It's a lazy Sunday. I've just finished a phone call with my mother, who calls way too much no matter how often I assure her that I haven't been dragged off into a dark alley since the last time we spoke. I have a slight headache and I take a few pills. My head always buzzes and makes me feel tired, but after stressful conversations I feel even worse.
I need a distraction, so I check my email, my rather boring blog, and, headache getting a little sharper above my eye, go to one of my favorite places, eBay.
Being a Star Wars fan since I was five, I usually hunt for Star Wars-related items. I could probably have a small fortune by now if I'd done something more responsible with all that money, like invested it or stored it away in a savings account, but I'm notoriously bad about little decisions like that. I won't deny that I'm not very good with money. I justify my crazy purchases by telling myself that I can always sell my considerable nerd collection if I ever get in a jam.
And in a way, it's the truth, because I could make a pretty penny off it all. My thorough searches of eBay have paid off well in the past—my apartment is practically a store for Star Wars memorabilia. I have a truly offensive collection of actions figures. I'm always putting them in various poses and situations on the TV, my desk, the window sill, the kitchen counter tops, the bathroom shelves.
My book shelf is almost dominated by the Star Wars EU, which are protected by my favorite bounty hunter action figures. Boba Fett protects his books, and his competition keep their eyes on everything else. I have a few ship models for the figures to pose with and ride in. My favorite one is the TIE Advanced. Currently, my cat Motti is using one of the curved flight panels to scratch the side of his face.
I also collect more random things, like my Darth Vader straw, my R2D2 cup, the Star Wars coloring books that I've never actually used, and some Christmas ornaments that I keep in the kitchen year-round.
So I'm used to seeing intriguing Star Wars ads on eBay, but when I log on, browse through the ads, and come to one that was posted last night, I'm forced to read the unusual offer twice.
"One (1) free dinner with Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith." It's posted by someone using the handle EmperorPalpatine, who has no feedback listed and hasn't sold anything prior to this ad. The auction ends next Sunday.
I smirk, both amused and a little embarrassed on behalf of whoever posted this, as I look to see who's bid so far. Surprisingly, no one's put down anything yet.
There is no set price already in place, so I bid ten dollars. Just for fun, not to actually do it. The illusion of adventure is enough for me. No doubt someone will come along and outbid me.
I check my email one more time before I get ready for work.
I don't think much about the ad for the rest of the week. I don't have any interest in winning the auction, so there's no point in keeping tabs on it.
It's not until the following Monday, a couple hours before my next shift, that I check up on the auction. To my surprise, my bid sits all by itself. I won Sunday without even realizing it.
There goes ten dollars, I think, stunned. Unmindful of my concerns, my cat Motti jumps into my lap. His tail swishes against my arm and I pet him absently.
"Well, I'm an idiot," I announce to him. He can't disagree, but his silence seems deserved anyway.
I'll just tell EmperorPalpatine that I've changed my mind, and to keep the ten bucks. What can he do about it? I message him and explain, a little untruthfully, that my bid was an accidental one and that I don't actually want the "item" in question. I add politely, "To make up for disrupting you add and wasting your time, you can keep the ten dollar bid I placed." Then I hem and haw for another line and sign out. I ignore the message he sent to me. I really don't want to bother. Mine will render it moot, anyway.
I push it out of my mind.
I carry Motti to bed and take a nap, Motti purring obliviously near my head. I nap on and off until it's time to get ready for my shift, where I work as a night receptionist. I make rounds, do some cleaning, and leave at seven a.m. It's an owl job, but I like it. There's only the one security guard around besides me, so for most of the night I'm by myself. Sometimes I take a book to read for the duller moments, or practice sketching.
Work is the usual tonight, uneventful and quiet. After midnight, when the new secguard, Qazi, makes his rounds, we exchange some small talk. After a few minutes of chattering about the weekday, I mention the I won the auction by accident, and laugh it off like it's no big deal.
"That's weird," Qazi says. "You're not going to the dinner, are you?"
"No!" I'm almost offended that he thinks I would. "I'm staying right at home, and if they're mad then they can just keep the money and go bye some tissues to cry in."
He laughs, but still looks a little serious. "Yeah, I wouldn't go anywhere that was set up by a guy named EmperorPalpatine. Just sayin'."
"Me, I'm a Doctor Who fan."
