Due to many requests, I am reposting this story. To all big Vader fans - DO NOT READ THIS! Point your mouse at the 'back' arrow button, click on it, and go find another story. Do this now, before it's too late....
You aren't listening to me! Why are you still reading?
The Experiment, Part II, AU/ROTJ
Mara Jade had not gone directly to Coruscant after stealing the rebel's fighter, but made a wide loop in the darkness of space while thinking. She had never felt so uncertain of anything in her life. She needed to warn Palpatine about Solo, but returning without Skywalker would be considered a failure. Mara also wasn't certain she wanted to betray the rebellion. Finally, the need to obey her Master won out. Jade was leaving the docking area, walking resolutely toward the Imperial Palace, ignoring the small voice in the back of her mind, begging her to save Luke.
"Where is my son?" Vader said, as he stepped out from behind the shadows.
It took all of Jade's self-control not to jump at the unexpected appearance of the Sith. "He's still on the rebel base. I imagine by now, the Rebels have evacuated."
"Did Solo fail to kill the leadership?"
Jade hesitated. She should be reporting to Palpatine, not Vader. "He was partially successful. The rebels stopped him before he could finish the job." Considering Solo's plans about becoming the next Emperor, the rebels stopping him probably was a good thing, but Mara did not say it aloud.
"I see," Vader hissed. "So he will be coming back here." It was not a question. But it still took Jade by surprise. Had he read her mind?
"Why would he come back here? Either the Rebels will execute him for his crimes, or if he remembers who he is, he will no longer desire to serve the Emperor."
"Are you so certain of that?" Vader asked. "His need for revenge will drive him to destroy us all. Even if he has regained his memories, once the dark side retakes his soul, he will once again wish to claim the throne."
So he knows about Solo's desires. "Luke doesn't think that will happen. He thinks his sis.." Mara stopped herself, but it was too late.
"What? What did you just start to say?" Vader grabbed Jade by her shoulders, shaking the woman and reaching into her mind. "Sister? Luke has a twin sister?" He turned his helmeted face away from the red-head. "Who is my daughter?"
Vader let go of Jade, thinking about the young woman he had tortured on the Death Star. The one that reminded him so strongly of Padme. Had he made a fatal mistake? Would she be able to forgive him, and accept him as her father? Would she accept her position as the future Empress of the galaxy? This was something Vader would need to deal with, and very soon. "This changes everything," Vader said, almost to himself.
"What does it change?" Jade said, shaken at Vader's ability to reach into her thoughts. "You'll just have a three-way split on the throne, instead of a two-way split? It's not going to happen.... Palpatine has other plans."
"Really? You mean like his plans to breed you to Solo?"
Mara stepped back "You're lying..."
"I'm not lying. Whatever plans the Emperor had for me or my son, you can believe he had just as devious plans for you, Jade."
Mara Jade felt very ill.
The Millennium Falcon, en route to Coruscant
Princess Leia sat silently watching as Han and Chewie worked to repair the alterations that had been done to their ship after Hoth. Neither the Wookiee nor Han spoke - they just worked together as the team they always had been, with Chewie handing Solo tools as Han labored away deep inside the bowels of his ship.
In the days since regaining his memory, and then subsequently learning of his "death sentence," Han had been very subdued. Leia could tell he was not as concerned about his own health, but far more worried and riddled with guilt over killing or injuring so many of the Rebel leaders. No amount of reassurances by his friends had eased his anguish. She watched as Han pulled himself free of the tight confines, handing Chewie a hydrospanner.
"I think that's about the last of those cruddy modifications," Han grunted. "I can't believe they did so much damage to her in those few months."
"How are you feeling?" Leia asked, truly concerned about the circles under his eyes.
"Do you have to ask me that every timepart?" Han snapped without thinking. Immediately, a look of despair swept across his face. "I didn't mean that..."
"Han, it's alright," Leia said quickly. "You just look tired."
"I have a hard time sleeping," he admitted, looking at the floor. Han stood up, and brushed some dirt from his shirt. Leia was relieved when he'd started dressing in his white shirt with vest and the slacks with the bloodstripe. He looked like himself again, and Leia wondered where his lightsaber had gone, but she hadn't questioned Solo about its disappearance. "I think I'll go clean up," he said after a moment. "Maybe try and take a nap."
*I think that's a good idea, cub. You need the rest before we arrive on Coruscant.*
Han nodded, his head hanging down as he left the hold and headed back to his small room. He passed Luke in the hallway, looking up and giving the young Jedi a forced smile. "If you want to make some food, the supplies are pretty well stocked," Han said, trying to make some conversation. Luke had been quiet and depressed since Mara Jade left Sullust. It was only after regaining his memory that Solo came to realize Luke had fallen for the pretty assassin, and that worried Solo. But who am I to talk? Leia is his sister, and she keeps saying she loves me, even after I tried killing Luke...after I cut off his hand. I have no right to issue warnings to Luke or anyone.
"Don't you think Leia can prepare the food?" Luke said, returning Solo's smile. The young Jedi knew how deeply Han was blaming himself for everything. The remorse coming from the Corellian was almost overwhelming at times. It wasn't healthy for Solo to feel that way, and Luke worried about Han turning back to the dark side. Luke wished he had time to take Han to Yoda. Maybe the wise Jedi could help him, physically and mentally.
"Hey, it's your stomach, kid." Han started to leave, but Luke caught his arm.
"You didn't throw the lightsaber away, did you?"
"Not yet. I was gonna toss it down to the bottom of Coruscant once we got there," Han admitted.
"You might need it, when we face Palpatine and my.... father."
Han could easily sense the intense guilt that swept over Luke. "What your father did to me wasn't your fault, Luke. I'd never blame you, or Leia, for something like that. Can't you tell I'm not lying, through the Force? It's not like I'm shielding anymore, from either of you."
"I sense self-loathing and self-blame coming from you, Han. All the same things I'm feeling about myself."
"I guess we both need to work on those issues, huh?" Solo teased his friend.
"I'd like to practice lightsaber techniques with you," Luke said, unexpectedly. "You were taught by Vader, and I was taught by Yoda. Maybe we could teach each other some things. It might help us survive the upcoming fight."
Solo fought back the urge to say no. "I....I'm not sure what I could teach you."
"You held three of us off, Han," Leia said, coming up behind the men. "I know I'd like to practice with you, too."
"I'd rather practice other things with you, Princess," Han said, winking at Leia and trying to veer the subject away from lightsabers.
Luke cleared his throat loudly. "Her brother is standing right here, Solo. Just in case you've forgotten."
Han laughed. "Oh... okay. We'll practice with the lightsabers - after I take a nap." He grinned at Leia. "Sure you don't want to practice napping with me?"
Both twins used the Force and gave Solo a push toward his cabin. It felt good to have the Corellian fairly back to normal.
Darkness. Dripping tubes hanging from the high ceiling. The smell of sweat and acid smoke lingering in the air. Tiny black snakes writhing at his feet, thin red tongues licking out at his boots. He ignited his lightsaber, and made his way past rows of cell doors. A charged force-field allowed him to see into the cells where the inmates lay on the floor or hung from the ceilings by chains, their bodies twisted and broken. Some of them were moaning - still alive. Most of them were dead. He continued past the cells, until the corridor faded away and changed into a large room with steps leading up to a throne that was facing out to the night sky. Slowly the chair turned, and Palpatine's face leered out from beneath the cowl at him.
"You are a failure and a traitor." Palpatine stood up and turned on a red lightsaber. "You could have been second in command of the galaxy, but now you will die for your crimes. You are no more than a petty beggar, a worthless slave who thinks he's better than what he is. A man with no past and no future. You are nothing."
"NOOO!!" he yelled, and attacked the Emperor. His reflection in the window showed a man dressed all in black, a helmet covering his face.
Han's eyes snapped open, his heart pounding. How many times am I gonna have this same nightmare? Why do I keep seeing myself as Vader? Deep inside, it was Han's biggest fear - maybe the only way to save his life would be to wear the type of armor Vader wore. Would he do that, just to live? No. Never.
A soft rap sounded on his cabin door. Reaching out, Han sensed Leia was there, feeling worried and unsure of how he'd react to her presence. "It's not locked," Han called out, his voice cracking. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the cot.
Leia stepped inside, holding out a glass of water. "Would you like a drink?"
Nodding, Han reached for the glass and took a swig, the cool liquid helping his dry mouth and throat. "Thanks."
"Can I sit down?"
"Sure. I promise I won't bite. Unless you want me to," Han said, grinning and forcing himself to act as normally as possible.
