Author's Note: Sorry for the delay, guys! More chapters coming soon. Here is the long-awaited meeting between Luke and his father!
Aboard the Demolisher, 2.35 AVY:
Luke adjusted his belt buckle, hopefully for the last time, and then turned his attention to his cap, which had somehow rotated a few degrees off-center. He had to be more than presentable—he was about to meet some of the most powerful men in the Empire.
"How do I look?" he asked Mara, his plus-one for the event, who stood next to him in the corridor outside the banquet hall. A few dignitaries and officers passed by, paying the pilots no attention save for a few glances at the Imperial Badge of Merit on Luke's chest.
"Like a war hero," she replied, grinning. "Don't sweat it, Luke."
They wore black dress uniforms, standard for TIE pilots on formal occasions. Mara looked quite fashionable in hers: with blue eyes and brown hair tied up in a ponytail beneath her cap, she was the young, female face of the Empire's future. No longer was the Imperial military the domain of men alone—Palpatine himself was pushing for more women in the ranks. One day, perhaps, non-humans would be welcome too, though such a day was far off indeed. Anti-alien sentiment ran deep.
"All right. You ready?" Luke said.
"I've been ready for a couple minutes now. You're the one holding us up."
"Right. Let's go, then."
They started down the corridor. Far ahead of them, a white-uniformed Grand Admiral, one of only sixteen in the Empire, marched past the guards on either side of the entrance. They didn't even bother to check his identification.
"Look! That's Grand Admiral Orban!" Mara said, grabbing his arm and pointing.
"Yep, I see him." Luke hadn't matched the face to the name—Orban was yet another Imperial officer with a mustache and greying hair—but he recognized him now. He had commanded the Eighth Fleet during the Dzungar Uprising, and was these days rumored to be in the running for command of the Extragalactic Campaign's naval forces. "They're really bringing out the big guns."
"I heard Tarkin's going to be here, too."
Luke's eyes widened. "Grand Moff Tarkin? Really?"
"Not the Tarkin, silly. His nephew."
"Somewhat less exciting."
"He's a war hero like you. Played a key role during the capture of Numor's capital city, or so I've heard."
They got into line behind a dozen other officers waiting outside the door. They were almost without a doubt the lowest-ranking people here, besides some of the stormtroopers providing security, and perhaps a scattering of other humble war heroes who had distinguished themselves. Luke wondered why he had been invited at all; surely shooting down seven enemy fighters, while impressive, didn't warrant a spot in the same room as a Grand Admiral?
He gave the matter little further thought. The line shortened in front of him, as guards processed the banquet's many guests with typical Imperial efficiency, and his turn arrived soon enough. A stormtrooper checked his and Mara's identification cards against a datapad.
"Luke Skywalker and Mara Aurelian?" the trooper asked.
"That's us," Mara said.
"You will sit at the Heroes' Table. Far left, halfway towards the podium. Congratulations."
Luke passed through the door into the banquet hall. Up until recently he hadn't known that Star Destroyers even carried such rooms as this, though it wasn't too much of a surprise given an ISD's sheer size. It was tall—about two decks—and it had enough of a footprint to fit maybe six hundred people, though there were only two hundred or so here today. An interior balcony on one wall looked out over rows of tables, stocked with drinks and food. Columns lined the sides; where they met the ceiling, a strip of marble running around all four edges bore Aurebesh text, excerpts from Palpatine's Proclamation of the New Order. He caught snippets as he looked around:
The remaining Jedi will be hunted down and defeated!
… the corruption that plagued the Republic in its later years will never take root.
Ten thousand years of peace begins today!
It was the foundational speech of the Empire, adorning a room that now contained many of that same Empire's greatest figures. Some had been well into their careers by the time the Emperor delivered it; some had just begun their service in the dying Republic's military. Luke hadn't even been born yet.
He navigated with Mara through the press of uniforms. Imperial Navy, Army, Stormtrooper Corps, Intelligence—they were all represented here, at numerous levels, a zoo of different rank plaques indicating exactly where each man was in the hierarchy. Officers chatted with each other, sitting and standing. Many sipped from glasses delivered by various alien servants.
