Title: Come with Me
Disclaimer: as usual, Lucas owns everything, and this fanfic was written purely for fun.
Summary: On a landing platform on the moon of Endor, a decision is made.
Author's Note: Some events referenced are detailed in The Vader Chronicles.
He felt the Galaxy hesitate. The feeling was familiar, because it had waited for him before, watched to see the choices he would make. It had waited outside a Tusken camp, and inside an office occupied by the last Chancellor of the Republic.It had waited on the steps of the Jedi Temple, and on the black molten sands of an inhospitable planet in the Outer Rim. It had waited onboard a Star Destroyer, held its breath as he and Palpatine had at last come to battle.When he lay sprawled on the deck in defeat, it had turned its eyes from him, and abandoned him ever since.
Dismissed by the Galaxy as no longer significant, he could only continue on in the service of the master he had tried to kill. He had become accustomed to the idea that destiny was done with him, and had almost forgotten that long ago he had been called the Chosen One.
But here on a landing platform rising through the forest that covered a moon circling a gas giant of a planet, he felt the gaze of the Galaxy swing back to him.Like him, it waited balanced on the sharp edge of his decision. A simple decision, really, requiring only a yes or a no, but the weight of it caused the Galaxy to teeter as he considered his answer. His answer to the boy, his son, who stood before him and asked,"Come with me."
He eyed his son warily, and kept his thoughts shielded. With a simple change of clothing the boy could have walked unnoticed into the Jedi Temple of old, so closely had he recreated the still, calm confidence of the Order. An accomplished transformation from the impulsive youth with plenty of heart, but little experience, the boy he had encountered at Bespin.
The horror that had radiated from Luke then, on his face and in his voice, that utter rejection of their relationship was imprinted vividly in his mind, a slap sharper than any other, even from her.And still he had tried, pursued the boy through space, and at last let down his defenses to allow their minds to touch, so that he could share his dreams for them as father and son. He had felt his son consider the offer just for a moment, and then Luke, like Obi-Wan, had turned away. He had thought that nothing could feel worse than being left to die, but in the moment that the Millennium Falcon unexpectedly fled into hyperspace, he found that he had been wrong.
Although he knew farseeing was perhaps Palpatine's greatest ability, he had felt disbelief when the Emperor began to describe visions of Luke returning to his father. As he had waited for the doors of the Imperial walker to dock with the platform, the knot in his gut grew larger and he had braced himself for a stream of condemnations from his Jedi son. But they hadn't come, and in the end, it seemed that Luke had left the safety of his compatriots simply to say the three words that still hung in the air.
Come with me.
Could that really be the only reason the boy was here ? Not because of politics, not some ploy by the Rebellion to make use of their relationship. Not to take advantage of the gifts the Force had bestowed upon him, as the Council and Palpatine had done. Not for power or position. Had the boy really come only for love, for family ?
His gaze traveled to Luke's hands, held crossed in position by the binders, the black glove of the right visible under the flesh of the left. A thin black glove that he knew covered a prosthetic because...because he'd amputated that hand himself. He felt of Luke's presence, even though he'd done so just a few moments before.
Nothing had changed. Still no anger, no resentment as he had felt towards those who had taken his limbs.Nor did he find revulsion or horror or judgement. No current of unease suggesting deception. Only a slight edge of fear that was tempered by curiosity.And mostly, a great deal of hope.
Hope. As he lain nearly senseless on the black sands of Mustafar, he had felt a hand lightly touch his forehead. He had hoped for a fleeting moment that Obi-Wan had come back for him, before he realized the hand belonged to Palpatine, before he knew that his destiny had been written.In his own mind hope was a faint memory, but that which broadcast from Luke was unmistakable.
Come with me.
An utterly absurd idea, that he would leave the position of power he had fiercely defended from the incursions of Palpatine's minions, that he would wander into the camp of an likely unreceptive Rebellion, that he would leave his crew onboard Executor to suffer Palpatine's wrath at his defection. And wrath there would be when the Emperor discovered that he had defied his master's orders. But beyond that, refusing to bring Luke before Palpatine went against the will of the Force itself. He had learned over the past twenty five years that what Palpatine forsaw virtually always came to be, as if the Force whispered directly into the Emperor's ear.
Come with me.
Didn't the boy understand ? It was impossible to go against Palpatine. He'd already tried and failed, been rendered as helpless as he had been on Mustafar, his life owed once again to a whim of the Emperor.The time for them to join together to overthrow Palpatine had come and gone, lost on a gantry in Cloud City. Then Luke had only been on the edge of Palpatine's perception, but now Palpatine was waiting for both of them, and there could be no escape from the future the Emperor had forseen.
He opened his mouth to explain it all to Luke, but the words refused to come out.How could he appear as a coward before his son ? His son who, unlike Obi-Wan, had come back, despite the fact that he'd maimed the boy, despite the fact that they seemed to stand at opposite corners of the Galaxy, the hero of the Rebellion, and the enforcer of the Emperor's will. This boy who had at least some notion of who he had been as Anakin Skywalker, and what he had done as Darth Vader, and still believed in him, enough to present this ridiculous offer, how could he disappoint this boy ?
He remembered Palpatine's words from their last exchange on board the second Death Star. He will come to you, and then you will bring him before me, his master had said, the master who had told him so many lies. The master who had ordered him to kill Dooku, and if he were true to form would look to switch apprentices yet again by pitting father against son. The master from whom he had vowed to protect Luke, the one he'd sworn Luke would never serve. If he surrendered Luke to Palpatine he would be ignoring his own heart, and betraying the only person who had ever forgiven him.
Come with me.
His son's voice echoed in his head, but this time the offer didn't sound so absurd. Instead it sounded almost exactly like another plea, made on another landing platform long ago.Come away with me, she had said. He had laughed then, certain of his own ability to overpower Palpatine, not knowing that the injuries that would rob him of that ability were only moments away. How different life would have been if he had only listened to her then. How different could it still be if he listened to Luke now ? Was the boy's offer really so different from his own at Bespin ? Did it really matter which of them said, "Come with me"?
Now he felt not only the weight of the Galaxy, but great currents in the Force beginning to churn, new storm clouds building on its horizon, a new future condensing from the mists. Even if he had forgotten that he was the Chosen One, it seemed that the Force had not. He looked into Luke's serious face, saw his son for the man he had become, a man except for the faith the boy still harbored in his heart, the undying faith that a child has in a parent .
"All right," he said to Luke. "Where are we going ?"
It wasn't very Jedi-like, but he felt a smile start to crease his face, and he knew he blinked at least a couple of times. He had been right to take this gamble. He felt like he could almost see through the black armor, now that he had pulled his father from the Emperor's grip. All the feelings that had crossed the void of space between his father's Star Destroyer and the Millennium Falcon, the connection his father refused to release after their duel at Cloud City, the way that his father had knowingly allowed the Tyderium to pass through Imperial security, all of that was genuine. He was right about him.
The deep growling voice of his father interrupted his internal celebration.
"You do have a plan?" Vader said.
He raised his eyes to meet the mask. It was a little embarrassing to admit to a man who commanded Star Destroyers, nevermind that that person was also his father, that no, he didn't really have a plan. It had seemed so unlikely that his father would actually turn back that he hadn't thought that far ahead .
"It is not safe to stay here. The Emperor is waiting for both of us," Vader continued.
He nodded. "We'll have to get back to the camp. I've got friends there."
"My shuttle is on the upper platform," Vader said.
His father made a small gesture and the binders released from his wrists, clattering on the duracrete of the walkway. As he stretched his arms in relief, a glint of metal caught his eye and he realized Vader was extending his captured lightsaber to him.
"Try not to lose it," Vader said as he slapped the saber into his son's hand. "This weapon is your life."
He clipped the lightsaber on his belt and cocked his head upwards, unsure if his father was serious or laughing at him. It had never crossed his mind that Darth Vader might have a sense of humor.
Vader turned and headed down the walkway, and he guessed that was his cue to follow. The last time they had met he had jumped down a reactor shaft to get away from him, so it felt a little surreal to now be willingly following after him. Maybe Ben was right about that certain point of view.
Two stormtroopers waited outside the elevator at the end of the walkway and he heard Vader say to them: "You will not report anything you've seen here," as two black gloved fingers traced an arc in the air.
He thought his father was merely issuing a command, but then one trooper leaned his helmet towards the other and said, "We won't report anything we've seen here."
He kept his jaw from dropping and walked with his father past the stormtroopers and into the elevator. He waited until the doors shushed closed before he spoke. "The Jedi mind trick?" he said, looking straight into the mask.
Vader was unperturbed. "It has its uses."
He smiled to himself, and realized how comforting it was to be back in the presence of another Force-user, someone who could understand him, who didn't view his abilities with just as much fear as wonderment.
When the elevator doors opened at the top level of the platform, he looked overhead to the sky, suffused with the soft light of pre-dawn, and thought it was a fitting metaphor to describe what had just happened. Since Vader apparently made no such assessment of the morning sky, he found that his few moments of hesitation made it necessary for him to jog to catch up to his father.
Once inside the lambda shuttle, he took the co-pilot's seat, as Vader had already taken possession of the pilot's seat. On Bespin his father had seemed frighteningly powerful, inhuman and relentless, but as he watched him today all he could think was how competent his father seemed, so willing to take charge of the situation. He watched his father's hands flick rapid-fire over the controls of the shuttle, the same controls that had made Han pause before he flew the Tyderium away from Sullust.
He also noticed the faint whirr of electrodrivers when his father's hands moved, and his mind turned to his own black gloved hand.
"It functions well for you?" Vader said, the volume of his voice lower than usual.
He had forgotten what it was like being around someone who could sense his thoughts. "It felt strange at first, but I don't think about it much anymore," he said, his eyes lowered.
"You get used to it," Vader said, again with a softer tone.
Tension hung in the air, and he didn't know what to say.
The ventilator cycled several times before Vader spoke again. "I did not intend to injure you, Luke. It was reflex."
His eyes welled a little, and his throat felt thick. It had taken a long time to get past the impression that his father was an unfeeling monster who could maim his own son without concern. It was a relief to know that rejecting that idea had been right and not just a way to make himself feel better. He drew in a breath and calmed his emotions.
"I got used to it," he said quietly.
Vibration from the ship's repulsors traveled through the deck and he felt the shuttle lift off from the landing platform. Next to him the sound of his father's ventilator maintained its even rhythm. On Bespin the sound had seemed so menacing and ominous, but as he listened to it now, over and over, it was just breathing. A mechanical compensation for injured flesh, just like his prosthetic hand.
He wondered what had happened to his father, wondered if he would hear the story now, if he kept his mind open and revealed his curiosity. But if his father sensed his thoughts, he was refusing to pick up the hint, because the next thing Vader said was all business.
"You have the coordinates for the camp?"
"Actually, I'm not sure. But I was heading west when I was picked up by the Imperial walker," he said.
"You must know where you set down that stolen shuttle," Vader said.
He blushed at the reference. "The camp isn't near the shuttle. We were captured by, uh, Ewoks."
The helmet swiveled until the mask was staring at him straight on. "Ewoks? But they're three feet tall and you have a lightsaber."
He kept his eyes fixed on the viewscreen to avoid the intensity of his father's gaze. "I didn't see any need to hurt them. We let ourselves be captured."
"They've actually given us good intel on Imperial positions," he continued, trying to shake his father's disapproving stare. He pointed at the screen. "There's trees dead ahead."
The shuttle rose gracefully over the treetops and swung eastward without the helmet ever turning back to the viewscreen. "Hmmph," Vader finally said, turning his attention forward again.
"Don't do that," he said. "It makes you sound like Yoda."
"Small and green, I am not," Vader said, "but tell me, how did you escape your mighty captors?"
"We're all friends now," he said, "after Threepio..."
"Threepio?" Vader interrupted. "A protocol droid?"
He was puzzled by his father's interest. "Well, yes. You know him?"
"Know him? I built him," Vader said, "when I was a boy on Tatooine. Later on I gave him to your mother."
He was stunned.Fussy, pain in the rear Threepio had been a gift between his father and his mother? Threepio knew what she looked like, the sound of her voice, the things she talked about? He had set out to save his father, but instead he felt like he had saved himself. Regained his history, his family, his sense of belonging. At last there was someone to tell him the truth, to explain who he was. He took a chance. "I think I saw her."
The helmet turned towards him, but did not meet his eyes.
"From what I know, that is not possible," Vader said.
"No, not in person. In a vision," he said. "When I touched something you left behind, at home, on the moisture farm."
"I don't recall leaving anything at the Lars homestead."
"But you were there.When I first found it I showed it to Owen, and he said it was the broken shifter from his old swoop bike. I didn't understand it then, but when I went back home last year, after Bespin, I found it again. The Force let me see what you saw, feel what you felt. I recognized your mind. You have a certain...intensity."
His father shrugged. "You are not the first to say that."
He swallowed and took a deep breath. "When I held it I saw a girl dressed in blue, and I could feel that you loved her."
Vader was silent for several moments. "Was she more beautiful than anything else in the Galaxy?"
He did not expect those words. "She was ...very beautiful. Was that her?"
An almost imperceptible motion from the helmet indicated yes, but the only sound that came through the mask was the unending cycle of ventilator driven air.
He swiveled his chair to look at the black figure, his eyes traveling from the boots to the helmet. Nothing about the armor seemed foreign anymore and the impression of the machine like monster that had haunted him since Cloud City was entirely gone. He remembered the maelstrom of emotions that had come from holding the shifter, the bubbling pot of love and determination and heartbreak and despair, felt the fine thread of sadness that escaped his father's mental shielding now. He wanted to hear everything, to understand what had happened, to really know the man his father was.
He looked directly at the helmet, though his father was now resolutely facing the viewscreen. "I'm glad you decided to come with me, to join the Alliance."
At the moment his forehead almost came in contact with the instrument panel, he regretted not fastening his flight harness. As his body then reversed direction and slammed backwards into his seat, he realized his father had abruptly cut the airspeed of the shuttle. He felt like he had accidently walked behind the exhaust of a fully throttled X-wing engine, such was the blast of mental energy that came from his father.
"I never said I was joining the Rebellion. Is that what you think? Did they send you here?" Vader thundered.
If he hadn't been so concerned about being caught in the crosshairs of his father's attack he might have admired the way Vader was keeping the shuttle suspended in the air without using the repulsors, carefully manipulating the drive flaps and the throttle to keep the shuttle from falling to the ground.
"No, no, it was my decision to come after you. I've told almost no one," he said, wondering how that sense of family could have evaporated so fast. "But you chose to come with me, and you know I'm part of the Alliance."
"I chose to come with you, and you alone. Are we not joining together so that we can overthrow the Emperor and restore order to the Galaxy?" Vader said, activating the repulsors and stepping up from his seat.
"I was trying to bring you home, to bring you back to the right side," he said, rising to his feet as well.
"The right side? There is nothing wrong with the Empire that cannot be fixed by removing Palpatine," Vader said. "The Rebellion only creates chaos in the Galaxy."
That made no sense at all. "The Alliance wants to bring democracy back to the Galaxy, to restore the Senate, and the Republic. How is that chaos?"
The repeating cycle of air from the helmet suddenly sounded ominous again. "Perhaps I should turn this shuttle around..."
He had no answer for that, only questions for himself.What had he been thinking? What kind of man was he bringing to Han and Leia? How could he have ever thought this would work?
He realized his mistake the moment he let his mind drift into thought.
"You want to know who you are bringing to your friends?" Vader said. "The man who led the assault on the Jedi Temple, who brought the Order to its knees."
