Vader completed his meditation and opened his eyes. His pale, flame-savaged face stared back at him from out of the reflective black transparisteel of his pressurized meditation chamber. Without the neural connection to his armor, he was conscious of the stumps of his legs, the ruin of his arms, the perpetual pain in his flesh. He welcomed it. Pain fed his hate, and hate fed his strength. Once, as a Jedi, he had meditated to find peace. Now he meditated to sharpen the edges of his anger.
He stared at his reflection a long time. His injuries had deformed his body, left it broken, but they’d perfected his spirit, strengthening his connection to the Force. Suffering had birthed insight.
An automated metal arm held the armor’s helmet and faceplate over his head, a doom soon to descend. The eyes of the faceplate, which intimidated so many, were no peer to his unmasked eyes. From within a sea of scars, his gaze simmered with controlled, harnessed fury. The secondary respirator, still attached to him, always attached to him, masked the ruins of his mouth, and the sound of his breathing echoed off the walls.
Drawing on the Force, he activated the automated arm. It descended and the helmet and faceplate wrapped his head in metal and plasteel, the shell in which he existed. He welcomed the spikes of pain when the helmet’s neural needles stabbed into the flesh of his skull and the base of his spine, unifying his body, mind, and armor to form an interconnected unit.
When man and machine were one, he no longer felt the absence of his legs or arms, the pain of his flesh, but the hate remained, and the rage still burned. Those, he never relinquished, and he never felt more connected to the Force than when his fury burned.
With an effort of will, he commanded the onboard computer to link the primary respirator to the secondary, and to seal the helmet at the neck, encasing him fully. He was home.
Once, he’d found the armor hateful, foreign, but now he knew better. He realized that he’d always been fated to wear it, just as the Jedi had always been fated to betray their principles. He’d always been fated to face Obi-Wan and fail on Mustafar—and in failing, learn.
The armor separated him from the galaxy, from everyone, made him singular, freed him from the needs of the flesh, the concerns of the body that once had plagued him, and allowed him to focus solely on his relationship to the Force.
It terrified others, he knew, and that pleased him. Their terror was a tool he used to accomplish his ends. Yoda once had told him that fear led to hate and hate to suffering. But Yoda had been wrong. Fear was a tool used by the strong to cow the weak. Hate was the font of true strength. Suffering was not the result of the rule of the strong over the weak, order was. By its very existence, the Force mandated the rule of the strong over the weak; the Force mandated order. The Jedi had never seen that, and so they’d misunderstood the Force and been destroyed. But Vader’s Master saw it. Vader saw it. And so they were strong. And so they ruled.
He rose, his breathing loud in his ears, loud in the chamber, his image huge and dark on the reflective wall.
A wave of his gauntleted hand and a mental command rendered the walls of his ovate meditation chamber transparent instead of reflective. The chamber sat in the center of his private quarters aboard the Perilous. He looked out and up through the large viewport that opened out onto the galaxy and its numberless worlds and stars.
It was his duty to rule them all. He saw that now. It was the manifest will of the Force. Existence without proper rule was chaos, disorder, suboptimal. The Force—invisible but ubiquitous—bent toward order and was the tool through which order could and must be imposed, but not through harmony, not through peaceful coexistence. That had been the approach of the Jedi, a foolish, failed approach that only fomented more disorder. Vader and his Master imposed order the only way it could be imposed, the way the Force required that it be imposed, through conquest, by forcing the disorder to submit to the order, by bending the weak to the will of the strong.
The history of Jedi influence in the galaxy was a history of disorder and the sporadic wars disorder bred. The history of the Empire would be one of enforced peace, of imposed order.
A pending transmission caused the intercom to chime. He activated it and a hologram of the aquiline-faced, gray-haired commander of the Perilous, Captain Luitt, formed before him.
“Lord Vader, there’s been an incident at the Yaga Minor shipyards.”
“What kind of incident, Captain?”
The lights from the bridge computers blinked or didn’t as dictated by the pulse of the ship and the gestures of the ragtag skeleton crew of freedom fighters who staffed the stations. Cham stood behind the helm and looked alternately from the viewscreen to the scanner as he mentally recited the words he’d long ago etched on the stone of his mind so that he could, as needed, read them and be reminded:
Not a terrorist, but a freedom fighter. Not a terrorist, but a freedom fighter.
Cham had fought for his people and Ryloth for almost a standard decade. He’d fought for a free Ryloth when the Republic had tried to annex it, and he fought now for a free Ryloth against the Empire that was trying to strip it bare.