Around six, I make a nice breakfast with the cereal I keep in the break room. I don't eat much because in an hour I'm just going to head home and fall asleep until noon, so there's no point in eating a lot of food that has to digest.
When my shift finally ends I take a bus back to my neighborhood, then walk the rest of the way to the apartment complex where I live. The snow has piled up thicker on the sidewalk than when I left, and I shiver in my coat, wrapping my scarf around my mouth for extra warmth. I can't wait to get in my apartment, make some cocoa, and snuggle up with Motti until I fall asleep.
Out of the corner of my eye, something white moves near the building off to my left. I yank my head in its direction, but all I see are snowflakes tumbling down through the air.
As I walk up to the door and get out my key, snow crunches behind me. It gets closer, and I turn around to tell whoever's lingering so close to back off. Instead of a neighbor or visitor, all I see is a white visage with small black goggles. Before I can try to piece together why a guy in an Imperial snowtrooper costume is hanging around outside my apartment, he says, mechanized voice and all, "Lord Vader is waiting for you."
"Say what?" My voice comes out muffled.
"You have an appointment with Lord Vader, and he is growing impatient."
I am torn between surprise, my first reaction, and dread, the second, more lingering reaction. It figures I'd find a Star Wars fan that takes things way too far. I try to keep my voice calm when I say, "Is this about the eBay ad?"
He tilts his head to one side, as if trying to decipher my question. After a few awkward moments, the trooper repeats, "You're late to your appointment with Lord Vader. We have been sent to bring you for your meeting. Lord Vader has given us permission to use force, if necessary."
We? I wonder uneasily. Out loud I say in as calm a voice I can manage, "The bid I made was a mistake, and I already messaged EmperorPalpatine about it. Now go back to 'Lord Vader' and tell him I'm not coming, or I'll call the cops, got that?"
In response, his gloved hand reaches for my face.
I screech and try to push him away, but in seconds he's got me twisted around, face slammed against the door, arms behind my back. Around the corner two more appear and, with chilling silence, escort me off the sidewalk and between the complex and its neighboring townhouse.
"Who are you guy?" I cry, mostly to make enough noise that someone might hear. One closes his hand over my mouth. The other one moves behind me and does...something to my neck. I feel a sharp pinch under my scarf. I hear one of them talking almost casually, but it might as well be static.
At some point, I suddenly feel myself moving, and my eyes focus on my feet as they walk slowly in the snow. We're not in my neighborhood anymore. I look around in a daze. We're passing old, unused train cars and sheets of rusting metal, and a few warehouses that were used back in the day before the company went out of business. Something tells me that I should know where I am, as if I've driven past here a couple of times, but I can't recall anything specific about it.
"What are you guys doing?" I mumble. I concentrate on walking, and realize that the reason I haven't staggered to my knees is that I'm between two of the guys in snowtrooper costumes, and they're holding my arms, leading me along. Not roughly, but I can't get away. The third one is in front of us. My eyes fall to the weapons on their belts, and I have a crazy thought: those things could be actually loaded.
"I have to get home," I say to them when I can speak. "I didn't mean to bid on the dinner. This is all one big mistake."
They don't say anything. I heard somewhere that you should try to appeal to your captor's conscience to increase your chances in cases like this, so I try that. "I have to go home to call my mother, or she'll be worried about me. And my cat's all alone in my apartment."
The silence is so terrible I don't try again.
Something in the back of my mind thinks, These guys must belong to an elite squad, but I don't know why I think that. And I'm getting a weird feeling, despite how irrational it is. Their costumes so perfectly mimic the ones from the fifth film—no, they look better, they look like they've been used every day—that I'm drawn into the fantasy despite myself and my predicament.
In a shallow depression brought on by rain sits a white, triangular shuttle. The gravel and dirt around it is scorched and upturned from its descent.
This is the thing any dedicated fan wants to see in real life, up close, but I just start to cry as they lead me to it.
I cry because my brain can't make up its mind. There are only two possibilities here, either that I've gone crazy or that I really am being led to a lambda-class Imperial shuttle, and I can't decide which is worse.
I wake up in what looks like a sitting room. My head feels a little foggy. They must have drugged me again after bringing me onto the shuttle, because I don't remember anything about the trip, or being taken here. I hope whatever drug they're using isn't harmful with repeated doses.
