Title: Objects in Motion
The room was dark, ascetic and nearly empty - like its owner. In the windows, the planet Shiori hung like a jewel against the black backdrop of space. And on a table in the center of the room, a glow emanated from a small device in a black-gloved hand. A holo-vid sprang into life and Darth Vader watched his son.
It was taken some time after Bespin, of that the Dark Lord was certain. The boy wore a black glove over his mechanical hand, and his face looked older than it had in the other holo-vids he had, the ones taken from the Death Star archives and later, on Hoth.
Luke had received training with a Jedi, Vader was certain of that, too. Only a Jedi Master - or possibly a Sith Lord - could convey that sense of self-possession, the cultivated stillness. He watched his son cross the hanger bay, hands tucked into the sleeves of his brown robe walking at a steady pace. And then he saw a ship land, and Luke face broke into a wide grin. He rushed towards the lowering off-ramp, hugging the Corellian pirate, Solo, as he emerged.
Vader watched them greet each other, and was reminded just how young his son really was. It was easy to forget that until he smiled, Vader thought. And that smile was a potent weapon; it had the power to discomfort him, make him think of things hed rather forget.
But then - he doubted the boy would ever smile at him like that. Vader pushed down a stab of sadness at that thought.
Your duty is to win his loyalty, not his love, Vader told himself sternly. Had it not been love that had gotten Vader into trouble all those years ago?
Love of the Jedi Order; who lied and used him.
Love of Obi-Wan; who had betrayed him.
Love of Padme; who had
He could not complete that thought, and so he did not.
He watched the holo-Luke draw the Princess forward, greeting her warmly. The Princess smiled back, hugging him fiercely. The girl was lovely, and so strong, so much like
Vader switched the holo-vid off, disturbed. To think of her twice in one day was untenable.
He punched a button on the console in front of him.
"My Lord?" a tinny voice queried from the bridge.
"Is my landing team assembled? Vader snarled back. He could almost see the officer on the other end quail.
"Y-yes, my Lord. The team awaits you in the Alpha bay."
Vader didn't bother signing off. He simply disconnected and strode out the door. It was only when he'd reached the doors to the bay that he realized that he still had the holo-projector in his hand. He stared at it, feeling his brow furrow beneath the mask. It was not like him to be so distracted.
It must be the emanations coming from the planet, Vader thought. Yes, that must be it. He put the projector into the pocket of his inner robe and refused to consider any other possibilities.
"My Lord, your shuttle awaits."
"Very well, Captain."
Vader walked ahead of the contingent of Stormtroopers into the shuttle, settling into the pilot seat. A few seconds later, the bay had depressurized and the dock doors slid open to reveal the planet beyond.
Shiori was a glittering blue world, rich in flora and fauna but containing no sentient life. It had no resources to speak of, and was in a relatively unimportant quadrant of space. And yet the Emperor had ordered him here. And, as soon as the Executor had achieved orbit, Vader knew why.
The Force was incredibly strong on this planet.
Vader had found strongholds of power before, places where the Forced eddied and whirled, but nothing like this. The concentration of it was powerful and hypnotic.
Palpatine's orders had been simple; find out the source of the Force presence and see whether it can be used to our advantage.
The former seemed simple enough. There was one place where the midichlorians seemed to be concentrated, a bright beacon of power. And yet all of Vader's attempts at contact or connection had failed. Vader reached out again, but, as before, his mind was-not blocked - but pushed aside, he realized, growling in frustration.
The shuttle had just reached atmosphere, when suddenly the Force flared to life. The thick clouds seemed to pulse, reaching forward, swirling around the shuttle in a miasma of reds and purples. The nose of the shuttle plunged and Vader pulled at the controls, trying to bring it back up. The shuttle bucked, pitching Vader towards the control panel. He heard the stormtroopers in the hold cry out as the shuttle began to arch towards the planet, gaining speed as it went.
"Lord Vader, sensors read that your shuttle is in distress. Lord Vader, please respond."
"Lord Vader?" Peitt's voice cut across the bridge crew's chatter. "Executor is on its way."
They had broken cloud cover, spiraling out of control towards the sea below. "No, Piett. There's an energy field that seems to capture any craft that breaches the atmosphere. Pull back, that is an order!" Vader growled.
He barely heard the affirmative answer. Vader was reaching out towards the Force, attempting to wrap the energy around the shuttle. But, as before, the Force seemed to turn him aside. Pinpoints of bright light burst across Vader's vision.
Not like this, he thought. It can't end like this.
Vader's vision blurred. He reached out one final time. He thought he heard a scream - FATHER!
And then, the universe went black.
Luke jumped awake, the cry still on his lips. He straighted in his pilot harness, wiping a trembling hand across his face. Vader in trouble. Vader dying!
Calm, Luke tried to instruct himself. Find your center.
His breathing slowed, but the sense of urgency remained. Luke took a deep breath, and reached out, trying to find that immense dark presence in the Force. He'd been hiding from it for so long, denying his father's voice as it called to him, that it felt wrong somehow to be reaching out now. He half expected that dark vortex of power to hit him like a riptide.
Instead, there was nothing.
Father! Luke called.
There was no answer,but the feeling of loss, of urgency, increased. Luke drew in another shaky breath. "Artoo, how long until we reach the rendezvous point?"
Artoo answered in a series of beeps and whistles. The computer translated, four standard hours.
Luke stared out at the blur of stars. The compulsion to help, to find his father and save him, was almost overwhelming.
Father? Luke called again. And, just on the edge of his conciousness, he felt an answer.
It was that small brush across his mind that decided him. "Artoo, we're changing course."
Artoo whistled a query.
Luke cocked his head to the side, knowing the answer, but not knowing how he knew it. His hands moved over the computer, inputting coordinates. A planet glowed on the screen.
"We're going here," Luke said. He squinted at the tiny print on the computer screen. "Shiori."
A few hours later, the X-wing broke hyperspace.