The Princess gave a quick smile and sat down. She started to reach for his hand, then stopped herself, not wanting to make him upset with her constant need to reassure him. Leia was pleased when Han took her hand in his, gently squeezing her fingers. "I don't mean to yell at you," Han started to explain carefully. "It's just... it's just I'm having such a hard time with all of this." This being Force-strong, dying... he thought morosely.
"You didn't sleep very long," she pointed out. "Do you want to talk about these nightmares?" If he said 'no', she wouldn't press him.
"I... keep dreaming I'm in the prison torture chamber, then all of a sudden I'm in Palpatine's throne room," Han replied, looking down at the floor. Leia said nothing, just waited for him to continue. Eventually he started again. "He's there, Palpatine.... telling me I'm a failure, that I'm worthless.... I feel such hatred for that monster, that I attack him with my.... a lightsaber. Then I see my reflection in the window, and I'm dressed exactly like Vader. Mask and all."
"That sounds bad," she agreed, suppressing a shudder. "But I think it's pretty understandable. Your subconscious keeps comparing yourself to... him." Leia could not bring herself to say 'father'. "In time, the nightmares will stop, I promise."
"Because I'll be dead?"
"Don't say that!" she snapped, pulling her hand away and standing up. "Don't you dare give up before we even have a chance to try. You don't have my permission to die!" She spun away, and wrapped her arms tightly around herself, shutting her eyes to keep from crying.
"Permission?" He chuckled, then stood up and put his arms around her from behind. "I love you, Leia. When I said that before...I wasn't myself. I only said it because I wanted you to believe me, not because I felt love. I wasn't capable of feeling love. But I can feel it now, and I love you," he repeated, pressing his lips to the top of her head. "I just don't understand how you can love me, after everything. I don't deserve your love. What if I'm not just having nightmares? What if I'm seeing the future? Didn't you see me as a Dark Jedi, and just tried convincing yourself it was nothing more than a nightmare?"
"That was different - I wasn't asleep." She turned to face him, wrapping her own arms around his waist. "I can sense the pain of what you suffered through. I know you, and I know the real Han Solo is a good man, not an evil monster. Don't think you don't deserve happiness, Han. Don't believe those nightmares."
Han reached down and tenderly kissed Leia, still wondering how he deserved her love.
"What did the Emperor tell you about Luke?" Vader hissed at Jade, who was quietly following the Dark Lord through the vast corridors of the Imperial compound.
She hesitated for a moment before deciding to tell him. What did it matter, if he could just violate her private thoughts and find out anyway? "First he planned to order Solo to kill you, then use Luke to dispose of Solo. Then he intended to take over Luke's body."
"Palpatine has gone insane," Vader said simply. "Creating a Force-user stronger than all of us was a huge mistake."
"Tell me about it," she said with a snort. "Solo is insane, too. And more dangerous."
"If my children have somehow reached through to Solo, allowed him to regain his sanity, that will be to our advantage - at least temporarily."
"He will be struggling against the pull of the dark side when he first arrives. That will be when he is at his weakest." I know this, for I experienced the conflict myself. Vader continued speaking, "We must strike him down before he returns to the dark side, before his powers fully return. Then we can all dispose of Palpatine."
"All? Who is all?"
"My children and myself, of course. And you, if you choose to join us, instead of blindly serving the Emperor."
"Don't you think they might be a little bit irritated at you if you kill their friend?"
"Then we must convince them it was necessary. Solo would have killed them once he fell back to the dark side," Vader replied easily.
"Well, good luck with that one. I tried to tell them he was dangerous and unstable and all they did was talk about saving him from the dark side. Even after he - " Mara stopped.
"After he what?" Vader pressed.
"He fought them, and cut off Luke's hand."
"And Luke forgave him of that?" Vader asked, incredulous.
"There was no need to forgive, because Luke never got mad, he never blamed Han. I think Luke considers Han his older brother, and Leia.... Leia loves him."
"My daughter. In love with a common smuggler."
"Yes. She is."
"And you are in love with Luke."
Mara backed up, staring at Vader, her eyes wide. "I.....I'm..." I am in love with Luke! Why didn't I see this myself? The simply truth of Vader's statement shocked her.
Vader walked to a viewing window and looked out over the hover-traffic. "Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. If Solo feels strongly about my daughter, perhaps I won't have to kill him - if I can control him. The Skywalker dynasty will rule the galaxy for thousands of generations, if I play this sabacc hand carefully." And my daughter will forgive me for everything I've done in the past, if I allow her to keep Solo.
"Will Solo allow you to control him? After all the torture you inflicted on him?"
"If he loves my daughter, he will see reason. Or he will die. The choice will be his."
"You did promise you'd practice lightsaber techniques with us," Luke said as he watched Han poke around with the control panel.
Han sighed, his shoulders sagging in defeat. Standing up, he went to a panel, and pressed a button. A small drawer slid out. Solo stared down at the silver hilt of the lightsaber, reluctant to touch the weapon.
"It doesn't control you, Han," Luke said quietly as he came up behind his friend. "No more than the dark side controls you. You're stronger than it is." When Solo still did not reach for the saber, Luke picked it up and turned it on. The amber shaft hummed strongly. "It's actually a nice lightsaber. Do you know who built it?"
"I haven't a clue, kid. Vader just handed it to me one day and told me it was mine. He told me I built it, but that was just another lie in a long string of lies."
"It is pretty," Leia agreed with her brother as she sat next to Chewie at the game table. "It looks like glowing honey."
"Pretty," Han commented flatly. "I killed Madine with it. I almost killed you with it."
"No." Luke shook his head in disagreement. "Palpatine killed Madine, and the others. He just used your body to do it." The Jedi turned off the lightsaber and pushed the handle at Solo. "Take it, and let's practice. I really think it's important."
"Oh, fine. I still don't think it's nearly as good as a blaster."
Luke laughed and walked to the other side of the room, pulling his own saber from his waist and turning on the blue blade. He watched carefully as Solo turned on his own lightsaber and took up a defensive stance. Luke struck the Corellian's saber, and Han parried the blow easily. Both men cautiously attacked, then withdrew and defended as they verbally described each other's moves, and the reasons behind those moves.
Leia and Chewie watched in rapt fascination. It was like watching an intricately choreographed dance. Just by watching, the Princess could see the differences in techniques that Luke and Han employed.
Finally, Han held up his hand. "That's enough for now," he said. "I'll practice with Leia in a little while, alright?" The fact was, he needed to rest. It frightened Han to feel how easily he became fatigued, and he didn't want Leia to see that tiredness - it was the only thing he still shielded from both Luke and Leia. Even that made him feel guilty - it seemed everything made him feel guilty, lately. He turned off the blade and put in back in the drawer, pushing it shut quickly.
"Thanks, Han," Luke said, sitting down in a chair. "It's amazing how good you are with a lightsaber, considering you hate using it."
"I don't hate it." Han grinned, sliding into the booth next to Leia as she scooted over to make room. "Hate is of the dark side."
"Han?" Leia asked, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully.
"Did you tell Mara about Yoda? I remember Luke mentioning his name when she was telling us about your powers, but at least we didn't say where he was located."
"No, actually I didn't think about that," Han replied. "Probably a good thing, or we'd have to go rescue the guy before heading to Coruscant."
"I wish you could meet Yoda," Luke put in. "He could teach you a lot about the Force. The proper use of the Force, that is."
"Tellin' me I ain't usin' it properly, kid?" Han joked.
"You know what I mean. Maybe after we've beaten the Empire, we can take you to Dagobah."
"Maybe," Han conceded. "But I'm hoping that we find a cure that'll not only stop my cells from dying, but get rid of those mid..mid.."
"Midichlorians," Leia supplied.
"That's right. Those things." Han nodded. "Then I won't have to worry about the Force or the dark side or light side anymore, ever again."
"Do you really hate... uh, dislike being Force-sensitive?" Luke questioned his friend.
"Kid, it scares the hell outta me," Han replied sincerely. "I liked being the way I was, plain and simple Han Solo. I got along just fine without any of that Force garbage."
"It's not garbage," Leia argued, "And since when were you ever plain and simple?"
"Well, I agree a handsome guy like me ain't plain, but you call me simple-minded all the time!"
"I do not!"
"I do...." She stopped, realizing Han was laughing at her. "You! You... simpleton!"
"See? There ya go," Han said with a smirk. "I win."
"We'll see." Leia sniffed, pretending to be annoyed.
"You can't fool me, sweetheart." Han leaned over and gave her a quick kiss. "I'm Force-sensitive, and I can tell you're not really mad at me."
Leia looked over at Luke. "He's right, you know. We just have to find a way to get those mid-mid's out of this plain-looking simpleton."