The decorum is simple but elegant. I'm sitting in a large chair with red cushioning threaded with gold embroidery, with other matching but empty chairs around me.
Behind me, there's the familiar sound of a door swishing into the wall, and then world-famous regulated breathing.
Of course, I think with a surprising amount of sarcasm. Only I could hallucinate something so antagonistic.
A wall of black comes up next to me, and I force myself to look straight ahead. Then the black is right in front of me, encircled with a shiny belt, and my head snaps up.
"You ignored your summons," Darth Vader says heavily.
My hands twitch. Not brave or awake enough to try to work out a lie, I decide to just stick with the truth. "I don't remember seeing a summons. Lord Vader," I add.
"You were sent a summons immediately after the end of the..." He trails off for a few moments, and his breathing comes out in an almost exasperated burst, "…auction."
"I didn't open it," I say. "I messaged EmperorPalpatine to explain that I didn't mean to be the winner, so—"
"The Emperor does not care for excuses."
"It was just a joke! I didn't mean to win."
He lowers his head, his cloak falling over his shoulders as he slopes down toward me. "You consider all of this amusing?" he booms out.
A strong surge of fear wakes me up completely, and compels me, for the time being, to treat this whole nightmare as real. "No, no I don't, Lord Vader. I just mean, I didn't know the auction was really for you, or I wouldn't have bid on it." My voice is tinged with the quiver it always gets when I'm desperate to be believed.
He pulls back and spends the next few minutes regarding me.
"If I had my way," he says finally, "dinner would be brought to you right now and you would have five minutes to consume it and get out the door. But my master has given me specific instructions for our little date."
"What are they?" I ask, apprehensive the answer.
"Today is Empire Day, and the Emperor has chosen to host his personal celebration on Naboo this year, at one of his provincial palaces. There will be a ceremony, then dinner with whatever dignitaries and officers are in his favor this week, and then, if all goes well, I will be able to release you."
"We're going to Naboo?"
"We are already on Naboo."
I fall back against the chair, sinking into the seat. "When is this taking place?"
"The ceremony will start after sunset. The dinner is after that." He pauses, then says darkly, "In both of our interests, I advise you to eat quickly."
Two crimson guards lead me from the waiting room to a guest room. They're everywhere in the Emperor's Naboo retreat, and apparently I'm special enough to be given an escort by the Emperor's best men. I'm sure that's the excuse to make sure I don't run for it, anyway.
Despite myself, I cast admiring glances at their costumes as we walk. Well, uniforms. They ripple and flow silkily as the men walk. As they step, I can just make out the dark red under-suit. Despite their relatively minor position in the Star Wars mythos, I'd always found the Imperial Guard outfits to be cool and attractive, if slightly creepy, characters.
As we move through the marble hallways, I work up the courage to ask, "Do you like working for the Emperor?"
The one to my right barely glances down at me and doesn't answer. Disappointing. I'd wanted to know what they sounded like, if they sounded similar to stormtroopers or if their voices weren't delivered through a vocoder.
"I like your robes," I try again. "They're really impressive. I bet hardly anyone messes with you, with you dressed up like that."
To my delight, the one on the left gives a faint nod, just barely tilting his head.
"I bet you feel great in them. I would."
And the one on the left almost looks amused—his shoulders hunch up for a second, anyway. I smile at him as they bring me to my door.
"We manage," one says in a slightly muffled voice as I enter my room.
My guest apartment would have cost a fortune in a ritzy hotel back home. For a few minutes I just take in the round, gold-edged room, its large, lush bed, and the gauzy curtains that wisp slightly in the breeze pouring in from the balcony. Reverting to ten years old, I jump on the bed and roll around on it to gauge its softness.
I'm on Naboo, I think. I can't help but grin at the thought.
After enjoying the pleasant summer air wafting in from outside, I roll off the bed and check out the wardrobe, which according to the EU are always full of recently-bought clothes and ready to be opened by the hapless women who get captured by powerful Imperial men. I'm a little scared, remembering what kind of crazy stuff the women in the movies wear, but I look inside.
