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Ersatz

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Lah'mu is as desolate as the rings that shadow it, ashy black soil that leaves no trace on his darker still armor and cape. He has seen the Erso's farmstead, and it is a wretched green parallel to the moisture farms he can recall from years past. Water beads on the grasses and bordering condensation towers, slips between metal plates and plants alike. There's a depression in the moss where he knows Lyra Erso has died, and a neighboring one where Galen Erso has mourned her.

A third one, small, just large enough to indicate where someone stood, is disgustingly smug. This one Vader know is where Orson Krennic played spectator. It is an ugly thought to somebody's already ugly scene. Another day, something is crooning to him from behind modulated heartbeats. The whir-hiss of his breathing. He doesn't name it. (Sometimes it sounds like her.)

Vader has never been a farmer, but he knows the trade. He knows how to harvest, and bring empty land to bear fruit. He cultivates respect and fear, and all will know him by his works.

Today he will sort out Orson Krennic's poor work, and make it as intended. It is the Emperor's greatest wish for Krennic's project to be successful. From the moment he received notice of Krennic's intentions to confront Galen Erso, Vader follows. It is an itch behind his throat. It is a persistent draw to change his coordinates. The Force wills it, and Vader is one of a very few that know its Truth. Hunting the remaining Jedi can wait a day to clear his mind.  

Seek out hidden places, trembles something inside. Drag from the dark something terrible and new.

Erso has already been detained. The death troopers that participated in the initial excursion have come back empty handed from the cliffs and canyons beyond the farmstead. Erso has a child, and she is clever enough to avoid notice once she had stepped out into the stormy wilds. But the canyons are thick with dread, and there is no greater hunter in the Empire than he.

Vader steps out into the canyons as well, waving his escort to stay with the shuttle until he returns. There are only two, as he has continuously requested. He would rather have none. They are wise enough to say nothing, despite the undoubted cold that slips in the drafts of their masks. The crunch of stones and sand underneath his feet reminds him of a different time. The petrichor of Lah'mu's occasionally caustic rains grounds this moment in the present. 

Seek out hidden places, again whispers the Force. Drag from the dark something terrible and new.

 

- - - - -

 

The light is fading when he feels the pieces fall into place. His patience has been rewarded, in spite of the inconvenience. The entire thing is inconvenient. Krennic is inconvenient.

It's nothing worth noting, just a wind-swept hollow in the side of a cliff wall. There's not even a whisper in the Force that makes him think twice about it. The perfect quiet and stillness of it simply clicks into place as being important. Galen Erso is a genius, and to Vader the lack of memorability speaks to him of the engineer's subtle purpose and design.

The small depression in the stone that acts as a hatch to the hidden depths below is mournfully sad. Vader's mind traitorously thinks of children, and for a moment he is taken with the memory of his swinging arms and the red glow of his lightsaber. The practical part of him shoves this aside, while the thought lingers and thinks to itself that it will be more just and kind if she is already dead. (Please don't – please don't )

The hatch lifts easily.

Jyn Erso is small and soft like a sleeping creature, but her face is drawn upwards and disappointed in the dark of her shelter. Vader is not her father. She is not foolish enough to think it is her mother either – she has seen her die. He can understand that particular wound.

She is fearful, but not of him specifically. Vader is only a symptom of a great disappointment. He knows this in his metal and bones, the Force a choking breeze in his hollows. It is novel to him. (You're used to being the problem in full, not accessory to the murder.) It almost makes him angry. He tamps down the feeling with violence until his mind can again be quiet and numb.

Vader is uncomfortable. Her hair is braided. It is curly. He is thankful her eyes are green. He breathes, whir-hiss.

“Jyn Erso,” he says. “A commendation is given for avoiding an entire squad of death troopers, but I am a rather different animal than them. Do not presume to test how much so.” A pause. “Your mother is dead, and your father a prisoner.” He lets this settle, watches a few small motions in her brows. Her eyes are glassy. “Come out of that hole. Do not run. Do not fight.”

She thinks about it. Vader allows it. Her hands are small and tight around a lantern that looks to be fading. He knows fear of the dark, what it was like before he was burnt. He knows fear better than anyone he's ever met.

“Can I go to my Papa?” she asks, voice very little and weightless in the tunnel. She is hopeful, but withdrawn like she expects the bite next. She has good instincts, and this keeps him patient. Vader is not cruel to the undeserving.

“You will climb out immediately,” says Vader.

He's not in the business of making promises anymore. He hates them, and Vader destroys anything that he hates until he can feel nothing. He makes threats instead.

She begins to climb.

When he sees them up close, the dark haired curls that frame the sides of her face are hurtful.

 

- - - -

 

“I am here to correct your mistake, Director.”

It is all the warning he gives the crew of the ship, walking briskly to the captain's deck. The weight of him in their white spaces is satisfying heavy. The staff has the good sense to look sick and tuck it away before it can annoy him. Krennic is still in his officer dress grey uniform, and Galen Erso is the very image of the martyr with a heavily bruised face and a new standard Imperial uniform that looks like it itches at him. Krennic's men must have given him a very particular welcome back in exchange for Krennic's wound. Vader has seen Erso before, and is surprised to recognize him underneath all of the damage and the greying beard. Vader is observant, but he does not trifle with remembering details that don't help him. Erso had not been so hang-dog in the past, merely foolish. (Be fair, he's lost his wife and you certainly know how the foolishness leaks out of you after that.)

