Finding Darth Vader is a lot harder than most people might think.
Not that anyone in his right mind would want to attract the Dark Lord's notice. In fact, most sentient beings in the galaxy want to avoid it at all costs. Vader serves as the universal fiend of the Empire - the supernatural creature that is said to be everywhere and anywhere, and from whom no one feels safe.
His is the dark shape that people expect to see when they look over their shoulders at night.
He is the demon that parents conjure to frighten their children into behaving.
Throughout the galaxy so many incidents, so many events are attributed to Vader personally that he would have to be omnipotent to be behind them all. And many believe that he is. The idea of Vader, as much as the actual man - if he is still a man - darkens the galaxy from one side to the other.
But actually finding him? That's another story entirely. No matter what the galaxy's populace believes, the odds are very small that someone like Vader would pay the slightest attention to any old insignificant speck of life in the galaxy.
Like me, for instance.
But I need to find him. The real Vader, not the myth. I don't expect it to be an adventure from which I will escape alive. But since it was Vader who shattered my life in the first place, dying by his hand would at least imbue all my lost years with a kind of poetic symmetry.
"Hey you!" an impatient voice yells from somewhere behind me. "Are ya' boarding, or what?"
I suppose I spend too much time alone and silent. My thoughts and memories tend to take over, so that separating them from reality takes a bit of effort. This time, the sharp voice together with the sting of wind-blown sand on my face brings me very quickly back to the here and now.
I had tied a ragged strip of cloth over my eyes to protect them from the midday glare of this obscure desert planet's twin suns. Now, in the sudden beginnings of a sandstorm, I am grateful for the makeshift protection. I can't see much through the narrow slit I had left open, but it doesn't really matter. There isn't much to see, and I always can rely on the Force to guide me.
"Coming," I call, into a stiff gust of wind that rips my voice into even more of a croak. I tend to use words sparingly. Only what is needed, when it is needed. It's so much safer that way.
I hurry. I'm fortunate to have found a way off this desolate, overheated rock at all.
It has taken me nearly a week to find transport to the Yavin system because almost no one is conducting business as usual. In these terrible days after the destruction of Alderaan, much of the traffic throughout the galaxy, even the illicit traffic, has come to a standstill while its denizens pause to overcome their shock and grief and to reassess their beliefs about the state of their universe.
Finally, after days of careful enquiries and more Force-enhanced persuasion than I care to admit using, I managed to secure passage on a small privately owned ship. I'm lucky. There are few reasons why someone without official business there would be willing to travel anywhere near an Imperial stronghold, particularly one that has seen a great deal of activity recently - there even have been rumors of a visit to the vicinity by the Emperor himself - so I assume my pilot's business in that sector is unofficial.
But when the Emperor ventures abroad, he rarely appears without his mighty fist. So that is where I must begin my quest for an audience with Vader.
Of course, I secured my good luck with 15,000 Imperial credits - all the money I had remaining. I don't mind in the least. If I succeed in my quest, if I find Vader, my need for material goods will surely be over. If for some reason I fail, I will go back to being a survivor and obtain what I need, as I always have. It is of little importance to me.
Head down against the cutting, windblown sand I make my way to the open gangplank of the small vessel where the pilot awaits me impatiently. At the last moment a particularly vicious gust of wind catches me as though I was a sail and pushes me aside. The pilot throws out a hand to help me find my feet and hauls me rather unceremoniously on board. For a small man, and not a young one at that, he is surprisingly strong.
I nod my thanks and begin to unwind the frayed layers of cloth with which I had wrapped my head and neck. In the process I leave piles of gritty sand everywhere on the grimy floor. The pilot is busy shaking out his own cloak, and doesn't seem to mind. Still, his eyes, so very, very pale in his creased, suntanned face, seem to take in everything about me. My clothing is plain and practical, and my luggage is simple - a single rucksack that I carry over my shoulder. I don't carry a weapon. I haven't carried one since... well, since the day my life as a Jedi ended.
Apparently satisfied that I don't pose an immediate threat, my pilot indicates that I should take the seat next to his in the cockpit, and after that he ignores me completely while he busies himself with the pre-flight checks. Being ignored is something I'm accustomed to. I work hard to leave little impression wherever I go.
Without a job to do I sit quietly by his side and allow my thoughts to return to the treacherous landscape of my past.
The Order that had been my family and my home has long since vanished into the realm of myth. The best, the bravest, the brightest lights in the Force all have been extinguished, and with their passing a suffocating murkiness in the Force had gradually crept over the galaxy. Still, the struggle to live within that gloom is nothing compared to the sheer, breathtaking loneliness of being the only one of your kind.
I often wondered why I had bothered.
Maybe this is why.
"Do ya' have a name?" the pilot asks with the cautious courtesy of those who live on the fringes. Once again his voice returns me abruptly to the present. He isn't demanding a reply; he's just giving me the opportunity for conversation. I suppose he is prompting me to tell my story. It is a long journey to the Yavin system, with little to do for entertainment.
But I don't have a story to tell. How can you have a story when you don't exist?
I barely had reached my eighteenth year and I still was a Padawan learner when my Master suddenly called me to him in the middle of the night, shoved a bundle of Republic credits and forged travel documents into my hands, and made me change into civilian clothing right then and there. He took away my Jedi robes - even my comfortable and familiar boots. He took away my lightsaber. And then, to my utter horror, he cut off my Padawan braid. I remember watching it fall to the stone floor, as if it had never been there. There was no ceremony. There was no audience. And there certainly was no Knighthood...nor would there ever be.
I know he had just wanted to save me. But he might as well have cut out my heart.
The memory of our last conversation is more vivid to me than the ship in whose sagging co-pilot's seat I now sit.
"You must forget that you were ever a Jedi, Poulin Brith."
"But M-Master!" I'd stammered, as I tended to do in times of stress, "what am I supposed to do now?"
"Live, Poulin," he had said gently. So gently. "You are supposed to live."
For seventeen years after my Master hugged me goodbye and pushed me away I tried to do as he had asked, creating new identities wherever I wandered, re-inventing myself over and over again just to survive. Then three years ago I stumbled onto the real truth of my existence on Tatooine, and after that I stopped trying to force my life into any shape at all. Now I am defined only by what I am not.
You must forget that you ever were a Jedi.
"No, I don't have a name," I lie.
Jedi don't lie.
My pilot shrugs. I'm sure he has known many men like me - men who try hard not to leave a trace of themselves anywhere. "Suit yourself," he says amicably.
All the great Jedi are long gone. And yet here I am - still alive, after nearly twenty years of stumbling around in lonely obscurity. Despite my unending search for other survivors, I believed for a long time that that only one other remained from that bright, golden time - Vader - and that he is as lost to me as the Order itself.
He was my friend once. Then he destroyed everything that was good, and true, and bright in my life.
So of course, however nonexistent I must be to him, Vader never has been far from my thoughts. Throughout all my years of rootless wandering, he has been the dark heart of my inner universe - that lingering image that never fades. He is a magnet for my idlest thoughts and speculations, a pernicious obstacle in my meditations, and lately, a constant and disturbing presence in my dreams.
Because of Vader I have lived my life isolated in a shadow world between what might have been and what will never be. Yet because we were both Jedi, I no more can dismiss him or cast him aside than I can separate myself from the Force that forged us both. For all those lost years I thought of him as the closest thing I have to a family. He was the only one left who was even remotely like me, or who shared a little of my history and a few of my memories. Someone who might understand who I am and what I was meant to be.
He is, in a very real sense, my brother.
A Jedi's only family is the Order.
I have long thought of Vader as the distant shadow that I - the invisible, the nonexistent - nonetheless cast. In turn, I imagine myself as an unseen specter that haunts him.
Do I haunt him? Do we all?
Sometimes, in the privacy of my relentless solitude, I wonder whether he senses that I am still here. Vader is powerful now - more powerful than any Jedi I had ever known. And with so few bright lights remaining in the Force, it ought to be easy enough to find one that shines with the clarity of a Jedi's presence. Perhaps, deep down, I wish for even that tenuous connection. But honoring faithfully the promise that I made to my Master that terrible night so many years ago, I have taken pains to remain hidden from him. To stay alive.
Pre-flight checks completed, our small ship - named, with what I can only assume is bravado, the PellMell - takes off straight through the vicious clouds of sand and lifts us quickly into the welcome darkness of space. I watch the planet recede with the distinct feeling that I never will return to it again.
My pilot fiddles with the flight computer for a while and then settles back it his seat, watching the controls carefully.
"Hang on," he says finally, and I grip my armrests and enjoy the familiar dizzying slam in the gut as we jump to light speed. I watch the stars outside the viewscreen flatten into gray ribbons and try not to dwell on the thought that Tatooine isn't the only place I won't be returning to if my errand is successful. A sweet, fleeting memory of a verdant green world and a woman named Lila appears to me and hastily I push it away.
Now that the vessel is on autopilot, my persistent companion makes another try at conversation.
"What takes ya' to the Yavin system?" he asks suddenly, breaking a long silence. "There's not many that want to go that way. Not right now, anyway."
"Personal business," I say.
"Oh, aye?" He is clearly curious.
The destruction of Alderaan, that act of terror that brought the galaxy to a shocked halt, had the opposite effect on me. It inflamed me. My past roared into life again, and even Lila's loving, steadying presence by my side wasn't enough to keep my demons at bay. I stopped ignoring my accursed, recurring dreams, dropped everything, and set out for that inhospitable rock that was, to my mind and heart, the furthest place from the dark center of the galaxy: Tatooine. I believed it held everything that was important in the universe.
It was a difficult journey in the days immediately post-Alderaan, but not impossible for someone as determined as I.
The shock and grief that had awakened me to action after the destruction of Alderaan returned full force when I learned that what I sought on Tatooine no longer was there. It took me a day, a whole precious day, to find my way back to the hut in the Jundland wastes. It felt empty. It was empty.
It took me another day to return to Mos Eisley, and then a few hours to trace the boy back to a desolate moisture farm somewhere far on the outskirts. Half a day's journey later, I stood before a burned-out wreck and fought against the worst despair I had experienced since the destruction of the Temple.
Was he still alive? Were they both?
I spent the night out there in the ruins of the shattered homestead. By the time I had found it the twin suns were close to setting and it was too late to find my way back to the shelter of a settlement. There were two fresh graves on the site. Someone had been there; someone had buried the dead. Fighting hard against the fear that the boy lay in one of those graves, my last act in the long dusk of that disappointing day was to send them on their way with the Meditation of Transition. Finally, during the course of that long night, I was able to reassure myself that the boy was not one of them.
But he was gone. In a way, that was worse. My fear for him - my fear of what might happen if he were to be discovered - outweighed any concern for my own safety. And so here I am, looking for Vader...or more to the point, trying to make sure that he finds me. That will be the real trick, because I have successfully avoided being found since the last days of the Purge.
Personal business, indeed.
I sigh with the memories and shift in my seat. As if he had been waiting for a sign of life from me, my pilot makes one last attempt at conversation. Staying away from personal questions this time, he shifts the topic to something more general - politics, and the Alderaan holocaust. It is unlikely that there is a soul remaining in the known universe that hasn't heard about the wanton destruction of a peaceful, prosperous, and influential planet. He asks the question that has become common currency throughout the known galaxy, the expected, even required, opening to any kind of social interaction: "So, where were ya' when ya' heard about Alderaan?"
"I was lost," I say.
Now I am following the needle of the compass called Vader. But he doesn't need to know that.
