Lorth Needa told himself very firmly that he was not trembling. It didn’t do much good.
A group of junior officers passed him on the other side of the hallway. Several of them gave him furtive, pitying looks. One of them even nodded, very much in the manner of a man who was sorry, but not so sorry that he would risk trying to help.
Needa turned away from them to face the door. He squared his shoulders. He took a deep breath. He told himself that it was not his last.
He stepped forward and the door opened.
Darth Vader was waiting there on the other side.
Needa swallowed. Vader wasn’t looking at him; his back was to the door and he was gazing out the viewport into space, his hands clasped loosely behind him. The sound of his breathing filled the small conference room.
There were any number of rumors about that breathing. Needa was not a man who indulged in gossip, but in his position it sometimes payed to listen all the same. Most of it was spurious, but very occasionally he’d learned some shockingly useful information by listening in the mess.
There was very little consensus about Vader in the rumor mill, beyond the very obvious fact that he was completely terrifying. As far as Needa could make out, the troops were almost evenly divided on the question of whether he was a biological or a droid under all that armor. But Needa himself was relatively certain about that, at least.
Droids didn’t get angry. That was a very human quality.
It was not a comforting thought.
Needa stepped forward, and the door closed behind him. No escape now. His mouth felt suddenly thick and parched. He should have announced himself, acknowledged Lord Vader’s presence, something, but he couldn’t seem to make himself speak.
“You know why he breathes like that, right?” he’d overheard Lieutenant Jeffers whispering in the mess just last week. “It’s to get you thinking about it. Breathing. So it’s all you can think about…until you can’t.”
Needa tried to swallow and found his throat too dry. He tried not to think about breathing. He wasn’t successful.
“Captain Needa,” Vader rumbled. He didn’t turn from the viewport.
“Yes, Milord,” Needa croaked.
“You have been careless, Captain,” Vader said dispassionately. He still seemed more interested in the view than in Needa.
Oh gods, thought Needa. I’m going to die. I’m going to die, and Anwen’s turning five in a week and I’ll never see her again.
Vader turned only slightly away from the viewport. He raised his right hand. Needa could already feel his breath becoming short. He was going to die. Vader was –
He was –
He was placing something small and metallic on the surface of the conference table.
Needa blinked. He breathed. He was surprised to find it easy.
“Do you know what this is, Captain?” Vader asked.
Needa blinked again. He felt dizzy. The question made no sense. Shouldn’t he be dead by now?
Desperately, he focused on the table.
The thing resting there seemed to be a simple circle of dark metal. Periodically, a small light in the top of the casing blinked red. He’d never seen such a thing before. But Vader appeared to be waiting with dreadful patience for his answer, so Needa blurted, “Is it…some kind of scrambler, Milord?”
“Very good,” said Vader dryly. “Had you been so astute before, you might have saved us both some trouble.”
Needa gulped. He tried to tell himself he had no idea what Vader was talking about. But he doubted it would do any good. All the whispers said that Vader could take things directly from your mind. That he would know your inmost thoughts and fears, and how to exploit them.
Needa’s eyes darted around the room. There was the scrambler on the table. There were the usual security cams, but he could see they’d all been turned off. A moment’s attention to the quality of noise (to the harsh rasp of Vader’s breathing) told him the sound dampeners had been engaged.
His heart thudded against his ribs. It wasn’t terribly unusual for Vader to kill his officers for failure, but Needa knew he hadn’t made any notable oversights recently, and Vader was hardly known for allowing his victims a private death, in any case. No, this was not to be an execution. Not yet.
It had all the marks of an interrogation. Oh gods.
Vader let out a huff of air that sounded almost like a sigh. “At ease, Captain,” he said.
There was something different about his voice. Something strange. Needa’s body responded automatically to the command while his mind raced at lightspeed down half a dozen different routes at once. He couldn’t think about codes, or channels, or plans. He couldn’t think about anything important. Vader would drag it from his mind. He tried to remember the exercises they’d taught him, the ways of resisting, of holding information secure. He couldn’t let anything through. He couldn’t let Vader see.
