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Present day . . .
From the depths of meditation came a man's voice.
"You're running out of executioners, Baron!"
Starkiller opened his eyes. He knew that voice. It tugged at parts of him that had lain dormant for a long timeor never genuinely existed at all, depending on one's viewpoint.
He shied away from both memory and contemplation. There was no point wasting energy on either when his very survival was at stake. How many days he had been down the pit he no longer knew, but in that time he had neither eaten nor slept. His enemy wasn't physical in the sense of a foe he could strike down or manipulate. It was himselfhis fallible body, his weak mind, his faltering spirit. He would endure and emerge whole, or never emerge at all.
Such was the life of Darth Vader's secret apprentice.
"He is dead."
"Then he is now more powerful than ever."
More voices. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Kneeling, he placed his manacled hands on the slick metal surface below him and concentrated on hearing the world outside.
Long stretches of isolation had attuned him to the cloning facility's many moods. Through the metal he heard a relentless hiss that could only be rain. Sharp cracking sounds were lightning, coming and going in staccato waves. Rolling rumbles were thunder, and a deeper note still was the song of seabed-hugging currents that circled the world.
He was on Kamino. Starkiller was sure of that much. He had been reborn on the distant waterworld, where a significant percentage of the Emperor's stormtroopers were grown. Here it was that he would live and grow strong, or die weak and unmourned. Every hardship, every hurdle, was one step closer to full mastery of his fate. That was the lesson underlying all lessons.
A new note entered the planet's endless song: the scream of a TIE advanced prototype starfighter. Angular and fleet, with bent vanes, it entered the atmosphere with a whip-crack sonic boom and descended on a bold, high-energy descent toward the facility.
Starkiller tensed. He knew that ship's sound and could sense the well-practiced hand behind its controls. He heard stormtroopers marching quickly in response to their master's electronic summons, calling orders to one another as they went. Blast doors opened and closed with booming thuds. The facility woke from its unattended slumber.
He didn't move as the TIE fighter landed. He didn't open his eyes as two heavy, booted feet dropped onto the platform and began the long walk through the facility. He breathed at a steady pace through the whine of the turbolift and the hiss of doors opening. A ring of red lights at the top of the pit came on, and although he felt the light against his hunched back, he didn't look up.
He heard breathing, mechanical and regular. Heavy footsteps came to the very lip of the pit, and stopped.
"You're alive," said Darth Vader.
At the voice of his former Master, Starkiller looked up, blinking against the light. Vader's boots were three meters above him, barely visible behind the lights and the grate that separated the pit from the dark room beyond. The Dark Lord loomed like a shadow, a black hole in the shape of a robed man.
Starkiller's throat worked. It was so dry he could barely talk at all.
"How long this time?"
"Thirteen days. Impressive."
The compliment was hard-won. It ground out of the triangular grille covering Vader's mouth and fell on Starkiller's ears like dust.
"The Force gives me all I need."
The hint of praise turned to warning, as it did so often.
Starkiller lowered his head. He knew what was required. The weeks of training and isolation he had endured made that exceedingly clear.
"The dark side, I mean, my Master."
One gloved hand moved. The grate flew open.
"Come," said the dark figure above him.
The metal floor beneath Starkiller lurched and began to ascend. He forced his leg muscles to unlock from their long kneeling position, and stood to meet Darth Vader upright and unbowed.
The room above was sparsely furnished, with no windows, just one exitthe turboliftand little light. Shadows cast by terminals and floor lamps made its very dimensions ambiguous, but Starkiller knew from long training exercises that the room was circular and its walls were impenetrable. He flexed his fingers, yearning for a lightsaber to hold. Muscle memory was keener than any other kind. Even with the new skills Darth Vader had taught him, his hands wanted to fight the way he knew best.
At the very edge of his vision stood several skeletal PROXY droids, awaiting activation. If he was lucky, he would be unshackled and allowed to duel some of them. If not . . .
