The war didn’t so much end as it was shut off, suddenly and without warning.
Vader — as Anakin Skywalker — had, near the end of the war, been present for the testing of a new class of cruiser capable of pulling a capital ship out of hyperspace. The test had not gone as planned: the ship had slammed out of hyperspace and then fractured into a billion tiny pieces — hull, engines, crew, and all. Internal grav generators had kept its shape but there was no doubt: nothing about the collection of fragments was equal to what it had been before. This brittle peace after Mustafar feels the same. The conflict slammed to an abrupt and decisive end once circumstances had finally aligned in the way Sidious had wanted them. Vader sees, now, the shards spread out, chaotic and fractalline, a pattern waiting to coalesce in one small black-robed figure.
What Vader wouldn’t have given to see the pattern before this moment, power stripped as it is from him by his inhuman body and inconsolable grief.
He stands before Sidious, head bowed, helmet pinching at the back of his neck where he hasn’t yet gotten the med droid to file down the sharp edges. Sharpness is another fact of life, now: the feel of metal digging into flesh defines his every motion. Given the time and the opportunity, he himself could probably have built prosthetics better than the ones he currently wears.
“Your task, Lord Vader,” Sidious is saying, “is to transform this heap of antiquated softness into a palace worthy of our new Empire.”
They’re standing in what was once the chamber of the Jedi Council, soothing beige and soft lines stripped away and replaced with the crisp, passionless aesthetic of red, white, and Imperial grey. The circular chamber resembles nothing so much as the bridge of a Star Destroyer. Efficiency is the goal now, a cold clear knife slicing through humanity and compassion to leave progress in its wake. Sidious stands ringed by a holomap of planets, examining now one, then another, pacing with measured strides through his new domain. Outside, the imperfect dark of a Coruscant night is punctuated with the lights of passing speeders and distant skytowers. Vader stands a little aloof, outside the chosen circle of Sidious’s orbit.
This — distance, exclusion — is how it always goes. Mace Windu, Plo Koon, and Ki-Adi-Mundi eye Vader suspiciously from their seats around the outside of the room. Vader can feel their thoughts, mistrustful and somewhat alarmed, the way they have been since he was a young child. They don’t seem to notice Sidious— but, of course, they wouldn’t. The masters vanish into the abbreviated corners of Vader’s red-tinted, newly mechanical vision, fading back into the past. “This… temple—“ Sidious all but spits the word “—must become a dwelling fit for myself — and for you, of course.” Sidious stoops a little to peer at the bright orb representing Chandrila more closely. “No trace of the Light can remain.”
“It shall be done, my lord,” says Vader, in the inflectionless voice now available to him. He sweeps out of the room, cloak billowing behind him, ill-fitting prosthetics biting harshly into his flesh with every step.
When he reaches his meditation sphere and removes the helmet, the gloves, the boots, there’s blood pooling around his mechanical toes, short-circuiting them. His own hand — well, his right hand, the prosthetic he’s worn for three years already and the only limb he still counts as his — is fine-tuned enough to consider altering the neural networking between cybernetic and flesh on his legs. His new left hand, however, still lags, sluggish in responding to his commands, clumsy at the times he needs it to be sharp. Without the help of a medical droid, it doesn’t seem to be something he can fix.
The medical droids, controlled as they are by Sidious, seem disinclined to help.
Vader leans his head back and carefully, warily, sucks in a breath of unfiltered air. It feels like breathing in fire, Mustafar’s lava searing through his lungs in a thick, ragged soup. The pain sustains him. It feeds and sharpens his sense of the dark side of the Force, shaving off his nerves inch by inch until the roots remain, exposed to the caustic, acidic, all-encompassing cold.
“You all right?”
“It’s very cold.”
The memory of a decade-old conversation, filtered through the intervening years, strikes him suddenly. One of the first few times he ever talked to Padmé — it seems like an eternity ago.
