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Vader's Folly
From the Blue Falcon Series
by J.A. Berger
This story was written just for fun and is not an attempt to make money or infringe on any copyrights or trademarks. Only the original ideas contained within the works on this nonprofit web site are the property of their authors, and please do not copy or link these stories to any other website or archive or print without permission of the author.

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.

"Commander, 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!"

"Target 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.

The silence 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 port.

Swallowing 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 starship.

Reaching the 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."

Silence greeted his revelation and the Imperial officer remained at attention, fearing the wrath of the Sith Lord, but duty bound to stand his ground.

"What 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.

"It's 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 Empire."

"And yet, I…sensed…" The electronically enhanced voice was reflective.

Ignoring the 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 evil.

Pausing before the officer seated at the Science station, Vader addressed the Imperial curtly. "Scan the planet and report your findings."

Anticipating further orders, officers at other stations reached hurriedly to their boards and began meticulous searches for additional data on the small world before them.

"I'm 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."

"Navigator," the Dark Lord snapped.

"Navigational 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.

Commander 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."

"Indigenous life readings?" Vader inquired, ignoring the commander's attempt at conversation.

The science 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."

Surprised, 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?"

"I will 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."

"Yes, 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."

Turning to 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.

Those few 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.

Standing defiantly 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.

The brutal 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.

Small flicks 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.

And then, it was there, a flicker of…something.

The great 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.

Reaching his 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 again!

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!

He turned 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.

An Imperial 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."

"You 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?"

"Of those 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 unwary."

Veers paused, 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?"

"Kill them." Vader hissed coldly.

"At once, my Lord." Veers stood tall, his battle-scarred and lined face seemingly unaffected by the order.

"While 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 detected."

"And the remainder of my force, Lord Vader."

"They are to stand by until the recon has been completed. Until then, I want a detachment placed immediately around our ships."

"My Lord?" Surprise flickered in the hard gray eyes, but was quickly smothered. "You think there may be a…danger?"

Vader waved 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?"

"No." 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."

Refraining from a desire to ask further questions of the armored being's strange directives, General Veers' expression remained neutral. "At once, my Lord."

"That will be all, General."

Dismissed, the Imperial officer snapped a salute, turned, and quickly retraced his steps down the roughed slope.

Returning 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.

The small, 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.

Each snowtrooper 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.

"Spread out and comb the area!" Electronically enhanced, the dark Knight's voice rose above the driving wind. "Bring anyone you find to me…unharmed!"

Shifting their 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 alone.

Adjusting 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.

The cruel 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…"

Taking up 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.

"Who 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."

A high-pitched 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.

The world 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.

Running footsteps, 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 were missing.

"Weapons 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.

Breaking through 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.

His 'saber 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.

Deep, brutal 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 Vader whirled.

Something 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.

Vader stood a step apart, the Jedi weapon held high, bathing the scene around him in surrealistic shadows of red and black. But nothing moved.

Reaching again 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 crude exhibitions?"

"Leave this place while you can! I grow weary of this game!"

Stunned and 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.

Steadying 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.

In frustration, 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 Veers.

"My Lord."

"Status report, General."

"The scout ship has completed the recon of your area and surrounding areas, my Lord, but no alien life signs have been recorded."

"Nothing?" Vader questioned in cold disbelief.

"A…a…couple 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?"

"No." 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."

"My Lord?" Veers' voice registered mild surprise, quickly masked. "You will remain here? Alone?"

"Do you question my orders, General?" The deep voice purred softly.

"No, my Lord," Veers quickly denied. "Your orders will be carried out."

Closing the 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."

A trooper motioned toward the naked body at the edge of the clearing.

"Leave the carrion." Vader hissed.

The trooper 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 transports.

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.

Now alone, 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.

Stepping to 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 chest.


Savagely, 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.

Pivoting, 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?

Turning his 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.

Drawing the 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.

Pushing back 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.

Staying alert, 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.

The animal---no 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!

"Who are you?"

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?"

The telepathic link to the other vibrated with amusement.

Vader stiffened.

"There 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.

"No Jedi feeds on the dead! Who are you?"

"And 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!"

"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?"

Ignoring the 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."

"Spare my life?" Vader purred, amused anger vibrated through the telepathic link. "You dare threaten a Sith Lord?"

