Friday, July 07, 2006

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“What?” Sentinel exclaimed into the commlink. But the commlink was quiet; Mortis had already shut his commlink off.

“Crap!” Sentinel muttered.

Vader turned to look out the viewscreen. “It’s the Emperor’s shuttle.” he said.

“Crap! He said 3 hours! He lied!” Sentinel said, starting to pace around the cockpit.

“He’s disembarking.” Vader said.

“Crap!” Sentinel said, adding exasperated hand gestures to her nervous pacing.

“Calm down. Go to the cargo hold. Take my fighter, and get out of here.” Vader said, watching her pace back and forth.

Sentinel stopped in her tracks and turned to look at Vader. “No. That’s not how this is going to play out.” she said, licking her lips. She rested her hand on her lightsaber: Vader had given it back to her when they had been alone in his quarters. “Come on, we have a Wrinkled Old Prune to deal with.”

Sentinel whirled and ran out of the cockpit. Vader followed her.

The ‘Wrinkled Old Prune’ was standing just outside the ship, with 2 of his royal guards standing just behind him. The royal guards were resplendent in their dark red robes and polished red armor.

Vader and Sentinel walked down the ship’s ramp even as it was lowering. Once before the Emperor, both bowed down on one knee before him.

“Rise.” the Emperor said, his voice seeming to reverberate.

They both rose, and faced the Emperor. Sentinel swallowed nervously, but otherwise showed no sign of fear.

The Emperor turned towards his royal guard. “Leave us.” he said, and the 2 guards walked back inside his shuttle. The Emperor then turned back to face his 2 apprentices.

“So, Lord Sentinel. You now have Lord Hedra’s abilities.” the Emperor said.

“Yes, my Master.” Sentinel said.

“Lord Vader has more potential than you do, and... was more powerful than you were. However, if you have gained Lord Hedra’s abilities, then you should be more powerful than Lord Vader at this point.” the Emperor said, glancing between the two of them.

Sentinel frowned and pursed her lips. She didn’t like where this was going.

“Lord Sentinel, destroy Lord Vader, if you can, and take his place at my side.” the Emperor said.

Vader stepped back from Sentinel and the Emperor, ignited his lightsaber, and stood at the ready.

Sentinel’s eyes went wide.

“Why are you hesitating, Lord Sentinel. Lord Vader isn’t hesitating.” the Emperor purred. “Lord Vader left you at Lord Hedra’s mercy. You must be very angry at him.”

Sentinel glared at the Emperor, then shot Vader a look she hoped was comparable.

“He did nothing to help me, my Master. And I hate him for that.” she said, giving Vader a spiteful glance. “But I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the very same thing. Lord Hedra was too powerful for him. There was nothing he could have done. And anyway, you are the one responsible, not he, for Hedra taking over my body, in the first place.”

The Emperor ignored the last thing she had said. “Yet you were able to push Hedra out, even though Lord Hedra was so powerful?” the Emperor said.

Sentinel smiled, ruefully. “I am very stubborn, my Master.”

Vader stood unmoving, blade held low, waiting.

“Nevertheless, Lord Sentinel. You will fight Lord Vader.” the Emperor said. “Lord Vader, destroy Lord Sentinel.”

Sentinel ignited her blade just in time to deflect Vader’s stroke, then jumped back into a defensive stance.

Vader moved forward and attacked once more.

The two warriors fought uneasily with each other. Although they tried to make every strike look as if it had their full energy and intent behind it, each one of them was holding back just a little.

The Emperor didn’t seem to notice that. He simply stood there smiling gleefully, waiting to see who the victor would be.

Sentinel caught site of that sinister smile out of the corner of her eye. He sure does enjoy being fought over, she mused.

The two battled, while both of their minds raced, trying to figure out a solution. Vader was considering nudging Sentinel to attack the Emperor with him, but unsure how they would both be able to deflect the Emperor’s Force lightning. He didn’t know if Sentinel had learned how to deflect Force lightning yet, for that matter. He could do so, just slightly, with his lightsaber. But with all the metal in his frame, his body acted like a lightning rod, making it nearly impossible for him to deflect all of it.

And Vader's body was very vulnerable to magnetic and electrical forces.

Sentinel was being led by the Force to wait, to bide her time before taking any rash action. She listened to that leading, feeling a little more hopeful that things were going to work out, after all.

After a moment more of dueling, she sensed her own abilities were weakening. She continued to fight Lord Vader, moving more carefully as her strokes were becoming less and less guided by the Force and more guided by her own instincts. She noticed Vader’s strokes were also becoming less flashy. She hoped the Emperor would take this to merely be exhaustion on their parts, and hoped that the Emperor would keep focused on the show.

Because at that moment, that’s all it was. Their duel was a diversion: the perfect diversion to keep the Emperor focused on them, when the hovercraft suddenly came around the hill, and literally ran into and over the Emperor’s body!

The Emperor's Force senses had been sufficiently dulled by the Force nullifying creature, and he had never sensed the hovercraft's approach. And the sounds of the hovercraft had been blocked sufficiently by the configuration of the surrounding hills.

Mortis yelled at Sentinel to hop in. Sentinel glanced once, longingly at Vader. He lowered his lightsaber and nodded at her, telling her wordlessly to get out of here. She turned off her lightsaber and dove head first into the hovercraft.

Mortis powered the hovercraft down into the valley, heading at top speed for the city of Yuthrub.

Vader turned towards the Emperor’s still body. Was it possible? Perhaps it was unnecessary for Sentinel to be on the run at all: maybe that blow from the hovercraft had killed the Emperor.

Vader crossed the ground to look down on the Emperor. He was torn between the desire to behead the Emperor on the spot with his still ignited lightsaber, or to disengage it and ensure that the Emperor still saw him as ‘the loyal Apprentice’.

Vader then did something he would spend many years regretting. He forsake his opportunity to destroy his Master; he disengaged his lightsaber, and bowed down on one knee to check on the Emperor. Vader sensed movement above him, and looked up to see the Emperor’s royal guard rushing down the shuttle's ramp.

His Master was unconscious, but was quickly coming to. Vader and the royal guards helped him to sit upright. The man was definitely in pain.

“Take me to the medcenter on board the Exactor.” the Emperor weakly commanded. One of the royal guard ran back inside the shuttle, and brought a hover-gurney over. The two guards gently lifted the Emperor onto it, and took him into the shuttle. Before the guards and the Emperor disappeared inside the shuttle, Vader called out "I will meet you on board the Exactor."

Vader went inside his ship. He powered up the engines, closed all openings to the atmosphere, and raised the ship to the heavens, closely following the Emperor’s shuttle.

He lost sight of the shuttle as the shuttle and his ship passed through the hazy upper atmosphere. Then everything cleared, and the shuttle and the Exactor were in plain view.

He landed the ship alongside the shuttle, in one of the main hanger bays of the Star Destroyer Exactor, and hurried outside to walk alongside the Emperor’s gurney.

Looking down at the wounded old man gave Vader a sudden feeling of reverse deja vu. He shuddered slightly, and hoped that Sentinel and the other two were already on their way to escaping this planet.

In the medcenter, the Emperor made some less than coherent demands. In spite of his prior intelligent order to be taken to the medcenter, the Emperor was now babbling something about ‘kill all banthas’. It was then that Vader realized the Emperor was probably suffering from a serious concussion.

Vader left the Emperor alone in the medcenter, and stood on the main bridge, watching the planet below for about 15 minutes. A few transports entered and left the atmosphere below him. He stretched his senses out. The 3rd one to leave the planet had a particularly empty feeling to it. He could sense nothing about it, and that nothingness was deeper than an ocean.

He turned to the nearest lieutenant. “Lord Sentinel is missing. Find her! Search the Yuthrub spaceport, and every outbound transport, prior to allowing it to leave.” he commanded.

“What about the transports already exiting the planet’s orbit, Lord Vader?” the lieutenant asked.

“Let them go. There is no way Lord Sentinel could have gotten a transport that quickly.” Vader said.

“Yes, m’Lord!” the Lieutenant responded, turning to carry out the Dark Lord’s orders.

Then Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, turned back to watch the third transport.

As it disappeared into hyperspace, he said goodbye to the one woman who had ever managed to see past his mask.

