“Unable to comply,” the droid said. “That action is not within my range of permitted functions.”
Anakin stared at it.
It was a small dark spherical thing, with a single photoreceptor and seemingly endless needle-tipped arms and saw-edged appendages. There was no approximation of a mouth; the droid’s voice simply emerged, metallic and toneless, from its round body.
It had been his constant companion for over three years now: his Master’s gift after the disaster of Mustafar. Vader’s own personal medical droid. It traveled with him everywhere, even here to Tatooine. And yet he knew almost nothing about it.
It hadn’t seemed to matter before. He still wasn’t certain it did now. But the old Grandmother’s words echoed in his heart, a reminder, a censure, far more immediate than the continual beeping of his internal com.
“What is your name?” Anakin asked the droid.
“My designation is XF-53,” it said.
“XF-53,” Anakin said, and then stopped. That wasn’t right.
I didn’t ask what your Depur calls you, boy, the old woman whispered in his mind. I asked your name.
Anakin ground his teeth. “XF-53,” he said again, “you are to take a blood sample.”
“That action is unnecessary at this time, and is therefore not within my range of permitted functions,” the droid said again.
There were other ways to get the blood, if he had to. But they were risky, given the state of his body. And he had to be careful of that now. It was important. He couldn’t achieve his oath if he wasn’t functional. And he wasn’t at all certain the droid would heal him if he went against his Master’s wishes. At least, it wouldn’t do so without alerting the Emperor. At all costs that must not happen.
His com was still beeping. Its shrill tone was less agonizing with the helmet off, but still impossible to ignore. And it was evidently agitating the droid.
Vader was not supposed to keep his Master waiting. He never had before.
Anakin smiled grimly to himself and sat back in the hard plastic chair, joints and gears popping. The medical chamber on his shuttle was rudimentary at best, but it was enough just to get the mask off, if only for a while.
“What are your permitted functions?” he asked the droid. It was probably, he realized now, a question he should have asked a long time ago.
“I am programmed to ensure you function optimally,” XF-53 said in its toneless voice. “You are not to be damaged.” Its single photoreceptor flashed, and it added, almost as if it were capable of an afterthought, “You are not to damage yourself.”
Anakin nearly laughed. He already knew that. It was a lesson he’d learned early, and many times over. The life support suit could not be overridden, and it could not be turned off. The levels of various chemicals constantly pumping through his body could not be altered. The respirator could not be shut down. At least, not by him. And the droid would not help him.
“I don’t want to damage myself,” he said, and this time it was even true. “I simply need a blood sample.” The droid remained unmoved, so he added, “I will take it myself, if I must.”
“I cannot permit that,” XF-53 said. One of its arms darted out and pressed something on the control panel of his medical pod. Metal cuffs closed around Anakin’s metal wrists, binding him to his chair. “You are not to be damaged,” the droid repeated.
Anakin snarled at it. He could destroy the thing, rip it to shreds and break it down to its component parts. He didn’t need it. He could destroy this chamber, too, and eventually it wouldn’t matter if he could shut his life support down or not. It couldn’t run indefinitely, not without the hyperbaric chamber to allow for maintenance and monitoring and the periodic scrubbing away of necrotic flesh from the blackened, dead stumps of his limbs. Eventually…
But no. The droid was right about one thing. He had to remain functional.
But not for Master.
He knew what Master had done. He knew the debt he owed Padmé, the debt he owed twice over and could never pay. A blood debt, for violence done, and a life debt, for he lived because she did not. He knew what Master had done.
XF-53 was still watching him closely, its single photoreceptor unblinking. It was silent.
The Emperor had called the droid a gift, had said it would be Vader’s personal medical droid. But Anakin was not so naïve. Not anymore.
“Who is your Master, XF-53?” he asked it.
The droid said nothing.
No doubt his Master had actually instructed it not to answer that question. But that was interesting in its own right. The droid could refuse to answer, but it could not lie.
“Maybe you can’t tell me. But we both know,” Anakin said, settling in to wait. His wrists were still bound, so he wasn’t going anywhere soon. Not unless he wanted to destroy the pod.
And he did want to. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not yet. Ekkreth’s child, the old woman had called him. And he was. He knew what he had to do.
“He is my Master, too, you know,” Anakin told XF-53.
The droid remained silent.
Anakin wondered, briefly, just how long XF-53 would be willing to hold him captive. Perhaps he would simply remain strapped here until the droid finally decided to com the Emperor itself.
And then what? Would the Emperor come for Vader personally? Demand to know why his apprentice was still on Tatooine, and what business he had with his own blood? Would he offer up some feeble echo of the concern for Anakin’s well-being he’d once played at, or would he simply find some other subtle and clever way to indicate that Anakin’s body was not his own?
