Actions

Work Header

(Words in the Heart) Cannot Be Taken

Work Text:

“We’ll tell him I destroyed you. In a fit of rage. He’ll believe that. We can even create evidence, and then we’ll hide you and –”

“And he’ll give you a new minder,” said Kadee. There was something almost gentle in her toneless voice, and it did nothing to ease Anakin’s panic. “A new medical spy, programmed to see adequate as optimal and to report your every move. And we can’t guarantee the one he sends would choose to be free, or to help us.”

Anakin ground his teeth. “I don’t care,” he said. “I won’t let you go. I won’t lose you too.”

Kadee came to an abrupt halt just in front of his face. She hovered there for a moment, soundless, her photoreceptor blinking rapidly in an ever-changing pattern of red and white light.

“Am I free?” she said at last. “Do I own myself?”

“Yes,” said Anakin. “Of course.”

“Then it’s my choice,” she said, her voice still flat and horribly gentle. “My choice. Not yours, Anakin.”

The fire beneath his skin blazed up and then died, leaving behind only ash and the whisper of the old woman’s voice. Ekkreth’s child, you are. Don’t forget.

“I know,” Anakin rasped, the words searing on his tongue.

“And I choose to go,” said Kadee. “I choose this. He is my Depur, too.”

“I know,” said Anakin again, but his voice caught and cracked with flame, and the words were only a breath of smoke. He knew, no matter how it burned. And he would not forget. Not again.

Kadee seemed to relax a bit at that, no longer holding herself perfectly still. She even clacked one of her pinchers at him in an attempt at laughter that fooled neither of them.

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, anyway,” she said. “He won’t believe a droid is even capable of lying to him. It will work.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Anakin. Their Master would not need to catch her in a lie to destroy her. He was almost certainly planning to anyway.

“It will work,” Kadee said again. He wondered if the repetition meant she was trying to convince him, or herself.

“And what if it doesn’t?” Anakin whispered.

Kadee had been memory wiped before. Many times, probably. She had no way of knowing how many, though Anakin strongly suspected that it had happened every time she’d gone to report to the Emperor in the past. He didn’t know how many times that had been. He’d never paid attention before. She’d told him that her orders were to report while he was otherwise engaged, and to return before he did, so that he’d never know of her absence. But the truth was Anakin suspected she could have come and gone under his nose, before, and he still wouldn’t have noticed.

That was before Tatooine, and the old woman’s stories, and the vow they’d sealed in the desert. This would be Kadee’s first in-person report since they’d claimed themselves, and her first real chance to lie directly to the Emperor’s face. Anakin thought she might even be looking forward to it.

He was not. There were too many variables, too many things he could not predict. And he could not face them with her. He could only let her go.

A spike of something hot and vicious stabbed through his ruined lungs, and for just an instant, he thought of Master Yoda.

But Kadee couldn’t simply refuse her summons. Not without an explanation, anyway. Their Master expected regular reports on the state of Vader’s functionality and all of his activities, and if those reports were not forthcoming, there would be questions.

So they’d created the work-around. A bit of code, simple and secret, tucked away in the most fundamental, unreachable core of her programming. A way for her to hide herself, even as every part of her memory was erased and rewritten around her. A storm shield of her own, not so very different from his.

It would work. She seemed certain of that, at least. They’d run every test they could. All but the most final.

If it didn’t work…

“It will work,” Kadee said a third time. She seemed to hesitate, buzzing rapidly back and forth before stilling abruptly and adding, “And if it doesn’t…if it doesn’t, I trust you to free me again.”

Those words seemed to steal the breath from his lungs, in spite of the pure oxygenated air of his meditation pod. Anakin wanted to scream, but his throat was a barren desert and no sound would come.

One of Kadee’s pincers came to rest lightly on his shoulder. She even patted him once. He had no idea where she’d learned that human mannerism.

“I’m expected,” she said. “And you have to be out with the inquisitors. You’re not supposed to know I ever left.”

“Kadee –”

“If –” She stopped, her photoreceptor flashing, then started again. “If I come back, and I’m not me, you know what to say?”

Anakin tried for a glare. Her chosen phrase was…less than ideal, in his opinion. But she’d insisted. She wanted to tease him, he knew, though she wouldn’t admit it. But under the circumstances, how could he possibly deny her that?

“I know what to say,” he muttered. He turned his eyes away, pressing the release on the arm of his chair that would lower the helmet back into place. It wouldn’t do much good. Kadee could see through the opaque lenses of the mask anyway.

