"My lord, the ship has landed." The aide summons all his courage to keep his voice steady as he speaks.
"Very good, lieutenant," rumbles the response.
"I shall prepare your escort at once." The aide bows and prepares to retreat from the chambers which frighten him with their very sterility and strangeness.
"Do not bother. I do not require an escort."
"As you wish, my lord." Quickly, the aide leaves the chambers, holding his breath until the doors slide shut behind him.
Alone in his chambers, alone as he has been for months, for weeks, in body and in mind and in soul, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith rises from his chair. His mechanical breathing apparatus does not permit unprogrammed breathing, and so Vader cannot sigh. But he takes a minute to compose himself before he leaves his chambers.
He hates leaving his chambers. He hates the stares of avid curiosity and fear the crew give him. He hates knowing that he is a freak. He should be dead. And in fact, his soul feels dead. Feels that it died with the last message he received from his beloved wife Padm?. Feels frequently that it would be worthwhile to die and to escape the constant torment which is the only thing that reminds him he is alive.
"You're no longer the man I married," the message said. "You've changed. You frighten me. I cannot trust you. I-I cannot say I do not love you. I can never stop loving you. But I'm dead to you as you are to me. Do not try to find me."
It has been a year since he received that message. A year bereft of sunlight, of laughter, of joy, of hope. A year in which there was only the Dark bliss of doing as his master bid. A year in which he learned of the satisfaction and the malevolent glee that can come from destruction, devastation and terror. There is nothing else left for him now.
He heads toward the door and it slides open. Holding his head high and ignoring the way the activity in the corridor has suddenly stilled, as the men freeze, watching him fearfully, he makes his way toward the exit ramp.
A contingent of stormtroopers stands just outside the ramp, and they salute him as he disembarks into the bright sunlight.
Vader ignores them as well as he looks around. He is not surprised by what he sees. The planet is a primitive one. Aksala, an Outer Rim planet which paid lip service to the Emperor, has ignored Palpatine's calls for payment of taxes. Perhaps they assumed that a small, backwater system such as their own would be overlooked. They should have known better. Palpatine sees all. And his vengeance is terrible. They should be thankful that Vader has come in the Emperor's stead to deal with their recalcitrance.
The spaceport of Emon-the capital city of Aksala-is small, and the denizens of this world do not know to observe proper etiquette. There is no welcoming party for the Dark Lord. There is no acknowledgement of his presence. The few individuals who are in the spaceport ignore the Dark Lord initially, but still in awe as they feel the chill that emanates from his ebony form.
Vader ignores them. There will be a time for reckoning. But for now, he wants to walk undisturbed. He wants to observe. He wants to formulate his own opinions. And then he will do what must be done.
Vader leaves the spaceport. A company of stormtroopers follows him at a discreet distance, despite his orders to the contrary. Vader ignores this. He knew this would happen. He is too important to be allowed to walk completely alone. But he knows the stormtroopers will not disturb him, and so he says nothing.
Emon does not appear to have kept up with the rest of the galaxy. The houses are primitive. The people dress simply. Aksala is an agrarian planet, and Vader sees that most of the citizens who walk the streets are farmers or simple merchants. The shops are plain. There are few droids or speeders about the streets, and those appear to belong to the few who are wealthy. Beasts of burden still carry wares to the markets. People still walk. The citizens of Emon appear to be mostly human. In fact, all human. Vader does not see any other sentient species as he looks about, and he wonders about this.
He walks for a long time. He sees the sun climb into the sky and ignores the heat that is forcing its way through the folds of his black cape. He ignores the stares of the Aksalans who are not sure if this hulking black specter is human or machine, or something far worse.
Far worse, Vader thinks.
He reaches the edges of the city of Emon. Here, the buildings have thinned out, and there are simple cottages and farmhouses. There are farm animals in the fields and along the streets. There are farmers toiling in the fields. They are growing sempra fruits, a popular delicacy in the Core Worlds. The fruits are difficult to grow and require a large amount of attention. These people are too busy working to pay attention to the strange one who has appeared in their midst.
He continues to walk until he reaches a crossroads. There is a well here. It takes him a moment to recognize the strange structure. He realizes with some surprise that these farmers have not even modern plumbing. He finds it amazing that this antiquated lifestyle can still exist within the galaxy.
He pauses for a moment to watch those walking through the crossroads. Everyone is carrying something. Bags, parcels, bales of hay. As he watches them, he sees a girl in the distance. She is wearing a thin, brown dress; the hem barely goes past her knees. She wears no stockings or socks and her feet are shod in cloth shoes. This is not unlike what the other women are wearing. Her dark hair is plaited into two long braids and tied loosely behind her back. There is nothing in her attire or adornments that strikes him as different or unusual. He sees that she is balancing a pole over her shoulders from which hang buckets. She has come to the well to get water.
She draws nearer to him, and Vader suddenly finds himself unable to move. He feels his legs weakening-the last time he felt this way was in the presence of his old master, when he dueled with Obi-Wan, when...he draws his thoughts away from that black day of iniquity. He turns his attention back to the girl. She has come close enough for him to see her face, and she should be able to see him, but she does not look at him. There is no evidence of recognition in her eyes. They stare ahead blankly.
Vader takes one step forward, and is unable to stop himself from speaking:
The girl does not react to Vader's greeting. She continues to walk past him. He is dumbfounded. It's not possible that she doesn't know who he is. He wonders for a moment if she is just a girl who looks remarkably like Padm?. And she does look remarkably like Padm?. The same large, brown eyes with the gently arching eyebrows that he liked to trace as she had lain in his arms. The same shapely nose. The same tender rose-petal lips. The same stubborn chin. The same thick, lustrous brown hair. He reaches for her through the Force. For the first time in months, he forces himself to be gentle as he probes. He doesn't want to frighten her. What he feels from her is disquieting to say the least. She feels like Padm?. But she doesn't. There are some resonant echoes that tug sharply at the heart he thought he'd killed. And there are some jarring notes that he doesn't recognize.
She reaches the well and sets down her buckets. She turns the windlass. She pulls up the large well bucket dripping with cool water. As the bucket nears the top of the well, she seems to have some difficulty pulling it over the rim of the well, and she pants a little from the exertion. She does not ask for help from passersby; in fact, she does not look up from her task.
Vader watches her struggle with the bucket and finally, he can stand it no longer. He levitates the bucket with the Force. She does not react to his assistance. She tilts the lifted well-bucket and pours the water into her own buckets. Calmly, she sends the well bucket back down to the bottom of the well. She turns and starts to hoist the pole back over her thin shoulders. She seems too weak and fragile to manage such an onerous task, but still, she does not ask for help.
"Let me help you," Vader says, approaching. He still cannot believe that she has not acknowledged him or spoken. He is even more surprised when she rises with her burden and wordlessly turns away from him to walk back to whence she came.
For a moment, the sheer surprise freezes Vader in his tracks. Were it anyone else who treated him in this way, the punishment would have been swift and final. This woman, this enigma, this almost-Padm? stirs to life parts of him better dead. He follows her, drawn inexorably to her wake.
He tries to speak to her again. "Who are you?"
No response. He draws alongside her and peers more closely into her face. He looks into the eyes again. And now he realizes with a chill, that there is no recognition of him in those eyes because there does not appear to be recognition of anything. The eyes are glassy and he sees through them clearly to the depths of her soul. And he sees nothing but transparent air and inchoate reflection.
"What is your name?" he tries again.
And still, she continues walking, as if drawn by an invisible power toward her unknown destination.
And no more able to stop himself, Vader continues to follow her. His thoughts go back through the days, the weeks, the months, back through the doors that he thought he had sealed forever. He cannot help but let down the barriers he had sworn he would never breach. He thinks back to those horrible first days and weeks after he had received Padm?'s message.
He was still Anakin Skywalker then. He had still not made the final, terrible commitment of his soul to the Sith. He was struggling with confusion, still had not cut the last, gossamer-fine cord that tied him yet to the Jedi Order, that still marked him as Obi-Wan's apprentice.
Padm?'s disappearance was the ultimate impetus that drove him from the light. For weeks afterward, Anakin disobeyed orders from all his masters, Dark or Light. His rage and fear and fury and anguish swirled about his mind obliterating all other thought. He could see nothing but Padm?'s face, hear nothing but her voice. He saw her while awake and asleep. He saw her in his dreams. He saw her in every woman he encountered, though days and weeks of fruitless searching.
