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
It was hot. But then the days were always hot on Tatooine.
The kitchen tabletop was rough beneath his palm. But then everything in his home was covered in a thin layer of grit.
The utter monotony of his life in exile, which at first had driven Obi-Wan crazy, was now a source of comfort. It meant nothing was wrong. And even though he wouldn't classify what he felt as a disturbance
in the Force, it was a change, and it made him uneasy. The Force had been quiescent for so long, that to feel its waves pulse through him with such energy was almost nauseating. He knew that once he had lived in the midst of the Force, surrounded by such intensity on a daily basis, but that life belonged to a different man.
The one he was now was equally concerned by the rising trail of dust visible through the window of his hut. He'd been watching it move ever closer, the signature of repulsors on some vehicle too distant for him to identify among the rocks of the Jundland Wastes. Only madmen and off-worlders traveled during midday on Tatooine, and he was expecting neither. Unwilling to wait until the pilot was close enough for him to sense, he fetched his macrobinoculars, and focused on the approaching dot.
Seated on a decrepit swoop bike was a man who'd probably be happy to never speak to him again. Nevertheless, Owen Lars was headed straight towards the hut. This couldn't be good.
Anakin sighed heavily as he walked down the Palace hallway. Though he had dreamt many times of escaping its confines, it was actually a relief to be back home. At least here he knew his place, unlike the teeming corridors of the Star Destroyer, where every crew member saw only his youth and not his importance.
While the helmeted figures who stood watch throughout the Palace were no longer scarlet robed Imperial Guards, their replacements, the white armored members of the 501st, accorded him the same respect that their predecessors had. Known on sight, he traveled unchallenged throughout the Palace. It was a freedom appropriate to the protege' of the Emperor.
It was as if nothing had changed.
But what he'd done had
to have changed his destiny. He'd risked his position and all that was important to him on the idle words of a stranger and the nebulous images of a dream. The horror that had flooded him when he finally understood what the images meant still lurked in the back of his mind. If he had chosen differently, he'd be standing openly at Palpatine's side right now. He'd be the emissary of the Emperor's word, ensuring order in the Galaxy. But he would be doing so from a bended knee and with an averted gaze, too beaten to ever defy Palpatine's will. His own face would be in the black helmet, just like in his dream.
He swallowed hard and lengthened his stride, as if to distance himself further from that fate. Escaping one future, though, meant accepting another, and he wasn't even sure what he'd accepted. He was placing all his trust in the one person he'd just refused to become. But it was not as though he had much choice. Lacking both credits in his own name and a working knowledge of how to negotiate Imperial Center, he was effectively imprisoned in the Palace. Vader had been right about Palpatine controlling him; he just hadn't wanted to admit it.
Winding deeper into the interior of the Palace, his comfort at being home was disrupted by the sight of the armored troopers. Each one was a reminder of Vader's revelation. He furrowed his brow. Maybe it wasn't true. After all, he didn't feel any different; he felt like himself. He slowed as he reached his destination, concealing himself behind a massive pillar. From his hiding spot he watched troopers enter and exit the former Grand Ballroom of the Palace, now converted into barracks to house the 501st.
In the Force each trooper felt distinct, but Palpatine had once told him that the 501st composed the greatest concentration of remaining Kamino clones. To one side of the Ballroom, a squad of troopers stood at ease, talking among themselves. Each had a helmet tucked under an arm, and the faces revealed were identical. Seeing the same smile flit across all four faces filled him with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Suddenly his decision to come here seemed like a bad idea. He fought the impulse to run away, and made himself approach the quartet of troopers. He had to know.
Surprise flickered over the first man to spot him, but the trooper's expression quickly returned to its disciplined norm. "Can I help you, sir?"
He licked his lips. "You're clones, right?"
All four men were facing him now, and they exchanged glances before the first trooper answered. "That should be obvious, sir. What of it?"
He realized his question had offended them somehow, but he persisted. "How did you know for sure?"
