"This is insanity!" protested General Crix Madine.
Admiral Ackbar sighed. "You've said that already, General."
"I know I have!" Madine raged.
"It'll be fine, General," put in Lando Calrissian, with a confidence he most definitely did not feel. "We've got their shuttle monitored every step of the way. We'll know the second they try anything. All the Fighter squadrons are standing by. There's no way they're gonna take us by surprise."
Princess Leia turned toward them from the panel where she'd been studying the readings on the approaching Imperial shuttle. "We're reading only three life-forms aboard," she said, keeping her voice emotionless.
"There, General, you see -- " Ackbar began.
"That doesn't mean anything!" snapped Madine. "He could have that ship crammed with assassin droids! We're inviting him in so he can wipe out our senior officers at a single stroke!"
"I don't think he needs assassin droids for that," Han Solo snorted. "I mean, he does have the Death Star and twenty Star Destroyers." Madine whirled away from Han abruptly, and Han felt a moment's disappointment that the movement hadn't dislodged the General's toupee.
"Even Darth Vader would think twice about landing on an enemy ship if he intended treachery," pointed out Mon Mothma, Chief of State of the Rebel Alliance, her pale face looking more gaunt than usual from the tension of the past day. "Even with a shuttle full of assassin droids, he'd still be putting himself too much at risk."
"Hunh," grunted Madine, sullenly unconvinced.
"Admiral," called one of Ackbar's Mon Calamari officers, "the shuttle is approaching the landing bay. They're requesting clearance to dock."
The leaders of the Rebel Alliance looked unhappily at each other. At the far edge of the huge view port which dominated the bridge of the Mon Calamari cruiser, they could see the three-winged Imperial Shuttle, dropping gracefully out of sight as it headed toward their docking bay.
A great sigh shuddered through Admiral Ackbar's body. "Grant them clearance," he said. While Madine groaned theatrically and the others exercised remarkable restraint in not telling him to shut up, Ackbar took up a hand-held comlink, opening a channel to the officer who would have the dubious honour of welcoming Darth Vader on board the Rebel flagship.
"Lieutenant Toran, are your men ready?"
"Remember, you are to make no hostile moves unless attacked. This is a peace meeting. You are sure your men understand that?"
"I'm sure, sir."
Ackbar sighed again. Poor Lieutenant Toran. This was at least the fifth time Ackbar had repeated the same orders to her. "Very good," Ackbar said. He closed the link and said to his companions, "shall we proceed to the conference chamber?"
No one looked pleased at the prospect, but they nodded. Ackbar led the party from the bridge, followed by Mon Mothma, Lando, Madine, Leia and Han. Madine was scowling furiously. Han held back slightly, touching Leia's hand and whispering, "if Madine says anything more about assassin droids, Vader won't need to kill him. I'll blast him myself."
"I don't know," muttered Leia, "he's a pain all right, but I can't say I blame him. I think I agree with him."
"What, that Vader's taking his assassin droids out for a killing spree?"
"No, not about the assassin droids," she said impatiently. "I just -- I don't know." She smiled palely up at him. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Who doesn't?" Han asked.
In the conference chamber, most of which was taken up by an elongated oval table, the six Rebel leaders waited. Mon Mothma, pristine in her white robes, sat at one far end of the table, with Ackbar at her right and Madine at her left. Lando took the chair next to Ackbar, and sat, absently drumming his fingers on the table until he realised what he was doing and stopped. Leia sat down next to Madine, who managed to remove the scowl from his face long enough to smile at her. Han remained standing behind the chair at Leia's other side. He had an appalling urge to start chewing his fingernails, and jammed his hands into his pockets instead.
Then the door swished open, and Han's stomach did an alarming somersault. He didn't dare to look at the others, but was sure they felt exactly as he did.
Two Rebel soldiers stepped through the door, positioning themselves at either side and standing at attention. They were followed into the room by the slim, black-clad Luke Skywalker, and Han heard Leia give a little gasp of relief. Luke cast Leia and Han an apologetic grimace which was probably meant to be a smile, then he bowed his head to Mon Mothma and the others. After a brief hesitation, he took his place standing behind one of the chairs at the other end of the table. Next into the chamber was a thin-faced, nervous-looking man in Imperial uniform, who also bowed slightly to the Rebel leaders. Like Luke, he stood behind one of the far chairs, leaving one chair ominously empty between them.
The intended occupant of the third chair strode into the room. The door whooshed shut behind him.
It was a good thing they had all received strict orders not to bring any weapons, or Han would have reached for his blaster and fired, peace conference or no peace conference. Not that he thought it would have done him any good. He'd tried shooting Darth Vader before.
Vader paused just inside the conference chamber. One of the two guards, standing only inches away from Vader, began to sweat, but the Dark Lord was paying no attention to him. He was looking instead at Princess Leia. Slowly, with the appearance of perfect calm, Leia stood, staring back at the Lord of the Sith. She was standing so close to Han that their sides touched, and Han could feel her shivering.
In the few seconds before anyone spoke, realisations tumbled over each other into Vader's mind.
Gazing at Leia, he thought, why didn't I notice before how beautiful she is?
Well, he had known she was attractive, in a vague sort of way, but he'd never paid much attention to her. Just an irritating little brat playing at politics, and too short for his tastes, anyway. But now ... now she was his irritating little brat. And she wasn't just playing at politics any more, she was a brilliant stateswoman with a glorious career ahead of her. And she was gorgeous. Although, he admitted, I suppose I'm biased in my opinions.
Leia was clearly intending to stand on her regal dignity. Her head was held high, her chin stubbornly set, her lips clamped together. Only her eyes seemed alive, and they threw out sparks of defiance. She was not as calm as she looked, of course. Vader could see her fists trembling slightly, and he could feel the tightly controlled fear and anger that enveloped her.
