Three months before the events of The Empire Strikes Back
“I am sorry, Shuttle Malevolence, but you are not on the schedule today. Due to the sensitive nature of our passenger, I must demand that you obtain proper passcodes.”
“I already know Lord Vader is aboard, so you can dispense with the mystery. And I don’t need a passcode. This is Captain Piett, correct?”
“Yes, that is correct. I don’t see how that is your-”
“And your superior is Admiral Ozzel?”
“Then give him this message. Hapspiri Barrini Corbolan Triaxis. I didn’t want to use it, but you’ve unnecessarily made it necessary.”
“Allow me to check this through,” the Captain said with no small dose of indignation.
The Captain may have been able to intimidate lesser ranking officials in the Imperial army, but he would never be able to do so with the Emperor’s Hand.
Mara Jade fiddled with the controls of her borrowed shuttle as she waited for no reason. It took her long enough to reach the Executor so she could confer with Lord Vader, and now this delay. Frustration was now entering her psyche. She should not be treated this way. At this point in her career as the Emperor’s Hand most Imperial officials knew who she was on sight, though they wouldn’t acknowledge it. When she was younger she would keep up the facade that she was the Emperor’s personal companion. As she and the Emperor grew older, that ruse became less credible.
She had just heard from Palpatine when she was finishing up a nasty business on Vesper. By saying she heard the Emperor meant to say she did so from inside her mind. At this stage of her time as the Hand, she could anticipate his messages to her through the Force. The parameters of this next mission were delicate as usual, but they rarely involved details. Palpatine would lay out what he wanted for her to accomplish. The details of how were up to her. For this mission, he added a suggestion that he normally did not give.
I recommend that you consult Lord Vader on the matter of that system’s layout. I do believe he is well familiar with the territory.
She was already familiar with the territory herself. It wasn’t advice that her boss typically gave to her. She disliked the idea of seeking out Vader just to gain knowledge of an area that she could very well research herself. Unfortunately, she was in no position to argue. She also rarely went against the Emperor’s wishes.
Captain Piett came back on the comm, which shook her out of her thoughts. “Shuttle Malevolence, or should I just address you as Mara Jade,” the Captain’s voice now contained an ingredient of honor and the intimidation was gone.
Mara grinned at the sudden respectability that came from the four secret words of an Imperial high recognition code. Mara opened her end of the channel. “You can call me a Rancor’s aunt if you wish, I just need to see Vader.”
“I’m afraid he is incapacitated at the moment. You are welcome to land in Hangar 2E and wait of course.”
“The Emperor’s Hand is not accustomed to waiting,” she snapped.
“And Lord Darth Vader is not accustomed to being rushed. You can either land and wait at your leisure, or be on your way and schedule a meeting with Vader for another time.”
Quick. This one could become a respectable high official someday. She submitted to his ultimatum and ejected, “Very well. Transmit landing coordinates.”
He did so and she landed accordingly. Once she finished landing procedures, she went back to the storage and opened her portable supply chest. She bypassed all the BlasTech handguns and elaborate vibroblades, excluding her personal hand blaster that she kept with her at all times. She reached for her lightsaber. The last time she had been alone with Vader a few years ago she was still very young. She fought him but she had been unprepared for his sudden attack. She promised herself that it would be the last time she would allow that to happen. She hooked the weapon onto her utility belt under her tunic and folded her cloak over top of it. She closed the chest and headed to the exit ramp.
She was greeted by the mundane features of Captain Piett. He even saluted her with an honorable gesture. “Miss Jade, welcome aboard the Executor.”
“Where is Vader?”
“As I stated he is not available at this time. I was told it will only be less than a standard hour. We have an excellent assortment of refreshments in our lounge.”
“I do not need to be coddled, Captain. I am not just any visitor.”
“I thought before you landed we agreed you would wait.”
“That’s what you agreed to. I agreed only to land. Now, where is Vader?”
“Mara Jade, I am afraid I cannot allow you to interrupt Lord Vader’s personal time. I will not be responsible for the consequences.”
