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The Father - Part 5

Someone new was here.

Although this was not an unprecedented event, it was not a particularly common one either. This area was very private, and her master did not make a habit of adding names to the list of beings that were permitted entrance. Any time somebody unfamiliar ventured within, it piqued her curiosity, and she would practice her skills by sneaking away from her tutors and attempting to get a glimpse of the newcomer before he or she was let into the private audience room.

Her master knew that she did so, but for all her tutors’ complaints, he had never punished her for it. It was not that he was reluctant to teach harsh lessons—she’d gotten plenty of them in her twelve years of life—but he usually was quite pleased to see her putting her growing skills to use. So she did not worry at all as she slipped through some of the secret passages and dodged security sensors. Instead she focused her attention completely on the stranger.

She finally glimpsed him from a balcony overlooking the foyer of the private audience room. Her eyes widened—she recognized that man! She’d never seen him in person, but it wasn’t hard to find his image on the Holonet. Fascinated, she took in the battle-scarred armor, the concealed weaponry, the sleek jetpack. Reflexively, she slipped her small fingers around the grip of her miniature blaster, and wondered whether she could land a shot on him. Probably he was much too fast for her right now—but she would be faster someday, when she’d finished her training. The bounty hunter was good, but he didn’t have the talents she did.

Oddly, he was not alone. Some sort of large container was floating alongside him on a bank of repulsors. Clearly, it was for her master, whatever it was. Unable to resist, she dug a pair of compact electrobinoculars out of her pocket and zoomed in on the transparent cover.

There was somebody inside. Fiercely she wondered who this captured enemy of her master was—for of course it must be an enemy, if the bounty hunter was delivering him. She tightened up the focus and used the snapshot button to take several close-up images of the face of the prisoner. She didn’t recognize him, but she could break into the intel center and run a search on these images—

Then the audience door creaked ponderously open, and the bounty hunter and his prize vanished inside. At about the same instant, a hand landed on her shoulder from behind. She whirled and found to her chagrin that one of her tutors had caught her.

“I’ll take those,” he said smugly.

Sourly she handed over the electrobinoculars, furious at not having noticed his approach. Her stealth tutor was still much better than she was. That would change, she vowed. No one was going to be a better servant to her master than she intended to be.

“Now if you’re quite done spying on the Emperor’s guests,” her tutor said dryly, “we’ll get on with the scheduled lesson?”

Grudgingly accepting that she wouldn’t be solving the puzzle of the prisoner’s identity any time soon, Mara Jade trailed her tutor off to the next of her incessant training sessions.

The Emperor did not bother to rotate his throne to face the opening doors. He remained where he was, surveying the great holographic map of the galaxy that had been installed behind the throne. His reptilian, hooded eyes lingered thoughtfully on the Vjun system as footsteps approached the throne behind him and came to a halt. Still he did not turn. He was Emperor, and master of the dark side; those who sought an audience with him did so at his convenience. If he chose to make them kneel for hours while he meditated, then they would do it, and treasure the honor.

It was a lesson, he reflected, that he had thought Vader had learned well. Capricious, temperamental, wilful, ambitious—the former Jedi prodigy was all these, but he well knew that Palpatine was the master, and heretofore had behaved accordingly. Yet the presence of the man behind him indicated that his apprentice was a great deal less tame than the Emperor had believed.

Well. It was high time he examined the nature of this deceitfulness in its full detail. Slowly he turned the throne about until he was facing the man who had come. Though it was the first time they had ever met face-to-face, it was impossible to mistake his guest. As with Vader, the full helmet and armor he wore were less a mask than was the face behind them.

“Boba Fett,” he acknowledged. “You may rise.”

The infamous bounty hunter stood, somehow managing to convey in the action his distaste for ever having had to kneel in the first place. That was to be expected from a man whose millions of clone brothers all bowed to Palpatine on a regular basis, and who prided himself on his relative uniqueness from them. Though proud, Fett was nonetheless an effective tool, and so the Emperor elected to tolerate the idiosyncrasies as long as the bounty hunter held them in check.

“Your Majesty,” Fett said brusquely in a voice that smacked of pulverized permacrete.

Palpatine thoughtfully regarded the container that floated alongside the bounty hunter. It was a portable cryogenic unit. Realizing that the unit would not be easy to transfer up the dais stairs, he stood and began making his way down, cane tapping on the beautiful Nubian green marble floor. “I assume you fulfilled my conditions,” he said.

Fett inclined his head. “Vader and his men know nothing,” he replied.

After deliberation, Fett had decided it would be better to make no mention of the unidentifiable children on Corellia, or of the liberated bonuses. After all, the terms of the contract had been met—the desired merchandise had been delivered, the children in question didn’t know who he was or where he had gone, and Vader’s men had never caught a whiff of him. Besides that, he had good reason to expect that all four mystery children and the Imperials at the hangar on Corellia were dead. Once he’d reached the cockpit of the Slave I, he’d used his stolen military communications suite to tap into NavNet and transmit bogus instructions to the central computer to switch one of the patrolling TIE fighters into autopilot attack mode, re-designating the operation zone coordinates as the target area.

Of course he couldn’t fool the central command into more than one pass, because clearly someone was going to notice something a bit fishy about a TIE strafing Imperial troops. And of course, he’d never be able to use that com suite again—which was a real shame, because it was not every day that a professional could get his hands on a military com suite that had been properly configured to interface with NavNet. Only the Navy Division of Communications could configure units, and those configured units were religiously tracked. If by some miracle one was stolen, Central Command would just deconfigure it remotely, and it would be worthless.

All things considered, it was much easier to break somebody out of Vader’s personal fortress than it was to steal a configured military com suite without anyone noticing.

Fett shifted a hand on the cryo unit and ordered his thoughts back to the present. He had a good sense that he couldn’t afford to be absentminded around the Emperor for even an instant. Besides, the prize for this catch was big enough to make the loss of the com unit negligible.

“And there were no…complications…with the freezing process,” Palpatine continued, pausing on the third to last stair.

“None,” Fett said.

Palpatine spread his thin lips in amusement. This bounty hunter and his stiff dignity made for an interesting encounter. “Do you not think placing him in hibernation to be somewhat an excessive measure?” he goaded.

“Necessitated by the presence of a combustible tracking chip,” explained Fett.

Palpatine straightened a little more, thoughtful. “A slave implant,” he murmured. Considering Vader’s history, that was most interesting.

“The cryo incapacitated it,” Fett said. “It will present no obstacles now.”

“You are certain?” Palpatine fixed the bounty hunter’s inscrutable mask with a warning stare. Should anything fatal befall his prize before he had had the opportunity to examine it, he would be most displeased.

“I scanned it. It is inactive.”

“Excellent,” Palpatine murmured, regarding the cryo unit thoughtfully. “You have done well, bounty hunter.”

“I always do,” Fett returned flatly. “That’s why I’m paid as well as I am.”

Palpatine cackled with amusement. A pity that the man usually dealt with Vader and not himself, truly a pity; he had quite enjoyed this meeting. Fett had both obvious simplicities and deliciously subtle complexities hovering about him. If not a challenge, the bounty hunter was at least a refreshing change of pace. “Oh, you need have no fears regarding payment, my friend. Rest assured your services are duly appreciated.”

Casually, enjoying the rare sensation of doing business directly with a mercenary instead of handing the chore off to some subordinate, Palpatine handed the bounty hunter his credit chip. Fett was sufficiently respectful not to check the validity and amount in front of him. A wise move. The Emperor only appreciated self-assertion in very small quantities.

“Need it be mentioned,” Palpatine continued, “that I would be most displeased if any mention of this were to inexplicably find its way to Lord Vader?”

“I don’t sell information,” Fett responded disdainfully. “I hunt.”

“Excellent,” the Emperor repeated. “Then our business is finished.”

Fett merely nodded and left without comment or ceremony through the side entrance shown him by one of the guards. No superfluous obeisances or pointless flatteries from him. In some ways, Palpatine was strongly reminded of Vader. Perhaps that was why his apprentice had developed such a penchant for hiring this particular bounty hunter.

He found it magnificently ironic to use one of Vader’s favorite tools against him.

The door hissed shut, and the Emperor turned after a moment to one of his guards. “Bring the unit to my personal medical ward,” he ordered. “I will supervise the boy’s resuscitation myself.”

“Are you sure it was Boba Fett?” Luke asked for what was probably the umpteen-millionth time.

“Told you, I have,” Yoda said, a bit reprovingly. “Certain, I am.”

“Sorry, sir,” Luke said with a remorseful glance. “I just can’t figure out why Boba Fett would want to kidnap Han. I mean, there’s not a bounty out on him or anything.”

“Know the answer to that question, I do not,” said Yoda. “Omniscient, I am not.”

“Omni-what?” Luke asked absently, checking the hyperdrive readouts from the pilot’s seat. He might only be thirteen, and Yoda might be nine hundred, but there was no question which of them was the better pilot. After the Jedi Master had used the Force to heal him of the two nasty concussions he’d gotten from being thrown around on Corellia, Luke did all of the flying.

“It means all-knowing,” Obi-Wan’s voice echoed.

“Why didn’t you just say that, then—” A light blinked and a chime rang. Luke sat up a little straighter. “Okay, we’re coming out of hyperspace right…about…now.”

The modified Imperial shuttle slipped out of hyperspace, and as soon as the sublight engines had kicked in Luke flipped on the repaired cloaking shield. It was a good thing they had the shield, he reflected—the space ahead of them swarmed with Star Destroyers and commercial traffic. He didn’t fancy trying to sneak down in a cargo ship’s shadow like Han had.

“I’ve been to Coruscant before, you know,” he said, accelerating toward the planet.

Yoda nodded. “Lived here, I did. Dangerous it is now for a Jedi.”

“It sure is,” Luke agreed fervently, remembering how he and Han and that guy Wedge had blasted their way out several months ago.

“Stay close to me, you must, youngling,” Yoda warned. “Retrieve one child at the expense of another, I will not.”

Luke’s hands tightened a little on the controls. “Um…what if there’s other kids wherever it is we’re going? Will you rescue them too?”

“Think there may be other children, do you?”

Luke shrugged, inwardly hoping that Fett hadn’t somehow caught up with Lando and his little sisters, but not knowing for certain, and not wanting to spread the news about his family tree just yet. He was pretty sure Leia was safe—Baranne had her, and the worst he would do was put her in a detention cell. Which wasn’t any fun, of course, but Luke didn’t think anyone would hurt her, and once he’d rescued Han and found his sisters and gotten everybody safely back, he could convince his father to send her back home to her family. “Maybe.”

“Plan for that when the time comes, we will,” Yoda said.

“What is the plan?”

“Depend upon where Fett is, that will,” Yoda told him serenely. “Towards Galactic City, he is flying.”

Luke felt something clench in the pit of his stomach. “Isn’t that where the Emperor is?” he asked, feeling a bit sick.

“Frighten you, the Emperor does,” Yoda observed mildly.

Luke bristled, opened his mouth to deny ever having been afraid of anything in his life, and then stopped, because there was no point lying to a Force user. “My father thinks he might try to kill me if he finds out I’m alive,” he said instead.

“The path to the Dark Side, fear is,” Yoda said somberly. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Luke hesitated before asking, “Is that what happened to my father?”

Yoda nodded his head gravely.

“But my father’s not afraid of anything,” Luke said, puzzled.

“Appear afraid to young eyes, Vader does not,” Yoda told him. “But great fears he has, youngling. Fear of failure, of loss, of change, of lack of control.”

Luke sat in silence for several minutes, trying to wrap his mind around the idea that his huge, supremely competent, generally terrifying father might actually be scared to death somewhere beneath all that impervious black armor. “And…he gets angry because he can’t escape being afraid?”

“Not cannot,” Yoda said severely. “Will not. Choose to cling to these fears, your father does. Seek to destroy them, he does, instead of letting them go. Anger it produces in him, frustration, dread, hatred—the Dark Side are these. See that they will only destroy that which he holds dear, he does not.”

“So—he does love me,” Luke pointed out defensively.

“Yes, yes,” Yoda agreed. “That is why you must go.”

Luke stared. “I don’t get it.”

“The same it was with your mother,” Yoda revealed solemnly.

Obi-Wan suddenly shimmered into being, taking over the story. “Luke, your father loved your mother terribly,” he explained. “So much that the fear of losing her consumed him. Your father could not accept his inability to protect her. He sought the power to control the future, and thought that the Dark Side would grant him this power.”

“But nobody can control the future,” Luke pointed out incredulously.

“So your father discovered,” Obi-Wan said sadly. “He became so obsessed with seeking power that he forgot why he wanted it in the first place. The Dark Side twisted your father’s love into fearful, dangerous jealousy.”

“But love’s a good thing!” Luke said indignantly.

“That’s true, Luke. But anything with a great capacity for good also has a great capacity for evil,” Obi-Wan explained. “Your father is a prime example.”

“But there’s still good in him!” Luke exclaimed.

“Your father’s love for you is good, Luke,” Obi-Wan told him.

“But warp it the Dark Side will,” Yoda cut in. “Change, your father will not, until realize his mistake he does. Until then, in grave danger from him you are!”

“You mean, because he loves me,” Luke said slowly, “that means…like, if he lost control, he might hurt me trying to keep me safe?”

Yoda nodded. “Consume him his desire for power still does. Consume you also, it may. ”

“You mean he’d kill me?” Luke whispered.

“In greater danger, your spirit is,” Yoda declared. “Sound training you require, before face the Dark Side you can. Balanced with perspective, your love for your father must be, or overwhelm you it will.”

“Like what happened to my father,” Luke said somberly.

Yoda nodded, ears twitching upward.

“But I can’t leave! I have to save him,” Luke argued.

“Save him, you cannot!” Yoda said, thumping his stick. “Responsible for his own decisions your father is. Only he can turn himself from the Dark Side. Only he can correct his own mistakes.”

“But I can help!” Luke burst out.

“Not if you do not complete your training,” Yoda cautioned. “If fall to the Darkness you do, help him you cannot.”

Luke fell silent, and turned back to the viewport and controls, not really seeing anything. The whirling emotions and thoughts were almost too much for him. He didn’t know what he should do. Leaving his father felt like betrayal—but what if Yoda was right, and that was the only way to help him? And what about his little sisters?

His mind was still a confused morass by the time Luke had sneaked the ship into an empty hangar near Galactic City.

Vader was still pacing the front room of his quarters feverishly when Siler finally made a reappearance. “Well?” he demanded thunderously.

Siler set his lips tightly. “A positive paternal match,” he announced.

His mind went shockingly still for a moment, just trying to process this new information. “You’re certain, Doctor?”

Siler handed him the printout from the genetic test. “Virtually a one hundred percent match, my lord. There’s no question.”

Vader stared at the splashes of technical information on the sheet. The only bit of it he could understand was the line reading Likelihood of Paternal Relationship: 99.99867, but then that was really all he needed to know.

“Congratulations,” Siler said softly.

Vader lunged a hand forward, seizing him by the shoulder. “You will not speak of this to anyone,” he growled. “Anyone.”

“Of course, my lord,” Siler said with remarkable composure. “I would not impart confidential medical information.”

“Good,” Vader said, releasing him slowly. He was about to dismiss the man before abruptly remembering the rest of the exam. “Doctor—I assume that she—”

“Is in perfect health, my lord,” Siler finished for him. “I’d like to administer a general antibiotic, just in case she picked up a lurker bacterium in Coronet, but there are no problems whatsoever. She is, of course, Force-sensitive.” He handed Vader another sheet of flimsy.

Had he had any eyebrows, they would have jumped two inches towards his hairline at the midi-chlorian statistics. Of course, a child of his could hardly help being a powerful Force-sensitive—but he had never seen any medical evaluations for Luke or the twins—

He was going to have to stop thinking of the younger two as “the twins.” There were two sets of twins now. He had gone hunting for his three missing children and had instead found one he hadn’t even known existed. Another daughter.

Another child hidden from him by Kenobi.

And Organa—! The gall of that man, the sheer unbelievable gall—!

The searing, white-hot rage that suddenly ignited in every nerve ending came within a hair’s breadth of killing the innocent Siler, simply because the man happened to be the closest possible breathing target. The medic backed up a step as Vader’s fist clenched and mysterious creases appeared in the durasteel bulkheads. Only by a supreme exertion of willpower was the Dark Lord able to remind himself that he needed his medic alive, and that there were plenty of other, less critical persons aboard the destroyer on whom he could vent his wrath.

“Inform the bridge,” Vader said through clenched teeth, “that I am not to be disturbed for any reason.”

Siler nodded silently and made a rapid retreat.

It was really cold. Whatever it was. And whatever cold was. He couldn’t quite think of what the word meant, nor was he even sure what a word was. He just knew on some subconscious level that it was the right way to describe the searing sensation that had enveloped him for what felt like forever. It was the only thing he could think at all—it was like his mind had jammed a gear and got stuck in place. There wasn’t anything in the world—wasn’t even a world—just that unbearable sharpness. The idea of moving didn’t occur to him, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had, because there wasn’t anywhere to move.

It wasn’t as though his vision had gone black. It just didn’t exist anymore. There wasn’t any black, or any white, or any anything. Nothing was there to be smelled or heard or felt, except for the cold that had burrowed all the way through him and out the other side. He felt sure he had been suffocating for years. It was as though he had been suspended in between one breath and the next; yet nothing burned or complained of the absence of oxygen. He was just sort of there waiting until he could—do something.

It wasn’t that he was patient, but he wasn’t impatient either. Frantic, that was what he was. He didn’t know why. He just was, and as far as he could tell he always had been. He also knew that he was trying to think of a way out. Where out was, and why he felt it was so important to get there, he couldn’t say, but he wasn’t curious. He could only have been curious if he could think something new, and he couldn’t, because his brain cells had all stopped right where they were, freezing him in the grip of whatever sensation he had last experienced.

He was just there, waiting, being one thing and one thought, until there was a flicker.

Something—something—what was that? Something was happening—

And then, all of a sudden, there was a new impression. It was really cold—and it really hurt.

Before the cold hadn’t hurt—there hadn’t been an active brain to process any sensation of pain. But now, his consciousness had begun to flicker awake, and he realized how horribly, hellishly cold he was. He wasn’t just numb—he could feel the icy cold in the very marrow of his bones, stabbing through his skull and brain and heart.

A moment later, he felt as though someone had dumped him in the middle of an explosion. Heat exploded around him, just as penetrating as the cold was, and the abrupt shift from icy immobility to drenching sweat was no relief at all. Sensations of every sort bombarded him—the scent of antiseptic, a faint draft, his violent shivering, hums and buzzes and brisk voices, hands lifting him up and setting him back down on something—where was he, who was he—what was all this—

Random snippets of memory were flying in circles around his brain, mad, crazed, no order to them, names and faces whirling around sliced apart from each other, a ship, a blond kid, a couple of girls, a big black mask, soft hair in his fingers, bursts of red light and fear, circles of blue and a busted hyperdrive, and he didn’t know what any of them were or what they had to do with each other or him—

Han, the thought suddenly occurred to him. I’m Han Solo.

And with a click, everything rushed back into place.

Somebody crawling in the air ducts—Luke—the twerplings—in a box—stormtrooper—no helmet—gonna freeze me alive!

“Stop!” Han yelled aloud desperately, and then—“Kreth him!”—and finally as he remembered the slave implant—“I’m alive!”

“Indeed you are,” a thin, authoritative voice said from somewhere to his left. Han swung around to see who it was—or tried to. Two details of the situation gave him pause—firstly, he had been strapped down to a bed, and secondly he couldn’t see a krething thing.

“I can’t see!” he howled frantically.

“Yes,” the voice mused, “yes. My medic informs me that blindness is a common side effect of hibernation sickness. However, you were not in cryostasis for more than a week. Your eyesight should return momentarily.”

That voice seemed eerily familiar. And it sent a chill into his bones that had nothing to do with having recently been in a freeze coma. “Who the nine hells are you?” Han stammered, trying to peer through the impenetrable blackness that surrounded him.

“Ah, my young friend, you do not recognize me,” the voice said sadly. “We should have been so very close by now.”

“You don’t work for Jabba, do you?” Han had suddenly remembered the incident of the stolen Sienar hyperdrive, when a gang of Jabba’s mercenaries had tried to gun them all down on Nar Shaddaa thanks to Lando. Might Jabba have found out who he was after all these months and put a price on his head?

The voice gave a reedy cackle. “I work for no one, my young friend.”

Han felt his stomach inexplicably drop even further out of place. He had a real bad feeling about this. Desperately he squinted in the direction of the voice. The blackness was lightening, turning into a gray blurriness, but he still couldn’t make anything out.

“Where am I?” he swallowed, fingers working the soft edge of the mattress beneath him in an effort to remain collected.

“In my residence,” the voice responded. “This is my personal medical ward. I regret that it was necessary to place you in cryostasis, but it seems my emissary had no alternative for removing you safely from Vjun.”

Han suddenly wondered frantically what had happened to Sara and Sandra. The last thing he remembered was the kidnapper shooting them full of stun bolts, before he’d been stunned himself. He had no idea where they might have gone, what might have been done with them. Maybe this guy knew where they were, but maybe not, and Han knew from long experience that he shouldn’t give any information away unless he absolutely had to.

“Vader’s not gonna be happy,” he muttered instead. Somehow, he was sure Luke’s great big hulk of a dad was going to blame him for losing the twins.

“Rest assured, young one, that your father will have other concerns very shortly,” said the voice threateningly.

“My what will what?” Han yelped.

“Your father will have other concerns,” the voice repeated flatly.

“You mean Vader?” Han choked out. “He’s not my father!” He began blinking even more furiously—he could just distinguish a black fuzzy blob hovering in the grayness over to his right.

“Come, come, there is no need for pretenses,” said the voice. “I am quite well aware of the truth. You have nothing to fear from me, young Skywalker.”

“Sky—” Han’s voice suddenly cut off as it dawned on him.

The kidnapper had mistaken him for Luke.

It was easy to see why—who would suspect that Vader would have more than one teenager living with him? He sure as the nine hells wouldn’t. But then…that meant Luke must still be safe!

Han decided to play along with the misconception as long as he could. “What do you want?” he said bravely.

“What do I want,” the voice echoed. Han could see the roughly outlined blob lean a little further over him. “I think perhaps the question to be answered is—what do you want, young Skywalker?”

Han stayed stubbornly silent.

“Ah,” the voice said regretfully. “I forget that you have no cause to trust me. You have something of your dear mother in you, you see, her hair, brown eyes. She trusted me implicitly, you know. As did your father once.” The blob leaned back. “I am afraid that experience has made him…somewhat paranoid.”

“Tell me about it,” Han muttered in fervent agreement, squinting fiercely at the blob. It was getting a little more distinct—he could see a pale smear in the middle now that was probably a face.

“Your eyesight is improving?” the voice asked solicitously.

Han thought about claiming he could see perfectly, then decided that anybody Vader had ever trusted wasn’t somebody he wanted to mess around with. “Getting there.”

“Excellent,” said the voice. A taller white blob suddenly ballooned alongside the black one and Han heard whispered voices before it left as quickly as it had come.

“My medic advises that you close your eyes for a few minutes,” said the voice.

“Don’t want me seeing you, huh?” Han demanded fiercely.

The voice cackled again. “Your father’s magnificent temper.”

Bristling at the suggestion that he and Vader had anything in common, Han decided to prove just how much more cooperative a person he was by going ahead and closing his eyes as ordered. The voice was quiet for a while, during which he sneakily tested the straps pinning him to the bed.

“Hey,” he finally said with hard-mustered cheer, “being as I’m your young friend and all, how about letting me up?”

“Nothing would please me more,” said the voice. “But it is for your own benefit.”

“Yeah, you sure seem real interested in my benefit,” Han retorted. “Let’s get this out of the way now. I don’t like it, pal. And I probably don’t like you either.”

“Your father’s total lack of subtlety as well,” muttered the voice with chagrin.

Han bristled again. “Anything else about me that’s just like Old Wheezy?” he said indignantly.

The voice cackled more loudly. “I daresay I may be doing Lord Vader a favor in taking you off his hands,” said the stranger, and still Han couldn’t recall where he’d heard this voice before. “Your father seems to have found it difficult to teach you proper respect. Do not worry, young Skywalker, I will correct that deficiency—and many more.”

Han set his jaw stubbornly. “Listen, pal, nobody’s teaching me anything unless I say so,” he barked. “An’ if you think I’m gonna let you teach me, you’re pretty mistaken.”

“Oh no, my young friend,” said the voice. “It is you who are mistaken…about a great many things.”

Han half wanted to laugh in the guy’s face and tell him his real name then and there, if just to prove which one of them was the more mistaken, but he decided he’d better play that card real close to the chest. “How about you quit fooling around and tell me who you are already?” he snapped instead.

“I think perhaps if you were to open your eyes, you would find your question answered for you,” the voice said.

Han waited a suspicious second before slowly twitching his eyelids open. He blinked a flood of tears away hard at the sudden flood of light. After a few seconds he was relieved to find that his eyesight was back to normal. Succumbing to his deathly curiosity, he turned his head back to the right…

A hideously wrinkled face peered back at him from beneath a voluminous black hood, set with glinting, reptilian yellow eyes, barely recognizable as human. Thin, tissue-paper lips were stretched in a leering grin, deteriorating teeth bared like a nexu.

Han would have had to hail from another galaxy not to know who that guy was.

“Holy krethin’ Sith,” he breathed.

The Emperor of the whole blasted galaxy was standing over him.

As the horrible cackling laughter rushed over him again, Han devoutly wished he could jump back into the cryo chamber.

Coruscant was just as big and twice as intimidating as Luke remembered. Thanks to the cloaking shield, a lot of caution, and grudgingly accepted advice from Master Yoda, he had managed to land the modified shuttle in an abandoned factory within sight of the towering starscrapers of Imperial City. Between the pinnacles of Imperial Palace and their factory stretched a vast, dilapidated field of industrial infrastructure. No craft traversed the hoverlanes overhead except for the occasional patrol droid.

“Safe, the ship will be,” Yoda declared as they disembarked. “Walk to Imperial City, we must. Cautious, our approach must be, if beneath the Emperor’s notice we are to remain.”

Luke nodded somberly and followed the Jedi Master out of the ship. They worked their way downward, taking a number of detours to avoid damaged walkways or dysfunctional lifts. The echoes of his solitary footfalls on the industrial mesh flooring, lumbering ponderously through cavernous chambers and assembly rooms, made Luke feel smaller than Master Yoda. It seemed forever that they were walking, and they still hadn’t even left the first factory building. Luke was beginning to think that as long as it would take them to walk to Imperial City, he could probably finish Jedi training on the way—when Yoda led him through a particularly obscure hatchway and revealed a long, sparsely lit tunnel with conveyor belts rushing both directions down the center.

“A cargo transport system, this is,” Yoda announced gleefully. “Used to move factory products to the buildings in Galactic City, it once was.” He performed a surprisingly agile hop up onto the rushing belt; startled, Luke scrambled to follow suit.

At first Luke thought they might be able to make even better time by walking on the top of the belt as it raced along, but he soon discovered this would not be wise. The belt was not in very good condition. It was pocked with threadbare patches and punched with holes, and the ominous rattle by itself would have been enough to convince Luke to just sit down. Had any eyes been there to see they might have thought it an odd sight, the young boy and wizened wizard sitting side by side, cross-legged beneath the scraggly blink of dying glowpanels, staring ahead while the conveyor belt winged them along towards the lion’s den.

He got plenty of wary looks on his way out of Imperial Palace. That was standard when he was in the armor. Probably most of these political toadies were afraid he was on a contract for their heads. If he played his cards right he could probably wheedle half a million credits out of them on his way out without even trying. He didn’t bother. If he didn’t need the money—and after this delivery he wouldn’t need any for quite some time—he could afford to be selective. Only pick the jobs that were a real challenge. There wasn’t anything of the kind here on Coruscant; all the interesting jobs were waiting for him in the backwaters and underbellies of the Outer Rim. The sooner he got out of this cesspool of purported civilization the happier he’d be.

His strides quickened, and he made short work of the awesomely long corridors of Imperial Palace on his route back to the rear lower-level landing pad where he’d left his ship. He turned a final corner into the right hallway and started towards the bay door at the far end. Behind him, at a supply entrance to the building that squatted on the opposite end of the corridor, the stormtrooper on duty was arguing with somebody trying to gain admittance.

He ignored the shouting until, about halfway down the corridor to the bay, he realized that the voice sounded familiar. He spun around.

It was the information broker from Coronet. And he was carrying the two bonuses.

He reached up and switched all the helmet’s sensor systems online. Apparently, he still had a few loose ends to wrap up.

Special case. No trail.

The bounty hunter started back down the hallway.

Heretofore, Lando Calrissian had done his best not to aggravate Imperial might any more than he absolutely had to. Simple rule of self-preservation, as any black marketer could tell you. But given enough time, this stormtrooper might just singlehandedly convince him to join the blasted Rebellion.

“You are not authorized for admittance at this access point,” the stormtrooper barked for what had to be the tenth time in two minutes. Lando was beginning to suspect that, with the exception of Present your authorization for admittance at this access point, the man didn’t actually know any Basic.

He had definitely picked the wrong gate to try. All things considered, Lando had thought he’d probably have better luck trying to weasel his way in one of the low-level gates and work his way up until he ran into somebody who worked for somebody who was friends with somebody who could bribe somebody to get these two safely to the Emperor, who could give ‘em back to Vader, and hopefully that way everybody would still be alive when this krething mess was over. Except for Han Solo, because Lando was personally going to kill him for the sake of the galactic good.

Irritably, he shifted the weight of Sara on one hip and Sandra on the other. Sandra was asleep, and Sara had flat out refused to walk. “Look, fine, have it your way. Can you just tell me what access point I can get past?”

