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Title: The Sith Who Brought Life Day
Author: ophelia (opheliamac@aol.com)
Characters: OC's, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker
Genre: Mostly humor, a touch of angst (Hey, it's me!)
Rating: PG, alcohol references, brief nudity references

Summary: An Imperial officer loses a bet and has to get Darth Vader a present for Life Day. (It's the warm-n-fuzziest Imperial Life Day *ever!!!1!* ::sniff:: )

Notes: The original idea came from TheForce.Net's Binder-lover.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with George Lucas or Lucasfilm in any way, even though I secretly wish I was. Please don't sue me.

Other disclaimer: DarthIshtar owns the julaberries. Also, my thanks to the people who let me turn them into drinks.

In retrospect, the only way to explain what happened is to point out that I was drunk at the time.

It was a very subdued Life Day season aboard the Imperial Destroyer Warhammer, three standard months after we lost the Death Star. The entire navy had been put on heightened alert, and all leave had been cancelled. I wasn't overly put out by that, since as a very recent graduate of the Imperial Academy I was de facto ineligible for leave anyway. It was the first Life Day I'd spent away from my mother, however, and I felt guilty about it-even though there was nothing I could do. My father and namesake, Commander Aswald Vorgartin I, had been dead since I was fifteen, and my parents had no other children but me. That meant my mother was going to spend Life Day alone.

She had begged me not to enter the service in the first place, but that decision was sealed along with the urn containing my father's ashes. Aswald Vorgartin I died in a Rebel suicide attack on his Star Destroyer. The Rebels had yet to contend with Aswald Vorgartin II, but I had long ago promised myself that it would not be a meeting they would enjoy, or forget.

Three days before Life Day, however, with the Death Star still raining in burning fragments over a planet I'd never heard of a few months earlier, my resolve was temporarily forgotten, and I must confess I was homesick. So were the three men I considered my closest friends--when I could stand them--and we dealt with the problem in a time-honored fashion: by getting completely guttered on contraband liquor and playing a terrible game of sabacc in which we lost the same fifteen credits over and over.

The idea to up the ante was Kalac's, as most of the galaxy's stupidest ideas are. He had a smoldering fenril cigarillo dangling from his lower lip, and had unfastened the chest panel of his uniform, revealing his pale undershirt beneath. He had somehow managed to get his regulation-short dark hair to stick out in all directions, and I thought he would make a fabulous advertisement subject for the Imperial Navy. They say that the Academy Officer Corps gets relatively few applicants because the recruitment holocasts are designed to intimidate viewers-the better to keep out the underachievers. One look at Kalac would destroy any slacker's qualms about entering His Majesty's Armed Serivces, however. In fact, Kalac could probably have singlehandedly solved the Empire's post-Death Star officer shortage.

He had been sitting there in an apparent stupor for some time, until he suddenly swept his tiny pile of credits off the table, sending them and a fine shower of fenril ash off onto the floor. The credit pieces bounced and rolled; Scholcash managed to slap his boot down on one and catch it. Gharek was too drunk even for that. He just weaved in his seat and looked blearily confused.

"The hell with this half-credit crap," Kalac slurred. "It's boring me. Let's play for something good."

"Such as what?" I asked. The only "good" thing I owned was the necklace I was sending my mother as soon as the Warhammer got anywhere close to a spaceport. I'd gotten the delicate silver chain and pendant from Kalac, who'd gotten it from the same place he'd gotten the BrightFeather Gold we weren't supposed to be drinking. He had connections at the Coruscant Central Property Impoundment Facility, which was where objects confiscated from society's undesirable elements were collected and stored. The property was supposed to be re-sold and the money used for the good of the Empire, but as far as I could tell, most of it got snatched up by various officials and sold on the Invisible Market. Still, the Impoundment Facility could make a junior officer's salary stretch a lot further, and when Kalac had something for sale, one tended not to ask too many questions.

I wondered if he didn't have some stolen bauble in mind when he said "something good," but it turned out he was thinking of something else. "We're all shipbound and bored stupid," he said, "so let's play to stir up a little fun." Given Kalac's idea of "fun," I should have gotten up and left right there, but unfortunately we were in my quarters. He was getting fenril ash on my polished-to-specs floor, too.

Scholcash seemed slightly less drunk than Kalac-or at least he had sufficient coordination to pick up the credit piece under his boot and set it with only somewhat-exaggerated care on the table in front of him. Unlike our fenril-smoking friend, he'd managed to stay fully dressed and even retained a certain amount of his required attitude of Imperial superiority. Not a single hair had fallen out of the smooth curve running from the widow's peak in the middle of his forehead straight back over his scalp-I think he used glue to keep it in place. "And 'fun' in this instance would mean exactly what?" he asked.

"Loser has to take Therhurladde Clebur out on a date," Kalac said.

Gharek and I had the same reaction-we tossed our remaining cards down on the table and said, "I'm out." Therhurladde was a barmaid at a tavern across a Coruscant airway from the Imperial Academy. A cadet who was the biggest drinker I ever knew once told me that even after six pitchers of Tengumaster, she *still* didn't look good.

"Oh, come on," Kalac said grinning like a fierkat inviting a weavole to tea, "she has a great personality."

Actually, I had never noticed this particular virtue in Therhurladde before. "You go out with her, then," I said.

"If I lose, I will," Kalac said, giving us an earnest expression that generally indicated he was lying. "That's the fun part-for the three guys who get to stand on the corner and laugh."

"I did that anyway the last time you had a date," Scholcash said.

"He's had a date?" I asked, feigning shock.

None of this made a dent in Kalac. "Think of her as five hundred kilos of green feminine flesh," he said, caressing the air with his hands as if he were stroking some vast, spherical object. Beside me, Gharek made a nauseated sound. Kalac still wouldn't shut up: ". . . long, clawed legs, tiny blue eyes, six luscious, bouncing breasts . . ."

Gharek groaned. He was looking a little green himself, and I said, "Stop it, unless you want Gharek's BrightFeather back, with interest." Milles Gharek was living proof that not only the strong, the swift, and the smart need apply to the Imperial Academy Officers' Corps. He was a short, podgy guy with red hair and blotchy freckles who often ended every statement with a nervous laugh. Fortunately, the laugh disappeared when he was drunk, which made his company more bearable.

"All right, all right, you bunch of big Girl Guards," Kalac said, waving a disgusted hand at us. "Here's an easier bet, that won't make you wet the bed out of fear. The loser has to give a Life Day present to someone."

Scholcash and I looked sidelong at one another. I could tell we were each thinking the same thing: this was a scam of some kind-it had to be. "The loser has to give who what?" I asked.

"That's the catch," Kalac said, his fierkat smile returning. "You don't get to pick both. The loser can choose either the gift, or the person. The winner gets to pick the other."

This sounded mildly entertaining, or at least it seemed to have potential as an outrageous story to be repeated at alcohol-soaked gatherings in the future. "You can get to choose the gift?" I asked skeptically. I was thinking of my limited budget, and also of the high probability that the winner would choose himself as the beneficiary of the present. I'd almost want to be the loser in that case, so I could give the triumphant sot a case of, say, rotten eggs-especially if the winner were Kalac. "All right," I said finally, picking up the cards I'd thrown down and shuffling them back into the deck. "I'm in."

"I'm in too," Gharek said. Gharek was an incurable "me too'er." I'm still not sure why the Empire gave an officer's commission to a guy with the leadership qualities of a duracrete slug. He scurried to shuffle his own cards back into the deck.

Scholcash gave Kalac a long, hard look. "Nothing illegal," Scholcash said. "I'm not acting as a mule for any confiscated spice that came out of Impounded Property."

