Chapter 1: PROLOGUE I - Starkiller
Deep in the space, on the secret shipyard of Scarl system lies the massive hull of a Star Destroyer. She is yet far from ready, but the space around her is filled with smaller vessels, performing their tasks without any rest in order to finish her. She will become the largest ship in the Imperial Navy, the first Executor-class Star Dreadnought. She will become something dubbed as a Super Star Destroyer, for she was nearly twelve times as long as a regular Star Destroyer that would shrink beside the 19 kilometre long beauty. The whole work so far has been done strictly by droids only, due the extreme secrecy of the project. But today even the most simplest ones among the droids are as nervous as their programming allows them to be, for a rumour has spread: her owner was present.
And deep in the hull of her already finished parts, the tall, black figure of the owner stood. Darth Vader, the Sith Lord had taken some time off of his busy schedule, not only to see the growth of his future flagship, but also to see his secret apprentice, living on the finished lower decks.
The angry crimson blade of a lightsabre in the hands of a young boy attacked, but Vader parried easily, although to his delight, he had to admit the boy had made a lot progress within the past two months they'd not seen each other. His attacks were better aimed, his connection to the Force grown steadier and he managed to stand his ground when he made an easy attack. The boy was strong in the Force, stronger than many Jedi he'd encountered. With time and proper training, he would easily be worthy of the status of his official apprentice.
At the time being, he was still merely a 12-year old boy, fielding a weapon he could not fully control yet. But the boy would grow and learn. This boy was Vader's ticket out of the hell he was living in. Maybe five, ten years more or so and all the secret training would hopefully pay off. Then the boy would be ready to start facing real Jedi Knights. And from that it wouldn't be too long for him to be ready for the faith Vader had prepared for him: assassinating the Emperor.
Vader had found the boy roughly eight years ago on Kashyyyk. He was the son of a Jedi Knight Kento Marek, but the boy didn't need to know that just yet. It would be better to reveal this part of his past after the boy had learned to hate the Jedi enough for this knowledge to fuel his anger and strengthen his connection to the Dark Side of the Force. The boy had a real name, but Vader simply referred him as Starkiller. Apart from power over the boy, the code name also gave him the much needed distance.
In many ways, Starkiller was an unwanted distraction. Young, agile and strong in the Force, the boy seemed to be everything he had once been. A living, breathing link to his past he wanted nothing, but to forget for good. Worse, the boy was everything he could have had, had he not strangled the woman carrying his own child...
Angered with the trail his thoughts had taken, Vader's 'sabre scratched the boys arm and he sent the child flying to the far end of the room before even realising he had done a thing.
The boy let out a surprised yelp, but was quickly back on his feet. Yelling out his frustration, the boy ignited his 'sabre again and ran at him. But Vader had suddenly lost his interest in training.
“Enough for today. I have more important things to attend to.”
With all the yelling, the boy did not seem to hear or care for his order. Starkiller was merely a meter from his master, when he felt the floor disappear under his feet and the lightsabre was pulled from him by an invisible hand.
"I said enough!" Vader roared, lifting the boy to his eye level with nothing but the Force. The boy's anger still out-ruled the fear, but not for long. He gripped the air and the boy tried to gasp for a breath. Unlike most of people, his young apprentice did not grasp his throat in futile attempt to loosen his collar, but instead, his eyes were searching for the lightsabre.
"Do you dare to disobey me?" the Sith Lord bellowed and hurled Starkiller on the floor, never loosening his choke-hold.
That did it. Despite the lack of oxygen, Starkiller felt his head clear of the blind rage. He looked up to his Master, relaxed and closed his eyes. If he were to die now, it meant he wasn't worth of his Master's time. But he'd tried so hard...
Darth Vader regarded the boy for a second. He needed Starkiller to constantly be on his toes and to believe he was ready to kill him for even a slightest mistake. In reality, Vader had no such luxury. This boy was his best and quite possibly the only chance of freedom.
Starkiller drew a deep, laboured breath immediately after he let go.
“Forgive me, my Master”, the boy rasped, getting on his knee.
“Next time I may not be as forgiving. I have no need for a weak fool who cannot obey.”
“I apologise, my Master”, the young apprentice responded obediently, bowing his head in submission.
Darth Vader said nothing. He turned and stormed out of the doorway, leaving Starkiller alone in the empty, unfurnished room. The boy did not rise his head until his Master's presence in the Force was far enough for him to not know his exact location. Then, and only then, did he get up. For a while he just stood, gritting his teeth.
Metallic steps approached him from behind, but Starkiller sensed no danger. PROXY wasn't up to a fight this time.
“Oh, master” the tall holodroid sighed as soon as he came to Starkiller's line of vision. “You got hurt again.”
“It's nothing”, he muttered, rubbing the burned skin with his fingertips. Darth Vader's lightsabre had burned a hole in his sleeve and scorched his arm. It would most likely leave a scar if he didn't put bacta on it, but he didn't mind scars. He already had plenty of them. The burn stung a little, but didn't really hurt. He'd experienced worse.
“Shall I retrieve your medpac?”
Starkiller shook his head, closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. His blood still rushed from the adrenaline of the intense training session with his Master. Six times this morning he'd experienced near death. The sixth had been completely unnecessary and a stupid blunder from his part. What was his Master thinking of him now?
...a weak fool who cannot obey.
“I am not weak!” the boy suddenly screamed and gave a Force powered kick to the durasteel boxes that had been left in the room. “I'm not. And I will prove it to him. I will.”
“I'm sure you will, master. After all, he wouldn't have kept you for this long if he didn't believe you to have some potential”, the droid tried to reassure him.
Starkiller turned to look at his droid companion. PROXY was the closest thing he could call a friend and had been in his life nearly as long as he could remember. He was a holodroid, capable of projecting an image of a person around himself, mimicking the person's voice and movements or even working as a holotransmitter, projecting the image of the caller so that it almost seemed the caller would have been standing right in front of him.
PROXY was also his personal teacher. The droid had an impressive knowledge of both, Sith and Jedi fighting techniques. They could spar for hours in the empty rooms and hallways of the unfinished Destroyer. Sometimes, quite often to be truthful, the droid would attack him out of nowhere as per to his programming. Master Vader had made it so that each time they fought, it was for real. PROXY's only goal in life was to assist and eventually kill him.
The apprentice called his lightsabre back from the floor where Vader had thrown it. He sighed. “Spar with me, PROXY.”
Chapter 2: PROLOGUE II – Ben Kenobi
By the age of 47, Ben Kenobi, formerly known as Obi-Wan Kenobi, lived in a way he'd never imagined some ten years ago. When he'd first settled on this desolate planet called Tatooine, he'd still been a youngish man, one of the few survivors of his kind. Now, after the years spent under the harsh twin suns of the desert planet, he looked almost ten years older than he was. He'd lost most of his athletic built due to the lack of training and his hair had started to lose it's auburn colour. He looked more like an old hermit he'd become, than a Jedi Council member he had been.
Ben lived alone in small hut near an area called the Western Dune Sea. The reason for this location was simple. The only thing he could do, was to keep an eye on the 9-year old boy living near by.
The man sighed. Instead of his mind clearing for meditation, his thoughts had once again trailed to the subject he rather wished to avoid. Especially for the past few days, the thoughts of Anakin had been haunting him. The memory of the burning man flashed before his closed eyes. No, he did not want to go back there. Not today.
Clearly, meditating would not happen today either. He could as well start his day without it. Again.
Ben moved to the small kitchen area and started to prepare his morning tea. Even here, on the hot Tatooine, he would not start his day without a cup of tea. It was one the small things that allowed him to stay sane in his isolation. But for today, the Force seemed to have other plans for the former Jedi Master. The water would not boil. After some research he figured that most of his electrical utensils were not working, not even the lights. Worse, his fridge was rapidly getting warmer.
There had been one of the first sandstorms of the season during the previous night. After getting out, it was rather easy to see that the sand that had the tendency to get absolutely everywhere, had managed to plug the generator's exhaust pipe and through it, the whole generator. He had no choice, but to get his tools and open the damned thing.
It had been early in the morning when Ben got up, but now it was soon midday and the generator still wasn't working. He wasn't a complete novice when it came to machinery, but at times like this, he wished Anakin was still alive. Anakin would have immediately pointed out the problem and fixed it, and he would have had his tea a long time ago.
It wasn't the first time his generator had been acting up, but the previous times he or someone in Anchorhead had been able to somehow miraculously get it back to work. Maybe, this time he really ought to get a new one.
"This isn't my day", the Jedi muttered under his breath. For a while he pondered whether he should take the old generator with him, in hope to get discount for a new one in exchange, but in the end decided against it. After eating his fridge empty from the foods that were most likely to be spoiled in the heat, he got his robes and prepared his eopie for the long walk.
He had decided to head for Bestine instead of Anchorhead. The capital wasn't that much farther than Anchorhead was, although for Bestine, he would need to head to North-East instead of South-East. The way to the city wasn't an easy one, as he had to cut through the canyons and rocky hills where the Tusken Raiders could easily hide, but what wouldn't a man do for a better selection of power generators?
Chapter 3: PROLOGUE III – Darth Vader
Darth Vader roamed aimlessly through the unfinished corridors of his enormous future flagship. In his mind, he'd settled for the name Executor. Simple, yet the word perfectly described her. He'd already visited the new hangar area that was nearly finished, seven kilometres away from Starkiller's training area, but it and none of the areas on the way had not really interested him. When Vader came here, he'd often walk around inspecting the progress that had been made, but not today. For now, his only reason for walking was to clear his head.
Had he been on Coruscant or some of the ships that had a special pressurised pod for him to breathe without the mask, he'd sit down to get rid of the claustrophobic armour. It felt like his thoughts were trapped inside the suit the same way he was. Nine years wearing it hadn't made it significantly any easier to bear, even though there were days he was perfectly comfortable with it. There were days when he could look back and not feel the pain, but today was not one of those days. Today, the memories flooded uncontrollably and the armour felt more like a coffin than part of his body. Despite the respirator, it seemed to suffocate him.
His current sour mood was, of course, result of the training session with Starkiller. It was easy to lash out at the boy, but it wasn't really his intention to. His goal was to have a loyal apprentice, who'd respect him despite the harsh training, not a slave who'd obey him merely out of fear.
The Emperor would not be pleased to know this was how he thought. On more than one occasion he had displayed dissatisfaction towards Vader's attitude for his underlings. The Emperor did not care if he was not liked. Neither did Vader, but unlike the Emperor, he made a difference between loyalty out of fear and loyalty out of respect. He preferred the latter, despite utilising the first far more often. One of the only useful traits of Anakin that he still had. From his point of view, it was better to be respected than feared when it came to loyalty, although fear was a useful ally. But one loyal man was worth more than a legion of slaves, for a slave would turn his back on his master when the opportunity arose. Vader himself, if anyone, should know. And Starkiller would be a powerful ally indeed.
If Vader could keep himself from making the boy hate him more than respect him.
It was purely his own fault that he could not fully let go of the memories of his past life. He wanted to, perhaps more than anything, he wanted to just forget. And sometimes he'd think he'd succeeded, but then something would trigger the memories again. Often, it would be something about her.
Not this time, though. Today it was more about the child. There were times he felt like treating his young apprentice as that child. It could be his son he was training. It could be almost like he had always imagined life would be.
For most of the times, like today, the remembrance had made him want to kill Starkiller. What right had he to live, to breathe, to be so strong in the Force when his child was dead? When he himself was so horribly mutilated and handicapped to live on his miserable existence in constant physical and mental pain, without any of his loved ones by his side. The women he had loved were dead, one by his own hand. The men he had trusted had betrayed him. She had betrayed him.
And yet, he'd forgive her for bringing Obi-Wan with her if she'd just survived. Even if she had hated him for the rest of her life, it would have been better than the world without her.
He badly wanted to smash something. Kill something.
Without realising, Vader had arrived to the finished hangar where his heavily modified Eta-2 Actis interceptor awaited. He was tempted to climb into the cramped cockpit and get out of the whole Scarl system, away from Starkiller's presence, but the thought of the small space he'd have to squeeze himself in didn't sound all that appealing. He felt claustrophobic enough already.
Darth Vader stopped some five meters from his fighter. The astromech had noticed him. R4 rolled his dome and beeped questioningly. The black starfighter's lights flicked on.
“No, I am not leaving yet.”
The droid beeped again and the fighter's lights went out. R4-K5 went back to it's sleeping mode without further sound effects. The black astromech droid was dull. It had hardly any personality compared to R2-D2.
Vader sighed inwardly. Yet another part of Anakin's life had managed to surface. It seemed to happen a lot today. He looked at the little droid for a long time. Had Obi-Wan not stolen Artoo, they'd probably still be flying together. Not only Artoo, his former master had also taken C-3PO, among with his lightsabre -and his dead wife. He'd cut of his limbs and left him to burn to death.
A hot rage rushed through what was left of his organic body. Obi-Wan Kenobi had taken everything from him. Vader had been obsessed by the search for the man, but so far his former master had managed to stay hidden. The Emperor had grown tired of it and ordered him to stop trying to locate Kenobi. He posed no threat to them or the Empire. More overly, his grudge against the man was a link to Anakin's life. But Vader did not want let go. His hatred towards the man that had once been his best friend, his brother, his father figure, was one of the things that kept him going.
The tall half-machine of a man turned around to leave the hangar, determined to forget about Anakin. He was done for thinking of his life for today.
He had been walking for a long while. It was already late in the Imperial Capital. If Starkiller lived by the schedule he was supposed to, the boy had already gone to sleep. He didn't feel like bullying the boy after his outburst earlier the day by waking him up for more training, but perhaps he ought to update PROXY's battle simulations.
Chapter 4: PROLOGUE IV – Luke Skywalker
It was late at night, when Ben Kenobi returned to his hut from Bestine. A normal, smart person would avoid travelling during the Tatooinian night, but he was no ordinary person. The Tusken Raiders knew better than to try attack the former Jedi master.
“Good girl”, Ben silently talked to the eopie, while preparing her for the night. The animal had been extremely distressed while walking through the canyons, but she trusted her owner.
“A rip-off price, but at least tomorrow I'll have my tea. Should work for the next ten years, he said... There you go, girl. I'll see you in the morning.”
Ben moved the new generator indoors. He wouldn't be installing it tonight, it could wait until morning. The house was dark and he couldn't see a thing due the lack of any kind of light once he got indoors. Outdoors, there had at least been the moons and the stars. But it didn't really matter. He knew where everything was in his home and with the Force guiding his steps there was no danger of tripping.
Whereas Ben was just settling for the bed, in another house, the family had been sleeping for several hours now. The Lars family went to sleep early as they were to rise with the suns. Such was the life of a farmer.
Beru Lars had been deep asleep, when she suddenly woke up. At first she wasn't sure what it was that had woken her up, but then she felt small hands nudge her, trying to get her attention.
The 9-year-old boy stood beside her in his pyjamas. In the dim light she could see he was upset.
“Luke, honey, what is it?” she mumbled, still half asleep.
“Can I sleep with you?”
Beru sat up silently, careful to not wake her sleeping husband.
“No, Luke, you can't”, she whispered back. “What's wrong?”
The boy pressed against her. “I had a bad dream.”
Beru stroked the boy's blond hair and gingerly got off the bed. “Come.”
She held Luke's hand while they tiptoed to the kitchen. Trying to cover her yawn, she flicked on the small lights above the counter. Luke remained at the doorway, hiding his eyes from the sudden light.
Beru took a while to warm up a cup of blue milk for the boy. Luke was not his son, but she treated him with the same love she would have if he were. The boy had been in their life for nine years now, yet it seemed like it was yesterday when Obi-Wan handed her the small bundle that was a new born baby. It was hard to believe that such a sweet boy could be the son of one of the most feared men in the galaxy.
They sat around the dining table. Luke bit his lip and held his small hands around the warm mug.
“A bad dream?” his aunt inquired after the silence had stretched too long for her liking.
The boy nodded once.
“Would you like to tell me about it?”
“It's the same dream”, Luke whispered.
Beru nodded. For the past month Luke had woken up in the middle of the night every now and then. For the couple of the first times he'd screamed in his sleep, waking up both his uncle and aunt. For many times he'd just stayed in his bed, but sometimes, when it became unbearable, he'd come for her to find comfort. For many days during the past month, Luke had been unusually silent. If she'd ask, he'd say it was nothing, but she knew it must have been another nightmare the previous night. But he wouldn't talk about it.
“You won't tell uncle Owen, right?”
“Of course not”, his aunt assured with a smile. “Now, why don't you tell me about this dream. I'm sure it'll feel less scary once you do.”
Luke fell silent and kept staring at his milk. She wished she could help him, but if the boy refused to talk, it was going to be difficult.
“It's a bit different every time”, Luke finally said. “But it's the same dream.”
The boy sipped the milk and for a while Beru was afraid he wouldn't talk after all.
“It's always so dark. And cold. And hot at the same time. Sometimes I'm being chased, but when I try to run it's like I'm on quicksand. The darkness just swallows me up. It's like I'm being buried alive and I feel like I can't breathe... “
Luke's voice cracked and he fell in silence. Beru nudged him to urge him to continue.
“Sometimes I know it's not me, not really. Sometimes there's...someone. I don't know who. He's like a... a huge towering presence over me. Sometimes he's chasing me and I know something bad will happen if he catches me. Sometimes I just feel his eyes all over me and I can't hide no matter how much I try.”
Luke was now fighting back tears. Beru put her arm protectively around the trembling child.
“It's just a dream”, she tried to reassure him, even though she felt chills run down her spine. She had a fairly good idea of what these dreams could mean.
He's nine. Normal children have nightmares as well. It could be nothing.
“But it feels so real”, he choked, holding tightly onto her. The woman held the boy close, caressing his back.
“The dreams often are”, she spoke softly. “It's not until we wake up, we realise it wasn't really happening.”
“How can I make it stop?” Luke cried.
“I wish I could have an answer. I know it's frightening, but you need to be brave. Dreams can't hurt you. Once you wake up, you can control it.”
“But I'm afraid he's there”, the boy whispered, scanning the room with his saucer wide blue eyes, as if he'd belief the monster from his dream might be lurking in the corners even now. “I can't sleep when I'm afraid he's somewhere in my room.”
“There's no one in your room, Luke”, Beru promised. “We can check it together if you want to. And we can leave the corridor lights on.”
Luke swallowed. He found himself disappointed for his aunt's reaction, but he nodded in agreement. “Okay.”
“That's the spirit”, his aunt smiled. She just wanted to get back to sleep. “Now drink up your milk before it gets cold.”
She stayed next to the boy as he slowly finished with the milk. She walked him to his room, tucked him in bed and checked every possible dark corner in the room. She found a pair of dirty socks, a spaceship model and a poncho, but no monsters. She was tired and wanted nothing more than to return to bed, but Luke wasn't convinced.
“What if he comes after you're gone?”
“He won't, he's not real.”
“Can't you stay until I'm asleep?”
Beru looked at the blond head peeking from under the covers.
She sighed, but stepped forward. “Fine. But just this once.”
Chapter 5: I
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The twins suns on the blue sky shone brightly, heating the dusty streets of Anchorhead, but it didn't bother the playing children. Ben Kenobi sat in the shadows of his favorite café, sipping cool, cheap version of juri juice and eyeing one particular child.
The nine-year old Luke Skywalker was almost the spitting image of his father at the same age. That young slave boy seemed like a dream he'd had a lifetime ago. It was almost painful to see Luke smile the same smile his father so rarely had had on his face. So similar, yet so different.
Ben watched Luke kick the ball that was passed to him. The boy had good and fast reflexes. He would make a fine Jedi, of that Ben was sure. Or… a small voice reminded, he would make a fine Sith. Would he be a good enough teacher to ensure Luke would no succumb to the Darkness like his father had? Sometimes he wondered, if he had made the right decision by bringing Luke here. The child was happy with his family, but would he be too old for the Jedi training? Anakin had been nine and Master Yoda had not wanted to train him. Ten years ago he would have said "nine isn't too old, Anakin turned out just fine".
He should have listened to Master Yoda. If only...
Ben closed his eyes for a moment. A Jedi does not dwell on ifs, he reminded himself.
Anakin had been very different from Luke. Whereas Anakin had been forced to mature at early age and learn to cope with the crueler side of life, Luke was still a child. He had a loving family and friends. He didn't need to fear for any of them being sold to another planet. He went to school and was free to play like a child should. Unlike Anakin, Luke was still very much oblivious to the harsh reality of crime on the very planet he lived on, and how monstrous slavery could really be like. And Ben would rather it to still stay this way.
But, no matter what Owen might have said, Luke would need to start his training some day. He would need to become a Jedi. The galaxy needed him to become a Jedi.
Such a great potential should not go fasted during these difficult times.
Ben would gladly train the boy, yet, he was afraid he would fail the way he had failed with Anakin. Even to this day, he could not tell what was the final straw that led his former padawan and a dear friend to the faithful decision that had re-shaped the history of the known galaxy. How could one man's one decision lead into so much evil?