Erso clearly recognizes him. He is not afraid of Vader, but the set of his mouth speaks of dread that matched Lah'mu's canyons. Perhaps it has always been his fear and not Jyn's that hang heavy in the farmstead. (“Can I go to my Papa?” says such small hope in your vacuous and ringing head.)

“Lord Vader,” says Krennic, clearly stunned. Penitent. Hesitant. He's not sure which mistake Vader is referring to. Vader looks forward to pressing on that particular sore spot.“We did not know to expect you. I had been under the impression you were attending to something on Coruscant. I did not think so small a trip would be of interest to you.”

“A presumption. What interests me is likely beyond your ability to understand, Director Krennic. I do suppose you could appreciate that I find it interesting that you could not make do with the notes that were left to you. Where's that spectacular wit and intellect that the Emperor entertains?”

Krennic's neck twitches slightly when he pops his jaw, exhaling his resentment. He would not be so foolish as to put it to words. “My friend,” says Krennic, light and laughing like he's made a good joke, “Galen here is a great asset to the Empire. I daresay he knows more than even the greatest Master Jedi about kybar crystals. It seems fitting to use them for the Emperor's glory over the Rebellion.”

Vader's lightsaber feels heavy at his hip. “An intellectual knowledge of their composition and usefulness, I am sure.” His own voice is mocking. “With no Master Jedi to compare to, I find your statement to be quite empty.”

“One of your own great victories over the use of kybar,” Krennic says with a bow at the waist and an arm. The sweeping gesture amuses Vader as much as it jabs. It makes him think of older grievances, and Vader is well beyond that yoke. (Liar.) He doesn't want to play word games with this self-obsessed idiot. Vader wants the sacred quiet of his own flagship, the Exactor.

“The death of one Lyra Erso will be recorded as suicide to avoid capture. She will not be sainted by the Rebel propaganda,” says Vader. “Your troopers will be recycled into an Imperial training camp for their gross inability to capture a small child in an otherwise barren wasteland. Mention of your wound will be stricken from the record as well, so I suggest you avoid the medical wing unless you'd like to be contradicted and afterwards barred from it. Hopefully you have made use of it before my arrival." This is the punishment for his inconvenience. It is petty, but felt for the threat it is. "One wonders at what other incompetencies happen under your watch, Director.”

Krennic frowns, a twitch on his lips again. “It is a delight for one such as yourself to take a personal interest in our little project. And Jyn Erso? May I offer the support of my own supervising crew to help you locate her? Or has she been presumed dead by this point? I understand the storms can be quite...substantial on Lah'mu.”

To this, Vader pays no attention to Krennic but instead focuses his eyes unseen to Galen Erso, who has the look of a man before a firing squad and will stay quiet lest he say more than he wants. The air is thick with the acridness of his fear, though Vader can see very little of it on his face.

The plan has always been such: Director Orson Krennic, current scientific lead of the Tarkin Initiative, will re-acquaint energy scientist Galen Erso with his kyber crystal research. The weapon completed with Erso's assistance will be used as an incentive to discourage any detractors of the Empire. Civil war comes to rest after years of resistance to change. Palpatine's rule, and Vader's by proxy, becomes the only justice unto the galaxy.

But Galen Erso does not look like a man much motivated by this imagined future. Indeed, the removal of his wife and child leaves a man bereft. It would be a kindness for Jyn Erso to be dead. He is surprised to have thought this twice now. Galen Erso is relieved of his duty to the rebellion and life and can drift through the project until he has become useless or belligerent waiting for some sort of absolution.

It would also be a kindness for Jyn Erso to be missing. The erstwhile scientist can labor under the delusion that his daughter is safe, and that all he does moving forward is in expectation that it keeps Krennic from investigating anymore. From investing interest in the leverage that she represents. Their friendship is in tatters, so blackmail would have been the most effective tool against a man that knows his treason would already earn him death. This is not the desperate inspiration that Vader would wring out of him for his crimes. Erso cannot die, so Vader must mete out his punishment in some new way.

(You will ensure his compliance. You will wreck him.)

Vader is not kind.

He thinks to the small face climbing up the ladder on Lah'mu, Jyn Erso's small mouth downturned and sorrowful. (She has curly brown hair.) It makes an old part of him sick. The resentment that he will never be able to fully forget simmers. He had a child once too. It reminds him of his own child that he will never know because of the people that Erso has sympathized with. It is unfair. It is uneven. Vader is nothing if not an advocate for justice dealt in equal measure, and he has been so very wronged. Galen Erso will learn to regret aligning his maps to the wrong meridian.

“Don't be foolish,” says Vader, not bothering to look either man in the face. “I have already found her.”

Krennic sounds absolutely stunned, and then deeply satisfied. “Of course, I never had any doubt in your prowess. You've spent years hunting criminals out of their holes. I can imagine a child would be no great challenge to you. Well Galen,” he says, a little sing-song and mean, “I suppose you have plenty of reasons to stay busy now.”

Galen Erso looks ill. He looks as though he might cry, eyes watery and crows feet tight and dancing at the corners. “Whatever I may do to be of service to the Empire,” he says stiffly, working around a confused tongue. “I would be greatly appreciative of a moment to see that she's well. Orson is right,” he breathes, “the storms are quite harsh.”

“Perfectly well, Erso. In fact,” and this is where Vader takes his satisfaction, waits for it to be just a little too long to be comfortable, “an extended stay on the Exactor is in order to make certain that you are properly settled.”

Vader's ever-present anger feels soothed and cold looking at Galen Erso. It's pleasant for someone to be more wretched than him on occasion.

(The difference is that you came by your wretchedness honestly.)