Part III: Fortress Vader, The Gahenn Plains on Mustafar
1 BBY (5 years earlier…)
The shuttle’s rear ramp lowered, sending a blast of intense heat up into the cargo hold. Lieutenant Varon Seeda had never visited a molten planet before. The powerful odor of burning sulfur assaulted his senses, stinging his eyes and nostrils. His gray Imperial uniform felt uncomfortable, itchy and sticking to his skin.
He walked out into the heat to gain his bearing. In the distance, spires of volcanic rock jutted skyward across the landscape. Magma erupted in fountains of orange sporadically across the rocky terrain. Below the landing platform, a massive river of lava flowed from the base of the towering black spike known as Fortress Vader; the personal stronghold of the Emperor’s right hand and chief enforcer, Darth Vader.
His journey to Mustafar was shrouded in secrecy. These types of clandestine assignments were not suited for academics like him. Seeda was a research historian from the basement of the Imperial Reclamation Services, and though he was a trained Imperial Infantry officer, he was no soldier. He was too smart for that, preferring to fight using his mind rather than a blaster. Life at the Reclamation Service was usually quiet. At least it was until certain discoveries were made. Since then, his simple compulsory military career was overturned.
“Learn ancient languages, Seeda. You’re so smart,” he mocked to himself. “Bollocks. I should have gone on to Lothal with the 7th Fleet. Anywhere but here.“
The most dangerous condition he’s faced in a five-year military career was a Mynock attaching itself to the power cable in his apartment building on Coruscant. Now, he was crossing the molten surface of Mustafar seeking audience with the most terrifying soldier in the Empire.
In his left hand he carried a black reinforced-steel case attached to his wrist by cuff and locked in some way he could not discern. Instructions from his commander on Coruscant demanded Seeda to protect it with his life. Deliver the package to Lord Vader directly and no other. From that moment forward, two of the Emperor’s personal guard were assigned to him and they have not left his side since.
He debarked and advanced to the reception vestibule at the bottom of the landing pad. His pace quickened toward the door, hoping to shorten his exposure to the unbearable high temperature. Hoping Lord Vader would see the value in his intellectual services rather than a simple courier, he steeled himself and pushed the intercom button at the personnel door.
“Seeda, Lieutenant Varon. Serial TTN-37388. Reporting as ordered to Lord Vader’s command.”
No response. He tried again with the same result. He walked backward a few feet to look over the doorway for a security monitor but saw none. “Perhaps no one is home,” he mumbled. Pulling in a deep breath of super-heated air, he bellowed out towards the seemingly empty tower.
Nothing. No activity to be seen anywhere. His voice echoed off the empty canyon walls. The only reply was the hiss of gurgling lava below. He approached the door again, leaning closer to the intercom and pushed the button again, speaking loudly.
“This is Lieutenant Seeda, TTN-37-“
Suddenly, the heavy blast doors slid open, revealing the scarred armor of a Trooper captain by his rank plaque, flanked by two Magma Troopers. Seeda saluted smartly and came to attention before him.
“Lieutenant Varon Seeda of the Imperial Reclamation Service reporting under royal order of the Emperor. I carry a message for Lord Vader, and am newly assigned to his service.” He pulled a holodisk containing his orders from his tunic pocket and extended it to the captain, who did not seem at all interested.
Captain Junus, the garrison commander of Fortress Vader, made it his business to know all the comings and goings involving Darth Vader and those who served him. This Lieutenant Seeda was not among them. He looked down at the disk, yet did not take it. He stood for a moment, gripping his rifle tightly while sizing up the scrawny officer. Finally, his eyes came to rest on the secure message case.
“Neither I nor Lord Vader received notice of your impending arrival, or any such orders,” came the electronic voice from behind Junus’s helmet.
“My lord is not accepting visitors at the moment. However, I will deliver your message. You may wait here at his pleasure.” Junus extended his hand to take the locked case, not the holodisk. Seeda recoiled.
“I beg your pardon sir, but my orders are to deliver the message only to Lord Vader personally,” he said, slipping the case back behind him. Sweat began running down his brow and his hands began to shake. “I am ordered to protect it with my life, placing it in his hands only. With respect, I must see him immediately.”
