Title: Force of Destiny
Genre: AU, adventure
Summary: An accident reveals an old deception, and Darth Vader must make a decision that will change not only his life.
Anakin desperately raised his lightsaber to parry Obi-Wan's angry attacks. The blows rained down on his defense, pushing him back further and further. Behind him, though, was the abyss. Hot, poisonous smoke billowed from the volcanic crater, making his eyes water. Deep down Anakin could hear the noise of the boiling lava. Strange how mortal fear sharpened ones senses. Anakin was wounded already; a hit from Obi-Wans luminous blade had laid open his face and scalp. But he lived still. He could still fight for his life. Obi-Wan, too, was bleeding from several wounds.
With a wild scream Anakin threw himself to one side, sword raised to counter another attack, but his foot slipped on a loose pebble. Time seemed to stretch and like in slow motion he saw Obi-Wan's blade sever his right hand. The hand, still clutching the lightsaber, whirled away. Anakin saw less blood than one would expect from such a severe injury. The energy blade had cauterized the stump. His brain barely had time to register the pain when he felt the ground crumble beneath his feet and he plummeted into the abyss. He tried to call up the Force, but it eluded him.
The crater wall was not smooth, but pocked with fissures and ledges. Anakin hit several of the latter during his fall and he felt his ribs break and the bone in his left upper arm splinter. He did not scream; it would be pointless, he would die anyway, burned to ashes by the lava. But he was wrong. Another ledge stopped his fall. He did not feel the impact; he only heard the sickenig sound of his neck breaking. Neither did he feel the pain from his severed hand anymore, nor that from his broken arm, although he could see the white bone splinters protrude from his flesh.
For a moment he thought he heard Obi-Wans voice call his name.
Breathing became increasingly difficult. He could barely draw air into his lungs. At least he did not have to feel the acrid smoke burn his lungs. Finally, darkness descended upon him.
22 years later, on board the Executor
Darth Vader entered the bridge with measured steps, as he did every morning. Few crew members still raised their heads as the Sith Lord went past them. They used to, only to avert their eyes again in fear. They used to, before Bespin. Vader had grown milder since the day he had confronted Luke. That he had almost lost his son - by his own doing! - had changed him. He had become quieter. More thoughtful. He used to act first, and think later. Too often he had his anger allowed to lead him, with disastrous results. Not anymore.
Vader stepped close to Admiral Piett, who was just signing the last watch's reports.
"Good morning, Lord Vader."
Vader returned Piett's greeting with a nod. "Any news, Admiral?"
"No reports on the rebellion or Skywalker, My lord. But the first ten TIE Avengers were delivered by transport ship last night."
"Excellent," Vader rumbled. "Have one of the fighters readied. I will make the first test flight myself."
"Already done, Sir."
Vader smiled behind his mask. "You know me too well, Admiral", he observed, turned and left the bridge.
His steps were more energetic. Piett allowed himself a thin smile. Yes, he knew Lord Vader. And he admired and respected the man.
It had not always been like this. In the beginning he had feared Vader, his brutality as well as his sudden mood swings. But soon he started to rely on Vader's inspirations, and he did well with that. Vader, on the other hand, learned to rely on Piett's quiet competence, and the relationship between the two men soon grew much more relaxed than that between Vader and Ozzel had ever been.
Darth Vader strode into the main hangar. He was looking forward to trying out the new TIE Avenger. The joy he always felt when he could fly, the only freedom left for him, was doubled by the fact that these new ships were his own design. Ten of them stood on the tiles of the hangar, their hulls gleaming in the harsh light. Darth Vader regarded them with pride. They were even more beautiful than he had dreamed, sleek, deadly, the fastest and most maneuverable fighters ever built. Slowly, he stepped up to the nearest Avenger, gently laying his gloved hand on a solar panel, almost a caress. They would need a light touch on the controls, responding almost to a thought. Vader suppressed a sigh. Oh yes, he was going to enjoy flying this deadly beauty.
A young man in the coveralls of a mechanic, sporting the rank insignia of a staff sergeant, stepped up to Lord Vader and bowed reverently.
"My lord, we have readied an Avenger for flight," he announced.
"Good," Vader acknowledged. "I will test it myself. Which one is it?"
"This one," replied the youngster, pointing at the TIE Vader had been admiring.
The Dark Lord almost chuckled. Judging by the exhausted looks of the sergeant and his team, they had prepped not one, but all ten fighters for him to choose. Such diligence was commendable.
"Good work, Sergeant. What is your name?"
"Garin, My lord. Torb Garin."
Vader nodded and undid the clasp on his cloak. "Hold this," he commanded, handing Garin the heavy garment. "I will be back soon."
With catlike grace, Vader climbed upon the panel support, foregoing the use of a ladder. Throwing the top hatch open, he squeezed his massive frame through it to settle into the pilot's seat and strap in. The push of a button closed the hatch again. Another button opened a comm channel to the bridge.
"This is test flight one, requesting permission for take off," he spoke into the commlink.
"Permission granted, test flight one."
Quickly Vader went through the pre-flight check.
"All systems read green. Test flight one is ready for launch."
He fired up the engines, and, giving Garin the age-old thumbs-up sign, he lifted off and took the Avenger out of the hangar.
Vader opened the throttle just enough to gain some distance from the Executor before flying some basic maneuvers. He quickly became familiar with how the Avenger handled; she reacted to his slightest touch, just like he had designed her to.
Bolder now, Vader accelerated, taking the Avenger first into a loop and then into a tight spin. He was determined to take the fighter to its limits. His heart sang as the engines roared, the acceleration pushing him back in his seat. This was what made life bearable for him despite his handicaps. Flying ever more complicated maneuvers, he guided the Avenger in a wide arc back to the Executor when he first noticed that something was not quite right.
A slight imbalance in engine power caused the little ship to drift off to the left. Frowning behind his steel mask, Vader gripped the control stick a little harder and corrected the course. The Avenger obeyed easily enough, but it still felt sluggish and unresponsive compared to its earlier behavior. And suddenly yellow warning lights began to flash.
Vader pulled the control to neutral position, allowing the craft to drift, and opened a comm channel to the ship.
"Executor, I have a problem," he announced.
"This is Executor. Lord Vader, we have you on our screen. Your engines are overheating."
The voice of the flight controller was calm, unhurried, despite the situation. Vader realized the man was trained to keep control of the situation, to calm down a panicked pilot.
"Affirmative, Executor," he answered. "You'll have to pull me in. Shutting down engine..."
At this moment, the warning light on the No. 3 engine went from yellow to an angry red. Vader cursed under his breath.
"Repeat, please, test flight one. We did not copy that."
Of course not, Vader thought, realizing that he had lapsed into gutter Huttese. He reached for the controls that would shut off the overheated No. 3 engine when another engine went critical and exploded without warning. Vader would have been thrown out of the seat had it not been for the safety harness as the small craft spun wildly out of control. As it was, his chest connected hard with the control stick, shattering his respirator, knocking the breath out of him. A part of the overhead control panel broke loose, smashing into his helmet, and everything went black.
"Test flight one, please respond. Lord Vader, do you copy?"
"I have him on my scope. He's alive, but he's fading fast."
Piett heard the commotion and hurried over to flight control.
"What happened?" he demanded.
"It's Lord Vader, Sir. His engines went critical."
Piett paled visibly. "Pull him in. Now!" He reached over to the commlink and threw the switch. "Stand by tractor control. Submitting coordinates." He signaled the flight controller, who punched the numbers into the board.
"Coordinates confirmed. Locking on target... flight control, the target is not stable," came the slightly distorted voice from the hangar deck's tractor control room.
"Never mind, tractor control. The pilot is still alive. Pull him in now!"
"She's spinning too fast! She'll break up before we can get a grip on her."
"Do it!" Piett shouted and broke the connection. Next he opened a channel to sickbay. "Medical team to the hangar deck," he commanded in a clipped tone.
"Sickbay here, Dr. Hanley speaking. What is the nature of the emergency?"
"What?" Piett stared at the commlink.
"We're pulling in a fighter with engine trouble. Nature and extent of injuries unknown. Pilot will need full life support," the flight controller cut in.
"Understood. I'm on my way," Dr. Hanley confirmed.
Piett cut the connection and ran out, heading for the hangar deck.
A claxon blared, alerting Torb Garin and his team just as the tractor beam pulled the crippled Avenger through the hangar's electromagnetic seal. Tractor control had worked a miracle and managed to pull the craft in in one piece. Now they were about to set it down right way up. Garin ran up to the Avenger, taking care to stay clear of the beam.
"Sith", he muttered under his breath and gesticulated wildly in the direction of the tractor control room. The officer in charge noticed him and caught on immediately.
"Turn her on a panel," he commanded.
"Put her down on one of her panels, or they won't be able to pull Lord Vader out."
The controller complied and spun the small ship before setting her on the deck. Garin wasted no time opening the hatch, while his men sprayed the overheated engines with a fire-extinguishing agent to prevent them from combusting within the ship's atmosphere. That was the greatest immediate danger; outside, in the hard vacuum of space, there was no oxygen to fuel a fire. But once pulled inside the atmosphere on board a larger ship, pilots already thought to be safe had died horribly when the plastics built into their ships went up in flames.
Smoke poured from the fighter's cockpit, and Garin coughed, blindly reaching in to release the safety harness. Lord Vader's seemingly lifeless body hung partially out of the seat; Garin managed to free him and grab his shoulders. He started to pull the man out, swearing as he did so.
"I could use a little help here," he grunted. Kenny, the most junior member of his team, dropped his fire extinguisher and hurried to assist him.
Together they pulled Darth Vader out and carried him a safe distance from the Avenger before laying him on the deck. Garin wiped the sweat from his brow. Where was the medical team?
Kenny's voice cut into his thought: "He's not breathing."
"Hes not breathing!
"Kreth! Can you get a pulse on him?" Garin asked.
Reluctantly, Kenny laid his hand on Vaders chest. "I... I think I feel a heartbeat, but its weak and very slow." Kenny looked up at Garin for guidance.
"Weve got to get his helmet off. Where is that medical team?" Garin practically shouted that last sentence.
He took Vaders helmet off and threw it aside. The upper part of the mask came next, revealing Darth Vaders pale, scarred face. Kenny gasped at the sight. Garin fumbled with the lower part of the mask. It was attached to a kind of neck guard, but within seconds, he managed to pry it loose and put it aside. He bowed over the unconscious man and started to give Lord Vader mouth-to- mouth.
"His pulse is still slow," Kenny said in a small, scared voice.
The boy could not take his eyes off Vaders face. Fresh out of training, Kenny had yet to see a battle and what it could do to a human body.
Having done all they could do with the fighter at the moment, the team gathered round Garin and watched in morbid fascination as he continued to breathe for Vader.
Admiral Piett arrived in the hangar at a dead run, cursing the size of the ship and the speed limitations of turbo lifts and tube cars. He skidded to a halt in front of the tableau before him; Lord Vader was lying on the floor, unconscious or worse, without his mask and helmet. An ugly purplish bruise was forming on his left temple. A staff sergeant was crouched over him, giving him mouth to mouth, while a young crewman, hardly more than a boy, knelt next to him with his hand on Vaders chest. Three other men stood watching them in a semi-circle. The boy looked about ready to pass out; his face was almost whiter than that of the Sith Lord.
The staff sergeant stopped his attempts to resuscitate Vader and slapped the Sith Lords face, hard.
"Breathe!" he yelled. "Breathe, dammit! I wont let you slip away like that!"
"He cant," Piett told him with a calm he did not feel. "You must continue to breathe for him. The doctor is on his way."
Garin looked up for a moment, nodded once, and continued.
Piett gently laid a hand on Kennys shoulder. The boy looked up at him, his eyes wide with shock.
"Hes alive, Sir," he whispered. "I can feel his heart beat."
"Its alright, crewman. Youve done well. Let me take over now."
Kenny scurried back to allow the admiral to take his place. Piett knelt down at Vaders side, touching the side of his neck lightly, searching for a pulse. Vaders skin felt cold and clammy under his touch. The pulse was weak, thready, and much too slow. At least he was still alive. They only had to keep him that way until the medical team arrived.
Piett heaved a sigh of relief when the hangar doors opened again to admit Dr. Parker Hanley, followed by a 2-1B unit with a repulsor gurney heaped with equipment. Piett had met him only once, when Dr. Hanley reported to him as he started his tour of duty on the Executor. The new CMOs brusque manner earned him the admirals instant dislike, but aside from being insubordinate, he was also a good physician and an excellent surgeon. Back then, Piett decided he would simply have to put up with the man. After he, he could not be worse than Darth Vader, could he?
"Alright, people, the shows over," Parker Hanley announced, glaring at the tech team that still gawked at their Lord lying unconscious on the floor. "Move out of the way and let me do my job."
Shoving the onlookers out of his way, he gestured to the 2-1B to hand him a scanner.
"But Sir, this is Lord Vader," the droid complained. "He has his own 2-1B unit to take care of him."
Hanleys eyes narrowed. "Well, I dont see it here, and we dont have time for professional courtesy. The man needs help now."
"Yes, Sir." 2-1B handed him the medical scanner before lowering the gurney so that they could load the patient onto it.
Quickly, Hanley ran the scanner over Vaders limp body, avoiding to disturb Garin, who was still breathing for the Sith Lord. Laying the scanner aside in favor of a small lamp, he lifted Vaders eyelids and shone light into the startlingly blue eyes to check pupil reaction.
"Good," he muttered. "A mild concussion and a couple bruised ribs, complicated by his need for constant life support." He patted Garins shoulder. "You can stop now, Sergeant. Well put him on oxygen." Garin slumped back, red faced and sweating. Hanley signaled Garins team to help him lift Vader onto the gurney. He did not have to explain much; every tech team was routinely trained in first aid. They hastily assumed position around Darth Vader.
"Okay, boys, on the count of three, lift him up. One, two, three!"
They did, and Hanley, who supported Vaders head and neck, nearly dropped him when a strangled, gurgling sound came from the Dark Lords throat.
"Trying to breathe on your own, hmmm?" he muttered. "Good man. Do that again."
The team moved back as one when Vaders left hand twitched in a sudden cramp. The still unconscious man struggled to draw air into his lungs.
"I can see you need help here. Relax," Hanley murmured, pressing a respirator over Vaders face. Pure oxygen was pumped into his starved lungs, and Vaders body went limp again.
Hanley stepped around to Vaders left side, and, removing the glove first, cut open the sleeve of the Dark Lords suit. Producing a ready prepared syringe from the gurneys integral drug and instrument compartment, he injected Vader with a medication to counteract the symptoms of shock the Sith Lord was showing.
On Admiral Pietts curious stare, he explained: "His blood pressure is too low, only 80 over 40. He probably went into shock when his life support system failed. Hes not showing all classical symptoms. His pulse is slow instead of fast, but I believe that is part of his condition." He gestured towards the smashed respirator on Vaders chest. "We need to stabilize him before we move him to sickbay."
Checking Vaders pulse and blood pressure again, Dr. Hanley grunted in satisfaction. "That did the trick. Hes stable enough for transport."
"I will check with you later, Doctor," Piett said as Hanley prepared to leave with his charge.
The physician nodded, obviously already in sickbay with his thoughts.
Piett then turned to Garin, who was just picking
himself up from the floor.
"Does that mean he wont be court martialed, Sir?" a member of Garins team piped in.
Piett looked at the man. "Whatever for?" he inquired.
The man blushed deeply, fumbling for words. "Well, he... he did hit Lord Vader. In the face."
"Oh, that." Pietts lips twitched in amusement. "Lord Vader is not a member of the military, so the paragraph about hitting a senior officer does not apply to him. However, he does not need to know about it." He turned his attention towards Garin. "Incidentally, what made you hit him?"
Garin straightened up, wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
"Sir, Ive never lost a pilot without enemy fire. I wasnt going to this time," he said, tightly.
Piett nodded, satisfied. "Report to me later, sergeant. You and your team get some rest now."
"With your permission, Sir, I would like to find out what caused this." Garin gestured towards the crippled Avenger.
"Later, Sergeant, after youve rested. I will make sure nobody touches the ship until then. Dismissed." Piett signaled two stormtroopers and ordered them to guard the wreck before leaving for sickbay himself.
General Veers caught up with Piett almost at the door to the Executors sickbay.
"Tomas! I just heard. How is he?" he called.
"I was just going to find out, Max," Piett replied. The two highest ranking officers on board the Executor had been on a first name basis for several months now. "He was still unconscious when they moved him."
Piett palmed open the door before answering. "He took a TIE Avenger out for a test flight. The engines overheated, and one of them exploded. Hes lucky to still be alive."
"I heard one of his rescuers slapped him?" Veers grinned at his friend. "I dont know if I should believe it, though."
Piett raised an eyebrow. "Believe it." He sighed. "I had no idea the rumor mill was that fast," he added.
Veers chuckled. "Its not. It will be at least two weeks until everybody on board knows. And I dont want to be in that crewmembers shoes then."
They both laughed when they entered sickbays reception and emergency room.
Hanley entered the room at the same time, coming from the Intensive Care Unit.
"He is still unconscious," he said in way of greeting, shooting the officers a disapproving glance.
"How long till he wakes up?" Piett inquired.
"Difficult to say." Hanley shrugged. "He could regain consciousness any moment and have nothing more than a headache. Or he could still slip into a coma. It all depends on how long he was without oxygen."
"Youre talking brain damage, right?" Veers asked quietly.
The idea of someone as indestructible and fiercely independent as Vader turned into human vegetable seemed vaguely obscene to him.
Hanley nodded. "It is still a possibility. A remote one, gentlemen. His reflexes are good, and that is an excellent sign. However, its impossible to check his higher brain functions before he is fully conscious."