The small man with the shrewd eyes continues to look at me curiously, but I'm through talking. I settle down into my seat and prepare for a long, silent journey. Eventually, reluctantly, he gives up and allows me the privacy of my thoughts and memories.
They are my only home.
I am dreaming again, and there is nothing I can do about it.
Predictably, in my dream, I am back on Tatooine. It irritates me. Haven't I finally found passage off this Force-forsaken planet?
I thrash around, and whack one elbow painfully on the sloping bulkhead that forms the back of the narrow slab of a bunk. I rouse just enough to confirm that I am, indeed, in the tiny bunk cabin of the PellMell. I am alone for the moment - the other bunk is unoccupied. Cradling my throbbing elbow with my hand, I drift back into semi-sleep. The same dream is still there, where it has been lying in wait for me.
Jedi don't dream
I have long dreamed extensively and vividly, but since the Force-disruption brought about by Alderaan's screaming death, this one recurring dream has taken on such urgency, such...dimension...for lack of a better word, that it even tries to follow me into wakeful states. There, I usually can ignore it. In sleep, there is no escaping from it.
I've tried to tell myself that it is merely a persistent memory. Yet each time it returns, I re-live it with the same freshness, and the same power. And each time it changes slightly. Images are added. The shadows grow longer. My sense of urgency increases.
I have some small reputation as a healer. I suppose it's not surprising that I fell into that profession as a way of finding a place for myself in the galaxy - such as it is. To a well-trained Force-adept, many of the illnesses and injuries that plague beings of all kinds and origins are fairly easily dealt with. I learned early on that the trick lay not in the healing itself, but in how successfully I disguised the ease with which I do it. In those terrible early years I learned, through the pain of persecution and several near-captures as a rogue Jedi, that open, honest use of the Force in the ways I had been trained was a death sentence. I learned to stay on the less-developed fringes of the galaxy. Little by little I taught myself the lore of local medicines in the cultures I travel through, hiding my too-efficient ministrations behind the plant extracts and potions and incantations that my patients understand and trust.
Somehow, this skill brought me to the notice of the Hutt clans on the Outer Rim. Three years ago the Hutts sent an agent to find me and bring me back to Tatooine. I got to see the side of the vicious gang wars that few ever saw...and those that did never spoke. I had been 'hired' to treat the gang's wounded. Actually, there was no contract, no offer. The Hutt's agent made it very clear that I would be paid, but that there would be no negotiation. The end of his blaster managed to convince me.
A calm mind holds no expectations.
The work was hard and constant. When I had patched up enough of their dirty, sullied numbers, I had taken my credits and escaped from the palace.
The dream begins the way it always does. I'm back in the hot, dusty, crowded main street of that run-down spaceport town on that insignificant desert planet that can barely manage to attract an Imperial presence. It is market day in Mos Eisley, and I am there because I am desperate for some diversion after my long stretch of indentured labor for the Hutt.
Even in the dream the heat on Tatooine is extraordinary, as is the light. It amazes me that there is any life here at all, much less the teeming crowds that had gathered in the scorching midday to jostle, trade, gossip and make trouble. The stench is there, too, from the animals that mix so freely with the people. Not for the first time, I wish that the dream didn't insist on being quite so vivid.
Thanks to the Hutts, I have money, but there is nothing I want to buy. I need nothing. I wander from stall to stall, pretending to look at the meager wares, but my real diversion is studying the crowds around me.
I watch people all the time. It's in my nature. During my Jedi training observation was the basis for all learning. Later, of course, my skills became necessary for my survival. But the real reason I observe people so closely is that in spite of myself, I never can stop looking for others like me. Jedi.
How is it possible that he could have destroyed us so completely? How is it possible that I am the only survivor? Me, of all people? Why was I still alive when all the others had died? I was the least of them all.
The shame never goes away.
For a while, during the early years of my exile I had persuaded myself not only that I might find others, but that that my survival served a purpose. That I had been spared for a reason. That burning hope kept me going through those dark first years, but over time, it did not survive the harsh truths of my existence. Still, the habit of observing, of searching, remains with me always.
Pickpockets are rampant in run-down spaceport towns like this one. In short order I have spotted them all, even the ones I can't yet see with my eyes. I know their movements, and I'm pretty sure that I know who their next marks will be. There was a time when I would have tried to stop them. But there are too many of them everywhere I go; too many petty criminals, too many rogues and criminals and evildoers, and I am alone. I mustn't draw attention to myself, and so I have learned to coexist side by side with them. Ordinary life everywhere is petty, mean, and unfair, and I have learned to accept it.
So I am not surprised when I become the target of a pickpocket. My first thought is that he must truly be desperate; in my shabby, nondescript rust-colored tunic and leggings, with my heavily worn boots and simple rucksack I am no one's idea of a wealthy mark. But then I realize that with my paler skin - sun like this is new to me - and off world clothing I am clearly identifiable as a traveler, and therefore, as good possibility for a quick score. It amuses me that for the first time in many years, I actually have something worth stealing.
I keep up my fašade of clueless ignorance while I deliberately drift away from him. I don't want any trouble, because trouble means attention, and that is something I cannot allow. On the pretense of shifting my interest to the next vendor's wares I take stock of my surroundings.
The market stalls are arranged along two sides of the widest road that cuts through the heart of the town. Even so, in this old town, with its twisting streets, the distance between them is not great, and the road between the stalls is jammed with people and animals moving in untidy streams in all directions. Right now a drover is goading two of those big, smelly, lumbering beasts they call dewbacks right through the middle of the crowd, so it's not possible to cross over.
I decide to have a chat with the fellow who has me in his sights. A few compelling words from me, and he'll forget all about his plan. I slip closer to my pursuer to put an end to this silent little drama once and for all.
Only something happens to me, something so astonishing that I completely lose my concentration. Inexplicably, it feels as though a soundless explosion has taken place in my mind. A growing, expanding, penetrating sense of brightness permeates every part of my awareness leaving me shocked and overwhelmed and completely lost. I stumble, and in that moment I feel a tug on my rucksack as someone relieves me of it. I react instinctively, grabbing at it, but the unprecedented invasion of that light into my consciousness has taken up all my focus, so I miss.
I can't believe it. I miss!
I hear someone shout, "Give it back!" and there is a scuffle behind me. Someone runs away. I turn around in slow motion, the only speed of which I am capable.
I feel and act as though I've just gone blind, but I haven't; there is nothing wrong with my eyes and nothing around me has changed. Still, the sense of unbearable brightness persists, bringing a hard lump to my throat, and making me dizzy and slow. My head is full of a persistent voice, chanting...it can't be, it can't be, please, please, let it be true, let it be true...over and over again and I realize that it's me and that I'm praying like a hapless, helpless creature, the very farthest thing from a Jedi.
A Jedi approaches the Force as a partner, not as a supplicant.
Please, please, please...I'm still begging inside when a hand catches my forearm and keeps me from falling, while another hand holds my rucksack, offering it to me.
"Are you all right?" a concerned young voice asks. I look at the strong, square fingers on my sleeve and raise my eyes to the wrist, and arm and shoulder, and finally to the boy's face that floats above them in my wavering vision. Warm blue eyes are looking at me with concern. But it's not his features that mesmerize me; it's the light that surrounds him. The pure, shining light of the Force, which clearly loves him as I have only ever seen it love one other.
"Yes," I whisper, staring. It can't be, it can't be, it can't be...he's only a boy...
"You have to be careful here. Those guys had you picked out a long time ago." My rescuer smiles. "No offense, but off worlders are prime targets." He pushes the dangling rucksack toward me. "Here. They didn't get away with it."
"Yes," I croak. "I should have known. I was...I was distracted." I grasp the rucksack with a shaking hand and swallow, remembering my manners in the nick of time. "Thank you."
"No problem," he says cheerfully and releases my arm. "Good luck. And watch your back!" And then he turns to leave.
He is leaving. My world is about to go dark again.
"No!" I cry.
"What?" He turns back to me, puzzlement written all over his face.
"I mean..." I scramble to recover. "I mean, don't go so quickly. I...I haven't thanked you properly. I don't...I don't even know your name..."
The boy grins.
"That's all right. There's nothing to thank me for, really."
"Let me buy you a drink, at least. A cold drink..." Don't go. Please don't go.
"Thanks," he says nicely, but he's backing away from me already. "I can't. I have to go meet my Uncle..." He lifts a hand in a friendly wave. The last words he ever says to me are, "take care," and then he disappears into the crowd.
So effortlessly, so easily, so naturally this strange boy did for me what I long ago had stopped doing for others. He helped me without a thought for himself.
In the dream I cry on the inside, strangled by hot and harsh tears that refuse to fall, when the brightness the boy brought with him is suddenly dimmed and I realize that it has been blotted out by a black shadow that grows and grows and fills my vision until it is all I can see.
I struggle to push him away; I don't want him. It's the boy I want to see again, to be near him; I want to thank him again and again for reminding me what hope feels like.
A Jedi seeks only the light.
I curse the dream for forcing me to re-live that glorious light over and over again, only to have it snatched away each time. Lately it's even worse. The dream doesn't stop there; it drags me more and more deeply into the shadowy despair that Vader brings...
"Wake up!" A rough hand shakes my shoulder. I rouse instantly and see my pilot bending over me, a grim look on his brown, creased face and a hard glint in his pale eyes. "We've got some trouble. I need y'ar help."
I'm so glad to be awake again that I could kiss his leathery face, stubble and all. Any trouble is better than facing the rest of that dream, especially now that I am so close to facing Vader in reality. I jump lightly off the bunk and follow him into the tiny cockpit. My elbow still aches in irritating reminder of my torn sleep. I ignore it.
"Fly or shoot?" the pilot barks over his shoulder.
"What?" I must still be sleepy. I don't understand.
"Do ya' wanna fly the ship, or shoot? I can't do both."
"Fly," I say automatically. Piloting is not my greatest strength, but given a choice I'll always opt to evade rather than kill.
I slip into the pilot's seat and take stock of the navigation panel. The vessel's controls are reasonably familiar. Unfortunately, so is our situation. It seems we've encountered an Imperial blockade, and my pilot intends to outrun it. The problem is he's readying the weapons.
"You can't fire on Imperials," I insist, checking the flight computer and the grid maps. "Give it up."
"Sorry," he says. "Not possible. If we're caught, they'll take us fer Rebels fer sure." Behind me, he's priming the Ion cannon and the two rapid-fire laser cannons from the gunner's station. I didn't know a ship this size could hold so much firepower. "So ya'd better get us outta here."
"That's not so bad," I say, holding our course and hesitating. "It's easier to talk our way out of that one than to run an Imperial blockade."
"Not now, it isn't," he says through gritted teeth. "Now move! Or ya' won't be flyin' or shootin' - you'll be the one gettin' shot."
Reluctantly I change course and loop away from the blockade's lead ship, which is a small, fast patrol ship. I know they're going to chase us now, which will just make things worse. I hope the PellMell lives up to her name. I have no idea about her capabilities.
"The Imps are closin' up every traffic lane lookin' fer Rebels. They've got orders ta shoot first an' ask questions later. I don't know why." The pilot is aiming at the ship that is hard behind us; I can feel his intentions mounting through the Force. He's panicking and not thinking clearly. I don't know what's going on, but I do know that if he shoots, hit or miss, they'll finish us off.
I lift one hand from the controls and gesture briefly in his direction. "There is no need to fire."
He hesitates, but the intent is still there. I can feel it. He's a tough, strong-minded one.
