Darth Vader felt the boy's screams, more than he heard them. He felt, more than saw, the jagged blue energy bolts of the Emperor's attack as they seared through Luke Skywalker's body and mind.
He is dying, Vader thought.
Another attack wrenched a twisting howl from Skywalker's lips, and Vader almost stumbled from the impact. He forced himself to focus on the visual, on the scene presented to him by the viewing screens inside his mask. He tried to be calm and analytical, to feel only critical interest as he watched the pattern of Emperor Palpatine's lightning bolts, dancing around and through Skywalker's writhing form.
Luke's howls formed into words. Struggling to sit up, and reaching toward Vader, he screamed, "Father! Please!"
More lightning seared into Luke, and he fell back again. The Emperor paused in his attack, and for a moment the only sounds in the throne room were Vader's mechanised breathing, and Luke's tortured gasps.
Vader stared down at his son.
Luke's face was reddened with anguish, his eyes squeezed shut. He was huddled into a foetal position, and the sight hit Vader with an unexpected surge of guilt.
I have never been there for him, Vader thought. Never. He hadn't even been there when Luke and Leia's mother was pregnant with them. He hadn't even known.
It wasn't my fault, he insisted stubbornly.
No, it wasn't his fault. But still --
Still. He couldn't get away from it. If he'd never been there for Luke before, he had to stand by him now.
The Emperor said, in a cold, emotionless tone, "now, young Skywalker, you will die."
Blue lightning soared out of Palpatine's hands. Luke screamed, and Vader felt his son's life burning away.
As Vader took one step toward the Emperor and Luke, his mind seemed totally unconnected to his actions. He started to reach for the Emperor, to drag him away from Luke. But before he could grab hold of Palpatine, Luke twisted violently on the floor by Vader's feet, and one of Luke's legs brushed against Vader's right boot.
The contact sent Vader staggering back. He sucked in a breath, chills rushing through him as he realised what had happened.
When he and Luke had touched, an edge of Palpatine's attack had passed into him through Luke. Every nerve in Vader's body still tingled from the blast.
If I touch Palpatine, Vader thought, his attack would go into me. It could kill me. Then I'll be no use to Luke at all.
Suddenly he knew what to do.
He raised his right arm, from which the hand had been sliced in his own duel with Luke, moments before. He did not need the hand. His whole body seemed irrelevant. He was only the power surging through him -- a power stronger than he had ever felt it before.
Luke, he thought.
A bolt of crimson lightning sprang from the stump of Vader's wrist. It was followed by others, that leapt from Vader's form and for an instant swirled around him. The power coalesced into a vast wave of red light, and swept from Vader toward the Emperor.
The red wave shattered against the Emperor's lightning. Tendrils of red twined themselves around the blue. They pulled the blue lightning upward, away from Luke Skywalker's body.
The Emperor turned to face Vader.
Master and follower gazed at each other, through the pulsing wall of red and blue light.
There was no surprise on the Emperor's face. Surprise would have been too human. His yellow eyes, immense and unblinking, seemed to pierce through the light, through Vader's mask, into Vader himself.
Slowly, the Emperor smiled.
My friend. The Emperor's voice, heavy with mockery, writhed through Vader's mind. Vader felt Palpatine's presence squirm through him, twisting its way into each thought. It felt as though skeletal fingers, each burning with icy fire, were closing around his soul.
My friend. You've lost your way. Come with me. I can show you. I can help you find it again.
The fingers were closing tighter.
Come with me. You don't yet understand the power you can have, with me. Only with me. Come ...
The light shuddered and started to buckle. The Emperor's blue light pressed the red back, toward Vader.
It rushed at him. He flung up his arm again, and the light stopped, only inches away.
Power? Vader thought back. No, my Master. I've wasted my life for your power. I will waste it no more.
He seized at the presence inside him. Mentally, he pried at those fingers, at each tendril of thought, wrenching them away.
The light sprang back at the Emperor. A few isolated bolts of red broke loose from their blue opponents and swept into Palpatine's body. The Emperor stumbled backward and fell.
Vader gasped, falling to one knee. He stared at Emperor Palpatine. They were both weakening, Vader knew. The Emperor's voice in his mind was only a whisper now. But the power that surged through Vader, striking through him at Palpatine, was burning him from within. He wondered if he could incinerate his Master before he himself was a pile of ashes.
The battle of light still raged closer to Palpatine than to him. Occasional red flashes continued to break past the blue, striking at the Emperor. But their number was decreasing. Slowly, the blue side of the wall was growing stronger.
Behind him and to his right, Vader heard a groan and the sounds of Luke Skywalker struggling up to his hands and knees.
Luke, Vader thought. Luke, help me.
Palpatine had regained his feet. He held out both his hands, and the blue grew darker, until his form was almost invisible behind it. A tremor ran through the scarlet light, and then, slowly, the red started to fade.
Luke! I need you!
Vader did not see Luke move to stand beside him. But he felt it as another wave of power rose at his side, flowing into the battle and joining its strength with Vader's own.
He felt the boy's emotions as well. Wonder, amazement at the power he was wielding. Pain too, and fear, and anger, but all of them subsumed by the startled joy Luke felt in fighting at his father's side.
White light now gleamed alongside the red. The blue, in its turn, began to pale.
The Emperor took a step backward. Then another.
The blue light wavered.
Vader felt the heat of Palpatine's thoughts. You are mine, came Palpatine's voice, spiralling through all the pathways of Vader's mind.
You are no longer my Master, Vader replied.
One final tremor surged through the light, of all colours. Then the last of the blue light vanished.
The Emperor vanished with it.
Slowly, the red glow and the white faded from sight.
Vader drew in a breath, shakily rising to his feet. The power that had raged through him was slipping away. It was succeeded by exhaustion -- and by a weirdly unfamiliar feeling that at first he couldn't identify.
Fear? he wondered.
Why? Why be afraid now, when I wasn't before?
Suddenly he saw the answer to that question. With a jolt of wonder as strong as the wonder he had felt from Luke, he realised that ahead of him lay no certainties at all.
He was going to have to live his own life. "Yes, my Master" just wouldn't cut it any more.