He was going to die. Anwen’s birthday was in a week. He’d forgotten to com Brenay last night. He would never find out if Anwen liked her birthday present. He was going to die. Vader was speaking to him almost gently. He was going to –
“Several encoded transmissions were detected from your ship, Captain,” Vader said. “Encoded in known Rebel frequencies. I received the report this morning.”
Needa froze. He could think of nothing to say. Vader had accused him of nothing yet, and he still didn’t know how much the man knew or guessed. Anything he said was as likely to incriminate him as to defuse the situation.
Vader released a breath that was definitely a sigh this time. He sounded resigned, maybe even amused, as he said, “You’ve put me in a very awkward position, Captain.”
It was such a bizarre thing to say that Needa actually dared to ask, “Milord?”
“I could have used you in your current posting,” Vader said. “I had even thought you might do well as an admiral. But now it seems I’ll have to kill you instead.”
He said it almost off-handedly, as if Needa’s death was only a minor inconvenience. But that in itself made no sense. Vader didn’t talk this way. It was entirely out of character. There was more inflection in his voice than Needa had ever heard before; if he’d been anyone else, and if Needa had been less terrified, he might have thought that Vader was making a joke.
But he was more than terrified, and there was far more at stake than Needa’s one life.
“We are coming up on the Hoth system,” Vader said abruptly, all trace of humor suddenly gone from his voice. Needa could feel Vader’s gaze burning into him from behind the wall of his mask. “I have ensured that Admiral Ozzel will bring the fleet out of hyperspace too close to the system, so that the Rebels will be alerted to our presence. You will hold your ship in the vanguard. You will attempt to capture the Rebels as they flee, and you will fail. And then you will report to me, to apologize.”
A faint twist of amusement lurked beneath that last statement, but Needa hardly noticed. He was gaping at Vader, far past the point of pretending ignorance or innocence. What was going on here?
Vader drew something else from one of the pouches on his belt: a small capsule, clear, filled with a white powder.
“Immediately before you report to me, you will take this,” Vader said. “It will take effect within twenty minutes of consumption, and last for three hours. The effect will precisely mimic death. You will be dumped with the derelicts, and in three hours when you wake the fleet will be gone. You have the necessary transponder codes, I trust?”
“What?” Needa said stupidly. His mind was a whirl. None of this made sense.
“The transponder codes,” Vader snapped with evident impatience. “To call a transport. Unless you wish to remain floating in space, of course.”
“I don’t – you – what?”
“Perhaps I’ve been unclear,” Vader bit out. “You have been compromised, Captain. You cannot continue to serve in this position. I am offering you a way out.”
Needa’s thoughts spun wildly. Distantly, he recalled the rumors about Vader, but he could hardly stop himself from thinking now.
He’d been found out. Vader’s response was…unexpected, but Needa could guess well enough what his plan was. Convince Needa that he was letting him go, and then follow him back to the Rebellion. What was less evident was why Vader would expect him to fall for such an obvious ploy.
It didn’t matter though. His duty was clear.
Needa straightened his back and stood to attention. He swallowed hard and looked Vader directly in the red-tinted lenses of his mask. “I don’t undersand, Milord,” he said.
Vader stared him down. Needa could feel himself beginning to sweat. He wished, not for the first time, that he could see what lay behind that inscrutable mask.
Vader set the capsule on the table, just beside the scrambler. He rested his hands at his belt. A moment later, and he moved to link them loosely behind his back. In anyone else, the motions would have been fidgeting. Needa wasn’t certain what to make of them in Darth Vader.
“The rain was long ago,” Vader said slowly, his masked gaze fixed unwaveringly on Needa, “but the desert does not forget.”
