Note: This continues scenes of both physical and psychological torture. If this offends you, please don't read further.
by MJ Mink
That he, with his great strength, had to lock his grip around a rail as a brace against the howling gusts swirling through the shaft, foretold the depths of his son's will, of the undisciplined Force ability that gave the mind dominance over the turbulence buffeting around the body and allowed Luke to cling to his precarious perch above the abyss.
This was no time for admiration, for though his son's spirit was strong, his physical form would soon give into shock from the amputation and might yet surrender to the eventual inevitable and fall. Vader had withheld his most important card until now -- until the moment that the truth might be played and the hand won.
"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father," he growled, his voice resonating through the hollow core of Cloud City.
"He told me enough! He told me you killed him!" Fury and grief rang through the youth's tone, and the emotions gave Vader pause.
So. This was why the youngster had determinedly faced him and not fled when confronted with the superior skills of the Dark Lord. Ah, Obi-Wan, my old Master, he thought with a twinge of remembered pain, you should have told him the truth -- or barring that, you should not have told him such a wicked lie. This changed the dynamic of his intended revelation. Learning his true parentage might well overwhelm Luke's sensibilities and cause him to react irrationally. Lord Vader had no desire to see his son die in such a useless fashion.
"No," he replied finally, "I did not kill him. Indeed, Anakin Skywalker lives this day."
Perhaps it was only the hair whipping across his face that brought tears to his son's eyes. Perhaps not. Either way, Vader felt a shudder of shock vibrate through the Force, followed by the boy's intense interest. "That's not true!" Luke screamed. "That's impossible!"
"Search your feelings," he said calmly, trying to wake Luke's latent abilities. "You know it to be true."
The youth's gaze drifted as he looked inward. Faster than Vader could have predicted, Luke accepted the truth and glared at him. "Where is he? What have you done with him?"
Though he knew the boy could not see his smile of welcome, the Dark Lord held out his hand. "Come with me."
Instantly he saw his error, for the blue eyes narrowed with suspicion. "No! I'll never join you!"
"I am not asking you to join me," he replied softly, so Skywalker had to lean closer to hear him. The boy was almost within reach. "But I will tell you about your father...and I will tell you how to track him. Perhaps you will find him before I do."
Horror filled the agonized gaze as the implied threat struck the youth.
"Or, son of Anakin, would you prefer to fall to a painful death, and leave me to deal with your father?"
Luke glanced down the shaft, his face momentarily concealed by clumps of sweat-matted hair. He looked up again, hesitating, considering. Still Vader held out his hand, waiting as he would wait for the trust of a wounded animal. Luke's eyes closed and, for a heart-stopping moment, Vader thought the boy was going to let go and plummet to his death. But when the eyes opened, in their depths he saw combined hope, resignation, and desperation, all emotions that he had felt himself at his most crucial moment. Pushed to the edge, losing all hope, only to have it returned from an unexpected and very dangerous source.
Young Skywalker reached toward him, and Vader locked his fingers around the small wrist, pulling his son to safety. All too quickly, the boy lapsed into unconsciousness, and the Dark Lord caught his breath at the narrow escape they had both had -- the boy, from death; Vader, from a bleak future of subservience.
Despite Luke's apparent slightness, his muscles were honed to a fine hardness, a mark of discipline, Vader noted approvingly. He hefted the youth over his shoulder and, locking his arm around his son's knees, marched off the gantry and through the long corridors to where his shuttle awaited their arrival.
* * *
His mouth was sticky and his tongue felt like it was covered with fur. Luke rubbed his tongue against his teeth and smacked his lips. Something touched his forehead, then pressed on it. A hand. He stiffened, relaxing as a straw pushed into his mouth and moisture trickled down his parched throat. His eyelids were apparently glued shut, and he struggled to open them, wanting to see who was helping him. Trying to raise his arms, he discovered they were bound, and he began to tug against the restraints.
"Settle down," a male voice said firmly. "No one is hurting you. You're quite a fighter, aren't you?"
"Who..." He coughed, cleared his throat, and attempted to speak again. "Who...where am I?" he asked hoarsely.
"I am Dr. Quester, and you are in my sickbay." A cool, damp cloth was laid across his eyes. "Relax. You had a reaction to the sedation and have been unconscious for a full cycle. That's why you're feeling the way you do."
Luke concentrated, grappling with what had been said. "Sedation?" he finally managed to croak. "S-sickbay?"
"I had to sedate you while I tended your wounds."
"W-wounds?" His arms were released from the bindings, and he felt the doctor raise and manipulate them, gently massaging his hands. "Don't remember. Where...'s sickbay?"
The cloth was removed. "I've dimmed the lights so your eyes can adjust gradually." There was a moment's silence, then: "You don't remember anything? You're aboard the Imperial Destroyer Executor."
A prisoner? But how--
In an instant, the vivid memories flashed across his mind like a violent holo show. "Vader!" he exclaimed, bolting upright, trying to ignore a wave of nausea that made him groan. He couldn't fight Vader in this condition. And Vader... Vader had his father! No...Vader knew where his father was -- no, Vader didn't know! Luke had to find him first. "My father," he whispered to himself.
"Vader is your father?" the doctor asked in an astonished tone.
"Stars, no!" Luke exclaimed, horrified. "My father was-- is a Jedi! I thought Vader killed him, but--" He snapped his mouth closed. "You're an Imperial," he accused. Rubbing his eyes to remove the last of the blurriness, he studied the man standing at his bedside.
He was tall, gray-haired and old, at least fifty, with warm brown eyes that were filled with perplexed amusement. He was wearing a white coat, but the gray collar of an Imperial officer's uniform peeked from above it. "Yes, I am. Rayl Quester, at your service, Commander Skywalker."
Imperials were supposed to be tougher and meaner, or at least coldly officious. Maybe medical personnel were different, since this man appeared to be none of those things. Luke nodded stiffly. "What wounds do I ha -- Oh." His hand. He raised his right arm and saw his hand. Or rather, saw a hand. This one looked smoother. His former hand had a small scar on its thumb where Binte had nipped him years ago after he'd petted her a little too hard. "Is it a clone?" he asked, shuddering.
"No, it's the latest Imperial technology and, as the bureaucrats feel compelled to say, it's 'better than the original'." The doctor snorted, but refrained from further commentary. "There's a panel here. When I push on it, thus...you see? This compartment holds the controls and provides accessibility for repairs."
"Repairs," he echoed.
"Yes, should it be damaged. If you maintain it properly, following the instructions I'll give you, there's no reason why it shouldn't last for several years before parts need to be replaced," Quester added in the same matter-of-fact tone Uncle Owen used when explaining why he wouldn't replace crumbling evaporators with new technology.
"Great," Luke snapped before remembering his manners and adding, "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, I'm only the grunt. It was Lord Vader's instruction that you be given the best replacement available."
"Oh." He couldn't consider Vader right now. "Do you have my old hand? The real one?"
The doctor turned away and searched through silver instruments on a tray. "I believe you lost it in Cloud City. Perhaps it went out the disposal vent."
With his father's lightsaber. He wondered if the hand was still wrapped around the hilt. "I hope it was destroyed. I wouldn't like it to be used for cloning an army of Luke Skywalkers."
"Gods forbid," Quester muttered fervently, returning to his bedside. "Now, pay attention while I demonstrate how to service the components."
Forcing himself to focus on this new and potentially interesting task, Luke resolutely pushed aside the other thing he really needed to know: why wasn't he in the brig? He was Vader's prisoner, wasn't he?
He yelped as a mini hydrospanner smacked on the back of his hand.
"I said, pay attention, Commander."
"Yessir!" he snapped involuntarily, nearly grinning despite the gravity of his predicament.
As he had suspected, the intricacies of the tiny parts were fascinating, and after a lengthy string of repeated requests, Dr. Quester finally allowed him to take the tools himself and experiment with adjusting the controls. At first, the constant entrances and exits by medical personnel were distracting, but he soon grew used to them, and when Quester left to tend another patient, Luke remained engrossed in his experimentation. With minute adjustments, he was able to make each finger bounce in endless repetitions, first one at a time, then eventually he had them all going in slightly different rhythms. Possibly this could be useful for playing a musical instrument or for.... He blushed at the involuntary vision that came to his mind of him and the Princess and--
"While I am pleased that you are able to amuse yourself, I would prefer that you did so in a more constructive manner," a deep, measured voice said.
Luke froze, except for his fingers. Vader! Damnit to Sith-hell! Without looking up, he frantically readjusted the small screws, and the fingers stilled one by one, except for his thumb, which retained a persistent twitch. He curled his fingers around it before raising his eyes to the Dark Lord. "You're a fine one to talk about being constructive," he said bitterly. "Slicing off my hand wasn't constructive!"
"On the contrary, it ended your futile battle and prevented a fall to your death," Vader replied coolly. "Additionally, a hand is more easily replaced than a head."
His eyes widened for a split second before he realized that no technology existed to replace a brain. "Are you trying to be funny?"
Ignoring his question, Vader took the hydrospanner from him and grabbed his wrist.
"Let go of me!" He struggled, but succeeded only in making Vader tighten his grip. "Hey!"
"What's going-- Oh." Dr. Quester strode into the room and came to a fast halt. "My Lord. May I be of assistance?"
"For your future reference, Doctor," the Dark Lord said as he made an adjustment that stopped Luke's twitching thumb, "it is unwise to leave young Skywalker alone with tools that he might turn into weapons or instruments of escape. Count your equipment to be sure he will not abscond with anything."
"I don't abscond!" Luke protested, pulling his hand free. Suspiciously, he tested it and found all five digits to be functioning properly.
"What became of the stormtrooper armor you stole from the Death Star? The weapons? And there's the matter of a satchel full of credits stolen en route to the quartermaster's office on Ord Mantell."
"It's not stealing when it's war," he defended weakly.
"As I said, Doctor," Vader turned to address Quester, "check your instruments. When you have completed his treatments, transfer him to Detention."
Great. If it was anything like Leia's detention cell, there would be no hope that he could escape. He glared at Vader, but remained silent. They both knew that he wanted to ask more about his father, but he refused to be the first to surrender and speak.
"You are dismissed, Doctor," the Sith said sharply, waiting until Quester bowed and departed before adding, "Ask what you wish, Son of Skywalker, but I will answer only one question so choose it wisely."
He framed several questions in his mind, accepting that Vader meant what he said and would only reply to one. But there was really only one question he wanted answered. "How can I find my father?"
The short pause was punctuated by Vader's unnerving, uniform breaths. "Research," he said eventually. "I will allow you access to all known databanks. But," one finger was raised in a warning, "I will have your word of honor that you will use nothing you find to attack or harm the Empire or any of its citizens or interests."
"All right," Luke replied slowly. "You have my word." He hoped he wouldn't stumble across any information that would be vital to the Rebellion, for it would put him in a very awkward position. But if he focused on Anakin Skywalker, he would be focusing on the past, following a trail of clues. "I want a promise from you, too. That when I find my father, you won't steal the information and use it to hurt him."
He sensed that behind the ebon mask, Vader was studying him as he considered his words. "Very well, young one. I promise I will not harm your father."
Luke nodded, looking down at his hand. He closed the open compartment door, pushing it until it latched with a click, knowing the very second when Vader's attention was diverted from him to other business. Then he watched through half-lowered lashes as the Dark Lord swept from sickbay.
"No, no," Quester scolded the troopers, "not so tight. If you must use binders, clasp them loosely. I don't want my work damaged."
Luke drew down the corners of his mouth, scowling at the physician. "That's my hand you're talking about," he muttered under his breath, "not just your 'work'."
Evidently the doctor had sharp hearing, because he sent Luke a chastising look before addressing him. "If you have any problems with the hand-- or any problems at all-- ask the guards to send for me. Lord Vader has given orders that I may attend to your needs."
He nodded absently, eyeing the two troopers, wondering if he could escape and 'abscond' with a TIE.
"Are you listening to me?"
Facing Quester, he looked at the taller man. "Yes. If I'm ill, Vader will allow me to be treated. That's generous of him."
"That's not what I said. You must learn to listen." The brown gaze drilled into him. "If you ask for me, I will come. Remember that."
His eyes narrowed, and he inclined his head. Quester smiled slightly and gestured to the guards to take him. They were relatively gentle with him, not even touching him as they traveled to the Detention area. Nothing was as Luke expected. These Imperials, who fought so fiercely, appeared reasonable and so normal in person. He supposed it was his youthful naivete that had formed the idea that Imperials had no consciences and were somehow inferior to the Rebels. But, he reluctantly admitted to himself, the Alliance had propagated that illusion. Even Leia. The realization troubled him, but he had no time to ponder it longer as they arrived at his assigned cell.
"Watch your head. There are steps down."
"Down?" he asked curiously, glancing at the trooper who had spoken.
"You're in one of our executive cells," the second guard said lightly. "In fact, it's bigger than my quarters."
"Lord Vader said you're to have computer access, so there's a space for that, plus separate living and sleeping areas," the first trooper added. "And a private 'fresher, of course."
"No window, though," the second added, chuckling.
Luke was uncertain how to respond to this bantering. "I saw a detention cell in the Death Star and it was tiny." Carefully, he maneuvered the few steep stairs.
"The Executor is the queen of the fleet. Everything is bigger and better here."
"Oh." The stairs opened into a decent-sized room complete with comfortable-appearing furniture and a vid-set. He was anxious to see the computer area, but wanted the guards to leave. However, they were in no hurry. One stood by the stairs, and the other continued speaking as he unfastened the binders from Luke's wrists.
"There's a pantry here, stocked lightly, as you can see, and a refrigeration unit. They will be restocked on a weekly basis, and your daily meals will be delivered. If you need anything sooner, just use the com to request service. Same with towels and sheets. If you find anything to be uncomfortable or if you have any other needs, again just use the com. Pressing any button will connect you with someone who will assist you. I'll check in from time to time, in case you need anything...or just want some company."
Luke nodded, too confused to reply. If this was the way Imperial prisoners were treated, he wondered how well the stormtroopers lived.
"Unless you need something else right now, we'll leave and give you privacy."
He nodded again and managed to stammer, "No, th-thank you, I'm fine. Thank you."
The guards gave him friendly waves, and he listened until their footsteps reached the door and it closed behind them. Then he set about exploring his new quarters.
* * *
"I trust the transfer went smoothly?" The Dark Lord focused on his Intelligence aide.
"Yes, My Lord. My men gave him the 'kid glove' treatment. He appeared quite pleased with his accommodations."
"As he should be." He paused. "And the tests?"
The officer handed him a small tablet. "As you can see, the blood tests confirmed your paternity, and his midichlorian count is close to two-thirds of yours, sir."
"Still exceptionally high." Indeed, the boy's count was higher than Yoda's. Vader gave a pleased sigh as he studied the data. "Continue to cultivate a friendship with him, but not too quickly or easily. Do not arouse his suspicions. You are dismissed."
"My Lord." Rayl Quester bowed and exited the Sith Lord's quarters.
Briefly, Vader considered Quester. The man had worked with him for nearly a decade, and Vader was confident of his loyalty. However, no one could be trusted totally; every man had his price, be it material or emotional. Quester's son had been killed in the Rebellion several years earlier, and he had never, to Vader's knowledge, been able to grieve. He would need to be watched closely to be sure that he did not develop any true attachment to Skywalker. It was a fine, yet dangerous, blend: the orphan and the bereaved father. If it worked well, Luke would long for a relationship with his true father and would willingly join him once the truth was revealed. Together, they would overthrow Palpatine and rule the Empire as father and son.
A chime sounded on his monitoring console, signaling a communication originating from Skywalker's quarters. Vader rose and crossed to the room, punching the control that allowed him to listen.
"I hardly expected to hear from you so soon, Commander," Quester's smooth voice said. "Is your hand troubling you?"
"No, but you said I could call if -- Well, my computer doesn't work, I can't access any of the databases Vader promised -- "
"Nor will you be able to do so for another day. You are to rest and not strain the hand...which you would do if I were to allow you computer access."
"You aren't allowing me access?" Luke's voice held a familiar tone of arrogance that caused a smile to crease his father's face. "Does Vader know? He said I'd have all the access I wanted."
"And so you shall, in another day." In contrast, Quester's voice was full of amused patience. "Have a good evening, Skywalker," he added before severing the connection.