How many of them, he wondered, had overseen forced labor? How many had ordered blockades which killed thousands of women and children? Luke was loyal, at the end of the day, but he was not blind. The Empire had blood on its hands, and so did the people in this room.
They found and approached the Heroes' Table, dodging a cluster of senior Stormtrooper Corps officers who were walking forward with little consideration for anyone else. At the table, large enough to seat twelve, they found only a single man sitting with one leg crossed over the other, sipping wine. He regarded them as they sat down three places away.
"You must be Squadron Leader Skywalker," the man said, leaning across the table to initiate a handshake, which Luke accepted. "Double ace, and hero of Graval Prime. I too am a hero of Graval Prime, I'll have you know—I kept the guns on the Torment firing long after main power failed and atmosphere leaked out. Name's Hansa Qelor."
He was dark-skinned, bald, probably only five years older than Luke was. His rank plaque was that of a Navy commander.
"Pleasure to meet you," Luke said. "This here's my plus-one, Flight Lieutenant Mara Aurelian. We serve in the same squadron aboard the Steadfast."
"Ah. I was going to bring a plus-one, too, but he decided he had urgent business elsewhere, as of two hours ago. Typical Intelligence types. Never can count on them."
"You have a friend in Imperial Intelligence?"
Qelor took a sip of his wine, then set the empty glass on the table, smirking. "Did I say I did? You must be hearing things, squadron leader."
Luke rolled his eyes. "So who else is going to join us here, anyway?"
"Let's see." Qelor counted them off on his fingers. "Some stormtrooper officers, plus another couple naval commanders, plus the younger Tarkin, of course. There will probably be some empty seats left over."
"Looks like we have about ten minutes until this thing officially starts," Mara said, gesturing towards a clock on one wall. "I'm starving, I hope they bring out good food."
"They generally do," Qelor said. "Ever been to a victory gala before?"
Luke shook his head. "No. Have you?"
"Once or twice. Not my first time as a Hero of the Empire. This is a special occasion though—conquest of a new galaxy and all that. That, and I've heard from an anonymous source that the Grand Admiral will use the occasion to offer me command of the Torment. But hush—it's supposed to be a surprise." That smirk again.
"What happened to the previous captain?" Mara asked. "Killed in action?"
"No, actually. Shot himself on the flight back through the other galaxy's hyperspace." Qelor furrowed his brow. "Strange. I never took him for a suicide risk. Left behind an incomprehensible note, too—the things he drew…"
A Mon Calamari servant appeared beside the table, offering a tray of drinks. Luke took from it a glass containing some unknown red liquid. He looked over the alien, marveling at its telescoping eyes, tendrils, and clammy red skin, so thoroughly unlike the human species. According to Imperial orthodoxy, the Mon Calamari and other races were destined by fate to a secondary role in the galaxy. He disagreed with that orthodoxy, wished that the xenophobia of the Empire would dissipate in the years to come, but at the end of the day, who was he to question it? He was just a lowly squadron leader.
Qelor also took a glass, and thanked the servant, which surprised Luke. The Mon Calamari bowed its head and walked off to another cluster of officers.
"Anyway," Qelor said. "I was quite disturbed by Captain Gilfraham's suicide. I've been following the investigation, but they haven't come to any conclusions."
"There's something about that place," Luke said. He remembered the black figure in his dreams, the crimson sky, the soaring Gothic architecture. Nightmares were never so vivid in his home galaxy. "I had the strangest dreams, when I was on the other side."
He took a sip from his glass. Whatever it was tasted of fruit and alcohol. It reminded him of what he'd used to drink back home, on Tatooine, during his occasional day trips to the saloon in Anchorhead.
"Apparently about a fifth of people report as much. Perhaps they are more sensitive to…" The commander shrugged. "Something."
