by MJ Mink
He wasn't certain how old he was when he first knew that his father was better than other men. Perhaps he'd always known. Still, he wished he could remember the moment that had shown him his father was special - not in the common way all boys thought their fathers special, but truly unique. Other men were pale, small, insignificant - like bugs to be squashed. His father was strong and powerful and important. Even the great Emperor listened to his father - and sometimes to him, Luke Vader, even though he was just a little boy.
He was going to be special like his father, that's why the Emperor listened.
Luke pushed himself up and leaned out the window, his feet kicking in the air. It was a long way down to the pavement. The people crisscrossing Monument Plaza looked like little black balls rolling really slow. From their palace, he had a clear view of Mountain Top. He didn't understand why people came to see it. It was only a piece of rock. Oh, he knew all about history and geology and geography and how Coruscant (or Imperial Center as his father kept reminding him to call it) was built up and up until it covered most of the planet. But why come to see the top of a mountain? He wanted to see the base, to see where everything began - he wanted to see everything he'd studied about. He wanted to fly! Why didn't the Force let him fly? Then he could just spread his wing-arms and leap from this window and soar over everyone, playing with hawk-bats and laughing into the wind. Or he could fly to the Moonflower Nebula that he'd seen once on a trip with his father - and float among the silver glitter like a piece of spacedust.
"Prince Luke!" Shitar hurried across the room, the tone of his voice revealing both fear and exasperation. "Off the ledge - you could fall!"
"You know I won't fall." But he hopped down onto the thick carpet and grinned at his tutor. "Nothing bad will happen to me. I'm special like my father."
Shitar smiled faintly and offered no disagreement. Luke studied the man curiously. He was Alderaani because they were the best tutors in the galaxy, everyone knew that. His father and Shitar both told great stories about Alderaan - where Luke's maternal grandfather, General Anakin Skywalker (who was a Jedi in the days before Jedi turned Evil) had come from - stories of Alderaan's history and how its people had fallen from great warriors to what they were today: cowardly intellectuals, fearful of war, fighting the Emperor through foul and treasonous means. Luke knew he wouldn't like the people of Alderaan, but he really wanted to see the planet. He wanted to see the vast grasslands, the Castle Lands - built by bugs! - and mostly he wanted to see the water. When he grew up, he wanted to go to the university in Aldera - imagine going to a school on an island surrounded by water! There were so many things he wanted to see and do there--
But his father said no. No matter how Luke pressed, his father refused his request and even refused to explain. Alderaan is not for Vaders, was all the Dark Lord said. It was strange - and a little frightening. Luke wondered if there was some terrible Evil on Alderaan - or maybe even the Jedi Spirits his father had warned him about. They'd been so many places together, seen the wonders of the galaxy. But he would never see Alderaan... unless he disobeyed.
And the likelihood of that happening was small. The Dark Prince wasn't allowed to wander by himself, not even in Imperial City, let alone be able to sneak off to a forbidden planet. Everyplace he went, he'd always been accompanied by his father - and now, by Shitar. Imperial Symphony concerts which the Vaders sponsored, fencing lessons supervised by his father, gymnastics lessons, astronavigation lessons, these lessons, those lessons....
"You must dress now, sir."
Luke blinked his thoughts away. He looked down at himself, then at Shitar. "I'm dressed!" he protested. His pants and tunic of heavy sapphire silk were fine for studying. "This is what I always wear!"
A happy light danced in Shitar's eyes. "True...but your clothing is not the appropriate attire to wear when you greet your father."
He gasped, inhaling the thin air sharply. "My father's back? He's finally back?" He wanted to laugh and cry. After so long.... "Is he all right? Have you seen him? Shitar - tell me!"
Some of the delight faded from the brown eyes. "He is... changed, my prince. His injuries were severe. Prepare yourself - I suspect he will be much affected by your reaction to his new appearance."
Involuntarily, Luke stepped back a pace. "New appearance?" he echoed. "What do you mean? They told me he was healed - even the Emperor said--"
"Perhaps not healed as much as repaired." A flash of pity crossed Shitar's face, and his voice lowered. "A lesser man would be bitter over his disfigurement - but your father is Dark Lord and braver than mere mortals."
He understood; he and Shitar had long since perfected the art of talking in riddles to confound any spies who might be listening. Every morning he Force-searched his rooms for eavesdropping devices, frequently finding and disabling them. But Shitar was always conscious of the possibility, and Luke knew such caution was the way of a wise man. Someday he would be wise; now he tried to learn from everyone. "Yes, he is," he said aloud. "Strong and brave. And I will be just like him. Now, help me select my best robes to honor my father's return."
Shitar nodded, and Luke knew the approval was for his speech as well as his sentiments. But he didn't feel very brave when he thought about what Shitar had said:
His heart pounded in his throat, and he tried to swallow it down to where it belonged. He called on the Force to give him courage. Pausing outside the door to his father's chambers, he considered his clothing. Robes in shades of azure and emerald trimmed with gold, the colors of nature that they'd seen on their travels - sky, grass, sun, the pretty things they didn't have on Imperial Center. It would please his father. And perhaps it would remind him of how long it had been since they'd traveled together, nearly a standard year since his father had been grievously injured in a confrontation with the last Jedi. Thank the Force that the Jedi were dead now and the galaxy safe from their treason and sorcery! If it hadn't been for his father taking on the Jedi leader, defeating him despite nearly dying, there would still be planets held under their sway, suffering Untold Miseries.
But his father had been gone so long and had suffered so terribly. Sometimes Luke had felt the pain himself, when it grew so strong that his father couldn't control his Force outbursts. Even though his father had been far away on the other side of planet, Luke still felt those awful moments. One night he had cried and been ashamed of his weakness. But the pain had been better than the emptiness when his father withdrew from him. He'd never been alone before; his father had always been with him, ready to support and teach, play and laugh. But since the battle, since the wounding... his father had been far away more than physically. Now he reached out - and a wall blocked his access to his father.
Shivering, Luke arranged his robes a little closer around him. He nodded to the guards that he was ready to enter, and one of them keyed in the proper code. The door slid open, and he stepped into the antechamber.
He stared around in bewilderment. The chambers were different. Instead of a spacious hall that stretched half the length of the castle and ended in huge windows depicting ever-changing holos of the city, he was in a tiny room that had a single sealed door. He pressed his palm against the access panel and was admitted into an even smaller room. A hissing sound made him jump.
With his mind, he learned there was no threat here; with his senses, he detected finitely-purified oxygen pumping into the room. When the hissing stopped, a second door opened, and he finally stepped into his father's chambers.
It was very dark. The holos were switched off. Heavy draperies of burgundy velvet cascaded from the tall ceiling onto the floor, effectively cutting out all natural and holo-scene light. There was no music; his father always had music! He turned in a circle, trusting his eyes rather than his Force senses. No one was here. "Father?" he called out, frightened.
To his left, at the far end of the great room, a door slid open. A giant shadow emerged. Luke stared, rendered motionless by his inability to decide whether to run away or move closer to the shadow. He waited, finally reaching out with his mind.
What he found made him relaxed - then joyful. "Father!" He flung himself toward his sire.
A raised hand stopped him. Years of discipline enabled him to stop within two steps. Now he heard a sound - breathing. Heavy, labored, mechanical breathing, the kind of breaths a droid would take if it could breathe. His father...?
He nearly jumped at the sound of the voice. It wasn't his father's voice - yet it was. It was louder, deeper, booming. "What's... what's wrong? Why are you dressed like that?" Maybe it was a new uniform, maybe his father was going into battle again. If he was, this time Luke was going along, no matter that his father would say he was too young.
"My body has been severely damaged. This is what I must wear in order to breathe. When you entered, you went through a sterilizing process, one that also purified the air in my chambers so that here I might remove this helmet and be independent of the system that I will wear for the rest of my natural life. Observe my true appearance."
Luke shifted uneasily, then clenched his fists at his sides. This new voice - was it really his father? There was no affection in the deep tones, none of the easy teasing they had always enjoyed. It had always been the two of them - Mother died when he was a baby, and he remembered no one but his father. He watched grimly as dark fingers fumbled with the unfamiliar latches of the helmet. He studied the new uniform. It was all black. The arms and thighs were made of padded, metal-reinforced warrior's fabric. The torso was - a machine. Long black gloves and high black boots hid the extremities. A floor-length cloak added drama - it was just like the one his father wore when they went to the opera! Luke's lips twitched, but the smile faded as he studied the face shield. The helmet was removed and set aside, but the face plate - it was horrible. Big circles for eyes, a triangle for nose and mouth - why did his father wear such a thing?