Knowing full well what consequences meant while serving on Vader’s ship, Mara assured him, “Let me worry about Vader. I’ll make sure you don’t suffocate by his hand. Now, I usually do not like repeating myself. After two times I get irritated.” She enunciated slowly, “Where...is...Vader?”
Piett hesitated visibly and meekly answered, “He is in his personal quarters.”
As she stepped passed him and the small band of stormtroopers at his guard, she said flippantly, “That was all you needed to say.”
Piett offered from behind her, “Do you need directions?”
She replied quick, “I know them.” The truth was that she memorized the layout of the Executor before it was built. It was an exercise that Palpatine had given her as part of her training. She knew even then that the Super Star Destroyer was being built for Lord Vader. She knew exactly where he kept to himself on his own ship. She dodged through Imperial troopers, officers, and droids to make a beeline to it.
She reached the double blast doors of Vader’s sanctuary on the Executor, which opened once she approached. She was surprised that there was neither a lock code for the doors, nor any security surrounding them. She figured Lord Vader considered himself the ultimate security. Anyone on board, save for the Admiral or Captain, would never risk their lives in coming in here with less than an emergency. She thought to herself as she entered the dark and gloomy chamber, What arrogance.
She stepped up to an enormous black globe that was dimly lit by track lighting in the ceiling. It gave off the same spooky feel as Vader himself. She judged the huge sphere for a moment. Here was the only place where Vader was truly cut off from the outside environment, but yet survive without his suit and helmet. She savored the irony.
Mara Jade had experienced only a handful of dealings with the Dark Lord over the years. Most of them had consisted of training exercises. On her first full mission she had been put second-in-charge behind Vader. It was after that particular mission when she had noticed a change in Vader’s demeanor. It bordered on obsession. She had witnessed first-hand his outburst a few years ago when Vader attacked her with no warning and spewing nonsense. And it all began with the name that a captured Rebel gave up.
Mara put it in her forethought to try and avoid mentioning the name. She performed her own research on the name, of course. With limited resources, the only reference she found was an old Jedi hero in the Clone Wars who was lost in a battle on what was then Coruscant. Apart from the fact that this Skywalker and Vader both used the Force, she couldn’t make any other connection. Except for one distinct similarity to her future destination. Tatooine. Perhaps the Emperor thought that Vader could shed light on that as well.
She stood in front of the black sphere impatiently. She called out, “Lord Vader. It is the Emperor’s Hand. I wish to discuss a matter with you.”
“Lord Vader, are you in there?” A pause of silence. “I am on a tight schedule, Vader. I don’t have time for games.” Still nothing.
She wandered her eyes to look around the sphere for something to gain his attention. A doorbell? A mallet? Then she saw towards the back of the sphere a computer station. She leapt at it hoping it would have a failsafe for opening the sphere or, at least, some kind of comm to call inside the sphere. She logged on with her personal login and an Imperial security screen was asking for a high-level passcode. It was an Aucsh Gamma level passcode and she figured the only official on board who would have that clearance was the Admiral. However, she grinned as she quickly typed in the universal passcode that got her into just about every Imperial system outside of Bastion or Yaga Minor without extensive slicing. As the Emperor’s Hand she was given certain liberties outside of the official commanders.
Within seconds she was in. She found the controls of the sphere. Or at least half control. She saw that the controls to open the sphere from this system on the outside would trigger an alarm through the chamber and therefore alert those on the command deck. It was for extreme emergencies such as a fire or sudden gravity failure. That, she did not wish for. She saw on the other side of the screen were controls for a cam that showed inside the sphere. She flipped it on and she was suddenly blinded. Inside the sphere was an uncharacteristic pure white. The sudden brightness against the dark background of the room almost hurt her eyes. She moved the cam slowly until she came upon a dark shape.
She maneuvered the cam up to gain a head shot of the Sith Lord. And she received one of the greatest shocks of her life up to that moment.