"Any gut feeling, Doctor?"
Hanley snorted. "My gut feeling, as you so aptly put it, tells me hes going to be fine. But I would prefer to back it up with a scan. Now, you will excuse me while I see to my patient. Ill keep you posted."
He turned on his heel and marched back into the ICU.
"Did he just throw us out, or what?" Veers asked with a look at Piett.
The admiral shrugged.
"I never said he was nice. Hes good at his job, though," was his reply.
Some time later, Hanley was immersed in the scan report.
"Thats impossible," he muttered under his breath. "There must be a reason for his breathing impairment and his cardiac problem. I just know there is."
He was loathe to turn to any of the other medical officers on board for their input, if only for the sake of his patients peace of mind. A man who kept his own medidroid would not appreciate being turned into a study subject for a whole group of physicians. Thus, Hanley had restricted access to Vader to himself and the one 2-1B unit that assisted him.
Clearing the report from his computer screen, he rubbed tired eyes and leaned back in his chair. He had spent the last three hours turning Darth Vader inside out, trying to determine what exactly was wrong with the man. His lungs and heart were definitely not the problem; Vaders lung capacity matched that of an athlete, and his heart was one of the strongest Hanley had ever seen in his career. Both were adequate for a man of Vaders size and muscle development. Obviously, the Sith kept in excellent shape. Hanley silently wondered if there was a single man on board the Executor who could take Vader up when it came to sheer physical fitness. Oh, there were bound to be a few men stronger than Vader, but these were slower and less well coordinated. Others might be faster, more agile, but lacked Vaders height and strength.
No, Vaders health problems were not caused by his heart and lungs, at least not directly. It was obvious to Hanley that the respiratory muscles were paralyzed, and thus Vader simply could not draw enough air into his lungs to survive for long without external help. The muscles themselves, including the diaphragm, were as well developed as could be expected from someone who worked out on a regular basis. In addition, his heartbeat dropped to a mere thirty beats per minute without external stimulus. The life support unit Vader wore as an integral part of his suit acted more like a pacemaker for both heart and lungs, supplying them with the impulse necessary to work according to his bodys need for oxygen.
No, it had to be his nervous system. But where? Hanley got nice, strong impulses from the medulla oblongata, the brain stem, on the scan, and the broken neck Vader had suffered some time in his youth had been expertly repaired. The crushed vertebrae had been replaced with implants, and his nerve roots with cybernetic ones. Without them, Lord Darth Vader would be a helpless quadraplegic, paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on others to feed him, turn him over in bed, even clean him up.
Or had they? Hanley sat up in his chair, ramrod straight. What, he mused, if only part of the nerve roots had been repaired? What if the ones responsible for respiratory and cardiac function had been left out, considered too damaged even for that kind of repair at the time? He called up the scan again, enhancing the picture until it became too fuzzy to actually see anything.
"Damn", he muttered under his breath and got up to stalk into the ICU unit
"2-1B, I need another scan of Lord Vaders neck, highest resolution."
"Yes, Sir," the droid replied and swiftly reset the scanner. "On screen now, Sir."
Hanley leaned closer to the screen, until he nearly touched it with his nose.
"Enhance area Delta 2", he ordered.
The 2-1B complied, and the screen changed to a large picture of one cybernetic nerve root snaking its way from the artificial vertebrae down. Hanley studied it, imprinting the tiniest details into his memory when he saw it. The structure that did not belong there.
"Oh gods of my ancestors, have mercy," he breathed. "2-1B, I need a scan of the nerve impulses in the cybernetic nerve root directly above screen area Delta 2, section 1 and below Delta 2, section 3."
"Scanning, Doctor. The pattern appears to be different. How is that possible?"
"Because somebody put an interfering transmitter in there. Prepare the patient for surgery."
"But, Sir, is that wise? He appears to be waking up."
Hanley looked down at Vader; the Sith Lords eyelids fluttered, and a low groan escaped the mans throat.
"I dont care. Frankly, I dont want him to wake up now. Sedate him immediately."
"But, Sir..." the droid protested.
"I said now!" Hanley hissed, and stalked out of the room to change into scrubs.
2-1B injected Vader with a sedative, and the Dark Lord slipped into a drug induced sleep.
Two hours later, Hanley removed the last of the transmitters attached to Vaders cybernetic nerves and slowly retracted the instruments from the tiny cuts in Vaders neck. Vader was placed face down on the operating table. Hanley had opted for a minimum invasive technique that allowed him to see what he was doing on a large screen, while being less of a strain on the patient at the same time.
"Okay, 2-1B, take him off the pacemaker now. Lets see if his heart beats without help."
The droid, who had been assisting Hanley, complied immediately. Vaders heart faltered, raced, then settled into a healthy rhythm.
"Goo," Hanley observed. "Very good. Give him a minute, then take him off the respirator."
2-1B did exactly as ordered. For a moment, Vaders heartbeat picked up again before he drew his first independent breath. But soon he was breathing regularly, without help. His heart beat at a steady 68 beats per minute, perfectly normal.
"Yes!" Hanley crowed. "We did it! Close him up, and move him back to the ICU. But continue to monitor him. I dont want anything to go wrong with him."
On the bridge, Admiral Piett had been pacing for hours now, much to the silent amusement of his closest friend on board, General Maximilian Veers.
"You worry too much, Tomas," he observed. "Youre going to wear down the floor if you keep it up, and how are you going to explain that to him?"
Piett stopped, gave Veers a strange look, and threw up his hands in disgust.
"I give up! Im going down to sickbay and check for myself now," he announced. "Captain Durreen, you have the bridge."
He stalked out at a quick pace, not even waiting for Veers.
The general shook his head and followed, although he had to run in order to catch up with Piett before he reached the turbo lift.
Hanley came back into the reception and emergency treatment area just as Veers and Piett entered.
"Gentlemen, I was about to call you," he began. "Surgery went well, and Lord Vader should wake up soon now."
"Surgery?" Piett echoed. "I was not aware of any injuries that made an operation necessary."
"He didnt have any. But he did have this."
Hanley threw a small, clear plastic container to Piett; the admiral caught it effortlessly and looked at the tiny specks inside.
"What are these?" he asked.
"You could call them interference transmitters. Lord Vader had his neck broken, years ago, and these little buggers were implanted either along with or shortly after the cybernetic nerves that repaired the damage to his nervous system. They filtered out all but the strongest nerve impulses through the cybernetic system to his heart and lungs, making him dependant on a respirator and pacemaker."
"What?" Piett turned red with anger. "Who would do something like that to a sentient being?"
Veers, standing next to him, simply balled his fists. This was unbelievable, and yet Piett held the proof in his hands.
"Do you really want to know?" he asked quietly. "I know only one person powerful enough to do that to Darth Vader."
Piett gulped. "Theres no proof. But if youre right, were all in deep..."
"... Bantha Poodoo," Veers finished the sentence for him. "He'll be stark raving mad when he finds out."
Hanley looked from Piett to Veers and back again. "Care to enlighten me, gentlemen? And what in the galaxy is Bantha Poodoo?"
"Oh," Veers said lightly, "its usually translated as Bantha fodder, but it actually means excrement. Now, can we see Lord Vader?"
"Of course. He should be awake by now."
Hanley ushered them into the ICU. Vader had been placed back in the diagnostic bed, surrounded by medical monitors. He seemed to be resting comfortably.
Piett stepped closer to the bed, eager to see that the Sith Lord was indeed going to be alright, but at the same time reluctant to interrupt his rest.
"Lord Vader?" he asked quietly.
Vaders eyelids fluttered open, he slowly turned his head towards Piett, and the admiral noticed that the blue eyes did not quite focus.
"Admiral?" he asked in a slightly raspy voice. "What happened?"
"We were hoping you could tell us. How are you feeling?"
"My head hurts," was the simple reply.
Vader frowned, trying again to focus his eyes on Piett. His head felt as if an AT-AT was tap-dancing on it, and he was so damned tired. Somebody touched his shoulder; he turned his head, and saw something blurry close to his eyes. A hand?
"How many fingers am I holding up?" an unknown voice asked.
Oh, the old check for concussion... Vader groaned, decided he did not even want to try before the AT-AT danced somewhere else than on his head, and allowed his eyelids to drop close. They were too heavy anyway.
"Okay, what day is it?" the voice asked again.
"Depends," Vader mumbled. "How long was I out?"
The voice chuckled. "Good answer. Dont worry, youre going to be alright. Just rest now."
Whos worrying? Vader wanted to say, but found that he was too tired to do so. All he wanted right now was rest his eyes, and get that damned AT- AT off his skull. A moment later, he was sound asleep.
Hanley straightened up.
"Hes going to be right as rain in a few days," he said, still chuckling. "His sense of humor definitely has not been impaired."
"I disagree, Doctor. Lord Vader never displayed a sense of humor before," Veers commented dryly.
"Except when he was going to kill someone," Piett added. "This is not normal for him."
Dr. Hanley raised his eyebrows.
"Chalk it up to his weakened and sedated state, then. He was quite coherent for someone just waking up from anesthesia. Now, gentlemen, let him get some rest. You can see him again tomorrow, if you wish." He ushered the two officers out again.
"Is it just me," Veers asked Piett in the corridor, "or have we just been thrown out again?"
The Truth Is Revealed
Piett ran his hands over his face. Suddenly, he felt very tired.
"Does it matter?" he asked. "Lord Vader will go berserk when he hears about those implants."
"He certainly will, my friend," Veers nodded gravely, "he certainly will." He patted Piett's shoulder. "It's been a long day. Don't know about you, but I could use a stiff drink."
"Not yet. I have to give the techs the go-ahead to take the TIE apart first. Garin wanted to start right away," Piett replied and started walking towards the hangar.
Veers frowned and followed him.
"Do you think that's wise? I know he saved Lord Vader, but his team also prepared the fighter."
Piett smiled thinly. "That's why I read their conduct reports and had a scanning crew check out the fighter first. I did more than just pace on the bridge, my friend."
Veers chuckled. "You're always a step ahead, Tomas. Been taking lessons from Lord Vader again, have you?"
The other man shrugged. "Well, you have to when you work for him. He does not take incompetence lightly." He sighed. "Anyway, the scan came up negative. No sign of explosives."
"That's still no proof that the ship hasn't been tampered with."
"No, it's not. But the conduct reports look alright, too. A few minor points, but nothing serious. Not too clean, either."
"A perfect report would be a bad thing?" Veers raised his eyebrows.
"Naturally," Piett nodded. "Only a man who has too much to lose would take care to keep his record perfect. A spy, perhaps, or a rebel agent." He waved his hand dismissively.
Veers shook his head, slightly amused. "If you ever decide to leave the fleet, you could start a career with Imperial Intelligence."
His friend grimaced. "Never. I hate this backstabbing spy business."
"Then why do you know so much about it?" Veers asked.
"I guess it falls under the header of 'know thine enemy'," Piett replied.
Veers' curiosity was piqued.
"Tell me, then," he inquired, "how many rebel spies do we have on board?"
Piett laughed at that. "Surprisingly, none. But we do have a number of II agents."
Veers stopped dead in his tracks. "You're kidding! Our own people are spying on us?"
Piett snorted. "I would hardly call them our own people. And yes, we are under constant surveillance. After all, this ship is the largest ever built, and until the new Death Star is operational, it is also the most powerful weapon the Empire has."
"But that means..." Veers shook his head.
"... that the Emperor will know about the accident soon, if he doesn't already," Piett finished the sentence for him. He turned to his friend and regarded him with a grim look in his eyes. "Trust no-one, my friend. We're heading for dangerous times, and your prowess on the battlefield will not help you in this fight."
In the main hangar, Staff Sergeant Torb Garin and his team of four snapped to attention as the doors opened and the two highest ranking officers entered.
"Sir!" he bellowed.
Piett waved his hand.
"At ease," he ordered.
The team assumed the formal at-ease posture.
"Gentlemen, I want you to take this ship apart until you've found the reason for the failure. Use any means you deem necessary. You will report to me personally. Furthermore, you are free from all other duties until further notice."
"Yes, Sir! Thank you, Sir!"
"Well, what are you waiting for? Get to it!"
"Sir, if I may," Garin began, clearly insecure.
"Yes, Sergeant?" Piett regarded him curiously. What now?
"I... uh... I mean, my men and I were wondering about Lord Vader. Is he going to be alright, Sir?"
Piett's expression softened somewhat. "Thanks to you and your team, Sergeant, he will be. And he will be most displeased if you don't have some answers for him by the time he is up and about again," he said.
A broad grin appeared on Garin's face.
"Sir, yes, Sir!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. "You heard the admiral, boys, let's get this show on the road! Zev, you take the flight recorder. I want the data in that thing secured and I want it now! Jay, Kenny, you start on her solar panels. Avery, you'll assist me."
The team scrambled to follow their sergeant's orders.
Piett was up earlier than usual the next morning. He had the distinct feeling that Dr. Hanley would not wait for his and Veers' presence before breaking the truth to Lord Vader, and Force only knew how Vader would react. No, that wasn't true; Piett and Veers both had a pretty good idea of what Lord Vader's reaction would be. The term 'blind rage' came to mind, as well as 'mindless violence'. Not that he could blame the man; he had every right to be upset. For the thousandth time Piett wondered why he wanted to be present at all. Of course, he did not want to lose his CMO. Hanley certainly had no idea what Vader was capable of.
Sighing, Piett palmed open the door to Veers' quarters. The general was just pulling his boots on, uniform impeccable as ever, hair still slightly damp from the shower.
"You're up early, Tomas," Veers greeted him. "Thought I would have to wake you."
"Not everybody is such an early bird like you, Max. But I can manage getting up in the middle of the night if I have to," Piett grumbled. "Come on, I don't want to be late."
Darth Vader gradually came back to awareness. First he felt the throbbing pain in the left side of his skull, then the aches and pains all over his upper body. He could hear the soft clicks, beeps and whirrs of medical equipment nearby. Strange that he had never noticed all those sounds in his quarters before. He slowly opened his eyes. These were not his quarters at all.
I must be in sickbay, he mused. How under the stars did I end up here?
Pushing himself up on his elbows, he looked around. Getting out of bed was out of the question, since he was hooked up to a stationery life support system. A small oxygen mask covered the lower part of his face, and what seemed like a myriad of wires ran from his body to various monitors surrounding the bed. But there had to be a medic or at least a droid around!
Vader turned his head in the direction of the strange voice.
"Obviously", he stated. "And who are you?"
"Forgive me. I am Dr. Parker Hanley, Chief Medical Officer," Hanley introduced himself. "And how are we feeling this morning, Lord Vader?"
Vader rolled his eyes. Why did medical personnel always include themselves when inquiring about a patient's well being?
"I feel fine, except for a headache," he finally said. "And you are extremely pleased with yourself, although you did not get much sleep last night and your left knee is giving you trouble," he added in a dry voice.
"What?" Hanley was dumbfounded. How could Vader know? He shook his head. "Never mind. I'd like to run a few tests, if you don't mind."
"In fact, I do." Vader sat up in bed, ignoring the wave of dizziness that hit him. He must not show any weakness, or this quack might decide to keep him in sickbay for Force only knew how long, a thought Vader did not relish. "I would rather return to my quarters. Where is my suit?"
"I'm afraid we had to cut it off you." Hanley adjusted the head of the bed and fluffed up the pillows so Vader could lean back comfortably.
"Understandable," Vader nodded. "I have spares in my quarters. Have one brought here."
"After I've examined you, My lord. And only if I'm satisfied with the results."
Vader glared at him; how dare he?
"You are trying my patience, Doctor", he rumbled.
"Really?" Hanley asked lightly and held up two fingers. "How many fingers?"
"Two. Are you satisfied now?"
"Very good. What is the last thing you remember?"
"I... " Vader was taken aback by the question.
Force be damned, what had happened? His head was still pounding, making it hard to concentrate.
"I was on the bridge," he recounted, "Piett reported to me that the new TIE Avengers had arrived. I went to the hangar and took one out for a test flight. She flies like a dream. And then... then... I don't know. Something must have happened, but I can't remember."
He whispered the last words. His inability to recall the event that brought him to sickbay bothered him more than he wanted to admit.
"It's alright," Hanley said, patting his shoulder. Vader gave him a warning glance that was completely lost on Hanley. "There was an accident. One of the engines exploded. You were lucky, though. You only suffered a mild concussion and a number of bruises. Your recollection of the last minutes before the explosion may return later, or never. But I would not worry about it too much."
"So, can I go?" Vader inquired. After I have my mobile life support back, he added silently.
"I would prefer if you stayed and rested for a while. A day or two, perhaps. But I can certainly take you off the monitors now," Hanley answered and reached for the oxygen mask.
Vader nearly bolted from the bed.
"What do you think you're doing?" the Dark Lord shouted, grabbing Hanley's arm to stop him when another wave of dizziness hit him. He groaned, shaking his head to clear his suddenly fuzzy brain.
"Easy, Lord Vader. Told you you'd better stay and rest." Gently, but firmly Hanley pressed him back into the pillows.
"You don't understand. I can't..." Vader began, but Hanley interrupted him: "Yes, you can."
He calmly removed the oxygen mask and switched off the monitors while the Sith Lord was still too shaken to resist.
"No... you don't understand", Vader moaned, "I cannot brea..." He stopped short as realization hit him. Inhaling deeply, he put a hand on his chest.
"I can breathe", he whispered. "I can't believe it! How is that possible?"
The emotions that ran through him clearly showed on his face; joy, happiness, fear that this would not last.
"Relax," Hanley told him. "I will explain everything to you, but I want you to stay calm. You're still healing."
Vader nodded, his mind numb from the thousand questions that ran through it simultaneously.