Most of my fears are justified. I'm too practical, not to mention small, to put on dresses weighed down with jewels and unnecessary layers. I browse through the selection until I find something black and simple. It has a high neck, cuts up the sides, and no sleeves; it isn't too showy. A silver sash goes around the waist. I toss it off to the side. There are a lot of shoes to improve my height, and if I'm going to be seen with Darth Vader it might be a good idea to shorten the vertical distance between us, but the idea of spending the night in high heels sounds like a bad idea. Knowing me, I'll trip or do something equally clumsy to embarrass him. I find some dress slippers, with just a wedge of heel, and decide on those.
I don't usually wear jewelry, but I can just imagine how plain I'll look in a simple black dress at a dinner party on Naboo, so I look through the selection. Mostly rubies and other colorful gems, but I find two shimmering bracelets comprised of little white diamonds, and a matching choker. I lay it all out on the bed and am wondering whether or not I should start getting dressed now when my door opens and two women slip in.
They introduce themselves, explain that they're going to help me dress, and I tell them that I got it covered.
"But how are you going to do your hair?" one asks, pointing at my simple arrangement of keeping it tied back and out of my face.
"Don't turn it into a set of pastries, okay?"
Two hours later they've got me wearing not only what I selected, but also a black gossamer shawl, some make-up that makes my skin look deceptively smooth and rosy in the cheeks, and negotiated me into wearing a braid that's wrapped into a crown at the back. They try to stick in jewels and chopstick-like decorations and fans and whatever else is in fashion right now, but I refuse the whole way.
Still, when I catch myself in the mirror, I kind of like it, despite how embarrassed it makes me feel. When I realize that I'm admiring myself, I quickly look away.
As soon as the women leave, I go out on the balcony. Naboo looks beautiful as the sun settles down on the horizon, churning up warm oranges and cool purples that spread up into the greater sky. People are arriving in their speeders, more dressed up than I am, and even some ships are descending farther away.
I lean on the balcony rail and take it all in. "Wow," I say. I'm mesmerized.
Lord Vader knocks on my door a little after the sun dips out of sight. I know it's him because the knocking is too loud and heavy to be anyone else. He looks down at me and I suddenly want to hide in my old clothes.
After several cycles of loud breathing, he says, "Why did you choose black?"
I boggle at him. "Well...I like black...and...well, isn't that a strange question coming from you?"
"We're going to look too coordinated," he says, apparently displeased with the idea of his date stealing his scheme.
"Okay, but at least this way I'll blend in better. People would notice me more standing next to you if I'd worn something colorful and extravagant."
He considers this. "Very well."
I wrap the shawl around my shoulders, mostly for something to do. "Is there anything I can do to make this go more smoothly?" I ask him. "I've never been to something like this. Much less in a whole different galaxy."
"Yes," he says. "Smile a lot, but not too broadly. Be courteous, but I don't recommend speaking unless you are spoken to. Other than that, follow my lead, and perhaps we can retain some of our dignity when the night is over."
I nod. I fiddle with one of my bracelets and drift toward the curtains that shield the balcony. "This whole thing really isn't a joke," I say regretfully.
Behind me, I can hear him pace a few steps. "My master," he says, his voice betraying the effort of keeping itself free of anger, "does consider this a joke. I suppose he did not think anyone would want to dine with me. But when he saw your bid, he was amused—amused enough to bring the joke to its logical conclusion."
He's not just angry, I realize. His pride's been hurt. I can hear it, the resentment flowing freely in the sting of his words.
I can't help but feel sorry for him, the way I always have at various points in the Star Wars narrative since my childhood. But that was just a series of images—this is, apparently, the real Darth Vader, which means that every evil thing he's ever done isn't just trivial back story—it's real, too. The pity I feel is quickly dwarfed by concern for my own safety. If he's upset, I could be the first person he lashes out toward, since he can't attack his master.
"You don't have to go ahead with this," I tell him.
"It is not your decision," he growls. "Palpatine is the Emperor. Despite what some may think, even I am subject to his whims, no matter how unorthodox they may occasionally be."
"Then I guess I don't have a choice, either."
"No." He steps beside me and offers me his arm. It takes me a few seconds before I gather up the courage to take the artificial limb—any longer and I might offend or anger him. It feels a little heavier than a normal arm, but other than that I don't notice a difference. It's the owner of the arm that keeps me nervous.
"You're very short," he remarks as we leave the room.
