Fire lapped at the city. Infrastructure not pulverized in the bombardment melted in the intense heat. Smoke slipped through the devastation and danced on the grave of misfortune. Vader walked through this hell untouched.
He was born of fire and raised on destruction. Ruin had become his lifeblood. He existed to be its master.
The subharmonic whir of servomoters blended with the steady rhythm of footfalls as he continued his inspection. The clone commander had assured him of the city?s certain death ? air standards were falling rapidly, radiation levels would spike within a standard day ? but Vader, as always, had to see for himself.
Clones rarely misjudged situations and it was bred out of their nature to lie. If they did happen to be mistaken, however, the punishment would be a quick and inglorious death. If Vader, on the other hand, trusted such a misjudgment and reported it back to the Emperor?
If he could, Vader would have shivered. Palpatine had shed the comforting frock of supportive friendship the day Vader had taken the Sith oath. As a mentor he had been kind and forgiving. As a master, the Emperor was merciless and calculating. Every decision was made with critical regard; each consequence preordained. Failure to successfully carry out an order was unforgivable. The Sith mastermind tolerated no flaws in the complicated web of tyranny he had designed.
No, Vader would never have the blessing of a quick and inglorious death; that would be kind and forgiving. He was damned to eternal torment inside this prison of his own making. The same suit that made it possible for him to walk these streets without risk of damage from the poisonous fumes or debilitating emissions could also serve as his torture chamber at the hands of the Emperor.
And always he was too weak to fight back.
Sometimes Vader wondered if Palpatine had even masterminded his rout at Mustafar. Standing on a platform overlooking the lava fields, he had believed he would achieve great power, then defeat the Sith Lord. He had believed he was still capable of bringing balance to the Force. But a single fateful swipe of his old master?s lightsaber not only had cleaved his body asunder ? the unlimited Force reserves the Chosen One had so often called upon now were dimmed like a candle left with a thin wick.
Anakin of pure power had been left Darth Vader, a stomping, frightful monster.
So Vader stomped through the burning rubble, making his inspection within the privacy of his thoughts. Sometimes he would hear the coughing cries of the dying, pleas for mercy, but he never paid them the least bit of attention. Their fates were sealed; they were the lucky ones. Soon they would be free of suffering and the Emperor would hold no sway over their misfortune.
He actually envied them.
A man, or what was left of a man, stumbled out from behind a broken duracrete wall. He staggered in Vader?s general direction, arms upraised in an unspoken request. His knees buckled, and he landed prone at Vader?s feet.
He spared a glance down at the beggar. One side of his body was charred and weeping; the other half riddled with blaster wounds and shrapnel injuries. Vader wanted to look away, but he couldn?t. Two blue eyes lifted up to meet his obsidian stare.
"Help me," the man croaked, clawing at Vader?s prosthetic leg, his fingers digging all the way to the synthsteel shafts.
Vader swung his leg. "Get off, you fool!"
The man was unshakeable. His injuries were egregious; he should have fallen off like a leaf. Yet he hung on like a planet trapped in its sun?s orbit. "Please."
"What do you want from me?"
"Make it stop. Please stop," the man pleaded into Vader?s pant leg.
An odd influx of emotion twisted in Vader?s gut, whirling around and ripping his insides. It was a rare concept for the man in black, now more machine than human, but it was there. Pity. Maybe it was the phantom pain of scorched flesh or the vivid memory of the stench of burnt hair ? sensations he would never experience again, yet could recall unerringly. Perhaps it was the reminder of hurting so badly that you would ask for help even from a sworn enemy. Whatever it was, Vader pitied this man.
Pity? Pity! Pity was an emotion for weaklings and fools. Certainly not a Dark Lord of the Sith. Vader couldn?t afford the luxury of experiencing emotions that left him vulnerable. That would be akin to piercing a reek?s nose with a handler?s ring and handing his master the chain.
Banishing pity was simple. With a swipe of a hand the poor wretch released his grip and rose before Darth Vader. As the Sith Lord?s fingers closed to a fist, the man clutched for his throat. Eyeballs bulged and veins distended. At first he clawed for air, for life. Then a change washed over him. Resignation and relief.
