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A tall figure
in black stood at the main view port of the Imperial Star Destroyer,
his back to the crew pits and command walkway. Before him, floating
against the cold, black background of space, interwoven among
the faint star field of the Oltar system rose a small, insignificant
planet shrouded in white. Beyond it, a tiny but brilliant streak
of light heralded the impending exodus of a battered ellipsoid
shaped Corellian light freighter from the system.
she's going hyper!" The communications officer turned to
his CO. His face registered dismay as he shot a quick glance toward
the figure in black at the central view port, then to the station
at his right. "The signal's gone. We've lost the tracer!"
her engines!" The CO snapped, knowing it was too late. Helplessly
he watched the small Corellian ship charge headlong into hyper
and once again out of their reach.
of impending doom settled over the bridge of the Annihilator as
her command support personnel settled their attention first on
the destroyer's CO and then on the figure in black at the view
hard, Commander Ado Faka straightened his already immaculate uniform
before angling his steps toward the imposing figure of the Emperor's
emissary, who continued to star at the star field and its one
small world, seemingly unconcerned over the loss of the Corellian
Dark Lord's side, but staying a step to his rear, Commander Faka
came to stiff attention. "Lord Vader, it would seem our tracer
has been found and disabled." He hesitated, and then stumbled
on. "Without it, my Lord, we will be unable to track the
Corellian into hyper. We have lost him."
his revelation and the Imperial officer remained at attention,
fearing the wrath of the Sith Lord, but duty bound to stand his
is the name of this system, Commander, and the world that stands
before us?" The voice, deep, commanding, and uncommonly soft,
carried an edge, which immediately brought a fine film of perspiration
to the officer's brow.
the Oltar system, my Lord. The…the planet has no name,"
Faka stammered. His hands clasped tightly behind his back to still
their shaking, the officer recited the desired information with
precise clarity. "It carries a designation code of Xelta
4, my Lord. According to our charts, it is a primitive planet
with no technology, intelligent life forms, or mineral holdings
of any value. It has, therefore, been deemed worthless by the
yet, I…sensed…" The electronically enhanced voice
officer at his elbow, Darth Vader turned and moved in long-legged
strides down the command walkway bisecting the crew pits and the
command console. From his shoulders, the long, black cape trailed
behind, an arrogant reflection of the beings own dark, ominous
the officer seated at the Science station, Vader addressed the
Imperial curtly. "Scan the planet and report your findings."
further orders, officers at other stations reached hurriedly to
their boards and began meticulous searches for additional data
on the small world before them.
picking up massive life readings, my Lord," the science officer
reported, his attention centered on the station's computer and
its building data. "But no technology except from what seems
to be a small settlement in the planet's Northern Hemisphere."
the Dark Lord snapped.
charts show the trajectory from that location would put space
craft on a true heading for numerous smuggling lanes rumored to
be in this sector, My Lord." The navigator reported crisply.
Faka stepped forward to scan the navigational data over his officer's
shoulder. "More than likely, my Lord, it's an outlaw settlement.
There are many such on these backwater worlds."
life readings?" Vader inquired, ignoring the commander's
attempt at conversation.
officer hit several keys and another set of figures appeared.
"Life readings registering as indigenous are scattered throughout
the plains regions, my Lord, with small numbers concentrated in
the mountainous areas." He looked up briefly, caught his
commanding officer's nod and quickly continued. "With no
technology except for the small settlement, I must conclude that
this world's indigenous life are non-intelligent." He hurriedly
brought up another screen. "Planetary temperature readings
are low…very low. Ship's instruments register massive snowstorms
across much of the planet."
The Dark Lord
remained seemingly unmoved by the information, his attention again
centered on the small, white shrouded planet rotating slowly on
its strangely tilted axis. It's weak and insignificant star too
far away to provide much more than a gentle twilight to the small
world and little heat. "Commander Faka, order Strike Force
Alpha to their ships and issue arctic battle gear and life support
packs. Have General Veers meet me at my ship."
the commander of the Annihilator turned to face the tall figure
in black armor, his eyes shifting uncomfortably before the red
lenses of the helmet, which hid the countenance of a being that
expected unwavering obedience. "An…an attack, my Lord?"
He stammered to silence, fearful of his future should the armored
being take offense at his inquiry. "Will you be leading the
strike, my Lord?"
go to the planet's surface, Commander, but General Veers will
have charge of the attack. I will expect you to provide cover
for the strike force and to target any non-Imperial ships attempting
to leave the surface."
my Lord." Commander Faka snapped a smart salute. He held
himself at stiff attention until the Emperor's emissary had left
the bridge in a swirl of black robes and hissing life support
before he turned to communications and snapped a quick order.
"Notify General Veers at once. Order Alpha strike force with
arctic gear and life support packs to the transport carriers immediately.
Lord Vader is not to be kept waiting."
his security officer, Faka snapped quick orders. "Put the
ship on red alert and position us above the settlement. Bring
all weapons on line and awaiting civilian targets from the surface.
No ships; I repeat, no ships are to escape."
* * * *
In the darkness,
from a snow-covered bluff above the small, ugly settlement, Darth
Vader watched the ghostly figures of his strike force move through
the smoking chaos of the burning encampment. Their armored forms
ominously silhouetted against the red and orange flames of the
raging fires. Laser blasts from Imperial weapons streaked through
the darkness taking down shadowy figures attempting to flee the
devastation, while screams of those trapped inside burning buildings
rose in a crescendo of pain and death. Still others met their
fate in silence, unwilling to leave their shelters only to fall
prey to the Imperial forces.
lucky enough to make their escape to awaiting ships found quick
death in the fiery demise of their small smuggling vessels as
porta-cannon strategically rimming the settlement targeted first
their engines and then their fuel tanks, leaving little more than
flaming debris on several carbon-scored launch pads.
before the driving wind, his long cap furling and beating against
his formidable and imposing figure, Darth Vader ignored the destruction,
sending his power of the Dark Side reaching, probing, searching
for that 'something' he had sensed from space moments before the
escape of the Corellian freighter. Among the carnage below, his
Dark awareness touched the souls of the unaware at the moment
of death and heard the prayers of others as they begged for deliverance;
but nowhere among the chaos did he sense the presence he had come
in search of.
winds rose, tearing at his robes in an attempt to force him from
the rise, but the Dark Lord, well protected in his suit of insulated
armor, stood his ground, oblivious to the cold, driving wind.
of white fell upon his shoulders and quickly melted only to be
replaced by others as snow fell, covering the world around him
in a blanket of white against the world's cloud-covered and starless
night. Only the fires below challenged the darkness, its hell-light
illuminating the barren ground between the settlement and the
hilltop in the colors of death and destruction.
it was there, a flicker of…something.
shoulders stiffened and a gloved hand reached to the silver tube
at his side. Alert and on guard, the Sith Lord waited. Hearing
nothing, seeing nothing, he slowly drew his weapon and reached
out with his power seeking, touching…nothing.
free hand to his breastplate, Vader touched a control increasing
power to his audio sensors to compensate for the familiar, but
deafening hiss of his own life support respirator.
There it was
His hand tightened
on the black tube and he swung away from the blinding glare of
the fires. Had something moved, there to the left, caught in his
peripheral vision? Or had it merely been a reflection from the
lenses of his helmet caught at a strange angle?
Again he sensed…to
his right! No, in the snow heavy brush at his back!
slowly, reaching into the darkness again with his Jedi senses,
probing, seeking the presence, but finding…nothing.
At the sound
of climbing footsteps behind him, Vader turned in annoyance. The
presence again lost to him.
officer dressed in the heavy gray, thermal-lined uniform and black
helmet of a field commander climbed to the top of the rise, shrugged
off a mantle of fresh snow, and stopped before the Dark Lord.
He saluted smartly. "Lord Vader, the encampment has been
neutralized." The General stood tall, confident, and obedient
before the Emperor's emissary. "I await your orders."
have done well, General Veers," Vader hissed, his voice rising
to be heard over the howl of the wind. "About this world,
what have you learned?"
questioned, none have encountered nor heard of any intelligent
life indigenous to this world. However, all have admitted they
do not venture outside the settlement walls because of native
predators that walk in the shadows and feast on the flesh of the
his countenance momentarily registering his disgust at the thought
of such fears. "While none admitted to having seen these
predators, they all say strange, feral screams have been heard
coming from the mountains above the settlement."
The dark imposing
figure before the Imperial general made no comment, and Veers
continued. "The last of the dwelling have been searched and
torched, my Lord, and all ships destroyed. What would you have
me do with the prisoners?"
them." Vader hissed coldly.
my Lord." Veers stood tall, his battle-scarred and lined
face seemingly unaffected by the order.
you are disposing of the prisoners, I want a scout ship with infrared
scanners to recon the area, starting at this ridge and working
outward. I am to be notified immediately if any life forms are
the remainder of my force, Lord Vader."
are to stand by until the recon has been completed. Until then,
I want a detachment placed immediately around our ships."
Surprise flickered in the hard gray eyes, but was quickly smothered.
"You think there may be a…danger?"
off the inquiry. "Recharge life support packs and issue extra
weapons, then hold your troops on alert." The black helmet
hissed its own warning against failure as each order was given.
"If the scout picks up any abnormality, you are to notify
me at once, then deploy your forces to surround the area indicated
and work forward. If there is someone here, I want them found,
and I want them taken alive!"
'As you wish,
my Lord." Veers stood tall before his commander. "Will
you be accompanying me to the settlement?"
The helmet turned away to star in the direction of the snow-shrouded
wilderness, then back. "Send a small detachment to join me.
We will start our search from here."
from a desire to ask further questions of the armored being's
strange directives, General Veers' expression remained neutral.
"At once, my Lord."
will be all, General."
the Imperial officer snapped a salute, turned, and quickly retraced
his steps down the roughed slope.
to his command, the general motioned to several troopers in white,
who shouldered their laser rifles and started up the slope to
join the dark figure at the top. At another sharp command, Alpha
strike force turned smartly and in military precision marched
back to the troop transports.
specially selected detail moved steadily and cautiously up the
small bluff toward the top and the commanding figure in black,
who awaited their arrival with outward impatience. Reaching their
destination, they stood at stiff attention.
was encased in a white environmental suit with thermal drapes
that served as breather hoods to warm the frigid air fed through
life support packs on each trooper's back, then into the suit's
liner and the trooper's lungs. Their white helmets with heavily
polarized lenses, offered no hint of the emotions on the countenance
beneath as each stood silently awaiting the dark lord's orders,
which were not long in coming.
out and comb the area!" Electronically enhanced, the dark
Knight's voice rose above the driving wind. "Bring anyone
you find to me…unharmed!"
laser rifles from their shoulders, the troopers set their weapons
on heavy stun then fanned out and quickly disappeared into the
building storm, leaving the dark shadow of their leader standing
his own armor to the worsening elements, Darth Vader reached for
the Dark power that dwelled within the frail shell of his human
body. He stoked it to life and fed the flames, until it roared
up to consume the man he had been and beckoned to the being he
had become. Immersed in the silence of Dark meditation, the fallen
Knight sent forth his power in search of the fugitive essence.
But only the violence of the building storm answered his summons.
wind drove into him. Its invisible fingers lifted the billowing
cape and whipped it savagely about his body, while the brutal
strength of the wind itself attempted to force the Dark Jedi from
his hilltop. Vader held his ground. "I feel your presence,
Jedi." He hissed. "Come forward and face your destiny…"
the gauntlet, something feather soft touched his mind, settled,
then arrogantly tightened its hold. Vader faltered, driven back
by the suddenness of the attack. Angrily, he reached to counter,
but the intruder had moved alluringly out of reach.
are you that you dare such an assault on a Sith Lord?"
