Author: GreatOne PM
Set before ANH, a strange woman forces Han to take her to AlderaanRated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure/Drama - Han S. & Padmé Amidala - Chapters: 2 - Words: 69,284 - Reviews: 9 - Favs: 14 - Follows: 1 - Published: 06-10-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5126855
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Leia had been concentrating so intently on her task that she jumped in surprise when Han Solo plunked down in the chair next to her.
"Whatchya doing?" Han asked, sounding miffed. "You've been avoiding me the past few days."
"I'm building my own lightsaber," Leia replied, pointing to the various metal components and the pale yellow crystals. "I needed time alone to meditate with my crystal. It's a requirement to making a lightsaber work correctly."
Han picked up one of the stones, and held it up to the light as he squinted at it. "This is what makes a lightsaber work? How can a dumb little stone do that?"
The Princess snatched the stone from Han's fingers. "It's not dumb. This stone is called sapith, and it's commonly used in making lightsabers. The type of stone Luke is using is called adegan. Obi-Wan says Luke's new lightsaber will be green, but mine should emit more of a yellow-color blade."
"Are those the only kinds of stones that make a lightsaber work?"
Leia sighed, knowing her concentration on the project was ruined while Han was there asking non-stop questions. Not that she truly minded, actually. Talking to Han was more fun than building her lightsaber, and the end result could be just as exciting. "No. Many types of crystals can be used. They work in a lighsaber because the Force-users imbue the stones with the Force through meditation. This connection is the reason lightsabers are more an extension of a Jedi, rather than just a simple weapon like a blaster."
"Huh," Han muttered, trying to keep his eyes from glazing. "I always thought my DL-44 was pretty sophisticated."
"Sophisticated?" Leia burst into laughter. "Nothing about you qualifies as sophisticated, Nerf."
Han moved his face closer, his expression taking on that of a dangerous predator, and he whispered in a low timber against her ear, "Nothing?"
With her heart hammering, Leia twisted to gaze directly into Han's smoky eyes. "I…um, can't remember what we were talking about."
Grinning at his victory, Han leaned down and pressed his lips to the Princess's, his arms wrapping around her slender body.
A loud rapping sound made them jump apart, as though a cold bucket of water had been dumped over their heads. They turned and looked down to see a frowning Yoda, thumping his gimer stick on the table-top.
"Distractions you cause my padawan," Yoda grumbled at Han. "Find something to do, you must!"
"Before I was so rudely interrupted," Han protested, "I was doing something."
"Something ELSE!" Yoda pointed at Leia. "Busy is she!"
Leia put her hand over her mouth to hide her amusement, and Yoda turned his wrath on his student. "Funny this is not. Forbidden were attachments in the Old Order, and reasons it is apparent."
"Good going, Flyboy," Leia grumbled. "You got me in trouble with my teacher."
Han stood up and leaned forward to whisper in her ear, "If you get detention, I promise to sneak inside the cell and you can check out my good points again. Especially if you show me your points, too."
"Han Solo! You're incorrigible!"
Yoda gave a groan. "With all these distractions, never a proper lightsaber will you build."
With the lightsaber the furthest thing from her mind, Leia could only nod her agreement as she watched her 'distraction' swagger away.
Padmé gave a soft knock on the door before entering the room where Luke was busy building his own lightsaber. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said as she walked inside the equipment room. "Obi-Wan said I could find you here."
"It's not a problem," Luke replied, leaning back and rubbing his temples. "I could use a break."
The woman gave a sympathetic smile as she eyed Luke's workmanship. "It looks like you're almost done."
"It's getting there. I just hope it doesn't explode when I turn it on the first time."
"I'm sure it will be fine," Padmé said as she sat down. "Obi-Wan and Yoda have both sensed that your father is on his way." When Luke said nothing, she added, "Are you still certain we should try to redeem him?"
Her question caught Luke by surprise. "Why? Are you having second thoughts?"
"I am worried about something going wrong," Padmé admitted. "Maybe Leia and Yoda are correct. Maybe it is too late to save him from the dark side."
"For my own peace of mind, I'd like to give him one last chance," Luke said quietly. "I think we'll know pretty quickly if he's too far gone to turn back."
"Will it be any easier to kill him then? Or know that someone else is executing him while we wait in another room?" Padmé asked. It sounded to Luke like the question was directed more to herself than to her son.
"It won't be easy, but at least we won't question the necessity," Luke responded. Seeing his mother's unhappy expression, Luke tried to change the subject. "Leia and Han seem to be getting along really well … aren't they?"
Padmé lifted her eyebrow. "That's meant to make me feel better?"
"You're having a problem with Leia and Han's relationship? Don't tell me you're jealous!" Luke teased.
Padmé shot her son a warning glare. "I'm not convinced he's the sort of man that will make a life-time commitment to one woman."
"Has it occurred to you that Leia might not want a life-time commitment from Han? She's still a Princess, and I'm sure a lot of guys are interested in her back on Alderaan."
"So you're saying Han's the one who's going to end up with a broken heart, instead of Leia?" Padmé questioned, smiling. "With Han's renewed Wookiee life debt in place, Leia might be the one in trouble, if that's the case."
"A ticked-off Wookiee with a depressed friend and life debt to enforce, or an outraged ex-Sith Lord father, protecting his daughter's virtue." Luke pursed his lips in thought. "Either way, we'd better stay out of the way."
Coruscant, throne room
The red-head bowed before the Emperor Palpatine. "I am honored you have requested my presence, Lord Sidious."
Sitting on his throne and looking down at the young woman, the Emperor nodded. "Vader has been training you in the ways of the Sith, without my permission."
The woman dared to give a quick glance upward, then lowered her eyes once again in deference to the Emperor. "It was only to make me a more worthy Hand to you, My Master. I apologize if I have overstepped my bounds."
Palpatine leaned back in his chair, his gnarled fingers rubbing the armrests. "You should understand by now that I seldom offer forgiveness to misdeeds. However, I will allow you to make amends. I have an assignment for you."
"Whatever you require, I will do."
"Of course you will," Palpatine agreed easily. "Lord Vader requested that I allow him to check on the construction of our new battle station, but he was lying to me. He is going somewhere else, instead."
"That is very uncharacteristic of Lord Vader," the Hand responded carefully. "Do you wish me to find out where he is going?"
"That won't be necessary." The Emperor smiled, showing a mouthful of jagged, yellowed teeth, and indicated his Hand should look off to the right, where two, powered down droids had been placed. One was a blue, very old astromech, and one was a battered, gold protocol droid. "My Royal Guards caught these two droids as they attempted to leave. I know where Vader is going. It is a planet called Myrkr."
"It is unlikely you understand," Palpatine replied curtly, sounding annoyed for the first time since the conversation began. "Allow me to elaborate without further interruption. Several months ago, a woman claiming to be Padmé Amidala contacted Lord Vader. She desired to meet with him on Myrkr. Lord Vader came to me with this holo, and asked for direction." Palpatine leaned forward. "Do you know who Amidala was?"
"If I recall my history lessons correctly, she was a former Queen and Senator from Naboo, my Lord. I was under the impression she died shortly after you became Emperor."
"So she did," Palpatine said. "Or at least that was what the galaxy had been led to believe. If the woman in the holo is an imposter, she has undergone facial surgery to look exactly like Amidala, as well as being coached in mannerisms by those who knew her. Only the Rebels could be so devious and evil. I informed Lord Vader it was undoubtedly a trap, and he should not go to Myrkr, especially considering that planet has filthy creatures whose very life-essence creates a void in the Force."
The Hand nodded, but said nothing as she waited for the Emperor to continue.
Palpatine gave a weary sigh. "At first, Lord Vader obeyed. But now he must have reconsidered, and taken this reckless action. Therefore, I want you to go to Myrkr, and kill the Rebel woman. If there are others with her that you feel require elimination, remove them, as well."
"What if this woman turns out to be the real Padmé Amidala?"
Palpatine laughed. "All the better. Just make sure she suffers before she dies." He waved his arm. "Rise, my Hand, and do my bidding. Do not disappoint me, as Lord Vader has done."
"May I ask a favor?"
"If you have no further need for the droids, I can take them with me to Myrkr, and, if need be, use them as a cover story by saying I rescued them. Gratitude often serves to lower the defenses of misguided idealists."
Palpatine nodded. "You may take them. I was only planning on having them crushed into a cube and placed in Vader's quarters as a gift when he returned from Myrkr."
Her lips twitched in amusement. "That would have made a fine gift, indeed, My Master. Perhaps, before I turn them back on, I can place a small, timed detonator in each one, as a parting gift for whichever Rebel claims ownership."
The Emperor gave a harsh bark of laughter. "I appreciate your ingenuity."
The lithe young woman quickly stood, but bowed deeply again as a sign of respect, and backed away while keeping her head down. Beneath her veil of cascading locks of red hair, she was beaming with delight at this assignment. Killing always made the Emperor's Hand feel so… alive.
Myrkr, three days later
The rusty, but fast ship landed outside the perimeter of the base, and was instantly surrounded by dozens of armed guards. The ramp lowered, and the Rebels were rather surprised to see a slender, red-headed woman wearing light gray slacks and a painfully bright pink tunic exit the ship. The young woman slowly raised both hands, indicating she wasn't a threat, and watched as the man in charge cautiously approached.
"Hello," the man said politely, while still taking the precaution of removing her blaster. "My name is Talon Karrde. Is there something I can help you with?"
The young woman gave Karrde her most winning smile. "My name is Trixsy Judus. I'm a freetrader from Coruscant, and I may have something that belongs to you."
Talon nodded warily. "What would that be?"
The woman turned and called up the ramp. "Come on down, you silly little dawdlers!"
The gold-colored face of C-3PO peeked around the corner, before walking stiffly down the ramp followed by the astromech droid, R2-D2. "Is this Franistan? I seem to recall that I live on a planet called Franistan."
"No, this is Myrkr," Talon answered.
"I do believe I have suffered a severe case of memory-chip impairment," Threepio said, hitting the top of his cranium with his fingertips as Artoo gave a worried toodle at his friend.
"How did you end up with these droids?" Talon questioned the woman, his suspicions spiking higher as he noted the deep new dents in the protocol droid.
"I found them," Trixsy explained, bouncing up and down on her toes. "They were in a dumpster near the Imperial Palace, just about ready to be taken to a smelter."
"What, pray tell, were you doing in a dumpster?"
"Haven't you ever heard of dumpster diving?" Trixsy asked with a giggle. "I can't tell you how many valuable things I've found in dumpsters, especially government dumpsters. Besides smuggling, I like to use whatever I find for a quick profit. You'd be surprised what someone will pay to get confidential information from being released into public domain."
"So you blackmail people?"
"Whatever gets me credits," she admitted. She waved a hand at the two droids. "Is there a reward for bringing these two back?"
Talon pursed his lips as he considered. "I suppose. How did you know to bring them to Myrkr?"
"I turned them on and asked them, of course," Trixsy replied, rolling her eyes. "The protocol droid kept insisting I take them to Franistan, wherever that is. Fortunately the astromech seems to have all his chips intact, and the protocol droid was able to tell me what the little guy was saying, and the astromech gave me your landing clearance code, too. Their ship had already been confiscated by the Imps, so they were more than happy that I offered them a ride."
"I see." Talon looked down at Artoo. "Is this story all true, Artoo?"
Artoo gave a long series of beeps and whistles, which Threepio translated, "Artoo can vouch for Captain Judus's story. Although I must add that I am most concerned about the Maharincess, considering how we were treated by the Imperials. Has she arrived safely home yet?"
Trixsy gave an unladylike snort. "See what I mean about that droid having some seriously scrambled circuits?"
"Yes, I do see," Talon said. "Well, come along, and I'll take you to their owners."
"You are taking us to the Maharincess?" Threepio asked hopefully as he followed Talon and the young woman inside the building. "I seem to recall she's quite a lovely lady, and treats all droids as well as soft-tissued beings!"
Artoo let out a long-suffering sigh.
Luke had a hard time not staring at the pretty new arrival, and blushed when she caught him staring. "Thanks for bringing our droids back."
"Oh, no problem," Trixsy said in a breathy voice as she batted her eyes at the young man, then gazed around the room at the large group. "It's such a privilege to meet you all." She looked at Obi-Wan. "A real Jedi, huh? I thought you guys were all dead."
"Someone forgot to tell us that," Obi-Wan commented dryly.
Trixsy turned her attention to Han. "You're a legend among smugglers, Captain Solo. You're the reason I picked this career."
"Smuggling is a career?" Leia asked sarcastically. "Since when?"
"Since my reputation made me a legend," Han told Leia with a lopsided grin.
"I'd really love to hang around, if you'll let me," Trixsy asked hopefully. "Please, please, please?" She concluded this request with a loud snap of the gum she was chewing.
Yoda narrowed his eyes at the woman. "Why?"
Trixsy frowned at Yoda's question. "Because I don't much like the Empire, and it might be keen to be a Rebel for a while. Does it pay well?"
"Sure it does," Luke replied with a laugh. "Just ask Han Solo."
"Hey," Han objected. "There's more to me than money." He grinned at Leia before giving her a quick kiss. "At least now there is."
"Han can be a real charmer," Padmé said, giving an exasperated shake of her head. "You'll have to ask Captain Karrde if you can join the Rebellion."
Trixsy turned her charm on the older smuggler. "What do you think? I'm a good pilot, and I'll do anything you ask. Anything at all."
It was Karrde's turn to become flustered. "Well, I suppose we can always use another hand."
"That's what I'm best at… being a hand," Trixsy said with a strange smile.
"Well, follow me then," Talon mumbled. "I'll show you around."
After Trixsy and Talon had gone, Yoda remarked, "Trust her, I do not."
Luke seemed surprised. "You don't? I think she's great."
Padmé groaned. "But she's a smuggler! What's with my children and smugglers?"
"I resent that," Han protested as everyone laughed.
Onboard the bridge on the Devastator, Lord Vader was seething with an emotion he'd not experienced in a very long time – jealousy. Several times he would try to reason with himself by thinking that it was quite likely the woman in the holo wasn't actually Padmé. But his dark thoughts would always return to the notion that it might be her, and that those two young people might really be his offspring. Then the rage would build up again as he thought about Padmé in the arms of another man - a faithless man by the name of Han Solo. During the trip, the Dark Lord researched the name, and found quite a dossier on Solo. Although the protocol droid had not mentioned Solo's first name, Vader had been able to quickly discern the most likely candidate. Solo's early years were a blank, but he'd been a Lieutenant in the Imperial Navy before being dishonorably discharged. Then he'd taken up a life of smuggling, and was currently wanted by both the Empire and a large number of local systems.
Vader wasn't sure what was upsetting him more – that Padmé would have an affair with such a low-life, or that Solo would have the audacity to attempt to be unfaithful to her… with her daughter. Vader's flesh and blood! Lord Vader wondered if his daughter actually returned Solo's affections. How was this making Padmé feel? Shocked? Betrayed? Angry? Vader was feeling all those emotions at the moment. Shock that his entire family might be alive. Betrayed that they had hidden from him, and that his wife was unfaithful. Anger over that betrayal. Where had they been all this time? Who had been helping to hide them? Whoever it was would pay the price for that help. He would make all the people involved with this cover-up know the true meaning of fear and pain. He would start with Solo, and then even Padmé would experience the depths of his rage. She would cower before him, and beg forgiveness and mercy. Then, and only then, would he be assuaged, embrace his family, and allow them back into his good graces.
It wasn't any wonder Palpatine had forbidden Vader from going to his wife. The Emperor had seen the future, and Palpatine's downfall at the hands of Skywalker's children was preordained. Lord Vader would soon rule the galaxy, and by his side would be a meek and obedient wife, and his two powerful, Sith children. He would finally have it all. In the far reaches of Vader's mind, where sanity still held a tenuous grip, he knew it wasn't logical that the end result of punishing Padmé for being unfaithful would result in her loyalty, or his children's loyalty. It wasn't even logical that she should have remained faithful after all these years. After all, he had Force-choked her on Mustafar. Few women would continue to love a man after being physically assaulted while nearly full term into a pregnancy. Vader roughly pushed those traitorous, if sane, thoughts aside. No, he amended mentally, she had pushed him to Force-choke her, by bringing Kenobi to Mustafar. The assault was all her fault. If she hadn't brought Kenobi to Mustafar, everything would have worked out long before now. She would be Queen of the galaxy, and everything would be perfect. He would still be a complete man, instead of a machine. Yes, it was all her fault, so she should suffer before realizing his absolution. Now, nearly twenty long years later, the Force was putting everything back into its proper place, and Vader would get what he desired and deserved.
Vader felt a nervous presence approach from behind, then heard a cough.
Slowly and deliberately, the Sith turned to face the speaker, Captain Wermis. "Yes?"
"We have stopped at the coordinates you requested, Sir," the Captain stated, frowning. "Although I am confused, since we are nowhere near Despayre."
Despayre was the location of the nearly completed Death Star, and where Vader had initially informed the Captain they were headed upon leaving Coruscant. Taking a deep breath, Vader regarded the impertinent Wermis. "Are you questioning my orders?"
"No… no M'Lord!"
"That is a very good answer."
"Your shuttle is ready and waiting, Lord Vader."
Vader nodded. "You will wait here until I contact you with further instructions. Do not leave this location, nor give away your location by communicating with anyone. Do I make myself clear, Captain Wermis?"
Without further comment, the Sith strode away from the trembling Captain. If the man failed in any way to follow his orders, Captain Wermis would be the first Imperial to die under the new Emperor's reign. The first, but far from the last.
Yoda craned his neck, looking up at the evening sky. The nighttime stars were first starting to make their appearance, the brightest ones coming into view first. "Approaching now, is he. Unaware of us, Vader yet is."
The human Jedi nodded his agreement. "He's not expecting us."
Yoda regarded his old friend with sadness. "Lie to her, you should not have."
"You're talking about Padmé?" Obi-Wan questioned. "I don't believe by giving her some hope that I was lying to her."
"Lie to yourself then, you do. Brought back, Vader cannot be. Foolish hope can be, when unreasonable the expectations are."
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to argue, when he was interrupted by Luke rushing out of the base's exit door. "Master Kenobi! An unidentified shuttle has shown up on the incoming radar screen. General Bel Iblis is pretty sure it's Imperial class, and Talon said we should head over to the underground bunker."
Following Luke, the older Jedi headed into the base, knowing that it was imperative to mask their presence from Darth Vader before he arrived by using the few ysalamiri located in the base as Force-shields. Then it would be up to Padmé and the twins to lure Vader to the proper location. This would have to be done quickly, before Vader got close enough to the surface to alter his trajectory. As they approached the landspeeder, they could see that Padmé was already sitting in the passenger seat, and Leia was locked in what appeared to be a heated argument with the Corellian. Moving closer, their loud words became clear.
"Why can't I come along?" Han was yelling, waving his hand at the speeder as Garm and Talon looked on, uncomfortable with listening to the disagreement. "I'm fast with a blaster! Probably faster than anyone else on this base."
"You're not part of the plan," Leia shouted back, hands on hips. "You're staying here, where it's safe."
"Stay here where it's safe, while you go face an evil Sith dude with no backup?!"
"I've got backup," Leia argued, shaking her head. "My mother and Luke are coming with me."
"That's not nearly enough."
Luke put his hand on Han's shoulder. "We're not going to need blasters if everything goes as planned."
"And since when does anything go as planned?" Han asked his young friend as Luke got into the driver's seat of the speeder.
"The droids got the message through," Padmé pointed out patiently. "That went according to plan."
Han waved at the ceiling. "What if it's not just Vader that's coming? What if an entire fleet of Destroyers drop out of hyperspace and start blasting away at the surface? How will you get off the planet? You'll be klicks away from any spaceship!"
Leia smiled up at Han, pleased he was so concerned. "Are you worried about me, Flyboy?"
The Corellian flushed as he realized everyone was watching and listening for his reaction. "Uh, yeah. I promised your father, you know…"
While Chewie gave a loud warning roar for Han to shut up, it was Leia's turn to flush, her red face was caused by anger. "I thought you actually cared about me," she snapped. "I guess I was just another notch on your bedpost."
"Leia!" Padmé gasped in shock. "I didn't need to hear that. Really, truly."
Han tried to smooth over his latest mistake with the Princess. "Kriff, Leia, I do care about you! I didn't mean to make you mad when I mentioned the promise I made to your father! I'd think you'd want me to keep my word. Promises are important, right?" He moved to give her a hug, but she pushed him away with a sharp elbow in his ribcage.
Padmé looked up at Obi-Wan. "Wait until I contact you before you come. I don't want to take any chances that Ani will sense you before we can trap him."
Leia jumped into the back of the speeder. "Let's get moving, Luke. If I have to look at Solo for one more second, I'm going to use my lightsaber on his questionable manhood."
Glaring at Han, Luke slammed his foot down on the accelerator and roared away from the base.
*I could throttle you sometimes,* Chewie groused at his partner. *Sometimes even more than sometimes.*
"Sometimes I wish you would," Han admitted. "But do it before I open my big mouth and insert my bigger foot."
Obi-Wan cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "I would like to take another speeder and follow them," he informed Talon. "Despite what Luke and Padmé would like to believe, turning Vader back to the light may prove to be a challenge."
"But what about Padmé's concern that Vader might sense you too early?" Talon questioned.
"Can you get us one ysalamiri to cover us while we travel?"
"Yes, I will." Talon raised a comlink to his lips and barked out an order to one of his men. It only took a few minutes for the Rebels to arrive, carrying a single ysalamiri.
"I'm driving you there," Han declared, thinking about how he'd messed up with Leia and how he needed to do something drastic in order to get back into her good graces. "And I ain't taking 'no' for an answer."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Captain," Obi-Wan said with a grin.
*Great,* Chewie moaned sarcastically. *I always wanted to face down a Sith Lord before I died.*
"Then today's the day, pal," Han said.
Talon rubbed his neck as he considered. "Padmé won't like this."
"But they might need the assistance," Garm said. "And if they don't know they have backup, then Vader might not sense it, either."
"Then we're in agreement," Obi-Wan stated. "Let's get moving. We need to be in place before Vader arrives."
"Go with you, Jedi Kenobi, I will not," Yoda suddenly declared. "Needed here, I am."
"Why?" Han questioned the old Jedi. "What's gonna happen here?"
A stubborn expression appeared on aged Yoda's face. "Insists I remain here, the Force does." He wagged a finger at Obi-Wan, and the human Jedi leaned down as Yoda whispered in his ear, "Watch the newcomer, I feel I must."
Obi-Wan nodded, although he was greatly concerned for Yoda. Ever since they had arrived on Myrkr, Obi-Wan could sense his comrade's declining vitality. "I trust your insight, Master Yoda. Take care."