The dying man blinked once, opening his eyes to reveal pools of gratitude. Flickering like the numerous waters that once covered this planet, his cerulean irises held the last gasps of a soul in need. A second later, nothing remained but darkness. Vader lowered his arm and the burnt corpse fell limp to the ground.
Before the soft thud reached his electronic audioreceptors, Vader recoiled at the vivid and stabbing memory of his last hours as the whole man called Anakin Skywalker. Try as he might, visions of Mustafar were impossible to fight off in this place.
I?m afraid in your anger you killed her.
Even when he was hundreds of light years away, the Emperor?s voice rang clearly in Vader?s mind. Images of this anonymous man slumping to the ground alternated with a haunting replay of the last time he had seen Padm? ? falling to the cold duracrete of a Mustafar platform. Falling. Thud. Falling. Thud. Falling?
Vader didn?t remember deciding to run. Moving was still a deliberate process with his artificial appendages. It wasn?t the smooth, effortless strides of a young Jedi, but more of a doleful lumber. One foot in front of another, Vader clumped through the dying city. Destruction and death penned him in from opposing sides. Each way he turned, each street and thoroughfare presented another horrific reminder.
Ahead an architectural marvel sloughed its fa?ade, and he was forced to swerve to avoid the building?s last throes. Agility had been forsaken for brutal strength in his design, though, and Vader turned too slowly. He banked off the remaining brick corner that defined a darkened alleyway and toppled to the ground.
He cried out as he bounced off the unforgiving pavement. A pain trigger - a cue engineered into his false body to let him know of damage to a mechanical limb - raced through his electronic synapses and pierced his thoughts. Rolling on his side, Vader?s right hand clutched his leg. He probed until he found a jagged tear and exposed wires.
Pain. The trigger refused to stop. Vader gritted his teeth against the persistent pulsing of his nerve endings and tried to find the immediate source of the failure. A quick exam was inconclusive. Battered by the pain and left with no choice, Vader rolled onto his back, fought to lift his weighted skull and finally managed to tap a series of his chest controls.
The pain stopped.
Vader?s helmet thumped to the pavement, and he lay there spent. No words could adequately describe the sensation that had overtaken him. Exhaustion. Dry. Empty. Drained. Cold. None of them were enough.
Vader wasn?t sure how long he stayed there. Time had become an immeasurable tool. Life occurred to the metronome tempo of his regulated breath. The length of each influx infinite, the discard stroke minutely indeterminate. Time ceased to matter without a reason to exist. Anakin?s reason had died on a platform in hell, at his own hand. Vader existed solely to pay a debt to the lie for which Anakin had sold his soul.
"Are you hurt?"
The tenuous question caused Vader to sit abruptly. A bundle of sooty rags scampered backwards in surprise. They appraised each other for a moment, only the crackling of far off flames and the distant rumbling of chaos passing between their silent discovery. The diminutive inquisitor cocked its head, causing a tussle of copper-hued hair to tumble aside. Green eyes blinked within an ash-covered face. The urchin moved closer, keeping to the shadows, only those emeraude orbs discernable in the darkness.
"Are you hurt?" she asked again.
"Uh," Vader fumbled. A child, no more than seven at most, regarded him with no fear, only wary concern. He was the stuff of childhood nightmares, yet she hovered and repeated her question.
"Are you hurt?" Her hands went to hips, and her brows furrowed. "Maybe you can?t hear me."
"I can hear you fine," Vader snapped. It was bad enough to have this child question him like a simple armored trooper, far worse to be dismissed entirely. He was, after all, Darth Vader.
"Well, I wasn?t sure with that funny suit." She leaned closer and examined his mask. "So I thought I?d ask."
Then the child did something he would never have expected. She walked over and tugged his arm across her shoulder. Gritting through her teeth, she pressed upward. "Come on. We need to get out of here."
Vader craned his neck around to peer down. True grit was a rare trait. From his awkward angle, he marveled at the pursed lips and reddening puffed cheeks, the girl?s determination to see her burden rise. It was a cutting reminder of a love lost.
"Some help here, you lazy lug."
"Patience, young one," Vader replied. Master Yoda would have had fun with this one ? impertinent and impetuous.
The girl ceased her struggle. "What did you say?"
"I said, patience."
"No, the other stuff. Im?imper-da-nant -"
His chin drew back abruptly. "You heard that?"
Mutely the child nodded.
