One Missed Strike
Part III

(Return of the Jedi)

High above the small, peaceful planet of Naboo, a gigantic angled shape seemed to blot out the stars as it slowly settled into a high orbit.

An aide in the Royal Palace, hurrying along to deliver a morning report to the Queen, happened to look out the window and saw it first. As soon as she saw the massive angular vessel perched high above the pink sunrise clouds, she shrieked, dropped the datapads she was carrying and collapsed in a dead faint.

From the windows of their tower, the city's air traffic controllers saw the first few people on the city streets stop and glance up. More followed suit, some being alerted by those who saw the ship, others seeing the others' strange behavior and glancing in curiosity. Within minutes, every person, speeder, and animal in the streets of Theed had stopped to stare up into the sky.

The Executor, personal Star Destroyer of Sith Master Darth Vader, was here.

For the millions of inhabitants in Theed, the unexpected appearance of the dark, angular shape transcending from the endless black of space into the pink, hazy hues of sunrise pierced them with an immediate wave of icy dread. The Executor, at nineteen kilometers long, was larger than most of the cities on Naboo, both in mass and population, and manned enough firepower to subjugate entire planets singlehandedly; billions upon billions of sentients could attest to that. But more than a ship, the Executor was the symbol of Lord Vader's power, and his absolute, unquestionable authority as ruler of the galaxy.

The alarms came next, blaring out in crystal clarity that Emperor Skywalker's Star Destroyer had arrived, and that it was to take immediate precedence over all other ships. More traffic controllers collapsed in their chairs; only one managed to find the courage to call their superiors to alert them of the Star Destroyer's arrival.

The ship came quickly, driven by a single-minded purpose, one that many guessed was the immediate subjugation or destruction of their planet. It was widely known that Naboo sided with the Rebellion, and while the Emperor had left Naboo alone during his twenty-four year conquest of the galaxy, the population also knew that the Sith Master was neither forgiving nor merciful to traitors. Lord Vader's conquest of Alderaan four years earlier remained as a terrible example of the Emperor's wrath for those that defied the Empire.

For another few seconds the city stayed still, and then one person ran. And in a single fleeing mass, the city exploded into chaos.

A few ships immediately fled the surface. Most were the personal vessels of the wealthy, stuffed with whatever valuables they could gather in the few minutes it took to get the ship ready for launch. Cargo ships were next, overloaded with frantic citizens who had thrown every valuable item they owned into the hands of opportunistic men for a chance to escape Lord Vader's wrath. They vanished up into the clouds, lost to the sight of the planet-bound citizens who knew that the ships would stand not chance against the firepower of the Executor.

On the planet, the citizens surged through the streets, the houses, the shops and bridges, cascading like a turbulent sea towards whatever location they believed would offer the most protection from the assured deadly rain of turbolaser fire ready to fall upon them in judgment at any time.

Far above the streets, the workers in the traffic control towers followed the trails of the fleeing vessels, expecting at any moment for the ships and signals to be lost to the first stages of the Sith Master's wrath. When the ships entered firing range, the workers trembled and offered a prayer to the Goddess of Safety, though more prayed to Mother Vima to guide their souls to the underworld.

But the ships passed unharmed, even those ships that passed within two kilometers of the ship's weapon-covered hull. Five minutes passed in silence, then ten, and fifteen. No shots were fired, their communication lines remained open, and no demands were made; the Emperor's vessel simply remained perched in its quiet orbit.

Its only sign of activity was to launch a shuttle and two dropships, which remained equally silent on the trip to the planet below. No one dared to make an inquiry of the landing craft, but the air traffic controllers did watch where they went.

The shuttle and dropships landed in a wide, grassy field near Padmé Amidala Naberrie's mausoleum in the planetary capital of Theed. The controllers were puzzled at this, but kept silent again, as no one dared to ask the Imperials what they were doing there.

Thousands of light-years away, on the deserted world of Kuar, the only four sentient beings on the entire planet stood in the center of a crumbling coliseum within one of the many slowly decaying cities dotting the old world's surface.

