them. On the encrypted channel he was using, facial expression and tone of voice tended to get lost, and he just couldn't understand what Garm Bel Iblis was saying.
"You mean Mon is not available?" he said into the transmitter.
"No, I mean I can't find her," came Garm's reply.
"Well, surely one of her aides can find her," Bail said. "Mon should be waiting for this call."
"Don't you hear me?" Garm said, his own frustration showing. "I can't raise anyone on Chandrila. It's like the whole planet is gone."
Luke followed Anakin up the turbolifts and through the Palace corridors towards their top level quarters. Anakin hadn't said a word since their altercation on the plaza, though he had handed Luke the weapon Vader had identified as his. Luke took that to mean he wasn't completely angry with him, but maybe it was only because Anakin didn't want three of the cylinders clanking at his side.
Luke decided he didn't understand Anakin at all. He looked like just another teenage boy, but the friends Luke had back home didn't try to kill people in cold blood. And it wasn't as though they were soft on Tatooine, either. They'd all faced danger from the Tuskens and from the robbers who roamed the desert in search of the unwary. They all grew up knowing how to defend themselves. But defending yourself wasn't the same as striking down an old man for no reason. His outrage bubbled inside of him until he had to let it out.
"What's wrong with you?"
Anakin paused, a decidedly unfriendly look on his face.
"What do you mean?"
"Back there, you were going to kill Ben," he said.
"Of course. He's a Jedi," Anakin said, crossing his arms.
"That's your only reason?" Luke said.
"He'd kill me for being a Sith," Anakin said.
"You're mistaken," Luke said, a little bewildered. Ben had always seemed a bit eccentric, but definitely harmless. "You don't know him like I do."
"You're the one who doesn't know him very well," Anakin snorted. "The Jedi suppressed the Sith for more than a thousand years. We're mortal enemies."
"I don't know," Luke said, trying to absorb what Anakin was saying. "I just can't imagine Ben wanting to hurt you."
"Fine. Don't believe me," Anakin said angrily. "Then ask Vader. The reason he can't take off his helmet is because of what the Jedi did to him."
Luke stared at Anakin. None of this made any sense. Someone like Ben had hurt his father? And what about the accusation his father had made back on the plaza? Was the reason Luke had never known his father really because Ben had stolen him? Luke felt like he'd stumbled into the middle of a great war, one which he knew nothing about. He only hoped he was not expected to pick sides between his father and Ben. He opened his mouth to reply, but found he didn't know what to say. Anakin shook his head and turned away, heading towards his quarters. He was almost to the door of his room when his long stride faltered and he sank to his knees.
Luke rushed to Anakin's side.
"Are you all right?"
"It's a disturbance in the Force," Anakin said, leaning back against the wall. "A big one."
Luke frowned. Everything Anakin had shown him so far had to do with controlling the Force, but apparently there were times when it was overpowering. He reached a hand down. "Here, let me help you."
Anakin waved him off and slowly pushed himself to his feet. "I'm okay."
"So what does that mean, a disturbance in the Force?" Luke said, walking next to Anakin in case he fell again.
"A change," Anakin said, motioning open the door to his quarters. He crossed the threshold and gestured for Luke to follow him. "It could be a person, or an event that changes the course of the future. This was something bad."
Luke walked in, taking a quick survey of the room. The front half held a a dark brown couch and a matching chair, and in the back was a glass table littered with computer components and multi-testers. Anakin eased himself onto the couch and unclipped the lightsaber he'd taken from Ben, tossing it onto the carpeted floor. Luke slid into the side chair and glanced down at the hilt he still clutched in one hand, his father's lightsaber.
"Is the Force dangerous?"
"The Force is power," Anakin said.
Luke considered that answer. "Is that why the Jedi and the Sith are enemies?"
"I suppose," Anakin shrugged. "The Jedi are afraid of the dark side of the Force, and they want to destroy us because we use it."
"But you're not afraid?" Luke asked.
"No," Anakin said, tipping his head up proudly. "The Force is my servant."
Luke wasn't sure he believed that after what happened in the hallway.
"Then why are the Jedi afraid?"
"Because they're cowards," Anakin sneered. "They fear emotion, but emotion feeds the Force. Think of how mad you were that time I hit you with the wrench. Channel that anger into the Force and you're unstoppable."
"My Uncle Owen always said being that angry makes it easy for you to do something you'll regret," Luke said. Actually his uncle had cautioned him more than a few times about his temper.
"A Sith regrets nothing that brings greater power," Anakin said.
Luke shook his head. He couldn't agree with anything Anakin was saying.
"Did my father teach you all this?"
"No, my mentor did. I only met Vader a short time ago."
"You're his clone and you just met?"
"My mentor kept us apart," Anakin said, a troubled look appearing on his face. "I was supposed to defeat Vader and take his place. I killed my mentor instead."
Luke was stunned. He couldn't believe he'd ever been jealous of Anakin's upbringing. All he could think of now was how grateful he was for his aunt and uncle, for Tatooine's wilderness and all the lessons he'd learned there.
"Don't you talk about anything but enemies and schemes and killing people?"
"Treachery is the way of the Sith," Anakin said, sounding less convinced than he had earlier. "What else is there?"
Luke leaned forward. "What about friendship and loyalty? What about doing what's right?"
Whatever was left of Anakin's assured manner slipped away. His gaze dropped downward, and when he raised his head again he looked lost.
"I've never known any of that."
Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin's face appeared as crystal clear on the HoloNet transmission as if he were broadcasting from a studio on Imperial Center. That had better not be the case, Darth Vader thought, because if it were he was going to personally tear Tarkin limb from limb for daring to be so bold. Tarkin didn't even have the courtesy to keep this battle private, instead making Vader watch his pronouncements in real time with the rest of the Galaxy as if he were an ordinary citizen and not the Emperor.
Tarkin's eyes seemed to bore right though the screen as he spoke. "I have begun taking the steps necessary to rid the Empire of the dangerous insurgent elements which threaten us all. Palpatine knew which systems harbored the key leaders of the Rebellion, but his supposed enforcer, Darth Vader, didn't have the courage to deal with these leaders, not even after he appointed himself Emperor. As the true heir to Palpatine's regime, I on the other hand, have no such weakness."
Vader clenched his fist, fighting the impulse to shatter the Holonet screen into a million pieces. Both Luke and Anakin were with him in the Palace strategy room, and he couldn't allow the two of them to think this piece of propaganda was affecting him. He'd retrieved the boys after securing Obi-Wan, but he would have never have brought them to watch the message if he had known its content beforehand. Someone in the Imperial Security Bureau better be tracing this transmission right now, or heads would roll.
Tarkin continued, "Today, I have eliminated the planet of Chandrila, home to the traitorous Senator Mon Mothma. Her open opposition to Palpatine's New Order was well documented, and I can only blame the imposter who sits on the throne for the way she was allowed to conduct acts of treason without punishment."
Of course he knew about Mothma's actions. How many times had he told Palpatine she should be removed, only to have his master still his hand? He'd grown so accustomed to Palpatine's machinations that he'd let the issue go to save himself grief. But explaining that to the citizenry now would appear as a weak excuse in comparison to Tarkin's decisive action.
"As a Grand Moff, I have access to much of the same information Vader does. The difference is, I am willing to put it to use to ensure the safety of the Empire. You have my word that I will protect the integrity of the Empire at all costs," Tarkin said. He leaned into the transmitter, his skeletal face looming larger in the screen. "And for those systems who harbor agents of the Rebellion, know that your turn is coming."
The screen blacked out for a moment, and then two brightly dressed humans spouting inane chatter and waving oversized mugs of caf appeared. Vader waved the screen off, and Anakin was instantly in his face.
"Are you going to let him talk about you like that?" Anakin said, his blue eyes flashing.
"Of course not," he said through gritted teeth. "This traitor will be dealt with immediately."
"He had to have hacked into the main Holonet relay to get that image quality," Anakin said. "They must have at least a ship nearby."
Luke shouldered his way in next to Anakin.
"Did he really destroy an entire planet? We have to stop him."
"I know, I know," he said, holding up a gloved hand to defuse the intensity of the two pairs of eyes staring at him. There was no other choice but to take Devastator in search of Tarkin and the Death Star. "Luke, you will come with me. Anakin, you will remain here."
Anakin's face darkened. "But I'm your apprentice."
"Exactly. I need you here to watch over the Senate and keep me advised of their activities," he said. "But more importantly, I need you to guard the prisoner. Whatever you do, don't let him out."
A Star Destroyer held a crew of nearly forty thousand, a city unto itself. Darth Vader was reminded of that fact as Devastator grew larger in the viewscreen of his shuttle. In all his years as a commander, he'd never placed any of his crew in a position of danger without putting himself on the front line first. But he'd allowed Chandrila to be blown to bits because he'd dismissed Tarkin too quickly. Even though Mothma had been a traitor, Chandrila had been part of his Empire, and he'd failed them. He would not let that happen again.
He looked over at Luke, beside him in the co-pilot's seat. At least this trip in the shuttle was a step forward from their last. Then, Luke had been in his service uniform, their true relationship still hidden. Now Luke was with him as his son, dressed like Anakin in dark trousers and a high necked tunic, down to the lightsaber hanging at his belt. Wait. A lightsaber? He focused on it long enough to see it was the one he'd recovered from Obi-Wan. He was pleased that Luke wanted to carry it, but the saber was extraordinarily dangerous in novice hands.
"You should be careful with that until you know how to use it."
Luke glanced at him, and put his left hand on the hilt.
"Anakin showed me how the controls work."
"Anakin?" he said, with more than a touch of alarm.
"Yeah. I teach him about piloting, and he teaches me about the Force."
He groaned inside his helmet. Who knew what might come out of his apprentice's mouth?
"Don't believe everything he tells you."
"Why not? He's you, isn't he?"
He prickled at his son's defiance, but found his irritation quickly replaced by admiration. The automatic deference Luke had accorded him when they were Emperor and crew member had vanished in the dispute over Obi-Wan, and was apparently not going to return. Such confidence deserved an honest answer.
"He is me, but he was raised by a very manipulative and deceitful man."
"So you don't believe the same things he does?" Luke said eagerily, turning in his seat. "You're not a Sith?"
"I didn't say that," he said, wishing Anakin hadn't opened the subject. "I carry the title of Dark Lord of the Sith."
"Oh. I was hoping you were different," Luke said, sinking back down. "Anakin says a Sith uses anger and treachery as weapons."
"They are paths to the dark side, and great power," he said cautiously. From somewhere within him echoed another voice: Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Of all the things the Jedi had taught him, it was possible that one was true. Maybe he didn't want his son learning that particular lesson.
"Well, I don't think I can do that," Luke said. "No, I know I can't do that."
His eyes jerked reflexively to Luke's face. There was something so absolutely certain in his son's tone, something familiar, and then he realized why. Luke looked similar to Anakin with his blond hair and dark clothes, but his inner strength came not from his father, but from his mother. A chill ran through Vader's scarred and damaged body as he remembered Padme's words: You're going down a path I can't follow. He could feel her staring at him through Luke's blue eyes, and he had to turn away.
"What else has Anakin been discussing with you?" he said into the viewscreen.
"He told me how the Jedi and the Sith are enemies," Luke said, pausing. "Is that why you wanted to kill Ben?"
It was a good thing Anakin wasn't here right now, because Vader felt like throttling him. He had planned to approach these sensitive topics carefully, so that Luke would understand. He pointed a finger at Luke.
"I don't want you talking to Anakin about any of this again."
"How else am I supposed to learn?" Luke said, throwing his hands up. "You haven't told me anything."
He stared into Luke's searching eyes. He did want to teach his son, there just hadn't yet been an opportunity.
"What do you want to know?"
"He also said you were a Jedi once and that your name was Anakin Skywalker."
On the other hand, his apprentice seemed to have found plenty of opportunity.
Luke nodded and took in a deep breath. He hesitated, his eyes flickering over Vader's armor.
"So why did you...What happened that made the Jedi..."
He clenched his jaw, his mind filling in the blanks. So why did you turn against them? What happened to make the Jedi Order extinct? Anakin must have told Luke everything, including about the destruction of the Temple.
He finished the question his son was afraid to ask. "So why did I kill them all?"
Luke retreated in his chair, blinking. If it hadn't been for the sound of the ventilator, the cabin would have been as silent as deep space.
"No, I was going to ask, what made the Jedi attack you?" Luke said. "But I guess you answered that."
Once again he'd been too quick. Too quick to dismiss Tarkin, too quick to judge his son. He'd expected accusations out of Luke's mouth, but the boy had only been concerned. Just like his mother. Amidst the sulphurous fumes of Mustafar, she'd come to say: I was so worried about you. Apparently he was going to have to get used to Padme' looking at him through their son's eyes. Luke was tight-lipped and quiet now, his gaze focused somewhere on Devastator's approaching form. Chandrila had paid the ultimate price for Vader's lack of vision; he could only hope his relationship with his son had not suffered an equally disasterous blow.
Anakin watched the prisoner sleep. Curled on his side to make himself fit on the narrow cell bed, the old man didn't seem like much of a threat. His thick brown cloak was worn and marked by small holes, and his heavy leather boots were well creased. The prisoner looked more like a refugee than an enemy warrior. But appearances could be deceiving; Anakin knew that from living with Palpatine. However old and decrepit his mentor had looked, the power he had possessed had been nearly limitless.
Being in close proximity to Palpatine had always reminded Anakin of standing next to a event horizon, his mentor's Force signature a black nothingness that threatened to pull whatever it touched into an inescapable pit. The prisoner's presence in the Force was similarly still and unrevealing, but it was also oddly comforting, like a sheltering overhang during one of Imperial Center's rare storms. Standing in front of the cell, Anakin felt the tension he'd been carrying since Vader had left start to ease, and he rubbed a hand over his face in relief. Abruptly he caught himself, and shook his head to break the spell. It must be a Jedi mind trick.
He looked at the prisoner's face and was dismayed to discover the prisoner was looking back through half lidded eyes. How long had the old man been watching him? With surprising litheness the old man sat up, and Anakin put a hand to his lightsaber, even though an energy field crackled between them.
"Don't be afraid, my young friend," the prisoner said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"I'm not afraid," he said, though he had the disconcerting feeling that the prisoner could see right through him. "The question is, why aren't you?"
"Should I be?" the prisoner said, a wisp of a smile on his face.
Maybe age had addled the Jedi's mind, because anyone in his predicament ought to be concerned for their life.
"Vader almost killed you. I could have killed you."
The old man's eyes twinkled.
"But you didn't, did you?"
Anakin bristled at the comment. Was the prisoner implying he didn't have the gett'se to carry out the task?
"You couldn't have known that."
"Ah, but I did," the prisoner said, standing up from the bed and walking towards the energy field. "The Force told me I would be safe. The only time it warned me was when I went to draw my weapon."
"That's your weakness, Jedi," he said, fighting the impulse to back away. "You give up control to the Force."
The prisoner shook his head.
"Control is an illusion."
"I'd rather die fighting than give up like you did," he said.
"Now that sounds like the Anakin I knew," the prisoner said.
A shiver ran up his neck. He had never considered he might not be the only clone of Vader.
"The Anakin you knew?"
"Yes," the prisoner said. "Vader was my padawan in his youth, when he still used the name Anakin Skywalker."
He stared at the old Jedi. That was almost worse than finding another of himself. That was real evidence that Vader had been a Jedi, more disturbing than reading the news on a piece of flimsi. In his mind a picture formed of himself in the long robes, his hands hidden in the sleeves, and it made him feel nauseous. He could see Palpatine's lip curling as he described the self-righteous arrogance of the Jedi, and Anakin remembered being so thankful that he was not one of them. He had been proud that his mentor was a Sith Lord, with the power to hold the entire Galaxy in his hand. And yet...
"Your thoughts betray you," the prisoner said, his voice low.
Desperately he scrambled to tighten his mental shields and keep the intruder out.
The prisoner stepped closer, making the energy field crackle and pop.
"So why did you kill him?"
"How did you know it was me?"
"Your master told me."
He summoned his indignation as protection against the Jedi's question.
"I call no one 'Master'."
"Fair enough," the prisoner smiled. "Then Vader told me. Still, why did you do it?"
Anakin wanted to spit back that it was the way of the Sith for the apprentice to kill the mentor, but he was afraid the Jedi would detect his uncertainty. In reality, it had all happened so fast, he could hardly remember deciding. In fact, he didn't remember deciding. He had leapt with a speed and strength that astounded him, his hand guided by something outside himself. Something. Because he had allowed himself to believe what Vader had said. Allowed himself to hope for a different life. He hung his head, feeling the Jedi knew everything already, like Palpatine always did.
"Because Vader warned me against him. He said he didn't want me to end up with his fate."
"Vader said that?" the prisoner asked.
The old man's calm demeanor faltered, and he paced the short length of the energy field, stopping again in front of Anakin. He raised his hands as if to send them through the field, but the snap of electricity stopped him.
"Then why do you keep yourself a prisoner?"
"You're the one in a cell," Anakin retorted.
The Jedi's blue eyes became unnaturally clear.
"You're imprisoned by the dark side. Set yourself free."
Darth Vader hesitated outside the door to Luke's quarters. He was thankful for the lack of foot traffic in the corridor, because if any of Devastator's crew had seen him hesitate at anything, they probably would have fainted in disbelief. He didn't quite understand it himself, but somehow this boy had the power to influence his actions.
When he activated the chime, Luke answered from within, and Vader motioned open the door. Inside, his son was sitting on the floor, back against his bunk and legs outstretched. Luke didn't acknowledge him, instead focusing on a small hessa-ball that he was calling to his hand. The ball skipped erratically on its way to Luke's fingertips, but it eventually reached its destination. Luke picked it up and tossed it towards his feet, and the process started over.
The sight both pleased and troubled Vader. He was pleased that Luke had learned some small amount about the Force, but it was a reminder that his son had learned it all from Anakin. Now that he'd set Devastator hurtling through hyperspace towards the Seswanna Sector and the Death Star, he intended to correct that deficiency.
"Your technique is off."
Luke looked up, his expression guarded. He'd been that way ever since their conversation in the shuttle.
"I just need more practice."
"Perhaps," he said. "Or perhaps you have been taught incorrectly. What did Anakin tell you?"
"That I should imagine the object in my hand."
No wonder Luke was having difficulties: that directive was only part of the process.
"You must first feel the connection...," he began, then realized he was echoing his own early instructions.
"The connection to what?" Luke asked.
What he was about to say sounded so Jedi, but he didn't know how else to explain it. Whatever he'd learned from Palpatine had been built over his base of Jedi knowledge. He had no idea how Palpatine had first taught Anakin to access the Force.
"The connection in the Force between yourself and the object."
Luke looked thoughtful, then turned his gaze upward to the mask.
"So what is the Force, anyways?"
At least that part was straightforward.
"It is an energy field generated by all living things."
"But this ball isn't alive. I should still feel something?" Luke said, extending his hand again.