Then he realised, with an abrupt jump in his own stress level, that the expression on her face was precisely the look his late wife used to get when steeling herself for some conflict with him.
Leia's features, he decided as he studied her, were not that similar to Shura's, although her hair and eyes, he thought now, were much the same. But with that look on her face, she seemed almost identical.
I am a fool, not to have seen it before.
Of course, one does not generally expect that a political opponent whom one is persecuting will turn out to be the daughter one never knew existed.
"Lord Vader," Leia greeted him coldly, her voice as taut as the aspect of her face.
"Princess Leia," Vader responded. And he thought, has any other man had such a poor start at getting to know his children? How does one build a trusting relationship when one has destroyed one's daughter's planet -- well, stood by and let the planet be destroyed, anyhow, which I'm sure she thinks is bad enough -- and had her submitted to a mind-probe? Not to mention, of course, torturing the man she loves and turning him over to a bounty hunter, trying to kill her brother, etc., but let's not go into that.
Belatedly, Mon Mothma stood and inclined her head civilly to Vader. "Lord Vader," she said. "Thank you for coming. Please, have a seat."
"Thank you. I thank you all for agreeing to meet with me."
Vader crossed to the seat left open for him. Standing with his hands on the back of the chair, he said, "you know Commander Skywalker, of course. May I present Admiral Grigori Piett, my second-in-command."
Assorted Rebel leaders nodded to Piett, then Vader and his two companions took their seats. Mon Mothma introduced her own companions. "General Lando Calrissian, Admiral Ackbar, General Crix Madine, Princess Leia Organa, General Han Solo. And I am Mon Mothma." She sat as well, followed a moment later by Leia, and then by Han, who sat glowering belligerently at Vader.
"Luke," Vader said, "you are better placed than the rest of us to understand both sides in this meeting. Perhaps you could begin by explaining what has brought us here."
Luke swallowed. He'd known Vader was going to ask him that, they'd discussed it, but he still felt incapable of explaining anything. He felt like a traitor, too, with his friends turning those hostile stares on him. He desperately wished he were sitting on the other side of the room.
He nodded. "I know what's happening must be hard to accept, for all of us," he said. Damn, that sounded inadequate! Just stick to the facts, Luke, he thought, before you make more of a fool of yourself than you already have. "Yesterday," he said, "I was taken prisoner and brought before the Emperor, on the Death Star. The Emperor had a proposition for me. He wanted me to join him." Luke caught a doubtful glance from Han, and realised with embarrassment that Han must be thinking something along the lines of, "yeah right, like the Emperor really needs to join forces with the farm boy from Tatooine." Forging on, Luke explained, "he knew of my training with the Force, and thought that with further development of my powers, I could be useful to him. I refused to join him, and --" and how do I describe what happened next? "He began shooting me with lightning bolts" doesn't quite get across the intensity of the experience! " -- and he decided that I was expendable. He began to torture me. He would have killed me. Lord Vader intervened." Luke saw his friends casting surprised looks at Vader, but he hurried on. "Lord Vader and the Emperor fought. Unfortunately the Emperor escaped. We believe that he teleported out of the throne room, into his shuttle, and fled the Death Star. It was then that Lord Vader contacted you, requesting a cease-fire." Luke turned to his father, thinking, please, let that be all the speaking I have to do today!
Vader took over. "Luke is not telling quite all that happened. I may have saved his life, but in our fight with the Emperor, he also saved mine." There was a pause, while the Dark Lord seemed to collect his thoughts.
"The events of yesterday forced me to face concerns that I had held for some time. You all know," he said, steadily, "that I have served the Emperor for many years. Some of you may see me as the face of the Empire. But in recent years, I have begun to feel the same doubts as many of you have felt since the Empire's foundation. The Emperor's sanity is toppling. His megalomania has taken him too far, and your Rebellion is the natural response to his lunacy. The Empire will perish, with the Alliance destroying it from without and degeneracy dismantling it from within. This second Death Star is only the most obvious symptom of the Emperor's inability to face reality."
Vader gazed at each of the representatives of the Rebellion in turn. "To you," he said, "the Empire must seem only a vast, faceless horde, which flings opponents at you as swiftly as you can kill them. I have seen other facets of the Empire. I have seen the devastation caused by your heroic exploits, but worse, I have seen the demoralisation that is inevitable in a conscript army, in which proper training and support systems are neglected in a mad scramble to build bigger weapons, terrorise more star systems, and convince the galaxy that the Empire is invincible -- when, in fact, it is steadily collapsing."
Mon Mothma said, "it has taken you long enough to face these doubts of yours, Lord Vader."
"Yes," he said, seemingly unoffended by her interjection, "it has. Power is never easy to give up. So long as I was not suffering, it was a simple matter to ignore those who were. But yesterday I had to make a choice. Now I cannot turn back. The Emperor will not forgive me, nor would I wish him to. I must either become a fugitive from his vengeance, or I must take a stand against him."
He paused again. "I wish to join you," he said. "I realise this will not be easy. You will not wish to welcome the enemy into your midst, and my presence among you may seem more trouble than it is worth. But I assure you, it is worth the trouble. I do not come into this bargain alone." He turned to Piett. "Admiral Piett," he said politely, "if you please."
Piett stood, without making any sudden moves that might distress the armed guards at the door, and removed from his breast pocket two recording disks. He crossed to the other end of the table, handing one of the disks to Mon Mothma. "Ma'am," Piett said. "These are the specifications and crew manifests of the Imperial ships stationed at Endor, and this," he handed her the second disk, "is the petition of the officers who wish to join the Rebel Alliance." Piett was conscious of all the Rebels gaping at him, and he certainly didn't blame them; everyone involved in this was going to be doing a lot of open-mouthed staring for a long time to come.
