by Meredith Bronwen Mallory

|19:00 hours, 25th of Levitite|

This is today. Today is the twenty-fifth of Levitite; different from yesterday, which was the twenty-fourth. I run these numbers in my mind, over and over. I plot ahead, like tiny, tight dots on a navigation map. Two weeks from now will be the sixth of Machidasai, and I keep going; three weeks from now, a month, three months. I understand now the purpose of measurement, of calendars. You can roll your day up, the whole of it, place it inside those tiny white squares-- and it will fit. When the night falls, you can look at the grid and know that the light will come again, if only to fill another white square. I hold on to time, the minutes and hours that pile up, add up, until you have to find someplace to put them.

I am firmly in the here and now.

It's very gray, you know.

I know what's beyond the second door-- I went there today. Or was led there, by a Stormtrooper; just another silent white statue on the edge of my vision. The world is full of them. I watched, envious, as his placed his gloved fingers on the keypad. They moved with certainty, first pressing nine, then five and then...

"Ma'am, please look away," he had to turn his head fully to manage eye contact with me, a blank gaze. I could imagine his expression under the mask, though-- or expressions. It could have been sheepish, if he was young enough. Perhaps poliet, though, if he was older; as though he was sparing me from some indecent display. That's what it was, you know, for someone like me to watch that assured movement, that punching in of the code. The Stormtrooper knew the combination, knows it and other combinations, and therefore has some control. I envied him that control until I shook with it, though in the time before I knew tens and thousands of codes. The code to our aparment on Coruscant, the code my computer, and the lock box, and even the code to what was once your dorm in the Jedi Temple. I used to sneek in to surprise you, then fall asleep waiting from you to come in.

I didn't want to think about that, so I turned my back.
"You can turn around now, Ma'am," he paused before that last bit, the poliet title, until it was like something tacked on the end of the sentence. Slightly askew, almost forgotten. I felt his eyes on me, I think, as I looked inside; the new room was white, not gray. A bathroom, even if there wasn't a bathtub-- just a fresher with glass doors and little basin to guide the water into the drain. Nothing you could drown in.
"Go on," said the Stormtrooper, expectantly. No 'Ma'am' this time; he seemed to be losing patience with me. I realized I hadn't moved and forced myself to take a step, just one, over the little line in the tiles that marked the threshold. The guard shut the door behind me, loudly and with finality; I whirled around because I had been sure he would follow me in. My eyes ran over the room, starved; drinking in the mirror which you could shatter, the nozzel of the fresher which you could tie something to, and the stink which could be stopped up and filled. Such danger! It seemed almost perverse, to be presented with so many different opportunities all at once. Could this be carelessness? I wondered. In the prison, they were not afraid of physical escape. It was exits you could open up inside yourself that they tried to guard against. Sheers and sharp screw drivers, knives and even the edge of broken lunch tray; they were deadly weapons in our hands. We always turned them inward though; defensive, not offensive. We wanted it, I wanted it, desperately-- like the taste of the word 'fatal' on the tongue.

I'm not sure how long I stood there, looking at the room as a whole. I wasn't seeing the room, however, I was seeing my exit, endless escape, safe passage into the unknown. Reinvention, actually, because I have never been able to shake the beliefs of my childhood. Returning to this world after death, after cleansing by the Force, changing bodies like one changes clothes. I tried to think about that-- being someone else. Perhaps that's what happened to you, you were always getting things backwards anyway. It could be that you died, and the switch worked the wrong way, so that it was a new you in the old body? I can't quite believe that, but I catolouge it anyway, my endless list of excuses and explantions for you.

"Ma'am, you need to hurry up." The Stormtrooper again, moving his impatience through poliet requirement, like tea through a strainer.
"Alright," I said, making my long gray robes rustle in exaggeration. There was no carelessness, I understood that then. Any opening or cutting off of myself wouldn't be quick enough; the telltale silence would bring the Stormtrooper in. I wouldn't get away with it. I wouldn't get away.