"You must, as well," Yoda replied. "If…."
"Yes?" Obi-Wan prodded.
"If I see you not again in this existence, know that we will meet when joined with the Force we become."
Darth Vader angled his ship toward the green planet. Reaching out with the Force, he could feel vast areas in the forested regions that were empty spaces where life should be pulsating. Vader knew this was the effect of the ysalamiri, and it was certainly cause to suspect the people in the holo were leading him into a trap. But the planet also had vast plains, and the coordinates that his wife had provided indicated she would be waiting in an area where life could be sensed. The Sith mentally honed in as his ship swooped lower, and he drew a sharp intake of breath. The presence that he sensed was that of Padmé, and no matter how devious and smart the Rebels were, they could not forge her Force-signature.
He could also sense two unfamiliar presences, and they were powerful in the Force. My children, Vader thought, his heart racing in anticipation. It was true, then. Unbelievably, after nearly twenty years of suffering, both mentally and physically, the Force had seen fit to finally reward his loyalty. He was truly the Chosen One, and this was proof. He was about to be delivered from years of servitude, and raised up to the ultimate heights of glory. He would be the New Emperor. The galaxy would be rightfully his to control and rule over.
But first he had business to take care of down on Myrkr. Vader set his ship down next to a small building. No weapons could be seen, yet his sense of danger seemed to be growing with each passing moment. He reached out with the Force, and knew his wife and children were below ground. He approached the doorway, and as he reached for the 'open' button, the door parted silently, as if in anticipation of his arrival, revealing a lift. Cautiously, Vader stepped inside, and simply waited for the next act. The doors shut, and the elevator lowered him quickly and smoothly down. Inside his mask, he swallowed hard against the dryness of his throat. Why should he be so nervous? He was a Sith Lord, and if anything, his unfaithful wife and deceiving off-spring should be the ones feeling apprehensive, not him.
The doors parted.
"So soon leaving the base, Captain Judus?" Yoda questioned as he came quietly up behind the young woman just as she was about to mount a speeder bike in a deserted section of the Rebel hanger.
The red-head hid her surprise well, and she glared down at the old Jedi Knight. "Captain Karrde asked me to check out the base sensors. To make sure they're still working, you know."
"Mind you not if I ask Captain Karrde to confirm this?" Yoda asked politely, waving a small comlink at the woman. "Odd it seems that a newcomer as yourself he would trust so quickly."
Trixsy shrugged, and swung her leg back over the bike seat as she dismounted. "Sure, go ahead."
Keeping his eyes on the woman, Yoda raised the small device to his lips, but he never got the chance to turn it on. The woman drew a silver tube out from under her vest, and ignited an orange-colored blade, swinging it down at the Jedi's head. Yoda was amazingly fast, and back-flipped away from the weapon, and the lightsaber only caught the edge of his brown robe. The ancient Jedi turned on his own lightsaber, and took up a defensive stance. "Knew you reeked of the dark side, did I," Yoda mumbled.
Trixsy arched her eyebrow. "Calling me smelly is just plain rude. I'll have to teach you some proper respect, old Jedi."
Then she attacked with a fury that surprised Yoda, her blade slashing away, and forcing him to back up as he called on the Force for strength. Twirling around, Yoda quickly dove low, under her blade, and slashed at the woman's ankles. The dark-Force user was startled at the old Jedi's ability, since she had considered him far past his prime, and Yoda's blade singed the front of her boots before she was able to flip over Yoda, and out of harm's way.
"You've still got a few tricks up your moldy old sleeve, I see," she panted out, eyes narrowing.
"The Force is my ally," Yoda responded, although even those few words came with great effort. Deep down, Yoda knew that even the Force was not able to prevent the inevitable. This woman obviously had been trained by someone that knew the ways of the darkside, and knew that Yoda's greatest weakness was his advanced age. His time remaining had been limited even though his old friends had been too kind to mention how he'd aged during his years spent on Dagobah. And although the Force was still present here on Myrkr, it was definitely diminished. That, too, was having a profound negative effect on his health.
The young woman gave a snort of contempt. "It's a good thing it is, because I see all your Jedi buddies left you behind."
"My choice that was," Yoda responded, waving his lightsaber and circling around the red-head. "Stayed behind to stop you I did."
"You stayed behind to die," Trixsy mocked, and having caught her breath, started her attack anew. "And you're making me late. Being late makes me cranky, but I've got a tracker on the Skywalkers' hovercraft, so I can always catch up."
Yoda managed to hold off her latest assault with great effort, and found himself backed into a corner. He dared to glance up at the high ceiling, where a holo-cam light flashed.
The Emperor's Hand noticed where the Jedi was looking. "Don't count on help arriving anytime soon," she taunted between raining down hard blows with her weapon. "I've disabled the security camera by forcing it into running a pre-recorded loop. Anyone looking at this scene will see a nice, quiet room."
"Planned well, have you," Yoda conceded. Calling on his last reserves of the Force, Yoda raised his blade to defend himself against the relentless onslaught, and shut his eyes. Trust her, you must not, he tried calling to Obi-Wan. Agent of the darkside is she… Even as her blade sliced through his torso, Yoda knew his message had not reached his old friend. The ysalamiri covering Obi-Wan's Force-signature had done their job too well.
The Emperor's Hand felt a rush of adrenaline in her victory. She moved closer to her victim, stabbing the old Jedi in his neck to ensure he was well and truly dead. Her blade shimmered intensely, and then for a brief moment the glow faltered. When the Hand blinked, she looked down at the ground only to see the small brown robe drop to the floor, as though it had deflated. The Hand poked at the empty robe, confused. Had her prey somehow escaped? She glanced around the hanger, and could see no one in the area. Whatever had happened, she couldn't worry about it right now. The Hand's mission could not be compromised by the disappearance of Jedi Yoda. She jumped on her pre-chosen speeder bike, and roared away at full speed, briefly glancing down at her tracking screen to note the direction that the Skywalkers' landspeeder had taken.
Inside the bunker, the room was dim and the air was musty. Vader didn't notice either, since his mask filtered the oxygen and the goggles allowed him to see in almost complete darkness. He focused immediately on three humans standing at the far wall, and igniting his lightsaber he took a large stride forward. The movement put him almost – but not quite – far enough in the room to be standing within the bars that would trap him inside the cage. "WHY?" Vader roared out, shaking his gloved fist at the three people as his voice echoed menacingly off the flat walls.
Padmé stepped forward, placing herself inside the grooved edge of the trap. She reached out as well, but her hands were flat, palm side up in a conciliatory gesture. "Ani, I'm so terribly sorry for what happened to you on Mustafar."
"Do not call me that disgusting name! You've lied to me," he growled out, trembling in rage. "Starting back on the hellish planet, and lasting for almost twenty years, you've lied to me." Even though the Force was diminished for the Sith Lord, he still had enough power to grab his wife and yank her toward him. Once in his strong grasp, he roughly threw her to the floor at his feet and ignited his lightsaber. Holding the humming blade at her temple, he looked back at the two people still standing across the large room. "How long have you known that I am your father?" he snarled loudly.
Luke glanced over at Leia, and both tightened their grip on the handle of their new lightsabers. Earlier, they'd turned the weapons on, and both Obi-Wan and Yoda had been pleased to see their handiwork had created a functioning weapon. But neither lightsaber had ever been truly tested, and it was always possible they could falter in a battle. It was Leia that replied first, "You'll never be my father! It takes more than a two minute act of intimacy to claim that title."
"Don't antagonize him," Luke whispered out of the side of his mouth.
Despite the quietness of the statement, Vader heard it. "I am far beyond antagonized at this point." He looked down at the ashen face of Padmé. "I want to know all about your lover. Or should I say our daughter's lover?" When she didn't answer, he continued, loud enough that his children could hear him clearly. "Perhaps you both share him? Why don't you speak, my lovely wife?" With his boot, he gave her a sharp kick in her thigh, causing her to gasp in pain.
"Leave her alone!" Luke cried out, igniting his green blade and rushing forward to defend his mother.
Vader gave a quick, hard slash with his own blade, easily deflecting his son's first blow. "Do not be foolish," the Sith warned. "I can, and will, kill her without remorse if you try to attack me again." He lowered the red blade back to its original place at Padmé's temple while Luke backed away. "Tell me about Solo."
"Han? He was never my lover," Padmé said, trying to keep her voice from trembling. "I've never loved anyone but you, Ani."
"C-3PO may be a lot of things, but he is incapable of making up nonsense," Vader responded bitterly. "I am so very tired of your lies, Senator Amidala." He moved the blade closer, and he could see her hair start to smolder and singe as she covered her eyes in fear. Yes, he thought, his heart racing in glee. Fear me and cower, traitor!
"Threepio wasn't making anything up," Leia spoke up, daring to step closer although it placed her inside the trap area. "Mother was under the delusion that by allowing me to believe Han was her lover, I wouldn't become interested in him. It was all a misunderstanding, and Threepio never heard the real story."
"I do not believe you," Vader stated.
"It's the truth, Father," Luke said, slowly trying to put Vader between Leia and himself. He couldn't try anything until Padmé was out of harm's way. "We've no reason to lie to you."
"I can think of many reasons you are lying." He looked back down at his wife. "Explain why you allowed me to believe you died. And why you kept my children from me!"
"You had changed," Padmé whispered. "The man I loved would never have hurt me. If you tried to kill me once, you would try again, and I was so very frightened, Ani. After I gave birth, Obi-Wan and Yoda took the babies and gave them to good homes, so they'd be safe."
"Once again, Obi-Wan haunts me," Vader rumbled. He pointed his finger at Luke. "Where did you live? Who raised you?"
"I grew up on Tatooine," Luke replied. "Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen raised me."
"So they betrayed me, as well."
"No!" Padmé shouted, suddenly fearing for the Lars' safety. "They thought Anakin Skywalker was dead."
Vader regarded that comment silently, before turning his attention to Leia. "And where did you live?"
"I grew up on Alderaan," Leia replied, refusing to show fear in front of Darth Vader.
"Princess Leia Organa," Vader said, suddenly remembering where he'd seen the young woman before. "A senator, like your wayward Mother." He nearly laughed under his helmet. "Tell me, son, how did you like finding out that your twin sister grew up in luxury, as a rich, pampered Princess, while you toiled away in the heat as a slave to a dirt farmer?"
"I… I wasn't a slave," Luke stammered out as a strange sensation swept through his emotions. Why was he suddenly resenting his sister? He tried to push the feelings aside, but they weighed him down like a suffocating cold, wet blanket.
"Are you certain?" Vader questioned intently. "There are many forms of slavery, son. Did Lars give you a choice to work endless hours in the hot dirt, or not? Or was it expected of you? If you wanted a bed to sleep in, or food to eat, would they have given it to you if you had refused their orders?"
"Don't listen to him, Luke," Leia shot out. "He's playing mind games with you."
"Or am I the only one that's telling the truth?" Vader chided. His blade moved slightly away from Padmé, and he jerked her to her feet. "Perhaps sending Luke to Tatooine as Lars' servant was Obi-Wan's ultimate form of revenge. What better irony than sending my off-spring back to the place I grew up as a slave?"
"You were a slave?" Luke questioned in surprise.
"Padmé failed to tell you that?" Vader asked sarcastically. "What a shock. After all, how can she manipulate you against me, if you have sympathy for the devil?"
"I've never called you a devil, and I wasn't trying to manipulate them," Padmé argued. She glanced at the floor, and noted with despair that Vader was still outside the trap area. She tried to take a step inside the trap, but Vader jerked her back to his side with such force that her head snapped back and her teeth rattled together.
"Then why are they here, Senator Amidala?" Vader hissed out. "Why did you really lure me here with your song about family and togetherness? I am tired of the lies, and if you refuse to tell me the truth, right now, I will snap your neck and take great pleasure in watching you die."
"Obi-Wan and Yoda have trained us as Jedi!" Luke yelled, trying to distract Vader from following through with his threat. "You're here because it's our destiny to destroy the Sith."
Vader actually bit out a harsh laugh. "The timid Jedi Masters cannot face me, so they send my own barely trained children to attempt to do what they could not. You will fail, and then you will both be dead while Kenobi and his cowardly friend run away and hide for another twenty years."
"If you're so certain that you'll prevail, then let our mother go, and face us," Leia challenged the Sith. She turned on her own yellow-hued blade. "Unless you're the one that's afraid."
Vader threw Padmé aside, and she stumbled and fell against the outer wall. "If… when I defeat both of you, she will quickly follow you in death," Vader warned.
"First things first," Leia said, lunging at the Sith while Luke attacked from the opposite direction.
"Do you have a plan?" Han asked the Jedi as he pulled the landspeeder up next to where Luke had parked. He frowned as he noticed the Imperial-class shuttle parked nearby, knowing it belonged to the man the entire galaxy feared.
"The Force will be my guide," Obi-Wan stated, then put his hand to his forehead. "I wish we could move this ysalamiri away."
"Yeah," Han grumbled unhappily. "How can the Force guide you if you can't use it? Not that I believe in the Force, mind you. But if I did, then I'd have to wonder about that."
Obi-Wan smiled indulgently. "You and Chewbacca should stay up here, as backup."
"Not a chance!" Han argued hotly. "I came along for a reason. The woman I love is down in that hole."
*When Leia isn't around, he says the right words,* Chewie complained. *Why is that?*
Han flushed. "Well, it's hard to say it to her face. Besides, she's a princess, and I'm nothing more than a two-bit smuggler. She won't want me to hang around after all this is over with."
"You should give her more credit," Obi-Wan said, pressing the control panel buttons to the lift. "She might surprise you."
"Yeah? Her daddy might be even more surprised."
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow as he entered the lift, and Han crowded in next to him. "Which father are you more concerned about? The one you've met, or the one you're about to meet?"
"Uh, I hadn't thought about that," Han admitted.
"When the door opens, stay behind me," Obi-Wan instructed. "And whatever you do, don't fire your blaster at Vader. That will only make him mad."
*Yeah, Han,* Chewie woofed out. *Try not to make the Sith mad, okay?*
Padmé could barely drag her eyes away from the clashing lightsabers. Red, green and yellow blurred together into a rainbow swirl of colors. She knew her children had to manipulate Vader into the middle of the room, and both Luke and Leia had to be outside the trap before she could press the button on her wrist control. As the battle raged, Vader was easily able to fend off both his off-spring, and Padmé felt a complete loss of hope that Anakin Skywalker could be redeemed.
Blinking against the bright light cast by the sabers, she waited… and waited for the right moment. The fight continued in the center of the room, and Leia back-flipped over Vader and out of the cage area. Then Luke spun around, and rolled away, leaving Vader standing alone…
Padmé reached for her wrist band, and before she could press the button that would slam the bars down from the ceiling and up from the floor, the lift door burst open….
Completely disregarding Obi-Wan's instructions, Han Solo pushed past the Jedi Master and promptly started firing his blaster at the Dark Lord of Sith.
Padmé wanted to scream in frustration as Vader easily parried and blocked the blaster shots fired by Han. As Obi-Wan moved toward Vader with his ignited lightsaber, Chewie rushed in holding the single ysalamiri they had brought with them. I have to trap him, before it's too late, was her only coherent thought, and pressed both the button to the hidden bars as well as the second button, which opened up the walls, revealing the rest of the ysalamiri.
Even though the cage bars fell down from the ceiling and rose up from the floor with fantastic speed, the scene seemed to unfold in slow motion to Padmé's abject horror. She could see the billowing black cape of her husband as he rushed forward to engage Obi-Wan in battle, and when the room suddenly became completely void of the Force, she saw him stumble in confusion. That slight stumble was enough to prevent the Sith Lord from completely escaping the area inside the trap, and what happened next was far worse than merely getting caught inside the bars. The lowering top bar nicked the armored helmet as it hurtled to the floor, and Vader spun around and fell sideways, just as another post, rising up from the floor, caught his torso, driving the durasteel spike through his side. For a long second, he physically was jerked upward, and with a roar of agony, dropped his lightsaber to the ground as his body, still impaled by the bar, slid to the floor.
Luke screamed, "Father!" Luke looked briefly at his mother, his face ashen. "What did you do?" Without waiting for Padmé to reply, he rushed around the now completed cage to Vader's side, while Padmé stood frozen in shock.
"Shut the cages!" Obi-Wan yelled out, hurrying to help Luke. "Retract the bars!"
Padmé stood still, unable to tear her gaze from the scene of her writhing husband, or move to obey Obi-Wan's orders. A second later, she felt Leia take her wrist and press the controls.
"It went completely through his entire right side," Luke yelled to Leia. "Contact the medics… he's bleeding badly."
Leia hesitated. "Maybe we should…"
Snapping out of her stupor, Padmé turned to face her daughter. "Should, what? Allow him to bleed to death?"
"He was trying to kill us," Leia tried to point out, seeing the disgust on her mother's expression.
By this time, Han had reached Leia's side. "Are you alright, sweetheart? I was only trying to help."
Padmé directed her wrath toward Han. "Help? You considered that helping? You destroyed our one chance! Everything was going exactly as we'd planned! He would have been trapped inside the cage, and cut off from the Force, if you hadn't come blasting in, uninvited! How dare you! You are completely useless… no, you're worse than useless. You're nothing more than a stupid liability! I wish I'd never hired you… I wish I'd never heard the name 'Solo'!" She rushed away from the astounded Corellian, and toward her gravely injured husband as she spoke urgently into her comlink.
Han was deeply hurt by Padmé's accusations, and told Leia, "I messed everything up, and now your mother hates me."
Leia reached up and touched his cheek. "My mother can't see the truth, Han. There isn't any hope for reaching the man once called Anakin Skywalker," she whispered. "I'm impressed you came down here to try and help me, even if you did it in your usual style of shoot-first and ask-questions-later."
"What makes you think I always shoot first and ask questions later?"
Leia arched her eyebrow. "So you're saying you never do that?"
"No, actually I do it all the time."
"Now that's a surprise," Leia said dryly. "I never would have guessed."
"So you're not mad at me?"
"Well, no," Leia said. "But I don't know how you're ever going to earn back my mother's and my brother's respect." She waved toward the huddled group, frantically trying to stop Vader from bleeding to death. "Especially if the Sith dies."
Han nodded, instead wondering what was going to happen to him if the Sith survived.
The Emperor's Hand was livid. Sitting on her speeder a klick away from the empty landspeeder that she'd tracked to this point, she could also see the Imperial shuttle, as well as a second landspeeder. All the occupants were undoubtedly already inside the building. This was not going according to her plan, which had been to kill Padmé with a well-aimed sniper shot before they arrived. Now there would be far too many people inside the bunker, even for her sharply honed skills to handle.
She had just decided to wait and see who ended up coming out of the bunker alive, when she noticed a small, fast moving ship swooping down from the direction of the Rebel base, and landing next to Vader's shuttle. She flattened herself down into the tall prairie grasses, and watched the scene through her macrobinoculars. The men that rushed out of the ship were obviously medics, and the Hand smiled. Perhaps the situation had resolved itself, and the worthless Rebels were dead or dying by the wrath of Darth Vader.
Moments later, a hover-gurney was pushed out of the lift and the Hand nearly dropped her macro's in shock. The person on the gurney was none other than Lord Vader himself, and it was obvious the Rebels were doing everything possible to keep him alive. The Hand moved her sights toward the door, and watched as Padmé, her children, the Jedi, Solo and the Wookiee exited. Padmé was obviously extremely distraught, and was leaning on her son's shoulder for support, while Leia and Solo seemed to stay back, away from the sobbing woman.
The Hand pursed her lips thoughtfully, and recalled earlier in the day when Talon had first introduced her to Padmé's twin children, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa. The Hand had nearly swallowed her gum she'd been so startled, and she'd instantly understood how Vader had been lured to Myrkr after Palpatine had ordered him to stay away. She would have to get word to her Master about this turn of events, informing him of the fact that Vader had living off-spring. She wasn't certain how her Master would react to this news – it might please him to learn that he could train another apprentice, or it might infuriate him that there was another threat to his throne.
As she thought further, it occurred to the Hand that these spawns of Vader might be a threat to her status. And Palpatine had told her to eliminate any threats, so it stood to reason that she should eliminate them, as quickly as possible. Contacting Palpatine was unnecessary at this point, the Hand decided. The entire Skywalker family, Vader included, would have to die. With Vader incapacitated, it should be a fairly simple task, and Yoda was kind enough to fade away and not leave behind a suspicious body to complicate matters.
Then no one would be alive to interfere with the Emperor's Hand plan to become his Second-in-Command.
The Corellian sighed, and leaned against the wall, his eyes focusing on Leia, who was sitting across the room on a well-worn sofa, next to Obi-Wan. "It was Obi-Wan's idea to head out there."
*But it wasn't Jedi Kenobi that fired away without first understanding the situation,* Chewie replied.
"Vader was fighting Luke and Leia!" Han protested. "Anyone could see they needed my help."
*You need to learn restraint,* Chewie admonished.
"Restraint? What's that mean?" Han questioned as he watched Padmé pace the waiting area inside the medical unit. The older woman had refused to speak to Han, even after he'd offered several apologies. "Kriff, Chewie. I seem to get one Skywalker after another mad at me."
*The Princess has forgiven you,* Chewie woofed out.
"Well, Padmé is still furious, and Luke is hotter than a nova blast at me, too."
*You do have a way with people,* Chewie conceded.
A moment later, the outer door opened, and a human doctor accompanied by a Em-Dee droid walked in the room. Padmé rushed over, her eyes wide. "Tell me!"
The doctor gave a humorless smile. "He's lost quite a bit of blood and he's quite weak, but he'll live."
Padmé let out a relived sob, and Luke wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "Thank you, doctor."
"I'm not certain you should be thanking me," the doctor commented. "I didn't sign on with the Rebels to save the life of an Imperial Sith Lord. This is something we might all live to regret."
"Just do your job, Doctor," a firm voice said from behind the man. Talon stepped further into the room as the doctor nodded and left. "General Kenobi? Have you seen Master Yoda lately?"
"As a matter of fact, I haven't," Obi-Wan said, standing and walking over to the group. "I should be able to sense him through the Force, now that there are no ysalamiri blocking me, yet I cannot."
Talon held up a small brown robe, which had been burned into two sections. "This was Yoda's, correct?"
Obi-Wan took the robe gingerly. "Yes. It's been cut by a lightsaber."
"There was no body, or blood."
"There wouldn't be," Obi-Wan replied. "A lightsaber wound cauterizes instantly."
Leia had walked over. "Master Yoda's dead, isn't he?" Even as she said the words, she felt a heaviness drop over her spirit. Her Master was gone… she could feel it, and the knowledge hurt more than she thought possible. "Who killed him?"
