The Protege'Author :
jedinemoRating and disclaimer :
Rated PG-13. The Star Wars Universe belongs to George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd, and I have gained nothing but satisfaction from this fanfic.Summary :
Darth Vader has an unsettling encounter within the Imperial Palace that changes the course of Galactic history.Timeline :
A few years before the events of ANH
Anakin raised his right arm, his hand hovering over the lever that controlled the energy field securing the Jedi's cell. He could have used the Force to depress the lever, but using his hand made the act more deliberate.
Nothing could make the act more sensical. The Jedi was an enemy warrior, and Anakin had no business releasing him. His reward was likely to be the old man turning on him, having waited patiently for the perfect opportunity to strike Anakin down. And even if he didn't, Vader's wrath upon discovering that Anakin had purposefully violated his parting directive was likely to be mighty. But here he was, and not for the first time, teetering on the knife edge of his decision.
And it was not as though the prisoner had encouraged him, either. Sometimes the old man watched him as he stood on the brink, his hand poised over the controls. Other times the Jedi seemed to ignore his struggle, leaving Anakin feeling like a fool unable to make a simple choice. No, it wasn't the prisoner who drove him to this folly, but rather the Force itself. Anakin wasn't sure if he had merely been deaf to the voice of the Force before, or if it had just begun speaking to him, but ever since his brief release of the dark side, it was all he could hear.
One night its urgings had been so loud that they drove him out of bed, and he'd stood in front of the cell in his bare feet and sleep clothes, wrestling with himself. His fear and sense of self preservation had kept him from making the error, but now he was so tired of fighting the voice that he longed to give in. He clamped his fingers around the cool metal of the handle and closed his eyes.
"You must do what you feel is right," the old man said from within the cell, his voice gentle.
Anakin gave a hollow laugh. That was the whole problem. He had no experience in making that kind of choice. He would have dismissed the impulse to free the prisoner, except that the feeling of certainty that came to him every time his hand neared the lever was addictive. To know, to know without doubt or fear or worry, that his decision was right was a comfort he had craved all of his life. Had the Jedi always known such certainty?
The metal handle grew warm and slippery underneath his hand, and he loosened, then retightened his grip. The Force whispered to him once again, and this time he could not resist its call. He ignored his fear and pulled the lever down. The humming transformer that generated the energy field went silent, and Anakin sank to the floor, head bowed, waiting for the apocalypse. The cell bed creaked and he heard the prisoner move towards him. Scuffed boots appeared in his field of vision, and coarse cloth brushed against his arm. With a heavy heart, Anakin looked up into the Jedi's face.
The old man smiled warmly and reached down a hand. "Get up, Anakin. You're free now."
Blue and white swirls of light mixed outside the view port of the strategy room as Devastator
continued its hyperspace journey back towards Imperial Center. Ordinarily Darth Vader might have chosen his meditation pod as a place to work when he was pondering a problem of this magnitude. But the pod was too isolated, and he wanted the reminder of time and space passing to push him towards finding a solution. Imperial Center would come flashing up on the nav computer soon enough, and he had to have a plan by then. He always hated not knowing what to do, but even more he hated being the Emperor and not knowing what to do.
He flipped between screens of intelligence reports on his computer. There were thousands of them. It was difficult to say which of these suspect worlds would draw Tarkin's attention next. Now knowing the Grand Moff's agenda, Chandrila was an obvious first choice as a center of Rebel activity, but the data on Dantooine was less conclusive. He wouldn't have destroyed a world based on the available information, but then absolute ruthlessness was what had endeared Tarkin to Palpatine. After Dantooine, the reports grew even more incomplete, and he couldn't pick a definitive target.
Vader looked away from his computer and towards the other end of the room, where Luke was practicing with a remote. Once he would have relied on the Force for guidance, but it no longer spoke to him that way. Luke was evidence of that: the Force had revealed nothing to him about his son, and he'd found the boy purely by chance. While he still summoned the Force with ease, the prescient visions of things to come that had haunted him in his youth no longer visited him. It was a change he tried not to think about.