Luke could sense the planet even before they dropped out of hyperspace, its presence blazed brightly in the Force. Luke had never felt anything like it. He stared at the blue planet below. The Force lapped against Luke's mind, waves reaching welcoming arms into his consciousness. Almost without realizing it, Luke was gliding his ship closer, reaching out with his mind to greet that welcoming presence.
A screech from Artoo brought Luke out of his reverie. A klaxon sounded, and Luke saw the flash of the tractor alert. It was only his reflexes that saved them, sending them into a spiralling evasive manuveur before he even saw what was after them. And then he wished he haddn't.
The Executor loomed to the starboard side. It had been hiding in the shadow of one of the planet's moons. A trick! Luke thought, but knew it wasn't a moment later. There was no answering darkness, no booming voice, just the gigantic ship moving impossibly fast, closing the distance he had just put between them, trying to get into tractor range again.
Luke sent his X-wing darting away. Why weren't they scrambling their Ties? Luke wondered as he raced towards the planet below. The blue orb loomed in the viewer. It wasn't much, but Luke's X-wing has the benefit of manuverability, especially in the planet's gravity well, and he intended to take full advantage. Still, the fact that they haddn't sent their smaller fighters after him worried him. He was alone and virtually helpless. Why weren't they pursuing?
Luke felt his ship shudder.
"What was that?" he shouted.
The Force pulsed around him. He could feel something in the corner of his mind, a chittering like a thousand voices speaking, and his ship shuddered again. The control panel erupted in a shower of sparks, and Luke threw his hands up to protect his face. And then they were careening down, spiralling out of control. Luke reached for the controls, but the X-wing was unresponsive. The ground came up towards them in a blur of blue and green. Artoo let out a mechanical scream.
Father, I'm sorry, Luke thought. Stars exploded across his vision.
Luke woke to a blistering headache. He screwed his eyes tightly, and lifted a hand to his forehead. Or, he tried to, only to flop it back down after a futile moment. His arms felt heavy, unweildy. Luke opened his eyes. There was something wrong with his vision. Everything had a red tinge, like he was looking into the mouth of a volcano.
He tried to sit up and found that his torso, like the rest of him, felt weighted down. He managed to lever himself up and took a mental inventory. Except for the pain in his head, he didn't seem to have been injured in the crash. He blinked, turning his too-heavy head to look around.
He was sitting in what looked like a forest. Trees crowded around him, making him feel slightly claustraphobic. It had been years since he left Tatooine, but he was still slightly wary of anyplace where he couldn't see to the horizon in every direction.
Luke tilted his head to look up. There were no broken branches above him. He must have been thrown from his X-wing.
Luke tried to stand up, and misstepped, stumbling over something. He looked down, confused, and realized that he was standing on a length of black cloth. He grasped it, trying to tug the offending fabric out from under his foot. And promptly toppled over.
Force! Luke swore. He untangled himself from the cloth, realizing belatedly that it was attached to his suit at the shoulders.
Luke looked down at his hands, huge black-gauntletted extremities that, against all reason, Luke was sure did not belong to him. In fact, his whole body seemed wrong-too big, too tall, too-
It was then that he noticed the sound, the hiss-shush of a ventilator, that was at once ominous and horribly familiar. Luke froze, looking around. And then, he realized that the sound was coming from him.
Oh no, Luke thought. Oh no, no, no. This isn't possible.
Luke looked down at the black boots, the heavy utility belt, the blinking lights on the respirator pack.
No way! This cannot be happening!
Luke reached out, seeking answers, but the Force seemed disinclined to help.
Father, Luke called desperately. Only silence answered back. Luke reached out, trying to feel out his father's presence. Nothing. It was as though the Force was turning him aside.
Luke sighed, hearing the strange feedback the sound caused inside his father's helmet. He blinked, his eyes watering from the constant puffs of air being fed to him from the respirator. He flexed his-his father's-hands, and felt the slight hesitation. Before Bespin he might not have noticed, but now he knew enough about mechanical limbs to know what that hesitation meant. Bionic parts may look real enough, but they were not quite as fast as the real thing.
But why were both hands...unless they were both mechanical.
Luke frowned, feeling the same hesitation when he flexed his toes. Four limbs; amputated or damaged beyond repair. What in frozen hell had happened to Anakin Skywalker?
To know that, Luke was going to have to ask him. The prospect was daunting. He wasn't looking foward to that particular confrontation, but maybe his father knew a way to reverse...whatever had happened.
Luke took a step forward. And nearly fell down again.
Kreth, how does he walk in this thing! Luke cursed, nearly get tangled up in the cape again. He grabbed the ends of the fabric and thrust then firmly over his shoulders. Or, Vader's shoulders?
This was going to be confusing.
Vader woke with a blinding headache.
He rolled over, opening his eyes and getting to his feet in one smooth motion, reaching for his lightsaber.
The Dark Lord noticed several things at once.
First, he was at least a head shorter than he remembered being.
Second, everything looked very blue.
Third, his lightsaber was not...well, his lightsaber.
Vader dealt with the latter problem first. He looked down at the saber in his hands. The weapon was light, and cleverly made, but it was undoubtedly not his own. He thumbed it on, pulling it through a series of figure eights in the air. Not his own, and yet the saber seemed to fit his hands.
Vader examined them. They were both small, slender, almost graceful. One was covered in a black glove. And the other-the other was flesh.
Vader held it up, flexing it before his eyes. Luke's hand.
Vader clipped the lightsaber to his belt-Luke's belt- brow furrowed. Switched. They had switched. But how, and to what purpose, Vader could not begin to imagine.
A crashing in the undergrowth spun his around, crouched low, lightsaber in hand. He waited as whatever it was stumbled through the thicket, making more noise than a herd of nerf in mating season. And then a dark figure emerged into the clearing, cursing. Vader straightened, extiguishing the saber.
Vader calmly regarded his own body as it came lumbering towards him. It stopped a few feet from the Dark Lord, held tilted in a familiar gesture.
"Son," Vader said in Luke's voice.