Beside him, Vader heard Luke's strained, panting breaths. He turned his head and saw the young man doubled over in pain, arms clutched around his sides. "Luke?" Vader began, startled by the hesitancy in his own voice.
Luke was staring at the place where the Emperor had stood. There was nothing there. No sign of the robe Palpatine had worn; nothing.
"Is he dead?" Luke gasped out.
If he were, Vader felt sure he would have known it. This was not like that other time, when he had struck down Obi Wan Kenobi and had felt both the man and his essence slip into some realm that Vader could not reach.
Strange, Vader thought. I always seem to be striking down my Masters. There is a certain lack of imagination in my life pattern. He realised that he had not yet answered Luke's question.
"No." He sighed. "It won't be that easy for us. But he will need time to recover. We may have some time without him."
Painfully, Luke pulled himself upright. "Do you know where he is?" he asked.
Vader turned his feelings inward, to the echoes of the Emperor's presence. He tried to follow them, but the paths were very faint, swiftly fading into nothing. He shook his head.
"Far from here," he said. "Not on the Death Star. Unless he's shielding himself ... but I don't think he could. Not so soon."
"Father ... " Luke began.
His words were cut off, as eight men ran into the room. They were crimson from head to foot, masked, wearing full-length red robes. The Emperor's personal guard. The men brandished their blaster rifles at Luke and Darth Vader, but Vader could feel the confusion welling out of them. He could almost see it. Their beings pulsated with loss and fear.
The Emperor, Vader realised, must have held their minds in his grasp. His sudden flight had torn him from them.
Why had he not called for them during the battle? Was he simply too proud to accept that he might need mere human help?
One of the guards, levelling his rifle at Vader, demanded, "where is the Emperor?" His voice shook.
"He has fled," Vader said mercilessly. "He has betrayed you. He has betrayed us all."
The guards hesitated. "No," their leader said truculently. "You are lying, Dark Lord." His finger closed on the trigger.
Vader's thoughts tore the rifle from the man's grasp. It clattered to rest at the far end of the throne room. There was a chorus of yells from the guards. Three others moved to fire.
Three more rifles soared from their owners' hands, one spiralling down off the bridge of the Emperor's throne room into the Death Star's distant power core.
The four remaining blaster rifles were sliced from the guards' clutches in a green swathe of light. When the first guard started to fire, Luke must have used the Force to regain his lightsaber, which had been lying near the steps to Palpatine's throne. Now Luke leaped into the midst of the guards, annihilating their rifles with one swing of his saber before the men had time to even flinch back. Luke stepped away from them, deactivating his lightsaber and calmly standing, watching them.
Vader smiled internally. Showy, but effective. He could appreciate showiness himself.
The guards wavered uncertainly. Vader put a little gentle pressure on their throats, just enough to hold them there. He turned, strode to the nearest com panel and opened a channel to the Death Star's chief security officer. Moments later, the young Captain whom Vader had summoned appeared in the doorway, the white forms of six stormtroopers ranked behind him.
"Captain Faren," Vader greeted him pleasantly, "I commend your promptness. You are to place these officers under arrest."
Captain Faren gasped. "Under arrest, My Lord? The Emperor's guard?"
"The Emperor has fled. I am in command here, Captain. Do you understand?"
Captain Faren's swift review of his priorities was clearly readable on his face. "Yes, My Lord!" he said emphatically.
"Good. I am holding you personally responsible for these men, Captain."
"Yes, My Lord!"
The shocked guards made little protest as Faren and his stormtroopers herded them away.
Vader almost relaxed. He turned toward Luke, about to speak, when a sudden jolt shook the room around them. Luke stumbled and caught himself on one of the railings of the bridge.
Vader cursed under his breath. You never get a breeze without a sandstorm, he thought. That was no blow from the Force. It was the more mundane threat of a space station under attack.
Of course, he reminded himself, we're about to be destroyed. Again. I'd forgotten about that.
"Luke," he said wearily. "We have to stop the attack."
Luke stared at him in confusion. "Stop the attack?" he echoed.
Vader crossed to Luke, reaching out his one remaining hand and gripping his son's shoulder with perhaps more strength than he should have used. "Stop the attack," he repeated, more harshly than he had intended. "Before your friends destroy this station."
Luke blinked, and seemed to come halfway back to reality. "Maybe we can escape -- before they destroy it -- "
"Escape?" Vader's voice vibrated with scorn. He was suddenly furious, as he had not been in his battle with the Emperor. He had felt no anger then, only a blind determination not to give in. Now, he wanted to fling his son through a wall.
"Yes, Luke, we could escape. And what of the other thousands of lives on this station?" He let go of Luke's arm, only barely managing to restrain himself from hurling the boy away from him like so much garbage. "You are the good one in the family, aren't you, son? You belong to the Light Side of the Force, you never hate. And you don't care if thousands of beings perish!" He gave a short, dark chuckle. "How many have you killed, boy? All the lives of the Jedi, for all the lives on two Death Stars? It makes a father's heart proud to see his son follow in his footsteps."
Luke stared at him, blue eyes growing wide in something approaching horror.
And while I give my son a lecture, Vader thought, this station is going to be annihilated. He turned suddenly and swept back to the com panel, punching the buttons which opened an emergency, general broadcasting channel. He would be heard throughout the Death Star, over-riding all other signals. He would be heard in every ship of the fleet and in every Rebel ship as well, his visage appearing on every view screen.
"This is Lord Darth Vader, Commander of the Imperial Fleet." His voice was as powerful and authoritative as usual. "Cease firing. I repeat, cease firing. This station and all Imperial vessels, you are to power down your weapons and cease hostilities. Rebel fleet," he went on, "stop your attack. This station surrenders. We wish to negotiate a truce."
The panel before him suddenly lit up with a barrage of incoming signals. The audio inputs burst into chaotic life, with several hundred messages arriving simultaneously.
Vader looked away from the panel, to see Luke walking toward him. There was a wary look on the young man's face as neared his father, but he stepped resolutely into the transmission area, Vader moving aside to allow him to enter it.
"This is Commander Luke Skywalker," Luke said, in as firm a voice as his father's. "Rebel fleet, call off the attack. Admiral Ackbar, Lando, cease firing. Fall back. You must. The Death Star has surrendered."