"Don't," I demand, in my most compelling voice. "I can get us out of this." I can feel his intention subside, even though he looks at me sharply.
Hoping that he stands firm, I loop around again and head straight back toward the lead patrol ship, all the while turning my full focus onto the living beings inside of it. I latch onto the mind of one that seems to be in charge, and begin to feed him some new ideas. Sure enough, it's only moments until we are hailed.
"This is Imperial Star Destroyer Black Fist. State cargo and destination"
I glance at my pilot. "See? Now they're asking questions first. Talk to them."
He scowls at me. "Ya'd better know what yer doin'."
I shrug. You never know for sure how these things will turn out. The pilot transmits the original flight plan while I continue to fly straight toward the lead patrol ship while trying not to look threatening. But I don't let my concentration on the beings inside it waver. The effort it takes is enormous; I can't remember the last time I tried something like this. I'm fairly pulsing with the Force; I've expanded my consciousness so far and wide that I feel stretched thin, transparent, ghostly. With such acutely heightened perceptions, the impressions from everywhere around our little ship bombard my awareness with all the delicacy of asteroids. I can sense the Force energy of the thousands of life forms in the ships beyond.
All at once something changes. I sense the lead officer's attention being jerked away from me; it feels like a rip in my mind. Then I realize that we're about to be fired on and I snap our little ship into a sharp roll that flattens both of us into our seats. Thick green turbolaser bolts lance through space where the PellMell had been a second before.
"Jedi reflexes, y'ave got," my pilot observes from between clenched teeth.
"Survival instinct," I correct quickly. Too quickly, maybe. "Something I'm quite sure you're familiar with."
He stares at me appraisingly. "Mebbe. But ya' still headin' toward 'em."
"It's our only hope," I say, because I suddenly know it to be true. The quality of the Force everywhere around me has changed completely. Another intelligence has taken control among the Imperials; it's almost as though their objectives have suddenly aligned and shifted. I'm suddenly confident that as long as we don't make a run for it, they won't fire on us again. For now.
"Prepare to stop and be boarded," the order comes over the comm, and I settle back and loosen my battle grip on the controls.
"This is my stop," I say, stunned.
"What're ya' playin' at?" the PellMell's pilot snarls, but I ignore him.
It seems that I have what I wanted. Apparently, all I had to do was to be in the right place, and to reveal myself in the Force.
I have been found.
The fifth and last ship in the fleet of Imperial ships that have caught us turns out to be a Victory Star Destroyer. In short order our tiny vessel is brought aboard her and armored soldiers escort us from the PellMell at blaster point. It's the first time I've ever been in Imperial custody, and normally I would be more curious than concerned. But I feel guilty about the trouble I've brought down onto my pilot's head. I honestly didn't expect to meet with success so quickly, and I deeply regret having dragged the man into this situation with me, so my feelings, and behavior, are that of any other captive in the same circumstances. I'm nervous, and edgy, and looking around constantly.
I don't suppose it matters what we do, or don't do, or how we feel. Our captors' impersonal efficiency is seamless. No one speaks to us, but it's plain enough where they want us to go, and not going there isn't any kind of an option. We are marched out of the huge docking bay into a long series of corridors that are identically lit and laid out, up in two different lifts, and then out into a small foyer that, we very quickly learn, leads to a compact but efficient holding facility.
While we are being processed I glance at my pilot. I know what he's feeling without looking at him - how can I not? His face is in neutral, but I have no doubt that if I was standing in front of him and if his hands weren't manacled, those hands would have sought my throat. But I look at him to catch his eye, and open my mouth to apologize.
"Don't even say it, ya' daft son of a stinking Ta'an," he growls.
The words reverberate around the bright white chamber, making the soldiers look up at us. I close my mouth.
"Quiet, Rebels!" one of them orders.
So it is as my pilot said - they are preoccupied with searching for Rebels. That's interesting. The Alliance must have scored a fairly notable victory nearby to generate this level of Imperial activity. Once more I glance at my companion, who is scowling at the floor. He lets out a soft series of extremely colorful oaths before the soldier beside him whacks him with the butt of his blaster, and silence reigns again. I feel his pain.
"Lord Vader wants them separated."
I shudder. It seems that I am not as sanguine about the coming encounter as I would like to believe. For the third time I glance toward my companion, but already he is being shoved toward a short corridor on one side of us, while I'm not allowed to move. Oddly enough, my last impression of him, as I watch his retreating back, is that of a slight relaxation in him; it almost reads like relief. I can only assume that he's happy to be rid of me, whatever awaits him.
I don't blame him one bit.
A Jedi does no harm to others.
I am now alone with the two troopers. I turn my attention back to them and begin to pry brazenly.
"What did the Rebels do, blow up a task force or something?" I ask casually enough, but it's not a casual question at all.
"Quiet!" the trooper by my side orders.
Good. I don't expect him to converse with me. I just need his attention for a moment. With that one word, I get it, and with a small gesture, despite the manacles, I use the Force to grasp his consciousness with ease.
"What is the reason for the increased security in this sector?" Momentarily infused with substantial power, my question locks onto the soldier's mind and demands a reply.
"We are searching for the Rebels who destroyed the Death Star over Yavin," he answers promptly, before he has time to think.
What? The Rebels did what?
"TL-993," the trooper's superior snaps immediately. "Report to command control."
"Yes, Sir!" the hapless trooper replies smartly, and trots out of the holding area. Another immediately replaces him at my side.
How had it been possible to destroy something that vast? That deadly? That insurmountable? Something deep inside me begins to uncoil. It's as though a long-forgotten part of me has awakened, but I can't pay attention to it now.
"Keep him quiet," the superior officer orders my new guard. "And take him to detention cell twenty-seven."
Could a relatively small group of ordinary beings actually have accomplished something like that? I'd heard the Death Star was the size of a small moon.
The trooper beside me shoves me in the direction of the detention block and my feet begin to move automatically, as required.
Jedi could pull off something like that. Possibly.
But from what I know of this Rebel Alliance, they are under funded and thinly scattered, and armed only with conventional weapons. They are fueled by an idealism the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in this oppressed, cynical, fearful and defeated galaxy. Like so many others, I've always secretly admired the Alliance, while shaking my head. Being a Rebel is contrary to the most basic survival instinct. It's little more than a quick and easy way to get killed.
The new feeling, this uncoiling thing in my gut, is spreading out. I feel it in my limbs, in my throat. I want to move, to strike out, to shout; to exult, and that's only the beginning of the excitement that is perilously surging to the surface. I force myself to remain calm and steady, and to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, until we reach containment cell number twenty-seven. The door slides open. I am pushed inside. The door slides closed behind me.
A quick glance around reveals that the space is little more than a box with a slab for a bunk. My eyes struggle to adjust to the change in light; as white and bright as the corridors outside are, the holding cell is black inside. The little illumination serves only to add a shine to the walls, reminding me just how thick and hard they are. At the sight of them my stomach heaves without warning. I am unable to resist the urge to stumble forward and place my palm flat against one side of the cell, fingers splayed.
I have seen walls like this before. Night after night, and sometimes in bright daylight, my world goes cold and dark and the image of a black, slick and dully reflective wall rears up in my mind's eye. It happens each time I dream about the boy. And each time, even though I ought to know better, I am irresistibly drawn to reach out and to touch the barrier. The obsidian wall of my dream-state feels very much the way these chilly cell walls feel under my fingers.
I can barely keep from retching, and before I know it I'm on my knees, panting, but my hand won't leave the wall. My exhilaration about the demise of the Death Star recedes, leaving me alone in the old, familiar terrain of my personal nightmare.
Visions are one way that the Force communicates with those who can listen and understand.
With helpless resignation I wait in front of the wall for that part of the dream to unravel before my eyes.
But it doesn't. This wall is just a wall.
I don't understand. I never have. I don't know what the dream wants from me, why it plagues me so relentlessly. I'm not a visionary. I'm not a Jedi Master. I'm making my life up as I go along.
And here, now, of all times, of all places, my tormentor leaves me completely alone.
There is no telling how long I will be here, or what lies in store for me. The only thing I can do is to wait. And I know from long experience that the only possibility of waiting with any kind of serenity is to seek out a place of solace and rest in my memories; to retreat inward, away from the gloom of this prison.
My Masters of long ago were right; the heart is a treacherous thing. Before I can choose a memory for myself, before I can stop her image from filling up my senses, I feel Lila's deep brown hair brush my cheek, and I close my eyes. I know that I have the power to re-build that memory bit by bit, until it is almost indistinguishable from reality, and to make it linger. I also know that I mustn't. I've left Lila already, to go on my fool's errand, and I never will be able to return. Leaving behind a ragged wound of regret, I hide the memory of her touch away somewhere deep inside, and move on instead to recalling another kind of miracle.
I close my eyes and with all the fertile power of my imagination I return in my mind to that glaringly bright and scorching hot marketplace on Tatooine and to my encounter with the boy. Because I am awake this time, and because this is my own voluntary memory and not a dream, I am free to move backward and forward with those images at will. I choose to remember what happened next, after the boy left me behind.
I visualize myself standing once again in the middle of those indifferent, jostling crowds in the marketplace, clutching my rucksack in my hands, fragile, drained, and lost inside of a universe that has been suddenly restructured. Having lost all mastery over my awareness in the hot wash of feeling, I don't notice that someone is standing directly by my side. Slipping more deeply into the memory, I flinch physically when I recall just how startled I was when the stranger spoke to me.
"You look tired, my friend. And thirsty. Let me invite you to a drink."
I remember how I struggled to focus. There was something odd about the figure in the deeply hooded cloak - something muffled. Try as I might, I couldn't read him. It had been a long time since my senses had failed me so profoundly, and it was horribly disturbing on top of the shock I had just suffered.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I mean you no harm," he answered. He was human, that much I knew, and no longer young. I caught a glimpse of white hair under the hood, and the tip of a neatly trimmed white beard. But he didn't "read" like a human. His Force signature was unaccountably obscure, as though clouds kept slipping in front of it. I couldn't grasp the wispy presence, somehow. I was wary.
My companion took me by the shoulder cordially enough and with his other hand indicated a low doorway across the busy and dusty thoroughfare that passed for a main road in this shabby market town.
"There is a tavern over there, if you don't mind what kind of company you keep."
"I m-mind whom I drink with," I said through the vestige of the stammer that still plagues me on rare occasions. I wondered why this would be one of them. "I asked who you are."
His cowl fell back further and I saw that he smiled a little.
"Yes, of course," he said, and closed his eyes briefly.
Instantly the clouds lifted and my mind and heart filled with pure light, overwhelming me all over again. When that light took shape and I understood what I perceived, I found myself agonizingly torn between disbelief and joy and wrenching pain.
He had been shielding his powerful, highly trained Force-signature. That was why I couldn't read him. Although I had spent my life under similar shielding, I did not immediately recognize it in another, because there were no others...
When he looked at me again I no longer could see through the shocked tears that had filled my dry, burning eyes.
"Master Kenobi," I whispered.
The hand on my arm gripped me more tightly.
"Ben," he said, his voice low and gentle. "Call me Ben."
I couldn't speak.
"Will you have a drink with me, then?"
"I... yes." I blinked back the blur and stared at his still-shadowed face hungrily, as my eyes tried to confirm what the Force had shown me to be true.