Needa felt all his breath leave him in a sudden whoosh, as surely as though Vader really had choked him. He struggled desperately to keep the surprise from his face, and knew that he failed.
There were other Rebel agents in the Imperial ranks. Needa knew this, though he didn’t know their identities or their placements. He had contact information for only a handful of them, and most he’d never spoken to. It was safest that way.
He’d never used this code before, but he recognized it instantly. He’d memorized it like the words of a prayer. If you’re ever in trouble, his first handlers had said, remember this code. We have someone on the inside. Someone who can help.
“The desert never forgets,” Needa whispered, the response drawn almost involuntarily from his lips.
“The mighty one comes with the storm and with fire,” Vader said. Even with the vocoder, his voice sounded hushed, almost reverent.
“We will walk free,” Needa breathed.
He stared at Vader. The silence stretched between them, something fragile and devastating. Needa felt the galaxy shift around him, breaking apart and remaking itself around the shock of this truth.
“Ekkreth,” he whispered.
Vader nodded once. “You have the transponder codes?” he asked again.
“Yes,” said Needa, and he reached out with trembling fingers to take the capsule.
He woke to silence and darkness and the immense, lonely feeling of deep space.
Needa sat up slowly, taking stock of his body and his surroundings. His limbs felt stiff and sluggish, as though he’d slept wrong, and his mouth was thick with some bitter, musty taste that made him gag. He was in some kind of cargo hold, though it looked old and badly used. Debris littered the floor. The air smelled stale and thin.
He stood gingerly and patted his pockets until he found the transponder. He’d never had to use these codes before, but he knew them by heart. He punched them in now and watched as the indicator lit up. Then he sat back against a haphazard pile of old crates and settled in to wait. And to think.
Darth Vader was a Rebel.
Even now, his mind shied away from the thought. It was ridiculous. It was impossible. The Emperor’s special agent, the ghost who moved in the shadows, who hunted the Rebellion relentlessly, who slaughtered his officers for the slightest failures. He was a Rebel.
But…it made a strange kind of sense, if he looked at it from an angle and forgot everything he knew about Darth Vader. Everything he thought he knew.
Vader was known as an unstoppable, terrifying force, yet the same group of Rebels had repeatedly escaped him. He’d been stationed on the Death Star when the plans were stolen, and his attempts to recover those plans must have been unsuccessful. The Rebels had destroyed the station. And Darth Vader had been the only survivor.
We have someone on the inside, his handlers had said. Someone on the inside…
Needa had never planned to join the Rebellion. He’d submitted his application to the Imperial Naval Academy in good faith, and served with distinction for nearly a decade. He hadn’t been particularly patriotic, but he’d appreciated order, and he’d liked the routine of the work, the beauty of deep space, the sense of being a part of something more.
That was before Alderaan.
Brenay was Alderaanian. Her mother and father and three sisters had all lived there still. She’d had four nephews and two nieces, and to an only child like him, her extended family had seemed endless. He remembered going to a celebration with her once, in the second year of their marriage, and feeling utterly bewildered by the variety and number of her relations. He remembered Brenay laughing at him, telling him he’d get the hang of it eventually, that they were his family now, too.
And now they were all dead.
But Tarkin and his Death Star were dead too. And Darth Vader was a Rebel.
The transponder beeped in his hand. The code was one of the newer ones, but he recognized it. Pick up and debrief. Information premium. He wouldn’t know where he was going until he arrived.
He sent back the answering code, and a moment later felt a tractor beam latch onto his drifting cargo pod.
The Togruta woman who greeted him when they landed was completely unfamiliar to him…until she introduced herself by her call sign.
He’d long suspected that the cowled head that appeared in Fulcrum’s messages was unlikely to be Fulcrum’s true image. But it was still strange to have a face, a concrete identity, to go with the name. For the sake of his own sanity, he tried not to think about masks.
Her name was Ahsoka Tano, and she wore two lightsabers at her belt. Needa glanced at them, and then quickly away.