Out on the street, Luke scored a goal past the tallest boy of the group. His friend and closest neighbour Biggs Darklighter cheered and a handful of other children on the same team did the same. Ben continued to secretly watch the game until Biggs' father's speeder pulled to the street and then after a while drove away with him and Luke. The Jedi watched them leave, considering if he should leave as well. It was a long ride back to his hut and he had already done all the shopping he needed. He finished with his drink, non-alcoholic, for he had noticed the stronger beverages made him ill very quickly in the local climate. Not that he had cared for the first few months after settling here and when what his padawan had done had truly hit him. What Ben had done to him. Almost everyone he had known and considered his family were dead and it had taken a while for that to really sink in.
Master Windu, Master Mundi, Master Fisto, Master Tiin, Master Gallia, Master Unduli, Master Secura, Master Ti, Master Koon… All presumably dead. The list was endless. Not just the Masters, the padawans and younglings as well. All gone because of one man.
Ben tried to shake the thoughts off while slipping into the café. He was immediately greeted by the owner.
"Too hot out there?" she asked and moved to switch the HoloNet channel from Hutt Space news to Imperial news channel when Ben sat down. Rioters and protestors filled the screen. They were surrounded by stormtroopers, who opened fire to the crowd.
"I just came to pay", he said, but made no move to do so. People on the screen screamed and tried to escape. Some of the bravest, or perhaps the most desperate, attacked the troopers.
The owner shook her head. "Those people are mad."
Ben had to agree with her. While he was glad to see not all the people accepted what the galaxy had become, it was sheer madness for them to riot against such an enemy. They weren't soldiers, they had a minimum amount of weapons, if any. They hadn't come anticipating their protest would end in such a violent way.
He found it hard to shift his eyes away from the bloodbath playing on the screen. Only when the announcer returned to the screen, explaining how the Empire swiftly cleaned the streets of these potentially dangerous future terrorist with a smile on his face, did the Jedi turn away.
"I suppose I should leave", he said, feeling his pockets for credits. He gave one last glance to the screen, but the news had already changed to a promotional report from Corulag Academy. With a heart heavier than in the morning he left, wishing only he would soon be home and could meditate to forget.
Starkiller was battered and exhausted after the entire morning of defending himself against Darth Vader in a lightsabre duel. He had literally fought until he could barely stay standing after his Master's brutal attacks, but the more tired he'd grown, the more vicious his Master had become. And just because eventually he just collapsed from exhaustion didn't mean he'd get to rest.
There is no pain where strength lies. It was something his Master had taught him. Pain could be turned into power.
So despite his body ached in protest, he got up when his Master so ordered. He fought without thinking, only relying on his instincts, only to his connection with the Force. He would have to be powerful enough to not make mistakes even when driven to his very limits. He would have to overcome those limits.
Finally, his Master stopped and raised his hand to tell Starkiller lower his weapon as well. Darth Vader nodded barely visibly. It was the closest thing to a praise Starkiller ever received from his Master. He clipped his weapon to his belt and bowed, waiting for his orders. His heart was bounding and he was short of breath. Most twelve-year olds would not have been able to stand on their feet after what he had just gone through this morning, but he was no ordinary twelve-year old. He wished his Master would recognise that as well.
Master Vader then asked him what he thought he had made most progress in since his last visit. Starkiller didn't need to think for long. There was one thing he had only lately started practicing and his Master didn't even know of it yet. He stretched out his hands and closed his eyes in concentration to turn all the fatigue into anger and that anger into strength. The blue electricity that gathered around his fingers and palms prickled slightly, but did not hurt. It was power at his very own fingertips.
The Sith lightning was an intense and violent weapon. Very effective when used correctly. But it could also be lethal for its wielder if not mastered. If Starkiller would make the lightning too powerful for himself to handle, he could easily end up killing himself.
He released the energy at his Master, who easily directed it away from himself with his lightsabre. The boy hoped for some sort of acknowledgement, but as usual, his Master seemed unimpressed and offered no encouraging words. It didn't disappoint the apprentice, for he knew his Master. No comments would just help to further inflame his desire to succeed, to show the Sith Lord he was worthy.
He was allowed a short break when they moved to a different part of the ship. The room, or perhaps some sort of a hangar, was vast and had catwalks high up in several levels. Starkiller knew the exercise well. He leapt straight up and landed on a catwalk with an unsatisfying clank of his boots. He grimaced slightly at the sound, as well as at the pain in his legs.
“Again”, came the simple command from his Master. No opinions of his performance were voiced, but he knew he could have done better. That he had to do better than that.
They boy obediently jumped down, only to leap again.
Two days had passed on the Super Star Destroyer's hull and Darth Vader still had two more to use for training his apprentice without arising anyone's suspicion. Vader had now been supervising Starkiller's training for hours. He was impressed by the Force lightning his young apprentice had managed to create. It was more than he himself was able to do. But he would never say it. No use making the child feel proud of himself.
Less than ten minutes passed, when a black astromech droid suddenly rolled in. Arfour let out a series of quick excited beeps and squeals the moment it noticed its master.
Vader waved his hand to tell Starkiller to continue with his leaps. The boy could manage well the height of some of the lowest catwalks, but landing gracefully still needed a lot more practise. The child had a long way ahead of him, before he'd be the silent assassin Vader wanted him to be.
“What is it?” he asked, turning his attention to the droid. It was extremely unusual for it to leave the fighter.
The droids holoprojector came to life. A blue hologram hung half a second in the mid-air before the recording started.
“You appear to be busy, my Lord”, the helmeted man started. “I have some information I know will interest you.”
The short message ended, but Arfour left the still picture of Boba Fett linger in the air. The bounty hunter usually contacted him in one sort of occasions only. He had either killed a fugitive Jedi or seen one, and was now looking for his bounty.
“When did this message arrive?”
The astromech beeped apologetically and displayed a time stamp one the holoimage. It stated almost four hours ago. The droid must have been trying to find him ever since as he had temporarily disabled any call signals from the droid. It was useful in a battle situation to receive any written messages, maps or his fighter's current status straight into the helmet's computer, but otherwise just plain annoying.
“Ready my ship.”
Arfour beeped eagerly and rolled away.
Starkiller quickly jumped down with a thump, losing his balance a little as his feet hit the floor. “Will you be coming back?”
“Probably not. Continue until you can do it silently. And work that lightning.”
The apprentice bowed to him. He could tell the boy felt letdown in the turn of events, but none of his disappointment was audible nor visible. He was a devoted student. “Yes, my Master.”
Vader followed the droid to the hangar. He would not contact Fett here. The line he used was as secure as possible, but he would take no risks in getting anyone interested in this particular system. Two hours later he dropped out of Hyperspace in the middle of nowhere, far from Scarl. It took a while for the bounty hunter to answer his call.
Boba Fett appeared on the small screen unmasked and without any visible piece of his usual trademark Mandalore armour. Where ever he was, it seemed to Vader that the man had been asleep, despite none of it was showing on his face. The man looked exactly like any of the thousands of clone troopers he had commanded during the Clone Wars, yet Vader knew this one to be an exception. Instead of genetically modified to be more obedient, Boba Fett was the pure, natural clone of the original DNA-source Jango Fett.
“My Lord”, the bounty hunter greeted with a nod. “I already thought you weren't interested.”
“It depends on the information you have to offer, bounty hunter. Who did you kill?” Vader asked, fully expecting the man to merely want to collect his bounty. Perhaps he had managed to find some survivor of the Jedi Council, such as Shaak Ti, considering Fett had assumed his business might get special interest from Vader. He would gladly pay for being rid of her.
“No one yet”, Fett said, smirking slightly. “I was assuming the bounty for this individual might be higher if you get to kill him yourself.”
Darth Vader knew the answer before he heard it. It felt as if heart had just skipped a beat, but that was, naturally, impossible giving the state of his heart.
Vader's fists curled. Kenobi!
“Where is he?”
Fett wasn't shaken by the tone of his voice. “First I'd like to discuss of the price. I understand you have some special interest in Kenobi. The same as for any Council member plus...one third? How would that sound to you, my Lord?”
“Consider it done.” Despite being one of the most richest persons within the Empire, Darth Vader had little interest in credits. And Obi-Wan was definitely a reasonable investment no matter what his financiers might have said.
“Very gracious of you, my Lord”, Fett said with a small bow of his head. He then moved to explain, how he had seen the former the Jedi Master in Bestine, Tatooine.
Tatooine, of all the places! Clever, very clever. Obi-Wan would have known it to be a place Darth Vader would never set a foot on.
Fett had first seen Kenobi arguing with a Tydorian shopkeeper across the street. The bounty hunter hadn't paid much attention to the robed man until he'd noticed him trying to use what seemed like a Jedi mind-trick on the Tydorian. It hadn't worked (Naturally, thought Vader), so after a while the man had left to find another shop. Fett had followed him around from a distance and despite the Jedi Master looking a lot older than in his wanted-posters, he'd recognised him as Obi-Wan Kenobi. By the end of the day, he'd bought a generator and set off of Bestine with an eopie. Fett wouldn't have been able to follow him to the desert without being noticed, so he didn't, but Kenobi had headed to south-west, possibly to Wayfar.
After ending their mainly one-sided conversation, Vader sat for a long while in the silence of the empty space. Every inch of his very being ached for action, but he knew he would have to contact his Master before he could go after his former friend. But he feared that Sidious might deny him this chance, especially after he'd hear on which planet the Jedi had been hiding. If there was anything that would stir up Anakin's memory, it was Tatooine. Vader had no desire to even see the Tatoo system on a map, not to mention actually going to the very planet where Anakin had lived and suffered his first years in slavery.
In any case, he would first return to his Star Destroyer Exactor, from where he could get a clear transmission to Coruscant. Or 'The Imperial Capital' as Palpatine had dubbed it.
To the credit of his flag ship's captain, the man had hurriedly managed to arrange a full line of stormtroopers and officers to welcome him back, despite he had not informed them he was arriving early. Vader couldn't care less of the straight, strict lines of soldiers, but the etiquette required it. As long as he was concerned, there probably would have been more important things for them to do.
Darth Vader did not stay to listen the captain report of the past few days. The man smartly took notice of his request to keep the ship ready to leave and to make sure no one would bother him before he'd contacted the Emperor -a task that proved to be much more difficult than his patience would have allowed in his current state of mind.
The Emperor took a long while before appearing to the hologram. Darth Vader had first needed to argue with his aides, then wait, argue again and then wait some more. Finally, he'd been informed the Emperor would take some time off of his duties to hear what he had to say.
The old man was dressed in a black Sith robe as per usual. He didn't look exactly pleased to see him, but neither did he look irked. All in all, he looked rather bored.
“What is it, Lord Vader?”
“I have news for you, my Master”, Vader replied from where he had knelt to wait.
“Could it not have waited until you returned to the Imperial City, my friend?” he asked, and immediately continued as an afterthought: “How is our project in Scarl coming along, by the way? You seem to enjoy the construction site.”
“It is on schedule”, Vader answered, irritated for his Master's immediate small talk.
A hint of an amused smile appeared on the Emperor's face. “I can sense you're getting angry with me already, my friend. Speak it then, if you must”, he said, gesturing with his hand. “What is so important that it couldn't have waited?”
“I've found him.”
“I beg you pardon, but you must be a little more specific, Lord Vader”, Sidious spoke, bringing his eyebrows together a little, but Vader knew the gesture to be faked. The Sith Master had no real interest towards his information. Perhaps he already knew. With his abilities to plan ahead and see the future, often very clearly, he seemed to rarely find any information new or intriguing.
“I've found Kenobi.”
“Ah”, the old man sighed. “And I take that now you wish to go after him again?”
Vader straightened up a bit. “This time I will finish him.”
“Naturally”, the Emperor said, looking at something outside the hologram. “I do hope it will not end up in a similar disaster the last time did. Where has he been hiding?”
Vader ignored his Master's attempt to taunt him. “On Tatooine”, he simply replied.
A thin lipped smile lingered on Sith Master's face. Several breathing cycles passed until the Emperor spoke again. Vader was now convinced his Master had not known of this, nor had he foreseen this.
“Tatooine?” Sidious repeated thoughtfully. “Very perceptive of him, indeed. I wonder why you did not foresee this earlier... After all, it seems rather simple now, doesn't it, my apprentice?”
“All that matters, is that I now know where he is”, Vader firmly stated, ignoring again the comments made of him. The Emperor hadn't sensed Kenobi, either, despite always gloating over his ability to foresee everything.
“Yes, yes, of course”, Sidious said with a wave of his hand. “Go then, if you must, I have no work for you here. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a galaxy to run.”
The connection was cut before Vader could say another word, but all had gone better than expected. He rose and opened the connection to the bridge from his meditation pod.
“Captain. Set our course for Tatooine. I want a shuttle with a speeder be readied for my immediate take-off once we are orbiting the planet.”
Starkiller was bored. The boy lay on his bunk, staring at the ceiling. Ever since Master had suddenly left some days ago he'd been devoting his time for training as usual. Up until now.
PROXY's holoprojector had been damaged during their previous battle. The droid had sneaked upon him, but he'd managed to defend himself from the new opponent Master Vader had added to PROXY. Of that he was quite proud. Now the droid had disappeared somewhere to have himself fixed and Starkiller was left on his own.
Starkiller's daily life was ruled by strict routines. Each morning he would wake up at 0500 and do physical exercises with PROXY for two hours before having any breakfast. Eating took only a few minutes. Then he would meditate and afterwards the rest of the morning hours before lunch were dedicated for combat and lightsabre training with PROXY again. Then he would study until 1600. The early evening he used for practicing his Force abilities. After dinner it was combat and lightsabre again. Later, he showered quickly and fell dead asleep almost immediately after hitting the pillow around 2100.
Not every day followed these routines, but it was the basic structure of his life. Darth Vader's visits naturally changed his daily routines drastically, but sometimes he liked to break them himself. Like his isolation experiments or training with interrogation droids. Sometimes he would not eat or sleep for days. An enemy would not wait for him to rest or feed. He would have to be able to act even when at his most vulnerable.
Something like that was what he should have been doing right now. Idle time was a rare nuisance, but even he sometimes felt like just doing nothing, although he hoped he would never have to admit that to Lord Vader.
There were several holocrons he could have been studying and a pile of datadiscs and datacards on the small bedside table among with his datapad, but he didn't feel like studying anything. Especially not Huttese despite Lord Vader had chided him for his poor speaking abilities of the language. He did understand most of what Master Vader said, he just never knew how to reply. It wasn't like there was anyone here who could chat with him in Huttese, not that it was an excuse, but...
Starkiller closed his eyes and settled for his favourite way of passing time. Or perhaps it had become his second favourite ever since he'd started practicing the Force lightning. There just was something about the electricity at his command that appealed to him.
He knew his lightsabre was on the other side of the room where he'd left it and he could easily see it with the Force. They were connected. The weapon was almost like a physical part of him. He could find it eyes closed on the other side of the Star Destroyer.
Slowly and very gingerly he lifted the weapon and let it hang in the air for several seconds. His eyes still closed and not moving a muscle he started to slowly spin his lightsabre in the air while lifting up other objects.
Telekinesis was something he liked to do. Master said he should rather use his spare time for practicing meditation, but Starkiller disliked meditating. Anything requiring very deep concentration and focus like meditating was something he wasn't good at. It was frustrating, how he was supposed to be able to see things while in meditation, but he could never grasp a single image. To Starkiller it was obvious that his talents lay elsewhere.
The boy opened his eyes. Eight different objects and his lightsabre floated in the air. Nine in all! Pretty good!
Frowning in concentration, he added one more datadisc and simultaneously tried to set other objects in a slow spinning motion.
Too much and too fast. Too many things to focus on at the same time. He could feel the control slipping through his mental fingers. First came down his boot, then everything crashed on the floor.
Starkiller dived to safe the fragile datadiscs the moment he realised he could no longer hold the items, but his leap was doomed to be a failure. He knocked down his nightstand and landed ungracefully on his stomach while datadiscs, clothes and tools poured down all around him.
The boy used his arms to push himself up and reached for a 'disc he'd landed on.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no, no...”
Starkiller hurried to get his datapad and stuffed the slightly scratched 'disc in.
“Come on...work! Please...”
The 'pad made a whimpering sound and played a large error message on the screen.
Desperately the boy gathered rest of the datadiscs and datacards on the floor and tried each of them. Luckily, only the first one had broken, but that wasn't even nearly lucky enough. He buried his face in his hands.
“Master Vader's going to kill me...”
If not kill, punish at least. Sure, he'd been punished quite a few times in his life and every punishment was a valuable lesson, but none of them he wanted to go through again. He'd been tortured, both physically and mentally in the past, he'd been pushed to his very limits and forced to overcome them. Of course, it was all part of his training and necessary for him to master the Dark Side of the Force. But none of that made it any more pleasant. The Dark Side wasn't supposed to be pleasant. It was the ultimate power in the universe there was for anyone to posses.
“Idiot, idiot, idiot...” the boy scolded himself, emphasising each word by banging his head to his bent knees.
This particular disc had been about galactic history, and had contained inside information only available to the Sith Order collected from several ancient holocrons into a single file. He had hardly even started with its texts and videos as Lord Vader had had it sent to him only about one standard month ago. He could only hope his Master still possessed the original one and this had only been a copy.
Sighing loudly the young apprentice rose and gathered his scattered belongings. Master Vader disliked mess, so the boy always made sure not to make any. It wasn't wise to anger the Dark Lord, it wasn't like his life was worth that much for Master Vader. He knew he wasn't irreplaceable, although he aimed for it. He'd show he was the best Sith apprentice the entire Galaxy had to offer.
If there ever was a time before living here on the Scarl system's secret construction site, Starkiller could not remember it. Perhaps there was no such time. His first clear memories were of Vader and this Star Destroyer. He had given thought to his origins and had even gone as far as asking his Master where he had come from several times during the past years. Depending on his Master's mood, the answer had been something between near death and "that does not concern you."
PROXY didn't know, either. Apart from his sophisticated combat simulations, he was a surprisingly simple droid.
"Perhaps Lord Vader assembled you himself, the way he assembled me?" PROXY had suggested.
For all Starkiller knew, the droid could have as well been right. Maybe he indeed was part of his Master's biological experiments. Maybe he had been made in factory like the clone soldiers. Maybe his Master had assembled all the qualities he needed and created what he hoped to be a perfect apprentice. Starkiller wasn't like the clones, though. He had a mind of his own. The clones could not choose whom they served or for what reasons.
But I can. And he chose to serve his Master. He knew, had he wanted to, he could defy his Master. It wouldn't be wise and he would not do so, but unlike a clone, he knew he could do it. A clone would not even consider it. Not that he seriously considered it either, but– Well, you get the point.
A few times he had also entertained the thought he'd perhaps been born a normal way. Maybe he even had parents? But if he did, what had happened to them, where were they now? Did he have a real name?
Starkiller quickly dismissed such fantasies, though. He had PROXY to assist him and a Master to look up to. He wouldn't need a name besides his codename until he'd earned his proper Sith name. He had a goal to aim at, his life wasn't a meaningless existence. What else could he possibly need?
Master often said he did not believe Starkiller to be able to survive through his training, but that just made the boy want to try harder, to prove he was worth it. No matter how cruel, how painful or difficult, Starkiller was determined to not let Lord Vader down. He'd sworn to himself to never betray his Master and to overcome each obstacle there was between him and his final trial: he was to assassinate the Emperor.
Starkiller hated the Emperor with all his heart. Emperor Palpatine was the only thing standing between his Master's plan to take over the throne, rule the galaxy and make it a just place. No more slavery, no more endless wars, no more discrimination between the alien races, no more political games using Imperial citizens as pawns...
...or at least that was what Starkiller had gathered from his Master's view words and his silence that often spoke louder of his opinions than his voice ever did.
From what he understood, what Lord Vader wanted was simple law and order. From what he'd heard, or rather, not heard, was that his Master had nothing against non-Humans and everything against slavery and political games gambling on people's lives. Not that they had ever discussed of any of this. He was allowed to ask, but Master was not inclined to always answer. Most of the times he didn't, but Starkiller could feel how the ripples of Force sifted around the Dark Lord if he'd ask of politics or slaves.
But his Master had no real say on the matters as long as Darth Sidious existed. His visions, what ever they were, for what the galaxy should be like could not be achieved while the Emperor wished to dominate everyone and everything for his own means. But Lord Vader could not defeat Palpatine on his own, not after he had suffered the injuries he carried. Naturally, Vader had never said that, but it must have been why.
And that was where Starkiller came in. A smile crept on his lips as he thought how important part he would have to play in the future. It was an incredible honour to be chosen and taught by Lord Vader, to be his secret apprentice. Although Master never called him such, Starkiller had always regarded himself as one.
Sighing, the boy threw himself on the bed. The datapad he'd placed on the table flew to his outreached hand and he grabbed the Huttese datacard. He'd apologise Master Vader once he'd return. In Huttese, maybe, to prove he'd been studying the language's polite structure which greatly differed from Basic's. Meanwhile, he ought to triple his efforts with everything else.
Darth Vader was dreaming, although he did not know it.
One pale crescent moon shone through the clouds near the horizon. The night air felt warm and no wind disturbed the shallow water he was standing in. The only sound here was his own endless breathing and the ripples suddenly disturbing the calm water were caused by his boots.
