Tatooine hadn’t changed.
The suns still blazed, and the heat still beat down, and the sand still got everywhere. That last, especially, was true. Vader could feel it grinding against his metal bones.
He didn’t feel the heat anymore, not within this climate controlled life support suit. And he didn’t feel the burning of the suns, either, or need to shield his eyes against the light or his skin against the biting wind. But he still felt the sand. That would never change.
He almost welcomed it.
“The cooperation of the Hutts is vital to securing the territories of the Outer Rim,” his Master had said, with that slow, mocking smile Vader had come to know all too well. In the before time, Vader had thought he reserved it for foolish bureaucrats and pandering politicians, but he knew better now.
He knew quite a lot of things now.
(He knew Padmé, dead because of him, dead because he lived. He knew what Master had done, knew the price for which he’d been bought. He knew his name now: Vader, his name because it was the name that Master gave him, and he must obey his Master. He knew that more than anything.)
“I am sending you to Tatooine, Lord Vader,” his Master had said. “Do not fail me.”
And Vader had bowed, and ground his teeth, and gone to Tatooine.
He hated his Master. Hated him more than he had ever hated anyone else, hated him with an ancient, suns-bright hatred that was far older than Palpatine himself. Hated him, and obeyed him. Vader knew his place.
So he’d stood there, before Jabba the Hutt’s throne, and looked at him and known how easy it would be, to simply squeeze, to listen as the breath left that quivering slug’s body. And instead he’d offered Jabba greetings from the Emperor, and the promise of greater wealth and prestige if he cooperated.
Vader knew his place.
He knew this place.
Mos Espa, too, was no different. Democracies and dictators came and went, but the slave quarters didn’t change. Nothing changed here.
Maybe that was why he’d come back here. Not for Watto, though the Toydarian’s wings were probably still twitching even as his body cooled. He thought he’d come for that, but it was done now and he was still here. He was –
“But Ekkreth said, ‘No, my Master. I need more time.’”
Vader froze. The voice was close by, warm and lilting and joltingly familiar, and before he’d even really decided to do so, he was moving toward it.
“And Depur was angry,” the storyteller continued, “but he was not so angry that he forgot how badly he wanted to know the secret of tzai, and so he said, ‘Well then, Ekkreth, I will give you one more day. But after that, if you have not learned the secret, it will mean your death.’”
Vader rounded a corner and there they were, seated in a rough circle under a shade awning in one of the larger courtyards of the slave quarters: a group of fourteen children, and the storyteller in the middle.
She was an old woman, wizened and dark, with milky eyes and a smile that was more gaps than teeth. She looked nothing like –
Well, she looked nothing like anyone he knew.
“But Ekkreth said, ‘My Master, I do not believe they will share the secret with me, or with anyone. But if you will give me a power generator to trade, just a small one, perhaps they may be persuaded to part with the information.’ And Depur agreed.”
Vader stood rooted. He didn’t know this woman. He’d thought, if only for a moment, that she was – But she was no one. He didn’t know her, and he didn’t know the children, and he didn’t really know this place.
But he knew the story.
He remembered his mother telling it many times, on crisp cold nights when he and Kitster sat looking up at the stars and dreaming of ships and pilots and Jedi and the impossible word that was free. It was Kitster’s favorite story.
It began, as so many stories did, with Ekkreth captured by Depur and made a slave. Vader remembered asking his mother once why there were so many stories about Ekkreth as a slave. She’d looked at him very seriously and said, “Oh no, Ani. They aren’t stories about Ekkreth the slave at all. They’re stories of how Ekkreth becomes free. Depur has a thousand cruelties, but Ekkreth has a hundred thousand tricks. No one can hold the Sky-walker forever.”
Vader pulled himself from the memory with a snarl. It was foolish to dwell on such things. He knew his place.
That was why his Master had sent him here, after all. To remind him. You came from the gutter, he told himself. And now you have touched the stars and walked the sky and found that they are no different.
“The next day,” said the storyteller, “Depur called Ekkreth before him and said, ‘Well, Ekkreth, have you learned the secret, or has the day of your death come at last?’ And Ekkreth bowed before Depur and said, ‘No, my Master. I need more time.’
“Then Depur was very angry, and he began to call his guards so that he might have Ekkreth killed on the spot. But Ekkreth said, ‘I have learned the first part of the secret, my Master. I believe, if you give me just one more day, and perhaps some useless thing to trade, some scrap metal maybe, the sort of junk slaves love – if you will give me that, I’m certain I can get the rest of the secret from them.’ And although Depur was very angry, his desire to know the great secret of tzai burned all the more, and he gave Ekkreth another day, and full access to the scrap yard.”
Vader stood rooted still, caught by the old woman’s voice and by a story he’d almost forgotten. But it came back to him now, like sand grating in his bones.
It was Ekkreth’s most elaborate trick. Each day, Depur threatened Ekkreth with death if they did not deliver the secret of tzai, and each day Ekkreth convinced Depur to give them something else to trade to the other slaves, and returned with one more element of the recipe. At last Ekkreth had traded so many seemingly useless and broken down old materials to the slaves that they were able to build themselves a transport, and they climbed aboard it and escaped, out into the wild desert and the secret places Ekkreth had prepared for them. And meanwhile…
The old woman was grinning a sly and secret grin as she finished the story. “Then Ekkreth went to Depur and said, ‘My Master, I have at last learned the full secret of tzai.’ And Depur was eager to know at last the only thing that his slaves had managed to keep from him, and he demanded that Ekkreth tell him at once.