So he was entirely unprepared to find himself with an armful of Togruta.
“Sorry,” Ahsoka said, though she didn’t look it. Her grin was decidedly cheeky as she pulled back. “We heard you were dead, you know. I’m glad you’re not.”
For the first time since he’d been ordered to appear before Lord Vader, Needa allowed himself to relax. “So am I,” he said.
Ahsoka’s smile slipped away, and she looked at him long and levelly. “If I ask how you got away, you won’t be able to tell me, will you?” she asked at last.
Darth Vader was a Rebel. Needa felt almost dizzy just thinking it.
He gave her a weak smile. “Classified,” he muttered, and was glad when she let it go at that.
“I figured,” she said easily. “Well, Agent Classified, Mon Mothma wants to speak with you. I’d tell you why, but…” She shrugged and grinned.
Needa glanced around the bustling hangar bay. He still didn’t know where they were, although the bay doors were open on one end and he could see rolling green hills and the distant sparkle of water beyond. The last time he’d seen so much green, he’d been visiting Brenay’s family on Alderaan.
The thought left a bitter, stone-heavy weight in his stomach. He pushed it away.
“Lead on, then,” he told Ahsoka, and they set off at a brisk pace through the base.
The head of Alliance Intelligence was an elegant woman in her middle age, memorable mainly for the poise with which she carried herself, but otherwise unremarkable. She might have looked equally at home on the old Senate floor or in a day spa. Or, as was the case now, sitting easily in an office that more nearly resembled an interrogation room.
In spite of himself, Needa tensed.
“This is your stop,” Ahsoka said brightly beside him. She nodded once in Mothma’s direction, then turned her smile on Needa. “Come find me when you’re done here? I’m sure you’re hungry, and I could do with a bite to eat myself.”
She swept out the door before he’d had time to do more than nod.
“Captain,” said Mothma as soon as they were alone. “It’s good to see you alive.”
He’d never met her in person before. He recognized her more from the Imperial wanted notices than from anything Alliance related. Truth be told, he’d never expected to meet her at all. Mon Mothma was head of Intelligence – she had countless spies and double agents to keep track of, and Needa had never really been that important.
He was now though, he thought, and swallowed.
Mothma rose from her chair and offered him a smile that transformed her severe face. “At ease, Captain,” she said mildly. “I apologize for the room. But it’s the most secure location we can offer here, and you’re now in possession of some very sensitive information.”
“I never expected to be,” said Needa.
“No, of course not.” Mothma smiled again. “Really, Captain, you can relax. This isn’t an interrogation. Your credentials are well-known, and you come to us with quite the character reference.”
There was an edge of laughter to her voice as she said that, and something teasing in her eyes. Needa made himself ask, “I do?”
“Ekkreth informs us that you are a sterling officer of unquestionable integrity, and that you were three times passed over for promotion by Admiral Motti, which I’m told is a recommendation in itself.” Her eyes twinkled.
Needa gaped. “Oh,” he said weakly.
“At ease, Captain,” Mothma said, a hint of almost fond scolding in her tone. “You’re still breathing.”
“Yes, and I still can’t quite believe it,” Needa muttered.
Mothma’s face gentled. “Ah,” she said. “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?”
Needa only laughed. Darth Vader was a Rebel. Would he ever be able to think that without an edge of hysteria?
Mothma’s smile was sympathetic, but her voice was steel-edged. “You understand, Captain Needa, that you cannot share this information with anyone. Every aspect of this incident is classified. If anyone asks, that’s what you tell them, and that will be enough.”
Needa took a deep breath. “I understand,” he said.
“Do you?” Mothma’s expression now was distinctly bemused. “I must confess, Captain, I’m surprised to see you standing here. Pleased, but surprised. Ekkreth must think you valuable indeed to risk saving you.”
“He – he didn’t say – ” Needa stammered.