"It...uh..doesn't matter," he stumbled, quite glad that Anakin wasn't around to hear this. "The Force connects everything: you, me, your bed, the ball. It surrounds us, and binds the Galaxy together."
Luke nodded slowly, and ran his hand over the metal frame of his bunk without actually touching it. Vader smiled to himself, a glow of pride spreading through him at the way the Force brightened when Luke reached for it. Watching his son made the Force seem wonderous again, instead of utilitarian.
"There are better methods to develop your awareness of the Force," he said. He made a quick assessment of the time remaining before Devastator exited hyperspace. "Follow me. And bring your lightsaber."
Some things never changed, Bail Organa mused, no matter whether the Galaxy was Republic or Empire. The significance of this cafe' at the foot of the Senatorial Apartments was one of them. Its four walls of glass let in light from all directions, giving the impression that nothing could be hidden here. In fact, this traditional location for the transaction of business without actually conducting business had only grown more important under the oppression of Palpatine's New Order. And with Emperor Vader gallivanting off somewhere in space, making an official senate convocation impossible, the unsettled energy generated by Chandrila's destruction had filled the cafe' to capacity.
"Terrible tragedy," Senator Farru of Sern Prime said, shaking his head as he paused at Bail's table, his fingers brushing against the pale linen tablecloth.
"Yes," Bail answered solemnly. "Terrible."
Senator Farru bowed his head and moved on, leaving Bail and Leia alone again. Bail turned to his daughter.
"So what does that make it? About two to one?"
Leia thought for a moment, and then nodded.
Bail leaned back in his chair and surveyed the room. Two thirds of the senators had expressed sympathy for Chandrila's demise. But that still left a significant number who thought that Chandrila got what it deserved, enough to make an attempt at retaking the Senate a risky proposition. They'd have enough problems fighting Vader without fighting amomgst themselves.
He looked again to Leia, and found her staring into the distance. Following her line of sight led him to a far table, where the senators from Taanab were being engaged by a tall young man in dark clothing. Bail worked to focus, not sure of who he was seeing. The young man looked in their direction, seeming to hold Bail's gaze, then meandered to another table. When Bail glanced back to Leia, she stared at her plate and picked at her salad.
"That's him, isn't it?"
Leia seemed startled.
"What is that, father's intuition?"
He caught himself before he spoke. In her mind, he shouldn't have recognized the young man.
"I have my sources."
"Oh," she said, sitting up straight. She cleared her throat. "Then they should have told you that I haven't been seeing him."
"Mmmm," he replied, too caught up in watching Anakin steadily work his way closer to address her concern.
Not only was the face identical, but the clone had the same confident manner and long legged stride that Bail remembered from the old days. No cloak flowed around him, but for a moment Bail swore time had reversed, and he was watching the Hero With No Fear return from another victory in the Clone Wars. The illusion only grew stronger the closer Anakin came. When Obi-Wan first spoke of Vader's clone, Bail had felt a distinct unease. But this face, this boy, he only knew as a hero of the Republic, and it was hard to connect it to the black armor.
Anakin picked his way between the diners and swung gracefully to Bail's table.
"Good day, Senator."
The familiar voice only added to Bail's sense of deja-vu.
"Good day," he said, shifting his gaze to Leia. "And I believe you've met my daughter."
Anakin blinked. "We've had occasion to speak, yes."
Leia's eyes shot daggers at Bail, but he ignored them. The real Anakin Skywalker never spoke with such polish, and Bail saw what might be Palpatine's influence in the young man.
"How may we help you?"
"No need," Anakin said."Many of the other...patrons...are concerned about what happened to Chandrila, and I am here to assure you that the Emperor is doing everything possible to capture the traitor who committed the crime."
"Thank you," Bail said. So, Vader and his clone were definitely working together. He wanted to ask the boy what had become of Obi-Wan, but knew that was dangerous ground. "Is there any word of the Emperor's progress?"
Anakin smiled thinly.
"I'm sure you're aware, Senator, that that sort of information is protected. I can only say that everything is going as planned."
Bail raised an eyebrow. Who was this kid? Vader had never shown the acumen to be aware of public relations, let alone to place a representative in that position. But somehow this boy had assumed the role with ease.
"Of course. Just out of curiosity, how long have you worked with Emperor Vader?"
"Long enough," Anakin said, his eyes narrowing. "Why?"
"My daughter tells me you have exceptional knowledge of the Senate and its members," Bail said. "That's impressive for someone of your age."
Anakin ducked his head, and an ear-splitting grin lit his face for a moment, and then it was gone. The expression was completely natural and unpracticed, and Bail realized that Leia sometimes smiled that same way. He'd kept her protected from Vader for so long that he'd never associated anything about her with Anakin Skywalker. Until now.
"Politics is a fascinating subject," Anakin said, his face once again a mask of neutrality. "Wouldn't you agree?"
Bail noticed that Leia was patiently holding her tongue with what had to be monumental effort, and her face bore a hopeful expression. Hopeful, he supposed, that he might grant his approval now that he'd met her suitor. Little did she understand that his approval could never come, and that meeting Anakin only made him more puzzling. Bail looked into the face that had both saved and destroyed the Republic.
Darth Vader examined the lightsaber carefully. Its metal exterior still gleamed, and the controls were unfouled by sand or grit. Wherever it had lain these past sixteen years, it had been well protected. He thumbed it on, and was startled by the blue beam of light. Even though he knew it would be, it had been a long time since he'd seen anything but the scarlet of a Sith weapon. He modified the beam length and intensity before deactivating the saber and handing it back to Luke.
Luke adjusted his stance on the padded floor of the training salle, and reactivated the saber. He swerved it back and forth, making the blade sing, and a grin crept onto his face.
"Remember that a lightsaber will cut through almost anything," he cautioned. "Most alloys, all composites...flesh and bone."
Luke's smile faded, and he nodded seriously.
Vader waved a hand, activating one of the pile of training remotes sitting on the floor. The remote rose in the air, and he stepped back to remove himself from the range of its motion sensors. It focused on Luke, and spun itself into position near his son's face. Luke narrowed his eyes in concentration, lightsaber extended towards the device. The remote hovered, then zipped past Luke's shoulder. Luke spun on his feet, trying to follow the glittering sphere, but it landed a bolt of energy to his left thigh despite his efforts. He grunted, but didn't give up. With his free hand rubbing his leg, he circled the remote, keeping the tip of the saber pointed at it.
Too much motion,Vader thought. Cin Drallig had told him the same thing, during his first lessons inside the Temple. He'd wanted to chase after the remote, to slice it fom the air, but the swordsmaster had gently pulled him back. A Jedi waits, Drallig had told him. The other younglings had snickered at him, they who already had many years of instruction under their belts. Red-faced with embarrassment, he had done his best to hold still. But Drallig never laughed, only patiently guided him. He owed much of his skill to the elder swordsman.
"You are worried about where it is," he said. "You should be feeling where it will be."
"But how can I know that?" Luke said, his eyes still fixed on the remote.
"That is the whole point of this exercise," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Don't think. Just feel."
Luke shook his head and frowned, but remained in position. The remote wavered in altitude, then zigged back and forth in front of Luke. Luke swung the lightsaber in big arcs without matching the remote's path, effectively keeping his whole body covered. With precise timing, the sphere dove for the floor, and shot upward, landing a jolt to Luke's right shoulder.
"Oww," Luke said, retreating from the remote until it hovered, unable to find a target. "I don't get it."
He chuckled inside the helmet.
"Let me show you."
Luke carefully passed him the lightsaber, and Vader took a moment to accustom himself to its feel when ignited. He'd forgotten how good the balance was in this saber. Moving forward, he motioned the rest of the remotes to life, and set their speed to high. He closed his eyes, and reached out into the Force. Each remote tingled in his perception, and he positioned his arm so that the lightsaber was perfectly vertical and directly in front of him.
He felt the constellation of spheres start to circle him, and he waited, completely immersed in the Force. As they began firing, he rocked his arm with absolute certainty in time to deflect the incoming bolts. First right, then left, then up and down. They attacked so fast that a conscious defense would have been impossible. When they swarmed behind him he had to pivot on his feet, but his lightsaber was always there to block the attack. Having faced droidekas in battle during the Clone Wars, this demonstration was remarkably tame, but the feeling of being one with the Force nevertheless made him feel whole.
He let the exercise continue for a brief time, then deactivated his saber. A peppering of zaps made it to his armor before he waved the remotes to the floor and returned the saber to Luke.
"And that, son, is how you do it."
"Wow," Luke said, looking suitably impressed. He hefted the saber hilt in his hand a few times without igniting it. "You know, I've been meaning to ask you, what is a Jedi? Anakin couldn't tell me."
A strangled noise made its way out the vocoder as he choked. Having Luke's trust was a two-edged sword.
"A Force user who follows the precepts of the Jedi Order."
"I could have guessed that," Luke said. "I was hoping that since you were one you could tell me what it was like."
He should have known a simple answer wouldn't satisfy his son. A barrage of thoughts ran through his mind before he settled on a reply.
"We...they...were guardians of the old Republic. They maintained peace throughout the Galaxy."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Luke said.
"You should go on with your exercises," he said, bringing the conversation to a halt. "Use a two-handed grip. It will give you better control."
Luke's eyes searched the mask for a few moments, and then he took the hint.
Vader watched Luke manually activate one of the remotes, followed by the lightsaber. In his mind's eye, though, a different scene played out. The teenage padawans Whie and Bene lay lifeless at his feet, and Cin Drallig stood in front of him. Anakin, what are you doing? the swordsmaster had said, his expression only confused, not hostile. Please, stop. He'd hesitated for a moment, tears forming in his eyes. I'm sorry. I can't. And then he'd struck down Drallig, one of the few real friends he'd had in the Order. He'd stood frozen, and let the troopers of the 501st rush by, their blaster fire taking out the remaining padawans in the training hall. It had been no surprise that Drallig had been there, even less that he'd put the padawans' lives above his own. Guardians. Peacekeepers. Those were the time-worn descriptions of the Jedi. But he'd forgotten the one word that described them most. Protectors. And no, that hadn't been so bad.
Anakin stilled his lightsaber against his thigh, and slowed his pace until his boots no longer clacked against the floor. He'd already withdrawn behind his mental shields, but he wanted to give no alert to the prisoner as he approached the cell block. He didn't know why he was down here. The stormtroopers would have notified him if the containment system had been breached, so there was no need to physically check the prisoner. But even as he argued with himself that he had more important things to do, he found himself outside the Jedi's cell.
Inside, the old man had removed his cloak and boots and was moving gracefully through a series of forms. Anakin melted back against the wall, his eyes following the prisoner's movements. He recognized them as combat maneuvers, but the rhythm and flow of the motion imparted a serenity to the scene, and Anakin felt himself falling into a relaxed state again.
"I could teach you a few katas," the prisoner said, never having looked up.
Just as with Palpatine, he was fooling himself to think that he could hide anything from the old Jedi. But whereas his mentor's perception had usually left him feeling like a vivisected specimen, the prisoner's awareness just seemed matter of fact. Anakin stepped away from the wall and towards the cell.
"I killed Palpatine, remember. I don't need any help."
The prisoner regarded him for a moment, then bowed his head and swept his hand in front of him in a gesture of deference.
"Of course you don't," the old man said before returning to his katas.
Anakin crossed his arms. There was something wrong with this whole situation.The first time the old man had snuck into the Palace, but the second time he'd literally walked right up to the front door. It was one thing for the prisoner to have given up when confronted by Vader, but why did he have to seem so damned content about it?
"Why did you come here?"
The prisoner completed a turn, his socked feet sliding across the tiled floor.
"To rescue Luke."
"From his own father?" he said. "Why?"
The prisoner paused this time, lowering his hands.
"Luke must not become a Sith."
The Jedi were relentless, just as Palpatine had said. However accepting the prisoner seemed of his fate, he was still at war. At war against the Sith.
"Why, because you can't accept the truth of our ways? Because you're afraid of how powerful he might become?"
"No," the prisoner said vehemently, then again, more softly,"no."
The old man turned his back to Anakin and picked up his cloak from where it lay atop his bed. After shrugging it on, he sat down and pulled on his boots, fastening them. He lingered at the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. When he looked up, he considered Anakin for several moments.
"Because of what the dark side did to his father. I won't let that happen to Luke."
The old man's gaze made Anakin feel uncomfortable. It looked too open, too concerned. As if he were telling the truth. Anakin thought of his conversation with Luke, the one in which Luke had asked, Don't you talk about anything but enemies and schemes and killing people? He'd never encountered anyone before who thought all those things were wrong. But what if there was more, to life, to the Force? At least Vader had been able to choose between Jedi and Sith.
The old man seemed to sense his confusion.
"Give yourself over to the Force. Let go of your hate."
His brow wrinkled with tension, and he gritted his teeth. He could feel the pull of the Jedi's words, but he clung to his hold on the dark side, to the only way he'd ever known.
"Let go," the prisoner urged. "If the Force is truly your servant, you can regain control in an instant."
Maybe the old man was right. It was just a trial, just to see, so that he, too, could say he'd made the choice.
"How? How do I do that?"
A noise escaped the prisoner, half laugh, half sob.
"Clear your mind. Let go of everything but the Force. Don't think. Feel."
He squeezed his eyes shut, loosening the bonds of control that had always kept him safe. He could feel the tide of the Force lapping at his feet as if it had been waiting, waiting for this moment. It felt warm against his skin, soothing, encouraging him to keep letting go. As he did so the Force rose all around him, a great sea, rising until he was almost submerged. Panic almost pulled him back, but the Jedi's voice was in his mind- don't be afraid- and he gave over the last of his conscious control. The Force rushed over him, sweeping him away, and to his relief, he didn't drown. He opened himself further and the current of the Force churned faster, taking him with it.
The tightness that was always in his gut and the worry that was always at the back of his mind disappeared, replaced by a sense of peace that was completely foreign. He had the overwhelming feeling that this was right, and that he was meant to do this. How could he have been ignorant of a connection to the Force this strong? Palpatine must have lied about the dark side. But Palpatine always sought greater power, so he would have chosen the light if it was truly more powerful. Maybe that meant the Jedi was lying and this was all an illusion. Anakin's doubt brought a chill to the waters of the Force, and his doubt quickly turned to fear. The serenity that had been such a relief now felt like a trap, and he shed its grip, seizing control the way he'd been trained. He emerged gasping into the reality of the cell block.
"Just like my Anakin," the old Jedi murmured, his eyes glistening in the harsh light. "So brilliant in the Force that sometimes I had to look away."
His heartbeat slowed as he reoriented himself. He still felt as if he were floating, caught somewhere between light and dark. From within the great calm that marked the Jedi's presence drifted a trace of emotion, bittersweet with both sadness and joy. Somehow, his brief journey had been very important to the old man.
"You were Vader's master?"
"Like you, he really had no master," the prisoner said. "He was my brother, my friend."
Those were words he hardly knew the meanings of, especially when they were imbued with the reverence the old man gave them.
"So why are you telling me all this?"
The Jedi smiled sadly.
"Because I lost him. I can still save you."
Darth Vader leaned across the polished black conference table, one hand braced on either side of the Steel Talon's captain, and stared into the quivering officer's face. The man had to know more than he was letting on. The Steel Talon had left Imperial Center under the command of Admiral Motti, so if this captain was now in charge of the ship, there must have been a formal transfer of authority.
"You will tell me the location of Admiral Motti."
The captain's eyes darted to the ring of officers flanking Vader. Even though the men were part of Devastator's crew, he apparently thought he might find more sympathy from them. Eventually the captain's gaze fell to the mirrored surface of the table, and he resigned himself to his fate.
"M'lord, as I said, I don't know. He left on the Havelon and simply instructed me to remain here."
"And you didn't wonder why Motti was abandoning his command?"
"It's not my position to wonder, sir."
He frowned. That response was entirely appropriate.
"Have you seen any unusual vessels while the Talon has been in this sector?"
"No, sir," the captain said, shaking his head. "We've only encountered the Havelon."
Vader stood up from the conference table and slowly walked the perimeter of the room. The captain sat immobile, waves of fear rolling off of him. Vader's crew stood equally still at the back of the room, hands clasped behind them, and eyes focused anywhere but on the captain. Vader paused a moment, receiving the distinct impression that they all expected him to kill the man seated at the table. And not without cause: many a subordinate who had performed unacceptably had fallen in the name of discipline.
But for whatever reason, he felt no inclination to do so this time. The man was clearly telling the truth; he could feel it in the Force. And while his crew had determined that Tarkin's holonet transmission had been sent from this ship, he was also increasingly sure that the ship had been left purposefully as a decoy. How much time had they wasted boarding the Steel Talon and searching its records only to determine that Tarkin was long gone? How much time had he wasted interrogating a man who knew nothing?
"Take this man to the detention center," he announced.
"M'lord?" asked Devastator's vice-admiral.
"He is merely a pawn," he said. "Tarkin is our quarry, not him."
"Yes, m'lord," the vice-admiral answered, moving to apprehend the captain.
The captain went easily, turning to face Vader on the way out.
"Thank you, sir," the man stuttered, reaching out a hand as if he actually intended to touch the black leather.
He stepped back, embarrassed by the man's display.
"The rest of you are dismissed. I will rejoin you on board Devastator shortly."
After they had all left, he pulled out a chair and lowered himself into it. He had failed utterly on this mission. Tarkin had obviously anticipated that he would come roaring after the Grand Moff, and he'd performed exactly as predicted. If he'd thought about it, he'd have realized the improbability of finding a moving target in the vastness of the Galaxy. He should have released probe droids, or sent scout ships, anything that would have allowed him to search multiple systems simultaneously. But instead, he'd been foiled once again by his own impatience.
At the limits of his perception, dark rumblings moved through the Force, and dread gathered in the pit of his stomach. Tarkin had no doubt made good use of the time he'd bought here, and Vader knew it was only a matter of time until the Force relayed the waves of pain and distress that heralded the destruction of another world. He picked up his comlink and signaled Devastator.
"Forward Governor Tarkin's broadcast to me immediately."
"Sir, I've been monitoring all channels," came the reply. "There is no broadcast."
"There will be," he sighed. "There will be."
"Garm, you can't back out now," Bail said into the holoprojector. "The Alliance needs Corellia's strength more than ever."
"They destroyed Dantooine. Dantooine!" Garm Bel Iblis' blue image shouted back. "Tarkin seems to know all our secrets. How do you know Alderaan isn't next?"
Bail clenched his jaw. He didn't. But he wasn't about to fold to Tarkin's terrorist tactics.
"Isn't freedom worth anything to you?"
"It's not worth much if we're all dead," Garm said, folding his arms across his chest.
"So that's it?" Bail said, his disbelief turning to anger. "Treaty dissolved. Just like in the Clone Wars, Corellia only cares about Corellia."
"You might poll your citizens before you pledge their lives to a danger they can't escape," Garm said, his voice going flat."Senator, you are not to contact me about this matter again. Corellia is a loyal supporter of the Empire."
