An Emperor Alone (PG)

By : John Takis

Archived on: Monday, December 16, 2002

Emperor Palpatine: supreme ruler of the galaxy and unquestioned master of the Dark Side. But when the aging Sith tyrant is betrayed by hidden enemies and cut-off from the power of the Force, he must rely on one final defense: a brilliant and calculating mind.

Emperor Palpatine did not often dream. Nor could the black meditative rites in which he routinely engaged be properly termed "sleep." Sleep, as it was understood in the traditional sense, involved a surrendering of control ... the conscious mind subordinate to the unconscious. Sith principles were firm on this matter: let the Jedi drift passively through the "will" of the Force; the ancient Dark Masters had demonstrated conclusively that meaning and order were concepts willed on the universe by those practitioners with the courage and foresight to look past "Dark" and "Light" to the nobler truths ... to the ultimate truth. Palpatine had long ago recognized himself as the center of his own private universe ... the actualization of his Empire was a simple expression of that basic principle. All sentients eventually experienced the same epiphany. More often than not, it led to black metanoia ... the only thing truly separating a bounty hunter from a spice addict from a corporate robber-baron was the degree of drive, intelligence and resources.

Palpatine's resources were indeed vast. This was where he stood unparalleled ? the profligate all crowned themselves with the same miter, but for Palpatine access to the Force had unlocked a galaxy of possibilities undreamt by lesser beings. Intelligence and desire had not merely drawn him towards the Dark Side ... in the Dark Side, they had found nourishment! For this reason the Jedi were especially repugnant: coming face-to-face with the vacuity of their own existence, they embraced the Force as junkies abandoned themselves to narcotic bliss, losing their pain in a sea of self-dissolution. They misdirected Its gifts as if power were an affliction. The Jedi Order propagated vile perversions of will and purpose. The Force offered so much more.

The Jedi Code taught that the Force was sustained by life. As a matter of consequence, Palpatine knew, the Force drew from life ... greedily, through withered, vampiric lips. Like plants struggling to reclaim dew in a parched wasteland, sentients fought a losing battle. Comforting themselves with petty philosophies and vain comforts, they struggled in futility to fill inner voids. Palpatine no longer wasted time with such trivialities. The Ravaging Force consumed all things; his own fate would be no different. But while he yet lived ? ah, while he yet drew breath, the hot current of the Force would swell within his empty soul, the weight of countless screams of angst and despair nourishing his inner void, projecting it beyond Human boundaries. It was radiant ? glorious!

It was this void, therefore, that occupied Palpatine's sole attention when he meditated. He would bask in the glorious emptiness, soaking up dark energies like a sponge dipped in ichor. It was, in fact, a pure action of will, galvanized by powerful Sith techniques, that prevented the corroded elements of his body from succumbing to total defunction. Who could say when critical mass would be achieved? When the flame of True Knowledge would be passed to his successor? As with all Dark Lords of the Sith before him, Palpatine had accepted this inevitability, though he still feared it. In one sense, he was grateful for this fear. The fear fed his hatred, fanned the flames of suffering, made him more powerful. But in a more pure sense, he merely hated this fear. Fear provoked senseless mania, nibbled at rationality. Fear led to error. To early death. The foundational Sith disciplines Palpatine had erected within his mind were a bulwark against fear.

But time continued to eat the universe, and traditional defenses became less adequate. The impending victory of chaos began to manifest itself, an almost tangible weight of fear that placed a constant pressure on Palpatine, urging him on to ever-greater depths of meditative efforts. The immediate future was of particular concern. With greater frequency ? and, such was his assessment, enhanced clarity ? Palpatine would draw on the Force to peer into the mist of future possibilities. But sometimes....

Sometimes there were nightmares.

Harsh, pitched fever dreams ... unbidden shapes that boiled out of the darkness with irresistible aggression, howling a thirst that would drink down the universe and remain unquenched, unslaked. There was no refuge from these terror-visions ... only desperate, bodiless flight in the hope of regaining consciousness; the primal drive to evade death.