"My lungs...", he began.
"...are perfectly alright. Always were, in fact," Hanley interrupted him again.
"But I was told I would never be able to breathe without a respirator again. That I would be dependent on artificial life support for the rest of my natural life," Darth Vader choked out.
Hanley seated himself on the edge of the bed, laying a hand on Vader's forearm. The man was clearly in shock from this sudden revelation. Dr. Hanley knew he had to take this slowly, one step at the time.
"Tell me, did you inhale any noxious fumes at the time you broke your neck?" he asked.
Vader nodded slowly.
"Yes," he said. "I fell into an active volcanic crater. The smoke was highly caustic and burned my lungs."
"I see. But still, your lungs were not the problem. I only found minimal scarring of the alveoles when I examined you. You didn't inhale enough of the smoke to do much damage, probably due to the broken neck. Certainly not enough to significantly reduce your lung capacity. No, the problem always was in your nervous system."
"But that was repaired. I regained full mobility right after surgery." He looked up at Hanley. "And the doctors told me my lungs were burned badly," he added.
Veers and Piett opened the door to the ICU just in time to hear Vader say: "And the doctors told me my lungs were burned badly."
"Lord Vader," Piett greeted his superior with a bow, "I am glad you are feeling better."
Vader turned his head to face them, slightly irritated at the interruption. "Admiral Piett, General Veers. What are you doing here?"
"You gave us cause for concern, My lord," Veers answered smoothly. "You nearly died in that accident yesterday, and it is certainly good to see that you are recovering."
Vader felt strangely touched by Veers' words. "Thank you, General." He turned his full attention back to Dr. Hanley. "You still owe me an explanation."
Hanley nodded slowly, not quite sure how he should break the news to his patient. He finally opted for the direct approach; Lord Vader was too intelligent not to figure out the truth eventually, now that he had the first parts of the puzzle. But he was also not a very patient man. Better to get it over with now.
"When I examined you yesterday, I was just as puzzled by your inability to breathe as you are now. I took a closer look at the cybernetic replacements of your vertebrae and nerve roots, and found these." He reached into his pocket and produced a small plastic container which he pressed into Vader's hand. The Dark Lord held it up and looked at it, noticing the tiny electronic devices inside.
"What are these?" he inquired. "They look like transmitters, but I've never seen that particular design before."
"They are transmitters, My lord. Interference transmitters which blocked the nerve impulses to your heart and lungs. I surgically removed them. You have been breathing on your own ever since."
Vader froze. This could not be possible. This would mean... no, no, he could not believe that!
"No...," he whispered, his voice rough. His hands started to shake. "That's impossible. You must be wrong. There must be another explanation."
He was grasping for straws, he knew it, but the alternative would make more than half his life meaningless. And yet, it was true. He knew it.
"Lord Vader, it is the truth. Somebody deliberately implanted you with these devices. I don't know why, but it is the truth."
"I know. Somehow, I've always known."
Vader drew a deep, shuddering breath, trying desperately to keep control of his emotions.
"I would like to be alone for a while," he asked, still in that rough whisper. He didn't dare speak louder for fear he would scream.
Hanley lightly touched his shoulder, and the Dark Lord flinched.
"If you would like a sedative," he offered.
"No. Just leave me alone," Vader choked out.
He felt his grip on sanity slip with every passing second.
In this moment, Piett noticed that a tray with instruments on a shelf nearby started to rattle. He pointed it out to Veers, who nodded.
"Come, Doctor. We should really leave Lord Vader alone now," Veers said calmly.
Hanley looked at him as if he had lost his mind.
"I don't think so," he replied.
Another tray started to rattle, and one of the monitors surrounding the bed wobbled on its stand.
"Frankly, I don't care what you think, Doctor," Piett shot back. "Get out now!"
Grabbing the protesting medic by the arm, he hurled him out of the room with Veers' help. No sooner had the door closed behind the three men when the first scream rent the air. It did not sound like anything a human throat could produce, more like the howling of an enraged animal. Something heavy hit the door, leaving a dent in its metal surface.
"What is happening in there?" Hanley shouted. "What is he doing to my sickbay?"
He tried to go back in, but Piett and Veers held him back by both his arms.
"Don't!" Piett commanded. "You wouldn't survive it."
"What are you talking about?" Hanley turned face to Piett, enraged that the man tried to stop him from doing his job. "He needs help, dammit!"
"Right now, you wouldn't be able to reach him before he killed you, Doctor. How do you think that would help him?" Piett shouted back over the noise of more equipment flying around and hitting the walls.
On the Rebel Alliance Cruiser Freedom, Luke Skywalker woke up screaming.
"Father!" he cried.
He was breathing heavily, realizing that he was in his own cabin, not the sickbay of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Calming himself with difficulty, he tried to recall the details of his vision. He did not even question that is was more than a nightmare; Luke Skywalker knew how nightmares felt, and this had all the markings of a Force vision.
Darth Vader... his father!... had been there, in a room that looked like a sickbay. He was in pain, not so much physical as mental and emotional pain. He was confused, and angry, and suffering. He had called out to Luke in agony, and Luke made a decision.
It took more than ten minutes for the noise from the ICU to subside and finally die down completely.
The three men waited in silence for another two minutes before Veers spoke up: "You think we can risk it now?"
"Sounds like he's exhausted himself for the moment," Piett replied. "I say we go in."
He palmed open the door; it got stuck halfway due to the dent in its surface, but the men were able to squeeze through. They were greeted by eerie silence and total destruction. Not a single unit had remained in its place. The bed had been turned on its side. The floor was littered with debris and shards of broken glass. Even parts of the ceiling had been ripped down, revealing cables and pipes, some of which where broken as well.
"What happened here?" Hanley whispered. He could hardly believe his eyes.
"Now that's what I call a temper tantrum," he observed.
Piett gave him a dirty look.
"This is not funny," he stated.
"Right. Let's go and look for Lord Vader. He must be somewhere in here."
They found him easily enough, behind the overturned bed. Vader was sitting on the floor, knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around his knees, staring straight ahead and shivering violently. Veers dropped to one knee beside him, gently taking his face in both hands.
"Lord Vader, can you hear me?" he asked quietly.
Darth Vader raised his head slowly and gazed at Veers out of blue eyes filled with pain.
"I'm cold," he managed through chattering teeth. His voice was hoarse.
"You're in shock. Do you think you can stand up if I help you?"
Vader nodded. Again, his movements were painfully slow. Veers took his arm and pulled him to his feet; the Dark Lord leaned heavily against him, and the General supported most of Vader's weight. Vader looked around him and blinked, for the first time realizing the scene of destruction.
"Did I do that?" he asked he bewilderment.
Clearly, he had no recollection of his own actions.
"Don't worry about that. Let's get you someplace warmer."
Veers steered the stumbling Lord Vader towards the door, carefully avoiding the broken glass on the floor, when Piett appeared at their side with a blanket which he wrapped around Vader's shoulders.
Dr. Hanley was still somewhere in the ICU, muttering and shaking his head, when the two officers settled Vader on one of the beds in the emergency room.
"I'll try to find a 2-1B unit," Piett announced. "Hanley is not going to be any help now."
He left, and soon returned with the same droid that had been assisting Hanley earlier. The droid quickly examined Vader.
"The patient is in shock. I will administer a sedative," the machine said, producing a syringe.
"No," Vader croaked. He was still shivering, although covered with several blankets. "No drugs."
Despite its skull-like metal face, the droid managed to look concerned.
"Sir, you have been severely traumatized. You should allow me to sedate you," it urged.
"No!" Vader insisted stubbornly. "I will not be drugged!"
"As you wish."
"How does some hot tea sound, then?" Piett asked softly. Vader looked up at him, surprised by the concern in the admiral's voice.
He nodded. At least he could trust Piett not to drug him into unconsciousness. Veers helped him into a sitting position, and Piett pressed a styrofoam cup into Vader's shaking hands. He had to help Vader raise it to his lips, though.
The tea was hot, almost burning his tongue, and extremely sweet. The Dark Lord almost choked on the first sip, but managed to drink the tea without spilling any. The hot liquid helped to banish the chill from his bones and calm his rattled nerves. He felt his eyelids grow heavy again. Vader tried hard to stay awake, but his violent outburst took his toll on him, and he fell asleep with his head on Veers' shoulder.
Veers gently lowered the sleeping Sith onto the pillows.
"Out like a light," he whispered. "What did you put in that tea?"
"Sugar," Piett replied dryly. "Lots of sugar."
With a lopsided grin, Piett produced the empty halves of two small blue capsules from his pocket.
"Remember how I had trouble sleeping a couple months ago, right after Lord Vader promoted me? I knew enough sugar would mask the taste of these."
Two days later, Garin was stumped. On the first day, he and his team had taken the Avenger apart to its most basic components. It quickly became clear that the explosion had been caused by a failure of the cooling system, combined with a fault in an internal sensor that should have shut off the overheating engines. The resulting explosion of engine No. 2 completely destroyed its coolant pump. The pump of engine No. 3, however, also showed signs of burning out that were not a result of the explosion. But what caused the pumps to burn out in the first place? They had cross-checked every part of the craft with the technical specifications given to them by the manufacturer, Siena Fleet Systems, and still they came up empty. Everything was as it should be according to the manuals, but still the pumps had failed.
The second day, they had taken samples of all materials the fighter consisted of, from its solar panels to the hull, from tubing to wires, and even from the lubricants that kept its moving parts from freezing into place in the absolute zero of space. They painstakingly bagged and labeled each sample and sent it to the Executor's on-board laboratory for further testing.
Now, on the third morning after the accident, Garin walked around the remains of the craft, alternately rubbing his chin and running his fingers through his hair. He knew he had missed something, but what? To make matters worse, a communication from Siena Fleet Systems claimed that only a pilot error could have been the cause of the accident. No-one who had ever flown with Darth Vader, or serviced a craft Vader used, believed this claim. It was simply too ridiculous to even consider.
Tugging at his hair again, Garin made his decision. He picked up the No. 3 engine's coolant pump and tucked it under his arm.
With an air of exasperation, he addressed his team: "I'll be in sickbay. Maybe Lord Vader can solve this riddle."
"Where shall we send your stuff?" Zev called after his retreating back.
After what Veers had jokingly called his 'temper tantrum', Darth Vader had plunged into the deepest, blackest depression. He barely touched any food offered to him by the medidroid. He refused any medication, although his sleep was disturbed by nightmares almost as soon as he closed his eyes. Neither did he demand to be released from sickbay anymore. He just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Nothing seemed to spark the Sith Lord's interest. He barely reacted when spoken to. Not even Hanley's persistent poking and prodding seemed to matter to him. When asked something, he answered in monosyllables, if at all. It was as if the fire in him had gone out.
Torb Garin did not have to search long to find Lord Vader. Although the Executor's sickbay was of adequate size for the ship's quarter million crew, it had only a few private rooms, only one of which was currently in use.
Garin entered the small room, trying to make as little noise as possible. He had no wish to disturb Lord Vader should the Sith Lord be asleep; after all, he valued his life and his ability to breathe. But the man in the bed, although he seemed awake, did not acknowledge his presence. He simply continued to stare unseeingly at the ceiling. Garin stepped closer. Lord Vader looked terrible. A large purple scar ran over his left cheek, another was on his scalp. Both stood out clearly against his deathly pale skin. He obviously had not shaved since the accident; a three-day beard covered the lower half of his face, and the stubby growth of new hair his scalp where it was not scarred. The bruise on his left temple had faded to a greenish yellow. But worst were his eyes. They were blue, and completely void of any emotion. Only the dark circles under them spoke of the inner demons Vader was battling.
Garin realized he was staring and cleared his throat.
"My lord, I am Sergeant Garin", he began. "I have come to report my findings on the explosion in the TIE Avenger." He shifted nervously. "We - my team and I - have determined that the cause is a failure in the coolant system. We have narrowed it down to the coolant pump itself, but were unable to find the fault. According to the manuals, the pump should not fail, but it has."
He paused, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. Vader still did not even look at him. Garin wondered if the man had heard a single word of what he had said so far. Daringly, he held the pump into Vader's field of vision, and proceeded to explain its workings in detail. He nearly dropped the pump when, after a few minutes of detailed technical explanations, Darth Vader suddenly blinked and focused his eyes on him.
"I know how that thing works, Sergeant. I designed the Avenger," the Dark Lord stated in a rough, tired voice. "What do you want from me?"
"My lord!" Garin exclaimed, shocked by the sudden change. "I... I was wondering if you remembered something of the accident that might help us determine the cause."
"I see." Vader closed his eyes. "I cannot recall the explosion, nor the last minutes preceding it."
"I understand, My lord. Maybe your expertise as the designer... "
"Leave me alone," Vader demanded, cutting Garin off in mid sentence.
"My lord," Garin continued, "Sienar Fleet Systems claim the explosion was caused by a pilot error. I can't believe that. It's impossible."
Vader glared at him.
"I just told you I can't remember," he snarled.
Garin held Vader's gaze; he would not, could not back down now.
"It has to be a design flaw," he said flatly, putting the pump on the nightstand.
Vader's eyes narrowed.
"Are you suggesting I made an error there?" he asked in a cold tone.
"No. I'm trying to find the cause, not place the guilt," Garin shot back.
"Give me the pump," Vader snapped, sitting up in bed so abruptly that the room started to spin madly before his eyes.
"Sir, are you alright?" Garin's voice seemed to come from a distance. Vader shook his head, blinking rapidly to clear his vision.
"Just got up to fast. I have been in bed too long," Vader grated out between clenched teeth.
Taking the coolant pump from Garin's hands, he turned it over, looked at it, and finally shook his head.
"It's burned out alright. This should not have happened," he mused. "I must see the rest of the craft."
Throwing back the covers and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he stood.
"Like this?" Garin exclaimed, horrified.
"What?" Vader looked at Garin, caught his expression, than looked down at himself, realizing for the first time that he was wearing nothing but a flimsy hospital shirt. The kind that was open in the back, allowing it to be changed by the medical staff without turning the patient over. Unfortunately, it also allowed for a rather detailed rear view of the patient.
"Oh," Vader remarked. "Of course, this won't do."
He looked around. The room did not even have a closet, only the bed, nightstand, a comm unit, and a fresher unit; then, he remembered Hanley telling him they had to cut his suit off him.
"Find me something to wear, Sergeant," he ordered.
Grasping behind himself, he pulled the thin fabric together to at least keep a bit of dignity and stalked towards the fresher unit.
"Uh.. how?" Garin called after him.
Vader turned around. Did he have to explain everything? The man was really trying his patience!
"Call quartermaster's and have them send something. A uniform, coveralls, I don't care. And don't forget the boots!"
Walking into the fresher unit, Vader pulled the door closed and shed the offending garment in one fluid motion. He dropped the shirt and stepped in front of the sink; the mirrored cabinet above it threw back his reflection.
"Ugh," Vader exclaimed, rearing back as he saw himself in a mirror for the first time in years. He really looked a sight.
'Now I even scare myself', he mused, chuckling quietly to himself. 'And to think that some believe my mask is supposed to frighten people...'
Leaning closer to his reflection, he said: "You look like death warmed over, old boy. Well, let's see what we can do about this."
Scratching the stubble on his chin, he decided to take a shower first.
The hot water loosened up his stiff muscles; Vader luxuriated in the feeling and allowed the water to pour over his body for a few minutes before reaching for the soap. Having spent the early years of his childhood as a slave on the desert world of Tattooine, a shower still held a special feel for Darth Vader, although he had lived most of his later years in space and on planets where water was not a rare commodity. On Tattooine, only the rich could afford a regular bath or a shower. For the poor and the slaves, it was dry sand or a bowl of soapy water at best.
Having finished his shower, Vader wrapped a towel around his waist and stepped in front of the mirror again. Already his appearance was much better. His skin was flushed pink by the hot water. Of course, there was nothing he could do about his scars, but at least he did not look like something that should have been buried days ago anymore. He was also feeling much better.
Trying to decide whether he should shave only his beard or the hair growing on his head as well - having to comb or brush with the scars he had was a nuisance, and painful too - he opened the cabinet in search for something to shave with. It was empty except for a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bottle of shaving cream, and a tiny disposable razor. Vader picked the razor up with this thumb and forefinger and brought it close to his eyes for inspection.
"Oh, dear," he sighed.
There was no way he would be able to shave his head as well with this thing. In fact, he would be lucky if it wasn't dull before he was done scratching the stubble from his chin. With a deep sigh and a shake of his head, he settled to the task.
When Vader finally exited the fresher, clean shaven and with the towel still wrapped around his waist, Garin was still talking on the comm.
"No, this is not a joke," Vader heard him say in an exasperated tone. "For the hundredth time, just send some clothes here for Lord Vader!"
"I told you before, I'm not falling for this," the man on the other end of the line answered. "And I'm warning you for the last time. One more prank call, and I will report you, Sergeant."
He was about to cut the connection when Vader walked in front of the comm unit.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
"And who would you be?" the other sneered. "Oh, wait, let me guess. Of course you are Lord Vader, right?"
"In fact, I am," Vader told him. "And I would appreciate a more civil tone from you, Lieutenant," he added coolly.
"Listen, buddy, I've about had it with you and your friend," the lieutenant raved. "I have some work to do here, so you either stop bothering me or you're gonna find yourself in the brig in no time! Lord Vader will certainly not appreciate you impersonating him. Do I make myself clear?"
Vader felt his jaw drop.
"Buddy?" he echoed.
This moron had actually called him buddy? And threatened him with the brig? He blinked, perplexed, when he suddenly found himself staring at a blank screen. The lieutenant had cut the connection.