Beyond the mist he could see a lone rock. Or rather an egg, as it was round and had no rough edges. She was sitting on the egg, arranging small blue flowers to her hair. More beautiful than he had remembered, dressed in a light, plain blue dress she sat and didn't seem to notice him.
"Padmé..." he choked.
Startled, Padmé turned to his direction. "Anakin..?"
Yes, yes! he wanted to shout, but the vocoder refused to voice the words his burned larynx tried to form.
"Anakin?" She dropped gingerly to the water and took a couple quick steps towards him.
"Anakin", she said, now certain and took his hands. She looked scared. "Quickly, get out of the water. It's dangerous."
She pulled him to the egg and climbed back on it. Her bare feet left no water on the smooth shell.
"Why are you wearing that?" she laughed, reaching in an attempt to remove his helmet and mask.
No, don't! he wanted to say. I can't breathe!
But the mask was already coming off with a loud hiss that seemed to be swallowed by the shadowy, misty air around them. Padmé dropped the gruesome mask and kissed his lips softly. Vader pulled away and desperately gasped for air. His lungs filled up and he breath out a painless, natural breath.
Padmé's hand caressed his smooth cheeks that had been scarred just moments ago, looking at him with worry written all over her face. "What's wrong, Ani..?"
Vader couldn't find words, but he didn't have to. Padmé sat down, pulling him down with her. Standing in the water, he leaned against the egg and Padmé's lap. She leaned her cheek against his head, closing her eyes.
Vader breath in her intoxicating scent, leaning closer. Her hand would occasionally caress his hair or her lips brush against his skin. They stayed like that, enjoying each other's company in a blissful silence.
Distantly, Vader felt something tugging his gloved hands, but it wasn't enough to wake him from her loving arms.
"Come! Come! Come!"
The voices started as faint, barely audible noise, but soon grew into a sickening cacophony of sounds, calling his name and urging him to leave her.
"COME! COME! COME!"
When Vader opened his eyes he saw the sky was burning in red. Black, bird-like creatures with glowing white eyes were clawing his hands, arms, legs -anything they could grasp with their claws and pointy, sharp beaks. He tried to fight against the birds, but they were pulling him to the water, away from her.
Vader pulled and fought to turn his head. Padmé jumped to the water. Immediately, he knew she shouldn't leave the egg's safety.
"Padmé, no! Get back!"
Too late. More birds appeared, they attacked her and completely surrounded her, drowning her with a sea of black feathers.
"NO! PADMÉ! PADMÉ!"
Vader screamed her name, tried to pull away from the flying beasts, but he wasn't strong enough. She was gone and the egg had shattered into messy pieces.
The birds were tearing the hair from his head, clawing his cheeks and pecking his arms and legs. They tore apart the clothing, his flesh, then the bone. Vader howled in agony as the birds completely devoured his limbs and he fell into the water when what was left of his legs were ripped off. Desperately, he tried to keep his head over the surface. The water he coughed from his lungs tasted like blood and seared like acid.
He was pulled underwater. The hellish noise the birds were making died down as he was being pulled deeper and deeper, until he could no longer see the light from the moon nor the blazing scarlet sky. His lungs were burning in need for air as the darkness entirely surrounded him and the last dim light from above disappeared. The dark blackness pressed around him, suffocated and enclosed him in. It was him. Vader wailed as his oppressing presence cradled him, poisoning his veins with icy coldness. And then, he couldn't even scream. Only breathe.
Breathe, breathe and breathe.
The dream is totally a homage to a wonderful piece of art called 'Vader's Dream - A Visitation From Padmé ("I will safe-keep your good heart, Dear One, until you are ready for its return")' by Kirk Reinert. It's one of my favorite pictures from Star Wars Visions art book. :)
Chapter 6: II
The Jedi was tall, taller than PROXY actually was. He was a Human, had a long, dark brown hair and a beard. Starkiller had no idea who he had been, but he was pretty good compared to his own level. Maybe he'd ask PROXY later, once he'd survived this. 'Pretty good' was definitely an understatement.
PROXY and his blue lightsabre were forcing him to back down in the corridor, making it hard to switch from defensive to offensive. He needed an opening, but there were none, so all he could do was to parry the blade the best he could. If he couldn't find a way to attack or disarm him soon, he would rely on Force push. It wasn't his first choice by no means. It felt like cheating against his Force-blind droid companion, even though PROXY was quite good at mimicking some of the Force abilities.
Their duel wasn't a planned one, not that they usually were. PROXY would attack whenever his tactical computer thought it'd be a good moment to surprise the apprentice. Sometimes he'd attack repeatedly during one day, sometimes he would wait around a week before the next attempt. No place or no time of the day was safe for Starkiller, but that was good. It forced him to stay alert at all times. Just one mistake from his part and he would be dead. Unlike PROXY, who could be repaired, that'd be the end for Starkiller.
This Jedi relied on the form II, Makashi. He himself had specifically asked the droid if he had any Makashi practitioners to fight against, since it was a style he wasn't very familiar with yet. It gave PROXY a great advantage which had led to the current situation.
Starkiller's own fighting style didn't really follow any specific style. Master Vader encouraged him to create his own style, to be random and impulsive, to make use of the best of each form. Although he still was far from mastering any of the forms, he had found his favourites to specialize in. Like his Master, he preferred form V, also known as Shien and Djem So. Unlike Vader, though, Starkiller liked the reverse grip. He still couldn't say if his Master saw this more as a positive or a negative thing, but it worked for him.
Juyo, a variation of form VII was also high on his list, but when forced on defense like now, he switched to use the little he knew of Soresu. Out of the seven classic lightsabre forms the Jedi used, it was the best for defense, were it a blaster or a lightsabre the enemy was wielding.
PROXY's current training module had some pretty neat moves he hadn't fought against before. Once this was over, he'd have to ask the droid to show them again. Particularly the one that nearly sliced his head off. He was fairly certain that the collar of his shirt must have sustained some damage.
Starkiller dodged the 'sabre aimed to severe his arm, taking yet another step back. He grit his teeth. PROXY was attempting to wear him off. He'd have to turn the tables, since the droid could go on forever whereas he himself would get tired eventually and he definitely wasn't in the mood for that. He wanted to get the laundry done like he had been about to when PROXY had attacked him. And because of his own improvised form of defense before he had reached his lightsabre, he probably had a lot of sewing to do later. That, or he'd just outright have to ask for new clothing. He cringed at the idea.
He had already several times attempted to get more distance between himself and the Jedi hologram, but so far no such luck. PROXY kept pressing closer and closer, but when the corridor behind him finally intersected, he had what he needed.
He somersaulted behind the corner, away from the droid, simultaneously giving him a light Force push. PROXY's Jedi slid backwards, giving the apprentice a few extra metres of distance. The droid recovered quickly and came after him, but it was enough for Starkiller. He sprinted, aiming for PROXY's head, but right before the 'sabres would have met, he dropped on his knees and slid past the droid. Before PROXY was able to turn around, Starkiller had stabbed him in the back.
The hologram failed and the droid sunk on the floor. His photoreceptors flickered off and back on for a few times before the system was fully back online again.
“Excellent duel, master!” PROXY exclaimed. He appeared fully intact and functional to the apprentice's relief.
Starkiller helped the droid up and grinned. “Yeah, you almost had me there.”
“I'm sorry I've failed you again.”
“You'll get other chances” he said, putting the lightsabre away. “Come on, we need to clean that mess in the laundry room... Actually, I have a better idea.”
PROXY tilted his head slightly, but said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“It's equally your fault, so...” he inhaled and spoke the next words really quickly, ready to run: “Last one at the hangar bay does the laundry –HEY!”
PROXY took off already at the 'hangar bay' and was half way across the corridor when Starkiller dashed to catch him. There were a lot of slow droids in the galaxy, but PROXY certainly wasn't one of them.
“False start!” he accused, catching up relatively quickly, though PROXY didn't let him pass.
“No such thing between the Sith, master”, he heard PROXY comment.
Starkiller just grunted in response. He had said hangar bay instead of the laundry room, since it was closer to their location and also closer to where he kept his stuff. That way he could grab something to eat before seeing if any his clothes were still to be saved.
They ran to the hangar almost side by side, but PROXY still managed to keep his lead.
“Looks like you get to clean your own mess yourself, master”, the droid said, clearly pleased with himself.
“You cheated”, Starkiller protested, but it was hard to not smile at the situation.
“No, I took advantage of the fact you thought I would wait until you'd finished your challenge”, the droid simpered. “Don't the Sith do exactly that?”
“Uh, so now you're turning this into a lesson. Besides, you're a droid, not a Sith.”
“Neither are you. And it is part of my programming to assist you, master.”
Starkiller couldn't argue, so instead he made a small huffing sound and turned to examine their surroundings. The hangar was relatively small compared to some of the enormous docking bays the Star Destroyer had under construction. It was big enough to hold five or six small ships, but currently the dark grey Rogue Shadow was alone. The ship looked small and lonely in the empty space.
“You'll still help me, right?”
“My fingers are not made for sewing”, PROXY said, seemingly slightly insulted at the idea.
Starkiller snorted, but let it go. Deal's a deal.
The Rogue Shadow was a beautiful custom made ship equipped with laser cannons, good shielding, advanced sensor arrays, cloaking device and the fastest sublight engines the Empire had to offer. It had a fully functioning medical bay, crew quarters for eight (but needed only one pilot), training room and a workshop, and it was constantly updated.
It was his to use whenever his Master gave him a mission, but currently lacked a pilot. He could fly a little himself and he knew it throughly in and out, but his flying didn't yet match a trained pilot. Besides, it would have been almost impossible for him to both chauffeur and undergo his training missions. He needed a skilled and capable pilot to keep the Rogue Shadow out of the harm's way and ready to leave without notice. Unfortunately 'skilled and capable' weren't so easy to find. His previous pilot, his second so far even though he hadn't been allowed to go on missions for that long, had been executed right before his eyes.
The pilot had been both skilled and capable, but unfortunately also too curious and greedy for his own good. He had eventually figured out Starkiller was more than a weird child assassin. Starkiller still condemned himself for not realising it himself. He had been nearly as shocked as the pilot himself was when Darth Vader strangled the life out of him. He hadn't asked, just waited on his knee until the pilot had dropped dead on the hangar floor.
“He was planning on betraying us”, his Master had said. His voice had been as neutral as ever, but Starkiller knew he had failed by not seeing it himself. He supposed not being sent on any new missions ever since was his punishment –among with the three-day training of 'surviving interrogation'. He had screamed his voice hoarse, but he had not given in under the physical torture easily. To Vader's mind probes he had been no match yet, and his Master had quite easily obtained the information he had been protecting: just a series of random numbers and names of planets PROXY had made him remember for the exercise. It had been a nightmarish experience, but one that taught him a lot. It encouraged him to further seek his limits with interrogation droids and long term mental torture techniques like sleep deprivation or isolation.
His first pilot had died on a mission and Starkiller had nearly lost his life as well, but even when nearly mortally wounded, with sheer determination, he had been able to fly the Rogue Shadow back and deliver his report to Lord Vader. He had been ten.
It wasn't supposed to have been a dangerous or difficult mission. Just an easy assassination. Get in, kill the target, get out. But he had made a mistake and things had gone horribly wrong. If there was anything to say in his defense, at least he had managed to kill all the witnesses. Most of them had been stormtroopers, but some had been innocent Imperial citizens.
The place was left into absolute chaos, but Master Vader didn't need to do any clean-up after him. He ended up feeling very humiliated, but grateful as well for getting to keep his life. He remembered sitting in the cockpit, staring into the blue haze of Hyperspace with PROXY trying to tend his wounds, while all he could think of was that the only thing awaiting him at home was execution. Why care of the wounds?
In the end, he had been wrong of the execution, but for a while it had almost felt worse to have been left alive after such blunder. He had killed his own. Imperials who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or were merely doing their job as they were supposed to. He had failed.
Vader never commented on it and Starkiller was glad for that. At the time he had felt horrible, but he now realised that sometimes civilians had to be sacrificed for a greater cause. Unfortunately the realization didn't make him feel any less bad about it. It had still been because of his mistake. Every single Imperial life lost because of him felt like a personal failure.
He had been only two years younger, but it felt like he'd been a completely different person at the time. He had shed a lot of the childlike feelings he had had at the time.
Master Vader hadn't said a word to him after he had described the events and no punishment had immediately came. After Master had left, he had cried. Just the mere thought of it disgusted him now. He had been so much weaker. PROXY had attempted to soothe him like he'd done many times in the past, but Starkiller had been so angry and humiliated he had shut the droid down.
A week later, Master had returned, but not alone. He had brought thirteen people with him, which was unheard of. No people were allowed to the Super Star Destroyer. But Starkiller hadn't said anything, just knelt down the way he was supposed to and waited.
Somehow, Lord Vader's order had not surprised him.
“Kill the child before he kills you.”
The men had hesitated, which had given Starkiller an advantage of reducing their numbers by three before any of them had time to properly act. Then they'd started shooting. It was almost like the failed mission all over again.
His Master had stood and watched at the sidelines of the battle. When he struck the last man down, he was shaking. Not of fear or fatigue –he was shaking because of the incredible power and connection to the Dark Side he'd suddenly felt. His wounds hadn't yet fully healed and now he had a new one in his shoulder, but he had barely even noticed it. The failure, the humiliation, the anger... It all had fueled him to bend the Force to his will.
For a few seconds he had stood there panting, staring at the mask of his Master, almost as if challenging him. Daring him to kill him.
Then Vader had nodded and the spell had been broken.
“Dispose of the bodies”, Master had ordered, returned to the unfamiliar ship he'd arrived in and left. It had taken Starkiller the rest of the day to drag the bodies, one by one, to an escape pod. He'd set the course for the nearest sun.
Looking at the Rogue Shadow now reminded him of both of his failures. The boy cringed at the thought. He wished Master would send him on a new mission, so that he could show he wouldn't fail again.
“Do you think we could take her on a small flight?” he spoke, not turning back at PROXY. The laundry could wait a little longer. “Just around the hull?”
“I see why not”, PROXY said, shrugging with his narrow metallic shoulders. Starkiller did not know, but mimicking the most used gestures within the Empire was actually one of his primary programmings. A child living such an isolated life couldn't learn them from anywhere else. “Lord Vader never forbade it.”
“But I still don't have a pilot and he's not giving me new missions”, Starkiller said, kicking the nonexistent dust on the floor. “Master can see the beings' intentions and desires so easily. Why can't I?”
“That is why you are the learner and Lord Vader is the Master.”
“I'll be a master, too”, he said angrily. “I'll kill the Emperor and earn my Sith name.”
“I'm sure you will”, the droid agreed. “Should I prepare the Rogue Shadow for take-off?”
The apprentice shook his head and grinned at the droid. “I'll do it.”
Naboo had been Anakin's favourite planet ever since he'd first seen it from the space. Lush green forests and sparkling blue lakes and oceans covered most of the planet. The Naboo architecture was stunningly beautiful and he had admired the elegant, blue dome roofs of Theed, so unlike anything on Tatooine or even Coruscant. But even the beauty of Theed paled in comparison to the Lake Country and the Varykino island.
Varykino Villa was where Vader found himself tonight. In his dream, it was dusk. The setting sun coloured the lake and mountains with peaceful orange hues. A flock of waterbirds swam quietly near the shoreline and a gentle wind played with the edges of his cape.
Padmé was there, too. She stood on the balcony, facing the lake. She was wearing the lavender blue nightgown she'd worn during their last nights together on Coruscant. Vader walked to her, ran his hand on the pearl laces before gingerly pulling her into his arms. She leaned back into his chest silently, gently rubbing her pregnant belly.
She had come here to fix the baby's room and left the politics. They'd agreed on it. And in turn, Vader had decided to leave Palpatine and the Empire, so that he could be with Padmé and the child.
“There is no child”, she suddenly whispered. Her voice came hoarse and rasping as she continued: “Ani, my baby is gone.”
Her hand suddenly tightened around his wrist and she swung around abruptly, causing Vader to jolt backwards in surprise. The smell of sulfur and molten rock was suddenly everywhere. It was hot. The heat of lava around them made him sweat, but her touch was so cold he had to wrench his hand away.
Padmé lurched towards him, attempting to throw herself back into his arms. Her corpse with flowers on her hair reached out to him with a mad smile on her lips.
“All I want is your love”, she spoke. The flesh was hanging loose on her once so beautiful face. Her dead eyes looked at him from deep inside of her eye sockets. Blood ran on her cheeks like tears.
“No...” Vader choked, unable to move. He wanted to tell her to not come any closer, to order her to stay away, to not touch him with her rotten hands.
“You did this to me”, she reminded. “You did this to yourself.”
Vader wanted to back away, to run for his life, but he couldn't. His mechanical legs felt heavy, as if they were bolted to the landing pad they stood on. She came closer, reaching out for him and Vader futilely tried to jerk away from her touch. Her fingers that ran across his cheek felt cold as ice and rough like Tatooine sand.
“I'm sorry, Padmé, please...” he whimpered. “I'm sorry!”
“You did this to me!” she shrieked, grabbing his throat between her inhumanly strong hands. Vader tried to push her away, desperately trying to gasp for air, but her grip of death held.
He drew the lightsabre from his belt and rammed the red blade through her pregnant stomach. She gasped and stumbled backwards, finally letting go. She gaped at him while trying to cover the hole with her bare hands. Bloody water flowed between her fingers and tainted her brown tunic.
“Obi-Wan was right”, she noted unemotionally, her glassy eyes fixed somewhere far away. “Obi-Wan's been so good to me. He never hurt me...”
She turned to look at her husband again. “He came and told me what you did. He said you killed younglings. He said you turned to the Dark Side.”
“Don't talk of Obi-Wan! You're with him, aren't you!? You always were!” he screamed, lashing again and again with the Sith weapon until Padmé's corpse finally fell lifelessly on the marble floor of Varykino Villa.
Somebody behind him let a small gasp and when he turned around, the lightsabre flew from his hands to the hands of a small boy. The child held the red blade clumsily, not quite knowing what to do with it, now that he had it. His wide eyes looked from him to Padmé and back.
“You killed her”, young Starkiller accused. “Father, you killed her.”
“You are not my son!” Darth Vader roared furiously. “YOU ARE NOT MY SON!”
He held out his leather clad arm, clutching the air. Starkiller, now the twelve year old version of him, kicked futilely the air when the floor disappeared under him. He didn't let a sound when Vader ran the lightsabre through his heart. The body fell on the floor with a satisfying thud, leaving him standing alone in the sudden darkness beside a river of searing lava.
“You're not alone”, Obi-Wan's voice came behind him.
“Obi-Wan...” Anakin hissed back, ready to activate his lightsabre.
“I have failed you”, his Master said mournfully, glancing at the group of deceased Jedi that had gathered around them. More of them slowly emerged from the shadows as he spoke.
“You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you”, he whispered. “But I will not save you.”
Anakin attempted to attack the Jedi, adults and younglings alike, but he no longer had legs or arms. All he could do was to lie on the scalding rock and try to crawl away from the dead with his remaining artificial arm. The smoke entering his lungs made him cough and his eyes water. The pain alone nearly knocked him unconscious, yet at the same time, the pain was the only thing that allowed him stay sane and focused. The pain was what kept him alive.
A Jedi walked to him, towering over his smoldering body. He tried to back away from her as soon as he saw her.
“Traitor” a young Togruta hissed between her rotten lips. Half of her left montral was missing and her skin was peeling away.
“Traitor”, the wall of corpses behind her echoed, slowly closing in.
The new generator worked like a dream. It was very silent and didn't heat up the small cellar as much as the previous one had. And a junk dealer in Anchorhead had actually paid him a little for the old one. All in all, Ben Kenobi was very pleased with how things had turned out. And after seeing Luke well and in good spirits, he'd felt he had perhaps been worrying over nothing despite the memories of Anakin suddenly haunting him so. Perhaps it was just his own guilt talking and nothing else.
Even so, that night, after both of the suns had set hours ago, Ben slept restlessly. He wasn't sure if it was Anakin or the HoloNet news he'd watched that bothered him more, but eventually he was way too frustrated to sleep. He was about to get up and make himself some tea, when a sudden premonition hit him hard, making him feel physically ill for a split second. It was over as suddenly as it had started, but it was enough for the former Jedi to know the Force was giving him a warning. The moment he realised this, the threat revealed itself. A familiar, yet awfully twisted and different presence washed over him, suffocating and dyeing the Force pitch-black.
Darth Vader had entered the Tatoo system. He could almost see the Star Destroyer pulling out from the Hyperspace somewhere behind the gas giants Ohann and Andriana that shared the binary star system with Tatooine. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the strong Force presence dimmed into the background. It was still there, ominously lurking in the shadows somewhere far away, but it didn't dominate it anymore like it had for a brief second.
Panic was the next emotion to wash over him. Had Vader found out about Luke? There were only two persons outside Tatooine who knew of the child. Master Yoda would have never given away the secret. But Bail...if Bail Organa had been captured and tortured it was possible. Leia, Leia would be in danger as well!