Vader folded his arms, pleased with the additional information the short communication had revealed to him. Luke was stubborn, determined to act even though the result might be to his detriment. Even now, Vader would wager that his child was investigating ways to dismantle the block on the computer. Luke also had an arrogant streak, and his ire was quickly roused. These traits would make his Turning easier. The Dark Lord allowed himself a moment of pleasurable imaging...he, no longer Palpatine's thrall...ruling the known galaxy with his son and heir at his side. It was a new dream, one he had not known was possible until he learned of his son's existence. The knowledge had opened a deep well of hope inside him, and hope was a feeling that he had rarely had in his life. It was still a joy that he hardly dared acknowledge, yet now it was so gloriously overwhelming that he closed his eyes and reveled in it.
But he could not indulge for more than a moment. It was necessary that he continue to guard his true feelings, as he had learned to do over the passage of years. And he had his duties to perform. It was Duty that had gotten him through the last two decades, and he could not ignore it, no matter that freedom was finally within his grasp.
* * *
Cursing under his breath didn't help. Logically, he knew that; nevertheless the muttering brought Luke some comfort. It had taken forever, or so it seemed, to navigate around the deeply-buried barriers someone had entered in the computer, and now that he had, what did he find? The same old generic "Galactic Classic" database that he could have accessed anywhere. He'd searched here for his father many times and had found barely more than a passing reference. Vader had tricked him!
Fuming, he shut down the equipment, ready for a fight. A yawn took him by surprise, and he decided that the sensible thing would be to sleep now and confront Vader in the morning. Stripping, he hung the sickbay scrubs in the closet, noting with some surprise that his torn and ruined fatigues were draped over hangers, along with gray jumpsuits, trousers, and jackets. Prepared to be angry, he checked them for Imperial insignias, deflated when he found none. On the floor of the closet were black boots, leather shoes, even a pair of soft slippers that he slid his feet into. A thick robe was on a hook on the back of the door. "This is like a Hotel," he murmured reverently. Though he had never stayed in one, Leia had told him about Hotels that offered pampering services and personal attention. Luke had only slept at home, in ships, and in barracks, none of which could begin to compare with this Imperial destroyer.
Which was probably the point. Dazzle the country boy with peeks at the prosperity of the Empire and woo him to the Dark Side. Luke donned the robe and closed the door, turning to the nearby bureau. It, too, was furnished with necessities -- one entire drawer was devoted to socks! He shook his head and peered cautiously into the 'fresher. It was no surprise to find it stocked with all the personal comforts he could need. He was tempted to be stubborn and use nothing in the suite, but what would be the harm? These riches were a seduction, but since he was aware, he could use them without being seduced. There was no harm in having a leisurely bath in real water, then a healthy night's sleep in the huge airbed that was topped with a thick, downy comforter.
No harm at all, he decided later, as he luxuriated drowsily in the after-effects of the hot bath, snuggling deeply under the fluffy coverings. No harm...he would confront Vader later...after a good rest.
No harm at all....
It was a wonderful smell that woke him. A fragrance...one that made him stomach growl. Then he heard the low murmur of voices.
Luke rose and dressed quickly in a jumpsuit, since his uniform could not be worn again without a great deal of repairing. After a quick stop in the 'fresher and an equally fast assessment in the mirror to be sure he appeared neat and professional, he entered the main room of his quarters. Dr. Quester and a dark-haired, younger man were standing with relaxed postures, talking quietly.
Quester turned at his arrival. "Good morning, Commander. I trust you rested well?"
He nodded, his eyes on the other man. "Who are you?"
"I thought you met Captain Starflyer last night," the doctor returned. "Commander, this is Krish Starflyer."
"Hi," the young officer said cheerfully, thrusting out his hand. "I know, we all look alike in Stormtrooper armor. Don't be embarrassed that you didn't recognize me."
"I recognize your voice," Luke noted, reluctantly shaking the other's hand. Starflyer was only a few years older than him and dressed in the Imperial uniform of an officer, his sharp-brimmed cap tucked under one arm. "Starflyer...that's a Tatooine name. Are you from Tatooine?" Alarms were ringing in his brain. Did they really think he was so simple that he would just accept such a 'coincidence'?
"No," Starflyer replied surprisingly. "My grandfather was from there, but he left shortly after my father was born. I never got off Coruscant until I joined the Navy. I'm hoping to see Tatooine one day."
A smile quirked the corner of Luke's mouth. "There's not much to see." It was his automatic reply to those who asked about his homeworld, but lately his words seemed hollow. After Hoth, he had a new appreciation for warmth, and often he missed the clear skies and pure air of Tatooine. Except for occasional encounters with the Raiders, he had known a peaceful life there. Now he had learned, too late, that a life of adventure wasn't as grand as he thought it would be.
"Are you kidding?" Krish exclaimed. "I want to see the twin suns and the Sarlaac. There's nothing on Coruscant but buildings. I want to see all the empty land, the desert, the mountains-- I can hardly imagine what it must be like. How could you leave?"
Luke stared, his mouth hanging open, disconcerted by the other's enthusiasm. Dr. Quester clapped Krish's shoulder. "Forgive him," he said to Luke. "These city-bred youngsters appreciate the wilderness much more than those of us born there. I'm from Ord Mirit," he added, naming one of the relatively unpopulated planets at the edge of the Galactic Core. "But enough talk, Commander, or your breakfast will get cold while we continue visiting." He gestured to the domed platters on the dining table, the source of the delightful smells that were wafting through his suite.
"I have to be going anyway," Krish stated, checking his chron. "I'm on duty at 0800. I can stop by after I get off, if that's all right with you, Commander?"
"Give him a chance to acclimate," Quester scolded. "And kindly remember that the Commander is a prisoner." The physician softened the reminder with a smile. "Go about your duties, Captain."
"Yes, sir," Krish said with a mock salute to Quester and a grin to Luke. "Later!"
Luke removed the cover from one of the food platters, trying to gather his composure and sort through the conflicting feelings that were barraging him. He stared at the food: eggs, crisp bacon, and a triangular waffle with some sort of purple fruits on it.
"Sit down," Quester ordered, and acted on his own command. "Mind if I join you?" he asked rhetorically. He removed the lid from the second platter to reveal an identical assortment of food. "I took the liberty of selecting for you, but you may order anything we have available on board. You'll find a daily menu update online, just click on 'Services' on the main page--"
"Stop!" Luke said, raising his voice. "What in hells is going on? You said it yourself, I'm a prisoner. Don't try to tell me that all Imperial prisoners are treated this way, because I know differently!"
"I wouldn't tell you any such thing," Quester said calmly. "You're a very special prisoner. You're a dangerous enemy. You destroyed the Death Star. You're a fledgling Jedi. However, and more importantly, Lord Vader has instructed that you be well taken care of. Now sit down and eat your breakfast... unless your Rebel beliefs will not allow you to eat Imperial food."
Flushing, he yanked out a chair and sat. Truth be told, he was starving, and it was difficult to maintain anger when his stomach was empty. He sampled the eggs, a delicacy that was non-existent on Tatooine, and found they were delicious. He ate them quickly, then could resist the bacon no longer. In a short period of time, his plate was clean, and he sat back and watched as Quester poured two mugs of kafin from a silver pot.
"Thank you," he said, accepting a mug. He studied the older man, who caught his quizzical gaze and smiled slightly.
"What do you want to say, Commander?"
"I'm not sure," Luke replied honestly. "The experience of being a prisoner is not what I expected. I don't know whether to feel glad or wary that I'm being treated differently."
Chestnut eyes twinkled kindly. "If I were in your place, I believe I would feel both emotions, as well as several more. Simply the fact that Darth Vader was taking a personal interest in me would make me very nervous indeed."
It was meant to be amusing, but Luke could only muster a glum imitation of a smile. "What does he want with me? Do you know?"
"Don't you?" the physician countered. "You said something about your father. How is he involved?"
"I don't know," he snapped, frustration making him grip the mug tightly. "I was raised to believe he was dead, then I learned he had been a Jedi, and now Vader says he's still alive."
"Then where is he?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out." It was tempting to trust this man, but Luke reminded himself that Quester was an Imperial officer. "Vader and I are both looking for him. For some reason, Vader wants me to do the research and find him, but I don't know why Vader couldn't find my father himself if he really wanted to."
Quester was silent for a moment. "Perhaps," he finally ventured, "Vader believes that the journey you will take is more important than its eventual destination."
He stared, but the other man's gaze was fixed on his kafin. A demand trembled on the tip of his tongue, but he held it back, realizing that he had just received a huge amount of information from a man who might be more than he appeared. "I don't get it," he lied nonchalantly. "There's nothing I'll find in the databases that someone else couldn't."
The doctor shrugged, appearing to lose interest in the conversation. "I have to get back to sickbay soon. How's your hand been working?"
"Good." Quester rose, giving him a professional smile. "I'll clear you for repetitive usage, so you can expect the databases to be unlocked shortly."
"Thank you." He followed Quester to the door, still puzzled. He considered himself a fairly good judge of character-- perhaps it was the Force that had always given him an advantage in that area-- but he couldn't read this man. "And thank you for breakfast. I hope you'll stop by and visit me again sometime."
The door release was pressed, and a guard appeared. Quester looked back over his shoulder at Luke, his face slightly sad. "If you like."
"I would." He watched the man depart and stared at the closed door for several minutes. Maybe Quester was more than a physician, but he was also an unhappy man, and the realization that these Imperials were not the one-dimensional villains he had assumed was troubling. War was difficult enough, with all the suffering and deaths on his side, without considering the implications to the beings who fought him.
Life on the farm had definitely been easier.
With a sigh, Luke pulled out the chair at the desk and waited, practicing patience, for the databases to appear.
* * *
"You were careless," Vader stated bluntly, gratified to observe that Quester did not flinch from the criticism.
"Yes, My Lord."
"But you salvaged the moment, and began to confuse him. A good beginning." He continued to scan the starfield idly, hands clasped behind his back. A great sense of personal satisfaction filled him, and he knew he needed to be cautious lest his anticipation distract him from his duties to Palpatine. But the appeal to instead consider his son and the opportunities that lay before them, was great. The boy had promise, and once his plebeian notions were destroyed and his powers woken and harnessed, together they would take control of the Empire and put an end to the destructive conflict that now raged. First Luke would have to be broken, then put back together in a different, more usable way. The challenge interested him, and he was tempted to take over the task from Quester.
"Are you up to the assignment, Doctor?" Slowly he turned his head toward the other. It was a task that would daunt many men, and this was Quester's first assignment of the sort. A test of his worthiness to continue in his newly-chosen field.
"Yes, My Lord," the man repeated, his eyes unreadable.
He continued to study Quester, mentally probing for any weaknesses or doubts. There was none to be found, though the Intelligence officer's slight Force Talent gave him the ability to hide his feelings from a casual probe. At the moment, it was not worth venturing deeper, an action that was as distasteful to Vader as it was to his subjects. The minds of common men were cluttered with useless emotions and irrational conflicts, rendering them disturbing and barely coherent to his superior mind. It would be a relief when Luke's mind was stabilized, when his inconsequential emotions were neutralized, when he could become something of a companion to his father... when this vacuum in which Vader existed became populated by two.
"Carry on, then," he directed quietly, returning his attention to the stars. "And remember," he added, "failure will result in the most unpleasant of consequences."
* * *
At first, the additional databases turned up the same meager information he had found during other explorations. A listing of "Skywalker, A." on a Jedi training schedule-- a schedule that held enough names to make Luke blink in surprise. A few mentions of "Master Kenobi and Skywalker" on peaceable missions that seemed frequently to end in battles. Then he discovered a new item: a single reference to a sealed "Disciplinary Documentation". The find left him both excited and frustrated, hoping he could track down the contents elsewhere. Perhaps his father had been prone to getting into trouble, a trait that would allow Luke to claim it had been inherited rather than his own creation.
He was engrossed in his exploration when he decided that, so far, the one drawback of his comfortable prison, other than the fact he was a prisoner, was that people came and went as they pleased, with no polite knocking involved. When a bright "Hello!" sounded, Luke snapped off the monitor and swiveled in his chair. "Hello, Captain Starflyer," he greeted stiffly. "I thought you weren't coming back until you were off duty."
"I'm off," the other young man said cheerfully, placing a laden tray on the small dining table.
"Are you kidding? I was on for nine timeparts. I see you didn't order lunch, so I brought dinner. Hope you don't mind if I join you."
"Dinner?" Luke echoed, confused. "But it's only...it's still morning...isn't it?"
"Not hardly. What were you doing all day that you lost track of time?"
He flicked the monitor back on and pulled up the Executor's chron. It was after 1900. How could that be? It seemed like he'd only sat down a couple hours earlier. "Uh...scanning databases, I guess. I didn't.... What did you bring to eat, Captain?" He wasn't particularly hungry, but there was no point in passing up a good meal. He'd had enough Alliance dry rations to last a lifetime.
"Take your choice." Starflyer lifted the covers from both plates, revealing main courses of a white fish and a juicy steak. "And call me Krish. May I call you Luke?"
"Sure," he said uncomfortably, reaching for the steak.
"I figured you'd take that one," Krish said smugly. "I brought wine, too. We're only allowed one glass apiece, but I brought really big glasses."
Luke nodded, uncertain how to respond. He's an Imperial soldier, he reminded himself, and I should not trust him. But the Coruscant native was barely older than him, and he sensed no subterfuge beneath the blithe demeanor.
"Tell me about Tatooine. And don't look at me so suspiciously," the Imperial added with a grin that was reflected in his hazel eyes. "It's a neutral subject! I'm not asking for you to reveal your precious Rebellion secrets."
With a slight flush of embarrassment, Luke nodded, and as he described his homeworld, soon he was lost in memories. After awhile, warmed by the wine and the attention, he described his home and his guardians...and how they were lost forever.
"Now I'm glad I've never been to Tatooine," Krish commented when Luke had finished. "I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the troopers who killed them."
"We probably shouldn't compare notes," he replied heavily. "Maybe we've been in the same battles."
"Maybe." Starflyer stood and stretched his long arms overhead before gathering the dinnerware. "Well, time for me to turn in. I have an early shift tomorrow." He wrinkled his nose in good-humored distaste. "It's lights-out at 2300 for prisoners, so try not to get too engrossed in the computer again."
Nodding, he resisted the urge to behave like a host and walk his 'guest' to the door. "Thanks again for dinner."
Krish waved, tossing a smile over his shoulder before departing, leaving Luke feeling strangely bereft. He missed his friends more than he had realized. An Imperial could never truly be his friend, but maybe Krish Starflyer could be a temporary substitute.
Once again, Luke lost himself in the daunting search for information about his father. So far he had found no clue that hinted Anakin Skywalker might be alive. When he reached a roadblock in the current database, he switched the search to focus on Darth Vader. He could find many excuses to justify his interest, but the truth was that the man both terrified and fascinated him. He wanted to know why Vader wore a disguise, how well he had known Anakin and if he'd really betrayed him, if he had any regrets, and if his conscience ever bothered him. Not all of those answers would be in a computer, of course, but the available information might give him some indications. And learning about Anakin's friend/enemy might bring out more information about Anakin himself.
Thoughtfully, he read the official biographic information...which, oddly enough, contained nothing about Vader's origins, his home planet, or his family. It struck Luke as very strange. If Vader didn't want the truth known, surely he would have planted falsehoods in the official record. But to leave it empty was almost a challenge, as if Vader wanted someone to investigate. Luke supposed he shouldn't take it as a personal challenge-- after all, Vader hadn't known he would appear and be interested-- but still....
The entire detention cell plunged into darkness. Even his monitor screen went black. Leaping to his feet, Luke clutched the back of the chair, wondering if they were under attack. Maybe the Alliance was coming to rescue him! Cautiously, hands extended like a newly-blinded man, he made his way up the steps to the door and pounded on it. "Hello? What's going on?" He kept banging and shouting, and it was not long before the door slid open.
Two stormtroopers, rifles held across their chests, barred his doorway. "Quiet down. What's the problem?"
"Th-the lights went out," he stammered. "Are we under attack?"
"Lights out at 2300 for prisoners. They're back on at 0600." Without any pleasantries or further words, the door closed so fast that he jerked back involuntarily.
"Great. It can't be 2300 yet," he mumbled. "And it's frickin' dark, how am I supposed to see anything?" Continuing to grumble to himself, he moved carefully around the rooms, stubbing his toe on something and stopping to curse ferociously. Why hadn't Yoda taught him how to see in the dark? Taught him something useful, instead of balancing rocks and climbing into--
The image returned, as clear as the moment he'd seen it. His own face, in Vader's helmet.