So, the stories were true. He felt queasy, and wondered why his father was trying to provoke him.Just a few minutes ago, they had seemed so close. Could everything have really changed so quickly? He reached out with the Force, hoping to gain a glimmer of understanding, and was surprised to find his father's mind open to him.
There was no sense of pride, no mocking amusement, only, unbelievably, remorse. He closed his eyes to focus his mind, to make sure he was understanding correctly. The statement wasn't a boast, it was a confession.
He stepped closer, turned his face upwards to the helmet, and prepared himself for another lashing. "But you regret doing so."
The storm that had flashed previously did not reappear.
"The past cannot be undone," Vader said simply.
He felt emboldened by the calmness of the reply. "But if you had it to do over..."
"There are many things I would change," Vader said.
He moved another step closer. "And that's what I feel in you. That's why I'm here."
The helmet sagged downwards, and he felt relief pour from his father's presence. Black gloved hands grasped his shoulders and he had the feeling that if the helmet hadn't been in the way his father would have touched his forehead to his own. After a minute the helmet raised up, but the gloved hands remained gently atop his shoulders.
"Then help me defeat Palpatine. If you only knew what he has stolen from your life, and from mine, how he has manipulated the Galaxy. None of us will ever be free until he is gone."
He could feel the pain in his father's mind, and the desperation that accompanied it. Maybe it just had to be done. Afterall, wasn't it the reason the Alliance had sent them here, the timing determined by the Emperor's presence on the Death Star? Wouldn't working with his father in this way also benefit the Alliance?
He looked up into the dark lenses. "Okay. I'll help you."
The gloved hands dropped off his shoulders, and his father extended one arm towards the pilot's seat. "Then take us to the camp, son, so that we may begin."
Light filtered through the overlapping branches of the towering trees that housed the Ewok village, splashing on the wooden floor of the hut. Even though she was surrounded by noise from the ever present chatter of the Ewoks and the creaking of the wooden suspension bridges that linked the village, her ear caught something disturbing.
"Did you hear that?" she said, looking up from the rations she had been busily stuffing in her pack.
Han's eyes never left his pile of supplies. "Yeah, sounds like just another Imperial ship. They've been coming and going since sun-up."
"But this one sounds closer," she insisted."And look at the Ewoks. They're really going on about something."
He frowned and shook his head. "Just keep packing. All we have to worry about is getting to that shield generator."
"We'll never get there if we walk into the arms of Imperial troops," she said.
He sighed and rolled his eyes."Okay, you win. Threepio, what's all the commotion about?"
The droid turned his golden head."If you are referring to the vocalizations of our hosts, I believe thay are saying that a ship has landed on the other side of the village."
"Why didn't you say so before?" Han said, rising to his feet in one swift motion."Chewie, give me those binoculars."
She trotted down the walkway leading away from the village and peered into the dense forest below.Han joined her at the vantage point, leaning his shoulder against hers and she tried to ignore the warmth that radiated from his body.
"Do you see anything?" she said.
He lowered the binoculars."No. But that's the problem with this place. Too many trees."
Chewie barked in response.
"I know it reminds you of home, pal," Han said, "but it makes surveillance pretty tough."
A flash of movement caught her eye. "Look, over there. Someone's coming up that path."
She moved further down the bridge to a place where a giant trunk concealed her from the lower pathway. She looked over at Han, who had taken cover behind a similar tree, and knew that his expression of deadly earnest matched her own. He gave her a nod and she unholstered her blaster and peered around the tree.
She aimed her blaster at the point where the bridge walkway emerged from the deep woods, both hands on the weapon and her eyes focused straight down the sights. She held her breath when the bridge began to sway in response to weight placed on its far end. Her fingers had depressed the blaster trigger halfway when she caught sight of a shock of blond hair.
"Luke!" she exclaimed, abandoning her sniper's stance, and holstering her blaster.
"See, you got your wish after all," Han said, moving close enough to put an arm around her shoulder. "But why does he have that weird look on his face?"
She didn't have an answer for that, nor did she understand why Luke kept looking back, unless it was because he was hearing the same repeating rush of air that she was.
"Something's not right," Han said. "I know that sound."
She knew that sound, too. It wasn't possible, was it? Could Luke have actually accomplished what he had set out to do? She moved out of Han's embrace and headed to meet Luke. Her position on the walkway allowed her to see the flashing lights on the chest plate a moment before Han did. While she stood in disbelief, Han's response was more immediate.
"Luke, behind you!" Han shouted, bringing his blaster back up to eye level.
"No, Han, you might hit Luke," she cried, watching him squeeze off shots at the approaching black armored figure. Her worries were made moot when Han's blaster flew out of his hand.
"Damn it," Han said, staring at his empty hand. "Chewie, you've got a better position. You can get off a clean shot, can't you?"
Chewie shook his shaggy head as he replied. "Rrawwrr aarr rggwrr."
"What do you mean, you can't shoot him because he saved your life?" Han said. "Am I the only sane one around here?"
His eyes were boring into her as he said that, but she couldn't stop to explain why she wasn't helping him. She was more worried about what she was going to say to Luke when he arrived with his guest in tow.
As the pair made the last turn on the walkway before it headed directly into the village, she noticed how they seemed to be so together. It was more than the fact they were both dressed all in black, each with a lightsaber swinging from a hip. Now that Vader had caught up to Luke they were walking awfully close to one another. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but every now and then one head would turn towards the other as if they were in conversation. And as she watched Vader casually hand Han's blaster to Luke, she detected a measure of trust between them.
Somewhere in the last few meters of the walkway Vader sped up and took the lead from Luke. She found herself automatically moving back from the approaching black figure, the figure who seemed completely unconcerned about walking into an enemy camp. The trio of brave Ewoks who rushed to make a defense of their village evoked no more than a slight backhand wave from Vader, a wave that knocked all three furred warriors off their feet into a groaning heap.
"Are you mentally deficient, Solo," Vader said, "or do you just have a short memory?"
Han's eyes narrowed, but he otherwise ignored Vader and instead turned to Luke.
"What's he doing here?" he said, jerking a thumb towards the helmet.
"Han, it's all right," Luke said gently. "He's my father."
For a moment Han's face took on the blank, open-mouthed expression that was permanently affixed to Threepio. For herself the shock was not in the revelation, but in how much more confidently Luke was able to say those words than when he had first said them to her.
Han shook his head rapidly as if to clear his mind.
"Kid, I knew you had problems, but I didn't know it was this bad."
"Han, don't be so hard on him," she said, knowing that someday she would have to reveal to him that she and Luke shared that same problem.
Han's gaze turned to her, and it wasn't friendly. "You knew about this, didn't you?"
"I couldn't..." she began, averting her eyes.
He strode over to her and stood so close that they were almost touching. "And just when were you going to let me in on your little secret?"
Vader's deep rumbling voice filled the air."There is no time for pointless bickering. We need to get off this moon immediately."
There was something dismissive in Vader's tone that tweaked her the wrong way. She turned her face from Han's angry brown eyes and looked up into the black mask.
"I don't know what kind of deal you and Luke made, but I'm sure it doesn't involve me taking orders from you. And I'll thank you to keep your nose out of our business."
"Then perhaps you should change your habit of displaying your personal life in public," Vader said.
"I'd hardly call this public," she started to say, and then Luke stepped between her and Vader, and she held her tongue.
"Enough, enough," Luke said, raising his hands in the air. "Everyone just stop. Father's right; we need to leave right away."
She blinked twice at Luke's words. He wasn't just accepting that reality, he was embracing it. "But Luke, the mission...?"
"The shield generator is of little importance," Vader said.
She felt her eyes widen. "Luke, just what exactly have you told him?"
"He has given away no secrets," Vader said. "The Empire was already aware of the Rebel fleet gathered at Sullust."
She considered the statement carefully. It was probably the truth. But the shield generator? Everything was riding on its deactivation. The destruction of the new Death Star. The elimination of the Emperor. All the hopes of the Alliance. She put a hand on Luke's shoulder, looked him straight in the eye. "Luke, what have you done?"
He gave a small smile. "It's okay. He's going to help us defeat the Emperor."
"Him?" she said, sending an incredulous look to Vader. "My father...my father always said Vader had to ask the Emperor for permission to get up every morning."
Luke's expression hardened and he looked away from her. She gradually became aware that Vader had become silent. Not speechless, but silent, the eternal sound of his breathing having ceased. When she turned towards him she saw that his hands were slowly clenching into fists and she had the distinct impression that she had pushed the situation too far. A wave of unease made her feel cold and she was never so glad to hear a sound as when the ventilator sucked in a great gulp of air and began cycling again.
"I gave you forewarning only because my son values your lives. I consider my obligation to you fulfilled," Vader said." Luke, we must leave."
Luke nodded."Han, Leia, I know this isn't making sense to you, but just trust me even if you can't trust him. Please come with us. We could all die if we stay here."
Han stepped forward, sending a sideways glance towards Vader. "Luke, we've risked death on almost every mission. Give me one good reason why I should abandon my command."
Vader's deep mechanical voice was the one that answered. "Because the Death Star is fully operational and the Emperor will likely target this moon trying to eliminate me when he learns that I have disobeyed him."
She had thought it impossible for her to be surprised by anything else, but that piece of information certainly had to be classified.
"It's operational? And the Empire knows our fleet is assembled? Then the Emperor is just waiting for the Alliance to arrive."
"Now you see," Luke said. "That's why we have to go now. It's our only chance."
"Wait, wait," Han said, shaking his head, "I'm not buying any of this. How's the Emperor going to know what's going on down here? Vader's just here to make sure we don't get that shield down in time."
"You underestimate the abilities of the Emperor," Vader said. "He sees the future as easily as you read an instrument panel."
"That didn't stop us from blowing up the first one," Han said.
"That was only because he could not see Luke in the Force then," Vader said. "He does now."
Han's face took on the tight lipped, uneasy expression it always did when the Force was mentioned. "All I know is I'm not getting on any ship with you."
"Then take the other shuttle, Han," Luke said, "but get everyone off this moon. He's telling the truth."
Her brow wrinkled in concentration. Maybe Luke was right. It seemed an outrageous risk on Vader's part to let slip the Death Star's status if he wasn't working with them. And if Vader was correct, then the whole fleet was going to fly into a trap. She couldn't let that happen. But if Luke was wrong about Vader, he was about to walk into a dangerous situation completely enthralled by the concept of "father". Somebody had to watch out for him. Right or wrong, it seemed that she had to go with Luke.
"I'm taking the droids with us," Luke said. "Artoo, Threepio, come on."
"Fine," Han replied, backing towards the Ewok village, as if to emphasize that he wasn't coming with them.
She watched Artoo roll down the walkway, moving fast enough to stay ahead of Threepio. She expected him to stop at Luke's side, but instead he went right on past until he was at the tip of Vader's boots. The astromech droid's photoreceptor swiveled upward towards the mask, and he gave a questioning whistle.
To her surprise Vader seemed to listen to the little droid. A gloved finger traced a scrape in Artoo's paint and then Vader's hand came to rest gently atop the dome. Artoo began beeping and whistling wildly, his whole body vibrating, and he continued on as if he had a great deal to say. When Vader became aware that she was watching, he snatched his hand away from the droid, turning silently on his heel. Artoo followed along without hesitation, as did Luke. When Threepio passed her by, she knew it was time to follow through on her decision.
She knew Han wouldn't understand, but she couldn't shake the strange feeling that this was what she was supposed to do. He had obviously made his own decision on the matter, having retreated even farther into the village. She looked up towards the hut where he stood alongside Chewie.
"Leia," Han called. "Leia, get over here."
She shook her head. "I can't. But please listen to Luke. Find the others and get out of here. Warn Lando about the Death Star."
She didn't turn around when he called her name again, his tone now pleading instead of demanding. When she caught up to the droids she could hear that they were talking to each other.
After a series of whistles from Artoo, Threepio answered. "The Maker, Artoo? Are you sure?"
Artoo's response was short.
"Well, I just don't remember that," Threepio said.
The seat was just like the one in the Tydirium, just like it except that the leather was thicker and softer, and so pristine that she had the impression that she might be the first person to sit in it.
The pilot's and copilot's seats bore the creases and patina of use, but not her seat immediately behind them.
Maybe it was seeing the viewscreen through the small area between the headrests of the forward seats, but somehow she was reminded of riding in her father's speeder on Alderaan. It was one of her early, early memories, with her mother and her father in the front of the speeder, and she with the entire back seat to herself. The sky was perfectly clear, the mountains crisp in the foreground, and the air rushing so fast through the open speeder that it stung her cheeks. But she loved the feel of speed, the way her stomach sank when her father dipped the speeder, and how she was pushed back into the seat when he accelerated.
It was such a happy memory that it made her smile even now, even though she knew it had all been an illusion. An illusion because she shouldn't have been in a speeder with Bail and Breha Organa; she should have been with the two men who were with her now. The three of them together in this shuttle, they were blood and should have been family in some reality that never came to pass.
She thought of the father she had grown up with, how dearly she loved him, how not once had he ever let on that she was not his own. She had modeled herself to be just like him, a strong and principled Senator who never gave up fighting for his ideals. She missed him so much, wished he was still here so that she could ask his advice and make sure she was doing the right thing. But he was gone along with the rest of her homeworld, due in some part to the man in the pilot's seat, the man her brother wanted her to accept. Life was so much simpler even a day ago.
"Leia, what's the matter?" Luke asked.
His voice startled her and brought her out of her thoughts. To her dismay Vader's mask was turned to her as well as Luke's face. "Nothing, Luke. I'm fine."
He gave a frown. "I can sense your feelings, Leia. You're sad about something."
Those Jedi abilities could be damned inconvenient at times. "It's nothing, really. Just thinking about Han."
"You were thinking of your father," Vader said.
She froze. He'd been inside her mind and she hadn't felt anything. What else had he taken with him? "How did you know?"
"I saw an image of Bail Organa in a speeder," Vader said.
So he thought Bail was her father, too. Luke must have kept some things to himself, though she wasn't sure why. Did he not trust Vader as fully as it appeared? She drew back against the seat and tried hard to think of nothing at all. Luke was still facing her, but she avoided his gaze, afraid all the questions she wanted to ask him would coming storming to the front of her mind.
"You must be careful to guard your thoughts from the Emperor as well," Vader said. "Whatever it is that you fear most, he will find that and use it against you. He appears old and feeble, but he is never as weak or defenseless as he would have you believe."
Luke turned his attention back to Vader. "The Emperor can use the Force?"
"I have encountered no one as skilled at detecting the thoughts of another than he," Vader said. Nor as accurate in seeing the future."
"Then if he knows what you're thinking, and he knows what will happen, how will we beat him?" Luke said.
There was a pause. "I don't know yet."
That wasn't the answer she was expecting. By all reports and her own limited experience Vader didn't hesitate about anything. If someone as powerful as Vader was afraid to take on the Emperor, where did that leave her and Luke? "You're telling me that we're about to face the man who is probably the most formidable opponent in the Galaxy, and you don't have a plan?"
"That's never stopped me before."
His answer sounded like something Han would say, and she smiled in spite of herself.
"After we board Executor it will be extremely important that you follow my orders," Vader said."That applies doubly to you, Organa."
She bristled at the insult."Executor? I guess you Imperials wouldn't have a Freedom or a Justice."
He seemed to ignore her comment. "Both of you will be recognizable to the more astute members of the crew. It must appear that you are in my personal custody to avoid questions about why you are not being held in detention. And I like Executor. It denotes action."