The man whom I was supposed to call Ben guided me firmly across the busy thoroughfare. I let him lead me while I stumbled across the road in a dream. Like a child I let myself be pulled into a noisy cantina whose stench was the byproduct of a wildly mixed clientele. It was surprisingly large, considering its modest exterior, and we wended our way carefully through the restless crowds into a remote corner of the establishment. I sat down at a small, sticky table and waited there as fixedly as a rusted bolt on a floating wreck while Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight, General, and one of the brightest lights ever beloved of the Force, struggled his way to the bar to buy me a drink.
To my eyes, the dark, smoky interior of that cantina was a glowing landscape lit by a sun that suddenly, unexpectedly, had come out from behind the clouds. Once again, only a short time after my encounter with the boy in the marketplace, I was struck blind, and deaf and dumb by feelings over which I had no dominion.
A Jedi is master of his feelings.
I was so lost in a sea of emotion that my companion had slipped into the seat opposite before I became aware of his return.
"It is a great pleasure to see you alive, Poulin Brith," he said warmly, in those precise, clipped accents I remembered so well. The drink he pushed toward me was an unidentifiable concoction that I stared at without really seeing.
"Until n-now, it was n-not a such a great p-pleasure to be alive," I answered, once I felt I could speak. Between Jedi there is no dissembling.
"Yes," he said. "I know."
He must know. He did know. Of all the souls in the galaxy, he was the one who would know. I sat quietly, unwilling for that single, longed-for moment of understanding, of acknowledgement, to pass. He looked me over carefully, and I knew that he saw much that I didn't need to explain in words.
"Have...have you b-been here long?" I managed.
"The entire time," Kenobi said simply. Again, no explanation was necessary. Time, in our universe, had ended and begun with a few events. The birth of Vader and the death of the Order had upended the hourglass, and our lives had been measured ever afterwards by the slow, inexorable trickle of sand into this new vessel.
"Here," I murmured. "On Tatooine. Of all p-places."
Kenobi smiled a little, and shrugged. "My duty is here."
"Your duty." I stared at him openly for a long time while I sorted things that I had observed and things I knew into a pattern that made sense. He allowed it, patiently and quietly.
I noticed his clothing - the simple robes of an earlier time, threadbare, but clean. I noticed his neatly groomed exterior. The way he carried himself. His mastery over his surroundings. I contrasted those things with my own shabby, haphazard clothing. With the long braid of hair that hung down my back. With the quicksilver tugs of emotion and impulse that constantly toyed with my undisciplined heart.
Kenobi was still a Jedi - as much a Jedi as he ever had been. For me, just being in his presence was enlivening, and ancient and long-forgotten capacities seemed to awaken in me moment by moment. My dreamlike state disappeared, and I became aware.
"The boy," I ventured finally. "Who is he?" I thought I knew the answer, but I needed to hear the truth, and I needed to hear it from him.
"He is Anakin's son," Kenobi confirmed plainly, giving me the immeasurable gift of equality and trust. Years of self-doubt fell away, and once again I became calm, and centered, and strong.
"You have watched over him."
"For what purpose?" Many of my questions seemed to be contained within this one.
Kenobi paused and observed me intensely, and while he did so all that I had speculated about and all that I knew coalesced into a sharp point of understanding.
This wasn't over. We weren't over. For years the seed of the future had been nurtured in that dazzling boy whom I had encountered in the marketplace.
"You saw him," Kenobi said carefully. "He... stands out."
"Oh, yes," I breathed.
"It would be unfortunate if he were to attract the... attention... of those who know what he is. What he can become."
Vader doesn't know that his son is alive. I was suddenly sure of it, but I had to confirm it. More pieces were coming together. "He doesn't know!"
Kenobi knew instantly whom I meant. Neither one of us was going to say Vader's name out loud. Not in this place.
"No." He looked down into his drink.
"Nor does the boy."
Kenobi glanced at me sharply. "Certainly not."
Caution prickled my neck and fluttered in my veins. I looked around the cantina surreptitiously.
"Are there any others left?" I whispered, leaning forward slightly. Any others like us, I meant. Jedi.
"You are the only one I have encountered since I arrived on Tatooine seventeen years ago," he said steadily, looking into my eyes.
"So you are alone in this."
He smiled. "We are never alone. The Force is with us, always."
I agreed with him about the Force, but not about being alone. But I wasn't going to argue about it right now.
"Yes," I agreed impatiently. "But you know what I mean. Are there only the two of us?"
Kenobi took a long, deliberate drink. "If you and I have been unaware of one another so long, it is possible that there are others." He looked at me appraisingly. "I have not searched for survivors, but it seems that you have."
I looked down. It seems that you have. In five words he had summarized half a lifetime of struggle and futility and despair.
"And it appears that you have not found any," he finished, when I did not reply.
I shook my head.
"I am sorry," he said gently.
I started to ask something more about the boy but Kenobi shook his head quickly, indicating that I should not. I relented instantly; my obedience was a reflex, even a relief. I would have done anything he asked, I think.
Kenobi looked around. "We should go."
I left behind my untouched drink and followed him through the shifting crowds in the cantina. For once I didn't wince at the sudden onslaught of the midday light outside; the light in my heart was equally bright. I was in balance.
"Are you free for a time?" he asked me, as though I were a man of business, of obligation, of time constraints. As though there might be other things in my life that were more important.
I smiled for the first time and nodded.
"Then perhaps you would like to stay with me for a while. It's a journey of many hours, and a dangerous one at that, but once there, we will have peace and privacy."
I nodded again. Of course I would go with him. I would have followed him anywhere.
"Are you armed?" he asked as I fell into step with him. He was heading away from the marketplace.
"No. I have not carried a weapon since..." I stopped.
"It's all right," he said. "Just keep your wits about you and be prepared for a long walk."
Yes, Master Kenobi, I thought, as my mind settled into an ancient but familiar track just as my rucksack settled into its familiar place on my shoulder. It was as though the years in between had collapsed into nothing and had blown away like sand in the desert wind. My step was light. I was prepared for anything because I no longer was alone...
But I am alone.
The luminous memory fades, taking all of its warmth and harmony with it, and once again I become aware of the cold against my cheek and the numbness in my hand where I have been pressing it against the unyielding surface of my cell. I am on my knees, on the floor, crumpled against the indifferent wall.
I am alone because I am here on this Imperial Star Destroyer. So, it seems, is Vader. And that is the most desolate feeling of all.
If I had to live on a ship like this I would slowly go mad. It's a dead thing, a spaceship, made of substances whose life force is long since gone. It generates no energy of its own, has no natural rhythm. It forms no relationships to anything around it. It neither gives nor takes. It doesn't speak through the Force. Even though living beings populate this lifeless thing, their circumscribed world lacks variety, diversity...depth. To a Force-sensitive person it is a particularly painful form of isolation.
When I embarked on this quest of mine I thought I was prepared for anything. I was wrong. I had not prepared myself for the possibility of being tossed away into a dark corner and then abandoned without any kind of contact and precious little sensory stimulation. In my worst moments it seems as though I might be left here forever.
I miss my rucksack. I had to leave it behind on the PellMell when we were captured. It never contained much; but its contents were precious to me, especially the journals in which I recorded everything I had learned as a healer. A few odd mementos...like the piece of polished obsidian I carry with me always. But they have left me with nothing to work on and no diversions. I have my cell, some food, and my conscious awareness. That's all.
Under the circumstances, my conscious awareness goes to work overtime. My best guess, based on what I have been able to observe, is that I have been captive here for more than a standard week. I have worked out that, after capturing the PellMell, this small Imperial task force has continued its original mission uninterrupted. I also have come to realize that Vader is not on board her, as I originally had assumed.
Lord Vader wants them separated, the Trooper said when my pilot and I were being processed, as though Vader personally had overseen our capture. And yet, search as I might, I can't find anything aboard that might indicate that he is here. Even if he is shielded and after all, why would he bother? I'm certain that his is a presence that cannot be mistaken. Yet I'm also quite sure that the encompassing intelligence I encountered when we were captured is related to him. Once touched, an impression like that is never forgotten. But I can't find it here.
I trace a line on the cell wall with my finger. It is an invisible line, for my finger leaves no mark on the hard, dense material, but the contour of peaks and valleys is perfectly clear in my mind. Frustrated and bored, I have been drawing the same line over and over again for quite a while. Only now do I realize what the shape means. I have been outlining the shape of the rock outcroppings that can be seen from the door of Kenobi's hut on Tatooine.
When I first saw that place in the middle of the Jundland Wastes, I thought that it was the most lifeless, most barren place possible. Looking back now from my prison in space, I understand that it was a veritable symphony of sound and color and all the complex cadences of life. Lonely though it had seemed to me at the time, compared to this Star Destroyer teeming with soldiers, Kenobi's little house was a haven for the heart and for the senses. Despite the harsh climate and the predators outside, it was a place of sanctuary. I just didn't appreciate it at the time.
There were a great many things I didn't appreciate at the time. I'm beginning to, now.
Lessons come when the need for knowledge arises.
I trace the invisible line on the wall one more time. This rock. That cleft. There was a kind of plateau over here on this side, and then a wide gap through which you could see across the flatlands all the way to the horizon. I remember sitting on the dry, grainy soil outside of Kenobi's doorway for a long time on my second day there, meditating a little, but mostly studying these landforms and looking out at the desert. I was still there at dusk, when Kenobi finally urged me to come inside.
"It isn't safe to be out at night, Poulin. The sand people are less timid in the darkness than in the daytime."
"It's all right," I protested. "I'll stay close to the house, and alert. I just want to be outside. I... I need the air."
Actually, I'd already been out in the desert air for hours. What I really needed was the space to think. The vastness of the desert beyond seemed to help, somehow.
Kenobi had let me be. He seemed to understand how lost and confused I was, now that I had been found. In the middle of my cautious, almost disbelieving joy at Kenobi's presence, I was also sadder than I had been in years. All the things I had tried to forget, all the things I thought I had had finished re-living, flooded back to me again. In some ways it was like starting all over with the grief over the ruination of a life - of all the lives - that had been torn away. Over riddles that never had been solved. Over terrible deeds that could not be undone. Ancient, futile questions like "why?" and "how?" surged back into the forefront of my thinking, although the answers were as obscure as they ever had been.
I was still sitting there stubbornly in the long shadows of the rocks when Kenobi finally came outside to fetch me. This time he snared me easily, by appealing to my baser impulses - hunger and curiosity - rather than to my reason.
"Come, now, Poulin. Supper is waiting, and after that I have something to show you. Something that you might recognize."
Immediately I was on my feet and following him inside, leaving the enduring rocks behind. I looked forward to our meal together. Kenobi's simple stew was good and filling, but it wasn't nearly as warming as his companionship. Even the silences that often fell between us were more satisfying than most conversations I'd had with others. For the first time since the onset of the dark times, sitting in that isolated hut in the middle of a wasteland, I was beginning to remember what it meant to be content.
A surge in my awareness abruptly snaps me back to my prison. I sit up straight, every sense on alert. Something has changed. The energies on the Star Destroyer have changed. Everywhere I feel the shock of anticipation; the atmosphere is practically crackling with something I have never sensed before. The hairs on my arms and at the back of my neck are standing up.
All alone in my cell, I surge to my feet. Vader. It couldn't be anyone else. Of course he wasn't on the ship before. How absurd that I even would have speculated about it. This is what it feels like to be around Vader. This is what he does to the Force in his vicinity. I realize little by little that I am panting; my breath is coming in shallow gasps. There is nothing familiar about this new presence. Nothing.
What a hopeless fool I was, to have thought - to have hoped - that there would be.