Perhaps in his confusion, he had spoken it aloud. Vader wasn?t sure what compelled him to repeat something that had only been meant for the privacy of his thoughts, but he did. "Im-per-ti-nent."
"What does im-per-ti-nent mean?"
"It means brazen and disrespectful. A long time ago some people called me that."
"But I was only trying to help you."
"I know. But you also ordered me to stand and called me a lazy lug."
The child?s jaw dropped and she gasped. "You heard that?"
For an awkward moment, the pair studied each other. A simple Force technique allowed Vader to replay the last few minutes. At the height of her exertion, as she tried to aid his effort to stand, the child had loosed a burst of energy, her thoughts tumbling into the Force in the process. She hadn?t spoken those words at all. It was a rare occurrence ? most Jedi could project broad ideas at best; few had been known to generate complete conversations. In untrained Force sensitives with this particular ability, their thoughts sometimes would jump to other Force users, often when the sentiments were ones best left unsaid.
There was only one conclusion.
A Jedi child!
Habit demanded he reach for his lightsaber. The girl drew back, her first show of fear. That look, eyes suddenly afraid of whom he had revealed himself to be? Padm? had looked at him that way seconds before he had willed her windpipe shut. She had been terrified, just like this child was now. Vader froze with his hand on the dead hilt, unable to draw enough hate to finish his task.
This little girl had believed him worthy of saving and suffered the ultimate betrayal for it. He was a monster.
"Padm?." He hadn?t spoken her name since the day he had learned of her death. But here and now, in this place, the word slipped out effortlessly.
Backing away gingerly, the girl must have sensed a moment of weakness. "I don?t know what you want, mister, but I have to go?" Red hair fanned out as she pivoted and fled.
"Wait. Don?t go," Vader implored. Not like this. "Don?t leave me!"
Incredibly, she stuttered to a stop. But she didn?t turn or look at him. She just stood there, one hand flexing and unflexing. A cloud of dark smoke wisped past her, devouring her tiny frame. When she reappeared the girl was facing him. Her eyes never left Vader as she drew up an arm and coughed into the sleeve of her tunic. When the wracking subsided she seemed to have made up her mind.
Despite everything ? the collapsing city, the noxious air, the death and destruction, his betrayal ? this girl was willing to risk saving him. Vader listened to the rattling wheeze of his measured breath and wondered what she saw. Before he could figure it out, she was beside him.
"Get up, you lazy lug." She stood over him, her piercing green gaze incontrovertible.
"If you knew who I was you wouldn?t call me that," he growled in the deepest voice his modulator would project. Yet at the same time, his leaden legs gathered to rise.
Unfazed, the girl moved to assist him. "If it looks like a lazy lug and acts like a lazy lug?" She grunted and huffed into the monumental task of lifting his mammoth frame. "?then it must be ?"
"Child!" Vader clambered awkwardly to his feet. "Do you speak to your parents this way?"
She backed away abruptly. He couldn?t see in her eyes, but the set of her lower lip said enough. The girl had no one; she was alone in this life. Vader knew exactly what that felt like.
He reached out his black-gloved hand and touched her shoulder. Nothing he could say would do her loneliness justice. Oddly, though, his silent understanding was enough. Reaching up, she grasped his hand and smiled.
"We?d better hurry," she said, tugging him along.
He didn?t resist and limped after her. "Where are we going?"
"To the spaceport." She urged him faster with an insistent yank.
"And what will you do when you get there?"
She stopped and gave him a look like the answer was the most obvious in the galaxy. "Steal a starship, of course."
For the first time in a long, long time, Vader felt the corners of his scarred mouth twitch upward. "Right. Of course."
Suddenly he wasn?t the crippled monster in the black suit. His gait felt light and his step sure. Together they broke into a run. Behind his mask Vader smiled and remembered what it was like to be free. His heart pounded, expanding exponentially as it funneled pure white energy out of the Force. He had forgotten how liberating the Force could be. He felt like he could fly. Vader drew more and more on the light. There was so much of it here, so many reminders of Anakin Sky?
A burst of unadulterated fear spiked in his heart, and Vader shoved the girl away.
She stumbled then righted herself, casting him a bewildered look.
His pulse thundered in his head. There was no time, and he dared not make a sound. Run!! he screamed into the Force, at the same time turning his back on her in a swirl of black cape. The move was calculated and cold. He hoped it was enough, and he started to walk away.