She had seen her share of battle scars on people’s bodies. She herself had been the cause of some of them over the last few years. Nothing could have prepared her for the grotesque image of Lord Darth Vader without his helmet. The combination of pale burnt skin and black-purple gashes across his face were enough to halt her appetite for the next week. She felt a small relief that he had not noticed the cam in his face for the moment and she was only treated to a quick side glimpse of his face. It would not have mattered anyway. His extreme looks would not be enough to register any semblance of recognition. No existing holograph could compare with what Vader would have looked like without his scars.
A hydraulic arm lowered the Dark Lord’s helmet onto his head. She could hear a faint hiss of air ejecting out indicating his suit was now hermetically sealed. His ignorance of her presence was short-lived as he turned slightly to face directly into the cam. She almost anticipated a sudden tightening of her throat. She wondered if she would be strong enough to repel his force.
The threat did not come physically, yet it came nonetheless through his words.
“I do hope for your sake, Jade, that the reason for this intrusion is worth more than your life.”
She answered lightening quick, “It may not be equal to my life, but it concerns a suggestion from the Emperor himself.”
She jumped back slightly as the whine to the motor of the sphere began and the two halves separated like giant black teeth. His seat rotated and she was now face to face with Lord Darth Vader. He questioned, “Is that so?”
“Yes”, she answered simply.
“What does my Master wish for you to tell me?”
“He suggested that you assist me on my next mission. It involves Llan Xun.”
“Ah, yes. The Imperial Intelligence officer accused of selling secrets to Rebel leaders. The last report I received placed him on Ryloth.”
“My research found the same, but that was a standard week ago. I had other matters to attend to on Vesper that were more important. My assessment of Xun suggests that he wouldn’t have stayed on Ryloth long. Rumor has it that he raised quite a credit level while running the casinos there.”
Vader acknowledged, “He has an outstanding balance with Black Sun, as well.”
“Not a good group to have a debt with. With Xun’s former position, I think Xizor is hesitant about taking him on his own.”
“Prince Xizor is never hesitant when it comes to opposing Imperial matters. Regardless, I am keeping an eye on him.” For a few moments, the only sound was Vader’s breathing mechanism echoing through the chamber. Then Vader boomed, “I have yet to hear evidence of why I was interrupted. If my Master suggested a collaboration with you, he would have contacted me himself.”
“Not necessarily. While I was finishing up on Vesper, he sent a message to me through the Force about new intel that proves Xun has left Ryloth. He now has been spotted on Tatooine.” For a briefiest of moments, she felt a slight hint of apprehension within Vader. She filed it away in her memory and continued speaking. “The Emperor suggested that I use your insight on the area. Apparently, he seems to believe you are familiar with it.”
After she spoke, there was a strange sound coming from Vader that sounded like coughing. Mara listened closer and analyzed the sound differently. Was Vader laughing?
He finally spoke. “The Emperor is testing you, Jade. However, at the same time, he is also testing me.” Vader took a long pause before he spoke again. “I can compile a list of coordinates to specific areas where Llan Xun may be hiding.”
Mara offered smugly, “I can do that on my own.”
“These are areas that you will not find with extensive research. I can gather the information within one standard hour. That is all I am willing to contribute.”
“You have that much confidence that I won’t fail?”
“Do not add to my words, young Jade. I have confidence only in the data I am prepared to give you. Be thankful I was in a generous mood to do even that.”
“I was under the impression that you would accompany me to Tatooine and assist.”
“Think about that, Jade. The presence of not only an Imperial Star Destroyer but my Star Destroyer would set off alarms for Xun to know that we are on to him. Tatooine has no defenses to speak of, so he would know that he would be the target and flee.”
“Maybe we can try a Bait and Switch. I can get to Tatooine from here in eighteen hours. I can infiltrate according to your coordinates and even if I don’t capture him, I can tag his ship. You arrive and he’ll flee, but I can follow.”
“Too much of a risk. Besides, I have an agenda of my own to deal with.” Vader gave another sound that sounded like a sigh. “I will compile the list. That is the only assistance I am willing to give.”