“You come from a warm planet, Ani. A little too warm for my tastes. Space is cold.”
She had been painfully young then, Vader knows in retrospect: a girl queen, naïve and deceived by the man she knew as a mentor. Her youthful face hovers for an instant in his vision. He blinks his bleary eyes, forcing it to dissipate into the cold, cutting light of the meditation sphere. Despite the lateness of the hour, he knows he will get little sleep: his new mechanical body does not have the requirements that soft flesh once did.
The process of reassuming his protective outer layer of metal and fabric has become a ritual over the past weeks. He assumes the heavy leather of boots and gloves; then, with a pneumatic hiss, seals his scarred and tainted head within the confines of the mask. As the mechanical breathing apparatus works to pump air into his lungs and his vision tints red with the mask’s false lenses, he’s again trapped in claustrophobic half-life.
Unlike Watto, unlike the Jedi, Sidious is a master that Vader will not escape. Every attempt to do so, he knows, will be grasped and funneled back into him in his futile rage, his impotent passion. Hatred leads to suffering, Yoda had said at their first meeting. Vader is so steeped in hatred that he cannot extricate himself — and Sidious is near enough to a sheer personification of the Dark Side that he will never succeed.
The sphere cracks open, darkness spilling in against its white walls. Vader stands, resisting the urge to stretch: the breathing apparatus in his chest and the synthskin over his shoulders make it impossible to lift his arms over his head. Soon, he will need to retrain himself to a new lightsaber style. Before that, he will have to make himself a new blade to replace the blue one lost on Mustafar. Sidious will, no doubt, supply the necessary crystal.
He steps carefully out of the meditation sphere — his new legs are sometimes difficult to control — and makes his way through the medical paraphernalia surrounding it to the computer terminal. Keying up a map of the Palace’s layout, he examines it carefully, enlarging first one section and then another, trying to take an unbiased approach toward it. Nearly every hololine-bordered space carries his past within its confines. He will need to force it into submission.
The damage caused by the fire and smoke of Order 66’s implementation has been cleared away, leaving a shell devoid of the Temple’s former vitality. Skywalker had known this place as the heart of his world. The lifeblood of the Order once moved through its corridors: a sea of connections, laughter, conversations, communing together for a greater purpose.
Vader, having already desiccated this great body, has now been assigned to gut it. Drawing up and implementing the plan to do so is actively and intentionally humiliating. He seethes, cold roiling in great waves around his angry core, as the construction droids strip the former Jedi personal quarters of all artifacts. By rights, he should be sweeping the galaxy for the last living remnants of the Jedi, not dusting the former Temple for their inanimate remains. He’s a machine built for war — has always been, even with all his limbs and the backing of the title Jedi Knight — and to be hurled headlong into peaceful bureaucracy itches in the same way his new synthskin irritates his flesh.
He stands outside the next set of quarters scheduled for renovation and waits for the motley assortment of droids to follow in his wake, chittering to themselves as they make their way behind him. They have already stripped several dozen suites, the droids’ efficiency making his presence somewhat unnecessary. The faint beeping and blatting of their conversation comforts him somewhat in its simple familiarity. A few of them, he’s gathered, seem to think that he’s also some kind of droid. Ostensibly, he’s accompanying them to ensure that no traps of any kind have been left behind by the rooms’ previous inhabitants. In reality, Vader knows, Sidious had requested this particular method because of moments like the one he’s about to experience.
Skywalker would have taken a deep breath to steady himself. Vader, encased and subservient to the mechanical dictates of his breathing apparatus, has no such luxury. He keys the door’s code in by rote memory and stares impassively ahead as it slides aside with the familiar whoosh. Within is a kitchen area that opens up to become a living room and dining space, well-lit by the full-length window at the far side. Tidy but obviously lived-in, the space is filled with the neat clutter that befits a Jedi master. Personal artifacts — a wall hanging, a small sculpture, a particularly beautiful artisan teapot — imbue it with a sense of personality and wisdom that extends into the Force.
