“Even the droids don't like coming down here.”
It was hard to tell if this was meant as a warning, a joke or an attempt at conversation. The guard mumbled her words, speaking more to herself than to anyone else. She sounded embarrassed to be breaking the silence that pervaded the corridor and, as far as Harvan could tell, the rest of the ship as well.
He made a non-committal noise and they walked on, their footsteps resounding through the empty hallway. Harvan cast a surreptitious sideways glance at his companion, noting the woman's sunken eyes and sallow complexion. Clearly not someone who had been getting much sleep recently and, really, who could blame her? Possibly herself: her uniform marked her out as a combat veteran and the scars criss-crossing her cheek and the hard lines of her face suggested she had been on the front line. Not the kind of soldier who liked showing fear over something as trivial as guard duty.
Harvan doubted there was a soul in known space who would have thought less of her for it, given the circumstances.
They reached a junction, the corridor branching either side of a single door. The guard stopped and visibly braced herself. “We're under orders not to go any further,” she said apologetically, “We'll monitor you but you're gonna be on your own.”
“I know, sergeant. General Madine explained when he briefed me.”
“Right.” She looked at Harvan for a moment, weighing him up. “They said you volunteered for this. That true?”
Her face twisted. “Why?”
Harvan shrugged. “Someone needed to.”
Either this was the answer the guard was looking for or the proof she needed to declare Harvan completely insane. Whichever was the case, she lifted the control disc from her belt and triggered the door release. It opened with a smooth, strangely understated hiss.
Feeling the guard's eyes boring into his back, Harvan straightened his jacket and stepped inside. The door immediately slammed shut again, leaving him standing in an overly-lit antechamber. After a few seconds, the inner door unlocked and slid aside. After a few more seconds, Harvan summoned the courage to go through.
The room was dark and almost completely empty. Though hardly a cell, it was entirely devoid of the normal comforts of a living space. There was no trace of decoration and the furniture was minimal and functional. Equally however, the surveillance equipment was artfully concealed from view. Without the overbearing security of a normal prison compartment, the sparseness seemed less oppressive: instead, it created the illusion of neutral ground.
Red lights flickered in the gloom, fluttering patterns that did not quite keep time with the heavy rasping echoing around the room. Harvan focused on them as his eyes adjusted, slowly picking out the details around them. The chamber's single occupant sat rigid in the middle of the floor, absurdly huge in the one small chair. The cloak was gone and that should have made the figure seem less imposing, less enormous. Instead, it just stripped the niceties of civilisation and laid bare the armour's stark power, the size and strength that remained even in repose. There was damage, true. The chest plate was streaked and scoured with burn marks and there were gashes in the support suit, a few of which had gone deep enough to require patching. The right hand was unadorned robotics, with no glove or synthiskin to cover it, a crude temporary replacement in place only to ease the pain the damage had caused. Yet all that paled into insignificance because the helmet, the mask, that perpetual death's head stare remained, unaltered, its power undimmed.
Slowly, the head rose and Harvan's mouth went dry. Darth Vader was looking straight at him and electric terror swept through him, all his preparation and premeditation evaporating. He was alone and helpless, pinned in the path of a nightmare. A word, a gesture and he would be snuffed out. That was the promise of that mask. The marching of Stormtrooper boots, the scream of TIE fighters, the pure horror of a dark lord's powers.
He braced himself against the wave of cold dread that would follow that first glance, the suffocating blanket of hate and contempt that was as much Vader's signature as a lightsaber slashed corpse or a crushed throat. Harvan had known seasoned warriors reduced to quivering wrecks by it and warring governments who it had frightened into peace. No one is safe, it whispered, no one escapes. All will fall and all will be lost.
But it did not come. There was only the mask and the memory of fear and the heavy, rattling breath.
Silence. Vader did not speak or react or make any move to acknowledge the visitor. And it gradually dawned on Harvan that this was a man – and it was a man because most monsters were – this was a man who had never had to ask why someone came into his presence. They were there because he bid it. Or they justified themselves without being asked. Quickly.