Then he turned and headed back to the medcenter, to be by his Master’s bedside when the ‘Wrinkled Old Prune’ recovered.


Chapter Twenty-Six

The four of them were gathered in the lab around the table that the Force nullifying creature was caged upon. Vader was refilling it’s water and food supply, while a droid cleaned out it’s cage. The creature was docilely sitting in the corner of it’s cage, watching everything around it with lazy, sleepy eyes.

Sentinel reached in carefully, and scratched the creature behind the ears. It leaned into her hand, obviously enjoying the attention.

“So, how did you find another one of these things, Lord Vader?” Sentinel asked.

“I contacted Commander Javel. This is but one of hundreds recovered in a raid on that one medical facility at Thaadra. The creatures were all taken to Starbase 12, to join it’s one comrade, the one we recovered.” Vader said. “This may in fact be the one we recovered.” Vader mused. Although he wasn’t sure it was the one they recovered, since he was sure it would have been very leery of him. His treatment of the creature they had recovered had not been gentle.

“Can we trust Javel?” Sentinel asked.

“I sense we can. Or rather, I was able to sense I could, prior to this thing's arrival.” Vader said.

Sentinel continued to pet and scratch the creature. They were all silent for a moment, trying to think of their next move.

Everyone jumped a little at the soft electronic chirp that echoed through the ship. The sound indicated that someone wanted to make contact, that they wanted a communication link established.

Vader had been staring at the creature. He now raised his head to look at his lover and his unlikely new friends. “If I don’t make contact, he will be suspicious. It’s likely he’s already started to send out search parties.” he rumbled.

“Perhaps it’s time for us to go.” Mortis said.

“Is there a locator beacon on this ship?” Sentinel asked.

“No. For stealth purposes, I had it removed at the beginning of our mission.” Vader said. “Now I need to go speak to the Emperor.” Vader turned to leave.

Sentinel put a hand on his arm. “We haven’t talked about our plans yet.” Sentinel said.

“Your plans are simple. Pack your things. Leave this ship. Go with Gilly and Mortis. The three of you find transport off of this planet under assumed names. I think we have enough Imperial Credits on board that you should be able to both purchase new identity cards as well as transport to a far off system. I suggest planet hopping for a while, changing transports often.” Vader said.

“I’m not leaving you.” Sentinel said.

Vader turned to Sentinel, and held her in his arms. “You have to.” he rumbled softly. He looked up at the other two. “You will take care of her, won’t you?” he asked.

“Of course, Lord Vader.” Gilly said.

“I’ll never see you again, will I?” Sentinel asked.

“No, you won’t see me again.” Vader said. “It’s not safe, not while the Emperor lives.”

Vader was resolved now, to losing her. He was also resolved to a whole new set of nightmares in store for him when he went to sleep. The nightmares had stopped on the few nights he had Sentinel sleeping beside him... as if she gave him the peace he had been missing for 5 years.

Sentinel buried her face in Vader’s chest, and he held her for several minutes. He wanted to kiss her so badly. He wanted one more moment alone with her, without the mask he had to hide behind. But time was swiftly running out.

“Go pack. I will be better able to deal with the Emperor if I know you are safe.” Vader said, releasing Sentinel.

Sentinel stood back, looked up at Vader, her face grim. She nodded slowly.

“We will meet you in the cargo hold, Dear.” Gilly said. She turned to face Vader. “May we use the holocraft, Lord Vader?”

“Of course.” Vader said.

Sentinel headed for her quarters. Once there, she packed her things quickly. She didn’t have much to pack: she’d left most of her belongings back at her apartment on Korriban. She would not be able to go back for anything from her apartment. She hoped her friends there would adopt her Carg Dragon, T’Ching.

She finished packing, then followed her gut instincts to the cockpit. Vader was there, alone. She dropped all her bags, and rushed to him.

Vader turned when she entered. He removed his mask quickly, hooking up a breathing hose. The second the hose was connected she was almost smothering his mouth with kisses. She fell into his lap, and he kissed her back, violently. He felt as if he was trying to condense the next 10 years of time into one minute.

They both finally came up for air... well, she came up for air. Thanks to his mechanical lungs, he could have ‘stayed underwater’ indefinitely.

“Go, get out of here.” Vader said, having a hard time maintaining his composure.

Sentinel pulled away, grabbed her bags and left. Vader watched her leave the cockpit, then replaced his mask.

Sentinel met Mortis and Gilly in the cargo hold. Mortis was powering up the hovercraft. The cage containing the Force nullifying creature was in the back of the hovercraft. Next to it was a small bag containing an obscene amount of Imperial credits.

“Let’s go.” Sentinel said. She activated the ramp, then jumped in. They sped down the ramp and headed for Gilly and Mortis’s home.

It was daylight on this side of Sevast. But with the perpetual haze of contaminants in the sky, it was hard to tell. The locals never got to see any stars at night, and during the day, the sun merely lit up the haze, and was otherwise invisible. It gave everything a slight orange tinge.

Sentinel watched the retreating form of the ship. She had this nagging feeling that she shouldn’t be leaving Vader alone. She couldn’t push it away from her. They were about half a kilometer from the ship when she said “Stop! I have to go back.”

“What?” Mortis said.

“Stop the hovercraft!” Sentinel repeated.

Mortis pulled the hovercraft to a stop. Sentinel hopped out. “I’ll meet you in the city, at the transport center. If I’m not there in 5 hours, leave without me!” she said.

“What are you doing?” Gilly asked.

“I know I’m supposed to be there when he talks to the Emperor. He’s going to need me.” Sentinel answered.

“How can you sense anything with our new 'pet' in the back seat?” Mortis asked.

“I don’t know, but I can! I have to go.” Sentinel said, then turned and started running.

The further she got away from the ‘pet’, the faster she was able to run, as her Force abilities started to come back to her. To back up that nagging feeling, as her Force sensitivity returned, so did the guidance by the Force that indeed, her place during that conversation with the Emperor was by Vader’s side.

The cargo ramp was still lowered. Sentinel ran straight up into the ship, not bothering to close it. She paused to catch her breath just outside the cargo hold. She was tired from the run. But she should have been completely wiped out, considering she had once again been asleep for a couple of days. The energy the Force was providing her was more than she was used to.

Much more.

She thought about how she now shared some memories with Darth Hedra. Some of Hedra’s secrets. What else did she now share?

Cautiously, remembering how Hedra had threatened Vader in the cockpit that one time, she held her hands out in front of her. Blue arcs of Force lightning began to spark between her hands.

“Bantha fodder!” Sentinel exclaimed.

She let the lightning die down, then aimed her hand cautiously at an empty box inside the cargo hold. She sent Force lightning into it, trying to get a feel for her newfound power. The box jumped about 3 meters further into the cargo hold, with little arcs of lightning jumping off of it and onto the hold’s walls.

Sentinel stared at her hands, as if expecting something else to start jumping out of them. She shook her head, and headed for the cockpit.

The cockpit door was unlocked, she sensed. She stayed back from it, to keep it from auto-opening. Then she used the Force to hold it steady as she came close, and allowed it to auto-open just a bare crack. She had to be careful, in case Vader was already speaking to the Emperor.

While Sentinel had been running back for the ship, Vader had been sitting in the cockpit, feeling his Force abilities return. He waited until he was sure his abilities were fully back, and put in a request to establish a communication link with the Emperor.

As his Force senses returned, he started to have a nagging feeling that he really needed Sentinel here for this talk with the Emperor. He couldn’t imagine why she was needed... he was ready to discuss how Hedra had taken over control of the ship from him, and had brought them to this world. And that Hedra had then run off. He wasn’t sure how well all of this would go down with the Emperor, however. But nevertheless, how would Sentinel being there improve the situation?

Vader shook his head. He realized that he did need a better story. Perhaps if Sentinel had stayed, she could maybe have pretended to be Hedra. But he was sure the Emperor would have sensed if he was talking to Hedra or to Sentinel.

The ship’s main computer beeped. His communication link had been established. Time to wing it, Vader thought.

Vader activated the communication link, and knelt on one knee on the cockpit floor. The hologram of the Emperor appeared before him. Behind him, a second after the hologram appeared, the cockpit door opened just slightly, but went unnoticed by him.

“Lord Vader.” the Emperor said.

