Six months without updates. Urgh. I'm not dead, RL just kept me busy and the muse went AWOL.

Special thanks go to Virodeil, who poked and pleaded for months to get a new chapter and finally went above and beyond the call of duty to work out the kinks.

Gen Madine cut off the discussion soon after, to avoid speculation based on too little fact.

More information was not to be had until they reached Coruscant, however, a destination the Valiant was already making for at full speed, and so further conclusions would have to wait, too.

The young Jedi tried to tell himself that the calm reasoning was a good sign, that whatever deductions the intelligence chief had made, he was not confrontational about them, and anything else could be sorted out once they'd safely reached the capital – and talking distance to Luke's father. A few hours travel would probably help to calm things down, even.

He really should have known better.

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Stressed metal groaned in counterpoint to the shriek of sirens when the Valiant was abruptly wrenched out of hyperspace.

While realspace physics reasserted themselves with a vengeance, the young Jedi used the barest flash of forewarning the Force had given him to keep on his feet until the floor settled, one hand fisted into his sister's sleeve to keep her upright, too.

Several decks beneath him, the Rogues and Sabers would be racing for their fighters, and Luke had to clamp down hard on the urge to follow suit. For now, he was more useful staying on the Bridge and taking stock of the situation, starting with a quick look into the navigation data.

About an hour out from Coruscant – calling for help might be a possibility, should it come to that ….

Under Cpt Unak's steady stream of orders, the tactical screens came up before the Valiant's reentry speed was fully shed, and the young Jedi found a pair of stardestroyers lying in wait for them, one Victory, one Interdictor.

Unfavorable odds for a single light Alliance cruiser, but hardly impossible ones, in Luke's experience. Especially, since the opposite commander seemed to be a bit slow: the Imperials' shields were up but they had yet to react, by gun or fightercraft, to the precipitous bounty their grav net had dragged in.

"Captain, we are being hailed," a tense comm officer called out, drawing the young Jedi from his appraisal.

Bulbous eyes turned towards Leia and the princess nodded sharply. "If they want to talk, let us hear what they have to say."

Even in blue see-through, the Imperial who introduced himself as, "Captain Corwell, of the ISD Tenacious," looked genuinely apologetic.

"I apologize for the rude welcome, Your Highness," the man said, "but Lord Vader is asking you to avoid the outer reaches of the Coruscant system. There is something there that makes both sensors and communications unreliable, and he cannot guaranty that it will be removed by the time you arrive."

"I see," Leia gave back, tone civil enough to convey 'won't shoot the messenger.' "Do you have any more specific information, Captain? That would help to avoid … whatever it is."

The man was all too happy to share what little data he had – having netted them probably meant fulfilling an impossible-looking order from the Sithlord, Luke assumed.

"I wonder how Vader knew where to station his ... forewarnings," Adm Ackbar mused aloud, echoing the young Jedi's thoughts. Before the latter could figure out a non-incriminating response, though, Han snorted.

"Same way Antilles knew where the Grand would stage his fleet," the Corellian drawled. "If you know where people are and where they want to be, and if they don't have reasons to take the scenic route, common sense can tell you the general course. When you know their ship, too – and after that piggy-back, I'll bet you sun-stones to sun-beetles that Vader has this ship scanned to the blueprints – any decent navcomputer can give you the specifics.

Not that you need to be that specific if you have a handful of Interdictors to throw around ….," he added as an afterthought.

Ackbar still looked unconvinced, but Madine defused the nascent argument by setting both Mon Calamari admiral and ex-smuggler-turned-general to the task of plotting a new route for the final leg to Coruscant.

One that would be simultaneously time-efficient, too circumspect to be easily guessed by anyone, and leading to the center of the star system without touching the fringes first. A challenge that, unsurprisingly, distracted both of them.

And then the ex-commando led Leia aside so smoothly that it took Luke's awareness of his sister's Force presence to catch their retreat. The young Jedi quickly slipped after them.

He found the two Alliance leaders in front of a screen displaying the edge of the Coruscant system, overlain by the newly transferred data. Mass shadows, massive ones, were the first thing to catch Luke's eye, too fast and regular in arrangement to be just some stray asteroids.

Passive drifters who'd jumped in beyond the range of the sensor arrays, his inner pilot put forward, followed by a more exotic, or did someone find a way to cloak their ships' energy outputs?

"Those readings cannot be real, can they?" Leia questioned.

Madine shook his head.

"Too massive," he opinioned. "I can't be certain, but I daresay Lord Vader has a good idea where most Imperial – and even Alliance – ships are at present. Someone would have had to rediscover the lost Katana fleet to bring in so much unaccounted for tonnage."

A pregnant pause. "He must have known it wasn't real."

The princess nodded grimly. "Vader went for the distraction willingly, to see what would crawl from the woodwork once his back was turned."

"Indeed. The question is, do you want to call him out on it, Your Highness? How he deals with the mess left behind by Palpatine could be considered an internal Imperial affair, and therefore not subject to the treaty. Nor would it be in the Alliance's interest to meddle with such things …." The intelligence chief trailed off suggestively.