He stared down at the floor, studying the intricate pattern of mosaics. He didn't want to know, didn't want to see--
"Look at me," the voice commanded harshly, no mercy in its tones.
Slowly Luke lifted his eyes. The man-thing strode toward him, stopping to leave only a few meters between them. The first thing he noticed was that his father's hair was gone - the long, luxuriant mane of blond-brown strands that had always shone so gloriously. When he was little, he'd played with it, braiding the sides, giggling with wild joy - now the head was naked. He forced himself to focus on his father's face, placated when he saw the familiar features. His father looked older from the pain he'd been through - damn that Jedi! - but the piercing blue eyes hadn't changed, the full mouth was the same... except it was set in a tight line instead of its usual smile.
The Dark Lord turned around, and Luke gasped in horror. His head - it had been cut open and seamed closed, leaving horrible scars - ugly wounds that were red and gaping, and a ridge that looked as if... as if something had been inserted. Was his father part droid? He gasped again, this time trying to choke back a sob.
"I will allow you to see me this way once, so that you may understand the reason I wear these garments. No one else will ever see me, and you will speak of this to no one. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Father," he replied tearfully.
Luke would have left, but his feet wouldn't obey the command - or his mind refused to send the message. The Dark Lord turned away, and something in the slump of the proud shoulders struck his heart. Did his father think he didn't love him just because he wore a funny costume and his head was ugly? He quickly approached the black figure and tugged on the long cloak. "Da?" he whispered, retreating into his babyhood address for his father.
Lord Vader turned and looked down at him, the blue eyes glistening. With a muffled cry, Luke threw himself against his father - drawing back when the top of his head collided with a switch on the chestplate and set off a brief alarm.
Large fingers pressed a button and the buzzing noise stopped. Then the big arms lifted him up high in their familiar embrace. "My son...."
He snuggled and laughed, crying just a little. "Oh, Da, I missed you so much!"
The older man laughed, too, but the sound was sad, and Luke suspected that he really wanted to cry. But Dark Lords didn't cry.
"And I've missed you, little one. And worried."
"I haven't gotten in trouble," he declared, resting his cheek against one big shoulder, looking curiously at all the lights and switches on his father's chest. "Well... maybe a little. But I worried about you all the time!"
"I know. I felt your concern, and it strengthened my resolve to recover. But I wondered if you could accept me...like this."
"I love you," he whispered defensively, drawing away only far enough to raise his hand to wipe away his childish tears. "I wish the Jedi was still alive so I could kill him! I hate him 'cause he hurt you!"
A black glove stroked his hair. "He lives," the Dark Lord whispered. "Kenobi lives. He walked away and left me to die. But we will kill him...one day you will bring him to me and I will kill him."
Luke shivered involuntarily. His father was having a Vision. What his father Saw always happened - and, for just a moment, he felt sorry for Kenobi. Then he remembered who Kenobi was and what he'd done, and his sorrow vanished. "I'll help kill him," he vowed. "I'll fight at your side and chop off his head!"
His father smiled again. "Who's my favorite son?" he teased.
"Me, me, me!" he squealed happily in response to their standard game. "Luke Vader, Dark Prince of the Galaxy!"
"A prince for a son - what a lucky man I am," Vader finished, lifting and spinning him until he shrieked with delight.
His father was back. Everything would be all right forever.
His face was impassive as he watched General Teague slump at his father's feet, tugging at his uniform collar in a futile attempt to free his throat from the invisible stranglehold. Just before he would have suffocated, he was released. The arrogant officer lay on the floor, humiliated before his colleagues. His only honorable action would be suicide, but Luke doubted that Teague was overly endowed with honor. His upper lip curled with disgust. How could his father tolerate these fools? And why did the Emperor? His father and Palpatine could easily rule the Empire without these generals, could run the military forces themselves--
He cut off that thought abruptly. His father had been gone far too often during the years since his wounding, especially as that little insurrection became more of a nuisance. Already Lord Vader oversaw most of the military's movements, and Luke disliked the time they spent apart. He knew his education was important, but he'd had enough. He was strong in the Force, nearly as strong as his father, and he was old enough to join the Dark Lord on his missions for the Emperor. It seemed, though, that Palpatine liked to keep him at the Royal Palace when Lord Vader was gone, and Luke wondered why the Emperor was so fond of him. They spent little time together, and their visits were always tense and awkward.
So when his father left on the next mission, Luke decided he would simply stow away. Then they would be together, two Vaders, father and son, fighting as they were born to fight. He would be brave and gallant and die a hero's death-- No, he decided hastily. The galaxy's Dark Prince wouldn't die young. With the help of the Force, he would defeat their enemies, and his father would be proud of him.
The conversation in the large conference room turned boring; he enjoyed listening to the strategists plan, but now the political aspect was coming into it, and he detested the incessant complaints of underlings. Luke allowed his mind and his eyes to drift. The several windows in the room showed the major military spaceport - only holos, but they were live-time nonetheless. He watched a new model TIE readying for lift-off; his gaze followed it as it blasted into the sky, his imagination supplying the corresponding sounds and excitement. He'd flown his father's custom-built TIE once, and his heart had soared even higher than the ship had. Flying was glorious - to be away from the planet, away from the buildings and crowds, to be free and high above all worries.... He understood then why his father left Imperial Center so often. For his freedom.
I want to be free, too, Father, he Sent pleadingly. I want to fly.
There was no reply from behind the impervious mask. Years ago, before the mask, he'd been able to read his father's face when no one else could. He'd been able to see dreams and regrets in the eyes that were so like his own, read troubles in the curve of the sensitive mouth. Now he had to rely on the voice, disguised as it was by the vocoder, and the Force. But his father could block his Force senses from perceiving anything - the way he was doing now.
Luke frowned but maintained his attentive pose, though his thoughts roamed carelessly. He still loved his father, of course, though not in the blind, worshipful way he had as a child. It had been different then; no matter how busy the Dark Lord was with his duties, there had been time every day for them to play together, to listen to stories, to tell them and make his father laugh. He missed those days. His old tutor had told him that changes were part of the path to adulthood, but he knew it was more than that. The wounds that Sorce Kenobi had inflicted had changed his father in ways other than the obvious physical ones. The older Vader's heart had hardened. No more did sweet-smelling women dot the landscape of their lives. No pretty flowers fussed over the boy and flirted with the man. After awhile, Luke discovered that he missed them and their softness. There was little gentleness in his life now. Regrets often filled him, and he thought he was too young for them, that they were his father's sorrows, not his own.
He was partly right.
At first he'd tried to recapture their closeness and to heal the other man's sadness, but gradually, as he grew older and less demonstrative, his entreating gestures ebbed until he treated his father with remote fondness and respect.
Yet he missed the warmth, the camaraderie and, most of all, the love. And he hated, with all his thwarted passion, this terrible isolation in which he had to live - and in which his father had existed for a decade.
The meeting was breaking up, the soldiers departing briskly with little talk between themselves. Luke remained motionless, waiting until he was alone with the Dark Lord.
Vader headed for the doors.
"I want to go with you," Luke declared. "The next mission - I want to go."
His father whirled and shook his finger. "We will discuss this no further. I have forbidden it."
"Father--" he called protestingly, but the Dark Lord ignored him and left.
The doors slid shut with oiled efficiency. Damn! Luke sighed and spared a brief glance for the spaceport scene. He was tired of living through holos and never being part of the real action. And maybe if he was on a mission with his father, their closeness would return. "I'll miss you," he said quietly, though he didn't Send the sentiment. He could protect his thoughts as well as the Dark Lord could - he had been taught by a master.
He squared his shoulders. No more wishing, no more regrets - he would
act. The next time his father left the planet, Luke Vader would go along
- and to hell with Lord Vader's restrictions!
Outwitting his father had been more difficult than he'd expected. In fact, it had been impossible. Luke leaned out the window of the highest tower in Castle Vader, sulking. There was no longer an Alderaani tutor - what had been his name? - to warn him to be careful. Shitar - that was it! Shitar had been pensioned and sent home to live on Alderaan, returned to the wife and family he'd left behind when he'd been hired to instruct the fledgling Dark Prince.
Or so Luke had been told. As he grew older, he no longer believed that everything was as he'd been promised. In court, he heard the Emperor's words; after the courtiers departed, he occasionally heard the truth from the Emperor himself - if it was the truth. He wondered why Palpatine spoke secretly to him. His father was Palpatine's Favorite - everyone knew it. But there were moments when he sensed that his father was being excluded - and, worse, knew that his father suspected it.