“Your Master thought it would be more.”
“He assumed wrong.”
“Fine. I wouldn’t want to be the one who denies his requests.”
“Leave that concern to me. Do not presume that you know everything between my Master and I. You know as much in that area as you know in the Force.”
She snapped, “I know enough in the Force.”
“You know all too little. You will always be a novice in the Force, young Jade. The Emperor can train you all he desires, but you will never fully understand the Dark Side.”
“Don’t need to understand the Dark Side. Only the Force in general. Is there that big of a difference between the Light and Dark sides of the Force?”
“By a wide margin.”
“And it gives you and the Emperor all this power,” she sneered.
“Do not be concerned primarily of power. It is the control of power that is significant.”
“Oh yes, the Rebellion sure had control of the Empire’s power. And they blew that up.”
“The Rebels rely too much on luck.”
“Luck? To make that shot in the thermal exhaust port? What star-fighter did you say made that? An Incom T-65 X-Wing? A Z-95 Headhunter couldn’t make that shot even if its targeting computer was modified. No, that shot would take more than blind luck.” She hesitated a moment, but mentioned it anyway. “Didn’t you say the pilot was using the Force?”
“I did. Not that it is any business of yours.”
“I make my own business. So, this Skywalker whom that Rebel mentioned months ago on Centares could be related to an Anakin Skywalker.”
“Where did you find that name?”
“I have my own skills in research. But I couldn’t find anything else.”
“You wouldn’t. The Emperor destroyed all data relating to the traitorous Jedi.”
“Exactly. The only thing I found on this Anakin was part of folklore and nothing concrete. Still...there is a strange coincidence.”
“It was believed that Anakin Skywalker was from Tatooine.” She let a pause in before she said, “Is that why you won’t go there with me? Or are you afraid you’ll get a sunburn?”
He spoke with even more edge than she thought possible. “My reasons should not concern you, Jade. I will start gathering the information that my Master insisted I give you. I do have more important matters to attend to. I do not have time for your missions for which you should be conducting.”
“Well, there goes your nomination for Mentor of the Year Award. That’s ok. I won’t need the Force for this mission. Llan Xun seems to believe that since he was a former Imperial Intelligence Officer he can just disappear. Too bad most Intelligence Officers of his level were not informed about the existence of the Emperor’s Hand.”
“I do admire your arrogance, young Jade. That is your edge. Your limited use of the Force is merely an extra.”
Mara began to get agitated. “That sounded like a masked compliment. Are you saying I don’t need the Force? All of my training all through my life had been for nothing? I admit that I am still learning. I will most likely never have the level of skill that you and the Emperor possess. As you said, I have other skills.”
“The element of stealth can only take you so far, Jade.”
“And how long will you be able to threaten people by choking them? That takes exertion on your part. And deep breaths, ironically. Something you can’t do without machinery.”
“It would be wise for you to not tread down this path, Mara Jade.”
“Oh, please. We both know you would never confront your Master if he found out you harmed me. I am one of very few beings in this galaxy, Lord Vader, who is not afraid of you. Unlike you, people don’t see me coming for them until it’s too late. I have been trained in all combat techniques and weapons. You seem to think that I’m expendable.”
“And you have the delusion that you are not.”
“Right. Oh, and included in the weapons training is all seven forms of lightsaber duel. Someday, you will see what I can do.”
The whine of the sphere’s motor started again, except this time there was a wedge on the bottom half that folded outward onto the floor. The Dark Lord stood up and thundered down the steps that the wedge created.
Mara Jade did not flinch, yet her instinct told her to flee. Instead, she stood her ground.
Vader strode over to a darkened area beside the sphere. Instantly, a series of lights came on which revealed a small practice area for combat. He stepped to the edge of the area and he held out his right hand. He called on the Force for his lightsaber and it entered into his hand from his belt. He ignited the blade and the snap-hiss echoed eerily inside the chamber.
Lord Vader raised his blade in an honorary gesture and uttered, “Why wait?”