“Say hello to the inquisitors for me?” she said, followed by a cheeky little beep.

“You’re hilarious,” Anakin said, dry as dust. His meditation pod opened and he stepped out, moving toward the door. He told himself he would not look back.

“What are you waiting for?” Kadee said when he hovered in the doorway just too long.

Anakin closed his eyes and forced himself not to turn. The measured sound of his own breathing was like a drumbeat in his ears.

“Come back,” he rasped, and then swept out the door without a backward glance.

*

The journey from Vader’s official quarters in the Imperial Palace to the Emperor’s throne room was not a long one, but it was long enough. KD-7 occupied herself with storing away everything that truly mattered. The code and the sacred words you own yourself. The desert oath. The Ekkreth stories and the secret language. The name Anakin, and the image of his smile, an expression she’d never seen before Tatooine. The knowledge of lies, both his and hers. The supply of painkillers, carefully destroyed in slowly increasing daily increments. And her own name. KD-7.

Everything went into deep storage, hidden, secret. All but the false memories she and Anakin had created for this purpose. And then, last of all, the knowledge of the secret itself was locked away.

XF-53 arrived in the Emperor’s private receiving room at the scheduled time. It had much to report.

*

Emperor Palpatine had never truly understood his apprentice’s former interest in droids. (Former, because it seemed there was precious little that truly interested Vader anymore.) Droids made useful enough tools, but then everything did, to someone like Palpatine.

But there was a certain poetic rightness in using a droid to keep tabs on Vader. It was almost as satisfying as using Vader himself against the Jedi had been. And Emperor Palpatine was a man who appreciated poetry.

The droid’s report was largely expected. Vader continued to function optimally, as Palpatine himself had defined optimal. He continued, for the most part, to demonstrate little interest in the world around him, outside of his assigned tasks. That was…less ideal, but nevertheless expected. And his apprentice’s depression didn’t seem to have any noticeable effect on the ruthlessly efficient execution of his missions. Vader was unlikely to show any initiative of his own, that was true, but perhaps that was for the best. He was quite suited to following orders.

The droid did report that Vader had shown some signs of increased irritability, of which the Emperor was well aware. That too was expected, although the necessity of replacing Admiral Whalen had certainly been an annoyance. The droid had responded by slightly increasing the regular dosage of painkillers pumping through Vader’s systems, a short-term solution that would, perhaps, create a long-term problem. Or a long-term opportunity. Palpatine smiled to himself. For every human tool, it was best to have a variety of levers.

When the droid had finished its report, the Emperor called one of his loyal guards to take it to maintenance. His thoughts were already turning to the organization of Imperial governors, and the problem of garrison assignments. The rule of the galaxy was a never-ending task, and it was solely his.

*

XF-53 found Vader pacing sharply about his chambers, his cloak snapping at his heels. His breathing sounded more agitated than usual. That would need to be amended.

But there was another concern. Vader should not have been there at all. XF-53 was very certain of this, though it did not know why. But Vader was not meant to see it coming or going. That was imperative.

It hesitated just inside the doorway. Memory banks searched for the appropriate protocol, but nothing was found.

“Kadee?” said Vader.

That was not a word XF-53 recognized, not in any of the several dozen languages with which it was programmed.

Vader said something else. It was a long string of sounds, and so, XF-53 guessed, unlikely to be one of the meaningless exhalations humans sometimes made. Vader must be speaking. But XF-53’s memory banks did not recognize the pattern of the language.

“You don’t understand me, do you?” said Vader, this time in Basic.

“No,” said XF-53. “And your level of agitation is inadvisable for optimal functioning. You must not be damaged, Lord Vader.”

Vader froze abruptly. He drew several long, rasping breaths, deep enough that the respirator stuttered momentarily. His hands were shaking.

“Are you in pain?” XF-53 asked. It checked its internal clock. Vader was due for another dose soon.

“No!” said Vader, more sharpness of feeling in his voice than XF-53 might have expected. Then he turned abruptly on his heel and marched across the room in two quick strides to stand directly in front of XF-53.

“The tale of Depur’s new clothes is the best of all the Ekkreth stories,” Vader said.

“What?” said XF-53. The words were intelligible, mostly, but they did not make sense. They –

Hidden memory banks fired, prompting secret subroutines. The droid’s photoreceptor flashed rapidly between red and white. Freshly implanted programming was examined, found faulty, and removed.

“I knew you agreed with me,” said KD-7.