"Father," Luke boomed back. Vader frowned. Was his voice really that loud?
"This has got to be the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me."
"This has got to be the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me," Luke boomed.
Vader tried not to wince as his head throbbed at the volume of his voice - Luke's voice -whatever.
"Agreed, " he said. "I suggest that we -"
There was a slight rustling in the trees and a half dozen stormtroopers came pouring into the clearing, weapons drawn.
Vader saw Luke start guiltily, before seeming to realize that every gun in the clearing was pointed at him.
"Oh, yes, don't move, rebel!" he said. Vader tried not to roll his eyes.
"Hands up!" The nearest trooper ordered. Vader gave Luke a disgusted look and reluctantly raised his hands. A pair of troopers came forward, one holding a pair of cuffs.
"I will not be shackled," Vader said flatly. The trooper reached for him, and Vader's hand strayed to the lightsaber at his belt.
"No!" Luke bellowed. Everyone but Vader jumped. He lowered his voice. "It will not be necessary to bind him. Just bring him to the ship."
"Sir, the ship was damaged in the crash. Repairs are being conducted as we speak. We are confident that we shall be able to leave the planet within the hour."
Luke nodded at the trooper. "Yes, good. Lead on." He gestured in front of him, and then dropped back to walk to one side of the "prisoner".
"What are we supposed to do now?" he whispered furiously.
"My Lord?" queried the nearest trooper.
"Nothing," Luke said quickly. He waved the trooper away, and when he was out of earshot he hissed, "What do we do?"
"Well, first, I think it would be helpful if you lowered your voice. The vocoder can pick up normal speech, there is no need to shout."
"Sorry," Luke said in a more modulated voice.
Vader nodded. "Second, I think that it is best if we leave this planet. You may have noticed the dampening of our Force abilities since entering the atmosphere?"
"Yes," Luke admitted. "It's strange, I can still feel it, but I can't use it."
"I believe that if we leave the planet, we will regain the use of the Force."
Luke nodded. "You will have to be my prisoner."
"I am aware of that, my son," Vader's voice sounded amused. Luke cut him a look.
"You think this is funny, don't you?" Luke accused.
Vader was saved from answering by the fact that they had reached the shuttle. He stepped forward, almost demanding the status of repairs from the nearest trooper, before realizing that he was a prisoner. The trooper moved to flank him, drawing his weapon. Vader lifted his chin, which did no good, as he was still shorter than the stormtrooper. He frowned and watched Luke deal with his subordinates.
"My Lord," another of the troopers was addressing Luke. "The repairs are complete. We may lift off whenever you are ready."
"We will leave immediately," Luke said. He strode up the shuttle ramp in a fair impression of the Dark Lord's purposeful walk.
Vader felt a push from behind, and contemplated cutting the offending trooper in half. He settled for a glare.
They broke atmosphere a short time later and Vader breathed again as he felt Luke's mind brush against his own.
Father? Do you hear that?
Vader tried to ignore the pleasure of hearing his son's voice in his head, and using the moniker of 'father' no less, as he focused.
It sounds like...voices, in the Force. Strange, I didn't hear it when I first came to the planet.
Vader frowned. Nor I, he sent.
Luke said nothing else, merely concentrated on maneuvering the shuttle into the Executor's hanger bay, landing the shuttle gently on the deck. A moment later the shuttle depressurized. Luke stood up and motioned the troopers to disembark ahead of him, leaving him, and the "prisoner" for last. Vader stepped to the door behind Luke and felt him hesitate as he caught sight of a compliment of officers and various military personnel awaited their commander.
I can't believe I let you talk me into this, Luke groaned.
Luke drew in a deep breath. One of the men broke away from the rest and moved forward.
Admiral Peitt, Vader helpfully supplied.
"Admiral Piett, my quarters, now."
Luke swept past, Vader and Piett following behind.
You must order a communications blackout immediately. No one must know that you are here. And then turn left here.
And then, I suggest you order a detail of stormtroopers to go down to the planet and retrieve your ship.
Artoo? I completely forgot about him!
Artoo? Vader queried. Artoo Detoo?
Yes. You know him?
Stop at the door on the left, Vader evaded the question.
Luke frowned, an expression lost in the helmet, and stopped, keying in the code that Vader fed him. He stepped aside and let his father and Piett precede him into the room. He followed, locking the door behind, and turning to the nervous looking Admiral.
"Piett, I am going to have to ask you to trust me."
Jareel Windfury ducked into a doorway, and stripped off his white helmet. Skywalker!
He'd recognized him as soon as he'd seen him, naturally. All the Emperor's agents had standing orders concerning Skywalker. But he never imagined that the Rebel leader - the one that the Emperor wanted so badly - would obligingly show up on some backwater planet, right into his waiting hands. It was a shame Lord Vader kept the rebel leader so close to him. In fact, his attachment to Skywalker seemed rather...strange.
There was something afoot. A communications blackout could point to many things, but to Windfury's agile mind, most of them led to treason.
The blackout was easy enough to get around, Windfury contemplated. And when the Emperor found out that Skywalker was on the Executor, the reward would be enormous.
Windfury smiled, rubbing his hands together. Oh yes...his reward would be large. And the Emperor's appreciation would be greater than any reward, maybe great enough to set him above that snotty bitch, Mara Jade.
Windfury contemplated the look on her face as she was cast aside, replaced by a more competent Hand. Oh yes, his revenge would be sweet, so very sweet.
Best not to count your nerfs before they're branded, Jareel, he reminded himself.
Windfury knelt, sliding a floor panel aside to reveal a hidden compartment. He lifted the machine hidden there, punching a few buttons and smiling as it hummed to life. Within a few moments, a holo-image rose above the comm device.
"Report," a cloaked and hooded figure demanded.
"My Emperor," Windfury said. "I believe I have some news that will greatly interest you."
Admiral Firmus Piett paced the bridge, pinching the bridge of his nose against his incipient headache.