The hologram winked out, leaving Bail staring at the top of his desk. He felt Leia's hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he put his own hand up across hers. He knew Garm was at least partially right. After all, hadn't Bail had kept Leia with him, instead of sending her home as he had originally planned? What protection could he offer Alderaan? But how could he abandon the Alliance's dreams of justice, either? The future had never looked so clouded.
"The fate of the Alliance is in my hands," he said, turning to look into his daughter's face."Pray that I have the wisdom for the task."
Anakin raised his right arm, his hand hovering over the lever that controlled the energy field securing the Jedi's cell. He could have used the Force to depress the lever, but using his hand made the act more deliberate.
Nothing could make the act more sensical. The Jedi was an enemy warrior, and Anakin had no business releasing him. His reward was likely to be the old man turning on him, having waited patiently for the perfect opportunity to strike Anakin down. And even if he didn't, Vader's wrath upon discovering that Anakin had purposefully violated his parting directive was likely to be mighty. But here he was, and not for the first time, teetering on the knife edge of his decision.
And it was not as though the prisoner had encouraged him, either. Sometimes the old man watched him as he stood on the brink, his hand poised over the controls. Other times the Jedi seemed to ignore his struggle, leaving Anakin feeling like a fool unable to make a simple choice. No, it wasn't the prisoner who drove him to this folly, but rather the Force itself. Anakin wasn't sure if he had merely been deaf to the voice of the Force before, or if it had just begun speaking to him, but ever since his brief release of the dark side, it was all he could hear.
One night its urgings had been so loud that they drove him out of bed, and he'd stood in front of the cell in his bare feet and sleep clothes, wrestling with himself. His fear and sense of self preservation had kept him from making the error, but now he was so tired of fighting the voice that he longed to give in. He clamped his fingers around the cool metal of the handle and closed his eyes.
"You must do what you feel is right," the old man said from within the cell, his voice gentle.
Anakin gave a hollow laugh. That was the whole problem. He had no experience in making that kind of choice. He would have dismissed the impulse to free the prisoner, except that the feeling of certainty that came to him every time his hand neared the lever was addictive. To know, to know without doubt or fear or worry, that his decision was right was a comfort he had craved all of his life. Had the Jedi always known such certainty?
The metal handle grew warm and slippery underneath his hand, and he loosened, then retightened his grip. The Force whispered to him once again, and this time he could not resist its call. He ignored his fear and pulled the lever down. The humming transformer that generated the energy field went silent, and Anakin sank to the floor, head bowed, waiting for the apocalypse. The cell bed creaked and he heard the prisoner move towards him. Scuffed boots appeared in his field of vision, and coarse cloth brushed against his arm. With a heavy heart, Anakin looked up into the Jedi's face.
The old man smiled warmly and reached down a hand.
"Get up, Anakin. You're free now."
Blue and white swirls of light mixed outside the view port of the strategy room as Devastator continued its hyperspace journey back towards Imperial Center. Ordinarily Darth Vader might have chosen his meditation pod as a place to work when he was pondering a problem of this magnitude. But the pod was too isolated, and he wanted the reminder of time and space passing to push him towards finding a solution. Imperial Center would come flashing up on the nav computer soon enough, and he had to have a plan by then. He always hated not knowing what to do, but even more he hated being the Emperor and not knowing what to do.
He flipped between screens of intelligence reports on his computer. There were thousands of them. It was difficult to say which of these suspect worlds would draw Tarkin's attention next. Now knowing the Grand Moff's agenda, Chandrila was an obvious first choice as a center of Rebel activity, but the data on Dantooine was less conclusive. He wouldn't have destroyed a world based on the available information, but then absolute ruthlessness was what had endeared Tarkin to Palpatine. After Dantooine, the reports grew even more incomplete, and he couldn't pick a definitive target.
Vader looked away from his computer and towards the other end of the room, where Luke was practicing with a remote. Once he would have relied on the Force for guidance, but it no longer spoke to him that way. Luke was evidence of that: the Force had revealed nothing to him about his son, and he'd found the boy purely by chance. While he still summoned the Force with ease, the prescient visions of things to come that had haunted him in his youth no longer visited him. It was a change he tried not to think about.
In turning to the dark side, he'd seized control of his destiny, and willed himself to ignore the voice of the Force. Palpatine had emphasized that the choice was essential to using the dark side, and at first, it had felt liberating. After chafing so long under the rules and restrictions of the Jedi Order, having absolute permission to do whatever he wanted with his powers had made him drunk with freedom. He'd never considered that the Force might stop speaking if he stopped listening, but that had apparently been the price. Somehow, Palpatine had retained his ability to forsee the future, but maybe that was only because Palpatine had bewitched the Force as he had all those around him.
At the far side of the room, Luke swung his lightsaber with surety, easily meeting the blasts of the remote. It was the lyrical dance of being one with the Force, and Luke exhibited a harmony with the Great Mystery that was out of proportion to the length of his studies. That Luke had advanced so quickly once he'd be taught to connect with the Force was testament to the strength of the Jedi method. As Vader watched his son, he wondered if letting go of the dark would restore the voice of the Force to his ears.
He swallowed hard. But letting go would require him to relinquish control and accept its will, and the very thought of that brought crushing panic to his heart. He wouldn't allow himself to be subject to anyone or anything ever again. He turned back to the computer screen. There had to be another way.
"Senator, did you have advance knowledge of the latest attack?" the reporter asked, his holocam buzzing near Bail's face.
"Of course not. How could I have known?" Bail said, his eyes searching for an escape route.
He turned and pushed his way through the crowd gathered outside the Imperial Senate. Strangers pulled at him and their voices joined to make a rumbling sound that bordered on a roar. He had to find Leia, and get her out of here before the protest turned into a riot. The holocam zipped overhead and swooped down in front of Bail. He swatted at it, but it evaded his hand. The reporter soon joined it, having somehow teleported from one side of the mob to the other.
"Senator, they say you're the leader of the Rebellion," the reporter said, a snarl on his lips. "They say you could have prevented the destruction of Alderaan."
Bail's eyes flew open, and he struggled to orient himself in the dark. His heart still pounding, he stretched his legs against the silken coolness of his bedsheets, the sensation confirming that his confrontation on the Senate plaza had only been a dream. Of course it was, just like the others. A few details changed here and there, but the gist was the same. He sat up in bed and ran a hand through his hair. The future of the Alliance weighed heavily on him, but these dreams seemed more than manifestations of his worries. Each time he was left with the feeling that they were a warning to take action.
But what was there to do against an opponent who destroyed entire worlds? Witnesses from the vessels that escaped Chandrilian orbit by sheer luck had reported a space station the size of a small moon. It might take the entire Imperial Navy to defeat such a weapon, and the Alliance had little firepower and very few capital ships. And despite what Garm thought, Bail wasn't convinced that declaring undying loyalty to the Empire was the path to safety, either. Tarkin wasn't after a peaceful Empire; he was trying to unseat Vader. Tarkin needed a Rebellion to further his cause, and Bail couldn't see him graciously forgiving those systems that came back meekly into the fold.
He pushed himself out of bed and slipped on the robe that lay across its foot. Really, Tarkin had no choice but to continue with his current strategy, because likewise Vader was hardly going to welcome him back into the Imperial family. Tarkin had to defeat Vader, or die trying. Which meant that Tarkin was only going to become less reasonable and more desperate, and more worlds were going to vanish into rubble. Bail crossed the room and stared out the window, the glittering lights of Coruscant as beautiful as ever. Maybe Garm was right: freedom was a luxury that the dead couldn't enjoy.
Bail thought of the clone he'd seen in the cafe, and of how much the boy had made him think of the old days. The sense of hope that having the Jedi in reserve brought to the Republic had almost been more important than their actual deeds. A mission with insurmountable odds wasn't a cause for worry, it was a call for the Hero With No Fear. Anakin Skywalker had possessed such fire and determination that he needed only to be pointed in the right direction, and victory was all but assured. And just knowing there was that possibility had made the stress and uncertainty of the Clone Wars tolerable.
Bail rubbed his hand over his face. He must not be fully awake, because what he was thinking bordered on the ridiculous. He was sure Tarkin didn't stand a chance once Vader caught up to him, and there was a way to ensure that showdown happened sooner than later. It would require sharing information that Bail had spent decades protecting, but doing so could save billions of lives. He also realized that in doing so he risked disappearing into the void as Obi-Wan had, but he couldn't put his own life above the safety of the Alliance.
No, he would have to be at least as brave as his Jedi friend, because it was suddenly clear that to save the Alliance, he would have to betray it.
Darth Vader supposed he should have contacted Anakin before returning to the Palace, just in case some political crisis had arisen in his absence. On the other hand, if trouble was stirring, he was sure Anakin would have informed him. Besides, what he needed to focus on was not soothing fearful politicians, but reviewing Palpatine's files for any reports from Tarkin that had never made it to his own eyes. The thought of going into Palpatine's former living quarters made his skin crawl, but it had to be done.
After exiting the turbolift at the top floor, he paused to give Luke instructions.
"I will be unavailable for a few hours. Find Anakin and let him know we have returned."
Luke tossed his head in the direction of the wing housing their living areas.
"He's right there."
Vader glanced down the corridor, and saw that Luke was correct. Except that Anakin wasn't the only person moving towards them from the far end of the hallway. He was accompanied by an old man in long brown robes who looked remarkably like Obi-Wan. In fact, the two of them were walking close enough to each other that that it might be said that they were together. Which made absolutely no sense. He stood dumbfounded as the pair approached.
"Where are you taking the prisoner?" he said once Anakin and Obi-Wan were within earshot.
"Obi-Wan?" Anakin said. "He doesn't need to be locked up."
He stared at Anakin. What had happened while he was gone?
"I gave you an express order not to release him from his cell."
"I know," Anakin said calmly. Vader had expected him to argue back, but instead he seemed content with his disobedience. "But it went against the will of the Force to keep him imprisoned."
"What have you done to my apprentice?" he growled, turning his gaze to Obi-Wan.
"Nothing," Obi-Wan said, smiling faintly. "He made his own choices."
Inside the helmet, his mouth fell open and he blinked dumbly for a moment.
"Fine. I will return him to his cell myself."
"Don't you listen to the Force?" Anakin said, his tone bordering on a reprimand.
Nothing? Obi-Wan called brainwashing nothing?
"What happened to the Sith who said the Force is my servant?"
"I couldn't hear its voice before. Don't you?"
"Of course I do," he said indignantly.
He was not about to admit to a deficiency in front of both his son and Obi-Wan.
"Then why would you go against its will?" Anakin persisted.
"The two of you obviously cannot be trusted together," he said, glancing between his apprentice and his old master. "Luke, take Anakin somewhere and keep him occupied."
"C'mon," Luke said, looking amused. "I've got things to show you."
"Well, are you going to lock me up?" Obi-Wan said, as Luke and Anakin disappeared into the turbolift.
He glared at the old man as he considered his choices.
"No," he said curtly.
"Good, it was a little cramped in there," Obi-Wan said. "I did feel another disturbance while you were gone. I take it you didn't find Tarkin?"
How did Obi-Wan know what his mission had been? Had Anakin told his new friend everything?
"We tracked him to a Star Destroyer in the Seswanna Sector. Unfortunately the trail went cold."
"Hmmm," Obi-Wan said, shaking his head. "So many places to hide in the Outer Rim. Just like when we were chasing Grievous."
"Yes," he said, nodding his head, before he caught himself. He didn't need Obi-Wan's advice. "If you will excuse me, I have work to do."
"Of course," Obi-Wan said, bowing his head. "Do you mind if I follow you? I don't know my way around here very well and you just dismissed my guide."
He frowned to himself. He didn't know what was worse: Obi-Wan keeping him company, or Obi-Wan loose in the Palace. The former was probably less dangerous.
"Only if you do not disturb me."
"I'll try not to," Obi-Wan said.
He whirled about and headed in the direction of the cluster of rooms that had been Palpatine's private sanctum. The last time he'd ventured into this area, Palpatine had still been alive, and he had the eerie feeling that he still lurked in its confines. The Force told him that wasn't so, but his unease persisted. Dust on the statuary in the halls said that the cleaning staff felt the same way.
Beside him Obi-Wan shivered.
"There's something wrong here. The dark side is strong in this place."
"We are going to Palpatine's old quarters," he said.
"Ugh," Obi-Wan grimaced. "You could have warned me."
He glanced over at Obi-Wan.
"It's not pleasant for me, either."
"Then why come here?" Obi-Wan asked with disgust.
"To search his personal files for information on the Rebellion," he said.
Obi-Wan was silent for several strides.
"Why are you trying so hard to stop Tarkin? It seems like he's merely eliminating your opposition."
He came to a halt, struck by the absurdity of the statement.
"He has destroyed entire planets. I cannot believe you would support that."
"I don't," Obi-Wan said. "I just didn't think it was possible we agreed on anything anymore."
He considered Obi-Wan for a moment. No, it shouldn't be possible that they were in agreement. He turned abruptly and hurried down the corridor.
"So what are you going to do about Tarkin?" Obi-Wan said, struggling to catch up.
He clenched his jaw. If only he knew that himself.
"I will find a solution."
"Whatever weapon he's using must have a hyperdrive," Obi-Wan continued. "It was only a matter of days between the attacks."
Why did Obi-Wan always have to belabor the obvious?
"I will find a solution."
"And he must have the allegiance of part of the fleet, or else the ships in that sector would have already brought him down."
He couldn't take any more of Obi-Wan's interference.
"I said I will figure it out. While you were playing in the sand these last twenty years, I have been working to keep the Empire safe."
"I was exiled to your homeworld to watch over your son," Obi-Wan said, with a flash in his eyes. He turned towards the turbolifts. "Stars forbid that I should question the great Emperor."
"I thought you said you didn't know your way around here," he shot back.
"I have the Force," Obi-Wan said without looking back. "I'll figure it out."
He watched the brown robed figure until it disappeared. Around him the air grew cold and oppressive, and he shivered inside the black leather suit. Somehow, once again he'd been left with only Palpatine for company.
Wind whipped over the speeder's short viewscreen and rustled through Luke's hair. He was reminded of riding with Biggs down the twisting turns of Beggar's Canyon, except that in an open speeder, the roar of traffic in Imperial Center was deafening. Beside him, Anakin said something, but the wind grabbed the words and flung them away. The smile on Anakin's face said it all anyway, especially since Luke could hardly ever remember seeing Anakin smile. The grin he wore now was absolutely free and joyous, and light danced in his eyes.
The Palace hangar loomed dead ahead, and Luke reflexively turned his head towards the structure, even though he wasn't the pilot. He glanced back at Anakin, and was distressed to see that Anakin had his eyes closed. He thumped the other boy on the arm.
"Watch where you're going!"
Anakin's smile widened, but his eyes remained closed. Luke squeezed the air as if the control yoke were in his hands instead of Anakin's, and finally he ducked his head since the speeder continued hurtling towards the hangar bay. Miraculously, they passed through the opening, and Luke felt the speeder at last start to slow. The repulsors kicked on, and the craft came to a gentle rest in almost exactly the same spot they'd departed from.
Luke hopped out of the speeder as if it were on fire.
"Were you trying to get us killed?"
"No," Anakin said, sounding puzzled. "I was using the Force."
Luke thought about that for a moment.
"Well, that was the best landing I've seen you do."
"Thanks," Anakin said, pushing himself out of the pilot's seat and onto the deck.
Luke was tempted to ask the same question his father had: What did Ben do to you?, but that didn't seem very polite. Still, Anakin was like an entirely different person.
"So, uh, Ben didn't kill you after all?"
"It was stupid to think that, wasn't it?"
"Maybe," Luke shrugged. "And you don't want to kill him?"
"Obi-Wan is my friend," Anakin said, shaking his head. "He opened my eyes to the true nature of the Force."
Anakin didn't just seem like a different person; he'd undergone a transformation.
"Now if only my father didn't hate him."
"Vader and Obi-Wan were very close once," Anakin said. "Obi-Wan called him his brother."
Luke frowned. Everything was so complicated. He wondered if he'd ever know the whole truth.
"What was it that you wanted to show me?" Anakin said.
"Oh, nothing," he said, rousing from his thoughts. He spotted a loose glove lying in the back of the speeder, and called it to his hand. "Just that. My father's been teaching me."
"That's good," Anakin said. "I can feel that you're stronger in the Force."
"Yeah," Anakin said, walking towards the larger ships in the hangar. "Let's forget this speeder and go find something that can really fly."
The Imperial Palace looked as grandiose as ever, its dark mirrored exterior matched by the expensive Sittana marble of the interior foyer. But as Bail waited for Darth Vader, he decided it felt entirely different with Palpatine gone. Around him, white armored stormtroopers lined the entry, making an impressive display, but Bail saw virtually no other type of staff member. Not even the mysterious red robed Imperial Guards who had followed Palpatine everywhere were evident. It was as if the Palace was under occupation, rather than in the possession of a new Emperor.
Vader's mechanized breathing announced him, and Bail turned towards the sound. He'd seen Vader from afar numerous times, of course, but it had many years since they had been face to face. He'd forgotten the visceral impact of being in close quarters with him. Bail had to look up to meet Vader's lenses, and that was not a position he was accustomed to, his own commanding height usually making others look up to him. The black armor compounded the impression of great physical strength, and knowing that Vader also wielded Force powers made Bail's mouth go dry with primitive fear.
"Thank you for seeing me, your highness," Bail said, finding comfort in the formality of his words.
"My time is quite limited, Senator," Vader said. "You said you had knowledge I would find useful."
"And I do," Bail said. Vader was definitely not Palpatine. Not a politician, but a soldier. He cast his eyes around the foyer. "If we might have a moment of privacy."
Vader's helmet quirked, and then he extended one hand towards the leftmost corridor leading off the entry. Bail supposed not many people asked to be closed in a room with the Dark Lord. He followed Vader down the hall, surprised that he had not been first searched for weapons. Anakin Skywalker's confidence was one thing Vader hadn't lost. The Emperor led him through a door into a small workroom. Inside, the walls were matte grey and the chairs surrounding the oval table were covered in fabric instead of synthleather. Bail was sure Palpatine would have killed himself before entertaining a guest in a room as plain as this. Vader took a seat at the head of the table, and Bail, not wanting to breach some protocol by sitting too close, took a seat at the opposing end.
The sound of the Emperor's ventilator resonated within the confined space, but Vader said nothing. Bail guessed that was his cue to start.
"We know each other, you and I."
"Of course we do, Senator Organa," Vader said flatly. "Your constituents will be glad to hear you haven't lost your faculties."
"No, that's not what I mean," Bail said. He gazed down the length of the table, wishing he could see Vader's face. His politician's mind found the mask's lack of expression maddening. "We know each other from the old days. From the Republic."
The silence stretched long enough that Bail decided Vader wasn't going to reply. On the other hand, no invisible fingers had tightened around Bail's neck, nor had Vader drawn his lightsaber. There was nothing to do but push forward.
"I remember how you liberated Virujansi. I read the first-hand reports of your actions at Praesitlyn. I watched the holo of you landing the Invisible Hand after the Battle of Coruscant."