Cautiously, he fumbled until he found the bed and lowered himself onto it. What did he have in common with Vader that he should have seen such a vision? The Force, yes, but was there something else? Someone else? Ben had said that Vader had been his father's friend. A good friend? Maybe Vader was lying, and he really had killed Anakin. For the first time, Luke considered the possibility that Vader had known about Anakin's son and had been expecting Luke to turn up one day, eager to avenge his father's death. Is that what the helmet meant, that if he killed Vader, he would take his place? If he killed Vader, he would fall to the Dark Side, just as Vader had fallen when he'd killed Anakin. It was almost too ironic, but it made sense. When he saw Vader again, perhaps he would dare to ask.
The ideas spun around in his head, weaving silvered webs as he attempted to follow them to a logical source. Finally, exhausted, he felt his eyelids grow heavy and allowed them to close, slipping into a deep slumber.
Loud clangs and very bright lights startled him awake, and he jerked up, heart pounding. He stumbled from the bed and into the living area. The computer was flickering to life, displaying the same screen he'd been reading the night before. Shaking his head, Luke yawned and headed for the shower. It was pretty amazing that he could sleep so soundly, considering he was a prisoner on an Imperial warship. Tonight he would be more prepared for lights-out and get his full allotment of sleep, no more thinking and brooding like last night.
Neither breakfast nor visitor awaited him this morning, so he made himself kafin and toast, stretching while he waited. Maybe the Imps would let him use the gymnasium, assuming that the "Queen of the Fleet" had one. If Quester refused, he'd ask Vader. Vader wanted him treated well.
He stopped in mid-stretch, then continued to place his palms flat on the floor. Was he being treated well because Vader felt guilty about killing Anakin? Assuming that Anakin was dead and not alive, hiding somewhere.
Oh, he so wanted his father to be alive, but it made no sense that Anakin would be hiding, too afraid of Vader and the Emperor to claim his son. What kind of man would abandon his child?
With a perplexed sigh, Luke began another day in front of the small monitor.
He was still there, hours later, Dr. Quester appeared with a now-familiar tray.
"Don't tell me that's dinner?" Luke commented with a half-smile, wondering if they were attempting to alter his sense of time for their own hidden purposes.
The physician chuckled. "Lunch. Have you been working so hard that it seems as though the entire day has passed?"
"No. I just thought--" He broke off. "Nothing."
Quester arranged the dishes while Luke watched silently. "How is your research going?"
"Slowly. Did you know that Darth Vader has no history?"
Pouring kafin, the older man studied him. "Aren't you supposed to be looking for your father?"
"I was getting bored, running into dead ends. Thank you." He accepted the mug, sipping cautiously at the hot brew, then took a bite out of a thick sandwich. "I found Vader's authorized biography, and it begins when he was in his twenties. You'd think there would be something earlier, even if it was lies, wouldn't you?"
Seemingly ignoring him, the doctor sliced his own sandwich into neat squares and ate one before replying. After a swallow of kafin, he said, "It is a bit of a mystery. Are you intending to solve this mystery as well?"
"Maybe. The bio is the only site that talks about his mid-twenties," he mumbled around the food in his mouth. "Other sites start by describing his official position in the Empire a few years later, when he was around thirty."
"Horrors," Quester murmured. "How ancient."
"I didn't mean it that way!" Luke grinned and added bluntly, "I'm tempted to like you, even though you're an Imp."
"Why, thank you, sir." The tone was mocking but gentle, then Quester sobered. "Tell me, Luke, do you not truly understand that you and everyone else are Imperials? The ruling government is the Empire; thus all inhabitants of ruled planets are Imperials."
"Semantics," he replied dismissively, though in truth he knew that. "Rebels aren't Imperials."
"Of course they are, Commander. Rebellious Imperials."
He couldn't stop himself from laughing, though the accuracy of that description made him uncomfortable. "I'll bet you're the type of person who has an answer for everything."
"Not everything." A shadow fell over the returned smile, and Quester studied the remains of his sandwich a moment before pushing it aside. "You remind me very much of.... Ah." With a shake of his head, he wrapped his hand around the mug.
Curious, Luke persisted. "Who do I remind you of?"
The smile was nearly a grimace, bittersweet and wounded. The physician scrutinized him for several moments. "My son," he said reluctantly.
"Oh." He felt embarrassed, yet pleased. "Do you miss him? Where is he?"
Another cup of kafin was poured. This time sweetener was added and stirred vigorously. Luke was beginning to regret that he'd asked when Quester replied: "He's dead."
His eyes widened. So this was the source of the unhappiness he'd felt. "I'm sorry," he began, but Quester wasn't listening.
"He was only twenty, just beginning his career. He took a post as an assistant procurement officer at the garrison on Ord Mantell. He was at his desk when there was an attack by...your rebellious Imperials. They shot him before he could stand up."
Nausea roiled through him. Surely it wasn't possible-- He hadn't killed anyone during that raid, but maybe Han or-- ? "When did it happen?" he asked faintly.
"It's over five years now," the physician replied, missing Luke's sigh of relief. "There are times when I forget, expecting to hear from him or see him. Then I remember."
Unexpected tears sprang to his eyes, and he blinked them back. Thank the Force he hadn't been with the Rebellion then. But he had killed Imps, thousands on the Death Star, and how many of them had grieving fathers?
A hand rested on his forearm, and Luke stared at it. It was the hand of an older man, slightly creased, pale from years spent off-planet, but the nails were clean and cut straight across. It reminded him of Owen. "You're thinking of the men you've killed, aren't you?" Dr. Quester asked softly.
Luke nodded, unable to speak.
"Such knowledge is a heavy burden for anyone, but it must be more so for you. You carry the responsibility for over a million deaths."
The word registered, but he had difficulty understanding the concept. "A million?" he repeated numbly.
"On the Death Star, yes." The fingers slid down to cover the top of his own hand. They squeezed tightly. "You know that one day you will have to answer for that act, whether it be in this life...or the next, when a million souls cry out to your imprisoned spirit for justice. Such is the price of terrorism."
Shaken, he jerked free and leaped to his feet. "I'm not a terrorist! That was war! If I hadn't destroyed it, it would have killed all of us -- and destroyed the moon, just like it did Alderaan! That was a terrorist act, not what I did!"
Quester's dark eyes watched him, a humorless smile stretching his lips. "Semantics, if I may quote you." Then he shrugged. "Though I will not disagree about the destruction of Alderaan. It was the act of a madman.. A pity Tarkin did not live to pay for his crimes, for there are countless citizens who would have their revenge on him. As they wish to do with you."
"Are you one of them?" Luke demanded coldly.
The smile softened and became more natural. "I agree with your assessment that it was an action of war. I do not speak of this to frighten or upset you, but to warn you. No matter what happens in the future -- even if your rebellion somehow manages to defeat the Empire -- there will always be people who will wish to harm you, to avenge the loved ones you took from them. Millions of parents, wives-- children who will grow up knowing you were the one who left them fatherless. It's a terrible burden. How do you face it?"
He was colder than he'd been on Hoth, terribly cold, so cold that shivers were running through him. He hugged himself, tucking frozen fingers in his armpits, glaring at the physician who appeared quite comfortable. "It's freezing in here," he accused.
The other man stood. "No, it isn't." Quester sighed. "I'll leave. I've upset you, I know, but you need to face this reality. It will be with you for all your life. You will never again have a moment's peace until you learn to accept it."
"I thought you were my--" He shut his mouth on the plea he'd almost blurted.
At the door, the doctor stopped. "Your friend? I do not give my friendship so readily. But," Quester stretched out his arm and clasped Luke's shoulder, "neither am I your enemy. You need someone to talk to and confide in. As your physician, I can be that person. Friendship may come in time. Good evening."
"Good ev -- it's not evening," he complained to the closed door. Friendship may come in time. Luke stood still, drowning in the ice that surrounded him.
How much time?
He would be a captive forever.
Too soon, the lights went out for the night, but he stood there still, a captive of both the Empire and his own horrified realizations.
It was obvious, as a few more "days" elapsed, that the Imperials were attempting to manipulate his time-sense to confuse him. Days and nights were passing in quick succession, though sometimes the days were endless and the nights over shortly after they had begun. Even though he realized the trickery, Luke was becoming disoriented. He was so conditioned that he could not sleep when he had the chance, anticipating the sudden lights and bells that would wake him should he drowse. If there was some Jedi discipline to overcome this problem, he hadn't learned it and had been unable to find it on his own. Meditation was impossible; he just couldn't do it with so many distractions.
There is no try. Only do or do not.
"Yeah, I'd like to see you meditate here," he muttered resentfully.
Resolutely, he focused on the databanks, determined to find his father, though often the words blurred and his concentration slid away. It was on the tenth or twelfth day-- or maybe it was the third or the fiftieth, Luke had no idea -- that his blurry eyes found a list that caused him to force his mind to pay attention.
Padawans. A word from an ancient tongue meaning "learners". The title given to Jedi students.
Rubbing his eyes, Luke quickly scanned the tiny print, squinting in an attempt to make it clearer. There were at least a hundred names, and there he was -- Skywalker, Anakin. Dragging his finger across the screen, he found the other name: Master Kenobi.
So, his father had been Ben's student... but he already knew that, didn't he? Ben had said so. And Ben had said something else, too, something that Luke couldn't quite remember.
Stabbing the keys with near-blindness, he resorted the list by Master. There were several names under "Kenobi", but he recognized none of them except his father's. What was it Ben had said? It was something important, he was sure of that, but he couldn't quite remember.... Something about... another student, was that it? "Just a minute," he mumbled, pressing the heels of his hands against his forehead, "just a minute. I know this. I know it I know it I know -- Noooo! Sith be damned!"
The room plunged into darkness, the monitor flickering and going black.
He hadn't closed his eyes, so when the lights came on with dazzling brightness, he was blinded.
"Good morning, Luke."
From the depths of the armchair, he hooded his eyes with one hand and struggled to glare at Quester. "Is it?"
"Time for breakfast. You look pale. When was the last time you ate?"
"How in hells would I know?" he snapped, lowering his hand but still blinking in the glare. "You son of a bitch, you've--you've changed time!"
The physician sent him a concerned look as he placed the tray on the table. "I don't understand what you mean. Come and eat, have some kafin. You'll feel better."
Unsteadily, he rose and managed the few steps to the table where he pulled out a chair and sat heavily. "I don't feel very well," he admitted. "Kinda dizzy."
"You'll feel better after you eat," Quester repeated. "Drink the kafin." He slathered orange jam on a slice of toast and held it out. "Take this. Good," he added as Luke obeyed. "How's your research going? May I look?"
"Be m'guest," he mumbled, gesturing vaguely, washing down the toast with kafin.
"Ah, a list of Kenobi's Jedi students. Fascinating. And here's your father."
"Father," Luke repeated dreamily. He gulped more kafin. It tasted sweet, so sweet, and he liked it very much. "He was a student of mine...."
"Of yours? You mean a student of Kenobi's?"
"Stay with me, Luke."
"...student of mine...."
"He was a student of mine," the voice repeated.
"Yeah...'til... wanna sleep...."
"Not yet. Luke...he was a student of mine until...?"
"...until he turned...turned...." The world was thick with gray clouds that made it impossible to think. All he wanted to do was drift with them. All he wanted to do was just...let...go....
* * *
"This is taking too long," Vader interrupted the recitation. He had never been a patient man and now, with his son held tightly in his grasp, he wished to wait no longer. "You have not asked him about the Rebel fleet."
"It takes longer, but it is the best way, My Lord," Quester replied earnestly, "with minimum damage to the subject."
"The Force will mitigate any damage."
"My Lord, we are making great progress. His Force sensitivity makes him more susceptible to the drugs and sleep deprivation. A few more days of this and--"
"My decision is not subject to discussion, Doctor. Do it."
For a moment he thought the physician might rebel, but the officer only nodded and strode from the deck, his back straight, his anger clear. Vader smiled slightly. Quester was a complex man, and his manipulation of Luke, along with his own reactions to his first foray into delicate interrogation, would determine if he had a future as a useful tool for the Dark Lord.
* * *
He was familiar with the expression "pounding head", but he had never experienced one until now. Luke groaned and straightened, using his hands to prop himself up. His back ached from slumping across the table, but at least he'd gotten some sleep.
"So why don't I feel better?" he mumbled.
Forcing himself into the shower, he stood, leaning against the wall, under a torrent of cold water in an attempt to clear his senses. Once dressed and feeling cleaner, if not more alert, he checked the pantry listlessly. There was nothing in it that didn't have to be prepared in some way, and he had little energy to work with. For the first time since his imprisonment, he pressed the com button to ask for help.
The gray-haired doctor appeared on the screen. "Do you need something, Commander?"
Luke...hadn't the physician called him Luke? "Food. I'm hungry." His words sounded garbled, and he cleared his throat. "Can I have lunch? Or...dinner? What time is it?" It was suddenly of paramount importance that he know the time. Or the day. Anything that would give him a frame of reference in which to exist.
"I have a patient now, but I will be there later," Quester replied briskly. "In the meanwhile, I suggest that you return to your research. Lord Vader will be expecting answers soon."
The screen flicked off. Answers. What in hells kind of answers did Vader want? Anyway, Luke thought with a touch of his old spirit, Vader isn't the only one who wants answers. So do I.
He sat down in front of the computer monitor. The list of padawans stared back at him. Ben Kenobi's students.
... a student of mine until he turned to evil.
"Yes!" His memory wasn't gone, only impaired, and the damned Imps were doing it to him. But he remembered, he remembered! Scanning the names again, he confirmed that Vader wasn't listed. Why not? Had he been taken off the padawan roll call when he was disgraced?
Determined to find an answer, Luke reset the computer's search mode. Immediately it responded with a screen packed with information, including images, of one "Obi-Wan Kenobi". Odd that he hadn't found this information during his earlier searches. He studied the face of a young Ben, seeing little resemblance to the man he had known, other than the piercing eyes. If only there was a photograph of his father....
He scanned the headings, stopping at "Kenobi, Fall of the Jedi and". Though he was hungry, he hoped Quester wouldn't show up before he'd read this. Rubbing his eyes to clear his vision, he scanned the summary eagerly. It was with some disappointment that he saw this was not about Vader and how he and Palpatine destroyed the Jedi. Instead it referred to Kenobi's disappearance and presumed death after a fight with one of his padawans.
That had to be the link to Vader! He searched again, "Kenobi fight padawan", which returned more results than he had anticipated. Seems as though Kenobi and his padawans had been in a lot of battles. Drawing a deep breath, he searched again, this time adding "death" to the parameters.
And there it was. "...though both Master Kenobi and Padawan Skywalker were lost after this fight to the death," he read aloud.
"So, Vader, you thought you'd killed them. But they both lived." With a tight smile, Luke expanded the notation, scrolling backward.
...unexpected betrayal by his padawan, Kenobi was able to defeat Skywalker, though both Master Kenobi and Padawan Skywalker were lost after this fight to the death.
Blinking, Luke reread the partial sentence several times. It didn't make sense. He scrolled back further. There had to be a reference to Vader somewhere.
...confronted Skywalker, who had become Senator Palpatine's protégé and was suspected of masterminding the vicious attack that left the Jedi Council decimated.
He scrolled back, fear and rage blinding him to all but a few descriptive words.
...leaving Kenobi with no choice but to eliminate his former student.
Ben...Ben, it was Ben, not Vader...?
"Ben, why didn't you tell me?" he whispered, dazed. He was not prepared to think beyond the lie.
You lied to me.
He stared at the monitor screen, but no longer saw anything.
Ben had killed his father. Or thought he had killed him, if Vader was to be believed. But why? And why had Ben told him that Vader killed Anakin? Why had he wanted to set Luke on a path of vengeance against an innocent man? Not that Vader was all that innocent, but....
He stared at the door as it slid open. Quester and Krish Starflyer, both carrying trays. "Thought we'd join you for dinner," Krish announced.
"If you don't mind," Quester added politely.
"Of course not," he said numbly. They were probably both intelligence agents. Why else would a physician and an Imperial Captain of the Guards want to spend time with a Rebel prisoner? But if they were agents, they were damn good ones. Or maybe Luke Skywalker was just slow to clue in to the truth.
Ben, not Vader.
