Darth Vader knew his master would be displeased. The Emperor was displeased any time one of his subordinates acted with too much initiative, and returning to the Imperial Palace unannounced definitely qualified as that. But the news he carried of the Rebellion's plans was too urgent to be left for the next scheduled report, and too valuable to be sent via holotransmission, the security of which were becoming more dubious by the day. And so he found himself making the journey through the labyrinthine halls of the Palace towards his master's sanctum.
The vastness of the place always struck him as an exercise in excess, the luxurious materials with which it was built as more of the same. What use could Palpatine have for all of these rooms, anyway? Many floors appeared completely vacant, but it was not possible to bypass them, as though the Emperor wanted every visitor to comprehend the immensity of the Palace. Thankfully, he was almost to the final elevator which would take him to the uppermost floor and to the Throne Room.
He was prepared for the reprimand he would receive, but it would all be a mock show. While Palpatine might have been at first unaware of his return to Imperial Center, by now security recorders and the guards that monitored them would have relayed his presence to the Emperor, if the Force had not already done so. He could have warded off some of his punishment by asking for permission to enter the Palace, but that would have lessened the ritual exchange that was about to take place. His master, exerting his authority, and he defying it. It was the glue that bound them together, and let them know everything was as it should be between them.
But as he stood waiting at the turbolift doors, he had the distinct impression that all was not right. There was an odd current in the Force, something he could not quite identify, because when he focused on it, it seemed to recede as mere echo. He shook his head, and returned to composing the report he would give to Palpatine. His reward was a sharp pain, almost as if someone had jabbed him in the sides, though no being would ever be so bold as to touch him. A ripple of laughter drifted away in the Force, and he turned abruptly towards the source.
This time he diffused his awareness, allowing the Force to settle over him like a cloak. At the very edge of his perception he sensed a repeating pulse of energy, timed like a heartbeat. Someone waited down this wing of the Palace, someone who had not quite the skill to conceal their presence completely.
Though the silver doors slid open, he abandoned the elevator and strode purposefully down the corridor, his boots clacking against the glittering Sittana marble floor. A flash of blond hair disappearing around a corner gave substance to the phantom presence, and he quickened his pace. At every turn though, his quarry increased the distance between them, and he realized the futility of direct pursuit. When he was young he would have thought of nothing except chasing after his prey, but age and the limitations of the suit had taught him other methods.
He intentionally chose a hallway that took him away from the presence, and smiled when he felt it begin to follow him, just as he had predicted. He wandered as if lost, though in truth all the levels of the Palace followed the same floor plan and he knew exactly where he was going. The presence trailed behind him, smugness emanating from it as it prided itself about its lack of detection. It never came close enough for him to see it fully, though if he turned quickly enough he sometimes caught sight of the same head of golden hair.
It was likely only a minor Force adept minion of the Emperor. He wouldn't have even bothered investigating it except that there was an infuriating arrogance to the presence that made him want to put it in its place. Chastising himself for allowing it to provoke him, he turned onto the main corridor and headed back towards the turbolifts. Abruptly, the presence brightened in the Force, and he heard padding footsteps behind him. Growling in annoyance, he called his lightsaber to hand and whirled about. Just outside the reach of his humming blade stood a tall, slim youth, who stared back at him, hands raised in a defensive posture. The band of scarlet that edged the fine charcoal fabric of the youth's clothing announced the boy's status with the Emperor.
"We're not supposed to meet," the youth said, grinning. "Not until I'm older, anyway."
A more true statement had probably never been uttered. He was thankful for the concealment of the mask, because he knew his jaw had dropped in astonishment. The face before him was more than familiar, it was him, save that when he had been sixteen years old, his hair had been shorn close, with a Padawan braid hanging behind his ear.
He didn't know why he was surprised; Palpatine's loyalty was a nebulous concept at best. But to see evidence of his fall from his master's favor still hurt, digging into him like a vibro-shiv to his gut. For all that his master had invested in rebuilding the ruined shell that was his body, the end result was apparently not satisfactory. Instead, Palpatine had required this, this flawless duplication of who he had once been. The perfection of the clone suggested Kaminoian technology; the age of the youth said he would have been grown from cells harvested while Vader was being reconstructed in the Emperor's medical center. The boy, then, was as much a survivor of Mustafar as he was.
Vader knew he should run the boy through and be done with it, but something stilled his hand. "What has he promised you?" he said, finally.
The youth lowered his arms. "To take your place."
Of course. What other answer could there be? He was deceiving himself to think that this boy was kin; they were rivals. But he was mesmerized by the way his clone's chest expanded so effortlessly, and by how the long limbs tapered into graceful fingertips of flesh. All the potential that had once been his, this boy still possessed.
"You should know that he promises more than he can deliver," he said, powering down his lightsaber.
