“Darth Vader! I should have known. Only you could be so bold!”
She lies with affronted dignity, her shoulders straight and her eyes wide open, her chin uptilted and her teeth glittering, and Vader thinks oh .
Vader thinks: once, I knew a boy. He lived a long time ago, on a planet far away, and he had a pet dog; a desert bitch, rangy and squalid, with gold eyes and scarred feet, and this boy – what was his name? Oh, Vader doesn’t recall (or, at least, Vader tries very hard not to remember) – called her Layah, which is Tatooinian for sharp tooth and a very popular name for guard dogs in that region.
There’s a common joke among aliens: wherever you find humans, there you find dogs. The two species evolved in tandem with each other, millennia ago, back when humanity came from one single planet - whose name has since been lost to the sands of time - and the bond is well-known, well-researched, oft-mocked as primitive and ridiculous, yet another indicator of humanity’s barbarism; but Tatooine is a hard land, and hard people, and a bit of barbarism is essential. And so there was not a slave family who did not share their home with at least two or three dogs who lived hard, short lives - just like their human masters - and hunted, and killed, and lived side by side with the hungry red desert. They were companionship; protection; status. Sand People would take grim pleasure in eating them, yet another reason why humans of Tatooine despised the desert-dwelling raiders.
An old Tatooine joke went thus: when there’s no food, kill your grandmother before the dog. Why? Because the grandmother doesn’t catch rats.
Years later, the time came for the boy to have his pups (far from the torment and scouring winds of the desert) he said, tentatively, that if it was a girl he favoured the name Layah . And he explained the origin, blushing and stammering, and thinking that his wife – royal-blooded and noble in a thousand ways he wasn’t – would smile indulgently before suggesting a better name, a name with dignified origins, not a name taken from his brief and hungry childhood.
But she had said, how beautiful .
And, perhaps, if the boy had been wiser he would have expanded beyond I know it’s strange to name a child after a dog – and he would have said Layah once bit off a man’s hand to protect me . And, perhaps, if the wife had been wiser she would have asked so tell me what it means to be a slave and have a pet dog and perhaps they might have learned that they come from very different worlds –
The boy was dead. The wife as well. And the child –
Vader stares at the girl. In your rage you killed her, he thinks.
The child. The child.
“Leia,” he says. “It isn’t an Alderaanian name, is it?”
Leia – Layah – blinks. Her lips twist.
He looks at her and thinks oh . He looks at her and thinks Padme .
The Force twists and knots around him. For a moment, he smells flowers. For a moment, he smells hot sand and rusted engines and oil. He doesn’t have nostrils anymore and the Emperor never saw fit to equip him with a sense of smell – but he smells these things and his heart gives a sudden, solid kick against his durasteel chest. Layah had gold eyes and used to shove her head under his hands, demanding that he scratch her ears. Leia snarls up at him.
“I don’t know,” she says. “What relevance could this possibly have – “
“You are adopted,” he says.
Her lips twist further. Her eyebrows skyrocket. “What relevance does that have?”
Once, there was a boy. He had a dog. He had a dog who he loved, and the dog loved him, and both boy and dog are long dead; but Vader remembers how they would run together through the red sands, Shmi waiting to call them home.
“I – I think,” he says. He speaks slowly and carefully. His tongue had to be cut away from the roof of his mouth, where lava had welded it, and there hadn’t been anaesthetic, and the Emperor – yellow-eyed and smiling – had watched.
Skywalker, you are reborn. Torn apart and made anew –
“I think,” he says, and then wonders: how long has it been since he did? Since he really, truly thought.
One of his soldiers looks nervously at the other.
He choked men to death less than an hour ago. He felt their hearts shudder and stop.
Once there was a boy, and a dog, and the boy could have killed the dog for meat – after all, there was never enough to eat in Tatooine – or the dog could have killed the boy, but neither did. They were friends. Packmates.
Because of love.
Because of loyalty.
Because of choice .
The boy’s wife died. And the boy died as well: the boy must be killed so the man can be born. And the man is killed so Vader can rise from the ashes.
And here he is.
“You are a member of the Rebel Alliance,” he says.
“How dare you? We are on a peaceful diplomatic mission.”
Her lovely face is the mirror-image of Padme; but the snarl is all Anakin’s. Once there was a boy called Anakin. Once there was a monster called Vader.
He reaches down to touch her cheek; she flinches away, shows her teeth, and he feels his heart fill up to bursting point. He shared his meagre meals with Layah because he loved her with the ferocious, feral love of a slave who owned nothing, not even his own heart.The knife-stab, twisting sensation is the same. Anakin loved; Vader loves.
It is on moments like this that the world pivots. He could kill her. He could lower his eyes and do nothing. After all, isn’t that what he’s been doing all these years? He saw it as rebellion against the Jedi Order – but it isn’t, not really. It’s monumental, endless apathy. It’s easier to kill. Easier to follow orders. Easier to burn. The Dark Side is an ocean, where all things drown.
This girl, bright as the desert sun, stares up at him. She’s frightened, and she’s not running. He can hear her heart. Oh, how it hammers.
A choice, a choice – a dog, and a girl, and a wife and a name; and in one world one thing, and in this one another. Vader inhales. Anakin exhales. He chooses.
Alderaan does not burn.
Tarkin doesn’t either: death by lightsaber is remarkably quick. He falls in two neat, sizzling halves. Leia’s (Layah’s) eyes reflect the crimson flash.
“Um,” she says.
“I’m no friend to the Emperor,” says Vader. Says Anakin. “I knew your mother.”
Kill the boy, let the man be born; only the boy lingers, because no one ever leaves behind the ghosts of the person they once were. In the edges of his vision, gold-furred Layah stalks.
“My mother – “
“Your birth mother,” says Vader. And then, because was – and is – Anakin Skywalker and planning has never been one of his strong suits, he offers her his hand.
“Come with me.”
“Will Alderaan be safe? My parents?”
My parents. Not by blood, but by choice, and that matters more. He can sense her thoughts, clicking into place, quick and snapping as Layah’s teeth.
“I will protect them,” says Anakin. The girl’s face, for one mad moment, is his mother’s; is his wife’s; is a desert-thin dog with sharp teeth.
The Force twists around her: poised, growling, at her shoulder. He’s never seen such ferocity, such power.
Leia (Layah) blinks. “I – “ she says. Her tongue presses against the back of her teeth. Indecision flickers around her. She’s frightened. Alone. The deaths that brought the plans to her weigh heavy on her narrow shoulders.
Anakin’s hand still hangs in the air. He lets it fall. Leia
watches the trajectory of his arm; she’s waiting, judging, poised, trying to work out if he will strike or not.
“I have your ship,” he says. “It would be so easy for me to order the execution of everyone on board.”
The only indication of her stress are two white indentations either side of her nose. But he tastes her panic: sour, like rotting flesh.
