Vader, Leia. Pre-ANH. While on duty aboard his Star Destroyer, Vader is called down to Alderaan.
Disclaimer: George Lucas created Star Wars and I am borrowing his characters for fun.
Sometimes, Vader dreams. While the droids clean his legs and armour, leaving him immobile, he does either of two things: dream or work himself into a rage. His master encourages the latter, claiming that if Vader concentrates all his anger, he will be able to heal the scars on his lungs. He has claimed this for eleven years. Vader struggles to still believe him.
A droid unfastens his helmet and pries it from his neck. Cool air surges around his head. His mask clings to his skin for a moment, then releases as the droid pulls it away. He breathes tentatively, suspiciously, still paranoid (there was the time his master forgot to provide a hyperbaric chamber) that there won’t be oxygen without the mask. His eyes do not focus by themselves; rather than face the blurry wash and be reminded that he is utterly dependent on machines, he closes his eyes. His son—his lips twitch outside of his control—awaits him.
Vader wants nothing more than a child.
He does not block the desire because he believes it expresses his rebellion against
the Jedi ways. His mind constructs a faceless child—its features blurred out—of the walking age, old enough to understand commands if not old enough to verbalise answers. Vader imagines that the child admires him, at least enough to learn from his example. Their relationship is grounded in discipline. The child is motivated by a degree of fear to do whatever Vader asks of him. He is precocious, brilliant; his rapid development will illustrate just how much better Vader understands the raising of children than rarefied Jedi. He will become everything Vader would have been with better training and a wiser teacher. That is Vader’s dream: to create a superior version of himself, to re-enter the world
through a child.
There is a whirring noise. The droids are becoming faster, he notes dimly as his seat sinks with the added weight of one reattached leg. His mask creeps back over his face. He shuts his eyes, struck by the knowledge that no child will ever trust such a face. Children don’t trust you if they cannot see your eyes.
Piett stands at attention at the door. He is a young lieutenant; Vader is his new commander. Vader rarely pays attention to his subordinates, but he likes Piett. Perhaps it is Piett’s fresh promotion that makes him more attentive than the other lieutenants, but Vader suspects that Piett is naturally thoughtful. He studies Piett’s figure, trim in crisp green, and lingers on the sparkling red square added to the rank on his chest. Piett has a calm face that Vader likes to think is the result of a noble education.
“Yes?” he says, pleased that Piett does not startle, but stands in place.
“My lord, we have received a transmission from Alderaan. They are within minutes of our reach. Apparently there has been a famine, and they beg for our assistance.”
Requests like this usually go to the fleet admiral, not individual commanders like Vader. The admiral must have refused the request, Vader thinks. Piett had come to Vader because he thought Vader could override the fleet admiral. He has a plan, Vader thinks. This only adds to Vader’s picture of Piett as a subtle aristocrat.
“The Devastator is a star destroyer,” Vader says. “What kind of aid do they think we can give?”
“The famine has created internal tensions in some of the villages,” Piett says, his voice calm and steady. “Alderaan does not have its own standing army, and the few Stormtroopers available are overwhelmed. Prince Rolf sent the transmission hoping that some additional Stormtroopers be brought in to maintain order.”
“What about Bail Organa?”
Piett does not seem surprised by the question. His brows furrow as if he had thought very carefully about its answer. “Senator Organa is mediating a border conflict in the Amarra region on the other side of the planet. From what I know about the Amarra region, communications have been entirely demolished by fighting. I do not think the prince could be in contact with Senator Organa. It seems that Prince Rolf made the request on his own initiative.”
No, Vader thinks, Bail would never invite Stormtroopers onto his beloved planet. He is still of the belief that conflicts can be resolved peacefully, by his personality alone. Vader wonders if Bail will ever understand that the Republic no longer exists.
“This may be an opportunity,” he tells Piett, a hint Piett will understand to mean that the Empire might finally gain control of powerful, reticent Alderaan. “Tell the prince he will have his reinforcements, and prepare my landing shuttle. I will deal with the troops.”