Kuar had once been the homeworld of a thriving industrial civilization, but at some forgotten point in the distant past, the world had been conquered by the Mandalorians, who ruled the planet only long enough to strip it of most of its resources before moving on to the next target in their endless nomadic conquests. The planet had been abandoned ever since, drifting along in a slow orbit of its small yellow sun. It was far from any trade centers, and was in fact extremely out of the way, the main reason the people standing in the remains of the ancient coliseum had chosen it.

The cloudy gray sky overhead promised rain later in the day, but for now it was quiet. Not even wind moved within the decaying city, wrought in stone and rusting iron. The coliseum around them, once the site of the Mandalorians' bloodthirsty gladiatorial games, was being used as a training ground once again for the first time in centuries.

Grand Master Yoda, the last known Jedi Master in the galaxy, stood leaning on his walking stick beside Luke Skywalker as Mara Jade and Leia Organa Skywalker sparred with their lightsabers.

Leia jumped up, planted one foot on the side of a fallen stone pillar, and pushed off, somersaulting over Mara's head. As she landed, she swung her newly completed lightsaber at the other woman, the shining blue blade humming as it moved through its fast arc.

Mara spun on one foot and caught the slash on her own magenta blade, continuing the movement with a snap kick at Leia's knee. Leia leaped over the kick, angling her lightsaber to catch Mara's strike as she landed. Mara advanced, her lightsaber leaping through a series of wide, looping slashes.

Leia moved her lightsaber through a quick defensive pattern, but remained stationary, holding her ground as she tried to force Mara back with the occasional returning strike.

Finally, Mara paused and deactivated her lightsaber, running her fingers through her long red-gold hair as she pushed it back away from her face. "Good," she said as she reached back to the leather thong holding most of her hair at her neck. "But you're not moving your feet enough," she went on, pulling back the strands that had escaped the tie. "Footwork is just as essential to lightsaber combat as knowing how to angle your blade. You have to keep moving, changing your position so that your opponent is constantly forced to do the same."

Leia nodded, closing down her own lightsaber. "Okay," she said, pulling at the collar of her sleeveless white workout shirt. "Show me what you mean."

Mara grinned over at Luke. "Come on, farm-boy," she said, gesturing for him to join her. "Show your sister how it's done."

Leia stepped away as Luke took her place, igniting the emerald blade of his own lightsaber. "Watch what I do," he said to Leia, stretching his shoulders as he shifted his feet on the dusty ground.

Mara ignited her lightsaber again and immediately leaped at Luke, her lightsaber moving through a blisteringly fast offensive pattern. Luke spun to catch the first strike of the pattern on his shining green blade and, despite Mara's attack, advanced, forcing her to go on the defensive instead.

Luke shifted his feet for greatest stability with each of his strikes, in constant motion as he forced Mara back along a line leading directly for the fallen pillar. She moved her blade defensively, but even as Luke tensed his legs to do the same, she hurled herself into a back-flip, landing with both feet solidly on the pillar. She lashed down, her lightsaber in a one-handed grip as she went on the offensive again from her higher position.

"Always try to get… above your… opponent… if you can," Mara panted between strikes, spinning over Luke's slow slash at one of her feet. "Come on, Skywalker," she grinned challengingly. "You can do better than that. Get up here."

Luke obliged, throwing his body into a twisting flip that ended with his feet on the narrow pillar also, higher up than Mara. She slashed at him immediately, driving Luke backwards a step. Luke retreated for four steps, all the while moving higher up the angled pillar toward where the broken end balanced on the remains of its base.

Suddenly he stopped and leaned forward, locking blades with Mara. Leia watched as his muscles bulged under the short sleeves of his dark brown workout shirt, and he planted his feet far apart, using the greater height afforded him by the angle of the fallen pillar to force Mara back and down.

But, Mara shifted her own feet, holding her lightsaber above her head as her own muscles flexed with the exertion of keeping Luke back. Suddenly, like a striking serpent, she twisted her body and one foot leaped out in a snap kick to knock Luke's forward leg out from under him.

Luke turned his tumble into a flip, leaping again immediately after both feet touched the ground, and went into another back-flip that put three meters between him and Mara. He shifted his lightsaber into a guard position, waiting as Mara leaped off the pillar, landed in a one-handed handspring, and pushed off to go into a front-flip that ended with her lightsaber crashing against Luke's in a powerful momentum-fueled strike.

