Sunday, June 25, 2006

Chapter Fifteen

The fighter had been loaded up. The bullet holes had been checked, and verified patched. And the ship’s system checks had all passed. The Commander’s team had made sure that everything was refilled, refueled, cleaned up, and ready to go. Vader and Sentinel verified the work of the Commander’s team, ensured the fighter was locked down in the cargo hold, and were soon on their way.

On their way to Latern, about 1.5 days in hyperspace.

Once they were in hyperspace, Vader ordered Sentinel to follow him. They went into an unused cargo hold of the ship. Vader entered first, and once Sentinel was inside, Vader Force-activated the door and locked them inside.

Sentinel numbly looked up at him, questioning him with her glance.

Vader ignited his lightsaber, and commanded “Defend yourself!”

Sentinel barely avoided his lunge. She had to dive and roll out of the way. She rolled back upright, her lightsaber ignited, and held herself in a slight crouch in front of Vader, ready to spring.

Vader held his lightsaber easily with one hand, almost lazily. Then he lunged again.

Sentinel actually did spring. She jumped up into his lightsaber thrust, deflecting it, and then swung around to quickly put him on the defensive, swiping at him.

He easily blocked her swipe with his lightsaber, and then shoved her away entirely with the Force.

She landed badly on the floor, not expecting his Force push.

“You aren’t fully using your power. Now. This is the time to tap into that anger over your brother’s death. Focus it. Attack me.” Vader said.

She stood back up, holding the lightsaber in front of her. “You’re not the one I want to attack.” she said.

“Who do you want to attack? Imagine that person. Imagine I am he, and attack me!” Vader commanded.

“The person I want to attack is inside my own skin! How do I use self-loathing as a weapon, Lord Vader? I don’t understand!” She stalked away to stand by one of the walls in the cargo hold.

Vader watched her walk away. “Then imagine I am you, and take out all your self loathing on me.”

“No!” she yelled.

“Do it! What, are you afraid of me? You’re weak! You’re a weak creature incapable of surviving in this universe!”

“You’re just trying to piss me off!” she yelled.

“Are you sure? Or perhaps I’m expressing my contempt and disgust at how easily someone else’s stupid actions have propelled you into a chasm of guilt! How easily you allow your brother’s ultimate revenge -- by his act of suicide -- to affect you! Your brother was being stupid and petty! Your brother was using the act of revenge, if he was using it at all, as an excuse to kill himself! Your brother was, in all reality, too weak to live! Too weak to do his duty, his job!”

Sentinel yelled something unintelligible, her eyes instantly bright yellow, and lunged at him.

For several moments, they danced the dance of light, their saber’s clashing, sparking, their bodies moving more elegantly than any couple could move across a dance floor.

Vader made certain that each time she defended herself, she would have to twist, to spin, to put her feet down uncertainly. He tried to wear her down with the little pains of overextended muscles. It was working: she was getting angrier. But then it was working too well, she was using the Dark Side of the Force to anticipate his plan, and now, no matter how difficult he made it for her to defend herself, she was doing so quite adequately, with no over extensions, and she was now causing him some difficulty.

Then, it seemed she was exultant in her defiance, in her ability to fight him. And her eyes were no longer bright yellow, but once again red. Almost the color of her lightsaber. A hot, glowing pair of red embers, burning their gaze into his skull. He could almost feel the line of heat coming from them, as she parried, and swiped, and lunged, and ducked, and jumped... meeting every attack, and giving as good as she got.

He was admittedly very proud of her, proud that his lover and friend was also a formidable opponent. He felt as if he were a party to her creation as a fully fledged Sith, even though he was still just getting to know her, just getting to be involved in her training.

He also felt he had found a worthy ally for future battles. And the idea of having someone, Force sensitive, that he could fight side-by-side with... he hadn’t had that kind of camaraderie, that friendship, in 5 long years.

There’s a glory to defeating enemies single-handedly. But for a worthy apprentice, especially for her, he was willing to make... accommodations. He was willing to share at least some of that glory with her, as long as she always knew her place.

But while he was proud of her, he was also angry with her... angry at her defiance, at the arrogant way she was fighting with him. Arrogant at the way, in her fighting, that she appeared not to acknowledge that she was fighting her better, her superior. That this was about training her, improving her, and not trying to show him up!

Being Sith was all about ambivalence. About longing to face your equals, yet hating the competition they represented. Seeking out those who are powerful, in order to learn from them. Then trying to overthrow them, once you believe they have weakened sufficiently, and/or that you have become stronger than they are. Seeking out those less powerful to train them, keep them under your wing, and then using them to assist you in overthrowing those above you. Always ensuring you never train those below you too well, so they are never powerful enough to replace you, and so they know they need you in order to better themselves. Always ensuring those below you know their place, and those above you think you aren’t ready to overthrow them, that there is still more you need to learn from them. Ensuring those above you know that you are an adequate apprentice, one who does not need replacing! And being leery of anyone who was neither below nor above you, as at some point the pecking order would have to be re-established.