He had no clear recollection of that hazy time. His only true memory was one of wrenching despair when he realized all his searching only lead to fruitless dead ends.
His hunt led him to make his last effort to contact Obi-Wan. He felt sure the Jedi knew where Padm? had gone. He felt sure the Jedi in their infinite deviousness, their self-serving righteousness, had done what they could to deprive him of the one light in his life. He would get his reckoning from Obi-Wan.
If Obi-Wan had only told me, Vader thinks with mounting rage, none of this would have happened. We would not have fought as we did that morning on the Altari plains. I would not have fallen. I would not have fallen in every way possible. My body, my mind, my soul, all twisted, and Dark and tormented. I would never have slaughtered my Jedi brothers and sisters if I had not been betrayed so horribly by the one Jedi who owed me loyalty.
Vader's thoughts come back to the present, to the strange Padm?-girl walking beside him. He realizes belatedly that she has carried her load for some time, and he plucks the pole off her shoulders with the Force.
Still, she says nothing. She stops and gives him a glance, but her gaze chills him. Even though she is clearly looking at him, she does not appear to really see him. She continues to stare at him for a long time and then she turns away and continues walking.
Stuck with his burden, Vader follows her. He tries again. This time, he tries to probe her mind with the Force.
And then, he draws away as though he had been struck. At first, he wonders if she has put up barriers against his Force-probe, but then he realizes he has clear entry into her mind. She has no thoughts that he can capture. There are only swirling, evanescent, evasive perceptions and impressions that he cannot grasp.
The mystery of this girl is maddening. Vader thinks he will go crazy if he does not learn some answers soon.
He follows her for another half hour until he reaches the outskirts of a farm. She walks up the winding dirt road with the ease of familiarity, and he follows her as if by right.
She approaches a dilapidated farmhouse. It is wooden, and ramshackle, and badly in need of paint. The front yard is poorly kept with straggling grass and weeds. A row of terriki-fowl march haphazardly through the undergrowth of the lawn, clucking contentedly. A woman emerges from the front door. And a man emerges from the back of the house. They are not young. Vader sees from their thickened bodies and homely, leathery countenances that they have worked hard all their lives. They stop and stare, slack-jawed, when they see Vader approach. He sees the fear in their eyes and is tired of it.
"May I help you?" the woman asks in heavily accented Basic.
The Padm?-girl approaches the woman and stands before her. She says nothing, but stands patiently. Like a pet rongo might approach its master, Vader thinks, with a sensation of growing anger and horror.
"I've come about the girl."
The woman's eyes dart fearfully toward the girl and then back toward Vader again. She says nothing, but he can tell she is trying to gather her thoughts. Normally, such delay would be reason for him to strangle with the Force. But he must have answers. He prompts the woman.
"Who is she?"
"I-I don't know, your greatness," the woman stammers. "We-we call her Reoni, but she has never told us her name."
"Never? How long has she been with you?"
"Only-only three months."
"And?" Vader is becoming more impatient by the moment, especially as he now senses a growing reluctance by the woman to talk. "How did she come to you?"
"The slave auctions." This time it is the man who comes forward to answer. "It was Market Day in Emon, and we had gone to sell our veshi milk. We don't buy slaves-never had one before, but my wife saw her-and took to her. Worried the girl would be sold to people who would mistreat her."
"If you don't buy slaves, why didn't you free her?"
"Begging your pardon, but-you've seen her? She's simple as a child. She hasn't spoken a word in all this time with us. She-she understands Basic, and if you tell her to eat, she eats. If you tell her to sleep, she goes to bed. Otherwise, she'd stand there not moving from sunup to sundown or beyond. We-we can't afford to keep her if she don't contribute. She works hard but at least we haven't let her starve or go cold or harmed her."
"Do-do you know anything about her?" the woman asks with a spurt of daring.
"That is not your concern," Vader says. He has gotten the answers he sought, and now, he will take what he wants. A wave of his black-gloved hand sends the man and the woman to their knees, gasping and choking as they bring their hands to their throats in a futile gesture of supplication.
Before he sees the end he wrought, Vader turns to the girl. "Come with me," he orders, and he turns away.
He walks a few steps and then turns around.
The Padm?-Reoni girl is following him. There is still no recognition in her eyes as she stares blankly in the distance. No revulsion for what he has just done. She follows commands obediently.
He is more convinced than ever that his search is over. And he has never felt more desolate in his life.
He returns to the spaceport with the girl in tow. Midway back from the farm, he had commandeered a speeder, which brought them back through the city of Emon. The girl's continued silence begins to unnerve him. He reaches the ship and stops the speeder.
Now he sees the Aksala welcoming party waiting to greet him. He ignores their words of greeting. Their former rudeness is unforgivable, and were it not for the girl beside him, he would have made it clearer to them immediately.
Instead, he boards the ship with the girl in tow. "Close the ramp. I will not speak to the Aksalans today."
"As you wish, my lord," the officer says with a bow.
Vader sweeps past him toward his chambers in the back of the ship. The girl continues to follow silently. The officers aboard the ship all turn to stare curiously at the girl following the Dark Lord but none dare to whisper or murmur while in his presence.
Once inside his chambers, the door slides shut behind them, and now Vader can no longer hide his impatience. He must take a long, good look at her. He must see if she is really his Padm?.
He starts by gazing into her face again. But for the slack-jawed blankness in the face and eyes, which unnerve them with their absence of sentient thought, she looks exactly like his Padm?, down to the last freckle on her face.
He reaches forward to unbind her hair. It cascades down her back in a waterfall. Despite the frizziness, which bespeaks of neglect with her brush, it is Padm?'s hair. He strips off his black glove, wincing at the unhealthy pallor of the skin of his good hand. He hates to see any part of his body, but he must feel her hair. He reaches forward to touch the tresses, and she does not flinch from his touch. She doesn't even seem to be aware of it. He runs his fingers through the locks. It feels like Padm?'s hair.
Finally, he strips her last barrier. He pulls off her dress.
She has nothing on underneath her dress.
She stands before him in the nude; a cursory glance shows a beautifully formed body, perhaps a trifle too thin. And she does not move or flinch. She does not shield her nakedness or stare at him with playful provocativeness as she would have done once. She does not even seem to be aware of her state of undress. With blind unconcern, she continues to stare ahead.
And he becomes so unnerved by her reaction, he cannot scrutinize her body. A tiny, last vestige of decency, which he thought he had eradicated, now comes to the fore and will not allow him to demean her further by shaming her with his gaze.
He curses. It is an old Huttese curse that he has not spoken in a decade and a half. And then he dresses her again.
"Talk to me," he says. And his voice is almost pleading. "Tell me who you are."
And still, there is nothing.
What happened to make her this way? What could have taken her mind so completely?
He decides to take her for a medical examination. He opens the door to his chambers and takes her through the ship toward the medical quarters.
The ship's doctor knows him well. He has cared for Vader ever since the Dark Lord clawed his way out of the lava pits, and was rescued. He pieced together the equipment that comprises the Dark Lord's suit. He gives Vader the weekly injections of antibiotics and bacta and nutrients that keep his body from breaking down. He mixes the nutrient broth that Vader now takes in place of food.
He is the one man who has no cause to fear Vader. And perhaps being a physician he has acquired enough bedside manner over the years to hide his thoughts better than most. In any case, he is not weak-minded, and he offers only impassivity to the Dark Lord during their encounters.
Vader likes this. He is so tired of men who shy away from him. He has respect for the doctor. And so he brings the girl into the sickbay.
Wordlessly, he pushes the girl forward. The doctor assesses her and then turns to Vader.
"My lord?" he asks.
"Examine her," Vader orders.
The doctor nods wordlessly and takes her into the back room. Vader starts to follow, but the doctor turns and stops him at the door. "This is imprudent, my lord," he says.
Vader smiles under his mask. It takes a man of character to stand up to the Dark Lord. He nods and withdraws. The door slides shut between them.
Vader waits patiently for the doctor and the girl to return. He is not by nature a patient man, but he knows he will get better answers if the doctor is thorough.
He does not know how much time passes before the door slides open again and the doctor and the girl emerge.
