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8/24th, Imperial Year 9

Kessel Sector

 

Vader stood on the bridge of his Star Destroyer—his, no matter what Tarkin or the Emperor might believe. The men and women serving on this vessel were loyal to Vader alone, a feat he had managed through fear, treachery, reassignment, and sheer, brutal stubbornness.

He had allies, but he did not yet have weapons. He did not yet have a danger capable of capturing the Emperor’s attention long enough for Vader to slay his Master and rightfully take his place.

And do what? his annoying conscience asked. Sit on that stupid chair and become another Palpatine?

Vader sneered under his mask, ignoring the way it pulled at old scars. No. He was no politician, no fool waiting in a chair for sycophants to come to him, begging favor or attempting pathetic power plays. The Empire had the might to make the galaxy right and just, and the Emperor allowed it to plunge ever further into chaos. Vader would not let that continue.

The thought of the Emperor’s new laws on slavery, something he claimed was for “the peoples’ own good,” made Vader’s blood boil.

Now that, we agree on.

Shut up, Vader hissed back, and the ghost made an amused sound before subsuming itself into his consciousness.

Five years ago, the thought of any part of Anakin Skywalker surviving would have enraged him, would have him seeking out those shreds of his old self and destroying them. Now…now, he needed an alliance of the self as much as he needed his network of spies. If he faced the Emperor as a man still at war with his own mind, he would lose.

Vader had served the Empire for ten years. Soon, he would rule it, and as he had once promised his wife, he would make things the way they should be. One way or another, there would be peace.

War is not the path to peace. You used to know this!

Vader frowned at the voice. That was not the irritant that was Skywalker, but his former Master.

Strange how he could not remember Obi-Wan Kenobi ever voicing those words before. Perhaps he was dead at last, and Vader would have yet another ghost lurking in his thoughts.

No. Obi-Wan lived. He knew it with certainty.

“Lord Vader.”

Vader turned slowly away from the viewport. Colonel Veers stood at attention, waiting for Vader’s nod of acknowledgement, before he spoke. “I have a report from our exploratory teams down on the surface of this world, Lord Vader.”

“A single report, Colonel?” Vader’s tone was low and curious. “Should there not be sixteen reports from each of your sixteen teams?”

Veers’ chin came up, as if preparing himself for a blow. “Yes, sir, there should be. It seems, however, that we have lost contact with fifteen teams, and there is only one survivor from the sixteenth.”

“Interesting. Who is this fortunate survivor, Colonel?”

Vader could read the man’s distaste in the Force. “It’s one of them, Lord Vader.”

“I see.” Vader regarded Veers for a full minute in silence, signaling his disapproval of Veers’ attitude with nothing more than the threat of his existence.

Veers narrowed his eyes and then inclined his head in acceptance of the rebuke. Lesson learned, then, if not yet understood.

“Send the survivor to my chamber, Colonel,” Vader instructed. “I would speak with him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Vader seated himself in his chair, sheltered by the open awning of the hermetic sphere that gave him some comfort from the constant pain of his old injuries. It also allowed him to sleep, when his frail body demanded it.

It did not escape him that he was seated in a similar manner to the Emperor, waiting for those who would seek him out, but he did not do it for amusement. He did not have patience for those who sought power only to further their own ends. Either his people served the Empire, or they did not.

The man was 501st; Vader did not need to see the markings etched into the pauldron of his armor to know. He knew the Force presence of all those who served in his legion.

“CT-9521, Lord Vader,” the soldier announced himself, dropping a brief, serviceable bow.

“Remove your helmet please, Lieutenant Pulsar.”

There was a bright wash of surprise in the Force before the clone complied. He had two diagonal lines climbing his cheeks, something that appeared to be more ritual scarring or fine tattoo work than actual battle damage. His hair was turning white at his ears, with random threads of silver showing in his short-cropped dark hair.

Vader leaned back, satisfied. “Your report, please, Lieutenant.”

“Sir. I didn’t get a good look at the hostiles, but I can say that they are short, efficient little murder machines,” Pulsar told him. “I’m not sure how fast they wiped out the other squads, but I would put the time at ten minutes or less per encounter. They wiped out mine in about four.”

“And why do you still live?”