"My guess would be our new arrival, Captain Judus," Obi-Wan answered grimly.
"Trixsy?" Luke asked. "No. That's not possible!"
"It's more than possible… it's probable," Talon said. "Our techs looked your protocol droid over to see what was causing his confusion. C-3PO had a high-powered thermal detonator implanted inside his central processor, set to explode from a long-range, remote control device. The astromech had one inside him, too. Both devices have been removed without harming the droids, and the protocol droid seems to have recovered his proper memory."
"Only one person could have done that," Leia said firmly. "Trixsy's an Imperial agent."
Obi-Wan regarded the charred robe. "She's more than just an Imperial agent. She's a trained assassin that can use the dark side of the Force."
"And to make matters worse," Talon said. "She's completely disappeared, too."
It was late at night, and Vader had still not regained consciousness after the delicate surgery. The doctor had told the Skywalker family that the Sith had lost enormous amounts of blood, and his blood pressure had plummeted well into the danger zone. It would remain to be seen if that loss of blood had impaired his mental abilities when he woke.
Padmé sat in the darkened room, watching her husband's labored breathing. The black helmet had been removed, as well as the armor chest plate, and Vader's pale and scarred head was resting against a pillow, while tubes ran from his nose and mouth. As a precaution against escape should he miraculously awaken, his artificial legs had been removed, and his cybernetic arms had their connections switched off. The Sith Lord was as helpless as it was possible to make him, short of surrounding his bed with ysalamiri. Obi-Wan had advised against that, saying it was possible that cutting Vader off from the Force entirely might cause his death. Despite the terrible scene at the bunker, Padmé felt in her heart that Anakin was still there, underneath all that rage and anger. The plan to cut off Anakin from the Force would have worked, if they'd had the time.
A distraught Princess Leia, however, had come to the conclusion that Vader was too far gone to be brought back to the Light, and had agreed with the doctor's comments. She also firmly believed that Trixsy must have been working with Vader, and that Vader was just as much to blame for Yoda's death as the Imperial assassin. Since there was no proof either way, it was difficult to disagree with her assessment.
The Rebel base had been put on high alert, and the security forces were on the lookout for Captain Trixsy Judus.
The Emperor's Hand had gotten into tight security areas many times in the past, and using the Force as her cover, easily slipped back inside the Rebel base. The Rebels were busy looking for a slender red-head, but Trixsy no longer appeared to be human, much less a red-head. Vader had taught her well, and she knew how to manipulate the immediate area around her aura to present an entirely new look. Trixsy was now a Twi'lek Rebel Security Officer, and no one questioned her as she headed toward the infirmary. She felt a twinge of guilt over the fact she had not contacted her Master about what was taking place on Myrkr, but shoved the guilt aside.
She was simply doing what the Emperor had ordered – kill all threats.
Luke couldn't sleep, even though his mother had assured him she would contact him if his father's condition changed in any way. Tired staring at the ceiling, Luke got out of bed, and got dressed. He kept thinking about the mysterious red-head, and he got a cold chill whenever he thought about her, and the scorched robe of Jedi Master Yoda. It seemed that the Force was prodding Luke to do something, and the only thing he could think to do was check on his mother and father.
As he left his room and headed through the maze of halls, his mind was focused firmly on the infirmary, and he reached out to his injured father, focusing his thoughts on trying to break through the wall of pain and the haze of the drugs. Behind that wall, Luke believed he could sense that his father was desperately trying to reach back, and he quickened his pace. Luke felt caught between Leia's declaration that Vader was evil beyond redemption, and his mother's insistence that Anakin Skywalker was a victim, tangled inside the dark web of lies of Emperor Palpatine. She had said that if it hadn't been for Obi-Wan's - and especially Han's - impetuous behavior, they could have reached the man Anakin once had been. Luke was conflicted about this idea, truly wanting to save his father, yet unable to deny that Darth Vader would have killed all of them, given the chance.
So engrossed in his thoughts, Luke didn't notice someone following him at a discreet distance.
The Twi'lek Security Officer was now, to anyone that noticed, a Twi'lek nurse. No one noticed her, and the Emperor's Hand was amused at the ease of her infiltration. The soft sound the door made when it opened was muffled by the hissing life-support equipment, as well as the ongoing noise of the medical unit in general.
Sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the room was the traitor Padmé Amidala. Her chin was resting on her chest, and her eyes were shut in a restless slumber. The Hand's eyes focused down to the person lying in the bed, cringing in disgust at the sight of the helmet-less Darth Vader. So under all that intimidating metal, that was all he was... a decrepit old man, deformed, pathetic, and helpless. She would be doing him a favor by ending his pitiful existence. This was going to be too easy, the Hand thought gleefully. Which one to kill first?
Almost silently, she moved around the foot of the bed, and with the hilt of the lightsaber in her grasp, she raised her arm. One quick slice on the back of her neck, she mused, and the Queen will lose her head. It was almost a shame not to wake her first, and allow her a final moment to realize her fate before the end. The Hand wondered about the rumors that sentient beings could actually think for a few seconds after having their heads cut off. What would be that final reflection? Fear? Pain? The need to draw a breath, when there were no longer lungs to inhale from?
With her finger on the switch, she pressed the 'on' button, and the bright blade hummed to life just as the hospital room was suddenly flooded with a bright, overhead light. The Hand blinked her disoriented eyes, trying to comprehend what was happening. A green lightsaber blade intersected her own weapon, pushing the blade away from Padmé's head.
"Back off, Trixsy," Luke said, forcing her backwards with his weapon. "Or whatever your name is."
"My name is none of your business, spawn of traitors," the woman taunted. "I guess you'll be the first Skywalker to die, instead of your mother."
By this time, Padmé had awakened, and leapt to her feet as she tried to put distance between herself and the humming lightsaber.
"You're not working with Vader?" Luke questioned, blocking her blows with his own blade.
The woman gave a snort. "I only used Vader to train me in the ways of the Sith. I work for my Master, Lord Sidious."
"You probably know him better as Emperor Palpatine," the Hand responded, surprised when Luke turned on an offensive rush.
The Imperial deflected Luke's strikes with her blade, and waved her free hand at the respirator machine. The huge machine lifted up, and spun across the room toward Luke, who barely had time to duck and roll away from being crushed against the wall.
On the bed, Vader let out a gasp, his injured lungs no longer being supplied with life-giving oxygen. "Ani!" Padmé cried out, rushing to her husband's side as the Imperial agent slashed down on the mattress. If Vader's legs had still been attached, she would have severed them; but as it was, all she destroyed were the blankets and support foam.
"Father?" Luke shouted, desperately hoping that his father would be able to live long enough for Luke to end this fight and prevent his father from suffocating.
Laughing, the Imperial used her powers to flip the bed onto its side, and the unconscious Sith rolled onto the floor, despite Padmé desperately holding onto her husband's limp body. Luke rushed to help, and the assassin took full advantage of the distraction by sending the chair Padmé had been sitting on toward Luke's unguarded head. The leg of the chair clipped his temple, and Luke stumbled and fell to the ground, losing his grip on the handle of his lightsaber as his vision blurred from the impact.
The Emperor's Hand snarled in triumph, as she lifted her arm to bring down her blade on Luke's exposed neck. "I've won, Jedi. But, then again, I always win."
Luke could hear his mother's scream of fear as he stared up at the hard eyes of his killer. Then a shot was fired from the doorway, and the hard eyes of the Imperial altered to that of shock and pain. She moved her gaze from Luke down toward her own body, and Luke saw a blackened hole in the center of her chest, where her heart had been beating a moment earlier. She lifted her eyes one more time to Luke's, and her mouth opened but no sound left her lips as she dropped her weapon from her suddenly numb fingers. Then she fell to the floor, her life force rapidly fading from her eyes. A second later, she was dead.
The Jedi looked over to the doorway as doctors and nurses rushed past. "Han? Why are you here?"
The Corellian walked over and pulled Luke to his feet. "Couldn't sleep, since Leia was tossing and turning too much. I went for a stroll, and then I saw you so I followed you to see where you were headed. It's my job to keep you alive and out of trouble, kid." He gave a quick jerk of his head toward the dead woman. "Sorry I had to kill her, but it seemed like a good idea."
"You don't have to apologize," Luke replied. "I appreciate not being dead."
Together they watched as Vader was placed back on the bed, and a new respirator was hurried into the room. Before the tubes were inserted, Vader coughed and opened his eyes.
"ANI!" Padmé cried out, reaching over and stroking his bald head. "Can you hear me?"
"I… can hear you," his strangled voice rasped. "Is that you, Mom?"
"No, I'm not your mother. It's Padmé." She leaned closer, so he could clearly see her face. "You're going to be alright," Padmé said soothingly. "I promise."
"Perhaps…perhaps I do not wish to get better," the Sith Lord whispered.
"Don't say that, Father," Luke said, sensing the confusion and the conflict that was in his father's spirit. "We'll do whatever it takes to make you get better."
Vader focused his haunted eyes on his son. "Why would you care? Why… why would you want me to recover? It's obvious you lured me here to kill me."
"No!" Luke protested. "We wanted you to turn away from the dark side. That's why we had you come to Myrkr."
The man turned his neck to look back up at his wife. "I tried to kill you." The remark held neither regret nor apology. It was simply a statement of fact.
Padmé wondered which event Anakin was referring to, but decided not to ask. "That wasn't my Anakin. But I know you'll heal; both your body and soul."
"I no longer have a soul to heal," the Sith stated. "If I could, I would still strike you down."
"I don't believe that," Luke said, the hairs on the back of his neck rising in cold fear.
"You don't know the power of the dark side."
Not knowing how to respond to that grim proclamation, Luke decided to change the subject. He gazed down sadly at the pretty, but quite dead young woman. "Did you know her, Father? Was she working for you?"
With great effort, Vader turned his head, and looked down at the floor. "She was my apprentice, and one of Palpatine's Hands. Her name was Shira Brie."
"So Leia was right? You brought her here?"
Vader coughed harshly, then caught his breath. "No, I did not bring her with me. She must have been sent by Palpatine."
Han finally spoke up, "So you're saying the Emperor knows this is the Rebel base?"
"I do not know what Brie transmitted back to Coruscant," Vader said, his intense gaze turning to Solo. "You are the Corellian? My wife's lover?"
Han backed away a few steps, his eyes wide. Putting his hand to his chest, he said, "Me? I was never Padmé's lover. I'm Leia's lover!"
Vader's lips thinned into a tight line. "If I do recover, Solo, you had better find yourself a very good hiding place."
Swallowing hard, Han waved at the nurse. "Hurry up and stick that tube back down his throat. I like him way better when he can't talk."
"The feelings are entirely mutual, Solo," Vader replied right before the breathing tube was replaced.
Not long after the excitement died down, Leia and Obi-Wan hurried into the infirmary, concerned about the disturbance they'd felt through the Force, and shortly afterwards both Talon Karrde and Garm Bel Iblis also appeared.
Standing in the waiting room, Garm was not happy. "If Vader is telling the truth, then the Empire surely knows we're here. We should start evacuations immediately."
"Don't believe anything Vader says," Leia responded grimly. "If that woman was his apprentice, what was she doing? Spying on Darth Vader? It makes no sense."
"Father said she was also one of the Emperor's Hands," Luke argued.
Leia glared at Luke. "Did he explain what that means?"
"No, but I'm guessing her job was to do whatever the Emperor asked her to do, and report back to him."
"I hope so," Han said. "Another possibility of the term 'Hand' is just too disgusting to contemplate."
Leia arched an eyebrow at Han. "Oh? I'm confused. Could you expound upon your theory further?"
"Not in mixed company," Han replied quickly, as Luke laughed.
"Let's not get off the subject. There is a strong possibility that the Empire is aware of our base of operations," Garm reiterated.
"I've been having my security personnel review all outgoing messages, and none have been unidentified, or have been transmitted to Coruscant," Talon pointed out. "As soon as they review her personal ship's outgoing logs, I'll be able to confidently state that our location is still a secret."
"Your security personnel allowed Brie to enter the base, even though they were on high alert," Leia said. "I'd have to say their skills leave a lot to be desired."
This comment irked Talon. "My personnel are highly qualified, Your Highness. This woman had unusual skills, and she fooled me, too. So are you saying that I'm not qualified to run this base?"
"That's not what I meant," Leia responded. "I simply don't trust Vader."
"I could tell he wasn't lying," Luke said stubbornly. "He was surprised to see her."
Leia blew out a hiss of frustration. "Vader was trying to kill us! What's it going to take to convince you and Padmé that he's beyond redemption?" Leia spun around to face a quiet Obi-Wan. "Luke's your apprentice. Why won't you tell him it's time to face the cold, hard facts? I'm tired of being the bad, hard-hearted person in this situation."
The older Jedi sighed in tired resignation. "Luke, your sister may be right."
"I can't believe this," Luke spluttered out. "You're suggesting we should execute him, now that he's completely helpless?"
"He won't be helpless very long, kid," Han pointed out. "Strike while the dura-steel is hot, I say."
"And who do you suggest should do that final, fatal strike?" Luke shot back. "Me? You? Master Kenobi? Who is going to step forward and volunteer to kill someone so weak he can't lift his head without assistance? Who is going to play the role of judge, jury and executioner? And once he's been disposed of, how will we claim we have the high, moral road, and that we're any better than Palpatine?"
Leia was equally outraged. "History will be Vader's judge, and the jury is the entire galaxy. If we end his evil life with an overdose of medication before he wakes again, it will be a far kinder execution than what he deserves."
"Are you willing to be the one injecting that overdose?"
"If no one else has the spine to do it, then yes, I am willing!" Leia said adamantly. "I wish that bar had impaled him through whatever device acts as his heart, instead of his side. Then we wouldn't be having this discussion."
"I'm starting to think you're the one with no heart, Leia," Luke muttered. "I'm going to relieve Mother vigil. It looks like one of us had better be by Father's side at all times." With those words, he turned and walked away from his fuming sister.
"I have a heart," Leia yelled after Luke. She turned to look at Obi-Wan. "Tell your padawan I have a heart."
"It might be in your best interest to soften your stand against Darth Vader," Obi-Wan said gently. "I sense a great deal of anger and hatred toward your father. It's what led to Anakin's downfall, and it could lead to yours."
"Darth Vader isn't my father, and I'd appreciate it if everyone would stop calling him that," Leia replied, annoyed at Obi-Wan's small lecture. "I have a father, and his name is Bail Organa." She pulled her lightsaber off her belt, and tossed it on the floor. "Don't worry about me turning into a Sith, General Kenobi. My job here is finished. I'm renouncing the Force entirely." She looked up at Han, and took a hold of his hand, pulling him down the hallway. "Come on, Flyboy. Let's go somewhere where we can be alone. I don't much enjoy the company in this infirmary."
Obi-Wan picked up Leia's lightsaber. "You can't renounce being a Jedi, Leia," he called after her. "Just like you can't renounce being a Princess or a human being. It's who you are." To his dismay, Leia refused to turn around or even reply to his statement.
"Rise, my Hand," the Emperor's dry voice crackled out. "I have an assignment for you."
Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, slowly stood while keeping her head bowed. "I am privileged to be asked." She didn't add, 'in person,' although the thought flitted briefly through her mind. Normally, as the Emperor's Hand, Palpatine would simply contact her through the connection they had mentally. Calling her to his Throne Room was unusual, although not completely unprecedented.
"You are here because I could not risk any type of misunderstanding," Palpatine wheezed out, knowing he was unnerving her by reading her thoughts so clearly. He smiled down indulgently at his other red-headed Hand. Neither Jade nor Brie knew about each other, of course. None of his Hands were aware others existed. That way, they all believed they were special, and therefore valuable and irreplaceable. Little did they know just how disposable the Emperor considered them to be. Brie's failure to communicate had irritated the ancient Sith, and he knew it was highly unusual, even given the circumstances. "The female mind is so easily confused."
Jaw clenched, Mara nodded her agreement while fighting off the urge to disagree. He was merely baiting her… testing her. She would not fail. Mara Jade never failed. "Yes, My Lord."
"Good. I'm glad we are in total agreement. Now, listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. Lord Vader has betrayed me."
She gave a sharp intake of breath. "That is unfathomable, My Lord."
"For the weak minded, undoubtedly it is," Palpatine replied, his tone amused. "Nevertheless, it is something I have foreseen for a long time." When Mara said nothing, the Emperor continued, "Lord Vader once was married. Did you know that?"
"No, I did not."
"He believed his wife had died in childbirth. Apparently she is quite alive, and has lured him into meeting her on Myrkr."
"Myrkr," Mara mumbled to herself, trying to place the planet. "Isn't that where those Force-depraved creatures live?"
"Very good," Palpatine said, nodding. "I am certain that is why Vader's wife requested he meet her on Myrkr. I fear Vader may have fallen into a trap."
"So he didn't betray you?"
"Of COURSE he betrayed me!" Palpatine roared, leaning forward and watching as Mara Jade fought off the urge to cringe in fear. "I ordered him NOT to go to Myrkr! I TOLD him it was a trap! He went anyway. Is that not betrayal?"
Palpatine smiled, relaxing against his armrest. "I am so very glad you agree with me. Now for your orders – you are to go to Myrkr. Once there, you will contact me within twelve standard timeparts of arrival and give me an update on the situation you find. You will update me every six timeparts thereafter. If you find his wife is there, you will kill her immediately. If Lord Vader is there, you will contact me after she is dead and I will determine at that point whether I should forgive Vader for his betrayal."
That comment surprised Mara. Palpatine was not known for his generous, forgiving spirit. "What if there are others there, besides his wife?"
"Find out who they are, and contact me. I will decide what course to take once I have the full facts at my disposal. All good leaders understand the necessity to take the proper action based on a full and complete set of facts. To do otherwise, would be foolish."
Without warning, lightning bolts flew from Palpatine's fingers and encased Mara in a crackling blue web of electricity. Stunned and in raw agony, the Hand writhed on the floor, gasping and clawing at her body. Long moments later, the assault stopped, and Mara Jade lay on the floor, her clothing smoking from the burns, her skin criss-crossed with burns. Unable to articulate words, she stared up at the Throne in shock at the unexpected and unwarranted cruelty.
"I have a special ship for you to fly to Myrkr," Palpatine stated calmly, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. "It was once owned by a wealthy family. The ship's outer hull was badly damaged in a hijack attempt by pirates, and the family was murdered. All of their personal belongs are still onboard, so you can go through these items during the trip to decide what to keep onboard to help aid your cover story, and jettison whatever you do not need. Once you drop out of hyperspace, you will use an explosive to disable your hyperdrive, and limp the rest of the way to Myrkr, where you will send a distress signal to the surface, saying you've been attacked by pirates, and you are in desperate need of assistance. If more than just Vader's wife is on the surface, they will not question your story, once they see your appearance." He smiled again, this time showing his yellowed teeth. "Everything I do has a reason, my Hand. Even if I cause you pain, it is only done because it is necessary."
"Yes, Master," she managed to whisper as she struggled to stand.
After Mara had left the room, Palpatine pressed several control buttons on the armrest of his throne. Seconds later, a holo shimmered into view. "Grand Moff Tarkin," Palpatine said, his tone sounding quite condescending. "I am glad to see you are still alive and well. I was starting to have my doubts."
The Moff straightened his back. "I have been lax in my updates, Emperor. I humbly apologize."
"So tell me now, since I grow weary of waiting. When will my Battle Station be fully operational?"
"Two weeks, Your Highness."
Tarkin looked confused. "Your Highness?"
"The Battle Station will be fully operational in forty-eight timeparts. I have a planet I desire to eliminate."
"I was planning on testing it on Despayre," Tarkin replied, flustered at his new timetable. "A successful firing would eliminate a great burden on Imperial funds, since there is no one other than slaves and criminals alive on that filthy planet."
Palpatine mulled this over, then gave a sharp nod. "After you have successfully tested it, you will contact me immediately. Only then will I inform you of your next target. Remember this clearly - I will not tolerate the slightest failure, Moff Tarkin."
He pressed the 'off' button, confident that Tarkin would have his new Battle Station armed and operational, or Tarkin would come to understand what the word deadline meant to the Emperor.
Laying curled on her side, with Han pressed up against her back, Leia stared at the wall inside their berth on the Falcon. "I want to leave," she finally whispered. "I want to go home now."
"So you're really quitting?" Han questioned. "Both the Rebellion and being a Jedi?"
"I won't quit the Rebellion," Leia replied. "I'll just keep doing what I'd been doing before coming here, and raise awareness about Imperial injustice and funnel credits to the Rebels through covert accounts."
Han raised himself up on an elbow, and looked down at his lover. "Don't you think, after all that's happened, that Palpatine might figure out just how deeply involved you are? What if Brie managed to get a message through that Talon's men haven't traced? Won't you endanger your people?"
Considering his words, Leia said bitterly, "This is all her fault."
"Who else? She's been doing nothing but lying and manipulating us since the beginning. I don't know who I resent more – Vader or her. At least Vader doesn't say one thing, and then do another."
"Would you really kill him, if you could?" Han questioned. "I mean, now that he's injured and helpless."
"Then why did you help him?"
It was Leia's turn to sit up. "I never helped him!"
"Yeah, you sorta did," Han said. "Back in the bunker, when Padmé was frozen in fear? I'd like to point out that you're the one that pressed the bars to retract."
Leia opened her mouth to disagree, but realization suddenly dawned. She had been the one to retract the bars. "Well… if I wouldn't have done it, Obi-Wan or Luke would have, anyway. So it didn't matter."
"And you could have taken that opportunity to finish him off. So, my question is still – why didn't you?"
"I… I don't know," Leia admitted.
"I do," Han said. "You may like to talk tough, but you're a big old softy inside."
"It takes one to know one," Leia shot back. She picked up a pillow and whacked it over the smuggler's head.
Han laughed as he grabbed her waist, pulling her back down on the mattress. "Yup. Just like that pillow. Nice and soft." Then he kissed her, wrapping his arms around her waist.
Leia gasped for air as they finally parted. "Sometimes I hate you."
"Sometimes people don't know the difference between love and hate," Han replied, deciding it was time to make Leia forget about Padmé, Vader and that hokey religion for a little while.
"I'm still alive."
Those softly spoken words instantly woke up Luke, and he quickly stood up from the chair next to his father's bed. "There is no reason you shouldn't be."
The scarred man gave a wan smile. "I still have my hearing, and the waiting room is only a short distance away. I overheard a little bit of the very loud discussion. Your sister hates me."
Luke shook his head. "Hate is of the dark side."
"How about despises, then?" Vader said grimly. "Not that I blame her, really. I made a huge error coming here." He looked past Luke with a frown. "I see they have placed a ysalamiri in my room. Dreadful creatures, aren't they?"