In turning to the dark side, he'd seized control of his destiny, and willed himself to ignore the voice of the Force. Palpatine had emphasized that the choice was essential to using the dark side, and at first, it had felt liberating. After chafing so long under the rules and restrictions of the Jedi Order, having absolute permission to do whatever he wanted with his powers had made him drunk with freedom. He'd never considered that the Force might stop speaking if he stopped listening, but that had apparently been the price. Somehow, Palpatine had retained his ability to forsee the future, but maybe that was only because Palpatine had bewitched the Force as he had all those around him.
At the far side of the room, Luke swung his lightsaber with surety, easily meeting the blasts of the remote. It was the lyrical dance of being one with the Force, and Luke exhibited a harmony with the Great Mystery that was out of proportion to the length of his studies. That Luke had advanced so quickly once he'd be taught to connect with the Force was testament to the strength of the Jedi method. As Vader watched his son, he wondered if letting go of the dark would restore the voice of the Force to his ears.
He swallowed hard. But letting go would require him to relinquish control and accept its will, and the very thought of that brought crushing panic to his heart. He wouldn't allow himself to be subject to anyone or anything ever again. He turned back to the computer screen. There had to be another way.
"Senator, did you have advance knowledge of the latest attack?" the reporter asked, his holocam buzzing near Bail's face.
"Of course not. How could I have known?" Bail said, his eyes searching for an escape route. He turned and pushed his way through the crowd gathered outside the Imperial Senate. Strangers pulled at him and their voices joined to make a rumbling sound that bordered on a roar. He had to find Leia, and get her out of here before the protest turned into a riot. The holocam zipped overhead and swooped down in front of Bail. He swatted at it, but it evaded his hand. The reporter soon joined it, having somehow teleported from one side of the mob to the other.
"Senator, they say you're the leader of the Rebellion," the reporter said, a snarl on his lips. "They say you could have prevented the destruction of Alderaan."
Bail's eyes flew open, and he struggled to orient himself in the dark. His heart still pounding, he stretched his legs against the silken coolness of his bedsheets, the sensation confirming that his confrontation on the Senate plaza had only been a dream. Of course it was, just like the others. A few details changed here and there, but the gist was the same. He sat up in bed and ran a hand through his hair. The future of the Alliance weighed heavily on him, but these dreams seemed more than manifestations of his worries. Each time he was left with the feeling that they were a warning to take action.
But what was there to do against an opponent who destroyed entire worlds? Witnesses from the vessels that escaped Chandrilian orbit by sheer luck had reported a space station the size of a small moon. It might take the entire Imperial Navy to defeat such a weapon, and the Alliance had little firepower and very few capital ships. And despite what Garm thought, Bail wasn't convinced that declaring undying loyalty to the Empire was the path to safety, either. Tarkin wasn't after a peaceful Empire; he was trying to unseat Vader. Tarkin needed
a Rebellion to further his cause, and Bail couldn't see him graciously forgiving those systems that came back meekly into the fold.
He pushed himself out of bed and slipped on the robe that lay across its foot. Really, Tarkin had no choice but to continue with his current strategy, because likewise Vader was hardly going to welcome him back into the Imperial family. Tarkin had
to defeat Vader, or die trying. Which meant that Tarkin was only going to become less reasonable and more desperate, and more worlds were going to vanish into rubble. Bail crossed the room and stared out the window, the glittering lights of Coruscant as beautiful as ever. Maybe Garm was right: freedom was a luxury that the dead couldn't enjoy.
Bail thought of the clone he'd seen in the cafe', and of how much the boy had made him think of the old days. The sense of hope that having the Jedi in reserve brought to the Republic had almost been more important than their actual deeds. A mission with insurmountable odds wasn't a cause for worry, it was a call for the Hero With No Fear. Anakin Skywalker had possessed such fire and determination that he needed only to be pointed in the right direction, and victory was all but assured. And just knowing there was that possibility had made the stress and uncertainty of the Clone Wars tolerable.
Bail rubbed his hand over his face. He must not be fully awake, because what he was thinking bordered on the ridiculous. He was sure Tarkin didn't stand a chance once Vader caught up to him, and there was a way to ensure that showdown happened sooner than later. It would require sharing information that Bail had spent decades protecting, but doing so could save billions of lives. He also realized that in doing so he risked disappearing into the void as Obi-Wan had, but he couldn't put his own life above the safety of the Alliance.
