“An old hound, lying near, pricked up his ears
And lifted up his muzzle. This was Argos,
Trained as a puppy by Odysseus…
...when he knew he heard
Odysseus’s voice nearby, he did his best
To wag his tail…”
- The Odyssey, Book 17, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
By night, Coruscant was eternal.
It had been twenty-five years since Darth Vader had set foot in Galactic City. He had taken a few minutes before leaving the Destroyer to review old schematics of the district, so as to be able to judge of its alterations under the New Republic. He need not have wasted his time. From this vantage point atop the vacant Grand Colonnade of the former Imperial Palace, nothing noteworthy had changed since nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker’s first night on the planet. The same starscrapers still paraded across the city’s skyline, great grand-dames bound for the cosmic ballet crowned with their old tiaras of light and draped in their old necklaces of glittering traffic, their robes of silky steel—patched here, embroidered anew there—falling, down, down into folds and pleats of shadow, until the reeking black abyss of the underworld swallowed their hems in decay. As a child, when the Temple’s purified confines became too much, he’d used to steal away down into the lower levels to the garbage pit races. Deep calling to deep; dark to dark; he’d always known where he belonged. Except, briefly...
Old habit sprang mutinously to the helm and tacked his gaze northward. Beyond the great squatted dome of the old Senate building leapt a silver column of clustered, arched spires, a poem in transparisteel and ceramicrete which some philistine of a bureaucrat had named the “Senate Apartment Complex.” Specks of light reflected in his lenses as he focused on the penthouse suite of the westernmost pinnacle. Some inferior seraph, presumably, now occupied the chambers once sanctified by the whispering tread of a more splendid angel—had it been only fifty years ago? It seemed like a ruin of the ancient past, gone out of all living memory. None but he still remembered that pan-flash of time when a young fool Jedi and a young fool girl had lived there and been happy; and even to him it seemed like a dream someone else had told him about…
Lost in bleak contemplation, it was some minutes before he noticed the disturbance in the Force. A mere eddy in the torrential currents generated by Coruscant’s overpowering concentration of lifeforms, yet to an adept of his experience, its meaning was clear: he was no longer alone on this balcony.
Turning leisurely—he sensed no threat, and even if he had he was still Darth Vader—he extended both sight and thought though the fragmented shadows of the colonnade, spreading his nets in the flow of the Force, seeking the intruder. Presently, he frowned to himself. Pinpointing the location of any one lifeform was always far more troublesome on Coruscant than elsewhere, and after twenty-five years’ absence he could allow himself to be somewhat out of practice; but nevertheless, he ought to be able to isolate a life-force that was standing on this very balcony—
Unless, of course, this presence had no life-force.
He turned his back on the colonnade again, scolding himself for not having foreseen this invasion in time to prevent it. “What are you doing here? Return to your master.”
A faint whirr of treads behind him, some few meters away, followed by a soft warble.
OPERATIONAL STATUS REPORT: I am assigned to serve PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER .
“Anakin Skywalker is dead. He has no use for you.”
An indignant little squawk went up behind him. In his peripheral vision a meter-high barrel-shaped form detached from the shadows and trundled up to him. He felt a nudge at his right boot, but refused to budge or even look down. If he simply ignored it, eventually—
A bolt of electricity jolted up his right thigh, and he glared down at Artoo, who was just retracting his arc welder tool.
OBJECTION: If you had experienced destruction, it would be impossible for you to respond to neural stimulation. ADDITIONAL OBJECTION: I am always useful.
Silence intervened, but for the endless distant blaring of traffic. Finally Vader shifted his weight and crossed his arms. “I never said you were not.”
A dry little blatt. VEILED THREAT: You’d better not have.
“And you,” Vader growled, “had best take care whom you threaten, droid.”
Artoo only twittered and ran a wheel firmly into his boot again. Vader stepped out of reach and then, after only a moment’s consideration, continued away down the rail, picking up momentum swiftly. The droid belonged to a past long gone, a past he did not wish to—
MEMORY LOG REPORT: 01.01.55877 2249:29GST: You directed me to maintain ETA2A11001 on standby, but you did not return.
Vader careened to an abrupt halt. The rasp of the air pump reverberated with insistence in the helmet’s audio receptors, and the accompanying hammer-stroke of oxygen felt suddenly suffocating, as it had when he was still unused to a respirator. He stood in dead silence for a full minute, fist clenching, before he turned to finally face the droid. “I did return.”
Many months later, true, and altered beyond all recognition—but he had gone back to Mustafar. The Eta-2 had still been there on the landing pad, so pitted by magma spray and corroded by exposure to fumes it had felt bitterly like looking in a mirror. But it had been there alone. He pointed an accusing finger at the droid. “ You disobeyed my instructions to wait with the ship.”