"When I found the production number tattooed on my neck, sir," a second trooper said.
His hand went automatically to the back of his head, causing the squad to burst out in laughter. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, his face flushed hot. He should have never expected that they would help him. He spun away from the barracks and towards the haven of his room.
"You look like him," came a voice from behind him.
Catching himself, he slowly turned back. A fifth soldier had joined the group, his armor marked with battle scarred accents of blue. Likewise, his face was heavily lined, and his hair, though wavy like the rest, was flecked with silver. "Like who?"
"Like Vader," the trooper said, and even the other soldiers paused to listen to him. "There's still a few of us around who fought with him in the Rebellion at the Jedi Temple. And you look just like him."
He was considering the trooper's words when abruptly the squad stiffened at attention. In the background, he became aware of the sound of Vader's breathing.
"Anakin," came the mechanical voice, "I have work for you."
He turned towards Vader and stared up into the black mask. He had tried so hard to keep his vision from becoming a reality. But apparently his efforts had been doomed from the start, because his face had always been behind the mask. All he could do now was find out what that meant.
Standing in the shade of Obi-Wan's modest hut, Owen nodded curtly in place of a greeting. He'd declined the invitation to come inside, his eyes flicking suspiciously through the open door to the interior of the home. His face was a little more creased than the last time Obi-Wan had seen him, his hair a little more gray. Obi-Wan supposed the same could be said about himself. "How can I help you, Owen?"
"I was hoping you could tell me you've seen Luke," Owen said, the concern in his eyes belying his gruff demeanor.
A tingle of alarm spread through Obi-Wan. "Not since the last time I ran into him in Anchorhead. It's probably been a few weeks or more. I take it he's not at home?"
"You know how kids are," Owen said, his jaw tightening. "We had a little argument, and anyways, it's been a couple of days. I had the idea he might have come to stay with you."
He couldn't believe Owen was just standing there. "Should we start searching? The sand people..."
"No, it's not like that," Owen said. "His travel case is missing, and some of his clothes."
Obi-Wan stared at Owen, but in his mind he saw a sparkling white strategy room inside the Tantive IV
. They had all agreed on a plan: Until the time is right, disappear we will
. And so he had waited, waited for that time. He had never imagined Luke would leave without him.
"I will teach you how to fly it when you know how to fix it," Darth Vader said with disgust. It had been four hours since he'd left Anakin with this assignment, and ion drive components from the TIE still lay scattered all over the hangar floor.
Anakin ran a hand through his hair, clearly frustrated. "But you didn't teach me how to fix it, either."
"You should be able to figure this out on your own," he said. "When I was a boy, it came naturally to me."
"What's the point?"
He gritted his teeth. "The point is, a pilot should know how to repair his own craft. So that if it were to become disabled, he would not be stranded."
"If I was stranded, I'd just summon the Imperial Navy," Anakin said with a shrug. "That's what it's there for."
"The Imperial Navy is for maintaining order in the Galaxy, not your personal use," he said."You...we... do not come from privileged stock. We are self-sufficient."
Anakin looked unimpressed."Well, I was taught that if you had to do it yourself, you weren't a strong enough leader."
He shook his head. "Strength is born of competence."
"I still don't see how you expect me to just know
how to put it back together," Anakin said.
Sighing, he called two pieces of the ion drive to hand, and snugged them together. "Feel how the Force changes when function is restored. Let it guide you."
"Guide me?" Anakin snorted. "The Force doesn't guide me, it serves me."
"Partially," he said. He'd wondered exactly how much Palpatine had taught the boy, and this was an obvious gap in his education. "But you must also let it guide you if you are to find your true destiny."
Anakin laughed, and his voice filled with derision. "Now you sound like a kriffing Jedi
Time seemed to skip a beat, and when it resumed the boy was laying flat on his back. He realized he had shoved him with the Force. "Never say that!"