"Probably just some quirk of hyperspace," Mara put in. When Luke looked doubtfully at her, she added, "Be rational. The other universe obeys the laws of physics, same as us."
"Come on, Mara," Luke said. "Surely you can't deny…"
He trailed off, exchanging glances with Mara and Qelor. Something was very wrong. In another moment he realized what it was: the background of chatter and merriment had cut to dead silence.
The door was open. A new guest had entered the room. Luke heard his breathing before he caught sight of him—a deep rasp, the sound of lungs and machines working begrudgingly together. Then he spotted the deathly mask that had graced a hundred propaganda posters: that of Lord Vader.
He wore a black suit, fully enclosed, with a triangular respirator covering his mouth and two panes of plastic hiding his eyes. There was something skull-like, perhaps insectoid about it. Luke wondered what lay behind that mask. He'd heard rumors: some said Vader had been gravely wounded during the Clone Wars, others that he had been badly burned in a terrorist attack.
"Huh," Qelor said, very quietly, as others around the banquet hall started to murmur. "I didn't know Lord Vader was going to be attending. Must be here as the Emperor's personal representative."
Luke glanced at him for a moment, then turned back towards Vader. All eyes were on the man in black. Even Grand Admiral Orban, resplendent in his white uniform, had a grave look on his face.
"Lord Vader," said a Navy officer, probably the Demolisher's captain and one of the gala's main organizers, walking forward. "It is an unexpected honor for you to grace us with your presence. Had we known you would be attending, we would have—"
Vader raised a hand. "That is all very good, captain, but I need no obeisances. I merely wish to inspect the men who are leading this most crucial campaign for the Empire."
"Of course," said the captain. "If you have need of anything, anything at all, do not hesitate to ask me or my staff."
"You will be made aware if anything is not to my satisfaction." Vader waved him away. Luke turned back towards Mara and Qelor, worried that staring too long would make him stand out, and tried his best to quietly resume conversation. The banquet hall returned to some measure of its former bustle. Vader wandered among the various Imperial officers, subjecting them to a level of scrutiny that would doubtless ruin the gala.
"Never in my life did I think I'd see him in person," Luke said. "I mean… one of the most powerful men in the Empire! Here!"
"Uh, Luke?" Mara said.
She glanced over his shoulder, bidding with her eyes for him to do the same. He looked.
Before Luke had even turned his head, he felt a presence—something vast, dark, cold, a shadow fast approaching. Was it one of those hunches of his, that had saved him from so many laser beams while out on patrol? It was impossible to know what was behind it. Not everything could be explained, as he was beginning to discover.
Lord Vader was walking straight towards him. Without slowing down, without showing any discernible expression, he was more like a freight train than a human. Only when he was a few paces away did he stop, towering above Luke.
"Skywalker," Vader said, in that deep voice of his.
"My Lord." Luke cast his eyes down. He still felt the presence, probing, searching. For a long moment Vader stood silently.
"I have heard much about your service during Operation Falcon. You have risen far, but your journey is only beginning."
"I only seek to serve the Empire, Lord Vader."
"Look at me, squadron leader." Luke looked up, and Vader went on, "What planet are you from?"
"Tatooine." Vader paused. "I was there, a long time ago. You have done well to leave that world behind. The only things there are sand and death."
Mara shot Luke a worried glance. She was doubtless thinking the same thing that he was: why was the Empire's darkest, most enigmatic figure suddenly taking an interest in him?
He tried to say something, and failed. Instead there was silence at the table as Vader inscrutably regarded him. Then:
"It seems your talents are wasted as a pilot, young Skywalker. We will meet again, and soon."
As suddenly as he had arrived, Lord Vader turned and departed, probably off to intimidate someone else. Luke breathed a sigh of relief. The evil presence receded, like a dissipating headache.
"What was that about?" Qelor asked, furrowing his brow.
"Your guess is as good as mine."
"Maybe he just wanted to meet a war hero?" Mara said.
"I'm also a war hero, and he didn't even acknowledge me," Qelor said. "No, Luke, it was something about you."