It was a question
that demanded an answer. The reply came masked in malicious promise
from the darkest shadows of the Sith Lord's mind. "I am…death."
scream of a life form in terrifying agony rent the cold air and
Vader whirled, ignited his 'saber and brutally swept the remains
of the essence from his mind. Disoriented, he stood alone.
around him was bathed in virginal white, silent and deceivingly
peaceful, its beauty broken only by the flickering reds and oranges
of the fires from the dying encampment.
the brushing of Imperial armor against native vegetation, and
a figure in white broke through the veil of darkness and stumbled
to a halt. Vader stiffened, then watched silently as the trooper
was joined by another, then another. He took a quick tally. Four
on heavy stun!" He reminded them curtly. "Follow me!"
With the snowtroopers in duristeel armor at his back, Vader moved
boldly ahead, angling his steps in the direction of the now silenced
screams. The scarlet blade of his Jedi weapon hissed ominously
as the heat of the blade met the cold droplets of fallen snow.
the snow-heavy brush, the Dark Lord stepped into a small clearing
and stopped. There, in blood stained snow, lay three motionless
members of his detail.
At a signal
from their leader, each trooper at Vader's back activated black
tubes mounted on their weapons and directed small, bright beams
of light around the area, illuminating both the carnage at their
feet and the darkness surrounding it. They were alone.
still activated and glowing in his gloved fist, Darth Vader stepped
forward and silently studied the dead with clinical disinterest.
The attack had been swift and silent. The weapons belonging to
the dead lay in the snow at their sides unfired.
scratches had penetrated the white duristeel breastplate and opened
the chest of one trooper, while on another, the skirting of the
snow screen had been shredded, the helmet beneath bent and twisted,
the neck of the trooper broken. On the third, deep puncture marks
penetrated the heavy protective shielding to the flesh beneath,
the throat torn out.
A shout and
dark, still, lay at the edge of the heavy outcropping of brush,
caught by one of the snowtroopers in a beam from his probing light.
Vader started forward, while those covering his back carefully
scanned the edges of the clearing against a possible attack from
a still unknown danger.
At the edge
of the clearing, another trooper lay naked and still in the snow,
his chest torn open, his heart gone. Next to the body laid the
trooper's weapon, uniform, and arctic gear, the laser rifle still
locked on heavy stun. There were no signs of a struggle.
Back to back,
the armed Imperials stood silent watch over one of their own and
awaited orders from the imposing figure in black.
a step apart, the Jedi weapon held high, bathing the scene around
him in surrealistic shadows of red and black. But nothing moved.
to the source of his power, the Dark Lord silently addressed the
darkness, amplifying his telepathic abilities through the Force.
"So, you are still here. Do you think to scare me with these
this place while you can! I grow weary of this game!"
momentarily caught off guard by the sudden strength of the telepathic
contact, Vader hurried to summon the Dark power against the threat,
the guards at his back unaware of the attack.
himself, Vader rallied his powers, but it was too late. There
was nothing to attack, nothing to draw from the darkness. Nothing
to lock onto with the might of the Dark power that now surged
within him. Yet the 'something' was still close. He could sense
it, but could not locate it.
the dark lord reached to the controls on his chest and quickly
readjusted the settings to his life support. Had his heart rate
quickened? Had his breathing grown irregular? He increased his
oxygen inflow and waited. His vitals returned to normal, but his
anger intensified. What was here that his powers could not find,
direct, or intimidate? Whatever it was had proven to be cunning,
evasive, and dangerous, with a Force ability possibly equal to
his own. Another Dark Knight? The thought brought interest and
a strange allure to the helmeted being. He opened a comlink to
scout ship has completed the recon of your area and surrounding
areas, my Lord, but no alien life signs have been recorded."
Vader questioned in cold disbelief.
of irregularities, my Lord, which are likely equipment malfunctions,
but no recognizable life indicators." There was a brief hesitation.
"Shall I order a continuing sweep of the area?"
Vader paused. The gauntlet had been cast; from here he would go
alone. "Dismiss the scout ship and assemble your troops.
As soon as my detail joins you, return to the Annihilator and
await my orders."
Veers' voice registered mild surprise, quickly masked. "You
will remain here? Alone?"
question my orders, General?" The deep voice purred softly.
my Lord," Veers quickly denied. "Your orders will be
comlink to his command force, Vader motioned the troopers to the
center of the clearing. "That these three and return to your
transports." If their countenances had been visible, he would
have witnessed signs of instant relief. The Dark Knight sensed
it instead through the dark eddies of the Force. Amused, he continued,
"Tell General Veers I want them examined immediately upon
reaching the Annihilator."
motioned toward the naked body at the edge of the clearing.
the carrion." Vader hissed.
glanced once more toward the mutilated remains to be left behind,
then turned back to help the others struggling under the weight
of the fallen from the clearing. Burdened by their dead and the
extra equipment, the detail moved past Vader and down the incline
to rejoin their assembled troops gathering around the filling
From the highest
ridge overlooking the dying ruins of the settlement, Darth Vader
watched the troops assemble and the transports, one by one, lift
and take to the skies.
the helmeted being turned away from the bluff and returned to
the edge of the clearing. His damaged eyes behind the red lenses
studied the area with the insight of a warrior. It was good ground
for a confrontation if the renegade Jedi could be drawn to it.
the center of the clearing, he deactivated his weapon and snapped
it to his belt. He reached again for the alien presence. At first,
nothing, then without warning, his mind filled with a sudden onslaught
of vivid holographic images. Familiar images of another world---another
time…another man. And sudden, he stood spellbound before…a
river of golden sand, rippling, shifting, constantly moving as
it continued its task of building and rebuilding mighty dunes.
Above in an azure sky rode twin suns, the heat of their brilliance
baking the sand and crystallizing the exposed barren outcroppings
of native rock. In the distance, he heard the cry of a Krayt dragon,
echoing through the mountains surrounding what he immediately
recognized at the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine.
It was morning
and already lung-scorching hot. He felt the suns' brutal assault
on his body, their warmth on his bare flash. His bare flesh! He
moaned softly as he felt the minute caress of a dying breath of
early morning air moved the hairs on his naked arms…his
he drove the vivid pictures from his mind, cleansing it with the
Dark flow of the Force. He stood again in the center of his chosen
battleground. The falling snow a silent reminder of where he was
and the danger that he had summoned.
he surveyed the area with a warrior's eye, looking for the trap
he felt sure he had been telepathically drawn to, but the clearing
was empty. The hiss of his breathing was the only sound disturbing
the silence. Yet, he sensed a different…a change.
He found himself
standing where the dead had lain. But now, only his steps marred
the spot. He looked up as snow continued to fall in thick, silent
flakes. How could it have covered so much sign so quickly during
the short time he had been caught within the memories of a past
he'd long thought forgotten? Or had he been lost within those
memories for a longer time than seemed possible?
back to the ridge, he looked toward the spot where the fourth
trooper had fallen. In the meager light of the dying fires, he
could no longer see the dark bundle of equipment that had lain
next to the fallen man.
silver tube, he activated it and cautiously moved across the clearing.
Where the naked body of the Imperial trooper had lain, only a
faint stain of blood marked the spot. Both the body and the equipment
were gone. He knelt for a closer look.
the ice-heavy brush next to the bloody snow, he found a print,
and then another--- animal tracks---made by a very large, possibly
feline predator. Next to the spore, boot tracks quickly filling
with snow led away from the clearing.
Vader followed the trail slowly, periodically pushing brush aside
to read what little sign remained in the more sheltered areas
protected by the brush.
The body had
been dragged by the predator for a couple of steps, then lifted
and carried deeper into the brush by a human as evidenced by the
deeper spore made by a military boot.
He stood up,
uneasy with his findings. All this had happened only steps from
where he had stood spellbound and lost within his own memories.
doubt---had been drawn by the scent of blood and the promise of
an easy meal. Perhaps one of the native predators Veers had mentioned
earlier. Yet, according to the sign in the snow, a human had taken
the body from the animal without contest and walked away with
it; all the while, standing only steps away he had heard and seen
nothing. Worse, he had sensed nothing!
Only the silence
of the glen met his Force directed demand, leaving him mildly
shaken and strangely uneasy.
The snow continued
to fall, quickly covering the evidence on the ground before him.
Whatever was out there was providing more questions, than answers.
Still uneasy from the unsettling memories of his past, Darth Vader,
Dark Lord of the Sith, tried again. "You took the body of
the dead, why did you not take me?"
link to the other vibrated with amusement.
is little left of whatever you once were to feed on, Foreigner.
Why should I bother with the scarred and aged meat that hides
beneath your strange shell?"
The Dark powers
flamed to life at the insult hurled by the alien being.
feeds on the dead! Who are you?"
who are you to venture into the Brouka alone?" came the swift
reproach to the Dark Knight's challenge. "You who come from
the sky in strange lights to kill those of your own kind and than
demand the presence of one who is far superior!"
The electronically enhanced voice softened with barely controlled
anger. "There is no technology native to this world; no ships
of native design in your skies. I see only what has been here
since the beginning. If it were your steps I saw in the snow,
you take prey from animals and walk the paths of a primitive."
He spoke contemptuously to the empty clearing. "And you dare
to call yourself superior?"
threat, the essence continued, "You have cleansed my world
of the foreign ones and purified the ground, for that I am grateful.
Leave now and I will space your life."
my life?" Vader purred, amused anger vibrated through the
telepathic link. "You dare threaten a Sith Lord?"
for the mind of the other, Darth Vader tightened his hold, feeling
first surprise, than pain as he made contact. His empty hand rose
and his fist tightened. "Feel NOW my power, foolish one!"
Striking hard and without warning, the dark knight felt the essence
reel, but it did not fall. Nor did it beg for release. Instead,
the ancient power of the Dark Side was met and the challenge eagerly
the finely sculptured face of another swam into existence before
the weak, watery eyes of the human hidden behind the protection
of the black helmet. He moaned softly in recognition as dark-lashed
eyes set in porcelain looked at him with affection from a lovely
face surrounded by a cascade of spun gold. Even as he stepped
back in denial of the overwhelming vision of loveliness, the soft
rose-petal lips moved and a gentle voice filled with moonbeams
and star shine whispered his name, "Anakin."
unprepared and confused by both the realness of the vision, and
faced with emotions he thought long dead, Vader's hold on the
dark power faltered. Realizing his mistake too late, he reached
desperately for the Darkness, but the other had slipped from his
the dark knight forced the beautiful image from his mind and spun,
his weapon raised, but already too late. Something large, dark,
and powerful sprang from the darkness, struck him heavily in the
chest and bore him to the ground. Hitting hard, Vader rolled from
under the weight of his attacker. Bringing the scarlet blade of
his weapon up for a killing thrust, he found nothing; he was again
alone. He stumbled to his feet. The damaged heart within the iron-shelled
chest faltered, but the machinery in which it was encased quickly
regulated its beat.
'saber high, the Sith Lord studied the darkness around him. There!
He shone the scarlet light ahead of him in time to see a shadow---darkness
against darkness---disappear into the brush. An animal? A man?
He couldn't be sure.
You are slow,
foreigner, and I tire of the game. Leave now while you still can."
rose in waves of Dark fury. Twice he had been caught off balance
and toyed with like a fool, and twice, had it not been for the
benevolence of his enemy, he could have died. Only once had he
been able to strike a blow and it had cost him dearly; in memories
long denied and in concentration needed to foil the unseen threat.
Far worse, he had underestimated the enemy. He opened a link to
patch me into the M.E.!"
have you examined the Imperial dead recovered from the planet's
A pause followed
the dark Lord's inquiry as the Imperial Officer at the other end
of the communications recognized the voice. "Yes, my Lord.
I commenced the examinations at once, per your instructions to
were attacked by…by an animal---large---probably of a feline
species with very powerful teeth and claws. Some…fur and
coarser guard hairs were recovered as well as some saliva. Tests
are currently being run on them."
same animal that had struck him to the ground, Vader reasoned.