"Well?" Vader prods.
"I'm not sure where to begin," the doctor says, hesitantly. He glances up toward Vader, and for, perhaps the first time in their relationship, he evinces fear. He gulps, and quickly says, "By my examination, she is a female between twenty-five and thirty-two. She is well physically. She is well nourished. Mentally...I don't know how to describe it."
"Take your time," Vader says. "I want to know everything."
The doctor talks slowly, as though he is formulating his diagnosis as he speaks. "She is catatonic. I'm sure that cannot come as a surprise to you. But this is not a classic catatonia. She is still able to respond to simple commands. But, as you must have noticed, she does not answer questions, or even really evince awareness. Brainwave evaluations actually correspond to the activity of someone who is in deep sleep.
"It is my opinion that she has suffered a great trauma in the recent past-something has brought her to this level. I'm sure there must be an emotional and psychological component to this; however, there is evidence that there was physical trauma, as well."
"She was harmed?" Vader can hardly contain his rage that anyone would dare to touch his Padm?-if she really is his Padm?.
"She is not suffering from any injuries at this time, but there is evidence that she was wounded in the past. There are...marks on her left hand and her left foot that I cannot identify. And...she has evidence of having given birth re-"
The doctor's words are choked off as he is raised off his feet by the Dark Lord's fist. "What did you say?"
The doctor gags helplessly. "Gggghhhh....ggggghhhh!" Futilely, the doctor tries to pry off the black-gloved fingers that are clamped about his neck like steel manacles, as his vision starts fading to black.
Realizing his attack on the physician is pointless and counterproductive, Vader lets the man down. The doctor chokes and collapses to the floor, trying to catch his breath for a few moments, and then gasps out desperately: "She-she has evidence...of recent...vaginal delivery."
"I-I'm sorry, my lord," the doctor continues to gasp. "I cannot pinpoint this. I can only...say...it likely happened...within the last three or four months."
Vader looks away from the doctor to the girl. She has not moved, and is still standing in the doorway of the back room. She continues to stare ahead. The conversation and Vader's reaction have not provoked any response from her. Blankness. Her mouth falls open slightly, and he sees that she's starting to drool. He turns away from the sight, even as he reaches for a cloth to wipe her mouth.
Ignoring the doctor who is still on the floor, Vader orders the girl: "Come."
Silent as a wraith, the girl follows him out of the sickbay and through the ship back into his quarters.
Vader stares at her for a long time, as she stands still and contemplates nothing beyond his porthole.
A child? Our child! When and where? The thoughts echo resoundingly through Vader's brain, obliterating all other thoughts but one last one of anguish and betrayal: Why, Padm?? Why didn't you tell me?
There is no day or night in space. There is only the same, eternal blackness punctuated by stars. And yet, aboard the ship, the sentients follow the diurnal schedule of Coruscant Standard Time, the time the Emperor keeps within his palace. Shifts are assigned as day and night duties.
And so, aboard the ship Domination, a Victory-class Star Destroyer commissioned by the Senate in the last days of the Old Republic, it is now night.
Darth Vader does not sleep as he once did. He cannot lie recumbent-it interferes with the operation of his numerous life-sustaining machines. Instead, he has a recliner that allows him to lie back in as close to an approximation of sleep as possible. He lies upon it now, but he knows that there will be no sleep for him tonight.
His gaze is drawn toward the closed door of the inner cabin in his suite. When the suite was designed for him, a full bedroom with amenities was included. It always seemed to him to be a big, cosmic joke, for he can use none of those things he once took for granted.
Now, the girl is inside his room. He had led her inside himself; he had scrounged up some loose, comfortable clothing for her to wear, and had her put into bed. As he had ministered to her, he had not known whether to feel rage or pity for her. The combination of such disparate emotions sat ill in his mind, and he turned away from her at last feeling only confusion. And then he had returned to his recliner to make what he could of the rest of the night.
Inside the inner chamber, the girl is not in the bed. She climbed out of the bed when the door slid shut. She stands before the enormous porthole, watching as the stars drift by. But she is not really seeing anything.
There are no words for what is in her mind. She cannot articulate any thoughts. She is beyond that. She has no memory of who she is or where she is or how she got where she is. She can follow commands-one part of her mind can do this automatically-but she cannot formulate thoughts or store new memories. She does not even remember the events of this afternoon, or realize she is aboard a warship. Or that she is sharing the suite of one of the most feared men in the entire galaxy.
Memories. Sentient thoughts. Self-awareness. All of these things are lost to her.
Instead, what she has are images. Disjointed images that make no sense to her. There is no coherency in these fragments of her mind.
The eyes are always watching.
The eyes stir an echo of fear within her, but she has no idea why. She does not know why she sees the eyes. She cannot see the face beyond the eyes.
The eyes stare at her through the stars. The stars line up to form eyes. The eyes burrow down through hers into her very body.
She cannot escape the eyes.
She stares back at the eyes.
Tendrils of evil emanate from the eyes and reach toward her. They bore into her. They wrap themselves around her. They insinuate themselves in her body and through her heart.
She does not know why she pulls back, but it is instinctive.
The tendrils hurt her, they hurt her, they hurt her, they hurt her...
The cries tear from her throat but they do not form coherent words. There are no words for her to express what she feels because she does not know what she feels. There is no coherent emotion, there is only instinct. And even as she tries to pull away from what is hurting her, she wants the eyes. She cannot remember why she wants the eyes. She cannot remember that when she doesn't see the eyes, she sees worse; she sees things that hurt her far worse. She does not realize that the eyes are the gatekeepers, that underneath the catatonic exterior, there is another layer of psyche; and that psyche remembers things best forgotten. That other psyche is like a festering boil filled with poisonous pain and treacherous thoughts. The eyes keep that other self bolted away, keep the real pain at bay.
The door slides open but she is not aware of this. Someone rushes in and grasps her by the shoulders and she feels the tendrils of evil engulfing her again with the touch. She does not like to be touched. She does not like to be touched by the tendrils of pain. She struggles. She cries out. She cannot understand the futility of her actions.
"Padm?! Stop it!"
She stops. She stops struggling and she stops screaming. She stops because there is a part of her mind conditioned to obey. It obeys without understanding or cognition. She just stops.
She stares blankly ahead. The word has no meaning to her.
Vader leads her back to the bed. She follows silently, and obediently, she gets into bed. She lies down and stares up toward the ceiling, past Vader's mask.
Vader sits down on the bed beside her. He suddenly remembers something the doctor had said about her exam and he reaches for her left hand.
Through the palm and into the back of her hand he sees a mark. It is an ugly wound that did not heal properly. It looks as though someone has driven as stake through her hand. He pulls her right hand out from under the covers, but there is no corresponding mark there.
Impatiently, Vader stands up and rips back the covers on the bed. He examines her feet. The same mark appears on her left foot but not the right.
For a long time, Vader sits and stares at her. Her eyes are closed now, and she is breathing evenly, although through the Force, he senses she is not asleep-at least, she does not sleep as others do. In that way, she is like him. But what horrors has she gone through to make her this way?
What happened to you, Padm?? Who did this to you?
Eventually, Vader does meet with the Askalans. The meeting is brief. Vader refuses to hear their excuses or their pleas for mercy. He calls upon the Darkness within, and when he has done what needs to be done, only one is left within the Askalan Council. This one is trembling with terror as he sees his hundred compatriots dead.
Vader gives the man one warning: "Palpatine will tolerate no further delay in the payment of taxes. See that the money arrives on Coruscant post-haste. You would not want the Emperor to have to come here. He is not as forgiving as I am."
Quailing, the man can do nothing but stare, wide-eyed and mouth incoherently, but Vader knows that the message has been delivered properly. He does not wait for a response.
The Dark Lord returns to Domination. He has other missions to complete before he can return to Coruscant and report to his master. But he's really in no rush to go to Coruscant, either. There is no real draw there now that the secret apartment he shared with Padm? is no more. Now that the Jedi Temple is no more. Now that the brethren he had loved and served with are no more. Home is where the heart is, his mother said once. Now he has no heart, and so he has no home, either.
Once on board the ship, he returns to his chambers. As the door slides open, the young officer who had been keeping watch on the Padm?-girl leaps to attention.
