Previously Published In "A Tremor In The Force" 5, 1990

Penumbra

Confusion, borne from misunderstood pain lanced through him. He screamed within his terror, calling out desperately for someone to help him, someone to explain this sudden horror into which he had been so casually thrust. But he heard nothing, could sense no one beyond himself. He turned, twisting, lapsing back, reaching inward to find the strength he required to fight this unknown.

He stopped, hesitated, staring in disbelief at the scene which unfolded before him. There was a child - no, an infant - lying curled upon the ground. Its tiny body trembled with the powerful sobs which tore through it. Its cries reached his ears, its fear touched his own. He looked up as two shadows crossed the infant's back and blew cool air over his face. A cry tore from his throat as the dark carrion birds circled lower, waiting for the submission, the death.

He reached down to the child, wanting to take it up and carry it to safety. Another's hand reached for him. He pulled back from his reflection, staring at the dark, glassy pool as the child's face became his own. He stepped back and fell to the dirt. The birds swooped lower, their cries sending shocks of dread through him. He pulled himself up. It was he! It was he the birds sought! He was their prey, their feed. He climbed to his feet, turned and ran. Ran as the birds followed. Ran to the dark before him, seeing safety within its folds.

The shadows, he told himself, whispering madly. Hide in the shadows.

He slowed as he tired, walking, fighting his way forward as though moving through water or setting gelatine. His chest burned as he laboured to draw breath.

The shadows.

The edge of the darkness reached out, its wispy fingers coiling around his body, drawing him in, drawing him down.

It was the piercing cry of the smaller bird which drew his attention to his mistake. Frantically, he looked to the light from which he had been chased. It beckoned him, teasing him with pleasures lost. It threw the faces of those he loved before his eyes, their voices crying his name, their eyes filling with sorrow at his passing. His dreams shattered and splintered as the birds settled at the shadows edge, blocking his path back.

Stay and be safe, the night whispers softly offered him. Stay and find strength.

The darkness revealed other images; his friends racked with pain as he stood by; the galaxy shuddered and broke as his power grew, as it tore free from his fragile control. Faces turned to him full of fear and awe. The malignancy crept closer, the birds edged nearer, sensing his defeat.

He screamed with frustration and horror as realisation struck. He threw his arms to the light as he sank...

He fell, tumbling down, and struck the smooth coolness of a polished floor. He lay curled, cowering from the darkness and the birds which settled around him, recoiled from the rustle and touch of their feathers.

He shivered as cold air blew lightly around him, lifting heat from his damp body. He fought to draw a breath and coughed, tearing his aching lungs, his raw throat. His limbs spasmed painfully as he tried to push himself to his knees and he buckled and fell as they failed him. There was a voice, its words muffled and indistinct, its meaning lost to squawking laughter.

Hands took him by the arms, lifting him to his feet. He hung, helpless in their grip, listening to rasping breath. He opened his eyes, battling to focus on his surroundings, but sheer darkness remained. He winced as a claw touched his cheek, scraping sensitive skin, flinched as it lifted his chin, turning his head. This time the voice was clear, the meaning terrifying and crystalline.

"You were correct, Lord Vader. He is just a boy. Perhaps my fears were unfounded."

And he knew who held him, he knew where he was. Images of the past flowed painfully to mind. The sabre duel in the dim light of the carbon freezing chamber, the Dark Lord pressing forward, pushing him back, causing footing to be lost. He remembered the fall into the pit, remembered the pain and the moment when his scream of comprehension was cruelly cut before it escaped his lungs.

He hung limply in Vader's grasp, defeated and lost. He felt himself open, felt them feed.

Ben, I'm sorry...