Luke looked over his shoulder again. Vader's back was to him—he was talking with Grand Admiral Orban and a number of other Imperial bigwigs—but he sensed that he still had not escaped the attention of the Emperor's right hand.
They came for Luke late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning. He was in his guest cabin, fast asleep, when at once the door swung open and slammed against the wall. The noise roused him instantly. When he sat up he saw a stormtrooper standing in the doorway, another close behind. They did not have their weapons raised.
"Squadron Leader Luke Skywalker. Get dressed and come with us."
Luke blinked. He searched for Mara, then remembered she had left for her own quarters some hours before.
"I said come with us, squadron leader."
What was this? Was he under arrest? He was a loyal citizen of the Empire, a war hero, they couldn't be arresting him.
"May I ask what the charges are?"
The troopers walked across his cabin—it was not large—and one grabbed his arm, pulling him out of bed.
Luke found his uniform crumpled up on the floor, and scrambled into it. He would not look extremely presentable, not with the fabric wrinkled and his rank plaque tilted at an angle, but it was a start. The moment he finished, the stormtroopers shoved him towards the door. They did not handcuff him.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked, not really expecting an answer.
"Stop asking questions."
The hallway was empty, save for a third stormtrooper, waiting outside, who joined the first two as they brought Luke past.
He could technically make a run for it, but he wouldn't make it far. The troopers would be prepared to chase him down and tackle him. Or they would just open fire, if they didn't need him alive.
So Luke did not resist. They marched him in silence through long corridors, almost deserted at this hour of the night. Those few people who appeared didn't look at him. Why would someone look at a prisoner, a man who might as well have been dead? He imagined himself being quietly disappeared by the Imperial state, stricken from the record books as if he had never existed, forgotten by any loyal citizen.
Then again, they weren't using handcuffs. If this were an arrest they would have used handcuffs.
More corridors. A turbolift. He allowed himself to fall into a daze, only barely taking in his surroundings. Then, without warning, they shoved him through a doorway—and then closed it behind him.
Luke was alone in a dark room, somewhere deep within the bowels of the Star Destroyer Demolisher. A storage bay, probably. There was no cargo that he could see. Just empty walls, and shadows… and a dark figure on the far side, breathing the deep, mechanical breaths he had heard earlier that day.
"I told you we would meet again," Vader said, stepping forward.
"Lord Vader," Luke said. He knelt, trembling. "I'm just a pilot. What could you possibly want with me?"
"You are much more than a pilot, young Skywalker. I have heard the rumors. You have unnatural agility, you can see things before they happen—you are very powerful indeed. You must now unleash that power, and master it."
Vader tossed something towards him. Something small and light. Luke fumbled and dropped it, then reached down to pick it up again. His fingers met with cold metal, a cylinder with buttons and a few stubby fins and other protrusions he couldn't guess the function of.
"I expected better."
"It's dark. I couldn't see it."
"That is no excuse. You must see things with your feelings, Luke. With the Force."
He turned the object over in his hands. "What is this?"
"A lightsaber. The ancient weapon of the Jedi—and the Sith."
Luke had heard of the Jedi, and of lightsabers. Wizards and their esoteric weapons. But he could not fathom what the Sith were supposed to be.
There was a hum as Vader extended his own lightsaber, a crimson blade of plasma more than a meter long, burning bright like a blaster bolt frozen in place. A red glow brought the walls into clearer view, and reflected off the smooth metal of Vader's helmet. Luke backed away.
"Please," he said. "Don't kill me."
Vader lunged forward, swinging the blade in a wide arc. Luke dodged and in the process fell to the ground. He got the feeling that if Vader had really wanted him dead, he would be.
"Stand up!" Vader said.
Luke stood, and tried frantically to activate the lightsaber he had been given. The first button did nothing, but the second seemed to work—green plasma shot out, giving off heat, narrowly missing his left arm as it extended. He would have to be more careful next time.