Vader ignores the officer and approaches the table where the girl is sitting. She is dressed now in a dress of blue shimmer-silk. The dress hangs loosely on her thin frame, but seems more appropriate to her than the rags. Her hair has been swept up and braided neatly. She wears no makeup, but her face is as lovely as he ever remembered it. Even with her blankness, she still holds the bearing of a queen.
Still, she says nothing. She is sitting before a plate of food and is steadily eating. There does not seem to be any enjoyment of what she is eating, although Vader knows he has ordered the finest food available. She picks up pieces of food with her trident, places them in her mouth and chews like an automaton. He knows she will finish that plate of food whether she is hungry or full, because she is merely following commands.
The cup of wine beside her is full.
"Have some wine," he suggests.
Promptly, she reaches for the wine glass and drinks down the entire glass with one swallow. Then she puts the glass down and sits still. She has forgotten to finish her dinner.
"Are you hungry?" he asks, but he knows he will not get an answer. And she does not surprise him.
He wants to sigh, but cannot. He watches her lovely face for any flicker of emotion or recognition. He watches for a long time.
"My lord?" the young officer asks hesitantly, interrupting Vader's reverie.
Vader does not turn. "Tell Captain Anduwar to set course for Lexiri."
"Yes, my lord." Relieved, the officer gratefully makes his escape from the chambers.
Alone with Padm? again, Vader watches her for a long time, wondering if he will be able to get to the bottom of the mystery she represents; if he will ever know if she is really his Padm?; if he will ever learn what happened to her child - their child; if he will ever know who ruined her in this way; if he will be able to draw her out of her madness before he succumbs further to madness of his own.
And he knows that despite setting out inquiries about Padm?'s arrival on Aksala, and his attempts to trace her journey to this backwater, there is a good chance he will never find an answer to any of his questions.
The ship reaches Lexiri. Vader's mission here is to oversee the construction of a new communications tower that will allow Coruscant to monitor signals traffic between this sector of the Mid-Rim into the Outer Rim. Rumors of delay have reached Coruscant, and Palpatine wants his most trusted lieutenant to remind the Lexirians of their deadlines.
Lexiri is a strange world. The atmosphere is heavily methanated and crackles with strange, beautiful, and ethereal lightning storms. Although the planet is plainly an inhospitable environment, there is a small, but thriving tourist industry of people who enjoy the spectacular light shows that are on display day and night.
Sentient beings survive only in airtight structures with large, transparisteel display windows that allow all to see the lightning dance. The environment is too unstable for a ship the size of Domination to land safely. Vader must go down on the shuttle.
He is reluctant to go so far away from Padm?. He makes the decision to take her with him. No one would dare object to her presence.
The trip down on the shuttle takes an hour. Because the ship had arrived at Lexiri during its nighttime cycle, Padm? had been roused from her sleep. She awakens readily, and dresses herself when commanded. She is easily able to manage the laces on her dress, the buttons, the zippers, the frills and furbelows. She is dressed quickly and stands waiting for her next orders.
When she arrives on the shuttle, Vader commands her to sleep, knowing that she had little rest earlier in the night. Again, she obeys.
The shuttle makes its descent and she does not see the change from the blackness of space to the red skies of Lexiri. She does not see the lovely, intricate patterns and colors the lightning makes in the air. She does not hear the crackle and the roar of the electricity gone wild.
She awakens when commanded, after the shuttle has arrived in the walled-off landing bay. She stands behind Vader when he greets the welcoming party. The Lexirian Senator knows galactic etiquette well enough, and he cannot ignore a lady.
"Welcome to Lexiri, my lady," he says, with practiced gallantry.
There is a moment of confused silence as Vader's crew look uncertainly toward their master and the strange, silent woman from Aksala.
"Give your hand to the Senator, my dear," Vader says casually, and easily.
And she does. She raises her hand, as every good queen is taught, to be kissed diplomatically. At first, the Senator sees nothing amiss in her behavior and presses a kiss on the back of her hand. She lowers her hand and then stands still again.
"She is a bit overawed by your lovely world," Vader says politely. The Senator nods, although now his eyes dart a little uneasily toward this strange woman before turning away to discuss the matter at hand with the Dark Lord.
The party heads toward the doors of the landing bay, and now the Senator is describing in great, minute detail, all the advances that have been wrought on the communications tower since they last spoke. He hopes that the high injection of technical terms in his speech will awe and silence the Dark Lord. He does not know of Vader's talents in dealing with gadgetry.
"The frequency resonator conduction unit should have been put into place last week," Vader says, interrupting the Senator's litany. "As should the ion modulating sequencer. As for the delta wave modules, a child of five could have placed those up in five minutes. You have yet to tell me something good that I can report back to Coruscant."
"My lord-" the Senator feels sweat beading along his forehead as he tries to placate the Dark Lord. "I have spoken with the head engineer on this project and he assures me-"
He does not have a chance to tell Vader what the head engineer has said. A sudden torrent of unholy screams tears through the air. The screams peak in a high frequency barely audible to human ears and then increase in volume as they dive down into low-pitched keening moans.
The entire group stops in its tracks, dumbfounded. They turn as one to the source of the screams. It is Padm?, and she is on her knees with her hands over her ears as she shrieks and shrieks and shrieks and cannot stop.
In an instant, Vader is on his knees and he is helping her to her feet, feeling her screams ripping into his heart and wondering what caused them. He tries to pull her up but she claws at him savagely, and continues to scream. At first he cannot tell what spooked her so, but then he sees that they have just entered the main corridor that will take them from the docking bay to the government buildings. The corridor is lined in transparisteel and offers an awesome view of the Lexirian sky.
He realizes that her screams are coming in time with the flashes of lightning, and he quickly pulls her back into the docking bay to get her away from the lightning. She continues to scream incoherently, and he hears that her voice is starting to go hoarse. But even as her voice gives, she continues to scream soundlessly.
A medic runs toward their group and prepares to give her an injection of a sedative, but Vader stops the man with an imperious wave. The medic falls to the ground clutching at his throat, and Vader turns his attention back to Padm?. Now he sees that her eyes have rolled back and she has mercifully lost consciousness.
Vader scoops her up into his arms where she lays like a broken doll and carries her back into the shuttle. "We will commence with our conversation at a later date," he orders as he enters the shuttle.
And none dare contradict him.
Padm? lies within the medical scanner. Her eyes are closed and she is motionless. The scanner evaluates her from head to toe, taking a particularly long time evaluating her cranium. There is brain activity there, but the waves and spikes baffle the doctor. He has never seen this before. This is not the mark of insanity. There are no familiar landmarks of mental illness that he can see. The closest approximation he can make is that her mind simply comes and goes.
And of course, Padm? herself cannot answer the questions that plague those around her. Her true self is buried so deeply within layers of subconsciousness that there is little chance it will surface without damaging her irreparably. The lightning display threatened to trip certain locks that have hidden her true self; threatened to unleash the pain and the memories that she does not want to face.
The outer, catatonic Padm? lays perfectly still within the scanner. She has paid a terrible price for the peace she enjoys. She has paid for it with her very identity. The emotionless Padm? will fight at any cost to keep that other, dangerous psyche buried away.
The other Padm?, the one that has been buried deep down all this time is still very much alive, very much active. She remembers. She remembers because that is all she can do. The catatonic Padm? at the surface of her consciousness keeps a tight seal against those memories. The inner Padm? can relive memories but cannot let any of them out. And so she remembers.
Her memory leaps backward and forward like a faulty tape recorder. Images flash before her mind, bits of conversations, montages of reminiscences.
Right now, she remembers lightning. She remembers lightning that burns, that blinds, that sears, that brands, that lancinates right through her body. She wants to buck and jolt. She wants to try to escape from the pain. But the outer Padm? will not let that memory surface enough, will not let her body know this pain. And so the inner Padm? can only suffer and writhe until the memory fades.
Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop...
Must stop must get away away away away...
Cannot move cannot escape must move must escape...
Anakin, save me save me come for me come back to me take away the pain the pain the pain the pain...
Mercifully, the pain fades and the inner Padm? has a moment of reprieve. The medical scanner picks up a moment of calm, which further baffles the medical personnel. They have never seen such patterns of chaotic brain activity in a patient who was lying as perfectly still as Padm? is.