She caught herself smiling again. She rid herself of the expression and took a deep breath. She was here to be Luke's advocate; to make sure he wasn't being suckered by Vader. It would be no good at all if she was the one who was taken in instead. Still, she was a known Rebel leader about to openly enter the hostile environment of a Imperial command ship and her safety was dependent not only on Luke but on the protection of Vader. As the Executor grew steadily larger in the viewscreen of the shuttle, she realized that while she had always been irritated by his absolute confidence and afraid of his unrelenting ferocity, those traits seemed very useful now that she was relying on him.
Everything felt wrong. His body shivered violently, overcome by a bone-chilling cold that was not lessened by the thick comforter he clutched against himself. The silken bedsheets that ordinarily slid as smooth as a flower petal over his skin now grabbed and caught at him as if he was being drug naked across permacrete. And through eyelids clenched shut an invading brilliance of light stabbed at his retinas.
He gathered his wits and pushed his pain to the edge of his perception. This was a massive disturbance in the Force. Sometime in the few hours that he had slept, the Galaxy had changed. He reached out for the Force, but like a lover that had fled in the cover of darkness, it was not there. Or rather, it was not where it was supposed to be. At his side, awaiting his bidding.
He closed his eyes, searching for the source of the disturbance. The images began trickling in, unrolling in a tapestry of what was to be. It had long given him comfort, his ability to see the future. Except this time. His eyes snapped open. That couldn't be right. He drew in a deep breath and looked again. He smiled as the new images took a different path. His first vision had been merely an anomaly, a future of the highest improbability.
He felt some concern as the second vision veered in an undesirable direction. When it abruptly ended at the same place as the first, he felt actual fear creep into his mind. Such an unpleasant sensation, one he thought that he had long ago banished from his emotional repertoire. Again and again he sought out the future, and while the scenarios that ran through his mind varied each time, the final moments were identical. A headless body falling to the ground, but this time it wasn't Dooku, it was himself, though they shared the same executioner.
He sat up in bed to escape the tendrils of panic that threatened to choke him. Vader was not bringing Skywalker to him as he had commanded, the first time in a long, long time that Vader had disobeyed him. Somewhere in that mechanized wreck of a body the volatile being whose power he had once feared was stirring. And Vader motivated by his heart was always Vader at his most dangerous, to speak nothing of the Force-strong son he must have convinced to join him.
You're getting old, he told himself. You used to live for this sort of thing.
He had almost forgotten how enjoyable the game could be, so long had he gone without real opposition. Ruling the Empire had proven nowhere near as satisfying as engineering the fall of the Republic or nudging the Jedi Order to produce its own destroyer. Ah yes, the careful calculations, the subtle manipulations, the dance of power. How exquisitely delicious it all could be.
There was nothing to worry about. Father and son could be pulled apart by the same methods that had first brought the Galaxy under his control, and it would be a pleasure to do so.
He swung his legs out of the bed and reached for the dressing gown that lay at its foot. As he stood he noted how luxuriously soft the fabric felt against his skin, and how warm the carpet was underneath his bare feet. Yes, everything was proceeding as it should. There was plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments so that Dooku's fate would not be his own.
He walked over to his desk and activated the com.
"Moff Jerjerrod, instruct Admiral Piett to make contact with me immediately."
It went on forever. And then some. His eyes were accustomed to such a perspective from living on Tatooine, his mind comfortable with the vast desert that extended beyond the curve of the horizon. But to have this endless flatness be not the landscape of a planet, but the interior of a ship seemed completely impossible.
The floor felt real enough beneath his boots, though, the vapor from the shuttle's repulsors crawling along its glossy surface. He waited for Leia to come down the ramp, extending a hand to help her, but she declined the assistance. He guided her so that she was between him and the ship, to at least partially conceal her camouflage patterned clothing which practically screamed "Rebel operative."
Though she wouldn't like his assessment, he thought she looked entirely too small and vulnerable, especially set against the immense cavern of Executor's hangar. He had wanted to make sure she and the others safely escaped the forest moon, but he hadn't guessed that she would have chosen to come with him instead of Han. Maybe he shouldn't have shared the secret that they were brother and sister.
The shuttle's repulsors shut off and he then heard Vader's heavy footsteps hit the top of the ramp.
"Follow me," Vader said as he strode past them, his cloak floating behind him.
As if there was another option. He motioned Leia to go ahead of him so that she was walking protected by himself and Vader. Behind him he heard Artoo's rollers begin to skate down the ramp.
He turned to face the little droid. "Artoo, stay with..."
His voice dropped off as he realized his words were being exactly echoed by a much deeper voice. He looked in amazement to his father's mask.
Vader returned his gaze, silent for a moment, then finished the thought. "Artoo, stay with the ship."
The astromech droid focused its photoreceptor first on Vader, then on himself, before dejectedly swiveling it to the deck. With a forlorn whistle, Artoo reversed direction and went back up the ramp.
Threepio's voice came from within the shuttle. "It's much safer inside here, Artoo."
The clatter of boots on the hangar floor took his attention away from the droids. A grey uniformed Imperial was leading a squad of stormtroopers double-time across the hangar towards them. Vader gave them only a brief glance before proceeding briskly in his original direction. When the group caught up to them, Vader didn't stop, making the young officer trot breathlessly next to them.
"Lord Vader, I apologize for not being here for your arrival. We apparently missed your transmission," the officer said.
"You received no signal because I sent none, Captain," Vader said.
The officer seemed confused. "But m'lord, don't you want assistance with the prisoners?"
"Does it appear as if I am in need of any?"
The officer looked back first at Leia and then at himself as they walked single file behind Vader. "Uh, no, m'lord."
The captain slowed his pace and fell behind him, stormtroopers in tow. Even though his father had apparently not requested the guards, the fact that he had not sent them away made him a little uneasy, as did the rows of TIE fighters they passed as they made their way through the hangar. The mere outline of the TIE shape was enough to make his heart speed up, so many years had he faced them in battle, and their presence drove home the point that he was in enemy territory.
Only his father stood between himself and a Star Destroyer full of Imperial troops, though that seemed to be enough. It was impressive to watch the effect Vader's presence had on his crew, the way that to a man they leapt to attention at his approach, though he didn't appear to even notice them. From the Captain's nervous demeanor, however, he had the distinct impression that his father would have noticed if they hadn't afforded him that level of respect.
They exited the hangar, stepping into a broad hallway that appeared to be a main thoroughfare of the ship. Vader continued to lead them wordlessly, having never revealed their destination. Every crew member travelling through the corridor gave Vader plenty of space, their eyes averted, but as soon as they were past him they turned to stare at Leia and himself, making him feel like a beast on display. He could accept the hard glances they gave him, but there were more than a few that he would have like to have taken his lightsaber to for the way their eyes roamed over Leia.
Another officer approached, this one middle-aged, but still trim, and by the number of bars on his chest higher ranking than the captain that led their stormtrooper escort. He also seemed more comfortable with Vader, as his face bore a trace of a smile as he greeted him.
"Congratulations, Lord Vader," the officer said. "I've been hearing of your success."
Vader stopped to answer. "Thank you, Admiral."
The Admiral moved past Vader and stopped directly in front of him, giving him a thorough appraisal.
"Luke Skywalker, if I'm not mistaken," the Admiral said, grabbing him by the chin."We've chased this one across half the Galaxy, haven't we, m'lord?"
His father stepped past Leia to pull the Admiral's hand away. "Yes, we have, Piett ."
Piett looked confused for a moment, then accepted the unsaid reprimand. "Shall I take them to the detention center?"
"No," Vader said. "They are too valuable. They will stay under my direct control."
Piett's eyebrows raised. "As you wish m'lord."
"After I have them secured," Vader continued," I need to speak with you, Piett."
"Yes, m'lord," Piett said, his eyes giving them one last evaluation before Vader led them further down the hallway.
Leia looked back at him as they continued their single file procession, her face tight with worry. He sent her a wink, wanting her to know that everything was going to be all right. He just wished he could believe that himself.
"Artoo Detoo, what are you doing?" Threepio said.
Artoo chirped a reply as he moved away from the shuttle's viewscreen.
"A better look at what?" Threepio said.
Artoo's whistling became fainter as he rolled down the shuttle's ramp.
"Where are you going?" Threepio asked." Master Luke and Master Anakin, if that's really who that is, both told us to stay here."
The collection of chirps only became farther away.
"The Emperor?" Threepio asked from the head of the ramp. "How would you know?"
Artoo's reply began with a brapp and continued in a mixture of chirps and whistles.
"Yes, I can see those guards are all in red, and I do occasionally read the news," Threepio said, feeling rather exposed now that he was out on the hangar floor next to Artoo. "Why you think politics is any of your concern is beyond me."
Artoo gave another beeping reply.
"Warn them?" Threepio said. "How are we ever going to find them?"
Artoo extended his center foot and rolled silently across the hangar floor.
"Don't leave me alone, Artoo," Threepio cried. "I don't think the Empire approves of droids."
"After you, Admiral," he said, motioning Piett into one of Executor's many conference rooms.
Once the door slid shut behind them, he swept a hand at the four corners of the room. Piett's eyes followed the motion as if he could actually see something happening.
"Recording devices," he said. "Now deactivated."
The explanation did nothing to remove the look of concern that had taken up residence on Piett's face.
He tried again to relieve Piett's anxiety. "Please, Admiral, have a seat."
Piett made another survey of the room before sitting down in one of the high backed conference chairs, which like most things Imperial were not designed for comfort. He pulled out the chair next to Piett, and turned it sideways so that he could sit facing him, like two men at a cantina, instead of an officer and his superior.
"We've worked together a long time, Piett," he said.
"Yes, m'lord," Piett said. "Longer than most."
"Indeed," he said."Much longer than some. What kind of a commander have you found me to be, Piett?"
"A fair one, m'lord." The Admiral glanced nervously at the corners of the room and swallowed hard. "Though your discipline can be a bit...strict."
He smiled inside the helmet. "That's what I like about you. Not afraid to speak your mind. So tell me, have I earned your loyalty?"
A small crease appeared in Piett's forehead. "Have I failed to follow an order, m'lord?"
"Not that I can recall," he said, "but I must know if that will always be the case."
"You know my record is spotless, m'lord," Piett said, his voice rising. "I am known for my adherence to protocol."
"Exactly," he said. "And you must have noticed at some point that I hold no official rank within the Imperial Navy."
Piett's eyes dropped to the black mirrored surface of the conference table. "I thought it none of my concern, m'lord."
"Ah, but it will be your concern if an order is given that contradicts mine," he said.
The tension left Piett's face and he laughed out loud. "No one would dare oppose you, m'lord."
"No one except the Emperor."
Piett's face was still relaxed. "Precisely. Such a conflict would never arise."
He let the rush of the ventilator be his only reply.
The smile left Piett's face. "Right, m'lord?"
"I need to know that I can count on you, Piett," he said slowly.
"To do what?" Piett said, his face lined by new concern.
"Only to follow my commands," he said, "and to ignore those of anyone else."
"Even those of the Emperor, m'lord?"
"If it comes to that," he said.
Piett rubbed his forehead, his eyes casting over the table. "I..uh..I'm not..."
"Your loyalty will be rewarded by my protection, Piett," he said. "Be assured of that."
"But I may have already failed you, m'lord," Piett said, staring straight into the mask.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"While you were at the shield generator, the Emperor made contact from the Death Star," Piett said.
"And I did as he ordered. I informed him of your arrival as soon as you returned to Executor," Piett said.
He nodded. "Not your fault, Piett. Destiny cannot be stopped."
Piett's eyes narrowed. "What's going to happen?"
He put his hand on Piett's shoulder and looked into the face of the man who was probably the closest thing he had to a friend. "Something that should have happened a long time ago. A long time ago."
The door had barely slid shut when Leia's arms flew around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her, leaned his cheek against hers, let her tension pour out through the tightness of her hug. He held her until he felt her arms relax and a deep sigh escape her. When she let go of him she looked away and wiped tears from the corners of her eyes.
"Luke, what are we doing here?" she said.
He looked around the room, a nondescript looking crew's quarters with a bed, a 'fresher, and a workspace, and could only shake his head. "I don't know. It all happened so fast. There really wasn't time to think about it."
She pressed the control button to the door. "Great, it's locked."
He grinned as he patted his lightsaber. "No door is locked when you have one of these."
She gestured towards the door. "Well, have at it."
He shook his head."We should stay here. He told us to wait for him."
"And you trust him?" she said.
"Yes. No. Mostly."
"Then you must know what he has in mind, right?" she said as she took a seat on the corner of the bed. "You must have talked about a plan."
His gaze went to the floor. "No, not really. We talked about other things. The past, mainly."
"How can you trust him if you don't know what he's going to do?"
He pulled the chair out from the workstation and sat down across from her. "Because I can sense his feelings. He's not who you think he is."
"Oh yeah? And who is he?" she said.
"He is Anakin Skywalker. Even Ben finally told me that. Everything good that you ever heard about Anakin Skywalker is still in there. I can feel it," he said.
She looked at him dubiously.
"He likes you, you know," he said, leaning towards her.
"Likes me? Then he's got a funny way of showing it," she said.
"And admires you. I can feel that, too," he said.
She was silent for a moment. "But you didn't tell him. About me."
He lowered his head."I wanted you to have that choice. Especially if anything went wrong."
"Ahh-ha. Now we're getting somewhere," she said, sitting forward on the bed. "And why do you think something might go wrong?"
He ruffled his hand through his hair. "Because we had a little disagreement about which side we're on. I thought that because he came with me that he was joining the Alliance, but that's not true."
"Did we just join the Empire, then?" she said.
"He knows we haven't. Getting rid of the Emperor is what's most important. He was the one Ben and Yoda always warned me about, not Vader," he said. "Ben said the reason why you and I were separated was to keep us safe from the Emperor."
She rubbed a hand across her forehead. "But after the Emperor is eliminated, then what?"
"I don't know," he said."But I couldn't just leave him there. If you could feel everything that's inside of him, you couldn't either."
"So what happened, Luke? Did you find that out?" she asked.
"No, except that much of what happened to us and our mother is a mystery to him, too," he said. "Again, Yoda said to me 'Do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father's fate, you will'. Everything hinges on the Emperor."
She got up from the bed and paced the room. "Then I guess we'll just have to hope that it all works out the way it's supposed to. Trust in the Force, isn't that what you're always saying?"
He smiled. "Now you're getting it. I'll make you into a Jedi yet."
The door chimed.
"Is that Vader?" Leia asked.
He closed his eyes, felt through the door. It certainly wasn't his father, but he wasn't sure what it was. Something powerful in the Force, but it had no flavor, no shape, only a dark nothingness that threatened to pull the Force from his own grip. He unclipped his lightsaber.
"Leia, get back."
The mechanism on the lock reversed and the door slid open. The figure before him looked almost like a giant jawa, clothed in a dark robe, with eyes that glowed yellow from within the hood. It moved forward into the room and the light struck its features. Though the face was distorted by deep furrows, he could see that it might have once been human.
"Welcome, young Skywalker," it said with a smile. "I've been expecting you."
Even as he stepped back his eyes remained fixed on the hooded figure who stood in the doorway. He reached out with the Force but the figure's presence was so matte that it seemed to simply absorb the energy, leaving nothing to return to him.
"Be careful, Luke," Leia said from beside him. "That is the Emperor."
The yellow eyes seized fiercely upon Leia, but the voice was all silk. "The former Senator Organa. What an unexpected pleasure."