Piett bows. Vader stands, his cape finding its place around him. Who had lived on Alderaan? His wife in her last days. For the briefest moment, Vader recalls her suicide note, recorded onto a holo. Her embalmed hands had been white. Is it cold on Alderaan? Vader never knows; his suit does not let him feel the air.
He steps out of his chamber, catching sight of the last flash of white interior before the black exterior closes around it. The little princess with the startlingly dark hair and wide brown eyes resembles his wife with her dead white skin, her old white dresses that he put out of sight in a container smelling of her spice. Swathed in dark winter furs, the girl looked suspiciously like his wife until he had taken a good look at her face. She disturbs him, the princess. She stirs up in him the unpleasant feeling of having left an important possession behind. His reaction to Alderaan is ultimately tied up with his reaction to the princess as he last knew her, a girl of five treading carefully through banks of snow, her eyes cautious and reproachful.
He stalks out of his bare quarters into a corridor that slopes down. The paint job becomes haphazard on the lower decks. He becomes angry. His ship is falling apart, ceiling wires parting from their clumps and showing frayed edges, panel lights buzzing insistently, partly blotted out by dirt gathered in their cases. The soldiers were neglecting their duties. Did they not love and care for their ship? Was this their way of testing him, the new commander, or was this the effect of his predecessor’s incompetence? His footsteps resound on the rocklike floor, each sound accumulating like a thundercloud, like the angry thoughts in his head. The legion he intends to dispatch resides in barracks L on deck 24. The first time he visited barracks L last week its inhabitants had turned what should have been a silent sleeping quarter into a sabaac tournament of dazzlingly high stakes. He vividly recollects the looks of terror on the Stormtrooper faces. Without their armour they are soft, unbearably vulnerable.
Without his armour he is a mess of despicable wires. That, more than anything, explains why his wife left him.
He knows she gave birth. He has a son, somewhere in the galaxy. But to go searching after him would be, in a way, to undo her last and most valiant act. It would reveal the last of her secrets. He is not ready to find his son. He is content with the knowledge, content with his dreams. Besides, if his Master knew . . .
He stops at the door to Barracks L, which slides open. The room yawns out before him, soothingly dark and quiet. The rows of shining bunks, lined at even distance from one another, are reassuring—he feels he could meditate. Then a ragged snore cuts into his thoughts.
Vader turns on the light. Someone rolls off his bunk; there is a thud and a moan. He waits a moment, infuriated, as some soldiers snap neatly to attention and others attempt to hide beneath their sheets.
“Prepare for ground duty at once,” he snarls, moving forward to deal with the laziest ones. In the tight space, someone runs into his side and falls.
In the course of two minutes Vader learns three things about his predecessor:
a) He did not interact with the Stormtroopers
Vader now understands his role. He is to turn this ship into an exemplar of efficiency in order to show his master that he is still capable of military command. It has been ten years since the Jedi Purges. His master seems to think Vader has gone rusty since then. Affronted by the thought, Vader is more enthusiastic in his methods than usual.
When the Stormtroopers are ready, Vader enters his personal shuttle and instructs the pilot to head for the royal palace in Aldera. He leaves Piett behind as a reliable contact on the ship. Piett tells the prince—a fourteen year old boy, Vader is informed by his shuttle’s database—to expect an imperial official with whom he may begin negotiations. He neglects to mention that Vader is the official. Vader prefers the element of surprise: it makes his presence even more intimidating. Bereft of his father and faced with Vader, the young prince will quickly agree to Imperial terms.
Finally, he thinks, as the shuttle cuts through Alderaan’s cloud cover, revealing bright seas and two hilly continents, smooth yellow grasslands
(A terrible drought, Vader notes. But what of Alderaan’s enormous trade network? Even if the Imperial networks were cut off, only a fool would believe Bail Organa did not have other sources)
and shining white city. Aldera. The university stands to the left, an artistic complex with transparisteel walls. The shuttle, descending in an arc, streaks past the tallest tower, a spike with a clock at the tip. Through the window Vader briefly sees students on all (he estimates) fifty-some levels. The buildings are much shorter in Alderaan than in Coruscant. When he looks down he can even see, amazingly, the street below, glittering in the sunlight. The shuttle lifts over a busy air traffic lane and swoops toward the palace and its waterfall.