The path of the Dark side is treacherous and forever will dominate one's destiny.
I shouldn't have come here.
I coax my breathing into a more normal pattern and sink down to the floor.
Kenobi had been right about Vader, as he had been right about me. I understand now that our last conversation in the long desert dusk hadn't merely happened; he had initiated it to find out who I was. To take my measure. All he'd had to do to make me reveal all of my doubts, all of my...fantasies...was to retrieve a single object from an old trunk and place it in my hand.
I clutched the brilliantly engineered cylinder. I stared at it.
"This is Anakin's lightsaber, isn't it?"
Kenobi returned to his bench and sat with one arm draped along its back, looking deceptively relaxed, but I know that he watched me closely. "Yes," he said. "It was."
I gaped at the icon in my hand some more. "May I?"
The blade flared into life; pale blue fire in a darkening room. "You've had it all this time?"
"Yes. I have kept it since he died."
In the half-darkness of twilight the blue blade seemed to hang suspended in the air, an artifact of a long-lost time. A black shadow reared up in my mind's eye.
"He isn't dead."
"Anakin is dead," Kenobi admonished me softly.
"Do you really believe that?" I asked, unable to my eyes from the humming blade. I thought back to the dark shape that had accompanied me for twenty years, and tried to imagine it as an empty shell. I couldn't. A shell wouldn't haunt me. Vader did.
"There is nothing of Anakin left in Vader. His Master saw to that."
I looked at the beautiful blue light and its maker seemed to spring from it into my mind's eye full-blown, as he once had been, shining, restless...passionate.
He always looked for challenges, and completely ignored the fact that I was not as intrepid. How many times had he dragged me away from my studies into doing something new and daring? I never once won a sparring match against that blue blade; nor did I ever expect to. But I came away from every one of those matches better, and stronger, and more prepared for the next time. I never have been able to understand how every last spark of that vibrant nature was extinguished. I imagine that is why I am obsessed with the creature that is Vader.
A beautiful light. A deadly weapon. Abruptly I disengaged it.
"Do you think that what inhabits that armor is no longer a man, Master Kenobi? That he is nothing more than a glorified droid? He is powerful with the Force. And the Force does not love a machine."
Kenobi looked faintly displeased. It might have been my question, or it might merely have been my stubborn insistence on using a name he had taken pains to discard. Either way, I would not be put off. He was the only person with whom I ever would be able to discuss these things.
"No, of course not. You misunderstand me. I mean that you must not think that a trace of the man you once knew remains in him." His diction became more clipped. More emphatic. "However much you may wish it were true."
I couldn't resist igniting the pale blue lightsaber once again, moving it lightly a pattern of gentle arcs. Was it true? Did I wish that Anakin was still there, behind Vader's mask? If I did, it was an appallingly vengeful wish. If I wished that any part of Anakin remained - that any of his original awareness, any memory, any conscience at all remained in him - then I wished on him an existence in which he lived minute by minute in the hellish knowledge of what he had done. Of what he had become.
A Jedi knows only compassion.
But I did wish it. In Kenobi's presence, I couldn't be less than completely honest. I wished it with all my heart. I wanted Vader to know me, to remember me, even if it hurt him to do it.
Again I disengaged the weapon. This time I returned it to Kenobi, who took it without comment. Turning my back on his discerning gaze, I went to lean against the frame of the hut's door, where I could look outside into the gathering night.
I had spent my life as a healer. And in all that time, I never really had healed anyone, no matter what they thought. They healed themselves. All I needed to do, even in the most severe cases, was to find the spark that remained. Sometimes that spark lay in the body, sometimes in the mind. I could often be something as simple, and yet as powerful, as hope. I found the spark and I directed the Force to it. I fanned the spark. I held their hands. I gave them some herbs or did a little dance if that was what they wanted. But if it was meant to be, they healed.
If it was meant to be.
"What if Anakin is still there?" I directed the deepest question of my heart to the growing darkness outside. "What if... what if he could be reached?"
Kenobi surged to his feet. I didn't see or hear him do it; I felt it. "Try not to be a fool, Brith! You of all people. You studied the Sith. You were quite the scholar, even as a Padawan. You should know better than anyone what he is now. He gave up his destiny."
"I didn't know one could give up one's destiny," I said absently to the last haze of light that glimmered on the horizon.
"His path was laid out for him," Kenobi said behind me. "He could have been a great Jedi - a very great one. Instead, he chose to destroy it all. And all of us with him."
Was that bitterness I heard in his voice? Surely not. Not Kenobi. I was hearing him through the filter of my own pain.
I stared out at the stars for a while. They seemed huge here in the desert, and as abundant as the many and diverse Gods that people prayed to throughout the galaxy. All the different faces of the Force. "When one becomes the instrument of the Gods, all free choice is gone," I quoted softly from an ancient text whose fragments were with me still.
"I know the intervening years have been difficult for you, Poulin," Kenobi said carefully. I couldn't help being amused, if only fleetingly. It seemed that he was charitably offering to overlook my imprudent, even heretical, ideas on the basis that suffering had left me with a less-than-sound mind.
I glanced back at Kenobi over my shoulder. "Wherever there is the Force, there is life," I insisted, brashly and unwisely daring to lecture the only Jedi Master in the room. "And wherever there is life, there is the possibility of change, of growth, of evolution. There is potential."
"You idolized him, I know that, Poulin. And I also know that those feelings clouded your judgment on more than one occasion. At least accept the idea they still are clouding your judgment."
He was right, of course. I had followed Anakin into all kinds of waywardness, from the minor to the indefensible. In the end I had defied a direct order from Master Kenobi himself to help Anakin beat his own path. The thing was... the thing was... each time I'd made that choice I had believed that I was following the light. Anakin's uncanny, overwhelming light.
How the Force had loved him.
Finally I turned away from the glittering night sky and faced Kenobi head on. "I know what Anakin was," I said carefully. "He was both light and dark. He held the light and the darkness within him as we all do - only brighter, and deeper. He could move between them so quickly that it took your breath away. You never know how he would act, or react to something - except in a very few things. In those he was very consistent."
"He is certainly consistent now," Kenobi retorted. "Unswerving in his task of spreading undreamed of evil everywhere he goes."
"He was consistently loyal to those whom he loved," I insisted stubbornly.
Kenobi looked away, his mouth set in a hard line.
"That might have been true of Anakin," he said again, as slowly and clearly as one speaks to a slow-learning child. "Although I dispute that assertion, too. But that is not Vader. Vader is another creature entirely."
I didn't believe him. Deep down in my darkest heart, I thought I knew better. Kenobi had understood this about me. Having experienced Vader's presence first hand, even at a distance, I regret my stubborn refusal to listen to someone who was so much wiser than I.
"If Anakin truly is gone, then what do you want with his son? Why have you guarded him so closely?" I asked after a while.
"He is the only one who can defeat Vader and bring an end to the galaxy's suffering."
I stared at him. "You're serious! You are planning to train the boy so that he can kill his father?"
"If that is his destiny."
What a terrible burden Kenobi had in mind for an innocent boy who didn't even know enough to hide his light. The audacity of the idea - the calculation behind it - gave me a chill despite the still-warm night air.
"Oh, please," I said, turning back to the vast, pitiless desert wasteland outside. From a certain vantage point in the doorway, the looming rocks blotted out many of the stars, leaving only black silhouettes. "Your view on destiny seems to change with the circumstances. First you say that Vader gave up his destiny, and now you expect to hand the boy a destiny of your choice. Whatever happened to the will of the Force?"
When he didn't answer I looked back over my shoulder into the dim room. Kenobi hadn't sat down again after the first of my ill-advised comments had brought him to his feet. He stood quietly behind his low bench, gripping its back with both hands, his face only partially illuminated by the soft light of a single glowlamp. He wasn't looking at me. He seemed to be somewhere far away.
"Vader is not the only one who makes the galaxy suffer," I pointed out after the silence had continued for a while.
"Without Vader, the Emperor would be seriously weakened. Vader is his rod and his staff."
As Anakin was mine...
Angrily I pushed away the unwelcome thought. Kenobi looked at me, and I realized that he had sensed my anger. It showed me once again just how far I had drifted from my Jedi training. I wondered how he had survived, all these years in this place - alone, forgotten, and yet unfailingly a Jedi. It was almost beyond my imagination to picture the discipline, the self-mastery, and the self-sacrifice that it must have required.
The man was deadly serious, and not to be taken lightly, whatever I thought of his plan. He was magnificent. He was everything I was not, and never would be.
"And so this has been your duty, "I mused. "All of these years."
"Yes." The weight of a lifetime hung in his voice...a lifetime of responsibility.
A soul-deep silence fell between us, and the familiar shadows of loneliness, of emptiness began to circle my heart. However isolated it might look to a casual observer, Kenobi's life was as replete with purpose and meaning as mine was unfilled. Whatever dreams I might have nurtured about what it would be like if I ever found another Jedi - whatever imaginings about brotherhood and community and finding a home that I had harbored all through the dark times, ended in reality there and then.
Kenobi had been kind and generous and would not, I thought, push me away. But I was a burden for him. A complication. I couldn't help him with his mission; my presence would only hinder it.
I had to say goodbye. Again.
"I never will betray you," I said.
He smiled. I didn't have to explain my decision to go. He already knew. And it wasn't the only thing he knew.
"Stay away from Vader," he advised me. "Put him out of your heart. Let him go. He can only bring you harm."
And that was it, I remember, as I huddle on the cell deck on the Star Destroyer, waiting for some kind of an end. After that, after I left Kenobi, the dreams began.
Jedi don't dream.
So of course, I did.
Vader's presence on this Star Destroyer is like blight on my soul. It is taking most of my strength to battle the sense of foreboding that wants to creep through my veins, and a heavy feeling like grief weighs down my heart. I feel as though I can barely breathe. It's hard to think clearly. The only thing that seems to be flourishing is my capacity for self-doubt. I bitterly regret the choice I've made to seek out this dark thing.
I shouldn't have come here.
Perhaps it is that loss of faith, that wavering in my determination, that has brought the vision crashing down on me again.
I've stopped referring to this phenomenon as a dream. In my current state, stripped bare of all illusions and perilously close to the end, there is no longer any room for self-deception. The problem is that, while dreams can be pushed aside, a vision, as my Jedi Masters once taught me, comes as a call to action.
The walls in my cell begin to shimmer.
Oh, no. Not again. Not now. I'm here. I can't turn back. What more do you want from me?
I know that the Force is calling to me through these visions, as it has been calling to me for a long time. Reason tells me that, through a jumbled stream of events, some seemingly coincidence, and others that are undeniably my own decisions and choices, I ought to have arrived some time ago at the point my Jedi Masters used to refer to as the One Point - that point at which all choices have been made, all other paths have fallen away, and all that remains is the necessity to act immediately and decisively. If there is no choice but to act, then there is no room for uncertainty.
A Jedi does not hesitate to choose, or to act.
And yet I have hesitated for a long time. By dismissing these visions, I tried to ignore their call.
The shimmering grows brighter, as though a light had been switched on in my cell. My heart sinks.
If not for the galvanizing effect of Alderaan's destruction, I still might not be here. It was outrage, pure and simple, that drove me to Tatooine to consult the wisest man I know. When I couldn't find Kenobi or Anakin's son, fear for the boy's safety drove me to this point. But since the moment I was shown into this dark place and left to perish in profound isolation my resolve has weakened, and I have grown increasingly uncertain about my purpose. The moment I sensed Vader's arrival, doubt gave in to despair.