The youth smirked. "You think you can stop me?"
He sighed to himself, remembering the first time he faced Dooku, and how he had felt that same boundless confidence. "Of course. But that is not the point. Be careful of your friend Palpatine."
"You're the one who calls him 'Master'," the boy shot back.
His finger twitched over the lightsaber's activator.The youth's insolence irritated him, but he couldn't deny the truth in his words. "And you are a fool if you think you will not."
"Someday, I will be more powerful than him," the youth said. "Then I will be the master."
"You think you are the first to have that dream?" he said angrily, striding forward until he had the boy backed against a wall. Physical characteristics, temperament, even midi-chlorian counts were all genetic traits, but how could the Kaminoians have duplicated his fate as well? "He allows you that dream so as to control you."
For the first time, the boy's self-assurance faltered. "He doesn't control me," he said, his brow furrowed.
The words might have come from Vader's own mouth, once upon a time. The problem was, they weren't true."Then leave while you still can."
Confusion filled the boy's face, but then he swallowed hard and thrust his chin forward. "Why don't you leave?"
Vader backed away, giving the boy room. He shouldn't be saying any of this. The boy was an opponent, nothing more. But looking into his own face, he couldn't stop himself. "Because I can't."
"See, that's why I will take your place," the youth said, the annoying smirk returning to his face. "Because I'm stronger."
Why was it so difficult to make the boy understand? "If you are truly stronger, then you will not seek my place."
"Why do you care what I do?" the boy said, gesturing into the air.
"Because you're me. You're my clone," he said. It shouldn't matter, but it did.
The boy's face screwed up in distaste. "I'm not a clone of anyone."
"It is not a disgrace," he said. "But it is the truth."
"I cannot here," he said, knowing he'd never convince the boy with words."But ask Palpatine to tell you of Anakin Skywalker."
"How do you know my name?" the boy said indignantly.
He felt faintly nauseous. Physical duplication had not been sufficient; Palpatine had sought to recreate him entirely. "Because it was mine first."
"You can't be me," the youth said, staring at his own hands as if his flesh had betrayed him. "I would never kneel before him like you do."
Vader remembered the first time he had done so, desperation filling him as his destiny seemed to narrow to one path. It would be impossible to count how many times he had performed the ritual since, and its numbing effect had never diminished. "At your age, I would not have believed it, either."
The youth looked distinctly uneasy. Maybe there was no reason to be envious of his clone's intact body. The boy had still to face the humiliation that would come with discovering he could never best Palpatine, and that he would always be a servant. Having already learned that lesson, Vader could afford not to to look at that painful fact directly. A whisper of sadness came to him as he gazed at the now deflated boy, but then he walked away. Palpatine was expecting him.
"Wait," the youth called after him.
He paused, turning back towards the boy.
"Does he ever make you feel stupid?"
Apparently the boy did not enjoy protected status after all. A thousand jibes echoed in his head, insults swallowed while in service to his master. "He tries. It's among his favorite pastimes."
"How do you make him stop?"
Any sense of rivalry that still remained yielded to the protectiveness that rose in his chest. He knew well the cycle of praise and condemnation that Palpatine used to maintain his superior position: praise, to make you care what he thought, followed by criticism to make you try harder to regain his approval. It had taken him many years to understand the method, and even now he sometimes succumbed to its lure. The boy, of course, had no such perspective, allowing the game to impact him with full power.
"Don't fight with him. It's what he enjoys most," he said. "But if you are like me, you cannot help sparring with him."
The youth managed a weak smile. He stepped closer and looked directly into the mask. "What's it like out there?"
"Outside Imperial Center. Anywhere."
"You've never been off-world?"
The boy looked embarrassed. "Only the places he's taken me. Not very many. He's says I'm too valuable to be permitted out."
The outrage that had been simmering within him bubbled stronger. He was not meant for captivity, and neither was this boy. It went against their nature. The boy deserved more than to be raised like a creature in a zoo. "I will see to it that your education is expanded," he said. "That I promise."
The youth's eyes searched the mask, and then he nodded, a trickle of hope leaking past the boy's imperfect mental shields.
"In the meantime, you stay here," he said. "I cannot keep the Emperor waiting any longer. You know how he gets."
When the red cloaked Imperial Guards refused to move out of Darth Vader's way, he knew the game had begun in earnest. He resigned himself to waiting outside the huge doors that marked the entrance to the Throne Room, not even protesting when the delay stretched far beyond anything reasonable into the ridiculous. At last Palpatine sent silent command to the Guards, and he was allowed entry, although the Guards flanked his approach to the Throne as if he were a common supplicant, and not the Emperor's right hand. When he was within two meters of the massive chair and the hooded figure who occupied it, he dropped to one knee.
"Were you lost?" the Emperor asked pointedly.
"No, Master," he said, keeping his head bowed.