It was from such an ordeal that Palpatine woke. As with each time emerging from the tremulous experience, his first action was to take immediate stock of his surroundings and enforce control over mental and bodily functions. This strict routine had been emblazoned in his synapses to the point of reflex over the course of thousands of similar exercises, all designed for crises of mental control. Vigilance ensured survival. The Sith were vigilant to the extreme.

The first thing he noticed was that his shuttle had dropped out of hyperspace. With some effort, he pulled himself upright from his specialized throne ? a reclined, couch-like chair, padded with black synth-hide, specially designed for the long voyages between stars, where the solitude of hyperspace provided excellent opportunities to gather his energies.

The second point of interest was that the shuttle's drop into real-space was unexpected. Palpatine had left strict orders to be notified half-an-hour before rendezvousing with the Avenger, where Lord Vader would personally escort him to Obroa-Skai.

A technical malfunction, or an external crisis, Palpatine thought. If the former, someone (or some few) would pay with their life. The Emperor tolerated no error when it came to his personal safety.

A holo-pad on one arm of the throne flickered to life, resolving into the features of the shuttle's pilot. "My Emperor, we've exited hyperspace prematurely."

"The cause?"

The pilot glanced down. "Unknown. There is one other vessel..."

"Another ship?" Palpatine said sharply.

"Yes. But it appears to be dead in space. We thought...."

"Imbecile!" Palpatine spat, experiencing a violent spike of anger. "Destroy it at once!"

The pilot nodded, his fear evident. "Yes, my lord. Moving into posit?" Suddenly, a low shudder ran through the deck, and the hologram dissolved into static, cutting off the pilot mid-sentence, before winking out entirely. Time seemed to stretch in the Force, then Palpatine reflexively drew back into his chair, narrowly evading the blue-white bolts that coursed across the chamber. Electric lighting blinked out, and the room was subsequently filled with a phosphorescent glow that emanated from emergency bands running across the ceiling.

We've been hit by an ion cannon, Palpatine thought. His private shuttle's sophisticated shielding and weapons systems ? enough firepower to contend with a Star Destroyer ? were now rendered useless. The transport was dead in space. A black rage washed over him, but he allowed his limbs to relax, mind turning inward. I should have sensed this danger immediately. What interfered? With supreme control, he probed the Force, and encountered a phenomenon he had never felt before ... a vague something that clouded the edges of his foresight. His knotted brow furrowed. Beneath his midnight robes, his flesh seemed to sag on the bone. Dread and a brief panic seized him: was it his time, already? The notion was absurd ? impossible! In his heart of hearts, he knew the end would come like a raging torrent. Now the Dark Side was barely a whisper.

Another tremor ran through the shuttle, but the Force was not needed to ascertain its purpose. They were caught in a tractor beam.

For a moment, Palpatine considered reaching out to Lord Vader, but thought better of it. Vader was a delicately mastered force, with all the ambition befitting a Dark Lord. The apprentice must not be allowed to detect any hint of weakness in the master.

A muffled hiss reached Palpatine's ears as the door leading to the cockpit was pushed open with the aid of hydraulics. The black-jacketed shuttle commander staggered through, breathing heavily, attempting to bow.

Palpatine leaned back, regarding the commander with mock-sorrow. The nondescript man opened his mouth to speak, but Palpatine cut him off. "The one currently towing our ship will probably give you a quick, relatively painless death." Even with his experience of the Force dampened, the Emperor retained enough power to crush the man's kidneys and collapse his larynx. He watched for a moment as the officer writhed on the deck, eyes bulging in agony, airy whistles issuing from his contorted mouth.

When the spasmodic twitching stopped, Palpatine leaned back in his throne. "Enter!" he spoke to the air, reinforcing the command with a mental signal. There came rustle from the rear of the chamber as a black curtain slid open. Six members of the red-robed Imperial Royal Guard filed silently into the room, splitting into two rows on either side of the throne, inscrutable black-slit visors regarding their master.