No, the voice of reason within him said. There shouldn't be any reason for Bail to have been arrested. They had agreed to not draw attention to themselves. Even if Bail still was the senator of Alderaan, he wouldn't do anything that would put him in a situation where the Empire would suspect his loyalties. At least Ben hoped he wouldn't. Besides, Ben would know, should something happen to Leia. The Force would warn him.
Ben closed his eyes and drew a deep breath in attempt to calm himself. It was reasonable to assume Darth Vader indeed was in Tatoo system. However, that did not mean he would personally arrive to Tatooine. As Qui-Gon's spirit had reassured him when he had first learned Vader was alive, it was extremely unlikely for him to ever set his feet on Tatooine again. The planet represented all the things that caused him pain.
There was no logical reason for Ben to believe Luke would be in danger. From the little he knew of Vader by occasionally following HoloNet channels and chatting with locals in Anchorhead, he knew the man was known to sometimes take part in tasks that did not necessarily require his presence, such as spice raids or routine trade route observations. Tatooine was full of criminals, so it was entirely possible for Darth Vader to have been present when a part of the Imperial fleet had started chasing, say, pirates. Even if this was the case, there would be no reason for the Sith to land on the desert planet himself. Quite likely, the armoured more-machine-than-a-man would rather send someone else, were there need to do so.
Ben had sensed Vader's presence overwhelmingly for a brief second, but he doubted his own presence to have been noticed. Ever since taking Luke he had turned himself off in the Force and was doing the same for the child until he could do so himself. They shouldn't seem any different from the Force-blind people even in the eyes of a powerful Force user such as Darth Vader, unless one knew what and where to look for.
Drawing a deep breath, Ben sat down. Eyes closed, he listened to the Force for an advice. He couldn't feel any immediate danger.
The Lars-family would be sleeping at this hour. For a while he pondered whether he should inform them or not, but eventually decided against it. The Force was steady now, after the momentary Dark Side shock wave. Also, the Force seemed to give him a strict “no” when he tried to figure whether Vader knew of Luke or not.
Anyhow, he would not try to sleep more tonight. He would meditate and monitor the situation, ready to leave with a tiniest mark of approaching danger. Ben glanced at the uncovered window and to the dark starry sky. Somewhere out there was Darth Vader.
Captain Ophay of the Star Destroyer Exactor snapped to attention as Lord Darth Vader stepped to the bridge. Some five minutes ago he had commed his commanding officer to inform him of their arrival as per requested. Unfortunately, the Emperor's right-hand man didn't seem to be on a good mood despite they had arrived earlier than anticipated. Not that this was anything new to him.
“My Lord, we have arrived to Tatoo system”, he announced unnecessarily.
“How long until we orbit the planet?”
The Captain turned to the consoles for an exact answer.
“52 minutes, my Lord”, a younger officer replied.
Turning to the large panorama windows, Vader did not acknowledge the officer. Ophay slightly shook his head to the man, who looked relieved to return back to his work. Moving to his post, the Captain couldn't help but to wonder why they'd come here. A Jedi perhaps? The Dark Lord definitely seemed moodier than usual.
Three days ago, Darth Vader had arrived unannounced two days early from his private business. After talking to the Emperor, Vader had ordered the Exactor here, to Tatooine.
Ophay had never even heard of such a planet and neither had anyone else on the bridge. After some research by the crew, he had learned it to be an Outer Rim planet in Arkanis sector. It was a desert world orbiting two stars with a very small habitable area on the Northern hemisphere and was mainly controlled by the Hutts, but had an Imperial outpost. It was also a notable transshipment point for illegal goods, almost in the middle of the so called 'Spice Triangle'. Its location was ideal for smuggling, since it was in the Outer Rims, in the crossroads of three Hyperspace routes: Triellus Trade Route, Old Corellian Run and The Crystal Passage. Curiously, it was also less than a parsec from Geonosis, the original stage of the Clone Wars.
“Is my shuttle ready?” Vader suddenly asked.
“Yes, my Lord. All the maps and information concerning the planet have also been uploaded to the shuttle's main computer. It is a desert planet with a very small population, but–”
“I know, Captain.”
The man was taken aback briefly by his superiors interruption, but regained his composure immediately. “Very well, my Lord. Is there anything else you require?”
“No. I will return within 48 hours and we will then rendezvous with the fleet at Dressel.”
Nodding slightly, Vader turned around and left the bridge. Captain Ophay was a competent man, but a bold one at times as well. The man must have sensed the state of his mind, because normally he would have been likely to question the purpose of this detour.
Vader made his way towards the hangars, ignoring the greetings from the staff he encountered. He was on a sour mood despite the fact he was finally going to get even with Obi-Wan. His limbs had ached from where the prosthetics met the raw skin ever since he'd got up and he hadn't been able to sleep peacefully. A nightmare, no doubt. He couldn't remember what he'd dreamt of, but he'd woken up panicked and harrowed, his organic body covered in cold sweat.
Sleeping was something he had distantly disliked ever since he'd left Tatooine for the first time. Nightmares had been his constant companions during his teenage years, but oddly enough, had mostly left him while the Clone Wars raged. After abandoning that life, the nightmares had returned. Not even the Dark Side of the Force was able to hold the dreams back. The only difference was that he had learned to treat them like regular dreams. Once he woke up, he could rarely remember anything concerning his nightmares.
He pushed aside the thoughts as he arrived to the hangar. A shuttle had been prepared for him as per to his orders. A group of mechanics greeted him, ready to oversee any further requests he might have. Four TIE-fighter pilots stood nearby dressed in their full gear, save the helmets they still had tugged under their arms. The men snapped to attention as he approached.
“Lord Vader, we're ready for escort”, a blond haired man closest to him announced.
Vader frowned behind his mask. He had ordered only a shuttle to be prepared. Sometimes over competent people could be nearly as bad as incompetent. “I do not require escorts.”
The men looked surprised, but none of them protested. “Yes, sir.”
“Dismissed”, he said, striding past the pilots, leaving the slightly disappointed men behind. Getting to escort Lord Vader would have been so much better than any regular patrol duty.
A pilot and a co-pilot had also been arranged to fly him to Tatooine, but Vader quickly sent them away as well. Flying was too much fun for him to miss an opportunity to do the piloting himself. The moment Exactor had stopped over Tatooine, Vader sent out a request for an immediate take-off to the flight control. The clearance came instantly. The standard Lambda shuttle rose smoothly and after passing through the magnetic field he accelerated towards the planet underneath.
It had been a long time since he had last flown a ship over the endless barren lands of his home-planet. A crash-landing, he recalled. In another life, with a new-found Togruta apprentice and an ill Huttlet. Coming back here was certainly a bad idea. Memories he hadn't remembered for nearly a decade started to surface each passing second as the shuttle neared the line where the night became morning.
The Exactor had stopped to orbit the planet on it's current day side on the northern hemisphere. Most of the settlements, however, were currently still on the night side. Vader took his time, despite hating what he saw. Nevertheless, the planet still bore some bizarre feeling of home. Instead of anger he'd expected to feel by coming here, an odd melancholy filled him. It was on this planet he'd drudged in slavery, where he'd first podraced, where he'd left his mother and where she had died in the hands of Tusken Raiders. A planet he'd sworn to never return again.
Gritting his teeth, Vader tried to shook the memories off. They weren't his memories. They belonged to Anakin –and Anakin was dead. Vader did not have any feelings for Tatooine.
The engines whined delightfully as he sped the shuttle up. The morning light turned into night's darkness. Pale moons shone on the cloudless sky as the lone shuttle flew high above the deserts and canyons. Flying south-west, he avoided Mos Espa. Still, he could see the city lights glowing in the dark. It was now nearly the darkest hour before dawn on this part of Tatooine.
Bestine's lights shone brighter than Mos Espa's had. Momentarily, Vader considered landing the shuttle there. By leaving it there to the Imperial outpost, he could avoid the risk of Jawas or Tuskens stealing or breaking it while he was away, but he didn't want to attract attention, which he was bound to do were he seen on streets of Tatooine's capital. Eventually, he landed on the rocky area near where the Jundland Wastes turned into the merciless Western Dune Sea.
It was strange to step out and not feel the coldness of the desert night. He regarded at the night sky for a long while. The night vision of his helmet had turned on automatically and was tainting everything green, making it impossible to see the stars. An annoying change to the usual red tint he'd grown used to. Not that he could have seen them with it, either. He stretched out his senses to the canyons, rocky hills and the desert with the Force, searching for a sign of his former teacher.
Although somewhat prepared, suddenly encountering Obi-Wan's Force signature after so many years managed to startle the Sith Lord. Brief the contact might have been, he now knew for certain the man indeed was on the planet. A familiar, burning rage surged from within him the split moment their severed bond was reconnected temporarily. And he knew Obi-Wan had felt it, too.
Ben nearly dropped the saddle when Vader's presence suddenly brushed against his mental shields for a mere second. The eopie let out a distressed cry, sensing her master's changed mood.
“It's all right”, the man muttered to the animal. “Everything is going to end soon, one way or another.”
Ben tightened the leather straps and hopped on. He wasn't sure he could win against Darth Vader. Many had tried, even Jedi better than himself, he'd heard. All of them had failed. The rumours told of tens of Jedi against one Sith Lord. Knowing the fighter Vader had once been, there bound to be some truth in those rumours.
He had not alerted the Lars-family. There hadn't really been any time and he didn't want to take unnecessarily risks. Were he to show any interest towards them, Vader might investigate it. As for now, the Sith Lord should have no reason to go there. Vader's mental probe at him was a proof that he was what the Sith was after. And it was safe to assume Darth Vader knew exactly who he was looking for. If he hadn't, he did now. Ben just wished he could keep his thoughts and fears from his former apprentice. If anything were to happen to Luke...
“He would never go there, Obi-Wan. It would only bring back the painful memories he wants to avoid.”
Ben involuntarily clutched the reins harder at the voice. A voice that was there and yet wasn't. “Are you sure? What if he wants to pay a visit to his mother's grave, now that he's here?”
“Anakin might want to do that, but the Vader side of him would not allow it”, Qui-Gon reassured him.
“I hope you're right”, Ben sighed despite he felt Qui-Gon was already gone. During the past years, Qui-Gon's spirit had been his guide into the Force. It seemed, though, that the time was passing differently for the dead and his old Master would come and go without a warning. As the years had passed, the intervals between his visits had gotten longer and longer.
Ben allowed himself one more longing glance at the hut, before bracing himself and urging the animal to move. There was no point in trying to avoid the upcoming battle, so he headed almost straight towards the dark presence. Last time he had failed. Today, he could not make the same mistake. Today, Vader would have to die.
Chapter 7: III
A lone speederbike drove between the rocky pillars and accelerated through the narrow canyons. Despite of the already deadly speed, the man in the handles urged the vehicle to go faster. The wind played violently with his black cape, but Darth Vader hardly even noticed it. He enjoyed the speed and the deadly stunts no other Human alive could pull out. At times the rocks were only mere centimetres from ripping apart his legs or the speeder itself. He hadn't had a chance to race like this in a while and he enjoyed it, despite finding Obi-Wan being the fuel that drove him.
The rocks ended and he was suddenly out in the Western Dune Sea. The sand flew high up behind him as he accelerated the machine once again. It was still quite dark, although first of the suns already lightened up the horizon behind him. With the Force guiding him, he didn't need to drive for long before he saw a profile of an eopie with somebody riding the animal.
Ben saw the enormous cloud of sand in the light of rising suns before he could see the speeder itself. Or the man driving it. He could feel him nonetheless.
“I suppose this is where our ways part”, he talked to the animal and got down. Encouraging the animal to continue alone, Ben walked away from her. Hopefully she would find her way somewhere safe.
Ben had chosen the desert to be where he would face Darth Vader. Vader had the advantage in size and raw strength, but Ben was willing to bet himself to move faster on the sand. Having that much steel in his body ought to slow the Sith down at least a little. There would also be nothing here that Vader could throw at him –an attack he'd heard Vader to favour. Possibly because he was a show-off.
The speeder closed in fast.
There is no emotion, there is peace... Ben inhaled deeply, reaching into the Force to calm his mind so that when the speeder passed him and the Sith Lord leaped at him, screaming his old name, he was ready. Blue blade against the red, the two men fought with an exhausting speed for several seconds until parting away from each other after a Force powered blow.
They regarded each other from apart, neither of them never lowering his lightsabre. It was shocking to finally see with his own eyes what Darth Vader had become. In many ways, Ben was glad of the black armour covering the Sith from head to toe, for he would not have wanted to see what physical scars his actions had caused. The sickening image of Vader's burning form made him shudder under his robes. If he'd survive this, he was sure the empty, consistent sound of breathing would haunt him forever.
“We meet at last, Obi-Wan”, Vader finally spoke. Even the way he did it had changed. His pronunciation was clear and steady, the rhythm of his voice slower than it used to. His voice was deeper and darker, it was nothing like Anakin's had been. “After all these years I've searched, of all the places in the galaxy, I find you here.”
Ben couldn't help himself, but to attempt to lighten the mood: “Yes, it was a pretty clever place to hide, wasn't it?” he nearly grinned at the Sith.
He could hear Vader tightening his leather clad fists around the lightsabre hilt. “It's only appropriate that our story should end where it began.”
“Perhaps”, Ben allowed. “Although, it should have never come to this. I may have failed to destroy you nine years ago, but I cannot let the same happen today”, he said, mainly to remind himself of how crucial it was that Vader would truly die this time. “This will end today.”
Despite the machine-made voice, Ben could hear the triumphed smirk in Vader's voice as he surged an attack. “My thoughts exactly.”
The sheer raw strength of Vader's every strike managed to surprise Ben. Although he did remember how Anakin's right hand had gotten a lot stronger after it had been replaced with machinery, this was more than he had expected. To be honest, clad in his black, bulky durasteel armour, Darth Vader had looked rather clumsy and slow to him, and he had been gravely mistaken by assuming the first assault had been the best the Sith had to offer. His fighting did not seem to fully follow any known lightsabre form nor did it resemble Anakin's style. It was an odd and unexpected personalised mishmash, apparently mainly some extremely ruthless version of Djem So, supported mostly by Ataru and Soresu. Vader had obviously found a way to make the most out of his armour and prosthetics. Every single one of his blows were strong enough to nearly disarm Ben.
He couldn't go on like this for long. Parrying the red, monstrous lightsabre made him feel like his arms would dislocate.
“Padmé would not have wanted this”, he snapped, attempting to distract Vader and make him back down. A mistake, as he came to notice immediately.
“Don't say that name!” Vader howled and attacked him in rage, even more fiercely than before, if possible. “You turned her against me! You made my wife betray me!”
Wife?! Ben had never realised things between her and Anakin had been so serious. A love affair for a Jedi was serious enough, but that he could still understand from his own experience. But children? And to actually get married? When had that happened? When had things between him and Anakin turned so bad he had failed to notice? He would probably never know, try as he might.
Darth Vader's attacks were brutal, each one of them forcing Ben to back down. He knew he couldn't avoid the deathly lightsabre forever –and yet he could not bring himself to properly attack. No matter how much he had made Anakin and Vader to be separate persons in his mind, now, at the moment of truth, the two personas would merge back together. In Vader's Force signature, although horribly scarred and burned to almost unrecognisable, deep beneath the darkness, Ben could still see the parts that had once made him Anakin.
“I am truly sorry it had to become to this”, he said softly between the lethal strikes of the glowing weapons. “And I am sorry for leaving you. I should have killed you while I had the chance. It would have been merciful.”
“Sorry?” Vader paused in mid-attack. “No, you aren't sorry, not yet. You have no idea of the hell I've been through because of you. This is not even living”, he snarled, waving his arm in frustration.
“But I've waited for this moment, Kenobi. This time I'll finish you.”
Ben barely managed to escape from the red blades path. Get a hold of yourself! he ordered himself.
You can't avoid him forever. You must protect Luke!
Before he could stop himself, an image of the boy formed in his mind. The need to protect what was left of Anakin and Padmé filled his heart for a mere moment, but it did not go unnoticed by Vader.
“Your thoughts betray you, old man!” the Sith cyborg daunted in triumph. “Who are you hiding?”
“Only myself” the Jedi replied, just narrowly parrying Vader's attack. He had overestimated himself. The Sith wasn't too far from the truth by calling him old. He had gotten older and he had not properly trained for years.
“No. There is someone else”, the Sith said slowly, pausing and seemingly looking somewhere far away, as in sniffing the air for a clue. It would have been a good moment for an attack, but Ben hesitated. “Someone far more powerful than you.”
An odd sense of déjà vu hit Vader. Image of Kento Marek flashed before his eyes when he said the words almost identical to the words he'd said on Kashyyyk the day he'd found Starkiller. He had imagined the powerful presence to belong to Marek's Master, only to find that the person who had managed to take his lightsabre had been a mere child. This time, he knew it could not be a master.
Turning sharply his attention back to the Jedi he lifted his 'sabre for an attack. “Where is your apprentice?”
“I don't have an apprentice, Darth”, Ben said, holding his weapon in defence. As a second thought, he added more lightheartedly: “Really, ask anyone. I've lived alone for the last nine years.”
“You've never been a good liar, Master”, Vader said, stressing the last word mockingly, angered by the man's attempted humour. “I can feel your padawan's presence. Your powers are not enough to hide it now that your thoughts have guided me to the right direction.”
Ben lowered his weapon. “I am not lying, I never have. Not to you.”
“Never?! Lying is all the Jedi ever did to me.”
“Palpatine's the one lying! Why can't you see it?!” Ben yelled, surprising even himself by the amount of anger he suddenly felt. Attempting to gain control over it, he added much calmer: “He always knew how to play you, didn't he? And now you've become too twisted to see through his lies.”
Behind his mask, Vader smirked. If you only knew, Obi-Wan... Getting to see from close how Palpatine truly was had given Vader a whole new perspective of the man. But Kenobi was mistaken. The Emperor rarely lied. He just voiced the truth in a way that suited him the best.
“Master Sidious has shown me my true potential.”
True enough. He may have loathed Palpatine ever since being forced to become his apprentice, but the Dark Side the Sith had show him had made him powerful in a way he had never realised as a Jedi. As much as he hated to admit it, Sidious had given him something to live for. And this moment was certainly to die for.
Darth Vader moved quickly. His next swipe sent Ben's lightsabre flying from his hand. The Jedi's senses were still muffled by the sudden fit of anger he'd felt that by the time his body even thought to move, Vader's lightsabre had already pierced through his stomach. Gasping in pain, Ben took a step sideways, only causing the blade to cut through a larger area. Victory was written all over Vader's golden eyes, yet his opponent could only see his own reflection in the black mask as he slumped on the sand.
“This is the end, Obi-Wan”, the man clad in black said in low voice, calling the blue lightsabre to his hand and nearly crushed it with his inhumanly strong mechanical hand. The hilt gave in and the once so graceful weapon became scrap metal before its owner's eyes. “You have failed. You will die here, knowing you are one of the last of your kind. Knowing this is all your fault.”
“I–I already know that”, the Jedi gasped, batting his eyes repeatedly. Where those tears falling on his cheeks? Why..?
He could feel the death approaching. No. There is no death, there is the Force. There is the Force... He gasped a shaky breath, fighting against the shock and the urge to start repeating the Jedi Code like a mantra.
“I will hunt down your padawan”, Vader growled, same hatred in his voice when Obi-Wan had left him to die nine years ago. “I promise you, I will have him tortured to death.”
“No!” the dying man choked, suddenly using all the strength he had left to reach out for him. “No... You–you can't. You mustn't... He's–”
The Sith ignored his plea and pushed him against the sand with a heavy, black boot. “He's the last person you will ever fail.”
“No...” Ben fought against losing consciousness. He reached out to the Force like Qui-Gon had taught him to, while his life literally seemed to be flashing before his eyes. His mind played random scenes of his life like some sort of broken holofilm. Memories of Qui-Gon, of old friends, of old enemies, of Mustafar, of the Clone Wars, of the Jedi Temple, of the time his lost padawan was still a child, of a burning man at the edge of a river of lava, of Luke...
“He will live for weeks, months even. I will see to that personally”, the Sith Lord hissed.
“Luke...” Ben cried out, fighting for another breath and not listening a word Vader was saying anymore. All that mattered was Luke. If revealing him was the only way... Otherwise Vader would kill Owen and Beru before either would have time to explain. The Sith would carry out his threats.
Stars forgive me. Ben tried to grab Vader's leg to get his attention, but he felt so weak... He could barely lift his arm. The fabric of the Sith's bodysuit slipped through his debilitated fingers.
His former apprentice kept ranting on. “I will make him go through agony unlike anything you can imagine! And he will know who–”
“Anakin. Listen, please”, he begged at the dark, towering shadow over him. He couldn't really fix his eyes to him anymore. All he could see was blinding light from the suns and a black figure against it. It was so hard to breathe... So hard to make words come out of his mouth. “Don't...hurt him. Anakin, he's your– your...son.”
“–betrayed him, who left him to die in my hands! No, not die. But he will beg to be killed. He will–”
Darth Vader froze in mid-sentence as his mind registered the dying words of his old Master.
But it was too late. The wounded man choked his final breath and collapsed. Dead. Before he could do anything, the body disappeared before his eyes, leaving only the clothes on the sand.
