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Assembling the fleet, however secretively, was not fitting work for the Dark Lord of the Sith. It was properly delegated to Admiral Piett, and that was exactly what an irritated Lord Vader had done. Now he was alone in his meditation chamber, its black hemispheres fitted together like the shells of a Calamarian Deep Bivalve. With the chamber sealed, and the atmospheric pressure lowered, Vader could breath even without his mask. He liked to have it off from time to time, to be free of its confines.

The mask was held by a robot arm above his head, which was a pasty white from decades of being hidden. A long burn scar ran down the back of his skull, the souvenir of his violent encounter with Kenobi before the mask was created. There were no mirrors in the chamber.

Vader was absorbed in studying his old lightsaber. It felt very strange to hold it again after so long. He guessed Kenobi had taken it, then saved it, and given it to Luke. But why? It was an age-old Jedi custom to have an aspiring Jedi construct his or her own lightsaber. Why had Luke not done so? Now it was back in his gloved hands. What a strange road it had traveled.

He caressed the weapon, remembering how he had constructed it. Its power cell and hand grip were one unit, which was surmounted by an activation lever. Higher up the weapon were its controls, blade length and blade intensity adjustments. The emitter matrix was half shielded by a graceful arc of metal that housed the internal access lever. Vader's hands paused there. Something was different - the lever was raised higher than he remembered it. Had it been bent, or was something underneath preventing its proper closure? With a gentle twist, he used the lever to disengage the tiny circular access plate and peered within. He saw it immediately. A tiny recording chip was affixed to the rear of the emitter matrix.

Vader was mystified. He removed a delicate instrument from a nearby stand and used it to extract the magnetized chip. He rotated his seat to face his viewscreen and placed the chip in a reader. It was an old chip, of outdated design, but the reader should still be able to handle it. He waited. Long moments later, the screen flickered to life, and Vader found himself looking into the face of Obi-Wan Kenobi, some twenty years younger than the old man he had killed on the Death Star. That was in itself a surprise, but little could compare to the shock he felt when the image spoke. "Anakin...," it said.

Two decades earlier, Obi-Wan Kenobi was alone in his starship, breaking orbit from Horuz, fleeing the ruin of his greatest friendship. His body was beaten and his heart was broken. He ached all over from the wounds he had incurred in his narrow escape from the dark side adepts. Kenobi was barely able to complete the coordinate entry for the jump to hyperspace that put that evil world of tragic loss behind him forever. Space outside the viewport flared with starlines, but Kenobi did not see them. He was desperately trying to attune himself to the Force, seeking solace for his pain. Gradually, he began to feel at one with the great energy field that bound that galaxy together. He was no longer alone, but in touch with life all around. He felt pain, but now it was shared. He was given healing as well. Kenobi's grief became bearable and he was able to meditate. His trim brown beard framed a mouth that formed an enigmatic almost-smile. The Force was still with him, and now it showed him something.

Within his trance, he saw a black armored figure with a ghastly pale visage that he recognized despite its wasted state. It was Anakin, and he was holding what Kenobi knew to be the very lightsaber he had taken from their battlefield on Horuz. The Force whispered to him, it seemed, of what he must do, and its importance. Still in his trance, he nodded. A minute later, he emerged gently from the meditation, and arose to cross to his message recorder. Some part of the burden felt lifted from his shoulders, and he knew that the events of the past day would only really come to their conclusion on the far off day seen in his vision. He had no guarantee that what he saw would come to pass, or that anything would come of it, yet he had to try. Composing himself, he faced the recorder and turned it on.

"Anakin," he said, "If you are hearing this, then what I have foreseen has come to pass, and you are still alive, but in the grip of the dark side. I cannot decide if I hope you still live or not...I left your body on Horuz, hideously burned. I question whether you could survive."

"But if you still friend -" Kenobi's voice caught. "I am sorry...for everything. When you were my student, I saw your anger at what was happening to the Republic. But I ignored it. I thought you would be able to control your feelings and work to save what was left. I was confident in the teachings I'd given you. But I didn't see what was happening until it was too late. You fell under the influence of Palpatine, and instead of fighting to save the Republic, you embraced what he wanted to put in its place."

"Oh Anakin, Palpatine showed you so much power - more than you ever knew existed. Power to impose order on a chaotic and corrupt society. It was the power of the dark side of the Force, and it seduced you. As your teacher, I should have helped you to face the dark side during your training - helped you to deny it. I failed in this duty, and Palpatine was the first to show it to you. Palpatine is so much more than he seems. As he gains more power, my fear for the galaxy grows. When I saw what he had done to you, I resolved to confront you, and to try to turn you back. When at last you left Palpatine's presence, and went to Horuz, I followed you. I didn't know why you were you were going, I only saw my chance to get through to you."