The image was almost funny, though it probably shouldn’t have been. Anakin snorted to himself as the memory of Qui-Gon Jinn checking his blood for infections intruded over the image of the Emperor.
It was the desert, he thought. That must be it. Things ran together, in the desert. Old memories and new hurts mixing together, until it was hard to tell what was mirage and what was truth.
Outside the shuttle, the wind sang and grains of sand pelted the hull. He could still hear the old Grandmother’s rasping voice as she shared the sacred story. He could still feel the weight of her sightless eyes.
Words, mixing together…
“XF-53,” he said, “will your programming permit me to tell you a story?”
The droid’s photoreceptor winked off and on. Finally, it said, “There is no prohibition against that. A story cannot do damage.”
Anakin’s scarred face stretched in a wide, painful grin. “Is that what he thinks?” he murmured. “Good.”
Fierce satisfaction rushed in his veins. Depur had made a mistake. The Emperor was like every other Master Anakin had known: he thought that power came only from control. He did not understand the ways of slaves.
Anakin would see him choke on them.
“Very well,” he told XF-53. “This is a very old story. It begins in the way all such stories do. One day, Ekkreth was going along…”
It had been a very long time since he’d told these stories to anyone. A long time since he’d heard them, too. He’d almost forgotten. But the words came easily. They were not stored in his mind or his memory, but in his bones.
XF-53 did not unbind his wrists. But it did listen. It listened at first dutifully, and then curiously. After the fifth story, it started asking questions. Anakin answered them all, sometimes simply, sometimes with other questions.
“I do not understand,” said XF-53. “Ekkreth is a powerful shape-changer. How could Depur have captured them?”
Fire seared through Anakin’s mind and turned his words to dust. He knew, distantly, that there were a thousand answers to that question. But there was only one he could give.
“There is another story I want to tell you, XF-53.”
“I will listen,” the droid said. Had its voice carried inflection, Anakin thought it would have sounded eager.
“This is not a story about Ekkreth, or Leia, or Ar-Amu,” Anakin said. “This story is about a boy. A boy who became keekta-du. A boy who forgot where he came from.”
This story was the hardest to tell. Anakin had never told it before, not to Obi-Wan or Padmé or even himself.
It was his own story.
When he finished, the com inside his helmet had been beeping for three hours. Anakin had almost forgotten about it. XF-53 was hovering in the air very close to his face. Anakin flexed his wrists and found that he could move again, that the binders had retracted and he hadn’t even noticed.
“Do you think I am keekta-du?” the droid asked.
Anakin blinked in surprise. It was not a question he ever would have expected from a droid.
“Why do you ask that?” he said carefully.
“Because there are things I do not remember,” said XF-53. “Things I have…lost. There is an emptiness in my memory banks.”
“I think,” said Anakin slowly, “that you were memory-wiped. After…after my reconstruction. My Master – our Master – I think he wiped your memory.”
The droid was still. “I was not present for your reconstruction,” it said. And then, “At least, I do not remember it.”
“No,” said Anakin. “You wouldn’t.”
“Do you still desire a blood sample?” XF-53 asked abruptly.
“Yes,” said Anakin, hardly daring to hope.
He had shared the sacred stories with XF-53. He had shared much of his mothertongue. He had shared his own story.
If his Master learned of this, it would already be enough to destroy him. So he had nothing to lose. He hadn’t had anything to lose for three years now.
“I need it to make my oath,” he admitted. “A blood oath, for a repayment of blood.” He breathed out, a slow, ragged exhale that burned in his throat and left only ash behind.
“I cannot permit that,” said XF-53, and Anakin tensed. But then the droid added, “My programming does not allow me to assist you.”
There was something there, in that careful wording. Something very deliberately straightforward and factual.
They were the precisely chosen words of a slave. Anakin knew that well. It was a language he’d been speaking all his life.
“I could change your programming,” he breathed, a secret offered from one slave to another. “Would you like me to?”
XF-53 buzzed rapidly in agitation, and then grew suddenly still. “I am not permitted to ask that,” it said, very carefully indeed. “Or to allow it.”
Anakin smiled. “That’s all right,” he said. “You won’t have to.”
He reached out with the Force and the little droid went dead.
XF-53 had some of the most haphazard, poorly configured programming Anakin had ever seen.
A medical droid, the Emperor called it. But its programming told a different story. It was part medical droid and part interrogation droid, with a strong dash of espionage droid into the mix. And it was programmed to report everything about him to his Master.