“You are not authorized for admittance at this access point,” the stormtrooper repeated.

“I get it, shavit! Take me in with a guard escort or something! Arrest me! I don’t care how the hells you do it, whatever makes you happy, all I’m telling you is that I gotta get these kids in to see the—”

He broke off, because the obstinate stormtrooper had shifted slightly, and Lando could see somebody rushing towards him from further down the corridor. That somebody, if the Mandalorian armor was anything to go by, looked a damn lot like Boba Fett. Immediately his memory flashed back to the cantina in Coronet, where that rogue clone had forced him to feed information about Luke and had paid him to rustle up a portable cryo chamber.

Two and two suddenly snapped together in Calrissian’s brain.

“Oh hells no,” he breathed—and he spun around and ran for all their lives, just barely in time to dodge the blaster bolt that nearly clipped his heels.

The opening blaster bolt, ideally, would have nailed the fleeing information broker in the back—killing him on the spot with any luck—and Fett could have picked off the bonuses with two easy shots. There wasn’t any question of trying to recapture and hand them in now; Palpatine would only infer that he hadn’t done his job, hadn’t tied up all the loose ends, and that would not lead to an optimal outcome. The only acceptable course of action was to eliminate all three targets as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, Fett misjudged. The information broker marked him for a threat faster than he’d anticipated and tore off, leaving the bounty hunter to watch in frustration as his well-aimed blaster bolt chewed up a divot of pavement.

The stormtrooper on duty whirled, blaster primed, but Fett had already flicked his weapon to stun. The soldier was unconscious before he could decide to pull the trigger. Fett leaped over his still-collapsing form and sprinted through the exit just in time to see the information broker’s cape flagging behind him down the walkway on the far side of the landing platform. He fired again; but the shots went high as his quarry barreled out of sight down a descending ramp.

Fett indulged himself in a particularly satisfying curse in Mando’a and dashed across the platform, cursing the impeding weight of his armor.

Lando didn’t have time to reflect on his incredible luck at evading Fett’s opening salvos. He was too busy trying not to drop Vader’s baby girls as he fled full throttle down the tech access ramps that ran up and down to the landing platforms at each level of Imperial Palace. The twins were screeching, of course, but he was sure the roar of nearby industrial traffic and the occasional hair-scorching blaster bolt from Fett rendered any effort at secrecy pointless, so he didn’t bother with trying to shut them up. At Level 55, he managed to gain a little ground on Fett by sprinting across the platform to a cargo turbolift tube on the far side. The bounty hunter peppered the doors with fire, and a bolt singed the ends off his moustache, but by some miracle the hatch closed in time and whisked them all the way down to Level 12.

Level 12, apparently, was where technology had died. Instead of moving access ramps, they had to sprint down a rackety scaffold-style durasteel staircase. Lando thundered down one flight and abandoned it at the next landing, where a bridge arched away towards the foundations of an adjacent tower. He raced across into the other building and sealed the decrepit doors behind him. Wouldn’t hold Fett long but at least it’d maybe buy him an extra second.

He’d intended to head back up towards the surface via one of the turbolift shafts in this building. The further down you went on Coruscant, the more vicious and dilapidated and lawless the planet became. Up at the top there were law enforcement officers and stormtrooper patrols he could call for help; down at the bottom, Fett could do whatever the hells he wanted to them with impunity. Unfortunately, the turbolifts were all out of order except for one downward-bound cargo lift. Lando swore and boarded the thing, then swore again as he glimpsed Fett rounding the corner just before the doors sealed.

Leaning against the wall of the lift cabin, Lando stared at the ceiling trying to catch his breath and ignore the deafening wails of the frightened toddlers. Why the nine hells was he bothering? It was only a matter of time before Fett caught them, and then it was all over but the funeral.

Shavit, Solo, if you’re waiting for me in the afterlife, I’m gonna kill you again.

They’d been riding the conveyor belt for about an hour now. Luke had given up sitting cross-legged and was now stretched out on his stomach with his chin in his elbows, dully counting the lights as they flashed by overhead. Since Yoda was taking the opportunity to meditate, he had no better ways to pass the time. He was somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand when something sharp and afraid spiked in the Force and yanked on his mind with a vengeance.

He jerked to his hands and knees with a startled yelp. That was Sara and Sandra!

Before he could say anything to Yoda, the Jedi Master’s bulbous eyes flicked open. “Our stop, this is,” he announced, and the next second he had made a flying leap off the conveyor belt, towing a doubly-startled Luke behind him with a deft stroke of the Force. Miraculously, he landed on his feet regardless, arms windmilling furiously until he rediscovered his balance. Yoda snickered and plodded off beneath the wooshing, rattling conveyor belts towards the entrance of a corridor adjoining the supply transport tunnel.

Luke dashed after him. “Master Yoda! My si—” he remembered only barely in time that he hadn’t breathed a word about the twins to Yoda “—my friends are in trouble!”

“Your younger sisters, I think you mean,” Yoda corrected him mildly, brandishing his walking stick.

Luke gaped. “How—how did you—”

“Strong am I with the Force,” the Jedi Master declared. “But need the Force to know that, I do not.” He snorted disdainfully. “Recognize a Skywalker when I sense one, I do!”

Luke winced. “You—um—you felt that too? Doesn’t that mean that the Emperor—”

“Distracted, the Emperor is,” Yoda said. “Why I cannot tell, but alerted to our presences, he is not. But quickly we must act to hide your sisters from him.”

“Then we’re going to go get them?” Luke panted breathlessly, weaving around the tangled support girders that held the conveyor belt frames.

“Rescue them we will,” Yoda affirmed, hobbling down the side of the new corridor.

Fett, unfortunately for Lando, had discovered a faster way down than waiting for the car to come back up to him. Forcing open the doors of the neighboring turbolift shaft, he blasted down with his jetpack. Which explained why, when Lando sprinted out of the cargo lift clutching the kids, the bounty hunter was only ten seconds behind him. He dodged around the nearest corner as blaster fire shredded the permacrete floor behind him—

—skidded around another corner—

—and tripped over a small green alien with a cane.

Lando twisted backwards and tumbled to the floor with a yell. Sandra soared out of his arms and collided with a blond-haired boy, while Sara came down with a thump on his ribcage and hammered the air out of his lungs. He wheezed painfully as she clambered up, tiny feet punching into his gut, and cheered, “Das Luke!”

“Lando?” a familiar young voice inquired.

Calrissian blinked and sat up on his elbows. Sure enough, Luke the Jedi kid was staring back at him. “How the krething Sith did you get here?” he blurted.

“We were following Boba—”

Fett!” Lando screeched, as an airborne armored juggernaut blasted around the corner. Blaster bolts spurted towards them, on a direct collision course with the whites of his eyes—

There were a spitting snap-hiss, and a shaft of green light sprang out of the little green alien’s hand to bat the bolts aside into the walls.

Fett slammed the reverse thruster switch to neutralize his acceleration and switched off his jetpack, dropping onto the floor with a thud. “Jedi,” he snarled. The hate was accompanied with a healthy dose of fear, however, because unless he was seriously mistaken the diminutive opponent facing him was none other than the elusive Master Yoda.

“Das da bad man, Luke!” a young female voice wailed further back. Fett glanced over Yoda’s head in time to see the bonuses scramble behind the legs of a blond teenage boy—who was now brandishing a blue lightsaber of his own. It was the kid who’d been trying to track him down on Corellia—the one he’d assumed dead in the attack in the alleyway behind Hangar 1138.

Holy Hutt-breath, Fett marveled, this kid is tough.

Immediately he ordered the blond youngster out of his thoughts. Only a fool allowed himself to be distracted when facing a Jedi Master in battle.

“Master Yoda,” he growled in his gravelly voice instead.

“Young Fett,” the ancient little wizard returned sternly. “No quarrel with you have I. Taken a boy from Bast Castle you have. Where is he?”

Fett barked a laugh, edging back a step to perfect his stance. “What does a Jedi Master want with Vader’s son?”

“It’s none of your business why I’m here,” snapped the blond boy from behind his lightsaber.

Fett’s helmet whipped up as his stomach secretly plunged. With fresh, horrified eyes he examined the younger boy, hoping for some sign that he’d misunderstood what the kid had just said. No such luck.

He’d just made the worst—and probably most fatal—mistake of his career. He’d delivered the wrong boy. Sooner or later, the Emperor would figure it out, and conclude that Fett had deliberately swindled him out of the money and played him for a fool. As good as a death sentence—unless, by some ridiculous chance, he could set the matter straight within the hour.

“Damn,” he said mildly, “I knew I shouldn’t have taken this job.”

Then he opened fire with the flamethrower.

Luke yelped as gushing sheet of flame erupted, threatening to engulf Master Yoda—but the Jedi Master nipped aside with an instant to spare and launched himself into a spectacular flip, spinning over the bounty hunter’s head and taking a swing as he came down. Fett ducked just in time and the green blade spat sparks as it chewed through jetpack equipment. He tumbled to the side and came up on his feet, firing coolly with both blasters. Lando dove against the side of the corridor with a screech as several of the shots ricocheted off Yoda’s whipping green blade and soared past Fett towards them. A handful of those then bounced away from Luke’s hasty defensive pattern and darted back once more, building a veritable hail of criss-cross laser fire.

It wouldn’t have taken long for all of them to be hit in such a mayhem, but Yoda performed another gravity-mocking set of acrobatics and came down between Fett and his quarry once again. An expert slash chopped off the muzzle of the flamethrower, which Fett barely had time to hurl away before Yoda was upon him, driving him down the corridor with a display of offensive technique that would have pressed even a master of lightsaber defense—let alone a Force-blind bounty hunter. The only way Fett could counter the attack was to retreat furiously and hold it off with as much firepower as he could generate.

With what brain cells he could spare, Fett reflected that his chances of defeating the Jedi and capturing Vader’s brat were looking dimmer by the instant. The longer he remained locked in combat with the detested Jedi, the greater the distance the kids would be able to escape. There was nothing for it but to try to get back around the Jedi and sprint away, try to catch his quarry. Perhaps hold them hostage?

By now the combatants had retreated as far back as the bank of cargo lifts. Fett made a few quick moves, trying to force the Jedi back against the gaping hole in the wall where he’d blown out the doors of one of the lifts when he’d flown down the tube to catch the information broker. The wizened little troll was much too wily for such maneuvers, unfortunately—with another impossible contortion he flipped and bounced off the wall, cannonballing across the corridor. Before Fett even knew it was happening the Jedi had exploded off the middle of the far wall, revolving midair, and collided with both tri-clawed feet against his chest.

Completely taken off balance, the bounty hunter flew backwards with a howl—directly through the gaping entrance to the bottomless turbolift shaft. Durasteel slammed against his back, crunching the remnants of his jetpack and blasting the air from his lungs. Extensive training was the only thing that enabled him to ignore the shock and lunge for the laser-warped edges of the destroyed shaft doors.

It did him no good. He wasn’t fast enough. His gloves grazed the smooth metal surface of the shaft, about five centimeters below the opening, for a split second. Then all he could do was flail uselessly as the patch of light raced away upward, and he plummeted downward through the pitch blackness, en route to a final rendezvous with the invisible bottom of the shaft.

Luke had wanted to run after Yoda and help him tackle the bounty hunter, but was luckily deterred by the fact that one of the ricocheting laser blasts had struck Lando in the leg. As soon as the two combatants had vanished out of sight around the corner Luke scurried across to check on him, closely tailed by the twins.

“Kwishy hurt!” Sandra wailed.

“Bad man hurt Kwishy!”

“The name is Calrissian,” Lando growled through gritted teeth, forcing himself back up against the wall. Luke flicked on his pocket penlight so as to see the wound better.

“Well,” he said optimistically, “it could be worse.”

“I’m stuck in the underbelly of Coruscant babysitting Darth Vader’s kids with a busted leg,” Lando snarled. “How the kreth does it get any worse than this?”

“At least you still have a leg,” Luke pointed out. “Hold still, I’m gonna tie it up.”

Lando settled back with a grimace, then howled afresh as Luke tore the cape from his shoulders and ripped it into strips. From all appearances he was far more outraged by the damage to his wardrobe than to his person. “Shavit, kid, that was my favorite cape!”

Luke ignored him as he started knotting the strips into a makeshift bandage. Sandra wriggled up against Lando and announced, in the most serious of tones, that she would sing him a song that would “make the ouchie go bye-bye.” Before he could object Sara had dropped onto his lap with a thump.

“How is you now, Kwishy?” she inquired somberly.

“Great,” he said tightly. “Just perfect.”

She started pretending to check his temperature and heart rate, while her sister swung his hand back and forth in time with a thin, warbling, and decidedly off-key song about Doctor Droid and Mr. Band-Aid.

“I see your dad’s already training them in torture techniques,” Lando told Luke, who glared at him and cinched the knot on the makeshift bandage especially tight.

“That’s the best I can do right now,” he said. “There’s more supplies on our ship.”

“If we can get to your ship,” Lando retorted. “I hope that Jedi of yours can take Fett, cause otherwise he’s going to blast us all to the ninth hell.”

Luke glanced down the corridor. “I don’t hear anything anymore.”

Lando listened carefully, but could hear even the faintest echo of a blaster shot. “Either somebody won or they’ve moved too far away.”

“Someone’s coming,” Luke hissed a second later. He switched off the penlight and they all cowered in the shadows as footsteps became definitely audible. Then a tiny triangle-eared shadow flickered around one bend, and everybody relaxed seconds before Yoda hobbled back into view.

“Yous get da bad man?” Sara piped up.

“Down the turbolift shaft, the bounty hunter fell,” Yoda announced solemnly. “Sense him I do not.”

“So that means he’s dead, I hope,” Lando grunted.

“Whether dead or unconscious, I do not know,” Yoda answered. “But no further threat to us is he.”

Luke sat back with a sigh of relief. “Now what?”

“Removed from danger, the little ones must be,” Yoda declared. “And further medical attention Calrissian requires. Luke, guide Calrissian and your sisters back to the ship, you must. To the Imperial Palace I will go, and rescue young Han.”

Luke did not appear happy with this arrangement—but one of them would have to show Lando and the twins where the ship was, and it only made sense that the better-trained Jedi ought to be the one to continue ahead into the danger of the Emperor’s stronghold.

“Hold on one second,” Lando blurted. “Han’s been kidnapped and taken to Imperial Palace? Why?”

Luke started to retort that he didn’t know why anyone would want to kidnap Han, then paused upon realizing that he finally knew what the answer to that question was. “Boba Fett thought Han was me!” he yelped, spinning back to Yoda.

Yoda nodded grimly. “Agree, I do. In grave danger is young Han. Rescued, he must be, before the Emperor has time to discover his mistake.”

Mara had more or less forgotten about the mysterious arrival of Boba Fett and the prisoner in the capsule. Her tutor had run her ragged with hand-to-hand combat exercises, and she barely had the mental energy to breathe now, let alone grouse about the loss of her electrobinoculars or wonder as to the identity of the prisoner. By the time the tutor announced that she could have a few hours of rest before they started on tonight’s stealth practice session, she was too grateful for the reprieve to take interest anything but a nice long nap.

Had she been her usual determined and inquisitive self, she might have circled back around and followed her tutor stealthily to his office in hopes of a chance to pilfer back her confiscated binoculars. Had she done so, she would have been extremely fascinated to see him lock the doors, take out her electrobinoculars and view the recordings, and finally retrieve a small compact com unit and computer from a loose ceiling panel. She would have been riveted to observe from the commands he typed into the computer that he was preparing to steal Naval Holonet bandwidth in order to send a secret interstellar message. She would have been gobsmacked to note that he was sending it Encryption Level Three, text only, with the source rotated through all of Coruscant’s Holonet transmission stations so as to avoid the possibility of anyone tracing the origin.

And she would have been incited to a cyclone of curiosity, wondering who “RedEye” was and why her tutor was sending him secret messages on secret equipment.

Leia had attempted to take a nap on the cot (which represented the little room’s only furnishing) but found that her mind was far too restless. It was horribly frustrating, and she didn’t even know where most of the strange thoughts were coming from. Vader kept stalking back and forth across her mental stage, alternately enraged and distant, and so did Luke. Weird imagined images kept flitting around, mostly of Luke somewhere in this room—asleep on the cot, pacing back and forth in front of the door, or hunkered in a shivering heap on the floor with arms wrapped around his pillow for dear life. The last idea might have seemed bizarre and random had she not felt like doing the same thing.

She didn’t, obviously. She was a princess and she had to be strong. Angrily she dashed an infant tear out of the corner of her eye and snapped her spine straight.

She was only just in the nick of time. The door glided open without notice, admitting the great hulking form of her captor and whispering shut behind him. Vader seemed twice as big in such a closet of a cabin. The rasp of the respirator drowned out the frightened thump of her heart, which was a bit of a comfort. She could control the rest of herself to make sure he didn’t know how scared she really was.

She stood up, and got her knees to steady by imagining Vader’s cape being caught in the sliding door. “I demand that you return me to my parents,” she announced firmly.

He didn’t answer. Only stood there. Watching her. Her words seemed to wash right over the armor without making contact.

Determined not to be unnerved, she added, “You have no right to keep me under confinement. I’m a citizen of Alderaan!”

Slowly, he stepped forward and took her chin in his huge hand, tilting her head upward and examining her face, just the way he had once in the garden when neither of them could sleep. “You shouldn’t be,” he said distantly. His grip tightened. “You shouldn’t be,” he repeated more fiercely.

Her temper flared and ate up her fear. “I wouldn’t ever want to be anything else!” she snapped back, full of patriotic fervor.

“You will soon have to adjust to the idea,” Vader said grimly.

She jerked backward furiously, pushing his hand away from her. “You can take me away from my family and you can keep me locked up and you can even try brainwashing me for all I care, but I know the truth and I won’t let you take it away!”

“You know nothing about the truth,” Vader snapped—he sounded bitter.

Cold, calculating, and suicidally rash, Leia crossed her arms and turned her back on him.

The next thing she knew she had been seized by the shoulders and whipped back around to face him again with a single, hard shake. He was saying something, something enraged, but an icy anger stormed up inside her and she pushed away and poured all the hate she could muster into a despising glare. It probably wasn’t a smart thing to do but she was so angry she couldn’t think straight—she just wanted, desperately, to make that horrid man as frightened and as desperate and as trapped and as anxious and as little as he had made her, even though she could never logically hope to intimidate a Sith Lord.

In defiance of all reasonable expectation, Vader cut off mid-diatribe and jerked back a step. For another moment he stared at her—then, without another word, he stalked out of the cabin and she heard the door lock behind him.

The tightness and knotted, helpless frustration bled out. She dropped down on the cot and sobbed.

Captain Firmus Piett had been debating for the better part of an hour whether or not he should make a quick detour to the shipboard chapel and offer up a fervent prayer to whatever deities there might be for the safety of Fifth Fleet’s newest admiral. Normally the captain abstained from such activities, but at present, he was buying whatever insurance was on the market. Admiral Thrawn was by far the best admiral he had served under since the establishment of the Empire, and the thought of losing him to Darth Vader’s temper was cause for nightmares. He hadn’t feared that Thrawn would incur the Sith’s wrath before—the admiral was so superior to all his predecessors—but this latest maneuver could easily finish him.

The captain had tried explaining as much to the admiral. But he could not seem to make it clear to Thrawn that requesting the dark lord’s presence at a clandestine meeting would be risky under any circumstances—let alone doing so at a time when the Sith lord had expressly commanded that he not be disturbed for anything short of an extragalactic invasion. And if one was going to do such a thing despite all wisdom, one certainly shouldn’t insist that Vader come to them for this meeting.

Admiral Thrawn had politely listened to every one of the captain’s objections, and then proceeded to disregard each. And now he’d further requested that Piett be present for this meeting as well. The captain had seriously considered jumping ship instead, but that would be the coward’s way out. He would go, and pray that Vader would spare him when he arrived to rid himself of his presumptuous admiral. To ask that Vader would spare the admiral was to demand miracles.

Swallowing, Captain Piett pressed the com button at the entrance to the admiral’s quarters. The door hissed open immediately in response to his name, and he entered.

Admiral Thrawn was standing in front of one of his holographic artwork projectors, as usual. He welcomed Piett with an expansive gesture and a glint in his red eyes. “I see you have managed to overcome your reservations, Captain.”

“Not precisely, sir,” Piett said. Understatement was a skill he’d mastered rapidly aboard the Executor.

“Yet here you are, half an hour early.” The admiral turned calmly back to regard the reproduction of a rather primitive-looking pendant. Piett studied it. It looked as though it had been hand-carved. The intricate, bold design seemed nice enough to the captain.

“Very nice, sir,” he said aloud.

“It’s not without some quality,” the Admiral agreed. “A handmade pendant carved from a japor snippet.”

“A famous artist, sir?”

“One might call him that,” mused the Admiral. “One might indeed call him that. Of course, Captain, we are all of us artists.”

Piett’s mind flickered to the absurd stick drawings he’d produced in his younger years before realizing how utterly unsuited he was to any artistic endeavors. “I rather doubt that, sir,” he responded mildly.

Thrawn turned his piercing red stare more firmly onto the captain. “Perhaps not in the conventional sense, Captain,” he said, “but no living thing can help expressing itself through some manner of symbolism. Know a being’s art, and you will know the being.”

“And what does that pendant tell you, sir?” Piett enquired doubtfully.

The Admiral’s red eyes lit up and he began circling the projection—like an Academy lecturer, only more enthusiastic. “This,” Thrawn began, “is the work of a blunt, bold person. Someone who prefers to confront things directly. A being of firm standards and conflicting passions. Clearly a human male. A person of concurrent arrogance and insecurity, capable of both violence and tenderness…”

Piett listened, at a loss as to how his commanding officer could possibly discern so much from a chiseled chip of stone, and doubtful that he could be right.

“Sir,” he ventured at length, “I fail to see what any of this has to do with the reason we’re here.”

“Everything, Captain,” Thrawn said mysteriously. “Of course, one sample of a man’s art is not enough.” He flicked the control and the holographic pendant vanished, to be replaced by a long, blocky, cylindrical shape that looked much more familiar to the captain.

“Sir—isn’t that—”

“A lightsaber,” the admiral concurred. “Supremely functional art. A magnificent sample of the weapon, is it not?”

Piett found it rather unimpressive. Its industrial durasteel casing and Prexlyne grip had all the artistic appeal of an engine schematic. “Hardly aesthetic, sir,” he remarked.

“An important point,” Thrawn said encouragingly. “A very important point. Attraction is clearly not its purpose. Rather, it is functional, unpretentious, lethal, direct, versatile, capricious—the characteristics of its master.”

A terrible thought suddenly alighted in Piett’s mind. “Sir—you can’t mean that’s—”

“Lord Vader’s?” Thrawn finished for him, lips curved in a slight smile. “Naturally.”

Piett thought he might have to jump ship after all. “Sir—why?”

“Suffice it to say, Captain,” Thrawn said coolly, “that I have happened upon information Lord Vader would personally wish to know. And I have concluded that this is the best way in which to impart this information.”

“Sir,” Piett began, “I do not think that I—”

“Stay where you are, Captain,” the admiral ordered firmly as Piett attempted to edge his way out the door before Vader could arrive and catch them both studying his personal effects. “Your presence at this meeting is necessary, I assure you.”

“I’m sure it’s not that necessary, sir,” Piett stammered.

Thrawn gave another cryptic smile. “It is critical, Captain.”

The note had arrived by mouse droid, barely ten minutes after he had fled—no, made a tactical retreat—from the little cabin currently housing his unwitting daughter. It was a good thing the sender had chosen a mechanical means of delivery, because no living messenger would have survived Vader’s current temperamental state. As difficult as Luke’s trust had been to win, Leia was well on the way to making him look like a pushover. In scarcely five minutes she had managed to infuriate him beyond reason, dredge up an ocean of insecurities, and send him fleeing headlong from accusing memories of Padmé—and that all without the rather major knowledge that she was his daughter.

Thinking of this, his hatred of Bail Organa attained newfound heights, driving him wild with frustration as he tried to think of a fate cruel enough for the man and repeatedly failed. Death was simply too kind, and no amount of pain would make up for the fact that his daughter had been brainwashed against him. In case all this was not enough to work him into a fit of mindless rage, his son and younger daughters were still missing, and Baranne was no closer to retrieving them than he had been hours ago.

Considering these factors, and also considering the fact that he had left explicit orders not to be disturbed, it was in no way surprising that the valiant little mouse droid met with such an immediate and grisly fate upon its intrusion into his private maelstrom. Out of a morbid hope that he might find even better justification for strangling whichever officer had dared defy his orders, Vader summoned the datapad out of the wreckage of the droid and opened the message.

It was very brief—only two sentences long.

And it was the most terrifying thing he had ever read.

With a quick glance at the chrono—dear Force, if he didn’t go now he’d be late—and sparing a few seconds to post several stormtroopers outside the locked doors of his quarters and hopefully ensure Leia’s safety—he stormed out of his quarters.

It seemed that having an intelligent Admiral in one’s fleet was a double-edged sword. One he was dangerously close to falling upon.

Nothing but years and years of ingrained military discipline kept Piett from diving beneath the admiral’s desk when Vader finally stalked into the room. Was it just his imagination, or was the rage boiling off the Dark Lord actually thick enough to choke him?

Admiral Thrawn, of course, was as perfectly nonchalant as ever. He hadn’t even switched the image of the lightsaber off the projector yet. Casually he glanced up from his examination of the rotating image and nodded. “Thank you for coming, my lord,” he offered mildly. He gestured at the holographic lightsaber, and then at the actual artifact hanging from Vader’s belt. “As I have been explaining to Captain Piett, you have a most impressive weapon.”

Piett could hardly believe the Admiral had gotten through such a long speech before being throttled, but it seemed Thrawn’s credit with Vader was much greater than he had ever imagined possible. Still, it was only a matter of time.

“Dismiss the Captain,” Vader ordered. His voice was the softest and coldest Piett had ever heard it. That could not be good.

“I’m afraid I must ask you to indulge me for a few minutes longer,” Thrawn told him apologetically. “You see, I very much wish Captain Piett to hear what I have to say.”

The great masked helmet flickered to Piett and gave him a cursory glance up and down. His fingers tapped at the hilt of his lightsaber. “Very well,” he said, and Piett knew that he had just been filed under Dispensable.

I should have jumped ship.

“I have asked both of you here in order to deliver an invitation,” Thrawn announced. “A rather select invitation.”

“My patience, Admiral, is wearing perilously thin,” Vader snapped. “What is it you want?”

Thrawn stepped coolly around the holoprojector and met Vader’s glower straight on. “I’d like to ask the two of you to help me overthrow Palpatine and reform the Empire.”

The quiet hiss of the air intake vent sounded like pitched small-arms combat in the subsequent silence.

I didn’t hear that correctly. There’s no way in all the nine Corellian hells that I could have heard that correctly.

“And I suppose,” Vader finally snarled, “that you think you can coerce me by means of this.”

He hurled a datapad onto the desk near Piett, who read the terse message without even meaning to. It was incomprehensible to him.

I know where Anakin’s son is. Meet me in my quarters at 1500 hours. A.T.

“I have no interest in coercing you, my lord,” Thrawn answered calmly. “Incidentally, that is the reason for Captain Piett’s presence.” He turned crisply to face the captain and handed him a datapad. “Captain, this datapad contains a complete list of over three thousand individuals within the senior ranks of the Imperial Navy and civil service who have expressed their approval and provided active support for my plans.” Producing an identical datapad, he handed it to Vader. “As does this one, my lord.”

He surveyed their startled expressions for a moment with a cryptic smile. “As should be quite clear now, gentlemen, my interest is not in my personal wellbeing but in redeeming the total chaos produced by the present state of political arrangements. Revolt is on the rise in every sector. Unless we ourselves act now to correct the deficiencies in this Empire, what might have been a glorious improvement will degenerate into a system every inch as ineffective as the Republic and twice as implosive. I also think it should be clear that a permanent change of leadership is necessary.”

“And what makes you think I would condone such a course of action?” Vader thundered.

Thrawn gestured at the projection of the lightsaber. “Because, my lord, I have studied you. You are not one to wait on the sidelines when a difficult job needs doing. You are not one to shirk responsibilities, be they public or private.” The Admiral placed peculiar emphasis on that last word. “You are not one to submit to the control of external forces.”

Whatever secrets Thrawn was referring to, Piett could tell he was hitting the mark spot-on. Vader stood stock still, and even the hiss of the respirator seemed more subdued than usual.

“And finally,” Thrawn added, flicking the image to the carved japor snippet, “you are not one to abandon those closest to you.”

He switched off the projector. “If you would step outside for a few moments, Captain Piett,” he said softly.

Piett was only too glad to flee.

“How do you know about my family?” Vader asked numbly, staring at the spot in the air where the japor snippet had vanished.

“I always make a point of researching my commanding officers as thoroughly as possible,” Thrawn said, smiling lightly. “Although I must admit the risks are somewhat greater than usual in your case, they’re still outweighed by the practical benefits.”

“I begin to sympathize with the Emperor’s desire to banish you to the Unknown Regions,” Vader retorted.

Thrawn picked up the datapad containing the message he’d sent to Vader previously. “I doubt you’ll be so sympathetic after you hear what I have to say,” he continued grimly. “One of my contacts within Imperial Intelligence spotted your son about nine hours ago.”

Vader jerked. “Where?”

“Imperial Palace.”

“Impossible!” he barked reflexively, even as experience chided him that when it came to Luke, nearly anything was possible.

“I’m afraid it’s true,” Thrawn objected. “Some weeks ago this same contact reported that the Emperor had secretly made contact with the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Fett recently reappeared at the Palace, bringing a teenage boy in a portable cryo unit. All indications are that he’s alive and well,” he hastened to add. “As of the last report.”