Vader sees none of this. His attention is focused on two figures silhouetted against the window: one larger and one smaller, a master and an apprentice. His hands clench into fists as both look up at him, surprised. The apprentice ducks her head shyly, but the master’s face breaks out into a smile.
“Jedi Skywalker! What a welcome surprise.”
The droids enter the room behind him, streaming past like water around an intransigent rock and embarking upon their duties. They don’t seem to have noticed anything amiss. Vader, lungs struggling against their confines, forces his hands unclenched and reaches out with the Force. In the place where Unduli and Offee seem to be, he can feel nothing. He tugs experimentally. One of the droids, a protocol unit whose operating number he hasn’t yet learned, comes flying toward him. Unduli and Offee don’t move at all.
“Oh!” says the droid in familiar prissy tones, sounding remarkably unruffled. “Was there something you needed?”
“No,” Vader says, and lets the droid drop. It motors off, muttering something about directional magnetic upgrades. Unduli is still smiling up at him, and he walks carefully toward her, not relaxing his guard.
Unduli says, “I’m instructing Barriss in holochess strategy. I’m sure your input would be most appreciated.” She raises her eyebrows playfully into a dare. “I hear you’ve bested even Master Kenobi. I’ve been trying for years and still haven’t managed to do it.” Offee looks up with interest at that. On the board spread out between them, the ghostly shapes of the game pieces are spread out and tilting — barely — in Unduli’s favor. The two of them stand out in sharp relief against the dull red of Vader’s vision. The mask he wears now tints everything, blurring his sight and deadening the colors. In contrast, Unduli and Offee are clear and bright, Unduli’s blue eyes the same tone that Vader remembers. They look real in a way the world hasn’t since Mustafar.
Vader turns his back on them as the droids continue their work, stripping the quarters of all signs of inhabitation and confiscating data pads, piles of flimsi, articles of clothing. Behind him, Unduli continues to hold a one-sided conversation, with the occasional comment from Offee. Skywalker had this conversation with them, years ago: just after he was Knighted and before the fighting really started in earnest. Originally dispatched with a message from the Council, he had allowed the two of them to draw him into a lively discussion about tactics and strategies — one that would, in the end, be a foreshadowing of their upcoming deployments to the remote ends of the galaxy. At the time, though, no thought of the war had been present in their minds, and he’d stayed for a few hours before Obi-Wan Kenobi had come looking for him. It stood out in Skywalker’s memory afterward as a brief respite of carefree companionship and rest.
“Please step off the carpet,” intones a boxy, featureless droid. Vader does so, looking around the room. It’s been emptied completely: even the kitchen fixtures and cabinets are gone, with only piping and discolored walls to show where they had been. The droid who had spoken to him is busily ripping up the carpet, exposing the bare duracrete beneath. Incongruously, Unduli and Offee are still sitting in the place the table had been, the holochess board apparently suspended in thin air between them. Vader gives them one last look before turning his back and striding away. Behind him, the door slams shut.
It swiftly becomes apparent that Vader’s encounter with Unduli and Offee is merely the first of many. In the Archives, Jocasta Nu offers to help him find reading material about the Quell system and gently teases him about his rambunctious new Padawan. Pong Krell is waiting for him with lightsabers drawn in the sparring arena, his Besalisk face split into a toothy grin that bears no trace of his final disillusionments. Countless Jedi — Aayla Secura, Quinlan Vos, Depa Billaba, Adi Gallia, many others — pass him in the halls, nodding in passing or trying to draw him into conversation about troop movements or lightsaber forms. As the droids cart tables and chairs out of the mess, a gaggle of clear-eyed, sharp-edged younglings surrounds him, asking eager questions about what it’s like to lead troops, if he’ll teach them how to fight as well as he does, what Master Kenobi’s up to.
