by Belea T. Keeney
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He awoke three days later, coming out of his Force-induced stupor with a surprised gasp. At his bedside, Luke leaped to his feet and hurriedly wiped away the sleep and fatigue from his own worn face.
"Father!" Luke grasped his father's left hand and pressed it close to his heart. A swell of Light side energy pulsed from the young man's touch. It felt cool to the Dark Lord. Soothingly cool. Quiet... Why, he could go back to sleep. Everything was all right. Luke was safe. Yes, he could go back to sleep....
The older man reached out weakly with the little Force energy he had left. He determined that he was in the isolation ward of a medcenter. An isolation ward!- how appropriate, he thought grimly. The lights in the room had been considerately dimmed for him. He looked at his black Sithian armor and breathmask draped over a chair. They lurked like a mordock there, as if waiting to coil and pounce at any moment. He turned his scarred face back to Luke.
"You should have let me die, Luke," Vader rebuked him wearily.
"No, Father, no. I would never have left you there." Luke stood straighter. "I couldn't leave you there."
Darth Vader gazed into Luke's blue eyes. They were eyes so much like his own that he shivered under the hospital's sterile sheets. They held a piercing hope, and the want and the need in them further exhausted the already weary Dark Lord. It was more than he could bear. He was so very tired.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Valahas Med Center, in the Outer Rim," Luke replied, all the while watching Vader closely.
"Valahas - the surgical center?" Luke nodded. The Dark Lord realized then that Luke had planned this carefully; it had been no last minute decision. "Consulted with Dr. Verwil, have you?"
"I've been doing some research about respirator implants and plastic surgery," Luke admitted. His aura was one of complete compassion for the injured man on the bed.
Vader was momentarily overwhelmed by shame and guilt. Luke had deliberately set out to save his father on the Death Star; he had never intended to kill him. And now Luke was counting on him, as always, unshakable in his belief in his father's strength. But Vader felt as if he had no strength left. He had spent all his life force in defeating the Emperor. He recalled now the vivid shock of hearing the Emperor tell Luke to take his place, to kill his father and rule with the Dark Master - not with Vader. The rage he had felt at the ruler's betrayal had fueled his energy enough to wrench himself upward and kill the Dark Master. And then he had wanted only to crawl away from his wretched existence and gratefully die. Too betrayed to ever trust again, too damaged to live a normal life again and much, much too tired to go on....
"Father, I brought you back with me so we could talk. Spend time together. And learn--"
"What could you possibly learn from me Luke?" Vader snapped. Shaking, he raised his right arm. Mangled, its wires and metal parts still hung uselessly at the end of his right arm. "Except how not to use the Force."
"We can learn from each other," his son replied gently.
Vader started. Of course, he was once again a victim of his own tunnel vision. He could do more than teach Luke; he could learn from him. His son's Lightside energies were so strong, even stronger now with his energy further reinforced by the victory he had experienced with his father against the Emperor.
The Dark Lord recalled the Emperor's death again. He felt deliciously, agonizingly untethered as if in a TIE fighter suddenly released from a tractor beam to bob in space. The Forceful link that had bound him to his Dark Master was gone. Over two decades of Dark symbiosis had been severed with his treasonous act on the Death Star. The sensation made him feel sickeningly off-balance; he was near nauseous with anxiety.
"Luke, I do not know if I can go on." The Dark Lord's words came slowly now. "Allow me some time to meditate on this." Luke nodded. His gratitude for any time with his father was evident. "I have a great deal of thinking to do." Luke accepted this silently.
"And Luke, if I decide to renounce the Force forever, you must understand. Can you truly accept that if it should be my decision?" Vader's words came in a whisper. He was fighting a great inertia and lassitude.
"Yes, Father, I can." Luke remained at Vader's side and watched the
older man's scarred face go slack with sleep. He gazed at the vicious scars
on the bare skull, the nestling of wrinkles around his eyes, evidence of
age and the treachery that the Darkforce left on a visage. Luke bent and
kissed him gently on the forehead.
"You cannot hide me forever, Luke". It was just one word different from the very phrase he had spoken on the Death Star. And it lanced through both of them. "The staff are already speculating. It's only a matter of time before they begin to talk to outsiders."
"You'll be safe here, Father. I promise."
"I'll never be safe anywhere," Vader retorted. He continued his slow pace across his room and shook his head at Luke's refusal to accept the painfully obvious truth. It would be extremely difficult for him to ever truly disappear. A tall, disfigured man with a respirator could hide in few places of the galaxy. His very physiology made it obvious who he was.