He had only a matter of seconds, maybe less, to recover. He feared for the girl, but was comforted by the fact she had enough sensitivity to have detected the same dark tremor in the Force. She hadn?t waited; she had run as he had commanded. It took an incredible act of will to push her from his mind, and he had barely done so when the shadow rounded the corner.
Vader quieted his mind, plunging it into blackness. He had to let go of the light; it was the only way. He strode over and knelt before the dark figure.
"Master." Vader kept his gaze fixed at the base of the Emperor?s deep burgundy robes and the pair of clone commando feet to either side.
"Lord Vader, rise."
Vader dipped his helmet respectfully, then stood. "To what do I owe the honor?"
The Emperor appeared to ignore his question, instead waving the two troopers off, in the direction ?
Stop! You mustn?t.
His master grinned like a tuskcat fat on bantha flesh. "I wanted to see the end for myself."
"You don?t trust me."
The Emperor walked past him, dipping his head in a sign for Vader to follow. "It is not a matter of trust, my apprentice. It is a matter of completion. I plotted the fate of this world long before you were born. I invested much time in the effort, and I always finish what I start."
Vader kept his eyes lowered, afraid that looking ahead would betray his deepest thoughts. "I see."
Sidious placed a hand on Vader?s shoulder. "I have always been in complete control here. It is my concern that I stay in complete control to the end."
"Yes, Master." Which here? This planet or me? A fit of helpless rage made Vader?s palm itch for his lightsaber. One swipe ?
Screeching crushed his fury into a vat of horror. "Put! Me! Down!"
Vader?s insides liquefied like Tatooine sand during a groundquake, yet somehow he remained rooted in place. The two red-painted troopers appeared, the street orphan kicking and screaming between them. They paid her no mind as they completed their unified jog back to the Emperor.
"We found only this child, my Lord," one trooper said.
"A child." The words salivated from Sidious? mouth.
The girl continued to fight her captors, thumping her bruised legs off their armor in a futile struggle. For a millisecond, she eyed Vader. He could only offer a slight shift of his helmet and pray no one else noticed. She slumped lifeless in the clones? grip after that.
Why had she stopped fighting? He had only meant for her to not acknowledge him. He had been afraid for her sake?
No. Not for her sake, he suddenly realized. For his sake.
Yes, he was a coward.
Selfish lazy lug coward!
"No!" Vader howled reflexively when he recognized the child?s thoughts screaming in his head. He cried this time not in protest, but out of unmitigated panic. If the Emperor discovered she was ?
"A Jedi child?" Sidious hissed and slithered closer. "Does she have a name?"
The child spit at him defiantly. I?ll never tell you, poison man.
"What did she say?" Sidious asked.
"Nothing, my Lord," one trooper responded.
The Emperor pivoted his head, looking to Vader. "Lord Vader?"
He was paralyzed with indecision.
"What did she say?" Sidious demanded.
"I said, I?ll never tell you, poison man."
Sidious took one long pace back toward the girl and bored his predatory gaze deep into her soul. Oh yes, you will, rang out his voice in the Force. Then Vader sensed nothing except a swirling vortex of raw dark energy bombarding the child. He had been subjected to such assaults on many occasions. For that reason, Vader was surprised how long she lasted. By the end it was all he could do to resist coming to her aid. Finally her green eyes rolled and her body slackened.
"Mara," she whispered before her head slumped forward of its own accord.
When Sidious turned away, his expression was one of feral satisfaction. Vader?s fist flexed, needing to close around the cool shaft of his weapon. She had not deserved this fate, a torturous Force-induced death. For once nothing, no fear, stood between Vader and a final confrontation with his master. Why not? At least if he failed there would finally be peace.
"Take her to my shuttle." The Emperor?s words startled Vader from his internal conflict. Sidious smiled at his apprentice. "No, she is not dead. She will prove?useful."
With that, the Emperor walked away. The troopers moved ahead, carrying their unconscious prisoner. It left Sidious? back gravely exposed. Vader thought about it for less than a heartbeat. If he failed, little fiery Mara would be left to his dark master?s ravenous whims. Aching with despair, he fell in step with the others.
Sidious glanced up. "Naboo has been generous to the last. You did well, my friend. You did well."
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