Vader bears all of this, simmering with suppressed emotion. Sidious, he guesses, had foreseen this effect on him. Whether it’s a matter of Force-presence residue or sheer memory is beyond Vader’s comprehension, but whatever the technical details of the experience are, it’s clear that this is a test. He’s determined to pass: it’s the most concrete goal he’s been given so far under Sidious’s leadership. The desire to prove his worth beyond question or reproach has burned deep within him for as long as he can remember. Turning a blind eye to his past will, he hopes, advance his standing with his new master.
By this time, he and the droids have ascended nearly to the top of one of the towers. It’s a part of the Temple that Skywalker had rarely visited — mostly diplomatic suites, with a few additional sets of rooms for Jedi visiting from remote enclaves or temples. Vader has far fewer memories of this place, which is a relief after the constant barrage of the lower levels. He directs the droids through an archway and into a living area, more richly furnished than the personal quarters from earlier in the day. His heavy legs, cramped and sore where the prosthetics attach after a long day of walking, barely make a sound in the thick carpet, and the tapestries on the walls soak in the red rays of the Coruscant sunset.
Vader observes the familiar skyline for a long moment before turning to a protocol droid. “Remove the valuables in this room and store them for safekeeping. They may yet be of some use to us.” The droid nods in response, and Vader takes a step towards the next room in the suite—
Vader snaps his head around, seeking the source of the voice, and staggers a little as his clumsy body catches up. He knows that voice better than any other in the galaxy, has heard it in sorrow and delight, would recognize it anywhere from here to the ends of the universe.
Obi-Wan Kenobi steps out of the refresher, toweling his hair dry. He’s wearing a loose tunic over the towel that’s wrapped around his waist. His feet are bare, and his eyes stand out: stark blue against the dull red of the helmet’s light filters. This is the Obi-Wan of over a decade before the present day, beardless and slender, without the careworn features or sinewy strength brought on by the war. Vader suddenly feels very young.
“I thought I heard you. Was there something you wanted to talk about?” Obi-Wan pads closer, dripping on the carpet. Vader can’t seem to move, caught in Obi-Wan’s searching gaze. “Anakin, if there’s something you want to tell me—“
Vader remembers the long-ago words of his ten-year-old self. The memory comes flooding back to him, hazy at first, then clearer in his mind. A mission, his first outside the Temple since his arrival: it had gone badly. They had been separated. Anakin had needed to fight his own way to safety against seemingly unsurmountable odds. Upon their return, Anakin had wanted nothing more than to curl up in his own bed, but a pipe had burst above the quarters he’d shared with Obi-Wan. The Council had moved them to this very suite, and he hadn’t been able to sleep.
In a move that unsettles Vader somewhat, Obi-Wan walks directly through him without slowing. Vader turns to watch him sit on the sofa, unconcerned about his still-damp towel, and put his arm around a small body that isn’t there. “Is it about the mission?”
When I was alone— Vader can hear the echo of his own youthful voice —I was angry, and it made me strong. But it felt… so cold, and I couldn’t control it. It felt like I was drowning in the Force.
Obi-Wan’s brow wrinkles in concern, and he runs a hand through his hair. “You didn’t mention this to the Council,” he says, and pauses. Vader resists the urge to shake his head. “No. You wouldn’t.” Obi-Wan sighs, leaning back against the sofa. Two of Vader’s construction droids trundle forward on creaking treads and lift the sofa, one on each end. Obi-Wan doesn’t move, just sits there on thin air. Vader gestures impatiently to the droids. They eye him warily, then roll off at a somewhat brisker pace, taking the sofa with them.
“When you give into passion, Anakin,” Obi-Wan is saying, “you allow the dark side in. Reacting out of fear or anger and using those to channel strength… how can I put this. The guidance of the Force is a still, small whisper in the midst of a sandstorm. If you don’t quiet yourself, if you don’t accept the winds for what they are and have the patience to wait for the answer, you’ll miss the guiding voice.” His eyes are fond and worried, his expression a little uncertain. The responsibility of a Padawan sits new and unsteady on his shoulders still. “That’s a little abstract, I guess. Does it make sense?”
