STAR WARS: Dark Paths — Excerpt Rating: PG
Paul Urquhart

For thirty years, the Star Wars saga has captured the imagination of many millions of fans around the world; the classic movies enjoy a status comparable with that of the Arthurian legends, the Nibelungenlied or the Tale of Troy in previous centuries, and through a series of novels, comic-books, video-games and other products, George Lucas' stories of a "Galaxy far, far away" have evolved into a richly-imagined and brilliantly detailed mythos for the modern age.

The Dark Paths project is a fan-created response to the Star Wars phenomenon, replying to the inspiration of the saga on both critical and artistic levels. A novel-length adventure set a generation after the events of the classic Star Wars trilogy, following the children of Han Solo and Princess Leia through a Galaxy still wracked by war, it can also be read as a meditation on the themes of heroism, morality, faith and honor inherent in the Star Wars myth, an answer to the challenges and questions inherent in the creation of such a complex and sprawling fictional milieu, and a homage to the immense influence of Star Wars in modern culture.

Dark Paths is due to be released in PDF e-book format early in 2006, but to whet your appetite, an excerpt from early in the novel is now available on-line to read.

Star Wars and all related material are copyright 2004 by Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER: Dark Paths is NOT, and does not in any way purport to be, an official Star Wars product. It is not endorsed by, or in any way associated with, the copyright holders, Lucasfilm, Ltd., with whom all legal rights to Star Wars and related trade marks continue to reside; nor is it endorsed by or associated with the licensees for official Star Wars print fiction, DelRey books, part of The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Dark Paths is presented as a not-for-profit critical and artistic response to the Star Wars saga and to the material associated therewith. It may be freely distributed according to fair-use criteria and on the understanding that the rights of the copyright holders are not infringed. No monetary profit may be made from this novel, either through the sale or distribution of the text in whole or part, or otherwise.

Dark Paths: Excerpt

The Sword of the Jedi hung low in orbit over Avirandel, an armoured arrowhead between the planet's nightside and the endless midnight of the sea of stars. The starboard flank of her hull, turned towards the surface, was dark with shadow, but along her brim-trench and in the terraces of her upperworks, the running lights and viewports burned as bright as cities; and on the port side, facing open space, the gleaming white expanse of armour-plating and the glinting carbon-darkness of her battle-scars seemed to glow in the starlight.

More than a generation after her mile-long keel had tasted hard vacuum for the first time, the Imperial Star Destroyer remained instantly recognizable — an icon of power. Even minding her own business in a parking orbit around a lifeless world like Avirandel, the mere sight of her would be enough to send the crews of most ships — military and civilian alike — scrambling to man the guns, raise the deflectors, and find the nearest exit vector from the system.

Standing on the Star Destroyer's bridge, Anakin Solo smiled faintly at the thought. From a certain point of view, the Sword of the Jedi was, of course, exactly what she looked like — an ISD-II, built when the iron grip of the Galactic Empire had still extended from one side of the Galaxy to the other, launched as the Virulence from Slip 327 at the Fondor shipyards some time before the Battle of Endor.

Over the course of a long and varied life — most of it spent as a privately-owned commercial venture under the control of a man passionately opposed to the Empire and everything it stood for — the old Star Destroyer had been rebuilt almost from the keel up, her weaponry, electronics, deckplan and drive systems modified, repaired and redesigned — rebuilt almost beyond recognition. But it wasn't simply sensor masking and a gimmicked ID transponder which hid all that. No, Anakin reflected, it was the simple fact that when most people saw an Imperial Star Destroyer, they didn't stop to ask questions.

Even now. Perhaps especially now.

Behind him, he could hear the quiet chattering of the computer systems and the hushed voices of the officers and technicians. Through the Force, he could recognize most of the bridge crew immediately, knowing their distinct appearances in the Force as well as he did their names and faces. Most of the forty thousand humans and aliens who formed the Star Destroyer's crew weren't nearly as distinct from each other in his mind, but in spite of their methodical training, they remained very definitely an aggregate of individuals. On a deeper level, he could feel the power of the ship's unique drive source blazing deep within the hull, and the rumble of the stardrive pulsing through the plating of the deck beneath his feet like a heartbeat.

It was all reassuringly familiar, he reflected. Reassuringly easy on the eye, inasmuch as it was all instantly recognizable, and seemed to carry no sort of hidden subtext. He didn't even need to look round — still less to use the Force — to picture the scene behind him in his mind's eye. The new keypads and repeater-screens had not taken the edge off the familiar functionality of the Kuat Drive Yards bridge module, and in spite of the differences in cut and colour — some subtle, some not-so-subtle — the bridge crew's uniforms evoked the memory of the old Imperial Starfleet instantly and effortlessly. Black forage caps with boots, breeches and lancer tunics for the officers, flint-grey coveralls for the technicians.

Slowly, Anakin let his eyes focus on his own mirrored image, caught in the clearsteel of the viewport in front of him. With a little imagination, he could see himself as a ghost rising up among the stars, inhumanly huge.

He was taller than he had been, he reflected, clad in power armour and padded leather, a black cloak wrapped around his shoulders. His tousled hair curled free around his scalp, and the skin at the nape of his neck was bare, but his face was hidden by a dark, stylized mask, instantly familiar to almost every sentient in the known Galaxy, and his breath rose and fell to a slow, mechanically-regulated rhythm.