A feat no human could have done so easily. He remembered the spore
found of both animal and man. His breathing slowed as his mind
labored over the puzzle. It was possible that while the human
filled the mind of his prey with confusing and distracting images
plucked from the victim's own memories through the use of a power
similar to the Force, the animal trained to hunt, would attack.
for the comlick. "If you find anything unusual in the tests,
report to me at once."
my Lord." The connection was quickly cut.
down at the 'saber still grasped tightly in his gloved fist. The
crimson blade hummed in readiness, but no longer hissed from the
touch of fallen snow. High overhead, stars broke free of the heavy
cloud cover and bathed the fresh snow in nether light drawn from
a large moon rising above the northern horizon. He touched a button
and the energy blade disappeared, its artificial light no longer
Vader again studied the spore of the animal. Its rounded print
was twice the size of his out-stretched hand and easily recognizable
as belonging to that of a large feline. He hissed in anger. He
would have to shelter his mind from the human he sought and guard
his memories closely or when next they met he could die from the
claws and fangs of the great cat. He got to his feet.
power of the Force to him, he reached cautiously for the now familiar
essence and encountered contentment and peaceful oblivion. The
essence slept. He smiled. It seemed the man had taken some of
the great cat's own habits as well as its hunting abilities. Having
eaten, he…they…slept. He pulled back gently and forcibly
cooled his anger. He would have to move cautiously. The cat would
not be easily caught off guard, its sense of smell second only
to its sense of hearing. Against the man, he would have to guard
his thoughts and his memories, or he chanced walking into a trap.
He again opened
a comlink to his ship.
train ship's sensors on my current location and scan for feline
and/or humanoid life forms."
Lord Vader." The comlink fell silent. A moment later, the
disembodied voice returned. "A single life form matching
that of some feline species has been located, my Lord, approximately
1.85 kilometers north of your present location. However, there
are several of the felines..."
him off. "Feed the coordinates of the single life form into
my automated directional finder."
the link, than waited impatiently as several lights flashed on
the digital display mounted on the left side of his chest plate.
A moment later, a green light signaled the completion of the diagnostic
So, the Sith
Lord concluded, the man had been able to mask his whereabouts
through the use of his Force-like powers, but he had not been
able to mask those of the great cat. To find them before they
became aware of his approach through the human's Force skills
and t he cat's own natural abilities he would have to move with
stealth and caution.
the digital instrument to the direction of his objective, the
dark knight drew his powers to him, shielded his mind and dampened
his memories. Trusting in his skills and knowledge of the Dark
Side to protect him, Darth Vader confidently moved into the heavy
brush, his steps set on an intercept course with the strange being
he sought and the great cat who seemingly walked at his side.
swollen moon climbed higher into the night sky as he passed on,
the brush growing taller and taller as he moved further north.
Noting the sudden increase in rocky outcroppings and the labored
rasp of his respiration, the dark Lord slowed his pace; the trail
he paused to adjust his life support to compensate for the heat
his body was generating in relation to the programmed limits of
his armor, as well as the rising respiratory responses to his
strenuous activity. But still he pressed on without thought of
abandoning his search.
on the desired coordinates, Vader slowed his steps and again checked
his location. The great cat and its master could not be far ahead.
He would have to move cautiously until he located them, hopefully,
before one or both sensed his presence. He could afford no mistakes.
Dark powers closer to him, Vader reached outward with his Force
search, touched the other and drew back cautiously. The being
he sought still slept, but his mind activity had increased; he
would awaken soon.
The dark knight
edged forward, than glanced again at the directional finder. He
stopped. The life form of the great cat had disappeared from the
several buttons, but the information remained the same. The animal's
signal was gone!
up, but only the towering granite bluffs ahead and the tall, snowy
brush surrounding his location met his searching gaze.
Had they separated?
If so, he should still be getting a reading on the directional
Was the great
cat hunting? Perhaps already surrounding closing in on another
kill? Or was it stalking him, controlled, directed, and possibly
even cloaked by the Force abilities of its human companion?
sent the dark lord reaching again for the comlink, but caution
stayed his hand. He was too close to where the cat had last been
located. If, by chance, they did not know of his nearness, he
had no wish to alert them by contacting the Annihilator. He waited
a few heart-stopping moments than again checked the finder. And
again, t he small light flashed its failure to locate.
be wrong with the instrument? He sent a series of checks through
the computerized network and the instrumentation flashed its acknowledgment
to the test. Everything checked out, giving him no scientific
reason for its failure in locating the great cat.
with the irregular readings and puzzled by the unreasonable failure
of the equipment, Vader sensed the easing of his mind shield and
drew the Force closer, quickly slamming shut the breech opened
by his frustration.
flashed and he checked again. The light had blinked on, the digital
equipment once again tracking the movements of the great cat.
Its line of progress was coming rapidly towards him! Its course
unerringly straight, its speed unhampered by the rough terrain
and heavy brush.
The dark lord
hurriedly stepped into a warrior's stance, ignited his weapon,
and mentally touched a control in the helmet, transferring the
finder's data to a reflection printout behind his optical nerve
allowing him to track the animal's movements while keeping his
A flash and
the form again disappeared from the finder! Vader's breath quickened
and was immediately regulated by the electronics within his armored
suit. But the mechanics of his life support could do nothing for
the uncertainty that coursed unwillingly through the mind of Darth
With the dark
force tightly shielding his mind, his thoughts, how could a man
have known of his approach far enough ahead to send the cat? And
if he had sent the great cat, what had stopped it short of its
in the warrior's stance, the enhanced vision of the helmet offering
him no advantage over the frailty of the human eyes beneath, for
there was nothing moving for his sensors to locate.
Was the great
cat there, somewhere, just out of sight? Was it watching him with
golden, feline eyes, licking an expectant tongue over sharp, flesh-renting
fangs as it waited for the command to take him down?
A soft beep
from the comlink inside his helmet and the dark lord started.
Keeping his guard up and his 'saber trained on the brush ahead,
Vader opened the link.
Vader, this is the M.E. aboard the Annihilator. I have some…unusual
findings to report."
Doctor." The Sith Lord breathed into the comlink, his attention
centered on the open spot in the brush before him.
made on the saliva have found a fluctuating DNA."
tests are not conclusive, but…"
cat is not a cat?"
no, my Lord. The major strand of the DNA is feline; however…"
His voice faded and static filled the comlink, and then died.
ahead of him trembled, then stilled. Vader stepped forward, his
'saber at the ready as he tried again to voice activate the comlink.
It remained dead.
you are back," he addressed the brushy area to his right.
behind him, a human voice laughed in sarcastic glee. "Why
do you continue to pursue a conflict you cannot win?"
know who you address with such disrespect?" Vader snapped
the voice spat back with a slight feline hiss. "A wise being
would have heeded my warnings. Only a fool would dare follow a
Felarian into the Brouka."
Vader repeated softly. "Is that what you are called?"
I am Geko, the Fearless! Slayer of all who venture beyond the
Stinking Place and any who come to defile the ancient lands of
whirled, his thoughts rushing back to the information obtained
in the first preliminary scans made of the world on which he now
stood. If humanoids had once populated the small, unnamed world
in the Oltar System, the Annihilator's scientific scans had found
no proof of it; therefore, he concluded, as formidable as the
being called Geko might be; he was alone. Perhaps, a crazed, Force
sensitive outcast of the settlement or a Jedi hounded to this
far edge of space and into a life wracked with insanity. Whatever
or whoever this Geko proved to be, he was no true match against
the powers of the Dark Side.
face me, Geko, the Fearless, face the wrath of a Dark Lord of
the Sith, who is versed in the ancient practices of evil and controller
of the Dark Side of the Force!" Vader taunted in a voice
deep with anger and promise. "For no man stands before me
and dares to call me fool!"
fencing raged to a halt. Vader waited, sensing the being known
as Geko only meters from him still hidden by the heavy brush.
If the great cat had been at his side, it was now gone.
rustled, bent, then was pushed aside as a figure in white armor
stepped from the heavy cover and stopped several meters from the
his anger at the sight of his enemy dressed in the gear taken
from the body of the Imperial trooper. He studied the figure closely.
Each carefully molded piece of the duristeel uniform was custom
designed and seldom able to fit any other than the one for whom
it was specifically manufactured. Yet, the one known as Geko stood
before him in a uniform seemingly made for him…and only
him. He held the military issue laser rifle as if long familiar
with its weight and its purpose.
your helmet. I wish to see your face."
lifted a white-gloved hand and pulled the heavy helmet with its
thermal drape from his head.
Darth Vader took a step back. Standing before him in the remains
of the Imperial uniform stood the likeness of his own son…Luke
blade rose with the speed of light, and the Sith Lord met and
parried the first laser bolt from the Imperial weapon that flew
with unerring precision toward his head. Stepping swiftly to the
right, he parried the next series of shots. And then, it was over
and he was again alone.
thought to throw me off guard with more faces from my past, Geko,
you should have used a face other than that of my son." The
chuckle that followed sounded mechanical, but deadly. "I
do not currently know his whereabouts, but I do know it is not
here. You will have to do better, Shape Changer!"
of the night closed in around the dark knight. The rasp of his
breathing coupled with the hiss of his weapon was strangely loud
in the moon lit field of battle. So, he reasoned, that's what
the M.E. had attempted to tell him when he had lost contact with
his ship. He had also said the DNA strand was primarily feline.
That could only mean…"
heavy armor, a few aged and damaged hairs rose on the back of
the disfigured neck of the dark knight as understanding of his
situation became all too clear.
The same scans
that had failed to find technology on the small, ancient world
had found numerous concentrations of large predators located in
the mountains above the small settlement. Mountains, he now realized,
he had been slowly and cunningly drawn towards. For the first
time in a very, very long time, Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith,
felt the touch of fear. He reached for his comlink, but only static
answered his open channel. So, that too, had not been left to
The one known
as Geko had allowed the open link to his ship right up until the
information that might have kept him from proceeding further from
the settlement had been forth coming and then, contact had been
severed, but how?
His mind reeled
with the only possible answer---with a power that possessed many
of the same properties as his own dark Force. The same power that
he had sensed from space and that had brought him to the planet's
surface in search of what he believed to be a rogue Jedi, who
had somehow escaped the purge! He looked swiftly about, realizing
for the first time the full potential of his danger.
the chill of his growing suspicions, Darth Vader remembered against
he strange behavior of those in the village when faced with the
sudden attack of the Imperial forces. Some had stumbled from their
shelters caught off guard and vulnerable to the first volleys
of deadly laser fire. Others had stayed in the burning buildings
or made frantic, suicidal efforts to reach their berthed spacecraft.
But none had ventured into the protection of the surrounding darkness
and thick brush that might have saved their lives. Why?
had brought the answer. Because of native predators believed to
be able to lure the careless away from the settlement to kill
and feast on their flesh. His breathing quickened. It now seemed
he faced not one human with powers similar to his own, but perhaps
hundreds of feline predators with not only like powers, but the
ability to reach into the unguarded mind and use their prey's
own thoughts and memories against them.
his danger, Vader took a swift step backward until he felt a cold,
solid wall of granite. With the use of his Force senses, he reached
out and quickly defined the perimeters of the rock wall at his
back. It would offer some protection to a single frontal attack,
but little or none against a full rush by many. He had been cleverly
drawn into a trap that he had arrogantly and willingly sprung.
He again reached
for the comlink and activated it, already knowing that contact
with his ship was unlikely; he was not disappointed. Only static
greeted the open channel. From the hills above him, another alien
but distinctively feline scream filled the night air. This one
was high pitched and quickly answered by a deeper voiced cry much
closer to his location. Had Geko called for reinforcements?
* * * *
M.E. moved with single-minded purpose down the spacious corridors
of the Annihilator towards the commander's conference room. Already,
he found himself wondering how he had found the audacity not just
to request, but also to demand, an immediate conference with Commander
Faka. He sighed. Caught up in the possible implications of his
findings and unable to contact Vader on the planet below, he had
also requested the presence of the ship's communications officer
and General Veers. He had served aboard an Imperial ship long
enough to know that if he were wrong, it would be more than his
career at stake. Before wisdom overcame duty and weakened his
reserve, he pressed on.
destination, he paused before a closed door and buzzed for admittance.