Vader swung again, but this time Luke sensed it beforehand. It was just like it had been with the laser batteries over Ophidia, a hunch, a premonition of doom appearing just in time for him to do something about it. He parried the blow, forcing Vader's lightsaber to slide harmlessly off the end of his own.
"Your weapon belonged once to a Jedi Knight," Vader said. They stood facing each other, lightsabers ready to strike, though Luke was nowhere near confident enough to launch an attack of his own. "He went into hiding after the end of the Clone Wars. I hunted him down, and killed him. Just as I could kill you now if I so chose. It would be… trivial."
Another attack by Vader. Another parry.
"I sense great potential in you," Lord Vader went on. "I sensed it as soon as I walked up to your table at the banquet, and I knew at once who you were."
"No." Vader stepped forward, and Luke retreated, until his back was up against the wall. "Tell me. What do you know about your father?"
"His name was Anakin. He was a navigator, on a spice freighter, and he died before I was born. My uncle told me."
"Yes. Your 'uncle,' Owen Lars. A mere moisture farmer."
"How did you—"
Vader made a thrust towards him, which Luke only deflected when it was inches from his chest. The sabers clashed and cracked and hummed.
"Do you really think I didn't read your file?" Vader stepped back, offering Luke a short moment to catch his breath and collect his wits. "It is a wonder you escaped my notice as long as you did. Especially given your last name."
"What does my last name have to do with anything?"
They crossed blades again. This time, Vader was more forceful, almost overwhelming Luke. He had to summon his reserves of strength just to keep the lightsaber away from him.
"Anakin Skywalker was no spice trader—he was the most powerful Jedi in the Galaxy, and an unrivaled pilot. You inherited his strength in the Force."
"Then what happened to him?"
"He is very much alive." Vader retracted his lightsaber and clipped it to his side, halving the amount of light in the storeroom. Everything Luke saw was bathed in green. "Your father stands before you now."
"No." Luke shook his head, imagining with horror a face like his own behind that black mask. "No, that's impossible."
Vader—his father!—raised a hand, and the Jedi lightsaber came flying out of Luke's grasp, deactivating midair. They were both plunged back into darkness. His eyes having adjusted to the bright glow of the sabers, he couldn't see a thing.
"My task is to kill you," Vader said. "The Emperor wills it. He knows your potential, same as I do, and sees you as a threat. But I have a greater use…"
Luke stepped forward. In the darkness, however, a power cable on the floor snagged his foot, and he fell. It would be enough to bruise his knees.
"The Emperor will be made to believe that you are dead," Vader went on. "He may doubt me, at first, but you will be kept far from him, until the time is right."
Luke groped around on the floor, then hesitantly stood. "But… my squadron? My friends?"
"They will be told never to speak of you. You will vanish, Luke. You will not exist in a single written record, and when you do appear, it will be as my shadow—my apprentice."
This was too much. He couldn't go from a hero of the Empire to presumed dead within the span of a day, and he couldn't give up the entire life he'd known—and his career, and Mara—just to follow a wizard in a black suit who claimed to be his father.
But… Vader was his father. He sensed it, knew it in his bones. This man—whatever was left of him, underneath that armor, behind that mask—was Anakin Skywalker.
"Why should I serve you?" he asked, even though he knew Vader could kill him in an instant.
"You will unlock power you never dreamed of," his father replied. "The Force will toughen you, strengthen you, and bring you to the very forefront of the Empire. Have you ever wished things could be different, Luke?"
Luke nodded, though in the darkness he doubted Vader could see it. He knew too well the slavery, the repressions, the Moffs who grew fat and lazy off the backs of the people. At present he was only a passive bystander, but what if he could be more? "Yes, I have. I would make many changes if I were in charge."
"This is your chance. We shall become greater than the Emperor, and bring our own order to the Galaxy—to both galaxies. You will have the power."
A gloved hand reached out, rested on his shoulder. Luke knelt again. He took a deep breath.
Author's Note: Hope you all enjoyed this chapter. Tune in next time for the introduction of the Death Korps of Krieg, and a snapshot of the Siege of Vraks!