“Never knew it turned off,” the pilot mutters to himself in the cockpit.
Vader looks through the cockpit window. The waterfall—he knows it is real—has dried up. He is suddenly aware of the hard glare of the sunlight. The reflection off the palace must be nearly blinding (he can tell from the large adjustment his eye lenses have made), and for a moment he is concerned for his pilot.
Then the shuttle bobs sharply and is out of the glare. Vader catches sight of withered gardens, an empty stream-bed. They are close enough to the ground to pass through tall, glimmering waves of heat. The shuttle hums as its triangular wings fold upward. There is a small bump as the wheels touch the landing platform and the shuttle resists the end to its movement. Vader stands. He can see a welcoming party at the end of the platform, and the princess in it.
She is taller than he remembers. But her hair—is twisted in familiar buns piled at the top of her head.
The prince greets him eagerly. His face is boyish and somehow slack. He turns to his father’s advisor, Bail Antilles, whenever he becomes overwhelmed, which is often. Antilles is a cunning politician. In the days when Alderaan was allowed two representatives in the Senate, Antilles was a senator alongside Organa. Vader knew him before. He is certain, however, that Antilles does not remember that time.
Vader ignores the princess, who has a hard time not making faces at her brother. He senses her impatience, her brilliance. Antilles cannot answer for the prince, but the princess can, and wants to badly. Vader realises that he must prevent the princess from any influence—she would make the prince hard to manipulate. He is surprised that Antilles allows the prince to speak for Alderaan when the princess is so much more aware of her father’s interests. But he does not voice his private opinion that Antilles has become senile. Smoothly, efficiently, Vader milks the situation with satisfaction and speed.
The prince invites him to lunch. Vader stiffens but then notices the princess is rolling her eyes out of frustration.
“If I may, Rolf,” she says—how old is she now? Eleven?—“we had better finish what we’ve started.” The prince opens his mouth to speak but she continues flawlessly, in her high-pitched voice, “Lord Vader, I would be interested to meet the troops you’ve brought my brother.”
He is filled with admiration for this little girl. But she cannot be given a voice: Alderaan is too troublesome already. He must make the prince agree in writing that the troops will remain after the disputes are settled, in the interest of law and order. Vader genuinely believes that the presence of troops is a healthy motivator for peace in any situation. He also believes a strong Imperial presence will force Bail Organa to temper his erroneous Republicanism.
“You may see the troops,” he tells her. “But first I would like to come to an agreement with the prince.”
“Nothing my brother agrees to can be enforced longer than a year, according to Alderaanian law.”
The prince ignores her. “You may have my signature in writing, Lord Vader. I will agree to whatever you need to settle this situation—within reason,” he remembers to add, glancing at Antilles. “We can finalise this now.”
The prince waves his arm—stiffly, in his navy uniform. His brown hair is closely cropped, and he trembles and sweats when Vader steps beside him, despite lifting his chin to appear valiant.
Behind them, the princess whispers furiously into Antilles’ ear. Vader can hear what she is saying, but once he has the signature her words will not matter.
She glares stonily across the table as the prince signs the appropriate datapads. Vader has seen that gaze before. Her face has even more character than it did at five, swathed in furs. He almost wishes his son were here, so that he could match him up against the peerless princess. She is going to be magnificent. For a moment, he wishes his child were a girl.
He would like to speak to her, but she radiates anger like a billowing black sail, warning others to stay away. He gathers the prince’s datapads and authorises the princess’ inspection of troops. She takes a long time walking between the ranks, pursing her lips, asking to see the contents of ration packs. For someone so young, she does an admirable job pretending that she knows what she is doing. Antilles fails to provide the help she needs, the excuse to call everything off. She returns to her place behind her brother, fuming and defeated.
Vader’s gaze lingers on her hair, the curious buns. He has seen them before, but where, and their significance, he cannot say. She lifts her head and stares at him with furious, shining brown eyes.
To his shock, her eyes meet his.