The images start again, but now they are images from Padm?'s wedding night.
The lights are dimmed within the beautifully appointed suite. Padm? emerges from the fresher dressed in a cream-colored negligee of Traminiti lace and Fedoru silk. Her long hair is unbound and the curls cascade down her back. The silken mules on her feet clatter discordantly on the polished marble floor despite her best efforts to walk gracefully and silently.
So much for gliding, she thinks ruefully.
Anakin turns at the sound, although Padm? knows that he was aware of her presence before he heard her. She knows he senses her through the Force, and she knows he senses her through his love.
She catches sight of Anakin's face. He is wearing a loose, black robe and standing by the mullioned transparisteel windows. He had been looking out into the dark toward the lake. When he turns though, she sees the way the light from the dimmed lamps catches on his blond hair. And she sees the beauty and purity of his features. But she is mesmerized by the glow from his eyes, this glow that is not a reflection of the light. It is the glow of anticipation, the glow of excitement, the glow of fear?, and the glow of love.
Across the room as she is, she can hear and feel Anakin's heart beating in time with her own. She feels the same way he does. She is nervous and excited and fearful and so deeply in love. She knows there will be many obstacles to their future happiness, but for this moment there is only Anakin and their love.
She crosses the room and reaches him. She holds out her hand and he takes it with his good hand. She knows he is still ashamed and distressed by the sight of his mechanical prosthesis, even though it doesn't bother her in the least. Her pragmatic mind sees the point more clearly than he does: better Anakin with a mechanical hand than no Anakin at all.
The touch of his hand on hers sends a jolt of electricity up her arm. She feels her heart now hammering in her throat. She has never been intimate with a man before. And Anakin has told her he never knew a woman before, either. Somehow, this pleases her, that they can commit fully to each other, that there will be no shadows of other lovers between them.
She closes the distance between them and turns up her face, wanting to feel his lips on hers. Wanting to lose herself in him, wanting...
...and now Padm? blinks. She is in a different room. This is their home on Naboo. They have another one on Coruscant-both secret, of course-but this home is her favorite. This was their first home, and this is where she tried so hard to create a homey, loving and peaceful atmosphere for the two of them. Anakin is standing before her as he was in her wedding night memory, but now he is dressed in his brown Jedi robes. There is no peace in his face now. Padm? isn't even sure if there is love. He is angry. So angry.
"If you're not on my side, you're against me, Padm?!" he shouts.
"Anakin, you have to lis-"
"I don't have to do anything!" Anakin exudes an aura that crackles with furious electricity, and Padm? recoils from it. "I've done everything for you! I've sacrificed everything for you!"
"Oh really?" Padm? answers and now she wonders at the blessed coldness that has settled around her heart. She had been furious and panicked and bewildered by the way Anakin could so easily turn against her. But this has been happening with increasing frequency over the last few months. He has drawn away from her, grown secretive. He has...she recoils from the thought at first, but now confronts it...he has sometimes frightened her. When she married him she knew there would be obstacles in their path, but she never thought that it would come to this.
Even as she thinks all this, she thinks of how she has betrayed Anakin, as well. She has gone behind his back to the Jedi-at first to beg them for their help with Anakin, but now to beg them for their help with her. Yoda taught her how to block her thoughts from Anakin-you don't need the Force, he insisted-and she finds that she has been using this trick with increasing frequency lately. Perhaps Anakin senses this. Perhaps he senses her latent treachery and this is making him draw away from her.
And even as she thinks this, Padm? realizes it for the nonsense that it is. She has done nothing her conscience did not approve. She has nothing with which to reproach herself. She loves Anakin and only wants the best for him. She...
The outer, unresponsive Padm? is pulled from the scanner. The doctor tries to waken her, to ask her questions. The silent Padm? has no words to answer. The inner Padm? knows the answers to these questions but cannot talk. Cannot surface enough to show even a flicker of emotion.
Padm? is being led out of the sickbay and down the corridor. She is being led to Vader's chambers again.
"Lay down and rest," a voice rumbles. Padm? does not know or care who issued the orders. She simply obeys. She lies down. And she sees the eyes again.
Vader finishes his business with the Senator of Lexiri and now moves on to his next task. He is to go to Cylapen on the far Outer Rim where a new cloning factory has been created to replace the one lost on Kamino. The Jedi destroyed that one at the beginning of the Clone Wars, thinking to put a stop to Palpatine's power that way, but they were too late.
As Domination leaves orbit around Lexiri and goes into hyperspace, he stands on the bridge watching the surreal patterns of hyperspace. Padm? stands beside him. Her eyes appear to be staring at the view through the transparisteel windows, but he knows that she is not really seeing what is before her.
It has been nearly two weeks now since he found her on Aksala. Two frustrating weeks in which he has learned more questions than answers. Vader has not been idle this whole time. He has sent his minions to research her past for him. They have told him about the slave market on Emon, and they have discovered the records of when she was sold. They have traced her arrival on Aksala to the date, but the ship which brought her is a mystery. These cargo ships are normally used for transporting livestock and transported slaves are simply listed as 'human chattel'.
So an investigation is underway on all of the ships which arrived on Aksala during that time period. Vader will get to the bottom of this mystery, no matter what it takes.
In the mean time, he has sent Padm? for medical tests. Every medical test possible has been used on her. Physically, they find nothing. Mentally, they find even less. She is but a blank slate and she does not give out her secrets.
Padm? stands on the bridge and her eyes take in the view of hyperspace before her, but the outer Padm? does not register the view, does not know what she's seeing. The inner Padm? recognizes this, and this triggers other memories.
She remembers the transport that she and Anakin took from Coruscant to Naboo all those years ago when Anakin was sworn to be her Jedi protector and to defend her against assassins. She remembers how, in spite of her best intentions, she fell in love with him then. She was defenseless against his youthful charm, and his ardor. She remembers holding up barriers, being cold, avoiding him when possible; finding any weapon she could to ward him off, to protect herself from falling in love, but not knowing that the battle had been lost from the first moment she saw him with Obi-Wan in her apartment on Coruscant.
She remembers other trips she has taken with Anakin as well. She remembers another journey from Coruscant to Naboo. This took place not long after the battle of Geonosis. Anakin had fallen into a deep depression because of his hand; he was convinced that being maimed made him less than a man. This time he had been the one who had tried to avoid her, but he could not evade a direct order from Yoda. The diminutive Jedi Master had ordered Anakin to escort her home. That journey had been another fraught with peril; Anakin had saved her life more than once on that trip, and in so doing had learned that he was worthy of love. And she had given her love to him freely by now. She, who'd thought to dedicate her life to the service of Naboo, now found that her desire to marry Anakin, to be by his side, to be his wife-all these desires swept through her to the exclusion of all else.
She thinks back to their wedding at sunset at the Lake Retreat. She remembers feeling protected by the glow of the sunlight and the glow of Anakin's love for her. She remembers this happiness she felt that day in a detached way. It is a distant memory, for she knows she will never be happy again.
Her thoughts now turn to sadness and she now remembers her last glimpse of her children. She remembers handing them to Sab?, her loyal handmaiden. Sab? will care for her daughter and raise the child as her own. But for her son...her son who looked so much like Anakin, even she will not know where he has been taken. Obi-Wan will take him from Sab?'s hand and deliver the child to be raised some place far from Alderaan or Naboo or Coruscant.
Padm? rises well before dawn. The early morning hours are peaceful in Aldera. She slides out of her bed and pulls on a silken wrapper as she stands by the window looking down at the few lights that are on at this time of day.
She shivers a little from the cold in the early morning air, and a little from the chill that has settled around her heart. This is the day when she will lose everything. She has lost Anakin, and now she will lose her children. This is the last day she can see them. Her heart feels crushed and shattered with the thought. She finds that for a moment she cannot breathe. These children are her flesh and her blood and they deserve the devoted love only a mother can give. But she knows that they need something far greater than her love and devotion. They need safety. And she cannot provide this.
She leaves her chambers and crosses the hall toward the nursery. At the end of the hallway, Royal Guards stand at attention. They salute her when she passes and she nods toward them in return. She enters the nursery and she sees them side by side in identical cribs. Luke sleeps peacefully. He is still wrapped in the blankets she had used on him the night before, and does not appeared to have moved much. Leia, on the other hand, is a fighter, and she has flung off her blankets, now sleeping with her limbs all thrown out. Padm? smiles at the dichotomy she sees in her children, and immediately, the smile freezes and crumples into tears as she realizes this is the last morning she will see them.