“Yes, my Master.” Vader said, reverently.

“Why aren’t you and Lord Hedra on Coruscant? What is delaying your arrival?” the Emperor asked.

“Lord Hedra demanded a detour at the last minute. She was very... insistent.” Vader said.

“Why didn’t you communicate with me concerning this detour?” the Emperor asked.

“She was... insistent about that, as well.” Vader said.

“Where is Lord Hedra? I wish to speak with her.” the Emperor said.

“I don’t know, my Master. She has left the ship.” Vader said.

The Emperor regarded Vader very carefully. “You had deep feelings for Darth Sentinel, Lord Vader. How do I know that you didn’t kill Lord Hedra in revenge for losing Sentinel?” the Emperor asked.

“That would be going against your wishes, my Master. That I would not do.” Vader said, very solemnly.

“If you cannot produce Lord Hedra, my Apprentice, I will have to assume that you have in fact gone against my wishes. And that I will not tolerate.” the Emperor said.

Sentinel had heard enough. Before Vader said anything else, she shot lightning at the cockpit door while simultaneously allowing it to auto-open. Once open, her lightning came very close to hitting Vader, but luckily he jumped out of the way even as she reigned in her new power.

Sentinel stormed into the cockpit, trying to look furious.

“Did I or did I not command you, Lord Vader, to not make any communications?” Sentinel yelled at him. Then she turned toward the Emperor’s hologram. “Ah, Lord Sidious. What an unexpected surprise.”

Vader was crouching off to the side, where he had landed when he’d had to jump out of the way of the Force lightning. The emotions coming off of him were a combination of surprise and anger, and a sudden suspicion regarding Sentinel’s true identity! Sentinel couldn’t fix that right then, however, and hoped Vader would follow her lead.

“Lord Hedra, why have you detoured from coming to meet me?” the Emperor asked.

“I had other things I needed to take care of first, Lord Sidious.” Sentinel said.

“I do not appreciate the mistreatment of my Apprentice, Lord Hedra.” the Emperor said.

“He has not been permanently damaged, Lord Sidious. I respect your rights as Master over your Apprentice.” she said.

Vader rose to his feet, staring at Sentinel. There was a rage coming off of Vader that made the very air temperature in the cockpit increase by several degrees.

The Emperor stared at her for a moment. “There is something strange about you, Lord Hedra. Something about you doesn’t feel right.” he said.

“Perhaps you sense the combined signature of my aura with that of Lord Sentinel’s.” she said.

“Perhaps...” the Emperor said. He tilted his head slightly, thinking. “Lord Hedra, when we were on Gattaws 3, what did I tell you about my old master?”

“Is this a test?” she asked.

“Yes. It is.” the Emperor said.

“You really want me to speak of it in front of your Apprentice?” Sentinel said, hoping she was guessing that whatever it was was of a personal nature.

“Yes, yes, you may speak of it freely in front of Lord Vader.” the Emperor impatiently said.

Sentinel regarded the Emperor for a moment, then decided to opt for a lie that was closer to the truth.

“You have me, Lord Sidious. I am Darth Sentinel. But I’m not the Sentinel you remember.” she said.

“Lord Vader helped you escape Lord Hedra’s control?” the Emperor raised his voice.

“No, your Apprentice did nothing to assist me. Friendship means nothing to him!” she glared at Vader as she hissed the last part. “He fully went along with Hedra taking over my body. But I have reserves of power that Hedra wasn’t aware of, and I managed to push the woman out. But once she was out, I retained many of her memories and knowledge...” and here Sentinel raised her hands to allow the Force lightning to arc between them. “And much of her skill.” She allowed the Force lightning to dissipate.

Sentinel turned to look at Vader, drawing upon times she had been hurt and angry in order to project what she needed at that moment. “Your Apprentice thought I was still Darth Hedra! So I have treated him as if I were. After all, he did nothing to help me!” she practically screamed at Vader. She turned back towards the Emperor.

“You betrayed me too, my Master. What am I to think of that?” she said darkly, to the Emperor.

“Lord Sentinel, you were inadequate as a Sith Lord, but very adequate as a Sith host. I would prefer that Darth Hedra had retained your body. But now that your powers have grown from this experience, perhaps you are worthy of a second chance.” the Emperor mused, unapologetic.

“My Master, I’m glad that you are willing to give me a second chance. But in all honesty, why should I trust you a second time?” Sentinel asked, arching an eyebrow.

The Emperor regarded her, frowning malevolently at her. “You have no choice in the matter, Lord Sentinel. Either you bow down before me as your Master, or you shall be... taken care of.” he said, ominously.

“By Lord Vader?” Sentinel asked.

“By me.” the Emperor said. “It is your choice. Re-affirm your pledge to me, Lord Sentinel, or die.”

This wasn’t quite what Sentinel had expected to happen. But if the Emperor was being honest in his offer, it allowed her to remain somewhat close to Vader. Except, to support the web of lies she and Vader had just strung up together, she would never be able to openly show affection to her Dark Lord.

But it was better than spending the rest of her life on the run.

She bowed down on one knee before the Emperor’s hologram. “I pledge myself in service to you, Lord Sidious, and to the Dark Side.” she said, bowing low.

The Emperor smiled gleefully, baring his teeth. Sentinel remained in her subservient position, feeling as if that malevolent smile were showering her with evil. She sighed a little inside.

“Good. Good. You have made the right choice, Lord Sentinel. This experience has indeed made you more powerful.” the Emperor said, looking down at her appraisingly. “I will be meeting with you in 3 hours. Prepare to demonstrate to me what Lord Hedra has inadvertently taught you.”

Sentinel looked up sharply. “Master? You followed us here?”

“I am careful to keep tabs on the location of my... assets.” the Emperor said, smiling thinly. “I will be landing in your location... shortly.”

The hologram disappeared.

Sentinel sighed, then turned to look at Vader. “Are you alright?”

Vader lunged at her, grabbing her by the neck, and forcing her backwards against the wall. He started to choke her, to lift her up.

“Who are you!” Vader yelled.

Oh, great. I’m being throttled again, Sentinel thought. She used her powers to deflect his choking her, and to support her weight. She wrapped her hands over his arm. “I’m Sentinel! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I sensed you needed help, so I had to come back.”

Vader didn’t release her, but pushed his face forwards, as if he was trying to frighten her. “When did you learn how to use Force lightning?” he growled.

“I realized I had the ability once I got back on board the ship. The minute I got away from the Force nullifying creature -- we really need to give that thing a shorter name, by the way -- I realized my Force powers were greater than what they were before. And I figured I could use them to bluff the Emperor.”

Vader released her. “Are you insane? You could have escaped, free and clear! You should have let me handle this! You were supposed to let me handle this!” he bellowed at her.

“I sensed you needed my help! And I was right! If I hadn’t walked in just then, the Emperor would have decided that you were involved in my escaping from Hedra!” Sentinel turned away to stand behind the co-pilot’s chair, rubbing her neck. “You know, throttling me every time you get upset is getting really, really old!” she said, turning back to face him.

“You could have been free of his influence.” Vader rumbled. “Now you are recommitted to that warped old man.”

“I thought you wanted me to be a Sith Lord.” she said.

Vader turned away from her. “I’m not sure what I want.” he said.

“You want us to be together.” Sentinel walked up behind him, resting her hand on his back. The muscles there were incredibly tense. She gently rubbed his back.

“With the web of lies we have just spun, will we be able to?” he asked.

“Only in secret, but that was probably going to be the case, anyway. At least, I won’t have to be on the run, now, with us never being able to see each other.” Sentinel said.

Sentinel continued to rub his back.

“How did he track us here? I thought you removed the locator beacon?” she asked.

Vader turned back to her. “The Emperor obviously didn’t think our mission needed to be quite that stealthy.”

“Well, considering our idea of the mission and his idea were quite different...” Sentinel mused.

Vader grunted in agreement.

She turned and looked out the cockpit viewscreen. “Oh, frak. I need to tell Gilly and Mortis to get out of here. Just in case the Emperor is still planning something...”

“I loaned them a commlink.” Vader said, handing her his commlink, so she could communicate with them.

After a short exchange, she explained the situation to Gilly and Mortis. They were packing their things in their home. They were reluctant to leave without her, but she finally convinced them it was for the best. They said they would drop her things off at the ship in under 20 minutes... and give her a second chance to change her mind. They were almost ready to leave their home.

