THE APPRENTICE by Linda T.


To be the Imperial Governor of the planet Commenor was unlike anything else.

Commenor, like Alderaan, Corellia and finally Coruscant made up what was known as the Galactic Centre. It was from these worlds that earliest institution of galactic unit was founded and most of the civilizations that were spawned from them were usually of the oldest races in the galaxy. Commenor was no exception. It had been a Republic stronghold and now under the iron fist of its latest serving Imperial Governor, it had become a focal point for the Imperial war machine. To look out a window upon the Commenor Prime, the largest city on the planet and its capital, was to look out into the face of the fading Republic as the wheels on its evolution turned it slowly into the model of Imperial efficiency. It was a society of excess, mechanized, urbanized and completely confident in its superiority over lesser worlds. Its citizens not merely believed Palpatine was their Emperor but they absorbed his politics and the grandeur of his vision for the Empire like it was an elixir that would give the m immortality.

It was a heavily guarded bastion of Imperial power. For the man who controlled it, who belonged to an elite inner circle, shrouded in secrecy, composed of other regional Imperial governors, Grand Moffs, Grand Admirals and one Sith Lord, it was to be in the reach of unspeakable power. The inner circle of the Imperial Security Elite was the real power of Palpatine's rule. Even though the masses believed that the Imperial Senate made the decisions about the Empire, those in the Rebel Alliance and the higher echelons of Imperial power knew that the body was a paper tiger. It was a showcase to lull the insecure into the belief that some semblance of the old order still remained. The Security Elite were bound by their ambition to serve Palpatine and they did it well.

William Richmond had never chose to become part of this circle but there were forces at work in his life that had given him little choice but to play the role of the loyalist. Whatever was asked of him, he did and in doing so, hid away his own secrets although sometimes he hoped that perhaps the Emperor did know the truth and considered him valuable enough not to mind. That thought had comforted Richmond for a long time. He sustained that belief by performing his best for the Empire even though there were many nights when sleep did not come easy and there would be a day of reckoning that no amount of power or money would ever put right.

Unfortunately for him, the day of reckoning he hoped would come when he had had shed his mortal existence made its appearance rather prematurely. When he had been told that the super star destroyer Avenger had slipped into orbit above the planet, Richmond knew that there was only one explanation for its presence in Commenor space. The Avenger was the pride of Imperial fleet, the first of the super star destroyers to emerge from the Sluis Van shipyards that had driven the dreadnought class warships into obsolescence. It was virtually undefeatable by any other warship that currently flew the space lanes and the craft was well suited in its disposition for its master.

If the Avenger was orbiting Commenor then so was Darth Vader.

An honor guard had been hastily assembled to greet Vader's shuttle when it arrived on Commenor. Imperial troops stood at attention, flanking the length of carpet that made up a walkway for Vader when he stepped off the ramp of his ship to be greeted by Richmond and his entourage. Richmond tried to present an image of complete confidence at this unexpected visit even though inside he was quivering in fear. Vader did not make personal visits nor was he sent on trivial errands. If he was here, it was a matter of great importance and while ambition told Richmond to take advantage of the opportunity, something inside him was uneasy. As he watched the gleaming white-hulled Imperial shuttle sweep into the landing bay, he tried to calm himself because his fear would show to Vader and he could not afford that. He could see the tension of his junior officers as they awaited the arrival of the Sith Lord and for singular moment, shared more in common with them then their entire service together.

The ship hovered over the steel deck briefly before lowering onto the floor with a loud metal clang that seemed to make everyone react involuntarily with a slight startle. Richmond felt beads of sweat running down the side of his face and forced himself to push away his fear, remembering the lessons taught a long time ago about how to deal with Jedi. It had been too long since he had any practical need for that knowledge and feared his lack of usage would not allow him to give much resistance when the dark lord cast his obsidian gaze upon him. The shuttle door lifted and the first two occupants to exit the craft immediately took flanking positions next to the doorway as they waited for the third to emerge. Richmond did not wait and was already striding forward.

He had just reached the ramp when the cloaked master of the Avenger made his appearance. In truth, Richmond had heard the heavy breathing that always preceded Vader's appearance before actually seeing the Sith Lord himself. Richmond sucked in his breath as he saw Vader raise his helmeted head and stared directly at him. Although he could not see Vader's eyes, Richmond knew he was being scrutinized behind the masked visage of the Emperor's most trusted henchman.