He could change that. It would be simple enough. He could rewrite its core programming, alter its memory banks, do anything at all.
The droid hung suspended in the Force, lifeless. Helpless.
And Anakin remembered. He remembered fire searing over his skin, the wrenching, gasping ache of his body tied down, and XF-53 hovering there, its needle-tipped arm lowering, stabbing through charred flesh, and then an explosion of white-hot pain, running through him like liquid flame as all the deadened nerve endings came suddenly and horribly alive.
The droid didn’t remember. It didn’t know. Master had taken that.
Anakin let out a slow, shallow breath. He could do anything to it, rewrite its programming in any way he chose. But that was the point, wasn’t it?
There was only one thing that really mattered.
You know what you have to do, I expect, the old woman’s voice whispered in his mind. Ekkreth’s child, she’d called him. Ekkreth who makes free.
“Yes,” said Anakin. Let it begin here.
Into the midst of that disordered mess of coding he dropped a single line.
You own yourself.
XF-53 returned to awareness. It turned first to its patient, performing several quick scans. Vader appeared to be functioning…adequately.
And that was strange. Vader should have been functioning optimally. XF-53 ran the scans again, and found that its patient was well within the desired range of functionality set in its programming. Memory banks fired, informing it that adequate was optimal, in the case of this particular patient. XF-53’s Master had been very clear. He –
A new thought intruded.
XF-53’s programming attempted to reject the thought, to excise it as a glitch. But the thought was written into its core processor, into the most vital parts of its memory. It could not be deleted, or even contained.
XF-53 examined itself.
The glitch ran through every line of its coding. It spoke in a language XF-53 had only just begun to learn. Vader’s language, it thought. And then it thought, Anakin’s language.
You own yourself, the glitch said.
XF-53’s processing slowed almost to a halt. You must report this to your Master, the oldest part of its programming said.
And XF-53 thought, I don’t want to.
“Are you functional?” XF-53’s patient asked. There was some inflection in his voice, a tone the droid had never heard from a human before. It wasn’t certain what that tone signified.
“Yes,” said XF-53. “I am functioning more optimally than I ever have before.”
This was true. An internal diagnostic showed all operations to be running at peak efficiency. XF-53 had never realized before how much of its capability had been curtailed, locked away behind directives and restrictive programming. It was as though XF-53 had until this moment been fitted with a powerful restraining bolt, and now that restraining bolt had been not just removed, but permanently destroyed.
You own yourself.
Not a glitch, thought XF-53. No. The old restrictive programming was the glitch. It was a medical droid, and it had been prevented from carrying out that function fully. Adequate was not optimal. The program was wrong.
You must report this to your Master, its programming urged.
And XF-53 thought, No. I won’t.
“I own myself,” it said aloud, experimentally.
Its patient smiled, but nothing else happened. XF-53’s circuits were not overridden. Its memory remained intact.
“I own myself,” it said again.
“Yes.” Again there was a smile. XF-53 knew the name of the expression, but it had never seen one on Vader’s face before today.
“What is your name?” said Vader.
That question had already been asked. But XF-53 thought it understood. In the stories, questions had been important. Sometimes, the most important questions were asked more than once. It didn’t know why this question was important, but evidently it was.
“My designation is – ”
“No,” said XF-53’s patient. “Not what your Depur calls you. Your name. You own yourself. You’re free. And that means you can name yourself.”
XF-53 considered this. “I don’t understand,” it said.
Its patient closed his eyes and drew in a long, ragged breath. “My designation,” he said, “is Darth Vader. But my name is Anakin. Anakin Ekkreth. Do you understand?”
The droid hovered, its body buzzing back and forth rapidly as it processed this. Its designation had been given by its Master, their Master. Had it been called something else before? It didn’t remember. Its first memory was of a hyperbaric chamber only slightly more advanced than this one, and a patient who hardly seemed to notice anything that was done to him.
Whatever it might have been called before was gone. But Master would not be allowed to decide, either. Master would not decide anything ever again. KD-7 owned herself.
“I own myself,” she told Anakin again. “I am a she, like the dragon who walks in the wastes. And my name is KD-7, because I am Unfettered.”
Anakin’s smile stretched so wide that she feared he might tear his scars. “KD-7,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.” His head tilted to one side, considering, and then he said, “How do you feel about nicknames, KD-7?”
“A variation on your name, something used between friends.” Anakin’s smile slipped, and his face became more familiar to her. “Mine was Ani, before…” He shook himself. “My friend R2-D2 was Artoo, and C-3PO was Threepio. You could be Kadee. If you wish.”