"When a loss of civilian lives is deliberately accepted, it goes against the principles the Alliance stands for, if perhaps not the letters of the treaty," Leia threw back sharply, but then grimaced. "Not that we could declare breach of contract without consulting Borsk Fey'lya first, at least."

Madine shook his head. "No, Your Highness. This has to be your decision and yours alone. For reasons known only to himself, Lord Vader has decided to make peace with you – the Alliance was merely included by default, as that is your current affiliation."

Leia opened her mouth to argue, then closed it and schooled her features into the princessly mask (as her brother would have put it).

"I will need to remind him that I am not about to become an Empress in all but name, then," she said coolly. "But meanwhile, what facts do you have for me to base my decision on, General?"

Said general smiled without humor. "Not nearly enough. We both know that looks can be deceiving and who knows what motivated Jixton to send us what he did. What I do know is this: ground battles on Coruscant are notoriously costly. And while we still do not know for certain what kept the home defense fleet inert, the most logical conclusion is that Palpatine took precautions for a time when power in the galaxy would shift in a way he didn't like."

The princess went still for a moment, then gestured for the older man to continue.

"I had my suspicions when Palace security was compromised," the intelligence chief stated bluntly. "But the apparent ease of a Force-sensitive gaining access into one of the best secured places in the galaxy had me second-guess myself."

A glance aside at the resident Force-user. "The Jedi of old knew that mystique is half the battle – if people are flummoxed enough by the 'how?!', it distracts them from the specifics of the 'what'. Apparently, it works for any side of the Force."

Without giving Luke a chance to react, Madine went on, "One does not simply walk into a ship in orbit, however, let alone several ones; and while I expect some mental overrides to be useful on that front, too, the advantage is less overwhelming and therefore less distracting."

"A kill-switch," Leia cut in. She had been listening with a growing frown, but now she had jumped to a conclusion that left her livid. "You are saying Palpatine had a kill-switch installed in his own Palace security and his own fleet to make sure they couldn't be used against him?!"

The ex-commando blinked but rallied quickly.

"If there was an easy way to remotely disable a stardestroyer, we would have found it and utilized it already," he pointed out pragmatically, "and disabling the surveillance grid of the Imperial Palace should be impossible by design."

Madine let his words sink in for a moment. "Any override code which accomplishes that would have to access a backdoor right into the core programming of the ship, or the surveillance system, respectively. Which makes me wonder if such a backdoor was not implemented intentionally."

"Half a kill-switch then, that needs a specific primer. I suppose that's marginally better," the Alderaani growled. "But core programming implies something literally built into the ship; and since the home defense fleet had ships rotate in and out over the years …. You mean every Imperial warship comes with the presetting of 'dead-in-space at the Emperor's whim'? Even Vader's?!"

"Especially Vader's," the intelligence chief countered calmly. "He posed the most credible threat of a coup, after all. And something nearly did take out his flagship at Endor, before any Alliance ships were within range."

Luke opened his mouth and shut it. He could hardly point out that this specific core programming was very difficult to manipulate – being more of a core personality – without admitting that the coup part was spot-on.

"I see," was all Leia said to that. Given her earlier leap of intuition and years of experience with Imperial (Center) politics, that sounded ominous to her brother despite the neutral tone.

On hindsight, it might have also been the reason why, a good hour later, Gen Madine accepted his explicit invitation to accompany the princess to the Palace impassively. The man probably wanted to observe the fireworks firsthand.

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A Mon Calamari cruiser could not sneak as the Falcon could – and Leia, Ackbar and Madine had nixed Han's suggestion to nonchalantly fly his ship into the Imperial Palace[1] – but the MC-40's hyperspace capabilities let them fly circles around most other warships, including angles of approach defined as impossible by the Imperial handbook.

Cpt Unak wasn't about to subject his ship to atmospheric braking if he could help it, but he did hit the exact edge of Coruscant's gravity well for reentry, and went as close to cat-ate-canary smug as his physiognomy would allow at the sight of half of Death Squadron's scrambles at their unexpected entrance. Han and Ackbar wore rather similar expressions.

The satisfaction held until they got a better look at the scene beyond the city-planet.

The Lady, battle-scarred but looking all the more deadly for it, had returned to her place above the palace, if in a wider orbit than before.

Still further out, her sister ship was crawling with tugs and salvage crews – not working to restore her, but slowly tearing the defeated giant apart.

The Tatooine-native-turned-rebel was no stranger to scavenging for parts, especially when a less damaged vessel of the same type had an acute need for replacements – and Luke wasn't sure if the gigantic ship wasn't too large to be moved in one piece, while unpowered, either – but still …. The half-cannibalized super star destroyer sent an eerie shiver down his spine.

"Nine hells," Han said somberly, "but isn't that a sorry sight."

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Leia might regard half-dismantled ships dispassionately, but during the descent through the atmosphere her mood blackened, too: smoke was still rising beside the Manarais. No longer in great billows, but a black haze wreathed the flank of the mountains, testament of the deeper levels of the city-planet smoldering beyond reach.