"They have their purpose in the galaxy," Luke said. "The doctor has assured us you are now strong enough, and their being in the room wouldn't affect your recovery."
"That purpose would be to cage the Sith." Vader shut his eyes. "How long has it been since …?"
"The accident happened three days ago, and Brie attacked you the first night."
"Accident?" Vader repeated, opening his eyes and looking up in disbelief. "So you are sticking to the lie that your mother lured me here with her siren song for my own good, and intended us to become one happy family. You are insulting my intelligence."
Luke pulled the chair closer, and sat down again. "Not exactly. She recruited both Leia and myself by claiming you needed to die, and we were the only ones that could pull it off. But after Obi-Wan and Yoda trained us as Jedi, I started having second thoughts about killing you, and so did Mother."
"Yoda?" Vader questioned sharply. "He's here, too?"
"He was," Luke explained, casting his eyes toward the floor. "Brie murdered him."
"I see." Vader thought for a moment, then said, "Your sister does not agree with the idea that I can be turned away from the dark side of the Force."
"No, she doesn't. Leia's been pretty single-minded about this whole affair," Luke admitted. "You didn't help matters by trying to kill us in the bunker. Threatening Han doesn't help, either."
"Her Corellian lover."
"Han's not a bad guy," Luke said defensively. "Mother's told me he reminds her a lot of how you used to be, before you fell to the dark side."
"That comparison does nothing to alleviate my concerns."
It was Luke's turn to laugh. "So you admit it! You do have feelings and concerns for your family!" Grinning, he sat back in the chair. "A true Sith wouldn't care about us. I knew there was still good in you."
"Smugness is unbecoming," Vader chided. "What has the Rebel leadership decided to do with me, now that they have successfully captured a Sith Lord?"
Luke squirmed around, uncomfortable with the question. "They're not sure. Some of them have suggested putting you on trial, while others just want to execute you. But some of us think that would be sinking to the Empire's level, so we simply want to keep you surrounded by ysalamiri so that you can't escape."
The Sith Lord laughed. "Escape? And where would I go, Luke? I imagine that if I should return to Coruscant from this foolish endeavor, Palpatine would strike me down for disobeying his orders. No, I am afraid by coming here I have set forth on an unchangeable course, and my future as the Emperor's second-in-command is over."
"Seems to me that's the best thing that could possible happen to you," Luke argued. "Why continue to embrace the dark side, if the dark side is rejecting you?"
"You are sounding like a broken holo-gram," Vader complained. "Don't tell me your sister is single-minded, when, apparently, you are exactly like her."
"We are twins," Luke said with a satisfied nod. He knew his persistence was getting through to the stubborn man. It was only a matter of time.
Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, wondered if the ship that Palpatine had supplied her with would even make it all the way to Myrkr in one piece. Dropping out of hyperspace close to Myrkr had caused the ship to shudder and shake so hard it was very possible that the hull was about to breach. The woman glanced into the cockpit windows, seeing her reflection and the burns her Master had so painfully inflicted on her with his Force-lightning. Even though she understood his reasons, the eerie calmness he'd shown to her while he watched her twist in agony made a small part of her mind question her own blind servitude. Quickly she damped down those traitorous thoughts. Her Master had only done what was essential for her mission to succeed. He surely hadn't enjoyed watching her pain.
Palpatine had supplied her with a small explosive device, which was supposed to finish off the hyperdrive before landing. As she looked down at the controls, Mara could see that the device would not be necessary – the panel was blinking with red lights, signaling that not only had the last jump into and back out of hyperspace finished off the hyperdrive unit for good, the life-support was failing, and the shields were down to fifteen percent and continuing to fall. If they dropped below eight percent, the ship would burn up upon entry into the atmosphere.
Mara sent a distress signal to the planet below, and seconds later, a harsh voice responded. "Unidentified ship. Transmit your clearance code immediately, or prepare to be shot down."
Mara felt a warning tingle through her body. Clearance code? Who would be asking for a clearance code?
She spoke into the comm unit, keeping her voice panicky. Considering her circumstances, it wasn't too difficult. "Assistance Request! Red Alert! I'm crash landing! Assistance Request!"
The stern voice came back, sounding a bit less suspicious. "Do you have brake thruster control?"
"Barely," Mara shouted back. "Shields down to twelve percent. Please advise."
"Escorts are on their way to you. Please follow them down to the surface. Emergency landing personnel are being placed on stand-by."
"Thank you," Mara said. "I'm doing my best to retain control." She watched as two X-Wings grew closer on her viewing screen. X-Wings? The warning tingle grew stronger, and Mara suddenly understood … this was the Rebel Base! Quickly, she tried to send out a mental message, and suspecting she might already be too close to the planet for her Force-connection to work, she also sent a short comm message to the Emperor's private code, 'Rebel Base located on Myrkr.' She desperately hoped that one of her messages would get through.
"May I ask what happened to your ship?" the Controller questioned.
"We were attacked by pirates," Mara lied. She let out a choked sob. "I…I accidentally killed him!" She followed this up by a loud wail of grief, even as she fought for control as her ship screamed down toward the planet's surface. "I saved myself by sacrificing my own brother!"
The Controller's voice sounded sympathetic now. "You did what you had to do. Now just calm down and follow the X-Wings. Everything will be okay."
Mara smiled, pleased the first person she'd spoken to had already accepted her story. Now she just had to land this piece of kreth without dying. She pulled up the yoke, trying to slow the descent of the wildly gyrating ship, and saw details of the Rebel base flash past as she fell out of the sky. But if I don't make it down alive, she thought, at least I've sent word to My Master that this is where the worthless Rebels are hiding.
Then her ship hit the ground, followed by an impressive explosion.
"How is he doing?" Obi-Wan asked, as he entered Vader's room where Padmé once again kept vigil.
"He's recovering slowly," Padmé replied softly, so as not to disturb her sleeping husband. "He complains about the ysalamiri whenever he's awake."
Obi-Wan shot a glance over toward the corner of the room where the creature sat upon its leafy branch. "I can't say that I blame him." The Jedi pulled up a chair next to Padmé. "Have you spoken to Leia?"
"I tried," Padmé answered glumly. "She's being stubborn beyond words."
"There is a lot of Anakin in her."
"Don't tell her that!" Padmé admonished. "She really will leave, like she claims she wants to."
"Has Anakin been threatening Han?"
"So you're calling him Anakin now, instead of Vader." Padmé smiled, pleased at that small concession on Obi-Wan's part. "He hasn't threatened Han again that I'm aware of. It's probably a good thing he's had time to get used to the idea of Han Solo as his future son-in-law."
Obi-Wan looked astonished. "Are you telling me they're engaged?"
"Not yet," Padmé said, laughing. "But I see the look in Leia's eyes whenever Han's around. They'll get married. Trust me."
"I wonder what Bail Organa will think of that," Obi-Wan remarked.
"The veins in his head will explode," a third, deep voice piped into the conversation.
Startled, Padmé looked over to her now-awake husband. "We woke you up. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. I'm tried of constantly sleeping." He turned his head slightly, to look over at Obi-Wan. "So, the three of us are together again. Who would have thought it would ever be possible?"
Obi-Wan used his normal senses to assess Anakin's attitude. His former padawan's eyes seemed sad and haunted, and Obi-Wan felt the heavy weight of guilt for his part in Anakin's fall to the dark side on his shoulders. "The Force works in mysterious ways."
"Even when its presence is denied."
"I wish Leia could understand that," Obi-Wan stated with a nod. He could hear a shift in the Sith's tone of voice, and his very demeanor seemed less hostile. Perhaps Padmé and Luke had been correct all along; depriving Anakin from all Force-contact would allow his own mind to heal and gain the strength to fight Palpatine's control.
"My daughter is not inclined to forgive her old father for his myriad of sins, is she?" Anakin asked, sounding amused.
"It's causing a huge rift with Leia," Padmé said sadly. "But at least she's on speaking terms with Luke. She barely looks at me."
"That is her loss," Anakin said, managing a wink at his wife, and showing a small piece of the man he once was.
"This isn't a joke, Anakin," Padmé chastised lightly, while pleased her husband was slowly resurfacing. "Something has to be done."
"What do you suggest? Locking us together in a room until we get along, or one of us ends up dead?"
"At this point, I'd put my credits on Leia being the survivor," Obi-Wan put in.
"If those wicked creatures are in the room with us, your bet would be safe," Anakin said.
"Those creatures aren't wicked," Padmé said firmly. "They've been a great help to us."
"Yes," Anakin agreed dryly. "They certainly have."
"I'm sorry for what occurred on Mustafar, Anakin," Obi-Wan said unexpectedly. "I wish things could have ended differently."
"You mean you wish I'd died."
"No, not that. I wish you could have seen what Palpatine was doing…how he was manipulating you."
"I've been manipulated my entire life, Kenobi," Anakin commented softly. "First as a slave-child by my owner. Then as a teenager by the Jedi Order. And now, my entire adult life by Palpatine."
"So you finally believe Palpatine has manipulated you?" Padmé asked hopefully.
"I've believed that since the day he put me inside that cursed suit," Anakin replied. "But it didn't matter anymore at that point. You were dead, Padmé, so nothing else mattered to me anymore. Every time I Force-choked an insubordinate, I pictured you lying on that hot planet, and I used that mental image to focus all my rage and anger into believing what I was doing was justified. With every death I caused, I pretended I was punishing you for betraying me, and that eventually I would find peace. That elusive peace never came to me. One day I finally realized nothing would satisfy me until death claimed what remained of my body, because my soul had died the day I killed you." He sighed. "How could I hate you, and at the same time, still love you? It makes no sense, yet that is exactly how I've felt about you for twenty years."
By this time, tears were running from Padmé's eyes. "Would things have been different if you knew I wasn't dead?"
"I would like to say that I would have struck Palpatine down, and rushed to your side," Anakin answered. "But in reality, he held such a grip on my mind and emotions, I'm uncertain what I would have done."
Obi-Wan felt a heaviness in his heart. Without knowing it, both he and Padmé had nourished his padawan's rage, and contributed to Anakin's being condemned to live in a terrible hell. A shift had occurred, and not just in Anakin Skywalker's attitude. Obi-Wan Kenobi was now firmly on Luke and Padmé's side in the fight to save Anakin from Palpatine's evil command.
"Who is she?" Luke whispered as he looked through the dura-glass window at the newest arrival on Myrkr as doctors hovered over the injured woman, preparing her for the bacta tank.
"We have no idea," Talon answered the young man. "When she entered our communication range, she claimed her ship had been badly damaged by pirates. From the remains of the ship, I'd have to say she was telling us the truth. There was considerable damage to the outer hull by laser fire, and her earlier injuries are consistent with a blaster fight at close range. Unfortunately, her control panel was completely destroyed in the crash, and most of the ship was destroyed by fire after it crash-landed. We were lucky to get her out alive, and we weren't able to salvage anything that identifies her."
"Another red-head," Han remarked as he and Leia peered through the clear pane. "A coincidence?"
"Are you saying the Emperor collects red-heads to train as assassins?" Leia asked, fighting down the urge to smile.
"Everyone has their quirks," Han said. "Maybe red-hair is Palpatine's special fetish."
Leia glanced over at her brother. "Or Luke's."
The young Jedi whipped his head around to glare at Leia. "What? Now you're thinking I'm in love with her?" He jerked his thumb back toward the window. "I don't even know her name!"
"Didn't stop you last time," Han pointed out smugly.
"I feel sorry for her," Luke argued, feeling his face get warm. "Is that such a crime?"
"You feel sorry for everybody," Leia muttered in disgust.
One of the doctors exited the room, noting the small group. "She'll live," he said without being asked. "Blaster or electrical burns, smoke inhalation, cracked ribs, slight concussion. Nothing fatal."
"That's good to know," Talon stated. "Is she conscious?"
"Not yet," the doctor replied. "We're going to submerse her into a bacta tank. That way she'll fully recover from her burns and cuts. I'd imagine when we take her out, she'll wake up and be fine."
Luke turned his gaze back to the woman, watching as they placed her inside the tank and lowered her into the sticky green goop. If Shira Brie had been pretty, this lady made her look like an old hag, and Luke found himself hoping she wasn't already in a relationship.
The possibility that she was another Hand was simply too remote to contemplate.
The next day
Doctors pulled the young woman out of her bacta bath, and the nurses quickly washed and cleaned their patient. As they transferred her to her bed, her green eyes snapped open.
"Finally, you're awake," the gray-haired doctor said, smiling down at the young lady. "How are you feeling?"
"I have a headache."
"Well, you've suffered a concussion, so that's to be expected." He waved a medical device over her head. "The swelling is going down rapidly, so your headache should diminish in short order."
"Wonderful," she mumbled.
"Your ship was pretty much destroyed by fire after you crashed," the doctor continued. "Can you tell me your name?"
"Tell me yours, first."
"Sassy little thing, aren't you?" the doctor chuckled. "Doctor Kokee. My name is Hoyle Kokee. It's your turn."
The woman blinked several times, and shook her head.
"Come on," the doctor prodded gently. "Now it's only fair you tell me your name."
"I… I can't remember," she whispered, eyes wide with sudden realization mingled with fear. "I can't remember my own name!"
Death Star, over Despayre
Grand Moff Tarkin stood with his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the viewscreen which showed the murky brown world floating far in the distance, filled with a million half-starved slaves and mental unbalanced criminals. For years, these lost souls had labored away, forced to build this mighty Battle Station, the crowning achievement of the great Empire. Now, at last, the Battle Station was about to be tested.
Tarkin turned toward Bevel Lemelisk, and addressed the brilliant engineer of the Battle Station. "You may fire when ready."
"It's too soon," Lemelisk twittered nervously. "We were rushed. You can't rush a project of this type of… complex magnitude."
"Are you willing to disappoint your Emperor?" Tarkin asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No…no," the Engineer stammered out. "I'm simply expressing my concerns."
"Noted," Tarkin snapped. "Now, do the test."
"Sir!" a Trooper interrupted hurriedly. "A Star Destroyer has just dropped out of hyperspace."
"It's the Insidious, Sir! We're being informed to prepare for the Emperor's arrival."
For a moment, the blood left Tarkin's face, leaving his already pale face even more ashen than usual. Then he straightened his shoulders. "I will greet His Majesty in the main hanger deck." He glanced at Lemelisk. "Apparently, our Emperor has decided to attend this inauguration. Pray that this Station will perform as expected. Your future depends upon it."
Unable to speak, Bevel Lemelisk only nodded and gave his tight collar a tug as a wave of fear swept over him.
A light tap on the door preceded the entry of Padmé, Garm and Luke into the small infirmary room.
"Hello," Padmé said, nodding at the confused young lady. "May we come in?"
"I suppose," the red-head replied, her voice betraying her uncertain situation.
Smiling, the older woman stepped closer. "My name is Padmé." She waved toward the two men. "This is my friend, Garm, and my son, Luke."
"Hello. I'd like to be able to introduce myself," the younger woman responded. "But I seem to have lost my mind."
Luke was unable to prevent himself from laughing, then quickly forced himself to look serious when his mother frowned in disapproval. "Sorry. I guess that's not funny."
"Probably not," the woman agreed. "Fortunately, the doctor assured me the vast majority of amnesia is temporary."
"Do you have any recollections prior to waking up?" Garm questioned intently. "The name of your ship? Your brother's face? Where you were headed before you were attacked?"
"No. Sorry," she answered, looking down at the blanket and picking at a loose thread. "Doctor Kokee told me that I had sent word before I crashed that my brother had died in the attack, but I don't recall even having a brother. I know I should feel guilty I can't remember him, and grief over his death, but how can I feel guilt or grief over a person I don't remember?"
"What name would you like us to call you?" Padmé questioned gently. "Temporarily, of course, until your memory returns."
The pretty patient frowned as she considered her options. "How about Jayne? I do recollect that unidentified female bodies are tagged as 'Jayne.'"
"That seems rather morbid," Garm remarked. "You're not dead."
"Far from it," Padmé stated.
"Jayne will do fine," the newcomer insisted.
"Doctor Kokee sees no reason you should have to stay in the infirmary," Padmé said. "You'll certainly feel much better when you're up and about."
"Would you like to have dinner with me?" Luke asked suddenly. His face warmed as both his mother and Garm looked at him in astonishment. "I mean… well, you have to eat, right? And you've been stuck with infirmary chow, which can't be too great. So, um, I could show you around the base. Maybe something will jog your memory." He suddenly looked worried. "You're not married, are you?"
Jayne laughed. "Now how would I know that? Besides, even if I am married my husband isn't here, is he? Or maybe he is, since I don't know where 'here' is."
"You're on Myrkr," Luke explained.
Jayne looked outside the window at the rolling hills. "What kind of base is this, anyway"
"Base is just a very general description," Garm replied briskly, appearing annoyed as he shot a quick glance over at Luke. "This is a supply station. We're a non-profit relief organization that delivers medical supplies and food to the outer rim territories that are isolated and in need of assistance."
"Isn't that what the government is supposed to do?" Jayne questioned.
"You mean the Empire?" Luke asked, giving a derisive snort. "Palpatine would rather use credits to build more killing machines, and stuff his pockets with bribes from dishonest Governors. Anything would be money better spent than helping poor beings in need."
"Especially the non-human poor," Padmé added.
Jayne's emerald eyes narrowed and her expression became disconcerted as she listened to Luke describe the Empire's business dealings. "I'd like to have dinner with you, Luke," she responded, much to Luke's apparent pleasure. "Did any of my personal belongings survive the crash?"
"I'm afraid not, dear," Padmé said, patting her wrist. "But I have clothing that should fit you. I'll comm Threepio, and have him bring some over."
"Thank you," Jayne said, her gaze once again moving toward the view outside her window.
Death Star, over Despayre
The red-robed guards swept into the bridge, creating a living tunnel for the Emperor to walk through on his way toward the viewport. The hapless Engineer of the monstrous Battle Station stood waiting in dread as the ancient Sith hobbled slowly and deliberately forward.
Grand Moff Tarkin followed a respectful distance behind his Emperor, having greeted and groveled sufficiently from the long trip from the docking bay to the bridge. Having the Emperor himself come onboard the Battle Station was truly stunning, since Tarkin had anticipated that Lord Vader would oversee the first several months of operation. The Emperor had not mentioned his Second-in-Command, and Tarkin knew better than to question the Emperor on the subject.
Bevel Lemelisk dropped to his knees, his head bowed as Palpatine stopped a few feet in front of the trembling man. "My Lord Palpatine. It is my humble pleasure that you have deigned to breathe in the same oxygen as this worthless serf. I am but… but a ward to your vast and generous benevolence, Your Noble Lordship."
The Sith glanced over at Tarkin, and gave a tight grin. "You should take lessons."
"Of course, My Lord," Tarkin quickly agreed.
"Rise," Palpatine ordered the Engineer. "Show me what your genius has brought forth."
The shaking man stood, wiping his damp palms on his vest. "Shall we begin?"
"What?" Tarkin asked smugly. "Are you not going to express your concerns to our Emperor?"
"What concerns would those be?" Palpatine questioned sharply, leaning closer to Lemelisk.
"Nothing, My Lord. I have no concerns at all. None. Whatsoever."
"That is good to hear."
Tarkin clapped his hands together. "Commence primary ignition!"
The Imperial Officer quickly responded to the order, his fingers flying over the control panel. "Primary ignition… commenced."
"Focus on the target."
"Target in range!"
"Fire when ready," Tarkin said, attempting to sound bored, and act as though this were just another typical day on the job.
The bright laser shot out toward Despayre, and the huge Battle Station shuddered. The observers could see a section of the left side of the planet explode outward, and a large funnel-shaped cloud of brown debris head toward the inky blackness of space. The injured planet wobbled in its orbit, and even from this vast distance, large, red cracks appeared as the hot magma bubbled to the surface. The planet was in its death-throes, although it was not completely destroyed.
"You fool!" Tarkin barked out toward the Targeting Officer. "You failed to line up the target correctly!"
"No, sir!" the Officer argued. "It was in proper range, and section."
"The targeting controls are not in alignment," Palpatine stated grimly. "I am most disappointed."
"Fire again!" Tarkin snapped out hotly.
"I can't, Sir," the Imperial replied worriedly. "The first shot reduced power to less than ten percent for a second firing."
"Why is that?"
"Because," the Emperor replied for the Officer, "this Battle Station is far from ready."
Tarkin pointed to Bevel Lemelisk. "This is all your fault!"
"I told you it was too much of a rush," Lemelisk choked out fearfully. "Why wouldn't you believe me?"
"You are incompetent!"
"Perhaps you both shall spend your final moments on Despayre," Palpatine said thoughtfully, watching as the planet's molten interior oozed over the ground. "There, you can blame each other and point fingers as your lungs sear and your skin melts."
Lemelisk turned his desperate expression toward the Emperor. "It only needs some fine tuning, My Lord! Five more days… six at the most! Everything will be in order."
"Five more days? Six? While the Rebel Base is busy evacuating, you expect me to wait while they slip through my grasp?" Palpatine wasn't certain this was true, but it didn't matter. The fact was that Mara Jade had only sent one brief message, telling Palpatine that the Rebel Base was located on Myrkr, and then had broken off all contact. To have one Hand disappear on assignment was unusual, but two? It was obvious the Rebels were using the Force-depraved beasts to kill his best agents. Now Palpatine would have his revenge, and witness their destruction with his own eyes.
"We will have this Station fully operational in two days, My Lord!" Tarkin stated.
"Two days ago you promised it would be complete in two days," Palpatine pointed out, barely able to contain his fury. His desire to kill both men was tempered by the knowledge that replacing them would delay the Station's completion even further. The Emperor decided the men would live and finish their jobs. Then they would die for their incompetence. "Two more days. Do not disappoint me again."
The relief in both men's faces was apparent. Little did they suspect they had only earned a temporary stay of execution, and not a full pardon.
Although the base cafeteria wasn't exactly the most private or romantic place in the galaxy, Luke felt like he was floating on air as he escorted the beautiful newcomer into the room. "I hope you like chipped nerf on toast," he said, pulling out a chair for her. "We have that a lot here."
"I'm sure it will be fine." The woman sat down, brushing crumbs from the tabletop with a vaguely disgusted look on her face.
"Hey, LUKE!" a boisterous voice thundered from across the room.
Luke felt his heart drop as he saw Han waving, and tugging at Leia to follow his lead. Both headed in their direction, weaving their way through the chairs and tables.
"My sister Leia, and her boyfriend, Han Solo," Luke grumbled. "I wanted to spend some time alone with you."
Jayne smiled up at Luke. "This doesn't look like the type of place that offers a lot of privacy."
"It's not," Luke agreed as he claimed the seat next to Jayne. "The only place that offers a bit of quiet is my father's hospital room."