"What do you want?" he said, sliding smoothly between his sister and the Emperor, his fingers twitching around his unlit lightsaber.
"I should ask you the same thing," the Emperor said. "Except that I already know the answer."
He glanced at the Emperor's wan expression. Somehow with all the warnings he had received he had expected more than this wrinkled, frail looking man who didn't even appear to be armed. One swift blow from his lightsaber should be all that was required to accomplish Ben's wishes. And his father's, and those of the Alliance. Still, there was something about the old man that made his scalp prickle and his mouth go dry, a steady current of malevolence that flowed from within the cloak.
The Emperor moved closer. "You want to kill me, don't you?"
He swallowed hard. To hear the act stated so plainly, and by the intended target nonetheless, made the sense of justice that had carried him this far fade away. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack. He shifted the lightsaber in his hand, his intent tempered by his conscience.
The Emperor glided around him to engage Leia. "Now you, my dear, you are more of a puzzle. And why have you joined Lord Vader?"
"I haven't joined with Vader," she spat.
An amused smile spread across the Emperor's face. "Well, if you're not with him, than he's treating you better than any other prisoner I've seen. No cell, no guards." He reached a hand down and took hold of her wrist. "Not even any binders."
His thumb activated the lightsaber even as she wrenched her hand from the gnarled fingers. Now it was defense.
The blue glow of the saber reflected in the Emperor's eyes. "So much like your father. Your anger flashes just like his. Are you going to kill me?"
His jaw tensed and he dropped the blade of the saber between Leia and the Emperor. "I should. For everything you've done."
"Someone's been feeding you stories," the Emperor said, not retreating even a millimeter from the pulsing lightsaber."Did your father ever tell you about the time he stood before me exactly as you do now?"
"No," he said warily, pushing his way in front of Leia, the forward movement of the saber at last making the Emperor move back.
"I thought not," the Emperor said."He was about your age, a Jedi Knight already, lightsaber drawn, trying to decide whether or not to kill me. Of course, since I'm still here we know what choice he made, but you, you have real anger. You might actually do it."
He licked his lips. He had more anger than his father? He might violate the Code where Vader had not? The saber burned in his hand like it was the Dark Side itself.
In the moment he took to deactivate the lightsaber, something smacked him so hard it felt like ten Gamorreans had rushed him at once and he flew backwards against the wall of the cabin. As he picked himself up off the floor he heard Leia scream his name and then it hit him again, a bolt of energy that enveloped him, producing both excruciating pain and extraordinary weakness. With his nose buried in the carpet he felt strong hands grab him by the arms and hoist him up, and there was nothing he could do about it.
"Lord Vader? Lord Vader, are you all right?"
The rising volume of Piett's voice brought him back to the present, and he pulled himself away from the wall that had held him upright. The agony of Force lightning had filled his mind, but it hadn't been his body that was struck; it had been Luke's.
"I am fine, Admiral. But the Emperor is on board Executor."
Piett fiddled with the comlink on his belt. "I have no messages announcing his arrival, m'lord."
"Nor have I," he said. "Nevertheless, he is here. We must retrieve the captives."
"I'll dispatch a squad to their room immediately," Piett said.
"No. The Emperor will be watching for such activity," he said. "We must go alone."
Piett nodded. "As you wish, m'lord."
She liked her anger. It banished her fears and gave her focus, made her stronger. So she thought about how angry she was to be locked in this room, to not know where Luke was, to have no way to communicate with the Alliance. It kept her from looking at the door every few minutes, wishing that Luke would come through it. Or even Vader. As unbelievable as it seemed, she'd be damned happy to see that shiny black helmet right about now.
Or Han. She didn't know if he was still on Endor's moon, or if the moon even still existed. Anything could have happened while she had been on board this ship. But that couldn't be the last time she would see him, without a real goodbye. It just couldn't be. She drew in a breath and found anger could serve another purpose: to disguise sadness.
She turned her thoughts back towards the room, looking upward to the ceiling. Maybe that ventilation outlet wasn't as far away as it seemed. If she stacked a chair onto the conference table and climbed up on the chair, maybe she could reach the edge of the grate. Once she'd pushed aside the cover, she only had to pull herself up into the duct.
She sighed when her fingertips remained many centimeters short of the grate. She wasn't Luke and one of his athletic leaps just wasn't going to happen. As she brought the chair down off of the table she heard activity outside the door. Not knowing whether to be hopeful or afraid, her breath caught as she waited for the door to slide open. She stiffened when she saw it was not her brother but simply another target for her anger.
"What have you done with Luke?" she said, striding towards the Emperor.
The Emperor deflected her aggression by making a slow circle around her. "He's recuperating. He'll be fine. It was for his own good, really."
"Getting shocked with that...that lightning was for his benefit?" she said. "Didn't look too healthy to me."
"Attacking the head of state is known as treason," the Emperor said."Punishable by death in most places. I was saving him from himself."
"And just when did you become so interested in his welfare?" she said.
"And just when did you decide to betray the Alliance?" the Emperor countered, stopping directly in front of her.
"I have not betrayed the Alliance," she said indignantly, then wondered if she should have answered at all.
"But you have aligned yourself with Vader and Skywalker," the Emperor said."If they destroy me, do you really think Vader will simply hand over the Empire to your Rebel Alliance?"
She hesitated. This was dangerous ground, an area in which she didn't know the answers herself.
"Please, sit down," the Emperor said, pulling out a chair for her."We should talk, Senator to Senator."
"You disbanded the Senate, or don't you remember?" she said, taking a seat, but not the one he offered.
"I had no choice. The assaults by your Rebellion on the security of the Empire necessitated a tight command structure." He looked down. "I recall my terms as a Senator with great fondness and I would look forward to a time when the Senate could be reconvened."
She leaned back in her chair. "Really? A Senate representing only the planets you hadn't blown up with that thing?"
He shook his head. "If you sat atop the Empire, you would understand. But then, perhaps that is why you are here, to bypass Mothma and the Alliance structure and ensure your place at the top of an Empire run by Vader."
She was aghast. "No...I'd never..."
The Emperor extended an arm across the table towards her. "But what do you think will happen if they kill me? Vader will seize control of the Empire, that son of his will become his apprentice, and together they will finish off the Alliance. Whereas I understand the need for diplomacy and discussion, Vader is a brute. His punishments for even slight infractions are legendary throughout the Imperial Navy. As you have personally experienced his methods, surely you can appreciate the truth in what I am saying."
Her brow tensed in concentration. Was that the future she was helping to create? One in which the Alliance would be destroyed and Luke would be lost to Vader? Was it a future that was unfolding even now? Luke's face came to her, that resolute optimism shining in his eyes as he first told her of his plan to save Vader. She had to talk to Luke, stop things before they went any further. There must be a way to convince the Emperor to take her to him.
She looked to the Emperor, her mouth part way open, but the words failed to come out, silenced by the Emperor's half-lidded expression, his face awash with pleasure. She dearly hoped she had nothing to do with it.
Suddenly the yellow orbs focussed on her, and triumph floated in his voice. "No, I suppose you wouldn't, because your feelings are so strong for the Alliance, and for its members, especially for your... brother."
She squeezed her eyes closed trying to block a presence that she couldn't feel."Get out of my head!"
The Emperor chuckled."Not likely. Not when you're carrying secrets as good as that one."
She sought to empty her mind of thoughts as she had done on Vader's shuttle.
"Nice try," the Emperor said, leaning closer."Did your father teach you that?"
"I have nothing more to say to you," she said.
The Emperor rose from his chair, his gaze fixed on her. "I don't know why I didn't figure this out sooner. After all, you're just like your mother."
She found herself staring at him, wishing he would say more.
"Oh, you don't know?" he said, moving to her side."She was a Senator, too. Strong willed. Smart. And very beautiful."
His thin fingers caressed her cheek and she slapped his hand away, her stomach churning. But however frail he looked the hand that grabbed hers had lost none of its strength to age. He held her wrist tightly as the fingers of his other hand traced over her palm. He bent his head down and she could feel his breath on her neck.
"It's all right. You can tell me," he said softly. "You crave power. You want to be part of your family's dynasty. There's nothing shameful in that."
She peeled his fingers from around her wrist and rose from her chair so swiftly that it fell over. "No. I crave freedom. For the entire Galaxy."
The bright glow of his eyes increased. "Then you'd better reconsider the company you're keeping. If don't intend to follow Vader's plan, then I must warn you that he doesn't deal well with betrayal. I wouldn't want you to suffer your mother's fate."
Her eyes followed him as he exited the room. How had she allowed herself to get in this situation? She had to either believe the man who kept the Galaxy enthralled by fear, or trust the father who might have hurt her mother. Great.
She bit her lip in concentration. There was one more choice. Find Luke and get the hell off this ship.
His gloved fingertips followed Luke's slide down the wall of the cabin. Visually there was only a slight smudge, but in the Force he could feel where his son's body had impacted the wall. He knelt to the floor and spread his hand wide over the short pile of the carpet. Luke had lain here. He searched the floor for scorch marks and was relieved to find none. Perhaps the boy had not been badly damaged.
He rose to his feet and noted Piett's perplexed expression.
"Do you see something, m'lord?" the Admiral asked.
"Not see, Piett, feel," he said. "The Emperor has been here. He is the one who took the captives."
"Pardon me for asking, m'lord, but why would the Emperor need to steal prisoners?" Piett said.
He looked into Piett's face. The truth would be revealed soon enough. "Because that boy is my son."
Piett blinked rapidly. "Oh."
"Spare nothing for his protection if I am not the first to find him," he said.
Piett still looked stunned."Of course, m'lord."
"Send your most trusted men in search of him and report all information to me," he said, heading for the corridor.
"Right away," Piett said, as he moved to the com unit on the cabin's desk.
Always he had felt respect, and often fear, in Piett's mind, but now there was something different, something akin to admiration. It had been so very long since that emotion had been directed at him, he had almost forgotten the feeling.
He closed his eyes, twisting his head to one side and then the other, but the soreness that resided in his neck and the rest of his body was not impressed by stretching. He would have gotten up to test the door , but he'd already tried that too many times. Even his attempts to use the Force on the guards he could sense outside the door had fallen flat. The room didn't look like a detention cell, more like a meeting room with a table and several chairs, but it was serving that purpose since he was locked inside without his weapon. And without Leia.
He vaguely remembered being hauled down corridors, his legs stumbling underneath him, but he couldn't say how far he had been moved from the original cabin. On a ship the size of Executor there would be thousands upon thousands of rooms, probably all as monochromatic as this one. His hand fell once again to the empty spot over his hip. What he wouldn't give to have his lightsaber back, so that he could escape this room to find Leia and warn his father.
He could still feel his father's presence, though less clearly than before, as if a shadow had fallen between them. Beyond that, his sense of the future was clouded, as if something was physically interfering with his connection to the Force. At the moment, it felt like that something was drawing near.
He rose from his chair when he sensed a stirring in the guards outside the door and then he detected the flat, unrevealing presence that he had come to recognize as the Emperor. When the door slid open he got his first glimpse of the guards he had sensed, scarlet armored figures who moved aside so that the Emperor could enter the room.
"I see you're feeling better," the Emperor said. "I apologize for the overzealousness of my guards. They are trained to protect me from any threat."
He narrowed his eyes. Is that what had happened? He remembered being thrown against the wall, but not seeing that distinctive red armor.
The Emperor pulled something from within his robe. "I'm sure you'll want this back. It's a very fine example."
He reached forward to take the lightsaber from the Emperor's hand. "Thanks. I made it myself."
"Being a Jedi must be very important to you," the Emperor said with a hint of a smile.
"Why do you say that?" he said, clipping the saber back on his belt.
The Emperor swept a hand in front of him."Your appearance. Your demeanor. Your weapon. You have modelled yourself after the Order despite there being no one left to be your guide."
"I had help," he said.
"Ah yes," the Emperor said, pulling aside a chair and sitting down. "Obi-Wan Kenobi, as I recall. I'm surprised he didn't entrust you with the last mission of the Order. His mission, in fact."
"What are you talking about?" he said, lowering himself into a seat opposite the Emperor.
"Kenobi was supposed to kill your father. Didn't quite get the job done," the Emperor said, leaning back in his chair."Almost, though. After their battle your father was missing three limbs and burned to a crisp. Took a fair amount of surgery to save him and he still needed that awful suit. Anyways, I would have thought that Kenobi would have sent you to finish the task."
His gut felt tight. Ben? Ben had done that? He brushed away the images that swarmed his mind. "I won't kill my own father."
The Emperor's smile deepened."Then you reject the Jedi agenda. As your father did."
"No," he said defiantly."I will follow the path of the Jedi."
"And you think your father will allow you to remain one if you work together?" the Emperor said."You do know that he was the one who led the assault on the Temple."
"Only because you made him," he said accusingly.
The Emperor raised his eyebrows. "You've met the man. No one can make him do anything. No, he did it of his own accord - killed not only the Masters and the Padawans, but even the younglings. No wonder they sent Kenobi to destroy him. In fact, after I learned of what he had done, I knew my duty would be to keep him in check."
He stared into the yellow eyes, thinking of the blistering heat that rolled without fail from his father's presence. How much truth was there in the Emperor's story? What did he really know of his father's life?
"You have thought of that, haven't you?" the Emperor said. "Over the last twenty five years only my presence has contained him. If you destroy me, are you prepared to take responsibility for releasing him unfettered?"
"There's good in him. I can feel it," he said, reminding himself.
The Emperor snorted. "Good is a point of view. The question is, can you bring him to your point of view, or will he bring you to his? That you are here on this ship and not with your Rebel friends tells me which way it will be. How much more of yourself will you give up to remain at his side?"
"We understand each other. He hasn't asked me to change anything," he said.
"Do you?" the Emperor said, a new smile twisting his face."Do you truly understand who's underneath that mask?"
"Yes," he said, using faith to steady his voice. "Anakin Skywalker, my father."
"Hmmph," the Emperor said as he rose from the table. "That person no longer exists."
"Wait," he said, getting up to follow the Emperor's retreating form."What have you done with Leia?"
The Emperor paused. "You mean your sister? She is quite safe. That is, unless your father finds her."
He hoped the startled jump of his heart had not revealed itself on his face. "What are you talking about?"
"With her lack of training, she is the obvious choice to bring to the Dark Side, not you," the Emperor said.
"He won't do that. He doesn't even know about her," he said.
"Oh, but he will," the Emperor said, passing through the threshold. "He will. And then you will be forced to choose. Jedi."
He let the door slide shut and the Emperor's presence fade away. Oddly enough, it felt as though the guards had left with the Emperor. Even if they were there, he could no longer wait for his father, wasn't even sure that he should.
With one swift plunge, he sent the blue plasma of his lightsaber straight through the door.
Using both hands he ripped his lightsaber through the door in a freehand approximation of a rectangle. As the last centimeters of durasteel gave way to the glowing blade, he held the free piece with his mind to keep it from falling into the outside corridor. Gently he lowered it to the deck and peered out through the hole. While the hallway in front of him was empty, the adjacent corridor carried heavy traffic.
He pulled his head back inside the room and reached out with the Force for Leia. Though he didn't recall the exact path, as best he could remember he had remained on the same level. Perhaps she had not been taken far from the original cabin, either, or was even still there. To find her all he had to do was take a jaunt down Executor's hallways and not get caught. Simple.