She thinks of all the things she will never do for them or with them. She will never see them take their first baby steps or hear their first words. She will never comfort them when their first tooth falls out, or when they are hurt. She will be the recipient of no baby secrets. She will not know their likes or dislikes, their favorite foods, the names of their friends. She will be a stranger to them. They will not even know her name. That last thought is the most wounding; that her children will never miss her or mourn her much less remember her-and when she leaves this life, it will be as if she had never been.
The tears have grown too strong and Padm? cannot fight the sobs that well from her throat. It is the cry of a wounded animal, and it wakes Luke. The young infant senses something is wrong and this makes him cry.
With an incoherent sound, Padm? quickly reaches down to scoop him up into her arms. She wants to hold him this way forever. Her baby. This is her baby.
She looks down into his face; it's red from crying and it's all scrunched up and she thinks that she's never seen anything more beautiful than the sight of her son crying, and then her heart breaks all over again as she thinks she'll never see him cry again. Never be the one to comfort him again. She rocks him gently, trying to blink away the tears. She doesn't want to lose the last moments with her son-she wants to see him, to imprint the memory of his beautiful face in her mind.
"Luke, Luke..." she croons gently, but he's inconsolable.
As if on cue, little Leia senses her brother's distress and starts to cry as well.
Burdened with her son, nevertheless, Padm? cannot forsake her daughter. She reaches down and picks up little Leia in one arm while holding Luke with the other. Trying to balance them in her arms she backs into the rocker chair in the corner of the room and sits down.
She no longer tries to comfort the children. She senses the effort is futile. She forgets her station. She forgets the fact that she was once a queen. She is losing her children, and her position means nothing. She is nothing, now. She's an empty vessel. She can only feel the grief washing over her in waves. She feels she will topple over under the force of these waves.
"My lady," the voice is gentle.
Padm? looks up to see Obi-Wan Kenobi and Sab? standing at the doorway to the nursery. Quickly, she composes her features. She tries to regain her dignity and sits up straight. The children are still wailing in her arms.
"Already?" she asks.
"I'm afraid so," Obi-Wan says, nodding. He and Sab? come forward for the children. "My transport is waiting."
"You can't tell me anything about where you are taking him?"
Obi-Wan sighs. "My lady, we've been over this. For his safety, it's best that even you don't know. I promise-my word of honor as a Jedi that I'll make sure he's placed in loving hands-and I'll watch over the boy, myself. And if-if things get better-if there comes a day when it's safe again-"
Padm? shakes her head. She doesn't want to cling to false hopes. She bends forward and presses a last, loving kiss on Luke's downy forehead. "Goodbye, my darling," she whispers. "I love you."
The boy has stopped crying, but is now whimpering in her arms. Trembling, she hands Luke to Obi-Wan, and fights the urge to run after them as she sees Obi-Wan heading toward the door.
The door closes behind Obi-Wan and Sab? rushes to her side. Padm? clutches Leia more tightly to herself. It's too much to ask her to give them up both in the same breath. She...
"Perhaps you would like a rest," Vader's voice booms.
Padm? says nothing, but turns and starts heading out of the bridge. She's been on the ship long enough. She knows where Vader's quarters are. There's no point in telling him that a rest will not do her any good. There's no point in talking. No point at all.
The business on Cylapen is completed and now Vader orders Domination to return to Coruscant so that he may report to his master again.
As the ship enters hyperspace, Vader returns to his quarters where the girl sits in her eternal silence and stillness. He still has not uncovered the mystery of her silence, or the mystery of her origins, but he no longer doubts that she is his Padm?. He cannot explain why he knows so thoroughly. He just knows.
And he knows that despite her utter lack of responsiveness, the fact that she sits by his side is balm to his heart in a twisted way that should not be. He grieves for her loss of identity, but he is also comforted to know she is with him again. And perhaps he feels a kinship with her; both of them have lost their identities. Both of them have hidden their inner selves within an unrecognizable outer shell.
As he has done every day since he found her, he sits beside her quietly. He takes her hand in his, stroking it gently, trying to will her to speak through the Force. Although she has never evinced any emotion, nor coherent words, Vader is convinced that he senses a difference in her; that she recognizes him, that she wants to see him as well. He would not take kindly to a suggestion that this is only wishful thinking on his part.
As he sits beside her, he has no words. He tried speaking to her when she first came, but her silence was too unnerving. And besides, what other words does he have to say to her other than that he loves her and that he's sorry? Even the fact that she's hidden his child from him-part of him can understand that-after all, he's a monster. He's a black, glowering beast who would frighten any child; and after he ordered the destruction of Naboo, after all the Jedi he hunted down and killed, after all the masses he slaughtered in the name of Palpatine and the Empire and his own hate and rage, he really is a monster. How can he condemn her for hiding their child away? He knows he does not deserve their child. He wonders if perhaps the child died on Naboo-if that is what drove her to this insanity. He is not sure what to wonder. And so he says nothing.
Strangely, sitting beside him at this time, the inner Padm? has been thinking of Naboo, too. She has been remembering the destruction of the beautiful, gracious planet that once sheltered a kindly people. She barely escaped with her life, and were it not for the children she sheltered within her womb, she would have stayed to defend her world.
Instead, there were too many voices urging her to flee: Sab? and Dorm? and Eirta? and Rab?, and her parents and her sister-all of them in a chorus with Obi-Wan's voice. All of them begging her to leave Naboo for the sake of the children.
The transport that took her away from her home for the last time just made it into hyperspace before the arrival of the Star Destroyers. Mercifully, she did not witness first-hand the bombardment that rained down upon Naboo for seven days and seven nights. She was spared the ruin of Theed Palace and the Lakeside Retreat. She was spared the destruction of her hometown, and the sight of her parents' bodies blown to pieces by the laser blasts.
Sab? cares for her those first days when Padm? thinks she will go mad with grief. Little does she know then what form true madness will take. Sab? helps Padm? adjust to life on Alderaan. Within the Royal Palace, Bail Organa is kind to her and he seems to understand that she is so fragile from grief and despair that it would take little for her to shatter into a thousand pieces.
Instead, he seeks to distract her. She will have a new identity. And a new job. She will be the Alderaanian Minister of Education. She can put her considerable talents to use for the good of Alderaan.
The suggestion strikes her as absurd when it is first presented to her. What does she know of Alderaani education? She can barely speak the language.
But the work turns out to be a blessing in disguise. It takes her mind off her own grief. It allows her to believe that she is working toward the future. It allows her to regain some of her equilibrium.
Even so, sitting at her desk in her office in the palace in Aldera, she looks out the window and sees the pastoral landscape in the distance, and cannot help remembering Naboo. There are so many similarities between Alderaan and Naboo, and this again tugs at her heart.
Her memory shifts to her honeymoon on Naboo, those all too brief days that she and Anakin had together right after their wedding. Anakin had no right to stay by her side-his orders had been to return her to Naboo and then to report back to Coruscant immediately, but when had Anakin ever been one for following orders?
At the time, she thought it amusing and romantic and even a little exciting. Her Anakin, the maverick Jedi. Her hero. Her love.
She remembers walking through the market with him on the day after their wedding. They walk hand in hand, and she sees the joy and pride in his eyes that his bride will show her love for him so openly. She is surprised at herself. She has ever been a reticent person, but now she wants the galaxy to know that she loves him. She feels only happiness in the touch of his hand. Their walk is really just an excuse for them to parade their happiness for others. They don't really need to buy anything; they want for nothing at the Retreat. But, unexpectedly, they see a "For Rent" sign on a little cottage just off the main market square.
Curious, they investigate.
It is a quaint little house of plaster and stucco and wood with a peaked roof and Naboo doves cooing under the eaves. The windows are old-fashioned and multi-paned and there are little boxes under the sills where blue and lavender flowers bloom.
An elderly man greets them when they knock. The front door is wooden and creaks a bit when it opens. This retreat was where he and his wife had come for their vacations. For fifty years they had summered here. From the back windows there is a lovely view of the lake, and even a little dock for a boat. He and his wife spent their summer afternoons watching the waters of the lake for fifty happy years until his wife died this past spring.