I moved my fingers then, to the square, fuctional clasp at my throat. It felt strange, almost surreal, to be undoing it in privacy. I thought about the prison, again, about the rows of women undressing, passing before the guards in type of mechanical strip show. They used to root through our clothing, the pile of it outside the fresher door, to make sure we weren't hiding anything. There were always stacks and stacks of fresh, clean robes at the other end of the fresher. Who knows what they did with the old ones. I shrugged out of my robe, feeling the rough material peel away, like a reptile sheding its skin. I sat on the floor to remove my boot's (Keronji's boots), the slippers and the strips of cloth; biting my lip as I pealed the fabric away. Without them, my feet looked bare, forlon and abandoned-- with long rows of welts, patches of frostbite. A war-torn country-side. They looked like the word 'exposed'.
I braced myself, turned to the mirror.

The reflection showed my nude form, from the waist up, and I felt suprise looking at it. I am taller than I remembered, and my hair has gown out. I'm surprised I wasn't made to cut it, it has grown past my shoulders; ratty brown, very wavy without more length to weight it down. My face too, seemed different than I expected. I had imagined the whole of myself drying up, like a cocoon of some sort, or else being erroded. Lady Vader's black marble face, borne down upon by the wind. But there was my face, the face from the time before, and it didn't look old or rotted. Just sad. I tried to smile, as if to reasure myself or the twin woman in the mirror, but it was hard to remember how.

In the fresher, then, with the glass doors closed: I considered turning the water on cold, ice to encase and freeze me. I thought it might wake me up. Instead, I turned it the other way, as hot as it could go. It burned against my back, loosening muscles, like knives you heat and then use to cut through butter, or sweets or the human heart. I worked my hands through my hair, pulling at tangles; I moved my body under the stream of water, letting it run over me, like lava carving new paths. The dim, fractured light from the glowlamp by the mirror came through the shower door, broke to pieces by the drain. I thought about the bathroom in my apartment on Coruscant, about the claw-footed basin I'd bought for it. I used to light candles on the sides, ones that had flowers or designs set into the wax-- they all smelled different, cinnamon and vanilla, Correllian butter wands, purple trumpet flowers from Alderra. With the door closed, the smell would rush back on me, waves of it, one with the warm water, and sometimes your hands on my shoulders. That's hard to remember. It was there though, I could remember it in the fresher. The sound of bodies, movement in water, quiet laughter. That made me think of another time, sitting on the edge of the basin, wearing one of your old shirts and looking at the crystal, which was thin and had been made smooth by fire. My mother had sent it, all the way from Naboo, because she said the old ways were the surest ways, escpecially when it came to telling about pregnancies.

"What's it say?" your voice, through the door. I could imagine you, leaning on the other side, waiting. Your voice told it all.
"Nothing yet," I said. The crystal was still clear, I could see the distortion of my hand through it. It would change color either way, red for yes and yellow for no. "I think this is it, though," I said, "I'm almost certain of it."
"I hope so," you said, and you meant it. Do you remember that?
"Oh," I said, a few minutes later, crying, happy tears, though I guess you couldn't tell through the closed door.
"I'm sorry, Padme," you said.
"You shouldn't be," I called, opening the door, holding out the red crystal. You laughed (do you remember?), you were so happy; you wanted children, you still do. You didn't know, though. You still don't, I only said there was one-- a boy-- because that was safest. There is more than one child, though. Children, plural, holding more hope.

I wish you didn't want them, though. For their sakes, and not mine.

In the fresher (part of me wants to say 'back' in the fresher), I'd started to cry without thinking about it. I didn't notice, not really, until I started gasping; the tears were as hot as the water on my face. Weakness stumbled into my bones, probably from the water temperature, the steam I was breathing in. I felt dizzy, and gropped towards the little bench on the opposite end. I curled up there, folding in on myself, so I could finish with the violence of the emotion. It's like that, you know, you go without feeling anything for so long that when something comes, a little sadness or happiness or fear, it's just too much. The shower was loud-- at least, I thought so at the time-- it would drown out my sobs even if it wouldn't drown me. The crying wasn't so loud anymore, it had changed to weeping, which (in case you have forgotten, or didn't know in the first place) is silent.