Sentinel switched off the commlink.

“I cannot believe we have truly gotten away with this.” Vader rumbled.

“Nor can I. I sense we’re not out of the woods yet. At least he no longer thinks you were involved in driving Hedra out.” Sentinel said.

“You need to get out of here. You’ve done what you could to protect me. When Gilly and Mortis return to drop off your stuff, you will leave with them!” Vader rumbled.

Sentinel glared at him. “We can make this work!” she said.

“No, we can’t! I sense that the Emperor is going to take revenge upon you. I was willing to kill you if Hedra retained control of your body. He’s willing to kill you now that Hedra has lost control.” Vader said.

Sentinel shook her head, holding her fingers to her temples, eyes closed, trying to think. The commlink Vader had handed her chirruped. She switched it on.

Mortis hissed urgently into the commlink: “Get out of there! There’s an Imperial shuttle coming in for a landing near your ship!”

Goto Chapter Twenty-Seven

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Chapter Twenty-Five

Sentinel woke up slowly, very groggily. She looked around her room blearily, trying to focus. Her throat was very sore, as if she’d been having a screaming match with someone. Her head hurt.

She lay there, and looked around her room. Some items appeared to be missing, but she wasn’t sure which items. She felt like she’d been sleeping for days again. She saw the I.V. taped to her left arm and groaned.

“I’m never letting a medical droid near me again...” she muttered.

She was dressed in her white robe, only. She was lying on top of her blankets. She looked down and realized, by parting her robe, that she was hooked up to collection bags.

“Oh, great.” she said. And proceeded to remove first her I.V., and then the other various items she was hooked up to. That done, she rose from bed, very unsteady on her feet, and looked in her cracked mirror.

She looked like hell.

She stumbled to the fresher and took some time in cleaning the filth from her body, and tried to remember what had happened.

Her last memory was of Vader killing that 3rd child. And her trying to kill him, slicing off his right hand. Then she was pretty sure she had passed out.

There were some other jumbled memories of... tormenting Vader. Something about holding his breathing hose hostage. She shuddered, wondering what the heck had happened.

She came out of the fresher, and dressed herself in pants and a tunic, both black. Then she put her hair up, and observed herself in her mirror.

She still looked like hell. Whatever had gone on had not been pleasant.

She looked back at her bed, and that’s when she noticed the manacles on each bedpost. Then she looked down and noticed the synth skin on her wrists.

No, not pleasant at all, she thought. Well, I’d better to find Vader. See if we’re still on speaking terms.

He had killed those children. She shuddered. But I still love him... I must be a monster. How can I love someone who killed children? she thought.

She opened her mind, trying to extend her senses, find out what Vader might be up to. She met a blank wall. Confused, she reached for a brush on her dresser. It did not come when called.

Ahah. We’ve one of those things on board, she thought. That’s... interesting.

She wobbled towards his quarters. She wasn’t hungry... she was more nauseated than hungry at that moment. When she got near his quarters, his door auto-opened and revealed Vader, deeply asleep.

She cautiously approached his sleeping form. Monster or not, this was the man she was hopelessly in love with. And he looked exhausted, as if his body was trying to catch up on days without sleep.

She sat down gently on the bed, leaned over, and kissed him on the mouth. Vader took some time to wake up. Then Vader responded, gently pulling her down over him, with his right hand on her back, and his left on her neck. She moved down to his neck to nuzzle and kiss him there, affectionately.

She suddenly found herself being pushed back from him, with his left hand solidly around her neck, cutting off her air.

Vader watched Hedra coldly. He was not going to throw her away from him this time, knowing she would just yank out his air supply once more. He realized the shamans had failed. Whether he liked it or not, it was time to snuff the life out of his lover’s body.

But Hedra was slapping at his left arm like it was a frightening annoyance, but still just an annoyance. She wasn’t clawing at his face, or pulling out his air hose... she wasn’t acting in ways he would expect Hedra to act.

Vader released her, unsure what was going on.

Sentinel got up from the bed, rubbing her throat, and coughing profusely, gasping for air. She regained her composure, catching her breath while leaning over the back of a chair. “I thought... we were past... the throttling stage! Teach me... to try to... wake you up... with a kiss!” Sentinel said.

Vader sat up in bed, and his expression softened. “Sentinel?” he asked.

“Yes?” Sentinel said, holding her fingers to her temples, which were throbbing.

“Sentinel??” he said, almost with a sob.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Sentinel asked, approaching him. Vader grabbed her, pulling her into a sitting position on his lap, holding her tightly to him, and sobbing into her neck.

Oh, crap. Something very bad has been going on, Sentinel thought.

“It’s ok, I’m here.” Sentinel said, holding him, and stroking the back of his head gently. “I’m here. Ssshhhh. I’m here, my Love. It’s ok.”

Vader held her, rocking slightly, eyes closed, face buried in her neck, unwilling to release her. They stayed that way for a while, with Sentinel talking gently to him, conflicted with the desire to calm him down and the desire to let him get all of this upset out of his system.

Vader calmed down finally, allowing her to shift position to sit on the bed beside him. With some embarrassment, he swiped at the tears on his face, then accepted a tissue Sentinel handed him.

“What happened?” she asked.

Vader shook his head, not willing to speak yet. He didn’t trust his voice.

“You’re really scaring me.” she said.

He chuckled. “Then we’re even.” he said.

The door to his quarters opened. Sentinel stood up suddenly, facing the door, not expecting anyone to be on the ship with them, and reached for her lightsaber. She didn’t find it, and remembered that she hadn’t been able to locate it in her quarters.

Gilly and Mortis walked in. Sentinel looked shocked, then elated.

“Gilly! Mortis!” she ran to them and hugged them both. “What are you two doing here?” Then she remembered that they were in Vader’s quarters, and looked somewhat confused, and a little embarrassed.

Gilly disentangled herself from Sentinel, to reach for Sentinel's face, holding her still, and search her eyes. Sentinel stood still for this, feeling a little like she was an expensive vase that was being examined for any defects.

“What are you doing?” Sentinel finally asked Gilly, her speech sounding a little funny with Gilly’s hands partially holding her head by squishing her cheeks.

Gilly seemed to like what she saw. She said, “Just checking...”, and then hugged Sentinel tightly, her eyes watering a little.

Sentinel hugged her back, looking up confusedly at a smiling Mortis. Gilly finally released Sentinel, and Sentinel stood back, looking at Gilly, Mortis, Vader (who was still sitting on the bed, and was putting his mask back on in a hurried fashion), and then back at Gilly and Mortis.

“What’s going on?” Sentinel asked.

Gilly and Mortis were watching Vader put his mask on, fascinated. But they looked strangely comfortable with his appearance, with his scarred face.

Vader, on the other hand, was definitely not comfortable having these people see him without his mask on.

“What’s going on?!?” Sentinel repeated. Gilly and Mortis turned to look at Sentinel.

Vader’s mask was in place once more. He rose, and walked up behind Sentinel. Sentinel turned to look up at him, questioningly.

“You were possessed.” Vader said simply.

“I was what?” Sentinel asked.

“You were possessed, Dear, by the spirit of a deceased Sith Lord. A Darth Hedra. She was quite nasty. Lord Vader subdued Hedra with the Force nullifying creature, then brought you to us, so we could expel her from your body.” Gilly explained.

Sentinel looked at Gilly, confused and alarmed. “How did Darth Hedra possess me?”

“The obelisk, in the temple on Latern, was the not-so-final resting place of a Darth Hedra. The Emperor arranged things such that you would be fully using the Dark Side of the Force, right when you would be close to the obelisk. He knew that you had a psychic weakness that his friend, Darth Hedra, could exploit right when the influence of the Dark Side was at it’s strongest.” Vader explained.

“Wait, the Emperor planned all along to have this Hedra person take over my body?” Sentinel asked.

“Yes. He and Hedra have a long standing arrangement. They agreed to help each other return from death. Apparently, Hedra would normally have had clones of her body ready for her, in the event of her death. But her clone supply was destroyed, and her own deceased body was cremated before any samples could be taken to make a new clone from.” Vader said. “When the Emperor found you, he realized that you could take the place of a clone for Darth Hedra.”