There was a movement from the cockpit door ... the shuttle's pilot, come to make his report. The helmeted officer spared only the briefest of glances for the body of his fallen superior. He had anticipated the execution, then. Palpatine could read the fear in the man's face; Adam's apple bobbing nervously beneath his stiffly upheld chin.

"Our location?" Palpatine rasped.

The man swallowed. "Not far from Myrkr, your majesty. An insignificant world, undeveloped. It lies along the Royal Road we've been following to the Hydian Way..."

Palpatine cut the man off with a slashing motion. Royal Roads were presumably covert ingressions through hyperspace, maintained by the Empire as secure transit routes for vital cargo or dignitaries. Only those within the upper echelons of Imperial service would have access to the coordinates. Treachery, then, Palpatine thought. Or gross incompetence. Intelligence Director Isard would have to be alerted. And held accountable for the oversight.

"Do we maintain a garrison?" Palpatine asked.

"No, your excellency."

That was a mistake, Palpatine thought. Mistakes. Treachery. Unforeseen things. That vague fear gnawed at the edges of his consciousness, augmenting his diminishing Force-sense. He mentally locked it away.

Meanwhile, the pilot's demeanor grew almost imperceptibly more confident as he reevaluated his prospects for survival. "I am at your command, Excellency!" he said, unable to restrain a measure of emotion in his voice.

"Patience," Palpatine said. Then he folded his hands and sat back in his chair.

The pilot remained at attention, sweat beading on his forehead. His eyes flicked to the statuesque guardsmen and the force-pike each held vertically against one arm. The merest movement of the Emperor's finger, and one of those pikes could be through the pilot's skull before he had time to register the fact. The pilot tried even harder to ignore the dead body at his feet.

But the Emperor merely continued to wait, until a dull clang told them they had touched down on the hangar deck of a larger vessel.

Palpatine indicated the cabin door. "Lower the ramp manually. See who it is that waits outside."

The pilot paled slightly. It was almost certainly a death sentence, but to defy the Emperor would mean guaranteed termination. And members of the Imperial Pilot Corps had been thoroughly schooled in the eventuality of their own deaths. The pilot firmed his jaw, performed a crisp salute, and marched out of the chamber. Moments later, there was a groaning hiss as the ramp lowered, then the sound of tentative footsteps.

Blaster-fire was immediate and precise. Outside the shuttle, the pilot managed a brief scream before being abruptly silenced. Within seconds, the Royal Guard had drawn their pikes and formed a defensive screen. The guard captain turned to Palpatine. His voice came filtered through a speaker concealed in his helmet: "They will use droids." In confirmation of his words, the sound of clanking metal feet and whirring servos drifted up from the head of the ship.

Palpatine sighed, regarding his guardsmen with as close to sadness as his hardened heart was capable. Many years and millions of Imperial credits had gone into the creation of his bodyguard. Magnificent training. Unwavering fealty. A pitiable waste, but there was no helping it. Even so, there was one reward he could yet grant for their service. "You may die as warriors," he told them, even as the first battle droids moved into view, quadruple arms terminating in multifold laser barrels and wicked blades.

There were no cries of adulation. No gestures of thanks. The Royal Guard were above such things. There was only movement, concise, flawless. Machine parts cluttered the shuttle floor. But it was not enough. One by one, they fell, though by the end it was difficult to identify the red cloth of their capes beneath the mess of metal and lubricant.

Two intact droids trained their blasters on Palpatine, but did not fire, as he knew they would not. His immediate destruction was not the goal, else the shuttle would have been vaporized the moment it was disabled. That meant either a hostage situation, with the kidnapper hoping to obtain a literal Emperor's ransom, or ... or someone wanted him to suffer. Palpatine's thin lips stretched into a smile. That was fine. He was well-acquainted with suffering.

Two more insectoid droids entered the room and cleared a path through the tangle of real and artificial bodies, but Palpatine did not rise, and they made no motion for him to do so. They merely waited, bulbous visual sensors staring at him blankly. Had he his full strength, Palpatine could have riven the plating from them with a single gesture.