Along the way, we're subjected to strange looks from random guests. I shrink a little on his arm, pressing against him in a hope to be less noticeable. After about a minute of that he grows annoyed and pushes me off, not roughly but with a firm command in the silent action.
The Empire Day ceremony is held in Palpatine's expansive throne room. The guests are gathered on either side of a rich, red carpet that runs up to the Emperor's dais. Four of the Emperor's crimson Royal Guard march to the dais first, bow deeply, and wait for him to speak, praising their loyalty. Then each one takes up space on the dais beside him, their Force-pikes held rigidly against their shoulders. After that officers and other favored nobility each take their turns neatly bowing before the Emperor, laying down their vows and hoping for some kind gesture in return. Then, gripping me tightly, Vader marches with almost determined purpose to the Emperor for his turn. I cringe inelegantly as I hear the whispers travel through the crowd.
"Stand up straight," Vader tells me in a low but commanding voice. "Ignore them."
Easy for him to say. He's a Dark Lord of the Sith. I'm a college drop-out.
Palpatine smiles widely, with enough charm that even I almost buy into the "benign ruler" pose he's fabricated. He stands up from his throne just as Vader goes down on one knee in front of the dais, his hand tightening around my arm and dragging it down with him in a smooth motion. I get the hint and start to kneel before I remember that I should curtsy. I recover, but not before it's noticed. A few condescending laughs rise up from a few sections of the crowd.
"You may rise," the Emperor says with his warm smile. As we stand up, he continues to the crowd, "Lord Vader graciously chose to make an appearance on Naboo for our celebration, and in a time when he works tirelessly to keep our Empire safe from the Rebellion."
There is a smattering of polite clapping.
"It is an important day, Emperor," Vader says neutrally.
"We are happy to have him with us for the festivities. Enjoy yourself, Lord Vader, before you must return to the duty of protecting our loyal Imperial citizens."
There's more clapping, this time a little louder, but still fairly spread thin. Three's no love lost between Vader and the elites, I guess. I'm not mentioned at all, which seems to just emphasize me even more to the audience.
"Thank you, master," Vader says. He bows his head and stands beside the dais on the Emperor's right. I stand next to him. The ceremony concludes with a sort of blessing or intonation, and then the Emperor sits back down.
When he's free to move, Vader strides across the room, me trying to gracefully keep up with his broad footsteps, toward a veranda that opens out into a garden. The couple that is occupying it quickly scatters to give us all the room we need.
"That wasn't too bad," I comment as Vader comes to a stop under an arrangement of carefully-grown vines that encircle most of the column structure.
"It was bearable," he agrees.
"They're still looking at me, aren't they?"
"Not all of them, but some, yes. They are wondering who you are, and why you are with me."
Sadly, there aren't many answers to the question that they'll come up with.
I pretend to take great interest in the plants that fill up the garden. It isn't too hard—the whole garden is beautiful, carefully sculpted with alien flora in a carefully cultured rainbow of colors and species. Fountains outpour high arcs of water, and smooth white statues of what must be local mythological creatures rise up out of the flowers.
"This must have cost a fortune," I say as I reach out to touch something that looks like a tulip-shaped fly trap with several tendrils dangling from its inner chamber.
Vader turns sharply. "Don't touch that. And yes, the Emperor spent more money on this retreat than some people spend on several ships."
I study the plant, and it tilts toward me slightly, its tendrils waving. I quickly pull back.
"It's a thyron bulber," Vader says. "The Emperor enjoys them. They mostly eat insects, but occasionally someone will tempt them with a finger." With an almost amused head tilt, he says, "They say the thyron grows best when it is fed blood from a consistent source."
"Very nice." I move away from the plant a little more, deciding that Vader is safer to be around for the moment. "We have carnivorous plants on my planet, too, though not like that. One of them is called the Venus Fly Trap."
"It flies?" Vader sounds almost alarmed.
"Oh, no," I say. "It eats flies—they're a small insect on my world. Well, it'll eat anything, technically, I guess."
"There are many plants on my world that eat living things, though. But not humans."
"Your homeworld seems quite dangerous if even the plants are predatory."
"I guess. I mean, I've never considered it extremely harsh, but I suppose we have a lot of deadly species."
"Unlike your world, Naboo has no carnivorous plants—these were shipped in to the Emperor's gardens from another system. Apparently they are an endangered species and the Emperor wishes to re-cultivate them."