Luke laughed as he crossed blades with Mara twice. "Show-off," he said, grinning.

"You're just jealous because I'm in better shape," Mara replied, grinning herself.

"Think so, do you?" Luke countered, raising a teasing eyebrow.

With that, he launched himself into a spinning attack pattern that combined lightsaber slashes with kicks from both legs, moving almost too fast to follow with the naked eye. Leia watched as Mara was forced to give ground again and again, though she still managed to counter each slash and dodge each kick. Finally, her eyes narrowed in concentration, Mara paused for a moment and whipped her foot around in a spin kick.

Luke grunted as the kick connected solidly with his side, and he stumbled back, hand raised to indicate he wanted a pause. He grimaced as he rubbed his side, and Mara grinned teasingly.

"That was showing off," she said, gesturing at him with her lightsaber. "That's what you get for trying to look good instead of concentrating on what you're doing."

"How did you do that?" Luke said, shutting off his lightsaber.

"You fight just like your father," Mara replied, deactivating her own. "He's pretty fond of those flashy attacks, himself. I had to learn how to counter them if I ever wanted to hold my own when I sparred with him."

"Oh, yeah?" Luke said as he stretched his arm. "You ever win?"

Mara scoffed amusedly. "No. He's been practicing longer than I've been alive. He had a counter for every attack I was able to think of." Mara's expression went serious. "If you ever fight Vader again, Luke, you're going to have to do better than that. If I could do it, he'll do it for sure, and likely do some damage, besides."

Luke nodded, looking down at his right hand. He wore a wristband to hide the line where the synthetic flesh stopped and his natural arm began, but his artificial right hand was a constant reminder of how his first duel with Darth Vader had ended.

Leia frowned to herself; both she and her brother had scars left by their father, though some were more obvious than others. How could he ever…

She stopped; this would take her into the same dark thoughts she always had when she thought about her true father. Although she was glad she now knew Luke was her brother, the only blood relative she had ever known, it always troubled her to know she was the daughter of a man she had hated for most of her life. It had been a little more than a year since she had found out, but it still seemed unbelievable sometimes.

Yoda shuffled forward a few steps, looking up at his three students. "Much have you learned," he said, an approving look on his lined face. "Much progress have you made. Soon, Jedi will you be."

Yoda grunted quietly as he shifted position, and Leia noted how frail he looked; Master Yoda was not well, and it had been growing increasingly obvious over the past few months.

"No more training do you require," Yoda said, resting both hands on his walking stick. "Soon, it will be time to leave this world."

Luke approached, concern on his face. "Master, are you all right?" he asked. He'd noticed, too.

Yoda made a dismissive wave with one hand. "Old, I am," he said tiredly. "Old and tired." He chuckled shortly, gesturing at Luke with his walking stick. "When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not."

Luke smiled slightly at this, but the sadness did not leave his eyes. "Let's go inside," he said to the others. "It's starting to get cold out here."

Inside the small dwelling the four of them had converted out of one wing of the ancient gladiator barracks, Luke helped Master Yoda into the ancient Jedi Master's bed. He feared that Yoda was much more sick than he was letting on.

Master Yoda looked over at him as if he had sensed the young man's thoughts. "Not long do I have," he confirmed. "Soon will I be gone."

Luke sighed sadly. Mara, standing at his side, put one hand on his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. Leia's expression was similarly sad where she sat at the foot of the bed.

"Yes, rest," Yoda said. "Earned it, I have." He looked up at the three young people around him and smiled slightly. "No death there is," he said. "Only the Force."

Luke felt like his heart was twisting; Yoda meant he was dying now, not tomorrow or in a few weeks. They would lose him today, right here.

Yoda's eyes fell half-closed, as if he was having trouble keeping himself awake. He took a deep breath, looking weakly up at the three of them. "When gone am I," he said weakly, "the last of the Jedi will you be." His gnarled hand squeezed Luke's, at his side. "Pass on what you have learned."

The Jedi Master's breathing became labored, and there was great exertion behind his words, as if he had to struggle to speak now. "Remember, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. Beware of anger, fear, and aggression. The Dark Side are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight." He met Luke's eyes in warning. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."

