He had been prepared, or so he had imagined.
Yet nothing could have prepared him for the white room. The austere sterility of the walls was somehow sinister. All too easy, then, to imagine them stained, the flawless white broken by jagged sprays of crimson red.
Like all the architecture on Kamino, the room was stark white to human eyes. Unlike the living quarters of the Kaminoans, though, richly decorated in tones invisible to narrow-spectrum human sight, the room into which Vader now stepped was truly and unsettlingly white. The only colour in the room itself was the endlessly shifting blue-grey of the sea outside the wide window.
The Dark Lord entered with a vague sense of uneasiness. Built by the willowy Kaminoans though the room had been, everything in it was scaled to accommodate a tall human form. His own.
He had been forewarned of the sight of the stranger born long ago from his own cells; Palpatine had told him everything about the clone, with evident relish. It had been a diabolically clever contingency plan: to create a genetic double of Anakin Skywalker, complete with the extraordinary Force powers, in case the worst should happen.
Vader had to acknowledge that only a man with his master's incomparable foresight would ever have seen the tiny ripples in the Force that were the beginnings of a true vergence. Only a man with his master's thoroughness would ever have thought to track down Shmi Skywalker's six-month-old son and, in tousling the child's hair, contrive to spirit a few precious strands away.
As it had transpired, the clone had not been needed, and the original Anakin had survived to become Palpatine's apprentice. But the copy remained, here on Kamino, in the same remote facility where he had been conceived in a test tube, born from an artificial womb, raised as one more laboratory specimen.
Vader felt nothing more than mild curiosity. He knew that however the clone had turned out, they would never share anything more than a genetic code. And now, now that months had lapsed since his being sealed in his cybernetic suit and mask, the face of Anakin would no longer be a mirror. He had spared a few moments' thought as to what the other would look like; identical to Skywalker? Or bearing only a vague resemblance to his previous self?
It took a moment for Vader's vision to adjust to the painful brightness as he entered the room. Gradually the shape came into focus, and with it the realisation that every line seemed to draw his gaze towards the figure standing opposite him.
Across the room, with his back to the far wall, both wrists pinioned behind him, stood a tall young man slumped in his chains. He wore white; long, unbrushed hair masked his downturned face. The rigid set of his shoulders and bowed head marked him out as suffering from some unknowable, unfathomable pain.
The chained man looked up as Vader entered, raising his head just enough to meet the Dark Lord's eyes with his own.
Not identical. The mirror was subtly distorted, tinted perhaps; the hair was fractionally lighter than what he remembered, the face more sharply drawn, the eyes sunken deeper into their sockets. The face of the clone could have been Anakin Skywalker's in a different light - in moonlight or in twilight, when the shadows fell more sharply, and the darkness masked the anguish in the haunted sea-storm eyes.
"Lord Vader." The voice was barely more than a whisper, ragged with pain. "Welcome to my world."
Something in the white figure's bearing piqued Vader's interest, and he raised one dismissive gauntlet to the two troopers behind him. "Leave us."
The door slid to behind them, and Vader dropped his hand, motioning to the clone's chains. The lock clicked quietly open.
The clone stepped out of the loose bindings, glancing at them briefly before turning away. "Why?"
"How long have you been a prisoner?" the Dark Lord demanded.
The man who could have been Anakin Skywalker stiffened, then answered quietly, "All my life."
"Then you will understand." Vader abruptly turned away from the white-clad clone, crossing the room in two strides to stand beside the wide window that looked out onto a churning sea.
His clone followed, gazing out across the waves, his expression unreadable. He did not flinch when Vader turned his eerie eyeless stare on him, and held the Dark Lord's gaze without fear as Vader assimilated all there was to see. In some ways, the clone seemed almost like a clean copy of what Anakin Skywalker had become: the same body, but unscarred, unbroken, free of the cybernetic shell that Vader himself could no longer live without. Finally the Dark Lord looked away, disturbed by the thoughts the clone brought to mind.
What could have been.
He felt the other stir behind him, and caught the cold whisper that followed. "I understand, Lord Vader." A moment's pause, stretching away. "A last respite for a condemned man."
Vader turned, slowly, and faced the white-clad man. He took a step closer in spite of himself, studying this imperfect copy of his other self with cold curiosity. "What is your name?"