The Skywalkers-Padm? can hardly believe that is her name now-investigate further. And now they see that the front door opens to a tiny sitting room. Behind that is a little kitchen with an eating area. And upstairs, there are two small rooms and a fresher. The whole house is smaller than the throne room of Theed Palace, but Padm? thinks it is perfect. She squeezes Anakin's hand in her excitement, and she looks up to see Anakin's smile. She knows he is thinking as she does.
"It's perfect," Padm? sighs as she looks out through the windows of the kitchen onto the tiny lawn that slopes down toward the lake. Two giant oshi trees frame her view with their boughs arching and interlacing overhead, and the old man tells her that those trees were planted the first summer he and his wife bought the cottage, when they were newly wed. Padm? thinks of those trees and how strong and straight and tall they grow, and revels in the melancholy romance-that those trees symbolize the strength of love the man and his wife had for each other. She wants to plant a pair of trees as well, for surely the love she shares with Anakin will nurture them and make them grow just as tall and proud as the trees before her.
Impulsively, they tell the man they want to rent the cottage. That afternoon, they move their belongings to the cottage. As they walk up the stone pathway toward the front door, Anakin stops her. He lays their cases on the ground, and then he lifts up his bride in his arms.
Padm? giggles. "What are you doing, Anakin?" she asks, bewildered, and unaccountably giddy.
"It's a custom from Tatooine," Anakin says softly. "The new bride must be carried into her home. It's bad luck for her to step on the threshold." And he carries her into their home. He sets her down in the little sitting room, and he kisses her long and passionately.
"Bring our things in," Padm? says, a trifle breathlessly when the kiss ends.
"What?" Anakin appears a little confused at going from the passionate to the mundane.
Padm? smiles mischievously. "Bring our things in."
Padm? knows that Anakin sees the gleam in her eye, and he nods, heading out the opened front door to get their things. She flees up the stairs and waits for him. After a few moments, she hears him return.
"Padm??" he calls. But she does not respond. She can hear his footfalls as he checks the little kitchen, which overlooks the back yard. "Padm??" he calls again.
Now, she can hear him as he mounts the creaking staircase toward the second floor. She is not in the bedroom at the top of the landing. The door to the other bedroom is closed, and she is waiting behind it.
"Padm??" he says softly. He opens the door and he stops in shock when he finds Padm? standing before him wearing only her smile.
"You want to follow custom and traditions?" she says coyly. "Well, there's a Naboo custom for consecrating a new home. You want to hear about it?"
The inner Padm?'s reveries are interrupted by a voice over the intercom. "My lord, we are approaching Coruscant."
"Very good, Captain," Vader says.
The inner Padm? thinks about Coruscant. And she cannot understand why she feels dread.
The shuttle docks on the platform, and Vader prepares to disembark. He stops in the act of preparing to leave the ship as he feels a shudder in the Force. It is Palpatine. Instinctively, he turns to look at Padm?. She is sitting on a small stool in the outer chamber of his quarters. She is dressed in a simple gown of white and her hair is braided neatly. She stares off into he knows not where and every once in a while, she blinks.
He looks toward the doorway of his suite and ponders his next move. He had planned to take Padm? off the shuttle with him, and to quietly install her in his apartments within the Palace. But he should have known better. He had thought to bring her in with minimal fuss and perhaps not raise the Emperor's awareness. But precious little escapes Palpatine's notice.
He sighs. He had not wanted to bring them face-to-face, for he knows how his master felt about his wife. Padm? had once been a queen, and Palpatine her servant; and the Emperor does not like to remember this. Theirs had been an amicable relationship before Padm? began to accuse Palpatine of treachery and self-serving ambition.
Helplessly, Vader watched their friendship disintegrate into suspicion and dislike and finally, into hatred. In the end, Palpatine had even hinted that Padm? might be an unfaithful wife. Although in his heart, Vader cannot believe this of her, the mere whisper of suspicion and innuendo drives him wild with jealousy and anger and hatred.
He ponders again on those accusations. Who was right and who was wrong? Did Palpatine really betray the galaxy for his own ends? Did Padm? turn to another man's arms? The pain of these thoughts tears at him and he wants to cry out his anguish, as he feels the knife of uncertainty twisting away in his gut, perpetually cutting and bleeding him.
He looks down at Padm?'s lovely face. He once thought her an angel, and still she has that ethereal quality, that heavenly bearing. He still loves her despite everything. Having found her, he cannot bear to be apart from her again. So, even though he knows he will likely receive punishment from Palpatine for bringing Padm? into his master's presence, he decides to brazen it out and to bring her out onto the platform with him.
"Come," he says to her.
Silently, she rises. She falls into step behind him and they leave his chambers.
Padm? steps out onto the landing platform. The reception for the Dark Lord here is quite majestic. A whole battalion of stormtroopers awaits him as do a phalanx of honor guards. He is, after all, the Emperor's right-hand man. If Padm? is aware of this, she gives no sign. Her days of royal receptions lies too far in the distant past for this to trigger any memories-she only remembers them as though they happened for someone else.
She looks straight ahead, and sees a lone figure standing at the other end of the platform. He is flanked by storm troopers and two Red Guard protectors. He is stooped and wears a black cloak. His face is hidden.
Following Vader, she approaches the figure.
"Your Majesty." Vader falls to one knee to salute his sovereign.
"Rise, my friend," a voice commands.
"And I see you've brought a companion. Ahhh...is this who I think-? Come closer, my dear."
A very white, very wrinkled hand beckons toward Padm?.
She steps closer.
And then he lifts his hood.
And then she sees the eyes.
The eyes that have always been watching.
The evil eyes.
And now the outer Padm? crumbles before the sight of those terrible eyes. She cannot hold in the horror. The dam bursts and the inner Padm? comes out screaming. Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.
"No! No! No!"
In a flash, Vader is by her side. He catches her as she swoons. She is still screaming and is now writhing in his arms. She claws at him futilely, all the while screaming and screaming, and she remembers:
It burns it burns it burns it burns it burns.
Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop!
"Tell me where you hid him!" With each demand comes more lightning.
"No! Never! Never!" The pain the pain the pain...
"Tell me!" Another shock. Anakin come for me. Save me.
"No! Anakin, save me! Save me save me save me!" The pain will tear her apart, rip her into a thousand pieces, shred her, destroy her.
"Anakin will not save you. There is no Anakin. Anakin is gone! Now, tell me where the child is! Where did you hide him?" Now the bolts of lightning come faster and faster, burning, searing, stabbing. Anakin save me.
"I don't know what you're talking about! No! No! No!" She can no longer remain upright and she collapses.
She finds herself swirling, tumbling, falling down into an abyss. The eyes sear into her. The lightning burns into her. Anakin save me. The eyes, the lightning. She cannot tell them apart. She is falling and screaming and burning. She is on fire. Anakin save me. She feels knives stabbing into her. She is in hell, in hell, in hell. She feels tendrils of pain boring into her mind, determined to suck out her mind, her thoughts. She must protect them. She must not yield. She is in so much pain. Anakin save me. There is a cacophony of noise that howls around her ears. She hears mocking laughter and it sounds like Anakin's laughter, only Anakin would never mock her, never, never, never. He loves her. He has forsaken her. No, no, Anakin, save me! She does not know where she is. She cannot think beyond the pain. The white pain. The pain that lances through every joint in her body, making her twist and writhe and scream. And scream. And scream. She feels her vision undulating in a kaleidoscope of insane colors and sights. She can no longer make out separate images or thoughts. She cannot even remember her name. She has to shut down, shut down, shut down. She cannot let the tendrils reach to her core. She must shut down...
Mercifully, she loses consciousness now.
And when she awakens, the Padm? that was is buried away. There is only the shell Padm? left. The outer Padm?. The outer Padm? who can feel nothing. The outer Padm? who does not protest when she is sold into slavery. The outer Padm? who is mercifully, blissfully unaware of the pain the inner Padm? still feels.
Now that she sees the eyes again.
And now both the inner and outer Padm?s remember.
When Padm? awakens she is in a medical bay. She looks around and sees the cold sterility of the room and feels the crisp sheets covering her body.
At first, she lies disoriented. She tries to remember who and where she is, and what brought her here, but she can remember nothing.