And today-- He glanced at the chron on the mantel. The Emperor had requested his presence in the throne room. He didn't like being there without his father, though why he didn't dare to ponder. But there was no avoiding the private meeting. Lord Vader had been gone on his current mission for two months, and Luke would have to face the Emperor alone. It was childish to feel uneasy. Palpatine had never been unkind to him.
He brushed his sleeves and checked his appearance in the long mirror. He could be no less than perfect for an audience with the Emperor. He thought of his father's black armor, so highly polished that it reflected light, and wished he could wear a uniform instead of the heavy court robes that dragged on the floors and weighed him down.
Without these robes, he could fly!
He smiled at his old fancy as he rode the lift down to the corridors
that would connect to the Imperial Palace and deliver him to the Emperor
of the Galaxy.
"Ah, the young prince." Palpatine waved a dismissing hand. "Leave us."
Courtiers and guards withdrew smoothly as Luke dropped onto one knee and bowed his head.
"Rise, boy, and approach. Let me have a look at you."
He stood and moved toward the throne. Much as he disliked being in Palpatine's presence, he always felt a thrill of power and excitement in this room. It was magnificent - slowly changing holos with representative views of the Thousandworlds were displayed on every wall, and he rejoiced in the feeling of being surrounded by spinning planets. This was what it would be like to fly freely.
"Your preoccupation pleases me."
Luke refocused his attention back to his Emperor, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Highness."
"Never apologize for your interest in acquisition."
Acquisition? He disguised his misgivings with a half-smile. Palpatine was correct - that was what he felt. To make all those worlds his own....
"You are more ambitious than your father," the Emperor said casually.
Luke's eyes narrowed. "My father fights for you, Highness," he replied pointedly.
"And you, I suspect, dream about fighting for yourself." The face wrinkled further as sharp teeth were displayed. "That would be most unwise."
Palpatine always made him feel as though he'd been tossed into an ocean and was expected to learn to swim. "Yes, Highness." He bowed his head submissively.
"Good child. Are you happy here in Imperial City?"
He strove to hide his surprise. "Yes, Highness," he replied cautiously. Why would the Emperor care about his happiness?
"There are few children to play with. You must be lonely."
Caution forgotten, Luke raised his head. "I'm not a child! I'm a grown man!"
"Nearly fourteen! Highness," he added hastily, already regretting his insolence.
"Ah, yes. A manling." Fingertips drummed once on the solid black throne. "Have you had women yet?"
His mouth dropped open as he stared at the Emperor. "I... uh... no, Highness."
"Not surprising. Force-users mature at a later age than commoners. However," Palpatine continued with a chuckle, "there are other forms of entertainment that you may find enjoyable."
Heat flared in his cheeks. Maybe the Force would burn a hole through the floor and allow him to tumble from this room. Even his father had never spoken to him so intimately! Such private matters were not to be discussed with anyone.
"I see I have embarrassed you. Such was not my intention, my prince. I fear that your Dark Side education is lacking."
"Dark Side?" Luke repeated rapidly, hoping to divert the Emperor's intentions - whatever they might be. "My father has taught me all about the Dark Side."
"Indeed." Palpatine smiled slightly. "And what do you know of Darkness, my young friend?"
"The Dark Side of the Force is full of mysteries that are hidden from commoners and can only be accessed by the most powerful Force users," Luke recited. "You are its Master, and my father is your disciple. No one else in the galaxy can control the Dark Side. When I've learned everything that you and my father can teach me, I will also be a Master of the Dark Side."
Palpatine was silent for a moment, watching him through the narrow golden slits that were his eyes. "Perhaps it is time for you to begin studying with me," he said finally. "Darkness is more than a series of mysteries to be explored. It is the way you will live your life, the choices you will make. Your decisions will affect the future of the galaxy, and you must be properly trained in practicalities, not merely simple philosophies."
He was torn between interest and wanting to defend his father's training; in the end, he judged it wisest to remain silent.
"Come. I will assist you with your first step into a life devoted to the Dark."
With dread and eager anticipation both twisting in his stomach, he followed Emperor Palpatine down the stairs and into a warm little room bare of any decoration. The older man gestured him to sit in a stiff chair while he mounted the dais to a smaller version of the main throne. With a wave of his hand, Palpatine lit the opposite wall. It was a viewscreen. Luke stared at the tableau, needing several seconds to understand what he was seeing.
His breath caught in his throat.
"Ah.... I thought this would give you pleasure! You are much like your father - these droids were his invention."
My father? Luke glared at the Emperor, forgetting his subservience. He forced his gaze back to the screen. It revealed a huge room that held bound humans of both sexes and various races, nonhumans he'd seen only in holos, droids that functioned as.... He turned his head away though the sight was burned into his brain.
Was it real? Could it be happening right now, somewhere on Imperial Center? "What is this? Why are these people...?"
"Perhaps the audio portion will also amuse you."
A chorus of voices layered screams that made him jump. Sweat beaded on his face, but he shivered with cold. The shrieks multiplied, sounds that came from dozens of different throats, sounds from things that were not quite alive any more.
"Direct your attention to this corner."
He started as soft breeze tickled his ear. The Emperor stood behind him, one sharp fingernail running across his collarbone. It required all Luke's control not to pull away. This was his ruler, he reminded himself - the Emperor, the one who must be obeyed. His gaze followed Palpatine's until it fixed on a young woman near the viewing window.
Her hair was long and must have been as golden as sunlight; now it was thick with dried blood. She was nude, and she was choking on her own breaths. Two droids were beside her, and they were performing what, even to his youthful naivete, could only be interpreted as some kind of perverse act.
Luke stumbled from the chair, feeling the Emperor's nail slice a thin line across his throat. "You're mad!" he cried, heedless of Palpatine's rank. "How can you do these things - watch this - this abomination! Release these people!"
The old wizard laughed. "Release them yourself. Use the talents your father has taught you - or has he failed to instruct you properly?"
"He hasn't failed in anything," Luke replied furiously. He whirled back toward the window, anger filling him with strength. Lifting one hand, he directed his powers to crush the torture-droids. With a strangled screech of electronic connections, their metal bodies shattered. Sparks exploded and vanished--
The woman screamed as metal shards, sharp as knives, pierced her body.
Luke dropped his arm, horrified by the results of his actions. The woman's shrieks turned to pitiful moans, her small hands trying to pull out the robotic arm that had thrust through her groin. She tumbled off the gurney and reached for her male companion - but he was dead from a droid head that had exploded into his chest cavity. She sobbed a name, and the tile floor turned red beneath her.
With a twist of his clenched fist, Luke ended her life. Systematically, he evaluated the condition of each victim, terminating their pain when it was clear they were doomed.
"The merciful ruler," Palpatine said gently, "eventually releases those whom he has tortured. Unless there is another use for them. Next time, consider the possibilities before you free such desirable creatures."
Luke lost all sense of caution. With both hands, he shoved the Emperor aside and fled. He gathered up his long robes and ran through twisting corridors, up stairs, past startled guards - ran until he could no longer breathe... then he ran farther. When he reached the sanctuary of Castle Vader, he bolted the great entry doors behind him and collapsed on the floor, chest heaving, swallowing great gulps of air. Father! he Sent in a scream, but his father was too far away to hear his plea.
Eventually, when his breathing became steadier, he became aware of several servants hovering anxiously in a tight group - concerned for him, but hesitant to offer comfort. He waved them away, at once indicating that he was all right and his desire to be alone. It came back to him then that he'd struck the Emperor - not hard, but he'd touched the Royal Person without permission. Would he be killed for his transgression? Or... worse?
The young woman appeared in his mind, and he thrust her image away furiously. He wouldn't think about what had happened - or what Palpatine had said, that his father created those monsters. None of it had happened. He hadn't killed, hadn't tasted blood and pure Darkness for the first time in his life. If this was what his father expected of him....
Luke bowed his head.
Often it had been difficult leaving Luke behind; the last few years had been easier because the youngster seemed indifferent to his presence or absence. My fault, Lord Vader acknowledged. Time sped by; there was little enough of it in which to accomplish his duties; there was rarely any to spare for his suddenly independent son. It was not his wish, but he worked for his Emperor and for the betterment of the Galaxy; personal concerns were of secondary importance. Luke understood - or so his father had thought.