Krish was talking, but Luke paid no attention to him. He watched through narrowed eyes as Quester leaned over the monitor. "Obi-Wan Kenobi killed your father?" the physician mused aloud as he read.
"You sound surprised." Luke shifted his gaze to Starflyer, though he addressed Quester. "You're a good actor."
There was a subtle change in Krish's eyes, the silent, shared recognition of foes.
"Why wouldn't I be surprised?" the doctor asked. "I thought Lord Vader had killed-- or reportedly killed-- your father."
Krish's gaze lowered to the food as he arranged the dishes on the table.
"Did you?" Luke asked slowly. "Oddly enough, Vader isn't mentioned anywhere in the documentation. He's not listed as one of Kenobi's students."
"Well, he wouldn't be, would he?" Quester returned to the table. "Have something to eat. You're overwrought."
Overwrought. That word did not begin to explain what he was feeling. Luke remained standing, staring down at the other two as they loaded their plates. "What do you mean? Why wouldn't Vader be listed? Ben said Vader was one of his students."
"'Darth Vader' is a title, not a name," the physician replied coolly. "I thought you understood that."
A title, not a name.
A title, not a name.
Then Vader was on the list. He was one of those names.
...confronted Skywalker, who had become Senator Palpatine's protégé and was suspected of masterminding the vicious attack that left the Jedi Council decimated.
...unexpected betrayal by his padawan, Kenobi was able to defeat Skywalker...
...though both Master Kenobi and Padawan Skywalker were lost after this fight to the death.
... a student of mine until he turned to evil.
...I promise I will not harm your father....
"Luke, you're upset. Sit down."
With a roar, he flung off the hand that dared to touch him. All his control evaporated, the urge to do violence possessed him like a demon, and he felt fury and terror beyond anything he had experienced before. Krish went flying across the room, crashing against the wall, sliding down to land in a limp heap. The door opened quickly, but before he could react to the intruders, he heard the hiss of a hypo and felt a prick against his neck.
Then he was swallowed by oblivion.
It wasn't blessed sleep that he was waking from. He'd been knocked unconscious several times in his young life, but this was different. Lethargy infected his limbs like a disease. Or perhaps he was paralyzed. Cautiously, Luke turned his head.
This wasn't his room. This was a cell. Gray, harsh, sterile. A rough blanket scratched his body, and he sat up slowly, clutching it to him when he realized he was naked. A wave of nausea hit him, but he managed to swallow the bile and lean back against the cold durasteel wall.
It was difficult to think. Or to even know what to think about first. He didn't want to think, so he simply sat, staring blankly at the opposite wall.
Two guards entered, one with a rifle pointed at him, the other with a tray that contained a plasticene bowl and cup. Luke watched, rousing himself when they headed out again.
"Why am I here?"
The door closed.
After awhile, he stood, staggering a little as he crossed to the table.
He ate. He vomited.
The lights went out.
The lights came on.
They brought more food, not speaking.
"Why am I here?"
The door closed.
He ate. He vomited.
The lights went out.
They brought more food, not speaking.
"Why am I here?"
The door closed.
He ate. He vomited. He slept.
The lights came on.
The cycle repeated itself over and over until he lost count of how many times. Maybe it was weeks. Or months. But it didn't really matter. He was exhausted, demoralized, and surely in shock. Probably the unappealing food was drugged, slowing his mind and turning his stomach. It didn't really matter.
It wasn't until Rayl Quester arrived that something mattered to him. After so long, here was someone to talk to.
His legs were too weak to hold him up, but he stood anyway, wrapped in the blanket, swaying. "Why am I here?"
The brown eyes looked at him strangely. "Did we not treat you well?"
"I...y-yes," he stammered, confused.
"Did you expect to remain your comfortable accommodations?"
"Indeed?" Quester exclaimed. "Well, you rebellious Imperials must have a different standard than we do. Murderers are held in cells, not suites."
Round-eyed, he stared. "I'm not a... m-murderer." He stumbled over the word, suddenly seeing Krish slamming against the wall. "Am I?" he asked in a whisper. ...a million men....
"Captain Starflyer was a fine officer and a good man."
Luke sat heavily on the hard cot. "He's dead? No...."
"No! I can't have killed him!" He replayed the moment in his mind, the rage he felt when he discovered.... "No. He couldn't have been hurt that badly."
"Let me help you face the truth." Dr. Quester sat next to him and pulled a syringe from his breast pocket. "Your arm," he commanded.
"No. No more drugs. Please." He wasn't in a position to bargain, and knew it. "If you say I did it, I believe you. I don't need drugs." A fog already surrounded him. He watched with dismay as Quester grasped his arm and lined up a needle with a vein. "I don't need it...." This feeling of helplessness, the inability to move...where had they come from? "Is my food drugged?" he asked, wincing.
Clear liquid disappeared from the syringe. He didn't feel any different...maybe a little lightheaded.... "What is it?"
"Just a simple truth serum. It won't hurt you."
He leaned against the doctor, enjoying the protective feel of another's arm around him. "Okay."
"I'm your friend, Luke, remember? We talked about that."
"Did we?" His eyelids were heavy, and he let them close. The dark was soft and quiet, so peaceful. "Long time ago...."
"Yes, a very long time ago. We talked about your friends, remember?"
"They left you behind, remember? They went somewhere and abandoned you in Cloud City. Bespin."
"Vader!" he exclaimed, bolting upright in a burst of energy.
"Vader won't hurt you. He's gone. You're safe with me."
"Gone?" Someone was petting his hair. He relaxed again.
"Yes, he's gone. He's left you behind, just like your friends did. Where did they go?"
"You know. Tell me where they went, and I'll take you to them."
To be with Han and Leia again...and Wedge and Chewie and all his friends....
"You can tell me, Luke. I'm your friend."
Jedi. He was a Jedi. "No. Won't tell you."
"That's too bad, Luke. If you don't tell me, I won't be able to help you. You're a killer. You killed Krish. You killed a million people. You're an evil man. You're evil like Vader. Why are you like Vader?"
"Not! Not like him! I'm not!" Sobs racked his body, and he fell sideways on the cot. The nice voice was gone. He was alone. Alone and evil. A killer. Like Vader.
"Father?" he whimpered. "Father?"
It was dark. More than dark. He couldn't see anything. The floor was cold against his bare skin. He'd lost his blanket.
Cautiously, Luke crawled forward, reaching around for his blanket. His blanket was the only thing he had. He'd had it a very long time. Where had it gone? "Blanket?"
Startled, he froze. "Blanket?" he whispered. No. Blankets couldn't talk. "Who is it?"
The voice came from the opposite side. "It's me. Your friend."
Quester. "Where are you?"
"Here." It came from somewhere else. Luke swiveled his head.
"I'm not moving, Luke," Quester said from behind him. "You're going in circles."
He sat, pushing his palms into the floor. "I'm not moving."
"Yes, you are. You're spinning."
He was dizzy. Maybe Quester was right. Or maybe the room was moving. He dug his fingers into the floor, but there was nothing to hold onto. "Make it stop."
"I can do that." The voice was right in front of him. "Do you want me to take you to your friends?"
"No! Where's Vader? I want Vader!"
"Vader is gone, Luke. Vader isn't here."
"Luke...are you ready to pay for the Death Star?" came a whisper in his right ear.
He started, but didn't move. "What do you mean?"
"It's time to pay. They're coming for you. They want to make you pay."
Luke pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, not speaking.
"Get in the corner, Luke. Quickly! You'll be safe in the corner."
Of course, the corner! It was so logical-- why hadn't he thought of that before? Scrabbling across the floor, he found the wall. His hands slid over the smooth surface. This wasn't a corner. On his knees, he continued to the left. He would find a corner and be safe.
It was a very big room. It was hard to find the corner. Where was the corner? He crawled and crawled.
"Are you in the corner, Luke? They're coming. Hurry! Find the corner."
He couldn't find the corner. It wasn't there. He crawled and crawled and pounded his fists on the slick wall. "There's no corner! Help me!"
"I can help you. I'm your friend, Luke. I'll take you to your friends, just tell me how to get there. Hurry!"
"I can't, I can't!" Panic rose in his throat, choking him. "No!"
"Then I can't help you." The voice sounded sad.
Exhausted, Luke curled up on the floor and waited. They were coming to get him, to make him pay. Did they ever make Vader pay? Did they ever make his father pay?
The world exploded in light so dazzling that he screamed in pain. He squeezed his eyes closed, pressed his hands over them, but it was still too bright. Curling tighter, he hid his face against his knees, trembling with shock.
He rocked back and forth, not knowing what was happening and unable to reason. There was more laughter. Talk. It was a long time before he could open his eyes.
A thousand naked Lukes stared at him.
All part of him, all different parts of him, held together by gossamer threads, fragile connections that were snapping, unraveling, dissolving into dust.
"Luke," he whispered.
"Luke...where are my friends? Where did they go?"
"Sullust," he told Luke dreamily. "You'll be there soon."
"I'll be there," Luke corrected gently. "You won't be. You have to pay."
"I have to pay," another Luke said.
"No." One of them smiled at him. "Let me. I'm dead already. They can't hurt me."
Fearfully, he stretched out one finger to touch that Luke. Instead of human warmth, he found--
He slammed his fist against Luke, and Luke shattered, pieces of him scattering across other Lukes.
"Glass!" he screamed. "Mirrors, all mirrors!" He staggered to his feet, smashing at all of them, pounding his fury at them, smearing blood across the shards, hating them all-- all the Imperials who tricked him, Quester, Vader-- Vader, Vader, his father! "I hate you!"
Bits of other people were reflected around him. He broke them, too, beating against them until Quester got hold of him, stabbed him again with that huge damned needle, stabbed him again and again--
A black cloud rolled in, a storm that swept him up, claimed him, held him close, warm so warm, and said....
"Give me my son."
...the last words he heard.
The lights were on. Luke opened his eyes, blinking. A computer hummed in the next room. He sat up.
This was his bed. This was his room, his prison-suite. This was a plain jumpsuit he was wearing. But where were the mirrors? Mirrors and blood....
He raised his hands. No blood. No cuts. No scars.
He rose and padded barefoot into the living area. He stood in the center of the room, afraid to think.
The door slid open. Quester and Krish Starflyer entered, both carrying trays. "Thought we'd join you for dinner," Krish announced.
"I hope you don't mind company," Quester added politely.
He couldn't tell if they were real. If he spoke, would his dream end?
Krish was talking, but Luke paid no attention to the words of a ghost. He watched as Quester leaned over the monitor. "Obi-Wan Kenobi killed your father?" the physician mused aloud as he read. "I thought Lord Vader had killed-- or reportedly killed-- your father."
"Vader isn't listed as one of Kenobi's students," Luke whispered slowly.
"Well, he wouldn't be, would he?" Quester returned to the table. "Have something to eat. You're overwrought."
Luke remained standing, staring down at the other two as they loaded their plates. "Why wouldn't he be listed?" he asked, reading his lines in this macabre play.
"'Darth Vader' is a title, not a name," the physician replied coolly. "I thought you understood that."
A title, not a name.
Anakin Skywalker's title.
It was so simple, so obvious. He should have seen it earlier.
Hadn't he seen it earlier?
"Can you help me wake up?" he asked the doctor.
Quester smiled faintly. "You're not sleeping. Sit down and eat."
He sat. Krish speared a large square of dark meat and put it on Luke's plate. Quester added cooked vegetables. Luke stared.
"Eat it," Quester ordered.
He obeyed, chewing and swallowing, tasting nothing. "Is Vader back?"
"Back? He didn't go anywhere."
Vader's gone, he's left you.... "I want to see him."
Slowly, he raised his eyes to the physician's profile. "I want to see him."
Quester paused with the fork midway to his mouth and looked at Luke for a long, silent moment before replying, "I'll let him know."
"So," Krish interjected brightly, "how was your day? Aren't you getting tired of all that research? Maybe you can come with me to the gym one day, work out. Would you like that?"
It occurred to him that Quester hadn't addressed Krish. Which he wouldn't, if Krish were dead. "Doctor," he asked carefully, "is someone else here?"
"Are you running a fever?" A cool hand rested on his forehead. "No. Are you feeling otherwise unwell?"
Why did he have to repeat everything. "Is someone else here?"
"Am I invisible?" Krish joked.
Luke folded his arms and waited, his gaze fixed on Quester.
"Captain Starflyer is here. Can't you see him?"
Agitated, he pushed back his chair and stood. "Get out. Tell Vader I want to see him. Now."
"I don't know if--"
"NOW!" he shouted, pushed beyond his limits of understanding. Only Vader could help him differentiate between the truth and the falsehoods, the reality and the hallucinations. Only Vader could help... if he would.
As soon as they left, with a furious gesture Luke swept the trays from the table, sending their contents splattering across the floor. Panting, he clenched his fists, desperate to destroy more, to find a release for the confusion and rage inside him. But there was nothing left to break in his prison -- except the computer and its peripherals, and he needed them. Taking deep breaths, he focused on calming himself. Slowly unwinding his fingers, he stretched, trying to find relaxation in movement. After several minutes, he realized he was as calm as he was going to be in these circumstances and sat down at the monitor, determined to find the information again.
To prove that he hadn't been lost in a nightmare.
To prove that he wasn't losing his mind.
He keyed in "Kenobi fight padawan".
Instead of dozens of entries, there was only one, and it proved to be a nearly generic reference to Jedi training.
"Kenobi fight padawan death".
But he remembered-- he remembered!
Kenobi confronted Skywalker, who had become Senator Palpatine's protégé and was suspected of masterminding the vicious attack that left the Jedi Council decimated. Despite the unexpected betrayal by his padawan, Kenobi was able to defeat Skywalker, though both Master Kenobi and Padawan Skywalker were lost after this fight to the death.
He couldn't have made up all that, could he? Was his mind so disturbed that he could have hallucinated the strange tortures, the confusion...? Then there was his accidental killing of Krish Starflyer, the bizarre behavior of Dr. Quester...
I'm going mad.
His fingers began shaking so much that he could no longer type. He folded his arms, trying to stop the quivers from rippling upward and infecting his entire body.
I'm going mad.
Was Vader not Anakin Skywalker? Was that belief a monster born in the depths of his irrationality? Why wasn't the Force helping him? Yoda hadn't taught him how to cope with insanity.
The lights went out, but that didn't matter any more. There were no established day and night cycles in this nightmare of an existence. There were only lights and no-lights. Perhaps if he thought that way, then it wouldn't matter how his captors manipulated his time-sense. Maybe that was the way to cope, by ignoring what he saw and heard and was told, and relying on the Force to guide him. Maybe he needed to let go, like in the Death Star trench, just let go and be guided.
Peace. He needed to find peace.
Luke closed his eyes, embracing the darkness and accepting it as a passing moment that he did not need to fight. He drifted into meditation, uncaring about the passage of time, and was content.
When "daylight" returned, he felt calmer, more centered than he had since leaving Dagobah. Focusing on his search of the databanks, he once again entered the key phrases. There! For a moment, the names flashed on the monitor: Kenobi Skywalker Palpatine. Then they were gone, leaving the usual list of non-information. Somehow he was being blocked from seeing what he sought. If the Force had allowed him a momentary glimpse, eventually it would reveal everything. All he had to do was practice.
"Good morning," Dr. Quester said from the doorway. "Did you have a good sleep?"
"Hello," he replied softly, refusing to be baited. They were watching him, knew his every move, knew that he had sat in front of the computer, in the dark, for however long the "night" had been. "Is Vader coming?" He was prepared for the inevitable refusal...or, at best, a long delay while Vader left him fretting and anxious.
"I am not coming, I am here," the deep voice rumbled.
Luke spun around in the chair, noting that Quester was also taken by surprise.
"My Lord," the physician said with a nod, quickly recovering his composure, "I did not realize--"
"Why would you? You are dismissed."
With a sharp click of heels and crisp bow, Quester departed, leaving Luke to wonder just how long the doctor had been in military service. For a moment, he immersed himself in the steady sounds of Vader's measured breaths; there was a strange sort of comfort in it. Luke rose from the chair and faced the Dark Lord.
"Thank you for coming."
"You sent for me."
"Yes. But I didn't really think you would come."
Vader moved, beginning to prowl around the quarters like a caged cat. "Nor did I. I am unused to being summoned quite so...proprietarily."