Luke nodded, swallowing past the painful lump in his throat. How could Yoda be leaving them? He wasn't ready yet. He had much he still wanted to share with the old Master, much he wanted him to see. Luke had always thought that he would have Yoda for many more years, that he would be able to help him rebuild the Jedi Order, but those hopes ended today. Today, he would lose another mentor.

Now Luke understood just why his father was so desperate to find a way around death; there was no greater pain than to lose a loved one.

Luke suddenly clutched his head as he felt a painfully strong building-up of power. It seemed as if a bright white light flashed behind his eyes, blinding him. As if from very far away, he heard Mara's voice asking him what was wrong.

Come to me, Luke heard his father's voice say in his mind. Along with it, he saw a peaceful green world, and then an elegant white building, a mausoleum. Finally, the image in his mind shifted to the top of the tomb, showing the name there, his mother's.

Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the image vanished, leaving Luke gasping for breath. He looked up to see Leia looking back at him, and from her expression, he could tell she had seen the same thing.

Yoda nodded slowly. "Go to him," he said, and coughed, his breath rattling within his chest. "Put an end to Vader, you must."

"Can he be…" Luke paused. "Can he be turned back?"

"Anakin's choice, that is," Yoda said quietly. "But put an end to the Sith, you must. Vader and his apprentice must be confronted." The ancient Jedi Master looked over at Leia, including her in his statement. "Bring balance to the Force, you must. Do this, you can. Succeed, you will, where your father failed."

Finally, Yoda lay back against the pillows and. He looked up at the three of them, his voice so weak it was barely audible. "Proud of you. I am…"

And then his body flickered and faded out of being. The empty blanket slowly collapsed against the bed, and Yoda was gone.

Outside the mausoleum on Naboo, Trooper Tyraj Kolos, designation TK-421, stood at attention in a line beside two dozen of his fellow stormtroopers, his white armor gleaming in the sunlight. Beside their troop transport sat the Emperor's personal shuttle, from which he had yet to emerge. TK-421 and the other troopers had been waiting in formation for nearly an hour, but no complaints were heard. Lord Vader could make them wait here for the rest of the day if he wished, and none of the men in this detachment of the Imperial 501st would complain. Vader's Fist lived only to serve their Emperor.

Finally, the silent gray shuttle whirred with machinery as the ramp below the cockpit slowly lowered. The men of the 501st stiffened even further, every one of them still as a statue.

Inside his helmet, Tyraj shifted his eyes to watch the Emperor emerge, though this was undetectable from outside. First came six of the red-cloaked Royal Guards, their faces concealed by smooth bullet-shaped helmets, holding meter-long pikes in their hands. If the Emperor had brought his guards, Tyraj knew, it must mean that he intended to stay here for quite some time; Lord Vader usually didn't bother bringing the fiercely loyal red-armored elite troopers along.

Next, the hem of a long black cloak and a pair of polished black boots became visible at the top of the ramp, and Tyraj watched as the dark figure slowly descended the ramp, mostly hidden by the overhanging cockpit of the Lambda-class shuttle.

Sith Master Darth Vader strode into view, his long black cloak billowing out behind him as he marched across the grassy field. He was tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in a black Imperial uniform devoid of insignia but for a bit of silver trim. His dark blond hair was cut military-short, and Tyraj noted that Emperor Skywalker had grown a beard since he had seen him last, kept precisely trimmed. Both hair and beard were visibly sprinkled with gray, much of it concentrated at his temples and on his chin.

Lord Vader looked over the troopers, his glowing blue mechanical eye gleaming beneath its lens, which was bolted directly to the Sith Master's skull like an eyepatch. He approached rapidly, and stopped in front of Tyraj, meeting his eyes through the trooper's helmet lenses.

"No one is to be allowed inside," he said, and immediately turned to march up the steps of the mausoleum.

"You heard the Emperor," one of the Royal Guards said, gesturing with his pike.

The stormtroopers quickly took up position around the small white building, surrounding it, while the Royal Guards went inside. Tyraj planted himself in the center of the bottom step of the white stone stairway, his blaster rifle held at an angle across his chest.

He had not the slightest clue why the Emperor was here or what his business was inside, but it was not his place to ask questions.

The Millennium Falcon's engines rumbled as its pilot slowly set the battered freighter down in the center of the abandoned coliseum on Kuar.