Mothma eyed him sharply. “Let me be clear, Captain,” she said. “You are now only the third person still living who is aware of Ekkreth’s identity. Now do you understand?”
For a long moment, Needa could only stare. He’d known this was big, but he hadn’t thought –
Vader – Ekkreth – had revealed himself apparently solely to save Needa’s life. His secret had been known only to the head of Alliance Intelligence and one other person. This information was so far above Needa’s paygrade as to be laughable. And yet here he was.
“I – I understand, Ma’am,” he stammered. “I will hold this in the strictest confidence.”
Mon Mothma’s severe posture eased, just slightly. “Good,” she said. “That’s all I can ask, Captain. I’m sorry you’re burdened with this, but there’s nothing else to be done now. Will you be staying with us?”
Needa blinked. He hadn’t considered that. But after all he could hardly go back to the Empire, and trying to find a civilian job would likely prove nearly as dangerous. Besides, after everything that had happened, he hardly felt he could just walk away. So he said, “Yes, if you have need of me.”
Mothma smiled. “We always have need of experienced officers,” she said. “Report to Admiral Ackbar for a posting. But go have lunch with Agent Tano first.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” said Needa. But he hesitated a moment at the door, and Mothma noticed.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s only – my family,” Needa said haltingly. “I was killed for my failure and there might be repercussions and they – ”
“Are already on their way here,” Mothma said. She smiled at Needa’s surprise. “Ekkreth sent word.”
That was almost too much to think about. Needa hadn’t realized Vader was even aware of whether or not his officers had families.
“They should arrive within two days,” Mothma said.
“Oh,” Needa said weakly. And then, because he felt ridiculous but he still didn’t know, “Where are we?”
Mothma laughed, a surprisingly warm, bright sound. “I do apologize, Captain,” she said. “I should have mentioned. Welcome to Naboo.”
One of the key leaders of the Rebellion was living on a base on the Emperor’s home planet. Just last week, Needa might have been surprised. But now, Darth Vader was a Rebel and he wasn’t sure anything would ever be able to surprise him again.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said again, and gave her a crisp salute. Mothma looked slightly bemused, but she returned the salute with a smile.
Mess hall food, Needa discovered, was the same everywhere.
“We had this same meatloaf two weeks ago,” he told Ahsoka with a rueful smile. But that didn’t stop him from taking another bite.
“Well, that makes sense,” she said, grinning across the table at him. She’d already finished her own meal, and seemed to be thinking about going back for seconds. “We intercepted an Imperial supply convoy not too long ago. Food enough for months.”
Needa sighed. “And here I was hoping for a change of pace,” he said.
For a moment Ahsoka only blinked at him. And then she laughed, louder and longer than he thought his joke really warranted.
“Sorry,” she said at last. “I’m just not used to Imperials who have a sense of humor.” The moment the words left her mouth, she winced. “Imperial defectors, that is.”
In spite of himself, Needa thought of the strange tone of Vader’s voice when he’d said, “But now it seems I’ll have to kill you instead.” He’d been too terrified to recognize it at the time, but now with the benefit of hindsight the wry amusement in that voice was obvious.
“We do have a tendency towards dark humor,” he said now, with a rueful twist of his lip.
Ahsoka’s eyes narrowed. She seemed to be trying to decide if that statement was a joke itself. Needa only looked back at her, giving her nothing.
Finally she sat back with a huff. “I can tell you’re an old campaigner,” she said. “You’ve got that thousand meter stare perfected.”
“Necessity, I’m afraid,” Needa said. “Especially when you’re working under – ” He froze.
Ahsoka was watching him with sharp pity in her eyes. And something else, too, some old pain he didn’t fully understand. “Vader,” she whispered. “Yes. I know.”
She didn’t know, Needa thought, again with that edge of near-hysteria. No one did. No one but himself, Mon Mothma, and one other person. He wondered vaguely who that other person could be, and then immediately told himself to stop. He knew far too much already. And he couldn’t tell Ahsoka any of it.