A very odd feeling swept through him, leaving him to wonder if it was his emotion or Vader's. He felt strangely warm, almost happy, and, most alarmingly, he felt relaxed. Maybe Vader was manipulating him, trying to lower his defenses, but....
...there was that moment he remembered...was a dream or a hallucination...or was it real?
"You saved me," he said to the restless man.
"It would have been a waste to allow you to fall."
"Not in Cloud City." He shook his head. "Yesterday...or...whenever it was. In the room of mirrors. You picked me up and saved me and said...."
"You were dreaming, child."
"No." The barest suggestion of a smile touched his lips. Child. The man known as Darth Vader would say that to the child of no other man. "You said, give me my son."
Vader's back was to him; nonetheless, Luke felt his surprise and uncertainty. "You're Anakin Skywalker," he pressed. "You're my father. You and Ben fought. I found that in one of the databases."
"Indeed?" Vader whirled. "Show me."
"You know I can't," Luke replied calmly. "It's been blocked somehow. You wanted me to find out, so why are you denying it? You were a Jedi, and now you are... this... a monster."
The harsh laugh, when amplified by the vocoder, sounded more angry than amused. "You have imagined all this. Your grip on reality is tenuous at best. I will instruct Dr. Quester to run tests to determine your mental stability."
Without even a nod, the dark giant strode toward the door.
The naming didn't cause the Dark Lord to hesitate.
Anakin Skywalker was gone or perhaps, Luke mused sadly, had never been in the room. Maybe Ben had told the truth. Maybe his father was truly dead.
* * *
In the refuge of his personal quarters, Darth Vader pressed the switch to raise the blast screen and reveal the infinite starscape to his gaze. Much of his last twenty years had been spent in space and, truth be told, as beautiful as it was, he was tired of it. He longed to feel land beneath his bare feet: the soft grasses of Naboo or even the hot sands of Tatooine. Any organic surface would be preferable to the unyielding durasteel, any quiet sounds of passage better than the constant clacking of boots. He wondered if Luke missed his home.
But no, the boy was young and still eager for adventures. He had probably been bored on Tatooine, particularly on that remote moisture farm. Yet the hard life had done Luke no harm; indeed, Vader reflected, the boy's strength of will made him proud. Many men lost their senses when subjected to the intensity of mental torture, yet his son had not only weathered it but had apparently been strengthened by the adversity.
Torture. The thought of it applied to his son made him wince. Often he had enjoyed inflicting pain on others...but this was different. It was not merely that he had to erect blocks in his own mind to prevent Luke's pain from reaching him. No, it was something more. A feeling less than possession, more than indifference. Luke was his boy...his and Padme's. With such a heritage, it was expected that Luke would be both strong and stubborn. It was an added bonus to find him so brilliantly intuitive.
But enough musing. He turned his back on the endless vista of black and studied the silent physician/interrogator. "The scout ships have reported back. The Rebel fleet is not massing at Sullust. Skywalker lied to you. I told you it would not be so easy to subvert his will."
"Perhaps he was not lying, My Lord." Quester showed no sign of being intimidated. "His sense of time has been affected. It could very well be that the Rebels will indeed be at Sullust-- in the future."
It was irritating that he had not thought of such an obvious explanation. The trauma of his son's treatment was distracting...or perhaps it was simply Luke's presence, reflecting so brightly in the Force, that ruffled his equanimity. "He is still strongly sided with the Rebels."
"Yes, My Lord." The physician was silent for a moment before venturing cautiously, "It is possible that he would respond to a more physically demanding regimen of interrogation."
Torture. Ignoring his uncharacteristic queasiness, he made a scornful noise. "A Jedi does not have the physical limitations of an ordinary mortal. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to expect results from physical torture alone. It is his mind that is most vulnerable. Whatever method you choose," he shook his finger at Quester, "I do not want him permanently damaged. He must see the error of his path. I want him eager to join me and serve the Empire."
"You could just ask him."
Aghast at the other's imprudence, Vader curled his fingers into a fist. "I warn you, Doctor, do not mock me, or you will learn the true meaning of torture."
"I did not mean to offend, My Lord. But you did say that the Force would mitigate the effects of physical torture on the--"
"I must go to Coruscant to report to His Majesty and attend to other duties," he interrupted, effectively ending the discussion. "While I am gone, you may apply whatever methods you deem appropriate. But do not disappoint me, Doctor." Once again, he faced the galaxy, ignoring the murmurs of obeisance from his underling. Ah, Luke, the Sith Lord thought wearily, how long will I have to wait for you to join me? I tire of these lesser beings. He needed more than Luke's powerful Force abilities for alliance and companionship; he need the unquestioning loyalty of a son. The same loyalty that Padme had once shown him.
Yes, he reminded himself darkly, and look how badly that ended.
* * *
When the guards came for him, Luke followed without any idea of protesting. Confusion still permeated his mind, and his attempts at further meditation had been unsatisfactory. Vader was Anakin Skywalker, his father; he was almost certain of it. But there were so many contradictions, so much that was unclear. And he was so tired. Mind-numbingly, bone-meltingly tired.
The stormtroopers left him in a room so compact, in all directions save one, that it was more like a closet. It was constructed totally of black Durasteel, even the ledge that jutted from one wall. He supposed that was to be his bed, though it was not long enough for him to lie fully extended. Sitting on it, he studied the four walls. The door on one, this bunk running the length of another, a sani-unit offering no privacy on the third wall, and the fourth was simply a flat surface. Tilting his head, he looked up and up, and was finally rewarded with a bank of bright lights that appeared very far away, but dazzling nonetheless.
It was an ugly cell, but in a way it was more acceptable than his quarters. At least here it was obvious he was a prisoner.
The door slid open. A smart, crisp gray uniform filled his vision as Dr. Quester took two short strides into the center of the cell. "Hello, Luke. Are you feeling better?" Two more strides took him to the bunk, where he sat down at Luke's side.
"Was I sick?" Nervously, he picked at the crease in the trouser of his jumpsuit
"You were running a high fever." A hand briefly rested on his forehead. "You're better now. Evidently the medication I gave you, though it cured your malady, caused you to hallucinate quite badly. I apologize that I did not have your medical record and so could not predict the ill effect. I trust you're more rational now?"
He laughed, though he didn't understand why he was amused. "I have no idea. Have I been rational since I've been here?"
Quester ignored his question and removed a small portfolio from his tunic. "I've brought something to show you. It's something I... well, I haven't shown anyone else." He opened the folder and pulled out a thick sheet. "It's my son. Raylan."
A brief spark of his old curiosity ignited. Luke took the sheet and studied the image. It was a blond youth, his eyes dark like his father's, and the resemblance to Quester was unmistakable. Raylan was wearing an Imperial uniform, and his martial appearance was at odds with the wide grin on his face.
"Lord Vader thought that...."
He looked from the image to Quester, thinking that this could almost be a likeness of the physician at a younger age. "Vader?"
The doctor hesitated. "He said that Jedi can get...impressions from images or possessions. I thought maybe you could tell me something about.... You see, this is the last image I have of him. It was taken as he was leaving for his first posting. On Ord Mantell. I never saw him again. Do you...can you tell me if he suffered, or if...?"
Aghast, Luke stared at the older man. "I don't know how to do that! I've never tried." Guiltily, he remembered Yoda's admonition. Do or do not.... "Just...give me a moment."
Focusing on the image, he tried to clear his mind. But his concentration wandered, reluctant to stay centered on the task he was attempting. Eyes squeezed shut, he refused to give up. Without his conscious direction, his fingers rubbed across the slick sheet. An image sped through his head like a bolt of lightning-- young Raylan joking with a comrade -- and then it was gone.
"What did you see?" Fingers dug into his arm.
"I...just him laughing. Wait, let me try -- let me do it again!" Excited, he tried to put aside his immediate thoughts of ways to use this new, untapped resource inside him. Drawing several deep breaths, he consciously relaxed. Fragments of scenes came to him, disappearing too quickly. Past, present, future... Yoda had said something about that. Releasing all awareness of his surroundings, Luke allowed himself to be swept into an invisible tide. It pulled him to and fro, swinging him like a cradle, and then he saw...
sounds -- could that be laser fire?
looking up from the monitor
a figure, a civilian, but he's aiming a lasergun
Luke started, his hand flying to chest, clutching the fabric, feeling for a ragged hole, the rawness of seared flesh.
"What did you see?"
Dazed, he stared at the other man as he gathered his thoughts. "Your son didn't suffer," he said, his voice shaking. "He didn't have time. It happened so fast. He didn't even have time to be afraid."
"Praise be," Quester whispered fervently. Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the hard wall. Luke watched, waiting until the dark eyes opened again, unsurprised to see the remnants of wetness in them. "Thank you."
He nodded, then asked hesitantly, "Doctor, will you tell me why I'm here, in this room?"
The officer stood. "For this very purpose. The lack of distractions will improve your ability to concentrate. I will not leave Raylan's image with you, for it is the only one I have, but here is another. This is his friend Conor. I suggest you practice this new skill, and perhaps you will win Lord Vader's approval."
The suggestion that he would want Vader's approval was so outrageous and insulting that Luke couldn't find words to respond. Quester departed quickly, leaving him alone in the strange and uncomfortable cell. Curious, he picked up the image that had been left. Another young man, his age, this one with dark hair and skin and cat-like eyes. Deciding it was the best use of his time under the circumstances, Luke focused and found it easier this time to catch glimpses of this one's life. The scenes were like passing shadows across his mind: a home, plant-rich surroundings, a girl with a sweet smile, a mother who hugged him, a father who clapped his back, an Imperial uniform -- unexpectedly, Luke felt Conor's pride. Then he was no longer simply seeing...he was feeling.
He was so proud to be accepted into the Imperial Navy. True, he was only a stormtrooper, but he would rise through the ranks. Someday he would be a captain and have a planetside posting, then he could marry Cherlene, and have the children that they both.... But enough dreaming about the future, he had to check out this sorry excuse for a ship that they had tractored in. It appeared abandoned, but Vader said to check it thoroughly, and what Vader said, everyone did. It appeared empty, all right, but what was that noise? He whirled, and had a brief glimpse of a blond kid before something large and heavy came at his head and --
Luke jerked away, the image slipping from his numb fingers. The Death Star. The trooper he had clobbered to steal his armor. You bastard, he snarled, wishing that Quester could hear him. You filthy, rotten--
He tore the image into pieces, shredding them as small as possible. But the memories of Conor were inside him like a poison, infecting him with a guilt he shouldn't have to feel. He hadn't meant to kill the youth, only knock him out. "It was war!" he screamed to the walls, knowing that somewhere Quester was watching. "Do you hear me? It was war!"
There was a movement above him, and he leaped to his feet, backing into a corner. You'll be safe in a corner. But it wasn't an attack. A single sheet drifted down, caught in the breeze of the air circulator. It landed near his feet. He bent to pick it up. It was another image, another man, an older one this time. "No," he murmured, but though he had easily learned to see, he did not know how to stop the seeing. Or how to stop the feeling. And this time the feeling was more intimate.
"Prepare to fire."
Yeah, blast these damn Rebels to hell, then maybe I can head home. This is supposed to be my last tour, but there's talk of extending everyone's duty, all because of these damn Rebels. Hells, they've kept me away from my kids long enough.
I hope they haven't forgotten what I look like.
Bettany was so little when I left.
She might not remember me.
But she'll get used to me. We'll get acquainted all over ag--
What in hell is that?
A flash of bright light, and the vision was gone.
The Death Star.
That was Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star.
Angrily, he threw the image aside, shuddering as another one fell from the distant ceiling.
And another and another, until it was snowing images.
He ducked, scurrying around the room, trying to avoid touching them, but they were everywhere. Men, voices, surprise turning to horror, to terror...to death. Death after death. Death Star, aptly named. Fighter pilots, their ships exploding; Hoth troopers screaming as their Walkers toppled.
I love you
Who the hell is that
Watch it watch it
Rebel bastard, hold still and --
Unexpectedly, sunshine, flowers, green grass, blue water.
Remember the day I asked you? The picnic. We both knew I was conscripted and would soon have to leave, but it was so beautiful, I'll remember that day forever...I know I'm dying...but I'll remember that day forever....
Luke opened his eyes. He was standing in paper images up to his calves, and they were still falling, fluttering from above like a million angels of death. They whispered to him...see me, be me...live my life, live my death....
see me die
be me die
He crawled onto the bench, standing on it, trying to escape. But they brushed his arms, his head, landed on his shoulders. Boys barely old enough to enlist, running away from home; older men, career soldiers, duty above all else, destroy the Rebel terrorists, they bring death, they only want to kill....
He sank down, arms clasped around his knees, rocking slightly, wanting to hide.
But there was nowhere to hide, and he couldn't tell if these were his thoughts he was trying to hide from...or theirs.
Hide, hide, to be safe, we must hide....
The million voices in his head drowned all hope of finding his own.
"Are you tired, Luke? Would you like to rest?"
It was unexpected that he was no longer alone. Luke opened his eyes. He was still on the bench, in the black room with the white floor. White because of the men, thousands of them...a million. But he was warm. Someone was holding him.
He buried his face against Quester's tunic, twisting his fingers in the material.
"You must be very tired. You've been in here a long time." His hair was petted and stroked. "Would you like to leave, Luke? I'm your friend; I can take you away from here."
"I can't hear you."
"Y--" He choked, tried again. "Yes...."
"Yes, what? Be polite."
"That's better. You know, Luke, Lord Vader would like you to work with him and stop being a Jedi. Would that be all right?"
Jedi. It was the one thing he had to hold onto, maybe the only thing they couldn't take from him. He shook his head.
"I was afraid of that. He's gone away for awhile, so he won't know you refused, but I'll have to leave you here anyway. I'll have to bring images of the families of the men you killed, so you'll know how they feel. They're all very sad. And they're very angry with you, because you're a terrorist."
"N--not! I'm not a t-terrorist!" He clenched the fabric tighter. "No more, don't bring more!"
"Well...." There was a hesitation, and his heart leaped. "If I don't bring the images, you will still have to be punished. You killed so many people. I don't want to put you on trial for murder, for there's no question that you would be found guilty and executed. I don't want that to happen because I'm your friend. Do you want that?"
Shuddering, he pushed his head against the hand that lay atop it. Quester began stroking again. "If you don't want a trial and you don't want to see the images, all that remains is some sort of physical punishment. Is that what you want?"
"Luke, it was to be one of the three choices," the patient voice continued. "How would it be if I punished you? Since I'm your friend, I won't hurt you as much as the guards would."
He sighed and finally agreed grudgingly, "'Kay. Just...get me out of here...please."
"All right, whatever you want. Wait here." Quester stood, looking tall and very official to Luke's frightened gaze. He opened the door and spoke quietly. Two guards entered.
Luke shrank back as they came toward him with binders. Prying apart his unresisting limbs, they clamped the metal around his wrists, fastening them behind his back. One sentry bent and bound his ankles, leaving him barely able to shuffle his feet. With a guard on either side of him, holding his arms and half-dragging him, Luke was led out of the room and through the corridors.
People stopped what they were doing to stare at him. Murmurs pierced his consciousness: is that him... look it's skywalker... death star... killer... terrorist filth... my brother died... execution's too good for the likes of... just let me get my hands on.... He closed his eyes so he didn't have to see their faces, the rage and pain in their eyes. Leia had never warned him, no one had. Han should have known. Or the generals. Someone should have told him. You're wanted by the Empire, they said, but nothing more, and he hadn't really thought about what that meant. You're wanted by the Empire, like it was a heroic thing that made him special, more important than the other Rebels. Vader wanted him, too... because he was a Jedi... or because he was a killer? Or....
The idea that had seemed so horrific was now appealing. Maybe he was Vader's son, like Vader in every way. If he was Vader's son, people would expect him to be a killer, and it would be all right. It would be his role. He wouldn't be a terrorist if people knew he was Vader's son. Luke Vader--of course he's a killer, what else could you expect? It would be all right. He would be a warrior, not a killer. He would be a Sith, not a Jedi.
Or did Jedi kill the way he had? Were Jedi terrorists? Ben had helped him blow up the Death Star, had told him to trust in the Force. But such a terrible act...had he used the Dark Side of the Force? Had Ben known he was Vader's son, a potential Sith, and pushed him to use the Dark Side? Or was he already a Sith...like his father...?
Suddenly it seemed that it would be much worse if Vader wasn't his father. Then there would be no excuse for what he'd done. "Vader?" he whispered weakly.