“But if the power is there, why not use it?” Vader says aloud in spite of himself, the mechanical rasp overlaying the natural higher tones of his younger self. The effect resonates oddly in his ears. His fists are clenched tight, leather gloves creaking under the pressure of his metal fingers. In the Force, he knows he’s projecting turmoil and pain that Sidious can doubtless sense. He brushes the thought aside, too caught up in the moment to care. A droid’s alarmed bleep goes unnoticed as he steps toward Obi-Wan’s suspended figure.
Obi-Wan looks away from the empty space of Anakin’s absent body to gaze out at the Coruscant sky. Vader, standing between him and the window, is caught again in the illusion of his full regard. “Anakin, this is something you must understand,” he says softly, with the piercing intensity that had always accompanied the words he meant most. “Strength is not all there is to power. Power is not all there is to strength. Patience, compassion, stillness — even weakness and loss — all of these have their places and must be embraced on any path to your full realization.”
“Liar!” Vader roars, suddenly unable to listen to any longer, his mechanical voice accompanied by the harsh grind of feedback and a painful burn in his throat. He pushes out with the Force, intent on ridding himself of Obi-Wan’s stare. Obi-Wan remains unmoved and untouchable, even as the wave of kinetic energy sears through the air. Vader clenches his teeth and reaches out to try again—
A series of squeals and crashes snaps Vader’s focus away from his former master, and he looks up to see an indiscriminate heap of crackling electronics and mechanical parts. The droids, very much in the real world, lie across what remains of the room’s carpeting, shattered and crushed under his wrath. Vader growls under his breath, glaring at the wreckage and then at Kenobi’s too-solid figure.
“Is everything all right, sir?” asks a protocol droid, shuffling into the room. “My auditory sensors picked up a very unusual noise— Oh, my! What has happened? Did they offend—"
Vader can’t bear to be in this room any longer. He strides forward through Kenobi and reaches out a hand casually toward the protocol droid as he passes. Its voice comes to an abrupt stop as he closes his fist, and it clatters to the floor with the other ruined droids, head crushed into a metal ball.
Vader’s intention upon leaving the suite had originally been to return to his quarters and direct a new droid task force to complete the renovation without him, but he doesn’t make it more than a fourth of the way there before he’s again accosted by Jedi. Before his encounter with Kenobi, the figures had appeared one at a time; now, they’re all around him, each one going about their daily business. The effect is to make the Temple seem fully inhabited again, teeming with life and vitality. He ignores it as best he can, striding ahead without trying to avoid the insubstantial figures in his path.
This method is successful until he catches sight of familiar blue-and-white montrals bobbing toward him in the crowd. Vader’s heart plummets. Hearing the voice of Skywalker’s Padawan will inevitably turn what’s already a disaster into a catastrophe. He turns before she can reach him, stepping into a service turbolift and keying in the lowest possible level. Just as the turbolift’s door shuts, he hears her— “Master? Hey, Skyguy! Got news for you—" and then she’s gone as the turbolift sinks toward the base of the Temple.
Vader leans against the wall, trying to take some of the pressure off his prosthetics’ connectors. He reaches a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose, forgetting the mask for a moment, and his hand encounters plastisteel. He lets it drop to his side. The turbolift is blessedly empty. When it reaches the end of its journey, he’ll will be in an area of the Temple he’s never visited before. There will be no memories to accost him there. He’ll be able to find his focus. A sense of failure niggles at the edge of his mind, but he pushes it away. He can still accomplish the task set before him.