Luke, Leia, and Mara were waiting at the edge of the stone ring, their bags packed with what few possessions they'd kept with them here during the last phase of their training.

As the ramp on the familiar starship lowered, Leia moved forward to greet the man waiting at the end. Han Solo grinned broadly as he saw her coming. Leia smiled back as they embraced in greeting, but her expression slowly faded into one of sadness.

"Hey, what is it?" Han asked, leaving one arm around her shoulders.

"Master Yoda passed away," Leia replied, looking back off at the ruined buildings.

Han squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. He turned his head to look over at Luke, gesturing with his other hand back inside his ship. "There's something big brewing with the Alliance; they would have told you sooner, but I told 'em I wasn't going to go get you unless you asked me to; the Imps have really been cracking down on us lately, and Intelligence is pretty sure all the HoloNet relays are being watched closer than a mother hawk-bat watches her eggs."

"Well, it had to be like that," Mara replied. "Vader would never pass up a chance to kill me and Yoda and capture these two. If he had even the slightest clue where we were, he would have sent an entire fleet of Star Destroyers to get us."

"At least," Han said with a wry grin. "I hope you guys learned a lot," he went on, "because Alliance Command has been bugging me to go find you for the last month or so. They've finally got all their forces built up, and they're saying it's time to take Vader on."

As they walked inside and Luke stowed the bags in a storage compartment, Han shouted up the passageway to the cockpit that they were ready to go, Chewbacca bellowed back, and with a powerful rumble of its engines, the Falcon lifted free of the ground and started up on its way out of the atmosphere.

Han gestured to Winter as the elegant young woman stood from the acceleration couch behind the gameboard table in the main hold. "She knows more about what's going on than I do," he said. "She'll tell you all about it." With that, he headed up to the cockpit.

Luke settled into the chair next to the hold's computer console as the three women sat down in the acceleration couch. Almost as soon as they were all seated, Han and Chewie punched the sublight engines and roared out of the atmosphere at near-top speed, pushing them all back in their seats until the inertial dampeners caught up with the starship's velocity.

"There will be more in the briefing," Winter said as she looked around at the other three, "but I'll tell you now that it seems Vader has made a tactical blunder; the Executor is alone at Naboo, without any support ships, and there are no nearby bases. If we gather the entire fleet and strike, we can take him out in one battle."

"Vader wants us to come to Naboo," Leia said, glancing over at Luke. "He told us to come to him through the Force. It has something to do with our mother, but I'm not sure what."

Luke sighed; he'd kept what Vader had said to him at the end of their duel at Cloud City to himself since then, but now it was plainly time to tell the others. Apparently, Vader's preparations were finally complete, and he wanted them to be there.

"I know why," Luke said, looking over at his sister and the others. He hesitated for a moment, trying to think of the right way to word what he had to say, but finally decided to just speak plainly. "Vader thinks he can bring our mother back to life with the Force, and he wants us to help him do it."

"What?" Leia and Mara exclaimed simultaneously. Leia glanced at Mara, but the other woman spoke first. "He never said anything about that to me!"

"I don't think he's told anyone," Luke said. "He told me at the end of our duel on Bespin, trying to get me to join him. He said he'd figured out the process, but couldn't do it by himself. He wanted me to help him."

"Is that even possible?" Leia said incredulously. "Mother has been dead for twenty-three years."

"She's been in suspended animation the entire time, though," Mara said, looking across the table at her. "Biologically, she's only been dead for a few minutes, maybe an hour." She shrugged. "I've seen Vader do stranger things with the Force, including sending a sun into supernova by himself; if he thinks he can do it, he probably can."

"He could definitely do it with both of us helping him," Luke said to Leia.

"You aren't seriously considering helping him?" Leia said disbelievingly. "It's obviously a trap, Luke. He'd have his stormtroopers swarm us right away!"

"No, I think he genuinely does want to bring Mother back," Luke replied. "He'll probably try to get us to join him again, but I don't think he'd hurt us if we agreed to help him. When he was telling me about what he wanted to do, I…" He trailed off, searching for the right words. "I could sense how much pain he was in. He never accepted Mother's death, Leia; I think he's been planning this the entire time, ever since she died."