"Vader isn't here," Quester hissed from behind him. "You're all mine now, Skywalker."
"What?" He tried to twist around, but the guards yanked him forward. Dr. Quester was his friend... but that hadn't sounded very friendly.
He was a Rebel Terrorist; how friendly could anyone feel toward him?
It seemed a very long way to their destination, past a lot of people who hated him. One man, who appeared to be a mechanic if the hydrospanner clutched in his fist was any indication, darted in front of them as if to attack. But he only sneered and spit on Luke before the guards pushed him aside. He could feel the spittle drying on his cheek as he was hurried the last distance, then escorted into a cell that was considerably larger than the last one he'd been in.
Struggling to focus his attention on his surroundings, he saw very few furnishings. A table at the far end that held instruments of some sort; another table that held two glasses and a pitcher; a sink, two straight-back chairs, and nothing more, just bare walls and a tiled floor created for ease of cleaning rather than beauty.
The troopers led him to a point in the center of the room and removed the binders from his wrists. Reflexively, he rubbed them, though only the left one was abraded from the cuffs. His new, perfect, right hand was undisturbed.
"Please lower the top of your jumpsuit, Luke," Dr. Quester asked politely, standing in a relaxed pose, watching him closely.
His fingers trembled as he unfastened the shirt portion and wriggled his arms out of it. The fabric drooped to his waist. Immediately, his right hand was grabbed by a guard and stretched overhead. From the low ceiling, a shackle appeared and was snapped around his wrist. The Imperial soldier bent and removed the binders from his ankles. Both guards stepped back cautiously.
"Thank you, that will be all."
Dismissed, the white-armored men left, and Luke was alone with Quester. His gaze locked on the physician who was half-captor, half-comrade.
"Please remove the rest of your clothing, Luke."
It was a struggle to remove the shoes and socks one-handed, but he managed awkwardly. The jumpsuit proved more difficult. He fumbled with the fasteners, glancing at Quester to see if he would help, but the officer remained several meters from him, arms folded, watching without expression. Finally, with a lot of wriggling, he managed to get the jumpsuit to his ankles, where it stuck. Kicking at it, he only succeeded in partially removing one leg, but it bunched around his foot.
"I can't do it by myself," he said angrily. "Help me!"
Quester shook his head. "You're not a child anymore, Luke. Figure out a way to do it."
Since he couldn't bend one leg at a time, there was only one way. Wrapping his fingers as best he could around the steel apparatus that bound his wrist, he raised his feet off the floor, bent both knees, and pulled at the fabric until it was free. When he lowered himself, pain twinged in the prosthesis. Surprised, he looked up and saw that the synth-skin had torn on the cuff, exposing a bit of wiring.
"The rest," Quester said quietly.
He had almost forgotten someone was there. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the fog that seemed to come and go at its own will.
The doctor mistook his movement for a refusal. "You are allowed only a single 'no' during this session, Luke. You have now used that privilege. But you must remove your briefs."
Panic rumbled through him. "I didn't mean 'no'!" he exclaimed.
"I won't tell you again."
Hastily, he pushed down the briefs, feeling his face flush as he contorted his torso and legs to remove them completely. Once they were off, Quester gathered his clothing and took it across the room, where he folded each item neatly, and placed them in a pile on one chair.
His strange friend returned. From his uniform pocket, he pulled a small, flat object and pressed it once. Another steel cuff descended from the ceiling. "Your left hand, please, Luke. Thank you," Quester added when he complied, fastening the binder securely around his wrist so that both arms were stretched toward the absent sky.
Another push of the button and two clamps appeared from the floor on either side of him, in which his ankles were wrapped. They were shoulder-width apart, not uncomfortable, but Luke felt his heart pounding against his chest.
"What are you going to do?" he whispered.
"First, we're going to talk," Quester replied absently, manipulating the remote control until Luke's legs inched apart a bit farther.
"What happens after that will be up to you, Luke." Another button pushed, and a hole the size of an officer's cap opened in the floor beneath him.
He peered down at it, seeing nothing in the blackness. "What's that?"
"That, my little soldier, is for evacuation." Quester sounded amused as he walked away. "Try not to miss."
Evacuation? How could he escape down that small hole? Then he realized what it was for, and looked away, humiliated.
The doctor was back with a glass of clear liquid. "Thirsty?" he teased.
"No!" Luke exclaimed furiously.
"You've used your one 'no', remember?" Quester held the glass to his lips. "Drink."
He was thirsty, and if they were going to be here for any length of time.... With a sigh, Luke surrendered and took a few cautious sips. Water trickled down his chin, and Quester withdrew a spotless white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed it gently.
"There," the doctor murmured. Returning the glass to the table, he opened his tunic and reached inside. Luke flinched away when he saw another white sheet, another image of someone else he'd killed, no doubt.
"You don't have to touch it. I just wanted to show you my wife, Asile, the love of my life. If one believes in soulmates, then she is surely mine. Beautiful, isn't she?"
Wary of trickery, Luke looked suspiciously at the image. "Yes," he admitted, relaxing as he studied a woman with warm eyes and a sweet smile.
"Raylan's death devastated her, as you can imagine. But she had me-- though my duties often called me away-- and her little brother, Medlen." The image shook slightly, then steadied. "Medlen was the son of her father's second marriage, so he was considerably younger than Asile. Her stepmother was quite busy socially, so it fell upon Asile to mother the boy. He adored her, and she him. Until she met me, he was the focus of her life."
He paused and turned the image so he could look at it again. Luke remained silent, watching Quester.
"After Raylan was killed, I was away much of the time. I had decided to serve aboard ship, helping to repair the injuries you terrorists caused. Once again, Asile focused her love on Medlen, using him as a substitute for her lost son, I suppose. Two years ago, Medlen met a lovely woman and married. They had a son and named him Raylan. Asile became more of a doting grandmother than an aunt." A fond smile creased Quester's face.
"Medlen was something of a pacifist. Through hard work, he managed to create a successful business repairing specialized lifts. The government of Myomar offered him a lucrative contract to service the lifts in their hospital system. It was a wonderful opportunity, but he would have had to spend months reviewing the systems and performing standard maintenance as well as repairs. The distance to Ord Mirit from Myomar was so great that the transport fare to take his wife and child was prohibitive. So he agreed to a short stint working on a military vessel in exchange for transport for his family."
Quester stepped closer, his eyes like chips of ice. "So it was that Medlen, his wife, and their baby Raylan were on the Death Star."
Luke gasped, completely unprepared for the revelation. His eyes filled with tears. He'd killed a baby? A woman and a baby? Had there been more women and children on the Death Star? But it was war, they shouldn't have been there! "I'm sorry...."
"I know you are." Quester patted his cheek. "You're just a boy, hardly older than my Raylan when he was murdered." Hand into the tunic again, returning with more images that Quester did not share with Luke.
"Lord Vader gave me immediate leave to go home. He's quite good that way. So I went. We had a memorial service for the three of them, and on the same day attended the public memorial for the victims of the Death Star tragedy. We came home, and while I showered, Asile blew off half her head with our household blaster."
It was said so matter-of-factly that at first Luke didn't understand.
He looked at the two images Quester held in front of him. One was the image he'd already seen of Asile. The other was...the remains of Asile. He recoiled, uttering a groan, closing his eyes, though the image would be etched into his mind forever. Long blonde hair matted with blood, flesh, bone and brain. A face shattered, burned... a pale lilac dress soaked red.
Luke sobbed. "...sorry sorry sorry...I'm so sorry...."
"I'm sure that's so," Quester continued conversationally, "but your feelings hardly matter to me. I've waited a long time to have a Rebel in my hands...and now, to have you, of all people... you who took the love of my life, you who destroyed my future, my happiness.... But the damned irony of the situation is that I'm expected to do my duty. So, Luke, I'll have to ask you about terrorist strategy, Rebel hideouts.... I'll have to encourage you to join Vader and become our ally. When all I really want to do..." The physician leaned closer until Luke felt the other's hot breath on his cheek, "...is torture you until you have no breath left to utter a scream. Until your body is mutilated and crippled beyond endurance, yet you do not die. Until you begin to have a glimpse into the pain I live with every day. The things I want to do to you give me nightmares, Luke. But I am an Imperial officer and so must do my duty."
Quester backed away, smiling. "And you're just a boy, so much like Raylan. My Lord has found his son, and I have lost mine. He has charged me with the care and questioning of his son, and I do not wish to disappoint him. So I'll need your help, Luke. The sooner you tell me what I need to know, the quicker you'll be out of here. I will hurt you if I must, but I do not wish to test myself, or to learn the limits of a civilized man faced with an uncivilized choice."
Luke gulped, swallowing his tears. He couldn't betray his friends... but his friends were terrorists. They'd done awful things and so had he. But the Imperials were bad, too-- they'd blown up Alderaan. They'd killed Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
But his own father was an Imperial, Quester had just confirmed it.
Quester slipped the images back into his tunic and rebuttoned it. He withdrew the remote and pressed it until Luke's arms were pulled higher, stretching him to his limits. "Is that uncomfortable?"
He nodded, unable to speak. His ability to breathe seemed to be hampered.
"Sorry. Let me fix it." Another push, two snaps and his ankles were released, leaving him struggling to balance on tiptoes.
Quester vanished behind him, and Luke heard him at the table. In a few moments, he returned, passing by Luke to the other table, where he pushed the pitcher and glasses aside. "Before I ask you any questions," he began, "I'll have to whip you, just to leave cursory marks. Then you can confess or repent or whatever you intend, and there will be evidence that you responded to torture. It will save face for both of us." Gesturing to the two dark objects on the table, he added, "You may choose which one I will use. Do you want the long one or the short one?"
He craned his neck, body swaying dangerously, but couldn't see them very well. One whip was long and thick, the other short with many strips. "The short one, I guess."
"Good choice." Briskly, Quester selected the chosen item and strode to stand beside him. Without further warning, he raised his arm and Luke heard a whistle of air before the whip struck him.
He screamed, totally unprepared for the shock of pain that ripped open the flesh on his back. Without pausing, Quester moved to the other side and repeated the punishment. Luke cried out again, feeling multiple sharp lances that lingered. Blood dripped on the white floor at his feet, and he realized it was running down his buttocks and legs. It was slippery under his toes, and he lost his precarious balance, groaning as his full weight jerked at his shoulder joints. Struggling back to his toes, he shivered with shock.
Quester was in front of him, dragging the thongs across his bare chest, smearing blood across it. "Good choice," he repeated.
Through tearing eyes, Luke saw that there were a dozen or more leather strips attached to the handle, and on each strip was a sharp detail of jagged metal. The immediate pain was gone from his back, but now it throbbed, and that felt worse than the initial blows.
"Where is the Rebel base, Luke?" Quester asked indifferently, walking to the back of the room.
Luke tried to twist around to watch but was unsuccessful. "Nowhere."
There was a chuckle near his ear, then he felt a small touch against his neck and heard the hiss of an injection. Immediately, the muscles in his legs slacked, and he slumped. A quiet ratcheting sound preceded a hoist outward, and his arms were stretched far apart. He couldn't stifle a groan as his feet were lifted from the floor and his entire weight pulled down on his arms and shoulders. The cuffs bit into his wrists, slicing them cruelly. Within minutes, muscles began to cramp, and though he could heave deep breaths, he couldn't seem to exhale. "I... can't--" he gasped.
"No, you can't breathe well in that position," Quester acknowledged amiably. "Fortunately for you, my education as a physician will allow me to bring you to the edge of unconsciousness and death, and then revive you. Unless my demons get the better of me," he added as an afterthought.
"K-kill me th...then...."
"Be a man, Luke. Surely a Jedi can endure more pain then this. I've barely begun. Where is the Rebel base?"
The officer stepped in front of him and slapped his face hard enough to propel it sideways, putting more strain on his neck and causing a cramp to knife through it. "Be polite, Luke."
It wasn't the slap that was making it hard to focus. Both his mind and his eyes were blurring. "C...can't...." he forced out. What drug had Quester given him? Suddenly he found logical thought impossible and speaking difficult.
"The inability to exhale will cause carbon monoxide levels to build first in your lungs, then in your bloodstream. You'll feel better for a short while, then...." Quester stepped back and studied him, gaze sliding slowly down his length. "You're a young man, not bad looking... those lacerations will heal.... Your sexual organ appears normal.... Is it functional?"
Luke squeezed his eyes closed, feeling tears of rage and pain slipping out the corners.
"I'm sure your father is anticipating grandchildren, so we'll need to be careful what we do in that area."
A sudden jolt as his toes hit the floor made him grunt, then he gasped, exhaling heavily and gulping oxygen into his deprived lungs. "Bastard," he managed when he could talk, scrabbling to keep his feet from slipping into the evacuation opening.
Fingers in his hair wrenched his head back. "You are being rude, Luke," Quester said coldly. "I will not tolerate rudeness. Were you raised to be rude?"
"I...no-no," he whispered. Released, his head slumped toward his chest.
"Then address me with courtesy. By rights, I should be the one cursing you, for your kind took my son, and you took the rest of my family."
"'m sorr--" His apology ended in an agonized shriek, for he'd been unprepared for the lashes that whipped across his back. The battering continued, once, twice, again and again, showing no signs of ceasing. He screamed over and over, then attempt to remain stoically silent but succeeding only in biting his lower lip until he tasted blood. He grew dizzy, his moans fading to whimpers, and he watched with glazed eyes as a pool of blood form with frightening rapidity beneath his feet. Soon it forged a trail that flowed into the evac hole like a dark river.
The flogging stopped. "That's enough for the moment. Once the pellets tear into muscles and start ripping vessels, it's time to pause. Or so the manual states. Did I tell you that this is my first experience with interrogation techniques? Please let me know if you feel I'm not being effective, for I am determined to please Lord Vader. Luke, tell me about the Rebels at Sullust."
He wept, both because of the pulsating pain and the realization that at some time he'd told them of the Alliance's plan to attack the new Death Star under construction. What else had he told them?
"What else?" Quester repeated, and Luke realized he must have spoken aloud. "Many things, Luke. Enough to betray your friends." There was a pause. "You know that we captured Princess Leia, don't you?"
"No!" Heedless of the pain, he struggled in the binders. He remembered... seeing her in Cloud City... Leia, Chewie, a stranger... she was arrested... she was tortured. "No, she can't be--"
"Yes, we have her and her companions. They tried to escape from Cloud City but failed. Solo is undergoing torture now, and I'm afraid the princess will be next... unless you reveal the information we seek. Perhaps I will go to Bespin myself and try similar techniques on her."
Luke's stomach heaved, and the little food that had remained in it was vomited to the floor. The action earned him another slap across the face.
"You've made a mess, boy! I'm not your servant to clean up after you!"
His throat felt scraped and raw. "D-don't hurt Leia... please... not Leia...."
"Well...." Quester vanished from his sight again, reappearing with a fat silver rod that he held in one hand and tapped against his thigh in a rhythmic tattoo. "If you are polite and agree to two things, I can arrange for her to be sent to a prison for female political prisoners, there to wait out the end of this hopeless rebellion."
He nodded, willing to sacrifice anything to save Leia.
...destroy all for which they have fought and suffered....
"Give me your word of honor."
"I promise," he said miserably.
"First, where is the Rebel fleet?"
Gods.... There had to be a way to escape betraying the Alliance. But even if he somehow killed himself, that would leave Leia at the mercy of Quester... and others who might be more sadistic. At their whim, Leia might receive worse than torture. A vivid scene of a line of stormtroopers waiting impatiently to rape her flashed into his head, and he prayed it wasn't a vision.
"I'm waiting, Luke."
He was so scared, both for himself and for Leia, that he couldn't think. If there was a choice, he couldn't find it and didn't have time to search. Several deep breaths helped clear his mind. If only he could find the Force...but it was lost to him, whether by drugs or by Vader's influence. "After Hoth...they were rendezvousing near Saarn," he murmured slowly. "I didn't go. I don't know if they went there or somewhere else. That's the truth."
"Where did you go?"
"Dagobah," he said heavily. "I went to Dagobah."
"I had a vision... I thought." He tried to shrug, immediately regretting the gesture when it sent fresh waves of pain cascading down his lacerated back. "I was injured on Hoth and lost in the snow. I almost died before I was rescued. I thought I heard a voice telling me to go to Dagobah."
"Interesting." The tapping stopped, and the cylinder was clenched in both hands and turned round and round. "What did you find on Dagobah?"