"He would," I mutter. When Vader glances at me, I slap my hand over my mouth.
"I didn't mean that," I say quickly.
Vader doesn't move for several seconds, instead regarding me with a protracted stare from the empty lenses in his mask, but then something that sounds like a hollow laugh works its way out of his vocoder. "I heard nothing."
I smile cautiously. "Thanks."
He glances back into the throne room. "I believe the service droids will be delivering the first courses soon." He sounds weary at the prospect of going through the motions of having dinner.
"Back inside, then?" I ask.
"Yes." He pauses. "There are also tables set up near the pavilion by the water as well, if you would prefer a slightly more discreet dinner." I can tell that's what he would prefer, and I agree with him on that front.
"Anything to get me away from the Emperor," I tell him. "I'm afraid he's going to peer into my soul with those eyes."
"Not likely," Vader says. I look at him questioningly, but he sweeps back his cape and indicates for me to follow him through the garden.
"The water" turns out to be a large pond, with glowing, floating pods providing illumination around the area. About twenty tables are set up around the large expanse of grass and the occasional tree bordering the lake.
A spindly droid comes upon us as we walk to the most secluded table, but Vader waves it aside. Maybe he has a reputation even among the non-living creatures of the Empire, because the droid squawks and pulls back. I giggle a little but quickly suppress it when he turns around to look at me.
I don't know if it's customary or if Vader is just old-fashioned, but he waits for me to seat myself before sitting down. As he grips the armrests and leans back, he seems to convey that he's occupying a throne.
While I wait for a service droid, I look out at the reflections of the glowing pods on the water, and take in the cool breeze. I suspect all Naboo summer nights are temperate and pleasant like this. A few meters away from us, a pair of nocturnal birds rustle through the leaves and chirrup in a craggy staccato.
"Are you enjoying yourself?"
I jerk my head around to look at Lord Vader. "Pardon?"
"Are you enjoying the evening so far?" he asks, sounding a little reserved and maybe even perversely curious.
"I-I guess so," I answer slowly. "Naboo is gorgeous."
"Yes," he says. His respirator expels a sigh. "It is."
A hovering droid sets down a plate in front of each of us, then whisks away with a canned line to enjoy. Vader looks at the small, neat portions of formless food, then pushes the plate towards the center of the table.
Again, I can't help but feel kind of bad for him, forced into a dinner with someone he doesn't even know, with food he can't even enjoy. A little guiltily, I sample the portions. For the most part, they remind me of pureed vegetables, similar in taste to potatoes and beets.
"It is good that you are coping well," Vader says. "I would not be tolerant of a weeping or hysterical child for the duration of this 'date.'"
"I guess there's not much point in being upset," I say. "The situation's out of my hands. And getting a free meal at a big, expensive party with a famous person hardly seems like something worth complaining about, overall."
"So you aren't afraid, then?" he asks. "Not of me, or the situation?"
I tilt my head a little. "Can't you sense what I'm feeling? You're a Sith, and all."
His breathing fills the ensuing silence, cutting the conversation short again. He seems to be thinking over his response.
"You are beyond the Force," he says finally.
He grips the arm rests a little more tightly, the fingers on his right side drumming strictly on the metal frame. "Your planet—perhaps your entire galaxy—is strange. It does not exist within the Force. Midichlorians are absent, and the Force cannot reach out to make contact with you." He sounds almost disgusted. "It is like sitting across from a droid, to be honest."
"I'm completely unreadable?"
"I can still read your expressions, your posture. But yes—it is more difficult to gauge your emotions with total certainty."
Well, it makes sense. If midichlorians existed on Earth, scientists would have discovered and studied them by now, not to mention that real Jedi might be running around.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I muse to myself. For the first time I really get that I'm millions, maybe billions of light years from home. Not only that, but I'm not even in the right time period, now that I think about it. What could have led Palpatine to discover Earth? A disruption in the Force? Some sort of wormhole or space-time rip?
The next plate is a graphic piece of food art—it looks grotesque upon first glance, then beautiful as the details are taken in. A white, misshapen piece of fruit, larger than a fist, rests on top of pink vegetables and white kernels of rice. A dark red, spider-web pattern of juices leaks out from the fruit where pinkish wet pulp protrudes from its top.