"Lord Vader, this an unexpected pleasure," Richmond greeted politely, trying to inject as much enthusiasm into his voice as he could muster.

"I'm sure it is," Vader said dryly, knowing perfectly well that it was a lie. "I am here on important business Governor," Vader wasted no time as he walked down the length of carpet. The troops making up the honor guard snapped to attention immediately but no one was terribly disappointed when Vader continued past them.

Richmond struggled to keep up but Vader was a tall man and he was capable of out pacing Richmond with ease. "Important business?"

"We will discuss it in your office," Vader returned briskly and strode out of the hangar.

"Yes Lord Vader," Richmond swallowed glancing at his junior officer's in anxiousness and saw in their faces that none of them envied him at this moment.

The governor's office was located in the tallest spire of the imperial city.

The facade of glass gave its occupant a picturesque view of the Commenor Prime while its lofty heights ensured privacy. Richmond demanded that his desk faced the windows so he could see the fluidity of the city and watched the hover cars, skimmers and transports zipping back and forth across the sky. There were moments when he basked in the splendor of it, in periods where he paused long enough in his day to day activities to appreciate it. On this occasion, the beauty was lost upon him and upon his visitor who barely gave the spectacular vista the merest hint of a glance when they entered the confines of the room.

Vader did not waste time getting to the point once they were alone and when the doors closed behind them after the departure of his personal guards, Richmond found himself facing the dark lord and his reason for being here.

"We know about your wife Governor," Vader stated abruptly.

Richmond's eyes widened and felt the air suddenly evaporate from the room because he could not breathe. "Charlotte?"

"We know what she is," Vader retorted, watching Richmond closely.

The governor was breathing hard and managed to make it behind his desk before he lowered himself heavily into the chair. "How long have you known?" He managed to ask. There was no point denying it. If Vader was here then it was too late for anything. It was over.

"That does not matter," the Sith Lord returned. "We do and that is enough."

"What are you going to do?" Richmond swallowed.

"Imperial troops are already on the way to Atura to retrieve her. My presence here is merely as a courtesy to you," Vader replied, attempting to sound magnanimous but his voice made that his words all the more sinister.

"Please," Richmond started to beg. "I've been a loyal servant of the Emperor. Don't hurt her. She's harmless to you."

"Her destiny has been written Governor," Vader said mercilessly. "I am here to consider yours."

"Mine?" He exhaled loudly.

"The fact that you are a loyal member of the Emperor's circle is the only reason why you are still retaining your position and I might add your head. The Emperor does not squander resources and you can be forgiven for alliances made before the change of the politics of the realm. You married her before the establishment of the new order. The Emperor understands that matters of the heart can make a man act out of his own best interests and your conduct in his service shows that you are a loyal Imperial citizen whose only crime is your wife. The Emperor does not want to lose a valuable resource because of your past affiliations. If that minor matter were removed, there is no reason why you cannot retain your position as Governor."

"My wife...," Richmond muttered, aware of what was being offered.

"Listen carefully Governor Richmond," Vader leaned in close. "You have no choice in her destiny. You may yet save yours but I will have your answer right this minute or you will not leave this room alive. Do we understand each other?"

Suddenly, he felt something pressing against his throat, invisible fingers that began pressing down on his larynx, forcing the air out of his lungs. All sound drained from his ears except that heavy breathing, electronically emitted that sounded like the death choking him. Richmond tried prying free the fingers he could not see but knew was there around his throat. His head began to swim and he could no longer remain focussed. He started to slump forward when just as abruptly as he had began, the invisible talons disappeared and his freedom was exclaimed with a loud gasp as he fell forward against the table.

Breathing hard, he took hungry breaths of air until once again, he became aware of Vader's presence. Raising his eyes to the Sith Lord with no illusions as to his fate should he refuse, Richmond finally spoke.

"Alright," he conceded. "What do you want me to do?"

For six years, Atura had been her hiding place.

As refuges went, it was a pleasant enough location. It sat in the heart of the Corporate Sector where money could buy virtually anything and in this instance it had bought privacy. Atura was a rustic world, forgotten but beautiful. It had one major city, which was mostly for the purpose of housing the inevitable commercial center that emerged from the development of any large space station. However the majority of the planet was still covered in large oceans and undeveloped continents. It was place that the rest of the galaxy seemed to have forgotten because there were other worlds of similarly idyllic beauty closer to the galactic core and people who came to the Corporate Sector were uninterested in beauty but rather profit. Atura had no commercial value in ore or precious metals and was thus largely ignored.