But a full year had passed since they'd been together, and Luke was not waiting for him when the fleet returned to port. His absence was disconcerting, but perhaps, the Dark Lord thought, Luke had found a distraction. He permitted himself a small feeling of satisfaction. Eventually Luke would bond and produce offspring, new Dark princes and princesses who would serve their rightful Emperor.
In the sanctuary that was his private chambers, he was unpleasantly surprised to sense his son's antagonistic presence. The room had already been pressurized, so he removed his helmet and faceplate, then tossed the cloak aside, weary beyond words, relieved to be home once again. Waves of hostility emanated from Luke, and Darth looked at him tiredly.
The youth's expression was hard, his eyes cold. "I want to leave this planet," Luke said, the softness of his speech doing nothing to disguise the steely resolution in his tone. "On your next mission, I'm going with you - but I will not serve under your command. I want to go to Alderaan."
Vader sank into a soft chair that conformed to his shape. It was the first comfort he'd had in many months. "Is the prince bored with his royal life?" he asked, cut to the bone by his son's insolence and ingratitude.
Luke leaped to his feet and crossed the room in short, quick strides. "I won't stay here any longer!"
The defiance wavered, and for a brief moment, Darth saw something under the harsh facade - terror. He stood, a pulse of anger beginning to throb in his temples. "What's happened?"
Luke's defense strengthened - Vader felt a swell of pride. Then his son spoke the words he'd hoped never to hear: "After you left, Palpatine...showed me things. There were droids torturing people. He said you...." The youngster turned his face aside. "I killed them. I meant to set them free, but I killed them because I couldn't control the Force. Since then I've... learned."
Darth clenched his teeth until his jaw hurt. Tension curled through him; he knew how his son must have reacted. "Did he see your weakness?"
Luke looked up quickly. "My...?"
"Your weakness - did the Emperor see it?"
Anger and disappointment raged through the pale eyes. "Weakness? - I hit him!" Luke hissed. "I hit him and ran."
His fists doubled; he wanted to strangle Palpatine with his bare hands. They had agreed that Luke would not be exposed to the Darker aspects of the Force until Vader deemed him ready. The Emperor had disregarded their pact - a blatant dishonoring of the esteem in which Palpatine professed to hold him.
And Luke had struck the Emperor. He should already be dead, for there was no other penalty for such a crime. Yet Palpatine allowed him to live, and that simple mercy rendered the Dark Lord impotent.
And his anger over that impotence rendered him cold. "You have disgraced me in the Emperor's eyes, for your behavior reflects my training. You have made me ashamed."
Incredibly, Luke laughed. But his amusement was filled with scorn. "He's been teaching me. He says I'm better than you, Father - he says I have more natural talent. He says you were holding me back." Luke paused, awaiting his defense.
"Perhaps I was," Darth replied, restraining his consternation. "I was not eager to see you... this way. A futile desire - to raise you in Darkness, yet hope you remained untainted by it. I should have sent you away. I almost did... once, when you were a newborn." His thoughts drifted, recalling Obi-Wan's offer and his own rebuff. "But, selfishly, I wanted to keep you with me."
Luke turned, took a few restless paces and stopped. "He's pitting us against each other," he whispered. "Does he expect that someday...?"
He knew what his son asked. "Someday there will be only one Vader at his side."
"But you can't See which one of us it will be?"
Darth closed his eyes. This path toward the future still remained shuttered and secret. "I can See nothing."
"It won't be me." Luke paused as if deciding whether to say more. He shook his head. "Maybe it won't happen."
It would; and when the ultimate contest occurred, Darth Vader would relinquish his life before he would murder his own son. The knowledge gave him peace; he smiled and held open his arms.
After a second's hesitation, Luke grinned and hugged him awkwardly. "So I can come with you the next time you go away?"
His smile faded. Why didn't Luke understand that it wasn't his choice to leave his son behind? "No."
The youngster's arms dropped, and he nodded curtly. "I'll see you at dinner," Luke said abruptly and left the room.
Darth refused to allow even a moment of regretful contemplation.
He had to prepare himself for presentation to the Emperor. Luke's problems
would have to wait.
They waited four years.
His escape was simple only because he manipulated the Force. An ordinary human could never have stolen onto an Imperial Star Destroyer. But Luke Vader, Dark Prince, was far from ordinary. He smiled to himself as he peered around the sharp-edged corner of a hull. Stormtroopers were running to their posts in preparation for - what? a battle? - and he used the opportunity to slip into the crew's quarters. Finding a set of armor to borrow would be simple. Once he was in the white gear, no one would recognize him, and he could lower his mentally-draining Force shields. His father's orders be damned - he was off Imperial Center!
He was sorting through discarded sets of armor when the horns began to blow a warning - damn, a battle and he was going to miss it! Quickly, he dressed as best he could, satisfied when he found a helmet that fit. That was the most important part of his disguise. He snatched up a blaster rifle and ran for the hall.
And, unfortunately, nearly ran into his father.
The Dark Lord's head snapped around, the black eye-orbs fixing on him. Luke! The word brushed his mind; he acknowledged his identity before turning and fleeing in the opposite direction. Now his father knew he was aboard, but with any luck he'd see some action before he was hauled ignominiously before the Lord of the Sith. Once he'd proven himself, shown that he could handle himself in combat - well, his father would welcome him. All he needed was a little time--
Which it didn't look like he was going to have.
As he rounded a corner, three members of the Dark Lord's Imperial Guard blocked the corridor. Luke hastily turned back the way he'd come and fled down another hall. Angry feelings pounded in his mind, and he knew they were his father's. It hadn't occurred to him that Lord Vader would be furious, truly angry with him - and his father's wrath was fearful to behold.
But Luke Vader was a timid child no longer; he could face the Dark Lord's ire and return it.
He skidded to a halt as a file of stormtroopers crossed in front of
him. He joined the rear of the line, hoping to blend in. With dismay, he
saw they were heading for the shuttle bay. He didn't want to leave the
ship - on the other hand, maybe that was his best option. They couldn't
be going far, planetside perhaps, to whatever planet they were near. The
Dark Lord wouldn't abandon his people, so they'd be picked up again. It
would give his father time to cool down. Marching like the other troopers,
Luke followed them into the shuttle and sat silently as they blasted into
Tatooine. He vaguely remembered from his studies that it was an unimportant, barbaric planet, full of undesirable creatures and contributing nothing to the further advancement of the Empire. But, he decided optimistically, at least it was a bit of an adventure before he was returned to his place under the Emperor's thumb.
Palpatine would punish him for escaping, but this taste of freedom was worth it. He was tired of the lessons of Darkness - and he hated them, no matter that he could accomplish the most difficult feats to his Master's satisfaction.
The brightness was dazzling. He halted for a moment outside the shuttle, blinking furiously. Even the dark visors in his helmet didn't fully deflect the glare. The town was dusty and full of low-slung buildings made of what looked like sand. There were two suns in the sky, and it was damnably hot. Sweat formed on his forehead and ran down his nose, tickling as it went. How did troopers survive in these ridiculous outfits?
The commander paused, eyeing him doubtfully. "You, stand guard by the ship. The rest of you come with me."
He bit his lip from calling out a complaint. That officer had much to learn about judging character. Perhaps a demotion would further his desire to learn.
His irritation was distracted by a curious tickling at his mind, a familiar tug of the Force. Surely his father hadn't come planetside to search for him!
Luke looked around, searching with his senses for the origin of the feeling. He finally settled on an unlikely-looking trio: an ill-dressed spacer, a furry monster of a species he didn't recognize, and a ragged old peasant. One of them had some Force powers? Extraordinary! Curious for an explanation, he abandoned his absurd guard-duty and followed them through the narrow, curving streets of the little town, hanging back as they entered a public hangar bay. He hesitated, then ducked into an alley to shed his Imperial armor. Dressed in a stormtrooper's simple white tunic and pants, he clutched the rifle and entered the hangar.
The old man turned slowly and smiled. The Force sharpened and focused, as though it radiated from him. "Hello there."
Luke nodded curtly. The spacer glanced his way and shouted, "Beat it, kid! Go play somewhere else."
He glared. "Who are you? Where are you going?" he demanded regally.
The spacer didn't bother to reply, but the monster roared threateningly and waved his arms. Luke stood his ground and turned to the old man. "Who are you?" he repeated.
The man's brow furrowed, his brown eyes reflecting puzzlement. "I would like to ask you the same question, but for now there is no time. Come aboard with us."
"Hey! You paid for yourself and the droids! No adding to the deal!"