“But I won’t,” he adds.
She looks at Tarkin’s body; at him. “Did you promise him that?” she says, lightly.
“No. I promised him nothing. He was scum.”
“You’re the Emperor’s attack dog,” she says. “How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
You’re named for an attack dog! Where I come from that was an honour – but you don’t know that! Because they took you from me! They took you!
“You don’t. You have no reason to trust me.”
“I don’t. Why do I feel like I should?” Her forehead puckers. She looks so much like Padme –
And then, all of a sudden, the Force around her snaps to lightning life; the lights around them flicker and crackle.
“It’s a mind trick ,” she says, stepping away from him.
“No – Layah – “
“It’s a mind trick, you’re – you’re in my head – get out –”
“I promise you I am not – “
Her mouth works. It takes Anakin a moment to realise what she’s going to do; it’s almost a moment that costs him everything. She has a false tooth; a poison capsule. Standard issue to members of the Rebel Alliance, especially those on dangerous missions, carrying sensitive information.
There’s no time to be gentle. He seizes her by the throat, pulls her to him – her legs dangle, useless – and cracks his fingers against her teeth, breaking one of them in his quest to get to the hollow one, the poison, the tiny and painless death.
There: he grabs it, she gnaws fruitlessly at his gauntlets, her eyes spangling with tears. He yanks the tooth out, along with a freshet of bright blood. She collapses at his feet, her chin red and gleaming.
“Bastard,” she says. Impotently, she strikes at his boot. It doesn’t do anything more than hurt her hand.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” says Anakin. “And I won’t let you hurt yourself.”
Everything is new, bright, challenging. Anakin needs time to think.
He looks back. There’s a clutch of Stormtroopers staring openly at him. He’s probably going to have to cut them down. They’re fanatics, all of them, and they’ve just seen him slice Tarkin in half.
His daughter, bleeding at his feet; he holds her in place with a thought, though the idea of manacling her as the Emperor has manacled him sends his stomach roiling. His hand drifts to his side. He doesn’t want to massacre his soldiers, but he must, for the sake of his –
One of them is taking off his helmet.
He sets it by his feet, very carefully. He’s got three lines scarified on his shorn head, a scar crooked over his mouth. He’s a veteran. Anakin calls his nickname to mind: Sunny.
“I’ve got a tissue,” he says.
Anakin breathes. Leia pants for breath, like a beast run to ground. And Sunny takes a scrag of fabric from the depths of his armour.
“For the girl,” he says. “Uh – sorry. For the Princess . For the bleeding. It looks nasty.”
Anakin stares at the flutter of white.
“Uh – and I can get a bag,” says another Stormtrooper, Flex. A woman. “For Tarkin’s body.”
“Well, he’s going out the airlock, isn’t he? It was good enough for us,” sneers Ostie. This time Anakin doesn’t even have to think about the nickname; it comes to mind at once.
“Um,” says Anakin, like the great and powerful war god he is.
“Lord Vader,” says Sunny, with a sort of careful, awkward patience; the tone you’d use when talking to a nervous animal. “We want to follow you. I mean – you’re a soldier, like us. You fight with us; you fight for us. I’m – I don’t know about everyone else –” here there’s a general, urgent sense of yes we agree with you from the present Stormtroopers, “–but we want to fight with you. Besides you. How it has always been.”
They stand there in the white hallway, smoke billowing from torn-open circuits. Leia’s crew are held prisoner; Anakin can feel their fear from where he stands. It has a shape; a name; a common theme; and that theme is –
Please don’t let him take the Princess –
What it is, he thinks, what it is to inspire such loyalty, such love.
“Can I – “ says Anakin. He’s stammering a little, which means that his voice modulator growls and crackles.
“Yes, of course,” says Sunny. He stretches a hand out. Anakin takes the tissue. He turns – with a sweep of his night-black cloak – back to Leia, and kneels in front of her. He loosens the Force weight he’s got pressed against her back enough so she can rear up on her palms, like a cobra about to strike.
“I fear we got off on the wrong foot,” he says.
She spits blood on his face.
Children are rebellious, my young padawan, says Obi Wan’s ghost, mocking and happy. Anakin tries not to start. It has been a long time since he has seen ghosts. Or, perhaps, they have always been there; it is only now that he is noticing them.
“I do not want to hurt you.”
“You broke my tooth!” she says.
“You tried to kill yourself,” barks Anakin. Layah flinches.
Beneath his mask, Vader bares his teeth. She’s his , she’s his daughter , she belongs to him and how dare she not trust him –
Anakin , says Obi Wan, cold and sharp in the vault of his memory.
Anakin , says Padme, soft and hurt and dying. She appears in front of him: a white smear, her face distorted into prismatic fractures, as though viewed through a haze of tears. The image wavers away; the white of her dress becomes the gleam of Leia’s pink-stained teeth.
His love for Padme had been vicious, durasteel clamps. His love is poison. It corrodes. It kills. It’s possessive and manic, the love that a slave learns to hold: this thing is mine, I will never let it go –
Leia’s face is pained. Leia. Not Layah. She’s not his. She’s another man’s daughter. Another woman’s child.
He looks down. Without quite realising he’s grabbed her hand. He’s crushing her fingers. The little bones are creaking, close to snapping.
He lets her go, disgusted with himself. She cradles her injured hand to her chest. The blood on her mouth still gleams in the hard overhead lights. Her eyes are feral and wary.
“My Lord – “ starts Sunny.
“Call me General,” he says.
“ General Vader, this ship is too dangerous to stay on; the life-support systems are starting to fail.”
Anakin snarls frustration and stands. “Evacuate to the Executor ,” he orders. “Princess, we’re taking you with us.”
“What about the prisoners?” says Sunny.
Anakin hesitates. “Take them with us; we won’t leave them to die.”
Don’t hurt them –
The words never actually leave Layah’s (Leia, her name is Leia) mouth; she thinks them, hard and desperate, but she doesn’t speak them. She just thinks them with a vicious intensity that scours the Force around her into eddies and swirls.
“Come with me Princess,” says Anakin. He loosens the Force bonds around her wrists and chest. She stands up, mopping her chin on the back of her sleeve.
“I’ll tell you nothing,” she says.
“I don’t expect you to. Your birth-mother wouldn’t tell me anything either.”
Ah yes – there . The Princess is good at hiding her emotions; but she’s not an expert; she’s still got Skywalker blood in her, and her throat tenses for a moment; her Force presence snaps bright at the edges of Anakin’s perception.
“You’re a liar,” she says. She tips her chin up, straightens her back: royalty in lethal white.
“Sometimes,” he admits. “But I will not lie to you.”
“They loosed an emergency pod just before we boarded,” says Sunny. He’s not put his helmet back on. “Scans detected no lifeforms aboard; it was probably a glitch –”
“She will have given the plans to her droid,” says Anakin. “We should retrieve them before they reach the Rebel Alliance.”
