The air is still but not silent, filled with the chirping of insects and the snarls and howls of the nocturnal creatures that occupy the giant trees of the Endor forest moon. The branches soar above me, woven together in a tangled web that almost obscures the night sky. Movement in the trees draws my attention as the leaves begin to sway back and forth, blown by a gentle breeze.
At least I assume it's a gentle breeze. I cannot feel it on my skin. The white armor I wear keeps any outside sensation from reaching me. I can only feel the stickiness of my sweat trapped beneath the armor's undersuit. A gift from the humid evening, and it is the only one that I can truly experience. The rest of my perceptions are filtered through the artificiality of my stormtrooper's uniform and helmet.
Endor is a beautiful place. A lush forest of towering trees and dense undergrowth covers the surface. It has a primeval magnificence that appeals to something deep within me, and I wonder what it would be like to explore its secrets unfettered by armor, weapons, and technology.
A rustling in the undergrowth catches my attention, and I turn to see a flash of brown fur move just outside the perimeter lights. It is one of the small furry creatures that inhabit the trees here - Ewoks, I believe is what they were called in the mission briefing. The brass generally regards them as pests to be eliminated. I find them amusing. They remind me of the cuddly stuffed toys that my wife buys for our son.
I wince as I think of my son. Eiren was a baby when I last saw him, a bright-eyed toddler who had just taken his first wobbly steps. The last holo that arrived showed an energetic little boy, golden-haired and blue-eyed, who talks non-stop and never walks if running is an option. The holos from my wife arrive in random order, sometimes several in a week, sometimes none for months. I guess it depends on how busy the censors at headquarters get. My return holos go out just as sporadically - our location is classified, and sometimes messages are not permitted at all. I wonder if I will be able to return to Eiren in time to make his memory of not having a father vague and fuzzy.
I wonder if I will be able to return to Eiren at all.
I let out a long sigh, thankful that the helmet vocoder does not transmit such random sounds. My lack of focus bothers me. Our mission here is of vital importance, and I should not be dwelling on personal matters. I should not look beyond the base and see the teeming wonders of the forest, begging to be explored. I should look out there and see the hidden avenues of approach, the easy cover and concealment the growth would provide for the rebels that are rumored to be on Endor. I should see the obstacles to mobility and dwell on the wreckage of six speeder bikes that were found just today.
But more and more, I find my thoughts turning to home, to my wife, who I miss terribly, and to Eiren. I remember how big his smile is, and the wistful look in his blue eyes as he faces the holo-cam and says, "Miss you, Daddy. You're long time gone." He was so small when I last saw him - does he really remember me? Or are his memories just the ones that my wife has given him? What is he really like? Is he good-natured and sunny, like my wife, or more serious, like me? Is he easy-going or strong-willed? Will he enjoy the excitement and bustle of the city or revel in the quiet beauty of the countryside? These are the things I long to know, and as this war drags on, they seem to take on more and more importance. I long for a change, but I cannot figure out exactly what kind.
I try to shake off these thoughts as I go to inspect my squad's positions. I am not generally given to such musings, but it happens with more and more frequency these days, and I am at a loss to explain why. I ponder that thought for a moment before I realize, with a bit of amusement and disgust, that I am doing it again.
I move down the path toward my squad's first picket on the perimeter. Stormtrooper armor makes stealthy movement impossible, and we long ago gave up trying. Instead, we rely on the uniform's sinister appearance to intimidate our enemies.
Which, I suppose, was the real intention all along.
When I reach the first position, I see no initial signs of Takar and Baceer, the two troopers who are supposed to be manning it. I am not supposed to address them, or even think of them, by their names. I am supposed to use their trooper numbers, in this case, ST-233 and ST-234. But you can't lead and work effectively with a man that is addressed by a number and not a name. It's just one more part of my own small rebellion against the system. I stifle that dangerous thought and look around for my men.
A flash of white catches my eye and I move to the thick undergrowth at the base of a gigantic tree. My troopers pop to attention and render their report: no significant activity.
No significant activity. That makes me nervous in a way I cannot explain.
I spend several minutes questioning them about the location of their picket and why they moved it from its original position. I listen to their reasoning and nod in approval. I am proud of my men. Unlike most officers, our lieutenant has encouraged us to think for ourselves and be aware of our surroundings, and that mindset shows clearly in the initiative taken by my soldiers.