No, he would have to be at least as brave as his Jedi friend, because it was suddenly clear that to save the Alliance, he would have to betray it.
Darth Vader supposed he should have contacted Anakin before returning to the Palace, just in case some political crisis had arisen in his absence. On the other hand, if trouble was stirring, he was sure Anakin would have informed him. Besides, what he needed to focus on was not soothing fearful politicians, but reviewing Palpatine's files for any reports from Tarkin that had never made it to his own eyes. The thought of going into Palpatine's former living quarters made his skin crawl, but it had to be done.
After exiting the turbolift at the top floor, he paused to give Luke instructions. "I will be unavailable for a few hours. Find Anakin and let him know we have returned."
Luke tossed his head in the direction of the wing housing their living areas. "He's right there."
Vader glanced down the corridor, and saw that Luke was correct. Except that Anakin wasn't the only person moving towards them from the far end of the hallway. He was accompanied by an old man in long brown robes who looked remarkably like Obi-Wan. In fact, the two of them were walking close enough to each other that that it might be said that they were together.
Which made absolutely no sense. He stood dumbfounded as the pair approached.
"Where are you taking the prisoner?" he said once Anakin and Obi-Wan were within earshot.
"Obi-Wan?" Anakin said. "He doesn't need to be locked up."
He stared at Anakin. What had happened while he was gone? "I gave you an express order not to release him from his cell."
"I know," Anakin said calmly. Vader had expected him to argue back, but instead he seemed content with his disobedience. "But it went against the will of the Force to keep him imprisoned."
"What have you done to my apprentice?" he growled, turning his gaze to Obi-Wan.
"Nothing," Obi-Wan said, smiling faintly. "He made his own choices."
Inside the helmet, his mouth fell open and he blinked dumbly for a moment. "Fine. I will return him to his cell myself."
"Don't you listen to the Force?" Anakin said, his tone bordering on a reprimand.
Nothing? Obi-Wan called brainwashing nothing? "What happened to the Sith who said the Force is my servant?"
Anakin shrugged. "I couldn't hear its voice before. Don't you?"
"Of course I do," he said indignantly. He was not about to admit to a deficiency in front of both his son and Obi-Wan.
"Then why would you go against its will?" Anakin persisted.
"The two of you obviously cannot be trusted together," he said, glancing between his apprentice and his old master. "Luke, take Anakin somewhere and keep him occupied."
"C'mon," Luke said, looking amused. "I've got things to show you."
"Well, are you going to lock me up?" Obi-Wan said, as Luke and Anakin disappeared into the turbolift.
He glared at the old man as he considered his choices. "No," he said curtly.
"Good, it was a little cramped in there," Obi-Wan said. "I did feel another disturbance while you were gone. I take it you didn't find Tarkin?"
How did Obi-Wan know what his mission had been? Had Anakin told his new friend everything?
"We tracked him to a Star Destroyer in the Seswanna Sector. Unfortunately the trail went cold."
"Hmmm," Obi-Wan said, shaking his head. "So many places to hide in the Outer Rim. Just like when we were chasing Grievous."
"Yes," he said, nodding his head, before he caught himself. He didn't need Obi-Wan's advice. "If you will excuse me, I have work to do."
"Of course," Obi-Wan said, bowing his head. "Do you mind if I follow you? I don't know my way around here very well and you just dismissed my guide."
He frowned to himself. He didn't know what was worse: Obi-Wan keeping him company, or Obi-Wan loose in the Palace. The former was probably less dangerous. "Only if you do not disturb me."
"I'll try not to," Obi-Wan said.
He whirled about and headed in the direction of the cluster of rooms that had been Palpatine's private sanctum. The last time he'd ventured into this area, Palpatine had still been alive, and he had the eerie feeling that he still lurked in its confines. The Force told him that wasn't so, but his unease persisted. Dust on the statuary in the halls said that the cleaning staff felt the same way.
Beside him Obi-Wan shivered. "There's something wrong here. The dark side is strong in this place."
"We are going to Palpatine's old quarters," he said.
"Ugh," Obi-Wan grimaced. "You could have warned me."
He glanced over at Obi-Wan. "It's not pleasant for me, either."
"Then why come here?" Obi-Wan asked with disgust.