"Your father's in the infirmary?" Jayne asked. "Is he going to be okay?"
By this time, Han and Leia had arrived, and it was Leia who answered the question. "Unfortunately, yes."
"Leia and Father don't see eye-to-eye," Luke said diplomatically.
"I guess we don't," Leia agreed as she sat across the table from her brother. "I believe in democracy, individual freedoms and justice, while he stands for Imperialism, slavery and mass murder." She smiled sweetly at Jayne. "Those little differences have a tendency to cause tension at family reunions."
Jayne smiled at Luke. "It's nice to see that you don't take after your father, if he's actually like your sister describes him."
"He's not like that anymore," Luke grumbled. "Our father has seen the error of his ways."
"Luke lives in a special land where everyone wears flowers in their hair and spends the day playing with pink pittens," Leia said sarcastically.
Han took a chair next to Leia. "So, you gonna introduce us to your latest red-headed girlfriend, Kid?"
"This is Jayne," Luke replied, shooting Han a warning glare. "She's using that name until she can remember her real name."
"Got a bad case of bump-on-the-old-noggin, huh?" Han asked. "I've had a few of those myself over the years."
"That explains a lot of things," Leia said.
"Hey!" Han protested. "I can't help it if I've made a few enemies here and there."
Jayne turned the conversation back to Leia's comment. "What do you mean by mass murder?"
"The Empire is known for committing genocide whenever they feel like it," Leia stated. "You surely don't think they use descriptions like 'Star Destroyers' and 'Death Troopers' because they go around spreading sunshine and joy."
"I can't recall ever thinking much about it," Jayne admitted. "But, then again, I can't recall too much."
"Is anything coming back?" Luke prodded gently. "The pirate attack? What your brother looked like?"
Jayne's eyes took on a distant expression. "I remember being in pain …and feeling betrayed for some odd reason. Why would I feel betrayal?"
"It will come back to you," Luke said soothingly, taking Jayne's small hand in his own. He was pleased when she gave his fingers a gentle squeeze, and smiled at him in gratitude.
"Yup," Han said, shaking his head in dismay as he looked knowingly at the Princess. "It's obvious that Luke has a soft spot for redheads."
"Where's Chewie?" Luke asked, attempting to change the subject. He waved at a server droid to bring them their food.
"I've got him busy working on recalibrating the droid brains in the Falcon," Han replied. "Keeps him busy, and keeps Threepio and Artoo out of Leia's hair, too."
"Where is Padmé and Obi-Wan?" Leia questioned coolly.
"With Father, of course," Luke said. "He's changed, Leia. You need to break down and go visit him."
"Not a chance."
Luke turned his pleading eyes toward Han. "Can't you get through to her?"
"Me? Why would I want her to visit Old Gruesome? That guy makes me nervous."
"You haven't been in his room since he first woke up," Luke argued. "He's better now."
"That's what I'm worried about," Han agreed.
Luke sighed, and moved back slightly as the server droid placed his food tray on the table. "He won't threaten you again."
"Can you guarantee that?"
"Yes," Luke returned. "I'll be there to protect you if he does, Han."
"You'll protect me?" Amused, Han looked over at Jayne. "The Kid's got delusions of grandeur."
Luke shook his head sadly as he picked up a fork, and looked at Jayne. "I never thought I'd see the day that Han Solo admitted he was a coward."
"Who's a coward?" Han yelled. "I'm no coward! Who went down into the cave with you? Who came rushing into the infirmary and blasted the Emperor's Hand, and saved your skin?"
"Emperor's Hand?" Jayne asked sharply. All eyes turned toward the red head, and she blinked. "I've never heard that term."
"Yeah, she was an Imperial Agent," Han said slowly, his expression turning guarded. "Her name was Shira Brie, and she was about your age. Looked a bit like you, too. Red hair and all."
"So you think I must be an Imperial agent, too?" Jayne replied lightly. "Based on my age and hair color?"
"No," Luke said firmly. "We don't."
Han pushed his tray away, and leaned back into his seat. "I've changed my mind. I'll go meet your father again. But only if Jayne here comes with us, and meets him, too."
The newcomer gave Han a wary look and shifted in her hard plasteel chair before saying, "Sure. I'd love to meet Luke's father."
"You don't have to do that," Luke said, annoyed at Han. "Han thinks this will be some sort of test, but it's not necessary. That crash almost killed you, and it couldn't have been a cover. I trust you, and that's good enough."
"Afraid of your father's reaction, Luke?" Leia goaded her brother.
"You're the one that's afraid, not me."
"Is that right?"
"Yes, it's right," Luke said. "I'll tell you what. How about all four of us going to see Father?"
Leia blanched slightly. "I'm not doing that."
"Afraid?" Luke asked, throwing Leia's accusation back.
"Fine! I'll go!"
Jayne looked back and forth at the three people, all glaring at each other. "You've got one weird family, Luke." She stood, and swayed noticeably on her feet as her hand went up to her forehead. "Ow."
Worriedly, Luke jumped up. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm just a bit dizzy."
"Should you go back to the infirmary?"
"It must be the after-effects from my concussion. I really need to lay down for a few minutes." She looked up. "I guess meeting your father will have to wait. Do you mind?"
"Not at all," Luke said quickly. "Let me help you to the quarters Captain Karrde has assigned to you." Luke gave a glance over at Leia. "Now I suppose you'll use this as an excuse to back out of seeing Father."
Leia folded her arms across her chest, looking suspiciously from Jayne to Luke. "No. I'll go see him. I need to prove to you I'm not afraid of the big, bad Sith."
"Well, I am," Han admitted, his hand automatically checking for his blaster. "But if you're going into the Sith's den, I'll be right by your side. Or directly behind you. Or somewhere in the general vicinity."
Leia patted Han's forearm. "That's what I love about you, Han. You're so supportive."
Anakin Skywalker flexed his new legs, which now looked like real flesh instead of metal, and stretched out his unbound arms. These had also been replaced with ones covered with high quality, synthetic flesh. "I miss my own flesh and blood every moment of every day."
His wife forced a cheerful expression on her face. "You might not have your real arms and legs, but these new ones are a lot better than what the Emperor had given you. And the doctors say there is quite a bit they can do about those scars. Look how much they've already done for your respiratory issues. With the new lung tissue they've re-grown and implanted, you don't even require help breathing."
"I do appreciate that," Anakin said sincerely. "And I appreciate the faith that you and Luke had in me. Without Palpatine – and the dark side – pressing down and constantly surrounding my thoughts and emotions, I've been able to heal where it truly counts… in my heart and my soul." He looked toward Obi-Wan. "Any progress with Leia?"
The Jedi withdrew the Princess's lightsaber from under his robe. "Unfortunately, she won't take her weapon back."
"At least she hasn't gone back to Alderaan," Padmé added, trying to sound upbeat. "So that's a good thing. Right?"
"Right," Anakin said dryly, then decided to alter the subject. "How long do the Rebels plan on keeping those creatures in my room?" Anakin asked, waving his hand toward the corner of the room, where the ysalamiri sat on a branch and chewed contentedly on the green leaves.
"Karrde and Bel Iblis aren't fully comfortable with the idea you've turned away from the dark side," Obi-Wan said.
"Mostly," Obi-Wan said.
"Obi-Wan!" Padmé chastised. "What's Anakin done that's left you with doubt?"
Obi-Wan sat back in his chair, and stroked his white beard. "He's done nothing wrong, Padmé. But with the ysalamiri blocking my Force-senses as well as Anakin's, I can't be certain what he's feeling inside. Simply because he hasn't threatened anyone lately, or hasn't attempted to escape, isn't enough proof that he's returned to the light."
"That isn't fair," Padmé stated firmly.
Anakin reached over and took his wife's hand. "It's more than fair. It's more than I deserve."
Padmé didn't appear convinced, but withheld further protest. A moment later, there was a quick rap on the door.
"Mother?" Luke's voice called through the closed door. "Is it okay if we come in?"
"We?" Padmé questioned, just as the door slid open.
Luke stepped inside, while Leia and Han lingered just outside the room. "Come on," he said, urging them to enter behind him.
"Leia?" Padmé stuttered out in surprise. "You've come?"
"Luke said I was afraid," Leia groused. "I never much liked being called a coward."
Anakin laughed, and almost said how much that comment sounded like something he would have said as a young man. But he knew that would only increase her hostility, so he restrained himself. "Thank you for coming to see me," he said instead.
Leia kept her eyes focused on the floor. "You've done a good job at fooling everyone that you're suddenly a good guy."
"I'm not trying to fool anyone," Anakin responded. "I'm well aware that I could spend eternity trying to make amends for my past actions, and never come close to full reparations."
"That's something we can agree on."
Anakin craned his neck. "Come closer, Captain Solo. I'd like to see you again, now that I'm feeling stronger."
"I sorta like standing over here," Han said, pressing his back against the far wall. "The light's better."
Luke gave a groan. "Han's afraid you're going to neuter him."
"Has he given me a reason for such a desire?" Anakin questioned Luke.
"How about taking your innocent daughter's virtue?" Luke asked. "Is that a good reason?"
"LUKE!" Han shouted. "What are you trying to do to me?"
"Oh, just pointing out the obvious," Luke said with a smirk. "Like when you pointed out to Jayne I have a thing for redheads."
Obi-Wan stood. "Perhaps this would be a good time to remove the ysalamiri from the vicinity."
"What?" Han said in panic. "Why now? No, I don't think now is a good time at all, if you ask me."
"Who's asking you, Solo?" Anakin asked calmly.
"It is a good time," Luke insisted. "We're all here, and once the ysalamiri is gone we'll be able to tell once and for all if Father is telling us the truth."
"Can I be pointing my blaster at him while that thing is hauled away?" Han questioned.
"NO!" both Luke and Padmé shouted at the same moment.
Han frowned. "You don't have to yell. I was just askin'."
"Wait here," Obi-Wan ordered. "I'll go get the guards to take it away."
In short order, Obi-Wan returned, and everyone watched as the two Rebel guards followed the Jedi into the room and then took the ysalamiri away. Soon the Force damping effect dissipated, and the Jedi and the former Sith Lord were once again aware of, and surrounded by the power of the Force.
"Anakin Skywalker, have you renounced the dark side?" Obi-Wan asked, his hand resting on the hilt of his lightsaber.
"Yes, Master, I have."
Luke gave a huge grin as he hugged his father. "I knew Mother and I were right about you."
"I am grateful to be given this second chance," Anakin said. Then, looking back at Han, he said, "Were you ever truly my wife's lover?"
"Never," Han said, swallowing hard. "I swear it was just a joke. I only wanted to make Leia jealous, and I never thought Padmé would go along with it."
"I believe you," Anakin stated, narrowing his eyes at the Corellian. "However, I still have doubts that you are acceptable material for my daughter."
"Oh, really?" Leia snapped. "Isn't that for me to decide?"
"Tell me, Leia," Anakin said. "How do you think Bail Organa will react to your bringing a smuggler home as your lover?"
"I thought as much," Anakin said smugly, noting Han's agitation.
Suddenly, the door slid apart, and both Talon Karrde and Garm Bel Iblis hurried into the already crowded room. Giving a brief glance at Anakin, Talon said, "We have a problem."
"What now?" Padmé asked in concern.
"Our spies have reported that the Death Star has been tested. They believe it is still being fine-tuned, and will head to its next target in a matter of days. That next target may very well be Myrkr."
"The good news is that these spies have forwarded us the Death Star schematics, so we may be able to locate a weakness in its defense systems," Bel Iblis added. He looked at Anakin. "Hopefully, you may be able to help us analysis these plans, since you've had an opportunity to see that monster station up close."
"I'll do whatever I can to help," Anakin agreed, his expression become troubled. "Obi-Wan, I'm sensing a familiar presence nearby." Then, with a start, Anakin recognized who he was sensing. "Mara Jade is here."
"Who is that?" Luke asked.
"She's another Hand of the Emperor."
"Oh, great," Han muttered. "She doesn't happen to have red hair, does she?"
Anakin looked up in surprise. "How did you know?"
"So she does have red hair?" Leia spluttered out, turning on her heel and pointing at Luke. "Jayne is another Hand!"
"She hasn't done anything wrong," Luke shot back. "We can't arrest her because Father and Obi-Wan have accused her based on a Force feeling!" Luke turned to Obi-Wan. "Why couldn't I tell she's Force-sensitive? Why couldn't I tell that she was lying? We didn't have any creatures around us when we were eating lunch with her."
"It's not always easy to sense if someone is telling the truth, or not," Obi-Wan explained gently. "Palpatine managed to fool the entire Jedi Order. The same holds true for sensing someone that is able to access the Force. My Master, Qui Gon-Jinn, believed young Anakin was Force-sensitive when he first met him, yet he still needed to confirm his feelings with a blood test."
"If I didn't know Mara Jade personally, it's unlikely I would have sensed her, either," Anakin added. "Once you know someone, they emit a distinct signature through the Force. They don't even have to be Force-sensitive themselves."
"Sorta like recognizing someone based on their cologne," Han mused aloud.
"Exactly, Captain Solo," Anakin said, nodding. "Perhaps there is more to you than just a pretty face plastered over an empty head-like container."
Han raised his eyebrow. "Did I hear that correctly? Your father called me pretty?"
"I don't know, Flyboy," Leia replied. "The only part I heard was 'plastered' and 'empty head.' That description is pretty apropos, don't you agree?"
"Funny," Han groused as everyone laughed at his expense.
"In any case," Talon said after the snickering died down, "we should at least bring her in for questioning, and allow Va.. err, I mean Skywalker, to do a visual identification."
"Agreed," Obi-Wan said. "I'll come along, since she's a Force-trained assassin."
"I'm coming, too," Luke grumbled. "Even if she is Mara Jade, she can't remember it."
"Or she can remember, and she's as good an actor as Brie was," Talon stated.
"She's not faking it," Luke protested. "That's one thing I'm absolutely positive about."
Padmé put her arm around Luke's waist. "No one is suggesting we should harm the girl. If we could get through to Anakin, it's very possible we can get through to Miss Jade, too."
"My brother and mother," Leia said with a weary sigh. "Champions for all the Poor Misunderstood Sith Lords and Confused Auburn-haired Assassins."
"Well," Luke stated. "Someone has to do it."
The red-head was on her hands and knees, peering under her ship's cockpit control panel, when a calm, distinguished voice interrupted her search.
"Looking for something?"
She twisted around to look at the speaker, and saw that Luke was standing behind the man. There were also two other, older men standing in the burned-out corridor, as well. She scrambled to her feet, trying unsuccessfully to wipe the soot off her face and clothes. "Um, yes. I was trying to find some clue to my identity. Maybe something that might have survived the fire."
"Something like a weapon? A lightsaber, perhaps?"
"A lightsaber? What's a lightsaber?"
Luke stepped closer. "This is Obi-Wan Kenobi." He waved at the two, obviously armed men behind him. "That's Garm Bel Iblis, and Talon Karrde."
"I've already met Garm," she said warily. "What's with the blasters pointing at me?"
"Step out of the cockpit, Miss Jade," Talon said, waving his weapon.
"My name is Jade?" she questioned, carefully obeying the order, watching as the robed man bent down and looked under the control panel. "How did you find that out?"
No one answered her, and a moment later, Obi-Wan reached up and gave a hard tug. He turned around, holding a charred cylinder in his grasp. "This is what we call a lightsaber."
The woman shook her head. "That's not mine, and I don't know how to use it. I was only looking for the ship's log disk." She turned her dazzling green eyes toward Luke. "You have to believe me. I never saw that thing before in my life."
Luke's expression grew sad and grim. "You'd better come along peacefully, Mara Jade. We don't want to hurt you."
Mara was hustled out of the ship with Talon holding tight to one arm while Garm grasped the other. She twisted her neck to look back at Luke, her voice sounding desperate. "This is some terrible misunderstanding, Luke. Please believe me!"
"I want to believe you," he whispered sadly as she disappeared around the bend in the grimy corridor.
It was the first time since the accident that Anakin had left his infirmary room. The doctor had allowed this short trip with the firm promise that Anakin would return in a few hours, since he was still not completely healed. With Padmé holding his arm, he walked cautiously to the detention area as Han and Leia trailed behind. "I'm not quite as tall as I was inside the suit."
Padmé glanced up. "You're the same height as before…you know."
"Mustafar," Anakin said. "You can say the word. I promise I won't start twitching." He grinned down. "But you're every bit as short as I remember."
"I'm not short."
"Like mother, like daughter," Han said.
"I'm not short, either," Leia protested.
"Delusions of grandeur," Anakin said, laughing.
He stopped being amused as a door slid open. Inside the stark room was a narrow table with a row of four chairs on either side. Luke, Obi-Wan, Talon and Bel Iblis sat on one side, while the Emperor's Hand sat alone on the opposite side. Her face was pale, and to Anakin's surprise it appeared she was struggling not to cry. Not once, in all the long years that he'd known her, had Jade cried, and it wasn't that Palpatine had never given her cause or reason not to cry. "It's definitely her." Jade looked over at the newcomer blankly. "You probably don't recognize me without my helmet."
She frowned. "You're a stormtrooper?"
"She's sticking to her amnesia story," Talon informed them.
"It's not a story!" the red-head shouted in frustration. "The name Mara Jade does sound familiar, but I never saw that lightsaber before in my life."
"Have you told her any more details?" Padmé asked Luke.
"No," he replied. "We thought you should be here."
Padmé moved around the table, and took a seat next to Mara. "This is my husband, Anakin Skywalker. He worked directly for Emperor Palpatine not that long ago."
Mara shot a look toward Leia. "So that's what you meant by being related to a mass murderer."
"Yes," Leia answered shortly.
"Anakin is the one who identified you," Padmé continued. "He said you work directly for the Emperor, too. As something called a Hand."
"Exactly like Shira Brie," Han put in. "I hope you two weren't bosom buddies."
"I said it before, and I'll say it again," Mara growled. "I've never heard of the term, or of Shira Brie."
Anakin spoke up, "Jade wouldn't have known about Brie. Palpatine never told them about each other. That way they all believed they were special, and that he held them in high esteem."
Luke leaned forward. "Did you hear that, Mara? The Emperor doesn't truly care about what happens to you. It's time to reject his teachings, and realize what an evil man he actually is."
"Good Stars," Mara snapped. "Do you people have any clue what you sound like? I'm NOT an evil minion of the Emperor! I've never even met the Emperor, despite what Anakin Skywalker, the actual former evil minion here, claims. Maybe - since he's already admitted to serving Palpatine - he's got an ulterior motive for wanting you to focus on me, instead of him. Maybe he's still working for Palpatine, and this is his way of distracting you from that fact."
Han rubbed his chin. "As convoluted as that sounds, it could be true."
"If that were true, I'd have Force-choked the life out of you at least two days ago, Solo," Anakin grumbled.
"Can you tell if she's speaking the truth, Obi-Wan?" Bel Iblis questioned the Jedi Master.
"Unfortunately, no," Obi-Wan responded. He looked down at the blackened lightsaber hilt. "However, she certainly could be shielding."
"Or telling us the truth," Luke insisted. "If she does have amnesia, why lock her up? She's not a threat to us, and by trusting her, we could make her realize we're the good guys."
"Her memory could return at any moment," Leia said. "And with it, her devotion to Palpatine."
"Both valid points," Obi-Wan said.
"I'll bet the see-saw plank was your favorite piece of play equipment as a child," Han remarked. Anakin grinned, but Obi-Wan only scowled at the Corellian's jibe.
"So we have a decision to make," Talon stated. "What to do with her?"
Luke waved his arm in the air. "Let her stay in the room next to mine. I'll take full responsibility for her."
"No! She's an assassin," Padmé said, horrified. "It's too dangerous."
Talon sighed. "How about this, then. We allow her to stay in a locked room instead of a prison cell, yet put guards outside her door."
"Throw in a ysalamiri, and then you might be lucky enough to hold her," Anakin said.
"She won't try to escape," Luke stated confidently. "Trust me."
"Do you really think the Emperor is so terrible?" Mara questioned Luke as they sat next to each other on a sofa in her room.
The young man seemed offended by the question. "Of course he is. He's busy building a machine to wipe out entire planets. It's a good thing we've gotten a hold of the plans, so we can find a way to destroy it."
"What if you can't find a way, even after your people look at the plans?"
"We'll be able to," Luke said confidently, leaning back and cautiously placing his arm around her shoulders. "Do you hate me?"
"Why would I hate you?"
Luke seemed uneasy, even though he had asked the question. "Because I'm a Rebel, and you're loyal to the Emperor."
"I only have your word that I'm loyal to the Emperor," Mara whispered, looking up into Luke's amazing blue eyes. "What do you think?"
"About what?" Luke whispered, moving closer.
"Can a boy like you, and a girl like me…?"
"Yes," Luke breathed as he kissed her tenderly on the lips.
Mara shut her eyes and leaned into the kiss. Amazing, she thought dreamily. Simply amazing. She felt Luke pull back, and slowly she opened her eyes. Then her blood ran cold. The person sitting next to her, grinning manically, was no longer the sweet farmboy from Tatooine. It was her Master.
She sat up in bed, her heart pounding in her chest. She was Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, she reminded herself firmly. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this mission. Not the faulty ship, or her very temporary memory lapse. Not the growing, gnawing fear that perhaps these Rebels were right, and the Emperor was truly evil. Not the realization that Darth Vader had once been a Jedi Knight who had made the terrible mistake of believing Palpatine, and had been turned into a pawn of Palpatine's by both mental and physical trama. And especially not the knowledge that Luke Skywalker was too kind hearted and gentle to be true, and this naïve young farmboy was occupying her every thought.
I have to accomplish my mission. Mara pushed herself out of bed, and quickly got dressed in Padmé's clothes. She was supposed to kill Luke's mother, and then contact Palpatine for further instructions. There were quite a few obstacles to this plan, since everyone knew she was an Emperor's Hand, and she had no way of contacting her Master as long as she remained on Myrkr. I'm an Emperor's Hand, Mara realized bitterly. Not just one unique servant, but one of many, according to Anakin Skywalker. What else has Palpatine failed to mention, she wondered as she looked around the room for a weapon. Flipping up the mattress, she worked at removing the wires around the edge of the bedframe. Wires always made good weapons. Killing Padmé right now was out of the question, but Mara's mind worked quickly to replace this with a new, better plan.