Bail thought some of what he was saying had to be making an impact, but the mask stared at him dispassionately as ever.
"Perhaps you did," Vader said finally.
A smile of relief came to Bail's face, and a thrill ran through him. That was as big an admission as he'd ever wrung from any opponent in the Senate.
"I...we...need you again. We need your help in stopping Tarkin."
"I am already engaged in bringing Tarkin to justice," Vader said. "Are you unhappy with my efforts?"
"No, no, of course not," Bail said quickly. The last thing he wanted to do was raise Vader's ire. "But I am asking for your mercy in exchange for information."
"What kind of information?"
Bail swallowed. Here went everything. However much Vader had tolerated his previous statements, what he was about to say required the biggest leap of faith. He imagined the mask dissolved, and the clone's face there instead. It helped to think he was talking to a man and not a machine.
"I can give you a list of systems that are most likely to be Tarkin's next targets."
"And how have you acquired this knowledge?"
"Tarkin is going after worlds with certain...affiliations," he said, hesitating before he pronounced the most damning words. "I have been in communication with the leaders of other worlds of this type."
Vader stood up from his chair and slowly walked towards Bail, one hand atop his lightsaber hilt.
"You have come to me as part of the Rebel Alliance, and you expect my mercy?"
Bail looked down, his heart in his throat. Maybe he had risked too much.
"Not expecting, your highness, merely hoping."
"Why?" Vader asked, pausing next to Bail.
Bail looked up into the mask, and for a moment he thought he saw eyes revealed behind the red lenses.
"Because you fought for our lives before. I'm hoping you'll do so again."
Anakin hurried through the Palace halls towards the grand foyer. It was virtually unheard of to have an intruder in the Palace, but it had happened, and on his watch. He felt no sense of danger in the Force, but that didn't lessen his feeling of urgency. With Vader unreachable in some meeting, the stormtroopers had summoned him, and he would fulfill his role as the Emperor's apprentice.
The sound of a female voice in the Palace was also a rarity, and it caught Anakin's attention immediately. Whoever she was, she was fighting mad.
"Ma'am, ma'am," he heard one of the stormtroopers say. "Ma'am, you have to hold still."
Anakin burst into the far end of the foyer and was amazed to see Leia Organa struggling in the grip of Commander Rell. She looked so small up against the white armor.
"Let her go," he said in his most authoritative voice, supplementing it with a touch of Force suggestion.
The commander obeyed promptly, and Leia yanked her arms free and smoothed her clothing. Anakin didn't know what kind of fabric her gown was made of, but its pale yellow color shimmered like the sun. She looked more beautiful than ever, even with the withering expression she gave the stormtroopers.
"She demanded to see the Emperor," the commander said. "She refused to leave."
Anakin nodded solemnly as he approached. "I'll take it from here."
He grabbed Leia around the bicep in a way that he hoped appeared forceful enough, but that wouldn't actually hurt her.
"Don't say anything," he whispered into her ear.
To his relief she didn't protest, and he led her down the left corridor to an alcove beyond the visual range of the troopers. He relaxed his grip and let his fingers slide down her arm.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for my father," she said, her dark eyes glittering. "He's overdue to return from a meeting with the Emperor."
He felt a trace of disappointment that she hadn't said she was here to see him. Having her inside his home seemed so personal. He took her hand in his and leaned forward.
"Meetings don't always run on time. I'm sure everything's all right."
She tilted her head up towards him. "He missed an appointment at the embassy. That's never happened before."
Her lips were just centimeters from his. He wondered if he leaned down to kiss her, if she'd let him. In the back of his mind, a voice asked why she would be worried about her father speaking with Vader, but he ignored it. His fingers intertwined with hers, and he stepped closer, so that they were almost touching. Heat coursed through him like he was on fire.
Leia's mouth fell open, and her eyes searched his, but then she shook her head as if to wake herself.
"You work with the Emperor, don't you? You can help me find him, right?"
"I can help you with anything," he said softly, releasing her hand to place his around her waist.
Her gown was silken ecstasy beneath his fingertips, and he pressed at the small of her back to bring her to him. For a moment she didn't resist, and their bodies brushed together.
She seemed to start at the sensation, and grabbed his hand, pushing it back to his side.
"Then let's go."
He heard her, but his mind was too incoherent to comprehend her words. All he wanted to do was touch her again. She stepped away and looked at him expectantly. Under her scrutiny, the ability to think returned to him.
"Okay, sure," he said with a sigh. He stepped out from the alcove and motioned for her to follow him.
She moved to his side and stretched up to kiss him on the cheek.
"I knew I could count on you."
Darth Vader lifted the stylus from his handheld touchscreen. He'd known the Rebel Alliance was growing in strength - the increasing number of acts of sabotage was evidence of that - but to hear the names of the member worlds and the reasons why they had joined the Alliance caught him off guard. It wasn't as easy to say that they were all traitorous malcontents. He looked to Bail Organa, seated next to him in the small workroom.
"Are there more?"
"Mon Calamari. Tarkin holds the former leader of their Council as a slave."
Vader leaned back in his seat. Mon Calamari had long been a thorn for the Empire, fighting openly against Palpatine's attempts to bring the world into line with the precepts of the New Order, precepts that included the subjugation of non-human species. Having grown up on Tatooine, speaking Huttese and Toydarian as easily as he spoke Basic, Vader never understood Palpatine's bias, but like everything else about Palpatine, it went unquestioned. That both sentient races of the Mon Calamari world had overcome their distrust of humans to join with the Rebels bespoke of their hatred for the Empire.
"Gerrard Five," Bail said. "And Ralltir. Banking assets have been seized by Imperial factions."
Both Core worlds, the first systems Organa had named that weren't on the Galactic periphery. That the Rebels had infiltrated so close to Imperial Center alarmed him. The Empire wasn't fighting isolated insurgents, but rather a coordinated network that linked multiple systems. If the Rebels were ever to gather enough ships to engage the Imperial Navy, the Galaxy would once again be facing civil war. Had Palpatine been truly unaware of the extent of the Rebellion, or, in typical fashion, had his former master kept the truth to himself? He noted the names on the touchscreen, and then lifted his hand in silent query.
"Zephyr Base on Rori," Organa said. "It's a moon of...Naboo."
He flinched at the name, a flood of images flashing through his mind before he could stop them. Theed...the grassy plains of the Lake Country...the absolute beauty of Varykino...his wedding night...her. Emotion swelled in him the way it always did with those memories, and his face flushed hot. He glanced at Organa, embarrassed even though the mask concealed him. But Organa had already averted his eyes, as if he had known the reaction the mention of Naboo would produce.
He stared at the senator. It was strange enough that Organa knew that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were one and the same, but how could the senator know Skywalker's secrets?
"How long have you known?" he asked cautiously. "About me."
Organa hesitated. "Since the beginning."
How was that possible? Organa had been one of Padme's closer friends in the Senate, that he knew. Just as with Luke, he had the disconcerting feeling that some part of her looked back at him through Organa's eyes. He cleared his throat.
"Any more systems?"
"Well, of course, Alderaan," Organa said, lowering his gaze.
He had to respect Organa for his honesty. The senator could have avoided implicating himself by claiming to have only stumbled across the information he'd just presented. He could have even tried to appear the loyalist by reporting the information as treasonous actions, but not once had he evaded culpability. Vader stood up from the table.
"Thank you, Senator, for your candor."
"Is that it?" Organa said with a surprised look." Am I free to go?"
"I must assemble the fleet immediately," he said. In truth, he should arrest Organa for crimes against the Empire. Had Tarkin's actions not pressured the senator to seek protection, Organa would likely be devising plans to undermine the Imperial government at this very moment. But by reciting the list of Clone Wars victories, Organa had shown that while he needed Darth Vader's power, who he trusted was Anakin Skywalker. That trust felt like a contract, and Vader found he couldn't violate it. "Besides, I know where to find you."
"Thank you, your highness," Organa said, rising swiftly.
He led the senator out of the workroom and back towards the Palace entrance. As soon as he dismissed Organa, he would begin making contact with his admirals. At the edge of his awareness, he felt Anakin nearby. Good. He would need the boy on this mission.
"Leia!" Organa shouted, rushing forward. "What are you doing here?"
Startled, Vader looked up in time to spot Anakin in an alcove, distentangling himself from an embrace of the senator's daughter. The girl quickly distanced herself from Anakin as her father strode up to her.
"I forbade you to see him!" Organa said, staring down at his daughter.
Curious, Vader moved closer to the trio. Anakin looked mortified.
"Do you have a problem with my apprentice, Senator?"
"No, no, of course not," Organa said, mustering what Vader recognized as a politician's smile. "I'm sure he's a fine young man."
"Perhaps your plea to me was not as sincere as it seemed," he said. "We both know who he resembles."
"I am most grateful for your assistance. It's not him, it's her. She's too immature to be dating."
"Father!" Leia exclaimed. "I can't believe you said that."
"She daydreams and hardly pays attention to her work," Organa said. "I'm forced to be very strict with her."
Leia's eyes spat blasterfire. "That's not true!"
"You see," Organa said, throwing up his hands in defeat. "It's all I can do to keep her in line."
Leia turned on her heel and stomped down the corridor. Organa followed her, turning back towards Vader.
"Be glad you have a boy."
Anakin darted towards her, but Vader restrained him.
"There will be time enough for that later. First, we have a battle to win."
"Admiral, you will lead your ships into the Telos system," Darth Vader said into the holotransmitter. "Report any unauthorized vessels immediately. Is that clear?"
"Yes, m'lord," the admiral said, nodding, and then his blue image flickered out.
Star Destroyers were now deployed to each of the eight Rebel targets, save for Alderaan, which would be guarded by Devastator as soon as he finished gathering his support troops. He could hardly wait to see the look of surprise on Tarkin's face when they stormed into the central control room of the Death Star. He swiveled his chair towards Anakin, who sat in an identical hardbacked seat entering ship positions into the command screen. He would need his apprentice like never before, in real combat. He remembered how fierce the boy had been when they first met; Anakin had seethed with an energy that demanded an outlet. Obi-Wan had picked a hell of a time to make the boy go soft.
"Are you ready for this?"
"Sure," Anakin said, his eyes fixed on the screen and his fingers flying over the keys.
"Do you remember how to fight?" he said. "Or has Obi-Wan filled your head with too many Jedi ideals?"
"The Jedi knew how to fight," Anakin said. "Obi-Wan told me about some of the battles you fought together in the Clone Wars."
He grunted and turned back to the display. Of course he knew about the combat abilities of the Jedi, but he couldn't resist teasing his apprentice for his newly found beliefs.
"Why was he telling you about the past?"
"He said it would help me understand who I am," Anakin said.
"You never lived that life," he said with annoyance. "You are the trained protege of Sith Lords."
"Exactly. He wants to save me from the dark side," Anakin said. He typed in another set of coordinates and a new green blip appeared around Tierfon. "He thinks you're beyond saving, though."
He snorted at Obi-Wan's arrogance.
"I am not in need of saving."
"So, uh, why do you hold on to the dark side?"
"What?" he said, turning abruptly.
"I didn't know anything else," Anakin said with a shrug. "But you've seen both sides. Why didn't you go back once Palpatine was gone?"
The presumption that the light was the superior way filled him with sudden fury.
"Do you understand the path you're choosing? Do you really know what accepting the will of the Force means?"
"I guess," Anakin said, shrinking back in his seat. "I can feel when what I'm doing is right."
He shook his head in disgust. What a naive simplification.
"Terrible events are going to unfold and you will be expected to do nothing about them. People you care about are going to die and you will be supposed to just accept that. Because it will be the will of the Force."
Uncertainty crawled over Anakin's face, prompting Vader to drive his point home.
"Can you do that? Can you?" he said. "Because I couldn't."
He turned back to the glowing display, and attempted to focus on tactical maneuvers. He shouldn't have allowed the discussion to aggravate him so much. When he realized Anakin was still staring at him, he sighed and looked over at the boy.
Anakin was wearing his most serious face.
"Will I still be your apprentice if I'm not a Sith anymore?"
The concern in the boy's voice mellowed his anger.
"What does the Force tell you about hunting down Tarkin?"
Anakin thought for a moment.
"That we need to do it. That he must be stopped."
"Good. Then we are in agreement," he said, returning to his work.
"What about Luke?"
"What about him?"
"Is he going into battle with us?"
He shook his head. Some day.
"He does not have enough training. He will have to stay on board Devastator."
Obi-Wan. Now there was a quandary. While he'd restrained his desire to kill the old man for Luke's sake, he wasn't ready to turn his old master loose, either.
"We will have to bring him. To keep him from escaping."
Bail knew just how angry his daughter was by the fact that she'd said nothing on the trip home from the Palace. If she was angry, she'd let him know it, but if she was really angry, a resolute wall of silence went up that required careful dismantling. And she had every right to be. He'd extricated them from a delicate situation by sacrificing her reputation. He glanced over at her, the wind streaming through the cockpit of his speeder and ruffling her hair. She focused dead ahead, her lips tight, and her chin held high.
He sighed as he brought his gaze back to the traffic lane. To fix this, he would have to tell her the truth. It was a conversation he'd rehearsed many times, knowing this day might come, though he always fervently hoped that it would not. But she was owed the truth now. He guided the speeder into the hangar of the Senatorial apartments. He let her jump out and storm ahead, knowing that what he had to do could only take place in the privacy of their home. That she held the elevator for him was at least a small concession of civility. Once at their floor, however, she again leapt ahead.
By the time he made it to the door of their apartment, Leia was already half way across the long formal living room.
"I'm sorry," he called to her receding form.
"How could you?" she said, whirling about to face him. "And in front of the Emperor!"
"Believe me, it was necessary," he said, closing the distance between them. "I had to get us out of there safely."
"And belittling me was all you could think of?" She turned away and walked slowly to the end of the room. "Is that how you really feel, that you'd have rather had a son?"
"No...no," he said desperately. He went to her side, gently grasping her shoulders to turn her towards him. Her eyes were rimmed with tears, and she immediately dropped her gaze. He tilted her chin up with one hand until she looked him in the eye. "Listen to me. I chose you. Hmmm? I chose you."
She swallowed hard, and then he pulled her close. At last she relinquished her anger, returning his hug and sniffling into his shoulder. He stroked her hair the way he'd done since was a child.
"You mean more to me than life itself. I couldn't be any prouder of you."
"Then why did you say those things?" she said.
A lump formed in his throat. This was it. There was no delaying the truth any longer.
"Here, please sit," he said, guiding her to the couch. He took one of her hands and pressed it between his. "Your mother and I never hid the fact that you were adopted."
"Yes," she said, her brow heavy with concern.
"Well, your friend Anakin is a clone of your biological father."
"What?" she said, pulling her hand free. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. "Ewww. I kissed him."
He shivered internally and tried very hard not to let it show on his face.
"Why didn't you say something sooner?" she said.
"I didn't know at first," he said. The shock he'd felt at Obi-Wan's discovery replayed in his mind. "But after, I just couldn't bring myself to tell you. Because that boy is a clone of Darth Vader."
"But that means..." her voice trailed off, and she drew herself up on the couch. "That can't be...that's impossible."
He nodded and looked into her eyes. "I know it's hard to hear. I have kept you protected from him and that truth your whole life."
"But he doesn't even seem human," she said, her gaze defocused. "He's done such terrible things."
"Which have nothing to do with you," he said. "When I first knew Vader he looked like that boy. He was a Jedi and a hero of the Republic. If there's a bright spot in all this, it's that you've seen your father how he was. Think of him like your friend, not the monstrosity he's become."
And even as he said that, to give her the peace that she deserved, he knew he had risked everything that some of that boy was still inside the armor.
Cool air rushed over Darth Vader's face as the mechanical arm lifted his helmet to the ceiling of the meditation pod. He leaned his head back against the padded synthleather of the chair and closed his eyes. With Star Destroyers enroute to each of the eight Rebel targets, and his entire crew busied with their assignments, he could allow himself a moment of rest.
A curious thing, Organa's disclosure. Just when Vader was struggling most for a solution to the Tarkin problem, an answer had dropped in his lap. It was so smoothly timed, that if he were a Jedi he'd say it was the will of the Force. But he was not, so it was not. Still Anakin's query stuck in his mind: Why do you hold onto the dark side? Hadn't his first thought after Palpatine's death been that at long last he was free? And yet nothing had changed. What was holding him back?
He opened his eyes and shifted in his chair. Reflection was a luxury in a time of combat. Better that he review his plans one more time. He waved on the display, recalling the Galaxy map marked with the target worlds and the Star Destroyers assigned to them. He had no doubt that Organa had given him good information, and he was certain they would encounter Tarkin and the Death Star in one of the named systems. If only he knew for sure which of the eight Tarkin would attack next, he could direct maximum firepower to that location.
As he considered each system, he realized he had only data to go by, and not even a hint of guidance from the Force. Maybe here, alone, was the place to release the dark side, at least long enough to see if his visions would return. To look into the future and forsee Tarkin's location would be worth the risk. He closed his eyes again, and drew in as deep a breath as his damaged lungs would allow. He slowly repeated the process, a pale imitation of the last time he had meditated Jedi style, when his body had still been young and whole. His mind rebelled against the languor that seeped into him, holding shields in place by habits so long established that they'd become purely unconscious. He made himself let go, moving closer towards the quiet state from which his visions had always sprung.
As he relaxed, a dull ache gripped his heart, and a heavy weight settled in his chest. The love he knew he felt for Luke sprang forth with desperate strength. Force, he loved the boy so much, why hadn't he done more than merely drag him around everywhere? Why hadn't he talked to him, told him about the mother who he so resembled? Why hadn't they ever talked truly face to face, as his son had asked? He'd wanted to do all that, so why hadn't he? He shuddered at the intensity of his feelings, and pushed them aside, being careful not to break the meditative state. Dwelling on what he felt for Luke would not help him defeat Tarkin.
The ache in his heart thankfully receded, and he drifted through nothingness, waiting for the glimmer of an approaching vision. He gasped as unbearable heat and horrific pain enveloped his body. All he could see was Obi-Wan walking away, climbing the dark rocky shore without looking back. Despair surged through him, followed by total helplessness. He despised the feeling, so he smothered it with anger. The dark side threatened all around him, and reluctantly he released his anger back into the Force. When that emotion drained from him, though, the others remained. Sorrow and disbelief were melded together, resurrecting the question that had haunted him as he laid on the black sand, unable to help himself. How could you leave me? It was a question that echoed even as he prepared to kill Obi-Wan on the Palace steps. It had surprised him that some part of him still needed an answer. He put a hand to his chest, feeling a pain not unlike the one he felt when he thought of Luke. That made no sense, not unless...
He groaned. These were not the revelations he was seeking. He needed a vision of the future, not a replay of his past. He breathed deeply again, and rid himself of the unwanted feelings that had arisen from the depths. Even though he was shunning the dark, his conscious self was still too much in control, and he knew he had to surrender himself more completely to the Force. Summoning lessons taught to him in his youth, he stilled his mind and tried to just be.