“Yes, Lord – General.”
Sunny cringes at the slip. Anakin doesn't notice it.
“You’re wondering whose side we are on, are you not?”
It is well known among Stormtroopers that Lord Vader reads minds; Sunny doesn’t even try to lie. “Yes, General.”
“We are not joining the Rebel Alliance, if that is what you fear.”
“Good. They’re savages.”
An image: an explosion rocketing skyward, tongues of flame ripping at the sky. A barracks, lost to a Rebel bomb. Inside the barracks: Sunny’s old unit. His brothers.
For a moment, Anakin struggles to remember what comfort looks like. Then he puts a hand on Sunny’s shoulder. “They were brave soldiers, and we mourn them,” he says. “But I will not return to the Emperor. He is a monster, who cares nothing for the lives of those around him. He is a madman, who wants the galaxy cringing at his heels.”
“I knew a pilot,” says Sunny, “who lost his entire planet to starvation, because the Emperor suspected them of aiding one – one! – rebel. He cut off rations. It was...I understand the need for discipline; I am loyal to the Empire; but – “
“The Empire is not the Emperor,” says Anakin.
“The Emperor is mad,” says Sunny. His voice hitches; potent fear floods the Force around him. What he has said is the worst kind of treachery.
Anakin clamps his hand down on Sunny’s shoulder again: a gesture of soldierly affection. It’s been years since he’s done that. Years since he’s touched another human without the intent to harm.
Sunny pauses for a moment, then claps Anakin’s shoulder in return.
“General,” he says.
“Soldier,” says Anakin Skywalker.
Leia watches her ship collapse from the deck of the Executor . Her mouth is one hot throb, but she ignores it; she’s been through much worse. When she was sixteen, she was taught to endure the torture-droids that the Empire is so fond of. She still has the scars. She’s not afraid of pain.
What worries her is Vader. She’s never met him before; she’s heard horror stories – who hasn’t? – but she expected towering, flaming death; not this madman who babbled about mothers, and pretended to care for her.
Perhaps he had finally cracked. The Dark Side always eats its sons in the end.
Vader hasn’t chained her, but she’s caged all the same, locked in the front deck. Stormtroopers mill around. Some of them have taken their helmets off, which is disquieting; she’s never seen them like this, like individuals, with differing features.
Somehow, it makes the thought of shooting them all that much harder.
Harder – not impossible.
Leia flickers a look at the nearest trooper. This one has his helmet on, and a blaster at his hip – not his hands. He’s about a foot taller than her, but if she takes him by surprise –
The doors whoosh open. Vader enters. His hideous, rusting breath fills her ears; she tastes her heart in her mouth.
“Vader,” she says, “I thought I smelled your foul stench.”
When she was little, her nurse taught her how to meditate, how to clear her mind and focus on nothing but cool blue water. When she was older – too old for nurses – she discovered that her mother had deliberately chosen a nurse who had trained with the Jedi, and that the meditation she once thought nothing more than compulsory, ridiculous tedium was in fact training against the infamous Jedi mindtrick.
The Jedi are extinct, aren’t they? she had said. And her father had smiled, and shook his head, and told her to think of cool blue water, the tide, endless and repeating. Imagine your thoughts are water; they cannot be grasped. Your thoughts are swift silver fish. Your thoughts are as the sand, wiped clean and made anew with each wave.
She’s not water. She’s fire. She’s sparking light; she’s the storm.
Still: she’s Leia Organa, and she doesn’t fail in her duty. She thinks of water. Endless and repeating. Grey waves. Grey skies. The white froth riding on storm swells.
“I have no intention of hurting you,” says Vader.
“Liar,” she says, gesturing to her bloody lip.
“You would have killed yourself. Is that how you have been raised?”
“It is my duty to serve the people of Alderaan,” she says.
“You’ve been raised to fight.”
“I grew up in war, yes. But whose fault is that?”
She doesn’t like this. It feels less like battle and more like a Senate debate: trying to negotiate all sorts of lines she can’t see. This alliance and that one. Politicians as quick and cold as rain and just as hard to catch. Vader was meant to be simple: a monster, nothing less. Certainly nothing more.
“Your father would blame the Jedi Order.”
“My father is Bail Organa.”
“Your blood father. Your other father.”
“I don’t have another father. I don’t want another father. Stop the mind-games, Vader; bring out the torture-droids –”
“I’ve had them incinerated.”
“Why? Because you think you can do the job better yourself?”
“No. Because they’re barbaric.”
“You’re a barbarian; it’s fitting,” says Leia. Her breath is high in her throat. The troopers stand still as sentinels. The one directly to Vader’s left, the one who offered her the tissue, cocks his head on one side. He’s studying her. She curls her lips.
“Did no one ever teach you the value of remaining silent?” growls Vader.
“Did no one ever teach you the value of mercy? My men were innocent, and you butchered them. We were on a diplomatic mission. This is an act of war.”
“You’ve been at war your entire life, Princess,” says Vader. “And I must commend your commitment to a lie. I know about the plans. I know you sent them off with your droids. I will find them and – “
“I don’t know what you mean – “
“– and I will do as I see fit with them – “
“–you are –”
“– and, Layah, I will provide you and your men with a ship. You will go whereever you please. I will not stop you.”
Leia blinks. He’d said her name – only not quite, only pronouncing it oddly, with an accent she remembers. In his mouth, her name sounds like it perches between Leia and Liar .
Doesn’t matter: who can say what he’s saying, with that voice modulator.
“And how many of my men still live?”
“Five. A dozen chose the same way out that you attempted. Death before dishonour – is that what the Rebel Alliance teaches her children?”
“Death is preferable to the tender mercies of the Empire – or have you forgotten what you do to prisoners?”
Vader’s fist clenches. Leia thinks of water: grey, storm-thrashed water.
“You have, haven’t you? Pretend at mercy all you want, Lord Vader – “
“ General Vader, however you wish. Pretend at mercy if you like, but sparing me once does not mean you did not slaughter innocents.”
She very deliberately does not think of what her next steps could be, but she maintains an awareness of her options. Facing a mindreader makes espionage fucking difficult.
But she’s Leia Organa.
He wants to put her in a cell. She’s his child, his only child; she’s all that remains of his Padme. He wants to manacle her and put her in a cell until he finds a way to make her trust him. He wants to make her know what her name is. Layah Skywalker – not Leia Organa. He wants to scrub the Alderaan gloss off her skin; she’s his desertborn pup, not the daughter of a diplomat.
But: he doesn’t. And, he notes, she is the daughter of a diplomat either way. After all, Padme was a Queen first and then a Senator.
She gathers her men to her – scrawny, frightened boys not one of them older than her – and murmurs words of encouragement to them.