A moment passed, then tow, before an electronic signal sounded
and the door slid open, admitting him to the huge conference room,
before him stood the wall-to-wall black duristeel table surrounded
by what appeared to be equally hard, unyielding, and uncomfortable
chairs. Already seated at one of the two prominent places at the
head of the table was Commander Faka, the chair to his right ominously
The M.E. stepped
inside, allowing the door to swish shut behind him, then approached
the foot of the great table.
please take a seat. Communications Officer Co'tar will join us
shortly and General Veers has been notified. He is on his way."
acceptance of the information, the M.E. swiveled the assigned
chair on its base and sat down allowing the chair to return to
its assigned position. Steepling his hands to still their agitation,
the doctor waited in silence before the disapproving glare of
his commanding officer.
A moment later,
the doors again swished open. He felt the breeze from the colder
outer corridor touch his back, and then stabilize as the door
closed. The soft muffled footsteps of two men moved toward the
table. From his peripheral vision, he saw the younger officer
in Imperial gray take the empty seat to his left. The older officer
bearing the Imperial insignia of general moved to his right and
proceeded toward the head of the table where he took a seat closer
to the ship's commander.
Once all were
seated, Commander Faka cleared his throat and addressed the table.
"Doctor, the floor is yours."
before the suddenness of the commander, the M.E. struggled to
his feet, smoothed his white medical uniform, and folded his hands
nervously before him.
Faka, General Veers, I apologize for calling this meeting with
such little forewarning, but I felt the information I have gleaned
should be shared with those of you assembled here."
nodded impatiently. "Get on with it, Doctor. It's late and
I'm sure those of us here are as anxious to return to their beds
sir." The M.E. cleared his throat. "At General Veers'
order, my staff and I conducted, immediate autopsies on the bodies
of our personnel recovered from the planet's surface. It was our
findings that they were brutally attacked, mutilated, and killed
by a predator likely native to the world below us. While cross-checking
our data and conducting the required tests, feline DNA was found
in the saliva recovered from the wounds."
yes, Doctor," Faka pressed impatiently, "I've read the
report on your findings."
The M.E. nodded,
but stood his ground. "I am repeating the data for General
a hand in quick acknowledgment, encouraging the M.E. to continue.
At his side, Veers moved forward with growing interest.
a fluctuating DNA."
Lord Vader notified of this?" The general's cold gray eyes
bore into the darker ones of the M.E. and the doctor shifted uncomfortably
under his intense gaze.
Lord Vader immediately upon making the discovery. But before I
could give further information, I lost contact and have been unable
to contact him since." He paused, feeling nervous perspiration
breaking out on his forehead. "I…I thought the matter
should be brought to your immediate attention."
Faka could comment, Veers addressed the communications officer
seated uneasily at the M.E.'s side. "Officer Co'tar, were
you aware of the breakdown in communications between the M.E.
and Lord Vader?"
General. I…I reported it at once to my CO and he in turn
reported it to Commander Faka."
stiffened, but remained silent.
tests run on the equipment?" Veers pressed urgently.
General. The communications array was properly aligned to Lord
Vader's signal. The channel was open and no interference from
the surface was noted. Despite numerous storms in the region,
it was a clear signal."
his attention to the M.E.
was made," the doctor acknowledged truthfully. "The
signal was good."
middle of my briefing, contact was abruptly terminated from the
his attention back to the communications officer.
correct, general," Co'tar verified. "Contact was broken
at Lord Vader's end."
attempted contact several more times, but while the channel has
on a couple of occasions been opened, no contact was made and
the channel was closed shortly thereafter." The M.E. shifted
uneasily before the silent assembly. "Lord Vader has been
on the planet's surface for some time now in conditions tremendously
taxing to the support functions of his life sustaining, environmental
armor. While he is not immediately faced with the possible failure
of his life support, the fact that we have lost contact with him
greatly concerns me. For that reason, I called this conference."
Finished, he gratefully accepted the commander's motion to be
seated and again took his seat at the foot of the great table.
Faka shifted uneasily in his command chair at the head of the
massive table, his position dangerously complicated by the M.E.'s
stated facts and concerns. If Lord Vader was in danger and he
did not respond with haste, he knew what he could expect both
at the hands of the dark knight and later those of the Emperor.
But his future would be even grimmer should he disobey the Sith
Lord's orders and appear unheralded on the planet's surface after
being told specifically to keep all personnel aboard the Annihilator
and to await orders. He shifted his attention to the communications
sure contact was broken at Lord Vader's end?"
nothing was found wrong with our communications link-up to him?"
silent. He had been given his orders; he could not be faulted
for following them. He frowned. But, now he was faced with the
possibility that Vader, the Emperor's own right hand, might be
in danger. How could that be with the great powers attributed
to the dark lord? Some of which, he had himself witnessed on more
than one occasion. But he also knew, all too well, how quickly
a man could die from the mere tightening of the Sith Lord's gloved
uncomfortably, his brow deepening with his own dark thoughts.
Would it be too much to hope that the subject of the M.E.'s concern
could have faced something more dangerous then himself? A spark
of interest touched his pale eyes. The thought of the dark emissary
of the even darker Emperor perishing on the small, insignificant
world below brought interesting speculation to the commanding
officer. Would it be so bad if the think known as Darth Vader
were to perish alone and unaided on the unnamed planet?
your concern, Doctor," Faka stated carefully. "However,
my orders, given by Lord Vader himself, were to keep the Annihilator's
personnel on board and to await further orders. Officer Co'tar
has stated that our communications are in working order, that
contact with Vader has been made on several occasions, and that
it was he who broke contact with the Annihilator. General Veers,
do you have any comment?"
leaned back in the hard duristeel seat and studied the M.E. closely,
his mind working through the information provided. "With
your permission, Commander, I would like to contact Science."
his consent and the general reached under the edge of the table
and activated a hidden button. A soft whirl of miniature servos
interrupted the silence of the room as small computer screens
broke through the table in front of each of those seated.
to the small keyboard and quickly tapped in a series of keystrokes.
Each screen came to life providing a display of an Imperial officer
seated at the Science station on the bridge.
Veers, how may I be of service, Sir?" The officer's reedy
voice carried through the small audio receiver to each of the
individual stations at the table.
have a fix on Lord Vader's current position?" Veers inquired
softly, his eyes locked on the screen before him. The officer
turned away to bring up the data on his computer. The information
visible to the hidden camera mounted somewhere over his shoulder.
General. I have his coordinates. His location is marked at approximately
three kilometers north of the settlement approaching the foothills."
silent, reviewing the data on the science computer again for any
have check out and Science has reported Lord Vader's signal strong
and his life signs registering no hint of failure," Faka
summed up unnecessarily. "I don't see what we can do, General,
except continue to fellow the orders we were given." He got
to his feet signaling the end to the impromptu meeting.
back to the small screen. "Science Officer, Medical has provided
you with the DNA information needed to trace similar life forms
on the planet. Is that correct?"
General, I'm picking up one such life form some meters from Lord
Vader's current position."
your scan. Do you pick up any others?"
fell silent as data filled the smaller screen at the Science station.
The science officer turned to address the hidden camera. "You
have the data, General. My instruments register a number of the
life forms on the move in the mountainous region above Lord Vader's
position. They are still some distance from him, but seem to be
moving in his general direction."
a key and the scene on the small screen changed to another bridge
station. He again addressed an officer seated in his line of vision.
stiffened in his seat, but remained alert and unconcerned before
his duty station. "Yes, General Veers."
fingers sped over the small keyboard before him as he addressed
the officer at the communications station. "I am feeding
you information that I wished relayed at once to Lord Vader on
the planet's surface. I will monitor the contact."
General." All at the table watched as the officer opened
a channel to the planet's surface and requested contact for Vader's
personal comlink. A green light flashed on his panel and he flipped
a toggle asking his transmitter to forward the information obtained
from the conference room to the opened channel. Before the first
byte of data had cleared his board, the link was severed. The
officer glanced over his shoulder toward the approximate location
of the camera and awaited further orders.
again." Veers ordered.
com officer attempted contact and again failed.
contact with the bridge and turned back to face Commander Faka.
uncomfortably before the cold directness of the field commander's
gaze. "Your conclusions, General?"
Lord Vader is in trouble."
the M.E. voiced from the far end of the table, and then fell silent
fearing the commander's wrath at his impertinent interruption.
his throat, breaking the uneasy silence that had settled over
the room. Looking up, he faced the general. "Your recommendations?"
like permission to take Alpha strike force and return to the planet's
Faka again dropped his gaze to the small, blank screen before
him, his thoughts in turmoil. It was too much, too soon. What
would the dark lord say if he were interrupted by the sudden appearance
of the strike force he, himself, had ordered back to the Annihilator?
Yet, if Vader were in trouble and he did not send help…he
sighed. "I don't have to remind any who sit at this table
the disastrous consequences that face each and every one of us
should we go against Lord Vader's orders and find nothing to warrant
consequences that face us from the Emperor should we stand by
and allow Lord Vader to perish without rising a hand to come to
his aid," Veers stated coldly.
"I will allow a small force under your command, General,
to return to the surface. I will expect you to proceed with extreme
caution and continue to attempt contact with Lord Vader."
the commander a curt nod. "I also request permission to take
several AT-ST'' to the surface to protect and scout ahead of the
his reluctant agreement, but understood the necessity of the request.
If there were trouble enough to put the dark lord in danger, a
contingent of Imperial troopers would need all the protection
they could get. "Anything else, general?"
to his feet, straightened his uniform, and faced the commander
still seated at the table. "Yes, I will be fielding my own
personal AT-AT. I would like permission to start loading equipment
on the landing barges. We will leave as soon as my men and equipment
He had already committed ship personnel to the surface under General
veers' recommendation and responsibility. If heads rolled over
this decision, his would not roll alone. "Request granted,
General. Proceed with your plans, but keep me informed."
He turned to the others at the table. "Now, if there's nothing
officer and the M.E. still seated at the far end of the table
made no move to interrupt, their faces reflecting the acknowledgment
that their own roles played in the decision just made. If it turned
out badly, they, too, would pay the price.
"This meeting is adjourned."
* * * *
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of the author.
From the Blue
by J.A. Berger
With his 'saber
deactivated to conserve its power cell, Vader pressed closer to
the granite wall, his senses filled with the haunting and eerie
cry of Geko and the unseen others of his kind. He had been left,
he suspected, to ponder his own death and grow careless with fear.
A prospect he found amusing under the present circumstances, but
not one to be taken lightly.
had grown darker in the shelter of the mighty wall and colder.
Snow was again falling, covering the world around him in a fresh
coat of white. Several times he had been forced to increase the
temperature of his environmental suit and reset the systems switch
on his chest-box to compensate for the drop in temperature. But
the displays recording his pulmonary, respiratory, and neural
systems were still functioning properly and all readings were
well within the safety zone. For how much longer with continuing
subjection to the worsening conditions, he could only guess and
was not something he cared to dwell on. His best course of action
would be to retrace his steps to the settlement and to the customized
TIE left there for his return to the Annihilator.
senses keyed to the darkness around him, Vader reached a gloved
hand to his belt and the familiar controls located there. Increasing
his audio enhancement to full, he again checked his temperature
regulation system. At last satisfied with his precautions, he
drew the heavy outer robe tightly across his chest to hide the
small lights that flickered across the life systems computer on
his chest box and moved away from the protection of the granite
For the first
time, he was fully conscious of the squeak from the well-oiled
leather of his boots, the distinctive hiss of his regulator, and
the minute scrapings of the duristeel of his helmet against the
heavily enforced leather of his chest armor. His movement, despite
everything he did, could not be kept from the sensitive ears of
a Felarian. For that, he would have to rely on his cunning and
skills of Force deception.