I felt my eyes widen as I finished shuffling. The possibility that I might be caught up in that kind of scam had never occurred to me. Scholcash saw the worst in everyone and suspected plots everywhere. So if you were going to spend your time around somebody like Kalac, you wanted Scholcash along.

Kalac managed to look wounded at the implication he was out to use us to peddle drugs. "Is that what you really think of me?" he asked. "You think I'd try to dupe my best friends into being smugglers?"

I didn't really think that Kalac was that bad-or at least not that smart, but Scholcash was unequivocal: "Yes," he said.

Kalac shook his head sadly and made a disapproving sound. "No Life Day spirit in this room at all. None at all," he said.

"They cancelled Life Day on account of the Death Star, remember?" Scholcash said.

"Are you in or out?" Gharek asked, with an impatience that still somehow came across as nervousness. He was probably already worried that he would lose, but was too big a coward even to back out.

Scholcash stretched his long legs out and said, "I might as well be in, so long as we're not running spice for the Hutts. Kalac's little games are sort of like airway accidents . . . you know you should look away, but somehow you can't." That did indeed pretty much sum up entertainment, Kalac style. Why I didn't remember that and throw them all out right then I don't know.

We had Gharek deal, because nobody trusted Kalac to set up a game in which he'd picked the stakes. My hand was initially nothing special-but in sabacc, as in life, fortunes can change.

Both Gharek and Scholcash folded early-probably because Gharek was afraid and Scholcash had the sense not to fight to be the victim of one of Kalac's twisted jokes. Only I was stupid enough to do that.

I'm told that one of my better-and one of my worse-qualities is my inability to ever give in-to anybody or anything, ever. Other than the fact that I'm like my father, I'm at a loss to explain this fact about myself. I often don't even care if others think I'm a failure or not. Giving up makes me feel I'm a failure, and that's the one thing I can't tolerate.

So it was me versus Kalac, playing hard--playing for real--all for the honor of being the deviser of a stupid, childish joke instead of the butt of it. After five or six hands I thought I had him: I had three cards in the interference field, and two in my hand, totaling forty-eight altogether. Suddenly, my eight card shifted to a six-I had forty-six! I slapped my remaining cards into the field and called out: "Sabacc!"

Kalac had been down to one card, and he'd been looking rather nervous. He had a total score of -18 that I could see. Unless his last card amounted to precisely -5, I had won.

To my dismay, my cry of "sabacc" had brought a grin to his face, and he tossed down his last card-which was a damned -5. "Pure sabacc!" he called back. Had I waited another few seconds, his last card might have shifted into something else, and ruined the only hand that could have beaten mine.

I was suddenly furious at him-I stood up and cursed him out as he rocked back and forth in his chair laughing. I was convinced he had cheated somehow-Kalac's an okay sabacc player, but since when did a drunk manage to score a pure -23 against a 46-even if he was playing against another drunk? For an instant I had the incredibly juvenile urge to flip the table over onto him, but Scholcash and Gharek grabbed me by the shoulders and sat me back down.

I was probably looking purple in the face and quite ridiculous as Kalac continued to laugh and laugh. I might have kicked him in the shin under the table-I don't really remember. Most likely I at least tried. Finally even Scholcash and Gharek seemed to get sick of all Kalac's whooping. "For pity's sake, would you shut up?" Scholcash snapped. "Just tell him what he's got to give to who, and let's be done with it."

Wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, Kalac asked, "What, you don't want to pick first?"

"Pick what first?" I asked. Whether or not I had kicked him before, I surely wanted to then.

"The gift or the person," Kalac said.

The specifics of the bet started coming back to me. I had control over half of it, and at least could arrange things so that this stupid joke wouldn't financially ruin me. "Fine," I said. "I'll choose the gift."

I knew I was in trouble when he started giggling all over again. Since I had control over what the gift would be, he would probably get his humor value out of picking somebody dreadful for me to give it to. I expected it would probably be Therhurladde Clebur or someone else whose attentions I definitely did not want to encourage.

In a way, I was right.

"Then you have to give a Life Day gift to . . ." Here he fell apart again, and this time I really did shove the table at him. It didn't seem to dampen his spirits in the least, but it did shake the end of his sentence out of him. "To . . . to Lord Vader!" After that he collapsed in absolute hysterics, and to my dismay, my other two "friends" started laughing as well.

I wasn't quite sure I had heard right-or at least I hoped I'd heard wrong. "Lord Vader?" I asked. "How in Sith's name am I supposed to give a Life Day gift to Lord Vader?" The unfortunate turn of phrase just got everyone howling louder. "He's not even here," I pointed out. "He's probably on Coruscant, or hunting for the new Rebel base on the other side of the galaxy . . ."

"He will be here, though," Kalac said, in between spasms of laughter. "I heard so this morning. He's coming as our own personal Life Day morale officer. He's going through the fleet, making sure everyone's too scared to slack off over the holiday."

I swore again, which of course everyone else found hilarious. "What are you supposed to give a Sith Lord for Life Day?" I asked. "Do they even celebrate Life Day? Isn't it against their religion or something?" I actually knew next to nothing about the Sith; I just couldn't imagine them exchanging kisses and little boxes of brandied confectioner's julaberries as they cuddled on the loveseat.

"Of course it's not against their religion-Sith Lords love Life Day!" Kalac exclaimed, with much more conviction than I could have mustered. "They especially like beer, pickled cabbage, and salted dumplings. I think you should present Lord Vader with an entire feast of beer and pickled cabbage." Since it was well known that Vader neither ate nor drank due to horrific injuries sustained in the service of the Empire, I gravely doubted the truth of Kalac's statment.

Really, it seemed as good a time as any to throw the lot of them out.

I was already nursing a dull headache behind my eyeballs, and it was worse by the time I got into bed. This wasn't a good sign of things to come. I took a lot of hangover preventative and drank about two liters of water before going to sleep, and tried to forget the impossibly stupid thing I had somehow promised to do.

Morning came early and hard, and despite my hangover prevention attempts, my head was still throbbing and my mouth tasted as if something had crawled in there to die. There were also glasses with the remains of BrightFeather Gold in them resting on various surfaces in my usually-bare-and-spotless quarters, as well as fenril cigarillo ashes on my floor. It would have been just my luck to have a surprise inspection come that morning, and I had to drag myself from bed to clean up quickly before beginning the routine that might possibly make me presentable.

I still didn't quite feel human when I arrived at my post, but since several of my co-workers also had questionable claims on humanity, that didn't set me too far apart. In fact, as the morning wore on, things almost began to seem normal-until memories of the night before inevitably came back, and I recalled with a rush of adrenaline that I was supposed to give Darth Vader a Life Day gift in forty-eight hours.

My station was in communications and counter-intelligence, which basically amounted to de-scrambling coded Rebel transmissions all day. Their cryptographers usually managed to stay one step ahead of us, just as ours stayed a step ahead of theirs, and so really valuable information was hard to come by, but one never knew when a dozen pieces of apparently worthless data might add up to something important.

I no longer recall what it was I decoded that morning-most likely it wasn't much, and I probably spent much of my time sifting through old transmissions, looking for patterns in what appeared random. That, and occasionally feeling my blood pressure spike with terror as I tried to imagine walking up to Lord Vader and handing him . . . what? Helmet polish? Shiny little charms to hang on his cape chain? A beer stein with an intravenous hookup?

I had about made up my mind to go up to him, hand him a memo as a "present," wish him a happy Life Day, and then run away, when I realized that the answer had literally been staring me in the face all day. Every Imperial codebreaker in the galaxy had spent the last three months analyzing and re-analyzing Rebel transmissions recorded by Imperial ships that had survived the Battle of Yavin. The transmissions had been encrypted, of course, but since their tactical value had been considered time-sensitive, the Rebels had not used their most valuable, impenetrable codes to mask them. This was no surprise--we did the same.