Luke switched off the communication, turning to Vader with a quizzical expression. "I don't know if they'll go with this," he said. "They're not going to trust you. They'll think you're controlling me. What about the Imperials? Will they listen to you?"
"They will if they wish to continue breathing." He studied the identification codes of the incoming signals, and opened a channel to the transmission of the Admiral commanding the Imperial forces.
On the screen, Admiral Piett appeared white-faced and staring, standing on the deck of his Star Destroyer. Officers were milling behind him like short-circuiting droids. "Lord Vader," the Admiral croaked. "What -- Will you repeat your transmission?"
"I should not need to," Vader purred. "Admiral Piett, you have received an order."
"Yes, Lord, but -- but I don't understand -- "
"Cease fire, Admiral," continued Vader, with beautiful patience. "Break off hostilities, and withdraw to a safe distance from the Rebel Fleet."
The Admiral hesitated, clearly aware that he should not keep protesting, yet just as aware that in this case it was his duty to protest. "What has happened, My Lord?" he asked uneasily.
"The Emperor has fled. I am now in command, and I will put an end to this useless conflict." Frank disbelief broke through the fear on the Admiral's face, and Vader wryly reflected that he could not blame the man. Darth Vader, the champion of peace! It did not, on the whole, sound very likely.
"But My Lord, the Rebels are still firing -- "
"Then show our good faith by breaking off combat first, Admiral," and Vader cut off the transmission. He switched over to the transmission of Commander Jerjerrod, the officer nominally in command of the Death Star. The channel opened to reveal Jerjerrod in mid-scream, apparently demanding some explanation from a pale young junior officer who had his gaze fixed beyond Jerjerrod's shoulder and clearly longed desperately to be somewhere else.
"Forgive me for interrupting, Commander," said Vader.
Jerjerrod whirled to face the screen. "Lord Vader!" he gulped. The fear that Vader inspired in every sane officer momentarily wiped the fury from Jerjerrod's face. But he was clearly too outraged at Vader's actions to listen to his fear.
"What does this mean?" Jerjerrod demanded. "What are you doing? What gives you the right -- "
Jerjerrod was an idiot. Vader had thought so since the first day the Commander had intruded on his consciousness. This was going to be a pleasure. Ever so slowly, he took a mental grip on Jerjerrod's throat, watching with appreciation as his face reddened and his eyes started to bulge.
"You question my right, Commander?" Vader asked mildly. "I believe I still out-rank you. It is my command that this station surrender. Have you any objections?"
Jerjerrod gave a gurgling choke.
"Father." Luke's voice came quiet and urgent from Vader's side. "Father. Stop it. Please."
Damn, Vader thought. Of course. My sensitive little son thinks I'm Good again.
Reluctantly, he began to loosen his hold on Jerjerrod's windpipe. "The Death Star surrenders," Vader said calmly. He let go, and Jerjerrod lurched backward, sprawling on the metal floor. "Is that quite clear, Commander?" He noted Jerjerrod's jerky nod and hoarse gasp of acknowledgement, but could still read resistance in his eyes. Vader thought, if I'm going to make this work, I'll have to strangle the entire Fleet. When Luke isn't looking, of course.
Vader turned toward his son. "Your turn," he said.
With a sudden, surprised grin, Luke opened a channel to the Admiral of his own fleet. The Mon Calamari Admiral Ackbar appeared amidst a scene of uproar as great as on the Imperial Star Destroyer. The tentacles at the Admiral's chin quivered in his agitation. "Commander Skywalker!" he gasped out. " What is happening -- "
"It's all right, Admiral," Luke said, trying to sound calming. "It's true. The Emperor has been overthrown by Darth Vader. Vader wants a truce. He means it, Admiral --" Stress was starting to creep into Luke's voice, as he realised how ridiculous he was sounding. Darth Vader wants a truce. Yes, and it's snowing on Tatooine and the Hutts have started a weight-loss program. "He means it. Withdraw out of range, but stop firing. Call off the attack on the Death Star."
Vader stepped into the viewing range of the transmission. "Admiral Ackbar," he greeted the enemy commander, who jumped with shock at being addressed by Darth Vader. "You have my word. Once combat has ceased, all personnel will be evacuated from this station, and you may continue your destruction of this Death Star without interference. If you would trust me to do as I say, I myself would initiate the station's self destruct program. The Death Star is the dream of a madman. It has no place in a government which hopes for any peace with its people."
Admiral Ackbar gaped at the screen, his already prominent eyes seeming ready to leap off his the sides of his head. Then from behind him, a Rebel officer ran up, gesturing excitedly at the ship's viewports. "Admiral Ackbar! The Imperials are falling back! They're falling back!"
From offscreen, another voice shouted "I don't believe it! The Death Star's weapons are powering down!"
Vader allowed a moment for the upsurge of chaos, then he said dryly, "Admiral, I would like to arrange a meeting with the representatives of the Alliance. I will contact you again when the separation of our fleets is complete." He cut the transmission.
Luke was staring at him, with an expression wavering between hope, fear, and hero-worship. "I can't believe this," he whispered in awe. "I just can't believe this ... "
Neither can I, thought Darth Vader. He sighed heavily, looking at the boy.
I have a son, he thought. I have a son and a daughter. And both of them have very good reasons to hate me. And I'm trying to initiate a reconciliation process and bring peace to the galaxy -- peace! As if peace can ever exist when living beings are involved! -- and no one, no one is going to trust me.
Wherever he is, Vader thought, Obi Wan Kenobi is getting a very big kick out of this. Nothing in his life had been simple. Nothing, despite all of Obi Wan's preaching about the Dark Side being the easier path.
Nothing had been easy. But this, he realised, looking into the wide blue eyes of his son, was going to be the most difficult of all.
The clearing was filled with sullen stormtroopers. They were seated on the ground, most of them slumped, some with their chins on their hands, their gleaming white armour looking ludicrously out of place amid the vibrant green ferns. Some had removed their helmets, revealing faces that must seem, to their Rebel captors, surprisingly young, ill-nourished and miserable. Most were sweating profusely, and one kept up a quiet, steady litany of curses as he tried to slap away the insects that insisted on buzzing around his head. Nearby, their officer, in a grey-green Imperial uniform, stood leaning against one of this moon's enormous trees, scowling at his men and at life in general.