His perception of time slowed, and he sat immersed in the Force until he found himself walking down the corridor of a ship. The light fixtures were current design, as if this was happening now, and not another memory dredged from the past. A sense of urgency propelled him forward, and a spray of blaster bolts raged through the approaching intersection. He heard the answering hum of a lightsaber, and then there was another flurry of blaster fire, followed by a muffled cry. He quickly thumbed his own weapon to life and cautiously rounded the corner into the opposing hallway.
A blond young man lay sprawled across the deck, while stormtroopers retreated behind a blast door. He hurried to the boy's side, only to be taken aback by the sight of his own face in death. He glanced at the clothing and the lightsaber hilt laying just beyond the boy's fingertips. Not his face, but Anakin's. He gently laid a hand on the boy's forehead, smoothing back his tousled hair. Looking away from the still form, he surveyed the corridor, but was unable to determine whether it was the interior of a Star Destroyer or the Death Star, or even a smaller vessel. No matter. The truth was now evident: if he took Anakin with him on the invasion, his apprentice would die.
He struggled to pull himself out of the vision and back to full awareness. He should have known the boy was too inexperienced to participate in this mission. Despite Anakin's abilities in the Force, he'd never really been under fire. When he was Anakin's age he'd already been on many missions, and still the opening battles of the Clone Wars had been a disorienting blur. He should have never placed his apprentice in such danger.
At least there was still time to correct his error. He motioned his helmet into a descent, barely allowing it to lock in place before waving open the halves of the meditation pod. Striding towards Anakin's quarters, he cleared the residue of concern from his mind, and drew the solace of the dark back into place. Withdrawing his apprentice from battle was a tactical move, not a sentimental one. Just as the alternative plan that was forming in his mind was based solely in logic. Seizing control of the Death Star would be difficult unless he replaced Anakin, and there was one experienced candidate aboard the ship.
Once at Anakin's door, his apprentice readily answered the chime, lightsaber in hand and a sheen of sweat on his face as if he had been practicing. The boy would be disappointed, to be certain.
"Do you still have the prisoner's lightsaber?"
Anakin nodded, and retrieved it from a small chest in a corner of his cabin.
"Why do you want it?"
He took possession of the saber before answering.
"I am going to return it to its owner."
"Good," Anakin said. "I'm glad you're finally coming around."
"Plans have changed," he said, ignoring the boy's comment. "You will remain on board Devastator during this mission."
The smile on Anakin's face evaporated.
"If you go, you will be injured."
"No, I'm ready," Anakin said earnestly."I can do this."
He remembered his own resentment when the Council dismissed his abilities, but he had to remain steadfast on this issue.
"If I take you with me, you will die. I have forseen it."
Anakin brow furrowed, and he was silent for several moments.
"But what will you do without me?"
"What ever Obi-Wan told you about he and I during the Clone Wars was likely the truth," he said, hardly believing what he was saying. Still, he felt a resonance in the Force even as the words left his mouth. "Getting into and out of impossible situations, it's what we do."
Luke barely had enough time to respond to the first chime at his cabin door when whoever it was on the other side laid into the alert again. And again.
"Just a minute," he said, focusing on using the Force to slide open the door.
His arm shook with the effort, and he wondered if he'd ever get to the point where moving objects took the simple pass of fingertips that it did for his father and Ben. Finally the door gave way, and he stumbled back as a tall figure rushed by him, almost knocking him over.
"Come on in," he said, extending his hand towards Anakin, who had already flopped himself down full length on Luke's bed. "Are we out of hyperspace?"
"No," Anakin said, his hands clasped behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. "We're still enroute to Alderaan."
"Okay. So what's up?" Luke said, wandering to one of the cabin's side chairs and sitting on its edge.
"Vader's going to make me stay behind," Anakin said. He sat up abruptly. "It's not fair. I am ready."
As usual, Anakin's words were full of passion, but not always clarity.
"Back up a minute. Did he say why?"
"He had some vison that I would die in battle," Anakin said, frowning.
"Well, that sounds like a pretty good reason to me," Luke said.
Anakin shook his head.
"It's ridiculous. No one's going to kill me. Even Obi-Wan said he was impressed with my lightsaber skills."
"Well, I don't get to go either," Luke said. "Maybe you shouldn't feel so bad about it."
"Oh, that's fine for you," Anakin said, pushing himself off the bed. "You're the beloved son. You'll always have a place."
Luke felt like this conversation was changing direction at lightspeed. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm his apprentice," Anakin said, beginning to pace the small room. "What else is there for me to do except fight next to him?"
"Wow," Luke said, pulling his legs out of Anakin's path. "I think he's just trying to protect you."
Anakin ran a hand through his hair without slowing down.
"I don't need protection. I need him to let me use my training."
"At least you get assignments," Luke said. "Don't think it's any fun being the 'beloved son', either."
"Yeah?" Anakin said, stopping abruptly.
"Yeah," Luke said, standing up from the chair. After all the times he'd complained to Uncle Owen about having too many chores, it was a shock to find out it was worse having too few. "He treats me like I'm some delicate flower. All this doing nothing is driving me crazy."
"Well, maybe we should do something about that. Maybe we should go down to the hangar or something."
"This isn't the Palace, it's a Star Destroyer," Luke said, laughing. "The Imperial Navy frowns on unauthorized personnel wandering through their ships. I learned that much in basic training."
Anakin thought a moment.
"Do you still have your naval ID? And your uniforms?"
"But Ensign Skywalker isn't assigned to this ship."
Anakin smiled and slipped behind Luke's desk.
"I can fix that." His fingers tapped over the computer console for a few minutes. "There. I made you a TIE pilot."
"I don't know," Luke said, feeling the back of his head. "My hair's longer than regulation anymore. We'll get caught just on the way down."
"Nah. I'll show you this trick Obi-Wan taught me. Makes all your obstacles go away," Anakin said with a grin. "Would you really rather sit around here doing nothing?"
"No," Luke said. "But I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Oh, c'mon. What's the worst thing that can happen?" Anakin said. "We get caught, we call Vader. They let us go. End of story."
Luke sighed. He supposed they wouldn't do any harm, just look at the TIEs. And with Devastator in hyperspace, it wasn't as if any of the fighters could be lauched, anyway. He walked to his closet and grabbed a uniform.
"Hey, who was that girl you were with the other day?"
"Why? Did you see her?"
He pulled his tunic over his head and slid on the uniform shirt.
"No. I heard the stormtroopers talking."
"Well, don't get any ideas. She's mine."
Darth Vader paused outside the door to Obi-Wan's quarters, wondering if he should bother to chime. After all, Obi-Wan was his prisoner, even if he had elected not to keep him confined to a detention cell. A prisoner could have no expectation of privacy, and furthermore, even Devastator's crew knew their quarters could be searched at any time. The logical thing to do was walk straight in.
He pushed the chime.
He heard the door's servos reverse and then it slid open. Inside, Obi-Wan was seated at his desk, and he didn't bother to look up from the console, even though Vader approached. Just when Vader thought he was going to have to announce himself, Obi-Wan flicked off the computer and pushed himself up from the desk.
"Not much HoloNet access on Tatooine," Obi-Wan said. "I'm still catching up on the last twenty years."
Though he'd recognized his former master immediately on the Palace steps, Vader realized he hadn't really looked at him in all this time. Not only had Obi-Wan's hair gone white, it had thinned and his beard barely covered the weathered lines in his face. Vader felt an unexpected twinge of sadness that Obi-Wan seemed so worn. He extended the confiscated lightsaber towards him.
"Can you still use this, old man?"
Obi-Wan's open hand snapped out from within his cloak, and Vader felt the saber snatched from his grip.
"Better than you think I can."
For a moment Vader thought he'd made a grave error, and he almost summoned his own weapon, but then Obi-Wan attached the saber to his belt. While Obi-Wan's face bore the evidence of time, his eyes hadn't aged, and they stared back at Vader with the same cool confidence he remembered. He licked his lips before proceeding.
"Good. Because I require your skills on this mission."
"Require my skills?" Obi-Wan said, his head quirked in seeming confusion. "Oh, you mean you need my help."
"If you must phrase it that way," he said through gritted teeth.
"But what can I do?" Obi-Wan said, with a twinkle in his eye. "I'm only one man, and an old one at that."
He crossed his arms over his chest plate. Why was Obi-Wan making this so difficult?
"You are well aware of what a Force user can do against ordinary troops."
"I suppose I am," Obi-Wan said, nodding. He wandered over to the set of grey armchairs in the corner and sat down, extending his arm in invitation towards the empty one. "But what about your apprentice?"
He followed Obi-Wan, but declined to sit.
"He is not ready for this type of engagement," he said, the image of Anakin laying immobile on the deck flashing through his mind.
"Oh, I don't know," Obi-Wan said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I've been helping him with his drills, and he's quite competent with a lightsaber."
He shook his head.
"But he's never been in war. Palpatine barely allowed him out of the Palace."
"Ah, that's the hard part of having a padawan," Obi-Wan said, sinking back into his chair. "Knowing when to let them go."
"That is not the issue," he said, his frustration increasing. "Anakin will be injured."
"Yes," Obi-Wan said, looking straight into the mask. "If you try to keep them safe, they think you're holding them back. And if you let them go, you risk watching them fail."
Vader stared at Obi-Wan. He wasn't sure they were talking about his apprentice anymore. The empty chair suddenly beckoned to him, and he carefully lowered himself into it. Obi-Wan's eyes followed him the whole time.
"You don't understand. I had a vision. Anakin dies in combat if I take him."
"Oh," Obi-Wan said, his eyebrows raising momentarily. "Then by all means I'll help you."
Finally. He hadn't thought it would take this much negatiation for such a simple request.
"Good. I will let you know when it is time," he said, preparing to rise.
"I should have paid more heed to your visions,"Obi-Wan said, something softening in his expression.
He paused, frozen by Obi-Wan's words, and fixed his gaze on his former master's face.
"You always had the gift," Obi-Wan said quietly. "I should have listened better."
He closed his eyes within the helmet.
"You have no idea."
Luke clung to the gantry that secured the TIE fighter in position and peered down the hatch into the cockpit. Inside, Anakin was strapped into the pilot's seat, both hands grasping the fighter's yoke.
"Thrusters are on the left, " Anakin said, "and repulsors are on the right?"
"Yeah," Luke nodded, "and your inertial dampeners are in the center."
Anakin looked around the cockpit.
"It seems so long ago that we were fixing that fighter in the Palace hangar. Remember how mad I was that first day?"
"How could I forget?" Luke laughed. "I think my shoulder's still sore."
"Yeah. I wanted to hate you," Anakin said. "But you turned out to be all right."
Luke smiled, feeling a little embarrassed. In the beginning, the idea of speaking to his father's clone had been completely bizarre, and then there had been all that anger Anakin carried. But Anakin had turned out to be all right, too.
"In fact, you're the only real friend I've ever had," Anakin said, all the levity gone from his face, replaced by a solemn seriousness. He extended his hand upward towards the hatch. "I'm glad I met you, Luke Skywalker."
Luke felt a lump in his throat, but he swallowed it down. He wanted to say that he couldn't imagine living at the Palace without Anakin, because otherwise it would have been a very lonely experience. He wanted to say he was grateful for the chance to have some idea of what his father was like as a person, because otherwise he'd still be staring at his own reflection in the black helmet, wondering who dwelt inside. But Uncle Owen's example lived too strongly inside him, and instead he simply reached down for Anakin's hand and shook it.
"I'm glad I met you, Anakin Skywalker."
They stared at each other for a moment, hands still clasped, and Luke felt the lump returning. Suddenly a warning klaxon sounded in the hangar, and Anakin withdrew his hand to unbuckle himself from the pilot's seat. Luke lowered himself from the top of the TIE to the hangar floor. Anakin's head appeared through the hatch, and then he pushed himself out of the fighter and vaulted to the deck. The klaxon resonated all around them, so loud that Luke could feel its vibrations in his gut. The deck shuddered underneath his feet and for a moment Luke had to steady his balance.
"We just returned to normal space," Anakin said.
Luke nodded and quickly surveyed the hangar. From every corner, technical crew and pilots were leaving their posts and streaming towards the main hangar exit. Abruptly the klaxon stopped, and Luke heard the clatter of boots nearby. He jogged to the end of the row of fighters, and almost ran into a black-uniformed technician.
"You'd better hurry," the technician said before heading off. "There'll be hell to pay if you miss the briefing."
Luke watched the man disappear, then turned towards Anakin, who was threading his way between the TIEs.
"Sounds like there's an important meeting."
Anakin clapped him on the back as he moved on by.
"Well, then we'd better go."
Darth Vader stood fixed in front of Devastator's bridge windows, staring at the swirling lines of hyperspace. He'd ceased pacing the command walkway some time ago, instead focusing all of his energies on the forward viewport, as if by sheer will he could discern Alderaan through the maelstrom of lightspeed. His desire to capture Tarkin was a palpable thing, and his tolerance for waiting had run out. All the aggravations of political life as the Emperor had fallen away, replaced by anticipation for the thrill of real battle.
A repeating tone from the ship's navigation center reinforced his perception that Devastator was about to drop into real space. Footsteps sounded behind him, then stopped a polite distance away. He didn't need to look to know it was Admiral Zarrn who had approached, but he turned briefly for the admiral's benefit.
"The crew is prepared, Admiral?"
"Yes, m'lord," Zarrn said. "All divisions will report for instructions as soon as we exit hyperspace."
He nodded and turned back to the viewscreens. He averted his gaze at the disorienting moment of transition, and braced his legs against the deck in preparation for the upcoming shudder. When Devastator had settled into normal space, he immediately looked up. Alderaan hung in the foreground, a bright sphere of blue and white. He strained to see into the darkness of the surrounding space, but could detect nothing resembling the Death Star.
"Initating scans," came a voice from the crew pit below the command walkway.
He moved away from the viewports to the edge of the walkway, and looked down into the communications center.
"Bring up the reports from the other systems."
The comm technician's fingers flew over the keys in answer, and an image of a Star Destroyer bridge appeared on the viewing monitor. A captain turned to face into the transmitter.
"This the Avenger reporting from Telos. No unauthorized vessels found."
The technician keyed in the next set of coordinates, and a new bridge materialized on screen.
"The Conquest reporting from Ralltir. Nothing unusual, sir."
"Agonizer in system at Gerrard Five. Nothing to report."
"The Relentless outside Polis Massa. Com scan is negative."
"Punisher orbiting Zephyr Base at Rori. Nothing to report."
He clenched his jaw inside the helmet. He'd known it was possible that his choice to send Devastator to Alderaan would prove incorrect, but he hadn't expected the entire fleet to come up empty handed. Admiral Zarrn joined him above the comm center.
"Results of our scan are negative, m'lord," Zarrn said. "Have the other ships found anything?"
The admiral shifted uneasily.
"I don't know if I should bring this up, sir, but is it possible our information was wrong?"
He whipped his head around, making the admiral's face go pale. Could Organa have lied to him? Had this all been a wild bantha chase to keep the fleet occupied while the Rebellion made its move? He suddenly felt disgusted at how easily he'd been drawn in by Organa's flattery and resurrection of his Clone Wars past. But on the other hand, he'd sensed no deception when he sat face to face with the senator. Even now, he realized, he could feel in the Force that they were on the correct path.
"No, Admiral, that is not possible."
"Of course, m'lord," Zarrn said, dropping his gaze in deference.
"The Vengeance wants to know if we sent other Star Destroyers to the Calamari system," the comm technician said.
His eyes dropped to the viewing monitor.
"No. What are they seeing?"
"They report two ships in orbit around an asteroid above the ecliptic plane of the Calamari system," the technician said.
An icy wave of recognition washed through him.
"That is not an asteroid. That is the space station. Forward images immediately."
"Yes, sir," the technician said, and feed from the Vengeance began streaming across the monitor.
"Magnify image," he directed, and for a moment he struggled to comprehend what he was seeing.
No wonder the Vengeance's crew thought they were viewing an asteroid. Irregular bright spots contrasted with deep shadows, masking the spherical shape of the space station. It wasn't an artifact of resolution; Tarkin had mobilized the Death Star in an unfinished state, without its protective shielding. The focusing disc of the superlaser only added to the impression of a pock-marked piece of rubble.
"Vengeance, retreat immediately to the Dellalt system and wait for the rest of the fleet."
He turned to Admiral Zarrn.
"The Death Star is without its own defenses. I have no doubt that those Star Destroyers will launch a full scale attack if we approach."
Zarrn blinked a few times as if absorbing the information.
"They're as well armed as we are. The only way to win will be to outnumber them."
"Yes," he said. "Order all ships to assemble outside Dellalt. From there, we will jump en masse to the Calamari system."
"Of course, m'lord," the admiral said. "I'll prepare the briefing."
If Anakin could have thought of a graceful way to exit the strategy room, he would have done it already. But he and Luke were packed into the farthest corner from the door, and there was no way to get out without causing a scene. The air in the room had become thick and warm from the body heat of so many crew members stuffed inside, all waiting for the briefing to begin. The sense of urgency that had first permeated the room was long gone, replaced by a troubled impatience about the delay. When the ship shuddered as if re-entering hyperspace, the conversations in the room ceased, and all eyes turned to the captain leaning on the podium. But he declined to face the group, and now at least another thirty standard minutes had gone by.
The captain's comlink alerted at his belt and Anakin swung his eyes forward. The officer spoke briefly into the device, then turned his attention to the terminal at his podium, apparently sorting through information. After a few minutes, the captain finally looked out into the sea of faces.
"Sorry for the wait, gentlemen, but we now have our orders."
The captain stepped aside and lowered the display screen at the very front of the room. A projection transmitted from the terminal showed a spherical frame with some sort of focusing dish in its upper hemisphere. Impossibly, the sphere dwarfed the two Star Destroyers at its side, making it look like some kind of metal moon.
"This space station is the instrument responsible for the recent destruction of Chandrila and Dantooine. It has an enormously powerful superlaser designed to break apart asteroids and dead planets for mining purposes, but which has been commandeered by Grand Moff Tarkin for his own uses."
A murmur ran through the group, and Anakin nudged Luke.
"Shhh," Luke said, keeping his eyes focused on the captain.
"The space station is not complete, lacking its external panels and shielding," the captain continued. "The Star Destroyers accompanying it are presumed to be under the command of Grand Moff Tarkin, and no longer loyal to the Empire. It is expected that they will defend against any attacks on the station.
"Our mission is to prevent the destruction of any other worlds by disabling the space station. The Emperor himself will lead an attack to capture Grand Moff Tarkin and regain control of the station."
"I should be with him, " Anakin whispered to Luke, who nodded sympathetically.
"Our assignment is to destroy the transformer feeding the superlaser," the captain resumed, changing the display to a schematic showing the device. "Once at the transformer, the most vulnerable section is a conduit approximately two meters in diameter. A direct hit to the conduit will sever the power flow to the superlaser."
"That's impossible, even with a computer," someone said.
"It's not impossible," Luke muttered. "I used to bullseye womp rats in my Tee-sixteen back home. They're not much bigger than two meters."