The Rebels had clearly not realized how much interest the Empire would take in one little snippet of data captured late in the battle, however. I had listened to the decrypted version more times than I could count:

"Luke-you've switched off your targeting computer. What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I'm all right."

The identity of "Luke," the man who had fired the fatal shots on the Death Star, was what every Imperial from His Majesty down to the flag-waving tot in the street wanted for Life Day. Coruscant had sent us demands for status updates nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. However, just as it began to seem as if someone were getting close to the elusive Rebel, the lead would evaporate. Some intelligence officers had even begun to think that "Luke" was a pseudonym, like his call sign, "Red Five," or else that we had misidentified the shooter entirely. After all, who landed shots with such deadly accuracy without even having his targeting computer switched on?

Lord Vader had made his own theories on the subject well known. He was convinced that "Luke" was a Force-sensitive who had somehow escaped the Emperor's various dragnets, and who had trained in secret with the exiled General Kenobi. This theory had not been received with much enthusiasm in Imperial codebreaking circles. The general opinion was that Vader was mentally stuck back during the Jedi Purges-his glory years-and that he continued to see Jedi plots everywhere-never mind that there weren't actually any Jedi anymore.

Quite honestly, I hadn't given the matter much thought one way or another. I certainly didn't expect to find the answer personally. Instead, I just focused on cracking my little nuggets of code, and waited for some far-away genius to put all the pieces together.

Now that I was stuck with the task of coming up with a Life Day present for Vader within the next two days, however, I began giving the matter of "Luke's" identity some serious consideration. General Kenobi had surfaced suddenly after spending nearly two decades as "presumed dead;" what if there were indeed other Jedi out there, perhaps even a new generation of them, waiting to spring when the time was right? The Sith had apparently played the same trick on them back during the Clone Wars-perhaps the Jedi thought that turnabout was fair play.

But how did one find Jedi sleeper cells that had lain hidden for years-if they had ever existed in the first place? Even Vader and the Emperor had eventually stopped their active hunt for Purge survivors. My clues were depressingly meager--all I had was the name "Luke" and the fact that General Kenobi had made a confirmed appearance shortly before the destruction of the Death Star.

As that long hungover morning slowly dragged by, I turned the problem over in my head, trying to find some crack in the data that would allow me to slowly chip its secret out. All I could come up with was the fact that Kenobi had been old and weak-by most accounts he had simply given up in the face of Lord Vader's superior powers. "Luke's" voiceprint suggested a young man, however. He probably hadn't even been born during Kenobi's Clone War days. If Lord Vader was right, then somewhere, somehow, aging Jedi were replacing themselves by getting their hands on young people and twisting them to their own ends. How did they do it? Were they kidnapping children? Luring unhappy youths away from home with vague promises of power? Or were they starting even closer to home, by producing offspring of their own and training them up from infancy?

The thought of how a repellant old hobo like Kenobi might manage to perform the reproductive act was enough to make me feel as if I might lose the contents of my churning stomach, but I didn't let that stop me from reaching for my keyboard and beginning a Civilian Records search for "Luke Kenobi."

I got about 1,000 matches. Kenobi was a fairly common surname, and "Luke" was one of the roughly 100 given names that accounted for most of the male, Basic-speaking population. I'd been frustrated by the repetitiveness of male names before. I couldn't fathom why people would name their daughters appalling things like Therhurladde, yet feel compelled to give their sons the same ordinary names over and over. That particular morning, it seemed like a deliberate plot to aggravate me. I groaned as I began the slow process of weeding out the names belonging to beings who were too old, too young, or too non-human to have left the voiceprint in our possession. When the tedious process was over, that still left me with over 100 human males between the ages of 18 and 35. I cut that down by removing the names of all men born before General Kenobi was known to have disappeared-presumably someone would have noticed if he'd produced offspring before that. None of this ruled out the possibility that the Luke I was searching for was Kenobi's nephew or some other relation, but it gave me somewhere to start.

"Somewhere to start," unfortunately, was all that it gave me. All the youths I tracked down had either been demonstrably elsewhere on the fateful day of the Death Star's destruction, or else their voiceprints failed to match. I remained hunched in my console chair throughout our brief lunch period, my hangover still ringing in my head and my eyeballs feeling glazed and dry from staring continually at my datascreen. My comrades might have mocked me as they left in shifts to take their midday breaks-I didn't really notice. All I can say is that I had pitted myself against the obstacle of discovering "Luke's" identity-and of having a last laugh on Kalac-and I couldn't let the goal go. I would have the Rebel pilot's name, or I'd keel over in my chair trying.

When "Luke Kenobi" yielded nothing, I returned to the short list of Jedi who were on the Emperor's "unaccounted for" list. Virtually all of these had "presumed dead" next to their names. The sole exception was a green troll of a thing that went by the single name "Yoda." Since this creature was listed as some 900 years old, 0.66 meters tall, and of an indeterminate species, I felt confident in ruling him out as one of "Luke's" progenitors. Why His Majesty hadn't removed the almost-two-decades-old "presumed living and dangerous" alert placed on a relic of a being who couldn't see over the average end table I had no idea. The Emperor could be very mysterious at times.

Moving down the priority list, I found a Jedi named Mace Windu who was presumed dead, but who hadn't left behind enough "genetic material" to be certain. I took this to mean that searchers had found some fragment of a body, but not enough to absolutely confirm death. It was a queasy thought, which was not what I needed at that moment, and it established Windu as an extreme long shot. Still, at least the man's last name was a lot more uncommon than "Kenobi," and a search probably wouldn't take long.

As it happened, I came up with a mere 50 "Luke Windus," most of which could be ruled out for one reason or another. Before long, I had come up empty again, and my superior officer was starting to shoot me strange looks. I was, technically, doing my job, but cross-indexing the names of dead Jedi against the staggering list of the Empire's registered residents was not quite the assignment I'd been given. It was probably only the intensity of my focus that caused the man to give me the benefit of the doubt, and stay off my back. Clearly, at least I thought I was onto something.

"Luke Windu" yielded nothing. Moving down the list, I found Anakin Skywalker, a human Jedi who had apparently disappeared on the eve of the Jedi Purges, never to be heard from again. I liked the look of Skywalker; partly because he'd vanished at the virile age of twenty-three instead of, say, eight-hundred-and-infinity, and so he'd had plenty of time to produce a crop of dangerous children. I also liked the fact that I'd never heard the name "Skywalker" in my life, which meant it was probably rare enough to be easily trackable.

I was half right, anyway-the name was rare. My search for "Luke Skywalker" turned up no hits at all. I even tried strange phonetic spellings like Luc and Leuk, and came up just as empty. By this time my shift was nearly over, and I hadn't moved in hours-my shoulders were burning from staying hunched over my console for so long; I had to go to the 'fresher; and my commanding officer was definitely beginning to give me suspicious looks. Most men only became as absorbed as I was over pornography and gambling, and he was probably starting to suspect I was engaged in one or the other. Actually, the gambling guess wouldn't have been entirely wrong, given the reason I was going through the records of practically every "Luke" in the galaxy.

For whatever reason, possibly a temporary defect of intellect caused by dehydration and lack of sleep, I refused to believe that there was not one being in the galaxy named "Luke Skywalker." If the first name had been bizarre, like "Yoda," for instance, I would have accepted defeat and moved on, but "Luke" was almost as common as "Jan" or "Bail" . . . if the surname truly existed, there would be a "Luke" somewhere. A quick check on "Skywalker" alone revealed a handful of families scattered throughout the Empire-so the last name was real, at least.