Reaching savagely 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 accepted.

Suddenly, 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."

Caught off-guard, 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 grasp.

Savagely, 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.

Raising the '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."

Vader's anger 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 his ship.

"Command, patch me into the M.E.!"


"Doctor, have you examined the Imperial dead recovered from the planet's surface?"

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 General Veers."

"Your findings?"

"They 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."

Likely the 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.

"My Lord?"

He reached for the comlick. "If you find anything unusual in the tests, report to me at once."

"Yes, my Lord." The connection was quickly cut.

Vader looked 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 needed.

Kneeling, 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.

Drawing the 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.

"Commander, train ship's sensors on my current location and scan for feline and/or humanoid life forms."

"At once, 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..."

Vader cut him off. "Feed the coordinates of the single life form into my automated directional finder."

"At once, my Lord."

Vader closed 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 input.

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.

Resetting 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.

The huge, 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 was climbing.

Several times 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.

Closing in 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.

Binding his 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 display!

He touched several buttons, but the information remained the same. The animal's signal was gone!

He glanced 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 finder.

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?

Uncertainty 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.

Could something 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.

Frustrated 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.

Something 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 hands free.

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 Vader.

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 intended target?

He waited 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.

"Lord Vader, this is the M.E. aboard the Annihilator. I have some…unusual findings to report."

"Yes, Doctor." The Sith Lord breathed into the comlink, his attention centered on the open spot in the brush before him.

"Tests made on the saliva have found a fluctuating DNA."


"The tests are not conclusive, but…"

"The cat is not a cat?"

"No, no, my Lord. The major strand of the DNA is feline; however…" His voice faded and static filled the comlink, and then died.

The brush 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.

"So, you are back," he addressed the brushy area to his right.

From somewhere behind him, a human voice laughed in sarcastic glee. "Why do you continue to pursue a conflict you cannot win?"

"Do you know who you address with such disrespect?" Vader snapped angrily.

"A fool," 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."

"Felarian," Vader repeated softly. "Is that what you are called?"

"No, I am Geko, the Fearless! Slayer of all who venture beyond the Stinking Place and any who come to defile the ancient lands of my ancestors!"

Vader's mind 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.

"Then 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!"

The telepathic 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.

The brush rustled, bent, then was pushed aside as a figure in white armor stepped from the heavy cover and stopped several meters from the dark lord.

Vader hissed 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.

"Lift your helmet. I wish to see your face."

The snowtrooper lifted a white-gloved hand and pulled the heavy helmet with its thermal drape from his head.

Unwillingly, Darth Vader took a step back. Standing before him in the remains of the Imperial uniform stood the likeness of his own son…Luke Skywalker.

The scarlet 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.

"If you 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!"

The silence 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…"

Under the 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 chance.

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.

Faced with 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?

General Veers 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.

Realizing 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?

* * * *

The Imperial 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.

Reaching his 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 empty.

The M.E. stepped inside, allowing the door to swish shut behind him, then approached the foot of the great table.

"Doctor, please take a seat. Communications Officer Co'tar will join us shortly and General Veers has been notified. He is on his way."

Nodding his 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."

Straightening 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.

"Commander 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."

The commander 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 as I."

"Yes, 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, 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 Veers, Sir."

Faka moved a hand in quick acknowledgment, encouraging the M.E. to continue. At his side, Veers moved forward with growing interest.

"It is a fluctuating DNA."

Veers stiffened. "Shape Shifters?"

"Yes, General."

"Was 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.

"I contacted 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."

Before commander 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?"

"Yes, General. I…I reported it at once to my CO and he in turn reported it to Commander Faka."

The commander stiffened, but remained silent.

"Were tests run on the equipment?" Veers pressed urgently.

"Yes, 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."

Veers shifted his attention to the M.E.

"Contact was made," the doctor acknowledged truthfully. "The signal was good."

"What happened?"

"In the middle of my briefing, contact was abruptly terminated from the surface."

Veers shifted his attention back to the communications officer.

"That's correct, general," Co'tar verified. "Contact was broken at Lord Vader's end."

"I…I 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.

Commander 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 officer.

"You're sure contact was broken at Lord Vader's end?"

"Yes, Commander."

"And nothing was found wrong with our communications link-up to him?"