The ghost of a smile curved the clone's lips. "Anakin." His voice was bitter as he added "What else could it be?"
Without thinking, Vader clenched his fist. Then, as swiftly, realised that the clone's death was not part of his mandate, and let the grip fail.
Anakin had stumbled backward, eyes wide in shock, but regained his balance quickly. To his astonishment, Vader felt the Force reverberating around them both.
"Of course I have the same powers as you do." Anakin's voice cut into his thoughts, and Vader focused on the clone to find him staring back, face white with anger. "I know why I was born - to replace you if the worst happened. It hasn't. I've served my purpose." He stepped back from Vader, eyes blazing. "I want none of your mercy. Kill me."
"It is not necessary for you to die." Vader said curtly. I must obey my master. "The Emperor does not wish it."
"It wasn't necessary for her to die." Anakin replied softly. "Yet you killed her anyway. And your child with her."
Pain lanced through the Dark Lord's memories at the clone's stinging words. This time, the force of Vader's mind slammed the clone into the opposite wall, a chain of crimson droplets lacing the white wall as Anakin hit it hard. The Dark Lord released his grip and the clone slid to the floor, landing in a huddled heap on the gleaming metal.
Vader unhitched his 'saber from his belt, weighing it in his hand. The Emperor had not ordered him here to kill the clone, but it was a horribly tempting idea. Better, surely, to kill him quickly and forget than be forced to return to the white room -
Anakin climbed to his feet, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, and there was a corresponding red stain on the polished floor. He glanced at the weapon in the Dark Lord's hand, and nodded. "Do it. I don't want to live."
Vader lifted a hand thoughtfully, pinning Anakin against the opposite wall. Strange, that he should be so eager to die. The clone did not struggle against the Force grip, nor flinch as the Dark Lord crossed the room to stand eye to eye with him. "Explain yourself."
Vader felt himself flung backwards by a vast invisible blow, meeting the opposite wall hard, and stumbled. On his knees, he looked up.
Anakin stood with his arms loosely at his sides, shaking with anger. "Can you explain what your precious Master did to me? Do you understand what he did to you? Do you even know?"
Vader shivered within his mask as Anakin's voice rose, growing steadily less controlled as the Force boiled around him.
"He trawled your memories while you were in a coma and implanted copies into me. I have every last image of your life stored inside my skull. Do you understand that?"
Vader caught his breath, and felt the agonising hitch in his suit's respiratory system as it compensated for the reflexive action. The process for retranscribing memories existed - but it was well known only to work on restoring memories to their owner. It only worked when the receiver and donor neurogenetic structures were identical . . .
Which they were.
The Anakin that stood before him was an exact genetic match for his own broken body. And now possessed his own memories as well . . . Vader shrank from the idea that he shared his entire life with the strange, haunted, white-clad man he faced.
Anakin gestured with fingers rigid with disgust, and another massive Force shove forced Vader back to his knees as he tried to rise. "I know deep down that I was born and raised in this facility. But you're corrupting me, Vader. Your memories are telling me that I was raised a Jedi, that I had a family, a wife and unborn child - and that I threw all of it away through my own twisted lust for superhuman power." The clone stopped, voice shaking. Vader could not move. "I've seen what you've done, through your eyes. And I'd rather die than carry those memories all my life."
The Force pressure lessened, and Vader was able to stand, slowly and painfully.
"Kill me," Anakin said steadily. "I've told you all I can. Kill me now."
Vader did not hesitate.
Red light flashed across the white walls as the blade came down. Vader felt the quietening in the Force as Anakin's spirit passed.
For a long time the Dark Lord stood by the window, looking out onto the stormy Kaminoan sea under its suffocating blanket of cloud. There was no remorse.
Anakin of Kamino had wanted nothing more than to die, and Anakin Skywalker had been long dead before Vader ever set his hand to the white room's door. Both of them were truly gone now, the last fractured, ghostly remnants of his previous self vanished along with the clone they had driven half mad.
He was alone now, and the memory of what he had lost was his alone, to bury deep and shut away.
Outside the chamber, Vader locked the door, and with a wave of a hand summoned the blast doors down across the doorway before tearing the locking panel away. Nothing short of a direct hit from an ion cannon would open the door now.
The white room would never be entered again. Anakin the second, the stranger so like and yet so unalike, had lived and died there. Let it be his tomb.
Original cover by Nemesis. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.