"Five more minutes," the Stormtrooper shouted, in a bizzare parody of my mother. When I was small, she used to do that; poking her head in, or just knocking on the door as I got older. Her voice would be indulgent but firm; 'Hurry up honey' or 'now dear, not another one of your day-long showers'. I wondered how the Stormtrooper felt, about having to say that, as if I was a child and he my babysitter/nanny/caretaker. I leaned my head against the frosted glass door, seeing fractured shapes and strange patterns-- nothing I could recognize.
"I'm coming!" I shouted, over the water, much like I did when I was younger, and for the same reason. I wanted to, still want to, stay in that tiny cubical, naked and warm where the world can't get at me.

I turned the water down to cold, after that. It was a mistake to make it warm, that's probably what reminded me of you and candles and children. I faced into the cold stream, which felt so much like rain that I could trick myself if I closed my eyes.

I didn't stay in long after that. When I got out, I found a towel easily enough, under the sink, and dried my hair as best I could, braided it in two rows as I did in my girlhood. The heavy gray robe soaked up what was on my body, I drew it back over myself in a type of regression. Like the... what are they... the winged creatures, with hard bodies they could draw their heads into? It was like that, quickly, a type of animal protection. They used to nest outside our window, if you'll remember.

I knocked on the door, three times, waiting for the Stormtrooper to let me out. If he could have looked annoyed, through the bleak white helmet, I think he would have.
"Lady Vader," an unfamiliar voice, not the stilted one from the white statue. I turned around, slowly, so as not to seem startled or off guard. It was the beanpole man from the hangar, turned towards me only partly, hands clasped behind his back. He'd planned this, I thought, from where he'd be standing to catching me fresh from the shower. He smiled at me kindly, as if I needed his forgiveness-- which I don't.
At least not his.

"Sir," I said, my voice soft only out of half-remembered experience. I glanced at his row of pointless colored squares. I didn't know what to call him.
"Admiral Tarkin," he smiled again, faintly amused. "Please, Lady Vader, take a seat." I did sit, partly out of nessescity, partly because I was overwhelmed. A shower-- alone! unguarded!-- seemed enough of an event for one day. I kept my back straight, though, my eyes on him as I perched on the edge of the bed. I knew why he wanted me to sit: so he could look down at me.
"I *am* sorry for barging in like this," he began to pace, quick, economic strides. I craned my head, bird-like; his speech was hard to decode. Perhaps he wanted to me to feel as if I should play hostess. Then again, it could have been an ingrained apology, something he learned from his mother. Or father-- probably that. He waited for me to answer, something forgiving, I suppose. 'Oh, not, not at all, Admiral Tarkin', or 'It's my pleasure, Admiral'. As if we were politicans, or distant relatives. "Your husband," he wet his lips, pausing.

Yes? Yes? I thought, trembling inwardly, like marrow inside bone. I thought he might be trying to break the news to me gently, in his own way, that you were waiting at our destination. Possibly, I considered, you were already on board and he was preparing me.
"Your husband has quite a reputation, Lady Vader." Oh. I felt a little disappointed-- it was almost anticlimactic. Just poliet conversation.
I said, "Oh?"
"Yes, he has," the Admiral looked at me, as if I should know. As if I was responsible. I think that he likes doing that; those little, silent moments of blame.
"I wouldn't know," I managed, looking at my nails, which are no longer painted or of any interest. At least it was something to do, and old, habitual motion.

Still, I could feel him looking at me with his colorless eyes, and I remembered his expression in the docking bay. Was that just yesterday? It was, but it's hard to believe. I am not used to my days having texture. '*This* is Lady Vader?' I could imagine him thinking-- saying, now that I have heard his voice. He wanted to know just what it was you'd seen in me. Some sterling quality, something of value that set me apart. That's how he, this been pole thing, must measure others; by value, by what they can gain for him. He doesn't know that I have been hollowed out.