"No, Commander."

Faka fell 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 fist.

He shifted 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?

"I share 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?"

General Veers 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."

Faka nodded 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.

Veers reached 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.

"General 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.

"Do you 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.

"Yes, General. I have his coordinates. His location is marked at approximately three kilometers north of the settlement approaching the foothills."

"His life signs?"

"Strong, General."

Veers fell silent, reviewing the data on the science computer again for any abnormalities.

"Communications 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.

Veers turned 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?"

"Yes, General, I'm picking up one such life form some meters from Lord Vader's current position."

"Broaden your scan. Do you pick up any others?"

The officer 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."

Veers hit 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. 'Communications."

The figure stiffened in his seat, but remained alert and unconcerned before his duty station. "Yes, General Veers."

The general's 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."

"At once, 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.

"Try again." Veers ordered.

Again the com officer attempted contact and again failed.

Veers closed contact with the bridge and turned back to face Commander Faka.

Faka shifted uncomfortably before the cold directness of the field commander's gaze. "Your conclusions, General?"

"I think Lord Vader is in trouble."

"I concur," the M.E. voiced from the far end of the table, and then fell silent fearing the commander's wrath at his impertinent interruption.

Faka cleared his throat, breaking the uneasy silence that had settled over the room. Looking up, he faced the general. "Your recommendations?"

"I would like permission to take Alpha strike force and return to the planet's surface."

"No." 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 our interference.

"O the 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.

Faka folded. "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."

Veers gave the commander a curt nod. "I also request permission to take several AT-ST'' to the surface to protect and scout ahead of the foot soldiers.""

Faka nodded 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?"

Veers got 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 are ready."

Faka hesitated. 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 else…"

The communications 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.

Faka nodded. "This meeting is adjourned."

* * * *

Continue to Part 2


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Vader's Folly Part 2

From the Blue Falcon Series

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.

The night 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.

Keeping his 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 wall.

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.

Drawing the 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 on.

Reaching a 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 location.

Almost immediately 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.

* * * * *

Blue lightning 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.

The older 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."

The older 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 my success?"

The scene 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.

Suddenly, 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."

"Ben, 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.

"Anakin, 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.

Within the 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 fall.

Again, he 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.

Vader awoke 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.

The M.E., 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.

"Captain, 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."

"Yes, Sir."


"Sir!" The younger officer seated next to the pilot looked up expectantly.

"Contact 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."

"Yes, 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."

"Very good. Captain, you may proceed with the pick up."

Rotating its 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 the north.

"In position, 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.

"Transport 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."


Stagl reached 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 hydraulics creaking.

"Lower 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."

"Yes, 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."

"Captain 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."

"Captain Stagl, standby."

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.

"Give the order to move out, Lieutenant."

Opening a 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.

Veers exulted 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.

At first, he could only watch in puzzlement, then in concern, as the military position of the foot soldiers began to waver then, without warning, break apart.

Veers, at 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.

"Scout 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.

"General Veers, Scout One reports four-legged feline-like creatures moving through the brush some distance ahead of point. They are asking for orders."

"Check the sensor grids. If the target is not humanoid, kill it!"

The three 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.

Behind them, 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.

"Re'tel report!"

"He's 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."

Veers looked 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.

"Tell 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."

The co-pilot quickly forwarded the information then turned a questioning glance on Veers.

Ignoring it, 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."

The general 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?"

"None 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."

"How many?"

"Can't 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."

"Did you get a good look at them?"

"A glance, 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."

"Are your sensors picking up anything now?"

"They're out there, Sir. Sitting and waiting. What are your orders?"

Veers' gray 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."

* * * *

"You are weakening, old one."

The voice 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.

Gracefully, 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.

"Not as weak as you think, Felarian." Vader countered. "Show yourself and let's put an end to this. I tire of your games."

"You think you are worthy to face me?"

There was 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!

Surprise was 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.

Something 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.

"Your 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.

Its small 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.

"So," Vader purred softly in anticipation, "we meet at last."

The great 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."

Vader felt 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?"

"Against 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."

The great, 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.

"So," 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.

The great '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 stood alone.

"Felarian, 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 to be?"

A growl, heavy and menacing, broke the silence of the clearing. "I need not risk my life to take you down, old one."