Pulsar grimaced. “I was trying to get the young, stupid idiots in that squad to try diplomacy first. Had my weapon down on the ground, trying to convince whoever was in the brush watching us to at least come out and say hi. Then the sergeant panicked, and that was the end of that bunch.”

“You presented no threat. That implies a form of intelligence,” Vader said.

Pulsar nodded. “Yes, sir. I don’t doubt that they’re a predator species, given the claw marks that were left on the armor, but if so, they’re a sentient predator species. There’s…there is also something else.”

“Go on.”

“It wasn’t in my mission briefing to report it, but the environmental levels on that world are complete shit, sir,” Pulsar said bluntly. “I took the liberty of tracking the source, and it looks like there’s a downed cruiser in the far northern mountains. No cleanup crews ever retrieved her, sir. She’s been leaking out every single toxic fluid she has for at least ten years, if not longer.”

“And this will mean?” Vader asked.

“That ship is going to kill that planet, and everything living on it, sir. Environmental standards are already well into the red for toxicity of soil and water.”

“Understood.” Vader pondered what he had been told for a moment, and then decided to continue his queries along a different track. “Why are you not serving with the rest of Tango Company, Lieutenant?”

Pulsar twitched, a brief look of dismay crossing his face. “My squads got hit pretty hard about a month back, Lord Vader. Most of mine are either still in medical, or still in recovery. I was temporarily reassigned.”

“To command only a single squad.” Vader frowned, closing his fist in a sign of displeasure that often sent his senior officers into cold sweats.

“Sir. I’m a clone, and clones do not get promotions,” Pulsar said. The words were flat, rote, and bitter.

I decide who I will and will not promote,” Vader replied, which made Pulsar’s posture go ramrod straight. “When this is over, you will return to your men, and there will be a promotion waiting for you. In the meantime, you will assist me.”

“Yes, sir.” Pulsar waited for him to rise. “May I ask how, sir?”

“You were left alive because you proved yourself not to be a threat, and they will remember that. You will come with me to see if these beings can be bargained with.” Vader paused, curious. “You called them murder machines. How would you rate them along the old standards, Lieutenant?”

Pulsar didn’t pretend to misunderstand him, as other officers often did. “ARC-level and up, but with one hell of a stealth component, sir.”

Vader nodded, pleased. Perhaps he had found the allies he had been looking for.

 

*          *          *          *

 

An hour later, Vader was uncertain as to whether he would live long enough to gain allies. He and Lieutenant Pulsar were surrounded by at least one hundred armed and infuriated warriors, men and women both. The aliens wore cloaks that helped them to blend in to their surroundings, but their hoods did not hide gray snouts filled with very sharp teeth.

Skywalker was laughing, the blasted fool. Oh, I like them. Let’s keep them.

Vader scowled and raised both of his hands, revealing that he held no weapons. He was not helpless, of course, but he had the distinct feeling that these “murder machines” had had very little contact with offworlders.

“I would like to speak to whoever is in charge of your people.” His voice echoed outwards, the projection in volume efficient at gaining the attention of all of the aliens at once.

“I don’t know if they speak Basic, sir,” Pulsar said. He had once again proven himself intelligent enough to lay his weapon on the ground. Vader wondered if Tango Company was, perhaps, in need of a new captain.

“Someone will come,” Vader replied. He held his position, his arms still raised, servomotors engaged to support him against fatigue.

It took eighteen minutes exactly for his request to be answered. The aliens cleared a path for an ancient one of their species to approach. She carried a staff with many deliberate notches carved across it, and dressed also in the same sort of gray cloak.

“I bet she still knows how to break people in half with that stick, sir,” Pulsar muttered.

“Indeed.” Vader lowered his arms, slowly, as the matriarch took her final steps and came to a halt. “We are well-met.”

“Are we?” She blinked up at him, her eyes almost lost to the folds of age. “I do not think we are, not if you are responsible for the invaders we have dealt with today.”

Her accent was thick, but not incomprehensible. Vader considered deceit and then decided it would serve no purpose. When he spoke, his words were as slow and measured as the thrice-damned vocoder would allow. “They were not meant to be invaders. They were meant to be scout teams. This world was unknown to us, and they were to report back on terrain and possible inhabitants.”