Mara Jade bowed before her Master. My former Master, she thought, carefully shielding her mind from the Emperor. "I have news to report, my Lord."
"Where is my new Hand?"
"The Rebels captured him."
"What? How is that possible? I created the perfect killing machine, a servant who could not be stopped!" Palpatine shouted down at the kneeling woman.
"He was taken by surprise. Shot, but not killed, by the Wookiee he thought was his friend."
"Ah. Did he kill any of the Rebels before his capture?"
"Yes, my Lord. He assassinated General Madine, Admiral Ackbar, and General Dodonna. Perhaps also Mon Mothma, but I am not certain of his success with the last one."
"Then he did very well. Is he loyal to me? Will he escape and return to serve me?"
"Yes, Master. His loyalty cannot be questioned. If there is a way, he will escape, and bring you young Skywalker. Perhaps even through subterfuge." Jade tensed, waiting to see if Palpatine could see through her lies. But perhaps the part about Solo escaping and returning would not be a lie. Mara could not be certain if the twins had successfully reached through to the smuggler's memories, for she had left the Falcon immediately after Luke went to help his sister with Solo.
"Then all is not lost. And we achieved at least partial success with destroying the Rebel leadership," Palpatine mused. "And as soon as the Death Star is complete, we will wipe out any future resistance."
"Yes, my Master." Heart pounding, Jade bowed again and left the chamber, hoping Vader's plan would work.
"Luke?" Leia called out quietly in the corridor.
"I'm in here."
The Princess stuck her head inside the cockpit, where Luke was sitting in Chewie's seat. "Are you hiding?"
"No, just thinking," he replied. "Where's Han?"
"Making some food. He claims he's the only one capable of making an edible meal."
Luke laughed, and then got serious. "He's not well, Leia."
"I know," she answered, sitting down in the pilot's seat. "He's trying to hide it, but he can't change the tiredness on his face, or in his body language." Leia turned her focus to the blur of stars streaking past. "He thinks he's going to die, that he deserves to die," she continued, her voice choking with emotion. "No matter how hard I try to convince him it wasn't his fault, he can't stop blaming himself."
The siblings were quiet for a while, each in their own thoughts. "I think he's planning on taking out the Emperor on his own," Luke finally said. "Not so much for personal revenge, but as his last penitence before he dies."
"What about Vader?" Leia asked softly. "Wasn't he responsible for overseeing most of Han's tortures?"
"Since Vader's our father, he's decided on leaving him to us. To try and kill, or redeem. Han doesn't plan on being around for that battle." It wasn't that Han had said any of these things to Luke, but his intentions seemed to be clear enough through the Force. Other than his illness, Han had kept his promise about not shielding from them.
"Then I intend to change his plans. I won't let him sacrifice himself, and I'm not giving up on finding a cure before we even begin to look."
"None of this is going to be easy, Leia," Luke said with a sigh. His thoughts drifted to Mara. Was she waiting for them to arrive on Coruscant so she could kill them? Had she warned the Emperor, and told him about Leia? It seemed very likely the answer was yes to both questions. I thought she liked me, but I guess I'm really still a naive kid from a moisture farm.
"What if this doesn't work?" Mara asked as she paced Vader's quarters. "The Emperor may be fully aware of our plans. He knows everything!"
"Don't let him fool you into believing that, Jade," Vader replied calmly. "He does not know everything. If he did, the Rebellion would have been crushed years ago."
"How will you know when they arrive? What if they are shielding?"
"My son will not be able to shield from me." Vader turned his helmet in her direction. "Are you completely free of Palpatine's influence, Jade? Are you willing to become my son's life mate, as well as his Hand?"
"I'm free of the Emperor's call, and yes, I want to stand by your son's side as he restores order to the galaxy. I will assist him in anyway I am able. But I won't be his servant, Vader. I won't be anyone's servant, ever again. If this is unacceptable to you, you'd better let me know right now."
"If my son loves you, he will wish you to be an equal part of our family. I will welcome you also, as long as you are loyal."
Loyalty is a two-way street, Vader, Mara thought before continuing. "What if Luke doesn't agree to this? Even if we can convince Luke this is the right thing to do, what about his sister?"
"My son's love and desire for you will convince him to join me. The Princess may be more difficult, but if she loves her brother, and wishes to keep Solo, she will join me as well."
"What if Solo still serves the dark side?"
"Then we will stay out of his way until he kills Palpatine. With Luke's assistance, I will be able to defeat the smuggler."
"You hope. He may have already killed your son."
"No. Luke is alive, that much I know. He is coming to Coruscant, and he is very close. Once I get close enough to Solo, I will be able to sense if he still serves the dark side. If that is the case, we wait. If not, we make our move, and quickly."
Mara folded her arms and looked out of the window into space. Luke was alive and on his way. That news pleased her a great deal. But Solo was powerful, and she suspected Vader was underestimating his abilities. If he's joined his powers with Luke and Leia, Vader and I don't stand a chance. Why doesn't he realize that? Was every dark side Force-user an egomaniac that thought they couldn't lose?
Captain Han Solo landed his old freighter expertly on a landing platform a safe distance away from the Imperial Palace, yet close enough to arrive there within six-time parts in a hover-craft. "You're staying with the Falcon, pal, and no arguments," Han said to his partner.
*I do not want you to do this dangerous work without me,* Chewie woofed, ignoring Han's warning about not arguing.
"Listen," Han said with a sigh, turning his seat to face the Wookiee. "You can't go waltzing into the palace, anyway. You know how the Imps feel about non-humans."
*I know. I also know you do not think you will live through this. I cannot ignore my life-debt to you.*
Han glanced back at Luke and Leia, wondering if they understood enough of what Chewie was saying to start giving him a hard time. By their expressions, they understood plenty. "If I can, I'll come back," Han said quietly. "But to tell you the truth, I'd rather go out fighting than die in a hospital bed, gasping for air up until the very end. Try to understand this, Chewie."
*I understand, cub,* the Wookiee said with a nod. *Still, you have to survive to give us a chance to find a cure for your illness. Promise me, you'll try to live through this.*
"I promise." Han started to stand, but Chewie was faster and grabbed Solo in a tight hug. "Of course," Solo mumbled into the fur coat, "I might just die right now of hair-ball suffocation." Chewie quickly released his friend.
The twins gave a laugh, and stood and hugged the Wookiee goodbye. Then the three humans left the Falcon and a worried Wookiee behind.
Mara lowered her scanner. "There they are," she said, pointing over the top edge of the tall building they were watching from. "Solo looks comfortable around them."
"He no longer serves Palpatine, or the dark side," the Sith informed her. "His Force-signature is powerful, but his mind is intact. He is not insane."
"Will he go along with our plans?"
"For his sake, he'd better."
For his sake? Or ours? Mara thought nervously.
"He can tell I'm here," Luke whispered, grabbing Leia by the arm as they made their way through the layered streets of Coruscant. "I'm endangering the mission."
"Then he knows he's your father?" Leia questioned as they stepped out of the way of the foot traffic, near the doorway of a small restaurant. If Vader knew about Luke, did he also know about her?
"You're imagining things, kid," Han said tightly. "He can't see through your Force-shield."
Luke shook his head. "He can, and he is. He's here, watching us."
"We can't leave," Leia argued. "Even if we don't take on the Emperor, we're still here to find a cure for Han."
"Maybe we should split up," Luke suggested. "Vader might follow me, and then the two of you can head into the palace and find the laboratory."
"Splitting up is a real bad idea, kid," Han replied. "Don't you ever watch those really bad holo-vids where the people split up and then they get picked off, one by one? There's strength in numbers."
"We should have brought Artoo with us," Leia said, looking up somewhat accusingly at Han. "He could have downloaded everything in the medical lab and then we'd have what we needed and could leave as fast as possible."
"No. We can do this without those droids. Besides, wherever Artoo goes, Goldenrod has to tag along. I thought you wanted to keep me away from using the dark side of the Force."
"That's not funny, Solo," Leia said, trying to keep a straight face.
"You think I'm joking?"
"We need to find a speeder to rent," Luke said, trying to bring their attention back to the current problem. "We can't walk all the way to the palace compound."
"You could, but it would take you at least a full day," a familiar female voice said from the darkness of an open doorway.
"Mara?" Luke spun around, automatically putting his hand on his lightsaber, but not drawing the weapon out.
Han was less inclined to be cautious. His blaster was in his hand and pointed at the shadowed woman in a heartbeat. "Jade. Step out where we can see you."
"I think it would be better for all concerned if you came inside," she replied with no fear in her voice. "We need to talk."
"Talk?" Han asked with a snort. "With the Emperor's Hand? An assassin?"