Leia's expression could not have been more astonished even if he suddenly sprouted another head; he could sense her disbelief and anger through the Force very strongly.

"You're really thinking about this!" Leia said, staring at him. "I… I can't believe it! Why would you even consider going along with this? It's… it's unnatural!"

Luke was about to reply, but Mara interrupted. "Whether you help Vader bring back Padmé or not, you can't deny the advantage this gives us. Yes, Vader has a ship full of troops with him, but he's alone on the planet. The three of us can take him, I'm sure of it. If the rest of the Rebellion's fleet keeps the Executor busy, we can go in, either capture or kill Vader, and force them to surrender. We can end the war right now."

"The plans have been made," Winter said quietly, looking right at Luke. "We hope you help us with this, but we are prepared to complete the mission without you. If you had been any later in coming back, we would have went ahead anyway. This opportunity cannot be passed up."

"I know," Luke said, absently running his thumb over the cool metal grip of his lightsaber. "I'll help you. It's just… tempting, is all," he said, looking down at his boots. "I've never known my mother, so to have that chance…"

Leia's expression softened, and she sighed quietly. "I know what you mean," she said. "I suppose it's harder for you, since you've known about her almost your whole life. I didn't even know she was my mother until Vader told me."

The four of them were quiet for a few moments after this, each deep in thought, but they looked up at the sound of footsteps.

Han strode into the hold, a big grin on his face. "I have some great news," he said, oblivious to the somber mood.

"What?" Mara asked, looking over at him.

Han grin got even wider. "Jabba's dead!"

"What?" Luke exclaimed, leaning forward in his seat. "When?"

"About two weeks ago," Han replied, leaning on the back of the couch. "Somebody managed to hide a thermal detonator in his food!" Han imitated the sound of an explosion as he spread his fingers.

"Do they know who did it?" Luke asked.

Han shrugged. "They're not sure. The local government is just glad he's gone, so they haven't been looking too much into it. I heard all his flunkies had a wild party after it happened, but then the palace sealed up tight and nobody's heard anything out of it since."

Mara let out a low whistle of amazement. "Jabba had a big organization," she said. "Now that he's dead, either another Hutt is going to move in and take over his territory, or it's all just going to splinter among his lieutenants. There's going to be a major mob war now, I'll bet."

"Nope!" Han said, still grinning. "Get this: when Vader found out, he declared that all of Jabba's property belonged to the Empire and sent two warships to take over the planet. Tatooine completely belongs to the Empire now. And," Han added, somehow managing to make his smile even more delighted, "Jabba's bounty on me is canceled! Nobody's going to pay it, so nobody's after me anymore!"

"Except the Hunters still interested in your Imperial bounty," Mara replied dryly. "That one's probably higher than Jabba's ever was. It's amazing Boba Fett hasn't caught you again by now."

Han's triumphant expression collapsed almost comically, and Luke had to stifle a laugh despite himself.

"The Hutts aren't just going to let Vader confiscate Jabba's holdings," Leia said. "He owned most of Tatooine and a great deal more, and even the Hutts will fight to try and keep that."

"Can you think of anybody who could handle it better?" Han said. "Hutts like staying alive even more than they like money; none of them are crazy enough to try and take on the Empire." He smirked at Leia as he said the last statement, and she smiled wryly.

"Vader personally went to Tatooine to announce the takeover," Han continued. "Y'know, seeing the looks on the crowd's faces when Vader announced that slavery was now illegal on Tatooine and everyone was free was almost enough to make you like the guy." He frowned. "Almost."

Leia's expression was puzzled. "Why would he bother doing something like that? That doesn't sound like him."

"Anakin grew up on Tatooine," Luke said. "He was a slave himself once."

Mara's brows lifted in surprise. "I never knew that," she said. "He never told me anything about his early life, so I just assumed he grew up in the Temple like all the other Jedi."

"Obi-Wan told me that Anakin and his mother were slaves, sent to Tatooine when they were owned by Gardulla the Hutt," Luke said. "My mother's starship was damaged while she was escaping from the Trade Federation blockade of Naboo, so they stopped at Tatooine for repairs. Obi-Wan's teacher, a Jedi Master named Qui-Gon Jinn, encountered Anakin while they were there, and he brought him along to be trained by the Jedi when they left. That's how my mother and Obi-Wan met Anakin, actually."