He continued, as if six people weren't staring at him in shock, "twenty Star Destroyers were sent to Endor. Two were destroyed in the battle yesterday. There are still eighteen, which will become the property of the Rebellion if you accept Lord Vader's proposals. With the Star Destroyers, of course, comes all of their weaponry and fighter complement, along with each Destroyer's assault troop vehicles and other craft. You'll find these detailed in the first of those disks." He looked at Vader, who nodded, and Piett returned to his seat.
"What are your proposals, Lord Vader?" asked Admiral Ackbar.
"I wish to join you," Vader repeated, "and I will place myself under your command. As you will see from the second disk, the commanding officers of sixteen of our Star Destroyers wish to accompany me. I do not propose to compel anyone to switch sides. You have no need for reluctant followers. All officers and men must choose freely, and the first of my demands is that those who do not wish to join the Alliance be given safe conduct out of this system. The Star Destroyers will remain at your disposal, but I believe we can spare enough transport ships for those who do not choose to join us. My second demand" -- Vader had noticed that Madine winced in annoyance when he used the word "demand", so he took particular pleasure in using it again -- "is that all those who do join tthe Alliance be granted equal opportunity within your ranks. I realise it will take some time to integrate our forces; that is unavoidable. But the attempt must be made. Above all, none of those who join you are to be prosecuted for actions which took place when they served the Empire. If we are to work together, we must put the past behind us, impossible though that may now seem."
Leia put in sweetly, a hint of danger lurking in her tone, "this freedom from prosecution is to extend to you as well, Lord Vader?"
"Naturally," he said. "It would be expecting too much of the most idealistic man to ask that he give his all for a government which will then put him on trial. I am not the most idealistic man. But when I say I will do something, I do it. I say that I will serve the Alliance faithfully and honourably."
Leia's eyebrows leapt up her forehead. "Honourably," she echoed, in an ironic whisper.
Mon Mothma said, "thank you for your proposals, Lord Vader. We will consider them carefully. You understand that this is not a decision we can take lightly. As valued as your assistance would be, there may be others on whom we rely who would desert us when it became known that you were among our ranks."
Leia asked, her voice still soft with that dangerous sweetness, "how does a Rebellion which claims to champion the rights of all sentient beings justify its alliance with a tyrant and murderer?"
Admiral Ackbar shifted uneasily in his chair. Mon Mothma closed her eyes briefly, and Han began, "uh, Leia ...", only to be silenced by a glare from the Princess.
Vader's gaze focused solely on Leia. "I have killed many," he said. "I do not deny my actions or defend them. I do, however, object to being accused by those who have committed the same actions. Admiral Piett," he asked casually, "I wonder if you recall how many letters of condolence you have written to the families of stormtroopers killed by Princess Leia?"
This was not exactly a fair question. Vader knew full well that the letters of condolence were written automatically, in a standard format, as soon as the casualty reports came in, with a computer-generated version of Piett's signature added to the end of them. Perversely, Vader's question made Piett feel guilty, wishing that he'd composed every letter personally. If I had, though, I'd have had time for nothing else. Blushing, and angry with himself for doing so, Piett said brusquely, "I don't remember the exact numbers, My Lord. It was, of course, always impossible to be sure which troopers were killed by the Princess and which by her companions."
Fair question or not, it had the desired effect. Princess Leia blushed deeply, and looked quickly away from Vader. Tears welled up in her eyes.
In the uncomfortable silence, it was General Madine who jumped to her defence. "Your analogy is false and unjust, Lord Vader," he snapped. "Princess Leia is no murderer. It was war."
"Yes," said Vader. "It was. But there need no longer be war between us."
"Lord Vader," said Lando Calrissian, cutting off the growth of another uneasy pause, "please don't be offended at what I'm going to say. But, frankly, how can we trust you? Some of us have had dealings with you before. Your traps have always been well thought out. How do we know this isn't another of them?"
"What do you perceive I am trying to lure you into?" Vader inquired.
"If we accept you and your fleet, you could destroy us easily. Wait till we lead you to our headquarters, then wipe it out and the Rebellion with it."
"Calrissian's right," Madine said, predictably.
"You may place your own crews on board the Star Destroyers," Vader said, as calm as ever. "Your concern is reasonable, but if there is enough integration of our fleets, the risk of such a betrayal would be minimised."
"Lord Vader," came the guttural tones of Admiral Ackbar, "I think we must have other similar concerns. Even if we were not at immediate risk of attack, how could we know that you and your men were not spying upon us? It would be very simple for each of our moves to be betrayed to the Emperor."
"You are correct, Admiral. The only way to prove our loyalty is to try us. When we have fought at your side against the Emperor, perhaps then you may begin to trust us. But let me say this. Once you have accepted our allegiance, it would be in none of our interests to see the Emperor retain power. Palpatine is not a reasonable man. He is not easy on those he sees as traitors, even if they subsequently assist him. Every man who leaves the Imperial forces to join you faces torture and execution if he falls back into the Emperor's hands."
"Yes," said Leia, "unless this was planned by the Emperor all along. Why should you suddenly care for oppressed worlds and butchered stormtroopers? Your change of heart is very convenient. Convenient and not quite believable, unless you're acting under Palpatine's orders."
"Leia," began Luke, "you don't understand -- "
"It is a valid point," said Mon Mothma, cutting across Luke's protest. "I am sorry, Lord Vader, but I don't see how we can take the risk of trusting you. Too many lives depend on our decision."
Rather than answering directly, Vader turned and looked at Luke. Luke hesitated, then nodded firmly. This also they had discussed. It was time for the final argument. Leia, thought Luke, I'm sorry. But someday you'll forgive me, and forgive him too.
