The Dark Lord looked out of the spacious window of the vast room. An immense garden, lush and green, extended before his eyes.
At least, he reckoned it was green. As years went by, he had forgotten about what true colours really were and felt like.
A nasty smile formed on his lips. Who cared about colours, anyway? His special vision was much better. It provided him with sharper and infinitely more distinctive and defined images than human eyes could ever manage.
Human eyes. Human. Something he wasn't anymore. Never mind that over 50 of his body was mechanical now. There was no trace of humanity left in him. He had successfully purged it from him. And once again, he vowed never to surrender to weaknesses such as love, affection, or caring. Those feelings were people's undoing.
But not his own. Not anymore.
There was nothing but greed and power, domination and control, and obeying his master's wishes that were also his own.
It was all he had left. All that mattered.
It was enough.
It was everything.
'I am Death. Fear me, for I will destroy you all if you oppose me!' he cried out in his mind, inebriated with the knowledge of his own invincibility.
There was nothing better than having an entire galaxy at your feet, terrified at the mere mention of your name.
'I am Darth Vader. Dark Lord of the Sith. This is my Destiny. This is what I was meant to be.'
Dark. So Dark. Too Dark.
The humming sound of his ignited lightsaber distracted him from the strange turn his thoughts had taken.
Turning about, his eyes settled on the dead body on the carpeted floor.
Another life he had taken.
How many by now?
What was the name of the man lying before him?
A spy. A minuscule threat to his master's plan.
'I am my own master! No one commands me but myself! No one will ever command me again!'
One day, he would be looking down at the galaxy he would rule, from his rightful place as the greatest Sith Lord ever.
Vader took a fast deep breath to suffocate the wave of pain in the centre of his chest.
The buzzing sound of his lightsaber being turned off, brought him out of the tiny place inside him that still ached every time an unwelcome memory of his past resurfaced.
'Damm you all for betraying me! May you all rot in Sith Hell! I will prevail!'
'Who cares about company?'
People were small-minded, petty, untrustworthy.
He didn't need anyone.
Trust led to betrayal. Betrayal led to hatred. Hatred led to ruthlessness. Ruthlessness led to inhumanity.
The nasty smile on his lips turned to sheer venom at the unintended familiar ring of those thoughts.
'You all made me what I am, and I thank you for it. I finally succeeded in freeing myself from all emotion. Nothing will stand in my way now. I am free from every moral restraint that held me back. I am unstoppable.'
He clipped the lightsaber from his belt and turned about, exiting the room in long strides.
People moved aside in fear the moment they saw him. Since the birth of Darth Vader, his presence was an announcement of Death. Every time he landed on a planet and headed for a particular building alone, someone would inevitably leave the place in a bag a few hours later. Sometimes more than one.
In just a few years, the Empire had become a reality. Very few systems within the inner sectors dared to oppose Palpatine anymore. More than half the galaxy was the Emperor's willing subject now.
Fear indeed was the key. Nothing made people more obedient and respectful of the Law than fear of punishment. And the bigger the punishment, the more compliant they were. The moment you started granting rights and giving people freedom of choice, speech or thought, their little meanness began surfacing, until you were tangled in an endless web of petty squabbles and demands that ended up making coexistence unbearable. Exactly what life in the Old Republic had been like.
People were essentially egotistical and childish. Fear was the only way to keep them in line.
And the moment a dissident word arose, Darth Vader was the cure.
He walked a lonely path, but he didn't care. Ultimately, we're all alone. With our miseries, our hopes, our fears, our loneliness. We live our lives desperate to connect with others. But in the end, that fleeting feeling of connection with another is only an illusion.
We are born alone, and we die alone.
He had awakened from that illusion, and no sweet words of love and promises of a life of peace and belonging would fool him again.
He was above and beyond those pathetic, sickly imperfections. He was meant to rule, and by all the Lords of the Sith past and future, he would rule! The galaxy would remember his name for as long as the Universe existed!
He was dimly aware of the chambers and corridors he walked through. The immense building seemed to be a combination of a small menagerie and a museum. But he paid no attention to it. This mission had taken him far too close to the Outer Rim, far too close to...
Shaking his head metaphorically against the name of the planet before it formed in his mind, his innate curiosity and his analytical mind allowed him to feel a small degree of surprise at the fact that this planet, Ando, was so lush and fertile. Amazing, considering its relative nearness to...
Grinding his teeth, furious with himself and with his occasionally mawkish thoughts that served no practical purpose, Vader's strides became even longer as he headed for the exit.
Standing close to the outside door, a fairly large group of people consisting mostly of children, had gathered around a fish pond.