Anakin glanced at Luke. It was only occasionally that Luke alluded to his past, but each time Anakin was impressed with how much Luke had really lived, not spent his time pent up in some stone and glass prison.
"To reach the transformer, you'll have to fly through the framework into the interior of the station," the captain said, pausing. "The difficult part is that some levels have been sealed and finished to support habitation. You could be flying along and suddenly find yourself facing a durasteel wall."
"Excuse me, sir, but are there plans showing the completed levels?" came a voice from the front.
"No," the captain said, shaking his head,"You won't know until you're there. You'll have to watch your sensors constantly."
The murmur in the room rose to a rumble, and Luke leaned over to Anakin.
"With the Force, it wouldn't be that hard."
Anakin swallowed. Yes, with the Force guiding him, it would be simple. In fact, the success of this mission seemed to require a pilot who could use the Force.
"The final challenge," the captain said quietly," is that we will be flying against our own. Best case is that the rogue Star Destroyers will surrender once they see how outnumbered they are. Worst case is that it is a full engagement.
"Certainly the TIE pilots can expect incoming fire as they approach the space station. Once in space it will be very difficult to tell visually which fighters are loyal to the Empire, and which are mutineers. To help, all Imperial ships will be sent a new transponder code. Any ship not able to return the code is presumed to be under Tarkin's command. Any questions?"
No one spoke, and Anakin could feel the aura of quiet determination that now dominated the room. Some of it was his own.
"All right, men. To your posts!"
The briefing room erupted into a flurry of movement. Anakin rose with the other men, the idea that the mission required a Force sensitive pilot still with him. It wasn't a conscious thought; instead he had the sensation of being thrust forward by some great current in the Force. Only Luke's hand on his forearm restrained him.
"Where are you going?" Luke said.
"You heard the captain," he said, pulling his arm free and moving towards the exit. "It's time to go to our posts."
Luke followed him. "We don't have posts."
"You're the one who said flying would be easy with the Force," Anakin said.
"Yeah, but I didn't mean..."
"Think about it," Anakin said, interrupting. "We're the only ones who can succeed in this."
Luke looked around quickly, as if he was worried they'd been overheard."You don't know that."
"But what if I'm right?" Anakin said, lowering his voice to meet Luke's cue. "Could you live with yourself if they fail because we stayed behind?"
"No," Luke said, his brow furrowed. "Of course I want to help."
"Then we have to go," Anakin said. They were almost the last ones in the room.
Luke thought for a moment. "You'll have to lead. You're better at using the Force."
"But you're the better pilot," he said. "We'll do it together."
Now, except for the captain, they were the last ones in the room. The officer walked up between them and clapped one hand on each of them. "Time to get your flightsuits on, boys," the captain said."You'll be all right."
Darth Vader had to admit that it was a bit disconcerting to have Obi-Wan sitting next to him in the shuttle's co-pilot's seat. But there wasn't any other place to put him, the rear passenger compartment currently filled with thirty hand-selected members of the 501st. Still, he could have done without the sense of deja-vu Obi-Wan's presence imparted. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, seemed to have benefited from being included in the mission, a new keenness showing in his face.
The Death Star lay dead ahead in the viewscreen of the shuttle, while at their flank the fleet moved into position to engage Tarkin's Star Destroyers. It had been a long time since he'd been involved in a battle of this magnitude and he realized he shared Obi-Wan's eagerness. He set a course for an open sector of the Death Star, aiming the shuttle at the lower hemisphere.
"What, you're just going to fly right into that thing?" Obi-Wan asked, gesturing towards the viewscreen.
Vader turned to Obi-Wan. As a matter of fact he was. "Have you got a better idea?"
Obi-Wan stared at him, arms crossed. "Well, no. What's your plan when we get there?"
"I have not yet made that decision," he said, raising his chin.
"You haven't decided yet?" Obi-Wan said. "Then it is a good thing you brought me."
Vader opened his mouth to make a retort, but then decided there was some truth in that statement. He could have hardly found an operative more seasoned in this type of covert insertion. And to have the strength of another Force-user at his side, that was a luxury he hadn't had since... His thoughts trailed off at the conclusion.
"Do you think it's moving?" Obi-Wan said.
He peered at the Death Star. He was having to make course corrections to stay on target. "Possibly."
"It looks like it's still heading towards the planet, "Obi-Wan said. "Our presence hasn't deterred them."
"That is why there is another team assigned to disrupt the superlaser," he said.
"Still, we'd better hurry," Obi-Wan said.
He clenched his jaw. Count on Obi-Wan to belabor the obvious. He engaged the hyperdrive, counted to two and shut it back off, making a microjump. The viewscreen went black for a moment and then the Death Star reappeared, looking a thousand times larger. Good thing he hadn't counted to three.
"That was a little close, don't you think?"
"You said to hurry," he replied, bringing the shuttle around to skim the surface of the Death Star. "Alert me if you see anything that resembles a hangar."
Obi-Wan looked at him incredulously.
"We need access to the inhabited sections, " he shrugged. "Just find me a hangar."
Obi-Wan shook his head, but obliged by sitting forward and staring out the side viewscreen. They cruised by section after section in silence.
"There," Obi-Wan said finally, pointing out the viewport.
He glanced over and caught sight of the structure in the edge of his vision. "Hold on," he said, rolling the shuttle back hard. There was a clatter of armor and a few curses from the rear compartment, and Vader realized he should have warned the troopers as well.
"You're the reason I hate flying," Obi-Wan said.
"No, you always hated flying," he said.
"Well, you certainly didn't help," Obi-Wan said.
"Then close your eyes," he said, angling the shuttle downward.
If his approach was steep enough, they would be inside before the hangar's intruder alert system could raise the shields. He aimed the ship for a patch of floor and hit the throttle.
Thrusters. Dampeners. Repulsors. Anakin reviewed every instruction Luke had ever given him about flying as his TIE lurched forward in the launching rack. The motion was rythmic, repeating at precise intervals, as each TIE in sequence was catapulted from the hangar into space.
"Remember to hit your repulsors as soon as the launcher releases you."
The sound of Luke's voice coming through his headset comforted Anakin. His ship's status screen glowed red with the call sign - RKD5 - of Luke's ship directly ahead of him. Anakin fumbled to reply, unused to the the thick gloves and full breathing helmet required for TIE pilots. "Got it," he finally managed to send back.
"Then just before you pass through the hangar bay doors, cut the repulsors and hit your thrusters, hard."
He nodded, not thinking about the fact that Luke couldn't see him. Every other time they'd practiced flying, they'd been side by side. "Will do."
"I'm up next. I'll see you out there."
Luke's TIE appeared to vibrate, and then the launching arm activated, accelerating the fighter forward. Anakin watched Luke's ship sink briefly when it broke free of the launcher, but then it rose smoothly. He kept his eyes focused on it as it left Devastator and became just another dot among the stars. He refused to look away, even when the launching arm clamped onto his ship, making it rock in the mechanism.
Abruptly, acceleration pinned him back against his seat as his own ship was thrown towards space. The blackness loomed larger and larger, and then he had the sensation of falling. He sucked in a breath, momentarily panicked, until he remembered Luke's words. He pressed the right control on the TIE's yoke, and to his relief the ship stopped its descent towards the hangar floor. How embarrassing would that have been to crash inside the Star Destroyer?
When the flashing markers on the edge of the hangar bay doors were at his sides, he gunned the thrusters, shooting his TIE free of Devastator. With literally nothing beneath him, it felt like he'd fallen off the end of the universe. This was so different from flying on Imperial Center, where no matter how high he'd gone, it was impossible to escape the evidence of civilization. But here there was only a black morass that grabbed at his ship and threatened to swallow it. In a few short seconds, Devastator seemed to have moved a lifetime away.
The sound of his own breathing echoed off the panels of the cockpit, amplified some how, until he realized it was only the contrast with the absolute silence surrounding the TIE. No loudspeaker announcements, no whir of machinery, no shouts from crew members, there was only the hard vacuum of space. The thin metal shell of the hull and the small reserve of air in his space suit were all that stood between him and disaster. A sweat broke out on his brow. He'd never felt so alone.
He looked quickly to the small viewports, realizing he'd completely lost sight of Luke's ship. Other TIEs were visible, but they were close enough that they must have launched with him. The space station and its attendant Star Destroyers were hard to miss in the foreground, and he swung the TIE towards them while asking the thrusters for more. Luke would be gamely following orders and was probably approaching the target already. The feeling of hard acceleration made his stomach queasy, and he dialed up the inertial dampeners until the sensation faded.
Fortunately, he was soon rewarded by the sight of the tail end of a swarm of TIEs. He had the sudden thought that it was possible these were enemy fighters. But wouldn't they be pointed away from the station, not towards it? He activated his transponder, and when there was an answering chirp, he signaled on his comm. "RKD Five, are you there?"
"Affirmative, RKD Six," came Luke's reply, and relief flooded through Anakin.
"You took off so fast," Anakin said. "I lost track of you."
"Cut the chatter, Six," interjected a voice, the call sign RKD1 flashing on Anakin's console. "You don't know who's listening out there."
Anakin shut off his headset, feeling more chastised than when Vader corrected him. He didn't want to endanger the mission through ignorance. He drifted his ship over until he was flying in formation with the rest of the TIES. He still wasn't sure exactly which one was Luke's, but as long as the group stayed together, he supposed it didn't matter. He exhaled deeply and settled into the business of flying. As he relaxed, he began to notice details that had escaped his attention in the chaos of leaving Devastator. The instrument gauges he should have been watching all along, the way his protective flightsuit creaked everytime he moved, the way he could sense Luke, after all, glowing brightly in the Force. That same brilliance that had so annoyed him the first time they met was now a beacon in the dark, and he locked onto it.
Luke urged his fighter forward, his eyes on the ship that had launched just before his. They were all together now that Anakin had caught up to them. This was better than Beggar's Canyon, better than flying his T-16, better than anything. He'd taken the T-16 to its limits, to the boundary where the sky wavered between blue and black, and the air had been thin enough that he felt a little faint, but he'd still been planet bound. To feel the absolute freedom of space in a ship that didn't seem to run out of thrust, this was flying. He dialed down the inertial dampeners until he could feel every movement of the ship in the pit of his stomach.
The squad of TIEs moved right and Luke shifted his ship with them without even thinking. It wasn't just the responsiveness of his fighter that made him feel so alive. It was the sense of purpose that they all shared, like back home when the settlers banded together to defend against a raid by the Tuskens. This space station had caused the deaths of billions and they were the ones who were going to stop it. Doing something important, saving lives, the idea spoke to his very soul, as if he had been born to do this.
The squad leader altered course again and the rest of the ships followed. It looked to Luke that the leader was taking them around the back side of the space station instead of approaching it head on. Looming larger with each passing kilometer, it seemed unbelievable that the station was an artificial structure. But as the group skirted the massive sphere, any doubt Luke had about that fact was erased. Now that they were flying away from the station, Luke could see that the station was moving towards the planet. Despite the Imperial Star Destroyers massing an offense, Tarkin apparently still intended to destroy the Mon Calamari homeworld.
Luke increased his speed, filled with a renewed sense of urgency. Something else tickled at the back of his mind: a feeling that everything wasn't quite right. He looked down at his sensors, but nothing registered except the five ships in their squad. The leader banked them around the curve of the station and they straightened their course, storming towards an open section of the space station. The uneasy feeling strengthened and then his comm squawked out a single word: "Incoming!"
Luke didn't even have to ask where, because suddenly four other TIEs crossed his viewport and cannon fire sprayed towards his ship. Luke's squad widened their formation to return fire, then dodged upward and resumed course towards the space station. Their leader seemed determined to outrun Tarkin's fighters and Luke pressed the throttle until it had no travel left. Turning back was no longer an option, and the only shelter they'd find was inside the space station. They were going in.
Though the unexpected descent of Vader's shuttle into the Death Star had scattered Tarkin's crew like frightened nunas, they quickly regrouped, assuming a defensive posture around the periphery of the hangar. Stormtroopers knelt with E-11 rifles aimed at the ship. Darth Vader gestured to his 501st commander, and the trooper lowered the shuttle's ramp. The first squad of 501st soldiers sprinted down the ramp, quickly finding protection behind the ship. They aimed their own rifles back at Tarkin's men, covering the rest of their bretheren while they exited.
The hangar was eerily quiet as the two groups of stormtroopers faced each other. Watching Tarkin's men through the shuttle's viewscreen, Vader decided the stand-off was likely to continue unless he precipitated a reaction. He turned to Obi-Wan, who stood next to him in the cockpit.
Vader summoned his lightsaber, igniting it before he started down the ramp. For a few moments, the only sound was the heavy thump of his boots on the metal ramp, but then the hangar erupted in a blizzard of blasterfire. He swung his lightsaber to meet the incoming bolts, intercepting them easily because, he realized, very few were actually aimed at him. Most of the exchange was between the stormtroopers, as if Tarkin's crew was afraid to shoot at him. They may have had their orders, but he was still their Emperor.
Seizing upon their hesitation, he advanced towards the opposing soldiers and the hangar exit. The 501st followed him, moving in fits and stops as they ran forward, then dropped low again to minimize their exposure. He could see Tarkin's troops edging backwards, and then the incoming blasterfire tapered to nothing. Vader powered off his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt. The 501st remained in close quarters behind him, steadfastly maintaining kneeling positions.
Admist the trepidation he sensed coming from his opponents, one determined presence burned alone. The Force hummed around Vader, and he raised one gloved hand just in time to deflect a spray of blaster bolts.The bolts bounced harmlessly off the micronite in his armored gloves, and after that the rebellious light faded away. Very few of the Imperial Forces had ever really seen him in action, and while his reputation preceded him, the reality of him was even more intimidating.
"Surrender now," he boomed into the hangar, "and you will not be charged with treason."
The hangar echoed with the sound of blasters hitting the polished floor, and then troopers walked forward, arms raised in the universal signal of surrender. He motioned a squad of 501st troopers forward.
"Collect their weapons and keep these men secured."
"Yes, sir," the senior trooper replied.
Behind him he heard the sound of Obi-Wan's boots on the ramp, and his old master soon joined him.
"Well, that was easy," Obi-Wan said. "Is the whole mission going to be like that?"
"If we're lucky," he said, even though he knew how unlikely that was. "If we're lucky."
The space station filled Anakin's entire viewscreen, eclipsing the Mon Calamari planet. The closer he came, the more intricate the structure that was revealed. Girders and support braces crisscrossed through areas that had appeared open from a distance. With Tarkin's fighters hot on their tail there was no place to go but straight into the superstructure. The Imperial TIEs condensed to a single file line and plunged down a narrow channel formed by durasteel beams. In space, relative speed was difficult to assess, but with metal struts flashing by his viewport like some strobe in an Imperial Center nightclub, Anakin now saw that they were flying sickeningly fast.
Laser cannon fire erupted forward from the rear of the line of TIEs and Anakin suddenly realized that whoever was last in their line was in an almost indefensible position. The leader of their group seemed to be aware of that fact, too, and the TIE in front of him leapt forward as the group accelerated to find escape from the trap they'd entered. Anakin laid on the throttle to keep up, a faint whine transmitting into the cockpit from the engine compartment. Glowing fingers of ignited gas crept forward along the walls of the channel, and Anakin knew they'd lost a ship. He reached out for the Force to steady himself, struggling to keep his fear from overtaking him.
He could feel Luke's presence somewhere in the line ahead of him, and he focused on it, no longer relying on his eyes to pilot the ship, but rather mirroring Luke's actions in the Force. Abruptly the channel ended, dumping them out into a vast open area of unfinished space station. Beyond the spherical frame he caught a glimpse of several Star Destroyers exchanging fire, surrounded by smaller ships. He felt Luke guide his fighter into a dive, and he unconsciously followed him, splitting their TIE group as the others veered upward. Tarkin's pursuers bobbled for a moment in confusion, then turned after the rising group of TIEs.
Anakin felt Luke's relief in the Force, and he allowed himself to feel a little too. Luke's ship banked left and swung towards the enormous convex disc visible in the upper hemisphere of the space station. Anakin recognized the structure and he angled his fighter to match Luke's path. They flew up and over darkened lengths of metal, impossible to see except in the Force. Often he passed over an obstacle just as the TIE's collision avoidance alarm began to sound.
As they rose within the unfinished space the density of girders increased, heralding the approach of construction zones. Anakin nosed his ship upwards when Luke's TIE began a steep climb. With the change in perspective, he could now see the long gantry that ran from the focusing disc into the core of the space station. The twinkling lights he saw were not stars peeking through the framework, but the glowing interiors of inhabited sections of the station.
Luke's fighter suddenly jogged sideways, and Anakin quickly echoed the motion, his TIE's cooling panels barely clearing a protruding ledge. They skimmed along a platform where men in sealed suits worked side by side with squat droids. The men pointed as the TIEs swept by, and prickle of unease came to Anakin. When the platform ended, they rose another level, and began cruising under the shelter of an overhang. It felt safer here, less exposed. Even though he could only see the bottom curve of the focusing disc from here, Anakin knew they were getting closer to their target. Luke's determination flowed to him, and he tightened his grip on the yoke, feeling the same drive to win.
Their fighters howled in unison as they raced in the shadow of the overhang. But even as it seemed that they were now invulnerable, Anakin's unease graduated to a sense of danger. He tried to ignore it, but it refused to leave. A shadow appeared in his left viewport, and then two blips registered on his sensors. He turned his head, relying on the Force to keep his ship on a straight track. Two TIEs were pacing him, holding position slightly behind his ship.
He blinked rapidly, trying to decide what to do. The ships hadn't fired, but it was impossible to tell whether they were Imperial craft or mutineers. Maybe these fighters were trying to decide the same thing about him. He wanted to warn Luke, but comm contact would give them away for sure. He activated his transponder and hoped for the best. Seconds became like hours as he waited for a response. When none came, he sent the code one more time.
He swallowed hard. That meant only one thing: these were Tarkin's men.
Darth Vader knew he had to be getting close to Tarkin's sanctum. With each level they had risen within the Death Star, the resistance had grown stronger. They had moved past the crew who offered a fight only out of duty, to some inner circle who acted as though they expected to get something out of this battle. These were soldiers who had to be personally pledged to Tarkin's side, who dreamed of promotions and positions of influence within the Grand Moff's new empire.
By that measure, the troops he faced now were Tarkin's closest friends, which was unfortunate because he was almost out of troopers. Only a remnant of the original thirty remained with he and Obi-Wan, the rest of the 501st having been left to guard each level they had secured and to prevent an attack from launching to their rear. Advancement in the sometimes narrow corridors of the space station was difficult with a lightsaber, the broad reach of the weapon easily hitting the walls on either side. In the places where there were doorway alcoves, they counted on the 501st to dodge forward and provide cover. In turn, when there were long stretches of uninterrupted metal panels, he and Obi-Wan led the way, deflecting blasterfire with their lightsabers. They were currently in a section of the former, and Vader glanced at Obi-Wan across the corridor. Both of them were holed up in a alcove, waiting for the 501st troopers to complete their part.