Switched! How was that even possible? Skywalker - or was it Vader - said that the Force had played some part in the trade. Piett sighed. The Force...he'd be happier if he'd never heard of the strange religion shared by both the Jedi and the Sith. His upbringing on the Rim had taught him to be skeptical of anyone who claimed to have mystical powers or the ability to make it rich quick. But five years on the Executor, in close proximity to an actual Sith Lord, had taught him that while skepticism was healthy, faith in Lord Vader was less likely to get him killed.
Still, the whole situation was strange. Worse, it was unnatural. And Piett was not sure that he believed Skywalker's claim that the switch had occurred simply because they were both Force users. There was something there, something in the way that Vader and Skywalker acted around each other. He could not put his finger on it, but Piett had not risen to the position he now had without an instinct for survival, and right now his instincts were in full panic mode.
"Status!" he snapped at the nearest officer.
"The droids have just returned with the pr " At the look his commander cut him, Captain Zeel amended himself. "I mean, the ship of Lord Vaders guest has been brought aboard, sir."
"Sir!" Piett turned to the communication's officer, who had a harried look on his face.
"Admiral, we have detected a communication signal, coming from somewhere on the ship."
"I thought we were under a communications blackout?" Captain Zeel cut in.
"We are, sir. But it appears that the signal was sent by an off-line device."
"A device capable of comming without using the Executor's grid would have to be big. How on blue Naboo would someone have smuggled it aboard?" Captain Zeel exclaimed.
Piett waved aside the question. "Were you able to intercept the signal?"
"No, sir. But, I believe we have isolated the source to level four, subsection sixteen."
"Good, send a detail of stormtroopers to the source. Arrest the culprit, and shut down that signal!"
"So, let me get this right. The spy not only smuggled a long range communications device on board the flagship of the Empire, but he managed to send a message, and then to elude capture? Is that what you are saying to me, Admiral?" Vader growled, stalking forward.
Piett tried to avoid the gaze of the much shorter man. It was almost easier when Vader was...well, Vader. At least then Piett wouldn't have to see the look on his face.
"Y-yes, my Lord."
"Give me one good reason not to kill you where you stand!"
Piett gulped, but it was Skywalker who answered. "Leave it. There's still a chance that we can find out what the spy sent."
"I am having Commander Va'al go over the device as we speak," Piett interjected.
Vader gave him a look that clearly told him that his speaking had been a mistake. Piett closed his mouth.
"Great," Skywalker said brightly, an effect ruined by the deep voice coming out of the vocoder. "So now we can "
A disembodied voice interrupted. Piett looked to Vader, who nodded, and went over to the console, punching a button. Commander Va'al's face appeared on the monitor.
"Sir, I think we've got something. The informer tried to wipe the last message sent off of this communications device, but he forgot the pattern buffer." Va'al looked positively jubilant as he explained, "Since the message was sent so far, it had to go through a buffer to boost the signal. The buffer sends the message on a five second delay, meaning there's a copy of the message left in the buffer. The informant didn't have time to wipe them both at least not completely."
"Very good, Commander. Please download the message to this console."
Va'al's image disappeared from the screen. Piett stepped back.
"If that will be all, sir?"
Vader considered him from behind Skywalker's blue eyes.
Finally, he nodded. "Very well, Admiral. You may go."
The door swished shut behind the Admiral, and Luke pushed off from the wall. Without waiting for his father's permission, he punched a button on the console. A man's face appeared on the screen.
"My Emperor, I believe I have some news that will greatly interest you."
Vader joined Luke by the console and watched the one-sided conversation. When the transmission was finished, Vader toggled the switch and the screen went dark. Luke turned away, a sense of dread rising in him.
"Palpatine knows that I'm here," he said unnecessarily.
"Yes," Vader acknowledged.
Luke looked at him askance. "I won't go to him," he said. "I won't turn."
Vader smiled sadly. "I used to think as you do."
"I don't believe you will hand me over to the Emperor. I can feel the conflict within you."
Twenty years in a mask had made Vader forget the necessity of schooling his features. Luke watched as a variety of emotions flashed across his own face.
"There is no conflict, my son."
Luke shook his head.
"That isn't true. I know it. I can feel it."
Vader made a dismissive gesture.
"This is getting us nowhere. I cannot take you to Palpatine in this state. We must first find the informant. Then we must find a way to regain the use of our own bodies."
Luke nodded again. It was an excuse to avoid the issue, and they both knew it. But Luke could wait until his father was ready to talk.
"So, what now?"
The room suddenly went cold. "Now," Vader said, "I go hunting."
Chapter Six - Nova
Vader stalked down the corridor, his cloak's hood pulled over his head. Troopers and various personnel instinctively moved out of his way as he strode along, his hand over Luke's saber.
Once, a year ago, he had offered Luke the Universe. His son had denied it, denied him. But now, they were together again. Once he convinced Luke of the power of the Dark Side, there was nothing that they could not accomplish together. He only needed time.
Unfortunately, he had none. The spy had seen to that. He could perhaps convince Palpatine that the communications blackout had been a precaution against an attempt to rescue Skywalker, but only if they broke orbit for Imperial Center within the hour. And, given the circumstances, that seemed impossible.
Vader growled in frustration, letting black rage fill him - rage at Palpatine, who had become increasingly paranoid and controlling. Rage at the planet below, that had somehow caused he and Luke's current...predicament. And rage at the spy, who had forced his hand.
He would find the informant. And then, he would make him pay.
Go back, Luke. I do not require your help.
He could hear Luke coming, even before he rounded the corner.
"Good, because I didn't come to help you, I came to stop you."
To illustrate to point, Luke stood in front of him.
Vader's eyes narrowed. "You would do well to step out of my way, young one."
"No. I can't let you "
Vader didn't wait for him to finish. He simply stepped around his son and continued on his way, leaving Luke spluttering behind.
He turned down another corridor, the Force pulling him strongly now. He heard Luke following, but ignored him, hand straying to the lightsaber at his belt. He reached out to the door on his left, triggering the release.
