A life-sized hologram of Darth Vader kneeled before the Emperor's throne in the Imperial Palace. He waited for his master's response. His thunderous respiration was the only sound in the vast chamber.
"I am disappointed, Lord Vader."
"As am I, my master."
"Young Skywalker has escaped and the rebels are undoubtedly regrouping. What do you propose we do now?"
Vader lifted his head slightly to look upon the Emperor. "Skywalker may be beyond my grasp at the moment, but I was able to tell him the truth of his heritage."
"Go on," the Emperor commanded.
"The knowledge will gnaw at him. Denial will turn to confusion. Confusion will become anger. He will want answers to his questions. And with Obi Wan gone, there is only one place to go for answers."
"Perhaps," the Emperor answered. "You believe you have planted a seed, then, Lord Vader?"
"Then we will wait for it to blossom. I have another task for you."
Vader's head came up fully so that his black mask faced the Emperor. "Should I not continue to pursue Skywalker?"
"I have not forgotten your failure at Hoth to crush the rebellion, nor your failure at Bespin to capture your son." The Emperor leaned forward. "If you now question the commands of your master as well, then I may find I have no need of your services."
Vader's gaze dropped back down to the deck. "Forgive me, my master. I await your command."
The Emperor eased back into his throne. "Good. I am convinced that Skywalker could not have progressed as far as he has without more help than a few sessions with the late Master Kenobi—lessons which are now several years past." He arose and walked over to the kneeling image of servant. "In your purge of the traitorous Jedi, one noteworthy master went unaccounted for. It is time to settle accounts."
"Begin a new search for Yoda. Work alone. And do not rest until he is found and destroyed."
"I will do so at once," Vader answered.
"How many admirals did we go through at Hoth?"
"Ozzel failed. I have promoted Piett to command the flagship."
"Very well. Order him to continue pursuit of the rebels. Let him handle all operations while you investigate the whereabouts of my very old, very small Jedi friend." The Emperor chuckled. He waived a dismissive hand and the image of Vader faded. He looked to the crimson-cloaked royal guards flanking the chamber's entrance. "Show her in," he commanded.
Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca huddled over a data pad at the Millennium Falcon's gaming table.
"Fact is, even if Slave I was stripped down to a flying gas canister, there's no way Fett can make it from Bespin to Tatooine without stopping to refuel at least twice."
Chewie gestured at the star map on the data pad and growled out a few possibilities. Lando hadn't been around a Wookiee in years, and he furrowed his brow as he struggled to translate. A moment later he had it.
"Well he definitely won't stop at Sullust. Too much sympathy for the Rebellion. Sluis Van is the only other major spaceport, so we should probably start there." Chewie disagreed. He relayed a story Han had told him about Boba Fett putting a concussion missile through the view port of a control tower that wouldn't grant him landing clearance. The Sluissi authorities had had Slave I on the shoot-on-sight list ever since.
"I hadn't heard that one. Guess he'll give Sluis Van a miss too, then. Let's see what that leaves us." Lando called up a list of all the smaller planets and spaceports in the vicinity and started weighing their pros and cons as only a fringe spacer could.
He looked up at Chewie and smiled. "I think I got him."
Princess Leia Organa stood at the observation window of the surgery ward. Inside, Luke Skywalker lay unconscious on a bio-bed. A Two-One-Bee medical droid stood with its back to Leia, and worked on reconstructing the nerves severed when Luke lost his right hand. Its body blocked Leia's view of the wound, which was undoubtedly a good thing. The human chief medical officer looked on, giving occasional instructions to the droid.
She didn't look away from the window. "Hello, Lando."
"I wanted to tell you that Chewie and I have a start point. We think Fett will stop to refuel at Tal Chora."
"Never heard of it." Leia's voice was devoid of emotion.
"It's an old asteroid mining complex that was turned into a gambling resort. It never took off, and now it's a haven for fringe types and scoundrels like myself." He put on his best smile and turned expectantly to Leia.
"Heading him off is a long shot, but it's on our way."
"The long shot estimate is optimistic. Go straight to Tatooine and begin infiltration of the palace like we discussed."
Lando bristled a bit, bit kept his sabaac face. He had been the top man at Cloud City for a long time, and it had been even longer since someone told him what to do and how to do it. At least until Vader had descended on him. But he knew that the princess had been through a lot, and obviously she couldn't quite conjure her finely tuned social graces.
He let out a long breath. "Leia, I can't just show up at the gate with a good blaster or climb in though a window. I need to create an identity that will get me hired by Jabba.
"We have those resources here."
"I need better. I need a forgery that will fool a forger."
"Do you remember Lobot?"
Leia's eyes narrowed. "You mean your aide? The one with the implant?