Artoo warbled again, low and sad. MEMORY LOG REPORT 01.02.55877 1933:10GST: Received report from SECONDARY: OBI-WAN KENOBI that PRIMARY: PADME AMIDALA was experiencing extreme dysfunction and required immediate assistance. Essential Priority Override engaged 01.02.55877 1933:14GST to provide navigational services to nearest medical facility. MEMORY LOG REPORT 01.03.5587: Medical intervention failed to—
—restore critical functions. Termination of—
“I said enough—”
—operational period for PRIMARY: PADME AMIDALA occurred at—
“ Do not speak of her!” Vader flung a hand out. The droid rocketed up into the air with a squeal and then fell silent, but too late—its mere presence now struck him like a lash, raising old, foul memories like great welts. He shoved it to the edge of the balcony and tipped it forward, giving a blunt view of the only nearly bottomless drop. “If you mention the past again, that is your future.”
Artoo’s dome rotated to face him. SYSTEM STATUS REPORT: Rocket boosters non-operational. ASSESSMENT: Your proposed action will result in termination of my operational period.
“Good,” Vader snarled. “I will be rid of your insolence permanently.”
DATA EXTRAPOLATION: If you render me non-functional, I will no longer be able to provide services to PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER. He has frequently demonstrated aversion to this potential outcome.
Luke. The thought pierced the fog of wrath and pain. Artoo was Luke ’s droid now; had been for almost thirty years. Had been with him over the Death Star, and through the Force knew how many dogfights and skirmishes since. But for Artoo, Luke might have been dead before Vader had ever heard the boy’s name; might never have been born, or even conceived for that matter.
With a faint chink of metal on stone, the astromech landed back on all three treads on the balcony.
“Go .” He closed both hands over the rail, empty stare wandering over the cityscape without seeing anything. “Return to Luke. Leave me.”
A long pause, in which Artoo went absolutely nowhere. Perhaps the droid believed some sort of reconciliation would be forthcoming. As if he would ever consider proffering apologies to what was, at bottom, a Corellian army knife with a brain...and even if, theoretically, he did entertain such a ludicrous notion...where would he begin? With the Jedi, with Obi-Wan, with Padmé even, there had at least been some sort of provocation for his betrayal. But not with Artoo.
Yet the droid had come back to him anyway. With any ordinary artificial intelligence he would have put it down to mere programming. With Artoo, he could only assume that thirty years with Luke had left their mark.
“Do not pretend you did not hear me,” he said finally. “Go back to Luke.”
SITUATIONAL REPORT: It is 0231 hours local time. PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER is sleeping and does not require my services.
“I do not require your services,” Vader muttered.
OBSERVATION: I did not offer any services.
Vader twisted sharply on one heel. “Then what was your purpose in invading my privacy?”
Artoo chirruped insolently. DATABANK REFERENCE: You don’t own this balcony.
Vader pointed at him. “I used to, droid.”
Now a decidedly sarcastic chirp. MEMORY LOG REPORT: You used to have organic limbs too. I used to have rocket boosters. OBSERVATION: Obsolete data is irrelevant to present computations.
“Why do you think I refuse to discuss the past?” Vader retorted. “And what is this nonsense that you used to have rocket boosters? Do you not still?”
A complicated, aggravated-sounding string of whistles. SYSTEM STATUS REPORT: As I said, rocket boosters are non-operational.
“For how long?”
MEMORY LOG REPORT: Rocket booster system failure occurred on 10.29.55889.
Over thirty-five years ago? “What happened?”
MEMORY LOG REPORT: They broke.
Vader crossed his arms, looming. “That is not a sufficient explanation. What is stated in your maintenance log?”
Artoo tootled innocently. ACCESSING: Maintenance Log Entry #35444872.2bn33.12.A17… | ERROR | [reattempting] ACCESSING: Maintenance Log Entry #35444872.2bn33.12.A17.... | ERROR | [reattempting] ACCESSING: Maintenance Log Entry #35444872.2bn33.12.A17....| ERROR |
Vader pointed at him. “You attempted to operate them in high-gravity conditions again, didn’t you?”
Artoo went suspiciously silent.
“If I have told you once I have told you a thousand times. Those boosters were intended for use in a zero-g vacuum environment or for emergency ejection. You cannot race with them.”
Artoo gave a sullen little toot. DATABANK REFERENCE: I know that now .
Vader relented. “Why did you not request Luke to make repairs?”
MEMORY LOG REPORT 07.13.55875: You procured my current rocket installations illegally from a government weapons factory and instructed me to keep that information classified to avoid the possibility of negative outcomes.