Instead he settled into his throne, mind active. At any given moment, there were dozens of beings in the galaxy plotting his assassination. For the whole duration of his reign, none had come so close. Whoever has done this believes I am in his power. That could be turned to Palpatine's advantage. But first there were questions to be answered. Motives. Methods. Most importantly, how had his sense of the Force been so compromised? The Jedi? A few broken, spiritless members of that order remained unaccounted for, having slunk into the dregs of the universe ... but these could hardly be counted as viable threats. His mind finding no satisfactory alternatives, Palpatine merely sat, waiting, confident that the answer to the riddle would manifest itself presently.

He did not need the Force to perceive the subtle vibrations that accompanied atmospheric entry. Myrkr. An unremarkable world in the Imperial archives, one of many, made significant only by virtue of its location; an accident of proximity. Such worlds often held secrets.

After a time, the deck beneath him shuddered. Finally, planetfall. With noblesse grace, Palpatine rose from his throne and walked through the door. The four droids flanked him, proceeding in much the same fashion his Royal Guard would have.

The shuttle opened into a sterile gray hangar, the body of the pilot still lying crumpled at the foot of the ramp. More droids were also waiting, guarding the hangar's own ramp, which led down to a dusty clearing that evidently served as a landing site. Daylight flooded the bay, along with the rich scents of exotic foliage.

Palpatine walked down the wide ramp, which was large enough to unload a platoon of stormtroopers, and onto the dry earth outside. He peered at his surroundings through the folds of his black hood. Temperate weather. A blue sky. A forest. A dead forest. Normally, such an accumulation of wilderness would be teeming with energy, a vast reservoir ready to be drained. But Palpatine felt only the vaguest stirrings. Something has been done to me without my knowledge ... or this place is an aberration. He strongly suspected the latter.

Before him was a great hump of a building, at least six stories tall, cut from enormous slabs of rough brown stone. It was windowless, though there were deep furrows running horizontal from the rounded front, vanishing into crowded forest on either side of the structure. A narrow notch, perhaps five meters high, served as a doorway. Within, darkness.

A droid prodded him in the back - an indignity Palpatine had not suffered for many decades. Palpatine returned the droid's glassy stare. Was the robot transmitting? Were there human eyes watching through those expressionless lenses? He smiled in mild amusement, then turned and limped towards the building's slot-like entrance. The impact of his booted feet on the hard earth sent curious tremors running up his ancient body. There was something odd about the absence of Force in his flesh ... something both liberating and enfeebling. The drain of the Dark Side on his cells had ceased, but at the same time the perverted energies suffusing him had waned. None of his guards had thought to bring him his cane. Already, his joints ached ... and it would not be long before advanced age and decrepitude would begin to manifest more malignant symptoms.

Palpatine did not think he required a long time, one way or the other....

As he drew near the entryway, the droids huddled closer around him, as if to prevent him from making a mad dash for the forest. Palpatine released a throaty laugh that echoed between the walls of the narrow corridor he was entering. The walls were composed of the same brown stone, and seemed to extend to the top of the building. Orange-yellow light filtered down from a ceiling that was probably composed of some type of quartz. As soon as they were inside the building, the droids stopped, blocking off the entrance behind Palpatine, leaving him to proceed through the smoky dimness unattended.

The reason for this was evident: there was only one way to go. The corridor apparently opened into a larger room, but in the space between were no intersecting doors or hallways. There were, Palpatine noted, holo-cameras mounted high-up, sophisticated lenses watching, following, capturing his movements.

The long hall gave way to a vast room that had probably been designed as an audience chamber. It was long, with an arched ceiling of the same luminescent quartz that had run atop the corridor, carefully vented to allow air flow while providing shelter from the elements. At the far end of the room was a raised dais, at the center of which rested a massive wooden throne. In the throne sat a man not far from madness.

Palpatine made this assessment before he had looked at the man for three seconds. Long black hair, filthy and matted, lay strewn across his shoulders. Wide eyes stared from beneath a contorted brow. The man had shaved recently, but imprecisely, leaving a chin that was nicked and scraggly with uneven growth. His smile, a horizontal crescent of ill-formed teeth, was far too manic. And the shirt and dark-brown vest, though plainly of quality make and expensive fabrics, had been neglected, and clung to the man's flesh where sweat had cooled. There was a gauntness about the man's frame beneath those clothes, a malnourished pallor to his skin, that suggested he had not left the throne for several days.