The Magma Troopers both brought their DLT-19 heavy rifles to bear. Captain Junus withdrew his hand, folding his arms behind his back. His face was hidden, but no doubt his expression changed from irritation to anger.
“I’ve no time for games, Lieutenant. You arrive unannounced, claim to be sent by the Emperor himself, and carry a shielded case which you will not surrender for inspection. Do you have any idea how many assassination attempts there have been on Lord Vader while I have served him?”
“No sir, I don—”
“Eighty-seven,” came his sharp rebuke.
“Eighty-seven times, enemies of the Empire have sent their worst. Capital ships, X-Wing fighters, thermal detonators, assassins, saboteurs, bounty hunters, spies, droids and one particularly nasty Rathtar hidden inside a Bantha carcass. Eighty-seven times we have thwarted them all.” The tone of his voice increased angrily with each item he listed. “Just because you drop out of hyperspace aboard an Imperial shuttle does not make you any less of a threat. How am I assured you are not here for attempt number eighty-eight? Why would Lord Vader, the right hand of the Emperor himself, not be notified about a messenger of such importance?
By what authority would you ever think I would allow you access without passing through proper security protocol?” The Troopers took an aggressive step forward. That was a mistake.
Behind him, the nose ramp lowered again. Down marched two crimson-clad Royal Guards in quick lockstep, brandishing their signature force-pikes. They swiftly crossed the landing pad and took position on either side of the lieutenant, menacingly dropping their pikes into attack position. The Magma Troopers and Junus took a slight step backward. Seeda, taking this opportunity to feel more important than he had ever been, bowed up to his full height and pushed his chest out.
“These are Captains Vario and Krest of the Emperor’s Royal Guard. I suppose my authority derives through them. Now Captain, if you please, or if you don’t please, I care not either way. Take me to see Lord Vader. Now.”
The throng moved to a holding room just inside the entrance. The room was black metal from floor to ceiling, the standard Imperial build. Captain Junus stood at at the conference table across from the Lieutenant and motioned for him to sit. He was still flanked by his Magma Troopers, while Seeda sat between the two towering red sentinels. The message box was set on the table between them, still attached to Seeda’s arm by chain. Junus held his hand down on the intercom panel.
“My Lord, if you’re there, please forgive my interruption. A shuttle has arrived from Coruscant with a messenger claiming to be here on behalf of the Emperor. He states he will only give the message to you, personally. I await your orders.”
A tense silence descended between them. Seeda tapped his fingers on the table with a smug grin. He was not usually disrespectful to superiors, yet he was enjoying this role reversal. Junus pushed the intercom button again.
“My Lord… your orders, sir. Shall I hold them?”
Near the top of the fortress, the shuttle’s arrival did not escape the notice of Darth Vader, even while meditating in his chambers. He detected the force-sensitive royal guards as soon as the ship entered orbit over Mustafar. As he donned the final piece of his helmet, the intercom buzzed a final time.
“Lord Vader, this is Captain Junus. Forgive my interruption. A shuttle has arrived with a message for you. The messenger claims to be sent from the Emperor, himself. Shall I hold them?“
Still no answer. Seeda continued drumming his fingertips on the cold table surface, knowing full well the sound irritated the Troopers. After several minutes of silence, he stood and took up the case as if to leave. “Does Lord Vader treat all royal messengers with such contempt?” asked Seeda, feeling even more confident now than he did on the platform outside. Suddenly, his throat felt tight, as if the collar of his uniform jacket was shrinking.
“I treat all unannounced visitors with such contempt, and you are no different, Lieutenant. I find your lack of humility… insulting,” came the terrifying mechanized voice of Darth Vader from the doorway behind.
He held his clenched fist before him, stretched out toward where Lieutenant Seeda was now gasping for air and clutching his throat. Vader swept into the room, black cape flowing behind him, and advanced toward Seeda with a purposeful step. Junus and the Magma Troopers quickly snapped up to attention, startled by the Sith lord’s stealthy arrival. Only the Royal Guards remained unphased by his presence. Finally, Vader opened his fist, allowing the air to once again fill Seeda’s collapsing lungs.
“M…my..my lord, for.. forgive my insolence,” he said, clearing his throat and pulling at his collar. “It is an honor to…” Seeda started, and was abruptly cut off.
