Five Years Ago
Items recovered from one Winama of Naboo, alleged ‘Guardian’, aider and abetter to the ‘Jedi’ (self-proclaimed sorcerers, cultists and terrorists):
One set of robes, origins possibly from fine Alderaan silk. Incinerated.
One datapad. Encrypted. Deciphered after two weeks by Imperial Intelligence. Revealed locations of abandoned Jedi covens.
One vial of unknown liquid substance. Analyzed in Imperial Research Facilities. Properties unknown. Lethal effects by direct contact. Lethal effects by inhalation. Lethal effects by ingestion. Transferred to Hazardous Chemical Decimation facilities. Properties still unknown.
Flimsi-plast image. Poor reproduction. Subject appears to be dark-haired young female. Image could not be improved by technical enhancement. Missing.
A faded, out-of-focus flimsy-plast image. There was a part of him that tried to understand why he had even noticed it amongst the old woman’s things presented to him by the Imperial Officers. Of course, he understood why he took it - what a Sith wanted, a Sith took. What he didn’t understand was why he stole it, why he wanted it a secret from the officers, the other Hands, his Master.
Perhaps, it was because secrets were the best form of possession. Perhaps it was something more. Because when Vader had stared at the blurry out-of-focus image, the lines seemed to sharpen for him. He could see the face behind that image, a face of such indescribable beauty that he knew it could not be real.
It was strange that he almost never found that image. When the Emperor had informed Lord Vader of his first mission as a Sith, Vader had been outraged.
“Interrogating a civilian? That’s a job for the Imperial Police not Sith! It’s overkill, Master!”
The Emperor’s punishment had been swift and effective. By the time Vader had picked himself from the floor, the words “you will learn your place” were drilled into his brain.
On top of that, the Emperor had further humiliated him by revoking the privilege of conducting the mission on his own. His former peers, Darra Thel-Tanis and Ferus Olin accompanied him.
By the time they arrived at the Imperial Holding Facility in Chandrilla, Vader was ready to unleash himself at the first possible victim.
This happened to be the Officer-in-Charge, a blustery red-faced man who had been used to the late but not mourned Lord Vapaad, and was not aware of the recent changes to the Emperor’s court.
The Officer made the mistake of taking Vader at face value. When he realized his errors, he apologized profusely, all but grovelling before them. Vader calmly ignored the man’s blubbering and ordered Ferus and Darra ahead. He then spent a few minutes re-educating the man. It was a more direct form of education that involved finding a pathway into his brain and re-structuring it. As the man’s oversized body broke into spasms, Vader’s mood improved greatly.
This pleasant pastime was unfortunately cut short by a familiar voice over his shoulder.
“What are you doing, An...” Darra’s voice trailed away at the look in the boy’s eyes.
The newly minted Sith stared down his childhood friend until she looked away.
Swallowing carefully, she said very respectfully, “Lord Vader, Ferus is about to begin the interrogation of the prisoner.”
Vader cursed, his recently restored good mood gone. Abandoning the destroyed Imperial officer, he started walking rapidly down the corridor of the Imperial prison.
“He said you gave him permission,” Darra said, almost sprinting to match Vader’s longer strides.
They were drawing closer to their destination and the screams were becoming louder.
“Give me strength!” Vader roared and burst into the holding cell. “Olin!”
The prisoner, an old woman who looked barely alive was chained hands and feet to a metallic chair in the centre of the cell. The cell itself was not at all like the dungeon where Kenobi was chained at the start of this story. It was a four-walled affair with a tiny cage of a window at the extreme end. A standard class high-security facility for a high-security prisoner, nothing more.
Guardians, for all their influence, were normal beings.
Ferus the Emperor’s Hand was leaning over the woman and carefully drawing lines in her bare arms with a blade when Vader burst in.
Ferus looked up casually at his erstwhile mate. “Oh, it’s you. Keep your voice down. I’m in the middle of something here, Ana-.”
Vader’s wrath lifted the other boy from his feet and flung him far, high and hard against the wall. It was only Darra’s quick reach in the Force that prevented every bone in his body from shattering when he hit the floor.
Vader turned on her with a venomous glare.
“I’m sorry!” she cried. “But you’re not going to kill him over a Jedi-Guardian!”
Ferus was picking himself up with a groan. Darra had broken his fall, not cushioned it. Vader turned his glare from her to him.
“Get him out of my sight at once!”
Darra quickly ran to comply.
“You think you’re a big man now,” Ferus snarled as the girl placed an arm around his shoulder. “Just because you slipped under Darth Vapaad’s guard, you think you’re a cut above the rest of us.”
“Shut up, Ferus!” Darra hissed angrily.
Vader would have told her not to bother. He didn’t mind Ferus’s stupid talk. It only served to highlight the other boy’s resentment; and the Sith thrived on the envy and fear of others. Ferus had never forgiven him, Vader, for taking the initiative and challenging the old Sith apprentice. It amused Vader to think that Ferus actually believed that he would have had a chance against Darth Vapaad.
Vader strolled up to the other boy, looked him up and down - Darra watching apprehensively all the while - and slapped him with his open palm.
Both Hands, once Vader’s own peers, gasped. The slap was a rebuke, a master correcting an underling. A blow would have been more dignified.
Hatred and humiliation seemed to drench Ferus Olin. Vader savoured it.
“You were saying?” Vader whispered.
Ferus opened his mouth. Then closed it.
“Get out,” Vader hissed.
Neither Hand said a word as they left. Ferus was too bitterly shamed and Darra was too wise.
Vader turned to the prisoner, the old Guardian. The woman’s face was a mass of bruises from her desperate struggle with the Imperial officers that had arrested her. Tiny streaks of blood stained her arms where Ferus had cut her.