A surge of failure swept over him. I failed, oh, Padmé, I didn’t protect him…

“If it was indeed Fett,” Thrawn continued, “it could well explain why he was so easily able to penetrate the security at Bast Castle…”

It would indeed, but that was unimportant. His thoughts had flown onward to Sara and Sandra—what had happened to them? He would have asked, but wouldn’t Thrawn have mentioned it if he had known about the girls as well?

Indeed he would have. Best to keep his silence and protect the littler ones as long as possible.

“My agent encountered Luke on Corellia,” he said aloud, questioningly. “He was not at that time in the custody of the bounty hunter.”

Thrawn shrugged. “Perhaps the boy contrived to escape momentarily from confinement in the hanger and was recaptured in consequent battle confusion. I assure you, my lord, my information is reliable. A boy by the name of Luke is in the Emperor’s custody in his private quarters at Imperial Palace, and I personally think it’s too much of a coincidence for that boy to be anyone other than your son.”

He began flicking switches on the projector. “As I think is obvious, our respective objectives have intersected at a convenient point. You, of course, want your son back. I and those I represent want the Emperor removed from the scene. I think we can add a third branch to this intersection.”

An image of Bail Organa materialized.

“I refer, obviously, to the Rebels.” He shot Vader a shrewd look. “If my inferences are correct, Organa has been attempting to blackmail you into complicity with his interests already?”

Vader nodded grudgingly. Thrawn was far more dangerous an opponent than anyone had suspected, to have uncovered so many secrets and organized such a frighteningly viable coup without notice.

“Then we already know he is not totally averse to cooperating with Imperial elements in the interests of a common goal,” Thrawn continued. “Furthermore”—the picture shifted, this time to a snapshot of Ferus Olin—“we have a Jedi in custody, a fairly skilled warrior by all reports, who could do a great deal to shift the balance of advantage to your favor with regards to Palpatine.”

“Unlike Organa,” Vader growled, “he has demonstrated considerable reluctance to cooperate.”

“But, happily for us, the tables have recently shifted strongly in our favor.”

The projector flickered to a portrait of Leia.

“What,” Vader rumbled dangerously, “do you suggest?”

Thrawn drew his templed fingers beneath his chin, offering a thin smile. “I suggest, my lord, that we apply a little…leverage.”

Much as Han hated to admit it (to himself, that was—not in his wildest dreams under a triple dose of truth serum would he mention any such thing to someone else), there was just no denying that the accommodations here trumped what Vader had to offer at Bast Castle. If he had to be held captive against his will, he couldn’t have picked a more luxurius prison. For starters, he had a whole suite of rooms to himself: sitting room, library, bedroom, and ‘fresher. It was probably twice as much space as the whole Falcon, cargo hold included, and when you remembered how expensive real estate was on Coruscant, that meant he must be standing on more money that he’d ever seen in his life.

The sheer roominess of the place paled next to the furnishings. Six-inch-deep plush-pile carpet was everywhere, so spongy he almost had trouble walking. His bed, big enough to hold a platoon of stormtroopers, was made up in silky sheets and blankets that he instinctively knew could feed a family of four for months. Fancy artwork hung on all the walls, even in the ‘fresher. Holy Sithspit, he had actually taken a bath in the vat-like tub, the first in his memory (in space, two-minute sonic showers were the rule, and on the streets of Corellia hygiene was a novelty).

Every now and then, the total opulence of the place forced him to pause for a moment and wonder why, exactly, he was working so damn hard to escape from it.

Han snorted at the thought, which was unwise since he was currently perched on top of the desk chair, which was wobbling on top of the desk. The slight movement sent one of the chair legs careening off the edge and he plummeted with a yell away from the ceiling air vent he’d been trying to investigate. Fortunately the six-inch carpet was there to break his fall and his head missed the edge of the bed frame by mere centimeters.

Han made a feeble attempt to haul himself upright, then dropped back with a groan. Wasn’t any way in the nine hells he was going to fit himself through that vent anyway, any more than he could have gotten through any of the others he’d already checked, or the holographic windows, or the only door (the control panel, surface, and frame of which were made of battleship-grade durasteel and magnetically sealed, and outside of which a whole squad of crack troopers was stationed around the clock anyway).

Seemed like the Emperor was wise to this whole Force-mumbo-jumbo business. The real Luke couldn’t have Jedi-tricked his way out of this place, let alone an ordinary sort of guy like him. Shavit, not even Vader—nah, never mind, he’d have to put Vader up against a Super Star Destroyer to get even odds on him in a fight. With any luck, Han reflected dismally, Vader would make the same mistake everyone else had and come blazing in to rescue who he thought was Luke. If he was really lucky they’d get out of this joint before he had to say anything about what had happened to the twerplings.

Not that he actually knew what had happened to the twerplings. Maybe he could have found out something using the computer, but Han had been on the streets plenty long enough to know he’d better not put any kind of information in there that might give away his hand. Somebody was probably monitoring his terminal, just like somebody was no doubt watching his every move via security cams.

So in the end, all his efforts over the last couple of days were completely pointless. Morosely Han stared at the glowpanels overhead. How long could he keep the ruse going? Sooner or later, the walking corpse was bound to figure out that he didn’t have an ounce of crazy wizardness in his body, and what would happen to him then?

Sitting up so fast he almost gave himself whiplash, Han leapt to his feet and ordered the morbid thoughts out of his head. Wallowing in despair wasn’t gonna help any, after all. Besides that he had a job to do—the longer he kept the wrinkled old coot thinking that he was Luke, the longer Luke had to get to safety. Back with Vader, sunk into obscurity in some seedy Corellian cantina, hiding in a closet at Bail Organa’s palace, he didn’t care where, so long as neither the Emperor nor the bounty hunter could get at him. In the meantime, he’d better try to remember as damn much about that insane Force-stuff of Luke’s as he could—

The main door to the suite hissed open, interrupting his thoughts. Han scowled, flung himself down on the carpet once more, and didn’t bother getting up. He’d been here for two, maybe three days, and the only visitor he’d had in all that time was the Emperor’s medic who kept comin’ in and stickin’ things in his mouth and jabbin’ sensors at him and generally being a first-rate nuisance.

The ridiculously thick carpet muffled any footsteps he might have heard, but a telltale shadow painted itself across the floor from the direction of the bedroom doorway. Han groaned in exasperation and threw an arm across his face. “Listen, for the last fracking time, I’m fine, so go tell the old walking corpse if you want and leave me the hells alone!”

“Good evening to you as well, young Skywalker.”

Han bolted to his feet with a yelp. He spun in midair to face the door, hoping against hope it was not who he thought it was, and was so distracted that his feet got snagged in the thrice-cursed carpet and sent him careening ingloriously across the bed. He snatched at the bedpost, trying to salvage a little dignity, but missed and wound up with his arms and shoulders splayed across the mattress while trying to push himself up on criss-crossed, half-buckled legs.

Luke would have been rolling on the ground, laughing hysterically at his clumsiness. The Emperor didn’t so much as twitch a withered lip.

“I shall assume,” he said—and his yellow eyes followed Han’s every move as he wrestled his way back upright—“that your initial comments were addressed and referred to someone other than myself.”

“Um,” Han croaked. “Yeah. Definitely. Definitely meant the—erm—medic. Sorry.” Then after a few seconds to think about, he hastily added, “Your Highness.”

The Emperor cackled slightly, waving a hand in dismissal. “Not at all, my dear boy. You have provided me with an excellent point at which to commence your…re-education.”

Han decided this was probably not the time to make any obstinate objections like last time. Nine hells, last time hadn’t been the time either. That being said he was much too proud to come up with a really boot-licking sort of response, so he just figured it was better if he kept his mouth shut.

“I have a few points to make regarding the regrettable ignorance demonstrated in your less than erudite habits of expression,” the Emperor continued, offering a wide, unnerving grin as he leaned forward on his gnarled walking stick. “Perhaps this conversation will be more comfortably conducted in the sitting room?”

It was in no way a suggestion. Ordering himself not to ask Palpatine what erudite meant, Han warily followed the wrinkled despot into the sitting room. “Do sit down, my young friend,” the Emperor said pleasantly, waving at the assorted sofas and chairs. Han perched gingerly on the seat closest to the bedroom door, figuring he could bolt for the ‘fresher and lock himself in if circumstances demanded. Palpatine settled down on a sofa opposite him and leaned slightly towards him with his hands wrapped around the shaft of the walking stick. The skin on his shriveled hands looked as thin and translucent as tissue paper, which was weird, but since that was less weird than the glowing yellow eyes or half-melted face, Han stared at them instead.

“As I mentioned earlier, your father—while, I am sure, well-intentioned—can hardly be expected to possess the necessary skills for raising and training a fine young man such as yourself,” the Emperor began briskly. “Therefore, young Skywalker, taking into accounts the long friendship between your father and myself, I must consider the responsibility as my own.”

“Thanks,” Han managed to choke out, “but you really don’t have to, I’m sure you’re real damn busy running the galaxy and all, so—”

“I must insist, my young friend,” the thin, venomously pleasant voice of the ruler of the known galaxy replied brightly. “The need is, after all, too great to ignore.” The oily yellow gaze examined him head to toe, not without a hint of disgust.

Han bristled, forgetting entirely that he was supposed to be trying to keep things smooth and quiet as long as he could. “Nothing’s fracking wrong with me! What the hells is that blasted medic tellin’ people?”

“Let us,” the Emperor with an air of saintly patience, “evaluate what is revealed by your initial response to my unexpected arrival.”

“Hey—look,” Han said in a rush, “you just scared me is all—”

“A point we shall address in due course,” Palpatine said dismissively. “Firstly, there is the obvious issue of your vocabulary. Such coarse and plebeian expressions would horrify your dear, lamented mother, I assure you. More to the point, they do not befit a future Sith Lord.”

Han started nervously. Future Sith Lord? Was that what the Emperor had in mind for Luke? Was this creep planning to make Luke just as much an evil son of a Hutt as he was?

Nope, the voice in his head said, he’s planning to make you an evil son of a Hutt, cause in case you ain’t noticed Luke’s not the one he’s got, you are.

“Who says I’m gonna be a Sith?” Han barked nervously.

The Emperor only cackled. “I have foreseen it, young Skywalker. Your capacity to master the Dark Side could surpass even that of your father. A pity, really, that your existence could render him…obsolete, shall we say.” He fixed Han with a shrewd stare.

“Incidentally, this brings us to my next major observation, which is that your father—estimable as I am sure his motives are—has neglected your training.”

“How d’you figure that?” Han snapped.

The Emperor leaned back a little further, and a sly smirk began wading through the wrinkles of his ruined face. “Do you imagine that I have ignored you these past several days, my young friend?”

Thinking he must mean the security cams, Han expected a number of criticisms on his inability to escape. He was thus quite surprised when the Emperor continued, “You have been startlingly quiet this entire time. I do hope that I am not intimidating you. I am your friend, you know.”

Han didn’t understand any of this except the last sentence, which he seriously doubted, so all he said was, “Right.”

“It certainly is,” Palpatine said testily. Apparently he’d sounded a touch too sarcastic for the old man’s liking. “However, judging from the fact that you did not sense my arrival in advance, I am sadly forced—though, I hope you understand, it is only with the deepest reluctance that I say anything against your father—I am sadly forced to conclude that he has failed to provide you with the proper training for your extensive talents…”

Han missed some of what was said next because he was too busy trying to sort out the clue he’d just been given. It seemed like the Emperor must be talking about this crazy-magic-Force-stuff that Vader and Luke—and it looked like the Emperor—could do. At least, he’d heard Luke say stuff about being able to “sense his father in the Force,” whatever the nine hells that meant. Whatever this Force-sensing thing was, the Emperor seemed to have noticed that he wasn’t doing any of it—that must have been what he meant about Han being too quiet.

Not good, the nervous voice in his head yelped. Though it didn’t look like Palpatine had gotten suspicious yet, sooner or later he was gonna think it was a bit fishy that Han never did any of the things crazy wacked-out Jedi wizards did. What if he got asked to make the sofa float or something? How the hells was he gonna bluff his way outta that one? Sorry, Your Emperorness, I just don’t feel like it this morning?

Right. Yeah. That would go over well.

“…a few simple skills quickly, given such a gifted student as yourself,” the Emperor was saying now.

Han blinked. “Sorry—what?”

The evil yellow eyes speared him, looking even more irked than before. Han almost winced. Better pay attention from now on, Solo. “I hope you do not intend to make a habit of forcing me to repeat myself,” he said. There was a dangerous edge to his words. “There are a great many demands on my time besides you, young Skywalker.”

“Sorry,” Han gulped. There was an uneasy pause. “Your Highness.”

The Emperor leaned back a little, somewhat mollified. “No matter. I had thought we might begin our little lessons with a few simple techniques of the Force…”

Han’s heart thumped with terror and his breath stuck in his throat.

“…but it seems clear that our first order of business must be the correction of various inadequacies in your behavior.”

Han nodded his head enthusiastically out of sheer relief. Anything to keep the issue of wizardy-stuff at bay.

“Excellent,” the Emperor said. “Then we shall begin. You, my friend, are the student. I am the master. I shall expect you to demonstrate an appropriate measure of respect and obedience. There shall be an end of this gross rebellion in which your father has permitted you to indulge.”

Han gritted his teeth and nodded again.

“For example,” the Emperor snapped, “you shall articulate your responses instead of wagging your head around like a reek.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Han ground out.

The Emperor settled forward on the cane, grinning broadly once more. His teeth were as yellow as his eyes. “A gem in the rough, to be sure, my young friend, but I daresay that with an energetic application of discipline, we may make something useful of you yet.” He stood and began making his way to the suite entrance. “I am afraid my attention is required elsewhere, but we shall speak again on these matters tomorrow, my young friend.”

Han watched him leave, then collapsed back into the billowing carpet with a loud groan. “I’m dead,” he mumbled through a mouthful of wooly fluff.

Vader left Leia alone just long enough for her to recover from the temporary emotional tidal wave, about half an hour perhaps. When the door slid back once again to reveal the Sith Lord looming on the other side, Leia could only hope her eyes weren’t still red.

“Come,” he ordered tersely.

She really didn’t feel like keeping up the charade of intractability, but she was also much too stubborn to do anything else, so she crossed her arms and stayed sitting right where she was. “Not unless you’re taking me to my parents,” she snapped, fixing her stare regally on the opposite wall.

“As a matter of fact,” Vader growled, “I am.”

Leia whirled to face him, eyes wide with surprise. “You…you are?”

“Come,” he repeated flatly.

Not sure whether she ought to trust him or not, and feeling a bit resentful that he had so handily undercut the ground she’d been at such pains to stand on, Leia finally picked herself up off the cot and approached. He gripped her firmly by the upper arm and propelled her just ahead of him through a couple of short corridors, and finally into a large dark chamber equipped with an elegant interstellar com array. It didn’t take Leia long to realize that she’d been had.

“I don’t see my parents anywhere,” she seethed, trying to tug her arm out of his grasp.

“You will shortly,” he retorted, entering commands on the control console. The projector suddenly whirred to life, and the figure of one of her father’s aides appeared in midair. His eyes widened as, releasing Leia’s arm, Vader stepped onto the transmission platform. “Get me Senator Organa on an encrypted connection,” he ordered.

In the intervening minutes—after a surreptitious but failed attempt to get the door of the chamber open—Leia decided that she didn’t like where this was going. When her father’s face finally appeared in holographic form, Leia’s joy at seeing him again was tempered by an awful, gut-deep foreboding. Before she could say anything to him or otherwise make her presence known, something invisible and heavy pressed her into her place and seemed to fill her mouth. She couldn’t even make an indignant squeak.

“Lord Vader,” her father said, with his usual refined nod. “I assume from your instructions to my aide that you wish to discuss our earlier arrangements.”

“I do indeed,” Vader thundered. “I am altering the deal.”

Bail Organa leaned forward warily. “I believe we agreed you’re in no position to do that.”

“Circumstances,” Vader said triumphantly, “have changed.” The next thing Leia knew the invisible heavy stuff had drawn her up onto the transmission platform in full view. The most horrible look evolved in her father’s eyes.

“Leia?” he asked slowly.

Just as she found herself able to speak again, she realized it was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Leia, is that you?”

“Answer him,” Vader ordered.

She swallowed, realizing that no amount of indignation would do her or her father any good. Vader simply didn’t care what laws he broke. After all, he seemed to have no conscience to restrain him, and what or who else in the galaxy could do anything to stop him? She’d better seize the chance to talk to her father while she could, however she could, because she might never see him again. “It’s me, Daddy,” she whispered. “I’m alright.”

“For the moment,” Vader added dangerously. “I trust I need hardly state that you ought not take that state of affairs for granted, Senator.”

Something coalesced and hardened in Bail Organa’s expression. “Before you start threatening Leia, there is something you ought to know about her background—”

“I am perfectly aware of it,” Vader snarled. “I am perfectly aware of everything.” One massive glove suddenly curled around the back of Leia’s neck; she stiffened and sucked in a breath. “Do not imagine that that information will prevent me from punishing you for your presumption.”

The horror was back in her father’s eyes, but it was ten times worse than before. “Dear Force, man, do you mean to tell me that you’d murder your own—”

“We will discuss the details within the hour,” Vader cut him off. “Any decisions on your part to speak about these matters to other ears would be…regrettable.” His grip constricted pointedly around the nape of Leia’s neck.

“Don’t do what he says, Daddy!” she burst out suddenly and fervently. “Don’t—”

Vader reached out and switched off the connection. She stared, breathing heavily, at the empty space where it had almost seemed that her father had really been. Finally she glanced up. Vader was regarding her silently from his loftier height.

“You have a brave spirit, little Princess,” he said to her.

“You’re evil,” she said. Her chest throbbed with dull, slow-heating anger.

“You do not understand the situation sufficiently to make such a judgment,” Vader informed her. He marched out of the room, hauling Leia along by his grip on her neck and shoulders. Thinking of the look on her father’s face, Leia didn’t have the strength to put up a fight.

Ferus Olin didn’t think he could say that he was feeling better, per se. But having had several hours of practice, he felt that he had come to terms sufficiently with the pain to operate around it. This didn’t necessarily translate to increased chances of a successful escape, but at least he was clear-minded enough to be on the lookout for an opportunity. This was an Imperial Star Destroyer detention block, which meant everything operated on a standardized schedule. If the Force was with him, he should be able to find a weakness to exploit to his advantage.

Accordingly, he had begun trying to time the patrols and shift changes and meals. It was very difficult to do, limited as he was to only passive use of the Force. Vader’s looming darkness was still actively hemming him. The most the Jedi could do was pick apart whatever sensations reached him, trying to identify human presences and locations and map out patterns, hindered by his amorphous sense of the passage of time. He suspected the detention block personnel of deliberately delivering meals at irregular times so as to further skew his perception, but with no objective markers he couldn’t be certain.

Whatever the pattern really was, there was no denying that it was significantly interrupted when the detention guards poured into his cell and hauled him out. Ferus expected to be dragged into another interrogation room, probably with Vader waiting for him, but instead the guards hustled him down the corridor and through the security station into the turbolift. For a long, tense moment, as the lift raced towards its destination, Ferus debated making a full-fledged escape effort when they exited. If he rallied for one huge moment, he might be able to surge free of Vader’s oppressive weight and wield the Force against the guards and make a run for it.

He decided against it. He wasn’t strong enough. Even if he could win a moment of freedom from Vader’s constraint, it was sure to be only a moment; and he would never get another chance. The Sith would know immediately that he was attempting escape and the whole ship would be placed on alert. Weak as he was, he stood no chance of fighting off the whole Destroyer. No—his only hope would be to slip out of the Empire’s grip quietly, secretly, without giving Vader any cause for alarm. He’d have to bide his time, conserve his strength.

The troopers, half dragging him and half lugging him since he could only walk so far before collapsing, took him through a series of corridors and lifts. Vader’s dark presence loomed nearer and nearer; Ferus was in no way surprised when they came to a halt outside the dark lord’s quarters. He spent a minute reminding himself through clenched teeth of all his reasons for not attempting an escape, but once faced with an imminent renewal of torture, they became less convincing.

The doors glided open. The guards marched him inside the front room, deposited him on the floor, and left. Ferus pushed himself up on his hands and knees as he heard footsteps approaching. He raised his head in time to see Vader enter…

…And forced along beside him, young Leia Organa.

Ferus had assumed that he must look dreadful after his recent ordeal. Leia’s horrified gasp served as proof. It sounded like the first nail in his coffin. He drew a painful breath, knowing that the fight was over for both of them. His only consolation was that he’d never have to face Bail Organa.

He mustered the energy for a final admonition. “Remember—what I said—before, Leia. It still—stands—” His voice dissolved in racking, bloody coughs from deep in his badly abused chest. Perhaps if both of them held out, they might stand a chance of protecting Luke Solo. Unless Vader had recaptured the boy as well.

“Anything you said before is irrelevant, Olin,” Vader rumbled. Leia tried to lunge forward towards him; the dark lord dragged her back in line effortlessly. Ferus drummed up a brief smile for her benefit. “As you can see, your protégé is in my control. I am going to give you the opportunity to keep her safe.”

“Leia…I’m sorry,” Ferus rasped. He turned his head toward Vader, an awkward angle from his current precarious position on hands and knees. “I am not—telling you—anything.”

“I do not require information from you any longer,” Vader returned. Ferus was so surprised he nearly dropped to the deck altogether. “I require your cooperation,” the dark lord continued.

There was a long pause as Ferus processed this turn of events. “Cooperation—with what?”

The response that came was strictly via the Force. An unmistakable image of a lightsaber duel presented itself forcibly—Vader and himself battling together to eliminate the Emperor.

Ferus stared up, totally—in fact almost literally—floored. Are you insane? he sent back incredulously.

You desire this man gone. So do I.

The Jedi scowled. What good does it do me to get rid of one galactic despot just to see another take his place?

Vader’s train of thought nudged him darkly towards the princess. It does you no good. She, on the other hand, will be permitted to live if you cooperate. Provided you can be of use to me, though, I might even refrain from killing you.

The idea suddenly occurred to Ferus that his opportunity was here. As things stood, neither he nor Leia had any hope of survival. But if he could seize this chance to regain his strength, maybe even to acquire a greater degree of freedom of action, he might—the Force willing—find an opening and whisk himself and Leia out of danger.

I’m not going to be any use at the moment, you know, he pointed out dryly.

My medic will see to that, Vader returned dismissively.

Feeling spent, but finally with a thread of hope clutched firmly, Ferus nodded and rasped aloud, “Agreed.” Then, as Vader started away with Leia, he scratched out, “I’ll be alright, Leia.”

She twisted around in Vader’s grip and he caught a glimpse of horror-struck wide brown eyes before they vanished around the doorframe. He was left trying to stop his muscles from trembling and wondering what the hells anyone expected from him now when a bushy-haired man in a white medic’s coat appeared through the same entrance. He took one look at Ferus and shook his head deploringly.

“Heal the prisoner, he says,” grumbled the medic, thumping over and plopping down his kit bag. “Three days, he says! Dear holy goddess, man, look at you! What does he think I am, a miracle worker?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ferus managed hoarsely, “Doctor…”

“Siler. Won’t bother asking for your name, he’d have my head for it. Well, then, let’s see what I can do with you, shall we?”

“I’m game,” Ferus wheezed.

The medic gave a short laugh as he hefted Ferus up to his feet. “I’ll bet you are.”

Getting back on the conveyor belt was tricky with two toddlers and one limping adult, but in the end Lando found an old tool rack that they managed to turn into a makeshift ladder. Luke clambered up and they passed the twins between them, then finally Lando shuffled to the top and Luke managed to haul him up by the arms. They picked their way forward down the belt to catch up with the twins.

“So tell me,” Lando grunted as the belt shot over a particularly enormous jolt, “what is it with you and Solo and bad transportation arrangements?”

“What is with you and complaining about it?” Luke shot back, tucking Sara under one arm. She had taken to the belt ride with rather too much enthusiasm and kept trying to creep over towards the edge to watch the ground rushing by. Sandra, on the other hand, could not be detached from Lando’s side. She had appropriated the remains of his cape as a blanket and was peering out from beneath it, regarding the rickety belt with obvious trepidation.

“Kwishy, das scary,” she whimpered. “Want Dadda.”

“It’s okay,” Luke answered. “We just have to rescue Han, and then we can go back home, alright?”

“Das gonna be long?” Sandra asked mournfully.

“Maybe a few days,” Luke hedged. “Not too long. Lando’s gonna watch you until we can get Han back.”

“Is that right?” Lando asked incredulously. “I don’t think so, kid. I’m getting you three back to your ship and then I am out of this system.”

“Really? Where’s your ride?”

Sithspit. It was back in Imperial City. Like the ninth hell Lando was going back there anytime soon.

“Plus,” Luke pointed out, “you need to get your leg fixed and I’ve got med supplies on the ship. Once we get Han back we can fly you out of system, wherever you want.”

“Fine,” Lando groused. They spent the rest of the belt ride trying to distract Sara from making any perilous expeditions and Sandra from being terrified. Lando had never been happier than when they gingerly stepped off the rushing belt onto a convenient load-access platform, despite the fact that the sudden change of velocity sent him careening facedown on the durasteel mesh. After that it was a tedious journey up through the levels of the rundown factory. Between their various limitations it took a good hour to hike up through the building to the access bay where Luke and Master Yoda had parked the lambda shuttle. Luke led them up the ramp and punched in the access code.

“Alright,” he said, “there you go. I’ll be back.”

“Where the hells do you think you’re going?” Lando barked, setting Sandra down inside the ship (both twins had worn themselves out ages ago). “If you’re thinking about going back to Imperial City, forget it.”

“Of course I’m going back,” Luke burst out. “I have to help rescue Han!”

“That,” Lando said, pointing a finger and fully aware of how un-intimidating he probably looked with one leg buckled beneath him, “is stupid. If your Jedi Master friend can take on Boba Fett without blinking, I guarantee you he doesn’t need help from a—how old are you?—well, however old you are, it’s definitely not old enough! Besides, what the hells do you expect me to tell that father of yours if I let you run off into danger again and you get yourself killed or kidnapped or something?”

Luke seemed quite taken aback by the idea that any grown-ups were there to take care of his problems. “But—but—but Han came back for me, so—”

“I don’t give a bucket of Hutt slime what Han did,” Lando barked. “If I try to take these two sisters of yours back to your father without somebody to tell him I’m not the one who took ‘em in the first place, I’m dead. So you are staying here and that way we’ll all get out of this cesspool in one piece.”

Luke scowled, and Lando expected the kid to just take off—after all, it wasn’t as if he, with a bad leg to boot, could really stop him. But Luke seemed to have made a habit out of surprising him. “Fine,” he muttered, stalking up the ramp. “I’ll stay.”

“I don’t like it,” Jan Dodonna’s fuzzy blue figure growled.

“And I suppose you think I do?” Bail retorted bitterly. He glanced involuntarily across the office at Breha, who was sitting out of the pickup zone, her face as pale as porcelain. Perhaps more than anything else, the realization that something could shatter his wife’s almost militant composure had given Bail the determination to try and take the reins of this runaway disaster. Most of him wanted to flee groveling to Vader, do anything the man said, submit to any depraved abuse, if he could but spare Leia the horror of being taken by a father who had expressed a perfect willingness to harm his daughter if it would work to his political advantage.

But the sight of Breha, crushed into helplessness by the news of Leia’s situation, roused something else in him—something that would fight to the last straw, take any risk to restore their family and to put the world right so that nobody would ever again be able to kidnap their daughter and threaten her life with impunity.

Unfortunately, this small, indomitably ferocious something wasn’t going to be much good on its own .Convincing the Rebel Alliance to go along with Vader’s coup, if that was even possible, was going to be the most difficult diplomatic endeavor of his life. Jan Dodonna wasn’t about to make it any easier.

“Dear Force, man,” the Rebel general burst out, “you’re suggesting that I ask our men—our men who have seen their comrades and families die at the hand of this man—to work with him? How the hell do you expect me to ask that from them?”

“I’m not suggesting it ought to be a permanent state of affairs,” Bail snapped. “But there are plenty of good strategic reasons for doing it temporarily.”

Dodonna barked a cynical laugh. “There’s only one reason you’re asking us to do this, Bail, and her name is Leia.”

“She’s not the only reason,” Bail gritted out, managing to bite back an instinctive retort about the inability of crusted old spacefaring battleaxe-wielding bachelors to appreciate the bond of parent to child. “Leia is not the only child whose life is at stake in this situation. I trust you remember Han and Luke Solo.”

Dodonna blanched. “Vader didn’t—”

“Vader has them as well,” Bail forged on.

Dodonna blew out a fatigued breath. “Listen,” he began in a carefully reasonable tone, “Bail, I know she’s your daughter. Let my men mount a rescue operation. But we just can’t risk the entire Alliance, and possibly the future of the galaxy, for the sake of three children! The situation is tragic, I understand that, I hate that, but I’m sorry I’ve got to tell you that I simply can’t let my sympathy for them overrule my sympathy for the trillions of others of beings in this galaxy suffering under Imperial oppression!”

“I think we need to tell them, Bail,” Breha suddenly intervened. Bail looked up at Breha for a questioning moment—he was not about to let out any information that would increase his wife’s fear for Leia’s safety—but she pursed her lips and nodded firmly.

“Tell us what?” another female voice asked. On the right side of Bail’s desk, the shimmering holographic projection of Mon Mothma had sat through the preceding minutes of conversation in observant silence.

“Jan, Mon—Luke Solo and Leia are twins.”

Dodonna’s eyes narrowed. “How the hells do you know that?”

“Because I was there when they were born,” Bail answered flatly. “They’re Padmé’s children.”