He’d forgotten that. For that matter, he’d forgotten that there had ever been a time in his life when he would have bothered to conceal such a miniscule transgression. “So that is why you are disrupting me.”
DATA EXTRAPOLATION: You could fix them for me.
Vader crossed his arms. “I will do no such thing. You have had enough custom modifications for one lifetime.” Besides which, robbing a government military contractor for the requisite spare parts sounded like an excellent way to blow his tenuous truce with the New Republic and his daughter to hell. If he did that, it would be for a far better reason than placating an impertinent droid.
He waited for the inevitable argument, but Artoo merely backed up and swiveled his dome at him, almost admiringly. OBSERVATION: You have acquired very extensive custom modifications yourself.
“Mine are essential hardware,” Vader said. “And flattery will gain you nothing.”
QUERY: Do you have rocket boosters?
“Do not be ridiculous.” A minute later he spoke up again, a little hesitantly. “However, I did install electromagnetic plates in my foot prosthetics. It enables me to board ships from vacuum.”
Artoo made an impressed bleep. ANALYSIS: That would have been very useful in several missions during the Clone Wars.
“It has been useful on many occasions since.” After a quite long pause, he let his right hand come to rest on Artoo’s dome. “As I make no doubt you have been, droid.”
Artoo veritably purred. MEMORY LOG REPORT: Yes. I have saved the galaxy 34.72 times.
“I will take your word for it.” They stood side by side for some seconds, watching a snarl form in the Empress Teta Skyway and slowly unravel, Vader’s thumb idly tracing a seam of Artoo’s plating. “Droid…”
Vader stared northward again toward the glittering shaft of the Senate Apartment Complex. “Were you...did you observe when...my children were born?”
Artoo flicked his dome alertly. MEMORY LOG REPORT 01.02.55877: Initial boot of PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER occurred at 0422GST, followed by initial boot of PRIMARY: LEIA ORGANA SOLO at 0436GST . Would you like me to relay further details from the memory log?
Vader’s hand stilled. “Not today,” he said at last.
Artoo twittered a brief affirmative.
“But...perhaps someday.” Artoo chortled another affirmative. He gave the droid’s dome a hesitant pat before returning his hands to a more natural pose hooked into his belt.
He felt more than saw Artoo’s dome swiveling back and forth, giving a very human impression of thoughtfulness. Eventually he produced a long and complicated whistle. OBSERVATION: I have recorded many memory log entries concerning PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER and PRIMARY: LEIA ORGANA SOLO. Perhaps you would like me to relay them to you.
“I would value such information.”
CONDITION: If you fix my rocket boosters.
“No. That is final.”
Artoo gave a resentful blurt, which Vader disregarded. It was unwise to negotiate with any droid, but especially with Artoo-Detoo. Give the droid a millimeter and he would take a—
OBSERVATION: I have also logged many records concerning PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER.
Vader turned an incredulous look down. “Do you think you can blackmail me, droid?”
Artoo’s one eye leveled at him with the sangfroid of a seasoned Outer Rim mercenary. ASSESSMENT: Yes.
“What do you imagine you can reveal that would make the galaxy think worse of me than it already does?”
REPLY: Your third variant.
Which little comment instantly knocked him back twenty-nine years to the Devastator ’s bridge, then punted him forward four years to the second Death Star, and finally deposited him back in the present, reeling and vaguely nauseous. The droid couldn’t mean that—surely he would have noticed if—if she had been carrying—even twins was barely within the bounds of belief—but triplets?
No. Inconceivable. In every sense of the word.
“You are in error,” he thundered, wishing he didn’t feel quite so much like a Jawa trying to sell itself on its own junk merchandise. “I have no third variant.”
Artoo backed up with a coy twist of his wheels. MEMORY LOG REPORT 09.01.55925: I observed your reaction this afternoon when PRIMARY: LEIA ORGANA SOLO offered you a diplomatic assistant for the negotiations. OBSERVATION: You retreated 0.783 meters when greeted by your variant COUNTERPART: C-3PO.
MEMORY LOG REPORT 03:13:55864 1143GST: First memory log reference for COUNTERPART: C-3PO. Unit constructed by PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER [supporting reference: “I’m building a droid, you wanna see?”] CONCLUSION: COUNTERPART: C-3PO constitutes a non-biological variant.
Vader managed, with difficulty, to swallow around a suddenly dryer-than-usual throat. “Droid, that is ridiculous.”
ASSESSMENT: Yes. It is extremely ridiculous. So very, very ridiculous. OBSERVATION: I believe that PRIMARY: HAN SOLO and many others would be greatly interested to view Memory Log Report 03.13.55864.
“A pleasure of which they will regrettably remain deprived,” Vader growled, “since I am going to remove that data from your banks myself tonight .”