The soldiers had all been disarmed. They were being guarded by a handful of Rebel commandos and, far more embarrassingly, by several of those loathsome fuzzy creatures that had assisted the Rebels in their takeover. The Imperial officer glowered at the nearest of the pudgy little vermin, and longed to kick it across the clearing. It was chattering at him smugly, waving its tiny hand-made spear at his kneecap. The officer sighed and closed his eyes. If he did kick the damned beast, one of the Rebel guards would probably blast him. It really wasn't worth it. Almost, though, he thought wistfully. Almost. He could just hear the crunch the creature would make as it catapulted into a tree trunk.
At that moment the comlink on his wrist sputtered into life. From the sudden jumps of several of the stormtroopers, the same message was coming through the links in their helmets. The officer looked intently at his wrist comlink, ignoring a Rebel guard who raised his blaster and pointed it at him. According to the identification code flashing on the comlink's screen, the message coming through was a general emergency broadcast.
Then the officer jumped as well, and felt a cold, creeping sensation wriggle down his spine. The voice that spoke out of his comlink, even though made small and metallic through the link, was the unmistakable dark tone of Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith.
"This is Lord Darth Vader, Commander of the Imperial Fleet. Cease firing. I repeat, cease firing. This station and all Imperial vessels, you are to power down your weapons and cease hostilities. Rebel fleet, stop your attack. This station surrenders. We wish to negotiate a truce."
Imperial officer and Rebel commando stared at each other, both wearing identical looks of flabbergasted amazement. The clearing erupted in a jumble of startled conversation, everyone speaking at once, with most comments beginning along the lines of "what the hell?" One of the Rebels yelled, "shut up! There's more!" The officer put his comlink up to his ear, and sure enough, there was another voice, repeating a similar message. One of the Rebel leaders, it sounded like. He looked around the clearing, watching the distinctions between prisoners and guards temporarily evaporate as stormtroopers and Rebels yelled the same useless questions at each other.
More of the Rebels were running into the clearing, blasters in hand. At their head was the pretty, brown-haired Princess in her camouflage outfit, closely followed by the tall, scruffy man who seemed to be her sidekick. The Princess strode up to the Imperial officer. He noticed that she'd taken a blaster-shot in her left arm during the battle, but it didn't seem too serious. She raised her blaster toward his face. "What's going on?" she demanded.
"Do I know, Princess?" he asked sourly. "Not all members of the Imperial army are psychic, you know."
"Do you know anything about that message? Was it planned?"
"Princess, Darth Vader isn't in the habit of discussing his plans with me!"
She scowled impatiently and turned away from him. "We've got to hear the message again," she said to her companions. "Was anyone recording it ... ?"
The Princess was answered by blank, helpless looks from the others. Feeling awkward for having snapped at her, the Imperial officer said tentatively, "uh, Princess ... one of our Walkers is still intact, isn't it? The message will have come through on its link, and the Walker's computer records all messages automatically."
She turned back toward him, looking surprised. "Oh -- thanks. What's your name?" she asked.
"Arin Pellar, Your Highness." Officially, Commander Arin Pellar, but it looked like he wasn't going to be commanding much of anything for the foreseeable future.
She favoured him with a very small smile. "All right, Arin," she said, gesturing with her blaster, "let's you and me go visit your Walker. Han," she added to her sidekick, "get on the com to Admiral Ackbar. Find out what the hell's going on." Pellar and the Princess set out, several of the other Rebels falling into step behind them.
The two-legged AT-ST Walker was parked beside the smouldering ruins of what had until ten minutes ago been an Imperial bunker. As the Princess' group approached, the hatch at the top of the Walker opened, and a huge, hairy Wookiee emerged, waving wildly at the Princess and giving vent to a series of barks and howls. Pellar wasn't sure, but he thought the Wookiee sounded confused. Join the club, he thought.
"Chewie," the Princess called. "You heard the message?"
The Wookiee nodded, with several more barking noises. "Lower the Walker, Chewie," said the Princess. "We should be able to get the message to replay."
The Wookiee disappeared back down the hatch, and almost immediately the Walker's legs folded inward on themselves, bringing the cabin of the Walker down almost to ground level. Pellar helped boost the Princess up to the hatch, a process complicated by her trying not to put any weight on her injured arm. As Pellar scrambled into the hatch after the princess, with one of the Rebels following him, he tried not to let his thoughts dwell on the fact that his hands had briefly been in contact with the Princess' breasts. What a claim to fame, he thought. I've touched the breasts of Princess Leia Organa. That ought to keep me warm through all the long winter nights of my life.
Pellar swiftly located the message, then was elbowed aside as Princess, Wookiee and Rebel commando huddled over the Walker's view-screen, replaying the message over and over again. Catching a sight of the screen over Princess Leia's shoulder, Pellar was interested to note how young this Commander Luke Skywalker appeared. That's the guy who blew up the first Death Star? he wondered. Holy shit. Why the hell did we go and build another one, when any kid can blow it into smithereens?
The Princess sighed. She froze the message on a frame showing Skywalker's young, earnest features, and turned away from the screen, trying to shove some wisps of hair out of her face. "I don't know," she said wearily. "It looks and sounds like Luke, but I suppose with the transmission as distant as it is, we wouldn't be able to tell if the image had been tampered with. And Vader could be controlling him ... damn it, what's going on?"
Her friend Han appeared at the open hatch, dropping into the cockpit to join them. Pellar plastered himself back against a wall just in time to avoid Han stepping on his foot. Han handed the Princess a larger portable com-unit. "Here," he said, sounding just as irritable and confused as everyone else. "I finally got Ackbar for you."
She briefly smiled her thanks, then opened the transmission. "Admiral! Do you have any idea what's happening?"
A gruff voice emerged from the com-unit, but Pellar couldn't see the view-screen. "I'm sorry, Princess Leia," said the voice, "your guess is as good as ours. Vader's been in contact with us. He wants to meet to arrange a truce. So he says."