He lowered his gaze to the gleaming boots. "Nothing. It was a swamp. There was nothing important there."
The now-familiar remote appeared in Quester's hand. He flicked it, and two compartments opened in the floor, both holding binders. Luke didn't struggle as the physician fastened one around each ankle. Another press of the controls spread Luke's legs farther apart. He pretended it wasn't happening, that he wasn't being humiliated by this exposure.
"You gave me your word, Luke. I'm disappointed in you. I thought the son of Lord Vader would be trustworthy. Whom did you meet on Dagobah?"
How could anyone know? Unless Vader knew that Yoda lived there.... "No one."
"Do you know what this is?" The tube was held near his face. Luke shook his head. "It produces a shock. A standard interrogation technique, not very imaginative. Not even particularly effective, since the shock is minor." It was pressed into the hollow of his throat, and Luke felt enough of an electric current to cause him to jump. But Quester was correct; it was only mildly painful.
"Are you lying to me, Luke?"
He shook his head.
"Here's a simple test. Open your mouth. If you're telling the truth, you'll receive a shock. If you're lying, you'll feel no pain, and I'll know it."
His brain might be befuddled, but Luke realized that made no sense. "What--?" he began, but Quester was fast. He grabbed the back of Luke's head, and the tube was pushed inside, scraping his teeth and stretched his mouth. It was a frightening violation, and he felt more vulnerable and naked than at any moment before. It jammed against the back of his throat, and he gagged, trying to retch it out. Then his mouth was burning, jolts running through his frame as if his bones were rattling against each other. Mucous membranes carried the current and burned, and he struggled frantically, trying to dislodge the instrument that Quester was holding so firmly.
It went on forever, yet in reality it was probably only seconds before the shocks stopped. He was left hanging, limp and helpless as a baby, while Quester's dark eyes bored into his own. Trying to free himself, he attempted to turn his head away, but it was trapped firmly. "That hurt, didn't it? Not as much as losing loved ones, of course. Would you like me to remove it?"
Unable to nod or speak, he blinked a few times.
"Ask politely, Luke."
Please, he tried to croak, but it came out as a grunt.
The doctor smiled. "I think I understood that." Very slowly, he pulled out the rod, pausing twice to push it slowly back in before almost drawing it out and letting it rest wetly at the entry to Luke's mouth.
The symbolism was unmistakable, and he silently cursed his weakness in blushing. Better me than Leia, he thought resignedly, but he hoped desperately that this would be the extent of his defilement.
"Don't worry," Quester said, reading his transparent fears, "my sexual interest doesn't extend to men, not even in these special circumstances. However, I cannot say the same about others aboard." He paused before adding, "Of course, your princess will become very familiar with varied acts of rape, should you choose to remain uncooperative." He lowered the tube, resting it on Luke's bare shoulder.
It was slick and wet, and he cringed. "I'll cooperate," he agreed hoarsely, his throat raw.
"Good. What happened on Dagobah?"
"Yoda," he hissed, defeated. "I met Yoda. A Jedi master. He trained me."
"Good. You father will want details about your training. I will leave that part of your interrogation to him."
He'd thought that his limit had been reached; that nothing Quester did or said could hurt him further, but.... "Vader?" he whispered. "He's going to...?" The notion that his father could torture him was more than he could bear.
"I'm sure whatever my Lord decides to do will depend upon your level of cooperation. You will be joining him voluntarily, to become whatever he and the Emperor wish. That is the second condition that you have agreed to in order to save the princess."
...it is you and your abilities that the Emperor wants....
...no...oh no... oh no....
...No! There had to be a way....
Perhaps he dozed out of total exhaustion. Perhaps he had simply been insensible, lost in a maze created by drugs and pain. He had no sense of time. Grating noises attracted his notice, rousing him from his stuporous state. Quester was dragging the table that had been behind him to the center of the room, close enough that Luke could see it, far enough that he couldn't clearly see the instruments of torture. Even his imagination was having difficulty visualizing their details and purposes.
His drifting attention focused on Quester. The physician rearranged the implements with care, then stepped back, apparently admiring his organization. He walked to the door that opened immediately for him.
"Where're you goin'?" Luke slurred.
The Imperial paused in the hall and turned, looking at him but saying nothing. Like a ghost. But he wasn't a ghost, he was real....
"Don't go.... Don't leave me! Please don't leave me!" he pleaded, terrified of losing his only human contact.
The door slid closed. He was alone.
Who would take care of him? Who would talk to him? Who...?
"No!" Luke screamed, as loudly as his chafed vocal cords could manage. It came out as little more than a whimper. "Come back... please... don't leave...don't leave...."
He closed his eyes, sinking into a depressed paralysis.
"Are you awake?"
The voice was part of his dream. It was a beautiful world, rolling green hills, a lake that was bluer than the sky, air that was filled with music. Why would he want to wake up? Nowhere could be better than this place. If only there were people in it....
"Skywalker... are you awake?"
With difficulty, he raised his chin. A stranger was addressing him, an older man with sharp features and strict military stature. Luke squinted, trying to make out the insignia on his uniform. Admiral, maybe... or captain... he couldn't remember. Anyway, it was hard to count the bars when they kept moving. "Wha'...."
"Hmm." Shoulders stiff and hands clasped behind his back, the man walked away. Luke tried to twist to watch, nearly losing his balance. The officer stopped at the table and picked up one of the tools, examining it closely. Replacing it, he then lifted the whip and slapped the table with it. Luke shuddered, and the stranger looked at him without expression.
His heart pounded against his chest. Though a small part of his brain knew it was irrational, he wished Quester would appear. He wanted his familiar captor, not someone else, someone who might do Sith-knew-what to him. Looking down, he pretended to be invisible, pretended that he couldn't see the man approach and stand right in front of him.
"Would you like a drink?"
A cup of water shimmered in his line of sight. Perhaps it was a mirage, or maybe just another form of torture, but he nodded anyway.
The cup came to his lips and tipped slightly. He gulped, trying to drink before it was snatched away.
The words made him swallow faster, then suddenly he was inhaling it, choking, gagging, panicking because he couldn't breathe.
"Easy." The officer's hand rested on the nape of his neck. "Take it slowly."
He coughed, spraying water onto the pristine uniform, but the stranger didn't back away or strike him. The cup was held near his mouth, waiting until he recovered enough to resume drinking. Something was smeared on the glass; it took a moment to realize it was flakes of dried blood from his bitten lip. A sound that was something between a sob and a sigh shook him, and he took deep, heaving breaths to still his fear. It was hard to distinguish which world was real and which was a nightmare, he thought blearily. Maybe it was all a nightmare. Maybe soon he would wake up.
The other echoed him with a sigh of his own. When he'd drunk his fill, the glass was removed, and the man moved away. Luke watched without interest as the officer stared at the table again. Then, like Quester, he headed for the door.
"C-can...." Luke began, then cleared his throat and tried again. "Can you...w-wake me up?"
The deep-set eyes met his briefly. "No," he replied quietly.
Feeling nothing, Luke watched him leave. He leaned his head back, and pain rippled down his spine, reminding him that he was alive, maybe even awake. Steel binders held his ankles and wrists firmly like a friend would. Closing his eyes, he willed them to release their grip... but he was still totally disconnected from the Force. What if he never got it back? What if he couldn't escape?
Escape what? He lived here now, be it reality or dream. It was impossible to escape this place--
...that is why you fail....
"Yoda? Ben? Are you here?"
...if you choose to face Vader... I cannot interfere....
"Not Vader," he mumbled, his face falling forward again. "Vader's not here... Father... Father, help me...."
* * *
On Coruscant, the Dark Lord trembled, the peace of his meditation disturbed as though a thin blade had sliced into it, barely noticeable yet excruciatingly painful.
* * *
The sound of water woke Luke. It reminded him of Yavin, the pools and waterfalls that hid in the depths of the forest, disguised from casual viewers by thick foliage and nearly impassable trails. He could almost see it....
Slowly, he opened his eyes. Small room, blank walls, no waterfalls. Pain woke as he did, creeping though his limbs, though his hands and arms still slept, full of needles, unable to move.
Footsteps. Quester. Wiping his hands on a white towel.
"You came back," Luke whispered, flooded with relief.
The familiar face appeared drawn and tired, the brown eyes sad. "Of course. Did you think I wouldn't?"
He didn't have the energy to nod, but he lifted his head and tried. "'fraid you wouldn't."
Eyelids squeezed closed, then Quester looked straight at him. "I'll never leave you for long, Luke."
"'Kay." His neck was too sore to hold up his head any longer, so he stared at the buttons on Quester's tunic, relaxing as the officer rested Luke's head on his shoulder and began to stroke his hair tenderly.
"I had to eat, get some rest. I hear you had a visitor."
Quester smell of soap and shampoo. "Mm-hmm."
"That was Admiral Piett. He wanted to know if you are being cooperative. I told him you were."
Quester was proud of him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Luke... oftentimes the terrorists learn about our secret plans and use them to kill us...even women and children, like you did when you destroyed the Death Star. That wasn't your fault, Luke. You didn't know that the terrorists had planned so many deaths. They didn't tell you about all the people on the Death Star. I need you to help me stop them. How did they find out?"
Something Leia had said... something from a Council meeting... spies.... "Bothans," he murmured.
"Ah, Bothans. They are terrible beings. They cause death and destruction. Where are they?"
Bothan agents, Leia whispered in his ear, in the Imperial government, close to the throne. Tell him. "Coruscant..." he mumbled, "...government... maybe palace too...."
"Thank you. You're a hero, Luke. Soon you'll be rewarded. What else do you know about the terrorists?"
Not much, but he told Quester all that he remembered, hoping it was enough to please him.
"It's a start," Quester said when he'd finished. "Are you hungry, Luke? Would you like something to eat?"
Pain had blotted out all realization of hunger. Now, at the question, he realized he was starving. "Yes... please."
"Good boy." Quester smiled at him. "I brought something, just in case." At the table, the instruments had been moved to make room for a large satchel that Luke hadn't noticed. Quester rummaged in it and lifted out a lidded bowl. He unfastened the lid and returned. "Hot soup, too thick for you to drink easily. I'll feed you."
He was lucky, really, to have fallen into the hands of such a kind captor. Would Vader be so gentle when it was his turn to administer the torture? Vader wouldn't feed him so patiently, slowly raising the spoon to his mouth, waiting while he cautiously swallowed it, then dipping into the rich broth again and again until the bowl was empty. Luke was exhausted and sleepy by the time they were finished. It was difficult to keep his eyes open. He yawned.
Quester laughed. "My sleepy lad. Raylan frequently did that, right in the middle of dinner. Asile would pretend to be annoyed, and I would frown at him, but he would simply smile and finish eating. Then he'd spend half the night out with his friends...and later, with Jayla. Until they married, of course. Do you have a girlfriend, Luke? Leia, maybe?"
Barely able to shake his head, he tried to reply but failed. Leia would never be his girlfriend. She was a princess, perfect, high above a lowly farm boy. Even if he became a Jedi, she would still be beyond his reach.
"You know, Luke, once you join your father, you'll be part of the royal court. Perhaps even a prince. Prince Luke. Would you like that?"
He was too groggy to reply that he would like it very much. Maybe Leia would fall in love with him if he were a prince. And if she didn't, there would be plenty of others at the court who would admire him.
"All you have to do is agree to allow your father to teach you. He should have been teaching you since you were a child. But the Jedi stole you away from him. He missed you so much and has been so sad. Do you want to make your father happy, Luke?"
Happy... father be happy.... Father?
"You'll stay with him. You have nowhere else to go. You can't return to the terrorists now, can you? You've given away their dreadful secrets, and they would punish you. They would torture you. You wouldn't like to be tortured, would you?"
No... not torture... he wouldn't like that....
"I'm going to clean your back now." There was a rush of soft sound. "I'm using an air brush first to slough off the loose flesh."
First came a caress of air, then from nowhere came a jolt of agony that jarred him out of his stupor. His body went rigid, and he moaned as it continued, scouring his back. He twisted, trying to pull away from it.
He heard the silence but it took several more moments to register that the pain had stopped.
Fingers in his hair gently pulled his head up. Quester's expression was troubled. "I'm a healer," he whispered. "I stop pain."
It took the last remnants of his strength to get the words out. "Then...stop mine."
Quester drew a shuddering breath, releasing his grasp and stepping back. He muttered a curse under his breath. Luke closed his eyes, utterly finished. Another sound, a hiss against his stretched arm, and he faded into unconsciousness.
"The interrogation is proceeding smoothly, My Lord. There have been no problems."
Vader eyed Quester's shimmering image. From this distance, he could not confirm the veracity of the declaration and wondered if the physician was being candid. "I would be displeased to return and find my son permanently damaged," he warned.
"As you have said, My Lord." There was a pause. "Do you expect to be returning soon?"
His eyes narrowed. "I depart Coruscant this very day," he lied.
The officer appeared not to flinch, though the holo was erratic and fragmented, making it difficult to discern small details with any degree of accuracy. "I await your return, My Lord," he replied with a small bow.
Vader severed the connection before snorting cynically. No doubt Quester was using some form of physical interrogation to supplement the mental techniques, hence Vader's falsehood. Very well, the doctor had been warned. Should he step outside Vader's ambiguous restrictions, he would suffer the consequences of the Sith Lord's displeasure. But Luke's plaintive Call concerned him. The boy was not weak, and such an outcry meant that Quester had gone too far. Both physical and mental damage could be mitigated, but the more serious and crippling it was, the more difficult and time-consuming would be the task of restoration. Time was a luxury he and Luke might not have. To overthrow the Emperor, he needed his son intact and willing to join him, willing to unite their powers and take Palpatine by surprise. It was their only way to escape the Sith Master's dominion.
The Emperor was pleased with the information their captive had provided thus far. And that pleasure, Vader mused darkly, was the reason he would not return to the Executor, but would instead bring Luke to Coruscant and introduce him to the Sithly arts, first--regrettably but inevitably--under Palpatine's tutelage. Then, once the regent was satisfied of the boy's loyalty, Luke would become Vader's disciple in the art of subversion.
Pleased with his agenda, the Dark Lord began to plan his tactics.
There was a boundary between oblivion and consciousness, but Luke was unaware of crossing it. He had a gradual comprehension of being alive, burdened with so much pain that he no longer felt anything, being in the room that had become his universe, with the man who had become his God.
That knowledge was enough; he was no longer curious and had no need to raise his head. He'd forgotten how to raise it; he'd forgotten all his muscles. He simply hung, indifferently hearing his own rasping breathing, uncaring when it caught in his throat every few seconds.
He was dying, and he didn't care.
Familiar black boots appeared in his line of vision. They were blurred. "Would you like water?"
A cup was tipped to his lips. He had neither the strength nor the desire to drink from it, and the liquid slid down his chin.
"Luke. Look at me. Look at me!"
Quester was angry. Luke tried to lift his head, but he couldn't remember the command to make it rise. Something about his neck...but his neck was limp and motionless. He tried to look, but his eyelids were too tired to stay open.
Quester was saying things he didn't understand. Soon there were sounds, other people. An arm snaked around his waist, fabric catching on the rough, peeled flesh of his back. Two clicking noises jarred his ears, and he crumpled, supported by the arm for a short moment before he collapsed totally.
He felt nothing. His arms and legs were amputated, or turned to jelly, the bones extricated. Or maybe his skeleton still hung, and his skin had simply slid off into a useless pile on the floor.
He was jostled, covered, moved... traveling, he was traveling somewhere... maybe he was flying, maybe they would put him in his x-wing and let him fly away, back to the farm, before any of this had happened, where he was safe, everyone he cared about was safe, none of this had happened, no dreams of glory and adventure had come true, and he was safe....
The ceiling was pale blue. Luke stared at it, then gingerly moved his head to the side. There was a pillow beneath his cheek, clean-smelling and soft. His gaze slid downward. A white sheet covered him, and he was wearing a gown. He tried to reach up and found he was tethered. A tube connected to his arm was pumping something into him. He followed the route of the tube to a machine and saw it was a standard nutrient dispenser.
His head rolled back to center, and he stared at the ceiling. He was safe for the moment but, more importantly, he could think. For the first time in what was probably a very long time, his mind was clear. Was this, he wondered with sudden foreboding, another form of torture? Was he being lured into a safe harbor, only to face another wave of terror? His happiness at being finished with the torments faded. His fear would never be over; this was his life now.