Dark Side to him, Vader cloaked himself in its invisible aura
much as he had cloaked the small lights on his chest box with
the dark, heaviness of his robes. Sealed within the protection
of his powers, he turned and edged away from the granite wall.
Mentally activating the directional finder behind his optical
sensors, he programmed his return to the settlement. The data
quickly appeared. Orienting himself to his surroundings and the
coordinates on the finder, the dark lord moved away from the protection
of the outcropping and proceeded unerringly back in the direction
he had come.
He had moved
only a short distance from the outcropping when doubts of his
direction sent him checking and rechecking his finder. Twice he
varied his steps away from its heading and each time, upon checking,
he corrected and continued on. With each step he'd been forced
to reestablish his Force shielding before continuing. And, always
he could hear the Felarian cries coming ever closer. He pressed
disturbingly familiar wall of granite, Darth Vader paused. Despite
the precision of the instrument he carried, he had traveled in
a circle and returned to the very location from which he had started.
Carefully checking his life function sensors, he found the arrays
flashing visual warnings already confirmed by what was left of
his own damaged body. He was tiring. And with the increased dependency
on the environmental suit and its life systems, he had taxed it
beyond safe limits. He would have to stop, reset the systems and
allow them to recover before he could press on or they would fail.
If they failed, his death would be imminent.
From the general
direction of the settlement, eerie cries of the great cats broke
the night air and were quickly answered by a single cry just north
and east of his location. With his back again to the solid wall,
Vader reset his systems, drew the heavy robes tightly around him,
and sat down. Pressing his armored body deep into the dense brush,
he allowed the snow-covered branches to encircle and mask his
fatigue and weariness washed over the dark lord. Taking several
deep breaths from the recycled oxygen brought in through the air
intake vents of his helmet, warmed, enriched, and recycled through
his environmental suit, Vader slowed his respiration and drew
on the Dark powers. In moments he was in a Force trance, hidden
from prying eyes, his own awareness enhanced by the Force. For
a while, he would be safe.
* * * * *
clashed against white, filling the hot, arid atmosphere of Tatooine
midday with the added stench of ozone. Two men, one younger than
the other, dressed in desert robes pressed their attacks, and
when neither could achieve an advantage, backed off. The static
sound of energy against energy crackled as the blue and white
blades of their ancient weapons parted.
of the two deactivated his 'saber and snapped the benign-looking
tube to his belt. Smiling, he strolled forward to place a brotherly
hand on the shoulder of the younger. "Enough for today, Anakin,
you have done well. Soon you will be ready to link your fighting
skills with the Force."
The man address
as Anakin laughed, "Ben, my old friend and mentor, away from
the fighting, you grow old and slow. You have forgotten how far
your teaching has taken me." Without warning, he threw the
activated 'saber high into the air, did a quick backward flip,
returned to an upright stance, and beckoned the descending weapon
to his hand without looking. The silver tube slapped his open
palm and he tightened his grip on the weapon, and then turning,
he locked his powers on the belt of his teacher and summoned the
weapon. The lightsaber pulled from its snap and flew to the hand
of the student. "See, old friend, I have, indeed, learned
my lessons well."
man stepped forward and retrieved his weapon. And, for the first
time, the younger man read concern and doubt in his mentor's eyes.
He laughed it off, put his weapon away, and motioned the older
man toward the small desert hut. "Come on, I'm thirsty. What
do you say we break open that bottle of ale I brought and toast
dissolved into a cascade of swirling colors filled with familiar
but fleeting feelings and long forgotten smells. When they stopped,
it was to darkness. He could see nothing, but he could 'feel'
intense heat and the roar of some unearthly force that rocked
the very ground under his feet.
his senses were overwhelmed by a geyser of hot, molten lava rising
from a bottomless pit before him. The heavy scent of sulfa threatened
the sensitive membranes of his human lungs as the life-threatening
stream touched the very edges of the pit.
He was standing
on the brink of an active volcano, his Jedi lightsaber aglow in
his fist and his mentor only steps from him. The older man stood
passive, his weapon in a double-handed hold before him, his eyes
calm, sad. "Put down your weapon, Anakin. This is not the
way. If you proceed on this path, it will consume you."
you're wrong." He stood tall, bathed in a power he could
not explain. "It's easy. Everything you've taught me is suddenly
so clear." Without warning, he struck out at the man he had
called friend with such lightning speed and cunning that Ben Kenobi
had to step back to avoid a killing strike from the glowing blade
in his student's 'saber. Immediately, Anakin pushed his advantage,
striking and striking again, feeling the power as it surged and
pounded within him. Suddenly, the man before was no longer a friend,
but someone who stood in his way, someone who had purposely kept
the true secrets of the Force from him.
NO!" Kenobi struggled to defend himself from the vicious
attack, his words going unheeded. The battle had been joined in
earnest, and it would be a battle to the death.
confines of his mind, in pictures more vivid than reality, Darth
Vader relived that monumental turning point in his life. He relived
again the fight, the attack he'd made against every defensive
move from the man who had trained him in the ways of the Jedi
and the use of the Force. He felt again the all-consuming fires
of the Dark Side as the volcano burst forth from the bowels of
the earth and sent spires of lava into the air high above them.
Then, as before,
he saw his mistake too late as he lunged to a fake opening and
Kenobi's blade locked to his. Shoulder to shoulder they struggled
on the brink of disaster, the volcano raining its death around
them as each fought for that small opening that could mean the
difference between life and death.
He could again
smell the stench of the sulfa. His dead nerves again alive to
the intense heat on his exposed face and hands. He heard t he
sound of his own human scream of pain as his hair was torched
by living coals, but still, he pressed on…until…a
misstep, a grab for the offered hand, and the fall. The endless
was forced to relive his decent into the fiery pit and his glimpse
of his mentor, his friend. Ben Kenobe stood at the crater's edge,
his eyes locked to his own, tears streaming down his face. Were
they from the heat of the volcano or tears of regret and failure?
He would never know.
with a start. The damaged body within the environmental suit was
overheated, his heart faltering, his respiration labored. Immediately,
he threw his robes aside and carefully reset his life support
programs. Badly shaken, he drew several careful breaths, and then
again checked his life functions. They were once more in the green,
but continued to flash their warnings. He had stressed them too
far. He would have to take care.
A sudden awareness
of his surroundings and the dark lord felt the first true grip
of fear reach for his stabilizing, but vulnerable heart. Desperately,
he found and again drew the tattered edges of the Force to him
and reached into the darkness. He was no longer alone. Geko was
near. Watching. Waiting. And, for the first time, Darth Vader,
Dark Knight and Sith Lord, doubted his control of the Dark Side
and its ability to protect its own.
* * * *
From the command
section of the Imperial All Terrain Armored Transport, General
Veers watched the touchdown of the single troop transport, which
had accompanied the five All Terrain Scout Transports reluctantly
allotted to him by Commander Faka, near the smoldering ruins of
the small settlement. The planet's one small moon had dropped
below the highest range to the north, leaving the night in darkness,
lit only by the few stars that managed to find their way through
the snow-heavy cloud cover. Still, Veers worried.
even with the help of the science section and its universal library
logs, had been to give him very little useful information regarding
the shape shifting feline predators of the small world. Faka thought
the predators to be unintelligent animals. While the M.E. had
not openly disputed his commanding officer, it was what the medic
had left unsaid and the look of honest concern that had furrowed
his brow that caused the Imperial officer to worry. During his
years of Imperial service, he had survived because he had never
underestimated the enemy. And in those years, he had learned that
those you knew the least about were those most likely to surprise
you with their cunning and their intelligence. He had no reason
to expect the present situation to be any different. He turned
to his pilot.
position for troop pick up. I want the boarding hatch to the transport,
with the walker's body between the troops and anyone watching
from the northern hills."
The younger officer seated next to the pilot looked up expectantly.
the transport and tell t hem to stand by. They are not to field
the remaining ground force until we have assembled the scouts
to cover their march."
Sir!" The co-pilot opened a channel to the transport, transmitted
Veers' orders, and then turned back to his commander. "They
are standing by, Sir."
good. Captain, you may proceed with the pick up."
massive head toward the transport, Captain Stagl put the great
armored monster into motion until the Imperial walker stood in
front of the troop carrier. Another adjustment and its massive
body moved smoothly between the spacecraft and the mountains to
General, and awaiting your orders." Stagl eased back on the
AT-AT controls and the great walker thundered to a halt next to
the much smaller craft.
is in contact." The young lieutenant tapped his headset.
He spoke confirmation into the mic, than looked up. "They're
standing by for pick up, General."
for another set of controls and the rear section of the great
walker settled back on its huge knee joints, then slowly, laboriously,
the front settled as well until the AT-AT knelt with its mighty
off-side boarding hatch and standby." Veers turned to his
co-pilot. "As soon as you get a green light on the hatch,
contact transport to commence troop pick up."
Sir." Two voices spoke as one and four hands reached to control
boards as each order was acknowledged and swiftly carried out.
A moment later
the co-pilot turned to the general. "Pick up is complete,
General. Transport personnel have secured the craft and our hatch
has been cleared and secured. My board is green."
Stagl, you may bring us to our fee and standby. Lieutenant, open
a channel to the scouts and get confirmation of my orders. If
they are ready, tell the transport to release its ground troops,
lock down, and standby for further orders."
A few more
minutes at his communications and the young officer again looked
up. "Scouts are awaiting your command, Sir. They have their
orders and coordinates have been set." Another flash on his
com board and the lieutenant turned again to his board. "Acknowledged."
He turned away and reported. "We are ready to proceed, Sir."
With the great
walker standing at its full height of sixteen meters, Veers and
his command crew looked out over their small, but impressive ground
force. A detail of 60 snowtroopers armed with heavy assault rifles
stood before them, flanked by the great AT-AT. At point strolled
three of the AT-STs, which each of the remaining scouts had positioned
themselves at each side of the ground forces. They were ready.
the order to move out, Lieutenant."
channel to their forces, the co-pilot of the colossal war machine
issued the command.
To the accompanying
shout of the ground commander to his foot soldiers, the front
scouts stepped forward as the direct reinforcements for the frontline
of defense. They were on the move.
in the power of the great machine. This was where he belonged.
He was never truly a complete soldier until he mounted his armor-plated
steed. He was ready for whatever awaited beyond the northern boundaries
of the outlaw settlement. Surely whatever lived there, primitive
and earthbound, could be no match for what he had fielded again
them. But even as the mighty Imperial walker moved out, a touch
of something close to doubt played like a cold finger down the
center of his back. Keeping the doubt close at hand, but not allowing
it to get between him and his duty, General Veers squared his
shoulders and readied himself for battle.
They had cleared
the outer boundaries of the settlement and moved past the final
launch pad when the difficulties started.
he could only watch in puzzlement, then in concern, as the military
position of the foot soldiers began to waver then, without warning,
his station behind his crew, frowned and activated his headset
to ground command. "Commander Re'tel tighten your ranks!"
It was too
late. First one, than two more dropped from the column, threw
their weapons to the ground and started pulling frantically at
their helmets and life support packs. Still others turned in circles
as it clueless as to their whereabouts, while near the back, a
soldier turned his weapon on himself and fired.
commanders, halt and await my orders!" the scout walkers
were brought to a quick halt while Veers turned his attention
to his immediate concern. "Commander Re'tel," he roared
into his headset. "Report! What the hell's going on down
there?" Only static greeted the open channel to his ground
forces and while he waited the erratic behavior continued.
Veers, Scout One reports four-legged feline-like creatures moving
through the brush some distance ahead of point. They are asking
the sensor grids. If the target is not humanoid, kill it!"
scouts immediately moved ahead of the growing chaos of the ground
troops, each armor-plated cockpit turning right, and then left,
as targeting sensors searched out the hidden enemy. As one they
fired, the heavy detonation of their twin blaster cannons easily
detected over the higher pitched tat-tat of the lighter singles.
Ahead of them, the brush burst into flame, shearing the ground
for several meters ahead of the fast paced walkers.
the remainder of the ground troops continued their erratic behavior.