A blaster bolt arced towards him. Vader ignited the saber, deflecting the bolt back towards its origin. He heard a muffled curse, and then a concussive blast. He lurched into the room to see a hole, twice the size of a person, blown into the side of the bulkhead. Reaching out with the Force, he felt his quarry running, and hastened to catch up.
Behind him, he heard Luke following, bellowing orders into his comm. A contingent of stormtroopers joined them at the next junction. Vader ignored them, Luke trotted beside him, and he could feel the boy struggling to keep up.
Vader took a sharp left and grabbed Luke just in time to deflect another blaster bolt. The stormtroopers funneled into the corridor and fired back, before a sharp concussion sent a half dozen of them flying. The spy had thrown a grenade in their midst and fled.
"He's heading for the cargo bays. He must have a shuttle hidden there. I want you men to go around to the lifts and see if you can cut him off."
The trooper Captain ignored his order, looking at Luke.
Luke nodded, "Do it."
Vader moved away, but Luke's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Wait! We should do this together."
Vader looked at him for a long moment.
"All right," he finally conceded.
They moved up the corridor together, sabers drawn. Ahead of them, a set of double doors stood closed. Vader reached out, triggering the maglock. The doors hissing open to reveal a spacious cargo bay. A small, handheld explosive rolled out the door towards it. Luke calmly levitated it, containing the explosion. Blaster fire pelted out the door.
Vader stepped forward, Luke falling a few paces behind. They moved together as though they'd been doing it for years, deflecting to bolts, moving step by step closer to the door. The bolts increased in frequency, and Vader could feel the spy's fear wash over him. With a great leap, Vader burst into the room, his saber whirling. The spy screamed as the lightsaber's blade cut through his calf muscle, bringing him down.
Luke rushed forward, kicking the blaster away from the prone figure. Vader strode closer, weaving the Dark Side around him like a cloak. The man on the floor looked up, terrified.
"Who are you?" Vader hissed.
"I'll tell you nothing, Skywalker," the spy spat.
"That," Vader said softly, "Is a mistake."
He reached out with the Force. And the spy began to scream.
Luke leaned forward, fighting down the urge to retch.
He could feel the spy's screaming, echoing across the Force.
Stop. Father Please!
Vader ignored him, intent on ripping apart the man's mind, to get at the rest of the message.
Stop this! STOP IT!
Luke reached out, trying to gather the Force. He didn't know what he intended to do - stop Vader somehow, of that he was certain. But instead, a vast consciousness came rushing towards him. A million chittering voices spoke at once.
Help help help. We help. We change. We help.
The sheer volume of the combined voices was overwhelming. Luke flung his hands up, realizing that he couldn't clutch at his forehead only when his hands touched the smooth surface of the mask. The voices were everywhere. A million prying hands were inside his mind, crashing through his memories, squeezing out every other thought. The pain was ripping him apart.
Luke felt his consciousness ebbing.
Just before he passed out, Luke felt the vast chittering consciousness receding. And he could swear that it felt apologetic as it left his mind.
And then he felt nothing at all.
"That," Vader said, "is a mistake."
He reached out with a spike of the Force and pierced into the informant's mind. It was pitifully easy to pass through the meager defenses his mind threw up. He shredded the surface layer like tissue paper, moving deeper. He could hear the man - Windfury, the spy's mind supplied - shrieking, but blocked it out, ruthlessly driving on.
Memories floated past him, and Vader sifted through them. Images of Windfury's days at the Academy, his induction by the Emperor into the elite ring of informants that spanned across the Universe and reported directly to Palpatine. He felt Windfury's pride at being chosen, his jealousy of anyone above him, and his twisted obsession with Mara Jade. Vader paused there, wondering with amusement whether the Emperor's Hand knew the extent of Windfury's sick fantasies. He turned aside from that line of thought, and pursued the threads of more recent memory.
Father! He could hear Lukes distress. It was unfortunate, but his gentle hearted light side son would never understand the necessity of what he did now. He could never comprehend how utterly evil the Emperor was, or Vaders desperate need to rid the galaxy of his master before it was too late.
Before Palpatine got his twisted hands on Luke.
Windfury was fighting now, throwing blocks up to bar Vader's way. All high level espionage agents were taught to guard their minds, but few were powerful enough to cause a Force user more than a few minutes pause. And none could stand against Vader. He threw aside Windfury's defenses, and with a mental cry of triumph, seized the memory.
My Emperor, I believe I have some news that will greatly interest you. Luke Skywalker is aboard the Executor.
The Emperors queer yellow eyes narrowed. Go on.
Lord Vader captured the rebel on the planet nearly two hours ago.
Strange that I was not notified, Palpatines querulous voice spoke from beneath his hood.
Windfury ducked his head to hide his smile. He had been right. Vader was up to something.
There is a ship-wide communications blackout, my Emperor.
Mmmm. Palpatines eerie eyes slid closed and he canted his head to the side, listening for something only he could hear.
When he had first served in Imperial City, Jareel had heard whispers that the Emperor could read minds and see the secret desires of mens hearts. A vision of Mara Jades copper hair darkened with blood floated before him. Windfury licked his lips.
The Emperors eyes snapped open and, though Jareel could not see his face, he was certain that the Emperor was smiling knowingly. Jareel suppressed a shiver.
You have done well, Jareel. Perhaps upon your return to Imperial City you should be assigned within the palace.
Jareel made a slight bow. Thank you, my Emperor. What are your orders?
Observe. Report to me when I arrive.
Yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Oh yes. It seems that Lord Vader is in need of a lesson.
The memory ended. Vader released his mental hold on the informant, and Windfury slumped uselessly to the floor.
Vader stepped over him, turning to Luke.
It seems that
Luke stumbled, trying to catch himself on the wall before sinking to the floor.
Vader rushed to his sons side, trying to pull his own enormous form into a sitting position. It was nearly impossible in his sons lithe body. He managed to raise the masked head, calling for help from the stormtroopers waiting outside.