I was wrong. I am endangering the boy. I should not have come here.
The shimmer resolves itself into an image of the boy in the marketplace, just as I saw him then, but with the light around him made visible. He hovers just beyond my reach, so bright that I hold my hands in front of my eyes to shield them. It is a futile gesture. There is no hiding from that which is experienced inwardly.
"No," I protest aloud, reaching out for the retreating boy with a hand that grasps only air. "Come back," I plead, wanting desperately to hold onto that light. What I really mean to say is "don't come," because I know what will happen next.
As always, despite my empty grasping, the boy's overwhelming light disappears behind a seamless, smooth wall; a wall that is as black as the walls of my cell, only as slick and hard as molten rock that has been cooled in the icy depths of space.
Reaching out for the light my hand instead bumps against this indifferent surface, startling me yet again with the intense clarity of the experience. The images are so vivid that all of my senses are activated and heightened. I can touch this wall that has appeared out of nowhere, separating me from the boy. It is utterly smooth and faultless. It blocks out my vision, but not my hearing. Yes, even that sense is engaged. My stomach twists into a knot of dread.
I hear someone scream. I know who it is.
I press both hands against the glassy wall, straining to see. I don't want to see. Yet each time the vision draws me in and I am helpless against it.
The dark barrier grows translucent, as if lit from inside, and a shadowy figure appears inside of it. He is flailing against the wall. I can hear him gasping.
"No!" I plead.
The light grows brighter and Anakin's hideously distorted face appears. He looks much as he did the last time I saw him, although I never saw him in this state. His features are twisted with pain and rage. Periodic flashes of a piercing bluish light flare behind the barrier, and each time it does he cries out. He is trapped, he is suffering, and I am the only witness.
"Anakin!" The cry rips out of me against my will. I know it is only a vision, a projection of my fevered mind. I know that, but I can't help responding to what I see and hear and feel so deeply. I begin to run both hands over the wall in desperation, searching for a crack or an opening of some kind that I can use to release him. I can't find one. He doesn't respond to my cry; he doesn't seem to notice me. And yet I realize with a familiar sickening lurch that his hands are pressed against the wall from within as mine press upon it from without, palm to palm, almost touching, yet mercilessly separate. No matter where I move my hands, his move also. We remain palm to palm, the thick, cold barrier between us. I can't escape. Nor, it seems, can he. I feel panic rising.
Calm down, I remind myself sternly. This is an illusion...not real. See? I force myself to focus on his hands. Both are his, and yet Anakin first befriended me after he already had lost one of them at the Battle of Geonosis. This logic, along with the reminder that I have experienced these images countless times before since leaving Tatooine, should help me to find some kind of calm detachment from what I am seeing.
Anakin's trapped agony tears through me as though it is mine. Physically separate though we are, this macabre image invariably plays itself out in my heart and in my guts as well as in my senses. I grow desperate, scrabbling futilely at the wall to find a way to get him out, to make it stop. I can't. The wall is flawless. I am helpless. My powerlessness galls me, and I can feel a kind of smoldering knot form in my gut that seems to resonate with the maelstrom that is churning inside that wall.
Calm down, I order myself again, hating what is to come. Don't react. Don't give in to it.
Despite my sincere efforts to remain calm and centered, anger begins to well up in me. I don't know where it is coming from. Is it mine? Is it his? Despite the wall, I seem to be inwardly linked with the figure whose palms are pressed against mine.
The feeling of growing fury is terrible, and I am defenseless against it. I begin to identify with the anger. It becomes my own. I am angry, and suddenly he is the brunt of it. I am furious with him for having chosen to seize the darkness, and then for having left me behind to get lost. I rage at him for destroying the life we knew and for having left me alive to watch helplessly. Alone in my cell, locked into a vision I cannot escape, I roar my pain at his betrayal and at the same time I curse the impenetrable wall that I cannot help him to escape. The mixed-up anger, rage, and pain consume me so completely that I don't have the strength to fight them. I am trapped, just as he is. I know that this is my life from now on; this will go on forever and forever. I will remain here in this nightmare for an eternity because my last strength, every shred of it, is being transmuted into searing rage. It rocks me in an all-encompassing storm that wrenches me out of myself, drags me into some unknown, bottomless hell.
The horror leaves me nauseous. Helpless though I am against it, I cannot imagine - I don't want to imagine - what monstrous skills and techniques it requires to harness this kind of dark rage and to use its power deliberately. The wall remains cold and impenetrable, easily containing the heat and fury inside. Behind it I sense malevolent power and endless hunger. It is a force that consumes without end and yet never has enough, an all-encompassing juggernaut that devours everything in its path, including me. It is sucking the light out of the galaxy. Made manifest, it destroyed an entire planet, and will destroy more. It has to stop. It has to be made to stop. But it never will...
And just when I am at my worst, sobbing and sick, some remaining shred of awareness alerts me that I am not alone. Slowly, painfully, I try to pull myself out of the dark hole into which I have descended. The sound of my cell door sliding open accomplishes what my will alone cannot, and I snap back into waking consciousness of my surroundings.
Two Stormtroopers carrying blasters step inside my cell one at a time and flank the open door, filling the already small space with their hard-edged presence. A third man, an officer of some kind in a gray uniform, steps inside after them and remains standing in front of the opening on splayed legs, his hands clasped behind him, and stares down at me.
I seem to be huddled in the middle of my cell on my knees. Worn and crumpled after many days in confinement, my face wet with tears, and blinking in the sudden shaft of light that stabs into this dark box from the white corridor outside, I must be an unprepossessing sight. As my vision clears I can see the contempt on the officer's face. I look up at him enquiringly.
"Lord Vader sent for you," he says with disdain.
Still shaking with emotion, I curse Vader silently and passionately. I begin to get unsteadily to my feet. Of all the times to send for me...and yet I know why he suddenly decided to see me now. I know exactly why. I wonder, somewhat hopelessly, whether I have the strength remaining to smooth out the violent disturbances that my intense emotions have set off in the Force. As it is, I can barely stand.
But I do stand, because I have no choice. The grim-faced officer turns smartly and leads the way out into the corridor, while the two Troopers fall in behind me, blasters pointed at my back. Under those circumstances, I not only stand, but my feet find a way to get moving, and I walk.
It's hard not to squint in the glare of the corridor. I wonder what it is like to work, to exist in that brightly lit environment day in and day out. It must reduce life to a very simple format. There are no shadows.
My soul is still full of shadows, though. As terrible as it was to re-live that vision again, it is unspeakable to have been torn out of it at the very worst point, before it ends. Normally, there is more to it...an ending, a resolution of sorts. A healing, redeeming image that has haunted me since the visions began. It is the reason I came here.
Without having experienced the grace, the deliverance of that ending to the vision, I have to find my own way to shake off these shadows. I wonder how much time I have. I'm not fit to see Vader in this condition; I am weak and off my center. But of course he knows that.
The walk through the endless corridors of the Star Destroyer is long, and I use the time to regain some calm. By the time we arrive at the last lift I am back in my center, and the Force once again flows around me evenly and smoothly. Gathering my courage, I extend my feelings, my senses, further and further around me in every direction, to the sides, behind, above and below and confirm that he is here, close by. His presence is enormous, and powerful. It fills the ship. Between Vader's watchfulness and the painfully bright lighting everywhere, it seems as though nothing on this ship could remain hidden.
The lift arrives and I am required to enter it. The officer stands beside me staring straight ahead. He hasn't looked at me once since leaving my cell. I suppose he has no reason to, since I'm Vader's business and not long for this life.
A brief, silent swoop later the doors open again, this time directly into a short, narrow corridor with a single large door at the end. The door is closed. My captors don't move, so I don't either. The one on my right finally shoves me out of the lift. They remain behind.
It seems no one is going to announce me. I suppose that means that I don't need an introduction.
I look around. When the lift hisses shut behind me there is nowhere to go but forward toward that door. I remain standing quietly, gathering myself, reaching out with my feelings for anything that might be recognizable or familiar, something that might show me how to approach the Dark Lord of the galaxy. I find nothing of the kind - nothing that is not cold, and hard, and alien.
And then I realize that I have at last arrived at the One Point. In perfect synchronicity the door at the end of the corridor slides open, and unhesitatingly I walk toward it and step inside.
From the moment I step through the doorway I am unable to take in the room because I can't drag my eyes, or my senses, away from the black figure that dominates the spare, brightly lit chamber as powerfully as his shadow has dominated my thoughts and feelings for so many years. He is physically massive, an impression that is amplified by his enormous presence in the Force. He stands in the center of a space that I briefly judge to be some kind of an empty cargo receiving area and waits for me to approach him. I do, until I reach an invisible barrier that says no closer, and I stop. Then I wait, because it would be impossible for me to speak first. The only sound in the chamber is the steady, rhythmic cycle of Vader's breathing.
There is nothing familiar about him. Nothing.
The chamber door clangs shut behind me, and at last Vader addresses me in a voice that resonates down into my bones.
"What possessed you to seek me out?"
Possession is as good an explanation as any of what had brought me here. Now that I am actually standing face to face with Darth Vader, I can't imagine what had 'possessed' me. Perhaps it truly was some kind of evil spirit...an ancient specter that hasn't been laid to rest. A thing that is truly dark, selfish, and hopelessly lost.
Master Kenobi knew this, of course. For the first time I am willing to entertain the possibility that his earnest efforts to dissuade me from my obsession with Vader had as much to do with concern about me as with his own plans. I just hadn't seen it.
"I wanted to see you for myself," I finally say. My voice sounds small and flat in the large, bare space.
"You have seen me."
He doesn't ask why. He doesn't give the slightest indication that he is curious about my existence, my life, or the reasons that have brought me here.
It is an extraordinary lesson in humility. I, who thought that I lived the humblest existence possible, actually have carried with me the arrogance - the false pride - of believing that I am something so special, so extraordinary, that I had to hide from him. That if Darth Vader found me, it would matter.
But it finally is clear. I am nothing. No more than a speck of dust between the stars.
"It was a mistake. I see that now." Since I already have gambled everything on achieving this audience with him, it no longer matters whether I held my tongue. My tongue seems to know this, and stumbles on without much conscious intent on my part. "I just thought... I mean, I wondered..."
Now that I am here, actually speaking what is in my heart is more difficult than I ever could have imagined. Weary of the inner battle to remain rational, I give up trying to make sense.
"I wondered whether you had missed me," I finish dryly, openly mocking myself for my stupidity.
My absurd comment is met by a deep, seemingly endless silence, although in Vader's presence, silence happens in between the measured strokes of his mechanical breathing. But it is a silence nevertheless - a cavernous silence of the soul.
I tell myself it could be worse. He could just kill me on the spot. But somehow that prospect doesn't seem as bad as waiting in this... emptiness.
"I never took you for a fool," Vader says finally. If such a distorted voice could ever growl, it just has. And I am suddenly, insanely, hopeful. I never took you for a fool. To my starved heart the words are a ringing acknowledgement that we shared a past. I barely can believe it.
"I am a fool," I admit eagerly. Too eagerly. "The worst kind. The kind who can't seem to let go of the past."
And then I learn the depths of that foolishness.
Vader takes a single menacing step toward me, and demands coldly, "What other Jedi survived? Whom do you know?"
Oh, I see.
It is I, in my desperate need to personify him, to make him into a mask with a man behind it, who imagines that he said it coldly. In fact, every word he says sounds much like the last. He is not cold. He is indifferent.