A second look out the hole in the door revealed the main corridor to be still just as busy. Darting from doorway to doorway without being noticed seemed highly unlikely.He watched the parade of crew members go by and realized that amongst the grey uniforms and stormtrooper armor were also black uniforms that from a distance looked similar to his own clothing. Maybe if he acted as if he belonged here, he'd draw less attention. And really, in a way he did belong here, had a right to be here, being that it was his father's ship.
He held that confidence in his mind as he stepped through the door and slipped into the line of foot traffic. To the crew members that turned to him with startled looks he gave a low wave of his hand. You don't need to report this.
Matching the cadence of the men ahead of him, he walked close enough behind them to appear to be part of their group. When the Force pulled him in a new direction, he carefully attached himself to another group and continued on. He turned down a side passage when he detected Leia's presence. As he made his way towards her, he reflected on how easy it had been to find her. Almost too easy, as if the Emperor had wanted them to be reunited.
He stopped in front of an unmarked door. "Leia. Leia are you in there?"
Her excitement carried through the door."Luke! Can you unlock the door?"
One way or another he would, but swinging a lightsaber in the middle of the hallway was likely to draw attention. He thought for a moment, then placed his hand over the control panel and used the Force to feel inside. The magnetic field of the lock made his fingertips tingle as the Force helped him to turn the mechanism. Abruptly the door slid open and he stepped inside.
Leia's arms were around him so quickly he didn't even have time to marvel at his new skill. "Oww. Not so tight."
She let go of him immediately and her eyes swept over him. "Sorry. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Just a little sore," he said, putting a hand to her shoulder. "What about you? The Emperor didn't hurt you, did he?"
"No. Just gave me the creeps," she said. "He must be powerful, or somebody else would have killed him by now."
He sighed. "I need to talk to you about that. What would you think if we gave up this mission?"
"If you mean we get off this ship right now, I'm all for it," she said. "What changed your mind?"
He looked into her eyes.
"What if I'm wrong about him? About Father, I mean."
"I thought you could sense his feelings, could tell that he wasn't such a bad guy," she said.
"I can. But..." he said, his gaze dropping to the floor. He ran a hand over his face. "I never told you this, but at Bespin he made me an offer. To rule the Galaxy as father and son."
"One which you obviously declined," she said, a small furrow appearing in her brow. "Are you having second thoughts about that?"
"No!" he said emphatically. "That's the whole point. I don't want to take over the Galaxy. But if I...we... help him in this, isn't that where it ends up? I wanted him to come with me but instead we're following him. And I don't know that we believe the same things, regardless of what we feel for each other."
She gave a soft smile and put her hand on his arm. "I do think it's for the best that we leave. But are you sure you'll be able to live with that? Afterall, you took a lot of risks to come after him."
He frowned for a moment.
"I have to believe it's not the end. If he is who I think he is, he'll come to me. And if he's not, then at least we won't have fought for the wrong side."
She exhaled deeply. "You have no idea how much better that makes me feel. What about the Emperor?"
"We trust that the Alliance will succeed," he said. "Which it will have a better chance of doing if we go back to help them."
"Okay, so what's our next move?" she asked.
"We head for the hangar," he said, a grin spreading across his face, "and take Father's shuttle. I saw where he activated the transponder. I'm sure it'll get us past any Imperial checkpoint."
She laughed. "Just like every other kid, sneaking off in the family speeder. And how will we get to the hangar without being noticed?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I've got the technique down."
It was cold triumph. Not hot, not searing like anger. Rather it was anger transformed, anger made righteous so that it took wing and soared to that thin edge where the atmosphere yielded to the icy grip of space. A coldness that forged his intention into indestructable will. Though the deed was not yet accomplished, the cool certainty of triumph was already his.
Palpatine would die. He could feel it in the Force, the way it surged through his muscles, the way it showed him the path that Luke had taken. Or been taken on.
Come this way, it whispered. Turn here. Now straight on. Keep going. Even the throngs of passing crew members could not conceal its trail.
He increased his pace, though he was already walking fast enough that the sound of his boots was not sufficient notice for the crew ahead of him to clear the way, and more than a few of them received a push from his hand. He could waste no time getting to Luke's side.
Against the unbreachable shield of his determination came thoughts that did burn. Like water on a magnesium fire they ignited flares of white hot rage that coursed through his body. Thoughts that Palpatine might have harmed Luke. That he might have tormented the boy with lies. That he might have found the correct leverage to make Luke submit. And sometimes the fire roared back on himself, for ever having left the boy alone.
But the intensity of these thoughts made them burn out quickly, serving only to temper his resolve. Anger was impotent, a passive protest against that which could not be changed. This, this cold sense of purpose, was so much better.
He turned down a new corridor and this time he didn't need the Force to tell him he was in the right place. In the middle of the deck was a large piece of durasteel that matched a gaping hole in the door above it. A hole obviously created by a lightsaber.
He bent down to ease himself through the opening in the door, then rose to survey the interior.The conference room appeared empty, but his son's presence was everywhere.
At the head of the table, a dark robe which blended almost invisibly into a black leather chair shifted, revealing its owner.
"I'm afraid he's not here."
A ripple of unease spread through his mind.
"What have you done with him?"
"Nothing," Palpatine said with a smile. "But really, Lord Vader, if you're going to be a parent, you'll have to learn to keep better track of your children."
A thousand other jabs echoed in his head, the legacy of decades of servitude.
"I am tired of your games. Where is he?"
"Oh, the Empire has never been a game to me," Palpatine said, his smile gone and his voice hard. "It is you who does not take it seriously enough. You give your loyalty in exchange for insubstantial emotion. Even now you would throw this all away for the affections of that boy."
He felt the heat of rising anger, a creeping indignation begging to be released.
"You should talk of loyalty. You think I do not know that you would dispose of me as readily as you did Dooku? But I will not allow you to take Luke as my replacement."
Palpatine rose from his seat.
"Interesting you should mention that. The boy does have many fine qualities, and he's far more disciplined than you could ever hope to be. But it would be difficult to turn him away from his Jedi training. No, of the two, I think I'd rather have the girl."
He blinked inside the helmet. "What?"
The Emperor walked slowly around the curve of the table, the fingers of one hand trailing across the top.
"Your daughter, Lord Vader. I think she'll make a better apprentice than your son."
Had Palpatine lost his mind?
"What did you say?"
"At least I'm not the last to know," the Emperor said, a thin smile returning to his face. "Leia Organa is your daughter."
The word echoed in his head. Daughter. He thought of the graceful oval of her face. The fire in her dark brown eyes. The way she stood toe to toe with him, unyielding. Recognition drained his anger from him, leaving him hollow.
"I berated myself as well for not seeing the obvious," Palpatine said. "Her resemblance to Padme is remarkable."
"Don't you say her name," he said, fury rushing in to fill his emptiness. Words held captive for too long broke free at last. "You never had the power to save her. I should have killed you then for your lies."
"Lord Vader, you should know by now that I rarely lie," Palpatine said slowly. "It's just not necessary. People hear what they want to hear. Even you."
Maybe it was the smirk in Palpatine's voice. Or the sense of superiority that permeated the words. He was reminded of insults swallowed and of thoughts supressed, of conversations begun while on his knees. And though he had suffered those indignities with only gritted teeth, this last was intolerable. That he had changed the course of the Galaxy for a vow that Palpatine viewed not as broken but as a mere matter of semantics tore through the last of his self-control.
He didn't remember calling his lightsaber to his outstretched hand, but there it was, and he thumbed it to life. The blade flared crimson, its hum and glow carrying its own promise, a promise to fulfill his dream of killing his Master. To free himself, and to ensure that Luke, and now Leia, would never suffer as he had.
He strode forward until the red glow of the lightsaber reflected on Palpatine's face. And then the Emperor smiled.
"Are you really going to try this alone, Lord Vader?" Palpatine said.
No. No, it wasn't supposed to be this way. His outrage cooled and reason returned to him. Luke was supposed to be here. They would do it together, that was the plan. But there was no retreat from this position. This wasn't like their verbal spars, in which words couched in careful terms could hold double meanings. The intent of an ignited lightsaber could not be made innocent.
He dropped his hand to angle his lightsaber defensively across his torso. When Palpatine's lip twitched, he prepared himself for the coming onslaught. The brunt power of a Force-push knocked him backwards and he let the Force guide his hand in time for the lightsaber to intercept an arc of lightning from the Emperor's fingers. As he regained his footing he raised the saber blade to deflect the blazing energy back onto Palpatine.
The forks of Force lightning vanished, and he allowed himself a moment of hope. Perhaps the Emperor's powers had faded with age. He picked up a chair with his mind, sent it hurling against Palpatine's back. When the Emperor flew forward off his feet, he slashed the saber downward, but was rewarded only with the smell of burning cloth as Palpatine dodged under the table. With a two handed grip he brought the saber crashing into the tabletop, slicing it neatly, but the supports held and the table remained upright.
Palpatine chuckled as he crawled up from the other side of the table.
"Don't you think we're both a little old for this sort of thing?"
"Speak for yourself," he answered, starting to round the table towards the Emperor.
Palpatine moved around the other way, maintaining the distance between them.
"Maybe you're right. One's never too old for some things."
He reversed direction in an attempt to close ground on his opponent.
"Such as the appreciation of young beauty," Palpatine said. "I think I shall truly enjoy making Organa my apprentice."
He stopped in his tracks as rage flooded his mind.
"You will not touch her!"
"Oh, it's too late for that. I already have," the Emperor said.
He leapt to the top of the table and charged towards Palpatine, lightsaber outstretched. As he saw Palpatine extend his fingers in preparation, he swung the saber towards the Emperor's neck. The blade fell short, and he felt the agonizing grip of Force lightning surround his legs. The electronic circuits in his protheses overloaded, causing his knees to buckle underneath him. His momentum carried him off the end of the table and he tumbled to the floor, landing on his back.
Palpatine's face appeared above him and he sent a desperate shove with the Force, sending the Emperor flying. He sat up, but his lower limbs would not respond and he couldn't stand. With the strength of his upper body he pushed himself to his knees and brought his lightsaber in front of him.
"Good to see you in the proper position, Lord Vader," Palpatine said. "I've grown weary of your insolence."
He could do nothing but block the fierce torrent of energy that flew from Palpatine's fingertips. This time the Emperor did not avoid the lightning that reflected back from his lightsaber, and there was no relief from the roaring assault . He could feel the power of it slowly pushing his lightsaber towards his chest and with great effort he extended his arms out from his body. Abruptly the lightning ceased and with the sudden loss of resistance he fell forward. In the next instant a web of searing energy grabbed hold of his body and he was drenched in pain.
"Still run by your emotions," Palpatine said from above him. "You've learned nothing in all these years. That is why I will always be the Master."
He felt the intensity of the Force lightning increase and a wisp of smoke drifted up from the chest plate on the suit. He was no stranger to pain, but this continued assault was almost more than he could stand. He squeezed his eyes shut against the agony. This wasn't the solitary bolt he had received from Dooku, meant only to disable him. No, this was meant to kill him. His muscles contracted into complete rigidity, and he felt a tightness in his chest as his heartbeat became irregular.
When at last Palpatine relented in his attack, his muscles went soft and he sank to the floor. He opened his eyes and discovered the display in the helmet had gone out, leaving him in total darkness. He gulped in air but it was stale and left him wanting more. Despite what Palpatine had said, he had learned something in the past twenty three years, and that was that his ventilator cycled without fail every six seconds. Sometimes faster, but never slower. Except now. It was a rhythm imprinted in his mind and each second that passed without it activating left his body shouting Now.
Palpatine's voice sounded very far away.
"Your time is over, Lord Vader. But I thank you for providing me with a choice of replacements."
He tried to sit up, but the effort almost made him vomit, and he laid back down. A blast of air came at last from the ventilator and he thought it the sweetest thing he had ever smelled. In the aftermath of that one breath, he found he could think again. Luke's face came to him, and Leia's. So many things he wanted to tell them.
The ventilator remained silent, leaving him only his own exhaled breath, and consciousness began to ebb from him. Dimly he felt another soothing burst of air and his mind stumbled towards wakefulness. Can't let Palpatine have them.
But he felt so tired, so very tired. His eyes closed and he surrendered himself to the sleep that beckoned.
The shuttle was so close that she could imagine herself walking up the treads of its ramp. Forget walking, she imagined running. She'd be running now, across the open plain of the hangar, except that Luke said they would be less conspicuous this way.
It took everything she had to keep that impulse under control, though, her nerves already on edge from the trip through Executor's hallways. With all the eyes that focused on them, she was sure someone would stop to question them. But whenever anyone seemed too interested, Luke mumbled something, and their interest faded away. He seemed unfazed by the pressure, but it made her stomach churn.
Her first thought, then, when he stumbled in front of her was that the tension had finally gotten to him. When he dropped to his knees, she knew it was something more.
She quickly surveyed the hangar before kneeling down to put a hand on his back.
"Luke, what's the matter?"
He held one hand pressed to his chest and it was a moment before he spoke.
"Something's terribly wrong with Father. He's in pain, he's injured. I don't really feel his presence anymore."
That didn't bode well for them. Vader was their only defense from the tens of thousands of troops on board Executor. She looped one arm around his and tried to pull him up.
"Luke, then we've got to get out of here."
He twisted from her grip and staggered to his feet.
"No. I've got to go to him. I have to help him."
"But Luke, if he's gone, it's you and me against the Empire."
His blue eyes looked like ice.
"You can stay here if you want, but I've got to find him."
And after that she was running, because it was all she could do to keep up with Luke. They covered the span of the hangar in half the time it taken them to walk in. Ominously, she could see a formation of stormtroopers near where they had originally entered the hangar. She knew Luke had to see them too, but he didn't slow his pace.
As they drew close to the armored troops she fell to a walk, breathing heavily, and Luke finally slowed down enough for her to catch up to him. To get back into the main levels of the ship they would have to cross the line of stormtroopers. That not a one of them had their weapon drawn was small comfort.
A grey haired officer, one she remembered seeing before, walked from behind the troopers. Luke unfastened his lightsaber and she watched the officer stare at it for a moment.
"Skywalker, there's no need for your weapon," the officer said. "Your father has entrusted me with your safety. Please come along peacefully."
Luke's head jerked visibly at the words."You know where my father is?"
"Well, not at the moment," the officer said, "but I'm sure he'll be here shortly."
Luke shook his head as he reattached the lightsaber to his belt.
"I think something terrible has happened to him. I can feel it."
The officer gave Luke an appraising look, then took the comlink from his belt. He pushed the activator several times.
"He's not answering his com, but that may not mean anything."
"But you can help me find him?" Luke said, walking to within arms length of the officer.
"He'll certainly want to know that we've found you, so my next step would be to contact him," the officer said. "We can check his signal in the central computer. Follow me."
Luke looked back at her before proceeding into the interior hallway. She heard the clack of armor as the stormtroopers fell in line behind her. The scene had an aura of deja-vu, except this time she had the sense that the troops were here for her protection, rather than to escort a prisoner.
The officer stopped at a computer console in the hallway.
"Yes, Lord Vader is in conference room twelve fifty seven. He may have his comlink silenced for a meeting. It's not far from here. We'll go to him."
They continued down the corridor, veering to the left at the second intersection. Abruptly Luke stopped in front of her and drew his lightsaber. She peered around him to see a pair of guards, helmeted and dressed in scarlet robes.
Luke turned to the officer, anger seething in his voice.
"You led us into a trap."
The officer shook his head almost imperceptibly and he spoke in a whisper, "No. But stay quiet."
The Emperor walked slowly towards then from between the Royal guards.