"I'm not the one who killed all those Rebels, am I, Solo?" she asked, moving into the daylight so they could see her face.
Solo flinched at her accurate statement. "I didn't have a choice."
"We all make choices, eventually," Mara returned. "And I've made mine." She looked at Luke, and whispered so he strained to hear her words. "I'm not serving the Emperor anymore, and neither is your father. Use the Force, and feel the truth of what I'm telling you."
"She's not lying," Luke said, as he turned to Leia.
"What do you want?" the Princess asked suspiciously. "Why did you leave, if you're not serving Palpatine?"
"I left because of the conflict I was feeling," Mara admitted, wishing Leia would not speak so loudly when using the Emperor's name. "When I arrived, I intended to report to Palpatine, even though I suspected he was unstable. Darth Vader stopped me, and convinced me I was right."
"So, all of a sudden Vader gets a conscience?" Han wondered aloud, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "A few short weeks ago, he was sure getting his thrills outta watching me suffer."
"You're the reason he changed, Solo." Mara looked around at the passersby. "We really need to go somewhere private. Vader wants to talk to all of you."
"Now Vader wants to talk?" Han laughed in disbelief. "I'll bet."
"I'll go," Luke said suddenly. "I have a feeling about this..."
"A feeling?" Han remarked with a groan. "Yeah.... I have a feeling too, a bad feeling."
"If you go, we all go," Leia said. "Han's right. We're not splitting up."
"Follow me," Jade told them, turning and heading down a small alleyway next to the restaurant.
"Great," Han mumbled under his breath as he followed behind the two women and Luke. "Just who I want to have a nice friendly chat with - Vader. Maybe I can ask him if he misses all that time we spent bonding in the torture chamber."
Mara looked back over her shoulder as they headed down a narrow stairwell. "I don't know if you're more annoying with your memory back, or when you were the Emperor's Hand."
"At least with my memory back, I know enough not to be attracted to you, Jade," Solo shot back quickly.
Luke looked down the stairs at their guide. "You can't really blame Han for not trusting Vader."
"Just keep your Corellian on a tight leash, Skywalker," Jade returned. "I don't want to get hit with some more of that Force-lightning of his."
Solo took a breath and was about to reply when Leia said, "Drop it, Han. Please?"
The Corellian shrugged and grinned, not saying anything further, which made Mara laugh. "Congratulations, Princess. You've done what the Emperor couldn't do.... effectively shut Solo's trap."
Quickly, Leia turned around, and put the palm of her hand over Solo's open mouth. "I said, please!"
"Fine," Han muttered, then licked her palm, making her pull her hand away. "But you owe me one for behaving," he added with a wink.
It took over a full time-part before they finally arrived at a small, dusty room, hidden far back from the businesses that lined the busy walkways. Broken pipes dripped overhead and the only light came from a flickering glowlamp set in the middle of the room. A table with chairs sat in the center - the only furnishings in the room.
"This is the only way in or out of this room?" Han asked, frowning, tightening his grasp on his blaster. "I smell a trap."
"This is not a trap," the familiar mechanical voice of Vader spoke from behind the smuggler.
Solo spun around, and this time he did not hesitate to fire.
The Sith Lord was prepared for the Corellian's reaction, and deflected the blaster bolt easily with his hand. "You are very predictable, Captain Solo," Vader said coolly. He was standing several steps up the dark staircase, having shielded his presence as he followed the group down the steps.
"I should kill you right now," Han snapped, pulling the lightsaber out from under his vest, since his blaster was ineffective. "You wouldn't be able to stop me anymore than you did last time, when Palpatine interrupted me. And now that I remember everything, I have even more reason to take you down."
"I agree, Solo. You do have every reason to hate me. The question is, do you?"
"Han, you can't hate," Luke reminded his friend from the doorway of the small room. "Let him explain. We outnumber him, anyway."
"At least until he brings down a couple hundred stormtroopers on our heads," Han snarled back. "I don't trust him."
"Neither do I," Leia said quietly, putting her trembling hand on his forearm to prevent him from attacking the Sith. "But I don't sense anyone else, and stormtroopers can't shield from us." Seeing the Dark Lord hovering over them made the Princess numb with fear - she didn't blame Han one bit for his reaction.
Reaching out further with his Force-sense, Han could tell Leia was right, there was no one else around. Still, he backed down the remaining steps, refusing to let Vader out of his sight.
Once assembled in the room, Vader sat down and indicated everyone should take a seat. Mara, Luke and Leia pulled out the metal chairs and sat facing the Sith, while Han stood near the doorway, one hand holding his blaster, the other holding the turned-off lightsaber. He had no intentions of relaxing or letting down his guard.
"You would be much more comfortable if you took a chair, Captain," Vader said, indicating the last seat.
"Nope, I'll stand right here, thanks anyway."
"It's your choice, of course," Vader said with a nod. "But considering your legs, I think you're being unreasonably stubborn."
"My legs. You mean the legs you shattered, just to listen to me scream in agony? The legs you deliberately let the bone-knitters heal incorrectly, so I'd stay in constant pain, and walk with a limp? Those legs?"
Vader sat back and sighed. "I had a reason to make you suffer. Unfortunately, it didn't work."
"Reason?" Han yelled, stepping forward until Luke stood and physically stopped him by stepping between the Corellian and the Sith. "Can you enlighten me? I'd really like to hear your twisted reasons!"
"Actually," Leia said as calmly as she could, "I'd like to hear your reasons, as well. When you tortured me, at least it was to try and find out information on the Rebellion. But what you did to Han..... it makes no sense, unless you're just sadistic." And I wouldn't put it past you.
"I thought Solo's suffering would draw my son to Coruscant, to attempt a rescue. I assumed he was close enough to the smuggler to sense his pain. Apparently, I was incorrect."
Luke shook his head. "No.... I felt it. But I thought Han was dead, so I pushed the feelings aside. I ignored the visions." The young Jedi shuddered with guilt. "I'm sorry, Han. I'm so sorry."
"I don't blame you, kid. Put the blame where it belongs, on Vader."
"Luke, Han," Leia said softly. "Please sit." She turned to the Sith. "You didn't want us to come here to discuss what you did to Han, did you?"
"No, my daughter." Vader stopped when he saw Leia grow still and quiet. "Yes, I know. Mara told me. I want to help you defeat Palpatine."
"Ha!" Solo shouted loudly. "All of a sudden you're a Rebel? I don't buy it."
"No, I'm not a Rebel. The Rebels are fools, doomed to failure. I wish to rule the galaxy, and my children will rule by my side."
"Do you want to kill the creep, Luke? Or should I?" Han said, conversationally. "He's your father, so if you'd rather, I can do it. It'd be my pleasure, actually."
"What made you decide to turn on Palpatine?" Leia asked, ignoring Han's comments and Vader's remarks about ruling the galaxy.
"Palpatine is insane. He fears me, thus he created Solo to kill me. He also planned on putting his spirit into Luke's body, since his is old and decaying."
"And he planned on breeding a bunch of new Hands to serve him," Mara put in. "Solo and I would serve as the gene pool, apparently. If Solo turned out to be loyal, anyway. That's the reason I'm no longer serving Palpatine, in case you're wondering. No one is going to use me to make babies, especially with that bantha-brained idiot."
"Hey!" Han objected. "I don't exactly want to father your little red-headed assassins, either. With you as their mother, they'd probably sharpen points on their teething rattles and use them as weapons."
What Vader said shocked the Princess. Palpatine planned on possessing Luke's body? Was that even possible? Of course, until recently, making someone Force-sensitive wasn't possible, either. Leia ignored Han and Mara's jabs, and asked Jade, "What if Han wasn't loyal? What was Palpatine planning on doing then?"
"Then Solo was to be killed," Mara replied. "But I'm not sure how, since he is stronger than anyone else with the Force."
"I think we've figured out how Palpatine could kill Han," Luke said thoughtfully. "The main reason we came to Coruscant is -"
"Kid!" Han interrupted, "I don't think this is a good idea..."
"I already know, Solo," Vader rumbled at the Corellian. "Palpatine isn't completely insane. He had his scientist make certain your enhanced midichlorians were under his control."
"You know?" Leia asked, hopeful and worried at the same time.
"Yes, I know. Solo's cells are breaking down."
"Do you know why this is happening?" Leia prodded the Sith.
"His midichlorians are keyed to serve the Emperor and only the Emperor. The midichlorians will trigger to self destruct if Solo rejected serving Palpatine, and cut off the Emperor's control through the Force. Even if the Corellian had remained on the dark side, if he turned on Palpatine and tried to become the Emperor, Solo still would have died." The dark helmet looked in Solo's direction. "Only complete obedience to your Master would have allowed you to live."