As Palpatine entered the room, the man's excitement quickened, his barrel-chest heaving. He made no motion as Palpatine approached the throne. The Emperor stopped short of the dais, folding his hands inside his voluminous sleeves, regarding his erstwhile captor with a penetrating stare. But the man was too far gone to be affected. "Greetings, emperor of numberless worlds!" he boomed. The words were a long time echoing. In spite of his physical condition, the man had the convicted voice of the possessed.

Once the reverberations had ceased, Palpatine said plainly: "Who am I addressing?"

"The one who has crafted your doom."

Palpatine gave a small shrug. "Many have styled themselves such. They are dead." He smiled. "Or dying."

The man's grin widened. "Ha! I care nothing for my own life! I'm well aware that I'll be dead before the hour is up!"

The man referred to the Avenger, Palpatine mused. The royal shuttle had been roughly an hour's worth of hyperspace travel from the rendezvous point. When he failed to arrive, Lord Vader would no doubt order a search. They would not be long coming to Myrkr, searching for signs of intelligent life. But such a sequence of events might take days, hours at the least. Yet this man seemed confident in his timetable ... only possible if Vader was en route and knew his destination.

Vader ... was this his treachery? Impossible! Palpatine would have foreseen such a thing! Vader was not sufficiently advanced along the Sith path to conceal such inner workings from his master.

It was the cameras. "We have an audience," Palpatine said.

The man beamed. "Broadcasting on all Imperial frequencies, so all the Empire can witness the service I am about to render!"

No, Palpatine thought, that would not be the case. The signal would reach Vader and Vader would order long-range jamming the moment he was able. Palpatine did not mention this. Instead, he said: "I still do not know your name, my young friend."

The man sank back into his chair, a self-satisfied smile on his lips. "Mark it well. I am Filius Daathmar, of Ordras III."

Palpatine's gaze turned reflective. "Ordras III ..."

"Yes! I see you remember! Ordras III, accused of sedition ? entire cities bombarded from orbit!"

"An Outer Rim planet," Palpatine said. "A sparse population. Isolated city-states."

"My family ran one of those city-states!" Daathmar spat. "My mother and father! My sister! The area was leveled, pounded to slag at your command! Is it so?"

"It is so. And yet you are here."

Daathmar's face went flush with pride, giving his wan skin a feverish glow. "I was off-planet, at the Academy on Suprichek."

"Destitute. Orphaned. I imagine it was quite difficult."

Daathmar giggled. "Ah, but all my father's assets were not confined to Ordras III. He had a small fortune tied-up off-planet. Not even my mother knew of its existence. I was being groomed to take charge of it upon my graduation. The first thing I did after your act of genocide was to transform all my family's remaining wealth into hard credits."

Let him keep talking, Palpatine thought. Every word places him further in my power.

"My father was an old man. He'd been active in the Republic ... even worked closely with Jedi. He knew the Sith were in control of the Empire. He's the one who told me about this planet; a world both the Republic and the Jedi wanted nothing to do with. I didn't think much of that ... there are many such worlds in the galaxy: planets that have nothing to offer, or are too harsh to be worth the effort. His final communication to me revealed the true reason Myrkr was written-off for so long."

And now we come to the crux of the matter.

Daathmar reached to his right and tugged at a piece of wood that seemed to curl out from the armrest. From behind the throne swung an intricately curved frame, supporting a peculiar lizard-like creature that languidly blinked two pairs of beady eyes. Palpatine leaned forward with interest.

"They're called Ysalamiri," Daathmar said, beaming. He spread his arms expansively. "This building is filled with them! Culled from the forest, where they repel predators that hunt using the Force. The Jedi found that out the hard way hundreds of years ago."