"I won't let anyone harm you!"
"Your friends in the Alliance, once they find out that I have survived,
will try me for war crimes against sentient beings. They need a scapegoat,
a tangible symbol of the Empire's guilt and final vanquishment. My execution
will do them immense good." The Dark Lord closed his eyes momentarily.
"It's a wise political move, one that I would make in their place."
The next evening the Sith Lord was idly scanning the holovid monitor that dangled in one corner of his room. He watched it for agonizing seconds and then sank to his knees on the cold tile floor. His entrails clenched tightly in his belly.
The holovid replayed a clip that had obviously been copied from one of the rebel fighter's video files. The picture was shaky and badly framed but it showed the Dark Lord a vid of the Executor- his ship! (the lady E!-) dropping down, downward, plunging like a stricken morthawk, her sharp nose piercing the Death Star's hull and then the orange explosion of fire and death and darkness.
Stricken, he remained on the floor. My fleet is in pieces, he thought savagely. My Empire is crumbling while I waste away in this vapid den of vanity. He reached out with the Force as the holovid replayed the horrid scene again and again. In a moment of sickening clarity, he heard Admiral Piett's last raging thought - "bastards! damn Rebel basta--" before he was was crushed on the Executor's bridge. Piett, Veers, the finely tuned bridge crew, the thousands of troops, the crew working on the Death Star... Gone, all gone, he mused impotently. The thousands of voices screamed to him through the Force and he closed his blue eyes. Gone.
Vader remained immobile on the floor. Those men and women had depended on him to protect them, to guide them in battle and to ensure the Empire's might in all wars. He had let them down. They had died because of him, his selfishness for his son, his coveting of the Throne.
Why didn't you protect them? His grandiose sense of responsibility raged at him. You were their Dark Lord, their leader. You should have directed them to safety. You should have fought for them!
A quieter voice answered:
I was fighting for my own life. Fighting against my son.
You let them all die, it said accusingly.
I was fighting my own battle.
For what? the nearly familiar voice sneered. For some mewling blond boy with delusions of adequacy? Some blue-eyed lordling who looks the way you once looked? Ha! Have you been near a mirror recently, my Lord Vader?
He recognized the voice now, it held the condescending tones of the Emperor's rage.
I was fighting for my soul.
You never had one.
Leave me be-- I haven't the heart for this any longer.
No, it was torn from your chest years ago. And the cruel voice faded away from inside his head.
Oh Force! Force forgive me for allowing this to happen. I was greedy,
I was selfish. I wanted Luke at my side above all. Force forgive me.
When Luke returned the next day, he conversed briefly with the night charge nurse. He was informed that the patient slept a great deal, ate little and paced his room intermittently through the night. His system was recovering remarkably well from the injuries he had suffered. Luke realized then that Vader must be using Force healing energies, despite questioning using the Force ever again.
"I spoke to Dr. Verwil today. She said that you're strong enough now for the implant surgery." Luke burst into the room with characteristic eagerness. The Dark Lord sighed and continued to gaze out the window at the gardens below. When Vader was silent for some minutes, Luke prodded further. "Father, did you hear me? With the new implants, you would have complete mobility without the armor and breathmask. You can go outside, you can walk in the garden, you can--"
"What's the point, Luke?" Vader barked. "Why bother to have an implant just so the Alliance can execute me?"
"I won't allow that to happen," his son countered. The Dark Lord shook his head at the naivete in those words.
"Luke, your compassion is appreciated- as always- but your limited knowledge of political strategies is truly astonishing. They'll find me, you know they will." Vader breathed deeply. And better the Rebel Alliance than what remains of the Empire. He would rather face the rebellion's war crimes tribunal than an Imperial Board to be tried for treason. True, the Emporer had sent the Royal Guards away, but Vader had worried for hours about vid transmissions from the Death Star's throne room. Had the Emperor forbidden the cameras in his inner sanctum? And if not, did some low-level tech in Coruscant's monitoring unit now hold the damning evidence for Darth Vader's guilt in a trial for treason?
He could feel his son sensing the focus of his musings. He turned to face the younger man and watched as Luke picked up the dreadful black mask from the chair in the corner.
"I think I know what you're really afraid of. It's not a tribunal or the Rebellion's justice system." Luke took a deep breath of his own. "Can't you let go of the mask?" he asked pointedly.
Vader was annoyed. How impudent his son was - and how wise in his own innocent way.