And re-establishing pecking order usually meant someone would have to die.

The Master always had to ensure the Apprentice knew there was more to be gained by keeping the Master alive rather than overthrowing them. The Apprentice then became an adequate guardian of the Master, always ready to destroy those pesky persons who were a little early in thinking it was time to take out the Master.

It was very much a love-hate relationship, with uneasy truces between allies who were only allied as long as it suited their goals for more power. It was very much a survival of the fittest.

Basically, it was like doing business with the Hutts.

So... while Vader was glad Sentinel would obviously be an adequate apprentice for him, he was unnerved that perhaps she might be too adequate.

But Vader knew the solution for having an underling who thought they were as powerful as he was. He merely needed to make it clear, perhaps painfully, that he was her better, and that she would be wise never to forget that.

So... he would put his apprentice in her place! And... once she knew her place... once he knew she fully accepted his leadership... together, they would defeat the Emperor, and rule the Galaxy together! His lover, his apprentice... forever. They would learn the Sith’s secret of cheating death. And then their rule of the Galaxy would have no end.

This vision of his future was so real to Vader, he could almost taste it. The Dark Side of the Force actualized it in his mind, made it real.

He fought with Sentinel, showing his mastery of every technique he used on her, showing her how she must defer to him as her better. But she also showed how quickly she could keep up, how quickly she could learn every technique he used upon her. This irritated him, which increased his anger, and increased his power. But it also changed his vision of the future.

Perhaps her goal is not to be my apprentice, but in fact to take my place! Who is she to think she can defeat me! I was... I am... the ‘Chosen One’, after all! he thought. But she kept up with him, even when this new feeling of outrage gave his anger, and the Dark Side, even more fuel.

There finally came a moment when they both just stopped, stood several feet apart from one another, and regarded each other. They were both physically very tired, but still pumped up on the seemingly endless energy the Dark Side was supporting them with.

With a moment to catch their breaths, Vader stood observing his possible future apprentice. Could he truly trust her to hold to that promise they’d made each other? Maybe he was being foolish to think that he could somehow make a relationship with a fellow Sith work, especially one who had just demonstrated to him that her powers were closer to his own level than he had at first thought.

Her strength unnerved him. He didn’t think she could ever surpass his abilities. If it came down to a true duel to the death between the two of them, he would win, but would possibly come out of it with yet more damaging battle wounds, yet more debilitating physical problems to carry around with him.

There was something else to consider. As he stared at her, red glowing eyes, fierce and wicked grin plastered across her face, he realized that this fully Dark Side Sentinel wasn’t the girl he was attracted to. He was instead attracted to the girl who was trying to be the “best of both worlds”, half Sith, half Jedi. Really, considering her distaste for her dark deeds, more ‘reluctant Sith, half Jedi’, he thought. But anyway...

As she stared at him, it seemed she grew conscious of what had just happened. He watched her remember something, whether it be that she had promised to never betray him (and here she was, tempted so obviously by her power just now that he knew betrayal was in her heart), or whether it was having killed her parents, or feeling responsible for her own brother’s death. But whatever it was, her smile had suddenly vanished, and a lost, hopeless look had replaced it. Her eyes faded suddenly from that burning red, back to their normal jade green.

She closed her eyes, and twin tears rolled down her cheeks. She deactivated her lightsaber, and hooked it to her belt, and stood there, with her eyes closed.

Vader watched her, feeling his own darker emotions start to fade, suddenly wishing he hadn’t pushed her. And not feeling so certain of any workable vision of the future.

He didn’t want her to succeed in becoming a true Sith. Not if it meant losing the woman he loved.

Was that it? Vader suddenly thought. Did Padme reject what I'd become instead of actually rejecting me? He pushed that thought aside irritatedly. He switched off his lightsaber and hooked it back onto his belt in a smooth motion.

He decided, firmly, that Sentinel would become a true Sith. If she didn’t become a full Sith, the Emperor would see to it she was destroyed. And then Vader truly would lose her.

Somehow, we will make this work, Vader assured himself.

Sentinel was still standing with her eyes closed. She was shaking her head, engaged in some internal dialogue that Vader couldn’t discern, but wasn’t ready to interrupt.

Then, Sentinel tilted her head. “We’ve received a communication request”, she said.

He looked at her, at first not understanding.

She opened her eyes. “We should probably go see who it’s from”, she said.

He understood, suddenly, and sensed she was right. He felt slightly annoyed that she had picked up on the incoming communication before he had.

He recovered his composure, and walked to the door of the cargo bay, unlocking and opening it with the Force.

With her head down, Sentinel followed.