I sat staring at my console for some time, frowning deeply and only vaguely aware that the fluid volumes in my bladder and blood vessels needed to change places. Finally, in a completely nonsensical move that was probably half-prompted by brain shutdown, I closed out the civilian records system and called up the military database. Since the people in the military database started out life as civilians, checking the second database ought to have been thoroughly redundant and stupid.

However-though I can't claim to have been thinking this at the time--the military listings contained names of people who were not technically citizens of the Empire, but resided in what were called "the occupied territories"-or planets too poor and remote to rate direct Imperial control, but which the Emperor laid claim to anyway. Such worlds really got a rotten deal-they'd had no representation in the Imperial Senate even when there was one, but they were still expected to pay taxes and register their young men as eligible for military service.

Luke Skywalker, resident of the outer occupied territories, had registered himself with the Conscription Office on the day he legally became an adult. His stated preference was to serve as a fighter pilot in the Imperial Navy. The yes/no section on "skills and experience" was marked with almost all straight "no's," but the boy had used the form's one open-answer field to explain that he'd sent a complete list of his skills and experience with a query transmission to the Imperial Academy some two years earlier.

On the surface of things, anyway, the silly child was useless-he'd spent his entire life working at something called "moisture farming," which had afforded him essentially no skills that would be of interest to the Empire. He was na´ve enough to think that an Imperial conscription officer would actually bother to look up a two-year-old query sent to some unnamed department within the Academy. Skywalker was even several centimeters too short to be a stormtrooper. It seemed impossible that this little idiot could be the man the Emperor was turning the galaxy upside-down to find, but the strange coincidence of the name stuck with me, as did the boy's interest in fighter piloting.

I was forced to take a brief break from my search as my shift ended and my bladder couldn't be ignored any longer. My commanding officer, Captain Wyer, gave me a very strange look as I limped away from the chair where I had sat cramped for so long. "What are you doing over there, Vorgartin?" he asked. He seemed more puzzled than suspicious, which was all to the good. It was well known that His Majesty encouraged suspicion and rivalries among his servicemen and his subjects, since mutual mistrust prevented conspiracies from holding together. Of course, plenty of innocent people get dragged into the net as well, and especially in the Courts Martial, they often couldn't get out again.

"I'm trying to find the man who destroyed the Death Star, sir," I told Wyer, secretly hoping he'd keep his questions to a minimum and let me get to the 'fresher.

Wyer squinted as he looked across the room at the screen I'd just abandoned. "You're looking for him in conscription registrations?" he asked. The name of every adult male in the galaxy was supposed to be in that registration list, but that left the considerable problem of narrowing the list down. Unless a person went in with a plan of attack, using the registration list was an act of high insanity.

"I'm just following up on a theory of Lord Vader's, sir," I answered, hoping that invoking the Dark Lord's name would be enough to get me off the hook and away from Wyer's scrutiny.

"Lord Vader wants us to go through the conscription list?" he asked, looking horrified. I made a mental note never to mention that possibility to anyone high up in the chain of command. Vader was famous for his relentlessness, and his complete failure to care whether the demands he made were possible or not. If somebody didn't find the pilot who destroyed the Death Star soon, we might very well find ourselves going through the entire conscription list, looking for voiceprints one name at a time.

"No, sir," I said quickly, "he thinks the pilot we're looking for has been trained in secret by the Jedi. I was looking for possible relatives of Jedi who were unaccounted for after the Purges . . ."

Wyer rolled his eyes. "Vader sees Jedi in his closet at night," he said softly, between his teeth. Most people thought Vader was more than a little cracked in the head on the subject of Jedi, but it wasn't the sort of thing you said out loud if you valued your commission, or your life.

"But since he's coming here, it seemed wisest to--" I began.

"Yes, yes," Wyer said brusquely, waving me on. "Go ahead and look. At least we'll have something to tell him if he asks."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," I said, giving him a quick head-bow before getting out of there.

Of course, being me, I was soon back, even though the next shift was coming in. The next shift commander was Captain Geer, a stout, stiff-backed man who had been in a foul mood approximately since the Emperor was in short pants and bashing other tots in the head with a rattle. "What do you want, Vorgartin?" he demanded.

I shot an anxious look at my terminal, where my relief officer was about to sit down and presumably close out all my careful research work. "I . . . was just in the middle of something, sir, and was hoping for a few more minutes to--"

"What have you been doing, looking at pictures of nude Twi'lek girls over there?" Geer bellowed. Everybody in our little Comms station had stopped work in order to stare at me.

Geer stomped over to my console station, and I had to explain the whole thing over again to him. "Fine," he said at last, and turned to the officer who was to replace me. "Labec, Vorgartin wants your shift this evening. Dismissed."

Labec blinked in surprise. I was similarly shocked into silence, and before I found words to protest, Labec had bowed to our superior and fled. Geer made an expansive gesture toward the now-vacant comms console. "She's all yours," he said. I got the impression that "she" in this case meant the nude Twi'lek girl he was still convinced I'd been looking at.

"Thank you, sir," I managed, between clenched teeth. I dropped back down into that damnable chair, and all my stiffened muscles clenched themselves into knots again. I mentally cursed Kalac for getting me into this, Geer and Labec for keeping me in, and myself for being such an idiot as to lose the chance to dash out of work as soon as I could. At least my hangover had finally eased into a general sense of ill-being, and I no longer had a throbbing head or a clenching stomach. I even dared to run out for a cup of tea and a stale roll early on in my-or rather, Labec's-shift, and the little bit of sustenance helped clear my head.

What I wanted, of course, was the query Skywalker had sent in to the Academy some two years before. With luck, he'd sent it as a holorecording, and I could get a voiceprint comparison. I predicted about 50/50 odds of such a recording still existing, if it had ever been made; the Empire was meticulous about keeping records, mostly because you never knew when something might turn out to be evidence. Then again, the ramblings of a teenage farmboy might not seem of much significance to an Academy officer, and it was possible that Skywalker's transmission had been summarily deleted. It was also possible that he'd sent his message in pure-text format, which would have been more efficient, but somehow I didn't think the young man I was pursuing was the type who would express himself well in writing. The boy had a school-leaving certificate, but he'd taken his courses remotely from one of the Alternative Education Centers. The AEC's were famous for graduating prisoners, freighter trampers' children, and youths who lived so far out in the occupied territories that they didn't have local schools. The AEC's adapted themselves to their student body out of necessity, and the resulting educational quality was about what you'd expect. If Luke Skywalker could print his name, he was ahead of some of his classmates.

It was late in the standard workday, Coruscant Government District Time, and no one at the Academy was especially eager to help me track down a two-year-old query, especially since I had no idea which department Skywalker had sent it to. Admissions sent me to Student Records, Student Records sent me to Aviation, Aviation sent me back to Admissions. I finally located someone in the General Information Office who found a record of receiving the query-it had been directed to a non-existent department, "Fighter Pilot School, Imperial Academy, Coruscant," and General Information got it by default. They forwarded it out of the Academy altogether, to the Department of War's Conscription Office. As it turned out, the damned thing was in the same file where I'd found Skywalker's draft information-it had just never occurred to me to look.

For about the two-dozenth time that day, I cursed myself for being so incredibly stupid. My mood improved as soon as I found the file, however. The boy had sent his query in as a holorecording, and I confess that I was tense with anticipation as I opened it. It was quite likely that I'd wasted my entire day, but I wouldn't be satisfied until I knew for sure whether I had something.

The query itself was short, of poor visual and audio quality, and incoherent. It showed a sixteen-year-old youth in worn work clothes, who kept fidgeting and trying to flip his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes. He actually, seriously, began the transmission by turning to someone or something out of the holocam's recording field and asking, "Is it on?" If only he'd caused hideous distortion by playing around with the holocam's settings, he could have been a stale joke on a HoloNet serial.

