The first Death Star had had no alarms, no escape pods, no contingency plans of any sort. When it came down to it, its critical defense consisted of the Empire's most phenomenally skilled fighter pilot and the vanishingly infinitesimal likelihood that the Rebels could find one even half as gifted. Which they had, of course, and now, four years later, those two pilots are on the second Death Star, trying to stagger together from the Emperor's throne room to safety.
Luke is staggering. Anakin isn't even capable of that much.
This time, the Empire seems to have realized that, yes, their precious Death Star might be at risk. They didn't realize this early enough to have any sort of evacuation procedure in place, of course. Stormtroopers, Imperial Navy officers, and maintenance droids all run around in a panicked frenzy, and Anakin feels a brief pang of guilt for not having stealthily told all the mouse droids how to flee a ship like their organic counterparts.
At least they'd only captured one Rebel so far, and that one never made it to the detention levels, so when the damn thing does blow, the pilots won't have the guilt of having killed their fellows. Assuming, of course, that Luke makes it to a shuttle in time, which would be much easier if he wasn't so burdened.
Strange, Anakin reflects, what you worry about when you die. Is it so for everyone? Did Sidious think as he fell, Blast, I think I left my laundry in the wash? Or is it solely the province of good people to worry about tasks unfinished and loved ones bereft?
Is everyone around him so wrapped up in their own worries, their awareness so focused on the loose ends of their own lives, that they completely fail to notice the Rebel who destroyed the first Death Star, who killed a million of their fellows, in their midst? Are they even aware that the burden he's dragging along is the useless, paralyzed bulk of the man they knew as Darth Vader? Maybe they don't even recognize their commander, now that his characteristic respirator has failed, and only the Force keeps air moving in and out of his tortured lungs.
He has been dying slowly for twenty-two years, held back from the brink first by Sith knowledge kept just out of his reach, then by advanced cybernetic and medical technology that he intuitively understood and improved. Even the Rebels use the upgraded respirator design he'd come up with ten years ago, when they can get it.
Luke wants to save him, Anakin knows. Wants to haul him to an Alliance medical frigate, perhaps. He'd be arrested, first, then perhaps placed on intensive life support, followed by treatment for electrical burns, then repairs to his nonfunctional life-support system/prosthetic spine/battle armor/terror-inducing symbol of Imperial might. Or possibly they'd simply interrogate and execute him, which would be more than well deserved.
Even if they did let him, no, help him live, the only reason he'd even consider it would be the chance to get to know his children. He knows already that they're wonderful--he'd respected them as enemies, but knowing that they're his own flesh and blood fills him with a kind of sublime awe he's never known before. He wants nothing more than to beg their forgiveness a hundred times for every second of pain he's caused them, a million times for not being the father they deserved to have. He would crawl on the knees he hasn't had since shortly before they were born, just for a chance to see their faces with his own, human eyes.
Luke is a great pilot, Anakin knows. Not quite as flashy as he himself was at that age, but deft and nimble in space or atmosphere, with a knack for the impossible. If he can clear the blast radius of the Death Star in time, it's no more than twelve minutes to the Rebel camp, not counting landing time, unless Luke gets sidetracked by engaging in spacefights or having to rescue or escort any of his rebel friends. But can he clear the Death Star explosion? The nearest shuttle bay is not far--two floors down, and perhaps 250 meters away. Easy enough for a young man in reasonably good health, ionizing injuries and dying father notwithstanding.
But Luke isn't heading that way. Somehow--the Force, most likely--he's figured out where the infirmary is. Too far away--Anakin can see that future, can see Luke dragging him into the infirmary just in time for the explosion to kill them both. No! Not Luke!
Anakin wasn't able to save his mother, and his attempts to save Padmé were nothing short of disastrous. But he can see with perfect clarity how to save Luke's life, and it's so simple.
Anakin needs to die.
If he dies, Luke will stop trying to save his life, and will (hopefully) sprint for the nearest shuttle and fly out of the doomed battle station, back to the Rebel encampment, his friends. His sister.
Anakin had accepted death the moment he picked up Sidious. Hadn't minded the lightning destroying the intricate circuitry of the equipment keeping him alive. Sure, it had hurt, it was agony, every organic and synthetic nerve screaming in unimaginable pain, until the prosthetic parts of his spinal cord had melted. And then it was nothing, he didn't exist below the neck as far as he could tell. He had to puppet his own useless carcass with the Force, his left hand clenched around the robes, the stump of his right hand propping up the frail, vicious old man. Two steps--one--and he could finally pitch his Master in the pit where he belonged. The last burst of lightning bricked Anakin's respirator, and he collapsed, waiting for death to claim him.
He's been slowly suffocating for twenty-two years, and now he's quickly suffocating. Not as quick as he expects, though, because Luke, brave and forgiving Luke, is trying to keep him alive, is shoving air into the intake valves of his father's mask. It's a foolish hope, that will end with Luke's death.
And Anakin's, of course; but there hasn't been any option for Anakin to survive in quite some time.
"Luke. Help me take...this mask off." Somehow his voice modulator is still functional. He loathes it. He doesn't want to say goodbye to his son in the terrifying voice of Darth Vader.
"But you'll die." Sweet, hopeful Luke, who still thinks that somehow his father might not die. How could Anakin possibly deserve a son this wonderful?
"Nothing can stop that now. Just for once..." He feels so selfish asking for this. "Let me... look on you.. with my own eyes..." Once the mask is off, he'll be free. He'll die, but he'll die loving, and loved, and free.
(Dukkra ba dukkra, he remembers, a phrase he hasn't spoken or thought since his childhood. Freedom or death. Does his son, born free with a slave's name, know the secret language of slaves? Anakin wishes he had time enough, life enough to ask Luke about this.)
Luke's hands shake as he fumbles with the helmet, and the upper mask, which releases with a pneumatic hiss. Anakin looks up at him, and can't help but tear up, seeing his perfect son. The best of him, the best of Padmé. Only even better. (He tries to picture his daughter's face. He knows how her eyes narrow with rage or widen in desperation, but he doesn't even know what color they are.) "Now...go, my son. Leave me." Live, he means. Don't let me burden you.
"No!" Luke insists. "You're coming with me. I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you."
His lungs are filling up. He can't feel it, but he can hear it in his own fading voice. Anakin Skywalker from Tatooine is going to drown, here on the moon that is no moon, thousands of kilometers away from standing water. "You already...have, Luke. You were right." He almost doesn't have enough breath to whisper, his tormented lungs hold so little air. "You were right about me. Tell your sister..." He can see her now that Luke's thinking about her, the brilliance and courage of this miraculous daughter that Anakin definitely doesn't deserve, the brains and the heart and the face of the Alliance. "...you were right." Because she needs to know, she needs to come to terms with this, with him, or she'll tear herself apart, in all her ferocious conviction. And in tearing herself apart, she'll doom the galaxy as sure as her father had in all his desperate loneliness.
Anakin can dimly see the shadows that will cloud her future, and he knows that she'll need a clear mind and light heart to make her way through. She needs to set her course true, not by him but not to avoid him either, and he wishes more than anything that he could live long enough to tell her, show her his remorse.
But he can't even keep his eyes open, no matter how much he wants to gaze on his son or see his daughter. The last wisps of air escape his laboring lungs, and everything goes blank in his vision--not dark, just blank--as he dimly hears Luke call him "Father." He is light as a feather, light as a star. And his son will live.
He has been a slave, a warrior, a hero, a monster. Only now, at the end, does he get to be a father, does he get to be at peace.
With his very last heartbeat, Anakin Skywalker smiles.