Once in the cockpit, Vader determined the communication request was from Commander Javel. He brought the ship out of hyperspace, and opened a line of communication. As he was establishing the connection, he said “I asked Commander Javel for further information regarding your brother’s death. I sense there may have been foul play.”

She looked at him sharply. “That’s not what you said earlier, when you said my brother was too weak to live.” she hissed.

Vader was almost surprised. She had taken that seriously? Yes, of course she had... her nerves were raw from grief, Vader realized. “I only said that to enrage you. Apparently it worked too well.” he said.

Sentinel growled, “If you wanted less rage, you should have stuck to something other than my family. I’m sure I could send you over the edge just talking about your deceased wife.”

Vader said, “You are angry with me... that was...”

The hologram buzzed to life, and there stood before them Commander Javel.

“Lord Vader, Lord Sentinel.”

“Commander Javel.” Vader rumbled, with some irritation that the Commander’s prompt appearance had cut Vader off in mid-sentence.

“I have the information you requested, Lord Vader. Should I send that to you privately, or...” Javel glanced nervously between them.

“You may speak freely, Commander.”

“Yes, Lord Vader. The autopsy report is being sent to you now, along with Lieutenant Yod’s service records. The summary of both is that he did indeed commit suicide, and his service records are exemplary. Also, there was no suicide note.”

“I see.” Vader rumbled, glancing between the Commander, and the display indicating the files he had just received.

“Another thing I thought you might like to know”, Javel said. “The Trooper who was sent here, to watch the two of you... he has been re-assigned. To the Hunter.”

Sentinel looked up sharply from the same display Vader had been glancing at. “What?!?” she exclaimed.

Javel said, “I don’t have any more details. The reasons for his assignation to the Hunter were not given.”

“This cannot be a coincidence.” Vader rumbled softly.

Sentinel looked like she wanted to speak, but didn’t feel at liberty to, with Javel listening in.

“Good work, Commander. You have greatly pleased me. If you happen to hear any more information...” Vader trailed off.

“I will alert you of anything else I happen to find out that might prove useful.” the Commander said.

“Thank you, Commander.” Vader said.

“There was one other thing, Lord Vader.” Here the Commander looked a little embarrassed.

“Yes, Commander?”

“I promised my men... to pass on the following. They wanted to thank you personally for your... motivational speech... during the dance.

Sentinel couldn’t see Vader’s face, but she could almost sense his embarrassment. In spite of her emotional state, she grinned.

“I take it the dance was a success?” Vader asked.

“Uh, yes, Lord Vader. Oh, and my men also wanted to thank Lord Sentinel for her... similar... motivational speech with the young women from the nearby college.”

Now it was Sentinel’s turn to be embarrassed. But she couldn’t feel it. Being embarrassed required caring about her own personal welfare, and right now she didn’t care if she lived or died.

“Commander, please tell your men that they are most welcome.” Sentinel said, with a small sigh. She smiled while she said it, but the smile couldn’t reach her sad, lost eyes.

“Please tell your men the same thing from me, Commander,” Vader said.

“I will do that. Lord Vader, Lord Sentinel.” With a small nod, the Commander ended the communication, and his hologram disappeared.

Sentinel turned towards Vader. “Why is the Emperor sending that spy to my brother’s ship?”

Vader responded, “He is either being sent to retrieve personal information, perhaps in the form of personal belongings, or he is being sent to help cover up the murder of your brother -- if it was in fact a murder -- or both.”

“But the autopsy... you think there’s a conspiracy surrounding my brother’s death? Who could gain from his death? If the Emperor is involved, why? What does the Emperor gain by putting me through the experience of the death of my brother?” she asked, exasperated.

“Maybe the Emperor uses loss, or the fear of loss, as a means to progress his pupils in the Dark Side.” Vader said. This hadn’t been the first time Vader had thought that the Emperor knew his relationship with Padme would be doomed by his conversion to the Dark Side. Or that a doomed relationship might make him progress more quickly to the Dark Side, ironically.

“If the Emperor is truly behind this... if he killed my brother...” Sentinel started to clench her fist, but stopped with a wince as her nails encountered the fingernail holes she had already put in her palms earlier. She rubbed the wounds in both palms, gently.

“What could you do against the Emperor?” Vader asked.

She studied her palms. “Spend my life plotting his death. That’s something to live for, certainly...”

“And now you’ve lost the will to live?” Vader said, rather reproachfully.

She looked up at him. “Are you goading me again?” The anger was there, ready, lurking just under the surface. It wouldn’t take much to cause it to flare up. It was what was keeping her from breaking down and crying again.

He watched her carefully. “No. This is not a training session.”

“You stirred up something that I’m having a very hard time putting away.” she said, her voice a little shaky.

“It was necessary... you were eating yourself alive with your guilt and despair.” Vader responded.