If I were to tell him, or the Stormtrooper by the doorway, or anyone at all, about that day in the junkshop... Well, no one would believe me. Not now, anyway. I hold these things to myself, though, tighly in spite of the fact they hurt.
Don't angels usher in death? I really don't know that much about them.
You are dead, you just don't know it yet.

"Lady Vader," he prompted me. I looked up, more quickly than I would have liked. I had gone away again, inward, traveling on the roads inside myself. I need to stop doing that, I need to stay here.
"Yes," I forced the words from my lips, "Admiral Tarkin?" He smiled, he liked it that I recognized his authority. I wonder how he really feels, about having to look out for me, about having to keep me in his care until we reach where ever we are going? I imagine he doesn't like it much, being delegated to nanny wouldn't sit right with a man like him.
Lady Vader's babysitter, I rhymed in my head.
The irreverence is what I liked.
"Is there something you would like?" this from him, and not me. My face must have showed confusion, for he came to stand before me and repeated the question. He was offering me something then, because he could. It amused him, to hold out such things. Benevolence, he must call it in his mind. The desire to spit in his face was so fierce it surprised me. It's been a long time, since I've felt any hatred like that. I wanted to turn away, ignore him, because I knew that was the closest I could come to being rude and get away with it. Even my position would not save me from Admiral Tarkin's bruised pride.
"I would like to watch a news-cast," I hadn't even thought the words, but they were out. There was that hunger for knowledge in me, for definition of the world at large, that I had yet to recognize. I wanted it, too, though I tried not to let it show on my face. To have some word of you, to hold, even if it cut into me like thorns. I am disgusted with myself for feeling this way, but it is there. Some part of me must still think that you are biding your time, that you will overthrow the Emperor and everything will be alright again. It can't be alright again, because if you turned there was obviously something wrong to being with.

"A... news-cast, Lady Vader?" the Admiral made it sound as if I had asked him for the moon, or water in the desert. I smiled inwardly at the expression on his face. It must be very rare that he is surprised. He collected himself quickly, though, began to pace the floor, as if he'd been expecting my request all along. "Yes, I suppose that could be arranged," he turned towards me, "but it will be two days until we are in a system where we can receive a reliable transmission."
"Of course," I inclined my head, in that way I remembered doing long ago. Regally, they call it.
"Is there something else you would like, Lady Vader?" Emphasis on the else. I understood, then. He wanted me to be frivolous! To ask for a rare fruit, or a bracelet, a new dress. Those things are of very little value to me now; he must know that, or he would not have offered them to me. I cast my mind about, searching though my catalogue of muted desires, for some trifle that might serve me in the future.
"Gloves," I said, thinking of the cold touch to my fingers, the ice that crept in and refused to leave. Even gloves might not be useful, though-- for all I know, they might take me to a desert world. Tarkin smiled at me, he liked the fact I wanted gloves, and only he could give them to me. "But only if it isn't too much trouble," I added.
"No trouble at all, Lady Vader," he kept saying that name, thrusting it towards me, as if I had forgotten it. "I will see to it that the gloves are brought to you." He turned, resolutely, apparently finished with me. I curled my fingers inward, fearing he had forgotten about the newscast. Really, I didn't want the gloves. "Someone will take you to see the newscast, in two days time," Tarkin tossed it over his shoulder, but it was more like an arrow. I felt ill, to have been manipulated by him so. "Good evening, Lady Vader."
"Good evening, Admiral," I returned, vaguely.
It was evening, then. Already.

Two days. Two sets of twenty four hours, by the standard measurement. I lay here, moving my hands quietly over the keys, thinking about the time two days from now. It seems unusual, bizarre almost, to have something to look forward to. Already it is closer than it was a minute ago, time carries me towards it. Time has always carried me, I am passive in its embrace, but it is only now that I notice. Before, I had no measurement, no scenery, so I could not tell that I was being moved. Time will take me to where ever this ship is taking me, though that seems so distant that I almost can't conceive of it. I will stick to mortal time, then, house-fly hours, brief with quick deaths. Two days.

What will the holo-projector tell me, in its own harsh way, about you?

[Chapter Four B]