“Then why did they try to kill us?” another voice called out. A younger one, a male, three rows behind those that had cleared the matriarch’s path.

“Because they were stupid,” Pulsar said.

Vader considered that. “Crudely put, but correct. Perhaps wiser explorers should have been sent, but the Empire is used to dealing with worlds where we are already known.”

“What is this Empire? We hear whispers, but nothing that seems true.”

Vader looked out over the crowd. He did not see excitement, but solemn preparedness. “The Empire I serve is a vast allegiance of star systems. The number is so great that it is difficult to count, but they number in the thousands.”

“Thousands. That is many, many worlds. Why such interest in ours?” the matriarch asked.

Vader tried not to think about the fact that she reminded him, disturbingly, of old Master Yaddle. “It was an attempt to discern if this planet should become part of that allegiance. Or, if there were resources to be used.”

“What resources we have left are ours.” The matriarch spat on the ground at his feet. “And all our lives will go to protect them, if you try to take them by force.”

Apologize. Apologize, or you do not get short little murder-machine allies, Skywalker insisted.

I miss the days when you were silent! Vader retorted. His annoying conscience had a valid point, which made it hard to control his anger…but he would. This was too important, too vital, for his plans.

Vader knelt on one knee before the matriarch. He heard Pulsar curse before the clone scrambled to do the same. “You have my apologies. I tell you truthfully that the Empire does sometimes have the ruthless habit of taking what they feel is theirs. That was not my intent here.”

“Oh?” The matriarch had diamond-hard eyes the same color as her skin. “And what is your intent, offworlder?”

“Your planet is dying.” Vader’s words sent a ripple of whispering through their audience, but he did not look away from the matriarch. “I suspect you are already aware of this.”

“We are,” she allowed, gripping her staff and allowing the edges of her claws to show.

“This damage can still be repaired. Your planet, and your people, can still be preserved—if the Empire were to assist you, and that assistance began before the close of this year,” Vader said.

“I see. And what is it that you want in exchange for such a miracle?” the matriarch asked him. “Will we be required to join this Empire of yours?”

“I do not seek further citizens for the Empire, though you may join us, if you wish. What I seek…” Vader hesitated, aware of the clone at his back. “I seek allies, ones capable of assisting me with a project I feel is vital to the stability of the galaxy. Your warriors demonstrate the skill that such a task requires.”

You’re going to need a trump card, Skywalker warned him, just as the matriarch snorted. “You wish for our sons and daughters to die for you, and when your use for them is done, our planet will still be allowed to die.”

“I do not. I will prove my …good will,” Vader replied, trying not to frown as he tripped over the words. “I will begin the long process of restoring your planet first.”

Her eyes widened, as if he had finally said something worthy of her full attention. “Remove your leather and give me your hand,” she ordered, imperious. “I will discern for myself whether or not your words are true.”

Vader bit back a roar of outrage, of refusal, but only just. He swallowed down every bit of anger and bitterness, checked the wrist seals to assure himself of the integrity of his suit, and then slowly pulled the glove from his left hand. Pulsar sucked in a breath but wisely said nothing as the metal framework of his hand was revealed.

“I cannot prove my integrity with flesh, for I do not have any remaining where you ask for it.”

“The Noghri do not make bargains with machines,” the matriarch said, dismissive. “You may go, and none will harm you.”

“I am not a machine.” Vader ground his teeth. “I am merely…damaged.”

“I must discern your intentions, or there will be no bargain taken to our Council.” She gave him a shrewd look. “They will listen to me. If I say that we will accept your proposal, so will they.”

“I see.” Vader rested his bared hand on his knee, which was similarly constructed. He had to decide if his desire for allies was worth the loss of his dignity. He let no one see the scars upon his skin.

Sunlight, Skywalker whispered with longing.

Force damn you, Vader thought bitterly. “Lieutenant Pulsar. If you value your life, you will never speak of what you are about to see.”

“You could just kill me when it’s over and done with, sir,” Pulsar suggested, as if his life held no value. Given the Imperial military’s unfortunate and expanding poor regard for clones, it was possible he believed it.

“I will not dispose of a competent and loyal soldier unless you prove yourself to be a detriment,” Vader snapped back, making sure his anger was heard. “Now be silent.”