"Admiral Piett, I want to thank you for capturing these fugitives."
The admiral's face had gone deathly pale. "Yes, I'm taking them to the detention center."
The Emperor came closer, a predatory look in his eyes.
"I will take custody of them now."
Piett cleared his throat before replying.
"It's Lord Vader's command that they be taken to the high security block in the detention center."
The yellow eyes locked on to Piett and a sneer twisted the Emperor's face.
"That order is void. Forgetting the fact that I'm overturning it, Lord Vader is dead."
"Artoo Detoo, you're just going to have to admit that we're lost," Threepio said. "I've never seen a ship so big."
Artoo brapped a reply without slowing down.
"We haven't seen a trace of Master Luke or Princess Leia," Threepio said. "They probably left without us and we're doomed to a life of serving the Empire."
Artoo turned his photoreceptor away from Threepio and gave a double raspberry.
"I just don't understand why you won't stop and ask for directions," Threepio said. "There's a computer terminal every fifty meters."
A twitter of chirps rose in pitch then fell off with a resigned whistle as Artoo headed towards a computer outlet. After plugging in and accessing the ship's central computer he swiveled his dome towards Threepio and beeped his confusion.
"Well, of course there's no Anakin Skywalker in the directory," Threepio said. "I told you that wasn't him."
Frantic whistles escaped Artoo as he rocked back and forth in response.
Threepio extended a golden hand to Artoo's dome.
"Calm down. If that is who's inside there, that's not the name he's using. Try Darth Vader."
A triumphant whistle rang from the astromech droid.
"Conference room twelve fifty-seven. See, was that so hard?" Threepio said. "At least now we know where we're going."
Dead. Because he'd failed to keep his word, failed to give the help that his father had been counting on, his father was dead. He remembered the last words his father had said to him: Wait for me. What kind of a son was he?
He felt numb. And he knew he couldn't afford to be numb, not when the Emperor still stood before him. He stared at the Emperor's metal cloak pin to avoid looking into the eerie yellow eyes.
"Skywalker, with the loss of your father I have a position available among my personal staff. I would hope that you would accept it," the Emperor said.
He looked up in disbelief.
"I am a Jedi. I would never join you."
"Details," the Emperor said. "Are you really going to maintain the homage to that extinct philosophy? If you learned all the ways of the Force, you could fulfill your father's destiny and become as powerful as he was meant to be, before Kenobi struck him down."
The mention of Ben only added to his churning emotions.
"I'm not interested in power."
The ends of the Emperor's mouth tilted upwards.
"Pity. Then I shall take your sister instead. Admiral, I've changed my mind. You may take Skywalker to the detention center. Then schedule his execution. I have no use for a Jedi."
The red cloaked guards lowered their electrostaffs to either side of Leia, and his hand immediately went to his lightsaber. As he went to swing it forward, Piett grabbed his arm.
"Easy, son," the Admiral said in a low voice. "Not the right time."
Anger broke through his numbness as he looked at Piett, but the Admiral's expressionless face and calm presence in the Force allowed him to regain his self-control. Maybe Piett was right. If he was to defeat the Emperor he would have to be fully focused and aware, and he was far from that now. He began to understand why his father had trusted Piett enough to reveal their relationship.
He watched without protest as a stormtrooper placed binders around Leia's wrists, but he held her gaze, hoping she could see in his eyes that his inaction was not betrayal. The two Royal guards guided her with their staffs to a position behind the Emperor, and the entourage began to move away.
Piett's comlink chimed and the admiral's brow furrowed as he listened to the man on the other end.
His voice was crisp when he spoke. "Your Highness, the Rebel fleet has dropped out of hyperspace and they are approaching the Death Star. Shall we engage them?"
The Emperor paused.
"No, not yet. I will inform you of the proper time."
Piett spoke into the com, "Hold our position and stand by for further orders."
Han. Chewie. Lando. The rest of the Alliance. All carrying out their mission even as he had become mired in his own personal matters. Even worse, he had accomplished nothing of what he had set out to do. When Piett's hand pushed him in the middle of the back, he moved forward without resistance.
"After I secure this prisoner, your Highness," Piett said to the departing Emperor, "I will return to the bridge and await your command."
He walked silently at Piett's shoulder, the simple act of following a way to draw focus from his pain.
When they came upon a stretch of empty hallway, he turned to the admiral. "Are you taking me to the detention center?"
Piett kept walking.
"Of course not. Your father would be quite displeased with me if I had you executed."
A smile escaped him before reality intruded.
"But the Emperor said he was dead."
"We don't know if that's true," Piett said.
The idea brought him some comfort and he suddenly had the thought that he wasn't the only one hoping that his father was still alive.
"But if it is true, why would you help me?"
"Because your father asked me to protect you if he was unable," the admiral said.
"Yeah, I'm sure it's impossible to refuse his orders," he said.
Piett's voice aquired an edge,"You didn't hear me. I said he asked me."
He lowered his head, ashamed for the way he had minimized the courage of Piett's actions.
The admiral looked up and down the hallway before pulling him into an alcove.
"This is probably none of my business, but it seems that the two of you don't know each other very well. In case you never have that opportunity, I think you should know that it is considered a mark of distinction to have served under your father. Only those who demonstrate superior performance succeed. It is not an easy assignment, but he never asks the men to do anything he wouldn't do himself. The men respect him for that. As do I."
Piett was right; he didn't know his father at all. Otherwise he would have never doubted him. This man wasn't talking about the Anakin Skywalker of the past, but rather the Darth Vader of the present and still his father had earned this man's loyalty. More than ever he wanted the chance to speak to him again.
"And one more thing about him," Piett said, "he doesn't give up. So don't you."
He'd never received a better pep talk from an Alliance commander. The enemy wasn't supposed to be like this. The Empire was supposed to be oppressive and unjust, not compassionate and inspiring. He finally understood what his father had said: it wasn't so much the Empire that was wrong as the Emperor.
Piett's comlink chimed again, and in the closeness of the alcove he couldn't help but overhear the message.
"The Emperor's shuttle is being prepared to depart for the Death Star."
Piett was right; he couldn't give up.He interrupted the admiral's conversation.
"Thank you, but I've got to go. I can't let her get on that shuttle."
He headed back towards the hangar, breaking into a run before Piett could stop him.
"Oh, I don't like the looks of this at all," Threepio said as he and Artoo approached room twelve fifty-seven. "Maybe we should turn around."
The astromech droid kept on going, chirping a response.
"All right. We can at least look inside." Threepio said, leaning down to peek through the hole in the door. "Oh my. There seems to have been a fight in here."
Artoo whistled as he tried to angle his photoreceptor through the hole.
"Exciting is not the word I would use," Threepio said. "Anyway, the room appears to be empty. We can leave."
Artoo beeped disparagingly.
"Take that back! I'm not programmed for battles like you are," Threepio said. "Fine. We'll go in."
Threepio pressed the outside control and the door slid open slowly, catching for a moment on the out-turned edges of the hole. He felt Artoo bump him in the back of the leg.
"I'm going, I'm going!"
Threepio carefully picked his way around the jumble of overturned chairs, pausing when he came to the slice that almost divided the table in half.
"I think we've seen enough. There's no one here."
Artoo rolled around to the other side of the table and began whistling with great urgency.
"What is it?" Threepio said, walking over towards Artoo. His photoreceptors focused on a fallen black shape. "Oh dear."
Artoo whistled hopefully and gently nudged the still figure, but there was no response.
"I'm sorry, Artoo. If he was a droid, I'd say he'd been...deactivated," Threepio said, putting a hand on his counterpart. "Although, some of the lights are still functioning. But it is my understanding that humans require more than just a power source."
A thin arm unfolded from a compartment in Artoo's body and the droid carefully inserted a diagnostic card into the chest plate of the armored suit.After a few moments another arm reached to the controls on Vader's belt and began making adjustments.
"What are you doing?" Threepio said. "You're not an Emdee.You don't know anything about repairing organics."
Artoo's own lights flashed rapidly and the droid flipped two of the toggle switches on the chest plate. Almost immediately the cycle of rushing air from the helmet quadrupled in frequency. When the sequence of lights on the chest plate took on a regular pattern, Artoo withdrew the diagnostic card.
Threepio looked from Vader's unresponsive form to the astromech droid.
"You did your best, Artoo. Don't blame yourself for something that's beyond your programming. I'll be sure to tell...aaahh!"
One great arm had lifted and a black gloved hand was reaching up to feel the front of Artoo's body. The helmet slowly rolled from one side to the other before centering itself, and Vader's chest expanded with an enormous breath.
When he spoke, his voice was as deep as ever. "Artoo, is that you?"
Artoo's whole body vibrated as he whistled repeatedly.
Vader took two more large breaths and then sat up.
"I need you to fix my helmet, Artoo. I can't see. Check the power cells at the neckpiece."
The droid maneuvered towards Vader's back and extended a grasping claw to the rear of the helmet. With a twist he reseated the power cells.
"Much better," Vader said, turning to survey the room. His gaze fixed on the protocol droid. "You're being unusually quiet, Threepio."
"Why, yes, I..I'm simply astounded by your return to functional status," Threepio said.
"You won't be the only one," Vader said.
"I am glad that you're all right, Master...Anakin," Threepio said.
"Yes, but you cannot call me that," Vader said. He removed the right shin guard and pulled off his boot to reveal his gleaming prosthesis. "Artoo, test the circuit in my leg."
The astromech droid produced an electrical probe and stimulated the activation points in the prosthesis. Artoo chirped when the leg didn't move.
"I agree. Blown fuse, or maybe a relay," Vader said. He turned to Threepio. "I need to borrow some of your parts. And I'll need some for my left leg as well."
"Why, certainly I would be glad to donate them," Threepio said. "But Artoo, you'll have to remove them. I can't bear to watch."
He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he would do whatever it took to save Leia. If his father had the courage to face the Emperor alone, then he would too.
Even from a distance the red armor of the Emperor's guards stuck out against the gleaming charcoal floor of the hangar. As he came closer he could make out Leia and the Emperor walking between the guards. He was no longer ahead of her, but instead at her side. Every now and then he saw the hood lean towards her and then she would twist her head away from him.
The guards made a rapid about face when he came close enough that the slap of his boots revealed his approach. He paused to ignite his lightsaber and they crossed their electrostaffs protectively behind the Emperor.
Leia had turned at the sound of the lightsaber, her face showing a mixture of hope and concern. The Emperor was the last to turn towards him, which he did with a slow, deliberate motion.
"Skywalker, you've returned," the Emperor said. "You must have reconsidered my offer."
"I'm here for my sister," he said, taking another step closer to the guards.
"Of course you are," the Emperor said. His voice took on a hard edge. "Guards, leave us."
As he watched the six Royal guards move as a unit towards a lambda shuttle that waited in the foreground, he realized he was in almost exactly the same situation he had been in earlier. He with his lightsaber drawn, and the Emperor seemingly unarmed and unprotected. And once again the Emperor was not afraid, had even made himself more vulnerable.
"You have come to exchange places with her, then," the Emperor said, leaving Leia's side and stopping just short of the reach of the lighsaber.
"No," he said, "but she's still coming with me."
"Your bravado is amusing," the Emperor said, "but I will have one of you. And if you're thinking you can stop me I would remind you of your father's fate."
"I won't let you take her," he said, raising his lightsaber into attack position.
The Emperor smiled.
"You're not strong enough to defeat me. And after you fail, she will still be mine."
Leia came forward.
"Luke, in the cabin, the lightning that hit you was from him. Be careful."
The Emperor's lip curled and he gave a curt swat of his hand towards her. His hand touched only air, but she gasped and tumbled off her feet, her bound hands unable to break her fall.
His heart jumped when she hit the floor. How dare he strike her? Anger flushed through him in a scalding torrent.
"Don't you touch her!"
"You see, the only way to help her is to take her place," the Emperor said. "Give in to your hate. Can't you feel its power?"
It did feel powerful. The Force crackled through him with an intensity that meditation had never been able to provide. Maybe he would be able to defeat the Emperor if he gave in just this once, just long enough to kill the Emperor.
Leia groaned and his eyes became riveted to her as she struggled to her feet. Just when she regained her balance, the Emperor's hand pushed the air and her head snapped back and she fell to the floor.
"Stop it!" he growled, the Force surging in alongside his anger.
The Emperor crept closer.
"Only you can make it stop. Give yourself to me and I will let her go."
His gut churned as he thought of Leia as a servant to the Emperor. It was a future he couldn't allow to become real. All he could do was agree to the exchange, so that she would be free. Then he would follow the Emperor, follow him until the moment when he would overpower him and make everything right. Dark. Light. He couldn't see the line anymore, only Leia's face. He hung his head as he deactivated his lightsaber.
"It is your destiny," the Emperor said with a silken voice. "As your father turned to the Dark Side to save your mother, you have turned to save your sister."
A chill ran through his body. For once he was certain the Emperor was telling the truth. This was how it happened. On the knife edge of a decision involving the highest stakes, his father had chosen life over death. Love over loss. Dark over light. Just as he was doing now.
He froze as he thought of the outcome of his father's choice. The destruction of the Jedi Order. A life dominated by loss and suffering, a prison of his own making. Ben was wrong. Darth Vader hadn't destroyed Anakin Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker had created Darth Vader.
His mind became clear even as his heart ached. He finally understood what his choice had to be, and the knowledge only deepened his pain. He tossed away his lightsaber to punctuate his decision.
"You've failed, your Highness. I'll never turn to the Dark Side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
Tears were streaking down Leia's face as she nodded and gave him a faltering smile.
The Emperor's expression became even more grim.
"So be it, Jedi. If you will not be turned, then you will be destroyed."
His breath sucked out of him when he hit the deck, enveloped in surging bolts of Force lightning. He curled himself protectively against the attack, but there was no escape. His only hope was that the end would be quick.
News always traveled fast on a Star Destroyer and this time had apparently been no exception. His crew's startled expressions told him that word of his demise had already spread. But he had never felt more alive.
He reached for his comlink. "Admiral?"
The surprise in Piett's voice carried over the com. "Lord Vader! But the Emperor said you were dead."
"He was obviously mistaken," he said. "Where is he now?"
"His shuttle is about to depart for the Death Star," Piett said, "and you'd better hurry. Your son has gone after him."
Luke alone against the Emperor. The thought should have given him a chill; the boy was no match for Palpatine. Instead he found himself thinking of course, a profound sense of destiny rolling through his mind.
"What about Organa?" he said.
Piett's voice was flat. "The Emperor took her with him."
He clicked off the com without replying. Artoo chirped at his heels as he increased his pace down the main corridor leading to the hangar. Through the Force he sensed roiling waves of emotion: anger, fear, despair. Waves that only grew stronger the closer he came to the hangar, and he followed them to their source.
From the entrance to the hangar Luke and Palpatine appeared only as dark blots until he used the zoom in the helmet to bring them clearly into view. Luke's back was to him but he could see the snarl on Palpatine's face.
He didn't need the zoom to see the first bolt of Force lightning; even in normal mode the blue white zig zag of energy flashed brilliantly against the dark floor. When it struck Luke he flinched, the echo of pain from his son reigniting the agonizing fire in his own memories. Despite the pain, his emotions were strangely cool, his mind calmed by a growing feeling that he was on a path that had been set before him.
Even when Luke collapsed from Palpatine's continued assault, his only reaction was to lengthen his stride and close the last thirty meters that separated him from his son.