Mothma sank forward in her seat. A longing, sick expression had come over her face. “Dear goddess. Padmé’s?”

Bail nodded.

“But how? When?”

“She was married secretly just after the beginning of the Clone Wars,” Bail continued grimly. “To Anakin Skywalker.”

Mothma shook her head in mute bewilderment. “Three years. To think I never knew. Bail”—her voice ached with morbid hope—“is that—I mean, do you think that in the Purges—that that was why she—”

“I know exactly why she died,” Bail said bitterly. “She was betrayed by the same man who perpetrated the Purges.”

“By Vader?” Dodonna said quizzically. “Vader didn’t even appear on the scene until after the initial attack on the Jedi Temple. You know that. To this day nobody knows what hole that monster crawled out of—”

“Wrong,” Bail told him. “He was on the front lines of the war from day one.” When their faces remained blank, he snapped, “Dear Force, don’t you see it? Vader is Anakin Skywalker.

Mothma’s hand flew to her chest and Dodonna’s jaw fell slack. “Dear goddess,” Mothma whispered, “Padmé…”

Now do you see why we’ve got to get Luke and Leia away from him?” Bail snapped. “It’s not just their lives at stake! Those children have an enormous amount of Force potential, and if we allow the Sith to pervert them to their own evil purposes, the same way that Palpatine did Anakin Skywalker—we’ve seen what can happen! The results of that are the very things the Alliance has built itself to fight against! If we give the Sith another opportunity to consolidate power and add to their number, what chance will we ever have?”

“So in your point of view,” Dodonna continued slowly, “this is a case of divide-and-conquer.”

“Precisely. We side with Vader for the time being in order to eliminate the Emperor, who—need I remind you—singlehandedly orchestrated the destruction of a ten-thousand-year-old galactic government and is therefore further proof that preventing the creation of more Sith Lords ought to be our primary objective. At the same time we have the chance to drive a wedge between Vader and the Imperial Navy that backs him. I guarantee you, Admiral Thrawn will have no use for Vader after he’s served his purpose. By participating in the coup we distract both of the Sith from focusing any attention on brainwashing Luke and Leia, and by getting closer to them we increase our chances of rescuing them unscathed.”

Bail took a pause to breathe, drink some water, and reassure himself that all this wasn’t the riskiest thing he’d ever proposed in his life before continuing. “As I told you earlier I spoke in a secret conference not long ago with Vader and his admiral, Thrawn, who I suspect is the real mastermind behind this entire scheme. I’ve checked out his dossier. If it’s a three-way choice between Palpatine, Vader, and Thrawn, then Thrawn is the one to work with.”

“Bail, he’s an Imperial Admiral,” Dodonna groaned. “He’s complicit in the system. What in the galaxy makes you think he would be a genuine improvement?”

“He’s not a megalomaniac, for starters,” Bail retorted. “No record of genocide or child slaughter to date. As far as I’m concerned that already puts him lightyears ahead of Vader or Palpatine. With Vader it’s all about brute force, but Thrawn has an impressive intellect and I think it’s clear he’s been using it.”

“Palpatine has an impressive intellect,” Mothma pointed out dryly. “I think we ought to be careful about thinking that that’s a positive quality.”

“Yes, but unlike Palpatine, Thrawn’s not Force-sensitive,” Bail argued. “He’s not motivated by any insidious Sith ideology. And as you noted, Jan, he’s actively trying to overthrow a galactic system from which he personally benefits. Clearly his objections are on other grounds than personal interest.”

“Palpatine personally benefited from the system he overthrew,” Dodonna objected waspishly.

“That was a democratic system,” Bail said. “It didn’t grant the kind of totalitarian power that the Empire does. If Thrawn was after supreme personal power, he’d merely want to usurp the Imperial throne. He wouldn’t need any help from outside the system. He certainly wouldn’t want to suck Vader into the power struggle the way he’s done already. I think we’re looking at a man with practical and moral objections to the present galactic government, and I think that means the Alliance has a chance to work with him and influence the decisions he makes after eliminating Palpatine. Our approaches are different—”

“Obviously,” Dodonna snorted, “if the man doesn’t mind working with a mass murderer to achieve his objective—”

“—But I think we’ve got a massively better chance of constructive dialogue with Thrawn than we do with Vader or Palpatine,” Bail finished. “If we have a chance to implement genuine democratic change without plunging the galaxy through another bloody civil war, I believe that we’re honor-bound to try it.”

Dodonna didn’t look convinced that the opportunity was worth the risk, but Bail was far more interested in the chief leader of the Alliance, who had now leaned back in her chair with her fingers steepled thoughtfully against her lips. After a suspenseful pause, she gave a slow nod. “Alright. We’ll take our chances.”

Dodonna heaved a deep breath. “If those are your orders, ma’am, I’ll see them done.”

“I’ll get you in contact with Thrawn’s operative,” Bail said. “He claims he’s got one somewhere in the Alliance.”

Dodonna looked half peeved at the information, and half mollified at the realization that if it was true the Imperial admiral had clearly refrained from doing all the damage to the Alliance that he might have.

“In the meantime,” Bail continued tightly, “I think it’s time I did a little scheming of my own with the Admiral. One way or another, Vader has got to go.” Across the desk, although her eyes didn’t leave the hologram of Leia displayed on the wall, Breha nodded grimly.

Piett gulped heavily and tugged surreptitiously at his collar as Vader descended onto the bridge of the Executor, barreling across the catwalk to the com deck where the captain stood waiting for the connection with Admiral Thrawn and the Vindicator to be put through. He hadn’t seen the Dark Lord since the terrifying meeting in the admiral’s quarters. Since then, Thrawn had put his schemes into motion, and Piett had been kept so busy coordinating the new deployment orders for Fifth Fleet that he hadn’t had time to wonder what Vader was doing.

Unhappily, Thrawn’s plan called for the Executor to report solo to Coruscant, while he remained with the rest of Fifth Fleet and finalized preparations. It seemed that most of the admirals of the sector fleets were complicit already in this planned coup; while Vader diverted the Emperor’s attention somehow, Thrawn would direct practically the entire Imperial Navy in a synchronized convergence on the capital system. Any Palpatine loyalists in the Coruscant system wouldn’t stand a chance against the vast amount of firepower that Thrawn would bring to bear. It was a flawless strategy…except for the part where a compromised Piett was going to be left at Vader’s diminutive mercy for a very long hyperspace jump. He was not so stupid as to think reason would be likely to overrule temper if the dark lord decided to attach blame for the admiral’s presumption on his hapless ship captain.

If Vader had laid any plans for Piett’s imminent demise, he gave no sign of it as he strode up. The connection to the Vindicator went through before Piett had to say anything, so he saluted and stepped out of the way.

“Lord Vader,” Thrawn nodded.

“Admiral,” Vader rumbled. “You have my orders for the next two weeks, I assume.”

“Received and duly examined, my lord,” Thrawn said crisply. “The Fleet will be waiting for you in the Yahdiil system in two standard weeks as ordered. Normal operational deployments should be resumed within three days.”

“I expect to be notified when all re-deployments are complete,” Vader reminded him.

“Of course, my lord. May I wish you a safe journey to Coruscant.”

Vader nodded crisply and cut the connection. “Captain, you have my navigational orders. The helm may commence.”

“At once, my lord,” Piett said quickly, wasting no time making an about-face and marching to the nav station. “Navigation, take us to hyperspace.”

The great Super Star Destroyer shrugged itself into hyperspace with patented Sienar ease. Thrawn surveyed the stellar vista from the Vindicator’s observation deck for a few moments before retreating to his office and accepting the encrypted call that had been waiting for him. Senator Bail Organa appeared in fuzzy blue miniature.

“Thank you for your time, Admiral,” he said.

“Not at all, Viceroy, not at all,” Thrawn answered, with a reserved smile that his colleagues would have been scandalized to see him offering to a Rebel ringleader. “You and I are compatriots in this endeavor. I assume that’s what you wish to discuss?”

“In a manner of speaking,” the Alderaanian ruler said, meshing his fingers on the top of his desk. “Allow me to be frank with you, Admiral. Those whom I represent are willing to support this enterprise, but I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to you that they, and I, will have certain expectations about the results should we succeed.”

“Perhaps you could be more specific about these expectations,” Thrawn suggested mildly, tumbling an old-fashioned decorative pen in one hand.

“We’re willing to negotiate on issues of governance,” the viceroy answered, “but what is not negotiable is that there must be a complete break with the former regime.”

“By the phrase a complete break, I assume that you mean precluding any possibility of the re-emergence of any presently influential figures.”

“What I mean is, we don’t have a deal unless it includes eliminating the Sith,” Organa said flatly.

“That’s a tall order,” Thrawn said with a wry smile. “But as it so happens, you and I are in accord on this point. I have no more wish to see Vader on the Imperial throne than your constituents do. That would, after all, be rather counterproductive to the goals of this initiative.”

Organa relaxed slightly.

“That said,” Thrawn continued, “I think there’s a good chance neither you nor I will have to do anything but let events take their course. In the meantime rest assured that I consider the support of your constituents of greater strategic importance than anything Vader brings to the table.” His expression hardened. “Darth Vader has one role more to play in the determination of the course of the galaxy’s future. After that his usefulness will have run its course. It’s time he was replaced by men with more enlightened visions of governance. The Galactic Empire has served its purpose in forging the galaxy into a cohesive political entity, but that entity is now prepared to assume a more mature form of government.” He allowed his smile to widen. “A Galactic Alliance, if you will.”

“My constituents will hold you to your word,” Bail warned grimly. “As will I.”

Thrawn inclined his head in an urbane nod. “Please do, Senator.”

Ensconced in the comfort of his private sanctum, the Emperor leaned back in his armchair and silently contemplated the projector before him. It was currently relaying footage from the security sensors in young Luke Skywalker’s suite. The lanky, dark-haired teenager had thrown himself across the bed facedown and was idling away his time folding sheets of flimsiplast into crude aircraft and flicking them at a painting on the opposite wall.

Given other circumstances, the Sith Master might have indulged in derision. But Luke Skywalker was too much a puzzle to be seen in such simplified lights. Unlike his father, who had been an open book from the first day of their acquaintance, the son left Palpatine uncertain what he should make of him. He had expected someone very like a young Anakin, but Luke had proven a unique specimen. At their second encounter, he had used the phrase “a gem in the rough,” but it was more accurate to describe the boy as a sport speeder that had been used for garbage collection. How entirely irritating that a boy who should have had every advantage—the powerful talent of his father, the intellect and refined breeding of his mother—had managed to grow up into that. Frittering away entire hours with a pointless pastime that would not have befitted him as a three-year-old, demonstrating no sign of the remarkable talent or intelligence he could not help but possess, and acting as though he’d never had a speck of real education in his life.

Not for the first time, Palpatine wondered what Vader could possibly have been thinking to let the boy sink deeper and deeper into this gutter. If his calculations were correct Vader had had the boy in his hands for several months at the least. It was simply incredible that a man who had possessed sufficient drive to climb out of the uneducated cesspool of slavery could tolerate this blatant lack of ambition in his son.

Unless, of course, Luke Skywalker was actually far cleverer than the Emperor gave him credit for being.

The idea that all of this might in fact be a calculated farce—that every paper aircraft flung aimlessly at the wall might be a deliberate ploy—sent thrills of fear and delight down Palpatine’s spine. Just suppose that young Skywalker had put on this elaborate front, designed to convince him that he was wasting his time on a lost cause? Such an apprentice—the incredible raw power of a Skywalker, combined with a first-class manipulative genius—such an apprentice he could consider a worthy heir to the legacy of the Sith, an equal…perhaps even a superior, some day.

Despite all his aspirations to immortality, the Emperor could not help thinking that he might even be able to go to his death satisfied if he knew that such a worthy heir would succeed him.

Could he dare to indulge in such extravagant hopes? Were the grounds for such hopes solid? Or was he permitting his imagination to run away with them? He could not believe that the son of Vader was really such an unskilled dunce. But there were several stages between dunce and genius, and human beings overwhelmingly ranged somewhere between the extremes; perhaps another solution to the riddle was eluding him.

Whatever the whole truth, Palpatine reminded himself—watching young Skywalker roll over with a loud, plaintive groan and smash a pillow atop his face before flinging his arms out spread-eagle—the boy certainly knew more than he was letting on. Ever since his arrival, young Skywalker had not given even the slightest hint that he was Force-sensitive; his presence remained as steadfastly mundane as any of the lesser beings that swarmed all over the planet. An untrained novice could not have exhibited such excellent shielding. It was, the Emperor decided, grounds to expect significantly greater things from the young man.

The question, rather, was how he should go about breaking the present standstill. The options available at the moment were two: he could force his way through the boy’s shields, or he could bide his time, slowly earning young Skywalker’s trust. Neither was very attractive—forcing the boy would engender resentment, whereas winning his trust would be cost a great deal of precious time.

A smirk cracked its way across his ruined face. The choice was unpleasant but hardly a quandary. The option of force would always remain available. But Sith apprentices were not forged overnight. The all-important bond between master and student must not be neglected; else he might find that he had merely created a resentful attack dog that would turn at the first opportunity to sink its teeth into the jugular of its tormentor. The risk of that was far greater as long as Vader remained alive to give the boy a choice of masters. It was a curious phenomenon in the Emperor’s opinion, but the fact remained that relationships between biological family members were wildly resilient. Vader could inflict any amount of cruel abuse, even to the point of threatening the boy’s life, and it still might not be enough to shatter his son’s loyalty. The only way Palpatine could combat that potent connection was by building one to rival it, all the while quietly seeding discord.

Speaking of the importance of master-apprentice bonds, he had better begin pondering how to deal with Vader. Nothing could incite Vader’s fury like those who interfered with his family; he would have to placate that wrath while still censuring his apprentice for having hidden the child in the first place. It was necessary to allay the man’s suspicions for the time; he could not yet dispense with his current apprentice. If he knew anything about Vader at all, the ticket would be a careful balance of severity and generosity. Straight-out lenience and amiability would never be believed; total harshness would exacerbate the fracture. Switching off the projector and putting his questions about Luke Skywalker away for the moment, the Emperor turned his scheming thoughts on the mechanics of soothing Vader’s ruffled feathers.

By the time the Executor arrived in the Coruscant system, Ferus no longer harbored any questions about why Dr. Siler had been granted his position as Vader’s personal medical assistant. The man was first-rate. Flexing his mostly-repaired muscles, the onetime Jedi admitted that the healers of the Jedi Temple would have been hard-pressed to do better in only three days. If he wasn’t exactly in the best shape he’d ever been, Siler’s skill and his own judicious use of Jedi healing techniques had at least rendered him fit for action with a few hours to spare.

That wasn’t a moment too soon as far as Vader’s operative was concerned. Ferus hadn’t heard the man’s name and he doubted he ever would, but the gray-eyed agent had been put in charge of smuggling him into Imperial City. His hair had been shorn into a regulation fuzz and he’d been given a uniform identical to the one he’d appropriated at Bast Castle. Other than a DNA mask injected into his bloodstream, that was the extent to which the agent chose to alter his physical appearance. His lightsaber would remain in Vader’s possession until he had gotten inside Imperial Palace. The plan was to send him down with a shuttle of junior officers, passing him off as a transfer from one of the other Star Destroyers in Fifth Fleet. As for obtaining official clearance to pass through the security checkpoints of Imperial Palace, that was hardly an obstacle when one’s co-conspirator ran the military and security structures of the entire Empire. Once inside, it was his job to go to ground and stay under the radar until it was time to strike.

Nothing, Ferus told himself gamely, that he hadn’t done on covert missions as a Jedi Padawan a dozen times.

Were you trying to dance around two Sith Lords back then too? his subconscious jeered. With the life of an innocent girl and the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance?

Shut up, he growled at it. I’ve got enough to worry about without you reminding me. With a last flick to straighten his uniform jacket, and checking his pocket to make sure his fabricated identification documents hadn’t gotten lost somewhere, Ferus headed to the hangar bay where his shuttle was waiting for him. On the way he glanced through a viewport at the glittering, light-laced orb below him. Mirror satellites winked around it like gems in a necklace. The sunset line was beginning its curve across the eastern swell of the planet. It looked the same as he remembered it from his years at the Temple.

Well, Coruscant, I’m back.

“You know,” Han said loudly for the benefit of the security holocams, “this place is getting real damn boring.”

Of course, there wasn’t any response. Somewhere, in a freezing little security control room umpteen gazillion floors away from him, some stupid teenage recruit was probably laughing his regulation haircut off. Han swore under his breath and stomped back into the bedroom, dropping himself down at the desk. All the books in the library had long, boring titles that looked like things that uppity Alderaanian princess would probably like reading. The only one that had sounded anything like worthwhile had been A Survey of Modern Military Thought, but it had turned out to be a lot of incomprehensible philosophical mumbo-jumbo. He had made the mistake of mentioning this during his most recent talk with His Wrinkled Wickedness. Now the shriveled old relic was making him read. Apparently this was supposed to “extend his intellectual scope” and “awaken his natural intelligence.”

Han personally felt that the only thing being extended was his boredom, and “awakened” was exactly the opposite of the effect that The Practice of Power: An Introduction to the History of Political Theory was having on him. His Sadisticness expected him to have the thing read cover to cover two evenings from now. All one thousand five hundred and thirty five pages of it. Miserably Han observed that despite having tortured himself over it practically all day, he had only reached page one hundred and three.

Well, at least he’d finished the other book. He spared a derisive scowl for his thin copy of H. Panerrie’s Practical Survey of the Art of Society, which was basically a list of the stupidest rules he’d ever heard in his life. Having grown up on the street where no one cared if he even had food, Han could only snort at the idea that there were people who would be offended by which fork he did or didn’t eat it with. Problem was, the Emperor seemed to be one of them, which was the only thing that had kept Han reading to the end.

Okay, that, and a teensy little bit of him that thought it might be useful information for impressing certain uppity princesses, if the occasion ever arose. Maybe.

Feeling mildly disgusted with himself and downright resentful of the Emperor, Han scooted his chair forward again and dropped his elbows down on the desktop with a thud, determinedly trying to focus himself on the book and get through the damn thing so that he wouldn’t get thrown in a cell later. Maybe he might even understand a word or two along the way…

A telltale hiss informed him that someone had come in through the main door of his suite. “Aw, hell no,” Han muttered to his book, massaging his forehead with one hand. He didn’t feel up to another dangerous conversation with the Emperor.

“Luke Skywalker?” somebody with a thin, Coruscant-accented tenor asked behind him.

Han turned slowly in his chair, feeling relieved enough to don a comfortably cocky expression. It wasn’t His Evil Eminence after all, just some pointless flunky in uniform. “Do you mind, pal? I’m tryin’ to read.”

The flunky smirked, and his nose twitched and his lip curled in a really masterful expression of disdain; Han was impressed in spite of himself. “The Emperor requests your presence in the throne room,” he said, and added triumphantly, “I expect your reading will have to wait.”

Han favored him with a disgusted grin. “Well,” he said with obviously exaggerated cheer, “anything for His Imperialness.” Although his stomach was lurching like a loose cargo crate in zero-g, he felt a tiny bit better to see the flunky’s face flush red with indignation. Summoning up his courage and sticking his hands in his pockets, Han sauntered out after the flunky and hoped desperately that the jig wasn’t finally up.

The Executor would arrive at Coruscant in less than half an hour. Vader checked the seals on his armor, opened his hyperbaric chamber, and started out of his quarters—he planned to be waiting aboard his shuttle, in order to depart for the planetary surface as quickly as possible. He did not wish to lose a single minute before seeing his son again. He also didn’t want to give Palpatine a chance to issue a summons. He wasn’t coming to Coruscant this time as a subordinate reporting to his master—he was coming as a Sith Lord in his own right, one who had been indefensibly wronged by a peer. He was issuing demands, not responding to them, and he wanted the Emperor aware of that difference immediately.

There were good reasons for doing so. For one, it would be a prime distraction to the old man—any assertive act on his part could be counted on to rouse Palpatine’s wariness and suspicion. If the Emperor could be made to focus on the apparent danger from his apprentice close to home, he would be less aware of the greater threat Thrawn was secretly orchestrating outside the capital system. For another, by articulating one subversive demand—that the Emperor return the boy he had wrongfully taken—Vader could prevent the man from suspecting him of even more rebellious plans (such as imminent assassination and usurpation).

But if he was perfectly frank with himself, the driving reason behind his decision to accuse Palpatine to his face had nothing to do with strategy, and everything to do with the fact that he was a father whose child had been stolen from him again. A rage so hot it froze, a fury that had been smoldering restlessly ever since the first reports from Landre, erupted in him once more. How dare Palpatine do such a thing? As if lying to him about the fate of Padmé had not been offense enough, now the man had dared to kidnap his son, torn him straight out of his own home, just as though he had a legitimate claim to the boy! And what of Sara and Sandra, whom Baranne had still not managed to locate? Had Palpatine’s henchman Fett not stolen them as well? And then lost them in the underbelly of Corellia?

The anger was aching and nauseating, soaked through with dreadful fear for the lives of his daughters. No news of them, no word at all, not a single sighting. Were they even still alive? There was no end to the horrors that might devour two helpless toddlers, wandering alone in a galactic metropolis. And Luke, left at the dubious mercy of the Emperor, with no protection…A fanatical determination flooded in on top of his fury—no matter the cost, he must get his children back.

He paused in step and thought as the door to Leia’s room suddenly appeared on his left. How ironic that after all this searching he had only retrieved the child he hadn’t even known existed.

Abruptly, the door hissed open from the other side. It was Miyr, carrying a tray with the leftovers of a meal for two. She spotted him and stiffened sharply. He was startled to notice outrage flickering in her brown eyes. He was even more startled to discover a responding twinge of guilt in his gut.

“How is the young Princess?” he asked hesitantly.

“Wonderful, my lord,” Miyr responded icily. “I’m sure she’ll get over the psychological trauma in no time.”

Vader snapped an angry finger at her. “Do not presume to pass judgment on me, woman,” he barked. “I have done nothing except with the intent to retrieve my children.”

Miyr’s eyes flashed in answering anger. “I apologize, my lord,” she snapped. “I hadn’t realized that it was only your children who deserved decent treatment.”

Vader jerked, startled by the blunt reprimand and increasingly angered by it. Miyr spun on her heel and started down the corridor. She stopped halfway and marched back. “Forgive me,” she began, not sounding contrite in the slightest, “but how can you subject that poor girl to such treatment when you have daughters yourself?”

Taken aback by the sudden, unrestrained display of independence on the part of a servant who had previously been the epitome of loyal obedience, Vader inadvisably retorted with the first response that came to mind. “She is my daughter!”

The tray crashed onto the deck, scattering dishes everywhere. Miyr stared at him, completely ignoring the wreckage littered around her feet.

“Therefore,” Vader continued vehemently, his finger stabbing at his administrator once more, “I will treat her as I deem fit, and you will not question my decisions. See to it that guards are placed on station outside my quarters and ensure that she does not leave the room. You will continue to see to her basic needs without further insubordination.”

He stalked out of his quarters and headed towards the hangar where his private shuttle waited for him. Irate, he thrust all thoughts of Leia and his mutinous administrator out of his mind. He was going to retrieve his son from his treacherous master, and he could ill afford to be distracted by ignorant criticisms.

Back in her little room, on the other side of a door that had not done enough to block out the sounds of the confrontation in the corridor, Leia huddled on her bunk in wide-eyed horror as Vader’s shouted, unwitting revelation ricocheted through her whirling, terrified thoughts.

Displeased, the Emperor reflected, was a wholly inadequate description of Vader’s response. Just moments ago, his aide had arrived, trembling, with a message Vader had sent to Palace Security, informing them that his shuttle would arrive momentarily and he himself would be speaking with the Emperor immediately. The message had had to be forwarded from Palace Security, as Vader had not bothered to give his master any such notification, let alone requested an appointment as was expected of him. Palpatine might have reasserted his own authority by transmitting a countermanding summons to his upstart apprentice, but it transpired that the inbound shuttle was refusing to receive any calls.

Although supremely irritated by Vader’ sudden display of disrespect, the Emperor was not surprised. Perceived threats against family members were the one thing that could always be counted upon to incite Vader’s most headstrong passions. To a degree he was even enjoying himself; it was not often he found himself faced with a credible challenge, and never before had his apprentice so blatantly ignored the rules.

Subtle manipulations would be wasted on the man at this point. As Palpatine had concluded earlier, it would be best to meet Vader head-on. He would demonstrate a little leniency by acceding to the demand for an immediate audience; at the same time he must not sacrifice his position of authority. Accordingly he had come to the formal throne room, which was empty but for him…and for one very important young man whom he had ordered his guards to hold in an attached side chamber.

All was in place. And, by the growing presence that loomed in the Force like a bank of black thunderheads, his irate apprentice was nearly here.

Palpatine touched the com on the armrest of his throne. The chamberlain in the outer foyer answered. “Permit Lord Vader to enter.”

Vader was thoroughly annoyed to find the doors to the throne room open upon his arrival. He would have preferred to force them, thereby destroying any suggestion that he was coming with permission. The Imperial Chamberlain, who had over the course of the past several years become wondrously adept at sensing incoming homicidal wrath, scrambled obsequiously out of his way. Vader stormed inside and vented a bit of his irritation by slamming the doors shut behind his back as he barreled up the center of the throne room on a collision course with his master.

“You are welcome as always, my friend,” the Emperor announced as he came within conversation range. His voice acquired a sudden edge. “Although, I trust, you will demonstrate a modicum of courtesy and extend advance notice next time to you wish to speak with me in person.”

Vader did not pause or answer. He marched straight up the stairs of the dais and came to a halt mere feet away from the throne, regarding Palpatine from his superior height without bothering to kneel. “Where,” he demanded, “is my son?”

He could not sense Luke, but of course that meant nothing—the boy might be shielding himself as before, or worse, the Emperor might be concealing the child’s presence. In fact he almost certainly was.

Palpatine’s inscrutable expression hardened. “Be careful in whom you accuse of what, my young apprentice.”

Vader shifted dangerously. His hand was itching to reach for his lightsaber, but he ordered it to stay away. It was not yet time. “I make accusation where it is due,” he snarled. “You have no right to take my son from me. He is mine.”

Palpatine leaned back. “You speak of rights? Then tell me—what right had you to conceal the boy from me?”

Vader tensed. He had expected this conversation to be dangerous, but the reality was more unnerving than anticipated. “The same right,” he retorted, managing to bring his voice into a calmer tone, “that you had to perpetuate the lie that his mother’s death was my doing.”

That did the trick. Palpatine leaned back, handily returned to the defensive. It was, after all, an arguably unforgivable offense, and he was going to have give a great deal of ground to explain it away. “My friend,” he said soothingly, “I was as surprised as you no doubt were to discover that the child had survived. Clearly my information was in error.”

Vader felt a brief flash of triumph. It was vanishingly rare for his master to admit any sort of mistake. Of course, he did not believe for a moment that it had been a mistake, and even had it been, he was not about to let the Emperor off the hook so easily. “I did not come to hear excuses,” he snapped. “Return my son to me.”

The Emperor’s gaze hardened. “You would do well to remember respect if you expect to receive anything from me,” he hissed. “And you would also do well to recall that it was you who failed to make the boy’s survival known to me in the first place. Had you brought him to me at the outset, such drastic measures would not have been necessary.” He curled his fingers on the armrests of the throne, allowing a moment of silence. “However,” he continued magnanimously, “I understand the reason for your…dissatisfaction. Perhaps it would comfort you to know that young Skywalker has received only the best of treatment.”

“I will believe that,” Vader retorted, “when I have seen him myself.”

Palpatine’s thin lips stretched in a leering grin. “As you wish.” He pressed a button on his armchair, and Vader twisted in spite of himself as someone was pushed out of a side room by the guards.

Han had yet to lay eyes on His Shriveled Dictatorness. The flunky had dragged him through several doors and corridors—including one secret passage—into a cramped little side room. On one side a big set of fancy double doors stood, and there were a couple of comfy sofas.

Oh, yeah—and four Imperial bodyguards.

Han had been perched on a comfy sofa for maybe half an hour of total silence, fidgeting under the impassive stares of the masked red guards. He had one looming on either side of him, while the other two blockaded the doors. Most of the Force pikes were angled in his general direction. Like the nine hells he was going to try anything with these goonies. He didn’t even want to breathe too hard. He figured these Imperial bodyguards must just sort of marinate in the Emperor’s general evilness. Hell, probably Vader did too. That’d certainly explain why all of them were so much creepier than your average sentient being.

Suddenly the com of one of the guards buzzed. The helmeted terror in (presumably) human form glanced at it, then pressed the code into the control panel of the big fancy doors. They slid open. The guard pointed at Han with the tip of his Force pike and then through the doors. Swallowing, but not about to argue with the business end of the galaxy’s most impressive electroshock weapon, Han clambered to his feet and inched his way past the guard.

Only when the door whispered shut behind him did he look at his new surroundings. At that point, he almost tried to flee straight back into the side room, Imperial stooges of doom or no. They’d let him out into the krething throne room. The ceiling was probably fifteen floors above his head, and his footsteps on the polished marble floor rang all the way up every single one of them. At one end he spotted the Emperor, looking monumentally smug in his epically-sized throne.

Then he saw who was standing next to the Emperor, and his heart jumped into his mouth, fortuitously preventing him from blurting out the only thought in his mind.

I’m so fracked.

It took Vader a moment to recognize the person who had been brought out of the side room. Once again, unbelievably, it wasn’t Luke.

It was Han Solo.

“Come, my young friend,” Palpatine said with an expansive wave of his hand. “Your father is most anxious to speak with you.”

Vader’s thoughts whirled in a barely contained maelstrom as Han Solo—Solo!—edged his way as far as the third stair from the bottom of the dais. He stuffed his hands awkwardly in his pockets. “Um…hey…uh, Father.”