"I will not betray the Rebellion," Vader said quietly, turning back to the Rebels. "I cannot. You ask me to explain my change of heart. There is an explanation, and it means that even if you reject me today, I will not raise my hand against the Alliance again."
Now what? wondered Piett. This was an aspect of Vader's plan that hadn't been discussed with him. Piett thought, if he doesn't go into politics, maybe Vader could become an actor. That honest, strong voice, with a hint of emotion trembling at the edges of it, was almost irresistibly convincing. It certainly didn't sound like Darth Vader.
Darth Vader said, "Luke Skywalker is my son."
Admiral Piett felt his jaw drop once again. Across the table, Admiral Ackbar, Mon Mothma and General Madine jumped to their feet, with startled exclamations. General Calrissian, Princess Leia and General Solo remained seated, all three looking very grim.
Vader continued, "I did not know of his existence until the Battle of Yavin. When I did learn who he was, my hope was originally to bring him into the service of the Emperor. I tried to convince him to join the Empire. I failed. As I formulated my arguments to Luke, their weaknesses became more and more clear to me. I had nothing to offer him. The Empire offered nothing. Then, yesterday, I had to choose between my Emperor and my son."
A touch of bitter amusement entered his voice. "You may not think me an ideal parent. Very well, I am not. I am not even a 'good' man, and discovering fatherhood will probably not bring out any lurking goodness from within me. But it was my own child dying before me. I could not let him die."
No one spoke. There was no sound, except for the steady wheeze of Vader's mechanized breathing.
It was Vader, at last, who spoke again.
"No parents want their children to be ashamed of them," he said, "still less to hate them. Your best guarantee of my loyalty is here. I want my family back. I want the chance to be part of their lives, and not as an enemy. If I betray you, I lose that chance forever. That will not happen."
Vader turned to his son and held one black-gloved hand to Luke. Luke, without hesitation this time, clasped his father's hand. He was looking at Leia as he did so, and as his grasp tightened on Vader's hand, Luke saw tears escape from his sister's eyes.
Admiral Piett was beginning to see why no one had made peace with the Rebels before. It involved too much talking.
This was the fifth meeting he had attended that day, in his new and rather peculiar-feeling role as Lord Vader's sidekick. Vader and Piett were standing in the briefing room off the bridge of the Executor, staring down at the blueprints and readouts on the holographic projection table while various old and new colleagues presented reports, questions and complaints. One Rebel Captain, a podgy, sandy-haired man with a nose like a Thalaxian slug, was saying, "but, wouldn't it be wiser to keep the Death Star operational? It would give us a great advantage ... "
Standing across the briefing table from him, the leader of the x-wing squadron that had been assigned to the Executor snapped, "after all we've gone through to destroy that thing? You want us to keep it?"
Vader queried, "what exactly would you have us do with the Death Star, Captain? Turn it into a holiday resort?"
The Captain looked taken aback, obviously trying to decide whether or not Darth Vader was capable of making a joke. "Uh, I just meant, with all the technology that's gone into it, surely it could be useful to us -- "
"There are crews of technicians engaged in removing those parts that are recyclable and easily portable," Piett put in, telling the Captain something he should have known already.
Vader added, smoothly baiting the Rebel Captain, "I'm surprised that you would think of keeping the Death Star in use, Captain. I should have thought it was a symbol of the Empire with which the Rebellion would not wish to be identified." While the confused Captain struggled to think of something to say, Vader went on, "Lieutenant, what is the status of the crew transfers?"
Before the Lieutenant he had addressed could answer, Vader suddenly held up one hand. His stance had become alert and tense, as he seemed to listen to something none of the others could hear. "Something is wrong," he murmured, almost to himself, then without warning he turned and strode from the briefing room.
The officers who remained around the projection table looked at each other helplessly. Someone gave a nervous laugh, which made Piett wish that he could do Vader's strangling trick. The x-wing commander stared in the direction Vader had gone, then asked Piett, "does he always do that?"
His designation as Vader's second-in-command meant that the Rebels were constantly turning to Piett as a Darth Vader expert. For the sake of the new alliance, he had thus far managed to restrain himself from telling them any horror stories. "No," said Piett, "he usually doesn't walk out on meetings." Of course, he added silently, he usually doesn't have meetings, he just strangles people. But I don't really think you want me to share that with you just now.
"Well," said the Rebel Captain who'd suggested retaining the Death Star, his voice conveying disdain for Lord Vader and his eccentric habits, "shall we continue our meeting? We can fill His Lordship in on any decisions if he deigns to rejoin us."
"No," Piett said flatly. "If Vader's worried about something, we should be too."
He turned from the table and followed Vader onto the bridge. Out of curiosity, the others trailed after him.
Vader was standing behind two crewmen who were seated at a tracking screen. The crewmen were moving swiftly, calling up a rapid series of readings and projections, and seemed on the brink of panic -- as was only natural with Darth Vader looming over them.
The object they were monitoring was the Death Star. And, as he crossed to stand beside Vader, Piett realised exactly what the problem was. "They're powering up their hyperdrive," Piett whispered.
"Yes," said Vader, his dark tone implying a great deal of suffering for whoever was responsible. "Attempt to contact them," he ordered one of the crewmen.
The crewman obeyed. "They're jamming our transmission, My Lord," he reported hoarsely.
From another of the bridge's control panels, a crewmember called, "Lord Vader, message coming in for you from Admiral Ackbar. I'm routing it to your position." Seconds later, the monitor at the top left corner of the tracking screen lit up, and Ackbar's orange, bulging-eyed visage appeared. Piett wondered if he was getting better at reading Mon Calamari facial expressions, or if it was just a logical assumption to think that the Admiral was looking stressed.