If losing Vader as his right hand man was a bitter pill to swallow, what could better replace that bitter pill with the sweet taste of revenge than turning one of Vader's own children into a Sith? Having Vader's own offspring serving the Emperor, and hunting down the 'reformed' Lord Vader? Mara briefly thought about Luke, but knew that the young Jedi was too pure of heart to ever become a Sith. Leia, on the other hand, had a great deal of anger boiling under the surface, and Palpatine would be able to use that anger to his advantage. The young Jedi woman could be kept under control with the right motivation. Mara considered Solo, and quickly discarded the idea. The man was too unpredictable, and she didn't want to have to kill him too quickly. That wouldn't be useful at all. She couldn't deal with more than one Jedi at a time, that was certain. Then it occurred to her - what would make her Master even more pleased than Mara simply killing the wife of the traitor, Lord Vader? Why, if Palpatine himself could kill her, of course! She could use Padmé by keeping her under threat of imminent death if Leia disobeyed, or made any attempt to escape. Mara was very grateful that Luke had seen fit to give her such a complete tour of the base, which included the rooms where everyone was staying, as well as the hanger. That battered old freighter that sat alone off to one side would work well for her escape, since Vader's Imperial Shuttle was surrounded by too many guards.
Mara stretched the wire out, pleased at its strength and length. The Jedi were sadly mistaken if they believed two guards and a single ysalamiri parked outside her door were enough to keep an Emperor's Hand from her goal.
Leia spooned sweetener into her caf, and sipped the hot liquid. "I have an uneasy feeling that I can't shake."
Glancing up from the holo smashball game he was watching, Han smiled. "One of those Force things, huh? I thought you renounced all that hocus pocus stuff."
"It's womanly intuition," Leia responded. "That has nothing to do with the Force."
"If you say so," Han replied, turning his attention back to the game.
A few moments later, Leia's private comlink gave a soft beep, and the Princess picked it up. "Yes?" she spoke into the small device.
"Leia? It's your mother." There was a slight pause. "Padmé."
"Yes, I figured that out," Leia said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
"Can you come meet me? Alone?"
"Sure," Leia answered, curious about Padmé's odd request. "Are you in your husband's infirmary room?"
"No. No. I'm…with… Garm and Chewie. We're in the Falcon, and there's a thing we want you to see.. hear. Hear."
The mystery deepens, Leia thought. "A thing?"
"No, not a thing," Padmé said breathlessly. "A holo-message from Bail Organa. We need you here because it's encrypted. Can you hurry?"
"You need me to come with you?" Han questioned, his eyes never leaving the holo.
"No, she asked me to come alone," Leia replied, moving toward the door. "Did she sound strange to you?"
Han leaned forward, giving a disgusted grunt as one of the smashball players had a penalty tossed at them. "Who?"
"Oh, never mind," Leia said, annoyed. "I'll be back in a few minutes." How could men become so distracted by a simple-minded game, anyway?
Hanger bay, inside the Millennium Falcon
"Now, wasn't that simple?" Mara asked a terrified Padmé, as she pointed a blaster at the older woman's chest. "It was much easier than me killing the Wookiee, wasn't it?"
A tied up Padmé glanced at the floor, where the stunned and drugged Chewbacca lay in an unconscious heap. In the corner sat both Artoo and Threepio, their power turned off. Padmé herself had been called to the Falcon by Threepio, who had been obeying Jade's orders on the threat of Chewbacca's death. "How did you escape?"
Mara almost laughed. "I was being guarded by two morons. I'm a highly skilled assassin. It was no match, believe me." She gave a quick nod to the ysalamiri she'd brought into the ship. "And I'll have to thank your husband for suggesting that creature keep me company. Its presence kept all those nosy Jedi from knowing I was out and about."
"You killed the guards?"
"They should still be alive," Mara replied, uninterested. "The wire around their necks will tighten and choke them to death a little bit at a time if they try to free themselves. I warned them about that detail before I took off, so if they're dead, it's their own fault."
Padmé gave a quick nod toward the Wookiee. "How did you overpower Chewie?"
"A stun shot with my new weapons, courtesy of those Rebel guards, and a quick dose of powerful sleeping meds that had been stored in the cockpit of my ship." Mara grinned. "Poor Kenobi was only concerned about finding that lightsaber."
"So you were faking your amnesia?" Padmé said accusingly.
"When I first woke up, I was confused," Mara replied. "Then my memory came back pretty quickly, but I decided the amnesia act could work to my advantage." Mara glanced toward the corridor. "I do hope your daughter comes without her boyfriend. She might be irritated if I have to kill the guy."
"What do you want with Leia?"
"She's full of rage, just like her old man. The Emperor needs a new Sith Lord, and he'll be thrilled when I bring him Vader's child as a replacement for that cyber-freak you call your husband." Mara grinned, her expression taking on that of a predator. "You'd better keep her in line during the trip, or I'll be forced to kill both of you. That was my original assignment, you know – kill Vader's Rebel wife."
Padmé frowned. "Won't your Master be angry that you disobeyed?"
"Not when he can kill you himself," Mara responded. "Now shut up. I hear someone walking up the ramp." The assassin stood and placed herself behind Padmé, and pressed the blaster to the woman's temple. It will be interesting to see how much the Princess actually cares about the woman who gave birth to her, Mara thought dispassionately.
When Leia entered the Falcon, she felt a warning tingle from the Force, and then the Force faded away. Something was wrong, and for the first time since she'd so casually discarded her lightsaber, Leia wished she had it back. There definitely had to be a ysalamiri onboard, but why would Chewbacca have done that? As she rounded the curve of the corridor and entered the main hold, Leia abruptly stopped short as she took in the scene.
"What have you done to Chewbacca?" Leia demanded, glaring at Mara. "Where did you get that blaster?"
It was her mother that replied, "She's drugged Chewbacca, and stole the weapon from the men who were guarding her."
"Are you alright?"
"So far," Padmé replied tightly.
"Be a good girl and come sit next to your mother," Mara ordered sharply, waving her blaster toward the board table where Padmé sat, bound. "Put those binders around your wrists, and let me hear them click shut."
As the Princess obeyed, she asked warily, "What are you planning on doing to us?" She weighed her chances of trying to grab for the blaster, but decided the only thing that would accomplish would be a fast and painful death.
"Taking you on a nice little visit to see the Emperor," Mara answered, shifting over to the droids. She reached up, and switched on Threepio.
"Luke is going to be so disappointed," Leia mumbled to her mother. "His first two crushes turned out to be rotten to the core."
"Mistress Leia! Mistress Padmé!" the frightened droid cried out. "Whatever shall we do now?"
"I'll be the one telling you what to do," Mara ordered firmly. "First, switch on your buddy, and then move the Wookiee onto that replusorlift."
Threepio quickly turned on Artoo. "Artoo, place Chewbacca on the replusorlift immediately."
The little droid gave an annoyed whistle, and Threepio turned to address Mara. "Artoo says he is too short to lift Chewbacca. Not to mention he has no arms."
By this time, Mara was getting angry. "I meant YOU put the Wookiee on the lift. Unless you give me lip. In that case, I'll just kill the Wookiee, blast the two of you, and be done with it."
"No! Not at all," Threepio said hurriedly. He quickly pushed the heavy tools off the bed of the lift, and then awkwardly bent down and hoisted the limp Wookiee onto the replusorlift. "Now what?"
"Now all three of you leave the ship before I decide I'm being way too soft, and blast you into a million pieces, anyway."
Threepio quickly grabbed the edge of the lift, and pushed it forward. "Hurry, Artoo. We don't want this kind lady to change her mind, do we?"
"Shut the exit door on the way out," Mara called after the hustling droids. She turned her attention back to her prisoners. "Now, get into the cockpit. Too bad neither one of you will ever get the chance to kiss your lover-boys goodbye."
Death Star, over Despayre
"Fire!" Tarkin practically screamed, although it was unnecessary to speak above a whisper considering the eerie silence inside the Command Center.
The beam flashed out from the Death Star, striking the wobbly and barren shell of Despayre. The planet exploded, disintegrating into billions of small rocks.
"That is more like it," Palpatine stated, nodding his approval. "Now we can proceed to Myrkr."
Tarkin gave a hard jerk of his head. "Engage the hyperdrives!"
The young man sitting at the hyperdrive controls pressed a series of buttons, and an ominous hum reverberated throughout the entire Station. He quickly pressed another button, effectively cutting off the power. "Sir, the third hyperdrive unit is showing signs of instability. I had to abort the jump… Sir."
Bevel Lemelisk hurried over to peer at the read-out. "It must be a faulty sensor control. I'll have – ." He got no further in his remarks, grasping his throat as an intense, invisible pressure cut off his oxygen. In the quiet room, everyone could hear the bones and tendons snap, and blood flowed from the Engineer's nose. Then he dropped noiselessly to the floor, his lifeless eyes still wide open.
Grand Moff Tarkin's hand went automatically to his own throat, looking fearfully at his Emperor. "I am truly ashamed of Lemelisk's failure, My Lord."
"As well you should be," Palpatine said with a snarl. "Now, how shall I end your life? Perhaps I shall tie you up inside the laser shaft, and when we arrive at Myrkr you shall see firsthand how the laser operates. Or, perhaps…" The Emperor suddenly paused in his tirade, and tilted his head to one side. "I shall deal with you in a few moments, Tarkin."
With those words, he turned and walked out of the Command Center and went into a private suite nearby. There, he was able to 'send' back. "Why have you failed to contact me as I ordered, my Hand?"
Having killed the ysalamiri that she'd brought with her inside the ship immediately after making the jump into hyperspace, Mara's thoughts came through clearly. "Master, my ship crashed upon landing. The creatures called the ysalamiri cut off my ability to contact you through the Force. I have left Myrkr, and I believe you will be most pleased with what I am bringing to you."
The Emperor was not pleased, however. "Left? Have you finished your mission?"
"Vader exposed my identity, and I was unable to do as you ordered, My Lord."
"Then whatever you are bringing me must be of equal value to your mission."
Back on the Falcon, Mara smiled. "I am bringing – alive- to Coruscant Vader's wife…and his daughter. His Force strong daughter."
This news startled the Emperor. "Then you have redeemed yourself, my Hand. But do not go to Coruscant. Come to the Death Star over Despayre. I will be eagerly awaiting the arrival of my next apprentice."
"She is impatient, impetuous, and has much anger inside," Mara thought back, knowing Palpatine was no longer angry at the failure of her mission. "She will serve you well."
"I look forward to training her. As well as seeing Senator Amidala once again."
Less than fifteen minutes after the Millennium Falcon had blasted off Myrkr, both Han and Luke burst into Anakin Skywalker's hospital room.
"Father! Wake up!" Luke yelled as he switched on the overhead light.
Anakin flung off the blanket and struggled to stand, his eyes wide, and blinking against the onslaught of the light. "Wha…What?"
"Threepio just woke us, and … and…"
"Jade has kidnapped your wife and Leia, and used my ship to do it," Han snapped bitterly. "We should have locked her up in a cell when we found out her identity. Amnesia, my afterburners."
Anakin rubbed his head, and fumbled for his clothing. "It is unlikely a simple cell could have contained her for very long, either. Why didn't I sense what was occurring?"
By this time, Obi-Wan and Talon had also hurried into the room. "The ysalamiri in her room had been removed. She must have used it to cover up what she was doing."
"Bright girl," Talon stated. "We've started evacuating the base, and in two or three hours most of our personnel should be on their way to another location."
"I'm going after Jade," Anakin stated. "I'm not losing Padmé again."
"And I'm not losing Leia," Han added stubbornly. "So count me in on any rescue operation."
"Father, do you feel well enough to go on this type of a mission?" Luke asked, concerned over his father's health.
"It's Leia's and Padmé's health you should be concerned with, Luke," Anakin responded. "The Force will strengthen me, and help me to accomplish whatever I need to do."
"This is madness," Talon argued. "Jade will undoubtedly take her prisoners to Coruscant."
"She'll take them to the Emperor," Anakin said in agreement. "So I'm going to Coruscant."
Former Senator Bel Iblis entered the room, looking grim. "Then you'll be going to the wrong place. Our spies have told us the Emperor is overseeing the last stages of construction on the Death Star personally. Apparently he's gotten tired of all the construction delays."
Luke was stunned. "We'll never be able to get onboard the Death Star."
"Has the Death Star left Despayre yet?" Anakin questioned.
"Not as of a few hours ago," Garm replied. "Things can change quickly, which is why we're not wasting anymore time with evacuating."
Anakin turned to his son. "I still have my old suit, and the Imperial shuttle I arrived with. We may be able to get onboard easier than you think."
Obi-Wan nodded. "I think I have some idea what you are planning, Anakin. It will be very risky."
"I'd like to hear this plan," Han grumbled.
"First we go back to my Star Destroyer, the Devastator, and then, acting as Darth Vader, I order my ship to head to Despayre. Once we arrive, I go onboard the Battle Station, and try to convince the Emperor that I was a prisoner of the Rebellion, and only now managed to escape in the chaos of the base being evacuated."
"But didn't you defy his orders to start with by coming to Myrkr?" Luke questioned his father. "Won't he decide to kill you on the spot?"
"This isn't a bad plan," Talon spoke up. "Our technicians have analyzed the plans to the Station, and there is one major weakness. If the main generator can be blown up, and it would cause a chain reaction which would destroy the entire Death Star. We were planning on sending our pilots to try and put a torpedo into the exhaust port, but if a thermal detonator could be placed on the generator from inside, it would have the same effect."
"And it may save a lot of our X-Wing pilots' lives, too" Garm added.
"By the time we get there, Jade will have already arrived and told him what she saw," Han pointed out to Anakin. "So it'll be your word against hers."
"Very probably," Anakin agreed. "I'm willing to listen to any better plan you might have."
"I don't operate well with plans," Han stated. "How will Luke and me fit in to this?"
"You can hide on the shuttle while the Devastator is in hyperspace," Anakin said, frowning in thought. "There are two sets of extra stormtrooper gear inside the shuttle, and once we arrive at the Battle Station, you can be my armed escorts."
"Do you go around with stormtrooper escorts all the time?" Luke asked.
"Very seldom," Anakin admitted.
"Then you need a reason to use them," Obi-Wan said. "I will come along, and act as your prisoner. The stormtroopers – Luke and Han - can escorting me toward the detention area. Before we arrive, we'll separate and I will place the detonator inside the generator, and set the timer."
"Good idea!" Luke said enthusiastically. "Then Han and I can continue on to the prison section, and free Mother and Leia." Then his face fell. "But that will leave Father to confront the Emperor all by himself."
"That is how it should be," Anakin replied. "After you find Leia and Padmé, you will need to hurry to the Falcon, and get off the Station before the detonator blows while I distract Palpatine."
Luke looked incredulous. "You intend to sacrifice yourself for us?"
"I will do whatever is necessary to save my family from Palpatine," Anakin said sadly. "Perhaps Leia will finally be able to find it in her heart to forgive me."
"I don't want you to die!" Luke protested. "I want to keep my family together, now that we've finally found each other."
"We don't always get everything we want and desire, Son. I will try to make it back to the Falcon, but I make no guarantee. All I am certain of is that I must distract the Emperor for us to have any hope of successfully rescuing Leia and Padmé."
"What about Chewie?" Han asked in the uncomfortable silence that followed. "He won't want to let me do this without his help."
Anakin shook his head firmly. "A Wookiee wandering around the Battle Station would draw far too much attention, and my shuttle can only hold four people. Whether Chewbacca likes it or not, he must stay behind and help with the base evacuation."
"He ain't gonna like it one bit," Han groused, unaware just how true that statement would turn out to be.
The men wasted little time as they hurried to get ready for their mission, pausing to grab a few supplies, including the thermal detonator. They also took a copy of the Death Star plans to allow them to study the routes to the detention blocks as well as the exhaust port location during the trip. Han had taken a few moments to explain the situation to Chewie, who roared his disapproval over being excluded from the mission, then stalked away in anger.
Anakin entered the Imperial Shuttle first, and looked around at the tiny hold located behind the cockpit as he held a satchel which contained his Sith armor. A small cot lined one wall, while a row of lockers lined the opposite wall. Next to the lockers was a narrow door, behind which was a very small refresher, consisting of a toilet and a tiny sink which practically sat over the commode. A person of Leia's stature would find it difficult to maneuver within this room. Anakin had basically ignored the room, since turning around while wearing his armored suit would have proved to be extremely awkward. Fortunately, he'd never been forced to spend much more than a few hours at a time in the shuttle.
The former Sith pulled open a locker. "Here's the extra stormtrooper gear."
Han made a face as he sniffed the locker. "Has this stuff been sanitized?"
"The Empire does not care about such irrelevant matters," Anakin replied, his lips twitching in amusement.
"That's why they can't keep good help," Han said in all seriousness.
Luke tugged a white helmet over his head. "No wonder stormtroopers can't shoot straight. I can barely see out of this thing." He pulled it off, swiping at his hair. "Why do they make them wear helmets at all?"
"Several reasons come to mind," Obi-Wan replied. "Helmets repress individuality. The Emperor prefers his minions to be of the same mindset. And during the Clone Wars, all the stormtroopers looked exactly alike. It was less upsetting for citizens to see lifeless masks, rather than hundreds or thousands of dead faces, all alike."
"We should get going," Anakin said, waving the men toward the cockpit. "Who is planning on co-piloting?" He sat down in the pilot's seat, and watched in interest as Luke and Han eyed each other.
"You can co-pilot, Han," Luke finally said. "You've got more flying experience."
Han shook his head. "You're a plenty good pilot, kid. And the pilot's your father."
"And here I was worried that there'd be arguing about who wanted the seat, not who didn't," Anakin said to Obi-Wan. "That goes to show what kind of side-effects being an ex-Sith Lord has on people."
"I'll be co-pilot," Luke stated. He plunked down next to his father, then turned and shot a smirk over his shoulder at Han. "I was only trying to be polite to my elders."
"Who you callin' elderly?" Han muttered, slouching down in the seat behind Luke.
The shuttle received clearance, and they lifted off. Soon the planet was a distant ball. "I'll be happy if I never have to see that planet, or another ysalamiri again," Anakin said.
"I'd have to agree with you, Anakin," Obi-Wan said. "Those creatures will never make good house pets." He watched as the shuttle made the jump into hyperspace. "How far is the Star Destroyer from here?"
"We'll be there in half-an-hour."
"I never thought I'd willingly head toward a Star Destroyer," Han said. "And inside an Imperial Shuttle, no less."
"I think it's sort of exciting," Luke said.
A second later, a thumping noise could be heard from the small hold area.
"Did you hear that?"
Luke glanced down at the controls. "All the read-outs are normal."
"Someone's inside the hold," Anakin stated. "Now that we're totally clear of Myrkr, I can sense him."
"I can, too," Obi-Wan agreed, spinning his chair around to face the entryway, and pulling out his lightsaber.
"Aw, this is just great," Han grumbled, grasping his blaster. "How many Hands does the Emperor have, anyway?"
Luke stood up, pushing past the seats. "Where would anyone be able to hide? We can see everything."
"We can't see inside the refresher," Anakin pointed out as the thumping noise became louder, and somewhat frantic sounding.
All four men cautiously approached the narrow refresher door, and Anakin reached over and gave the handle a tug. The door swung open, and a blur of chestnut hair fell out, crashing on the floor.
"CHEWIE?" Han yelled in disbelief. "How did you get inside there?"
*It wasn't easy,* Chewie replied with a groan as he held his ribcage.
The Millennium Falcon, approaching the Death Star
The Emperor's Hand was truly impressed with the massive size of the Space Station. She spared a glance over at Leia, sitting in the co-pilot's seat, and still wearing binders. The older woman was securely trussed up, and locked inside of a storage unit, since Mara decided it was safer than having to constantly watch both of her prisoners while flying the ancient spacecraft at the same time.
Leia could barely tear her eyes away from the Station. "All that debris," she whispered, "used to be a living planet. All those lives… gone." She turned her stunned gaze toward the Hand. "This is the person… the thing, you serve so blindly. Someone so evil he can snuff out a billion lives and laugh. I don't understand people like you."
"The Emperor took me in when I was a homeless child," Mara said, suddenly feeling the need to defend herself. "He took care of me. He trained me."
"Trained you to KILL people! To serve HIS twisted desires!" She lifted her bound wrists and waved toward the viewport. "Don't you see what he's done? How can you justify this? How can you defend mass genocide?"
Mara's eyes tracked to the screen, and she felt a cold chill run down her spine over the incredible scene of destruction. How can I justify genocide? Have I really been blinded?
A voice sounded over the com-unit, snapping Mara out of her stupor. "Incoming craft, you will follow the TIE escorts into the proper Hanger."
The Hand swallowed, and gave her response, "Acknowledged."
Leia shook her head sadly as the Death Star's huge exterior filled the screen. "You truly are beyond hope, Jade."
Lord Darth Vader strode purposefully off the shuttle, and locked the craft behind him. He turned to the stormtroopers on hanger duty. "Do not allow anyone to board this shuttle."
"Yes, M'Lord!" If the troopers thought the order was odd, they would still never dare to question the Sith.
Inside the suit, Anakin tried not to feel claustrophobic. He despised having to wear the armor, and the only thing that kept his mind focused was the thought of Padmé and Leia suffering at the hands of Palpatine. The unexpected appearance of the Wookiee had altered their plans, and now Luke and Han were going to 'escort' Chewbacca to the detention block as Obi-Wan headed to the exhaust port with the bomb. This would still leave Anakin alone to confront the Emperor, and allow everyone the necessary time to escape.
Captain Wermis was waiting for him on the bridge. "Sir! We've waited here, just as you ordered."
"Have you maintained complete silence?"
"Yes, M'Lord. We have not sent out any signals."
"Has anyone tried contacting the Devastator since I left?"
"Your private code received several messages from Coruscant approximately two days after you left. Then Imperial Command sent the Devastator an 'acknowledge and respond' code. This code has been incoming, once every hour. We have not responded, per your orders."
"You have done well, Captain. You are hereby promoted to the rank of Admiral."
The man's eyes widened, and a huge grin split his face. "Thank you, M'Lord!"
"Set course for Despayre and depart immediately," Vader hissed out. "The Emperor awaits our arrival at the new Imperial Battle Station."
"Yes, Lord Vader." The new Admiral watched as Darth Vader left the bridge, and then allowed himself to give a huge sigh of relief.
Inside the Shuttle
"I'm tired of playing sabacc," Luke complained, throwing the cards on the floor. He glanced over at a snoring Chewbacca asleep on the cot, his long arms and legs dangling over the sides. "Isn't it my turn to sleep yet?"
"It's Kenobi's turn after Chewie wakes up," Han replied, tossing a ration bar at Luke. "Here…have something to eat."
Luke frowned at the dry bar. "Why didn't you pack decent food? These Imperial rations must be five years old. If you could remember to bring a deck of sabacc cards, why couldn't you bring food?"
"Well, cards are more important," Han said, chewing the tough cube. "'Sides, they still have another ten years before the expiration date."