Belatedly, it dawned to Vader that the man simply had not recognized him without the dreaded black mask. But to assume he was an impostor? He sure hoped this was not a common occurrence on board the Executor! He hit the redial button. After a few seconds, the lieutenant was on the screen again.
"You!" the man started angrily. "I just told you..."
"I am Darth Vader," Vader interrupted him, reaching out with the Force to squeeze the man's windpipe just enough to get his attention. The lieutenant started to cough as his throat constricted. "Now get someone to sickbay with some clothes for me or get me someone on the line with some brains. Do you understand?"
The lieutenant turned an ugly shade of green.
"M... My lord," he stammered.
Vader released him, and the man sucked the air in as if he was afraid it was his last breath. It might very well be, after all.
"I... I... I'm sorry, My lord. I didn't... I mean... I... I need..." He gulped and continued in a scared whisper: "I need a requisition form, My lord. Uh.. and your size, please?"
"Requisition form?" Vader echoed. "Did I hear you correctly?"
The lieutenant's face turned from green to a bright red.
"It's... regulations, My lord", he squeaked.
"You don't expect me to come down to you, wearing nothing but a towel and a smile, to fill out a form, do you, Lieutenant?" Vader asked him sweetly.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Garin clamp his hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter.
Someone shoved the Lieutenant out of the picture to take his place.
"Excuse me, My lord, I believe the Lieutenant is not feeling too well", the newcomer, a young ensign, said with a forced smile. "If you could give me your size, I'll bring something right away."
Vader told him, and the ensign shook his head. "I'm afraid we only have mechanic's coveralls and trooper uniforms in that size. There aren't many men on board with your built, Sir."
"Never mind, mechanic's coveralls are fine." Vader waved his hand dismissively.
"I'm already on my way, Sir." The ensign cut the connection.
Vader sat down on the bed. "Bureaucrats," he muttered, making the word sound like an obscenity.
The ensign arrived only a few minutes later, carrying a box and a datapad. Vader was already pacing the room impatiently.
"What kept you?" he snarled.
"Had to call the meds first, My lord," the ensign replied, handing him the box. "The lieutenant didn't look too hot, Sir."
"Understandable," Vader nodded. He checked the contents of the box. Boots, shorts, undershirt, socks, coveralls, all in his size.
"If you'd just sign here, Sir," the ensign said, sticking the datapad under his nose.
Vader scribbled his name on the pad and headed for the fresher, box tucked under his arm.
"Wait, Sir," he ensign called, producing a measuring tape. On Vader's frown, he quickly added: "I'll just take your measurements, won't be a minute, and we'll have some proper uniforms for you by tonight."
Vader almost smiled at that. Finally someone was using the brains they were born with!
"Of course, ensign."
He nodded, and allowed the ensign to take his measurements. As promised, it took less than a minute, and Vader could finally get dressed.
When Vader emerged from the fresher once more, dressed in crisp gray mechanic's coveralls and shiny new boots, the ensign had already left.
Motioning to Garin to accompany him, he left sickbay and headed for the main hangar. The sergeant almost had to run to keep up with Vader's long strides.
Vader slowed his steps when he entered the hangar and surveyed the room. Garin was still close on his heels, if a little out of breath. The parts of the Avenger covered a fair amount of room. It looked like they were strewn haphazardly across the floor, but to Vader's experienced eye they were neatly ordered by the place they had occupied in the small ship. Somebody had set up a table and several folding chairs nearby; the table was cluttered with manuals, thermos cans and empty cups. Several of the chairs were occupied by the men of Garin's team; upon Vader's entry, they scrambled to their feet.
Vader walked slowly around the remains of the craft, picking up a part here and there to look at it more closely, and putting it down again.
After a full circuit, he addressed Garin: "You have taken samples for the lab?"
"Yes, My lord. We're still waiting for some of the results, but I do not expect any breakthroughs from those," Garin replied.
The Dark Lord crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"You did a thorough job, Sergeant," he conceded. "We will learn little more from this wreck unless we take apart an intact fighter for comparison." Turning on his heel, he pointed at the next best Avenger. "We'll take this one."
Garin clapped his hands together. "Right, boys, you heard Lord Vader. Let's get to work! And don't forget to label the samples."
The team swarmed over the Avenger, picking up tools on the way, and began to disassemble the second fighter. Much to everybody's surprise, Lord Vader himself picked up a tool as well and started to work alongside the men.
Three hours later, a very irritated Darth Vader called a halt to the work.
"What is the matter with you?" he rumbled when the men had gathered. "I've never seen a team work together so badly. A bunch of green cadets could do better."
"I'm afraid it's you, My lord," one of the men spoke up.
"What? What do you mean?" Vader barked.
"We spend more energy pussy-footing around you than we actually use for work, Sir," the man continued. "Sorry, My lord."
Vader stared at him. Of course! How stupid. Being who he was, he had a reputation for a lot of things. Being a team player was not one of them. Instead of helping, he was actually hindering the team with his mere presence. The question was, how could he rectify this situation? He did not wish to leave. In fact, he found he enjoyed working on an actual piece of machinery once more. There had been little opportunity for that in the past years.
"You may be right, corporal," he acknowledged. "What is your name?"
"Uh.. Sorensen, My lord," the corporal answered.
Vader shook his head. "No. Your given name. You do use first names among yourselves, do you not?" Time to change perceptions a little.
"Why... yes, Sir. And it's Zev, Sir."
"Very good, Zev. And you?" Vader turned to the youngest member of the team, a short, skinny redhead.
"Kenny, My lord," the youngster whispered shyly.
"Kenny," Vader repeated. The others also introduced themselves with their first names, having caught on.
"Good," Vader finally said. "I shall call you by your first names, and you shall treat me like any other member of the team. Try to forget who I am, at least for the moment."
"Well, Sir," Zev began, scratching his head, "we can't really... I mean... I don't think we can call you Darth, Sir."
Vader froze. He realized he had almost gone about this the wrong way, or at least only half way. If he truly wanted to be regarded as just another team member, it would not help to have the men still call him by his title, or the name they had grown to fear. What a strange notion, anyway. For a moment, he wondered if he had truly gone mad now. But he quickly pushed that thought aside. It was time for some changes. He was not isolated by his mask anymore, he did not need to isolate himself now.
"No," he said slowly. "That won't do. Call me Anakin."
"Anakin." Zev nodded and smiled. "That's a pretty long name."
"Look who's talking," Jay chimed in, "Zevulon Iantine Sorensen III."
The others snickered, and even Vader' lips twitched. Then, the Dark Lord's eyes widened as he recognized the name. He remembered the scandal that had so upset the upper crust of Coruscant society a few years back.
"Zev Sorensen? As in Sorensen Enterprises?" he queried.
"I... um... I don't want this to be public knowledge," he entreated.
"I understand. Your little secret is safe with me," Vader nodded.
Indeed, being the heir to a multi-billion company could make things difficult for Zev. At least, Vader now understood how Zev was able to see the problem.
'He must have gone through the same at first', he mused.
"Alright, enough chatting, let's get back to work," Torb announced, making shooing gestures at them.
This time, Vader found himself working together with Zev under the Avenger's belly.
"Tell me, Zev," he said, reaching for a tool, "why did you run off to join the fleet?
"I didn't, really."
"Oh? Somehow, this is hard to believe, after the scandal you caused."
Zev smiled. "I guess I just wanted to have a normal life for a while before I took my place as heir. Grandmother agreed; she said it would give me a better perspective."
"A wise woman, your grandmother. Why not the academy?" Vader asked.
"Bah. In the academy, I still would have been Zevulon Iantine Sorensen III, pampered little billionaire's kid. This way, I'm simply Zev. Just another guy. Nothing special about me."
"I know what you mean."
They continued to work in companionable silence.
Dinner with Lord Vader
Luke Skywalker swung his newly constructed lightsaber in a wide arc, deflecting another bolt from the remote. Having run its program, the remote settled on the floor and shut itself off.
Luke regarded the brilliant green blade for a moment before he switched it off with a satisfied nod and hooked the hilt to his belt. His new saber handled even better then the old one, his father's - Vader's? - which had been lost at Bespin. This was Luke's weapon, in the true sense of the word. He had designed and constructed it, following ancient Jedi tradition, and such it was a reflection of his own being. In a fight, it would be like a natural extension of his arm.
Luke summoned the remote to him with the Force to put it away when the door to the training room swished open to admit Leia Organa.
"Luke, I've been looking for you. Lando and Chewie have prepared the Falcon. We'll be leaving for Tattooine in an hour," she said.
Unsure of what to say, Luke smiled at her.
"Leia," he greeted her.
"What is it, Luke?"
He walked closer to her, taking her small hand into his own. Ever since his vision a few nights ago, he had felt uneasy. He knew he must address what the Force was showing him, yet he did not want to abandon Han and hurt Leia's feelings.
"There is something I need to talk to you about," he began. "I will not be coming with you."
"What?" Leia was appalled. "Luke, why? You cannot just back out now and leave Han to the Hutts!"
"I won't," he said, giving Leia's hand a reassuring squeeze. "I merely need to talk to an old friend first. I'll catch up with you later."
Leia regarded him with a frown. His duel with Vader on Bespin had changed Luke. Gone was the naive farmboy, replaced by a seasoned warrior. The young man had lost more than his right hand during that fight; he had lost the innocence of his soul.
"I had a vision, a few nights ago," Luke continued. "I'm not completely certain what it means, but I feel it's important."
"A vision, Luke? Are you sure it was not just a nightmare?"
Luke had been having nightmares for weeks after their return from Bespin; he still had them occasionally.
"I'm certain, Leia." He released her hand to brush a stray lock of hair from her forehead. "I must go to Dagobah and ask Master Yoda about it. Maybe he knows what to make of it." Luke smiled reassuringly at Leia. "I promise to meet you on Tattooine, Princess. I will not fail you, or Han," he said, unconsciously repeating the same words he had tried to allay Yoda's and Ben's fears with when he left Dagobah all those months ago.
Leia wrapped her arms around herself tightly.
"I know," she whispered.
She knew she could trust Luke to keep his promise. She trusted him with her life, and the lives of those closest to her.
Why, then, did she feel like Luke was going to betray her trust?
"Gone? What do you mean, he's gone?" Piett stared unbelieving at Hanley.
"He left. He's not in his room. Is that simple enough for you, Admiral?" Hanley snapped back.
Piett bristled at the man's hostility as well as his obvious incompetence; after all, what did it take to lose a two meter tall Sith Lord in a room barely three by four meters? Fortunately for Hanley, Veers put a restraining hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Gentlemen, this bickering is pointless. Lord Vader has left sickbay, but he cannot have left the ship. I suggest we take a look at his room and try to find out where he went," Veers offered calmly.
Piett pressed his lips into a thin line and gave a single nod of his head.
"Lead the way, Doctor," he ordered.
Hanley glared at him, but complied.
The three entered the small room assigned to Lord Vader. Veers gestured to Piett and Hanley to wait at the door while he started looking around. The bed had been slept in, of course. Veers checked the nightstand. It was empty. He slowly turned; not a single personal item spoke of the room's latest inhabitant. Satisfied that he would gain no knowledge here, he moved on to the fresher unit. What he saw made him smile. He picked up the hospital shirt and the still slightly damp towel and threw them to Piett, who caught them and looked at them, slightly puzzled. If the shirt was here, what was Vader wearing? Piett had a sudden flash of a stark naked Lord Vader roaming the Executor's hallways. Nah...
"Told you he'd bounce back," Veers beamed. "He's a survivor."
"What makes you think that?" Piett inquired.
"Elementary, my dear Tomas. He took a shower and shaved. He hasn't done that since the accident. It means he's starting to take care of himself again," Veers elaborated.
"But where is he?"
"Let's take this one step at the time. He must have gotten some clothes. If he left without, we would know. A naked man in the hallways would be kind of hard to miss. Since even Lord Vader cannot materialize a suit out of thin air, he called someone to bring him clothes. You're following me so far?"
Piett nodded. Hanley crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"So, we simply use the redial on this comm unit, and see who he called last. I bet my boots it's quartermaster's."
With a smug grin, Veers stabbed his finger on the redial button. After a few seconds, a fresh young face appeared on the screen.
"Quartermasters, Ensign Lewis," the young man answered the call.
"General Veers here. Ensign, has Lord Vader called this morning?"
Lewis snapped to attention.
"Yes, General. He ordered a full mechanic's outfit to be delivered to sickbay, Sir."
"Thank you, Ensign. That will be all," Veers said, satisfied, and moved to break the connection.
"Uh, General, may I inquire where we shall send his other stuff?" Lewis asked quickly.
"Other stuff?" Piett moved into the range of the comm unit; he and Veers exchanged a glance.
"Yes, Sir. We have several new uniforms for Lord Vader. Shall I have them sent to sickbay, or to his quarters?" Lewis continued.
"His quarters," Piett answered without thinking, and stopped short. "No, wait."
After all he'd been through the last days, would Lord Vader want to return to his meditation chamber? It would only remind him of the more than twenty years he spent as a cripple, dependent on medical help every moment of his life. A slow smile spread on Piett's face as an alternative presented itself. "There is a VIP apartment just below the bridge level."
"The one with the view?" Lewis inquired.
"Yes, that is the one."
Indeed the quarters Piett had been thinking about were equipped with a large viewport that allowed a beautiful forward view of the stars over the Executor's bow.
"Have it prepared for Lord Vader."
"Yes, Admiral. Shall we move his personal belongings from his old quarters as well?"
"No, I believe he will do that himself. Dismissed, Ensign," Piett cut the connection. On Veer's curious stare, Piett cocked his head and asked: "Would you like to sleep in an operating theatre if you didn't have to?"
"You are right, of course," he granted.
"Yes, but we still don't know where he is," Piett sighed. "This is a big ship, and I would hate to call a search."
"We won't need to," Veers declared. "Think about it: Lord Vader was nearly killed in an explosion on a ship that he designed. If I were him, I would be hell bent to find out what caused it. So, the most likely place he is would be..."
"...the main hangar!" Piett exclaimed. "You sly dog, you knew it all along."
"Of course, Tomas," Veers grinned, "but I didn't want you to think I had suddenly picked up Lord Vader's talents and become clairvoyant."
The two officers hurried out, leaving a very frustrated Dr. Hanley behind.
Jay, working on top of the Avenger, looked up when the hangar doors opened and lost his grip on the hydrospanner. The tool clattered down past the solar panel and disappeared in the shadows under the Avenger's belly.
"Ouww!" Anakin's deep voice boomed from below. "Watch what you're doing up there! I'm not wearing a helmet!"
"Uh... sorry, Anakin," Jay called down.
Damn, he had almost forgotten who he was working with. At least he could apologize for his clumsiness; there was a chance Lord Vader would let him live. A slim chance.
"Are you alright?"
Piett and Veers exchanged a glance. Anakin? Veers mouthed silently. Piett shrugged. There was no-one on Garin's team by that name.
Vader emerged from under the Avenger's belly, rubbing his head.
"I'll live," he growled.
Looking up, he noticed Admiral Piett and General Veers approaching. So, that was what had caused Jay to drop a spanner on him. Not the nicest way to get his attention, but on the other hand, the kid was still trying to get over the fact that he was working with Darth Vader. Having the team call him by his old name had worked to a certain degree, but they were still a bit jumpy. All except Zev, who was used to being around the Empire's most powerful. Vader decided not to make an issue of it, and wondered fleetingly if he was growing soft in his old age.
Sithspit, when did he get so understanding and forgiving? Oh, yes, being a father did that to you, or so he had heard. Although slashing your firstborn's hand off probably didn't rank among the top ten parenting skills. Now, where had that come from?
He pushed the thought aside and addressed the two officers: "Admiral Piett, General Veers. What brings you here, gentlemen?"
Veers looked down at Vader sitting calmly on the floor. "We were a bit concerned, My lord," he answered. "You went AWOL from sickbay."
Vader rolled his eyes in annoyance.
"I am perfectly alright. And if the two of you stop scaring the team into dropping tools on me, I will likely stay that way, too."
He slid back under the Avenger. Piett squatted down next to him.
"I wanted to remind you of the weekly officer's meeting this afternoon, My lord."
What? That was today? Damn, he really had lost track of time in sickbay!
"17:00 hours, isn't it, Piett?" Vader asked aloud, remembering the schedule just in time.
He craned his neck to glance at the clock mounted on the far wall; it was barely past noon.
"Yes, My lord."
"Well, then you are a couple hours early. But since you're here, you can make yourself useful and hand me the No. 12 spanner."
He pointed at the toolbox that sat next to his knee. Piett peered into the box, did not recognize any of the items in there, and finally chose one at random to hand it to Lord Vader. Vader took the tool and noticed immediately that it was the wrong one. With a sigh, he slid out from under the fighter again.
"Piett, this is a screw driver. That is a spanner," he explained, pointing the correct tool out to Piett. "Don't they teach you anything at the academy?" he asked in an exasperated tone.
"Not that, My lord. At least not in the courses I took," Piett replied.
"A shame. Well, since you obviously cannot help here, you may as well return to the bridge. Dismissed," Vader told him.
So he was being deliberately cruel. But Force forbid he should have the admiral hovering over him like some mother hen the whole afternoon! Come to think of it, Piett and Veers had both displayed an awkward tendency toward that kind of behavior during the past days. Vader found it annoying, distracting, and strangely compelling. It had been so many years since someone had honestly cared for him, he simply didn't know how to feel about it. Or what to do with it. He almost regretted his words when he saw the slow blush that crept into Piett's cheeks. Almost.
The admiral picked himself up from his kneeling position and cleared his throat.
"Yes, My lord," he confirmed, keeping his back ramrod straight and his shoulders squared, trying not to show his embarrassment.