Over 100 kilometres away, on a moisture farm, Luke Skywalker woke up screaming and sobbing. Beru had already been up and rushed to the boy's room.
“Luke! Are you alright?”
The teary boy clutched his blanket and violently shook his head. Beru had never seen him so badly shaken.
“Honey, what's wrong?” she gasped and hurried to the boy's side.
“I don't know”, Luke admitted. “I can't remember.”
Beru sighed inwardly in relief. For a moment she had thought, irrational as it might have been, that the man from Luke's dream might have actually been in the room. She almost felt like checking under the bed, but forced herself to forget about it.
“You had a nightmare again”, Beru said in gentle, low voice and sat beside him to hold him close. “It's okay. You're awake now. Shh, dear, everything's alright. I'm here.”
Luke threw his tiny hands around her and sobbed against her chest. She held him for long minutes, hoping the boy wouldn't notice how her heart was still racing. What was it with Luke lately? His explanation of the dreams and how scared of them he was frightened her. Luke supposedly had powers unlike anything she could comprehend. He sometimes had inhumanly fast reflexes and he could find lost objects like he'd hidden them himself. She, and especially Owen, tried to disparage and discourage these abilities, but she couldn't dismiss the fact that Luke was special. Was it really their place to deny something that was part of him since his birth?
Owen certainly seemed to think so. She knew her husband loved Luke and was just trying to protect the boy from the destiny his father had faced. From what Obi-Wan was preparing him for. Beru herself didn't want that for Luke. Did it matter who Luke's father had been? Why would his sins need to become Luke's responsibility? A boy so young and innocent should not have to bear such weight on his shoulders.
Still... Maybe trying to subdue Luke's Force sensitivity was exactly what was causing his growing anxiousness and worsening nightmares.
When Luke finally drifted back to sleep, Beru carefully tucked him in before tiptoeing out of the room. It was still early and she could let Luke sleep an hour more. Owen waited for her in the corridor.
“How is he?”
Beru shook her head quietly. “Another nightmare. He's back asleep for now.”
“He'll be fine”, Owen said firmly. He probably meant to reassure Beru, but she didn't feel any better. She followed him to the dining area. He sat down to where his half finished breakfast had waited, took a datapad and started to flip through the morning news. She sat across him, not quite feeling like having anything yet.
“He told me about the dreams the other night”, she confessed after a while of silence.
“And?” Owen grunted, not lifting his eyes from the datapad. Sunny as always, windy for most of the day, sandstorm warnings for the late afternoon. He made a mental note that he might need to pick up Luke early from the school. Tusken Raiders spotted near Mos Eisley. Well, that didn't concern them...
“I don't know what to think...” she admitted, flexing her fingers nervously. “He talked of 'darkness' and 'a huge towering presence' over him. You don't think it could be..?”
Owen placed the datapad on the table. “No.”
Beru shook her head quietly. She knew what she was about to say would not get a positive response from her husband, but she said it out loud anyway. “Maybe we should ask Obi-Wan.”
“No.” Owen's opinion was clear.
“All the children have nightmares”, he said, staring sternly into her eyes with a deep frown. “We should just monitor what kind of rubbish he's watching before going to sleep. There's no point in getting that wizard involved. He's nothing but trouble.”
Beru didn't reply. She was unsatisfied, but for now decided to let it go. If Luke's nightmares would continue or get worse, she'd contact the Jedi on her own.
How could Obi-Wan do it?! He wasn't supposed to be strong enough! Vader had witnessed such death once before, but the dying man's Force abilities had been far beyond anything he had ever known. On Mortis, the odd world's Father had disappeared the same way. In another life. A long time ago.
“Curse you, Obi-Wan Kenobi!”
Lashing the clothes with his lightsabre in blind rage he screamed out his fury. The sand was molten into glass where the red blade cut and he did not stop until the clothes where nothing but a pile of ripped and burned pieces of fabric.
“A son?!” he screamed into the morning air before sinking to his knees.
No... It can't be. A son. It's not possible.
Obi-Wan had to have lied in order to save his apprentice. It's the only logical explanation! his mind protested against the revelation, against the truth he'd felt in those words. For if he had a child, then the reality around him would crumble, the very reasons he lived for would be shattered in pieces. He almost wished Obi-Wan was lying.
There cannot be a child if she died. I killed her.
A painful spark of hope pierced through his heart as he reached deep into the Force, searching for what he knew he couldn't find. And he was right. There was no Padmé, for she was gone. The little spark died hurting worse than when it had appeared, leaving behind a void, black sorrow. Nothing would bring her back.
But... a soundless voice pleaded wishfully. She wasn't dead. You hurt her. But she wasn't dead.
Could it be possible..? Could he allow himself to even think of the possibility that their child might have survived? That she might have lived long enough to give birth while he'd been undergoing the agonizing surgeries and eventually been locked inside his durasteel and leather prison, for he knew that by the time he woke up from the torturous process, she'd already been gone. Could it be..?
What was the name Obi-Wan had uttered? Nute? Luka? ...Luke?
They never had had much time to discuss names. They had only briefly touched the subject during their first night together, after he had suddenly been pulled to the Core from the Outer Rim. So beautiful against the Coruscant night sky, she had told him of her plans to return to Naboo. They had both felt silly and madly in love after so many months of being apart from each other. Later, lying on each others arms in the bed, she had tossed around ideas for the child's name. He had tried to suggest Jinn, but she had liked the name Luke better.
Padmé had been sure the baby was a boy, although she swore she had refused to let the doctors spoil the surprise. She had wanted to name the baby Luke, if it was a boy. And because he had joked earlier it must have been a girl for kicking so hard, he'd suggested the name Leia. She'd liked it, it was very similar to Luke, and they had laughed a while for the joke again, until she had suddenly sobered down.
“I was thinking maybe we could name her Shmi or Ahsoka if it's a girl.”
His reply had been strict 'no'. He hadn't wanted to see the look on her face, so he had turned around and they hadn't talked for the rest of the night. That was, until he woke up after the first nightmare of her dying in the childbirth.
A child that may have survived.
It sounded too good to be true.
Would he have been able to, Darth Vader would have drawn a deep breath in attempt to calm himself. If he indeed had a son, he would need to find him. How this was possible, was something he could think through later. He had felt the boy's presence only briefly when Obi-Wan's thoughts had guided him to the right place, but it had been strong. He could find this child. He just needed some time.
He closed his eyes behind his mask. A son or not, he would have to find the child first before he could determine anything. The rational part of his mind refused to believe the possibility of his child being alive. If he were to open his heart for this idea and then find Obi-Wan had lied to him, had somehow used a Force trick on him to make him believe in false hope, he might not be able to take it. Losing his wife and child once was an experience he never wanted to be repeated. The guilt still haunted him and would never leave him. And though it tormented him, he would never let go of it. He deserved all of it.
So no. He would refuse to let himself believe in Obi-Wan's words before he'd see the boy.
On the other hand, if Obi-Wan had lied and the boy would turn out to be exactly what Vader suspected him to be, he could always take the child and fulfill his promise to the Jedi. He could torture the apprentice, find out what he knew of Kenobi and eventually kill him. Or better yet, he could then hand the padawan to Starkiller. Dueling both, PROXY and a desperate Jedi child could actually be a very good exercise. He could even order Starkiller to keep the padawan alive for further education. That'd save Vader the time of finding suitable prisoners for Starkiller to test his own skills in interrogation. If the padawan was any good, he might even become a considerable ally if turned to the Dark Side...
No, on the second thought, no. He wouldn't need two. Two apprentices would either focus too much on pointless rivalry or, in worst case scenario, join hands to destroy their Master. One was enough.
The Sith got up abruptly, attempted to shake most of the sand from his armour and strode to his speeder bike. He found it on its left side, half buried in a dune almost 500 metres from where the duel had ended. Perhaps it hadn't been such a bright idea to jump from a moving vehicle he would still need afterwards...
It didn't take him long to lift the speeder with the Force, but he hadn't driven even ten metres before he noticed the sand had already managed to do the trick it did the best –getting absolutely everywhere. It took him nearly twice the time to get back to the shuttle than it had originally taken to get to Obi-Wan. He would have to do something about it before he could start his search for the mystery boy.
Vader left the speeder outside. He'd take a look of it later. First he wanted to see what he could make of the situation after examining the surroundings. He walked in, sat to the computer and opened a map of the area, along with all the other details the Captain had ordered to be uploaded to the shuttle's main computer.
Where could have Obi-Wan taken the boy? The most obvious place to look for would be where ever Kenobi had lived. It was likely, though, that the Jedi had warned the boy and sent him somewhere in hiding. But since his old friend had come to seek him out, it was also possible that the boy, the possible apprentice, was still waiting for his Master to return.
Why had Obi-Wan come to Tatooine in the first place? Merely to hide himself? If so, why the Western Dune Sea? Just to avoid civilians getting hurt in their fight? Or was there more to it? Did he live nearby? Why? Hiding among the crowd in Bestine, Mos Eisley or Mos Espa would have drawn less attention than a stranger with a Coruscanti accent settling alone in a place like this.
Apart from the capital Bestine, there were four other towns that could be considered near: Wayfar, Anchorhead, Motesta and Arnthout. Where ever Obi-Wan had lived, he was likely to be known in one of these places. Fett had suspected Wayfar and Vader could not deny the bounty hunter's reputation. He could start his search there.
He frowned at the names. Anchorhead...
It sounded distantly familiar. But then again, he had lived on Tatooine. It was entirely possible he had heard the name before.
Anchorhead. Of course. Anchorhead had been the name of the town in the address of Cliegg Lars.
Great Chott Salt Flat
The exact coordinates he could not remember, but he did remember staring at the name and the address Watto had given him. The place where his mother had been. The place his child might now be. The Sith Lord clenched his fist. So that's how it was. Kenobi had chosen this place because of the Lars family. And if his child indeed was alive–
No, he would not allow himself to think if. It might not be his child at all. It could all be Kenobi's trick. But the Lars Homestead had something to do with all of this. Had Obi-Wan even gone as far as to live there? To involve the last remaining people who even distantly were part of his family... Unforgivable. Shmi had cared for Cliegg Lars and his son Owen. They had all cared for her.
If Obi-Wan indeed had sent his apprentice to the Lars Homestead, the child would pay for his Master's insolence. The padawan would suffer the way Kenobi should have suffered.
Chapter 8: IV
Beru Lars hummed with the music while sweeping the living room floor. On Tatooine, the sand had a tendency to get everywhere and cleaning it was an unending task, but she didn't mind. She was a simple woman with a humble background and had never wished for anything more than a simple live. Doing her job as a wife of a moisture farmer, keeping her house nice and clean, taking care of her husband and nephew was all she wanted and all she needed.
It was already past midday and the hottest hours on Tatooine. Owen would probably soon come home from the south ridge because of the sandstorm warnings and drive to Anchorhead to get Luke home before it started. Sandstorms were bad for their business. They often damaged the already fragile vaporators, so Owen had been working all day to see they would hold. He hadn't even come to rest during the midday heat like he usually did, so she had been eating the lunch alone. She didn't mind, though. She and Owen didn't share the same taste in music, so she'd been able to listen to the radio all day. She shut the said device off after the song ended.
Beru gathered all the sand in a bucket already half filled from the other rooms and the dining area that was half outdoors. On her way up to the yard to dispose the sand she checked the kitchen to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything on the table. She hadn't, and the light meal she'd prepared earlier for Owen was in the fridge, where it would stay cool in case he'd want to eat it before getting Luke.
She was still humming when she got up the stairs and stepped to the yard. Nothing would have prepared her for what she saw. She dropped the sand-bucket and probably screamed a little before backing away to the wall, but Darth Vader held out his hand, and suddenly she couldn't move anymore, because there was an invisible hand holding her still.
“Where is the child?” the armoured man demanded. The suns were reflecting from his helmet and made it hard for Beru to look straight at him.
“W–what?” she cried out in horror. The thought of Luke's nightmare crossed her mind, when the dark figure ominously stepped closer.
“The child”, Vader bellowed. “Where is he?”
“Luke's in the school”, she gasped before she realised what information had just leaked between her lips.
“Please...” she whimpered.
The invisible hold seemed to loosen its grip around her. “School..?” the Dark Lord asked, sounding almost puzzled.
“Y–yes” Beru stuttered. “They're probably finishing soon. P–please... Please don't hurt him. Please!”
“I don't intend to–”
Vader was cut off by a rifle shot. He turned around quickly, reflecting the blaster bolt with his lightsabre that seemingly appeared out off nowhere.
“Owen!” she shrieked, half terrified, half relieved.
Owen's swoop bike decelerated fast and he jumped off, the rifle pointed at one of the Empire's most powerful men. Beru ran to her husband, who shook her off, stepping between her and the Dark Lord. “Stay behind me, Beru.”
Darth Vader stood motionless, only some ten meters from the couple, his lightsabre still ignited.
“What are you doing here?” Owen demanded. Behind him, Beru had paled and grasped his shoulder so hard her fingers were going white.
“I'm sorry, Owen. I told him where Luke is”, she whimpered. “Stars, I'm sorry... Luke, Luke...”
“Put the rifle down, Owen”, Vader ordered in a low voice. After couple of seconds that seemed to drag on forever, he let the red blade die down and clipped the hilt back on his belt. “I am not here to do you any harm.”
Reluctantly, Owen lowered the weapon, never letting his eyes off the Sith. “Then why are you here?”
“You know you will not get to him without harming us. I will rather die than let you harm that boy.”
“Owen...” Beru cried barely audibly. Don't provoke him. She knew Owen was just as scared as she was. Scared for himself, scared for her and scared for Luke.
“If the boy is who Obi-Wan told him to be, there will be no harm done to him from my part”, Vader said, taking a step towards them. Owen immediately pointed the weapon back at him.
“Obi-Wan?” he questioned. “What has he told you? He's nothing but trouble.”
“So you do know Obi-Wan”, Vader smirked behind his mask, stepping closer again. He grabbed the rifle and hurled it on the ground before any shot would hit him. “He brought the boy here, didn't he? You are looking after his apprentice while he came to kill me today. He failed.”
“W–what are you talking about?” Beru cried confusedly before she could stop herself and boldly took a step forward. “Apprentice..? Luke's been living here all his life. He's like a son to us!”
“Don't act braver than you are, Beru”, the Sith snapped, turning to her. “I want the truth. Who is that boy? Where is he?”
“Stay away from her!” Owen shouted at the man looming over them, pulling Beru back.
“Stars... Please..! You're Anakin, aren't you?! Anakin Skywalker! It's your son! Luke is your son!” Beru sobbed, praying for all the gods she knew. Even the Tusken gods.
Her words seemed to hit Vader worse than any physical assault from their part ever could have. He took several faltering steps backwards before stopping.
“So it's true..?” he asked, his mechanical voice same as ever, yet more vulnerable than it had ever been, ever since he'd asked whether Padmé was all right. She hadn't been. “I have...a son? Our child is alive?”
Beru swallowed, still holding Owen's arm. “Yes.”
For a moment time stood still as the small word and the reality changing meaning behind it sunk to Darth Vader's mind. Beru thought she could see the air move around him, but it must have been the heat. Then, a horrid howl surged from within the black mask. She didn't know if it was a word or not, but it carried such pain, such agony and loneliness that Beru felt like drowning by just listening. She felt Owen's arms hold her tightly and she was probably sobbing again.
The three of them stood still, Vader's constant breathing and Beru's sobs the only sounds disturbing the desert's silence.
“Where is he?” Vader finally asked again.
“School in Anchorhead”, Owen said, cradling his scared wife.
Before Vader could find anything to say, Beru tore herself from Owen's hold. She didn't quite have the courage to touch the Dark Lord, but she looked into his emotionless mask, pleading. “He's been here for the past nine years. All he knows is here..! Please...don't. Don't destroy the life he has!”
Please don't take him away from us. “We love him!”
“Just bring him here”, Vader said quietly, stepping away from the crying woman. “Now.”
Feeling like they really had no choice, Owen nodded. “Beru will take the swoop and pick him up. I'll stay behind.”
“No. Beru stays.”
Owen swallowed. Apparently Vader had thought the exact same thing he had. If he'd stay behind, Beru and Luke would still have the chance to escape. The Sith knew Owen would not choose between Luke and his wife.
“Fine. Beru stays.”
Owen gave a reassuring, but brief look at his wife. Without saying a word he hopped on the swoop and sped away.
Wiping her tears silently, Beru watched until the swoop disappeared into the horizon. Collecting herself, she drew a deep, faltering breath and bent down to take the forgotten sand-bucket with shaking hands. She nervously glanced at Vader before getting the rifle as well. Her heart was still racing, and her hands would have been shaking had she not clutched the items so hard it nearly hurt.
“Let's go inside.”
Owen probably made a new speed record with their ancient Zephyr-G swoop bike when he arrived back, puzzled Luke seated between his uncle and the handles. The said uncle had told him he was taking him home because of the approaching sandstorm later in the evening. It could have been true, since he wasn't the only kid being picked up early. Camie's father had fetched her and Fixer half an hour before him. Biggs said his mother was due to get him within an hour, too. Odd that Owen didn't offer to take Biggs halfway. Odd that uncle Owen was so tense.
When they got home the first thing Luke noticed was the large, black speeder bike. He'd never seen a model like that before, but it reminded him of the speeder bikes he'd seen the stormtroopers use on HoloNet news.
“We've got a guest?”
Uncle didn't answer, like he hadn't answered any questions Luke had made on their way home. Actually, uncle hadn't said a word ever since he'd appeared to the school and said: “Luke. There's a storm coming. We're going home.”
Luke had figured something was wrong. First he'd been afraid something might have happened to aunt Beru, but something told him that wasn't it. Once he saw the vehicle he knew the something had something to do with the mystery visitor. And suddenly, he felt he didn't want to go home at all. Something, whatever it was, was something huge, something that would change his life.
“Uncle Owen...?”, Luke spoke quietly, suddenly feeling very reluctant of the idea of going down the stairs. “Can we go back?”
Owen didn't turn to look at him. “We go in.”
Neither of them seemed to be able to sit down in silence. Darth Vader circled around the courtyard's tiny shadows that only served as shade for his boots. Beru had occupied herself with wiping the table. For the 12th time in a row now. Both of them snapped to look at the stairs when they heard voices.
Vader looked from afar as a young boy ran to Beru's opened arms. They hugged each other for several seconds before the boy pulled himself free from the arms that apparently did not want to let him go. Very much like a mother would hug a son. Unexpectedly, the sight reminded him of his own mother. Of the day when he had left, not knowing if he would ever see her again. Unlike Beru, Shmi had let go of his son, who would not have really wanted to.
For a moment, the weight of the memory seemed to stun him. Long enough for Owen to appear from stairs and Beru to get up. She held the boy close to herself, and the boy clung to her skirt, undoubtedly intimidated by his presence.
“Luke”, Beru calmly said to the boy, touching his shoulder. “This man here has come to see you.”
Luke's eyes shot from Beru to Vader and back. He had no idea who this man was, even less why he would want to see him. He certainly wasn't sure if he wanted to meet this man. If he even was a man. It was difficult to say if the armour and helmet were just that or if the creature was actually a droid.
“Why? I haven't done anything..?”
Darth Vader stepped forward and the boy escaped behind Beru's back. The woman herself stiffened as well, but fought to keep herself calm.
The boy was small. Tiny. He had a sandy-blond hair and traditional Tatooine clothing. There was nothing about him that would have drawn his attention under normal circumstances and yet, when Vader reached out with the Force he felt... He wasn't quite sure what he felt. A presence soaked in the Force, a presence that shone brighter than both of the suns together. Raw power hidden behind layers that reeked of Obi-Wan. He would have never noticed how strong the Force was in this boy, had he not known to look for it.
He felt...connection. He felt...her.
“So it is true...” Vader spoke.
Luke jerked away from all of them, as if Vader's mental touch would have burned him. As if his son was frightened of him. And why wouldn't he be? He obviously did not know who he was, and the less stories he'd heard the better. Vader knew he was intimidating enough by just standing and doing nothing. His name only was enough to frighten adult beings. To a child he must have looked like a monster from a nightmare. He certainly sounded like one.
My son is afraid of me. The thought stung a little, certainly more than it ought to have, even though he knew it to make perfectly sense. And he was a Sith Lord. He shouldn't have felt a thing, but he refused to listen to the nagging voice telling him that. None of that seemed to matter at the moment.
Beru exchanged looks with her husband, then with his mask. She didn't quite manage to look at his eyes, but Vader was used to it, too, as he was used to the red tinted vision. Even he didn't feel like breaking the news to the child, despite that at the same time he felt like snatching the boy with him right now and never looking back.
In the end, it was Beru who turned to Luke, attempting to smile reassuringly. “Luke, mmm...this– this is your father. He's here to see you.”
Luke folded his arms and didn't seem to buy her words. “You said my father's dead”, he deadpanned.
“I– I think we had been...misinformed.” Beru glanced nervously at Darth Vader and desperately tried to not let the boy see how her hands were shaking. “Perhaps we should– should sit down.”
“Yes. Perhaps we should”, Vader allowed. He stepped to his son, not too close to scare him off, and looked down at him. What should he say?