It’s so painfully clear that she thinks it’s a trap. Ninety per cent of the time her thoughts are shielded. She thinks of water; an old Jedi trick – and who taught her that? She’s good at it. She must have been raised to serve in this war. His war.
And she's right. Of course it is a trap. Not the sort of trap that she thinks; he has no interest in destroying the Rebel Alliance. Not yet.
He has a daughter.
He has someone to live for.
The Light Side of the Force burns up her children. It will take his daughter and sear her white flesh to black ribbons and pull out her heart. He has to keep her safe from it. But, equally, the Emperor will try to break her – and if he cannot do so, if he cannot bend her to his will, he will kill her. He will make Anakin watch, and he will kill her.
Nothing in the universe is safe –
Anakin corrects himself: not yet. Not yet. Nothing in the universe is safe yet . .
He watches her ship vanish into hyperspace. Then he gestures to Tally and Jezebel. “Take a squadron of your best men. Follow her. Let her view some unmanned ships – make them hidden, hidden enough that she thinks she has uncovered experts, but not so hidden that she does not uncover them. Let her shoot them down. And keep following her yourself; do not let her see you.”
“Unmanned ships,” says Sunny.
“Yes,” says General Anakin. “We do not have many men loyal to our cause,” he elaborates, ommitting the fact that he is not entirely sure what ‘our cause’ is as yet. He has the terrible sense of sliding , moving into a world that he does not understand and cannot control.
Perhaps this is what fatherhood feels like.
“ Pragmatic , General.”
“Hm. Sunny, you’ll track the plans. Take 501-B squadron. We’re keeping this hidden from the Emperor; be discreet. Leave no witnesses, but I don’t want any overt violence that draws attention to our actions.”
“It’s Tatooine,” says Sunny. “Violence is pretty much expected.”
“Indeed,” says Anakin, and chuckles. It comes out as a painful hissing wheeze. Sunny looks alarmed; he doesn’t know what the sound is; and he clearly doesn’t want to guess.
Anakin clasps his shoulder again. He’s getting better at this. He’s remembering soldierly mannerisms.
Force help him, he’s remembering .
Anakin watches his ships leap after Layah. Leia. How easy it would be to bring her ship down, slaughter the crew, drag her back to him. His daughter. His .
Only: he remembers. Vader tries not to remember but Anakin cannot help but remember. Padme’s breath stuttering in his hand as he lifted her frail, pregnant body high. Her throat constricting at his touch. You are mine , he had thought, or you will die, for what is not mine is against me, and all that is against me will die.
And those were the thoughts of Vader, but they were also the thoughts of Anakin, because he is both of them. Because the seeds of Vader were in Anakin, and the heart of Anakin is in Vader, and here he stands, both and neither, machine and man. He contains multitudes. As, of course, does his daughter. Vader’s child. Breha’s spy. Bail’s politician.
He clenches his fists. In Tatooine, the child follows the mother, because parentage is often impossible to discern: is this baby the husband’s, the trader’s, the master’s? His children, by Tatooine law, would be free. And, by that same law, they would not be his.
But the law of the desert is far behind him. He is Darth Vader. He is Anakin Skywalker. He has a daughter –
A sharp twist in his chest: his Master calling him. He considers, briefly, what would happen if he were to carve out his heart. Would the mechanics hiss and wheeze and keep him going? Would there be anything there, or would he just pull out chunks of rancid black flesh? Vader would have said the latter, and claimed to be truly heartless. But Anakin – despite sharing Vader’s tendency towards melodrama – knows the truth.
Inside his heart would be carved reams of names, seared straight into his skin. Ahsoka. Shmi. Mother. Padme. Obi Wan. Leia. Layah. Leia.
“Apprentice,” says the Emperor’s hologram. Anakin, kneeling, replies with all due deference:
“Master. I come to you with the gravest of news. As you must have felt, my hand was forced: I have found myself obliged to execute Grand Moff Tarkin. The man was a traitor, blinded by his own ambition. He and Galen Erso were working together. I am sorry that I have not come to you with this information sooner, but I wanted to make absolutely certain that I was correct in my deductions.”
If the Emperor is surprised, his ancient face does not show it. But Anakin reads anger in the flicker of his eyes, the set of the shoulders, and hates how effortlessly he can read his Master. How he has learned which gestures signify approval and which suggest that there will be punishment forthcoming.
(do you ever wonder if I learned to avoid you when your eyes started to turn yellow? Or if I read you like a book, my breath in my throat – says Padme.)
( I learned how to tell you wanted to kill something, says Obi Wan. People learned to read you. They had to.)
Anakin heaves in a breath. His lungs howl protest; the machinery needs oiling and tending to. Of course, artificial lungs that need no maintenance; lungs grown in labs, implanted without pain, they do exist – but he does not have these.
Why is that, Master? he thinks, but does not say. He thinks of water, grey, slow-churning.
“I captured and interrogated some of their men. I fear that the conspiracy may stretch deeper. It is not part of the Rebel Alliance – it is a rot within your glorious Empire.”
Is he laying it on a little thick? No: if his Master sensed the lie he would already be dead. Instead, the corrugated skin at his throat bunches as he swallows. How old he looks. How frail. How dangerous, how duplicitous. Once, Vader looked at a holo of a ferocious young senator and snorted derision: Bail is bringing forth another puppet, I see , he had said. Leia, in lethal white (the Alderaan colour of mourning, and battle, and war, he was later to learn) with her hair knotted in a pile of ridiculous braids, saying my good sirs –
“I sense a disruption in the Force,” says the Emperor. “I can taste it. The Rebellion grows stronger. The Light Side is beginning to...pulse. Strengthen.”
“I feel it too, my Master,” says Anakin. “It – it is blossoming . With hope. With – with promise.”
Somewhere, there is a girl. She spoke to the Senate at fifteen years of age. Her name is Layah, which means sharp-tooth . Her name is Princess, which means hope.
“Something is coming,” says the Emperor.
Someone has come.
(He thinks of water: thunder-high waves crashing onto the shore, over and over. He thinks of Padme. What would she do – )
( I’ve got to be a politician, Padme, love of my life, sweet darling. I’ve got to think strategy. Padme, if you are there, if I am hearing Obi Wan then surely I can hear you, my love – )
“Indeed. I have set the Princess free.”
The Emperor’s eyes narrow; his anger ferments the air in Anakin’s throat. His lungs howl .
( Oh my darling , says Padme’s ghost, drifting up from the vaults of his memory, my darling, let me tell you what to say – )
“Free to find the plans and take them to the Rebel Alliance – while, unbeknownst to her, a squadron of my finest follows her. Furthermore, the plans she will find – hidden inside an R2 unit on Tatooine – are not the correct plans. I have swapped them. The ones she will find – the ones I will permit her to find – suggest that there is a fault in the Death Star’s design; an exhaust port that a very lucky fighter pilot would be able to fly into, and fire directly into the core. That is the idea that Galen Erso had – of course, the flaw has been fixed. But the Rebels do not know that. They have hope. And, as you know, Master, there is nothing more poisonous than hope.”