Several were locked in deadly combat, while others turned and
ran back in the direction of the awaiting transport.
down, Sir," the co-pilot reported somberly. "I…don't
know what happened, but I'm getting a report from his second-in-command
that he's dead; no sign of a wound, no visible injury, but he's
dead. They're asking what they should do."
at the chaos below him. The detail was in shambles and they had
progressed no more than a few meters from the settlement. What
was out there? What could have caused the silent destruction he
had just witnessed? What had affected the troops, but not him
and his crew or those in the scouts? Toxic gases? He reached to
the control board between his crew and touched a button. Readings
came back to him in green. The air was thin, but pure.
him to return the detail to the transport at once! They are not
to leave its protection unless ordered to do so by myself, Lord
Vader, or Commander Faka."
quickly forwarded the information then turned a questioning glance
the General opened his channel to the transport. "Have the
troops boarded?" Confirmation came back to his headset and
he nodded grimly. "You have your orders. Veers out."
stepped to the view port and glanced out into the darkness where
his five scouts stood by awaiting his orders. He opened a channel
to them. "Any reported kills?"
confirmed, General," Scout One reported. "First they're
slinking through the brush coming at you and the next they're
gone. Nothing but shadows moving among shadows."
say. The sensor array doesn't like them. It marks their position,
but can't seem to hold it long enough to get a target lock."
you get a good look at them?"
Sir. Long, lean bodies covered with fur, small cat-like heads.
They're big brutes. I'd guess some of them to be roughly two meters
standing upright. On all fours…" He paused. "They're
fast, General, real fast."
your sensors picking up anything now?"
out there, Sir. Sitting and waiting. What are your orders?"
eyes hardened as he reviewed his options, few that they were.
He had fielded a command to rescue the Emperor's emissary against
the threat of large, primitive cats, animals without man's weapons
or man's ability to reason. Yet, in five minutes and less than
a kilo-meter from the remains of the outlaw settlement, he had
been reduced to five scouts with their total of ten crew members,
he and his crew of two, and the forty troopers benched in the
belly of his walker. Grimly, he opened the cannel to the scouts.
"We go on."
* * * *
are weakening, old one."
was there again in his mind and Vader knew he was no longer hidden
from the strange being who had continued its relentless pursuit
of him. 'It was just as well,' he told himself, and past time
to end it.
the powerful figure rose to his feet and stood tall. Moved by
the wind's touch, the great robes fluttered away from his body
as a slight motion of a gloved hand brought the silver tube to
life with a flash of deadly flame.
as weak as you think, Felarian." Vader countered. "Show
yourself and let's put an end to this. I tire of your games."
think you are worthy to face me?"
genuine surprise in the shadowy voice and a confidence so o overwhelming
that Vader chuckled, a sound errie in its inhuman resonance through
the helmet's mechanical voice box. Reaching out, he found the
unprotected mind of the other and threw the might of his dark
powers towards it. He wrapped his mind control around the alien
presence, made contact and bore down hard!
quickly followed by pain, than agony tore a cry of torment from
the alien mouth and a great scream rent the air with such anger
that it cut through the world with killing promise.
dark, evil, and consumed with anger met Vader's attack, engaged
his power and pressed hard with a mind force equal to his own.
Vader held for another moment than retreated, spent and reeling.
mind is powerful, old one, but like your body, it is damaged."
A new respect flickered in the disembodied voice that filled the
dark lord's mind, followed by silence.
A moment passed,
than two. Suddenly, at the outer edge of the blade's illumination,
a lean, cat-like form appeared. The animal was huge, its dark
sable coat glossy and slick with health. Its limbs, thick and
powerful, gracefully tapered to large, heavily padded, saucer-shaped
feet, thickly furred over sheathed claws.
feline head turned and the light of the weapon reflected from
eyes dark with anticipation and intelligence. The great cat issued
an angry hiss, exposing a mouth full of fangs, large and strong.
It took a slinking, predatory step towards him.
Vader purred softly in anticipation, "we meet at last."
cat paused and the dark eyes flickered with much the same light
of anticipation. "Yes, old one. I, Geko, grant you the honor
of seeing the one who will spill your blood."
the alien reach for his mind and quickly fended it off. "It
won't be that easy, Felarian." He stepped forward. The great
cat's eyes followed his every move, but did not seem overly concerned
about the weapon in his hand. Vader pondered the knowledge. In
the form of the snowtrooper, Geko had seen the weapon parry the
laser bolts of the Imperial rifle, but did he truly understand
the workings of either weapon? Did he conceive it as a weapon?
He decided to find out. "What form will you take to fight
me, Felarian? What weapon do you choose?"
you, old one, I need no other form, no other weapon. I will fight
you as Felarian and before your death you will feel the steel
of my claws and my fangs at your throat."
lean body slunk closer to the ground, the small ears atop the
elegant head folded down tight against its skull. The long, graceful
tail, flecked at the tip with black, twitched its warning.
As the great
cat leapt, Darth Vader took a quick step to the right and swung
the 'saber. At the feather-like touch of the blade, the great
cat howled in surprised pain. Vader pressed the attack, the blade
raised for another strike. In a movement faster than the human
eye could follow, the Felarian twisted in mid-air, avoided the
cutting stroke of the blade, and landed on its feet. Its momentum
carried it past the Sith Lord. The stench of burning hair and
sheared flesh filled the air, but a killing blow had been avoided.
Vader swore in anger. Geko would not be taken by surprise so easily
again. He whirled to face his enemy only to find himself once
more alone in the clearing.
he purred to the darkness, "I draw first blood." He
allowed the thought to fester, than continued. "One attack
and you quit?" Contempt crept into his voice. "I have
fought many like you, Felarian, and left them for the carrion
eaters on many worlds." Again, he let silence follow his
words, than hardened his voice. "Fight or get out of my way,
Felarian. I have wasted enough time with you."
An all too
familiar form moved from the darkness and Vader chuckled. "You
take the form of my teacher? My mentor? Excellent! I killed him
once, Felarian. I will gladly do so again." He stepped forward
to meet the gray-haired figure in desert robes that stood before
him with a lightsaber clenched in the familiar double-handed hold.
'sabers clashed, locked, than pulled apart as Vader pressed the
attack. Unfamiliar with the weapon he held and the discomfort
of a body not his own, the Felarian shape changer struggled backwards
under the pressure of the dark lords' continuing attack. Another
blazing engagement and the figure disappeared. And again, Vader
you have failed twice. Are you now to stay in the shadows and
lick your wounds or face me like the warrior you claim yourself
A growl, heavy
and menacing, broke the silence of the clearing. "I need
not risk my life to take you down, old one."
Darth Vader felt the cool, oxygen-enriched atmosphere within his
suit cease its flow. Out of habit, he reached for the controls
and reset. For a moment, the air resumed its programmed flow and
then it faltered. He glanced down. The control board across his
chest was a mass of fluctuating lights, each reflecting its own
warnings of failure. The Felarian had found his one weakness and
was pressing the attack.
* * * *
in frustrated silence as the scout walkers moved ahead of his
AT-AT, their usually swift advance slowed by the snow-heavy brush
that caught at the footpads and legs of the smaller transports.
They had reached the ridge overlooking the settlement and stood
waiting as the larger walker took the slope, its drive motors
whining as they engaged and pulled the great machine to the top.
a channel to the scouts. "Scout One, have you attempted contact
with Lord Vader?"
General," the reedy voice answered him through his headset.
"We have not been able to make voice contact. However, our
sensors have picked up a weak intermittent signal, which we believe
could be from an activated directional finder."
of our present location."
three kilometers, Sir."
Sir. But we'll be moving into heavier brush and rocky terrain.
It will not provide a problem for your walker, but these scouts
may not make it."
Veers thought for a moment, his attention centered past the scouts
to the rocky ground to the north and the rough mountains beyond.
He reopened the channel. "Have you seen any more of the predators?"
Sir," the voice came back softly. "But they're out there.
You can almost feel their eyes on you." Another pause. "What
happened to our ground troops back there, General?"
narrowed. "I can't speculate on that, trooper. But whatever
affected them does not seem to affect us. Let's move out."
Sir." There was another pause. "You wish us to scout
the scout's comment on the hard going for the smaller walkers,
Veers sighed. "Fall back, Scout One, we'll break ground.
If any of the cats are seen, target them and move on."
Sir. I'm feeding the directional signal to your board."
the channel. Looking over the shoulder of his copilot, the Imperial
warrior watched in silence as a set of directionals appeared.
set our course on these coordinates. Captain, move us out, but
hold our speed slow enough to allow the scouts to keep up."
Sir." Captain Stagl reached to his controls and the great
Imperial war machine resumed its steady progress angling slowly
to the north.
fell over the general as he stared out the view port at the great
snow-covered mountains outlined against the blackness of night.
What had affected his ground troops? During his initial attack
on the settlement, the strike had gone off without a hitch. They
had completed their assignment, returned to their transports,
and lifted off for the Annihilator without incident. What was
so different this time?
the rough, snowy terrain, thoughts in turmoil. Ground atmosphere,
pollutants, possible gases, and elements that could endanger his
troops had all been carefully checked prior to the assault. There
had been none and, except for a thinner atmosphere, the oxygen
levels were surprisingly good. His eyes narrowed. There was only
differing factor; his first command had remained in and around
the small settlement unlike Vader, his small detail, and now his
walker ground to a halt as several light canon blasts from a scout
at left point shot past them. The heavy brush was blown apart,
sending snow flying in all directions, but no target was seen.
Two, what have you picked up?"
Sir," the reply came back, the voice somewhat embarrassed
and puzzled. "I..I could have sworn I saw one of those cat-things,
but about the same time I fired, it disappeared from my targeting
grid. I...I guess it must have been an anomaly or...something.
Veers closed the channel, his brows knit if a tight frown. "Captain,
continue on. Lieutenant, keep your eyes on our directionals and
alert me to any…anomalies…on our instruments."
Sir," his crew answered in unison. The Imperial walker moved
shifters," Veers voiced softly.
Captain Stagl answered, his attention centered on his controls.
Captain," Veers stared out the view port. The M.E. had said
the feline creatures of this world were shape shifters with a
fluctuating DNA. He frowned. He had fought on many worlds, faced
many adversaries, and not all had been humanoid. The universe
was vast; its life forms varied. But one thing he had found consistent.
Veers, Scout I is reporting something, possibly humanoid, on the
ground ahead of us. He's asking for permission to check it out."
granted. Move us back to his flank and put him on my screen.
A moment later,
Veers watched the small walker move ahead. At the edge of the
screen, the Imperial officer could make out a dark form on the
ground ahead of them.
scout stopped and slowly crouched, servos whining as its massive
head dropped to rest on the ankle joints, carefully balanced over
the thick, heavyset footpads.
In all cases
of fluctuating DNA, Veers continued thoughtfully, the being not
only had the ability to change shapes at will, but had also been
able to read and control…minds.
hatch atop the small scout opened, and the Imperial crewman stepped
Veers shouted through his headset. "It's a trap!"
came too late. The crewman had already released his hold on the
transport and dropped to the ground. Turned away from the scout,
he stopped. The figure was no longer there. Standing in its place
was a cat-like being. Large. Threatening. A shrill scream and
it leapt. Unable to do more than watch, Veers swore helplessly.
Their cannons, even the light blasters, could not have taken the
alien without targeting their own man.
crewman screamed only once and then was silent. Before the cannon
could be centered on the alien form, it disappeared into the underbrush.
over the AT-AT command section. Veers turned to his crew. "There's
nothing we can do, move on." Opening a channel to the remaining
walkers, his voice hardened. "Abandon the scout. I repeat,
abandon the scout. No crewman is to leave his walker. Keep hatches
closed to all outside contact."
But it was
already too late.
Veers, Scout II is bring its twins on-line. She's moving towards
So, he had
been right. "Target the scout. If she fires on us, take her
you have your orders!"