Leia was the first to notice him, Luke being unable and Palpatine being utterly consumed in his attack. She was on her knees, though he saw no wounds, with her hands bound in front of her. With a wave of his hand he released her binders and turned to face the Emperor.
Palpatine saw him at last, and the flow of lightning ceased.
Disdain was evident in his voice. "You survived."
He spared a moment to look at Luke, who was groaning senslessly on the floor. When his gaze returned to Palpatine, he found no retort poised on his tongue. The time for words was long gone.
A gleam came into the Emperor's eyes.
"Just as you were moments too late to save your mother and your wife, you are moments too late to save your son. But you are in time to watch him die."
At the edge of his vision he saw that Artoo had rolled to Leia's side and that a compartment had sprung open on top of the droid's dome. As she reached her hand inside, the Force brightened around him and he watched the future unfold. The destiny he had been born to fulfill was almost upon him.
Luke screamed when the blasts of Force lightning resumed, and he let his son's pain pass through him. He ignited his lightsaber and moved to bring Palpatine within its reach. Genuine confusion flickered over the Emperor's face at his approach and then the Emperor shifted to refocus his attack. Forks of lightning launched towards him and he deflected them with the crimson blade.
Just as he knew it would, a bolt from Leia's blaster struck Palpatine's arm, and the Emperor turned to clutch his wound. He saw the lapse in Palpatine's defenses and unleashed a full-length swing. As the arc of the lightsaber swept forward it felt like a dream, but then the blade met the slightest bit of resistance as it passed through flesh instead of air, and in the characteristic manner of all headless bodies, the Emperor's corpse sank to the floor.
He reflexively shut off the lightsaber and stood motionless, his mind swirling in disbelief. He could barely remember a time when Palpatine's influence had not loomed over him, and had never known a time when he was his own master.
Leia's voice calling Luke's name jarred him back to the present and he turned away from Palpatine's body to see her kneeling at Luke's side.
He grabbed his comlink. "Send a medical team to the main hangar at once."
When he knelt down opposite her, she leaned away from him. His gloved fingers swept away Luke's hair and he pressed his palm to his son's forehead. He sensed a glimmer of consciousness stirring in Luke's mind.
"He'll be all right."
She stared into his lenses and he noticed a bruise darkening under her cheek. He lifted his free hand towards her face and her eyes grew wary, but as he traced the outline of the bruise, her expression softened.
She lowered her eyes without moving away from his hand.
"It's nothing. Is he really going to be okay?"
"Yes," he said, cupping his hand against her face. "Everything will be all right."
She looked into his lenses again. "So, when will he be well enough to travel?"
He withdrew his hand and his eyes narrowed. "What?"
"We were trying to leave," she said, then swallowed hard. "He...we...want to go back to the Alliance."
"Leave? You want to leave now," he said, gesturing towards the headless corpse, "when we have killed the Emperor and everything is going as it should?"
Leia's eyes grew large. "We belong with the Alliance, with our friends."
He rose swiftly. "And not with your father?"
"You know?" she said, easing herself up from Luke's side.
"Yes, just today," he said. "How long have you known?"
"Since yesterday," she said, and her gaze fell to the floor.
"And it means nothing to you?" he said, pacing the length of Luke's still form. "He...and you...are everything to me. I would do anything for you."
Her brow creased and her mouth formed silent words before she finally spoke. "That's what he's afraid of. He doesn't want the same things you do. He won't do the things you would."
"No, because no one else can do what I can. Who else could have slain Palpatine?" he said, turning on his heel and walking away from her.
Rage swept through him in a blinding rush. Nothing had changed. He was still being used, used for his powers, then shoved away. Just like the Council. Just like Palpatine. He had never expected it from his own children. Or maybe it was just her. You will not take him from me.
He whirled about and strode towards her, quickly catching up to her even as she stumbled backwards. He extended his arm, his finger pointing at her ungrateful face. He stared into her eyes, the scathing words that crowded his mind threatening to explode from him.
Her face bore the look of a trapped animal, fear filling her dark brown eyes. The eyes that were so much like her mother's that he found it hard to look in them now that he knew. He didn't want fear in those eyes, just as he had wanted to erase the horror in Padme's eyes that last day on Mustafar. How many times had he wished he could change the events of that day?
His finger curled back into his fist and his arm sank to his side. He couldn't change the past, but neither did he have to repeat it.
He glanced back at Luke, who had begun to stir, one arm folding across his belly. Kneeling to the floor, he smoothed Luke's hair and his son's eyelids fluttered at the touch. His hand trailed down Luke's arm and he rested it there, the warmth from Luke's skin penetrating his glove.
"He'll be awake soon," he said. "If he tells me that he wants to leave, I will arrange safe passage for the both of you."
The clatter of approaching boots drew his attention and he returned to his feet. Two ensigns lowered a medical capsule to the floor under the supervision of an MD-5 droid. They lifted Luke carefully into the capsule and secured him as the Emdee began attaching the leads of the lifesigns monitor.
"I'm sorry, sir, we didn't know to bring two capsules," one of the ensigns said, his head bowed.
He followed the ensign's line of sight to Palpatine's body.
"That one is beyond help. But I will accompany the Emdee and you may remain to clean up the mess."
Repulsors lifted the capsule to transport height, its controls activated by the Emdee. As the capsule floated forward, he walked next to it, letting the droid lead the way. He noticed Luke's lightsaber lying abandoned on the floor and he called it to his hand, then tucked it next to Luke's still unconscious form.
Leia came to the other side of the capsule.
"Can I go with you?"
He glanced at her.
"What were you about to say to me?" she asked with suspicion.
He focused on the display of the medical monitor.
"It was of no consequence."
"Oh," she said, and looked away.
They walked on in silence until it grew too heavy for him.
"When we arrive at the med bay I want you to be examined also."
"I'm fine," she said quietly.
He looked at her.
"I would prefer to let the Emdee make that decision."
She stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
They had just exited the hangar when he was struck by the waves of nausea and weakness that heralded a large disturbance in the Force. His comlink chimed in his hand even as he attempted to contact the bridge.
Piett's voice carried uncharacteristic tension.
"The Death Star has exploded. We have been awaiting an order to engage the Rebels. Shall we deploy with the rest of the Fleet?"
Immediately his mind leapt to anticipate Palpatine's response. He relaxed when he remembered that was no longer necessary. The Empire knelt at his feet now.
"No. Order the entire Fleet to stand down."
There was a pause before Piett's bewildered voice came across the com. "Surrender, m'lord?"
"Certainly not," he snorted. "But a cease-fire."
"On whose order should I say this has come?" Piett said.
"Mine, Admiral. The Emperor lives no more," he said, "and tell any commander who hesitates to comply that I will enforce that order personally."
As he reattached the com to his belt he noticed Leia's stare.
"You have something to say?"
"You don't seem very upset about losing the Empire's greatest weapon," she said.
"It was an abomination," he said.
"You didn't seem to feel that way when you captured the Tantive," she said. "You acted as if it was the most important thing in the Galaxy."
"It was Tarkin's pet, and the Emperor's," he said. "At times even I have had to follow orders."
"Is that all it was, what you did to me? Following orders?" she said.
Her words stung him and he lowered his head.
"Had I known of our relation, I would have never questioned you so...vigorously."
Her eyes narrowed.
"If I had known, I still wouldn't have told you anything."
He looked at her across the medical capsule.
"From you, I would expect nothing less."
The ebb and flow of sound rocked him gently, a sound not unlike the recordings he had heard from the Mon Calamari homeworld. The steady rhythm lulled him even as a part of him struggled towards wakefulness. At last he recognized the sound: not an alien sea, but his father's ventilator.
His eyes blinked open, taking in the stark brightness of the room. Lying in a bed of pristine white sheets, he was alone except for the black masked figure who stood at his shoulder.
"Am I dead?"
"No," his father answered.
Something didn't make sense.
"But you're here."
"I am not dead," his father said.
He thought about that for a moment. Grief was still circulating in his mind, grief and desperation strangely mixed with a transcendent resolve. Because he had gone to the hangar to stop the Emperor...
His memory came back to him in a rush and he bolted upright in his bed, struggling to free himself from the confines of the sheets.
"She is fine, merely being examined by the Emdee," his father said, guiding him back down into the bed. "Do not strain yourself."
A wave of dizziness came over him, and he decided that was good advice. He fiddled with the bed controls to raise himself into a sitting position.
"Was I out long?"
"Long enough," his father said, moving to the side of the bed.
He ran his hand through his hair and looked into the mask.
"I was afraid I'd never get to talk to you again. I'm glad you're all right."
Vader was silent for a moment.
"We have a lifetime to talk, if you wish."
If you wish. The phrase puzzled him. "Then the Emperor is dead?"
"Quite dead," his father said.
"But how?" he said, remembering the events in the hangar. "I felt your pain. And then I couldn't sense you at all."
"Like you, I was rendered unconscious by Force lightning," Vader said. "Fortunately, Artoo found me and was able to reset the controls of my suit."
"The droids," he said, rubbing his hand over his face. "I'd forgotten about them."
"It's understandable. Once Piett told me you had gone after Palpatine I knew you would be in over your head."
He rolled his eyes.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"It is not an insult. He very nearly killed me," Vader said. "That you had the courage to oppose him alone is impressive."
Warmth spread through him. That compliment meant something, an assessment from a man who had shared the experience. They had faced a common enemy, working together in spirit if not side by side. To think of himself and his father as a team felt right.
His guilt burst out of him.
"I should have never doubted you. I'm sorry I didn't wait for you."
Vader took a step back.
"Then it is true that you want to return to the Alliance?"
"Did Leia tell you that?"
"Leaving was virtually the first thing she mentioned after I killed Palpatine," Vader said, walking to the far side of the room.
The hurt in his father's words was also palpable in the Force. A sigh escaped him, and he swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"We were on our way out until I sensed that you had been injured."
"And now? Do you still wish to leave?" Vader said.
Easing himself off the bed, he stood for a moment to make sure his legs were steady before retrieving his boots and pulling them on.
"I don't know. I learned a few things about you since then. You know that Piett is one hell of an officer."
"I am aware," his father said. "Why do you still hesitate?"
"If Palpatine is dead, does that mean you're the new Emperor?" he asked, grabbing his belt and his lightsaber from the side table.
Vader turned back towards him.
"It could. I have control of the military, and the military holds the Empire togther."
He was about to ask what 'could' meant, but then the door slid open and Leia rushed in, leaving behind the medical droid in the hallway. She threw her arms around him, squeezing tight, and he returned the hug with enthusiasm. Any trace of weakness left him when she leaned back and he saw the smile that lit her face.
She embraced him again, and her voice was in his ear as she addressed Vader.
"Don't get any ideas that you're next."
"Maybe someday," Vader said. "For now all I require is your cooperation. Come, we have much to discuss."
The door to his private quarters slid open and he led them inside. Though twice the size of an ordinary cabin, it was sparsely furnished and unadorned. He hadn't thought there would be much to draw their attention, but when he went to speak he found both Luke and Leia staring at the transparisteel wall that divided the cabin.
"The room is pressurized on the other side of the wall so that I may remove my armor," he said, watching Luke absorb the information and nod. "But I brought you here because it is the most secure site on the ship, not to discuss my personal affairs."
Luke turned away from the wall.
"What is there to worry about now that the Emperor is gone?"
"You are apparently unaware of the serpent's nest that surrounded Palpatine," he said. "The Grand Vizier Sate Pestage as well as the whole of Palpatine's Inner Circle would each desire to become the next Emperor. Not to mention the Grand Admirals and Moffs who would like the same."
"You really think they would be a threat to you?" Leia said. "Seems to me you've done a fine job keeping them in line."
"I have been a soldier, not a politician," he said. "Half my life was spent keeping the Galaxy safe for Palpatine. If I were to rule I would need someone to perform that task for me."
Leia face dropped and her eyes darted towards Luke.
"Don't worry. That is not the role I envision for you, son," he said. "Neither do I see myself as the Emperor, if all goes as planned."
Leia leaned forward and squinted.
"You want me to believe that you don't want to be the Emperor?"
He had held that dream dear. But it would all mean nothing if he ruled the Empire alone.
"Once I did wish for that, because I thought it the only way to end the conflict and save the Galaxy from war. But now I see another."
She shook her head. "I would have never thought you cared about such things."
"You underestimate me.I lived through the destruction of the Clone Wars," he said. "Now tell me, does your Rebellion truly believe in its own name?"
"You mean, the Alliance to Restore the Republic?" Luke said. "Yeah, that's what we've been fighting for."
"Then if I offer to hold the Empire together while they reinstall the Senate, they will accept?" he said.
"Are you talking about an Imperial Senate, as it was under Palpatine?" Leia asked.
"No. The Senate as it existed for millennia in the Republic," he said. "To represent a new Republic."
Leia looked stunned.
"I'm sure they'd be interested. I just don't know that they'll trust you."
"That is why I want you to present my offer," he said. "Politics is your realm, as it was your mother's."
"Me? Represent you?" She blinked rapidly. "I've got to sit down."
He pulled out the chair from his desk and she sank into it, her gaze focused on the floor. Luke rubbed a hand reassuringly over her shoulder.
"What if they don't accept?" Luke asked.
"They would be foolish not to. The Rebellion owns not one ship as powerful as a Star Destroyer, let alone one like Executor," he said. "Remember the old saying : he who controls Coruscant controls the Galaxy. They will have a difficult time achieving that control without my help."
"You didn't answer my question. What if they don't?" Luke said.
"Then I will do what I must to keep order in the Galaxy. But I have had to choose between those whom I love and what I believe in once before, and I do not wish to do it again," he said.
Luke looked him straight in the lenses and slowly nodded.
"I know exactly what you mean."
Leia put her hand across her forehead.
"So if I present this idea to the Advisory Council and by some miracle they agree to it, then what?"
"When the Senate has been restored, including those systems still in the Empire, not just those in the Rebellion, control of the military is relinquished to the new Republic."
"And you would step down without a fight?" she said.
"My abilities will be best used against the attempts to seize power that will come from Palpatine's followers," he said. "Some of them are Force users and I would like Luke to join me in going after them."
"We would be working as part of the new Republic?" Luke asked.
"Yes, as the Order protected the old," he said. "Along the way I could teach you everything they taught me."
As the words left his mouth, he suddenly had a taste of what the Jedi Masters must have felt: the responsibility and honor of passing on a tradition of knowledge. In spite of what he had done, the Order wasn't dead, not so long as there was at least one teacher and one student.
He turned to his daughter, still sitting silent in the desk chair. Never had he called her by her name and he tried it in his mind before he said it out loud.
"Leia. Will you do what I have requested?"
"It's all so unexpected," she said. "I need time to think."
"As much as it pains me to think like Palpatine, it would be foolish for me to take you into Alliance space. But I will allow the Millennium Falcon to board Executor. You must know the correct channel to reach Solo?"
"Yes," she said.
"Then you may use my desk com to contact him," he said, heading for the door. "For now I will be on the bridge addressing the Fleet. I am sure the admirals are getting restless."
More peaceful than his meditation chamber, the view through Executor's bridge windows always soothed him most. As far as he could see Star Destroyers hung in space, flanking the twisted skeleton of the Death Star. Beyond the Endor moon he could just make out the twinkling lights that marked the Rebel fleet. All motionless, all waiting. Waiting for his next order.
He had studied the face of each commander as he announced through the holoprojector the death of Palpatine and his own assumption of ultimate control over the Empire. After the initial flicker of surprise, to a man they had acknowledged his authority and bowed their heads. The feeling of power was intoxicating, rivaling what he felt from the Force.
