Authors: Michael Reaves
Time resumed normal speed. Several people who had never seen the demonstration gasped or swore.
Sergeant Stihl had two thin red lines across his neck, one on each side, another across his throat, and a little red dot under his rib cage just below his heart.
After the sounds of amazement had died down, Stihl said, “You see?” He turned to Ratua. “How much fight training you have, Ratua?”
“Counting today?” He grinned. “Uh, that would be … none.”
Stihl pointed at the slashes and stab marks. “Any of these would have been enough to kill me. Green-Eyes here has no training. I’m an expert, but if that knife had been real, I’d be fertilizing the plants—if somebody bothered to bury me. Yeah, he’s fast, freaky fast, but that’s the point: you never know who or what you’re going to be up against, especially here on Despayre. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Thanks, Ratua.”
Ratua nodded and moved out of the circle. These occasional little demonstrations were another reason he managed to stay alive. Predators preferred helpless victims, and
while Ratua wasn’t a fighter—the sight of blood, even if it wasn’t green, made him ill—there were a lot slower folks to prey upon. Why risk your neck if you didn’t have to?
Stihl would go on to talk about position and preemptive strikes and such, but Ratua had heard it all before. He was more interested in finding a sunfruit, and after his moment in the spotlight, that would probably be easier. Everybody loved a star.
Most days, Sergeant Nova Stihl felt as if he was part of the solution and not part of the problem. Being a guard on a prison planet was, at best, not a particularly glamorous duty. In fact, even at its best, you could carbon-freeze it and it would still stink to high orbit. He’d much rather be out in the thick of things, fighting Rebels on a real field of battle, using his hard-earned skills where they’d matter the most. But somebody had to be here, and he was philosophical enough to shrug off the fact that he’d been one of those so assigned. He’d learned a long time ago to make the best of the situation. That was all you could do if you were a trooper in the Imperial Army.
He remembered a quote from the Mrlssi philosopher Jhaveek: “I know myself to be only as I appear to myself.” It was a deceptively complex concept, couched in simple words. Nova smiled slightly as he thought of the probable reaction his fellow soldiers would have if they knew that the holos hidden beneath his bunk were not racy images of Twi’lek dancing girls, but rather dissertations on various schools of metaphysical thought detailed by the galaxy’s finest philosophers. Not that he had anything against Twi’lek dancing girls. But his studies, over the last few years of his post here, had kept him sane—of that he was convinced.
Most of the prisoners were indeed the dregs of the galaxy—bad beings who had broken major laws and who deserved to be put away for life, if not jettisoned from the
back of a Star Destroyer along with the rest of the garbage. A few had been collected and shipped here by bad luck or accident, though he knew that most of those weren’t exactly pillars of society, either. Ratua was a good example of this, although Nova owed him big-time for getting him the holos with only an eyebrow raised in reaction. But the vegetable man was an exception. If you checked the data on the majority, you’d probably find that most of them had gotten away with some full-out evil hurt aimed at the rest of whatever world they came from, so you didn’t feel too bad about them being here. There weren’t too many of the truly innocent who wound up on Despayre, though he knew of a few; political prisoners, most of them. Backed the wrong candidate, spoke up at the wrong time, didn’t toe the party line. Nova felt some sympathy for those, though given how the galaxy was these days, probably more sympathy than they deserved. If you’re dumb enough to stand in front of a riot trooper and make an obscene gesture at him, you ought not to be surprised if he shoots you. Troopers were people, they had feelings, and on a bad day dancing in front of one and calling him names could be a very bad idea.
It was the same thing with politics. Anybody with more than vestigial sensory organs could tell which way the Imperial wind was blowing, and there was a war on, even though it hadn’t been officially named as such. Free speech sometimes had to be tempered for the good of society, and what would have been a spirited discussion back when the Republic was in full flower was often now considered treason. That bothered him some. Maybe not as much as it should’ve, but some.
Nova sighed. Despite his fascination with the conundrums posed by some of the galaxy’s foremost scholars, he didn’t consider himself a particularly deep thinker—he just did what he was told, which mostly consisted of keeping prisoners in line and trying to avoid situations in which he
had to shoot them. Teaching self-defense classes he did on his own time; it helped some of the weaker inmates, maybe gave them a chance against the real predators here. At any rate, it made him feel better about himself. He liked a level playing field, and while his “classes” weren’t going to accomplish that, they did smooth out a bump in the terrain here and there. Now and again he’d hear a story about how someone from his classes used what he taught to avoid being maimed or killed, and that made him feel good. He was pretty careful screening his would-be prisoner students. Yes, they were all crooked as sand snakes, but he tried to keep out the ones who were aggressive—the ones who’d take what he taught them and use it for something other than self-defense. He had a lot of smaller beings as students, weaker ones, and those convicted of crimes that were about money rather than violence. He absolutely did not want to make a stone killer better at killing. More than enough of that went on in the galaxy already, much of it right here on Despayre.