He sent a tendril of the Force out, trying to find out if Luke was injured or ill, and a million chittering voices answered back.
Help, help, help. We change. We help.
Vader shrunk back, trying to push the presence from his mind, but it followed, spilling like sand through the cracks in his shields, tickling little fingers across his consciousness.
Vader tried to pull the Force to him, to somehow protect himself, but the presence was pushing and pulling at him, interrupting his concentration. The cracks in his mental shields became chasms. He felt the presence rushing in, lightly skimming over his memories as though searching for something.
Stop it! Vader shrieked at the thing.
We help, it answered in a million booming voices.
What did you do to Luke?
Not hurt, the voices insisted. Help, help, help.
Vader felt the presence shift, concentrate, as though it had found what it was looking for. And suddenly, it was gone.
Vader had the impression that the stormtrooper had said his name several times. He blinked and looked up. The captain was not looking at him, however, but at the unconscious body on the floor.
Hes hurt. We have to get him to med bay.
The man nodded. He tipped his head at the unmoving figure of Jareel Windfury.
What about him?
Leave him, Vader said coldly.
Chapter Eight - Entrophy
Vader paced. He was unused to this body; the shorter legs, the less impressive size. It had only been through his used of the so-called Jedi mind trick that the Stormtroopers had obeyed him and brought his son to medbay. Vader reached the wall and wheeled, stalking back to the other side of the room. There were compensations, of course. The absense of pain, for one. Vader had decided long ago to forgo the mind-fogging pain killers that the med-droids offered, choosing instead to live with the constant pain. It was a small price to pay for an unclouded mind. And it served to nurse his rage. Without it he felt somehow exposed, lesser and yet closer to the Force at the same time. His eyes moved to the still form on the bed and he wondered how his son was dealing with the pain.
Vader paused, allowing his gaze to linger on his unconcious body. He could feel Luke in his mind, lurking just on the other side of consciousness. He asked himself for the thousandth time just what the voices had done to his son. One thing was certain. If they had harmed Luke in some way, they would most certainly pay.
Vader turned away, resuming his pacing and considering his options. His Master was on his way. No, not Master, Vader thought. He may have mouthed those words in Palpatine's presence, but in his heart he had hated the old man- a hatred that had only grown when he'd found out that his son lived. He remembered the holo-vid, still in the pouch hanging at his -Luke's- side right now. Luke: his living, breathing son- a testament to the life he had once had, and thought to never have again. And Palpatine had known. Of that, Vader had no doubt. Palpatine had known his son lived and had lied to him.
The Emperor must die, Vader thought with finality. But to finally end the old man, he needed Luke's help. He could not hope to match the darkness of the Sith Lord. But Luke- Luke was powerful. He and Luke together could annihilate the old man. They could end the Rebellion and restore peace to the universe. They could reform the galaxy into their own image.
You're not all-powerful, Ani.
The voice came to him unbidden, from across decades. Vader shook his head. He could not think of her, not now. Not when he was so close.
Luke stirred on the bio-bed and Vader moved to his side, grateful to have something else to focus his attention. Luke was thrashing around, obviously in the throes of a dream. His soft moans were not translated by the vocoder, but Vader could feel his distress through their bond.
Luke, he Sent. Wake up.
Luke suddenly shot bolt upright, hands clutching at the mask, his mind panicked. Vader could hear his thoughts- I can't breathe! I'm dying, oh Force, help me, I'm dying!- and his fingers pushed futilely at the mask.
Luke, listen to me. You are not dying. Breathe.
I can't! Luke's panic cresting, threatening to overwhelm Vader. Help me! Luke's mind screamed.
Vader took him by the shoulders, the contact both strengthening their bond and Vader's control. Luke, listen to me, Vader Sent, keeping his mind-voice calm. You cannot remove the mask; it is there to help you. You must breathe. Like this. Vader took a deep breath, and then released, pushing the feeling of his lungs functioning into Luke's mind. Luke's fear, so much like his own when the mask had first come down, calmed as he let the suit take over the function of breathing. He relaxed slightly, taking first one breath, then another. Vader heard the suit cycle down as Luke's breathing slowed.
Very good, Luke. Vader let warmth infuse his mind-voice. Luke's head snapped up, and he could feel the eyes behind the mask connect with his, recognision flashing. And then anger.
"Don't touch me!" Luke snarled. He roughly pushed Vader's smaller body aside and pushed off the bed, retreating out the door.
Help, help, help.
The Voices receded and Luke opened his eyes. A child stood in front of him- young, not more than ten standard years. Luke tried to smile, to ask the boy who he was, but found that he couldn't move. He pushed outward, trying to access the Force, and instead felt an enourmous darkness. Rage. Anger.
"Master Anakin, there are too many of them. What do we do?"
Anakin? Was he still in his father's body, then? But who would call Vader 'Anakin'?
There was no answer. But Luke felt his hand reach for his lightsaber, thumbing it on. The youngling's eyes reflected in the blue light as he took a step back. A sharp gasp echoed in the room and Luke realized that there were other children here, hidden, peering out at him. He stepped foward and for one moment Luke fully expected his father to turn and place himself between the children and whatever danger they faced. Thank the Force he's here! Luke thought. And then he heard the boy scream as the lightsaber came down. The scream broke off as the boy crumpled to the floor, his dull, lifeless eyes staring up at him.
Luke screamed. "NOOOO!" But he could only watch in horror as his father stepped over the boy's body. The children scrambled away, but they were trapped between Anakin-Vader, Luke realized- and the wall. There was no escape. Nevertheless, some of them tried. The older ones stood in front of the youngsters, pushing them behind, bravely facing the whirlwind lightsaber. Some of them tried to distract Vader as others tried to sneak behind him to the door, but Vader was too fast. They were no match for the Sith. One by one, the children crumpled under his lightsaber.