"Lord Vader! The Death Star's engines -- "
"I know. It should take them another six to seven minutes to prepare their hyperdrive generator."
"Do you know who's behind this -- ?"
"Whoever it is, it is our responsibility to stop them."
"We don't have the time to launch an assault -- "
"Nor would we wish to wipe out your technicians aboard," Vader reminded him. "Be calm, Admiral, they will not get far. I will ensure that we can track them; I suggest you move the fleet away before they jump into hyperspace."
Switching to another channel in the middle of a splutter from Ackbar, Vader stated, "Hangar Twelve, this is Darth Vader. Prepare a TIE-bomber for immediate launch." He began striding toward the lift. As he passed the Rebel x-wing commander, Vader said to him, "you're with me. Can your squadron be launched immediately?"
"Uh -- yes, My Lord." They'd only arrived on the Executor half an hour before.
"See to it. Start launch procedures and summon the pilots to meet us at the launching bay."
Paling visibly, the shortish, dark-haired man froze for a moment, then he rapidly sent the required messages. He cut off the transmission as one of his pilots started squawking out a demand for explanation. Luckily, most of the squadron were probably with their ships already, still grumblingly seeing to their x-wings' instalment in hangars that had been designed for TIE-fighters. Well, now they'd just have to un-install them. Guess we're getting this alliance off to an action-packed start! he thought. He hurried to catch up with Vader.
The Dark Lord directed the lift to take them to the launch bay. "Commander Antilles, isn't it?" he then asked his companion.
Wedge Antilles gulped. "That's right, My Lord." He must have one hell of a memory, Wedge thought. We were only introduced once, and he must have met three hundred people today. At least.
"You were at the Battle of Yavin. In Luke's squadron, I believe."
"Uh, yes, that's right." And you nearly shot me down. What happy memories we could share together.
"I am going to attach a homing beacon to the Death Star," Vader informed him. "Unfortunately, our missile-mounted beacons must be launched at very close range. Unless you have more long-range models --?"
"No, My Lord, sorry." Actually, we don't have any missile-mounted homing beacons at all.
"Very well. I will launch the beacon from one of our bombers; I count on your squadron to provide back-up."
When they reached the launching bay, the scene was predictably chaotic. Vader headed straight for his waiting bomber, while Wedge was surrounded by loudly protesting pilots.
"Don't ask any questions!" Wedge yelled. "The Death Star's going into Hyperspace in five minutes; we've got to attach a homing beacon. Lord Vader's going to launch the beacon, we're going to cover him. That's all; into your ships now!"
Most of the pilots, used to acting on very short notice, scattered toward their x-wings. One held back, asking, "er, sir, are the Death Star's weapons operational?"
"We'll find out, won't we?" snapped Wedge.
As Wedge scrambled into the pilot's seat, powered up the fighter and gave a distracted response to his astromech droid's burble of greeting, he heard over the comlink the voice of Darth Vader. Unbelievably, Vader seemed to be in conversation with the idiot pilot who'd asked about the Death Star's weapons.
Vader was saying dryly, "the Superlaser should be unable to target vessels this small, unless you sit still for it. Which I trust you will not."
Another of the x-wing pilots chimed in, "great, so that just leaves a few thousand turbolasers and cannons."
"Ten thousand turbolaser batteries, and two thousand five hundred each of laser and ion cannons," Vader told him helpfully. "Although you may have taken out a few in your recent attack."
Nice of him to mention that, thought Wedge. "Okay," Wedge broke in on the conversation, "so let's take out a few more!"
The vast door of the launch bay stood open before them. Vader's TIE-bomber was already rising toward it, probably a lot faster than safety specs encouraged. This is certainly the most sketchily-planned assault in history, Wedge thought, as he followed Vader out of the bay, with the other x-wings taking off all around him. He'd just have to rely on his men's experience and instincts, and hope it pulled them through this. Well, hopefully they wouldn't use their instincts too much, he amended that thought. Instinct, for instance, would tell them to shoot down the bomber ahead of them.
Wedge eyed the bomber with interest as he zoomed along after it. It was a clumsy-looking thing, twice as broad as the usual TIE-fighters, with apparently two cockpits -- one, he guessed, for housing its various missiles. Vader sure wasn't flying it clumsily, though. And damn, it was fast! Too fast. They weren't going to be giving Vader much cover if he completely out-ran them. Wedge thought, with sudden excitement, hey, when we get back I could have a look inside that thing! He was beginning to see a whole new dimension to this crazy alliance. So what if they all had to argue a lot and sit through innumerable meetings. The entire Imperial Fleet -- well, okay, most of it -- was suddenly theirs. No more scrounging for equipment, no more constructing ships out of spare parts that didn't go together. He saw an entrancing vista of Star Destroyers and bombers and AT-AT Walkers -- they ought to do something with the Walkers, he thought, to distinguish them from those that still belonged to the Empire. Paint big smiles on their snouts, maybe, or moustaches. And the Star Destroyers. Maybe they should paint "fuck off, Palpatine" along the tops of them.
Of course, he and his x-wing were going to be painted all over the Death Star if he didn't start paying attention to what he was doing. He felt a familiar sinking in his stomach as he eyed their rapidly approaching target. Every time he attacked this thing -- and he seemed to be doing so on a regular basis -- he realised that he'd blocked out of his mind just how huge a monstrosity it actually was. This one was even bigger than the one they'd fought at Yavin, apparently, but Wedge couldn't tell; he just always looked at it and thought big, and then, oh shit, we are dead.
So far, the Death Star didn't seem to be reacting to their approach; maybe they were too small to bother with.