She looked back down, at the display in front of Vader. “I haven’t felt the Dark Side that powerfully with me, before. It scared me. It... it went too far. It made me want to do things that... I would regret later. It made me hungry for more power.”

“If you are to become a true Sith, it will have to go as far as it needs to go.” He said softly.

She looked back up at Vader. “I’ve told you that I want to have the best of both worlds. What happened today... that was the worst of the Sith world. I wanted to kill you. I wanted to kill you and take your place, then kill the Emperor and take his place. It was like... our relationship... had never existed. Like I never made that promise to you...”

Vader looked down at the display, glancing at the autopsy, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.

She reached over, gently touching the chin of his mask, directing his gaze back up at her.

“What is more important. Us being together? Or my becoming a Sith?” she asked.

He reached for her hand, which was still on his mask’s chin. He held her hand.

“Answer me honestly.” she said.

“Are you trying to say that ... if you finish your Sith training... we will no longer be able to have a relationship?” he carefully asked.

“I think that it’s impossible for 2 people who are fully committed to the Sith... theology... to be able to trust each other. By definition, at least the definition of the current Sith creed, we are destined to try to kill each other. You are already Sith. Or at least, much further committed to the creed than I am. It is unlikely that you will ever want or ever choose to back off on that commitment.” She took a deep breath. “For us to be together, I must back off on that commitment. I was already of the opinion that my destiny would be somewhere in between, anyway.”

“You are fooling yourself in imagining that there is an ‘in between’.” Vader rumbled.

“So, if I’m not Sith, does that make me Jedi?” Sentinel asked.

“And my enemy.” Vader softly said.

“You are so willing to commit to that statement? I can’t be in a third corner, that is neither Sith nor Jedi, but one that means we can be together?” she asked.

“You ... “ Vader paused and collected his thoughts. “I didn’t say anything before about your intentions when you first expressed them, but it is unlikely that you will succeed in keeping one foot in each camp... in learning Sith abilities from the Emperor without truly becoming Sith. He will know what you are doing. He will not approve.” Vader paused, looking directly into her eyes. “If you do not toe the line, he will kill you.”

“I could run. I could hide. We could still...” she said.

“Where are you going to hide from the Emperor, and still be able to see me?” Vader asked.

“But if I keep going with the Sith training, I’m afraid...”

Vader held his hand up. “The only way I see this working out, as a long term relationship, is if you commit to becoming a Sith, and to being my apprentice. We will hold to what we promised each other. When the time is right, we overthrow the Emperor, and rule together. In the meantime, we will meet whenever we are able, and train together, sharing as much of our Dark Side knowledge as we have learned.”

“I don’t know if I can hold to our promise if the Dark Side is given that much control over my life.” she said, shuddering.

Vader said, “You will be able to. We will help each other to hold to our promise.”

“You don’t think you’ll end up seeing me as too much of a threat, and feeling the need to destroy me?” she asked.

Vader struggled not to show that that very thought had already occurred to him. “As I said, we will help each other to hold to our promise.” Vader said.

She looked down at the floor.

“So... I believe the only way this will work is if I’m not Sith. And you believe the only way this will work is if I am Sith. I believe we will kill each other if I’m Sith, and you will see me as an enemy if I’m not Sith. And if I’m not Sith, I gain the Emperor as a more dangerous enemy... when ironically, if I am Sith, it’s your intention that we both take out the Emperor together and rule in his place.”

Vader chuckled. “It’s a conundrum. But I’m not backing down on this. If we are to have any chance together, it is only going to happen if you unreservedly choose to become Sith.”

She sighed, closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples with her fingers.

“This is not necessarily a decision you have to make right now.” Vader rumbled softly.

She looked up. “I’m wasting time. We probably won’t see each other for a very long time after this mission, if at all. I will have to make my decision about this after the mission is over. And I will have to put off my grieving until then, as well. And my hunt for the truth behind my brother’s death. I don’t want to lose this time with you, especially when it may be all we have for a very long time.”

Vader took both her hands in his. “This is a very rough time for you right now. I understand that. I’m... sorry I pushed you earlier. I thought it would help you to focus, to use the pain to your advantage.” He sighed. “I guess it was my way of ‘cheering you up’.”

She smiled weakly, squeezed his hands. “Yeah, well you’re just a very cheerful person, you know.” she teased.

Vader looked back at the controls, released her hands, and got the navputer back up and plotting their course back into hyperspace. The computer finished the calculations quickly, and he engaged lightspeed. Once that was done, he stood up.

“Lord Sentinel, go to your room, and change back into that red dress and boots. And meet me in my quarters.” Vader commanded.

She stood up slowly... she was so very tired. But she smiled. “Yes, m’Lord.” Then she left the cockpit, with Vader following her until she turned to go to her quarters and he turned to go to his.

On the way to his quarters, Vader stopped at the ship’s small kitchen.

Goto Chapter Sixteen


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