Anakin considered him for a long moment, then gracefully pushed himself to his feet, maintaining a careful distance between them. "I'm surprised myself. Palpatine always said that was the Jedi's weakness: that they surrendered control to the Force."
He stared at the boy, blinking. He followed the Force probably as often as he commanded it. It had always seemed natural to do so, especially when flying or fighting an opponent. Wasn't that his gift, that the Force spoke so loudly to him? Even in the light of the boy's statement he could not see the error in the technique. Had Palpatine interpreted this as a deficiency? As a sign that he was not fully committed to the Sith Order?
"Pride," he said finally. "Pride was their weakness. That they knew best."
Anakin watched him silently.
His interest in showing the boy how to repair the fighter was gone. And he didn't like the wariness with which the boy now regarded him. He closed the distance between them and put a hand on Anakin's shoulder. "Come, I have another task for you. Perhaps more to your liking."
Anakin flinched and slid out from under the leather glove. "What now?"
Vader walked away from the TIE, and was relieved when Anakin followed him. "I need you to review some records, and write me a summary report."
"Don't you have a clerk who could do that?"
"Analyzing intelligence is an important part of being a commander," he said. "And you are dreadfully short of practical skills."
"I thought you said I might like this better," Anakin grumbled.
"It involves sensitive material," he said, glancing down at the boy. "You will only be permitted to see it because you are my apprentice."
"Yeah?" Anakin said, interest lighting in his eyes.
"Yes," he said, pleased to have found something that attracted Anakin's attention. "This information needs to stay between us."
"Hey Biggs," Luke Skywalker said, giving his best friend a nudge over the armrest that separated their seats. "Thanks for signing that form for me."
"Shhhh," Biggs replied, lowering his head. "You don't want them to send you back, do you?"
Luke realized his error and looked quickly around the crowded transport. All he saw was rows of other young men like himself, the Imperial officers having taken their seats in the forward cabin. Still, Biggs was right: he had to watch himself a little more closely now. This wasn't Tatooine anymore. He tried to peer out one of the side windows, but his seat was too far from it for him to make anything out. "I wonder if we're in hyperspace yet?"
"Nah," Biggs said casually, as if he had been to deep space hundreds of times. "You feel
it when the ship makes the jump to lightspeed."
Luke glanced at his somewhat older friend and wondered how he knew that. But then Biggs seemed to know a little about everything, including the fact that enlisting in the Imperial Services did not require the same graduation certificate that applying to the Academy did. He'd wanted to go to the Academy like Biggs was, but being an enlisted man would be fine. After all, his father hadn't been an officer; he'd been a navigator on a spice freighter. And anything would be better than endlessly repairing vaporators on the moisture farm.
At the thought of home, his anticipation for his new life was replaced by guilt. Even though he'd told his uncle many times that he wanted to move on from the farm when he graduated, quitting school to join the service was, well...reckless
. And his Aunt Beru must be worried sick about him right about now.
"Uh oh. I know that look," Biggs said. "Don't tell me you're having second thoughts."
He frowned. "I shouldn't have left without saying anything."
"What, and have your uncle stop you from going?" Biggs said. "Make contact when we get to Raithal. When it's too late to change anything."
"Yeah," Luke said, feeling only marginally better. "I hope none of the droids break and leave Owen shorthanded for the harvest."
"Who taught you how to fix them in the first place? Owen can handle the droids," Biggs said. "Besides, you're going to send them credits, right?"
That had been his plan, the final point to tip the balance of his decision to join the Imperial Navy. Unlike Academy students, recruits to the regular Navy received a paycheck. This way he could follow his own dreams and
contribute to the family finances. At least that's what he convinced himself the night of his latest argument with his uncle. "You really think they'll let me fly, Biggs?" he said, turning in the narrow seat of the transport. "I'm signed on for fighter mechanic. I might never see the outside of a hangar again."
"You're the best bush pilot in the Outer Rim," Biggs said with a hint of envy. "There's no way they can ignore your talents."