So instead he offered her a weak smile, and they finished their meal in silence.
Brenay and Anwen arrived two days later. Needa was in conference with Admiral Ackbar when the call came, and Ackbar shooed him out, insisting that they could speak again later, but that right now, Needa should be with his family.
Needa took the chance, but he did wonder. Was military discipline always so lax in the Rebellion? He couldn’t imagine something like this ever happening in the Imperial fleet.
He pushed the thought from his mind as he entered the hangar. Almost before he’d had a chance to glance around, Anwen had spotted him and was barreling toward him, yelling, “Papa, Papa!” To his surprise, Brenay wasn’t far behind. She must have been worried.
Needa forgot his dignity and ran to meet them halfway.
He scooped Anwen up in his arms, even though she was getting far too big for it – she’d grown since he’d seen her last – and she squealed and whooped. Brenay was smiling softly, watching them, but her dark eyes were still shadowed with worry.
He shifted Anwen against his side and drew Brenay into his arms. For a long moment the three of them simply held each other.
But soon enough Anwen started squirming, and Needa laughed and stepped back to put her down.
“Papa, Papa,” she said, tugging urgently at his leg. “Did you know it’s my birthday?”
“I did,” Needa told her very solemnly. “Why do you think I came home?”
Anwen beamed up at him. But then her nose scrunched up in confusion. “But this isn’t home,” she said.
Needa caught Brenay’s eye and she nodded. There’d be no going back now, not for any of them. “This is our home now,” he told Anwen gently.
“Oh,” the little girl said. Then she smiled. “Did you bring me a birthday present, Papa?”
“Anwen!” Brenay tried to scold her, but she wasn’t quite able to hide her laughter.
“It’s all right,” Needa said. “Come on then, you little nerf. I’ll show you our quarters, and then we can have a proper birthday party.”
Anwen grinned and dashed ahead, giggling.
“She’s going in the wrong direction, isn’t she?” Brenay asked drily.
Needa only shrugged. “She’ll figure it out,” he said, bending to take two of the four packing cases Brenay had brought. She held two more. This was all they owned in the world now.
“You’re really all right?” she asked him softly as they walked. Anwen had joined them again, but she was continually darting off and then waiting impatiently for her parents to catch up.
“I really am,” Needa said gently. “And you’re – ”
“Yes,” Brenay said, her shoulder brushing his as they walked. “We had to leave a lot behind, but we brought everything that’s important. And we have you again. You won’t ever have to go back. I’ve been so worried, Lorth…”
“I know,” he said, bumping his shoulder against hers in apology.
Brenay stopped suddenly, dropped her two travel cases, pulled him around to face her, and kissed him soundly. Needa rather forgot everything else, until he heard their daughter groaning loudly.
“Mama! Papa! Come on,” Anwen called, nearly bouncing in her impatience, and Needa broke away from Brenay with a laugh.
“We’d better not keep her waiting,” he said ruefully. “Come on.”
Later that night, wrapped in Brenay’s arms, Needa confessed, “I thought I was going to die.”
Her embrace tightened around him, and she whispered fiercely, “But you didn’t.” She nuzzled his neck, and he could feel her smile against his skin. “You must have a guardian spirit. I’ve always said so.”
Needa bit his lip hard to hold back the strangled laugh that wanted to escape. A guardian spirit, he thought, imagining Vader’s terrible death-mask and shrouded dark cloak. A spirit of death, maybe.
But…he was alive. He was alive, and Brenay and Anwen were here, and he was a free man.
“Maybe you’re right,” he murmured, turning to kiss her.
Perhaps someday he could tell her the truth. Someday when all of this was over, and the terrifyingly sensitive information he held was declassified.
Darth Vader was a Rebel. And for the first time since he’d met the man, Needa found himself hoping he would see him again.