"NO!" Luke fought, screamed, reached out, trying to take control of the body that he was trapped in. He buffetted his mind against the wall of dark anger that seemed to surround Vader's mind. "STOP! PLEASE!" he begged, but to no avail. Finally, finally, the screaming stopped. Vader thumbed his lightsaber off. Body laid all around him, fragile and broken. Luke felt sobs closing his throat. How could he do this? He knew that his father had killed. But children? And the worst part was that he could feel nothing from Vader's mind; not pity or regret. Only that horrible, burning anger.
And Luke's own grief was choking him. He couldn't breathe. He was dying, just like the younglings had died- so many...so many! He tried to scream, but his throat closed and panic clutched at his mind.
Luke, a dark voice cut across his thoughts.
No! Go away! I don't want you!
Luke, listen to me.
I can't breathe! I'm dying! Oh Force, help me! I'm dying! Luke tried to reach out, but all he could feel was the darkness, the anger, the burning rage. He could not let it take him and he fought against it like a mad thing.
Luke, listen to me. You cannot remove the mask; it is there to help you. You must breathe. Like this.
The words made no sense. But there was something in the calm of the voice that made Luke pause. He reached out, listening as the voice repeated its instructions over and over again. There was warmth in the voice. The burning anger was gone, replaced by concern and...affection? Yes, that was is. Luke allowed that feeling to wash over him, to calm him. He felt himself draw a deep breath.
Very good, Luke.
Luke opened his eyes, a small smile playing on his lips. And then the reality of what he has seen crashed into his conciousness. The coldness, the anger, the screams- oh Force! So many, so many! His body felt cold and anger swelled within him.
"Don't touch me!" he snarled, knocking his father's hands from his shoulders. He felt a flash of hurt through their bond, but shut it down. He slid off the medi-bed and nearly ran out of the room.
Luke walked through the cold gray halls of the Super Star Destroyer in a daze. Officers snapped salutes as he passed. Privates stopped speaking to each other mid-word, their faces sliding into stiff masks as he approached, bodies straightening into rigid attention. Their fear beat at his mind and pulled at his heart. So many people feared Vader—the Emperor's Enforcer, the durasteel fist of the Empire. He'd heard the stories: Jedi slaughtered, cities laid to waste, even whole planets destroyed. He had thought he knew what his father was capable of.
But he didn't. Not at all.
He felt stupid. Ridiculously naïve. Ben tried to warn him that Vader could not be saved, but he hadn't believed. Or maybe he hadn't wanted to believe. But seeing the children in the Jedi Temple, turning to Anakin to save them, and then murdered; these were the actions of a monster. The killing of children was beyond reprehensible. It was unthinkable. Unconscionable. And, behind the sickening horror and shock Luke felt at the act itself, was the terrible question: How could a father who loved his own child do such a thing? The answer that came back was bone deep. He couldn't.
Luke had always harbored the foolish hope that his father had loved him once. That he had been wanted and cared for, if only for a little while before his father had turned. But the vicious act he had just witnessed stripped him of any illusions he may have had. No father who loved his own child could murder innocent children in cold blood like that. It just wasn't possible.
Luke felt a wave of nausea roll through him and he quickened his pace. There were few private places he knew of on this ship and only one that had a lock that might keep Vader out. He rounded a corner, almost barreling into a surprised lieutenant. The man stammered an apology and Luke scrambled past him, nearly losing his balance in his haste to get away. Finally, he reached Vader's own quarters, keyed in the passcode and stepped inside. The doors slid shut behind him and he deactivated the keypad, setting the lock to voice-activation only.
Luke? Speak to me. He heard his father pleading. Somehow Vader had caught up to him and Luke could feel his presence clearly on the other side of the door. How many times in his boyhood had he wished for that voice to speak to him? Even after the horrible events of Bespin, he'd still wanted to hear it, to understand. He'd wanted to be loved.
Now his father's voice filled him with revulsion.
Luke shrank away from the door, feeling panic rising within him. What if Vader found a way inside? It was his ship. Of course he would know a way to override the lock on his own quarters. Luke felt his terror spike at the thought of being confronted with his father now, so soon after the horrible revelation of his actions at the Jedi Temple. He had to get away from the contaminating Dark, had to get away from the voice of the murderer who was his father. He felt suffocated by the air being forced into his lungs. The sussurating breaths of the air-processor came too slow and each pause between breaths was an eternity. The weight of the armor on his torso made him feel like his chest was caving in and the constant stream of data from the mask's optical sensors made his head ache. He couldn't stand this. It was too much—the pain, both physical and psychic, overwhelmed him, filling him with the need to escape. Panic clawed at his throat, threatening to choke him.
Luke, listen to me, Vader's voice intruded upon his consciousness again. Luke fought to shut it out but he was too emotional to focus his mind and Vader was much too strong. You can get out of the mask for a little while. But you must go inside my meditation chamber.
Don't come in here. Go away! Luke mentally shouted back.
I shall give you a few minutes. But then, we must talk.
Luke could feel Vader's presence slide away. Luke felt absurdly grateful for the brief respite. It was more than he thought the Dark Lord would give him. Luke surveyed the room. There, in the far corner, was a solid black sphere. At his approach, the pod broke in half, the upper part retracting into the ceiling and opening a space both wide and long enough for him to walk through. A throne-like chair sat in the center of the small space, surrounded by computer banks and facing a wide communication screen. Luke hesitated at the opening to the chamber, wondering if this was some sort of trick. What if Vader simply locked him inside and turned him over to the Emperor?
After a few seconds of indecision, Luke's claustrophobia won over his mistrust and he entered the chamber. The upper half of the sphere dropped down and sealed the pod with a hiss. The room was tiny, scarsely wide enough for him to stand in between the computer banks that lined the walls and the enormous chair that took up the center. Luke sat down gingerly, wondering what taking off the mask would entail. Luke heard another hiss as streams of gas shot up from underfloor vents. Luke noticed a small, lighted panel on the arm of his chair. After a few moments, the upper display turned from red to green and a mechanical arm dropped from the ceiling and began to remove his helmet. Luke could feel the tickle of air against his scalp as the outer helmet was stripped away. The arm retracted and returned, removing the front part of the mask. Luke closed his eyes against the sudden assault of light and opened them again slowly, blinking in the feeble light. The respirator was stripped off next and Luke took a deep breath, finally filling his lungs to capacity with the crisp, cold air of the chamber.