In bitter resignation I realign my inner defenses. I am at Vader's mercy now, certainly, but the years of fleeing from him have taught me one thing, and taught it well. I know how to hide. It is my greatest skill, and I owe it to the dark creature that now wishes to know my secrets. Well, he won't. I bury my knowledge of Obi-Wan's existence so completely that even Vader won't find it. No matter what he does.
"No one," I say. "No one at all. The Force is a dark and bleak place now. I follow the light wherever I can, moving from one glimmer to the next. But I never have found another Jedi, as much as I longed to."
A decision rises up in me like a nudge from the Force. I pause and take a deep breath, and then jump off the precipice. This is why I'm here.
"But there was... someone. I stumbled across a presence in the Force that was blinding in its beauty. It made me weep for all that has been lost."
"What other?" Vader demands, impervious to my descent into melodrama. "Where?"
"What?" It is the sound that a suddenly loosened valve makes - a hiss.
"Three years ago I was in the marketplace in Mos Eisley, minding my own business, when I sensed a kind of light that took my breath away." For someone who doesn't talk much, I'm practically babbling. Also, curiously enough, I'm not stammering. "It was noon - you remember how bright, how blinding the glare of the suns is at noon in Mos Eisley, don't you?"
My inquisitor doesn't answer, but I get a very dark and uncomfortable feeling - a feeling of such acute danger that the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I press on anyway.
"Well, I became aware of a light in the Force that outshone both those suns. I hadn't felt anything like it since...since..."
I stop. I am surprised to find that I can't speak directly about the past after all. Not yet. Not to him. Not without breaking my heart once and for all.
"Who was it?" he prompts after a considerable wait.
So. At last I have Darth Vader's undivided attention. It is an extraordinarily disturbing feeling. It also means that it is no longer my decision whether to go on. He will decide that for me now. All I can hope to do is to control the amount of information I give him.
This is what I wanted.
"I went searching for the individual who shone so brightly through the Force. How could I not? It was what I had been looking for all these years ... some sense that I wasn't alone..."
The dangerous, prickling silence grows deeper, punctuated only by the metronome of Vader's breaths. I count four - two in and two out - before I plunge on again. My own nervous breaths skitter between his.
"... and all I found was a boy. A native of Tatooine, I gather."
It strikes me how absolutely still Vader is. I can't tell whether he is studying me, or getting ready to spring.
"A boy," he repeats succinctly.
"Yes, well, a young man of about seventeen or so. The age I was when you last saw me."
"What...boy?" Again, he ignores my feeble attempt to make a personal connection.
"A boy who helped a complete stranger without thought for himself. A boy so beloved of the Force that his presence shines like a sun. A boy who reminded me overpoweringly of someone I once knew... a friend."
There is another long, black pause.
"You are trying my patience. Why do you imagine that I would be interested in this information?"
"I thought you might have a personal interest."
Silence. Dark and oppressive.
I go on. "If you had seen him ... if you had felt his presence in the Force... it was so bright. So beautiful. So familiar..."
The continuing silence begins to morph into something sharp, and pointed, and threatening. My stomach tries to rear up in fear, and I fight it.
"His eyes are blue," I say desperately.
The silence stretches as long and thin as my nerves. Again, I am the one to break it.
"They're so blue. I've seen eyes like that before."
There is nothing between us - nothing - but that endless and implacable silence. I begin to wonder whether the air has been sucked out of the room.
"He must be nearly twenty years old by now. Don't you see?" And then I forget myself. "Anakin, I ..."
Suddenly I find myself being slammed against the wall of the cabin with enough force that I collapse to the floor like a broken puppet. There is a searing pain in my shoulder. Gingerly I reach up to touch it, and feel a jagged edge of my collarbone pushing against the skin from the inside. I go inward for a moment, to deal with the pain and nausea and shock. When I come back to my normal awareness, a pair of black boots and the bottom edge of a cape fills my blurred vision. Painfully, I look up. A long way up.
Vader is looming over me with his hands on his hips. I assume he is glaring at me. It's impossible to tell, of course.
"The boy's name is Luke," I gasp, trying hard to regain my breath through the stabs of pain.
Vader makes an impatient movement. I flinch. The resulting pain from my shoulder is blinding.
As is the latest silence.
And all at once his silence ends. Vader's voice orders, "Stop this."
"Or what?" I defy him. "Or else you'll kill me? You're going to anyway." I laugh, feebly. It sounds more like a whimper.
"Luke," I wheeze stubbornly. "It means light."
The black giant continues to loom mercilessly in front of me. My intermittent pained coughing provides an odd counterpoint to his steady, precisely programmed breaths. When he speaks again, his smooth, precise voice contains less feeling than a droid's.
"There are many who believe they are not afraid to die. In time, even they begin to care how long it takes for that death to come."
I try to stop, I really do. But I can't. It is as though a dam has broken. The pain is becoming very difficult to fight, and I find myself drifting a little. Besides, since at any moment he is likely to finish me off or at least, render me incapable of thought and speech, the compulsion to say what I need to is overwhelming. This is a last stand in a failed life...a last attempt to do something meaningful.
"The Force is strong with him, Anakin. He's strong, and he's pure, and he's so good..."
I'm choking. I can't breathe any more. Thank the Force. I thought he was going to toy with me, to torture me... but there is one last thing I need to say.
"You would be so proud of him..." I don't know whether I thought the words or whether I managed to gasp them out, but suddenly the pressure on my throat subsides. I collapse, coughing, trying to pull in a few desperately needed gasps of air.
Vader turns away from me and all around me the closed chamber reverberates with a terrifying, heart-stopping noise. I only slowly understand, with the aid of the Force, that it is a human cry of pain and rage, so distorted is it by the machinery that permits it to be made.
And then he says one word. It does not sound unfeeling, or indifferent. Even through the mask, it sounds like a word that has been dredged up from the depths of the Sullustan Hells.
He doesn't say it to me. So I just keep trying to breathe. Little by little, it seems to be working.
Then I could swear I hear him say, "I killed you too quickly."
Killed? Killed whom? I puzzle about it. Then it hits me with another wave of nausea. Master Kenobi. He killed Master Kenobi. Kenobi is gone... Was I that wrong? Will Vader now kill his son, too? Would he do that? Am I the blind, stupid instrument of the boy's demise after all?
Suddenly Vader whirls around to face me again. He has moved so close to me that the corner of his cloak whips across my eyes. This time I remember not to flinch.
"Were you responsible for hiding the boy from me?"
"No. I only encountered him that day. I only knew ... I knew when I heard his name."
"Then why are you here now?"
"Because ... because he disappeared from Tatooine. He's gone. I don't know where. But I worry that he won't be safe... his presence shines so brightly in the Force."
The droid's voice breaks in again. Precise. Measured.
"It was I he was hidden from. He was being kept safe from me."
"Yes," I admit freely. It is too late to take back what I have done.
A Jedi trusts in the wisdom of the Force.
"But I don't believe that he is in danger from you. I thought... I knew... once you knew... you would want to keep him safe." I swallow. "From the Emperor ..." I close my burning eyes, expecting to be hit again, or worse. It is more terrifying when nothing happens.
Then Vader roars, "How dare you! How dare you risk my son's life in this way!"
Lord Darth Vader seems to agree with Obi-Wan Kenobi on this subject. Under other circumstances, I might have been amused.
"You knew?" I wheeze. "You knew your son survived?"
"No!" The single syllable reverberates in the cabin. There is a distinct pause until it dies away. And then, more quietly ... "No."
"But now you do. And if anyone can keep him safe, it's you."
Then, "I, keep him safe?" the metronome repeats precisely.
"Don't you see?" I gasp doggedly. "That is why I needed to see you ...to tell you ... so you can watch over him." Now that Obi-Wan is gone. I bury that thought, and the pain that accompanies it, in my deepest heart.
There is another silence, during which I dare not think about anything but my breaths. I am dimly surprised that they keep coming, one after another.
"You not understand whom you are dealing with. I am no longer who I was!" He is no longer indifferent, that's certain. A dark wave of feeling washes over me in the Force.
"So I have been told. But I don't believe it. I never have." I squint up at him through a haze of pain.
"You delude yourself." His voice is like distant thunder.
I look up into the mask that hides him. "I know what you are."
He hits me across the face so hard that I think I pass out for a few moments. When I come to, the scene hasn't changed at all. I am still collapsed on the floor, barely propped up by the wall, only more helpless than ever. Vader still is standing over me, hands on hips. Watching me, but not killing me. It confuses me no end.
"The fact... you're angry ...I endangered him... proves ..." I pause, exhausted. I want to explain to him that if he intends to continue this conversation, he has to stop hurting me, but it is beyond my feeble powers to come up with that many coherent words.
Perhaps he thinks the same thing, or perhaps he just needs to get away from me, because Vader abruptly turns around and strides to the other side of the chamber. He stands with his back to me, a sure sign how little a threat I pose.
Or is he turning away from my unexpected faith in him? Is that the greatest threat of all?
Either way, it is out of my hands. Everything is. I close my eyes and draw the comforting cloak of the Force around me.
Luminous beings, are we.
Instantly reassured, I work at releasing everything that troubles me into the wise, loving embrace of that which is greater than us all. I let go of the fear that I have done the wrong thing, and of the sorrow that my efforts to re-establish some kind of links to the past have been futile, and even worse, selfish. I let go of any expectations I might have hidden deep down in my heart; even the expectation that Anakin was still there... somewhere. Finally, I let go of my oldest and dearest companion - the hope that I am not alone.
The pain in my body begins to ease just enough that when I open my eyes once again, I can see and understand my surroundings clearly.
Vader is still standing quietly across the chamber from me. He has turned around to face me. It seems he is watching me. It seems he is waiting for me to finish what I am doing.
Gingerly I shift my posture and find I can straighten it. Standing up seems to be too great an ambition, but at least I can sit up straight as I once again face Vader.
"There is increased Imperial activity on and around Tatooine," I say, after taking a deep breath. Now that I can speak clearly once again, I don't waste any more time. "He has been safe so far. But given his name, and the... extraordinary... nature of his presence in the Force, I became worried that the Emperor might have found him."
Darth Vader stands looking at me, and doesn't make a move.
"I don't know how he came to be on Tatooine," I lie with conviction. "I don't know how he has survived thus far." This is less of a lie. "But even my single, very brief encounter with him made me want to protect him at all costs." That is the shining, radiant truth.
"You don't know what you have done."
My imagination must be working overtime in this bizarre situation. To me, his chilling voice sounds hopeless.
"I may not know. But the Force does," I say decidedly. "I have dreamed of him, and of you, many times." Even I can't count how many. "The Force directed me here. To you. With this news." And then, from somewhere deep inside of me where it has lain dormant all these years, the Jedi creed rises up again and slips off my tongue as though it never had been otherwise. "I serve the Force."
I didn't realize until I spoke those words how true they are. How they have been true all my life, even that long, dark part of it when I had thought I no longer was a Jedi.
But I always was. I still am. I always will be.
A Jedi serves the Force.
I serve the Force.
It is such a relief to acknowledge that truth. I barely notice the tears of liberation that began to trickle down my face.
"The Force has many faces," Vader retorts.
"We stand together before the face of the sun, even as the black thread and the white thread are woven together," I murmur, quoting a dimly remembered ancient text. I realize, with a pang, how long it has been since I gave up my studies. And how much I miss them.
A great many mechanically calibrated breaths tick off the ensuing silence between us while I wait, without fear, for Darth Vader to decide my fate...and the boy's.