"A truce!" Leia almost screamed. "Admiral, you can't trust him! You know what the Empire's like, what sort of tactics they use. It's obviously a trap, you've got to continue the attack before it's too late -- "
"I know, Your Highness. That's what we all thought. But the Death Star has powered down its weapons, and the Imperial Fleet has withdrawn to the other side of the moon. There's some talk that the Emperor has been overthrown, or killed. I can't see that we have a choice. If there's a chance we can end this without further loss of life ... we're negotiating with Vader on where the meeting should be, who should be there. You'll be included, of course. For now, I believe it's safest if you remain on the moon, on guard, till we know more of the situation."
A look of deep pain touched the Princess' face. "Admiral," she said quietly, "we've lost a lot of good people trying to win this battle. If we lose now through letting Vader trick us, their spirits will never forgive us."
"I know, Your Highness," the voice sighed. "Be patient. We're doing everything we can." And the link was cut.
Princess Leia put down the com-unit, then she threw herself into the arms of Han. Lucky bastard, Pellar thought, maybe I should have joined the Rebellion. Only I guess there aren't enough Princesses to go around.
"Oh, Han," the Princess murmured, "I can't stand it. Where's Luke? What's he doing? Why doesn't he contact us?"
"I don't know," Han said softly. "Look, Leia, let's get out of here. We'll get your arm tended to." This time Han was the one who helped Leia through the hatch, and Pellar remained forlornly in the background, wondering if anyone was going to notice him again. Someone did, eventually; the Wookiee prodded Pellar with a bowcaster and gestured for Pellar to precede him out of the Walker. Pellar sighed and obeyed.
Outside, twilight was beginning to fall. As he joined his men back in the clearing -- he sat down this time, no longer bothering to assert his officer status by remaining standing -- Pellar saw the glint of the Death Star in the purpling sky. What is happening up there? he wondered. His men, praise all the Powers, were nervously avoiding him; he didn't think he could take much more of people asking him what was going on.
The fuzzy natives of the moon were scurrying about, setting up large torches around the edges of the clearing so that the prisoners could be guarded through the night. When it was almost fully dark, purple sky blending inevitably into black, a larger contingent of the furry animals arrived, bearing two large cauldrons suspended from poles. They delivered one to the side of the clearing where Leia and her followers were sitting, and more grudgingly deposited the other next to the cluster of stormtroopers. Piles of wooden bowls were left beside the gently steaming cauldron.
"Sir," began one of the stormtroopers hesitantly, nodding toward the cauldron, "is it all right if we ... "
Pellar nodded. "Go ahead," he said flatly. He himself was not hungry. He had heard rumours that these furry beasts ate humans, and he really didn't fancy any stormtrooper stew.
Across the clearing, Han Solo was gingerly dipping a ladle into the other cauldron, and eyeing the ladle's contents with almost equal trepidation. It looked like vegetables, anyway. He devoutly hoped it was. Having come close to being dinner last night, he had his own doubts about Ewok cookery. "I guess it's safe," he muttered, ladling stew into a bowl and handing it to Leia.
"Thanks." Her voice was very quiet. Han reluctantly served some stew for himself, then passed the ladle to the man sitting next to him. Han settled back against a tree trunk beside Leia, being sure to avoid bumping against her injured arm. He took a tentative slurp of the stew, decided that yes, it probably was vegetables, and looked over at Leia. Her face looked wan, almost ghostly in the flickering torchlight.
"Hey," said Han, trying to sound cheerful. "Come on, this stew ain't that bad."
"I know, Han," she sighed, turning a faint smile on him. Her eyes were huge and dark, filled with concern. "Han," she whispered, "I'm so worried about Luke. If he's all right, he should have contacted us by now. What if Vader's gotten to him, forced him to send that message? He could be a prisoner, now, or -- "
"Hey, take it easy," urged Han, bending down to kiss Leia's forehead. "Luke's okay. He can take care of himself." Which was something Han firmly didn't believe, but it was what had to be said.
"Maybe," said Leia. She rested her head on Han's shoulder, the bowl of stew lying forgotten in her hand. Han tried rather awkwardly to stroke Leia's hair, again without brushing against her wounded arm. I really should be sitting on the other side of her, he thought, but it would kind of take the spontaneity out of things if he got up to sit on her other side.
The problem suddenly decreased in importance, as they heard a call from a guard at the other side of the clearing. "Princess Leia! General Solo! Someone approaching!" Leia stood up, as did Han, who barely avoided spilling stew over himself. Beyond the torches, they could see a human-sized figure walking toward them, surrounded by Ewoks who ran along on either side, chirping excitedly. The figure and its entourage stepped into the clearing and the light, and Leia cried out delightedly, "Lando!"
The figure called, "Leia! Han!" and waved at them, pausing as he almost tripped over an Ewok.
Leia hurried toward Lando. Han followed, almost not jealous as he watched Leia clasp Lando Calrissian's hand, and Lando bend down and kiss Leia on both cheeks. Calrissian looked as spruce as ever, and Han wondered how his old friend managed to emerge from every crisis looking like a gentlemen's clothing advertisement.
"Hey, old buddy," greeted Han, punching Lando's shoulder. "Still with us, hunh? My ship still in one piece?"
"Mostly," Lando said a little shamefacedly. He stroked his moustache, trying to regain his usual suave air.
"Mostly?" Han squawked.
Lando found a diversion. Looking in distaste at the Ewoks that were still milling around his legs, he asked, "what are these things?"
Leia smiled tolerantly at the disgust in Lando's voice. "They're Ewoks, Lando," she said. "They live here."
"They do, hunh? Sooner them than me."
Leia took Lando's arm. "Come on," she said, "come sit down. Have some stew." At the mention of stew, Han cast an eloquent look at Lando over Leia's head.
"Scenic Endor," Han muttered, "culinary centre of the galaxy. You don't wanna know how close we came to being this stew last night."
"I can't wait to try it," Lando said warily.
When they were all seated, and Lando was supplied with his own bowl of stew, Leia said, "Lando, we have almost no idea what's going on up there. I can't get a straight answer out of anyone. Do you know anything? Have you seen Admiral Ackbar?"