Sentinel walked towards a chair and slumped into it, trying to take in everything she was being told.

“Where is Darth Hedra now?” she asked.

“Gone, Dear. She can’t harm you ever again.” Gilly assured her.

Sentinel considered this. “She was gone once before. Why can’t she harm me now?” she asked.

“The Higher Power has banished her.” Mortis responded.

Sentinel thought some more. “So, I’m vulnerable to spirits of the dead when I’m using the Dark Side of the Force?”

Vader swallowed hard. He hadn’t thought of that possibility.

“If you are near the resting place of a strong Force user, yes. But only if it’s the resting place of a Dark Side user, and only if you are a good fit for that person. The users of the Light Side would not be interested in possessing you... they would not desire to do such a thing to a living person.” Mortis stated. He gave Vader a wary glance, and added, “But I would advise you to ensure you are no longer a walking target, by giving up the Dark Side altogether.”

Vader glanced sharply at Mortis, but held his tongue.

Sentinel sat staring at the floor. “The Emperor is expecting me to be Darth Hedra now... he’s not going to be happy when he finds out the possession didn’t take.”

“He thinks the possession did take. When I first discovered Hedra had possessed you, I didn’t know who else to turn to, so I spoke to the Emperor.” Vader said. “I... it didn’t occur to me that this was all part of his plan. I just knew something was drastically wrong with you, and I hoped he would have the answers.”

“You’ve risked the Emperor’s anger for me.” Sentinel stated, looking up at Vader, then at Gilly and Mortis. She sighed. “Was the Emperor expecting me to see him anytime soon?”

Vader looked at the clock on the wall. “Yes. Sometime yesterday.”

Sentinel stood in alarm, then had to grab the arm of the chair to steady herself.

“No... no... you’re in danger, Vader. He’s going to know you helped me!” she said. “All of you are in danger!” She looked at the 3 of them with grave concern.

Gilly walked up to Sentinel and made her sit back down. “Relax, child. Relax. The Emperor doesn’t know we were the ones to help you.” Gilly looked up at Vader. “This Hedra was dreadfully powerful. Perhaps we can fabricate something regarding her overpowering you, Lord Vader, and then escaping from you?”

Vader thought for a moment. “Hedra fully expected to be taken to see the Emperor. I can’t think of a reason that she would decide to instead run from him, or from me.”

“Oh, frak. Oh, frak.” Sentinel put her head in her hands, rocking.

“This is not your problem, Sentinel.” Vader said. “It’s mine. You, and possibly Gilly and Mortis, will need to go into hiding.”

Sentinel sat there thinking. “I need to talk to Lord Vader alone.” she finally said.

“Of course, Dear. We will just go wait in the spare quarters, where we were resting after the exorcism was finished.” Gilly said.

Vader glanced at them sharply. “You left Sasha alone?”

Mortis said “We couldn’t do anymore. Besides, Gilly put her manacles back on.”

“No I didn’t, Dear. I thought you had.” Gilly said.

Sasha looked up with some amusement.

“Why didn’t you wake me when you were done?” Vader asked, sharply.

“Well, we came in here, and saw you were sleeping so deeply. You were obviously exhausted. We thought it would be better to let you sleep.” Gilly explained.

Vader clenched his fists in frustration. He knew he should have stayed and watched over the proceedings! Hedra could have still been inside Sentinel, and wandered through the ship killing them all in their sleep. And then the realization that they had gotten a good look at him without his mask on... he had been so tired, he had neglected to lock the door to his quarters!

He stood there shaking his head, deciding that maybe this Higher Power had protected them from their collective stupidity.

“Gilly, Mortis, please leave. I will come find you when I’m done.” Sentinel said. “And thank you, for saving me.”

Gilly and Mortis started to leave, when Sentinel stopped them. “Wait, how are the others?” Sentinel asked.

“The others have fled the planet. They were afraid order 66 might include them. We fled, but not so far... just from the city to the cave.” Mortis said.

“Why didn’t you leave the planet too? Without anyone to train, what would keep you on this Force-forsaken planet?” Sentinel asked.

“You, Dear.” Gilly answered. “We felt we had to stay, that sometime in the near future, someone was going to need healing from us that medical droids could not provide. We felt that very strongly. And now that we have healed you, we know you were the one we were waiting for.” Gilly smiled. “And now, we will give you two some time alone.”

Mortis and Gilly both left Vader’s quarters, the door auto-closing behind them.

Vader moved towards Sentinel, wanting badly to hold her again. She held up her hand.

“No, I need some questions answered.” Sentinel said.

Vader paused, uncertain where this was going. He was still very tired. “What questions?”

“Please, Lord Vader, sit down.” Sentinel gestured towards the bed. Vader sat, and was sad to see Sentinel remained in her chair... that she did not join him to sit beside him.

“Some things the Jedi said... the ones in the ancient sun-worshipers temple... are bothering me.” she explained.

Vader didn’t like where this was going. He sighed inwardly, then said “Go ahead.”

“The Jedi said that the Emperor engineered the war with the Separatists. That he was controlling both sides in order to give himself more power in the Senate. Is this true?” she asked.

Vader considered it for a moment. When he had first started working with the Emperor, he had chosen to believe that the man had indeed been betrayed by the Jedi, and was indeed merely trying to maintain rule for the good of the Empire. Vader still intended to overthrow the Emperor, as he was sure he could do a better job, and as the ember of his lust for power had become a raging inferno once the Dark Side had settled in.

But had the Emperor actually engineered the entire Separatist/Clone war? At this point, he wouldn’t put it past the Emperor. But he honestly didn’t know.

“I don’t know.” Vader answered, honestly. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if he had engineered the entire war. It would explain where the clone army came from, why it was ready ahead of time. He needed an enemy, to give him a reason to stay in office and request an army be created, and then he needed an army ready for him to claim as his own. It very quickly gave him absolute power.”

Sentinel considered his answer for a moment. “Were the Jedi in fact really trying to take over the Empire, or were they merely trying to depose an evil leader?” she asked.

“The Jedi betrayed me!” Vader growled.

“How so?” Sentinel asked.

Vader rose, fuming, starting to pace. He didn’t like being put on the spot, having questions asked of him that so closely circled his own motivations for joining the Dark Side and becoming loyal to a Sith Lord. Well, somewhat loyal.

“What was the Jedi’s true intent?” Sentinel asked.

“Their true intent doesn’t matter! What matters is that they were willing to kill the Emperor without so much as a trial. This alone made them suspect.” Vader snarled.

“How did they betray you?” she asked.

“They wouldn’t give me the honor I deserved! And they were going to kill the one person who could help me save the one I loved.” Vader said.

“You were a Jedi before you became Sith?” she asked.

“Yes!” Vader roared, still pacing. He stopped, turned to face her, and growled “I was the greatest Jedi ever known! And they never trusted me, wouldn’t help me increase my skills! The Emperor was willing to help me with that.”

“You were Anakin Skywalker!” Sentinel exclaimed.

“Yes! But not anymore. Don’t use that name in front of me again!” Vader hissed, shaking his fist at her.

Sentinel stared down at the floor, processing everything. “Who was the one you loved?” she finally asked.

“My wife. Padme.” Vader said, calming down at the thought of her. Of his angel.

Sentinel was stunned. “You were married? I thought the Jedi...”

“We were married in secret.” Vader said.

Sentinel skipped ahead in her thoughts. “The Jedi said you killed younglings from the Jedi Temple.”

“I had no choice! They would have been a threat to the Emperor. And it was the Emperor’s first task for me, to make me strong enough to save Padme.” Vader rumbled.

“What was wrong with Padme?” Sentinel asked.

“I had visions that she would die in childbirth.” Vader sat down heavily on the bed, staring at the wall. “Prior to that, I had visions of my Mother dying, and I didn’t react to those visions in time. By the time I went to my Mother, I was just in time to have her die in my arms.” Vader clenched his fists. “I would not allow that to happen again, I would be strong enough to save those I loved.”

“But... you said you killed your wife?” Sentinel said.

Vader turned sharply at Sentinel’s words. “YES!” He snarled. “Yes, I killed her. Obi-Wan, my old Master, turned her against me. I... I grew angry at her, and ... and...” Vader stared down at the floor.