“Hello, son”, he acknowledged. Had he ever felt this short of words before? He was quite certain he hadn't. “Do you know who I am?”
The boy shook his head viciously and took a nervous step backwards.
“I'm Darth Vader. I am your father.”
The eyes, of which colour he could not determine behind the red hue, widened. At least Luke had heard the name. The boy shook his head again. “No you aren't. My father's called Skywalker like me. Anakin Skywalker.”
Involuntarily Vader stepped closer. “Search your feelings, boy. You know it's true.”
“Get away from me!”
Had Beru not intervened, Luke would have spurted out of the yard. She held the boy close to herself and shot her blaming eyes at Vader.
“I really think we should sit down”, she said silently, but firmly and led the boy to the outdoor table.
“We talk”, Owen said, passing him and followed his wife. Vader crossed his arms, but followed as well. He swept the cape aside and sat in the cramped space. It was exactly as he remembered from his last visit, just...everything seemed even smaller now. Beru sat in the corner and Luke was beside her, holding her hand, trying hard to not look scared. Owen sat in front of him, mirroring him with his crossed arms.
"Well? I suppose you have a lot to explain."
"Explain?" Vader roared. "Me? You are the ones holding my son. It's you who should explain."
Owen was about to open his mouth, but Beru's touch on his arm silenced him.
"Obi-Wan brought him here when he was just couple of days old”, she explained calmly. “He only told us you were the father and that you and his mother were dead. It wasn't until later he discovered you were still alive."
"And yet you decided not to inform me I had a son?"
“It took even longer for him to tell us it was you.”
"We were just trying to keep him safe", Owen spat at him.
"From his own father?"
Luke pressed himself against Beru at his outburst, and the woman closed her arms around the boy protectively. Vader immediately regretted the tone his voice had taken and attempted to soften it as much as the vocoder allowed.
"I would never harm my own son."
It didn't seem to work. If anything, his voice had seemed to sound even more threatening to the boy.
"Maybe not you...” his...sister-in-law..? said. “But what about the Emperor?" Beru's voice was barely more than a whisper. "Could you keep Luke safe from him?"
"Of cour–" Vader started. But no, he realised. Beru was right. Luke's existence would have been even more of a threat to the Emperor than Starkiller's was.
"Obi-Wan warned us about the Emperor after we found out you were alive. Despite what we had heard of you...” Beru licked her lower lip uneasily, not looking at Vader. Her hand nervously stroked Luke's shoulder.
“I still wanted to let you know. I thought you deserved to know. But when he talked about the Emperor, even I was forced to believe it would have been too risky.”
She lifted her eyes and continued: “We just want for him to have a home and a loving family like we assumed you and his mother would have wanted. Luke is safe here", Beru insisted. Her eyes bore into the dark mask despite the fear Vader could feel under the fierce surface.
Even the tiniest reference to Padmé stung Darth Vader's heart. Safe home and loving parents. Any dying mother would wish those for her child. Had she asked Obi-Wan to bring Luke here? Why here and not Naboo?
Because Naboo is Palpatine's homeworld, too. Obi-Wan would have seen the risk. The chances of somebody accidentally finding Luke on a Mid Rim planet were far higher than here on the Outer Rim. And naturally Kenobi had used Vader's hatred for Tatooine to his advantage.
"How much does he know?" he finally asked after a long silence, nodding slightly at the boy who still clung onto Beru's sleeve. Luke's eyes silently observed his every move. Quite clearly, the young boy had had no idea of his father's true identity.
Owen cleared his throat. "We've always treated your son as our own, but we have never pretended to be his parents. He knows the name you used to go by and a makeshift story of his navigator father's death in a space accident."
Owen shrugged. "We agreed it'd be for the best for him to not get involved with the Jedi. Kenobi wanted to train him, but I refused."
"Rather told him to leave and never come back..." Beru muttered, giving a dark glance at her husband.
The mere idea of Obi-Wan filling his son's head with all the false Jedi philosophy angered Vader to the point of wanting to kill the man again. Apparently he had Owen to thank for a lot. Luke was clearly in good hands with the Lars couple. As much as he would have wanted to take his son with him, he knew it to be nearly impossible. The new Super Star Destroyer's unfinished hull was an option, but Luke would likely not have been pleased with the solution in the long run. And he doubted the Lars couple would have approved the plan, either. But the longer he stayed here, the more attention he might draw to this moisture farm. Would anyone ever know, Luke's life would be in grave danger. The list of people who would want to kidnap or simply kill Luke for the sake of revenge was endless.
Vader stood up hurriedly. "I better leave. I will do my best to have no attention drawn onto you and arrange some finances to–"
"We don't need your money", Owen snarled at the Dark Lord, getting up himself.
"Owen–", Beru started. Not that she was saying they needed Vader's money, either, but she felt like they shouldn't push away the only way Vader could do something for his son without needing to take him away.
"Do as you please", Vader interrupted, crossing his arms again. "I won't be back. Just– Take care of my son."
Beru took a step closer with open arms, as if somehow trying to reach him. "Anakin..."
"That name", Vader snapped, pointing his finger at the woman, "is no longer mine."
Luke, who still sat at the corner, flinched at the dark Force gathering around him. Vader let the hand he had not even noticed rising fall. It'd be for the best to leave now, before he caused some permanent damage. He turned abruptly, leaving the couple behind. He had already reached the stairs when he heard Owen follow. Pretending not to notice he stepped outside and headed for his speeder.
"Hey! I'm talking to you."
Vader turned slowly to face the man who marched towards him. "What?"
"Your ship. Where'd you park it?"
Vader frowned in irritation, but replied. "I have a shuttle near the north side of Jundland Wastes."
"Thought so..." Owen muttered and nodded to the horizon.
Vader turned his head to see what Owen was looking at. The far horizon was dark and smudgy of an approaching sandstorm. It had been a long time since he had experienced a Tatooinean sandstorm, but he could still remember the incredibly fast wind.
"It'll be here in half an hour. It's a suicide to take a speeder ride towards and through a sandstorm”, Owen said neutrally. “Even for you."
"Indeed”, Vader allowed. His armour and life support systems were built to hold in numerous different conditions, but a sandstorm was likely to stop him soon. If not the armour, the sand would jam the speeder bike's engines and eventually his mechanical limbs. Before that, however, it would probably find it's way through the helmet's filters and he'd be soon breathing in fine sand. “What do you propose?"
"You can stay here", Beru's hesitant voice called from the doorway. "We didn't eat yet, so I thought I'd start preparing something soon, so..." she said uneasily, walking to the men. "Should I..? Is there anything I can..?"
"I cannot take off the mask here."
"Ah, of–of course. I'm sorry", she apologised, blushing slightly. "Owen, I'll be in the kitchen if you need me. I'll–" she quickly glanced at Vader, "take Luke with me."
Owen merely nodded and watched her leave. Darth Vader studied the stormy horizon. Even now one could see it coming closer in the twin sunlight. It had been a long time since he had seen the suns. It reminded him of the numerous times of Anakin's childhood, when he'd watch the suns set, wishing to just get away from them.
Owen cleared his throat. "Right... We better move your speeder. The wind's getting stronger."
Owen looked at the roof doors to garage close above them. The wind outside had already become strong enough to fly the sand around in the air. He lowered his eyes from the ceiling to the surroundings.The garage seemed even more cramped than usually, now that they had moved Darth Vader's speeder indoors. What a weird thought it was: he, Owen Lars, the stepbrother of Darth Vader's.
"Why were the gravestones removed?" the tall man in question suddenly asked.
Owen looked at the man he used to think as his brother. It took him a moment to realise that Vader seemed to assume the gravestone of their mother had been permanently removed. He let out a small, dry laugh.
"It sure has been a long time since you left Tatooine. There are a lot of sandstorms this time of the year. The engravings would be completely gone by the end of the season, if they were left out in the sandblast. It saves us time to remove them for couple of months, instead of covering them before each storm. They're over there, if you want to see them", he explained, waiving at the general direction of the corner.
The black cloaked man looked at the pointed direction, but did not move. Owen shrugged and let him be, moving to check the generators. Vader did not follow.
"Thank you, Luke."
Luke handed the eating utensils to his aunt and peeked over his shoulder for probably the hundredth time since they'd come to the kitchen. Ever since the tall man in black had arrived he'd been feeling this weird...presence. Weird, yet somehow extremely familiar and infinitely strong. It wasn't just the man himself. More like being this near to the man had awoken some new sense in him.
Aunt Beru knelt and took his hands. "Are you all right?"
Luke's eyes shifted away. "...sure."
But he wasn't. Not entirely, anyway. There were stories of Darth Vader, even here on Tatooine. Things kids liked to tell each other, like that Vader was a gigantic alien with four arms, had a head like a spider and ate children for breakfast. And then there where the things he'd heard adults say in a fearful tone. That Vader was a ruthless war leader who'd kill people without a slightest of hesitation.
And now here he was. Darth Vader was at his home, claiming to be his father. It couldn't be, it just couldn't. Yet somehow he knew it was true. All his life he'd craved to have a father. He'd made up stories, fantasies in which his father wasn't dead.
No, not dead. He was a hero of some kind, but the bad guys had a bounty on his head and he'd gone hiding, but he'd come back one day. Any day now, really, maybe even tomorrow. Tank had told him to stop sky-walking as his name suggested, and get his feet back on the ground. Uncle Owen would get angry each time he mentioned something about his father.
So much for that father. So much for Anakin Skywalker.
"Honey, I understand", his aunt said, wrapping her arms tightly around him. "It's going to be all right..." she whispered, but to Luke it almost sounded like she was crying as she held him closer.
Beru left fetching Owen to Luke and headed for the garage herself. The Dark Lord was still in. He was crouched over their landspeeder with an opened toolbox on the floor beside him.
"Va–, ah, Darth Vader?” she tried. “...Lord Vader?"
The man did not remove his attention from the speeder's engines. "Vader is fine."
"We're going to have some late lunch. Or maybe it's an early dinner” she rambled nervously. “I remember what you said earlier, but if you'd like to join us..." her voice died down.
"Thank you, but I will remain here."
"Oh, all right", Beru said, trying not to sound too relieved. She was already leaving, when she suddenly turned back.
"You're still welcome to join us if you change your mind”, she forced the words out of her mouth before she'd lose her nerve. “You–you are family."
Darth Vader did not look at her, not until she had her back turned at him. His eyes remained at the empty doorway for a long time. He let the spanner drop.
Coming here had been a bad idea. He– no. Anakin, not him. Anakin had been here only once and yet the place was full of memories. If he closed his eyes and drew deep into the Force he could almost see her. It was like the memory of her presence was still lingering in this house. The swoop bike in the corner reminded him of his– Anakin's! futile attempt to save his mother.
He picked up the tool, consciously fighting the urge to throw it out of the room like Anakin had done.
"Sometimes there are things no one can fix. You're not all powerful."
Vader tightened his hold on the hydrospanner. I should have been.
What a fool he had been, thinking the Jedi way was the correct way. It had brought him nothing but loss, betrayal and grief. This was were the real power lay. Yet he could never fully reach his potential, not anymore. But Luke...his son, his son! Her son. Somehow she had managed to live long enough to give birth to their son. It was a miracle. He'd been right, he had not killed her on Mustafar! He had not murdered the only person in the galaxy he would have gladly sacrificed everything. For whom he did sacrifice everything.
And Palpatine... His Master. His new slaver. Palpatine had told him he had murdered her. He had lied to him in order to use him. And undoubtedly would do anything to get his hands on Luke if he were to ever know.
I will not let that happen.
Obi-Wan had failed to protect Anakin from Palpatine. Darth Vader would not let the same happen to Luke.
As soon as the storm would die down, he would leave this farm and never come back. It would be for the best. He may not ever see his son again, but at least he would know the child was safe and in good hands. Luke would never get to know the Force or his father, at least not before Sidious was gone, but it was a sacrifice he had to make to ensure his safety. He would not risk nor sacrifice his only child's life in his silent rebellion against the Emperor. That was what Starkiller was for –and unlike his son, Starkiller wasn't irreplaceable.
Chapter 9: V
Clattering, sounds of welding and drills, heavy metallic steps, sputter and loud hammering...
Sounds like these were constant on the unnamed Super Star Destroyer Starkiller regarded his home. Home that actually was an enormous building project, a massive construction site that never slept. There were thousands of droids on the Super Star Destroyer, yet only one of them ever talked to Starkiller. Most of the droids working on the unfinished parts couldn't even speak and were programmed to ignore everything else than their endless task of finishing the war machine. There were droids of every possible size and shape, many of them specializing in one or two things only.
Starkiller didn't mind the noise. It had always been there. He almost missed it when it was gone, were it in a sound proof meditation room or even just on the Rogue Shadow. It was far too quiet in space. Weird as it might have sounded, it was harder to concentrate when there was nothing to shut out.
He had walked four kilometres from his quarters just to be where the noise was. He sat high up on the uncovered support structures, on beams that would very soon become a floor. But right now he could still see two floors down and perhaps ten more when glancing up. Droids passed him regularly, slaves to their punctual programming, never seeing the boy amongst them. Wires, plumbing, layers of metal and plasteel were moved around swiftly and put in their places accurately and precisely.
The working droids fascinated Starkiller. He liked to watch them, so sewing and patching up his wardrobe was a perfect excuse for such leisure. PROXY had refused to help him, saying he'd use the time to prepare him an exercise, but the apprentice was willing to bet it had more to do with him not wanting to come here. PROXY didn't particularly like the mindless worker droids. It didn't bother the apprentice, but as always, he kept a part of his mind focused, ready for anything. Even if PROXY wouldn't attack him, he knew that accidents happened, even to droids. Something heavy could hit him or fall on to him, sparks from welding or spilled molten metal could burn him or he could be knocked down if he happened to be on some droid's way. And since the area was close to an airlock, it's failure or opening could very quickly kill him. But all of it was fine by him. The danger was part of the attraction.
Starkiller swung lazily his legs over the edges of the beam and leaned his back against another one. A backpack hung from his boot while he sewed together his shirt and it's sleeve. It didn't look good, but it'd serve it's purpose well enough. Some of his underwear was beyond repair, as was his black leather jacket. The jacket would have soon been too small, anyway, but it wasn't an excuse.
He kept an eye on a droid nearly his size flying nearby, getting slowly closer. It was fastening a wire as thick as his arm. He would soon need to move out of the way, unless he wanted to be bolted inside the future floor as well. The boy played with an idea of zapping it with the Sith lightning, but he knew it wouldn't have been a good idea. Even if he would manage to short-circuit the droid, he'd be just digging his own grave. He already had enough unwelcome news for his Master. Not only would he need to apologise for the datachip, but now he also needed to ask for new clothes.
But he didn't need to worry about it just yet. It would probably take several months before he would again see his Master in person. It could very well take several weeks even before any kind of personal contact. It was unfortunate, but Starkiller knew Darth Vader had many more responsibilities than just training him. Since his existence was a secret from the rest of the world, he probably always came last on Darth Vader's to-do list. It saddened him a little, even though he knew he should not let it affect him. Solitude was good. And he always had PROXY.
He dreaded the day Master might say he didn't need PROXY anymore, for surely such day would inevitably come. PROXY was a marvelous combat training droid, but not all could be learned from a droid. Even Starkiller knew that. Once he was older and better at using his lightsabre, he was sure he would get to duel his Master more often. Once he'd proven himself to be good enough, Vader would even send him to kill real Jedi instead of traitorous senators and governors or whatever they were.
They did duel every time Master was personally on the Super Star Destroyer. They were hard duels for him, but his Master hardly even had to try. Each attack Vader made could have been deadly, Starkiller knew, but each of them was also only difficult enough to bring him to his limits. Obviously, Vader must have been holding back a great deal each time or else the apprentice would have been dead a long time ago. He'd seen Darth Vader fighting once for real and it had left him convinced his Master must have been the greatest Sith that had ever lived.
It had been five years ago, but he had had the honour of seeing Vader fight against three training droids simultaneously. His orders had been strictly to stay at the sidelines and not make any movements in order to not attract the droids' attention, because if he did, Vader would not save him –he'd be fighting them on his own. As soon as Vader activated the droids and the battle had began, he'd perfectly understood why the order.
The droids moved and attacked so fast it was hard for Starkiller to keep an eye on all of them. He watched in awe as the lightsabres moved through the air, all of them either swinging harmlessly past their target or being parried by Vader's red blade. Still, even with his untrained eyes, he could see it was not an easy duel for Drath Vader. The droids were faster and seemingly equally strong, but he didn't doubt his Master even for a second. He knew his Master would emerge victorious. No one could beat his Master, most definitely not a bunch of droids.
And he'd been right. Nearly an hour later the droids lay disabled, all still intact. As soon as Starkiller had been sure the droids would not move, he'd dashed to Lord Vader.
"That was awesome!" he had exclaimed.
"Keep training and you might be able to fight them one day", Vader had said. "If you ever make it that far."
"I will, Master. I won't fail", he'd sworn like he always did. At the time he had been so small he had needed to take half running steps to be able to follow around his Master who at the time had often taken deliberately shorter steps. Though at the time Starkiller had never realised it. By now he was somewhat taller, but still growing and could keep up with Master Vader a little better.
“I'll survive your training, Master”, the apprentice muttered, frowning at the droid. It was getting closer. He would have to move. Then again, a glance at his wrist com's chrono told him it was soon time to leave anyway. If he'd leave now, a little earlier than he had originally intended to, then he might have a chance to surprise PROXY for a change.
The young Sith apprentice smirked at the idea and his fingers briefly touched the battered lightsabre hilt. It wasn't a beautiful weapon like the one his Master wielded, even if it had been modeled after the said lightsabre. His was made of leftover parts, had been taken apart and built again several times and had suffered terrible abuse during his training. It really was a miracle it was still intact. Not to mention he himself still had all of his appendages attached. Not even a finger had been lost so far –and for that he was proud, rightfully so.
Master would perhaps say he had nothing to feel proud of until he training was complete, but Starkiller took pride in his abilities. He knew he was gifted, he knew he could make it if he just pushed himself hard enough. Surely Master Vader would see that one day as well..?
The suns had set, but there had been no sign of Vader ever since Beru had left the garage. Luke had helped her with the dinner dishes (Darth Vader hadn't joined them after all) and Owen had tried to see if they could get any clear holoprograms. They had sat in the living room, watching news and latest episode of an Outer Rim talk show in Huttese. The picture was bad and sometimes they lost the audio entirely but it didn't really matter since the program was subtitled in Basic. The lights flickered off once, but came back before Owen could get the glowrods. Luke was occupied with homework and didn't seem to lose his concentration even once. Everything seemed perfectly normal, yet both of the adults changed worried glances again and again, until it was time for Luke to go to sleep.
"Should we go find him?" Beru whispered when she came back from Luke's room.
"Better leave him be", Owen muttered, flipping through the channels. "If he wanted to talk, he'd talk."
Beru sat next her husband, leaning her head against his shoulder. "Maybe he doesn't know how.”
She had been terrified when the Sith Lord had appeared at their front yard. She still was, when she thought of the things she'd heard of him. But after they'd spoken everything through, it seemed like she'd seen a little glimpse of someone else than the fearsome Darth Vader. She had remembered the young man who'd come to see his mother. She remembered the kind words Shmi had used to describe him. Somewhere under that black armour had to be that man, that little boy. That was what she'd come to think after she'd witnessed the man's concern, however clumsy it had been, towards his son. He wasn't just a cruel machine despite looking like one. He couldn't be.
“I wonder when was the last time anyone treated him like a sentient being. Do you think there are others who know who he is?"
Owen said nothing. Instead, he turned up the volume.
Darth Vader was deep in meditation when a nudge in the Force interrupted him. He opened his eyes. The room looked greenish due the night vision instead of the usual red. There was only a little light coming from the doorway. Luke stood there in his pyjamas, silently observing him.
For a time that seemed almost an eternity, neither of them moved. Finally, Luke drew a deep breath and stepped forward, his eyes never shifting away from him. Despite not having any training, he seemed to have noticed the exact moment Vader had noticed him. The boy stopped in front of him and looked him straight in the eyes as if there had been no mask hiding them.
"Are you really my father?"
Vader waited for two breathing cycles to pass before calmly (calm he didn't really feel) replying: "Yes. It would appear to be so."
Luke shut his eyes and nodded once, leaving his head hanging. The small fists curled into tight balls. The Force radiated around him and when he lifted up his face, it was torn with anger, confusion and betrayal –all feelings Vader was far too familiar with.
"Then where have you been?! Why weren't you here for me..?"
"I've been fighting a war”, the Sith's reply came in a heartbeat.
Luke brushed the tears aside with one angry movement. "I was told you were dead! I– I always..." The boy's shoulders slumped and he suddenly crouched on the floor. "I just wanted my father here", he whispered miserably.
Vader didn't quite know how to react to the child's outburst. Starkiller hadn't had any temper tantrums for years, at least not in his presence. He tried to imagine what he would have done, had the boy in front of him been his apprentice. Somehow a Force choke or a push didn't seem to fit in here.
"In case it makes you feel any better”, he started, “I, as well, was told you were dead. I never even knew you existed.”
"How can you not know you have a child?!" the boy questioned angrily.