Harvan cleared his throat, wishing it felt less raw, wishing that his skin felt less clammy. “My name is Harvan Sahtou,” he began, because no greeting would have been appropriate, “I am here to take your statement.”
For one, very long moment, Vader continued to say nothing. Then, in a voice like an empty grave, he repeated, “Statement?”
It was barely a question. There was no interest or curiosity in the word, not even a real sign of a lack of understanding. That would have been weakness and the dark lord tolerated no weakness in action or speech.
“Y-yes. The council would like a statement of your actions in the service of the Empire. In your own words. From the beginning to the Emperor's death. As much detail as you can remember.” Vader's silence was a black hole, sucking the explanations from him without effort. “If possible, they would like to know the context for the actions you undertook and the way you went about performing your duties. I . . . I am here to transcribe the statement and . . . prompt you if necessary. They . . . would like you to know that this is considered a key part of the . . . discussions concerning your . . . ah . . . future. Here. In this fleet, with the Alliance I mean. It would – be extremely helpful to us . . .”
He trailed off. Still, Vader stared at him. All at once, he was struck by how the mask so absolutely concealed the face. For all he knew, Vader had his eyes closed or was looking at him quizzically. That the shell was locked into a permanent glower did not actually mean the man inside was.
The word vibrated though Harvan. He felt it tremble up from his boots to the nape of his neck. “We . . . they have no account of your actions from your . . . perspective. They need to know why you did . . . everything. It would be helpful if they did.”
“To judge my guilt.”
Vader stirred, minutely in his chair. A foot, slightly forward. Shoulders dropping a fraction. Was it resignation? Acceptance? Contempt? Impossible to tell.
“You are not on trial,” Harvan said carefully, “I am not here to prosecute or defend you. I . . . am a recorder. We would like to give you the chance to . . . t-to explain. To put your . . . side on record. You are under no compulsion to do this but we would ask you to at least consider it in the interests of . . .” Once more, he trailed off, tripped up by the absurdity of what he was saying. How could they have compelled Vader if they had wanted? The Alliance asking the dark lord to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? It sounded ridiculous. It was ridiculous.
But it had to be done. Someone had to ask.
Again, the empty stare bored into him. Again, he tried to imagine the expression behind the mask.
The agreement came so abruptly, Harvan nearly sagged with relief, catching himself just in time. “Th-thank you.” He looked around, partly to find another chair, mostly to give him something to do that was not acting like a floppit caught in headlights. Vader remained as he was, still and impassive.
Unfolding a chair from storage by the wall and dragging it over to face Vader's, Harvan took out his holo recorder and placed it on the floor between them. His hands shook slightly as he pulled out his datapad as well, the stylus clattering against the casing. The sound of Vader's respirator ate into his skull. It was hard to concentrate on anything else. He tried three times to find the right point on the first page of his notes, all the while painfully aware who he was keeping waiting.
“Well . . .” Harvan forced himself to look up again. “We should start at the beginning.”
“And what would you consider the beginning to be, Mister Sahtou?” There was the faintest trace of something in the synthesised voice, some emotion ringing in that hollow grave at last.
Harvan's mouth worked soundlessly, his mind seizing up for an instant. Reflexively, he glanced down at his datapad. “Well,” he repeated, giving himself the time he needed to focus on the notes, “The circumstances of your joining the Empire. Joining with Emperor Palpatine, rather. How . . . and why you . . . sided with him.”
Vader's head tilted slightly. “It was necessary.”
“Err . . . pardon?”
“The Empire. It was necessary. The Republic, the Jedi, they were weak. The Empire brought strength and order. Becoming the Emperor's student gave me the power to enforce that order.”
“And your first mission in his service?” Harvan asked when it was clear Vader would not elaborate unprompted. “We have little information on the period immediately prior to Palpatine's ascension but we do know you were involved in the . . . Jedi . . . purge . . .”
“Yes. I led the attack on the Jedi Temple. You wish to know the details?”
Harvan did not trust himself to answer. He was afraid he would be honest. So he just nodded.
Vader studied him impassively and then began to speak.