"The moment I saw you, waiting for me on that ridge near the pits with anger in your heart, I realized you had known I was following all along. I was shocked by how you had changed, by how far gone you were. You didn't listen to my appeals to our friendship, or to my pleas that you remember your wife Padme, who still loves you, despite everything. Nothing got through. I think Palpatine had warned you that I was going to try to take away your power, so that all you wanted was to fight me and be rid of me." Kenobi hung his head in sorrow. It was all so fresh, still an open wound in his soul.

"I taught you all you know about lightsaber combat. You couldn't have won. I...didn't want to hurt you...but you attacked with such ferocity that I had no choice. To save my own life, Anakin, I had to strike you down. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I saw you fall from the ridge, into the pit...I would have come after you, tried to help you, but at that moment, I felt a devastating attack through the Force." Kenobi's face was full of rue. "Too late, I realized why you had come to Horuz, and how foolish I had been to follow you. I had stumbled onto the lost Monastery of the Sith. Palpatine knew where it was, and he sent you there to study the old lore. He must have hidden dark side adepts stationed there as well, and I knew I could not stand against them alone. I fled. I barely escaped with my life, using all the power at my command. Maybe they saved you...If I had not been attacked, I would have tried to save you." Earnestly, he leaned towards the recorder. "Anakin, hear me. If you still live, it is not too late. Palpatine gave you power, but he took so much more. Things of infinitely greater value. Your friends, your wife, all that is good and loving in a man's life that makes it worth living. Let go of your hatred. The dark side can only destroy everything it touches. Turn away from it."

Kenobi sighed deeply. "What am I doing? This is probably for nothing. If the dark side has you, then the man who was my friend is dead. I must face that fact. I will never forget you. I will miss you, Anakin...good-bye."

Unable to take any more, Kenobi slapped the recorder switch off. Smoothly, it ejected the finished chip. He stared at it for a long time. At that moment, he felt a deep regret that his old Master, Qui-Gon, had ever called Anakin the "chosen one", had ever taken him from slavery on Tatooine. Then he reached for his friend's lightsaber, finally letting himself cry as he did so.

Darth Vader sat very still as the screen went blank, the message finished. He stared at the glassy surface, disturbed at it without knowing why, until he realized with a start that he was looking at his own face, dimly reflected on the blank screen. He turned away, made acutely uncomfortable by the sight. His thoughts were in turmoil, and he tightly clenched the lightsaber in his gloved fists.

Without understanding why, Vader had a strong, clear memory of his son leaping to his death rather than joining him. He was filled with feelings he could no longer name.

Vader hastily punched the control keys next to him, and his black mask and helmet descended over his troubled face, sealing against his armor with a hiss. Now there was only the angular breath mask, an iron face that never showed weakness of any kind. Safe in his fortress, Vader began to feel better. He told himself that there was no conflict inside of him as he took the chip between his black gloved machine fingers and crushed it into fragments that fell glittering to the deck plates.

Two and a half months later, Emperor Palpatine sat in the throne room on Coruscant, waiting for the fourth clone of Luke Skywalker to enter. So far, the project had been frustrating, and he had learned little, but he thought that this next encounter might be the breakthrough. In any case, he sensed that time was running out. All too soon, the real moment would be upon him. Palpatine reflected on the many variables involved in this testing. Skywalker was a complex individual. Ars Dangor's report had contained little real knowledge of the boy's psychology. The truth about Luke's father had not been in it at all. Where it had discussed Luke's feelings about Vader, it had concluded that Luke must want him dead. The first clone had been created according to the report, to satisfy the Emperor's curiosity, and sure enough, he had killed Vader. But Palpatine had been unsatisfied. The act had not held the passion required for turning Luke to the dark side; the clone had killed out of a sense of justice. Luke must feel the anger and hatred, he must let the dark side empower him to kill his father. Finally, he must become his father.

Besides, despite Palpatine's inability to penetrate the nexus, he could see the events leading up to it with unusual clarity. He saw Skywalker coming to Vader of his own free will, hoping that his father could be turned. He knew the boy had great compassion for his father. It was a strange aspect of Luke, but the Emperor knew it could be the boy's undoing. If the boy couldn't kill his own father, then Vader would destroy him. No matter what Vader felt about his son, he could not defy the Emperor's direct command. If Luke was driven in the end to kill his father, then he would belong to the dark side, and to Palpatine.