Luke paused for a moment, smiling slightly to himself in surprise as he thought about what had happened. "Obi-Wan once said to me that Anakin told him he always meant to go back to Tatooine and free the rest of the slaves. I guess he finally made good on his promise."

Han gave him a puzzled look. "What's with the sympathy for your dad, kid? I thought you hated him."

Luke looked over at his friend as he leaned back in his chair. "I did, once. But ever since I fought him at Bespin, I've been thinking about what he said to me, trying to figure out what my father's real motives are for why he does the things he does."

"He's evil and power-hungry," Leia said bluntly. "He does what he does so that he can get more power for himself."

"I'm not so sure," said Luke. "From what Obi-Wan and Yoda told me about him, Anakin's fall to the Dark Side all started when he became so afraid of losing our mother that he became willing to do anything to save her life. Palpatine preyed on this, and tempted him to the Dark Side. When my mother died, and Anakin killed Palpatine, he saw no course left to him but to take control of the Empire and try to keep the galaxy stable after so much upheaval." Luke glanced around at the others. "I don't see Anakin as a wholly evil man; he is trying to do the right thing, but right now he is using entirely the wrong methods."

"Stop calling him Anakin!" Leia shouted as she abruptly stood from her seat, surprising Luke with her vehemence. She took a step toward him, radiating fury through the Force. "Anakin Skywalker is dead, Luke. You've said so yourself. All that's left is Darth Vader, and he is a monster. You weren't there when he tortured me, and you weren't there when he did the same to Han and then had him frozen in carbonite. Vader might have been our father once, but all that is left is a heartless creature of the Dark Side who doesn't care anything about anybody else. Do you really think our mother would want to come back to a man like that?"

Luke could think of nothing to say; he'd had no idea Leia was this angry about this. He knew she had been having a hard time accepting it, but obviously none of her resentment toward Vader had gone away, even after she learned the truth.

He wisely decided not to argue with his sister; she was clearly in no mood to hear Luke's opinions about their father right now.

"All right," Luke said as calmly as he was able. "We won't talk about it right now."

Leia visibly attempted to calm herself, as well. "I'm sorry I shouted at you, Luke," she said quietly. "But I just can't see Vader the same way you do. He has done too much to me and the people I love for me to see him as anything but my enemy."

Luke nodded once. "I understand." And he did; it had taken Luke a long time to get past his hatred of his father, and he had known for far longer than Leia had.

More to change the subject than anything else, he turned to Han. "How much longer is it until we meet up with the fleet?" he asked.

"Most of the day," Han said. "We're quite a ways away from the rendezvous point." He gave Luke a good-natured frown and pointed at him in mock-warning. "No sparring to pass the time. This ship's beat-up enough as it is without you Jedi cutting holes in it."

Mara laughed, and Luke managed a small smile, but Leia showed no trace of amusement. She quietly left the hold, headed for the rear of the ship.

Luke started to get up, but Han held up a hand. "I'd let her cool down first before I talked to her about this again, if I were you."

The young Jedi nodded. "You're right."

In the Grand Vizier's office in the Senate building on Coruscant, Sate Pestage sat at his desk, busily going through the Imperial budget for the year. Vader was burning through credits, funneling trillions into the Imperial military, as usual, and this left a deficit in several other areas.

Pestage leaned back in his chair with an annoyed sigh. Vader was a warrior at heart, and this showed clearly through the way he ruled the Empire; he was single-mindedly focused on catching the Rebels, including his son Luke Skywalker, and the rest of the Empire could go to blazes for all he cared. Sate was left to handle the administrative duties of running the Empire, which mostly entailed cleaning up Vader's messes. The Senate was in an uproar, again, because Vader had once again increased the military budget without consulting them.

Threats were proving less and less effective against the angry politicians, which was also frustrating, because Sate knew, after working for Darth Vader for more than twenty years, that if they angered him enough, the Emperor would completely disband the Senate and turn the Empire into a military dictatorship, handing direct control over the galaxy to the Imperial Governors.