That, of course, was wishful thinking. Just as the thought passed through Wedge's mind, a turbolaser battery sprang into life and spat out flame at Vader's bomber.
The bomber swerved, then sprang away vertically to avoid a shot from one of the two thousand five hundred laser cannons. Vader continued a dizzying course, twisting away from countless shots that seemed to pass only inches from him, and occasionally taking the trouble to fire back.
Wedge was inside the Death Star's range now. He went in firing, targeting an ion cannon and grinning as it disappeared in a very satisfactory explosion. Wedge swooped after Vader's bomber, following a similar swerving course, and firing randomly at the batteries and cannons that they passed. How close does Vader need to get? He wondered. I know he said this missile was short-range, but really! He's just showing off now, isn't he?
For an instant Wedge really thought Vader was going to collide with the Death Star. At the last possible second the bomber veered away again.
Wedge heard Vader's voice through his comlink. "Got it!" At that moment the Dark Lord sounded very human, hardly menacing at all. Wedge was about to yell back congratulations, when Vader's voice came more urgently, "pull back! It's jumping into Hyperspace. Pull back!"
Wedge obeyed. His x-wing lurched away from the Death Star, the astromech droid protesting wildly in a series of electronic squeals. And then something hit them. At first it felt like the x-wing was being shoved by a gigantic hand. Then the force changed direction and the hand reached out and grabbed them, pulling them back. The x-wing shuddered. Wedge was convinced it was going to break apart. Or else I'm going to explode first, Wedge thought, as an agonising pressure built up inside his skull.
And the hand let go.
The x-wing spiralled into an out-of-control dive, and Wedge struggled to bring it back on course. That can't have been good for the Endor Moon's ecosystems, Wedge realised distractedly, having something that big go into Hyperspace from orbit. They're probably having tidal waves and earthquakes and Firelord knows what else.
Back in control, Wedge was hit by nausea and a fit of the shivers. Right, that's it, he thought. I'm retiring, right now. Never setting one foot into space again.
"Are you still with us, Commander?"
It almost didn't feel weird any more to realise that the voice coming through his comlink belonged to Darth Vader.
"Yeah," Wedge gasped out. "You in one piece?"
"Just," Vader replied. "I believe your squadron has come through intact. Impressive flying, I congratulate you."
"Yeah. You too!" As he piloted his x-wing back toward the Star Destroyer Executor, Wedge realised there was a huge, stupid grin on his face. The Dark Lord of the Sith had complimented his squadron! Now there was something to write home about.
And he was definitely going to convince the Dark Lord to let him have a look at the innards of that TIE-bomber.
"There! You see! I told you he'd come back!"
"Yeah, yeah, okay, kid, you told us."
"And you said he was trying to run away with the Death Star," Luke said scornfully.
"Okay, okay, you don't have to sound so smug about it." But, reflected Han, Luke did have a right to feel smug, and who could blame him? That was Luke's father who'd just pulled off the craziest bit of piloting that Han had ever seen performed by anyone but Han himself. The kid had every right to feel proud of him. Although, Han thought, it must be pretty tough trying to decide whether to feel proud or to feel suicidally depressed that his father was Darth Vader.
They were in the circular briefing room below the bridge of the Mon Calamari flagship. The holograph table had been linked to pick up the images on the main viewscreen, and they had been anxiously following Vader and Red Squadron's race to the Death Star. Actually, Luke, Han and Admiral Ackbar had been following it. Leia had been sitting on one of the benches that circled the briefing room's perimeter, chewing at her thumbnails and refusing to meet anyone's gaze. She now managed a very pallid smile for Luke's benefit, then went back to scowling at the floor.
"Admiral," one of Ackbar's officers informed him, handing Ackbar a readout pad, "the Executor has sent us the co-ordinates of the Death Star's location. They must have come out of Hyperspace almost as soon as they went in."
Ackbar opened a channel to the Executor. "Admiral Piett," Ackbar greeted the now familiar face that appeared on the screen. "You're reading that the Death Star has come out of Hyperspace?"
"That's right. We think the Death Star must be damaged. They should never have attempted the jump to Hyperspace with the station only half complete. We plan to follow them in the Executor; if you approve, of course. If you could perhaps send one or two cruisers to accompany us ...?"
"Very well. I'll notify the Hope and the Shador to join you." Ending the transmission, Ackbar said wearily, "don't start, Princess. You and General Madine will tell me it's a trap, that the Death Star and the Executor will turn on our ships and destroy them. I will take full responsibility, but I don't care to argue about this again."
"I wasn't going to say anything," Leia said flatly. Han looked at her with worry. Ever since the peace meeting with Vader, Leia had seemed to close out the rest of the galaxy, emerging occasionally to make some cynical comment or suggest that Vader was betraying them, then disappearing back into her sullen contemplation. It wasn't the Leia they knew at all, and Han didn't like it. Leia could certainly be a bitch, but at least you knew where you stood when she was screaming at you. This depression, Han didn't know how to deal with.
On the Rebel cruiser Shador, Captain Bailey received his orders and wished that he could stop the palms of his hands from sweating. The Shador had only barely avoided being annihilated by the Death Star's Superlaser in the battle two days ago, when the Liberty was destroyed. Bailey had no desire to give the Superlaser another shot. He looked grimly at Commander Luxar, the Imperial who'd been assigned as his new second-in-command. They'd been getting along fairly well, and had shared a very enjoyable dinner last night, at which they had both drunk too much while reminiscing about student life at the Academy. Bailey had left before graduation to join the Rebellion, while Luxar had gone straight from graduation to a post on the Emperor's flagship, but they found that their Academy experiences had been much the same. This still did not stop Bailey from worrying that his new friend Luxar might be about to blast him in the back.