Luke didn't spare a glance for the spacer and his complaint. He tried to probe the peasant's mind, but found his passage barred and didn't like it. Where had this decrepit old creature gotten his powers? "Where are you going?"
The man smiled faintly. "Alderaan. And you may call me Ben. What is your name?"
"Luke," he found himself replying, then clamped his lips shut before he revealed his last name. The man was using the Force on him, and he didn't like it. He closed off his thoughts, saw surprise flash across Ben's face.
"You're very good, son. You've been trained." Mild alarm appeared in his eyes, and he grasped Luke's arm. "Get aboard quickly now. We must leave." He raised his voice. "Captain Solo, I believe we're about to have some unwelcome visitors."
Luke had also sensed the approaching stormtroopers but felt no alarm - they weren't his enemies. He hesitated. If he returned to the detachment, he would also return to his father - and Imperial Center. But if he went with these people - Alderaan! He'd always longed to see it. And now he wanted to learn more about this Ben. The Jedi were all dead, and his father had told him there were no more Force users - could his father have been wrong? If Luke discovered a clan of hidden Force adepts, he would be a hero. He could lead them back to Imperial Center and present them to his Master. Palpatine would reward him with a star destroyer of his own to command. His father would join him, and together they would overthrow the Emperor.
And he'd get to see Alderaan.
"There they are!"
He swirled around, shoving the old man toward the ship - though it looked
like no ship he'd ever seen - and began firing at the stormtroopers. He
didn't want to kill them and waste good soldiers, but his steady barrage
of near-misses would hold them back long enough to stage an escape. He
ran, stumbling up the ship's ramp as it began to close. Before he could
find a seat, the ship blasted out of port, and he was flung to the floor.
His head collided with the knife edge of something, and his world went
He clawed his way through a muddy, roiling sea, climbing up waves that felt solid enough to walk on. Nausea twisted his stomach, and he moaned.
"He's coming around."
Something growled, and he fought back, flailing with his hands until his wrists were caught and pinioned.
"Easy, young Luke. No one will harm you."
He forced his eyes partway open. A grey-haired stranger was looking at him with concern on his face. He had very kind brown eyes. Another brown-eyed man - the first one's son? - peered over his shoulder.
"We thought you were dead. You took quite a rap on the head. Who are you anyway, kid?"
He stared, lips parting with bewilderment. "Who am I," he repeated blankly. He looked at the old man. "Who am I?" he asked, questioning this time.
"You said your name is Luke." The older man frowned. "I'm Ben Kenobi. Do you remember my telling you that?"
He shook his head. Kenobi... there was something familiar about the name. "Am I your son?" he asked cautiously.
"No, Luke." A cool cloth was laid across his forehead. How did the man know that his head hurt abominably? "I'm afraid you've had a shock. Your memory is impaired. Do you remember anything of what happened?"
"Men in white. Shooting."
"Imperial stormtroopers," Ben said, sighing. "You held them off while we boarded the ship."
"The Millennium Falcon, Captain Han Solo commanding," the younger man said proudly. "You got money to pay for your passage?"
"Passage?" He blinked in bewilderment. "I don't know. Where are we going?"
"Chewie and me are delivering the old man to Alderaan. For a good sum that had better be waiting when we--"
"Alderaan?" Luke interrupted excitedly. "I've been to Alderaan! I've seen the grasslands and the Castle Lands and--"
"Perhaps someone there will know your identity," Ben said gently.
"And pay for your passage," Han Solo added, "since we can't just dump you in space. You two buckle up, we'll be coming out of hyper soon."
Luke sat up with a groan and rubbed the back of his neck. "I feel... sick."
"Well, hold it, junior. Get sick when we're on planet, not before." Solo strode out of the small room. "Out of my way, goldenrod!"
"Oh, dear," said a bright gold droid that popped through the doorway. It turned and looked back at the disappearing Captain Solo. "Such a rude man! I fear we've fallen into rough company, Artoo!"
A chain of whistles answered him. Luke closed his eyes. Maybe he was having a nightmare - impertinent droids, a great hairy creature, an arrogant captain, and a strange old fellow with... with.... He couldn't remember what was strange about Ben Kenobi.
He slept only briefly before a series of jolts toppled him off the bunk. He rose immediately. Something was wrong - he headed in the direction Solo had gone. Whoever these people were, they needed his help.
" --been blown to bits," Han was saying as he entered the cockpit.
The captain glanced at him. "Alderaan. It's gone."
"Gone?" Alderaan? He felt a sharp pang of loss. Had it been his home, is that what he felt? The rolling golden grasslands - gone. The rich blue/green of the oceans - obliterated. The university at Aldera - had he been a student? He rubbed his head, almost remembering... Shitar? No. He wasn't Alderaani. He'd come from... Tatooine, that was it.
"That's what I said, isn't it? The whole planet's gone."
The furry monster growled a question.
"His name's Luke," the man answered. "Luke - you got a last name, kid?"
Dark flashes splintered across his vision, then a brilliant sun burst through them. "Skywalker," he said proudly. "Luke Skywalker."
Fingers gripped his arm, and he turned to see an expression of horrified puzzlement on Ben Kenobi's face. "Skywalker?" the old man repeated incredulously. "But you can't be."
"Can't be what?" Luke prodded when the words ceased.
Ben released his arm and shook his head. "Nothing. I.... We have much to discuss, Luke Skywalker. If there is time. The Force is strong in you and--"
"The Force?" he repeated. There was a familiarity about the word, but....
"Some hokey religion," Solo offered disparagingly.
"The Force is the energy field that binds the universe together. It is part of every living thing. A Jedi can tap into its energy--"
"Jedi," Luke repeated uncertainly. Why couldn't he remember?
"The Jedi are all dead," Han interrupted scathingly. "Don't be fillin' the kid's head the nonsense, old man. Your glory days are passed."
"Perhaps not," Ben Kenobi murmured speculatively and smiled at him, though his eyes were filled with cunning.
Luke wanted to ask more questions, but the next moment a small ship
screamed past them, and he had very little chance to ask Ben Kenobi anything
His anger turned to worry, then to panic as it became clear that his son was gone. The familiar presence in his mind was absent; no one replied when he called. Luke could not be dead - the Dark Lord would not permit the fates to commit such an obscenity. But where Luke had been was... blankness. He had traced the boy off the ship, down to the sithforsaken planet - then, quite suddenly, there was nothing.
Darth Vader was frantic, but it showed neither in his voice nor in his stance. He would track his son and bring him back - but not to Imperial Center. No more would Luke be in Palpatine's grip, held hostage to ensure the Dark Lord's total loyalty. Luke was free - and Vader could not find it in his heart to regret the youngster's escape. A clever boy indeed to have eluded the Emperor's claws. But why had his son run from him? He must have felt the moment's rage, but surely he knew how quickly it would pass.
Darth dismissed the questions. What mattered now was finding Luke and bringing the boy back to his side. His Vision was no longer obscured; together they would overthrow Palpatine and rule the galaxy - he Saw it.
As he had Seen Kenobi's death.
They would be invincible.
Alderaan was gone, but its princess was alive. They'd saved her; now all they had to do was get by the troops that guarded the Falcon. Luke wondered again where Ben Kenobi was, and if he'd make it back to the ship. They couldn't leave without him, couldn't leave anyone behind for the Imperials to torture. Princess Leia had whispered a few words about the screams she'd heard while a prisoner herself. Luke shuddered, sickened by the idea. Ben, he thought, Ben, where are you?
Something answered him, but he didn't understand the words. It was a feeling that said Run, Luke - so he ran, the others following behind him. Then they passed him because he froze in place, seeing something he couldn't comprehend. Ben Kenobi, a lightsaber in his hand, duelling with a giant dressed in black. The big man swung his saber of brilliant red, and Ben vanished.
"Nooo!" Luke screamed. If Kenobi was gone, he was alone! Who would answer his questions, who would help him find his way? He began firing wildly at the stormtroopers who ran towards them, then scrambled aboard the Falcon as the Princess shouted for him.
The man in black turned, faced him, began walking, coming for him, calling--
The ship blasted free, and he trembled with shock. The other man had the Force - and knew him! How could that be? Who was the man? And who was he? He wanted to go back and ask the man--
But it was too late.
Princess Leia approached cautiously and placed a blanket around his shoulders. "Ben is dead," he mumbled unnecessarily.
"I know," she answered gently, her brown eyes full of sorrow.
Did everyone in the galaxy but him have brown eyes? He vaguely remembered that sometime there had been someone else whose eyes were the color of sky. "Who was the other man?" he asked quickly. "The man in black."