“Well, this isn't so bad,” Luke said and was shocked to hear the rasp of his own voice after the basso rumble that he'd become used to. He spoke aloud again, listening to the hoarse, wheezing, true voice of his father. It was strange. Luke had always assumed that the vocoder was used only to amplify the sound of Vader's voice. But now he realized that it also served to create a suitably terrifying voice to match the Dark Lord's frightening exterior. It struck Luke suddenly how very vulnerable Vader really was. He depended on a piece of machinery for his very existence. He could not breathe and could barely speak or see outside of the mask and helmet he wore. The life support suit was cumbersome, heavy and ungainly. In the few days that he had worn it, Luke had come to admire his father's ability to move gracefully, despite it's bulk. And then there were the other discomforts he was forced to endure—the constant pain where mechanical limbs met flesh and the itch of synthskin over existing nerve and muscle. And there was the fact that the limbs themselves were sluggish and slow to respond. His legs felt like tree trunks attached to the ground and his arms moved jerkily and only with conscious effort.
This is not living, Luke thought. Something of the despair his father must have felt after being incapacitated washed over him. So much lost. What was Anakin Skywalker like before his injury, before his life was devastated by hatred and pain? Luke thought again of the swift, decisive strokes of his father's lightsaber as it cut down a dozen children in the Jedi Temple and wondered what that grace and power would have been like, used for good. He remembered Obi-Wan's words: He was a cunning warrior...and a good friend.
Luke sighed, shifting his bulk in the oversized chair. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glint of something and turned slightly to see what it was. And froze.
There, mounted on the wall in a recessed cavity, was a palm-sized mirror. And in it, he could could see the upper quarter of his father's pale face, including one perfect, pale blue eye. Look stared into it, seeing it widen with his own surprise. Blue, like his own—the same color exactly. As a child he'd noticed that he didn't look like his aunt and uncle. Beru had deep brown eyes, rich and warm, like Leia's. Uncle Owen's eyes were gray, the color of still water in a bowl. But his were bright blue, like the blazing sky at noon. He used to daydream of his freighter pilot father striding off a ship's ramp at Anchorhead. He'd survey the children that gathered to watch the ships land and take off and he'd see Luke and know, just by the color of his eyes, that he was his-Anakin Skywalker's-son.
Luke felt his heart constrict. His childhood dreams seemed foolish now that he knew the reality. He turned the chair slightly, just enough to see both eyes in the mirror, and he examined them for signs of regret. Could his father be saved from the Dark? Was there anything there worth saving? But the eyes only stared impassively back and Luke shook his head and looked away. Maybe there wasn't. Maybe Obi-Wan was right and all that remained of Anakin Skywalker was metal and circuitry.
Luke drew in a deep breath, feeling the weight of the despair he'd been trying to hold off since Bespin. He leaned forward, careful not to overbalance, and placed his face in his hands. The feel of leather gloves against his skin was a shock after being so long behind a mask and he was surprised to feel tears on his cheeks. Surprised too that his father still had the ability to cry when he had lost so much else.
Luke turned again towards the mirror and this time he looked into the face there—really looked at it. He was pale, as he would be from being sequestered from sunlight for so long. Deep scars radiated from the crown of his bare head. The flesh of his left cheek was knotted with scar tissue and his mouth was almost obscured by a heavy, electrostud collar and the vocoder box that served as his voice. The only thing that was untouched were his eyes, now overflowing with tears.
It didn't make sense. Why would there be a mirror in this chamber? Did Vader have some perverse need to survey the damage done to him? Or did he need to look into his own eyes to remind himself that he was still human?
Yes, Luke felt a nudge at his mind. You understand! A thousand jubilant voices in the Force spoke to him.
Understand what? Luke questioned bitterly. That my father's a monster? Yeah, I understand that just fine.
No! Foolish boy! The last word echoed as a chorus of voices took it up-- Boy, boy boy boy.
What, then? What do you want from me? Luke felt his anger finally break through the surface and he shouted in frustration at the voices who were the cause of all his problems. It was they that had shown him what his father was truly capable of. It was they that had switched their bodies to begin with.
To help, the voices said. Not to harm. Only through experience can one truly understand. Luke felt the Force stir, gather itself. The cacophony of voices solidified, braiding into one. Do not despair, it said.
And suddenly his mind was flooded with images of his father sitting in this very spot, staring at himself in the small glass, choking on regret. Hundreds upon hundreds of days lined up together, filled with anguish, the pain of longing, the knowledge that every mistake was his fault. If only he had trusted her more. If only he hadn't allowed his rage to make him forget the one good think he'd ever known. If he'd only loved her like she'd deserved to be loved. He would have never lost his friend, his child, his wife.
The name broke over Luke's mind like a blazing sun. Warmth flooded him suddenly, banishing his previous anger and despair. He felt the Dark emotions seep away, replaced by the soothing embrace of the Light. My mother, he thought. He loved my mother. He loved me.
Yes, the Force-voice answered. Now you understand. Luke felt the massive weight of their consciousness begin to recede.
Wait! Who are you? He flung out but they were already gone. Luke looked into the mirror once last time, into eyes like his own. He reached out to the Force and the Light poured over him, steadying him, strengthening his resolve. He knew now what he had to do.
A few minutes later, he emerged from the meditation pod, masked and helmeted. He found Vader sitting cross-legged on the floor outside in a meditation pose. His eyes snapped open and he stood in one fluid motion as Luke approached. “We have a problem,” Vader said. “The Emperor will be here in less than three hours.”
Luke smiled beneath the helmet. “Well then, we'd better be ready to meet him.”
To be continued...