My fate doesn't matter. The boy's does. At the sudden thought, fear again scrabbles to find a foothold in me.
Fear leads to the Dark Side.
Anakin must have been full of fear. Perhaps Vader is, too. I would be, if I had to carry the weight of his deeds.
A Jedi trusts the Force.
It wasn't possession by an evil impulse or even selfishness that drew me here. I simply followed the will of the Force. I'm sure of it now. I have to trust that the Force brought me here for the right reasons.
Fear slips away again.
"Do what you want with me. Just protect the boy."
"He is not in Imperial custody," Vader finally says, as though we are having an ordinary conversation.
"Where else would he be?" I wonder aloud.
Vader doesn't answer for a long time. Then he rumbles something like, "I have felt a presence..."
Destiny is woven from an infinite number of individual strands.
This time the silence is mine. I own it. I know without question that I have done what I was supposed to do. The rest is out of my hands, and so there is no need for more words. At last, at last, I give myself over entirely to the patient and radiant light of the Force, and I let Vader be.
He raises his hand in an unfamiliar gesture, and my awareness begins to dim. From a great distance I think I hear him say, "Your light shines too brightly." After that, there is nothing...
What are you going to do now, Poulin? Now that your quest has ended?
It's Lila's voice. I jump, and a searing pain in my shoulder and arm yanks me into consciousness. I am momentarily at a complete loss.
My surroundings are as unexpected as they are dismaying. It is dim, the walls are a dull metallic gray, and I seem to be lying on a hard slab of some kind. My shoulder is throbbing with pain.
"If it hurts you're not dead, Poulin. Now get up," my old Master's voice says distinctly in my head, and all at once I remember.
It hurts. So I'm not dead. I take stock. Having gotten something from me, it appears that Vader couldn't even be bothered to kill me himself, which could only mean that he's left the job to his minions to carry out whenever they get around to it. Again, he has provided me with a bitter lesson in humility. I'm not only deeply disappointed; I'm offended. I had prepared myself to die at his hands. I had not prepared myself to be tossed out onto the Empire's slag heap.
I try to sit up and groan out loud from the effort. With my trained healer's fingers I carefully probe all the places on my body that hurt, and come away puzzled about the partial patch job that seems to have been done on me. My collarbone has been set and stabilized in a rudimentary way, but there's a huge lump over my cheekbone and I can feel the spongy texture of swollen tissue around it. That hurts, too. The application of a little bacta on my face at the same time the bone was set would have gone a long way toward reducing the swelling, but apparently that wasn't done.
I'm completely disoriented. I don't know how I got here or how long I have been unconscious. I don't even know where "here" is - all these Imperial ships look more or less alike. I could be on any one of them, on my way anywhere.
Taking a deep breath, I prepare to reach out with the Force to explore my surroundings. I don't particularly want to. All things considered, I'd prefer to retreat back into unconsciousness, or better yet, go back to dreaming about Lila. But I know I must. The living, I was taught, have an obligation to carry on as best they can. No matter what.
Reluctantly I stretch out my awareness and search the ship. Vader isn't here. His distinctive, Force-warping presence is gone, but the ship I'm on is abuzz with haste and anxiety. Something is happening; I have the sense of preparation, of getting ready for something, and yes, of fear. Maybe we're heading into battle. I look around the sparse chamber in which I find myself. It looks more like a vestibule than a holding cell, with high, wide doors at both ends and benches along the walls. I'm sitting on one of them, holding my head in one hand while my other arm remains tucked against my ribs to ease the throbbing in my shoulder.
Once I spent a miserable season working as a healer in a remote mining colony, under conditions so primitive that seriously injured workers had to be shipped off-planet for medical care. My job was to patch them up for transport - to stabilize anything that needed it, but to leave the in-depth care to others. It suddenly occurs to me that I have been dealt with in the same way. I've been patched up in a rush for transport. But where to?
I don't have long to wait. One of the large doors thunders open, and at the same time the lights in my vestibule brighten to a blinding glare. Blinking while my eyes struggle to adjust, instead of the expected contingent of Stormtroopers, I encounter the wholly unexpected sight of the same disdainful, gray-uniformed officer who personally delivered me to Vader. To my utter surprise, he is alone. Not surprisingly, he is armed with a vicious-looking blaster, and it is aimed at me.
He stops just outside of the vestibule and activates something on a control panel. I just have time to glimpse an empty, featureless corridor behind him before the far door opens onto what looks like the interior of a ship of some kind. Now I start to balk. I feel helpless and vulnerable and very, very rebellious.
"What is this? Where am I being taken?" I demand to know, but the officer ignores me. Instead he gives me a hard shove in the direction of the ship, and when I don't move right away he grabs my arm and begins to pull. I obey instantly when the jarring pain his grip awakens in my shoulder leaves me teetering on the edge of blacking out.
Once I have stumbled onto the waiting ship I stop walking in confusion. My half-blinded eyes must be deceiving me. There, like an apparition, is my smuggler-pilot.
The officer shoves me into the ship's loading bay so hard that I almost fall. Once again the small man grabs me with his wiry strength to steady me; mercifully it's my good arm this time. The outer hatch slams shut behind us. The pilot secures the inner hatch while I stand shakily by, and then he pushes me firmly, yet a great deal more gently than the solider had, though a narrow gangway into the vessel's familiar cockpit. I stumble into the seat he indicates, cradling my throbbing arm in the other. He sits down in the pilot's seat to begin his pre-flight checks.
"Where to?" he asks after a while, breaking into my silent confusion.
"What do you mean?" I croak. Apparently I haven't used my voice for a while. Again, I wonder how long I have been unconscious.
He doesn't look up, but continues with what he was doing. "I've been well-paid to take her wherever ya' want ter go, as long as it's not in the Core. As far out as possible, actually."
I stare at him. He glances up at me.
"Looks like he wants ya' alive, but he doesn't want to have to look at ya."
Anywhere you want to go.
I look out the view screen, which overlooks the busy flight deck of an Imperial Star Destroyer, but I'm not really seeing the scene below me. I see only the vast, empty galaxy spread out before me.
When I don't respond my companion goes back to his cross checks. "No matter," he says affably. "Don't need ter make the final choice for a while yet."
"You're all right!" I exclaim suddenly.
"Aye." Apparently he can be as infuriatingly taciturn as I can, when he wants to be.
"You know him?" I'm scrambling to make sense of it. "You work for Vader?"
My pilot grins at the console. "I stay outta his way. I do what he asks. I make sure I don't irritate him. An' he lets me be." He glances at me sideways. "I knew him when, ya' see."
The glance is just a flicker out of the corner of his eyes, but I feel the intention behind it like a ripple of wind in the Force. It is a question.
"So did I," I admit.
He turns to study me openly, his pale eyes searching my face and my shabby clothes and, presumably, my injuries. I sit quietly, allowing his scrutiny, while I wait for my reeling thoughts to settle.
I've been paid well to take you wherever you want to go.
It appears that I am to remain alive a little longer.
"Didn't know he had any friends," the little man says dryly.
We stare at one another, my pilot-chauffeur and I. While I puzzle about why Vader didn't simply do away with me, I suspect that my shrewd companion is wondering, more to the point, what I offered that Vader needed.
Anakin was my friend; Vader is not. I no longer have any illusions about him. And yet we are forever linked by a shared past that seems, in some small way, to be alive in him still. That is what I brought him-a glimpse of his past...of who he once was.
It pleases me to think that our encounter was as painful for him as it was for me.
"I'm no friend of his," I say hastily. "I'm more like... family. The kind you're embarrassed by and keep locked away in a faraway place so no one will see." Quite suddenly, the thought strikes me as funny, and my face creases into the unaccustomed shape that precedes laughter; but it hurts, and I wince instead. "Ow." Gingerly I touch the puffy flesh around my eye and on my throbbing cheek.
"Looks like ya' irritated him," my pilot remarks blandly.
"I certainly did." I wonder why it is so easy to speak to this stranger about the darkest, blackest secret of my heart - my connection with Vader. I wonder why, even though my face and shoulder hurt horribly, my heart feels eased.
What are you going to do now? Lila's voice echoes in my mind.
Lila. Wise and witty Lila, who captured a wanderer and gave him an unexpected respite. I wonder... I wonder...would she have me back?
"How about Bakura?" I suggest. "It's on the way to the Ssi-Ruuh cluster. Do you suppose that's far enough away?"
"Aye." My pilot shrugs. "It can be." Then, boldly, "What's there?"
"A woman," I say, wanting to smile again, but I am more careful this time.
"Oh, aye," he nods sagely. "She'll not be wantin' ya' lookin' like that, ya' know." He nods his head toward the rear of the cockpit. "There's bacta in the 'fresher back there."
I nod, profoundly grateful for the routine patter of our conversation. I'm just rising from my seat when he stops me.
"I almost forgot. This was left fer ya'." He holds out my rucksack. My ancient, shabby, beloved rucksack. I plop straight back into my seat and stare at it. "Go on," he urges when I don't move. "Take it. And stay there. We're in a hurry. I'm supposed ter get ya' outta here before this ship reaches the fleet or the deal's off an' I don't get paid."
I reach out with my good arm for the bag and clutch it to my chest, as though it could ward off an unpleasant chill.
"Why? What's on the fleet?"
My pilot tosses his data pad aside and reaches over to buckle me into my seat. He signals the ground crew, and begins to maneuver the PellMell into takeoff position.
"Not what," he corrects me. "Who." The vast hangar doors open ahead of us. "His boss is there," he explains succinctly, squinting straight ahead and then back at his controls.
The Emperor is on the fleet. No wonder the atmosphere on the Star Destroyer was almost frantic.
Before I can reply my pilot hits the accelerator and the little ship hurtles toward the stars like a stone hurled from a catapult. My stomach flattens against my spine and it's all I can do to keep breathing. He must be getting very well paid indeed because he has pulled out all the stops for this takeoff. With unspeakable relief I watch the controls to see the ships of the Imperial task force grow smaller and smaller.
Your light shines too brightly, Vader had said. So he'd scooped me up and flung me as far away from him as he could. It was all he could do. The rest is up to me.
Once the ship stops accelerating I let out a deep, deep sigh. I want to head off to the fresher to do what I can with some bacta and maybe a bit of temporary strapping for my arm until I can go into a healing trance. But before I do, I can't resist rummaging in my rucksack to see what might have been taken.
To my surprise, everything seems to be there. My few personal items. All of my journals. Even a change of clothing. My fingers scrabble all the way to the bottom of the bag and close around something rounded and hard and smooth. I draw it out slowly. Even this is still here. It's the egg-shaped piece of polished obsidian that Lila gave me when I first told her about my recurring dreams. I carried it everywhere with me.
I turn the glassy, smooth, black rock over and over in my fingers, and then stop. Something is different. I turn it over again and hold it closer to the light. There, faint, but so distinct that my fingers had discovered the difference in texture, is a long crack running the stone. A crack that I know wasn't there before.
"How long to our destination?" I ask my pilot.
"More 'n two days. I'm keepin' outta the main traffic lanes." He glowers at me. "No more unplanned stops."
"No more," I promise. "It's over."
He stares at me speculatively, taking in my cryptic comment, and then abruptly holds out his hand as though we are being introduced for the first time. "Keinan Pell," he says. "At yer service."
I grasp his hand warmly in mine, and this time I manage a lumpy grin. "Poulin Brith."
I think I'm going to enjoy this journey.
I might even have a few stories to tell.
Original cover by DarthBreezy. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.