"First you arrive when I have not requested your presence, and then you make me wait for you," Palpatine said, not bothering to disguise his irritation. "What have you to say for yourself?"
"Sorry, Master," he said slowly. "I was talking to myself."
Their conversations were always embedded with hidden meanings, and Palpatine did not miss the message he had sent in this one. There was a marked silence before Palpatine replied. "Guards, leave us."
He smiled inside his helmet, but did not move until he heard the doors shush open and closed after the Guards departed. When he looked up, the expression on the Emperor's face was as peevish as he had imagined.
Palpatine glared at him as he leaned back in the throne. "I trust it was a good conversation."
He rose to his full height. "Yes. Most enlightening."
"He's a clever boy," the Emperor said casually. "About as eager as you were to prove his abilities, which is why he must have chosen to reveal himself to you."
"You gave him my name," he said, stepping closer to the throne.
Palpatine shrugged. "You weren't using it anymore."
"You have no right to keep him caged like an animal."
"No right?" the Emperor said, sneering. "I commissioned his creation. That gives me every right."
He struggled to contain his disgust at Palpatine's claim of ownership. "It is customary to seek permission from the donor before creating a clone."
"Oh, well pardon me for not asking first when all that remained of you was a charred carcass," the Emperor said, descending from the throne. Anger sparked in his yellow eyes. "When did you become so ungrateful, Lord Vader? You'd be dead if it were not for me. Perhaps I should have simply left you there like Kenobi did."
His lightsaber was in his hand and ignited before he could think about it. Palpatine's face went grim, and they began the slow, circling dance of well-matched combatants. This was it, the collision that was so long in coming, no longer hidden behind precisely chosen words and inflammatory actions. He thrust his saber forward, and Palpatine retreated wordlessly, but brought his hands up, gnarled fingers extending in warning. His mind leapt to imagine defenses that would keep him protected from the Force lightning he knew was coming.
As if reading his mind, arcs of blue energy flew from the Emperor's fingertips, and Vader angled his lightsaber to deflect them. It took all of his strength to keep the saber in position against the relentless storm that issued from Palpatine. Somehow, he summoned his reserve and pushed back abruptly, the recoil knocking the Emperor off balance. The onslaught of lightning stopped, and Palpatine's gaze shifted to the side. With the crackle of energy silenced, he picked up the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps.
From behind him came the voice of the youth, breathless from running. "Wait! I need him."
He caught the subtle smile that came to Palpatine's lips, and a sense of dread filled him. There was something about the situation that was familiar, so very familiar.
"He's a traitor, Anakin," Palpatine said.
It took him a moment to realize the Emperor was speaking to the boy. He stepped back so that he could see both Palpatine and the youth, who now clutched a lightsaber in his hand. Despite the oddness of it, he let his own name roll off his tongue. "Anakin, he's the traitor. To us."
The boy stood solemn faced between them, his eyes darting back and forth as he considered their pleas. In a flash it came to him why he felt that he had already lived this scene, because he had, only unbelievably he now stood in Mace Windu's place, arguing against the evil that was Palpatine. His heart sank. The boy would become Palpatine's next apprentice, just as he had done, because it was their destiny. Even though his own life was at stake, this stand-off had little to do with him. It was a test for the boy, as Dooku had been for him.
He might be expendable, but he was not going to go quietly. He charged towards Palpatine with a mighty swing of his lightsaber, and was met with a renewed blast of Force lightning. Calling on the Force for strength, he leaned into the fury and made Palpatine work to repel him.
"Help me, Anakin," the Emperor said. "I can't hold him any longer."
"Don't listen to him, Anakin," he growled in reply, knowing full well that he appeared the aggressor to the boy's surrogate father.
"Help me," Palpatine cried. "Don't let him kill me."
At the edge of the helmet's vision, he caught sight of the boy somersaulting with the Force into the middle of the fray. The lightning ceased abruptly, and the sudden loss of resistance made him fall forward to his knees, his lightsaber tumbling from his hand. Arterial spray painted the lenses of his mask, and he readied himself for the end. Around him the Force went nova, blindingly white even from behind closed eyelids. Maybe it was as they had first taught him...There is no death, there is only the Force.
His vision darkened, and he waited for the transformation. And waited. When nothing changed, he slowly opened his eyes and saw that against the durasteel shinguard of his right leg lay Palpatine's unblinking head. He pushed himself up with a speed he didn't know he still possessed, and summoned his lightsaber. The youth was standing over the Emperor's body, lightsaber deactivated, but the hilt still held in a trembling hand.
"I did it," the boy was muttering, his expression dazed, "I did it."
Vader moved away from the Emperor's corpse to gaze at his clone head on. His eyes, his face, his frame, not yet grown to maturity, but this boy was not him.
Thank the Force.