"That is bloodfruit," Vader supplies. "The preparer cuts off its crown, so that the fruit stains the food around it as it leaks from the top."
I reach my fork in and taste a bit of the pulp. It's soft, rich, and very sweet.
There are four more courses, but I am full after the second. When the next plate is set down, I just look at it blearily.
Vader stands up and offers me his hand over the table. "Perhaps you would feel better if you walk around the pond."
"I thought we had to do the dinner."
"Yes, and we have. I've taken you to dinner, you have eaten, and now you're done eating. The specifics aren't important."
I consider this. "All right. Good enough for me." I take his hand and he leads me toward the lake. A few of the other guests glance at us, and I focus on his cloaked back to avoid their stares.
He says, "In a week they will have completely forgotten about you. So do not worry."
The water laps almost imperceptibly at the edges of the banks. Occasionally a large, orange fish arcs its back out of the water as it skirts near the surface.
"A nukko," Vader tells me.
"When will I be able to leave?" I ask suddenly.
"The dinner period will be over soon. Then we will approach the Emperor and I'll request that you be taken home. There is still a fireworks display to follow, but the auction did not mention that, so I see no reason to force you through it."
I'm getting a little tired. I don't know what time it is, but it feels pretty late.
"I'm going to sit down over there," I say around a small yawn, pointing to a thick tree.
"As you wish."
Vader lingers next to the bank a little longer, then walks over to me as I a sit down at the base of the tree.
"You will ruin your dress if you aren't careful," he says.
I lay my head back against the bark. It's surprisingly smooth. "It's not my dress," I say.
I drift off, half-asleep.
An indeterminate amount of time later, the heavy breathing is very close. I feel a heavy hand nudge my shoulder, and I wake completely. Vader reaches down and pulls me to my feet. "Now, we will talk to the Emperor."
Palpatine is still inside, speaking with the guests thronging around him. Vader walks straight through the crowd, expecting them to move at his arrival, and they comply quickly. I follow behind him as he makes his way to the Emperor.
"Lord Vader," Palpatine says amiably, "how progresses your evening so far?"
Vader barely hesitates before he answers, "It is a sufficient diversion, Emperor."
"Is your young guest looking forward to the fireworks display?" Palpatine looks at me and smiles kindly, but there is a knowing, wicked glint in his eyes, shadowed as they are by his hood.
"Unfortunately not, master. She has a long journey home to make."
"She does not wish to share in the climax of our celebrations?"
"The young lady is already very tired from the festivities, which she enjoyed."
The Emperor leans in toward me, taking my hands. I try not to pull away, but his eyes are boring into mine and he smells like...something wrong.
"I only paid for dinner," I say to him. "It wouldn't be right to attend the diversions I didn't sign up for."
The Emperor laughs. "You're learning quickly, young one. Very well, I wish you a safe journey. You may escort her to her shuttle, Lord Vader."
"Yes, my master."
As we leave and the fawning nobility pour back into the space we no longer occupy, I make the mistake of casting one last glance at Palpatine. He's still smiling at me.
Vader drops me off at the shuttle waiting on a landing pad beyond the palace, secluded from the other ships the Emperor's guests arrived in. Maybe this is Lord Vader's personal landing spot, I think.
I don't know how to proceed, especially with what appears to be the three snowtroopers that brought me here standing at attention around the shuttle's entry ramp. Vader touches my shoulder in a conciliatory gesture and says, "The clothing that you arrived in is already on board."
"What about what I'm wearing right now?"
"It won't be missed," he said with a dismissive gesture.
"I didn't do too badly, did I?"
He leans back a bit, as if considering a loaded question, but answers honestly. "You were quite terrible, actually, but that is good for me. No one will think someone like you to be my mistress or concubine. They will assume that you have a powerful relative with which the Empire is seeking favor, and I will avoid unnecessary rumors."
"Oh." I decide to cut off the conversation right there with a short bow of the head, and walk up the shuttle ramp.
"She is my honored guest," Vader tells the snowtroopers. "Treat her as such."
"Yes, sir," the leader, or so I assume, says.
They enter behind me, and the ramp closes.
This time, I'm awake for the journey. At first I marvel as we break the atmosphere and emerge in space, but after about a half hour, I grow bored. After entering hyperspace, there isn't much to look at when the viewports are closed to protect us from the dizzying, maddening swirl.