"If you've resolved to renounce the Dark side, then shouldn't you renounce the very mask that helped you to remain there for so long?" Luke continued, pressing his father. The younger man picked up the black globe and tossed it to his father. Vader caught the hated plastene without thought, then deliberately dropped it on the floor. "It's easier to commit atrocities from behind a mask, isn't it, Father?"
Vader's repressed anger flared at Luke's insolence. How dare he question a Sith Lord? The tangle of Darkside energies that the he had painfully curbed now swirled around him like a developing storm. For Luke, the very colors in the room changed; the light held a blue-gray cast that sent a chill through the air. Vader gazed at him with cold eyes, eyes gone steely gray. There was no soul in those orbs.
This was the Darkness - this was the Sith Lord under whose power the Jedi Knights, the Imperial Senate and then the entire galaxy had crumbled. Vader stood before him; darkly persuasive and with the threat of mind-numbing violence should that persuasion fail. Luke shivered. Any hopes that Luke may have had regarding Vader's hoped-for relinquishment of the Darkside were shredded.
"You're so naive! Do you think it was love that conquered that damned old sorceror? Consider this, my son. What if my power and strength to finally kill the Emperor came from the Darkside, Luke? What if it came from hatred and fear and anger - not love for you? What if that is the only power I have?"
"You saved me."
"I saved myself," came the Sith Lord's terse reply. "And my dreams."
"Tell me your dreams, Father." Luke's question was spoken with a surprising tenderness. Stricken, Vader raised one hand as if to touch his son's face, then dropped it and turned to face the window. The Darkside energies in the room seeped away.
"My dreams were you," he whispered in quiet agony. It took all of his control to keep his tattered soul from weeping.
"I'm here, Father." Luke stepped closer. He saw the Dark Lord's wide shoulders tense- he didn't want to be touched.
"No more, Luke. Leave me."
The young man retreated.
Troubled, his thoughts in a maelstrom, Darth Vader remained at the window long after Luke had left him. To remain here was an invitation for execution by the hated Rebellion. To return to the shattered Empire could be more dangerous still. He watched the clinic staffers go home after dayshift, he saw the auburn-haired groundskeeper patrol the garden paths. The footlights twinkled on among the greenery. Night fell and he instinctively relaxed a little. Vader stood unmoving still, waiting.
A quick movement beneath the willowa trees startled him. A figure stood there, blurry through the evening groundfog which had crept up. Vader had to strain his non-visored eyes to make out the silhouette of a tall, thin man hidden in the shadows.
Come out where I can see you, shadowman.
The shadowman remained beneath the cover of the trees. Vader experienced a curious doubling effect, as if someone had commanded him. With a quick Forceful nudge he threw out the command again. It echoed in his head.
The man in the garden stepped precariously into the lighted footpath. He looked up to the Dark Lord's window.
The face he wore was Vader's own.
His black uniform was in rags, dirty and tattered, and it hung from his too-thin corpse. Vader gasped as he recognized the golden Jedi stars on the spectre's collar. The lightsaber on his belt was the same one that had fallen away those months ago on Cloud City, clutched in Luke's severed hand.
It was as if Anakin had clawed his way out of a dirtied grave and stood, tottering on unsteady and skeletal legs before him. Was Anakin still alive, somewhere deep in the Sith Lord's heart?
"You're dead, Anakin." Vader spoke softly to the ghostly figure before him. "I don't need you any longer. No one needs you." The shadowman's face winced. Did Anakin still feel pain? Vader blinked at the thought and the wraith was gone.
Vader woke with a fresh perspective. He might be able to persuade an Alliance jury to vote not guilty. It would take tremendous effort of course, to Force-manipulate six jurors at one time, particularly jurors who could not possibly be truly neutral in his trial, but it was possible. And if Luke were to assist... Why, together, they could persuade the jury of almost anything.
It was a way out. If Luke didn't agree to help, then he would simply have to do it alone. What alternatives did he have? To live like a caged mordock until the day the guards trooped down the hallway to escort him to the executioner's room? To wait for an Imperial extradition order for a charge of high treason? To live in the godsbedamned black armor and breathmask for the short time that he might have left? No more, he told himself. NO MORE.
Like previous mornings, when Luke arrived he found Vader standing solemnly at the window. He was out of the hospital whites and had put on his ebony Sithian cape of office. The set of his shoulders was noticeably different; Vader stood taller, with confidence that had not been visible the previous weeks. When he turned, Luke saw the tentative beginnings of an unfamiliar smile on his father's face.
"Schedule the surgery."