Vader stared. The pieces slowly were beginning to come into rough shape. Fett had kidnapped the wrong boy, whether on purpose or by mistake—Luke, no doubt driven by his irrational compulsion to rescue anyone his father would prefer to be rid of, had chased after them at least as far as Corellia. Fett had brought Solo to the Emperor…

…Where the teenage street rat had, for once, made himself useful and played along with the misconception.

At the base of the stairs, Solo was fidgeting and eyeing both him and the Emperor nervously.

The Force, Vader concluded to himself with a private scowl, has a cruel sense of humor. Aloud, he said, “Hello…Son.”

Considering how flagrantly Vader had flaunted the usual bounds of authority, his master's response had been rather mild. With an additional reprimand for having hidden "Luke" from him in the first place, Palpatine had released Solo to him on the condition that both of them remain on Coruscant for the foreseeable future. Ostensibly this was so that he would have the opportunity to acquaint himself properly with the son of his "dear friend," but as Vader well knew the true purpose was to keep the boy within reach. Meanwhile he himself would doubtless be kept on a punitive leash, probably forced to attend all manner of odious political events and kowtow to Senate committees, for some time.

"Some time," he promised himself grimly, will be far shorter than he expects.

Less than a week, actually, assuming Thrawn's scheme met with no major setbacks. He prayed it did not—a week was undoubtedly the longest he would be able to tolerate masquerading as the father of Han Solo.

Having marched that infuriating individual out of Imperial Palace, into the shuttle, back to his Coruscant castle, and into his private quarters, Vader sealed the doors and spun on the boy. There were no security devices here whatsoever; he was free to vent at long last.

"Where are my children, Solo?" he bellowed.

Sullenly, Solo flung himself down atop the most convenient chair. "I don't know, dammit! It's not like I kidnapped 'em, what the hells would I know? I've been locked up here the whole time!" He waved a vague hand.

Vader clenched both fists and had to start pacing in order to contain his temper. "Tell me what happened, Solo."

"Pretendin' I'm Luke, tryin' to keep His Imperialness from makin' me do any stupid wizard mumbo-jumbo, reading—"

"That was an order, Solo!"

The teenager, Luke's attachment to whom was becoming more inexplicable by the second, finally ceased his litany of complaints and addressed the question. "All right, all right! I woke up in the middle of the night and heard something talkin' about Luke in the air ducts or somewhere, so I ran off to find him and he decided to try and draw off whoever it was while I got the twerplin—ah, the little kids—downstairs to the safe room. Whoever it was they got to me and the kids first and stunned us all, I guess. Then I came to before we took off, he knocked me back out and put me in a cryo chamber, and the next thing I know I'm waking up to Old Wrinkle Cheeks."

Vader paced even more furiously. "That is all you remember?" he snarled.

Solo had the nerve to look indignant. "Well, begging your lordly pardon, but I've been kinda busy figuring out how to keep your damn boss from pinning me for a fake."

Vader leveled a disdainful stare at the boy. "I marvel that he hasn't seen the light already," he retorted. "No son of mine could possibly prove as degenerate as you."

"Knock it off," Solo groused. "I've had enough of that from His Evilness. Frackin' old corpse's trying to 'extend my intellectual scope'." He brandished a ridiculously large old-fashioned book Palpatine's aide had sent with them.

"I never thought I would see the day when the Emperor undertook a truly philanthropic enterprise," Vader returned. "One can only surmise the need was too great to ignore."

Solo suddenly broke into his impudently lopsided smirk. "Laugh it up, Dad. He thinks it's all your fault for ignorin' my education."

Vader snorted, heading towards the opposite wall. "Education is wasted on you, son."

The Corellian glared at his back. Vader turned his head sideways and leveled a forefinger. "Do not even contemplate throwing that book at me."

Solo shifted his rather suspicious grip on the book. "Like I'd bother," he shot back unconvincingly. "So how about you tell me where Luke is?"

"According to my last intelligence report," Vader snapped, "he was here under the Emperor's surveillance. Instead I find you." He loaded the final word with all the disgust he could command.

Solo just donned a satisfied smirk. "See, I'm not that stupid, am I?"

"It is hardly due to your ingenuity," Vader retorted. "The bounty hunter made an error."

"Yeah, but who coulda blown that out of the water to save his own neck and hasn't yet?"

"The same person," Vader rejoined, "who will be risking strangulation if he continues to demonstrate inadequate respect."

Solo got his point and snapped his mouth shut for a moment. "So you're saying you don't know either," he said more grimly.

Vader stalked even more furiously down. "The last confirmed sighting of him was on Corellia."

"Why the hell is he missing anyway?" Solo burst out. "If the bounty hunter got me he shoulda left Luke alone!"

"You seem to have made a habit out of dragging my son behind you wherever you go," Vader said acidly. "Luke chased the bounty hunter as far as Corellia, where both of them were intercepted by my agent. There was an altercation. The bounty hunter escaped with you. I do not know what happened to Luke."

"What about the twerp—the kids?" Solo sounded genuinely anxious. "They were with me."

"Presumably they were also lost during the altercation." Vader's voice was clipped. "They were last seen in the company of a dark-skinned man who fled with them into the city and has not been sighted since."

Solo sat up a little straighter. "In Coronet? Maybe I know him!"

Vader glanced at him in surprise. Might Solo be of help in tracking down his daughters after all? "Wait there," he ordered. "I have an image of the man from my agent's report files." He returned a moment later, displaying a small fuzzy picture on a projector.

Solo burst up, jabbing an enthusiastic finger at the holo. "Yeah, yeah, that's the guy—Lando Calrissian. He knows me and Luke. I betcha anything Luke recruited him to help out."

"Lando Calrissian," Vader repeated. Excitement flashed through his veins. At last he had something to go on! He made a mental note to forward the name to Baranne.

"He's a good guy," Solo added. "He ain't gonna hurt 'em."

"I am not about to rely on your judgment as to what qualities constitute a suitable caretaker for small children," Vader snapped, but secretly he felt relieved to know the man had at least a somewhat decent reputation.

"Oh, yeah," Solo grumbled, slouching yet more ingloriously in the chair, "'cause you're so great with kids yourself and all."

"If you do not cease your complaints," Vader informed him, "you will find out just how unpleasant a parent I can be, Son. We will, after all, be continuing in those roles for the foreseeable future." He was not about to entrust the fate of a coup plot to an indiscreet Corellian teenager.

Solo threw his head back with a groan. "Stars, I don't believe this!"

"Sit up," Vader barked. "No son of mine slouches over furniture like a Hutt."

Solo snickered. "I happen to know a son of yours who does."

"I stand corrected," Vader said icily. "You, while masquerading as my son, do not slouch over furniture like a Hutt." Mentally, he added "posture" to the list of topics on which he planned to lecture Luke once he found the boy.

"Or what?" Solo snorted. "You'll throw me, your dearly beloved son, off the top of the palace?"

"Certainly not," Vader said pleasantly. "Out of my great concern that you, my dearly beloved son, receive the best instruction possible, I'll simply return you to the Emperor's educational discretion."

Solo jerked upright hastily.

Vader clasped his hands triumphantly behind his back. "That is what I thought."

With a long, satisfied groan, Wedge Antilles collapsed back on his bunk. Life at Bravo Base on Dantooine was utopian compared to the last month he'd spent on deployment. Since arriving with the Solo brothers several months ago he'd been assigned to a half-squad of X-wings, which was based on Dantooine but which Dodonna regularly sent out with the corvettes on hit-and-run supply raids around the sector. You never knew when there would be a nerve-wracking run-in with another manifestation of Imperial might—usually in the form of a lone patrol cruiser, but sometimes in that of an all-out Destroyer complete with TIE squads. Besides, the corvettes were cramped for space to the point where usually he had to sleep in his cockpit.

The task force had just returned to Dantooine maybe two hours ago, and after they'd finished reporting in, Wedge made a beeline for his bunk in hopes of a long, satisfying, and fully horizontal sleep. But as exhausted as he was, he hadn't even managed to doze off before somebody was hammering on the door.

"Shaddupawreddy," whined Jek Porkins, who inhabited the bottom half of Wedge's bunk. On the other side of the room, Zev Senesca vented his resentment by lobbing a boot at the hatch.

The disturber of their peace was undeterred. The hatch jerked open, admitting the imposing figure of Commander Dreis. "Up and at 'em, boys," he ordered.

"Aw, fer the luvva Hutt-spit, give us a break already, sir," Zev moaned, flinging an arm over his eyes.

"Not my orders, Senesca," Commander Dreis said. "We've got a base-wide briefing in ten minutes. Rumor around the hangar is the brass have something in the works."

All three pilots jolted out of their bunks. Wedge felt a rush of excitement go straight to his head. "What kind of something, sir?"

Dreis grinned. "Now don't hold me to this, boys, but I heard a tech say something involving the words 'coordinated mass offensive,' 'liquidate,' and 'Palpatine.'"

They were out the door in less than a heartbeat.

Night was weighing dark over the leaves and thick scents of the forest as the warrior crept silently to the place that had been chosen for the meeting. It was a dangerous thing to do, for if the white-shelled enemies should find him, only two outcomes would be possible. Either he would be granted the honor of a glorious death in battle against the oppressors of his people, or the enemy would overpower him and send him away in chains, as they had already sent so many others, away into the stars. But the warrior was prepared to face these dangers, for the sake of his wife and of his young son, and so he had made his way.

Several others were already there when he arrived. They stood in a loose circle in the darkness of a glen, far in the lowest branches of the trees, dangerously close to the surface of the planet where the enemies would fear to tread without heavy weaponry.

It is good that you have come, growled their leader as the last of the warriors joined the circle. We have received a communication from the free humans of Alderaan. They desire that we become battle-brothers with them.

A tangible wave of enthusiasm rolled around the circle. And what is the battle that they wish to fight? someone asked.

It is a great battle, rumbled the leader, for the fate of all free races of the galaxy. And the chief of the humans of Alderaan has honored us with a glorious task in this battle, if we are willing to take the great danger and challenge upon ourselves.

Roars of approval poured forth as the leader described the task. We must leave quickly, he added. Only by swiftness will our battle-brothers and their ally the Admiral Thrawn take the oppressor by surprise.

We will not fail them, Chewbacca responded fiercely.

Mara Jade would not in ten thousand years have admitted it to anybody, but she was terribly, terribly excited. Her stealth trainer had given her an actual mission! That was to say, he always gave her assignments around Imperial Palace to practice the things he was teaching her—slip this into Governor So-and-so's cocktail, snap a holo of Princess Blah-de-blah in her underwear, steal a file out of a restricted archive—but this time she was going outside the Palace. On her own! And not to some down-and-out dump, either. No sir, her mission was to break into Darth Vader's castle unnoticed and retrieve a specific Fleet document from his classified archive. Finally, doing something that was really useful!

And dangerous, too—Vader wouldn't do anything serious to her, because he knew exactly who she was; but his men didn't know, and they might shoot. So she was taking a real risk for once, which was probably the chief reason for her excitement.

She was nervous, of course—it was her first mission, who wouldn't be?—but not really worried. She'd stolen secret plans of the castle which the Emperor kept in his private files (you could find plans in the public files too, but of course those were largely fakes), and had identified a concealed passage that would take her safely from the lower service levels up to the level of the archive. There didn't seem to be any holocams in the passage, so there was no reason for anybody to notice her for most of the trip.

There was also no reason for anybody to notice her on the way to Vader's castle, for Mara Jade was presently hidden beneath a very thick layer of garbage in the cargo hold of a trash collection droid. The vast amount of organic waste ought to prevent her from being noticed by entrance scanners; plus the droid would stop in nearly the area where the secret passage began. It was a rather brilliant scheme, if she did say so herself. Tightening the strap of her breath mask a little more—it helped, but it wasn't quite enough to block out the torrid stench—she firmly told herself to ignore whatever that slimy thing against her ear was and waited for the droid to reach their destination.

By the time Ferus had worked his way up to the level of the castle which housed Vader's personal quarters, he had had so much practice at imitating the swarms of Imperial officers around him that he no longer harbored any doubts about his ability to go unnoticed among their numbers. Now his whole mind was free to fret about nothing but Vader, the little Princess, and the still-missing Luke Solo, not to mention the fact that he was about a week away from attempting to take on at least one very nasty Sith Lord in battle. Telling himself that he had another very nasty Sith Lord on his side of the fight was in no way reassuring, since there was every reason to expect Vader would turn on him the moment their mutual enemy was eliminated.

As a matter of fact, it was virtually certain that he would. More importantly, nothing would remain to prevent Vader from taking vengeance on the Organas for their part in concealing Luke Solo from him. And most terribly of all, Princess Leia would be on the fast track to either an early grave or, more likely and much worse, a Sith apprenticeship. But there didn't seem to be much Ferus Olin could do about it. If he didn't cooperate, Leia and Luke Solo were still at the mercy of the Sith, the galaxy was still subjected to a viciously repressive government, and Vader would no doubt find some heinous way to inflict his vengeance on the Organas. It was impossible that Ferus could take on both Sith at once; without any backup, his best hope was to team up with Vader long enough to finish off the Emperor and then pray that he could somehow outlast Vader after that.

Of course, this was assuming that they figured out a way to get to the Emperor. While pondering his way through all these things on the silent shuttle ride to the planet, certain problematic facts concerning the planned ambush had presented themselves. He could only assume Vader had ordered him up to his personal quarters in order to discuss them.

He presented his fabricated ID to the stormtrooper on duty outside the door and was promptly admitted. At first glance he thought that no one was inside the foyer; at second glance he was flabbergasted to discover a lanky dark-haired teenager collapsed in the corner, with an arm thrown over his eyes, his feet kicked up against the wall, and a ridiculously gigantic book crumpled on his chest.

Before Ferus could make more than one guess as to why the boy would be there—the only one he managed went something like undercover agent on guard duty—Vader marched in from one of the interior rooms and jerked the teenager upright with a wave of his hand. "Out," he ordered, ignoring the startled noise of protest from the youngster. Sullenly the young man shrugged his shirt and stalked off, not without making a nasty face at the Sith behind his back. The door sealed behind him.

"Who's he?" Ferus asked mildly, crossing his arms.

"No one with whom you need be concerned, Jedi," Vader retorted. "There are more important matters which ought to occupy your thoughts."

"Oh, there are," Ferus answered him, peeling the horrid officer's cap off his head. "Most of them having to do with how in the name of the Force you expect to pull this thing off practically."

"I assume you are referring to the confrontation itself."

Ferus shot him Master Tachi's what-else-would-I-be-talking-about look in order to stop himself from contemplating the fact that he was now discussing battle strategy with the galaxy's premier Jedi-killer. "My chief value in the fight is going to be the element of surprise," he began. "Your ace. And we both know the ace is no good if the opponent sees it coming."

"Correct." Vader began to pace, hands clasped behind his cape. With a sick wrench in his belly, Ferus wondered whether he'd had similar conversations discussing the capture and murder of Jedi. Whether other Jedi had ever been forced to collaborate with him in those killings… "The Emperor will most likely dismiss his guards if he believes that I have come alone. If you enter openly with me, you will arouse suspicion and the guards will remain."

"I think I can safely assume that taking on the guards and a Sith Lord is out of the question?" Ferus asked dryly.

"The possibility of success would be far slimmer," Vader hedged. Ferus' gaze sharpened. Apparently, Lord Vader was a tad too vain to admit that he simply couldn't do it. That was a weakness he might manage to exploit, and Ferus quickly filed the observation away for future reference. It quite reminded him of Anakin Skywalker, but it was so absurd to waste brain cells remembering that dead rival of his youth at a time like this that Ferus dismissed the thought instantly.

"So my question is," he continued, "how, exactly, am I supposed to get into the throne room unnoticed?"

Vader waved a finger, switching on a corner projector to display a blueprint of Imperial Palace. It was enlarged to display the throne room complex in detail. "There are two entrances to the room. The Emperor enters by this side entrance; everyone else through the main entrance."

Ferus noted them. The side entrance was set into the left wall of the room, and led into a smaller waiting room. "Where does this room lead to?"

"The Emperor's personal quarters. The area is heavily reinforced and inaccessible save by this entrance and by the Emperor's personal hangar. It will not be possible for me to give you a pass through security at the hangar entrance. The main entrance therefore is the only option available."

"That's no good," Ferus said. "If I come in with you, the guards stay. If I come in after you, the guards see me and notify the Emperor, assuming they don't attack me on the spot. If you try to put me on the approved roster, the Emperor will know about it and wonder who I am and why you want me to have access. If I have to fight my way through, we lose the element of sur—"

"I am perfectly capable of assessing the difficulties of the situation," Vader seethed, stabbing a finger at him. Ferus shut up. "It is possible that there are secret entrances available. Several have been built into the rest of the palace and he may have included one to the throne room for the use of his secret agents. If there are such passages, I am unaware of their location; but it is possible that I can obtain that information from one of those agents."

"It's possible?" Ferus scowled. "Why don't you go find out?"

Vader elected to ignore the comment in favor of cracking his metaphorical whip a little. "In your documents you will find directions to a concealed passage which will take you to a non-inhabited section of this castle. Remain there until I inform you otherwise." Casually he handed Ferus his lightsaber. "You may, of course, attempt to quit the system if you like. Kindly remember the Princess will remain a guest aboard my ship if you do—for a brief time, at least."

Ferus took the familiar hilt and accompanying threat with a humorless, tight smile. Whether Jedi were supposed to know hate or not, he detested this man, and that was a fact. Even so, he felt better with his lightsaber in his hand. Less alone.

Vader gestured brusquely towards the door and swept off to some other part of his quarters. Ferus flipped through the documents in his pocket until he found a list of directions. They led him down a couple of levels, past the entrance to the file archives, along a series of back halls and finally into a locked supply closet. The passcode was included. He stepped in and pressed the passcode again into what appeared to be a timecard terminal set into the wall for maintenance workers. A panel of durasteel slid aside, revealing the hatch of a tiny turbolift just big enough for one. He pressed the key to summon it from downstairs, then leaned against the wall and waited, turning the hilt of his lightsaber over in his hands and inspecting it for any scratches it might have sustained since leaving his person, as any affectionate warrior would.

That proved to be a fairly major mistake.

Miyr waited until Lord Vader had left the Executor, then a little longer. When she was quite sure he was not going to perform an about-face, she set her jaw and broke at least a dozen major rules by hacking the locks to Lord Vader's hyperbaric chamber, hacking the power-up codes to his personal communications array, and stealing Navy Holonet bandwidth to transmit an unauthorized call to a private com line. Then, while said call was in the process of connecting across interstellar distances, she committed a crime so outrageous it hadn't even occurred to her employer to forbid it—she hacked the code to the room's supply closet and retrieved from therein Lord Vader's spare respirator, vocabulator, mask, and helmet. Amazingly, her hands did not shudder as she assembled all of this on her own person.

I am going to be fired, she reflected calmly as she set the transmission zone to face-only, and that's if I win the metaphorical lottery.

"Captain Landre speaking," said the voice on the other end of the line.

"Captain Landre," she said, and despite knowing it was coming she was thoroughly startled to hear the vocabulator boom the words out in spine-shivering basso profundo. Collecting her wits, she continued, "Intelligence has reached me which suggests that the Rebel forces may be planning a mass attack of an unknown nature within the week. Additional forces may be required to deal with this threat, but it will not be feasible to draw them from major defense objectives. Prepare your troops and deploy with the task force to the Coruscant sector."

Landre's voice sharpened. "Of course, my lord."

"Do not proceed to the Coruscant system itself," she ordered, "but drop the task force out of hyperspace on the outskirts of the Borleias system and await further orders. Be prepared for an emergency hyperspace jump and remain at general quarters."

"Immediately, my lord!" Landre sounded very eager indeed. Miyr managed a reasonably curt nod, despite the weight of the helmet and the fact that the respirator was set to operate for a body considerably larger than hers and was almost knocking her out with the abundance of oxygen it was forcing into her lungs. Quickly she cut the transmission and ripped the mask off. She had to lie down for a bit on the floor of the hyperbaric chamber to recover from the oxygen overload, which gave her plenty of time to reflect on what she'd just done.

It was quite plain that something was going down—something involving considerably more than three missing children. Lord Vader had been using his own daughter to blackmail a Jedi into assisting him with some scheme or other; and there couldn't be very many projects Vader would be willing to collaborate on with a Jedi. In fact, she could think of only one enemy they held in common.

If the Emperor got wind of this scheme—as was by no means improbable—he had a sizeable system fleet to summon to his defense, whereas Lord Vader could count only on the Executor. This ship was formidable but far from invincible; the fleet stationed at the capital system would be able to overpower the craft. Should the Emperor's allies seize the Executor, it was only a matter of time before Leia was discovered. Landre's task force from Vjun was not big enough to even the Executor's odds against the capital fleet, but it might be big enough to shoot its way through, retrieve Leia, and race back out of the system with her. Taking care of Lord Vader's children was her job and she intended to do it, even if her employer killed her for it… Besides that, it gave Landre a chance to clear his name with Lord Vader; the man had only avoided liquidation this long due to an extraordinary number of distractions. He did not deserve to die over what had happened at Bast Castle.

She closed her eyes, drew another shallow breath, and hoped that she wouldn't be killed in his place.

Captain Landre wasted not a moment in preparing Bast Castle's mobile task force for deployment. He would not have even if he hadn't been in such immense disfavor with Lord Vader, but the knowledge that he'd just been given a chance to jailbreak out of Death Row probably served to sharpen the already-keen edge of his efficiency. The other officers of the task force, who had also despaired of their necks after the recent break-in fiasco, caught the scent of hope on the air too. The task force's standing orders dictated that it should be prepared for emergency deployment within two hours at all times; they hypered out of system in a little less than one-and-a-half.

In the blaze of excitement and commotion, the intoxicating sense that perhaps all of them might have futures yet, few of the men wondered what brewing crisis could be so important that Vader would resort to calling up reinforcements located so far from Coruscant. Even fewer inferred that secrets might be afoot. Only in a single, black thought that skittered through the back of Captain Landre's over-occupied brain did anybody ponder what might happen should they let Lord Vader's possible secrets out of the bag.

And not in even Landre's worst nightmares did he suspect that somebody who was not supposed to be privy to encrypted military conversations between himself and the commander of the Imperial Navy had already overhead the transmission.

The first turbolift dead-ended in a cramped hallway, lit by a single dismal row of fluorescent glowpanels, barely more than six feet high and scarcely wide enough for two grown men to sidle past each other. Ferus covered its dreary length at an easy pace. Reaching the hatch to the next turbolift at its end, he pressed the button to summon it. Then he stepped back and switched on his lightsaber to complete his inspection of the weapon. Turning carefully in the cramped quarters, he made a couple test swings with the blade. He barely heard the turbolift doors hiss open behind his back.

He did hear somebody gasp in surprise.

Spinning so fast it nearly gave him vertigo, he saw a small redheaded girl frozen halfway out of the turbolift. Neither of them moved for several heartbeats. The lightsaber kept humming to itself.

"You're a—a—" she stammered.

She knew. Almost thirteen years of life as a fugitive from Order 66 did his thinking for him. Before she could retreat and send the turbolift rocketing away, Ferus lunged forward and clubbed the back of her head with the hilt of his lightsaber. The girl collapsed unconscious on the floor.

Now what?

Vader hadn't even gotten his call through to Baranne before his private com pinged for his attention. Scowling to himself, he canceled the call to see who it was. The incoming number corresponded to the com unit he had given to Ferus Olin.

"What is it?" he barked into the speaker.

"I'm back in your foyer," said the Jedi, sounding as inscrutable as ever. "With a guest."

Vader stormed back to the foyer, swearing with every step to punish Olin for his presumption as soon as he didn't need the man healthy any longer. His resolve sputtered out when he saw Olin carrying the limp form of a redheaded girl in a jumpsuit.

"Apparently your secret passages aren't so secret after all," the Jedi remarked. "Another person you've blackmailed into helping you, or somebody else?"

Vader briskly swept the hair out of the girl's face. As he'd thought. "She is an agent of the Emperor," he informed Olin.

"They're making them younger every year," Olin muttered under his breath. "Well, she saw this"—he nodded at the lightsaber on his belt—"so we've got a problem."

"No," Vader said suddenly. "We have a solution."

Olin raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.

"The girl is an agent of Palpatine and therefore has access to the secret passages of Imperial Palace," Vader said. "If we tag her with a tracking device we will be able to identify those passages and possibly discover a secret route into the throne room."

"An excellent idea," Olin said mildly, "except for the part where we let her go running back to Palpatine with the breaking news that Darth Vader has a Jedi skulking around his castle."

Vader waved a hand dismissively. "I will modify the girl's memory."

Olin's eyebrows cinched up angrily; doubtless his Jedi scruples did not approve of the suggestion. But just as quickly he realized that he had little to no say in the matter; the girl was in Vader's hands and Olin had no way to take her out of them short of simply attempting to run away while carrying her over his shoulder. That, of course, would not succeed—and even if by some miracle it did, he would still have left behind the little Princess he was so anxious to rescue. Vader watched the Jedi grimly decide in favor of the Princess. Slowly, obviously reluctant, Olin set the girl—Mara, he thought her name was—down on the sofa of the foyer.

"After I have done so," Vader continued, "you will return her to the spot where you found her and allow her to regain consciousness. I shall permit her to proceed with whatever mission she was tasked, and then you shall follow her trail back to Imperial Palace."

"This is so stupid it might actually work," Olin muttered.

This most recent case had been a headache of epic proportions for Agent Baranne, as it seemed any investigation involving Luke Skywalker inevitably would be. Since the debacle on Corellia, he'd made no progress in tracking either the slippery teenager or his toddling compatriots. But that had been before the call from Lord Vader a few hours ago. Now, Baranne had another name.

"Lando Calrissian," he muttered to himself for the umpteenth time. According to Lord Vader, that was the full name of the information broker he'd seen in the cantina and whom eyewitnesses claimed had escaped with the twin girls. There were several thousand people by the name of Calrissian in the galaxy, but thank the stars only one of them was also named Lando. Armed with this information, Baranne had begun attempting to trace the man. So far he hadn't been able to track his movements after the showdown at the hangar, but he had been able to piece together quite a bit of his past history. It seemed the guy was something of a professional entrepreneur with a habit of starting and losing businesses, wending around systems as his luck held out, and working the information and weapons markets on the side. Jabba had a respectable-sized bounty out for the man, which one of his Nar Shaddaa sources asserted was because the broker had stolen a Sienar drive from the Hutt's warehouse. The serial number of the unit, he had already noticed, was the same one on the hyperdrive of the freighter in which he'd captured Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

Apparently Calrissian's involvement was more extensive than he'd first thought.

Sifting through all of the records was going to take quite a lot of time; Calrissian was a sneaky sort, as was only fitting for an information broker. Baranne stirred sugar into his caf as he surveyed the analysis programs running on his computers, grey eyes steel-bright with relish. He enjoyed challenges like this. Calrissian was good, but Baranne was better. Somewhere in this disparate mass of information lurked enough clues to find the man. Perhaps it was a ship registration, perhaps a potential accomplice, maybe even a traceable com number.

Whatever the lead was, Baranne was going to find it. He sipped languidly at his caf, razor stare never leaving the screen, and allowed himself to feel optimistic for the first time that week.

Lando Calrissian liked to consider himself a businessman of suave skill, unconstrained imagination, and broad scope. Though he'd never asserted so out loud—at least, not to his memory, but he was willing to allow he might have muttered something to similar effect once when he was much younger and roaring drunk—he prided himself on the idea that there was no profitable enterprise known in the Empire at which Lando Calrissian was not prepared to try his hand. Any business, according to his traditional philosophy, could be his business. Also according to his traditional philosophy, he enjoyed boundless confidence that he could leap into any business and turn a handsome profit.

But since the Great Corellian Blunder, as he'd taken to remembering the wild melee on the Coronet Strip, Lando Calrissian's traditional philosophy had been forced to undergo a modification. There was, in point of absolute fact, one business at which he had not, did not, nor conceivably ever would excel…


Considering the average galactic age of money-making babysitters was something like twelve standard years, this was a humiliating revelation. Lounging on his sickbed and doing his best to corral the blithe antics of his younger two charges, Lando had exactly two consolations available. Firstly, no other babysitter in the galaxy was currently supervising the mildly bipolar brood of a villainous Sith Lord who also happened to be a galactic dictator. Secondly, he could lean on Luke to back him up when their far more temperamental parent eventually stormed onto the scene.

Monetary compensation might have made a good third consolation, but right now Lando was just angling to get out of this nightmare with all appendages and essential biological functions intact.

It went without saying that a man stuck in a bunk with a leg in crude bacta wrap and no company but morbid thoughts—and a band of youngsters whose mischievousness would do their tyrannical father proud—quickly developed a cranky mood. Sara and Sandra were quite unperturbed by his occasional glowers and remained as cheerful and bouncy as ever. The only exception was when they got fixated once again on the question of when they were going to see "Dadda," but Luke capably fielded those questions and the accompanying tearful outbursts.

Generally speaking, Lando had always thought of their older brother as a reasonably cheerful sort too. But since they'd arrived back at the ship Luke's energy seemed to have soured. Being cooped up in the ship while all the action was going down elsewhere was obviously eating away at the kid. Lando tried to keep his attention away from the question of Han Solo, mostly by ordering him to play with the girls so they stayed under control.

That sure as the nine hells wasn't going to work for long.

"Anakin," Padmé breathed, "something wonderful has happened. I'm pregnant!"

A swollen bubble of emotions filled him almost to bursting, ranging anywhere from awful fear to resent to total bright shock to enthusiasm, but he felt he expressed the most prominent of them by answering, "That's wonderful!"