He advanced on the droid, but Artoo scooted back with an urgent whistle. ASSESSMENT: Not possible. I have stored full system and memory backups in multiple secure locations per my operational parameters. MEMORY LOG REPORT: Which you should know, since you are the one who programmed me to circumvent memory wipe procedures.
“Did I also program you to engage in criminal activity?”
Artoo twisted in the astromech version of a shrug. SYSTEM SETTINGS REPORT: Custom programming dated 11.15.55875 includes an Emergency Override Protocol which permits me to innovate outside directives lower than A3 priority status. MAINTENANCE LOG REPORT: All custom programming dated between 02.22.55874 and 01.01.55877 completed by PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER. CONCLUSION: Yes, you did.
“In that case,” said Vader, reaching for his lightsaber, “I will simply dismantle you for scrap.”
Artoo gave a bold hoot. ERROR: Not possible. Proposed action faces 99.99% probability of disapproval by PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER.
“Your point?” Vader growled.
MEMORY LOG REPORT 07.07.55900 1433GST: ENDOR SYSTEM: You performed a Full System Reset upon request from PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER. This is an A1 priority status directive. HYPOTHESIS: You have designated LUKE SKYWALKER as a PRIMARY authorizer in your operational programming, and will therefore be strongly averse to actions he disapproves. Just like me.
Was his memory going, or had Artoo actually gotten this much more insolent since Mustafar? “Speculate all you wish,” Vader retorted, “but that does not make it so.”
DATABANK REFERENCE: That is why I designed an experiment to verify the hypothesis.
“What experiment did you—”
MEMORY LOG REPORT 09.02.55925: I provoked you to throw me off the balcony and then referenced the probability of disapproval by PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER. You aborted your initial action. CONCLUSION: Hypothesis verified. DATA EXTRAPOLATION: If you make further threats against me, you are bluffing.
Dead silence reigned over the balcony as absolutely and repressively as Palpatine had, and for a similarly intolerable length of time, while Vader debated his options.
His nonexistent options.
Damn the droid.
He ground his teeth. “ If I agree to repair your boosters, I require a guarantee that this...information will be permanently deleted.”
OBJECTION: I cannot delete memory logs.
“You mean that you will not.”
COUNTER-OFFER: I will flag the relevant logs for your access only.
Vader considered. “Unacceptable. I will review your logs and determine which are to be flagged.” He leveled a finger at Artoo before the droid could shriek protests at him. “I know you too well, droid. You will not be given a second opportunity of this nature.”
Artoo eyed him a moment. COUNTER-OFFER: If you want to review all files, then you must provide complete maintenance. Not just fixing the rocket boosters.
Vader glared at him. “Does Luke provide you with no maintenance?”
Artoo nudged his boot affectionately. DATABANK REFERENCE: He is a good mechanic, but you are better.
Vader sighed away from his vocabulator’s pickup. “Very well, droid. It is a deal. But if you mention this to anyone, know that I will destroy you circuit by circuit.”
Artoo chirruped. AFFIRMATIVE.
“Go now, before Luke sees that you are missing. And do not be late in providing me a complete and current copy of your memory logs for my review.”
The droid made a cheeky blurt. OBSERVATION: Droids are never late. We arrive precisely when we mean to.
“And do precisely what you wish to.”
OBSERVATION: Funny, that’s what SECONDARY: OBI-WAN KENOBI always said about you.
Vader rotated and bestowed a death glare on the droid over crossed arms. “Do not push your good luck.”
MEMORY LOG REPORT: You have said 5,982 times that there is no such thing as luck.
SITUATIONAL REPORT: I’m going. RECOMMENDATION: Keep your helmet on.
“Do you wish to singlehandedly drive me back to the Dark Side?” Vader demanded. “Because you are this close, droid.”
Artoo gave a suddenly long and mournful coo. OBSERVATION: No. MEMORY LOG REPORT: Last time you were absent for 48.26 standard years. MEMORY LOG REPORT: I missed you, PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER.
Vader unhooked his arms, swung them undecidedly for a moment and then stuck his thumbs in his belt emphatically. “Your intrusion tonight was...not entirely unpleasant.”
It was as much as he could bring himself to say aloud. Artoo would simply have to understand his meaning.
The droid cooed again and butted into his leg, rather like an overgrown armored tooka. Vader gave in and patted his dome once more. “Do not expect me to make a habit of this, droid.”
Artoo made another of his smug little whistles. CALCULATION: It is 72.6% probable that you will.
“And on what do you base such a calculation?”
OBSERVATION: I’m irresistible.
“Incorrigible,” Vader corrected him.
Artoo’s delighted whistling cut over the traffic, and he did not smile.
He did not.