"I was made to believe your mother died before giving birth to you”, Vader simply replied. As an afterthought, he added: “Clearly, that cannot be true."
"Then she's alive?!" Luke gasped excitedly.
"No." Vader closed his eyes for a moment, the guilt washing over him. "She isn't."
The boy fell silent at his tone. He swallowed uneasily and after a moment of silence asked: "What happened to her..?"
Yes. That was the question. If she did not die by the hand of her husband, then what had happened? What had Obi-Wan done to her, where had he taken her? His vision of her dying in childbirth with Obi-Wan at her side must have come true. He sighed heavily in his mind. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"It does to me!"
A long silence followed Luke's words. He stared frustratedly at the man he could barely see sitting next to the wall in the darkness, but he could hear his steady breathing above the humming sound of the one generator that had been left on. The small lights on his chest blinked once in a while, seemingly with no purpose at all.
"You don't need to accept me", the man finally spoke. It wasn't like it had been easy for him himself to accept what he had become. He knew very well that the mere sight of him was terrifying to many adults, let alone children. Perhaps it would indeed be for the best for both of them to continue like it had been until today. Luke could stay here and live a relatively normal and safe life, while he would return to his Master and to the plot against him. A son would not have a place in it, anyway.
Instead of backing away or leaving, the boy drew a deep breath again and sifted closer, against all Vader's beliefs. His words were even more of a surprise.
"Can I see you?"
Vader was momentarily taken aback by the question. No one ever, never asked, even though he could feel people's morbid curiosity towards what was hidden under the black mask.
"I cannot take off the mask here."
"I cannot breathe the air in here."
The boy looked puzzled. "But... You're a Human...right?” The last part came out as a worried pitch, so Luke hurried to continue. “The Tatooinean air is breathable."
"It has too little oxygen and too many impurities for my needs”, Vader explained tensely. Why he even bothered to explain was beyond him. When Starkiller had asked, he had thrown the boy out of the room. Yet he heard himself continue: “I would die without my mask."
Luke looked horrified. "How can you eat? What do you do if your nose itches?"
Darth Vader had a sudden desire to laugh despite the theme of their conversation, but he held it back. He couldn't remember the last time he'd even genuinely let himself smile like this. "I have a small room with air suitable for my needs on my ship. I rarely eat. I take most of my nutrition straight into my bloodstream."
The boy nodded to confirm he understood, yet his face betrayed that in reality he had a little understanding, if any, of what Vader meant by his words.
“...so that's why you didn't join us for the dinner?"
Vader had had his share of dinners. To him, it meant standing behind the Emperor, looking menacing and watching others eat. His Master seemed to enormously enjoy putting him in such situations, knowing very well how much Vader despised them.
"What happened? Why can't you breathe?" Luke asked, sifting closer yet again.
Amazing. The boy had first been so scared of him he'd tried to run away, and now he was close enough for his knees to almost touch Vader's bent legs. Vader could still feel the boy's fear underneath the new-found interest towards something normal being's instincts told to be dangerous and life threatening, but Luke ignored that fear.
"There..." Vader carefully evaluated his words, "was a fight, a long time ago. I was betrayed and injured in a duel."
Luke's mouth formed a tiny O-shape and he could feel the man did not want to continue on the subject. He would have wanted to ask more, like what all the lights and switches meant, but he didn't want to anger his newfound father. Instead, he reached out and picked up the edge of the black cape. "Why do you wear this?"
"A cape or a robe is a traditional part of the Sith attire. It also provides some extra defense against some weaponry."
"What's a Sith?"
"Perhaps", Vader moved for the first time since Luke had showed up and took the boy's hand to remove his cape from the small fingers. Surprisingly, Luke did not jerk away from his touch. "...I will explain some other time."
"Mm...okay." The boy yawned and laid himself on the floor. "You said you have ship."
"Yes. A Star Destroyer."
"Is it fast?"
"Compared to its size, yes."
"I want to be a pilot when a grow up", Luke grinned tiredly, moving his head so that he was using Vader's boot as a pillow. "There are so many star systems out there” he grinned excitedly, gesturing with his arms, nearly hitting Vader in the chest panel. “I want to see them all!"
I wanna be the first one to see them all! Anakin's voice echoed through the Force. Vader wanted to shut it up for good. Anakin is gone.
Ignorant to his thoughts, Luke tilted his chin up to look at him. "Have you been to them all?"
"Hardly." And Vader had stopped counting the planets he'd been to a long time ago.
"Would you like to?" the boy asked with genuine curiosity, but Vader's reply was simple and short: "No."
The child sounded something between puzzled and disappointed. "Why?"
"I'm busy with the war."
Luke frowned at that. "Why are you fighting?"
Vader tilted his head downwards, but he couldn't see Luke's face from this angle. The mask made it impossible. "Because I am needed there. It's my duty to maintain order in the Galaxy."
"When you're done with the war, would you take me to see other worlds?"
"I doubt the war is going to end any time soon”, Vader spoke, his voice taking a hint of mocking tune. It wasn't his intention, so he explained himself a little further. “There are always systems that do not appreciate the peace the Empire has brought."
The child blinked his eyes tiredly. "But...would you?"
There was a long, long silence from Vader's part before he answered. His life had already been turned upside down once. Even with his son on his lap, a part of his mind still rebelled, was trying to hold onto what had been his life for the past nine years. A part of him desperately wanted to not rip it all apart again. And yet something inside of him told him he desperately wanted to get to know this child, made him want to throw it all away again. Just to be able to be with his son.
And he knew he couldn't.
"Luke...son. I cannot”, he started slowly. “I have many enemies, who would use you against me, did they know of your existence. You must remain hidden from them and this is the safest place I can imagine. You must never let anyone know of our relationship."
Luke said nothing and since he could not see the boy, it took him a moment to realise that his son had fallen asleep. He touched the boy's hair gingerly and listened to his steady breathing that almost matched the rhythm of his own. How he wished time would have stopped then and there, so that he would not need to make the decision. He wanted so badly to take boy with him, raise him as his son the way he should have done since the beginning, train him instead of some random child of a dead Jedi.
The thought of Starkiller made him see red –figuratively of course, for his line of vision was currently tainted in green hues. Why had he wasted eight years of his life to a child of a stranger, while his real flesh and blood son was rotting away on this miserable excuse of a planet? To hell with loving relatives, Luke would have had a real parent out there. It all came down to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan had made him believe Luke had never been born. Obi-Wan had made him carry the dreadful guilt that had been eating him alive, inside out, for the past nine years. Obi-Wan had denied him the existence of his child. And undoubtedly, Obi-Wan had been planning on using his son against him.
It was ultimately Obi-Wan's fault that he had spared Starkiller's life and taken the Jedi child under his tutorage, while in reality he should have used all that time for his own son. He could still make up for it, he knew it wasn't too late yet. He himself had been nine years old when he had started his training. If he started teaching now, who knew how powerful the child would become in ten years when there would be no Jedi and their rules restricting him.
Luke needed to be trained. He could never forgive himself if he'd deny Luke that. But neither would he forgive himself if something were to happen to this child –and he knew far too well what could and was more than likely to happen were he to pay too much attention on Luke. Ultimately, there was no keeping secrets from Palpatine. The only reason why he believed Starkiller to still be secret was the fact that when he found the boy, the building project of the Super Star Destroyer had just begun. It had been enough space to hide a little child and since he had already visited the site earlier, it hadn't been suspicious to make it more or less a regular habit.
There was no way he could make Tatooine a regular habit. There was always the Bast Castle on Vjun, but although he trusted his staff to certain extent, he couldn't trust them Luke. Besides, a planet with constant acid rain was even less likely to be approved by Owen and Beru than a construction site was. And for some reason unknown to him, their approval mattered. Perhaps it was gratefulness. As strange as the feeling was, he felt grateful for Beru for being a mother figure for Luke, and for Owen for keeping his son out of Obi-Wan's hands.
So Darth Vader sat quietly, weighting each option, turning them around in his head and trying to look each side of them. He would do what was for the best.
Owen had already gone to sleep, but Beru had stayed behind in the living room, determined to finish sewing patches to Luke's clothes. She was so concentrated on the work that she did not hear Vader approaching her.
"I'm looking for Luke's bedroom."
Beru jumped at the sudden deep voice and shrieked when she accidentally stuck the needle in her thumb.
"Ow, you startled me!" she cried out. Her heart raced and she felt the instinctive need to flee –until she noticed what the Sith Lord was holding. A nervous giggle escaped her lips, relieving the tension she'd felt and she frowned. "Luke..?"
The said boy lay on his father's arms, sound asleep.
"Oh, Luke...” Beru abandoned the small pants and stepped to the man. “I'm so sorry, did you bother you? He was supposed to be sleeping."
Vader shook his head slightly. "We had an interesting conversation."
Beru lifted an eyebrow, but didn't ask anything. "Follow me", she whispered instead. She led Vader through the indoor corridor to the other side of the middle yard. All the entrances had been sealed from the storm that still raged outside.
"Watch your steps, it's a bit messy in here", she warned before opening the door to Luke's room. She did not turn on the lights. Vader followed her in, laid Luke on the bed and watched as Beru tucked him in.
“He's a sweet child” she said affectionately and gently stroke the boys blond locks. “He'll be sad after you leave, you know. He's always wanted to know his father.”
As she'd expected, Vader didn't utter a word. He stood silently (well, as silent as he could) by the bed, towering over his sleeping son. Amazing that Luke wasn't bothered by it.
"I trust you know your way back", she whispered. "Should I find you a place for the night, too? I could arrange something in the living room..."
"I am not going to sleep." Vader turned to face her. "But I need to talk with you and Owen. I have a request."
Owen and Beru both rose with the suns as usual. The storm had died down some hours earlier. Luke was still sleeping when Beru started preparing the breakfast. Owen started his day with powering up the generators. The garage was empty, but Vader's speeder was still inside and the ceiling hatch to the already warm morning air opened. It didn't surprise him to find his stepbrother from their mother's grave. Considering his mysterious Force powers, it probably hadn't been that difficult to find the exact spot even without the stones marking it.
Darth Vader granted him a short look, but said nothing, so Owen simply stood silently next to him. He could clearly remember the day they had met. Mother had always told him about her son, Anakin. He had wanted to meet him, but never the way they did. He remembered him arriving with the speeder, then carrying her body inside. Later, they'd dug a grave and buried her with no fancy ceremonies. Anakin had left and never came back. Or so he'd thought. Only couple of years later Owen had buried his father, Cliegg, next to her.
"You may not agree with me, but she was my mother as well", he finally said. "Luke will be safe with us."
There were a couple of hissing breaths before any acknowledgement to his words. "I must leave. I have already received a signal from my flagship orbiting the planet."
Owen nodded. "We'll be waiting."
Luke dragged himself to the dining space. He was dressed, but his bead-head hair was still sticking out to all possible directions and he could barely keep his eyes opened.
"Morning, Luke", aunt Beru sang, handing him a cup of cold blue milk. "Did you sleep well?"
Seeing you decided to fall asleep in the garage way past your usual bedtime, it's no wonder you're so sleepy", she smiled teasingly. "Mr. Darklighter will be picking you up for school with Biggs today. I've got no business to Anchorhead."
"Garage..?" For a moment Luke was puzzled. He rubbed his eye and took a sip of his milk. "Wait, is he..? Is he still there?"
"No", Owen called from the kitchen's doorway. "He left."
Luke's face fell. "He didn't want to see me?"
He didn't want to wake you up" Beru corrected, gently combing his hair with her fingers to make it look less like a mess.
"Listen very carefully, Luke”, Owen said in serious tone, sitting in front of the boy with his cup of caf. It was the tone Luke most dreaded, the tone he used when he suspected Luke might have done something. The boy fidgeted nervously. "You're a big boy and there are some things you need to understand."
"What do you mean?" the child asked uneasily.
Owen's eyes bore at him and he wanted to look away, but he didn't.
"Luke, you must not tell anyone Darth Vader was here. You cannot tell anyone he is your father."
"But why not?” Luke all but whined. “Why'd he leave?"
Beru held out her hand to the boy's shoulder. She knew probably better than anyone, how much Luke had always wished to have a father. He may have been disappointed at first, but any father was better than none.
"Your father has many enemies”, she explained in a much more tender manner than her husband. “You and all of us would be in danger if anyone knew of your relationship. We have to continue like your father was the dead navigator Anakin Skywalker. Otherwise your life would be in great danger."
"I can't tell even Biggs?"
"No, not even Biggs. You'd be putting Biggs' life in danger as well. Promise, Luke. Promise me."
Luke adapted the serious look from Owen and nodded. He didn't really see how it could hurt him for people to know who his father was, but he trusted his guardians. “I promise.”
Captain Ophay seemed relieved when Darth Vader returned to the Star Destroyer Exactor. The Captain informed they had tried to contact him without any apparent success after their sensors had detected the sandstorm in the area Vader had been heading to. Vader let it go, although technically he could have killed someone for attempting to disturb his Jedi hunt.
Instead, he used this slight irritation to mask his true feelings concerning the mission. It must have been nine years since he'd felt happiness like this. And such hatred at the same time. Ever since his transformation he'd known he could not trust Sidious, but treachery of this scale was far worse than he had ever expected. Sidious must have known he had not killed his own wife. And yet the Sith Master had led him to believe so, in order to chain his new apprentice to himself forever. With the promise that in time his servitude to him and to the Dark Side would make the guilt eating him alive go away. And Vader had fallen into this trap willingly, never questioning his Master's words when he had asked of her.
It seems, in your anger, you killed her.
But it wasn't true. It could not be. She had lived to give birth. He had harmed her and for that he would never forgive himself, but he had not killed her.
Darth Vader marched straight into his quarters. The ship wouldn't move before he'd contacted the Emperor. He needed to report as if all was as it should.
This time the Emperor appeared almost immediately. Vader knelt down.
"It is done, then, my apprentice?" the Sith Lord rasped from under the black hood shadowing his face.
"Yes, my Master. Kenobi is finally dead."
"Good", the Emperor relished the word like sweet Nabooian blossom wine.
Vader waited a while before bowing his head a little deeper. "With your permission, my Master, I shall return to the fleet now."
"Of course, Lord Vader. You have done well", his Master commended –and paused. "But..."
Vader did not dare to move a muscle. For a while, time seemed to stand still. He would have held his breath had he been able to, so perhaps it was better he couldn't, for that would have surely given him away.
"You seem a little...shaken, my friend”, the Sith Master chose his words carefully. “Are you not satisfied with the death of Kenobi?"
Vader hesitated. "It...has affected me more than I thought it would, my Master."
"Hmm, you continue to surprise me with your petty sensitivity, Lord Vader”, the Emperor hissed through his teeth. “Forget about Kenobi. Return to the fleet and channel your hate to destroy our enemy."
Behind his mask, Darth Vader allowed himself a small smirk. "As you wish, my Master."
Chapter 10: VI
It took full three weeks before Starkiller saw his Master again. His arrival was a surprise, as it usually took several months before Master Vader was able to return to Scarl System to see his apprentice personally. Which was why he was standing in his full training gear, clutching a broken datachip and covered in sweat when the black Eta-2 Actis interceptor gently landed on the docking bay's polished floor. PROXY hovered nearby. The droid did not want to stay too close when there was a possibility of the Sith Lord getting angry.
The engines died and he heard a familiar hiss of an airlock. Darth Vader emerged from the cockpit and Starkiller dropped on one knee. “Welcome back, Master.”
Vader's boots hit the hangar floor almost soundlessly. It was amazing how gracefully the Sith Lord could move despite all the machinery in his body. Starkiller admired how effortlessly his Master could utilise the Force. He rose, but kept his head bowed down, reaching out his hand.
“Forgive me, my Master. I broke it. Please accept my deepest apology.”
He had broken things before. None of those times had his Master been pleased and he expected nothing less than a severe punishment. He wasn't a child anymore, after all. But Vader hardly even looked at him, striding past his young apprentice without uttering a word.
“Not now, Starkiller”, came a stern reply. “Come.”
Starkiller quickly tugged the datachip in his pocket and hurried after his Master. Vader led him into a familiar room with a huge panorama window. Once it was furnished it would serve as some sort of a lounge, and it was right next to the rooms Master Vader occupied whenever he came to Scarl, but would not be his permanent quarters. There'd be quarters closer to the bridge. Starkiller had never gone in any of these rooms, even though he was curious. Maybe one day when he had more confidence in his abilities to get in and out without Master Vader noticing. But he was not willing to test his Master on that just yet.
The said black clad man paused in front of the window. Starkiller knelt down to wait. Soon, Vader began pacing as was his habit whenever something was on his mind. At least that was how Starkiller interpreted it. Eventually, the Sith Lord talked.
"I have a mission for you.”
Starkiller couldn't help but to lift up his head in boyish, tingling excitement. A mission! Finally..!
“It won't be anything like any of the previous missions I have given you."
And there was something else, something about his Master he could barely grasp... A feeling, a cloud of pitch black emotions that seemed to whirl around the Dark Lord. A dangerous, murderous intention and determination. He saw Master's hand pause right above his lightsabre momentarily. There were only so many people who awoke such animosity in his Master.
"Your spies have located a Jedi?"
The Dark Lord stopped his pacing and turned to face him. "Yes. And I have already taken care of him."
Starkiller smartly bowed his head. It was arrogant of him to think such an important mission would have been trusted to him just yet. He knew very well that he'd be chopped in half before he'd even have time to attack, were he sent to fight a real Jedi. He had barely come back in one piece when sent to fight a padawan.
"Of course, my Master."
Vader turned to face the blackness of space and for a long time the only sound in the room was his steady breathing and the distant sound of droids at work. Starkiller listened, but apparently his Master was lost in thought –not an unusual situation. He knew he should just stay put and not push his luck, but the curiosity was killing him.
"Who was it?"
As soon as the words left his lips he half expected to be Force pushed at the far end of the room, but today his Master simply answered the question.
Starkiller's eyes widened. Master Vader had been hunting down this man for years! Vader had even once mentioned that Kenobi had been a ally or something of his a long time ago. Before this “friend” turned against him and apparently caused master Vader his grave injuries, that is.
"You killed him", he gasped excitedly. How he wished his Master would tell him about it in more detail!
"Not nearly as slowly as I should have..."
Starkiller heard the leather gloves tightening into fists. The room's temperature seemed to drop. He could feel the dark energy pulsating around the dark robed man, and the anger, the pure hatred that was silently leaking into the room. It was cold, but he breath in the intoxicating Dark Side of the Force that had the taste of his Master in it. One day, he'd be as powerful as the Dark Lord. More powerful.
"His betrayal was far worse than I had ever expected. My child is alive and he had him hidden from me all these years."
A small gasp escaped from Starkiller's lips. Master Vader had a son?
"Were the Emperor to know of my son's existence, he would either have him killed or use him to replace me."
Starkiller's face twisted with hate at the mention of the Emperor. Vader had taught him well.
"The boy is strong in the Force. Like a shining beacon, and unable to hide it. Obi-Wan had wisely been shielding his presence, but now he may not stay hidden for long", Vader talked and turned abruptly. "I will send you to my son. You are to make sure he stays hidden. The Emperor must never learn of his existence."
Starkiller felt his heartbeat fasten with both, pride and excitement. This was far more important than getting to kill a Jedi. This meant his Master really must have trusted in his abilities, to trust something like the safety of his son to him. He could have jumped out of the sheer anticipation, but from the outside he was careful not to let his unemotional mask betray too much of his feelings. Still, he could barely keep out the thrilled note from his voice when he replied: "As you wish, my Master."
A small nudge in the Force told him it was time to stand up. Starkiller fixed his gaze at the black mask, waiting.
"You will leave tomorrow. I have already arranged for your transport. Once you arrive to your destination, there will be people to pick you up. You are to do as they tell you and treat them with the same respect you'd treat me. PROXY will have all the information you need. Now go. And do not fail me", Vader said, pointing his finger at him to emphasise the final threat. Starkiller had heard it often enough to know the threat was real, but this time he could feel cold darkness crawl deep inside his bones.
"I won't", he swore. It was time to go. He bowed before turning around to leave the room. Right before the doors closed behind him, Vader suddenly spoke. Starkiller gasped at the words, not quite sure if heard it right or if he imagined it altogether.
"One more thing. Your name is Galen Marek."
Starkiller lay on his bed, Vader's words spinning in his head. Galen Marek. Was that his name? His real birth name?
He didn't feel like Galen Marek. It was a stupid name. It wasn't a Sith name.
The cracked datadisk still lay untouched on his table. He should have confessed Master Vader he'd broken it, but there hadn't been any good moment to say it. He did not harbour dreams of keeping it secret, but now it looked like he wouldn't get a chance to tell any time soon.
He knew he should have been packing or at least training or meditating instead of wasting his time like this, but he equally knew he couldn't concentrate on any of those before PROXY would arrive with more information. It must have already been several hours since he had left his Master's presence, so he hoped the droid should be back soon. He ought to keep his senses opened. You never knew when PROXY decided it was a good time to ambush him. Today apparently wasn't, as he soon heard the droid walk in and there was no hologram on. He jumped out of the bunk to greet him.
"Well? What'd he tell you?" he asked immediately after the door had closed behind the droid.