A free Ryloth.
The phrase, the concept, was the polestar around which his existence would forever turn.
Because Ryloth was not free.
As Cham had feared back during the Clone Wars, one well-intentioned occupier of Ryloth had given way to another, less well-intentioned occupier, and a Republic had, through the alchemy of ambition, been transformed into an Empire.
An Imperial protectorate, they called Ryloth. On Imperial star charts Cham’s homeworld was listed as “free and independent,” but the words could only be used that way with irony, else meaning was turned on its head.
Because Ryloth was not free.
Orn Free Taa, Ryloth’s obese representative to the lickspittle, ceremonial Imperial Senate, validated the otherwise absurd Imperial claims through his treasonous acquiescence to them. But then Ryloth had no shortage of Imperial collaborators, or those willing to lay supine before stormtroopers.
And so . . . Ryloth was not free.
But it would be one day. Cham would see to it. Over the years, he’d recruited and trained hundreds of like-minded people, most but not all of them Twi’leks. He’d cultivated friendly contacts and informants across Ryloth’s system, established hidden bases, hoarded matériel. Over the years, he’d planned and executed raid after raid against the Imperials, cautious and precise raids, true, but effective, nevertheless. Dozens of dead Imperials gave mute testimony to the growing effectiveness of the Free Ryloth movement.
Not a terrorist, but a freedom fighter.
He put a reassuring hand on the shoulder of the helm, felt the tension in the clenched muscles of her shoulder. Like most of the crew, like Cham, she was a Twi’lek, and Cham doubted she’d ever flown anything larger than a little gorge hopper, certainly nothing like the armed freighter she steered now.
“Just hold her steady, helm,” Cham said. “We won’t need anything fancy out of you.”
Standing behind Cham, Isval added, “We hope.”
The helm exhaled and nodded. Her lekku, the twin head-tails that extended down from the back of her head to her shoulders, relaxed slightly to signify relief. “Aye, sir. Nothing fancy.”
Isval stepped beside Cham, her eyes on the viewscreen.
“Where are they?” she grumbled, the darkening blue of her skin and the agitated squirm of her lekku a reflection of her irritation. “It’s been days and no word.”
Isval always grumbled. She was perpetually restless, a wanderer trapped in a cage only she could see, pacing the confines over and over, forever testing the strength of the bars. She reminded him of his daughter, Hera, whom he missed deeply when he allowed himself such moments. Cham valued Isval’s need for constant motion, for constant action. They were the perfect counterpoints to each other: her rash, him deliberate; her practical, him principled.
“Peace, Isval,” he said softly. He’d often said the same thing to Hera.
He held his hands, sweaty with stress despite his calm tone, clasped behind his back. He eyed the bridge data display. Almost time. “They’re not late, not yet. And if they’d failed, we’d have had word by now.”
Her retort came fast. “If they’d succeeded, we’d have had word by now, too. Wouldn’t we?”
Cham shook his head, his lekku swaying. “No, not necessarily. They’d run silent. Pok knows better than to risk comm chatter. He’d need to skim a gas giant to refuel, too. And he might have needed to shake pursuit. They had a lot of space to cover.”
“He would’ve sent word, though, something,” she insisted. “They could have blown up the ship during the hijack attempt. They could all be dead. Or worse.”
She said the words too loudly, and the heads of several of the crew came up from their work, looks of concern on their faces.
“They could, but they’re not.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “Peace, Isval. Peace.”
She grimaced and swallowed hard, as if trying to rid herself of a bad taste. She pulled away from him and started to pace anew. “Peace. There’s peace only for the dead.”
Cham smiled. “Then let’s stick with war for at least a bit longer, eh?”
His words stopped her in her pacing and elicited one of her half smiles, and a half smile was as close as Isval ever got to the real thing. He had only a vague idea of what had been done to her when she’d been enslaved, but he had a firm sense that it must have been awful. She’d come a long way.
“Back to it, people,” he ordered. “Stay sharp.”
Silence soon filled all the empty space on the bridge. Hope hung suspended in the quiet—fragile, brittle, ready to be shattered with the wrong word. The relentless gravity of waiting drew eyes constantly to the data display that showed the time. But still nothing.
Cham had stashed the freighter in the rings of one of the system’s gas giants. Metal ore in the rock chunks that made up the rings would hide the ship from any scans.
“Helm, take us above the plane of the rings,” Cham said.
Copyright © 2016 by Paul S. Kemp. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.