"The Executor has sent us these jump co-ordinates," reported Luxar. He handed over the figures so that Bailey could assure himself the treacherous Imperials weren't trying to make them jump into a planet, or straight into the Death Star.
Bailey studied the figures, and glanced over the work of the crewmen who were entering in the hyperdrive calculations. "Thank you. Inform the Executor we are ready to jump on their mark."
The order came. Bailey watched the forward viewscreen as the stars melted into the familiar gleaming trails of Hyperspace. The jump was ludicrously short. Almost immediately, they were back in normal space, and staring at a scene of devastation which emerged on their screen.
"Will you look at that," Luxar breathed in awe. "That piece of junk was supposed to save the Empire?"
The Death Star was falling apart before their eyes.
The unfinished sections of the station had obviously been unable to withstand the pressures of Hyperspace. One half of the huge globe was literally crumbling away, massive chunks of the hull and the station's metal skeleton tearing loose with ponderous slowness and then drifting lazily into space. Bailey hoped there had not been anyone in those sections of the Death Star. It was a concept he did not want to think about.
The bridge of the Executor was also peopled by men who were staring at the disintegrating Death Star. A re-assigned Rebel officer wondered aloud, "what idiot thought he could take that thing into Hyperspace?"
"Jerjerrod," came the angry voice of Darth Vader, almost in a whisper.
"I beg your pardon, My Lord?" asked Piett, standing next to him.
"Jerjerrod," said Vader. "That is the idiot in question."
"Lord Vader!" a crewman yelped. "They're targeting and powering up the Superlaser!"
Vader made no reply. He seemed to have tuned them out again. Nervously Piett said, "take evasive action," hoping that Vader would not be aggrieved with him for daring to give an order. It was, after all, the obvious order to give.
"There is no danger," Vader told Piett in a now remarkably calm, conversational tone. "He has merely made another mistake."
The Executor soared into a rapidly altered course. The cannon well of the Superlaser was suddenly ablaze with light, as the eight beams came together in the laser's central crystal.
The Superlaser fired. And the well surrounding it started to collapse.
The blast shot wildly away, far from the Executor and its two companions. A few isolated cheers were heard on the bridge of the Executor, but most of the crew were watching in overwhelmed silence. The devastation was spreading, as if the Death Star were being devoured by some invisible monster. Vast chunks of the station broke loose as the monster began to munch on the Superlaser's well.
"Attempt to contact them," Vader ordered, a sardonic note to his voice. "Ask if they require assistance."
Almost immediately, the Death Star responded. A dishevelled, wild-eyed officer appeared on the screen, his hair soaking with blood that then trickled down one side of his face. "Lord Vader!" he gasped. "Thank the gods!"
If Vader found it amusing that an officer was pleased to hear from him for once, he did not comment. "Captain Faren," he replied, and only then did Piett recognise in this battered figure the normally dapper young Chief of Station Security. "What is your situation?"
"Massive hull breaches in the eastern hemisphere. We've got the western hemisphere sealed off, but I don't know how long it will hold. Can you spare any transports? There's still a lot of crew on board -- "
"We will see to it immediately, Captain. If you can guarantee that the transports will not be fired upon ... "
"Already taken care of sir," Faren reported, bitter satisfaction on his face. "Commander Jerjerrod seized control of the Command Centre. He'd sealed it off and we didn't have time to break through, but we've now flooded the Command Centre with sion gas. He and his renegades should be out cold. I -- " the Security Captain seemed suddenly to remember he was talking to Darth Vader. "I apologise that we weren't in time to stop him from firing the Superlaser ... "
"Think nothing of it, Captain," said Vader. "The transports will arrive at Hangar Bays Four through Six. My shuttle will dock at Bay Four, I will see you there shortly."
"Yes, My Lord," Faren answered, clearly wondering how long he would survive past Vader's arrival.
As Vader's shuttle settled onto the deck of Hangar Bay Four, Faren and twelve stormtroopers hurried toward it. They had barely time to salute before Vader was striding past them, and they had to scurry along in his wake.
"Your report, Captain," Vader commanded. "What has been happening on this station?" His voice expressed disdain, as if the occurrences on the station were barely worth his attention.
Faren said angrily, "as you know, My Lord, Commander Jerjerrod was in charge of the station's evacuation. He freed the Emperor's guards when they were being moved from their holding cell to a transport, and together they seized the Command Centre. They're the ones who took us into Hyperspace. Some of my men were killed in the guards' escape," he added. From Faren's tone, it seemed that the Security Captain would cheerfully disembowel Jerjerrod and the Imperial guards with his bare hands.
Vader was in full agreement with that sentiment. "I believe," he said, "that Commander Jerjerrod has outlived his usefulness."
They reached the entrance to the Command Centre, where a team of stormtroopers were engaged in slicing though the reinforced doors with a high definition blaster cannon. Conveniently, the door's sealing gave way just as Vader approached. The door had barely finished sliding open before Vader stepped through it.
By now the sion gas had dissipated. Six of the crimson-robed Imperial guards were still sprawled on the floor or at various command posts, while two guards and Commander Jerjerrod were dizzily starting to struggle to their feet.
Jerjerrod looked up, trying to blink the haze out of his eyes, and saw Darth Vader standing above him. Fully awake now, Jerjerrod looked around desperately, only to find that he and all of the Emperor's guards were at the receiving ends of the twelve stormtroopers' blaster pistols.
"Commander," Vader remarked, "I'm disappointed in you. I had thought you might have enough common sense to emerge from this situation alive."
He was doomed anyway, Jerjerrod knew, so he might as well say what he thought. "Traitor," he snarled. "Damned, filthy traitor! The Emperor created you, you bastard. He made you everything you are. And you dare turn your back on him! He'll make you suffer, Dark Lord," Jerjerrod continued, sneering out Vader's title. "He'll tear you apart piece by piece, you warped mechanical freak."