The moment he settled his gaze on them, Vader realized this was a group of physically and mentally handicapped children.
The beast in him felt a sudden, uncontrollable wave of hatred and disgust. There was nothing more useless in the Universe than these type of beings. They were a burden to everybody, from their families to the system, that was forced to expend a tremendous amount of resources on therapy, rehabilitation, treatment... and all for what? For a bunch of unproductive parasites that would never contribute anything, and would only suck from the Empire's Treasury until the day their worthless lives ended.
If it depended on him...
His hand reached for his lightsaber instinctively. It wouldn't be the first time...
That small gesture was enough for most of the children to turn their heads and see him coming.
The reaction was immediate and predictable. It varied from the classic scream of terror, to expressions of sheer panic as they stepped aside and gathered close, seeking protection from the group and their monitors.
Holding back a barked laugh, Vader headed for the doors, not deigning to look at that group of losers.
As he strode past them, his legs stopped walking out of the blue and brought him to a sudden halt. Before he knew, he had turned about, to find himself face to face with a tiny boy who couldn't be more than four years old.
Despite his respirator, Vader felt as if all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. In less than a heartbeat, his body felt alternately hot and cold. Chills ran up and down his spine.
He had never seen a child so beautiful. He couldn't make out the colour of his hair and his eyes, but his features were smooth and perfectly proportioned. The eyes were big and full of curiosity, and Vader detected a keen intelligence lurking in them. The little nose was upturned, and the lips were full and luscious. The hair was straight and maybe a bit too long, with the tips sticking out.
But what stunned him the most was the way the boy looked up at him, showing no fear. His big eyes were riveted on him, full of curiosity and awe.
"Who are you, child?" he asked, before the words fully formed in his mind.
The boy smiled softly at him and tilted his head to one side, in an endearing gesture.
"What is your name!" Vader's voice echoed all over the hall, making everybody start.
"H-he-he can't talk, sir. He's mute." A young woman, obviously one of the monitors, stepped ahead and answered for the boy. Her body trembled from head to foot as she swallowed convulsively.
Vader's head moved from the young woman to the little boy, who hadn't moved his eyes away from him.
Everything in Vader screamed at him to turn about and leave. But his eyes almost popped out of their sockets when he felt the presence of the Force lingering around the boy like a protective blanket.
Recoiling from it physically, Vader found himself walking away from the child as a final order left his lips, thrown in the monitor's direction.
The doors closed after the young woman and the Sith Lord.
It was a nice, comfortable office, full of plants and wooden carvings. The medium-sized table faced the windows and the garden outside, in an obvious attempt to make the most of the daylight hours.
Vader headed directly for the windows and looked out of them, momentarily ignoring the shaking woman. Her feelings were of no interest to him. He just wanted information, and he would get it from her, willingly or otherwise.
He gave them both some time to collect their thoughts, and when he was ready to begin his questioning, he did so, without bothering to look back at her.
"What is the matter with him?"
Not bothering to pretend she didn't know who the Dark Lord was talking about, the young woman took some time to answer. She didn't want to endanger the boy's safety with too much information. She had no idea what Darth Vader had seen in the poor child, but she would protect him with everything she had.
For a second, it crossed her mind that she was in the same room with Darth Vader. The situation was surreal in itself, but the danger it posed to herself didn't go unnoticed. Very few had been alone in a room with the Sith Lord, and lived to tell.
"Nobody knows," she aswered carefully.
"Do not attempt to fool me, young lady." Vader turned and faced her, overwhelming her with his immense black height framed against the sunlight. "I could rip the information from you in a most painful way, but I feel like having a nice, friendly conversation with you. Whether it will remain friendly or not, is entirely up to you."
Sighing in defeat, the young woman yielded.
"He's been subjected to every possible test for the last two years. The results have been the same. No brain damage. His speech organs are normal and perfectly developed. He has suffered no physical or emotional trauma to justify his inability to speak. As far as we know, he's a perfectly normal child, who simply won't talk."
Vader nodded to himself.
"He's also an orphan. He's being raised by his aunt and uncle, who love him dearly and give him everything they can with their scarce resources." She winced and looked down at her hands in shame, berating herself for her big mouth. She pursed her lips and clenched her fists in anger.
"How old is he?" Vader asked.
"He turned four recently."
Inside the mask, Vader squeezed his eyes shut. That was exactly the age his child would have been if...
"And how do you know he is not suffering from some small degree of mental retardation? Those minor disabilities are undetectable in a 3-D brain scan," he muttered in a clipped voice.
"That's true, but..."
Feeling the subtle, sudden change to the lower tones in her voice, Vader took one step forward.