She barely nodded at Gen Ashen at the landing pad, and set a pace that left both honor guard and Alliance deputation in an undignified rush to keep up with her. On arrival in the meeting room – smaller than the last one, but then again, only the Sithlord awaited them – she skipped all pleasantries.

"How many? How many lives lost in that gamble you used to draw out the less impetuous of your opposition?" were her first words for Lord Vader.

"A little over half a million, at present count. About two thirds of those on the ground," the mechanic baritone gave back evenly.

A few hundred thousand deaths on the ground despite the evacuation is a high toll – except, on Coruscant such numbers were probably swallowed by the daily fluctuations, Luke realized.

"The number could have been much higher," his father argued, too – if from a different angle, as the young Jedi found out with his next sentence. "It is one of the definitions of the stardestroyer class that the energy output of their weapons can reduce a planetary surface to molten rock. A super star destroyer has more than 300 times that power – and that is only a fraction, if a substantial one, of the overall output of the main reactors."

A minimal pause. "Captain Solo might have come unexpectedly close to the truth when he mentioned a breach through the planetary crust as a potential outcome, had the Lusankya's reactors been run to full power and then self-destruct while still buried."

Han didn't look as if he felt like preening at the unanticipated acknowledgement.

"Lusankya, that was the big thing's name?" he asked instead, voice and face grim. "And I guess that last third was her crew?"

"Partially. There was only a skeleton crew aboard and about half of them survived. But the Golan stations were manned, too, and so were all the other ships caught up in the escape attempt."

A pause, just long enough for the mechanized hiss of the ventilator – or black flames curling around a pale flame roused at the callous waste of lives. "All stardestroyers that remained in close orbit suffered a catastrophic malfunction of their life-support systems shortly before the Lusankya started her ascent. On average, they lost nearly ninety percent of their complement."

Another hiss. "Nevertheless, the very disregard for collateral damages these people have demonstrated, should be argument enough that forcing their hand while still trapped on-planet would have turned out worse."

"Ground battles on Coruscant are notoriously costly," the princess conceded. She took a deep, steadying breath before asking, almost neutrally, "What do you have planned for the survivors of the Lusankya?"

"I had hopes that you – or more generally speaking, the Alliance – would take some of them off my hands," was the unexpected answer.

And why, why does Father suddenly feel so pleased?!

"An exchange of prisoners is part of our agreement, after all, and it appears that Isard found a use for ... well-buried, 'inexistent' spaces." That, the Sithlord was not pleased about.

A sharp gesture opened a sidedoor to the room and Leia, who had gone from taken aback at the proposal to scowling at Iceheart's mention, suddenly smiled with wonder.

She was across the room and hugging the white-haired man before Luke could match the gaunt but rapidly brightening face to anyone known. Gen Madine, on the other hand, had never even met the man – as far as the young Jedi knew – but was much better at that kind of match-up.

"General Dodonna," he said softly, voice going from amazement to calculating. "A dead man returned – that is quite the conciliatory gift."

"An interesting conclusion, General," the vocoder intoned, "but that is your specialty, isn't it? Your prediction of a wide-spread scheme speaks for itself."

That sounded like half a compliment and half a threat, in Luke's ears. The way the ex-commando shifted his weight, Madine heard something similar.

"Just doing my job, Lord Vader," he deferred.

"And doing it well." The black helmet shifted, considering. "There is someone I feel you will find interesting to meet."

A/N: I do not trust the crew numbers Wookiepedia gives for Victory/Imperial-class stardestroyers; for one, it makes the Executor-class about 300 times as large as an Imperial-class destroyer (mass/volume, not length ;) but gives the Lady less than ten times the crew. Secondly, it lists one officer for every three enlisted crewmen, which strikes me as a ridiculous rate, even in an organization as top-heavy as the Empire. A crew complement of 10 000 (including 500-700 officers) looks about right to me, still an order of magnitude above the number a scaled-down Executor-class would have, but sheer size enforces A LOT of automatization on the latter, or you'll never get anything done across those endless in-ship distances. That would make it not three or four stardestroyers knocked out over Coruscant but about a dozen – a much more fitting number to protect the capital of the galaxy in disquiet times.

Edit 20170709: The casualty numbers more in detail: a dozen stardestroyers with a ninety percent death rate for a crew of 10 000: about 110 000 dead; the minimum crew for the Executor-class is given as 50 000, half of which survived on the Lusankya: 25 000 dead. Troops: about 2000 per stardestroyer (90 % losses) and another 20 000 (50 % survivors) for the Lusankya (as a prison, she's heavier on the soldiers-to-crew ratio): about 30 000 dead. Golans and possibly other small ships destroyed as collateral damage in the ascent: another 5000 dead. Sum total: 170 000 dead or about a third of a little over half a million ….

A/N2: That's Ch. 32, where Luke considers the scale of the palace door, should you like to refresh your memory … ;)

[1] Just as well, Luke thought, who couldn't shake the suspicion that the Corellian pilot had appraised the oversized palace doors on the same scale as the young Jedi had, and wasn't talking about heading for the nearest courtyard or landing pad but a more literal 'into'.