"Can you help us?" Leia pleaded with Vader. "If we can get the medical records, maybe our doctors can find a way to stop what's happening, and save Han's life."
"That may be a problem, daughter," Vader spoke calmly. "The records of what was done to Solo, and how it was done, are gone."
All the air seemed to drain out of Leia's lungs. It felt like someone punched her in the stomach. "Gone?" she whispered, glancing at Han who was looking at the floor.
"How are the records gone? Did Palpatine destroy them? Hide them?" Luke asked, not giving up.
"I intended to destroy the records," Vader admitted. "But when I arrived at the laboratory, everything was gone... the computers, the disks, the machine that was used to alter Solo's DNA. Everything was gone."
Leia was heartsick. "Do you think Palpatine destroyed them?"
"At first, I did think that."
"At first?" Luke questioned. "But not now?"
"I have reason to believe someone took the computers, and the machine, to a place of safe-keeping."
"Do you know who?" Leia snapped, getting upset. Why was he drawing this out? Just to make Han suffer mentally, since he couldn't hurt him physically? She glanced over at the Corellian. Han was still staring at the floor, barely listening to the conversation.
"I have a strong idea, but if you want my assistance, you will have to help me out as well."
Solo's head flicked up, his eyes suddenly suspicious. "Go to hell."
"Han! This is your life we're talking about," Leia yelled back.
"We're not helping this Sith, Leia. I'm not letting him blackmail us. If my life is over anyway, I'm heading to the palace and I'm taking out Palpatine. I don't need anyone's help doing it, either. You two can deal with Vader, if you don't want me to kill him first, before I head out."
"We haven't even heard what he wants," Luke argued. "At least let's hear him out."
Han stepped closer to Vader, glaring down at the Sith who was sitting calmly, listening to the argument. "What do you want, Vader?"
"A simple trade. I will help you destroy the Death Star. I will help you dispose of Palpatine. And I will help you locate the one person that may be able to save your life."
"What do you want from us?" Leia asked, clenching her fists.
"I only want us to fulfill our destiny. We are the family destined to rule the galaxy. First us, and then your children, and then your children's children. It is necessary, and inevitable."
"And he claims Palpatine is insane," Han said with a shake of his head.
"Palpatine is insane. The way he rules the galaxy will lead to rebellion and tyranny. My only desire is justice and fairness for all beings, human and non-humans."
"Fairness? Justice? You're not buying this hip-high bantha-pile, are you?" Han asked the Princess, barely able to believe what he was hearing.
"If she wants to ever see the galaxy at peace, if she wants you to live, Solo, she will buy this," Vader hissed back. The Sith looked at the Princess. "You are exactly like your mother, a Queen and a ruler. You will be the one leading the galaxy back to peace and prosperity, my daughter." Vader then turned his head to Luke. "You will be the one restoring order to the chaos, my son. Together, we will train those that are Force-strong to be the enforcers of justice. They will answer to us, and the criminals that prey on the weak will be eliminated once and for all. The Jedi of the future will be shaped and formed by us, without the mistakes and arrogance of the old Order." When his children remained silent, Vader continued, "Mara loves you, my son. Do you feel the same about her?"
Suddenly the center of attention, Jade flushed as Luke stared at her. "Is that true?" he asked quietly.
"It's true," she replied. "I couldn't betray you to Palpatine. I want to be by your side when you restore justice to the galaxy. I'll help you, Luke. Anyway I can."
"I...I love you too, Mara," Luke murmured softly, wishing he was alone with her.
"Have you lost your krethin' mind, kid?" Han yelled. "She's only saying this to convince you to go along with this scheme!"
"She means it," Luke argued back. "Use your Force-powers, Han. If you'd bother to do that, you'd know she's not lying."
Han opened his mouth to protest, then realized Luke was right. Amazingly enough, Mara Jade meant what she said - she loved Luke. And somehow Luke had fallen in love with this dangerous woman.
"Do you love my daughter, Solo?" Vader asked the Corellian.
"You know the answer to that," Han replied quickly.
"Yes, I do." Vader stood up, and approached the man. "Why do you want her to live a life of unhappiness?"
"Yes, you must. Or you wouldn't be so quick to deny her what is rightfully hers."
"Nothing is rightfully mine," Leia argued.
"You're wrong. You are the only one that can lead the galaxy, and bring it together. Search yourself... you know this is true." He returned his attention to Solo. "She can't be happy if you stubbornly refuse to help yourself. There may very well be a cure, but you'll never know if you walk out of this room without agreeing to help me." Vader waited for long minutes as his words sank in. "You know I speak the truth. You feel it in your very souls - even you know I speak the truth, Solo. Just like Mara can serve the galaxy by Luke's side, you can be by Leia's side as well. But not if you die because of stubborn foolishness."
Han stared at Leia, waiting for her response. When it came, he wasn't certain if he was shocked, or relieved.
"How do we help you?"
Vader nodded. "I'm glad you can be reasonable, my daughter. It will serve you well as you lead the wide array of politicians and sentients from the systems of the galaxy."
"Leia...." Han started to object, but stopped speaking when Leia stood and walked over to him, embracing him tightly.
"Trust me," she whispered against his chest. "Please?" She turned to face Vader. "Continue, Lord Vader."
"I will go with Solo and present Luke to the Emperor. Solo will tell Palpatine he followed orders, and brought Luke before the Emperor."
"Then what?" Mara spoke up, worried. "Palpatine wants to take over Luke's body. How are you going to prevent that?"
"Easily enough," Vader replied. "Solo will attack and kill Palpatine at the first opportunity - long before the Emperor has the chance to try anything."
"Why does Han have to attack?" Luke questioned. "We'll both be there, so why can't we help?"
"We will assist Solo, if necessary. But Palpatine will call for his guards and his stormtroopers to assist him. We will need to dispatch them and allow Solo to complete his task." Vader turned his masked face to the Corellian. "Do you think your powers are still strong enough to take on the Emperor?"
"Want to test me, Vader?" Han said with a sneer. "I'll gladly show you what I can do."
"He's trying to help you, Solo," Mara shot out. "Maybe you should lose the attitude."
Glaring, Han crossed his arms across his chest. "I don't trust the Sith, Jade. And I certainly don't sense any change in his personality from the last time I was his guest."
"I never claimed to have altered who I am, Solo," Vader answered simply. "I am merely pointing out that our goals are now the same - destroy the Emperor."
"Yeah, so you can take his job."
"No. So my daughter can take his job. It is her destiny to rule over the politicians, just like her mother did. As I said before, my job, and Luke's job, will be to enforce order throughout the galaxy, and teach other Force-sensitives to do the same. Without the interference of some ruling council that tells them how to live their personal lives." Like they tried telling me how to behave.
"So let me get this straight... you'll be the King of the Siths, Luke will be Prince of the Siths, while Leia is the Empress."
"Exactly. Does it sound so unappealing to you to live your life in luxury as the consort of the Empress?"
Solo looked at Leia. Her face was unreadable, as well as her feelings. You're doin' a damn good job of shielding, sweetheart. Is that because of me? Or Vader?
"What will Leia and I be doing while you are taking out Palpatine and the guards?" Mara asked.
"You will be starting the search for Solo's medical records."
Leia perked up at that remark. "Do you have any idea where we begin?"
"I have a very good idea, actually." Vader smiled inside his helmet. "Do I have your word you will go along with my plans?"
"Yes," Leia said quickly.
The Dark Lord nodded. "Dr. Xalac was the scientist who performed the experiment on Solo, but he was not the genius behind the altered midichlorians."
"Who was?" the Princess pressed.
"His wife. Dr. Niyanna Xalac. She was the one who did all the lab work, while her husband created the machine itself. I believe she is the one that took the records, and the machine, before I could destroy their work."
"Do you have any idea where she is?" Luke questioned.
"Not at this time, but I will can tell you where her home was located, as well as the laboratories where she worked. She may have left a clue behind, or perhaps someone that knows her will be able to supply you with information."
Leia felt deflated. "A clue? We don't have time to search the galaxy, or even Coruscant, for clues! Han's dying!"
"Perhaps the Force will show you, give you some guidance, once you are in her home. Do not underestimate the power of meditation."
"So where is her home?"
"Jade knows, and she will take you there." Vader looked over at the annoyed assassin. "Do you have a problem?"
"I'd rather go with Luke and face the Emperor, personally."
"We don't always get what we desire," Vader replied before Luke had the chance to respond.
Outside the Imperial Palace
"It's huge!" Luke remarked, looking up at the towering edifice of the home of the Emperor. "And it's so.... grand."
"I'm sure Palpatine would blush with modesty if ya told him that, kid."