Sentinel only wanted to go over to him then, hold him, and end these torturous questions. But she had to find out everything.

“Why did you have to kill the younglings we found?” she asked.

“They would have become a threat to the Empire.” Vader didn’t look up as he spoke, but continued to stare down at the floor.

“They could have possibly been rehabilitated.” Sentinel said.

“Do you think the Emperor would have allowed that?” Vader asked.

Sentinel almost smiled. “No, I don’t think so.”

“It is never wise to disobey your Sith Master... not until it is time to overthrow him, that is.” Vader rumbled softly.

Sentinel licked her lips, pulled her legs up under her, so her knees where just under her chin, hugging her legs to herself.

“I almost killed you. I remember chopping off your hand.” she said.

“But you didn’t kill me. You held yourself back.” Vader said, suddenly concerned that she might be feeling guilt for her actions. He held up his right hand “See, it’s as good as new.”

Tears started to stream down her face. He was such an angry, dark person, yet he was worried about her feelings, worried she would feel guilty for trying to kill him!

“I did terrible things to you... while I was Darth Hedra...” she stated.

Vader sat there, unwilling to respond.

“I did terrible things to you. I know I did. I can see myself... holding on to your breathing hose and laughing at you, while you lay there, helpless.” Sentinel shuddered. “I see myself toying with you... you actually cowering before me.” She hugged herself tighter, but the memories continued to flood in.

“You remember?” Vader asked. He was suddenly very glad he had been cautious, that he had treated Hedra as kindly as possible when he’d had to subdue her.

“I remember.” Sentinel responded. “She and the Emperor have the secrets to eternal life... of a sort. They know how to take over the bodies of their clones.”

“What else do you remember?” Vader asked.

“I can’t remember anything about Hedra prior to her taking over my body. But I remember what she thought, what she herself remembered at the time, and what she said and did to you.” Sentinel pushed her face into her knees, hiding, and started to rock herself.

Vader stood up, went to Sentinel, getting down on one knee in front of her, placing his left hand on her hands that were wrapped around her legs.

“You should have taken her offer.” Sentinel said, her face still hidden. “She was serious about making you her apprentice, about teaching you how to move to a new body. About keeping the Emperor from having you killed when you were replaced. You could eventually have escaped your body. It would have been as if you’d never lost a single limb, never been burnt.”

“There are some things even I... am unwilling to do.” Vader rumbled softly. “Profiting from your suffering was one of them.”

Sentinel lifted her head from her knees, tears streaming down her face.

“Don’t cry, my Love.” Vader said. “You’re safe. I didn’t let Hedra get away with her plans. And I won’t let the Emperor harm you.”

“I’m not worried about myself. I hate what I did to you.” she said.

“You couldn’t help it. Hedra was in control.” Vader said, taking one of her hands and squeezing it.

“No, no... in the temple... I almost killed you. I wanted to kill you. I... the Dark Side was so strong, so intoxicating.” Sentinel shuddered.

“You held fast to our promise. You were strong enough.” Vader said.

“Why did you save me? After I tried to kill you? After I turned on you?” Sentinel looked up at him, eyes red with tears.

“Because you didn’t kill me. You fought off the Dark Side, you fought off the temptation. I know what that’s like. Only moments before you tried to kill me, I almost killed you, after all.” Vader said, himself shuddering as he remembered being ready to lop Sentinel’s head off when she had been protecting the youngling with her body.

The past events were hitting Sentinel all at once, exacting their emotional toll. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Vader himself was fighting back tears, hidden behind his mask.

We’re quite the pair of Sith Lords, he thought.

Sentinel tried several times to stave off the tears and shuddering sobs. After about a few minutes, she succeeded.

“Told you I would make a terrible Sith. How many Sith Lords have emotional breakdowns?” she said, chuckling and sobbing.

Vader raised his hand.

Sentinel laughed. She looked at him, smiling. “So, you were Anakin Skywalker.”

Vader rose and turned away. “Do not remind me of that name.” he growled.

“I merely speak of it because I find it ironic.” she said.

“You find this amusing, do you?” Vader growled.

“No, no. You misunderstand. I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you on the holonet, as Anakin. It seemed a stupid, childish crush at the time, but I knew it was something different. Then when Anakin disappeared, and Vader appeared, it was like I was falling in love all over again, except somehow it felt like I was still in love with the same person. I couldn’t figure it out. My brother thought I was just being a fickle female, but there was something about you...” Sentinel said.

“You knew all along who I was...” Vader said, incredulous.

“Well, my heart did. My head has been playing catch-up the entire time, since it didn’t make sense to me how you two could be the same person.” Sentinel said.

“You fell in love with someone you had never met.” Vader said.

“I know, it sounds really stupid.” Sentinel said.

Vader thought of when he was 9, and fell in love with a 14 year old Queen.

“Not that stupid.” Vader said.

Sentinel sat there, thinking hard. “We need to run. To hide from the Emperor. You and me. I can keep you hidden, I can get you help so you can change your appearance.” she said.

“You would be able to hide much more easily without me.” he rumbled.

“I don’t want to leave you.” she whispered.

Vader returned to her, kneeling on one knee, and held her.

“If I am to keep you safe, I may have to do the one thing that I’ve never learned how to do.” he said, softly, holding her gently.

She leaned her forehead against his chest armor. “What is that?” she asked.

“Let go of someone I love.” Vader said.

Goto Chapter Twenty-Six

Monday, July 03, 2006

Chapter Twenty-Four

The hovercraft traveled through the foothills, approaching a huge cave opening. It had to be a good 20 meters in height, almost 100 meters wide, a yawning mouth in the side of the mountain. Vader brought the craft into the mouth of the cave. He had travelled a full kilometer from the ship, and was grateful to sense that his Force powers had returned. Suddenly, the terrain was no longer dark, but was rife with meaning.

And the ‘meaning’ he sensed coming from the cave was in the form of 2 life-forms, both sentient, and both Force sensitive.

He stopped about 30 meters inside the mouth of the cave, and powered the hovercraft down. He exited the hovercraft, reaching in for a lamp. Once switched on, he saw the small metal building to his left. It was about 4 meters tall, and 30 meters on a side, with no windows.

He walked around to the back of the building, further inside the cave. There he found a door, and a window. There was a light on somewhere inside the building. He could see no movement inside, but then it was very late in the night here. Surely the occupants were fast asleep.

There was no comm button. There was a doorknob. He was loathe to simply break in -- he needed to possibly win these people’s trust. That will be some trick, he thought. No matter, he must try to get these people’s sympathy and assistance willingly, before he gave in to using force. As it was, he was so exhausted he wasn’t sure he was up to using force.

Diplomacy was not his strong suit, even when he was a Jedi. But exhaustion was about to force him to depend upon that route.

He sighed inaudibly from inside his mask, and knocked on the front door.

He heard someone talking inside, walking towards the door. Then the door opened, and an old man in robes was staring up at him, groggily. As the man registered who was standing in front of him, his eyes went wide.

“Gilly, I think we’re under arrest!” He called to an old woman behind him, also wearing robes, who was stumbling into the room behind the old man, probably coming from their bedroom.

“Mortis, what did you say?” the woman walked over, appraised the situation, eyes wide with surprise when she saw who their visitor was.

Vader decided it would be best to cut to the chase. “Are you two the shamans?”

“No... m’Lord... they’ve all left. Order 66 scared them off.” Mortis said.

Vader couldn’t tell if the man was lying or not. He was too tired. But he knew Mortis was Force sensitive.

“Please... I need to find them.” Vader said.

Gilly face changed from being slightly fearful, to suddenly filled with compassion.

“Won’t you please come in and sit down?” she asked Vader.

Mortis looked questioningly at Gilly, but moved out of the way so Vader could come in. Gilly guided Vader over to the kitchen table and sat him down in one of the kitchen chairs. Mortis looked cautiously out the still open door, and once he realized there were no stormtroopers outside, he closed the door.

Mortis walked over, cautiously. His wife, Gilly, had an uncanny ability to read people... but her sudden friendliness with the Dark Lord was unnerving.

Gilly dragged a chair over so she could better face Vader, and sat down in it. “What is it that you need?” She asked.

“I need the shamans to help a friend of mine.” Vader said, uncertain how much he should tell them.