Because even if the pain ended... the pain would never end.
He started. Perhaps his mind was not as clear he he'd hoped. Quester was standing at the side of his bed. The doctor pulled up a chair and sat, smiling at him. "Feeling better?"
"Yes," he replied in a small voice. He folded the top of the sheet, smoothing out the wrinkles. Quester said they were friends, but Quester hurt him. Would he ever be able to trust in friendship again? "Are we going back?"
Quester bent closer as though he could barely hear the question. "Back to where?"
He folded the hem under again and shrugged. Quester was waiting, so finally Luke said: "There."
"Ah." Quester leaned back in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. Luke peered through his lashes, watching closely. "I don't know. Lord Vader is returning, so it will be up to him. If he feels you will keep your part of the bargain...."
Bargain. His forehead creased as he struggled to remember.
"You agreed to join him," Quester said, reading his mind. "You will join your father and the Emperor. You're going to be a prince, Luke, and very powerful. Someday you will be a Sith Lord like your father."
And Leia would go free. He remembered that part. Struggling to raise himself partially upright, he shook off Quester's proffered assistance. "What about Leia? Is she free yet?"
"Free?" Quester appeared confused. "The Princess was not a captive. As far as I know, she is still with the Rebels."
It was as though a veil fell over his vision, like a thick fog enveloping his mind. "What?" he asked thickly. "What?"
"Mm-hmm." Quester stood, making some minute adjustments to the flow of fluid through the tube. "I believed we talked about that. She escaped from Cloud City with her companions."
"You lied to me." Words swirled in his brain so fast he couldn't sort them out. "Leia was-- she was a prisoner, that was why I told you... whatever I told you. You lied! All this time-- you tortured me, I let you do it, I told you secrets-- and all this time, you lied!" His voice continued to rise until he was shouting. His arms flailed, yanking the tubing loose, liquid spraying the physician's white coat with sticky yellow.
"Luke, calm down or I'll have to sedate you."
Calm down? His fury threatened to erupt, and he wanted to harness the Force and use it to destroy the room and this lying man, annihilate the entire vessel, the entire--
That was Yoda's word. Almost as though the Jedi Master was in his head, his hypnotic whisper slid through Luke's veins like a soothing drug.
...Be calm.... Quiet now, be at peace....
Closing his eyes, he reclined again, exhausted from his outburst.
Unbridled hatred of the physician could only create more horrors--for both of them. He remembered Quester's honest, terrible grief... the way festering anger and a gnawing craving for vengeance had turned the healer into a sadist who reveled in the agony of another being. Unexpectedly, pity surged through him, and he gazed compassionately at the man.
Quester looked away, a dark flush rushing into his face as he refastened the tubing to the pump. "I have other patients to tend. If you can remain calm, I won't have to restrain you."
"I'll be fine," he murmured weakly, his frailty a pretense. "I think I need to rest." Luke closed his eyes. "I'm so tired...." Once Vader returned, it would be difficult to escape. If he was going to gain his freedom, he would have to do it soon.
...Be at peace...use what you have learned...
...Use what he has taught you....
When he was certain Quester was gone, he opened his eyes to scan the room, then closed them again. Undoubtedly he was being monitored, and the Imperials did not need to know that he remained awake.
Awake and plotting.
He slept off and on, his rest disturbed by worry about Alliance secrets that he may have revealed to Quester. The drugs he'd been given had done more than cloud his mind at the time; they had also impaired his memory. He could remember none of his possible betrayals and realized that pondering the possibilities was time-consuming and futile. At any moment Vader might arrive, and Luke was sick with apprehension about the Sith Lord's intentions. He would not, could not become a tool for the Emperor, as his father was.
Escape was his only option. Escape or death.
"Is my father here?" he asked, dismayed to hear that his words were slurred.
Quester didn't look up from the datapad he was studying. "He's been delayed."
Delayed. His heart leaped with excitement at the reprieve, though he was careful not to allow his voice to betray it. "When is he going to get here?"
"I don't know."
The physician was not in a talkative mood, and Luke wondered if he was worried about the possible repercussions of the torture. He hesitated over his next words before speaking. "Could I see the image of Raylan again?"
The silver head jerked upright. "Why?" Quester stood and walked to his bedside. "What do you want it for?"
"Oh...." Luke yawned. "I had a strange dream about him, and I thought if I held the image again...."
"What sort of dream?" The man's tone was tense and hoarse, and Luke had to forcibly quell the empathy he felt.
"I dreamed he wasn't killed in that raid, but was captured instead." He let his eyelids close slowly. "I'm sleepy...."
"Don't go to sleep," the doctor urged. "Tell me more. Could my son...be alive?"
Gods. The sudden, desperate hope in Quester's voice stabbed Luke's conscience. He was glad that he wasn't looking at his captor, for his regret would give lie to his performance. "Don't know," he murmured. "Bring image...."
"I'll get it. Don't go to sleep-- Luke, please, stay awake. I'll be right back."
When Quester had gone, the Jedi opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He wanted to thoroughly hate the man who had tortured him, but his emotions were confounded by conflicting memories of Quester's inhumanity and kindness, his talent for healing, his pain, and the nightmares that had marred his life. It was tempting to pity him, but if manipulating Quester was what Luke had to do to escape, then he would do it.
Was this the Dark Side that Yoda had warned him against? Even if it was, he had no choice. At least, no choice that he could see.
He was still staring sightlessly when the officer returned. "Here," Quester said, eagerly thrusting the image into his hand.
Luke stared at the youth, regretting the loss of yet another life, for there was no question that Raylan was dead. He closed his eyes, allowing the scene of the brief battle to fill him again. He saw Raylan fall, felt the oblivion that surrounded him. He sighed. "I think...he was wounded, not killed."
"He's alive? Raylan is alive?" The voice was frantic with hope and guarded joy. "Where is he?"
"He was...captured," Luke continued dreamily. "Held somewhere...."
"Where? Where is he?"
"What is it?" Hands closed on his shoulders, shaking him.
He refused to open his eyes. "I think...he was tortured...yes...tortured by the Alliance."
"What?" Quester's breathing came in strained gasps. "No--that's not possible. They said-- there was a body, it was buried there on Ord Mantell-- he can't have been captured. Gods be damned, he can't have been tortured!"
"Would you be upset if he'd been tortured?" Luke asked carefully, opening his eyes and studying the doctor.
The man's face was sickly pale, horror and rage glistening in his eyes. "Upset? I would kill them with my bare hands!"
"Really...? Then you'd better hope my father doesn't feel the same way," he murmured ingenuously.
Quester's face turned into a hard mask, and he released his grasp, pushing Luke back against the pillow. "You bastard-- are you lying to me about my son? You didn't have any vision, did you? You can't see anything!"
"I can see. I had a vision about Raylan," he replied quietly. "But I'm inexperienced in the ways of the Force and don't know how accurate are my interpretations of my visions."
The physician rose, running his fingers through his gray hair, and began to pace the room. "So Raylan could be a captive. Can you see if he's still alive?"
"I'm not certain. He could be." He hardened his heart against the other's agony. "If he is, he'd be on the Rebel base."
"Saarn?" Quester stopped pacing and folded his arms, obviously thinking.
Saarn. He had told them. Luke squeezed his eyes closed, cursing himself. The Imperial fleet was probably on its way-- or already there. Leia, I'm sorry, he shouted in his mind. Get out of there-- if you can hear me, leave now!
"Yes." Nervously, he looked at the officer. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to think. Shut up," the physician snapped. With a furious curse under his breath, the older man strode out of the medcenter.
Luke inhaled deeply, calming the exhausted tremble that shivered through his body. There was nothing to do now but wait and hope that Quester came to the obvious decision before Vader arrived.
- - - - - - - -
It was a few hours before the physician returned, accompanied by two stormtroopers. "Get up and get dressed," Quester ordered brusquely, tossing a jumpsuit on the bed. "Hurry up."
Luke slid out of bed, then sank back against the edge of it. How long had it been since he'd asked his legs to hold him? They were shaking, and he felt nauseous. Under the impassive gazes of the troopers, he struggled to dress himself with trembling hands while Quester packed datapads and medication in a satchel.
"Where are we going?" He hadn't expected his seed of an idea to come to fruition so soon and tried to hide the elation in his voice.
"Lord Vader is not coming here. Instead, he has ordered that you be brought to Coruscant, there to be presented to the Emperor as his new student."
His hands froze in mid-motion, dropping the soft shoe to the floor. He stared at it, unable to give himself the mental command to bend over and pick it up. Coruscant? No...oh no oh no...
...It is you and your abilities the Emperor wants...
And now the Emperor would have him. Unless...
Quester knelt, slipping the shoe onto his foot. He stood and met Luke's horrified gaze. The brown eyes were unreadable, implacable, and Luke shuddered at the cold resolve he saw in them. "Coruscant?" he whispered, and Quester stared hard at him before cuffing his wrists, turning away to nod to the troopers.
They proceeded through the hallways. This time there was no audience, no jeering, no scorn. This time Luke was invisible, another faceless prisoner of the Empire. And this time there was a docking bay, a ship...freedom, if he could manage to win it, one way or another.
It was a mid-size shuttle, not luxurious but built for speed and distance. Luke paused as he was led on board, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the mirrored finish of the interior hatch. His face was bruised and discolored, though he didn't remember being struck. He looked old and tired, and he barely recognized himself.
"Move it." A poke in his back enforced the command.
The uniformed pilot and copilot waited in the cockpit while the trooper inspected the ship. Luke was strapped in, the binders still clamped tightly around his wrists. He listened to the conversation between the pilot and the bay controller, closing his eyes as the familiar hum of engines warming reminded him of his x-wing and how he longed to be piloting again. But his fighter had been abandoned in Cloud City...just as he had been.
He remained still and silent through take-off, imagining that he was on the Falcon and that Han and Chewie were at the controls, that it was Leia sitting next to him, not his healer, his abuser. Drifting into a drowsy state, he paid little attention as they sped through space until a voice came over the intercom.
"Doctor, you asked to be advised when we were at our hyperspace jump-point. We're almost there."
Luke stifled a yawn, leaning slightly against the seat that Quester vacated. He opened his eyes, dismayed that he was still so tired. Evidently the feeding tube had been pumping drugs into his system as well as nutrients. He had to fight against the urge to relax. He had to focus on releasing his binders and finding a moment when he could--
The sharp report of a blaster ripped through the cabin, and he jumped, automatically fumbling to release the constraining lapbelt. Another blast sounded, and he was free and on his feet, frantically trying to rip off the cuffs. Staggering toward the cockpit, he stopped and stared in horror at the two bodies slumped in their chairs.
Quester dragged the pilot and copilot to the floor, kicking them out of the way. "Sit down or I'll shoot you, too," he snarled. "I don't need your help to find Raylan. If he's still on Saarn, I'll track him down."
His surprise passed immediately. This wasn't quite what he had planned, but it would work. "You can't do everything yourself. You need a navigator--hell, you need me to get to the Alliance base without being shot down." He held out his hands. "Unlock these."
Luke shook his head impatiently. "I want to get to Saarn as much as you do. Let me go and I'll help you find Raylan."
A shadow passed over the physician's face before he reached a decision and quickly unfastened the binders. Luke dropped into the pilot's seat. "I'm the better pilot," he declared flatly.
"And I've got the blaster," Quester stated as he took the copilot's chair. "Try anything and you're dead."
There was nothing he needed to try, and he wondered if Quester truly didn't understand what he'd done. The Imperial officer had just murdered two Imperial soldiers and was fleeing with a Rebel prisoner to the Rebel base, where the prisoner would become a free man and the doctor would become the prisoner.
And would find, contrary to his desperate hope, that there was no son for him to rescue.
After the new coordinates were plotted and entered and the jump to hyperspace made successfully, Luke glanced at his copilot. Quester's face was ghostly white, glowing with a cold sweat. His gaze flickered to the side, where the dead pilot's booted foot was visible.
"Feeling guilty?" Luke asked.
"Yes." Quester gave him a tight, humorless smile. "I do have a conscience, despite what you may believe."
"I know you have one. You also have the ability to put it aside when it becomes inconvenient."
Like I'm doing.
"I'll do anything for my son."
It was a simple statement, but it made Luke wonder why his own father didn't feel the same. He knew that one day, if he was lucky enough to have a child, he too would do anything to protect his son or daughter. But Vader didn't feel that way. Vader left his son in the hands of a fiend-- a fiend who had once been a sane family man and a healer.
"His loss changed you. You were a decent person before that, weren't you?"
There was a long silence before: "I thought I still was," Quester whispered painfully, "until... you. And now I have lost everything--my position, my self-respect. But all my sacrifices will be worth having my son again."
"Will they?" He could only imagine a love that could command such a high price, and he envied Quester even as he feared the obsession such a love could create.
"Yes," the physician said with finality.
"You'll be a prisoner, though." It was what Quester deserved. So why did the realization make Luke uncomfortable?
...you are betraying Quester as you betrayed the Alliance...
"I saved you."
"You tortured me." He clung to that truth, for it was his only justification for his own treachery. Luke stared at the stars that streamed past them, long, twisting ribbons of light. He needed to decide what to do when they reached Saarn, and he prayed that the Alliance would still be there-- and that the Empire would not be. If there had not yet been an attack, there would be soon. He would have to warn them, which meant that he would have to confess his disloyalty. And what about his torturer? The Alliance would arrest Quester. He could never return to the Empire he had betrayed, and he would learn that his son was indeed dead. Even the sustenance of vengeance would be lost to him. Though he did not yet know it, the physician's life was over.
For the first time, Luke wondered if the cost of his escape was too great, too Dark.
...you will become an agent of Evil...
Luke brushed aside a tear, destroying the evidence of the pain inside him. Pain for his lost innocence, tears for the boy he would never be again. "You're evil. I have to denounce you. There's no other way."
"I followed orders, as a good soldier would. You are the son of Darth Vader." Quester didn't look at him. "Judge for yourself which one of us the Alliance will find more threatening. When they learn your identity, they'll give me a medal for torturing you. You'll lose everything if you denounce me." Now the dark eyes focused on him. "If you have lied, if my Raylan is truly dead, you will replace him. I will never let you go, Luke. Your life belongs to me. So you see, my boy, we either live with the lies or tell the truth and die together. Your choice."
And he would have to live with the consequences of whatever choice he made. He could let Quester control him and exist in a world of hypocrisy, basking in the false admiration of the Alliance, while the truth slowly eroded and consumed him. Or he could tell the truth, likely condemning him as well as Quester. You are the son of Darth Vader.
What would the Alliance do with the son of Darth Vader?
It was a surprisingly simple choice. It wasn't about him or Quester or Vader. It was about the safety of the Rebel forces and the freedom of the galaxy. Luke folded his arms and didn't reply to the physician. But in his head, he whispered a final farewell.
- - - - - - - -
The messenger died for delivering the message.
The Dark Lord glared at the prone figure as though he could will different words out of the corpse. To have come so close, to have had his son in his grasp, and now this...
Quester was a fool. He should have had more guards with them. With the Force and his innate stubbornness, it must have been child's play for Luke to take control of the shuttle and flee to Rebel space, taking with him two soldiers and a perfectly competent physician and security aide.
Now, too, his plan to squash the Alliance in one blow was shattered. He had hoped to use the knowledge of the location of the Rebel stronghold to further Luke's Fall, but he knew it was useless to send the fleet to Saarn. Warning them was undoubtedly the first thing Luke had done upon his return, and by now the damned Rebels were on the move. Still, Quester had obtained other useful information from Luke. Perhaps identifying the traitorous Bothans would placate Palpatine.
A fool's hope. Nothing would placate Palpatine. The Emperor would be furious when he discovered the magnitude of the loss, and discover it he would, for Vader could hide nothing if the Master probed him. There was no reason to delay delivering the bad news, but...he would review Quester's interrogation tapes to see if the doctor had missed recounting anything of importance that Luke may have revealed.
No. To delay was to be weak. He would go now, though he hoped the Emperor would not sense the treacherous sentiment that was buried in the depths of his heart: The son was free... as the father had never been.
And the father was condemned to continue his life of servitude.
Vader drew himself up straighter, consciously uncurling his fists. Closing his eyes and focusing on the Force, he opened himself to it, joining the easy flow that brought him both peace and rage, relaxing his mind to replenish his strength and fortify himself for the coming confrontation--
His eyes flew open.
Perhaps his dreams were not dead after all.