"You must not drop your shields, Solo," Vader told the smuggler. "If Palpatine suspects, even for a moment, that you are no longer his Hand, you will not get close enough to kill him."
"Don't forget to stay away from anger and hatred," Luke added. "Those are of the dark side, and we have to stay away from the dark side."
"Obi-Wan was still teaching that ancient myth?" Vader asked, looking down at his son. "He was a fool."
Luke frowned. "Obi-Wan was a great Jedi, and he said you were a great Jedi, too. Until you fell to the dark side."
"The Force has no dark side," Vader intoned. "The Force is a neutral power. The so-called dark side resides in the souls of individuals, not in the Force."
"So you're not a Sith?" Luke questioned.
"I am a Jedi that served Palpatine, because it suited my needs at the time. Like I said earlier, he is insane and dangerous, and therefore resides in this darkness Obi-Wan seemed to think flows through the Force. The only reason the Emperor is stronger than the vanquished Jedi is because his connection to the Force was stronger than theirs was, just like my connection is stronger. But it is untrue that there is a dark side to the Force, just like so many other things the Jedi taught are untrue. I will need to readjust your thinking, as well as your sister's thinking."
Luke was about to argue, when Vader raised his hand. "There is no time for this. You and Solo must go to the Emperor now." Vader looked at the Corellian. "Use the Force to defeat Palpatine, but do not fear the dark side. It does not exist, unless you are already evil. Use your anger - it is justified and therefore right, and it will not make you evil. It will help you defeat Palpatine." Vader turned back to his son. "Now you must stop asking questions, and go. I will be following close behind."
Not knowing what to say or think, Luke followed Han into the Imperial Palace.
"Here's the suite number," Mara told the Princess as they stood before a closed doorway in a very average looking apartment complex. "I don't sense anyone behind the door, do you?"
"I don't know," Leia replied. "You told me to keep myself shielded, in case Palpatine could sense me. Remember?"
"I remember," Jade snapped, drawing out her lightsaber. Leia stepped back, eyes wide. The assassin laughed. "This isn't for you, Princess." Mara thrust the lightsaber into the lock, and pushed the door open with the Force, then stepped into the living area as Leia followed her.
"It looks like she left in a hurry," Leia remarked, looking around. The furnishings were all in place and uncovered. Books were on the shelves, various personal items sat around on tables. The Princess walked up to a vase filled with stems of dead flowers, the pedals long since dropped and shriveled into crisp little curls. A news flimsy sat near the vase, dated over two months ago. "I don't know how this is going to help Han."
"Why do you care about him?"
"What?" Leia spun around, her face angry.
"He's a nobody. You're a Princess, and soon you'll be ruling the galaxy as the Empress. You'll be able to have any man you want. So why waste your time trying to save Solo?"
"You don't know anything about Han," Leia shot back. "All you saw was someone controlled by Palpatine, and that wasn't truly Han."
"His basic personality seems pretty much the same, if you ask me. Cocky, arrogant, thinks he's the galaxy's greatest gift to women. He tried to get me into bed, Princess. Did you know that?"
"He didn't know who he was," Leia responded. "And you already know he was being controlled by the Emperor. Maybe that's the reason he tried so hard to get you to sleep with him. Did you ever think of that?"
Mara laughed. "So you're telling me Solo was always the perfect gentleman back before all this happened? He never made time with the pretty young women in the Rebellion? He never made inappropriate remarks to you?"
Leia folded her arms across her chest. "I don't want to discuss Han with you."
"That's because I'm right, and you know it."
"You just think you're right. Han is a loyal friend, and he's got a good heart. He's put his life at risk for both Luke and myself many times in the past three years, since getting involved with the Rebellion. I've been alone with him hundreds of times, and I've never felt threatened by him, except during his amnesia and enforced servitude to Palpatine. Which is more than I can say about you, Mara Jade. What makes you think you deserve Luke?"
The red-head became flushed and she stalked to the window, looking away from Leia. "I never said I deserved Luke."
"You love him."
"I didn't think I was capable of love," she whispered. "All I ever sensed was anger and hatred from the Emperor. When I met Luke...."
"When you met Luke, you sensed his goodness," Leia finished for her.
"Yes." Mara nodded carefully. "He's the most ... pure soul I've ever sensed. And from that moment on, he's the only one I want to be around. I don't know if he loves me, Princess. How could he? I'm just ...."
"A nobody?" Leia supplied. "He's a Jedi, and you're an assassin. He's about to bring order and justice to the galaxy, and he'll be able to have any woman he wants. So why does he want to save you from Palpatine?"
Slowly, Mara turned around, a slight grimace on her face. "You are a very good politician, Princess - turning my questions about Solo around and making them apply to me. You'll be a great ruler."
"We don't pick who we fall in love with, Mara. It just happens."
"So.... are we going to dig through this mess and see if we can figure out where this doctor is hiding?" Jade smirked. "We can't let that cocky smuggler of yours die now, can we?"
"Ready, kid?" Han whispered out of the side of his mouth. The shielded Force-users had no problem making their way through the corridors of the palace, passing the stormtroopers with simple distractions. "Wrinkle's throne room is right through this big old door."
"I can sense his evil, even through my shield," Luke replied, feeling more than a little nervous. He looked at the Corellian. "Han. About what Vader said about the dark side. Don't trust him."
"You'd better be quiet," Han supplied, as he fastened cuffs around Luke's wrists. "Tall, dark and gruesome said he'd be following close behind us."
The cuffs could easily be removed, even without the Force, by pressing a release button. Luke nodded. "I'm ready. Let's go."
Han hit the 'open' switch, and the huge doors slid apart silently. Red robed guards instantly appeared, standing between the two men and the occupied throne at the far side of the enormous room. Casually, Han flicked his wrist, sending the guards sailing backwards at a high rate of speed. They hit the floor, skidding to a stop against the wall. "Is that any way to welcome your only son back home, father?" Han yelled out across the chamber. "And here I brought you a present back with me, too."
The Emperor stood, but did not move further. "Come here, my son, and kneel at my feet."
Luke glanced over at Solo and saw his jaw clench, but quickly Solo's mask fell over his features. Han roughly grabbed Luke by the upper arm and pulled him along. When they stood before Palpatine, Solo released his grip and dropped to his knees, head bowed before the Emperor. "I failed to destroy the entire rebel leadership, Master. The Jedi caught me before I could complete the task, so the best I could do was overpower Skywalker and return to Coruscant. I do not know what happened to Jade, my Master."
"Jade has returned safely, Solo." He grinned out at the prone Corellian. The Emperor turned to Luke and flicked his fingers as the cuffs fell away. "The son of Vader. Such a young, healthy boy. Now take Solo's lightsaber, and kill him for me. He is not my son. He is a failure, and failures pay the ultimate price."
Han tensed at the Emperor's command, grasping the hilt of his lightsaber while preparing to strike Palpatine down.
"What are you waiting for, Skywalker?" Palpatine hissed out through his spittle. "He killed all your rebel friends and commanders. Don't you want revenge?"
"Revenge is of the dark side," Luke said simply.
The Emperor threw back his head in laughter. "Dark side." He focused his yellow gaze at Luke. "You have no idea the power of the dark side. Kill him, or I will."
Luke shook his head negatively. "I won't let you kill him."
The sneer on Palpatine's face made his haggard features even more ugly. Raising his fingers, Force-lightning flew out. Solo rolled away, trying to avoid the blast - he almost made it. Painful heat seared his thigh, and Han gasped, drawing out his lightsaber as he jumped to his feet. The amber blade hummed while Solo took up a defensive stance against further Force-lightning.
"Do you think you can kill me, Solo?" Palpatine asked conversationally. "I control those midichlorians in your system. Already, I've speeded up their demise. You might have thought you had months to live, but you'll be lucky to live out the day."
"You're lying," Han spat out, as he approached the throne.
"I had been lying to you in the past, just like you are now lying to me. But now I'm telling you the truth - the midichlorians are still under my control, not yours. Your Force-shield is failing as we speak, and I know your intentions."
"Then you know I intend to kill you," Han said quietly. "Or die trying."
Solo attacked the Emperor.
The Princess sat near by a computer terminal, trying to determine if any records remained on the machine. Again, she wished they had brought Artoo with them. The little droid would have been a great help in breaking through passwords or recovering hastily wiped information.
Mara had been shuffling through some flimsies left in a drawer, but not coming up with anything important. Finally she stood up. "I need to use the refresher," she commented and headed to the adjoining room. A second later, she poked her head out. "Princess?"
"Yes?" Leia answered, not looking up from the monitor.
"Come here for a minute, will you?"