“You’re not here for help... you just want to arrest or kill any Force users you find.” Mortis said.

Gilly seemed not to hear her husband. “What is wrong with your friend?”

Vader turned to Mortis. “I am not here to arrest or kill you or the shamans.” He turned back to Gilly. “It’s a long story, one that I would rather tell the shamans in private.”

Gilly said “We’re the shamans. We’re all that’s left of them. The rest fled the planet when the order to kill all Jedi came down. They felt that they would be grouped together with the Jedi, and decided it was time to make themselves scarce. We fled the city and decided to live in the cave we had been using to train our members.”

Mortis gave Gilly an angry stare. Next she would be telling him where all the other members had fled to, and what their names were.

Vader stared at Gilly, rather astonished at her honesty. “You are taking a big risk telling me all this.” Vader said.

“You’re going to have to trust us if we are to help you. Now, tell us what is wrong with your friend.” Gilly answered.

Vader looked at her, then at Mortis, who was obviously having a hard time watching Gilly be so cooperative with the Sith Lord.

Vader couldn’t help his curiosity. “Why are you even willing to help me?” he asked.

Mortis said, “I’m not sure I’m willing to help you. My wife is willing to help you because she is compassion personified, and can tell you are... in great distress.”

Gilly said, “I can tell that you mean us no harm, and that you have a request that we will be willing to fulfill.”

“You do not even know what I am going to ask of you.” Vader said.

“I don’t need to.” Gilly said. “Now what does your friend need from us? And who is your friend?”

“My friend is someone you may remember. Her name is Sasha Yod.” Vader said.

“Of course I remember her! What’s happened to the girl?” Gilly asked, concern written all over her face.

“She has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Sith Lord.” Vader explained.

“What?” Mortis exclaimed.

Gilly shook her head.

“She was using the Dark Side, allowing it to fully take over. The Sith Lord, Darth Hedra, was entombed in an obelisk near to Sentinel... to Sasha... when Sasha allowed the Dark Side fully in. Something about Sasha made her vulnerable to Hedra taking over her body.” Vader said. He found himself leaning on the table in front of him. He was starting to feel nauseated from lack of rest.

Mortis moved to stand behind Gilly, his hands on her shoulders.

“You aren’t telling us everything.” Mortis said.

“The Emperor intended for this to happen. He selected Sasha for training in the Dark Side because he knew she would be an appropriate vessel for Darth Hedra.” Vader said.

Mortis stared at Vader in confusion. “Why would you choose to stand in the way of the Emperor’s plans?”

Vader remained silent.

Gilly read Vader’s emotions. “Oh...” she said. “You’re in love with her.”

Mortis’s head snapped down to look at his wife, incredulously.

Vader hated being read this easily. He merely nodded slightly in acknowledgment.

Gilly looked up at her husband. “Sasha could charm a deranged Wookie strung out on death sticks.”

Gilly turned back to Vader. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that in an insulting fashion. I just wouldn’t have thought...”

“That I could feel love for anyone?” Vader remarked, dryly.

“Well...” Gilly sighed.

“Will you help Sasha?” Vader said.

Gilly looked back up at her husband.

“What will happen to Sasha after we’ve helped her?” Mortis asked.

“What do you mean?” Vader said.

“Will the Emperor come after her? Was she fully committed to the Dark Side? If not, would you force her to go back to the Dark Side?” Mortis elaborated.

“The Emperor will not be pleased. He will hunt for her. I will make sure he cannot find her. As to the rest... that is up to her.” Vader rumbled.

“You will protect her from the Emperor... even if she should completely reject the Dark Side, and then join the remaining Jedi?” Mortis asked.

Vader sat silently, considering. “I will not allow the Emperor to harm her.” he finally said.

“I find that hard to believe.” Mortis said.

“I don’t.” Gilly said, looking up at her husband.

After a moment’s thought, Mortis asked, “Do we have your word that you will do nothing to harm Sasha, should she leave the Dark Side?”

“You have my word.” Vader solemnly said.

Gilly stood up. “Take us to her.”

Vader led the shamans to the hovercraft. They rode the short distance to the ship, while Vader explained that Sentinel was currently sedated, and that he had the Force nullifying creature on board to ensure she would be easy to handle. To his surprise, the shamans told him they would not need the creature removed... they would be able to drive Hedra out with the creature still present.

“You see, we can’t drive Hedra out with our Force abilities. We will instead be asking for help from a Higher Power, the one from which the good side of the Force itself emanates, to intervene on Sasha’s behalf.” Mortis explained.

“A Higher Power?” Vader asked.

“Yes.” Gilly said, without giving any further explanation.

“But... won’t the Force nullification also affect this... Higher Power’s Force abilities?” Vader asked, his exhaustion only amplifying his confusion.

“The Force nullification only disables the living’s connection to their Force abilities. It’s not going to nullify the Higher Power’s access to it’s own abilities!” Gilly further explained.

Vader suddenly felt very unsure of these two people. All this talk of a Higher Power, something above the Force, that actually emanated the Force itself? But then, it made him think of how Sentinel had personified the Force. Maybe she had been hearing this ‘Higher Power’ all along.

Nevertheless, their explanations that they wouldn’t even need the Force for their task did not make him feel comfortable. But he didn’t think he had any choice now in turning back. Anyway, this would either work, or he would try something else.

Another thought occurred to him: these two could merely be getting him back to his ship, to the source of the Force nullification, in order to overpower him and take him hostage... or kill him. He wished he had thought of that ahead of time, and had taken some kind of precaution.

All he wanted to do at this point was to sleep. Maybe they would wait until he was deep asleep before they took his life, he thought resignedly.

“You act as if you have heard of these Force nullifying creatures before”, Vader said.

“We have heard of such creatures existing, but not what they are called, or what they look like.” Mortis said.

The ship came into view from behind a small hill. Vader activated the ramp using the remote control, and coasted the hovercraft up into the ship. Once inside, he led the shamans to Sentinel’s quarters, unconsciously keeping a hand on his lightsaber the entire way.

Gilly went to Sentinel's bedside and immediately bent over Sentinel, putting her hand onto Sentinel’s forehead in a motherly fashion. She sighed and said “Sasha, sweetie, it’s ok. It’s Gilly and Mortis. Your friend brought us here to help you.”

Mortis stood behind Gilly, and took Sentinel’s hand, squeezing it. “What have you gotten yourself into this time, child?” Mortis said.

Gilly turned to look back at Vader. “Lord Vader, it would probably be best if you allow us to work alone, undisturbed. This is not going to be an easy task, and will take some time.” Gilly walked over to Vader, gently ushering him out of the room.

“I would prefer to stay and watch.” Vader rumbled. He still wasn't sure these two were really on Sentinel's side.

“Believe me”, Gilly said earnestly. “You don’t want to see any of this. Possession is a terrible condition. You haven’t seen what it’s like when a possessed person has an evil spirit forced out. The evil spirit does not go quietly.”

“I’m not sure I should trust you.” Vader admitted.

Gilly looked up at him. “I’m not sure I should trust you, either. Not without my senses dampened like they are here. But I know what I felt back in our home. You love her. Maybe you were too tired to sense how Mortis and I feel, but we also love the girl. We won’t do anything to harm her. We will do our very best to free her from this Hedra person.”

Vader considered this. “Thank you for...” he said.

“You don’t need to thank us. She is like a daughter to us.” Gilly said.

Vader had a horrible thought. “If the Emperor finds out you had a hand in helping dispose of Hedra...”

“I’m sure you will do everything in your power to keep our involvement a secret?” Gilly suggested.

“Of course. I will do whatever I can. But I may not be in the Emperor’s good graces when this is all through.” Vader said.

“You’re risking alot, aren’t you? Your authority, your power, your very freedom...” Gilly said.

Vader stood there, leaning against the wall, the exhaustion competing with his desire to ensure Sentinel’s safety.

He found himself being led, then, by Gilly, to his quarters. He couldn’t remember telling her where his quarters were. She left him sitting on his bed, after unsuccessfully trying to get him to lie down. Once she had left his room, he reached for the breathing hose, installed it, and removed his mask. He lay down, practically falling backwards onto the bed, and promptly passed out.