"Yeah, I've seen him," Lando answered. "I couldn't really get much sense out of him either. It's a circus up there, Leia. No one knows what to think; you never saw so many rumours grow so quickly. The Emperor's dead, no, he's not, he's just fled, Darth Vader's taken control, Luke's taken control, Vader's controlling Luke, Luke's controlling Vader, the Emperor's controlling everybody ... " he shook his head, staring disconsolately into his stew. "We were that close," he murmured. "That close. We were gonna win, you could sense it, we had that damn Death Star. We were already in the shaft, we'd gotten past you-don't-want-to-know-how-many defences, we'd been shooting down TIE fighters left, right and centre ... Another ten seconds -- well, maybe twenty -- okay, thirty, maybe, but no more than that. And then there's Ackbar ordering us to withdraw. Withdraw! Damn it, Han, we had the bastards! The Death Star would have been space dust!"
"So would Luke," Leia reminded him.
"Yeah," groaned Lando. He turned to Leia. "Ackbar's talked with him personally, apparently, but I haven't. Have you -- "
Both Leia and Han gloomily shook their heads. "Damn," Lando sighed. "I just don't get it. How the hell could Luke and Vader work together ... ?"
Leia said, in a tense, quiet voice, "it is possible."
Both men looked at her questioningly. Almost pleadingly, Leia gazed up at Han.
"I should have told you before, Han," she began. "But -- I couldn't. I'd only just found out myself, and --"
"Hey, Leia, it's okay. You tell us when you want to."
She stared down at her hands. "When Luke left here last night, he said he was going to try and -- bring Vader back to the Light Side."
"What! Luke's crazy! He couldn't bring an Ewok to the Light Side, never mind the Dark Lord of the fucking Sith!"
She shook her head. "There was a chance. He -- you see --" she looked up at them again. "Han, Lando, this is going to sound very strange. Just be calm, okay? Don't explode on me. Let me finish before you start shouting."
Wordlessly, they nodded. Han reached out and clasped Leia's right hand.
"Luke," Leia said, "is Darth Vader's son."
The two men made inarticulate sounds, which they both managed to cut off before the sounds turned into words.
"Vader used to be Anakin Skywalker. He was a Jedi, a pupil of Obi Wan Kenobi before the Emperor turned Anakin to the Dark Side. Luke thought there was a chance to bring him back. He said he'd felt goodness in Vader -- conflict -- he thought that Anakin wasn't really lost to us ... "
Her voice faded out. Han gripped her hand more tightly.
"There's more," Leia continued. "Luke told all of this to me because -- because we're family. Luke is my twin brother."
Han stared at her. "Your brother ... " he whispered.
"But -- wait a minute," breathed Lando. "That means -- doesn't it -- "
Princess Leia looked solemnly at them. "Yes," she said. "Darth Vader is my father."
On the Super Star Destroyer Executor, Admiral Piett had been pacing along the same three metres of deck for the past twenty minutes. Four steps in one direction, turn on his heel, four steps back again, another turn, over and over ad nauseam. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back; he supposed he really ought to unclasp them, as he was going to lose circulation in them if he didn't. In the last three minutes, his pacing had gotten somewhat faster, as had his heartbeat and, though he was trying very hard to regulate it, his breathing. Three minutes was how long it had been since one of his officers informed him that Darth Vader had been in contact with them, and was going to pay Piett a visit.
Piett's world was rapidly disintegrating around him, but really, he supposed, that wasn't much of a loss. He'd already lived several months longer than he'd expected to when he was promoted to Admiral. That kind of promotion, with Lord Vader around, was pretty much equal to a death sentence. You might, if you were lucky, avoid the Dark Lord's wrath for a few days, maybe for weeks or months, but sooner or later something would go wrong, you'd be the one with responsibility, and crunch, the bones in your neck would start snapping and your windpipe would start closing in on itself, and if Vader was really trying to make a point, he'd fling you across the room into a bulkhead rather than simply strangling you on the spot.
Piett had spoken once, years ago, with an officer who'd been strangled by Vader and had survived due to a timely distraction. The man's account still haunted Piett. He had a vivid imagination, and he wished that he did not. He could already hear all his bones breaking, one by one, could visualise his veins bursting, his eyes bulging from their sockets ... Oh, Gods. What was he doing here? Why hadn't he stayed at home and taken over the store like Dad had wanted him to? You might get bored running a trading post in a star system most people had never heard of, but at least you seldom had Jedi lords dropping by to choke you to death.
"Sir?" came the voice of Lieutenant Morn. "Lord Vader's shuttle has just arrived in the Docking Bay."
Stop pacing, unclasp your hands, and try to breathe steadily. After all, this is probably the last chance you'll have to breathe at all.
Admiral Piett was standing at attention when Vader swept onto the Star Destroyer's main bridge, the Dark Lord's cape billowing out impressively behind him as he strode. At the corner of his vision, Piett could see his officers trying to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. Bastards, he thought glumly. Just you wait. Once he's strangled me, one of you is next in the queue.
In front of Piett, Vader stopped, black-gloved hands resting on his belt, and said, "Admiral Piett. Might I speak with you in private?"
Piett's innards lurched. Private? Usually Vader liked an audience for his killings, so he could make an example of them. Surely there wasn't any form of killing so gruesome that Vader didn't like being watched at it? Then again, who knew how Vader thought?
"Of course, My Lord," Piett said, glad to hear that his voice wasn't emerging as a squeak. "Come into my office."
In the office, Piett offered Vader a seat, which the Dark Lord politely declined. Piett thought, maybe he doesn't think he looks intimidating enough sitting down. Though Hell, I'd certainly still be intimidated. Piett couldn't possibly offer his guest a drink, either, not without sounding insulting. So, though his own throat was parched, Piett tried to ignore it. He stood awkwardly and waited for Vader to say something.
"Admiral," Vader said, "I believe I owe you an explanation."
Now Piett did squeak. "Explanation, My Lord?"
The rumble of Vader's voice seemed to hold amusement, though it was possible that Piett was imagining it. "I realise I do not frequently explain myself. You are thinking that I am more likely to strangle an officer than explain anything to him. And you would be right, in normal circumstances. These circumstances are no longer normal."
Piett swallowed, not trusting his voice to come up with anything intelligible.
"Admiral Piett," Vader went on, "what are your ambitions?"