Anakin thinks of water, endless and surging. And of Padme, standing on a beach, barefoot on the sand; or Padme, facing the Senate, straight-backed and proud. Diplomacy. Politics. He’s never had a taste for it, of course, since his preferred method of problem-solving is lightsabre-based. But with Leia – his Layah – out there in the wide dark universe, and his darling Padme (even if she is a ghost) guiding his tongue, then he feels – stronger. More alive.
And the Emperor cackles. It is a dark, ugly laugh, that has long since forgotten what delight sounded like. Did the Emperor ever know what honest joy was? Has he ever smiled at anything other than the misfortune of others? Palpatine was old when Qui-Gon was young; only the Force can guess at who he once was.
“An excellent plan, young Vader. But it seems a little needlessly complicated. Why not simply threaten the Princess with the destruction of her home planet? Alderaan is renowned for its support for the Rebels. Burning it to nothing may not convince her to talk – but it would send a message. Perhaps you could do this, and learn of the plans whereabouts thusly. And then there is no need to feed the Rebel Alliance false information. Use the Death Star to obliterate wherever they might hide.”
Padme’s toes curl into the sand; the water, grey and frothed white, surges towards her. A flotilla of gulls drift over her. She smiles. Anakin, darling, if I had lived perhaps I could have helped more –
“We have burned Thalia, Master – and Ina IT6, and a thousand other planets, and this only nurtures dissent against us. If I might be so bold as to suggest – destroying the Rebel Alliance is not just about obliterating the planets which seek to support them. In the Dark Side, all things drown; and to the Dark Side is due all power and pain. By giving them hope – by encouraging one desperate surge against us – then we can crush them all the more decisively.”
The Emperor nods. The fervour of his anger subsides; now his approbation simmers over Anakin’s skin. A balm. Normally, it is the closest thing that he has to human contact. But he remembers the solidity of Sunny’s shoulder under his palm. He remembers the blood-reek on Leia’s breath; the horror in her eyes; the hard, ugly kick of compassion under his ribs. Layah, which means sharp-tooth . Princess, which means hope.
(In his head, Padme-by-the-ocean smiles fondly.)
“Proceed. Let the Princess take her ‘new hope’ to her Rebel friends. Let them sing their joy to the Force; let the Light shine once more, and then we will crush it. Imagine how they will feel when their last hope is proved to be falsehood. Imagine how they will rally their forces for one last, desperate assault, only to be obliterated. Imagine the despair .”
The Emperor laughs again. Anakin inclines his head.
“If I may be so bold,” Anakin continues, recalling conversations he’d had with Padme: late-night conversations, sleep-tangled, talking about the long, rich history of Naboo’s political intrigue. He hadn’t always listened to her – instead preferring to lose himself in her star-filled eyes – but he knows the general shape of how one goes about rooting out political enemies. “We should commence a purge of Tarkin’s higher command. I would be delighted to do so.”
“My Apprentice, nothing would please me more. You are near to the Ithakan system, are you not?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Then I recommend that you talk to Carah Jhana, the slaver. She will put her spy network to good use.”
What would Padme do?
“I was under the impression she was – politically neutral.”
“She is whatever I need her to be,” says the Emperor, kindly. “As are you, my apprentice."
“As I am, my Lord,” says Vader.
Carah Jhana is old, older than Anakin – older, even, than the Empire – and her business is older still, inherited from her mother, and her mother before her. Under the Jedi Order, she kept up a facade of respectability. Indentured servants, not slaves. Operating on the fringes of space.
And then the Jedi fell, and the Empire rose, and Anakin remembers the conversation with Palpatine perfectly –
I thought the Empire had abolished slavery –
It isn’t slavery in the traditional sense, Lord Vader. Jhana sells those who challenge peace in the galaxy to those who would build it. She trades in justice, not flesh.
Clearly Palpatine had liked that last sentence as he repeated it: justice, not flesh.
Carah is fretful. Her ships are normally allowed to pass without incident. This one – The Maiden – is the largest in her fleet. There are three thousand souls in the cargo hold, bound for labour in the factories of Naboo.
In Anakin’s head, Padme sits on a stone overlooking the ocean, blood running freely from her nose, strikingly scarlet against her white flesh. Play politics, play politics, she says. Anakin wants to ask what is wrong, why she is bleeding, who has hurt her; but before he can, Carah Jhana speaks, jarring him back to reality.
“My Lord Vader,” she says. “I do not understand – I have paid my taxes to the Emperor this standard; I entertained him not two quarters ago – “
“What species are the people on board?”
“The cargo is largely Twi’lek,” says Carah at once.
Anakin walks around the opulence of her quarters. The Maiden is exquisitely made; from the outside it is a silver slash against the stars, mirrored in the fashion of Old Naboo. The upper deck is home to Carah and her two sons. It’s decked out in traditional Twi’l style: twisting, glittering curtains of living algae adorn the walls; holoscreens play soft, melodic tunes. Jhana’s spy network, and her slave trade, fund her opulent lifestyle. She pays her dues in flesh and words, and all Anakin needs to do is ask for information and use it to undermine the Emperor and –
Play politics , says Padme’s ghost, wavering into shape beside Carah Jhana. She’s only wearing a sweep of white fabric over her breasts and thighs. Her skin is mottled thunderhead purple and black. Horrified, Anakin walks towards her, wanting to touch her, comfort her, ask who has done this my love – but before he can reach her, she fades away again. His hands clench on empty air.
“My Lord,” says Carah, turning to follow him. Her eyes dart about. “My papers are in order – Beauty will show you – “
A skinny, frightened looking Twi’Lek slave girl appears from a side door. She wears nothing but a scrag of silver silk and a heavy gold collar.
“Hurry up, you stupid bitch!” snaps Carah. Beauty drops to her knees, offers up a datapad containing the accounts of the ship.
The silk doesn’t cover the bitemarks on her breasts. The collar has worn scarlet welts on her throat. Anakin tastes her fear. It hangs in the air like strips of rotting flesh.
A commotion at the door; Carah’s sons appear, flanked by Stormtrooper guards.
“Mama,” whines the oldest. “Mama, they’re searching our quarters.”
“Lord Vader,” demands Carah. Her voice quivers. “Lord Vader, I demand that you tell me what is happening –”
Anakin heaves in a breath: deliberately, slowly, really milking the groaning, rusty tones of his durasteel lungs working.
He looks down at Beauty. She’s still on the floor, her head bowed.
“Stand up,” he says. She snaps to her feet. “Look at me.” She does so. The fear in her eyes is so very familiar. His stomach gives a roiling kick and he feels his fingers start to twitch. The Force around him snarls .