"To search his personal files for information on the Rebellion," he said.
Obi-Wan was silent for several strides. "Why are you trying so hard to stop Tarkin? It seems like he's merely eliminating your opposition."
He came to a halt, struck by the absurdity of the statement. "He has destroyed entire planets. I cannot believe you would support that."
"I don't," Obi-Wan said. "I just didn't think it was possible we agreed on anything anymore."
He considered Obi-Wan for a moment. No, it shouldn't be possible that they were in agreement. He turned abruptly and hurried down the corridor.
"So what are you going to do about Tarkin?" Obi-Wan said, struggling to catch up.
He clenched his jaw. If only he knew that himself. "I will find a solution."
"Whatever weapon he's using must have a hyperdrive," Obi-Wan continued. "It was only a matter of days between the attacks."
Why did Obi-Wan always have to belabor the obvious? "I will find a solution."
"And he must have the allegiance of part of the fleet, or else the ships in that sector would have already brought him down."
He couldn't take any more of Obi-Wan's interference. "I said I will figure it out. While you were playing in the sand these last twenty years, I have been working to keep the Empire safe."
"I was exiled to your
homeworld to watch over your
son," Obi-Wan said, with a flash in his eyes. He turned towards the turbolifts. "Stars forbid that I should question the great Emperor."
"I thought you said you didn't know your way around here," he shot back.
"I have the Force," Obi-Wan said without looking back. "I'll figure it out."
He watched the brown robed figure until it disappeared. Around him the air grew cold and oppressive, and he shivered inside the black leather suit. Somehow, once again he'd been left with only Palpatine for company.
Wind whipped over the speeder's short viewscreen and rustled through Luke's hair. He was reminded of riding with Biggs down the twisting turns of Beggar's Canyon, except that in an open speeder, the roar of traffic in Imperial Center was deafening. Beside him, Anakin said something, but the wind grabbed the words and flung them away. The smile on Anakin's face said it all anyway, especially since Luke could hardly ever remember seeing Anakin smile. The grin he wore now was absolutely free and joyous, and light danced in his eyes.
The Palace hangar loomed dead ahead, and Luke reflexively turned his head towards the structure, even though he wasn't the pilot. He glanced back at Anakin, and was distressed to see that Anakin had his eyes closed. He thumped the other boy on the arm. "Watch where you're going!"
Anakin's smile widened, but his eyes remained closed. Luke squeezed the air as if the control yoke were in his hands instead of Anakin's, and finally he ducked his head since the speeder continued hurtling towards the hangar bay. Miraculously, they passed through the opening, and Luke felt the speeder at last start to slow. The repulsors kicked on, and the craft came to a gentle rest in almost exactly the same spot they'd departed from.
Luke hopped out of the speeder as if it were on fire. "Were you trying to get us killed?"
"No," Anakin said, sounding puzzled. "I was using the Force."
Luke thought about that for a moment. "Well, that was the best landing I've seen you do."
"Thanks," Anakin said, pushing himself out of the pilot's seat and onto the deck.
Luke was tempted to ask the same question his father had: What did Ben do to you?
, but that didn't seem very polite. Still, Anakin was like an entirely different person. "So, uh, Ben didn't kill you after all?"
Anakin laughed. "It was stupid to think that, wasn't it?"
"Maybe," Luke shrugged. "And you don't want to kill him?"
"Obi-Wan is my friend," Anakin said, shaking his head. "He opened my eyes to the true nature of the Force."
Anakin didn't just seem like a different person; he'd undergone a transformation. "Now if only my father didn't hate him."
"Vader and Obi-Wan were very close once," Anakin said. "Obi-Wan called him his brother."
Luke frowned. Everything was so complicated. He wondered if he'd ever know the whole truth.
"What was it that you wanted to show me?" Anakin said.
"Oh, nothing," he said, rousing from his thoughts. He spotted a loose glove lying in the back of the speeder, and called it to his hand. "Just that. My father's been teaching me."
"That's good," Anakin said. "I can feel that you're stronger in the Force."
"Yeah," Anakin said, walking towards the larger ships in the hangar. "Let's forget this speeder and go find something that can really fly."