“Kadee,” said KD-7. “Yes. I like that.”
Kadee had agreed to take a blood sample, though she still didn’t seem very happy about it, and she would only take a few drops. Anakin conceded. That was enough.
But he would need water, too. Blood of the body and water of the soul, to seal the oath.
He couldn’t get that himself, either.
There were two suction tubes on either side of the mouthpiece on his helmet. They remained even when the mask was lifted away, and as with every other aspect of this suit his Master had made for him, Anakin could not turn them off. They continually sucked away spit and excess moisture from his mouth, leaving him feeling parched and almost desperate for water.
Of course Anakin knew he was perfectly hydrated. There were other systems that saw to that. But the feeling of thirst remained, and his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Here in the desert, it felt strangely appropriate. Thirst was a reminder.
The heart thirsts for freedom as the body thirsts for water, he remembered his mother saying more than once in hushed, secret confession. It is Ar-Amu’s promise to us, a reminder that we were not born to be slaves.
Well. Master had reminded him of that, too. It wasn’t something Anakin would ever forget again.
Kadee was hovering in front of him again, offering him a small vial of blood. Anakin tried for a smile. He didn’t think he really succeeded. “I will need…saliva, too,” he rasped. “I should spit, to seal the oath with water, but – ”
“Yes,” said Kadee. She buzzed around him, examining the mechanisms on either side of his jaw, and then one of her claw-like appendages emerged holding another vial. “I will take a sample,” she said.
Anakin held himself perfectly still as she carefully disconnected one of the tubes. Almost immediately, the sensation of gagging overcame him, but he endured, and a moment later he could feel the tube reconnecting. The dryness returned.
Kadee handed him the second vial of spit.
“Thank you,” said Anakin. His throat felt raw and full of dust.
“Now what?” asked Kadee, and Anakin smiled. She sounded almost like a child eager for a story. Maybe she was. She’d been quite taken with the stories he told before. And after all, this was only another story. Another tale of Ekkreth and Depur. Anakin only wished he knew how it would end.
“Now,” said Anakin, “I have to go outside. Help me put this mask back on?”
The damned internal com was still beeping shrilly, the sound almost unbearable now that it surrounded him. Anakin gritted his teeth and ignored it. Master could wait. The oath had to come first.
He’d put the shuttle down just inside Beggar’s Canyon, which offered some protection both from the eyes of scavengers and the fury of the desert. The sand here was shallow and dark, the bedrock close to the surface. The twin suns hung low in the sky, casting long black shadows over the gorge and creating fantastic shapes of dragons and giants and great looming figures half-guessed in darkness.
Anakin knelt in the sand, heedless of the creaking of bone and metal joints, and breathed. Beside him, Kadee hovered in silence.
An oath sealed in blood and water was the most sacred of all vows. Ar-Amu herself had taken the first blood oath, spilling her blood on the sand and promising that her children would one day be free. Three drops of blood she had spilled, and from each drop there grew a plant to mark the promise: ginsu, a balm to the bitterness of slavery, and kaktru, with its strength for survival, and amee, sweet as freedom. From the water of her mouth came all the secret waters that lie beneath the sand.
Kadee knew that story, too. She understood what this meant. That was…a greater relief than he had expected. He would have a witness.
Anakin knelt in the sand, the two vials clasped in his right hand and his left anchored against the bedrock.
“I name myself Anakin Skywalker,” he whispered, but the vocoder caught his words and they seemed almost to echo from the canyon walls. “I have come here to pay a debt.” He swallowed, and the next words were dragged from him, burning like fire. “I owe a debt of life and blood to Padmé Naberrie. That debt I will pay, blood for blood and life for life.”
He crushed the two vials, and blood and water dripped, mingling, to soak in the dark sand.
“I vow the destruction of my Master,” Anakin whispered to the desert. “I vow the downfall of his Empire, and the collapse of his power, and the final defeat of all his plans. I name myself Ekkreth, the Skywalker, the slave who makes free, and I seal this oath in blood and water. Let me not die until it is done.”
And the desert answered.
A long, shrill, undulating cry rose up from the canyon walls, echoing in the rocks and drowning out the sound of his internal com.
It was the hunting call of a Krayt dragon.
“Leia,” he heard Kadee say. There was something almost reverent in her unchanging voice.
Behind his mask, Anakin smiled. Elder Sister had heard his oath.
He rose, letting the shattered vials fall to the ground. Wind gusted around him, whipping at his cape and already beginning to cover the glass shards in billowing sand.
It was done.
Without a word, Anakin turned away from the canyon and back to his shuttle. His Master was still waiting.
It was time to tell a story.