The lift ground to a halt. Vader stepped back to study him. Starkiller felt the keen eye of the Sith Lord on his gaunt form even through the layers of durasteel, obsidian, and plasteel that covered the man's face. Something was different. Although nothing had been said, he could tell that this was no ordinary training session.
He waited. There was no hurrying Darth Vader.
"I have a mission for you."
"Yes, my Master."
"Starkiller's former conspirator has been captured."
He experienced a moment of confusion. Then his memories stirred, providing a name. The name of the one who had lured him away from the dark side and to his death.
The same voice that had disturbed him from his meditation . . .
"Vader thinks he's turned you. But I can sense your future, and Vader isn't part of it. I sense only . . . me?"
"General Kota," he said, struggling to keep himself anchored to the present.
"Yes. You will travel to Cato Neimoidia and execute him."
"And then will my training be complete, Master?"
"You will not be ready to face the Emperor until you have faced a true Jedi Master."
The voice was Darth Vader's, but again from another time, another memory. The present-day Darth Vader hadn't spoken at all.
Starkiller put his manacled hands to his head and turned away, lest his disconcertion be exposed. No matter how he tried, no matter how he concentrated, the past simply wouldn't leave him alone.
Vader's close attention hadn't ebbed. "You are still haunted by visions."
"Yes." There was no point denying it. "Yes, my Master."
"Tell me what you see."
He didn't know where to start. Thirteen days, this time, he had stayed motionless in the pit, subjected to visions and hallucinations through all his senses: strange odors, fleeting touches, voices calling him, sights he could never have imagined. He tried to ignore them, and when he couldn't ignore them, he tried to piece them together instead. Neither was entirely possible, and every attempt hurt so badly he despaired of it ever ending.
"Sometimes," he said, falteringly, "I smell a forest on fire."
"I see the general falling, and feel the ground shake as a starship crashes around me. And I hear a womana woman's voicewhen I try to sleep." He swallowed. This was the most painful recollection of all. "I can't understand what she's saying. Do you know who she is?"
A pleading note had entered his voice, and he hated himself for it.
"They are the memories of a dead man." Vader came closer, his physical presence lending weight to his words. "A side effect of the accelerated cloning process and the memory flashes used to train you. They will fade."
"What if they don't?"
"Then you will be of no use to me."
Starkiller straightened. For the first time, that fact had been said aloud. He had always known it was so; Darth Vader wasn't renowned for his charity. But to hear it stated so baldlythat this Starkiller, this clone, would be disposed of like some faulty droid if he didn't pull himself together soonhad a profoundly focusing effect.
Not for long.
"Try the Corellian razor hounds."
That was a new voice, one he hadn't heard before. He winced, and knew that by wincing he had effectively doomed himself.
"Starkiller's emotions made him weak," the Dark Lord said. "If you are to serve me, you must be strong."
What form of service that might take, Darth Vader had never said. To take the former Starkiller's place, he presumed, as a weapon that could be aimed at the Emperor then Vader's enemies whenever he commanded. From treacherous commanders to perhaps the Emperor himselfthat was how it had been, and how he assumed it would be now. For the moment, however, that didn't matter. The new Starkiller wanted only to live.
"I am strong, my Master, and I am getting stronger."
Vader stepped behind him and waved a hand. Metal complained as the manacles dropped from Starkiller's wrists and hit the floor with a boom.
Numerous pairs of eyes lit up in the shadows. The PROXY droids were activating. Starkiller's fists balled in readiness. He had defeated their training programs over and over again. There wasn't a Jedi simulation that could beat him.
But this was different. Even as Darth Vader provided him with his weaponstwo lightsabers with matched crystals, producing identical red bladeshe saw that he wouldn't be fighting Jedi Knights this time. The targets stepping out of the shadows wore uniforms not dissimilar in color to the Sith's ancient enemy, but these were ordinary men armed with nothing more than blasters.
He had seen such armor before, in the memories of the original Starkiller's life. Men like this had fought him in a TIE fighter factory high above Nar Shaddaa. They had been on Corellia, too. He remembered the places clearly, even if he couldn't put them in context. The uniforms weren't Imperial.