Oh, no. If that's not a Darth Vader trick question, I don't know what is.
Well, he decided, I might as well tell the truth. Don't have much to lose. Piett swallowed again, then said, "to serve the Empire faithfully, and to stay alive."
Vader inclined his head slightly. "Very laudable goals." This time Piett was sure that the Dark Lord was amused. "I share the second of your goals, but I am experiencing doubts about the first."
Doubts? Darth Vader? Doubts about serving the Empire? Piett wished that he could sit down.
"Please have a seat, Admiral," Vader urged him, and Piett numbly obeyed, shakily propelling himself into his desk chair. Vader sat down casually on the edge of Piett's desk, and Piett wondered if he might be hallucinating all of this.
Vader said, "I would like to emerge from the present conflict reasonably successful, and alive. I am no longer convinced that either is possible if I remain with the Empire." He appeared to be looking more closely at Piett, although of course with that mask it was hard to tell. "You may calm yourself, Admiral. I have no intention of strangling you today."
Calm was not a very accurate description of Piett at that moment, but at least he was starting to emerge from his terror. Lord Vader continued. "Have you ever thought, Admiral Piett, of what serving the Empire means? It is not, of course, part of the job description for a soldier to think. But I suspect that you, at least, do think upon occasion."
Where was all this leading? What was Vader trying to trick him into?
"You must have noticed, Admiral, that we are not in fact serving the Empire. We are serving the Emperor, and they are not the same. The Empire includes the millions of worlds forced into poverty to pay for our Emperor's military expansion. It also includes the under-trained, conscripted stormtroopers that we throw into battle daily, to be massacred in their thousands by a Rebellion that has little money, but at least takes the time to train its soldiers, and that sees them as living creatures rather than meaningless laser-fodder."
Piett noticed that his mouth had fallen open, and hastily closed it. Darth Vader, social crusader. Yes, he really must be hallucinating.
"With all this," Vader went on, "the Empire could still survive, were our Emperor of sound judgement. This he no longer is. Think of it, Admiral Piett. Four years ago, what was the great hope of the Empire? The Death Star, of course. The all-powerful, dreaded Death Star, which was to make the galaxy tremble. The Death Star for which taxes across the galaxy were quadrupled. Then, on its maiden mission, this great hope is annihilated by one schoolboy and a smuggler. So, very well. Not a wise use of money and lives, perhaps, but what can one do except move on from failure and learn by it? Only our Emperor has not learned. Outside this ship, Admiral, sits Death Star II. And a few hours ago, it was almost destroyed in precisely the same way as the first."
Piett gulped, and asked, very quietly, "Lord Vader, where is the Emperor?"
Vader said calmly, "he and I had a disagreement. We fought, and the Emperor fled. He will return, no doubt, but I do not intend to be waiting for him to take his revenge. I intend to throw in my lot with the Rebellion."
Piett choked without the aid of Vader's mental strangling. "My Lord?"
"The Rebels are idealistic and foolish, but at base, they are right. They are right to protest our Emperor's insane arms race that succeeds only in creating more enemies. Right to object to the reign of terror of which we are a part."
Before he could stop it, the thought shot through Piett's mind, that's pretty rich coming from the man who's spearheaded this reign of terror. The thought was immediately succeeded by the realisation that Vader had almost certainly heard him think that.
Lord Vader regarded him for a moment, with no sound except for the Dark Lord's wheezing breath, and Piett fought the urge to wipe a trail of sweat from his forehead. Finally Vader said, in a startlingly mild tone, "one's beliefs and goals can change over time. Don't you agree, Admiral?"
Relief swamped Piett. "Yes, My Lord," he said, "of course."
Vader went on, "you must know as well as I that the Empire is disintegrating. I have searched, but I cannot see any means of saving it, or ourselves, while Palpatine still rules. Our Emperor is mad, Piett. If we continue to serve him, we are mad as well."
If things ever get back to the point where politicians have to run for office again, Piett thought, Vader's got himself a ready-made career. The trouble was, of course, that Piett agreed with him. It might be only rhetoric on Vader's part, but it was also true. Not that Piett would have dared to ever say such a thing, if Darth Vader hadn't said it first. "Lord Vader," he asked, his voice firmer than it had been since the beginning of this interview, "what do you require of me?"
Vader said, "I would like you to join me. I intend to offer my services to the Rebellion, and if they accept, I hope to bring most or all of our troops with me. I have no doubt that all of us will benefit from such an arrangement. Our assistance could cut in half the amount of time needed for this rebellion to triumph. Bloodshed will be decreased, for there will be many in the Imperial forces who would much rather join us than fight. And we will have a chance of surviving, in reasonable prosperity, rather than fighting on to the last pathetic, under-paid stormtrooper in the service of a Master who despises us as much as he despises the Rebels."
Oh well, thought Piett, I suppose everyone's got to take a stand sometime. What can it hurt? I've been expecting to die every day, anyway.
"My Lord," he said, getting up from his chair, "I will join you."
Vader stood as well. Now this, Piett thought, is probably where he strangles me ...
"No, Admiral," came the amused, deep voice, "it is not where I strangle you. You may breathe easily. I am arranging a meeting of our Command Staff here on the Executor at 2000 hours, and I am to meet with the Rebel leaders on their flagship at 0900 tomorrow. I trust I may count on your support on both occasions?"
"Of course, My Lord."
"Good evening, then, Admiral. Welcome to the Rebellion."
Luke had slept badly. More accurately, he had not slept at all.
His father had arranged quarters for him on the Star Destroyer the evening before, after a meeting with the assembled captains of the Imperial Fleet, and then had retired to his "meditation chamber", whatever that was. Luke had hoped they might have a chance to talk, since there had been little time for that with Vader spending the day in negotiations with a mind-numbing array of officers. Luke was acutely conscious that the tentative peace holding the two fleets apart was due to his father alone. Vader's powers -- of persuasion, at least; Luke did not want to think of what other powers his father might be using -- were solely responsible for stopping thousands of beings from murdering each other. But it would take only one of those beings, he knew, to break the peace, and send them all into disaster.