A sound like a droid's electronic response followed his question, and he said, "Okay, good." The boy then turned to the holocam and proceeded to make no sense at all. "Uh, hello, sir, or sirs, or . . . ma'am," he began. I was rolling my eyes already. The Emperor officially denied females admission to the armed forces, despite a few high-profile exceptions. Anybody with an ounce of sense would have known that.

The boy continued: "I'm Luke Skywalker, a student from Anchorhead, Tattooine, in the Outer Rim . . ." Suddenly he looked apologetic and added, "Well, I'm not actually in Anchorhead, it's just the closest town over, and if you want to send anything to me, it's got to be there. Actually I live on my aunt and uncle's moisture farm . . ." Here he went on to describe his experience working with farm equipment. I felt like banging my head against the console. No doubt this was the Academy General Information officer's reaction too, which was why he sent it out of the institution altogether.

Eventually it seemed to occur to Skywalker that farm machinery had nothing to do with the Imperial Academy, and he interrupted himself to say, "What I want to be, what I really want to be, is a fighter pilot. I can already fly anything. You can ask anybody. My uncle used to have this old Aratech Stinger swoop where one of the ailerons was bent? No matter what you did, it would yaw to the right. I used to be able to do a 360 roll on that through the Needle . . . that's-that's this hole in the Dead Man's Hand Rock Spires. It's only a couple of meters across, the long way. I'd have to duck pretty low to get through." His obvious pleasure at the memory turned to chagrin as he added, "Then my uncle sold the Stinger so I couldn't do that anymore."

Why, why he thought his domestic squabbles over a broken-down swoop would be of any interest at all to an Academy admissions officer is one of the universe's great mysteries. However, his rambling was giving me an excellent voice sample to check against the few transmission scraps we had from the Death Star's destroyer. "I-I know you only take adults at the Imperial Academy, and that you need your school-leaving certificate to get in, but someone told me you had a Junior Academy where you'd take people who are still in school. I wanted to know, sir-or ma'am-how do you get in there?"

That plaintive question was the last of the substantive part of his message, thank the gods. There was, in fact, a Junior Academy, but its class sizes were small and its admissions process extremely selective. As a rule, only the sons of Imperial officers are admitted. I got in due to a combination of outstanding academic marks and the fact that my father was a navy commander who died in the line of duty. Luke Skywalker would have fit in the way a nerf fits into the credit chit slot of a currency-changing machine.

To be honest, at that moment I was hoping that Skywalker's voiceprint would not match that of the "Luke" whose transmissions we intercepted over Yavin. I just didn't want to be responsible for showing all that inane, rambling nonsense to Lord Vader. He'd probably strangle me out of sheer annoyance.

I set up the comparison heuristics anyway, however, and made the tolerances fairly wide since the quality of both recordings was so poor, and a teenage boy's voice could change so much over a period of two years. I had an awful lot of material from the babbling Luke Skywalker from not-quite-Anchorhead, Tattooine, and very little from the man I was actually hunting, but the computer indicated that the sample sizes were acceptable.

I really don't know what time it was when I finally hit the "run" command on my comparison program, but my shoulders had gone from aching to burning to numb. I couldn't have told you a single thing that was happening on either side of me-my attention was entirely consumed by the shimmering spikes of sound waves being superimposed on my console screen. I was intrigued when the first point of similarity showed up as a red dot among the green spikes, and excited as more and more red dots began appearing, at increasing speed as the computer zeroed in on the areas that matched most closely. By the time the program stopped running and I had a dense starfield of red dots in front of me, I just had a strange, cold feeling. That idiot child who couldn't even address a comms transmission properly had most likely annihilated the most powerful weapon ever built. What's more, the boy had tried to join us two years before he did any damage. The chance had been there, and we had missed it.

There was reason for caution before hitting the panic button, of course-the voice match percentage was only at 80% and the computer conservatively called the comparison "inconclusive." However, the there was the boy's name, his stated interests, and the fact that the computed percent chance of two different people having such similar voiceprints had a decimal and a couple of zeroes at the beginning. I downloaded my findings onto a data wafer, and did not mention anything about them to Captain Geer. The man was a moron who would find a way to mess the situation up somehow. That, and he was highly likely to connive at taking the credit if my analysis was right, and quickly shunting the blame back to me if it was not.

The rest of Labec's shift felt interminable, and it was all I could do not to fall asleep at my console until I was finally relieved by the deep-night shift. At last I stumbled off to bed and collapsed on top of the covers without even fully taking off my uniform. The last thing that occurred to me before unconsciousness hit was that I was due back at my post in less than eight hours.

The next morning I was as sore as if I'd gone five or six rounds in the ring with a gundark, but at least I had my lead on "Luke" to be excited about. I quietly approached Captain Wyer with my data, and we discussed the delicate question of what to tell to whom. He was of the opinion that an 80% voiceprint match was not close enough to present to the Dark Lord himself, but that it ought to be passed up the chain of command. I had my own reasons for wanting to take my suspicions straight to the top, but I agreed to try and improve my case first.

I spent the whole next day digging through all the information available on Luke Skywalker-which wasn't much. Had he been born some twelve hours earlier, he would have shared his birthday with the Empire, which was mildly interesting in an ironic sort of way. Both his parents were listed as "unknown" and "deceased," which made no sense, since if no one knew who they were, how could anyone be sure they were dead? More than likely, he'd been an embarrassing out-of-wedlock child, and the family wanted to hide the fact. Trying to claim that his parents were both unknown and dead seemed like overkill, however. Apparently, power of intellect was not something that ran in his family. Where the name "Skywalker" came from was anybody's guess; his guardians' last name was listed as "Lars." Perhaps in a fit of misguided patriotism, his not-too-bright (and unknown and dead) parents had named him after one of the Jedi heroes of the Clone Wars-twelve hours after the Jedi were revealed as traitors and assassins. Maybe it took news a while to travel out to not-quite-Anchorhead.

He'd attended a speck of a school in Anchorhead itself for a few months as a young child, but his guardians soon pulled him. Perhaps the journey was too far, or the boy was too slow in the head, or his aunt and uncle were paranoid nutballs who preferred to barricade themselves in their moisture farm. The rest of Skywalker's lackluster education had been administered by AES, and I'd been right-the boy couldn't write worth a damn. Every other sentence had a comma splice. He could do math, which was something, and surprisingly, he could answer logic-puzzle-type questions. Nearly everything else was average-to-dismal, however. He'd come within a few points of flunking the civics section on his school-leaving exam. I found it just plain scary that someone who was technically a graduate of the Imperial public education system thought the Courts had the right to impeach senators (no), that immigration to Coruscant was controlled by tariffs (no), and that the Emperor had started his political career as a senator from Kashyyyk (no!).

Because of his thoroughly unimpressive academic scores, I was surprised to see the results of his year-nine aptitude test. All youths in the Empire took that test at the beginning of their secondary educations, and the results determined much of their futures. Skywalker was off the scale on tasks that did not involve things like verbal expression or background knowledge. He could visualize impossibly complex objects rotated in space-correctly matching shapes that humans generally didn't have the sensory apparatus to even identify. He actually managed to cause a race-condition fault in the program that measured students' eye-hand reflexes. At least according to the record, he'd been hitting the correct response buttons in the milliseconds after the trigger stimuli algorithm had been run, but before the actual images appeared onscreen, and the computer had not been able to handle near-simultaneous input and output. He'd crashed the thing three times before he'd evidently decided to slow down a little and let the program catch up. Skywalker's test had actually been flagged for audit and possible invalidation, but nothing seemed to have been done with it. The boy had never tried to get into any higher-learning institutions or skilled labor positions, so no one had ever had a reason to look for his test results.