Lord Vader, the Noghri called him — them and many other species. That was to be expected. It was, after all, what he had been aiming for — to make it seem as though it was not just him who had been reborn, but the grandfather for whom he had been named. That was why the face which he showed the Galaxy was Darth Vader's black mask — and why he now stood on the bridge of his Star Destroyer, with his back turned to the command crew, staring out at the stars with his feet planted apart on the deck, every breath seething through the filters of his mask to fill his burning lungs — and out again — with the mechanical timing of a metronome.

But he had been surprised to find that on many worlds, they had come to know him by other names entirely.

On Corellia, they called him Starkiller — less because he had used Centrepoint Station to destroy Adega than because he had crippled Centrepoint itself afterwards, forcing the Corellians to fall back their own human skill, strength, and initiative, like everyone else in the shattered Galaxy.

To the Yuuzhan Vong, he was simply Yammka, the Slayer, a living embodiment of war itself. That, he decided, was appropriate, if not entirely subtle.

He breathed out. And in. He was the Black Knight of a billion legends, a shadow striding out the darkness of death itself, a guardian of dark paths and secret mysteries. But he wore the mask only for the benefit of those who could not see past it. He could not hide the truth from himself — or from anyone who looked at him with unmasked eyes.

He was simply Anakin Solo.

Behind the mask, he essayed a lopsided frown. He thought of Tahiri — hardly a minute went by when he didn't — and he tried to remember her smile. The pain of a broken heart felt little different from that of any other old, deep wound. Just as his injuries reminded him that he was alive, the ache inside his soul ensured that he would never forget what love was.

He suddenly felt strangely self-conscious, very aware of the pain that came with every breath, and he felt himself reaching unconsciously for the anesthetic comfort of the Force. He breathed out, breathing fire, and let the Force go.

He breathed in again — a deep breath, enough to trip the rhythm of his lungs as his body overrode the regulator, pain flaring hot inside him.

And out.

For several seconds, he let even his thoughts fall away, knowing nothing but the burning fire of breath heaving in and out of his ruined lungs.

Burning ...

Burning ...

Burning ...

Then, slowly, he forced himself to turn away from the stars, and marched back along the gangway between the crew-pits towards the quarterdeck, moving with long-legged, purposeful strides, his cloak billowing behind him like a bank of thunder.

That, too, was a part of his dark masque. His physical scars, horrific as they were, were immeasurably less severe than those his grandfather had sustained, and his movements were far more easy and agile than he imagined the real Darth Vader's had ever been. Younger, stronger, and perhaps more powerful and more threatening for it.

"Captain Devis?" he asked, his voice low and quiet. "Has CommScan decoded that transmission yet?"

He didn't need to raise his voice to make sure that everyone on the bridge heard him — or even to use the Force to give weight to his words. Every member of the Sword's bridge crew had been watching him out of the corner of their eye from the moment he stepped onto the bridge, almost an hour earlier.

"M'lord?" Captain Lynar Devis asked, separating himself from the group of black-uniformed officers standing by the portside bridge-wing, and saluting smartly. Young for his rank, he nevertheless had a bearing and self-discipline to him which seemed entirely appropriate for the captain Imperial Star Destroyer.

That, of course, was the point. A warrior-clone from the Imperial Remnant's Spaarti facility on Valc, his physical template, and the source of his leadership skills and strategic acumen, had been Grand Admiral Pellaeon himself, but he also had the close-combat abilities of a Royal Guard, and the piloting skills and razor-sharp reflexes of a TIE ace. The perfect Imperial officer.

"It's just coming through now, m'lord," he nodded. As he spoke, a light winked green on the console. "Ah, yes."

"Thank you, Captain," Anakin nodded, and the group of officers stepped back, allowing him room to stand behind the two subalterns at the desk. A combination of military training, human intuition, and practical experience meant that he operated in an effective symbiosis with the Sword's command crew, quite different from the state of terror in which his grandfather had kept his immediate subordinates.

Some things did change.

Anakin leaned forwards slightly over the subalterns' shoulders, and watched carefully as the lines of glyphs flashed up on the screen in front of him — a simple list of system names, strung across the Core from Adumar to Corellia, then reaching out to Tatooine on the Outer Rim. It looked like exactly what he hoped it was — the regular stops along a scheduled run by a civilian starship, a relic from the days before the Galaxy had fractured into hostile, heavily armed and often essentially anarchic factions, the days — only a few years earlier — when such things had still been possible without a hefty tariff of bribes or a squadron-strength military escort.

"Balmorra," Anakin said, although he hardly understood why himself. "Take us up, Captain Devis. Lay in a course for Balmorra."

"Balmorra, m'lord," Devis repeated, with only the slightest murmur of surprise. "Aye, sir."

"Thank you, Captain."

As Devis began to issue his orders, Anakin Solo crossed the quarterdeck to the starboard side, turning back to face the stars, and waited. He watched as the technicians in the crew pit in front of him began to relay the captain's commands to other parts of the ship, then lifted his gaze as the Sword of the Jedi broke orbit, and swung her bows towards deep space.

As she rose up out of the gravity-well, the system's star — the nearest thing I have to a home sun, he reflected — slid out from behind the planet's limb, and Anakin saw light stream through the viewports like molten gold. As the Star Destroyer reached forwards from the darkness into light and her stardrive rose to full power, the pulse of the hyperdrive quickened, and he felt a great burst of energy leap through the hull, the three massive main heat exhausts arranged across her stern flaring bright with fire.

The stars lengthened into blades of light around her bows, and the Sword of the Jedi leapt into hyperspace. And Anakin Solo realised that, behind the iron mask which hid his face from the eyes of the Galaxy, his smile — a young man's smile — had been growing slowly wider all that morning.

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