He had overstepped the lines, and Vader put him back in his place. Executing a precise about turn, Piett left, Veers close on his heels.
Zev stared at Darth Vader for a long moment, but said nothing. It was the Sith Lord who finally broke the silence.
"What?" he growled, fixing the other members of the team with a cold stare.
"N-nothing, My lord," Kenny whispered.
Zev stepped protectively in front of the youth. Vader frowned; Sith, he'd done it again! He scared the people around him without even trying. Sighing deeply, he put his head in his hands.
"I'm 42 years old, I don't need anyone to mother me," he muttered. "It's embarrassing."
A small smile tugged at Zev's lips.
"I guess I know how you feel. My mother used to do it to me all the time. Of course, I was only a kid back then."
Vader threw him a glance. "Well, I'm not a kid anymore. And Piett doesn't even remotely look like my mother."
The whole team laughed at that. Good, he had managed to disperse the image of the fearsome Sith Lord again.
"We still have a lot of work to do."
Luke climbed into his X-wing and strapped in. R2-D2 was already mounted in the socket behind the cockpit; the little droid beeped at him, excited that they were finally on their way.
Luke read the translation on the small screen in front of him.
"No, we're not going directly to Tattooine, Artoo. We're making a stop at Dagobah first."
The little astromech droid beeped another inquiry.
"No, Artoo, the others will be taking the direct route. That is why we're using two ships", Luke replied patiently and fired up the engines.
He took the X-wing out of the Freedom's hangar. The Millenium Falcon followed close behind him. Luke switched on his comlink.
"I'll see you on Tattooine."
"Take care of yourself, Luke," Lando answered.
"You too. Don't go up against Jabba without me."
Luke cut the connection and pulled the X-wing in a sharp left turn, gaining speed as he did so. He punched in the coordinates for Dagobah and activated the hyperspace engines. The stars turned into streaks of light, and he was finally on his way.
Hours had passed since Piett had found him in the hangar, and Darth Vader was starting to feel the strain of a full work shift mostly spent in positions the human body was not designed for. His head was pounding again, and he felt slightly dizzy every time he moved too fast. But he would be damned if he caved in before the rest of the team! He was a fully trained Jedi after all, and that meant he was supposed to be more resilient than the average human, among other things.
Still, he found himself wishing for a break. His stomach rumbled... again. When was the last time he had eaten anything? Definitely not today. He vaguely remembered breakfast being something that turned his stomach by merely looking at it, so he had not touched it. And they had skipped lunch in favor of disassembling the fighter's engines. Some merciful soul provided them with coffee, but Vader felt he could not run on caffeine alone. It seemed to help his headache a little, but after the third or fourth cup he started to feel a little queasy. Must be the fact that the stuff had been simmering for hours. Made it taste like burnt engine grease, too.
Torb looked up just in time to see Vader sway slightly on his feet. The Sith Lord was white as a sheet. Damn, how could he forget that Anakin was injured? He was clearly not up to working any more today, and the admiral would have Torb's head if he allowed the Sith Lord to collapse. Torb looked at the other team members; they, too, were exhausted. He had driven his men hard during the last three days, working long hours every night. He had not spared himself either, being a firm believer in the theory of leading by example. Well, at least they had almost finished disassembling the craft; Torb felt it safe to call a halt without making Vader feel like he was receiving a special treatment.
"Okay, boys, that's it for today," he announced loudly. "Let's hit the mess hall before the rush sets in."
Too tired to cheer, his men put their tools away and stretched, groaning when cramped muscles protested.
"He's finally come to his senses. I don't think I could work a minute longer," Zev moaned.
Darth nodded. He slowly straightened to his considerable height and rolled his shoulders, trying to work the kinks out of his back.
"I don't know about you, but I could eat a whole bantha," Zev continued.
Vader grunted. The thought of bantha, with or without a side dish of Tusken Raiders, seemed quite appealing. He silently trudged behind the others to the nearby mess hall and lined up with them at the counter, picking up trays and cutlery on the way. They were lucky; they had beaten the daily rush into the mess hall and were the first ones there.
After twenty-two years of breathing air that was filtered beyond recognition, the various aromas in the mess hall assaulted Darth Vader's sense of smell and nearly overwhelmed him. The whole place smelled... delicious! Darth felt his mouth water. Force, how long had it been since his last meal? Forget the last meal, when did he have anything that even remotely smelled and tasted like real food?
"Hey, Torb, you're driving your men too hard," the man behind the counter called in good-natured banter. He was wearing an apron over his uniform. "Made them skip lunch again, huh? That big guy looks like he's about to faint with hunger."
Torb turned around to face Vader and was shocked; the man was practically drooling!
"Anakin, when was the last time you ate something?" he asked, and could have kicked himself the next moment when he remembered Vader's reaction to Piett's mothering him.
But Vader only blinked.
"Not sure," he mumbled. "Yesterday, I think."
Control, a little voice at the back of his mind admonished. You're staring at the stew like a starved Jawa. And you're looking like a complete idiot, too. With difficulty, Vader tore his gaze away from the food display. Wordlessly, Zev grabbed his arm and shoved him to the front of their short line.
"Give him a plate, Josh, before he starts eating his boots," he ordered.
Josh laughed. "I'm sure the boots would taste better than this," he replied, filling a plate with bantha stew and some sort of gruel.
"What's wrong with bantha stew?" Vader asked, slightly puzzled.
"You must be a rimworlder, boy. Those filthy beasts aren't fit for eating, if you ask me. But out here, in the Outer Rim, it's near impossible to get decent meat." He handed the plate to Vader. "At least it'll fill your stomach," he concluded, giving Vader a second, smaller plate with a small, syrup filled cake.
The team chose seats at one of the long tables and started eating. Vader tried to eat slowly, savoring every bite. It took almost all of his control not to shovel the food in, but he told himself that it certainly wouldn't do to shock his empty stomach by eating to fast and be sick in front of the crew.
He started to feel better after the first few mouthfuls, though. The queasy feeling subsided, as did his headache. And despite Josh's misgivings about the source of the meat, Vader found he liked it. Small wonder, since bantha had been among his favorites during his childhood. His mother had not been able to afford meat very often, so a dish of bantha stew had marked special occasions like birthdays and holidays.
Having finished his portion, Vader got up to get a second helping. The room was quickly filling up with more crew members arriving for dinner; it must be shift change, Vader mused. He briefly considered cutting to the head of the line, but decided he did not want to risk his anonymity just yet. He had begun to pick up some of the conversations among the crew, and a surprising number of them had him as the subject. He would never get a better opportunity to eavesdrop on his crew and learn what they thought of him.
"A second helping?" Josh's eyebrows threatened to disappear into his hairline. "You either are a rimworlder, or you're still growing," he commented, shaking his head, "but you have a Core World accent, so I guess you must still be growing, and at your age, too. You can't get that horrid country bumpkin accent out of them, you know."
Vader shrugged and returned to his table. If he only knew... it had taken him years to cultivate the proper Coruscant accent with its rolled r's and clipped vowels, and he still slipped back into his native Tattooine accent when under stress.
In the meantime, a good number of other crew members had joined the team at the table, and a lively conversation was going on during the meal. Vader saw Kenny shift uneasily in his seat, while Torb was putting on a stony face and Zev tried hard not to grin. He immediately knew who was the subject of conversation. Pretending not to notice, he reclaimed his seat.
"I tell you, he's gone totally nuts," one man seated opposite him and slightly to the left stated. "He cracked. Completely wacko. Fit to be admitted."
"Who told you that?" another wanted to know.
"I overheard two of the doctors talking. He destroyed half the sickbay. Attacked the CMO, too. There's talk they're going to send him to the funny farm."
Interesting, Vader thought. I knew they think I'm a sadist, but my reputation seems to have reached a new level.
"You new here?" the crewman opposite him asked.
Vader nodded an affirmative.
"What is your name?" the man continued.
Vader swallowed a mouthful of the bland gruel before answering.
"Anakin," he said.
"Well, welcome aboard, Anakin. I'm Terence." He shook Vader's hand. "So, where are you from?"
"Tattooine," Vader mumbled, straining his ears to hear more of the conversation he had been listening to.
"Oh, wonderful, yet another rimworlder," a man in a pilot's uniform cut in sarcastically.
Vader gave him a slow, calculating glance.
"Don't like rimworlders, do you?" he drawled.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zev throw him a bewildered look.
The pilot leaned back in his chair, and arrogant sneer on his face. "Well, I guess you are doing the best you can, but still, you rimworlders leave a lot to be desired. Education, for one thing."
Vader nodded slowly. "Yeah, you're right. Speaking four or five alien languages ain't education."
"Pah," the other snorted in disgust. "Let them learn Basic. If they can. Half of those non-humans cannot even wrap their tongues around it. Take Wookies, for example. Those beasts only growl and howl, and they call that a language."
Vader's expression darkened.
"Wookies are an honorable people," he stated. "I've known a few."
"Next thing you tell me it's wrong to keep them as slaves. You rimworlders sure have funny ideas."
Vader felt very much like strangling this supremacist idiot on the spot. What did this fool know of slavery?
"You better keep your mouth shut. Lord Vader doesn't share your ideas about slavery, you know," Terence warned the pilot.
Vader looked at him, surprised. Sure, he had actively opposed slavery throughout his career both as a Jedi and later under Palpatine, but to his chagrin, he had never seemed to make much of a difference.
"And we don't either," Zev added.
"Than you are as insane as he is. Tell me, why do slaves never try to escape? If they didn't want it, why don't they simply fight for their freedom?"
"Because slaves are implanted with a transmitter equipped with an explosive device," Vader told him quietly. "Try to run, try to fight your owner, and boom, no more slave," he added in an almost whisper, mimicking an explosion.
Several of the men at the looked like they were going to be sick.
"How do you know...?" Terence began, suddenly realizing just how Anakin knew. "Oh, shit, man, I'm sorry."
Vader shrugged. "It's been a long time since then."
"Come on, guys, let's change the subject," Zev suggested.
Learning that Darth Vader had once been a slave made him feel uneasy. No wonder he's been pushing anti-slavery laws, he thought. No wonder he killed the head of the slave trader's ring on Kashyyk with his bare hands.
"Yes," the pilot said. "When will you clowns finally let us fly the new ships?"
Uh-oh, Torb thought. This guy sure has a talent for getting into trouble.
"When we think they're safe," he answered. "One already exploded during tests, and I'm not risking another pilot's life by ignoring that."
The annoying pilot leaned closer. "I happen to know that it was pilot error. Sienar Fleet Systems have tested the Avenger thoroughly. They wouldn't deliver a faulty craft."
"You've never flown with Lord Vader, have you?" Kenny piped in. "He's the best pilot in the fleet. He doesn't make mistakes."
Ah, hero worship. So that's why Kenny is so nervous around me, Vader thought. Wonder when he'll ask me for an autograph.
"You people make me sick!" the pilot announced.
He got up abruptly, leaving his untouched tray on the table.
"Hey, aren't you eating this anymore?" Vader called after him.
The man certainly was a sore loser. With a shrug, Vader pulled the plate towards him and started to polish it off. He noticed the others stare at him.
"What?" he asked, exasperated.
"That's your third helping. I've never seen anyone pack away that much," Terence said.
"I'm hungry. And it's not like the fleet can't afford to feed me," he declared.
Suddenly, Terence jumped to his feet, hissing, "The admiral," under his breath.
Everybody followed suit; chairs were pushed back, men stood, and backbones snapped erect all over the mess hall as Admiral Piett entered and looked around. Everybody except Darth Vader, who calmly stayed seated and kept eating.
"At ease," Piett called to the room at large.
The crew members resumed their seats and continued their meal.
"Piett," Vader greeted him, gesturing with his spoon to the empty chair opposite him. "Go get some and join us. It's delicious."
"I am certain of that, Lord Vader, however, I have already eaten," Piett answered smoothly. "But if I may join you for a cup of coffee..."
"Coffee sounds good. Get one for me too, will you? Black, with sugar."
"Certainly, My lord."
Piett bowed to him and went to get the coffee.
Several men at the table had paled visibly when Piett had greeted Vader; the one who had declared Vader a nutcase and insisted he was 'completely wacko' got up in a hurry and rushed toward the bathroom, looking quite green.
Vader leaned back in his chair and sighed. It had been an excellent meal until now. For the first time in many years, he had been able to share a meal with others, and in relative anonymity as well. Well, he knew the latter part could not last. Sooner or later, the men under his command would know his face as well as the mask he used to wear. He simply had to deal with it.
Piett returned quickly with two mugs of coffee, handing one to Vader who accepted it with a nod of his head. The admiral remained standing, shifting his weight uncomfortably, while Vader took the first sip of the hot beverage. To Piett's eyes, the Dark Lord looked tired, but more relaxed than he had ever seen him. Working with the crew seemed to have done him a world of good. It had certainly taken his mind off his own situation.
"Why don't you take a seat, Admiral?" Vader's deep voice interrupted Piett's thought.
"Thank you, Sir."
Piett sat down opposite Vader, cradling his cup with both hands. How to begin? Darth Vader regarded him with open curiosity over the rim of his own mug.
"What is it, Admiral?" he asked, setting his coffee down.
Piett found he could not quite meet those piercing blue eyes.
"I... wish to apologize, My lord," he began, "about my earlier behavior. I was out of line."
Vader's eyebrows shot up. What was Piett talking about? Not the little scene in the hangar? But of course... Piett was more perceptive than he gave him credit for. It had taken him a while, but he understood that he was getting on Vader's nerves. Vader felt a smile tug at his lips.
"Apology accepted, Admiral. Is there anything else?"
"The meeting will begin in twenty minutes, My lord. This is the agenda."
Piett handed Vader a small datapad. The Dark Lord studied it for a moment, scrolling through the list. Monthly department reports were scheduled for the meeting. Sith, how was he supposed to stay awake through this?
The last point on the list caught his attention. It had obviously been added recently, as an answer to recent events. Preliminary report on the TIE Avenger. That would be his part. And at the end of the meeting, too. For a fleeting moment, Vader wondered if this was Piett's revenge for the dressing-down he received in the hangar, making him sit through endless hours of boring reports. But no, the admiral was not that petty. Anyway, there was no way he could make only a short appearance at the meeting and leave the tedious details to Piett while he got a good night's rest.
I must be getting old, Vader mused, if I think about shirking my duties in favor of sleep.
"Well, then, Admiral, we don't want to be late," he said aloud, handing the pad back to Piett and slowly getting to his feet.
There was still a dull ache in the muscles of his back and legs; at least the headache and dizziness were completely gone now.
Torb Garin, too, got up, motioning to his team.
"And we should get back to the hangar and finish up. I will send you my report, Anakin... I mean, Lord Vader", he corrected himself quickly.
Vader turned to look at him. Garin was pale with fatigue, and so were the men under his command. Vader had gotten a good impression of how hard Torb and his team had been working during the last three days. They were determined to find out what was wrong with the Avenger in record time.
"No," he said.
Garin gave him a quizzical look. What did he do wrong?
"You will not go back on duty today, Garin. In fact, none of you will touch the ship until 08:00 hours tomorrow morning. Do I make myself clear?" Vader snapped.
Enough was enough. As commendable as his work ethics were, Torb needed to learn when to stop.
The sergeant stood at attention.
"Yes, Sir," he grated out between clenched teeth.
Somehow, he had managed to displease the Sith Lord, despite following his orders to the letter and putting all his energy and that of his men into work. And it still wasn't enough.
Vader caught the thought and shook his head. He knew he demanded a lot, but he always believed it was within reason. Yet his crew perceived him as some kind of slave driver.
"Torb, I want you to listen to me very carefully," he began. "I want results. I don't care much how you get them. That is your part. But I do not want you to miss crucial details because you're too tired to look straight. Do you understand me?"
Garin blinked. So Vader thought he had been overdoing things. But he still trusted him to do his job right. He nodded slowly.
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir," he replied.
"Good. Now get some rest, and I'll see you at 08:00 tomorrow. Dismissed."
The Dark Lord turned to leave, motioning for Piett to follow him.
Piett caught up with Vader in the corridor. He had difficulty matching the Dark Lord's long strides without breaking into an undignified run. Vader hardly seemed to notice. At least, he did not slow down. The admiral felt a certain degree of relief when the lift doors closed behind them. He pressed a button, and the cabin started to move toward the bridge level where the conference room was located.
Vader leaned against the cabin's wall, arms crossed in front of his chest, and stared at Piett.
"Piett, I think I owe you an apology," he said after a while.
Piett gave him a shocked look. Darth Vader, apologizing to him? The galaxy must be about to end!
Vader lifted a hand to quiet Piett.
"No, let me finish, Admiral. This is not exactly easy for me," he continued. "I know I'm difficult to deal with. Especially so for the last few days. I do appreciate your concern. I just don't know how to handle it."
Piett's expression softened. "I understand, My lord. There is no need for an apology."
Do you, Admiral? Vader thought. Do you really understand what it means to live behind a steel mask for more than half your life, never able to get close to someone, never able to truly share with someone, until you forget how that feels? And then your life is given back to you, and you discover you're crippled in more than one way. And you did it to yourself in order to survive and stay sane. Can you understand that, Piett?
Aloud, he said: "Thank you, Admiral."
He shook his head to chase away the gloomy thoughts.
"Anyway, Admiral, if I did not know you better I'd say you got your revenge. You did spoil my fun."
"Let me just say that the crew harbors some fascinating thoughts about me. I've learned that I am a raving lunatic. Quite interesting, really."
The lift came to a stop, and Piett was spared an answer.
The two men exited the cabin and made their way to the conference room. They were a few minutes late, and the department heads were already waiting for them. Vader bore their curious stares without comment. Piett headed for his usual place at the long table, put Vader stopped him with a hand on the admiral's shoulder.