Oh, yes, Carah has information he needs. But there is blood on the girl’s chains, and he remembers the smell of hot desert air, how slaves who strayed were tied up outside without water or food, left to go mad in the baking sands.
He undoes his cloak, drops it over her shoulders. She stares up at him – baffled. They’re both new at this: he at giving kindness; she at receiving it.
“Cover yourself child,” he says. She tugs it around herself, shivering like a leaf in high winds.
“If you want the girl you can have her,” says Carah, in an attempt at mollification. That, more than anything else, seals her fate. That attempt to pacify him. That moment where she thinks that he is like her, or like her bastard sons. “She’s a bedslave, well-trained –”
If Anakin had a mouth, he would have smiled. Instead, he steps in front of Beauty. “Close your eyes,” he tells her. “You don’t need to see this.”
He ignites his lightsabre. The inside of his head goes hot and red and blank, like the heart of a sandstorm. When his vision clears, the Jhana family are dead at his feet in a scattering of pieces.
“Go down to the holds; free the slaves,” he orders the troopers. “Kill the rest of the slavers. There will be no mercy for those who trade in flesh. Not now. Not ever.”
What if Padme were here? She would be at his side, beautiful and dignified, her shell-white hand slotted into the crook of his arm. She’d smell of flowers and warmth. Diamonds would spangle in her lush dark hair, and she’d wear a long dress of pearlescent fabric. She would trip forwards – walking as she ever did, as though she was about to start dancing – and kneel before the child, mop away her tears, say something like I have a daughter about your age .
But Padme is not here.
He turns back to Beauty. Her eyes are wide and she’s – Force help him, she is smiling.
“You saved me,” she says. There’s blood on her face. It isn’t hers, of course.
How many times did someone say that to me? Obi-Wan muses. Do you remember when you were a hero?
How old were the younglings, Anakin? As old as this little one? Padme says. She wavers back into sight, standing behind Beauty, her skin scarred and burned, her eyes rimmed red.
“Go with the troopers,” Anakin says.
Master Skywalker, help us – there are so many of them –
Why does this child live, Ani? Why does this child live when so many did not? says Padme. Her throat is red and black, like a sacrificial garland has been hung there and set ablaze. Ani? She sounds so lost, so hurt. She offers him her hands. Anakin’s heart twists; his head is a sold, throbbing ache. Beauty fades into his peripheal vision as he focuses on his wife’s ghost. Despite her wounds, she is still so beautiful.
“I did this to you,” he says. Not a garland set ablaze: fingermarks. From where he had choked the life from her.
Ani, come to me .
Why does this child live, when so many did not?
Her hands drop. Her eyes are huge, blue, as wide and as sad as the tides. Anakin forces himself to look away.
“Because I say so,” he mutters. He feels her gaze on him, sticking like a fishook in the side of his mouth.
“Yes my –”
“Don’t call me Lord. Or Master.”
When he left Tatooine he thought that it meant the end of slavery. He told himself that never again would the word master pass his lips. But the Jedi just expected it and some things – well, some things never change.
(why does this child live)
(because I say so)
(because I choose)
“Don’t ever call anyone master again,” he says, kneeling in front of her. He undoes the collar. She winces as it peels away. The blisters are revealed: gelatinous, red, oozing. Anakin does not have a MedPack on him – he’s never needed one – so he gestures to one of the remaining troopers, procures a dressing, and carefully affixes it to the child’s throat. It turns blue, blending in with her flesh.
(why does this child live? Because i say so, because I choose, because I WANT)
The girl nods. Anakin uses the hem of his cloak to wipe the blood away from her cheek. “There,” he says.
Anakin stands. Because I say so, he thinks at Padme. Because I say so, because I DECREE IT.
He looks over; the ghost is gone.
Beauty looks up at him, so small and so vulnerable; her little heart would slot neatly in his palms, leaving space for more. His fingers could form a cage around it, and he would feel it beat and then stop.
Except, of course, he won’t: because I say so, she will live.
It’s a strange thing: these independent choices; this sparing of lives. It’s the second time he’s done it in the last twenty-or-so hours. He used to tell himself that the Emperor carved out his feelings along with the majority of his flesh. He’s learning that this isn’t true.
“What’s your real name?” he says. “I know it is not Beauty.”
Below them, troopers slaughter the slavers. Anakin inhales the scent of the battle like a heady wine. Flesh, not justice. Or justice for all that broken flesh. Bought with the blaster. Bought with his choice, his decree.
Once, there was a vicious young man – arrogant and selfish and, at his heart, good – who believed that he could reshape the universe in his own image. Who believed that he could reform the Jedi Order. And he let himself be ordered, and mastered, by first one master and then another.
“I – my Mama called me Celestine,” says the girl. “Before. Before her father sold us.”
“Well,” says Anakin. He’s faced enemies of legend, riddles more complex than the mechanics of the universe and yet here he is, scrambling desperately through his memory to uncover instructions on how to deal with children. “Perhaps we should call you that.”
“If it pleases you – “
“If it pleases you,” Anakin snaps. The girl’s eyes widen in fear.
Teaching someone who has always been a slave that they are not a slave anymore is challenging to say the least.
No one had ever explained this to the Jedi Council, to Obi-Wan. Perhaps if they had, things would have been –
“If it pleases me,” says the girl. She rolls the words over in her mouth. The Force is alight with surges of celebration as the slaves are freed. A gaggle of Twi’lek women corner one of the few surviving slavers and tear him apart with their bare hands. The Stormtroopers watch, both admiring and frightened. “Celestine. Yes. Please call me Celestine. Uh – “
“General Vader,” says Anakin.
I am called this, he tells the ghosts, because it pleases me.
Padme walks by Anakin’s side as they walk through the corridors of the Executor.
“What now Ani? You can’t hide the fact that you’re in open rebellion against the Emperor after that. And you know as well as I do that it was a test. Send the slave to talk to a slaver and you’ll see where his loyalty lies. And kill her. Kill the universe until it is safer for our child – “
“You are not real,” says Anakin. He stops, and turns to face her. There’s an old Tatooine story about a man who rescued his wife from the underworld, but could never look her in the face again. After they had lived for many years, and he had fathered four children with her, he hadn’t been able to resist sneaking a look. Her face had been caved-in, maggot-eaten. The fable is meant to mean something along the lines of: keep your eyes time, sometimes it is better not to know. “You are not Padme.” Saying it pains him, but he must say it. “Padme would have stepped forwards to comfort the child. Padme would not have – “
Padme’s face is lovely, moon-bright, and she catches her lower lip between her teeth as she always used to do when she was trying to be coy. He would always stammer, blush. She always had that power over him. Until she didn’t.