The turbolift thunks to an abrupt stop, thirty levels below the entry hall, and the door slides open to reveal darkness lit by a flickering luminescent strip. Vader steps warily out, reaching out with his senses to get his bearings. He guesses that he’s down far enough to be near Coruscant’s actual surface, if not actually beneath it. Even filtered through the breathing mechanism, the air tastes different here — damp, with the same underground earthiness that accompanies caves and tunnels. He wishes, briefly, that he could remove his mask to get a better impression. In contrast to the usual red tint, his surroundings look grainy and green: the night vision feature embedded into his helmet. He hasn’t had the opportunity to test it before. Two long, featureless tunnels stretch out on his left and right, disappearing quickly into blackness. Dust coats the rusted metal surfaces. Vader can’t determine what, if any, purpose this level served for the Jedi: a small, practical mystery for him to solve. At random, he picks the left corridor and starts down it.
The absurdity of the situation strikes him suddenly: Sidious’s right hand and deadliest weapon, sulking in the Temple basement to hide from—what? Memories? Ghosts?
You’re hiding from yourself, apprentice.
The voice comes out of nowhere and everywhere, simultaneously inaudible and earsplitting. He jerks to a halt, wincing as sharp metal digs into his leg. “Who was that,” he says flatly, voice echoing mechanically against the corridor’s walls. He’s been walking for quite some time; the turbolift’s small light is barely visible in the distance.
A soundless chuckle rips through his hearing. Ignore your sight. Rely on the Force. You will encounter me soon enough.
Skywalker would have replied with some quip and then advanced, supremely confident, discarding the voice’s instructions. Vader grinds his teeth and begrudgingly closes his eyes, reaching out with the Force. The corridor materializes around him, a volume of space without light or shadow. He steps forward blindly, trusting the Force to warn him of any changes in the floor’s surface of depth. It gets easier as time goes on; Vader can feel currents of the Force surrounding him and leading him. The sensation is familiar from Skywalker’s years of combat, merging with Kenobi to create a singular weapon for the Force to wield. This is similar to that oneness, but colder, harsher: the pain in his limbs is accentuated, and his breath rasps in his chest. It’s hard to keep track of how long he’s walking. At some point the ground of the tunnel had changed from smooth metal to tamped-down earth under his boots. Water — or, this far down, some other substance is more likely — trickles down the featureless metal of the walls. Vader, straining his senses through the Force, can nearly feel the smooth slide of the liquid under his fingers.
Then, suddenly, he feels an anomaly in the tunnel wall: an opening of some kind without a door. He opens his eyes as he approaches it, peering through the blackness, but there’s nothing there except the same featureless expanse he’s been traveling past for probably the better part of an hour. He closes his eyes again and reaches out with the Force. No doubt about it, he’s standing before a triangular archway. There’s no hint in the Force of what lies beyond; for all he knows, it could open onto empty space. He wishes absently for the comfort of a lightsaber at his belt and steps forward, eyes still shut, into the darkness.
A sensation like diving into icy water rushes over his body as he passes through, and he opens his eyes to find himself standing in an enormous cavern. An eerie red glow pervades the space, though there’s no sign of its source when he cranes his neck to look overhead, helmet cutting again into the back of his neck. This time a trickle of blood eases out of the cut. Vader feels its slow progress down his neck as he scans the remaining space, turning in a slow circle as he does. There’s no sign of the triangular archway: in fact, the nearest wall is well out of arm’s reach. A pyramid about twice his height occupies the exact center of the cavern, embossed with glowing sigils he doesn’t recognize. Before it sits a figure. Vader takes a step forward to get a closer look: this figure doesn’t have the same painful clarity as the Jedi he encountered in the upper levels of the Temple, but neither does it seem entirely natural. In the Force, he can feel a distinct presence, but it’s non-physical in some undefinable way. A yellow glow surrounds it, distinct from the crimson wash throughout the cavern.
The figure rises from its meditative pose and turns to face Vader: a Muun, humanoid but with an almost comically elongated head, and clearly very old. His yellow eyes peer out from paper-white skin that appears melted, like Sidious’s now does. “Well done, apprentice. You have done what no being in a millennium has accomplished during their lifetime: found the Sith shrine beneath the Jedi Temple.”