Sir." The young officer brought his targeting computer on-line
just as the first volley from the scout's twin blaster cannons
hit the AT-ATs heavily armored shoulder and started forward toward
the flexible, more vulnerable armored tunnel of the great walker's
AT-ATs head to face the attacking scout, the Imperial war machine
returned fire. Struck by the heavier laser cannon, the small scout
disintegrated in a flash of exploding fuel and overloaded laser
close ranks!" Silence greeted his open channels to the remaining
where are they?"
standing there, General; Two on point, one to our rear."
Veers snapped, recognizing the formation.
on line, sir."
lieutenant looked up in shock. "Us, Sir. All targeting computers
have a lock on us!"
by the one scout had caused little or no damage to the heavily
armored AT-AT, but concentrated fire on the more vulnerable neck
or on the fuel slug tank at the rear of the great machine could
bring them down.
disengage your weapons! This is General Veers! I order you to
locked, Sir. Scout IV's weapons are coming on-line. Now Scout
to port. Let's give them as small a target as possible."
titanium beast turned, its head pointed toward the small scout
poised at its left shoulder. Time stood still.
weapons are on-line. They have us locked on their targeting grid,
ready to fire."
opened a channel to the scouts. "This is General Veers. Power
down your weapons, I repeat, power down your weapons!"
remained as small red dots on his sensor screen: they were still
hot, with their weapons on-line and locked.
check life readings on the scouts."
moved quickly across the life sensor board; then paused. "General,
I'm not getting any readings from Scouts 3 and 4. Scout 5's readings
are very, very faint." He hesitated. "It's gone now,
the red dots on the screen. The weapons remained on-line, but
the hands at their controls were lifeless.
happening, General? What happened the crew of those walkers?"
your life form sensors, Lieutenant. Are you getting any readings
for the cats?"
getting a few fluctuating signals in front of us, moving northward."
He glanced up. "You think they…?"
Lieutenant, I do." Veers fell silent. All that remained of
his ground force was housed in the great AT-AT. How much dare
he tell them? "Are we still getting a good signal from the
not a good signal, General, but strong enough to lock on."
do so," Veers turned and addressed his captain. "Set
a course for that signal, Captain, and proceed with caution."
He thought for a moment before disclosing his suspicions. "We
know these cat creatures are shape shifters. Now, it would seem
they might also be able to read and possibly control minds. We
must be caution."
if they could control the minds of our men in the scouts,"
Captain Stagl questioned, "Why didn't they attempt control
question, Captain. A very good question," Veers voiced softly,
his mind busily working over the problem. There could be only
one answer. "Until the crewman of Scout 2 opened the hatch
and stepped outside, these cat creatures may not have known the
scouts were machines operated by humanoids. Our origin may still
be in doubt."
The young lieutenant asked fearfully.
of our size, they may believe ol' 842 here is a living, breathing
entity of its own." Something, feather soft with lingering
tentacles, touched his mind. "And, then again, maybe not,"
he mouthed, his voice grim.
his board, he touched a worn button, pressed another, than flicked
a switch. Immediately, the heavy strains of an Imperial march
blared from the huge walker's PA system mounted on the outer hull
of the mighty head. He upped the gain. The alien threads of contact
withdrew. Veers turned to his copilot. "Lieutenant, pip the
music into the troop hold immediately. Maximum level."
forward. "Commander Tell, report."
A shaky, but
quickly steadying voice spoke to the open channel. "Everything's
fine, General. Some of my troops were acting a bit strange there
for a few moments, but they've settled down. It's tight back here
and a bit claustrophobic." He paused. "Music's a little
too loud, General. Other than that, we stand ready, Sir."
increase our speed," Veers shouted over the bellowing strains
of the rousing music. 'I want to reach Vader's coordinates as
quickly as possible. We may not have long before the next attack."
* * * *
his knees with the continuing failure of his life systems, Darth
Vader attempted to hold them online with his powers, but was met
with only marginal success. When he centered his powers on his
life support, he pulled them from his even more vulnerable mind,
leaving it at the mercy of the Felarian. It was a situation he
could not hope to win and time was running out.
began to wander, his brain starving for the oxygen that normally
flowed freely through the respiratory systems of his suit. As
he struggled for breath, he felt his damaged heart falter. He
collapsed and lay still, attempting to conserve as much of his
failing systems…and his life…as he still could.
it was gone. The heavy stranglehold of the alien was no longer
With a shaking
hand, the dark lord reached to his chestbox and swiftly reset
the system's switch. His mind centered on survival, Vader consciously
pulled the knowledge of the Force to him and willed himself to
slow his ragged breathing. Was he too late? Were the systems already
taxed beyond their abilities to recover? Anxious, he waited.
After a minute
or two, the automated systems rallied weakly and the steady flow
of oxygen returned. He drew another thankful breath, than struggled
weakly to his feet.
and he knew his relief would be short lived. There were no alien
minds controlling the readings now, but the results were far from
reassuring. Warning lights flickered across his chest board. He
did not have long. His systems were fast approaching critical.
When they failed, if he were not safely aboard the Annihilator,
he would die.
It was then
he caught the distant strains of music. He stiffened. No, he had
not been mistaken. It sounded like an Imperial march.
In the cold,
stillness of the night, he strained forward. Over the driving,
pulsating strains of the martial movements, he heard the ka-chunk
of an Imperial walker in motion.
to his comlink and opened a channel. It was clear! He started
to speak into the small device, than thinking better of it, set
the tracking beacon.
the darkness with his powers, Vader searched for the Felarian,
but could touch only pain and confusion. Of course, he reasoned,
most members of the feline species hated loud noise, their sense
of hearing so acute many preferred telepathy to the spoken word;
silence to laughter.
was closer. He could hear the actual steps taken by the great
war machine and feel its vibrations through the ground under his
feet. The music swelled and grew still louder. Reaching hurriedly
to his belt, the Dark Lord deactivated his audio enhancement unit.
a possible attack, Darth Vader put his back again to the granite
wall, rechecked his comlink, than tightened his hold on the silver
tube of his Jedi weapon. The beacon was still sending a strong
signal; it would not be long now.
to his left and to his right, the bushes moved slightly as if
by a strong breeze, but the Emperor's emissary knew differently.
He could feel their minds as first one, than another, reached
out to touch his, but made no attempt to invade or attack---in
all he sensed confusion and pain. The music! Silently, he applauded
the general's ingenuity. It just might be enough to save their
around him increased and he sensed more and more of the large
cats circling his location. Geko! He had formed a wedge of Felarian
bodies around and between his intended victim and the huge war
machine coming towards them. Individually, he had sensed several
trying to block the music with their powers only to fail under
the continuing onslaught of what to them would be mindless noise.
lumbered into sight. Bright beams of light from twin spotlights
mounted on either side of the great head, split the darkness and
bathed its forward progress in brilliant daylight. At the edges
of the darkness, long, lean forms pressed deeper into the brush
to avoid the light, but none made any attempt to run. They were
standing their ground.
into the pool of light; his 'saber still dark. A movement caught
in the edges of his peripheral vision and he turned. There, just
out of the light, stood the dark sable figure of Geko, and behind
him, moving closer were more of his kind. In a matter of minutes,
the edges of the light were lined with Felarians all seated in
a semi-circle around Vader and the huge walker. In the semi-darkness
Vader, are you all right?" The voice from his interior comlink
sounded strained with worry.
General, but your arrival is welcomed."
recommend a speedy retreat, my Lord, I don't know how long this
ply of mine will work. If you'll back towards the walker, I'll
drop a cable from the port belly hatch. I don't dark risk kneeling
under the present circumstances."
General." Vader edged backward, his hand firm on his weapon,
his eyes on the cat-like creatures around him. Reaching the near
from footpad of the walker, he took another step backward. Far
over his head he heard the belly hatch swish open and servos engage.
A long cable snaked from the belly of the great beast and dropped
slowly toward him. Taking his eyes from th4e Felarians, he glanced
helmet whipped back in time to see the great cat lunge across
the light towards him. The cable dropping from the belly of the
AT-AT forgotten, Darth Vader stepped into the attack. A touch
of a finger and the scarlet blade on his weapon danced to life.
a target and fire!" Vader heard the commander over his comlike
as he steeled himself to receive the heavy body of his enemy.
he met brawn with armored might. He felt the great claws reaching
for his body slide from the chest and shoulder armor, breaking
Geko's forward momentum and throwing the great cat off stride.
But before he could make a kill cut with his blade, t he Felarian
righted himself in mid-air, touched down on all fours and made
another drive at him--this time coming in a groin level.
downward with this blade, missing the Felarian by only the breath
of one of the great cat's whiskers, driving Geko back in reverence
to the weapon and being's inbred fear of fire.
the brush was sheared and burnt from the deadly fire track laid
down by the Imperial walker. But no bodies lay in the ruins.
With the Felarian
threat momentarily at bay, Vader spoke into his interior comlink.
laying down heavy fire, my Lord, but can account for no enemy
dead. They show only intermittently on our target grids and are
gone before we can lock on. It's like they vanish into thin air.
About all we can do, my Lord, is keep the fight fair. You stand
too close to give us a short at the cat being."
no time for a reply as the great cat launched itself again at
the tall figure in black.
reactions slowed by his failing systems, reeled backward as the
Felarian hit him hard at the knees, taking him to the ground.
With Geko straddling him, his breath fogging the lenses of his
helmet, Darth Vader reached for the cat's mind. Touching a source
of power as dark and evil as his own, the Sith Lord forced the
The cat screamed,
but gave no ground. His jowls dripping saliva, Geko fought on
both fronts, physical and mental. With his mind engaging the weakened
mental power of the human, he continued his physical assault on
the weakened body that lay beneath his own. His claws reached
up and under to scratch at the belly of his enemy. Finding no
purchase in the hard, unyielding codpiece of the armor, he struck
out with his front feet and teeth, raking, digging, trying for
any opening in the mask and armor t hat would allow him entry
to the soft, vulnerable body beneath.
a gloved fist, the scarlet blade of his Jedi weapon dangerously
close to his own body as he fought to reach the lean, wiry body
of the Felarian. Finding no opening, he wedged the hilt of his
saber between the great cat's teeth and, using it for leverage,
threw the Felarian from him.
cat rolled and was immediately on his feet. Vader struggled to
one knee fighting not only his own body's failings, but his left
supports as well. He was not getting enough oxygen. If he did
not take the great cat down soon, the fight would be lost. Desperately,
he reached for Geko's mind.
The two minds
engaged; one feral and powerful, the other dark and evil. Finding
an opening as the great cat launched another physical attack,
Darth Vader pressed hard, commanding the dark forces beyond the
other's formidable defenses to the core of his power. There, he
touched flame to his attack.
another lunge at the armored figure, the great cat screamed out
in pain, lost his momentum and fell. He screamed again, his mind
aflame from the alien touch of the other. Savagely, his fangs
ripped and tore at the empty air as he attempted to free his mind
from Vader's grip.
tight, but reeled backward as the Felarian fought against his
domination. One moment, than two…than reeling from pain
and weariness both broke contact.
The dark knight
struggled to his feet, his rasping, mechanically driven lungs
fighting for life from a system flashing red across his chestbox.
He hit the reset, than looked up. The Felarian was gone, but not
fare. He could sense Geko's presence and the presence of many,
lower the cable. Hurry!"
shadows around him came to life as Felarians moved into the edges
of the walker's broad beam of light and sat, encircling both he
and the great war machine.
Vader found the cable, twisted it around his wrist and arm, before
taking a strong hold with his gloved hand.
whirled to life and the cable retreated taking the Dark Lord off
the ground and upward. Looking down, he watched the great cats
edge closer, drawing the circle tighter around the walker. No
sound issued from t hem, but all eyes were centered on him.
head, Vader saw Geko standing forward of the circle, his graceful
head turned to the north, his hackles up, his eyes dark with irritation
and something else. Had it been any other being, Vader would have
called it fear. With the Felarian, he could only puzzle at what
could be out there that Geko would fear.