"There's just something about him... something that..."
Vader gave her time to find the right words.
"When you're alone with him and he looks at you, it's as if... as if he could see right through you. As if he could read your soul." She looked up into the empty sockets, suddenly trying hard to make herself be understood. "All my colleagues who have examined him felt the same, so I know it's not just me. He seems older than his years. Wiser." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "I know how it sounds, but that's how I feel around him. There's peace in his presence. Utter peace and calm, within and without."
Suddenly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken, Vader cut her off.
"Has he communicated by any other means? Through drawings, by manipulating toys or other objects? Have you observed him when he was playing alone?"
"Yes, we have; and that's even more strange. We've put him in rooms full of toys, colouring books and a million other items to stimulate his creativity, and encourage him to open up and tell us what's going on inside him. He simply picks up a cuddly toy and lies down with it, hugging it close, cradling it, loving it. He ignores tools, complex toys and technology in general. That's why he's not developing at the same rate as the other children anymore. Most mute children find a way to compensate for their disability. They're faster learners in many areas. They learn to sign and write sooner to be able to communicate. They go to the same schools as 'normal' kids and make friends, but that's not his case. He's very kind and loving with people, but he... he doesn't seem to need, really need anyone."
"Maybe he is more retarded than you think," Vader stated disdainfully.
"We suspected there could be some kind of autism involved. But he doesn't shut himself off from the world. He's always aware of where he is and with whom. When you call his name, he immediately acknowledges you and smiles at you. He reaches out to you spontaneously. As a matter of fact, he's a very touchy-feely little guy," she smiled to herself, unable to keep her deep affection for the boy from showing. "You should see him with his cuddly toys. He's got dozens of them. The way he communicates with them and takes care of them. This child's... starved for love. All the hugs, kisses and caresses in the world don't seem nearly enough. It's as if... as if he had withdrawn into himself from birth, waiting for something or someone. Waiting for that special person to unlock him from his self-imposed prison, and set him free."
"How can you know that, if he has never said a word or let you know in any way?"
"It's a gut feeling based on two years of close observation."
"A very unprofessional observation."
The young woman just shrugged, knowing better than to dare to argue with Darth Vader.
Vader retreated into himself, considering the facts. Why was he doing this, anyway? Taking a personal interest in a mentally handicapped child, who happened to be extremely Force-sensitive?
Although that was still to be confirmed. Certainly, the Light lingered around him like a protective aura, but that didn't mean the boy could wield it, or was even consciously aware of it. Maybe nature had compensated for the child's disability, by giving him a special awareness of other people's feelings, so it could enable him to make his needs known to them.
A part of his mind remembered Palpatine's orders to dispose of every Force-sensitive he came across during his missions, and whereas he had already gotten rid of more men, women and children than he cared to count, this child in particular...
Why was he suddenly so reluctant to carry out his orders? Mere minutes ago, he would have performed his duty and disposed of each and every one of those 'parasites' without second thoughts.
Vader's respiration accelerated all of a sudden, in foreboding.
Right then, the doors slid open and an agitated little boy burst into the room.
On seeing Vader, he stopped.
Vader's body straightened up threateningly.
But the child simply studied him with big, all-encompassing eyes, and Vader felt like falling into those awesome depths. He felt himself being read inside out and embraced, accepted. The Light around the boy reached out to him like an old friend. Forgiving, inviting, warm and beauti—
Hissing, Vader jerked back, just as an older woman hurried into the room.
"Here you are, little rascal. You've been driving us..." at the sight of the Sith Lord a few metres in front of her, the woman could barely hold back a scream and she froze on the spot, unable to move a muscle.
The scene seemed to stretch into eternity, until the boy's face illuminated with the most breathtaking smile, directed entirely at Vader. His left arm reached out to him entreatingly.
Knowing he had to escape there before he lost his sanity, or worse, Vader's legs obeyed him at last. He left the room, avoiding the child's nearness in an exaggerated detour around his tiny form. His cape billowed behind him, and the child's outstretched hand brushed the heavy but incredibly soft material as it passed him. A shudder ran through his little body and he turned about, watching Vader go through misted eyes.
The young monitor stood up at once and rushed to the little boy's side, dropping to one knee and wrapping an arm around him. He was trembling.
"It is all right, Luke. It's all right, sweetheart," she tried to soothe him. 'What the devil did he see in that monster?' she wondered in awe.
Luke's face turned to hers, and the young woman gave a start at the sight of the reddened eyes and the heartbreaking expression of anguish and despair in them.
Luke had never expressed so much emotion in the two years she had known him, and from what his aunt and uncle said, he had never shown this level of emotion before.