Without warning, 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.

* * * *

Veers watched 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.

Veers opened a channel to the scouts. "Scout One, have you attempted contact with Lord Vader?"

"Yes, 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."


"North of our present location."


"Approximately three kilometers, Sir."

"That close?"

"Yes, 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."

"Understood." 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?"

"No, 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?"

Veers' eyes narrowed. "I can't speculate on that, trooper. But whatever affected them does not seem to affect us. Let's move out."

"Yes, Sir." There was another pause. "You wish us to scout ahead, Sir?"

Recalling 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."

"Yes, Sir. I'm feeding the directional signal to your board."

Veers closed the channel. Looking over the shoulder of his copilot, the Imperial warrior watched in silence as a set of directionals appeared.

"Lieutenant, set our course on these coordinates. Captain, move us out, but hold our speed slow enough to allow the scouts to keep up."

"Yes, Sir." Captain Stagl reached to his controls and the great Imperial war machine resumed its steady progress angling slowly to the north.

Uneasiness 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?

He scanned 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 rescue team.

The great 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.

"Scout Two, what have you picked up?"

"Nothing, 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. Sorry, Sir."

"Acknowledged." 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."

"Yes, Sir," his crew answered in unison. The Imperial walker moved on.

"Shape shifters," Veers voiced softly.

"Sir?" Captain Stagl answered, his attention centered on his controls.

"Nothing, 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.

"General Veers, Scout I is reporting something, possibly humanoid, on the ground ahead of us. He's asking for permission to check it out."

"Permission 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.

The small 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.

The egress hatch atop the small scout opened, and the Imperial crewman stepped out…

"NO!" Veers shouted through his headset. "It's a trap!"

The warning 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.

The Imperial crewman screamed only once and then was silent. Before the cannon could be centered on the alien form, it disappeared into the underbrush.

Silence fell 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.

"General Veers, Scout II is bring its twins on-line. She's moving towards us!"

So, he had been right. "Target the scout. If she fires on us, take her out."

"But, Sir…"

"Lieutenant, you have your orders!"

"Yes, 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 neck.

"Fire! Now!"

Swinging the 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 batteries.

"Scouts, close ranks!" Silence greeted his open channels to the remaining scouts.

"Lieutenant, where are they?"

"They're…just standing there, General; Two on point, one to our rear."

"Weapons?" Veers snapped, recognizing the formation.

"Coming on line, sir."

"Their target?"

The young lieutenant looked up in shock. "Us, Sir. All targeting computers have a lock on us!"

A broadside 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.

"Scouts, disengage your weapons! This is General Veers! I order you to disengage!"

"Still locked, Sir. Scout IV's weapons are coming on-line. Now Scout III!"

"Captain, to port. Let's give them as small a target as possible."

The mighty titanium beast turned, its head pointed toward the small scout poised at its left shoulder. Time stood still.

"Something's wrong…"


"Their weapons are on-line. They have us locked on their targeting grid, but…nothing's happening."

"Stand ready to fire."

"Yes, Sir."

Veers again opened a channel to the scouts. "This is General Veers. Power down your weapons, I repeat, power down your weapons!"

The scouts remained as small red dots on his sensor screen: they were still hot, with their weapons on-line and locked.

"Lieutenant, check life readings on the scouts."

Nimble fingers 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, too."

Veers watched the red dots on the screen. The weapons remained on-line, but the hands at their controls were lifeless.

"What's happening, General? What happened the crew of those walkers?"

"Chew your life form sensors, Lieutenant. Are you getting any readings for the cats?"

"I'm getting a few fluctuating signals in front of us, moving northward." He glanced up. "You think they…?"

"Yes, 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 directional finder?"

"It's not a good signal, General, but strong enough to lock on."

"Then 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."

"But if they could control the minds of our men in the scouts," Captain Stagl questioned, "Why didn't they attempt control of ours?"

"A good 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."

"Sir?" The young lieutenant asked fearfully.

"Because 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.

Reaching across 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."

"Done, Sir."

Veers pushed 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."

"Captain, 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."

* * * *

Forced to 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.

His thoughts 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.

And then, it was gone. The heavy stranglehold of the alien was no longer there.

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.

Another check 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.


He reached 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.