Goto Chapter Twenty-Five

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Chapter Twenty-Three

“Lord Sentinel is sedated. She will cause you no... difficulty.” Vader said to the droids, once he entered the medcenter.

The droids took the hint and wheeled off, carting equipment and supplies to Sentinel’s quarters.

Vader followed them, watched them work.

The droids finished with Hedra/Sentinel. One of them wheeled up to Vader.

“She should no longer need the restraints, Sir. She will be asleep for at least 40 hours. We will need access to her quarters periodically to see to her needs.” the droid said.

“I will remove her restraints. You have my permission to enter her quarters whenever her needs require it. Have you setup monitors to watch her vital signs?” Vader said.

“Yes, Sir. We will know if she needs us.”

“Then leave us until you are needed once more.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The droids all wheeled out single file. The door auto-closed behind them.

Vader watched them, then turned to look back at Hedra/Sentinel.

Her sleeping form hid the struggling spirit inside her. Or hopefully the struggling spirits. Asleep, she looked like the Sentinel Vader knew.

Vader leaned over her legs, and unlocked the manacles around each ankle. Then he unlocked each wrist, and gently laid her arms at her sides, careful of the IV in her left arm. He pulled a chair over and sat beside her, looking down at her.

“Sentinel... I don’t know if you are still... here.” Vader paused. “I don’t know if you can hear me.”

He leaned in closer, reached over and held her right hand. He felt helpless, and he hated that.

“I will not lose you. But... but if I have to... lose you... I will make sure Hedra loses, too. I will not let her...” Vader stopped, unable to continue. He thought, for a moment, that he felt her squeeze his hand. But who was it, causing her hand to squeeze his?

He sat there, for a long time, just holding her hand. Wondering how he could find someone, 5 years after he had lost everything. And then end up losing that someone... again.

Everything he had done, to keep from losing Padme. And losing her because of it.

His life seemed to be a series of losses.

But he was sure, this time, that he would be able to keep from losing Sentinel. He would make the shamans save her. Or he would somehow even drive Hedra out himself, if it became necessary. Even if it meant he went on the run, and ended up hunting down Dark Side Sith secrets in order to do it.

He sighed. He hoped it didn’t come down to that. Disguising himself for a few missions was one thing; trying to hide while everyone in the galaxy was hunting him down was quite another.

He thought about the past 2 weeks. 2 weeks! It had only been 2 weeks since they had met, if even that. And now she was part of his life, an intrinsic part. But so many events in the past 2 weeks had conspired to take her from him.

He felt confused. How had he become so enamored of Sentinel, so quickly? He was a slow learner, but a fast lover, apparently. It had been that way with Padme. He had fallen in love with her at first sight, at the age of nine! Of course, he couldn’t do anything about it for 10 years.

He groaned at how inexperienced he had been with Padme. His overtures of love to her sounded so awkward to him now. But then, since the Jedi discouraged attachments, he hadn’t exactly had an opportunity to date during his training!

Not that he would have dated anyone... his heart had already chosen, back in Wattoo’s shop. When his 'angel' had walked in.

And now, it appeared his heart had chosen once more.

Why did he have to lose the women he chose?

No, that’s not going to happen with Sentinel. I'm not going to lose her. Vader thought.

Vader berated himself for constantly whining over his losses. This was a sign of weakness, and the Emperor had been quite clear on teaching Vader what self destructive traits Vader had to quell within himself.

Then again, Vader was of the mind right now to toss lessons the Emperor had taught him right out the window. Granted, some of the advice might have actually been good, but right now, anything the old wrinkled untrustworthy prune had said was as good as bantha fodder as far as Vader was concerned.

Vader left Sentinel’s quarters, needing to move around. He didn’t want to leave her side, but he felt so helpless watching her. He needed to think. No, really he needed not to think, but to sleep. He went back to his own quarters, removed his mask, hooked up his air supply, and lay down.

And stared at the ceiling.

He couldn’t help but worry about what his next move should be. Vader had never been very good at waiting. He wanted to meditate, to extend his senses out and search for the solution. But he was completely without access to the Force, to his powers, and this only made him feel more helpless.

After about an hour of staring at the ceiling, unable to ignore his wandering mind any further, Vader left his quarters, and went to the main cargo hold.

He spent several hours tinkering with his new fighter.

Then several more hours in the cockpit, looking up any further information that might tell him the most likely location of the shaman's cave in the mountains to the east of Yuthrub.

There was very little information. He sighed in frustration.

He went back to Sentinel’s quarters, feeling very strung out. He had gone without sleep for days at a time on very important missions. But this was somehow very different. Perhaps the fact that he couldn’t lean on the Force at all for an extra infusion of energy was what was causing him this extra exhaustion?

Sentinel/Hedra was still very much asleep. Droids were rolling away from her body, having changed out various bags of I.V. fluids, and otherwise attending to her.

One stopped in front of him to report. “She is doing well under sedation, Lord Vader. She will wake up with some muscular atrophy, but nothing she won’t be able to rebuild fairly quickly. Is her timetable for being allowed to awaken unchanged?”

“For now.”

“Do you need our assistance at this moment?” the droid asked.

“No, you may leave. Good work.” Vader said.

“Thank you, Sir.” the droid responded, then wheeled off after it’s companions.

Vader sat down next to Sentinel. He felt like he was going to collapse.

“Soon, my Love. This will all be over soon.” he said to Sentinel, holding her hand and gently wiping some stray hairs out of her face.

Sentinel/Hedra moaned softly, a little frown crossing her brow, then became quiet.

Vader leaned back in his chair. Suddenly a beeping alerted him that it was time to bring the ship out of lightspeed. He looked up at the clock, sure that he’d had at least 2 more hours. He’d fallen asleep! 2 hours had come and gone.

Vader rushed to the cockpit, and brought the ship out of lightspeed. To be absolutely correct, he adjusted the controls such that the navputer would bring the ship out of lightspeed at the exact second necessary. He no longer had the necessary skill to manipulate the ship with that amount of accuracy.

The planet, Sevast, hung in orbit directly in front of the ship. It was an unremarkable dark brown on the side that was facing the sun. On the opposite side, it appeared black. The computer scanned the planet, and indicated that the city he was searching for was somewhere on the night-side.

He swung the ship around, scanning the terrain until the computer matched up it’s internal map perfectly and was able to pinpoint the city. He wouldn’t have been able to locate it by just visually searching... there was a smokey cloud cover that obscured everything about the planet’s surface. A sickly haze that made one think that the planet itself was deathly ill.

He brought the ship into the atmosphere, and was then able to see the lights of the city of Yuthrub. It was lit up, but just barely. It was as if these people didn’t care for their city to be easily located in the dark. As if they were in hiding.

He brought the ship down low, coasting among the foothills of the mountains east of the city, scanning for any caves. The mining facility was southeast of the city, but was dark except for a few lights on some structures. The scanners located a few caves, but nothing suggestive of a cave large enough to be used for training.

Then he found it. It was huge. He could actually land the ship inside it if he wished.

He chose instead to land the ship about a kilometer north of it. He wasn’t sure what the range of the Force nullifying creature was, and he wanted all his abilities available to him when he went in to speak with the shamans. Once the ship touched down, he checked on Sentinel one last time, then went to the main cargo hold and powered up the rental hovercraft.

He had to open the cargo hold using a remote control. He placed it on his belt, and used it to close the cargo hold once he had cleared the ramp.

The computer had summarized the weather of the planet for him. The air was full of contaminates. The oxygen levels were sufficient for life, but otherwise, it was dusty, dirty, and cold. When the sun came up in a few hours, it wouldn’t be that much lighter, thanks to the perpetual cloud of darkness that hung around the planet. The cloud contained particulate matter, radioactive elements, and gases that were very unhealthy. The only reason the air in this area was breathable was because there was an atmospheric processing plant just north of the city. And the only reason anyone lived here on this Force-forsaken place was because of the valuable minerals under the ground.

The history of the planet showed that it had once been teeming with life. But the sentient beings on the planet had been warlike, and had unleashed a nuclear holocaust on their own world.

This is where Sentinel grew up... this is what she lived with every day of her life, Vader thought. He had thought his home world was lacking.

He directed the hovercraft to the mountains, hoping the answer to his and Sentinel’s problems lay ahead of him.

Goto Chapter Twenty-Four