Why now? Why Vader?
Luke looked down at the palm of his left hand, brought it up to his cheek and caressed himself with it. He closed his eyes and sighed.
The two women looked at each other, speechless.
When the shuttle landed in the Executor's docking bay, Vader walked down the ramp with long, heavy strides, and headed for the lift, an air of barely restrained violence wrapped around him like a black cloak. Technicians and officers moved out of his way instinctively, exchanging knowing looks.
Someone would die today.
Vader entered the bridge and headed directly for the navigation console.
"Set a course for the Byss system," he ordered the navigator.
The young man looked up at him with a puzzled expression on his face.
"The Byss system, sir? B-but I thought..." his neck twisted to an impossible angle with a loud snap and he collapsed on his console like a rag doll.
"Anyone else is interested in asking irrelevant questions?" Vader asked of no one in particular.
A deadly silence followed.
"Good," Vader approved. "Now, will you obey my orders this time?" he asked the man sitting next to the dead navigator.
The Chiss swallowed hard and paled like a ghost.
"We received new orders, milord," Captain Kyle, his second-in-command explained, walking up to the Dark Lord with his hands behind his back. "We were ordered to join the Fleet posted in the Vortex system after picking you up."
"In that case, plot a course for the Vortex system after cleaning this up," Vader rejoined nonchalantly. "Weaklings have no place in this galaxy, let alone under my command."
The hatred and contempt in the last sentence lingered in the air long after the Sith Lord left the bridge.
Vader made himself comfortable in his egg-shaped pod, preparing himself for his few hours of nightly sleep. When the top half descended slowly and closed, he was able to take off his mask and helmet and start breathing on his own. He contemplated his reflection in the polished surface of the chamber's inner wall, and his scarred visage twisted in a sneer.
'27 years old, and I look like I'm twice that age.' He closed his eyes at the grotesque face that looked back at him. This was the price he had to pay for serving the Darkness. So be it. 'I wonder what that retarded boy would do if he saw me.' He wondered, a nasty smile crossing his features. 'I bet one single look would wipe that stupid, beatific smile off his face,' he snarled.
But his nasty smile was short-lived, as the memory of the child triggered the memory of the way he had left the building. He had practically fled from the room.
His blood boiled with anger. 'No child makes me nervous or uncomfortable, and certainly not a mentally handicapped one!' But it had, and his nostrils flared, shame fuelling his anger.
It took him some time to calm down, and when the anger abated enough to allow him to think rationally again, he realized that for the first time, he had disobeyed Palpatine's orders and not killed a Force-sensitive.
Why didn't he do it? Maybe he was too busy escaping the boy?
His nostrils flared again, and he inhaled the pure oxygen in the chamber until he felt light-headed.
Being logical, such a boy represented no threat to him and his master, never mind how strong in the Force he was. At most, he would use it to levitate his cuddly toys to his hand. That is, if he ever figured out what the Force was, and what he could do with it; which he strongly doubted.
'When you're alone with him and he looks at you, it's as if... as if he could see right through you. As if he could read your soul.'
He couldn't deny that truth. He had experienced it firsthand. That little boy had seen right through his mask, right through his barriers, and read him like an open book.
And smiled at him.
Vader's head swayed in disgust.
That was the proof that the boy was no threat. His monitor had implied that he was more in touch with feelings and emotions than material things. He would probably spend the rest of his life in the company of cuddly toys and smiling at everyone he passed.
It would be a waste of time to retrace his steps and finish his job. Anyone stupid enough to see right through him and not see him as a threat, wasn't worth considering a menace.
It was warm. Soft. Welcoming. Right on the edge of his consciousness, and getting closer. Calling out to him wordlessly. The most compelling smile lit up his soul, making it ache with need. A need he had renounced, crushed and thrown away years ago.
'It is you. It is you. Please, come to me. I need you. I need you too. I need you so! I've been waiting for you all my life. Come to me...'
Vader was thrown out of sleep violently. All his senses became instantly alert.
There was an intruder in his quarters.
Using the Force to lower the mask and the helmet and lock them around his head, he opened the pod. He stepped out of it carefully, drawing out his lightsaber.
Whoever it was, they would pay dearly for this. Daring to get to him in his own quarters, in his own ship! He bared his teeth in outrage, and his hand tightened on the saber's handle.
He walked stealthily, hoping to take the intruder by surprise, until the sound of his respirator awakened him to the fact that he was announcing his presence with every breath he took. Grinding his teeth, he ignited his lightsaber. One more noise wouldn't make much of a difference.
Reaching out with the Force, he detected a presence in his office.
Maybe it was a spy looking for some kind of information.