And Luke could not stop thinking of the way this impossible day had started. His muscles still ached from the Emperor's assault, and from the immense power that had somehow -- he still could hardly believe that it had happened -- attacked the Emperor through him. Alone in his borrowed quarters, Luke tried to feel that power again. He tried to call it back, and bring the energy once more surging out of his hands as it had done when he stood at his father's side. But there was no response.
He felt uneasy. The fear was lurking in Luke's mind that it had been the Dark Side working through him. He did not truly feel that it was; how could it have been, when all he felt as he fought had been love for his father, and a burning desire to help him?
All he felt? Well, no, all right, he was lying to himself. He had felt hatred for the Emperor, and fury at the Emperor's destructiveness and manipulations. But was that wrong? Had it been evil of him to feel that? Cold dread crept through him.
Ben, he thought. Yoda. Help me. Have I failed you? Have I done wrong? Guide me! But he got no answer.
And his father. What of him? Had he really changed? Luke's heart pounded faster at the thought. He wanted so much to speak with him! To -- just to spend time with him, to somehow make up for all the time they had never had. But he was still afraid. Darth Vader belonged to the Dark Side. Perhaps this time he had fought for the Light. Or perhaps, Luke thought, he showed me how to fight for the Dark, without my even realising it.
With such thoughts to keep him company, Luke had spent the night writhing uncomfortably on the cabin's bunk, although it was in fact the most comfortable bed he had been in for months, if not years.
He was standing beside the viewing port, staring down at the retracted lightsaber he held in his hands, when the door's entry bell chimed. Luke had already made use of the sonic shower, and had also discovered that Imperial-issue razors made for a damn sight smoother shave than most razors the Rebels encountered. Well, Imperial-issue officers' razors, he suspected. This cabin was obviously in the officers' quarters, and had all the appropriate amenities. He sincerely doubted stormtroopers' razors were so effective.
Luke fastened the lightsaber back to his belt and crossed to the door. He pressed one of the buttons on the door's control panel, activating a viewscreen which was linked to the cabin's security camera. Darth Vader appeared on the screen, standing motionless in the corridor. Luke fought down an instinctive jolt of fear. Remember, Luke, he thought, this is someone you're supposed to be happy to see. He pressed another button, and the door slid open.
"Luke," Vader greeted him. He did not ask whether Luke had slept well. Probably, considering the dark puffy blotches under Luke's eyes, there was no point. "Have you had breakfast yet?" he asked instead.
"Uh -- no."
"There is an officers' dining room near the main bridge. I'll take you there."
Luke hurried along beside his father, having to take two steps for each of Vader's. He tried to ignore the surprised or hostile stares he received from the few crewmembers they passed in the corridors. No one dared to actually confront him, of course, not with Darth Vader striding along at his side. Luke wondered how many of these men knew who he was. All of them, probably, after the emergency broadcast of yesterday. Hello, everybody, he thought. I'm the man who destroyed the first Death Star. Nice to meet you. Oh, shit, I really do not want to be here.
Vader did not speak again until they were seated at a gleaming metal dining table, and Luke was starting in on a vast plate of colourful fruit most of which he didn't recognise, but which made him suddenly realise he was famished. There were a few officers at another table, whose conversation had broken off abruptly when Vader and his son entered the room. The men quickly began speaking again, attempting somehow both to not look at the Dark Lord and his companion, and to not look like they weren't looking.
Vader said quietly, "it doesn't require the Force, Luke, to see that you are troubled. Is there any way I can put you at ease?"
That was such a civil, and human, question, that Luke was taken aback. He thought, he really is my father. Not just my enemy. Luke asked, hesitantly, "I was wondering about the fight yesterday. That power -- how did we do that? Or, how did you do it, I guess."
Vader shook his head. "It was not just my doing. I don't believe I would have survived the fight if you hadn't joined me."
Surprised pleasure washed over Luke at that statement. "But, it was so much stronger than anything I'd believed possible. I tried, last night," he added, with some embarrassment. "I couldn't make it happen again."
"I'm not surprised," said Vader, a hint of laughter in his voice. "I have never wielded power of that magnitude before, and I have been in this business somewhat longer than you have."
Luke blushed and looked quickly down at the plate of fruit. His father told him, "it must have been our need that made such power possible. Certainly it will not be at our command -- not at least without a great deal more training, and perhaps not even then. Now," he went on, "tell me of your friends. No, don't look so worried. I'm not asking you to betray them. I merely think it would be useful if I knew something of the people I'm about to meet."
"Well ... " Luke began. "Ackbar and Mon Mothma, they've been the soul of this fight. They care for their people very strongly. They'll be willing to listen to you, if you can convince them this will really save lives -- and make those lives worth living. Madine, I don't know him that well, but I think he'll at least respect your military accomplishments. General Dodonna won't trust you very easily, but he's not here, so you'll have time to win the others over before you have to face him. He's half-way retired, anyway. Rieekan's not here either, but I guess he'll probably go with the consensus, whatever that is. I don't think Han Solo and Lando Calrissian are very likely to take to you ... "
"I imagine not," Vader agreed. "And what of your sister?"
Luke stopped with a piece of purple fruit halfway to his mouth. Leia. No, Leia was not going to be happy about this.
"Does she know about me?" Vader asked.
"Yes. But she's only just found out. I told her just before I left to find you. This isn't going to be easy for her."
Or for any of us, son, thought Vader. "I hope you've tried to reassure her as to my intentions," he said, "difficult though that must no doubt have been."
"I -- " and suddenly Luke felt horribly guilty. "I haven't spoken with her since this started."
Vader was silent. One of his hands, resting on the table, slowly closed into a fist.
Luke realised, watching this, "you've got both your hands."
"Naturally. I wasn't going to remain lopsided, it detracted from my dignity. Don't change the subject, Luke. Why haven't you talked with her?"
"I -- I don't know," he said helplessly. "I -- guess I was afraid. That she wouldn't agree with me, that she wouldn't trust you."
Vader sighed. "You should have called her. She must be sick with worry." And then he thought, what am I saying? This is disgusting. I've turned into a typical parent already. Any minute now, and I'll be giving him a curfew and scolding him for flying his x-wing too fast.
That is certainly enough parental chiding for now. "Then we must both face the wrath of Leia this morning," he said. "Eat up, Luke. We have a peace conference to get to."