The boy's fatal compassion for his father was incorporated into the second clone. The clone had solemnly entered, accompanied by a replacement stand-in for Vader. The Emperor had welcomed him, and asserted that he was now the clone's new master. The boy had resisted, but as before, Palpatine had "revealed" to him that the Rebel fleet had been lured into a trap around Coruscant, and that it was being destroyed. Viewscreens had even been set up to simulate the battle, and with growing anguish, the clone had cried out for it to stop. But of course, it did not, and Palpatine had crowed over the end of Luke's allies. He had taunted Luke for his helplessness, and urged Luke to take his anger out on him. As the first clone had, this one had finally tried to move on Palpatine. The stand-in for Vader had intervened and placed himself in Luke's way, and Luke had begun a reluctant fight. While the first clone had fought aggressively, the second, in his compassion, fought purely defensively, angling around for a chance to rush the Emperor. He didn't get the chance. The false Vader cornered him. Then, to Palpatine's disgust, the actor had balked at actually killing the boy. The Emperor had been forced to go over to them and finish both of them with Force lightning.

The third clone had been accompanied by a ruthless Royal Guard in the Vader role. But the change was to no avail. The clone could not be goaded into attacking Palpatine at all. He had watched as the fleet was "destroyed", and Palpatine could tell that the boy's helplessness had paralyzed him. Putting the fleet in danger was not a sure thing to push Luke over the edge. Irritated, Palpatine had ordered the clone destroyed.

Then the Emperor had felt he was at an impasse. He needed Luke to enter into combat with Vader, but there seemed to be insufficient impetus for Luke to give in to his anger. It was Sate Pestage who finally solved the problem. The Grand Vizier had pointed out what Vader had already learned; the real Luke Skywalker had felt the pain of his friends, Han Solo and Leia Organa, from across space, and tried to come to their rescue. He had been close to them for three years, and would most likely lay down his life for them. Why not simply put them in mortal danger? Palpatine had cursed himself for not seeing the obvious. Of course, when Skywalker came to Endor, he would be accompanied by his friends. Yes, that was the key, he was sure of it. Imperial databanks were searched for images of the Princess-Senator and the Correllian, and then the Emperor was ready.

Now he waited, alone, for the fourth clone. His guards were absent. He had learned from the first encounter that their presence was not a good idea. The far doors opened, and Vader entered with Luke. This time, one of Palpatine's dark side adepts was standing in for Vader. He was an admirer of the Dark Lord, and he knew Vader's mannerisms well. They came up close to his throne, and Palpatine smiled. "Welcome, young Skywalker. I have expected you. You will complete your training with me, my young apprentice."

Luke was defiant. "Obi-Wan Kenobi was my Master, killed at the hands of your servant. He would never turn to the dark side, and neither will I. I came here to try to save my father from you, but I'll die before I join you."

"Oh, no, my young apprentice," the Emperor corrected Luke. "Your hopes for your father are empty. He will never go with you. He is forever mine. As for you, young Skywalker, there is much for you to learn. I will show you the true nature of the Force, and you will serve me."

Luke stood firm. Palpatine knew he was nurturing the planted hope that the attacking Rebel fleet would either contrive to aid him somehow, or else destroy the Palace and put an end to the Emperor's reign. "None of this matters, your Highness," Luke protested. "The Rebel fleet is on its way here now. The Imperial fleet has been lured away from Coruscant and this Palace is defenseless. Both of us will die. You'll never have the chance to turn me." Luke turned to face Vader. "Father, come with me now. We can escape together. Leave this place and your cruel Master." Luke was getting anxious. Vader didn't move a muscle.

Palpatine stood and crossed the dais, looking down mockingly at Luke despite his smaller stature. "Your father can never be turned, my young apprentice. As for your fleet, it will never penetrate Coruscant's planetary shield." The Emperor's voice went sickeningly soft. "You think I am mistaken, don't you." Palpatine laughed mirthlessly. "In fact, the Imperial fleet is poised to arrive via hyperspace at any moment, trapping your Rebel fleet and destroying it. We are in no danger, boy." Palpatine leaned in very close to Luke, speaking in a low voice. "Perhaps you are counting on your friends to disable the shields." He was pleased to see Luke begin to sweat. Smiling, the Emperor reached to trigger a control on the arm of his throne. Luke was startled as an enormous wall screen lit up. On it was the security camera transmission from deep in the bowels of the Palace. Luke could see the furtive shapes of Rebel commandos scurrying for cover as a patrol of security guards passed by. The image moved into a tight focus, and Luke gasped audibly as the faces of Han Solo and Princess Leia came clearly into view. "Oh, yes, my young apprentice. I know of your friends' mission. I lured them here, after all. They have been a thorn in my side, and now I shall enjoy torturing them. Perhaps I shall let you listen to their screams." Palpatine laughed again, and Luke's hands clenched.