"Perhaps you'd like to practice with your lightsaber, Luke?" Obi-Wan suggested.
Han looked appalled. "In this tiny space? Are you trying to get us all killed?"
"You may be right," Obi-Wan responded, then addressed Luke again, "Would you like to meditate, instead? It will help get your mind off the food and Chewbacca's snoring."
"Yeah," Han agreed. "Not to mention, if you're meditating nice and quiet-like, then you won't be complaining non-stop."
"I do NOT complain non-stop!" Luke complained.
"Right," both Obi-Wan and Han said at the same time.
"I am not pleased that you allowed the Rebels to discover your identity," Palpatine growled out as Mara knelt before him in the newly built throne room. Off to one side, stormtroopers held her two prisoners firmly. He had listened in silence to his Hand's entire story without comment until she'd reached the conclusion.
"It was Vader that betrayed me, Master."
"Is that so?" Palpatine asked. "Whether that is true or not, the Rebels will be long gone from Myrkr before this Station can arrive."
"That angers me. I could have used this Station to destroy our enemies. You failed, Hand."
Mara risked a quick glance up at Palpatine. His eyes glowed yellow, and she knew he was furious. "I have brought you Vader's wife, and his daughter."
"Yet you left behind his Force-strong son."
"Why did you not kill the boy?"
"I…" Mara stopped. How could she explain what she didn't understand herself? The idea of killing Luke was simply incomprehensible. This emotion wasn't anything she'd ever felt before in her entire life. "I temporarily could not recall my own name, Master."
"That is your excuse for failure? It is a pitiful excuse, indeed."
"I am sorry."
"Yes, you are." Lightning shot out from the Emperor's fingers, and Mara once again felt the burning agony of Force-lightning. Deep down she knew, this time it wouldn't stop until she was dead.
A few moments after the Emperor's assault on Mara had begun, the Devastator dropped out of hyperspace close enough to the Death Star that it could be seen through the expansive viewport of the throne room. The Emperor instantly sensed the nearby presence of the Star Destroyer, and spun around to gaze out the duraglass.
"It appears that Lord Vader's ship has arrived," he stated thoughtfully. "It shall be interesting to hear his side of the story." He glanced down at Mara, then nodded to his guards. "Take Jade and that traitor," he said, waving at Padmé, "to the detention cells. I will deal with overseeing their personalized executions at my leisure."
He watched, amused, as Mara was pulled to her feet, and dragged away. Perhaps later, once she understood how completely she had disappointed him, he would allow her to beg for her life. But whether he gave her a reprieve remained to be seen. Palpatine then turned his attention to the defiant Princess. Although there was no fear on her face, he could sense how frightened she was to be in his powerful presence.
"Welcome to your new home, daughter of Lord Vader."
"My father is not Darth Vader," Leia said stubbornly.
"Of course not," Palpatine replied smoothly. "You are Royalty, both by birth and by upbringing." He walked slowly down the steps, stopping uncomfortably close. "Tell me, my new apprentice, where are the Rebels going? Where is their new base?"
"I have no idea."
He reached out, touching her face and watching as she flinched at his touch. "You know. Of course you know. You will tell me."
Palpatine laughed. "Myrkr is no longer an interesting target for this Battle Station. I am thinking that a core planet should be an example. Alderaan, perhaps?"
Leia gasped. "You can't! Alderaan is a peaceful planet. We have no standing armies, and - "
"You and your entire family are traitors," Palpatine interrupted. "You have been financing the Rebellion for years – ever since I took power."
"You're beyond evil," Leia spat back. "I hate you."
"Good," Palpatine said, rubbing his gnarled hands together. "Embrace your hatred, Princess." The binders dropped from her wrists. "You have seen a small demonstration of my powers. Someday that same power will be yours. Everything you want and desire will be yours. Endless wealth, handsome men…"
"I've had wealth my entire life. The only purpose of money is to help those without."
"How noble of you, Princess. Bail Organa has raised a generous child. But I noticed you did not reject the handsome men. Does that appeal to you?"
"I …" She stopped short, thinking about Han. It would be best not to mention him, since that would only increase the likelihood that Palpatine could use him against her. "I'm too busy to think about men."
The way he regarded her reminded Leia of a grey-hawk regarding a small rodent. It was not a pleasant sensation.
"I'm sure that's true," Palpatine said, leering. "You're quite attractive, Princess. Very much like your mother."
Leia took a step back, away from the man's fetid breath. "I can't say the same about you."
The Emperor smiled, showing his yellow and brown teeth. "Even an old man such as myself has needs, my dear. I wonder what would upset Lord Vader more – taking his wife as my lover? Or his daughter?"
"You might be surprised what you can get used to," Palpatine said. "Especially considering the alternatives."
It was Grand Moff Tarkin that greeted Anakin Skywalker wearing the cumbersome armor of Darth Vader, as he walked for a second time down the ramp of his shuttle. This time Vader was followed by two stormtroopers who were escorting a fearsome looking Wookiee.
"Lord Vader," Tarkin said, giving a disdainful glance at the Wookiee. "I was not expecting you to arrive with a… beast."
"The Wookiee was captured at Myrkr," Vader rumbled. "He is undoubtedly a Rebel, and may know valuable information."
"They are smarter than you give them credit for, Governor," Vader stated. He turned to the stormtroopers. "Escort the Wookiee to a detention cell. I will interrogate him later."
The stormtroopers gave a quick nod, and hustled the Wookiee toward a lift. Vader turned back to Tarkin. "I am aware that the Emperor is onboard, and he is waiting for me. Has Jade arrived? I don't see that stolen ship docked in this hanger bay."
"Yes," Tarkin drawled out. "She arrived a short time ago, and docked one level below, in bay four-nine-nine-six. I must say, your unexplained disappearance has upset our Emperor. You may find him to be in a sour mood."
"Is that sour mood because of me, or because you have failed to have this Station operational in a timely manner?"
"This Station is exactly on its original schedule," Tarkin snapped. "It was hardly my fault the Emperor decided to rush the construction."
"So you are blaming our Emperor for your failure?" Vader questioned. "He will be interested to know this."
"No!" Tarkin said, suddenly worried. "I was only pointing out the schedule is still being met."
"Your schedule," Vader pointed out, "not the Emperor's. Are you interested in accompanying me to the Throne Room, or shall I find my own way?"
Tarkin tugged at his collar. "I am needed on the bridge."
Vader gave a curt nod. "Then you should be there."
"I wish Artoo were here," Luke muttered under his breath as they rode the lift. "What if they're not in this particular detention block? There are four more detention areas, you know."
"Your father said this one is the most likely," Han replied nervously. "It's the closest one to the bridge, and two of the other detention blocks aren't even completed yet. So we have a fifty-fifty chance of being right."
"Or of being wrong."
Luke pushed his helmet to one side, trying to see better. "After we rescue my mother and sister, I'm going to the throne room to help my father."
Han twisted his head so he could see Luke. "What?! That's not part of the plan!"
"I'm changing the plan."
"You can't do that."
"Plans are made to be changed. I'm not letting my father sacrifice his life, Han. Not when he's finally turned back to the light, and has a chance to start over."
"Chewie, will you beat some sense into this kid?"
*I couldn't agree more. Plans are made to be changed.*
Obi-Wan Kenobi waited until the hanger area was cleared, then cautiously made his way out. He looked over his shoulder, then hurried along the edge of the wall until he reached a lift that would take him down and across the huge station to the very center… where the main reactor core was located. He lightly touched the bomb inside his robe, to reassure himself it was there. The lift door parted, and the Jedi Master entered the quiet, small room that would glide him along to his destination.
Darth Vader stepped off the lift, and stood in silence between the row of red-robed and heavily armed Imperial Guards, five standing on either side. His daughter lay sprawled on the floor, her face covered with blood, while Emperor Palpatine stood over her, smiling, while both his hands dripped red splotches.
"Your offspring insulted me, Lord Vader," he taunted. "It was necessary to teach her a lesson."
Vader moved forward, quickly dropping to one knee and bowing his head. "Master. I apologize for my impetuous behavior. I should never have gone to Myrkr without your permission."
The apology caught Palpatine off-guard. "True. So Jade was incorrect, then? You have not renounced the teachings of the Sith?"
"Of course not, Master." Vader nodded toward his daughter, who was trying to struggle to her feet. "She has a strong will. It will take a great deal of time and effort to break her. I would enjoy the challenge."
Leia spat at Vader, "I knew you'd never become a good guy. What have you done to Luke?"
"Yes," Palpatine put in, cackling. "Where is your son, Lord Vader?"
Darth Vader's back became rigid. "I have brought him to you, Master. He is attempting to rescue his mother as we speak. With time, I believe he can be turned, as well."
"I know that," Palpatine stated. "I know everything. Tarkin is currently moving to capture your son." He turned his yellow stare at the Princess. "And your lover, too, if I am not mistaken. He will be most useful in helping us convince you to embrace the dark side of the Force. All is coming together as I have foreseen." Then Palpatine threw back his head and laughed manically.
"What's that?" the stormtrooper sitting behind the console asked as Chewbacca was escorted off the lift.
"Prisoner transfer from the Devastator."
"I wasn't notified," the Imperial stated, sounding miffed. "I'll have to check." He leaned over and was about to hit the com-switch when Chewbacca threw up his arms and started roaring.
"Look out! He's gotten loose!"
Blaster fire filled the room, and in seconds the smoking body of the stormtrooper lay slumped over the controls. Luke whipped off his helmet, and groused, "You two are going to have this entire base on our backs."
"Nah," Han argued, as he tossed the stormtrooper's weapon at Chewie. "We stopped him before he contacted his superiors."
Luke checked the numbers of the cells on the terminal. "Mother is in cell number 1138."
"What about Leia?"
"She's not listed."
Han pushed Luke aside. "That's not possible. What about the other detention block. Maybe they separated them."
"I checked," Luke repeated, annoyed. "She's not listed."
"Then where is she?" Han demanded.
"Let me look again," Luke said, peering at the screen. "Wait… what's this?"
"You found her?"
"Not Leia." Luke pointed at the screen. "But Mara's here. Cell block 1135."
"Great," Han said. "At least that's one problem we won't have to worry about anymore."
Luke shook his head as he headed down the grim corridor. "We're taking her with us, too."
"She's the reason Leia and your mother are here, in case you've forgotten," Han yelled out, hustling to keep up. "No way we're wasting time rescuing that assassin!"
Luke stopped in front of cell 1135. "Care to make a wager?" he asked as he pressed the 'open' button.
"Luke?" Mara asked in surprise as she sat up from the hard cot. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
Luke glanced down at his armor. "It's not polite to make fun of your rescuer."
She gave a grateful smile as she limped to the door. "I suppose not. How's this, instead?"
To Luke's utter shock, Mara leaned forward and planted a firm kiss directly on his lips. "Uh, yeah. That's better."
"Kid?" Han bellowed out from a bit further down the hallway. "Me an' Chewie found your mother!"
"Great," Luke said, feeling relief at seeing his mother rush toward him.
"Luke," Padmé said, throwing her arms around her son. "You shouldn't have come after us. This is far too dangerous." Then she glared at Mara. "Why is she out of her cell?"
"I couldn't leave her," Luke protested. "If Father could be convinced to see the light, I believe we can convince Mara, too."
Padmé sighed. "I suppose."
"Where's Leia?" Han asked worriedly.
The older woman trembled at the mention of her daughter's name. "She's in the throne room with the Emperor. He… he wants to turn her into a Sith."
Luke looked at Han. "Father will need my help. I'm going to the throne room."
"I'm going too," Han stated firmly.
"There's nothing you can do against the Emperor, Han," Luke argued. "This involves the Force. I'm the one that has to help."
"I can help, too," Mara said. "I know the way."
"You?" Han protested. "You're about as trustworthy as a cross-eyed fang-viper."
"I suppose I deserve that," Mara admitted. "But, believe it or not, I'm not blind anymore. This latest encounter with Palpatine has me convinced he's not exactly stable."
"Unfortunately, this is one time I'm agreeing with Han," Padmé said. "How do we know you won't turn against Luke once he's inside the throne room?"
Mara opened her mouth to defend herself, but was interrupted by the noisy entrance of a large squadron of stormtroopers as they exited the lift and entered the detention area. Almost immediately, they started firing their weapons down the narrow corridor, forcing the Rebels to press against the walls for cover.
"Did you send for reinforcements, Jade?" Han snarled, blasting back at the troopers.
"In case you haven't noticed, they're shooting at me, too!"
"Then how would they have known we were here?"
"How in blazing stars would I know?" Mara shot back.
"They've blocked the exit." Luke squinted through the smoky haze. "Is there another way out?"
"This is a detention cell!" Mara yelled. "They don't make them with multiple exits. It kind of defeats the purpose."
"This is some rescue," Padmé said. "Didn't you have a plan for getting out?"
"Uh," Han stuttered, then pointed at Luke. "He's the brains."
"That goes without saying," Luke grumbled.
"Oh, kriff," Mara yelled, jerking Han's blaster from his grasp. She turned around and fired at a grate, then shoved the weapon back at an astonished Han. "Someone has to save our hides. Into the chute, flyboy." With those words, Mara jumped into the hole and disappeared.
Padmé shrugged and followed, and then Luke joined her, leaving only Han and Chewie in the dangerous corridor. "Go on!" Han yelled. "I'll be right behind you."
*But it stinks!*
"I don't care what you smell!" Han shouted. "Get in there.. now!"
Reluctantly, the Wookiee jumped, and Han flung himself down the tube after his partner.
Obi-Wan pressed against the curved wall as several stormtroopers hurried past, never noticing the Jedi Master. The alarms had sounded a few moments earlier, and Obi-Wan suspected that his young Padawan and the impetuous Corellian had done something to trigger the alert. He was still on course toward the main reactor, and Obi-Wan sincerely hoped that Anakin would be able to accomplish his part of the mission. If not, they would all end up perishing when the detonator blew the reactor. That would truly and completely spell the end of the Jedi for all time.
Leia staggered over to Vader. "That was your evil plan all along, wasn't it? You intended to bring us to your Master from the very beginning."
"Yes," Vader replied. "I did not intend to become injured, but it worked well to elicit sympathy from both Luke and Padmé. Your mother and brother underestimated the power of the dark side. It is not possible to turn away, once you take this path."
"How did you fool Master Kenobi?"
"I merely used the guilt he has felt for twenty years to cloud his judgment," Vader answered. "Sometimes, people want to see good in others so strongly, they can see nothing else."
Palpatine moved between Leia and Vader. "Your daughter finds me repulsive, Lord Vader. I have offered to take her as my lover, and she has turned me down. She is very powerful in the Force, and I would like her to bear my offspring. What do you think about that?"
For a long moment, Vader said nothing, only the sound of his respirator could be heard in the quiet room. Then he said, "She is being foolish. Having your child should be considered an honor."
Palpatine nodded, noting Leia's queasy expression. "So it shall… indeed."
"What a wonderful smell you've discovered!" Han shouted, holding his nose. "Great plan, Jade, leading us right into the garbage bin." He pointed his blaster at the door, ignoring Luke's warning not to fire. The blaster shot ricocheted around the room, forcing everyone to duck before finally petering out.
"Would you put that thing away?" Luke yelled. "You're going to get us killed!"
"We already tried shooting at the door," Padmé told Han, trying to stay calm.
"What was that?" Luke yelled, pointing at the debris floating around his knees.
"What was what?" Mara questioned.
"I thought I saw something…"
"It's just your imagination, kid," Han grumbled, right before Luke was pulled under by a giant tentacle.
"LUKE!" Padmé screamed, desperately searching the grimy water.
"Where did he go?" Han asked, trying to ignore Chewie's fearful howling.
"It's one of those blasted dianogas," Mara said. "We have to find him, before he drowns!"
"I'm trying!" Han said, helping with the search. "Luke? Luke? Where are you?"
Suddenly, Luke popped back up, gasping for air, a thick tentacle still wrapped around his waist. "Shoot it!"
"Shoot it?" Han asked worriedly. "Where am I supposed to aim?"
Luke was jerked back under the dark water.
*I HATE SNAKES!* Chewie shouted, trying to climb up onto the bent pipes and get away from the water. *Keep it away from me!*
"You're not being much help, Chewie," Han groused, pushing aside small floating objects. Han really didn't want to inspect those objects too closely, for fear of discovering what they actually were.
"My poor baby boy," Padmé cried. "It isn't fair… he's too young to die!"
"And too cute, too," Mara agreed.
"Well, I'm sure those are darn good reasons he'll be fine and dandy, then," Han grumbled in disgust.
And just as suddenly as the creature snatched him, Luke was released. Han quickly grabbed his arm, and pulled him to his feet.
"Apparently, those are good reasons," Mara said, smirking at Han.
"It suddenly let me go," Luke said, wiping the goop from his face. "I wonder why…"
"Maybe she decided you're not her type," Han commented with a straight face. No sooner had those words left Han's mouth than the room made a loud creaking noise. The Corellian craned his neck, looking up at the high ceiling. "I don't like the sound of this."
"The walls are moving!" Padmé said, eyes wide. "We're going to be crushed!"
"See?" Luke said accusingly toward Han. "I knew that Artoo could have come in handy. He could have found the right code, and stopped us from getting flattened. But no, you don't like droids. So here we are with no way out, and it's all your fault."
"MY FAULT!?" Han roared. "Coming down here was your girlfriend's idea, not mine!"
"He does have a point, Luke dear," Padmé said.
*Can we please stop bickering for a while?* Chewie moaned. *It's getting on my nerves.*
"Those nerves are about to get a lot thinner, pal," Han joked weakly, as he tried to boost Padmé up on top of some groaning metal boxes.
"Luke?" Mara asked calmly, watching everyone desperately scrambling to get further up on the garbage.
"Do you have your lightsaber on you?"
Luke pulled the tube from his belt, and looked somewhat embarrassed. "Oh. Yeah. I forgot about this."
Mara pointed toward the exit. "Turn it on, and drill right under the control panel. There should be an emergency device that will open the door."
"Should be?" Han questioned. "And what happens if there isn't one?"
"The old phrase 'chewing on old durasteel' will bring new meaning to you."
Luke pressed the blade against the panel, and sparks flew. To everyone's relief, the walls shuddered and stopped pressing inward, and the exit door hissed open.
The relieved gang let loose with a loud cheer, and hurried for the door.
Since they had left the helmets inside the detention area and could no longer pretend to be stormtroopers, Luke and Han quickly shed the remainder of their armor. Luke turned to his mother. "You, Han and Chewie head back to the Falcon." He whipped around to look at Mara. "Where did you dock it?"
"Level eighty-four, bay four-nine-nine-six."
"Did you get that?" Luke asked.
"Yes, Luke," Padmé said, struggling to keep the tears from flowing. "I can't bear the thought of losing Anakin and both of my children."
"I'm not going with Chewie and Padmé," Han stated stubbornly. "I love Leia, and I made a promise to Prince Bail that I'd protect her. Running back to the Falcon ain't protecting her."
"I know, I know!" Han interrupted. "I'm not a Jedi. But us ordinary folks can accomplish more than you think."
Luke gave a defeated sigh. "Do you think you can manage to refrain from shooting at everything until we have a chance to assess the situation?"
"Sure," Han said, grinning and slapping Luke on the back. "I'll be a model of forbearance."
The young Jedi handed Chewie one of the stormtrooper utility belts. "Take this. It might come in handy."
Padmé gave Luke a hug, and they moved off in separate directions.
"I sense much anger in you, Princess," Palpatine said in a silky voice. He turned and walked up the few steps to his chair and sat down. "Embrace that anger. It will make you powerful." He pulled out a silver tube from his sleeve, and placed it on the armrest. "Would you like to take my weapon?" He grinned. "Yes, I sense you would, indeed. Take it, child. Use it to strike me down."
Leia stood perfectly still, listening to Vader's artificial breathing directly behind her. "I won't become a Sith."
"Do you think she is telling us the truth, Lord Vader? Is she strong enough to resist temptation?"
"She has my temperament," Vader replied, placing his gloved hand on Leia's shoulder. "And her mother's beauty."
"Beauty is so very fleeting," Palpatine said, feigning sadness. "Would her Corellian lover desire her if her face were scarred and deformed?"
"Han loves me for who I am," Leia shot back hotly.
"Would you love him if he were scarred and deformed?" Palpatine questioned.
The evil Sith smiled. "We shall soon test that theory, for your Corellian is coming for you." Palpatine lifted the hilt of the lightsaber. "Lightsabers can cause a great deal of pain without killing the victim. It would be remiss of me as your teacher not to have Vader demonstrate this… on Solo."
"It will be my pleasure," Vader said.
Leia gave a snarl, and thrust out her arm, calling the weapon to her hand. She turned it on and spun around, driving the red-orange blade down at the man who had fathered her.
Padmé and Chewie started to head around a corner, but they quickly pulled back upon seeing a squadron of stormtroopers. "Did they see us?"
The clatter of quickening steps told them they'd been spotted. As Padmé started to run in the opposite direction, Chewie thrust his blaster around the corner and quickly fired off a dozen random shots. Then the Wookiee wasted no time in catching up to the former Senator.
"This way!" Padmé said, indicating a darker, narrower hallway that appeared to be used for maintenance. She hoped the troopers would continue down the main corridor, but from the distant sound of running it didn't appear they'd been fooled for very long. Leading the way, Padmé turned another corner, and skidded to a quick halt as the walkway ended in a long, long drop. Following close behind, Chewie crashed into her back, and the impact nearly sent her careening off the edge. Fortunately, the Wookiee's long arm shot out and looped around her waist, pulling her back to the safety of the walkway's short extension over the void. "That was close!"
Blaster fire sizzled perilously close to Chewie's head, and he let out a roar of surprise.
"Quick! Shut the blast door!" Padmé ordered.
Chewie raised his weapon and fired at the control panel, effectively shutting them off from the determined stormtroopers. Unfortunately, this left Chewie and Padmé perched on the narrow lip, with the closed door at their backs and the yawning abyss a few short feet in front of their toes. An open doorway sat twenty feet across the metal canyon, beckoning them.
"There should be a way to extend this walkway to that door," Padmé said, looking around.
Chewie let out a mournful howl, and pointed at the smoking remains of the control panel he'd just blasted apart. The edge of the door began to smoke as the stormtroopers worked to cut through, and Chewie's howl became more frantic.
"The utility belt!" Padmé pulled at the long, narrow cord, and pointed up toward a pipe. "Can you throw this end over that pipe?"
The Wookiee frowned in confusion, but quickly obeyed. Holding the other end of the cord, he looked at the human for further instructions.
Padmé jumped up, flinging her arms around the Wookiee's neck, and gave him a peck on his furry cheek. "That's for luck."