I turn to head down the path to the next picket, and stop short. It is all I can do to keep from jumping out of my armor. Standing in the middle of the path is a man dressed entirely in black. He seems to have appeared from out of nowhere. He faces me, unmoving, his hands clasped loosely in front of his belt.
I jerk my blaster rifle to my shoulder. "Don't move!" I bark.
The man looks at me with a bemused expression, and I feel stupid, as he obviously had no intention of moving. He appears to be surrendering.
"Get your hands up!" I snap, and he gives me a tolerant look as if to say "make up your mind" as he slowly raises his arms away from his body. Baceer moves quickly up behind him and starts searching him for weapons. My trooper's sudden appearance would have startled most people, but I have the feeling that this man knew that Baceer was there all along.
In fact, I have the odd feeling that this man knows the location of every picket on the perimeter. He doesn't seem threatening, with his boyish face and sandy blond hair. But something in his blue eyes seems unspeakably old and sad.
"Who are you?" I demand. The man doesn't answer right away. He is obviously a rebel - there are no human settlements on Endor, and no Imperial soldier would skulk about the security perimeter in such a manner. There is no other explanation for his presence here.
"I am an officer of the Alliance to Restore the Republic," the man answers. "I am surrendering myself, and I wish to be turned over to Lord Vader."
I just stare at him. The low-light vision enhancement of my helmet lenses gives everything an odd glow, but even with the glow, the man doesn't look insane. And yet I know I just heard him ask to be turned over to Darth Vader.
"W-Why do you want to be turned over to Lord Vader?" I ask, looking around. It is an irrational reaction. Lord Vader is not on Endor.
"I have...unfinished business with him," the man says. His face takes on a wistful expression, and for a moment I am struck by how much his eyes look like Eiren's.
Miss you, Daddy.
"Sergeant." Baceer's voice snaps me out of my reverie. He has finished his search of the man and holds out a cylindrical metal tube. "This is the only thing I found that could possibly be a weapon."
I take the tube and turn it over in my hands, examining it. It has a power pack, so it must be an energy weapon of some sort. It looks vaguely familiar, and I try to remember where I have seen one before. There is a switch set into the middle of the tube, and I turn toward the forest, pressing it with my thumb.
With, a loud snap-hiss, a brilliant green light leaps from the end of the tube, and I almost drop it in my surprise. Now I know where I have seen a weapon like this before: hanging from the belt of Lord Darth Vader. A lightsaber. A Jedi weapon, a thing of legend, a relic of an extinct order. I suddenly want no more to do with this rebel and his death wish.
Unfinished business, indeed.
I thumb the switch again, and the blade disappears. "Let's go," I tell Baceer.
Baceer pulls out a pair of binders and fastens the man's wrists with them. Unnecessary, really, since the man wants to be brought in, but standard procedure. Then Baceer shoves the man with his rifle and we start back down the path toward the base.
I contact the officer of the watch, an arrogant commander whose name escapes me at the moment. I tell him that a rebel officer has surrendered and wishes to be brought before Lord Vader.
There is a long pause, then the commander's clipped voice comes back: "Lord Vader is not on Endor." I hear a trace of relief in his tone.
"He is now," says the rebel, gesturing at the sky with his bound hands. A command shuttle is descending toward the landing platform.
"There are a lot of command shuttles, rebel," I growl. But he sounds so sure of himself.
We continue along the path to the base. The watch officer meets us at the entrance, accompanied by another trooper. He eyes the rebel with contempt.
"Report," he orders me. I give him the details of the rebel's surrender and hand over the lightsaber. He turns it over in his hands a few times, then looks hard at the prisoner.
"What is your name, rebel?" he demands. There is more than idle curiosity behind the question. I wonder if this rebel is one of those with a large bounty on his head. Not that I care. I would rather have leave to go see my wife and son than the credits.
Our captive raises his manacled hands and gestures. "My name is not important," he says softly.
"Your name is not important," the commander repeats, looking puzzled at his own words.
"You need to turn me over to Lord Vader," says the prisoner.
"We need to turn you over to Lord Vader," repeats the commander.
I stare at them. As a child, I had heard stories about Jedi and their supposed ability to control people's minds. To actually see it executed spooks me a little, but at the same time, I have to resist the urge to laugh at how easily this man manipulates the arrogant officer. The prisoner looks at me with a half-smile, like we're sharing an inside joke.