That would be even more satisfying. If it was indeed a spy, he would relish drawing information out of them.
He took a peek into his office.
There was no one.
But there had to be! He could feel their presence even now, a few metres in front of him!
Turning on the lights through the Force to blind the intruder, he barged into the room, his lightsaber ready to strike.
And froze on the spot.
The boy he had met on Ando stood in the middle of his office, looking up at him, an angelic smile illuminating his features.
"YOU!" Vader exclaimed in shock.
The child's smile broadened.
"What in Sith hell are you doing here, boy!" The Dark Lord couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The child blinked innocently.
"How did you get in the ship? I didn't feel you in my shuttle when I came on board."
The boy let out an enigmatic little smile and took a step forward.
Not knowing why, Vader took a step back.
Sith Lord and child looked at each other for a long moment.
Finally, seeing there was no point in standing in his office with an ignited lightsaber in front of a four year old, Vader turned it off and attached it to his belt.
He had never been so puzzled. How had the boy made it to his ship? Why had no one detected his presence aboard?
One thing was clear, he would get no answers from the source.
He was at a loss what to do next. For a moment, he considered taking the boy to sickbay and having the doctors and medical droids take care of him. But he didn't want anyone to know he had been in contact with a child.
He had an image to maintain.
His eyes studied the child intently, looking for the answers he wouldn't get verbally.
The boy returned his stare just as intently.
'How does he know I'm studying him if he can't see my face?' Vader wondered.
Maybe he could. Through the Force.
It would be interesting to find out how a handicapped child made use of such power.
The moment that thought coalesced in his mind, the boy got deadly serious.
And Vader knew the boy didn't approve of such an idea.
Letting out a snort, the Dark Lord turned away.
In a sudden flash of insight, Vader realized what had happened just meant.
That boy could read his thoughts.
He spun round, his cape describing an arc around him.
"Stay out of my mind if you don't want me to kill you right here and now!" he cried out. "Do you hear me, boy!"
The child observed him with a blending of amusement and indifference, obviously unimpressed by his outburst. He turned about and began walking around the Dark Lord's office, much like a boss inspecting his subordinate's quarters.
Beneath his mask, Vader frowned. He had to admit it. This boy was the most extraordinary creature he had ever encountered. He should be terrified, and yet, he seemed interested in anything but him.
Satisfied with his inspection, shaking his head at most of the things he saw, the boy climbed up a chair and sat there, swinging his short legs back and forth, his eyes turning to Vader. He raised his hand and waved at him with a smile.
The Sith Lord walked up to him. He wasn't in the mood for childish games. His anger was rising again.
"Look, child, I do not feel like engaging in idle chit-chat with you, which in your case would be a total waste of time and effort. I will allow you to stay here for the night. Tomorrow, someone else will take care of you. Is that clear?"
The boy tilted his head to one side, a blank expression on his face.
Giving up, Vader turned about and returned to his pod without looking back.
Taking a deep breath, the little boy turned to the table, rested his crossed arms on it, and settled his head on them. He closed his eyes with a sigh.
Once inside the chamber and out of his mask and helmet, Vader realized his heart was pounding. He had released an unusual amount of adrenalin in the boy's presence. Only now he was aware of it.
That child was a walking enigma. At first sight, he had detected a keen intelligence hiding behind his eyes, and yet, the monitor's words and the child's own behaviour belied that first impression.
Not to mention the fact that there had to be an explanation for his presence aboard the Executor. He would find that explanation, never mind if he had to turn the boy's brain inside out. There could be an important breach of security, and the child had somehow slipped through it.
Whatever it was, it would never happen again.
Vader woke up exactly four hours later.
He never slept longer than that.
Stretching his neck's muscles and setting himself to face another day, Vader lowered his mask and helmet and locked them.
He exited the chamber and headed directly for his office, a part of him bracing itself to deal with a boy that unsettled him as nothing and no one ever had before.
He entered his office and stopped dead in his tracks.
The child was gone.
For the first time in four years, Darth Vader was left aghast. He couldn't feel the boy's presence anywhere in his quarters, anywhere in the ship.
He had vanished into thin air.
Five minutes later, the Dark Lord still stood in the same spot, trying to grasp what had happened there a few hours before.
Had it really happened? Had that boy really been in his quarters, or had his mind played a trick on him?
No. The boy had been there. Everything he was told him so. It had been no dream, no delusion. It had been real.
But that didn't change the fact that the mysterious child wasn't there anymore.
There had to be a logical answer to this, and by all the Lords of Sith, he would find it!
Vader turned about and strode out of his quarters.
TO BE CONTINUED...