“Would not have what, my darling? Shown you how you have hurt me?” Padme, this time, is whole and unharmed, her skin unmarked; but she snaps her fingers; and at once bruises start to spread over her bare shoulders and throat, blackening as they do so, like clouds covering the sun.
“Would not have stood aside while others suffered.”
“Perhaps I have changed. Perhaps death has changed me. Perhaps motherhood has. Fatherhood seems to have changed you quite dramatically. Do you prefer me like this, Ani?”
Her smile is cruel. Blood runs from the corner of her mouth.
“Am I a ghost the Force will show you, or am I your own fevered dreamings?”
“I’m willing to wager that you’re something I’ve invented to torture myself.”
She flutters her eyelashes.
“Almost certainly. You look like Padme and you speak like Yoda.”
A squadron of Stormtroopers turns the corner ahead of them, marching in perfect alignment.
“Am I real, am I not? How about this?”
She nibbles her lower lip – for a moment, she’s seductive. And then in a hard, predatory bite she takes a chunk out of her mouth. Blood trails down her chin. She smiles. “Am I real Ani, am I – “
The apparition vanishes; a series of overhead lights explode. The Stormtroopers take a clutch of steps back, but don’t retreat: they’re trained too well. Anakin uncurls his fist with tremendous effort.
“Sir – what do we do with the Twi’lek? Uh – we’re – there’s a bit of an issue.”
The issue is democracy.
In the hour or so since their liberation, the Twi’lek have organised themselves enough to vote for a representative. A tall, amber-skinned Twi’lek woman who has scavenged clothes to replace her slave garb: a long black dress, a sapphire splash of starsilk to cover her head-tails. She introduces herself as Traynah, and inclines her head in greeting.
“Lord – “
“General,” corrects Anakin. “Please. Will you sit?”
Once, the Executor’s meeting rooms were used to plan the destruction of planets. Now, General Anakin Vader sits down with Traynah Clearwater, and a Stormtrooper serves her kaf – they have no other beverage, and Anakin remembers how Padme would always ensure that her diplomats were well-fed and watered – and they discuss the price of freedom.
Traynah takes a dainty sip of her drink. There is blood rusting on her face. Anakin sneaks a look down and, yes, there we are, there is blood under her nails. Scrags of tissue as well. More than one of the slavers had been torn apart with bare hands.
She’s a woman who takes a tremendous deal of pride in her appearance, seeking out modest attire – not an easy thing to come by on a slave-ship – and expensive attire. And yet she left the blood. It isn’t because she forgot to wash the blood away. It’s because she wants to say, here is the freedom I won with my own two hands, and I am not afraid of you.
Obi Wan would have fallen head over heels for her.
“You see why I distrust you.”
“Of course. I do not have the best reputation. But I assure you that I am sincere.”
“You would let us take the ship. And leave. Just like that.”
She flourishes one hand.
“Yes, I would. It is your choice.”
“Hm. I have heard tales of your brutality, General Vader. And I have heard tales of your lies. But –”
She tails off. Anakin nudges at the edge of her mind with his – not attempting to intrude, just to get the scope of her. He is met with hot, purple intent; a durasteel-strong will.
Obi Wan would have loved her .
“But this is the first time that I have heard a tale of your mercy,” she concludes, cupping both hands her mug. “The girl.”
Traynah nods. Her thin lips lift at the corners. It isn’t a smile, but it is getting close.
“You remember her name.”
“Of course. I make a point to.”
“Did you always? You quashed the rebellion on Jericho. My husband died in your fury.”
“Many husbands have died because of me. Many daughters. Many sons.” Anakin shrugs. “Are we here to count the dead, my lady, or are we here to assess our situation as we find it?”
“We are here to continue forwards, General. To return to my point: the girl, the youngest among us, the most abused. You saved her. You gave her your cloak. She still has it.”
“She can keep it.”
“Have you children, General Vader?”
“What a strange question. Do I look like I could sire a child?”
“Stranger things have happened. I do not. I never wanted them. Nasty, smelly things. And yet I suddenly find myself mother to multitudes. Celestine, and the dozens like her – orphans, sold by their families – need guidance, and they turn to me. And here I am.”
“Here you are,” echoes General Vader. “And suddenly your responsibility isn’t to yourself, or your ideals, or some nebulous idea of duty. It’s to them. The living, warm creatures that are quite helpless without you.”
“Precisely. Once upon a time I would have spat in your face and told you to stick your offer up your arse. I’d have told you to kill me. I was young, full of fire. But here I am. I want them to live. It isn’t the destiny I thought I’d have – and I don’t trust you, but…”
“What choice do you have?”
“Oh, there’s always a choice. This is the most pleasant of a bad bunch.” She sighs, rolls her shoulders back, and sets her mug down. “I accept your offer. We will take the ship and return home. Though I have to ask – what, precisely, are you planning on doing? The Emperor won’t be terribly happy with you.”
Padme, her mouth painted red, her lip bitten-open. Smiling. Oh Ani –
Except she is not Padme. Padme would never look at him with such cruelty, or ignore a child in need, or –
(The worst of all worlds: if Padme is like this because of him –)
“I will deal with the Emperor.”
“I hope so. My species have a saying: we endure . We stay above wars. We do not side with Sepratists or Rebels, or Empire-builders.”
“And it has served you well, I see. How was Carah’s hospitality?”
“No need for sarcasm, General.”
Anakin smiles with what is left of his mouth. Traynah’s anger pulses sharply against his Force awareness – her anger, and her despair, and her frustration . It is like a pebble in a boot: only exposed when you step in just the right way. Padme was a politician, yes, but Anakin Skywalker knows what it is to want to do something – anything – and be bound by tradition. Traynah’s Force presence is a hot, shivering itch. She’s desperate .
“You parrot the motto of your species and yet in your youth you would have told me to eat space-dust and died willingly for your ideals. You wear blood on your hands and the clothes of a diplomat, you never wanted to be a mother and yet you take the role up willingly. You’ve got the heart of a warrior, Lady Clearwater. And you say you’re just going to fly meekly home.”
“Yes,” says Traynah. The Force curdles around her, singing, crooning, liar, liar, liar , precious liar .
“If it please you, my lady, I have a better idea.”
“And what would that be?”
Padme has blood on her mouth; she leans in close and whispers kill the universe to make our child safe . The Emperor’s call in his chest is getting harder and harder to resist. In the Dark Side, all things drown; in the Light Side, all things burn. Anakin Skywalker must bring balance. He is a martyr, a lamb, a weapon, a monster. A father. A killer of children.