"No, Piett. You will head the meeting today. I am not prepared."
He nodded in the direction of the larger, high-backed chair at the head of the table, while he himself took Piett's seat.
"Of course, My lord." Piett didn't miss a beat.
Department head after department head droned on about the previous month, in exhaustive - and exhausting - detail; the amount of fuel which had been used, how many shots had been fired during practice, which consumables needed to be stocked at the next port.
Vader was listening with only half an ear; the Dark Lord was nearly bored to tears. Couldn't they just give a summary? It would definitely save them time, and it would help make decisions easier. Piett certainly did not need to know the fuel consumption down to the last liter; all he needed to know was if it was within normal parameters, and when they needed to refuel.
Vader had tuned out his officer's voices and idly played with the datapad in front of him in an attempt to stay awake while an endless amount of useless information was recited.
"Hmm? Sorry, Piett, I was... thinking."
Damn. He should have paid more attention.
"Of course, Sir. Your report, please?"
"There is not much to report yet. The Avenger is not fit for flight due to failure of the coolant system. Staff Sergeant Garin has determined that the coolant pumps are faulty, and we have begun disassembling a second Avenger for comparison. I await further results within the next days. So far, both ships match up to the specifications given to us by SFS," he said, adding: "I would welcome your comments, Gentlemen."
One of the officers cleared his throat.
"Sir, you have been involved with the development of this craft?" he asked timidly.
Piett frowned at him.
"Are you implying that Lord Vader's design is faulty, Lieutenant?" he queried in a cold voice.
Vader raised his hand to silence Piett.
"Let him speak, Admiral," he admonished. "Continue, Lieutenant."
"Uh... I didn't mean it that way, Sir. I was just thinking... you said the ships met SFS's specs. But do those match yours, Sir?"
The words came out in a rush. Vader stared at the Lieutenant, dumbfounded. Could it really be that simple? He was such an idiot! That was the first thing he should have checked, and he had missed it.
"Piett, the crew is right. I should have my head examined," he groaned.
Veers threw Piett a questioning glance, but the admiral shook his head. Tell you later, he mouthed silently.
Not noticing their little exchange, Vader used his datapad to access his private files on the Avenger's design in the ship's main computer. Borrowing a second pad, he called up SFS's manuals. He found the first difference almost immediately, now that he knew what to look for.
Disgusted, he threw the pads down on the table hard enough to shatter one and started to swear. It took him several minutes to exhaust his extensive Huttese vocabulary, and he was rather inventive, too. Fortunately, no-one but General Veers understood a word of what he was saying. The general, however, was blushing furiously as Vader questioned the ancestry and sexual preferences of SFS's engineers in graphic detail.
Finally, Vader calmed down, took a couple deep breaths, and noticed the interesting shade of red on Veers' face.
"I take it you speak Huttese, General?" Veers nodded slowly.
"In this case, I would prefer if you did not translate what I just said," Vader commanded dryly.
"I don't think I could, My lord. Some of it was... bizarre," Veers answered. "Good. I think we are finished here. Unless you have something to add, Admiral?"
Piett slowly shook his head.
"Then this meeting is adjourned."
Vader nodded to each of the officers in turn as they got up and left the room. Only he and Piett stayed behind.
Vader leaned back in his chair and stared off into space.
"Something wrong, Sir?" Piett asked.
"It's nothing, Piett."
"So... what did you find, if you don't mind me asking?"
"It's the wrong pump. They used a smaller model than the one I put down in my specs. No wonder it burns out," Vader said. "Idiots. They must have tested each part individually, but never the complete ship." He shook his head. "And now we have to compare each and every part on the lists. Tedious work, Admiral, but it can wait until tomorrow."
"Maybe the computer can...," Piett offered, but Vader cut him short: "Yes, but we have to program it first to find the differences."
He rubbed his forehead.
"If you wish to retire for the night, My lord," Piett began, but let the sentence trail away.
Vader barked a short, humorless laugh.
"Somehow, the prospect of returning to sickbay does not appeal to me, Piett. And my own quarters..."
"I see," Piett said. "I took the liberty of having quarters prepared for you, My lord."
Vader smiled. "Piett, have I told you that you know me too well?" F
or once, he did not mind Piett's mothering him. Trust the admiral to anticipate his wishes!
"Frequently, My lord. If you would follow me, I will show you to your new quarters."
Vader was struck speechless as he entered the VIP quarters. He never knew his ship held such luxury. His old quarters were large, but austere and practical. These were only slightly smaller, and anything but austere.
A deep carpet covered the floor of the study, the furniture was tasteful and made from real wood, not the metals and plastics found in other cabins. The fresher was at least twice as large as the one in his old quarters, with a shower and a bathtub. The floor here was Alderaanian marble, a rare and expensive commodity even before the first Death Star destroyed the planet. The bathroom floor alone must have cost a fortune.
Vader moved on into the bedroom. The bed was almost decadently large, certainly too large for a single person even of his height.
But the best thing was the view. Large viewports in both the study and the bedroom overlooked the Executor's bow, allowing him to see the stars even from the bed when the ship was cruising at sublight speed. It was beautiful.
"These are guest quarters?" Vader asked, sitting down on the bed to pull his boots off.
"Yes, My lord. For visiting dignitaries. There are two more apartments like this, on other decks. None have ever been used. I take it they are sufficient?"
"They are indeed," Vader said softly. "Help me with the boots, will you?"
Piett did as he was asked, and Vader stretched out on the large bed a few moments later. It was soft, almost too soft for his taste.
"I had your new uniforms delivered here, My lord. They are in the closet."
Piett turned to open the closet. When Vader did not answer, the admiral turned back to him to discover that the Dark Lord was sound asleep, face turned toward the viewport.
Piett shook his head. Taking a blanket from the closet, he shook it out and spread it over Vader's body. Then he left quietly, turning off the lights on his way out.
Piett dropped into the high-backed leather chair in his quarters, stretching his legs out and sighing deeply. It had been a long day. Leaning back against the headrest, the admiral closed his eyes and allowed the day's tasks to fade from his mind as the doorbell chimed.
"Come," he called and cracked open one eye.
Maximillian Veers entered and nodded a greeting.
"You look beat," he observed.
"Mm-mmh." Piett allowed his eye to drop closed again. "Do me a favor, Max. There is a bottle of Correllian brandy in the lower desk drawer."
"That bad, huh?"
Chuckling, Veers got the liquor and two shot glasses.
"So, how did it go?"
He poured two glasses and set one down on the table in front of Piett before sitting on the small sofa opposite his friend.
"Didn't get a chance to talk to him. He sat down on the bed, keeled over, and was asleep before you could say 'rebellion'."
"Damn." Veers sipped on his brandy; the alcohol burned in his throat. "What's he planning, Tomas?"
"I have no idea. In fact, I don't think he's planning anything right now. He acts like nothing has changed, except that he's out of that suit."
Piett opened his eyes long enough to locate the shotglass, took it, and downed the brandy in one swallow.
"He's too busy parading around without his helmet and fraternizing with the crew."
Veers shook his head. "Do I detect a hint of bitterness here, Tomas?"
"Hell, Max, he... I don't know. He used to always be on top of things, and now he's just drifting. Frankly, it scares me."
"You know, he might just need a bit more time to adjust to everything," Veers suggested. "I'm surprised he's handling it as well as he does."
Piett set his glass down hard.
"He doesn't have the time, Max!" he shouted. "His Majesty will soon know he's healed, if he doesn't already, and then what? If you're right and the Emperor ordered the transmitters implanted, he'll recall us and kill Lord Vader as soon as he sets foot on Coruscant. And probably us, too!"
"So, you're afraid for your own life?"
Piett made a rude noise. "We know too much, Max. The Emperor cannot afford rumors of the cause of Lord Vader's condition to spread. It might drive more systems into the arms of the Rebellion."
"I see." Veers calmly refilled his own glass and Piett's. "So, what are you going to do?"
"Follow Lord Vader, of course. Only he's not leading us right now."
"And in the meantime?"
"In the meantime, I'm monitoring all outgoing transmissions. We need to keep a step ahead."
Veers regarded his friend for a long moment. How far could he trust Piett? Was he truly saying what Veers thought he said? Or did he misread him? He decided to take the risk.
"You know, I've always been loyal to the Emperor. I thought we were doing the right thing," he said slowly. "But now... I don't know anymore. I don't know if he deserves loyalty."
Piett felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
"What are you saying, Max?" he whispered.
"I'm not saying anything, Tomas. Not yet. I'm just thinking."
"You're thinking about treason."
Veers locked his gaze with Piett's.
"Depends on where your loyalties lie, Tomas," he said quietly. "You did say you'd follow Lord Vader. I'll do the same, and if his course takes him away from the Empire... I'll still follow him. Will you do the same? Or will we find ourselves on different sides of the battle?"
Piett swallowed hard.
"What about the crew?" he asked. "I have more than a quarter million men to think about. I cannot abandon them."
"Neither can you decide for them, Tomas," Veers smiled. "But you said it yourself. The Emperor will probably order us killed as well. So, what options are left for you? Let yourself be led to the slaughter like a good little lamb, or follow Lord Vader."
"Which might still be the same, Max," Piett sighed and massaged his temples.
"The question is, what can we do now? I don't like the idea of sitting on my hands until Lord Vader is ready to face the truth any more than you."
"Nothing," Piett sighed. "Except... how far can you trust your men?"
"Depends on what you ask of them."
Piett leaned forward in his chair.
"A little spy work, Max. I told you I know who the II agents on board are. Could your men keep an eye on them if I give you a list?"
Veers laughed; that was more to his liking.
"Of course they can! What do you have in mind?"
"If any of the agents tries to contact Coruscant, I want them stopped."
"Hmmm. You know, it's better to be a step ahead. My men could set up a number of, say, diversions. Start a fight or two, give you an excuse to fill the brig. Crew morale is low enough, I'm expecting fights among the crew any time now."
"That's brilliant, Max!" Piett exclaimed.
"But I'm making no promises on how much restrain they'll use when push comes to shove, if you get my drift. They don't exactly like Imperial Intelligence."
"I don't want them dead. You can't interrogate a corpse," Piett grinned. "However, I think you'll find... appropriate punishment if one of your men goes a little too far and breaks a bone or two."
The two men grinned at each other.
"So, tell me. What exactly did Lord Vader say back in the conference room?" Piett finally asked.
"Oh, come on, Tomas, you heard his orders. I'm not to translate it."
"It was in Huttese, wasn't it?"
Veers nodded, blushing again at the memory of the swear words Vader had used. Some of them were even new to him.
"Yes, and let me just say that it was not anything you could repeat in polite company. In fact, most of what he said is anatomically impossible, and the rest was so rude it would make a Toydarian blush."
"Who would have thought. By the way, where did you learn to speak Huttese?"
"I grew up on Nar Shaddaa. Huttese is my first language. But what I don't understand is... where did Lord Vader learn it? And how in the Galaxy did he pick up that accent?"
"What do you mean?"
"He sounds like a country bumpkin!"
"What?" Piett could not believe his ears. Lord Vader, a country bumpkin? "You're kidding me."
Veers shook his head. "I'm not. Lord Vader sounds exactly like a Tattooine desert rat. He's not some moisture farmer's kid, is he?"
Luke Skywalker landed his X-wing on a clearing not far from Yoda's hut. This time, he had had no trouble during his approach to Dagobah, unlike the last time. Apparently Yoda did not deem it necessary to show him where to land in his unique way anymore.
He climbed out of the cockpit; Dagobah had not changed a bit. It was still as hot and moist as he remembered. Fog rose over the swamp and small animals stirred as Luke made his way to Yoda's hut. The small, green- skinned Jedi Master was awaiting him.
"Returned you have, Luke, but not to complete you training, I sense," Yoda said without preamble.
"A friend needs me. But I need some questions answered first, Master. And I will complete my training with you later," Luke answered.
"Too late it may be, young Luke. Strong is Vader. Not believe me you did, rush to fight him you did, and defeated you were. Unprepared you were."
"Unprepared for what?"
Luke felt his anger rise in him; calm, he told himself. Control. Anger leads to the dark side.
Taking a deep breath, he addressed Yoda again: "Unprepared for what, Master? The fight, or the mind games? Or..." he paused for a moment... " ...the truth?"
"Decide for yourself, you must," Yoda said cryptically.
"Don't play games with me, Master. Is Darth Vader my father?"
Yoda's expressive ears lowered a bit. "Told you, did he?"
"Believe him, you did not?"
"Yoda, I... I don't want to believe him. But I could sense he was telling the truth."
"Still you need to ask, then?"
Luke's face hardened.
"Perhaps I want to know why you and Ben lied to me."
Ben's shimmering form appeared next to Yoda.
"Luke, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view."
He paused before continuing: "When Anakin Skywalker, your father, was seduced by the Dark Side, he ceased to be the man I knew and became Darth Vader. So, what I told you was true. From a certain point of view."
"From a certain point of view?" Luke sputtered. "Ben, he is my father, no matter what name he is using. You would have me murder my own parent!"
"That is were you are wrong, Luke. Anakin does not exist anymore. From a certain point of view, Darth Vader did kill him."
"I'm not so sure about that," Luke retorted, keeping a tight leash on his anger. Now was not the time to lose control. "A few nights ago, I had a vision."
"A vision of Vader?" Ben asked. What was the Sith Lord up to?
"Or a vision of Anakin Skywalker. He was in pain, Ben. Emotionally. I felt... hurt, confusion. Betrayal. He was suffering. Something has happened to him, but I don't know what. And I don't know what to do about it. I hoped you could help," he finished lamely.
Ben shook his head. "Thank you, Luke. For still trusting me. But I fear you will not like my advice."
"Believe this vision, you cannot," Yoda added. "Sense the same, we did not. A ruse it must be."
"It was genuine," Luke said, with conviction.
"Hope to save him, you do. Foolish that hope is."
"Luke, I once thought like you. You must understand what the Dark Side does to a person. It consumes you utterly. There is no way back."
"Listen to Obi-Wan you must. All depends on it," Yoda implored.
"No," Luke shook his head. "I cannot believe that. There is a way to save him. There has to be."
"At least complete your training, Luke," Ben pleaded, hoping to distract the young man from his self-destructive path.
The Jedi Master was not sure he could stand seeing another of his pupils fall to the Dark Side, and Vader's revelation had brought Luke dangerously close to that abyss. His anger was closer to the surface, as it had been with his father so many years ago.
Where did I fail you, Anakin? Ben thought. How could I not see that your good intentions would lead you to ruin? I will not allow it to happen to your son, too.
"I'm sorry, Ben. I cannot stay now. Han needs me, and Leia. I'm sorry." And father, he added silently.
Luke turned around to leave when Ben called after him: "Remember, Luke: Anger leads to the Dark Side. Do not let your anger control you, or you will suffer your father's fate."
"I won't. I promise, Ben."
With that, Luke Skywalker left the two Jedi Masters to return to his ship.
"Foolish he is," Yoda sighed. "Now things are worse."
"I am not sure, Yoda. Perhaps there is still hope for Anakin."
"Trained, he should not have been. Told you so, I have."
"Which one? The father, or the son?"
Obi-Wan faded into the fog, leaving Yoda in a foul mood.
Piett quietly entered Vader's new quarters, a droid carrying a cloth- covered tray with coffee and sandwiches following close on his heels. The Dark Lord was still asleep. Apparently, he had not moved a muscle since Piett had left the evening before. The Admiral ordered the droid to set the tray down and leave before he bent over the sleeping man.
"Lord Vader?" he queried softly.
Vader did not react.
"Lord Vader?" Piett asked again, a little louder this time.
Still no reaction. Vader slept like the proverbial log. Small wonder he had not answered the comm unit. Admiral Piett touched his shoulder and slightly shook him. Finally, Vader stirred.
"Mmhhh? Whazzit?" he mumbled.
"Good morning, My lord."
Vader sat up groggily.
"Piett. Did you tuck me in last night?"
Piett chose to pour a cup of coffee instead of answering.
"Coffee, My lord?"
"You did tuck me in." Vader took the offered cup, sipped on it, and gasped. "Force! This stuff is strong enough to wake the dead!"
He downed the rest of the brew in one swallow and grimaced.
Piett smiled thinly. "I thought you could use it."
Vader got up, handing the cup back to Piett.
"You must stop mothering me, Admiral," he chided.
"Yes, My lord. Fresh uniforms are in the closet, My lord."
"And don't 'yes, My lord' me."
"Yes, My lord."
Vader rolled his eyes, grabbed a uniform - cut like an officer's uniform, but black instead of olive, and without rank insignia - from the closet without looking and headed for the shower. He came back a few minutes later, feeling refreshed and much more awake. Piett was still there, standing at attention.
"What time is it, Admiral?"
"08.15, My lord," Piett replied without consulting his watch.
"What? I should have been in the hangar at 08.00 hours! Why didn't you wake me earlier?" Vader shouted.
Damn Piett! What had gotten into the man lately? He was Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, not some kid that needed to be told when to go to bed or when to get up!
Piett looked straight into Vader's eyes. Vader still was not quite himself. Perhaps Veers was right, and he needed more time.
"My lord, you are still recovering from your injuries. You had surgery only three days ago. You should be in sickbay, resting," he snapped.
"Are you finished, Admiral?" Vader interrupted coldly.
He looked ready to strangle Piett.
Piett shut up, trembling, but he held Vaders gaze. Vader was the first to break eye contact. With difficulty, Darth Vader calmed himself. Control, he told himself. Control your anger, do not let it rule you. Piett may have overstepped himself, but he was only trying to help. He certainly did not deserve to die for this.