What I'd seen up until that point had been intriguing, if tragic in its implications of lost opportunities. Those aptitude test scores were not natural or normal, however, and even if I hadn't made an idiotic bet with Kalac, I would have begun to think that Lord Vader should know about Luke Skywalker. The Dark Lord's theories about Jedi plots were sounding less ridiculous the more I discovered about the boy. Much of the information about the Jedi Order had been classified for security reasons-no one else needed to know the subtle wiles they had used to nearly seize control of the galaxy. It was well-known that they'd had certain uncanny abilities, however, and that these manifested themselves from earliest childhood. That was the reasoning behind the sad but necessary process of infant selection, in which children deemed at risk of developing Jedi powers were quietly and humanely euthanized shortly after birth. That way, future generations need not worry about another race of superbeings rising up to enslave them. However, it did not seem impossible that, twelve hours after His Majesty had proclaimed the start of the Galactic Empire--in a remote corner of the galaxy--one infant had somehow slipped through. I recalled that a man named Anakin Skywalker, listed as a Jedi Council member and tremendously powerful, remained missing and unaccounted for. Yes, I decided, Lord Vader must definitely know about this. Much as I-and any sane person-feared the Dark Lord, I liked the idea of someone like Anakin Skywalker running around loose even less. Dangerous and unpredictable though he was, Vader was at least on our side.

A hasty private conference with Wyer quickly resulted in his coming around to my way of thinking. He agreed that we ought to inform Vader about the situation, and the time to bring the matter up was when he was onboard in person. If Luke Skywalker was anywhere near as dangerous as it appeared he might be, we couldn't risk letting our intelligence about him slip into Rebel hands through intercepted transmissions. But Wyer insisted on first clearing the matter all the way up through Commander Rakler, the Warhammer's chief officer, which I supposed made sense. It was never a good idea to take a commander by surprise when delivering disturbing news to Lord Vader on his ship.

Wyer was skeptical about my offer to deliver the information to Vader myself, as well. "Why would you want to do that, Vorgartin?" he asked, giving me a speculative look. "If you're hoping for some kind of reward or promotion, you may be waiting a long time. Maybe the rest of eternity. Remember, Vader's the enforcer. Rewards come from the Emperor himself-Vader just strangles people." Essentially everyone knew that part of the reason Emperor Palpatine had been able to retain so much loyalty was because he played the beneficent ruler while Vader did the dirty work of wringing necks and slicing off limbs. Still, the two of them were better than the chaos and terrorism that rule by the Rebel Alliance would have brought, and so reasonable citizens put up with a certain amount of unpleasantness. Of course, what constituted an "acceptable amount" depended a lot on whose neck was getting wrung.

"Honestly, the thought of reward hadn't crossed my mind, sir," I said. It was true. It was my pride that was on the line here, and that was far more important to me.

Wyer appeared to be having difficulty believing me. "Nobody runs up to Lord Vader for a nice little Life Day chat without a reason," he said. "You've got some other motive, Vorgartin. Out with it. Vader will have it out of you anyway, so you may as well tell me up front."

I didn't really want to tell him "up front," mostly because the reason was so stupid. Kalac had basically dared me to go ring Vader's doorchime and run away, and I'd drunkenly agreed. Now, I was too proud and stubborn to back out. "The reasons are . . . personal, sir," I said, hoping he'd agree to leave it at that.

Instead, he got testy. "'Personal' how?" he demanded. "What did you do, lose a bet?" He must've seen something in my face, because he immediately looked disgusted and said, "Kalac."

"Sir, I don't know what you're--" I protested feebly.

He ignored me. "You'll be dead before thirty if you don't stop letting him give you ideas," he said. "You could be going somewhere in this navy, Vorgartin-but not with a man like Kalac with his teeth in your hide. Kalac's a bottom-feeder, and he'll always be a bottom-feeder. He's got his uses, and you might want to keep him around at arm's length, but don't get down on his level. That's right where he wants you-where he can suck you dry. That's how men like him operate. All they can reach on their own level is people like themselves, who haven't got much to lose. If they want something worth taking, they've got to lure a better man down to their level. Kalac will do that-and you can tell your friend Scholcash that, too. Gharek's a lost cause," he added, shaking his head.

I wasn't so great a fool that I couldn't hear the truth in Wyer's words, and I answered, "Yes, sir. I'll remember that, sir."

I was truly grateful to Wyer for having explained men like Ferral Kalac to me. I might have been a fount of sophistication next to, say, Luke Skywalker, but I was still young and na´ve in some ways myself. My disciplined life had largely sheltered me from dishonor, and I did not truly understand that there were men who valued transitory personal pleasure over their personal integrity. Sometimes I played at being a degenerate for the novelty of it, and probably because of some leftover adolescent need to defy authority. I had mistakenly assumed that Kalac was doing the same-but in reality, he was a true degenerate. He did not revert to some other, better form when he wasn't drunk and thinking up "entertainment" in my presence.

Rather wiser, if still stuck with my little Sith Lord problem, I said, "I will definitely keep Kalac at arm's length in the future."

"Good," Wyer said, seeming satisfied. "I'll leave the matter of who should speak to Lord Vader with Commander Rakler. For now, keep all this very close to your chest-and don't tell Kalac anything."

"Of course not, sir," I said. Even before Wyer's little lecture, I would never have thought to bring Kalac into this sort of thing. His mouth was like the Corellian Engineering freighter slogan: "it never stops running."

I spent much of the day before Life Day in a kind of tormented suspension. At least my misery had company-the whole ship was under communications blackout, except for priority messages from Coruscant or other ships in the fleet. The idea was apparently to make sure the comm lines didn't get jammed with personnel all trying to contact their families at once. It felt like primary school, in which nobody got anything unless everyone could have the exact same thing all at once. Having people take turns would apparently result in allegations of favoritism, as each man envied his neighbor's time slot. And, I supposed, guys like Kalac would buy time slots from people who had small families or who didn't want to comm anyone, and do a brisk business in selling those slots to everybody else. I might have been learning about the base side of human nature the hard way, but I was learning.

Even Kalac wasn't completely evil, however-the night before Life Day-the day Lord Vader was due to arrive-he took a break from brokering the contents of early Life Day packages to the highest bidders and asked me, "You aren't really going to do it, are you?"

His dark eyes were wide with a kind of awe and alarm. The object of his game had obviously been to humiliate me by forcing me to back out of an impossible bet. He didn't actually expect me to try and follow through, and get myself strangled. Kalac had underestimated both my pride and my determination, however. That, and my stupidity. There was always that.

"Unless Rakler forbids it, I am," I told him. That was as close as I could get to talking about the situation without actually telling Kalac anything.

At the mention of our commander, Kalac looked panicky. "Rakler knows about all of this?" he asked, his voice rising in pitch with alarm.

"I never told him anything about you," I said. "Actually, I haven't talked to him at all. I talked to Wyer. Think about it, Kalac-this has to go through proper channels. You don't just go running up to Darth Vader to give him a hug and say, 'Happy Life Day.'"

"I guess not," Kalac said, looking suitably impressed by my rational, organized insanity. "If you get to see him, what are you going to give him?" he asked.

"I'll tell you if I get to give it to him," I said.

"Hey, that's not fair," Kalac said. "If you won't tell me and they don't let you see him, how am I supposed to know that you didn't just make all this up and welch on the deal?"

At one time I would have gotten offended and gone off at him about being a man of my word. Now, I didn't even bother. The speech would be wasted on a man who scarcely knew what personal honor meant. "If I don't get to see him, go ask Wyer if I asked for an audience with Lord Vader, and he'll say yes," I said.