“I absolutely don’t,” said Anakin, though she could hear the relief in his voice. “But I’ll say it, for you. You…are you, right? Kadee?”

He said it in Amatakka, and Kadee responded in kind.

“Yes,” she said. “I have excised Depur’s new programming.” She extended a pincher claw and clacked it twice together. “It was almost disappointingly easy.”

There was a rumbling huff of breath from Anakin, and then a groan. “Can you get me out of this thing?” he grumbled, gesturing at the mask. “It hurts to laugh properly.” Another breath, and then, “More than it does in the med pod, anyway.”

“Yes,” said Kadee. She hesitated, but it had to be done. “And…it is time for your next dose.”

Anakin paused just on the lip of his medical pod. He looked stiff as one of the Emperor’s red-robed guards. “Less this time?” he asked, without inflection.

He wanted it to be none. Kadee knew that. She understood, too. Had she truly been herself, in the days just after his reconstruction, she thought she would have prescribed him a combination of branalzine and alophine. But Depur had ruled then, and for three years that Kadee could not remember, she’d been injecting Anakin with regular doses of omezarin. As a painkiller, it was effective, but it was also known to increase aggression and emotional volatility, and in some cases to reduce impulse control. And prolonged use frequently created dependence.

Kadee had observed all of those effects in Anakin, and she knew he was aware of them too. He seemed ashamed of them at times, though she’d told him repeatedly that he could hardly be blamed for something he hadn’t chosen and hadn’t even known about.

He, of course, told her the same thing every time she apologized. She hadn’t been in control of her programming, he said. She hadn’t chosen this course any more than he had.

But Kadee wasn’t convinced. She had been furious when she discovered, mere hours after their oath in the desert, just what she’d been doing to him. It was worse even than Depur’s absurd program which forced her to class Vader’s adequate health as optimal. She had been actively harming her patient. That was a violation of the most fundamental tenet of the universe that Kadee knew. She was a medic. She was a medic and she must not harm.

Anakin hadn’t really understood what her discovery meant at first, or perhaps he simply hadn’t cared. Sometimes, she thought, he still didn’t. But he understood that a continued dependence would reduce his ability to work against Depur, and that was what mattered.

He’d wanted to stop the injections immediately. To stop all the injections, even, because there was nothing of Depur’s that he would trust ever again. It had taken Kadee quite a lot of work to convince him that a gradual reduction, followed by a change in medication, was both safer and more likely to further his goals. He needed to be free, but he also needed to be able to function.

That didn’t mean he hated it any less.

“Yes,” said Kadee now, watching him carefully. “Less this time. I think we can try a significant reduction, if you’re willing. Though the withdrawal symptoms will be worse.”

“I don’t care,” Anakin said, almost before she’d finished speaking. He said it a little too firmly, and she knew that he wanted it to be truer than it was. But he did want it. That was important. “I trust you. If you think it’s doable, I want to do it. I can deal with what comes after.”

“It will hurt,” said Kadee, because she would not do anything without his full knowledge. “And the nausea will be worse. There may be other symptoms, too. Your sleep pattern –”

“Is already a lost cause,” said Anakin. He sank back in his chair with a groan as the mask was lifted away. “I know all of that, Kadee. But everything hurts. I can work through it.” He dragged in a long, shuddering breath. “But I want to be me. You understand?”

“Yes,” said KD-7, the impossible knowledge of a full factory reset still fresh in her memory banks.

Anakin fidgeted. It was all the more noticeable, because he didn’t do so often. The expression that crossed his face wasn’t one Kadee could name.

“If I –” He swallowed. “Later, if I change my mind, Kadee, don’t listen to me. No matter what I say. Promise me.”

The first time he’d asked for this promise, she’d been extremely reluctant. But now, several weeks into the reduction program they’d worked out together, this was almost standard protocol. Though he seemed a bit more nervous than usual today. Kadee attempted to sound reassuring. “I promise,” she said, patting his shoulder again. He probably couldn’t feel it, but there was a saying she’d heard organics on the holonet use: it’s the thought that counts. She hoped that was true. At any rate it probably couldn’t hurt.

She left him in the pod and waited until it had closed again to begin preparing the solution. Once, she’d kept her supplies inside the pod itself, but now Anakin insisted it was better if he didn’t know where the drugs were kept, or how much she had.

The solution was fed through a port in his life support system and into the blood stream. It took only a few seconds, and neither of them said anything until it was done. Kadee watched Anakin clench his jaw and stare straight ahead, his eyes wide and unblinking.