“This is a Sith shrine,” Vader repeats slowly, taking a second look around. “It’s always been here, and we never knew?”
“They,” says the Muun. “They never knew.”
“You spoke to me in the tunnel,” Vader snaps, brushing the sting of the correction aside.
The Muun smiles thinly. “In life I was called Hego Damask, but you may know me by a different name. I was Darth Plagueis.”
It’s a Sith legend… “Darth Plagueis the Wise,” Vader says, remembering a performance in the great concert hall, great baubles of fluid intertwined with ribbons of fire, the dull hum of a distant culture’s music resonating through his body. “You were…killed by your apprentice.”
“Sidious,” Plagueis says. “I taught him too well, and in the end, he betrayed me.” He gives Vader a considering look. “As I betrayed my master. As I suspect you, some day, will betray yours.”
“A Sith tradition.”
They stand in silence, Plagueis contemplating the pyramid and Vader watching him warily. After a moment, he says, “The power to stop people you love from dying. You—“
Plagueis hisses through his teeth. “Your wife would have died regardless, even if you had employed my methods. An ordinary being cannot withstand the demands the Force makes upon flesh. Had she survived the initial trauma, what existence remained for her would have been torment.” He pauses for a moment, turning back to Vader. “But this is something you already knew.”
Vader’s fist clenches, but he contains his anger under Plagueis’s steely glare, allowing it to harden in his core. “If it had been in my power to save her life, I would have,” he says, the apparatus flattening his words.
“And yet, you killed her,” Plagueis says, waving a hand dismissively. “An apprentice filled with regret and denial is not worthy of the Sith.” He turns his back on Vader, stepping closer to the pyramid and absently tracing the ancient symbols with a finger. “A Jedi who falls is not automatically one of us, Skywalker.”
“Am I not allowed to mourn my wife?” Vader spits out, rage briefly clouding his vision. The air around him quivers, compressing and expanding in silent shockwaves.
“No,” Plagueis says, attention still fixed on the symbols. “Your reality functions by different parameters now. The galaxy and all it contains — living beings, systems of rule, elements of time and space — now assumes its rule as your lever, to manipulate as you choose. The life of one being is of no consequence to us.”
“Sidious told me you saved the lives of those you loved,” Vader counters.
Plagueis throws back his elongated head and laughs, the sound echoing through the cavern and making Vader flinch. “Sidious lied, my dear apprentice. He used you — again, just as I used him. I am sure he manipulates you even now.”
“Yes,” says Plagueis, turning away from the pyramid to look more carefully at Vader, “although in that he has made a grave error. Pain, physical pain, is a great source of power. The dark side flows through it and through you, making your pain a reservoir of strength to be drawn upon at will. Anger,” he continues, quirking an eyebrow at Vader, “functions in this same way. Sidious must have had this in mind when he chose you for his apprentice.”
Vader’s interactions with Palpatine over the years, already examined and re-examined in the time since Mustafar, are suddenly thrown into sharp, new focus at Plagueis’s words. Once disparate and unconnected, moments that Skywalker and Vader in turn had wondered at idly, link together with a common thread of malcontented rage. Skywalker had often succeeded in hiding this from Kenobi, but Sidious must have seen straight through him from the beginning. In retrospect, this seems self-evident, something he should have expected long ago. His mechanical breathing rattles loud in his ears.
“You are so near to greatness,” Plagueis says quietly, watching him. “The Force surrounds you in a great whirlpool, a galaxy of stars with a black hole at its center. The power at your disposal could move whole worlds. The Sith are architects, working towards a grand design, shaping space and time with the Force as anvil and hammer. Step into your birthright, Vader.”
“Why are you telling me this?” demands Vader. This new vantage point is too much for him to process at once, and he’s tense, fists balled against his sides.