“You may dispense with the pleasantries, Lieutenant. What is your message?” Vader demanded.
His mask was within inches of Seeda’s face. He could see his own terrified reflection in the black pools of Vader’s gaze. He nervously glanced over at Junus, and then back to Vader. “Lord Vader, my orders were quite clear. This message is for you alone. By order of the Emperor.”
Keeping his masked gaze on Lieutenant Seeda, he waved his black-gloved hand dismissively. “Thank you, Captain. You and your men are relieved.” Junus didn’t like the order, but he knew better than to protest. He filed out with his troopers through the same door Vader entered, closing it behind him.
“Now,” Vader started. “Your message. Quickly.”
“Ye..yes, mi’lord.” Seeda stuttered out. He pulled a small key from his pocket, unclasping the box from his wrist and placing it before him on the table. “The Emperor has ordered me to give you this and instructs you are to open it only aboard the shuttle once we have left orbit. Though I am not privy to the contents, I have been ordered to accompany you and to assist however I can once we arrive at our destination.”
“And what is our destination?” Vader asked.
“Again, my lord, I am not given such information. I am told only to serve you to and to encourage our immediate departure. The shuttle pilot has the destination pre-programmed, and even now awaits your arrival. She has the coordinates for your review once we’re away.”
Vader stood in silence a moment. He glanced to the royal guards and back to the message case on the table. It bore the official seal of the Emperor, signifying it was truly a top-secret communication which would require his own validation code to see its contents. He reached out with the Force. Though the scrawny lieutenant appeared confident, he could sense the fear coursing through him.
Seeda was telling the truth.
He then bent his feelings toward the message box, looking for traps. Though he could not discern the message content, he sensed a non-descript MK-V Sienar holoprojector inside. Nothing else. Strange of his master to send such a simple device in place of their usual formal communications. He also knew the Emperor to be cautious with highly sensitive matters. In recent days, the rebels found ways to decipher the Empire’s encryption codes. Until a new mechanism for secrecy was instituted, no coded transmissions were safe from interception. After a few moments of contemplation, he glowered over the lieutenant.
“Make preparations. We leave within the hour.” And with that, he swept out of the room leaving Seeda still rubbing at his throat.
Once Lord Vader boarded, the SFS-204 ion engines roared to life, and they were quickly in orbit above Mustafar. He stood at the threshold of the flight deck observing the crew’s actions. In his right hand was the force-locked case containing his master’s coded message. His left rested at his belt, just above his lightsaber. Seeing that all was in order, he descended the ramp into the cargo hold.
At the far end, the two crimson-clad sentinels of the Emperor’s guard stood motionless except for the gentle sway of the ship’s movement out of the upper atmosphere. For his master to part with two of his precious guards, this mission must be important indeed. However, he disdained the overabundance of caution.
The mighty Sith Lord, Darth Vader, had no need of bodyguards.
Once orbit had been achieved, Vader retired to a private state room aboard the shuttle to view his master’s message. He laid the case before him and outstretched his hand. He sensed the locking mechanism, using the force as his key to manipulate the durasteel bolt holding it shut. Every electrical impulse in the room touched his senses. He reached out with his mind and lowered the lights to a dim glow. After a moment, the latch flipped, and the lid slowly revealed the contents. The small holo-projector disk floated across and into the cradle at the center of the table, where a miniature visage of Emperor Palpatine erupted upward and began to speak.
“Lord Vader, you will travel to the moon of Jedha and oversee harvesting of the remaining Kyber Crystals within the temple at Jedha City. The Death Star project is stalled and depends on your success. Commander Kyson has failed to quell the rebels there, led by the outlaw Saw Gerrera, and is grossly behind schedule. Remind him of the price of failure when you take command.”
The recording flickered briefly, scrambling the image of the Emperor for a moment, but his voice continued without pause.
“The rebel leader is a target of opportunity; however, he is not your objective. My agents within Jedha City have made a discovery. Two artifacts have been recovered within the Temple of the Kyber that are of great import to me, and to us; a holocron and a text. I am certain you feel the disturbance as acutely as I. It seems they have found something we have been searching for after all this time, my old friend. The Force trembles with anticipation of the greatness we are about to achieve. Only you can I trust to bring what they have found to me. Make haste. Secure the artifacts and see to the extraction of the remaining kyber crystals. Once the excavation is back on schedule, bring the tome and holocron to me on Coruscant.”