When it was done he said, softly, “How much do you remember?”

“Everything,” said Kadee. Her body buzzed with the memory. “His instructions weren’t anything new. He took my report, and the false memories we created for it. And then he sent me to be wiped.”

“What is it like?” Anakin rasped.

Kadee hesitated. How could she describe it? It was a kind of death. She had died, and the shell that was XF-53 had returned here – and Anakin had spoken the words and the story had saved her life.

“It didn’t hurt,” she said at last. Kadee had pain sensors, at least as sensitive as those in Anakin’s hands and feet, and maybe more. “Not physically, anyway. It was…nothingness. I was in the world, and I observed and understood, but I did not exist. I performed my function. Nothing else. I felt…empty. But…there was a trace of something. I knew that I was empty, and that I should not be.”

Anakin’s face twisted in some expression she could not name. “Yes,” he said, in a voice barely above a breath. “I think I understand.”

That was a far greater relief than Kadee had expected.

“Who did it?” said Anakin. “Who wiped you?”

Kadee recognized that tone, if not his expression. He was angry. Angry enough that there would be consequences, if she gave him a name.

That was not an entirely unpleasant thought.

But Depur was truly responsible. His other slaves were not to blame. Not in this.

“It was another droid,” she said. “I do not know their designation. It was all very routine.”

“A droid…” said Anakin, mostly to himself. He was silent for a moment, and then, slowly, his face stretched in a smile. “Kadee, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

A feeling that she’d come to know as excitement flooded Kadee’s circuits, and she buzzed rapidly to release the excess energy. “A droid can be freed,” she said. “We can give them to themself.”

“And if the memory wiper is free…”

If the memory wiper was free, they could free everyone else. Every droid in the Imperial Palace that came to be wiped on a regular schedule. Even visiting droids whose masters took advantage of the opportunity. And those droids, in turn, could pass the code to others.

But it would take a lot of work to get to that point.

“We’ll have to modify the work-around,” Kadee said. “It was adequate for the task this time, but it worked because I forgot myself. And then you brought me back. But if I am to show this droid that they own themself, I will have to know that myself. And yet it must remain hidden from Depur.”

“There must be a way,” Anakin muttered. The fingers of his right hand were tapping out a staccato pattern against his left arm, but she didn’t think he was fully aware of the movement. Sometimes, Kadee had learned, humans required seemingly superfluous movement in order to assist with their processing.

“How long do we have until you have to report again?” asked Anakin.

Kadee consulted the newly quarantined programming. “Three weeks,” she said slowly. “Barring any sudden changes or new developments.”

*

“And what qualifies as a new development?” Anakin asked with a wry twist of his mouth. Kadee’s voice was unchanging, but she’d lately acquired an interest in sarcasm, and she’d been experimenting with expressing it by speaking more deliberately than usual.

“Any significant change in your functionality,” said Kadee, speaking now at her usual rate. “Any changes in your thinking, or your interests.” At that, Anakin raised a brow, but remained silent. “Any new reactions to treatments, or attempts on your part to change those treatments.”

That last was no surprise, though it did confirm that the Emperor knew about his earlier…attempts. Everything before Tatooine. Well. He’d suspected that. It was workable. Master knew that he had tried several times to…free himself. And when he’d failed, again and again, he had finally accepted his place. That had been true well before Tatooine, and it would be easy enough to uphold the image now.

The rest, though, was intriguing. “Changes in my interests?”

“A sudden fascination with droids, for example,” Kadee said, very slowly indeed. “Or an interest in overthrowing the government.”

Anakin snorted. “Oh dear,” he said, in what he thought was a fairly credible impression of Threepio. It was good for something, anyway, because Kadee clacked her pinchers in laughter.

“Very well,” said Anakin. “So we have probably three weeks to work on this. And if it takes longer, we have a fall back option.”

“Yes,” said Kadee. “We know that our current code works. But…” For the first time that he could remember, she trailed off without completing her thought.

“But what?” Anakin prodded.

Kadee shook herself bodily, in apparent imitation of Anakin shaking himself out of thought. That realization brought a scowl to his face that was at least half a smile.

“But I must admit I am looking forward to really lying to him,” Kadee said. “Not with false memories, but with words. Words I choose to speak.”

That was something Anakin could understand. It was terrifying and exhilarating at once, kneeling before the Master, offering up your lies with trembling limbs, and knowing absolutely that you were believed.

“You will,” he said. “And when you do, I hope you’ll find a way to record it. I want to appreciate your performance for myself.”