Charlotte Richmond did not mind this one bit. Noise and crowds made her uncomfortable. She resided in a house befitting a governor's wife hiding from the world at the edge of the Eliandera coast. The house sat on top of a cliff overlooking the Northern Sea far away from the populated center of Atura, She had a small ship which she utilized to collect supplies and make the occasional visit to town when the isolation became too much for her, which it rarely did. In her private sanctuary, Charlotte raised her young daughter Lilith with her companion Maria in virtual solitude and had been quite content with the course her life had taken, though there were moments in the small hours of the night, where she wished secretly for things that could never be.

Her husband made monthly visits to her and though she would have liked to have seen him more, there was never any doubt in her mind that he loved her despite the difficulties they had faced in their marriage through the years. Charlotte loved Will Richmond and knew that he had sacrificed much because of her. He walked a fine line in the real world and if anyone should discover the truth, the consequences to himself would be dire. Charlotte herself had no fears of death but she did worry for her daughter just as she knew Will certainly did. Lilith was the reason they endured the separation, why she remained hidden away from the public eye. Lilith was only five years old and she was the centre of Charlotte's world. Charlotte would endure anything and had sacrificed much already to ensure that her daughter lived. For her child, she had become a shell of a person because to be herself was to condemn Lilith and Charlotte would not risk her life for anything.

"My Lady," Maria emerged from the house and called to her as she was teaching Lilith her lesson in their garden beneath the delicious afternoon sun.

Maria had been her friend and companion for as long as Lilith had been in this world. She had found Maria a teenager, scraping a living in the slums of Arturo and given the girl a home as well as something of an education. Those who met Maria would never believe that there was a time that she was from the exotic beauty she was now, with just a hint of mystery in her manner to indicate she was not all she appeared. For what Charlotte had done for Maria, she had earned the girl's undying gratitude and unswerving loyalty. Charlotte was confident that gratitude would ensure that Maria would protect Lilith if the situation ever required it.

"There is a communication from the governor," Maria announced as she joined Lilith and Charlotte on the lawn.

"It must be important," Charlotte stated, immediately stopping what she was doing and getting up to her feet. Will seldom communicated unless it was absolutely essential. Normally they relied upon data crystal carrying long letters to each other for their personal correspondence. Will did not use conventional forms of communication unless there was a good reason for it. Charlotte was suddenly overtaken by feelings of anxiety as she hurried into the house. The com unit was kept in her study and when she reached the digitized screen, the grave expression on Will's face revealed just how much her fears were justified.

"Charlotte." Will smiled through light years of distance between them. "Thank the Force they haven't reached you yet."

Charlotte's heart stopped cold in her chest. "What do you mean?" She asked fearfully.

"Charlotte they know," Will Richmond announced.

Charlotte closed her eyes and felt the sirens screaming in her ears. For a moment, she was overwhelmed with a sensation of such dread, she thought she might double over in panic and retch there. Somehow, she managed to spare herself that humiliation. Pulling herself even though this was what she had feared for six long years, Charlotte composed herself because she had to remain strong for Lilith's sake. Taking a deep breath, it was a few seconds before she could trust herself to answer him.

"How?" She managed to ask.

"I don't know," he answered wearily, his eyes revealing to her that he had wracked his mind with that same question and had come to no satisfactory answer. "But they know. I had Vader come to Commenor today. He came to my office Charlotte and said that he knew what you were."

Vader! Charlotte felt a resurgence of panic once more. Why of all people did he have to be the one? "Are they coming?" She managed to ask, her voice little more than a soft whisper.

"Yes," he nodded, making no effort to pad his answer. The time was past for that. They were dealing only in truths now and the expediency of quick answers was required, not sentimental efforts to make the news any easier for her to bear because nothing he said could accomplish that. "He sent a destroyer to Atura. It's on its way there now."

"We have to leave," Charlotte muttered, the need to flee impressing itself upon her brain as she thought quickly about what she had to do.

"Charlotte he doesn't want you," Will said suddenly.