"Perhaps." Vader's voice was chill but undisturbed. "Unfortunately, Commander, you will not be alive to witness it." The Dark Lord knelt down beside the still half-prostrate Jerjerrod. "I'm curious. At our meetings, I felt no sense of your intention to mutiny. Was this unplanned, or have you more skill at shielding your thoughts than I realised? Not that it matters. I merely like to know something of the men I kill."
Jerjerrod stared. Some sense of just how horrible his situation could be started to creep through him. He finally managed to admit, "it wasn't planned. Just before we seized the station, I received a message from the Emperor. He promised me immunity and promotion if I brought the Death Star to him."
"Where is he?" The question was not only asked in words, but probed straight into Jerjerrod's mind.
"Coruscant. He's back on Coruscant."
"Ah. Well, Commander, His Imperial Majesty has been known to have contact with the spirits of the departed. You may, then, be able to apologise for your failure in person."
Vader stood. "Captain Faren. I believe you are of sufficient rank to have a code for this station's self destruct program?"
Faren smiled in vicious enjoyment. "Yes, My Lord."
"If you would care to do the honours." Vader gestured to the central control panel. "Will a fifteen minute count-down be sufficient for evacuating all remaining personnel?"
"I think so, My Lord. The place may have collapsed by then, anyway."
"Very well. Fifteen minutes, then."
Faren crossed to the panel, initiating the self-destruct sequence and entering his activation code. "My Lord?"
Vader joined him, and added his own code to the sequence.
"We need a third code, My Lord," Faren reminded him. "Shall I contact Admiral Piett?"
"No need. We have another command officer among us. Commander Jerjerrod," he said, without turning from the panel, "would you be good enough to join us?"
Jerjerrod, still crouched on the floor, goggled at him in horror. "You're mad."
"Come, Commander, your code. It's impolite of you to keep us waiting." Vader turned to face him.
Jerjerrod gasped as the cold, probing touch delved into his mind again. Vader's gleaming mask, those huge reflective eyes that revealed nothing, were all that Jerjerrod could see, looming both outside Jerjerrod's own eyes and behind them.
With cool deliberation, Lord Vader was sifting through Jerjerrod's mind. Jerjerrod squeezed his eyes shut, tried to resist, to think of something else, anything else, anything but the code ...
"Thank you, Commander," came Vader's amused tone. "That wasn't so difficult, was it?"
Vader turned back to the panel, and entered the third self-destruct code.
"Self destruct initiated," a message on the screen announced. The lighting in the room suddenly switched to red, as it would have done throughout the station. Unobtrusively, in the background, the count-down began.
Jerjerrod was still staring, stunned with disbelief.
"Sir?" asked one of the stormtroopers, gesturing with his blaster at one of the now awake, but still groggy Imperial guards. "What do we do with this lot?"
Faren glanced questioningly at Vader.
"I'm sure the transports are over-crowded already," Vader said mildly. "We don't need to burden ourselves with them."
"No, My Lord." With a smile of immense personal gratification, Faren drew his own blaster pistol and fired point blank at the nearest Imperial guard. Faren watched the man collapse, a blackened hole smoking in his chest, then nodded at his stormtroopers. Obediently they mowed the remaining guards down.
"Do what you can to assist in the evacuation, Captain," Vader ordered. "The Commander and I have some business to complete before I join you."
"Yes, My Lord!" Faren and the stormtroopers departed, the officer wistfully wishing that Vader had let him stay to watch.
"Now, Commander," Vader's voice purred. "You needn't look so terrified. I know how fond you are of this station. Being an understanding man, I'm going to let you remain on it."
Jerjerrod's eyes were widening farther than seemed physically possible. He had wet himself, but at least he didn't have to feel alone in his shame, since most of the Emperor's guards had relieved themselves as they died.
"Of course," Vader went on, ignoring Jerjerrod's discomfort, "in fifteen minutes -- I beg your pardon, fourteen -- you might contrive to countermand the self-destruct program. I am getting very tired of this Death Star, Commander. So, you'll understand if I take steps to ensure that you do not delay its destruction."
Vader's hand barely moved. He made no move toward Jerjerrod. Vader slowly closed the fingers of his right hand toward each other, and heard a quiet little series of pops as each of the bones in Jerjerrod's right foot snapped in two.
Jerjerrod screamed. He kept screaming, as Vader took care of the left foot in like manner, then moved on to the ankles and both legs. For insurance, Vader broke the bones in Jerjerrod's hands, wrists and arms as well, just in case the Commander were inclined to drag himself to the control panel.
"Now," said Darth Vader, "I'm afraid I must be going. Do give my regards to the Emperor."
He was back on the bridge of the Executor, and the last of the transports were safely away and out of range, when the Death Star exploded. Vader smiled to himself, appreciating the shimmering pattern of colours as the dying space station erupted. It really was a very good sight, and the ring of gases that escaped from the detonating Death Star made an attractive touch. He wondered if Luke had taken the time to appreciate the beauty of it when he'd blown up the first Death Star. Probably not. And that thought made him chuckle quietly. Luke really won't be pleased if he learns of my little entertainment in the Command Centre, will he? But, who blew up a Death Star with 1,180,000 people on it -- give or take a few thousand -- and who blew up a Death Star with a full crew complement of one?
It all depends on your emotional state, of course. Perfectly fine to blow up 1,180,000 people, if you don't hate them while you're doing it.
Sure. And I have some lovely waterfront land on Tatooine to sell you.
Admiral Piett, standing next to him as usual, thought how very unnerving it was to hear Darth Vader laugh.