Fascinating, Palpatine thought. Sith lore spoke of non-sentient creatures that nonetheless possessed rudimentary Force-sensitivity, but never on such a scale. The Jedi must have kept their existence a closely-guarded secret for it to have escaped his notice!

"You have done me a great service, my friend," Palpatine said.

Hatred twisted Daathmar's face. From beneath his vest, he withdrew a blaster pistol. "I may be a dead man, but you'll die first!"

"Patience, patience," Palpatine said, holding up a gnarled hand. "There is more to your tale, I sense."

Slowly, Daathmar's mad grin returned. "Stall all you like," he whispered, keeping the blaster pointed squarely at Palpatine's head. "Even if they make it into this room, it'll be too late. Darth Vader will be as powerless as you are! Maybe I'll even get the chance to kill him too!"

So I was right ... he does expect Vader.

Daathmar nodded. "Yes, I know the Sith Lord is close."

"You were well-prepared."

"Once I realized what a perfect trap this world would be, I took great care preparing it. With my father's fortune in hand, I bought droids off the black-market. I hired a crew to erect this building." His gaze took in the chamber. "An exact replica of my father's audience hall on Ordras."

That work crew will have to be found and destroyed, Palpatine thought.

"The next step was to catch you in the trap," Daathmar continued. "I knew an ambush wouldn't be easy. Accurate Imperial transit schedules are hard to come by. But I had a lot of money." He seemed to swell in the throne, exultant. "A lot of money! Enough to bribe one of your corruptible high-level officers." He was posturing for the cameras now, playing to the galaxy he imagined would drink in his words. "Isn't it ironic," he shrieked, "that the very system you created, a system that thrives on greed and corruption, would betray you in the end?"

"My child ..." Palpatine's voice was the gentle coo of a bemused grandfather. "The system has always been corrupt. It is an underlying truth of the universe. I merely harnessed that power as a means to an end ... even as you have done."

Daathmar's features contorted in sudden rage. Then, slowly, the anger was superceded by something else ... startled recognition. "Yes ..." he said. The veins in his neck softened, the skin around his eyes going slack. "Yes, you've tainted me, too. Just like you've tainted everything in this galaxy." He fingered the blaster intently. "There will be an accounting!"

"Most assuredly," Palpatine said. "But not for me, I think. Certainly not here."

Daathmar licked his lips nervously. A look of dawning fear came over him. "Your powers are gone!" he hissed. "They must be! You'd have used them by now!"

"Would I have?"

Desperate resolve flashed in Daathmar's eyes. The barrel of the blaster in his hand jerked forward spasmodically ....

"Your family lives," Palpatine said.

The weapon almost fell from Daathmar's trembling fingers. "What?"

Palpatine nodded. "The campaign on Ordras III was a ruse. We wanted intact populations that no one would miss. The cities were reduced to molten wastelands from orbit, to disguise the fact that they were empty."

All color had vanished from Daathmar's face. "Why?"

"I have a world hidden in the Galactic Core - a planet called Byss. It is a testing ground, a Sith utopia upon which future worlds will eventually be modeled. In all likelihood, your family is quite comfortable there, if cut-off from the rest of the galaxy ..."

"You lie!" Daathmar snarled.

Palpatine's lips curled into a grotesque smile. "Perhaps." Deception was a cardinal tool of Dark Side practitioners, but the Sith had another ancient principle: The truth also destroys. In the days of the Republic, Darth Tyranus had boasted to the Jedi that the Sith controlled the senate; true enough, but it availed the Jedi nothing in the end.

"It's the Sith way!" Daathmar raged. "You lie to save yourself!"

"Perhaps," Palpatine repeated.

"Perhaps?!" Daathmar tightened his grip on the blaster, his face growing increasingly livid. "Is it true?"

"It matters not."

"Tell me!" Daathmar screamed. "I'll know if you're lying!"

"I've birthed lies to deceive millions," Palpatine said quietly. "My prevarications have left Jedi truthsayers defenseless. Who are you? A fool from a vanished world." Palpatine released a cancerous laugh. "You should kneel before me in gratitude! The merest possibility that your family lives is a great gift. What did you have before I granted this to you? Everything else had been taken."