Sate allowed himself a slow grin; this wouldn't bother him at all, since most of the governors were loyal to him and not Vader by now. The politicians were clamoring for change, risking accusations of treason by insisting that Vader make himself more accountable to the rest of the government. They had all been chafing under Vader's rule for far too long; many, many people were tired of having Darth Vader's boot heel on their necks, and while no one openly said anything, a revolution was brewing.

This, of course, played right into Sate's hands; he'd been plotting this for a year now.

The door buzzed, and Sate glanced over at the small screen set into his desk that displayed the feed from a small camera mounted above the outer door to his office. He recognized the woman standing there, and hit the control that opened the doors. As he did so, Sate engaged the privacy field around his office, scrambling any possible listening devices. No one could listen to this conversation; if any hint of the discussion that was about to take place got back to Lord Vader, he would have both of their heads.

A tall, arrogantly noble woman strode into Sate's office, attractive in a deadly sort of way. She was dressed in an Imperial uniform, red as freshly spilled blood, with black gloves covering her hands. Her long dark hair hung loosely around her face, a prominent white streak contrasting sharply.

Ysanne Isard, Director of Imperial Intelligence, was a woman of contrasts, in both personality and appearance, but her most distinguishing feature, by far, was her mismatched eyes, one red as fire and the other a cold ice-blue. Sate had more than once thought to himself that Isard's eyes matched the two extremes of her personality; she could be terrifyingly cold and emotionless in some situations, but sometimes her temper would flare with all the rage of a burning sun.

"Vader has isolated himself at Naboo," Isard announced without preamble as she strode up to the edge of Sate's desk. "The Executor is alone there. Now is an excellent time to strike."

Sate leaned back in his chair, slowly tapping his fingers together. "You are confident the rest of the preparations are complete?" he asked, looking up at his co-conspirator.

Isard nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. "The politicians are willing to follow you, and most of the military is willing to follow me. Three-quarters of the Empire will rally to our side, Pestage; if we destroy Vader and the Executor, we take out the best of the Navy's officers. After that, it's just a matter of mopping up the loyalists. Then," Isard's lips quirked in a slow, confident grin, "the Empire is ours."

"You mean mine."

Both of them jumped at the voice, looking around the office for the disembodied voice.

In one corner of Sate's office, the air seemed to shimmer and blur before a young man with closely shorn dark hair, dressed in a black Imperial uniform, appeared. He approached them swiftly, holding out one hand. Sate reflexively tried to leap under his desk for cover, but found he was unable to move, gripped in an invisible hold that kept him frozen in position. Across the desk, Isard was similarly frozen, though subtle movements and her expression made it obvious she was struggling against the hold.

Darth Nova, his eyes glowing a burning shade of yellow, looked between the Grand Vizier and the Director of Imperial Intelligence. "I have known for quite some time what you two were up to," he said. "The only reason you are still alive is because your conspiracy suits my own purposes."

The Sith Lord's voice was eerily calm as he walked in a slow circle around Sate and Isard. "I am adding myself as a third member of this conspiracy; I will rally the Sith to my own purposes, while Director Isard's followers among the military will work to quickly eliminate the loyalists. Pestage, your political connections will solidify my rulership."

He gestured to the two of them with one hand as he stopped beside the desk. "You two had the right idea; Darth Vader is no longer fit to rule this galaxy. The time has come for me to take his place as both Emperor and Sith Master." He leaned closer. "You two are going to help me with this. Otherwise, I will kill you both now. Your answers?"

Sate immediately nodded as soon as he was able, terrified. Isard shot the Sith Lord a glare of pure hatred, but after several seconds of silence, finally nodded once.

Nova gave them a disturbingly predatory grin. "Excellent," he said. "We have much work to do, then. Let's get to it."


Author's Note: Months later than I intended, this story is finally finished and ready to start posting. As I mentioned at the end of 'Tales From the Empire', I was without reliable computer access for several months, thus the long delay. Hey, it's better than waiting three years, right? ;)

Thanks to Silverwolf05 and Desteni for beta reading, and also to all who read and review. Thanks for your support of this series; knowing there were people out there eagerly waiting to read this kept me writing and trying to do the best job I could. I plan to post a chapter of this every other day, depending on any last-minute edits needed or unexpected delays. Thanks for reading!