Okay an arm's
length from the hatch and safety, the cable jerked to a halt.
"Veers, check the cable!" Only silence greeted his open
link to the cockpit. "Veers!" Only than did Vader realize
the music had stopped. Why? "Veers!"
the cats were circling still closer and he had his answer. Confused
and disoriented by the loud music, the Felarians had joined minds
to reach beyond the irritation to those responsible. At their
bidding, the music had been silenced. Of the men inside the walker,
were any still alive?
he tightened his one-handed hold on the cable, deactivated his
'saber and snapped it to his belt, freeing his right hand. With
a double-handed hold on the cable, Vader started the agonizing
hand-over-hand climb to the edge of the open hatch. Below he sensed
the ever-closing circle.
into the walker through the opened hatch, Vader rolled forward
and hit a toggle, closing the great hatch behind him. Inside,
he stepped into the midst of chaos.
hold was full. Snowtroopers dressed for battle lay in various
positions. Each experiencing what seemed to be both fear and pain.
Many grabbed at their heads and screamed, while others rolled
in agony about the holds, suffering in silence.
to his feet, the Dark Knight moved through the body of the war
machine to the cockpit access tube. Opening the hatch, he entered
and closed it tightly behind him. The Felarians had been able
to touch the minds of his crew but, between filtering out the
music and crushing those who caused it, he suspected they had
not cared to push beyond their endurance to kill any of those
they now held in agony.
cockpit, he found Veers struggling against the pain, but upright.
He had pushed the incapacitated pilot from his place at the controls
and motioned Vader to do the same with the copilot.
tried to…engage the PA, but something…something…"
Vader hissed, struggling to slow his breathing. "Oxygen…do
between the seats and struggled with a portable tank.
his chestbox, Vader hit his command override switch and disengaged
the respiratory systems. Reaching to the left of his belt, he
toggled the respiratory sensor matrix to expose a valve. Opening
it, he attached the nozzle to the mouth of the bottle, than turned
to look out the view port.
The cats had
moved no closer nor were they sitting still as they had before.
Many were up milling around nervously. Their attention was no
longer in sync with each other or turned upon those in the At-AT.
Realizing his chance, Veers opened a channel to the troop hold.
know what hit us, General, but we're in bad shape back here. I
figure at least half of my detail will need medical attention
and soon…the other half aren't much better…"
the comlink and looked over at the helmeted figure in the seat
next to him. "Lord Vader?"
deeply on the oxygen as the bottle emptied into his system's recycling
reservoir. Another few minutes and he disengaged the bottle and
set it aside, closed the matrix, switched back to auto, and reset
his systems. Finished, he settled his attention again on the view
port. Nothing had changed. The Felarians still sat around the
walker, but their circle was breaking as some edged away. Geko
paced before the Imperial war machine, his eyes dark with anger,
his tail reflecting that anger in stiff twitches from first one
side of his great flank to the other.
do you make of it?" Veers voiced softly.
silent, watching every move of his enemy. At no time had he seen
the Felarian exhibit any sign of fear or agitation, but the great
cat was exhibiting both now in rising degrees.
waiting," he guessed.
at him, than back to the view port. "Waiting? For what?"
I suspect is more likely, General."
I think this would be a good time for us to get the hell out of
here," Veers suggested, his eyes hard on the building drama
below. "While they're distracted, maybe we've got a chance."
For a moment
the helmeted figure remained silent. "No, General Veers.
Their orders are to hold us here. They are not to attack unless
we attempt to leave."
at the Dark Lord, but made no questioning comment. He had served
the Sith Lord long enough to know not to question him. He fell
silent, his eyes on the scene below.
Veers motioned to the front of the walker.
of Felarians had broken to form a small opening. Geko stepped
forward. Putting his huge form between the opening and the war
machine, he sat, his tail twitching in short, quick, nervous jerks.
Vader voiced softly, his damaged eyes behind the red lenses settled
on a sleek, graceful form that had materialized from the darkness
and edged through the opening to pause before the seated Felarian.
was a third smaller than the dark sable Geko, but her essence…yes,
Vader thought…her…for there was little doubt of her
gender. Her every movement was poetry, grace, and elegance. Her
coat, a fawn color touched with bronze, shined with youth and
good health, while her stance, her movements, were those of a
confidently mature adult.
do you make of it, my Lord?" Veers whispered as if afraid
to offend the beautiful creature.
remained silent, his attention centered on the new arrival, his
mind reaching for hers. She looked up. Green, almond-shaped eyes
sought him out and her mind opened, without fear, to his. Vader
gasped, the sound modified by the rasp of his respirator.
as T'Neel, Queen of the Fabora Clan…" Vader voiced
through hushed tones. Her mind was powerful, yet strangely gentle;
a threat tempered by gossamer wings. This, he realized was the
Force sensitive he had touched from space. This was the mind that
had reached beyond its planet's confines to come to his son's
aid aboard the Millennium Falcon.
contact and the Dark Lord felt both relief and regrettable loss.
He drew deeply on his Dark forces and tried to mend the damage
done to both is controls and his ego. Only the frightening powers
of the Emperor had brought him so close to respect and fear of
another. But there was another difference. He had seen what the
Emperor's powers could do; he could only guess at what the Felarian
might be able to do should she will it.
pulled from his disturbing thoughts, the dark lord centered his
attention again to the drama unfolding before the walker. The
one known as T'Neel had stepped forward to meet Geko. The sable
Felarian came reverently to his feet, but the h air along his
back rose in open defiance. They stood nose-to-nose, the fawn
and the sable. The others of the clan moved cautiously back.
For a moment,
neither Felarian moved. Vader reached out in an attempt to eavesdrop
on the conversation, but was rudely and easily closed out. Whatever
was happening between the two, it was obvious that the one known
as T'Neel was not going to share.
the dark sable was on his knees, his head lowered, his eyes averted.
The fawn queen had not moved. Geko made one feeble move to rise,
but failing, fell back and rolled onto his side. Only then did
the smaller Felarian move from her position in front of the downed
clan member. Taking a graceful step forward, she positioned herself
over the prone figure in a show of dominance. She held it for
a moment, and then backed away. The sable cat rose trembling to
his feet and stood with head lowered before her.
for Geko's essence and found nothing. He tried again, but there
was no echo of the proud arrogance he'd encountered before. Puzzled,
he pulled back.
she done to him?" Veers questioned softly. "He's…different."
Vader agreed. Geko was different. Vader watched Geko move away
from the smaller cat, careful not to raise his eyes to hers. Reaching
the edge of the circle, the seated Felarians moved quickly to
open a way, careful not to come in contact with the vanquished.
A moment later, he disappeared into the darkness.
queen strolled confidently forward and sat before the AT-AT, her
green eyes flashing in the brilliant, artificial light. Her mind
requested entry and Vader hesitantly admitted her, fearful of
the possible consequences, but suspicious that he could not keep
her out if she insisted. Could she possibly do to him what she
had obviously done to Geko?
called you "old one", what are you known by?"
forward until he could see her through the view port of the great
walker, her voice belying the seeming vulnerability of the cat
sitting before the titanium monster that could flatten her with
one mighty step. He answered her telepathically as she had addressed
him. "I am Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, and emissary to
Palpatine, Imperial Lord of the Universe and leader of the Empire."
she denied softly. 'That is who you say you are. It is not your
whirled in turmoil. "I don't know what you mean?"
hide your true self and deny it the love of a son. How foolish."
Vader whispered. "The self you speak of is no more. I stand
in his place."
now, perhaps," she fenced.
happened to Geko?"
defying you?" Vader pressed, careful to draw his Force protection
closer should he anger her.
she admitted calmly. "But while this is not the first time
Geko has disobeyed, it will be his last. He makes no distinction
between prey and intelligent beings. He seeks out the weak, the
foolish, and lures them to him, toys with them, than takes their
lives." She hesitated as if to give emphasis to her next
point, "Not unlike, I sense, the Dark being you have become."
under her directness. She had touched on nerves he had thought
long desensitized to such truths.
She broke the silence between them. "Geko can no longer keep
you in this place. You are free to go. Leave now and do not return."
Vader purred in a touch of anger; then quickly squelched it. He
was in no condition to deny her request. He did not want to force
her to make it a demand. "We will return to the site of the
settlement. Our transports await our return. We will leave from
leaving! All of them." Veers turned to the dark figure beside
him. Together they watched the fawn-colored alien get casually
to her feet, step into the semi-darkness of the ring of light,
and vanish. "I wonder what all that was about?"
Veers, open a channel to the Annihilator. I want an AT-AT cargo
module and shuttle barges on site and ready to transport our field
equipment off world upon our arrival."
my Lord, at once." The Imperial officer shot a quick glance
toward the helmeted being at his side and silently wondered how
much more the Dark Knight knew. Wisely refraining from exercising
his curiosity, the Officer turned his attention to the Imperial
* * * *
his TIE, Darth Vader moved toward the tall figure in Imperial
uniform standing at stiff attention. He stopped before Commander
Vader, all field equipment and personnel have been lifted from
the planet's surface. I…understand you encountered some
difficulties with the…natives."
Veers will brief you later, Commander Faka." Vader moved
on, making no attempt to slow his steps for the Imperial officer.
"I want security beacons programmed for Alpha Level Beta
deployed immediately around the planet. Top priority."
my Lord?" Faka stammered, than rushed to keep in step with
the longer stride of the Dark Knight. "Around…this…planet?"
and the helmeted head turned, stopping the Imperial officer in
his tracks. "Do you question my orders, Commander Faka?"
He whispered ominously.
no, of course not, Lord Vader," Faka stammered, than quickly
moved to cover his mistake. "It will be done at once."
be in my chambers," he purred softly. "I would caution
against disturbing me without good cause."
my Lord!" Faka stood at stiff attention and watched as the
figure in black turned and walked away.
Faka, all equipment is locked down and ready for departure."
Veers." Faka stopped the Imperial general. "Lord Vader
has issued orders to ring the world below with security beacons
set to target and destroy any ship leaving the planet. General,
could you clarify?"
before the ship's commanding officer, his gray eyes cool and appraising.
"I suggest you ask Lord Vader."
No, that won't be necessary." Faka hurriedly assured the
general. Reading in the cold gray eyes no room for further conversation,
he turned and walked away.
* * * *
With a muffled
thunk of airtight seals, the great hood covering the meditation
chamber settled into its locks. Deep within the chamber, the being
known and feared as Darth Vader released the lockdown collar on
the black helmet and removed it.
he stepped from the confining restrictions of the environmental
suit and took a seat in the reclining chair at the center of the
chamber. Scarred, deformed hands reached to a multi-banked computer
control center and quickly set the chamber's life support systems
to compensate for the suit he no longer wore.
the life support feeds of the chamber, he leaned back, closed
what remained of the lids that covered his damaged eyes, and relaxed.
The chamber's controls, sensing his mood, lowered the illumination
until only a muted glow outlined the contours of the chamber.
were in place. He sensed their deadly array scouring the space
between their overlaying web and the planet's surface. Nothing
could leave the planet without setting off their alarms, activating
their programs, and ultimately triggering their defense systems.
Nothing…no one…could leave the planet.
He drew the
Dark Force to him and bathed himself in its protection. The Felarians
had no technology, no means of leaving the planet. He had touched
their leader's great mind and sensed the contentment of their
lives. But he had sensed something else. Something perhaps even
she had not been aware of…the Force…the great power
within her had not always dwelt within her kind. From where had
lungs struggled as the damaged heart pounded, demanding more blood,
more oxygen and the being's pulse rate quickened. What if the
Felarians one day decided to leave their world? Could the beacons
stop them? And what would their power, loosened upon the Imperial
universe, mean to him and his kind?
It was with
such troubled thoughts that Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, and
the powerful right hand of the Emperor Palpatine, willed his body
to rest and his mind to put aside disturbing questions that had