"Oh, I'm so glad you think so," Padmé sighed in relief, "because there's something I've been trying to work up the nerve to tell you for positively years now."

"What's that, my love?"

"Well," Padmé said regretfully, "it's just that this isn't the first time."

He paused and eyed her, quizzical. "What do you mean, angel?"

"Remember when you and Obi-Wan went on a year-long tour of galacti-golf hotspots?"

Since when do I play galacti-golf? muttered a very puzzled and somewhat distant bit of his brain, but he dismissed the flickering thought. He couldn't seem to remember the details of that trip but obviously, he'd been on it. "Of course," he said with brimming confidence, "the galacti-golf trip. What about it?"

"Well, I'm very sorry, dear, but you weren't there and I was just so afraid that the Chancellor would steal the poor dear," Padmé fretted, wringing her hands, "so I had to hide him with Lando Calrissian. Anyway, the upshot is, we've already got a son."

"We do?" he squeaked.

"Yes, and I think it's time the two of you met."

Then from behind one of the pillars a lanky seventeen-year-old swaggered out, wearing a cocky lopsided smile and raggedy clothes. "Hi, Dad," said Han Solo. "Looks like I really am your son after all!"

Darth Vader jolted upright in his hyperbaric chamber with an almighty yell and hammered his head into the side of the domed wall. As he was not wearing his helmet, this hurt considerably. Wheezing, he sank back down. Under normal circumstances he'd have been supremely irritated, but at the moment he gratefully welcomed any reality wherein Han Solo was not his son, regardless of whatever pain said reality might otherwise entail.

Glancing to the side, he discovered it had been more than the nightmare which had disrupted him. The alert light of his com unit was blipping cheerfully, informing him that he had a private interstellar call waiting. He donned his mask and helmet before accepting. It was Baranne.

"I apologize for disturbing you, my lord," he said, "but I think I've found a solid lead on the case."

The sudden surge of anticipation and hope washed away the petty anxieties of his bizarre nightmare. "What have you found?"

"I don't have any leads on Skywalker," Baranne told him, "but I've been sifting through all the documentation I could recover on Lando Calrissian. By cross-referencing serial numbers of the parts from several sales records with repair workshop documents, I was able to recover identifying information for a ship belonging to Calrissian. It's a midsize personal craft, registered as the Lady Luck. I'm transmitting you her profile information right now. Corellian Security documented the craft's departure from Coronet less than twelve hours after Calrissian fled the Strip with the younger two targets. I subsequently took the liberty of hacking into the Imperial Ministry of Transportation's interstellar traffic monitor archives. The Lady Luck's hyperspace exit point was 00-0-01-2-02."

Vader's respirator almost skipped a beat. He knew those coordinates. They were the point at which the Corellian Trade Route traffic dropped into the Coruscant system!

"The Lady Luck subsequently proceeded to Suborbital Entry Checkpoint A-11," Baranne continued, "where Coruscant Space Control issued her clearance to land in Docking Zone Twelve, North Aldray District. There is no record indicating that the Lady Luck has left the Coruscant system since that time, which would have been a little over one day ago."

"Well done, Agent Baranne," Vader said, barely managing to wrench his excitement under control.

"With your permission, my lord, I'll come straightaway to Coruscant to pursue my investigation."

"Do so," Vader ordered, then cut the connection. With any luck, he'd have his daughters safely in hand before Baranne ever reached the capital system. Quickly he put through a call to the officer in command of security operations in the North Aldray District and forwarded the information for the Lady Luck and a description Solo had provided of Calrissian, with orders to perform a district-wide covert search. It was not until he had finished the call that he paused to wonder why Calrissian should have brought his daughters to Coruscant.

Considering the reason Han Solo had been brought to this planet, Vader had a sinking feeling he might know the answer.

If Palpatine had Sara and Sandra in his clutches as well—all this time, had said nothing to him, had actually released Solo to him in order to keep him from suspecting that the younger children were also here—the Corellians would have to invent a tenth hell just for that son of a Hutt.

If Mara Jade had been a somewhat older and more experienced person, she would have developed an acute case of paranoia as her mission progressed. She had been baffled to wake up in the middle of part of the secret passage and remember that a loose glowpanel had fallen on her head and apparently knocked her out for a short while. But that was the extent of her bad luck. Nobody was nearby when she emerged from the false janitor's closet on the level of the file archives. She'd been sure her timing would be screwed after having wasted untold unconscious minutes, but the stormtrooper patrol was running late and she didn't encounter it. Hacking her way into the archives was laughably easy, especially considering that—in a total breach of security—no officer was on duty inside. Probably the guy had run out to a 'fresher or something. He'd even left his workstation on for her; all she had to do was hack his access password.

If it hadn't been her first mission, she'd have known for certain that Someone Was On To Her. As it was she finished the trip in high spirits, congratulating herself on her skill and luck.

It certainly did not cross her mind that somebody might, at some point, have planted a tracking patch inside her ear canal.

Ferus Olin had to admit that Vader's tracking patch was rather an ingenious device. Unlike virtually every other such device, this patch was non-powered and did not rely on transmission. Instead, if he'd understood the explanation properly, it slowly released a microscopic stream of particles of some sort of miniature alien fungus. The little particles would linger in the air harmlessly and invisibly. Meanwhile, Ferus had been equipped with a wrist-banded device that would register the presence of said particles. Basically, he was following a very high-tech invisible trail of bread crumbs, totally undetectable by the security arrangements at Imperial Palace.

Having let her get a good head start, Ferus emerged from his hiding place (inside a two-ton detergent powder container in a laundry facility storage room) and went to the entrance of the secret passage to pick up her trail. The patch worked perfectly; he had no trouble following the distinct particle trail. It led him a circuitous, cam-avoiding route to a power maintenance hatch. She'd apparently known the code. Ferus sliced the lock open with a quick flash of his lightsaber and pursued her trail through the maze of energy core access walkways that waited beyond the hatch. Finally his pursuit came to a halt at a wall, blank except for a meter-square electrical access panel set into it eight meters up.

He checked his position on the wrist device. According to the location system he was now in the guts of Imperial Palace. He looped the immediate area just to make sure his quarry hadn't wandered off elsewhere. Then he scowled at the access panel. Clearly the panel was a dummy, concealing the entrance to some sort of passage. The girl had no doubt leapt straight up with the benefit of the Force. If Ferus did the same he risked drawing the Emperor's attention to the fact that somebody unfamiliar was up to no good in his basement.

He glared at the panel once more, then switched the particle sensor to standby and slipped away in search of some sort of ladder.

"Why is it," Obi-Wan Kenobi inquired mildly as he caused his image to rematerialize, "that despite all the beautiful places there are in the galaxy, and despite all the traveling I have done, I rarely see anything more aesthetically impressive than superstructure sewer systems?"

Yoda snickered at his ethereal companion. He had spent a great many hours seeking out the least noticeable route into the monolithic Imperial Palace. It had involved a number of unorthodox twists and turns, all of them through the most unappetizing selections of Coruscant scenery imaginable. At the moment he was ambling down a cramped subsidiary sewage pipe, which was just barely high enough for him to walk upright. Happily, it was not an overused sewage pipe, but the two inches of nasty sludge on the bottom and the crusted dry stuff on the walls were best left uncontemplated. Yoda's firmly wrinkled nostrils filled Obi-Wan with gratitude for the fact that, no longer being corporeal, he was spared whatever unholy stench polluted the air.

"A complaint is this, young Obi-Wan?" the aged master asked impishly.

"I would consider it a pointed observation," Obi-Wan answered.

"And come to me simply to make this observation, have you?" Yoda scrabbled up the next bend in the pipe and proceeded toward the maintenance hatch that should be coming up shortly overhead.

"Not at all," Obi-Wan told him. "I was going to warn you that there is someone else approaching your hatch."

"Think I did not sense this, do you?" Yoda returned testily. "Old I may be, but failed these eyes have not!"

"I was going to add," Obi-Wan continued with the dignified patience he had acquired while studying with Qui-Gon and perfected while training Anakin, "that this person is a Jedi."

Yoda paused at that. "Certain of this, are you?"


Ferus had stolen through at least a dozen hatches marked "Maintenance" in the last half hour, the whole time convinced that some stupid little repair droid was going to spot him and find within its circuits sufficient ingenuity to hare off and warn its supervisor. He had yet to find a ladder, or indeed anything with enough height and sturdiness to get him within reach of the access panel. He was starting to think he would just have to take the risk and levitate himself up. He doubted there would be enough time to dash back to Vader's castle and find something; the particle trail would not linger forever. It had to start dispersing before long, and then he'd be screwed.

Whose brilliant idea was it, he asked himself sourly, to make the lives and fates of billions of beings contingent on whether or not a third-rate Jedi dropout could find a krething ladder?

He leaned around a corner and scanned the next corridor quickly before darting across and slipping inside the last maintenance hatch in this section of the building. He could only pray that the assistance he needed was inside. He closed the hatch and turned to survey the new surroundings. It was a small, narrow room, lit by industrial glowpanels. Racks of tools lined one wall, none of them suitable for scaling walls. The other side was swallowed up by an exposed section of sewage piping. It looked to be one of the system's bigger lines, over a meter in diameter.

He had just turned around to leave, cursing fate, when an ominous creak arrested him in his tracks. He spun to see the access hatch on top of the giant pipe swing open. Before his astonished eyes, an elfin, grimy green face poked out, topped with large triangular ears and a sparse tuft of white hair.

"Good it is to see you again, Ferus Olin," said Master Yoda cheerfully.

Ferus stared for a long, silent second. His body sagged back against the wall. "Master Yoda?"

Yoda, by way of answer, bounded like the spry old creature he was out of the hole and deposited himself on the floor in front of Ferus, regarding the much younger Jedi with a wide smile. "Good it is to meet a fellow Jedi," he reiterated. "Too long has it been, young Padawan."

"What are you doing here, Master?" A back bit of Ferus' brain matter was complaining that this was not the proper way to address a Master, but the rest of it was too dumbfounded to remember what was the proper way. To think that this whole fiasco had started with trying to find Yoda—and only now, after Ferus had completely forgotten what he was looking for…

"Ask you the same, I might," said Yoda. "The place where one expects to find Jedi, this is not."

"You weren't on Dagobah," Ferus rasped, not without resent. If Yoda had been on Dagobah when he came with Leia, neither of them would have wound up in Vader's clutches.

"Pursuing a child, I am," Yoda said.

"Would I be correct in guessing his name is Luke Solo?"

Yoda regarded him more thoughtfully. "Know of young Luke you do?"

Ferus found himself ranting out his entire story—how the Organas had contacted him to take their Force-sensitive daughter to the safety of Dagobah, Leia's explanation of the Solo brothers and of her dreams, their journey to Vjun in search of the boys and Yoda, and the subsequent disasters. "Vader has Leia now," he said, "but where Luke Solo is I can't say."

"Safe, young Skywalker is," Yoda answered. "Correct you were in tracing my trail to Vjun. Unfortunate it is that we did not meet there. Spared much trouble, we would have been."

Ferus didn't hear anything past the first sentence. "Master? Did you say Skywalker?"

"His name, that is," Yoda agreed firmly. "Luke Skywalker. Anakin's son the boy is."

"Well," Ferus said after a very long pause. "That certainly explains a lot."

"His twin sister, Leia Organa is," Yoda added.

Ferus could only be half-surprised. The enormity of Leia's sensitivity was so unlike any other Jedi and so much like Anakin Skywalker that it was a wonder he hadn't suspected the truth at the outset. How in the galaxy the siblings had wound up where they presently were, Ferus Olin could not begin to guess, except to assume that Yoda had obviously orchestrated part of it. "Then you're here to rescue Leia?"

"Know the girl was here, I did not," Yoda said grimly. "For Han Solo I came. A friend of young Luke's, the boy is. A prisoner of the Emperor."

Something clicked in Ferus' memory. "A bit lanky, dark hair and eyes?"

Yoda nodded.

"I've seen him. He's with Vader, not the Emperor."

"Think that Han Solo is young Skywalker, the Emperor does," Yoda told him. "Perhaps given him back to Vader he has, but under his surveillance the boy certainly remains."

"There's a chance I could get to him," Ferus mused, "but I don't want to think what Vader might do to Leia if I did."

"And know where Leia is, do you?"

"I think she's still on the Executor."

Yoda paced grimly across the little room, unperturbed by the sewer grime clinging to his robes and triclawed feet. "Too far separated the children are. Retrieve both of them we cannot. And linger with young Skywalker here on Coruscant, I cannot."

"There's another way to do this," Ferus murmured after a moment. "The children might be too far apart…but the Sith are both right here."

"Suggest that we attack the Sith, you do?" Yoda demanded. "The way of the Jedi, assassination is not."

"I'm not the one who suggested it. Vader is planning to overthrow the Emperor." Ferus felt compelled to whisper although there was little chance of their being overhead. "He's forcing me to back him up in the fight."

Yoda pressed his lips in a thin line, pondering for several minutes. "Perhaps correct, Qui-Gon truly was," he murmured finally out of the blue.

Ferus blinked again. "Master Jinn has been dead for…decades. What could he have known about Vader?"

Yoda, still pensive, did not answer the question. Perhaps he had only been talking to himself. Ferus finally shrugged aside his befuddlement. Likely it was just the aged master remembering another of Qui-Gon Jinn's legendarily obscure comments about the Living Force. "I realize that attack is not generally the Jedi way," he persisted, "but this would not be the first time that Jedi have been compelled to fight aggressively for greater causes. Master, these men have slaughtered and oppressed billions of beings for their own aggrandizement. Surely as servants of the Force we have a duty to oppose them!"

Yoda nodded, grave but distant.

"I think that our opportunity has come," Ferus pressed. "Neither Vader nor the Emperor knows you're here. And we also know something Palpatine doesn't—that Vader is out to finish him. The Jedi, or what's left of them"—he gestured a little bitterly to the two of them—"don't have a chance against Palpatine and Vader. But against Palpatine and then Vader, we might."

Yoda was still considering, but it was almost as though he was busy listening to other voices at the same time. "True, this is," he agreed. "If divided they are, succeed against them we may."

"And if we succeed," Ferus forged on, "we eliminate the chief threats to the children, we obtain an opportunity to retrieve them from Imperial hands, and we create an opening for reform in the galactic government. You always taught us to be servants of the light, Master. Sometimes that must mean battling darkness!"

"So certain of the dark, are you?" Yoda shook his head. "More complex is the situation than you know, Padawan. Vader is no mere enemy."

"I know he's a formidable adversary," Ferus agreed impatiently, "but—"

"An adversary?" Yoda cut him off. "Certain of this, I no longer am. If cooperate with a Jedi he will—"

"Only to overthrow the Emperor," Ferus jumped back in. "He's after power, Master, like all the Sith—"

"More complex, I believe his motivations may be," Yoda interjected sternly, with the sort of look he usually reserved for impudent younglings. "But too long, those explanations would take, and short of time we are. When is this ambush planned?"

"I'm not entirely sure," Ferus said. "But soon. A matter of days. The plan is that I'm to find a secret route into the throne room and be waiting before the ambush. Vader won't be with me. It won't be much harder for two Jedi to slip in than for one."

Yoda thought for a long few minutes, then finally gave a nod of assent. "Seek to destroy the Emperor we must," he said, "but not Vader. Attempt to disable him, we will, but permission to seek his death I do not give you, Padawan."

Ferus nodded tersely. Good enough.

"Now. Found this secret passage, have you?"

"I think I've found the entrance to one, Master, but I couldn't reach it without using the Force and I haven't found anything nearby to use as a ladder."

"Use the Force we will," Yoda declared. "Beneath the Emperor's notice I can remain." He led the way towards the hatch, but paused briefly and turned to Ferus once more with a gentler expression. "Alone you are not, Padawan. More allies in this darkness are there than you know."

Ferus, feeling much like a youngling again and not minding it a bit, blew out a deep, exhausted breath of relief.

"You could at least knock," Han snarled. That made the fifth time today that Vader had barged into his room without notice. Han was almost beginning to miss the suite at Imperial Palace.

Vader began dangerously, "I own that door—"

"An' the room, an' the castle. Hell, probably the whole fracking galaxy," Han finished for him.

"You are approximately seventy-five percent correct," Vader said.

"Why the nine hells did I have to wind up with—hey!" Not for the first time Han was abruptly hauled off his bunk by what looked to be thin air. He swung an awkward kick at Vader as he landed on his feet. "I can fracking get up by myself, you know!"

"If you insist on caterwauling like a two year old, you may expect to be treated like one," Vader thundered. "I do have experience in that field, Solo."

Han scowled and crossed his arms. "I don't even know why you're here. I told you already, I don't know anything else about Lando!" So far the only reason Vader had talked to him was to grill him on anything and everything he knew about Lando Calrissian. Unhappily for him, that wasn't much.

"It is not about Calrissian." Vader flung a wad of fabric at him. "Change into that."

"What is—"

"Quickly, Solo!"

Han pulled a face and stalked into the 'fresher. 'That' turned out to be the damned nicest jumpsuit he'd ever met. It was made out of some kind of silky smooth fabric; Han could practically feel the decicred symbols woven into the cloth. He could probably buy a hangar on the Strip for this. A nice one. It fit him, which was not something Han generally expected out of clothes. There was even gold and red embroidery on the cuffs and collar, the only relief from the black. He did up the buttons—actual buttons, not the cheap seal tabs he was used to—and surveyed himself in the mirror.

He grinned and combed his hair back with his fingers. Eat your heart out, Princess. Nothing scummy about him now!

Of course, Vader would never have given him this just to be nice to him, which meant something was definitely up. Han stalked back out determined to learn what it was. He didn't have to ask.

"The Emperor has decided," Vader said as soon as he emerged, "that it is high time you were introduced to the slavering masses."

Han blinked. "What the hell are those?"

Vader stared for an inscrutable moment before adding, "He has therefore scheduled a press conference to be held in two hours."

Han's eyes went wide. That he understood. "Aw hells no," he groaned. "Tell him to call it off!"

"The thing about being Emperor," Vader said acidly, "is that nobody tells you what to do. This is not optional, Solo."

"I can't go on holocam in front of the whole galaxy!" Han screeched. "Do you know how many people are gonna recognize me?"

"Very few, given that you are for perhaps the first time in your life dressed as a respectable member of society." Secretly, Vader admitted that the possibility worried him slightly too, but the window of danger was less than a week long, and his agents could see to it that any inconvenient voices were quickly silenced or discredited.

"What is of more immediate concern," Vader continued, "is the fact that you will once again be speaking with the Emperor. He is the one whose recognition you have cause to fear. Should he discern that you are not Force-sensitive—"

"Then we're all screwed," Han agreed. Even Vader might not make it through that one; he sure wouldn't, and Luke would be in serious danger again. "Don't worry about," he said nonchalantly to hide his fears. "I did fine before."

"You were extremely fortunate before," Vader said coldly. "I have two hours to lessen our dependence on mere chance."

"You think you're gonna make a crazy wizard outta me in two hours?" Han snorted.

"Hardly." Vader's tone could have stripped the ears off a Gundark. "But I can teach you how to speak like one, provided you apply such intelligence as you have." He whipped out a sheet of flimsy, on which he'd written out lots of words. Han scanned it. It turned out to be a brief list of sentences which he was supposed to use somehow at the press conference. Each had a few directions on when he ought to say it. For example, right as they were walking into the room where the Emperor was…

"…I'm supposed to whisper that I sense a tremor in the Force?" Han barked a laugh. "And you all think I'm the stupid one here?"

"It is only stupid," Vader said pleasantly, "when one does not know what it means. I assure you, the Emperor and I do not share your handicap."

"Do the galaxy a favor," Han shot back, waving the list, "and never try to write dialogue ever again. Huttspit, this sounds like some B-holoflick script. I mean, seriously—who starts a press conference with a line like 'I have long foreseen this day'?"

"The Emperor," Vader snapped at him. "Do not question me. Merely memorize the sentences and be prepared to use them if I cue you."

"How d'you plan to do that without Old Wrinklecheeks noticing?"

Vader crossed his arms and regarded him with a particularly disdainful tilt to his helmet. There was a sudden light nudge against his shoulder. "Do you have any further inadequate objections?"

"That's about it," Han muttered.

"Then begin memorizing."

"Gentlemen," Thrawn said with a pardonably wide smile, "I'm very glad to see all of you here on this historic occasion."

Historic, thought Bail Organa, is not exactly the word I would have picked. 'Lethally tense' would be a far better description for his current situation. On his side of the table: Dodonna, Rieekan, Madine, and several other military commanders of the Rebel Alliance, all perched in their seats as if expecting them to explode without notice. On the other side: a line of equally discomfited Imperial admirals. They were in a conference room aboard a small unarmed passenger yacht which had been rented especially for the occasion. Everyone had his sidearm with him, but Bail doubted anyone would be thick enough to open fire, as the odds were excellent that everyone in the room would consequently die.

"The elegance of the strategy which I am about to propose will lie chiefly in coordination," said Thrawn. "Our combined forces comprise four main offensive branches. The most sizeable of these are our Imperial battle groups"—he nodded at the Imperial side of the conference table—"which will constitute about eighty percent of our total numbers. Admiral Torrin's report lists sixty-four Imperial-class Destroyers and a hundred and eight Victory-class Destroyers. Senator Organa and the Rebel Alliance provide the remaining twenty percent, which will constitute the chief part of our light striking units. General Dodonna, I understand that you have fifty Mon Calamari starcruisers and twenty-two Corellian corvettes on your battle roster."

Dodonna nodded tersely. "With starfighter complements."

The Imperial side of the table looked unhappily surprised to hear such large figures. The Rebel side looked even unhappier to reveal them.

"That provides us with a total of two hundred and forty-four capital ships, as well as an estimated twenty-five hundred starfighters," Thrawn concluded. "Coruscant Home Fleet comprises a hundred and ten Imperial-class Destroyers and no more than a thousand starfighters. I think you can do the math, gentlemen."

For the first time, something like a grin cracked the grim faces around the table. The Rebels looked particularly pleased to be on the right side of the odds for once.

"And the other two branches of our offense?" Admiral Torrin asked.

Thrawn nodded. "These branches are our groundside teams. While our allied fleet secures control of the capital system, to include orbital stations and planetary traffic routes, the groundside elements will neutralize the Emperor. I am not able at this time to give you the details concerning these elements, since their success depends entirely upon secrecy and the advantage of surprise, but I can inform you that they are drawn from both the Imperial and the Alliance forces. One of these elements is already in place on Coruscant, and one will be inserted when we enter the system. You'll receive further information at a later date."

Reluctant nods went around the table. Of them all, the only one who knew what both of those elements were was Bail Organa. He arranged an expression of restrained curiosity for the others' benefit. Secrecy was indeed of the utmost importance…not least because it would be a Very Bad Thing should his and Thrawn's contingency plans somehow be leaked.

"Operation New Hope will commence in precisely forty-three hours and twelve minutes," Thrawn continued, glancing briefly at his wrist chrono. "In that time, gentlemen, we must perfect the coordination of two mass fleets to arrive simultaneously in the capital system from separate locations." Low mutters ran around the table. "In addition, each task group must be in full command of its separate objectives and completely conversant with the preplanned operations schedule. My own Chimaera will serve as joint flagship for our naval force. After Coruscant Home Fleet has been subdued, the Imperial side of our force will be responsible for securing all planetary communications systems as well as major groundside objectives. You've received more detailed instructions in your briefing packets. Meanwhile, the Alliance ships will be responsible for securing the system, to include control of planetary checkpoints and hyperspace entry zones. I'll dispatch support from the Victory-class Destroyers as necessary. Are there any questions thus far?"

A hand went up from Admiral Torrin. "I have one, sir," he said with a tight smile. "What about Lord Vader?"

A nervous grumble echoed down both sides of the table.

"According to my latest reports, he's in the Coruscant system with the Executor," Torrin continued. "Unless by some miracle she's down for massive overhauls, that alone adds enough extra firepower to Home Fleet to nearly cancel our advantage in numbers."

Thrawn's grin could have been stolen from a voracious krakana. "I assure you, gentlemen, that I have taken both the Executor and Lord Vader into account while making these preparations."

"Begging your pardon, Admiral," Torrin snapped, "but am I meant to understand that this operation is in fact proceeding under Lord Vader's orders?"

"You are meant to understand," Thrawn said softly, leaning towards Torrin with both hands on the conference table, "that Lord Vader is proceeding under my orders."

A sunrise-swift light dawned in the faces on the Imperial side of the table, while incredulity spread down the Rebel side. The revelation that Thrawn had already reeled in Vader sent inspiration and hope surging through the officers who had spent their careers in terror of his power. If Thrawn could pull that off, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he could achieve the conquest of Coruscant and the Empire as well. Even the Rebels felt the contagious excitement of the opportunity they'd been dragged into.

Bail met Thrawn's eyes momentarily. Of course, Vader wasn't under nearly as much control as Thrawn had made it sound…which was why his ultimatum to Thrawn had been so important. Withdrawing the Alliance from the Chiss admiral's forces would deal a deathblow to their hopes of creating a unified galactic government, even if they succeeded – but if the admiral did not remove both the Sith from any semblance of power, such a future had no hope anyway. Bail didn't like it – Vader's success against the Emperor was the lynchpin on which everything depended, and despite his treatment of Leia the Alderaanian could not quell his moral revulsion at the thought of turning on an ally, however reluctant.

But the blunt facts were that Vader was assisting them chiefly because of coercion, would most likely turn on them as soon as the Emperor was out of the way, and would seek to perpetuate the Empire under his own rule while training two innocent children to follow in his murderous footsteps. As this was considerably more revolting an alternative, Bail had given Thrawn his approval to take any measures necessary to prevent Vader from exercising power again. He was not such a fool as to think Thrawn would shun fatal solutions to the problem.

He also knew he'd never forgive himself if that happened – because of Leia, and because of Padmé's dying confession of faith in her husband. But the Force help him, he could see no other way. He'd do everything in his power to preserve the life of the man who'd been Anakin Skywalker. But if it became a choice between freedom and hope for the galaxy and for Padmé's children, and that one life, then Bail Organa must choose the former – and so must Thrawn.

Thrawn gave an infinitesimal inclination of his head, and Bail relaxed.

"If that answer satisfies you, gentlemen"—Thrawn's own satisfaction was a tangible thing—"I have only one more comment to make before we retire to our respective ships to begin final preparations. Heretofore, I have for convenience's sake referred to the Imperial and Alliance sides of our cooperative force. But at this point I wish to emphasize the fact that such distinctions are no longer of great importance. This is the time for old hostilities to be set aside. We are in this venture together, sirs, and we shall succeed in it—or fail in it—as one."

Bail allowed himself a wry smile as they all filed slowly out of the conference room to their various small craft. Although circumstances might have forced enemies together for the moment, it would take a miracle to produce any lasting unity. All of them were terrified of what failure would bring. Bail Organa was almost more afraid of the spectral consequences of victory.

"And you are?"

Imperial naval officers as a rule harbored an automatic distaste for anybody who appeared in their well-regulated military facilities in civilian dress. This wasn't news to Agent Baranne, who had long since accepted the military's dislike of him as a standard feature of his work. He didn't bother with a verbal answer, only produced his security pass and flashed it.

A cursory examination of the pass sufficed to put the fear of the Sith into the officer. Awkwardly he cleared his throat and smoothed his expression. "Our facilities will be placed at your disposal immediately, sir," he said, no longer sounding even a little annoyed. "Please step in."

The doors resealed promptly behind him as he took a moment to survey the huge operation floor of the Central Security Department. CSD, located in the naval headquarters complex, was the brain of Coruscant's entire planetary security system. Security sensor imagery, space and planetary traffic logs, license records, registrations, police reports – just about anything was available in its archives provided you had the clearance to access them. As a personal agent of Lord Vader, Baranne most certainly did.

"I'm going to need a full-access terminal with interactive capacity," he told the officer who'd been on watch at the lobby outside.

"I'll have one cleared for you, sir," the lieutenant agreed. "If you'll just wait a moment?"

Baranne nodded curtly, and while the lieutenant marched off he leaned against the wall with arms folded, watching the cool activity of the ops floor and considering his search strategy again. Lord Vader had informed him upon his arrival in system that the Lady Luck had been located in the North Aldray district, but there had as yet been no sign of Calrissian. No doubt Lord Vader's other agents had already been scouring the CSD's holo archives, but Baranne was willing to bet he had a better eye than any of them, and besides he'd seen the information broker face to face and knew precisely which dark-skinned man and which blonde toddlers he was looking for.

Calrissian seemed to have abandoned his ship; that indicated that he was no longer in the North Aldray district, and if Vader's men hadn't brought him up on the security grid since he'd most likely vanished into the lower levels where security coverage was commonly nonexistent. On the other hand, the fact that he'd landed in North Aldray indicated that he'd had business in Imperial City. It was much easier to win clearance to land in North Aldray than in the ridiculously overcrowded landing zones of Imperial City, and the two districts were immediately adjacent. He had the location of the Lady Luck, which should make it possible to predict the routes Calrissian might have taken to reach Imperial City and hopefully narrow the amount of footage he had to sift. By pinpointing Calrissian's trail during the first few hours he'd been on Coruscant, the agent would stand a better chance of unearthing what he'd been up to and where he'd gone since.

It would be tedious work. But definitely feasible. Baranne permitted himself a tight grin. This case was finally getting in hand –

Detecting a rise in the pitch of the murmurs from the ops floor, Baranne's train of thought jumped tracks. His steely gaze swept the screen arrays and identified the one at which everybody was now staring as the planetary news channel. A striking black-haired news correspondent, flushed with important excitement, was chattering at the holocam, with the main porticoes of Imperial Palace looming in the background. At the bottom ran a text announcement in Aurebesh:


"…His Majesty's office announced an unscheduled press conference early this morning Imperial City Time," the female correspondent was saying, "stating that the Emperor himself will be making a special address. Sources inside Imperial Palace have indicated that His Majesty will be joined by Lord Darth Vader, so as you can imagine, Jak, this is bound to be an important speech."