"Lord Vader has informed me of our new mission. We are to leave tomorrow morning of Imperial standard navy time."
"I know, I know. Details, PROXY, tell me the details", he said impatiently and sat back on the bed, drawing his legs on as well.
"Master, I am afraid I am not authorised to tell you our final destination."
"What? Why not?"
PROXY ignored him. "A pilot will fly us to Corellia. You are not to leave him alive."
"Got it”, he shrugged. “But I thought I was supposed to go to wherever Master's son is. If Corellia is not our final destination, does that mean he's not there? Or will we pick him up and take him somewhere else?"
Starkiller was dying for more details. His mind was racing with ideas.
"I'm sorry, master. I cannot answer your questions."
The boy sat down with a sigh. "It's alright. I know you're just following your programming."
"Speaking of which, I'm devastated to inform you that my primary programming has been overwritten", PROXY said, looking as miserable as a droid just could.
"What!? You– Master re-programmed you to not kill me?" Starkiller could hardly believe his ears. PROXY had, as long as he had known him, been trying to kill him on a weekly basis.
"Yes", the droid sighed. "I am sorry to disappoint you. My current main programming is to take you to his son without anyone following us or knowing where we are heading to."
"That's...umm... I'm sorry PROXY. I'm sure you get used to it", he tried to reassure the droid and patted the metallic arm of his friend. To him it sounded more like a temporary re-programming. Once they'd found master's son, the main program was likely to kick back on and they'd be back to normal. Better not get used to it.
"Guess I better start packing then", he muttered, throwing his feet on the floor again. "What time are we leaving?"
"Tomorrow at 0700. Master, I advise you to pack all you have. It will take us some time to reach our destination."
"Oh..." Starkiller sighed, opening his drawer. He didn't have much, especially now that half of his clothes were either useless rags or needed to be sewn together. Another thing he should have brought up with his Master. He had never had much clothes, just the amount that he could survive a week without having something washed. Now he didn't even have that. He threw everything into the only rucksack he had while the original question popped in his head again.
"PROXY... Did my Master say anything about 'Galen Marek' to you?"
The droid had plugged himself to his usual place in the wall for re-charge. "Isn't that your name, master?"
"It is?" The boy got up and headed for his collection of canned foods and ration bars. "That's what he said, too, but... He's always called me Starkiller."
"I am not an expert of human behaviour, but perhaps Lord Vader sees it fit for you to have a name instead of a code name for this mission?"
The boy picked a can of food he had no idea what it was, but it was eatable. The label only said 'artificial nutrient paste'. There wasn't much to choose from on an unfinished Star Destroyer. He popped it open and rummaged a drawer for a spoon. There already was a fully equipped kitchen and dining hall several floors down from the staff's living quarter area he spent most of his time, but the turbolifts weren't working yet and the emergency stairways were not lit, so he didn't often go there. It was easier to snatch a weeks supply of whatever he might need and return only when necessary.
"I guess so", he mumbled while chewing his first spoonful of the greenish goo. "So, are you going to call me that from now on? Galen..?"
The name had an odd taste. He wasn't sure if he could get used to being called by it. Could it possibly be the name he had been born with? Or a name Vader had simply given him for this mission? The latter seemed more likely, but then again, it was a stupid name...
"Not yet at least, master."
"Great..." Apparently this also fell into the category of 'un-authorised matters of discussion'. On a sudden whim he also added a small tool kit and the only datapad he owned into his bag along with some more food. All he could do now was to wait patiently. And as his Master had taught him, the patience of Darkness was infinite. It was where he should aim as well.
Starkiller was up with plenty of time to spare. After his usual morning exercises, he headed to the hangar and found an unfamiliar small vessel next to Master's specially modified one man ship. His own ship, the Rogue Shadow waited further away from the airlock.
“Ah, our ship has arrived”, PROXY commented upon seeing the new vessel.
“We won't be taking the Rogue Shadow?”
“We are to abandon our pilot and our ship”, the droid explained.
Starkiller nodded and walked closer to examine the vessel. He wasn't an expert when it came to starships, unlike his Master, but he could tell it was a fine, Corellian made vehicle and definitely not meant for military use. Not too fancy to attract attention, yet not too plain to assure it would get stolen in no time when left behind.
"Hey! Kid! What are you doing there? Get away from my ship!"
Starkiller and PROXY turned to face a man in his mid-thirties running towards them. He was dressed in civilian clothes, but they way he held himself proposed an army background.
"What are you doing here?" the man repeated once he'd reached them.
Starkiller frowned. "I'm waiting for my pilot. You?"
"Accessing Imperial records", PROXY started, nailing the man's cocky Corellian accent upon activating a simulation of the man standing in front of him. "Captain Misca Cobber, 36-years old. Born on Corellia, graduated from the Imperial Academy on it's third operational year. He served the Republic during the final months of the Clone Wars–“
Starkiller stopped listening. So, a Corellian man on a Corellian ship in Corellia, he thought. Who would also soon die in Corellia. The man was probably officially on leave, so the death wouldn't even be dealt by the Navy, but the the local authorities on Corellia.
"What the... Who are you two?"
"Should I provide you with more specific information, master?"
"No PROXY, that's fine, thanks", Starkiller waved his hand at the droid, who dropped the simulation. "I believe you're here to take me to Corellia", he said to the man, ignoring his questions.
"You?" The captain didn't seem convinced. No wonder Lord Vader had sent him on this suicide mission. He didn't seem like a person who could just shut up and do what he was told to without questioning it. His voice took even a slightly whiny tone when he said: "I was told this was an important mission."
"You think Lord Vader lied?" the boy challenged.
Patience, he reminded himself. He couldn't kill the man before they'd even left the construction site.
"Ah, no, but... Well he did mention some agent I was supposed to give a ride." Captain Cobber eyed him suspiciously and then moved to PROXY.
"The droid is Vader's agent? Well, what do you know..."
Starkiller's lightsaber was on the man's throat before he had even finished his sentence and had time to notice it. No point hiding the man he knew how to handle such weapon, when the man was already dead. He just didn't know it yet. Cobber drew a surprised breath.
"My job is to bring Lord Vader's enemies to justice. PROXY only assists me. Now get the ship ready, so that we can be on our way. The quicker we reach Corellia, the quicker I don't need to see your face ever again."
The captain gulped. It wasn't like he was used to taking orders from someone who looked younger than his own son. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to him, but then again, this kid was holding lightsaber on his throat despite being a lot shorter.
"Right...I apologise, sir. I'll get the ship ready."
Starkiller lowered the 'sabre. "Good."
The man saluted and hurried to do whatever was needed to fly this ship. The apprentice knew little to nothing about spaceships apart from the Rogue Shadow and the one he was living in. And no way could he fly the latter, even if it had been fully constructed.
The vessel in front of him was small and apparently not made for long Hyperspace jumps. It wasn't as small as a fighter, but a lot smaller than a standard imperial shuttle he'd seen or the Rogue Shadow. He followed the man indoors with the little he had. There was no separate cockpit. Instead, there were three seats behind the confined pilot's seat and none for a co-pilot. Apparently a ship this small didn't need one. Definitely not a ship for overnight jumps.
Starkiller took a seat next to the wall and laid down his rucksack on the middle one. PROXY followed behind and placed himself to the seat left. Lieutenant looked at him over his shoulder.
"Everything ready, sir?"
A pleasant change of an attitude. Starkiller glanced at PROXY. He had hoped Master would have come and said him some final words or given more specific information, but apparently it was just the two of them now.
"Yeah..." he muttered and closed his eyes. He heard the ramp and the door close behind them, and the engines hummed to life. PROXY would soon shut himself down and he didn't care what the pilot did. Starkiller had only a vague idea of how long it'd take to reach Corellia. It was all very exciting. He'd never been that close to the Core and with all the secrecy this was far the most important mission he'd ever had. He could not let his Master down. Failing was never an option, but he would have felt better if he would have known where he was going and what exactly he was supposed to do there.
The boy let out a small sigh as he felt the ship rise. Oh well, he'd have several hours to meditate on the matter.
Darth Vader watched from afar the ship take off. He had not gone to see Starkiller, for he did not know what he would have done. He might have killed the boy on the spot. In Owen's garage, with his son sleeping on his lap it had all felt so clear. It had felt like the only possible solution.
Had he done the right thing?
The first thought to cross his mind had been that he would not need Starkiller anymore. Together with his son they could defeat the Emperor, he could feel it. An apprentice was not needed. He could either banish the boy or just kill him to assure his silence. Or just send him to his doom by some other means. He had Luke now. He could train his son in secrecy, just as he had done with Starkiller–
But no. Even now he was not completely sure if Starkiller truly was a secret from his Master. He could not risk Luke by starting to visit Tatooine like he had done with the Scarl shipyard. Neither could he take Luke with him. If he could not see his son, he could not have him trained either.
He would have to leave Luke with Owen and Beru. It was the safest place for him to be. And Vader himself could never go back. He would never get to see his son again. Her son. Their child.
And Luke would be denied the training that was his birthright. With such a massive Force potential it ached him to think his son would have to live half blind I order to survive. Such a bright and magnificent aura...
...currently hidden only because of Obi-Wan's shielding. But it would not stay so for long without the Jedi amongst the living. For now, Vader could strengthen the shielding, but eventually it would fade away. When that happened, would the Emperor notice him? He could not tell for sure, but the possibility existed. He needed someone to shield Luke, for he had no time to teach the boy to do so himself.
So Starkiller could still prove useful for his plans, after all. But just seeing the boy yesterday had sickened him. For so long he had poured all his time and patience and hopes to this child, while Obi-Wan had been hiding his true heir. A part of him, a part undoubtedly left of Anakin, had wanted to substitute the lost child with Kento Marek's son. And that sickened him more than anything.
It baffled him to see the blind trust in Starkiller's eyes. The boy believed and knew full well he could get killed any second, yet he placed all his trust on his Master. Vader had come so close to the point where he would have drawn his weapon and beheaded the child. The boy's open admiration offended him.
A screech pulled Vader back to the reality. He looked down to the railing he had been leaning into with both of his hands. Without noticing, he had gripped the metal bar harder and harder, until he had accidentally pulled it out of the wall.
Slowly Darth Vader uncurled his fingers. The railing was left hanging mutilated, still supported by the vertical bars.
What is done, is done, he thought, giving a one last glance to the airlock. All he could do, was to trust Starkiller. But if becoming a Sith had taught him one thing, it was to never trust anyone. He had thought he knew this before, but only the last nine years had truly taught him its true meaning. The least he could trust his own Master. For all he knew, Starkiller was still a secret, but he could not be sure. The Emperor's games were endless and he was always several steps ahead of his apprentice –which was why he had sent Starkiller on a long detour without any knowledge of his destination.
He was still able to change his mind. Just a word from him, and PROXY could activate all of the training modules in its memory. Starkiller was good, but not good enough to yet beat the best opponents PROXY had to offer. All he needed to do was to give an order and Starkiller would die.
He knew he could trust PROXY. He had assembled the droid himself. And just yesterday he had literally taken the droid apart to make sure it was not tracked or being listened. It hadn't been. Perhaps he was acting paranoid, but he felt better when he knew he had done all he could.
Despite the harsh reality of trust and the conflict within himself, he was fairly certain he could trust in Starkiller's loyalty. The boy would not betray him, he had no loyalties to anyone else. That he could trust. But the boys abilities...he could not. No matter how loyal and eager to prove himself, Starkiller was twelve years old. He was a child. And at that age he himself had made more mistakes than he cared to remember.
Starkiller opened his eyes just in time to see the blue haze of Hyperspace turn into normal blackness of the space. Except that there was a planet not far away from them and their small vessel wasn't the only one. Corellia had one moon, but from the direction they were coming, it was almost hidden behind the planet. When they got closer, he could see ships leaving and entering the planet's atmosphere all the time. There were several bigger ones orbiting the planet, one of them being an Imperial Star Destroyer. While captain Cobber communicated with the Corellian air control, Starkiller set up to wake up his droid.
"I would have automatically switched on in 48.7 seconds", PROXY informed him. Starkiller just rolled his eyes and watched fascinated as the planet surface came closer. There were high buildings reaching for the skies as far in the horizon as he could see, and the city's air was filled with speeders. He assumed it was Coronet, the capital, the Jewel of Corellia. It reminded him of the holos he'd seen about Coruscant, just not as extreme.
They landed in building entirely made for parking small ships. Theirs was among the smallest ones.
"Here we are, sir", the captain said. "Corellia."
"Good job", Starkiller smiled. One slight movement of a wrist and the man's blaster flew to his hand. "And now I don't need you anymore."
One shot to the back and the man was dead. Starkiller dropped the gun on his seat and quickly searched the man's pockets. He was in serious need of money as Lord Vader would give him only very small amounts of cash to spare. His master never encouraged the boy to steal, quite the opposite, but in delicate situations as this, it was important the credits could not be traced back to Darth Vader under any circumstances.
"Come on, PROXY. Time to go."
There were no people outside and the only visible staff seemed to be droids. It took him a while to convince the droid to let him pass as he was clearly under age, but eventually he managed to make the droid believe that his father was still in the ship and that he would take care of the parking ticket, once he'd leave.
"So, where do we go now?" Starkiller asked the holodroid and stretched his arms after they were at a safe distance from the building.
"We will move to the main spaceport of the city, where we will find our next ride", PROXY answered and led the way.
"And I suppose you're still not going to tell exactly where we are going?"
"Quite correct, master."
The boy followed the droid through the city. There were people of every age, seemingly from all sides of the galaxy, although the great majority were humans. For a boy who had lived most of his life alone on a huge construction site, the crowd was startling. And the crowds just got worse as they approached the Blue Sector, as PROXY had called it. Cantinas, tattoo parlours, casinos and cheap hotels were everywhere. It reminded him of a place he'd been before the disastrous mission that got his pilot killed. Lord Vader had sent him on some Outer Rim planet to dispose a traitorous spy. He never got to know the planet's name, but like it, the Blue Sector seemed like a dangerous place at night.
"Master, according to my databanks there is a famous bazaar near here. I suggest you buy yourself some food. The flight will be long."
Starkiller frowned. "How long exactly?"
"I'm sorry master, I cannot tell you that until we are on-board."
"Great..." the boy muttered, but followed the droid.
"Welcome to Treasure Ship Row! Welcome to Treasure Ship Row!" a young Human woman called with a megaphone and handed out leaflets for everyone passing her.
"Please visit The Great Blue Rancor! The best game arcade on the street!"
"Come in, come in people!"
"Sale! Sale! Only for today! Sale!"
The noise was overwhelming. The streets were packed with people, everyone trying to sell them something, hand leaflets, offer free samples or just call the crowd with the megaphones. Some of the shops were simple and small stalls, some were tall buildings with neon signs, flashing lights and loud music, where as the neighbour might have been a stylish and modern clothing store next to a antique shop. Whatever one was looking for, it was very likely one could get it from the Rows -if one had time to search for it.
"PROXY, we need to find a place that sells food", Starkiller called over his shoulder. And he needed more credits. Fortunately, with the Force by his side, all he needed to do, was nicely ask someone to hand over their money. He'd just need to find a suitable person... "PROXY?"
No answer came from the droid. Irritated the boy turned around, but to his horror, there was no holodroid at sight. At all. He was gone.
"PROXY?! PROXY, where are you?" he called, a slight panic dripping to his voice as he realised it had been quite some time since he'd actually been sure the droid was with him. Now that he thought of it, the last time he remembered seeing the droid was when he'd been the one doing the following. At some point he'd lost the droid from his sight, but too distracted by all the bustle around him, he'd assumed the droid was following him instead.
"Oh no..." What do I do now, what do I do now..? He'd have to find PROXY, there was no other option. He couldn't -he would not fail this! He had a mission, his first important mission, but he could not go on without the droid's information. He'd rather die while searching, than go back to his Master, to admit he was just a ridiculous, miserable failure and get killed for wasting so many years of his Master's life.
"Shit...PROXY, where are you..?"
Luke Skywalker woke up gasping from a nightmare. Still the same dream, yet changed again. The blackness was darker than ever and the oppressive feeling of being watched worse than ever. And now it had a name.
Luke had no idea who or what the Emperor truly was, but just the sound of it and the look on aunt Beru's face when she had pronounced the name that had silenced even Darth Vader was more than enough to convince him the Emperor meant something bad. Something very, very bad.
And now he could also name the person he was in his dreams. It wasn't really him this Emperor wanted. At least he hoped so. It was Anakin Skywalker. It was the father of his dreams who could no longer be, now that he knew the truth. The cold emptiness that filled him in his dreams and the hot flames that licked his body and the paralysing horror of not being able to breathe were the dreams of a hero father dying. Hero father who had never existed beyond his dreams.
Luke jumped at the unfamiliar voice and dived under his covers.
"Luke, don't be afraid. I'm not here to harm you."
Luke peaked into the room. To his horror, a blue, glowing man stood in the corner of his room.
He considered screaming for aunt Beru then and there.
"No, no, no! Don't scream", the man hurried to stop him. "You don't need to be afraid of me."
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"My name is Obi-Wan Kenobi”, the man said with a gentle smile on his face. ”But you might know me better as Ben. I came to see that you are unharmed."
"Ben..?" the boy repeated, recognising the name. "How did you get in? And why are glowing..? I can see through you..!"
"I'm afraid my condition is something one might call a ghost", the man said, sitting down on his bed now that Luke seemed more curious than frightened.
The boy gaped at him in awe. "Really?! Wow... Just wait till I tell Biggs! He'll be so jealous."
"Ahem, no… I think it would be better you would not mention me at all."
"Why not..?" Luke whined. His friends in school would be thrilled if he'd tell them he'd met a real ghost!
"A few believe in ghosts”, the man replied thoughtfully. ”And you should not attract any unwanted attention to yourself, my boy."
Luke folded his arms and pouted his lips. "I'm not allowed to tell anything anymore..." he muttered.
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not allowed to talk about it."
The man shrugged good-naturedly. "I'm a ghost, I can't see why you couldn't tell to me."
Luke lifted an eyebrow. "I'm not stupid, you know. I'm not falling for that. You could be a holo."
Obi-Wan looked at the boy for several seconds before laughing. "Very well, Luke. You seem unharmed. No one came here, then?"
Now it was Luke's turn to narrow his eyes in suspicion. "What do you mean?"
Obi-Wan brought his hand on his chin and stroked his beard, considering his words before talking. "Luke, a very dangerous man could be looking for you the very moment. You, your uncle and aunt might need to flee. Your lives could be in a terrible danger."
"You mean the Emperor?" Luke gasped, his eyes suddenly saucer wide.
"What?” Ben exclaimed. ”Stars no, not him. Not yet, I hope. But he might as well, very soon. You–" Obi-Wan paused. "Who told you of the Emperor?"
"Aunt Beru said something about him when Vader wanted to–" Luke quickly slapped his hands over his mouth.
Obi-Wan, if possible for a ghost, paled. Was he late? Time was so difficult to determine now that he was part of the Force. It helped to understand why Qui-Gon, who didn't have a 'physical' form seemed to have even more difficulties. He gulped. "Vader was here?"
"I didn't say anything."
Obi-Wan leaned closer to the boy, all his concentration diracted at the child. "Luke, this is very important. Did Vader come here? What did he say?"
"I don't know what you're talking about", Luke insisted and futilely tried to hit him with a pillow. “Go away.”
"Luke, listen to me” the Jedi pleaded, ignoring the attempted attack. “Darth Vader is very dangerous. He will hurt you. I must know what he said to you. Please, Luke. He killed your father."
Luke's face twisted in sudden anger. "Liar! He is my father! That's why he was here! You're one the enemies he warned us about!"
Obi-Wan's nonexistent heart skipped a beat. "He told you? Luke, listen, it's not the whole truth”, he tried to explain desperately, but he knew he had misjudged the situation horribly, and his words had only done damage. Luke hadn't trusted him in the first place, now he might never trust him. “Darth Vader is an evil man. Your father, Anakin Skywalker was a dear friend of mine. He was a good person. But he was seduced by the Dark Side. The good man that was your father died and became the evil known as Darth Vader."
"No! Get away from me! Aunt Beru! Aunt Beru!"
“Luke, please, calm down–“
“Luke? Luke, what's wrong?” came a muted voice behind the door.
“Aunt Beru!” Luke jumped from the bed and pinned himself against his aunt as soon as she emerged from the doorway. “That suspicious holo-guy just appeared out of nowhere!”
“Luke, are you alright? There's no one in here”, she tried to calm the boy down. “Did you have a nightmare? Who were you talking to before you started yelling? Are you playing one of those games again? You know what I've said about playing them after bed time.”
Luke turned to point at the ghost, but Obi-Wan was gone. “He was just there!”
Beru frowned at him. Unlike usual, the boy didn't seem scared, just agitated. “Luke, honey, you had a nightmare again. There's no one in here.”
“No buts, Luke. Come on, back to sleep.”
Luke gave one final glance at the room before climbing back to bed, but the glowing man had disappeared. Beru stayed again to check all the possible hiding places, even though he said she wouldn't need to. When she was gone, he waited for the ghost to appear again, but he was left alone to sleep in peace for the rest of the night.