"CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE"
Darth Rasche laid flat on his bed, inside the Emperor Palpatine Surgical Reconstruction Center, staring at the ceiling. When his eyes became weary at that particular sight, he tried to direct his gaze elsewhere . . . anywhere other than his hands. Or what used to be his hands. He did not know what to call them. Cybernetic implants? Freaks of nature?
Upon his arrival on Coruscant, the Sith Lord had been rushed to the medical facility to be fitted with new robotic hands. The droids – on the Emperor’s orders – kept him conscious during the entire operation. Rasche still recalled how the pain fueled his anger at being put in such a situation. Within three days, his body had rejected the new parts and Rasche nearly died from a serious infection. In the end, he survived, thanks to the Force and the medical droids. They fitted him with another pair of cybernetic hands . . . only this time, with more success.
Another sigh left the Sith Lord’s mouth. Rasche finally lowered his gaze and focused it upon his new artificial hands that now rested upon his lap. The gold-plated robotic fingers reminded him of those belonging to a protocol droid. Anger and a sense of loss welled inside him. He had not felt this desire to cry out in rage and lash at the universe for putting him in such a position, since that day he had first became a Sith Lord. Instead, he continued to stare at his new hands.
The sound of a door sliding open filled Rasche’s ears. He glanced up and saw his master enter the room. “Master, what are . . .?”
“How do you feel, Lord Rasche?” the wizened Sith Lord gently asked.
Rasche remained silent, as the older man’s question - for some reason - had fueled his anger. He muttered in a dark tone, “Fine.”
“Yes. I can see,” Lord Sidious replied caustically. “I thought you would like to know that our suspicions regarding Senator Dahlma had been correct. The liaison on Ord Mantell, Kalen Tom, managed to learn that she has become involved in this some new rebellion against the Empire. It seemed that she and a group of others were attending some kind of conference at Worlport. Tom managed to learn that the former Senator Yeb of Andalia had also attended. Unfortunately, he had failed to identify the others, due to the abysmal security on that planet. But do not worry, my young friend. One day, I shall learn their identities . . . and destroy them.”
Good luck. The thought bitterly rang in Rasche’s head. Solipo Yeb and a few others have managed to evade arrest for the past ten years. He remained silent and returned his gaze to the ceiling.
“You seem unusually quiet, Lord Rasche,” Palpatine continued. “In fact, I sense a great deal of unhappiness and anger within you.”
No longer able to hold back his resentment, Rasche lashed out. “How would you feel if you had been humiliated and your hands had been castrated?”
A flash of sympathy briefly appeared in the older Sith Lord’s yellow eyes. “Very angry. But you are no longer helpless. I have given you new hands. More powerful hands. With them, you will be able to . . .”
“Don’t you understand? Skywalker had defeated me! He helped Senator Dahlma escape and chopped off my hands! Why did you bother to save me? Why not simply find another apprentice?”
Palpatine regarded Rasche with a cryptic expression. “And why would I do that?”
Rasche glared at his master. “Why not? After all, you had recruited Feris Olin to kill me, several years ago.”
To the younger man’s satisfaction, surprise briefly flickered in Palpatine’s eyes. “How did you . . .?”
“Find out?” Rasche finished. “I am a Sith, my master. The Force was strong with me.”
An amused smile curled the Emperor’s mouth. “Yes. I should have realized that you might have learned about Master Olin.”
Rasche continued, “By the way, Senator Dahlma was not the only one who appeared on Ord Mantell. I also saw Olin. Along with three other people. One of them was a spacer I have heard of before. A Voranda Sen. She . . .”
“She was killed in the Moorja System,” Palpatine coolly finished. “Yes, I know about her. According to a spy, she had been attempting to recruit pilots for this new rebellion. I had wanted her captured alive, but the captain of the Invader ended up destroying her, instead. Very clumsy of him.”
But Rasche was not finished. “This Captain Sen may not be the only one who is dead.” He paused to ascertain the Emperor’s reaction. “I saw a stormtrooper shoot Olin, during my duel with Skywalker.”
Palpatine inhaled sharply. Then he quickly recovered with a barely sympathetic cluck. “Hmmm. Poor fellow. At least we have one less Jedi to worry about. And if I must be frank, Master Olin has not been a concern of mine for years. Not since he had failed to contact me, several years ago.”
The older man’s words sparked another surge of anger within Rasche. “So, you did conspire with Olin to kill me. Why? I no longer surved your purpose?”
“Of course not!” the Sith Master retorted with derision. “Master Olin had merely been a spy . . . and a tool. A test for you. How long has it been since you last killed a Jedi or any other Force user, before Ord Mantell? Judging from your failure to kill Skywalker, I would say it has been far too long, my young apprentice.” Rasche’s face grew hot with embarrassment, as Palpatine continued. “Unfortunately, Master Olin had abandoned my service before he could provide the test.”
His anger once again rising, Rasche shot back, “Then you should have abandoned me! Instead of giving me these . . . these . . . things!” He raised his new hands.
Palpatine’s yellow eyes acquired an intensity that Rasche had not seen in years. “I have no intention of letting you go my Lord Rasche. I need a strong apprentice, such as yourself, to help me continue the Sith’s presence in this galaxy!” Rasche opened his mouth to protest, but the Sith master continued. “You do not understand, do you? Skywalker had surrendered the chance to kill you, due to some misplaced compassion he had failed to rid himself of. A Lieutenant Nance had informed me of what had occurred inside that hangar. It took Skywalker quite a while to defeat you. Much longer than it would have taken him, ten years ago. This only tells me that he has grown weaker with the Force.” The Sith Lord spit out his last sentence with great contempt. “Perhaps you are not ready to face Skywalker, yet. But one day, my young friend . . .” Palpatine graced Rasche with a smile that radiated self-assurance. “One day, you will.”
Silence engulfed the room, punctuated by beeps from the medical droid. Rasche stared at his mentor, wondering if the latter had foreseen Skywalker’s death. Then again, Sidious could merely be trying to bolster his self-esteem. “I . . . could you . . .?”
“Enough questions, my friend. You need your rest.” The Emperor’s voice oozed with sympathy. “Once you are well, we shall see about returning to business, which includes dealing with this new rebel threat.”
Rasche nodded. “What about . . . Skywalker? Now that we know the name of his starship, shouldn’t we set about finding him?”
Palpatine sighed. “Ah yes. The former Darth Vader.” A cold smile curved his lips. “You should not concern yourself with him,” he replied. “At least not yet. Like I said before, one day . . . Skywalker will seek us out. And when that day arrives, you will deal with him. Permanently. Rest well, my Lord Rasche.” Palpatine nodded imperiously and left the room.
The Sith apprentice laid back on his bed and contemplated his master’s words. A memory from the past month came back to him. A memory that featured Anakin Skywalker’s haunted expression, when the latter hesitated to strike him down. Rasche looked forward to the day when he would reunite with his predecessor and destroy the man. But he hoped to accomplish something else – to learn why Skywalker had refrained from killing him.