The Imperial Palace looked as grandiose as ever, its dark mirrored exterior matched by the expensive Sittana marble of the interior foyer. But as Bail waited for Darth Vader, he decided it felt entirely different with Palpatine gone. Around him, white armored stormtroopers lined the entry, making an impressive display, but Bail saw virtually no other type of staff member. Not even the mysterious red robed Imperial Guards who had followed Palpatine everywhere were evident. It was as if the Palace was under occupation, rather than in the possession of a new Emperor.
Vader's mechanized breathing announced him, and Bail turned towards the sound. He'd seen Vader from afar numerous times, of course, but it had many years since they had been face to face. He'd forgotten the visceral impact of being in close quarters with him. Bail had to look up to meet Vader's lenses, and that was not a position he was accustomed to, his own commanding height usually making others look up to him. The black armor compounded the impression of great physical strength, and knowing that Vader also wielded Force powers made Bail's mouth go dry with primitive fear.
"Thank you for seeing me, your highness," Bail said, finding comfort in the formality of his words.
"My time is quite limited, Senator," Vader said. "You said you had knowledge I would find useful."
"And I do," Bail said. Vader was definitely not Palpatine. Not a politician, but a soldier. He cast his eyes around the foyer. "If we might have a moment of privacy."
Vader's helmet quirked, and then he extended one hand towards the leftmost corridor leading off the entry. Bail supposed not many people asked
to be closed in a room with the Dark Lord. He followed Vader down the hall, surprised that he had not been first searched for weapons. Anakin Skywalker's confidence was one thing Vader hadn't lost. The Emperor led him through a door into a small workroom. Inside, the walls were matte grey and the chairs surrounding the oval table were covered in fabric instead of synthleather. Bail was sure Palpatine would have killed himself before entertaining a guest in a room as plain as this. Vader took a seat at the head of the table, and Bail, not wanting to breach some protocol by sitting too close, took a seat at the opposing end.
The sound of the Emperor's ventilator resonated within the confined space, but Vader said nothing. Bail guessed that was his cue to start. "We know each other, you and I."
"Of course we do, Senator Organa," Vader said flatly. "Your constituents will be glad to hear you haven't lost your faculties."
"No, that's not what I mean," Bail said. He gazed down the length of the table, wishing he could see Vader's face. His politician's mind found the mask's lack of expression maddening. "We know each other from the old days. From the Republic."
The silence stretched long enough that Bail decided Vader wasn't going to reply. On the other hand, no invisible fingers had tightened around Bail's neck, nor had Vader drawn his lightsaber. There was nothing to do but push forward. "I remember how you liberated Virujansi. I read the first-hand reports of your actions at Praesitlyn. I watched the holo of you landing the Invisible Hand
after the Battle of Coruscant."
Bail thought some of what he was saying had to be making an impact, but the mask stared at him dispassionately as ever.
"Perhaps you did," Vader said finally.
A smile of relief came to Bail's face, and a thrill ran through him. That was as big an admission as he'd ever wrung from any opponent in the Senate. "I...we...need you again. We need your help in stopping Tarkin."
"I am already engaged in bringing Tarkin to justice," Vader said. "Are you unhappy with my efforts?"
"No, no, of course not," Bail said quickly. The last thing he wanted to do was raise Vader's ire. "But I am asking for your mercy in exchange for information."
"What kind of information?"
Bail swallowed. Here went everything. However much Vader had tolerated his previous statements, what he was about to say required the biggest leap of faith. He imagined the mask dissolved, and the clone's face there instead. It helped to think he was talking to a man and not a machine. "I can give you a list of systems that are most likely to be Tarkin's next targets."
"And how have you acquired this knowledge?"
"Tarkin is going after worlds with certain...affiliations," he said, hesitating before he pronounced the most damning words. "I have been in communication with the leaders of other worlds of this type."
Vader stood up from his chair and slowly walked towards Bail, one hand atop his lightsaber hilt. "You have come to me as part of the Rebel Alliance, and you expect my mercy?"
Bail looked down, his heart in his throat. Maybe he had risked too much. "Not expecting, your highness, merely hoping."
"Why?" Vader asked, pausing next to Bail.
Bail looked up into the mask, and for a moment he thought he saw eyes revealed behind the red lenses. "Because you fought for our lives before. I'm hoping you'll do so again."