"He's a card counter. One hell of a shark. If he got off Cloud City, he'd hit Tal Chora to get a stake together to make a new start somewhere else. And nobody makes IDs like he can."
The Two-One-Bee retracted it's surgical arm and used its pincer hand to pull the white sheet back over Luke. The surgery was complete. Leia looked at his face and noticed that while his brow was slightly furrowed, his expression otherwise indicated that he was at peace. It almost looked as though he were in deep contemplation about something.
"Can the Falcon outrun Slave I?" Leia asked.
Lando sighed. "I don't know. The hyperdrive on the Falcon is the fastest I've ever heard of. But Boba Fett is a guy that spends every minute of every day working on more efficient ways to kill people. With all the bounties he takes down in a year, there's no way to know what modifications he could have made to his ship."
Leia rubbed her temples. "Luke should wake up soon. I want to talk it over with him. He should have a say in this."
"Leia, every minute we spend—
"We wait for Luke."
Boba Fett stood over the floating slab of carbonite that contained one Captain Han Solo. The muted overhead lights in Slave I's cargo hold cast a green tinge over the statuesque form, making it seem as though the smuggler was carved out of jadestone.
Han Solo. The highest bounty ever offered, not counting the Butcher of Montellian Serat. Ten million credits. Imperial.
Fett bent down so that his visor was almost touching Solo's frozen countenance. "I beat you, smuggler. I just wish I hadn't been forced to allow Vader's involvement. Men like us should be allowed to face off one-on-one. No Wookiees, no Sith lords, no rebellions or empires. Two men. Two ships." Fett straightened up. "But the galaxy had other plans for you, and now you're an ice cube that I'll exchange for the biggest payday in my life." He slapped the door release and stepped out into the main hold. He turned and looked back at Solo before sealing him in.
"It's going to be damn boring without you." The door slid shut.
Fett made his way back to the cockpit and sat down at the controls. The fuel gauge showed he'd already run down half his tank. He turned his chair to face the communications console and keyed a brief message to be broadcast over the holonet under heavy encryption.
My love, meet me at The Mistress of Staves in two days.
A young woman now bowed before the Emperor in nearly the exact some spot Vader's image had moments before.
"I am yours to command, master."
She wore a form-fitting grey jumpsuit with a dark green jacket that hit at the hip. A gunmetal lightsaber hung from the left side of her belt. Her chin length red-gold hair hung to either side of her face as she knelt. Her green eyes, brilliant in every sense, were focused on the marble floor.
"Welcome home, my dear. You were successful?"
"I delivered your message, master."
The Emperor smiled. "And there was no room for misinterpretation?"
"No, master. Although he was unable to make any reply."
He chuckled outright. "I should think not. Rise, child."
Mara Jade stood with perfect grace and took position near the throne. She looked out of the panoramic window at the Imperial Center skyline. The sun was setting and she could see the running lights of ships that passed through the shadows cast by the myriad skyscrapers.
The Emperor spoke. "Have you heard the saying, 'If you cannot defeat them, join them'?"
"I've heard it."
"Do you agree with it?"
"Absolutely not," she answered.
"Nor do I. It implies weak will, and a weaker mind. But I have come to believe in a variation of that flawed philosophy: If you cannot defeat them, convince them to join you."
Mara turned to look into the Emperor's pale yellow eyes. He watched her intently. She gave him a small smile and nodded.
"I am certain you know of the Luke Skywalker situation," he said.
"Do you have thoughts on the matter?"
"Speak your mind."
"The Empire has committed significant resources to capturing him. It's been four years since Yavin and we still don't have him. At the same time, the Empire continues to thrive and the Rebellion in is retreat."
"And what does that lead you to conclude?"
"I respectfully submit that Lord Vader is driven beyond reason in this matter, and that the operation is totally disproportionate to the threat that Skywalker poses."
The Emperor chuckled again. "Lord Vader is driven quite well beyond reason, there can be no doubt of that." His smile faded instantly. His eyes bored into Mara's. "But know this. The Skywalker problem cannot be overestimated. The resurgence of the Jedi could destroy everything we have built. Do you understand?"
The Emperor's face softened. "Good. Good." He stood up and made his way to stand alongside Mara and looked out at the horizon. "You recall my little saying. I have Lord Vader working on the joining portion. He will attempt to recruit Skywalker from the twisted rebellion to the side of order and justice."
He turned to face her. "I want you to work on the defeating portion."
Mara now turned to face him.
"Kill him," he said. "Kill Luke Skywalker."
"May I ask, my master, what of Lord Vader?"
"Lord Vader has his own mission to see to. One that may carry him well away from Skywalker. Or perhaps right to him. I any event, I expect you carry out your mission in full. If Vader interferes… I leave the details to you."
To be continued...