And then she hears the breathing.
There is the noise of mechanical breathing that draws her attention. She turns and sees Vader enter the room.
He is moving slowly, awkwardly, and Padm? senses that he has been injured-or more correctly, that he has been punished. The breathing continues at its set rate, but she senses that he is struggling against the respirator, that he wants more breaths than the machine will deliver.
He comes toward her.
"Padm?," he says.
And now she remembers who she is and where she is and what brought her here. And she remembers why she fell into the blessedly numb state in which she existed during the past several months. And she wishes she could forget again.
"Anakin," she says. Her voice is little more than a whisper.
"You remember?" he asks.
"I want to forget," Padm? says. And she senses that underneath the black mask he is wincing. She wonders about the black mask. She wonders how she knew so certainly that it was Anakin under that mask. She does not remember ever seeing it before. The events of the past few weeks are lost to her. She only remembers...but she does not want to remember. Instead, she concentrates on Anakin. What happened that he wears this suit that can frighten small children? "Anakin?" she asks, struggling to sit up.
As if to answer some of her questions, he says: "Anakin is no more. He is dead. I am Vader."
"I don't know Vader," she says flatly.
"And I don't know you," he answers.
"Then perhaps we have nothing to say to each other."
The words bring out a wave of anger, and even Padm?, who cannot feel the Force, can sense this anger rolling off him.
"I have questions for you and I want answers."
Padm? says nothing. She knows that he can ask all he wants. It is not within his power to compel her to talk.
"What happened to the child?" he asks.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You know exactly what I'm talking about. What happened to our child?"
"Where did you get the idea there was a child?" Padm? forces her voice to be as cold and mocking as possible. She senses another wave of anger, followed by his struggle to calm himself.
"The doctor on Domination. He told me you had delivered a child."
Padm? says nothing. She looks away from him, examining the room around her more thoroughly. Beside her bed is a metal tray. There are instruments on the tray. Frightening looking instruments with sharp points and jagged edges. Syringes filled with clear liquid. The syringes are labeled with strange medical terms: Trivalent gamma fluoroargonquadrihexidine. Potassium chloride. Sodium amytal. Magnesium pentaserine.
Padm? suddenly starts to shiver as she realizes what these instruments are for. And what the syringes are for: One for truth, two for pain, and one for death. In the early days of the Clone Wars, she had heard whispers of torture employed by Palpatine and his loyal lieutenant. These whispers had always gone unsubstantiated, but she did not know it was because no one other than she had ever survived any of their interrogations, and so none could tell their tales.
But, as she sees the instruments and syringes she knows without a doubt what they are for.
"Answer me, Padm?." His voice is impatient.
Again, she says nothing.
He reaches for her, grasping her with his mechanical hand. The grip hurts, but she refuses to give him the satisfaction of hearing her cry out.
"Where is our child?" he asks again.
"Yes, where is the child?" a smooth voice pierces her consciousness.
Padm? looks toward the doorway of her room and sees Palpatine there. The sight of him unleashes a wave of terror within her. The memories of her interrogation and that Force-lightning-that terrible power that sent her into madness-now it pervades her mind. Involuntarily, she feels her stomach rebel. But she has not eaten in nearly forty-eight hours, so she does not vomit. She retches instead, feeling sweat beading out along her forehead as she tries to calm her visceral reaction. She clutches at her bed sheets and at the tray beside her bedside and knocks the tray over, spilling the instruments and syringes onto the sheets of her bed.
"I'm so sorry you are not feeling well, milady," Palpatine says, still in that smooth voice, advancing into the room. "But you will not find me as merciful as Vader. I let you go once, but I want answers now."
Padm? tries to pull herself upright, and as she gropes about her sheets for purchase, she feels the cold glass of a syringe under her hand. She glances briefly at the label. Potassium chloride. Clutching the syringe in her hand as she hides it under the folds of the sheets, she turns toward Vader and his Emperor.
"If I recall, you tried this on me once before," Padm? says. "You used your lightning on me, and I wouldn't talk then. What makes you think you have any weapons that will make me talk now?"
Vader's head jerks up at her words. Padm? does not realize the connection that he has just made. He is remembering her violent reaction to the Lexirian lightning storms. And now he understands. Now he knows who drove the sanity from her eyes. And he feels the dangerous anger boiling under the surface of his mind. Palpatine knew about his child. He knew and he tried to locate the child. For what? To kill it? To use the child as another servant? Vader knows not. Only that he has been betrayed by both Padm? and Palpatine. Both knew of this child's existence and both hid it from him.
"You think that lightning is all the punishment you will receive if you do not talk?"
And suddenly, Padm? feels the tendrils of evil and pain from those eyes. They are boring down into her mind, plumbing into the depths of her soul, digging for answers she knows she must never give.
She remembers what Yoda taught her, and how she must close her thoughts. And although she knows she is weak, so very weak, she uses her feeble weapons against Palpatine.
And it works.
He draws away as though he has been struck, and those red eyes burn in fury and hatred.
"Who taught you that!" he asks. The words are like a whip. And Padm? hears the unspoken other words: How dare you close your mind to me?
Padm? ignores him. She knows how maddening it is for Palpatine to be ignored. She turns again to Vader, searching for the man she loved under the black-garbed specter. She wants desperately to believe that the man she loved is hidden under the black as she hid her identity within that blank shell. That this time, he will save her. "Anakin," she says. "Say something."
"Anakin is dead!" Palpatine hisses.
Padm? continues to ignore him. She pleads with the black clad form before her. "Anakin. Please."
"My master is right," Vader says. "Anakin is dead. There is only Vader now."
"I loved Anakin," Padm? says. "I married Anakin. He was my whole life."
"He is gone."
"Are you sure?" Padm? asks.
"There is no need to ask."
"I loved Anakin," Padm? says. "I loved Anakin."
She looks up to Vader, waiting for him to say he loves her, too. But he says nothing. He cannot say he loves her as Anakin. And so she realizes with a sudden chill to her heart that Anakin has really died. Even when she had her own interrogation by...
...but the memory of that interrogation is too horrifying for her to allow herself to dwell on those thoughts...
Instead, she remembers only how she had called out to Anakin, willing him to save her, begging him to make true his promises of love and devotion and to deliver her from her pain.
But he never came.
There is only this black specter in his place.
The man she loved sold his soul to the Dark, and is no more.
She realizes now that it's too late just how desperately she had waited for Anakin to re-emerge, and to save her. She thought she would feel anguish and heartbreak and despair to find him gone, but instead, she feels just a curious calm. She is beyond despair. She is numb.
"There is no Anakin to save you now," Palpatine says, unable to stand this exchange any longer. "Tell me where your child is and I may spare you. But don't tell me, and I'll make you wish you were never born."
"Tell us, Padm?," Vader says. And Padm? fancies she hears a tone of pleading, of desperation in the mechanically modulated voice. But, perhaps that is only a last vestige of wishful thinking. "Save yourself."
"I would have told Anakin," Padm? whispers. "But Anakin is no more. There is no one to tell." Surreptitiously, she uncorks the syringe under the folds of the bedclothes and holds the needle against her thigh, her thumb on the plunger. She looks up at Palpatine, drawing herself up in regal fashion.
Palpatine recoils a little from the gleam in her eye, the wildness. Where a moment ago there was sanity, there is now madness again.
"Go to hell, Palpatine," Padm? says. "Go back to the hell you came from." And she spits into his eye. That red eye. And she laughs, peal upon peal of insane laughter-it is not melodious and in fact, stirs shivers of fear in its listeners from the wild discordance of its sound.
Palpatine is enraged. How dare she. How dare she? The red eyes flash in time with the lightning.
The first jolt of electricity slams into her body, and her muscles all spasm. The power of it drives the needle into her thigh, and sends the plunger home with its load of poison.
She has no time to cry out or to react. She does not even realize that Vader has now turned on his master, slamming the Emperor's frail body on the ground, choking him with the Force, with such power that overwhelms the mad old man.
She merely slumps backward, as her muscles slacken in death.
And Vader turns from his master toward her, crying out in horror as he rushes to her side. But it is too late. She has flown from his grasp one last time. And now, he sees a smile of triumph on her face.
Original cover by Gabri_Jade and obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.