Her delicate features hardened. "That was Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith," she said flatly. "Emperor Palpatine's pet horror - along with his son, the Dark Prince. He's an inhuman monster, a Jedi gone bad they say, and he--"
"What's a Jedi?" he interrupted, demanding the information that Kenobi had withheld.
She stopped with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Luke. I'd forgotten.... A Jedi is... was... someone who guarded the galaxy from evil. Jedi tried to use the Force to fight Palpatine's bid for power. General Kenobi was the last, the only one left. Lord Vader and the Emperor killed the rest of them several years ago."
"Oh." He shivered and clutched the blanket around his shoulders. It sounded like an evil fairytale, but there was something familiar about it. "Ben said my father was from Alderaan. Maybe you knew him? Anakin Skywalker."
She drew back, surprise plainly displayed on her features. "Anakin Skywalker was your father? But, Luke... he was one of the Jedi killed by Vader. Are you... have you inherited his powers?"
"I... can't remember," he murmured disconsolately. Ben told him he had the powers - when they were hiding in the Falcon's hold, Ben had whispered many secrets to him, reminding him of the aunt and uncle he couldn't quite picture, describing the moisture farm where he'd grown up, the father who'd been murdered before he'd seen his baby son. Then Ben had pulled a silver tube from his robes and given it to him - your father's lightsaber, he'd hissed urgently.
Luke slid his hand down to his belt and curled his fingers around the hilt. The metal warmed immediately - familiar, safe, beloved. He gripped it, wondering at the connection, wondering at the misty images he received, wishing he could see more clearly.
He stood and ignited the saber. It flared to life, a clear, cool blue. Not my color, he thought without thinking. It should be green. If only he could remember.... A desperate fear climbed up his throat, but it died when his personal terror was distracted by a shout.
"C'mon, kid!" Han Solo burst into the room and began climbing a ladder.
"We're not out of this yet!"
"But who is he?" General Dodonna whispered under his breath. "He speaks like an aristocrat. If he's Imperial, a spy - "
Princess Leia lowered her own voice. "General Kenobi said he's the son of Anakin Skywalker - he may be a Jedi. Untrained, but we could use him to - "
"There's no one to train him. Do we dare treat him like a common solider?"
Luke's gaze remained fixed on the command console, pretending to study it. They were across the room, but he could hear every word they uttered. Was he a Jedi? If he could find and hold his heritage, it would mean that he was special like his father.
Father... I wish I'd known you.
What had Anakin Skywalker been like? Maybe he could find a holo. Maybe Princess Leia could describe him. He had nebulous memories of a tall man with long, thick hair... but the image faded before it could solidify in his mind.
"--the infantry would be appropriate."
Infantry? He lifted his chin and approached them. They stopped talking when he neared. "I'm a pilot," he said without preamble. "I want to fly."
The General's countenance brightened. "We can always use a good pilot. What type craft have you flown?"
His mind was a vast desert. "I...don't remember," Luke replied slowly. "I just know I've flown."
Dodonna's eyes narrowed, but his face remained kindly. There was sorrow written on the features, and Luke felt that he could see the deaths of thousands in the brown eyes. "We'll put you in the simulator," the older man decided. "If you manage that decently, we'll put you in a fighter."
A Jedi didn't manage; a Jedi excelled. And he must be a Jedi, because when he slipped into the simulator seat and pulled the helmet on his head, he lost himself in the mock battle. The screen registered kill after kill, and he felt a thrill after each fabricated explosion. He could easily shoot down the Imps in their TIE's. He destroyed the last target and sat back, blinking. He could visualize the interior of the TIE. The small seat, the cramped enclosure that held the instruments - it was all so vivid. Maybe Rieekan was correct: maybe Luke Skywalker was an Imperial agent. There was evidence: he knew the TIE intimately - somewhere, sometime, he had flown one. Or maybe there had been TIE's on Tatooine, maybe he'd stolen one - or maybe he'd been to the Imperial Academy. No - he could not be a spy who would betray his new friends. It was impossible.
The Alliance commanders were delighted with his performance. So they put him in an x-wing fighter, gave him wingmen, and sent him out to face the Death Star. It was his first battle, his first time on his own - he was certain of that much - and he was brilliant, as a Jedi should be. Until his wingmen were gone, and he was alone with three TIE fighters stalking him, firing wildly, taking out his new droid friend and - and--
Suddenly he was bobbing on the currents of the Force. There was quiet, a peaceful stillness that had never seen violence. Ben Kenobi whispered use the Force, but overwhelming that voice came another that said the Force is strong in this one... I have you now - Luke?!, and he felt the other's horror. It was familiar but elusive; he couldn't quite grasp it, couldn't quite reply. He sensed that the TIE's didn't fire when they could have, but instead pulled away when Han Solo and his peculiar ship flew nearly on top of them. Someone called him, but the call faded slowly until it was gone.
So he blew up the Death Star and at the moment of its explosion, knew a hot glory that surpassed any feelings he'd ever had... yet there was a strange familiarity in the sensation.
Luke laughed in exultation.
"We have a new enemy - Luke Skywalker."
"Yes, my master," the Dark Lord intoned.
"He could destroy us."
Hatred flared in his gut. "He's just a boy," he pleaded, unashamed to beg for his child's future. "Obi-Wan can no longer help him." The child was lost, wounded, mentally crippled. Since their near-meeting on the Death Star, Darth could feel the youngster's confusion through their bond. It unbalanced him, left him with one aching goal: he wanted his son back, to cherish and heal him.
"The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi."
Son of Skywalker - that whole mess had been a petty charade, intent on thwarting Luke's destiny - and it had failed miserably. Despite their best efforts and severe restrictions, the boy's heritage had caught up with him and converted him into an enemy of his Emperor - as Palpatine had Seen nearly two decades ago. But if Luke could be made to remember...if Kenobi hadn't corrupted him.... "If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally."
"Yes...yes. He would be a great asset. Can it be done?"
"He will join us or die, my master," he lied smoothly. He had no
intention of letting his son be killed. Inevitably, Luke would be returned
to the Dark - he had been born Its Prince.
The cold was terrible, shattering his bones like icicles - then, abruptly, his skin was burning. Luke closed his eyes, letting sleep wash over him. So easy to let go his body, to drift with the Force, to call out to
the One who searched for him.
Luke, the voice said urgently, you must go to Dagobah... to Yoda....
He drifted, lifted his head and squinted, saw... "Ben?" He felt mild surprise and wondered vaguely if he had expected another. His face fell into the snow, and he knew no more.
He woke, warm and wet, totally disoriented. A nightmare? he asked his mind, but through the plexi of the bactatube he saw Leia and Han and knew they were real. He was alive.
And he was going to Dagobah.
But someone else was near, calling to him. He heard the voice as he tried to sleep on the medcot, heard the pleas that came even louder than the overhead paging. They continued as he rose, still sore and tired, to dress himself in his pilot's gear.
I'm coming, Luke... wait for me.
But he was going to Dagobah. And whoever was calling....
I don't have time, he answered sharply. I just don't have
Cloud City was beautiful. He could appreciate that even though he knew his friends were being held prisoner in its heart. He no longer felt Han's pain - he felt nothing from Han, though he knew the brave Solo still lived. His senses had expanded; he could hear, feel, see, in new ways.
Yet the sensations were familiar; had he done these things in his other life? He had learned so fast, devouring knowledge quicker than Yoda could impart it. He felt so much - and when Yoda and Ben told him not to go to Cloud City, he'd known they were wrong. They didn't understand, couldn't feel what he felt - he was strong in the Force, it surged through his veins like the blood that pumped his heart. He was the Force! And it was calling him home.
Han was a statue, Leia was a prisoner. It was they he'd come to save, yet he followed after neither of them. There was another path he had to take; it drew him the way whispers of smoke drew one to the fire's heart. He heard a name repeated in the depths of his mind: Lord Vader, the shadow Jedi; Lord Vader, the Evil One, father-killer; Lord Vader and his Dark Prince son, the Emperor's Pet Horror.... Too soon, Ben hissed, go back, Luke, go back.
They told him he would be afraid, but he was not. Rather, he felt both peaceful and strong in a way he hadn't felt since... since he could remember.
He followed the alluring trail and was transported upward into a chamber filled with mist and eerie lights. Cautiously, he glanced around, then holstered his blaster. One hand rested on his lightsaber.
"The Force is with you, young Skywalker."
Luke turned. High above him, a figure dressed in black flickered through the clouds. The man raised one hand in a curiously familiar gesture.