Conflicted emotions played across Daathmar's features. "There is something to that, I confess. I've no illusions that I'll live long enough to find out if your claims about my family are true ... I doubt they'll grant any last requests for the man who murdered the Emperor. But at least least ..."

"You can meet your end in peace, hmmm? You thought I would allow this?" Palpatine chuckled softly. "Alas, the Byss project is dependant upon my continued existence. You see, you were quite correct in one regard: I have established certain power-structures as Emperor. Look to history: absolute rulers remain secure because they create conditions in which their hegemony suffers without them. My untimely death will set-off a cascade of ruination throughout the Empire. Byss, and all life on it, will be reduced to fragmentary matter. Your family will die."

"Another lie," Daathmar croaked, as if speaking through a mouthful of dust. "Lies upon lies."

"Do you see now the quandary you are in?" Palpatine asked. "Destroy me and you risk creating the very scenario you hoped to avenge."

Daathmar slumped back into his throne. His haunted eyes had left Palpatine and were now fixated on the blaster that lay cradled in his lap.

Palpatine's tone became soothing. "There is only one escape for you now. You know what you must do."

Some few minutes later, the familiar staccato of rifle-fire sounded from the building's entrance. There was a cacophony of frenzied boots on stone as two squads of stormtroopers poured into the audience chamber and formed ranks. Then Darth Vader himself emerged, black cape coated with a thick layer of dust, nightmarish faceplate turning from side-to-side, taking in the scene.

The Emperor was seated in the wooden throne. Filius Daathmar, minus a face, lay where he had fallen at the base of the dais. The blaster was still clutched in his dead hand.

Palpatine stroked the purring Ysalamiri as Vader approached the throne. "Quite an interesting specimen, wouldn't you say, Lord Vader?"

Vader's response was to ignite his lightsaber. Moments later, the salamander-like creature lay cloven at the Emperor's feet.

Palpatine stood and descended from the dais, allowing Vader to escort him down the length of the chamber. "I presume you witnessed the drama unfold?"

"Yes, my master. The transmission was contained after only a few moments."

"As I anticipated. We will use what little escaped as an indictment against rebel activity. Tell me, apprentice ... now that you have felt the effects of this world for yourself, what is your opinion?"

Vader's voice was a low rumble that filled the room. "Myrkr is an abomination. It should be sterilized."

"No!" Palpatine said harshly. "Contained, but not destroyed. It may someday prove useful to me."

"I concede your wisdom, master," Vader said, inclining his helmet in deference but unable to keep a trace of reluctance from his mechanized voice.

"This incident should have provided a useful lesson for you, my servant," Palpatine rasped. "What was our would-be assassin's undoing?"

Vader did not hesitate. "Compassion, my Emperor. Compassion for his family."

Palpatine's knotted brow rose slightly. "Compassion? Think carefully, Lord Vader. Consider: had this man truly felt 'compassion' for the trillions of innocents he thought he might free from my tyranny, he would have chosen differently. He possessed only a small amount of compassion, which both fed and was tempered by his lust for vengeance."

Vader paused in his pace. "I do not understand, master. You have always taught that the thirst for vengeance is a noble virtue."

"So it is, apprentice."

"Then why ..."

"Hope, my friend. He had no real cause to believe his family was alive, and every reason to doubt. Yet his desire to think it true rendered him powerless." Palpatine raised one bony finger. "Mark it well: As long as a man hopes, he makes himself a slave to hope. Take care to purge yourself of such limiting conditions."

Vader bowed his head, accepting the lesson with humility. But the pair of Sith Lords were still bereft of the Force, and Vader's thoughts remained locked away just as surely as his body, concealed beneath layers of armor. So it was that Vader allowed a particularly black, particularly dangerous thought to drift up from the depths of his mind. The old monster is right. But the day is coming when he will have no lessons left to teach. Then I will find another Filius Daathmar who will finish the job. Perhaps even a Force-user.

Perhaps even the son of Skywalker.

The hope had not left him yet.

For James Khan, who got it right.

Original cover by John Takis. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.