The tone of Palpatine’s voice then turned dour. Vader sensed the uneasiness in his master’s next words.
“A usurper has risen from the Unknown Regions. I have dispatched the 7th Fleet to eliminate him. I will not suffer another rebellion. He will be dealt with swiftly. Until he is crushed however, he could be a threat to us. Speak of this discovery to no one, not even your most trusted servants, until you are in possession of what has been found. Secrecy must ever be our ally.”
The recording paused a moment as the shuttle settled into its hyperspace lane, suspending the tiny blue image of his Emperor like a marionette puppet before him. The radiation shielding required during travel through hyperspace often played havoc with hologram signals; a necessary annoyance Vader had dealt with since his early days of hyperspace travel during the Clone Wars.
Vader crossed arms in contemplation. A usurper from the Unknown Regions?
If the Emperor has sent the vaunted 7th Fleet to dispatch him, he must be more than a passing annoyance to the Empire. Although he and Thrawn competed for Palpatine’s favor, Vader held his exceptionally skilled rival in high regard. This new threat would receive no mercy at the hands of the Emperor’s favored pet Chiss admiral. Who could present such a challenge that required this much firepower to quell? He noted to further investigate the matter when he arrived on Coruscant. After a moment, the hologram started again.
“You will find the academic skills of young Lieutenant Seeda useful for this mission. He is fluent in the ancient Sith languages spoken on Ziost and Korriban. Plagueis often scribed his notes in the old tongue to protect them from prying eyes. Keep Seeda alive. We will need him. I have foreseen it. I have also sent two promising acolytes to assist you. Captains Vario and Krest have proven capable warriors loyal to me. No doubt you have discerned they are force-sensitive. You will find that trait beneficial on this assignment, my apprentice. Use them as you see fit. Should they survive this mission, I shall consider them for my Sovereign Protector corps.
Until then, they are at your disposal. Do what must be done.”
The image fades and the holo-projector falls silent. Darth Vader can hardly believe it. For years, his master has promised they would tear the galaxy apart to find the writings of Darth Plagueis the Wise. The Emperor said his former master would tirelessly collect and record all of his research into immortality within a tome and holocron, both of which had been lost to time.
Could these truly be the lost works of Darth Plagueis? Have they at last been found?
The looming threat from beyond the Outer Rim has divided the attention of the Emperor, this could be his opportunity to be free of his yoke forever …
… to be in control his own destiny …
… to rule the galaxy as he saw fit …
… and with Padme, at long last, again by his side.
He settled his resolve. The sooner these crystals were harvested, the sooner he could travel to Coruscant and learn the truth of this discovery. He would not be denied this time. The crackling voice of the shuttle pilot came over the intercom, punching through his daydream and interrupting his thoughts. “My Lord, we’ve entered hyperspace and will arrive at Jedha in four hours. Will you require regular updates?”, she asked.
“I do not, commander,” he replied in annoyance. “I do not wish to be disturbed until we enter orbit. Is that clear?”
“Ye… yes sir,” came a timid reply.
“And Commander, find Doctor Aphra. I may have need of her services.”
“Right away, Lord Vader.”
Next time, in Lifeboat, Part IV…
Vario awakes! The mysterious injured guard shares his story. Plus, the twelve surviving Imperials aboard the shuttle learn where the final piece of Krest’s mysterious puzzle resides, and what they have to do to get it. Also, we learn just how deep Aloo’s treachery went, and Meera Dyre discovers she is more than just an Imperial Medical Officer!
The preceding is a work of fan fiction based upon and utilizing locations, characters, and/or plot points from the Star Wars universe, originally created by George Lucas and trademarked to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The author makes no claim whatsoever of ownership of the Star Wars name, characters represented, or the Star Wars universe generally. This work is created of the author’s own imagination and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It does not purport to be an “official” Star Wars story or part of existing Star Wars canon in any way. The author is not profiting financially in any way as the result of the creation or publication of this piece of fan fiction.