He picked up the knife from where it had fallen and walked to the woman. Her eyes never left his face.
“Did you fear him while he tortured you?” he asked conversationally. He threw the knife in the air, caught it, threw it again. “You should. He’s very good with torture.” Threw the knife, caught it again. “You can say he’s even developed a talent for it.” Threw the knife, caught it again. “And he’s afraid of me.” Stopped. Looked the woman straight in the eye. “Go figure.”
She didn’t say a word. All the while he had played with the knife, her eyes had never left his face.
Vader said softly, “If you talk very quickly and very honestly, I will make your passing comfortable. I take no pleasure in killing your kind: least of all, old women like yourself.
“If you don’t.” Vader brought the knife to her ear and nicked off the edge of it. She cried out loud. “I look like a child. I’m not.”
He went hunting for a place to seat while she contained her sobs. He finally found a rectangular object that seemed to be some sort of torture tool. He improvised, drawing it close to her, and straddling it. He sat a little below her, and waited until she had stopped snivelling completely.
The image they made was a grotesque distortion of an old woman being comforted by her small grandson.
Eventually, her sobs quieted.
“Are you ready to talk?” he asked, his voice almost kind.
She nodded. Her ear was bleeding very freely and it sprayed a little on her already stained robes with the motion.
“Well?” Vader drawled after a long moment of silence had passed.
She looked at him and in her brown eyes, he saw acceptance, resolution and sadness.
“I failed you,” she said so softly he almost didn’t hear her.
Her voice wasn’t any louder but she held him with her eyes. He almost heard the words in her mind. “I failed you, all of you, but especially you. So I forgive you because I’m responsible for what you are.”
Vader sighed. “Delusions give you strength, woman? I am disappointed. You Jedi-Keepers are creatures of renown.” And he picked up the knife again.
“We are only creatures,” she said quietly. “No more. No less. We don’t have your powers, the powers to move mind and matter. Yet somehow we still manage to do your kind a great deal of service.”
Something cold and alien seemed to fill the Sith with her words.
“You’re preaching to the wrong kind,” he snarled.
“And when we fail,” she continued as if he had not spoke, “we do your kind a great deal of harm. Like you. Forgive me.”
“Like me? I have just been made the Sith apprentice,” Vader retorted, feeling a strange and ridiculous urge to justify himself against this woman. The knife trembled in his hand. He had more effective means of extracting information than Ferus knew. Why was he hesitating? “The only harm that concerns me is the harm I dispel on others, like yourself.”
At his words, she did close her eyes. The emotions coming from her was so tangible that even though he had never felt it directed at him before, he recognized it at once.
“I don’t need your pity, woman!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. The knife still trembled in his hand. Why didn’t he use it?
“I’m sorry,” she said. She was not apologizing for pitying him. And, probably because of what she had already witnessed between him and Ferus, she only said his name in her mind. He heard her.
That cold, strange, alien thing that had been rising in Vader as the woman spoke suddenly exploded out of him. He had never felt rage or hatred this powerful.
“You fool! You mistake me for some Jedi child you failed to save,” Vader spat. He didn’t know why he was so desperate to correct her. He didn’t know why he hesitated to use the knife. “I am not. I was born royalty, in the Imperial Palace itself and I was raised a Sith from the moment I took my first breath. You don’t know me! You know nothing about me! I am Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith!
“Do. Not. Dare. Pity. Me.” And in one swift motion, he finally used the knife.
The blood pooled at his feet. He now looked down at her eyes, close to his boots on the floor. Even lifeless as they were now, they seemed to see too much into his soul.
She had said his old name.
Vader bent over the fallen head, and closed her eyes.
“The malicious lies of a crazy old woman,” the Emperor said calmly after Vader had re-told the whole incident.
The young Sith was silent.
“You doubt me, boy.” His voice was threatening.
Vader didn’t bother denying it. “She knew my old name.”
“What of it? You think the identities of the Sith’s Hands are secret? Less than year that is what you were. Most of our subjects have wisely chosen not to understand us. A few - like the Guardians do. There is no particular intelligence in seeing what is in front of you.”
“So she was-”
“I grow impatience with your doubts, Vader,” the Emperor roared.
“You were the one who taught me always to look for deceit in all things,” Vader retorted, his own adolescent timbre rising.
“Then search your heart,” his Master snapped. “And discover the truth there.”
The Sith Master was so irritated at his young apprentice’s indecisiveness that he had not probed too closely into his account for the encounter with the Guardian.
Which was just as well. Because Vader had kept one secret from his Master.
Perhaps it was out of a sense of vindictiveness to the old woman who had said and seen too much. The image meant something to her - he could feel the strong memories and emotions that she had imprinted on it - and Vader doubted that she, wherever she was, would be happy that he had kept it.
Perhaps it was they mystery of the thing - an unclear image could be as lovely or as repulsive as your mind chose it to be. Romantic, yes. But despite all his protestations to the contrary, the Lord Vader was still a very young boy.
Perhaps it was the urging of a distant memory, so far back that it might not actually have been his own, that told him that the image meant something to him.
Whatever the case, he took it, kept it secret from his own Master, and pined and pined over the image until he had worn it out to shreds.
It never occurred to him that the face on that image really existed in real life. It never occurred to him that such imagined beauty could be real.
Until years later, on the day a Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi tried to infiltrate the Imperial Palace and nearly succeeded.
Just before chapter 1
A holo-image this time, clear, sharp. A woman, not a girl. A superficial resemblance to the other face in the old image. Vader had recognized her at once.
“Not in this lifetime,” the Jedi told the Sith.
Time will tell.