When Leia entered the small refresher, Mara was standing by the sink, pointing. "I don't see anything," Leia confessed with a shrug.
"That's because you're not trained to see small things. I've spent my life observing the tiniest details, because sometimes those tiny details can save my life."
"So what am I not seeing?" she asked, squinting closer.
"Water spots. Damp soap." When Leia looked confused, Mara sighed. "I didn't use the sink, Princess. Someone was here, and very recently."
"Maybe the landlord? Or stormtroopers?"
"She owned this apartment, so there wouldn't be a landlord. And if stormtroopers had been here the place would have been trashed."
"So... who was here?"
"My guess? Dr. Xalac. Let's go see if the neighbors know anything."
Even Palpatine was shocked at the Corellian's fury and strength, and he quickly used his powers to create a barrier of Force-induced fire between himself and his attacker. Ignoring the searing intensity of the inferno, Han pressed forward while pushing a path through the fire with the Force, moving forward a fraction of an inch at a time.
A muffled thud at the doorway caused Luke to spin around in time to see his father enter the room, his red lightsaber cutting down stormtroopers as he ran forward to his son. Vader handed Luke his lightsaber. "Your friend appears to be in need of our assistance," Vader remarked, indicating Solo, who was now on his knees, crawling toward his tormentor while using his own Force strength to push aside the roaring blaze and form a tunnel to the throne.
Luke nodded, and ignited his blue blade. His eyes traveled up, and he noted the wall of fire only reached halfway to the ceiling. The young Jedi took several steps back, then ran and vaulted over the fire barrier, landing safely inside the perimeter. Vader nodded his head in approval, and entered the tunnel behind Solo, slashing his red blade into the flames and pressing the tunnel open even further.
Force-lightning shot out towards Luke, and he easily deflected the bolts. The Emperor's Force-sense was starting to feel uncertainty, and he mentally called out for more stormtroopers. "They can't help you," Luke said quietly. "Your reign of terror is over."
"You are incapable of simply killing me - you don't have the hate in your soul to kill me, young Skywalker!"
"But I do," a deeply exhausted voice spoke from behind Luke's shoulder. Han pushed past his friend, trying to deflect the fast Force-lightning as he pushed closer to the Emperor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luke and Vader join him, deflecting the Force-lightning as it intensified. Red, blue and amber blades clashed with a blur of speed. It seemed surreal to Han that only a few months ago Vader was standing over him, torturing him, and now he was fighting by his side.
Even the Emperor could not keep up the assault as the three men worked their way nearer to his throne. Finally, Han was next to Palpatine and with his last burst of strength, Solo sliced the blade through the Emperor; the Force-lightning and firewall crackling around them instantly dissipated. The Corellian stepped back, switching off his blade, his face covered with soot and his skin red from the heat. Then he collapsed.
"No one has seen her come or leave for two months," Leia said dejectedly as she reentered Dr. Xalac's apartment. The people living next door to Dr. Xalac were suspicious of the questions asked by the two young women, but both Leia and Mara could tell they were not lying when they answered the polite, but nosy questions. "Do you suppose she only came back the one time, right before we got here?"
"For some reason, I doubt it. Too coincidental," Mara replied, looking around the room with a renewed sense of purpose. She walked up to a wall, and started running her fingers along the edges and trim work. "And they did say the cleaning droid has been seen coming and going, with packages."
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for something."
Jade shot an irritated glance over her shoulder. "I'm just checking to see if the workmanship on this apartment meets Coruscant building codes. It's a part-time job I had when the assassination business was a little slow." Mara continued around the living area, and then went into the bedroom where she repeated the process. She stopped at the edge of a built-in shelf, pressing various places on the wall. A low rumble sounded - the shelf swung open, revealing a flight of stairs leading down.
"A hidden staircase!" Leia exclaimed. "I've never seen one of these in real life - just in holo-shows. The palace on Alderaan didn't even have one." The Princess smiled as she remembered an incident when she was a child. Little Leia had asked Bail about hidden passageways, certain that their vast home must have them. She had been hugely disappointed when her father told her their home had no hidden hallways. "How did you know...?"
"The Emperor is paranoid, Princess," Mara quickly answered. "And that paranoia extends to his pet projects. The Xalacs were his most loyal, and favored scientists. I doubt their work with midichlorians was their only project."
"Do you think she's down there? Or is this just a way to escape?"
"Why don't we find out?" Mara swept her hand to the stairwell. "You first, Princess. After all, it's your boyfriend we're trying to save."
Leia started down the stairs when she heard Mara gasp. The Princess spun around to face Jade, and saw the woman holding her head, swaying. "What's the matter?"
Luke? Leia thought in panic. No... I'd be able to sense if anything happened to Luke. "Who?"
"The Emperor.... he's dead," Mara whispered as she felt the evil presence that had held her for so long drift into nothingness.
A second later, Leia cried out as she felt Han's pain.
"Han!" Luke cried, as he knelt by his friend, raising Solo's head. Han's pulse was weak and erratic, his eyes open but unseeing. Luke looked up. "Father... he's dying."
"I can see that." Vader also was sensing the chaos the Emperor's death had left behind. The stormtroopers were suddenly directionless and confused. There would be very little time to claim the throne, before anarchy would rule. "We must find your sister, and quickly. She must make a public appearance and declare herself Empress."
"I won't leave Han here." Luke shook his head. "We have to help him."
There was no time to argue. Vader bent over and gathered the limp smuggler in his arms. "Lead the way, son. Use the Force to guide us to your sister."
Luke took off at a run, only looking back to make certain Vader was following with Solo.
Leia sat down on the stairs, holding her arms against her chest. "Han's dying.... I feel him struggling to hold onto life."
"I thought he had a couple of months left," Mara said quietly. "Unless he was injured in the fight."
"I thought we had time, too," Leia replied. "He wasn't injured, his body is breaking down. How could this be happening so fast?"
"If the donor is dead the recipient is doomed," a woman's voice said from the bottom of the dark stairs.
Quickly, Leia stood up. "What? Who are you?"
A light came on, flooding the corridor. At the bottom of a flight of stairs, a tiny woman with short gray hair stood, hands on hips. "My name is Dr. Niyanna Xalac, and I believe you may be looking for me."
The Princess did not hesitate to run down the stairs and into a large, well lit laboratory. A machine with tubes and wires sat in the center of the room. Leia felt a chill as she stared at the equipment. "That's the machine, isn't it?" she asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
"The machine that turns a regular person into a Force-sensitive?" The doctor smiled proudly. "Yes, it is."
"Can it be used to save Solo's life?" Mara questioned as she entered the lab.
"Solo." The older woman turned her face away. "He killed my husband."
"It wasn't his fault," Leia quickly argued. "He didn't even know who he was.... he wasn't in his right mind."
"My husband told me Vader refused to sedate the Corellian," the doctor mumbled, almost to herself. "Dangerous..... dangerous. Definitely the machine is painful, very, very painful, if the recipient is awake. Not a wonder, I suppose, that he lost his memory. My husband should have known better...."
"Is that why Solo is dying so fast?" Mara asked, wondering if the doctor was completely sane herself. "Because the Emperor, the donor, is dead?"
"Can't you use this machine to pull the enhanced midichlorians out of Han's body?" Leia asked, waving her hand in the direction of the ominous looking machine. She didn't want to imagine hooking Han back up to that terrible device.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "It can only put midichlorians into a recipient.... it can't take them out."
"Solo is doomed, then?" Mara snapped out at the scientist.
Leia gave a choked sob and walked to the opposite side of the room, her face buried in her hands. He can't die..... I'm not giving him permission...
"Perhaps if we had time," the doctor considered thoughtfully, "we could come up with a solution. But the man is dying too quickly. If the donor was still alive, we might have time..." Dr. Xalac wandered up to a holo of her late husband and picked it up. "What do you think, dear? Is there a way to save the recipient?"
Mara looked around the vast laboratory, and her eyes fastened on another machine, sitting off to one side. "What about that?" she asked, pointing. "Can that give you the time you need?"
Dr. Xalac looked at the silver tube across the room as she held the holo in her hand. "I suppose it could. If someone gets the recipient here fast enough." Looking back at the holo, she asked, "I doubt he'll get here in time, do you?"
The Princess looked over to where Mara was pointing, and recognized the device that was sitting in a corner of the room. It could work.... we might still have time.... Luke? Luke... can you hear me?
Leia? We're on our way.
Leia smiled at the scientist. "Get it ready. They're on the way."
"This way," Luke pointed to the hidden stairwell in the apartment. "They're down those stairs."