*Whatever you do, don't tell your husband you kissed me! *
"I'd be more worried about Anakin's reaction if you drop me."
Chewie's blue eyes widened with understanding, and taking a deep breath, he jumped off the edge and swung across the canyon to the safety of the other side.
Obi-Wan placed the thermal detonator along the bottom edge of the vibrating shaft of the reactor. He turned the timer, almost setting it for thirty minutes. At the last moment, he moved the timer to give them another fifteen minutes. Forty-five minutes. The clock started ticking down.
With that accomplished, he moved on to the second part of his assignment – disabling the tractor beam so they could escape the blast perimeter before the Imperials could pull them back inside.
Luke, Mara and Han had managed to walk past several squadrons of stormtroopers without being spotted. A third squadron had seen them, but the three had managed to run down a few hallways, and after blaster fire being exchanged, it became obvious they had shaken their pursuers.
"This is too easy," Mara complained.
"Easy?" Han asked. "You call this easy?"
"Why are those squadrons moving away from us every time we get close to them?" Mara questioned. "It's like they want us to make it to the throne room without any problems."
"That doesn't make any sense," Han argued.
"You don't know Palpatine like I do," Mara said.
Luke looked at Mara in concern. "You think he knows we're here?"
"Yes," Mara said curtly.
"This is a trap, and Leia's the bait?" Han prodded.
"That would be my guess," Mara replied. "Maybe we should head back to the Falcon, instead. At least then most of us will get off this Station alive."
"Leaving without Leia isn't an option," Han snapped.
Luke nodded in agreement. "You can head back to the Falcon, Mara."
"Are you kidding me?" Mara asked as they entered the private lift of the Emperor. Mara pressed in a code known only to a select few, and the lift started moving. "The two of you wouldn't survive two minutes of Palpatine's wrath without my help."
As the chamber slowed, Luke's fingers tightened around the handle of his trusty lightsaber. "Stay behind me, Han. And whatever you do, don't start shooting right away."
Han gave Luke his most innocent expression. "Who, me?"
The lift door opened, and for the second time in less than two weeks, Han saw the woman he loved locked in a battle for survival against the man that fathered her. This time, gashes bled across her face. Enraged, the Corellian didn't care what he had promised Luke - he squeezed off a shot at the Sith. Only this time it was Luke's lightsaber that saved Vader's life when Luke blocked his friend's shot.
The Imperial guards moved quickly to capture the three newcomers, and surrounded by wicked force-pikes, Mara, Luke and Han were pushed forward.
Furious, Han snapped at Luke. "What did you think you were doing? Can't you see he's still a bad guy? He was trying to kill Leia."
Moving out of the immediate range of Leia's usurped weapon, Vader said, "It's about time you got here, son." The man reached up, and tugged off his helmet, tossing it aside. "When I saw the danger Leia was in, I knew I could not take on the Emperor without your help."
Leia seemed stunned. "What? You just told me it was impossible to turn away from dark side!"
"It was a delay tactic," Anakin answered his daughter. "Palpatine was already aware of Luke's presence, and if I had not said those things he might not have survived the journey to the throne room."
Palpatine stood and started to slowly clap. "This has been such excellent entertainment, Lord Vader. Now that I have captured both of your children, they will soon be my servants, and I no longer have need for damaged merchandise." He narrowed his gaze at Anakin. "That would be you, Lord Vader."
"Do not call me Vader," Anakin said. "My name is Skywalker, and I am a Jedi. As are my children."
"Not for very long," Palpatine growled. "Jade, take the young Jedi's weapon, and the smuggler's blaster."
"Yes, Master," Mara said, quickly moving to take the lightsaber from Luke's grasp.
"Mara?" Luke said in disbelief. "You're not …?"
"Sorry, Skywalker," Mara snapped, not meeting his eyes. "Try not to take it too personally."
The Emperor turned his rummy eyes toward Leia, and held out his bony hand. "I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to return my lightsaber. Unless you'd like to see your lover die before your eyes." He gave a feral grin as his lightsaber jerked from Leia's grasp, and flew back to its owner. "That would be such a pity, wouldn't it, my dear? The Corellian dead, and never knowing about the child in your womb."
Obi-Wan glanced down at the long drop as he eased around the circular walkway. An insistent hum could be heard radiating from the enormous tube. This was certainly a strange and dangerous place to put a lever to disable the tractor beams. He located the projecting handle and tugged it downward. The humming noise faded until it was gone.
Part two of his mission was complete. He glanced at his wrist chrono, and noted how much time had elapsed since he'd set the timer on the detonator. Twelve minutes down, thirty-three to go.
It took a few seconds for the Emperor's words to sink in. "What?" Leia stuttered.
"Now, my child," Palpatine cooed. "I am only confirming what you suspect…there is a life growing within you. Think of the possibilities that a Force-strong newborn will offer me. This shell of mine grows old and weary. Oh, how I would like to inhabit a strong and handsome body."
Neither Luke nor Anakin could see the glitter of yellow ringing the Princess's eyes, yet both could sense her standing at the edge of the dark side precipice.
"That will happen over my dead body!" Anakin cried out, rushing forward to attack Palpatine.
The Ancient Sith was amazingly fast, and he ignited his own lighsaber and blocked Anakin's strikes. The Royal Guards trained their blasters on the older Skywalker's unguarded back, and fired. Luke could see Anakin stagger as a shot hit him in the general area where the post had impaled him less than two weeks earlier.
A moment later, Luke's lightsaber hummed to life. Mara Jade, the former Hand, sliced the weapon through the torsos of two Royal Guards, dropping them before the rest could comprehend what was happening. Han, still in possession of his blaster, dropped to one knee and fired, killing one more guard as two more swung their force-pikes over his head. Unfortunately for the guards, they managed to only strike each other, and they crumbled to the floor. Using the Force, Luke pushed the force-pikes downward, jerking the dangerous weapons from the guards' hands. The remaining five guards quickly scattered as they pulled blasters out from under their robes, and found cover where they could fire back at the Rebels.
"I knew I could trust you!" Luke shouted happily at Mara.
Grabbing the blaster off of a dead guard, Mara ducked behind a post and handed Luke back his weapon. "You're way too trusting, so I knew I couldn't let you down, Skywalker." She gave a quick jerk of her head toward the throne. "It looks like your father needs you."
"Leia!" Han shouted, seeing a guard take aim at the Princess. "Watch out!"
Leia threw herself to the floor as a blaster bolt sizzled over her head. Luke backflipped over his sister, and sliced off the guard's extended arm. The blaster clattered to the floor as the Imperial screamed in shock and pain. Then Leia used the Force and pulled the weapon toward her, making a disgusted face as the severed arm came along.
"They'll be more where these came from," Mara yelled out toward Han and Leia. "I'll cover this door, and you take the secondary lift door… over to the left!"
Between the deadly accuracy of Han, Mara and Leia's shooting, there were now only two Royal Guards left, but as the doors parted on the lifts, that number soon changed. Heedless of the blaster bolts, a wall of white troopers poured in from two directions.
Luke was now standing a few short feet in front of Palpatine. The young Jedi could see the pain in his father's eyes as the older Jedi struggled to remain standing. Gasping, Anakin dropped to his knees.
"Your father is weak, young Jedi," Palpatine taunted. "He's not like you… young and strong. Soon you and your sister will be my faithful servants."
"You'll have to kill me first," Luke replied. "But I doubt you have the ability."
Grinning, the Emperor responded, "Jade has betrayed my trust. She will die today, you know. Just like your sister's lover."
"You underestimate them. You underestimate me and my sister."
"Do I?" Palpatine said, looking past Luke at the raging fire-fight. "The end is approaching. There are now more stormtroopers than they can hold off."
Luke was unable to resist glancing back, just to check that his friends and sister were still alive. It was in that moment of weakness that the Emperor struck, but not with his lightsaber. Instead, Force-lightning flew from his fingers, and sent Luke stumbling down the steps as he writhed in pain. Unable to raise his arms, his lightsaber slipped from his fingers and rolled away.
"LUKE!" Leia screamed. "Cover me, Han!"
Han didn't have time to protest as Leia rushed over to her brother, so he did what he could by providing cover fire.
Seeing the Princess rushing to aid her fallen brother, Palpatine temporarily eased his lightning assault. "Perhaps I do not need both Skywalkers, if one will choose to serve me." He stroked his chin. "Would you like Solo to survive, Princess?" He pointed to Luke's lightsaber, lying a few feet away. "Strike down your brother, and I will allow Solo to live."
"You're insane," Leia spat out. "I would never choose one life above the other."
"How about your unborn child? Is he worth more to you than Solo or your brother?"
Having regained some strength, Luke pushed Leia behind him. He could tell his sister was still struggling against the dark side, and Palpatine was using every trick in the book to make her fury boil over, and it was up to him to pull her back toward the light side before it was too late. "You'll never understand the power of love, Palpatine," Luke said. "Right, sister?"
Leia blinked, the rage draining from her face. She suddenly realized how close she'd come to the edge. "Right, brother."
"Love is weakness. True strength lies in the dark side. That is something you will never understand, Skywalker," Palpatine hissed in rage. He raised his hands to once again start the lightning assault, but this time Anakin's blade intersected the blue bolts.
"Go help Jade and Solo deal with those stormtroopers," Anakin yelled at his children. Then the former Sith met the stare of the man he'd called Master for twenty years. "Having known both, I can speak from experience," Anakin said quietly. "Love trumps hate. Every time."
As Luke and Leia turned their attention to dispatching the stormtroopers, Palpatine snarled, and ignited his lightsaber. Both the Sith and the former apprentice locked themselves into a mighty battle.
Padmé and Chewie stopped by a window that overlooked docking bay four-nine-nine-six. The rusty old freighter sat below. "It seems to be undamaged," Padmé said. "If it's possible to tell the difference between 'damaged' and 'undamaged' when it comes to that ship."
Chewie gave a grunt, and shrugged his massive shoulders.
"I'm so concerned about my family I can barely think straight." Padmé said nervously. "I wonder where Obi-Wan is."
"Right here," an older male voice said from behind the pair. "Did you get separated from the rest?"
"Leia was being held inside the throne room," Padmé answered the Jedi. "Luke, Mara and Han went there to help Anakin."
"She's on our side," Padmé said. "I hope."
"How much time do we have until it blows?"
Obi-Wan glanced at his chrono. "Twenty-four minutes."
"This is going to be the longest twenty-four minutes of my life," Padmé said.
*Or the shortest,* Chewie woofed.
Luke could feel his father's increasing pain as he was forced by necessity to continue to aid Leia, Han and Mara against the endless waves of fresh stormtroopers. The only reason they were able to withstand the assault was that while the troopers were coming in a dozen at a time, they were forced to enter the room through two small lift entrances. During the rush forward, they were quite vulnerable, and there was also the problem of having to climb over a rapidly increasing mound of downed comrades.
Finally, Han managed to disable the secondary lift controls with a well-aimed shot. This left only one entrance where the stormtroopers could enter, and left the Rebels in a much better position to pick off the enemy.
Leaving his friends to the battle, Luke turned back in time to see Anakin get in a hard blow to the Emperor's right shoulder, and the Sith staggered backwards in shock as his arm fell to the floor. The Sith refused to let the injury prevent his escape, and he used his remaining limb to press a button on the armrest of his chair, and a section of the floor parted. Giving a last glare at Luke, Palpatine disappeared down into the circular hole.
Anakin had suffered a deep gash to his chest, as well, and was struggling for breath as he slowing sank to his knees. Luke bounded up the steps while holding his lightsaber up in a defensive stance as he looked warily at the spot where Palpatine had disappeared. He dropped to his knees by Anakin's side. "Father?"
"Do not let him escape," Anakin gasped. "He …" The older man started coughing, and blood trickled from his nose.
"I need to get you medical attention," Luke said, struggling to help his father up.
"It's too late," Anakin gasped. "Leave me, before you all perish."
"I'm not leaving you," Luke insisted stubbornly, feeling helpless as Anakin collapsed into his arms.
"We got good news and bad news, Kid," Han said as he, Leia and Mara hurried up the steps. "The good news is the Imps don't seem to be sending any more troopers up the last functioning lift."
"And the bad news," Leia continued to explain, "is that they've cut the power to that same lift. We don't have a way out of this room."
"Follow Palpatine," Anakin gasped. "He always … has… a way…"
Mara gave a quick nod. "Unless I miss my guess, those stairs will take us to a hanger, where the Emperor has a private shuttle."
"We need to hurry before more stormtroopers arrive," Leia prodded, tugging at Luke to stand. "This may be our only way off this station."
Luke nodded. "Mara, you and Leia go ahead, and stop Palpatine from taking off in his shuttle. Han and I will carry Father down the steps." He thrust his deactivated lightsaber at Leia, and took his father's lightsaber to hand to Mara.
Leia opened her mouth to argue, but Han interrupted, "We don't have time to discuss this in a committee, Princess." He gave her a quick kiss, and then pointed to the exit where Mara was already heading down. "Be careful."
As she hurried to follow, Leia glanced back. "Hurry up, or we might have to leave without you." She started down the stairs, then hesitated. "Han?"
"I love you."
"I know," Han replied, winking. Leia gave an exasperated groan, and Han watched until she was out of his sight before turning to help Luke with Anakin.
"'You know'?" Anakin repeated, his face contorted with pain as the two men hoisted him up. "What the kriff kind of answer was that? The woman you love is about to face-off with the galaxy's meanest Sith, and instead of saying 'I love you, too', you say 'I know'?"
Han chuckled nervously. "I'm not good at mushy things when I've got an audience."
"Solo," Anakin said tiredly as they moved toward the stairs, "the Force tells me that someday you will have to declare your love for Leia in front of millions."
"Tell your father to stop threatening me, kid," Han said worriedly. "It's being Sithly."
Luke grinned. "No, it's not. It's being fatherly."
Padmé, Obi-Wan and Chewie had managed to move down to the hanger level, and were waiting inside a small control room to hear from the rest of their group. They had decided against heading to the Falcon, since there were quite a few stormtroopers in the hanger, and they couldn't risk detection before everyone had arrived.
Padmé paced the room, unable to sit still for a second. She stared at the chrono on the wall. "Sixteen minutes… we only have sixteen minutes left." Padmé hurried over to Obi-Wan. "Can you tell if they're getting closer? Will they make it back?"
The old Jedi had already sensed Anakin's injury, and he knew it was serious. There would be no point in telling this to Padmé, since it would only serve to upset her even further. "It doesn't seem to me they are any closer to the hanger than they were when you asked me that a minute ago." He sighed. "We'll need to leave in this room in twelve minutes. That will barely give us enough time to make it to the ship, get it warmed up, and clear the explosion."
"I'm not leaving without my family."
"Padmé, there would be no purpose in staying behind to die."
"There would be no purpose in my life without my children and Anakin."
Chewie let out a mournful howl, and shook his head sadly.
Mara and Leia reached the bottom step of the spiral staircase just in time to see the Emperor start to head up the ramp of his shuttle. Mara fired off a shot, and the bolt struck Palpatine's ankle, causing the old man to fall and roll back down the ramp. He jumped up, surprisingly agile, and held up his lightsaber, watching as Leia lit up her weapon, and moved to his right while Mara shifted to the left, holding the elder Skywalker's lightsaber.
"My Hand," he snarled. "How I've overestimated your loyalty to me. In case you've forgotten, I'm the man that saved your life. I'm the man that raised you, and taught you everything I know. I'm the man that loved you like his own flesh and blood. A true, loving father."
"A father?" Mara said, laughing. "Since when does a father fry his child with Force-lightning, and then lock her up in a cell?"
The man shook his head. "I was angry at you, my lovely Hand. A good parent must discipline his child."
"Oh. In that case, I understand perfectly," Mara said saracastically. "How about I demonstrate to you what I've learned at your feet."
She attacked, slashing her blade high, while Leia rolled sideways, and thrust her blade low. Amazingly, the injured Sith was able to deflect both strikes, and backflipped away from their dual attack.
He spun around to face both women, snarling, "Even handicapped, the Force is stronger in me than both of you together." He whipped his head around to see Luke and Han struggling down the winding steps, while supporting Anakin. "How touching. The loyal Jedi son, trying to save the worthless life of the father who murdered hundreds of Force-strong younglings." He shook his head sadly as the men got closer. "Did you tell him that, Lord Vader? Did you tell your offspring how you took your lightsaber, and cut little children in half?"
"While he was under your control," Luke spat out. "Every evil he did was orchestrated and ordered by you, Palpatine."
Anakin struggled to speak. "Did… you tell Jade about how you ordered me to find Force-strong… infants for you to use?"
"You didn't just find me wandering the streets?" Mara asked, already knowing the answer. "My family was murdered…by you."
"Vader did the actual deed," Palpatine said, laughing. "Perhaps you should consider redirecting your outrage."
Furious, Mara struck again, and again the Sith was able to defend himself, even as Leia joined in. While the two women fought the Emperor, Luke and Han hurried up the ramp of the shuttle, and placed Anakin on the cot. While Luke fumbled through the drawers for medical supplies, Han rushed into the cockpit, and started up the ship.
They had the Emperor backed into a corner, and both women could see the increasing fatigue on the old man's face. It was only a matter of time before one of them got their weapon under his defense, and ended the fight. Unfortunately, time was not on their side, and they both knew it.
Glancing back over her shoulder, Leia shouted at Mara over the clash of lightsabers and the increasing noise of the engines, "It's time we left this party, don't you think?"
"Best idea I've heard all day."
Palpatine saw his opportunity to live. "Run away, traitor, with your new friends," he snapped. "But know that I will always be looking for you. Today you may escape, but tomorrow, victory will be mine."
Giving the Emperor a mock salute, Mara Jade hurried after Leia into the shuttle, leaving the Emperor behind.
Han slapped his comlink on, signaling his partner. They had agreed to maintain comlink silence unless there was an emergency, and Han considered this a proper emergency. "Chewie? Where are you?" He listened as his friend gave a series of barks. "Nine minutes!?" Well, get your furry butt onboard the Falcon this instant and take off!" Another concerned woof followed. "We've got our ride off, so don't worry about us. Oh, and hey! Make sure you don't get my ship all shot up on the way out, either."
Obi-Wan used the Force to confuse the stormtroopers, waiting until Chewie and Padmé were safely aboard the Millennium Falcon. Then he moved from the control room, intent on making it, as well.
"Going somewhere?" a cool voice questioned as he stepped out of the room and into the hanger.
"Governor Tarkin," Obi-Wan stated, recognizing the Imperial from a past meeting on Coruscant, while eyeing the blaster pointed at his chest. "It's been a long time."
"Not long enough."
"I would have to agree with you on that," Obi-Wan said, smiling pleasantly. "I never had a doubt you'd make it far in Palpatine's organization." He waved his hand. "You don't mind if I leave now, do you? I'm sure you have business to attend elsewhere."
Tarkin blinked, and gave his head a hard shake. "Don't try that on me, Kenobi. Move your hand away from that lightsaber. I've been around Vader long enough to know how all your parlor tricks work."
"Too bad. It would have been much easier."
"Easier?" Tarkin asked, a wicked grin splitting his gaunt face. "Easier than this?" His finger started to pull the trigger, but a laser blast from the Falcon enveloped the Imperial in a red haze, leaving only a smoldering hole in the deck.
The Jedi Master breathed a sigh of relief, and ran toward the Corellian freighter.
Both ships curved away from the Death Star, and hurried out of the range of the lasers from the approaching Star Destroyers. The Emperor watched in amusement from his duraglass viewport inside the Station's throne room. Run, you fools. There isn't anywhere in this galaxy that is safe from my wrath. You will all suffer before you d –
The Death Star blew into a million pieces, taking with it the Devastator and the Insidious, the metal fragments mingling forever with debris of Despayre.
Padmé sat holding her husband's hand. "This habit of yours of almost dying on me is very hard on my heart, you know."
"I'll try to be easier on your heart from now on," Anakin replied, smiling up from his hospital bed.
"Promises, promises," Padmé said, leaning over and kissing her husband's lips. "Thank you for coming back."
"Thank you for bringing me back," Anakin said, blinking back tears. "We both missed seeing our children grow into fine adults. I didn't plan on missing out on spoiling our grandchildren. Besides, I had to survive in order to make Solo's life miserable."
"You don't think Bail and his sisters are up to the task?"
"I'm sure they'll do a fine job, but some things require the expertise of an ex-Sith."
"I love you, Grandpa Anakin," Padmé said, teasingly.
"I love you more, Grandma Padmé."
"Leia is so happy about her wedding and the baby," Mara said to Luke, gazing around at the stunning scenery of the beautiful Organa palace gardens. "It's fun to be part of something nice for the first time in my life."
"This will be the first of many nice events," Luke told Mara. "Obi-Wan is excited to have you as another padawan."
"I truly appreciate being given the opportunity to redeem myself," Mara replied. She stopped walking, and smiled at Luke. "I do sometimes wonder, though."
"About how many Hands the Emperor really had," Mara replied.
"If any of them show up threatening us, we can handle them," Luke said confidently.
"Oh, I wasn't worried about that," Mara said. "I was more worried about if another red-headed Hand shows up, and steals you away from me."
"I wouldn't be concerned about that," Luke said dryly. "Last time I checked, I had reached my limit on falling for red-headed assassins."
"Good to know," Mara said, pulling Luke into her arms and kissing him.
Inside her bedroom, Leia thrust a thick stack of flimies at Han. "This is the list."
"Of my wedding guests," she replied, watching Han's expression become incredulous as he flipped through the sheets. "This list has been ready since I turned thirteen."
"Of course," Leia replied, shaking her head. "Royal Weddings take a lot of preparation. Everything has been organized for years. The only question mark was the groom."
Han rubbed his head. "Unbelievable."
She frowned up at Han, and asked, "Are you sure you want to marry me? You're not going through with this because of the baby, are you? Or Force forbid, because you're scared of Anakin?"
"For the hundredth time, I love you," Han said firmly, bending over and kissing her firmly on the lips. "Even if you weren't pregnant, I'd follow you around and beg every day for you to marry me. Eventually, you'd cave in just 'cuz I was so annoying."
"Flyboy," Leia said, smiling, "you'll always have a special talent for annoying me. Have you put together your guest list, yet?"
"Uh, yeah. Chewie."
"Chewie? That's it? One person?"
"Well, I guess I could invite this guy I know named Lando. He might come, if he's forgiven me yet."
"Forgiven you for what?" Leia waved her hand. "Never mind. I don't want to know the details. Anyway, our wedding is going to be holo-cast over the entire planet, so we're going to have millions of witnesses."
"I guess Anakin's vision is gonna be right after all," Han muttered under his breath. "Which father are you gonna have escort you up the aisle?"
Leia gave a radiant smile at her future husband. "Both of them."