Kalac shook his head and gave a low whistle. "You're crazy," he said. "Completely and totally crazy." From him, this was a high compliment.

About an hour later I got a message from Rakler-I could deliver my message to Lord Vader personally if I wanted to. Actually, I got the impression he was glad to have a volunteer and not to have to send someone-possibly himself-on a suicide mission. I thanked him, went down and sat on my bunk, and felt ill.

It would have been a good time to comm my mother-the night before I got strangled-except for the inconvenient communications blackout. I wondered if Rakler had imposed that just because I might have discovered who "Luke" was, and he didn't want any leaks getting out. I supposed that a rumor about a new generation of Jedi returning to destroy the Empire wouldn't be very good for the troops' morale around Life Day.

Instead I lay down on my drum-tight gray bed covers and pulled the delicate Invisible Market necklace I'd gotten for my mother out of the drawer in my nightstand. Its pendant was a tiny spiral ewiui shell, which used to wash up on the seashore on Nunha, where we lived when I was a child-before there was an Empire, before there was an Imperial Navy for my father to join. He was air security chief for the local governor, and that meant he could come home to us every night. We were happy on Nunha, while the war was being fought on distant worlds by clones and Jedi, and we could pretend that none of it involved us. It was all an illusion that ended too soon, but I wanted to remind my mother of that brief, precious time.

Getting myself strangled by a Sith Lord on Life Day morning wasn't really supposed to be part of the holiday experience I was trying to create for her. Feeling anxious and mistrustful, I put the necklace in a little sealed priority packet with her name and address printed on it. I didn't want anybody coming into my quarters, seeing the necklace, and stealing it before my body was even cold, if things came to that. There should have been a note-a decent son would have thought of something to write down, especially given the Sith Lord issue, but I always was bad at that sort of thing. Really, the shell pendant said what I wanted to tell her. I set the packet down in a conspicuous place on my small table, where the quartermaster who might have to come inventory my things wouldn't miss it. Then, after a moment, I decided that I'd take the packet with me in a pocket. It was small; it wouldn't attract attention. Droids tended to be dispatched for body cleanup, and they weren't known to steal things.

These were my cheerful thoughts as I fell asleep that blacked-out Life Day Eve, waiting for Darth Vader to arrive in the morning.

I awakened with a jolt very early-before it was really even morning yet. I was so afraid of oversleeping and keeping the Dark Lord waiting that I was up about three hours before I had to be. I didn't even try to go back to sleep. Instead I got up and got as ready as anyone ever is to meet a Lord of the Sith.

The irony didn't escape me that all over the galaxy, small children were also up early, badgering their parents to get up and start opening presents. What was I up before the figurative sunrise in anticipation of? Darth Vader. If someone had stuck an armored, ebony bow on his helmet, my joy would have been complete.

The galaxy's impatient children and I sweated out those last few hours in agony. They wanted to know if they'd gotten some toy ship or doll or blaster, and I wanted to know if I'd still be breathing at the end of the day. That would be gift enough for me.

As it happened, it was lucky that I'd gotten up when I did. Lord Vader chose to have his shuttle glide into dock at a truly unholy hour, the better to catch us literally and figuratively napping, I suppose. This wasn't something I could actually see, of course, since the docking bay was on the ship's underside, but I learned about it soon enough. Rackler must've been alerted before Vader even stepped aboard, since he quickly sent a trooper on third-watch duty to come and tell me.

I grabbed my pocket data reader and data wafers, all of which had been carefully laid out in advance, and placed the packet containing my mother's necklace in one of my pockets. I could only hope that, one way or another, it was going to get to her. It would be rather cruel to have me strangled on Life Day and to have her one last gift from me stolen.

I followed the trooper-whose number I didn't look for and never could remember-along the gleaming, empty corridors of the Warhammer. He was leading me forward toward the bridge, where there were secure, sound-dampened rooms for highly sensitive conversations. I supposed the sound-dampening also left the rooms scream-proof. You never knew when a traveling Sith Lord might need one of those.

Sweat on my palms left my data reader slick with moisture, and I had to resist the urge to wipe it on my trouser leg in a most undignified fashion. I hoped Vader wouldn't take hold of the device and be disgusted by the rime of sweat on it. It wasn't so much that I expected the Dark Lord to be fastidious; it was more that I instinctively felt he would be moved to aggression by signs of weakness. Most predators were, and I expected the Sith to be the same.

The bridge still had its skeleton night crew when I arrived, and I found Commander Rackler standing at the command center, looking rather pale.

"Lord Vader has expressed great interest in your analysis of the decoded Yavin recordings," Rackler said. "He wishes to examine your evidence right away." Rackler's voice was as firm and authoritative as ever, but I thought he was warning me with his eyes. Or maybe not even warning me-perhaps he was pleading with me: "Don't disappoint him. And whatever you do-don't make him angry."

I surprised myself by sounding almost non-chalant: "Very good, sir. If the moment is convenient for Lord Vader, then I am ready."

A little voice in my mostly-numb brain told me that I probably really was expecting to die, and so even Vader's power to frighten me further was limited. It was almost a free feeling-not having to worry about the repercussions of the next few minutes. I most likely wouldn't be around by then, so what was there to worry about?

The whole bridge had that magical stillness that I always associate with early Life Day morning, as the trooper lead me over to one of the scream-proof rooms. True, in this case it was the silence of terror that filled the air, but somehow the expectant hush seemed reverent and appropriate. Nothing makes you appreciate the gift of life more than the prospect of imminently losing it.

I heard the rhythmic hiss of Vader's breathing the moment the trooper palmed open the door to the scream-proof room. It appeared dark inside, but once I walked in I found that there were lumapanels glowing in the ceiling and in places on a small, shining conference table in the middle of the room. The dark sound-absorbing fabric on the walls simply absorbed light as well, so that the place looked as if it had been carved out of a single, inky shadow. The only thing that relieved the room's claustrophobic gloom was a viewscreen high on one wall, which at the moment was showing an image of the starfield outside. The screen was not actually a window, but it gave the illusion of an avenue of escape.

Unfortunately, the reason a person might want to escape was standing on the other side of the table. I had seen Vader once before, at a more comfortable distance, and had been amazed at the size of him even then. In that soundproof room he seemed even bigger, making the room feel tiny. Suddenly I got the strangest feeling that I had been cut off from the door, even though the reverse was true-I had my back directly to it while Vader had both me and the table between himself and the exit. It didn't seem to bother him any; that breathing of his kept a rhythm so steady that it could only have been mechanical, and he stood in a kind of easy, aggressive stance with his feet apart and his great, gloved hands resting on his belt buckle. The man was like a sentient battle tank. The only sign of his-not humanity, really . . . maybe "vulnerability," was the panel of buttons on his chest. No one seemed to know quite what they did, but we all assumed that they had something to do with his life-support suit. It was hard not to stare at them, partly because they were colorful and mysterious, but mostly because this evidence that Vader had weaknesses too was the only thing that made his presence slightly bearable.

Everyone knew that Vader read others' thoughts and emotions, and I half expected to be strangled right there just for staring at his chest buttons. Perhaps the Dark Lord had gotten used to this reaction over the years, however, because he got straight down to business instead of choking me.

"Lieutenant Vorgartin," he said, in a deep voice that made every syllable seem to drip with ominous portents, "I understand that you have discovered the identity of the man who destroyed the Death Star."

I mistrusted his apparent calm entirely, and I'm afraid my hand was shaking noticeably as I pulled my data reader from my pocket and held it across the table toward him.

"I believe so, my lord," I said.

If only I'd had the certainty that Vader seemed to expect! "The first file on the reader is the voiceprint comparison. It's not an absolutely conclusive match, but that plus other evidence I've gathered leads me to think that this suspect warrants serious attention."