"Thank you for caring, Piett," Vader said after a long moment. "It's been a long time since..." He let the sentence trail away.
Piett sighed; he knew how close Vader had come to kill him this time. His mood swings certainly seemed to be getting worse instead of better. Still, he had to try. Even if the Sith Lord would have his own way in the end, as usual.
"At least have some breakfast first," he suggested.
Vader looked at him again, blue eyes flashing.
"Don't push it, Admiral!" he warned, grabbed a sandwich from the plate and hurried out.
Piett heaved a sigh.
When Vader arrived at the main hangar, work was already well underway. Garin had apparently followed his orders to the letter and started at 08:00 hours. He silently cursed first himself for not waking up earlier, and then Piett again for letting him sleep late.
"Torb!" he called. Garin's head popped out from behind the engine compartment.
"Gather the team. I have some news," Vader ordered.
"You heard him, boys," he called.
The men put away their tools and gathered around Vader. Garin thought that Anakin appeared slightly nervous.
"We will not find any discrepancies between the fighter and the documentation," the Dark Lord began.
The team exchanged confused looks.
"What do you mean?" Zev queried.
"There aren't any. We can assume the fighters match up to Sienar Fleet System's specs," Vader continued. "However, these do not match up to my design."
Zev groaned. "Sith! That means we have to compare the parts lists!"
"Exactly. Which is what you are going to do." He fixed Zev with a cool stare. "I shall give you access to all my files concerning the Avenger. Do not attempt to read any other files. Is that clear, Zev?"
Zev smiled, a bit nervous. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know your reputation, Zev. I know how close you came to a conviction for slicing into Coruscant's mainframe and altering certain data. Had it not been for your grandmother's influence, you would be in the spice mines of Kessel now instead of serving on the finest ship in the fleet."
"Ah, the sins of my misspent youth. Don't worry, Anakin. I've learned my lesson."
"I hope so, for your sake, Zev."
Vader did not have to make the threat any clearer, but Zev was not intimidated. Anakin might threaten, but he still trusted him with the files, and that was what counted in the end.
"Okay, then let's move someplace with computer access," Garin interjected. "Zev, can you set up a program to compare the lists?"
"Are you kidding? Any protocol droid could do that!"
"Do it, then."
"Let's use the computer outlets in the ready room, shall we?"
"Good idea. That way we're closer to the coffee machine," the usually quiet Jay murmured under his breath.
The whole team, including Vader, moved to the hangar's ready room. Vader had never been here before. The room looked like any other ready room in the known reaches of space. A table and several chairs, a couch in one corner facing an entertainment unit and a few computer workstations. Much time was spent here by mechanics on stand-by duty, and they had tried to make the room look less sterile by hanging posters on the bare walls, some of which almost made Vader blush.
He sat down in front of one of the workstations and quickly keyed in his access code. He brought up his files on the Avenger and opened them.
"There you go. I shall leave you now. Garin, report to me when you are finished with the comparison."
"Certainly. You're not staying?"
"No. I'm moving my personal belongings into my new quarters. The apartment below the bridge level."
Vader got up and turned to leave.
"VIP quarters. Need a hand with your stuff? The computers can do this here almost alone."
Vader stopped short, momentarily astonished at the level of acceptance he felt from Garin. It was a genuine offer, but another thought crossed Vader's mind. Getting so close to him might not be good for Garin and his team in more than one way. At the very least, it would set them apart from the rest of the crew. No, it was better for everyone involved to not allow this to develop any further. If he wanted friends, he would have to look among the higher ranking officers. If he wanted friends... suddenly, Vader was not so certain about that.
Horrified, Darth Vader realized that being his friend might mean drawing the Emperor's wrath. It could only be a matter of time until... Vader pushed the thought aside, shaking his head. He did not want to think about it yet. He wasn't ready.
He won't wait for you to be ready, a tiny voice in the back of his mind whispered. He crippled you. As soon as he learns you're healed, he will come for you.
Resolutely, Vader squashed his doubts. He wasn't ready yet. For once, the universe just had to wait for him...
"No, thank you," he said softly. "I don't have that much stuff to move."
That said, he left.
The closer he came to his old quarters, the more Darth Vader slowed his steps. The Sith Lord felt strangely torn. He wanted to move on, to embrace his new life as a healthy human being, and he was well aware that the first step toward this goal was to face the conditions he had had to live under for the past twenty-something years for one last time. And yet, he dreaded even this tiny first step.
His old cabin, a converted store room, was filled with the machinery his body had needed to survive until recently. Filled with the stuff Darth Vader's nightmares were made of. At least, some of them. Once, the circular meditation chamber in the center of the cavernous room had been his retreat, his sanctuary. Now it seemed like a trap to him.
He found himself standing in front of the door sooner than he expected, sooner than he wished. Taking deep breaths to calm the sudden fluttering of his heart, Vader palmed open the door and entered. Darkness greeted him. Darkness, and a deep, echoing silence.
He hesitantly stepped over the threshold; overhead lights came to life automatically as the door slid close behind him, bathing every surface in a cold light. His steps seemed unnaturally loud in the silence. He had left only a few days ago, why did it feel as if no living soul had ever been here?
Because I did not truly live then, Vader answered his own unspoken question. He had merely existed, day after day, trapped in a life support suit that cut him off from real life. Sterile, dead, just like this cabin.
Darth tried to chase the morbid thoughts from his mind; it was only a room, after all. Nothing was going to jump at him from the shadows. He would just pick up his tools, and his few personal belongings, and leave.
Resolutely he strode over to the work area. It was as neat as he had always kept it; tools to the left of the long work table, clean and ready for use. His current project, a better sensor array for probe droids, in the middle, parts laid out in the order they needed to be assembled in. The right hand corner was occupied by a computer terminal and a handful of data disks.
Picking up the toolbox he kept under the worktable, Vader stored the tools and sensor parts in it. The data disks he put into a pocket of his uniform.
Next he moved to his bedchamber. If the anteroom had seemed impersonal and sterile, this room felt like a morgue. Cold. Dead. White sheets on the hospital bed opposite the door, medical equipment surrounding it.
No, not like a morgue. It didn't look too unlike the ICU he had woken up in a few days ago. His personal 2-1B unit stood silent vigil in one corner. The machine was still in standby mode, as he had preferred to keep it when he was not in his quarters. He never cared much for it. It had about as much personality as a speeder. So unlike C-3PO. But then again, the 2-1B had not been constructed to be an individual. Only an efficient surgeon. He would send it to sickbay later. He had no use for it anymore, and there it could continue to perform its primary function.
Vader opened the small closet built into the wall. A spare suit, a few pairs of shorts, a pair of boots, socks, a small box at the back of the closet. Barely enough to fill a medium-sized suitcase. But his life had never been dictated by material things.
Oh, he knew he was considered rich. His service to the Emperor had brought him wealth, if nothing else. But he had never allowed that wealth to rule his personal life. In fact, he wasn't quite sure how much money had accumulated in his accounts over the years, and he couldn't care less if it would all suddenly evaporate. Money simply was of no importance to Darth Vader.
In his heart, he had never understood the need to accumulate wealth that drove other sentient beings. His own needs were very different. As a child, he wanted to see, to learn, to understand. Even then, he had not understood greed, although he grew up surrounded by it.
He folded his few clothes, including the life support suit, and placed them in a pile on the bed. The suits doubled as flight suits, and somehow he doubted quartermaster's stocked those in his size. Pilots were not supposed to be two meters tall.
Last, he took the small box out of the closet, idly wondering what it contained. He didn't even remember putting it there. Well, he probably hadn't. His belongings had been brought here for him, when he assumed command of the fleet. Somebody must have put it in the closet then, together with his other things, and it had set there ever since. He never looked into the closet himself; the 2-1B usually laid out his clothes for him.
Curious, he sat down on the bed and opened the box. It did not contain much. A holo cube. A few letters, written on thick paper yellowed with age.
With trembling hands, Darth Vader took the letters out, unfolding them carefully in order not to break the brittle material. Tears stung his eyes as he recognized the handwriting he had not seen in years. It was his wife's. Padmé. Queen Amidala of the Naboo, but he preferred to think of her as Padmé, the young peasant girl who had walked into Watto's shop so many years ago looking for spare parts. He had fallen in love with her the moment he saw her, although she was half again his age.
"Are you an angel?"
"You're a funny little boy."
Vader folded the letters again. He did not need to read them again. Although he had not read them in years, he still knew them by heart. They were the letters Padmé had written to him during his Jedi training on Coruscant. Why had he kept them? Somehow, they had been with him through all the years since then, even though they were at the back of the closet, in an old box. But they were there. They were still there. Somehow, it was comforting. It was as if a part of Padmé was still with him.
Beneath the letters, there was another item wrapped in a piece of cloth. Small, easy to overlook. Vader took it from the box, his hands shaking worse than ever. He unfolded the cloth and found what he dreaded to find inside. The japor snippet he had carved for Padmé. His first gift to her. It, too, was darkened with age. A sob escaped his throat as he remembered the last time he had seen it, shortly after the fateful duel with Kenobi. He was still in the care of the healers then, the suit was being constructed for him.
"I have sad news for you, my servant. Your wife, the Queen Amidala of Naboo, was killed today."
Numb... he didn't feel. Not like he should.
"How? What happened?" His voice was as flat as his emotions.
"I should not... you need your rest, my friend." So concerned about him... if he was so concerned, why did Palpatine bring him the news in the first place?
"I need to know!" Agony... now he was feeling something, and he wanted it to stop. He wanted it to never stop. Padmé, his angel, gone. He would never see her again, never hold her again.
"Your teacher... your former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. I am afraid he has gone quite mad..."
Now Vader wondered if that, too, had been a lie. Back then, he had believed Palpatine. He had believed that Obi-Wan had murdered his wife, and in retaliation, had helped Palpatine wipe out the Jedi. His hatred had made him the perfect weapon for the Emperor.
He fought back more tears, his fingers closing over the japor snippet. Another lie. He could sense the truth now. Obi-Wan could not have harmed Padmé anymore than he himself could. No, her death came by one of Palpatine's agents. Another tie to his past life severed, another obstacle removed on his way to the Dark Side.
Slowly, Vader opened his hand again. The leather strap was dry and brittle, but it would keep until he could replace it. He tied the japor snippet around his neck, picked up his clothes and the toolbox and left. There was nothing else here for him.
He didn't notice the 2-1B unit activate when he left.
Wrenga Jixton was bored nearly to tears. Hanging around in dingy bars was about the only thing he could do between jobs without attracting too much attention. That, and honing his skills in private.
Unfortunately, his employer had not needed his special talents in several weeks now, and Jix was starting to wonder if the Dark Lord had forgotten about their little arrangement. He was also running low on cash. Vader had always paid him well in the past, but Jixton did not believe in saving accounts.
Maybe I should call and ask him what's up, Jix thought. Yeah, and, by the way, Uncle Dee, your favorite nephew could use a little pocket money. That would go over well, thank you very much.
No, he needed a better approach. But it certainly would not hurt to have a look at Vader's new security system before he came back from off-planet. Just to keep in practice, of course. And he could get a lot of practice from Vader's palace. After all, Vader kept the security system state of the art ever since Jixton had managed to get past it for the first time. It had developed into a game between them; no matter how hard Jixton tried, he could never sneak up on Vader himself. And no matter how tight security was in the palace, Vader could never keep Jixton out.
He would go tomorrow, Jixton decided and ordered another drink, his second of the evening. He was not the kind of man to drink heavily or regularly, or he would not survive long in his line of business. And he liked to be completely sober before he tackled Darth Vader's palace. No use in risking his perfect record.
Darth Vader entered sickbay with the idea of retrieving his lightsaber as well as whatever remained of his suit in mind. He had begun to miss his weapon to the point that he felt almost naked without it. A silly notion, true, especially since with his powers he did not really need a weapon, but the fact remained that he missed its comfortable weight dangling from his belt. He had not been without a lightsaber ever since he built his first training saber as a young Padawan. And he needed at least his helmet, armor and respirator unit to complete his spare suit so he could use it as a flightsuit. Of course, he would have to make some modifications - he did not need the respirator to breathe for him anymore - but an inquiry to quartermaster's had confirmed that they indeed had no flightsuits in his size. Being tall wasn't always an advantage.
"Well, look who decided to pay me a visit!" Dr. Hanley's sarcastic voice cut into his thoughts.
Vader's eyes narrowed. The man had saved his life, no, had given him his life back, so Vader supposed he should be grateful. But Hanley was also an arrogant, irritating sonofabitch. His voice, his mannerisms, his mere presence grated on Vader's nerves.
"I wonder what brings you here, Lord Vader," Hanley continued. "It cannot be concern for you health, or you wouldn't have left in the first place."
"I have neither the time nor the patience for your games, Doctor," Vader rumbled. "Give me my lightsaber and my suit."
"After I've examined you, My lord. You may not give a damn about your health, but at least allow me to do my job properly."
Vader's patience was wearing thin.
"You will give me my suit and lightsaber," he intoned, using the Force to bend Hanley's will to his own.
Hanley whipped a scanner out and pointed it at Vader. "As I said, after I've examined you. Now take your jacket off, please, and sit down."
Vader heaved a frustrated sigh. I must be out of practice, he mused. He considered his options. He could kill the fool, and waste his time searching sickbay for his lightsaber and suit. Or he could allow the examination, which would probably take less time and get Hanley off his back just as effectively. Or he could try again.
"You will give me my suit and lightsaber," he said once more, adding even more Force.
"I will give you your suit and lightsaber," Hanley repeated after him, "after I've examined you."
Vader rolled his eyes. What was it with this man? Why couldn't he get through to Hanley?
Hanley's lips twitched in amusement.
"I should tell you, My lord, that the Jedi mind trick does not work on me. I've taken certain precautions."
"You..." Vader was speechless, but it lasted only a few seconds. "What precautions?"
Removing his uniform jacket, he sat on he examination table Hanley indicated. He knew when he had lost.
"Do you really expect me to tell you? If I did, you might find a way around it, and I have to come up with something new." He ran the medscanner over Vader's upper body. "Your scan looks good. Tell me, did you have any more headaches or dizzy spells?"
"No," Vader answered in a gruff manner.
The thought that Hanley, Force-blind as he was, had found a way to counteract the mind trick irritated him to no end.
"Humph. I see no reason to keep you here. You're recuperating nicely, so I'm clearing you for light duty. That means no piloting, no sports, no command decisions, and I want to see you again in a week."
"I do believe you have taken leave of your senses, Doctor Hanley," he declared in a cold voice.
How dare Hanley? No piloting hurt, but he understood the reasoning behind that, as well as the "no sports", but taking command of his ship away from him was an unbearable affront!
Hanley put the scanner away and shook his head.
"Lord Vader, you had a major change in your life only a few days ago," he began, silently adding 'and a nervous breakdown the crew will be talking about for months'.
"Give yourself time to come to terms with it." He looked straight into Darth Vader's eyes. "If it were anyone else but you, I would keep them here, under observation. But I can't do that, can I? You would simply walk out of here again and do whatever you damn well want to. So I'm asking you to at least take it easy for a while. I'm sure the admiral can muddle through without you. And by the way, I am going to inform him of my decision, and I trust you not to get him into trouble with High Command by ignoring it. When it comes to medical decisions, I am the highest authority on board, My lord."
Vader glared at him. Hanley was right; once his decision was on record, there was nothing even he, Lord Darth Vader, could do about it. He should have killed the fool when he had the chance. No command decisions for a week, that was humiliating.
"My judgement is not off, Doctor," he growled in a low, menacing tone.
"Really? Then please tell me why you left sickbay. Or why you worked all day yesterday without eating anything before late afternoon. Physical work, I might add, for which you are not fit yet," Hanley retaliated.
"I had my reasons," Vader snapped back.
"And I have mine. My decision is final, Lord Vader, whether you like it or not."
With that, Hanley turned and left Vader to retrieve his things from where he had stored them. Vader had barely closed his jacket again when Hanley returned and handed him the weapon and the sorry remains of his life support suit. The Sithlord took them and left without a further word.
As soon as he was gone, Hanley took the small noise generator out of his ear and shut it off; he would pay for using it for the next couple of days, but the high-pitched wail it emitted had been just irritating enough to cut through Vader's attempt at clogging his mind. The trickiest part had been to find a setting that was loud enough to keep him alert, but not so loud that Vader would hear it. That would have spoiled the effect immensely.
Vader stalked into his new quarters, seething. He would have slammed the door shut behind him, even if it was a childish, immature thing to do, but unfortunately, the automatic door closed behind him with barely a whisper. The Sith Lord dropped his burden onto the sofa and went on to the viewport. Frustrated, he slammed his fist into the transparisteel.
Out of the command structure for a week, maybe longer. It was... debasing. Insulting. Vader pounded the viewport again. And again. His cybernetic hand did not make a dent in the surface. Neither did the artificial skin that covered the hand sustain any damage. Frustrated, Vader leaned his forehead against the cold, smooth surface of the viewport. Even the beauty of the stars did nothing to soothe the rage he felt.
Calm, he told himself. Get yourself under control. There is nothing you can do about it, and taking out your frustration on a window will only prove Hanley right.
Taking deep breaths, Darth was finally able to calm himself enough to sit down at his desk and call the bridge.
Piett appeared on the screen almost immediately, bowing respectfully to him.
"I believe Dr. Hanley has already informed you, Admiral?" Vader inquired.
The look on Piett's face gave him the answer; to his credit, the admiral managed to look uncomfortable, and to keep any pity out of his features.
"Yes, My lord. Although I must confess I have no idea what light duty means in your case, Sir."
Vader leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.
"Probably reading up on reports and technical journals." He shrugged. "I shall be in my quarters, Piett. Vader out."