"But you are not a Jedi yet."
Strange, the words didn't sound like a threat, but more like... relief? He fixed his eyes on Vader as he mounted the steps. The Dark Lord made no hostile move, but Luke ignited his saber. After a hesitation, Vader drew his own; it was deep crimson, the color of warmth. The heart of the fire.
Their duel took on a supernatural quality. One moment he was fighting for his life, the next he was fighting to retain possession of his thoughts. Vader's mind was as skilled as his warfaring, and Luke had to battle for his privacy and sanity.
Your destiny lies with me - Obi-Wan knew this to be true.
How do you know this, how do you know me? he wanted to cry. Why do I surprise you, why are you shocked, why are you angry? I'm just a boy compared to you - I haven't half your skills - why are you afraid of me?
Then he was bested. Decisively beaten by a consummate swordsman. In desperation, he slashed out, cutting Vader's shoulder - and Vader exploded. With a roar of fury, he attacked mercilessly, and Luke raised his saber in defense--
And it was gone, along with his hand. He screamed at the lightning bolt of pain - then felt numb. Unbearably saddened, he crawled and slid away, trying to put space between him and Vader - why did you take my hand? - then found that there was only space around him. And it was a very long way down.
He looked up, unable to resist the Dark Lord's naming. Something whispered in his brain.
"There is no escape. Don't make me destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy."
"I'll never join you!" His response was instinctive; he concentrated on an escape.
"If only you knew the power of the Dark Side.... Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."
Anakin Skywalker... only a faded image to go with the name, an elusive phantom haunting his loneliest dreams. "He told me enough! He told me you killed him!" He swung onto a small ring of metal, trying to get farther away. He felt fear, more than he should. He was a Jedi - he should not know fear.
I'm not afraid!
You will be....
"No. I am your father."
I know. The horror of Vader's words and his own thoughtless response hit simultaneously. "Nooooo!" Luke screamed to both statements. "No - that's not true - that's impossible!"
Could you - could I - How could I have forgotten? I've fought you, fought us - and you've maimed me. No, no, not possible!
"Search your feelings. You know it to be true. Luke, you can destroy the Emperor - he has Foreseen this. It is your Destiny. Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son. Come with me. It is the only way."
"No!" he shouted hoarsely, though he felt his treacherous heart reaching for his father. But Leia, Han, the Alliance - his new, free life!
Ben - it's all a lie!
His father spoke again and stretched out his hand. Luke stared at it, remembering all the times it had held him, when it had ruffled his hair with affection. He remembered wanting to make his father proud, to show off his powers, to display his flying skills--
He remembered the Darkness, the Emperor, the sweet taste of terror caressing his mind....
Luke glanced down into the depths of Cloud City and made a quick decision. How often had his father laughingly told him that Vaders were impetuous?
No - I've changed. I'm not you - and I'm not who I was. But watch what I've learned, Dark Lord - watch me fly!
With a faint, ironic smile, he let go his hold, spread his wing-arms,
and plunged into an abyss.
He was saved, but there was no salvation. Ben, why didn't you tell me? he asked over and over. Kenobi had known his identity - he was Luke Vader, the Dark Lord's son, the fearsome Dark Prince. And Anakin Skywalker's... grandson? Something about that didn't feel right. Could Darth Vader have murdered his own father?
Father! he answered, his longing immediate and hot.
Son, come with me.
But he close his eyes and remained silent. He'd been fighting the Empire these last few years, which made his father his bitterest enemy.
And the one he loved most in the galaxy.
Both anguish and relief came when the Falcon plunged into hyperspace, severing the connection with his father - and they were followed by a deep mourning that he could share with no one.
He missed his father. And himself.
It was time. The insurrection was becoming too powerful and successful - thanks, no doubt, to his ingenious offspring - and Luke had run far enough. It was time for the Dark Lord to crush the insurgents and reclaim his son.
Darth Vader stood on the bridge of the Executor. The Dark Prince should have been beside him as his second; instead, there was no one to fill that position. He was surrounded by Force insensitives, the occasional competent officer, and thousands of drones. Dissatisfaction filled him, and he rebelled from the feeling. He was home, in the glorious blackness of space that reflected the costume he'd chosen for himself years ago. Months after Kenobi's attack, as his consciousness grew beyond pain and he could think again, he had pondered the need for an effective attire, one that would be so intimidating that no one would dare voice awkward questions or offer unwelcome sympathy. Black had been the only acceptable choice; it reflected the Darkness, both of the Force and of his heart, and it was the shade of night, of the skies, of the galaxy. He was Dark Lord... as Luke would be one day.
His thoughts weighed heavily on him. If he won the ultimate victory for the Emperor, he and Luke would be in bondage forever. It was not what he wanted, but he could see no alternative. If Luke would voluntarily join him, together could they defeat Palpatine? It was what he'd proclaimed to his son, but he wasn't certain it was true. And... he was afraid.
Darth trembled, stilled himself immediately. The truth, rarely faced. He feared Palpatine's formidable Force powers, but he also feared what would happen when Palpatine was gone. Could he gather the threads that held the government together and rule the galaxy? Was his control of the Force great enough? Would his life become one of never-ending vigilance, always wary, always distrustful? Would he have a life beyond being emperor?
But did he have a life now?
There were many questions that he had avoided facing. Now the confrontation
with Luke could be put off no longer, and the questions had to be answered.
If the father didn't stand strong and confident, the son would die.
Luke wore black to honor his heritage, his father, and himself. He was the Dark Prince, and he was not ashamed of his identity. He would not be like his father, hiding the truth. He knew now - he Sensed - that the legendary Jedi Anakin Skywalker was not the harmless shade of a heroic grandfather. Anakin Skywalker was the man who'd raised him... the one whose heart and spirit had been crushed beneath an impossibly heavy black mask.
Yoda had taught him no skills that he hadn't first learned at his father's side. But Yoda had taught him something about strength and how it could deceive those who did not truly understand and accept its burdens. From his Alliance friends, he'd learned about justice and injustice, selflessness and domination. He was not the same young man who'd run from his responsibilities toward adventure; he was no longer the prince who'd revelled in his Dark powers. Now he burned with a white-hot flame that purified his heart; his craving to imitate his father evaporated in its furnace.
His skills, both Imperial and Alliance taught, served him well in the battle to wrest Han from Jabba's grip. He doubted his Force abilities no longer; the confidence that had accompanied him through youth returned to aid him now. Tonight, under the dark, tree-canopied skies of Endor, he stood on the wooden bridge, studying its deceptively fragile slats. They appeared to be small and weak, yet they held the weight of an army. He raised his head, searching for a sliver of the white moon that tried but could not pierce the thickness of the trees' heavy boughs.
Father, he Sent gently. I am here. I am coming.
The acknowledgement was the brush of feathers across his mind, wordless yet distinct, and it told him he was welcome - but to beware.
Beware the Emperor... or beware you, Father?
There was no reply. He turned as Leia's presence touched him.
"Luke, what's wrong?"
Her innocence pierced him; she had no suspicions - since they'd met, she had trusted him completely. How had she survived as a princess and a senator and retained that naivete? "Vader is here... now, on this moon."
She inhaled sharply. "How do you know?"
"I felt his presence. He's come for me. He can feel when I'm near. That's why I have to go. As long as I stay, I'm endangering our group and the mission here. I have to face him."
How could he explain? He hesitated; in the end, he could only speak the simple truth that held a lifetime of complexities: "He's my father." He looked up and into her eyes.
"Your father?" She was shocked - then disgust and horror twisted her mouth.
"Yes," Luke said before she could speak again and hurt them both. "There's more. It won't be easy for you to hear, but you must. If I don't make it back, you're the only hope for the Alliance." He took her hand, abstractedly noticing how very tiny it was. "You're the Alliance's heart, Leia. If I die, my father will want vengeance - go to him. He will put his vengeance above all other wishes and needs - he will be the Alliance's sword to slay Palpatine."
She shook her head. "No - Luke.... Don't tell me these things. You're coming back! I...." Her head bent, and tears dripped onto his hand as she clutched it and whispered: "How can you be his son?"
He kissed her cheek and wondered if she loved him a little. Then Han was silhouetted in the doorway of the small house, and Luke knew he should leave. The knowledge hurt; he stepped away, reluctantly withdrawing his fingers from the warmth of her grasp.
In less than a moment, the gloom of the night devoured him.
Years had passed since they had been alone together, but Luke could think of nothing to say. There was no intelligent way to begin a conversation such as this. He walked beside his father, watchful. Waiting.