The commander's comlink crackles, and his face pales as Control announces the arrival of Lord Vader's shuttle. My mouth goes dry and I tighten my grip on my rifle. For all the good it will do me. The rebel gives me a sharp look, and I remind myself that a little fear is healthy. And I'm not the one who is deliberately seeking Lord Vader.
"Let's go," the commander orders. Baceer prods the prisoner with his rifle and we proceed toward the landing platform. The commander attempts to interrogate the prisoner as we walk, asking him how he arrived and the location of his companions. The man smoothly denies the presence of other rebels on the Endor, but I don't believe him. One man could not have taken out all those bike scouts by himself.
But then again, something about this rebel's demeanor warns me that he should not be underestimated. And anyone who willingly seeks out Lord Vader is not lacking in courage.
We enter the turbolift and ride silently. When we reach our destination, we step out of the lift and right into the path of Darth Vader. I swallow hard at the sight of the hulking black figure and remind myself that he and I are on the same side.
Or are we?
I squash that thought as we halt in front of Lord Vader. The commander comes to attention and reports, "This is a rebel that surrendered to us. Although he denies it, I believe there may be more of them, and I request permission to conduct a further search of the area."
The implacable black mask swivels between the commander and the rebel. The rebel straightens and stares directly into the mask, a slight smile on his face.
The commander holds up the lightsaber. "He was armed only with this."
Lord Vader holds out his hand and the commander places the weapon in it. "Good work, Commander," he rumbles. His voice alone sends a ripple of fear through me, and I wonder again why someone would choose to seek him out. "Conduct your search and bring his companions to me."
The rebel seems concerned about that. His mouth tightens, but he says nothing. I am torn between wanting to observe these two men, and wanting to retreat from Lord Vader's presence at the best possible speed. The commander gestures us back toward the lift and starts talking about organizing a patrol to search for the other rebels. I pay him little attention, instead watching Lord Vader and his prisoner.
"The Emperor has been expecting you," I hear Lord Vader say. My eyes widen. An important prisoner indeed. But nothing can prepare me for what I hear next.
Lord Vader has a...son?
I follow the commander away from the landing platform, stunned by what I have just heard. The commander is droning on about a patrol, but all I want is to get to someplace where I can think.
The commander finally dismisses me to the perimeter and calls my lieutenant about the patrol. I leave Baceer at his picket with Takar, and stumble through the rest of my security inspection as fast as I can. When I finish with my squad's last position, I seek refuge in the dense growth at the base of one the gigantic trees. I set my rifle aside and remove my helmet, fully aware that if I am caught like this on duty, I will be relieved of my position and possibly court-martialed. But at the moment, I don't care.
I wedge my back between two large tree roots and try to make sense of my new information. Darth Vader has a son. A rebel son. And a high-ranking rebel, if the Emperor himself is seeking him. How could a father and a son become so far apart that they end up on different sides in a civil war? What happened to them? Do they hate each other? Did the son grow up far from his father, resenting an upbringing that most of the time included only one of his parents?
Will Eiren grow up to resent me? Will he curse my long absences and turn away from me when I am there? If this war drags on, will he grow up hating everything that I stand for? I bury my face in my hands and shudder as I imagine a future devoid of my son's love.
I sit under the tree for a long while, replaying the evening's events in my head. I begin to understand that the rebel was happy to see his father, and that thought gives me a strange feeling of comfort. After all, if Darth Vader's son can be pleased to see him, the father-son bond must be powerful indeed. I stifle a smile at the thought of the hulking Vader bouncing a blond toddler on one black-clad knee.
My comlink beeps, notifying me that it is time to change the guard. I put my helmet back on and make my way back along the perimeter, collecting my troopers and exchanging information with the oncoming squad leader. I am anxious to return to the barracks and compose a message for Eiren. I have found a strange measure of hope in the meeting of Lord Vader and his rebel son. If the ties of family can bridge a gap that wide, then perhaps war will not be the only constant in this galaxy.
When I reach my quarters, I remove my helmet and gauntlets and set up the holo-recorder. I want to compose the message while this new hope is fresh within me. I stand in front of the pickup, straighten my shoulders and activate the recorder. "Hello, Eiren," I begin. "I know I've been long time gone...."
I record a long message, hoping that I have conveyed my newfound optimism. I finish it up by saying, "And always remember, my son, that whatever path you choose, or whatever challenge rises to meet you, that you can lean on the bonds of your family for support, and face anything that comes before you confident of your father's strength and love for you."
"I'll be home soon."
Original cover by Lyra Luminara. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.