Suddenly, on the screen, two dozen heavily armed Stormtroopers came up behind the commandos. Han Solo spun and fired, blindingly fast, but he wasn't able to stop several troopers from wounding him terribly in the arms and legs. He dropped to the floor, his heavy blaster spinning into the shadows. Leia screamed and fired frantically, but she, too, was swiftly taken down. Luke couldn't tell if either of them was still alive. Then the screen image changed to a view of the space around Coruscant. Rebel ships were careening madly away from the dimly visible planetary shield as dozens of Star Destroyers came screaming out of hyperspace to array themselves like a giant net around the Rebel fleet. Without warning, hundreds of turbolasers spoke fiery death into the void as swarms of TIE interceptors descended upon the Rebels. Luke watched helplessly as theAlliance ships were cut to pieces. Explosions bloomed in the darkness, and the dying began in earnest.

"It is the end for theAlliance, my young apprentice," The Emperor told Luke. "There is no hope left for you. Your friends are now in my power. I will see that they are a long time dying. You may beg me for their lives. Perhaps I will give them to you, If you serve me... if they survive."

Luke could stand no more. He ignited his lightsaber and shouted, "Father, stay back, this isn't your fight." He moved up onto the dais, menacing the Emperor. "Maybe you'll trade your own life for the lives of Han and Leia," Luke said fiercely. But Vader was already moving. Igniting his own weapon, he chased after Luke and drove him away from the Emperor.

Luke defended himself easily, his green blade blurring in the air. "I'm not here to fight you, Father," Luke grated. "You don't have to fight me. Together we can defeat the Emperor, you know that."

But the man playing Vader would hear none of it. "The Emperor is my Master. Now he is yours, too. The only chance for you is to serve him." He attacked, more aggressively. "I tortured your friends onCloud City, and now they will be mine again. Leia Organa will scream a dozen times for every minute that you deny your destiny. I will kill Han Solo before your eyes. The Rebel Alliance is dead and soon, your friends will die, too!"

Luke was hard pressed to fend off Vader's attacks, but his anger had been growing. His rage began to show on his face as the room seemed to spin before his eyes. Vader pressed the attack, his blade flashing blindingly against Luke's again and again. The wall screen showed a huge Rebel cruiser annihilated in a billowing fireball. The image shifted, and Han and Leia appeared again, screaming as they were shot over and over. The Emperor laughed, long and loud in Luke's ears.

Luke's anger was suddenly alive in him, a clamoring thing writhing in its desire for destruction. And the dark side answered its call. Luke felt strength pour into him, and he easily beat Vader's blade aside. He had been so wrong about his father. There was no good left in him. If Vader now stood between him and the Emperor, then he would have to fall. Look at him! The Dark Lord of the Sith, retreating before me. You won't escape, Vader - you die now! You didn't deserve the power you had. Now, mine is greater! My father...I hate the day I ever learned I was your son! No - don't try to run - it ends here! Yes! On your knees! Down! Down on the floor! A fitting place for you to DIE! Luke suddenly found himself with no one between Palpatine and himself. The hate was singing in his ears, a red haze was before his eyes, and a bloody taste was in his mouth.

"Good!" the Emperor cried out. In his triumph, he cared nothing for the dark side adept he had sacrificed. "Well done, Lord Skywalker! Your father is dead at your own hand, and you are now my servant. It is exactly as I have predicted. Come and kneel before your Master."

Luke could not focus his thoughts. He was oddly surprised to find Vader dead at his feet. His lightsaber fell from his fingers, forgotten, striking Vader's helm once before clattering to the floor. He was aware of an overwhelming urge to go to the Emperor, and do as he asked. He remembered feeling differently, but his anger at the Emperor no longer seemed important. He stepped over Vader's body, and went to kneel before Palpatine. A vast emptiness had opened up inside him, and much to his pleasure, being near the Emperor filled up that void.

But Palpatine's attention was no longer on him. The Emperor was walking away, talking to himself. "So will it be when we meet, young Skywalker. You will be mine...soon...soon."

Luke was confused. What was going on? Hadn't he knelt as asked? What more did he need to do? What was his Emperor saying? His confusion was in no way diminished when Palpatine left the room altogether, and six red robed Imperial guards came in to kill him.

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