Fear. The smell of it is so thick that it's choking me. The shield is down and the Death Star is doomed. Minutes away from being blasted into oblivion.
There is no place to run or hide. The number of ships available is very limited, since most of them are engaged in a now lost battle against the Rebels. As a matter of fact, only one shuttle remains in the hangar. The Emperor's. And even now, no one would dare to take it. Fear of Palpatine is even greater than fear of imminent death.
The hangar crew is abandoning their posts, running in all directions, desperate to escape the inevitable. I'm confused, disoriented, not knowing what to do or where to go. I look around me. I don't know what I'm looking for.
Something big and dark draws my attention. Something that moves slowly and painfully. For an endless moment I can't tell what it is. I stare harder, forcing my eyes to make out the form that has stepped out of the turbolift.
Suddenly, I understand what it is. But it takes longer for my brain to admit it.
It's Darth Vader. Darth Vader. Barely capable of standing on his feet. His head is bent, looking at the floor. His right hand is missing and he's cradling the stump to his body protectively.
The mere sight is such a contradiction to everything that Darth Vader is and represented for decades, that I blink a few times, in total disbelief. It cannot be. My eyes are deceiving me. This is a cold-blooded murderer, an unrepentant killer. Superhuman. Invulnerable. Indestructible. Immortal like the angel of death, ready to snuff you out like an insect at the smallest hint of failure. I've lost count of how many Vader has killed in front of me. How many have been reported killed by him in all the years I've been serving.
Darth Vader is all about invulnerability, about invincibility, that's why I can't believe my eyes. I am seeing it, and I am still denying its reality.
Vader, wounded. Vulnerable. Helpless. If that's not an oxymoron, I don't know what is.
But there's something wrong in the picture I have in front of me. If Vader can barely stand, how come he's walking? What's helping him along?
Something protrudes from Vader's body, I notice all of a sudden. Something that seems attached to him. Also black. As black as Vader himself. So black I can't tell where Vader ends and the protrusion begins. I try to follow the outer lines of the bulge until I see a head. A human head. A young man's head. With blond hair and blue eyes. Vader's arm is wrapped around the young man's neck, and the young man's holding his hand in his own, keeping Vader from falling. Carrying him, in fact.
And then, I recognize him.
As if I wasn't sufficiently shocked already, this vision blows me away. Luke Skywalker. Vader's mortal enemy. The man Vader chased for years, undoubtedly to kill him himself, if his ruthlessness during the search was anything to go by.
I look at them both, and my brain seems to short-circuit. Those two men are relying on each other, helping each other along. So close to each other that their bodies seem to have merged.
I am hallucinating. Being so close to death has affected my mind and now I'm... I'm... at a loss for words.
Vader sags. Skywalker holds his gloved hand more firmly and his body stiffens to prevent his fall. And it's the young man's fervent grasp that opens my eyes.
There's... affection there. Skywalker cares. About Vader! It is there, in the way he's holding his hand, in the way he's offering his body for Vader to lean on. In the way their bodies are touching. In the way they're holding onto one another. In the closeness that, albeit forced because of their mutual dependence on each other's strength, seems to be actively sought. They're feeding on each other's touch.
And it hits me again.
Vader. Cares. About. Skywalker.
My blood runs cold in my veins and I forget to breathe.
My mind's still wrapping itself about the concept when Vader's strength gives out, and he collapses to the floor taking Skywalker down with him. Skywalker never releases Vader, not even when he could spare himself by letting go. Vader's greater weight makes the fall harder on the two of them.
Vader, collapsing. Another staggering image I'll take with me to the afterlife.
Grinding his teeth, Skywalker takes hold of Vader's wrists and drags him along, undeniably unwilling to leave him behind. The fervour in the young man's attitude speaks of something so profound that it takes me an eternity to acknowledge it, so impossible it is, involving Vader.
It is love.
Skywalker loves Vader.
I can see it in his face, contorted as it is in pain, exhaustion and sheer impotence. There is love in his touch, in his determination not to let go and take Vader with him, in the way he looks down at Vader, his hands tightening their grip on him, just as his strength is about to give out too.
Somehow, my attention shifts to Vader. Maybe trying to see what Skywalker is trying so desperately to save. Trying to see Vader through the young rebel's eyes.
I see a human wreck. Destroyed. Defenceless. Pathetic. Failing to hold on to Skywalker's wrist with his only remaining hand. And it's those flailing fingers, and the way the mask is turned to Skywalker's face that packs the final punch.
Vader loves Skywalker.
All right. I've gone mad.
That's the oxymoron to end all oxymorons. Vader loving anyone.
But I can't deny it, no matter how hard I try.
This evening's episode in this very docking bay makes sense at last. Vader saving Skywalker from the pilot who almost stabbed him, and nearly killing the man with his own hands. Skywalker rushing up to Vader's side and begging him to spare the pilot's life. Vader complying. And the look they shared afterwards.
I knew right then that something was off. The familiarity between them was...
And it finally dawns on me.
These two men are related.
Vader is... Skywalker's father.
I don't know how I know it. I just do. Call it the intuition of a man on the verge of nonexistence. I am seeing things more clearly than I ever did before.
And in the same way, I just know that the Rebels are on the right side of the fight.
I'm not a bad man. I swear I'm not. I happened to be on the Empire's side, just as I could have turned out to be on the Alliance's. I'm just an officer following orders, and trying to survive the war.
I've survived enough to witness the most incredible scene ages will ever see. Vader loving someone, and being loved in return.
There's no fear. Not anymore.
The love between these two men has renewed me. Contrary to what life has taught me, death sometimes brings out the best in people. I'm... happy to know this before I die.
I concentrate again on Vader and Skywalker. The young man has collapsed too beside his father, and he's frantic to turn Vader to him and verify he's all right. His hand on Vader's shoulder plate makes me shudder.
Touch. Never before has such a simple gesture been so meaningful, so... transcendental. This is what shocked me the most at first sight, I realize. The physicality of it all, the mind-blowing intimacy between them.
My sight gets blurry, so I blink to clear my eyes.
And the tears awaken me to the fact that I'm crying.
The sheer beauty of what I'm seeing is making me cry. I stare at them, thanking them for the gift they've given me on my dying day.
Feeling like an intruder, I leave the hangar, giving them the privacy they need in their last moments together.
There is peace inside me. And also love. I am bursting with it. And I'll take it with me wherever I go.