His comlink chirped on his belt, signaling the morning recall. Time to wrap up the class and get back to the guard station, check in, get his next assignment. Some of the other guards thought he was foolish for mingling with the prisoners—you didn’t get to carry a blaster or even a shock baton unless you went out in a quad or a platoon-sized group, for fear that the prisoners would attack you and take your weapon. But Nova wasn’t concerned about that. The really bad actors here knew enough not to mess with him bare-handed, and if they pulled a beam or projectile weapon and took him out, they knew the chances were excellent they’d be dead before the next sunrise. Guard troops took care of their own, and if you attacked one, you attacked them all. They were protective of one another, but there were limits observed for the greater good. If you took a guard hostage and tried to use him or her or it for leverage, it got you and the guard and anybody within a hundred
meters turned into a smoking crater. No negotiation, no compromise, just a big, sleek thermal bomb arcing out of the compound and onto your position. You couldn’t hide, because the bomb zeroed in on the guard’s implant, which couldn’t be turned off or destroyed unless you knew exactly where it was, and that location was different for every guard on the planet. You’d have to completely skin the guard alive before finding it, and, while that wasn’t a deal breaker for a lot of the planetary inmates—more, in fact, like a bonus for some of them—the catch was that even if you killed the guard, the implant kept working and reported its wearer dead. Which meant the bomb was on its way, and not even a fleetabeesta with its tails on fire could get out of range in time.
This was a big planet, but not so big that they couldn’t find you. Knowing this tended to keep a lot of the more violent prisoners in line. Because of all this, not to mention his own considerable skills, Sergeant Nova Stihl wasn’t worried about going among the scum. Tough beings recognized each other, and nobody looked at him and saw an easy target.
And besides all that, he had Blink.
The comlink chirped again. “Stihl?” came the lieutenant’s voice from it.
“You going to play pattycake with those slime beetles all day or are you coming in?”
“On my way, Loot.”
arth Vader stood on the bridge of his warship, staring out through the forward viewport at the kaleidoscopic chaos of hyperspace. The effect, even moving at the relatively stately speed of a Star Destroyer, was akin to tumbling down an endless tunnel of amorphous, whirling patterns of light—starlight and nebulae smeared into impressionistic blotches by the ship’s superluminal speed. He knew that even experienced spacers and navy personnel often hesitated to look out at it. Standard operating procedure was to keep the thick slabs of transparisteel opaqued while traveling through the higher-dimensional universe. There was something profoundly
about hyperspace, composed as it was of more than the three spatial and one temporal dimensions that most sentient species were used to. Looking too long into hyperspace promised madness, so the stories went. He had never heard of anyone actually succumbing to “hyper-rapture,” as it was called. Nevertheless, the legends persisted.
Vader enjoyed staring into it.
He had, of late, become aware of the sound of his breathing, the rhythmic and even pulses of the suit’s respirator. The mechanical device that helped keep him alive was most efficient, and he usually tuned it out. Now and again, however, usually during quiet or contemplative moments,
it would intrude, reminding him that it was the will of his Master that he had become what he had become. In many ways, so much less than he had been before.
And in other ways, so much more …
The creation and construction of the suit had been perforce hasty, since the maimed and burned thing that had been Anakin Skywalker was dying, and would not have survived for long even in a bacta tank. There had been no time to tailor all the life-support systems specifically to his needs. Many of the suit’s features were adapted from earlier technology, such as had been designed for the cyborg droid General Grievous over two decades before. It was hardly state-of-the-art. It could, Vader knew, be rebuilt now and made infinitely better, more comfortable, and more powerful. There was only one problem with doing so: to be completely excised, even temporarily, from the suit would kill him. Not even the safety of the hyperbaric chamber—indeed, not even his command of the dark side—could ensure his protection during such a procedure.
Like it or not, the suit and he were one, now and forever.
“Lord Vader,” came the voice of the
’s captain from behind him. There was only the smallest hint of fear in it, but even that much was obvious to one steeped in the dark side of the Force. Vader felt it as an icy frisson along his nerves, a plangent chord that he alone could hear, a flash of lightning across a darkling plain. Fear was good—in others.
“We are approaching the drop back into realspace.”
Vader turned and regarded the man. “And?”
Captain Pychor swallowed. “N-nothing else, my lord. I just thought to inform you.”
“Thank you, Captain. I am already aware of it.”
“Yes, my lord.” The captain bowed, and backed away.
Inside the helmet, Vader smiled, though it caused him pain to make the expression. But pain was always with
him; a little more meant nothing. It wasn’t even necessary to call upon the dark side to deal with it. It was purely a matter of will.
The smile faded as he contemplated the immediate future. This trip, he felt, should not be necessary. Governor Wilhuff Tarkin—“Grand Moff Tarkin,” as he had been recently designated; a ridiculous rank, in Vader’s opinion—knew his duty. He had been charged by the Emperor to create this behemoth that was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of the Rebels, and certainly he knew what would happen to him if he failed in his duty. Tarkin’s philosophy was sound: fear
a useful tool. And the battle station would undoubtedly be useful, though the power all its vaunted weaponry and battleships could produce paled against the power of the Force. But the Emperor wished it, and so it would happen.
There had been, however, setbacks—accidents, sabotage, delays—and these were troubling to the Emperor. And so Palpatine had sent Vader to once again convey his displeasure at these setbacks to Tarkin’s pet project, and to suggest—strongly—that the Grand Moff find ways to avoid them in the future.
Tarkin was no fool. He would understand the message:
Fail, and suffer the consequences
segued from the hallucinogenic chaos of hyperspace to the more stable vista of realspace. Vader turned away from the view, his cape swirling about him. Now that they were nearly at their destination, he would be able to spend a few hours in his hyperbaric chamber, free at least of his helmet. Time to reflect on his memories, to allow his anger and rage to rise, and for a brief time the dark side would feed on that rage and free him of constant pain. The healing never lasted, however. It was impossible to maintain for long, even within the confines of the chamber. As soon as his anger ebbed and his concentration
lapsed, he reverted to what he had become—to what Obi-Wan Kenobi, his erstwhile Jedi Master, had made of him.