This comforting cocoon of power could be his to savor forever. There was still time to change his mind and solidify his solitary position atop the Empire, where at last he would answer only to himself.
And yet he had offered to give it all away. He understood himself well enough by now to know that his heart sometimes initiated actions before his head had a chance to think about them. His heart didn't want the cool safety of power; it craved the warmth of belonging, as he had known with his mother, and with Padme, and if he let himself admit it, even with Obi-Wan and the Order. Power did provide protection, but it also delivered lonliness.
He sensed Piett approaching behind him and turned away from the window.
"That all went quite smoothly, m'lord," Piett said. "Not a bit of dissension among the Fleet."
"None," he said, returning his gaze to the depths of space. "I have forgotten to thank you for watching out for my son."
Piett moved alongside him to face the window.
"It was an honor, m'lord. Although after spending time with him, I do have a question."
He glanced towards Piett.
"That Separatist ship in the Battle of Coruscant, the one that broke in half coming through the atmosphere. Did you really land that?"
"Yes," he said, as the images flashed through his mind. Images from another lifetime. "Yes I did."
The smile that spread across Piett's face said it wasn't that long ago.
The first time she had seen the Falcon, she had still been a child of privilege, unused to the rough-edged craft used by ordinary citizens of the Galaxy. Once the Rebellion had begun in earnest and she had become just another soldier, she had grown accustomed to less than optimal conditions. Sometime in the last four years she had ceased to see the Falcon's imperfections and instead saw something else.
Warm comfort filled her now as she watched it enter Executor's hangar. A thought came to her and she wasn't sure if she was speaking to her father or her brother or just talking to herself.
"I can't believe I'm about to go negotiate on behalf of Darth Vader."
The reply came from within the helmet, "Then negotiate on the behalf of Anakin Skywalker."
She didn't appreciate the difference but it seemed to mean something to Luke and his eyes became riveted to the mask.
"You told me that name had no meaning for you."
"Palpatine gave me the name of Vader," he said, "and I no longer wish to be burdened by anything of his. I will reclaim the one my mother gave me."
The explaination didn't bring her the same joy that it appeared to give to Luke, but she had to admit it did make the situation more palatable. Maybe without Palpatine he was a different man.
Vapor reflected off the hangar floor from the Falcon's repulsors as the ship set down.She looked at Luke.
"We'd better get going."
She could feel the awkwardness of the moment as she and Luke headed towards the Falcon. They had walked about ten meters when she turned around.
"I'll make contact with you as soon as I know of the Council's reaction."
"I will be waiting," came the deep voice.
She was turning back when the voice called her.
"Leia," he said, "the next time you see Mothma, ask her to tell you what she remembers of Senator Amidala."
He said the name with such reverence that she knew she had just heard something important.
She answered in an equally solemn tone, "I will."
When they started once more for the Falcon she saw that Han, Lando and Chewie were all descending its ramp. It seemed to take an eternity to cross the hangar but at last she felt Han's arms around her and his voice in her ear.
"You don't know how worried people have been about you," he said.
"Even you?" she said, her arms tight around him.
"Especially me," he answered, finally letting go of her to face Luke. "Good to see you, junior. Wasn't sure we'd meet again. Though I have to say that tip your old man gave us about the Death Star was very useful."
"Wait 'til you hear what else he's got to say," Luke said from within a Wookiee embrace.
Lando surveyed the hangar.
"We can trade stories later. Let's get out of here."
"Yeah. This place gives me the creeps," Han said, glancing towards the rows of TIE fighters.
Luke tapped Han on the shoulder.
"Just make sure you take good care of my sister."
She watched Han puzzle over the words until enlightenment finally hit him, but she heard a different meaning.
"You're not coming with us?"
He looked almost bashful, but there was no uncertainty in his eyes.
"No, I'm staying here."
"Kid, are you sure?" Han said.
"Completely," Luke said. "But don't worry, we'll all be together again soon."
He kissed her forehead, then turned away. She wanted to reach out and grab him, but Han was already pulling her up the ramp.
Once inside the Falcon she settled into her usual place. Lando said something to her, and Han and Chewie began their customary pre-flight chatter, but it was all background noise as she watched her brother walk away from the ship. Her eyes leapt to the end of his path and there she found Vader waiting patiently as if he had known what Luke would choose.
When the ship lifted off the deck, she leaned back in her seat , the feel of it comforting and familiar, and at last she understood. Just as home for her was no longer a specific residence or even a certain planet, so it was for Luke. And while she had needed the Falcon to bring her home, Luke was already there.
She shouldn't be so nervous. Afterall, it was just a Senate roll call, for a session that was primarily ceremonial in nature. She'd participated in hundreds of sessions, debating subjects of great importance back in a time when voicing your opinion could have gotten you killed, or worse. And she hadn't been this nervous back then.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.Maybe she was nervous because it was the first Senate session in over four standard years, taking place in a hastily erected shell of a building because the old Senate Rotunda was in no shape to house delegates. It would have been too small anyways, now that each system was entitled to its own representative. As it was, many of the delegates were participating by holoprojector, instead of in person on Coruscant.
By heritage she could have run for election on Naboo, or even Tatooine, but the citizens of New Alderaan had asked her to be their senator and of course she had accepted. They were her people after all, whom she had represented before the holocaust and having shared that loss as well as the guilt of survival, they were even more tightly bound together.
She took a quick glance around the room. Maybe she was nervous because even though several years had past since the last session, she was still one of the youngest Senators. She knew many of her colleagues were old enough to have served under the old Republic, while she had only known the Senate as it existed under Palpatine. Without a doubt it had been dangerous to be an Imperial Senator, but this was almost more frightening, to carry the true weight of responsibility in a Senate that could actually accomplish change.
In that thought she recognized the true source of her tension: she didn't want to disappoint those who had gone before her. As if the pressure of following in the footsteps of Bail Organa hadn't been enough, she had come to know that she was the daughter of Padme Naberrie, another member of the group of Senators who had been the origin of the Alliance. For them as much as for the peoples of New Alderaan, she must be strong and diligent and just in building this New Republic.
The roll was steadily making its way to her, the holocam gliding up to each delegate.Her turn came, and she sat up straight and announced herself in the steadiest voice she could muster.
"Leia Organa, representing New Alderaan."
Because Luke had told her how difficult it was for even Force-strong beings to communicate across the divide between life and death, she understood that what she was feeling had to be impossible. But just as she could have sworn that someone besides Threepio was in her apartment earlier, she couldn't shake the feeling now that she was accompanied on either side. More unbelievable than that, she knew she heard a whisper after the holocam moved on.
He stretched his neck against the confines of his uniform collar. Adjusted his jacket. Touched the brim of his cap. He was one of the few who had proven capable of commanding a Super Star Destroyer, but that ability did not carry with it a love of public speaking. But he'd better get used to it.
A man he knew to be a fomer Rebel officer began the introduction, and he felt in his pocket for the comforting presence of his speech notes. Stepping from behind the stage curtain, he strode towards the podium as the loudspeaker blared its message. "Gentlemen, I present to you the Supreme Commander of the Combined Forces of the New Republic, Firmus Piett."
Quite a title for a working class lad from the Outer Rim. Hard to believe he'd risen higher than all those classmates of wealth and privilege he had known in the Academy. Must have been all that hard work and clean living. Of course, it didn't hurt that his strongest supporter was also a poor kid from the Outer Rim. As unbelievable as it seemed, he was going to miss working with Vader, but he admired the choices Vader had made since Palpatine's death. There was more going on under that mask than he had ever known.
He spread his notes over the podium and looked out into the audience. He recognized many of his compatriots from the Imperial Navy, at least those who had earned Vader's approval, as well as scores of faces, many of them nonhuman, whom he knew only from briefings about the Alliance command staff. It would be no small feat to create a truly unified organization.
"We are at unique point in history," he began, "when two opposing sides of the Galaxy have been reunited. Many of us are old enough to remember that the Galaxy was whole once before, but we have been fighting each other long enough that the memory may not seem real. Our task then is to put aside our differences and focus on the future, a future defending the New Republic."
What had he been thinking? This speech didn't sound like him at all; it sounded like some bureaucrat. As the Supreme Commander, he was free to create the armed forces that he had dreamt of, keeping the impressive discipline of the Imperial Navy, but no longer bound to the questionable directives of Palpatine.
He crumpled up his notes and threw them on the floor. "You've all been in the military long enough to recognize bantha fodder when you hear it."
A ripple of laughter spread through the audience.
"We each understand the amount of work we have ahead of us, so I won't belabor the point," he said. "All you need to know about the Combined Forces can be stated in three words."
He paused, letting the room fall to absolute silence.
His conviction poured out of him. "Service. Integrity. Honor."
In a hundred different voices the words came back at him, repeating until it became a chant.
Service. Integrity. Honor.
"What do you think, Artoo?"
The droid burbled and chirped at his side, casting its photoreceptor towards the open panel on the X-wing fighter.
"I think you're right," he said."I'm sure it's plenty fast now."
He knocked the cover flap down over the panel and latched it. Around him the hangar was quiet, the ship's mechanics having retired to their quarters long ago. The X-wing stuck out like a Wookiee among Ewoks, the only non TIE among the ship's complement of fighters. His father had tried to convince him of the superiority of the TIE Interceptor, but he had staunchly defended his X-wing. To end the debate, his father had suggested that he at least try flying a TIE before making his final decision.
"Why bother," he had said. "When you came after me at the Death Star, as I recall my X-wing came out on top."
There had been dead silence from within the helmet. "You had a head start."
He had laughed. "Maybe. But since you've never flown an X-wing, and I've never flown a TIE, let's say we take them both. At some point we switch fighters and see who can fly a strange ship the fastest. For bragging rights as to who's the best pilot in the Galaxy."
The reply had been immediate. "Be prepared to lose."
And so the X-wing had been loaded into the BlueSaber's hangar along with the TIEs. So far in this mission there'd been no time for them to indulge in their wager, but it remained as an inside joke between them.
He gave the fighter one last pat before heading towards the interior corridor with Artoo at his heels. After the past two months aboard Executor the BlueSaber felt cozy, with a crew numbering in the hundreds instead of the hundreds of thousands. The smaller frigate had been his father's choice for this mission because of its greater stealth and maneuverability. They'd probably be back on board Executor soon, though, unless the blockade of the Rimma Trade Route by three renegade Grand Admirals was resolved by diplomacy. If that failed, they'd be sent to end the problem by what his father termed "aggressive" negotiations.
But for now, the BlueSaber streaked through hyperspace towards Ciutric, where Republic intelligence said Sate Pestage was hiding. He looked forward to the day when the assaults on the fledgling New Republic would taper off, and peace would be restored to the Galaxy.
He rounded a corner and stopped in front of an elevator. While waiting for the door to open, he pulled his com from his belt. "Commander Ardes, what's the status on the bridge?"
"Everything's under control, sir. Nothing to report," Ardes replied.
"Good. Notify me when we're coming up on Ciutric," he said.
"But Captain, I heard that you Jedi just know those kind of things."
He smiled and returned the humor. "Oh, we do. But I need to know that you know."
Three decks later he exited the elevator and turned towards his quarters. Half way there he decided to take a detour and ended up in front of his father's cabin instead.
// Can I come in? //
// Of course. //
The door yielded to a wave of his hand and he entered the room, walking past his father to throw himself on the cabin's long black couch. Seated at his desk, his father remained focused on his datapad and offered no further greeting, not even to Artoo. He might have begun using the name Anakin Skywalker again, but some days he was still just...Vader.
"The troops are prepared?" his father said, still facing the desk.
He rested his head on the couch arm and stared up at the ceiling. "All briefed."
"And you have contacted the bridge?"
"Under control," he said, and glanced at his chrono. "A little over two hours until we exit hyperspace."
"Good," his father said. "I have something to show you."
He sat up from the couch with interest.
"More Djem So techniques? Or will you guide me through active meditation again?"
"Another time. For today I will show you only...me."
He couldn't think of anything to say. It didn't seem possible for the statement to mean what he thought it meant, but when his father walked through the opening in the transparisteel wall to the back half of the cabin, he didn't hesitate to follow.
He sealed the door behind Luke, and activated the control panel."It will take several minutes for the chamber to reach full pressure. You will want to clear your ears as you would after a ground level take-off."
The necessary rituals to which he had long ago become accustomed seemed strange and unnatural once again, now that he had to explain them. But Luke simply nodded and seemed to take it in stride.
For himself removing his mask was unnecessary. They could sense each other's feelings and communicate whole thoughts without even speaking. And when they did speak, it was with increasing openness, born of a trust developed from working together. But though Luke never asked, he knew his son wanted this, to at last see his face.
He felt a sudden need to warn Luke. "You should know that I was severely burned."
"I know," Luke said. "The Emperor told me a little."
Palpatine had told Luke what had happened? If so, it would not have been to elicit sympathy, but to widen the gap between them. And perhaps that's what unmasking would do: cause Luke to reject him for his deformities, or worse yet, fill his son with pity. Abruptly, he wanted to shut off the chamber and walk away.
By giving up the Empire he had regained more than he had ever thought possible. His sense of purpose. His place in the Republic, with a respect granted because of his achievements, rather than from fear. And most of all, his family. Though Leia still maintained a careful distance, the past several weeks with Luke had been everything he had hoped for. They were a team now, much like he and Obi-Wan had been. To jeopardize that closeness seemed foolish.
But if he stopped the process now, he would only appear the coward. And just as he had been unable to disappoint Luke on Endor's moon, he found he could not disappoint him here. Whatever Luke's true destiny was, not a small part of it involved making his father a better man.
He closed his eyes and released his fear. Not in the way that Palpatine had shown him, so that it could be used as a weapon, but as the Jedi had tried to teach him, so that it washed away in the Force. In his youth the technique had never worked for him, but now, as with many things Jedi, he at last understood.
Once the chamber reached sufficient pressure, he deactivated the suit, hitting the override on the chestplate before turning the system off at the belt. He paused in the silence. The mask had become his face, providing both strength and protection. Not even Palpatine had seen him without it in many years. He was thankful for the darkness provided by the now unpowered helmet, as he reached behind his head to unlatch its outer shell.
With the outer helmet gone, the cool air of the chamber brushed against his neck. He blinked back against the invading light, disengaging first the upper portion of the mask, and then the lower portion that contained the voice modulator. Both pieces he set carefully on his bed, alongside the outer helmet. Exposed, he felt the weight of Luke's gaze and lowered his head.
"You really are in there," Luke said.
He found his eyes drifting towards his son.
"You expected a hologram?"
"I'm not sure what I expected," Luke said. "But it doesn't look so bad."
"You say that only because you do not know how I looked before," he said, at last raising his head to face Luke.
"And it's nice to hear your real voice," Luke said, his smile broadening.
He had forgotten how contagious a smile could be, and found one starting on his own face.
"But the other one is so useful."
Luke moved to one side of the bed and sat on its edge, a knee folded across its top.
"Tell me what happened. Tell me about your life."
"What do you want to know?" he said.
"Anything. Everything," Luke said.
"Everything will take too long," he said.
"Then start at the beginning," Luke said. "And maybe tomorrow we can do this again."
He undid the clasp on his cloak and swung the durasteel breastplate over his head. As he set them alongside the pieces of the helmet, the mask flipped over and he saw it for what it really was. Not his face, but just something he wore.
Taking a seat at the foot of the bed, he turned his true face to his son.
"Tomorrow, and the day after, and the one after that."