Lord Vader spoke. "The Emperor has been expecting you."
"I know, Father." Was that his voice so calm and controlled?
"So... you have accepted the truth."
He inclined his head. "I have accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker."
His father turned on him angrily. "That name no longer has any meaning!"
"It is the name of your true self - you've only forgotten!" He wrestled with his emotions, then abandoned trying to rein them. "I know there's good in you! The Emperor hasn't driven it from you fully. That's why you couldn't destroy me - that's why you won't bring me to the Emperor now."
He turned away to hide the tears that formed, holding his breath until they evaporated. The forest was green and thick. It reminded him that this was what he had wanted in his youth - to leave the safety of his father's protection, to fly, to explore the galaxy.
And this was where those wishes had gotten him.
"I see you have constructed a new lightsaber."
The blade ignited near his face, and he flinched.
"Your skills are complete. Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has Foreseen." The Dark Lord's voice overspilled with regret, and Luke turned quickly.
"Come with me," he urged.
"Obi-Wan once thought as you do," Vader said strangely, lost in memories of years long gone.
He took a step toward his father, then stopped and waited. Would he finally hear the mystery of his father and Obi-Wan?
Darth Vader sighed heavily. "You don't know the power of the Dark Side. I must obey my Master."
He lifted his chin to display the proud independence he'd earned. "I will not turn... and you'll be forced to kill me."
"If that is your destiny," Vader replied evenly.
Luke controlled a gasp. "Search your feelings, Father! You can't do this - I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate."
For a moment, it seemed as though the Dark Lord would embrace him; but the moment passed. "It is too late for me, son," he said heavily. "The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your Master now."
Stormtroopers moved toward him, alerted by the Sith Lord's signal. Luke's voice quivered with his feelings of disappointment and betrayal as he spoke the words that severed their relationship: "Then my father is truly dead."
He walked into the lift, feeling the emotional shockwaves that emanated from Darth Vader. Two hearts broken - and for what? Already he regretted his impulsive words.
But they had been spoken, and he could never erase their memory.
"I'm looking forward to completing your training. In time you will call me Master."
Luke met the gaze, amazed at the ravages reflected on Palpatine's face. He had aged decades in the last few years. "You're gravely mistaken. You won't convert me as you did my father."
"Oh, no, my young Jedi." Palpatine approached, gliding toward him like the ghostly specter of his nightmares. His wrinkled, taloned fingers stroked along Luke's arm. "You will find that it is you who are mistaken... about a great many things."
"His lightsaber," Lord Vader said, thrusting the weapon toward the Emperor.
Luke glanced sideways at the black mask. He understood that his father was repelled by Palpatine's caress of his son, and the proffered lightsaber was to be a distraction.
"Ah, yes, a Jedi's weapon, much like your father's," Palpatine continued, gloating as he studied the saber. The subtlety of Vader's insolence had escaped his notice, and it renewed Luke's hope that he and Vader could yet unite. "By now you must know that your father can never be turned from the Dark Side. So will it be with you."
He responded absently, parrying each thrust, but unable to hide his reaction when Palpatine revealed his knowledge of the Rebels' plans. Were his friends about to die? Han - Leia? he called, knowing they couldn't hear.
"It is pointless to resist, my son."
He shot a savage glare at his father. The words, the tone - already his father was defeated? No! And his friends - he refused to let them die!
His lightsaber flew to his hands - why did his father prevent his lethal blow toward Palpatine? Unreasoning rage blinded him, and he slashed with the glowing blade, driving the older man back toward the stairs. With the agility of youth, he raised one leg and kicked his father fully in the chest. Vader spiralled down the steps. He rose slowly, without his former grace, and Luke was suddenly aware of his opponent's age... and identity.
"Good! Use your aggressive feelings, boy! Let the hate flow through you!"
At Palpatine's words, the last of the insanity drained from him, and he tossed his lightsaber to the floor. He didn't spare a glance for the Emperor. "I will not fight you, Father," he declared, welcoming serenity into his being.
Vader mounted the steps slowly, and Luke was vividly reminded of their encounter in Cloud City.
"You are unwise to lower your defenses!" Vader raised his saber and swung.
The gesture was aborted when Luke didn't move. The saber hovered near his face, and he could smell the energy crystals that powered it. "You cannot hide forever, Father."
For a terrified second, he thought his choice of words had triggered his father's volatile temper. But the Dark Lord hesitated, and Luke turned to face the Emperor. "You've failed, your highness. I am a Jedi - like my father before me."
"So be it - Jedi." A frown twisted Palpatine's face as he glared at his Dark Lord. "Are you prepared to watch your son die, Vader - or do you turn traitor, too?"
The mask seemed to droop. Endless seconds passed before Darth Vader walked listlessly to his Master's side. Luke strangled a cry of disbelief in his throat. It was come to this then - all the years, all the love... lost to the Sith Lord's loyalty to his Emperor.
History was full of stories like this; his would simply be another.
Luke bowed his head and waited, resigned to death yet hoping the Force would save him.
Lightning arced the distance and flung him to the floor. It played with him, tossing him like a child's doll, dashing him onto steel canisters, bruising his body against iron rails. Blood trickled from the corners of his mouth and, during a momentary respite in the barrage, he whispered to a savior more potent than the Force that had abandoned him: "Father, help me... please...."
And he could scarcely credit what he saw through blurry eyes:
Lord Vader murdered the Emperor.
"Luke..." his father whispered an indefinite time later. "Help me... take this mask off."
The words were labored and full of pain. "But you'll die!" he protested, crying openly.
"Nothing can... stop that now." Fingers curled around his arm, surprisingly strong. "Now... just for once... let me look at you with my own eyes. It's been... so long."
Luke swiped his arm across his face, then pulled off the helmet and reverently laid it aside. Cautiously, he tilted the mask forward.
His father studied him, his glance lingering, and smiled. "Now go... my son. Leave me."
"No!" Without looking, he sensed the chaos in the hanger, felt pieces of the structure falling around them. "You're coming with me - I'll not leave you here - I've got to save you!"
Lord Vader's smile was weak. "You already have, Luke." With waning strength, he reached up and touched his son's cheek. The black glove retreated, shiny with tears. "You were right about me... you were right...."
"Father," Luke sobbed. "I won't leave you!" His hand trailed down his father's chest as he acknowledged the futility of his promise.
Palpatine was dead. But the cost had been great.
Sparks and fireflies mixed together, swirling in the updraft of the fire. He stood vigil, watching the conflagration, a curious, uncertain twisting in his heart.
Palpatine's Dark Lord burned.
The helmet was swallowed in the orange flames that brightened the night, but the stern profile was silhouetted, its pride undimmed by defeat. The reinforced suit glowed as the thin metal wires were exposed to the inferno. A small log fell, crackling as one side of the pyre drooped.
A spasm of pain, as much mental as physical, rippled through him. His body would slowly recover from the effects of Palpatine's sorcery, but his mind would bear the scars forever. He looked upward, toward hope. A fragile, spidery display erupted in the sky - then another and another. Fireworks. Already the galaxy knew that Palpatine and his Dark servant were gone and celebrated the deaths in a way that he couldn't. Not yet. His emotions were mixed, confused. He'd succeeded, yet in his mouth he tasted the bitter dregs of failure, of promises unfulfilled, futures lost.
But the galaxy had won, and that was what was truly important. His personal loss, though devastating, paled in comparison. He could not live the rest of his life regretting his actions of this day - or of the past years. He would begin a new life today, alive and free.
"Darth Vader is dead," he finally acknowledged aloud hours later as embers glowed through the blackened mound - all that remained of the dreaded Lord of the Sith.
A hand rested on his arm, and he looked down.
"But Anakin Skywalker lives," his son said, and gave him the gift of a sweet, luminous smile.
"I live," he affirmed, and turned his back on the remnants of his past. He was still afraid, but it was a fear that uplifted and gave him direction. He returned Luke's smile. "Someday I suppose I will understand and accept why Palpatine sabotaged my healing-Force - but right now I'm simply grateful that it's over." The "it" covered much more than he could ever explain, even to his own son. "Go now, Luke," he said gently. "Bid farewell to your friends before we leave."
The young man nodded, happiness and regret both gleaming in his eyes. Whether the youngest Vader would remain the galaxy's Prince, Darth could not see; but to his father, he was a prince nonetheless. He smiled, remembering Luke's favorite game as a child.
"A prince for a son... what a lucky man I am."