The snowtroopers sit across from me, pure military in their posture.
"Can I get your autographs?" I ask them.
They look at me blankly, but that could just be the masks and goggles.
"Please?" I implore. "Lord Vader did say I was an honored guest."
They can't argue with that trump card. After a bit of searching around the compartment, they find some flimsi and sign it to me, "From the 501st, Death Squadron," and put down their names and ranks.
After that, we talk a bit about the Empire and the Rebellion, and how their daily lives run. When something is classified they don't answer and steer me away from the topic. I ask them to take their helmets off and they do, confirming that there really are guys under there.
At some point, I fiddle with my jewelry and hope that the diamonds I'm wearing are the same as Earth diamonds, because if they are I'm going to be rich when I get back. And my dress must run for something, too.
Well into our journey, the pilot calls to one of the troopers and he gets up and enters the cockpit. I try to listen to their conversation. The pilot sounds confused, and the trooper is trying to reason with him. Their exchange becomes a little more heated, barely contained.
When the trooper returns, I ask, "What's wrong?"
"We can't locate the proper trajectory to your home planet."
"What?" I squawk.
He pauses uncertainly, but then decides there's no point in keeping me in the dark. "There was this...shortcut that opened between our galaxy and yours, but it's not there anymore."
"It's gone? How can it be gone? Didn't you guys know if it was stable or not?" I cry.
"I'm not a scientist," he says. "I just carry out what assignments they give me."
I can feel my chest starting to hurt with stress. I can't be stranded with a bunch of...space fascists. It's only fun when you know you're going home eventually.
"How can you carry out your assignment if I can't get to my planet?!" I demand.
He looks to the other two. "We have back-up orders," he says simply.
"Plan B," another one elucidates, "in the event that the shortcut vanishes."
"You guys knew this might happen?"
"We were just given orders for a contingency plan. We weren't informed of the odds for a successful Plan A."
The shuttle descends onto a large landing pad on Coruscant, which belongs to a great structure connected to the Emperor's palace.
"Lord Vader's Coruscant residence," I was told as we neared it.
A squad of stormtroopers is waiting for us. A large black shape stands among them, cloak whipping about his legs in the high planetary winds. I'm glad I kept my hair in its braid, despite the fact that it is starting to come undone and pull uncomfortably.
"How did she take the journey?" Vader asks the snowtrooper leader.
"Fairly well, Lord Vader. She cried a bit after Plan B was determined, but she seems to be fine overall."
Traitor, I think.
Vader turns to me, looking me over, no doubt wishing he could reach out to me through the Force and better examine my feelings.
"So, the Emperor really enjoys his jokes," I say bitterly.
"Yes," Vader agrees. "I wondered whether or not he knew how long the connection between our galaxies would last."
"You think he might have planned for me to be stuck here?"
"Or that he simply did not care if the connection would hold long enough for you to leave. Either way, it seems my suspicions were confirmed."
So when Vader bid me farewell on Naboo, he knew that there was a good chance that I'd never return home. And he made sure to provide his troops with a back-up plan, just in case. That plan being to take me to Coruscant, where he would be...waiting? Working obliviously unless I arrived?
I hate them both right now, Palpatine and Vader, for keeping me in the dark about their intentions and then watching me flail about as I'm drug from place to place.
"I imagine this must come a shock," Vader says.
I look up at him balefully, squinting in the harsh wind. "If you planned this far ahead, what happens now? What am I going to do?"
"I consider you, for the moment, my responsibility. I will pay for you to have an Imperial education, and you will be under my protection while I decide where you would fit in best." He pauses. "Is there some avenue in particular that you have interest in?"
What am I good at? I'm a college drop-out. I can't think of anything I do exceptionally well. "I…I don't know." And I doubt he would take kindly to my saying that I would rather not work for his tyrannical Empire.
"Then I will find a place for you." With that he turns on his heel, almost hitting me in the face with his cape. "Come."
I wave half-heartedly at my snowtrooper escort, who don't wave in return but give me nods as we part. Vader's stormtroopers fall in line behind us.
Even without the Force, Vader seems to sense my thoughts. "Let this be a lesson to you," he says. "Be careful what you bid on."
No kidding. I'm not just trapped in a galaxy far, far away. I'm trapped with the Sith Lord, too.