Reaching into 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.

The walker 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.

Expecting 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.

Before him, 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 lives.

The movement 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. But soon…

The AT-AT 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.

Vader stepped 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 they waited.

"Lord Vader, are you all right?" The voice from his interior comlink sounded strained with worry.

"Yes, General, but your arrival is welcomed."

"I would 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."

"Understood, 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 up.

"Look out!"

The black 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.

"Find a target and fire!" Vader heard the commander over his comlike as he steeled himself to receive the heavy body of his enemy.

Driving forward, 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.

Vader cut 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.

Around them 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. "Veers, Report!"

"We're 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."

There was no time for a reply as the great cat launched itself again at the tall figure in black.

Vader, his 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 attack.

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.

Vader raised 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.

The great 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.

Halfway into 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.

Vader held 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, many more.

"Veers, lower the cable. Hurry!"

Suddenly the 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.

Reaching back, Vader found the cable, twisted it around his wrist and arm, before taking a strong hold with his gloved hand.

"Take me up!"

The servos 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.

Turning his 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!"

Below him, 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?

Desperately, 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.


Hauling himself 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.

The troop 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.

Struggling 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.

Entering the 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.

"I…I tried to…engage the PA, but something…something…"

"I know," Vader hissed, struggling to slow his breathing. "Oxygen…do you…have tanks…here?"

Veers reached between the seats and struggled with a portable tank.

Reaching to 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.

"Commander. Report!"

"I don't 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…"

Veers closed the comlink and looked over at the helmeted figure in the seat next to him. "Lord Vader?"

Vader drew 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.

"What do you make of it?" Veers voiced softly.

Vader remained 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.

"They're waiting," he guessed.

Veers glanced at him, than back to the view port. "Waiting? For what?"

"Whom, I suspect is more likely, General."

"My Lord, 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."

Veers looked 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.

"There!" Veers motioned to the front of the walker.

The circle 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.

"Yes," 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.

The newcomer 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.

"What do you make of it, my Lord?" Veers whispered as if afraid to offend the beautiful creature.

Darth Vader 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.

"She's…known 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.

She broke 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.

"Lord Vader."

His attention 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.

Suddenly, 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.

Vader reached 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.

"What's she done to him?" Veers questioned softly. "He's…different."

"Yes," 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.

The fawn-colored 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?

"Geko called you "old one", what are you known by?"

Vader leaned 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."

"No," she denied softly. 'That is who you say you are. It is not your true self."

Vader's mind whirled in turmoil. "I don't know what you mean?"

"You hide your true self and deny it the love of a son. How foolish."

"No," Vader whispered. "The self you speak of is no more. I stand in his place."

"For now, perhaps," she fenced.

"What happened to Geko?"

"He is vanquished."

"For defying you?" Vader pressed, careful to draw his Force protection closer should he anger her.

"Yes," 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."

Vader stiffened under her directness. She had touched on nerves he had thought long desensitized to such truths.

"Enough." 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."

"Leave?" 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 that site."

"That is good."

"They're 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?"

"General 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."

"Yes, 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 walker.

* * * *

Stepping from his TIE, Darth Vader moved toward the tall figure in Imperial uniform standing at stiff attention. He stopped before Commander Faka.

"Lord Vader, all field equipment and personnel have been lifted from the planet's surface. I…understand you encountered some difficulties with the…natives."

"General 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."

"Alpha, my Lord?" Faka stammered, than rushed to keep in step with the longer stride of the Dark Knight. "Around…this…planet?"

Vader paused and the helmeted head turned, stopping the Imperial officer in his tracks. "Do you question my orders, Commander Faka?" He whispered ominously.

"No, no, of course not, Lord Vader," Faka stammered, than quickly moved to cover his mistake. "It will be done at once."

"I'll be in my chambers," he purred softly. "I would caution against disturbing me without good cause."

"Yes, my Lord!" Faka stood at stiff attention and watched as the figure in black turned and walked away.

"Commander Faka, all equipment is locked down and ready for departure."

"General 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?"

Veers paused before the ship's commanding officer, his gray eyes cool and appraising. "I suggest you ask Lord Vader."

"No. 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.

Moments later, 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.

Hooked into 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.

The beacons 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 it come?

The scarred 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 no answers…yet…


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