Charlotte stared at the screen sharply. "What do you mean he doesn't want me?" Subconsciously she knew what the answer to her question was before she had even asked it but the horror of the situation refused to let her see the truth until it was presented in all its stark reality.

"He wants Lilith. He thinks that she's young enough to use. Charlotte's the star destroyer is coming to take her, not you."

"NO!" Charlotte shouted. "I won't let it happen!" Her fists shook in rage which each word spoken. "She' my baby! I won't let them turn her into some kind of monster!"

"You have to get off Atura, Charlotte," he said, nodding in agreement. "You have to leave now."

"Yes," she nodded, her mind reeling. If a destroyer was on it's way to Atura then they had very little time. Vader would not have tipped his hand by revealing his intentions to Will unless he was very certain her husband could not do anything to thwart his plans by warning her. The fact that Will was still alive showed how confident Vader was in acquiring her. She had to go somewhere with Lilith that was beyond Vader's reach, beyond the reach of the Empire. Suddenly it came to her in a flash of inspiration or desperation, she was uncertain of which, knowing only that it was the answer she needed.

"Will, we have to go the rebellion," Charlotte announced.

"Charlotte's that's treason," Will gasped.

"I know Will," she swallowed. "You have to abandon us while you still can. I don't want to you to pay for my sins."

"Charlotte I love you, I could not abandon you or our daughter," Will pleaded and she saw the sorrow in his eyes and also guilt because somewhere in the back of his mind he had considered it. She did not blame him of course. He had always been an ambitious man, she knew that before she married him. But she also knew that while at times appeared as if he was thinking of his own interests, Charlotte knew he was fortifying his own position with the Emperor to ensure her safety and that of Lilith's.

"Will you must," Charlotte said softly. "You've stood by me, even when I didn't deserve your love. Don't think I don't know how much that must have hurt you but I have always been sure of that and so you must be sure of mine. I won't let you suffer because of us. Not any more. You have to let us go Will. Now."

He blinked and tears glistened in his eyes. "Do you even know how to contact the rebellion?"

"No," Charlotte shook her head in response. "The rebellion is after my time. The people whom I call friends who might know are all dead now."

"Then how will you reach them?" Will asked.

"I know someone who might be able to get me in contact with a member of the rebellion," Charlotte offered cautiously.

"Who?" He looked at her, sensing that there was some type of reluctance in her voice.

"Its better that you don't know," Charlotte replied automatically. "If we manage to escape the destroyer that's coming for us then Vader will know that you are his only link to us. He'll shred your mind for any information he can use to his advantage. I will not risk your life that way."

"It's not a risk," Will responded sadly. "I love you and I love Lilith. I'd die first before I let him hurt either of you."

Charlotte touched his image on the screen and knew he meant it. "I know that my love," she smiled. "But I still won't let you be harmed if it can be avoided."

"How will I know if you're both safe?" He asked as he saw that it was time for them to sever their connection.

"You and I share the same soul Will," Charlotte smiled. "We carry each other wherever we go. You'll know when we are safe, I promise you that."

"I'll hold you to it," Richmond whispered. "You better start packing," he suggested after composing himself.

"Goodbye," she said softly and hoped it was not forever, when the screen returned to static.

He was right, there was not much time to lose. Charlotte immediately hurried out of the study and saw Maria standing at the door, sensing something was wrong and waiting in expectation for Charlotte to tell her what it was.

"We have to go," Charlotte said firmly. "They're coming."

"Oh no my lady!" Maria exclaimed, her hand covering her mouth in shock. "How much time do we have?"

"Not much at all," she returned abruptly as she hurried to Lilith's room to pack her daughter's things for their hasty departure. "We have to leave now."

"Where are we going?" Maria asked.

Charlotte paused and let the disjointed plan in her head suddenly take cohesive form. "We will go somewhere I can make a scrambled transmission to Coruscant."

"Coruscant?" The faithful young woman stared at her mistress and her friend. "What is there?"

"An old bounty hunter named Crawl," Charlotte responded softly, allowing herself to think of the one person she had tried to forget the last six years and was certain, he would have tried equally hard to forget her. "A friend of mine used to work for him. He may know how to contact Vin."

"Is this Vin someone you can trust?" Maria asked.

"Yes," Charlotte said with a small smile as she savored his name on her tongue. She had not even wanted to speak of him since she was forced to send him away. "You could say that."

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