“Is a master not permitted to instruct an apprentice?” Plagueis asks lightly. “Or, for that matter, to revenge himself on his murderer.”
“Now you’re using me.”
“A Sith tradition,” Plagueis says, echoing Vader’s earlier words with a hint of irony in his voice.
Still feeling unbalanced, Vader steps toward the pyramid, running one hand over its obsidian side. The markings have been embossed somewhat into the surface. He traces their dips and hollows. Power simmers just below the surface, a restless movement that he can feel through the Force. “This is an… unusual artifact.”
“A training tool, I believe. Concentrate on the symbols. What do they reveal?”
Obediently, Vader does, letting the glowing shapes fill his vision. For a long moment, nothing happens — then, they begin to coalesce and move, static before his eyes, the red glow of light the only thing that gives them definition. Lines dissolve and reform, figures and shapes that whirl around one central point. The surface of the pyramid itself has all but vanished, leaving threads of light suspended — then, all at once, the vision inverts, and blackness simmers against bright white. The light sears into his eyes, but even more dazzling is the darkness, nearly unbearable in its intensity. The deconstructed symbols move in sync, swirling around one central point, coalescing into a deep well. Vader unthinkingly reaches out a hand— A blinding flash bursts in his vision, rushing toward him with the inevitability of a collapsing star, and Vader slips on the edge of a sudden precipice. He feels vertigo take him as he shuts his eyes against the radiating emptiness. The brilliant darkness overtakes him, washing over him with an acid cold that leaves him breathless and shaking, overwhelmed.
When he opens his eyes, Plagueis is gone. In his place is a shimmering light, small, rotating slowly in its suspended position. Red light glints off a faceted surface, and Vader leans forward, reaching out a hand. The light drifts toward him. As it nears, he can see what it is: a kyber crystal. Skywalker’s crystal had been a spiky, hard-edged chip of sky-blue, honed and shaped for its purpose. In contrast, the crystal now lying in his black-gloved palm is perfectly smooth and unblemished, a hint of inner turmoil simmering in its glowing red center. Vader turns it over carefully, examining it. He can already see in his mind’s eye the form his new lightsaber will take.
Use this well, apprentice, comes Plagueis’s disembodied voice, and Vader finds himself back in the basement corridor. No sign remains of the archway, either in the physical world or in the Force. Vader stands there immobile for a long time, accompanied only by the mechanical rhythm of his breathing.
“So you have come before me again, my apprentice.”
Vader is back in the Palace’s highest chamber. Sidious sits in his newly-installed throne, raised above the room’s main floor, again observing the holomap of stars. Yaga Minor appears to be the planet of the day; Sidious’s yellow eyes peer hungrily out of his sallow face as he manipulates the recording to focus first on one area on the planet’s surface, then another.
“Yes, my master,” says Vader from where he kneels, deferential, before the dais. His new lightsaber hangs at his belt, hidden beneath his cloak; he had constructed it during the night, enjoying the challenge of manipulating its delicate circuitry with his new hand.
“I understand you have competed your assignment with admirable attention to detail,” Sidious says, barely giving him any attention. “Most efficient of you. You encountered no difficulties?” His voice sharpens on the last words, although he doesn’t lift his eyes from examining the holomap.
Vader has no intention of giving Sidious any hint of what he’d experienced, either in the Jedi quarters or in the Palace’s depths. “No, master.”
“You have done well,” Sidious says, finally shifting his gaze. There is the faintest hint of surprise in his words, as if he had expected failure, and Vader feels a faint sense of satisfaction. “Now come. We have work to do in our new Empire.”
Vader rises and ascends the dais to stand behind Sidious, lightsaber still concealed at his side, and prepares to listen to his master’s will. Across the room, Mace Windu’s reproachful eyes stare directly at him, the master still as a stone in his sharp-edged clarity. Vader stares back unmoved as Sidious outlines his plans for the dissidents of Yaga Minor. Slowly, reluctantly, the robed figure melts away.