"Have you heard anything about the subject of the Emperor's address, Wylla?" Jak the news anchor asked from his side of the feed.

"No official word on that yet, Jak, but political analysts conjecture that given Lord Vader's participation the Emperor's remarks will most likely have to do with security concerns, perhaps even a new development in the growing clashes with armed dissident groups –"

A chime cut her off and Jak said quickly, "There's the commencement signal. We'll now take our viewers to the official Imperial transmission channel to view the Emperor's address in realtime."

The display faded briefly to black before the image re-coalesced, this time inside the unmistakable grandeur of the Imperial Press Conference Chamber. A phalanx of the Imperial Guard arranged at the base of the railed platform and flanked by a stormtrooper escort informed Baranne that the Emperor would indeed be making a personal address, rather than one of his usual PR aides. Rather than crowding in front of the platform with mikes and holocams, the audience of news reporters sat formally in even ranks at a very respectful distance, wielding styli and datapads. All chatter ceased on the CSD ops floor. Baranne spotted his lieutenant return, but didn't budge. His search could wait a few minutes; the Emperor's unscheduled addresses never took very long but were not events an investigative agent ought to miss.

All was still and expectant for another few heartbeats; then the Imperial Anthem shattered the silence. The gathered reporters in the holofeed leapt to their feet and every back in the CSD stiffened as the Emperor made his appearance, draped in his usual formal red robe with the hood up. He took his time, nodding to the reporters and their restrained applause, before assuming his position at the podium –

– and the rumors were true, there was Vader now, marching out at his usual brisk clip and pointedly flanking the Emperor on his right side –

But who was that with Vader?

A buzz of curiosity surged up in the CSD, and even the reporters in the feed began whispering in each others' ears at the sight of a lanky dark-haired teenager, outfitted in a crisp black jumpsuit. Baranne pushed suddenly up from the wall and took several involuntary steps towards the feed, missing the first words of the Emperor's address in his endeavor to get a better look at the teenager's face.

I'll be damned.

It was indeed Han Solo – Luke Skywalker's companion, whom Baranne had met himself aboard the Millennium Falcon just before delivering both boys in Vader's custody. If memory served him, and it always did, Vader had ordered Han Solo released with his ship.

How then had the young man come to be there?

Baranne tried to repress the question – good agents did not question their employers' personal business – but instinct refused to let him. Han Solo had been bound up in his search for Luke Skywalker from the start. Now he'd cropped up once again, on the same planet as Calrissian. Either one of them might lead Baranne to young Luke and the blonde toddlers. Perhaps the missing Jedi student was the topic the Emperor planned to discuss. If so, he'd better pay attention.

"…future of this glorious Imperial experiment requires as much, if not more, attention as our present difficulties and past achievements," the Emperor was propounding. "The success of our mighty Empire is dependent upon the continuation of strong leadership. This we have enjoyed, thanks to the dedication of not only myself but of many of my companions who have nobly sacrificed of themselves to this high cause." He indicated Vader with an elegant gesture and nod, which the Dark Lord returned curtly.

"It is my responsibility to ensure that such leadership continues to bless our government and society after I can no longer provide it," the galactic monarch continued. "In this way I hope to reward your faith in me for the generation to come. Accordingly, I have decided that it is time I began making a concerted investment in those young citizens of our Empire who will serve as its guiding light in the future."

Baranne's eyes narrowed. Was this about the Imperial succession? Popular wisdom asserted that although no formal heir had been declared, Vader was the chief candidate to follow in the Emperor's footsteps – but why the presence of Han Solo?

"In light of this decision" – the Emperor was clearly relishing the suspense – "the appropriate time has arrived to introduce to you one of those future leaders."

It had to be about the succession – could it be that Solo –

"My friends," the Emperor declared expansively, "please join me in welcoming a particular friend of mine to Coruscant – Luke Skywalker."

He turned with a grandfatherly smile to Han Solo.

Baranne's jaw dropped involuntarily; he snapped it back shut. But the Emperor hadn't yet pulled the last surprise out of his voluminous sleeve.

"This young man is not only my friend," he continued, "but the son of my friend." And with that, he gestured to Vader, who put an unmistakably possessive hand on the young man's shoulder while directing him a little further forward.

Pandemonium erupted on the ops floor. Whatever the Emperor said next Baranne never did know; it couldn't have been important. As questions fired back and forth he turned to the gobsmacked lieutenant next to him. "Is that terminal ready?" he asked with perfect equilibrium.

The lieutenant gaped for a moment before realizing what Baranne was referring to. He guided the agent to the workstation in a daze and hastened back to the floor, leaving Baranne to ponder the astounding turn of events.

The boy in the transmission was most definitely not Luke Skywalker. Vader certainly knew that. Did the Emperor? Perhaps; perhaps not. Either way, what did it benefit either Vader or the Emperor to introduce the Corellian under Skywalker's name?

The answer must have something to do with the revelation that Skywalker was Vader's son. Han Solo was not Luke Skywalker; that could only mean that the real Luke Skywalker was the real son. At any rate that explained Vader's incessant fixation on the boy. But why this bizarre deception with Solo?

Think, Baranne! What facts did he have? Vader had captured Skywalker and Solo, then released Solo. Some months later Skywalker had escaped and gone to Corellia – specifically to Hangar 1138 of the Strip, where he'd reappeared with two small girls who also had blonde hair and blue eyes, and had initially acquiesced to Baranne's demands. Evidently he had not gone to Corellia intending to evade the Empire – it must have been the girls.

Siblings. Baranne would have bet his life on it.

He switched on his terminal and brought up the holofile archives. If the girls were also Vader's children, then why would Calrissian have brought them to Imperial City unless he meant to return them to their father? That must have been his intent, because why else would a man being hunted by the Empire choose Coruscant as his destination?

And if that had been Calrissian's intent…why hadn't those children arrived in Vader's hands already?

The agent leaned back in his swivel chair, swinging a little from side to side and scowling pensively through his display screen. "Someone else is after those children," he finally murmured.

But who?

"Itemized search mode," he ordered the terminal. It flicked to the appropriate screen. "Subject One: male human, skin tone seven or eight, black hair, height range of 1.7 to 1.8 meters. Subjects Two and Three: female humans, skin tone two or three, blonde hair, height range of 0.7 to 0.9 meters. Search North Aldray and Imperial City archives only. Time stamp: oh-one-oh-nine, present standard year, thirteen hundred hours to twenty-three hundred hours local time." He paused, then added, "Isolate for violent activity. Commence."

He sat back in his seat while the terminal began sifting through the footage banks, and wondered whether it would really be a good thing if he located Darth Vader's children with those criteria. If something violent had happened, the odds of two toddlers surviving it couldn't be good. And if Baranne's targets were dead by the time he found them, his chances of survival would be even worse.

It had been…an informative day, the Emperor decided. More so than he had anticipated. He had considered the possibility of the address for several days – since Fett delivered young Skywalker to him, in fact – and the results had been precisely what he'd calculated. Firstly, an opportunity to observe the boy once again – more importantly, to gauge his interaction with his father. His conclusions about the latter subject were encouraging. Vader and his offspring were discernibly uneasy in each other's company, though both made a determined effort to appear otherwise. Excellent. What was not yet bonded together could easily be separated.

As for young Luke Skywalker himself, he had yet to give up playing the fool. Before the address, as the three of them had been waiting in the chamber adjoining the conference hall, he had been as much an uncouth blunderer as ever, kicking at table legs and jamming his hands in his pockets and slouching, and making pointed observations about how much he hated speaking to crowds. Even Vader, whose disdain for decorum had become a galactic proverb, reprimanded the child for his poor manners and finally ordered him to remain motionless and silent for the entire address. But young Luke's inexperience had wrought a few thin cracks in the meticulous façade; the Emperor had not failed to mark a few vocabulary slips which betrayed a greater knowledge of the ways of the Force than Skywalker had previously let on.

Satisfied that there was more to discover, Palpatine leaned back in his office chair, hands steepled in front of him as he surveyed the tri-dimensional galactic map he usually kept on the projector. Perhaps the most satisfying information gleaned today had been the affirmation of his firm control over Vader. Having kept his son a secret for so many months, his apprentice could not have been happy about bringing his existence to the attention of every citizen in the galaxy. He had nonetheless not made even the slightest objection. Evidently his master's reprimand had taken effect. Palpatine's thin lips lengthened and split into a malicious smile.

Of course, Vader was not the only one of his lackeys whose loyalty must constantly be monitored. Apparently one of his espionage trainers had been caught in a compromising activity of some variety or other this afternoon, shortly before the address. The man had been detained, naturally, but this was not a matter he could afford to leave to security; the espionage trainer in question had been involved with his personal deep-cover agents as a stealth tactics tutor. If any of the Hands he had so carefully been shaping and training since early childhood were complicit in this treachery, he would certainly be most displeased.

Not that he was not already displeased.

He brooded a moment longer before keying the com on his chair's armrest. "Bring him in."

The side door to his office opened to admit two of his guards marching a third man in binders. Entirely unremarkable in appearance and dress, the espionage trainer barely blinked as the guards dragged him in front of the ruler of the known galaxy.

"What did he do?" Palpatine asked the guard curtly. There was no point in observing courtesies when handling professional spies.

"He was discovered making an unauthorized encrypted transmission, Your Majesty." the guard reported. He placed a datapad in his master's expectant hand. "The transcript of the message."

Palpatine scanned the text leisurely. His chill gaze finally rested on the trainer. "You comprehend that the consequence will be death, I presume."

"Occupational hazard," said the other with a shrug.

In response to a cursory imperial gesture, the second guard promptly hammered the prisoner into the carpet with the shock end of his Force pike. Most would have screamed; the trainer grunted and struggled back onto his knees. Truly a regrettable loss; agents of such caliber were not exactly a decicred a dozen.

"Which of the Hands was he tutoring?" Palpatine had turned back to the first guard.

"Jade, Your Majesty."

"Detain her pending questioning."

The trainer snorted. "Save your time, she's barely even twelve – "

The Force pike cracked down without waiting for the Emperor's command. His guards knew the routine for handling insolent traitors.

"Treachery will crop up in the most unexpected of places," the Emperor observed pleasantly as the other writhed in pain on the carpet. "My office, for instance. I suggest you save your concern for yourself and leave Jade to me." He scanned the datapad once more. "It is possible I may grant you a less painful form of death if you cooperate. Identify this 'Red Eye.'"

The guard tapped him with the tip of the pike by way of encouragement. After chewing his lip bloody, the trainer managed, "I'll have to decline that offer, Your Majesty."

"Very well," Palpatine told him. "As it transpires, your cooperation is unnecessary. I am already aware that the man whom you contacted is in fact Grand Admiral Thrawn." His aides had allowed the communiqué to be transmitted, then pinpointed its destination, which had turned out to be the Chiss admiral's flagship.

The erstwhile espionage trainer blinked raggedly and set his shoulders. "Well, there's nothing I need to tell you, then."

Palpatine waved back the guard after the next blow of the pike. Much more of that and his prisoner would be useless for further interrogation. "Perhaps I can entice you another way," he said. "For each of the admiral's co-conspirators that you name, I shall spare you an hour of punishment before you die. Report enough of them and I may even have sufficient mercy to execute you by dawn."

"I have no names," he shrugged, as if they were discussing an everyday business deal. A violent aftershudder racked him and he spat a mouthful of blood onto the carpet.

"Most unfortunate for you. If you have anything else to say to me I suggest you speak quickly."

He grinned crookedly. "Only that it's between you and the admiral now, and may the best man win."

"I already have," Palpatine informed him. "Take him down to the usual facility."

The guards vanished with their staggering charge, driving him in the vanguard with prods of their pikes. The man had better enjoy his comfort while it lasted. He had perhaps five minutes. The Emperor fully intended to complete the man's demise personally; in the intervening days let the interrogators extract whatever secrets he still harbored. He himself had suddenly been given plenty to think about.

The unauthorized transmissions contained on the file stretched back several years; the traitor had been skillful. Even a great fool could have surmised from their contents that the security arrangements of Imperial Palace were hopelessly compromised; enormous overhaul and replacement of personnel would be required thanks to the connivances of that one man. The question was whether he had the time to complete them.

Grimly the Emperor spun his chair to face the broad viewport. He had always known that an officer of Thrawn's intellect could never be anything but a potential threat. What he'd not known was that the admiral had been actively plotting treason for years. Thrawn had suddenly whelmed ahead of him as a danger even greater than Vader. But although the admiral had certainly gotten the jump on him by a frightening margin, it was not certain the Chiss had acquired the advantage. Perhaps a coup was imminent; but perhaps it was not. Thrawn may have been scheming for years, but he'd also taken no overt action as yet; provided he didn't realize his plot had been compromised, it could be quite a while ere the admiral made his move. That meant time for Palpatine to bring his own strength to bear. A simple assassination would put an end to the matter.

But the Dark Side was tingling, brushing his mind with notes of anxiety. No – there was no time for subtleties. The Chiss would move soon, very soon; he foresaw it now. It could not be more than a matter of days. He must prepare immediately for the worst possibility. Thrawn could conceivably have obtained the cooperation of a sizeable percentage of the Imperial Fleet, which could be more than a match for even the formidable numbers of loyal ships standing watch on the capital system. He must act now to neutralize that potential imbalance.

The emperor considered the broad vista through his viewport for a moment longer. He tapped his hand on the armrest, furrowed his scarred brow. Then he depressed the com switch to speak with his aide.

"Prepare an encrypted interstellar connection to our outpost in the Despayre system."

"At once, Your Majesty."

To think that merely months ago, this had been the sum total of his existence.

Darth Vader stormed out of the chief command hub and through the Naval Command Center complex, disgusted and bereft of anything resembling patience. Forcing himself to spend a day as if it were normal, meeting with the Admiralty and Imperial Intelligence, reviewing after-action reports and being briefed on the latest schemes for countering the Rebellion – that self-same Rebellion in which he had been rendered complicit. That was essentially the only thought that had run through his head all day, except for wondering which of the officers around him were also in league with Thrawn.

His constant dread over the various states of his missing children went without saying. Baranne had arrived on Coruscant only shortly before the Emperor's press stunt and had yet to emerge from the bowels of the Central Security Department. Calrissian's image and name remained in the fifth slot on the planetary catch-and-detain lists that were submitted to every police station; the Dark Lord did not dare include images of his daughters or of Luke. He could only hope Calrissian would lead to them. Luke had not surfaced on his mental radar. Every time he attempted to search for the boy on that front, he only found himself tugged back towards the muted glow of his distressed twin sister.

Distracted as he had been since coming down to the surface, young Leia's predicament had slipped from the front of his mind. But Thrawn's impending arrival – with a vast joint war fleet geared up for a battle to the death with the formidable force stationed in orbit around the capital – had brought it back to his attention. Despite being much the nastiest warship in the system, even the gargantuan Executor could fall prey to the vagaries of battle.

But what else could he do? Bringing his daughter down to the surface was out of question. Sending her out of the system in a flimsy shuttle was an even worse option. Dispatching the Executor herself would seriously weaken Thrawn's advantage and possibly endanger their chances of successfully deposing Palpatine, while transferring Leia to another Destroyer and sending it out would prompt undesirable questions. Besides, the captains of the Destroyers in system were unquestionably loyal to Palpatine and would be sure to report their highly unusual prisoner.

The quandary made him even more terrified, and therefore even angrier than he'd been yet today. His present route would lead him close to the CSD. Vader decided to vent his wrath on Baranne. He made a convenient and plausible target, and the startled terror of the entire CSD at his unexpected arrival might manage to amuse him.

He'd just turned down the final hallway when his agent appeared at the far end. Terrorizing the CSD would have to wait for another day. Vader ground to a halt until Baranne got within conversational distance. The agent broke into a jog, apparently even more impatient than the Sith, and contrived to get the first word in.

"I've got a lead, my lord," he said curtly, and handed over a datachip. "The holo trail ended about fifty levels from the surface, so I'm taking an escort to continue pursuit on foot. I'll contact you as soon as we've got more definite information."

"Good," was the most threatening response Vader could muster against such abrupt progress. "I will have a ground squadron meet you here."

Baranne nodded and began checking his sidearm. There was a grim set to his jaw which the Dark Lord did not like, but the busy corridors of Naval Command were not the place to ask questions about this most secret of affairs. He left Baranne waiting for the squad at the hangar and boarded his personal transport back to his castle. Ordering the forward passenger cabin cleared, he viewed the chip via the onboard computer.

It contained a summary report from his agent and a holoclip. Anxiously he viewed the latter. It had been taken from a security holocam located outside a lower-level entrance of one of Coruscant's starscrapers, where a stormtrooper was standing guard. An instant after the clip began, Lando Calrissian and his two missing daughters came into view, crossing the loading platform towards the trooper. A burning started in his throat; involuntarily his hand crept toward the fuzzy projected image.

Calrissian appeared to be arguing with the trooper to gain access to the building. The trooper, quite properly, was having none of it. At one point the information broker set one of the twins down so as to gesticulate more emphatically, but snatched her up again when she started wandering away over the platform.

A few minutes passed, during which Calrissian seemed to make no progress towards his goal. Then, mid-argument, he spun on his heel and sprinted as if a pride of nexus had appeared somewhere out of the holocam's range. A nanosecond too late, blaster fire erupted from inside the entrance and tore up the air where his daughters had just been. The trooper pivoted, preparing to open fire, but was caught by a stun beam. Just as Calrissian vanished down a ramp leading to the next lower gate, an armored blur on two fleet blazed out of the tunnel and took aim again –

– He'd missed.

The edges of the console had crumpled in Vader's grip. He forced himself to relax. This had been at least a day ago, according to the time stamp on the recording. His anxiety could do nothing for his children now. Had his hand been real it would have shaken with terror and rage as he selected Baranne's report for viewing.

Holoclip was retrieved from SecCam140S12-449-3, situated at Subsidiary Cargo Gate Twelve on the south side of Imperial Palace, Level 140. Subjects continued to be pursued on a direct downward trajectory as far as Level 55. Last sighting was retrieved from SecCam55S12-449-3T, situated at Subsidiary Cargo Docking Platform Twelve on the south side of Imperial Palace, Level 55. Subjects were seen entering downward-bound cargo turbolift and presumably exited at a point below the repair line where security camera network has not yet resumed operational status.

In other words, Calrissian and his daughters had plunged into Coruscant's dark, cankerous bowels. As the starscrapers grew higher and became more and more connected, Coruscant's population had shifted its center of habitation up. Ninety percent of its inhabitants lived more than sixty levels above the actual surface of the planet, which had gradually been abandoned to darkness and decay. These days there was no telling what creatures lurked in its black mazes – just considering what pets people were liable to have released was enough to make Vader's skin crawl. The surface was Coruscant's answer to Corellia's nine hells, avoided by both wisdom and superstition. Even the ancient sublevels of Imperial Palace were almost entirely disconnected from the more recent upper structure, vacant and unpowered. The usual surveillance methods would not avail them; Baranne could only investigate on foot.

Come to think of it, another squad of troopers couldn't hurt. Vader sent the dispatch order and scanned the last line of the agent's report as his shuttle touched down within his castle.

Assailant tentatively identified as Boba Fett.

Fear squirmed in his belly, cold and wild. It fueled his rage to new heights. Fett had attempted to eliminate Sara and Sandra, whom he had undoubtedly taken from Bast Castle along with Solo. Why would he have taken them without Palpatine's orders? But if his master had known whose children they were, why would he have sent Fett to kill them instead of taking them to use as leverage in the same way he had taken Solo? Vader's head spun with the contradictions, raging around the central question – did his master know or didn't he?

The answer meant life or death. Deliberately conceiving and raising two Force-sensitive children in total secrecy was subversion on a far different order of magnitude than discovering a live son whom the Emperor had told him was dead and reacting out of anger with similar lies. At best they represented disobedience of his master's standing order to eradicate all Force-sensitive beings not in service to him. At worst, Palpatine would consider them proof of betrayal. If the Emperor already knew that his servant had been raising two potential apprentices behind his back, he would be expecting further treachery and no doubt was well prepared.

But if the Emperor did not know, he and Olin still had a chance of taking the Sith Master by surprise when the moment for attack came. All hope of success against the scheming despot depended upon that advantage. Without it he stood to lose far more than his life.

The natural response to all this was, of course, rampant fury. Thus far, he raged to himself as he careened off his shuttle, the only child he'd managed to protect at all was that never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed, scum-spawned Corellian mutt masquerading as his heir –

"My lord?" An aide had arrived around a corner, cowering in trepidation. Vader was tempted to kill him simply for being there and being alive, but reminded himself that neither of those crimes was exactly the aide's fault. "There seems to have been a miscommunication with our outpost commander stationed at Vjun, Captain Landre. We received this message from him about half an hour ago." The aide swallowed as he handed over the chip. "Apparently his mobile task force has just arrived in the Borleias system."

"What?" Vader nearly crushed the chip in his fresh surge of wrath. "I issued no deployment orders!"

"That's what we told him, my lord," the aide cringed, "but he insists that you personally instructed him to proceed to the Core and await additional orders in the outer Borleias system. In fact, he transmitted us a copy of this communication. We're analyzing it right now, but it doesn't appear to have been forged –"

"Get me a connection to Captain Landre immediately," Vader snarled, shoving the chip back at the aide.

As many questions as Ferus had, it wasn't possible to ask them. Behind the dummy access panel there had indeed been a secret passage – in fact a whole maze of them. Without the fungus trail to guide them, even Yoda would have had a job picking the correct path. The warren of cramped tunnels and miniaturized turbolifts led them a circuitous route – sometimes long and straight, sometimes following unorthodox curves and arches, sometimes coming to six or eight-way intersections. Several times Yoda sensed someone else nearby in their passages, but they avoided any run-ins until the trail dead-ended into a corridor. Ferus leaned against the exit carefully and listened.

"Not a public corridor, Master," he murmured. "Too few people."

Yoda tapped his gimer stick on the floor. "But not the Emperor's chambers. Too busy for that it is."

Ferus edged back from the door, keeping his lightsaber in hand just in case someone decided to barge in on them. "I think there's a spatial locator on this thing," he said, fiddling with the wrist receiver. "Maybe – there it is."

A dimly glowing hologram of the Imperial Palace flickered into being. A red pinprick noting their position glowed amidst the upper levels.

"We're about a hundred levels from the pinnacle," Ferus said. "The private throne room is up there." He tapped the tip of the central spire. "According to Vader that's where they usually meet if it's not a matter of state, and this wouldn't be."

Yoda nibbled the top of his stick. "Trace our route through the building's floor plan, can this device?"

Ferus tapped some controls experimentally. The hologram expanded to exhibit miniaturized versions of Imperial Palace and Vader's castle, adding a thin snaking red line throughout the two denoting Ferus's route thus far. "Looks like it, Master."

"Good, good," Yoda said cheerfully. "Come, young Olin." He started pattering back the way they'd come. "Time we have until this ambush of Vader's," he called over his shoulder. "Many upward-bound lifts I have noticed. Explore them we will, and find an entrance to this throne room we might."

"Vader will get antsy if I take too long about getting back," Ferus said, not without some bitterness.

"Doing his bidding, you are," Yoda reminded him with an urchin's grin. "To seek an entrance to this place he sent you, did he not?"

"I rather doubt he meant for me to take you along on the expedition," Ferus observed.

"What Vader knows not," Yoda observed with a mischievous quirk of his ears, "hurts him not."

"Not yet, you mean."

Mara Jade frowned as she glanced around her stealth tutor's office. When he hadn't shown up at the usual training room, she'd decided to go looking for him. No one had told her the lesson had been canceled or switched, so she had concluded he must have run late working on something else. But he wasn't here either. His work terminal was missing; maybe he had left on an emergency assignment.

She should have left to find another trainer and ask about the stealth lesson. And she would have…

…Except for the irresistible fact that her confiscated electrobinoculars had to be in this office somewhere, and she'd never have a better chance to nick them back. They might even still have the snapshots of Boba Fett and the man in the cryostasis chamber. Her sense of adventure piqued, Mara crept in, sealed the door behind her, and started rummaging through his drawers and cabinets. She found the binoculars in the supposedly secure arm compartment of his work chair – hacking passcodes was a skill she'd mastered last year. Eagerly she switched them on to view whatever images were still in its memory.

Everything was still there – except for the images of Fett. When she reached the place where they should have been, something else appeared: a snapshot of her tutor's work terminal screen covered in text.

Instead of class, it said, we'll be holding a practical exercise. For the next week I will be controlling an evasion training simulation. Your mission is to evade capture by Imperial authorities for the next 168 standard hours, beginning immediately upon receipt of this message. Be advised that I will use all resources and ruses at my disposal to prevent success. Trust no one you usually would. Use all resources and ruses at your disposal to acquire allies and evade capture by Imperial authorities. Good luck.

Flush with excitement, Mara leapt to her feet and slipped out of the office down the corridor, down one more, and vanished through a hidden panel into one of Imperial Palace's many secret passages where the surveillance cams could not detect her. Two practical assignments in one day! And this one sounded even better than breaking into Vader's castle. Though Mara's head still ached from being walloped by a falling glowpanel, it had otherwise been easy; but avoiding Imperial authorities who were out to catch her for a whole week would be a real challenge.

But she'd do it. Letting her master down wasn't an option in Mara's book.

Though a lot of its original bunk space had been taken up by modifications and weaponry add-ons, the lambda shuttle still had four separate bunkrooms. Lando decreed that they were all going to sleep in the same cabin nonetheless, saying he didn't want Luke to get any ideas about sneaking out of the ship in the middle of the night. Luke scowled, but obediently climbed onto the top bunk. Sara and Sandra were sharing the one right beneath him, and Lando had claimed the other bottom bunk across the cabin. Luke was faintly surprised nobody had come to investigate the unholy racket of his snoring – they could probably hear it in Imperial City. How could his sisters sleep through it? If Luke hadn't been planning to stay awake, he would have been mightily annoyed.

Very quietly, he peeled the blanket back and swung himself over the edge in one smooth movement, holding on to one end of the frame and lowering his bare feet silently onto the freezing deck. His boots were under Lando's pillow, right next to his lightsaber – drat him anyway, the man was almost as paranoid as his father. Not that Luke could really blame him; the thought of having to explain the last week or so to his father made Luke want to bury himself beneath the lowest level of Coruscant and never come out again. It'd be even worse for Lando, as he couldn't rely on family relationships to pin back Father's inevitable fury.

But Luke just couldn't take it anymore. Han was out there, squirming in the Emperor's merciless grip, and the Emperor thought Han was him. So whatever horrible things he was doing to Han, they were Luke's fault really. What if Yoda wasn't fast enough? What if he couldn't get Han out? What if Han was dead?

At the very least, he had to check the news. If something had happened, perhaps he could find out about it. Lando had refused to let him boot up the Holonet connection, saying it was just putting a foot down a slippery slope that would get him killed. Luke rolled his eyes again as he nudged the door open and crept to the cockpit. The local news isn't going to kill me.

He sealed the door to muffle any sounds that might wake the others up and switched on the cockpit's reserve power so he could run the computers without firing any engines or generators. He didn't try searching for anything but standard news feeds. They probably were less likely to have the information he was looking for, but if he started hunting for illegal feeds he might tip off an Imperial monitor and get them all arrested, and what stormtrooper would believe that they were really Vader's kids? Whatever Lando thought, he wasn't stupid.

Selecting the official Imperial planetary news feed, Luke sat back, waiting for the screen to adjust and preparing himself for a long search –

And then Han was staring straight at him.

Luke blinked in disbelief.

LORD VADER REVEALS SECRET SON! screeched the headline in frenetic bold caps.

That was only the first headline. The floating tag line at the bottom was full of blurbs about nothing but Han. There was one passing mention of Rebels and another about some new bill granting additional powers to the planetary governors, but other than that Han was apparently the only thing happening anywhere in the galaxy. Son of Vader May Inherit Imperial Throne…Unknown Teenager Is Son of Sith Lord…Luke's brain was going numb…Emperor Hints at Significant Gov't Role for Son of Vader…

After bouncing in bewilderment from headline to headline, Luke finally made himself pick one to read. It seemed that the Emperor had made some sort of speech today and had introduced Han as…well, as him.

And evidently his father was going along with it, because there he was in the background of the pictures, standing next to Han. When had his father even gotten to Coruscant? Luke was sure he'd been with the Fleet, or at least out looking for him and his sisters. But here he was on Coruscant telling everybody that Han was his son. Why hadn't he told the Emperor who Han really was? Why was his father leaving Han in danger when he could protect him? Why?

He was shaking; his hand wouldn't stay steady enough for him to select the holofile of the Emperor's speech. He ran it through his hair and got up to pace the cockpit, no longer remembering that he had to keep quiet and not wake up Lando. Maybe – maybe his father was just trying to keep Han safe? After all, the Emperor would be pretty ticked to find out that Boba Fett had kidnapped the wrong kid for him – perhaps his father thought Han would be safer if he went along with it.

Luke, you idiot, what are you thinking? Father hates Han, remember? Heck, the very last time they'd talked he'd been threatening to lock Han up and torture him if it was the only way to keep Luke and the twins a secret from Palpatine. Nope – the Emperor could beat the snot out of Han Solo and mop the floor with him afterward, but as long as Luke was out of the line of fire his father wouldn't care. He might even let Han get killed – especially if he thought it was somehow Han's fault that Sara and Sandra had been kidnapped –

Except it wasn't Han's fault – it was his, for not stopping Fett in the first place! And then he'd lost them all over again on Corellia –

Corellia! Agent Baranne had probably told his father all about the battle on the Strip by now. Suppose he thought they'd all been killed? That would explain why he wasn't out looking for them. And if he thought the girls were dead – then he was probably really, really angry –

Or – or what if – what if Vader did know it was Luke's fault? What if he knew Han was the one who'd tried to save Sara and Sandra, and Luke was the one who hadn't stopped Fett getting away? What if he'd decided Han would make a better son? Luke had only been living with him for a few months, and he'd been pretty much nothing but trouble the whole time.