He leaned forward to cut the connection.
A crew member in gray coveralls hurriedly walked the length of the Executor's bridge toward the large front viewport where Admiral Piett stood, patiently regarding the unmoving stars.
"Admiral, you wished to be notified of all outgoing transmissions," he whispered urgently.
Piett turned around to face him.
"You picked something up, Stevens?"
"Yes, Admiral. An encrypted message."
"Were you able to decode it?"
Stevens shook his head.
"Not yet, Sir," he replied. "It's not a code the Fleet uses. It's no Alliance code, either."
Stevens fidgeted. It did not escape Piett's notice.
"There is something else, Stevens?"
"Yes, Sir. Although the transmission was short, we were able to track its origin."
"And?" Piett arched his eyebrows.
"It came from Lord Vader's quarters, Sir."
The admiral's eyes narrowed. Who would Lord Vader contact in a code unknown to the Fleet? It could not be the Rebel Alliance, unless Lord Vader had knowledge of a code that the Imperial Fleet had not been able to identify yet. Highly unlikely. His transmissions to the Emperor were not encrypted. And why should he contact his Majesty now, of all times? Something wasn't right here. Unless...
"His old or his new quarters, Stevens?" Piett asked.
"His old quarters, Admiral."
Piett strode over to the communications console and quickly dialed Lord Vader's new quarters. The Sith Lord answered almost immediately; he apparently had not left his desk since his call a few minutes earlier.
"Yes, Piett, what is it?"
"My lord, I have been monitoring outgoing communications during the past days." He did not have to add 'since your accident'. "An encrypted signal was sent just now from your old quarters."
"But there is no one..." Vader paused.
Piett could almost see the thoughts form behind his forehead.
"The 2-1B. I should have expected something like it," he muttered, almost to himself.
Hanley was correct - his judgment was off, or he would have seen it immediately. The droid had to have a special programming. It had been with him ever since he sustained the injuries in the duel with Obi-Wan, and in all those years, had never found the true reason for his respiratory problems. Because it already knew. Because it was programmed to keep him like that - helpless, and dependent on machinery to keep him alive. Vader slammed his fist on the desk, hard. He had been such a fool! Then he addressed Piett again.
"Assemble a team, Admiral. I want that droid captured. It is not to be destroyed."
"Yes, My lord. Shall I have its memory and programming downloaded and analyzed, Sir?"
Vader allowed himself a thin smile.
"You are reading my mind again, Piett. Vader out." With that, he cut the connection.
On the bridge, Piett turned to Stevens.
"You heard him, Stevens."
Stevens saluted smartly and hurried away.
Luke Skywalker landed his X-Wing next to the narrow path that led to Obi-Wan Kenobi's house on Tattooine. The Millenium Falcon was already there, disguised under a camouflage tarp. The twin suns had risen only a few hours ago, but already the air over the desert was hot enough to waver and produce mirages. And it would get hotter still. Luke climbed out of the cockpit and helped R2-D2 to disembark; the little droid twittered his excitement.
Leia came running down the path, calling his name, with Chewbacca following close. The Wookiee roared his own greeting, and Luke waved to him.
"Luke, I thought you would never come," Leia greeted him and pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I told you I would, Leia," Luke replied calmly, returning her embrace.
What was frightening her so? It could not be the rescue mission; Leia had been through worse, and it had never fazed her. Luke always thought of her as the strongest of their group, never afraid to do what needed to be done.
"Is Lando in Jabba's palace already?"
"Yes. He's got work as a guard."
Luke placed his hands on her shoulders, trying to reassure her.
"What is it, Leia?" he murmured.
"I... it's nothing," she mumbled. "Just nervous."
She could not talk about this, not to Luke. She still had the strange feeling that somehow, Luke was going to betray her trust.
Luke pulled her closer again, stroking her long tresses.
"It's going to be alright, Leia. We're going to get Han out of there, you'll see," he whispered into her hair. "In a few days, we can start phase two of the plan, and then it won't be long, I promise."
"I know. I just wish it were over. I can't shake the feeling that something is going to happen."
Stevens led a group of four Stormtroopers into Lord Vader's old quarters. The 2-1B unit looked up and stared at them out of cold optical sensors, assessing the situation with impeccable logic.
"You are too late. Lord Vader's treason has been reported," it declared, and activated its self-destruct mechanism.
It exploded seconds later, the power of the blast knocking the men off their feet.
Piett straightened his uniform jacket before entering Lord Vader's apartment. It was a nervous gesture; he had failed his superior, and he would have to bear the consequences.
Vader was pacing the room, hands clasped, behind his back, when Piett entered.
"Your report, Admiral?" he questioned sharply.
"My lord, the droid self-destructed when my men entered. I failed you. I wish to apologize."
Damn, Vader thought. I should have known.
Aloud, he said: "It was not your fault, Piett. I should have anticipated this."
"My lord...", Piett began, but Vader cut him short: "No, Admiral. Don't try to take the blame." He picked up his pacing again. "You know, I believe Hanley is right. My judgment is off, or I would have seen this. That droid was with me for many years. It must have been programmed to... overlook certain things."
"Lord Vader, nobody can expect you to..."
"... be thinking straight? I did, Piett, and that was my first error. My second was to let things slide. If it was not for your initiative, I would not even know about the current situation."
Piett blushed slightly at the unexpected praise.
"I... uh... thank you, My lord."
Vader dismissed his gratitude with a wave of his hand.
"Sir, if I may...," Piett began and cleared his throat.
Vader looked at him and nodded; what other surprised did the Admiral have in store for him?
"The droid did say something before it self-destructed. Its exact words were 'you are too late. Lord Vader's treason has been reported'."
"I see," Vader replied and turned to look at the stars visible through the viewport.
'So I am a traitor now?' he thought. 'We shall see about that, my Master. We shall see about that.'
"Thank you, Admiral. That will be all," he said softly.
Piett bowed in acknowledgment and left the Dark Lord to his musings.
"We shall see," Vader whispered.
Contrary to popular believe, the night was not the best time for breaking and entering on Coruscant. The planet-wide city never truly slept, but its human and alien inhabitants tended to be more alert, watch out more for potential trouble during the night than in the daylight hours. Old instincts die hard.
And that was why Wrenga Jixton lowered himself into the sewers not two city blocks away from Darth Vader's palace in broad daylight. Wearing brightly colored coveralls, high boots and a tool belt, he looked like just another maintenance worker. None of the passers-by gave him a second glance; in the midst of the crowd going about their daily business, he was as good as invisible.
The sewer was nearly four meters across, with a narrow walkway on either side. Glowrods spaced on the walls every few meters gave an eerie light. Small noises, amplified and distorted beyond recognition by the strange acoustics of the underground sewers, reached Jixton's ears, adding to the spooky atmosphere. A darkish, stinking sludge flowed between the walkways; Jix took care not to slip on the slick stones and fall into the smelly goo. He would have to step into it early enough.
Jixton consulted his map and set out in the direction of Vader's palace. After a few dozen meters he came to an intersection and turned left. A rat scurried away and vanished into a small crack in the stones.
Half a galaxy away, Darth Vader paced his luxurious quarters on board the Executor.
So I am a traitor now? he thought darkly. I shall give you treason, my Master! You lied to me when you told me Obi-Wan killed my wife. You made me murder my friends. Thanks to you, I never saw my son grow up. You wanted me to kill my own child, you bastard! You turned me into a monster. You kept me under your thumb for more than half my years. Not anymore!
Turning on his heel, Vader strode to the closet and flung it open with enough force to almost shatter its door. Grabbing the standard-issue duffel bag from the shelf, he started to stuff clothes into it haphazardly before realizing he had no means to leave the ship. He needed a transport first. And he needed a plan. Running off half-cocked and angry would only get him killed before he accomplished anything.
Returning to his desk, Vader sat down and called up the ship's maintenance roster, looking for a small transport he could use to escape. A standard TIE would be of no use. The small fighters had no hyperspace capability. His personal TIE had, but it was too easily recognizable. The Avengers were out of the question for obvious reasons. No, he needed something a bit larger.
Drumming his fingers on the desk, he scrolled down the list until he found the most likely candidate. A Lambda class shuttle, small enough to be flown by a single pilot, fast enough to escape into hyperspace before the TIEs that would undoubtedly be sent after him could catch up to him, and common enough not to draw too much attention. Vader looked up which shuttle was currently kept fueled and ready for launch. The Tydirium. She would be his means of escape.
But where to go? He could not take Palpatine on all by himself, as much as he wanted to. The tyrant was too well protected, and would be able to sense his ex-servant as soon as entered the Coruscant system. He would be dead before he even reached the planet if he was so foolhardy to try this alone.
No, he had to get help. The obvious solution was to join the Rebel Alliance. But would they take him?
Darth Vader had no illusions about how the Alliance members saw him; a ruthless killer, dangerous and uncontrollable. Most likely he would be shot on sight, before he had a chance to explain himself. Vader leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. How to get out of this dilemma?
Luke... but Luke hated him. His son, his own child. More so, the boy would never trust him. Too much stood between them. He had killed Obi-Wan. Had tortured the Princess. Taken Luke's hand. Frozen his best friend in carbonite and given him to the bounty hunter, Fett.
Of course, Luke would be able to sense his true intentions, but would he want to touch his mind? And what about the others? Even if Luke spoke for him, and that was a big if, they would probably overrule him. No, he needed...
Vader's eyes flew open when the doorbell chimed.
"Come in," he called, belatedly remembering the open closet and the half-packed bag in front of it.
With a flick of his hand, he used the Force to push the bag into the closet and slam the door shut just as a nervous looking Admiral Piett entered his quarters.
"That's him," Dana whispered to his partner Lee, pointing with his chin to a nondescript looking communications officer in the corridor. "You know the drill."
Lee nodded and flexed the muscles bulging under his black uniform. At nearly two meters and with a built to match, most people thought him to be your typical brainless bully. They were mistaken. Lee possessed a quick mind and a highly developed sense of honor. This combination made him an excellent trooper, and one of the best for General Veers' special assignment. Now he picked up his usually unhurried pace until he was close enough to shove his target into the wall.
"Hey! Watch it, man!" the smaller man cried out when he found himself pushed against a bulkhead.
"What did you just say?" Lee glowered at the smaller man. His target gulped.
Damn, Lee thought. That was not the reaction he had hoped for. He had hoped for anger; his target outranked him and could demand respect. Never mind, he had to go through with the plan. Roughly, he pulled the smaller man up by his collar.
"No-one calls me clumsy," he growled.
"B... but I didn't..."
The target's eyes darted left, then right, searching for an escape route. There was none.
"Now you're calling me a liar?" Lee roared, pushing the man against the wall.
From the corner of his eye he could see two stormtroopers coming in their direction, weapons at the ready. Finally!
"What is going on here?" the first demanded. "You are both under arrest," the second added, pointing his blaster rifle at Lee.
"That... that won't be necessary," the communications officer piped up. "It was only a misunderstanding. I am not filing charges against the trooper."
"You? File charges against me?" Lee bellowed. "You push me, call me clumsy and a liar, and now you try to blame me?"
One of the troopers stepped between the two men, jabbing his rifle into Lee's ribcage. The other called for backup.
"You can both cool off in the brig until we sort this thing out."
Lee suppressed a grin; mission accomplished.
Similar scenes played themselves out on different locations on board the Executor, until Veers' men had secured all II agents that Piett had identified. There were only minor injuries, a few bruises here, a dislocated jaw there. All in all, it was a surprisingly non-violent mission.
Deep down in Coruscant's sewers, a stray glimmer of light caught Wrenga Jixton's attention. The ex-combat instructor ducked into a niche in the sewer's wall, breathing as shallowly as possible. Among the many tiny sounds of the sewers he could now make out human voices. Three, possibly four men, and they were already less then twenty meters away, around the next corner.
Sith... they were between him and Vader's palace, and they were coming in his direction. There was no way they could miss him went they went past him. Unless... holding his breath and scrunching up his face against the unbelievable stench, Jixton pulled his blaster, slid into the blackish goo and smeared the smelly mass liberally over his coveralls. He nearly gagged at the stench, but managed to keep still.
A few seconds later, a party of three human men passed not two feet above him; Jixton held his breath again, not just because of the smell. His face he pressed against the wall for additional cover. When the men had passed, he risked a glance, but could only see their boots. Standard issue army boots, not like the ones worn by maintenance workers. Like he was wearing now. These men were soldiers.
As soon as the three had turned the next corner, Jixton straightened up and soundlessly hoisted himself on the walkway. He could hardly believe his luck. He had been sure the three must spot him, but they had not. The question was why. They must have accomplished their mission and were on their way out, their defenses relaxed. Amateur behavior like that could get you killed in no time; Jixton at least knew better than that.
But what kind of job would bring three soldiers into the sewers close to Vader's palace? What kind of kreth had the Dark Lord gotten himself into this time? Jixton shed his soiled coveralls and continued on his way, determined to find out what kind of trouble his employer was in.
Not that he particularly liked Vader. Nope. Not at all. But he paid well, and they had an agreement. Jixton was well aware that he needed Vader to keep his friends on Aridus safe, and Vader needed an independent agent who could think on his feet, and so they put up with each other despite their differences. Friendship didn't even enter into it. Or so Jixton told himself. Some days, he even believed it.
Carefully, Jixton crept closer to the massive gate that closed off the pipe coming from Vader's palace. The sewer here was dry; nobody was home but the droids, and they didn't produce waste.
The gate was closed and locked, but a closer look told Jix that it had been opened recently. Very recently. Taking out one of his electronic gadgets, he cracked the code on the gate and slipped through.
No alarm had been sounded so far.
A few more steps brought him to a power line and a communications link that connected the palace to the public comm service. Jixton looked the gray box over. It, too, had been opened, and a small device added. The agent whistled through his teeth.
"Now who would dare to bug Darth Vader's comlink?" he asked no-one in particular.
Jixton could think of only two people who would. One was Prince Xizor, infamous leader of Black Sun. The other, Palpatine. And Xizor's goons didn't wear the kind of military boots Jixton had seen.
"Guess I better call my boss and tell him he's in trouble," Jixton murmured.
Some time earlier on the Executor's bridge, an officer called out to Admiral Piett.
"Incoming Message, Sir."
Piett turned around to face the work pit.
"Sir, it's from the Emperor himself..." the man said in awe. "We're being recalled to Coruscant."
A shiver ran down Piett's spine. That was what he had dreaded for the past days. He nodded.
"Carry on, Lieutenant. I will inform Lord Vader," he declared, and left the bridge.
Vader swiveled his chair around to face the Admiral. Piett cleared his throat, unable to look directly at Vader.
"What is it, Admiral?" the Sith asked.
"My lord, we have received new orders from the Emperor," Piett began. "We are to return to Coruscant immediately."
"I see," Vader took the news calmly.
"Your orders, My lord?"
Vader stood and walked over to the viewport, looking at the stars. He wished he had more time to prepare. He wished it had not come to this.
"Set course for Coruscant, Piett. Best available speed."
"But... Sir...," Piett stuttered.
"Is there anything else, Admiral?" Vader asked, still seemingly calm.
"No, My lord," Piett replied.
He turned to leave when the comm unit beeped. Vader frowned at the unit, but moved to take the call.
"Lord Vader, incoming call for you, audio only."
Who would call him on board his ship?
"Put it through," Darth Vader commanded.
"Hey, Uncle Dee," a slightly distorted voice came from the speaker.
"Jix," Vader acknowledged. "You are not supposed to call me here."
"I'm not supposed to drop in unannounced, either. Did that anyway," Jixton cheerfully replied.
"So, you have called me simply to tell me that you have once again circumvented my security system?" Vader purred.
The nerve of the man!
"Ah, come on, Uncle, you know me better than that. No, I called to ask if you had called the repairmen. They were some pretty filthy specimens, if you take my meaning. Left some bugs behind."
"I see. And as a dutiful nephew, you decided to inform me of the... infestation."
"You got it, Uncle. Ah, and the company they belong to has Imperial contracts, if you catch my drift."
So... the Emperor had bugged his palace. That was not unexpected. Vader crossed his arms over his chest.
"Thank you, Jix," he finally said. "And incidentally, you are fired."
Vader cut the connection before Jixton could mouth a protest.
Vader faced Piett again.
"My... nephew," he explained. "He is somewhat of an embarrassment sometimes."
"I... understand, My lord."
With that, the Admiral turned and fled the Sith Lord's quarters. Vader was left alone again to contemplate his next actions.
Half an hour later, Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, Jedi Knight, crept down the Executor's corridors toward the main hangar, duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
He carefully avoided as many of the ship's crew as he could; those he could not avoid never remembered meeting him in the hallways. Still, Vader heaved a sigh of relief when he reached his destination.
The Tydirium was indeed fueled and ready for launch. He boarded her, and lifted off as quickly as possible, even foregoing the pre-flight check. This time, he had to trust the engineers to keep the shuttle in top shape. There simply was no time to be wasted, and no margin for error. The Executor would soon enter hyperspace, and his window for escape would be lost.
Setting a course that would take him away from the giant ship, Darth Vader gunned the small shuttle's engines.
"Admiral, a shuttle just launched from the main hangar," a petty officer at CommScan announced.
"Track them," Captain Durreen ordered automatically before Admiral Piett could reply. "Send four TIE's after them."
"Belay that order," Piett cut in. Durreen gave him a bewildered look.
"We have orders from the Emperor himself, Captain. We must not waste his time," Piett explained patiently.
"Uh... yes, Sir."
For a moment, Durreen wondered if Piett had gone as crazy as Vader.
"Good." Piett turned back to the viewscreen and regarded the stars.
Good luck, My lord, he thought. You are going to need it.