Obi-Wan engaged him with a serious look. "Maybe we should have been the ones to disable the laser. What if this thing is in firing range of the planet?"
"We are the only ones who can capture Tarkin," he said. "The team will reach the laser in time, I can feel it."
"Are we close, then?" Obi-Wan said, frowning.
Vader paused to reach deeply into the Force. Yes, he did sense a presence with an almost unequaled arrogance and sense of superiority, the one that at times reminded him of Palpatine.
Obi-Wan nodded, and then Vader's comm vibrated in his hand. "Time for you, sir," was the whispered message from the device. Vader motioned to Obi-Wan and they cautiously made their way forward in the corridor, lightsabers in hand. They encountered an odd calm, and when they reached the 501st soldiers, they were camped in front of a double doored room with no opponents in sight.
One trooper came to him. "The corridor ends here, sir, and we've got them trapped inside. We could use explosives to blow the doors, but I thought I should inform you first."
"Thank you, Commander," he said. "Explosives won't be necessary."
Vader turned to Obi-Wan, knowing that he didn't have to explain what should come next. They both ignited their lightsabers, and thrust them through the durasteel of the doors, cutting man-sized holes within a matter of minutes. The freed slabs of metal hit the floor with a loud clank, and Vader gestured to the troopers to come forward. Two of them shoved blasters through one hole, and Vader extended his hand towards the other. "After you," he said to Obi-Wan.
"How kind of you," Obi-Wan replied, though he didn't hesitate in angling his lightsaber into the opening and following it on through.
Vader ducked to pass through the door, and once inside he saw a mixed line of stormtroopers and Imperial officers with riots of blue and red over the left side of their uniforms. These were the command elite, then, though they didn't look the part at the moment. Instead they were frozen in surprise as they stood plastered against the back wall of the room. At the end of the line he caught sight of a familiar face.
"Admiral Motti," he said, "what an unpleasant surprise."
"You're not fit to be the Emperor," the blond officer said, his lip curled. "You with your sorcerer's ways."
He sniffed at the irony, because still very few knew that Palpatine had been a Sith Lord. "I find your lack of confidence disturbing."
"You won't win," Motti said, undaunted.
"Apparently you don't know him very well," Obi-Wan said.
Motti gestured and his stormtroopers opened fire. Vader and Obi-Wan swung their lightsabers in answer, absorbing the blaster bolts as if they were nothing. Despite Motti's urgings, the troopers soon lowered their weapons. They at least had enough sense to see when resistance was futile. Vader advanced on the mutineers, stopping in front of Motti as he motioned the 501st troopers forward.
"Hold this group here," he said to his remaining commander, and then pointed to Motti. "This one you have permission to shoot if he doesn't co-operate."
"Yes, sir," the commander said, moving to collect the weapons of their prisoners.
Vader turned to Obi-Wan. It was time to make the final push. "Are you ready? It will be just you and me."
Darth Vader wasn't sure where Tarkin had obtained this current batch of soldiers. From their fearlessness and tenacity, he wondered if Tarkin had ever been granted access to Palpatine's secret cloning facilities on Imperial Center. Though he couldn't see their faces to confirm it, these troopers fought like the original Jango clones. Tough and smart, almost identical to Vader's best from the 501st, they might have even been trained specifically to fight him. Not only were they willing to come after him, they seemed to have a plan for going about it.
Like the clone troopers who'd executed Order 66, these soldiers seemed to have a familiarity and understanding of the fighting style of a Force user. Always staying beyond the range of his lightsaber, they co-ordinated their firing efforts so that whenever he angled his lightsaber to deflect their blaster fire, another of them aimed under its scarlet blade. So far he'd been able to meet their attack, but with he and Obi-Wan outnumbered ten to one, it was only a matter of time before a stray bolt made it through. He hated the fact that they could put him on the defensive, even more that they had been able to separate the two of them. Obi-Wan was now one corridor over in the series of hallways that radiated from the central hub outside of Tarkin's command post.
Vader had been right not to bring Anakin. Otherwise, it would have been his apprentice one corridor over, alone and outgunned by the troopers, just like in his vision. The boy would never have survived this kind of battle. As it was, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending himself to capture Tarkin. Palpatine would have never made that choice; he would have thrown the infinitely vast resources of the Empire against the problem and waited patiently for superior numbers to prevail. But Vader had never liked anyone to fight his battles for him, and besides, this business with Tarkin was almost personal. Though they'd never discussed it, Vader was fairly certain Tarkin knew who he'd been before, and that was a detail Tarkin seemed to find distasteful.
The thought renewed his anger, and he slashed his blade forward, bumping the lead trooper with a Force push at the same time. The man crumpled against the corridor wall, and the rest of the troopers shuffled back towards the doors shielding the command center. With a casual gesture he flung the downed trooper's blaster away and stepped past him. The remaining troopers knelt down, shoulder to shoulder, each with a rifle aimed at him. The impression that he was facing a firing squad was not inaccurate. They all let loose at once, and he battered back against the rain of blaster fire. If he had any sense, he'd retreat for cover, but retreat was a maneuver he'd never learned.
Flattening himself as much as possible against the wall, a tingle of distress signaled at the back of his mind. Not a plea for help, but an escaped overflow of feeling from a mind under too much pressure. Obi-Wan. As dangerous as this exercise was for him, Obi-Wan was facing it without the additional protection of armor. And if Obi-Wan's compulsively practiced control had began to slip, that could only mean... He shut off the thought at its conclusion. He hadn't brought the old man here to die, either.
Solidifying his resolve, he realized that to win, he needed to disrupt the unity of the troopers' attack. He knew which tactic would best accomplish that, but it would leave him momentarily vulnerable. Lowering his lightsaber, he brought his left hand up, closing his fingers and focusing on the nearest stormtrooper. He felt a glow of heat as bolts reached his breast plate and the energy dissipated against the durasteel. The trooper began to scratch frantically at his throat, dropping his blaster in the process. After that, the firing stopped as the other troopers turned to watch their brother struggle. Vader shifted his focus to the next trooper, who tore off his helmet in a desperate attempt to breathe. Letting that man slump to the ground, he closed in on the other troopers, who resumed their defense too late.
Standing surrounded by bodies in the central hub, he could hear the sounds of another battle. Moving to the head of that corridor, he saw that Obi-Wan was in a bad spot. Crammed into a corner by four troopers, it appeared it was all the old Jedi could do to hold them back. The gulf between them of fallen men with lightsaber wounds seemed to be the only thing keeping the soldiers from making a final advance. Though Obi-Wan's eyes still burned with impassive determination, Vader could see fatigue in the swing of his former master's arm. Roaring down the hallway, he felled three men with one great arc of his lightsaber. The remaining trooper pivoted, now trapped between opponents, and unleashed a sweeping spray of blaster fire. Vader flashed up his left hand and deflected it, but Obi-Wan sagged to the floor, apparently hit. Stepping in, Vader stabbed his lightsaber through the chestplate of the last trooper. After the man collapsed, he picked his way over the white armored body to reach Obi-Wan's side.
Obi-Wan looked up from his crumpled position, one hand clasped to his right thigh. Vader reached a gloved hand down to him. "That's eleven."
Obi-Wan's eyes widened briefly and then he gripped Vader's hand. "Ten. Cato Neimoidia still doesn't count."
He smiled and pulled Obi-Wan to his feet. Some things never changed. And maybe that wasn't so bad.
Anakin was beginning to hate the two TIEs that silently, relentlessly paced his fighter. He didn't understand what they were waiting for, unless they were still undecided about whether they faced friend or foe. Whatever the reason, the tension was maddening. He'd thought about circling around to fire on them, but Obi-Wan's advice to never start the fight stilled his aggression.
If Luke was worried about the other ships, Anakin couldn't feel it in the Force. Instead, Luke seemed as focused as ever, leading them all upwards towards the long gantry attached to the focusing disc. The transformer had to lie somewhere along its length, but at two meters it was too small to identify from this distance. Anakin followed Luke as he brought his fighter above the plane of the gantry and began to trace it. Suddenly, Anakin became aware that the other TIEs were no longer flying with them, but had dropped back into attack position. Apparently something in Luke's approach tipped the scales for them, and they now understood Luke's intent.
Anakin closed in on Luke's ship, shielding his friend from the opposing fighters. He grunted as a lasercannon blast rocked his ship, a hit registering to his left cooling panel. Debris and flashes of fire rocketed past his viewport, but the ship still felt stable. A second hit landed on the main hull of the fighter, and after that he knew he couldn't hold his position. He reduced speed and angled his ship upwards, and Tarkin's fighters shot underneath him. He dropped back down, now behind them and ready to fire. Just as he locked on to the rearmost TIE, it began swerving and dodging, preventing him from making a clear shot. He tried to lock on with his targeting computer, all the while cursing himself for his lack of skill. Every second he wasted gave Tarkin's lead pilot more time to fire on Luke.
The rear TIE accelerated, and the forward one moved to the side so that both of Tarkin's fighters were directly behind Luke. The ships commenced firing on Luke's ship, and Anakin watched in horror as cannon bolts found their mark. Luke's TIE bobbled for a moment, then dived off the approach line. Tarkin's men followed him, apparently closing in for the kill. Anakin uttered an unconscious "No!", and gunned his fighter, knowing he had to intercept them somehow. He plunged in between Luke's TIE and the enemy ships at full throttle, meaning to draw their fire.
Circling back up, he could see them only on his sensors, but their presence was soon made real when another hit shook his fighter. This time the yoke felt sluggish in his hands, and he struggled to keep his TIE on course. Rolling back, the ship's hull gave an ominous groan, and he noticed that his gauges were creeping into the red. A dangerous thought ran through his mind, and for the first time he recognized that he might fail. But if he failed, then Luke was left alone to the enemy, and that just couldn't happen.
That thought filled him with new determination, and he swung his battered craft around to give chase to his opponents. His target bobbed and weaved as before, but this time he didn't attempt to mirror its motions. Instead, he reached into the Force and gave up following it with his eyes. Allowing the Force to guide him, he stopped chasing where the TIE was, and instead saw where it would be. He prepared to fire, waiting until one of Tarkin's fighters crossed into his sights. He punched the triggers, feeling victorious when his weapons landed a direct hit.
The enemy TIE exploded, disintegrating before him, and he gripped the yoke to ride out the resulting shock wave. Once through the debris cloud left by the destroyed ship, he located Luke, who was trying to evade a pursuer. He ran down the other ship, ignoring the way speed made his gauges rise further towards red. He pulled off two shots, striking the second of Tarkin's fighters, and sending the ship into a downward spiral.
Anakin exhaled in relief, and eased up on the throttle. Luke's ship pulled away immediately, heading back towards the gantry. Anakin thought for a moment about going after him, but then glanced at his gauges. Even though he'd slowed his ship, the readings were still too high. He'd have to let Luke go on for the win, while he limped home.
He brought his ship up over the plane of the gantry for a better view of Luke's moment of glory. Luke's TIE grew smaller by the second, while Anakin let his ship glide along under low power. Abruptly, a blip returned to his sensor screen, and he leaned forward, trying to visualize the object through the viewscreen. A TIE came flying up over the gantry, the same one he'd shot earlier by the marks on the exterior. Somehow, the pilot had recovered his ship from the tailspin and was back on target, steadily moving in on Luke's ship.
Anakin automatically accelerated his fighter, and the ship lurched forward with a shudder, the engine temperature skyrocketing with its effort. He cut the throttle immediately, realizing that his ship was incapable of pursuit. He shook his head inside the flight helmet. This wasn't how he had envisioned this mission at all. They were going to be the great heros, they were going to do it together. He felt terrible for leaving Luke to fend for himself. In fact it felt more than terrible, it felt wrong in the Force.
He braced against his flight harness, focusing, while his ship drifted along the line of the gantry. Now that he was listening, he could hear the Force urging him on. He accelerated lightly, and the ship responded, this time with only a minor sputter. Nursing the fighter forward, he gradually increased his speed, though the gauges still ticked towards red. After that, he stopped looking at his instruments and searched his viewscreen for the two TIEs ahead of him. Blasts of cannon fire marked their location and he flew on towards them.
As he closed in on them, he could see one fighter, probably Luke, making desperate evasive manuevers while the trailing ship tried to remain within firing distance. Anakin pushed the throttle towards full, and noticed a tremor in the ship that strengthened with speed. To his surprise, he had no fear, only a sense of certainty. He was meant to do this. They would finish this mission together.
Luke's ship doubled back as he attempted to shake his pursuer, and for a moment Anakin was facing Luke's ship head on. Then Luke dove to the left, the other fighter glued to his tail. Anakin kept to a straight line, sensing that Luke would reverse direction again. When both TIEs popped up over the gantry, heading towards the focusing disc, Anakin was ready. He punched the throttle, paying no heed to the violent tremors that shook his ship. Feeling entirely like an instrument of the Force, his field of vision narrowed to the rear of the enemy fighter. He wasn't even thinking when his thumbs pushed the triggers and his weapons found their mark on the ship ahead of him.
The other TIE vanished in a ball of fire, raining pieces back on Anakin's ship. As Anakin withdrew from the Force, he became aware of not only the unholy vibrations that gripped his fighter, but of the sound of alarms filling his cockpit. Readings blinked urgently on his instrument panel, no longer numbers, but only HHH. High, high, high, because the limits of the gauges had been exceeded. He released the throttle, but the panel still flashed HHH. He caught sight of Luke's ship, and he reached out to touch his friend's bright presence. He smiled, comforted to know that Luke was safe.
The scream of shearing metal roared through the cockpit, deafening Anakin, and flames bored through his seat from the engine compartment. Oh kriff, he thought, and then all went white.
When Darth Vader and Obi-Wan burst through the doors of Tarkin's command center, the Grand Moff didn't even blink. Vader supposed Tarkin could have seen the battle with the troopers through a security cam, but that didn't explain why the man was so calm. In fact more than calm, Vader thought, looking at Tarkin across the strategy table of the command center. This wasn't the face of a man who had accepted his fate, this was the face of a man who believed he was still completely in charge.
"Vader. I'll give you credit for making it this far," Tarkin said. He moved his gaze to Vader's right and squinted. "And Obi-Wan Kenobi? What, did you pull him out of some museum?"
"Don't let the dust fool you, Governor," Obi-Wan said.
"Your mutiny has failed, Tarkin," Vader said.
There was motion behind the Grand Moff, and a Mon Calamari moved out of the background to Tarkin's side. Something Bail Organa had said leapt to the front of Vader's mind. Tarkin holds the former leader of their Council as a slave. Staring at the broad faced Mon Cal, Vader's dislike of Tarkin ratcheted up a notch.
"No, my friend, it is your rule which is finished," Tarkin said. "My guards will be here any moment with a my herd of Wookiees. They're not very fond of you, the Wookiees. They've never forgiven you for what you did to Kashyyyk."
The torching of Kashyyyk. That was a lifetime ago, when he was raw with grief and pain and rage. He tried to think as little about that act as hed did about the destruction of the Temple.
"If I were you, I'd leave now and take the head start, " Tarkin said. "A Wookiee can tear a man's arms from the sockets. Yours might even be a little easier."
He bristled at the insult, igniting his lightsaber for emphasis. He had intended to take Tarkin and his cronies alive, to parade them in front of the Senate in a display of his firm control of the Empire. But if Tarkin kept running his mouth like this, he'd have to go to plan B.
"Order your men to deactivate the laser."
"Not in our moment of triumph," Tarkin said. "If you were smarter, you'd understand that the elimination of the Mon Calamari is essential for the safety of the Empire. The Mon Cals have just agreed to supply the Rebellion with ships." Tarkin turned to his captive. "Isn't that right, Ackbar?"
The Mon Calamari shifted uneasily, his expression changing, but foreign and unreadable to Vader. He'd never had many dealings with this species. Still, he could sense simmering hatred in the tall humanoid.
"My men will soon reach the laser, regardless. Surrender is your only option."
Tarkin sniffed and glanced at the strategy table, tracing a skeletal finger over the red lights of the schematic.
"The order to fire has already been given. You and your men are too late."
Luke put a hand to his chest, feeling as though a piece of himself had just torn away. One minute he'd been flying for his life, afraid he couldn't outrun his pursuer, and the next he was seemingly all alone. He glanced to his sensor screen, and found it empty. But that couldn't be. Anakin's ship should be registering; he'd seen him just a short time ago. And it had to have been Anakin who had shot down the enemy TIE, because there were no other fighters in the area. So where was he?
Luke circled his ship around, even though he knew he shouldn't. He flew back towards the core of the space station, searching for any sign of Anakin, but there was nothing. A hollowness settled in his stomach, and he swallowed hard. You can cry after the fighting's done, that was what Uncle Owen always used to say. Luke gathered himself and swung his ship around; he had a job to do.
He followed the line of the gantry, skimming its surface in search of the transformer junction. As still as it was around him, he might as well have been on a pleasure run to Anchorhead. Meter after meter zipped by beneath his ship, almost too fast for him to focus. He realized he might fly over the transformer and not even see it. Thinking back on the lessons Anakin and his father had given him in the Force, he closed his eyes for a moment and relaxed. Don't think, just feel, he could remember them saying.
He reached out for the nebulous current that he now knew to be the Force, and began to release his conscious control. Faster, faster, the Force whispered, and he complied, even though it meant he had no chance at all of recognizing the target. He let himself be carried along, thumbs poised over the triggers, waiting for the right moment. Open to the Force, he was bombarded by images and feelings sweeping by too fast for him to grasp them all. It was almost too much.
Suddenly he had the impulse to fire, and he acted on it, sending cannon bolts into the gantry below. Fire burst all around him, and he pulled hard to the left to escape the explosion. From a distance he watched the gantry sag, and then the back of the focusing disk went dark. His adrenalin fading, Luke drifted through the unfinished sector of the space station. They'd fought so hard to get to this point, but now that it was over, he felt empty, not triumphant.
His heart jumped when a cluster of blips appeared on his sensor screen, and he turned his ship to face them. Five fighters, flying in close formation. He was imagining his escape route when his transponder chimed. It took him a moment to realize that meant these were Imperials, not Tarkin's men. Quickly he sent the code back, and then his headset crackled.
"You did it!" the voice exclaimed, the call sign RDK-1 blazing on Luke's comm screen.
He allowed himself a smile, though he didn't feel the excitement that his commander did. They might have won, but Luke couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.
"Let's get on home, boys," came the voice through the headset, and Luke, not knowing what else to do, turned to follow the other TIEs.
The Grand Moff moved away from the strategy table and activated a wall display, revealing the Mon Calamari homeworld with its swirls of blue and white.
"If Ackbar here would have convinced his people to submit to the Empire, I might have changed my mind. But since he didn't, his punishment is to watch this space station in action."
The Mon Cal's operculum flashed red, and Ackbar leapt forward, jostling Tarkin. The Grand Moff swund around, outraged, but before he could say anything, Ackbar pulled Tarkin's sidearm. For a split second, Tarkin stared at his captive and then Ackbar shot Tarkin point blank. As Tarkin's body slipped to the ground, Obi-Wan summoned the blaster from Ackbar's hand.