Vader glanced down at the man in his arms. Solo was moaning and mumbling incoherently. At least his life signs were no worse than they had been a time-part ago, when the Emperor first died. He followed his son down the narrow stairs to a hidden laboratory where Mara and Leia stood, watching Dr. Xalac working on hooking up a cylinder. A stasis chamber.
Leia spun around. "Luke! I've been so worried...." She stopped, staring at Han. "Han....?"
"He's still alive, Leia. We have to find a cure, and fast."
"Can't find a cure in a minute or two," the scientist mumbled as she slid open the clear cover of the tube. "I'm not a miracle worker, are we dear?"
Mara met Luke's eyes, and she gave him the universal sign for 'crazy'. When Luke only became even more worried, she regretted her signal. I want him to like me, not think I'm some heartless Imperial.
"Putting Solo in stasis is a brilliant idea," Vader said in agreement. "His condition will stop deteriorating, and we can return to the Palace while Dr. Xalac works on a cure."
"I'm not leaving Han alone here," Leia said stubbornly.
"I didn't know this would happen," Leia said, indicating Han. "That he'd be in such bad shape."
"Time's a wasting," Dr. Xalac commented as she hummed and studied her tray of medical supplies. "The longer he stays out of stasis, the less time he'll have when we take him out."
"Father, put Han in the chamber." Luke turned to Leia as Vader laid the Corellian in the tube. "I'll stay here with Han."
"No." Vader shook his head. "You will be needed. We will all be needed to keep the order when we return to the Palace. This family must present a united front to the galaxy. The governors, the ambassadors, the Rebellion, must see that we are in control."
Dr. Xalac isn't stable, Leia mentally sent over to her brother, concern radiating from her Force-senses as she watched the doctor draw a blood sample from Han's arm and place the filled needle in a cooling unit.
"What if we send for Chewie?" Luke suggested, looking at his worried sister. He would have suggested Mara remain with Han and the doctor, but he knew Leia was still less than trusting of the former assassin. "He can stay here with Han until we return. No one will keep Han safer than Chewie."
Leia stepped next to the stasis chamber, touching Han's heat reddened face, and watching his labored breathing. I love you, nerfherder, she thought sadly. Don't die. Please... don't die. Bending over, she kissed his blistered lips. Then she stepped back into Luke's embrace.
Dr. Xalac shut the lid and hit several buttons. The inside of the chamber began glowing and mist filled the tube.
Mara wiped the top of the clear covering and looked inside. The numbers on the side of the tube slowly began dropping as Solo's heartbeat and respiration slowed almost to a stop. She turned to the Princess. "He's going to be okay, Leia. You have to believe that."
"I do believe it," Leia replied firmly. "Will you go to the Falcon and bring Chewie back here?"
Luke walked over to Mara. "Thank you, Mara." He started to kiss her cheek, but she turned her face and kissed his lips instead, not caring what Vader or Leia thought.
"You're welcome." She quickly turned and hurried up the stairs, leaving Luke smiling and flushed.
Vader raised his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation at the displays of affection from his children. "Can we return to the Palace now? I'm sure Solo will be fine until the Wookiee and Jade return. Dr. Xalac has a lot of work to do, and we'll only get in her way."
"Yes....yes.... we have lots of work," the scientist remarked as she headed to her laboratory table filled with equipment. "Must analyze the blood, first. Study the midichlorians. Time. We need lots of time."
"She has no intentions of harming Solo," Vader whispered to Leia. "You can feel that yourself."
"Reach out with the Force and focus around us," Vader instructed. "Feel the confusion in the minds of the stormtroopers. They need direction. If the galaxy finds out the Emperor is gone and there is no leadership to take his place, a vacuum will occur. Riots and lootings will spring up all over the galaxy. Lawlessness will take the Empire's place. Is this what you want to see happen?"
"No." Leia shook her head. "I'll do as you ask, because I agreed to this. But if you think I intend to hunt down the people I call my friends, you are very much mistaken."
"If those people are your friends, they will give you a chance to prove yourself. If they are only interested in power for themselves, they will try and destroy you and they are not friends, but enemies." Vader started toward the stairway, then turned. "We must hurry. Palpatine had a room set up to send holocasts instantly throughout the galaxy. Prepare your speech as we travel to the palace." The Dark Lord went up the stairs, fully expecting Leia to follow his orders.
General Rieekan, Mon Mothma and a gathering of pilots watched the holo-cast from Coruscant in stunned silence aboard Home One.
"I, Leia Organa, hereby announce the death of Emperor Palpatine," the Princess said regally as she stood on a podium between Luke Skywalker and Lord Darth Vader. "The Imperial Army, and all the governors and ambassadors will, from this moment forward, be under my rule - the rule of Empress Leia Organa." Leia grasped the edge of the podium tightly, her knuckles white. "My new government will be fair and just. No being that sought to overthrow Palpatine will be hunted or prosecuted, and will be granted a full pardon. All political prisoners will be released in a timely manner. All crimelords and illegal spice sellers will be prosecuted, and their ill-gotten wealth confiscated and redistributed to the poor and needy."
"All beings, human and non-humans, will be treated equally. Slavers will be arrested, since from this moment forward, slavery of all sentient beings is against the law. Bounty hunting will be against the law, so I strongly suggest that bounty hunters seek out lawful employment with legitimate governments. All systems will be allowed to elect their own governors, and those governors may appoint ambassadors to Coruscant to represent their people. Imperial forces will be used, if necessary, to allow free elections, and any current Governor that refuses to accept free elections will be considered a criminal."
"Individual systems will be allowed to prosecute and determine criminal penalties, but there will be no death penalty allowed on any system. Individuals may appeal any sentencing to the Imperial Court on Coruscant. I will be setting up all guidelines for the new Imperial Court, and I will be assigning Judges to serve under my rules." Leia paused, regaining her breath before concluding. "There will be much work to do in the future, and I appeal to all law abiding citizens to help during this during difficult time of transition. Thank you."
When the transmission from Coruscant went dark, the Rebels still were silent.
When Mara Jade had shown up unexpectedly at the Falcon, telling Chewie he needed to trust her, it had taken all the Wookiee's willpower to trust and follow her.
The Princess's announcement over the holo-vid had worried the Wookiee. It wasn't like Leia to declare herself the Empress, and put herself in charge. Why were she and Luke working with Vader? Vader had been the one to cause all of Han's problems. This did not look good to Chewie, even though Jade had taken him directly to Solo while explaining what had happened, and just how ill Han had become in only a few time-parts.
"Will you stop pacing?" Jade snapped at the nervous Wookiee, now that they were in the laboratory. "It's not doing Solo any good, you know."
Chewie stopped only for a moment to snarl at the red-head, and looked over at Dr. Xalac. *Why does she keep humming? I hate humming!*
Mara shrugged, uncertain of what Chewbacca was saying. "She's working as quickly as she can. You don't want her to make a mistake, do you? Besides, as long as Solo stays in stasis, he won't get any worse."
"No. No. No." The scientist shook her head. "This is just bad. Plain bad."
"No stopping the breakdown. Can't be done. No, it can't. Unless....."
"Unless? Unless, what?" Mara asked, more than a little impatient with this odd woman.
"You are Force-sensitive, Miss Jade?"
"Can I have a small sample of your blood? I need some unaltered midichlorians to test. Not Palpatine's. No. Can't be his."
Jade frowned. "I suppose so," she said reluctantly.
Dr. Xalac wrapped a small tie around Mara's arm and withdrew a vial of blood, mumbling to herself during the entire procedure. Then she wandered back to her workspace, lost in her own little world of blood samples and midichlorians.
Mara sat down and waited.
"Do you think she's lost her mind?" Mon Mothma asked Rieekan. "That's the only explanation I can think of, or maybe she's been drugged. Maybe it's a clone."
Or maybe she was the one that killed Madine, and only told me it was Solo. Rieekan shook his head. "There has to be some logical reason. I just can't believe the Leia I know would do this."
A young officer knocked softly on the door before entering. "Sir, Madam. A message has just arrived from Coruscant on our private communication line." He handed the Rebel leaders the disk and sharply saluted before leaving.
Rieekan put the disk in, and pressed the play button. A holo-image of the Princess appeared. "General Rieekan, Madam Mon Mothma. I send you personal greetings from Coruscant. I hope you are well, and you are not overly shocked by my new role as Empress of the galaxy. Please believe me when I say I'm doing this for the good of all beings. In time, I hope to restore at least partial democracy throughout the systems under my rule. I would like nothing more than to have your cooperation and assistance in this effort. Consider this an invitation to meet with me and my father and brother. Your experience and expertise would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you." The image shimmered and disappeared.
"Father? She thinks Vader is her father? And Luke is her brother?" The confused General looked at the older woman. "What do you think?"
"I think she's lost her mind."