"'Other evidence' such as what?" Vader asked. An impatient edge had crept into his voice, which made me even more nervous.

"His-his year nine aptitude test scores are not at all normal," I said, beginning to speak in a rush, and dimly wondering why I was talking with a Sith Lord about four-year-old schoolboy test scores. "He's human, but he doesn't score human at all in the areas of visual perception or eye-hand reflexes. Actually, according to the test rubric, he ought to be a Trogruta or a Dug."

Vader just looked at me, holding my data reader loosely in one hand. It occurred to me that I was sounding like a complete idiot. I tried again quickly, before he decided to make speech impossible: "To be honest, my lord, his abilities are outstanding enough that I became concerned that we were dealing with a Jedi."

For a long stretch of seconds, there was nothing but that breathing, which neither quickened nor slowed. "A Jedi," he said, almost to himself. The word came out like a curse.

"The last name is Skywalker, which is--"

"What?" Vader had been calm, almost reasonable, up until this point, but suddenly his thumb was crushing down upon the lid of the data reader.

I had no idea what I'd said, but it was as if electricity had been shot through the man. He leaned forward, the fingertips of his free hand pressed to the table, and this brought his enormous helmet much too close for my comfort. I backed away instinctively, but there wasn't much room to move. After about two paces, I could feel the soft folds of soundproof fabric against my back.

"Skywalker," I said again, beginning to feel a terror that even the threat of death could not ordinarily have produced in me. I had no idea what it was I was afraid Vader was going to do, but apparently it was worse than just being summarily strangled. "The boy's name is Luke Skywalker, my lord. I followed up on your theory about hidden Jedi, and I thought he might be named after or related to a--"

"I know the name," Vader snapped. His thumb had actually dented the top of my data reader, and I began to worry that he'd crush the thing entirely. Why in the gods' name hadn't I made backup copies of those files?

"L-look at the data, my lord," I stammered. "That will tell you better than I could." I already felt as if durasteel bands had been placed around my chest, and was half convinced that Vader had already begun to choke me.

In actuality, the Sith Lord suddenly appeared completely uninterested in me. With a motion of his thumb he flipped open the now-dented data reader, and he began scanning my files. Either he was shockingly good at grasping a great deal of information quickly, or he had no patience at all, because he cycled through all my carefully-gathered evidence in almost no time. To my surprise, the file he stopped at was Luke Skywalker's completely senseless adolescent rant about farm equipment and canyons and piloting and holes in the rock. I winced inwardly-this was the very file I didn't want to show him, because it seemed so inane. If I had been him, I would have been seriously questioning how anyone so fluff-headed could manage a deadly shot that took out an entire space station.

In truth, I have no idea what Vader's actual reaction was-his mask hid all. However, he brought the small, flickering image up close to his face-or the plasteel plating that passed for his face, anyway-and looked at the thing as if mesmerized. The way he held the data reader caused the holo's light to strike his mask lenses in such a way that sometimes the image was reflected there, and sometimes the cool blue light shone up and through the dark, translucent material. Once I was sure I caught the deep glitter of an eye, and I quickly turned away. Somehow I felt as if I'd just seen something that should not be seen. I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the holo ended and Vader triggered it to run again. What was he seeing in that little blue image? The face of some long-vanished enemy? He was certainly gripping the data reader hard enough to be glaring in hatred.

Finally, he spoke, more to himself than to me, I think, and I caught a strange, rough note in his voice that might have been hatred mixed with pain.

"I killed Kenobi too quickly," he said with deadly softness, "It should have been slow. A hundred years of suffering would not be too long for treachery like this."

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but for the first, and I must say, only, time in my military career I seriously considered turning around and bolting.

At last Vader seemed to remember me, and he looked up from the data reader. He seemed to recover his composure as he snapped its cover closed, and then said with certainty, "This is the man."

How he could tell simply from that farmboy's rambling I had no idea, and I wondered if it were true what some people said of Vader-that a massive blow to the head some years ago had left him out of his mind.

"That's . . . that's good news, then, my lord," I said, hoping that this was the correct response.

To my horror, the Sith Lord began walking around the table, approaching me slowly but with a deliberate pace that told me he was planning on coming within gripping distance of me. I believe I may have tried to back up a little farther into the fabric folds on the wall. Once Vader was about an arm's length away, he stopped and simply stood towering over me, my data reader still pressed beneath his thumb. "Lieutenant Vorgartin," he said, going back to the silken-dagger tone he'd used before the Skywalker shock, "of ten thousand code-breakers in the Imperial armed forces, no one was interested in looking for a connection with the Jedi. No one but you. Why?"

His voice was hard to read and his face was impossible, but I had the feeling that my helpfulness had made me suspect somehow-the gods only knew suspect of what. And what was I going to tell him? The truth? That I'd lost a bet during a drinking bout and had to get him a Life Day present? Should I tell him a lie that he would see through in a second? I opened my mouth to respond, closed it, then opened it again. If I didn't say something then he was definitely going to be convinced I was part of some plot or other.

"My lord . . ." I began, in a placating tone that I feared already telegraphed, You're not going to like this, "I was . . . instructed to give you something for Life Day. The name of the man who destroyed the Death Star was what I thought you wanted."

To my surprise, Vader just looked at me, as if of all the answers in the universe, he hadn't been expecting this one. I couldn't tell exactly what he was thinking, but he didn't seem immediately bent on murder, so I dared to clear my throat and venture, "Happy Life Day, my lord."

More of Vader just looking at me. Soon, however, I got the sense that he wasn't really seeing me at all, but was looking through me into some other place, and some other time. He was dreadfully still. Maybe it had been decades since anybody had wished him a happy Life Day, and he'd forgotten how to respond.

At last he turned his head as if to get a better fix on me, and asked, "And did you have any personal hopes with regard to turning over this information, Lieutenant Vorgartin?"

The sarcasm in his tone confused me-I wasn't sure if he was making some kind of offer, of if this were an accusation. I thought about answering "no," since that was close to the truth-all I'd really wanted to do was to show up Kalac and turn him into the butt of his own drunken, childish joke.

Instead, I found myself saying, "Actually, my lord, my mother . . ."

"Go," he snapped, and then brushed by me in a swirl of robes, opening the chamber door with a curt motion of his hand.

I stood there just blinking for a moment, not sure what he had meant. "Go," as in, "I've given you executive permission to go on leave?" Or "Go," as in, "Get out of my sight?" Both? Neither?

In any case, I got out of there as soon as my knees stopped feeling like rubber, and I headed down the nearest corridor that I suspected the Dark Lord had not taken. It was hours before I realized he'd kept my data reader.

I don't know if anyone else ever figured out what Vader was talking about in that little room, but as far as I know, I was the only Imperial officer in the field who was given leave to return home that Life Day. I only got twenty-four standard hours, which is essentially enough time to say "hello" and "goodbye," but I did get to give my mother her shell necklace with my own hands. I didn't tell her that it had come out of Impounded Property.

I couldn't tell her why I got leave to come home, either, since at the time that was classified information. It didn't matter, though-she got what she wanted for Life Day, which was to have me home and safe instead of stuck out in space in something the Rebels were likely to blow up. I got what I wanted for Life Day, which was to see her, and to be able to laugh at Kalac when I got back to the Warhammer. I think Lord Vader got what he wanted for Life Day, although it's hard to tell, since it seemed like it only made him angrier. Maybe Sith Lords are happy about being angry-I don't know.

Anyway, that's how a Sith brought Life Day that year, or at least one did for my mother and I. Because-apart from the occasional person who wants the name of a Rebel Jedi Death Star destroyer-what most of us want for Life Day is family.


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