The seals on his helmet were not easy to detach; they were meant to withstand many extremes, including explosive decompression. He could not remove the apparatus over his face without time-consuming difficulty, but the helmet’s removal bared the whole of his hairless scalp.

Wind. Oh, gods, the wind, Skywalker mourned. Vader mentally flicked at the irritant. A breeze across his skin was irrelevant.

Pulsar made a strangled noise. “Sir,” he whispered.

“Be silent,” Vader repeated the order in a stark growl. “Matriarch.”

“Warrior,” the matriarch replied, her voice far more reverent than Vader expected. She circled him carefully before coming to a stop at his back. He sensed no danger, merely curiosity and undefinable intent. “I will touch you. Do not let your companion interfere.”

“He will not,” Vader promised. Then there was sensation against the back of his head, low and close to the band that covered his neck. It felt leathery and soft, and with it came a hot rush of air.

Scenting. Ah.

The matriarch stepped back and returned to her original position before him. “I am assured. Your intent is true.”

Vader gave her a curt nod and replaced his helmet, quickly re-engaging the seals. It was a relief to have that protection back in place…and yet, it was not. More and more, he was coming to realize that his dependence on this suit had been manufactured by Sidious. Had the Emperor truly wanted him whole, then Vader would be so.

I will be free of this infernal device, Vader thought as he stood. I will kill the man who did this to me.

Wow. I think we might actually be getting somewhere.

You will explain what you mean, Vader demanded, even as he followed the Noghri matriarch back to her home. The building also served as this village’s place of government.

I can’t.

Vader’s eyes narrowed. You are hiding something from me. You have a secret.

Yes. I do.

You will tell me, Vader insisted.

Skywalker was not cowed. For a figment, a fractured shard of Vader’s soul, he was infuriatingly stubborn. I can’t.

You will.

No, I literally can’t. Skywalker seemed amused. I buried it too deeply. I know there is something that we do not know, but not what it is.

Vader settled himself before the matriarch when she invited him to do so. Pulsar was a reassuring presence, one step back from his left side. You wish to assist me with my quest.

Of course I do. I want that fucker dead, Skywalker spat, the closest to anger that Vader had ever sensed from his unwanted conscience.

Then tell me this secret.

Stop being dumb, Skywalker replied scathingly. When it’s time for either of us to know this secret, then we will. Safety depends on not knowing.

Whose safety?

Skywalker hesitated. I don’t—mine? Ours? Someone else’s? I don’t know. Look, don’t screw this up, all right? You have to kill that fucking Sith Lord. You cannot fail.

That was simple enough. I will not, Vader vowed, both to himself and the blasted noisy figment in his head.

 

*          *          *          *

 

He did fail, to his gall, to his utter fury. The Emperor had known, had halted his plans before Vader could even finalize them all.

How? How had Sidious known? Gods all, how?

Vader’s only respite in the midst of suffering through the Emperor’s wrath was that his allies, those true to Vader and only Vader, would not be discovered. He buried their identities, their roles, as deeply as that unknown and guarded secret of Anakin Skywalker’s.

 

*          *          *          *

 

When he was given over to the Adepts, Vader could only hope that such a deep burial would be safeguard enough.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“Lord Vader.” The Emperor rose, a smile on his face, as if pleased to see him. Vader suspected it to be a lie.

Why did he suspect such a thing? The Emperor was his ally, his Lord. Strange, the thoughts that plagued him since his recovery.

“My Master,” Vader intoned, sinking to one knee and bowing his head.

“Rise, my friend. It is good to see you again.”

“And you, my Master.” Vader stood, waiting for the Emperor to make his slow, careful way down the steps that led to his throne.

False, his subconscious whispered. Vader frowned, but there was no tone, no recognition. It was simply the Force, warning him…but he did not know what it warned him of.

“What is it you have for me?” the Emperor asked, after giving Vader a perfunctory pat on his arm.

Vader turned and looked at the team of six Noghri, cloaked and almost invisible in the dim light of the throne room. They waited in silence, utterly loyal to his whims, but it was time they served a greater purpose.

“A gift, Master. For you. The finest soldiers the Empire has ever known.”