“Then Ekkreth said, ‘Here is the secret of tzai, my Master: It is made with the bones of the desert and the breath of the wind. It is made of mothers’ words and grandmothers’ stories and blood spilled in sand. It is made with the flight of birds and the fire of stars and the trickery of Ekkreth.’ And then Ekkreth laughed. ‘Know this, Master,’ they said. ‘I have tricked you. By your own gifts have your slaves escaped to freedom, and you will not find them again, and you will never learn the secret of tzai.’
“Then Depur was filled with a great rage, and he leapt at Ekkreth to kill them with his own hands, but Ekkreth became a bird and flew away, laughing as they went, and Depur was left alone with no slaves and no secret either. And that is the tale of how Ekkreth tricked Depur and led the people to freedom, and that is why we hold the secret of tzai to this day.”
Vader should have turned and left. It was only a story, and a ridiculous one at that. No one could build a transport from scrap and a single power generator. Vader knew that well. When he was eight, he had tried. And when he’d failed, he’d told his mother and Kitster that this story was silly and he hated it. But Kitster had only insisted all the more that it was his favorite.
Vader was not eight any more, and he hadn’t been that boy for a very long time, but he still thought the story was silly. And he still hadn’t turned and left.
He snarled again at his own weakness and turned his back on the old woman. He did not have time for this. His Master would be –
His com beeped.
It was the internal com, hardwired into his life support suit, and his Master could reach him on it from anywhere in the galaxy.
Of course, Vader couldn’t answer from here. This was only an alert: his Master was commanding him to make contact. He would have to return to his shuttle to report.
Vader didn’t move.
“Well, young man,” came the old woman’s voice behind him. “Don’t just stand there. Come here.”
His Master had issued a command, and Vader must obey. This old woman was nothing, and he had no business here.
So he was surprised to find himself turning back.
The old woman was alone in the courtyard now, staring up at him with her sightless eyes. “Did you like the story, then?” she asked.
“I have heard it before,” said Vader.
The old woman scoffed. “Have you? Wouldn’t think it. What’s your name, boy?”
He was so startled that he answered her. “Vader,” he said, because he was – that was the name that Master had given him.
But the woman spat on the ground, narrowly missing his boots. “Pah,” she said. “I didn’t ask what your Depur calls you, boy. I asked your name.”
Vader stilled. The universe spun on around him, and the desert whispered and sang, and the sand ground against his bones, and he stood and knew himself.
His Master had sent him here to remind him of his place. And he had. His place, this place –
“Skywalker,” he whispered, but the vocoder caught his word and it emerged into the world loud and certain and unalterable.
“Skywalker,” the old woman said, her milky eyes looking him up and down almost as though she really could see him. She smiled, thick gums and five teeth and all mischief. “That’s better. Ekkreth’s child, you are. Got the spark in you, though it’s dim now.” She tilted her head sharply and blinked up at him. “What’s he done to you, child? Your Depur?”
Vader stood and stared at her, and all the while, the com in his suit went on beeping its shrill demands.
Padmé’s dead, he thought. The child is dead. Dead because I’m alive. I know what Master did.
“Hmm,” the old woman said. “Give me your hand, boy.”
And he did, because this was Tatooine, and he was here, and he knew his place. She was the storyteller, the Grandmother of the Quarters. She kept the wisdom of the Ancient Mothers. This was a knowledge born in his bones, older than Palpatine, older than the Jedi, older than the oldest lessons of obedience and terror.
The old woman took his right hand and pressed it between her two. If she was surprised by his glove, or the feel of the cybernetic beneath, she didn’t show it.
“Do you know why Ekkreth the Sky-walker wears so many shapes?” she asked.
He said nothing.
“Quiet one, aren’t you?” she cackled, squeezing his hand so tightly he thought it would have hurt, had it still been flesh.
“Ekkreth has as many shapes as they have stories,” the old woman said. “With every new story, Ekkreth makes themself anew, and that is why Depur can never hold them.” She smiled. “And that is why we say that these stories can save your life.”
It was the proper ending to any telling. Vader knew that. His mother had always said it with a sense of solemn ritual. I tell you this story to save your life. And he had always replied, “I’ll remember, Mom.”
“I remember,” he said now, and the memory burned in him.
“Good.” The old woman patted his hand once and released him. “Then you know what you need to do, I expect.”
His mother was dead. Padmé was dead. Their child was dead. The Jedi Order was dead. He’d never been a very good Jedi, and all of Palpatine’s grand promises of Sith knowledge and training had vanished with Padmé and the democracy she’d loved.
Anakin knew his place. He’d forgotten, but his Master had reminded him. He knew how to be a slave.
The old woman nodded, seemingly to herself, and Anakin turned from her without a word and swept away. He didn’t look back.
By the time Vader made contact with his Master, his internal com had been beeping for nearly four hours.
The Emperor’s face appeared, filling all the space in the shuttle’s small communications bay and looming above Vader where he knelt on the floor, head bowed to his knees. He could feel his Master’s displeasure like a great crushing wave pouring over him, enough to drown.
“Lord Vader,” Emperor Palpatine snapped. “I trust that you have an explanation for your tardiness. And that your mission has been successful.”
Vader didn’t look up. He didn’t rise. He hadn’t been given permission.
He breathed deep and let the anger come. Let it be a shield. Let it fill him and spill out, permeating the Force. He cast his anger about him like a cloak. Like a mask. He made himself anew.
“No, my Master,” said Ekkreth. “I need more time.”