Padme – not-Padme, he corrects, because it is not her, it cannot be her, it is his own fevered imaginings – kisses the side of his helmet and fades away, leaving behind the reek of blood. The Emperor’s call knots tighter around his heart. You will contact me, my Apprentice, mine, I tore you apart and built you anew –
Before him: a woman in black starsilk, her blue headscarf a jagged splash of colour, like a supernova. Traynah Clearwater is very small, all of a sudden., and it would be the easiest thing to slit her throat, ear to ear. She deserves it after all – is she not arrogant, and annoying, and would Obi Wan not adore her and that alone is reason enough to die, surely. Because you kill the boy to let the man be born; you kill the man to rise again; he was burned alive, swallowed whole, made anew .
Padme kisses his helmet; Obi Wan says his name; somewhere, some when , a boy called Anakin Skywalker cuts through younglings again and again, the image sticking and slipping like a bad holofilm. Lightsabre swinging forwards, backwards; the child’s face is stuck in an instant of profound terror and utter betrayal. Master Skywalker there are so many of them .
Anakin’s lungs knife with pain. His Master is calling. His Master.
And then all of a sudden, the jerking images – Master, Padme, children, death, starsilk, Traynah – freeze hard and white, and he does not see anything from the past; he sees Leia Organa, her teeth bared, her face framed by the hood of her robe. Lethal white, the Alderaan colour of battle. And her teeth are the bones of the desert, and her throat quivers with a snarl; Layah bit off a slaver’s hand to protect him; and she had not looked half as fierce as his daughter had done when she faced him for the first time.
Pretend at mercy if you like, but sparing me once does not mean you did not slaughter innocents, and once he confessed to her mother that he had butchered a tribe of Sand People (the woman! The children!) and she had cradled him close. If he told Leia that, she would tear out his heart. And Shmi, his mother; and the desert, his cruel father; and the Force, and –
Traynah looks concerned. Of course she does. He has been sitting motionless for the best part of five minutes. He shakes himself from his reverie – in his head Leia/Laya snarls and laughs in his face, I have a father and I don’t need another – and says, “I think that it is time to fight.”
It is. It is. His thoughts are a howling red waste; they are the cold white of battle; Padme by the beach smiles; and Leia with blood on her breath stares up at him, feral and unafraid, and breathes it is time.
Anakin knows that he does not have many moments of solitude left. What has been done cannot be undone, and it is the fate of the Sith to kill their Master, and the Force snarls around him, reeking of old blood and gunfire ash. Padme comes to mind, but he pushes her away. He dismisses his Stormtrooper guards, promising that he will be with them shortly, and seals himself in his room.
He thinks of Traynah, stepping into a role that she never wanted, for the sake of her children. And here he is. The Force works in mysterious ways.
Anakin closes his eyes, and reaches out with the Force. Child, he thinks, child of mine, Layah, Leia, where are you –
Nothing. He feels nothing, and sees nothing, and the more he focuses the deeper his anger grows, and then he –
In the Dark Side all things drown . In the Light Side all things burn. Only the sweetly naive think otherwise, be they kind or cruel.
He turns his thoughts away. Instead, he thinks of Sunny, the Stormtrooper with the scar crooked over his face. He feels the Force skip around him, shifting, opening . He cannot see the future, but the past, the past, especially the not-so distant past, the past that is still raw in Sunny’s mind –
They approach from the scruff of rocks to the north. Outside the house, a woman hangs up laundry. She’s dressed in grubby white, her brown hair fluttering around her back. Jumper lifts his blaster to snipe her – it’s a shame to kill a civilian but it’s necessary – but –
It all happens very quickly. The blaster jams. The girl wheels, fires off a round of shots. One strikes Sky in his knee; he collapses at once; but Jumper drags him away, diving behind shelter. He primes a grenade, gets ready to throw it; but Sunny snatches another look at the girl’s face, grabs the grenade from his brother and throws it far away. It explodes harmlessly, turning red sand to glass.
“Princess!” he barks, straining his throat to be heard over the whir of blasterfire. “Princess Leia! Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” he bellows at his unit, knocking Jumper’s gun from his hands.
“What are you doing – “
“Vader let her go, he won’t want us to kill her now!”
He lobs his blaster onto the sands, over the ridge he’s sheltering behind – sucks in a deep, steeling breath – and stands up.
The Princess isn’t alone; there’s movement from within the house; a shadow in the window; the glint of sun on a blaster.
“Don’t shoot,” he says.
“I’ve got a sniper on you,” says the Princess. “Owen?”
The nose of the gun edges into view, tucked into the corner of the house’s window.
“And another on your men – Beru?”
Without quite knowing why, only knowing – with some nameless certainty – that they are the right words to speak, Sunny says: “My brothers, Highness. Not my men. My brothers.”
The Princess’s forehead creases. “Whatever you call them,” she says, flustered for a moment and recovering. “You followed me!”
“Well. Yes. Of course. But here I am, surrendering. Don’t fire.”
“This is a trap!”
“Fucking strange trap,” says Jumper, following suit: discarding his blaster, removing his helmet, standing up. His face makes most people flinch: half of it is slumped, melted flesh. His left eye is cybernetic, darting and red. The Princess doesn’t even blink. “I hope you know what you’re doing boss.”
“I always do.”
“Yeah, and I’m the Emperor’s right bollock.”
“You look like it.”
The other members of the unit follow suit. Helmets off, guns discarded. Sky: the youngest, gold ringing his eyes, Force knows where he gets the make-up, but there you go. Crowface: wary, with a banthalick of bleached white hair. Flex, tattoos crawling up her right arm, splaying over her forehead. Broketooth: half his canine chipped away.
“How did you escape the tail?”
“They’re still following the ship I left with my men. I had them jettison me with the trash, in a life-support pod.”
“Clever. No signal to trace. Risky though – those things aren’t built to survive long in space, or survive a plunge into a planet.”
“I survived, didn’t I?”
“That you did,” says Sunny. “I think we’ve got off on the wrong foot.”
“I could have you shot.”
“You could, Highness. But – and I really hate to say this – if you kill one of my brothers we’ll burn the house to the ground, with your friends inside it. I really don’t want to. But I will. I’ll make you watch. But if you put your weapons down, and talk to us, I promise you – I promise you – that no harm will come to you.”
Anakin lets the vision shift and change, forming a second image: his daughter, her face somewhat blurred, her chin uptilted as she addresses Sunny.
“Why – why does Vader have such interest in me?” she says. “He – he said he knew my parents, he said that...he seemed to know me.”
“I’d tell you if I knew. Highness,” says Sunny.
Anakin comes back to himself hard, his heart creaking with exertion. Layah. Every slave family on Tattooine had a guard dog, sharp teeth bared. Even when the humans starved, the dogs were fed. Yes. This is the way of his home. Because the dogs protected – and more than that, they were dependent on the humans, and so the humans cared for them, and so were the better for it. The desert is endless hunger. And, in the face of that, humans are kind: defiantly, furiously kind,
He is going to have to do the unthinkable. The unbearable.
Decades after his wife established it, Anakin Skywalker is going to work with the Rebel Alliance.