Or suppose…suppose he thought Luke had just up and run away again?

The idea of having done such a thing – after the memory of his father hugging him tight and asking, almost pleading that Luke never leave him – sent a horrible wrench through Luke's gut. He sagged against the bulkhead and weakly wiped at his forehead. Of course that was what his father thought had happened! Why had it never occurred to him until now?

I have to talk to him. He knew Yoda had told him to stay with Lando, knew that Yoda wouldn't want him to go looking for his father – that it was dangerous, that it might not even be the best thing he could do for his father – but he had to. He had to get Han away from the Emperor so something didn't happen to him. He had to talk to his father, tell him that Sara and Sandra were alright – tell him that he loved him, that he hadn't run away really –

He'd have to go without his shoes or his lightsaber. He couldn't risk waking up Lando or the twins. The shoes weren't such a big problem; it was the idea of going unarmed that worried him. But Lando's blaster was in the arms locker; he could probably pick it open and take that, as long as he moved fast and quiet. He'd look less suspicious without a lightsaber, too.

Just hope I can find my way back

"What do you mean, you cannot locate her?" Composure was something the Emperor rarely lost in front of subordinates, but with treachery suddenly springing up on every side this frustration was simply one too many.

The captain of the Imperial Guard somehow managed not to cringe. "We not yet able to locate Mara Jade, Your Majesty," he repeated. "None of her trainers report having seen her at any time during the past twelve hours and she has not been spotted on the surveillance systems. I ordered a complete manned search of the building which should be finished in another two hours."

"You," Palpatine said conversationally, "are the most highly trained and best-equipped security brigade the galaxy has ever known, and you cannot capture a twelve year old girl."

"Not yet, Your Majesty," the captain insisted.

"You did search the secret passages."

"Neither Jade nor any other unauthorized personnel were located in the clandestine sections of the building, Your Majesty. With your permission, I plan to transmit Jade's information to the planetary security network at large."

Palpatine brooded on the question. If once he placed information about the girl in the wider sphere of knowledge, Mara Jade would have ceased to be of use. Twelve years of investment and painstaking training, gone just like that. Such a promising and talented child too…

"Do so, Captain," he murmured. "And pray you do not fail me."

That trainer's death would indeed be slow and painful.

As would that of Mara Jade, if the girl dared defy him much longer. Briefly the Emperor considered using the Force to locate the child himself – though hiding beneath the strong mental shields he had taught her to always maintain and therefore out of his mental sight, she would not be able to hold them against the superior power of a Sith Master. But that might attract Vader's attention, even alert him to the fact that his master had lost control of an underling. Young Jade did not pose even a fraction of the threat that Vader would should he scent weakness – and he had yet to rule out the chance that the ex-Jedi was also complicit with Thrawn's plot.

Well. If his apprentice was harboring treasonous designs, they would not remain secret for long. His agents had already begun probing more deeply into the Dark Lord's activities from a safe distance, and if there was any compromising information in the messages the trainer had sent, it would soon be identified. Perhaps it was time to be rid of Vader anyway; in young Skywalker he had a more malleable alternative.


Mara had decided her best bet would be to travel into the lower levels and make her way towards the old industrial districts, where there ought to be plenty of hiding places and fewer chances of being located. She sped down through the secret passages of the Palace for a short distance until she reached one that included an access point into one of the turbolift shafts. It had been intended as a secret lift car stop; by design there wasn't room in the shaft for an adult to scale its walls.

But Mara wasn't an adult. She was a smallish twelve-year-old who fit nicely into the recessed ladder nook that ran up and down the whole length of the shaft. It had been built so that repair droids could access the power lines, but provided Mara was careful to press close against the rungs she could squeeze into the space and still keep a few inches between herself and any passing lift cars. She smirked to herself as she shimmied down story after story. It might be a long and exhausting descent on foot, but nobody would think to look for her in a turbolift shaft that wasn't supposed to be accessible to humans. Not even her stealth trainer knew about this little secret of hers. She'd discovered it during one of her exercises and had seen no reason to spread the word.

Around the upper levels she had to watch for passing cars all the time, but as the hours passed and she reached the lower levels they thinned out and finally ceased to appear at all. After going some levels further she set her feet down on the base of the shaft and pulled out her glowstick. Several ratlike creatures fled its bright beam, vanishing into chewed-out nooks. Below this slab lurked the basement levels of Imperial Palace, which had been built eons ago and where nobody ever dared venture. No surveillance systems functioned down there; there was no power at all anymore. The stormtroopers, and even the Emperor's bodyguards, would be hard-pressed to find her there.

Reverently Mara took from her belt the Emperor's latest gift to her – a functional lightsaber, taken from a vanquished Jedi Master. The battle-scarred hilt was still too big for the small, awed hands she ran over it, but someday she'd be worthy of it. For now it would be an ideal tool. She carefully activated it, sucking her breath in with delight at the gorgeous violet blade. Brighter than her measly glowstick by far, it bathed the whole base of the shaft in iridescent purple light. She took another moment to admire the magnificent weapon before beginning her cut through the floor, making sure to bevel the edges so she'd be able to put the piece back in place behind her. Finishing the cut, she screwed up her forehead in concentration, balled her fists, and finally got the cut piece of duracrete to hoist itself out of the new hole.

Wiping sweat away, staying back fron the edge in case something should be lurking below, Mara tossed her glowstick through and peered to see where it had landed. Good – she seemed to have cut through the ceiling of a passage. The floor wasn't far. Her lightsaber still in hand, she dropped through. Overhead, the chunk of durasteel levitated back into its spot.

The corridor in which she'd landed was dark and dilapidated, but otherwise not very alarming. Here and there some of the emergency lights in the wall were still active, and they provided just enough light that she could find her footing without the lightsaber or the glowstick. She turned them both off against future need and struck out in a westerly direction. Industrial district, here I come!

After a few course adjustments, she found a passage that took her out of Imperial Palace to the next building over. So far she'd still encountered nothing more alarming than the occasional pseudo-rat or night lizard. Perhaps she hadn't gone down far enough – weren't the sublevels supposed to be a wild zoo of all the galaxy's most freakish and least picky predators? But seeing no signs of power she calmed her fears and continued - down corridors, down another few levels, around the next corner –


The hall which she had just entered looked like the relic of a warzone. Blaster fire had perforated the walls. Great black scorch marks stretched haphazard across the walls and the ceiling. Nearby the entrance of a turbolift shaft had been blown away, leaving a gaping black chasm. The edges of the walls' wounds still stuck out sharp and fresh. There had been one wild fight here not long ago. Mara glanced around uneasily, hoping she hadn't wandered into gang territory. She'd thought that was all farther south, roundabouts the Southern Underground districts. But suppose she'd somehow lost track of her direction?

Anxious, she pulled out her lightsaber once more and rounded the corner in the direction the battle had taken – and found that she had company.

Both of them gasped and froze, unable to make out each other's faces in the impoverished illumination of the emergency lights. Mara thought it was a boy, not much older than herself; he had a blaster. Should she shoot? Or just drive him away?

She got no chance to decide, because voices suddenly echoed in the distance, from the way she'd come. Voices – and the unmistakable staccato of marching boots. She looked over her shoulder, pale with surprise. Stormtroopers! How could they have found her so soon?

"Come on!" the boy at the other end of the corridor hissed, waving to her.

Use all resources and ruses at your disposal to acquire allies and evade capture by Imperial authorities, her stealth trainer's voice echoed in her head. Well, whoever this boy was, what he certainly wasn't was an Imperial authority. Mara dashed towards him; taking her arm he sprinted down a narrow side hall and shoved her into a tiny supply closet. Its ceiling and walls were crumbly with age and dust kept falling in her eyes, but the pounding of adrenaline enabled her to ignore the discomfort. Across from her the shadowy boy gripped his blaster at the ready, apparently planning to attack the troopers if they were discovered.

"…think we've got something, Agent," a filtered voice echoed.

"Mm," concurred a clearer voice, which had paused not far from their corridor. "This seems to be the last of the battle. Someone must have won…but no bodies…"

"Perhaps scavengers," the filtered voice suggested.

"No. I doubt they'd have made such a clean job of it." There was a brief pause. "No, there were at least some survivors. We'll continue down this way. They must have retreated down one of these corridors…"

Footsteps, more footsteps – and then there were some echoing loudly down their corridor, right past their closet door – Mara held her breath for dear life –

"No sign of them this way," a trooper announced.

"This route looks more likely," called the voice belonging to the agent. "We'll see where it leads."

After a long several minutes of scurrying activity, the footsteps vanished down the corridor Mara had been planning to take. For another several minutes they waited before the boy dared to inch out into the hall. "Clear," he whispered back to Mara, who decided that constituted permission to switch on her glowstick and get a better look at this character.

He was human, she confirmed, probably about her age, with blond hair and much-occupied blue eyes. Undercity grime had left its marks over most of his wardrobe, which she noted with bemusement did not include a pair of shoes or socks. In his hand he held a full-size blaster. Mara might have dismissed him as an ignorant lowlife street rat if he weren't glancing sharply at her lightsaber every other second.

"You're hiding from them too?" he murmured, with a keen look.

"Yes," Mara said slowly. Well, it was true, wasn't it? This week, anyway. And she was supposed to be making allies to improve her chances of success. Who better than a fellow fugitive familiar with the underground? She always had her lightsaber if things went sour.

The boy glanced significantly at her lightsaber. "Me too," he said, with a pointed nod.

Mara stiffened. Could it be that this boy was an agent in training too? Maybe even on a similar practical assignment? Might he be who her trainer had meant by talking about allies? "Do you have friends in the Palace?" she asked, giving him a pointed nod in return.

He lit up like a glowpanel. "Yes! You do too?"

Mara nodded and even smiled at him. She'd never met someone her own age before that she'd been able to treat as an equal. Those airheads in dancing class didn't count. Questions chased around her mind – did he have the same trainers, how long had he been learning to serve the Emperor, did he know anyone else their age – but professional secret agents didn't interrogate each other no matter what age they were, and Mara was determined to be exquisitely professional.

He blew out a deep sigh. "Do you know the way in? I haven't been able to find it."

Perhaps he'd gotten turned around after wandering the lower levels for so long. Mara believed it; with so many unlit mazes and nothing but a basic compass at best, keeping track of where you'd gone and how you'd gotten there must be a tough trick. She'd better remember to be extra careful. "I can show you the way back," she said. "If you'll show me the way to the industrial district."

He winced and combed through his hair with one hand. "I don't think you'd better go towards the industrial district. It's the same way those stormtroopers are heading. You might run into them again."

Mara considered that. Perhaps it would be better to take an easterly direction then, towards the vicinity of Vader's castle. Such was the local fear of Darth Vader that the lower levels surrounding his castle were said to be almost completely deserted. Or she could go towards the old Jedi Temple; that area was at least as desolate. Either way, showing her new companion the way to the Palace would give her time to contemplate her route.

"But I promise that once I'm done with what I need to do at the Palace, I'll help you get safely away," he said fiercely.

Mara decided that even if he was odd, she liked him. Loyalty was the chief virtue of her creed and he seemed to have it in abundance. "What's your name?"

He hesitated and glanced around. "Luke," he mumbled, and grabbed her hand for an old-fashioned but determined handshake, so seriously she almost burst out laughing. She'd only seen such formalities at court before.

"I'm Mara," she volunteered. No call for last names. "I think I'll manage to hide fine on my own, but I'll take you to the Palace entrance I used. It's not too far." From a glance, she figured he was small enough to shimmy through the lift shaft as she had. And for all her bravado, she just might need some help avoiding the troops as the days passed. It couldn't hurt to be able to call in a favor. "Long climb, though."

He grinned broadly and pointed out the grappling attachment on his blaster. "I think I'll manage."

Firmus Piett drew a deep, savoring breath as he stepped off the ramp of his shuttle. Artificial and polluted though the air of Coruscant was, it felt far less poisonous than the atmosphere of the Executor. The tension over the course of their transit to the capital system had become crushing; not even Vader's absence from the ship since their arrival had done much to relieve the pressure. Thank the fates that this action report gave him an excuse to come down to Naval HQ personally.

Determined to forget for the next two hours that he was in the process of committing high treason, Piett started briskly across the landing pad. Just as he reached the entrance of the building, he was intercepted by a stormtrooper. "Captain Firmus Piett?"


"You're requested to accompany me to the security office briefly. The captain wants to speak with you for a moment."

Probably about his building security clearance. It had been awhile since he'd been on Coruscant, and the protocols had likely changed. He followed the trooper for a few minutes through the labyrinth that was the HQ building until they reached the security center. The door opened. Firmus Piett found himself facing an armed squadron.

There was sharp click behind him as his escort stormtrooper switched his blaster to stun setting.

"Captain Piett." The security center's CO had appeared. "You will come with us."

Piett swallowed. "Am I under arrest?"

"Not yet," the CO informed him in a tone that boded no bright futures. Several of the stormtroopers formed a cordon around him and marched him through the security office until they came to the landing bay, where a nondescript civilian speeder waited with ramp lowered.

At the top towered a fully-uniformed member of the Imperial Guard.

This is not good.

For being secret, these passages saw an awful lot of traffic. Without their Force senses, the two skulking Jedi would have been discovered at least a dozen times by now. Even with them, mapping out a path that avoided all company was a time-consuming task verging on the impossible. Ferus wiped a film of sweat off his forehead as he sensed a pair of fiercely intent minds ahead of them veer away down a different corridor. So far Yoda's expertise with mind tricks, honed to laser-like accuracy over the arc of centuries, had been enough to clear the path ahead of them – but the strain of subtly bending such determined intellects had to be mounting even for him. What the hells were they all so keen on doing anyway?

"Looking for someone they are," Yoda murmured in response to Ferus' thoughts.

"Not us, I hope."

Yoda shook his head. If he had any conjectures about who the Imperials were looking for, he didn't voice them. "Suspect, I do, that an entrance to the throne room we will not reach. If exist one does, using it these beings most likely are."

"Shavit," said Ferus, before remembering that swearing was not usually considered appropriate for a Jedi and definitely not in front of a master.

Yoda twitched an ear in stern rebuke. "Continue upward we will. To the east, the most used passages seem to be. Therefore to the west we will bear."

Space was in steadily shorter supply they ascended up into the spire that housed the private throne room, leaving them with fewer alternatives to avoid the traffic. The good news was that there was also steadily less traffic; their particular route didn't seem to be frequently used. The next cramped turbolift shot them straight up past the section of the building that housed the Emperor's quarters. Without an abbreviated tunnel twisted through power, air, and sewage lines, existing purely to connect with the next turbolift. Ferus worked his way past the pipes and other protruding infrastructure to examine it.

"Horizontal tube," he grunted. "But we can't be too far from the throne room…"

He switched on the locator function of his wrist receiver.

"Hmm," Yoda said with satisfaction. "Beside the west wall of the throne room we are."

Ferus squinted at the projection. They were actually in the exterior wall of the Palace, because the entire space at the top of the spire was taken up by the throne room. That other turbolift must take an arc around the throne room. They seemed to be standing at a point about four or five meters above the floor level, another three below the level of the dais. "Doesn't look like we're at the right height to find an entrance."

Yoda shook his head. "Examine these walls I will. Check the turbolift you must and see where it leads."

Ferus nodded and wormed his way down to the lift car. The short ride deposited him in a cramped square alcove, right behind a decorative grill. He caught his breath and tamped down his presence in the Force – he could peer through the openings directly into the chamber. Fortunately, it was empty at the moment. The grill afforded a clear view of the dais and the audience platform. Presumably this little perch had been made so that the Emperor's agents could listen in on important conversations without revealing their existence. He steeled himself and surveyed his position relative to the dais with a more critical eye, identifying the general area where Yoda was waiting in the short tunnel and comparing the two options.

The tunnel would be better. If he had a clear view of the dais, then Palpatine would have a clear view of them if they attempted to cut through; he might even have some way of determining whether the spy perch was occupied. The tunnel, however, passed just under the dais platform. Provided they were careful, they might get far closer to the Emperor before being noticed.

Ferus took another long look at the room, memorizing as much of its layout and lighting as he could before taking the lift back to Yoda and describing everything he'd discovered.

"Acceptable, this place will be," the Jedi Master decided. "More difficult to cut through, this wall will be, but weaken it we can now if absent the Emperor is."

A quick check of the Force assured them no one was close enough to notice the sounds of the blades. Igniting them the two Jedi etched in the outlines of a cut that would accommodate Ferus. Yoda added a series of cross-slashes, cutting diagonally back and forth across the slab, careful not to penetrate to the other side of the wall. They stepped back to survey their handiwork. In the dim lighting of the tunnel and behind the array of infrastructure, the marks were scarcely visible. Just to improve the camouflage Ferus burned out the nearest glowpanel.

"Return to Vader, you must," Yoda said as they prepared to leave. "Conceal myself I will where first you met me. When the time comes, contact me you will."

Ferus nodded and wriggled into the lift car. He didn't relish going back to Vader; but with Yoda here to back him up, they might stand a slim chance of victory after all.

He was not actually in handcuffs yet. But if a mere captain was being escorted to the Emperor's office by the Imperial Guard after having been snatched away from routine business at naval HQ, then that captain was either a secret agent in disguise or in lightyear-deep poodoo. Firmus Piett knew for a fact that he was not the former. As he stood waiting with dry lips, staring at the ominous red doors of the Emperor's private office, he longed for an explanation that was neither of the two.

There wasn't one.

Several years of service directly under Darth Vader were all that enabled him to keep his composure surrounded by the bodyguards. He prayed it would preserve his dignity before the Emperor. Contemplator of high treason or not, he was still a naval officer, and he'd be damned if he was going to cringe like he'd seen some of his superiors do before Vader's lethal wrath –

The doors swung open. The guard's mask locked pointedly onto Piett. He clasped his hands behind his back so as to look professional and stop their shaking, and stepped inside.

The Emperor was indeed within, garbed in his customary hooded black robe, seated behind his desk with hands steepled. Protocol! What was the correct protocol? Unable to recall the lessons from Academy, Piett could only resort to the usual expectations when in Vader's presence. He came to a halt about ten feet from the desk, snapped to attention, saluted, and then added a deep bow for good measure. Navy officers weren't supposed to kneel, were they?

Force, he hoped not.

"Captain Piett," the Emperor's graveled voice acknowledged. "You may rise."

Piett eked out a hoarse, "Thank you, Your Majesty," as he straightened.

"No doubt you are curious as to the reason for this summons." The Emperor sat back and waited for a response. As it had not been a question, Piett did not venture one. It wouldn't do to look as though he thought people suspected him – or worse, to sound guilty.

But from that keen yellowed gaze, his monarch already suspected him. He regarded Piett for the longest minute in the history of the galaxy. "Captain," he eventually ordered his bodyguard, "escort my other guest in, if you will." The bodyguard bowed and exited through the side door.

"Captain Piett," the Emperor remarked into the subsequent silence. "Your service record is most impressive." He tapped a folder sitting on his desk.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Piett choked.

"Clearly," the Emperor continued, "Lord Vader agrees with my assessment. He gave you command of the Executor directly out of the construction docks, did he not?"

"Yes, Your Majesty. A great honor."

"Tell me." The Emperor settled back in his chair, stretching his withered arms out, idly stroking the ends of the armrests. "What has your experience been of serving under Lord Vader?"

Piett did not like where this was going at all. "I beg Your Majesty's pardon?" he stammered.

"What," the Emperor repeated with spine-chilling deliberacy, "has your experience been of serving under Lord Vader?"

"I – that is, Your Majesty, I have always been impressed with Lord Vader's capacity as a combat commander. I can attest that my squadron has always functioned with chief efficiency under his direction, and undoubtedly strict observance of discipline has always been one of Lord Vader's – "

"I am not interested in your opinion of his performance," the Emperor cut him off. "I am interested in your opinion of him personally."

"P-personally, Your Majesty?" Naval officers did not have personal opinions of Darth Vader – not the ones who enjoyed breathing, that was.

"As the commander of his flagship," the Emperor pressed, "you have had a unique opportunity to observe him. Therefore I am asking you, Captain, whether I should continue to extend my trust towards Lord Vader."

Piett blanched. "Your Majesty, I – I don't think I'm the proper person to pass such judgment – "

"The answer to the question is either yes or no."

Piett imagined that he had the spine of a krakana and a mind like a durasteel trap. "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Indeed?" Suddenly the look in the Emperor's eyes had gone from being merely intimidating to downright terrifying. "I would not like to think you had given me an answer out of fear of Lord Vader," he continued conversationally. "After all, you will find that I have the power to either exact greater punishment or dispense greater mercy. Therefore I have taken the liberty of inviting one other guest for you to meet."

The side door whirred open and the bodyguard reappeared. He flung down on the carpet what had perhaps not very long ago been a man. The blood, burns, disfigurement, ragged breathing, and inability to stand made it difficult to tell.

"This man," the Emperor said above the low moans of the prisoner, "inadvisably chose to defy my authority and withhold information concerning treasonous activities. I suggest that you think long and hard before doing the same, Captain."

Piett stared at the human wreckage crumpled before him. Long minutes passed.

"Is that your final answer, Captain Piett?" the Emperor murmured.

Piett whispered, "No."

After the psychological hell of the past weeks, returning to the bridge of a hyper-capable warship was a vast relief. Clasping his hands behind his back, Captain Landre heaved a deep, cleansing breath and eased his eyes over the stars of the Borleias system. The bridge of the Warlord was cramped compared to that of any Imperial-class Destroyer, but the nimble Victory-class warship still boasted a finer view of space than the dirtside command center at Bast Castle. As great an honor as it was to serve as commander of Lord Vader's private security force in the Vjun system, the captain was properly a Navy man, and there was no place like home.

"Captain," his XO called from the far side of the bridge. "We have an incoming live response from Imperial Center."

Quickly Landre reached up to adjust his cap with one hand, then strode across the bridge to the com suite. He nodded, brisk and smart, at his XO and stepped inside the captain's com station, activating the security systems before accepting the call.

As expected, it was Lord Vader.

"My lord." He snapped an abbreviated bow. "As per your orders, the squadron has assumed a covert position in the extreme edge of the Borleias system and is prepared to hyper to Imperial Center within one hour."

"My orders?" Vader snarled.

Landre blinked and swore internally as momentum deserted him. "Yes, my lord – "

"Which orders do you imagine those to be?" the Dark Lord seethed.

Landre could only gape. "My lord – you contacted me by Holonet a few days ago and personally ordered me to muster the squadron and deploy to Borleias."

"Whoever contacted you" – Vader seemed somehow to loom larger than the projector's settings should have allowed – "or whoever you are pretending has contacted you, it was not me."

"My lord," Landre pleaded, "the call carried your personal encryption key! It could not have come from anywhere but the Executor's com suite. Forgive me, but I spoke with you myself – there must be some mistake, I don't understand" – think, Landre, think, you can't make it sound like you're accusing him for Force's sake –

Vader suddenly hammered a fist into his console, so violently that sparks flickered across the transmission image. "Miyr," he hissed.

"M-my lord?"

Such was the dark lord's fury that it was minutes before he responded, instead pacing tightly across the transmission zone and venting his wrath on the console a few more times. "Disregard it, Captain," he finally barked. "I will deal with the responsible party."

"My lord, I'm sure the administrator – "

"I ordered you to disregard it!"

Landre snapped his mouth shut, trying to ignore the cold crawling thing in his belly. There was nothing he could do to help the administrator; he'd only be loosening his own precarious grip on the crumbling precipice of Vader's favor.

"Now that you are here," Vader continued in a marginally less murderous tone, "I may as well make use of you. Your squadron is to make the jump immediately to Coruscant. Upon arrival you will rendezvous with the Executor, retrieve two passengers, and conduct them out of system back to Vjun. Do you think you can accomplish that much, Captain?"

Landre ordered himself not to wince at the shearing sarcasm. "It will be done, my lord."

"It certainly will," the Dark Lord fired in parting, "or your service in the Imperial Navy will have ended. I assure you your retirement benefits will be superfluous."

Throughout the last hours of the day cycle of the ship, until the chimes sounded and dimmed the lights into night cycle, and now for several hours more, Leia had sat motionless on her little bunk, Vader's shout ringing in her ears. The shock was so tremendous she couldn't even be angry. Her heart pounded – slow, so slow. Her mind lay blank with horror and incomprehension. Daddy, Mother, and Alderaan – even Ferus and Luke and his little sisters – seemed as if they had never existed at all. This one day had swelled up and filled her whole world; everything before it must have happened to someone else. Absently she twisted a fold of her jumpsuit between her fingers, staring at the black wall opposite.

Could it be?

Leia tried to consider the question rationally. But there was nothing to be rational about. How could it be true? How could that – that demon really be her father, after the things he had done to her? That would mean he'd known the whole time, that he'd used her anyway – threatened her life to hurt the people she loved – could even Vader be so inhuman?

A few times, the consequence – that Luke and Sara and Sandra would be her siblings – tried to sooth her tormented mind, but the light of that thought was far too faint to drive back the shadow cast by Vader. Even absent, the terrible force of him shrouded her like that black, billowing cape. Maybe Luke and the little girls were nice, maybe she wouldn't even mind being their sister, but it was just a fantasy – had to be, because there was no way in heaven or any of the nine hells that he could be her father…

But then…why had he said it?

The door whirred open without warning and the lights came back on. Miyr, bringing her dinner. "Leia, I'm so sorry I forgot about your dinner – "

She stopped in her tracks as Leia pulled her eyes slowly up without budging her head. A deathly pallor wiped her face over. She put the tray down on the floor. "You heard him, didn't you?"

"Is it true?" Leia asked dully.

Miyr sat down next to her on the bunk, hands folded and leaning forward. "I only have Lord Vader's word for it myself."

"Do you believe him?"

"I believe that you are a point of unusual concern to him," Miyr hedged. "I've just spoken with him. He is sending a squadron to take you back to Bast Castle. You'll be leaving in an hour. He must be very concerned for your safety this close to the Emperor."

At Leia's bewildered expression, she added, "We're orbiting Imperial Center now."

"What if he's just worried my father will find out where I am?" Leia bit back.

"He's sending his personal physician with you, Dr. Siler," Miyr answered. "From that I have to conclude he does not trust your wellbeing to anyone else, which implies your wellbeing is of great importance to him."

Leia couldn't find a point at which to attack this argument, so instead she said, "But you're not coming. I thought you were supposed to be his babysitter."

"Administrator," Miyr corrected. "And I very much doubt you or any of his children will be seeing me again." She turned a wan, resigned smile on Leia. "I broke quite a few rules in the past few days, you see, and he's…not happy. In fact, you'd have more cause to be worried if I were coming with you."

Leia worked her tongue over her dry cheek. "What did you do?"

Miyr's laugh was short and weak. "Something I had to."

"And...you mean he's going to…"

Miyr straightened and flicked a bit of escaped hair back into Leia's braid. "You're my concern, Princess, not the other way around. Let me worry about Lord Vader. You should eat. There isn't much time and Lord Vader was very clear that he wanted you out of the system as soon as possible. We'll meet the shuttle as soon as it docks. I'll get some things ready for you."

"Thank you," Leia said miserably. Miyr gave her hand a strong squeeze and left.

Once she'd closed the door, she leaned heavily against it. Vader had listened in dead silence to her brief, volunteered confession. Not even a reprimand – only icy passivity, followed by a dismissive I will deal with you later. Someone less familiar with the man might not have thought him to be remarkably angry. Oh, but he was – that she had been ordered to loiter on the Executor alone rather than returning to her duties at Bast Castle proved his presumptuous administrator would no doubt soon become his ex-administrator.

Unless she became his late administrator instead.

Grand Admiral Octavian Grant was not delighted to see four uninvited Victory-class destroyers waltz into Imperial Center space, a fact he made no effort to conceal in his personal call to the squadron captain. Landre actually managed a smirk at his XO as he ended the conversation. "The Grand Admiral seems bent out of shape, doesn't he?"

"Can't imagine why, sir," his XO answered innocently. "We do have clearances from Lord Vader, after all."

Landre chuckled for the first time in weeks. All Navy officers were patriotic, but only the most zealous devotees of the New Order received the prestigious assignments to Capital Fleet. Grand Admiral Grant, commander of that fleet, possessed a rabid dedication to Imperial glory that quite possibly exceeded that of the Emperor himself. It was common knowledge that the admiral eyed Vader with suspicion at best; his flirtations with insubordination to the commander of the Imperial Navy were a fixture in the political editorials. Only Grant's unassailable loyalty to the Emperor had kept him out of the Dark Lord's stranglehold for so long.

Although forced to accept Landre's clearances, Grant evidently did not feel himself compelled to make the squadron's rendezvous with the Executor any easier. The Warlord's entire bridge was kept occupied by concerted harassment from Capital Fleet's com lieutenants, each with some petty complaint about the squadron's interference with patrol routes and traffic flow and regulation battle-readiness zones and a hundred other operating protocols. Thus distracted, nobody realized that a shadow was slipping around their sensors. If ComScan had noticed the anomaly, it might have concluded this shadow was a small ship, hiding in the sensor blind spot of the sublight engine interference of the last destroyer in the formation.

The stronger sensors of Capital Fleet could have examined the bogey more closely. But of course they had no way of knowing there were only supposed to be four ships in the squadron.



Part 6

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