The Mon Cal's head seemed to retreat into his shoulders.
"Go ahead, kill me. Death doesn't frighten me after what I lived through being a slave to that."
Ackbar nearly spat as he indicated Tarkin, and Vader recognized the desperation of having nothing left to lose. He deactivated his lightsaber and hung it on his belt.
"Bail Organa told me of your... situation. I understand it, more than you know."
"You're working with Bail Organa?" Ackbar asked suspiciously.
"As of late, yes," he said.
"You are?" Obi-Wan said, sounding equally surprised. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Does it make a difference?" he said.
Obi-Wan had an odd expression on his face, but for once had no answer. From Tarkin's belt came the chime of a comm, the speed of its repeat conveying the urgency of the message. After going unanswered, a voice suddenly burst from it.
"Sir, please respond. The power supply to the laser has been destroyed."
Across the table, Ackbar sagged visibly, then walked up to the wall display, gently touching the image of the watery planet.
"As I predicted," Vader said to Obi-Wan, before reaching down to remove Tarkin's comm. "This is the Emperor. Governor Tarkin is dead and the Death Star is under my control. All troops are to stand down."
Inside Devastator's main hangar, Darth Vader gently set down his lambda shuttle. All around his ship, other craft involved in the assault on the Death Star were also returning home. He was glad of their victory, but he was also troubled by what lay ahead. Now that Tarkin was gone, he had to decide what he was going to do with the information Organa had given him. He had everything he needed to crush the Rebellion, and yet he couldn't imagine taking that course. And then there the other issues, such as the entire population of Wookiees enslaved on the Death Star.
At least the disposition of Ackbar had been clear cut. He'd never made good on his vow to free the slaves on Tatooine, but he could at least free this one being. Even if Ackbar and his people remained foes to the Empire, there was no other choice. But somehow Ackbar's departing words of gratitude made him wonder if the rest of the Mon Calamari leadership might have a change of heart, as well.
Lowering the shuttle ramp from the cockpit, Vader turned to Obi-Wan.
"Your wound should be examined by a medic."
"It's nothing," Obi-Wan said, rubbing a hand over his thigh. "I've had far worse."
"I will alert my personal physician," he insisted, as he rose from the pilot's seat. "He's very good."
"Fine, then," Obi-Wan said, following him out of the shuttle and down the ramp. "And, uh, thank you. I assume that's a privilege most prisoners don't receive."
In completing the mission, Vader had forgotten about Obi-Wan's status. It had seemed so natural for them to work together again. And now, as with Ackbar, there seemed to be only one path to take.
"You are no longer a prisoner. You are free to go."
Obi-Wan gave him a mysterious smile, and then they turned for the hangar exit. From across the hangar, a TIE pilot in full uniform was heading towards them, helmet tucked under one arm. Halfway to them, the pilot broke into a jog, discarding the helmet to pick up speed. The strange thing was, the pilot felt like Luke. In fact, the blond hair bobbing with each stride looked like Luke. But why would his son be out here? Vader glanced at Obi-Wan, who returned an equally perplexed look.
But it was Luke who ran up, stopping abruptly, near breathless.
"What do you mean?" Vader said. "And why are you in a flightsuit?"
Luke shook his head. "We decided to help out. We joined the mission."
"You had orders to remain here," Vader said, leaning forward.
"I destroyed the transformer," Luke blurted, appearing more shell-shocked than proud.
"You did?" Vader said.
He looked at Luke's furrowed brow and troubled eyes, and for the first time he saw not Padme', but himself.
"Yeah," Luke said, lowering his head. "But Anakin was right behind me, and now I can't find him."
A flash of cold ran through Vader's heart.
"I was being fired on, and he was back there," Luke said, gesturing as he paced a line on the hangar floor, "and he shot down the ships that were after me, and then he was gone."
Vader wet his lips. "Do you know which ship he was flying?"
"RDK-Six, " Luke said, running ran a hand through his hair. "I was Five, he was Six."
Vader pulled his comm from his belt.
"Flight Officer, tell me the status of TIE RDK-Six."
"Yes, m'lord," the flight officer replied. The comm went silent, and then the officer spoke again. "Central Ship Command shows that the fighter experienced severe engine trouble. There's no signal now. I'm afraid we lost that one, sir."
"Thank you," he said, slowly lowering the comm, the chill spreading in him.
Anakin, lost in combat. He clenched his jaw. Had he caused Anakin's death by leaving him behind? Would the boy be alive now if he had taken Anakin with him? Why was it always his curse to see the future, but never be able to change it?
Obi-Wan had moved to Luke's side, but the boy shrugged off Obi-Wan's hand.
"He fell way behind for awhile. He must have known his ship was damaged," Luke said. He stared into Obi-Wan's face. "Why did he come back?"
"To help you," Obi-Wan said gently.
"But his ship was in trouble," Luke said, sounding agitated. "Why did he sacrifice himself for me?"
The reality of Anakin's death was just beginning to hit Vader. The boy had lived a life of duty and restriction, hardly even tasted freedom, never known love. However briefly Vader had known those things, at least he had known them. He shouldn't have been so hard on his apprentice. He'd should have given him more praise. He'd promised the boy a better life, but he'd barely fulfilled that promise. No matter his desire to have Anakin escape his fate, somehow they still shared it.
Obi-Wan walked up to Luke again and looked into the boy's eyes.
"Because that's what Anakin Skywalker does."
Luke looked solemnly at Obi-Wan, and the old Jedi continued.
"Once I was taken prisoner, and the entire Jedi Council gave up on me. But not Anakin. He was right there when I needed him. Count Dooku was about to kill me, but Anakin saved me, at the cost of his own arm. It's no exaggeration to say I wouldn't have survived the Clone Wars without him."
Luke swallowed, his expression softening.
"But Ben, I don't understand. Anakin was my age. How could he have helped you in the Clone Wars?"
Obi-Wan smiled softly and turned his face away from Luke to look into Vader's helmet.
"I'm not talking about the boy you knew, though I'm sure he would have done the same. I'm talking about your father."
Luke's head swung around and Vader almost missed the look of admiration in his son's face because of the tears that clouded his eyes. Obi-Wan's words were a gift, a gift of affection and respect. It was more than he deserved after everything he'd done. He'd taken that which Obi-Wan valued most - the Order, Obi-Wan's bride, really - and still Obi-Wan had found a way to open his heart. Vader didn't think he could ever be so generous with the person who had taken Padme' from him. He clenched his fist, his gaze falling away. But it was not Obi-Wan who had taken her from him. He knew that- he knew that. It was himself.
He made himself taste that bitter truth, and the rest came tumbling out, all that he kept hidden away. He hadn't wanted any of them to die, he'd only wanted her to live. They were his brothers, his family, and he'd killed them all. He was a monster. Shame and disgust raged through him, no longer contained by his mental defenses. He raised his head to see that Obi-Wan had walked off, leaving him alone with Luke.
Urgently, he called after him, "Master!"
Obi-Wan froze, and Vader stumbled up to him, falling to one knee. He'd knelt before Palpatine so many times, but never before the one man who'd actually earned the honor.
"Master, please forgive me."
Vader felt the weight of Obi-Wan's hand atop his helmet, and then his old master's face was so close his whiskers brushed the mask.
"I don't know that it is my place to grant that. I think you must forgive yourself. But I am sorry that you have lived so much of your life inside this cage."
He shut his eyes against the tears that threatened once more. How many times had he cursed Obi-Wan for making him this way, for leaving him alone to die? How many times had he questioned whether he was still a man, and not some mechanical abomination like Grievous? But a cage, only living things were put inside a cage. He swallowed hard.
"But we are not this crude matter, right?"
"No, no," Obi-Wan whispered, his hand rocking the helmet. "Luminous beings are we, and none more luminous than you in the Force."
A platitude he'd heard too many times in his youth, and only now did he understand that it wasn't false at all. He gripped Obi-Wan's arm with one great gloved hand, unable to speak. He was still a man, still himself, despite the prosthetic limbs and the accursed ventilator.
"And now, we're going to stand up," Obi-Wan said,"because I can't bear to see you on your knees one more minute. And because right now your son needs his father."
He shook his head, and together he and Obi-Wan rose from the hangar floor. Luke stood a few meters away, stoic faced, though in the Force his grief and confusion were palpable. Vader walked towards him, wanting nothing more in this moment than to comfort his son. To be the Anakin Skywalker that his apprentice had been. Yes, the Empire needed his attention, but it would have to wait.
He extended his arm as he drew closer, waiting for his son to back away, but Luke never flinched. Vader wasn't exactly sure how a father should act, but he knew what his mother would have done. He laid his forearm across Luke's back, gripping his son's shoulder and pulling him close. Luke's breath hitched, and then his son returned the embrace. After a moment they stepped back from each other, and Luke looked up into the mask, some of his pain now showing in his eyes. The openness and trust Vader saw there made him want to rip away the black armored barrier that separated them. He wanted to know this boy who had been Anakin's friend. Who was a hero to the Empire. Who was his son.
"Let's get you out of this flightsuit," he said. "And then we'll talk. Man to man. Face to face."
Luke swallowed, nodding, and Vader glanced back at Obi-Wan, who smiled his approval. Something unlocked inside him, and he was flooded with feelings of love and hope and belonging. When Anakin had killed Palpatine, he had marveled that his clone was not the same as he. But maybe that wasn't true. Maybe everything he'd seen in his apprentice was in him, too. And maybe, just maybe, if had the courage to live the life he'd wanted for his apprentice, then Anakin would live on, too.
"Leave this to the politicians, Anakin," Obi-Wan said. "You know you hate this."
Darth Vader flinched at the name. All he could think of was his apprentice, but he knew Obi-Wan had great difficulty addressing him as Vader. He looked up from the stacks of flimsiplast spread over his end of the elegant blackwood dining table. He'd taken to working in this sunlit room in the mornings, even if all he could do was watch Luke and Obi-Wan eat. With its expansive view of the Imperial Center skyline, it was far more soothing than the colorless war rooms that used to be his habit. Or maybe it was just the company.
His eyes refocused on the document in front of him. Assuredly it was in Basic, though the lawyers had done their best to render it incomprehensible. Obi-Wan was right: he did hate this. But there were certain things he had to ensure were in place.
"I cannot trust the politicians with my plans. Besides, what else would I do?"
"Come with me to Dagobah," Obi-Wan said. "And beyond. There's bound to be more survivors who lived like I did."
He glanced at Luke, who was quietly watching the exchange from over his morning meal. This wasn't the first time Obi-Wan had mentioned searching for exiled Jedi. Luke had readily agreed with the idea, having plunged himself into his studies with intensity since Anakin's death. In fact, he suspected Luke had flown at least once to the old Temple, with Obi-Wan as his guide.
"Yes, I'm exactly the face a Jedi wants to see."
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to counter, but the chime of Vader's comm interrupted him. Vader frowned as he removed it from his belt.
"What is it?"
"Yes, m'lord," came the reply, "Senator Organa is waiting for you in the foyer."
"Senator Organa?" Obi-Wan asked quizzically.
"Tell the Senator I will be with him shortly," he said into the comm. He clicked it off, and waved his hand in the air. "He has some matter to discuss that couldn't wait for the next Senate session."
"I'll go," Luke said from across the table. "Should I bring him here?"
Vader gazed at his son. Though Luke didn't enjoy politics the way his apprentice had, there had been several times he had stepped in for duties that once would have been Anakin's.
"That would be fine."
Once Luke had left, Vader turned to Obi-Wan.
"You shouldn't get his hopes up like that."
"Well, if you weren't so stubborn, you'd actually consider my idea," Obi-Wan said.
"My place is here. The restoration of rights to the non-human worlds is of great importance."
"Granted," Obi-Wan said, "but there are others who would champion that task besides you."
He shook his head and sighed. But even as he argued against it, he could feel the Force pulling him towards Obi-Wan's proposal. He shoved back the voice that urged him to acquiesce, and was thankful when footsteps sounded outside in the corridor. Luke and Organa were there, he sensed, but also another person. When the door slid open, for a moment there was a twitter of beeps, and then Luke stepped through the threshhold, arm extended in invitation.
"After you, Senator," Luke said.
Organa nodded to Luke as he entered the room.
"Thank you," he said, before turning to Vader. "That's a fine boy you have there."
"Yes, he is," Vader said, momentarily puzzled, until he realized Luke must have disclosed their relationship as he escorted the Senator. "What is it that you wanted to discuss?"
Organa's gaze went to Obi-Wan then back to Vader.
"Your decisiveness in moving against Tarkin saved billions of lives. The systems of the Empire, all of the systems, are extremely grateful."
He caught the reference to the re-integration of the former worlds of the Rebellion. But that was old news.
"And your honesty in coming to me with the facts is commendable. But we discussed all that publicly in the last Senate session."
"Yes, you're right. There is something else," Organa said. The senator took in a deep breath. "Many years ago I was entrusted with the care of two friends of yours. I've decided that it's time to return them to you."
"Friends of mine?" he asked suspiciously.
"Yes," Organa said, moving back to the door. He activated the control and spoke into the hallway. "Leia, you can bring them in now."
The senator held the door from sliding shut while his daughter entered the room, a squat astromech droid and a golden protocol droid at her heels. Vader stared at the droids, disbelieving.
"Artoo? And Threepio?"
The protocol droid's head whipped to attention.
"Have we met? I don't recall being introduced."
The astromech droid twittered rapidly and Organa leaned in over the table.
"It was necessary to perform a memory wipe. You know his propensity for talking."
"Of course I talk," Threepio said indignantly. "It is my function. I am fluent in..."
"...over six million forms of communication," Vader said. "Yes, I know. I built you Threepio."
"You're the Maker?" Threepio said, sounding confused. He looked down to the astromech droid. "Is that true, Artoo?"
Artoo warbled, then rolled around the table to Obi-Wan's side. He cast his photoreceptor into Obi-Wan's face and gave a low whistle.
"Yes, my little friend, it's me," Obi-Wan said. He inclined his head towards Vader. "And don't let the mask fool you."
Artoo's photoreceptor swiveled towards Vader, surveying him up and down. The droid uttered an inquiring note.
He smiled, and set a gloved hand atop Artoo's dome. Indeed a friend, the most loyal of friends.
"Good to see you, Artoo," he said, and the droid burbled excitedly in response. "No, I don't know how I got along without you, either."
Luke moved forward from the back of the room, where he'd been silently watching the conversation. He looked appraisingly at Threepio, and then to Vader.
"You really built him?"
"Yes, " he said, memories of his childhood, of his youth, of his marriage, of his life flashing through his mind. Prissy, serious Threepio had been there for all of it, so perhaps it was fitting that Bail should return him now that it was beginning again. "He was first a gift to my mother, and later to yours. And Artoo was a gift from your mother to me."
Vader noticed the Senator's daughter was listening as intently as Luke. She must have grown up with the droids, and doubtless their history was interesting to her. But there seemed to be something more in her gaze, which fixed on him as often as the droids. Finally she moved in front of Bail, who rested a protective hand on her shoulder.
"I was very sorry to hear about Anakin," she said, her dark eyes solemn. "He had so much life, I can't believe he's gone."
He clenched his jaw inside the helmet. It was hard to believe. There were still times when he'd go to his comm, needing Anakin's expertise on some technical issue, then remember he wasn't there to answer anymore. And if he and Obi-Wan were talking somewhere, it felt as though Anakin was simply in some other part of the Palace. But then Luke would join them and Anakin's absence became painfully obvious. Their grief bound them together, the ache of loss a shared experience, though for him there was a pain even more sharp. It was a stab of guilt, born of wondering why Anakin had to die. Even though they'd faced different dangers in disarming the Death Star, he couldn't shake the feeling that somehow it was he who should have been killed, not his apprentice. Despite been raised as a Sith, Anakin had been essentially innocent, and yet he seemed to have been the one who paid for Vader's crimes. The weight of that debt was never far from his mind.
While Vader was unable to formulate a reply, Luke was more composed. He walked up to Leia and smiled sadly.
"He really thought a lot of you."
Leia blushed and lowered her head, but then recovered.
"So you're Luke," she said, her eyes returning to his face. "Funny, we don't look anything alike."
Luke laughed awkwardly.
"Why, should we?"
The utter silence that filled the room jarred Vader more than Leia's words. It was an odd statement to be sure, but not as odd as the tight lipped expressions Bail and Obi-Wan wore. Luke looked around the room, as if searching for someone to explain.
"Twins often do," Obi-Wan said softly, "but not always."
"I don't have a twin," Luke said, turning to Vader. "Do I?"
"Unfortunately, I am not the one to ask," he said, a tightness building in his chest.
A second child? A daughter, the girl he had expected? In light of that revelation, Leia's resemblance to Padme' was obvious. And the current of Force sensitivity that he'd somehow ignored before, that would be entirely from him. She was his daughter. He swelled with emotion, grateful that Bail had told Leia the truth.
Obi-Wan rose from the table and approached Luke and Leia.
"You were separated when you were born to keep you protected from Palpatine. From the Sith."
It was a measure of Obi-Wan's friendship that he hadn't said from your father. Vader recognized that both Obi-Wan and Bail were giving him a second chance. A chance he would not squander. He turned to his daughter.
"You look different because while Luke favors me, you look very much like your mother."
Leia blinked, nodding. "I was hoping you could tell me about her."
"Of course I would," he said, noticing Bail's hand tightening on Leia's shoulder.
Artoo chirped at his side.
"Artoo says he has some holograms which might help," Threepio said. "His memory is more complete than mine. A fact of which he constantly reminds me."
Vader gazed down at the little astromech droid who had once been his nearly constant companion. Almost anything might be stored in Artoo's memory banks. He hoped he could stand seeing it.
"I'd like to get to know you, Luke," Leia said, brushing a hand over her brother's arm. She turned to Vader. "And you. Maybe you can tell me if I have the gift."
"You do," he said plainly, his perception of their bond in the Force strengthening.
"We're going to search for lost Jedi," Luke said, his eyes warm. "You should come with us."
Bail looked to Vader and Obi-Wan.
"Is that true? Are you going to restore the Order?"
He opened his mouth to discount the idea, then felt the storm of opposition in the Force. Did he always have to wrestle with its will? He thought of Anakin flying his crippled ship back to save Luke, accepting his destiny without hesitation. Perhaps that was a lesson he was supposed to learn as well.
"Apparently it is, Senator," he said, a strange sense of relief coming to him with the decision. Suddenly his path became clear. "Have you ever thought of running for Chancellor?"
Bail looked at him as though he were mad.
"The Empire doesn't have a Chancellor. Only an...emperor."
He hesitated a moment with his reply, because it would change everything. But what was there to hold him back? Nothing Palpatine had ever given him, no power or position, had ever brought him any happiness, let alone as much comfort as the beings in this room. His friends, his children, the droids. He wasn't giving up everything - he was gaining everything that mattered. It was time to let the Empire go.
"That, Senator, is about to change."